|More from Minnichi||Romance/Angst/Action||PG-13||Very Positive|
|Chapter 26 - Brightest in the Dark (SHiE)|
August 12, 2017
I have to take a moment to dedicate this chapter to, a dear friend who passed away last month. I'm not the only user here who knew him personally, and we might be a small bunch who do, but I have to emphasize what a brilliant person he really was... Never afraid to speak his mind and killer advice for scenes. We were fellow writers and fandom ranters and lifelong friends. He was one of those readers who see something more special in a story than its own author can. It has never felt so empty before to write without having him hovering around in the background. Emotionally exhausting journey, for sure. But just know that this story was blessed with this author's wonderful friend and wonderful beta reader. I hope he can still see it somewhere from Upstairs.
Summary of the Last Chapter
Yuhan gets sent to Omashu to rehabilitate his earthbending and falls victim to King Bumi, who takes him to the Cave of Two Lovers. Yuhan agrees to enter the cave, despite his terror, out of respect for his love for Riya and agrees to sing "Secret Tunnel" with Bumi to lighten the mood. He's shortly caved in and finds out that the king planned to trap him in there with a giant bag of supplies all along.
Meanwhile, Hiroshu is ordered to be sent to the Boiling Rock by Azula, who is paranoid about his past connection to Yuhan, a traitor. He manages to escape his cell on the airship, however, and jumps off. He wakes up on the shore of a lake, badly injured, but finds a friend at a Pai Sho table who is his ticket back to the Earth Kingdom.
I had a horrible nightmare that a crazy geezer king who snorts when he laughs threw me into a cursed cave and left me there to die. It was all just a dream.
Yuhan opened his eyes. The world was nowhere in sight. He tried blinking several times to make it appear, but if weren't for the weight of his eyelids pressing down he wouldn't have known when they even closed. It all looked the same either way. Darkness everywhere. Blinding, suffocating, maddening darkness.
A snorting voice crept its way back into his memories. "Actually, I included twenty torches in your pack. You'll need them to appreciate the artwork they've got inside the cave."
Yuhan suddenly bolted upright. "DAMMIT, Bumi!"
He hadn't woken up from a nightmare. He'd woken up to it.
Yuhan's raw fists were wrapped in ragged strips that he'd torn from his sleeves. Each bruise and blood-caked scab was a sore reminder of how many times he'd failed to earthbend. The caved-in barrier behind his back sported no more than a few new cracks at most. It spared him no pity and silently refused his freedom for as long as it had taken him to sink down at its feet, shaken with exhausted rage, and fall asleep. All inside of the darkness.
All because he'd had the bright idea of singing "Secret Tunnel" inside of a cave.
Yuhan groaned and gave his face a good slap (which echoed loudly) before feeling around for his supply sack. What kind of idiot would feel the need to validate his love by wandering into a labyrinth with a king who snorts when he laughs? What in Koh's Realm did singing "Secret Tunnel" even have to do with his feelings for Riya?
...Riya! The comet!
The panic twisted his stomach and ran like ice through his veins, but he forced himself to keep it away from his sanity. "No, no, don't think about the evil comet coming to destroy Ba Sing Se...or dying in a cave..." Yuhan muttered subconsciously. Talking to himself had already become a habit within the silence. He found the mouth of the burlap sack and tore it open. "Riya's going to be fine..." His hand dug around for a torch. "She's waiting patiently for you – ow!" The sharp prongs of a fork stabbed his fingers. He gritted his teeth. "And the only one who's going to die is King Bumi, after you break out of here and grab his wrinkly neck between your hands..." Yuhan finally wrenched out a long, coiled stick as if it were Bumi's neck and struck it across the ground.
The bright flare of the torch made his eyes sting for a moment, but Yuhan somehow found himself still standing in the middle of a pitch-black eternity. This was much less comforting than he'd imagined. The bubble of light he occupied felt like a tiny island drawing attention from all the demonic sharks that could be hiding within the ocean of darkness. The barrier behind his back was a hopeless mass of shattered stone, and the flames of the torch produced flickering, lifelike shadows that crackled and danced around him, waiting to get a taste of his flesh...
He could feel his pulse rising unhealthily the longer he kept staring into the darkness beyond his pitiful torchlight-island. Yuhan swallowed, turned back towards the supply sack, and tried to distract himself with ideas about how he'd murder the King of Omashu. Each version of Bumi's death became more gruesome with every useless item he discovered. The contents of the bag were all wrapped individually in bright, patterned paper on which the king had written his own obnoxious commentary.
"Fresh underwear for your Secret Tunnel adventure."
Yuhan took one glance at the lime green, white polka-dotted silk, and threw it across the ground. "Thanks, King Bumi. I'm glad you want me to be wearing clean underwear when I die." There was a long pause. He sighed and grudgingly made his way over to pick up the silky undergarments and stuff them back into the supply sack. Hygiene was hygiene, at the end of the day. Muttering under his breath, Yuhan pulled out the next package. The clatter of flat, round tiles startled him as they spilled out onto the ground.
"This is a limited-edition Pai Sho set from the former Earth Kingdom capital.
A little piece of home to hang on to before Ozai's World-Destroying Comet Party."
Yuhan glared down at the marble tiles, clenching one of them between his fingers hard enough to split it in two. His connection to the earth was surprisingly strong with all the souvenirs he discovered in his "supply" sack, especially when he drove the shiny figurine of a grinning, purple-robed King Bumi into the ground. Only the little antennae-feathers of its crown remained.
The former Peace Orator was breathing heavily and almost wished for a moment, out of petty revenge, that he could brainwash Bumi into something humiliating. His eyes promised death when he found the reason why the supply sack had nearly broken his back to carry up the mountain.
" Try singing the Secret Tunnel song with these!"
The musical instruments made up the bulk of the "supplies," and so did their weight. The burlap sack deflated pitifully as a murderous Yuhan removed them one by one, placing each very slowly onto the ground as if organizing a line for execution. There was a flute, a tribal-looking drum, a tsungi horn, an entire set of bells, and –
Yuhan's eyes twitched dangerously. There was something about this ukulele that suddenly infuriated him beyond all reason. Perhaps it was the rainbow patterns that ran along the polished edges like colorful ribbons, looping and weaving through fancy clouds and glittery...panda lilies. Panda lilies!
Such a despicably happy thing struck Yuhan to the core like an insult, a mockery of his miserable life. His first impulse was to clench it into his fingers and hurl it as far away from himself as possible. Back to the foreign planet it had come from. "ARGH!" A furious Yuhan flung the ukulele far into the shadows, wishing ill fortune upon it and upon every single person involved in its creation.
Instead of shattering to pieces like he'd planned, the ukulele remained solid and merely bounced off the walls of the tunnel. Each TWANG of its strings was surprisingly loud, echoing endlessly into the blackness beyond his torchlight. There was a final clatter of wood against the ground somewhere in the darkness, but the echoes wouldn't stop.
The distant twangs were dragging long enough for Yuhan to consider searching for the ukulele just to make sure he'd destroy it this time. He began to march forward until a low and ominous growl suddenly responded from the other direction. The way it rattled the walls of the cave made his hair stand on end as he froze on the spot. The entire tunnel began to shake violently like a stampede of earthquakes speeding towards him. Debris shook off of the walls in clouds of dust and bounced pebbles over his head.
He really regretted throwing that ukulele.
The stampede burst forth from the shadows before he had the chance to scream. Shiny, man-skewering claws invaded his island of torchlight with wide feet that made the earth itself cower in fear. They armed the four massive legs of a giant, half-dome-bodied badgermole. It lowered its snout towards a petrified Yuhan, sniffing a bit as its head cocked to the side with blank amber eyes. Two more badgermoles emerged from behind it and followed suit. Unable to feel his legs, Yuhan's timid gaze slowly traveled up their massive brown bodies of fur, at the bold streaks of black and white that lined their eyes and striped down the center of their backs from head to tail. His torch was trembling in his fingers he began to reach for his supply sack very, very slowly. The badgermoles seemed to react to his tiniest movements with some mysterious sixth sense and came even closer.
Yuhan strangely recalled the lines of an old textbook at that moment, from somewhere deep inside the Ba Sing Se University. What was that about a badgermole's diet again? ...Crap. They loved meat. Yuhan eyes flickered down towards his bracelet. This was seriously not a good time for him to become dead meat. He needed to act now – Riya needed him to act now. But the terror was numbing him from any ideas on how to do it without dying.
A sudden, sharp ring of brass bells startled both parties. Yuhan jumped; the badgermoles paused as their ears flicked. One of them had unintentionally kicked forward the first bell in the row that Yuhan had previously laid out, causing it to set off all the others like dominoes. The beasts suddenly made a rush for the golden instruments, apparently more fascinated by the noise than their appetite for him.
Yuhan blinked for a moment as the badgermoles all huddled and sniffed eagerly at the bells, but he quickly proceeded to hoist the supply sack onto his shoulders and sprinted like mad. He found the will to run only for her sake, for her fragile fate that depended upon his survival – and he refused to acknowledge that he was probably the worst person to depend on right now. Especially when the caved-in barrier behind him left no direction to run except towards the badgermoles. Yuhan charged forward, hopped over a long tail, ducked to avoid the shuffle of giant claws, weaved around massive pillars of feet, and finally saw an opening between the earthbending monsters. The vast, ominous black space of the tunnel ahead suddenly looked so safe and comforting as he made a run for it.
Just as Yuhan had cleared the gap between the distracted badgermoles, a heavy wall shot out of the ground in front of him, followed by a painful slap into his face. He winced and reeled backwards, clutching his throbbing nose as the terrifying earthquakes returned. To his horror, the badgermoles were suddenly aware of his existence again and were making their way over. Their backs had been turned, but it felt like they knew precisely the moment he tried to escape and clearly wanted him to stick around.
