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Vanguard: the New Age of Heroes

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Convoy

“Superheroes aren’t anything new, not really. Before Spirits left this world, superhumans were common, every semi-major population center had at least one. Tombs, extensive records, and many artifacts prove this to be true. It has just been so long — nearly three hundred years scientists estimate — since the Spirits left and took most of the, uh, the specialness of the world, that we have forgotten the sight of people doing impossible things. The Firelord for instance, and I mean both the current one and his predecessor, they are both perfect matches for myths involving dragon-descendants. Immense physical strength, heat manipulation, incredible durability, they hit all the bullet points. So, the question we should be asking isn’t ‘where did superhumans come from?’, it’s; ‘what happened that they’ve come back?’”

— Excerpt from a television interview with Professor Lu Zei

Airspace over the Si Wong desert, 22:04 UTC

The Flare cut through the night sky with unusual quiet for an aircraft. An experimental prototype, it had been built a little over five years ago by Ogata Industries as a proof-of-concept for the National military. It had been rejected as-is for being too expensive, and a more scaled-back, cheaper model — the Ogata 1200 — was designed. The Flare was put into storage at a private airfield owned by Ogata Industries. It collected dust for two years until it was pulled from storage, given a new coat of paint and became the personal aircraft of the second Firelord, aka, Zuko Ogata.

Zuko sat with his legs folded on the bench that ran the length of the aircraft’s passenger cabin, his eyes closed, his breathing steady, as he meditated in preparation for his upcoming mission. As he breathed in and out, he could feel his chi moving as well, warming and cooling, shifting both deep within his stomach and just under the surface of his skin.

As he was about to go into battle as the Firelord, Zuko was dressed appropriately; an armored red-and-black body suit with a bright gold flame at the center of his chest, a pair of dark gray boots, a black domino mask to protect his identity, and a simple hair tie to keep his shoulder-length hair up in a top-knot. His hands were bare, as gloves would interfere with fire blasts, and his boots were grated and made from a highly heat resistant material, so he could shoot fire from his feet without having to forego boots. Truthfully, the armor was mostly cosmetic, all things considered; his body was naturally durable due to his heritage, and his chi could bolster his toughness even higher. Instead of protecting his body, the armor was to protect his modesty, as his abilities meant he would burn through most materials, and the constant gunfire he faces meant that if his clothes weren't being burned off, they'd be shot off.

The pitch of the aircraft’s engines changed, just as a voice rang out, “We’re above the convoy now.” Zuko’s eyes slip open just in time to see Teo Sato — alias the Mechanist, and Zuko’s best and only friend — step out from the cockpit and into the cabin. Zuko could see the slight going of Teo’s prostheses as he walked and the cuffs of his jeans shifted.

Teo ran one hand through his scruffy brown hair as the other adjusted his shirt, “You ready?”

Zuko nodded, and stood up, “What are we looking at?”

Teo took a small remote from his pocket and clicked a button, causing a section of floor in the middle of the cabin to rise to about waist-height. A flickering, light blue hologram appeared over its surface, forming into the smooth, largely featureless terrain three thousand feet below; several small dots were moving along a long, completely straight line. Teo made a gesture with his hands, and the landscape grew more defined as the line and dots grew and resolved into a poorly paved road and four vehicles.

Zuko leaned onto the table, closely watching the small convoy. An armored bus sat in the middle, with two armored cars following it, and a third leading the way.

Teo gazed at the cars for a second, before rattling off, “They’re all Imperial models from the Gan-Lan corporation. The cars are Badger 20s, top of the line models. Their armor is a steel-ceramic composite, and each one is mounted with a heavy machine gun. The bus is a 395 police bus, usually used to transport prisoners after mass-arrests.”

Zuko smirked, “Glad to see the old Sato training is still in there. Never know when I need make and models rattled off.”

Teo gave Zuko an unimpressed look, before asking, “Who do you think they’re transporting?”

“You know that I don’t know. All the Defense Ministry knows is that they’re a high-ranking Black Flame operative who is also a Fire Nation fugitive,” Zuko stood up straight, and began walking towards the front of the cabin.

Teo threw up his arms, “I know that, I was just asking if you had any ideas.”

“You know I don’t do guessing games, Teo,” Zuko said, pulling a handle and opened a small chamber near the cockpit door that he stepped into.

“Twenty mon says it’s a serial killer that managed to escape the police. Like, maybe the Miyako Mauler!”

