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|Challenge of the Body|
January 12, 2016
Chu Fang marched up the long path to the peek of the dragons' mountain with barely a glimmer of sunlight peering its way across the horizon, as though checking to make sure that the coast was clear for any last resistance the moon and the darkness might be trying to put up before its regular ascent to succeed them and reign across the land for all the daytime hours that lay before it. He let out a muffled yawn, unconcerned about any of the other members of the tribe poking fun at how awkward he was without a proper night's rest. The majority of the Sun Warriors were all still asleep, and he was on his way to the mountaintop alone. If another of his kin knew where he was going, they might have asked to accompany him, for he was the only one who regularly climbed the mountain, and they might require his company for Chief Shang's permission.
When matters were serious, Dragon Guide Chu Fang much preferred to go to see Ran and Shaw alone, no disrespect meant to any of his Sun Warriors. The dragons were behaving unusual of late, and it was his prerogative to investigate, and he had to carry out that duty on his own time and with pure, unadulterated judgment from his own expertise to rely upon. At the last ceremony, only Shaw had emerged from the cave beneath the twin peaks, and only briefly, before descending once again. Many members of the tribe had been shocked and disappointed that they would not be able to witness his regular dance with Ran, and all Chu Fang could do was watch along with them, not knowing anymore than they did. Several Sun Warriors had whispered to him asking for an explanation as to the meaning of this. Chu Fang merely told them that there could be a number of explanations and brushed them off, before brushing himself off from the rest of the crowd, especially Ham Ghao. Neither Sun Chief Shang nor Sun Shaman Wu had elected to ask him about it personally, for which Dragon Guide Chu Fang was grateful. He would uncover the answer to the problem in his own time, and they knew that. But everyone else lacked their patience.
Despite the fact that it was a long climb, Wu barely noticed most of it. There was a point in tiredness where even a long, arduous task sink into the background, regardless of what level of physical strain it places on the body. Before he knew it, he was at the smooth circular podium, and then he was climbing the steps to the dual entrances of the giant cave. In the last several days, Ran had in fact not been seen at all by anyone, and Shaw had been seen coming and going frequently, but always in a hurry and never seen for very long. It was a good thing for the dragons not to be seen by anyone other than the Sun Warriors themselves, but this odd behavior was in and of itself a cause for concern from the Sun Warriors who considered themselves to be brethren and guardians to the original bending teachers of fire, as well as kin and keepers of the secret of their existence from the world.
In darkness, Chu Fang climbed down into the base of the central cavern where the dragons called it their resting place. He was relying on his night vision during the wee hours of the day, not wanting to bring forth any light which might attract unwarranted attention from the massive fire-breathing creatures. After squinting his eyes and peering through the darkness, Dragon Guide Chu Fang found both his orbs widen out of instinct and he quickly scampered in order to exit the cave with great haste. For once, though, Chu Fang was being careless with his steps, and the noise he made risked bringing an unwelcome awakening upon the original firebending masters.
Ever since they had been assigned to each other, Ratana and Tooru continued to watch each others back, no matter the circumstance, as they fought hard and long against the Fire Nation at all corners of their nation, from small villages to larger settlements. They had served together in many places, though never a big city such as the Ba Sing Se – and hopefully they would never have to and the Fire Nation would never be quite so bold as to mount another attack on the impenetrable city within their lifetimes. Today, they found themselves outside the gates of the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu, which itself had not faced a significant threat from the Fire Nation in quite some time. Today, they were not there to fight against Fire Nation soldiers who were threatening their homeland. Today, the opponent was a fellow Earth Kingdom citizen, and it would be Ratana doing the fighting alone.
"Well, here we finally are," said Tooru. "The Earth Kingdom city of Omashu. The second largest city in the whole country, even larger than Munn, where you grew up. Isn't it a wonder to look at even from the outside, Ratana? We ought to get going. I am sure that they are expecting us now." Actually, Omashu was only the second largest in population, not in territory, strictly speaking. But being atop a mountain, there was much more to the city even underground, within the vast caverns.
"It is a nice view of the city from up here," Ratana admitted, averting his gaze. She would have rather come here to visit the badgermole tunnels than for the reason she was actually here.
"Ratana...are you nervous?" asked Tooru. "I've never seen you nervous before a fight before."
"I'd have to be a fool not to be," she said.
"We've been over this," said Tooru. "Remember what Aunt Wu told me."
"Please don't tell me you brought me all the way here because of some cooky fortune teller words."
"I don't just believe in fortune tellers, Ratana," said Tooru, suddenly serious. "I believe in you."
"Well, he is the best and most renowned earthbender in the entire world, if not ever, in fact."
"Don't you worry," Tooru added to her with a wink. "I saw the fortune teller before we came here. I highly doubt that Aunt Wu would mess up on a prediction like this. She's never been wrong about that volcano of hers, after all. That's what they say. You got this!"
Ratana nodded, and stared at the city gates, new determination in her eyes. "Alright, Tooru. If you say so." She took a deep breath. "Let's do this."
