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November 28, 2014
As the war without end reached its darkest hour since the genocide of the Air Nomads, the largest metropolis on Earth had turned into the end of the world. With the unthinkable looming for the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation had encountered its most stubborn obstacle yet, the rock - no, the mountain - which would not budge, even for all the destructive fire power at their disposal. There was one little thing that stood out as constant for all those who bravely laid down their lives for their nation on the battlefield that day. It was the war that had lasted nearly a century. After all this time, everyone knew of course, that it would never end. But now it was like it had never began either. Scarcely a person on earth lived in a time without it, and now, it was like the war was always. A constant.
In the midst of this everlasting storm, this long drawn-out struggle which was no closer to over than it had ever been, countless gave into sulking despair as the darkness loomed over them. Others were profiteers who attempted to use the chaos and the war effort of their own nation for their own advantages. Then there were those, who though their path had been forged and set out before them by this ongoing war, would not let it define them, or rather, would not allow for it to tell them who they are and what their life would mean. At least not without a fight of their own first. And so, that is just what they did. They fought. And fought. And fought.
Ba Sing Se was long thought safe and despite the massive display of force outside the walls that was unlike any other they had witnessed within their lifetimes, many and most within the walls continued to believe so. Or, more accurately, a vibrant many believed so, and with their charisma they chased the doubts of others deep into their subconscious. Living in a city where any spoken language of the war which surrounds your city is forbidden, it is perfectly possible to, with the help of others, convince even yourself that everything is completely alright. Thus, the calm within the walls stood itself in sharp contrast to the raging winds in the world beyond, for the time being at least. Inside and outside the walls were now two completely different spheres in the same world, and the calm sharpened itself, so that it could stand as strong as the walls that guarded it as long as those walls themselves stood undamaged.
The security of the walls depended on the actions of heroic benders and warriors who would continue to have their tales unsung by those whom they protected, for any talk of the war outside the walls by those within the walls was strictly prohibited. It was not just any city that they guarded and watched over, after all. It was the impenetrable city. The city of walls and secrets. The last peaceful, orderly utopia on Earth. And so while the conflict outside continued, those in charge inside held out in a conflict of their own, to silence and apprehend anyone who stood hostile to their goal of maintaining peace and order. They would continue to tell others that there was no war within the walls of Ba Sing Se. Inside Ba Sing Se, they were safe, and free, and that was all there was to it.
As the siege had only just begun, the walls of Ba Sing Se did not find themselves completely surrounded and at their knees just yet. However vast the Fire Nation Army led by Crown Prince Iroh was, the perimeter that surrounded the Outer Wall, the longer of the two when compared to the Inner Wall, was just too long for them. Even if they did encircle it with their current level of troops, the line would be far too thin and vulnerable. The Siege of Ba Sing Se was thus not truly a siege yet, for the Earth Kingdom forces maintained contact with the outside world and General How continued his daily routine from the Upper Ring in directing the war effort throughout the world while Generals Sung and Mao of the Council of Five each took command of opposite divisions in their battle against the Fire Nation, with their endless supply of tanks, siege towers, artillery, infantry and cavalry.
With the Siege having just begun, the Earth Kingdom lines were an impenetrable wall of their own, and showed no signs of giving way. By the end of the day, Fire Nation troops found themselves exhausted by hammering away at the defensive lines in vain, though casualties on both sides were minimal.
"What went wrong today, Father?" Lu Ten asked his commanding general and father, the Crown Prince Iroh, when they were both within their tent late at night and the remainder of the troops could not penetrate the earshot of their familiar and informal conversation.
"I'll tell you what went wrong," the Crown Prince and heir to the Fire Nation throne stroked his beard in response. "Too much hustling, not enough thinking with our heads!"
"Have you got a backup plan in mind?" asked Lu Ten. Ba Sing Se was already proving infinitely more stubborn than the ever-stubborn Munn, in military defense, at least.
"Of course," Iroh nodded. "And by that, I mean, only the beginning of one."
"What is it?"
The Dragon of the West reached for his kettle. "Have some tea with me, boy. Let's cap off this day with a strategic game of Pai Sho. Our strategy on the battlefield will follow."
In times of extreme darkness, one begins to yearn for a glimpse of defiant light, even to the brink of their own sanity and standing at the chasm of insanity, boundless as the Abyss of the Ancients and its ever-present darkness, as dark and cold as the sun was bright and warm. Lighthearted moments are more often than not the best way of escape that are left to take shelter in.
"Hey Ratana!" Tooru called out to his partner, as the pair of Terra Team members retreated back inside the Outer Wall after the Fire Nation forces finally took a break, deep into the night. "How many Fire Nation soldiers do you think we killed today together?"
"Hmmm..." the lone female member of the Terra Team pondered as she pushed a couple slightly wet strands of hair from her face, her once-nice-looking uniform covered in as much sweat and dirt as that of her partner. "We were protecting our ranks the whole time, so the only one that I remember was that one around midday." After nearly fifteen hours continuous fighting something as trivial as the death of a man in the distant past was often hard to recall.
"What about that one we took down together when Taigang and Zan Xun weren't watching their own backs?"
"Oh yeah," Ratana permitted herself the indulgence of a smirk and a slight laugh, letting down her vigilant war-time guard ever so slightly. "Two, then."
"Wow, after all that," Tooru marveled to himself and his earthbending partner at once. "So, if there are like a million Fire Nation soldiers out there today, and we took down two, that leaves nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-eight, right?"
