Aaron came to his feet with a start, his mind already working. "Sokka, I need you to prepare Appa and pack up all our things. Mark, get off that stage and help Sokka. Katara, go get Aang."
Aaron joined the group of Kyoshi warriors sprinting towards the town docks. It took a second or two, but everybody started moving. Katara came up behind him.
The dock was on fire when they arrived.
Aang stood in front of a group of children as he used air to deflect Fireball after fireball. Aaron figured they must have flocked to him when they heard he was the Avatar, and he'd been forced to protect them when the Fire Nation attacked.
At the helm of the assault were two men on Rhinos. He recognized the former as Prince Zuko. His scar, dark metal armour, and skill gave him away. He fought from the Rhino like he'd been a warrior all his life, and he wasn't even 16.
The man beside him was far more laid back. His white beard, puffy cheeks, belly, and clothes branded him as some noble attendant/ advisor, but Aaron could feel his Chi. Every Airbender had heard of the legends of the Dragon of the West, the man who nearly ended the hundred-year war with his siege of Ba Sing Se.
Aaron suddenly felt naked without his swords.
Suki and her Kyoshi warriors launched a two-pronged attack, with half of her warriors directly charging the backline while the other half dropped from the rooftops. Before the prince could blink, more than half of his forces were gone.
"What are you doing?" he roared. "Keep your eyes on the rooftops." The battlefield went up in flames as the battle raged, and Aaron sent out thick gusts as he tried to put out the fire and hold back the attacks simultaneously, but Aaron knew it wouldn't be long before the young Airbender was overwhelmed.
Aaron joined the fray, using air to reinforce his body and speed up his movement. He tore through the Fire Nation troupes with his feather fist martial style. He snapped forearms, sprained knees, and focused on delivering devastating strikes.
It wasn't long before the Fire Prince leapt off his Rhino to apprehend the Avatar himself. "Surrender Avatar, or we'll burn this town to the –"
Suki tackled him hard before he could get the final word out. He shoved her aside with a grunt and a fiery wave, and two other Kyoshi warriors flanked him on both sides, but Aaron knew it wouldn't be enough.
Aaron picked up a particularly good-looking sword and gave it an appraising flick before he joined the fight against Zuko.
The Kyoshi warriors were wholly unsuited to fight him. Each gesture sent out waves of fire that super-heated the air, banishing the slightest hint of winter, and the Kyoshi warriors only had their fans to protect themselves.
Two of them were already out of the fight with scorch marks on their clothes when Aaron came up behind the Prince and struck out with a vicious slash aimed at his head. Somehow, he managed to duck in time and retaliate with a fiery kick that set the barrel behind Aaron on fire.
Suki took the opening, slashing down with her fan. The Fire Prince barely raised his greaves in time to catch the blow. It sent him stumbling back, and Suki threw Aaron a meaningful look, which the other reciprocated.
Zuko kept a fist trained on both of them. "Who are you?" he demanded.
Aaron answered by closing the distance. The Fire prince sent two fireballs and a wave of rapid punches and kicks, but Aaron weaved through them without trouble. The prince had to beat him back with a fire wave he generated by pushing two streams of fire into the ground.
Aaron had to flip back using a silver of Airbending to dodge in time.
"A Feather Fist Assassin?" General Iroh said from atop his Rhino, stroking his beard. "One so young and travelling with the Avatar, no less. And I thought I'd seen everything. You will have to take him seriously, nephew. One misstep could mean death."
Zuko took a few steps backwards before he found his courage and squared up again. "We will talk long on my ship when I capture you."
Aaron paid no mind to the prince. He was focused on the Old General instead. "All it took was one look," Aaron muttered. It was just his second day travelling with the Avatar, and the enemy had already figured him out. He could almost see his grandfather's look of quiet disappointment.
"I should have dragged them off the Island the second I was found out," Aaron said.
With a spin and a wave of his blade, he sent a thick stream of air toward the fire wave Zuko had erected, snuffing it out. A leap brought him close enough to the prince to send out a quick wind blade.
The prince tumbled to the side to dodge and shot two fireballs at him. Aaron slipped under the first and used an airwave to counter the second, but the prince had no intention of letting up. He'd conjured two fire whips and lashed them at him, and Aaron had to call on the air to thrust in-between both whips. He came down with a barrel roll and, with a powerful gust from his legs, knocked the Fire prince back.
Aaron conjured up an air ball to finish him off, but the Prince was already spinning up to his feet, generating a thick, fiery wall that erected a border and threatened to burn Aaron.
In response, Aaron expanded the ball of air he'd made until it was large enough to occupy him, slipped in, and dove through the barrier of fire. He rammed into the Prince with the force of a hammer and sent him spinning and crashing into the hardwood wall of the building behind them. He heaved as he struggled to catch his breath and scampered back when he saw Aaron approach with a ball of air.
