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|Crater of Death|
February 28, 2015
Following the unforgettable episode between Iroh and Han Shui, the Fire Nation troops regrouped, once again taking on the Earth Kingdom troops who had witnessed a misplaced lightning bolt flash across the sky. Meanwhile, the Earth Kingdom army was in the process of launching their own - albeit currently fractured and disorganized - assault on the Fire Nation lines. Prince Lu Ten and the other troops had quickly regrouped, at General Iroh's swift orders.
"Their resolve is strong," commented Lu Ten, punching forth a burst of flame in the direction of a small huddle of enemy troops garbed in green. "My father always said the people of the Earth Kingdom do not give up easily."
"Aye," Lieutenant Grif concurred from beside him, sweat pouring down his forehead. "Earthbenders do not go quickly and easily into the dreaded goodnight, but we'll best them in the end."
"Indeed we will," said Lu Ten. The scene at the Siege of Ba Sing Se was the most heated setting of the Neverending War that the young prince had seen to date, and he knew that he would recall it with every fiber of his being for the rest of his life. Now, the days he had had before coming here became more and more distant, like they were out of a dream. Nevertheless, he had not forgotten them, and one thought that accompanied him everywhere he went was whether he would ever see Rang Xue again, whom he continued to think of every day. He never did find out what compelled her to leave so soon.
Such thoughts could not dominate his mind out here, though. Their brigade had already neutralized the bulk of the Earth Kingdom attacking force, and the time had come to shatter the line of defense with one more strong push. It appeared that just a defiant few remained left at this time.
Although the Fire Nation forces had been distracted by some unseen conflict within their own territory, the Earth Kingdom's front line found that their enemies had not allowed themselves to remain distracted for long. Half of those closest to the enemy had already been routed. The Raid on Gujuhmin and all similar conflicts of late had been nothing to this gargantuan skirmish. While the central division commanded directly by General Iroh drew their attention, the Earth Kingdom had found themselves in a trap as they were ambushed by the legion under the command of another top general, who assaulted with unseen furor. Absent from the field of battle was Han Shui, the Dragon of Water. Those Earth Kingdom troops who could spare the thought wondered if he had been slain already, though that did seem too much for them to hope for. Hardly any members of their own attacking division were left, save for a few scattered members of the Terra Team. While the previous clashes with the Fire Nation during this siege had been a stalemate, this one was beginning to look like the tide was decisively on the side of their fiery enemy.
"Hanbao, don't do anything stupid!" Ratana called to her partner in a desperate yell, being out of breath as she hustled to keep up with the large, bulky earthbender who dwarfed most of his fellow comrades. Despite being a fast runner herself, it took all the effort she could muster to keep up with Hanbao's great strides.
"Only a fool or a coward backs down when the enemy is in such plain sight," Hanbao barked back at her. He did not slow down one jolt as he addressed his partner, nor was he at all out of breath.
"We must use caution," Ratana went on. "Yes, they are in plain sight, and they have us outnumbered. Hanbao, this isn't an engagement we can win. We need to disengage and regroup. If we allow the others that are still here to catch up, we'll have greater strength of numbers." Even the girl who challenged a dragon knew when the right move was not the most straightforward one. The lone woman on the Terra Team was no fool.
The muscular, red-haired earthbender shook his bulky head from side to side. "The others may have fallen behind, but we're still in the game. Let's show these Fire Nation tyrants what we're made out of. Remember the Raid on Gujuhmin, Ratana," he reminded her, paraphrasing from her own words of encouragement during that fateful battle, which had seemed so large a fight at the time, but now seemed minuscule. "We may not have won that battle, but the example you set for the Terra Team was one the rest of us won't forget soon."
"That was different," Ratana said impatiently. "We were trapped within enemy territory and we didn't have a choice. Let's avoid getting into that situation again! Come on, Hanbao. The other members of our squad are way behind us. We must turn back."
Almost in response to Ratana's warning, searing jets of red flames were suddenly surrounding the unlikely pair of earthbending partners, and Hanbao responded by slamming both of his giant, clenched fists into the solid earth, springing rock in all directions within a circumference of himself and digging a crater a few feet deep in the process. Ratana grunted and held both her forearms over her face in order to shield herself from the rocks that her earthbending partner had spun out from the dusty, dirty ground beneath her own two feet.
"What are you doing, Hanbao!?" Ratana yelled in a manner that revealed her attitude was far less than golden, and not to be tested. "You're going to get us both killed here today."
"Think of it as a little fortification," said Hanbao.
"It is not a fortification," said Ratana. "It's a death trap!"
"It's improvising. You did it all the time, don't you?"
Ratana scowled. "Apparently, I haven't been setting a very good example. Ideally, a good soldier should make an effort to plan ahead."
While it had appeared for a brief time like their assault might actually work against all odds and the main line of siege towers were in sight, the likelihood of that fantasy vision was soon put to rest as flames surrounded them and more Fire Nation soldiers garbed in crimson and orange plunged into the scene. Fortunately, at least more of their own Earth Kingdom soldiers had caught up with them, but the amount of Fire Nation drones they had ready to attack the outer wall was mesmerizingly boundless. On top of the soldiers that now surrounded them, another battalion was just ahead, lying flat as a crouching predator, poised to strike. As if that were not enough to be concerned about, this group was flanked by tanks.
