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|Cave of the Dragons|
June 9, 2014
Remembering what Lu Ten had said to her about dragons back in Gangkouz, Ratana held out the drum as she reached the top of the long, steep staircase.
"Of course they like music! Geez, for someone so eager to find dragons, you don't seem to know very much about them. The traditional flute sings in cool harmony with the wind, which tames the fiercer side of a dragon's spirit.. Ferocious beasts are merely beings in the balance...just like us.'"
The drum that she grasped was hardly a traditional flute, but if the dragon would react to it in some way that could potentially be used in her advantage, Ratana would not neglect any possibly helpful tool.
"Back when they were hunted, those who went after them spent years studying their ways before they were considered worthy to face them. Did you also know that they roared the loudest wasn't when they were attacking something? It was when they themselves were being attacked."
The Sun Warriors would undoubtedly hear something from the bottom of the mountain when Ratana's dragon encounter took place. That's why it was all too important for her not to waste any time.
Deciding which of the two caves to explore in was like picking between poisons or tortures. Each of the two would have a live dragon sleeping within it, who would inevitably become awakened in only a matter of time. One of the dragons was the big red one that Ratana saw flying overhead, and she knew that going against that one would be a perilous feat. On the other hand, she had never seen the other dragon and thus had no way of telling whether it was more or less dangerous. In the end, she resolved to listen to the earth and allow her own native element to make the determination for her. Although the vibrations in the ground were great in either direction, she felt them slightly fainter in one. After taking a deep breath, she approached the cave.
It was pitch dark inside and three paces, Ratana found herself deep enough inside that she could barely see her hand out in front of her face. A firebender coming through this passage would be able to make their own light, but Ratana did not have that option with her earthbending.
With a single flash, this cave could light up like daytime, but if that moment came, it would likely be the Terra Team earthbender's last. As Ratana quietly stepped along the sides of the cave, careful not to kick a single loose rock out of place or step too loudly, she heard a noise. It was as though somebody was grunting, only ten times louder. The entire cave was filled with the sound and the vibrations could be felt on the sides of the cave. Ratana's heartbeat slowed down almost to a pause. If the dragon was awake, all she could do was hope that it had not yet noticed her presence.
Then, after maybe five more paces, she finally saw it. It was a head that filled up almost the entire cave, a long snout of a nose that the grunting came from. If the grunting was snoring and not roaring, Ratana knew that she did not want to hear roaring at this close range. She could make out the lines of the eyelids that covered the pupils as big as a human head at minimum, and the moonlight shone upon a set of teeth visible through the mostly-closed mouth. Every single one of them was bigger than the dagger that she carried.
Inhaling yet another deep breath, Ratana made her way through the space between the side of the dragon's head and the cave wall. As massive as they appeared from the sky, dragons were far greater beasts when standing right next to them. If the beast were awake, Ratana would no longer be alive at this point. This dragon was blue and not red, meaning it was different than the one she had seen before. There was a long gash that was as though someone had painted across the side of it like a mural. Ratana knew better, though. This was a scar. If something had caused a wound to this creature, it could've been the other dragon, in which case Ratana had certainly chosen the better of the two to go up against. Then again, it could've also been from a fight with the so-called famed Dragon of the West, who would have given up on the fight and retreated rather than finish his task. If that was the case, that made it all the better since this was the one he went up against.
Ratana would surely not be retreating today before finishing her task. She was forced to accept that it would not be easy, though. When she was walking down the side of the cavern in silence, Ratana saw that the belly of the beast was facing downward, and that would mean the torso was on the bottom of the cave. In order to acquire any scales from it, she would have to get the dragon to move. If this was truly the one that Iroh fought, she did not want to try the other cave as an alternative, where the dragon might also be fiercer and also in the same position, in which case it would be a waste of time. And Ratana had wasted far too much time before coming here. But even if some of those she knew back in the Earth Kingdom would think her dead by now, it would not matter so long as she was successful in the end.
This was when the drum came in handy. Ratana crawled quietly toward the entrance to the cave and placed the drum near the opening to the vast night sky. Then, she took two small rocks and placed them nearby. Careful not to make too much sound, she eased her way back to the side of the dragon's side. Concentrating closely, she reached out, her chi pulsating, and lifted the two stones into the air, before letting one drop down to the drum, then bending it upward again and letting the other one fall. She did this several times.
It may not have been much of a tune, but the racket she produced had the desired effect. Suddenly, the dragon, grunted even louder than before and the head shook back and forth, nearly knocking some of the stones out of place. Then, at long last, the long body rose off the ground, the torso moving, but exposed. Not having seen Ratana yet, the long blue dragon was now awake.
Ratana hopped into the opening at the bottom of the cave, careful not to be crushed by the tossing and turning dragon, but as she rose her dagger toward the torso region, the dragon roared and shook violently back and forth, knocking rocks off the sides of the cave faster than Ratana herself would be able to bend them in a similar fashion. Not only was the dragon awake now, but it detected an intruder. Ratana swung her dagger upright and in what on another day would have been considered a suicidal move, sliced a small cut in the dragon's chest. It could not have caused more than a minor spot of pain, but the dragon's roar grew louder and its shaking more violent. It was now breathing fire in multiple directions. With a couple more jabs of the long knife, Ratana had three scales dislodged from the dragon's belly, which she promptly stuffed into her tunic and resolved to keep them safe and with her all the way back home.