The General's words came mid-stride.
"Stop, Assassin. My men have the girl." In front of him, three of the remaining Fire Nation soldiers stood with spears to Suki's throat.
"I guess the rumours are just that," Aaron said to the General. "You haven't lost your edge, General Iroh."
"Uncle," Zuko managed to say in-between heavy breaths, "what are you doing?"
"Saving your life, Prince Zuko."
Aaron brought his blade to Zuko's neck, cutting him off.
"I will spare your nephew if you leave the Island," Aaron said. Zuko tried to climb to his feet, but a simple twist of Aaron's wrist forced him back to his knees. He growled at Aaron.
"Make your choice General. I don't think I'll be able to keep the Prince from killing himself much longer."
There was a stretch of silence before the General spoke again. "You have a deal."
With a wave of his hand, the spearmen stood down, and Suki ran to join the rest of the town. She started fussing over the injured Kyoshi warriors and wounded villagers immediately. In seconds, they'd organized transport for the injured and began putting out the first of the fires, but the dock looked beyond saving. Half of it was on fire, and the other half was ashes.
Aaron's stomach churned as his eyes settled on what his greed had wrought. Mark suggested they'd come, but he agreed and pushed them to visit.
He hadn't followed his own advice. Not one day ago, he'd said. "One slip-up was all it took."
And the people of Kyoshi had paid for his mistake.
Aaron heard Appa's deep voice a second later as the giant beast touched down in a clearing behind him. The members of the team came climbing down, each one of them shocked and afraid like he was.
"We stay," he announced. "We set things right and help the town heal. After then, we leave."
They all nodded at one, but Sokka spoke up eventually, raising a question they all wanted to ask.
"Where did Zuko go?"
"He's crawled back to his ship," Aaron said. "His Uncle and I came to an agreement. The next time we face him, he'll be more dangerous than ever."
"I'm sorry," Sokka began, looking to the sea for the retreating ship, "did you just say you sent Zuko running?"
Aaron hesitated but nodded affirmatively. There was another talk he had to have with the rest of the team.
Sokka's face froze before blossoming into a full grin. "This changes everything," he wrapped Aaron in a hug. "You're my new favourite person."
It took more effort than Aaron expected to pry the enthusiastic teenager off, and soon, they joined the villagers, put out fires, tended to the sick, and gathered resources for the town center. They worked long into the night, and just before they all settled in, Aaron called a meeting.
"Things went down horribly today. Our presence cost the people of Kyoshi their livelihood and wreaked damage her people will spend a long time recovering from. What happened today cannot repeat itself," Aaron said.
"I don't blame any of you for what happened today. With Omashu so close, I shouldn't have pushed for the visit. None of you were ready."
"No, it was my fault," Aang said, worry marring the young bender's face."Wherever I go, Zuko and the Fire Nation to follow. It's me they are hunting."
"Both of you couldn't have predicted Zuko would catch up so soon," Katara chimed in. "If anything, I was the one who mentioned Aang's name."
"You all got it wrong," Sokka said. "If we're blaming anyone, it should be the Fire Nation. They attacked the village and nearly killed all those people. They're the real problem."
"But they didn't ask Aaron to bring us to the Island," Mark said.
"What are you talking about?" Aang asked
"All of this is my fault," he sighed. "From the incident in the shipping village to Zuko burning down half the village. After how many times I saw the fucking show, you'd think I'd remember..."
"Mark…" Aaron started, unsure of how to approach the conversation himself. This couldn't go on. Mark's spirit had put the Avatar and his mission at risk at least twice already,
But the nature of his power was not his secret to tell.
While working with him would bear fruit in the long term, he wasn't sure they would survive long enough to enjoy it.
"I have to tell them, Aaron," Mark declared in a somewhat shaky voice, and Aaron nodded in assent.
"Standing right in front of you all is kinda surreal…And to think, only last week, my biggest problem was rent money." Mark let out a joyless laugh.
"Are you okay?" Katara asked.
Mark bobbed his head in her direction and then took a deep breath. "I am not from your world," he started, earning various looks from everyone seated there, but only Sokka spoke.
"What do you mean you're not from our world!"
"Give him a minute, and he'll explain," Aaron said, nodding to Mark.
"I was run over by a truck on my way back from my local bakery and woke up at the feet of God, and he offered me passage to a new world for a chance at eternal life, but only if I played by his rules. I have to kill a second chosen like me, or I die."
There was a bout of silence as the children chewed over the news.
"And I thought the Avatar and all this reincarnation stuff was weird," Sokka muttered. "Now we're dealing with gods and death matches. I have so many questions."
"What is a God, exactly?" Katara asked.
"Think of it as a powerful, all-knowing spirit of unfathomable power," Aaron said before later adding, "or at least that's what I think Mark meant when he told me the story."
Sokka turned a bit blue at the thought. "So, like the Avatar spirit?"
