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|Trance of Solitude|
June 11, 2014
"The Trance of Solitude. It's a meditative state that you will venture into with my assistance."
"You must be joking," Ratana snorted at the older shaman. "You think I was born yesterday? I'm not going to go into a rest or meditation or whatever with you standing right here."
"If you are truly the earthbending master you seem to think you are, your connection to the earth would help you protect yourself should I try anything while you're meditating," Wu pointed out.
"How do I know you're not just stalling me until the rest of the Sun Warriors arrive?" asked Ratana.
"Look down the mountain for yourself," gestured Wu. "We're quite alone up here."
"Alright," Ratana said to Wu as she accepted that it would be of no danger to her. "What is the point of this Trance of Solitude, anyway?"
"The Trance of Solitude has one basic tenant to keep in mind," Wu told her. "And that is that all is possible."
"Huh? What's that supposed to mean?" "It means that the trance is set to reveal yourself by means of rooting out your deepest desires," Wu told her. "For that's what builds are character and makes us who we are, from the inside out. This, we will do for you."
Pondering this for a few seconds, Ratana stroked her chin with her right hand as she continued to hold onto the scales tightly in her left. "I'm not sure what you expect to get out of this, Sun Warrior, but I'll try this out for now. This had better not take too long, as I'm in a hurry. I also don't want the rest of the Sun Warriors or the dragons coming back here before I depart."
"Relax then," Wu smiled. "You have the time."
Slowly and with careful suspicion, Ratana stepped a couple more paces away from Shaw's entrance to the dragon's cave and sat down, cross-legged. "Fine," she consented after stuffing the three dragon scales tightly into her tunic. "You may begin."
"Close your eyes and focus on your breathing," Wu instructed her, pacing towards her, but being sure not to get too close for comfort. "Remove all distracting thoughts from your brain and maintain perfect circulatory rhythm. Picture your connection to the earth, your own native element, and let it encompass your whole and connect you tall the substances and energies of the world."
Ratana had done exactly as she was told for now, though she held onto a couple thoughts in the meantime, making certain that Wu did not advance upon her and that the dragon scales were safe, no matter what. It was easy, for she was not worried. If worst came to worst, then her seismic sense would be her ally in keeping a hostile-minded meditation tutor at bay.
"Now, think of your place within the wide and extensive world you connect yourself to," Wu continued. "What does it desire from you? What do you desire from it? If you've imagined your connection right, this should be doable. Now, what is your name?"
"Ratana of Gaipan," she replied.
"What nation are you from?"
"The Earth Kingdom."
"All is possible. Ratana of Gaipan from the Earth Kingdom, what is your utmost desire?"
"To defend my people."
"Very altruistic of you," remarked Wu. "Why do you want to defend them?"
"So they can be safe."
"That is what you want, then, safety for your people?"
"Any other desires? Anything you want for yourself?"
"That is my utmost desire."
"I see," Wu remarked, stroking the hairs on his chin. "Selflessness to an extent, is believable, but I can't help but think you're hiding something else, quite well, probably even from yourself."
"Defending my people is my utmost desire," Ratana reiterated.
"Let's move on," said Wu. "Who do you defend your people from?"
"The Fire Nation."
"Why is it the Fire Nation you fight?"
"Because they come on our territory, massacre our people, defile us with their atrocities and occupy our land."
"So you work to prevent them from doing more of this than they've already done?"
"And where are you defending those people?"
"Anywhere I need to be."
"I realize you're in the Fire Nation right now, and your goal remains the same everywhere. Allow me to rephrase. Where are the people you are defending?"
"In the free Earth Kingdom, where our lands are not already colonized by the Fire Nation."
"What about those in the colonies?"
"The Fire Nation already took them over."
"You don't want to defend them?"
"I do," Ratana voiced aloud, her mouth wavering slightly in her meditative stance. "I have, when we're able to."
"So you don't want to protect them as badly?"
"It's more difficult."
"Remember, in the Trance of Solitude, all is possible."
"Yes, I want to defend them equally well." Ratana recalled how difficult this could be in the past. While her unit had played a role in retaking smaller colonies from the Fire Nation in the past, their bid for Gujuhmin had gone heavily wrong.
"So, you'd defend them while they're under Fire Nation control?"
"Yes." Now, the Terra Team earthbender's mind wandered to everything she had heard of the colonies in the past, the way the Earth Kingdom nationals were repressed, how the benders were forced to hide their earthbending, how those deemed most undesirable were sent to labor in the mines, how those fiery tyrants persecuted her people with unspeakable atrocities each and every day.
"Would you do anything else for them?"
"Yes, I would rid them of their oppressors. I would liberate every colony I can."
"It seems you still have yet to grasp the fullness of the possibility here," Wu tutted his head back and forth. "What about the rest of the colonies?"
"I would do the same for any colony."
"What about all of them?"