Yuhan turned away from the approaching badgermoles and gazed up the length of the wall in his way. It had been summoned with perfectly straight edges and left a narrow, dome-shaped gap beneath the tunnel ceiling. There was only one option now...an earthbending technique from a certain organization that he'd been avoiding like the pentapox plague. It dawned on him at that moment that he'd never truly be free of his uniform. He was going to be trapped in its debt from now on – but whatever. Screw it. His pride and dignity weren't enough to save Riya anymore.
The former Peace Orator rooted his feet. The earth below folded over them in smooth little plates, locking into a perfect pair of shoes as mechanically as always. Yuhan reached out his arms after tossing his torch aside, his face contorted and cursing Long Feng under his breath as two earthen gloves burst forth from either side of the tunnel. The one that encased his right hand extended further to cover his bracelet, securing it safely – and only then did he charge for the wall.
The badgermoles seemed confused, cocking their heads again when Yuhan sprinted straight up the wall and onto the roof of the tunnel like one who defied gravity. He climbed frantically through the gap with his hands and feet before straightening up – still upside down – and running for his life. His arms hugged the supply sack tightly against his chest as his stone-clad feet pattered across the ceiling like a pair of alternating magnets.
Don't look back... Don't look back... Yuhan had no idea where he was going and was too terrified to check whether or not the rumbling behind him had ever stopped. His heaving breaths echoed and continued for several minutes within the darkness before a sharp turn caught him by surprise. He blindly slammed straight into the wall, hitting his face with all the air knocked out of his lungs. Yuhan's stumbling feet lost their traction against the ceiling, the back of his head struck a protruding rock as he dropped, and he was out cold before he hit the ground. His unconscious body collapsed into a crumpled mess of spilled Pai Sho tiles and polka-dotted underwear.
I had a nightmare within a nightmare that I was chased by ferocious badgermoles because of a ukulele with rainbows and panda lilies on it. My head...hurts.
"Ugh..." Yuhan's eyes fluttered open, wincing when the next throb shot through the back of his head. The pain was too real to be a dream, and he gave a long sigh before sitting up inside the same blackness as last time. He suddenly paused and squinted at something in the distance.
Either the rock had struck his head hard enough to see flashing lights, or he wasn't imagining the string of bright green dots over there. They seemed suspended in the darkness since he couldn't really make out the boundaries of the tunnel. Yuhan clumsily rose to his feet, tripping over his supply sack in the process, and made his way over. There was something familiar about the lights, perhaps even friendly. He was strangely drawn to the one thing he could see.
Yuhan came to a stop beneath the lights when he recognized the glow. The same crystals illuminated the corridors beneath Lake Laogai. Local carriages sported them inside of dangling lanterns. He'd studied next to them during several late-night hours at Ba Sing Se University. It was strangely calming and reminded him of home. The labyrinth even felt less like a labyrinth...
Yuhan's stomach suddenly growled, prompting him to turn back around to retrieve his supply sack. He eyed it suspiciously, half-expecting another souvenir, but thankfully the next package he pulled out had a promising scent of meat. Yuhan dismissed the obnoxious note on it and hungrily unwrapped his first meal in the cave – then paused when he discovered the most bizarre combination of edibles.
A mass of ground komodo beef had been rounded and pressed into a large, fried patty. It was layered with lettuce, tomatoes, pickled cucumber slices, and a square of moo-sow cheese topped with some kind of tomato paste. The assembly was wedged between two flat buns, and everything was soaked with an overwhelming amount of grease. What in the Realm of Koh was this? Yuhan turned back over the wrapping paper to read the description.
"This delicious invention of mine is called the hanbao.
It's been a hit in Omashu and can turn you fat very quickly."
The sandwich still didn't look very appealing. But at any rate, it was an upgrade from the souvenirs. Yuhan shrugged, stuck it into his mouth, and headed back towards the comfort of the glowing crystals with the burlap sack strapped securely to his back. His eyes widened when he took the first bite. Okay, this grease-bomb sandwich was actually pretty good. Yuhan found himself stuffing down the rest, chewing enthusiastically and reaching back into his supply sack for more. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that starvation wasn't on his list of problems, for now. Bumi was generous with food and had also remembered to include a large canteen of water. Yuhan felt a bit more relaxed as he continued eating and walking along the glowing crystals with his bag of actual supplies. He took another savory bite out of his sandwich. Spirits, these hanbaos could even be worthy of Hiroshu's praise.
Yuhan's bad mood returned within seconds. His patrol partner was still wearing a loathsome uniform. What was Hiroshu even doing out there? Stuffing his face while an evil comet blew up his city? Yuhan imagined him laughing and eating dumplings with the rest of the Dai Li in front of a giant bonfire. Oh, that idiot had better not be involved in any of the world-destroying plans. Yuhan was willing to escape this cave just to kill him for that. The cynicism was making him want to kill a lot of people in general.
He wasn't expecting a giant flying thing with teeth to land on his shoulder.
"OW! WHAT THE –" Yuhan was surrounded by a flurry of webbed wings and high-pitched snarling before he knew what was happening. Another one pounced on his back and bit down with razor-sharp fangs, lurching him forward as his half-eaten hanbao flew from his fingers. He fell over and writhed about on the ground, kicking and flailing his arms in a desperate attempt to ward them off.
The wall next to him exploded and sent him flying alongside heavy debris. The swarm of winged creatures yelped in fright, scattering as he slammed against the other side of the tunnel. Yuhan felt a sharp, crackling pop in his shoulder upon impact before he flopped onto the ground face-first with his supply sack, sending up clouds of dust. Something crashed down next to him with an agonized screech.
"Ergh..." Yuhan rolled to his side and tried to lean onto his good arm, his ears ringing. He suddenly noticed a pair of blood-red eyes and sharp fangs next to his face and sat up with a jolt. It was a dead wolfbat – one of the flying things with teeth, he realized. A large fragment of stone had pinned its body to the ground, and its sharp wings were bent up in odd angles. Its blank, staring eyes were still wide open with fright. Yuhan might have pitied it if it weren't for the bite marks on his back.
Something sniffed and started chewing loudly a few meters behind him, making him cringe. The horrible crunching noise reminded Yuhan of his arms when they were being twisted apart by the Dai Li. Cold sweat began to run down his temples as he slowly turned around.
A badgermole was shuffling about with the bloody remains of a wolfbat sticking out of its mouth. It was notably smaller than the ones he'd encountered previously, but it was still massive and intimidating compared to himself. Yuhan nearly gagged when it spat out a tangled mass of bones and intestines. He glanced around himself and slowly realized how many wolfbat carcasses there were everywhere. It was miracle that he hadn't gotten hit by any of the flying rock pieces himself; there was a gaping hole in the wall where the badgermole had blasted out of its new tunnel.
Another CRUNCH sounded when the badgermole lifted the next wolfbat between its teeth. One of the latter's wings twitched a little before falling limp. Yuhan frantically dragged himself up to his feet, trembling and praying silently that he wasn't next on the menu. The straps of his supply sack kept it tied to his back, though the slightest pressure caused a shooting wave of pain to radiate from his injured shoulder. Yuhan gritted his teeth and shifted the weight to the opposite side, while the badgermole kept chewing and casually spitting out wolfbat guts in the meantime. It paused for a moment to sniff a misplaced patty of komodo beef on the ground. Yuhan's staggering feet did their best to run away (ever so slowly) as it started licking the grease.
He surprisingly managed to cover an impressive distance without being pursued. Maybe the monster simply had all the wolfbats it needed to satisfy its appetite. It wasn't like Yuhan had much meat on his bones for it to eat, at any rate. Right as he began to think that the situation could turn out alright, the ground lurched and toppled him over. He hit his face yet again as his arms and legs sprawled out.
Yuhan angrily lifted himself back up with a hand over his throbbing nose, wondering for a moment how it hadn't broken by now. He glanced over his shoulder and groaned. "Oh, come on!"
The badgermole was marching towards him and drooling with what he could tell was a larger appetite for him than all the wolfbats combined. He couldn't stop tripping and falling every time it deliberately stuck out its front foot and stomped. After his fifth attempt to get up and run, he was sweating profusely and wheezing for air, too exhausted to notice his foot rolling over a pebble. "Dammit –" Yuhan stumbled forward and accidentally heeled his shin as his legs tangled. The sharp jab was annoyingly painful since his foot was covered in – wait.
His shoes were made of stone. Earthbendable stone.
Yuhan jumped back up and aligned himself, leaning over and pressing his rock soles flat against the earth. The next rumble from the approaching badgermole failed to separate him from the ground. Yuhan gratefully thrust himself forward and sailed like lighting away from the wolfbat-eating monster, his stone-clad feet gliding smoothly across the ground.
His stupid Dai Li roots had saved him a second time. Yuhan let out a relieved but bitter sigh as the shape of the badgermole shrank in the distance. Looking over his shoulder turned out to be a bad idea pretty quickly; Yuhan twisted his head back around too late and yelled in surprise when he sailed straight into the dark entrance of a wide, open space. The ground dropped sharply, and his feet suddenly had nothing to stick to as he flew past the edge of a steep flight of stairs.
It didn't take long for Yuhan to plummet face-first onto the descending steps. His body flipped and bounced occasionally as he tumbled, and he hit his temple less than halfway down. His unconscious body continued to roll a bit after reaching the bottom of the stairs, flopping over onto his face eventually with a loud clatter from his supply sack.
