This is it, everyone. Part 2 of the Battle of Ba Sing Se. The culmination of, like, I don't know, a ton of buildup. I'm trying to balance action with strategic maneuvering and stuff like that. Also, you'll probably note that this chapter is not nearly as long as the previous one, but to be fair, that one was so long just because I really wanted to get to the battle instead of continuing to blue ball everyone about it.

Anyway, as with the first chapter about the battle, I hope this has lived up to everyone's expectations. I'm not going to pretend it's perfect, but hopefully it's still pretty good. Though admittedly, it might be nice to be done with the battle stuff for a little bit so we can focus on the other things that this story is known for. Look forward to it!

"It's too soon! I don't want him to go!"

The tearful voice of a woman broke the silence of the night air in West Heiatu. Xisheng, fourteen years old, could hear his mother's concern even though he stood on the steps outside of his wooden home. He had just returned from a day of labor at the market, helping Tun Wi the fishmonger for some extra money to help his family. They were hardly poor, but every little bit helped.

He had just been about to open the door to his own house when his mother's voice had stopped him short. So now, he waited just outside, able to hear his father's response thanks to the open window to his right.

"His mind is made up, Xianglian. There's no stopping him."

"He's just a child, Rong! Kids want all sorts of things that aren't good for them, it's our job as parents to stop them from going after those things!"

Figuring that now was as good a time as any to eavesdrop, Xisheng stayed quiet as he looked back out over his sleepy hometown. Wooden houses on stilts dominated most of this street, which served to allow for extra rows of housing on the ground level. West Heiatu had grown a lot in the past decade or so, with lots of people from less fortunate colonies coming here for its stability. Small lanterns and torches offered some light for the cobblestone street that divided the rows of homes from one another. Being the evening, there weren't that many people on the streets, but Xisheng could still spy the occasional pedestrian, which sometimes included a soldier on guard duty.

As Xisheng watched one such uniformed soldier pass on the street below, he couldn't help but acknowledge why his parents were having this discussion. Last night at dinner, he had revealed his desire to join the army to both of them. At the time, it had struck both parents silent. His mother had said little to him for the rest of the night. His father had expressed support for the idea, but only reluctantly. Apparently, they had only found time to talk about it now. Probably because they both had jobs of their own during the day.

"I'm not going to tell my son that joining the army is a fool's errand, Xianglian. I was a soldier too. What right do I have?"

If this argument held any water in the eyes of Xisheng's mother, it didn't show in her voice. "That's all the more reason you should tell him no! You know what kind of hardship awaits soldiers. Not only did you endure it, but so did your father and even his father. Do you really want your son to go through the same thing?"

"It's not all bad, sweetheart. Being in the army taught me a great many life lessons. He'll learn the value of teamwork and camaraderie. See the world, develop his bending skills under experienced warriors..."

With his eyes on the road, Xisheng noted that there was a masked Fire Nation soldier looking up at him from down there. With a cupped hand near his mouthpiece, it seemed like the soldier may have been saying something, but Xisheng couldn't hear it. He could only hear his mother's fearful words.

"And what about the part that ruins lives, Rong? What about the fighting? What about the horrors he'll see? You may have enjoyed some of your time in the army, but was it worth your arm? What if that happens to Xisheng? What if something worse happens?"

Xisheng's eyes narrowed as he started to pick up bits and pieces of the soldier's voice on the street below. But it sounded really far away for some reason.


The voice of Xisheng's father overruled the distorted speech from below. "I know how you feel, Xianglian. But this is what he wants to do with his life. If we do our damndest to stop him, he'll only grow to resent us. Besides, he still has to go through training. According to news from the capital, the war will probably be over before he even finishes boot camp. And he's got a good head on his shoulders: he'd never do anything risky out there."

This time, Xisheng's mother said nothing, though the young boy could hear her breaking into sobs. He wanted to rush in there and comfort her, maybe tell her that he had changed his mind. But he couldn't move. His body felt like a statue. He couldn't tear his gaze away from the soldier below, whose voice now thundered out loud enough to dominate Xisheng's entire mind...

"Commander! Are you alright, sir?!"

Xisheng's eye's snapped open, filling his vision with a blue sky partially obstructed by the helmet of a Fire Nation soldier, close enough to him that Xisheng could see his eyes even behind the mask.

For a moment, Xisheng was completely confused. Where was he right now? What had he been doing?

His vision began to swim almost immediately, causing Xisheng to clench his eyes shut in an attempt to fix it. In doing so, he started acknowledging the sounds going on around him. The rumble of earth, the yelling and screaming of men in pain or giving orders, the crackling of flame as it torched the air around him... it didn't take long to remember where he was. And it sure as hell didn't take very long for him to remember what he was doing here. Xisheng pushed down the memory that had arisen during unconsciousness immediately, opening his eyes and pushing himself up on one arm.

In doing so, Xisheng was able to take note of his physical state: he ached all over, but as far as he could tell, all of his limbs still worked, and he didn't feel terribly injured. Just shocked. Of course, it was possible that he had some internal injuries to worry about, but he didn't have time to find out. He also noted that his helmet had been dislodged from his head at some point, but he wasn't terribly concerned about that.

"Where's my tank?!"

The soldier who had come to check on Xisheng pointed out to the battlefield, allowing the young commander to lay eyes on Hotcake: or what remained of it, at any rate. The vehicle had been flipped over, with the command hatch buried in the dirt. The wheel spokes on the right side of the vehicle had been shattered, and the tread that had once been affixed to them was scattered about in bits and pieces. The bottom section of the hull had a large dent in it, with a pierced hole near the center.

Xisheng took in the damage, briefly wondering how it had happened, but he didn't dwell on it for long. After all, looking at the wreckage now, he remembered that he hadn't been the only one to occupy the vehicle before this disaster.

"Shit, Azula!"

Staggering to his feet with some difficulty, Xisheng turned to the soldier that tried to aid him in doing so. "You, come with me! We have to evacuate the occupants of that tank!"

"Right away, sir!"

Though he was a bit unsteady on his feet so soon after being knocked around, Xisheng managed to stumble towards Hotcake's remains without falling, one of his soldiers hot on his heels. Thankfully, the tank had been flung further away from the enemy, and so wasn't under attack at this time. The enemies from Ba Sing Se were busy contending with the Fire Nation troops further up.

Reaching the site of his recent brush with death, Xisheng started calling out to the occupants of the tank. "Azula! Are you alright?! Dammit, is someone conscious in there?!"

With no response, Xisheng stepped up onto the underside of the tank, struggling to get the hatch there open. Tanks getting flipped was not an uncommon occurrence when dealing with Earthbenders. Because of this, Firestorm tanks were designed to be able to rotate their main cabins so they could fight in an upright position even after being flipped. This meant there was a command hatch to enter the tank through on the underside as well: otherwise, there would be no way for the tank to attack after rotating the cabin. It also served as a nifty escape hatch when needed.

However, the impact of an Earthbending spike had damaged the hatch on the underside, making it difficult to get it open. Xisheng commanded his comrade to get up on the tank and help him open it. It was still no small task, but the duo managed to use raw strength to yank the damaged hatch open after a few moments.

As soon as he was able to do so, Xisheng got on his belly and lowered his upper body into the tank. Had he possessed enough wits to do so at the moment, the young commander would have been ashamed to acknowledge that he did not even look to take in the status of the driver or his fellow crewman. No, at the moment, Xisheng only had eyes for one person, and it had nothing to do with her being the Crown Princess of the country.

Of course, the tank wasn't that big, so it didn't take very long to spot Azula crumpled near what was now the new bottom of the tank. Xisheng was alarmed to see blood on the steel components of the vehicle near her body.

"Azula! Can you hear me?!"

His question was met with a groan, which was certainly better than silence. Azula stirred near the bottom of the tank, trying her best to shift her body out of the awkward position it had been forced into. After scooting around a bit, she managed to actually expose her face to the light filtering in from the open hatch above her. This also served to reveal blood spilling down her face from a gash that must have been on her scalp somewhere.

"Ugh... where...?"

Xisheng reached a hand down into the vehicle. "Azula, grab my hand. I'm going to pull you out."

Though she was still clearly disoriented, Azula managed to do as instructed. Even if she didn't actually know what Xisheng had said to her, perhaps she didn't need to. Someone she trusted was offering a hand in a moment of hardship. It was obvious that she should take that hand.

With plenty of strength to lift a girl as light as Azula, Xisheng pulled her out of the damaged tank with ease. As soon as he did so, Xisheng stood up and lifted her into his arms bridal style before turning his attention to the soldier that was with him.

"Get the other crew members out of there, now!"

Though it was certainly quite a sight to see the princess of the whole nation carried in such a way, the addressed soldier ignored it to follow his duty. "Yes, sir!"

