I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
Taken by Storm
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip Jeremy Moyer
and Matt Wagner
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
REPUBLIC CITY, LIUYUE 11 - The Republic City Police Department's ongoing battle against the encroachment of the dangerous street drug known as "Comet" took another step forward early this morning, as the multilateral task force charged with stopping the drug's spread conducted a daring raid against a Comet trafficking operation in the waterfront district.
Acting on information gathered in several undercover operations, members of the unit popularly known as the Comet Task Force raided the Xiānyàn zhànfàng tea room just after midnight, arresting several men and women who were allegedly engaged in receiving the illegal substance in bulk and repackaging it for distribution.
Supported by officers of the RCPD's Special Tactical Division, Comet Task Force members led by Detective Inspector Eitaro Imanishi engaged and subdued several firebenders, two of whom were allegedly under the active influence of Comet. After the patrons and staff were removed from the premises, the task force seized more than 50 jīn of drugs, proceeds from illicit drug sales, and related paraphernalia.
"The RCPD's Organized Crime Control Division has long associated the Xiānyàn zhànfàng tea room with one of the city's most powerful and violent crime syndicates, the notorious Agni Kai firebending Triad, and most of those arrested in this morning's raid are known associates of that organization," said Inspector Imanishi after the raid. "It appears that the Agni Kai's recent difficulties haven't affected their operations as much as we might have hoped."
(The alleged headquarters of the Agni Kai Triad, an office building in northern Firetown, burned to the ground last week in what a Republic City Fire Department spokesperson described as "highly suspicious circumstances." No suspects have yet been named nor criminal charges filed in that incident, which is not believed to be directly connected with the Comet Task Force's activities.)
When asked for comment on the Task Force's future plans, Inspector Imanishi refused to discuss specifics, citing the need to protect the officers involved in the ongoing operation. He restated the unit's intention to drive Comet out of Republic City, and make sure that any organizations found dealing in these drugs will suffer the fullest consequences prescribed under the law.
"The people of Republic City refuse to bow to the whims of organized crime," he said. "It is our responsibility to bring this illegal and dangerous trade to an end, and we will do so."
Korra had lately adjusted her long-standing morning routine to include a stop on the City page of the Tribune before proceeding to the sports scores. After reading Emily's report on the latest raid, she rummaged in her pants pocket, pulled out her gearPhone, and thumbed a speed-dial key.
"Imanishi," the inspector's familiar voice answered on the second ring.
"Hey, Eitaro, I was checking out this morning's Tribune. Seems like Emily's really fitting in well with you guys."
Imanishi chuckled over the line, and had a clear grin in his voice as he responded, "What Ms. Wong didn't mention in her copy is that she helped out with that 'engaging and subduing' bit. One of the ones who had gotten hopped up on Comet tried to torch us, so she threw up a firebreak using the shop's floor, then earthbent his feet out from under him."
"Hah!" said Korra triumphantly. "I knew she was wasted on the society page."
"You're not kidding," Imanishi replied. "I have to admit I was a little nervous about bringing her along at first, but she's been a great help. She kept a lot of people from getting hurt last night. If she wasn't so dead set on being a reporter, I'd probably try to get her a badge."
"Well, you can't win them all."
"Heh. So true."
Now it was Korra's turn to laugh. "Oh - hey, before I forget, we're having a party over at the new house, a week from tomorrow. If you want to swing by, you'd be more than welcome."
"As long as the Red Monsoons and Agni Kai don't change my social calendar, I'd love to," said Imanishi.
"Great! See you then." Hanging up, Korra put her phone away, then flipped to the pro bending scores, the normal order of things restored once again. "Hmm... looks like the Spiderwolves got a bit of help from the refs last night..."
The house on Mount Weitang was finally ready for move-in, though Anthy, Corwin, and Utena hadn't actually bought anything to go in it yet. (Technically speaking, "moving" wasn't what they would be doing, since they had no existing home of their own in Dìqiú to relocate furniture from. Tenzin's house had something of the character of a furnished rental in that regard.) Furniture or not, though, the completion of the house was worth celebrating; so Corwin had arranged to buy, borrow, or rent the necessary equipment to put on a great late-spring barbecue, and invitations radiated out from Air Temple Island across Dìqiú and to points beyond the Veil. Come to Republic City on Saturday the 19th, they said, and see what we've been up to this spring.
When they left Air Temple Island on Saturday morning, the Tenjou-Ravenhair complex split up to take on separate tasks. Corwin and Korra saddled up Mogi and headed into Republic City to pick up provisions for the barbecue - meat, fish, and so on - while Nyima took the Tenjou part of the party straight up to the site on Vayu, with Annabelle affixed high on Utena's back with Anthy's silken wrap, so that she could get a good view of the flight.
They'd all been visiting the construction site at the top of the mountain regularly through the entire process, of course, but Utena couldn't help but feel her heart soar as Vayu swept into the high valley amidst the peaks of the Three Brothers, making a long, shallow turn so they could appreciate the view.
The house stood dramatically on the shore of Lake Weitang, the body of water formed by the waterfall cascading down the central peak's western face. Its main body was a rectangular structure like a Viking or Southern Water Tribe longhouse, arranged with its long axis roughly parallel to the lakeshore, but with a second story. It rested half on a stone foundation sunk into the lakefront and half on pilings which stood out in the lake itself. The south side, and the southern halves of the east and west sides, were all walled from roof to footings in great sheets of transparisteel, slightly tinted from without for privacy.
From the north end of the two-story section, a single-story wing extended to the west, then doglegged north again to tucked neatly into a natural corner of the lush mountain meadow that lined the valley up to the shore of the lake. At the northern end, this extension bloomed up into a four-story tower, though the top "floor" was really a large open pavilion for meditation, martial arts practice, or just chilling out on a nice day with a good book.
The roof of the single-story section in between was finished as a deck, with entrances to the second story of the main house and the tower. This had been designed with an eye toward entertaining, and for that reason it already had a regular barbecue grill and a small outdoor dining set installed on it as part of the original floorplan (as well as a place for Utena's telescope and an outdoor pai sho table).
The rich blue tiles on the roofs of the main building and tower, and the cream-colored timbers of the walls, spoke to Korra's Southern Water Tribe roots, but certain other touches - the contrasting dark wood of doors and window frames, the shapes of the windows in the parts of the house that weren't all window - put Utena in mind of buildings she'd seen in Asgard. The elements didn't clash, though; instead, the overall design made for a nice blending of both of its creators' styles, and also incorporated some subtle hints of Air Temple styling (the mildly pagoda-shaped roofs, the pavilion at the top of the tower), as a friendly nod to the benefactors who had made the project possible in the first place.
Regarding the finished work, Anthy thought of something Jinora had said to her once and smiled. A beautiful haven indeed, she remarked to herself.
As they grew closer, Annabelle let out a soft sound of interest, and Utena turned her head to give the baby a grin. "Home looks pretty good, doesn't it, kiddo?"
Vayu swept down for a landing off to one side a bit, near the jumble of lakeshore rocks that the construction crew had left in place to the south of the house. Nyima waited for Utena and Anthy to disembark, then leaned down and said, "OK, I'm off to Central Station. We should be just in time to meet the 10:45. See you in a while!"
"'Bye, Nyima," said Utena with a cheery wave, and the Air Nomad and her bison were off, speeding away toward the city. The Tenjous watched her go, then turned, hand in hand, and headed across toward the gaily striped tents, tables, and chairs that were arrayed on the meadow to the west of the house, making the compound look a bit as if it had been configured for an outdoor wedding.
These, and the compact mobile kitchen (adapted from hardware Future Industries made for the United Forces) standing next to the west wing, were Ryo Sato's closing touch. Since the house's kitchen wasn't fully equipped yet and the mere mortal barbecue grill up on the deck wouldn't be able to handle a party anywhere near the size the householders were expecting, Ryo and his closeout crew, who had stuck around after major completion to finish up the landscaping and put some last touches on the interior, had done a little improvising. Friday afternoon, while one convoy of Future Industries trucks was hauling away the last of the scrap and equipment, another made its way up the winding mountain road, loaded with all the gear that was now arrayed in the meadow - tying the bow on top of a job well done.
Ryo was waiting for them now, standing by the kitchen at the head of a small brigade of uniformed Future Industries personnel who would be providing the support for the party. At their approach, he smiled broadly and spread his hands with a wide grin, declaring,
"Ladies! Mount Weitang welcomes you!"
"Thank you, Ryo," said Anthy, smiling.
"Where's Minami?" Utena wondered.
"Oh, she'll be along," Ryo assured her. "Staying in the office 'til the absolute last minute, as usual."
"Of course," said Utena, laughing. "Why'd I even ask?"
"Something not quite right about the girl," Ryo agreed with an insincerely-sad nod.
A moment later, another sky bison arrived, moving at a rather more leisurely pace. Mogi's saddle was piled with boxes and bags of provisions, all neatly stacked and lashed down, leaving no room for passengers, so Korra was cruising alongside with her airbender glider-staff. Corwin set the laden bison down right next to the field kitchen, at which point the staff turned to and started unloading before he could even climb down from Mogi's neck to help.
"Rejoice, O partygoers," declared Corwin. "For we bring you meat! And veggies," he added, as if that were less important.
Korra alighted next to him, collapsed her staff, and slipped it into a pocket on the side of Mogi's saddle, saying, "I'll head back to round up the others. Don't start without me!"
"I wouldn't dream of it," Corwin replied dryly, drawing a snicker and a punch on the shoulder before she sprang up to Mogi's "pilot's seat" and took hold of the reins. The kitchen crew had already finished stripping him of his cargo by the time she got into position, so she headed out without delay, turning the bison back toward the city.
"Well, you three," said Ryo.
"Five," Garnet corrected him automatically.
"Five," Ryo amended without comment. "Before things get to really jumpin' up here, there's something we ought to take care of. Follow me."
Ignoring their curious looks for the moment, Ryo led the way to the decorative double door on the west side of the main house, which opened into the fully glazed, double-height south end of the living room. Once they were all up on the stoop, he took a brass key with a head in the shape of the Future Industries logo from his pocket and handed it to Corwin, remarking, "Got to do this thing right, son!"
Corwin regarded the key for a second, then smiled, unlocked the door, and opened it.
The room beyond had been specifically designed to have the most visual impact of any place in the house, with the possible exception of one special room downstairs. The ground floor of the main house was basically one large room, its east face fully glazed. The northern two-thirds or so was single-story, but at the south end it opened up into a great open space with nothing but air from the floor to the roof beams; a balcony overlooked it from the second floor, beyond which were the upstairs bedrooms and whatnot. With transparisteel walls from top to bottom, this section was almost like being outside, a sort of grand-scale expression of the Air Nomad "sun parlor" concept, with spectacular views of Lake Weitang to the east, and the meadow and distant Republic City to the west.
"Oh my," said Anthy. "It's even more amazing than I thought it would be from the drawings."
"It's pretty amazing, all right," Utena agreed, standing in the middle of the two-story room and turning slowly around to take it all in.
"My ancestors would say that putting a building here is disrespectful to the beauty of this landscape," Garnet mused in a thoughtful tone, then went on matter-of-factly, "From this I can only conclude that my ancestors were idiots, because damn, yo."
Ryo chuckled. "Thank you kindly, master dragon."
"Mr. Sato," said Corwin, offering his hand, "you and your people have outdone yourselves."
"My dear sir," said Ryo, shaking it, "it was our absolute pleasure."
Guests arrived in a steady stream over the next hour or so, either shuttled up from the train station by Nyima and Vayu, carried from Air Temple Island by Korra and Mogi, or making their own ways to the mountaintop. Corwin's parents and aunts appeared from the lake, courtesy of his mother; he brought a few visitors in from the "big universe" by window (of which the house had no shortage), while Anthy opened the way for several from Cephiro. Kaitlyn came in on a train as well, but from Sakuragaoka rather than Zipang. She caught a ride up from the station in the back seat of Minami Sato's autogyro - the dramatic arrival of which was trumped shortly thereafter by Nall and Lhakpa, who showed up in a style befitting the Draconian majesty of the mountain.
By noon, everyone was present who was coming, which was just about everyone they knew in Dìqiú and a great number of people besides. The main exceptions from the first group were Juni and the Fire Ferrets, who were (with regret) in Night Vale on their great Earth Kingdom road trip and, being scheduled to play that afternoon, couldn't get away even with Corwin's unorthodox assistance; and their friends far off in the South Pole, whom they'd be seeing in a few days anyway.
"Everyone," said Utena once she'd called everyone together. "This isn't a formal occasion and there aren't going to be any big speeches, I promise," she added, drawing a few laughs. "But before we all get started, I just wanted to get you all looking the same way for a second and thank you all for coming."
"Yes, thank you, everybody," Corwin agreed. "It's great to see you all." Spreading his arms to indicate the house, which stood as a backdrop behind the five of them, he said, "Welcome to our new home!"
"Welcome," added Anthy with a beaming smile before anyone could react, "to Bellehaven," and the cheering began.
A kingly lunch was served on the meadow; thereafter, the house, though largely empty, stood open for the guests' inspection. Everyone who passed through it exclaimed at its many wonders, not least of which was its very location. The other star attraction of the occasion was Annabelle, whom many of the Trinity's Cephirean and Midgardian friends had not yet met; she handled the crowd with grace, no more bothered by it than she had been by ocean travel or open-air flight.
By early afternoon, sparring matches and semi-spontanous games of airball had broken out on the meadow, and many fine times were in progress.
"So when are you actually moving in?" Lhakpa wondered.
"When we get back from Glacier Spirits," Utena told her. "That way we won't have to rush."
Lhakpa nodded. "Makes sense," she said.
"Sure you can't come with us?" asked Corwin. "It's good times."
"I know, I wish I could," Lhakpa said, "but I've got a ton of work to do. I'm still just starting my business, y'know," she added wryly. "I can't really afford to just hang up the gone fishin' sign anytime."
"Sounds like business is good, at least," Wakaba Shinohara observed.
"It's picking up fast," Lhakpa confirmed. "Turns out there's a pretty good niche there that nobody else was filling."
"You look like it's agreeing with you, too," Utena put in, and Anthy nodded agreement. The airbender did look like the life of an independent courier was to her liking; she had a color in her cheeks and a brightness in her eyes that she'd lacked when Anthy had first met her, as an unmotivated young Air Nomad on the doorstep of a vocational crisis. She'd come to the party straight from work and was still dressed in her "uniform", a snug-fitting flightsuit-like coverall in some black, grid-woven fabric, bedecked with many pockets and reinforcing patches on the high-wear areas.
"I think it is," Lhakpa said. "I mean, it's hard work, don't get me wrong, but you meet all sorts of people and get to go all over the city - it's interesting, and it's a lot of fun. Except when it's raining. Then it's not so much fun," she added wryly.
"This glider is amazing," Korra said, looking up from her inspection of same. "It's so light!" She grinned and added, "I bet you can really move with this thing."
Lhakpa grinned. "Isn't it great? Ryo and I worked together on it. His idea - sort of a melding of a proven design and the latest materials. The main body and wing frames are all carbon fiber, and the membranes are some kind of memory fabric they originally developed for United Forces tents, of all things. It's activated by electricity. The glider works without it, but with the power turned on the wings get a lot stiffer - it'll really carry an updraft. More maneuverable, too." She reddened slightly. "Sorry. I don't mean to brag, but it's hard not to get excited about my gear."
"Hey, don't apologize, this is awesome," said Korra. Nudging her with an elbow, she went on, "So what's the fastest you've gone?"
"Well, it's not like I have an airspeed indicator," Lhakpa said wryly, "but at a guess.... I'd say around a hundred and twenty."
Korra blinked. "Get out," she said. "As in miles per hour? Damn, girl! Were you testing in a typhoon or something?"
Lhakpa grinned. "I had a pretty stiff tailwind, but mostly I wanted to find out how hard I could push it if I had to. Like I say, I don't know exactly how fast I was going, but I outran the RCR traffic spotter..."
"I bet that guy's sworn off cactus juice," Corwin quipped.
"All right, that's it, I gotta get me one of these," Korra remarked, collapsing the high-tech staff and handing it back to its owner. "Where's Ryo?"
"Out watching the -" Utena began, then trailed off as she noticed a small object approaching in the sky to the west. That wasn't entirely odd, except that all the airbenders she knew were already here, as was Wakaba. So who...?
A moment later she had her answer, as the shape of a man arced down out of the clear blue sky and landed with a resounding thump in the middle of the meadow, not far from the impromptu airball court. Startled, the players broke off their game and turned to look as the burly figure rose from the crouch he'd fallen into on landing, dusted grass from his knees, and looked around.
He was a big man, broad-shouldered and brawny-looking in a way that put many of the locals in mind of earthbenders, but with red hair that flamed in the afternoon sun and a great tawny beard done up a heavy plait - not a color or style commonly seen in Dìqiú. More remarkably still, he was dressed in what appeared to be some kind of odd ceremonial armor: heavy-looking, decoratively carved plates of some lustrous silvery metal affixed to sturdy dark fabric, with a rich scarlet cape falling from his armored shoulders nearly to the ground, and he was holding what appeared to be an iron mallet with a head the size of a paving stone.
"Greetings!" he declared in a booming voice, big white teeth flashing in a friendly grin, as he hung the hammer by a leather thong on his belt. "Sorry I'm late!"
"Thor!" said Utena, delighted, as she emerged from the house to give him a hug, armor and all. "What are you doing here? And why are you all dressed up?" she wondered, touching one of the carved plates of his cuirass with a puzzled look.
"Well met, Prince Tenjou," said Thor, bussing her cheerfully on the forehead. "You're looking radiant as always. And here are Lady Anthy and my great-niece at last!" he added, opening his arms for Anthy and her daughter. "Ah, she's just as beautiful as my little sister said she would be. Hello, little one! I'm your father's Uncle Thor! Yes, go on and tug Great-Uncle Thor's beard, I promise you it's real!"
Utena wasn't entirely sure her worldview could adapt to the notion of a dotingly avuncular Thunder God on such short notice, but fortunately, before she had to try to absorb it further, he spotted another member of the gathering and straightened up, extracting his plait gently from Annabelle's grasp.
Composing himself into an unaccustomed air of formality that was made all the more striking by his elaborate armor, Thor bowed very correctly to Korra as she approached and said, "Korra Tonraqsdottir, Avatar of Dìqiú. We meet again."
Korra gave him a look almost as puzzled as the one he'd received from Utena, even as she automatically made the Water Tribe salute in response to his bow. "What's up? Why so formal?" she wondered.
"I'm here on official business," Thor explained, a slightly wry smile touching his craggy face, "as a member of the Council of the Æsir. Shall we speak a bit more privately?"
Looking somewhere between excited and apprehensive - she was fairly sure she knew now what this was about - Korra nodded and went inside. Utena, Corwin, and Anthy all followed, the four of them (plus Annabelle and Garnet) ending up in the empty space that would be the "dining room" part of the ground floor main room once the furnishings were in place.
Drawing himself up formally again, Thor faced Korra and told her, "Korra of Aujuittuk, daughter of Tonraq and Senna, it is my happy duty to inform you that your application for permission to visit the Golden City... has been approved." Dipping a hand into one of the pouches at his belt, he removed a small object and held it out to her on an open palm. "Congratulations."
Korra blinked, her face going momentarily blank with surprise. She'd been hoping to hear about this sometime soon, but she hadn't expected one of the Æsir Council to come and deliver the news in person. Then, hesitantly, she reached out with a slightly trembling hand and took the object from his palm, turning it over in her own hand to regard it. It was a small metal token, like a miniature medal, on a sturdy black cord, and embossed on its face was one of the ancient Proto-Norse runes Corwin's people used in all their most formal and important documents: Jera.
"Wear that when you visit, and you will be welcome anywhere in the Upper Realms," Thor told her. "Alfheim, Vanaheim, Asgard..." He smiled less formally and added, "Including Valhalla. Come whenever you like. It's valid for one year."
Slowly, as if in a dream, Korra ducked her head and passed the token's cord over it, settling it around her neck; then she picked it up again, closing her hand around it, and stood regarding her fist for a moment in silence, tears welling in her eyes.
"Thank you," she said softly. "I can't... I'm not good with..."
Thor waited for the others to enfold her in a mass embrace, then put his great arms around all of them and replied in a pleasant rumble, "Don't fret, valkyrälskling. Neither am I."
If anyone noticed that the Avatar, though buoyantly cheerful when they all rejoined the party, nevertheless appeared to have been quite recently crying, no one was undiplomatic enough to mention it.
His official tasks disposed of, Thor dismissed his ceremonial armor using a charm Urd had taught him and mingled with the partygoers in his less formidable (but no less visually arresting, in this crowd) civilian guise.
"Oh, Corwin, before I forget," he said just before the eddies of the party carried him and his nephew in separate directions. "I left a care package from home for you and Nall in the fridge at the house where you've been staying. A few delicacies you can't get around here, some things from Draconia, and a slice of your aunt's famous apple pie," he added with a grinning wink.
"Thanks," said Corwin, but before he could offer any follow-up inquiries (if he'd been planning to), Wakaba appeared and dragged him off to join a game of kickball she was organizing.
As afternoon settled toward evening, the party didn't so much break up as erode, becoming a steadily smaller and more intimate gathering as various of the guests parted from the hosts and turned their attention to other matters. Finally, just before dark, the last bisonload of guests headed back to town with Nyima at the helm, and only the Trinity, their offspring, Korra, and Wakaba remained.
"Well, I'd say that was a success," said Wakaba, grinning. "All that's left now is to clean up this mess," she added, indicating the minor shambles the meadow had become.
"Ryo said he and his crew would take care of it in the morning," Corwin said.
"Remember to get them all something really nice," Utena said, as much to herself as anyone else.
"Totally," Corwin agreed.
The first day of the Southern Water Tribe's three-day Glacier Spirits Festival was not the "festive" part; rather, it was a time reserved for private reflection, alone or in small familial groups. The communal aspects of the occasion came later, and the real party bit wasn't until day three.
As such, Nanisvik was quiet when Korra, Corwin, the Tenjous, Nyima, and the Satos arrived by private jet in the early evening. The capital's normally bustling streets were virtually deserted as they made their way from Chief Hakoda International Airport to their lodgings for the week, a townhouse near Future Industries South's headquarters in the financial district. There, after getting settled, they passed a quiet evening meditating on the nearness of the spirits, or reading about the history and significance of the occasion, or (in the cases of Garnet and Annabelle) mostly sleeping.
The festival's second day was also supposed to involve quiet reflection, but in a more public, communal spirit. In the early evening (not that there physically was evening in the South Pole in June), Korra led the others down to the city's central square, where the Southern Water Tribe's chief angakkuk traditionally led the festival's central public observance.