Zuko began to close the door, before stopping and saying, “Thirty that they’re ex-military, wanted for war crimes. Black Flame likes people like that,” he then pulled the door shut, and pressed a button in the chamber. The floor dropped out from under him, and he fell.

For the first few thousand feet, he was diving head-first towards the ground, only doing minor course correction by angling his body slightly to keep on-course. The fall took him out in front of the convoy, and at about two hundred feet from the ground, he channeled chi into his hands and feet, blasting fire from them and taking control of his dive, slowing down and landing gracefully on his feet, like an expert gymnast.

Firelord raised a palm, shimmering with heat, and shot the leading armored car with an intense beam of bright golden heat energy. The car lurched forwards and flipped over, landing on its roof; behind it, the bus swerved off the road to avoid crashing into the car, its momentum too much to brake quickly, and ground to a stop in the sand off to the side of the road.

The two cars that had been following it drove around, Black Flame agents popping out from the roofs to man the machine guns. Firelord charged up his chi and channeled it into his skin and muscle, increasing his durability as a storm of bullets began to hit him. The bullets shattered as they struck his skin. Firelord grimaced and raised his arm, shielding his face, while they weren’t doing any real damage, the bullets still stung badly.

The cars drew closer, to provide the gunners with better accuracy, Firelord guessed, but that was their mistake.

Keeping his arm over his face, he moved chi to his legs and leapt forwards, landing on the hood of the closer car. He raised a hand and blasted the gunner off, before using his other hand to punch through the glass, knocking out the driver in the process, and yanking the steering wheel sideways, sending it tumbling as he jumped off and over sticking the landing once more.

The third car bore down on him. The Firelord charged his body with chi again, and as the car was about to hit him, swung a fist, stopping the car dead with his hand lodged in the engine block. His loosed a blast of fiery energy, causing the engine to ignite and explode quite dramatically.

He winced and tensed, absorbing as much of the heat energy as he could off of the explosion.

Firelord rolled his neck as the smoke cleared, partially energized, yet still drained from the explosion. He could sap away heat energy from explosions quite fine, but the kinetic energy still took a toll of the chi that kept his body strong.

He heard movement and turned around, eyes scanning the area, but it wasn’t hard to determine the source. Seven Black Flame agents were piling out of the bus, and joining them were the three survivors from the first two cars that he had dealt with. All were dressed in the pitch black body armor of their organization, and most were holding semi-automatic rifles. He spared a glance at the burned wreckage he stood next to, and determined that they were likely not to be joining this fight either.

Firelord sighed and looked at the advancing agents, “Look, I have to admit that I’d really not care about putting you guys in the ground as well, but I have to ask; do you really think like this will turn out well for you if you stay? Because you could run away, I don’t want you, I just want whatever weapon—”

One of the agents, holding a grenade launcher, hefted his weapon and aimed it at the Firelord.

He looked at the weapon, “Really? I would’ve thought that Black Flame would stop trying to blow me up, considering I can—” A grenade smacked his chest and exploded into white mist, and instantly, he knew something was wrong.

He felt a great rush of cold in his upper body, and suddenly a wave of weakness as his chi seemed to be sapped away. He down, to see that his whole torso had been encased in a thin sheen of ice.

“Open fire!” A shout said, and gunfire erupted.

Firelord staggered back. No bullet had managed to actually penetrate his flesh, but that was probably due to his suit’s durability, but he would definitely feel the bullets later as bruises.

He turned his back to them and hurdled over the smoking remains of the car and sat against it. He focused in on his body, and felt most of his chi in his torso, keeping his flesh warm and unfrozen. He moved his chi more aggressively, and the ice melted off in less than a second. With a roll of his shoulders he deemed himself in good condition, just in time for a Black Flame agent to run around the car and take aim at his head.

With a snarl, he blasted a hole through the agent, and got to his feet as the body collapsed. He grabbed onto the car wreck, lifted it, and then tossed it right at the group of agents. Two were taken off their feet by the wreck, while the remaining seven got out of the way.

Firelord zeroed in on the one who had the grenade launcher, and loped forwards. The agent began to raise his weapon, but it was snatched from his grasp and thrown away. The agent himself was grasped by the collar, and flung upwards.

