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June 8, 2014
"You look like you've been through a lot," June said as she stroked Nyla's fur, which had a few sizable cuts across it. "What happened with Ratana and Heidze?"
It was not like Nyla could answer her question the way that a human being would, but Nyla's violent jerk of his head was something June could understand.
"Ah, figures," June remarked, looking forth through the trees and into the ancient city. "Those two have a talent for bringing trouble and creating it wherever they go. I was a fool to let Ratana of Gaipan out of my sight. With all the gold pieces she still owes me, I had best find her again soon, or all this time roaming the Fire Nation will have been a complete waste."
Soon after speaking, June discovered that she had more immediate concerns to worry herself with. The branches beside those she peered through separated and a blazing ball of fire shot inches over her head, nearly singeing the crown of her hair. Rising to her feet and drawing her dagger, the ample bounty hunter struck her whip across at her three assailants, one of whom she managed to strike on the side and the other two she made leap back about a pace and a half. Just then, a fourth attacker from behind begun whipping his arms around and crafting together another rounded ball of fire, but June managed to strike him in the hand, causing him to shriek in agony as blood oozed from the fresh cut and his fire to simmer and die.
June huddled close to Nyla, so they were back to back with one another, outnumbered. She eyed each of the four sparsely-clothed figures that surrounded them. They wore tattoos about the same shade as her own, though June did not find these natives' designs as eloquent as her own by a long shot. One of the firebenders jabbed forth and sent a streak of flame forth that caused June to yell at Nyla to duck. However, the fourth attacker seized the moment of distraction to run up and shove her to the ground by the shoulders.
Although she struggled back and forth repeatedly, she was unable to break the hold the man had on her. "Let me go!" she called out in vain. "Leave me alone, you savages."
"Watch your mouth," a leaner one with a bone headband told her loathingly. "You're on Sun Warrior ground now."
"Sun Warriors, are you people serious?"
"Where's Wu?" the Sun Chief asked aloud to no one in particular, his fists both clenched in frustration as he marched forward.
"The shaman is missing," Chu Fang informed Shang with timid reluctance, as he hustled to keep up with the lengthy strides of the taller man who led his tribe.
"Well that's just perfect," Shang muttered irritably. "So what's this urgent news that you wanted to tell us about, Ham Ghao?"
"We found the same animal as we encountered before, Chief," the thin man with a bony headband informed. "There was a woman from beyond our borders with him."
"Another outsider!" exclaimed the chief. "Do they grow on trees now?"
"That's not all," said Ham Ghao, drawing a scroll which showed the picture of a bearded, top-knotted Fire Nation man from his pocket. "This wanted poster was in her costume."
"That looks like the disguise the earthbender wore when I met her in my shop," Chu Fang pointed out.
"Indeed," nodded Ham Ghao. "It seems that this new woman was a bounty hunter going after the earthbender, and that the earthbender's mission here had something to do with the dragons."
"It fits," admitted Chu Fang. "She was quite curious about them when she was in my shop before."
"Let's go to where she's being held," declared Sun Chief Shang.
The trio of Sun Warriors each carried their own hovering flame as they waltzed through the hall that led to the cell, for the torches had been extinguished and none of their tribe were watching her at this time of night, when most of them were asleep. When they reached her cell though, it was not the earthbender that they found, but the outsider boy who had been present at one of their ceremonies. He was held in place by earthbent constraints.
"Boy, what are you doing here?!" asked the bewildered Chief Shang as he removed Heidze's gag.
"I came here to free my friend when there was no one around," Heidze informed them. "Then she did this to me."
"That...doesn't quite fit," said Chu Fang, equally as baffled as his chief was.
"At any rate, you were lying about not knowing the woman," Ham Ghao crossed his arms, slightly smirking. "Surprise, surprise..."
"It looks like Wu was wrong about somebody for once," said Chu Fang.
"It's about time we ceased relying on that old quack's quirky judgements," remarked Ham Ghao.
The chief, who would normally be the first to respond to Ham Ghao's jabs, kept his attention on Heidze. "Tell us the truth now. Did she come to expose the secret of the dragons?"
Eyes glazing, Heidze hesitated before clearing his throat. "Yeah, that's pretty much exactly what she came to do."
"And why do we find you like this?"
