Tales of the Far East

Editor\'s PickTales of the Far East
by Keyral

Story Notes

Author web site: http://www.crystalkey.fr.st/

Editor’s Note: This 11-part story was originally posted to the Pinkboard in 2005. It’s set in Japan and, as a help, the author included a lexicon of names and references, included below.

Lexicon

Names

Japanese names have a pronunciation in Japanese “letters” and a writing in Chinese characters; with one pronunciation, you can have several meaning depending on the Chinese characters you use)

  • Suzu = bell
  • Kurozuki = black moon
  • Akio = white prince (should be ‘Akiou’)
  • Tsukisa = path of the moon
  • Honokami = god of fire
  • Tenme = eye of heaven
  • Yuugami = god of hot water
  • Takayama = high mountain
  • Sora = sky
  • Shinseimon = gate of new life
  • Shinonome = dawn
  • Tenki = instrument of heaven

References

  • The Old Ones = refers to the people of the island of Okinawa where there’s the highest percentage of century-old people.
  • The Ancient Ones = refers to the Ainu people who lived in Japan before the Chinese immigrations; they’re said to have come from Caucasian territories during pre-historical times (there are different opinions about their origins) and were trapped on the island when the glaciers that let it reach this land melted. They were confined in the northern island and their culture has almost completely been assimilated by the Japanese culture.
  • The Banished Ones = refers to the “eta” or “burakumin” (there are other names for these people), descendants of families who worked in certain jobs who were considered impure (jobs in contact with blood, like butchers or executioners).
  • The lullaby that Suzu sings to Kel at the beginning refers to the fairy tale at the origin of the Tanabata festival.

Tales of the Far East

Part 1: The Angel

Everything was yellow and orange, a strange day… no, it had been an ordinary day in fact, silent, empty. But it was yellow now… and orange.

He stopped. A small pebble had rolled into his wooden slipper. He removed it, threw it to the side of the cracked road. It rolled and bounced down the slope of old concrete towards the bed of the river. Its movement filled his mind for a few minutes until it disappeared into the wild grasses: movement, almost life. He tightened his grip on the canvas bag he was carrying and resumed his walk on the deserted road.

It was still yellow and orange but now there were some hints of red too. And wind blew. Dust flew into his eyes, stinging. He blinked a few times, his vision blurred by tears. He wiped them with the back of my sleeve. Dust had settled back. And now there was someone on the road, some distance ahead of him. At least it looked like there was someone; a tall immobile figure, facing the side of the road, the head inclined as if staring at something in the riverbed or at the ground. It could have been the statue of a forgotten deity, the ghost of the dead city that had been alive here. But it could be…

He walked more quickly, his heart beating faster and faster as he neared my goal. A man.

Who’ll stop me and talk to me.

He drew closer. He could see the lines of his profile against the yellow light, the elegant nose and the high forehead; familiar and yet… a foreigner? What was he doing here? There was no more foreigner here, no more foreigner… nobody at all in fact… except a few ghosts like himself, haunting this place that should have been… His mind froze.

The head turned towards him but still he couldn’t make out the features, only the eyes, calm, bottomless lakes of dark water. He stopped a few meters from the stranger. They stared at each other in silence. His heartbeat gently slowed down, peace settled in his mind.

From what he could see, the man was thin, of undetermined age, his hair very black contrasting strongly with his pale skin; he had bound it in a loose ponytail and long strands framed his long face. His clothes were dirty and wrinkled and his boots looked worn-out. Scarves and large bands of tissue were attached to his waist and up, around his neck and along his arms. He was carrying a large bag on his back that had seen better days.

He wanted to see more of this stranger, a hunger the intensity of which shocked him. And with this realization came a sudden self-consciousness, acute and painful: he perfectly knew what the man was staring at, a scrawny youngster, the black hair long from neglect, the tunic clean but almost threadbare, its colors faded; ghost-like white skin and pitch black eyes. Someone unworthy of notice, easily forgotten.

He opened his mouth to say something but no sound came out. Had his voice disappeared out of disuse? His hand flew to his throat, panic rose in him.

“Do you want to drink some water?” the foreigner offered gently, handing a flask.

His voice sounded deep and vibrant to his words-starved ears. His panic dissolved under the weight of embarrassment and shame.

“I’m all right,” he managed coarsely.

“Are you living nearby?” the man asked, “I found noha… nobody in the port or in the neighboring cities.”

“Nobody’s living there anymore,” he answered, surprised of his ignorance, “everyone’s gone for long from the island.”

“But you’re here,” the stranger countered, a bit mischievously.

“I’m nobody.” He shrugged. “Why did you come here? The Gods have abandoned our people and our country, there’s nothing left to see.”

“So why are you still here?” he insisted.

“I was abandoned. My parents must have forgotten me, I don’t know,” he answered shrugging.

The stranger stared at him, his face blank, his eyes abysmal. His voice became distant, almost clinical, but also compelling.

“Where do you live now? Do you live alone?”

“In the old temple. Alone.”

“How have you survived?”

“Old people who didn’t want to leave, they took care of me until they eventually died.”

“You’re all alone in the island?”

“No, the Ancient Ones have come back. They live in the mountains now. They take me in during winter.”

The colors had disappeared during their brief conversation, as if they had been there only to introduce them one to the other. There was only a faint trace of them at the edge of the horizon.

Finally, the stranger seemed to relax and said: “I slept in a building of the port city but it was cold. Can I sleep at your place for the night?”

He nodded without thinking. He didn’t want this man to disappear from his life so quickly. His presence was a flame in the night, it brought life where he thought there would be no more.

“My name is Suzu,” he offered timidly.

“Call me Kel.”

***

Suzu didn’t want to show Kel how much his presence unsettled him. He was so different from the Ancient Ones, so gentle. He wanted to know him more. This man was like an old spirit freed from the earth by the bloody light of a dying sun. He would grant him a wish and then kill him.

Suzu could sense Kel’s scrutiny in his back during the short walk to his home but when they reached their destination, it shifted to the half-crumbled house in front of them. It was a very ancient pavilion of old tough wood. It lay in the heart of a garden that had turned wild out of neglect; Suzu had just kept a small square tidy to grow a few vegetables, but he wasn’t really into gardening and it showed. The aisle on the left had been badly damaged during the last tempest and the boy had put all his efforts in strengthening the walls and roof of his room with all he could find and carry or pull. From a hole hidden by a bush, he took out a lantern and lit it; it was a heavy metallic object whose lid grated at every movement. He wished he owned one of the lighter paper lanterns with its elegant carved holding stick. He felt so little next to this stranger, he wanted so much to impress him, to be of use…

They crossed the main hall drown in moving shadows, dead leaves and branches creaking and breaking under their feet. Then the wooden panel slid before them to reveal his den. By the dim light of the lantern, Suzu was only to conscious of how seedy it looked.

Decorative alcoves were filled by plastic boxes he had salvaged to stock dried food, beans or rice. Near the farthest wall stood an old fashioned stove; from a beam of the ceiling, in the middle of the room hung a long stick ending with a metallic hook above a sunken fireplace. Suzu had always been proud of it as he had dug it and plastered its walls with argil and sand all by himself, just like in the ancient times; now in front of the newcomer, it carried only a sense of poverty and loneliness. The usual black kettle hung from the hook, hot water murmuring above the waning fire.

There was no electricity or running water. Suzu walked around the room, lighting the four square lanterns positioned carefully at the cardinal points.

Then he turned to him, that beautiful stranger, wondering if he was an envoy of heaven, if he was a sign that the Gods had returned their favors. Kel was looking around pensively and finally came back to his host, clearly ill at ease. They looked at each other silently, not knowing what to say.

“Please give me your bag,” Suzu offered finally. “I will put it with the other bags and chests.”

He knelt on the mats and pushed aside one of the panels, revealing the large walled hole that served as his storage place.

“You are well organized.”

“I have to,” Suzu answered simply, “Now this is your bedding. We’ll have to air it, I haven’t taken it out since the old monk died. It was his.”

“Sleeping in a dead’s bedding? Isn’t it a kind of malediction?” Kel asked laughing half-heartedly.

The boy blushed.

“I’m sorry, I know it should have been burned but I thought I could use the drapes when I wear my tunics out.”

Unexpectedly, Kel smiled with gentleness.

“Don’t worry about that, I’ve camped outside before and here at least, I have a roof over my head and solid walls to protect me from the wind or the rain. We’ll air the bedding tomorrow.”

He looked around once more and asked: “Do you happen to have some ‘real’ tea in those boxes of yours? It’s been so long…”

“Ah… yes, of course!” Suzu replied hurriedly, ashamed of his lack of manners.

He fumbled through his boxes to find his herbs. Then he applied himself to prepare the tea, using his best earthenware cups. Doing these familiar gestures appeased his anxiety and when he was finished, he felt more assured.

While sipping the tea, Suzu entertained his visitor, who appeared ignorant of it, with the recent history of his land and its current predicament. The Ancients had told him how bad it had been, even before his birth: earthquakes had devastated the country and woken the volcano everyone thought dead; typhoons and tidal waves had gnawed at the land, drowning the coastal megalopoles and reshaping the island. His people, the favorite of the Gods, had fallen into disgrace and had paid a high price for its pride. The elements had reclaimed the territory, chasing them away, and now, somewhat appeased by the blood and deaths, they tolerated the presences of a few of them.

Kel nodded and explained the whole world had lived through similar natural trials that had worsened the disasters humankind had triggered in ignorance or hate. His own birth country was in ruins. Suzu absorbed this news in silence, trying to hide his shock. It all sounded so bad… everything falling apart, the general feeling of horror and despair. Kel shook his head and smiled ruefully.

“Now comes the time of hope, time to rebuild.” But Suzu could see only shadows in his companion’s eyes.

***

Later, Suzu applied himself to prepare the dinner. Kel offered him dried meat to add to the soup and helped him as best as he could. Obviously, it’s been a long time since this foreigner had been around someone else too and his awkwardness reassured the boy: it made him more reachable, more human. But then there was another feeling lurking beneath the surface, a kind of confusion, verging on panic were they to touch, even by accident. It seemed his young heart had turned into a wild beast and his blood kept creeping up his neck and cheeks.

They ate in silence at the low table by the side of the room. Suzu’s eyes couldn’t help being drawn to the long white hands that held the chopsticks so skillfully. He wanted to lift his head and look at his face, to ask about his life, but his tongue was stuck by a deep-rooted tradition and he could only squirm of impatience inwardly.

Kel finally put down his bowl and leaned back, assuming a more relaxed position. Suzu had finished his meal too and finally dared to look up. The stranger’s gaze was intent, burning though into my soul, his lips full, the white skin of his chest exposed by the wide gap between the sides of his tunic. Suzu’s heart faltered.

“Do you know how many are left of your people here?” Kel asked frowning.

“Not… not many,” the boy stammered, averting his eyes, “… villages in the mountains but it’s been many years since we’ve heard of them. It seemed they have vanished. I’m the only one left from my settlement in the south, the old ones died. And there are the Ancient Ones.”

He knew so little! He struggled to find interesting things to say, to show his value, but then he felt as if he could only fall lower in his companion’s esteem.

“The Ancient Ones call those like me ‘the Others’. They told me that the Others’ departure had freed from their chains and that now they can prosper again.”

That sentence, that stung, had suddenly appeared in front of him. The Others. Him.

“I guess they would say so. I’ve never met one of the Ancient Ones,” Kel mused looking at the ceiling, “I heard tales about them, but I never really took them seriously. Do they hate… ‘the Others’ as much as they were said to, even before?”

Suzu was surprised by that reference… as if somewhat his visitor knew of this land’s history although he appeared so ignorant at the same time. But this question embarrassed him. One should never speak badly about people who helped you …

“Well, they prefer to keep to themselves…”

“You don’t know much about them, do you?” he asked gently, “you’re young, and with your parents gone, nobody had taught you…”

“I was taught!” he protested vehemently. Too late he realized my foolishness and sat back ashamed. “I’m sorry, I just wanted to say, the Old Ones taught me. They told me about the Ancient Ones, they’re the people who lived here originally and were confined in the northern islands by the Others. And then the Banished Ones joined them and made them stronger. That’s why they survived for so long. The Banished Ones brought them their arts and skills. The Others ignored them, as always, and when trouble arose, they completely forgot them, abandoning them to face the fury of nature. And they thrived even better than the Others and stayed voluntarily behind when everyone left.”

Suzu looked up timidly and was surprised to discover Kel’s wide smile of approval.

“You don’t have to be so formal with me. How old are you?”

“I’m sixteen.”

“And how old do you think I am?”

Suzu blushed.

“It’s not proper that I…”

“Quit blabbering!” Kel said laughing, “there’s nobody here to punish you for your manners and you could say I’m a foreigner, I don’t know about ‘manners’!”

“But you do, don’t you?”

He sobered and sighed.

“As a matter of fact, I do,” Suzu felt his hesitation and held his breath, “my father was born here and immigrated for his studies. Then he met my mother and never came back.”

Kel laughed again, but it sounded bitter. He brushed his hair back, nervously.

“That was so long ago…”

Suzu waited for him to continue, holding his breath. He wondered briefly about his visitor’s age, because he didn’t appear old but there was an indefinable sense of experience about him.

“You misled me! I was asking you to stop with your manners!” He laughed again. “It’s like talking to a wall, nothing comes back. It was very much like that with my father.”

The hardness of his features struck his young host, making him forget his disappointment that the disclosures were over. There was so much sadness, regrets, old wounds.

“I… I’m sorry for making you remember painful memories.”

His eyes were so sad Suzu wanted to cry and bend his forehead to the floor to beg his forgiveness, but he felt it would only offend his visitor more. He took a deep breath, trying to lock down his instincts of politeness and distance.

“You seem very tired, you should rest. Maybe I could… offer a massage?”

Kel looked at him astounded. Suzu felt heat creep up his neck. He had been too bold!

“That’s very tempting… maybe too tempting.”

Now there was a spark in his eyes, just like the kind of spark that could ignite a wild fire that would consume everything… or everyone.

“Or you could just lie down and I would sing for you to lull you to sleep,” countered the boy. “Even the Ancient Ones like my voice.”

Kel nodded and Suzu felt a wave of relief wash over him. So he sang an old ballad of a princess of heaven falling in love with a simple human shepherd. How much they loved each other and how they were separated because they were from different worlds.

“But then they threw a rainbow bridge between heaven and earth so that the lovers could meet again,” Kel’s sleepy voice finished.

Part 2: The Envoy

Light incense perfume woke Kel up. He became immediately alert but opened his eyes slowly, extending his senses all around instinctively. He knew dawn was still some hours away. Sensing no threat, he sat up on his bedroll and squinted around. The boy was gone, and he hadn’t felt it. He arranged his robe and stood up, feeling around for the rest of his clothes. He didn’t want to light the lamp. The door panel slid silently and he stepped in the cool night. Following the incense trail, he found himself at the back of the garden, where wild grass had been somewhat cleared away around what appeared to be a small stone altar, lit by three thin red candles. Suzu knelt in front of it, his eyes closed, his hands joined in prayer; he hadn’t heard him approach. There were three incense sticks planted in a crude pot filled with earth; wisps of light smoke, like tendrils of intention, were floating in the still air.

Great gods of the water and fire, deities of the woods and the stone, spirits of the nature, be praised for this envoy you sent to me. Please, let me honor him as I should, that he might bestow the gods’ blessings unto us again.

He clapped his hands together three times and chanted softly a low tone. Kel was astounded so young a boy could project his thoughts so powerfully. And to witness those ancient rites made him wistful. He stepped forward, rustling the grass purposefully. Suzu turned to him, only half-surprised by his arrival.

“It’s cold, you shouldn’t be out,” Kel said gently.

“That’s nothing, I had things to do and I felt it couldn’t wait.”

He appeared more assertive. Was it the strength of his faith in him? He leaned to blow the candles flames, the sticks of incense still burning slowly down.

“Let’s get back inside.”

They retraced their way under the moonlight. As they were settling back in their bedroll and bedding, as the lamp between them cast long shadows on the paper panels around them, Kel said, “I’m not an envoy, Suzu, I’ve got nothing to do with the deities of your land.” He felt rather than saw his companion’s smile.

“Yet you have some connection with this land,” the boy replied, “because of your origins. You may be an envoy, without being aware of it.”

“You have strange ideas,” Kel commented to hide the agitation those words conjured up.

He wanted to lie closer to his companion, touch him, because there was something new to him, maybe revealed by the magic of night.

“I’m a strange boy,” Suzu replied somewhat sadly. “The Ancient Ones help me because they know I have strange abilities, to speak with the spirits or to pray to the small gods of nature. Maybe they even respect me for that.”

Or maybe they fear you for that, Kel thought.

“You don’t know anything about me, yet you see an envoy in me? How so?”

“I don’t know, sometimes, when the light of the fire brushes past you, I can see a strange aura, beautiful, but alien.”

“And you’re not afraid of me?”

“No, if I have offended the deities or spirits, I deserve whatever punishment they might send to me.”

Kel couldn’t resist any longer. He crawled out of his bedroll to Suzu and put one hand on his face. His skin was smooth and warm.

“Have you come to punish me?” the boy asked, looking him straight in the eye.

“No. I answered a call. I think maybe it was you calling.” The words had come out in spite of himself, maybe invoked by the faint incense smell still hanging around them.

“Then you must take me,” Suzu said slowly. “I called for someone to take me away from here, from the loneliness and silence, my jail.”

“I see no bars around you.”

“There are bars, invisible ones and maybe you have the key of my cage. I want to fly away, one way or the other.”

There was a burning flame in his eyes now, so fierce it stunned Kel into silence for some minutes.

“You tried to…”

“I couldn’t.” There was an hesitation. “The spirits wouldn’t let my soul fly away and I’d become a sorrowful ghost lost in this realm. I don’t want to leave this jail to become another kind of prisoner. But I know you’re more than what you appear to be, you could take me away.”

“Hush, we’re still getting to know each other, maybe when you get to know more about me, you won’t want me to take you away.”

Suzu stared at him and the flames in his eyes didn’t flicker.

“I’ll do everything I can to help you,” Kel finally surrendered. “But you must not press it, there is so much you don’t know, not only about me, but the whole world.”

“And there are maybe a lot you don’t know about this land, as you’ve somewhat lost any conscious connection with it,” Suzu said. “Whatever you are, an envoy or a human, you’re a significant part of my life, from now on.”

***

There was light burning his eyelids and he woke up with a start, sitting upright all of the sudden, his head spinning. Something happened. His eyes fell on the bedroll pushed in the corner of the room, the kettle humming above the fireplace…

Kel!

He scrambled to his feet and opened the window wide. There were no traces of his visitor. He realized something was tugging at his mind, like a fogged memory. Hesitantly, he put on his slippers and followed the path towards the little shrine. There he was, tall and mysterious, beautiful as a god, powerful as a god. He was sitting cross-legged, his eyes closed in meditation, his fine features at rest, his lustrous black hair hanging on his breast and in his back. He had clothed himself with new clothes, clean if a bit wrinkled; western clothes. Suzu longed to touch their fabric, to feel their smoothness and maybe then his hands would find the courage to slid down the sleeve to the wrist and slender hands.

Suzu realized suddenly his companion had opened his eyes and was looking at him with a steady, deep gaze. He couldn’t suppress his blush.

“I’m sorry I didn’t wake up earlier and prepared your meal,” he stammered, unable to meet his eyes. “I wanted to check if everything was all right. I’m sorry I interrupted your meditation.”

“Don’t be sorry. I have already finished what I had to do, I was just seeing if I could establish communication with the spirits of this place. There is strong energy around here.”

He stood up, brushing dust from his close-fitting black trousers. He stared at him speculatively.

“This place is an ancient temple,” Suzu explained. “The Ancient Ones told me the old priest who used to live here used to exorcise lost souls. He established a gate to the land of the dead here and a beacon so that the ghosts would eventually find their way here to the next world.”

“Aren’t you afraid of this place then?”

“No, I’ve never felt hostile energy coming here, they’re just hopeful spirits that reached the end of their earthly travel.”

Kel moved forwards and Suzu couldn’t help stepping back. He wheeled round and ran to the house.

“I’ll prepare breakfast, please, be patient.”

His heart was beating fast, he felt out of breath. Why did he run from him? Kel hadn’t said anything… But he felt ashamed all the same, useless. What was he doing, a young ignorant child, in the company of ancient spirits and powerful entities?

Suzu was arranging dried fish and vegetable on a plate when Kel eventually came back inside. He looked somewhat agitated and the boy felt his gaze following his every move.

“You were more confident last night,” he said finally.

Last night…

“What do you mean?” Suzu asked trembling. “Did I do something that offended you?”

Kel looked at his host, puzzled.

“Don’t you remember last night, after your prayers, our conversation? You asked me to take you away. You said I was an envoy.”

Suzu closed his eyes painfully. This… it hadn’t been a dream after all.

“I… I apologize deeply, I was not myself, I thought it a dream, a message from the gods.”

He had touched his face, had whispered comforting words to him. A heady feeling swept through him and his legs gave way under him. Kel was by his side then, one arm around his waist, one hand on his forehead.

“You must have caught a cold last night, I told you it was cold,” he said gently. “How you have survived all these years if your body’s so weak, I don’t understand.”

Suzu’s head was spinning.

“Please, let go of me, I’m impure, I shall go to the pools and purify myself so that the illness will go.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Kel snapped, exasperated. “Your illness can’t affect me. If you don’t want to dishonor yourself, then obey my words! Let me take care of you, because I need you healthy and strong.”

Suzu stared at his handsome face, so close that if he only moved slightly, he would kiss him. He could see faint wisps of energy floating from his parted lips. Then Kel moved away briskly, as if he had read his mind, and shame came back flooding Suzu’s being.

“I’m sorry,” Kel said, averting his eyes, to the boy’s surprise.

Kel took him in his arms and carried him to his bedding.

“You stay here. I’ll take care of everything.” He disappeared from Suzu’s field of vision.

The boy wanted to look up and watch him, but he found he couldn’t even move his head. He could hear his companion rummaging through his boxes, opening his hidden reserves in the ground to search in his bag. He heard liquid being poured in cups, he smelt sweet perfumes and pungent odors.

Suzu must have dozed off for a hand on his forehead woke him up. He felt strangely refreshed and not ill at all.

“Now, do you want to eat something light?” Kel asked gently. “Then, we could go to your pools, a hot bath would be good for you to recover completely.”

Suzu could see through the open window the sunrays streaming abundantly inside. He could feel the air of the morning, the same morning he had abandoned to his fever… Midday wasn’t far away…

“You healed me?” he asked in awe.

Kel smiled broadly. “I knew you would feel it.”

“No,” Suzu replied hurriedly, “that’s not that, it’s just that… I feel so well… and so quickly…”

“So you’re talented and intelligent.” He laughed softly, as if for himself. “I’m glad I came here, very glad.”

He bought his patient a small bowl of rice and some pickles. It tasted funny, but good.

“I’ve aired the other bedding, while you were asleep, so there is nothing for you to do, except get up when you’re finished and gather your things to go to the pools.” He winked and Suzu felt very warm inside… and not ashamed anymore.

***

Hidden in the forest, nestling against the flank of a gentle slope leading to the invisible summit of a mountain, the hot springs appeared like pools of radiance piercing the light shadows of the trees. Kel stood for some moments contemplating those wonders, his heart full of twirling emotions. There was a serenity in this place nothing could breach, as if a god was living here and had just left.

“Yuugami, I called him Yuugami, the god of the hot water,” Suzu said, his eyes lost on the mirroring surface. “He purifies everything. He’s kin with Honokami, the great god of fire. There’s a legend that says Honokami and Yuugami became lovers and that pursued by the Tenshin, the soldiers of the Heaven Gods, they hid in this forest for some time. These hot springs are testimony of their love.”

Kel stared at him pensively.

“I’ve never heard of this legend. Have the old people who cared for you told it to you?”

“No, I heard a voice in the breeze once, as I had fallen asleep near the pool, it told me this story. I believe it was either Yuugami or Honokami. It was warm and comforting. It told me I could come here and honor the two gods, that they would come to me then, but I don’t know how to do this and so far, I haven’t been able to call them.”

“What would you want of those gods?”

“That they take me with them.”

Suzu seemed to shake himself and started to undress himself. He pointed to the side of one pool.

“There’s a little stream over there I use to bathe myself before entering the pools. There is even some soft sand there to clean your skin properly.” He hesitated. “Even as an envoy, you should do it if you’re not acquainted with Honokami and Yuugami, they might take offense otherwise.”

Kel followed him and did as he was told, rubbing his body with the slippery sand and rinsing himself under the cold water. He noticed the covert glances of his companion, and couldn’t help doing the same. Suzu was a willowy creature, all pale moon supple silhouette, but for the black strands of his hair and the short dark fur of his groin.

Then Suzu walked to the rim of one pool, waiting for him to enter first.

“Go on, I’ll try that other pool to the right,” Kel said as evenly as he could.

“This one is the best,” Suzu said a bit worryingly. “If you want us to use separate pools, I can use the other one, but you should try this one first.”

Kel sighed then pointed sternly. Obediently Suzu entered the pool and sat on the underwater low ridge. Kel sat on the rim of the pool, his legs dangling in the water.

“I don’t see myself as an envoy, in the same way you see me as an envoy, but it’s true, I’m not totally human… in truth, I’m not human at all anymore, and because of that, I prefer not to bathe in the same pool as you. My body could be deadly to you and I don’t want to hurt you.”

Suzu was staring at him fixedly; a part of him wasn’t surprised at all.

“Your legs are in the water and I’m all right,” he pointed out. “If I am to pass a test devised by the gods, I will. If I’m meant to be killed by you, so be it … I’m but a servant and…”

“Would you stop that nonsense!” Kel interrupted, pulling his legs from the water and standing up. “There’s no test, when you put your hand in the fire, you’ll be burnt, that’s not a test, that’s common sense. I’m telling you I’m not human and you just keep on seeing death everywhere! I won’t kill you! If you want to die so much, just throw yourself over a crevice or drown yourself in this pool!!”

“I wouldn’t!” Suzu exclaimed indignantly. “I wouldn’t soil the sacred place of love of two deities!”

Kel exhaled deeply, trying to keep his exasperation under control. He rubbed at his eyes.

“OK, Suzu, if you want me to stay by your side and to help you, we have some things to settle. I’m not going to kill you, I don’t want to hear anything like what you just said again. I want you to behave normally, just go on with the tasks you used to do, when I need something I’ll ask you, OK?”

The boy looked hurt but nodded. Kel relented and sat down again, closer to the boy than before. He touched lightly his shoulder.

“Look at me, look at my body,” he said.

Suzu lifted his head shyly. “There’s nothing unusual about…”

“Look here.” Kel spread his legs slightly. “If you look attentively, you’ll see I’m different… and I have some additions too.”

“I shouldn’t…” Suzu said, averting his eyes, his face burning red.

“Are you afraid of me?” Kel asked, his voice grave.

Suzu shook his head and turned back to him. He stood and came between Kel’s legs; he knelt in the pool so that he could see what his companion was pointing at.

“So similar and yet so different…” he whispered, awe stealing over his embarrassment.

Kel pushed Suzu gently back with a foot and closed his legs. He was smiling and seemed relieved.

“I am an androgyne, do you understand? Male and female in the same body, and much more than that, much more than the sum of the two genders of humanity.”

Suzu nodded, waiting for him to continue.

“I’m not the only one, we’re a new race, Wraeththu, we call ourselves “har” or “hara” in plural, we’re born from one person we revere as the Aghama. By giving his blood to young human males, he changes them into hara. But humans feared this change and tried to kill us. We had to fight back.”

Kel paused, his face dark and sad. Suzu reached for his hand impulsively.

“But now, the fight is over, isn’t it?”

“No, I don’t think so, well, in fact, I don’t know.”

“You left?”

Kel looked at the boy’s face. “I couldn’t bear the fighting anymore, I couldn’t bear all the blood, all the deaths. I thought I would go mad. Thiede, our leader, helped me. He told me I wasn’t forced to kill and destroy, that I should follow my own path. He sent me to the homeland of my father, he asked me to be the envoy of our kind to the Far East.”

“You said you heard my call.” And Suzu’s voice sounded wistful.

But then, as if realizing what he had just said, he blushed and looked away. Kel took his chin with his hand and forced him to face him again.

“When I arrived in the Eastern countries of the main land, the people said everyone had been evacuated, that there wasn’t anybody left, and that those who had refused to leave must have died already. I was almost ready to go back. Then on my last night, I had a dream. I saw a beacon beyond the sea, I heard someone humming an old childish song. I think it was you.”

***

Suzu was in a daze. This stranger, Kel, had come to him, had dreamed of him… He thought he was dreaming himself and he would wake up soon to the bitter reality, alone and sad. But then, his dream kept on playing before his eyes and in his mind.

They walked back home in a comfortable silence. What Kel told him had somewhat established a link, an invisible cord between them, and Suzu felt as if he had known his companion all his life. Yet he was aware he didn’t quite understand what this man… this har… really was, despite what he had shown him of himself. With his clothes on, he looked just like the most beautiful creature Suzu had ever seen. But now, the boy wasn’t impressed anymore, or more exactly, he didn’t find him as intimidating as before. It was as if he had broken a shell.

As they came by the old temple, Suzu felt suddenly a jolt of premonition course through his body. When he looked back, his companion had stopped.

“Are you expecting a guest tonight?” he asked, tensed.

“No… Nobody comes to visit me… at least, not this late…” His words confirmed what Suzu had sensed. A disturbance around the house; the gentle spirits had gone, had fled. He felt frightened by this sudden void.

“I sense only one presence, but that person knows how to shield his mind. Let’s meet him.” Kel took his hand and dragged me forward on the path.

Suzu’s legs felt like wooden sticks, his throat too dry to utter a sound.

They found him sitting on the floor, his arms folded, his head low as if he was sleeping. Nothing around the house had been disturbed, as if he had materialized out of thin air. As usual, he was wearing his wide-sleeve black tunic, severely belted by a wide light grey drape on his dusty white trousers. His long black hair lay unbound on his shoulders down on his chest.

“Kurozuki!” Suzu ran to him and knelt by his side. The visitor lifted his head, his usual tight smile on his perfect lips.

“My dear Suzu. I’m glad to see you well.” Then he looked up at Kel. “And I see you have a guest.”

“This is Kel, an envoy of…” I started.

“Who are you?” Kel’s clipped tone interrupted him abruptly. His dark gaze shocked him.

Kurozuki stood up and straightened his clothes fastidiously. Suzu was nailed to the floor, as if a great weight was keeping me down.

“I’m an old friend of Suzu, I belong to the Ancient People, though I’m not of pure Ancient blood.” He was still smiling, as if oblivious of Kel’s hostility. “I belong to their Shaman Council.”

He paused, expecting maybe a question or a reaction, but obtained none. So he continued.

“I sensed a new presence on our soil so I came to investigate and make sure Suzu was all right.”

“Just as all right as he usually is?” Kel was almost snarling.

“Why do I sense hostility? We’re not acquainted, are we? Have I offended you in one way or another?” Kurozuki asked, looking surprised.

“No,” Kel answered curtly.

“I’m glad. As an ambassador, I certainly wouldn’t want to offend you. As I see Suzu’s well, maybe you’d be interested in hearing about my people. I guess you’ve come from very far.”