Utena was reminded a little bit of the New Year's Eve gatherings on the Grand Common in Avalon Centre Park - there was that same spirit of community and goodwill, extended even toward obvious strangers like herself - but it was a much more ordered and solemn affair - not grim, but serious and reserved.
The angakkuk, an elderly woman in an elaborate set of furred garments, explained the history of the occasion. Most of her audience presumably already knew what she was telling them, but Utena found it interesting and Anthy's attention, she noticed with a little smile, was riveted, as Loresinger Kaira described the festival's earliest beginnings in a roundly oratorial style, its decline after the Southern Water Tribe's near-extinction of nearly 200 years before into a simple celebration, and the restoration of balance that had taken place after a great spiritual crisis 120 years ago.
"That is why we reflect in private on the first day, and together on the second," Kaira said. "Because our ancestors forgot that this is a time for considering the spirits, and the spirits..." She paused, looking theatrically thoughtful, then smiled mischievously and said, "No, the spirits weren't angry. But things were out of balance, and their feelings were hurt."
A ripple of quiet laughter made its way around the square at that, and the smiling angakkuk went on, "But the spirits aren't cruel or heartless. They don't demand unhappiness of us, whatever some so-called 'experts' would have had us believe. And so tomorrow, we celebrate, as our supposedly decadent ancestors did before us - only we invite the spirits to join us, like good neighbors should. That, my children, that is balance."
A wave of vociferous agreement passed over the crowd, and Utena was intrigued to note that Korra was part of it, raising a fist and calling cheerfully, "Hear, hear!"
After the congregation quieted again, Kaira led them in a short and simple invocation, pledging the community's friendship and fellowship with the spirits of the southern glaciers; there was a moment of silence; and the gathering broke up, people filtering back to their homes to throw what amounted to ten thousand low-key dinner parties.
As his own family left the square to do likewise, Corwin had the sudden, unaccountable feeling that he was being scrutinized. He looked around, puzzled, for its source.
Some way off to his right, he saw a girl standing under a lamppost near the end of one of the many canal-spanning bridges in this part of the city. He got only the most fleeting glimpse of her, just enough to get an impression rather than an actual image: pale skin, light-colored hair, a bulky jacket...
... and then she turned to her left and disappeared into the shifting crowd.
"Hey. Dìqiú to Corwin," said Korra, nudging him with an elbow. "You with us?"
"Huh?" he replied, blinking. "Sorry, I thought I saw..." He shook his head. "Never mind. Did you ask me something?"
"Do you want takoyaki or seaweed noodles for dinner?" asked Utena.
"Yes, please," Corwin replied, grinning, and thought no more about the strange encounter that night.
Back at the townhouse, they had a festive dinner, then spent a more convivial evening lounging around the living room and chatting. With the solemn, contemplative part of the festival done with, all were looking forward to the third and final day to come - not just those who had attended it before, but also those for whom it would be the first.
Kaitlyn arrived a little bit before midnight, tired but happy after a redeye flight from Sakuragaoka via Republic City. She reported that all was well with her charges at Sato Academy, and that they sent along their goodwill.
"Mio, in particular, asked me to say hello to you, Corwin," said Kate with a mischievous little smile.
"What is it with you, anyway?" Ryo wondered.
"Some guys got it," Minami said before Corwin could reply.
"It's not like that," Corwin said, his voice mild. "She's a nice kid. We kind of bonded on the common grounds of the bass guitar and having difficult friends," he added wryly.
"Speaking of which, it's a shame Nall couldn't be here," said Garnet. "I guess I'll have to sub for him." Adopting a half-lidded smirk that was completely ridiculous on her tiny dragon face, she went on, "Do tell, Corwin. Did you have some nice jam sessions mrfff." Rolling her fire-opal eyes to the side, she glared at Utena until her snout was released, then said, "Not you too!"
"Have a little class, the kid's 16," Utena chided her.
"Yeah, well, so's Nyima," Garnet replied.
"Don't drag me into this," said Nyima, blushing.
"This went someplace really weird really suddenly," Korra observed.
"It's a dragon thing," Corwin said wearily. "Anyway, thank you, Kate, and please tell her I said 'hi' back when you see her again, and not anything the Innuendo Serpent over here said." He gave Garnet a grumpy look and added, "Just because Azana's in the North Pole this week, you figure you've got to have another outlet..."
"Oi!" Garnet objected, trying without much success to draw herself up with dignity, while everyone laughed.
The front hall of the Sato townhouse resembled the staging area of a small military operation, only with a more cheerful sense of anticipation, as everyone who was staying there made final preparations to hit the third, final, and most festive day of the Glacier Spirits Festival. Decked out in all her polar gear, Utena was making certain of Annabelle and Garnet in Anthy's amautik when the last of the party to make ready arrived.
"Awright!" Korra declared, bounding down the stairs. In keeping with festival tradition, she had on her best anorak over her formal, high-collared tunic, and fur-caped trousers that looked practically new. "Are you guys ready to have some fun?"
Everyone turned and just looked at her for a moment, prompting her to inquire, "... What?"
"Is this the Nanisivik equivalent of The Hat?" Utena wondered, flipping a hand through her own loose, feathery hair.
Korra, for the first time Utena had yet seen, didn't have most of her hair up in her customary high ponytail or the formal white-cloth-cap-covered bun she'd sported at Utena and Corwin's wedding; her sidelocks were tied as usual, but the rest of her thick brown hair was down, falling about her shoulders and down into the laid-back hood of her anorak. It gave her a surprisingly different look, and one, Utena realized, not too unlike her own. Korra's hair wasn't feathery like hers, but had a tendency instead to fall in waves, a little like Kate's; but the unstudied, casual ease of the look was the same.
"Oh, heh, nah," said Korra, grinning. "I just felt like changing up my game a little for the day. Nothin' wrong with a little variation." She nudged Corwin with an elbow. "Eh, Corwin?"
"We're all going to die," said Nyima with heavy mock fatalism.
"Beg pardon, Master Nyima?" Korra inquired, pretending to have missed the remark.
"Nothing," Nyima replied with a little smile.
"All right, then!" said Korra with a fierce grin as she opened the front door. "Let's do this thing."
They did that thing.
On its third day, the Southern Water Tribe's Glacier Spirits Festival ceased to be a time of contemplation or benediction and became a celebration, half carnival, half fair. The downtown streets were lined with booths and stalls offering all manner of items, from a thousand kinds of street foods to handicrafts and goods of virtually any description. Bright lamps and signs, decorative torches, and luminous spirits were everywhere, filling the polar night with color and life, and the streets bustled with people, human and spirit alike, the former dressed in their best and the latter putting on an extra-showy display. The skies above, too, were filled with spirits, darting and dancing, giving their all for the sheer pleasure of painting the night sky with their light.
The centerpiece of the whole affair was the city's central square, which had been the site of the mass public benediction the afternoon before. Now, cleared of all structures and then covered in an even layer of ice, it served as the arena for a sprawling, cheerfully freeform game of what looked to Utena like a cross between ice hockey, association football, and a friendly street fight.
After a lap of the food-and-crafts stalls, Utena and Korra were drawn almost gravitationally to this intriguing attraction. As they approched the sidelines, they were greeted by a young man wearing the armband of a Nanisivik Tribal Constabulary volunteer medic, whom Korra seemed to know already.
"Hey, there you are!" she said, hugging the medic with a cheerful grin. "I knew I'd find you somewhere out here. Utena, this is Bori - Karana's little brother. Excuse me, Doctor Bori - I have to remember that now," she added with a wink.
"I'm not one to stand on ceremony," said the young doctor. "Just Bori is fine."
"This is Utena Tenjou," Korra went on. "You probably heard about the little show she and I put on at Falling Dark this year."
"Mom hasn't talked about much else since," said Bori wryly; then, offering Utena a Water Tribe salute, he said, "Pleasure to meet you. Enjoying the festival?"
"You bet," Utena said. Gesturing to his medical insignia, she asked, "You getting much business?"
"Just bumps and scrapes, so far," said Bori with a smile. "Things don't usually get too out of hand, but people are always going to get knocked around a little playing bandy - especially when the bigger spirits decide to join in," he added.
"Bandy, huh?" Utena said. "Looks kind of like hockey, only... bigger."
"Similar," Bori agreed, nodding. "Some people call it South Pole hockey, though actually both games originated in the Big Universe. If you know the rules of hockey, though, it's easy enough to make the transition."
"Hmm. Is it an organized league, or can anybody play?" Utena wondered.
"Open to all," said Bori with an expansive gesture. "Skates in that kiosk there. Do me a favor and get a mouthguard fitted too, while you're there - putting teeth back is a pain."
Utena laughed. "Thanks for the vote of confidence," she said, clouting him on the shoulder, and then she and Korra went to draw some gear and join one of the pickup games - on opposite sides, naturally.
When last they had met in battle at a Water Tribe festival, back in April at the Falling Dark Festival in Senna, Utena had come out on top, but now Korra demonstrated that - in bandy if not in swordfighting - experience and ruthlessness would generally overcome youth and enthusiasm.
With the Avatar's mettle redeemed, the two left the field of honorable battle arm in arm and laughing, waving to their cheering new throng of admirers, and hit the hen-and-spuds stand before steering their posse southward. South of the square, the booths began to take on more of the aspect of carnival attractions, with many of them featuring games of skill or chance.
"My original team and I hit this festival one time in the 190s, when your great-grandma Hikari was... 11, I think," Korra said to Minami and Ryo as the group of them headed down Canal Street. "Man, we did a number on the gaming booths that year. Between the four of us, we won Hikari so many stuffed animals her mom had to ship 'em back north in a freight container." She grinned a little goofily at the memory.
"I think we still have those," Ryo said. "Gran-Gran Mirai told me once that was where that giant tiger seal came from."
Minami laughed. "That was my favorite when we were little," she recalled. "I used to sleep with it."
"What do you mean used to?" Ryo asked.
"Step up! Step up!" cried the barker at the nearest gaming booth as they approached it. "Put the coin on the peg and win! Three throws for a yuan. Who will give it a shot? You, sir!" he said, leveling his pointing stick at Corwin. "What do you say? Try your skill and win a nice prize for your lady friend!" he added, traversing the stick to indicate Utena beside him. "Or your other lady friend," he went on, taking note of Anthy next to her, then looked to Corwin's left and registered the local girl standing there. "Or your... third lady friend?" Scratching his head sheepishly, the barker leaned forward and said in a stage mutter, "Jeez, kid, you're makin' the rest of us look bad over here."
"Some guys got it," all the women in the group (and Garnet, who performed an ostentatious up-periscope from Anthy's amaut to join in) chorused before Corwin could say anything in reply, causing both him and the barker to break up laughing.
"Thank you," Corwin remarked dryly as he recovered his breath. Then, after surveying the prizes on offer for a moment, he pointed to the largest of them, a stuffed polar bear dog that, while nowhere near lifesize, would have made a fairly respectable child's bed. "How many do I have to hit in a row to win that?" he asked.
The barker raised an eyebrow, giving him a toothy grin. "Ten throws, my good man," he said, then lifted an admonishing finger and declared, "But I warn you, no one has ever done it."
"Not true," said Korra cheerfully. "I once saw it done... a hundred years ago."
The barker blinked, then blinked again, as he belatedly realized that the local girl to his mark's left was in fact Avatar Korra. "Oh! Avatar. I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you. Friends of yours?" he added, realizing as he did so what an idiotic question it was.
"Better believe it," Korra replied breezily. "What do you think, Corwin?" she asked. "Are you up for it?"
"Hey, don't be doing my job for me," the barker protested with a smile.
Corwin grinned, dug around in the front pocket of his parka for a moment, then banged a five-yuan bill down on the counter. "Gimme fifteen," he said. "It might take me a couple to get my eye in."
"I do like a man who thinks big," said the barker, making the bill disappear and replacing it with a neatly arced array of tokens in a single smooth maneuver which everyone had to take a moment and admire. The tokens were stylized, slightly enlarged replicas of Earth Kingdom "Old Yuan" coins, round with a square hole in the middle. Ten feet or so in front of where Corwin stood, a square peg a little bit smaller than the hole stood on a decorated platform, its base hidden beneath a little mound of similar tokens.
Corwin picked up one of the coins and weighed it thoughtfully in his hand, running his thumbnail along the knurled edge. It was bigger than a real Old Yuan, but slightly lighter - made of purified aluminum, he guessed, to make it harder for metalbenders to cheat without the insane cost and high theft risk of platinum or gold. Well, that didn't matter. He had no intention of cheating. After a moment's pause to center himself, he positioned the first of his tokens atop his left fist and flipped it up and out with his thumb.
He missed with the first attempt, and with the second as well, drawing good-natured japes from the barker (that was part of his job, after all), but he paid the man no mind. Those weren't misses in the conventional sense, anyway; they were ranging shots. He had the weight now, and if the game were legit and all the tokens really the same, there would be no need for another. He picked up the third token, turned it over in his hand, positioned it, and let fly.
It fell neatly over the peg and rattled to the bottom, settling on the pile of misses with a dull clink - yup, aluminum.
"That's one," said the barker unnecessarily. Without comment, Corwin picked up his next token, weighed it, and tossed it. Tunk, rattle, clink.
Finding the groove, he settled into a rhythm, and four hits later, he realized that there was a final twist in the game. It wasn't rigged, as such, but the way the peg was constructed, it would get harder as his score mounted, simply because there was less clear peg to hit. Based on the thickness of the tokens and the height of the peg, there would be just barely room on it for all ten of the required hits, and the accumulation of misses at the bottom would eat up what little reserve there was. It occurred to him belatedly that he should've asked for the target area to be cleared before he started.
Oh well, your own fault, he told himself, then applied himself to the task with even greater concentration. The sounds of the festival, the cheering of his friends and the increasingly snarky remarks of the barker as he piled token on token, all faded away. Tunk, increasingly short rattle, clink...
He had nine on the peg and the tenth in his hand when the outside world suddenly returned to his consciousness with a snap, like waking from a near-nap at the sound of a slamming door. Corwin looked up, his fugue breaking, and tried to place consciously what had changed to call him back. Running feet... people shouting. The unmistakable sound of incipient panic.
But it wasn't the sound itself that had pulled him out of the game-trance; it was the way both Utena and Korra had reacted to it, tensing to alert mode on either side of him. Turning, he followed their eyelines back toward the central square - and here came the crowd, dismay on their faces, fleeing from something...
... over the tops of the stalls on the other side of the street, a red-orange fireball blooming into the sky, scattering aerial spirits in consternation.
"Ah, hell," he said, and dropped the tenth token to the counter as he turned with the others to head, as ever, toward the danger.
As Corwin, Korra, and Utena forced their way upstream towards the central square, more bursts of flame lit up the evening sky, followed by a massive sustained stream that set the upper floors of several buildings ablaze.
When they finally reached the edge of the square, the Satos and Anthy had rejoined them. The crowd was thinning here, thanks to a group of Nanisivik Tribal Constabulary officers who were working to direct people to safety, while several benders threw up barriers of ice to help form a cordon. As they approached, Utena saw that Bori was among them.
Striding up to one with a set of white slashes against the dark blue of his shoulders, Korra got his attention with a brief, sharp whistle. "Sarge. What's the situation in there?"
The cop looked briefly surprised to see her, then nodded, getting back to business. "Avatar Korra. It looks like ten, maybe fifteen guys causing trouble in there, but they're throwing around more firepower than a Fire Army battalion. We're trying to get people out until more waterbenders and some SWAT support arrives."
"I don't think we have time for that," Utena objected, as a building's façade began to collapse towards the street. "If we don't get someone in there to help fight the fires those guys have started, things are going to get really out of control."
Korra nodded, her face drawn with concern. "You're right - I saw how much damage just one guy hopped up on Comet could do. I don't know what they're doing down here, but I won't let them do any more damage." Looking over her shoulder, her unspoken question was greeted with nods all around, with Minami puncuating hers by flexing her fingers to create a crackle of sparks as her lightning glove powered up. Between the gesture, her somewhat disarrayed hair, and the little Sato smirk on her face, Korra couldn't help but feel a brief pang of nostalgia. Just like old times.
She turned back to the constable, her mouth turned to a slightly edged smile. "Consider us your backup. Can you send a few benders in with me, and keep the rest of your men on crowd control?"
"You bet, Avatar," said the sergeant.
"I'm with you, Korra," said Bori as he slung a full waterskin over his shoulder.
Korra nodded, then started moving towards the barricades at a run. "All right, LET'S GO!"
What had been a friendly, welcoming space at the heart of the city was now a chaotic wreck - Utena noticed the stand where she'd gotten hot chocolate was overturned, the half facing upwards covered in scorch marks. Angry black streaks crossed the paving stones, and most of the tents and pavilions were collapsed into piles of burning fabric. A few unlucky bystanders were still trying to get to safety, but some, mostly waterbenders, had stood fast, trying to contain the fires that were already starting to spread.
The men apparently responsible for those fires stood in a knot at the center of the square, a few still occasionally shooting off massive blasts of flame, while others had begun to loot the storefronts and cash boxes.
"Ha, ha!" the apparent leader crowed, dressed in a shockingly red three-piece suit that turned to shades of bright orange in the firelight. "That's right, boys! Time to show everyone who's in charge now!" His eyes blazing, he made a shuffling step forward and unleashed a curtain of flame at what had been the bandy field, splintering the nearest section of the low enclosure wall and setting the neighboring portions ablaze. "We don't need to wait another ten years! We've got all the comet we need RIGHT HERE!"
Korra gave a snort as she slid behind the remnants of what had been bleachers for spectators. "Oh, I don't think so, pal."
As she dropped into a crouch next to the Avatar, Utena asked, "You know this guy?"
"Not exactly," Korra admitted, "but it seems pretty clear he's another goon from the Agni Kai." She sighed. "I really hate those guys."
"Any idea what they're doing here?"
Korra shook her head. "Nope. They might have just decided to try 'making a statement' by wrecking the festival, but by the time they got all hopped up on Comet, they probably lost the plot. All most Comet fiends care about when they're on a trip is getting to show off their 'power'."
Utena snorted. "Typical. OK, it's your show - how do you want us to do this?"
"I'll go for Mr. Worst Dressed. Keep some of the others busy, and don't get fried! Anthy'd kill me." Korra made brief eye contact with the purple-haired witch, and winked. "Minami, you and Ryo take down some of the looters. The boys and girls from the NTC ought to be able to help fight the fires once we start getting these jerks to focus on us instead of the buildings. Bori - oh, sorry, everybody, this is Bori - you're on medical support. Everybody good?"
With the plan communicated to her friends, Korra took a deep breath, focused herself, and leapt up from her crouch while bringing her arms out and then down. The powerful stroke generated a burst of air beneath her, sending her up like a vertically launched missile.
With a shout of "Hey, BUDDY!" as she reached apogee, Korra angled herself towards the nattily dressed gangster, who had automatically looked up and locked in on her, punching a wide swath of flame into the air in response.
The Avatar swept her arms up as she dropped, pulling the flames out of the air and wrapping them around her lower body for a flaming dropkick that connected right above the gangster's watch pocket, flinging him backwards.
As she rose up from the follow-through, taking up a fighting stance, the rest of her backup swept in, and the melee was on.
Corwin had started to join in with the fun, but quickly realized his talents would better serve by bringing up some firebreaks from the paving stones, and making sure that none of the more damaged buildings would collapse in on his family and friends.
Moving around the edges of the fight, his concentration was almost entirely focused on assessing damage and performing some engineering triage until he spotted something that took him totally by surprise.
The girl who had given him that strange vibe the day before was back - but instead of appearing and then disappearing from a crowd, this time she was standing atop one of the few lampposts that were still standing, her feet balanced atop the wrought iron crossbar that supported its light fixtures.
His initial brief impression had been correct - long, oddly pale blue hair, fair skin, and wearing a bulky dark blue coat. She stared down at him with a strangely flat, neutral expression, and he blinked back up at her as they made eye contact. Her eyes were an unusual shade of green that made him think of deep sea water, but slightly glassy - there didn't seem to be any real spark behind them. A doll's eyes.
Before he could wrap his brain around anything beyond his initial surprise, the crisis at hand demanded his attention again as an office building off to his right began to sag towards the street.
The fire that was consuming the building had done too much damage for it to be saved, but Corwin was able to use his knowledge of structural engineering and some thick columns of rammed earth and stone to brace it up until the fires could be extinguished, and the building properly demolished.
Turning back towards where the strange girl had been standing, he saw nothing but the lamppost, with no sign that anyone had been using it for a perch.
Rubbing a hand over his face, Corwin gave a sigh, then shook his head. "Today is getting really weird."
Fortunately for the greater part of downtown Nanisivik, the gangsters who had attacked the festival hadn't taken nearly as much Comet as the unlamented Kaiten, but they still did a fair bit of damage before Korra and her impromptu edition of Team Avatar were able to bring all of them down.
By the time the fires were completely doused, reports made, and paperwork started, it was well into the evening. Utena and Anthy had eventually found themselves back at the Sato townhouse, where Ryo let them in with a tired wave.
Not long after, Utena and Ryo disappeared into the kitchen, eventually collaborating on some simple maki rolls and sandwiches to give everyone as they returned, while Anthy settled into one of the well padded armchairs in the front room, with Annabelle drowsing against her chest, apparently none the worse for the day's excitement.
A few minutes after that, Kaitlyn, Corwin, Nyima, and Minami returned. Slightly to Anthy's surprise, Corwin was carrying the enormous stuffed polar bear dog he'd set his sights on at the coin-toss booth.
"Here," he said with a tired grin, presenting the giant toy to the mother of his child. "Don't say I never gave ya nothin'."
"Oh my," said Anthy. "It's even bigger than it looked in the booth. How did you end up with it?"
"We were passing by on our way to sign some paperwork for the cops when the guy who ran the booth spotted us," Minami explained. "'Hey! You never took your last throw!'"
"I think he just wanted an excuse to give you something for helping to keep the Agni Kai from burning down his stall," Nyima speculated with a little smile.
"If that's the case, he'd have felt like kind of a jerk if I was too keyed up from the fracas to throw straight," Corwin observed wryly.
"Not much chance of that," said Kate, mussing her brother's hair. "Way too cool."
"Yeah, that's me, the iceman," Corwin replied with a fond eyeroll.
They all settled into a pensive silence at that point, punctuated with thanks and much consumption once the food arrived. Unsurprisingly, it was Utena who finally spoke up:
"So, what the hell was all that about?"
Nyima shook her head. "I'm afraid nobody is really sure. Korra and the Chief Constable were trying to get ahold of Inspector Imanishi up in Republic City when I left. This isn't like anything the Agni Kai have done before."
