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The Book of Primal Illusion



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Chapter 14: Emotional Liability

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Chapter 16: The Marrow of the Matter

Toph let her head drop for a few moments before gritting her teeth and letting a long breath out between pursed lips.

This hadn't gone as well as she expected.

That was an expertly made trap. She had to give them credit for that. With the oil spouts and the firebender, it was perfectly tailored to her. Surely it would have been effective for others, as well, but right now her hands ached and her feet tingled in furious pain.

There was some small comfort in that she was given ample opportunity to showcase one of her new talents that had come with adulthood. Toph counted, among her many accomplishments, making a grizzled pirate faint dead away from shock at the force and fury of her cursing. So far these guards weren't taking any of the bait, no matter how long she had gone on about what she was going to do to their mothers. Still, it felt good. And it gave her something to do. She could tell they were pushing her sturdy wooden crate along, and they had been doing so for hours. Inland, maybe? It was nearly impossible to tell, and she had lost almost all sense of direction, as if being underground wasn't bad enough. Usually she was able to at least have a vague sense of where north was – a dull tingle on the edge of her senses for the magnetic poles. But now...

She had forgotten how terrifying it was to be truly blind.

Rocks and earth still spoke to her, but dully, dimly, and painfully. There would be several days of painful blisters and then likely far many more of tender skin. She couldn't afford to be frightened. Maybe days and days from now she would cradle a cup of tea Iroh made for her and take in a deep breath of the steam and allow herself to admit how much she hated the reminder of what being blind meant for everyone else. But right now...

Toph aimed another jackrabbitlike kick at the side of the box, giving a half-scream of irritation that quickly became a rush of cursing. Oh, she'd misjudged that kick. Splinters. Definitely splinters. She could feel each molecule. And yet the wall of the crate hadn't even begun to crack. Something was bracing it... Toph let her head fall back in irritation, feeling her throat begin to constrict a little. No. Absolutely no time for tears. She had done all her crying long before.

Finally there were voices outside. After hours of oppressive silence, it was a relief. "...Yes, sir. We'll execute these orders immediately, sir." A pause. "Bow, you idiot. Respect your betters!"

"Yeah! Respect your betters!" Toph barked out. "And since I'm far better than you are, let me out of here!"

One of the guards snickered underneath his breath. "Hey, give me the scroll."

"You can read it just fine where you are. Stop talking back or both of us will never be proper disciples." A sigh. Toph gritted her teeth, content to momentarily listen. "Huh. We're just supposed to keep her, then. She won't break until the others do, apparently."

"Which cell, sir?"

"Toss her in with the old hag. Maybe the cold will help her shatter." Both of them laughed. Toph frowned deeply, trying to roll to the side to hear better. But the crate tilted and shifted, throwing her off-balance, and she gave a strangled grunt of anger. The murmured banter between the two guards was lost to her before she felt the crate hitting the ground again, sliding along. Cold started to seep into the crate through the slats. "How are we going to play this?"

"Just like letting a wild armadillo-lion out, I'd imagine. Loosen it up and let her finish breaking out the rest of the way once we're safely on the other side of the bars." They laughed grimly. Her cheek was pressed up against the wood – she could feel the vibrations of some reinforcements snapping away, leaving just the panel of wood between her and freedom. A hasty retreat – the sound of cell doors rattling shut. Toph let another huff roll out of her. Something outside shifted, the soft whisper of cloth. Toph didn't let that stop her, and she aimed another solid punch, driving splinters into her hands but cracking the wood in a satisfying manner.

"Do... you need help?" A new voice – an older woman's – very small, rough in a way that suggested she was out of practice speaking at someone directly. Toph didn't answer, not when she was a few more punches away from freeing herself. Bloody knuckles were an acceptable sacrifice for self-reliance.

"Hnngh!" Another, then another, then fresh cold air came through the crack. The panel splintered apart and Toph rolled out. The other woman skittered away from her in a frightened rush. The room was near-freezing – Toph's mind immediately leapt to Zuko and Sokka's narration of their time at the Boiling Rock, in the special cell reserved for firebenders. So the old woman must be a firebender. Very likely, anyway. But that meant that the floor was pleasantly chilly, and she immediately gave a long sigh of relief, pressing her palms and soles of her feet onto the stone.

The other woman's voice again, very small and quiet. "Are you all right, dear?"

"Toph! My name is Toph Beifong!" She snapped in instinctive anger before catching herself. It had been years since she had been called 'dear', and it was almost always followed by one of her parents ranting about how she was small, tiny, defenseless and weak and being amazed at all she had done despite this when, really, it didn't feel like she had done it despite anything. But... that word had been said with genuine soft concern. If she had anger, she should spend it against their captors. Not another captive. "S... sorry. I'm sorry."

"It's quite all right. I'm sure you have plenty of reason to be angry." Fear. This woman was afraid of Toph. Damn. Not what she had intended at all.

Toph took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, lifting her aching hands up. "No, I was... out of line. Let me try this again. ...I'm Toph Beifong." A long pause. Usually people gave a gasp or an interested little noise at this, but she didn't. Perhaps she had been in here for longer than Toph expected. "And you...?"