Gunfire broke out and Firelord winced and bolstered his durability as he turned around. The six agents that were still standing had grouped up and were firing at him. He crouched slightly, before lunging forwards, crashing into the group. He grabbed one by their chest armor and swung around, sending them all sprawling to the ground; the one he had grabbed was slammed downwards, going limp.

One began to get up but Firelord kicked their side, sending them a good distance away.

There was a loud thump and a short shout, and he whirled around, only to see that another of the agents had been flatted by the one he had thrown into the air a few seconds ago. He couldn’t help but grin and mutter, “Lucky.”

Another had gotten fully to their feet, but Firelord swung a fist and dropped them, before turning to the last two, who were getting up, and raised both of his hands, downing them both with heat blasts.

Quiet fell rapidly as Firelord assessed the area, making sure all Black Flame agents were down, before nodding and walking to the bus.

He reached out and opened the door, but didn’t get a second to see inside before a fist nearly the size of a cinderblock crashed into his face and sent him tumbling across the dusty desert landscape.

Firelord staggered to his feet to see an over seven-foot tall, musclebound figure dressed in simple black clothes squeeze its way out of the bus. “Well, well, well, Firelord. We meet again.”

It took a second, but the hulking man’s large sideburns and cocky smirk summoned a face from a few years ago. He grimaced, before saying “I should’ve known Black Flame recruited you,” he straightened up, rolling his shoulders, “You’re just their type.”

Zhao smiled, “I am indeed; ambitious and strong-willed, the two defining traits of Black Flame.”

“Strange, I thought it was being power-hungry and cruel,” he looked at Zhao, “What did they do to you?”

Zhao grinned and flexed an arm, “Impressive, isn’t it? The eggheads back at Black Flame cooked up a serum for me, said it was based off a sample of you, but tweaked a bit. I didn’t get the whole fire powers, though. It’s a shame, I would’ve loved to burn your face off after beating you unconscious. Guess I’ll just settle for crushing in your skull,” with this charming statement, he sprinted forwards at superhuman speed.

Firelord raised his hands and unleashed a sustained blast of fiery energy. The blast connected with Zhao, but instead of being knocked off of his feet, he was just stopped in his tracks, bracing himself against the stream of power. Then, alarmingly, he began to walk forwards, against the blast. Firelord cut off the blasts, instead sending chi into his feet and flying forwards.

He stopped flying just as he got near Zhao, slamming a foot into the ground and using his momentum to spin around and kick Zhao in the face. It staggered the larger man, and Firelord pressed his advantage by closing in and rapidly punching him in the gut. Up close, Firelord could feel the height difference far more, coming up to Zhao’s pectorals.

However, Zhao powered through, and caught both of Firelord’s fists, pulled them towards him, and head-butted the smaller man with a loud crack. Zhao then threw him to the ground, slammed a knee onto Firelord’s chest, and began punching his face with all of his strength.

Black spots began to dance in Firelord’s eyes and blood began to leak profusely from his nose before he charged up enough chi and let loose a huge explosion from his entire body. It sent Zhao flying upwards, and gave him a moment to think.

‘Based off a sample of you’. That’s what Zhao had said. Firelord believed it, he had felt — like a distant echo — Zhao’s chi moving within him, powering up his attacks and defense. It wasn’t like his own chi, which he moved with deft control, instead it seemed to be something Zhao was taking for granted, spirits, Zhao may not even know about his chi at all. He just couldn't use it to make fire. He needed to neutralize Zhao’s chi if he wanted to take him out, because otherwise, he’d need to fly Zhao into the stratosphere and drop him in order to generate enough force to overcome his chi-enhanced durability. But how—

The idea struck Firelord at the same moment that Zhao struck the earth a few yards away, and began to shift and get up almost immediately.

Firelord turned and sprinted towards the cluster of vehicle wrecks on the road.

He heard Zhao yell and begin to pound after him.

His eyes flicked around rapidly, trying to find — there. He dove at his prize, picked it up, and turned around.

Zhao was about twenty feet away. He grinned as he saw the weapon, and continued to run towards him, “You really think a grenade can—”

The Firelord pulled the trigger.

The grenade exploded against Zhao’s left shoulder, ice encasing his upper arm and left side of his chest and neck instantly. He staggered, and Firelord pulled the trigger again, this grenade exploding at Zhao’s feet.

