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|Valley of the Ancient City: Part 5|
June 2, 2014
"Gather round," Chief Shang announced as the Sun Warriors lined the circle of drums soon entered by Heidze and his new friend. The chief himself was standing beside a huge pit of fire in the center. "Ah, it seems we have an unexpected visitor among us today."
"Hm?" Heidze responded like he was being shaken from a trance. "Oh, yes."
"Is this wise, Chief?" Ham Ghao asked the chief from a few paces to Heidze's right.
"The shaman believed he was alright yesterday," said Shang. "I trust Wu's judgement when it comes to individuals."
"It's not just that," Ham Gao carried on, pointing to the air and making a continuous noise through tightened lips.
This gesture Heidze did not know what to make of. "Does this have something to do with dragons?" he guessed.
Chief Shang's eyes widened as he turned back to face Heidze. "What makes you say something like that, outsider boy?"
"I know that there's a living dragon near here," he replied. "I saw it flying overhead when I was traveling."
"I see," the bulky, imposing Chief Shang offered him a solemn nod. "So you know."
"If he knows of the dragons, he knows," Wu told the chief. "We just need to take the necessary precautions with him, as we have with past outsiders."
"Wait," Heidze chimed in once again. "There are others from...my world, who know about the dragon?"
"Not many," the shaman Wu informed him, his colored headdress rocking back and forth with his head's motion like the drumsticks on the braided girl's drum. "One of those who came across them was the firebender who sailed the southern seas that came up nearly a generation ago. Not long after him was the wise and well-beloved one with a curious passion for tea. Whenever outsiders find out about the last dragons, it's always something we have to manage with delicate caution. As they've been hunted down in recent decades, that's never been more important."
"I thought that there was only one dragon left," said Heidze. "I saw a red one when it was flying overhead."
"Actually, there are two dragons left," Shang told him. "The red one you witnessed on his flight was Shaw, a male. There is also a blue one called Ran, who is female."
Heidze realized now that the last dragon was not such and that its existence was not as lonesome as he once thought. "Where are they now?"
Heidze had to wait while Shang, the chief and Wu, the shaman exchanged a long glance of eye contact together, coming to a wordless understanding of what was wise. "They are atop one of the tallest mountains," explained Wu. "On certain occasions, the members of our tribe go to the base of the junction where they each dwell. It is always a sacred time when that happens. Even though all members of our tribe are present, only the dragon guide is allowed to go all the way to the top, to their twin caves, except for when a firebending prodigy is being presented."
"I see," Heidze realized that it was now wise for him to backpedal for the time being. "Who is the dragon guide?"
"That is the role of one of our tribe members, the way we all have our own roles," Wu continued. "He is the preserver of our relationship with the dragons, and also the only one among us who travels up to them alone when there is no special occasion. Chu Fang is our current dragon guide, and has been for several years. Times are tight now, and he divides his time between that and his so-called merchant ventures."
"As if anyone can do that," the bony-headbanded Ham Ghao said aloud. "No matter how well he manages his time, Chu Fang can only be around so much, and if he is needed as dragon guide when he's not with the tribe, he's not living up to his responsibility."
Wu put one of his wrinkled hands beside his mouth and directed his speech aside to Heidze. "Ham Ghao wanted to be dragon guide himself, but instead he's a ceremonial assistant, something he's never been satisfied with."
"You said you had a relationship with the dragons," Heidze recalled. "What is the nature of that relationship exactly?" Like Ratana, Heidze had come to believe that the Sun Warriors would live in terror of the dragons that existed nearby, and that dragons may have had a role in uprooting their civilization centuries ago. Everything being told to him now appeared to contradict the notion.
"As a part of the balance," Wu told him simply.
"Just as the Fire Nation as you've seen today worshiped their so-called sons of the comet, one of whom rules over them, we have our own objects of reverence," explained Shang. "Ours are genuine and not mere idols, though. Azulon and Lizen, having been two princes born at the start of the Fire Nation's Neverending War on the rest of the world, had symbolized the destructive fire that stood opposed to the fire breathed by dragons."
"I can see why you would be skeptical," Wu added as though he had read Heidze's mind. "Dragons are quite fearsome, but those who understand them have always been able to develop a connection. Even the Fire Lord Sozin had a dragon himself. The Avatar before the last airbender Avatar who disappeared had an animal guide named Fang."
Heidze raised his eyebrow. "What has the Avatar got to do with this?"
"When it existed, the Avatar was the ultimate balance keeper," stated Wu. "In our day to day lives, though, we must all play our part for the balance, large or small as it may be. That is why we were wary of you. The more protectors Ran and Shaw have, the less safe they are."
"That's like what that guy Yao from Gangkouz told to us," Heidze remembered.
"Indeed," Wu nodded. "For the more people who end up protecting the secret, the more likely it is one will break it eventually. That's why less protection is better, not more, in this one instance. Heidze, you must be a protector now. It's a secret we don't give out, but it's also one that destiny has given you, and you must not tell anyone what you know. In addition, you must do whatever else is necessary, for we are all tools of the balance, and you are now more close to it than you have ever been."
"The dragons are part of the balance?"
