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|Valley of the Ancient City: Part 2|
May 25, 2014
"I'm pretty sure that I saw it flying this way," Ratana led the chase onward less than an hour after their shocking sighting. In order to block the rays of the afternoon light from blinding her vision, she had to cover the top of her head with a curved hand.
"Definitely in this direction," a panting Heidze concurred with her. After taking a second to catch his breath the young lad from Gangkouz sprinted to catch back up with her once again. "It can't have gone far."
"What makes you say that?" asked Ratana, surprised by Heidze's certainty. She had noticed of course, that June had seemed far more quiet than she was normally upon finding out that Ratana's hunch about there still being surviving dragons had been correct. The Terra Team Earthbender welcomed that change.
"After it went this way, it began descending," he explained, pointing upward. "The dragon's altitude was lowering after it crossed over this mountain. I doubt it would've stopped that far from here. Besides, these dragons are supposed to have been extinct for twenty years. How long would that illusion have lasted if they had been in plain sight all this time? I reckon that as the last dragon, it keeps to a close area. There must be some cave or mountainside lair that it uses as a sort of home base whenever it's not out hunting."
Nearly out of breath, June looked at him with doubt in her eyes. "You mean you were paying attention to its movements that closely? I think the rest of us were much more concerned with the sheer form of the beast itself. We're lucky it didn't spot us on the ground, or we would've all been dragon prey." The long-snouted dragon was far too massive for any of them to stand a chance against, Nyla included. It was fortunate for all of them that the dragon was preoccupied with going in a different direction, and did not appear to be on the hunt.
The trio and Nyla trailed off through a small grove of stubby trees atop lush grass through a thin, winding canyon where the air began to gradually feel warmer and warmer. The plants, fauna and even the air itself felt more alive in this place, which was somehow both comforting and unsettling at the same time. Along the path, Heidze pointed out a pair of rocks which appeared to be joined together and finely-shaped, almost as though they were meant to be together. When they got closer, it became obvious that the stone shape was carved by humans.
"I think that this place was once inhabited," said Ratana.
"There haven't been any humans on this island inland from Nongkun in centuries," stated June. "Those townsfolk said so."
"Maybe they were wrong," suggested Heidze.
"That's ridiculous," said June.
"A couple hours ago, you thought that it was ridiculous for dragons to still exist," Heidze reminded her. "Who knows what, or who else could be out here?"
"Maybe it was inhabited before then," replied Ratana. It was extremely difficult to picture any human being dwelling in this barren wilderness, but Ratana told herself that the sculpture could be very old, possibly even as old as her Avatar ancestor. "Yao and his grandmother both mentioned that an ancient civilization lived around in these parts. Let's stay on our guard. If there is someone else lurking here, we don't know how friendly they'll be to strangers."
"Agreed," June told her. "Let's just cautiously keep moving for now." It was to Ratana's surprise that June had complacently went along rather than offering up her own plan of attack.
As they winded through the pathway a little farther, they came upon more oddly shaped rocks of the same light brown hue as the statue that they had come across. Once they had reached the next great clearing, they found that such stones were everywhere, making up the buildings of a large, albeit old and decaying settlement.
"It's a city," Heidze marveled in awe as he stared from one side of the open area to the other. Despite the ancient look and the growing dark green vines stretching over all of the stones, it was still a great sight.
"I guess the dragon has a thing for ruins of ancient civilizations," remarked Ratana, peering about. She noticed finely-graven symbols on the sides of the closest building. Some of the markings on the corners of the walls were shaped like miniature suns, with rays sprouting out in every direction. "These must be from the Sun Warriors. I've heard of them when I studied the very old history of each of the four nations. I never did too well in that class, but the Sun Warriors are tough to forget."
"Do you really think the dragon would hide away somewhere like here?" June eyed Heidze skeptically.
"I don't know, but this is our best guess for now," Heidze told her. "This was the area that I saw it flying down to and this place has been deserted for ages, so there's no reason why the last living dragon can't be close by."
"But which path should we take?" June asked. "It looks like there's a trail that goes around the main city, closer to the mountains, and then there's the walkway that leads straight through the city and to the other side of the valley."
Ratana pondered this revelation for a moment. "I think we'll have to split up."
"Sounds good," concurred June. "Nyla and I can go around. Do you think you two can navigate your way through the city?"
"Yes," said Ratana, looking to Heidze. "But don't forget we know for a fact that there's a gigantic, fire-breathing dragon not far from here. If anything goes wrong and we get into danger, we should meet back up. That way...well, at least we'll have strength of numbers if nothing else."
"I have the perfect thing for that," June reached to her belt and grabbed a rough, light-brown pouch and handed it to Ratana. Her increased cooperation since finding out the truth about dragons had not gone unnoticed by the Terra Team earthbender. "Here, take this."
Curiously, Ratana opened up the sack half an inch and aimed to take a peak inside, but immediately shut it again and reached desperately for her nose. "June, this stinks! What is that?"
"You don't want to know," snickered June. "But Nyla's got the sharpest nose of all of us, so keep that closed for now, which I'm sure you'll be relieved to do. If you run into trouble, open it up and Nyla and I will come and find you."
Although Ratana shrugged in acceptance, Heidze remained confused. "How are you going to signal us if you're in a bind?"
"This was her idea, not mine," June brushed this question aside. "Nyla and I don't plan on requiring rescue aid, do we Nyla?" Now, a little over an hour following their sighting, June was starting to seem more like herself. Before Ratana had a chance to respond, the bounty hunting woman had already hopped onto the mount of her pet and was riding off in the opposite direction.
"Well, let's get going, then," Heidze, beckoned forth to the scowling, red-garbed earthbender beside him.