I had a nightmare...I think...giant flying things exploding...badgermole...wolfbat guts ... My whole body hurts.
Yuhan groggily propped himself up with his good arm. His head was pounding, his shoulder was a bruised, swollen mess, and a row of tooth-shaped punctures on his back stung like Koh's Realm. He wasn't even going to try pretending that it was a dream. At least he could see himself, though, unlike his first awful awakening in the dark. The glowing crystals were still near, he realized. Yuhan rubbed his eyes, looked up, and suddenly felt his jaw drop.
Everywhere above him was a magnificent display of shimmering green. Thousands of tiny crystal shards formed luminescent images on the walls and speckled the domed ceiling like stars. Glowing badgermoles framed the entrance through which Yuhan had fallen and continued into opposite rows that traveled along the curved wall. Each mirrored pair of badgermoles displayed what he could tell was a form of earthbending, though unfamiliar to him, and they eventually stopped at the sides of a grand arch.
The crystals around this pitted arch in the wall gave the illusion of it being a tunnel at the base of a tall mountain, complete with sparkling little bonsai trees and curly clouds hovering around its peak. Yuhan stared in awe at the embellished details for a moment before his gaze finally settled upon the center of it all: a radiant, towering pair of...er...lip-locked statues. Something slowly began to register as he read the glowing insignia carved between them.
Love is brightest in the dark.
"Holy Mother of Faces –" Yuhan involuntarily staggered backwards with a horrified lurch in his stomach when he noticed the two massive stone coffins lying side by side. The ones in front of the giant, smooching statues of Oma and Shu.
This was the tomb of the labyrinth-cursing masterminds. Earth Kingdom natives who were guilty of crimes against love knew to avoid this place if they valued their lives. Yuhan was terrified out of his wits, and verses of "Secret Tunnel" played through his head the more he panicked.
Two lovers, forbidden from one another
Their cave honors the heart, but a heart that lacks honor is doomed
Trust in love, or be cursed forever
"And die" kept repeating as Yuhan cowered before the statues like a small child. He was expecting Oma and Shu to pass down judgment upon him any minute. The presence of an evil brainwasher who'd betrayed his own lover was surely a despicable interruption of their peaceful slumber.
It took about an hour of curling up tightly into a ball on the ground for him to begin wondering why nothing was happening. Yuhan cracked an eye open to peer through the gaps in his arms, which were covering his head. The Lovers' stone coffins were still there, but that was all they did – simply stay there. He kept staring back, unable to decide what to do. He still wanted to excuse himself out of their tomb as quickly as possible, but he feared that he'd wake them up as soon as he moved.
Several minutes of silent staring with no angry spirits rising from the coffins eventually calmed Yuhan down enough to register other details. The encased Lovers were actually lying on top of a raised circular platform; Yuhan raised a curious brow when he noticed a neat array of glowing rectangular frames running along its sides, each sporting a different picture. It was too dim to make out what the images were supposed to be, though, even after Yuhan found the courage to shuffle closer and squint at them.
His thoughts drifted back to Bumi's snorting voice. "...Twenty torches in your pack... You'll need them to appreciate the artwork..."
Yuhan slowly undid the straps of his supply sack and placed it down in front of him to pull out a new torch. He glanced hesitatingly towards the coffins for a moment before striking the tip of the torch across the ground. The sound was deafening within the utter silence and made him flinch with every sharp echo – but still no reaction from the Lovers, thankfully.
The torchlight illuminated the tomb and simultaneously diminished the glow from all the crystals in the room; one wouldn't have known the crystals were here at all. His torch produced a stronger light than the dim green, but somehow its shadows and limited range made the room feel emptier and less profound. The pictures in the frames, however, were gracefully carved into the stone with smooth lines that resembled calligraphic paint strokes. Yuhan stooped down and held his torch closer to the first frame. There were peaks of simple but bold mountains, with a few lines of characters on either side:
They met on top of the mountain that divided their two villages.
Yuhan looked up at the stone coffins, then back down at the panel. He already knew this legend, as did the rest of the Earth Kingdom. But to be standing here before the Oma and Shu themselves, reading their story... It made him feel as though he were almost there with them when they met, watching their love unfold. He involuntarily traced his fingers along the lines of the mountain and closed his eyes, imagining the clouds hovering at the top of the peak and the wind rustling the trees... For some reason, it made him think of Riya when they were atop the Outer Wall beneath the moon, the way the breeze gently flowed through her hair and how some of the tresses brushed her cheeks. Looking back upon those fleeting moments made his chest grow heavy, and he opened his eyes again with a sigh.
Their villages were enemies, so they could not be together. But their love was strong, and they found a way. The two lovers learned earthbending from the badgermoles. They became the first earthbenders.
This tomb made the badgermoles seem holy and sage-like compared to the ferocious tunneling beasts trying to eat him. He wasn't about to believe that these panels misrepresented anything, though. For all he knew, the badgermoles treated the powerful, noble Lovers rightfully as equals...and simply saw him for what he was.
They built elaborate tunnels so they could meet secretly.
Anyone who tried to follow them would be lost forever in the labyrinth.
It was rather unsettling that the lyrics of "Secret Tunnel" were pretty true to their source, matching almost exactly whenever the word "forever" came up. He'd been clinging to a tiny hope that the song was exaggerating. Yuhan quickly moved onto the next panel to avoid thinking about it.
But one day, the man didn't come...
The pictures made everything feel so melancholy, even if he'd known that Shu would die in the war. The heartbroken panel of Oma made Yuhan's chest ache, the way she kneeled and sobbed with her face pressed in her hands. How lonely it must have been to cry on top of an empty mountain, without even a chance to say goodbye.
And yet, she endured her pain and chose to unite the two villages. Yuhan felt such a profound respect for this woman, who'd brought everyone together the way she and her lover could no longer be. He gazed back a few panels at the details of her initial devastation, the overwhelming grief that exploded from the earth and cracked apart mountains. How Oma could forgive and reach out to those who'd forsaken her love, who'd forbidden it from the very beginning, was nothing short of divine. Legendary, indeed.
...But now what?
Yuhan wasn't sure what to do with this silence. If he'd been cursed forever, he couldn't tell. He gazed down at his bracelet for a long moment. Then back up at the coffins. His face grew solemn. This was the tomb of the first earthbenders, the people who represented the best of love. There was something he could try, even if it wasn't much.
Yuhan slowly backed up a few steps and stood before the tombstones of the two lovers. He inhaled deeply before kneeling and bowing low to the ground, supporting himself with his uninjured arm. "Honorable Lovers, please hear my prayer..." He thought of the panel of Oma crying alone on top of the mountain. "War is happening again. It's going to take away the person I love. She..." Yuhan saw it again, the blinding lantern circling in front of Riya's eyes even as she begged him not to make her forget, to stay with him for just another moment. He didn't even deserve to cry. "Riya and I can't be together anymore...because I betrayed her. I took her away from – herself, and the war that I told her doesn't exist is coming to destroy Ba Sing Se." Yuhan felt the temptation to wallow again in shame and despair, but he forced himself to keep it together. "She doesn't deserve that – she never deserved any of it. If one of us ends up dying, if that's how the story's supposed to go, then it better be me. Not Riya. I love her. I can't...lose her...n-not again..."
Yuhan's voice still shook from the memory of his conversion. He would always be haunted by the way she grinned the entire time the dagger cut into her neck. A comet burning her to death for real this time wasn't something he could handle. "Don't let take them take Riya... Don't let her be the one who dies in the war," Yuhan pleaded. "She's not in here being cursed forever, so don't let her die. Do what you want with me, just - don't let Riya die without knowing her own name...that's all I ask..."
The tomb remained completely silent. No difference whatsoever.
Well, at least the Lovers had no reason to hate Riya. Yuhan sighed and stood back up. He couldn't tell if he was cursed yet, but who knew how much time remained? He had to do whatever he could for Riya before he became the last line of "Secret Tunnel." And he seriously needed to do better than running from badgermoles or cowering in front of statues. Speaking of which...
Yuhan looked up at the smooching statues. "Love is brightest in the dark" had to be of significance, he figured, with such a giant insignia. The smooching lips above it were huge and obvious, too. Did everything revolve around kissing or something? ...Was kissing the magic solution? The idea made Yuhan's face turn horribly skeptical. He was stuck in a cursed cave while a world-destroying comet was headed for Riya. There was nothing bright nor lovely about it whatsoever, and no one had better suggest that they kiss right now.
He looked down and discovered that his torch had gotten considerably shorter; the flame had whittled more than half of it away. It was probably a good idea for him to put it out while he was still scrutinizing this tomb, which had its own source of light. He needed to save his extra torches for the pitch-black areas of the tunnel that weren't illuminated by the... Something suddenly occurred to him.
Brightest in the dark. There was something in here besides kissing that was capable of such a thing.
Was the insignia actually a cryptic way to glorify a bunch of glow-in-the-dark stalactites? Yuhan threw his torch onto the ground and stamped out the flame. The tomb lit up again with its fancy arch and glowing badgermoles. He had to admit that the crystals made quite an impression. They breathed life into the walls and turned everything more beautiful and breathtaking than before. The embellished stone coffins didn't feel cursed or intimidating for once.
So where did the crystals come into play for the Lovers? Yuhan scrunched his face and tried to backtrack to the moment he first noticed them. He remembered following the crystals because of their essence of home, but after that they were his only visible path away from the wolfbat-eating badgermole. They'd led him right into this tomb, which he assumed was the center of the labyrinth.
...Which meant that they also led back to the tunnel entrance. One of two entrances.