The Earth Kingdom.
In the only relief she could hold onto at such an un-relieving moment, Ratana realized that that was the only objective now. She had enough scales for multiple demonstrations to convince her superiors and then show the world that dragons still existed. Soon she could leave this cave and leave this accursed nation behind for good.
Without a doubt, the hardest part of this newest, final phase of her mission was right now. As she turned to exit the cave the way she came, Ratana saw that it would be foolish to leave the same way again. That route had turned into a death trap with the shaking of the dragon and gusts of flame it shot forth. With no other choice, Ratana turned and ran with downward strides past the dragon's wagging tail and further into the cave. There was no clear way out this way, but no clear death either, so it was the better option for now. Having discovered one of the last living dragons and obtained the means to prove its existence to the world, all that remained was to escape from this place. Somehow.
Gathering up as quick a sprint as she could muster, Ratana came across a ledge that hung over a high underground cliff. Kicking the floor of the cave, Ratana bent a curved, jagged edge just big enough to support her about three feet below where she stood. The foreign earthbender leaped down onto it just as the largest stream of fire she had ever seen soared over her head and where she had moments ago been standing. Had she still been there now, she would have been fried to a crisp. Her mouth hanging in awe, Ratana felt sweat pouring down her cheeks and her forehead temperature rising from the sheer heat that came with being so close to such a big gust of fire. It was as much as an entire platoon of the firebenders she was used to battling could conjure if they all shot at the same time. Following the stream of flame, the lone bender responsible for it flew over her head and around the open area in front of it.
Now that the dragon's fire had illuminated what was in front of her, Ratana could see that the cliff she hung on was about two hundred feet off yet another cave floor. The chamber stretched for a wide distance, and the blue dragon continued to fly around and shoot fire in all directions, lighting up the place and showing piles of skeletons of prey lying at the bottom of the great cavern. If Ratana continued to hang uselessly as she did now, it was only a matter of time before the dragon found her once again and turned her into ashes.
If that was not enough, Ratana saw her adversaries duplicate before her eyes. Even though she had not seen it come in through the same way, the red dragon was now down in the blue dragon's cave as well. Both of them shot similar shoots of flame from their mouths. As they were a fair distance away from her, Ratana took what little opportunity she had and jabbed her fist down at the ledge she had constructed for herself out of the cave wall. The shard from the cliff drifted downward as fast as she could allow it to without it making too much noise or causing injury to herself.
But when she reached the bottom of the cave and ran across the chamber, the dragons from above had both spotted her. The twin bursts of flame both swung like straight, fiery whips toward where she stood, faster than any human being could possibly run. Ratana kicked the cave floor hard and brought up the largest chunk of rock possible before hurling it toward the head of one of the dragons. Meanwhile, she erected a diagonal earthen barrier to shield herself from the flame of the other one. Immediately, the already deafening roar grew louder from the dragon she hit in the face, who shook its head a few times to remove the shards of rock from its eyesight. The other dragon's fire grew hotter and fiercer in retaliation.
Realizing that she could not afford to let any opportunity slip away, Ratana coated herself in earth and dashed for another side of the cave, underneath the dragon that she had hit with the rock. Keeping her eyes exposed so as not to lose her vision, she lay motionless in her camouflage of rock and looked into the cave, breathing heavily. As long as the dragons continued to breath their fire, she could see what was going on in the cave. The dragons, having lost sight of her, seemed to know this, too. Hence, they ceased breathing fire and eventually the damp cave fell dark once more. They did not leave the area, however, but continued flying around the gigantic chamber, flapping their wings and scanning the area. This was their territory and they did not require perfect sight to spot an intruder lurking on the ground, though unless they had knowledge of earthbending, they would not anticipate Ratana's cover.
For what seemed like an eternity, Ratana lay there until the flapping quieted. She did not know if they had left the area truly or if they were merely sitting silent, waiting for her to reveal herself. Reaching out with her seismic sense, Ratana did not notice anything too close by moving. Ratana gently uncovered herself and ran toward the closest cave wall. When the dragons were both breathing fire at her, she had spotted another passageway parallel to the one she had entered through on the other side of the cave. It was through this one that she would exit. Even if she did not know where it led, going through the other one might mean finding the dragons again. Ratana ascended the cave wall by punching miniature holes in the surface with her bending. When she reached the top of the cliff and began walking through the cave it led to, she discovered that it was just the same as the one she came down through, only flipped around.
Deep down below the earth's surface, the two caves for the two dragons were one. This must be where they feasted after a hunt. Given their size, the dragons could dine on pretty much any other creature in existence on land. If they were of different sexes, this could also be where the two dragons mated. Whether by chance or by intentional means, these dragons found themselves here. So, this was the red dragon's section of the cave.
