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June 3, 2015
Everyone in the Terra Team gathered outdoors, accompanied by their partners, save for Tooru, whose partner was standing in front of the pack. Most of the men on the Terra Team were perfectly willing to look to leadership from the one who had proven most able of them all, and who was also the only Terra Team woman. There were some detractors, however, particularly huddled around Zan Xun and his partner.
"You mean that we're supposed to be taking orders from her?" Taigang whispered to his partner, failing to mask his voice from the others around him. "Wasn't she in a court martial not all that long ago?"
"Yeah," said Zan Xun. "And isn't she banished form inside the Inner Wall now?"
"Is there a problem, boys?" Ratana addressed Taigang and Zan Xun in a raised voice, both her hands on her hips.
"No, sir," said Zan Xun. "I mean, ma'am."
"No...ma'am..." echoed Taigang. Even though he had been nicer to Ratana since their last major excursion, it was a little soon for him to comfortably take orders from her.
Of course, Ratana was no stranger to dealing with personal issues when they came up and, if need be, setting them aside for the sake of the cause they fought for. "Good." And she expected no less from her fellow Terra Teammates. "Let us begin, then. Last night most of us spent the bulk of our energies hurling rocks down at our attackers from above."
"I remember that," interrupted Tooru. "It got exhausting after a while."
"But it was worth it," stated Indigo, who was now partnered with the old partner of the late Shun Ping. After Hanbao passed on as well, the two men with fallen partners had gotten used to one another quickly. "They didn't get the better of us."
"True," Ratana acknowledged, her tone of voice flat and composed. "But we didn't get the better of them, either."
"What's that supposed to mean, Ratana?" Taigang asked, crossing his arms. "Oh, sorry, I mean Captain Ratana. If they don't get the better of us, than we get the better of them. It's that simple."
"No." Ratana shook her head and wagged her finger simultaneously. "It isn't. It's precisely that line of thinking, though, that has placed us in such a disadvantage up until now in the Neverending War. If neither of us get the better of each other, but we end up slightly more worn out each time, then eventually they will get the better of us. We've been good at playing defense for the entirety of this war, enough so to hold the Fire Nation off to only advancing as far as they have into our territory for ninety-three years. However, that doesn't make for a winning strategy for us in the long run, always going on the defensive. In fact, as we can all see for ourselves by taking a good look at the map of the Earth Kingdom now, it's been a losing one. It's always been a losing one. The fact that it's a slowly-losing one makes no difference."
"What do you suggest?" asked Zan Xun.
"This is what I am ordering," stated Ratana. "Don't get me wrong. As a member of this squad, I've come to admire and respect my fellow Terra Teammates, especially the ones that I've served with for a while. I would very much like to give orders as little as possible, but make no mistake. Since I am captain now, I will give orders when I see fit, and I will expect them to be carried out. No exceptions."
"Yes, ma'am," said Zan Xun.
"Got it," said Taigang, narrowing his eyes.
"We're going back over the Outer Wall soon," Ratana explained. "As per usual, General Sung will have some of us fighting out in front, and some of us will remain behind and earthbend defensively from the top of the wall. Then, we'll be swapping places later. For those of us in the field, I want you to put more emphasis on pushing the Fire Nation lines away from the Outer Wall and less toward halting them from advancing."
"But that'll give us less a piece of the action for the shifts when we're on top of the Outer Wall hurling rocks," groaned Tooru.
"That's the idea," said Ratana, answering her partner's comment on the two team's divided roles. "We shouldn't have to trade back and forth. As the elite, the Terra Team should be all out in the field all the time, in my opinion. Of course, that's not my decision to make, but hopefully the higher-ups will take notice and reconsider strategy once they see the progress we've made toward repelling the Fire Nation from the doorstep of our capital once and for all."
"Do they higher-ups know this yet?" inquired Taigang. "Have you spoken to General Sung about the nature of this briefing?"
"Not extensively, but I did talk with him for a little while when he promoted me." Whether or not he had seemed to be listening was of course, another matter altogether.
"What if we don't make progress as a result of this?"
"Then I go down with the plan," Ratana answered simply.
"You're awfully certain about this," observed Indigo. "Aren't you, Ratana?"
"In this grand game of give and take, we have to be more balanced than we are now," stated Ratana. "Even if we don't achieve the best victory we can, doing something new will only be good for us."
Chief Shang of the Sun Warriors was flanked by four other Sun Warriors when Wu brought Heidze up to be greeted. "Welcome back," said the headdressed chieftain, leader of the last remaining tribe of Sun Warriors. "You're a little taller since you were with us last, Heidze."
"I think I might have grown a little bit," said Heidze.
"So, from my understanding, you wish to stay here from now on," said Chief Shang, after the shaman Wu had apparently wordlessly communicated with him.
"Yes," Heidze confirmed with a nod. "That is, I would like to take you up on that offer that you made me when I was last here, if it still holds."
"Indeed it does," Shang told a relieved Heidze. "As we said before, it will be good to have you. Since-"
"Hang on," Ham Ghao interjected. "Aren't we forgetting something?"