Inside of her head, Ratana knew that the only chance they had out of this situation that they had unwittingly gotten themselves into was to spring the ambush before the oncoming group of reinforcement soldiers and tanks reached them. For a brief time, it had actually seemed like Hanbao's spur of the moment plan was going to work. But now, with the tide of Fire Nation soldiers threatening to engulf them in a second, reality sunk in. Even if they were not killed, they would surely become prisoners of war, and being a prisoner of war in a Fire Nation prison camp was nothing like being a prisoner of war in an Earth Kingdom prison camp. Indeed, it was enough to make anyone wish they were dead instead.
Ratana's newer, bolder partner stood back-to-back with her. At least this was a formation that the Terra Team woman was comfortable with, though she would have much preferred to have Tooru in it with her. Soon, the line was thinned to them and two other Terra Team members. On her right stood Taigang, and on her left, Zan Xun. These two also got themselves back-to-back, so the quartet became four outward-fighting corners. The other benders and warriors that accompanied them this far into enemy lines had been hit by subsequent streaks of scorching fire and were dropping like flies. Gritting his teeth, Hanbao's heat and sweat grew almost as hot as the flames that were being shot toward them. It seemed that he was going to make another bold move, as though he had not made enough of those for one day.
Ratana of the Terra Team's suspicions proved correct, as they often did at the most inconvenient times (they had an equally-cruel habit of not proving correct during convenient moments.) She witnessed and bore sight to the giant, auburn-haired earthbender carrying himself on a rocky slide up the slope and shoving firebenders out of the way with one rock after another, before finally being engulfed and incinerated by simultaneous blasts shot by the oncoming Fire Nation troops.
"Hanbao!" Ratana called out, distraught. It was ultimately Hanbao's recklessness which led to his demise, but even so, Ratana felt devastated at allowing her partner to be killed in action right before her eyes. As Terra Team partners were meant to rely on one another, it was a failure on her part. Suddenly, the way in front of her was more clear. With no time to waste, Ratana took advantage of the opportunity that the energetic Hanbao had provided as a final parting gift and shoved her heel into the ground, erecting a fifteen-foot high and ten-foot wide earthen wall, shielding the three remaining members of the Terra Team at the scene who were still standing from view. She then promptly darted westward, using the wall and the surrounding cloud of dust for cover, and then beckoned for Zan Xun and Taigang to follow with her.
The cover only bought them so much distance, though, and they were soon in view again, albeit it was a different setup. Fortunately, the Fire Nation troops were farther away than the ones that they had just been confronting whilst Hanbao was amongst them. These ones were also heavily armored and were not moving along as quickly as the more nimble foot soldiers. There appeared to be some top brass coming to the scene, like a general or grand sima or higher ranked even. However, there was no sign of the infamous Dragon of the West, as Ratana soon noticed.
But there was somebody else who she was even more shocked to see. Not that she had not been expecting a moment like this to come upon her eventually, but Ratana thought for a time that it would at least be much farther off than anticipated. Meanwhile, a bewildered Zan Xun and Taigang took notice of her pausing in motion and gave her strange looks. Ratana, on the other hand, was taking no notice of them. She spotted instead the face of the commander straight ahead, who was one of the younger of the Fire Nation officers around. It was the man she had once called Lu Tong, and who was in fact the dreaded Prince Lu Ten, sire of the sire of the Fire Lord himself, the most wicked man in the world. This allegedly-charming man who spent time in the city of Gangkouz was the spawn of this family dynasty of evil-doers.
Apparently, there had only been four earthbenders within the crater, but they had fought their hearts out, holding strong against a massive number of Fire Nation troops that had surrounded them. It appeared that three had even managed to escape with their lives. Lu Ten felt a level of respect for them, having the courage to continue on toward their goal, and not retreat as their comrades had all done before them. Their bending was masterful, and their teamwork phenomenal. Lu Ten told himself he would remember them inevitably among the most formidable opponents he ever took down, and their fellow countrymen would probably honor their memory as well. While the biggest of them had fallen, the other three were nearby, attempting to retreat.
Then, Prince Lu Ten noticed something that he did not see before. The earthbender who had stood opposite the bulky one had long hair that fell all they way down to his chest, no to her chest. It was a woman. This was a woman on the Terra Team, something that he had never encountered, and she was familiar. Lu Ten gasped as he recognized the woman that he had met in Gangkouz.
"Rang Xue?" Water appeared in his eyes and he found himself paralyzed with shock.
It had not taken long for Ratana to spot Lu Ten out from the crowd, and it became obvious that he had seen her as well. As his calm, amber eyes fell upon her and he saw her face, he halted in front of the troops he led, baffling them as Ratana had in turn baffled Taigang and Zan Xun. In the long moments that passed by, it felt like they were the only two who existed on their field of battle, and Ratana knew well that Lu Ten must be going through the same line of thought she had gone through when she had discovered his identity in the Fire Nation capital. So he knew now as she did, and by the next time that they met he would have accepted their status as enemies as she had.
The pause in time stopped and the moments began to quicken when a loud noise and a falling, flaming rock from one of the bombardment siege towers that had not yet reached the Outer Wall crashed into the ground, startling Ratana, Taigang and Zan Xun. The trio ran like the wind, though Zan Xun had been knocked off his feet and he subsequently got up to join them again. Taigang and Ratana's training had paid off, and they managed to evade the Fire Nation troops, though they were still within what was now hostile territory. Finally, they reached a tree where they took the time to regroup and rest. But when Ratana turned around, she found they had not all made it there.
"Where's Zan Xun?" Taigang regained his breath.
"I don't see him," said Ratana. With one of their partners dead and the other missing, she and Taigang were off on their own.
- You could argue that some of Hanbao's token bad luck was self-inflicted, but I like to think he still maintains the general spirit of his character as in other fanons.
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