Carefully stepping off of the tank, Xisheng laid Azula against the side of the damaged vehicle so he could inspect her and see how well she truly was.

"Azula, can you hear me? Can you see what's happening around you?"

With a hand pressed to her head, Azula took in her surroundings, though her answer did not come especially quickly. "...yes. What happened? My head is killing me..."

"The tank was flipped by an enemy attack. I got thrown out. The rest of you were still inside. Tell me if anything seems wrong other than pain. Blurry vision? Difficulty breathing?"

Now that she was outside and had gotten a few moments to recuperate, Azula seemed to be getting her bearings. "Er... my vision is a little... oh, I feel dizzy..."

She said this while taking her hand from her scalp for a moment, identifying that it was covered in blood, even as more continued to trickle down her face. She didn't actually seem too troubled by that, but Xisheng got the feeling it was because she was having trouble being lucid. Her face was pale, and her pupils were dilated... Xisheng had seen this type of reaction to an injury before: mild shock. If it was anything like his first time being getting an injury that bled a lot, her head was probably swimming, and her vision narrowing. Technically, her injury wasn't really that serious, but people who weren't used to any decent amount of blood loss could still go into shock. Oddly enough, blood loss was the type of thing you could build resilience to, if it happened often enough.

"Alright, lay down here for a moment. Keep your hands on the wound."

Xisheng helped Azula lay flat on the ground. She was too out of it to care about the dirt or indignity of it. At about the same time, the soldier who had accompanied Xisheng managed to pull one of the crewmen out of Hotcake. As soon as he was able, Xisheng moved to help, grabbing hold of the wounded soldier and helping get them to the ground. It wasn't hard to tell which crewmember it was when she started talking.

"Ugh, damn... I told you all that cursing would bring bad luck. Hotcake hates that..."

Once they got the wounded Ling to the ground beside Azula, Xisheng turned to his healthy companion. "What about the driver?"

"I'm sorry, Commander. The driver is dead."

Saying nothing himself, Xisheng glanced down at the helmeted Ling, who had clearly not missed this utterance. The young woman chuckled bitterly. "Just like that, huh? Dammit, Mao... dammit!"

The young soldier threw a fist at her disabled tank, resulting in a clang that sounded painful against flesh. Xisheng turned back to his aiding trooper. "Get him out of the vehicle if you can, regardless. We're not leaving him here."

With a nod, the soldier moved back into the disabled tank to try and retrieve the fallen. Xisheng focused his attention back on Azula, who still had her hand to her head to staunch any bleeding. On the bright side, she did seem to be growing more lucid. Her wound hadn't been too serious, so that was no surprise. The young princess turned her attention onto Xisheng when she felt physically comfortable enough to speak.

"So, what do we do now?"

Glancing around the tank to spy the ongoing battle taking place nearby, Xisheng wasted no time in sharing his intent. "I still have to command the battle. We can't afford to get pushed back here. If the enemy discovers our tunnelers, we're doomed. If our assault force is defeated, we're doomed even if the wall comes down. I need to get back out there."

Azula began pushing herself up with her free arm after Xisheng said this. "Very well, just allow me a moment..."

Xisheng wasted no time in placing a hand on Azula's shoulder to stop her motion. "You're not coming, Azula."

Needless to say, the young Princess grew irate almost immediately. "Did we not talk about this already? Stop trying to shelter me!"

"This and that are completely separate. You're injured now. It doesn't matter who you are, that makes you a liability. The injured shouldn't be fighting unless it is absolutely necessary."

"It's just a scratch, it's hardly like I've broken a leg or something!"

Xisheng took his hand off of Azula's shoulder. "Fine. Stand up."

A little surprised to see him relenting, Azula pushed herself up into a sitting position, then tried to stand. However, her knees buckled about halfway through doing so, and she stumbled backwards into the wrecked Hotcake. Before Xisheng said anything at all, the look on her face made it clear that she had gotten his point. Of course, he still ended up saying something regardless.

"Your injury might not be life-threatening, but that doesn't mean it isn't a problem. I know someone like you isn't used to losing a lot of blood. You feel woozy and unstable, don't you? You can't fight like that. I know it. You know it."

Sliding back down into a sitting position, Azula scowled. She despised this feeling of uselessness. Of course, any sane person would accept that they couldn't just use willpower to overcome the limits of biology, but that didn't stop her from feeling like this was her fault.

"I can't just sit here, I've barely contributed to the battle at all!"

Rising to his feet because he knew he needed to be on his way soon, Xisheng did his best to placate the girl before him. "It's tough to accept, but sometimes, a warrior gets taken out of a fight before they get to do much. It's just a matter of chance, not skill. Look, fall back to the rear line and get treated. If you start feeling better afterwards, you can rejoin the fight then. Knowing when to retreat and take a burden off of your comrades' shoulders is also a means of contributing to a battle."

Though she wanted to protest, Azula couldn't do so in good conscience. She couldn't deny Xisheng's good points or his wisdom. That didn't make her disgruntlement any easier to stomach, but she had to display maturity. Azula was always mindful of how people viewed her, considering the important role she carried at a young age of fourteen, but at this time, she especially didn't want Xisheng of all people to see her as a petulant child.

"Alright, fine. But how am I going to get back to the rear line if I can barely stand?"

At about this time, the soldier who had accompanied Xisheng to check on the tank in the first place was pulling Mao's body from the vehicle. Xisheng moved to help him lower his fallen comrade onto the ground before giving Azula an answer. In fact, he focused on giving the soldier new orders before doing so.

"Escort her Highness back to the rear line. When you're finished, come back for the corporal here. Then return to battle."

Before his order could be acknowledged, the mentioned corporal raised her voice to interject. "Hold on, what about Mao?! We can't just leave him here!"

Most officers probably would have been agitated to be questioned so brusquely, but Xisheng understood that someone who had just lost a close comrade wasn't going to be thinking rationally. For that reason, he didn't turn on the outspoken corporal with any distaste.

"We're not going to leave him here. But we have to focus on saving the people who are still alive right now. We can't have soldiers absent from the battlefield to retrieve our fallen at this time. Every soldier who is doing that is another soldier not contributing to the battle, and unable to protect his comrades. We will retrieve our fallen, but it has to happen after the battle."

The young corporal fell silent, unable to mount any sort of counter to those points. Emotions would always give way to reason and logic on the battlefield, at least in regards to what was an objectively right call. Besides, she had already gotten out of line in front of her commander and the Crown Princess. It probably wasn't a good idea to try her luck a second time.

Now that the small objection had been handled, the soldier that Xisheng had ordered in the first place saluted his commander before taking a knee next to the downed Azula. He looked a little awkward in doing so, but who could blame him? Most common soldiers didn't end up putting their hands on royalty, and in a manner such as this no less.

"P-Princess, it would be my honor to escort you..."

Though she admitted that it felt odd to lean on the shoulder of a total stranger, Azula knew it would be foolish to demand Xisheng's aid in this regard. He had more important things to attend to right now. With that in mind, Azula contained any grumbling or outward malcontent as she allowed the masked soldier to support her weight and lift her up into a standing position. Admittedly, she felt a little unstable even now.

The young Princess gave Xisheng one last meaningful look before her escort began moving with her towards the rear line. The quiet demand for him to be careful was not lost on Xisheng. As for the young commander, he watched the duo move away for a few moments before turning his attention back to Corporal Ling, still sitting on the ground next to the destroyed Hotcake and the fallen Mao.

"Will you be alright here, Corporal?"

Her tone disheartened, the young soldier nevertheless managed an answer. "Don't worry about me, sir. I'll be fine..."

Knowing full well what was on her mind, Xisheng did his best to alleviate the young woman's concerns. "I promise you, Mao's sacrifice won't be forgotten or in vain. I'll ensure that he gets the hero's recognition that he deserves when this is over."

The junior crewman looked up at him, and Xisheng could only guess what expression may have lied behind the mask.

"...thank you, Commander."

It was unclear if she actually believed Xisheng. The young commander was sure that plenty of officers had made such claims just to boost morale before, only to forget about them later. And admittedly, it wasn't like Xisheng had enough political pull to force certain things to happen in his country. But at the very least, he would definitely make sure that the fallen soldiers of this battle were appreciated somehow. Granted, now wasn't really the time to worry about it.

With one final nod to the incapacitated corporal, Xisheng stepped out from behind Hotcake and ran towards the front line, where battle was still underway between the Fire Nation and the defenders of Ba Sing Se.