"What's that?" asked a peeved Shang.
"If he truly does wish to stay here and live as one of us, he must be sworn into the tribe."
"That will be nothing to mull over," Shang waved this objection away. "Wu can organize the ritual, as usual."
"Forgive me, Chief, but it's not that simple," continued Ham Ghao. "He is still an outsider, and thus, Heidze, you must prove your worth before you can become a member of the tribe. It's many ages since an outsider joined us. Not even the last outsider who faced the masters is one of us."
"I thought that Wu already judged me worthy," said Heidze.
"Wu is a fallible man," Ham Ghao added coolly, earning dirty looks from all of his fellow Sun Warriors that were present, save for the shaman himself, who looked undaunted. "He can make mistakes just like the rest of us, and he probably has in the past."
"Can you name any?" asked Chu Fang, the Dragon Guide, who was also amongst those present.
"He probably has at some point," Ham Ghao went on. "Anyhow, it will not be one man who will judge you worthy, but rather it will be up to our tribe and our traditions. You must pass the tests."
"Tests?" Heidze asked uneasily. "What sort of tests are these?"
"When our people were at the peak of our civilization, there were oftentimes outsiders who wanted to join the Sun Warriors," said Sun Chief Shang. "They had to prove their worth by completing the three challenges. We haven't had to use them at any point in living memory because, well..."
"No one within living memory has faced them," sneered Ham Ghao. "Let alone has any outsider recently actually passed them."
"The record of the tests was lost long ago, though," said Sun Chief Shang.
"No, we still have the knowledge on how to go about them well kept," stated the Sun Shaman. "We're fully capable of allowing them to be performed by any outsider such as Heidze who shows an interest in taking them."
"Very well, Wu," Shang conceded. "Of course, Heidze, if you choose to face the tests, you may be at a disadvantage, having lack of experience and being a nonbender."
Heidze shook his head. "I am not afraid." He had not traveled back across the world to be a coward, and facing these challenges may give him a chance to show off in front of Chang Lei.
"Then, if you pass all of the tests, you will become a Sun Warrior," the Sun Chief explained. "There will be an initiation ceremony in a ritual attended by the entire tribe. Wu here would assist in organizing it, of course."
"I see," Heidze gulped. "And what happens if I don't pass the trials to become a Sun Warrior?"
"Then you don't become a member of the tribe and you won't be able to join us," said Chief Shang. "And....well, hopefully it won't come to that."
Heidze paused for a few seconds and then nodded. "I'll do it. I'll face these challenges."
"Excellent," Chief Shang spread a wide grin across his face. "Wu will get you started right away."
Ratana and Tooru bent the sandy earth beneath their feet more swiftly and more aggressively than the day prior at the Fire Nation lines. Rather than looking out for themselves defensively, each member of the team had dropped their own guard to focus more on attacking and they were relying almost exclusively on their partners for backup. To Ratana and Tooru, this was nothing new, as they were used to being on the Terra Team, and to each other. For the fresher new recruits, this had been overwhelming at first, but once the idea was digested, they swallowed it whole and fought with an energy they were unused to.
It took four members of the Terra Team alone to take down a Fire Nation tundra tank and capsize it in the sand upside down. The Fire Nation footmen were startled by this occurrence, and soon lost their own standing and spears as they were knocked back by a hail of miniature boulders hurdled down from the top of the Outer Wall. Even though they were not as much a part of the battle as the benders below, Ratana had instructed the members of the team on the top of the wall to keep a keen eye and to play as aware a part in the battle below as possible. Whatever given in war, one must make the best of what one has.
Ratana would not let anything stand in the way of what had already begun. "How're you feeling, Tooru?" she asked. "Ready to stick it to these fiery tyrants like we've never stuck it to them before?"
"Aye, aye, Captain," Tooru managed a smirk through a face with sweat pouring down it in a constant, unyielding flow.
"Good," Ratana replied cheerfully as she kicked the ground and sent a massive earthen trench forward, digging deep into the ground and splitting apart an entire unit of enemy soldiers.
By the time they had advanced one hundred feet into the force of firebenders and warriors that were attempting to overwhelm them, the Terra Team had sustained a few losses, with two of the newest recruits to the squad among the casualties. Ratana regretted their sacrifices, but knew very well what was the inevitable in war time. Everyone did their part, and in turn, everyone had a right not to have the part they had done be put into vain by those that they served under.
As they penetrated farther and farther into the Fire Nation's own lines and prepared themselves to storm General Iroh's camp ground, the full bulk of the Fire Nation attack force had started closing in on them, just as they had when Ratana had briefly partnered with Hanbao in the field. Even she knew that they were approaching their limit soon, but they would damage the dexterity of the Fire Nation attack force as much as possible before pulling out, even if they could not fully destroy and expel them from this place in one day. This was an opportunity for just that, as the Fire Nation force was growing desperate.
- The last outsider to face the Masters is, of course, the Dragon of the West.
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