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June 22, 2014
Following the loud crashing sound, a jagged hole was torn in the wooden wall of the pavilion, like a piece of paper or scroll being burned from the center, the line of the hole in the scroll gradually receding outward. Through this opening flew a blur of green one could barely make out as a top-knotted figure garbed in an Earth Kingdom uniform with a cape attached to it. This person was followed closely by a long-haired figure. Now unshackled, Ratana made the move to attempt to levy a second blow, but by the time she had merely regained her footing, Quan Jing had swung about and erected a similar mound under her that she had to him, and sent her flying toward a cluster of trees.
Having been sprawled across the ground a few feet from the closest tree trunk, Ratana managed to pick herself up before too long, rubbing dirt and sweat from her forehead. The waiting and being patient gimmick during the court martial was not cutting it for her anymore. She realized now that the proper course of action was the one that she took when she first came back to the Earth Kingdom: fighting Quan Jing herself, directly.
A few meters from the shadowy interior of the pavilion, the bulky, imposing figure that was Quan Jing strode away from the area where Ratana's court martial had been held moments earlier, poised and ready. "Really is a pity, Ratana," he tutted as he looked toward where she had landed. "There was always so much potential in you. Nobody but you yourself have chosen for all your skills to go to waste."
Gritting her teeth together while simultaneously twisting her right arm across the left side of her body, the ostracized earthbender made a round rock, half a foot in diameter soar from the forest bed beneath them up directly at the colonel's head. Reacting swiftly by moving his head to the side in a seemingly effortless motion, Quan Jing proceeded to kick the ground with his right foot. At breakneck speed, a jagged line of earth shot up one stone at a time like a wave of sling-shot pellets all hitting their target at once. Ratana only just had time to move to her side as the end of the massive line of earth bombarded her left leg, flinging her ten more feet back into a denser cluster of trees. Meanwhile, her limb seared with agonizing pain. Had it been her head or her stomach on the receiving end of that line of earth, she would have been finished.
"You may have fooled everyone else, Quan Jing," Ratana spattered, looking him in the eye once again, to show she was not afraid and she was not backing down today. "But you'll never fool me."
"Bold words," commented the colonel, a malevolent smile forming across his face. Although they now had company, only Ratana herself saw Quan Jing's eyes light up.
"Ratana!" Tooru called out, his eyes widening. By now, Ratana's partner had been followed outside to watch the duel by the many members of the Terra Team, all in their uniforms and conical hats, as well as other Earth Kingdom soldiers and the limping Shun Ping.
"Stay out of this, Tooru," Ratana yelled across the landscape in his direction. "I don't want anyone to get hurt on my account, today..."
"Now that's noble of you," Quan Jing noted with a chuckle that made Ratana's ears ring, and made her want to wipe that expression from his face all the more. "Perhaps we won't completely discredit your memory, then. Maybe we can add that you were acting more sensibly in the end, albeit during your useless, one-woman rebellion." Despite Ratana's efforts to seriously hinder him, Quan Jing sounded more amused by the turn of events than anything else.
As she ran back into the clearing, the colonel and her circled the ring, facing one another. Ratana was momentarily relieved that the spectators appeared content to remain outside of the confrontation for now and allow for her and Quan Jing to settle their score one-on-one. They traded blows several times, one blow after another. Ratana's years and years of training for earthbending mastery served her well, but still the earth that she shot forth was not with as strong force as that shot my her opponent, and she soon staggered back and forth. However, she regained her footing a moment later and used a submerging technique on the ground beneath the feet of her commanding officer. Unfortunately, Quan Jing saw her move and knew what was coming, and he leapt off to the side and away from the spiraled patch of earth with time to spare. This did not mean it was completely in vain, however, as he had to take a second to regain his footing as well.
"Focus, Ratana!" called out Tooru.
"Sense the earth!" Shun Ping hustled over sticking his head in between others in the crowd that he was unable to look over. "Use your seismic sense to anticipate his next move."
No sooner had he heard the voice of Ratana's earthbending partner than he shot a similar earth line at him. Tooru was hit square in the jaw, but fortunately for him, the line was not as lethal as the ones Quan Jing reserved for Ratana. Gasping, the Terra Team did not have ample time to respond as the long, slithering pink tongue of a giant creature swung through the air like a living branch, cutting toward the colonel.
