“Don’t cry, Seiken.”

     He’d thought that Mirai was sleeping, curled as she was beside him. It was the middle of the night, and everyone seemed to be asleep except whoever it was that was sitting watch. Thinking himself quite alone in the darkness, he allowed his horror to overcome him, silent tears trickling down from eyes that no longer took in any light. He didn’t know which was worse, the memory of the day that passed, or the thought of his bleak future. The vision that swam in his mind, the last thing he saw before the darkness descended, caused him to tremble, drawing a shuddering breath. It was then that he felt Mirai’s hand on his tear-stained cheek.

     “Please don’t cry,” she repeated, putting her arms around him. “Kaiya will fix it. He can do anything. Can’t you, Kaiya?”

     “Can’t I what?” Kaiya’s voice was hushed. Seiken could hear his footsteps approaching.

     “Do anything.”

     “I wouldn’t go that far,” he answered, his warm smile in his voice. He sat down with Mirai and Seiken, who could not see the look of deep concern on the Night’s Herald’s face. “Seiken, do you want to tell me what happened to you? I know it’s hard to talk about… but if you’ve been cursed, there’s probably something I can do to help.”

     “I don’t think you can, Kaiya.” Seiken’s voice broke. “It was her. Erishkegal.”

     “You met Erishkegal?”

     “She was… furious.” The Decameron said. “What I did… it- it robbed her of a soul she wanted sorely. She was raving about being betrayed by her follower. She told him to wait… I don’t really understand it. I- I do, but I don’t. She… she said that having my soul would just barely make up for it- the one she’d lost- because of the anguish a soul in Elysium would feel at the unholy cease of my Cycle. I don’t understand that bit at all. But she said it brought her joy. And then…” Seiken’s face contorted with the fear of the memory. “She said she wanted her eyes back.”

     Kaiya was silent, while Mirai said,

     “Boy, that Erishkegal lady sure sounds scary. Who did you save that made her so angry?”

     “No one. She… she doesn’t care about those I’ve saved.”

     “But you said-”

     “Seiken,” Kaiya cut in, “I need to ask you. I know you have the answer to this question. Please tell me the truth.”

     “O-okay.”

     “What became of Blue’s soul? Was it destroyed?”

     “No. He was able to strike a bargain with the gods. In the end, he met the same fate as Qa Haran.”

     “By the same hand?”

     “I… I can’t tell you. That’s part of the bargain. But I think you already know the answer to that.”

     “Did you know about this before you came to Kamitouki?”

     “No.”

     “So Blue told you.”

     “Yeah.”

     “Why could he tell you if he couldn’t tell the rest of us?”

     “He was permitted to pass his knowledge to one person. I- I don’t know why he chose to tell me. I don’t understand most of it, and I can’t even ask you about it directly. It’s like… like my voice gets stuck in my throat and I can’t make any words come out. I’ve tried to figure out ways around it.” Seiken shook his head.

     “There’s something I don’t understand,” Kaiya said in soft, patient tones. “Why is Erishkegal’s rage directed at you? If you didn’t know anything about all this when you took the job at Kamitouki, aren’t you just a bystander?”

     Seiken’s face was a mask of shame.

     “Her anger is rightly placed. She’s not mad about what I did. It’s what I didn’t do.”

     “Which was?”
“Cure Blue.”

     “Nobody could’ve done that.”

     “I- I shouldn’t have been able to… but I was. I was so excited when I figured it out. I was sure. I knew… but he- he told me not to.”

     “Why not?” Kaiya asked, already half-knowing the answer.

     “He said the poison and the bargain that he struck had left a taint upon his soul. In the end, when he did finally die, however many years from now, he wouldn’t be able to enter Elysium. As a Champion he’d been torn from the Cycle, so by default he would end up in Pandemonium. I understand he was favored by Erishkegal. She wanted his soul badly enough to tempt me in my dreams, telling me that Blue was mistaken, that I held in my hands the power to make his family whole and happy again. I- I nearly did it.”

     “Does Hironah know any of this?”

     “No… Though she’s asked a lot of questions.”

     Kaiya nodded solemnly, though he knew Seiken couldn’t see him.

     “Can you answer this? If Blue’s in Elysium now and I go to ask him about what’s going on, can he tell me or is he still bound by whatever deal it is he made?”