Heidze's nerves throttled inside of him in sheer anticipation of what was to come. After a calm morning rising and meal with the rest of the tribe – or rather, the tribe, as he could not truly call himself part of it yet. First he had to complete the three challenges that lay before him, in order to prove himself worthy of becoming a member of the Sun Warriors. Until then, he was still an outsider, as Ham Ghao never hesitated in reminding him. Chiang Lei, on the other hand, was much more supportive, which Heidze was grateful for. Shang and Shaman Wu were both more distant than usual, which he did not know what to think of. Heidze had noticed that Dragon Guide Chu Fang was absent, for whatever peculiar reason, but didn't think much of it.
"Are you ready for your first test, Heidze?" Wu questioned him once they had all finished eating and he had had an opportunity to bring the younger outsider aside.
"Yes," said Heidze, privately wishing that he could have waited until after he had completed the test before having anything to eat. "Well, as I'm going to be anyway."
"Good," said Wu. "Today, you will be approaching our great hearth and marching up to the top end of the mountain where the dragons Ran and Shaw lurk. It is quite a long way up, but reach there long before sundown and you will have passed your first challenge, the Challenge of the Body. If you pass, you will later face the Challenge of the Spirit and then the Challenge of the Will, after which completion you will be initiated as a member of our tribe in a special ceremony."
"I see," said Heidze. "So, for now, basically all that I have to do is walk up the mountain?" It seemed all too easy for him.
"It is not quite as simple as it looks or sounds," Wu warned him. "As a rite of passage for the firebenders among our tribe, a warrior must take a piece of the flame of the great hearth and keep it alive, like a heartbeat, on its way up to the top of the mountain and then face the masters."
"But I'm not a firebender," said Heidze.
"I am aware of that," Wu reassured him. "You will bear a similar burden."
"What?" asked Heidze. "Do I have to carry something else?"
"A lantern," Wu confirmed. "And you must not drop it."
The object holding the candle which the Sun Shaman gave him was heavy and Heidze's feet wobbled beneath its bulk. "That sounds really difficult," Heidze responded, requiring two hands to steady it.
"Do this, and you'll have passed the Challenge of Bodily Endurance, becoming one step closer to becoming one of us." The Sun Shaman proceeded to rub a white powder all over the bottom of the lantern, which would become darkened if it touched the ground during the process of the climb, so the Sun Warriors would be able to determine whether Heidze had truly passed the test or if he had faltered along the path.
The initial part of the climb was fairly easy for the young boy from the streets of Gangkouz. In fact, he felt like he could march up the mountain twenty times and then back down again twenty times without breaking a sweat. But then his feet grew sore, his heals cried out and he began to notice just how hot the flame was that he was carrying at his side. At least he could be thankful that he would not have to climb the steps this way, too, Heidze told himself. Any steps would be that much harder to march up like this, without his toes touching the sides of the next step either. And the full would be all the more worse, should he stumble.
Unfortunately for him, it looked as though they did expect him to climb his fair share of steps along his way to the top of the mountain. As soon as he finally touched his heals down on the summit, he was able to put down the lantern while Chief Shang inspected it to make sure that no marks from touching the ground were to be found. Then, at long last, Heidze was allowed to permit himself to relax.
"Well done," the Sun Chief said, giving the lad an approving nod.
"Congratulations!" Chiang Lei greeted Heidze with a warm and enthusiastic embrace. "Now, you are one step closer to becoming one of us."
"I can't wait," Heidze let out a whimper as he leaned into Chiang Lei's hug, tightening his grip to hide his insecurity and weakness at the moment.
"Heidze, you're funny," Princess Chiang Lei giggled as though she could read his mind. "Just wait until you pass the Challenge of the Will, the last one. There will be a ceremony and my father will anoint you with the appropriate markings. It will be spectacular."
"Sounds great." Heidze smiled. "It'll be just like on my birthday that one time."
"Back when I was with Ratana and June on our way to find dragons," said Heidze. "We wound up stopping on Ember Island one day. I don't think it was really my birthday since I have no idea when my actual birthday really is, but Ratana knew that I always wanted to go to Ember Island and she took me there."
"I see," said Chiang Lei, loosening her grip.
"On that outing she and I entered a local kuai ball tournament because I had eyes for a girl that was there," Heidze added with a laugh. "It didn't take, but she wasn't that great so it was probably for the best."
"Yeah, maybe," Chiang Lei said. "But Ratana sounds like an incredible person, having done that for you just for some little sentimental gesture."
"I suppose so," said Heidze.
As the Sun Warriors who had come to the summit began departing, one among their number came running down after them. It was Chu Fang, the Dragon Guide, and he had come from inside the caves. "Everyone, I have an announcement," he proclaimed at the top of his lungs.
The remainder of the Sun Warriors stopped descending the mountain and turned to the Dragon Guide, who presumably had some news on the crisis with the dragons. Then, they began asking him questions. "What's going on?"
"Where is Ran?"
"Why are the dragons not dancing together?"
"It is about the masters," said Chu Fang, catching his breath. "Nothing like this has happened in generations..."
"Are they sick?" asked Ham Ghao. "Spit it out!"
Chu Fang had succeeded in getting everyone's attention, and all eyes now lay on him. Heidze had actually forgotten about his trials for the moment. Even Ham Ghao had fallen silent as well, and paid as much attention as the remainder of the tribesman. "What is it?" asked Sun Chief Shang.
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