Admittedly, Xisheng was unsure how long he had actually been unconscious. But judging from the state of the battle, he felt that it couldn't have been more than a few minutes. The overall battle situation hadn't changed much, with the two sides still bitterly hanging onto the battle lines they had established for themselves. Neither side was getting pushed back at the moment, and it seemed like both sides still had a healthy number of combatants. Moreover, Xisheng distinctly recalled issuing an order for some of his siege engines to begin attacking the Earth Kingdom troops on the ground, and that hadn't begun yet. So, unless the soldier he had given that information to had died before the orders could be relayed, Xisheng couldn't imagine that it had been that long.

At any rate, Xisheng found himself sidestepping an arcing chunk of rock before he even reached his own troops. Ignoring it so he could form up with his allies, Xisheng approached a squad of soldiers just as one of them was launched into the air by the earth below him erupting upwards. Not far off, Xisheng could see the Earthbending squad that had likely launched this attack, so he wasted no time in charging up another bright yellow fireball to launch in their direction. Frankly, Xisheng was unsure how many of those he still had in him, but he figured it was best to make the most of his stamina while he still could.

Used to dealing with average and ordinary fire blasts, the Earthbending troops Xisheng launched his yellow lance at were completely unprepared for it, failing to react to its speed with any sort of defensive structure. The resulting blast obscured most of the enemy in debris and dust, though it obviously launched a few of them into the air. Xisheng was pretty certain he saw a boot go flying, though whether or not a foot was still inside of it was a mystery. Regardless, the enemy squad was scattered easily, with the ones who had not been injured scrambling away from the enemy in order to regroup in safety. This gave Xisheng enough time to approach the squad of friendly soldiers near him, though he noted they were not at full standard strength.

However, the soldier with the mark of a sergeant on his shoulder pad was still present, which was a good thing. It meant that Xisheng had someone with experience to speak to as he approached. Xisheng did not go unnoticed by the small squad of Firebenders as he neared them, though this probably shouldn't have been a surprise, considering that he had just launched a rather unique bending attack not far from their position a few moments ago. He was speaking to the sergeant even as the lower-ranking soldiers all bowed in dutiful reverence. They had the freedom to do so in this moment since their immediate adversaries had been forced into retreat.

"What's the situation here, Sergeant?"

With a quick salute, the sergeant gestured out towards the enemy battle line. "It's a complete stalemate sir, at least on this end of the line. We can't exert any pressure on the enemy line while being forced to attack over open ground like this. Even when they falter, it's too difficult to advance on their positions."

Xisheng did not need any explanation as to why that was. After all, he had been a rank and file soldier himself in the past, and he knew what types of unique dangers battling Earthbenders presented. Approaching an Earthbender position was tough even at the best of times, but it was damn near impossible over open-ground. With the entirety of the terrain available to use as a weapon or a deterrent, it only took one or two Earthbenders to completely stonewall an enemy advance. Just creating a big ditch or a tall wall was enough to present a problem for advancing Firebenders. This was to say nothing about the abundance of ammo and defensive utility available to Earthbenders in this situation as well.

In short, it was difficult to actually force Earthbenders into retreat in battles on open ground. They usually had to flee of their own accord due to attrition losses or an inability to sustain any sort of meaningful advance. But they rarely got pushed back by direct combat in these situations.

Admittedly, Xisheng wasn't sure if they actually needed to push back the enemy at this time. So long as they were being occupied, that would feasibly keep their attention off of the tunnelers down below. But at the same time, those tunnelers would eventually progress past the point this battle was occurring at and get closer to the walls. If there were Ba Sing Se troops in the rear lines who weren't as distracted, they could still pick up on the tunnelers and cause a big problem for the battle plan.

Moreover, even if the enemy didn't detect the tunnelers at all, Xisheng and his forces would still need to advance to the wall once it was down, and quickly. It would be best if they didn't have to fight their way through an enemy line in order to do so, especially since that enemy line could delay them long enough for the Fire Nation forces to lose their opportunity. Maybe they'd be too stunned or morale-stricken to fight back effectively after the wall was destroyed, but Xisheng didn't want to hedge all of his bets on that assumption.

No, they needed to rout their foes before the wall came down. That was the best outcome for them. As for how to do that, he would need the help of his soldiers. He spoke to the sergeant while pointing at what appeared to be a small box of stone walls in the enemy's line.

"Our opponents are using their typical fortifications for line warfare. We need to collapse this side of their line and wheel towards the center to flank them. To do that, we're need to dismantle their fortifications, and fast."

The sergeant nodded, even though he didn't know what Xisheng actually wanted them to do. "What do you need us to do, sir?"

"I'm sure you noticed my powerful Firebending attack a few moments ago. I am going to use that technique to destroy the barrier the enemy is hiding behind. You and your squad will immediately follow up my attack with wide-area fire blasts to immolate the enemy before they can recover from the sudden destruction of their cover. As long as we can kill them before they can reassert their defenses, we only have to break through once."

"Yes, sir, we'll follow your lead!"

Though this was a decent course of action on its own, Xisheng knew that he wouldn't be able to pull it off with this one squad. After all, even though the enemy Earthbenders were being pretty defensive, it wasn't like they weren't continuously attacking the Fire Nation lines at the same time. Xisheng would have a tough time doing his thing and getting this squad to make a followup attack without any cover against the constant dangers.

With that in mind, Xisheng first enlisted the help of some extra troops from the rear line that weren't actively engaged in battle, giving them orders to protect Xisheng and his squad from incoming threats or immediate danger of any other sort. Once he and his men had an extra screen of protection, they got closer to one of the Earth Kingdom fortifications.

Said fortification was really a great design: the Earthbenders would raise walls to their sides, and create a trapezoid shaped front section that faced the enemy. They would fashion a stone ceiling over their head, then carve little holes they could look through at the front of the fortification. They would use those peepholes to determine when it was safest to swiftly lower small sections of the front wall and launch boulders out of it, before raising them back up to protect against return fire. It was like a tortoise that managed to poke its head out and snap at any target of opportunity, but always managed to retreat inside of its shell before retribution.

Any ordinary incoming Firebending attack could be easily thwarted: even if the timing of their openings were off, it only took a split second to seal the hole, so it was difficult for flames to actually make it into the enemy's fortification. Their peepholes could also be closed quickly at any time if incoming fire was an issue. This meant an entire squad of Earthbenders had excellent protection that they could erect anywhere on the field of battle, giving them both an offensive and defensive advantage. It even offered them concealment to do other things, such as tunnel, retreat, or plan. It was a mobile mini-bunker, and the strategy had been a huge pain in the ass of the Fire Nation for years.

Defeating these stone bunkers also tended to be very problematic. Bombarding them with siege engines was technically a viable strategy, but if the Earthbenders realized they were in danger of getting whacked by a giant projectile, it wasn't like they would just sit there in the bunker and wait to get hit. Because the bunker was simply an Earthbending fortification, they could easily move and raise another one somewhere else in minutes. So unless the first siege volley hit the bunker right away, that option tended to not actually produce results.

It was technically possible to batter down the bunkers with sheer Firebending saturation, but that required a lot of dedicated manpower, and it took a lot of time. Not to mention, it played right into the entire point of the stone fortification: force the enemy to dedicate significant time and resources into taking down something that could be easily replaced. It was a huge waste of resources for the Fire Nation, and cost the Earthbenders next to nothing, as far as battlefield resources was concerned.

The real value was, of course, the Earthbenders inside of the bunker. That was the one valuable resource that needed to be depleted for the Fire Nation to win an offensive. So that was what Xisheng needed to destroy.

When an opening presented itself and his men were covered well enough to strike without concern, Xisheng began charging another bright yellow sphere of flame in his hands. When it was compressed to the best of his ability, he called out to his men, knowing full well that they would need to launch their slower moving flame before him in order to hit the enemy with the proper timing.

"Strike now!"

The squad of Firebenders under Xisheng's direct command launched a synchronized blast of flame towards a nearby stone bunker. When those flames were about halfway to the target, Xisheng launched his own attack, moving at a far more rapid pace. If the enemies inside the bunker realized that they were in trouble, they didn't really have time to react. They probably thought the only concern was the usual, far more obvious blast of orange Firebending. Something they could usually rely on their stone bunker to protect them from.

But this time, that defense was not enough. Xisheng's spear of yellow flame raced ahead of the orange Firebending blast, creating a brief, yet blinding flare of white light at the point of impact. The brilliance was immediately supplanted by a deafening blast that ripped apart the stone wall, sending a shower of debris and pebbles all about.

Admittedly, Xisheng would have been surprised if anyone could survive an explosion like that while being so close to it, but he also supposed it didn't matter: before the dust even cleared, the wave of orange flame launched by his squad washed over the remains of the now exposed stone bunker, slathering anyone who may have still been alive in fire. The screams that emanated from the direction of the bunker indicated that some people had clearly survived the initial blast. The notion was further confirmed when a few individuals, coated in flames, came rushing out of the dust, flailing in vain attempts to put out the ravaging heat that was causing them excruciating agony. The pain of burning alive was too much to overcome with logic and discipline: no one had the wits about them to try and douse the flames with dirt.