"All of them?" Whatever this shaman's voice was saying, this rang as absurd in her ears. The Fire Nation had always taken territory faster than the Earth Kingdom could regain it. This Ratana could only see as possible in a dream, where the last of the invaders were expelled and the Earth Kingdom was completely untainted and free as it had not been since before the Neverending War and before any resident of the Earth Kingdom now could remember, even the centenarian King of Omashu.
"Remember, all is possible."
Breathing with the same synchronicity, Ratana allowed herself to accept the vision and further ignite her resolve.
"So, there we are," Wu said with a tone of finality in his voice. "You have your nation back, your people are liberated, all the colonies are gone and the Fire Nation is off of your land. Are you satisfied? Is this conflict over?"
"I mean no."
As she had become more accepting of all being possible, Ratana continued. "No, it's not over. Given everything that's happened, it's not enough to free ourselves from the Fire Nation. We must strip them of their capacity to wage war and make sure they can never rise to fight us again." In a blur as swift as the howling wind, Ratana's vision of a completely free Earth Kingdom faded and morphed into a new one. Suddenly, she found herself back in Royal Caldera City at the Fire Nation Capital, where the recruitment rally had been held, but she was no longer in disguise. And she was no longer alone. To Ratana's right stood Tooru, and around the pair of them the rest of the Terra Team, lining the edges of the now-deserted square. In front of them, was the frail, kneeling figure of a once-proud Fire Lord Azulon, bound in chains and stripped of his royal headpiece, which lay at his victors' feat. Beside him was his heir to the throne, the Dragon of the West and several other high-ranking military men. At that moment, Ratana saw her Earth Kingdom comrades thrust the rock beneath their feet, tear the Fire Lord's palace from its foundations, reduce it to rubble and bury it so deep in the Earth's crust that no excavator would reach it for a millennium. Then, they proceeded to do the same with the buildings surrounding it.
"It can never be over unless we take it upon ourselves to invade the Fire Nation and prevent them from regaining their former strength," Ratana finished. As they witnessed their town's destruction, the Fire Lord, the Crown Prince, the top generals and the royal advisors all began cringing in fear, awaiting their inevitable fate. Ratana found herself becoming more and more satisfied as she surveyed the shaking individuals from left to right. However, one among the lineup remained perfectly still. Next to his father and grandfather, Prince Lu Ten knelt, bound like the rest of them, in his topknot and Fire Nation uniform, unlike that false Lu Tong Ratana had once met. But he was not looking away or to the ground. He was looking her directly in the eye. Ratana's thoughts grew muddled and confused, since this was her vision, and her desire. His stare was beginning to unsettle her focus. Instead, he was defiant, though not angry. If he were angry, she would've dealt with him by burying him like the buildings. Rather, his eyes were defiant, but full of pity. Once she accepted that she could not, for whatever reason, make her vision of Lu Ten cringe in fear like her vision of the rest of them, Ratana wanted to expunge him from her vision altogether. Now that he was there, though, she couldn't do that either. Ratana's muscles tensed with fury. She refused to show weakness in the face of an enemy, least of all this strong, defiant and pitiful one.
"Interesting," Wu commented. "You, like many of your people, hate the Fire Nation for all they've done, but at the very deepest level, you're no better."
Sun Shaman Wu performed a hasty backflipped somersault in midair before landing on his feet, crouching to the ground. Gone was the calm, meditating woman that had been before him a second ago. In her place stood a frenzied, virulent person towering over him, her face obscured by her blowing hair and the flurry of flying rocks in front of her as circling ammunition.
"How. Dare. You." As she put one foot forth after another, the rocks in mid-air continued to rotate around her body in all directions, shielding her from every possible move Wu could attempt to strike her with.
Wu did not have time to speak again right away as he leapt back off the unstable portion of the bridge occupied by the crazed earthbender that had sprung into action before his eyes. "Ratana, listen to me. Believe it or not, I'm not insulting you. Just realize that there are many in the Fire Nation who truly believe in the idealistic side of Sozin's vision and they're just like you. In a war like this, people do what they believe to be the right thing for the wrong reason or the wrong thing for what they believe the right reason everyday."
"Liar!" As she hurled a quartet of large boulders at the shaman Wu at once, Ratana was distracted by something else out of the corner of her eye. A distant way down the mountain stood a huddle of lights, gradually ascending closer to where she and Wu fought. Undoubtedly, it was the rest of the Sun Warriors coming to stop her. "Fools," thought Ratana. Charging uphill at her along a narrow path while she was surrounded by her native element, they had created their own death trap for themselves. With a leftward jerk of her arms, she thrust a tide of rocks tumbling down the dragon's mountain all at once. That cheeky Ham Ghao had accused her of causing a rock avalanche before, and Ratana could not help but smirk at the irony of it.
Realizing what she was doing, Wu held out his open hand and sent a charge of flame from his palm, deflecting a couple of the many rocks the earthbender had sent at his fellow tribesmen and redirecting her attention back on him. "In the midst of such a conflict, it's easy for anyone to hate. It's easy to give in and let your anger take control. The line between good and evil blurs and blurs before ceasing to exist altogether. The real enemy is the war itself, what it's done to the balance of the world. Think of the countless lost to it and how it twists the spirits of otherwise good people who take part in it. The dead pass on, but the living merely linger. Everyone has some good in them and some bad, but war always brings out the bad."