"No," Ratana shook her head at him. "Still a million." Such a dark backdrop only allowed for so much light at once to shine through. The true number of Fire Nation soldiers out there, however many it might be, was boundless, uncountable, and seemingly-replenishing.
"I wonder if somewhere on the other side of the battlefield, there are two firebenders counting those they've slain in the same way that you and I are doing now," Tooru wondered aloud, wiping dirt of the dark green part of his sleeves.
"I don't know," Ratana shrugged, taking off her conical hat and shaking her long hair free. "The Fire Nation soldiers are a lot like us, except from their nation. It's most likely that somewhere in that sea of ruthless firebenders there's a couple men doing what we're doing now."
"Tomorrow, they could be counting at the end of the day again. One of their numbers could be one of our friends."
"Not just our friends, Tooru," said Ratana. "It could be one of us."
Tooru's eyes widened, horrified. "That's not funny, Ratana! What if it becomes true?"
"We've made it through every day in this battle so far," said Ratana. "And all the battles we've ever fought before it."
"No matter how long your survival-streak gets, that doesn't mean anything," stated Tooru. "Everyone who dies had a survival streak their whole fighting career until they fall in battle."
"I didn't say that would happen to us," said Ratana. "Just that it was possible."
"No!" Tooru yelled, his face growing paler by the second. "Don't jinx it!"
"You're unbelievable, Tooru," Ratana rolled her eyes. "Fine, we won't die tomorrow. I'm sure we'll make it through the day just fine no matter what. Are you happy?"
"No, that's jinxing it, too."
"So saying that you're going to die is jinxing it," Ratana said slowly. "Saying that you won't die is also jinxing it. Apparently any type of prediction is a 'jinx' as far as your concerned. Fine, I don't know what will happen to us tomorrow. I'm completely neutral on it. Is that good enough for you, Tooru?"
"Ummm...maybe?" Tooru said with uncertainty. "Ouch!"
"You're thinking too much, Tooru," said Ratana, having just punched her partner hard in the arm. "That is what is jinxing you."
But even as the Siege of Ba Sing Se was deciding the fate of the known world, the rest of it kept turning, and some conflicts that day took place far from it, in places familiar to those on more than one side of the battlefield. Back in the Fire Nation port city of Gangkouz, the streets were quiet at night, but it was a dangerous sort of quiet, as was common within the dodgier sections of that metropolis, much smaller than Ba Sing Se, but with something of a wallless Lower Ring of its own.
Inside the broken structure of an abandoned warehouse-turned-apartment-building, a soft flame was lit. Unlike the one on the other side of the world which sought to consume the largest, most well-defended stronghold on the planet, this one failed to even bring adequate comfort to the wielder, the broken-down boss of the once mighty Huoxilong Triad, which reigned over this city's underworld. With his world shattered and his power crushed during the downturn of his fortune since that accursed earthbender plunged through his city, many of life's nights were like this one. With the unforgiving rain outside, colder than the sweat which wettened the Earth Kingdom Army troops, Jiro shivered like a homeless vagrant of a vagabond, albeit with his feet still on the ground.
Soon, however, the rain that hurled down and the wind that howled from around became the least of his worries. A rare event occurred. He had a visitor, and although he fantasized of such an interruption of fate, it was before the visitor had started to speak that Jiro came to realize it was not the sort of visitor he was looking for.
"Jiro of the Huoxilong," acknowledged the visitor to his reluctant host. It was a statement and not a question, for this man dressed in an all-black robe, had conducted his research prior to his arrival.
"C-can I help you?" winced the shivering Jiro, eying his uninvited guest with hostile suspicion.
"A woman came to this town several months ago," said the black-cloaked visitor in another curt statement. "I'm sure that you remember her."
Jiro shrugged, still clutching his elbows by the fire light. "Maybe I do and maybe I don't." As the visitor in the black cloak lifted a small sack from his pocket, Jiro changed his tune. "I mean, of course I remember her. She was very...memorable. If you want me to tell you what I know, though, I need some incentive."
Wordlessly, the visitor flicked his wrist and tossed the sack just over the fire line, which Jiro reached his arm out and caught with unnatural eagerness. If the visitor had had a sense of humor, he probably would've laughed.
"I lost everything because of that earthbending wench," Jiro went on. "How she managed to get into the Fire Nation and what her purpose was is beyond me. If you're looking for her, then you've come to the wrong place. She's long gone and that's all there is to it. If you feel swindled, tough luck. I told you all I know, and I know next-to-nothing."
"I am not looking for the earthbender you speak of."
"Huh?" Jiro raised an eyebrow, still crouching down in his abandoned palace, hardly fit for a ruler of a criminal underworld organization. "Then, I don't understand..."
"It is not her that I seek," the visitor in black clarified. "But the other woman she was with. The woman with the tattoos who rode atop the giant beast. She called herself a bounty hunter, I believe."
"Oh," said Jiro. "I heard a rumor that she's in the Western Earth Kingdom now, in her original homeland."
"Thank you," the visitor in black said flatly. "You are wise. I leave in peace."
"Just what do you possibly want with her?" Jiro called out as the visitor in black left.
"That is none of your concern."
- The idea of Ratana and Tooru counting the number of Fire Nation troops they had slain in a day was inspired by Legolas and Gimli from Lord of the Rings.
- Jiro last appeared in .
- The expression "end of the world" in this case was inspired by how the border between North and South Korea is sometimes referred.
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