Author's Note: Well, folks, I could say I was sorry it took so long to update, but that wouldn't be entirely true. When I started TLB, I promised myself I would only update when I really had something to say to further the story and to deepen the meaning of the overall themes. I also just got extremely busy these past few months (graduated nursing school, finally! Woo-hoo!). Hope you guys are doing well and updating your own fanfictions! :)

This is the chapter some of you have been waiting for: Ozai's first real battle.

Song for this chapter: 'Satsujin Ken' from the live action adaptation of Rurouni Kenshin watch?v=tJtK8HBE7wE (very hair-raising, imho). PS If you have't seen this movie: go watch it. It's amazing.

Enjoy!

28.

The still night of the Earth Kingdom mountains erupted into noisy terror. The Fire Nation troops stationed in the foothills awoke to crushed tents and falling rocks, yelling in panic as green-cloaked figures sprang up all around them. The few women in the camps fled screaming into the woods, naked or half-clothed. One woman stayed and snatched a lantern from a fallen tent, illuminating the path of two men as they stumbled from their isolated space in the officers' quarters. The shortest of the trio pulled on a helmet of beaten metal and threw his extra pair of gauntlets to the taller man next to him.

"Make for the heights!" Prince Iroh said, seizing his companions by the arms, directing them away from the chaos of the foot soldiers' quarters. "Take as many men with you as possible, but don't get trapped down here!"

"Where are you going?" his companions demanded.

"I'm going to build a fire wall, naturally," Iroh replied, then rushed off to join the soldiers that had begun to stack bales of hay against the base of the mountains.

"We had better do as he says," the remaining prince said. Ozai had the look of a man who had woken to a viper in his bed, but he collected himself enough to strap on the fireproof gauntlets his brother had given him. He had no helmet and no armor but the two small pieces Iroh had remembered. His face was drawn and his eyes were wide, but his female companion noticed that his hands did not shake as so many fresh recruits' did in their first true battle.

"Prince Ozai," the woman with the lantern said, "let me take your red cloak and lead any earthbenders astray who might try to follow you."

"Don't be ridiculous," Ozai snapped. "You'll serve your country much better by coming with me and not being a fool." And without another word he threw his red cloak down and ran into the night, the camp follower close on his heels.

Soldiers in red and green were dying all around them, their blood glinting wetly in the spare light of the torches. The earthbenders had a clear advantage having started the conflict, their ambush tactics lending them the element of surprise. The rebels were throwing mountain rocks through the air and raising spikes from the ground, impaling and crushing all at once, then fading into the scenery. The Fire Nation soldiers desperately tried to group together, finding one another through shouts and flashes of fire. Prince Ozai ran through the madness. He kept a single column of flame above his hand like a banner, attracting his subordinates as they wandered in the dark. "Make for the heights!" The prince cried, and the woman behind him echoed the shout. "Get to higher ground!"

A green-uniformed man appeared suddenly in front of the prince, his hand outstretched to call up a tide of earth to strike the Fire Nation leader down. With barely a moment's reaction, Ozai slashed his own hand in a deadly arc, searing the man from forehead to hip with a line of fire. The earth solider fell and did not rise. Another rebel pressed the Fire Prince while he was at a disadvantage, his rock glove aimed for Ozai's sternum. The prince allowed the man to close the distance between them, then quickly dodged the oncoming assault, planting a hand wreathed in fire onto his opponent's face. With a single scream, the man inhaled the flames and died, his lungs burned from the inside out.

Slowly the red-cloaked soldiers began to form ranks. The earthbenders found themselves in the midst of a true battle as their enemies awakened. A third of the camp managed to follow their youngest prince on his fight to reach the mountains. The rest remained enmeshed in the combat. The earthbenders intensified their offense, and the earth shook and rolled as though an earthquake had come to the aid of the rebels' cause. Large bouts of flame shot into the sky, tall columns of destruction that cut down every living thing in their paths.

The Fire Nation troops that had followed Prince Ozai obeyed their leader's instruction and took solid firebending stances, waiting for the rebels to pursue them onto the heights. The nonbenders drew their available weapons and put them to good use, raining spears and arrows into the fray with practiced accuracy.

The earth warriors did not try to climb the hills to reach their enemies. Instead, they formed missiles out of the bedrock and flung it onto the hillside. The Fire Nation troops used tongues of flame to crack the rocks apart. The pieces tumbled back down onto the rebels below, flattening a portion of the earthbenders even as they tried to deflect the projectiles.

Prince Ozai continued to shout commands, keeping his men in formation. He stood on the edge of the hillside, watching the troops below set the last hay bales into place. As he watched, the majority of firebenders on the ground sprinted toward the heights, leaving a small group behind. The earthbenders pursued the larger section of troops, harrying them as they ran to join their comrades. When the last few men had ascended, the small group of firebenders left behind executed lightning-fast movements that set the bales of hay on fire. A moment later, they had been killed by angry earthbenders.

