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|Dragon of the Caldera|
Book 2: Sound
Chapter 7: Dragon of the Caldera
Seagulls squawked as the ship approached the Fire Nation Capital, Caldera City. Argho and Rioku could barely contain equal measures of apprehension and concern, while Kuan Ti and Zhan made plans to obtain lodging for their group. Shen, meanwhile, squinted as he made his way onto the deck; the sun was blinding and made his head ache.
"Caldera City, gentlemen..." The Avatar folded his arms. "Our job is to warn Fire Lady Saitei of the impending attack. The only problem now is finding out where they'll come from."
Shen raised an eyebrow, at the same time noticing his stomach roll. Odd... "That is actually the easy part. They'll stage from the Western Air Temple."
"What kind of weapons do they have, Shen?" Kuan Ti checked his revolvers, as if he expected a fight as soon as they got off of the boat.
The Airbender sighed. "I really think we should wait until we see the Fire Lady for that one..."
Zhan shook his head. "That's comforting..."
"Shen's right." Rioku frowned. "No sense rehashing this again and again. Saitei isn't a patient woman."
Argho stifled a shiver. "No she is not."
"Wait...explain to me what's happening again?"
Gyatso inhaled. "You have been summoned, Shen, by the acting Grand Elder."
He smiled. "I see that Petrine's taking to her new role, then. Hard to believe we were just kids a couple of years ago."
"Shen, what do you think of Otokami?"
The young man cocked his head. "Well...he's done wonders for our nation, and he doesn't seem to want anything in return. I'd say he's just what we needed."
His father nodded. "I thought the same."
"Dad," Shen furrowed his brow. "Is something wrong?"
"Your mother, she pointed out something to me..." He exhaled. "Why Petrine? Why did he appoint someone with little real experience in leadership to our highest position?"
"You don't think she's ready?"
"You're missing the point. She is arguably one of the most capable. Her Airbending skills are exceptional, and she exhibits a desire to right the wrongs of the past. But your mother fears that the Spirit of Sound might be using her to some end, at least as a puppet, perhaps fueling her disdain for the Fire Nation. Your mother managed to find out that the Northern Air Temple is in the process of building war machines. Doesn't that sound odd to you?"
"And I think you're wrong." Shen made his way toward the Meditation Chamber. "I know you're wrong, Dad."
The sun beat down on the dock as they exited the boat, and sea ravens flew above the city. Team Avatar gazed up and was immediately able to see the Royal Palace. A few Satomobiles could be seen driving along, but it appeared that foot travel was still the preferred method. In addition to that, lit signs towered above most buildings, advertising either businesses or products.
"Funny..." Rioku grimaced. "I swore I'd never come back here and yet..."
"Here we are." Argho echoed his apprehension.
Shen and Kuan Ti shared a curious glance. "What's your problem, Argho? I've never seen you like this."
The Avatar shot the Airbender a look of exasperation. "You don't know Fire Lady Saitei. She was an uncompromising Firebending instructor."
The Equalist frowned. "Wait...I thought that Roku taught you Firebending?"
"He did...but Saitei challenged me to an Agni Kai on our first meeting. Upon my defeat, she took it upon herself to...how did she put it...'rectify the mistakes of that fossil'."
A chill passed through all four of them at once, and Shen gritted his teeth. "Then this is gonna be really fun..."
Five robed figures met them on their way to the palace and introduced themselves as the Fire Sages. "We have been tasked with ensuring that you see Fire Lady Saitei at once."
Argho smiled, but it held apprehension within. "Excellent..."
The Airbender inhaled, noticing that the dull throbbing in his head had not ceased. What is it about this woman that has two master Earthbenders, one of them being the Avatar, shaking in their boots?
Caldera City was so full of life, and even close to the palace, there were those going about their normal routines. Rioku, Argho, and even Kuan Ti seemed focused on the palace in the distance, but Shen—perhaps it was his nature as an Airbender—focused on everything around him. As the Royal Palace grew near, they passed several houses close by.
"These are the homes of those particularly close to the Royal Family." One of the sages piped up.
A smaller home stood near to the palace, although size was relative, considering the mansions around it. A flag flew from the gate featuring a stylized Fire Nation flame within the circular Earth Kingdom logo. Grass had grown in the cracks of the flooring, and the rest of the place seemed to be in a state of disuse. The flag, though, looked untouched.
"No one has lived there for many years..." The sage's gaze was wistful. "I knew the owners when I was younger, so much younger..."
"I dread reaching that age when life stops giving...and starts taking away." Rioku frowned. "It seems that it might happen sooner than later anyway, with our path."
Shen narrowed his eyes. "Not if I can help it."