Bloody Realm of Koh! Had it been staring him in the face this entire time? Yuhan felt a surge in his chest that he'd never thought possible. He quickly yanked his supply sack from the ground after stuffing the torch back inside and darted towards the stairs. There was a stabbing pain in his left shoulder from too reckless a movement, but he didn't care and it let it keep throbbing as he ran up the steps.
Yuhan scrambled out of the wide entrance and stopped in front of it, breathing anxiously. He looked to his left and recognized the long streaks on the ground where his stone shoes had smoothed over the dust. He hesitated before turning his head very slowly towards the right, his chest pounding and holding his breath.
It was there.
The second trail of crystals was there. It diverged from the first at the top of the entrance and illuminated the tunnel down the opposite direction...towards the opposite side of the mountain. This had to be where the Lovers' pathways became one. It was there. Dear Spirits, it was there!
Before this cave, he'd been worried about looking unimpressive to Riya with toothpick-arms and other stupid things. He should have avoided Omashu and headed straight home from the start, and he sure as Koh's Realm wasn't going to waste time now. Yuhan sailed through the tunnel with his stone shoes, Dai Li roots or not, and his racing heart dared to hope again. He would no longer be helpless and forced stand by when Riya was in trouble. He was finally in a position to do something at all, and he'd just figure out the details along the way. Damn right, it was about time he took control of his li –
The trail ended.
Yuhan's feet skidded to a stop, sending up clouds of dust that settled quietly around him. His shoulders slumped while his arms simply dangled as he stood there and stared in utter silence...at the giant mass of collapsed stone fragments. It was a dead end that matched the other side of the tunnel.
"What...the Faceless Realm...of Koh..." A vein in Yuhan's temple began to protrude as his gaze traveled from the bottom of the stone fragments up to the very top of the barrier where the crystals disappeared from sight. His hands shook and slowly tightened into fists, and his eyes darkened beyond hatred. The ground began to tremble along as debris shook off of the walls.
"YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!" Yuhan suddenly screamed at the top of his lungs and lashed out at the barrier like a wild animal. He slammed his fists against it over and over, yelling louder every time the Spirits-forsaken thing wouldn't budge. His voice echoed and repeated everywhere around him in a violent, angry chorus. Crystals were shattering and raining down from the tunnel ceiling. "WHY - JUST WHY?"
His left shoulder crackled again as he hit the barrier relentlessly. Yuhan felt the pain shooting through it every time, but it only fueled his anger. He was spiraling out of control, murderous and throwing himself against the barrier in his wild rage. "Who did this? Where's the bastard that pulled this crap?" he roared. "Get your ass back here! I'LL KILL YOU! I'll –"
The sound of fluttering wings and high-pitched snarling suddenly caught his attention. Yuhan wheeled back around as they echoed towards him. "Seriously?" This time the wolfbats were much further down the tunnel, but the crowd of specks was getting closer and snarling louder every second. Yuhan threw his head back with an exasperated scowl, but the danger still reminded him not to die. His eyes darted around the base of the collapsed stone pile. A large, flat piece was propped against the corner of the wall and barrier, creating a small space beneath that could easily go unnoticed. Yuhan threw himself onto his knees and crawled frantically into the gap. It took some effort to fit his supply sack, but he managed to squeeze it in and curl up beneath the slab of stone right before the wolfbats swarmed the area.
Yuhan could see some parts of the barrier from his hiding place, and he watched the wolfbats climb all over the spot where he'd hit his fists most violently; the rocks had crimson-stained edges from his raw, peeling knuckles. Yuhan held his breath and silently rewrapped the disheveled strips of his sleeves tightly around his knuckles as the wolfbats licked up any blood they could find.
The wolfbats were loud and pushy as they competed for the remaining residues. For some reason, it made Yuhan remember when he was stuck training with Hiroshu to develop efficient teamwork during combat. They'd bicker like the wolfbats over which formation to take and were one of the last patrol partner pairs to pass the assessment. As Yuhan sat here hiding, narrowly avoiding death by predators, it became easy for his memories of Ba Sing Se to start playing through his head. He shut his eyes and couldn't stop himself from picturing Sozin's comet reaching its target... Everything was coming to an end, just like that, from a Spirits-forsaken comet. He was so far away and didn't even have the luxury of dying with his people. It was a pitiful way to feel lonely.
The emptiness slowly consumed Yuhan as the wolfbats finally left the barrier. He emerged from his hiding place, staring blankly down the tunnel and suddenly lacking any motivation to feel anger. He trudged away from the blockade of collapsed stone, unwilling to look back, and dragged his feet along the ground below the meaningless trail of crystals.
The thought vaguely crossed his mind that the tomb was the only place he hadn't seen any animals approach at all, not a single one nearby despite its huge entrance. It wasn't much as far as his curse was concerned, but it subconsciously led him back. Yuhan didn't have it in him to stoop low enough to let himself die out here voluntarily. He eventually reached the tomb and paced down the stairs into the crystal-embellished room, and for some reason his feet led him to the stone coffins. His downcast eyes slowly looked up towards the panels.
Yuhan had no energy left to be upset about his curse. He simply stared at the coffins for a good while and slowly realized that the Lovers had followed through with their judgment after all. He just hadn't expected it to be a cruel play on his emotions, to let him hope again and believe that light was waiting at the end of the tunnel, only to find it gone and be left utterly alone in the dark until his death.
There was a little glimmer from the gold disc in his bracelet as his arms dropped to his sides, a subtle reflection from the glowing crystals adorning the tombstones. Yuhan could only bear to look for a second before turning his face away. His bracelet only reminded him that he'd never become worthy of its giver.
Yuhan's eyes went hollow as the statement repeated itself in his head. There was a heavy pit in his stomach that had been gathering for a long time, filled with all the losses and all the shame in his life that he'd been suppressing in order to focus on the task at hand. It was pointless to stuff it away anymore if he had nothing left to accomplish.
He slowly sank down under the weight of the crippling emotions that no longer cared to stay in the back of his head. Yuhan subconsciously curled back up on the ground a few paces away from the Lovers' stone coffins, too hollow for fear and too numb to grieve. A list of failures began to cut into his chest, one by one as he closed his eyes.
Mom... I couldn't do anything useful. I let you die for no reason... I can't honor your dying wish, and I never heard what you wanted to tell Dad.
Dad... I let Mom die, whom you loved so much...and she died because I'm in love with someone I can't even protect. If you're actually alive, I wouldn't even be able to face you...I'm pathetic. I'm so sorry...
Yuhan's closed eyelids pressed tighter as the pit in his stomach lurched and twisted his chest with a crushing pain that made him want to vomit. He could feel the shape of the three discs in his bracelet that pressed from below his wrist.
Riya...I... I've been the worst thing that ever happened to you. I couldn't do any better...couldn't change anything at all...nothing...
A tear trickled down onto the floor, though he wasn't aware of it. Yuhan's unconscious face was void of emotion.
Where am I?
He was back in his uniform, but it surprisingly didn't come with anything cold or sinister this time. Yuhan found himself standing beneath the clear blue sky of a fresh Spring morning, with the sweet scent of plum blossoms filling the air. There was large earthbending dojo in front of him where the plum trees grew on either side. It had been built outside the Inner Wall atop a steep hill that overlooked the agrarian fields of his city, neither plain nor extravagant.
Yuhan looked around himself and saw rows of men who stood tall with a proud, noble sense of duty. They were fond of each other and fiercely loyal to their cause, much more than a set of rules and matching uniforms. They had hopes, aspirations...actual emotions on their faces... This was definitely not the real world. And yet, there was something about it that Yuhan couldn't call a dream.
A tall, built woman donning a layered green kimono and a golden headpiece stepped out of the dojo and stood before the assembly, her stance firm and her hands folded behind her back. The headpiece resembled the two halves of a fan, and two actual fans were kept secured in the tight sash around her waist. Her solemn face was painted white, a bold combination with dark red lips and long streaks of red and black lining her eyes. Yuhan felt like he'd seen something similar before, though he couldn't put his finger on what.
"Men, today you are no longer my students," announced the woman with the facepaint. "You have become elite earthbenders, and you will leave this dojo as the cultural authority of Ba Sing Se." Her voice commanded power, a bold and unyielding justice. "You must work together to create order out of these troubled times. The city cannot continue to destroy itself."
Something began to stir inside Yuhan, an invigorating sense of purpose that he'd never known. The plum trees released petals into the wind that danced and fluttered down over his hat and shoulders as the woman glanced in his direction.
"You will end the violence between your people with a firm but fair hand. You will hold the Earth King to his promise to fulfill their needs and make sure that every voice is heard," declared the woman. "Once I leave this city, you will maintain an orderly utopia. Your uniforms represent a lasting establishment of peace, and you will be the voice of reason on my behalf."
Yuhan finally recognized the facepaint. An order of fierce female warriors all wore it with their padded kimonos. Similarly, these men were all fierce earthbenders wearing fancy hats with gold-trimmed uniforms. Yuhan began to realize something as he slowly looked down at the emblem on his chest. It couldn't be...that both groups trained by...
"You are the guardians of Ba Sing Se and its traditions. You are the ones who restore balance within the walls, just as I do for the world. You... are the Dai Li." The woman's stern gaze settled upon Yuhan. "Do you accept this responsibility?"
Yes, Avatar Kyoshi.
Yuhan's eyes snapped open. He shot upright, then cried out and fell back over from the excruciating pain in his shoulder. "Argh – what just..." He remembered to use his good arm this time and propped himself back up, breathing heavily. It took a few moments for everything to register again. The glittery tomb and the eternal curse were back, along with the thousand aches in his body.
