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|Valley of the Ancient City: Part 1|
May 20, 2014
The next day, Ratana, June, Nyla and Heidze all woke up from their rest at a nearby campsite and set their sights on the way inland, toward the valley that Yao had told them about, which supposedly harbored both an ancient city and an ancient dragon from ages past. As it was morning, the sun overhead was luckily rising in the east and would not be in their eyes for the majority of the journey to the west. Ratana pondered to herself with curiosity, wondering how long there had been dragons in the area. If there had been people living in a city long ago, they would have been in a perilous location with dragons nearby. It would not have been long before the fearsome beasts devastated their homeland. No wonder there would be no one there now. Nongkun must have been just beyond the minimum perimeter of distance to have remained safe.
"Are we ready to go?" Heidze tightened his battered belt as he sprung to his feet. He appeared to have grown a little in height since Ratana first encountered him in Gangkouz, though he was still noticeably shorter than her and June.
"Ratana's almost ready, by the looks of it," June commented, her body full of energy, though her tired voice exposed her lack of patience. "Let's just get this over with so that we can get back to the Earth Kingdom and be done with it."
"Some things never change," Heidze rolled his eyes.
"Watch it, kid," June glared at him. "Unless you have a death wish."
"Alright," Ratana declared, gathering what remaining supplies they had and cramming them into her tight bag. "I guess this is it, then."
"We're coming too," came a new voice from behind. It was that of Yao, with Sid and Hidi right behind him. They had just emerged from the nearby town.
"Who in Koh's Realm is this?" gawked June, surprised by the announcement of the sudden new arrivals.
"I thought that you said you weren't an early riser," Heidze smirked at Yao.
"Oh, I'm not," Yao told him through a yawn, his eyes full of adventurous determination nonetheless. "If you're going after the same dragon I came across, there's no way I'm going to miss out on it."
"And Hidi and I are here to keep him out of too much trouble," added Sid. It was clear that he had left in a hurry today, as his face and normally-bald scalp were both covered in an unshaven trench of hair points.
"Fine," said Ratana. "But you'd better keep up."
"We're not going on Nyla," said June. "This is too many people. We got to walk. Six people won't go on the shirshu's back."
"She looks big enough," Hidi jeered as she brushed a few dirty strands of hair out from in front of her eye.
"He is!" snapped June, the need to correct somebody only adding to her current frustration. "But he prefers not to carry that many people."
Untaken aback, Yao merely shrugged. "I went on foot last time, and I don't have a problem doing so again now."
Since Nyla's back was free, Ratana made the bold suggestion that he carry some of the group's supplies for the day as they set out. June, already aggravated, said that she did not see the need, so Yao and Sid ever-so politely volunteered to take on the burden for themselves. The valley was flat and seemed to stretch out for miles, causing Ratana to wonder if it really was a valley. As Yao had said though, there was supposedly another valley on the other side of the peaks where ancient treasures and ancient secrets lay.
"The more protectors they have, the more in danger they are," he muttered as they went on.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Ratana asked him.
"It's just a saying I recall from a rumor," he stated. "I don't know what it means."
"It doesn't really make any sense if you ask me," scoffed Ratana. "I'd rather have as many protectors as possible. That way you're more defended. It's common sense." The earthbender of the Terra Team was growing more and more anxious for answers. As there were also rumors of the impending attack on Ba Sing Se in the works, the invasion was no longer secret. The Fire Nation would not want to waste any more time in launching their attack.
Since there was a deep chasm in the middle of the plain at the bottom of the valley, Ratana made the call that they should go around by climbing up one of the nearby slopes. Yao indicated that it was not the exact path he had walked last time, but he put up no objection. It would take a good amount of effort to reach as the ledge was a good one hundred feet above them.
After taking a good several steps, and making their way numerous paces past the beginning of the ledge, they arrived at a corner. Out of nowhere and entirely without warning, a sound like a thunderbolt came from above. Following this, a stampede of rocks came pouncing down the mountain slope and toward the spot where Ratana and her companions now stood. Nyla shrieked as his master June's eyes widened in sheer terror as the rocky instruments of her earthen burial came down upon her spot. Heidze, too, was helpless in this situation that would spell his doom. Wasting no time at all to spare, Ratana dug her toes into the floor of the pass way and in synchronicity with her move, a shard of the mountain popped out above them, enveloping over the area where they all were and shielding them from the falling rocks as an impenetrable roof.