     “I don’t know. Maybe he can tell you now… I hope he can. I don’t understand half of what I know. There’s nothing I can do to help.”

     “You’ve done plenty to help, Seiken. And I’ll do whatever I can to find out what’s happening… and to help you.”

     “I’m a bit frightened.” It was an understatement. The Decameron was terrified.

     Kaiya looked at Seiken with such compassion that Mirai felt her throat constrict.

     “I know you are. The fear will pass… and you’re not alone in this.”

     “Don’t be scared,” Mirai put in. “I’ll help you out for now. You have me.”

     Seiken couldn’t help but laugh. The thought of Mirai’s “help” was that amusing. His laughter died at the thought that he would never again look upon the beautiful face of that walking disaster, or meet the gaze of Kaiya’s disturbing two-tone eyes. So many sights he’d taken for granted…

     “I’m sorry, Seiken.” Kaiya’s voice was soft. “I promise I’ll do everything I can.”

     “Thanks.” The Decameron forced a smile.

     “I gotta go. You guys ought to keep it down. It’s Uneme’s watch next.”

     As Mirai watched Kaiya walk away, she snuggled closer to Seiken.

     “He’s so nice,” she observed. “It’s a shame, really.”

     “What’s a shame?”

     She only shook her head, a motion Seiken felt in the shining strands of her moon-white hair.

 

     Hironah pushed aside the tent flap and walked inside.

     “Yoshiki told me you were getting ready to leave.”

     Kaiya turned to face her.
“Yeah, in about an hour or so.”

     “Are you sure you have to go?”

     “Yup, I’m sure. Don’t worry, it’s just Elysium. Piece of cake.”

     He smiled broadly at her. She smiled back.

     “When are you going to stop looking at every day of your life as the Next Big Adventure?”

     “You know very well the answer to that question is ‘never’.” He stepped closer to her. “It’s more fun that way, anyways.”

     Hironah took a step forward as well.

     “When you see Blue, don’t forget to tell him I love him.”

     “I won’t. Oh… and while I’m gone, could you make sure Mirai doesn’t send Seiken over a cliff or anything? I’ve gotten kind of attached to the guy.”

     “I’ll keep an eye on them. How long do you think you’ll be gone?”

     “I’m not sure. It’ll take a long time to locate Blue’s soul… and I’m not sure what’ll happen after that. But time in Elysium passes much slower than on this Plane. It’ll probably be a couple of days at most.”

     “You take care of yourself.”

     “I will. You do the same. I worry that it’s not safe leaving you guys here.”

     “Yoshiki’s sure we’ll be okay. You worry too much about the rest of us.”

     “I know.”

     It was then that Hironah realized that they were standing incredibly close to one another, far closer than usual.

     “Hironah… I want to ask you to do something for me.”

     “What?” Her voice was near a whisper.

     “Wait for me. Please. Just… whatever’s going on, wait, okay?”

     Hironah nodded, her violet eyes widening as they fixed on Kaiya’s. Softly, his lips brushed hers, making her shudder with the static burn that slept inside. She longed for him to continue, even as she tried to deny herself that longing. She looked away, unable to stand his soul laid bare in his expression.

     “I- I’ll wait.” This time it really was a whisper.

     They said nothing more to one another as Kaiya drew her close and held her. Hironah, confused with her inner turmoil, sick to death of the enormous secret that lay between them, found herself wishing that this one moment would never pass. Of course, this was not to be.

 

     “Wanna talk to Renta?” Yoshiki looked at his sister slyly as he offered her the phone. Yume knew better than to play coy. Her brother would hang up. She shook her head yes, even as he laughed at her smiling face. “Here you go.”

     “Renta?”

     “Hey, kiddo. You okay?”

     “Getting better. What about you? You didn’t get hurt, did you?”

     “Me? Naw. You should see the press, Yume. I can’t tell you about it over the phone, but it’s phenomenal. We’re heroes.”

     Yume laughed.

     “You guys have always been heroes to me.”

     “So, are we on for that date or what?”

     Yume was glad Renta couldn’t see her blush. She only wished Yoshiki wasn’t pointing and laughing.

     “Yeah, we’re on.”

     “Awesome. I know just where I’m taking you. You’re gonna love it.”

     “It’s not a shooting range, is it? I’ve had enough of that, I think.”