Even though he'd returned to miserable reality, he couldn't pay attention to it with all the colorful images that were still fresh in his memory. He'd been unconscious, but it wasn't a dream. Yuhan had no idea how he'd stumbled into that world, but it wasn't a dream. That day existed somewhere, somehow. He could still hear that proud, noble voice so clearly...
"You are in charge of maintaining an orderly utopia, and you will be the voice of reason on my behalf."
It suddenly hit him that he'd heard something like that before. Yuhan's life had a different day in a different place, with no sky or plum trees. Long Feng had been congratulating him and the other young agents who'd just completed their training. "You are the reason why Ba Sing Se can remain a peaceful, orderly utopia," he'd told them, wearing a cunning smile as always. "Your uniforms embody the 46th Earth King's desire for peace. You are the voice that frees our people from the burden of war."
"That BASTARD!" Yuhan yelled out loud. Everything had been twisted and manipulated just enough to create a false sense of honor that masked a greed for power. He couldn't stand it. It made him hate the Dai Li even more.
Yuhan paused when the plum blossoms reappeared in his mind's eye. Who was he supposed to hate, actually? The honorable men that stood before the dojo were as real as the agents beneath Lake Laogai. They all wore the same uniform, didn't they? And they shared the same founder, who apparently wasn't the 46th Earth King.
The thought made Yuhan remember about the woman with the facepaint. He went still and slowly began to stare down at his palms. That was right... It all began with someone much greater than kings. The stone gloves, the stone shoes, and everything else about his uniform had been invented by none other than Avatar Kyoshi. His Dai Li roots.
The Avatar created his Dai Li roots.
Yuhan began to feel a little lightheaded as it sank in. The Dai Li didn't start off as a bunch of brainwashing terrorists. They were created to keep Ba Sing Se balanced through peace – genuine peace – and kindness. They were the guardians of the wall who represented the Avatar, for crying out loud! What in the Realm of Koh went wrong? When did they become okay with Avatar Aang getting shot by lightning? To make things even better, they'd nearly killed Yuhan for trying to save the poor kid. Then they crushed his arms beyond function, killed his mother, made him see Riya kill herself, then – hold on a minute.
He had tried to save the Avatar.
Avatar Aang was apparently alive thanks to the extra time he'd bought, according to Iroh. Yuhan hadn't dwelled on it before, considering his life had plenty of other things to worry about since then. He also thought that Iroh gave him too much credit, but...trying alone was something the original agents would have done, right? Avatar Aang was the only one who could have stopped the fall of Ba Sing Se, and Yuhan was the only agent who tried to help him. He'd also been willing to die fighting. As it turned out, he was actually quite loyal to his city...and that...was what it meant to be a Dai Li agent.
Something lifted away from his shoulders, from his entire being, like he'd been carrying a mountain for years that suddenly vanished. Yuhan's chest heaved, breathing rapidly as he kept staring at his hands in disbelief. He just found out that there was nothing evil about his Dai Li roots, and he'd been the one punished for staying true to them all along. Was the world coming to an end?
...Actually, it was. There was going to be World-Destroying Comet Party in his city – and what was more, the Dai Li were working for its host. The Dai Li were going to let the city burn. Yuhan involuntarily clenched his fists and stood straight up before he knew it. That was the most ridiculous, pathetic thing he'd ever heard of. Guardians of Ba Sing Se? They never should have worn those uniforms!
At that moment, a familiar voice began speaking from his memories. "You're different from the others. You always were." The deceased rebel crossed his arms with a smile. "Now go back and show them how it's done. Go back and fix our city."
Yuhan's face hardened. "I understand."
He wheeled around and boldly faced the Lovers' coffins before pointing straight at them with a burst of insane courage. "I refuse to die here. I have been tortured, dragged across the world, inflicted with every kind of illness, and thrown into a cave by a king who snorts when he laughs. I will not be taken down now. I have a duty to uphold – and Riya to save!"
Yuhan closed his eyes and inhaled slowly. He felt the wind and the plum blossoms fluttering around him again, and he was standing before Avatar Kyoshi in his emerald uniform. "I accept my responsibility," he declared. "My duty is to restore balance to Ba Sing Se, just as Avatar Aang's is to the world. I am an agent of the Dai Li, and I accept my responsibility!"
His eyes held a fiery determination as he marched back up the steps of the tomb with his supply bag. Yuhan stopped at the entrance for a moment to turn and bow politely towards Oma and Shu. "I respectfully refuse to die here." With that, he summoned a new pair of gloves from the walls, reinforced his shoes to seal any cracks, and shot himself forward. The air whizzed past his face as he sailed down the left tunnel.
No snorting geezer from Omashu was going to keep him trapped in here. Yuhan was fixated on destroying Bumi's barrier in particular, the start of all his Secret Tunnel problems. Pulverizing that side felt like the best way to prove his conviction not to die. As he sailed along the crystal path, he reached over into his bag with his good arm and pulled out his half-used torch. If he recalled correctly, the tunnel had been pitch-black for some distance before the glowing trail became visible.
Sure enough, the crystals gradually began to decrease before only one or two appeared every few seconds. The dim light was barely enough for Yuhan to catch the sharp turn, but he pivoted around it this time and continued to sail forward. He readied his torch as the last glow of the crystals vanished, and struck it across the ground as his shoes glided along.
"What the –" Yuhan's feet clashed and tangled over a stringed wooden instrument right as his torch lit ablaze. He caught a glimpse of rainbows and panda lilies right before he hit the ground face-first and skidded painfully from his gliding momentum. The torch slipped from his fingers and rolled across the ground.
Yuhan continued to lie there facedown as the twangs echoed down the tunnel, stunned and trying to figure out what had just happened. Before long, he began to feel the ground trembling below him. "...Brilliant." He clumsily pulled himself up and crawled over to pick up his torch. He tried to stand and root his shoes again as the rumbles grew closer, but everything was a little blurry and he couldn't find his balance.
There was a loud crash behind him followed by series of slow, ground-shaking footsteps in his direction. Yuhan sighed and turned around, and for some reason he felt like he knew who it was. This cave was still making it really hard not to die.
The wolfbat-eating badgermole was right in front of his face. It sniffed around his body intently as he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to steady himself. The pieces of his shoes began to lock back into place.
The last thing Yuhan expected was for it to hover its foot past his head and begin picking at his supply bag with a single claw. He suddenly felt extremely angry and protective past any logic; he was more attached to the burlap sack than he expected. "Hey, now – WHAT do you think you're doing? That's my stuff!" snapped Yuhan, recoiling from the massive claws.
The badgermole actually paused and stood there for a moment, seemingly taken aback for Spirits-knew-why. Yuhan continued to pace backwards, breathing haggardly as it began reaching out its claw a second time. "I said, get your paws off my stuff!" he snarled. "Go back to eating wolfbat guts!" His feet locked into position.
With his luck, another CRASH sounded before he could begin to glide away. A second badgermole appeared on his other side, effectively blocking both directions to escape. It stomped its foot loudly and caused Yuhan to topple over for the hundredth time since he'd been stuck in the cave. He felt the hook of his nose get caught onto a string for a moment before a loud TWANG filled the air.
Yuhan sat up irritably against the wall, his nose still caught between the strings of the ukulele, and wrenched the instrument off of his face with yet another twang. He'd endured far too much to be scared of the badgermoles by now; he assumed by default that the cave was just going to keep trying to kill him, while his noble sense of duty kept him determined to win.
It took him a moment to register that the two badgermoles were huddled in front of him, resting their snouts onto their feet with the most bizarre enthusiasm. Yuhan looked down at the ukulele clutched in his fingers. A snorting voice began to make more sense in his memories.
"Try to get along with any ferocious tunneling beasts... I hear they like music!"
Yuhan gazed dully at the badgermoles, who were beginning to fidget impatiently. He lifted a cautious finger and began to pluck the strings at random. The badgermoles nodded along with almost childish glee. "T-two...Lovers..." he began. "Forbidden from..." The words choked up in his throat. He didn't feel like singing about a curse that he'd just refused.
Yuhan glanced down at his bracelet and thought of something else. "Listen up, jerks. It's a long, long way to Ba Sing Se -" The wolfbat-eating badgermole seemed to enjoy this one in particular. "- But my girl's in the city, and she's really pretty!" Yuhan's face hardened with an angry determination that somehow caused him to pluck the strings with more fervor. "With her voice so sweet, I must stay alive to meet...my girl in Ba Sing Se!"
Yuhan's voice echoed loudly as he stood up, huffing angrily. The badgermoles seemed a little disappointed, so he began to strike random strings of the ukulele with every sentence he spoke as if it would somehow make them understand. "Alright, are you happy?" TWANG! "Now, get out of my way. I have a job to do –" TWANG! "- and I don't plan on dying."
The second badgermole miraculously obeyed and stepped to the side as he marched forward. The wolfbat-eating one, however, suddenly dived into the tunnel wall with a loud rumble, then popped back out in front of him. Yuhan stood his ground with his ukulele. "What do you want?" he asked irritably. TWANG! "You still can't have my stuff, you know."
Yuhan sighed and threw his head back as the badgermole stayed rooted to the spot. "Very funny," he subconsciously told Oma and Shu. So they were using their earthbending pals to keep him trapped, now?
The statement repeated itself in his head. Earthbending pals... Those ferocious beasts were better earthbenders than he was. By thousands of milestones. Come to think of it, all he'd done so far was decide not to die. Chances were his earthbending abilities would still fall short at the barrier... An unfathomable idea began to form.