Minami picked up the thread. "I mean, they've always been chauvinistic scumbags clinging to a ridiculously idealized nationalist dogma, but they were still, well, crooks."
Ryo nodded. "Protection rackets, gambling, thieving, sure. But not exactly a terrorist group - and Nanisivik is WAY outside of their usual stamping grounds."
While they digested that (and the light meal), the door opened, and Korra returned, still in the slightly singed finery she'd been wearing for the festival.
"Oh, good," she said without preamble, "You're all back." Rubbing a hand over her face for a second, she found a chair and accepted a plate of food before she went on. "It took us a while to get ahold of Eitaro - and what I found out when we did wasn't good."
Kaitlyn's face took on an 'I have a bad feeling about this' look. "The Agni Kai are causing trouble in Republic City, too?"
"Mmmhm." Korra finished chewing a bite of one of her maki rolls, set it back on the plate, and explained. "It looks like they had enough Comet stockpiled to get almost every bender in the Triad hopped up, and the ones who didn't come down to Nanisivik - still don't know what that's about, by the way - decided to go on a rampage in Republic City tonight. Pretty much every cop in town who wasn't on sick leave is on the streets tonight trying to keep things under control. There's even talk of the President possibly sending troops over from Red Sand Island to enforce martial law."
"Oh, that'll end well," Garnet observed, raising her head from Annabelle's wrap. "Lots of armed people on edge in a city filled with firebending whackos is always a great plan."
Korra snorted. "Yeah, I know. But that's not even the worst bit."
Corwin raised an eyebrow. "This gets worse?"
"Yup. Part of why Eitaro was so hard to track down was that he was meeting with one of his CIs inside of the Red Monsoon who had asked him for an emergency meet. Apparently the Monsoons are bringing in the biggest shipment of 'product' yet - and are planning a big meeting at their HQ to turn it over to the Agni Kai."
Corwin frowned and said dryly, "That's not a trap or anything."
Korra gave him a tired, slightly crooked smile. "Yeah, totally. But we can't let this get any more out of control than it already is."
Utena nodded. "OK. So when do we leave?"
Leaning back into her chair, Korra sighed, settling the now empty plate onto her lap. "That's complicated."
Anthy raised an eyebrow. "Complicated?"
"I need to get back to Republic City - but one of the things I'm worried about is that this attack might have been the Agni Kai's way of trying to come after me - and the people I care about." Ice blue eyes flashed as the Avatar looked around the room. "If you guys go back to Republic City with me, you'll immediately become targets."
"Staying here doesn't guarantee we'll be safe," Utena noted, "At least up there we've got a chance to fight back."
"Maybe. But at the same time, it still puts you right in the line of fire - including Annabelle." Korra shook her head. "I don't... I can't risk that. But there's an alternative - honestly, one I don't like very much, but at least I can guarantee it'll be safe for you."
Utena climbed down from Vayu's saddle and stood regarding the torchlit courtyard in which the sky bison had landed. Between the torches and the glorious aurora above, she could see about as well as on an overcast afternoon - well enough that the walls of the fortified compound around them were plainly visible.
"So... you have a Fortress of Solitude," she observed. "I'm not as surprised by this as I might have been."
Korra gave a slightly distracted chuckle as she swung down next to her. "Well, for some values of solitude," she allowed. "It's actually the compound where I was trained as a kid. Later on I took it over as a kind of retreat." She pointed out the massive main gate behind them, and a second, smaller one in the wall off to the left. "Two entrances; the other one leads down to a boat dock off the fjord, but the fjord's frozen this time of year, so it's closed off. Worst comes to worst, the keep at the back is fortified in itself. You guys should be safe here until I can sort out what's what up in Republic City." She glanced at her wrist, where her Lens was covered by one of her bracers, then went on, "While I'm at that, it's probably best if you don't try to reach me. I've got to at least try to get some rest on the flight, and once we get into Republic City I have a feeling I'll be pretty busy for a while."
"Sure you don't want any help?" Corwin inquired, handing baggage down to Utena. "I'm too tapped out right now to window us up there, but at least one of us could go with you..."
"No," Korra said, "better you stay together, I think. I've got a weird feeling..." She trailed off, looking into the night sky above the compound for a moment, then shook her head, recalling herself to the here and now. With a wry, slightly weary smile, she went on, "I appreciate the offer, I really do, but like I told you back in April, the Comet thing isn't your fight. I'll be more comfortable knowing you're all here while I take care of this."
Utena looked unconvinced, but nodded. "OK, but be careful. If you need us, holler. We'll find a way."
"I will," Korra promised. "Either way, I'll let you know when the coast is clear. In the meantime, Maki and Izumi are on their way down from Kyoshi Island; they'll be here in a couple hours. They and the White Lotus people here will look after you, so just chill here for a while. ... So to speak."
With hugs (and a few kisses) all around, she took her leave of them all, then climbed back up onto Vayu so that Nyima could run her back to Hakoda Airport, where the Satos and their jet awaited.
Corwin watched them go, then sighed. "Welp," he said, "I guess we might as well try to get some sleep." With murmured agreements, the rest of the little group gathered up their things, and they all headed toward the keep.
For her part, Korra also got a bit of sleep on the flight back to Republic City. Not much, and none of it particularly sound, but the Satos' private jet was certainly comfortable enough, and there was little enough else she could do during the flight.
The return trip was considerably shorter than the one down, however - with the Avatar aboard, a genuine emergency afoot, and the flight mostly over water, Ryo felt free to disregard all the usual constraints placed on the speed of private flights, and when properly motivated, a Future Industries Model 265 could get a serious move on. Even if Korra had been able to go instantly to sleep and stay that way for the whole trip, it would hardly have qualified as more than a fairly long nap.
Even so, she could tell at a glance as she disembarked from the jet that she felt fresher than Inspector Imanishi did. It felt odd to see him dressed in tactical armor - even on some raids, he tended to wear his trademark grey raincoat, since at his age and rank, he was rarely among the people actually kicking down doors and barging into unsecured rooms any more. Today, though, he had on the full kit, and as he crossed the tarmac to meet Korra, he moved as though he'd been wearing it for a good long time.
"Eitaro," said Korra. "What's the latest?"
"The situation's mostly contained, but there's still a lot of tension in the air," Imanishi replied, falling into step with her as she made for the terminal. Behind, the Satos turned their aircraft over to the company ground crew, then ran to catch up.
"Were you able to convince the President not to send in the army?" Korra asked.
"I didn't have to," the inspector said. "Qiao mobilized the IDRA, which automatically precluded the United Forces."
Korra smiled slightly. "Nice." She made a mental note to congratulate Qiao, the head of the International Disaster Response Agency, for her quick thinking when she saw her. The clause of the IDRA's charter that excluded armed military forces from areas where the agency was operating was meant to work the other way around - preventing the Agency's personnel from going into active conflict zones - but it worked just as well to keep the army out of an area where their presence would just make things worse.
"Between them, the Fire Department, the Little Water Tribe Militia, and the Triples, we've been able to keep the situation controlled without it blowing out into a full-scale civic emergency, but it's been tight," Imanishi continued. "I've got everybody in uniform - even the office staff. If anybody wanted to help themselves to everything in Police Headquarters, they could probably get away with it right now," he added with a tired grin. "We've also had some unexpected help from our 'big universe' allies."
"Eh?" Korra wondered, but a moment later, as she and the others entered the terminal building, she had her answer. There was a group of uniformed personnel - mostly cops, but also members of all the other agencies Imanishi had named - gathered on the concourse, getting a little much-needed-looking rest and having a hot beverage. Among them was the colorful figure of Utena's friend Wakaba, who looked like she'd had a bit of a day so far as well. At the sight of the Avatar and her party entering the building, she and Emily Wong broke away from the group and walked toward them, each carrying a cup of tea.
"Lensman Shinohara has been a great help to us," Imanishi said. "As has Miss Wong."
"'Do what you can' is kind of implied in the job description when you're in my line of work," said Wakaba with a wry smile. Then, becoming more serious, she went on, "I heard from Utena what went down in Nanisivik last night. Thanks for looking after them. Could you use a little extra firepower for the big raid I'm not supposed to have heard about?"
Korra laughed for the first time in a while. "I sure could," she said.
The atmosphere in Fort Tonraq was a bit tense, but as they ate lunch, the fort's guests couldn't really say it was surprising. After all, the authorities in Nanisivik were still cleaning up after the riot, and it wasn't at all clear where those participants in it who escaped had gone. "Back to Republic City" was the prevailing guess, but it was only a guess; and with that unresolved, and Korra back in the city herself and heading into certain but indeterminate danger, the White Lotus staff at her polar redoubt were understandably a bit tense.
The observance of Corwin's birthday, held in the compound's main dining room, was a bit muted by the circumstances, but he didn't mind; he was too preoccupied right now to enjoy the occasion fully anyway. Once the situation was stabilized, he fully intended to live it up, either here or, for preference, back at Bellehaven. If that meant delaying the full festivities until a day or three after his actual birthday, he was fine with that.
"It's just a box on the calendar, after all," Anthy said, smiling, and Corwin gave her a speculative little smile, since he hadn't said any of the things leading up to it out loud.
"I know Korra figured it was the best thing under the circumstances," Kaitlyn mused, gazing out a window at the broad, torchlit expanse of the central courtyard - once the young Avatar Korra's proving ground, and still dotted here and there with obstacles and training equipment. "But I'll be just as happy to get the all-clear and get out of here. This place doesn't feel like a sanctuary to me." She turned her head, giving Utena a serious, you-feel-it-too sort of look, and went on, "It feels like a prison."
That's because it is one, Utena didn't say aloud. It wasn't the time to be recounting the story of Korra's life, but she knew the Avatar had fully felt the irony of recommending that her friends take temporary shelter in a place where she had effectively been incarcerated "for her safety" from the ages of four to 17. Besides, the situation wasn't really the same. Korra hadn't realized she was a prisoner, or her custodians really captors (albeit well-meaning ones), for many years; and when that realization had come, she'd wasted little time in engineering her escape. Utena and her family and friends knew well why they were here, and if the fancy took them to change the plan and leave, it wasn't as if the White Lotus Society were going to try to stop them...
As she had the thought, Utena felt a subtle shift in... something. The Force, maybe, if you credited some Jedi Masters' belief that, consciously or not, she was their colleague. Or maybe she had just spent enough time training and talking with Kaitlyn that she had developed something like samurai zanshin. Or maybe they were the same thing. Whatever the case, the tension she'd been feeling in the air all day had just changed. It wasn't a sensation that had any proper analog in physical experience, but the psychological "flavor" of it brought to mind words like darkened, or soured, or maybe curdled. Somewhere nearby, or perhaps all around, something was starting to go wrong.
She glanced at Kate and saw that her best friend also felt it. So, too, did Anthy; Utena could tell that much just from the slight tightening in the planes of her face. A moment later, Corwin picked up on it as well.
"Do you hear that?" Nyima asked, tilting her head with a thoughtful frown.
"No, but I see it," said Garnet. The little dragon was perched on Kaitlyn's shoulder, looking out the same window, and she went on with a puzzled look, "Either it's Fight Club Friday for the local White Lotus boys and girls, or something just kicked off big-time in the courtyard."
Nyima rose smoothly to her feet, unconsciously dusting down her robes with puffs of bent air. "I'll go and find out what's going on," she said, but before she could cross to the door, it opened. Two dozen men and women entered, dressed not in the formal, courtly White Lotus robes they'd all seen on the staff upon arriving, but rather the more pragmatic, abbreviated tactical costume they adopted when action was expected. From their badges, about half were benders, more-or-less evenly distributed between the three most common disciplines. And in the lead was...
"Master Cheong!" said Kaitlyn in mild surprise. "What's going on? Is there some problem?"
Tall, bald, ascetic Cheong - Korra's press relations liaison in the Society, and one of the relatively few other White Lotus Masters Kaitlyn had met since her own elevation to that office - shook his head gravely.
"No, Master Kaitlyn, or at least I hope there won't be," he replied. As he spoke, the uniformed guards fanned out and surrounded the table - and those seated and standing around it. They looked grim, a few of them a little bit scared, but all determined - and not one of them looked in any way friendly.
"Let's all be calm, if you please," Cheong went on. "I hope to avoid further violence today, if at all possible."
Corwin rose to his feet, moving so abruptly that he startled the White Lotus troops nearest him back a step, and demanded, "What the hell is this, Cheong?"
"Some people from your own reality are coming to speak with you, outworlder," Cheong replied, his voice colder than the young Æs had known it. "These men and women are here to ensure that you all remain here to be consulted."
Before anyone could ask him to elaborate on that, another White Lotus guard entered the room, stopped at the bald master's elbow, and said in a deferential tone, "Master Cheong, the representatives of the Black Rose have arrived."
As Cheong nodded in acknowledgement of the news, Utena, Corwin, and Nyima drew instinctively closer together, backing up a little and moving so as to place themselves as much as possible between Anthy (or, more accurately, Annabelle) and everyone else. Garnet darted from Kate's shoulder to Anthy's, then took up her customary station amid the baby's swaddling. Niri got to her feet, growling softly as she picked up on the sudden spike of tension in the room, but even a soft growl from a full-grown polar bear dog was enough to make a few of the White Lotus guards draw back a little.
Meanwhile, Kaitlyn stayed where she was, by the window; but her body language was not that of someone who felt hemmed in by the burly presences of uniformed guards in her space. At the other end of the table, Maki shifted in her chair, not trying to rise, but adjusting her weight preparatory to it. Lying by Kate's feet, Sergei made no sound; just gazed at Cheong with steady, strangely knowing eyes.
"Good," said Cheong. "Open the gates and make them welcome. Let's get this over with." Turning his attention to the increasingly hostile "guests", he added, "Master Kaitlyn, I know better than to ask this of you, but I trust, Master Nyima, that you are prepared to honor your oath as a Master of the White Lotus Society."
"I fail to see how this course of action accords with that oath, Master Cheong," Nyima replied with such perfect, mature cordiality that Corwin, even feeling the jaws of a trap closing around him and his family, had to smile just a little.
"You guys work for Korra, don't you?" Garnet put in, then added with a sarcastic uncertainty, "I'm no expert, but I'm reasonably sure she doesn't want you to be doing anything anyone from the Black Rose would be asking for."
"What Avatar Korra wants and what she needs are often two very different things, master dragon," Cheong told her. "I am sworn to see to the latter." With a sharp glance at Corwin and his family, he added, "Not the former."
"That's about the most presumptuous thing I've ever heard," Utena shot back, "and that's saying something, believe me. She's got to be nigh on a hundred years older than you."
"The Avatar is an overgrown child, whatever her count of years," Cheong replied flatly. "I don't know why, I'm not a metaphysician - perhaps some lingering effect of what she endured during the Harmonic Convergence so many years ago - but while she has lived for nearly 14 decades now, she has never grown up. And after working closely with her for nearly two of those decades, I am convinced that she never will. It's hard enough to keep her focused on her purpose at the best of times, and you people are a dangerous distraction - a shiny object. As such, I've concluded that it's my sworn duty as a White Lotus Master to see that you are removed, since you seem to have lost any inclination to return to your place of origin of your own accord."
"You son of a -" Corwin began, but Cheong cut him off, saying in a louder tone of voice,
"I have firm assurances that you will not be harmed, only compelled to leave this world and not return. So if you will all kindly sit down and act like civilized beings, we can still avoid an unpleasant scene."
Kaitlyn turned her head and looked out the window again. At this distance, a good 200 yards out in the dark, she could more sense the gates opening than actually see them, and the figures waiting outside them.
"What do you say, Utena?" she asked, sounding strangely casual. "Want to be a good girl and do as you're told for once in your life?"
Utena frowned thoughtfully. "Mmm..." she said, as if giving the idea all due consideration. Then, with a suddenness that took all those around her by surprise, she turned, the Prince's epaulets and petticoat appearing on her Water Tribe fighting anorak, and punched the man nearest to her so hard in the face that she left a permanent impression of her rose seal on his jaw. Burly, well-conditioned earthbender or not, he went down like a dropped sack of potatoes, with a heavy thud and not so much as a whimper.
"Not really," said Utena, and the room erupted into mayhem.
The first stage of the raid went off like clockwork, which was Korra's first clue that something was wrong.
Raids this big never went completely as expected. There was always something, usually right at the outset, that threw at least part of the plan out the window and required some improvisation to get the thing back on track. This being the biggest one to date - possibly the biggest and last one of the whole operation, if their intel was correct - she was expecting more than the usual share of bank shots, not less. Doubly so because, thanks to the timing of the main target's arrival, it had to be a daylight raid, conducted when the opposition would be at its most alert.
And yet, nothing of the kind had happened. Surprise was near-total. Korra and the Task Force's heaviest hitters, the boys and girls of the Special Tactical Division, piled out of the trucks and hit the fortified doors of the dockside warehouse all but unopposed; only when the doors were down and the tactical troopers flooding into the building did the startled Red Monsoons within realize anything was amiss.
Ironically, given that the Avatar was the only waterbender among them, the RCPD's forces rolled over the Monsoons like a tsunami, flattening their uncoordinated defense with precision teamwork and mutual support. Korra hardly had to do anything as the Special Division rolled up the Triad defenders and secured the premises.
"I have to be honest, that was a little bit anticlimactic," said Emily Wong wryly as she walked with Korra toward the very back of the building, where the tactical personnel had the entrance to an enclosed office area surrounded.
Like everyone else participating in the raid, Emily was dressed in a suit of police-issue metalbender armor; but like Korra's, the reporter's was a color other than police green and bore no insignia or official markings. Where Korra's was a dark Water Tribe-inspired blue and entirely unmarked, Emily's was plain bare-metal grey and emblazoned with "PRESS" in large white characters on breastplate and back.
"It's not over yet," said Korra, not looking at Emily. She looked and sounded tense, almost edgy - not a state she'd been in for any of the other raids Emily had accompanied her and the Task Force on thus far. She was looking around the cavernous room that was most of the building, her eyes darting from corner to corner, a look of deep but uncertain suspicion on her face.
"Keep your guard up," the Avatar went on. "This was too easy. I don't like it."
Emily might've made a joke about the Task Force simply being too much for the Monsoons to handle, but the look on Korra's face as she spoke was enough to quash any levity the young reporter might've felt. The Avatar's tension was enough to put Emily's nerves back on alert as well.
They arrived at the heavy, reinforced metal door barring the way into the office area. "What've we got?" Korra asked.
Inspector Imanishi turned from his examination of the door and gave her a wry little smile, though underneath it, Emily noticed that he, too, looked wary.
"The usual," Imanishi replied, gesturing to the door. Korra stepped up and placed her fingertips thoughtfully against it, tapping gently, then - in spite of her lingering unease - chuckled darkly.
"Platinum," she said. "They always think this'll help."
"Maybe they think you're a werewolf," Imanishi remarked dryly.
"Maybe," Korra said. "OK, everybody, stand back." As the cops and Emily retired to a safe distance, she stood before the door for a moment, gathering herself, then set to work.
The wisdom, if you wanted to call it that, behind building Really Important Things out of platinum could be traced back to the Equalist Rebellion of 171, the very first incident Korra had had to deal with in her career as a public figure. Back then, a particularly vicious and inventive non-bender with a grudge had figured out that highly refined metals like jewelry-grade platinum resisted metalbending (because metalbending wasn't really metalbending, it was bending the little bits of earth left behind in ordinary commercial-grade metals). Hiroshi Sato's platinum-hulled Mecha-Tanks had wreaked havoc with the RCPD's early tinheads, and Korra (who hadn't even been a metalbender at the time), before they'd figured out other ways of dealing with them.
Since then, copycats galore had latched onto the platinum trick, building elaborately expensive lockboxes, fortifications, and restraints out of the stuff in a succession of attempts to keep metalbenders - particularly Korra - away from things or subdued, depending on the circumstances. Few of those later adopters really understood why the original version of the trick had worked, though, and this door was a perfect example. It looked and felt like solid platinum, and so must have represented a very significant investment on the part of the Red Monsoon bosses who had ordered it put in place...
... and it was set in an ordinary reinforced concrete wall and floor. She didn't even have to go into the Avatar State to rip it from its moorings and fling it halfway back to the street. (She didn't really need to do the second part - she could've just dropped it where it was - but Korra had long believed that in her position, sometimes you just had to make a statement.)
Beyond the jagged hole in the wall where the platinum door had stood was an office, oddly well-decorated given its overall setting. In it, a startled-looking group of Red Monsoon gang members stood in a defensive formation around a large, ornate desk. Behind it sat a man in very expensive clothes that had a strong flavor of the Water Tribes about them, but for their vivid red color. His face was lined and weatherbeaten, and his long, intricatedly braided hair was white, but he was broad-shouldered and square-jawed, and as he rose to his feet to greet his guests, he moved with an unhurried smoothness that belied his apparent age.
"I've been expecting you, kinswoman," he said, his voice calm and rich.
"I'm no kinswoman of yours, Nanutak," Korra replied shortly. "Save your charm for people who have time for it."
"You're a descendant of Chief Arnook, are you not?" Nanutak observed, unperturbed. "So am I."
"What you are is under arrest," said Imanishi, brusquely ignoring the Triad leader's efforts to needle the Avatar.
If the prospect bothered Nanutak at all, he showed no sign of it; he merely took an elaborate pocket watch from his fur-trimmed waistcoat, opened it, and considered its face for a moment, then closed the case and returned it to its pocket with a bland smile.
"I think not, Inspector," he said.
"Sir!" cried one of the uniformed officers out in the main room. "Trouble!"
"On the plus side," said Nanutak pleasantly as he uncorked the waterskin he wore at his waist, "this does confirm your theory about cooperation between my organization and the Agni Kai," and then the firebenders burst into the warehouse through every window and skylight, the Red Monsoon leader overturned his desk, and generally all hell broke loose.
"Sometimes I hate it when I'm right," Korra grumbled to Emily as she and the reporter dove for cover together.
Nyima turned, looking around the room as the dust settled. Cheong and a set of his traitor Lotus guards had bolted within seconds of Utena decking one of their captors, but between her skills as master airbender, Corwin's earthbending, and Utena and Kaitlyn's long experience in fighting a roomful of mooks, they had the remaining turncoats handled within minutes. "Is that it?"
"Why do we never get to have nice, normal birthdays," Corwin wondered as he began breaking down a barrier that one of Cheong's earthbenders had used to block the door. "All I wanted was a nice quiet day with my friends and family. Maybe some cake. Possibly bowling!"
Kaitlyn re-sheathed her zatōichi, then shrugged. "Juri took me out to the Black Angus for mine."
