[Fic]: Terracotta Dawn (Chapter One)|
"He didn't have to rake me over the coals that hard," Kouji grumbled to Yui as they left Alak's apartment.
Yui giggled at his sullen expression. "But he's right," she said. "Especially about you needing more training. And the cheese. You like it better than tú miàn bāo in any case."
"I like anything better than tú miàn bāo."
Yui shook her head. "Well, we've been paid, even if Alak didn't want that damned scroll. So let's get you fed and start making plans for the weekend."
"Not long plans," Kouji reminded her. "My next semester starts after the rest day."
"We don't have to go very far," Yui said. "Didn't you say there were more tunnels under the Crystal Catacombs?"
"I said I thought there were," he answered. A grin crossed his face anyway. He loved the Crystal Catacombs, even if he couldn't bend the light-crystals. He poked his sister in the ribs. "But before we go looking, you need to reread some Omashu Li."
Yui swatted at his hand. "I do not. I told you, I thought you'd already cleared all the traps. And you need to learn to swim."
"I'm fine," he replied, glaring at her. "Come on, there's a place that does good Fire food in the Middle Ring." And he grabbed her wrist and dragged her after him.
Yui stopped him. "Can we afford that?"
Kouji nodded. "Alak didn't buy the scroll, but he did want some of the statuettes."
"Okay," said Yui. "Works for me. And we'll go down tomorrow?"
The earthbender grinned at her. "Yes. All that history-in-the-making…"
"Soldiers to dodge, preservationists to avoid…," Yui continued, mischief sparking in her eyes.
"Discoveries to make, and things to sell!" Kouji finished, laughing.
"Let's go!" And the twins raced off through the city.
Dawn found Yui and Kouji just outside the tunnel to the Crystal Catacombs. They carried only one pack between them this time; this foray was strictly exploratory.
Technically speaking, the Crystal Catacombs were off-limits to casual visitors. The chamber in which the Avatar and the Hope of the South had battled the combined forces of Princess Azula and the Dai Li was unstable and, according to those working to shore it up, could come tumbling down at any minute.
In practise, however, Kouji was a student at Ba Sing Se University, and Yui an accomplished flirt. Entry was obtained with ease, and the two set off across the chamber, carefully moving around the rubble. "I can't believe you," Kouji muttered to his sister.
"What?" Yui asked, grinning broadly.
"You are not bringing him back to the apartment!"
"Of course I'm not," she said, reaching up to ruffle her twin's hair. "We'll probably go back to his place."
"Gah! That is not need-to-know!"
Yui laughed. "You're such a prude, Kou-kou."
He glared at her. "I'm not a prude. I just really don't need to know when you're having sex."
"You should really have some, you know."
"I'm just saying—"
"All right, all right…"
Kouji stalked off ahead of Yui, annoyed now. His twin followed at a more sedate pace, keeping an eye out to be sure nobody had noticed that they were headed for one of the entrances to a deeper part of the cavern.
By the time she caught up, Kouji was already down a tunnel that hadn't been used in decades and heading further in. Swearing softly, she lit one of their torches and chased after him. She probably shouldn't have teased him so badly, especially after his reaction to her rendezvous tonight.
"Kouji?" she asked quietly.
"Shh," he replied. She almost took umbrage — she wanted to apologise! — but then realised that he was intently focused on the wall. "Something's not right about this."
That was a switch, but one she was grateful for. She and Kouji couldn't afford fights right now. "How do you mean?"
Kouji didn't answer. He put his ear to the wall and rapped it softly with his knuckles, eyes closed. After a moment, he took the torch from her. "This way."
She nodded and followed as Kouji led her deeper into the catacombs. After several minutes, they came to the end of the tunnel — it had been blocked off by a cave-in. Kouji frowned as he examined the fall. "This was deliberate," he said quietly.
Kouji nodded. "The whole thing is unstable. If you move even the smallest stone, the whole thing will come down on you." He shook his head. "Whoever did this was either a master earthbender, or they had way too much time on their hands."
His sister snorted. "I really hope it was the former. So, trap?"