"Yowza," Heidze exclaimed in a faint breath as he witnessed large boulders coming to the ground on both sides of the protected perimeter where he was lucky enough to be standing now.
"That...was a close one," June breathed heavily, putting her hand to her chest as her diaphragm heaved back and forth. "Calm down, Nyla. It's over now, boy."
"What caused that?" Ratana wondered aloud. "I don't see anything massive enough to have triggered a rock avalanche in this area, and we weren't being that loud down here."
"Maybe it was a dragon," suggested Heidze.
"And maybe it was a sky bison," June added sarcastically. "Or some other extinct monster."
"Whatever it was, we owe you for that, Ratana," stated Heidze. "You just saved all our lives."
"It was nothing," Ratana brushed this aside. "There's no way I could've let anyone get crushed like that."
June paused for a moment, unsure of herself. "Yeah, thanks, Ratana."
"You're welcome," Ratana eyed her for a moment. "So, do you feel like forgetting the rest of the debt I owe you up to now?"
"Not a chance."
"You can't be serious," said Ratana. "For one thing, you wanted twice what your original price from the one who hired you should've been. I think escaping from this whole episode with your skin and what I've paid you is profitable enough."
"I never would've been dangling around like this if you hadn't dragged me on this mission of yours."
"Whatever," said Ratana, irritated. "Speaking of money, and more importantly, supplies, where are Yao and the others?"
"They were a little bit behind us," Heidze reminded them. "I do hope that they weren't crushed by the rocks. I don't think they were."
Ratana wasted no time in jabbing both arms to either corresponding side and parting the pile of fallen stones from behind, in the direction that they had been coming from. Unfortunately for her, Yao, Sid and Hidi were nowhere to be found. Erecting an earthen stand, she jumped up and scouted the area ahead.
"Great," Ratana reported to her companions solemnly. "They must have panicked and run off as soon as the boulders started falling down from above. There's only a couple apples that they probably dropped on the ground as they ran."
"That's not good," Heidze commented, now visibly more worried than he usually was.
"No, not good at all," pouted June. "Not only are we nearly squeezed between these two piles of rocks, but we're out of food and camping gear as well!"
"Hey," Ratana barked at her. "If you hadn't given our stuff to them rather than letting Nyla carry it, we wouldn't have that problem."
"Don't pin this on me," June bellowed back at her, pointing her finger directly at Ratana's chest. "We should up the total you owe me at this point for the extra hassle."
"Fat chance," Ratana dismissed this notion briskly. Normally she might have said something extra in response, but for now the earthbender inhaled a deep breath and forced herself to focus on the present situation. She looked around at the valley before them, and tried hard to remember which direction they were going in and which direction that Yao, who had been among them mere minutes before, had said to go in order to reach where he saw the dragon and where he found the dragon skin. The landscape was vast and the mountains around them were as numerous as the boulders that had fell from the one they were on just right then. Whatever the cause of that had been, it had to be huge. If it was related to a dragon, they had to at the very least be on the right track.
"I guess it's going to be pretty hard for us to find a dragon now," Heidze remarked. "And I do feel guilty going on without Yao and Sid and Hidi."
"They'll be fine," Ratana told him. "As in the past, the mission has to come first."
"We don't really have any leads to go off of now, do we?" Heidze asked her.
"Not really," Ratana agreed with him, slightly downcast. "The best way to proceed now would be to wonder and see if we come across anything that looks like it could've shed the skin we've got."
"What did you say?" June questioned, her eyes lighting up. It was difficult to tell whether she was angry, confused or a warped combination of the two.
"I meant the skin that we had from before," Ratana explained with caution as she withdrew the piece of residue out of her pocket. "They gave it to us. It's supposed to be from the last dragon itself, the one that they saw somewhere around here."
The tattooed bounty hunter snatched the piece of skin from the earthbender's hand so swiftly it made even Ratana flinch. "You mean you have something that belonged to the dragon. Why didn't say so? This makes things far less complicated." Turning toward her giant pet, June held up the piece of skin near Nyla's face.