A new voice came to the area from behind the trio of Sun Warriors. "Dad, what's going on?" It was the girl with braided hair whom Heidze had befriended earlier.
"What are you doing here?" Chief Shang questioned the new arrival.
"I heard your voices from the outside and it sounded like something important was happening." Her eyes moved to Heidze, with his hands bound to earthen pillars in a construct none of her people would ever make. "What's he doing tied up like that?"
"You shouldn't be here, princess," said Chu Fang.
"Princess?" Heidze's eyes widened.
"As I was saying," Chief Shang turned back to Heidze. "Why do we find you like this."
"Because I tried to stop her from going to find proof of the dragons," he told the chief who had rounded on him once more.
"You knew of her mission all along, then?"
"Yes, and I helped her up until now," said Heidze. "I told her how getting the scales would be bad for the world, so she turned on me and left me like this."
"He's just changing the most recent part of his story and telling us what he thinks we want to hear," said Ham Ghao.
"I have trouble coming up with what another explanation might be." For once, though, Chu Fang's expression matched that of his rival. "Why should we believe and trust you now when you lied to us before?"
"I'm afraid I don't have a good answer for that."
"Let's leave him here for now," said Shang. "We'll deal with him tomorrow."
"Oh, I can already begin to think up a punishment for him," Ham Ghao flashed his eyes menacingly at Heidze. The boy had become numbed to intimidation that night, though, so this did not add much to the load.
"He may be right about the earthbender woman going to get the scales of the dragons," said Chu Fang. "We should go check on them. There could be barely any time."
"Agreed, Dragon Guide," addressed Shang. With that, he, Ham Ghao and Chu Fang left, leaving only the girl and the still-trapped Heidze where they stood.
The girl stood there in silence, her flame hovering above her palm between the two of them. "Is it true that you only wanted to look at the sun stone and not steal it?" she asked.
"Not really," Heidze replied guiltily. "I won't try to now, though, after what I've seen since coming here. I did used to be quite good at stealing back where I come from."
"Stealing is wrong. Lying is wrong." The braided hair girl left the cell with her hovering fire with her, and Heidze was then by himself in the dark.
For the third time since she first arrived in the Fire Nation, Ratana was ascending a mountain in search of a dragon. The first time had been in Gangkouz, when she was with the one who turned out to be the dreaded Prince Lu Ten, and Horny the komodo rhino. She had followed a lead on so-called "dragon spirits" which was the best that she had at the time. The second time she made such a journey was on Mount Koven, and while it turned out to be a spot where a Fire Nation prince encountered a dragon, it was not the one that she was looking for.
But this time was different, because before coming here, she had seen the giant fire-breathing beast with her own two eyes. Ratana was by herself, which seemed conveniently appropriate. Nothing but her and her mission now, with nobody to stand in her way. Except for the dragon itself of course. Prior to leaving the Sun Warrior's borders, the always-prepared earthbender had snatched a wooden ceremonial drum about twice the size of her hand and a dagger, smaller and more nimble than the one June always carried with her. Luckily, she would not be relying on it for fighting at any moment. She had her earthbending for that, and the only purpose she had for the dagger was for cutting the scales off of a dragon's torso. Once she did that, she would have her proof that dragons were not extinct and that General Iroh was a liar.
Fortunately, while the mountain was long and extensive, it was not the steepest one she had ever climbed in her life. She had lost track of the time, but it had to be well past midnight. Upon reaching a flat section at the top, Ratana found a long stairway up to a spot where two caves faced one another at a parallel angle. Naturally, if the Sun Warriors worshiped these firebending creatures, this had to be the spot where the last two dragons dwelled. Ratana slid her bare foot along the rock beneath her feat. For the time being, she did not sense any movements. Listening to the night, there was not even a sound of a cricket to be heard. The loudest sound other than her own footsteps was the faint breeze of the wind. Taking one last look back at the lights of the Sun Warriors' city far below, Ratana tucked the dagger into her belt and proceeded with tip-toeing up one step at a time. If everything went according to plan, she would be long gone from this place before the Sun Warriors noticed her departure.
- This chapter is shorter than I expected, and the next one will probably be longer than I originally thought. Generally, estimating lengths ahead of time hasn't been my strong suit.
- The title is actually a double-meaning, as scaling can refer to the dragon scales, or to the climbing of the mountain.
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