“You guessed?” Now, Kel sounded amused.

“Well… your clothes, they speak of the West. May I ask you where you come from? Suzu said you were an envoy?”

Kel stared at Kurozuki stonily, then put down his things and went to the fireplace to pour hot water in mugs. Suzu felt he should have done it but he was still prisoner of the gravity; he could only watch them act as if he wasn’t here at all. He could sense Kurozuki’s intense curiosity, as he was following Kel’s every move. He intuited then that his friend had come for his companion, not for him as he had said. Having finished preparing the tea, Kel came by Suzu’s side and taking him gently by the hand, helped him up. His touch immediately lifted the weight from his shoulders and he felt as light as a feather. He guided him to the low table as if he was a child and he couldn’t felt ashamed; it was as if he was wrapped in a protective embrace, though only their hands were in contact.

As Kurozuki joined them, the conversation continued, though no more emotions were sipping from either of them.

“Suzu thought I was an envoy from your Gods,” Kel explained. “That’s flattering, but false. As you said, I come from the West. My father lived here and I wanted to see what had happened to his homeland. I’ve never been here before.”

“As a shaman, I can see you’re not an ordinary traveler. Times are rough for everyone on this earth. Though we’re isolated from the rest of the world, our role as Shaman is also to maintain a link with the outside world, as tenuous as it is. I can only admire your capabilities for traveling in those times of trouble.”

Kel shrugged. “I encountered difficult situations but then here I am.”

“I thought the outside world believed us all dead.”

“They do… or else, they’ve got their own problems to deal with rather than to care about you. That’s how the world has turned. The dreamed-of unity has shattered.”

They both sipped their tea in silence. Suzu’s lay untouched, its dark surface sucking in his gaze and his mind.

Then, Kurozuki seemed to reach a decision.

“I think you could come to visit my people. You’ve came to visit your father’s country or what’s left of it, so you could start with the main tribe of the people that remain. It’s a bit early for Suzu to come to us, but I don’t think you would want to leave him behind, wouldn’t you?”

“You’re right.”

“Then it’s settled. How about we depart tomorrow?”

Suzu felt Kel’s gaze on him and he looked up. They locked eyes and the boy nodded uncertainly.

“I… I would be glad to see your people again,” he stammered awkwardly to Kurozuki, as he thought some words were called for. “You’ve always been so good to me.”

Kurozuki inclined his head gracefully and stood up.

“If we want to go early, we should go to bed then. I’ll thank our gods for guiding my feet here for I think this meeting was foreordained.”

He left with a smile, sliding the door shut behind him. Kel leaned towards his young host, his gaze searing.

“Who is that bastard?” he asked, his voice low but as intense as his eyes. Suzu felt afraid of him suddenly; he could see blood and corpses around them.

“He said it, he’s a shaman from the Ancient Ones,” he replied weakly.

“He said he’s an old friend and yet you didn’t recognize his presence. You were frightened!”

“That’s because… the spirits were gone… I… he is very nice with me when I’m with the Ancient Ones… I…”

Suzu made a move to escape that predator’s eyes and his arm hit his mug, splashing his tea on the table and on the floor. He yelped in surprise than ran to get a cloth and clean the mess. Kel watched him without a move.

“You must understand… the Ancient Ones have almost disappeared and they blame my people for that. Then they’ve been abandoned by my people when disasters struck… And now, they want as little contact with what remains of my people as possible. Time to heal their wounds maybe… Kurozuki is not much older than I am. He was the one who found me and defended me against his elders who wanted to leave me in the dead of my first winter alone. When I’m with his people, he’s the one who looks after me and keeps others from coming after me and bullying me. He was the one to teach me how to use my abilities so that I could be of use to his people and thus find a place among them. I own him a lot.”

He couldn’t meet Kel’s eyes because he guessed he couldn’t have persuaded him, but he couldn’t help defending Kurozuki’s honor either. Then Kel sighed and Suzu felt his swirling emotions calming down. He looked up; his companion was scratching at his hair, dubiously.

“I can understand,” he said. “What I see in him is quite different from what you see. But as I said, he’s quite adept at hiding himself, maybe what I saw was wrong.”

Suzu wanted to ask him what he saw, but instead, he said: “Why didn’t you tell him what you really were? Is it a secret?”

“Yes, you can say so. We don’t like to advertise ourselves lest the people around us would turn against us as they did in the country where we were born.”

“But you said it to me…”

“I trust you.” And he was smiling at him, oh so sweet a smile… “You were my beacon.”

***

The next day was sunny and they managed to cover much more ground than what Kurozuki had planned. He said he was not in a hurry, yet he was obviously pleased by their pace. They had barely spoken, saving their breath for the fast walk.

Kel was still suspicious of him. This young man was charming and possessed almost an aristocratic elegance about him. He treated Suzu with much gentleness, but as if he were a rare and precious animal rather than a friend. After the boy’s disclosures about their relationship, Kel had questioned his own reactions and he had to admit there was no evidence to support his mistrust. But he couldn’t ignore the instinct that had kept him alive so far.

“Can you tell me more about your people?” he asked on the second day on a neutral tone.

“Of course.” Kurozuki smiled, obviously pleased by this sign of overture. “In fact, my people derives from the mingling of the blood of the remaining Ancient Ones, the original people of this island, and people that lived as outcast in the society of what we call the Others. Not that the Banned Ones were criminal or bad people. They were just descendants of people whose jobs were considered as impure. For example, those who were related to blood and the killing of animals, like butchers or tanners. Even though these people weren’t themselves in those branches, their families had been banned from the society and branded as outcast. When things turned bad, they became scapegoats but it changed nothing and finally, the society shattered and people fought against one another…” He paused. “I guess it was the same all over the world.”

Kel nodded.

“Then finally the Others decided to abandon the island. Lots of people resisted the idea, then half of the island disappeared in the sea…” Kurozuki shook his head. “They hadn’t any other choice then. They left us behind promising to come back for us, but they never came back. Most of the Ancient Ones knew already and had started to think of a way to survive. A few of the Others stayed too, thinking they could go on with their lives. Most of them perished with the coastal cities. The Ancient Ones who were originally living in the far north moved to the southern territories and finally settled in the central mountain chain. They thought the Gods had removed their protection because the Others had abused their blessed country so they sought to re-establish a better lifestyle, in harmony with the land. Those who appeared gifted, such as the priests and the mediums became what we call “Tenki” meaning the “instrument of heaven”; they’re also simply called “shaman”. They have as much power as our leaders or even more in certain matters.”

Kel thought the young man sounded quite smug but kept is mouth shut.

“Nowadays, we do not suffer that much compared with what used to shake the island for the past ten years. We see it as a reward for the changes we operated. There is a council of leaders and a council of Tenki, both having their specific duties and cooperating for the better good.”

There was a silence and Kel supposed the tale was finished.

“How many people are there in the island?”

“I don’t know exactly, but the main tribe counts around two thousand people. The other tribes are much smaller though.”

“Suzu told me there are other people scattered all about the island. Do you care for them as much as for him?”

“No, as I said, we don’t want to have any more contact with the Others. Suzu is special. But you’re aware of that, aren’t you?”

Kurozuki looked at him innocently. Kel cringed inwardly and replied by a smile.

“You care for him because he’s of use for you, then.”

“We offer him shelter and protection during the harsh season. He has unique talents and we taught him how to use them for the greatest good. Is it bad? And I must add he’s become dear to me. I won’t hand him over to a complete stranger, you can be sure of that.”

Again that damned over-confident smile.

“What makes you think I would want him?” Kel asked with a shrug. “He’s gifted and I want to know more about him.” He paused. “He asked me to take him away from his prison. He resents his loneliness. That doesn’t mean I would grant his wish.”

That disclosure seemed to shake Kurozuki’s confidence, just as he expected. The Tenki walked silently for some minutes, his face grave.

“I wasn’t aware of this. He never told me. Now that I know, I’ll try to speak with the other Tenki, we might manage to shake our leader’s decision. It’s not in their interest to lose Suzu.”

He appeared genuinely concerned, but was it for Suzu?

***

It was called Shinseimon, the “Gate to a New Life”: small buildings nestling at the foot of a forested mountain and spreading up its flank. Kurozuki explained that this site had been a traditional village in the past and that the ancient way of life had been mingled with some modern commodities to create Shinseimon.

To Kel, it felt like a sudden dive in a past he had only known through books and movies: deep sloped-roofs of thatch or tiles covering low houses raised upon stocky wooden pillars, surrounded by verandas opened to the outside or visible through half-opened latticed shutters. The richest mansions were hidden behind wooden fences or high palisades. Small gardens brought patches of color in the neat landscape. The paved streets were animated with cheerful people wearing bright tunics and robes, their long black hair gleaming with glass pearls, delicate combs or silk ribbons. Not the image Kel had built in his head; Kurozuki looked like a crow among them.

However those people were behaving strangely along their advance into the city: even though they undoubtedly noticed them, they only spared them a few uncurious glances and then went on with their activities, cheerful and laughing, as if they hadn’t just seen a stranger entering their town. Not the reaction Kel would have expected from people closed to the outside world and presumably hostile to it.

Kurozuki led them to a high gate of red wooden pillars. “This is the Daitori, the entrance of the sacred domain of the Tenki of Shinseimon that is also called the same way. Please enter, the council should be awaiting us.”

Kel shot a sidelong glance to Suzu; the boy appeared pale-faced and tense, as if he was going to face a trial.

“Are you all right?” he asked him softly, away from their guide’s ears who had moved forward.

Suzu nodded. “The Tenki are strict, they have great responsibilities.”

“And?”

Suzu wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“Nothing really. They’re very impressive, that’s all. They have great powers.”

Kel decided not to press the matter. He’ll see for himself. And nobody will touch his young protégé.

After leaving their boots and slippers on the stepping stone at the entrance, Kurozuki led them into a large room. Five men sat there, obviously waiting for them. The light was dim so it was difficult to make out their faces clearly, but Kel guessed they were certainly people over their 50s: the wisdom of the elders.

They knelt respectfully in front of them and following Kurozuki’s example, they bent and touched the mats with their forehead.

“You have some explanation to give, Kurozuki,” said the central man.

“We all felt it, master, the disturbance of the ethers. I went to investigate as I was told and I traced it back to Suzu’s shelter. It originated from a stranger so I thought you would like to meet him.”

He waited for his mentor’s answer. The man nodded crisply.

“His name is Kel and he comes from the mainland. He says he’s a traveler coming from the Far West and he doesn’t mean any ill to us. He was in search of his father’s homeland.”

“And why would he want to return to a land he has no ties with, a forgotten island? Surely, the mainlanders would have tried to dissuade him.”

Kel, trying to keep his voice level and soft, decided to take the initiative.

“Please forgive me for speaking but I am an adept myself. I didn’t know there were still so many people here. I was attracted here because I felt a source of energy. I didn’t mean to disturb your lives.”

The man considered his words in silence. His companion to the right leaned slightly forward.

“This whole country used to be a great fountain of energy, surely, as an adept, you should know that. That’s just a natural phenomenon.”

“I’m aware of that,” Kel said, relieved he hadn’t offended the Tenki by his lack of manners. “But in the midst of this global radiance, I saw a star and I couldn’t resist its chant.”

He could almost see the frown crystallizing in the air. The shaman at the far left coughed slightly before speaking. His voice was very low and spoke of a great age.

“And what would you do with this star, once you find it?” There was a smile in these words, an amusement that surprised Kel.

“Well, I guess I would want to protect it.” He kept silent for a few seconds, wondering how much he should say. “The whole area energy network has been badly damaged and is mainly disrupted. That’s of course in relation with the disasters that have happened. If a… star, a new source of energy were to appear, it would be a hope to restore stability, in the etheric plane and subsequently in reality.”

There were slight movements in the shadows, the sound of fabric being rearranged…

“As I said to you, Kel is an adept. I’m sure we could benefit of his talents.” Kurozuki smiled thinly, his eyes twinkling in the dim light. “We should think about that and then maybe try to show him our work.”

The central Tenki nodded then gestured abruptly to his companions. “You may be right, we need to discuss this matter. Please show your companions the guests’ rooms. We’ll see them again tomorrow.”

Kurozuki bent again his forehead to the floor then stood up and guided them out. As they were trudging behind the young man, Kel leaned to Suzu and said: “They’re not only powerful, they’re also afraid.”

***

Suzu was shaken from his sleep by a rough hand. He blinked and looked around. There was no light in his room but he could sense the presence of the servant at his side. He sat, the hair at the back of his neck standing with the electric feel of the air. He wanted to take his woolen jacket but his companion grabbed him by the arm and dragged him abruptly outside. Suzu knew better than to protest. He followed the servant along the veranda and the covered passageways linking the various buildings. There were no shutters closing them from the outside and the night breeze was chill.

They arrived at a small anonymous pavilion. A pavilion Suzu knew well. He was left alone in a small side room. It was empty, lit by a single candle. In front of the candle, there was a single bowl, containing a dark red liquid. Suzu’s heartbeat accelerated and it seemed a faint melody could be heard from the distance, sad and haunting. He knelt fixing the mixture, breathing heavily. Briefly he closed his eyes then took the bowl and drained it. It was thick and bitter, as usual. Suzu felt light-headed. Darkness became a thin veil he could almost touch. He vaguely sensed the panel to his side slide open and someone step in. He felt detached… as usual. He knew he wasn’t himself anymore but couldn’t find the strength to worry about it. Hands descended upon his shoulders, pushing the folds of his tunic away, liberating the flesh.

Suzu sighed. A voice he knew well whispered in his ear: “Sshh, my precious, be silent. They’ll come soon enough. But for now, you’re mine.”

Part 3: The Prisoner

Kel couldn’t sleep. The atmosphere in the room felt stuffed and his skin prickled with unknown sensations. He wished he could have stayed with Suzu. There was something in the air like bad omens. His inner sight was confused by the chaotic flows of the ethers; he couldn’t sense his protégé. Even worst, he had no way to communicate with the outside without being found out.

After a few hours of restless dozing, he gave up and threw the drapes aside. He went to the opaque rice paper-fronted cabinet. Nothing. His things had disappeared. Cursing, he felt the whole depth of the closet and finally managed to slide the back aside. Beyond, his acute vision could make out the outlines of an empty room similar to his. How had they taken his bag without him hearing it?

He closed the panel and paced around. His instincts were screaming at him but he couldn’t afford to react too abruptly. This was another culture that had almost reversed back to its roots. He had had pointers about what was permitted or not in his position of an undesirable guest but he also knew his real status among this community was yet to be fully determined. He wanted to gather information, not to create enmity.

Trying to calm himself, he remembered it was a custom for the hosts to take the clothes of the guest so that they would be cleaned for the next day. Maybe he should see that as a mark of acknowledgement? But on the other hand, without his jacket, it would be much less pleasant to wander outside…

He left his room silently. The corridor was partly closed from the outside by latticed shutters. It circled the pavilion, linked to the other buildings by covered passageways. The domain consisted in a multitude of wooden houses of different sizes and warehouses gravitating around the mansion and enclosed by high fences. Outside, temples led the way from the Gate.

It was easy to loose yourself here. Kel retraced his way to the corridor where he and Suzu had been separated. There was a faint sound, almost like a chime that marked the passage of the boy. Kel followed the trail to an empty room. There was nothing, not even bedding. But he knew for sure that Suzu had stayed here long enough for his presence to resonate in the very walls. Of course there weren’t any traces of his departure.

Then he heard it. A chant, a resounding low tone that made his whole being vibrate in tune. Kel felt a shudder course his skin, as if something had touched it, the warm and soft caress of silk and the viscous and vile contact of slime; the contrast shocked him and his head pounded with the hammering of his survival instinct, the desperate tugging to flee. But his fear for Suzu surpassed his misgivings.

The chant was beckoning him. He obeyed the summons and found himself walking down a covered corridor opened to the outside leading to a dark wooden pavilion. What was emanating from this place was not human magic, it was something both familiar and totally alien, both beautiful and terrifying. In a corner of his mind he wondered if that was the way humans felt in front of the glory of harish powers released through Grissecon, the magic of Wraeththu through the meeting of flesh, aruna.

The chant was building up, forming now a column of radiance encompassing the pavilion. It felt so powerful that he wondered briefly if he weren’t seeing it with his real eyes rather than his inner sense. It was soaring to the sky, bridging the heavens to the earth. Kel looked up in awe… and awe turned to horror when, from the light, shot a tendril of fire, a fist of power aimed at him that crashed through the roof of the passageway into the ground.

***

As the sun was raising, a messenger left the Daitori to the city. He headed straight to the carpenter’s house: the Tenki wanted the passageway leading to the East Tea Pavilion repaired before the autumn festival. Not once did he wonder about what could have torn it down to pieces.

***

It was dark and cold. Somewhere, water was dripping, echoing all around. A cave.

Kel tried to move and thousands arrows of pain pierced his body. Tears welled up behind his closed eyelids. He applied himself to still his panting, choking from the incense-filled atmosphere.

It took him several minutes to clear his mind. He was a fool. He had thought himself superior to these people and had let his guard down. He had been even more foolish to act alone. Those people were adepts, they knew their land and its energy, they had manipulated it for years…

A sudden realization dawned on him: it had been Suzu. Suzu had attacked him. His aura’s signature was still lingering around, clinging to him like an invisible mist. But why? It didn’t make sense. The boy liked him. The harish enchantment had bewitched him, he was sure of that. Furthermore he was truly fond of Suzu and he knew his protégé had felt it… So why?

Kel’s body had calmed down and now he could venture out of the mental cocoon he had built to shelter himself against the pain storm.

He was bound. He hung from the ceiling of the cave, his arms stretched above his head, his shoulders knots of fire. His legs were spread wide below him, his ankles anchored to metal rings in the ground.

He was naked and cold as ice. His breath was clouding in front of his face. Had he been a man, he would have long been dead of hypothermia. But his condition was very bad. Checking himself mentally, he wondered about the pain. He had not been beaten up, at least physically, so what?…

Naked?

He then realized with horror he felt stuffed, filled up, invaded. His soume-lam, the most obvious proof of his transformation into Wraeththu… there was something in his soume-lam! And not only there! It hurt. The things inside him were huge and terribly hard, as if made of stone. His soume-lam had tried to ease the penetration but its fluids hadn’t been enough. His flesh was stretched almost to its limits and from the pain, he wondered if his insides hadn’t been ruptured.

And his ouana-lim, the modified organ of men… It must have tried to retract inside his body when his soume-lam had been forced so his torturers had bound it. The strap around its base snaked back between his legs and buttocks to secure the objects of torture inside him and finally circled his waist like a belt.

His mouth was opened by a crude wooden bar bound to the back of his head.

Images of horror flashed through his mind, ancient times… but back then he hadn’t been the victim. He could still hear the wails, the despair, he could feel the self-loathing again…

A nightmare.

Time became the drops of water on the cold stone, seconds painful breathing after painful breathing in his disconnected mind. Had they abandoned him here, a sacrifice to the Earth Gods of this land? After what felt like hours, he heard footsteps coming from behind and with it dim light filled the cave.

A boy appeared in front of him, not much older than Suzu. He was carrying a lantern and a large basket, its content hidden under a cloth.

Kel was stricken by the expression of his face. Pride, resentment, sadness… He had seen such joyful children in the streets of Shinseimon, why were all the lost souls attracted to him?

His visitor looked him coldly in the eye then said: “I’m Akio, the ‘white prince’. I’m in charge of you. I have permission to punish you if you don’t behave.”

He came very close to Kel, holding his lantern high to light his face.

“You’re beautiful, envoy, but that won’t save you. You should have leave here when you could. All of those who approach Suzu are doomed.”

His hair was of the sick yellows and reds of the lantern’s flame and his eyes of pale red gleamed with a badly hidden rage.

“I’ll remove the gag but if you say anything, I’ll burn you.”

Kel nodded and his mouth was freed. Akio took a flask and made him drink. The liquid tasted sweet, certainly drugged, he didn’t care. He drank as much as he could, not letting a drop escape his lips. Then the boy produced a cloth and a basin where he poured the contents of a bottle; soaking the cloth with the fluid, he cleaned Kel’s body with it.

Kel was feeling light-headed. The drug must have been quite potent to be able to affect him so quickly. His mind was already clouding and thoughts started to dissolve into the fog. He was only and wholly sensations, feeling his body acutely and painfully. Akio smiled and stood up, lifting the prisoner’s face by the chin.

“I think we’ve finally arrived to the interesting point.”

Kel lost sight of his caretaker and then his right ankle was free and then his left one. Though his feet touched the ground, he hadn’t the strength to stand to ease the pain of his shoulders. And as he tried to close his legs, fire shot up from his genitalia, reminding him of his predicament.

He heard Akio walk away and then he was slowly lowered to the ground. He fell disgracefully, dazed by the drug and the pain. Akio came back to him, strengthened his arms and legs, causing Kel to moan.

“Stay still, I’ll relieve your pain soon,” he said, sounding busy.

From the corner of the eye, Kel saw Akio putting on gloves before kneeling between his legs. Kel cried out when he removed the objects from inside him. Panting, he watched Akio polishing two long white oval stones engraved with red carvings. His guardian washed them with the liquid he had used on his body, chanting softly while doing so, then he put them down on a white cloth. He removed his gloves and threw them in the basin with an expression of distaste.

“Now don’t you feel hungry?” he asked lightly.

He fed his prisoner some tasteless soup and helped him to the entrance of the cave to relieve himself. Then he threw him into a cold stream nearby to finish the cleansing. Kel almost drowned as he hadn’t much control over his drugged body and Akio didn’t hurry in rescuing him from the water. Finally he dragged him back to the cave and dried him with a rough towel.

“Akio…”

The boy looked at him with surprise. “How can you talk with so much drug in your blood?”

Kel nodded. His tongue felt so heavy and his lips paralyzed… but he had to find a way.

“I mean… no harm…”

Akio shook his head, smiling sadly.

“I told you, that’s Suzu’s fault. You shouldn’t have told him about yourself, now he covets your powers. He’ll go as far as to kill you to have them.”

“Suzu would never…”

“He’s not what he appears.”

Akio came behind him to massage his shoulders with a pungent balm.

“Don’t lose your breath to defend him. You’ll need all your strength to survive… if you can.”

Kel caught his eyes. “Help me.”

Akio smiled. “You know I can’t.”

“I only want you to go to Suzu… speak to him.”

The boy looked agitated. “You trust him very much.”

Kel nodded. His energy was wearing thin. Akio stood up, dusting his tunic angrily.

“I shouldn’t even speak to you. You’re trying to fool me!”

He went to fetch the stone talismans. Kel gritted his teeth when they were inserted again. Restraints, ropes, chains. Pain. Finally the gag.

Akio gathered his things and made for the exit. At the mouth of the cave he turned back and contemplated the hanged body surrounded by wisps of incense.

He walked away.

***

Light was pouring through the glazed panel of the round window. Suzu blinked. He didn’t recognize the room. Something was most unusual… It had been unusual from the beginning in fact. He had been led to the East Pavilion and had undertaken the Rite of Calling but it had been too early. Every year, this ceremony used to take place by the end of the winter. They’d call upon the Elementals of this land to bring forth the spring and restore the energy of the earth. He would drink the rite potion and five days later, he would wake in his room in the ancient temple with no memories of the few days’ past events.

But this time… He tried to sit up but a sharp pain caught him by surprise and prevented him from doing so. Something was definitely wrong! He crawled out of his bedding, looking around the room. Through the translucent rice paper panels of the sliding door, he could see servants passing by his room. Some stopped briefly to arrange flowers in a nearby alcove. Suzu strained to hear their chatting. The Rite of Calling… it had taken place the night before? Wincing through the pain, he stood up and slid the door open, surprising the servants.

“Excuse me, can you tell me… do you know where Kel is? The man who was with me…”

They shook their heads fearfully and scurried away, leaving their task unfinished. The cut flowers brought a light perfume in the air. Suzu supported himself on the alcove’s rim. He had never been alone in the mansion, he didn’t know it at all and yet he had to… He ambled along the empty corridors. It was as if he had conjured a globe of void around him, everything was so quite. A wooden bucket filled with water abandoned to the side of a passageway, a book left by an inner garden, incense burning from a small altar in a side room…

Suzu quickly lost track of where he was going and where he came from. His behind hurt, he was hungry and thirsty. He was worried about Kel… He tripped over and lay panting on the wooden floor. His eyes filled with angry tears of frustration. He was useless! He couldn’t do anything right!

“Are you all right?” Gentle hands took hold of him and helped him up, gentle hands that froze suddenly. “Suzu?”

The boy looked up and wiped his eyes. Then he saw him. He stepped back instinctively.

“Are you a spirit?” Suzu asked, torn between fascination and fear.

The other looked stunned by his words, then laughed bitterly.

“My name’s Akio. And I’m not a spirit, I’m an albinos. That’s why my hair and skin are very pale and my pupils are red… colorless in fact.”

Suzu blushed. “Thank you for your help. If you could tell me the way to the room of Kel, the man who came with me?”

Akio looked him sternly in the eye and Suzu squirmed with embarrassment. “I’m worried about him. He’s been so kind with me, I feel responsible for his coming here… And when I woke up this morning, there was something wrong…”

“You don’t look well. Maybe you should go back to your room.” Akio’s voice was very cold and Suzu wondered if he had only listened to his last words.

The albinos forcefully gripped his shoulders and guided him back the way he had come. Before long Suzu started to recognize the corridors they were walking along. After the next turn…

“He shouldn’t have woken up until the evening. The drug was very potent…” someone stammered from around the corner.

“You, incompetent idiot! Search the house, he shouldn’t be far! And call Kurozuki, he’s the best when dealing with him.”

Both boys had been frozen by the harsh voice. Someone ran away then they heard angry footsteps coming their way. Instinctively they turned and almost fell in the room to their side. Akio closed the panel hurriedly and their breath caught in their chest, they watched a tall silhouette pass them by.

The footsteps died away. They sighed with relief then looked at each other defiantly.

“That was Master Takayama,” said Akio, unable to repress a shudder. “I had never heard him this… furious.”

Suzu nodded. “Was it me or… it sounded as if they drugged me to keep me in this room?”

Akio nodded. “What did you do?”

“What did I do?” Suzu yelped, surprised and angry all of the sudden. “Nothing! It was them who made me take on the Rite of Calling although it’s not even winter! And I don’t remember a thing, as usual, how would I know if anything went wrong? Maybe it was them who messed it up!”

Fear and frustration spilled out in his words, sweeping away all traces of self-consciousness or shame. He always did his best to satisfy the demands of the Ancient Ones, so why was it always his fault?

His companion shook his head in bewilderment. Catching fear in his eyes, Suzu’s anger melted away.

“I’m sorry,” he said and tried to bend forward to apologize. But pain shot up his spine and he would have fallen forward without Akio’s intervention.

“What’s that?” the white boy yelped, holding him in his arms, looking at the back of his robe.

“What’s what?” panted Suzu.

“You have blood on your cloth! You didn’t have it back when I found you, I’m sure of that. You’re bleeding!”

“Ah… that would explain… why I feel like I sat… on thorns… maybe I should…”

He fainted before he could finish.

***

In the darkness of his cave, Kel smiled thinly.

Maybe I underestimated them, but they underestimated me too.

First, those talismans shoved in his most intimated places: beside the pain and humiliation, they had absolutely no power against him or his powers. They weren’t powerless but they could do nothing against him. Those adepts had no notion of his nature, too bad for them.

Second, the drugs: they were quite potent but couldn’t stand a chance in front of his enhanced metabolism. Furthermore, despite his confusion, Kel was no little adept himself: he had lived through war and pain before and had learned many things from his cruelest experiences. He knew how to put the pain aside to concentrate all his will in specific zones of his brain and body to further accelerate the process of elimination of the drugs.

And third, his restraints: once he regained a clear mind, they were nothing but small disturbances. Using the fingers of his mind, he undid the chains around his ankles and unfastened the rope around his wrists. He fell to his side, readying himself for the next step.

He removed his gag and with disgust, he took the stone talismans slowly from inside his body. Someone would have to pay for that! Toying with the one that had been inserted in his soume-lam, he imagined forcing it inside the body of his torturers, the corrosive and deadly kiss of his own fluids inside human flesh…

A drop of icy water splashed on his head, bringing him back from his vengeful reverie. What was he thinking about?! That was the kind of thinking he had wanted to escape when he had left the Uigenna, his original tribe. This cave was a cradle of evil intentions and torture, it conjured up the worst of everyone…

Another drop of icy water splashed on his head.

“What?” he said aloud, amused at the thought of the cave retorting to him. “You don’t control our actions, you mean? Well, sometimes, I think you should.”

He chuckled and stood up. The air felt less cold somewhat. He walked to the entrance of his prison and looked around. On each side of the cave’s entrance stood two short birches, their thin trunk very white; sacred cord braids had been woven around them, marking this territory as invested by forces of upper planes. It was high in the mountain hovering above Shinseimon. Kel could see the lazy wisps of smoke from the roofs of the city. For the first time since he had recovered his freedom, he thought of Suzu and what Akio had said to him. He couldn’t believe that Suzu had betrayed him, but he couldn’t ignore the fact that the boy had been the only one to know his real nature. The boy had spoken of the danger of his body for humans to his hosts and… That the disclosure had been misinterpreted and that he had found himself stuffed like a fowl was only a side issue.

Kel drank from a stream, gathered some wood and entered the cave again. He didn’t intend to burn the wood in a real fire otherwise he would suffocate before long. But he could initiate an auto-generating energy light with the binding forces of the wood molecules (somewhat it was more difficult with the stone molecules, but he had often wondered if it was not just the mind’s prejudices).

Then he composed himself in trance and wove a light cordon of wards around the entrance of the cave that would alert him in case of intrusion. He considered his work with satisfaction, then turned his astral attention towards the city below. It would be hard to wander unnoticed but at the same time he had a chance to blend in the crowd of lost souls and wandering ghosts around Shinseimon, hadn’t he?

Part 4: The Adept

Akio had never been felt so agitated in his whole life. There he was, in his shady room, sitting beside someone he had learned to hate for years. He was tending him, caring for him, worrying for him. Had he been wrong all this time or was this boy such a trickster, being able to inspire sympathy even to his greatest enemy?

The irony was that Suzu was replaying the exact situation that had been at the origin of the hatred Akio felt for him.

“It was the custom to offer a human sacrifice to the Gods every year,” Akio whispered, eyes cast down on his pale companion, “sometimes the Offered One would come back healthy without any memories of what had happened, sometimes he would disappear forever. When Kurozuki discovered you and brought you back here, you became our hope. You were said to be a saint able to communicate with the Gods and return Their Blessings to us without any further sacrifices…

“That year, my older brother, the heir of our family, was supposed to be the Offered One. I hoped and prayed… but the Council of Tenki judged you too young, your powers still too raw… My brother was sent in the mountain… And he came back. I thought it was thanks to you. But after a few days he fell ill. Just like you, he bled and bled… he bled to death, high fever stealing his mind from us…”

Akio clenched his fists. “You should have died in his place.”

But the words sounded empty, the words of a malediction whose force had somewhat faded away. Akio took the cloth on Suzu’s forehead and soaked it in the water of the basin beside him before replacing him.

“I was never as good as my brother. Because of my illness, the Council decided my cousin should be the head of the family instead of me, the ‘white prince’…”

He looked around at his room, at the boxes and jars filled with herbs and liquids.

