Two massive cliffs rose up on either side of the pyramid, each with a huge cave in its side. The alignment of the caves was so perfect, it looked as if it only could have been done by a flying earthbender.
Or a dragon, Shyu thought. “Are those…Ren and Shaw’s caves?” he asked, pointing.
Mica raised an eyebrow, and on her shoulders, Bandit cocked his head.
“What?” he asked. “Some of us actually pay attention in school.”
Chief Lily chuckled and shook her head. “No, child, I’m afraid not even dragons live that long. But our two eldest dragons do dwell in those caves, and from time to time, they will show themselves to a rare and willing–”
A rumble echoed across the stone, interrupting her words. Shyu’s first thought was that it was an earthquake; he braced himself and dearly hoped Mica was ready to use some of her classic earthbending skills in case the ground decided to split open.
But instead of things collapsing around them, the ground stilled as a huge dragon made its way out of the cave. Shyu stopped breathing; the creature was magnificent. Sure, he’d seen his grandmother’s dragon Flare countless times. He’d even gotten to know a few of the little dragons that would potentially be his father’s one day. But this one felt…different. Wiser.
The dragon reared up in the air, flapping its huge wings. Then it descended and let itself drop to the ground, nearly knocking Shyu over with the wind and the vibrations. He had in mind to back away slowly from the animal; probably it was only here to do some Sun Warrior thing with Chief Lily. But as soon as he stepped back, the dragon turned its huge head and looked straight at him.
Bandit made a little whimpering noise and cowered into a tight ball on Mica’s shoulders. Mica just smirked. “I think he likes you.” She nudged him, a touch of envy in her voice.
“That’s…never happened before,” Lily gasped. “They never come out to greet a human, only another dragon.”
This is a greeting? Shyu felt more like he was being inspected for which spices he would taste best with. And yet another part of him, a bolder part, felt an unexplainable thrill.
He advanced a step, then another. Mica caught his arm, muttering something along the lines of “have you lost your mind?” He shrugged her off. Then Aunt Zarah stepped in, gripping Mica’s shoulder.
“Let him go, child,” Lily instructed firmly.
Shyu kept moving until Mica and the others were just murmured voices in the background. The dragon lowered it’s head and pressed his hot snout against Shyu’s chest. The heat itself wasn’t painful; it actually felt kind of pleasant. The pressure of the dragon’s muscles, however, was more than a little unnerving.
So, if he’s not greeting me…is a test or something? Shyu wondered, really hating himself for ignoring his history lessons. Do the dragons want me to sing some old song? Is that what Avatar Aang and Great-Grandfather did?
If the dragon did expect something from him, it gave no indication. Instead, it opened its massive jaws and let fly a huge jet of flame. Shyu screamed and put up his arms to shield himself. To his shock, the pain didn’t come. A wall of colorful flame…tongues of green, blue, and purple…rose up around him. For the first time in days, the chill that had been nagging at Shyu vanished. Is this what it meant to be a true firebender? Why would the dragon let him see this, if he couldn’t even create a spark?
Then, from amongst the flames, a figure stepped out. By now, Shyu had gotten over his shock of seeing the figure appear. He even welcomed it.
“Zuko,” he whispered.
The figure nodded. “The dragon senses a great power in you. You should accept it.”
“I…” Shyu reached his hands towards one of the flames. It felt like he was standing in front of a great treasure or a beautiful work of art. It was there for him to admire and appreciate, but to touch it or take it for himself felt…wrong, somehow. Shyu pulled his hand back.
Zuko noticed the motion and glared at him with disapproval. “You’ll need that strength soon. Your grandmother is in danger.”
“‘My grandmother’?” Shyu asked, narrowing his eyes at the ghostly figure. “You never call her that.” He didn’t remember a whole lot about Zuko, but he at least remembered that whenever the elderly man referenced Grandma Izumi, it was always by her first name, no matter who he was speaking to.
“My daughter, then.” Zuko seemed put off by Shyu’s observation. “Look, time is running out. You have an opportunity here to gain power, but your body is resisting.”
It was. Shyu could feel his muscles tensing. Whenever the flames tried to come near him, it was as if an invisible force pushed them away. “How is she in danger?” Shyu demanded. “Did Raiko have her arrested?”
To this, Zuko only gave him a solemn look. It was all the affirmation Shyu needed. He felt a surge of anger inside him, and the wall of flames seemed to rise higher. They licked at his skin, begging him to stop resisting them. Shyu took a long, deep breath, and exhaled slowly. He would do this.
The instant he let his guard down, he felt the energy of the fire pouring into him. He cried out in pain and held his sides, but he refused to put up the mental barriers again. All the while, Zuko looked on, arms folded, like someone watching an Agni Kai.
“It’s…hurting me,” Shyu said through labored breaths.