"What the-?" a startled colonel leapt out of the way, hastily putting up a wall of dirt to shield himself from the paralyzing tongue.
"June!" Ratana called out, surprised. "What are you doing here?"
"About your contract cancellation," the familiar, tattooed bounty hunter remarked from atop Nyla's back. "It looked to me like you overpaid for it. I decided that the difference was probably worth a contract on the one who had a contract on you."
"This is getting out of hand," a junior officer from the background shouted out from behind Ratana. "Let's arrest that subordinate criminal and her ally on the back of that beast." But as the new reinforcements on the back of ostrich horses attempted to enter the area where Ratana and Quan Jing were fighting, Nyla's tongue swung back and forth violently, paralyzing both mounted soldiers and the animals that they rode alike. Immediately, their respective limp bodies fumbled to the ground.
"Bringing in backup isn't fair, is it, Quan Jing?" Ratana called out.
"Nyla and I will hold them off and keep everything in the right," June told Ratana over her shoulder, brandishing her whip. The Earth Kingdom soldiers now had a flurry of pink and black lines flying through the air to deal with.
"I'll hold them off, too," announced Tooru, preparing himself to lift a mound of earth to fling at the soldiers.
"Tooru..." said Ratana. "You realize what this means for you if you help me in this fight, right?"
"I've always got your back," he turned and smiled, unwavering. "You know that, Ratana."
Ratana couldn't help but smile back. Turning back to face her opponent, she tried to follow Shun Ping's advice and sense the next move that Quan Jing was going to make. She was now able to deflect every projectile that the colonel flung at her with ease. Panting, Quan Jing noticed the change in pace and was more eager than before to quickly finish her off.
"You think you're some kind of hero, Ratana?" he jeered at her, tightening his stance. "You couldn't even find a dragon in the Fire Nation like you were supposed to."
"Wasn't my mission supposed to be secret?" Ratana raised an eyebrow, carefully maintaining her own defensive stance.
"Yeah, so?" he sneered.
Ratana was now much more confident. "So, Quan Jing, you just told everyone what it was."
Staring around at all the jaw-dropped faces of the earthbenders and warriors watching their duel, the colonel was losing his cool even more than before. His temper had finally evaporated. "Doesn't matter now," he dismissed. "Your mission is over, and you failed. End of story!" With that, Quan Jing skidded another line of earth, this time lethal, and not in Ratana's direction, but toward the simultaneous battle with the mounted soldiers and her allies.
Once again, it was aimed at Tooru, who was still holding off the guards' advance. This time, Quan Jing had not held back.
"Tooru!" Ratana called, knowing that by the time he turned his head around it would already be too late for him. With nothing else for it, she swung her arms in a rushed motion and erected her own thin layer of earth which the line easily smashed through, but stopped short of Tooru.
Grinning, Quan Jing prepared another line of earth for Ratana herself. Now that she was off-balance, she would not be able to dodge or to counter in time. Despite her long struggle, this would be it for her holding out today. At least it would be swifter and more bearable than being stoned by her former friends. Nevertheless, that wasn't the case, either. Ratana managed to glimpse the crippled Shun Ping shoving his support against the bed of the forest and leaping up, punching a rock forth and blocking the projectile from reaching her. After straining himself by earthbending for the first time with his condition, Shun Ping screeched in agony.
Furious, the colonel kicked the ground and brought a rock to levitation. Then he brought the other foot around in a roundhouse motion to send the projectile over at the one who had foiled his assault. The boulder easily knocked Shun Ping to the ground, and a loud crunching sound could be heard, though the rock remained intact. That was because it was not the projectile shattering. It was the bones of the fallen.
"Shun Ping!" Ratana yelled, exasperated.
"How disappointing, Shun Ping," Quan Jing mused at the turn of events. "Back when you were on the Terra Team, you seemed like you weren't the kind to do something so stupid."
Her orbs widened with fury, Ratana rounded back on her former commander. "You..."
"I claim self-defense," stated Quan Jing. "Like you, he had become a renegade."
"Self-defense against an injured veteran who uses a walking stick?" said Ratana.