“They took me as a Council apprentice to learn the healing arts with Master Tenme. I learned to help and appease, comfort and heal… but who will heal my wounds?”

***

Akio was running up the path to the cave.

What did I do?

Sweat was running down his back and not only because of his exertion: he was in charge of the prisoner and he had failed his duty. Because of Suzu, he had forgotten to visit Kel in the evening of the past day. Why did he pick him up? He should have turned him to Master Takayama when he got the occasion! His behavior was a treason to his masters and a disgrace for his whole family! It was a disgrace for the memory of his brother!!

Why was he thinking like that, caring, worrying, what had turned his spirit into a hateful sentimental fool? He knew what the right behavior was but then, his mind couldn’t help going back to Suzu alone unconscious in his room.

He had spent almost all of the night beside him, cleaning his sweating face, making him drink abundantly. He had even tried his newly honed skills in the art of energy healing on him, feeling his vital points through his hands and applying his will to regulate his energy currents. But up until this morning, his fever hadn’t abated.

He had tried to persuade himself none would ever come to search in the medical pavilion but if Suzu was to wake up, his confused mind could make him wander around, at the risk of being discovered or hurting himself… Akio clenched his fist around the basket handle. He’ll be quick with Kel. Whatever the foreigner would tell him, he wouldn’t listen. That was his fault in the first place that his life had been turned upside down all of the sudden.

As he passed by the twin white birches, a fit of giddiness took him: the ground rocked under him, then after only a few seconds, he was back running towards the mouth of the cave. He staggered and shook his head. What was that? As his mind cleared up, he suddenly became aware of a sound… a very familiar sound. He dropped his basket and lantern and ran inside, his breath caught in his chest. There was light inside, light and this bent silhouette…

“Master!!”

The old man turned and waved cheerfully at him. “You’re late, Akio.”

The boy stopped dead when he caught full sight of the center of the cave. Master Tenme was sitting cross-legged on the floor… in front of a freed Kel who was smugly smiling at him.

“Why have you unbound him! He’s dangerous!”

“Akio, shut your mouth and come here.” The herbalist’s voice was still gentle but his disciple knew better than disobey. His wrinkled face looked younger than he had ever seen it and his small deep set eyes shone with renewed vitality. “By the way, my dear boy, I didn’t free him nor were you careless in binding him back. He took care of it himself.”

He chuckled. Akio was completely at a loss. Tenme patted the ground beside him. “Come and sit here quietly, we’re not done speaking, Kel and I.”

“Master,” Akio insisted while settling as he had been ordered, “you’re acting against the Council’s decree. Even though you took part in the debates… what if they find you out?”

“You weren’t there, Akio. Those debates…” His master’s voice hardened. “They’re blinding themselves. I’m not as gifted as many of the other Tenki, but I know my art like no other… From the very first moment, I knew our visitor was more than what he appeared to be. I’m sure you can see it too, you’re, after all, my most talented pupil in years. Try to focus your inner eye on Kel. That should occupy you while we’re busy.”

Akio mechanically assumed the mental stance of aura screening. But it was hard to concentrate on the etheral level when his earthly eyes were so busy drinking in the stranger’s beauty. Kel wore a traditional double-layer garment, the white rim of the under-cloth visible beyond the dark red tunic. The silken wide belting strap underlined his slender waist. His long pale legs appeared between the full-length slit of his flowing gown. In a matter of hours, this being had transformed into an enthralling creature, confident and powerful. No wonder Suzu had thought him sent from heaven…

“I can’t do much for you,” Master Tenme was saying with a sigh. “I don’t have that much influence in the Council. I’m considered like a side Tenki at most. I’m kept from most of the magical events. But that doesn’t prevent me from catching hints.”

“What do you know about Suzu?” Kel asked, rubbing at his arms. Akio could see waves of body heat shooting through the hands.

“Quite a lot actually.” And the herbalist looked pensive. “But I wonder if I should confide in you. I have no doubt you only want to protect him, but I can’t ignore Kurozuki’s opinion. He’s positive you want to take him away from us. I can’t let you do that.”

“Is Suzu really happier with us?”

Both adults turned to Akio with surprise. “Why would you think he’s not happy here?” Master Tenme asked with a frown.

The boy, pulled from his contemplative state of mind, blushed under his elders’ scrutiny. “I… I spoke to him.” Just as expected, his master looked surprised, as he knew his past. “Kel asked me to do so. I didn’t really intend to but… by chance, I met him… found him actually…”

Compelled by the eyes of his master, he told them about his encounter with Suzu. Kel frowned. “Is it a custom of yours to abuse those who are brought to your care?”

Master Tenme appeared genuinely agitated. “We do not abuse him…”

Kel looked him up with a sneer. “You, a master of the healing arts? Don’t lie to yourself. Even if you don’t witness it, you can tell from the symptoms. I can tell. What do you receive to cover your colleagues’ activities?”

“How dare you?” Akio jumped to punch their former prisoner but the man easily caught his fist and pushed him back roughly.

“Be quiet, white puppy, I’m not done talking with your master.” Kel’s eyes were as cold as ice.

Master Tenme stood up slowly and helped his student up. “We’re done actually,” he said stonily. “I came here because I thought it unfair you should suffer without knowing why but I can’t support you if you want to take Suzu away and if you handle my disciple so roughly. And I don’t believe your intentions are as pure as you say.”

Kel stood up as well, his face grim. “I can’t let you go. If the rest of the Council find out that I’m free, they’ll hunt me down and that would be inconvenient.”

“You can’t restrain us!” Akio retorted. “You can’t go back to the city for now and Suzu is wounded and alone. I must go back!”

***

He wasn’t fully conscious but his dozing mind could perceive what was going on around him. The door sliding open, the soft footsteps, the door sliding close again, the rustling of fabric, the breathing.

“You sure are surprising, white prince. Daring defy the will of the Council… You’ll make a wonderful sacrifice.”

Suzu recognized Kurozuki’s voice, but not the cold and sarcastic edge of his tone. It pulled him out of his numbness and his frightened mind advised him against opening his eyes. He tried to keep his breathing slow and hoped he wouldn’t faint from the lack of air. Kurozuki walked around the room, glass clinked.

“Now I’ll take this for the trouble of searching Suzu all around.”

Then he went closer to the boy. “Those idiots, I told them to have someone guarding you.”

The cloth on his forehead was lifted then replaced, wet. “Fever… That’s to be expected. I just hope they’ve not ruptured you too badly… those foolish old men… But wait, my love, I’ll soon gather enough power to send them back to where they belong. Then you’ll be wholly mine.”

Hair caressed his cheeks and soft lips came to kiss his… Before Suzu betrayed himself, Kurozuki’s whole weight flopped down on him, making him struggle weakly.

“Ssh, calm down.” Suzu almost cried from relief. “Kel? You’re all right?”

Kurozuki’s unconscious body was lifted from him and he saw a smiling gentle face above him. “Quite all right.” The foreigner supported him when he moved to sit. “What was this little bastard doing to you?”

Suzu started to blush then a sharp pain made him wince. Kel laid him back again. “Sorry, I forgot.”

The man… har turned towards the door. “Akio, do you have another tunic, we’ll need to change him after I’m done with him.”

The albinos boy appeared behind his shoulder. “What are you going to do to him?”

“Healing magic. Take a good look, boy, and learn.”

Try to relax, it’ll make things easier. The voice rang clearly in Suzu’s mind, confident and reassuring.

Kel pushed the light blanket aside and unfastened his robe. Cold air brushed Suzu’s flesh. Fingers touched his skin, tracing patterns on his chest, down his belly, following his hipbones’ lines…

“You have a hemorrhage…” Kel whispered, his brows furrowed. “It’s pretty messy in here. Your insides are ruptured in several places, it’s a miracle the infection hasn’t settled more deeply.”

“If his blood is infected, it’ll contaminate all of the organs and…”

“Ssh, Akio, I need to concentrate. Obviously if he’s still coherent, it’s not too late.”

“Can you really repair torn tissues without opening his body?”

“Please take care of Kurozuki, I’m busy,” Kel said dismissively.

Suzu felt a strange heat spread in his body from Kel’s fingertips.

This is called Agmara, Kel whispered in his mind. The energy of creation. Can you feel its flow? Just let it restore your being. Slowly.

So strange, this tingling inside him, alien yet exhilarating. Universal energy coursing through Kel, invading him, a simple human, a tiny light in an ocean of stars… It felt like Kel was embracing him.

I love you, Suzu whispered in a daze.

You don’t know what love is, Kel replied softly.

***

Akio was torn between awe and panic, bewilderment and wonder. Some hours ago, his life was simple, he knew where he was, where he was going and what for. Now the one who had destroyed his life from the beginning was in his care, another who was considered among the wisest of his people was in his custody and a perfect stranger was issuing orders. A perfect, beautiful and deadly stranger. This creature’s aura was blinding and when he used his powers, it took his breath away, as if he was seeing a door opening to another world.

Kel knelt back on his heels and sighed. “I did what I could, we’ll have to repeat it until he’s completely healed.”

Akio looked at the young face. “Suzu…”

“He’s sleeping. I could only draw that much power for the healing… I’m not familiar with the energy patterns of your land and to say the least, it’s a complete mess. Too much tampering…” He shook his head.

“Tell me… what happened to Suzu…it is…”

“I don’t know why they did it but that’s barbarian and believe me, I know what I’m talking about.”

Akio hesitated. “Are you really an envoy? From your people?”

Kel scratched his head. “I guess you could say so… except that few of my people know I’ve come here.”

“I don’t know you or your people,” the albinos said. “You may be worse than us…” Kel looked up at him, surprised by his low and sad tone. “But if you aren’t, then maybe you should take Suzu with you.”

“You disagree with your mentor?”

“My people… they sacrificed people for I don’t know what reasons, year after year. They took… my brother… and Suzu. They take him… in this manner, they soil his body and soul, they even soil their own souls by those atrocities… I don’t know what they seek but… the prize is too high. The Gods can take back their island, we can’t afford it, not like that.”

Kel looked at this boy, this white prince, his fists clenched so hard his knuckles were white. “I think you deserve your title of ‘white prince’ after all,” he said softly. “Do you know what I am?”

“I know what I’ve been said, that you’re a magical creature coming from beyond this land, that you have magical powers. I saw how… your body is different and how powerful you were.”

Kel nodded. “My people is called Wraeththu, I’m a ‘har’ and you can say we derive from humanity. But we can achieve things that humanity only dreamed of. Our bodies’ capabilities are enhanced as well as our psychic talents. Originally there was only one of us, but now we’re several hundreds, maybe thousands hara – that’s the plural for ‘har’. We increase our numbers by transforming young human men, we ‘incept’ them. We want to take as many as we can because we believe it’s the best for all of humanity, to evolve to this new horizon.”

“And you came here to start your kind among us?”

Kel nodded. “I didn’t tell this to Suzu because I thought he was too fragile, his mind is undermined by his loneliness. He had no ideas of what was going on in the world, he was like an innocent infant. But you’re different even though you’re still a child to me. You know more of how this life works.”

“You want to make Suzu… and me… like you?”

“I want Suzu among our ranks, that’s for sure, you… you would be an invaluable asset but…” He hesitated.

“My illness?” Akio tried to swallow down his bitterness.

Kel nodded. “That’s not what you believe. The inception is not something easy. Even healthy men don’t make it and we don’t know why. Some people we thought too weak made magnificent hara but that’s not the general rule. In general, the healthiest you are, better are the chances to survive inception. Were you to undertake inception, your syndrome could mean death for you. You have to know that.”

Akio could see death around him, tears, grief. He swallowed hard. “When you’re finished taking your pick among us to create your… community, what would happen to those who are left, older men, women, children?”

“For the children, we’ll simply have to wait for them to grow, then we’ll incept them. For those who can’t be incepted, that’s their choice. We can live peacefully together or…”

“War.”

“I’ll be honest, in most of the lands hara have invested since the beginning, it’s been war. But I believe co-existence is possible.”

Akio shook his head sadly. “It’ll be war. The Tenki will never hand their land to you.”

***

Akio sat straight in front of his bench-like desk, writing slowly elaborate characters with a thick brush. After a while, he put down his tool and taking the ink stick, he gritted it slowly into the rectangular shallow ink case to replenish his stock. Impatient footsteps resounded in the corridor. One thin silhouette knelt down and slid the door open. Then, Master Takayama, stepped over the threshold, his features set in an angry scold.

Akio put down the ink stick and rubbed his hands on a cloth. He turned and bowed to the ground, then looked up, his face a blank mask.

“Sir…”

“Have you seen Suzu? Or Kurozuki?”

“No, sir.” He inclined his head, pretending submission.

“And how is Kel?”

“As I’ve been ordered, I’ve taken care of him.”

“You’ll have to visit him more frequently and check the seals more cautiously, the twin birches power may be able to contain this stranger but if there’s a rebellious coalition with a Tenki around here, they might be able to use him.”

Akio bent forward, his forehead touching briefly the mats. He needed this to hide his surprise.

“Be careful around Kurozuki,” Takayama said darkly. “If he questions you about the foreigner, don’t say anything. We’ve been too lenient with this young wolf. It’s time to herd him back, him and his ambitions.”

He looked around the room, at the hanging scroll depicting a heron in flight between bamboo shoots, at the pale fabric of a screen, the modest flower arrangement in the decorative alcove. But there would be no calming balm for his mind.

“Where is your master?” he barked.

“I don’t know, he gave me some tasks to attend to and I haven’t seen him since then.”

“When you see him, tell him the Council will meet this evening.”

“Should I tell this to Kurozuki too if I see him?”

“No, he’s not invited to this particular council.”

At that, the Tenki turned around and walked out. His servant kneeling outside of the room slid the door closed after his passage and standing up fluidly, she hurried after her master without a word.

Akio sighed and after putting his calligraphy tools hastily back in their box, he went to the chamber they had created by moving a light opaque panel in the middle of the room.

“Well done,” Kel said with a wink. “Have you heard it all, my dear Kurozuki?”

The young man struggled in his binds. His face was contorted in a mask of hate, his mouth opening and closing wildly although no sound came out.

“Don’t waste your strength, Kuro, I’ve blocked your vocal cords,” Kel said nonchalantly. “And if I were you, I wouldn’t attract the attention of your council. They think you a traitor, I have no doubt they’d treat you the same way they treated me.” He toyed with one of the talisman that had tortured him. “Do you guess where this cute little thing was used on me?”

“Kel, please…”

Suzu had caught hold of his hand, his eyes pleading. Kel threw him the stone negligently.

“You’d better steel yourself, Suzu, there’s no place for kindness in what we’re doing right now. And there won’t be for a long time.”

“I understand but…”

“Do you still believe Kurozuki takes your well-being to heart?” Kel asked. “He abused you as much as the other Tenki.”

“But what he said…”

“Are you in love with him?”

“No!” Suzu blushed and cast a shameful glance at the young Tenki who now stood rigid, watching him intently. “I trusted you…”

Kurozuki tried to argue to no avail and looked at Kel, his eyes more pleading than menacing now.

“Can you release his voice?” Suzu asked. “I want to hear what he has to say.”

Akio started to protest but Kel nodded. “We need information anyway.” He turned to their prisoner. “I’ll let you speak but you won’t be able to do more than whisper.”

“Suzu, I had to behave like them,” the shaman said coarsely. “I’ve worked hard to become one of them, to earn their trust! I did all this to gain enough power to free you from their influence, please believe me!”

Those words seemed to strike Suzu like a punch.

“You were a shaman before you found me,” he countered angrily. “You worked only for yourself, not for me! I was only a tool to you! I almost died because of you! You and all the Tenki, you drugged me, you raped me and you used me to gain control of this land’s energy, you perverted it! You’ve worked to become that kind of person? It’s disgusting! No wonder the spirits flee in front of you!”

Akio restrained him and put a finger in front of his lips with a wince. Kurozuki looked stunned. Suzu was panting, his emotions taking their toll on his forces, his eyes full of tears of anger.

“You should interrogate him then we’d better dispose of him,” Akio said to Kel.

Suzu wheeled round towards the albinos, shocked. “Dispose of him?”

“Even if the Council disavows him, he won’t give up on you, Suzu,” Kel said patiently.

“We can’t kill him!”

“Obviously not you two, but I can kill without a second thought, leave it to me.” The har talked confidently and with this kind of off-handed manner that sent shudders down the spine.

“Wait, no, don’t kill me, I can be of use to you!” Kurozuki said, snapping out of his own shock. “I’ll tell you everything you want to know!”

Akio looked at him with despise.

“You’ll tell us anyway.” Kel shrugged.

“I don’t want you to kill him!” Suzu protested.

“You were ready to go for his throat a few minutes ago,” Akio remarked.

“We can’t build this new community of yours on death, Kel,” Suzu pleaded.

“Yes we can. That’s the usual way, if you look at your history books.” His tone was mischievous. “But well, I’ll wait. We currently need him. Maybe in the meantime, you’ll find better arguments to keep him alive.”

***

They had to wait for Master Tenme to arrive. He had had to descend from the mountain alone at his slower pace. Obviously, from his fresher clothes, he even took some time in his rooms to clean up the dust from his walk. His features were grim, but he had agreed to follow Kel for the sake of Akio. And he wanted to know exactly what was going on for all these years just under his nose.

“The Rite of Calling is called at the end of the winter a little while after the turning of the season. Some of the first Tenki calculated that date and since then, sacrifices were sent in the sacred cave to wait for the will of the Gods to manifest. I don’t know how it started as I was still a child. The year I was made a Tenki, a young woman was sent to the cave. The Calling succeeded and a spirit was attracted to her. And then…” Kurozuki shook his head. “It was the first time I witnessed such barbarity. They ritually raped her and killed her. Afterwards, they told me the blood was necessary to initiate me into the Inner Circle of the Tenki Council, that it was a blessing from the Gods. I think it was a test. If I hadn’t been able to take it, I would have been sacrificed.”

“Why do they do… such things to the sacrificed? Why sometimes do they let them come back?” Akio asked.

“If the sacrificed became possessed by a spirit, the ritual intercourse symbolizes the transmission of powers. The Tenki Council uses them to deflect the strength of the natural disasters, such as earthquakes and typhoons. They’ve become much less destructive since the Rite of Calling had been instated.”

Kel shook his head in dismay. “You’re a bunch of fools. Tampering with climate patterns is the worst use of magic that can exist. For one, this gets you in a spiral because once you’ve started, you can’t stop anymore otherwise you’ll get an even worse natural disaster on your head. Then you disturb greatly the energy patterns of your land and after a while, of the whole world. The disasters you deflect don’t disappear, they move on to other areas.”

Kurozuki was taken aback by his dark tone. Akio shook him. “And what happens to those who are not possessed? If the Rite doesn’t succeed?”

“If the Calling doesn’t succeed, they have to find another source of power. That’s when the Offered One is killed. The power of blood, of the torn soul. That’s the worst.”

Suzu shuddered. “I can’t believe this…” he whimpered. “That’s not the way we are. We’re better than that, surely…”

Kel took him in his arms and caressed his cheek, his eyes sad. “We are better. There’s always been two sides in our nature, Human, Wraeththu. The Ying and Yang. The Dark and the Light. A Balance, a choice.”

The boy nodded hesitantly then straightened up. He looked at Kurozuki. “And then, you found me.”

“I was checking on the energy patterns when I discovered you. You were living with the survivors of the southern islands, weren’t you?”

“The Old Ones,” Suzu said.

“Originally, they were living in small islands in the most southern part of the archipelago,” Kurozuki explained. ” ‘The people who lived the longest in the world’ they were called. When the tides started to rise, they choose to migrate to the main island temporarily. But their islands disappeared under the ocean forever. After that, they decided they’d never leave their land again. That was why they didn’t joined with the others to the continent. As they’ve always lived quite isolated from the main island and they were so old, we’ve never had any interest in them. I think they knew a lot more than we believed. One of them found Suzu as a baby and they brought him up. When I went to their settlement, they knew who I was and welcomed me warmly. They gave me sacred artifacts from the past and asked me to let them live in peace. They didn’t want to have any relation with us, the Banned Ones. I’ve always thought it was the old prejudices from the Other Ones, but now, I think they knew what we were doing. What was strange was that they were always so gentle and nice to me. They introduced me to Suzu and did all they could for us to become friends. Even back then, I became suspicious but up until now, I still haven’t fathom why they did this.”

“Prescience?”

Kurozuki cast a glance at Kel, sharp and a bit frightened. Kel held his gaze, a smile tugging at his lips.

“I was… I still am a dangerous predator. One knows when one meets another. We can smell the blood.”

“What do you mean?” Suzu asked with a shudder.

“Just what I said just a few moments ago. The two sides of anyone.”

“What does it have to do with Kurozuki?” the boy asked unnerved.

“Kurozuki is a predator,” Akio said with a stern look at his squirming patient. “I guess he was not completely innocent in the disappearance of the Old Ones.”

Suzu looked at the white prince with horror. “How can you say that?”

“Kurozuki came back to report his finding and then went away again to take you to us. After a while, my master and I noticed several specific herbs and powders had disappeared from our reserves. They were dangerous products so we had to make a complete inventory in order to be sure they hadn’t been mixed with others. It took us weeks. Now I start to understand why we never found them. What do you think, Master?”

He turned to the old man who appeared sad and shaken.

“Master?”

“You knew, didn’t you?” Kel said softly.

Tenme shook his head. “I didn’t but… When we started the inventory, Takayama called me and said Kurozuki had taken them as gifts to the ‘Old Ones’ as the products could be used to cure certain ailments of the great age. He asked me not to tell anyone and to complete the inventory.” He shook his head again.

“Master!” Akio’s face would have bleached if it weren’t already so white. “You knew, you couldn’t be abused by such a lame excuse! The quantities were too large! And how could old ignorant people use those medicines that needed such accurate dosages! You had to know!”

Tenme couldn’t meet his student’s eyes.

“Calm down, Akio,” Kel said sternly. “Otherwise your voice will attract people.”

“You had to know,” Akio repeated to his master with a low desperate tone. “How could you? You who taught me compassion and kindness…”

The older Tenki stood up slowly. “I think I’ve heard enough for today,” he said with a cracked exhausted voice. “I leave you youngsters, I have to prepare for the Council meeting. Akio, you’ll report the rest to me tomorrow.”

The albinos sat stunned, his eyes set fixedly on the closed door panel. Suzu extended a hand but Akio backed away.

“Do you still want me to continue?” Kurozuki asked, sounding tired.

“Are there other important things we need to know?” Kel asked.

“Well after the first examination of Suzu, the Tenki decided it was better for Suzu to stay away from us as often as possible to keep his mind from earthly matters. We isolated him in the old temple with an eye on him to ensure nobody would steal him from us and he had no contact with anyone else. The first time we enacted the Rite of Calling with him, we had access to the spirit the most powerful we had ever encountered. It fed us so much power it lasted for months afterwards, even after we used it for our climate meddling. It was intoxicating. It was very difficult for us to stop the Rite, as it was so exhilarating. We had to when Suzu passed out and we became aware he was badly hurt. From this first time, we learnt about our darkest side and we learnt somehow to rein it. Suzu would have been long dead if we hadn’t.”

Suzu had put his hands over his ears and was shaking his head. Only his poor condition prevented him from fleeing the room.

“You didn’t have to give so much detail,” Akio said coldly.

“I thought you wanted to know how Suzu is special.” Kurozuki shrugged.

“And you wanted him for you alone. I wonder if you would have been able to handle him all by yourself,” Kel mused teasingly. “You would have gone crazy after one or two tries if you wouldn’t have killed him right at your first attempt.”

“What do you mean?” Kurozuki asked, his face white.

“I wonder why, as a Tenki and keeper of the history of your people, you ignored this. The spirits you call upon are all etheral creatures of this land after all. There are spirits, gods, goddesses… and a large choice of demons too. If I remember correctly, there are beings of the Heavens, beings of the Underworld and beings of the Earth. All three sorts roam this land. You had absolutely no control of who would answer the Call. From what I gathered, Suzu’s essence is more attuned to the spirits of the Earth, but with the taint of your Rite, I guess you would attract a totally different kind of spirits. Only the restraints of a body of flesh and the combined powers of the Tenki could keep them at your mercy.”

Kurozuki shuddered. Suzu seemed on the verge of collapsing. Akio sat straight and rigid, his gaze fixed on Kel. The har stretched his arms, as if he had said nothing and stifled a yawn. In the dim light of the end of the day, he appeared more than ever like a creature from another world, cruelly beautiful.

“Akio, I think it’s past dinner time. How about you go and fetch us something?”

“I… don’t want to eat anything,” Suzu stammered.

“You will eat,” Kel said with a lazy smile that somewhat reminded them of Kurozuki’s smile. “You need all your strength to recover. Whatever happens, that’s your priority. Then when you’re well again, I’ll incept you and you will be the greatest adept of this land, thrust me.”

Suzu shuddered.

***

Kel decided they would stay in Akio’s room for the night. The Tenki had sent their men outside the Daitori and he thought it improbable they would try a thorough search of the domain until the morning.

After dinner, he had sent his companions into an unwilling sleep. Also, if he put bindings on their minds, he would ensure they wouldn’t wander outside while he was sleeping. He was supposed to be able to feel this kind of thing, even asleep, but Suzu had already pulled this trick on him so…

Sitting on the floor by the large low window, Kel was gazing out idly, letting his mind wander. The autumnal night was still warm and the trees, red during the day, looked like dark giants by the dim light of the stony lanterns scattered around the garden. Kel needed this respite. Even though he appeared so confident in front of the others, it was only a shield to keep them and their doubts at bay. He knew he wasn’t cut for war or power struggle. All he had always craved for was a peaceful life and a scholarly life. Last time he had searched for an adventurous life, he had been young and enthralled by the beauty of a young mysterious red head girl. Inception seemed just like a portal for a more exciting life at the time.

Kel pushed his hair back behind his ear. He needed a cigarette. He would even try the awful herbal mix people around here ground and used in a long and thin wooden pipe. He stood up unnerved and turned, ready to walk out and stalk the corridors when he met two shining eyes staring fiercely at him. He stepped between the beddings to the prone silhouette and knelt beside it.

“Now that’s an interesting trick, little Kuro,” he said with a smile. “How is it you’re still awake?”

“Don’t you know the motto of our warriors? You can’t use the same technique against us twice. We analyze it and then, we’re able to counter it.” The young man sounded smug in spite of his predicament.

“Well, too bad you are trussed up like a piece of meat. I would have expected it from Akio, but not from you. Unlike him, it doesn’t seem you belong to a lineage of warriors.” Kel read hatred in his eyes, hatred and spite.

“So what? Does it make him better than me because he’s from a warrior house? He’s so weak he can’t even take the place that is his. He’s a coward. Honor? He bowed to his cousin he hates because he didn’t have the courage to face the Council, that’s how it is.”

“You don’t understand a thing, do you?” Kel sat on the bedding. “Akio knew he would never be seen a fit head for his family in spite of all he could achieve. He chose to back away for the good of his family. It takes more courage than you think to set your pride aside, especially for a people so proud as yours.”

“You can say what you want, there has been families with a handicapped head, as long as it is only physically, it doesn’t matter. I despise him and his peers. Warrior families? There’s nothing to fight anymore, not with material weapons. Those families are nothing but the Council’s dogs.”

Kel looked him in the eye speculatively. “I wonder why you hate warrior family so much…”

Kurozuki ground his teeth. “Don’t poke into my head, I’ll tell you. My father was from a warrior family, my mother a servant. My father raped her once when he was drunk. When she told him she was pregnant, he fired her and she had to work in the red district. I was brought up there, among the whores and the gigolos. I would have become one myself if the Council hadn’t detected my potential. That’s why I hate the warrior caste. They’re honorable when it fits them.”

Kel sighed. What would he do with this third lost soul?

***

Kurozuki looked the silent Kel expectantly. In spite of himself, he admired this alien creature.

At first, all he could have felt had been jealousy and envy at Suzu’s obvious adoration. Before Kel’s arrival, the boy had always been his alone, in spite of the Council, in spite of everything. Kurozuki had wanted to destroy this stranger, to annihilate him utterly. His very presence had triggered impure feelings and longings.

Since their return to Shinseimon, the young Tenki had worked to clear up his troubled mind and yearnings.

He had undertaken rites of purification in the mountain, praying the divinities to lend him their powers to confront this evil coming from abroad.

“Suzu is mine,” he had chanted as a mantra all through his meditations.

Then when he did come back from the mountain, he had found the Daitori in an uproar. He had left Suzu in the care of the other Tenki and those incompetent fools had left him unattended. This resulted in his disappearance and then they had to call upon him to clean their mess for them.

He had found Suzu quite easily but he had been positively puzzled by where he found him.

Akio was a white shadow gliding at the borders of Kurozuki’s field of perception, trailing moodily behind Master Tenme. He could remember him because his brother had been the last sacrifice before Suzu and quite a powerful instrument of Calling. Had he not died, he would have been a powerful and competent chief for his family. Maybe that was why the Tenki had been so rough with him, Kurozuki had mused after the Rite.

However, Akio was ignorant of these circumstances. So he hadn’t acted to counter the Council plans in revenge for his brother’s death. Why would he help the Sacred Avatar?

And then, black out.

When he had woken up, he had found himself in the clutches of the cursed Kel. The devil had bound him and put a spell on his voice. Already Suzu had started to change under his influence. He had questioned Kurozuki’s intentions, he believed he had been betrayed!

I won’t let you take Suzu away from me. he thought fiercely.

As if catching his thoughts, Kel stood up and turned as if to go out. Then their eyes met and he was drawn irresistibly by the flame of his enemy’s hatred.

He was so ignorant of things, this foreigner! He had been fooled by the allures of the warrior spirit, he couldn’t even see its delusion. In spite of himself, the words poured from him, bitter and angry.

After a few minutes’ silence, Kel took hold of one of his arms and dragged him in the front room. He sat him at the low table and went to slide the door panel closed. He lit some muted lanterns so that the light wouldn’t be visible from the outside.

Then he fetched the kettle and poured himself a cup of tea. Watching the liquid flowing, Kurozuki realized how thirsty he was.

“Give me some,” he said as harshly as permitted his bound voice.

Kel put his elbows on the table and his chin in his hands. He smiled again, innocently.

“Please,” the young Tenki added grudgingly.

The foreigner poured tea in another cup and made him drink. He gently brushed a few drops of tea from his lips.

“I didn’t expected to act as a babysitter and an educator when I headed East,” he said amused.

Kurozuki felt unnerved by his manners but forced himself to stay cool and unshakable. This devil had once managed in making him angry and he had spilt his past. Never again!

Kel seemed to read his mind and leaned forward across the tabletop.

“You’re shrewd and talented… and you truly care for Suzu, in your twisted and obsessive way. Akio is the rightful representative of the spirit of the warrior, despite the weakness of his body but you have the gift of knowledge and magical powers. If only you knew how to use it for the benefit of all.”

“I don’t believe in what you believe,” Kurozuki spat, “there aren’t two faces in people, there is just one and it is dark. Only a few are pure, like Suzu and those are crushed under the heel of the strongest predators if they’re not protected. I chose to believe only in myself, to serve only myself. I love Suzu and I’ll protect him, even if I have to die. And if I die, he’ll die with me.”

Kel looked him in the eye. “What did you do to him?” he asked coldly.