The blaze from the hay wall jumped like a liondog, rising halfway up the hill within seconds. Fifteen firebenders on the heights reached out and took control of the flames, whirling it in a wide sheet. The arc of fire rose to a staggering fifty feet, enveloping the entire area in a sweltering heat. The firebenders quickly directed the fire to spread across the path into the foothills, cutting off any available means of pursuit to the earthbenders. Then, as the first fifteen benders fell back to gather strength, another fifteen took their places and pushed the fire into a fan shape. The high wall of flames flattened and struck the front line of earthbenders. None of the men escaped the fire and they screamed in pain, automatically turning to run, but as they did so, they passed the flames on to the rebels behind them.

The rebels' pursuit broke out into agonized chaos. Some men kept their wits about them; they simply opened up holes in the earth and dropped into them, smothering the flames in cool dirt. Others, unable to think past the pain of the fire, clutched at their comrades and were quickly pushed away to burn alone. Before any more rebels could use their bending skils to escape the flames, the firebenders pushed the fire wall out again, engulfing another line of green armored men. The Earth Kingdom troops began to flee, overcome by their opponents' use of deadly force.

The firebenders above them did not cheer at their enemies' defeat; they were too disciplined to make unruly noise. Instead, they stood a moment longer in their battle stances, waiting to see if the rebels would unleash another ambush or rally from their retreat. Finally, at the word of Prince Iroh, they relaxed, chests heaving from the exertion of keeping the fire wall under their control. Unleashed from firebender will, the sheet of flame fell onto the lower land with unchecked gluttony, eating up the bodies of earthbenders and firebenders alike and biting into tents and army supplies with fervor.

"Men," Prince Iroh said, his voice hoarse from smoke, "we were ambushed in the dead of night from all sides by skilled opponents. We must take pride in our own prowess, but we must also remember those of us whose flames have been snuffed out in this skirmish. Remember, men, that though every man must die, we are soldiers of the Fire Nation, and we will die only when we have served our country with honor and glory!"

At these words, the men did shout, raising their fists in the air to support their leader. Iroh nodded at their salute, then said, "This morning, we will have to travel north to join the troops at Chiun-wan to re-stock our supplies and to borrow some men." He smiled slightly, then reached into the bag slung against his shoulder. "However, right now we shall take a moment to celebrate our enemies' failure!" Pulling back his hand, he showed the men what he had stashed in his bag: a full bottle of the Fire Nation finest ash rum.

The troops cheered raucously, slapping one another on their backs; some embraced. One of the soldiers began to pass the bottle of ash rum around. The two princes met up and surveyed one another, looking for injuries or dents in armor. "I suppose I should be happy you survived that idiotic firewall idea," Prince Ozai said, his voice trembling ever so slightly from the experience of his first true combat.

"Idiotic?" Prince Iroh snorted indignantly, tossing his head back like a komodo rhino. "That so-called 'idiotic' move saved our men, little brother! Have some respect for your elders and betters." He smiled on the last phrase, ruining the effect of his words.

"I can't believe you've lasted this long on the front," muttered the younger prince, "with all this impulsive decision-making."

"Flexibility on the field of battle is a hallmark of proper military tactics," Iroh reminded him. "A decision had to be made quickly and effectively to prevent the rebels from destroying us completely. A firewall is a time-honored method to push back earthbenders."

Ozai did not have a chance to answer. He was suddenly swarmed by the troops he had led onto the heights. They shouted his name and cheered, breaking typical rank barriers by treating him much the same as their fellow footsoldiers, slapping him on the back and ruffling his hair. "That was a good first run, Captain Ozai," they said, and, "We followed that light banner all right, sir!" The prince accepted their thanks with a bewildered expression. Prince Iroh laughed at the look on his brother's face, then waded into the confusion and copied the soldiers, earning a warning shove from Ozai as he tousled the younger prince's fine black hair even further.

"Welcome to the army, Ozai," Iroh said, chuckling, "where rank means little in the heat of battle, and even less in the victory celebrations."

"Captain Ozai's the fresh blood today," one of the men, a lieutenant, said loudly. "That means he gets first pick of the green! Hand it over, let him pick it out!"

The soldiers parted to let two men pass, holding the dead body of an earthbender between them. They dropped the corpse at Ozai's feet and waited as the prince looked down at the dead man. With a moment or two of contemplation, Ozai reached down and removed the dead earthbender's gauntlets, switching them out for the ones Iroh had given him at the beginning of the ambush. The soldiers cheered again and passed the bottle of ash rum forward, holding it out to their prince with expectant looks.

Ozai took the bottle, held it up, and said calmly, "I think I need to get drunk to forget the fact that I almost died twice tonight." The men all laughed and whooped as the Fire Prince took a swig from their communal bottle.

Unnoticed by any of the troops, the woman who had accompanied Ozai to the heights stood in the shadows made by the still-raging fire, watching as men to whom she had offered her services rejoiced over the fact that many other men were dead. She eyed the liquor bottle as it circulated once again. She looked on as the princes of her nation encouraged the celebration of destruction and suffering. Then she gathered her thin robe about her and quietly stole from the scene, leaving the burning camp far behind her as the sun rose in the Earth Kingdom sky.