Blocking the entrance to the pyramid structure was a large group of people dressed in simple garb, their faces elaborately painted and their hair tied in a simple ponytail trailing down after tight bindings, making their hair stick up a good distance before it trailed down. The one who spoke stood in front of the entire group, and was also wearing a ceremonial cape and headdress, the feathers giving him the appearance of a dragon's mane.
"Who are you?" he demanded firmly. "And what are you doing in our temple?"
"You're thieves, aren't you?" a wiry man in the group demanded. "Come to steal our sunstone!" He gestured to the crystalline egg on the pedestal.
"I thought you said the Sun Warriors died out a long time ago!" Cadence demanded of Zuko quietly.
"Tales of our demise were deliberately exaggerated," the larger man in the cape and headdress - plainly the leader - proclaimed, his face stern. "Now...identify yourselves!"
Deciding it would be best to be completely honest, Zuko stepped forward. "I am Fire Lord Zuko," he stated calmly, curious but unsurprised that his title drew instant hostility. "With the Hundred Years War coming to an end at the peace conference in Omashu, the priority was placed on teaching the Avatar Firebending." He gestured to Aang. "As we'd developed a bond of trust and friendship, I was selected to be his teacher. However, a previous experience with Firebending has left him afraid of his own power, and unable to conjure his flames." Seeing no response forthcoming, Zuko continued. "While teaching me the more advanced forms of Firebending, my Uncle Iroh told me that, when I felt I was ready, I might journey to this place to understand the true origins of Firebending. It was my thought that such a lesson might help Aang overcome the hobble on his spirit."
"And this?" the leader demanded, glancing at Cadence.
"My cousin, Cadence," Zuko explained. "Uncle Iroh's adopted daughter." He knew he shouldn't be, but he was surprised that hostility towards Cadence at least greatly reduced at that point.
The leader turned to face Cadence. "Are you a Firebender?" he demanded calmly.
"Among other things," Cadence replied. "Daddy taught me everything I know about Fire."
A frown greeted this glib statement. "And what did you learn elsewhere?"
Cadence shrugged. "I learned about Earth from my friend Toph and King Bumi, I learned about Water from Master Pakku, and I learned about Air from Wan Shi Tong." Noticing the way the Sun Warrior Chief pointedly did not react to the names, she glanced around. "...is there a Pai Sho table somewhere around here? I brought my set..."
Even Aang noticed a few of the Sun Warriors concealing amusement as the Chief spoke up. "That is not what you are here for," he stated simply. "If you wish to learn the true nature of Firebending, it is not up to us. The Masters, Ran and Shao, will decide if you are worthy to learn the ways of the Sun. When you face them, they will read your hearts, your souls, and your ancestry. Know, however, that if they decide you are not worthy...then you will die. Choose, then, if you will go to meet them."
Cadence, Zuko, and Aang glanced at each other nervously. While it was important that Aang learn to master his Firebending just in case he had to face off against Ozai after all...but to risk certain death to learn it?
Aang was the first to speak up. "I'll go," he said firmly. "I...I need to get past this. I'll just do my best to convince Ran and Shao to not kill me?" Though he tried to be firm, it was plain that he was nervous.
Sighing, Zuko nodded. "I'm here as your teacher, Aang. I can't let you walk into danger without me."
"I'll go, too," Cadence agreed. "I'm not about to risk losing you, cousin. Not after all the effort I put into getting you a happily ever after." She blushed brightly. "Even if it did turn out happier than I anticipated..." Shaking that off before Zuko could laugh too much at her discomfiture, she managed a smile. "If all else fails with Ran and Shao, maybe I can be adorable?"
With the trio in agreement, the Chief led them away.
At the peak of the Pyramid, the trio were brought to a chamber filled with a bright flame that reeked of ancient, mystical power. Identifying it as the Eternal Flame, the very first flame given to man by the dragons, and told they would each carry a piece of it with them to where they would meet Ran and Shao.
As the Chief gave each of them a piece of the Eternal Flame, he explained the significance of the ritual. "This represents the essence of Sun Warrior philosophy. You must keep the flame at a constant heat. Too small, and it will go out. Too big, and you might lose control and be consumed."
As Aang nervously took the flame into his aura, balanced over his hands, he stared in wonder. "It's...like a little heartbeat," he murmured.
"Fire is life," the Chief and Zuko spoke up together. "Not just destruction." Realizing they'd spoken together, each turned to stare at the other. Eventually, the Chief smiled. "Iroh has taught you well, young Fire Lord. Perhaps Ran and Shao will see that in you, and balance it against the sins of your father's bloodline."