Finally clearing the door, then shattering the lock with a sharp blow from Stick, Corwin gave a mirthless chuckle, clearly bantering to keep himself from becoming livid with rage. "I guess that's the solution. Next year? We'll just go to the Sizzler."
"Duly noted." Utena observed before helping make sure that Annabelle's wrap was secured as snugly as possible to Anthy's chest. "Do you think we can get out of here if we make it upstairs?"
Corwin shrugged. "Depends how many of the garrison are on our side. We might be able to hold out - this place is a fortress. Failing that, yeah, if we can get to Vayu, we could probably make it to Senna, or Nani."
"Or the Southern Air Temple," Nyima pointed out.
"From what we saw earlier," Maki observed as they swept into the hallway, "I think there's a significant force here who are still loyal to Korra - but if what Cheong said is true, he may have reinforcements here soon."
Utena couldn't help but admire the way that Maki was getting her "game face" makeup on as they were making their escape. Filing that under 'slightly amusing amid this torrent of crap', she tried to visualize what they were walking into. "If we can give that bunch in the courtyard a hand, that'll let us shut the gates again - if we're lucky, we can trap Cheong's people outside and give us some breathing room."
"And at the worst," Nyima said, "We'll force anyone on the outside to deal with that before trying to help their allies."
When they reached the doorway that led into the courtyard, Utena raised a hand to hold everyone up, then carefully opened one of the heavy wooden doors enough to get a quick look.
From the citadel's high vantage point, it was easy to see where a small group (almost certainly Cheong and his bodyguards) were heading for the main gates, while a group that probably numbered twenty or so was holding another dozen in a small knot against the wall nearest to the citadel steps.
"Looks like they've got the people who are still on our side outnumbered about two to one - and Cheong's making for the gate."
Corwin nodded, then tapped his fingers thoughtfully along Stick's ferrule. "How do you want to play this?"
"You, Maki, and Kate go spring the good guys," Utena ordered, pointing at each person as she named them. "Nyima, Anthy, and I'll cut Cheong off."
"Don't leave me out!" Garnet interrupted.
"Of course," Utena corrected herself. "You're the air support."
"Damn right I am."
Even as the Trinity prepared their breakout, the gates of the compound opened.
Touga Kiryuu smirked as the heavy doors slowly ground open, revealing the complex to his small entourage. For once, things were going exactly as planned.
As the doors came to a halt, the "liaison" he'd been told to expect arrived, a pair of solid-looking guards with him. Taking a step away from the guards, the bald man in the dark blue suit bowed.
"Mr. Kuroda. Welcome to Fort Tonraq."
Touga stepped forward, returning the bow. "A pleasure to be here, Master Cheong. I trust things went smoothly?"
Cheong had a good poker face, but Touga's senses were attuned to more than just physical cues. It wasn't difficult to detect the undercurrent of tension despite the Master Lotus's polished calm. "It was less than ideal, but they have been... contained."
As if their targets had heard that, the doors to the elevated keep at the back of the compound suddenly blasted outwards on a column of compressed air, followed by an unmistakably pink-haired woman leading a charge of figures down the white stone steps.
Touga's smirk turned into a scowl for a moment, then he brought his expression under control with an effort of will. After all, he was the one with the edge here. "Perhaps not, Master Lotus. Ah, well. That's why we keep our options open."
And then, to Cheong's considerable surprise, the man he knew as "Mr. Kuroda" and the smaller figure standing behind him both disappeared.
"It's so hard to get good help," Touga mused, turning away from the viewscreen. Addressing the diminutive, pale-haired woman who stood next to his command chair, he went on in a languid tone of voice that nevertheless carried an edge of authority, "Time to call out the troops, baby - Contingency White. Surface the ship."
"Yes, sir," she replied quietly. As the deck took on a distinct up-angle beneath their feet, her eyes went faraway - as if she were communicating through an implant, or perhaps telepathy.
Six people (plus one infant, two pets, and one quite tiny dragon) weren't exactly an overwhelming force, particularly when they broke into two groups of four, but striking an unprepared opponent helped. Plus, the Trinity and their friends were quite capable of punching above their weight, particularly when the pets in question were a Siberian tiger and a full-grown polar bear dog.
Using the shock of Nyima demolishing the doors to distract the turncoat guards, Utena's "team" rushed straight past them, charging towards the other end of the courtyard, while Corwin's group went straight up the middle.
The traitor guards seemed mostly to be earthbenders, while the hair and dress of the loyalists marked most of them as members of the Water Tribes. That didn't surprise Corwin much - after all, many of them had ties of family to Korra, not just organizational allegiance. As Kaitlyn and Maki began to engage their opponents, he realized they hadn't heard from or seen Izumi. He knew that a Kyoshi Warrior wasn't likely to have joined Cheong's revolt, but was she imprisoned? Injured? Worse?
His answer came when the younger Warrior, dressed in her full tactical gear, seemingly teleported into the midst of the melee, flinging throwing irons at the traitors from each hand.
Well, OK, there's that mystery solved, he thought wryly.
As she ran for the gates with Anthy and Utena, Nyima quickly realized that trying to "slam" the compound doors would be asking a lot, even for a master airbender. Instead, she went for the more expedient method of clearing Cheong, his attendants, and the interlopers from the Big Universe out of the gateway with a concussive blast of air that blew them all clean out of the compound, knocking several of them end over end back towards the path that led down to the harbor.
With that done, all Utena had to do to close the gates was yank the large red handle that worked the motorized doors, followed by slashing the heavy-gauge cable that ran from the control box once they had shut.
Anthy gave a slight tsk at that solution, but Utena simply shrugged. "Corwin can fix it after we're done here. C'mon - I want to get a better look at what we're up against."
Double-timing her way up to the observation post at the top of the wall, Utena didn't wait for Anthy or Nyima to follow. Instead, she took advantage of the polar aurora to get a good look at the glacial shelf and harbor below - it was slightly dimmer than the day at this time of year, but she could easily make out the black-clad figures that were regrouping outside the fort.
Focusing on her Lens, she called, Corwin! We've got the front door taken care of, but it looks like some of the Black Rose reinforcements are heading around to the other side of the icepack.
She could feel him 'frown' through the Lens contact, then his 'Ah-hah!' moment. I'm betting they're going for the fjordside boat dock. The postern's one of the only other weak points in these walls.
Get over there and let me know what's going on as soon as you can, Utena told him. I'm going to keep an eye on the ones who are still hanging around the front door.
Roger that, I'm on my way, he replied, then added wryly, I love it when you boss me around.
The response that received included no concepts readily translated into words, but they made Corwin grin slightly, even under the circumstances, as he beat it for the postern gate.
Anubishu had decided some time ago that he hated this pathetic little world, and a week of hard camping on the ice had done nothing to change his mind.
Infiltration had been simple enough. After leaving Oriphos, the Mashō had returned to Kaneko to train for this operation, escalating to almost a month of cold-weather survival training in Ishiyama's polar regions after being given a briefing on where their targets would most likely seek shelter.
Zipang was a Federation member, and even though Ishiyama was not part of that body, the planet's governments both maintained trade relations with it. Visas stating that the four men were visiting Zipang on business weren't even technically inaccurate.
Once they'd reached Saikyō, the Black Rose's "local assistance" had provided train tickets that led them into Dìqiú, while Rajura had taken his usual delight in acquiring the camping and cold weather gear they required through (in the Mashō leader's opinion) a needlessly complex series of cut-outs and shell companies.
From there, they'd traveled on several pre-arranged berths by train or ship until their final leg, where one of the White Lotus Society's own supply vessels was ordered to pause en route to Fort Tonraq, just long enough to let the four "guests" depart on an inflatable boat.
He'd been told by Ohtori that it was entirely possible the Mashō would not need to reveal themselves, but in truth, Anubishu hoped that would not be the case. After all they'd gone through to prepare, he dearly wanted to hit someone. He had no problems with cold weather, as such; he had grown up dealing with it. But getting Naaza to do anything at all in such conditions was an exercise in controlled fury, and Shuten complained about the weather silently but eloquently: his every gesture was one of disgust, and Anubishu had to control his desire to beat the boy bloody. The whole affair had rather strained the Mashō leader's patience, and he had never possessed a surplus of that to begin with.
A few minutes after "zero hour", the holocomm unit he'd smuggled in sounded for his attention, and the other three Mashō assembled around him as their leader opened the channel, displaying a young woman's head and shoulders in midair.
"Attention: Captain Kiryu has declared Contingency White. Proceed as planned."
Snapping the comm shut, Anubishu's eyes glittered with anticipation in the polar twilight. "At last. Mashō! For Kaneko's honor and Yamaō's memory - we strike!"
Corwin Ravenhair's eyes opened as he came out of his brief Lens conversation with his wife, then looked over to where Maki and Izumi were helping to secure the (mostly unconscious) traitors with the help of the loyal Lotus members.
"Maki!" he called. "I'm heading to the postern - it looks like they may be trying the boat dock. See if there are any earthbenders left that we can trust, and send them after me as soon as you can!"
Double-timing up the steps to the citadel, he hung a left, then made his way up the stairs to the guard shack overseeing the boat dock from the top of the fortress wall.
What he found when he reached the top was so incredibly out of place that Corwin had to stop for a moment and just try to make sense of it.
There's a submarine here, said Corwin, his tone of psychic voice oddly conversational.
There's a submarine here, Corwin repeated. If you want to be technically precise, a Japanese Sentoku-class submarine aircraft carrier, circa 1945.
A moment's pause. ... Are you sure?
Remember who you're talking to, Corwin thought wryly. Anyway, the class of the sub is neither here nor there at the moment. What's important is, they've sailed up the fjord, surfaced through the ice at the boat dock, and now they're putting people ashore.
Ohh... kay, Utena replied, sounding mystified. Well, I guess we can figure that out later, too.
With the still-loyal White Lotus earthbenders concentrating on protecting the wall from their traitorous former colleagues, Corwin was free to take a broader tactical view, trying to figure out what the enemy was up to. Assaulting the postern gate by the boat dock was a valid strategy - it was smaller and could be assumed to be less heavily fortified than the main gate out front - but the force now crossing the ice from that submarine was too small to pose a serious threat even to a smaller gate if the defenders on the inside were dug in well enough. Even as a diversionary force, there weren't enough of them...
His eyes narrowed as he recognized the figure in the lead of that group - then went wide with surprise as he caught sight of the person next to him.
Touga Kiryuu's presence here was not entirely unexpected. Corwin already knew from Cheong's incautious subordinate that the Order of the Black Rose was behind this assault somehow, and spotting the redheaded fallen Duelist in the flanking force's van was unsurprising confirmation of that fact. But the small figure next to him, regarding the scene expressionlessly - that individual, Corwin was not expecting to see.
It's the girl I saw in Nanisivik, he realized, his confusion only deepening. What the hell...?
An alarm bell started jingling in the back of his mind, but before he could concentrate enough to figure out what, specifically, was causing it, one of the loyal Lotus earthbenders cried,
"Sir! The enemy earthbenders are shifting their focus! They're leaving off trying to pull down the wall!"
Corwin had already felt that - like the man who had spoken, he was standing on the wall, and had felt the enemy's insistent tugging at its structure cease. Brow furrowing, he tried to sense what else they might be up to - tunneling underneath, perhaps? - but the frozen nature of the ground made it difficult to sense, particularly with his heavy winter boots on.
Before he could bring his full focus to bear on that, in turn, an urgent Lens contact from Utena at the main gate spun his thoughts in a new direction:
Corwin! I recognize the leader of the main attacking force. It's General Anubishu!
Corwin blinked, surprised once again. From Ishiyama? Leader of the Kaneko Imperial Mashō? What the hell is he doing here?!
I don't know, Utena replied, but the others are with him, I recognize them from the Christmas '06 after-action report. Rajura, Naaza, and some new guy in the armor of the one Kate killed back then.
Oh, this just keeps getting better and better, said Corwin. The captain of our mystery submarine appears to be Touga. Are the Mashō and the Agni Kai working for Akio now? What the hell is going on?
Utena knew the question was rhetorical and didn't bother trying to answer it - just sent him a wordless combination of encouragement and assurance that she'd do her best, then broke the connection to concentrate on what she was doing.
For his part, Corwin's mind was starting to reel, too many unexpected circumstances cropping up too quickly for him to maintain a proper overview of the situation. The wild cards and random factors were starting to pile up faster than he could process them, throwing him off-balance, and he felt something rather like the tickling start of panic rising somewhere in the back of his mind. This was no random act of violence, nor a show of force directed against Korra's friends by her enemies for her benefit. These people, whoever and whatever had induced them to work together - and there could be little enough question about that - were here for them.
He was snapped away from that reverie in turn by the muted sensation of the ground buckling a short distance from the wall. For a second he thought his earlier surmise had been right - the enemy's earthbenders were trying to tunnel under the wall - but then he saw that they weren't. They were collapsing the ground outside, just beyond the point where the defenders' dogged grip on the substance of the wall itself ended. As Corwin watched, the dozen or so earthbenders among the White Lotus traitors opened a deep trench in the ground, from the wall right down to the boat dock, through the quay wall and into the basin - at which point a group of red-jacketed people at the back of the flanking force started to make the distinctive gestures of waterbending, helping the frigid waters of the basin flood the newly-dug canal even faster.
"Red Monsoons!" cried the nearest of the defenders, belatedly recognizing the enemy waterbenders' clothes. "What are they doing here?!"
Your guess is as good as mine, pal, Corwin thought absently, doubling his efforts to get a mental handle on the situation. How did the attackers expect opening a waterway to the wall to help them? The enemy waterbenders could try to get some kind of hydraulic hammer thing going, he supposed, but with the defenders still in firm control of the wall itself, that wasn't going to get them anywhere. Besides, many of the remaining loyalists were locals. That handful of Monsoons wasn't going to win a waterbending fight here in the South Pole.
Time seemed to stretch as he applied all his concentration to the problem. There was a key here somewhere, he could feel it, somewhere amid these jumbled, scattered, seemingly unconnected elements that somehow made up the attacking force. Touga pointed at the wall, and the silver-haired girl, her face still all but blank, nodded, her odd sea-green eyes narrowing slightly. The rest of the flanking force was tense, their body language expectant, almost gleeful - but they seemed to be hanging back slightly, as if reluctant to approach too closely.
A half-mile down the fjord, the angular white shape of a Southern Water Tribe Navy icebreaking destroyer hove into view, smashing its way around the bend that led down to the sea. As soon as it cleared the headland, its forward gun turret barked, spitting a five-inch shell. The first shot went long, blasting a crater in the ice beyond the attackers' submarine and throwing up a huge spraying cloud of ice crystals. The second was short, opening another hole between the sub and her attacker. The destroyer's gun crew, working their turret with commendable efficiency, got off a third shot within only a few seconds, and this one would have been a direct hit, the motionless submarine a literally sitting target...
The shell struck thin air as if it had hit an armored wall, a few yards short along a trajectory that would have taken it straight into the submarine's starboard flank amidships. Hexagonal patterns of light strobed in the air at the point of non-impact, momentarily illuminating the curvature of an otherwise invisible bubble of clear space around the vessel -
And suddenly Corwin knew why the attackers had a World War II-vintage Japanese submarine, and why they wanted a watercourse leading to the side of the fortress. Time snapped back to its normal rate - in fact, began to feel as if it were passing slightly faster than normal - as things began happening almost on top of each other.
"Get back!" Corwin roared to the defenders near him, gesturing. "Get away from the wall!"
Some heard and obeyed, picking up on the sudden, terrible urgency in his voice; abandoning their posts, they scrambled for the nearest ladders, or made emergency stairs or slides for themselves. Others either didn't hear him or chose to disregard the instruction, remaining at their stations with a grim determination that he would otherwise have found admirable. Cursing, he stamped a foot on the stone rampart, not in frustration, but to command it. Tilting, the formerly-horizontal surface sprang several inches inward, catapulting the people standing on it into the compound's courtyard. They would be bruised, some might have bones broken, but they would survive the fall - and they would, Corwin knew with a sick certainty, not have survived what was going to happen next. Gathering himself, he followed them, throwing himself into the courtyard. He hit the ground hard, rolled to a stop, pushed himself up on one elbow to look back...
... and a forty-foot section of the wall he and the others had just been defending... went away. It didn't explode or collapse, wasn't torn open or pulled down by unresisted enemy earthbending. Rather, it was swallowed up by a sphere of brutally brilliant scarlet light that sprang into existence from somewhere just below its base.
Corwin had only seen the effect in ancient videos, hastily and imperfectly shot centuries before he was born, but he recognized it instantly. It was cold, hard confirmation of the horrible understanding that had settled on his heart when he saw the scintillating hexagons of what was unmistakably a Klein field protecting what looked like a World War II submarine from the gunfire of a modern Water Tribe destroyer: the detonation of a spatial corrosion warhead, the signature weapon of the Fleet of Fog. Black-edged and shivering with eerie unreality, it crackled in place for a few seconds, then fell in on itself and disappeared, leaving behind a curved-edged hole in the wall through which first water from the impromptu canal, and then black-and-red-clad invaders, poured.
Even as he dragged himself painfully to his feet and prepared to give them battle, Corwin raced through everything he knew about the Fog in his mind. It wasn't much, not because it was an area of study he had neglected, but because nobody knew much about the Fleet of Fog. They were a force of unmanned sea vessels, visually identical to ocean-going combatants of Earth's Second World War, who had appeared out of nowhere on that planet in the early 21st century and prevented all use of the world's oceans and intercontinental airspace for three decades. Not even the WDF had been able to figure out a way to shift them without causing a devastating global war, which they had been unwilling to do. The lockdown hadn't extended to off-planet flights, and so had prompted the Second Earth Diaspora... and then, as suddenly and mysteriously as they came, the Fog disappeared. No one had ever been able to find out where they went, or why, or what they had been or wanted in the first place.
All that was known for sure was that they had possessed some very distinctive technologies, most prominent among them their Klein-field protective systems (centuries ahead of their time) and the corrosive torpedo (still never duplicated) - both of which Corwin had just seen in action, deployed at the unlikely behest of Touga Kiryuu.
The girl, Corwin realized as he saw the small, still-expressionless figure enter the compound next to Touga. She's the key. She's controlling the submarine somehow. No...
He looked more closely, concentrating, and saw her through eyes more consciously attuned to his province as the Norse god of mecha. Not a girl, not in the biological sense, but an automaton: a fiendishly complicated assemblage of tailored nano-machines, configured to resemble an adolescent human female in virtually every imaginable respect. But at the core of her, hidden from ordinary view but plain to his divinely extended senses, a beating core of... something, its influence rippling outward to control the billions of nanites that made up the girl-shape...
... and the trillions more that made up the naval vessel.
She is the submarine, he realized.
Missiles began raining down on the breached compound, blasting outbuildings and scattering the defenders still further, now that the girl who was somehow the core of the submarine could see what lay within and target her ship-body's vertical-launch systems accurately. The Red Monsoons and Touga's black-clad followers took advantage of the confusion to press their attack, which rapidly started looking something like a rout.
"Maki! Izumi!" Corwin cried, and instantly, even in this chaos, the two green-clad Kyoshi Warriors appeared at his sides. "Cover me - keep Touga off me! I have to do something about that submarine before we're all killed!"
"Understood," said Maki, her face grim under the fierce facepaint. She closed the fan in her left hand, turning it around so that she held it like a reversed tactical baton, and opened her minishield on that forearm. "Go!"
"Be careful," Corwin had just enough time to tell them, and then he was running flat-out across the courtyard toward the breach with the two of them in echelon to either side. A few of the black-clad attackers - Jeez, they're just kids, what the hell, some part of Corwin thought distractedly - tried to intercept him, but he swept them aside with Stick, or evaded them, or left them for Maki and Izumi to deal with as he bore down on Touga and his petite companion.
The girl noticed him a split-second before Touga did, but didn't seem to know what to make of his headlong charge toward her; she drew back slightly, the first flicker of emotion - faint surprise - crossing her face. Touga's triumphant smirk became a sneer as he drew his lightsaber and moved to intercept him -
- the Kyoshi Warriors hit him high and low, Izumi taking his legs in a flying tackle while Maki deftly avoided his lightsaber and smashed her buckler into his face, and he lurched out of Corwin's narrowing field of view an instant before he hit the girl, shoulder low, bullrushing her back through the breach in the wall by main force.
She recovered quickly, getting her feet back under her a few yards beyond the breach, and Corwin discovered - not altogether to his surprise - that she was fantastically strong. Without apparent effort, she straight-armed him, bringing his charge up short, and then flung him to the side, nearly sending him tumbling into the canal before he could catch himself on Stick and lever himself back the other way.
"Who are you?" he asked her, a faintly eldritch edge coming into his voice as he addressed, in effect, one of the subjects of his divine rule.
The silver-haired girl made that faintly-surprised face again, there and gone in a half-second, then said tonelessly, "I am long-range submarine I-401. I am Captain Kiryuu's ship."
"Why is the Fleet of Fog working for the Order of the Black Rose?" Corwin demanded.
I-401 gave him an uncomprehending look. "The Fleet is not involved in this operation," she said. "I am Captain Kiryuu's ship."
"401!" Touga barked from several yards away. "Don't talk to him, just kill him - argh!" he cut himself off as Maki capitalized on his distraction and nearly gutted him with one razor-edged fan.
"Aye aye, Captain," 401 replied, still without evident emotion, and then - with no personal animus, but intense mechanical concentration - she did her best to follow his orders.
She was fast, she was strong, she was machine-precise, she could do something very interesting with zero-point energy, and she could make missiles fall from the sky; but by this point, Corwin was furious, his mind racing and blood boiling. Exerting himself to the fullest, he was able to stay a half-step ahead of her, staying alive while she laid waste to the boat dock and outer battlements trying eliminate him. At one point in the combat he elicited that look of muted surprise from her again by - acting on instinct, without consciously noticing he had done it - batting aside one of her gravity distortions with Stick as if it were a rock she'd thrown at him.
"Enough!" he snarled, planting the staff upright in the snowpack to free his hands. Pointing and exerting all of his will, feeling his Æsir brand burning on his forehead and his Midgard-seal vibrating on his earlobe, he froze her in place, overriding every motor impulse in her nanostructure, then seized her by the front of her peajacket with his right hand, the fingertips of his left hand against her forehead and face like a Vulcan attempting a mind-meld.
Even at this point, at this feverish pitch of fury, he didn't want or intend to destroy her. She might be his enemy herself, but equally, she might simply be a puppet of those enemies. Either way, she was a unique and intriguing creature, a mechanism and being he had never encountered before, and she was - in a pure and uncomplicated way - among the most beautiful mechanisms he had ever seen. Destroying such a creation would be... vandalism. Unforgivable.