     It was Renta’s turn to laugh.

     “You and Yoshiki have the same sense of humor. No, it’s not a shooting range. It’ll be nice, you’ll see.”

     While Yume went on chatting to Renta, Yoshiki turned his gaze elsewhere. They were several miles away from where the others were camped in the mountainous “Middle Country”. They’d ridden a day and a half out of the Dead City to reach this secluded place. It was on Yoshiki’s advice that they’d come here, and the others were trusting that they wouldn’t be discovered. He knew this area well, and had hidden here before, so he felt confident in his decision. Not even Uneme questioned him- at the moment, they all had far too much on their minds.

     Anxiety is definitely the Special of the Day… served with a side of mistrust.

     Where to begin…

      Hironah would not even so much as look at Quen. Though she’d always disliked him, it was now obvious that her distaste had also been tempered with the belief that he was more than simply cold and inaccessible. He was an enemy. The night they’d all tumbled unexpectedly into the Rift, Kaiya and Hironah had decided to ask Quen about his experience. The Night’s Herald had been calm, friendly even, but Hironah’s frayed nerves had ignited her volatile temper. When Quen had been unable to provide a reasonable explanation for why he’d been left behind on the Universal Plane, she became furious, insisting that he quit lying and confess to whatever it was he was up to. It would’ve come to blows if Kaiya hadn’t been able to restrain the both of them.

     To make matters worse, Quen was quite displeased that Mirai was with them. He’d asked Uneme directly whether or not he’d been involved with her escape from the safehouse, igniting what erupted into a huge argument between the two men. In the midst of their fighting, Mirai had burst into tears, sobbing,

     “Stop talking about me like I’m some kind of- of thing. They don’t talk about me like that.” She gestured toward Hironah and the others. “I’m a person, too. And I hate you, Quen! I’m not going anywhere with you. I’d rather die!”

     When Quen informed her that she didn’t have one iota of choice in the matter, Mirai continued sobbing so violently that she passed out.

     It was at this point that Yoshiki decided he’d had enough of the newcomers. As far as he was concerned, his family was better off without them. He told Hironah as much in the middle of the night while he was meant to be sitting watch. With the exception of Seiken, who’d proven his worth, the rest of them were no more than useless, volatile baggage. While Hironah had agreed she’d be happier with Quen and Mirai far, far away, she’d wavered on the subject of Uneme. Yoshiki didn’t kid himself. He knew exactly why that was, and couldn’t help but eye his cousin with disappointment.

     When Kaiya informed the others that he’d need to journey to Elysium in order to learn the answers to the numerous questions surrounding the presence of the Rift, it was finally decided- after much debate- that they’d make camp in a secluded area and he would go from there. At first, both Hironah and Kaiya had felt that it would probably be safest at Kamitouki, while Yoshiki argued that they ought to use Sirrah’s headquarters. It was Yume who’d suggested going someplace else entirely, somewhere the spies of the Ghost Clan wouldn’t know to look for them. She made such a good case that the others were eventually inclined to agree.

     When they were to depart the Dead City, Quen had planned on parting ways with the rest, taking Mirai back to the Musubiki. In the end, Hironah had decided to allow Uneme to choose his own path. He opted to remain with her. None of the others were surprised. However, as they were packing and preparing to leave, Mirai suddenly turned her empty eyes on Quen, and an unfamiliar look of cold determination crept over her face. With incredible speed, she withdrew from her robe a dagger, stolen in the middle of the night- it appeared to be one of Yoshiki’s- and held it against her own chest.

     “I told you I’d rather die, Quen. I meant it.”

     Everyone stopped what they were doing to stare at Mirai.

     “Don’t be ridiculous, Mirai,” Quen said without emotion.

     “I’m not being ridiculous. I don’t belong to you. If this is the only way I can prove it, fine.”

     “Mirai,” Kaiya said evenly, moving very slowly toward where she stood. “You don’t have to go with Quen if you feel that strongly about it. You can stay with us, or we could take you somewhere else.”

     “That’s not a decision you can make,” Quen informed Kaiya. “Mirai belongs with the Musubiki, not with you. She’s not really going to hurt herself.”

     For a few seconds, nothing happened.

     “That’s enough, Mirai,” Quen’s cold voice barked.