"Guifu. At least, that's what they've all gotten used to calling me around here," she said, voice soft and sad. Toph frowned. She knew the term. It usually was reserved, mockingly, for the old women begging for pennies on the gates to the upper reaches of each city. On its face, it meant a rich old woman, but the term had become far more sly and cruel over the years.

"It's... good to meet you then, Giufu."

"Likewise." Her voice remained very soft. "I can help you with the splinters on your hands, if you like...?"

"Thank you." The older woman's hands were surprisingly soft, even if dry, and her long fingers were distinctly delicate. "And I'm sorry – again. I'll be a better conversation partner once my hands stop hurting quite so badly." Toph gritted her teeth as another pinprick came from her palm, yet another splinter out.

"Your name – Beifong – you're from the Earth Kingdom?" A soft and quiet attempt to start conversation. Toph went with it.

"Yes, I am. And an earthbender. And metalbender," she almost gloated. "Whenever I get out of here, I swear to all the spirits that these people, whoever they are, will pay. And – I'm sorry."

"It's understandable to be angry in our situation, Miss Beifong."

"Just... Toph. Toph is fine." A sharp wince – another splinter gone. The quiet rustle of cloth. Toph focused on taking in another breath and letting it out. The cold was starting to get to her, now. Pinpricks and needles working their way into her fingertips and the tip of her nose. This was going to get aggravating very quickly. "How long have you been here, if you don't mind me asking?"

"A very long time," Guifu said softly. "But my complaining isn't very good conversation. Please, tell me about yourself. Or what has happened in the world. The guards got tired of talking to me long ago."

Well. She had taken off a scarf, or something to that effect, and was now quietly wrapping Toph's hands up in them. There was the sound of cloth being delicately ripped. It was rough muslin made softer by years and years of use, threadbare but at least no longer scratchy. And although there was no soothing salve, it was at least something to keep her knuckles from bleeding onto the icy stone. "I suppose they haven't told you even about Avatar Aang bringing peace between the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom?"

Guifu's hand halted, and Toph cursed how blind the burns made her. If she had been able to see – or feel, rather – she would have noticed the older woman's shock by how her heartbeat suddenly jumped in pace, or how her expression changed. But with the burns obscuring her senses all Toph knew was that she wasn't alone in the small, cold cell. "No... no, they haven't. There's truly peace? Even with Firelord Ozai's rule?" Something very delicate in her voice – a strained sort of hope.

"Oh, Ozai was deposed a long time ago. Aang took away his firebending, in fact," she said, perhaps a little smugly. "I was there. Well, not right there. But I got to enjoy the look on his face afterwards." The cloth was helping. The cold was helping. And if there was someone else in here with her, that meant that the guards had dropped an ally right into her lap. "His son Zuko was crowned Firelord shortly after."

Guifu's hands paused again. "If I could beg a favor of you – could you please... tell me a bit about what has happened?" That fragile hope in her voice again, mixed with an odd desperation.

"I'm always happy to brag about myself," Toph said slyly. "I guess I should start at the beginning, though. I got dragged into this mess about the time I was defending my title as a earthbender champion... the Blind Bandit, y'know... I thought of the name myself, but anyway. Just when I was about to celebrate my victory, this little bald twerp enters the ring..."

And she continued.

By the time she had gotten to the defeat of Phoenix King Ozai, her hands and feet were long since bandaged, and they were even interrupted by a guard tossing two bowls of quickly-cooling, thin gruel into the cell before Toph got to the end. "...and so now I'm here, I suppose. Not for long. And what about you, Guifu?"

With her hands and feet firmly resting on the floor, Toph could almost sense the sad smile with her usual clarity. "Nothing much of any importance."

"Well, you must have done something before you were tossed in here."

She was quiet for a moment. "I had a family. I don't anymore. It's not a spectacular or exciting story, I assure you." A long sigh rolled out of her. "But if I remember any funny stories, I'll be sure to let you know."

"You, ah... you don't have to. Didn't mean to pry." Social graces had never really been Toph's strong suit – she greeted people with punches, so what did they expect, really? But this was a more delicate situation than even she was used to. "What are the bars made of to this cell? Metal? Because if it's metal -"

"They're reinforced with metal, I believe," Guifu said. "But they're... ivory. Or bone." Her voice grew even smaller. "The guards here train for years to learn how to bend it. I didn't think it was even possible until I saw one of them do as such."

"People said it was impossible to bend metal, too." Toph grunted as she stood up, going to delicately feel the bars of their prison. Firm and slightly porous to the touch, though so reinforced that it was rigid and unyielding. "How many years do they have to train?"

"I'm not sure. A lifetime, it seems like. They're all earthbenders, but -"

A wolfish, wide grin crossed Toph's face. "Well, let's see. I figured out the impossible in an afternoon, so..." Every touch hurt, but it brought with it dearly-needed information as she gripped the bars.

"Give me about three days. That sounds about right. Three days... absolute maximum."

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