Kurozuki smiled. “Before the Rite of Calling, I went to him and took him. At the peak, I used the energy of orgasm to put a binding on his heart, to link him to mine. If my heart ceases to beat, his will stop at the same time.”

Kel blanched visibly. Then, unexpectedly, he relaxed and started to chuckle.

“What’s so funny?” Kurozuki asked affronted.

“Nothing. Fate, everything. You, not even eighteen…”

“I’ll turn eighteen this year!”

“Whatever,” Kel interrupted abruptly, sobering up. “At your age, a human, not even a full shaman of your people, you’ve been able to use the energy of arun.. sex and use it efficiently. I can’t let this pass.”

“What… what do you mean?” Kurozuki asked fearfully, trying to back away. “Will you kill me?”

“Worse than that, I’ll incept you.”

Part 5: The Fugitive

Suzu was out of breath and had to stop, leaning heavily against a tree. The simple contact with the dry bark comforted him, as a slow wave of warmth seeped into his being.

“Are you all right?”

Akio walked back to him and put a hand on his forehead.

Suzu nodded. “Let’s catch up with the others,” he said with forced cheerfulness.

“They’ll wait for us,” Akio retorted sternly. “Your health is more important. It’s not as if we didn’t know where we were going.”

I don’t know,” the boy said a bit angrily, walking away.

The white healer sighed and followed him.

“You don’t know this place. It’s an abandoned farm near the swamp. None likes to go over there because it’s said to be cursed by the swamp demons. But in fact, it’s due to some swamp herbs that give a strong perfume and is noxious to the cattle. We tried to explain that to the Shinseimon inhabitants for years, to no avail. I don’t think the Tenki will think of this place. Furthermore we have a clear view, none will be able to take us by surprise.”

“Master Tenme knows this place, as well as all his students,” Suzu argued skeptically.

“He won’t betray us. And the other healers are away.”

Suzu pondered for a while. “How come you aren’t angry at your master anymore? He lied to you.”

Akio rearranged the bag over his shoulder. “I’m still angry,” he said slowly. “But that’s beside the question. I know he won’t betray us. If he wanted, he would have already done it and the guards would have come during the night or in the morning to catch us. They didn’t. In fact, it seemed as if the search had been directed to the city… If it hadn’t, we wouldn’t have been able to get out of the Daitori so easily.”

His patient cast him a sidelong glance. “Did you leave him a letter or something?”

“I had no reason to do that.”

Suzu hesitated before he said: “Kel told me: you can die. Maybe you shouldn’t be incepted.”

“That’s none of your business what I choose to do or not,” he replied stiffly.

“Do you want to repay for what has been done to me?”

Akio made a strangled indignant noise and grabbed Suzu’s arm angrily.

“Don’t even start to believe you can understand me!”

“Let me go! You’re hurting me!”

“You’ve been living in a bubble since now. What has been done to you, even if it was a bad thing, it was for the good of all of those that were rejected and left behind by your own people. I can’t agree with what they did, but I can understand why they did it. Even if it was a bad choice, they had to do something.”

“You are the one who doesn’t understand!” Suzu retorted hotly. “Even if at the beginning, it was for their people, the Rite was perverted because your Tenki couldn’t control what they invoked. And instead of resisting, they abandoned their souls for power. They sold themselves and their people!”

“They had no other choice to survive!” Akio shouted.

“Oh boys! What’s up?” Kel was dragging a bound Kurozuki behind. “I’m not sure all the forest’s inhabitants have heard you yet.”

Suzu pulled his arm angrily from his companion’s grip. “I was just giving Akio my best wishes for his upcoming death.”

The har looked at his protégé blandly. “OK, I get it.” He turned to the albinos. “Let’s change, Akio, you take care of Kurozuki. Walk ahead so that I’ll have an eye on him as well.”

He nodded and took hold of the rope leash that was tied around the prisoner’s waist.

Kel waited for them to be some distance ahead, far from earshot before resuming the walk with his companion.

“You’re worried for Akio, aren’t you?”

Even without looking at Suzu, he felt the boy blushing.

“You said that with his illness, he might not be able to survive…”

“You should respect his decision. He knows what inception entails.”

“I respect his decisions. But if he takes up inception, I want him to do it for himself, not because of honor, duty or anything like that.”

“You can’t control what others think or do.”

They walked silently for some time. The trees were gradually becoming smaller and thinner and the undergrowth was slowly disappearing. The air became heavy and humid.

“Kel?”

“Yes?”

Suzu wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Why didn’t you go on your own and kill the Tenki in their sleep. It would have been easy for you. Then you could have easily fooled the inhabitants of Shinseimon with my support and Kurozuki’s help. He would have done anything for you in exchange for his life.”

Kel scratched his hair. He wondered about how much Suzu had changed in such a short period of time to be able to think up this sort of thing.

“I think you’re not as merciless as you want us to believe,” Suzu said pushing a low branch from his path. “You are not human anymore biologically but you’re still the same inside your soul. And you weren’t a cold-blooded killer before you were incepted. You’ve seen and lived things that have made you build a shell around yourself, but you’re not cruel. You care about us.”

Kel let out an embarrassed laugh and patted his head. “You should stop worrying over people. It’ll only bring you pain and sadness.”

“I can’t help it.” Suzu shrugged.

He sighed. “All I want is to go back to my temple and lie down and forget about it all…” He blushed. “I won’t try to avoid my responsibilities. I’ll work hard so that our island will go back to its old self. And I’ll do it more efficiently if I’m har. That’s why I’ll survive inception. Whatever it takes.”

Kel pulled Suzu to him and kissed him lightly on the forehead. “Don’t worry yourself with that kind of things,” he said.

His voice was thick with emotion somewhat. A cloud was passing in front of the sun.

***

Akio dropped his burdens on the floor with a sigh.

“The beddings are all right. The insect repellant was efficient. We’ll just have to air them.”

Kel went over to give him a hand. “I thought this farm would be a ruin after what you told us.”

“The swamp hold a treasure of medicinal herbs. We the healers use this farm to gather our harvests and start the preparations for the most fragile compounds. Some flowers we need only blossom for a couple of days a year so we have to stay the night to be sure we harvest as much as possible.”

Suzu watched them go in the backyard then turned his attention to Kurozuki. His ‘leash’ had been fastened to the main post of the room and he was looking at him intently. Kel had put back the spell on his tongue and he was unable to emit any noise.

The boy walked out in the front garden. The farmers that had lived here before had tried to hide the moldy odor of the swamp with well-chosen fragrant shrubs and bushes, planting trees whose torn bark gave a strong perfume.

Suzu closed his eyes. Far from Shinseimon, the spirits here were free to roam the land. He could hear faint whistles coming from the marshes, the chant and chirping of distant voices, the rustling of immaterial fabric. When he opened his eyes, his vision was a blur of colors, faded by the dying light of dusk: the dark red and orange of the leaves, the deep brown of the soil and in between clouds of vivid colors, rising, dancing, gliding in the air.

His feet led him out of the farm garden and after some time that felt like seconds he was back in the forest. Under the shadows of the trees, his vision gradually cleared. He came upon a small glade. He could almost hear voices all around, in a distance, as if a crowd of shy spirits were surrounding the clearing but none dared enter it.

He walked diligently to its center to what appeared like a bush and started to tear the leaves and ivy away. Under the green and brown cover of nature stood a short statue of gray stone polished by the forest: the statue of the fox, the traveler. It was smiling mischievously.

A light breeze played in the trees’ branches bringing dim patches of light on its surface. Then, the wind was gone and the shades settled back. Except for two small patches of light that remained, dancing languorously around the frozen deity.

With a smile, Suzu held out his hand and felt the moist caress of a rough tongue. And beyond the tongue, a muzzle was appearing, a reddish brown fur covering a large forehead up to pointed ears. As the body gradually came into being, the luminous eyes faded into the pitch black eyes of the fox. Suzu let out a delighted cry and embraced the creature that sat by his side.

I’m so honored you might appear in front of me, oh, spirit of the fox. He stroked the creature’s head. It gazed into his eyes, two black holes like portals into infinity.

Are you here to accompany me in my journey out of humanity? Suzu asked hesitantly.

But the animal simply licked his face.

“Do you have a message for me?” Suzu asked, laughing, trying to escape the tongue.

Apparently satisfied with the improvised washing, the fox stood and ran playfully towards the limits of the glade. There it stopped and waited. Suzu smiled sadly.

“I’m sorry, I can’t go with you. It’s getting dark and I have to return to the farm. Otherwise my friends will be worry for me. Maybe we can meet again tomorrow?”

Then he realized the following day, he would be incepted and wouldn’t be able to come. The fox sauntered back beside him and licked his hand. Suzu felt torn. He knew this meeting was important but he also understood how important it was for the inception to take place rapidly before the Tenki of Shinseimon started to hunt them down.

Suddenly the fox lifted his head sharply. It sniffed the air then walked slowly towards the trees, head low, followed by Suzu’s intrigued eyes. He lifted his gaze into the forest and started when he met the stark faces of shadowed creatures standing between the dark trunks. They looked like children, short and sinewy. There was a dozen of them. One, from under the trees, extended an inviting hand.

“I can’t come,” Suzu repeated, his voice trembling. “I have to follow this foreigner. I will become like him. Then I’ll come back to help you, so that none will hurt you anymore.”

But the child-like creature that had made the gesture at him shook his head.

“You don’t want me to become har?” Suzu cried with dismay. “But I have to, there are no other ways.”

The silhouette continued to shake his head and all his companions did likewise in unison. There was a kind of monotonous chant filling the air as if created by this simple movement of their heads. The fox that had been waiting beside the apparent leader of the group cast him a last glance then disappeared into the forest.

Night had fallen over the glade. The creatures finally walked forward into the clearing. Suzu didn’t feel afraid, just terribly sad and torn. He could now see the children’s faces, in spite of the darkness. It was as if their skin was slightly aglow, a soft pale green luminescence that reminded him of fireflies. They had huge pupil-less black eyes. Some had short hair, others long, falling over their tiny chest. It was black or of various shades of brown. They were wearing rags or maybe elaborated robes of the deepest hues of green.

“Moriko…” Suzu whispered in awe, struck by their familiar auras.

You recognized us, human child. We’re Moriko, the children of the forest. We’re here to assist you.

“But… Moriko… you weren’t like this before… I mean…” Suzu stammered, blushing in his temerity. “You’ve never taken a human form in front of me before.”

You were a young child then, a young lonely child. But your heart changed… and is still changing. We don’t always decide on the form in which we appear. Soon we’ll become adults, then we’ll grow old and we’ll die. We and all the hidden creatures of this land will disappear forever, leaving this land to you and your children.

“It can’t be!”

That’s how it had been before, the Moriko said with a shrug. We’ve disappeared. Then you invoked us back into being, in the land of those who could still remember our essences but didn’t have the strength to call upon us. Then this land disappeared, engulfed by the greed of those who remembered the rites if not their meanings.

“Are you talking about the Old Ones and the Ancient Ones?” Suzu asked bewildered. “Are you saying… I made you appear again?”

In a sense. You gave us back our identity, because you spoke to us in your heart, you re-created our stories… As you invoked us, we must assist you in your hardships.

“Why are you saying you’ll disappear again. I don’t want to!”

The child looked him impassively in the eye and Suzu blushed again. “I’m sorry. I don’t know anything… and yet, I don’t wish for you to disappear. You’re a part of this land and I want to restore it, not destroy a part of it.”

Humans stopped believing in us. We think the race you’ll become a part of will forget about us too and we’ll fade from your memory.

Suzu lifted his head sharply. Somehow despite the indifferent tone of the hollow voice, there was an unspoken plea, something deep and hidden, the yearning of all creatures, material and immaterial, to exist.

Suzu held out his arms and the Moriko walked slowly in his embrace.

***

Kel was furious. He pulled roughly at the cord attached to Kurozuki’s waist, making him stumble. Akio was panting. The har was taller and with his long legs and rapid walk, he was forcing his companions to run behind him.

“What is this brat thinking of?! If he goes too far, he’ll be out of my protective barrier and the Tenki will be able to detect him! And what is he doing outside in his condition?”

He was following the directions given by Kurozuki but the young man hadn’t been able to help them much since they had entered the forest. And Kel’s barrier was hindering him as well; he was unable to locate Suzu. In the darkness, with only lanterns to light the way, it would be difficult to find the missing boy.

“Kel!” Akio managed to catch his sleeve and make him stop. “It’s useless to try and find him this way. You must lift your barrier.”

“We can’t. We’re not that far from Shinseimon and if they start to chase us down, there’ll be no time for your inceptions.”

“Only Suzu…”

“There’d be no time, I’m telling you, brat! Inception can last days and afterwards, we need time for althaia… we can’t rush these kind of things!”

“I’m… I’m sorry, I didn’t know…” Akio said, bowing down stiffly, mortified under the scolding.

Kel let out a long sigh, scratching at his hair. “I’m sorry, Akio, I should have told you more detail. Our timing is too tight… I wonder if I shouldn’t have followed Suzu’s advice. But now it’s too late…”

“Suzu’s advice?”

“To kill the Tenki in their sleep, back when we were staying in your room of the medical pavilion.” He grinned at the shock on his companion’s face. “Don’t worry, Suzu wouldn’t think of that sort of thing for himself, he just read me very accurately… or would have…”

Akio nodded hesitantly.

Kurozuki, whose voice had been freed to a whisper, said: “Suzu wouldn’t have left by himself for no reason. He must have felt something. He looked like he had heard something at that time.”

Kel considered his prisoner pensively. “I remember he said something like there were no spirits around you, when you came to visit him in his temple. Maybe once you somewhat lost your status of a Tenki and we came out of Shinseimon, he could make contact with the spirits again. But why not stay and communicate with them from the farm?”

“You think he wanted to communicate with some spirits?”

The har turned to Akio. The albinos was thinking aloud. “The farmers that lived here built several small shrines around their settlements for guardian spirits, fertility charms…”

“Where’s the closest shrine or sacred place?” Kel asked abruptly.

“I’m not sure…”

The albinos led them between the trees’ trunks. They lost their way several times in the dark and only the talents of tracker of Kel prevented them from wandering aimlessly all night long.

“Look, this altar! Someone scrapped the moss and ivy away from it!” Akio ran to the center of the glade they had finally reached and lifted his lantern to light the stone platform.

“It shouldn’t be empty,” Kurozuki said a bit unnerved. “Those carvings in the pedestal are those of the guiding spirits. There should be a cat or a fox statue here.”

“We don’t have time for ethnological speculations,” Kel interrupted. “Obviously Suzu was here. Akio, look around this side of the clearing, Kurozuki and I will go over there.”

But there were no traces of Suzu.

“We have no choice,” Akio pleaded. “We can’t let him wander around in the dark. He can fall or hurt himself. And there are dangerous animals hunting during the night. You have to lift your barrier!”

Kel pushed back his hair from his face angrily. “OK, I’ll do that. But then I have no other choice either. I’ll take you back to the mainland. There I have allies and we’ll have plenty of time for inception.”

“You can’t!” Kurozuki tried to protest vehemently. “Suzu mustn’t leave this land!”

“What?” the har said with a cruel smile. “Think once he discovers the wonders of the outside world, he won’t want to come back here. Whose fault is it? Now shut up! I need silence to lift the barrier.”

He settled near the abandoned altar, sat cross-legged and closed his eyes. Akio, who had taken Kurozuki’s leash, pulled him away, towards the limits of the clearing.

“You can’t let him take Suzu to the mainland. You know he mustn’t leave the island!” the prisoner whispered hurriedly to his guardian.

“Why are you protesting? He’ll take you too. As long as you’re with your beloved Suzu, nothing else matters, doesn’t it?”

“It’s more than that. Suzu will be incepted. I don’t know much about this inception thing… but I feel strongly that it must take place here… otherwise, Suzu will loose his connection with the land! Think! He’s lived all his life with this land in him, what will happen when the link is severed?”

“Suzu is stronger than you think,” Akio stated calmly, watching the whirling of energy around Kel. “You’ll be fine, both of you, in the mainland.”

Kurozuki was momentarily shut down by the determination in his voice.

“Are you saying you won’t come if we leave to the mainland?” he asked finally.

“No. I can follow Kel as far as he wants in his projects but I can’t leave here. I can’t abandon my people. I expect he won’t argue with me. We both know I have very little chances to survive inception. That’ll be no loss if I stay here. And he knows I won’t betray him.”

Kurozuki spat to the ground. “You and your righteousness, you’re making me sick!”

Akio ignored him. Kel seemed to have finished and stood up. He lifted his face to the night sky, as if sniffing the air. Then he walked to them. He seemed puzzled.

“I don’t understand. I put down the barrier but I still can’t detect him. There’s a web of strange energies all around, shifting constantly… it’s impossible to locate anything or anyone.”

“Show me.”

Kel looked sternly Kurozuki in the eye.

“I’m not joking,” the young shaman said. “You’re not acquainted with the energy patterns of our land. I am. Release the bindings on my powers. You know you can watch what I do so that I won’t be able to send a call to Shinseimon.”

Kel nodded grudgingly. “Only for a short moment.”

He put the palm of his hand on Kurozuki’s forehead briefly, then, the prisoner fell backwards, as if punched by an invisible fist. Regaining his wits, he winced while sitting up.

“You didn’t have to be so brutal,” he said and his voice had turned back to normal too.

“That was a warning. If you try anything, I’ll burn your brain, have I made myself clear? This way, your charming heart will still be beating but you won’t even be able to pee on your own.”

Mollified Kurozuki nodded and assumed a meditative stance. Closing his eyes, he opened his inner vision to the glimmering web of currents.

“That’s strange…” he said slowly, still concentrated on the ethers. “This pattern looks like the one that occurs when we’re undertaking the Rite of Calling… although this one is slightly different… looks like a network of pathways… rainbows…”

That last word rang a bell in Kel’s mind. “Rainbows? Aren’t they bridges to the Heavens?”

Kurozuki nodded slowly. He shuddered then opened his eyes.

“I think I have located Suzu. But the forces surrounding him are the most powerful I’ve ever seen… And I fear… too powerful for even him to handle.”

***

It’s almost midnight.

The moon was gazing down at them through the dark leaves.

A bloody moon, that would be most fitting for our setting…

But the celestial night traveler was of the purest white. As pale as he was.

“Do you know this place?” Kel asked Akio, shaking him out of his reverie.

“We’re quite far from the marshes now. But I don’t recognize this place. It’s too dark.”

“Look at this.” Kurozuki pointed at the outlines of the mountains, somehow visible against the sky beyond the line of the trees’ summits. “It looks like the ‘Giant’s hold’.”

“Maybe.” He shrugged. “Are you sure of your directions? I can’t believe Suzu has walked so far. He was still weak and he should have collapsed for long…”

“He was not alone,” Kurozuki said. “The spirits guided him… and I’m sure they somewhat found a way to sustain him or transport him… They want him for a purpose. Even though I’ve never heard of spirits so active before. I hope that doesn’t mean trouble…”

“You believe that demons…”

“No, Suzu wouldn’t let demons take him,” Kel said pushing a low branch from his path. “And the earthly spirits either.”

His companions pondered for a while. Then Kurozuki said, quite smugly: “Maybe he chose to flee, maybe he didn’t want to be incepted in your freakish race.”

Akio let out a strangled noise of indignation. “Don’t think everyone is as dishonorable as you!”

“Akio, calm down,” Kel intervened. “Kurozuki might be right.”

“You know Suzu wanted to be incepted!”

“Yes, but perhaps the spirits persuaded him he shouldn’t.”

Kel tore a branch from a nearby tree.

“What will you do if that’s the case?” Akio asked.

The har threw the branch in a bush. “I don’t know.”

In the dark it was difficult to see his face and his voice didn’t reveal anything. The two boys looked at each other worryingly.

“Hey, Kuro, isn’t it here?”

They had emerged in a clearing. A giant tree stood in its center, its dark thick foliage hiding the sky and creating an area of almost complete darkness. Akio shuddered. He didn’t have any powers similar to Kel’s or Kurozuki’s that enabled him to see ghosts and spirits energy, but this place held a threat that even he could feel, a kind of warning.

Kel didn’t hesitate and walked straight to the foot of the giant. He knelt and started to clear the ground from dead branches and leaves. Kurozuki ran to his side, pulling Akio, who was holding his leash, in his wake.

“Detach me, I’ll help you,” he said to the albinos. “Why would I want to flee, I want to find Suzu as much as you.”

“Do it, Akio,” Kel said absent-mindedly. “I’ll kill him on the spot if I detect any threatening intention from him.”

Soon, all three of them were standing in front of the opening of an underground passage. It appeared as if the tree had grown next to a rocky mound, then had covered it with his roots to hide its entrance from interlopers’ eyes.

Following the har’s orders, Akio went in first, then Kurozuki and finally himself. It was barely wide enough for them to crawl inside but after a short gentle slope, it widened and dropped at almost a right angle. Akio, pushing his lantern ahead of him, saw it disappear suddenly. Frozen, he heard it crash some distance down. Fearfully, he crawled forward and squinted over the ridge to see if the broken lantern had started a fire. He mentally cursed his poor eyesight but from what he could make out, there was just the tiny light of his lamp down there.

What happened?

Akio almost cried out of surprise at the voice ringing in his head.

It’s me, Kel, the voice said patiently.

It’s… it’s just my lantern…

He tried to picture the scene in his mind then offered an image of what he intended to do.

No, Kel objected, this ivy might look thick enough but I don’t want to risk your bones on it. Wait, Kurozuki will pass you ropes. We’ll anchor you.

So Akio made his way down the passage. He landed beside the lantern and pushed the debris away. The remaining oil pool continued to burn, lighting the tunnel that was leading away. Kurozuki then Kel made their way down, the har clinging to the ivy he had forbidden them to use, the rope wound over his shoulder.

“I thought the ivy wasn’t tough enough,” Akio said, somewhat offended.

Kel sighed and motioned them forward. “I’m har and thus my body build is stronger than yours… and I know more about rough landings than you, believe me.”

The place they had landed into was a small cave from where a wide and high-ceilinged passage led away. But what caught their attentions were the footprints in the dirt. Their moral boosted by this discovery, they started down the stone corridor.

“We should have caught up with him by now,” Kurozuki muttered after some time, sweat running down his face. “How could he walk so fast for so long?”

“Keep your breath,” Kel said.

They had tried to run for some time, but had abandoned the idea quickly. The tunnel seemed to go on forever. To save oil, they had turned off one of the remaining lanterns and Kel was leading the way. Akio and Kurozuki were starting to show signs of fatigue and Kel himself, having slept very little since his arrival in Shinseimon, was drawing on his reserves of strength. The lack of water and the feeling of suffocation weren’t helping in their predicament.

After what felt like hours, the tunnel seemed to rise gently towards the surface, lifting their spirits. But it didn’t last.

“We shouldn’t continue to go up like that,” Akio said worryingly. “We should have emerged from the surface a long time ago.”

“Maybe we went deeper than we thought,” Kurozuki offered unconvincingly.

“Or maybe we’re in a mountain now,” the albinos countered. “It’s difficult to say, we were near some mountains, but it was dark and it was difficult to say how far they were. Then we walked for hours and in here, how can we keep track of time?”

He waited for Kel to offer his guess.

“I don’t know either,” the har said tiredly. “I know we were heading towards the east when we were in the forest, but then once we entered the underground, I’m not sure… it seemed we turned slightly towards the north, but well…” He shrugged.

“East, then north? We’re heading back to Shinseimon.”

Kel whirled back to Akio. “That’s impossible, I would have felt it if we were straight to the north!”

“That was just an idea,” the albinos corrected hurriedly.

The har shot a dark gaze at his companions. All this unnerved him utterly and combined with exhaustion, his misgivings made him very short-tempered.

He estimated it was almost dawn when they started to see light ahead. It was faint but Kel purposefully turned off his lantern to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating. Then he turned back sharply and hit Kurozuki in the chest. The Tenki dropped to his knees, emitting strangle noises.

I put back his bindings. Tie him up. I don’t want any more surprises.

After he was done, Akio pulled the semi-comatose prisoner behind him. The opening was small and they had to crawl to get outside. Kel listened for some time, but there was no sound so he motioned them up. They emerged in the recess of some big cave. Kel crawled stealthily towards the edge of the boulder that was hiding the tunnel’s mouth. There was standing a cupped oil lamp on a metal pole, burning bright.

Akio saw him froze and a feeling of dread coursed through him. Some minutes passed then Kel stood up and came to help them up.

“Please, Akio, be careful, there are guards at the entrance,” the har whispered.

He restrained Kurozuki by the shoulders, letting Akio walk alone inside the main chamber of the cave. The shaman cast him a furious glance. The har closed his eyes as he heard the sudden intake of air then the stifled sob. Kurozuki then realized he could hear a faint sound in the distance. A deep bell tolling. Kel nodded.

Master Tenme committed suicide.

***

Master Tenme was wearing a simple white robe. He was lying in a pool of his blood. His hands were still clutching the ritual dagger he had cut his belly with. Akio, oblivious, was kneeling over his master, his body shaking with silent sobs.

“Take the dagger,” Kurozuki whispered to his guardian.

“What?”

“Akio might want to use it and I guess you still want him to be of use to you. He won’t with his bowels re-decorating this cave.”

Kel winced and did as suggested.

“I wonder what happened…” he mused. “Has he been condemned for his pupil’s betrayal?”

“I don’t think so,” Kurozuki said pensively. “If it had been the case, he wouldn’t have been allowed ritual suicide. Knowing Master Takayama’s hot temper, he would have had him executed in the moment. That’s not as if there weren’t talented healers around, apart from Tenme. It looks as if he decided on ritual suicide on his own… and secretly. Otherwise he would have asked a friend to help him and behead him to make the ritual complete.”

In spite of all that he had seen in his life as a human and as a har, Kel shuddered at those words. Talking of death and suicide with such lack of feeling, just as if it were a common thing… He knew about struggle, survival, murder…even torture… but that…

“If there are guards at the entrance, then his suicide has been found out and it’s likely Suzu is back in the clutches of the Council. They must be gathering their forces for a cleansing ritual… or maybe they decided to sanctify another place as the new shrine for the Rite of Calling.”

Kel shook himself. “By committing ritual suicide here, Tenme soiled this place?”

“He changed its energy patterns. He orientated it towards the world of the dead. If something is called from here, it’ll carry the seal of death upon it.”

The har sighed. He did learn as much as possible before coming here, but clearly, he was out of his depth now. He needed some sleep, food, a few cigarettes and some strong alcohol, in any order it could be achieved.

“We need something to drink,” he finally said, glancing at the now immobile Akio. “I’ll take care of the guards, you stay here.”

When Kel disappeared from sight, Akio turned towards his companion.

“Why did you tell him to take the dagger? What do you care if I live or die?” he asked furiously, sweeping his eyes and nose with his sleeve.

“You… you really look terrible…” Kurozuki said awkwardly, taking a step back.

“You want to humiliate me, don’t you? You hate me and everything I stand for! You’d do anything to hurt me!”

Kurozuki’s eyes hardened. “I was helping you, brat! You would cast shame on yourself by taking your life even though this life doesn’t belong to you anymore. It’s Kel’s and Suzu’s. You can commit suicide only if they let you and they won’t.”

“They will! I’m of no more use for them! I’m cursed, look at my skin, my eyes! I’m white, the color of death, my eyes are red, the color of blood! I bring misfortune to all that come close to me!”

His voice had risen to a scream. He didn’t care about the guards anymore. Tears flowed again abundantly down his cheeks. He put his face in his hands, unable to face his companion any longer. Kurozuki averted his head and gazed towards the entrance.

When Kel returned, he found them sitting moodily on opposite sides of the cave. Akio was a mess, with blood over almost all of his clothes and hands but at least he wasn’t crying anymore. Kurozuki looked angry.

“There’ll be a funeral service tonight.”

His companions lifted their heads sharply.

“A funeral service? Why would they…”

“No, it must be for someone else…” Kurozuki paled. “Suzu?”

“No he’s alive.” Kel threw a gourd to Akio. “You go and clean yourself at the river. We’ll find other clothes for you.”

He took Kurozuki by the arm, pulled him up and dragged him outside. “I need you to confirm something.”

All three of them walked out, passing nearby the two prone bodies of the guards, beyond the twin birches, to a clear area from where they could see Shinseimon.

“That… that’s not normal…” the Tenki uttered bewildered.

“What do you see?” Akio asked, squinting down.

“There is an abnormal activity in the ethers around the city. As if spirits were converging to it… they shouldn’t be able to do that. We have set barriers.”

“They’re attracted to Suzu… is it the Rite of Calling?” Kel asked, dreading the answer.

“No, there are no human activities in the ethers… I’ve never seen this before.”

“This uproar prevents me from detecting Suzu properly. We can only guess he’s at the center of all this. We have to enter Shinseimon again… but there is a reinforced guard, it won’t be easy…”

Akio turned slowly towards them.

“I know where we can go.”

“Someone you want to kill?” Kurozuki sneered.

“She doesn’t have to fear me or my curse,” the albinos replied, his eyes lost in the clouds. “Her curse and mine match each other. She’s my fiancée.”

Part 6: the Sacrifice.

Tsukisa slid the door open and walked to the back of the room. From the old trunk she took a long tunic and carried it respectfully to the dark-lacquered wooden stand to enfold it and air it. It had been so long since it had been out in the light… Nobody knew she still had it, nobody missed it. A quite common tunic, weaved patiently by young innocent hands instilling feelings in every thread… an abandoned piece of fabric that was never given to its rightful owner and left at the bottom of a trunk because fate had decided a boy and a girl were not meant to be together.

Tsukisa sat at the low table, facing the white surface of the rice paper panel of her door, and drank a cup of tea. She wondered if she had been foolish… this precious robe… It brought back memories… and pain… It had been so long since she had felt… anything! Maybe a servant would find it and take it before ‘that’ would happen. She shrugged mentally.

Her fingers couldn’t help going back to fidget with the open letter lying beside the teapot. The news hadn’t been really that surprising. Not that she did see it coming with her Foresight. It was only logical that those fools would want to sacrifice the last gifted person of the town and if that could get them rid of a nuisance at the same time, it was all benefit for them. In fact she had always wondered why the Tenki had never tried to use her as a Sacrifice before.

Even before she was born, she was promised to the second son of a honorable warrior family. Akio was born only a few days after her but he was a moonchild, fragile and weak. As none could say if he would survive or not, both families decided to cancel the pact. But some said, afterwards, that it was the first sign of her cursed fate.

She was twelve when the first ‘event’ occurred. Her parents tried to marry her to a young man but she relented, arguing that if she married him, his life would be in danger. Her parents laughed at her, thinking she was afraid of him, but some days after their betrothal was announced, he was killed by a charging wild boar. Everyone thought that was a coincidence, but after the death of her second fiancé just as she had warned them, people started to look at her with fear. Some came to her to be told their future but as she couldn’t help them, they turned against her and added their curses on her head.