The objectively horrifying sight fell on mostly jaded minds. Firebenders that intended to wage war had to come to terms with the idea of burning people alive. In fact, they were trained to be desensitized to it during their basic training. Throughout the weeks of basic training, aspiring soldiers would be required to watch as the drill sergeant took a captive animal, usually a possum chicken, and burned it alive while it was contained in a cage. Cruel, most assuredly. But also an absolutely vital part of training soldiers who fought with fire. You couldn't train an army whose main means of killing the enemy was fire, and expect them to perform well in real combat with no exposure to what it was like to kill people like that.

Duels and sparring weren't enough. Being burned was one thing. Burning a living thing alive was much different. The screams, the frantic flailing, the smell of melting flesh: you didn't want a soldier's first exposure to all of that to be on the battlefield, where they couldn't afford to have some sort of breakdown over the horror of it all.

But it was horrible. Even those who had become familiar with it could not pretend otherwise. That was why Xisheng used his bending to extinguish the burning Earthbenders when they were close enough for him to do it. He was unsure if that small mercy really meant anything at all for those poor souls, but as they collapsed to the ground, likely to perish from their wounds anyway, Xisheng could at least hope that their demise was spared a small amount of agony. How the soldiers in his squad may have felt about it, Xisheng had no idea. Some of them were probably familiar with such horrors already. Others may have been new to it, but at least had the discipline to hold themselves together.

Either way, a defense point in the Earth Kingdom line was destroyed, which allowed the Fire Nation troops to advance on the now devastated position. It was a small foothold in the enemy's line, most assuredly. The enemy frontline was still to their direct left, and the enemy's rear line was still in front of them. But this small foothold was still more than enough to start pushing a major advantage.

Most of the enemy's frontline was situated in the same way Xisheng's most recent victims had been: an assortment of stone bunkers, serving as strong points to hold off a direct frontal assault. But the enemy wasn't expecting to get flanked, and had most of their attention to the Fire Nation troops in front of them. The enemy's rear line was not in such defensible positions, and appeared to be comprised of non-bending troops, or less experienced soldiers who were no doubt supposed to fill gaps in the frontline ranks if they appeared.

They had such a gap to worry about right now, but Xisheng wasn't going to let them ruin the Fire Nation's advantage. With another fire signal, he directed the nearest section of the Fire Nation line to rush the gap he and the squad directly under his command had created. With tanks and infantry suddenly charging forward into a breach that hadn't been present two minutes ago, the Earth Kingdom's rear line troops were unprepared to react and unable to halt the immediate onslaught. Their bad situation was exacerbated even further when trebuchet projectiles from the Fire Nation siege line began to rain down into the rear sections of the Earth Kingdom's forces. Apparently, Xisheng's order to do so had finally been relayed.

This all meant that the troops under Xisheng's direct command didn't have to worry about enemy reinforcements getting in their way, and they had free rein to start sweeping through the Earth Kingdom's front line bunkers, repeating the same process as with the first one.

The enemy, too preoccupied with fighting the foes in front of them or unaware of Xisheng's bunker-busting technique, never took proper action to defend themselves, seeing Xisheng's squads as ordinary troops posing an ordinary threat. Xisheng and his men had to contend with earth spikes and flying boulders, but it was clear that no one identified them as a unique threat. And thus, they continued to succeed in their grim task.

Xisheng would smite a bunker wall, sometimes the entire structure, but it didn't matter either way. As long as one wall went down, the wave of immolating flame that his troops followed up with would engulf the entire squad of enemy Earthbenders before any of them could recover from the blast. Some of them had merciful deaths, being killed by the initial explosion. Many others were not so lucky, barely recovering from the ringing in their ears before being burned alive. In each case, Xisheng and his squad achieved a perfect kill rate. With the enemy Earthbenders packed into tight spaces and unready to defend themselves each time, they never stood a chance.

Thanks to all of this, Xisheng and his men managed to clear four more enemy bunkers in just a few minutes. Each destroyed target opened up a vulnerability in the Earth Kingdom front line that Xisheng exploited, by ordering his army to charge the gaps. The enemy rear line was in disarray, being assaulted without much warning and bombarded from a distance, and Xisheng knew he had the upper hand. His army was beginning to enclose the enemy: if the enemy rear line routed, they could encircle the enemy front line completely and capture or destroy them.

This was currently Xisheng's intent, as he led his troops towards the next bunker on the enemy front line. This time, however, the enemy seemed better prepared for him and his troops. Maybe someone in their rear forces had caught onto what was happening, and managed to relay that information to the bunker ahead. Whatever the reason, the squad inside the next earthen bunker were watching their flanks much more closely, and they attacked Xisheng and his squad as soon as they were in range, with a devastating fusillade of small stone spikes launched from tiny holes in the bunker wall.

Xisheng shouted to all of his men the moment he recognized the danger.

"Get down! Everyone, get down!"

Xisheng launched himself face first into the dirt, knowing full well that there was no alternative to protect himself. There were too many projectiles to reliably avoid, and they were too small and too many to try and intercept with Firebending. A wide wall of flame would lack the power needed to destroy the earth spikes, which would have just punched through the flames and continued to endanger them.

All around him, Xisheng's comrades did the same, throwing themselves to the ground to avoid a grisly demise. But as the tiny earth javelins began to race over Xisheng's head, he saw that not everyone was as lucky as he was. One of the soldiers just behind him was hit right in the shoulder, with the spike shattering on the armor there. Judging by the scream of pain, the soldier was still severely wounded, even if the spike hadn't penetrated.

On the other hand, Xisheng witnessed one of his subordinates being killed outright to his left: he was too slow in getting down, and an earth spike caught him right in the head, possibly even going right into the eye socket on the faceplate. Wherever it hit, Xisheng bore witness to a grotesque splash of bone and blood as the helmet was ripped away from the rest of the body, undoubtedly with some of the man's head still inside of it. Xisheng felt some of the drops of gore splatter on his exposed face, but he did his best to ignore the urge to retch.

Besides, it wasn't like he had much time to dwell on the viscera. Right after he and his men had hit the dirt, a rolling wave of earth was launched at them from the direction of the bunker, akin to some sort of burrowing creature. He had no choice but to roll out of the way, just barely avoiding being flung into the air by the miniature earthquake. As expected, approaching a bunker that was actually aware of them as a threat was a big challenge. But, not one that Xisheng had no means to deal with.

"Squad, suppress the enemy! Everyone, launch continuous streams!"

Admittedly, Xisheng had no way of knowing if everyone was able to hear him. But at the very least, enough of his soldiers were able to follow his orders to actually be effective with it. Anyone who was not currently dodging or pinned down began to launch a single, continuous stream of flame at the stone bunker that was ahead of them. These flames would not be enough to destroy the bunker, but it did the next best thing: it forced the enemy squad within to turtle up, shutting every viewport in their fortification lest the reaching flames find a way inside. Technically, being blinded didn't stop the Earthbenders from attacking entirely, but it did stop them from doing it accurately. A few wayward quake waves came towards Xisheng and his squad, but they were clearly just aimed in the general direction of the Fire Nation soldiers, meaning they were easy enough to avoid. The low accuracy even allowed those of Xisheng's men who had been pinned down to get back to their feet and contribute to the blinding assault.

Xisheng pushed himself to his feet as well, getting ready to prepare another compressed bending attack. In hindsight, this strategy would work just as well: his men could just be coating the target in flame before Xisheng destroyed it. The flames would bite the enemy almost immediately after the blast with this strategy.

Yet, before Xisheng could prepare his next attack, he was called out to by one of his soldiers. "Commander, look! A signal from Force Ember!"

Following the outstretched arm and pointing finger of one of his subordinates, Xisheng spied a signal fire in the distance, above the battlefield he currently occupied. One long stream of flame, arcing as high into the sky as possible... angled towards the Fire Nation's staging area. It was an indication that Force Ember was in retreat.

"Dammit, a rout?! There goes a third of our chance at victory..."

"Sir, what do we do?!"

Before answering, Xisheng finished charging his compressed bending attack, then launched it at the bunker currently being bathed in orange flame. The raucous explosion was followed up by screams of agony, but he ignored them to continue commanding his troops.

"We keep pushing! We still have Force Blaze in the south, and us as well! The battle can be ours as long as any one assault force can get the job done! Follow me!"

Emboldened by his determination even in the face of a major setback and the mounting casualties among Force Dragon, Xisheng's soldiers wasted no time in asserting their willingness to continue following his command.

"Yes, sir!"