Cadence balanced her flame over the tip of her horn. "So...where are the Masters?"
The Chief gestured to a tall, twin peaked mountain. "The Cave of the Masters is beneath that rock."
Cadence felt a niggle in the back of her mind. Something about the shape of the mountain was familiar...something she'd read... Unable to pin the thought down, she joined with Zuko and Aang as they made their way up the rocky slope.
The journey took most of the day for the trio, and was mildly difficult. The slope was thankfully shallow, allowing for relatively easy climbing. Cadence was forced to walk along with the others, as she had to use her wings to protect her flame from stray breezes.
At the end of the walk, as the sun was starting to set, they found themselves at the foot of a massive altar, with stairs leading up to the top, where a bridge stretched across the altar from one cave opening to the other in each of the twin peaks. The Chief then explained to Zuko and Aang the special dangers they'd face, as Zuko's bloodline and Aang each bore responsibility for the disappearance of the dragons.
"Well..." Cadence began.
"You too face danger," the Chief continued. "You are a creature not of this world, or of our spirit world. Your very presence disrupts the balance of the world, for better or worse. Ran and Shao may decide the world would be better off without such a disruption, whatever the consequences."
Cadence swallowed convulsively, her shock at being so firmly declared 'not of this world' briefly pushed aside at the idea that Ran and Shao might decide the world would be better off without her. However, despite the fear it brought up in all three, none were willing to turn back at this point.
The Chief began the ritual, taking flame from the ones the trio had brought up to let the other gathered Sun Warriors shape circles of flame surrounding the altar. When directed by the Chief, the group climbed up the stairs to the altar, offering their flames towards the caves. As they climbed, Cadence noticed the almost worshipful behavior of the Sun Warriors...and the suspicion from earlier began to return.
A crash within the caverns startled Aang into losing his grip on his flame. When he tried to borrow some from Zuko, the resulting tussle caused all three to fall over on the altar, all the flames going out. Just as that happened, roars echoed from within the caverns, and dragons left each, one blue and one red.
Cadence felt fear grip her soul. Against dragons, she knew she didn't stand a chance. She wasn't part of this world, and they had no reason to find her adorable. What could she possibly offer them to convince them she was worthy to even survive this encounter?
After a time of the dragons' circling, Aang put it together that 'The Dancing Dragon' form was based off of dragons in flight, and Ran and Shao were waiting for them to demonstrate that understanding. All three began the form, Aang and Zuko dancing in a circle around Cadence as she desperately tried to adapt the form to her four legged gait, using the motions of the dragons around them for desperate inspiration.
As the dance reached its conclusion, the two dragons stared at the group from either side...only to lower themselves to the sides of the altar, exhaling their fire upward so it blended together as it surrounded the trio without touching them. The blending of the fires created a burning rainbow that was truly indescribable.
As they ended their flames, leaving the trio basking in awe, the dragons soared upward before diving back into their caverns...the blue dragon seizing a startled Cadence as it passed, to drag her into the caverns with them despite her startled screams.
"Cadence!" Zuko screamed out in shock, turning to run after her.
Much to his surprise, the Chief leapt to his side, blocking his path. "Do not trespass on the Masters caverns!" he ordered firmly.
"I'm not going to let them-"
"If they meant her harm, she would have died on the altar!" the Chief barked out. "Whatever their purpose in doing this, all we can do is wait for her return. Know that she will return."
Several hours later, well after full dark, the Chief's words proved true. Cadence made her way out of the caverns, her eyes full of wonder as she staggered out.
"Cadence!" Zuko called out, rushing up to her. "Are you alright?"
"They didn't hurt you, did they?" Aang demanded.
Cadence shrugged. "Sprained my wing grabbing me like that, but they apologized." She shook her head in amazement. "They wanted my help with something they couldn't figure out on their own."
"And what was that?" the Chief asked curiously.
"Why their eggs weren't hatching right," Cadence replied. "Dragons normally nest in active volcanoes, and they couldn't figure out how to provide the proper heat for incubation here. I was able to teach them how to surround their nest with coal, tinder, and volcanic rock to hold their fire for the right heat when they were away from the nest."
The Chief stared as many present gasped in amazement. "You mean..." the Chief stammered out. "Ran and Shao are..."
"A mated pair," Cadence replied. "The last one, apparently. And our timing was really lucky, since Ran just finished clutching."
The entire gathered tribe of Sun Warriors fainted en masse.