"Every good soldier does his duty," the injured Shun Ping called out defiantly, a wisp of blood permeating from his mouth.
"That's not for you to say," Quan Jing said dismissively. "As you've proven, you're not a good soldier."
Angered, Ratana stood up and faced Quan Jing head-on once again. She was now determined to finish this before someone else intervened on her behalf. Her former Terra Team peer had been correct about him not being able to sense her movements well. It was not his thing. Bending discipline involved deep philosophy and thought, not merely styles of fighting. It appeared that Quan Jing had spent his life relying on brute strength, with no true connection to the earth. He was not a true master earthbender. Ratana knew that now, as she had known better ever since her earliest of lessons. She was an extension of earth itself, just as it was an extension of her. Now, all that remained was to catch the colonel by surprise. With an around-the-back kick, Ratana sensed the earth beneath her feet and - now connected even to the ground she could not see with her eyes - bent a slab of rock from behind Quan Jing to erect up and hit him in the crane of the back of his neck. The watching Terra Team members were in awe at the impressive move. Dazed and falling to the ground, Quan Jing crumbled to his knees, and then to his waistline when Ratana successfully submerged his lower body a moment later.
Suddenly, the scene was shaken by yet another new arrival of reinforcements. This time, it was a platoon of both regular army earthbenders and warriors, with General How at the front and Sung not far behind. "You're under arrest," the Head of the Council of Five called out, stern.
"Hah!" Colonel Quan Jing mocked from the ground. "It was a bold try, Ratana, but for all the effort you put in, it all came to nothing."
General How shook his head and narrowed his eyes. "I wasn't talking to Ratana."
Bewildered, Quan Jing lost all color in his face. "G-General, what are you trying to say?"
"Many more witnesses came forward after your spectacle began," said Sung. "It turns out that all the charges Ratana brought against you were justified, and even those were nothing when compared with the great extent you went to to cover it up. Once she stood up against you here, they all just seemed emboldened to reveal the truth."
Two earthbending guards kicked the ground and released the colonel from his buried earthen entrapment. Quan Jing then rounded his eyes on Ratana once more. "Well done, well done," he jeered at the woman who had bested him. "You may have ruined our chances for the upcoming battle against the Fire Nation single-handedly now, not merely preventing to stop it. Who do you think is qualified to command a legion of our forces against these neverending invaders? General Sung here? He's an aloof fool and you know it! General How? He oversees the entire war effort. He won't be able to focus on a single city, even if it is Ba Sing Se. You? You've no experience commanding on that scale."
As he was detained and taken away, Ratana turned from him and looked down at Shun Ping, who was still breathing, but blatantly beyond medic attention. "Shun Ping, why did you do that?"
"You saved my life, too, remember?" he flashed a grin at her in his final moments. "Ratana..." he uttered, peering above her shoulder at at Taigang, who was in the semicircle about them. "Be careful." Since the wound had run so deep, it was not long before Shun Ping became stiff as a rock while he lay in Ratana's arms. Once she left his body on the ground, a pair of Earth Kingdom warriors lifted him up and carried him away, and then the crowd gradually began to clear. Getting up, Ratana brushed her forearm across her head, removing the wetness from her face.
"Well, my work here is done," June announced, having dismounted from Nyla to adjust her belt.
"You're leaving?" Ratana asked, approaching the bounty hunter who had turned up for the day after all.
"Like I said, no need to stick around anymore," June tucked her whip and dagger into a lofty sack. "So I guess this is goodbye."
"I guess so," said Ratana. "Whatever I think of the choices you make, I will fight night and day for your right to make them."
"Always high-strung," remarked June. "It will be your downfall eventually."
"If it has to be some day, so be it."
June had no direct response, as Ratana had already reinforced her point for her. "Take care of yourself, Earth Girl. Maybe our paths will cross again sometime."
"Hopefully under different circumstances."
- "It appeared that Quan Jing had spent his life relying on brute strength, with no true connection to the earth. He was not a true master earthbender. Ratana knew that now, as she had known better ever since her earliest of lessons. She was an extension of earth itself, just as it was an extension of her." This is in reference to Chapter 1: Earliest of Lessons.
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