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|Valley of the Ancient City: Part 3|
May 27, 2014
"Heidze!" Ratana continued to call down into the pile of rubble which a minute earlier was the building they had just walked into. With a frantic tug, she pulled his arm further out of the residue and uncovered his face. "Heidze?"
Coughing, Heidze opened his eyes and spit out a pair of tiny pebbles. "I-I'm alright," he stammered through a whimper, though he continued to groan as Ratana heaved the next stone off his side.
"No, you're not alright. How bad is it?" Ratana questioned Heidze briskly as the latter screeched in agony.
"It's painful," he told her through a barrier of gritted teeth.
"A little moss will help ease your pain. Getting you out will take some careful earthbending on my part, so don't move so much. I'm going to dig you out one stone at a time, but carefully. I don't want to further injure you in the process. Which side would you say is bothering you more at the present moment? The right or the left?"
"The left I suppose," Heidze informed her. "I think I have a nasty cut there."
"Fine," Ratana nodded. "Well, this is costing us more time, but we don't really have a choice. I'll run to the side of the mountains and rummage for some moss in the meadows to soothe your wound. After that I'll figure out how to get you out of this mess the best. Just...don't go anywhere for now. Okay?"
"Not likely," Heidze muttered with ever-so slight amusement as Ratana turned and hopped off the pile of rubble before proceeding to run back through the city on her own, as fast as her two legs would carry her.
A pair of dragon statues sandwiched the path she took, both with wavy tails and their heads curling upward at the front. Briefly, Ratana's mind wandered back to her mission and to the discovery she made in the booby trap that she and Heidze had encountered. If that material inside had come from a dragon, it would be fresh and of the same that Yao had spotted. Just like the drums, that shedding would not have crawled there on its own. Someone had put it there. Or maybe they were even storing it there.
However, when Ratana reached the edge of the main city, she remembered the sack of stenchy substance that June had entrusted her with. Carefully, she pulled it open and immediately brought her hand back up to pinch her nose, with her nostrils squeezed between her fingertips. Once June arrived, Ratana could send her to get the moss so that she would be free to save extra time by returning to earthbend Heidze out. Ratana only hoped that the abrasive bounty hunter was not too far away and that Nyla would be able to reach them.
But it was only a matter of time though before the Terra Team earthbender realized that she had more immediate matters to concern herself with. Ratana froze in her tracks upon coming across a startling surprise just inside the ancient city, when she was turning the final corner to go back into the wild. It was another live human being, not ancient like the ruins, though this woman was not like any other that she had met in her life or since coming to the Fire Nation. She bore several red tattoo markings of a similar shade to the ones June wore, but shaped far differently, with triangles pointing inward.
"Who are you?" the woman asked Ratana, who was still processing the fact that she was real, for she looked nothing like the villagers of Nongkun who were supposedly the only residents for dozens and dozens of miles from this location. She wore a yellow sash and two pairs of bracelets around her elbows and ankles, and she clutched a spear, which was wooden and less elaborately shaped than those the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom armies used.
"I'm Ratana of the Terra Team," she replied, looking the woman in the eye while keeping a close watch on her spear at the same time. "Who are you?"
"No," Ratana told her, tightening her fists and cementing the firmness of her earthbending stance. "I answered you, now you answer me."
"Turn around." As the woman waved her spear, a line of orange sparks trailed from the point, with hot embers proceeding to descend upon the unsuspecting ground. She was a firebender.
Staring at her suspiciously, Ratana slowly turned her neck and rotated her head to face behind her, ready to face back and fight at a moment's notice. A man slightly older than the woman that she encountered pointed a spear inches from her nose. The Terra Team earthbender from the Earth Kingdom would have considered trying to maneuver herself out of this situation if it had not been for the others. Just behind the man, a host of similarly-clothed figures faced her way. Each of the tattoos was a muted shade of red. Some of the tattoos were pointed, some were on the chin and one woman had a mere oval across the space between her nose and her eye line. Although the shapes differed, they were clearly akin to one another. Most of the men were bare-chested, and all the new arrivals bore the same red shoulder garments. A couple of them wearing gold headbands in either direction held both hands out, a sizable bust of flame hovering in front of them. These people counted several firebenders among them.
At the head of the tattooed group stood a tall, imposing man with a red tattoo which covered the entire top of his face. Held up on his hood was a canary-yellow headdress that stretched down the back of his neck. His gaze had fallen on Ratana, like the rest of his people's had now. "What is your purpose here, Ratana of the Terra Team?"
"What's it to you?" Ratana shot back abrasively. She now felt the tip of the spear from the first woman she met near her back.
"Hmph!" The headdressed individual held his fire-symboled staff in the air and turned to one of the men behind him. "Obviously she must have come here to steal Sun Warrior treasure. There's no other explanation. Don't you agree, Wu?"