Yuhan looked up at the badgermole standing in his way. He tried to come up with the best melody he could with his ukulele as he began to sing a proposal. "Say, old buddy, how 'bout doing me a favor? Is there something in my bag that I can pay you back later?" It suddenly occurred to him that there was only one thing in his supplies that it could be after... Meat. He sighed and undid the straps of his bag.
The wolfbat-eating badgermole sniffed eagerly as Yuhan slowly held up a hanbao in offering.
My nightmares...don't even make sense anymore...
Yuhan groggily sat up on the floor of the glittery tomb and rubbed his eyes; it was the only place where the badgermoles left him alone to sleep. The wolfbat-eater was the most annoying one. It still wouldn't help him get past the blockade just because it thought he had more hanbaos to offer. He could hear it snoring right outside the entrance of the tomb.
Having badgermoles for company came with its uses, though. They always scared away any wolfbat swarms that approached, if not eating them. Yuhan was able to refill his canteen after following the badgermoles to their water supply, a little stream that flowed into a shallow pool in a hollow section of the cave. After his torches ran out, he took some crystals from the trail and kept them encased around his hands as luminescent gloves.
The days spent here gave Yuhan extra time to explore all the contents of his supply bag; most of the useful things turned out to be at the bottom. Among them were thick, padded rolls of bandages that stretched and allowed him to improvise a sling for his dislocated shoulder, in addition to some ointments that prevented his wolfbat bites from becoming infected. He'd gotten plenty of rest after discovering a compact sleeping bag. There also turned out to be garments besides underwear, like a clean set of travel robes with wrist-wraps and plenty of pockets for tools. Several other useful gadgets were designed impressively to fit a compact space. His ukulele was the most valuable item, of course, which he'd carry with him whenever he stepped foot from the tomb.
The real problem still remained, however. None of the supplies helped him break out – nor did they get the wolfbat-eater to cooperate.
Yuhan was stubborn enough not to die so far, but at this rate he would still be living here when the comet blew up Ba Sing Se. He had decided to try something different and spent the past couple of days studying the badgermole mosaics in the tomb. The only one who could help him escape was himself, apparently. His last resort was to find out if these strange earthbending stances would work out better than his previous attempts to break the barrier. The series of movements on the wall intrigued him because they reminded him strangely of Toph Beifong – which couldn't be a bad thing.
As usual, Yuhan started off his day by imitating each of the stances lining the walls. His accuracy was limited because of his shoulder, but he tried to focus more on his legs and hoped it would still work. There was a grumble outside the tomb entrance as Yuhan shuffled around; the wolfbat-eater knew he was awake. He sighed and ignored it until he finished his stances.
Yuhan hoisted the supply sack over his good shoulder and grabbed his ukulele before marching up the steps. His sleeping bag and anything else he could afford remained inside of the tomb for later. As usual, the wolfbat-eater was already up and waiting by the time he exited the entrance. Yuhan still had no idea how it could hear him no matter how quietly he moved around in the tomb. "Alright, food hoarder," he sighed. TWANG! "We're off to hunt for snacks, since you have emptied my pack."
He'd figured out some time ago that this creature was likely a child in badgermole standards, seeing as it was only half the size of the others and had less developed claws. It was a bratty child, in his opinion, but the elder badgermoles seemed gentler around it and unfortunately let it keep its entertainer (Yuhan). He was used to riding on his back, and he sat there strumming his ukulele as it walked and bobbed its head along. His playing skills had sadly improved ever since he found a songbook among his supplies. "Don't fall in love with the traveling girl," Yuhan sang dully. "She'll leave you broke, and broken-hearted..."
"ARGH!" Yuhan was flung off without warning. He hit the ground face-first, his gloves and shoes crumbling away from loss of focus. There were several loud screeches and fluttering wings above his head. "Can't you ever do this without throwing me across the tunnel?" he yelled, while the juvenile badgermole wreaked havoc upon the wolfbats. Most of them had already fled, but several displaced chunks of stone still managed to crush a few.
The tunnel went silent again. Yuhan lifted his face off the ground and saw his (ridiculously invincible) ukulele lying several meters away. Grumbling, he rearranged his crystal glove and shot it towards the instrument to summon the latter back into his hand. The badgermole was waiting eagerly next to him as he sat up and dusted himself off. He glared at it as it released a dead wolfbat next to him with a plop.
Yuhan pulled out a knife, a few coals, a pair of spark rocks, and used package paper from his bag, followed by a set of metal rods with wire. As he set up a little fire pit, he let the juvenile badgermole entertain itself next to him as it plucked a single string of his ukulele repeatedly with one of its claws.
He'd resorted to roast wolfbats after the badgermole ate the last of his hanbaos, and now it always insisted on eating the first kill after each hunt. Yuhan supposed it was only fair, seeing as he didn't need to do any of the hunting. The badgermole kept plucking the same string next to him as he cut off the wings of the wolfbat with the knife, slid it length-wise onto the longest metal rod, and turned it slowly over the fire. Yuhan sighed loudly as the same string continued to twang next to him. "I can't stay in here forever, you know. I need to find a way out and save Riya. And I'm actually supposed to be a Dai Li agent, so that means I can't suck at earthbending... I must look pretty lame to you, huh?"
Yuhan had gotten into the habit of pretending it understood or cared about any of his rants; it was better than talking to himself, at any rate. "Anyway...here you go." Yuhan held up the freshly-roasted wolfbat and, as usual, had to wipe off the drool from the empty rod a few seconds later. Right as he positioned the next carcass over the fire, however, he heard a scuttle on the ground. He yelped and jumped to his feet upon sight of a scorpion-roach. They were nasty, poisonous little things that ran lightning-fast with a giant stinger on their tails. Yuhan had forgotten to put back on his stone shoes and was hopping around in fright as the angry bug kept charging at his feet.
He'd climbed halfway up the wall with his gloves when the badgermole suddenly brought its foot down and squashed the scorpion-roach without a single glance towards it. The impact knocked Yuhan off of the wall and down onto his face, but he sat back up with a sheepish smile. "Thanks. I owe ya one." He nearly jumped again when the badgermole lifted one of his hind feet and stomped another scorpion-roach flat. Something occurred to Yuhan as he watched it wiped its feet against the tunnel wall. "How...did you know where that one was?"
Yuhan read a long time ago that badgermoles were blind, but he assumed that they got by with supernatural hearing or something. Now that he thought about it, the ones he'd seen only flicked their ears or sniffed at things that intrigued them, particularly musical instruments. They never seemed surprised by anything that moved. He'd just watched this bratty child-badgermole figure out where a tiny bug was by doing nothing whatsoever before its stomp of death. As Yuhan continued observing it, however, he noticed that it was keeping one of its front feet firmly against the ground and seemed focused on that one in particular as it waited... Before long, another stomp ensued with another flattened bug.
Yuhan stood up and decided to try imitating it. He pressed bare feet against the ground and hesitated for a moment before closing his eyes, focusing only on the world around him. He jolted when his feet felt a little scuttle and immediately snapped his eyes open – but the bug was way across the tunnel, actually. He could still sense it so clearly, more than his eyes could...using the earth alone...
He slowly gazed back over at the wolfbat-eater. "Say...do you think you could show me how your earthbending works?"
I've been living in a 100-year nightmare...and I suck at earthbending...
Yuhan rose from his sleeping bag with a grouchy yawn. He scratched his head for several seconds – which he'd only washed a few times in the pool of spring water since his arrival – and reached over to his side to pick up a notepad from his bag that he'd been scribbling on with a piece of charcoal. Each page held a smudgy sketch of one of the badgermole stances from the wall. He gazed up at the glittery patterns once more and tried to add some extra details every day. His feet had become calloused with several bruises ever since he stopped wearing shoes, but now he could mutually sense the bratty child-badgermole shuffling awake outside the tomb. "I'll be out in a minute," he called lazily. There was a grumble in reply.
It turned out that the brat-germole only knew half of what it was doing with the earth, with Yuhan's luck. He should've known that a young badgermole would be a novice, and he glumly made the connection when he realized how recklessly it always hunted wolfbats and popped out of walls. When he first tried to show it what he wanted to learn, it seemed to recognize by natural instinct the movement of his stances, but it ended up flopping as badly as he did. The elder badgermoles ironically noticed and took it upon themselves to guide it in the right direction. Yuhan was valued for his music and roast wolfbats, so they put forth some effort for him as well.
Thus, the past few days were filled with lots of stumbling and trying to keep up with giant ferocious tunneling beasts as they combined all the wall stances in complicated ways. They could surprisingly stand upright on their hind feet and sometimes thrust their front legs with almost human-like arm movements. Yuhan kept his notebook around in an attempt to reference and figure out which stance they were even doing at a time, but they moved so rapidly and knocked him over half the time. Both pupils had bruised feet; the elder badgermoles communicated their corrective teaching by kicking the ground and making it jab any misplaced feet until the stance was acceptable.
Yuhan naturally had much more bruises, and it irritated him that he would never get the stances completely right with his shoulder injury. It also made him sour that the juvenile badgermole was a natural learner and picked things up much quicker; he was too peeved about how long he'd been in the cave to care if it happened to be the original earthbender species.
He had a good feeling about today, though. His shoulder didn't feel as useless as usual, ever since he'd been brave enough to lean it against the tunnel wall and pop it back into place with a pinpointed jab from the stone. Part of his shoulder blade was still fractured, he could tell, but if he could bear with it enough to perform one correct move, the barrier would still go down. Hopefully.
Yuhan's optimism improved further after he exited the tomb and went through his usual training routine with the wolfbat-eater; he wasn't getting foot-jabbed as much as usual, and he could begin to read the elders' movements for once. There was a strong, enduring energy that he could sense flowing through his arms and legs when he began to shift through the stances correctly, and he kept a mental list of combinations that involved mainly his legs without straining his shoulder.