Two massive doors creaked open as they were led into the palace. Servants and guards moved about, ignoring the odd collection of visitors, and the sages turned to face them.
"The Fire Lady will be in the throne room, but we were unable to inform her of your arrival."
Rioku winced. "Great...Saitei just loves surprises..."
"We'll be fine...probably." Argho held up his hand. "Thank you for your concern."
Team Avatar pushed open the doors to the throne room and was immediately met by two rifle-wielding guards.
"Avatar Argho, it has been a long time." They put their weapons back into the waiting position, against the shoulder. "I'm sure that Fire Lady Saitei is willing to see her star pupil; go right on in."
The openness of the throne room surprised Shen; he had always read that it was a dark and intimidating place. Instead, electric lights lined the walls, and a precious few pillars held the roof aloft, allowing the place to appear larger. What drew his attention next was the white fire that sat before the actual throne. He was so occupied with it that he failed to notice a sword at his throat.
"That is close enough." The woman had her katana pressed against his neck, and she regarded Team Avatar with a penetrating stare. "What is your business here?"
Argho stepped forward. "I am the Avatar, and we have pressing news for the Fire Lady."
Her eyes widened. "The Avatar...then you may pass. I doubt the Fire Sages would've let you through had you been lying." She glanced at the rest of them. "And I assume that these are your allies?"
A confident, yet light, voice echoed through the chamber. "Enough with the interrogation, Nasaki. They may pass."
The bodyguard turned and bowed, sheathing her blade as she did so. "Yes, Milady."
Fire Lady Saitei, the origin of said voice, sat on the throne and gazed down on them with appraising golden eyes. "It seems, Avatar Argho, that your entourage has grown since we last saw each other." Her gaze rested on Rioku. "I can only hope that these new ones won't destroy my palace like your former protégé."
Kuan Ti raised an eyebrow, and Rioku gritted his teeth. "To be fair, much of the damage was—"
"My fault?" She smiled, but it was an expression devoid of any actually pleasure. "And who was it that called for a Shien Kai, which you lost, I might add. I hope you learned your lesson, daring to attack the Dragon of Caldera City!"
Shen stepped forward. "Fire Lady Saitei, if I may be so bold, we have urgent news that needs your attention."
She nodded and stood, allowing the white fire around her throne to part. "Agreed, Argho wouldn't come for a social call. But first, who are you, and how did Argho get you wrapped up in his adventures?"
"My name is Shen, and I am an Air Nomad. Believe it or not, I came to Argho, Milady." A smile worked its way to the corners of his mouth. "And when they mentioned you, they failed to account for your beauty. They painted a picture of an angry old woman."
Argho and Rioku paled visibly, and Shen almost chuckled when Argho muttered under his breath, "Traitor..."
Saitei cocked her head, a bemused smile on her face. "I see. Well, Airbender, I can tell you that flattery will get you nowhere here, but I sense that wasn't your goal in the first place." She folded her arms. "Now, back to this urgent news."
Shen finally allowed the chuckle to escape. "Yes, Fire Lady..." The seriousness of the situation brought itself back to the forefront of his mind. "The Air Nation is coming, and they intend to wipe out the Royal Family...permanently."
"You wanted to see me," Shen grinned as he stood before his friend and the Spirit of Sound, "Grand Elder?"
Petrine grinned as Shen sat in the chair across from hers at the round table. "Yes, Shen, but you don't have to address me by my title. We've been friends ever since we were children."
"Alright, Petrine, was there something that I could help with?"
She nodded. "Yes, you are aware that the birthrate among our people has doubled, and all of them are Airbenders. This is Lord Otokami's gift to us."
The young man turned to the spirit and bowed. "And we are grateful for it, Lord Otokami."
A terse nod encompassed the entirety of the spirit's response.
"He has also ensured that he will protect us while we grow, so that we will never be wiped out again. That...that leads me to my reason for asking you here, Shen."
He raised an eyebrow. "What do you need?"
"You know...it always bugged me when our instructors, and our elders, always failed to demand retribution for what the Fire Nation did to our people all those years ago; they should've paid for that act of genocide."
Shen's heart began to beat faster. "Petrine...where are you going with this? Avatar Aang already—"
Her voice grew shrill. "He defeated the Fire Nation and restored balance, yes, but he let the progenitors of our destruction not only survive, but thrive!"
"He was promoting the peaceful ideals of the Air Nomads, of his people!" This isn't happening...
"Shen, listen to me! We need to make sure that this can't happen again." She turned and picked up a sheathed sword that had been leaning against her chair. "To that end, I want you to be my general. You are one of the best Airbenders here, including your parents, and we need that kind of experience and leadership on the battlefield."