As Akio was growing stronger with the passing years, his family generously offered to take her back as his fiancée, saying it was maybe the foreordained path and thus, trying to contradict it, her parents were bringing misfortune on themselves. And then as if to confirm this hypothesis, nothing bad happened to Akio. But Tsukisa couldn’t control her power. She tried to warn a mother about her child light fever but the woman didn’t listen to her and her son died. And then she saw the heir’s death, Akio’s oldest brother. It was the strongest premonition she ever had, the most traumatic also. And she couldn’t do anything, it was the will of the Gods. When he returned after the Rite of Calling, apparently unharmed, she tried to warn Akio, but he wouldn’t listen, only too happy to see his brother returning safely. And then it happened. It was the last time she had seen him. Silence fell around her like a mourning veil. She was moved from her room to a pavilion at the back of the domain and was prevented to attend the ceremony to nominate the next heir. She heard about Akio’s abdication to the profit of his cousin only days afterwards. She was to be locked in her golden cage, attended to by some old servants who were forbidden to talk to her.

Days of gloom, days of silent prayers and curses uttered in her half-sleep, as she was begging the Heavenly Gods to grant her death and oblivion. She thought she would go crazy.

Then the Tenki performed the Rite of Calling for the first time with Suzu. She learned about the actual event much later. That night she thought the Divinities had heard her prayers and had come to burn her down to ashes to erase her very existence. She woke up screaming as her eyes were staring wide-opened in nothingness. Her hands were tearing at her own face, trying to extinguish a fire she felt only in her mind, lit by a great flash of light that had scorched her dreams. For days, she wasn’t able to see anything except swirling colors and patches of light. Since then, her gift had disappeared… until a few days ago.

She woke up from the saddest dream she had ever seen, although she couldn’t retain any clear memories of it; her face was soaked with tears and she felt as if she had lost the most precious thing in her life. Regaining her senses, she felt something was about to change and a sense of anticipation filled her. Then the letter came. “You have been chosen for the Rite of Calling,” it said.

Although she was supposed to be kept totally isolated from the rest of the world, her servants couldn’t help chatting with one another, thinking their charge couldn’t hear them. But the silence surrounding Tsukisa had sharpened her hearing, beside the fact that her attendants, growing slowly deaf, spoke much louder than they thought. She could then catch bits of news, always sad and cruel, deformed by the gossip. Recently, she had learned Suzu had come earlier than usual accompanied by a foreigner. Was it him who had brought back her gift? And she heard both had disappeared soon afterwards and people whispered in the dark that the stranger was a demon that had come to steal their Sacred Avatar from them. But she knew they were wrong. And she knew that in all logic, the Tenki would look for someone else to appease the Gods.

And then the bell of death rang. And people huddled in their little den, in fear of what had befallen their city. Suzu had left them, leaving in his trail curses and misfortunes.

But Suzu returned… And Akio will come back to me.

She felt excited in spite of herself, smoothing her very long black hair, rubbing distractedly the inner face of wrist to try and calm herself. All those years of loneliness, all those years and then… Carrying this tunic out to light again?

What a trifle vision, she thought with a snort. You use to see people die, then suddenly, you see your fiancé coming back to pamper himself…

“Tsukisa?”

She started and lifted her head sharply. She hadn’t heard the door slide open! A tall man was leaning against its frame with a wide seducing smile and behind him stood Akio…

She stifled a cry when she saw his bloody clothes. She jumped on her feet.

“Are you hurt?!” she asked with an unsteady voice, touching his chest lightly in search of wounds.

“No,” the albinos replied, clearly surprised of her concern. “I… are you alone?”

She nodded and recalling her manners, bowed deeply.

“Save all this for later, I need your help.”

They entered and it was at that moment that Tsukisa noticed the bound Kurozuki trailing behind them.

“Master Kurozuki…”

“No ‘master’ for him,” Akio said. “Didn’t they tell you he was a traitor? By the way, this is Kel, the guardian of Suzu.”

“Nice to meet you, miss. Sorry to intrude upon you so suddenly.”

She shook her head. She felt dazed in front of this stranger, there was something bewitching about him but she couldn’t tell exactly what. What she could tell though was that it was beyond his alien beauty.

She helped them settle around the room, putting down herself the food and drink she had the servants prepare before they left. She showed Akio her room to change clothes, leaving her other guests to their puzzled looks. When they came back, Akio explained to her the events and discoveries of the past days.

“I told them we could trust you,” he said finally. “You’ve always been true to yourself, in spite of all that your powers did to you. I think you’re a good person and I apologize for the bad treatments that had been done to you by my family. I’m also deeply ashamed by my lack of concern towards you after the death of my brother, although you are my fiancée. After our current project had been brought to the end, I promise you I’ll submit to any punishment or retaliatory measures you’ll see fit.”

He joined his hands in front of him and bent his forehead to the floor.

“I understand why they did it and you don’t have to apologize for things other people did. And I understand that your heart was so troubled you had to find an escape far from your family and couldn’t help me.”

She bent too.

“You should stop them otherwise we’ll never see the end of it!” Kurozuki said with a sigh.

Akio cast him a hateful glance. Tsukisa sat back quietly and kept her eyes set on the floor.

“What do you want me to do?” she asked. She had turned slightly towards Kel, aware of where the authority lay.

“We only need a shelter until we can take Suzu back.”

“You should do it tonight,” she suggested. “Most of the people of the Daitori are at the funerals and I think the remaining Tenki will undertake the Rite of Calling tomorrow.”

“Whose funerals are they?” Kurozuki asked. “They aren’t for Tenme, surely.”

“No, they are for all the Tenki he killed.”

“What?!”

“Don’t you know?”

She lifted her chin and looked Kel in the eye. “They had a meeting and it seems Master Tenme tried to poison them all by putting something in the tea. Only Master Takayama survived. He elevated all his apprentices as full Tenki and gathered them around him as his personal guard. He’s now more or less the one and only ruler of Shinseimon.”

“He must have sent his men to find Tenme and thus discovered the staining of the sacred cave.” Kel bent his head to side. “I wonder if Tenme did it on purpose…”

He put a piece of grilled fish in Kurozuki’s mouth; the young shaman munched grudgingly.

“I’m surprised that isolated as you are, you know so much of what’s happening,” Kel said nonchalantly.

Tsukisa shrugged.

“Since you came here, my awareness has awaken again and I’m even more sensitive then before. Surely Akio must have told you about my ‘gifts’. If you doubt me, please, tell me how I can prove my worth to you.” She bent and kept her forehead to the mats. “Even if I am a woman, my powers can be of use to you.”

Kel sighed and forced her to sit back down. “First, please stop doing this, it’s all a waste of time. And believe me, you being a woman is not a problem for me.”

He looked out through the open window. It overlooked the backyard that was surrounded by walls covered by ivy.

“Now tell me what you know about Suzu’s return.”

Tsukisa nodded.

“He has come back on his own… or so it appeared. He was found near the body of Master Tenme. The Tenki took him immediately under their protection, as they say. They say he has suffered some minor injury from his abduction and thus is cared for by healers. From what I gathered, they keep him in a drugged state. Until the Rite. I fear Master Takayama wants to try something new, something bad. He wants Suzu’s powers as his own. He thinks that this way, he’ll have infinite access to the powers of the spirits and gods. The air around the Daitori reeks of despair and malevolence.”

“He’s a fool!”

“Suzu will die,” Tsukisa said softly, looking down at her white long hands.

Akio and Kurozuki blanched. Kel’s eyes hardened.

***

Suzu followed the young man’s awkward moves with lazy eyes. He almost spilled the bowl of soup and dropped the plate of pickles. He stammered some vague apologies and left hurriedly.

Suzu sighed. He had never seen this man. He must be one of the newly promoted Tenki. The boy knew his lunch was drugged. He smiled sadly to himself. Those drugs weren’t effective anymore but his captors hadn’t even realized it. The upheaval of the Tenki’s deaths had shaken the Daitori on his foundations. The air was very still, as if all around, everyone was holding their breath. The servants had disappeared from view, chased from the Sacred Domain. There would be no witness for what was about to happen.

Suzu didn’t felt like eating but he forced himself. The fox had accompanied him. He came out of the closet and went to lie beside him, licking his hand affectionately. Suzu had named him ‘Orei’, which meant ‘little spirit’. He patted his head.

He sighed again: he missed the Moriko. They had accompanied him all the way to the cave and Master Tenme’s body.

Their silences had filled his head with soft chants and faded images, their gentle gestures and caresses rustling like leaves in the air. He couldn’t remember their trip back to Shinseimon. Emotionlessly they had walked ahead of him, surrounding the corpse, joining their hands and had started to turn slowly around it, their heads bent forward, their hair falling like veils in front of their faces. Suzu had just stood aside, mesmerized by the strange ceremony. Then the circle had opened, inviting him in. He had stepped in hesitantly, afraid of what he might see. His bare feet reached the bloody pool. His trembling hand reached the cold face. The thick liquid dripped from his soles. In a distant corner of his mind he wondered how the blood hadn’t already coagulate.

Then the Moriko had gathered at the back of the cave and started to disappear into the hidden tunnel.

When Suzu had tried to stand and run to them, the fox had stepped out of the shadows to block his way. Resigned Suzu had knelt back near Master Tenme, combing the white hair with his fingers.

He didn’t remember how much time had passed until men appeared and hurled him on his feet. His return to the Daitori was a blur in his memory. Only rough hands on his shoulders and frightened whispers.

Suzu forced himself out of his reminiscences and scratches his friend’s head.

“You’ll help me, won’t you? You’ll lend me your strength. It won’t be that easy, you know.”

But the animal simply yawned and put his head on his paws, his eyes half-closed. It was as if he was saying: “You worry too much. What must be will be.”

Master Takayama had come to visit him as soon as he had been brought back to the Daitori. He had stayed to watch over his bathing in a pungent bath of herbal water. He was now bent over a stick and his face was pale and emaciated. Suzu heard that his struggle against the poison of Master Tenme had been long and difficult. Now he looked even more frightening than before. Suzu hadn’t been able to utter a word in his presence.

And what if I’m paralyzed by fear during the Rite?

He felt a fit of dizziness steal through his body then disappear.

The Moriko had made him munch some leaves’ pulp on the way back to Shinseimon and it seemed they acted as an antidote against the drugs of the Tenki.

Suzu closed his eyes. His whole body was resonating in tune with the energies swirling all around the domain. It had started at midday and was supposed to last until the Rite took place. The Council was preparing the Rite’s Ground.

Since his meeting with the Moriko, it was as if a door inside his head had opened. Spirits were still afraid to enter the area of Shinseimon, but more powerful entities were gathering around, sniffing the spells of the Tenki, probing them with tendrils of intention. Some had even ventured inside the empty pavilions of the servants and deceased Shamans, even reaching inside his room. Every time one of them had entered, Orei had lifted his head, growling threateningly. That had always been enough to chase the intruder away.

The bowl lay empty on the tray and the drugged tea had been drunk when a familiar sensation came around, soft fingers brushing his lips and his closed eyelids. Invisible hands followed the lines of his neck down his shoulders. The air inside the room became humid and the temperature rose slightly. Suzu felt drowsy. The fox stood and walked cautiously about him, sniffing around.

Suddenly he lifted his head sharply and let out a low bark of warning. In the corridor, hurrying footsteps resonated and the door slid roughly opened, almost torn from its rail. Several of the new Tenki barged inside the room, waving their staffs and wooden beads necklace rosaries in front of them threateningly. Cool air rushed in, making the sweat on Suzu’s body evaporate. He shivered.

“What happened?” a young shaman barked at him, grabbing him by the arm.

Confused, Suzu struggled to find his words. Another Tenki forced his companion to let him go and he dropped to the floor, reeling.

“He’s drugged, how can he answer you?”

“There’s something strange inside this room!” the other retorted.

They searched the closets but found nothing.

“I’ll ask Master Takayama to have some people stay with him. I don’t trust him,” one man said. “I don’t want to end up like the other Tenki.”

“It was not his fault…”

“Shut up, idiot! It’s all his fault! He should have been sacrificed properly, he’s poisoning our minds!”

He cast a hateful glance at the boy who was sitting in the corner of the room, eyes unfocused. His companion forced him to look at him.

“You’re the idiot here, Shin! Your father was forced into his marriage with your mother, he grabbed the first opportunity to escape to the Tenki. It was Master Tenme who killed him, not Suzu! His death was the result of a power struggle, that’s all!”

“Father was obsessed with this… whore! Everyone knows what this so-called Sacred Avatar does!! I should cut his throat before he twists our minds as well.”

“Makoto, take this moron out! He’s making me sick!”

Two Tenki accompanied the struggling man outside. The one who had defended Suzu knelt beside him.

“Don’t worry, we won’t let anyone hurt you,” he said reassuringly, though his voice sounded still unsteady.

“What is your name?”

The young fellow was clearly surprised at his question… or maybe at his clarity of mind.

“I’m Kawamori, Kawamori Kei. I would be honored if you’d call me Kei.”

“Kei… do you know what will happen?”

The shaman hesitated.

“I… I was taught about the Rite of Calling.” He couldn’t help blushing.

“Do you know I know also?”

“You… you do?” Kei stammered. “Master Takayama said…”

“Do you think I enjoy it?” Suzu couldn’t keep the edge from his voice, the steel from his eyes.

Kei averted his face shamefully. “Master Takayama said it was the only way to protect our people and to spare them…”

“You have no idea of what will happen.” Suzu sighed deeply, releasing all resentment from his being.

Kei watched his companions who were joking uneasily in the corridor, waiting for him.

“No, I guess we don’t know.” He turned back to Suzu. “And then, knowing that, you came back to us, you abandoned this stranger’s side. He could have saved you. We thought he wanted to take you away.”

“He will.”

“Suzu… Can I call you by your name? Suzu, do you care for us?”

The boy nodded. Kei squeezed sympathetically his shoulders.

“I’ll pray for you… even though I feel the Gods already look after you.”

***

Akio dropped to his knees and bent his head to the floor in the antechamber of the pavilion. He mumbled some words of prayer and got back to his feet to join the crowd of mourning inhabitants in the vast front yard. He waited for Kel and Kurozuki, scratching discreetly his hand. The colored powder Tsukisa had plastered on his face and arms was making him itch and he was afraid the cloth wrapped around his head would loosen up and fall, revealing his pale hair. After a short while, a bent man letting out a dry cough from behind the white mask that was covering his nose and mouth came to sit beside him.

“I think I know where Suzu is,” Kel whispered while arranging his wide sleeves around himself. “One of the Tenki standing beside the dais was literally fuming his location through his pores.”

Akio nodded slightly.

A tall woman came to join them then, her eyes shyly averted to the floor. She tripped on her robes and fell into the sick man’s arms.

“Have you seen Master Takayama in the back!” Kurozuki exclaimed.

Kel coughed loudly to cover his words, attracting the furious glances of their neighbors.

“Stand up,” the har whispered. “And be careful with that rice powder, you’re staining your jacket.”

“I told you it’s a bad idea, Akio should have disguised as a woman, he’s already white anyway!”

“Shut up and sit down, we’ll get out in a minute.”

There was a constant shuffling in the crowd as people took their turn to come near the dais where the bodies had been laid, their faces covered with a white cloth.

Discreetly, the three of them stood up and followed a line of men heading towards the dais, but as they came across a similar line of people walking back to the crowd, they stepped aside into a corridor and disappeared behind an opaque screen.

They entered an empty room and stepped out of it from the opposite site, inside a shuttered corridor.

“Have you seen Master Takayama?” Kurozuki repeated hotly.

“So what?” Kel asked exasperatedly.

“In his state he won’t be able to perform the Rite!”

“What do you mean?” Akio asked puzzled.

“It’s obvious! He’s all wrinkled and bent like a gnarled branch. I’m sure he used all the powers he tore from Suzu last time to fight against the poison. And now he’s not even able to walk straight! I’m sure he’s even crippled down here.”

“Idiot!” Akio tightened his headdress. “There are potions against impotence. And from what you’ve said, very little is necessary to connect to the entity that is called by the Rite and from there, to gain power. Or else, Takayama will have the young Tenki ‘open his way for him’. I’m surprised you know so little in these matters with your experience,” he added scornfully.

“Stop bickering, you two.”

Though his eyes betrayed his amusement to Kurozuki’s words, Kel’s face stayed bland and cold as he led them along the corridor. He could not let himself swayed by his feelings. His heightened senses could warn him in advance of any presence ahead and they were able to hide long before anyone came their way.

Kel marveled at the facility of their progression. Now that he knew where he was going, Suzu was like a clear beacon ahead and all the currents of energy were spiraling towards him. He was a bit puzzled by the lack of distress or dark energy. It was as if he was walking towards a well of light that shone with more brightness than he had ever witnessed for a very very long time.

Then they walked into known territory.

“Aren’t we heading towards the pavilion from which you made Suzu attack me?” he asked Kurozuki.

The young shaman nodded, his brow furrowed in worry.

“It’s not right, this place is a high spiritual ground, but it’s completely improper for a Rite of Calling. Master Takayama himself said it after we performed it last time. There are plenty of other places more suited…”

“But none located within the Daitori,” Akio pointed out. “I think Master Tenme’s attempt against his life made him very paranoid.”

Kurozuki nodded. “I won’t let him do anything to Suzu,” he muttered under his breath. “I should have killed this bastard a long time ago!”

“Keep your murderous instincts under reins,” Kel scolded him. “There are too many influences playing around here for my peace of mind. Don’t feed them your anger.”

As they neared the pavilion, Akio unsheathed the saber he had hidden under his clothes. Kel cast him a sidelong glance, feeling a strange comfort in his steady and determined stance. Kurozuki had brought his twin daggers and the har shuddered: those looked disturbingly like the sacred daggers of ritual suicide. He ground his teeth. He hoped he had been right to refuse any weapon for himself. His mind would have to suffice.

Suddenly catching a movement in the distance, he threw his companions to the floor and crouched himself, his gaze intent on the moving point in the inner garden. There were three people walking towards the pavilion, dressed in black. Kel squinted at them as they entered. He doubted the Tenki were late at this sort of ceremony.

Akio gripped his sleeve.

“We have to hurry!”

“No hurry, we can’t charge in like that, we have to assess the situation first. We’re only the three of us and we mustn’t let them alert the guard.”

But Akio shook his head, looking frightened.

“There’s something wrong. I feel it. We have to enter and take Suzu away at once!”

Kurozuki hadn’t taken his eyes off the door of the pavilion since the latecomers had entered.

“Yes, there’s something very wrong here… because we’ve never had a woman as a shaman before and I’m sure we still don’t.”

***

Suzu was bathed again, in water perfumed with petals of rose, cinnamon and sandalwood. The water was hot and steamy. Two young Tenki attended his bath and he held up his arms to both sides while they diligently dried his thin body with a soft towel.

Then they clothed him with a multi-layered robe. First the white simpler one against his skin. Then a clear rose one above, covered by an elegantly embroidered one, streaks of gold at the edges of the herons’ wings that took their flight from the bottom rolled hem and the wide sleeves of the crimson garment. The large wrapping belt was bound tightly around his waist, then adorned with another thinner sash and finally completed with a golden cord circling the fabric in its middle. A heavy velvety jacket was added on his shoulders, of a dark rich brown color.

They combed his hair, smoothing it with unguents, and bound it tightly at the back of his neck. They curled the ponytail up, attaching it with white silken ribbons so that it formed an apparently loose loop. Small white flowers were stuck in the bindings so that they completely hid the ribbons. More golden cords came to secure the hair loop and fell gracefully down his back with tassels at their ends.

As Suzu was marveling at the unearthly image he was contemplating in the high mirror, a small part of his mind was sneering at him, whispering contemptuously that he was looking like a doll. At least, the Tenki didn’t use any make-up but their young charge suspected that it was because they were too young themselves to know about the finery of powders and colored sticks to apply on the skin.

His guardians surveyed their work critically then opened the door to let him walk forward. Just outside of the room, another newly promoted Tenki was waiting to accompany him to the Rite Ground. No need for more guards, Suzu had just enough strength to put one foot after the other with so much weight on his shoulders. As they neared the pavilion, passing in the corridor that was only partly repaired, Suzu caught a glimpse of reddish brown fur flashing between the bushes of the inner garden and he sighed inwardly. At least, Orei would be by his side.

The pavilion consisted of only one large room, its moldy scent of old wood barely hidden by the incense that had been burning for hours. Bright torches cast long shadows from the metal poles that supported them, surrounding a low table upon which various items had been laid: the small round mirror and the dagger given by the Old Ones, and beside them, a dagger for ritual suicide. White chrysanthemum stood at both side of the mirror that was kept upright by a metallic stand.

Master Takayama stepped forward from the shadows and took one of Suzu’s hands, guiding him towards the altar. The boy struggled to keep from shrinking at the contact of the wrinkled papery-looking skin. The man smiled at him, his eyes gleaming with the flames of the torches. He was wearing the traditional robes of a groom at a marriage ceremony, but the black folds of his garments made him look like the dark reaper of the foreign stories. He made Suzu kneel in front of the altar and then stepped back behind him, out of his field of vision. Two Tenki came to his sides to watch over him and prevent him from fleeing.

Suzu was afraid. His gaze darted around, in the hope of catching a glimpse of Orei, a sign that he wasn’t alone. His ears couldn’t help registering all the little sounds around him, the creaking of the floorboards, the rustling of the fabric of the robes, the shifting of bodies and the thousands of unknown things happening around, in the dark corners of a vast room and a frightened mind. The air felt stuffed and he was finding it hard to breathe.

I mustn’t panic, Suzu thought, squeezing his eyes shut. I know why I’m here, I must focus on my goal. I mustn’t panic.

He opened his eyes again and gazed at the swirling energies filling the room and beyond. Sometimes, tendrils lazily drifted from the main currents to float down on the heads of the oblivious Tenki, caressing their faces, kissing their eyes. Suzu shuddered. There were many guests at this Rite but none too friendly to humans… nor to him. He was simply a vessel, a tool.

Orei… Moriko… where are you?

He started when he heard the sound of the door in his back. A gush of cold wind blew in, making the flowers in his hair dangle to caress his cheek. His exposed neck felt an icy contact, as if the lips of Death itself had come to kiss him.

Don’t be afraid…

He didn’t recognize the voice in his head but felt somewhat comforted. Does one feel comforted when the Shinigami, the divinities of death come to collect one’s soul?

There was a commotion behind him then someone was pushed past him and forced to kneel on the other side of the altar. The Tenki that had been so rough pulled back the hood of the other person and Suzu gasped as he discovered the face of a young lady. She smiled at him gently. Her guardian tore the entire black robe from her. There were no embroidered robes for her, no flowers in her hair, nothing but a plain white robe, like the robe of the dead. The shaman left her side and disappeared in the shadows.

“I’m honored to be able to meet you, Suzu. My name is Tsukisa. I’m the fiancée of Akio. He spoke well of you.”

Her voice was light and beautiful, she seemed totally oblivious of her predicament, just happy to be here with him.

“Tsukisa… I don’t understand… why are you here?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked slightly mockingly. “I’m going to be a Sacrifice.”

“But… I…”

“Tonight is different.”

“I know!”

He caught himself before his voice attracted the attention of the other Tenki. His two guardians didn’t seem to object to his conversation and didn’t even seem interested.

“I saw something new last night. Someone came to visit my dreams. He asked me to assist you.”

“What are you talking about?”

With her cool demeanor, her light tone and eerie gaze, Suzu thought for an instant that she was mentally deranged. But that didn’t last.

“I am a seeress of a kind, not a good one though,” she chuckled. “I don’t know how, but my visitor assured me I would know what to do. I’m used to follow orders… from my visions or my dreams, there’s no difference.”

“You’re going to be killed! That shouldn’t be! If someone has to die tonight, it should be only me!!”

“Don’t get too engrossed in that idea. I’m sure there are thousands of spirits and divinities ready to spring to your defense… if only to possess you and use your body to wreck havoc all around. Some spirits are so childish…”

She chuckled again. No Tsukisa wasn’t crazy. Not with those gleaming eyes. She was drunk, drugged to compliance, like any good Sacrifice. But in spite of her state, she was able to speak to him and pass him information…

“I was told you had to drink at the Cup… a bitter cup. And in order to do that, you have to shed your weaknesses and fears behind. I guess you’ve been given orders already… let’s hope that’s the right ones… I wouldn’t have a divinity as general, believe me! They’re not even able to speak straight, riddles get to them, that’s incredible…”

Her voice trailed off. Two men seized her and made her stand, her arms extended in front of herself, palms up. Takayama walked out of the shadows, his footsteps slow and unsteady without the help of the cane, his breath uneven. He knelt with difficulty on the other side of the altar, facing Suzu, and produced a small golden bell from one of this large sleeves. He rang it once, the crystal-clear note resonating in the air, silencing all other sounds. He put it down on the table and leaned forward to take the dagger of ritual suicide. He held it in his open palms, lifting it above his head. Shakingly he stood again, the weapon still high, as if shown to the invisible sky beyond the roof. Then he let out a mighty sigh, as if he was holding his breath for a long time, and took the dagger in his fist. His feverish gaze bore into Suzu like incandescent blades. It had started.

***

The guard fell in his arms silently. Kell threw a quick glance at Kurozuki who nodded from the other end of the path. There had been surprisingly few men watching over the sparsely-lit yard and simply-designed garden surrounding the pavilion. Now, all three of them approached stealthily one side of the wooden building; there was a shuttered large window there and Kurozuki had assured them it was set at an angle from where they would be virtually invisible from the people inside.

“Last time the Rite took place at the center of the room,” had explained the demoted shaman. “There’s a thread braid set on the floor to mark the Sacred Ground, at the center of which Suzu was to sit. The lowest Tenki has the duty to disrobe the Sacred Avatar and symbolically cleanse him once more by tracing patterns on his face and body with sacred oil. Then the High Priest, the highest Tenki, comes to take Suzu. All other Tenki sit on the floor cross-legged and chant or ring the sacred bells. Some may have their eyes closed, but most of them don’t. We also burn lots of incense and herbs so the air is very stuffy and the visibility is not very good. Moreover, at the beginning of the Rite, there are only the four cardinal candles lit. They’re set at about one-mat-distance from the Sacred Ground. But each time a Tenki has performed his task on Suzu, one more candle is lit by the lowest Tenki. This goes on until the Sacred Avatar, Suzu, is possessed by a spirit. Then, the High Priest has to master the power of the spirit; all candles are blown out. When the candles come back to life by themselves, that is the sign the High Priest has tamed the wild power and Suzu is ready to dispatch it to those who are able to bear it.”

“That’s sickening!” Akio had said through clenched teeth. “It’s even worse than what I’ve imagined! No wonder Suzu was so badly wounded. I’m even more astonished he didn’t sustain permanent damages. And to think he’ll have to undergo the same torture again after only a few days…”

“Usually our goal is not to hurt him, but tonight…”

“You’re the worst…!”

At this moment, Kel had intervened to calm them down and he pensively explained his plan.

“We can’t let them touch Suzu,” he had said. “Even though the best moment for us would be when the candles are blown, we can’t be sure they’ll follow the same pattern tonight and I don’t want to know what could happen if the spirit is left untamed in Suzu’s body. We have to intervene at the beginning of the Rite. There’ll be less visibility and the Tenki will be concentrating on the Rite.”

And there they were. From a cleft between two disjointed boards of the shutter, Kel could vaguely make out moving silhouettes. Some were sitting on the floor, as Kurozuki had described, but there were other people busying themselves in another part of the room. They were farther from the window and he could only guess their presences.

Show us what you’re seeing! the young shaman asked hurriedly though mind-touch.

Shut up, I’ll show you what’s worth seeing!

But Akio supported his companion’s request with an urgent thought and the har grudgingly sent them the blurry images he had in front of him.

We can’t see well but it seems they haven’t started yet, Kel offered.

It’s taking too long, that’s not good. As you said, they may have alter the usual Rite due to the circumstances.

Let’s open the shutters now, projected Akio worryingly. If we wait too much, when we do it, they’ll feel the draught and the difference of temperature, whereas, if they’re still moving around for their preparations, it’ll be less obvious. And the breeze has calmed down.

Kel hesitated. He turned towards his companions to object when his gaze caught a movement in the background, among the thick dark bushes. A patch of clearer color that moved among the leaves and branches, not making a sound. Suddenly a head popped out, the head of an animal, a dog or maybe… two golden slit eyes bore into him capturing his glance and mind. It was as if a curtain of shadow had fallen over the yard and at the same time, his vision sharpened to the extent that he could see the beast precisely, down to its pointed ears, its long nose, its twinkling eyes… the twinkling eyes of a fox.

What’s up?! Kurozuki shot, his mental voice tinged with panic.

What?

Kel looked up back to where the animal had stood, but it had disappeared from view.

You spaced out for seconds, Akio projected. What did you see?

He glanced himself in the same direction.

Nothing… I thought…

They all jumped at the sudden cry.

Suzu!

Kel abruptly pushed Kurozuki from the window where he had rushed to and in a few efficient moves had the shutters torn from their frame and thrown violently at the men inside.

The warm contact of the wooden floorboards, the slap of hot and humid air on his face, the stinging fumes of incense in his nose and throat… Bones cracked under his hands, fabric and flesh ripped under his nails… Distant screams, the sound of metal poles falling down on the floor, the crackling of fire… His perceptions blurred, his body possessed by the primal instinct of survival, of fight, of anger, of despair… unless…

Suzu! Suzu! Where was he? It all was happening in a haze, as if time was distorted, wrapped in a ball, like the multicolored thread balls he saw the children of the town toyed with. But Suzu, where was he?!

The curtain of shifting myst opened suddenly. A flash of pain erupted from his leg and he fell forward. Blindly he threw his arms toward the floor rushing to bang his head and pushed to roll farther on himself, trying to escape the shouts and clawing hands.

He struggled to regain his balance and lifted up his head sharply, ready to shot mental arrows at his attackers. But he was hit full in the face with the vision of horror in front of him: a naked body hanging by its bounded wrists from the depths of the ceiling, white skin smeared by dark red liquid tendrils flowing down the thin arms. The moment he caught sight of it, a single glimmering drop fell from the dangling feet down to the floor…

People! There were people in front of him now, hiding the hideous vision, and time suddenly rushed back around him. Suzu! His pale skin contrasted against the dark tatters that remained of his clothes. He was standing trembling against Takayama who had grabbed a fistful of his black hair, using it to lift his head up, exposing the white throat to the shining blade of a bloody dagger.

Kel shuddered when he caught sight of the Tenki’s face, of the smearing of blood around his mouth. Feverish colors had come back to the high cheekbones, the grey hair now pure white.

“Don’t think you can defeat me with your magical tricks!” Takayama said with a frightening laugh. “You can’t do anything to save Suzu… or yourself! I won’t hesitate to kill him, his blood will be the final achievement of this Rite, the divine source of my new power!”

A cold fist closed on the har’s heart. He could do nothing for Suzu. There was nothing to do at all. He couldn’t let them have him in addition to Suzu… He met the Sacred Avatar’s gaze.

There’s nothing you can do, go. The disembodied voice sipped into his numbed mind, extending its frozen fingers to the farthest area of his brain. Go away. You were never meant to see all that, you were an unexpected element. You can’t help this people. Go, flee from this land. Flee to save your life.

Suzu’s eyes were so dark… so… sad? Kel bit his lower lips, drawing blood, and let its taste spread in his mouth.

I don’t know who you are, but obviously, you don’t know who I am either!

A shining blade burst their bubble of light and Takayama reeled backwards with a cry, an ornate dagger handle sticking out of his shoulder. Kel dived to pull Suzu from his captor. A white silhouette flashed past the har, the air sang as the metal cut it. The Tenki screamed. Gushes of warm blood splattered over Kel’s face. A hand and a bloody dagger fell next to him on the floor.