"What are you doing?" Ratana shouted in astonishment as she watched what appeared to be June feeding the dragon skin to Nyla. Confusion melded with her shock as she wondered why a shirshu would hunger for the disgusting old skin of a dragon.
"What does it look like I'm doing?" June snorted at the dumb question.
"It looks like you're feeding the skin to Nyla."
"Don't be stupid," said June. "I'm holding it up for him to smell. Once he catches the scent of a target, he can follow it anywhere in the world to it's source. We'll have to ride him the rest of the way to find this corpse of a dragon you've been after for so long."
Ratana eyed both the bounty hunter and the shirshu with unease. She felt like this might be a trap she was being lured into, but with all the better opportunities June had had, she still honored her bargain with Ratana, so the Terra Team earthbender tried to convince herself this was a good idea. Nevertheless, she still did not trust Nyla fully, and she had never seen Nyla's famous gift of smell in action, so she had no personal assurance to its capabilities. "I don't know..."
Their younger male companion was already sold. "The dragon skin can lead us right to it's source. I just hope that it's fresh enough."
"If it's from a dragon which died two decades ago, it won't be fresh," June informed him. "However, Nyla's senses will allow him to overcome that and find whatever he needs to wherever he needs to."
"I'm still not too sure about this," Ratana crossed her arms. "I'm iffy on the idea." The terrain around them was hazardous and full of mounds, and she had never been on Nyla's back for more than a short period of time.
"Come on, Ratana," Heidze called down, having already hopped onto the shirshu's back and followed June to the mount of the creature. "You're always good about helping people. You know, justice and helping those who can't defend themselves. It's really cool. It's okay to need help yourself sometimes, so just sit back and let it happen."
"Alright," the Terra Team earthbender finally conceded as she followed Heidze onto the mount. "Not too fast, though," she requested, holding on tight.
"Quit your whining," June grasped the reins as Nyla made his charge.
The ride was even more tumultuous than riding on the back of Horny the komodo rhino back when she was with Lu Ten in Gangkouz. The landscaped blurred back and forth, in circles and diagonally as her head and upper body shook with every ambitious pounce of the humongous shirshu. Finally, Ratana had discovered something to detest about Nyla more than his tongue. If she had to ride him back to the Earth Kingdom later, she did not know what she would do then. No, this would most certainly have to be the last time that she ever got on the back of this thing.
From what she could tell, Ratana had ridden on the back of Nyla across multiple openings and valleys with mountains passing by like tree stumps when one was riding a tundra tank. Each leap of the shirshu was so long, and by the time Nyla stopped and they dismounted, Ratana struggled to regain her senses and shuddered to think how long she had been on the back of the shirshu. The sun was definitely in a different position in the sky.
"What is this place?" Heidze wondered aloud, looking about with curiosity.
"Who knows," June replied. The ground was littered with the same light objects that Ratana had found that composed the gigantic skeleton in the cave at Mount Koven. There were enough to presume that multiple dragons lived here at one point. "I don't see any sign of a dragon around here, though, apart from a few bones that look like they might be bones. It looks like the skin they gave us was genuine, Ratana. Iroh probably did fight his beast here. But...no sign of a live creature. Well, I think you finally have your confirmation that dragons are extinct."
Ratana, June, Heidze and even Nyla lifted their heads up in paralyzed shock at the deafening noise from above. There, longer than any of the clouds that hovered next to it, was the largest creature any of them had ever seen. It dwarfed even the badgermoles that Ratana had personally encountered back in the Earth Kingdom. Hundreds upon hundreds of crimson red scales lined its sides, with offshoots of smoke emitting from opposite angles from its head, presumably from its nostrils. If that thing breathed fire of the same proportion, one blast would be enough to destroy a small town.
Once she had finished marveling at the size of the beast, Ratana allowed herself closure on one part about her mission. This dragon had survived for all these years following its battle with Iroh. The Nongkun rumor was true. Her efforts in getting here had not been in vain.
Now came the hard part.
- Ratana finally knows the answer to whether dragons exist or not. That's progress for her mission, though she has to bring back proof in order to fulfill her goal. Like the last line implies, there's still more for her to do.
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