Despite his claims, Xisheng found that the battle was once again turning into a stalemate. The Earth Kingdom forces had managed to get their lines in order: the rear line had folded inward, being pushed back by the flanking Fire Nation forces. But they had rallied after a period of disorganization, and had formed a front line of their own. The Earth Kingdom forces were now situated in a square of sorts, with defense lines on the west and south sides. Technically, they were still in the process of being encircled, but the Fire Nation assault force hadn't fully achieved that yet. And if the enemy managed to form defensive lines all the way around, it would be difficult to defeat them even if they were encircled.

Plus, Xisheng was unsure if he really wanted to encircle the enemy in the first place. For most armies, encirclement was a good reason to accept defeat: you couldn't retreat, so if you felt like a loss was inevitable, you would just surrender. But this wasn't true for Earthbenders on open ground. Even if they were completely encircled by Fire Nation forces, they could retreat underground and escape that way. Needless to say, Xisheng didn't want to push his enemy underground, because that would increase the odds of them discovering the Fire Nation's sappers.

It would be best if they could force the Earthbenders into retreat on the surface...

With the reformation of new battle lines between the two forces, and the Earth Kingdom forces growing a bit more aware of flanking threats, Xisheng found that his bunker busting spree was coming to a close. Even with a good technique to take them out, the enemy's awareness of the threat made it incredibly difficult to get into range of any more targets: Xisheng even noticed that some of the enemy squads were beginning to add extra layers of walls to their defenses, with spacing between them and the bunkers themselves. They may not have known who exactly had been destroying their fortifications on the front line, but they seemed to have learned that it was explosive in nature. Even if Xisheng could get close to those bunkers without being squashed by a rock, he would need to use several compressed Firebending attacks to get to the target, and that was ignoring the fact that the enemy could use the time he needed between charging to erect completely new walls. It just wasn't going to be viable any longer, at least not on this battlefield.

Still, as he watched a trebuchet projectile smash into a stone bunker and explode, Xisheng was at least glad to know that the enemy wasn't totally invulnerable.

Back in the rear line, Azula had just finished being checked by a combat physician. It was an odd experience for the young Princess, one that she had honestly never expected to be in: leaning on a stranger's shoulder to get to safety, being ushered into a tent where the wounded were being treated, and being tended to like some sort of ordinary war victim... she would not have expected any of this just a little while ago.

It was a bit surreal, honestly. As her head began to clear, Azula had been able to take in her surroundings more cleanly at the triage tent. Her own injury was just a minor head laceration, which had been treated and bandaged quickly enough. It may have bled a lot right after the wound, but it was technically an easy fix. The other men and women in the tent around her though, not so much.

There had already been a number of severely wounded soldiers in the tent when Azula was brought there. Soldiers with mangled limbs and gushing bodily wounds. Soldiers writhing in agony from interior maiming that couldn't be seen by the naked eye. The dirt covered by the tent was soaked in blood in entire splotches, enough that you could hear a squelching noise whenever someone stepped there. Cries of pain and suffering filled the tent as wounded troops struggled to maintain their composure. The few who were unconscious were arguably luckier.

Azula liked to pretend that she was hard, for lack of a better word. Jaded, unflinching, unfettered by anything. But she had been forced to reevaluate that idea of herself multiple times today. Being on the field of a heated battle, with people dying on all sides, and having no control over whether or not she would survive, had already been a tough hit to her pride, because she would be lying if she said the situation hadn't scared her. And sitting in that tent, staring at the horribly maimed soldiers all around her, Azula found it difficult to keep a clear head. She'd never seen someone missing their arm because it had been torn off at the elbow by a flying rock. She'd never seen someone's femur snapped in two, piercing out of someone's flesh.

She was colder and more detached than most, but she wasn't a statue. Even she was troubled by such sights. And it didn't get any better when she was finally able to step out of the wound care tent with her now bandaged skull. Not far outside of that tent, there was another one: unmarked, but it was no mystery as to its purpose. Through the open tent flap, Azula could spy the bodies of fallen soldiers, laid out next to one another in a uniform manner. None of them were moving. None of them made any noise. Azula watched as two other soldiers carried a limp body into the tent, before leaving without that same body a few moments later.

A small part of her wondered if the body of that tanker from before was in that tent.

Admittedly, Azula found herself somewhat troubled by the notion, which was a bit of an odd feeling for her. She was not someone who spared a thought for the nameless people whose faces and lives she would never know or care for. She'd never had a problem writing off the suffering of strangers simply because they were people she didn't personally care about. But there was something different this time, some reason that she actually felt bad about what she was seeing around her.

And why was that? Surprisingly, it didn't take Azula too much self-inventory to come up with an answer. It was because she kept seeing someone else in the masked bodies of those fallen soldiers. She couldn't help but see Xisheng in each and every one of them. He too had once been a masked, faceless soldier to her. Someone who would be expected to wind up just like these maimed or wounded soldiers on her behalf if need be. Back when he was just a grunt, he could have winded up just like any one of these soldiers around Azula now. Before she had ever met him, he could have ended up dead or wounded on some battlefield against the Earth Kingdom.

And logically, that shouldn't have meant much. If she had never met him, obviously she never would have cared if he had died fighting in a battle. But she had met him. And because of that meeting, her perspective on such things was not the same as it used to be. It was weird, actually giving a damn about random people she didn't really know. Her father would probably call it a glaring weakness of character. And maybe he would be right about that. But it was probably too late to do anything about it.

At any rate, it wasn't like the rear area back here was just for tending to the wounded and the dead. Azula could hear the mechanical cranking of the trebuchets not far in the distance, as they continued to bombard the defenders from Ba Sing Se. Groups of soldiers were still rushing towards the battlefield every once in awhile, while the injured were continually being brought back for recovery. A battle was still very much underway, and Xisheng was still out there, fighting that battle. He could end up being in the same situation as all of these dead and wounded, if the battle continued to go on for much longer. The sooner it was over, the less likely he was to wind up like these poor souls...

Azula's initial reaction to the thought was to charge back onto the battlefield, but she willed down that desire. Though she wasn't falling over without support now, the young Princess was acutely aware of her body at all times, and she knew she wasn't at her usual strength. Maybe she felt fine now, just standing here, but would she continue feeling stable if she ran back out to the battlefield and started exerting herself as much as was required to fight her best? It was very likely that she'd run out of steam quickly, trying to fight so soon after a moderate head injury. Though she loathed admitting it, Azula knew that reentering the battlefield now meant that she could very well wind up as nothing more than a burden for Xisheng, who was already dealing with many problems. And though she was happy to acknowledge that he would definitely risk his life to protect her, Azula had no desire to force him into such a situation because she was too headstrong to recognize when she was doing more harm than good.

As Xisheng had wisely stated before they parted ways, knowing when to remove yourself as a burden from your comrades' shoulders was also important. Still, that didn't mean she would just sit here and wait to hear good or bad news. Though tempered by the wisdom of her pupil, her pride still wouldn't allow that. Determined to still contribute to this battle somehow, Azula made her way towards the trebuchet lines, knowing that the sapper tunnels were near it.

Admittedly, it was a bit odd, moving through the bustling rear line. Azula was used to being bowed to by everyone, but no one did so as she passed by them. Not because they were disrespecting her, but because no one seemed to even notice her presence. Everyone was too busy. Pairs of soldiers were dashing to and fro, either carrying the wounded off the battlefield or carrying new munitions towards the siege line. Squads of fresh soldiers were being briefed by sergeants before they charged onto the battlefield themselves. And as Azula got even closer to the ring of Overlords that were covering the sapper tunnels, she noticed plenty of people that were just too busy dodging the wayward stone projectile to pay her any mind. The young Princess even noticed one of the Overlords rattle and tilt a bit as something hit it from the other side. Though she wasn't directly in the line of fire, Azula was keenly aware that she wasn't in a completely safe spot either.

But she banished such thoughts from her mind, instead focusing on the three large, square holes that had been carved into the earth just behind the semi-circle of Overlords acting as shields. Huge mounds of dirt and rock lay piled next to each of them, growing even larger as Earthbenders standing outside said holes continued to grab debris from their comrades in the tunnels and place it there. Although, Azula couldn't help but notice that the tunnel on the left had a much smaller mound of earth next to it, and instead of more dirt being pulled out of the tunnel, several Earthbenders and Fire Nation soldiers were struggling to extricate seemingly wounded individuals out of the hole.

Walking up to the site of this chaos, Azula demanded an explanation without any introduction.

"What happened here?"

One of the soldiers who didn't have his hands full with a body swiftly turned to identify the young girl who was speaking to them. Naturally, he made a hasty bow once he identified just who that was. Even so, the masked trooper seemed more concerned with the situation around him than the unexpected presence of a royal.

"Princess! This tunnel collapsed during excavation. We're extracting the wounded now!"