Ratana could not believer her ears. "Sun Warriors?" she asked the leader in astonishment. "There's no way you can be Sun Warriors. They died out long before anyone of our generation was born."
"Think again," said the man who seemed to be the leader in charge. "It is among the Sun Warriors that you find yourself now."
"Well, whoever you are, I have no interest in stealing your treasures or artifacts," Ratana said to him. "I came here on a quest for truth and answers about certain things."
The chief glanced at the one he addressed earlier. "Wu?"
"I don't know, Chief," Wu responded from a few paces behind. Wu was distinguishable from the others in the tribe in that he was the only one other than their leader who wore a headdress, though his was smaller and multi-colored, like a rainbow. This was in sharp contrast to the chief's, which was larger and all of the same hue. Additionally, he was shorter and stubbier than the chief, with by the looks of it at least ten more years behind him. "She seems to be hiding something. Being the humble shaman that I am, I cannot tell you what to do, but I would advise caution in this case."
"I see," replied the chief. Even if he did not have his own attire to wear, it would have been obvious that he was the leader amongst the group. The uneasiness in his voice soon became contagious and flowed over the rest of his people, and finally to Ratana. Even earthbenders of the elite Terra Team were sometimes forced to concede to themselves that they were in a tight spot.
Ratana was thinking about what to say next when another one of the horde obliged for her. "Wait a second, I've seen this woman before!"
The astonished chief turned to the speaker, the atmosphere of total uncertainty now gone. "What's that, Chu Fang?"
Chu Fang was shorter than Ratana and built more along the lines of Wu than he was of the chief. "I saw her when I was at the other end of the Fire Nation," he stated, his appearance growing more familiar to the covert earthbender. "She came into the shop I had set up and inquired about a sculpture." He was the creepy merchant that Ratana recalled meeting when she first got off the boat in Gangkouz. That was before she met Heidze, or June, or Lu Ten. Chu Fang was the first person she interacted with after coming to the Fire Nation.
"Are you sure about this?" the chief asked him.
"I'm positive," Chu Fang answered definitively. "But she's dressed very differently than when I last saw her. I thought she was a transvestite."
Although peeved, Ratana could remember all too well where Chu Fang would've gotten that impression. "That was my disguise while traveling in the Fire Nation," she explained. "I was impersonating a man's identity while I was here."
"Hah!" Chu Fang pierced Ratana's ears with his laughter. "You serious? That 'disguise' was not even good. I mean, it was scarcely more than a quick change of clothes and a false set of facial hair. When we met last time, I didn't get around to asking, but I assumed you were a transvestite. It was the only possible answer."
Ratana narrowed both her eyes at him. "My Nookyazu disguise worked fine on everyone else. In fact, you were the only person I met who saw right through it since leaving the Earth Kingdom."
A man with a bone headband man slightly taller and considerably leaner than Chu Fang or the chief began to snicker. "It's so true. Outsiders always have a knack for failing to see what's right in front of them."
"That will do, Ham Ghao," the chief told the man with firm sharpness. "Why were you wearing a disguise, Ratana from the Earth Kingdom?"
"Well, since I'm from the Earth Kingdom and being in the Fire Nation, that's a very dangerous position for me. I'm not sure if you're aware, but our nations have been at war with one another for nearly a hundred-"
"We are quite aware of the existence of the war, thank you!" snapped the Sun Chief. "It's true that most of us remain within our boundaries, save for a few like Chu Fang here, who occasionally travels around posed as a merchant. But we are quite informed of what's going on beyond us."
"I see," said Ratana. "Okay."
"Very well, so you had ample reason for wearing a disguise while you were in the Fire Nation," conceded the chief. "The question now becomes, why were you in the Fire Nation in the first place. Answer that."
The earthbender of the Terra Team hesitated. "I was sent by my government into enemy territory on a mission entrusted to me."
"And what was that mission?"
"I don't see how that concerns you."
"Maybe it does and maybe it doesn't," stated the chief. "However, it's hard for me to imagine what sort of mission the Earth Kingdom high command would assign that involved coming all the way here, to the wild outskirts of the enemy nation."
"Chief," addressed Ham Ghao. "If she is an earthbender, then perhaps she was too responsible for that racket on the mountainside from earlier." He was talking about the rock avalanche, the one which caught Ratana and her companions by surprise.
As a few of the Sun Warriors snorted, including the female with the spear who kept her guard trained on Ratana, Chu Fang rolled his eyes at this notion. "I think that we all know what it was that caused that, and it wasn't her. Honestly, Ham Ghao, it was nothing out of the ordinary and you know that."
The chieftain's eyes suddenly both flared up. "Silence, you two. Keep quiet before you say anything you shouldn't."
"Indeed," agreed Wu, the shaman. "There's no need not to be careful."