     Her face dropped. She shook her head.

     “Oh, don’t!” Yume cried, bursting into tears.

     Mirai turned her face skyward, eyes brimming. She trembled with fear as she raised the dagger, preparing to plunge it into her own body. For a moment it seemed that time had frozen- no one moved, not even to draw breath- until finally the sun glinted off the blade as it arched through the air toward its final destination.

     It was then that the ground heaved and shook, knocking everyone to the pavement below. The dagger clattered on the asphalt. With a guttural caw, a massive raven dropped from the sky. It scooped up the dagger in its black beak and flew over to where Seiken sat apart. It dropped the weapon in his lap and perched on his shoulder, calling out again in its strange voice.

     “Mirai, come here,” Seiken said firmly. “Only Mirai.” There was a warning note in his voice, and the raven cried again, an echoed threat.

      As she approached, he picked up the dagger and maneuvered it into the black bag he carried everywhere.

     “Sit down,” he instructed. When she was seated beside him, he grasped her hand.

     “Quen,” he spoke in the general direction where he’d last heard Quen’s voice, assuming he hadn’t moved much. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you take Mirai with you. My Clan is bound to protect the lives of others, and if going back to the Musubiki will destroy her, I can’t let that happen. I’ll do everything within my power to see to it that she’s kept safe.”

     “Mirai,” Quen’s voice was strained, “you… you were really going to do it. Why?”

     “I told you. I’d rather be dead than go back there. These people are my friends. I’m lonely… and it makes me sad.”

     “I don’t see how killing yourself would solve that problem.”

     “I’d get born again… and maybe next time it’ll be better- no more machines drilling in my head, no more hospitals, no more dreams of things to come. Maybe I’ll have a family, people to love me. I could be like Hironah or Yume or Yoshiki or Kaiya, with a life worth fighting for. I could be fierce like Uneme, or talented like Seiken. I’m sick and tired of being a tool. I’m tired of being like you.”

     Quen was silent at first, looking at the people all around him.

     “I don’t understand,” he said finally, a pathetic note in his voice that took the others by surprise.

     “Of course you don’t,” Mirai answered him quietly. “It’s impossible for you to understand. You’re as broken as me, just in the opposite way. I’ll never be smart like you, but you’ll never feel things like the rest of us.”

     “Stop, Mirai.”

     “Oh, who cares? Look at these people, Quen. Look at their faces. Look into their eyes. Face it, you’re a failure.”

     With a surprising lack of emotion, he looked at the others, who were watching the exchange with silent interest.

     “Perhaps you are correct,” he ceded, “but it is not for you to decide. That’s not your place. I apologize that I didn’t recognize the sincerity of your threat. I don’t want harm to come to you. I’ll wait until you’re willing to return to the Musubiki of your own volition. Until that time, I’ll remain with you. Surely you understand that I have no other choice.”

     To everyone’s surprise, Mirai nodded.

     “Yes, Quen. I understand that.”

     “You can’t come with us,” Hironah stated.

     “Why not?” Quen asked.

     “Because I don’t trust you, that’s why.”

     Quen shrugged.

     “Where would you like to go, Mirai?”

     She hesitated, then turned to look at the Decameron beside her.

     “I want to stay with Seiken. He needs me.”

     “You heard Hironah. We can’t go with them.”

     “But…”

     “It’s okay, Mirai,” Hironah said suddenly. “You can take him with you.”

     “I- I can?”

     “Sure.” To the Decameron, she said, “You don’t mind going, do you? I mean, there really isn’t anything you can do for us now.”

     “Hironah!” Yoshiki cried out, shocked at her callousness.

     “Maybe she’s right,” Seiken said dejectedly. “No, I don’t mind going.”

     “Hironah…” Kaiya said softly. “We need to talk about this.”

     She looked at him, violet eyes awash in curiosity, and he led her down the street about a block and a half. When they returned, Hironah put her hands on her hips and stared hard at Seiken, who had no idea of her posturing. Her cold gaze moved to Quen.

     “Change of plans,” she announced. “Seiken, Kaiya’s convinced me to keep you on… Mirai, you’re welcome to accompany him. As for you,” her eyes narrowed on Quen, glittering menacingly. “If you insist on coming with us, you can consider yourself a prisoner. Surrender your weapons. You will not be permitted to leave the camp for any reason. If you even so much as think about it, Yoshiki or I will kill you. Understood?”