Azula knew that it would probably come off as heartless, but ultimately, she also knew that there were more important things to worry about as far as the grand scheme was concerned.

"How long is it going to take before this tunnel can resume digging towards the walls?"

"Unknown, Your Highness. We're not sure how many members of the sapper team are still able to continue. We haven't even gotten a head count on the injured yet."

"Well, prioritize the resumption of the excavation. None of this is going to matter if that wall doesn't come down."

Whether the soldier thought it was callous or logical, Azula couldn't tell. But regardless, he gave an affirmative and a salute, which prompted the bandaged Princess to move over to the next tunnel entrance and address the person overseeing it.

"Who is in charge here? What is the status of this tunnel?!"

Azula knew that fighting directly was out of the picture for her at this point, but at the very least, perhaps she could expedite the most important aspect of the entire battle.

Back on the front line, Xisheng' situation had not improved much. He'd yet to find another opportunity to make a breakthrough in the enemy's defenses, and had instead been mostly preoccupied with just keeping himself and his men alive. That had proven challenging, what with the renewed resistance of their Earthbending foes, but so far, Xisheng hadn't seen another one of his men outright killed. One of them had been hit right in the knee by a hefty rock, which had thrown him to the ground immediately. But despite the young soldier's cries of agony as his limp leg was pulled over the ground, Xisheng had managed to grab the wounded soldier and drag him to a Firestorm tank that had been forced onto its side at some point. Unable to continue fighting, the vehicle had been abandoned, but at least it served as a formidable shield against the barrage of their enemies. Behind this tank was where the remains of Xisheng's squad huddled, keeping their heads low due to the constant reminder of rocks pinging off of the downed tank.

Xisheng peeked around the edge of the tank chassis to appraise the enemy line, noting that the stalemate between the two battling factions was still seemingly insurmountable. Actually, the young commander knew that, ultimately, he was the one who would lose if it came down to a war of attrition. He had a limited number of troops at his disposal. The defenders had the entirety of Ba Sing Se behind them, if need be. If Xisheng lost too many troops before the wall came down, the whole thing was a lost cause regardless.

That was a big reason why he hadn't ordered some sort of reckless charge at the enemy line. For one, he didn't think such a tactic would actually work. Two, he couldn't afford to throw lives away on a reckless plan just because the situation seemed desperate. What separated a good commander from a bad one was the ability to remain level-headed and make rational decisions even when everything was going to shit.

Still, their ability to win was mostly dependent on their enemy's behavior. He knew that. Hell, judging by what one of his subordinates said at that moment, other people knew that too.

"Sir, are we really safe here? What if the enemy tunnels underneath us to get to get around our cover? Hell, I'm surprised I haven't seen any of them popping out of the ground throughout the battle as it is..."

Xisheng too, had questioned that. Tunneling was one of the Earth Kingdom's greatest military strengths. It allowed them to move troops around with near impunity, making for easy ambushes, retreats, flanks, and rear line harassment. Even now, the enemy before them had plenty of opportunity to do this: with the cover of their own stone bunkers, they could tunnel underground without being witnessed, and go right under the Fire Nation front line to instead attack the rear. Xisheng had Earthbenders back there who would probably detect the attempt, but the enemy didn't know that, so that wouldn't have deterred them.

So why weren't they taking advantage of one of their unique strengths? Xisheng could hardly say for certain, but admittedly, he had a few possible explanations in mind.

From a practical point of view, it was possible that Ba Sing Se didn't actually want to rout their attackers right away. If they believed that the trebuchets would be the focal point of any Fire Nation strategy, one might think that simply destroying them as soon as possible would be the best course of action. But that wasn't necessarily true. There were several strategic reasons to actually allow the Fire Nation assault to drag on.

Destroying the twenty or so trebuchets in the rear line would definitely be a material loss for the Fire Nation, but not one that was too impactful. They could easily be repaired or replaced. On the other hand, the actual munitions that the Fire Nation was lobbing at the walls were a consumable resource that could not be recovered after their use. It was possible that the defenders of Ba Sing Se actually wanted the attack to drag on so the Fire Nation would waste resources. After all, from their point of view, they could easily repair any damage the Comet trebuchets caused long before it was a problem. If all they had to do was spend dirt and time, it was a logistically good trade to make their enemy waste valuable ammunition. In their minds, it posed no threat to allow that.

Or, perhaps they were actually looking to inflict casualties. If they believed that the trebuchets were the focal point of the assault, then they likely also believed that the Fire Nation would retreat if those trebuchets were destroyed. Ba Sing Se had a manpower advantage and they knew it. Every soldier maimed or killed was a much bigger blow to the Fire Nation than the same was to Ba Sing Se. Maybe the enemy didn't want to rout the Fire Nation right away, and was actually looking to inflict casualties to further gain an upper hand in the war of attrition.

And of course, there was the secret third option. Maybe there was no strategic thinking to it at all. Maybe the enemy generals were just so convinced that their walls couldn't be breached this time, that they wanted to allow the Fire Nation to break against them even if they could have been pushed back earlier. It wasn't like the Fire Nation was the only country with arrogant fools in positions of command.

Either way, Xisheng couldn't say for certain. All he could do was be grateful that the enemy forces weren't utilizing their abilities as well as they could have been.

"Far be it from me to question good fortune. They're doing as the Earth Kingdom often does: digging in and holding their ground even when an offensive would serve them better."

The soldier who had initially posed this question nodded. "I certainly have no complaints. What's our next course of action, Commander?"


Xisheng petered off, having not exactly formulated an idea for the next best move yet. But he would have been interrupted anyway, because a bright flare of light in the sky to the south caught his attention. It was a signal fire from Force Blaze. But it wasn't the signal for retreat. It was a series of short bursts, punctuated by one long jet near the end. It was the signal for a successful tunnel, an indication that the assault force had completed their sapping operation and would soon attempt to bring down the walls with explosives. Maybe even in the next few minutes.

Xisheng felt a rush of relief at the sight of the signal, but did his best to keep it from clouding his judgment. The wall wasn't down yet. Getting a tunnel to the wall was just the first stage of the assault.

At any rate, he ordered his squad to stay put for the moment, since what happened in the next few minutes would dictate his next orders. If the wall in front of Force Blaze did come down, he would need to swiftly redirect the bulk of his troops there. It wouldn't do him any good to have his force embroiled in a difficult maneuver at the exact moment they needed to hoof it somewhere else.

He kept his multicolored gaze pensively affixed in the direction of Force Blaze, waiting for the moment of truth, almost completely removed from the carnage around him. It was possible that this would be the fruition of his plan, proof that he could be trusted to lead this campaign. More importantly, it could be validation for the men and women who had lost their lives in pursuit of this objective.

Xisheng didn't have Mai's eagle vision. But he was certain that he could see it when the bombs went off. Far in the distance, at the foot of the wall being attacked by Force Blaze, a cloud of dirt and dust erupted into the air. A wall of air could briefly be seen emanating from the same point of origin, and mere moments later, the distant sound of what must have been a deafening roar washed over the engaged forces at Xisheng's position, lessened by the distance but still drowning out the fighting for a split second. Xisheng was certain that he felt his teeth rattle, though perhaps it was the subdued tremble of the earth under everyone's feet not long after the noise had reached them.

Lots of soldiers from both sides of the combat stole a glance in the direction of the blast, either curious to see if it had worked in the case of the Fire Nation, or curious to find out what it had been at all in the case of the Earth Kingdom. But as the dust from the explosion began fluttering to the ground, Xisheng was unable to tell if they had succeeded. With bated breath, he waited for another signal from Force Blaze. Surely enough, a combination of long and short fire blasts into the sky gave him the information he needed to know.

Attack unsuccessful.

He could not see the condition of the wall from here and from this angle, but it wasn't like it really mattered: despite the blast from underneath its own foundations, the section of the wall in front of Force Blaze was still intact enough to prevent a direct incursion. Feeling his frustration mounting, Xisheng slammed a fist into the side of the downed tank he and his men were hiding behind, ignoring the pain that action caused.


The soldiers around him were all silent for a moment, also feeling the despair of a failed attempt to achieve their goals. It was disheartening to see the exact strategy they were trying now fall short elsewhere. It certainly wasn't inspiring any confidence. Still, one of them managed to speak up for the group in short order.

"What now, sir?"

Knowing full well that these men were looking to him for guidance and assurance, Xisheng took a calming breath before gathering his thoughts.

"...we continue with the plan. Giving up before we take our own shot at it makes every sacrifice made by our comrades out here pointless. I won't concede defeat before even taking the chance they bought us with their lives and limbs. We will continue to fight."