You foolish children. You can’t interfere. You mustn’t, rang an angry voice in the ethers.

***

Akio who was leaning over the writhing Takayama for the final blow started and looked back at Suzu and Kel. Kurozuki was standing frozen next to them, his eyes wide-open.

Suzu backed from his guardian’s arms. He was looking up in the air intently, his face grim and slightly afraid.

“Don’t hurt them! They only wanted to rescue me, they didn’t know!” he shouted at his invisible companion.

Then, for the first time, he saw the hanging body. And unlike Kel, he immediately recognized Tsukisa. Swiftly he cut the rope and put her down on the floor. She was so cold. He felt numbly for her pulse.

She gave her life to the achievement of our plan. You should respect her will and not hamper our progress.

The cold touch in his mind almost made Akio choke.

“She’s still alive! I’ll save her!!”

You abandoned her in the past. Why would you want to save her now, when there is no need for that?

Akio stifled a sob and wrapped tightly bands of cloth around her upper arms to try and stem the flow of vital fluid. He felt dimly the invisible presence draw away from him.

“Akio… I’m sorry.” The distance voice of Suzu almost didn’t reach him. It was sad, pleading… “All of you, thank you from the bottom of my heart… but the Rite has to take place otherwise…”

In cue, the ground started to shake violently and those still standing fell on the floor. Beams above their heads creaked and shouts erupted around them as the Tenki still alive and conscious struggled to get outside, dragging their wounded companions with them. The fire they had tried to put out sizzled anew, leaping avidly at the dry wooden posts.

Kel inhaled sharply beside him and Akio could almost see sparks of life force flying to him.

I’m not your pawn! I’ll never be!! The har’s mental scream of defiance was the last thing he heard before darkness overcome him.

Part 7: The Disciple

Kurozuki was staring mournfully at the ruined city below. All that the people of Shinseimon had worked so hard to achieve had been destroyed in a matter of minutes. The earthquake had taken down most of the buildings and the inevitable fires had spread fast, consuming what may have still stood. The earth was still rumbling beneath his feet but it seemed that they were granted a short respite. In spite of what some may believe, he knew there was still a lot more to come. He didn’t need the urgent pleading of Suzu to know it.

Thanks to Kel’s kinetic powers that had delayed the collapse of the pavilion, they had been able to get out and well beyond the zone of projection of any debris when the full force of the main tremor had hit the community. As the rumbles were just fading away, he himself had suggested to take refuge in the sacred cave, where Kel had been imprisoned and where Master Tenme had committed suicide. The corpse had been removed but people were still afraid of approaching the area. Kel had obviously strongly objected against the idea. His opinion was that they had to get as far away of Shinseimon as possible, as they were all positive it had been the epicenter of the seism. But Akio and Suzu wouldn’t hear about that.

Kel was currently trying to calm Suzu, to no avail. Kurozuki clenched his teeth, resisting the urge to run back in and shake him to reason. But he was torn himself because, unlike the har, he was deeply connected to this land, more deeply than he would have ever thought.

I wouldn’t have reached the position of Tenki if I didn’t have the capabilities… and an intimate link to this land, he had realized. Somehow we, the Tenki, forgot what our first duty was, our reason of existence. We shouldn’t have messed with the ruling of our people. We had a different position, not above, but beside them. But we were blinded by our greed.

The young shaman banged his fist against the hard trunk of the tree beside him. He didn’t want to think about that, he didn’t want to care about the Tenki and their lost powers, he didn’t want to care for anyone at all. All he wanted was Suzu, he craved for him, his body, his soul… But whenever he tried to get close to him, whenever he crossed his eyes, he would only read this pleading, this supplication: Lend me your strength, give me courage… courage to achieve what has to be done… before it’s too late. And Kurozuki couldn’t. Because he knew. In the pavilion, during the brief contact with the angry entity invoked by the Rite, he had caught a glimpse of what was supposed to take place, a terrifying view of death, for Suzu, for himself, for everyone on this land. Something horrible… necessary?

If only I were like Akio, I wouldn’t have any doubts, I would follow the path of duty without any second thoughts…

“Are you all right?”

Kurozuki started at the voice of the very one he was thinking about. He composed himself before turning towards the healer.

“Yes, I only sustained a few scratches and bruises during our fight with the Tenki and Kel protected us from the debris. I’m all right. How’s Tsukisa?”

The albinos clenched his fist and looked down at his feet.

“She’s still alive, but barely. I… I don’t know what to do.”

“Why?… You’ll do what you have to, don’t you always?” Kurozuki said cynically.

“Don’t fool with me!” Akio almost shouted.

His companion stared at him, taken aback. “What’s the matter? You managed to keep her alive until now in spite of her loss of blood and the poor equipment we managed to salvage from the Daitori, you should be proud of yourself.”

“You don’t understand, you never understand! It’s not a matter of performance or success!!”

The pale young man was now looking straight at him and his eyes were filled with angry tears.

“What…”

“She knew she was meant to die, she has a gift of Foresight. But she didn’t tell us. She told us for Suzu, because she thought maybe we could or we should save him, but she said nothing for herself. She wanted to die! And me…”

“Akio, listen… what you’re saying is nonsense…” tried to say the bewildered Tenki.

They told me!! The spirits that were in the pavilion! I usually can’t hear them but they talked to me!”

Akio fell to his knees, sobbing, his fists clenched on the stony ground his tears had started to wet. His duty… what was his honor telling him his duty was now? Kurozuki came beside him and patted his shoulder clumsily.

“I know that’s not something you might want to hear, but the spirits have a plan, something they feel right to do for this country. This plan is quite… bad for us. But they think we must accept to sacrifice ourselves for the good of the land. As a former Tenki, I understand their scheme and reasoning… but at the same time, I’m afraid and I don’t want to be sacrificed… and what’s more, I don’t want Suzu to be sacrificed. He could have a future that we can’t even start to imagine. And I want him to fulfil it… and I want to be there to see it with my own eyes… even though it may be regarded as selfish and a betrayal to my land and people.”

Akio slowly lifted his head and stared blandly at the shaman. “I understand how you feel.”

“Ah?” Kurozuki shifted awkwardly under the serious gaze. “I thought you’d throw a spiteful retort to me again.”

“I’m no more worthy than you.” Kurozuki winced inwardly. “No, in fact, I’m just as human as you. I’m sorry I was so rude with you in the past.”

Akio stood up and wiped his face with his sleeve. “Come, let’s get back inside, the air is chilly.”

***

Suzu swayed this way and that. His mind was fogged, swirling constantly, unable to focus either on reality or ethers. He felt dizzy and weak, he hated himself.

Why did I cry? Tsukisa accepted the sacrifice, she was so strong, why couldn’t I be as strong as her, why?!

He had managed to escape the worried care of Kel, his concern making things even more painful for him.

I don’t deserve any of this!

He slumped down in the dirt, his back sliding roughly against the rock wall.

“Sshh, sweetheart, you’re not at fault…”

Suzu caught his breath as the murmur ripped his veil of self-pity apart, clearing his mind as well as his sight. Somewhat his steps had led him to the side of Tsukisa. She was wrapped in blankets, her arms extended to her sides above it. Bandages adorned both her wrists like bracelets of valor, signs of martyr. Suzu gritted his teeth and swallowed down a sob.

“I… I’m sorry, Tsukisa… I spoiled it all…”

“Darling… we barely know each other… why would you think I was right and you were wrong?”

Her feeble voice cut the air like a blade of the sharpest steel, cut into his heart.

“I…” Suzu bit his lower lips, drawing blood.

“Sshh…”

Suzu wiped his teary eyes with his sleeve. “You thought of the greatest good above your own life. You were ready to sacrifice yourself.”

“And this makes me better than you?”

“I was afraid… of the pain… of these men… I didn’t want them to touch me… I thought I could stand it but I was wrong… if Kel hadn’t come to save me, I would have fight them, I would have struggled, bitten, clawed, spit… like the lowest of animal!”

This time he couldn’t suppress his distressed sobs and covered his shameful face in his hands. Tsukisa made soothing sounds and Suzu couldn’t find the strength to reject the warm embrace of her feelings. Her thoughts reverberated in his mind.

I was afraid too… I was afraid of living… of being imprisoned in my golden cage again… I was afraid because I knew Akio would eventually be taken from me again, one way or the other. It’s easy to give your life when you don’t have anything left in this world.

Suzu lifted his head, staring incredulously at the young woman who was smiling faintly at him.

“You love Akio very much, don’t you?”

Her smile widened slightly. “I love him enough to know there’s no chance for us… and no chance for this land anymore. You have to follow this man… this bewitching creature… Kel. You’ll be safe with him. You must not look back at us.”

“I can’t do that!” protested the boy with anguish. “Why does everyone think me so heartless?! I’m not an icon of cold stone! I have feelings too! I lived alone for years, cut from the rest of the world. And just when I’m rediscovering what caring and loving mean, I have to lose it all?! I can’t accept that!”

Kel will love you and care for you. You can’t save everyone. Death can be the greater act of love but also the most selfish. Only you can decide of the meaning of your actions.

Suzu shuddered as he caught the white fire at the bottom of Tsukisa’s gaze. Her mental voice seemed to echo in his mind. Then it was gone. Tsukisa sighed deeply and closed her eyes. The boy gasped and frantically searched for her pulse. But the steady rising and falling of her chest reassured him rapidly.

***

Akio was heading down the path that led to the surviving villagers’ camp when he heard Suzu calling his name. He turned back and watched the boy catch up with him.

“Where are you going?” Suzu asked, panting.

“I’m a healer, I have to go where my patients are,” he replied crisply.

“But Tsukisa…”

“There’s nothing more I can do for her, the rest is in her hands… and those of the gods.”

His voice was cold and distant. He had to force himself back in his tower of ice, otherwise his doubts and fears would have swept his strength and mind away.

“Can I come with you?”

The offer surprised the pale young man. He stared at his companion, who was looking straight back at him. Since the aborted Rite, Suzu had been in a feverish state, as if his mind had been shaken by what had happened, as if it hadn’t really come back to reality. But now, he looked composed and calm, he looked, maybe for the first time, really his age, even though his cheeks were currently slightly flushed. His eyes however betrayed his uncertainty, his doubts.

“I’m not sure you should…”

“Please Akio. I need to do something for those people. They were hurt because of me, even if indirectly,” Suzu pleaded.

“Did you tell Kel that you wanted to come with me?” Akio insisted.

“He went to the stream to wash himself. You know he wouldn’t agree, but that’s because he wants me to forget about what happened and those I’ll leave behind when I follow him. But do you really think I’ll be able too?”

Akio frowned. “That’s not the question. He’ll look for you. You certainly don’t want to worry him.”

Suzu blushed more deeply and shook his head. “Of course not, but I want to come with you. It’s my fault what has happened. Lots of people died and some were badly wounded. I have to do something.”

The healer considered the Sacred Avatar silently for a few seconds then nodded curtly. He handed him a bag and they moved on down the path. They walked in silence and Akio became uneasy and tense. Suzu… What was really going on in his mind?

***

In a matter of hours, the survivors of Shinseimon had built several small camps at the foot of the mountain. They had gathered around the hunting refuges and set up rudimentary tents with what they had been able to salvage from the city. But now that the tremors had subsided, no one spoke of going back.

When Suzu and Akio arrived at the western camp, no one took notice of them. There were very little talks and all of them were reduced to hushed whispers. The only sound that spoke of life was the solitary wailing of a baby.

The most badly wounded had been settled in the largest tent. Many of them were burned people and those were just too hard for Suzu to handle. Seeing his blanching in front of the first patient, Akio sent him without a word to help at bandaging in one of the corner where tables on trestles had been arranged in a large U. Collapsing walls and roofs had trapped the sleeping inhabitants and the luckiest had sustained fractures and concussions. The woman who was in charge of the bandaging team sent Suzu to the cooking of the herbal bathes where the bandages were soaked. The task was simple but delicate because there were several bathes at different cooking stage and he had to watch them while cutting the clothes that served as bandages, arranging the dried ones in boxes and keeping track of how much the baths had served before they had to be tossed away.

Suzu was filling a measuring vat with the appropriate herbs when a group of harvesters entered the tent with their findings. As they were putting them down near him, one of the men approached him hesitantly.

“Aren’t you… Suzu?”

“Err, yes. You…”

The man smiled sadly. “I’m Kei Kawamori. I’m one of the new Tenki… not that it means anything now.”

Suzu stared at him fixedly, trying to sort out his mixed feelings towards the newcomer: he was supposed to be one of his torturer but Suzu only remembered his kind words when they had met the first time.

“I… I’m glad you managed to make it out of the pavilion,” he finally said sincerely. “I’m so sorry…”

“Why would you be sorry? You have no reason to be.”

“Your friends…?”

“Makoto died and Shin is in coma.”

Suzu’s throat went dry all of the sudden. He could barely remember the faces of the two young Shamans, mostly he remembered the violence of Shin – was it Shin? – when they had met.

“I’m… really…”

“Hey!” Kei deftly caught the falling vat and pushed the bowing Suzu upright. He stared at him fiercely. “Listen, boy. You’re not to blame. You were about to be sacrificed for us, we deserved what happened to us. All of us knew of your existence and isolation, but no one ever tried to approach you, even for a little thanks. We were only too happy to be able to go on with our life, not wanting to know what was the price for it. And now you’re still here to give a hand. You don’t even have to do it, but still you do. So please don’t feel guilty. And when the time comes, don’t look behind.”

He patted his shoulder and gave him back the vat. “If you have time later, come visit Shin. He’s not a bad guy.”

Suzu nodded, unable to produce a sound and forced a brave smile on his lips.

Later, when he had been replaced at the herbal bathes, Suzu bravely went to the “resting tent”: the place where those who had been tended to the best of the healers’ abilities recovered – or tried to.

Mats covered the whole ground of the tent and patients laid side by side, separated only by a short distance. Families knelt around the wounded, making soothing sounds to comfort them or chanting mantras softly to help the soul leave this world serenely. Suzu stepped in this hushed atmosphere as if breaking into a mist. It enclosed him with warm arms, pulling him forward.

This is your realm, Beloved.

No, that’s not! I never wanted this! he cried inwardly.

Then a hand touched his elbow and he was back to the reality.

“I’m glad you came. Come, this way.”

Kei led him to the comatose Shin. His head and right arm were bandaged, but except for that, he looked as if he was asleep.

“The healers said his brain had been badly shaken when he received that log on the head. Your friend, Akio, came and said he wasn’t bleeding inside so that was a relief, but he couldn’t tell when or if he’ll wake up again. He said it was important for people to speak to him to help him find the way back. But as his family disappeared during the earthquake, I’m the only one left to care for him.”

“And… what about your family?” Suzu forced himself to ask.

“I don’t know about my parents. Someone told me he saw them with the refugees of one of the eastern camp so I can only pray that they’re OK. I can’t afford to go and search all the eastern camps. Moreover, messengers are trying to gather data about who’s where so I’ll just have to wait.”

Suzu nodded uncertainly. Kei was so calm. Why couldn’t he find himself this inner peace? The Shaman motioned him near Shin and Suzu hesitantly took one of the man’s hands. It felt so cold… He rubbed it instinctively.

“Shin, this is Suzu. You must remember him, our Sacred Avatar. He’s here to talk to you.”

Suzu looked at the confidant Tenki a bit panicked but the man simply waved at him with a smile.

“Err… hello, Shin. I’m… I’m sorry for what happened to you. I hope you’ll be all right. Akio… the healer who came earlier… he’s a friend of mine. He said you could hear us and that it would help you… So I hope you can hear me… and you’re less angry at me… But it’s OK if you’re angry… You have your friend Kei here who’s waiting for you and lots of other friends too, I guess…”

At a loss for more words, Suzu looked up at Kei quite desperately. But the Shaman was looking beyond him intently.

“If you’ll excuse me, someone needs me,” he said and stood up and walked quickly away.

Bewildered, Suzu watched him leave the tent. Then he looked down at Shin. What was he supposed to do now?

Weren’t you told to talk to him?

Orei!

The brown fox-like spirit was laying beside him, his triangular head on his paws, considering the patient with lazy eyes. Suzu considered him with wonder: it was the first time he heard Orei’s voice and even though it sounded strangely hollow, as if coming up from the bottom of a deep well, it felt also wonderful.

He may be able to hear you, but you’ll have to shout at him. Orei sniggered.

What do you mean?! Suzu asked, horrified.

His spirit is quite detached from his body. There’s only a thin thread of earthly energy linking his body and mind. It’s only a matter of hours.

But Akio said his body was fine!

Akio is no fool. He said it to your friend the Tenki: he may or may not wake up again.

Instinctively Suzu took his hand again. I’ll shout then!

He closed his eyes and directed his thoughts to the unconscious man’s mind, as if in prayers.

You have to come back! You are needed here! You still have lots of things to do!

But in the darkness of his mind, nothing happened.

Shin! You said it was all my fault, you said I was bad! But that’s false! And I’ll show you! So you have to come back! Give me the chance to show you! If you’re a honorable man, if you’re really a Tenki, you have to come back and see it!

A sudden pain in his hand made him yelp and open his eyes.

You bit me?!

You were giving too much of your energy to this fellow. That was enough. Look.

***

Akio cast a sidelong glance at his companion. Suzu looked as pale as if he had been working for days in a mine. He looked as if he might faint. But he continued to plod on determinedly. Akio had had to use all his might to persuade him to go back to their own camp in the cave but the young man looked so exhausted that he hadn’t been able to leave him at his own devices on the tricky mountain track.

There had been something, something with this Shin who had woken up against all odds. A few hours earlier Akio would have sworn he was on the verge of death: his mind had left his body and without the mind, the body couldn’t survive for long. And then Suzu had been seen at his side not long before his awakening.

Suzu… What was his relationship with this Tenki and why would he have done that?

***

Suzu walked out of the cave, blinking in the bright light.

“Kurozuki.” The former Tenki swirled in surprise. It seemed he had been lost in his thoughts and hadn’t heard him approach. He smiled fondly at him.

“Are you feeling better?”

“I tried to rest but I can’t find sleep…”

Suzu went to stand by him, looking at the dark shapes and black fumes of Shinseimon.

“Kurozuki… do you know… did the Tenki teach you, what is wrong and what is right? What is strength and what is weakness?”

Kurozuki chuckled sadly. “I thought I knew and I thought I didn’t care. But I was wrong all along.”

Suzu remained silent for some minutes before going on.

“But you know what has to be done, for this land, I mean.”

The shaman went rigid and glanced sharply up to him. “It’s over, Suzu, the Rite didn’t take place, so it’s over. This land will be destroyed.”

“No, it’s not over. We still have time to do it again.”

“No Suzu, it’s too late.”

“You know it’s not.” Suzu took a deep breath. “If I’d ask you to perform the Rite, would you do it?”

“You’re crazy, Suzu!” Kurozuki exclaimed. “I’m not powerful enough, none is. Takayama could only hope to accomplish it by using the power of blood beforehand. Would you sacrifice someone? And even if I were that powerful, I would never do it!”

“Because you love me?” Kurozuki blushed furiously and averted his face. “I don’t love you. I reject your love. You did unspeakable things to me, you violated the respect I had for you, I despise you for this. If you want to regain my esteem, do what has to be done!”

The young man was staring at him, trembling noticeably. His fists clenched and opened spasmodically and Suzu feared he might strike him. But he held still, defying him with the coldest gaze he could muster.

“You won’t make me do it,” Kurozuki said with a low voice. “You can insult me as much as you want, despise me, hate me, I don’t care. I was born in shame, surrounded by despise and haughty looks all my life, you’re years too young to think of swaying my resolves.”

He walked back to the cave. Suzu slumped down. He wept, his chest shaken by silent sobs. He could feel Kurozuki’s pain as his own and blamed himself for what he did… even though he knew he had to try.

A rough and wet tongue licked his hand and he lifted up his face to meet the golden eyes of Orei. He snuggled his neck, comforted by the smooth caress of the beast’s fur.

Maybe we were wrong. Maybe no human can perform the Rite.

“I’ve disappointed you a lot, haven’t I?” he managed to say after a while. “I failed the initial Rite and now…”

I’m not disappointed in you or in anyone. Disappointment is not a feeling I know well. I don’t know many emotions. Orei came to lick the tears from his face. I know a bit about affection and… even love maybe. From a certain point of view, I’m very young.

“But because of my weakness, you’ll die and everything that is part of this land…”

I’m too young to know death and fear of death. Maybe I’d know if I had been dead and reborn a few times, but there’s not a chance, it seems. Maybe it’s all for the better.

Suzu considered the small creature, bewildered.

I’m not one of the entities that wanted so much for the Rite to take place, Orei explained as if shrugging.

But we are.

Orei lifted his head to the side, growling. Then, when he saw who it was, he blinked and stepped aside. Suzu could barely make out the shapes that had come to him. They were tall misty silhouettes and had a sense of familiarity about them. The wind blew a warm and humid breeze on his face.

We want this land to live on, as you want it too. But also, we don’t want you to suffer. Some other spirits don’t care about you but we do. We can offer you protection and assistance, if you’d accept them. The mental voice felt like a burning tinder in his mind but far from scalding, its flame was inviting and bewitching.

We fought some others deities to gain access to you first, said the other entity with a soft, gentle voice. Because we were afraid the others would want to harm you or force you to their will. They don’t know you as we do. It’s been so long since they’ve been around humans that they’ve forgotten how it is. But you taught us. You gave us back to ourselves.

And Suzu realized the two creatures were holding hands, like two lovers.

Come with us, we have something to show you.

***

Akio felt exhausted but forced himself to straighten his back. He had been back for an hour or so in the camp when there had been a minor tremor. Minor but some people panicked and fled, pushing anything from their path, trampling any obstacles underfoot. A child had been badly injured and Akio had been powerless; he knew his bandages and medicines couldn’t do anything against the massive internal bleeding. His own feeble gift enabled him to detect the hemorrhage and its location but that was all. He had tried to call for Kel’s help but the har wouldn’t use his powers to heal anyone because he feared the people would swarm over him as if he were their savior.

“These people won’t leave their dying land!” he had spat when Akio had talked with him. “Even if I’d use up all my energy for them, they’ll still stay here and await their death in total oblivion. I have better use for my gifts! As soon as we’ve recovered enough strength, we’re going to head to the coast and I’ll contact my allies on the mainland. They’ll come to fetch us. If you don’t want to come with us, you don’t need to leave here.”

Akio couldn’t blame him. He felt emotionally numb.

As he was nearing the cave, he saw Suzu who was waiting for him, seated on a fallen tree trunk.

“You look better,” the healer said with a tired voice.

“I had to lie down for a few hours but I’m all right now,” he said as if nothing serious had happened. “But you look exhausted. How about a bath? Kel discovered a pool near here. It’s not as warm as it should be but…”

“That’ll be perfect,” Akio said, forcing a smile on his stiff lips.

“Can I accompany you?” Suzu asked without looking at him. “I even brought snacks so that you’ll be able to eat something after your bath.”

Akio looked at the flushing boy suspiciously, but then shrugged. He was just too tired to think.

***

The water was just warm but it was enough to soak away many stresses and anxieties. Akio walked to the very center of the pool, where it was the deepest and immersed himself for a few minutes, gazing up through the shimmering surface of the clear water. All looked blurred but also strangely clear, like a different world. A vision that could last only for minutes… He stood up and left the pool, leaving large wet footprints on the fallen leaves and branches.

“Tsukisa ate some bits,” Suzu said from the rock he was seated upon. “It seems she’s growing stronger with the time.”

He had turned his back to him, clearly waiting for him to put on his clothes. Akio briefly wondered if this unusual shyness to nakedness came from his isolation. But hadn’t he bathed with Kel? He tapped lightly the boy’s shoulder and was given a small satchel containing a red bean pastry and some rice crackers.

“Just what is it you want to ask me, Suzu?” he finally asked as he dusted the crumbles away.

“Is it so obvious?” the boy asked sheepishly.

“Yes. Spit it out.”

Suzu lifted his face and stared at him straight in the eye. “I want to perform the Rite again.”

Akio had dropped the empty satchel and stared at him, bewildered.

“This time, it’ll be different,” he said quickly. “I’ll have assistance. But I need your help.”

“But… Kel will never…” Akio managed to say, still under the shock.

“That’s partly the reason why I need your help. He won’t let me do what must be done… what’s even more difficult is that I’ll need him. So I’d like you to help me drug him.”

Akio finally shook away his surprise and grabbed his companion by the shoulders. “Are you listening to what you’re saying? Or did I understand it wrong? You can’t do that! Weren’t you the one who reported to us that humans can’t have sex with his kind? Weren’t you there when Kel talked about how their fluids are like acid for our flesh?”

“But he also told us about the mingling of essences and souls,” Suzu protested vehemently, trying to shake the grip of his companion, “the magic of this thing he called aruna. It’s the ultimate source of energy, Akio, more than the blood magic!”

“Suzu, don’t start this stuff with me, I won’t understand anything of your magical things. And why don’t you speak with Kurozuki? He’s the best suited to help you.”

Suzu grunted in apparent disgust. “He won’t help me, he’s infatuated with me, it blinds him.”

The words poured out before he could stop them. “You’re unfair! In spite of all his defaults, he truly loves you.”

“I don’t need to hear that!” Suzu cried out. He pushed his companion away and stared away, massaging his bruised shoulders.

“Akio, don’t you want me to save our land and people?” he whispered. “I’ll tell you this. Even if the Rite had been successful the first time, all the people of Shinseimon would have been killed by the earthquake. Master Takayama wanted powers but he wouldn’t have obtained enough to protect the people from the earthquake. The spirits planned to use the earthquake to gather the essence of the dying people to feed the Rite and stabilize the energy network again. Neither reached their goal. But I feel that if Kel helps us, we can manage to tap into the very essence of this land… if only he were willing to help us… But he doesn’t believe in us, nor in himself.”

Akio licked his dry lips nervously. “You can’t do that to him. He’s a wounded man… or har, or whatever. He cares for you and you’re going to damn his soul forever!”

Suzu wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I’ll be the only responsible, the crime will fall back on me…”

“You really believe Kel will see it that way? He’s not from this land, he’s not even human anymore! But he does care for you. Suzu, please, if you care even only a little for him, don’t do that to him…”

Suzu raised his face, looking out at the sky, as if searching for an answer to a silent plea. Then he turned towards him again.

“I would have thought you’d be by my side if it were to try and save our island…”

“I…” The pale healer faltered and lowered his gaze. “I’m not sure of anything anymore…”

“Look at this, Akio.”

Suzu then produced from the folds of his long-sleeved tunic a familiar engraved stone. Akio gasped in surprise.

“That!… This is one of the talismans used to control Kel’s powers! How did you get them?”

“Apparently they were tossed away,” Suzu said, turning them this way and that in his palms. “They’ve been discarded in one of the great waterfalls to the west of the mountain. And then they were taken by the waters down the river flow, but instead of rolling down to the sea through the main route, they took a side branch and finally ended up in a hole near here.”

“How… I mean, you’re making this up!! How do you know they’ve been thrown away over there… it’s a purification spot but…”

“I was told by those who’ll assist me. Akio,” and Suzu looked deadly serious, “there’s still a chance, we can do it and we can do it so that it won’t be rape and my soul will be able to fly and make things right again for this land. Isn’t it the dream of all of us?”

“You’re crazy,” the albinos replied in a breath. “You’re deluding yourself… You… what are your feelings for Kel? How can you betray him like that?… I thought you… you were in love with him… The way you looked at him… but this…” Akio’s voice trailed off. He whispered: “You won’t fly, you’ll die in the most terrible manner…”

His heart twisted in his chest as his mind already was considering what had to be done. He cared for Suzu, he admired Kel… and he had just recently discovered that honor and duty weren’t always the most obvious and logical path… He tasted something bitter at the back of his throat. He loved his land, he wanted to protect it, he wanted to protect its memories and the future it could have.

***

Kel wasn’t feeling right. He wanted to throw up but somewhat nothing would come out. Their flight from the Daitori had been hellish, a lot more than what had been visible from the outside. The flames and smoke from the fire, the violent tremors of the ground, the debris showering them before the collapse of the roof, those had been only the surface of what was going on. The earthquake was only a physical manifestation of a phenomenon that spread throughout the ethers.

To the trained mental eye, the ethers usually looked like a gigantic net of light. It wasn’t fixed, but always shifting, nods forming and disappearing, creating larger or tighter meshes. Its lines were supple threads that moved like a fishing net at the surface of water. But here, the net was dissolving. It unwound itself, more and more rapidly and the few core nods left were now attacked by the marching entropy. From what Suzu had said, Kel understood that the Rite that they had interrupted was intended to mend the situation, that it was the ultimate goal of the deities of this land and that they had groomed him to perform it, to the best interest of the land. But Suzu hadn’t known it would involve the murder of Tsukisa. He had felt betrayed and abandoned and his cry had been as much of anguish as of fear.

Kel gritted his teeth and wiped his forehead. Fighting in this place, having to face those hostile entities, having them rummaging greedily in his soul, feeding on his every fear, hate, darkness… They had marked him and had left deep gouges inside his being. And then, in spite of his wounds, he had to plunge into the chaos of the ethers, trying desperately to tap into them for some strength for his drained frame…

And to end it all, he had touched Tsukisa and felt the old almost-forgotten friend that was the seal of death.

I wasn’t the one who did that to her. he repeated to himself for the umpteenth time. I lent her some of my own vitality, even though she probably couldn’t use it to restore herself.

Diving in a dying mind was a terrible ordeal because you could be touched by the nothingness in which the victim was falling. Kel shuddered and gulped down a swig of the strong rice alcohol some villagers had given them. He shouldn’t drink, he had to keep his mind clear, but he craved the purification of this burning fire down his throat. Purification… as if he had ever been pure or anything near pure! He had abandoned his tribe, under the pretence of seeking new members and allies for their growing species, he was a coward, he never had the guts to make it from the very beginning, why hadn’t he died during inception?

Kel threw the bottle away, grunting in dejection. It was over. He’d take Suzu, his ultimate prize, his most beautiful finding, he’d take him back to Thiede. Suzu would become one of the jewels of the Gelaming, the new tribe their leader was creating, a distant star in the pantheon of Wraeththu, far from him and everything he represented.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

Kel’s head jerked up but saw nothing.

“Stop fooling with me!” he yelled. “I won’t be your toy! I’m gonna take your precious Suzu and you can’t do anything to prevent it!! You’re ghosts! Immaterial smudge!! You’re powerless! No one believes in you anymore!!!”

There was a chuckle. Aren’t you talking with us now?

“I’m ill, I was never very sane for a start, that’s why I left my friends and all those who cared for me to pursue a hopeless and fruitless task! But I won’t die, I won’t let you win!!”

His voice got caught in his throat and he felt the tears welling up behind his eyelids. He dropped to his knees. Felt around him. Where was he again? No, this wasn’t normal, all this craziness… He struggled to the lotus sitting position and took a deep breath.

All this… this energy is beginning to make me fray at the hem. I have to anchor myself.

He sent his urgent thoughts to his five senses. This smell… a floral perfume, light, that brought back memories…

“Look, Tatsuhiko, those delicate cherry blossoms. They only last a few days… they’re so beautiful, if you just engrave their beauty in your mind, they’ll continue to exist in your memories until the season comes back again.”

