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|The Crown Prince's Dragon|
April 16, 2014
It was in the early afternoon when Ratana and her companions arrived at the base of Mount Koven. The mountain appeared at first glance like any other, save for the unusually-thick cover of fog that hovered around its rim. At the bottom of the mountain was a village, if one could truly call it that. Truth be told, it was more of an outpost, with a few wooden houses spaced apart, one of which looked like it was used as a small farm. Three outsiders on the back of a shirshu drew attention in the busiest of places, but here they were really difficult to miss.
An older man with a long white beard, garbed in a long, blue-and-brown robe, stepped outside one of the houses, supporting himself against his walking stick. "Welcome, travelers. What brings you to this place?"
The Terra Team earthbender hopped off the back of Nyla to respectfully return his greeting. "We heard that this was the mountain where the heir to the throne of this nation fought a dragon. Is that true?"
"Indeed it is," the man answered.
"Excellent," said Ratana, relieved to have made a major stride on her mission for the first time in what felt like forever. "That is what brought us here. We wish to see the spot where this legendary battle took place."
"It's quite an old tale," said the man. "Became something of a local legend, but no one has asked about it for a long while, probably because of how long ago it happened. If you wish to see the battleground for yourselves, you'll have to climb to the top of the mountain."
"Thank you," said Ratana, exchanging a polite bow with the man.
As Ratana jumped up onto Nyla's mount, she ascended Mount Koven with her companions. Several small children ran out doors and pointed after them while the old man retreated inside his house once again. Not too far off was a youthful farmhand, who merely eyed them briefly before returning to his work.
"It's odd," said Heidze. "Maybe this dragon has been alive and hidden from the world for twenty years, but these people don't seem to have seen it."
"Maybe because it's actually dead, as common knowledge says," said June briskly.
"There have been sightings," countered Ratana. "They can't all have been without reason."
"Don't forget that the dragon was supposed to be seen near Nongkun, which we're not exactly close to right now," said June.
"Perhaps they go a long distance to hunt, then retreat to their lairs at night," stated Ratana. "Now I only wish I had an instrument of some kind. Lu Tong, I mean, Prince Lu Ten said they liked music. If his father killed a dragon, what he says about dragons must be true."
Nyla slowed down his pace. The shirshu normally galloped fast, but now he did not look like he wanted to go any further, however much June egged him on. "What's wrong, Nyla?" June peered down at the sunken, twisted face of her pet.
"Maybe he's tired," suggested Ratana.
"Th-that can't be it," stuttered June. "Shirshu's energies are well-renowned. They almost never get tired. It must be something he smells. That's the only logical explanation."
"What could he be smelling?" asked Heidze.
"A dragon," said Ratana, looking forth with determination.
"It's not necessarily a dragon," June said loudly. "But it is something...unusual. I think it's best that we don't go any further."
"Are you crazy?!" blurted out Ratana. "This close with a sign like this, and you want to stop?"
"Look, this is your mission, earthbender!" snapped June. "I trust Nyla's judgement, and if he wants to steer clear of this place, I'm not going on, either. You can go ahead, but Nyla, Heidze and I are staying here."
"I'm not staying behind," said Heidze, cheeks growing red. "I'm with her, so don't say I'm cowering back like you!"
"Look kid, there's a difference between being brave and being stupid," explained June. "You don't have to follow her, even if she doesn't know the difference."
"I bet you'll be ready to collect her corpse when the coast is clear if she fails," said Heidze. "Then you'll get paid, even if it is less than she offered you to stay out of her way."
Leaving a scowling June behind, Ratana and Heidze spent the greater part of the day walking up the mountain, one step at a time. The bounty hunter's suspicions were confirmed about the smell. A foul stench filled the air the higher they got, and their noses constantly irritated, they knew they had to be onto something on this mountain.
Night cast it's dark shadow as it fell over the mountain. With their legs worn out, the misty comfort of the sun gone and the air foreboding, unlike the optimistic atmosphere of the afternoon, not to mention the stronger and stronger smell of whatever lay still further up the mountain, the outing did not look as grand as it had from the base of Mount Koven. It was hard to picture the elder man and the children now. Like the other night, Heidze was beginning to shiver, this time without a fire or quilt to keep him warm. Granted, it was not only the cold that made him shiver now. Even Ratana grew wary about what lay up ahead. Since they had not brought rations with them and there was nothing growing this far up the slope, neither one of them had had a proper meal.
At last, a giant, dark mouth came into view, and the smell from within was stronger than ever. The inside was like a blot of starless night sky amidst a picture where light was already scarce. The hole itself was a warning, and whatever lay inside was without a doubt, dangerous. It was at this point that the two climbers, who had been walking tired and silent for the past hour, both froze in their tracks at the same instance, without prior communication.
Finally, Heidze expressed what he was thinking. "Ratana, I-I don't think that I'm going to be very helpful against a live dragon. Sure, I might be able to poke around and find whatever proof you're after if the dragon itself wasn't around, but as for now-"
"There's no need for explanation," Ratana reassured him. "You've done more than enough, already. This is my mission that I came to the Fire Nation for, so I need to finish it on my own."
Heidze nodded timidly. "Good luck," he told her, turning to head down the mountain once again.
Turning back to the cave opening, Ratana forced herself to get a grip on her senses and eased her way toward it, one step at a time. After she reached the opening, the experienced earthbender crouched down on all fours, feeling the hard ground with both hands and both feet. Her suspicions that something enormous lay up ahead were confirmed by use of her seismic sense, the vibrations in the ground skidding across the earth and under her skin. Whether this large entity was dangerous or not remained to be seen. Imagining the size of the dragon compared to her, its sharp teeth and claws massive enough to tear her body to shreds, Ratana could not allow herself to forget the most dangerous characteristic of a dragon: its fiery breath, which was more flame as than an entire army of firebenders could produce.
