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|Gathering Storm: Part 1|
March 20, 2014
After several turbulent days on the road with one another, Ratana, June, Nyla and Heidze arrived at the rotunda leading up to the Fire Nation Capitol, which was approximately the midpoint of the distance that lay between Gangkouz and Nongkun. They had anticipated a lot of traffic with the boats coming into the harbor, but they were still finding themselves overwhelmed by them. On their way in, they had passed by a large statue hundreds of feet high of a fierce, fearsome firebending master, looking as though he could squash all the boats like spiderflies with his feet. Here, the vessel stopped in its place for several long minutes while the captain approached the helm of the ship and spoke to some of the local authorities before picking up anchor and passing by.
At the docks themselves, a crowd of both wooden and metal ships fought one another to come into dock first. The wooden ones were at a disadvantage, as they were both smaller and slower. Metal ships were the dominant model in the Fire Nation. In a country that harbored many benders who wielded the power of flame, which burnt through wood, it did not take long for Ratana to picture what kind of accidents might occur on wooden vessels. Ages ago, the introduction of metal must surely have been a big relief to travelers who hailed from this nation.
Fortunately for Ratana and her companions, the ship they were in was a gigantic metal construct, and they slid their way into the crowded harbor with ease. While they were approaching, the Terra Team earthbender began to take notice of two long, thin clusters of red that hovered above the ground. The first was a ruby-ish crowd of people in their traditional Fire Nation clothing gradually making their way off board and onto dry land. The second was an auburn line that stretched itself along the docks and up the sides of the rotunda. When they were in range for a closer look, Ratana saw that these were official banners with the national symbol emblazoned upon it in black.
When they had at last arrived at port, Ratana, June and Heidze pushed and shoved their way down the ramp and onto the docks. It was here that Nyla came in handy, as the great beast marched up in front of his owner and parted the crowd before them with ease. Ratana had at first had reservations about displaying him so publicly, as it was still not that long ago that he had torn through the marketplace in Gangkouz, another port town, on the same memorable occasion that an earthbending enemy of the people was discovered to be residing in the city. However, they were a fair distance away now and even though Nyla drew many curious stares, those they belonged to turned away in a matter of moments.
"What on Earth is going on here?" June wondered aloud, surveying the various displays of the Fire Nation insignia that lay on the sides of the street.
"I was just thinking the same thing," stated Ratana, her thoughts aligned with the bounty hunters for once.
"Come to the rally!" called a man holding bright ruby flyers which he handed out to passersby off the boat. "Fight for your country!"
Briefly breaking away from the group, June snatched one of the pamphlets from the man's hand and returned to Ratana and Heidze, clutching the paper in both of her hands.
"What's all this fuss about?" Ratana asked, dangling her head over June's shoulder.
"It says it's a recruitment rally for the Fire Nation army," said the bounty hunter.
"You're darn right it is," said the flyer hander-outer, who had followed June and boldly inserted himself into the strangers' conversation. "The Crown Prince himself is hosting a rally up in Royal Caldera City this afternoon. He's drumming up support for the war effort and his upcoming attack on the Earth Kingdom capitol, Ba Sing Se! The impenetrable city, after a century of holding out, can finally be within our grasp. Sign up today and join our ranks, be a part of this historic effort!"
"Buzz off, you twat!" snapped June, her venomous look wiping the man's smile away and sending the man hustling back toward his post.
Ratana was worried a good deal now that the plans to invade Ba Sing Se were in the open. With the attack publicized here, it would not take long for word to reach the mainstream Earth Kingdom, and the Fire Nation would never allow her country an extended period of time to prepare their defenses. This meant that time was running out for her.
"Let's go to Royal Caldera City for this," suggested Ratana. "I'm curious to see more of the rally before we continue on to Nongkun."
"Fine," conceded June. "Let's try not to waste too much time, though."