     “I accept,” Quen replied, taking out his gun and tossing it at Hironah’s feet.

     “That was quick,” Yoshiki observed.

     “Perhaps, when this is finished you’ll see you have no reason to distrust me.”

     We’ll see, Yoshiki thought now, gazing toward the mountains that sheltered the tiny camp. Kaiya, hurry up.

 

     Warm, golden sunlight, the likes of which Kaiya had never felt in life filtered though translucent emerald leaves. The slender trunks of the trees shimmered with a dust of gold and silver. The grass beneath his feet was soft and vibrant. Small, fuzzy creatures that resembled rabbits darted here and there. Kaiya had never seen them here before, and wondered what this portended. He smiled as his eyes fell on the soul he sought, here in the peaceful glade above the shore of the Crystalline Sea.

     I should have known to look for you here sooner.

     Kaiya had spent a month traveling the Plane of Elysium in search of Blue’s soul. Through untold wonders he roamed, never distracted from his mission. Elysium was vast- no living soul could claim to have traveled its entirety. Kaiya had spent his time poking around in likely places, but it wasn’t until that morning that he’d thought to check the glade.

     He stepped from the trees, smiling broadly. It was then that he realized that Blue was not alone. The soul that was with him was unknown to Kaiya, but it radiated such warmth and peace that he felt his own worries washed away, felt the relief of a night’s untroubled sleep.

     “Kaiya,” Blue said, smiling. The two souls stood looking at one another, familiar and yet unfamiliar. They embraced swiftly.

     “I’ve missed you,” Kaiya confessed to his mentor.

     “Well, you’ve found me. I’ve missed you, as well. But I’ve been watching… you learned your lessons well, the practical ones at least. I’m proud of you.”

     “I wish I was only here for a visit, but unfortunately that’s not the case. You say you’ve been watching. So you know what’s going on in Diasminion?”

     “Yes, I’ve been permitted to remain aware of the happenings on the Universal Plane. Come, sit down. I’ll answer what I can.”

     Kaiya and Blue sat in the grass, accompanied by the unknown soul. Kaiya cast a sidelong glance in its direction.

     “This is the soul of the Decameron Champion, Yuiren, here with me on a separate yet related matter. Though this soul cannot watch as I do, it hasn’t yet entered the Oblivion. You can feel free to ask whatever you want.”

     Kaiya had so many questions to ask, he wasn’t sure where to begin. Looking out over the sea he calmed himself, mesmerized by the waves. Begin where you think things ought to begin.

     “There’s a Rift on the Universal Plane, in Diasminion’s Dead City. What do you know of that?”

     “I know of its presence.”

     “Was it created by an avatar?”

     “Yes, the avatar of a demigod, as you’d surmised.”

     “How can I close the Rift?”

     “You can’t, Kaiya. Not alone. If you want to close it, you’ll have to combine the power of many Night’s Herald. It’ll be your duty to explain the situation to others and gain their help. If you fail, or if you are killed before you can accomplish this, the Rift will remain open indefinitely.”

     “And the avatar that created it? Is that avatar still in Diasminion?”

     “Yes.”

     “Why?”

     “That I cannot tell you.”

     Kaiya nodded. After a moment of thought, he asked,

     “Can you tell me now what you were doing in Pandemonium that you couldn’t involve me with?”

     “I cannot tell you directly, but I can answer questions on the subject, depending. Under the circumstances, the gods and I have renegotiated the terms of our agreement.”

     Kaiya nodded again.

     “Hironah and I believe that Caiaphas is involved. Is that true?”

     “Yes.”

     “And he’s the one who tried to destroy you?”

     “Yes.”

     “Why?”

     Blue shook his head.

     “Okay… Did you go to Pandemonium because Caiaphas was trying to destroy you, or was it the other way around?”

     “The other way around… eventually. He did promise long ago that I had one of two choices.”

     “Join him or die,” Kaiya remembered aloud.

     Blue nodded.

     “But that’s not the only reason he chose to kill you when he did.”

     “That’s correct.”

     Kaiya looked skyward, seeking inspiration.

     “Caiaphas is the one who created the avatar that caused the Rift on Diasminion.”

     “Yes.”

     “And he’s there still?”