"Yes," confirmed the shaman. "The original human benders learned from those closest to the arts. Airbending was learned from studying sky bison. The animals who knew of waterbending are lost to the world and to all human knowledge, but the moon and ocean spirits carried on for them. Earthbending was learned from studying badgermoles. Lastly, firebending was learned from studying dragons. Dragons may be believed to be extinct now by most, but they are more important now than ever. In the beginning, you see, the whole formed by the four nations was more obvious. Originally, there was a council of Air Sages, a council of Water Sages, a council of Earth Sages and a council of Fire Sages. Over time, everything changed. The Earth Sages were the first to dissolve when their people grew to spread out and detached from one another. When waterbenders began communicating directly with the spirits, the Water Sages lost their importance and faded away over time. The Air Nomads of old, before they perished, were the most true to the primary order of the four nations. As for the Fire Nation, the Fire Sages still exist as an institution, but the they are far more detached from their history than our people are."
"Enough with the history lessons for now," interrupted Chief Shang. "Let us commence the ceremony of the flame."
Heidze witnessed Ham Ghao and the other Sun Warriors situated near drums pounding on their instruments with perfect synchronization, creating a vibrant thunder that just screamed of anticipation. Around them, other Sun Warriors lining the edges engaged in a chant and those on the very outside lifted up rings lit with fire approximately four feet in diameter. Meanwhile, Chief Shang, Wu, and several other firebenders on the inside gradually lifted the flame in the fire pit up and down, like a diaphragm pushing in and out with every brand new breath. At last, Chu Fang approached the pit and dropped a handful of flat objects into the flame all at once. The result was an immediate eruption of the fire to an even greater height at least twenty feet above the ground. Now, the fire was not the same orange-red color it was before, but filled itself with all shades of the rainbow: from blue to green to yellow to orange to red to purple. Ensuing embers of each color drifted their way to the ground, crackling in their own sounds like a new musical chant. As Heidze looked on in awe, the girl with the braided hair began to clap, and those around her soon joined in.
Just like Heidze had counted on, Rulong and Dalong had gone to the ceremony of the flame along with the rest of their tribe. Seizing the opportunity, Heidze broke away from the crowd snuck into the cell they had guarded and found Ratana bound to a sturdy wooden stake, her hands tied together and her feet shackled to the floor.
"Heidze?" she greeted with a tired voice that matched her eyes. "Where did you come from?"
"Shhh," he put his finger to his mouth. "I can't stay long, or they'll grow suspicious. The Sun Warriors seem to trust me for now."
"Good for you," Ratana commended him. "I can't wait to bend my way out of here. They all were quite nasty when they captured us. That Ham Ghao one looked like he wanted to eat Nyla for dinner. How did you get the witch doctor to believe your lie?"
"I didn't," Heidze said simply. "What I told him wasn't deception. I answered his question about the sun stone. If he failed to make another association, it was his fault."
Ratana smirked, remembering the similar "truth" she had told June when they were breaking into the Huoxilong hideout. "It looks like I rubbed off on you some."
"I guess that you did. One of the girls in the tribe seems pretty nice. I've been getting to know her these past few hours. She-"
"Not now, Heidze," Ratana interrupted him abruptly. "We have more important things than your love life to talk about."
"Well, I can't stay long, but I found out more about the dragons from the Sun Warriors. There two remaining dragons on top of one of the tallest mountains here, with twin caves that face each other."
"Yes," Heidze carried on. "One of them called the dragon guide is the only one who goes all the way to the top. Today, the Sun Warriors showed me their Ceremony of the Flame, where they dropped scales from a dragon's belly into a fire pit and they explode into fire of all colors."
"Just the scales of a dragon do that?" Ratana asked him, fully focused on what she was listening to despite her uncomfortable position.
"Only certain ones," replied Heidze. "It has to do with them being close to the torso and where their breath comes from apparently. The burning of the scales creates a reaction that mimics when a dragon breaths multi-colored fire, only far smaller."
"Interesting," Ratana said, suddenly very interested. "Do only the Sun Warriors know about this phenomena?"
"Actually no," Heidze told Ratana. "Great dragons have breathed all colors of fire for ages, and people from all four nations knew of this ritual. Chu Fang, the dragon guide, says they only use scales the dragons allow them to have by shedding on their own. The scales themselves only work for a few weeks after they are shed from the dragons's belly, or else they decay and the colors and the life leave them. The rainbow-like swirl only appears therefore if the scales are fresh. Before the Neverending War began, this ceremony was famous, and scholars across the world today are familiar with it. Of course, none of them have witnessed it themselves for a long time."
"I see," nodded Ratana, breaking eye contact and allowing her arms to hang loose as she processed the new information.
"I'd better go," Heidze told her. "They're still close by and they may grow suspicious, but I'll come back and free you at my first opportunity. I promise."
Ratana nodded again as Heidze left the room, thinking about what Heidze told her about the scales. If what he said was true, then showing that flame in public again could only come from a live dragon who had shed them not long before. There were also those who would recognize it.
She now knew where her proof had to come from.
- The outsiders referred to by Sun Shaman Wu are both characters in this story. The "firebender who sailed the southern seas" refers to Han Shui, Dragon of Water and Commander of the Southern Raiders. The other one was the "wise and well-beloved one with a curious passion for tea." I don't think I have to clarify who that is.
- Even though they are not explicitly named here, the original waterbending animals lost to time refer to krakens, as described in .
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