With nods of affirmation and confidence from the soldiers around him, Xisheng debated how to best continue the attack. Before he could come to a conclusion, the soldier on the ground with the mangled leg tried to push himself up into a sitting position. Noticing this, Xisheng stopped his motion with a hand on the shoulder.

"Not you, soldier. You've already done enough."

"But sir, I can still fight! I can't just lay here while you all go out and battle the enemy!"

Before he could even make a rebuttal of his own, the rest of the Fire Nation squad was doing it for Xisheng.

"Don't be an idiot, Kang. Just leave this to us."

"Yeah, the Commander saved your life just now, you can't just throw it away by being a moron!"

"That's right. Don't be so eager to take another hit. I'm sure you can eat another rock for the team some other time."

Though he was already being talked down by his comrades, Xisheng commented on the wounded soldier's willingness to fight anyway. "Listen to your squadmates. I know it's hard to sit back while they fight, but think about what you can reasonably do right now. You can go out there and get killed now, or you can stay alive, recover, and maybe protect one of them in another battle on another day. If you really want to help them, consider that, instead of your own sense of pride."

Though he hardly looked eager to accept it, the wounded soldier ultimately nodded before propping himself up against the tank.

"Alright... I better see each and every one of you at the mess when this is over! Even I can't take care of all of your girlfriends alone."

Following a couple of lighthearted jeers and mockery from the remaining troops, all of whom were probably doing their best to ignore the friends they had already lost until after the battle, Xisheng rallied the squad to him for another fierce fight.

"Alright, all of you stay close to me. This is going to get hairy..."

Back in the rear line, Azula lowered a telescope she had pilfered from a commanding officer, scowling in the direction of the blast that had been caused by Force Blaze but a few moments ago. The dust from that explosion was still settling, but with the aid of a telescope, she was able to tell that things had not worked out. Admittedly, the wall directly on top of the blast site looked compromised: there were some big cracks running along its length, and it even appeared to be sagging a little, which was a strange thing to say about a giant stone wall. But ultimately, that wall was still standing, and it wasn't compromised enough for the Fire Nation forces to rush into Ba Sing Se.

Irate, the young Princess chewed on her bottom lip as she glanced around at the troops in her own vicinity, still toiling away under the earth. Presumably, if Force Blaze had managed to tunnel all the way to the walls by now, the sappers here shouldn't have been too far behind.

But clearly, some alterations to the strategy were in order. It had already failed to work once, and this was their last shot.

There were still two tunnels being dug at this position. If they both managed to reach their target, and both managed to be set off simultaneously or close enough to one another, maybe that would get the wall down. But two tunnels meant twice as much possibility for things to go awry. What if the wall was compromised after the first blast, but didn't fall, just like the the section Force Blaze had attacked? If that compromised the foundations under the wall, it was possible that the second sapper team would be unable to properly set off their explosives in the first place.

And what if there was some issue with setting off the explosives? If you needed everything to go off without a hitch twice, that was twice the chance that things wouldn't go according to plan.

Even as she was contemplating this, an Earthbender from the middle tunnel emerged from the dark depths and started shouting immediately. "We've reached the target! We're right up against the foundations of the walls!"

Collapsing the telescope she had been using, Azula stepped over to the soldiers that started bustling around the tunnel entrance, namely the overseer that she had first appropriated her telescope from in the first place. Said officer was shouting down into the allegedly completed tunnels when Azula reached him.

"Alright, clear out! We have to start moving explosives through this tunnel, and we need some room! And as for you bomb carriers, take your damn time! These things are high explosives, do not drop them! If you waste our munitions I'll follow you to the afterlife and beat the hell out of you! Now go, go! Every minute those bastards hold us off is a stain on our nation's pride!"

With orders from their superior, dozens of soldiers and volunteers began moving around with haste: Earthbenders started to vacate the tunnel they had dug so soldiers could have enough space to move explosives to the end of it. Said soldiers began to lift everything that had been allotted for their tunnel into their arms: barrels of blasting jelly, black powder kegs, and even complete explosive munitions were all fair game. However, Azula noted that another stockpile of explosives near the right tunnel was going untouched. Presumably, those were reserved to use with that tunnel when it was complete. And of course, there were the explosives that had been reserved for the collapsed tunnel as well.

Staring at the sizable stockpile of explosives that wouldn't be used for the middle tunnel, Azula got the attention of the overseer who had just shouted out a bunch of orders. "You. I want all of these explosives dedicated to this tunnel."

Shocked by her sudden arrival a second time, the overseer whirled around, his long mustache spinning in the wind. "P-Princess- those explosives are reserved for the third tunnel!"

Azula decided against getting uppity about people questioning her orders. This really wasn't the time for such petty things. "All of the tunnels were using the same amount of explosives in this strategy, yes?"

"Yes, our stockpile was evenly divided among the nine tunnels, your Highness..."

"Well, as we just saw with Force Blaze, that amount of explosives will not be sufficient to take down this wall. Take everything we have and concentrate it into one blast. That's an order."

The overseer was silent for a moment, contemplating what he should do. As Acting Commander, Xisheng was the one in charge of this plan, and should have been the only one able to order major alterations to it. But Azula was the Crown Princess of the Fire Nation, who objectively superseded that. And yet, what if he went through with this ordered alteration, and this plan resulted in failure because of it? Would a royal like Azula take responsibility for making the order, or would she pin the blame on someone else because she could?

Well, ultimately, the royal family could do far worse to him than a superior military officer could. One could ruin his career, but the other could ruin far more than that.

"Y-yes, your Highness. Should we stop digging the third tunnel?"

"No, continue. Just in case something goes wrong with the one we are currently digging. We shouldn't assume everything is going to go perfectly with our initial attempt. It could collapse while we're moving our explosives into position."

"Yes, of course, your Highness. I'll relay your orders immediately."

The overseer went about doing just that, which gave Azula another few moments to dwell on what she was doing here. This was Xisheng's plan, that he had pored over for hours and hours. Azula technically had the authority to override any aspect of it if she wanted to. But it wasn't a matter of flexing her authority. She genuinely believed that Xisheng trusted her to make such alterations without consulting him. They were master and student: this wasn't some power-grab by either person. If anything, she fully believed that Xisheng would outright expect her to make alterations if it would genuinely improve their odds of success.

And could she still do that? Was there even more improvement she could make to increase their chances? Everything hinged on the power of this explosion they were planning. What could she do to make it even more potent, short of adding more explosive mass to it...?

Wait a minute, why did this line of thought sound familiar to her? Azula felt like she had shared a conversation a lot like this at some point.

But then, that was probably because she had. Suddenly, she recalled a certain conversation she and Xisheng had shared, back when she was first starting to to teach him about compressed Firebending. He had made an analogy about a black powder explosion. Something about how, if the powder was ignited while spread out in the open, it would fizzle out without much power. But if it was forced into a sealed, contained space, the blast was more focused and destructive. Maybe that could be used to increase their chances as well.

Though she had just finished addressing the man, Azula got the overseer's attention again. "Is it possible to seal off the tunnel after the explosives have been placed?"

This time, the overseer just looked at her in confusion. "How? In order to detonate the explosives safely, we have to use a long fuse stretching from the target point to here at the entrance. It's the only way the sappers would have enough time to clear the tunnels. Unless someone was going to stay behind in the sealed tunnel to ignite the explosives, but that's guaranteed suicide."

"As far as time is concerned, all that matters is how long the fuse is, correct? What's stopping us from winding the fuse around in the final section of the tunnel to extend the burn time? We can use that time to collapse the tunnels and intensify the strength of the blast. This is our last shot, and we need that wall to come down. If there's no issue with that plan, do it!"

"What if the fuse goes out after we collapse the tunnel? They aren't infallible. If it fizzles out, we'll have to dig all the way back to the explosives to set a new one!"

Azula leveled an irritated glare at the man, though it wasn't like she didn't get his point. "Then set multiple fuses of the same length and ignite them all at once for redundancy! This is our last chance to take the wall down! Do it!"

With her ire elevating to greater heights, the overseer decided against saying anything else against Azula, instead choosing to bow hastily before rushing to relay her orders to everyone that was working under his supervision. When those orders were finished being given, the Fire Nation soldiers in the area began to grab the explosives that had been reserved originally for the first and third tunnels, moving them underground with haste. Some Earthbenders were apprised of the new plan they were supposed to carry out, so they could prepare to move as soon as they had the opportunity.

With everyone working together and in a hurry, it hopefully wouldn't take long to get things situated. Azula could only hope that Xisheng could manage to stay safe for another ten minutes.