     “Yes.”

     “But you can’t tell me why.”

     “No, I can’t.”

     “Do you know why?”

     “Yes, I do. And you do as well. The answer will come to you.”

     “So Caiaphas has come to Diasminion. What does his avatar look like? Where can I find him?”

     “I can’t tell you. That, unfortunately, is something you’ll have to discover on your own.”

     Kaiya had a sudden thought.

     “Caiaphas is a threat to Harata, isn’t he?”

     “He is.”

     “Does Harata know that?”

     “Perhaps he does.”

     “Maybe the avatar is someone to be found near the Imperial Family, or someone who’d have access to them.”

     “It’s possible.”

     Kaiya’s mind suddenly turned to more personal matters.

     “Blue, why didn’t you take me with you when you went to face Caiaphas?”

     “I foresaw the possibility of failure, Kaiya. Though Caiaphas knew of you, he’d never seen you with his own eyes. Leaving you behind ensured you’d be able to continue where I left off if it was necessary.”

     “Then why did you choose to tell Seiken about the whole thing? Why didn’t you tell me?”

     “Kaiya- be honest- if I’d told you what Caiaphas was plotting and what he’d done to me, what would you have done?”

     Shamefacedly, Kaiya replied,

     “I’d have gone to Pandemonium. I’d have fought.”

     “You wouldn’t have won.”

     Kaiya nodded solemnly.

     “Why not Hironah, then?”

     “What do you think she would’ve done?”

     “She’d have tried to find a way to tell me… and when she wasn’t able to, she’d have gone nuts trying to take care of the whole thing by herself.”

     “See? I told Seiken because he wasn’t involved emotionally. He could accept the information merely as a series of facts.”

     “He told me that he had the ability to save you. I find that a little hard to believe.”

     “It’s true. If he’d chosen to, he could’ve prevented my death. I’m sure he’s explained to you the reason why he didn’t.”

     “He has… He was punished by Erishkegal for his failure to act.”

      “He was aware that punishment might be a consequence of his choice. Erishkegal can be a harsh mistress.”

     Kaiya’s brow furrowed.

     “I don’t understand his punishment. She told him she wanted her eyes back. What does that mean?”

     “Kaiya…” Blue voice was soft. “You know yourself what Seiken was capable of. Even the most skilled Decameron couldn’t claim talent anywhere near his.”

     Silently, Kaiya looked at his own chest, where no trace of the scars of his wounds could be seen. Yet he could remember… He’d known, from the moment he’d felt the bullet tear through his back and exit in a gaping hole from his chest, that survival hadn’t been a possibility. His determination to see that Seiken was delivered safely to the rest of the group that he might help someone else was the only thing that kept the Night’s Herald from crashing. He remembered lying awake on the pavement, fighting to remain conscious despite the incredible pain. He figured he was looking upon the last sight he’d ever see. Once he closed his eyes, they would not open again upon the life he’d known. He was shocked beyond measure when he awoke the following day, so thankful for his life that he even welcomed the agony he was in.

     “Did you, even for one moment, believe that skill was natural?”

     “No,” Kaiya whispered.

     “Erishkegal had no way of telling Seiken the answer to the question of how to stop the progress of the poison. She could, however, bless him with the ability to notice.”

     “And she’s taken her blessing back, with interest.”

     “So it seems.”

 

     The sky was growing overcast, and the wind was chill. Hironah shivered, her eyes focused on the large black bird flapping through the sky. It disappeared into the trees, but she had no questions as to its destination. A flock of ravens had taken up residence in the camp, unnerving her with their raucous voices. The wind picked up again, making her shudder.

     “Are you cold?” Uneme put his arm around her.

     “Just a little.”

     He drew her closer. She remained still in his embrace for a moment, then started to pull away. He let go of her reluctantly.

     “What’s the matter?” he asked, watching her intently.

     “Nothing,” she lied.

     “That’s not true,” he said softly. “If it was, you wouldn’t have moved.”

     “Uneme…”

     “Wanna talk about it?”
“Not really.”

     They sat in silence for a while, until Uneme sighed.

     “It’s something to do with Kaiya, I’ll bet.”

     Hironah didn’t answer him.

     “Hironah… you’ve gotta stop worrying about him so much. He’s a grown man, and he’s fully capable of taking care of himself.”