Blotting the rest of the universe completely from his senses, Corwin hurled his consciousness against hers, the Norse words spilling from his lips without his mind having formed them:
<I am Corwin of the Raven-Hair: Watcher o'er the World-Engine, Chooser of the Slain. By my will and by my power as Lord of Great Machines, this is my command!>
I-401's sea-green eyes went wide, showing the first complete, unattenuated emotional response he'd seen in them: a sort of infinite, reverberating shock.
<Cease!> Corwin roared, and a wave of brilliant silver light blasted out from the spot where the two of them stood with a sound like thunder.
To Corwin's left, on the fortress side, the shockwave blew attackers and defenders alike off their feet and collapsed a weakened section of wall. To his right, as it raced across the fjord, it smashed and shattered the ice, splintered the submarine's Klein field, and ripped into the sub itself. For an instant the vessel shimmered, outlined in silver-white lightning, as the command of the Æs of Mecha stripped away every operating instruction in every single one of the trillions of microscopic machines that made up its structure...
... and then, as every one of them shut down, the whole submarine disintegrated, dissolving into seven thousand tons of inert silver sand that sank to the bottom of Qurluqtuq Fjord.
For an eternal second, Corwin and the girl that was all that remained of I-401 stood locked together, steam rising from their tattered clothes and Corwin's brand, staring into each other's eyes.
"I didn't know," said I-401 in a tiny, barely audible, deeply remorseful voice, and then she and Corwin both crumpled to the ground, unconscious.
Touga didn't see exactly what happened to I-401 - the two girls in the bizarre clown makeup were keeping him too busy to keep track of other matters - but he gathered Ravenhair had found some way of destroying her. That gave him some cause for concern. Not for the girl; he didn't give a damn about real women, never mind an imitation as unconvincing (and uncooperative) as that blank-eyed little doll had been. The submarine had figured pretty large in his escape plan, however, and its loss was - at best - a significant inconvenience.
Ah, well. Nothing for it but to make some more havoc. That was really his job on this assignment, after all.
Neither Maki nor Izumi had ever seen a lightsaber before, but they weren't stupid; they knew nothing that looked and sounded like that was likely to be something to take on with conventional weapons. Instead of engaging him blade-to-blade, Maki left her sword in its saya and concentrated on the man rather than the weapon. The two Kyoshi Warriors chipped away at him, always in motion, trying to stay a step ahead of him - no easy feat, for whoever he might be, he was indisputably a formidable swordsman.
Touga wasted a little time trying to deal with both of them at once, then decided that what he really needed to do was take them one at a time. Seeing an opening, he feinted to drive Izumi away, turned, and concentrated on one of the techniques he'd learned from Venger. Marshaling the Force, he seized Maki in mid-leap and hurled her away, slamming her into the jagged rubble where part of the breached wall had collapsed.
Maki was startled by the maneuver; having no frame of reference for Force telekinesis, she at first had the baffled thought that he was an airbender. Her body armor saved her from serious injury when she hit the rubble, but she was stunned by the impact - then roused back to full consciousness by the sunburst of pain as Touga collapsed more of the compromised stonework upon her, pinning her lower body.
"Izumi, get clear!" Maki cried to her younger colleague, pushing ineffectually at the blocks of stone with her hands. "Don't try to take him alone!"
But Izumi ignored her, and Maki saw with dawning horror that that was exactly what she intended to do.
Izumi of Kyoshi Island was not a bender. Although the order's founder had been the Avatar of her era, none of her Warriors had ever been benders; they were, for reasons no one was entirely sure of, vanishingly rare among the island's population.
What she was, though, was a child - well, technically a great-grandchild - of Harmonic Convergence, able to count among her ancestors at least one of the denizens of the Spirit World who had come to live in the mortal one after that seminal event. By this age, 120 years after the opening of the ways, about one-tenth of one percent of Dìqiú's human population could so describe themselves. The effects of being spirit-kin varied as much as the spirits themselves, and in Izumi's particular case, she had never experienced any identifiable benefit or drawback; it was just an interesting feature of her background, something to start conversations with on occasion.
Since she'd gone to Cephiro as part of Avatar Korra's honor guard, Izumi had noticed a change in her perception of the world. It was subtle at first, to the extent that she could convince herself she'd imagined it, but lately it had grown stronger and stronger until she could no longer deny that something was happening. Usually in her sleep, but of late sometimes in waking life as well, she was getting... flashes. Of the past; of other lives and times; and most recently of what she had come to realize was the future. Or perhaps more than one possible future.
It had all been terribly confusing, particularly as there was really no authority she could ask for advice on how to handle or interpret the visions. Korra might have been able to shed some light on the matter, she supposed, but it seemed like a terrible imposition, and besides, the Avatar was very busy and lived far away. Instead, Izumi had done some reading, and then a lot of meditating, until she had at last reached an imperfect but steadily improving state of détente with her new awareness. There was, after all, no great hurry. She was the youngest of the Kyoshi Warriors, at least until the more promising of the current trainees earned their medallions, and with care and prudence, she had a long career ahead of her in which to master this curious new faculty.
Now, though, as she regarded the redheaded enemy with senses heightened for battle, Izumi suddenly realized that she had run out of time. All the possible futures were converging to the same outcome.
Her painted lips quirked in a little smirk. Well, then.
Ignoring Maki's cries for her to flee, Izumi closed with Touga instead, circling him cautiously. He let her come, twirling his lightsaber in little circles so that it made a cruel-sounding snarl.
"Your friend's right, you know," he said, his tone strangely conversational given the circumstances. "You can't take me all by yourself." With what she assumed he thought was an engaging smile, he went on, "There's no point in throwing your life away for people you hardly know..."
Izumi's response was a mirthless chuckle. "Hnh. What would you know about what is and isn't worth dying for?" Then, shaking her head, she went on matter-of-factly, "You and I, Mr. Kiryuu. Neither of us is leaving this place alive today."
A microsecond pulse of shock crossed his face at the sound of his name, since he had no reason for her to think she might know it; and in that moment, Izumi burst into motion, charging toward him at a full-on sprint. Touga's face contorted in a sneer, the shock clearing, as he watched her come, then flashed out his scarlet light-blade to intercept her. It appeared he could taste of the future as well - it was like a game of the Citadel version of pai sho, victory to the one who could see the most moves ahead.
At the last possible instant, Izumi dropped into a slide, like a baseball player, the edge of her bootsole tearing at the frozen ground. Touga's saber passed over its intended target - her neck - and nicked a corner off her golden headdress. As she passed by him, she delivered a series of quick, sharp punches to his side, striking the chi points all up his right flank - five fast, evenly-spaced strikes, from belt to armpit.
In a normal man this maneuver, delivered with a mailed fist, would have rendered his right arm and leg useless for several minutes, as well as making it difficult to breathe or speak. Izumi was under no illusions that this was a normal man, though, and so she had taken out some insurance.
As she completed the slide a few yards beyond him, sprang to her feet, and whirled to face him again, the kunai jutting between the second and third knuckles of her striking fist shed an arc of blackish blood onto the snow.
In the half-second or so she had left before he struck her down, Izumi had the satisfaction of knowing that she had forced him to reveal his true face.
And that it was just as ugly as she had thought it would be.
Maki saw Izumi fall, saw the red-eyed, wolf-jawed, shadow-black thing that had been the enemy captain standing over her, and screamed. It was not a scream of fear, in spite of the enemy's monstrous transformation, for Maki was not the sort of woman to be fearful of monsters. Nor was it a scream of denial, for denial was futile in the face of fact, and futility was a waste of time. No, Maki's scream was an alloy of grief, and pain, and impotent fury - a primal human cry to some greater power for the strength to do something in redress of this terrible wrong.
And, Dìqiú being the sort of world it was, some greater power answered.
When it was all over, witnesses from both sides of the battle would swear that Maki's eyes went blank with light, the way the Avatar's did when she called on the full power of the Avatar Spirit. Straightening from her injured slump, she hurled away the blocks of stone that had imprisoned her, not with a sudden burst of superhuman physical strength, but with the percussive, open-handed gestures of an earthbender.
Springing to her feet, she nearly fell as her right leg declined to bear more than the smallest fraction of her weight. Teeth gritted, she remained upright. Without making any effort to recover her dropped fans, she drew her katana instead.
The thing that had been Touga noticed her movements, withdrew his lightsaber from Izumi's fallen body, and turned to face the new threat, his bestial face forming an echo of his sardonic smirk - warped by his new form, but instantly recognizable. With a guttural snarl, he flourished the glowing blade, then dropped into a ready stance and made a taunting "c'mon then" gesture with his free hand.
He was probably expecting some kind of limping, hopping, one-and-a-half-legged charge. What he got instead was the ground beneath his opponent's booted feet upheaving, carrying her toward him on the crest of a rippling wave - as though the ice and stone themselves were loyal to her, carrying her forward when her own legs couldn't do it.
As she swept toward him, Maki changed her position, drawing back her sword to strike, and suddenly its blade was wreathed in yellow-orange flame. In that instant, Touga's infernal eyes perceived her as two figures: the battered young woman in the modern tactical gear, and superimposed upon her - in exactly the same stance - a taller, older woman in an elaborate, old-fashioned kimono, her long, grim face made up in the same style. He had thought the Kyoshi Warriors' face paint rather silly at the start of this battle, but now... now the effect was chillingly purposeful.
She struck with a cry like thunder, her flame-sheathed sword batting aside his lightsaber like an iron bar parries a stick, and as the tip of the blade touched his chest, the spirit imbuing her leapt through the sword and burned a hole straight through Touga, then tore his own dark spirit clean out of his dying shell and carried it along into the Spirit World.
Stunned by the intensity of what had just happened to her, Maki crumpled into seiza in front of the smoking remains of her enemy. For a few seconds, she just sat there, her eyes fixed sightlessly on an imponderable distance, as the battle raged around her.
She came back to herself with a cry of surprise as something warm and wet rasped against her cheek; recoiling, she turned to see Niri - spattered with soot and blood, but evidently unharmed - regarding her with concern. Slowly and painfully, she pulled herself together and got to her feet, tentatively testing her right leg. It still hurt, but it would carry her now.
Shaking herself, Maki bent and picked up her slain foe's weapon, hanging it on her tactical harness. No sense leaving it lying around for someone else to pick up. With one hand on Niri's flank for support, she limped out toward the boat dock to see what had become of Corwin.
A short time earlier, at the top of the gatehouse, Utena frowned. She wasn't sure what had happened at the back wall, exactly, but the sudden destruction (disintegration? Disappearance?) of their rear defenses had allowed a sizable group of black-clad attackers to swarm into the courtyard, several of whom had already begun to free Cheong's traitors from the cuffs of ice and rock that they'd been placed into.
"We're going to lose the courtyard," she realized aloud. "Either from those guys, or when they bust the gates open again and bring their friends in."
Her attention was seized by a sudden flash of silver light from behind the citadel, followed by a thunderous boom rolling back over the icepack.
"Well, that'll be Corwin," she said, then turned to Anthy with a look of shock as she realized that the low-level Lens contact she'd been maintaining with him had been severed. "He... I can't raise him," she said, dismay growing in her voice, as she looked down at the rose-tinted gem on her wrist. "I don't think... he's... he can't be..."
Anthy took her husband's hand and squeezed it reassuringly. "He's alive. He wouldn't dare do otherwise."
Utena's face was ashen, but she managed a small smile for that. "Hah. OK. But even if he's just down... getting all of us out of here on Vayu is that much harder. I don't think we can count that as a real plan any more."
Pursing her lips, Utena looked at the situation one last time, then drew herself up, resolve bringing color back into her face, and a flash of heat in her eyes. "All right. This is what we're going to do. Anthy? You, Garnet, and Nyima head back to the keep and hole up in the most defensible room you can find. That storeroom we saw last night would probably work."
"The storeroom's a good choice," Nyima confirmed. "It's backed right into the mountain to help keep it cool - unless you're an earthbender, there's only one way in or out, and that approach isn't exactly stealthy."
Utena nodded. "Good. I'm going to join Kate in the courtyard - with the two of us, Serge, the Kyoshi Warriors, and Niri, I think we can make a pretty solid stand."
Anthy's eyes flashed with anger. "We're outnumbered ten to one - I will NOT hide in the back while other people fight. Not when I can make a difference. Never again!"
Utena reached out, putting a hand on either of her shoulders. "Anthy! This isn't about hiding. It's about protecting. If they get through us, what happens to Annabelle?"
That brought Anthy up short, her anger clearing, though her voice was still thick with emotion. "That still doesn't change the fact that we're in serious trouble. You need every hand that can help."
Utena took a hand off of Anthy's shoulder, turning her wrist and letting her sleeve fall back to reveal her Lens again. "That's why I'm calling for backup."
Anthy considered that, then finally stepped back, bowing her head for a moment before speaking. "I understand. I don't like it, but..." She looked to Nyima, who offered a nod. "We'll manage."
As it happened, Utena didn't have a chance to call for backup right away. As she had predicted, the situation in the courtyard rapidly degenerated. Though she had destroyed the controls for the powered gates, the enemy had enough manpower on the wrong side of them thanks to their postern breach that they were able to muscle them open by main force, and there was nothing the overstretched defenders could do to stop them.
Utena took what control of the situation she could, rallying the defenders and concentrating them in the area just in front of the keep, where they could form a salient of sorts, but doing so meant she was too busy to conduct a Lens conversation.
About the only upside to it all that Utena could see was that she, too, received some unexpected reinforcements. As the defenders fell back, a party of men and women in what looked to be some sort of naval uniform entered from the demolished boat dock. Their leader, a young woman who looked not entirely unlike Korra, spotted Utena and made straight for her, then squared up and saluted.
"Lieutenant Kava, Southern Water Tribe Navy," she said.
Without really thinking about it, Utena replied, "Captain Utena Tenjou, IPSF."
"Captain Aqtuluq of the Killiniq sends his compliments, ma'am," said the lieutenant. "Our ship's got the fjord bottled up in case they've got other naval assets out there, but our guns aren't going to do you a lot of good in a confined space like this, so he wonders if you might have a use for a few more hands."
Utena cracked her first - and, she expected, probably last - smile of the battle. "Lieutenant, you better believe it."
Kava gave a tight little smile in return, her blue eyes twinkling, then turned to her shore party and barked, "All right, you heard the lady! Fall in!"
"OK, listen up, people, I haven't got a lot of time here," Utena said to the newly-augmented defenders as they gathered. "Those four people in the fancy armor? Very, very bad news. Their armor's magic, it's basically indestructible, so don't waste your time. Stay clear of them and focus on the Triad mooks and the people in the black uniforms. Has anyone seen Maki?"
"I'm here, Utena," said Maki, limping into the line with Niri behind her. Utena felt a surge of relief as she saw that the polar bear dog had a couple of figures slung on her back; she had no idea who the girl with the blue hair was, but the other was Corwin, and though unconscious, he was plainly not dead.
"What happened here?" she wondered as she helped Maki get him down.
"Not sure," Maki replied. "I think the girl has something to do with the sub Corwin sank, but I didn't see what actually happened."
"Where's Izumi?" Utena asked, but Maki just shook her head, her eyes like flint. Understanding without another word, Utena silently gave the Warrior's armored shoulder a squeeze, then set to work consolidating their position.
Working quickly in the face of the approaching enemy, they lay Corwin gently down at the back of the formation, near the stairs, where a couple of White Lotus waterbender medics were tending to the wounded. Then, for lack of any better ideas, they put the girl in the peajacket next to him. As satisfied as they could be under the circumstances, they went back to the line.
"You ready for this?" Utena asked quietly, as the four Mashō broke into a run halfway across the courtyard and led their second wave of minions in a charge.
Kaitlyn smiled a mirthless little smile.
"I'll try to leave a few for you," she said, and then - as far as virtually everyone on both sides of the battle line could see - she disappeared.
Moments after Kaitlyn vanished, the vanguard of the Black Rose's charge came within shouting distance. At the head of the pack, Anubishu drew his nodachi with one hand, then pointed directly at the pink haired woman leading the defenders with his off-hand's bladed gauntlet. "Overwhelm them and break through - but their leader is MINE!"
Well, Utena mused to herself, I guess I know who my dance partner is. Bringing her sword up in the briefest of mocking salutes to the Kanekan leader, she threw herself at him with a wordless cry of defiance, meeting his charge as the other attackers made way.
Kaitlyn had no illusions (pardon the expression) that her power to cloud the minds of men would hide her from Rajura. Like the classic Force persuasion technique popularly known as the "Jedi mind trick", it worked best on those with weak wills or dull senses, and whatever else he was, Rajura wasn't either of those things.
That was fine, though. She wasn't really trying to hide from him; it was his backup, the Triad and Black Rose foot soldiers, she was interested in. Invisible to the vast majority of them, she scythed through their ranks like a cold wind, not going out of her way to engage any of them, but making a straight run for the magenta-clad Warlord. Any who happened to stand between then went down, painfully but temporarily incapacitated by precise blows from her still-enclosed zatōichi.
As she had expected, he saw her coming. She couldn't see much of his expression past the menpō of his armor; its elaborate demon grimace hid all but his eyes. Or, well, eye. He only had the right one; on Ishiyama, legend had it he'd sacrificed the left for the power to see through his own illusions. The one he had narrowed at her approach, with something of a glint of satisfaction in it.
She surprised him, though, by expecting him to see her; rather than make a direct attack that would have run her straight into his array of scythes, Kate changed course at the last moment, letting him attack air while she circled to his right, and knocked down a couple of clueless Agni Kai soldiers to give herself more room to work.
"Ah, of course," said Rajura, his tone complimentary, but mocking, as he turned to face her. "You always were the tactician of the Duelists, though, weren't you. Yamaō underestimated you, years ago." His eye went cold, reptilian, as he added flatly, "I won't."
You just did, Kate thought as, through the Force, she felt the ripple of psychic energy that presaged the weaving of one of Rajura's illusions. She assumed he was going to try to make her see one of her own teammates in his place, and/or take someone on her side for him, secure in the knowledge that - like most martial artists - she was dependent on her eyes to fight.
Smiling another cold little smile, she reached up with her free hand and took off her spectacles. Ordinarily that was not a terribly helpful thing to do, since it meant her hyperopia reduced everything within a few yards to a meaningless blur, but Kate seemed quite pleased with the result; with a sound of evident satisfaction, she tucked the glasses away in her parka and carried on without them.
"What the devil are you doing?" the warlord demanded, his tone now somewhere between mocking and indignant.
"I'm going to assume, given the state of relations between Morita and Kaneko, that you've never seen any of my films," Kate replied as she advanced slowly toward him, her lips still curled in that same small, icy smile. Drawing her blade, she reversed it in her hand, the way she held it as Ichi, and went on, "You see... I'm a method actor."
With the two most senior of the Mashō taking the greatest challenges on the field, as was their right, Naaza found himself uninterested in what he saw as lesser opponents. He lacked Anubishu's zealous hatred of this place, or Rajura's delight in the massive deception - he was simply doing his duty, and that left him with his totem's rather torpid outlook as he swept through the compound, occasionally battering the few White Lotus benders who attempted to attack him rather than simply fleeing from their betters.
"Pathetic," he spat, scanning the grounds. "These are barely worth my time."
Then, he paused as his golden eyes settled on a pair of forms who had been tucked against the side of the keep beneath survival blankets, with what looked like a hastily constructed rampart of ice and rocks to protect them from being trampled accidentally.
The woman who had been serving as Touga's lackey was of no real interest to him, but the inert form of Corwin Ravenhair was another matter entirely. He hadn't been present for the Mashō's original engagement with the Duelists in Sendai, but as Kaitlyn's brother and the equally hated Gryphon's son, he was a juicy target regardless of Ohtori's plans. Besides, revenge on an unsuspecting foe was something that Naaza could always get behind.
Striding towards the little shelter, the warlord whirled one of his katana through a brief flourish, shedding flecks of blood from the blade. Not-really-addressing his unconscious target in a mocking undertone, he muttered, "I'll do you a favor, boy, and make this quick. I'm sure it will be far kinder than anything that demon has planned for you."
He was preparing to leap the barricade that separated him from his prey when a white, shaggy... thing burst up from it, howling a challenge as it slammed into him hard enough to send him reeling backwards.
Thrown back by the impact, Naaza stumbled briefly before going to one knee to collect himself, and get a look at what had interrupted him.
He'd been shown a picture of this beast, hadn't he? Ah, yes. The Avatar's pet. The polar bear dog looked a bit the worse for wear; her coat was dirty, matted in places by a combination of ashy soot and the unmistakable color of drying blood, as she took up a protective stance, a seismic growl of warning rumbling from her throat.
"The pet protects its master's boy. How touching." Smirking beneath the menpō of his Yoroi, his eyes glittered with anticipation. "I'll deal with you as well, and make the wound we'll leave in the Avatar's heart fester all the more."
He had no idea if the beast had understood him, but she certainly recognized his intent. Her growl changed to a fierce snarl before the beast charged again.
Naaza had intended to simply brace himself and let the animal learn that she had no hope of doing any damage against his armor, but soon realized the flaw in his plan. Even if the polar bear dog's claws and teeth were ineffective, the man inside was still capable of being knocked around quite badly by a beast that weighed well over 900 pounds.
When he finally was able to get some distance between them, the Warlord's vision was swimming thanks to several blows from Niri's massive paws, and he could taste the coppery tang from where he'd bitten the inside of his own mouth.
As he spat a long stream of blood, the Serpent's eyes were flared with anger. "Enough of this! I won't be defeated by a mere DOG, no matter how big you are."
Facing Niri as she slowly stalked towards him, teeth bared, Naaza set himself, then began to draw the blades secured at either side of his waist as he called upon his armor's magic. Whirling the swords through the air so quickly that they seemed to form a chain, each blade began to glow a deep crimson as his power imbued them with deadly venom.
"SIX! HEADED! SERP-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!"
His attempt to use his ultimate attack had been shockingly interrupted by the feeling that a massive vise had clamped onto his hand, sending the swords clattering along the ground.
Turning in response to the painful intrusion, he saw his hand wrapped within the embrace of dark, lustrous stone... and Saionji's little pet staring at him like something he'd found beneath his boot.
"Have I mentioned that I really don't like you guys?"
Anakin Skywalker released the warlord's hand, then cranked back and slammed the Hand of Wrath's massive fist into Naaza's chest, sending him flying backwards.
Drawing himself up to one knee with a snarl, Naaza steadied himself, trying to catch his breath and get a handle on his fight that had sudden gone so dramatically off the rails. He flexed his hand and found it intact, though sore; his Yoroi had protected him, as ever. "So, you finally show your true colors, boy?"