Xisheng moved his head to the side just in time to avoid a small boulder that was trying to take it off. He launched a return blast of flame at the Ba Sing Se defender who had attacked him, but moved on from the scuffle after his opponent was immolated. At the moment, Xisheng wasn't trying to lead his troops into a direct charge against the sturdy Earth Kingdom lines. He was just trying to skirmish around the edges of their defense, poking for weaknesses, keeping them on their toes. Along the way, he was also guiding his troops gradually around the large square formation of the Earth Kingdom's troops. That way, if they had an opportunity to rush the walls of Ba Sing Se, there wouldn't be enemy troops right in front of them. Currently, the enemy's ground forces were not attempting to stop the Fire Nation from doing this, so they likely still had no idea what Xisheng's forces were actually trying to do.

This also meant that Xisheng wasn't actively trying to destroy the enemy's bunkers, since it wasn't that critical to the overall objective. However, he acknowledged that destroying those bunkers when possible was still a good idea, since they were a threat to his troops. At a certain angle, Xisheng saw a direct shot towards one such bunker, past the additional walls that had been erected around it. He didn't have a lot of stamina left, but he still had a few compression shots left in him, so he decided to give it a go. With his soldiers covering him, Xisheng readied another yellow sphere of flame to attack.

And yet, before he could launch it at the bunker not far in the distance, Xisheng noticed an Earthbending soldier out of the corner of his eye, lifting a large boulder that would no doubt be thrown at the troops around him. Nobody seemed aware that the strike was coming, so Xisheng diverted his attack towards that foot soldier. He wasn't really aiming it that well, since it was a last minute adjustment, but Xisheng's shot was almost perfect: so perfect that the result was one of the most grisly deaths Xisheng had ever witnessed.

He had hit a lot of targets with his compressed bending since he started using it, but those targets had all been rocks, in hindsight. He'd never directly hit a person with it. And Xisheng wasn't sure if he ever wanted to again, considering what happened.

The lance of flame darted right towards the enemy Earthbender, and hit him square in the chest. There was a brief flash of light that temporarily blinded Xisheng, and when that light cleared, a red mist was dispersing through the air and a few chunky pieces of indistinguishable meat were falling to the ground with smoke coming out of them. It all happened so fast that Xisheng doubted the poor soul even had an inkling that he was about to die before he was actually dead. As for Xisheng, he pushed down the disgust of it all and dived to the ground to avoid another hail of stone spikes from the bunker he had initially planned to destroy. Winded as he was, the young commander didn't know how many more times he'd be able to dodge death. Using any more compressed bending at this point would probably be a bad move...

Debating on how much further to push this skirmishing tactic, Xisheng was about to shout another order to his comrades, but he was distracted when he glanced back at the rear line and saw a pillar of blue flame erupting into the sky. A pillar with interspersed pauses, coming out to the same combination that had been seen emanating from Force Blaze. It was the signal that meant the sappers had completed one of their tunnels, and that an attempted detonation would occur soon. Why Azula was the one giving the signal this time, Xisheng was unsure, but he was assured to know that Azula was feeling up to doing something back there in the rear line. He had confidence that she would make good decisions back there.

Carefully getting back to his feet, Xisheng prepared to give another order to his troops. Technically, he had no idea if the wall was actually going to come down. There was every possibility that it wouldn't. Tactically speaking, it was a bad idea for Xisheng to operate as though it was going to fall for sure. But for some reason he couldn't really explain, Xisheng had confidence that it was going to work this time. That was why he ordered his men to advance.

"Relay these orders: tanks, begin advancing to the walls! Infantry, follow behind! Someone order the rear line to advance and engage the Earth Kingdom defenders on the ground! Go!"

In the deep, dark cold of a man-made cavern beneath the earth, a middle-aged Earthbender named Hewkii watched as a masked Fire Nation soldier finished laying out the sixth and final fuse in a long and winding path that would require at least a few minutes to complete. These fuses stretched throughout the cavern that had been created by the sappers, and ultimately reached up to a downright frightening number of explosives: dozens of caskets of black powder and blasting jelly stacked on top of one another, surrounded by explosive trebuchet munitions. This chamber, right under Ba Sing Se's walls, was twenty meters wide and at least ten meters deep, and the entire thing was filled to the brim with things that liked to go boom when they made contact with fire.

Clearly nervous, the Fire Nation soldier who had finished laying out the fuses stole a glance at Hewkii, who wiped away a sweat-filled brow that had nothing to do with heat. With a shaky nod, the Firebender took a small candlelight on his fingertip and held it down to the point where the fuses connected. They lit almost instantly, and he turned to flee into the tunnel behind him.

"Go, let's go! Move it!"

Running behind him, Hewkii started swinging his fists furiously every time he passed one of the stone support struts that had been erected by the sappers earlier. Every time he knocked one down, the tunnel began rumbling, and he heard stone and dirt crashing behind him. Of course, he dared not stop to look at his handiwork, instead focusing on the light at the end of the long tunnel he was trying to collapse.

Dammit, how the hell had he been the one chosen for this nonsense?

On the surface, Xisheng watched as his army maneuvered as he had ordered, with his tanks disengaging entirely to advance towards the walls, and his infantry struggling to do the same thing, but with a little more hassle. Reserve troops from the rear line were moving to engage the Earthbender forces so they couldn't potentially follow behind Xisheng's advance forces.

Exhausted from the battle so far, Xisheng had also extricated himself from the immediate battle. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to hitch a ride on one of the tanks for a minute...

Xisheng was about to flag one down when the whole world seemed to explode. He wasn't sure what happened first: the ear-splitting wall of sound that crashed over the army? Or was it the massive earthquake that threw him and almost every soldier on the battlefield off of their feet? A wall of force from the foot of the wall sent people flying backwards. It even felt like the tanks were almost pushed back.

Thanks to nearly the entire earth shaking, Xisheng had to literally pick his face up out of the dirt to catch a glimpse of a skyrocketing plume of debris that almost reached up to the height of the walls of Ba Sing Se themselves. Huge chunks of stone were flying through the air, some of which could probably sink a Fire Nation cruiser with a direct hit. And some of which were coming way too close to the Fire Nation troops for comfort.

Even though his ears were ringing and Xisheng was sure the same went for everyone else, he shouted to everyone to take cover as chunks of stone rained out of the sky. Thankfully, it was mostly the smaller pieces that managed to fly all the way out to Fire Nation assault force, and it seemed like no one got hurt.

Even several moments after the blast, when Xisheng's hearing started to return to him, there was still a booming echo stretching across the battlefield. Even the Earth Kingdom troops that had been on the ground had seemingly stopped fighting entirely in the aftermath of the carnage. To be fair, Xisheng couldn't imagine that any of them had ever expected to see something like this. Seeing their legendary walls crumble down in a near instant must have been the stuff of nightmares to them. Hell, it was so grandiose, seeing those humongous walls crumble into pieces and crash into a giant cloud of dust, that it almost felt like a dream to Xisheng. A euphoric dream. He felt a surge of energy rush into his body at the sight of it all, at knowing that his plan had worked, at knowing that they had achieved something many would have thought impossible.

No one had ever done something like this. But the men and women serving under Xisheng had pulled it off today. They were more than heroes, they were legends, even if nothing else after this moment went in their favor.

As his hearing started to retuen and the dust began to clear, and the debris raining from the sky finally started to peter out, Xisheng felt a swelling sensation in his lungs as he shouted out to everyone under his command. Just one single word escaped from his lips as his heart swelled with pride.


Well, here we are. The culmination of our epic battle. Death, glory, camaraderie, all the things you need to make for such things. I'm sure some of us are upset that Azula didn't get a ton of fighting action, but at the same time, I think we got some valuable things out of it: good character development for her, more exemplary displays of Xisheng's leadership, and some interesting introspection on war itself.

Now, for those of you getting antsy about romance and all that, look: I promise I have some spicy and dramatic things planned soon. Things that will definitely make for some amazing drama and character moments. I know many of you have been waiting a long time for such developments. I'm not going to hang around at our current level forever, I just need to wait for the right moment. Trust me, it'll be all the better because of it. Patience is hard when you have a story that is a slow burn type, but trust me, it's better to wait for quality than to rush it out for a temporary high. Writers trying to cash in on a temporary moment of appealing to the masses is why we have so many trash tier shows these days. I appreciate everyone who is giving their time to the enjoyment of this story. I know time is precious and you could be using it on other content.

Anyway, don't forget that there are ways to further engage with this story if you'd like to, which you can find details about on my profile page. There's a Discord where you can discuss the story or the IP in general with other readers, and a certain different site where you can show your support in other ways. Said supporters get to see sneak peeks of chapters several days in advance of their official publishing. For instance, a pretty large chunk of this chapter was available for those guys to read several days ago. But of course, that kind of support is not something anyone has to do. It's just a way to express support for those who want to. It does help chapters get out faster, but as always, I will always be writing this story regardless.

Ultimately, what I appreciate most is you guys taking the time to read and enjoy my work.