"Think bigger," Mark said.
"Why would this god want you to kill his second chosen," Aang asked with a sour face that grew increasingly darker as his mind worked. "It makes no sense. It sounds like he's making a game out of it."
"Funny you should say that," Mark laughed. "Because he gave me a companion based on popular games from my old world. It's supposed to give me challenges I can overcome and reward or punish depending on how I perform."
"What kind of rewards are we talking about here," Sokka asked with a meaningful gleam in his eyes.
"Increased learning speed and recipes for potions were the first rewards. The second was schematics to a glider, and I received one another a few hours ago for a crossbow."
"Anything on bending?" Katara asked.
"Maybe it'll come up eventually, but for now, it's mostly just equipment," Mark said.
"What is the punishment for failing?" Aang asked.
"It could be anything from reduced learning speed to sickness… to death," Mark muttered.
Aaron's frown deepened from the memory of their first mission. He'd never confirmed the penalty, but the boy had seemed genuinely afraid. He still had reason to doubt him, but he remembered that Mark was just some desperate civilian in over his head, or at least that's what he wanted him to believe.
Regardless of how he felt, he couldn't let the boy die. His double in the Fire Nation was a threat they had next to no information on, and if he was growing at the rate Mark was, he'd be powerful enough to take on masters in a year and grandmasters in less than a decade.
And that was ignoring the potential of their 'gifts.'
Mark needed to live until they could find the other and assassinate him at least.
If the attempt failed, Mark would prove to be an excellent deterrent.
"Do you have a mission right now?" Sokka asked in a small voice, bringing Aaron back to the present.
Mark nodded. "Just got one an hour ago. Get an Earthbending master when you arrive in Omashu. The reward is a 3x learning boost for Earth bending and 2 pieces of wingsuit schematics. Failure is a halved learning speed for one month."
"That doesn't sound too bad," Katara said, though she was confused about half of the rewards me mentioned.
"It might seem perfectly reasonable on the surface level," Aaron said. "But it's more damning than you think. If he falls behind, he might never recover. His opponent was born in the Fire Nation, and if he's got a lick of sense, he'll find a way to talk to the Royal household, get access to resources, and gather support that guarantees he never fails a mission. If his opponent were lucky enough to be born in the body of an older bender, I'd say Mark has no chance at all."
"But that won't happen, right?" Aang said, "he was us to back him up."
"While I'm sure he appreciates the sentiment," Aaron said. "We don't make as much of a difference as you think. We have two Airbenders, a novice Waterbender and his opponent have the full might of the Fire Nation. If the Fire lord ever finds out the Avatar was travelling with him, spirits know what sort of metal monstrosity they might give him to fight us with."
Aang paled at that.
"So, where does that leave us?" Sokka asked, and truthfully Aaron had no good answers.
"I could leave," Mark said.
"Absolutely not." Aaron and Katara yelled as one.
Mark raised his hand defensively. "I am just putting it out there. Aang can zip straight to the North pole with minimal distractions from my Missions, and I can focus on getting stronger. Everyone is happy."
"And who will look out for you?" Aaron asked, staring him down. "You're a child, and your missions will get you killed before the guy that god sent after you get the chance."
Katara nodded. "Absolutely. You're staying with us, no argument. Right, Aang, Sokka?"
Both boys nodded vigorously. She spoke with an edge in her voice that brooked no argument.
"You say this other guy might have the Fire Lord's support. What if we get our own King?" Sokka said with a mischievous smile, and Aaron's eyes grew wide as saucers.
"Omashu has beaten back attack after attack for generations now, and according to your latest mission, your system thinks he's your future teacher," Aaron said.
"All we have to do is convince him to teach you, and then maybe we can ask for his help for your missions," Sokka said.
"Easier said than done," Mark grunted. "King Bumi is not the easiest King to talk to."
"Wait, did you say Bumi?" Aang, who had been listening all this while, piped up. "I knew a kid named Bumi a long time ago when I used to visit Omashu to ride the mail chutes. Knowing the stubborn old goat, he might still be alive."
"Are you sure it's not his son or grandson?" Sokka asked.
Aaron shook his head. "No, it's the same man. My cousin posted there, and she told me about him. He's over 112 years old and so stubborn that he might even outlive us," he said.
"We can't get on his bad side," Aaron said, throwing a look at Aang. "Luckily, we have his old friend here to smooth things over."
Extra long chappy today, and on Saturday, we're going to Omashu!
The Plot is ramping up. As of writing, we're two arcs ahead and over 15 chapters of development.
Comment below If you're interested in reading ahead.
Did I also mention I've got a new discord server?
You get announcements ahead of time, and my art goes there first before I add it to other platforms.
Concept art for Aaron and Mark is going up in a few hours.
It's here. Check the comment section.
Copy the link if you'd like to see it before Saturday.