     “I guess,” she replied, a note of sadness in her voice that Uneme found puzzling.

     “Seriously, Hironah, if anyone can take care of himself, it’s Kaiya. Seems like that guy can do anything.” Uneme’s voice grew bitter. “Everybody’s hero.”

      “Uneme,” Hironah’s bright eyes focused on him, shock betrayed in their gleam. “Are you jealous of Kaiya?”

     “Of course I am.” He met her gaze, if only momentarily. “Why wouldn’t I be? He’s incredibly strong, a skilled fighter, talented… and closer than anyone else to the woman I admire most.”

     Hironah felt herself blushing, which made shame well deep within, only helping to deepen the color on her cheeks.

     “Surely by now he’s noticed,” Uneme observed. “He doesn’t like it, does he?”

     “I… I don’t think that Kaiya minds, really. He’s- he’s always been supportive of me.” But he just asked me to wait.

     Wait for what? More of the same?

     Uneme was eyeing her intently.

     “Then why do you act the way you do? I try to understand you, but I can’t. At times it seems like you’re running headlong in my direction… but in the end you always turn away. What is it that you want, Hironah? Tell me so I can give it to you, if that’s possible.”

     “I…” She trailed off, shaking her head. Kaiya had asked her to wait. Why? What could possibly be different? Had something changed? She doubted it. Suddenly she remembered standing in the Rift, being told that her indecision was the downfall of her soul. She couldn’t do anything about the many times in the past that she’d hesitated, but she could change this. She could make a choice, difficult as it was. Besides, she was tired of waiting, knowing that she was waiting for something that would never come to be.

     With another shake of her head, she drove off her memories- the games she and Kaiya had played as children, all the times he’d sheltered her from evil dreams, the times he’d held her as she cried, the gentle smile he’d worn for his dying mentor, the care he took with Takae, with Aki… all that she could recall of his warm and sorrowful soul. She banished them all, for they threatened to overcome her will.

     “It’s just… I’m afraid.” Her own admission shocked her. Was it truly fear that had kept her from making choices? She looked back over the years and understood that yes, that was truly the case. She’d simply never wanted to make a mistake.

     “Don’t be scared.” Uneme’s voice was soft in her ear, almost a whisper.

     Don’t be scared.

     Hironah, with fierce determination, leaned forward, her mouth meeting Uneme’s. Their arms tightened around one another. As ravens wheeled in the cloudy sky, they forgot themselves in the violence of their affection. The scenery melted away, replaced by the simple focus they had on each other. Drowned in her senses, Hironah ceased grasping to her fear and insecurity. Nothing existed but the two of them, adrift in a void of their own creation, the eye of an unseen storm.

 

     Yoshiki sighed out his boredom, rubbing the scar on his cheek. He looked across the camp to where Mirai was busily arranging a collection of sticks, stones, dirt and pinecones on the ground. Making pictures again, he thought with a dry laugh. Each day she would make arrangements from a variety of items for the benefit of Seiken, to whom she would “show” the pictures by guiding his hands over them.

     “See?” she would say. “Here’s the mountain, and this is that big tree over there. Here’s a tent. This is the sky, with a cloud. And here’s you. This is me.”

     Sometimes Yoshiki would help her, teaching her how to coax form and composition from the lifeless objects. He missed his studio, his paintings and sculptures. He longed for the muses that eased his mind in the times he wasn’t fighting or scheming. He was also amused by the awkward care Mirai showed for the Decameron, who bore her well-intentioned ministrations with patience. Watching the two of them, observing the gentleness with which they treated one another, made him question his own relationship.

     At first he tried telling himself that it was different when you were a couple. The fights he and Meela had were no more than an extension of their affection, sprung from the worries they had for one another. Yeah right, he thought to himself. We love each other so much that we call each other all the vilest names under the suns. Maybe Yume’s right. I’d probably be better off with someone else.

     As though his thoughts had conjured her, Yume appeared out of the trees and approached Yoshiki.

     “How’s guard duty?” she asked with a laugh.

     “Boring as hell. When’s dinner?”

     “In an hour or so.”

     “I’m starving. Can’t you hurry it up? It’s your turn to cook anyway.”

     “I’ve gotta wait for Hironah and Uneme to get back.”

     “Where are they this time?”