“You are becoming more and more like me,” Zuko explained. “It’s natural that your body will be in some pain as a result. But you must persevere. Your family…our family depends on it.”
Shyu nodded through his stiff neck muscles. He did want to be like Zuko. He wanted to be powerful, unwavering. Someone worthy of the Fire Nation royal family. He breathed again and tried to welcome the pain. Yes, it hurt, but what came with the hurt was more than worth it.
When all the energy had poured into him, the wall of fire dispersed, and Shyu collapsed to the ground. Every muscle flared with agony; sweat poured down the sides of his face. There was an energy screaming from within him, threatening to burn his insides if he didn’t release it. Gritting his teeth, he shot his hand forward and screamed at the top of his lungs. A jet of orange fire blazed forth. It was beautiful, but more than that, it was powerful. That helpless little prince had been burned away.
“A-amazing!” Aunt Zarah gasped behind him.
“And you thought Shyu couldn’t make enough heat to fry a hotcake.” Mica said smugly, crossing her arms over her chest.
“I guess…meeting with an elder dragon can change some things.”
Shyu smiled, hugging his arms as he gasped for breath. He did feel the new energy within him; it was exhilarating. At the same time, he didn’t just feel a slight chill like he had the past few days. No matter how he rubbed at his arms, the space around him felt like he was trapped in a swimsuit in the middle of the south pole.
Mica put on a brave face, but in truth her heart was in her throat.
For the love of Ozai, what had Shyu been thinking just standing there when a dragon shot fire at him? She was going to have to curse him out later for that. Though he’d probably just argue that if he hadn’t let the dragon breathe fire at him, he never would have gotten his awesome new fire powers.
Mica shook her head, still barely believing it. Dragons were respectable to be sure, but they couldn’t really amplify bending…could they? Her gut was screaming no. And yet she had seen Shyu make fire with her own eyes.
By the look on his face, Mica wasn’t even sure Shyu believed what he had done. Or maybe that was just the shock taking ahold. He still looked pretty dazed. Like the way she got when she used to much energy to explode things.
Mica moved forward to help him, since no one else in this tribe of dragon-worshippers seemed to have the spine to actually approach one.
“Wait!” Lilly cried. But Mica didn’t listen. Not even when Bandit squealed and abandoned her shoulders to go and cower behind Zarah.
Mica ran to Shyu’s side, heedless of the huge animal still standing dangerously close to him. He shook his head at her offered hand so she looped his arm over her shoulders and hoisted him up by force.
“I’m fine,” he insisted. “Lay off.” But for all his talk, Shyu leaned heavily into her side and stumbled like he had forgotten how to walk.
The dragon eyeballed her warily as she turned to go and a snarl filled the beast’s chest. A challenge. Who was she to approach without permission? Mica stared right back, answering with her eyes as much as her words.
“I’m just helping my friend.”
Not good enough. No matter what her intentions, she was still an intruder in this sacred place. Mica knew that from the moment she walked in the door. And the dragon knew it, too. It brought down its massive head towards her, gnashing its teeth only a few inches from her face. Had Shyu not been there, Mica had no doubt, the animal would have tried to bite her in half.
She should have been frightened. Any sane person would be. But instead, the realization only pissed her off. “Back off,” she ordered. Then she dropped her voice adding a cold, steely edge to her rage the way her mother did when she really wanted to get her threat across. “I will not give another warning.”
To her satisfaction, the dragon stopped snarling. The huge animal cocked his head and leaned closer still, flaring his huge nostrils right in Mica’s face. Hot dragon breath whipped her hair back and forth as he drew in several long sniffs. Then, just like that, he pulled his head away and turned back towards the pyramid. Mica turned, too, helping a hobbling Shyu towards of Aunt Zarah, a sizable gathering of shocked Sun Warrior onlookers, and their speechless Chief.
Shyu was stunned, too. He blinked at her with half-glazed eyes. “And you thought I was crazy…”
“I still think you are.”
“Me? I’m not the one who just told off a dragon.”
“No, you just stood there like a blathering idiot when he nearly incinerated you. Seriously, who does that?”
The reached the crowd. Lilly had a grip on Zarah’s shoulder–probably the only thing that had kept her from intervening back there. Not that Zarah could have done much.
“Are you two all right?” Zarah asked with a little tremor in her voice.
“I’m fine. But Shyu’s exhausted.” Mica looked to Lilly, who was staring at her with puzzled, almost thoughtful look on her face. “Do you have somewhere he can rest?”
“For the last time, I’m fine!” Shyu insisted. He even made a point to pull his arm from her shoulders and try to walk on his own. But he barely made it half a step before he wobbled off balance and Mica had to catch him again. The sight of Shyu stumbling seemed to break Lily out of her shock. She gestured aside, and two of her guards came to offer Shyu a hand.
“Oh, yes. Of course. Right this way.”