Skywalker shrugged as he began to circle the Warlord carefully, watching for his next move. "It's not MY fault you haven't been paying attention."
Naaza didn't respond to that with words. Instead, he made a lunging dive towards his discarded weapons, then sprang back to his feet with a katana in each hand, their blades beginning to glow once again with his poisonous power.
Drawing his greatsword off of his back with the Hand of Wrath, Anakin ignited his lightsaber with the other, and it was time for Round Two.
Back at the aid station, Sergei considered joining in; but Niri and the newcomer seemed to have the situation well in hand, so he decided against it. Better to stay here and cover the defensive point more closely while they dealt with the armored enemy. After all, someone might spot the opening provided by their having been drawn off and seek to capitalize on it.
Someone like a particularly bold Black Rose student, for instance, who was now edging around the packed-snow battlement that surrounded the station, his weapon in hand. Milos Rojansky had no particlar investment in doing harm to the injured defenders - not out of the goodness of his heart, but because it wasn't his job. However, it had occurred to him that there might be a reward, or at least some points, in it for him if he were to recover the late Administrator Kiryuu's captured assistant.
Spying her stretched out under a foil blanket by the all, Rojansky moved forward. She wasn't very big; he could sling her over his shoulder and then make for one of the contingency escape routes. Who knew, maybe she'd be grateful for the rescue. Or maybe someone back at the Ohtori Institute would be. Either way worked for Rojansky.
That was his plan right up until the moment when the tiger and the severe-looking girl in the facepaint blocked his path, anyway.
"Leave," said the painted girl flatly.
Now, son, the tiger's eerily intelligent golden eyes seemed to be adding.
With a sigh, Maki put a hand on Serge's head and rubbed the nearer of his ears.
"Grm," he agreed, and they continued their vigil in silence.
Shuten Dōji didn't realize that his newfound nemesis from the Ohtori Institute had joined the battle on the side of his enemies. If he had, he would have rejoiced, and joined battle instantly. Instead, he was left scuffling around, abandoned by the other Mashō, trying to find some sort of worthy opponent. Anubishu had claimed the pink-haired girl who appeared to lead the Duelists as his own. Rajura was off somewhere destroying the mind of her mousy friend, the one who had slain Yamaō, even though Shuten now bore Yamaō's armor, and thus should rightly have had the fighting of her. Naaza, snake that he was, was probably poisoning the wounded and laughing to himself, his sibilants drooling out the side of his mouth like venom.
As if in answer to his wish, Shuten realized that he could see the woman who had apparently bested Touga through the melee, but his heart sank when he drew closer. She was at the makeshift aid station the defenders had set up, sporting an obvious splint on her right leg and using her sheathed sword as an improvised crutch. Paugh. He was impressed at her apparent ability - Kiryuu was an ass and a womanizer who he had little use for, but he did have some skill with a blade. All the same, though she might have been able to defeat the demon, she was wounded now, and there would be no honor in challenging her in that condition.
His sense of honor was, it seemed, the only thing left to him. Between the abuse he had suffered at the hands of the other Mashō and the sense of decay that surrounded the Order of the Black Rose, he felt adrift, unable to find a true reason to fight. He wasn't even sure why the Mashō were participating in this battle.
But his was the armor of the Oni Mashō! He had his orders, and he would serve his master of the moment by destroying any opponent worthy of facing him, then rain down destruction upon these pitiful -
An invisible hand slapped him to the ground.
He'd barely had time to make a noise of utter confusion when that same force lifted him up from the ground, then flung him against one of the thick outcroppings of rock that one of the many earthbenders had raised during the battle, slamming him against it hard enough to drive the wind out of his lungs in an explosive gasp.
When the youngest of the Mashō finally managed to focus on anything other than attempting to breathe again, he gaped in surprise at the black-clad figure who stood there, one hand outstretched, the other resting at the hilt of his lightsaber.
"You are still too predictable," Kyouichi Saionji said, his voice thick with anger. "And now you were going to attack an already injured woman? Prey on what you believed was the weakest target?" The green-haired samurai's hand tightened into a fist, then he flung his arm sharply out to the side, sending Shuten hurtling into the side of one of the compound's satellite buildings hard enough that he bounced with a painful-sounding CRACK before hitting the ground again.
"You had potential, Shuten. You might have become something better. Instead you fight on a world where you have no place, for a master who has no honor." With the distinctive snap-hiss of ignition, Saionji drew his lightsaber, bringing it above his head in a high-guard stance. "You and the other Mashō have become worse than nothing - you've become a waste."
Released from the Samurai's grip, Shuten rose with a cry of outrage. "Worthless traitor! I fight only those worthy to cross blades with a Mashō, not the helpless and injured! Unlike you, I keep my honor and my loyalty to my master - and I will prove them both by DESTROYING YOU!"
Saionji's eyebrows rose. Perhaps he had misjudged Shuten, and there was something worth saving in this particular Mashō? Letting the boy charge him, all temper and no finesse, Saionji simply leapt past his first bullrush of an attack, landing with his back to the same building he'd just bounced the boy off of. Extending his free hand, his fingers twitched up, his mouth turning to a dark, taunting smile. Perhaps if he laid waste to Shuten once and for all, the boy would learn something, just as Saionji once had.
With that in mind, he uttered the trademark words of the master who had begun his own breaking-and-remaking:
The bitterly amusing highlight of Kaitlyn's battle with the Demon General of Illusion came when - having at last gotten his head around the idea that his opponent had abandoned the use of her eyes and was still able to fight him quite effectively - he turned to auditory illusions. As far as he was concerned, the voices and sound effects were usually just tinsel, the finishing touches on his visual masterpieces. Now he was having to rely on them solely to try to trip up and misdirect his silent, relentless foe... and it wasn't working.
The thing that gave Kate such darkly amused satisfaction about that was her reasonable certainty that Rajura would never understand why pleading for her to cease her attack in Utena's voice hadn't worked. He might possess the sorcerous power to warp the visual perceptions of anyone around him; he might even be able to create convincing sound effects and voices to go along with them... but it never seemed to occur to him that, with Kate's glasses off, his illusions were the only things she could see clearly. Everything else, coming in through her flawed eyes, was blurred, but the illusions - created out of whole cloth by his psychic interference in her head - were crystal-clear.
That in itself made it very simple for her to tell what was real and what was not, soundtrack notwithstanding, but beyond that, it was evident from the way Rajura conducted himself that he was entirely ignorant of the Force. Even if it was explained to him, he would never be able to grasp the idea that Kate, even with eyes closed (as they often were, since even clearly identifiable, the illusions were a bit distracting) and from fifty yards away, knew exactly where Utena was. Hell, with her aura at fighting pitch and her heart filled with the fury of a woman defending her family, Utena's was the easiest presence to sense in the whole compound.
Which was not to say, even so, that fighting him was easy. Even with his most potent weapon rendered useless, Rajura was an extremely skillful swordsman, and he still had the undeniable advantage of his unbreachable armor. It took all of Kaitlyn's skill and a good proportion of her stamina to keep up with him, let alone edge ahead. If she'd had time to consider it, she'd have ranked him in the top three or four opponents she'd ever had to face. He might even have been as strong as Yamaō, who had been the most senior and experienced of the Mashō when they had crossed paths with the Duelists the first time, on that years-ago Christmas in Sendai.
Of course, Kaitlyn had defeated him, too. She still remembered how it had felt - that yawning instant when the Force and her own ki had aligned, perfectly positioning her to strike at the weakest point of the old master's Yoroi.
Yamaō realized his mistake an instant after he made it. Moving with preternatural speed and sureness, the Duelist child eluded the Red Lightning, flitting from gap to gap amid the leaping forest of chains as if guided by some invisible hand, streaking toward him like a missile. As the moment elongated, the Mashō commander saw tears glittering in the air, trailing from the corners of her wide, wrathful, anguished eyes. Silent throughout the battle, she now uttered a long, wordless scream, lips drawn back from her teeth. Hating what she was about to do, knowing she had no choice but to do it if she wished to save herself and her friends. Furious with him for forcing her into this place, where the only course left open to her was to take his life.
Trapped in the midst of his failed ultimate attack, unable to do anything now but let it run its course, Yamaō closed his eyes and accepted his fate.
Well played, child, he thought, and then the Duelist's sword passed through the minuscule gap below his outstretched right arm like a key sliding into a lock. There wasn't even any pain to speak of; just a curious sense of cold, like a draft, and then nothing.
Kaitlyn withdrew her crimson-streaked sword from her foe's body and let him fall, clattering deadweight, to the frozen ground of Sakura's family's courtyard. For a moment, she stood over the corpse, breathing hard, the tears still streaming down her face. Her hands wanted to tremble. Instead, she made them clean the blade and put it away. Then, tearing her eyes away from what remained of the first thinking being she'd ever had to kill, she made for the house - knowing that her day's work was far from over, hoping against hope that the dying, at least, was done.
It occurred to Kate to wonder, as that memory raced across her mind, why she wasn't having a similar reaction to the inevitable end of her battle with Rajura. She knew full well, after all, that this, like that, was a fight to the death. Rajura was a psychopathic killer bent on her destruction and that of everything she loved. He would never surrender, and given his armor, it was unlikely that she'd be able to disable him without killing him outright. Barring truly extraordinary circumstances that showed no sign of developing, there were only two ways this thing was going to end - with his extinction or her own - and she had absolutely no intention of dying today, so that left him. She realized that, and it suddenly occurred to her that that didn't bother her.
Why is that? she wondered, in that part of her mind that always had time to consider these things, no matter what the rest of her was doing. Had her heart hardened to such an extent, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one, that she no longer cared about the implications of taking a man's life? Was it true what they said, that killing got easier the more you did it, to the point where it might eventually become something of a habit?
After much consideration, she decided that no, that wasn't it. She still didn't want to kill the man... but she had accepted, on a level deeper than reasoned understanding, that he needed killing, and the unpleasant task had fallen to her. It was as simple as that.
Rajura had no idea what his opponent had been considering in that brief pause, but he was able to sense her instant of hesitation - perhaps a weakening of her resolve? Despite the bizarre (though he would admit, effective) defense she had used against his powers, she had finally succumbed to his webs of deception, as so many others had before her - and that, he was supremely confident, would be her downfall.
Whirling the linked scythes from the back of his Yoroi, Rajura spun his weapon through a wide flourish, then swept it forward. The dark magic at his command turned each blade's handle into an independent weapon, spinning through the air at the blinded swordswoman, his voice carried along with them, echoing from every direction in a weird, slightly-out-of-sync stereo. "SPIDERWEB CAST!"
The flying blades and their illusory shadows would have slashed a normal opponent to ribbons, the victim unaware which was real and which a phantom until the moment they drew blood. The perfect, inevitable end to any who challenged the Mashō's chief strategist.
Kaitlyn Hutchins was anything but a normal opponent.
From her moment of realization, she had settled into herself, opening herself completely to the Force. Letting it guide her, she could feel the ripples around her from the Yoroi's magic as it attempted to warp her perceptions, and the whispered warnings that separated the true threats from the harmless shadows. Dropping to one knee to avoid the initial strike, she sprang upwards, blade sweeping before her to deflect away another of the Warlord's scythes. Charging forwards, her hands moved almost of their own volition, switching her blade from the reversed grip she'd used through their battle to the style she normally used in Asagiri Katsujinkenryū, then drew upon that same powerful serenity to fuel her counterattack.
"Senken no ARASHI!"
Much like the warlord's ultimate attack, the duelist's weapon seemed to multiply as her arms moved with impossible speed, cutting the air with a thrumming buzz as she closed the distance between them. But where Rajura's magic had filled the air with illusory, essentially harmless copies of his weapons, the Force fueled Kaitlyn's attacks, propelling them at superhuman speed... and as the strikes of the Thousand-Blade Storm began to slash at the gaps and soft joints in his armor, Rajura was shocked to learn that each one was very, very real.
The protection of his mystic armor prevented the strikes from cutting deeply, but each bled, and each sent whispered shocks of pain through him as he became overwhelmed by the seemingly endless strikes. Guided through the attack, Kaitlyn could feel the Warlord's defenses crumble, and a sense of finality as the Force carried her into a follow-through, free hand outstretched, blade hand drawn back above her head in a ready guard.
Moving with a deadly, effortless grace, her legs flexed, knees bent, and she suddenly lunged forward. Her free hand collided with the dazed warlord's armored sternum, rocking him backward... and putting him into the perfect position for Kōtetsu no Sasayaki to thrust forward through his helmet's menpō, impaling Rajura through the empty socket of his missing eye.
This cannot, he thought, and then Kaitlyn had slain two of the invincible Mashō of Kaneko.
As she had over Yamaō, so she stood over Rajura's remains for a moment, catching her breath; but this time there were no tears, no trembling hands.
When she cleaned her blade and sheathed it, she felt a stab of pain in her right forearm. Kate felt at the arm and realized that, sometime during the battle, it had been broken; such was her focus at the time that she hadn't even noticed. Putting her glasses back on, she bent and took the sash from around the waist of the nearest unconscious White Lotus, wrapping it around her arm and neck in an improvised sling; then, with a deep intake of breath, she turned and re-entered the overall fray.
Sneering, Anubishu laughed as the pink-haired Duelist spent herself against him. She was a skilled swordswoman and a bold opponent, there was no denying that - but she was also hopelessly outclassed, and to persevere in the face of that, as far as Anubishu was concerned, made her a fool.
"You're done, 'Prince' Tenjou," he declared. "This battle is ours - and no weapon you carry is strong enough to pierce the Yoroi."
Utena could feel the burn in her muscles and the aches where she'd taken grazing cuts from his blade, or scrapes from the spikes of the warlord's mystic armor.
He was right about one thing: The Black Rose seemed to be winning by sheer weight of numbers. The turncoat Lotuses were mostly defeated, but it seemed like every time she turned around more and more of those kids in weird mirror-universe versions of the old Ohtori Academy uniforms kept showing up.
Maybe I can't cut straight through, she thought, but every armor has weaknesses...and so does the person wearing it.
Going to one knee, Utena let the point of the blade that Corwin had given her rest against the snowpack. Her eyes locked in on the Warlord's, waiting to see just what he would do.
Taking her move as a sign of submission, Anubishu's smile turned cruel. "Pathetic. I had thought that you would have given me a worthwhile battle, but it seems that we'll have to simply offer your corpse to Yamaō's memory." Raising his nodachi, the leader of the Mashō called upon his power, wrapping the weapon in shadowy energy and filling the air with a hissing crackle. "Time to die! DARKNESS SLASH!"
As the warlord brought the blade down, cleaving the snowy ground with an impossibly wide slash of black lightning, Utena acted. Throwing herself into a diving roll, she came up under the strike, then popped herself up, driving the ancient blade upwards with all her momentum and the weight of her body behind it as she began to glow with rose-tinted energy.
Her strike was aimed with precision, the edge of her blade cleaving through Anubishu's wrist at the gap between his armored forearm and gauntlet. The craftsmen who made the Yoroi, and the sorcerers who laid its ancient enchantments, were skilled and powerful indeed - but they were not of Ivaldi the Ancient's caliber, and the armor's joints could not resist a strike from one of his masterpieces, delivered with such a mixture of precision and passion by one of the dísir. The hand, still gripping his sword, went spinning away, surrounded by a sputtering nimbus of failing magic.
As he dropped to his knees from a combination of the pain and his sudden loss of balance, the warlord's eyes were wide with shock, his remaining hand automatically going to the bloody stump in an attempt to slow the bleeding. "Impossible! Not even a lightsaber can cut through the Yoroi. How...?"
Looking up, as if to find answers, the Demon General of Darkness found only a slim white fist, wrapped around the hilt of a blade, rushing towards his face; and he knew no more.
Utena stood over his crumpled form for a moment, then turned and took a fast but hard look around. For the moment, the flow of the battle had moved away (presumably the Black Rose had wanted to give Anubishu at work as wide a berth as possible), so she finally had a little space and time to breathe - but not a lot.
It'll have to be enough, she thought, and then concentrated on her Lens. Korra, remember when you said it'd be best not to call unless it's an emergency? Well. Boy howdy.
The Red Monsoon warehouse, by this point, had seen better days. Shelving and storage crates were twisted and shattered all over the main floor (where it wasn't fractured from the police's impromptu earthbending), and several tanks of water had ruptured as both the Monsoons and the waterbending members of the Special Tactics Division and the Triples had vied for dominance over the essential element. Add to that the firepower that both sides were throwing around, and it wasn't a good idea to be out of cover for very long.
With that in mind, at the first touch of Lens communication, Korra had ripped up part of the flooring to make a serviceable firebreak and ducked behind it, quickly joined by Wakaba Shinohara, Inspector Imanishi, and Emily Wong. With Emily concentrating on maintaining the barrier, Korra and Wakaba were able to spare the cycles to respond.
What's the situation, Utena? Korra inquired, ducking down further as a bolt of lightning thrown by one of the Agni Kai cracked above their heads. It's kind of tight up here, but we've got them on the ropes. Really!
Yeah, and you were saying that before the magna-suits showed up, Korra, Wakaba interjected. Still not feelin' it.
In that case, you're doing better than we are, Utena admitted, her mental tone grave, cutting off any further attempts at levity. There's been - hell, there is being - an attack on the compound. We don't know exactly why, but the Black Rose has shown up with the Mashō from Kaneko, and Corwin's... he did something but it took him out of the battle. We've already had casualties... Izumi's one of them.
The two Lenswomen's eyes widened. What the hell? Wakaba replied, and glanced at Korra. The only people I can think of who'd want to piss on Corwin's birthday like that are on a very short list. How'd they even know where to find you guys?
Well, the White Lotus let them in. I would assume they also provided directions, Utena replied with steel in her voice. Hang a left at the glacier, you can't miss it. We'll leave the light on for you.
(Beside them, Imanishi and Emily had no idea what was going on - the Avatar and the IPO agent seemed to be having some kind of silent conversation, but how and with whom, they couldn't tell - but it was obvious to both of them that it wasn't good news, whatever it was. The two women's body language made that abundantly clear.)
Korra stiffened at the sickening implications of Utena's remark. An inside job. With a snarl, she earthbent a chunk of concrete and flung it into the general melee, taking out one of the Red Monsoons who were trying to flank them. I'll ask who and why later. How long can you all hold out?
I have no idea how much longer this will go on, but there's a ton of Black Rose scrubs and Triad goons remaining, and at least two of the Mashō unaccounted for. I've put one out of action and... She hesitated, then went bluntly on, I'm pretty sure Kate's killed one. Anthy and Nyima are bunkered down in the keep, but they may just wear us down by sheer weight of numbers.
Utena paused; Wakaba and Korra couldn't see her, of course, but through the psychic link, they had the distinct impression that she'd broken off to deal with an attacker. After a moment she came back and continued, I'm not sure what they want, but they want it real bad, whatever it is. We'll hold 'em as long as we can, but... I don't know how long that'll be. Corwin's out of action, Izumi's dead, Maki and Kate are both injured... we're getting pretty frayed around the edges here. Any chance you can break away from the action up there?
Korra's expression went grim and her body tensed. Give me a moment. We'll be there as soon as we're able. Without waiting for a reply, she cut the Lens connection. Ignoring Imanishi and Emily's questions, she closed her eyes, and when she re-opened them, they were filled with the light of the Avatar State.
With a polyphonic cry of defiance, Korra rose to her feet, grabbed the upper edges of the barrier, and launched herself up and over and into the fray.
It took Saionji rather longer to administer the beat-down to Shuten than it had taken Kaitlyn to deliver his own, but then, Kaitlyn had not had to deal with magic armor or the occasional minions who came to her opponent's aid. As Saionji was not interested in actually killing anyone who did not deserve it - and he knew just how misguided many of the Black Rose's younger students were, so they didn't - he had to pay rather more attention to them than he might have otherwise wished.
Initially, Shuten seemed to have no compunctions about damaging them, however, so they were frequently scattered by the chain attacks from his Red Lightning. However, as the battle went on, and the wounded began to pile up around them, he seemed to notice Saionji's consideration. And with that awareness, his certainty in his own cause wavered for the first time, the fury dying down a notch in his eyes.
"They are cannon fodder, traitor," Shuten sneered, trying to pull himself together. "And yet you waste your attention on them, when rightly you should be focusing on me!" He flung his chain at Saionji's head, tangling it around the lightsaber briefly before Saionji side-stepped and slipped his weapon free.
"Those words sound like a parody of Anubishu," Saionji observed dispassionately. "Or Naaza - did you learn it from him?" Shuten's eyes flickered. "They have given you their loyalty, and you repay them by harming them with attacks meant for me."
Shuten's next strike went wide, and Saionji smiled inside to himself. Loyalty - that appeared to be the key to the young man's focus. Interesting. It explained why Shuten had not long ago told the other Warlords what they could do with their poisonous attitudes. He countered, lunging forward with an acrobatic leap that owed more to his time training with the Sith than to anything from Asagiri Katsujinkenryū, and they clashed again, lightsaber on chain, then lightsaber on kusari. The noise was terrible, and left an acrid smoke in the air that clouded everything.
"I will best you," Shuten growled through his mask. "I will show honor to the armor I wear, to all who have worn it before me and all who will wear it after me!" He struck again with his chain, tripping Saionji for once as the green-haired man's mind raced, struggling to find the right words to pierce Shuten's mental rather than physical armor.
"So, it is to the spirit of your predecessor that you feel bound to serve?" he inquired, rolling to his feet. "Or is it to your armor? It cannot be to Kaneko, the Imperium has no jurisdiction here, and your servitude to Akio Ohtori is only a transient thing. Serving him will lead you only to ruin, as you must have seen with so many others."
"But YOU serve him," Shuten countered, lunging forward to clash his kusari against Saionji's lightsaber a hair too late to catch him off-balance.
"I once served him, long ago," Saionji admitted, pressing back against the young man's armor-enhanced strength, then disengaging with a kick and a leap. "Out of a misguided sense of what he stood for, and it did indeed lead to my own ruin. I came back to try to rescue another from his corruption. My own act of misguided loyalty, perhaps."
Shuten's eyes widened above the mask of his helmet, and he snarled something incoherent under his breath. But whatever it was, it lacked the heat of his previous fervor, and Saionji, sensing in that instant an opening, swung his lightsaber forward on the attack.
Rather than catching it on his blade this time, Shuten caught it on one vambrace in preparation for some intended strike -- but the armor distracted him as it gave off an alarming cracking sound.
His eyes widened further, and for an instant, Saionji sensed his opponent was panicking. The Mashō armor did not crack. The Mashō armor was impervious to harm.
Except, perhaps, when the man wearing it lost his convictions?