When Ratana saw the stars of the sky through the corresponding opening up ahead, she felt a surge of heat behind her she knew could only be from one of the dragons she had encountered. It must have smelt her from a distance and followed her movements up the cave. She crawled hastily to the rim of the cave and took cover behind a conveniently-shaped boulder she was fortunate enough to come across. The red dragon flew up and out of the cave, past Ratana's hiding spot and into the sky. It had heard her, but had not seen her, which was lucky or she would have been dead on the spot. Ratana moved quickly to leave the cave area before the blue dragon spotted her again as well, but when she left the cave and found herself back on the walkway between the two entrance's to the dragon's lair, it was not the blue dragon that she found before her.
It was Wu, the Sun Warriors' shaman.
"I thought that the dragon guide was the only one of you allowed to venture up the mountain all the way by himself," Ratana said to Wu, no pleasantry to mask her feeling.
"A time comes for an exception to everything." The Sun Shaman, a shorter person than Ratana, wore his elegant headdress with the colors of the rainbow and clutched his contrasting staff. Whether he had time to grab them before following her up the mountain or he was always dressed up, the earthbender did not know.
"I see," Ratana sweat as she continued to clutch the trio of dragon scales between her fingers, them being the single most important possession of hers. "Well, I have what I came here for, and I'm going to show the world now. Don't try to stop me."
"What is it that you have?" the Sun Shaman questioned calmly.
"I have the dragon scales," Ratana told him, her feet firmly on the ground and ready to begin bending at any instance. "If you don't have your so-called Ceremony of the Flame very often, I can see why. It must be quite an ordeal for any of you to get the scales from those flying things."
"We never take the scales from the dragons as you have," Wu pursed his lips into a frown. "We only gather those which the dragon has shed willingly. So, tell me, young earthbender - what is your purpose in taking these scales today? Are you aware that if you do, the dragons, one of the original bending animals, will be exposed and left vulnerable to being hunted by the world?"
"That's not my concern. I must bring the scales back from this mountain so that the world knows that dragons still exist and that General Iroh did not kill the last one. Then the Crown Prince will be disgraced and our capital of Ba Sing Se will be safe."
"You're quite sure of that?"
"Of course," said Ratana. "General Iroh is preparing to lead the assault on Ba Sing Se and if he is ruined in the eyes of his own people, that invasion cannot move forward."
"So you're not just following orders," said Wu. "You really, truly believe in the mission you've been assigned."
"Of course!" Ratana snapped, Wu's words striking a nerve of hers. His emphasis on following orders rung like they had when spoken by Heidze earlier. Even though the obstacles and reasons to turn away from her mission had been numerous, Ratana had persisted, her focus giving her the resolve to finish the job, no matter how unlikely it had seemed. "The Fire Nation wants to take my capital, and I'm going to stop them."
"It goes without saying that you've seen what the destructive fire of the nation of Sozin is capable of," Wu told her. "If the Fire Nation is determined to take Ba Sing Se eventually, won't they just send another general?"
Ratana paused for a moment, unsure of herself. "Iroh's been the driving force behind the impending attack, so with him out of the picture, their plans would halt and likely not pick up again for some time."
"So that's what one of these animals so close to the balance of the world is worth?" asked Wu. "It's not about saving your capital indefinitely, but merely delaying your opponent's plans a little."
"It would give us more time to make ourselves ready for their attack," Ratana countered back. "Perhaps years more."
"If only you could witness the harmony Ran and Shaw form when they are with one another," said Wu. "Like the dragons, the elements too feel their own distinct connection that makes them part of the same whole. All forms of substance bending are linked."
"An invisible link like that means nothing to me," said Ratana. "All this talk of a greater balance is mushy mumbo-jumbo to me. I care about what I can see, and I've seen what the Fire Nation is capable of now."
"Very well," said Wu. "I can see we're getting nowhere like this."
"Step aside, then."
"If you continue to stand in my way, I'll have no chance but to fight you," said Ratana. "I've put up with your lecture long enough. Maybe you're stalling until the rest of your Sun Warrior friends get here, but if you insist on wasting more of my time or trying to stop me, I will ruin you, old man."
"Were we to fight, don't underestimate my own bending abilities," Wu cautioned her without raising his voice. "Many years have I studied my art, and even if you were to get the better of me eventually, I could hinder you much in the process. It seems we are at an impasse."
Ratana narrowed her eyes. "What do you propose, then?"
"There is an exercise I have in mind," said Wu. "Do a simple ritual while I'm here and then I will bow out and allow you to be on your way."
Ratana raised an eyebrow. "Really? What is it?"
"It's called the Trance of Solitude."
- Unlike last chapter, this one ended up longer than I predicted. Like I said before, I'm not always good with estimating ahead of time.
- Ratana mistakenly believes that Ran's scar came from a battle with Iroh. In actuality, it was from a battle with Han Shui, the Dragon of Water.
- The original title of this chapter was going to be simply "The Cave", but this sounded of the same ring as "Cave of the Ancients," and I just couldn't help myself.
For the collective works of the author, go here.