Ratana followed Heidze forward through the main street of the city, the afternoon sun brightening each of the rocks that made the long, adjacent buildings of the Sun Warrior city. When they had actually existed, they were quite a culture by the looks of it. On one of the stone murals was a long, snakelike carving that bore the head of a dragon at the front, a minor tuft of flame curling up in front of its mouth. Ratana found herself wondering whether the Sun Warriors had known anything about dragons, and if they had, what sort of stories they would have had to tell about them. Most likely they had hunted dragons themselves, but had not been as proficient at it as the modern Fire Nation. Maybe deep down the Sun Warriors feared dragons and they made carvings of them to contain their fear in a form of art. Living near dragons was undoubtedly hazardous and it was easy to see why no one lived here now. Perhaps the Sun Warriors had prophesied their own destruction at the wroth of a dragon, which might very well have been how they died out. If there had been dragons here ages ago, this place could have been a hub or mating ground for dragons when the species was at their peek. It would make sense why the last of them chose this place to hide out from the rest of the world, collecting prey and leading an ultimately lonesome existence.
In the center of the city was a tall pyramid-like structure with hundreds of steps leading to the top, like a miniature mountain. When they had got there, Ratana suggested that she and Heidze climb up to see if they could catch another glimpse of the dragon flying over the valley. They both knew it was a long shot, having not heard the dragon in hours now, but it was a possible means to locate their goal, and so they ascended the steps. As she had in the past, Ratana now found the sun of the Fire Nation cruel at this time of day, a light burning sensation surrounding all the exposed skin on her body. Sweat had drenched both of them like the cool drink of water they craved by the time they reached the top. Ratana had not wanted to risk bending such fragile rocks on an unstable base of land.
"Hey, there's a door," Heidze pointed out as they reached the top. There was a circling line of stones representing a calendar nearby, and a tiny point at the top. "I wonder what's inside."
"That's not why we're here," Ratana reminded him.
"You saw the dragon carvings on the way I'm sure," Heidze reminded her. "This might have some more pictures of dragons inside. Maybe we could get a clue of where to search."
"We don't need pictures of dragons as a clue. We've seen an actual dragon already."
"There were dragons here ages ago, though," Heidze pointed out. "This may be a clue to finding the current one's hiding place."
"Maybe there's a treasure inside. It's clear this spot is important."
"Still the boy you were when I first met you. Well, you can steal on your own time. I'm here to find a dragon."
"Can't you just try opening it with your earthbending first?"
"There's nothing in sight from up here," Ratana announced. "Let's get moving again. We'll make for the other side of the valley. There must be a cave nearby where the dragon could be lurking..."
Naturally, Ratana had her own reasons for not wanting to enter the temple. In school, she had heard the Sun Warriors were infamous for their booby traps. It was possible that some were still active, especially in a place that had not been entered in a long time. After she reached the bottom with a slightly-disappointed Heidze, they began making their way through the city again. They kept going straight after Ratana spotted a narrow passage to the side where a broken rope hung above a bed of spikes. There were indeed booby traps in this place.
The duo came across more buildings with markings on them. On their left were five elderly firebenders standing together, side-by-side. Curiously, on each of the four corners was a symbol of one of the four elements. Water, earth and air were included, not just fire. Next to that engraving was one of a giant creature which appeared to be half-turtle, half-lion, with a tribe of people standing before him. These people were mostly bald, save for top-knots and ponytails and their tattoos stretched from the sides of their face and pointed inward, like two knives coming together where the nose stood.
On Ratana and Heidze's right was mural of a man sitting cross-legged. His tattoos were the exact copy of the ones in the previous drawing, but he wore a headdress with points in all directions and he had two arms on either side of his body. He may have actually had three at one point, since some of the stone was faded on each of his sides where a third arm might have once been. The next building bore a drawing with two dragons breathing a gust of fiery breath at a human standing in the center. The person appeared to be a firebender, but it didn't seem to be doing him much good. Ratana gulped to herself as she noticed something very different about this building. The drawing was deeper, and looked more fresh. This carving had to be made more recently than the others.
"Let's go in here," Ratana said to Heidze.
The inside was perfectly dark, for there were no windows and the only light which illuminated the way came from the door. What Ratana first thought to be a basket or sculpture in the near corner turned out to be a ceremonial drum. It was what was beneath that, though, that really caught her attention. A thin, papery material was split into several chunks. The chunks felt just like the shed dragon skin between her fingers, and resembled scales.
"Well, looks like we're on the right path," Ratana said aloud. "But who would bring dragon skin in here?"
Her train of thought was cut short as Heidze fell onto her side and Ratana caught him, holding him out with her left arm. It seemed he had tripped on a stone hanging slightly above the others on the floor. Just then, the doorway to the room slid shut and they were in total darkness. A cranking noise came from above as a panicking Heidze grasped her shoulder. Ratana scraped her bare foot on the ground and her senses informed her that the ceiling was sinking!
Acting right away, Ratana kicked the floor and erected a rocky spike from the floor which pierced a hole in the falling ceiling. Light shone down from above and the earthbender threw her arms above her head to protect herself from any stone chunks that tumbled down from the booby-trapped ceiling following her hasty move. Relieved, the earthbender of the Terra Team ran to the light area with the opening in it, dragging a limp arm belonging to Heidze behind her.
When she turned around, it became clear that her companion was not quite as unscathed as she was. "Heidze!"
- The engraving with the five firebenders side-by-side is a reference to the Five Great Sages in Aang's vision of Pathik in "Nightmares and Daydreams". . The multi-armed man across from them is in a similar position to
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