The massive man fell to his hands and knees, and Firelord threw aside the grenade launcher and casually strode over. “You know, when going into battle with a team, its useful to remember what they’re equipped,” He stopped right in front of Zhao, “Otherwise you end up making stupid mistakes,” he raised a fist, poured a massive amount of chi into it, then punched Zhao across the face, downing him.

He stared at Zhao for a few seconds, before he reached into his belt and pulled out an earpiece, putting it in and turning it on at the same time, “Mechanist?” He asked, using Teo’s codename.

There was a beat before his friend responded, “That was a wild fight, dude, who was that big guy?”

“Ma Zhao, a former lieutenant of the National navy. A few years ago — a few months before I recruited you — the ship he had been stationed on was patrolling Yu Dao waters, and an Imperial pleasure cruise accidentally strayed in. He incited a mutiny, took over the ship, sunk the cruise, then went into Imperial waters to ‘retaliate’ for the ‘invasion’. The Fire Nation asked me to stop Zhao and bring him back for a court-martialing before he caused the Second Great War. I managed to stop him before he did, obviously, but after he was court-martialed, he just vanished. Only to turn up here, mutated and working for Black Flame.”

“Wow, that’s wild.”

Zuko hummed, before saying “Yes, so I guess you owe me thirty mon.”

“Wha- aww, man, he is the agent you were sent to get, isn’t he?”

“I highly doubt that this convoy has another high-profile Fire Nation fugitive,” Zuko said dryly, “Now bring the Flare in to land, we need to secure him for transport.”


 

International Superhuman Penitentiary, aka “the Boiling Rock”, 00:12 UTC

Warden Takeshi Treung tapped his foot as he watched the skies, “The Firelord is twelve minutes overdue.”

“I’m sure everything is fine,” said Chit Sang, head of security.

Treung pursed his lips, “That’s even worse, Sang. I despise tardiness, especially when there is no good reason for it.”

Chit Sang opted to chew his lip rather than say anything else. The warden seemed to be intent on feeling irritated. Granted, ‘irritation' was Treung’s default emotion.

No more than a minute later, a dark shape emerged from the night sky, approaching with speed. It was a sleek, black-and-red aircraft unlike any Chit Sang had seen before. It held a strong resemblance to the Ogata 1200s, but larger and lacked the impressive armaments of the 1200s. It descended almost vertically, turning around as it did, and landed on the vast metal platform with grace that belied the aircraft’s size.

Warden Treung began to walk to the aircraft, and Chit Sang motioned with a hand as he strode forwards as well, and the small guard team he had brought began to follow him.

The back of the aircraft lowered, turning into a ramp, and a tall figure strode down the ramp.

The Firelord.

The superhero met Treung and Chit Sang at the base of the ramp and the three men bowed curtly.

“You could stand to learn punctuality, Firelord,” Treung wasted no time in leveling his complaint at the taller, masked man.

The Firelord let out a short sigh, “Always a pleasure too, warden,” he looked at Chit Sang, “Zhao’s at the top of the ramp. You prepared a grade three cell, right?”

Chit Sang motioned for his men to collect the new prisoner, “Yes, we did. With the low-temperature defenses, like you asked,” he answered as his men moved around them and up the ramp, one was wheeling a gurney.

Firelord nodded, “Good.”

At the top of the ramp, the guards had secured a figure to the gurney and had begun to wheel it down. Chit Sang had to marvel at the unnatural size of the man strapped to it.

“How are the prisoners? Any trouble?”

Treung raised an eyebrow, “Sentimental? I could get one out if you wish to beat their heads in.”

The Firelord’s eyebrows knitted together, “I was trying to be polite, Treung.”

“Then get here when you say you will.”

The Firelord pinched the bridge of his nose. He looked past the warden and Chit Sang, “Well, the prisoner is in your hands now. Good day, warden, Sang,” he bowed to each of them in turn before striding back up the ramp and into his ship. The ramp raised behind him, and the engines roared to life as it closed and the aircraft’s wheels began to leave the platform. Within five minutes, it had vanished into the night sky.


Undisclosed Location, 01:24

“Sir!” A Black Flame agent clicked his heels and bowed.

Eyes narrowed, “Well?”

“Lieutenant Zhao was captured by the Firelord sir. And, the entire unit was lost, Kawaji survived just long enough to radio in a report before he died. We have a clean-up crew on the way to retrieve the bodies.”

A hand waved lazily, “Dismissed.”

The agent left hastily.

A wide, wicked smile appeared on a pale face, “Always the fool, Zuzu.”