     “They went hunting. You know we’re almost out of food.” Her voice was reproachful.

     “Hunting, huh? I hope they fare better than yesterday… or better yet, I hope they don’t. That way they might actually shoot something.”

     “Yoshiki.”

     “What? It just bugs me, okay?” Yoshiki looked up at his sister from where he sat. “Kaiya’s not back yet?”

     Yume shook her head.

     “I just checked.” She shuddered, hugging herself. “You look next time. It hate seeing him like that. It gives me the creeps… like if he was… you know, dead. He’s like a corpse.”

     “He’s just in Elysium, Yume. Nothing’s going to happen to him there. Kaiya’s not the type to get distracted by paradise.”

     “I know, but-”

     “He’s been gone five days already,” Yoshiki mused, ignoring his sister. “I wonder what’s taking him so long.”

     “He did say it would take a while.” She gazed at the tent to their left. “Quen’s not giving you any trouble, is he?”

     “No. He’s been a lamb. A cold, emotionless lamb.”

     Yume nodded.

     “I hope Kaiya comes back soon,” she said quietly.

     “So do I… though I can think of about ten reasons why it won’t be pretty when he does.”

 

     “All of this goes back to the rivalry between Caiaphas and Qa Haran,” Kaiya observed, looking out over the shimmering waters of the Crystalline Sea. “Of any soul, living or dead, it would be Qa Haran who would be able to do something about this. I should find him.”

     Blue shook his head.

     “He won’t be able to help you.”

     “Why not? If Caiaphas is able to return to Diasminion, and his return is directly related to what went on during his time with Qa Haran, then why wouldn’t Qa Haran be able to help defeat him?”

     “The time of his ability to influence the living on the Universal Plane has passed. It passed when the Champions completed our Task. His soul shall not be awakened.”

     Kaiya turned to face his mentor.

     “That doesn’t seem right. Why is it that Caiaphas could watch the world indefinitely, while Qa Haran’s time was limited?”

     “Elysium and Pandemonium are different Planes, with different rules,” Blue stated simply, reminding Kaiya strongly of the days of their lessons. “Souls in Elysium generally do not retain their awareness of their home planets. When the trial you face comes to a close, for better or for worse, I too shall lose my knowledge of what passes on Qian Ra."

     Kaiya nodded, and his expression clouded as he spoke.

     “So it’s up to us to stop Caiaphas from whatever it is he’s trying to do.” He shook his head. “I haven’t the faintest idea where to find him or how powerful his avatar is on the Universal Plane. How does one distinguish an avatar from a human being?”

     “Unfortunately, it can be almost impossible to tell. However, the avatar is Caiaphas himself. Think of what you know of him, of his character. That should give you some insight.”

     “I’m worried for Hironah. As your daughter, I’m afraid Caiaphas would seek to harm her- possibly destroy her- out of rage or revenge.”

     Blue smiled softly at Kaiya.

     “You are in far more danger than she is right now, for you are a direct threat to his plans. He is aware of this. He’ll seek to do away with you before he bothers with Hironah.” Blue’s expression turned gravely serious. “You must remember all that you’ve been taught, Kaiya. I suspect Caiaphas will attempt to cause you to destroy yourself. Do not act in haste; do not give in to your emotions, no matter the situation. You may find yourself sorely tested.”

     “I’ll do my best.”

     “If you fail, the outcome of this may not be one in which Caiaphas is defeated. Hironah can’t do it alone. If you cannot reconcile your emotions, it may mean the loss of many lives. Please, be careful.”

     “I will.”

     They sat in silence for a time, everyone deep in thought. When Kaiya spoke again, his voice rang with conviction.

     “I know what I need to do.” He stood, and the others followed suit. “I should return to the Universal Plane. We’ll find Caiaphas, wherever he is. I’ll do all I can to stop him.”

     “Good luck, Kaiya,” Blue said softly.

     “Thanks. Next time I see you, hopefully it’ll be under happier circumstances.”

     “What will be will be.”

     They said their goodbyes, Kaiya sure to deliver Hironah’s message to Blue and take one in return. As he was turning to leave, Yuiren’s voice met his ears.

     “Kaiya? Please watch over Seiken. He’s very special to me.”

     “I will.”

     The soul smiled serenely at him as he walked away.

 

 

 

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