As Yuhan prepared himself for the next stance, he decided to try something. A pair of stone shoes popped out of the ground and folded back around his feet, and the elder badgermoles paused for a moment in confusion as he dashed up the tunnel wall and suddenly leapt off near the ceiling and flipped back down towards the ground. He extended his leg and slammed his heel into the earth upon landing.
There was a loud CRACK, and all the badgermoles observed curiously as a deep fracture cut itself into the ground and continued to branch out in several cracks for an impressive distance before going still. Yuhan stood back up, huffing and ecstatic about his progress. "Alright, I'm ready!" he declared. He sailed away on his shoes back into the tomb; the badgermoles waited and assumed he was just grabbing his ukulele.
Yuhan hastily folded up his sleeping bag and stuffed it into his bag along with the rest of his supplies. He was hopping back out of the tomb entrance in no time and didn't wait for the badgermoles to catch up as he sailed past them towards the direction of Bumi's barrier.
He came to a stop before the pile of stones, but for some reason he stalled and stood there hesitantly. The previous failures had driven him mad, and he still had a crawling fear in his gut that nothing might change. Yuhan shook his head rapidly, however, and slapped himself in the face before rooting his feet and preparing to strike. He could sense the juvenile badgermole approaching behind and coming to a stop, as if to watch. "Heh..." he chucked wryly. The childlike presence made him feel more pressure not to screw up.
Alright, it was time to get out of here and be on his merry way already... Yuhan inhaled deeply, stiffened his stance, and kicked off of the ground as hard as he could. He pointed his feet forward as he shot straight at the barrier.
Yuhan ended up next to the juvenile badgermole when he skidded face-first across the ground. It felt like the barrier had flat-out swat him away like a gnatfly as soon as his feet made contact. He couldn't breathe for a moment, having smacked against the earth too hard, and he only began wheezing haggardly after the badgermole began sniffing at his back. Its presence registered to him the fact that his escape attempt had failed miserably, and he groaned as he turned over on his back. "Well...l-look who it is..." Yuhan coughed as it sniffed at his face and licked his nose. "Y-you still aren't going to help me...get out...are you..."
He was irritably aware that the elder badgermoles all let this juvenile keep him in the cave simply because it liked him and wanted company – a gesture he didn't return whatsoever. Yuhan scowled, still half-wheezing as it comfortably laid down next to him. "J-jerks...take your spoiled brat...back..."
The elder badgermoles eventually approached the entrance and decided to lie down, also, when they noticed the juvenile sleeping next to an unconscious Yuhan.
I'm going to be stuck in here forever with a bratty child-badgermole while Riya and my city get destroyed by an evil comet. Brilliant.
The days were only bearable as they dragged on because Yuhan's earthbending made some notable improvements with the help of the elder badgermoles; he only needed to strum a song or two for tuition. He could hurl boulders as tall as himself – usually to take out his frustration on the juvenile badgermole, who saw it as a game and nearly flattened him with its own boulders a couple of times. He could also kick deep craters into the wall, and he'd started a small row of pillars outside the tomb marking each new day of being stuck in the cave, which he could only estimate based on how many times he slept for several hours. Earthbending had progressed nicely, but it seemed like his new foundation could do anything except break the barrier.
Yuhan was starting to develop a nagging fear that the giant pile of stone had an eternally cursed seal from the Lovers, but he usually shifted the blame to the bratty child-badgermole and kept training in hopes that it was simply a matter of him becoming strong enough. The number of times he'd been repelled by the barrier was becoming hopeless, though.
"ARGH - DAMMIT!" Yuhan hit the ground after another shot at the barrier, with the juvenile badgermole anticipating his crash-landing as always. His body shook as he lifted himself away from the ground and hunched over on his knees, dripping with sweat. It made him bitter that he could sense all the trees and every little animal that passed by outside, so close yet so far.
Yuhan had forgotten the last time he'd slept and spent countless hours hurling himself at the barrier and eventually becoming as frustrated as he was on the first day. After one final attempt that left him barely conscious, Yuhan dragged himself over to the wall (ignoring the juvenile badgermole that followed along) and slumped against it, leaning his head back. He knew he couldn't die here...but he was running out of time. There had to way to get out, of course, he'd just have to find it. Yuhan had been telling himself that for days, but it was getting old and still wasn't working. He groaned and lifted his good arm to slide his hand slowly over his face. The badgermole sat quietly as his arm flopped back down at his side, his head drooping towards his chest; he'd fallen into another exhausted, troubled slumber.
"So you guys got married because...you're good at earthbending?" A 5-year-old Yuhan blinked in confused silence as his parents laughed.
"No, son, it wasn't just about the earthbending, although that was definitely a factor." His father stood up and placed a hand around his mother's shoulder. "When we met that day in the arena, I found my reason to train harder and become the greatest earthbender I could possibly be."
"And what reason is that, Dear?" Ning chimed in with a sly smile.
"To impress your mother!"
Ning giggled. "Well, Yunxu, it wasn't very impressive when I wiped the floor with you in the final round, but it was a wonderful effort." She planted a kiss on her husband's cheek, causing Yuhan to cringe.
Yunxu smiled and stepped over to pat Yuhan over the head. "Well, to make a long story short, son, I lost the match...but I won the girl. And she's given me you. I am the happiest man alive."
His mother gazed lovingly at her husband before turning towards her son. "Hannie...be like your father one day. He's a strong, wonderful man who cherishes me with his life and knows how to raise his child with honor. Look, you've already got his eyes!" She planted a big kiss over Yuhan's forehead and pinched his cheek, despite his protests.
Yunxu chuckled softly. "When your mother first held you in her arms, you wiggled your little finger and cracked the flower vase next to her straight in half. We looked at each other and knew that it was simply our destiny to raise an earthbender greater than we could ever be."
"And you are, Hannie." His mother gazed intently into his eyes. "You were born with a love for earthbending, and your parents love you so much, above all else. You know what they say about earthbenders? Nothing stands a chance against them if there's love involved."
Yuhan still saw his mother beaming at him as his eyes slowly opened again. He realized that there were tears running down his cheeks and immediately swiped them away after an irritable glance at the juvenile badgermole next to his face. "What're you looking at?" he scoffed. There was a pause. "...You can't even see! Give me some space!" He pushed its snout away and staggered up to his feet, leaning against the wall for support.
He wasn't in the mood to face the barrier again and decided to call it quits for now. The memory of his parents being happily married and alive made him gloomy, and on top of that he was embarrassed to even call himself an earthbender right now. His mother's praises were laughable. He picked up his ukulele and supply bag and dragged the latter across the ground as he walked.
Yuhan trudged along the crystal pathway back into the tomb, not caring to ride the juvenile badgermole even as it trailed behind him. There were a few elders hanging around the entrance as he arrived, and he waved dismissively at them with a TWANG from his ukulele before shuffling past. He made his way down the steps and slumped back onto his sleeping bag, curling up. Yuhan was too bitter about the barrier to face it for the time being, but he also didn't want to fall asleep again and end up with another depressingly happy dream. He sighed and rolled onto his back, gazing up at the smooching statues with their obnoxious insignia.
Bah, those useless statements about love... Contradictory to what his mother told him, Yuhan didn't have a very loving relationship with his earthbending right now. His body was still weak overall, thin and with an injured shoulder, and the earth was never truly impressed by his efforts. Time was dwindling, and he wasn't even sure if he'd been counting the days correctly and possibly missed the comet. Yuhan groaned as the thought made him picture Ba Sing Se burning to a crisp. He sat back up and clutched his head between his shaking hands. "Why am I always being driven into a corner?" he muttered subconsciously. "It still finds me no matter how hard I try to escape..."
What if he never found Riya in the end? This cave alone was taking ages to escape, and Ba Sing Se was a hopelessly large city.
Yuhan could almost feel the darkness closing in on Riya's fate. An oblivious Joo Dee was smiling in the city, perhaps alive by the mercy of Oma and Shu, but living forever in the dark. Even the comet somehow failed, he'd still be stuck here while she would go to sleep each night thinking that serving Ba Sing Se was her happiness, and even her favorite dreams would be about following orders correctly. She'd fix up her hairpiece and scarf every morning, even as she grew old and frail through the years, laughing and telling everyone around the city there was no war, even as the Fire Nation pranced through the streets...becoming too weak eventually to keep walking...and resting her eyes one final time with a grin before –
No. That wasn't going to happen.
Yuhan's eyes suddenly lit ablaze as he threw his hands down and sat straight up, appalled at himself for even imagining such a thing. He'd already lost Riya once. What kind of fool was he for praying and wallowing in shame when he could seize this opportunity to make her live? The comet hadn't even arrived yet! Who had time to get upset about snorting kings or badgermoles or eternal curses – or even worry about duties? There were only two things that mattered: Riya was alive, and Yuhan was going to make her remember it.
That was all there was to it. He was going to save Riya. To Koh's Realm with anything trying to get in his way. Yuhan grabbed up his supplies – all of them – and secured the straps of his bag over his shoulders. This time, he was going to get out. No exceptions. Riya was alive, and he'd see it with his own eyes. During the days when he thought she was dead, he would have done anything for this opportunity and wouldn't have cared if it came with a thousand cursed caves. Well, he was here now. Failure was not an option. The thought prompted him to glare back up at the insignia.
Love is brightest in the dark.