"I have seen the bad!" Ratana punched her tight fist at another hovering rock which promptly soared in Wu's direction. "Don't lecture me, old man."
"How can you claim to know when neither you nor anyone you know was around when the Neverending War began?" Wu sidestepped to evade the projectile boulder while remaining firmly on his feet. "Look at what you've done. You're willing to sacrifice balance, the only real hope of restoration for the world, to merely buy you a little extra time. Fire is part of the balance and Ran and Shaw are the source of that fire. If you want to truly live and not linger - and give others a chance to do the same, you must live for the balance of the world, and live for the whole world to have hope. That cannot mean all firebenders paying for when a government nearly a hundred years ago created something before any of the current generation were born."
"You're wrong," Ratana shouted as she sent two more rocks in Wu's direction, not heeding his words on Fire Nation innocents. "They do not deserve to exist in this world, in my world!" As her ultimate dream come true still shone as a bright vision in her head, Ratana found Wu's eyes and her mind flashed back to Lu Ten's own eyes. Then, her raging began tearing her from the inside out, like a rabid saber-toothed moose lion filled with the venom of a two-headed rat viper.
"You want to see how the story ends your way?" Wu pounded his fists together and encased a protective wall of fire around himself. "One side will crush the other completely, and the winning side will lose themselves in process."
The pulsing inside of Ratana's veins sank, and her muscles became limper. As the fury in her eyes and the murderous glare on her face simmered away, so did the vision that had occupied her mind following the Trance of Solitude. Finally, the stare of Lu Ten disappeared along with it. Once the shards of earth around her dropped and met their place of origin again, Ratana spoke up. "I can't believe myself..."
"You mustn't despair on what you're capable of," Wu approached her, much more comfortably than most would approach someone who had appeared as Ratana had a minute earlier. "Almost a hundred years of bloodshed does not disappear overnight. Like the full beauty of the true flame, the balance of the world must be rekindled, and that means reaching out to those you've spent your life opposing."
"They won't reach back," Ratana said dismissively, her head still hanging. "Someone from the Fire Nation who's spent their life battling your people could say the same about you," Wu pointed out.
"If someone from the Fire Nation reached out and they were genuine, I'd give them a fair consideration."
"Yet again, they could say the same," said Wu. "Someone must take the first step or nothing can ever happen. Even if the war were over tomorrow, the wounds of the world would not heal overnight. Whether the war is over or not, it takes a lot of bravery to be the first one to reach out to another."
At these words, Ratana lifted her head to face Wu once more. "Are you calling me a coward?"
"I'm sure you're quite courageous on the battlefield," Wu's lips formed a grin as he continued to clutch his staff. "Like the different elements of the world, there are different kinds of bravery. But I have faith that in time, you can master them well."
Drawing her now-heavy hand up to her tunic, Ratana pulled out the three dragon scales she had acquired. Then, she slowly reached her arm out and handed them to Wu. "I still don't know if this is the right thing..." Even if Ran and Shaw were fellow victims of the fire of imbalance, the fire of balance had done hardly anything for the Earth Kingdom over the decades, and none of her Terra Team comrades would understand easily. She was at a loss to how she might explain sparing the dragons to any of them should she get the chance.
"Doubt is the beginning, not the end of wisdom," Wu continued to smile at her. "Another outsider who came by here once said that."
"What's with all the proverbs in this country?" Far away, Ratana could remember the port town of Gangkouz, and the many proverbs Lu Ten had recounted to her at that time.
"They may have a common source," Wu smirked thoughtfully. "After what you've been through here, I'd say you can rest in our temple tonight. You'll be unbound this time." Just then, a slurry of thunderous footsteps rang up the stairs to where Ratana and Wu stood. "You're late," Wu jeered at the new arrivals.
"I'll admit I missed something here," Sun Chief Shang uttered through a heavy set of breaths. "Your going missing at a time like this, I'd say is a better topic of discussion for now."
"I left when I saw her sneaking out," Wu pointed at Ratana. "Anyhow, I'm not missing anymore, as you can see. It appears I've made a misjudgment on somebody, though."
"Yes, you did," the chief's eyes flared up. "I should've known that boy was not to be trusted, but I put too much faith in your judgements..."
"No, the boy I judged just fine," Wu told the chief. "It's her I misjudged. There's no need to keep her prisoner any longer."
"Really? It's a miracle none of us were injured by the rolling rocks on our way up the mountain."
"The spirits are pretty generous with miracles tonight." "Well, in that case, you've got a lot of explaining to do."
Wu let out a deep sigh. "Ugh, where do I begin?"
- The phrase "dream come true" was used by Roku when lecturing Aang in Energy Saga about his new adventure with energybending. In both there and in this chapter, the phrase is used very differently than in traditional fairytales, and holds a more sinister connotation.
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