"Probably," Kouji agreed. "Or at least an alert system. Give me a sec." He passed the torch back to her and laid both hands on the ground, closing his eyes. "And don't move," he added, drumming his fingers lightly against stone. The drumming changed quickly to tapping, until finally the earthbender stood. "There's another tunnel beneath us," he said. "The one we're in now may not lead to it, but we won't be triggering an obvious trap this way."
Yui nodded. "Works for me."
"Back against the wall," Kouji instructed. "I need to be careful with this one — don't want to alert the guards back in the Catacombs."
She backed up quickly, leaving her twin more room to work with the stone. At the same time, she dug in their bag for some of the cheese she'd insisted they get this morning. Earthbending was not a subtle art, so forcing it to subtlety often left Kouji exhausted. Normally, a task like this one involved a stomp-and-drag motion — okay, it was more than that, or so Kouji insisted, but to Yui it looked like one — but that was too noticeable for their current situation.
After several moments of pondering and running his hands over the ground, Kouji finally dug his fingers into the ground and pulled — and the stone moved with him. Slowly he peeled away the floor, leaving a hole just barely wide enough for the pair of them to wiggle through. "That should do it," he said, taking his hands out of the ground.
Yui slipped over and passed him the Rushan cheese. "Eat," she urged.
"I think you're supposed to grill this," Kouji muttered, but he took a bite anyway.
While he ate, she lay flat on her stomach and peered into the hole Kouji had made. Carefully, she let the torch drop to the floor below, then wriggled forward some until she was half-in the hole. "Looks like a bit of a drop. You'll need to angle it some so we can drop safely," she reported, dragging herself back up.
Kouji nodded and stood, the bit of cheese gone. "I'll probably need to widen it a little, too." He eyed his body ruefully in the dim glow coming from beneath them. "Working with Alak is changing my build."
Yui almost asked if anyone of the female persuasion had noticed the muscle her scholarly brother was starting to put on, but that would only lead to another fight. Instead, she took the pack and carefully edged away from Kouji — with their light on the floor below, caution was all the more imperative.
She could no longer really see what he was doing, but she could hear whispered curses and slowly grinding stone. Finally, it stopped, and Kouji said, "Okay, let's do this."
Yui returned, passing him the bag and pressing some more Rushan into his hand before moving to the short new tunnel her brother had created. More carefully than the last time, she edged forward, testing her weight against the stone before sliding in legs-first. Kouji, his cheese gone again, took her hand in his to provide additional support in case he'd miscalculated.
He never did, but their past-time was risky enough without taking unnecessary ones.
The floor was fairly thick, but Yui's head was still above the floor when her feet came out the other side. "I'm through," she told him; Kouji nodded and lowered her further. Inch by inch, Yui slipped through the tunnel until her waist was through. She turned onto her stomach and smiled when she saw handholds. Nothing if not thorough, her twin.
She took one with her free hand and eased her grip on Kouji; the handhold remained firm. "Okay," she said, and he released her so she could support herself. Now she moved backwards through the tunnel, feeling more and more of herself hanging in the air, until she was through completely, with only her hold on the lip of the tunnel keeping her suspended.
She gauged the drop and then let go, rolling as she hit the ground to distribute the impact evenly. Something seemed off, she noted, but looking around provided no immediate answers. "I'm through!" she called to Kouji.
Silence for a moment, then their pack rolled out of the tunnel. Yui caught it neatly and slung it on, scooping up the torch at the same time. She didn't have to wait long before her brother's feet appeared, followed by legs and rear end. He hung suspended like that for longer than Yui liked, but since the stone was grinding again, she figured he was covering up their way through in case anyone else investigated the first tunnel. The earthbending stopped, and then Kouji dropped the rest of the way through, landing in a crouch.
Yui rolled her eyes. Earthbenders.
He gestured for the bag, which she passed to him. After a feat like the current one, it was for the best for both of them if they took some time for Kouji to rest.
"The irony is that if I'd been able to earthbend normally, I wouldn't be as tired," her twin mumbled around a mouthful of tú miàn bāo.
"That's the price a tomb raider must pay," Yui chirped, sitting across from him.
Kouji gave her the evil eye. "We're archaeologists."
She just grinned at him.
The earthbender finished his tú miàn bāo and made a face, then leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. "Give me ten minutes," he instructed.
While Kouji rested, Yui explored a little bit, never straying beyond sight of her brother. Something was bothering her about this place, but she couldn't put her finger on it. When she got him up, she asked, "Does something strike you as… off?"