For the first time, it felt like a challenge. Yuhan had just dwelled on something very dark and had stooped low enough to even consider the possibility of Riya dying alone and nameless before he himself had even died. Well, the Lovers had their fun. Enough was enough. Yuhan dared them to see what would happen if they tried to stop him from making it back to Riya. The one thing no one could ever change was how much she meant to him. The Dai Li had known that very well, come to think of it, and ended up using it to drive him mad instead of stopping at his mother. He was peeved beyond all imagination.
"Do you know what they say about earthbenders?"
Yuhan was done being tormented just for loving Riya. It was time for the cruel world to see his feelings for her strike back. Nothing was going to take her away from him this time. He gripped his bracelet and launched himself from the ground, refusing to waste time even on stairs. Yuhan landed swiftly in a low crouch outside the tomb entrance. The badgermoles could tell he wasn't in any mood to entertain, and they backed away cautiously as the ground indented beneath his feet with every step forward.
He looked down at the earth and imagined that it was also challenging him, trying to taunt him with his weak arms and injuries. Yuhan's fingers were clenched around his bracelet hard enough for the tunnel walls to rattle, yet left no marks on the discs. Breathing heavily with a slight twitch in his eye, he began address his element. "I...am not the one...who needs to figure out a way to get past you. Riya is waiting for me to wake her up...so you are the one that gets out of my way!" Yuhan extended his leg high into the air. "You don't get to decide if I'm good enough, because YOU...CATER TO ME!"
His leg slammed down and split open the ground upon impact. The tunnel shook violently as the crack shot down its length and cut deep into the earth, causing a wide fissure that pushed the sides apart like the formation of a bottomless canyon. Yuhan suddenly snapped out of his deranged fury and jumped back, startled, when the crystals began shattering off the ceiling and raining into the gap. He'd been acting on impulse and imagined a gesture more similar to smacking his element across the face, without really thinking about the stance he picked.
Yuhan didn't anticipate the amount of destruction he could cause and immediately felt remorse when he glanced behind his back and saw terrified badgermoles fleeing and burrowing away into the walls. "Awh, no..." They were gentle giants that feared his temper more than they realized how easily they could crush him. And all they'd ever wanted from him was a simple tune.
There were no badgermoles left by the time Yuhan finished correcting his tantrum and sealed up the ground. He felt guilty enough to summon the buried crystal pieces back out, and he took the time to guide them back to the ceiling to reform the parts of the trail he'd destroyed. The next unlucky soul would likely need them. Yuhan inhaled deeply in the silence and curled his fingers back around the cords of his bracelet. Well, it was time to end his Secret Tunnel adventure.
He proceeded to form a new pair of shoes from the ground before sailing down the tunnel to the right; Omashu was to the left and further from Ba Sing Se, and he wasn't about to let petty grudges against Bumi waste time. The crystals in the trail above sped past his head, and the glow hit the golden disc of his bracelet. Yuhan had been keeping his right arm out in front of him to balance, and he noticed the way it strangely lit up brighter than the other two.
Brightest in the dark...
He reached his destination and gazed up at the blockade. A little smile began to form at the corner of his mouth as he took another glance at his oddly luminescent bracelet. Was that the genius of the curse? Trust in the strength of love to overpower even the darkest situations with its glorious light... Heh, not bad. He had no need to worry now. Yuhan locked himself into position, spreading his feet wide apart and readying his arms.
Failure was never about muscles, toothpick-arms, or any other ailments that could be used as an excuse. A small physique never stopped a 12-year-old blind girl from beating down an entire room of Dai Li agents. The earth simply bowed down to those more stubborn than itself. It surrendered completely and stood no chance against people who were driven by love, whether that love stemmed from a forbidden couple, a child yearning for freedom...or a silent hero in emerald.
Yuhan marched out beneath the sky as the stone fragments were still flying and tumbling onto the ground. Gentle rays of moonlight greeted him as he looked up and tilted back his head, exhaling as the cool wind rustled his hair. He shut his eyes, savoring each sensation and allowing his bare feet to show him every patch of grass, every tree and flower that he was now free to roam –
There was a rumble from inside the cave.
Yuhan slid a hand over his face when he recognized it. "...You've got to be kidding."
The juvenile badgermole was out on land. Non-cave land.
Yuhan gave an exasperated sigh as it walked up behind him gestured a claw towards his supply bag. It didn't seem to realize that it was the only one he didn't feel guilty about scaring off. "Go back inside!" he roared, turning and pointing a rigid finger towards the tunnel." You've wasted enough of my time already!" The badgermole only lowered its snout and licked his nose. "Okay – why do you even like me? Because I gave you a greasy sandwich? Go home! I'm not cooking for you anymore!"
Dear Spirits, he had no time for this... Yuhan wrenched the invincible ukulele out of his supply bag and laid it on the ground in front of the badgermole's foot. "At least let me concentrate for now, okay?" As usual, it began to pluck a single string and entertain itself while he dug into his bag and pulled out a folded map and a wooden compass that he'd been saving eagerly for this moment.
The sharp TWANG repeated faster in the background as Yuhan scrutinized the landmarks and held up the compass. He began to curse under his breath the more miles he counted between the Lovers' Cave and Ba Sing Se. Yuhan grew tired of the background noise before long and threw the map onto the ground, wheeling around to glare at the badgermole. It kept plucking the same string innocently. "What do I need to do to get rid of you?" Yuhan shouted. "There are no wolfbats to roast out here, and definitely no han -"
There was a pause when the map fluttered in the wind and got caught between two of the badgermole's claws. It didn't seem to care and kept plucking the ukulele as Yuhan stood there and began to gaze intently at the paper, stroking his chin in deep thought. He lifted his compass and turned around for a moment, turning his eyes northeast where his city awaited.
The juvenile badgermole cocked its head a little to the side when Yuhan gently reached over, took his map back, and picked up the ukulele. He slowly pulled out an empty wrapper from his supply bag and unfolded it, then held the paper below the badgermole's nose. The reaction was immediate; Yuhan had to jump back to avoided getting stomped on as the creature enthusiastically dived towards the scent of komodo beef and licked feverishly at any grease it could find.
A dull-faced Yuhan watched as the juvenile badgermole swallowed up every bit of paper. "You really are just in it for the food, aren't you?" He shook his head with a wry chuckle. "In that case..." Yuhan dug out another greasy wrapper and cautiously stepped closer, this time with a sharp, pinpointed kick at the ground to mimic a stern "Stop moving!" signal that he'd noticed the elder badgermoles use a lot. He had a feeling that they wanted him to babysit this bratty child all along.
He got the thing to obey this time and squatted down next to its face, holding the greasy paper below its nose. The badgermole was jittery just from the smell. "Did you know that there's a place with food much better than this?" Yuhan began slowly. He let the badgermole follow the direction of the paper with its snout as he extended his arm and pointed northeast. "Yeah? How about it?" He ruffled the top of its head. "It's got the best of the best grub in the Earth Kingdom. I guarantee it."
The badgermole seemed to understand the general idea as Yuhan kept waving the crumpled wrapper northeast. It bobbed its head happily when he finally let it eat the paper, then proceeded to lower its snout for him to step up.
Yuhan inhaled deeply as he steadied himself on top of its back, ukulele in hand. "There's a catch, by the way." TWANG! "In Ba Sing Se, the food is divine...but soon it'll blow up like a landmine." The badgermole gave a horrified jolt beneath him. "There's two weeks left for us, I think – but come on, let's go! Before the food stinks."
He paused for a moment. This abandoned child-badgermole was his ride, and he'd never given it credit for saving him from death by wolfbats and scorpion-roaches. It deserved a name, at least. Yuhan chuckled when he remembered the food offering that had gotten him stuck with this creature to begin with. "Well, what are you waiting for?" He reached forward and patted its back. "Let's go, Hanbao."
A final TWANG filled the air before the estranged Dai Li agent and his newly adopted badgermole shot forth and disappeared into the ground.
No one's going to believe my story... I might as well just say it was a bad dream.
Author's Comments & Trivia
- It was brought to my attention that some readers misinterpret the The "-han" in "Yuhan" to rhyme with "pan." The correct pronunciation matches Han Solo!
- If you didn't already know, Avatar Kyoshi is indeed the canonical founder of the Dai Li. It was actually one of the things I found out that started off my obsession with them...
- Yes, "hanbao" translates to "hamburger." Bumi's a mad genius, what can I say? Hanbao the badgermole, however, is an orphan who was never taught manners.
- The relationship Yuhan has with the badgermoles turned out so differently than what I imagined. The idea of the elder vs child dynamic literally rolled out while I was writing Hanbao. I also needed a reason why they wouldn't help him bust out like the badgermoles that helped Sokka...and it was hysterically fun to write.
- This chapter has the "Day #" format to emphasize how Yuhan being stuck in the cave is like a countdown - well or, count-up but in general, it stresses how each day really counts and how it drives him mad.
- Yuhan's return to earthbending badassery was originally a lot cooler and more serious in my head. I'm not sure when it turned into him getting trolled within three sentences every time he does something even slightly cool :P Although, remember that his current state of mind is after countless traumas and slightly-deranged/peeved at the world. You may notice he's less composed compared to the earlier chapters. That's intentional. He's been driven to the edge a good number of times...
- This marks the longest chapter to date; the runner-up was about 11.5k words.
- The amount of ways to arrange italics drove me mad. I'm not even sure what I'm doing anymore.
- I actually started this chapter two months after the release of the previous. It's been a vicious cycle of writers blocks and 180-degree changes in direction ever since, and it still took unexpected turns even during my last hours writing it.
- This marks 's final beta read. *Sniffles* It was emotionally exhausting to keep writing with that in mind, but I've tried my best with this bizarre, multi-faceted chapter... Hopefully it's not too terrible, but it is what it is.
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