Kel looked up sharply at the familiar – almost forgotten? – voice. This white blur… A light breeze shook the impossible vision and petals took flight. Then the wind lost its strength and a rosy snow fell lazily all around him. He instinctively extended a hand and stared at its single content: a small rose-white almost perfect oval with a tiny indentation at the pointed end. It was so light he could barely sense it in his palm but when the capricious wind blew it from him, the caress of the departing petal sent shivers down his spine.

A hand came to rest on his shoulder. Kel stiffened and refused to look back.

“Tatsuhiko is long dead,” he whispered. “Just like you, father.”

He should jump to his feet, unleash his power wildly, lash at this vision of an impossible spring… His father had never cared to take him to cherry blossom contemplation; he always said that those trees were pale reflections of the proud cherry trees of his country, something about the soil or something. And anyway Tatsuhiko had more important things to do because there were always exams and tests and contests where he had to excel. If he wanted to do something proper with his life… But the young and lonely Tatsuhiko walked in the streets past the Asian botanical park and could see beyond the ferns the families pick-nicking there, under the cherry blossoms.

Tatsuhiko had never been able to go against his father, he had only been able to flee. And the reborn Kel, as superior as he thought he was to the frail human boy, couldn’t face the ghost of the past.

The guilt was still there. The guilt of for the death of his mother, the guilt of not meeting his father’s expectations, the guilt of abandoning Humankind, the guilt for every death he witnessed, even if it was the death of an enemy, and finally, the guilt of leaving his Wraeththu tribe.

Suddenly a gasp to his right jerked him out of his morbid reminiscences. “What?…”

Suzu stood on the narrow path, surrounded by the vivid warm colors of autumnal forest. He was staring bewildered at the cherry tree. “How can it be? Was it you, Kel? Did you revive this cherry tree?”

“It’s an illusion, Suzu,” Kel sighed. “A very skilled illusion. I’m feeling a bit dizzy just now, but as soon as I recover, I’ll get us out of here, don’t worry.”

“It’s not an illusion, Kel!” He pointed at the naked branches of the shrub beside the flowering cherry tree, decorated with fallen petals. “Was it you, Honokami?”

“Honokami?” Kel frowned.

“The fire deity from the hot pools near my temple.”

The hand on his shoulder tightened. “Suzu, let us alone please.”

“But…”

Kel swirled around and looked up at the sharp features of the entity. Honokami smiled down at him coldly.

“You’re a very tortured person, dear Kel. And you are a child of ours, like it or not.”

The har stared at him, askance. Honokami was tall and lean, swathed in white robes that hid his feet. Fiery patterns of deep reds and bright oranges and gold adorned his long wide sleeves and his large belt. His hair was of changing hues of the same colors and framed his long face down to the shoulders and in the front, down to his breast. With his imperious gaze, he reminded him strongly of Thiede, their hidden leader.

“How can it be that you’re here in the material world? You’re only an personification of Suzu’s mind!”

Honokami slapped him in the face. “How is that, from a personification?”

Kel rubbed at his cheek. He felt a lasting burn. Suzu ran forward and stood in front of his friend.

“Don’t hurt him! He didn’t mean to insult you, please forgive him!”

“I didn’t want to grieve you, child. I know you’re holding this har very dearly in your heart. But some people just have to be ‘hit’ by truth before they can accept it.”

Kel stood up. Somewhat this slap had given him back some strength. He looked straight in the bottomless dark eyes.

“You entered my mind and played with my memories, my insults are nothing compared to your violation,” he growled.

“My… let’s say ‘colleagues’ tried to force you. With little success. I was just using a more subtle way. We had been observing you since you came to us at the hot pools. When the talismans were tossed in the river, it was an unexpected gift for us and Yuugami, my companion, was able to learn a lot about your nature. You have strong mental shields and to reach your mind, I had to trick you. I asked this cherry tree to blossom for us, to invoke your memories. I want to know you more, to understand you. If anything good were to come out of this, we all shall thank this spirit for his sacrifice for he shall be strongly impaired to face the winter and his revival in the spring is uncertain.”

Honokami put a hand on the tree trunk, gazing up in the branches. Then he looked down at Kel and Suzu.

“Be careful of the next tremor. The mountain won’t be able to protect you anymore.”

“When will that be?” Kel asked, tense.

“Very soon. You’ll receive ample forewarning, be assured of that. When the sign comes, head for our home for we’ll be able to protect you more and you’ll find true healing in our place. You’ll need all your strength to achieve your goals.”

He went to embrace Suzu and after a moment of hesitation, the boy held him tightly.

“It’s good to be able to see you and touch you at last,” Kel heard him whisper.

“We love you, child, Yuugami and Orei and the Moriko and many others. You’re not alone.”

Chapter 8: The Believer

Night was only starting to retreat when the deep rumble echoing in the cave woke them all. Akio stayed behind with Tsukisa while his companions all ran outside. From their vantage point, in spite of the lasting darkness, they could see the cloud of dust and the falling of trees. Something large was coming from the east, stamping its way though the forest. Then Kel, with his acute vision, made out the flocks of birds rising from that direction. As the unknown fast-moving phenomenon came onto the clear – though smashed – ground of the ruined Shinseimon, he squinted and recognized the dark stream crossing the streets.

“Beasts! They’re fleeing in mass, all of them!”

Without waiting to see the animals swarm over the abandoned city, he swirled around and ran back into the cave.

“What’s happening?” Kurozuki asked confused, running after him.

“It’s our forewarning! Put our things in the bags, we need to get out of here and as far away as possible!”

Akio stood up and obeyed automatically, rolling the blankets and gathering the remaining food and water flasks.

“Forewarning?”

“The animals have sharper instincts than ours,” Kel explained throwing a bag to Suzu. “They can feel the small tremors that precede the main ones. We were told this cave wouldn’t be able to shelter us anymore.”

Akio and Kurozuki exchanged a glance. The har had told them about the meeting with Honokami but they had only half-believed him.

“You three, take the bags. I’m gonna carry Tsukisa. Suzu, come help me settle her on my back.”

“Wait, we have to go warn the villagers!” Akio protested. “They may not have understood what’s happening.”

“I think they have,” replied Kel. “But as I know you won’t be satisfied with my word, take Kurozuki with you and go warn them. But don’t take too much time. Warn the leaders and let them deal with it and spread the information. We’ll meet at the south border of Shinseimon. Hurry!”

Akio nodded curtly and ran outside.

“Why do I have to go with him?” protested the shaman annoyed.

“I want you to pull him away if he doesn’t understand ‘Hurry’, roger? And don’t break your neck on this path.”

“But we don’t need him…”

“Please, Kurozuki,” Suzu asked.

Grudgingly the young man followed his companion’s footsteps.

“This one! … can’t do anything without complaining…” Kel muttered.

He knelt beside Tsukisa and helped her sit upright. She was staring at them with deep black eyes.

“You should leave me here,” she said blankly.

“Don’t be stupid, you know why I can’t, be a good girl, please. Kuro is enough of a reluctant child for me.”

They used the blankets and ropes to secure her on Kel’s back. She put her arms around his neck but her grip was still weak.

“If you need to rest, just tell me, don’t take it all upon yourself, I’d hate to carry a dead body around, made myself clear?”

Tsukisa nodded with a small smile. “You know, I think I could convince Akio that leaving me behind is the best solution for us all.”

“I don’t think he’d listen to you,” Suzu offered hesitantly, tying the final knot around her waist. “He’s changed.”

When Akio and Kurozuki met their companions at the appointed place, the former Tenki was pressing a green-stained cloth against his swollen lower lip.

“Let’s go,” said Kel.

“You’re not gonna ask what happened to me?!” exclaimed Kurozuki.

“You’re stronger than Akio but he’s more skilled than you in the martial arts. But I see he was kind enough to provide a medication. Does it cover it all? Shall we go now?”

***

In spite of his superior strength, Kel had exhausted almost all his reserves and couldn’t carry Tsukisa on distances as long as he would have liked. They stopped to eat at noon, Kurozuki and Akio taking turns to carry her so that they’d cover as much distance as possible. They continued to walk after the lights had died down beyond the horizon and only thanks to Kel’s sharp vision were they able to find a shelter in the giant roots of a centuries-old tree.

On their way, Akio and Kurozuki had been able to catch some trailing little beasts and they took the time to cook them on a small campfire for dinner. Suzu took the first shift of night guard.

In the morning, it was him who woke them all.

“Weren’t you supposed to wake me up for the second shift?” asked Akio, rubbing his red eyes.

“You didn’t wake me either!” Kurozuki exclaimed.

Kel eyed Suzu expectantly.

“I didn’t carry Tsukisa so I was less tired,” he said with a shrug.

“Night guard is something serious, Suzu. Even if the beasts have fled, there can be other dangers around…”

“I assure you I didn’t sleep.” His companions were obviously surprised by his confidence. “I was not alone.”

Akio shuddered and went to prepare their breakfast. He needn’t hear more.

***

On the second day of their flight, a tremor shook the ground. As soon as they felt it building up, they ran to the most cleared place they could find and dropped down to the ground, waiting for it to wash over them. It lasted for less than a minute but it was strong enough to shower them with leaves and branches.

“Do you think it was what made the animals flee?” Akio asked.

“It was too weak, even if we’re a bit farther from the epicenter. I guess it was only an appetizer. Let’s get going.”

Their path fortunately hadn’t been blocked by too many fallen obstacles and they continued at a steady pace. By the end of the day, Tsukisa was able to walk by herself, but more slowly than the others. As night was falling, Kel and Kurozuki decided to walk ahead and prepare the camp for them.

“This time, my dear Suzu, you’re going to sleep. I don’t want you fainting on me due to lack of sleep,” Kel said after the dinner.

He pulled the blankets up Suzu’s chin.

“They’ll protect us,” he said confidently.

“I know.”

Kel leaned down and kissed his lips, breathing sleep into his slender frame.

***

Only a few minor tremors punctuated the days of their travel. Suzu felt a wave of warmth fill his heart as they came in sight of his temple. In spite of his tiredness, he ran forward. It was still there, this peaceful haven, this place of tranquility in chaos, bathed in the warm lights of midday. All leaves had fallen down the trees now, carpeting the ground of their yellowish adornment.

“So this is the place where you used to live,” Akio said approvingly. “It looks beautiful.”

Suzu smiled fondly at his friend. He knew it was only an old half-ruined building, but he liked to believe its inner peace pervaded its walls and touched the hearts of those who came to it.

He ran to the entrance and stood there, facing them. Then he bowed deeply.

“Welcome to my home.”

***

The earthquakes had made the abandoned half of the temple crumble down even more, but thanks to Suzu reinforcements, the other half where he used to lived had sustained little damage. There were some shattered pottery and spilled boxes, but apart from that and a layer of dust over everything, it had remained unchanged during the absence of its master.

Akio settled Tsukisa under the veranda, while the others cleaned up the room. Soon Suzu had some fuming tea for everyone. Kurozuki and Kel went to hunt for the dinner. Left alone while Tsukisa was dozing outside, Suzu and Akio sat at the low table. The albinos produced several small bags of dried herbs.

“These are the herbs we’ll need. We’ll have to be cautious because his body can resist our drugs. We’ll have to dose Kel small quantities at first, then we’ll strike the final blow with a stronger dose when you’ll need it. I’ll infuse some in water so that you’ll be able to add the brew to his tea and soup and the remaining, we can grind to powder to add to his meat and vegetables. You and I will be in charge of the cooking, is it all right for you?”

Suzu nodded. “We don’t want him unconscious, just compliant. Honokami told me they would take care of the rest.”

“I think it would be wise to drug Kurozuki too. He’ll never agree with your plan.”

“I don’t know,” said Suzu hesitantly, “Honokami didn’t say it in so many words but I caught the feeling Kurozuki would have his part to play, even unwillingly. Honokami hinted that Kurozuki was coming to grip with his legacy and that it would make things clear for him in time.”

Akio nodded a bit skeptically. Then he produced a small flask.

“This is for you.” He stared at him blandly. “This is a nerve-numbing liquor. It will numb your mind. You’ll still retain your sensations, but your brain won’t be able to interpret it as pain. I don’t know if it’ll help you a lot, but at least, it’ll delay the pain…” He squeezed Suzu’s hand in his. “Are you sure you really want to do this?” he asked with anguish, letting the poker face mask down. “I know this is for the best but…”

Suzu nodded with a smile. “I thank you for caring for me, but I’ll be alright. Now we have to get ready.”

They spent the following hour preparing the herbs. When the hunters came back with rabbits, Suzu sent them to his small garden to see if there were some fresh vegetables left. Akio showed him the doses to be administered in Kel’s food and the tricks for their taste to be hidden.

“The pools…”

“What did you say?”

Akio’s question startled Suzu out of his reverie. The so-called Avatar was stirring the brew and his mind had somewhat wandered away.

“I… I thought about the hot pools…” he stammered, checking that the brew hadn’t attached. “They’re not far from here and the water is very healing. Maybe we could go and bath there before lunch?”

Akio nodded with smile. They were so tense, even if they were trying not to show it… they really needed some respite.

“We’re almost done. We could prepare lunch boxes to bring to the pools and have dinner there after bathing.”

And so they headed towards the pools. The recent earthquake had barely touched this place that seemed from another plane of existence. The fuming waters were covered with a weaving of branches, and a copper and golden silk of fallen leaves.

Kel sat at the foot of a tree and motioned they forward.

“Move, boys… and miss. The dinner’s getting cold.”

“You must not be ashamed to bathe with us,” Tsukisa said, removing her outer robe. “For us, nakedness is not shameful.”

Kel laughed airily. “Well, I’d be happy to show you the glory of the harish body but this is not the problem. Ask Suzu.”

“He’s not sure if his body fluids mingling with the water of the pools can harm us or not,” the young man explained, his face a bit flushed.

“Then why can’t he bathe in this other pool?” she asked without a trace of bother, pointing towards a neighboring pool.

“The water’s too hot in this one,” protested Suzu. “And in these others, the water’s composition is bad for the body. Tsukisa… Tsukisa!”

He called her, alarmed, as she knelt by one of the supposedly most toxic pool and cupped some water in her hand.

“It seems things have changed here,” she said with a soft smile at her companions.

Suzu stared at her in bewilderment.

This woman is very perceptive. Now take this bath and try not to worry. Things are proceeding very well.

The young man turned towards the source of the chuckling voice and dived into golden slit eyes. Kel had already knelt near the pool and dipped his hand in the water, an expression of wonder on his face.

***

Akio had felt light-headed since after the bath. The water, almost burning, had soothed his tense body and mind into an almost dream-like state. His companions seemed affected as well. They had eaten and gone back to the temple in almost complete silence, surrounded by the chanting of nocturnal insects.

Sleep swept him into a blurry darkness, filled with moving but never threatening shadows. He couldn’t remember how but he was back in the pool staring at the surface from under it, light playing above, spearing into the liquid, drawing luminous patches over his pale skin.

“I’m ready,” he heard and wondered how he could hear people talking from the pool’s edge.

“We’ll remember your sacrifice and honor your name. When you’ll come back, we’ll cherish you as the child of blessing.” This other voice pierced Akio’s heart: it sounded just like his own, but more adult and confident.

“I’m a faithful daughter of this land. It’s I who is honored to take part of this event.”

Tsukisa!

“Akio? Are you all right?”

Suzu’s worried face was looming above him, dimly lit by a small lamp.

“Ah… Suzu…” the healer panted, his hand covering his eyes.

“You were calling in your sleep and thrashing your…”

“There was someone…” he interrupted him, “someone with Tsukisa… I fear for her, something’s afoot and…”

“We’re sorry you caught this communication, we were afraid you might oppose us so we kept this information from you… a useless effort, it seems.”

Akio sat up with a start. His eyes widened in horror. The face was glowing in the dark, a pale and grave face. The silver hair was plaited in multiple thin plaits adorned with black, glimmering pearls. His slim body was visible behind the screens of light blue and translucent green veils and his feet were bare.

“Who?… what are you?!” he managed to stammer, standing up on shaking legs.

“My name’s Yuugami. I’m the water spirit residing in the hot pools you visited. I’m sorry we disturbed your sleep. Somewhat your mind synchronized with my essence when you bathed there.”

“What did you say to Tsukisa?” Akio asked harshly, his mind racing, trying to ignore the fact this meeting shouldn’t, couldn’t really take place.

“It’s none of your busi…”

“I’m devoted to Tsukisa’s protection, I can’t let you take her life!!”

“Akio!” But even the anguish in Suzu’s voice couldn’t shake him out of his sudden anger, his fear.

In his mind, the faces of the wounded children in the camp were superimposed on Tsukisa’s face, her courage, her determination, her resignation…

“I’ve obeyed all of my life,” he cried, “I‘ve lived to the rules of honor, I’ve always put the interest of the whole before the interest of the individual! I’ve always hoped! But it never ends! Endless pain and suffering and hurting…” He couldn’t keep his bitterness from his voice.

“Humanity has always searched for happiness, but lost its way,” the deity said wistfully. “Now is the time of choice, the fateful crossroad. Humanity has to choose. We, of the world of the spirits have already made our choice.”

Yuugami stepped forward and took Akio’s chin with his long fingers. His skin was icy cold, and his steady unblinking eyes pierced into his soul. Images flooded his mind, almost blinding in their brightness. The young healer cried out in pain and anguish and jerked out of the spirit’s reach. He fell back on his knees, panting heavily. Trying to regain his inner balance, to sort what he had witnessed, he was vaguely aware of the presence of Kurozuki and Kel, sleeping some distance from him in the room, oblivious of what was happening… made oblivious. And where was Tsukisa? The white prince shook his head to clear his foggy mind, shaking from what was slowly dawning on him…

“Tsukisa… Tsukisa and… Kurozuki?” he asked, lifting his gaze, afraid to meet the spirit’s gaze. “What do you want from them?”

“The Rite,” Yuugami said without emotion. “The Rite must be performed on a sacred ground, sanctified by the spirits of this land. Humans can’t do it, but gods and spirits need vessels to engrave their mark on this plane. The spirits of this land, at least those who are in our camp, entrusted this mission to Honokami and me and we offered our home.”

“The pools?” whispered Suzu in awe.

“But… you want to sacrifice Tsukisa!!” Akio protested. “What makes you better than those Tenki?”

“Sacrifice is not our goal. Kurozuki was born under the sign of fire so he’s the best choice for Honokami. Even though Tsukisa is not a water creature, she’s the best choice and she’s willing… but her body is too weak after her ordeals and the ceremony of Blessing will exhaust her remaining life force. That’s why… I’m sorry.”

Akio looked down at the floor, clenching his fist at his sides, trying to stifle his useless anger. “You’re not sorry. You don’t know what ‘sorry’ means!” he snarled.

“Akio!” pleaded Suzu. “Please. If Tsukisa were here, she’d explain to you… She and I, we were given gifts for a purpose, we have to fulfill it.”

The healer backed away from the comforting hand. Then he lifted up his face, his eyes fierce with determination.

“Yuugami! You said Tsukisa was not of the water. But you said I had unexpectedly synchronized with you. Am I not of the water? Can’t I take Tsukisa’s place?”

Yuugami appeared a bit surprised by this outburst and considered his offer a few seconds before answering.

“Indeed, you are of the water. But your power is still weak and untamed… And you have a strong enmity with Kurozuki. Though your bodies will be taken over by us, your souls and spirits will remain and can create interference. You must understand we only have one chance.”

“What interference? If Kurozuki can do it, I can do it!”

The soft sound of a sliding panel interrupted them and Akio turned to see Tsukisa entering the room from outside. Cool air made him shiver. She looked like an unearthly creature, her face illuminated by the sole light of the lamp, her paleness equaling his own in the tricky shadows of the night.

“The Blessing ceremony will consist in what Kel’s people call Grissecon,” she said and her voice was stern, like a teacher’s or a mother’s voice, “the same ceremony Suzu and Kel will perform, the union of bodies and souls transcended in magical energy.”

Akio stepped back and would have paled if he weren’t already an albino. Tsukisa’s expression softened and she smiled gently at him. She walked to him and put a caressing hand on his cheek.

“That was very kind of you to offer to replace me. Your heart is so righteous… I hope…” her smile faltered for the briefest moment but she went on. “I hope that when I come back, I’ll be able to meet you again.”

***

Kurozuki wasn’t feeling well. The night had been filled with strange dreams, whispers and tears. It had been like a long dream where he was watching a play whose performers he knew but couldn’t recognize, unable to hear their voices clearly either. And there had been this other voice, distracting him with childish fairy tales about the rabbit crying on the moon, the fairies weaving ivy around enchanted trees, the raccoon hiding charms and blessed artifacts around the forest…

Suzu, Kel and Akio hadn’t looked very rested either. Only Tsukisa appeared at peace, her still and beautiful face turned towards the sky, intent in her listening of the birds’ songs, while she was seated on the veranda, bathing in the sunlight. After breakfast, Kel started to make plans for their travel to the mainland, displaying charts and asking various questions to both Akio and him. Suzu seemed reserved and didn’t talk much. But after a while, Kurozuki’s head began to throb and patches of light flickered around his field of vision.

“Don’t you have something for headaches, white prince?” he asked with a gruff voice, rubbing at his temples.

Akio threw him a peculiar look, then handed him a powder to be dissolved in water. He snatched it from his hand and walked unsteadily to the kitchen corner.

“Already travel-sick?” Kel teased him.

“F*** off!”

And he wobbled out on the veranda. There he slumped down beside Tsukisa. It felt like the worst hangover he had ever been through!

“Maybe you should go to the pools?” Tsukisa said eerily without looking down at him. “Last night, I went for a walk there and I discovered a peculiar pool, a bit farther from the others. It was only a small crater, as if the water had been sucked off of it, but there’s a stream running from a cleft. Its odor reminded me of the healing fount we had in the north of Shinseimon…”

“You went alone at night to the pools? Stop talking nonsense and ask your beloved to strengthen the doses of your medication! Leave me alone!”

He covered his eyes with his hand, grunting. She shrugged.

“What Akio gave you won’t make your pain disappear, that I can assure you. It’s not a normal headache.”

And with that, she stood up and walked back inside. That damn bitch! Acting so haughty and mysterious! Well, good! The pools? He’ll drown her in those damn pools if his splitting headache weren’t to disappear!

“Hey, where are you going?” Kel called from inside the temple.

“I’m gonna take a bath,” he answered back without turning.

Once he said it, it was as if already half of his pain had gone. Maybe Tsukisa’s advice was good after all…

***

Kel had done his best to hide his uneasiness to his companions, but at some point of this day, he felt as if it was really too big for him. He had this feeling of something huge looming above his head, so gigantically huge that he couldn’t see or understand or really ascertain it or its nature.

Something, someone had played with his mind the night before. He was an adept after all and he could catch the faint scent of magic lingering even after the spell had been lifted. He strongly suspected Tsukisa because she was the only one unaffected by the previous night whatever-they-were secret events, but he really couldn’t see her doing anything in her condition.

So he decided to go for a walk a bit farther from the temple, to find a neutral place where he would try and contact Thiede, or any other great adept available, to call for advice and help. Deep inside he knew that even if he managed in reaching them from so far away, they wouldn’t really be able to assist him. The magic around him was so ingrained in this land, so deep-rooted that it didn’t seem possible that an equivalent would exist anywhere else on earth. But he did try anyway: he stopped at the spot where he met Suzu for the first time – it seemed so long ago! – and sat down, cross-legged, to first set up a magical barrier then extend his consciousness to the ethers.

His call resonated in his mind like a frightened bird flying around in a cage, trying to escape in vain.

It’s no use, there’s such a maelstrom of chaotic energies that I can’t get through! he thought bitterly.

And then, the blast hit him! He cried out and collapsed back. His head hit the ground sharply but he stayed conscious, his wide-opened eyes blind, his inner vision filled with the after-image of this mighty brilliance… A shooting star! Something had fallen down to earth! Something had hit them!

He couldn’t think properly, he blindly stood up and started to run. His legs pumped under him without the impulse of his mind, his blood beating at his temples, his breath short… He couldn’t control it, his instincts pulled him forward, on the narrow path, across the high grasses, between the twisted branches, passing pupil-less staring eyes… The rustling of leaves around him sounded like a chanting: You can’t go there, you can’t go there…

A half-buried branch caught his foot and he roughly fell with a big ‘thump’. The shock shook him out of his trance-like state. He heard the birds calling after one another, the wind in the trees…

What happened to me?

… the soft gurgling of water, in the distance…

“What did you do to her?” The calm imperious voice froze him to the bones. It wasn’t a human voice! It boomed both in his ears and mind!

He stood up and moved forward stealthily, his inner sense screaming at him. He was nearing the top of a small rise of earth covered with bushes and crawled between them to see what lay beyond, concealing his mental presence in a protective shield.

“I see, you drugged her so that her mind would be out of our reach. That’s a clever move.”

Kel shuddered: the voice was coming from a man he recognized as Kurozuki! But he couldn’t see anything else or even who he was talking to! In frustration, he backed away and ran to the side of the rise, trying to find a better viewpoint. His mind was racing. Kurozuki was obviously being possessed by a spirit and he could guess which. He would recognize it anywhere, in any body!

He threw himself to the ground and advanced between the fallen branches and dry leaves. Now he could see better!

There was Tsukisa and Akio facing the Tenki. The healer was protectively standing in front of his fiancée and staring fiercely at their opponent. The young woman had those glazed unfocused eyes of a drug-induced trance. They were all on the edge of an empty shallow pool whose walls were smooth and dry.

“So finally, you decided to back away from us and your land,” the terrible voice said. “I guess I can’t blame you. Even taking your life and the life of your companions won’t achieve anything. Our destiny’s tied then, we’ll all perish.”

Kel bit his lips. A being so powerful, able to say such terrible things without a trace of emotion! The mighty presence started to fade…

“No!” Akio’s cry rang like a bell in the unnatural silence. He fell down on his knees and held up his arms towards his companion. “I didn’t do that to twist your purpose, O Honokami, God of Fire. I just couldn’t resolve myself to sacrifice Tsukisa. But I’m ready, I’ll surrender my body to Yuugami, your divine companion! That’s *my* destiny! I’m of the water, I’ll fulfill my role. Let Yuugami invest my flesh and knock down my inner barriers so that I’ll lend Him all my forces and powers! Thus wearing this human unworthy adornment, He shall unite his will to Yours to create the Holy Ground of Elevation!”

Kurozuki, or rather Honokami, stood for a long moment, gazing thoughtfully at the pleading young man, as if assessing their chances. Kel was holding his breath, awaiting the god’s decision. Was it really what he thought it was? Honokami and Yuugami were lovers, so was Akio offering to… ?

Then, unexpectedly, the Tenki’s slender frame shuddered. He opened wide eyes, as if waking from a nightmare. Akio faltered and his arms dropped to his sides.

“Akio? What are you doing?” Kurozuki – and it was his voice – demanded, a bit frightened.

“Kurozuki? Is Honokami gone?” the albino asked, bewildered.

“Err… he kinda stepped back… Listen, Akio, this is no playground, what’ll happen is big… very big. I don’t even know if I’ll be able…” He seemed unable to continue and swallowed with difficulty.

To see Kurozuki, always so proud, spiteful and confident, now so shaken and afraid…

“You’ll feel it, Akio, believe me! It’s not your own will but it’s still your body, whose fibers are entwined with your mind and soul. You’ll have to cling to your sanity because if your mind leaves your body, the link with the deity will be severed. There’s no…”

“Second chance, I know.” And Akio stood up. He started to disrobe. “I have never done… that, not even with a woman,” he said, unable to meet his companion’s gaze.

Kel couldn’t believe his ears and eyes. No, not that, not again!! He was about to stand up and stop them, but something pulled at his foot, throwing him back down onto the hard ground. He rolled over and looked up at the empty eyes of the Moriko. They looked exactly as Suzu had described them, staring down at him, surrounding him. It was one of them who had pulled at his leg.

You can’t interfere.

And they knelt to take hold of him. He struggled and pushed the one who was gripping his right arm away. He kicked and rolled aside, but they were too many. When one of them was knocked down, another one took his place to grip him. Panting he stopped his useless fight and let them hold him. They seemed unconcerned that he was still conscious, they were just making sure that he couldn’t move. Their fingers were like dry branches wrapped around his body, their skin rough and hard. He started when he heard a sudden cry and twisted his neck to try and gaze towards the empty pool. Obligingly, the Moriko carried him towards the edge of the clearing, but not near enough that they’d be seen.

Akio was naked and kneeling at the feet of Kurozuki, his arms wrapped around his own body, as if trying to protect himself.

“Don’t resist, open yourself…” And the soft voice sounded like the mix of Kurozuki’s and Honokami’s.

Akio let out another cry of anguish and fell to the side. A slender shadow came to his side and put a hand on his forehead. Tsukisa smiled softly and looked up at the spirit.

“You can take him now. Yuugami and him are a bit shaken by the mingling of essence. I suppose none of them guessed they’d be so compatible.”

“You are a very peculiar woman, my dear Tsukisa,” Honokami said, one eyebrow raised in surprised appraisal. “I think it’s a chance we didn’t use you as one of our avatars.”

She nodded humbly. “Please, be gentle with Akio.”

“We promise,” he said.

The Moriko seemed mesmerized by the scene. Their eyes followed Kurozuki while he carried the prostrated Akio to the very edge of the empty pool. Kel, taking advantage of the carelessness of his guardians, slipped his left hand from the loosened grip of the forest’s child, grasped his knife from his belt and swung it around, cutting deeply in the inhuman flesh. The Moriko backed away, releasing him and he fell heavily on the ground. But he had anticipated that and quickly regained his footing. He darted between the thin creatures. He ran towards the pool, towards Tsukisa who was watching him as he neared her. When he passed by her, she grabbed his arm with her small slender hand and with surprising strength, stopped him with a rough pull.

“You manipulated us!” he growled at her, threatening her with his knife. “Even though Akio is caring for you so much, you made him do that! This is rape!”

“Look at what you call ‘rape’,” she said simply, pointing towards the edge of the pool with her free hand.

Kurozuki was now naked too and he was bent over Akio who was lying down. His face had lost the usual emotionless features of the fire god, it was now filled with wonder and longing. It looked as if he was about to cry. The albino was staring up at his companion, all traces of anguish gone away. He held up his hand and caressed tenderly his lover’s face.

“It’s been so long…” And his voice was not his own, low and husky with desire. “We’ve chosen well, my beloved, let it be that this union will also be a blessing for these children.”

And Honokami lowered his lips onto Yuugami’s, and the black veil of his head covered the white silk of his consort’s hair.

***

Kel felt emotionally numb. Tsukisa had dragged him farther into the forest, escorted by the Moriko. They stopped in a small clearing where the har slumped down on a fallen tree trunk. Tsukisa stayed standing, looking in the distance, as if she could see what was happening beyond the screen of the forest. Finally, she turned towards her companion.

“Is it… that it’s been a long time since you witnessed something like that?” she asked slowly.

“I wonder… I wonder if I’ve ever witnessed it at all…” he confessed, brushing his hair nervously back. “All this… all this is crazy…”

“Doesn’t love exist among your people?”

“It does… It just has taken… another form.”

“Have you ever loved someone?”

“That’s none of your business!”