After Ratana, June, Heidze and Nyla reached the rim of the volcanic metropolis, they began to notice dozens upon dozens more hyped-up, red-garbed individuals than they had noticed before, if that had even seemed possible before. There were a few giant pavilions and a stage in the center of the main square, and the area appeared to be filled with many more commonfolk than normal. Royal Caldera City was said to be where most of the upper-class citizens of the capitol dwelled, but everyone from clergy down to beggars were eager to see their future Fire Lord today, who was also the man that Ratana was attempting to expose in her finding proof of dragons.
"Did you hear that we'll get to see General Iroh himself if we wait here long enough?" one passerby brought up to a friend, just nearby enough for Ratana and her companions to hear.
"I did," responded the friend. "But we'll have to wait at the rally until the end," he stated. "He would be the last one to speak, and I expect they'll have asked us to sign up for the army about a hundred times by that point."
"Personally, I think it'll work on me," said the enthused first speaker. "Being there for the taking of Ba Sing Se would be a once in a lifetime chance." Ratana eyed both of these men carefully, realizing now that they would literally be her direct enemies in battle should her mission for the dragons be unsuccessful. "Do you really believe that we can take the Earth Kingdom capitol this year? We've tried and failed so many times in the past. They don't call Ba Sing Se the impenetrable city for nothing!"
"You forget that the bloodline that General Iroh is descended from holds legendary achievements of their own," the disagreeing friend pointed out. "Their achievements in the past century make them more than worthy opponents for this seemingly insurmountable task. Why, it was at a volcano merely a few short miles from here that the Crown Prince battled with his dragon..."
Ratana froze in her tracks and spun her head like a rotating magnet to the pair of strangers and stared after them as they disappeared into a nearby tavern. "Did you guys hear that?"
June didn't appear to have been paying attention. "Hear what?"
"That tall guy who just entered that building said that the Dragon of the West killed his dragon at a volcano not too far from this one!"
Alert, June looked at the building Ratana was indicating toward. "He did? That's a long-awaited piece of luck, but...we're not close to Nongkun right now. Are you sure that he wasn't mistaken?"
"Who cares?" Heidze voiced aloud triumphantly. "Now we know where to go to find dragons!"
"Wait a second," June halted them both. "Unlike you two, I passed the time by reading the guide to this area on the way over. There are several volcanoes around here and we haven't an idea which one they're talking about."
"Let's follow them and ask then," said Ratana, walking into the tavern and beckoning for the others to follow. After all she had been through, it would be a relief if they need not travel all the way to Nongkun after all to uncover the truth about the last dragon's fate. Certainly Ratana could definitely use a positive turn in events for her mission especially following the notions that the architect of her venture, Colonel Quan Jing, did not want for her to be successful and that she was not expected to be ultimately victorious, which were considerable blows for her to take in.
If it was even possible to imagine, the inside of the tavern was more crowded than the outside, with barely any space between all the bodies. "Let's split up to cover more ground," Ratana said to June and Heidze, before taking off to the left.
"What did she say?" Heidze practically yelled over all the noise in the room. All the voices made communicating between one another very difficult.
"This way," June gestured, and with that she and Heidze made their way to the right of the entranceway. "Wait, I think I see them," said June, indicating up ahead.
Fortunately for them, the one they were after was considerably tall, and not hard to spot as his head was above most of the others. "Can I help you?" he asked, raising an eyebrow at June and Heidze.
"We have some questions for you!" yelled Heidze.
"Yeah, cute tough act kid," the man rolled his eyes. "Now leave me alone, I'm trying to get a drink here."
June pressed his chest with her digit. "Listen, we're not leaving until you tell us where the dragons are!"
"Dragons?" asked the man quizzically.
"Don't play dumb!" she snapped. "We heard you talking about the crown prince's dragon not far from here."
"It's just a rumor. If you're looking for more info on that, you need to consult Thandao Zhou, layer of reference to every known story in history and Vaultmaster of the Vault. He's the resident expert on that around here."
Meanwhile, Ratana was close to the other end of the tavern by now, far from the one she was looking for. "Ow, watch it!" snapped a man whom she had just bumped into.
"Sorry, just looking for somebody," she stated.
"Is it the recruiter?" asked a short, wiry man beside her. "Because you've found him!"