At these words, however, Chu Fang's eyes widened, his face turned stiff and the rest of his body froze in place. "As a matter of fact, there might be. When this woman came to my shop in the port city of Gangkouz, she was interested in a sculpture, like I said before. That sculpture was of a dragon, and she was quite keen on discussing the subject aside from the sculpture."
The remainder of the Sun Warrior's were made perfectly silent by this revelation, which made matters uncomfortable for Ratana for a second time. It was the chief who finally spoke up again. "I'll ask you again, outsider. What was the mission that you were sent here to carry out?"
"As I said before, it's none of your concern."
"Cheeky as you can be, I was more inclined to believe you earlier. Now, I am not so sure."
Just then, one of the Sun Warrior's from the back of the pack brought fresh news to the table. "Chief, I found another outsider not too far from here." It was now visible that he was dragging a mousy-looking boy behind him by the arm as he spoke. Heidze. "He was near one of our traps. It seems that he got caught, but managed to survive."
"Seriously, why do we even bother?" Ham Ghao pouted, visibly annoyed. "Our booby traps failed to stop the last outsiders as well. I think they're in need of an upgrade."
"The sun stone is still fairly unreachable," the chief reminded Ham Ghao.
"Do we really need that grate at the top, though?" Ham Ghao asked. "The light only needs to come in during the solstice. Why can't that grate be closed off for the rest of the year?"
"Oh please," Chu Fang rolled his eyes, scowling. "Let's just say everything about our culture in front of this pair of strangers. What's the worst that could happen?"
"They already found out some, so there's no point in denying that now," Wu reminded him, responding with calm composure that contrasted with the sarcasm of the one he addressed. "But the most vital secrets of ours are still just that: secret. And they will remain such."
The chief of the Sun Warriors rounded on Heidze and the one who brought him. "How did you find him?"
"He's a little battered, but he'll live," replied the warrior.
"I see," the chief answered simply. "Now, why were you in our city?"
"I've heard of the sun stone," he said. "I wanted to have a look at some of the great treasures in this city." Whether or not he would also steal it if he got the chance, this was technically the truth.
"Wu," the chief gestured forth. He waited for the shaman to walk over, place his hand on the boy's chest for a few seconds and then turn back and nod to the chief agreeably. "Very well," the chief went on, like he had conceded something invisible to them. "Boy, do you know this woman?" He was pointing at Ratana.
When Heidze looked in Ratana's direction, she gave the shortest, most subtle shake of the head that only he saw. "No, I don't."
"Of course he did!" Ham Ghao chimed in, exasperated. "How often do we encounter multiple outsiders so close together?"
Luckily for the outsiders, as they were being called, the chief did not press the matter further. "It's not the first time that it's happened, Ham Ghao."
Ham Ghao was about to say something else, but just as his mouth had opened fully, the roots of the nearby trees shook and the ears of everyone in the vicinity rang with a loud animal sound, not quite as loud as the roar of the dragon, but ear-splitting nonetheless. Nyla had arrived on the scene and proceeded to bounce up and down, making the Sun Warriors jump back, even the woman who had cornered Ratana to begin with, which opened the possibility of her escape. It appeared as though the sack June had given her had served it's purpose. But when the Terra Team earthbender peered upward, she did not find the shirshu's master on its back. This lack of presence of June bewildered Ratana as much as the presence of Nyla had. She had a hard time figuring out why June was not here as well. Naturally, it could be construed as details to be explained to her later, so Ratana put it from her mind.
However, the Sun Warriors were themselves quick to shift gears and react accordingly. The benders who flanked the chieftain the on the other side hurled balls of fire at the beast and proceeded to chase Nyla back through the wilderness.
"What was that?" the dazed chief asked aloud. "That sort of creature is not from these parts."
"Maybe the spirits brought it," Ham Ghao suggested.
"Or maybe someone else did," countered Chu Fang.
The chief rounded on Ratana once he had finished regaining himself. "Do you know where that creature came from?"
"No," Ratana told him, unflinching.
Just like he had with Heidze, the shaman Wu approached her and placed his hand over her chest. "I've studied the movements of the sun and the flames it produces for a good many years. They mimic that of large heartbeat, in a lot of ways, so it's an important lesson we teach our firebenders. The separation of the four elements is an illusion. With an open mind, one can see that all the elements are one. Even though the technique is not as well known, firebenders can heal, same as waterbenders. Likewise, one who has studied as I have will be able to duplicate skills normally only found in your native element as well." For a few long, agonizing seconds, the shaman kept his hand in place and maintained eye contact with her, before turning away fully. "She's lying."
The chief nodded in acknowledgement. "She is not to be trusted. Lock her up straightaway."
- Chu Fang first appeared in Chapter 19: Gangkouz: Part 2, though he was first named in this chapter.
- The shaman Wu's brief monologue at the end resembles the statements of Pathik from "The Guru" when Toph Beifong is first discovering metalbending.
- is now over 100,000 words long.
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