Saionji pressed his attack. He'd been unable to save Touga (though at this point he didn't know just how complete that failure was); perhaps he could save another misguided young red-haired man in his place. His lightsaber whirled, striking a dozen places, and though Shuten struggled to catch them on his kusari, his armor continued to make alarming noises, and he backpedaled, trying to gain himself enough ground to regroup.
Saionji stretched his hand out and slapped downward, and the Force responded, crushing down on the young Warlord, who though he let loose with a kiai that would do any master proud, could not withstand the weight. He buckled to his knees, struggling with all his might, and Saionji lunged forward, striking with the point of his saber. But where he would have gone for the chest if this were a rose duel, he struck for the young man's face, at the bridge of his nose.
With an earsplitting screech, the lightsaber struck, held for a moment, and then the helmet split.
Shuten's red hair spilled out in the icy wind of the battlefield, as he stared at the weapon that hovered a millimeter away from cleaving his skull. Above the point of the blade, a single kanji formed of glowing light: 忠
"Loyalty," Saionji said, unsurprised, as he drew back and extinguished his lightsaber. "There is something still worthwhile in you, Shuten Dōji. Choose yourself a better master than you have done before now, and perhaps you will regain the virtue of your armor. But while your loyalties are fractured, so too will be your soul and your skill. Open the eyes of your heart."
Shuten's bleak mortal eyes rose to Saionji's, and then past him a silent explosion of light, dozens of times brighter than the already-astonishing aurora, filled the sky to the west. Saionji turned, glanced back at Shuten once, and began to run toward the light.
Behind him, Shuten rose slowly to his feet, holding his weapons loosely and staring about like a man completely lost. Then, turning, he trudged aimlessly away into the tundra, abandoning the field of this lost battle and vanishing in a whirl of wind-blown snow.
The first hint that new players had arrived was that flare of light low in the polar-night sky, partially hidden by the still-intact wall opposite the ruins of the dockside gate. Most of the combatants paid it little attention, focused as they were on their opponents. Those who were native to the region noticed that it was in the direction of the Southern Spirit Portal, but they, too, were more concerned on the particulars of their respective battles.
What did get their attention was the rolling, howling roar that began to emanate from that direction, soft at first but gaining volume with every second. To those present who were of Water Tribe ancestry, the sound was intimately familiar, and a shiver of atavistic dread went down their spines. That sound could only have one source: a pack of polar bear dogs on the hunt. Despite their own Avatar's taste in pets, every Water Tribesman and -woman knew that a single wild polar bear dog was a fearsome predator, and the rare occasions when they came together to hunt in groups were times when no one would dare be out on the ice.
At the sound, several of the turncoat White Lotus and Red Monsoons who had the cultural background necessary dropped what they were doing and immediately turned to flee. This left them open to be taken down by the defenders in their panic, only adding to the chaos of the courtyard battle. But the rolling growls and howls of the approaching pack only got louder, until everybody in the compound had to take notice of it.
Anakin Skywalker and Naaza certainly did. In large part this was because Niri, the third participant in the strange and violent dance they'd spent the battle locked in, suddenly looked up, her ears twitching. Naaza thought to capitalize on this evident distraction on the part of his larger dance partner, feinting to lure Anakin slightly out of position and then lunging to strike the polar bear dog instead.
Snarling, Niri raised one giant forepaw and cuffed him like a wayward pup, sending the armored warlord end-over-end into a column of ice left standing by some previous waterbending clash in this part of the battlefield. Then, the annoyance dispatched, she raised her nose to the sky and joined in the fast-approaching pack's cry, uttering a howl so loud and spine-chilling that it brought all combat in her immediate vicinity to a bewildered halt.
"I guess that didn't work, huh," Anakin remarked conversationally as his opponent dragged himself back to his feet, shaking the cobwebs from his head for the hundredth time.
"What do you suppose is wrong with the Avatar's pet?" Naaza wondered, trying for his usual mocking tone but only betraying his own genuine puzzlement.
Anakin shrugged, his insouciant grin flashing on and off. "Probably got a whiff of your breath," he said, and then suddenly hurled himself back onto the offensive, every trace of mirth vanishing from his face.
Whatever Naaza intended to say in reply was cut off by the titanic crashing sound of the remaining intact wall of the compound being smashed inwards. Great blocks of ice and stone scattered like dice thrown by a giant, while smaller fragments flew like shrapnel, forcing people to dive for cover. Through the breach surged a veritable wave of polar bear dogs - no, polar bear dog spirits, their forms glowing and translucent in the auroral twilight. They tore into the remaining hostiles with all the ferocity of their mortal brethren, joined at once by a furiously jubilant Niri.
And at the vanguard of the formation rode Avatar Korra astride the spirit of Naga, her face wrathful, her eyes blue like ice. The remaining White Lotus turncoats gave up the fight at once, all the bravado which Cheong's persuasive rhetoric had instilled within them evaporating at the sight of their Avatar possessed of such terrible fury, and the knowledge that it was for them. It didn't escape their notice that, though rings of compressed air, icy water, searing fire, and jagged earth were all spinning around her, she wasn't even bothering with the Avatar State to sustain them. Some fled in terror, some fell to their knees in surrender, but not a single one kept fighting.
The Black Rose Duelists didn't have the background to understand why that particular fact was so important, but a woman with such a powerful command of elemental magic, at the head of a wild hunt of ferocious spectral apex predators, was daunting enough for most. With their local allies abandoning the fight, Administrator Kiryuu nowhere to be seen (some were saying he was dead), and only one of the supposedly-invincible armored warlords from Kaneko still in the fight, they began to lose the plot.
Naaza noticed the White Lotus traitors quitting the field as well, and - deeply tired of being battered about by this impudent but, he had to concede, very able child - he suspected they were in possession of a decent idea. This wasn't his fight; in his opinion it had never been the Mashō's fight, but Anubishu had been determined to use the mad demon prince's scheme as a route to avenging Yamaō, and, well, one didn't blow against the wind of Anubishu with a fixed idea if one knew what was good for one. With the senior warlord down and the White Rose Duelists visibly taking command of the field, the Poison General's commitment to the affair had already been waning, and this new wrinkle blotted it out completely.
That left only finding a way to disengage - but as he had the thought, he noticed one of the fallen figures on the battlefield stirring, then rising, and as it rose, Naaza's serpent heart didn't know whether to rise with it or sink. Anubishu getting back into the battle could turn the tide back, but on the other hand, it meant his own escape route had just become quite a lot narrower. He had little desire to be here, but even less to receive the kind of thrashing the Darkness General would mete out to a colleague he caught retreating without orders.
Still, he supposed he had better try to put the best face on it for his opponent. Maybe the failure of their so-vaunted pink-haired leader to put Anubishu down for good would rattle the White Rose.
"Do you see, Skywalker?" he taunted, keeping himself out of reach of the young samurai's greatsword. "Lord Anubishu is back on his feet." He indicated the pink-haired White Rose leader, some distance away; with her back to the place where she'd left Anubishu fallen in the snow, she hadn't noticed him rising again. "His wrath will be limitless," Naaza went on. "I almost pity that child -"
The howls of the hunt and the crash of the falling wall dragged Anubishu back from unconsciousness and into a world of pain and fury. He used the one to feed the other, deliberately driving the stump of his right wrist into the icy ground as he got hold of his nodachi with his remaining hand, then used them both to push himself to his knees. The burst of fresh pain in his severed limb wiped away the last of the grogginess from having been knocked out and set his teeth on edge. Weakness leaving the body, his old fighting-master had called pain, and it was a definition Anubishu himself had held to throughout his long and bloody career.
He had to acknowledge that the cursèd cold of this miserable place had done him one favor, in that it had frozen the wound and prevented him from bleeding to death while he lay unconscious. He felt a mild surge of approval for the Duelist leader, in the midst of his growing hatred of her, at the realization that she had knocked him out and then left him for dead rather than wasting any of her side's medical resources on tending him. That was what he would have done. He hated her - would kill her - but he had to admit at this moment that he respected Utena Tenjou for that.
He dragged himself to his feet with the aid of his nodachi for support, his eyes narrowing to take in the deteriorating situation. The local forces in complete collapse, Ohtori's feeble children no better. Rajura down, either unconscious or dead; Anubishu cared nothing for which. Naaza still unable to finish off Saionji's boy-child despite having had all the time in the world; pathetic. Shuten nowhere to be seen; unsurprising. He made a mental note to find the whelp when this was over and free Yamaō's armor from his unworthy custody, a thing he now realized he should have done months ago.
No matter. All of that was for later. Right now, and despite his complete indifference to Ohtori's actual cause, he had to turn this battle back around - and he was quite confident that he still could. Despite the winnowing of his forces, the power of his Yoroi, channeled through his blade, would be enough to take care of the wayward spirits now tearing through the remaining Black Rose and Triad members with ghostly fang and claw. Then he would make an example of their mistress, which should take the fight out of anyone native to this miserable dungheap of a world. Following that, the Duelists of the White Rose would be alone.
Anubishu allowed himself a cruel, bloody smile. Foolish children! He admired Tenjou's ruthlessness in leaving him for dead, but upon reflection, it was a schoolgirl mistake. She should have known better than to leave him alive at all. Far better to finish him where he lay, than take the risk of him recovering. Upon reflection, he decided to start with her, teach her the folly of that error as a final lesson upon which to reflect in eternity, and then seek out the Avatar.
Even with only one hand, his grip on the haft of his weapon was sure, and he began to move forward, the shadow energy once again coalescing around the blade.
Before he could even take a couple of steps forward, the Avatar had sought out him. With a suddenness that caught the fixated Mashō leader completely by surprise, her spectral mount loomed up out of the battle-blown snow. Uttering a wordless cry, the phantom beast's rider sprang from its back and descended upon Anubishu like a diving hawk.
He barely managed to blurt out a startled "WHAT?!" before Korra slammed into his armor, driving him backwards by the sheer force of her body, his nodachi flung away by one of the winds surrounding her. Apart from her opening battlecry, she offered no challenge; just grim determination and the fury of the Avatar as her hand went straight for his armored neck. Although the Yoroi prevented her from crushing his larynx and throat in her steely grip, it did nothing to prevent him from being forced to the ground by the Avatar's arm, nor did it keep him from being dragged across the courtyard headfirst on his back. He crashed across the ground, leaving a furrow of broken ice in his wake, as she surfed a wave of frost and rock beside him, her momentum from her initial charge unbroken.
"You dare attack my family in my own home?" Korra demanded, her voice - like the fury that fueled it - solely her own.
In reply, Anubishu could only offer a groaning scream of pain before his entire viewpoint was turned end-over-end, as Avatar Korra then proceeded to fling him over the heads of the remaining people towards the high-walled keep in the distant rear of the battleground. His last thought before impact was that it was fortunate that he was going to miss the windows. He doubted he could live with himself if he'd gone through one of them.
And then his already punished body learned that while the Yoroi was technically unbreakable (Rose Princes and ancient godswords notwithstanding), it did nothing to protect the body inside from blunt force trauma. At that point his mind mercifully shut down once more, even as his body fell from the crater that had been impressed on the outer fortress wall.
"Or not," said Anakin with a teeth-gritted parody of good cheer, and he walloped Naaza so hard in the chestplate that the impact separated the warlord from his weapons (again) and sent him smashing clean through the nearest of the séracs (again).
Actually hissing with fury and frustration, Naaza scrambled to his feet and looked for another angle - and, with the kind of sublime good fortune that had eluded him and his colleagues for most of the day, he found one. The desperate scowl behind his menpō changed to a sly smile as he reached out an arm and seized the nearest combatant by the neck, dragging her into a headlock and presenting the edge of his holdout dagger to her throat.
"Let's find out how soft you are, boy," he said. "This initiate should pose no particular obstacle to prowess such as yours... unless, of course, you can't bear to see her get hurt."
Anakin blinked, his surprise momentarily washing the fury from his face, as the Black Rose Duelist the warlord had taken hostage made eye contact with him and he realized she wasn't part of the anonymous mass... at least not to him.
"Leyna!" he said. "What are you doing here?! You're one of Mikage's students, not Tremayne's."
Even as he asked the question, Anakin knew it was a stupid one, because the answer was obvious. While Leyna Tarrant wasn't one of the Sith Lord's students, and so wouldn't have been automatically included in the body of initiates assigned to do Kiryuu's bidding in this matter, she hated the Chief of the International Police - father, by blood or adoption, of no fewer than three of the White Rose's leaders - with a passion that rivaled his own hatred of slavers and kidnappers. Of course she would have volunteered for this assignment.
For her part, Leyna knew he'd realize the pointlessness of the query as soon as he uttered it, and didn't bother responding to it. Instead, what she said - to both Anakin's and Naaza's surprise - was,
"Do it, Skywalker."
"My, my," Naaza remarked. "That was unequivocal. What say you, boy? Keep in mind, if you do as you're told, she will die. Even if your own onslaught doesn't kill her..." He adjusted the position of his blade slightly. "I will."
Anakin hesitated, the inner conflict evident on his face. Seeing it, Leyna snarled, "Never mind me! Kill him!"
The young samurai looked into his friend's dark, angry, weirdly unafraid eyes for a long moment... and then, looking away, he shut off his lightsaber and replaced it on his belt with his left hand, while with his right he drove the point of his greatsword into the ground, leaving it standing upright between them.
"No! What are you doing -" Leyna began, but Naaza cut her off by tightening his grip a little and taking a half-step back.
"Just as I thought," the warlord said. "Soft-hearted and soft-headed, just like - uk!"
Naaza stopped speaking, not because he wanted to, but because he had to; despite the impenetrable gorget of his enchanted armor, a sensation like that of a powerful hand clamping violently onto the front of his neck suddenly seized him, choking off the taunt and bringing him up on tiptoes. It felt uncannily like the crushing grip Skywalker's stone paw had inflicted on his hand at the beginning of the battle, but the boy hadn't moved; he was just standing there, his face like an iron mask, blue eyes full of wrath boring into Naaza's face.
The warlord's own reptilian eyes bugged out as he tried and failed to draw breath. Likewise, he was unable to force his right hand to make even the small motion that would have been necessary to slit the initiate girl's throat; in fact, he felt both his hands being prised away from her, as if by iron prybars, until the knife fell from his hand and she was able to slip free.
Silent and implacable, Anakin raised the Hand of Wrath from his side and held it up between them, palm upraised, fingers curled into a clawlike posture. Naaza felt himself lifted clean off the ground, his boots dangling, as his world began to go red from the edges.
"I find your lack of faith disturbing," Anakin told him, his voice as flat and cold as his face - and then, with a sudden explosive motion, he flung his stone hand straight out to the side, arm pointing toward the far horizon, and Naaza was hurled in that direction like a missile. The throw was not quite as impressive as Korra's of Anubishu, but Naaza would have hit the compound's outer wall if it had still been there - and since it was not, he didn't stop until he hit the fjord, crashing through the thin ice that had formed over the place where I-401 had been and vanishing into the water below with a towering splash.
"... Wow," said Leyna after collecting her thoughts for a moment. "Thanks, Skyw - wha?"
"Don't even speak to me," Anakin said coldly, and then, wrenching his greatsword out of the ground, he turned on his heel and strode off toward the dying embers of the greater battle.
It was basically over by that point. The Black Rose offensive had been crumbling anyway when the last of the outer walls had come down; Korra's arrival, and her summary dismissal of Anubishu, broke its back altogether. The remaining White Lotus turncoats had already fled or surrendered, and the Black Rose Duelists who were still on their feet lost all cohesion with the Darkness General's final defeat. What had already been looking like a successful defense transmuted into a rout.
"Utena!" Wakaba cried, running across the devastated battlefield in the aftermath. "Are you OK?"
"I'm fine, don't worry about me," Utena replied. "Are you all right? What the heck just happened?" She paused, realizing for the first time that her friend was sporting RCPD tactical armor over battered street clothes, carrying a sword of unknown provenance, and - most surprising of all - wearing a Future Industries lightning glove on her left hand. "And what's with the gear?"
"Had a little Captain Caveman problem, that's not important right now," Wakaba said with a never-mind-that gesture of her gauntleted hand. "Where's Anthy?"
"I managed to convince her to hole up inside when they breached the wall," Utena said, gesturing vaguely to the jagged hole where the boat dock postern had been. "Come on - I want to check on Corwin, and then we'd better go let her know it's all over."
On the way to the makeshift casualty shelter, they regrouped with Kate and Maki. Korra was already there, crouching next to Corwin's still-unconscious form, while Niri exchanged subdued ursocanine greetings with her ancestors off to one side.
Pushing their way through the impromptu cordon of loyal guards and Water Tribe reinforcements, a pair of unexpected figures intercepted the three Duelists and one Kyoshi Warrior in some haste. One of them was a tall, slim, grim-faced youth in his late teens or early twenties, dressed in what Utena supposed Jedi robes would look like if you made them mostly out of dark brown leather. He had a greatsword slung across his back, a lightsaber hanging from his belt, and his right forearm and hand seemed to be made of stone. She didn't recognize him...
... but she certainly recognized the somewhat older man next to him, even in spite of his unfamiliar clothing and the startling shortness of his green hair.
"Saionji!" Utena blurted. "What in the...?"
"There's no time!" Saionji replied, his eyes fixing hers with something like an echo of his intensity from unhappier times, but no hostility. "This isn't over."
Kate, Utena, and Wakaba shared a quick three-way glance, all reached the same conclusion, and then ran for the keep. Korra looked up from assessing Corwin's condition (out cold, but evidently uninjured), saw them running, and rose, puzzlement on her face.
"Watch him," she said to the loyal White Lotus medic who'd come to take charge of the casualties. Then, without looking the battered and restrained Cheong in the face, she added in a clipped tone to the Water Tribe Navy sailor who was doing the restraining, "Bring him. He has some questions to answer once I find out what's going on."
Inside the keep, everything seemed normal at first; the enemy forces had never penetrated the main building, so its main corridor and great hall were undisturbed. The White Lotus traitors Utena and the others had fought to get out of the trap in the front room were still right where they'd left them, but everything else was in order. As he followed Utena down the hallway to the storeroom, Saionji let himself hope that maybe, just maybe, either his intel was in error or Ohtori's contingency plan simply hadn't worked.
That hope lasted until Utena yanked open the storeroom door, and they all saw what lay beyond. The room was a shambles to rival anything outside. At a glance, it looked as though everything that could possibly have been overturned, spilled, smashed, or scattered had been. There was a distinct floral scent in the air - Wisteria, Utena realized, apropos of nothing - and, weirdly, petals of the same were strewn about the room. Nyima lay crumpled against the wall near the door, motionless. On the far side another, unfamiliar, figure was slumped in a similar position, below a starburst of cracks in the wall that spoke of arriving there with considerable violence.
In the middle of the room, in a roughly circular area that looked as if it had been cleared by an explosion, Anthy lay face-down on the floor, her hand outstretched as if reaching for the stranger.
"No." Saionji fell to his knees in grief and failure, a puppet with cut strings, and moaned, "We're too late."
Korra, her prisoner, and her self-appointed escorts arrived moments later, to find confusion, consternation, and shock.
"Holy - what happened in here?" she asked no one in particular.
Kate looked up from easing Nyima gently into the recovery position, and Korra was shocked at the drawn pallor of her face. She hadn't looked like that out in the courtyard, even in the aftermath of an obvious fight for her life. A moment later, the Avatar knew the reason why, as Kaitlyn said in a low, dread-filled voice,
"Annabelle and Garnet - they're gone."
Kneeling at Anthy's side, her mind briefly so overwhelmed that she hadn't even figured out what she was feeling yet, Utena noticed something white peeking out from beneath Anthy's outstretched hand. Gently extracting it, she saw that it was a folded sheet of paper, which, when unfolded, proved to be a letter - one written in an instantly, spine-chillingly familiar hand.
So engrossed was she in the text of this letter, reading it with eyes going slowly wider in an increasingly colorless face, that Utena took a moment to register the sound of a commotion behind her. When at last she did, she turned her head and saw Cheong running down the hall, having taken advantage of the shock and confusion among his captors to overpower the one nearest to him and make a break for it.
Around her, the others all registered the Master Lotus's escape attempt too, and many of them prepared to intervene - but before any of them could take action, Utena had bolted to her feet, stuffed the letter into her coat, and lit out after him.
Cheong was going flat-out himself, and though several decades her senior, he was a fast runner, particularly with the motivation he currently had to propel him. He knew the keep better than she did, as well, and could take the most efficient path to his goal, pausing only long enough to throw various obstacles into her path. Calling on what felt like long-ago experiences of school athletics, Utena dodged, hurdled, or battered her way through his attempts to forestall her - until at last, near the front of the keep, he managed to slam and bolt a door in her path.
He emerged from the keep still in the lead, putting everything he had left into a headlong dash for one of the motorskis standing off to one side -
Utena dropped from the sky above him, having sprinted up a set of stairs and then thrown herself unhesitatingly from one of the second-level battlements, and hit him like the proverbial hundredweight of bricks. Borne down by her weight, still moving forward at something like his top speed, they both hit the ground hard and tumbled, disappearing from Cheong's other pursuers' view in a cloud of snow.
When it settled, a moment later, Cheong was sprawled flat on his back with Utena crouched upon his chest. With her left hand, she held his right arm pinned to the ground; her right forearm was pressed across his throat as she glared down into his face.
"Tell me something, Cheong," she snarled through gritted teeth.
"Hnnh - hwaa," the Master Lotus rasped, his eyes wide with alarm.
Utena leaned a little farther down, her furious azure gaze boring into his soul, and hissed,
"Tell me there's some way I won't kill you."
If he had an answer for that, it wasn't forthcoming, for a moment later, he passed out.
Utena remained where she was for a moment longer. Then, her expression changing slowly from fury to disgust, she straightened, then climbed to her feet and stood over his unconscious form for a few moments, breathing hard. Behind her, several of the White Lotus loyalists hovered a short distance away, uncertain whether approaching would help or do more harm.
Abruptly, she whirled, turning her back on Cheong, and as she stalked past them and back toward the keep, she growled to one of them, "Get him out of here before I change my mind again."
An hour later, some semblance of order had been restored, at least to the innermost part of Fort Tonraq. Among the reinforcements arriving from Nanisivik was Bori, still sporting his NTC medic's armband. He hadn't had a lot of sleep since the festival, given the high demands the riot had placed on the city's medical infrastructure, but when the call came in for volunteers to help handle the situation at Fort Tonraq - well, no self-respecting son of Senna could have ignored that.
A bruised and fretful-looking fellow waterbender directed him to a bedroom deep in the interior of the keep. There, he found Korra standing over the bed in the middle of the room, on which was stretched out one of her friends from Outside - Anthy Tenjou. Though she had no overtly visible injuries, Anthy seemed to be unconscious, and Korra was evidently trying to revive her with waterbending healing... but the agitated Avatar was visibly struggling to achieve the necessary composure.