He blinked, then frowned. "Actually, now that you mention it…"
He grabbed a second torch and lit it to brighten the tunnel briefly, and both of them looked around.
"Dust," Yui said at last.
"Look." She knelt and swept her fingers against the ground, then held them up for her brother to see. "There's no dust."
Kouji's eyes narrowed. "Someone's been here before us."
"Do you think they triggered that rockfall?" Yui asked.
"I don't know," he said. "But we'll need to be careful. Douse the light — we're in deep enough that there'll be light-crystals scattered about."
She nodded, and they put out their lights together.
Darkness engulfed them, but that was nothing they worried about. Yui groped for her brother's hand, and then Kouji led the way down the tunnel, moving with the slow shuffle he used when he didn't want his feet leaving the ground.
After about ten minutes in the darkness, Yui realised she could vaguely see her brother's outline, as well as a fairly dim, greenish glow. She relaxed — he'd been right about the light-crystals.
"Huh," Kouji said, examining the wall. "There are enough of these— this was a passageway somewhere. And someone sunk the lights back there."
"Why?" Yui wondered, and Kouji snorted.
"Why else? To keep people out. C'mon."
The twins moved forward once more, keeping in a single file line to disturb as little as possible. If this tunnel was still in use, neither of them wanted to anger whoever used it. Several minutes of wandering and a whispered argument later, they came to a halt in front of a metal door.
"Well," Kouji said at last. "That's not at all suspicious, is it?"
"How does it open?" Yui asked, frowning. There was no handle on it, nor hinges, nor even a lock she could reach.
"That's the thousand-koban question," Kouji agreed. "Take the pack."
Yui shouldered it without complaint, and Kouji pressed his entire body against the door. Yui refrained from comment, though it took a lot of willpower. Like he had with the floor, Kouji began striking the door with precise blows, eyes closed as he listened with his ears and his earthbending.
At last he said, "It's a trick — there's a whole room past there, but it's lined with metal to keep earthbenders from waltzing in whenever they feel like. But there has to be a way to get in — it's too big to be a tomb." He paused. "I think."
"So, how do we get in?" Yui asked, trying not to sulk. She hated rooms like this one.
"I'm trying to think," he told her. "Hush."
Yui rolled her eyes and tried not to fidget as Kouji started hitting the door again. This style of earthbending was so blasted finicky, especially since Kouji was so new at it.
"Got it," Kouji said. "It's got an earth-bolt lock in the metal. There might be a handle on the other side of the door, but if you're on this side…"
He slid into an earthbending stance, and Yui took several steps away from him. He glared over his shoulder at her. "Very funny."
He turned back to the door and moved without warning, kicking his leg out to one side until all his weight rested on it. Simultaneously he turned his torso towards that leg and thrust his arms out as if shoving an opponent backwards.
Metal screamed as stone slid back against it, and the door swung forward to reveal another hallway. Kouji blinked. "Of course," he said at last. "We can't do anything the easy way, can we?"
Yui giggled. "Look at it this way — whatever's back there, they didn't want anyone getting to it. Treasure!"
"Or the angry corpse of a dead Earth King," Kouji said mournfully.
"We read all nine of those Omashu Li books, Kouji. I think we can handle it."
"Three of them were Firelords," Kouji pointed out. "And one was a sage."
Yui shrugged. "Either way, we'll be fine even if the impossible should happen. Give me a torch; that hall isn't lit."
Together, the twins moved into the hallway, only to be halted by another door. "It's never easy," Kouji groaned, but Yui spied what he'd missed.
"Hold this," she grinned, kneeling by the door and reaching into the gold armband she always wore. No lock made was a match for her.
Yui got to work, and her focus narrowed to the lock before her. It was a good lock, likely state-of-the-art when this room had been built. It wasn't, however, the most difficult lock she'd had to deal with, and after a few minutes she had it open.
"Let's go," she said, replacing her lock picks in the armband and rising to her feet.
Together, the twins walked through the doorway into a room filled with rows upon rows of stone soldiers.
"…whoa," said Kouji.
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Current Location: the apartment couch
Current Mood: cheerful
Tags: character: kouji, character: yui, fic: terracotta dawn