"Ummm...no," said Ratana. "I'm not going to be signing up I'm afraid," she added. "I'm...from the colonies."
"Ah, colonial!" exclaimed the eager gentleman. "You ought to speak with Tong here," he suggested, pointing out to a man at the opposite end of the bar. "He was raised in the colonies as well, but he's doing his patriotic duty. Mixed ancestry, no less."
Curious, Ratana approached the man that the recruiter had pointed out to her. "They say that you were from the colonies, and that your family originated from the Earth Kingdom, but you're going to help attack Ba Sing Se now. Why?"
The man flashed her an ironic, humorless smirk and batted his thick, foreboding eyebrows. "I guess it's no surprise to you that I get asked that often. When I was growing up, I lived with my parents and my sister on a small family farm not far from Yu Dao. We had to travel in the off-season to go to the right markets to gather supplies, so we had friends from all over both the Fire Nation-controlled territories and the free Earth Kingdom alike. During that time, we did not find our lives bothered by the war. My family history has both Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom background, so I'm not actually sure which one I have more of at this point in time."
"I see," said Ratana. "Okay..."
"Everything for my family changed on the day that our town was reclaimed from the Fire Nation," stated the man. "The Fire Army was weak in the area due to their recently having to allocate resources elsewhere, so the 'free' Earth Kingdom saw us as easy pickings. Following the battle, the earthbenders and warriors celebrated their victory. Drunken and vile, they laid waste to everything that they saw as corrupted by the Fire Nation. One of their captains tied my father up and proceeded to force himself upon my mother, before doing the same to my sister."
Ratana's jaw dropped like a rock. "That can't be! Earth Kingdom soldiers would never do that."
Fortunately for her, the man did not catch onto the full meaning of her sudden outburst. "They do. I'm afraid so. I had been at the market in the next town, but when I returned home, there was barely anything left of my family. I enlisted in the Fire Army the first chance I got. When I was growing up, I used to laugh at the Fire Lord's propaganda of spreading to other nations, but now I realize that it's all true. The Fire Nation provides order, and the savagery that the other nations would fall to if left to their own devices is a disruption of that order. It in this way that I build a better world and prevent further tragedies."
"This has to be a mistake..." uttered the dumbfounded earthbender.
"It is not," said the man. "This may be a rude awakening if you came from the colonies yourself, but believe it or not, I'm not the only one with a story like this. Be thankful that so far you have been spared, and of these atrocities you know nothing."
Unable to meet the man's eyes again, Ratana turned away from him and darted toward the front of the tavern, pushing and shoving past dozens of startled patrons, not stopping in time to notice June and Heidze.
"Guess what," Heidze called to her, grinning. "We have good news and bad news. The bad news is that we haven't figured out which mountain around here the dragon is on, but the good news is we have a solid lead."
"Anyway," June crossed her arms. "We'd better get going soon, before-"
"Not now!" Ratana snapped at the pair of them as she made her way to exit the tavern by herself.
"Ratana?" Heidze asked, baffled. "What's up with you?"
"I need a breath of air," said Ratana. "I just want to be alone for a little while," she added hastily, leaving the baffled pair behind.
Darting into the middle of the street, Ratana sat down and leaned her back against a firm stone wall of a nearby building as soon as she had enough space to herself and room to think, with her thoughts. Inhaling several deep breaths, she replayed the conversation she had just had a few times in her head. Obviously it had to be Fire Nation propaganda, she told herself. No such statements about those from the country she knew and loved could possibly hold truth to them. The shocks of having her bag stolen and deciphering the truth about her mission and who had sent June after her felt like nothing compared to now.
"You know nothing."
Ratana recalled those very same words being spoken by the colonial man that she had brought back to headquarters from the raid on Gujuhmin. She had put that difficult soul from his mind for a while, but his words came back to her after all this time.
"Are you all mad?! I don't have a home; you people destroyed it!"
"I was free, and I was happy before."
"First she 'liberates' me, then she subjugates me."
"You know nothing."
- The man who Ratana remembers from after the Gujuhmin raid last appeared in Chapter 12: Another Day's End.
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