Gradually, Ratana edged herself out of the windy outside and into the cavern, relying more on her seismic sense than anything else as she could barely see her hand in front of her face, at least until her night vision kicked in. Each moment grew more tense as the last as the earthbender, far from her home back in the Earth Kingdom, half-expected the innards of the cave to burst into flame at any second. However, Ratana soon became accustomed to the impending danger and allowed herself to live alongside it, remembering the threat that Ba Sing Se was facing and all the countless lives of the citizens and refugees within. Uprooted from their homes by the Fire Nation conquest of other parts of the Earth Kingdom, many of them found Ba Sing Se their last bastion of hope left. Finding this dragon did not just mean something, it could mean everything.
With her night vision with her now, Ratana could make out the lines of the cave walls with her eyes. It took little convincing for her to believe this was the lair of a dragon. Coarse material, between coal and diamond, covered the sides and ceiling, while the cave floor held limestones. Each of these stuck out from the ground like a tooth or a mole. Although the ceiling held no such pieces, several of the limestones looked like stalactites, meaning they may have once hung from above. When Ratana's foot slipped, however, one of the fallen stalactites skidded several inches away, making her jump. Furthermore, the rock was not as she expected, dense and stubborn. Instead, it was hollow-sounding and decayed. It was at this moment that Ratana discovered these limestones were not limestones at all.
They were bones.
And the fallen stalactites must be claws or even teeth! A few feet away, Ratana saw something large and terrifying made of the same material. Stretching several feet above her head and at least the same distance side-to-side, the top half was solid, with two holes larger than her head where eyes belonged, and the bottom half was wide open, with several teeth sticking from the top and bottom alike, albeit with empty spaces where the digits had fallen. A long, winding skeletal tunnel lay behind that head and was more than huge enough to walk through. Ages ago, when the beast had a beating heart and a functioning body, its life energy would have sent a massive, insurmountable burst of flame through its mouth and nostrils, which now belonged to this skeletal carcass. Ratana had but a few moments to marvel at this as the cold truth of this discovery sunk in.
This dragon was unquestionably and unmistakably dead.
Her becoming Nookyazu, her coming to Gangkouz, her run-ins and brawls, her finding the path to this mountain, her antics with Lu Ten, and June, and Heidze. Everything that she had been through since coming to the Fire Nation was for nothing. It was all a waste of time. How pointless and silly and ridiculous it was for her to come here believing to do what she had come to do. Dragons were extinct. General Iroh really had killed the last one. Ba Sing Se would come under attack. With nothing else to be done, Ratana turned around and walked back down Mount Koven. Even though the way down the steep mountain was quicker, it was no better.
When she reached the base of the mountain again, Ratana took notice of the lantern light emitting from the house where she had visited earlier in the day. The night was pitch dark now, and without such light she would barely have been able to see better than she had in the cave up the mountain. Nyla was crouching beside the doorstep and licking both paws on his front legs. As Ratana approached the door, it was swung open and she found June greeting her, with a mouthful of food to chew.
"Well?" June inquired while chewing.
"No dragon," said Ratana. "Well, there was a dragon, but it was long dead."
"Told you so."
Heidze had just run up behind June and was peering out at Ratana. "How are you, Ratana."
"My mission's failed. How do you think I am?"
"It's not technically failed," Heidze pointed out. "You were supposed to bring back proof that dragons were alive or get confirmation that the last dragon was dead. Well, now you know that the last dragon was indeed killed. Therefore, you can return home with honor."
"Yeah, tell that to the people of Ba Sing Se," Ratana remarked with dry sarcasm. "I'm sure that'll help them a great deal."
"Hisoka, the owner of this house, was nice enough to offer us food and a place to stay until the morning," Heidze told her. "Come in and maybe get cheered up."
"I doubt it, but alright," Ratana said gloomily as she pushed the door the rest of the way open and marched inside to find the old man she had seen earlier that day, two grown adults and four small children kneeling around a hot pot dish set in the center of the dwelling.
"Welcome back," said the old man. "Did you find what you were looking for on the dragon that the Crown Prince fought?"
"Yeah, I guess I did."
"And yet you seem disappointed," Hisoka said with generous, paternal concern to the stranger woman he had only met earlier that day. "I'm sorry that it did not live up to your expectations. You and your friends may stay in the hut behind this one for the night. It belongs to my youngest son Lee, but he just traveled to Royal Caldera City to enlist in the army. In the mean time, would you like to indulge yourself in this fine dish we prepared for ourselves?"
"Thank you for your hospitality," Ratana bowed to the elder. Ordinarily, she would be put off by spending the night in the house of a man who she would soon face in battle, but she was too distracted by other thoughts to mind. "I'm tired from my climb, though. If it's alright with you, I'll turn in."
"Completely understandable," said Hisoka. "You've had a long day. Good night."
"Good night," Ratana said as she exited.
"How did the story about the Crown Prince and the dragon end, Grandpa?" asked a young girl of about eight sitting to Hisoka's right.
"Well, once he vanquished the great dragon, he returned home to his father the Fire Lord. In honor of his achievement, the Fire Lord declared his son's firebending legendary and bestowed upon him the title Dragon..."
"Sorry to interrupt, but I've got to turn in, too," said June. "I'll see how Nyla's doing."
Hisoka merely lifted his hand in the air and acknowledged her departure briefly before continuing. "As I was saying, from that day on, the Crown Prince - then a teenager - was known as the Dragon of Fire. Many years later, the prince's own son would perform the same feat his father once had."
- For the son who doesn't appear, I went with Lee. In the Fire Nation, when in doubt, go with Lee. There's a million of them.
For the collective works of the author, go here.