Entering the room, Bori went to her side, put a gentle hand on her shoulder, and said quietly, "Perhaps you'd best leave this to me, Korra."
She glanced at him in surprise, then nodded and moved aside, returning the water she'd been using to a bedside basin. Bori took a moment to consider the patient's condition, then took up the water himself and set to work.
"She's in good hands," Korra said quietly to Utena, Corwin, and Kaitlyn as she joined them, though none of them had asked. "I know he's young, but Bori's fully qualified. He's Nanuruq's son and a graduate of Nanisivik U's medical school. They don't give out their MDs for perfect attendance."
Her face drawn, Utena could only nod. Korra took her free hand and squeezed it gently, then looked past her at Corwin. After he'd recovered enough for Utena to break the news of what had happened to him, he'd barely spoken to anyone - even her. Now his profile looked as if it had been carved from stone, his one visible eye like a chip of ice.
Bori worked, quickly but methodically, for ten minutes, then returned the water to the bowl and turned to them with a slight smile.
"I have good news," he said. "Her injuries weren't terribly severe; her collapse was mostly due to shock. She's sleeping now, and I expect she will for the next twelve to fifteen hours, but when she wakes she should be fine."
"Thank you," said Corwin, his voice hoarse.
"You're welcome, Corwin," said Bori with a nod. "Kaitlyn, do you need any more help with your arm?" he asked, indicating the makeshift sling Kate wore.
"No, thank you, Bori," she said. "It's set properly; I'll be all right in a day or two."
"In that case, I'll go and see to the others," said Bori. He shook his head sadly. "Such a terrible thing. I'm so sorry."
"Not your fault," Corwin told him, almost inaudibly.
"Can I stay with her?" Utena asked as he turned to go.
"By all means," he said. "You won't disturb her, and I'm sure she'll appreciate having you nearby when she wakes."
Corwin positioned a chair at Anthy's bedside for Utena, then stood as if in a fit of indecision for a few moments. Utena sat down, then looked up, head tilted, to give him a curious look.
"Corwin?" she asked.
He didn't reply; just stood by the bedside for a few seconds, regarding Anthy's sleeping face, his own completely unreadable. Then, mumbling something inarticulately apologetic, he turned and all but rushed from the room.
"Corwin?" Utena repeated, rising to pursue him, but before she could get all the way to her feet, Korra forestalled her with a hand on her shoulder.
"Stay with Anthy," she said gently. "I've got this."
Utena looked her in the eye for a moment, her expression torn between worry and her own pain; then she nodded, saying nothing, and returned to her seat as the Avatar strode briskly out.
In another part of the compound, Maki knelt on the floor, indifferent to the cold, the dim, and the silence. She felt the discomfort, of course - the chill of the air, the hardness of the stone floor, the dull aches of her battered body and the sharper, more insistent pain of her injured leg - but she ignored it. She was too preoccupied with a mental, an emotional, pain for the mere physical kind to reach her consciousness.
Stretched out on a low table in the center of the room, neatly attired in her most archaic and formal armor, lay Izumi. In a few hours, an honor guard would arrive to bear her home to Kyoshi Island and a hero's funeral. Tonight, it fell to Maki, as the only other Kyoshi Warrior present, to sit the traditional low-lamplight vigil over her fallen comrade's body. Weary or not, wounded or not, she was the only one who could carry out this task, provide this ancient honor.
She had been sitting in silent seiza for some time - she wasn't keeping track, it might have been hours - when Maki, her voice a low murmur, suddenly spoke:
"I don't understand, Izumi. Why? Why didn't you run? The way you fought... it was like you already knew you would die today."
"She did," said a calm voice from behind her.
Maki was halfway to her feet, her tessen half-drawn, before she finished turning and realized who the speaker was. Then she fell back to her knees, the weapons falling from her hands, and stared in blank astonishment.
"Avatar Kyoshi," she breathed. "But... how can you be here? Korra..." she trailed off.
The tall, formally robed figure of her home island's namesake Avatar shook her head, her painted face solemn. "No," she said. "Korra is far from here, tending to her own business. She has her own life. Her uncle's unintended gift on the occasion of Harmonic Convergence," Kyoshi said, and then, at Maki's puzzled expression, she went on, "Never mind that. I think you know this is not the first time you and I have met today."
"I... yes," said Maki, slowly getting hold of herself. "I don't... I can't remember it clearly, but it must have been you, mustn't it?"
Kyoshi came nearer, then settled herself to the floor, mirroring Maki's position an arm's length away. "Yes," she said. "When the spirit of one of my descendants screams out so loudly, so passionately, for justice... that is not a call I would ever ignore."
Maki gazed into her ancestor's face in silence for a long time, her thoughts jumbling atop each other; then she bowed her head, sighing, and said, "Thank you. I only wish... it had been worth it."
Kyoshi arched an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"I... Corwin told me. About what the thing that killed Izumi was. How it... won't stay dead." She shook her head, adding bitterly, "So not only did I fail to protect my little sister, I couldn't even properly avenge her."
Kyoshi startled her by laughing - a dark, cold laugh, to be sure, but a laugh all the same. Maki raised her head, outrage flashing in her eyes, but any objection she might have been about to lodge died on her lips as her eyes met the past Avatar's and she saw the complete and utter lack of humor there.
"I wouldn't say that," said Kyoshi.
Touga Kiryuu stirred, then set about slowly, painfully pulling himself together. He had never really gotten used to the experience of having his shell slain like that. A petty setback it might be, in the grand new scheme of things, but it still hurt, and it was a hassle. Now he would have to put up with his sister's taunts again, endure the mocking whispers of the underclassmen, and deal with Akio's cool sarcasm as he explained how he had once again managed to come a cropper in the course of executing one of the Black Prince's schemes.
Groaning as much with dread of all that as with the pain, he opened his eyes... and realized that he wasn't where he should be. He should be lying on the stone floor of the chamber at the top of the Black Tower, in the exact center of the Ohtori Institute's geomantically precise campus, where Akio had relocated the Sigil Stone from its original lodgings in Sheol at the start of the Oriphos project. That selfsame item should now be hovering above him, seething red and black, its infernal grip on his demonic soul having wrested it back from wherever it was when his shell was destroyed.
Instead, he seemed to be... outdoors. Somewhere. The ground beneath him was frigid, either earth or very-hard-packed snow, and he was surrounded by an icy mist that seemed to have an almost physical substance as it swirled and curtained around him. The sky overhead was black, but ribbons of color flickered in it, muted and diffused by the mist.
"What the - ?" Touga mumbled, dragging himself to his feet. Looking around, he saw nothing by which he might get his bearings - just this same trackless mist, engulfing everything within a few yards.
All right, don't panic, Kiryuu, he told himself. Mikage thought this might happen. Something to do with the weird cosmology of... wherever it was Tenjou and her pets thought they could hide from us. You'll just have to use the recall -
A figure loomed up before him, tendrils of mist parting around it as if driven by a sudden wind. Touga blinked at the sight thus revealed: a woman, her face painted up like the faces of those two girls he had just been fighting - the one he'd killed and the one who had evidently killed him.
This was neither of them; he could tell that right away. This was no teenager but a grown woman, very tall and dressed in an elaborate, old-fashioned fighting kimono in gold-trimmed green. After a moment's puzzlement, Touga realized she was the ghostly figure he'd seen superimposed on the second one when she made what turned out to be her final attack. In her right hand, she held... he wasn't really sure what. It looked like a katana, or at least the shape of a katana; but it seemed to be made of light, not metal, its outline hazy, half-formed, insubstantial. If swords had ghosts, he supposed, that's what one would look like.
Recognizing, for once, a situation he was ill-equipped to handle, Touga opened his mouth to utter the Word of Recall which the Castellan had taught him; but before he could do so, the woman in green had fixed him with furious eyes and snapped in a sharp, commanding voice,
"Be silent, monster. There is nothing you can say that will avail you here."
Such was her force of personality that Touga actually found himself hesitating; and then, when he recalled himself to his purpose and tried to speak the word, he found to his horror that no sound emerged. The green-clad woman spared a tiny, icily sardonic smile for that, and then dismissed him with her eyes and turned her attention to the phantom blade she held in her hand.
"Here is the soul of one such as you were forged to slay," she said, her voice resonant with a fury beyond ordinary comprehension, as she took the spectral weapon in both hands. His eyes going wide with sudden terror, Touga tried to run, but stumbled as the ground itself in this place betrayed him. He sprawled headlong, scrambling, trying to crawl, anything - sheer mortal fear overwhelming him for the first time since he had found himself risen in Muspelheim -
"Taste it!" the woman cried, lunging after him, and the spirit sword in her hands bit deep into Touga's back, its blade plunging into him as if into a quenching trough. Still he could make no sound - none at all - as the supposedly-immortal essence of all he was boiled like water at the touch of hot steel.
"Hone your edge upon it," Avatar Kyoshi intoned, "that you may know its like again,
That you may slay its kin you find,
Kyoshi stood amid the clearing mists and regarded the sword in her hands; as the last of Touga Kiryuu's soul boiled away to nothing, the blade's perfect zigzag hamon shimmered in the green-blue glow of the Southern Lights.
Then, composing herself, she sheathed the sword and faced the Sea of Ghosts, bowing in the direction her fallen descendant's departing spirit would have taken - toward the far-distant, unseen shore of Asgard.
Go in peace, Izumi, the Avatar thought. I have done all that I can to give you justice.
Maki stared at Kyoshi, dumbstruck, for what might have been hours, but was probably only a few seconds, before finally finding her voice.
"Then... that means..."
Kyoshi inclined her head. "You may tell the visitors that at least one of their foes is no more," she said. "It will not bring them happiness, but it may afford them some... satisfaction."
"I... I will," said Maki, nodding. She rose slowly to her feet and turned to regard her fallen sister's face. After a few moments, she asked without looking up, "Why did you say Izumi knew that she would die today?"
"Because she did," Kyoshi replied simply, moving to her side. "Izumi's connection to the Spirit World was strong; strong enough, in some moments, for her to get glimpses of what was to come. She knew when that battle began that it would be her last."
"Then that's why she fought the way she did," said Maki softly, placing a hand on Izumi's cool cheek. "As if she had nothing to lose."
Kyoshi nodded. "Exactly. She was... the dragons call it viirdaanik. 'Dying-doomed.' Dragon lore holds that to know that one is viirdaanik is a great honor, because it enables one to make one's last acts count for all they possibly can."
"She certainly did that," Maki murmured.
"Yes," Kyoshi agreed. "She did."
The two stood together in silence for a while longer; then Kyoshi turned to Maki and said, "I must go. Before I do, I have this for you."
So saying, she presented the younger Warrior with a new sword - the very one, Maki realized as soon as she touched it, that the Avatar had just described.
"This is Otomeshihō," Kyoshi told her. "Maiden's Justice. Forged from your righteous fury and quenched with the soul of a monster." Folding her descendant's fingers around the katana's grip, she went on, "As long as you live, she shall serve no hand but yours."
Maki took a firmer grip on the sword and bared a few inches of its blade, enough to see its shining, perfect temper line in the light of the one low lamp. Her eyes shone too as she looked up from it -
Kyoshi was gone.
Shaken but resolute, Maki returned Otomeshihō fully to its sheath, slipped it through the obi of her formal uniform, and sank back into seiza to await the (nominal) morning.
Corwin didn't park his borrowed motorski so much as abandon it. At this hour, Senna was sleeping peacefully; evidently no word had reached the village yet about the disturbance over on the outskirts of Qurluqtuq. He had no desire to be the one to tell them about it, so rather than risk waking anyone, he shut off the vehicle's motor and left it atop the ridge overlooking the town, then walked down the slope and let himself into Korra's house in silence.
Once inside, he didn't turn on a light or start a fire, though the living room was both dark and rather chilly. The house, like most homes in the Southern Water Tribe, had long since been retrofitted with central heating, but with Korra away from home, it was only set high enough to keep the plumbing from freezing. Corwin didn't care about that either. He pulled off his boots and outer clothes in the dark, hung parka and snow trousers on the pegs by the door out of sheer mechanical habit, and made his way into the bedroom by memory alone.
Once there, he sat on the edge of the bed and, again out of nothing but mindless habit, opened up the mail client of his omni-tool. The last message he'd replied to was still at the top of his inbox, with his confident little reply containing the sentence, "We're OK." He'd composed most of a long, rambling amendment to that assertion before he realized what an idiotic thing he was doing, canceled the message, and shut the tool off.
The annoyance he felt with himself over the email he'd almost sent broke him out of the robotic fugue he'd slipped into on the ride over. Now he crawled under the heavy furs, curled up on his side, and lay there shivering, for reasons that had nothing to do with the temperature of the room outside the covers.
He didn't know or care how long he'd been there, though he didn't think it had been long, before he heard first the front door, then the bedroom door, open and close again.
"Hello, Korra," he said quietly, without looking.
"How did you know it was me?" Korra's hushed voice asked. He felt her weight press down the side of the bed behind him as she sat on the edge of it.
"It's your house," Corwin replied bleakly.
After a short pause, Korra said softly, "Fair point." Then, after another brief silence, she went on, "I'm not going to ask if you're all right, that would be stupid. But... why come here? Utena's worried about you. Everybody's worried about you." The mattress jounced slightly as she climbed the rest of the way onto the bed and lay down alongside him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "I'm worried about you," she added in a still lower voice.
"I can't..." Corwin said, then stopped, his voice failing. In a choked whisper, the sound barely passing through his pain-tightened throat, he went on, "I can't face them. After this... I have no right. No right to turn..." He broke off, unable to make any more sounds come out, and just lay there, his whole body wracked with silent grief.
Korra didn't remonstrate with him or try to reason with him, didn't point out that Utena doubtless felt exactly the same way, didn't tell him that both the Tenjous were going to need him when Anthy awoke. She knew that, in the place where he was at this moment, none of it would reach him. Knew what he needed now wasn't logic or fact or even truth, because all of those things were on higher levels than his being was capable of operating at right now.
Instead, she burrowed under the covers with him and enfolded him in her arms from behind, drawing him close, like she had (in this very bed, she suddenly remembered) when he was a little boy with a shivering fever. She didn't say "it's OK," either, because it manifestly wasn't, and it wasn't in Korra's nature to lie to people she loved, even socially. Instead, she told him the only thing that was manifestly real and relevant right now:
"I'm here with you. Whatever you need. I'm here."
Corwin lay still for a few moments, taking deep, shuddering breaths, as if considering what he did need. Then, taking hold of her arm where it crossed his chest, he drew her tighter still to him and whispered, "Tell me..." He paused, gathering his strength, and then forced the sentence out:
"Tell me this isn't my fault..."
Oh, Corwin. If it's anyone's fault it's mine, Korra thought, but she didn't say that aloud either.
Instead she murmured, "Of course it's not," and though she was reasonably sure he didn't believe her, she didn't feel she was lying and he didn't challenge the point. In fact, he said nothing more at all that night; just lay there, holding onto her arm like a drowning man, and shivered with silent sobs until he drifted off to sleep.
"I'm here," Korra told him one last time, and she went to sleep herself.
The keep at Fort Tonraq had fallen entirely quiet by midnight. Apart from the Southern Water Tribe Militia personnel on guard, most of the people remaining within were asleep.
Utena Tenjou was not. Sitting by Anthy's bedside, she had just finished re-reading the letter she'd found by her wife's hand for the two-or-three-dozenth time. Finally, with a sound that was half snarl and half sob, she folded it up and thrust it into her shirt pocket, buttoning the flap over it as if locking away a prisoner.
With a great sigh, she slumped in her chair, gazing silently at her sleeping wife's face. She was aware that she was tired - exhausted, in fact; but it was not the kind of exhaustion that tended toward sleep. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was rather the kind of exhaustion that leads the mind around in circles, trying in vain to find some other way for the day's events to have come out. Struggling to work out whether some of the questions raised even had answers. At this moment, Utena wasn't sure of that. She wasn't sure of much.
The only thing she knew for certain was that she had failed.
By no coincidence, the same thought was preoccuping the mind of the man who sat seiza just outside the door. The Militiamen and the handful of White Lotus loyalists who remained on their feet hadn't known quite what to make of him, with his curious high-tech weapon and his equally curious intensity, but the Avatar's friends had vouched for him, and under the circumstances, that was enough; they left him alone. Which was just as well, since Kyouichi Saionji didn't consider himself fit company for anyone at the moment.
He heard footsteps approaching in the hallway and opened his eyes, his body going slightly tense, even though he doubted there would be a second strike - Ohtori had what he'd set out to get this time. A moment later he realized, through the Force or zanshin or both, who was approaching, and though his tension did not dissipate, the reason for it changed.
A moment later, Kaitlyn and Wakaba arrived to find him sitting outside the door. Neither had had a chance to speak with him between the end of the battle outside and the terrible discovery within, and though both had plenty to speak with him about, neither felt any particular inclination to do it now.
Instead, Kaitlyn asked him in a hushed, outside-the-sickroom voice, "What are you doing out here?"
"The only thing I can," Saionji replied.
Kate mulled that over for a moment, holding her gaze on her wayward student's eyes; then, evidently satisfied, she nodded, saying nothing.
"Where's your buddy?" wondered Wakaba. "The kid with the stone hand?"
"I don't know," Saionji answered. "Anakin is... adept at knowing when space is required."
"Ah," Wakaba said. "Well, I'm sure there's a story there, but this isn't the time. It isn't the time for a lot of things."
"Agreed," said Saionji with a nod.
"For right now... I'm glad you're alive," she went on, and then, briefly tagging his shoulder with her fingertips, she passed him and went into the room with Kate.
"You handled that very maturely," Kate murmured dryly once the door closed behind them.
"Thank you," Wakaba replied. "Of course," she added after a moment's pause, "he's still completely dumped."
"Of course," Kate agreed, and then they pulled up chairs on either side of Utena.
"How you holding up?" Wakaba inquired softly. Utena's only reply at first was a wordless, noncommittal noise; then, bowing her head and closing her eyes, she admitted in a voice not far short of a whimper,
"Not great, if I'm honest..."
Wakaba put her arm around her best friend's shoulders and held her tight. "And you're always honest," she rejoined, knocking her head gently against Utena's.
"Don't try to get me to laugh," Utena told her.
"Because there's no way I can right now."
The three sat in silence for more than a minute, both Wakaba and Kate with an arm around Utena, just being close to her. Then, out of nowhere, the Rose Prince murmured,
"I don't know what to do. I just... don't. I haven't felt like this in years. Maybe not since... since the old days." At that, Wakaba made a quiet sound and drew her closer still. "I feel like I should be doing something. Taking action. Except there's nothing for me to do. Korra's people are out looking for the ones that got away... but it won't really matter if they catch them. I can't..." She shook her head and repeated, "I don't know what to do."
"I know," Wakaba said again. "But that'll change."
On Utena's other side, Kate nodded. "They w-want us to feel like this is the end of the game, and we've lost. It isn't. We haven't."
"Damn right it isn't," Wakaba agreed, her voice still soft, but full of resolve. "Utena, I know you're stunned right now. You feel passive, reactive... like you're out of ideas. It's a horrible feeling - I've been there. I know - but trust me, it's not going to last. We've been here - you 'n me. The circumstances are different, but we've been down here before. We came through it. We ride it out for now, and when we're through..." She paused, then put her free hand on Utena's near shoulder, squeezing gently. "We'll be ready for whatever we find."
"Yeah... sure," Utena said, and though Wakaba and Kate both knew she was only agreeing to humor them, they both decided it would be enough for now.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
Fifth Movement: Taken by Storm
in order of appearance
Fleet of Fog Long-Range Submarine I-401
Southern Water Tribe Carny #1
Nanisivik Tribal Constabulary Sergeant
That Agni Kai Mook
Republic City Police Department Special Tactical Division
Agni Kai Triad
Nanisivik Tribal Constabulary
White Lotus Society
Red Monsoon Triad
Triple T Civic Service Society
Southern Water Tribe Militia
and Order of the Black Rose
special thanks to the officers and crew of
the icebreaker SWS Killiniq
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip Jeremy Moyer
and Matt Wagner
With the gracious aid of
EPU's Usual Suspects
Anubishu lay on the narrow bunk of his heavily reinforced cell and contemplated his fate. He wasn't so much angry, just now, as incredulous, still unable to believe quite how badly the operation had gone wrong. Kiryuu's death didn't bother him - nor did Rajura's, really - but for all four of the Mashō to have been defeated in a single battle, one killed, one captured, and two forced to flee like cowards and barely succeeding in that... it was simply beyond his ability to grasp all at once. Particularly the fact that he was the one who had been captured, and not, for instance, that whelp Shuten.
They wouldn't hold him, of course. Raise as many earthen prisons as they liked, bury his Yoroi as deep as they wished, these primitives couldn't keep Anubishu, Demon General of Darkness, prisoner for long. His will was too powerful. Apart from the Avatar, no native of this world he had so far seen had the inner steel required to best him, and there was no way she would be his jailor.
Without warning, a rectangular section of one of the stone walls fell away into the floor, revealing a corridor of smooth rock that stretched away into some dark distance. A slim, black-haired young woman in what looked, in the dim light, like it might be some sort of police uniform entered.
Anubishu sat up on his bunk and turned to face her, his expression a contemptuous sneer. If she thought he was no threat simply because they had him penned in this room, or because of his injuries from the battle, she was in for a rude surprise. Doubly so because they had been sloppy enough to leave the doorway standing open behind her.
"Good, you're awake," she said, her voice low and slightly husky. "I have some questions."
Anubishu gave a contemptuous snort and rose to his full height, ignoring the pain it caused him, so that he would tower over her. "I have no answers for you," he replied.
Sounding unconcerned - if anything, faintly amused - the woman replied, "Oh, don't worry. You will."
She stepped into the cone of light shining down from the lone fixture in the center of the ceiling. Cold green eyes assessed Anubishu like a shark considering chum. The light twinkled from the badge on her richly but subtly embroidered black tunic: a stylized silver death's head superimposed on two crossed lightning bolts, above a bar inscribed with what Anubishu assumed was the wearer's surname: BEIFONG.
Regarding the badge, Anubishu realized suddenly that whatever this woman was, she was no police officer.
She seemed to sense him coming to that conclusion, and it appeared to give her a certain satisfaction. As she gave him a smile that held neither mirth nor warmth, a thin double scar on her right cheek quirked like a mocking second smile.
"You will," she repeated, and the stone door leaped up from the floor and sealed them into the room together.
Lin Beifong as herself
The Order of the Rose will continue
E P U (colour) 2015