He stood and pressed his hands against the table. "Lead? I can't lead any—!"
"You can." Her tone softened as she held out the blade to him. "Shen, you can lead. You said yourself that you wanted the council position like your mother. Battlefield experience can prepare you; leading there will make the Republic City Council seem like nothing."
"Battlefield experience? What battlefield, Petrine? We're Air Nomads, not soldiers!"
The Grand Elder narrowed her eyes. "Shen, think! What is the best way to prevent genocide against our people from ever happening again? We destroy the ones who brought it upon us in the first place; we destroy the line of Sozin!"
Shen's eyes widened. "Petrine...you...you can't be serious! Do you really think...this...this won't bring anything but disaster down on us! Can't you see that all this will do is turn every nation against us? I am begging you...please...don't do this!"
She pursed her lips. "You don't understand...this is for us, Shen! For all of us! Otokami can protect us from repercussions, and I can and will justify us in the world's eyes, that I promise. Now..." She once again held out the blade. "Will you become my general?"
His gray eyes narrowed, but he took the sword from her hands and walked out the door.
"Eliminate the Royal Family?" Saitei folded her arms and turned her penetrating gaze to the Airbender. "Why?"
Shen frowned. "Pet—many in the Air Nation blame Sozin—rightly so—for the destruction and attempted genocide of the Air Nomads almost three centuries ago. However, many of those same people believe that the line of Sozin's successors is equally guilty and should be punished for their ancestor's crimes."
"And what do you say?"
The question caught everyone off-guard, even the Avatar. The young man cocked his head. "What?"
The Fire Lady's face held a passive expression. "And what do you believe about the Royal Family? What is your opinion?"
"While I feel anger against Sozin for what he did...that was centuries ago. My people have thrived since then, thanks to Avatar Aang, and the Royal Family has changed in a fundamental way since Fire Lord Zuko."
She nodded. "Very good. I cannot have any lingering doubts left among my allies, and that now includes all of you." Saitei turned to one of her servants. "Tell Admiral Jiong and General Yuji to keep an eye on the Western Air Temple. When they see movement, have them let me know via telegraph."
Argho took a step forward. "Saitei, I'm afraid that we don't know the capabilities of the enemy; we've been...occupied."
"I do." Shen stepped forward.
Saitei shook her head. "That can wait for a little while. As for now, I'd imagine everyone, especially Rioku and Argho, is hungry. My servants will serve an early dinner, and we can continue this discussion then." She glanced at her bodyguard. "Nasaki, feel free to join us, as well."
The woman bowed. "Yes, Milady."
The blade grated against the scabbard as Shen pulled it out. He took note of his reflection, and he thought back on what had just occurred.
"She can't be serious...this can't be happening..." To his surprise, he felt a single tear run down his cheek. "Petrine...you can't do this..." But what can I do? She had the help of the Spirit of Sound.
"Shen, how did your meeting go?" Gyatso entered with a smile on his face.
He couldn't even look his father in the eye. "You were wrong, Dad...Otokami's not the problem."
His smile widened. "Well, that's good to—wait...Shen, look at me." All of the joviality was gone.
The young man faced him, pain and sorrow emanating from his very being. "Dad...Petrine wants me to lead the Air Nomads against...against the Fire Nation." He brought the blade out. "She wants me to be her general. What am I supposed to do?"
Gyatso frowned. "What—? What happened, Shen?"
"She wants us to wipe out the Royal Family...and...I'm afraid..."
"Afraid of what? You know what the right decision is."
"But what if she decides to take it out on you, or Mom?"
He shook his head. "She won't."
"Dad...I didn't think she'd do this, either..."
The older man sighed. "Can you stop her? Will she listen to you?"
Shen turned away. "No...she won't, and I can't fight Otokami..."
"Then you need to find the one who can. You need to find the Avatar." Gyatso reached into a drawer on the desk and pulled out a map. "Avatar Argho lives in Ba Sing Se, and he completed his training years ago. If anyone has a chance at taking Otokami in a fight, it's him."
"And I'll try and talk some sense into Petrine." Shen remarked bitterly. "But what about you and Mom?"
"We'll be fine; I would sooner face down Otokami than be cowed by the Grand Elder, and spirits forbid they try and intimidate your mother." He smiled warmly. "You can take Nelaa, but you'll have to be quick. Now hurry; you have work to do."
- To all those who thought that the chapter title signaled the appearance of an actual dragon, I apologize.
- Saitei's personality, in my mind, was envisioned as a mix between Izumi Curtis and Olivier Armstrong, both characters in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
- So, the link to Shen's inclusion in the story has (to my exasperated readers' collective relief) finally been moved into the open. :)
For the collective works of the author, go here.