Exasperated, Kel stood up and made for the edge of the clearing. The Moriko stepped in front of him to prevent him from escaping.

“You think you can offer a better life to Suzu?” Tsukisa asked from behind him.

“I can,” he answered quickly, too quickly.

“Can you promise you’ll watch over him?”

“He won’t need protection.” He swirled round and stared at her, this fragile woman, this frail frame silhouetted by the sweet light of the day. His anger slipped away. “He’ll become a great har, he’ll shine above all the rest, I’m sure of it.”

“He doesn’t need to shine,” she said blandly.

Then a deep rumbling filled the air and a tremor shook the ground. Kel felt a sudden burst of energy and with a cry, shut himself to the ethers, covering uselessly his face by his arm. When he opened his eyes again and looked around, Tsukisa and the Moriko were all staring in the distance towards the empty pool. Then a chirp erupted in the silence, followed by another and the murmur of wind in the branches, the rustling of leaves… except that there was no wind. The song of the forest rose around them, moved, passed them by…

“Kel!”

Suzu burst into the clearing, shouldering the Moriko aside, looking panic-stricken. He fell into the har’s arms and gripped him tightly.

“I was worried that you wouldn’t come back… and the others were gone…”

Shaken by his tears, Kel awkwardly patted his shoulders and pull him away from himself: “It’s all right, I came back by another way.”

“Are Kurozuki and Akio all right?” He glanced at Tsukisa who nodded reassuringly. “What happened? I felt something strange building up, it was as if someone was calling me, but I couldn’t recognize the voice…”

“It’s all right,” Tsukisa said. “What had to be done is done.”

“I’m glad you’re all right,” Suzu said with a shaking smile, wiping his face from his tears.

Kel’s hand tightened on his shoulder, making him wince.

“You’re glad?…”

The young man bit his lips.

“You knew what was going on?” And it wasn’t a question.

“Kel…”

“What’s going on here?!” he yelled at both of them.

A white-hot anger filled his brain and threw a red mist in front of his eyes. He tasted blood in his mouth. Manipulation, trickery! It had all been a trap, a joke! He roughly grabbed Suzu by the arm and pulled him towards the edge of the clearing. When the Moriko stepped in front of them, Kel held out Suzu’s forearm and sliced his wrist. The young man seemed too stricken to react and was fixedly staring at his cut. Tsukisa muffled a cry and the Moriko faltered. Blood gushed down from the wound, flowing down the arm to the elbow and dripped to the ground. A wicked smile twisted Kel’s lips.

“We’re going away, Suzu and I. Or I’ll slice his other wrist, then his throat. And I’ll leave his corpse to rot here for you to worship.”

He pulled the blanching Avatar behind him and the children of the forest stepped aside to let them pass.

***

Kel had roughly bandaged Suzu’s wrist, pushed him down to the ground and was gathering their things. He had thought of walking straight to the coast, leaving his charge with only the clothes he wore as luggage, but he had regained enough self-control to realize how foolish it would have been. Suzu was currently too weak to do much and Kel liked it that way. Whatever weird ideas the spirits of this land had stuffed his mind with, they’ll all disappear once there’ll be a large piece of sea between them. All they had to do was to disappear before the others came back.

“We can’t go…”

Kel ignored the faint voice and rummaged through the boxes in search of food supplies. Then he heard the clang of a metallic object hitting violently the ground. He swirled round and watched with horror the lamp oil burst into flames on the wooden floor. He flinched then watched powerlessly the hungry fire run across the floorboards, feeding from dry leaves spread all around. A thick smoke filled the air in a few seconds.

“Kel!”

Covering his face with his arms, he jumped across the flames and mercifully landed on a portion of floor still intact. Suzu was lying unconscious, surrounded by a circle of flames, miraculously spared. But the acrid smoke wouldn’t be as merciful! Without thinking, Kel threw himself across the incandescent curtain, grabbed his protégé, leapt back out and ran outside to safety. There he collapsed onto the ground, panting and coughing, his mind reeling. He had inhaled too much smoke, he could still taste its acrid flavor at the back of his dry throat. His vision was swirling.

Then a shadow loomed over him, interposing itself between the sun and him.

“This herb is really efficient,” the shadow said with a chuckle, and the voice resonated in his mind like ripples on the surface of a lake.

The sunlight struck his stinging eyes once more. Strong hands gripped him from under the armpits and pulled him farther from the burning temple.

“How is Suzu?” he heard and he was glad his savior had asked what was tugging at his mind.

“He’ll soon come around,” another voice replied and it sent shivers down his spine. “Are you sure you can carry him?”

“Akio’s not that weak and I would never do anything to hurt him!” the former voice said, pretending indignation, but there was laughter in it. “Plus this Kel seemed to really not like you, I think you frighten him.”

Kel wanted to look around, check on Suzu, but his body wouldn’t comply with his confused mind. He moaned.

“Ssh, sweetheart, it’ll soon be over.”

And he was covered once more by the shadow. Fresh air brushed his dry skin and soft lips kissed his mouth, taking the pain away.

***

Suzu woke up by a hot pool. It took him some time to remember what had happened. A poignant pain shot across his chest when his memories flashed back: he had set fire to his beloved temple, his haven. He had been forced to, otherwise Kel would have managed in taking him away. He had been confident that the har would have been able to save them, but he also had to be drugged. The strongest way of administering it was by inhalation. Kel had taken into his being the drug burnt on the altar of his home.

Suzu stifled a sob. No turning back. He looked around. This place… He gasped as he recognized the bent maple tree. He stared at the fuming pool whose water was opaque white, like milk.

“We called forth the power of the earth to fill this pool,” and he turned towards the familiar voice.

Akio was seated on his knees on the ritual stance beside Kurozuki. A few meters away sat Tsukisa. Their eyes reflected strange lights.

“This water is passing through multiple layers of healing soils before emerging here. Its composition is unique.”

A soft breeze blew the curtain of vapor away and for a few seconds, Suzu glimpsed the face of Kel, staring blindly at him from the other side of the pool; he was immersed in the water up to his chest, certainly sitting on the ridge underwater.

“You can still refuse the Rite,” Akio said gently and his voice, though strangely echoing was still recognizable.

But Suzu slowly shook his head and smiled. Kurozuki looked troubled but nodded at him.

“You are a child of this land, you’re also a courageous man. Our hearts will go with you.”

The Avatar stood up and his robe slid smoothly to the ground. No fancy adornment, no flowers in his hair or golden-stringed silks. He stepped into the pool. The water stung his cut wrist and a trail of pinkish volutes swirled lazily in his wake.

The curtain of vapor closed behind him. There was no sound, except the one of the water languorously caressing his skin. Kel was waiting for him.

Kel lifted his face towards him, serene, compliant.

“I love you, Suzu,” he said. “Please don’t do that. Don’t leave my side. I’ll give you my blood and we’ll be to one another…”

Suzu faltered.

“I’ve always loved you. Even when you were doubting yourself. I could see the strength in you, this strength I only have when I must protect you.”

Suzu bent over him, kissing him, preventing the painful words to emerge.

Please don’t say anymore.

And when he pulled away, Kel didn’t talk anymore. Trembling, Suzu caressed his face, his neck, his chest, brushed over the immersed nipples and down the flat belly to the mysterious, murderous flower. He knew what he had to do, but still he was terrified. How was it called? Ah, ‘ouana-lim’. He tentatively slid a finger between the dark petals, expecting a burn that didn’t come. He felt Kel shudder. Another finger. Kel moaned. And slowly, the flower blossomed in his hand, its long stem emerging from the depth of the har’s body.

Then Suzu slid his other hand farther between Kel’s legs, searching for the hidden star. This time, Kel cried out when his fingers brushed over it, the secret ‘soume-lam’. While he kept on gently massaging the ouana-lim, he slowly nudged the folds of its feminine counter-part to open. Kel tried to move away, but his movements were too slow. Suzu pushed him back, his hands on his shoulders. He bent and whispered in his ear: “Don’t go away. Touch me.”

And Kel complied. His long hands traced lines of fire on Suzu’s already burning skin. The young man took his companion’s head and gently pressed it to his chest. He couldn’t suppress a moan when Kel’s soft lips closed on his right nipple and sucked at it. Then slid to the left one. The har enfolded him in his arms, oblivious of his prior objections, drunken in the pool’s vapor and drugs.

Suzu lowered himself on Kel’s lap, guiding his ouana-lim. His breath quickened and he felt as if he was going to asphyxiate. His head swarmed.

No, I can’t faint now!

The milky water was tinged with pink all over them. Suzu could feel Kel’s organ gently nudging him to open. He closed his eyes and sharply impaled himself on the blade of flesh. He cried out as his body arched in pain. The arms closed more tightly around his waist and supported him. The pink veil around them turned slowly to deeper red. A gentle hand cupped his head, bending it forwards and lips caressed his own, whereas a wisp of golden mist passed from Kel to him. The searing burning blossomed in a warm wave that washed over Suzu and he sighed from this unexpected pleasure. His body started to react on its own. Tentatively at first, he started to move, making Kel slide inside of him. Then little by little, the thrusts gained in confidence, each spearing creating a flow of delightfully confusing sensations.

Moans and sighs, the air was full of them. Suzu couldn’t help himself. He tried to bite his lips to muffle those shameful sounds but he couldn’t. Then Kel took his lips once more and kissed him deeply. The young man was lost in the midst of this kiss, he was drowning into it… and then, he felt it. The terrible struggle. Kel was on the verge of orgasm and he was resisting it with all his strength. The little willpower he retained was concentrated in this hopeless fight.

Suddenly Kel shifted his aim and hit fully the sensitive spot inside of Suzu. A blast of white-hot pleasure coursed inside his veins, making him tremble violently. Just before his mind turned to blinding white, he tasted blood in his mouth.

There was a scream. Inhuman. Soul-tearing. And then came the deafening sound of the earthquake.

Chapter 9: The Legacy

When the earthquake finally abated, Akio found out that Yuugami’s presence had totally disappeared from his mind. It left a kind of void in him but he didn’t have time to ponder about it. Kurozuki was stirring from under the branches and leaves that had showered over them. Memories flashed in front of the healer’s inner eye and blushing, he hurriedly stood up and went to help Tsukisa who was lying nearby, unharmed.

“Don’t worry. Go check on Suzu!” she pleaded with concern.

Suzu…

Akio’s heart clenched at the thought of his friend. What would be left of him? He ran to the other side of the pool. The bent maple tree had fallen down over the pool, at the very spot where Suzu and Kel had been sitting, its naked branches dipping into the water. The healer couldn’t distinguish anyone. Heart racing, he bent over the fuming water. It was deep crimson.

That’s impossible, one human body can’t contain that much blood… even two human… two bodies can’t…

He entered the pool, searching the dark waters… There! Struggling with his drenched tunic that was getting caught in the immersed branches, he waded towards the pale silhouettes, half-immersed, nestled in the dead arms of the maple tree. Kel was clinging onto Suzu even in his unconsciousness. His forehead was bared by a deep gash and blood was still dripping from the wound into the water. He looked bloodless. Akio slowly parted his fingers from around Suzu’s shoulders and took the young man in his own arms. The Avatar looked like a corpse. His skin was sallow and felt paper-thin, his closed eyes deeply set in their sockets… If it weren’t for the fuming water, would he be so warm? The healer searched for his pulse but didn’t find one. After a long while, he could detect a slight movement of his chest, attesting of his breathing.

“Akio!”

“I’m here!” he shouted back at Kurozuki. “Come and help me carry them out of here! Quickly!”

The shaman took Kel on his shoulders and dragged him onto the pool’s shore. Akio took care of Suzu. But when he started to pull him out of the water, his body started to twitch and thrash wildly, strangled sounds erupting from his throat. Surprised, the albino loosened his grip and Suzu slid back into the bloody fluid.

“Don’t take him out!” The clear voice of Tsukisa stopped him. “It’s his only chance of survival!”

She appeared from behind the veil of mist and knelt on the edge of the pool, extending her hand over Suzu’s forehead.

“He’s on the verge of death,” she whispered as if for herself. “Kel’s semen is consuming his flesh from inside… but at the same time, his blood is changing him…It’s a race for life or death.”

“That… it can’t be!” Kurozuki protested. “Akio, can’t you do anything?”

The healer hesitated then nodded determinedly. “ We should try and remove Kel’s fluids from inside of him.”

Tsukisa smiled at them, as if they were little children.

“Haven’t you grasped it from Yuugami and Honokami’s memories? Just leave him here for a little while longer.”

“But one shouldn’t stay too long in a hot pool, it’s bad for the blood vessels!”

“Don’t worry. When the day turns, we’ll come back.”

“We can’t leave him here!”

“Would you leave this one unattended?” she asked, pointing to Kel by the chin.

“He can die, for all the misfortune he brought unto our heads!” Kurozuki spit bitterly, his eyes blinded with tears.

“Kurozuki!”

“Would you let him die, even though he’s the one Suzu loves?” Tsukisa asked the shaman. “After what you’ve experienced?”

He looked away, fist clenched.

“We don’t have anything left. Everything burnt with the temple.” Akio stood up. “I’ll gather wood for a fire, then we’ll dry our clothes. I’m afraid we won’t have much to eat tonight.”

***

They were exhausted by all the events of the day and fell in a restless slumber by the small fire they had built.

Akio had bandaged Kel’s wound as best as he could with a ripped part of his tunic but the har hadn’t come around. The albino had detected a serious concussion and hoped the harish healing powers would be able to come over it. Diving into the wounded har’s psyche had been a real ordeal. Hours afterwards, lost in his dreams, he could still feel the anguish of Kel, his sinful pleasure at the contact of Suzu’s smooth skin, his lips, his warm flesh… At some point, these memories became mixed with his own, of his union with Kurozuki, or rather the union of Honokami and Yuugami. He could remember only too well the demanding lips, the burning hands roaming his willful body, the scalding blade that had pierced him, before he himself had quenched this fire with his overpowering waves…

Akio gasped out of his sleep, panting. He sat up and looked over where Suzu was resting. Kurozuki was kneeling there, caressing his lank hair.

“Have you slept?” he whispered, coming by his side.

“I tried,” he answered reluctantly.

“What happened between us…”

“It served a purpose. Now it’s over. We did it for Suzu… for what it means now!”

The shaman wouldn’t look at him. And Akio suddenly understood.

“You didn’t betray your love for him,” he said softly and went away before Kurozuki had time to add anything else. And I didn’t betray my bond with Tsukisa, he thought.

As he made his way back to the fire, he started when silent dark shapes came out of the forest. He lifted the knife he had taken from Kel but the intruders passed him by without taken notice of him. Children-like slender creatures, dark and silent.

Moriko!

Kurozuki stepped back and they entered the water, surrounding Suzu. They extended their hands towards him and their fingers lengthened, worming their way around the ashen body, like wooden ivy. The Avatar soon was entirely covered by these overgrown appendages, except for his pale face that emerged from the dark shroud. Then they pulled him out of the water.

Together, they walked in a silent procession to the mound of upturned earth from the roots of the fallen maple tree. More Moriko were waiting for them, in front of a hole dug into the sandy earth.

“Hey!” Kurozuki protested when the inhuman creatures lowered Suzu inside. “You’re not going to bury him, are you?!”

But they ignored him. Akio held him back by the arm.

“I’ve heard about it,” he whispered. “Don’t you feel it through your soles? This earth is very hot here, imagine how much hotter it can be over there and then when you’re covered with it. I heard there were similar hot sands on the coast of one of the ancient islands, the sea that was heating them were at around 60°C.”

“How is that supposed to get him rid of what’s gnawing at him?” the shaman asked with despair.

“Maybe it’s more a matter of tipping the balance between the death of the cells and their regeneration,” Akio offered uncertainly.

The earth was put back onto Suzu’s body leaving only his face clear, offered to the sky. The Moriko who had carried him had still their arms buried with him and all together, they twisted them and the dry wood snapped with a great sound.

“Will he be able to breathe?” Akio asked to the silent creatures that were marching back towards the forest. There was no reply.

He knelt beside Suzu and held his hand near his nose. He nodded with relief.

***

Kurozuki was dosing near the fire when they arrived. The rustling of the leaves alerted him and he jumped to his feet, the knife in hand.

“Hey! No, it’s me!” A dark frame jumped out of the cover of the trees and he faced a familiar young man.

“Who are you?” he asked defiantly.

“It’s me, Kawamori Kei, one of the aspirants, one of the newly-appointed Tenki before the destruction of Shinseimon.”

“Kawamori?” His fist tightened around the hilt of the knife. “You were among those who abused Suzu?!”

“Who abused…? No! I certainly didn’t abuse him the way you abused him!”

“Kei!” A woman stepped out of the forest and pulled him back. “We’re here to help them!”

They were five of them, three men and two women. They were bringing food supplies and spare clothes. Akio was only too happy to have proper equipment to tend Kel’s wound and decent clothes. With Tsukisa, they went to bathe in the regular hot pools and put on fresh tunics and robes.

“We moved the survivors of Shinseimon to a safe place about one day from here. As soon as we could, we organized a team to come and help you,” explained Kei while they were feeding themselves.

“How did you know we needed help and where we were?” Kurozuki asked after he had cleaned his lunch box thoroughly.

“Well, I’m a Tenki after all,” he replied with a mischievous smile. “And what was happening here was pretty easy to spot. There was this column of light earlier today… or was it yesterday?” Akio looked at Kurozuki, blushing. “… and then this strange fox appeared. It literally guided us here. I wonder where it’s gone…”

Then his face became grim. “And Suzu?”

“He still lives, though we don’t know if he’ll survive,” Akio said curtly. He stood up, brushing the crumbles of bread from his tunic. “If you want to come and see him.”

***

When Kei first glimpsed Suzu, he blanched. “It’s… it’s as if he’s dead.”

“He’s still breathing though,” Akio said. “He’s undertaking a process we can’t even begin to grasp.”

And so the five people of Shinseimon knelt around Suzu and clasped their hands in prayer. The deep humming of their mantras rose in the bleaching sky.

***

Kel woke up from a land of troubled dreams. When he tried to move, his head protested vehemently and he thought he was about to retch.

“Don’t move,” and the whispered words from Akio resonated in his head like the hammer of a smith.

He winced.

“Drink this.”

But he pushed the helping hand away.

“I won’t drink anything from you anymore,” he grunted.

“I thought you’d want to recover quickly to be able to help Suzu,” the healer said softly.

“Suzu?” The memories rushed back. “Suzu!”

He sat upright in a sudden move and clutched his head with a muffled growl.

“Drink this,” the albino suggested again.

Kel complied reluctantly. It was too sweet but a relief to his dry throat. He stared at the empty cup, his hand trembling. He couldn’t lift his head, he couldn’t meet Akio’s eyes.

“Suzu… Is he…”

“He’s still alive. He may have a chance to survive.”

The har looked up, disbelief written on his handsome features.

“No human can survive our contact,” he said, shaking his head. “Why did he do that? What did he want to achieve?”

“There was a very powerful earthquake… but we still have to assess its consequences…” and Kurozuki came to kneel by his other side.

Kel looked at him in the eyes. “You’re after my skin for what I did to him, aren’t you?”

But the shaman shook his head ruefully. “If Suzu dies, I’ll follow him. I took part in what happened.”

Supported by the ex-Tenki and the healer, Kel walked to the place where Suzu was buried.

“I think that he somewhat started the transformation into your race,” Akio said, wetting the parched lips with a soaked cloth. “Otherwise he would have died long ago, wouldn’t he?”

Kel nodded, caressing the few locks that emerged around his grayish face. “A fraction of second before I… we were kissing… and he bit my lips. But…”

“You sustained that deep gash on your head and he had a wound on his wrist,” Kurozuki pointed, “The water of the pool, it looked like milk, now it looks like blood.”

In his mind, Kel could see it again, the silver blade slicing the pale skin, the red ichor pearling from the cut flesh… He could feel again the savage violence that had been coursing in his veins… It seemed as if it had been someone else completely.

“We were born in violence and suffering,” he whispered to Suzu. “I so wanted for it to be different for you. I’m sorry.”

***

It was midday when Suzu stopped breathing completely. Kel was seated beside him, his face in his arms when there was a slight change in the air. He looked up and saw Tsukisa standing on the other side of the young man’s body. Her face was sad.

“The change is over,” she said and he leapt to bend over his protégé. He froze in horror.

“What have you done to him!” he cried with a strangled voice.

“He’s facing judgment.”

“What?!”

“He committed a sin by making you kill him. His own blood falls upon his head. He soiled your life path but it’s he who’ll have to face the consequences.”

Kel looked at her bewildered, her words making no sense to him. “But… but he’s not dead! He was being incepted! My blood was mingling with his! You can’t let him die!”

He frantically dug into the moist earth.

“You have no say in this matter. Suzu himself was aware of the consequences of his scheme.”

Kel angrily threw a fistful of earth towards her. She calmly lifted her ample sleeves to shield her face.

You made him do it! You and your friends the spirits of this land! It’s you who should face judgment!”

“Indeed Yuugami and Honokami have already been judged and the sentence applied.”

The har stared at her in horror and disbelief. “Who are you?” he asked, his voice trembling. “You’re not Tsukisa.”

“I am Tsukisa. But not only.”

She held up her arm and her long sleeve fell back around her elbow. Her pale skin looked almost translucent in the sunlight.

“Tsukisa died in the sacred cavern above Shinseimon. Or rather, she was to die. She knew it, as she knew she had a choice to make. She finally agreed and surrendered her body to the spirit world.”

“But… but I… no one noticed!”

“Tsukisa was the perfect Avatar, a total compatibility, because she was preparing herself for a very long time. Not even Honokami and Yuugami noticed. My poor children.”

Poor children?

“You’re… you’re a spirit of the earth?”

She smiled ruefully. “There’s no time for this. I came to you because you have a chance to help your beloved Suzu. I fear that if you don’t help him, he might be condemned just like Honokami and Yuugami and sent back.”

“I’ll do anything!” Kel replied promptly through dry lips. “Tell me!”

She considered him for a few moments, as if assessing the truth in his words.

“You’ll have to accept judgment yourself by the Powers presiding this land,” she finally said. “Even though you were a child of ours originally, as you were changed, we can’t force you to submit to our trial. But if you willingly come to us, you’ll have a chance to plead in favor of Suzu.”

“And for what charges will I be judged myself,” Kel asked defensively.

“Do you really want to know?”

He looked down at Suzu, then lifted his face again.

“Whatever. I’ll do it.”

***

Akio and Kurozuki were erecting the tents with the party from Shinseimon when the healer saw Tsukisa and Kel walking towards the hot pool. His instincts told him something was amiss. He made to join them, but the former Tenki held him back by the arm. The healer looked at his companion worryingly.

“What’s going on?”

His fiancée and Kel had now entered the crimson waters.

“Don’t interfere,” the former Tenki advised, his face dead serious. “I don’t know exactly what’s going on but there’s something about Tsukisa that’s screaming at me that we should not poke our noses in her business.”

Kei nodded too, his brow creased with a deep furrow. They all stood there, following the woman and the har until they stopped at the very center of the pool, soaked up to the waist. They heard her say, “Now face judgment,” and she suddenly grabbed his neck in a deadly grip, plunging him into the bloody water with a great splash.

***

Kel struggled madly, all his instincts for survival taking over, but he couldn’t loosen her grip, couldn’t breathe into this dark fluid.

No! I can’t die! Suzu needs me!

He shot a mental arrow to his attacker but an invisible hand negligently deflected it. And this mental hand seized his head. Kel tried to scream and water rushed into his mouth, throat, lungs…

You wanted this, he heard, on the brink of unconsciousness, don’t you want to help Suzu?

He felt a caress in his sinking mind.

A life for a life? If only I could… but I can’t go, I can’t leave him alone!

Above him, through the crimson veil of the water, he glimpsed the sad smile of Tsukisa. Before he surrendered himself to darkness, he heard her whisper in his mind: Sayonara. Farewell.

Chapter 10: Life

Kel coughed his way back to a painful consciousness. His neck hurt, his head hurt and every breath made his chest hurt. He winced. He wasn’t used to be ill anymore.

“Drink this.” And this time, he didn’t care if it was Akio who sustained his thirst.

It was hot soup, tasting like the soup of his childhood – it was so so long ago.

“Now for the bad part,” and this time, the liquid was bitter and acrid in his mouth. “I’m sorry, I dosed you more, as your body is more resistant and you must be well as soon as possible.”

Kel looked around through watering eyes. He was in a tent and it looked as if it was night again.

“You stayed unconscious for many hours,” Akio said, anticipating his questions. “We thought Tsukisa had drowned you for good.”

The har couldn’t miss the sadness in that last sentence. The healer’s gaze had dropped to the ground. Kel touched the albino’s hand, his throat still too sore to utter a word.

“She… she vanished,” he answered to his silent question. “After she carried you back to the shore, she explained to me… what had happened to her. And she walked away. We tried to go after her, but she just vanished. All we found of her is her robe floating on the surface of the pool.”

He rubbed his nose and looked up at him determinedly.

“Before she went away, she told us that you should be made fit again quickly because Suzu would need a special treatment to fix his transformation. So as soon as you feel well enough…”

“Suzu?” he asked, his voice a mere whisper.

“We thought he was dead, so we dug out his body to burn it. The… branches from the Moriko dried on his body and turned to ashes when we touched them. Suzu really looked like a corpse then. But when I touched him, he sighed and his skin sort of tore from his body. Except that under that shed skin was a new one, a perfect one, smooth and pale as the moon. He still hasn’t regained consciousness though. Kurozuki said he’d wake up for you. He’s watching over him in the neighboring tent.”

Akio’s voice died away and he turned, busying himself with his potions. The har felt his embarrassment, like a cloud hovering between them.

“I couldn’t help myself from examining him,” the healer finally muttered. “He’s now just like you.”

At that Kel couldn’t suppress a mischievous smile.

***

Kel didn’t have any memories of what happened after Tsukisa attempted to drown him. Something must have happened, otherwise Suzu wouldn’t have survived. He wondered what punishment had been given and to whom.

When he entered the tent of Suzu, Kurozuki turned to look at him. He stood up, dusting his trousers and came to face him, his eyes dry and hard.

“He’s beautiful,” he said. “Please take care of him.”

He sounded very much like a father giving his daughter in marriage. Even though he stood upright in front of him, his words had been like a bow. That brought a smirk on Kel’s lips.

“You’ll soon be as beautiful as he is,” he couldn’t help himself from saying. “Maybe you should stay and have a look at what’s in store for you.”

That broke the ceremonious mood. Blushing, Kurozuki walked towards the exit. Then, as he was about to exit, he stopped abruptly.

“Just a word, something that Akio might not have told you,” the former Tenki added without turning to face him. “Suzu… he was allowed to come back to us, but They retained something of him, as a punishment.”

And he was out. Puzzled and worried, Kel leaned over his protégé, who was already stirring. The young man… no, the young har looked just as he used to look, but there was now a kind of warm aura around him that made his skin glow and his silken dark mane shine. When he opened his luminous eyes, they were burning with undisguised lust. He held up his arms towards his guide and Kel fell in his embrace, his heart and mind crying in relief. Their lips joined in a fierce and avid kiss and they melted in each other’s minds.

Suzu’s fiery spirit soared to the sky when his inner chamber opened for the first time, a free and untainted spirit.

***

Kel awoke by the songs of the birds welcoming the morning sun. His body was still resonating with the languorous vibes of their night of passion. Suzu had given himself with such abandon, he had never thought it possible from such a shy young man. Could inception change someone so deeply, he wondered with a chuckle.

Then, Suzu moaned by his side. For sure, he was still feeling the aftermath of their carefree mating. He opened his eyes and gazed at him with a calm and confident smile.

Then he asked: “Who are you?”

***

Suzu was the first of the hara of his country. Though he had lost all his memories of his human life except for his name, he blossomed in the bright personality that had been buried by his isolation for so many years. His friends told him about his past, skipping the most gruesome parts. Akio often felt that they were lying to him and that he was aware of it, but he never asked for more detail. The Avatar still worshipped all the spirits of the land, but he had a special affection for those he called the Lovers of the Hot Pools. He erected a small altar for them, but they never appeared again.

At first, Kel had been shocked that the Gods of this land had chosen to take his memory. Kurozuki had enigmatically explained that it was because his memory contained the most precious and valuable thing for him and thus was the appropriate retribution for his sin, except for his life. After a few days of burning indignation, Kel had finally resigned himself, mostly because he was too taken with caring for his protégé and preparing Kurozuki for his impending inception. Akio would assist with his medical knowledge, then would be the next.

Suzu was very enthusiastic with his caste progression and indeed he was very gifted, just as Kel had guessed from first looking at him. Ideas of going back to the mainland had long since slipped from their minds.

Kei and his friends had guided the rest of the inhabitants of Shinseimon to them and they had set about reconstructing a new town near the hot pools that was named ‘Shinonome’, that means ‘dawn’. After a few weeks, the hot pool around which so much had happened had turned into crystal clear water, its temperature had fallen and many children went there to play, when it was not taken for ceremonies.

The temple of Suzu had been the first building to stand again and the newly incepted har had moved in with delight with his companions. No villagers of Shinonome questioned what had happened to their Avatar, but Kei and Kurozuki persuaded Kel that it was better to explain it all. Though none of them had been confident about the outcome of these disclosures, the result was that Kel and Suzu were welcomed as blessed beings that had contributed to save them from the earthquakes, and in a way, that was true.

However Akio wondered about such an easy acceptance. True enough, the people of Shinonome had been very shaken by what had happened and were only too happy to accept among them god-like beings. They were accustomed to consider Suzu as someone special and his gentleness in spite of what he had suffered reassured them. But Akio had been more worried by the reaction of the crowd when Kel explained that only men could be incepted. Even though women had fallen to their ancient submissive place in the shadows of men since misfortune had struck the land, they held a necessary position and a balancing role. The men of Shinonome couldn’t imagine themselves without them. Akio knew that including women in their plans was essential. Otherwise there was ground to unrest and possibly danger if the unsatisfied mounted a secret cabal against the hara. He himself felt an inner twist at the thought of Tsukisa who chose to sacrifice her life rather than having to face this situation. If she had still been with them, he would have fought for her against hara if called for.

So Akio discreetly watched over the rumors and discussions about Shinonome. He was surprised to find Suzu preceding him everywhere. The Avatar was involved in every discussion going around, often as the center of attention, captivating his small audience with a hushed speech. When he wasn’t present, his presence was floating around with some “Suzu said that…” or “He assured us that…”. Akio was never able to actually hear what the Avatar told them or what it was all about. He felt very frustrated about that and stalked more determinedly those small gatherings. Then he noticed that the people of Shinonome had organized explorations teams and that women had started to form groups of their own… and that they never reported back when they came home. At least they never reported anything to him. They always sent a representative to Suzu who always stopped anything he might be doing to receive her. The few times he was absent at their return, they went to Kurozuki.

Akio didn’t want to bother Suzu with his questions and he wouldn’t lower himself to ask Kurozuki. Finally, he approached Kel, bringing up the subject of the future of the women of Shinonome and the apparent willingness of the men.

“Contrary to what I witnessed in other parts of the world, the people of this land haven’t given up,” the har said thoughtfully. “They’ve been saved by Suzu, an envoy of their gods in their eyes… Somewhat they’ve won back their blessings. But they won’t forget the lesson they received. That’s why they can’t afford to lay back and watch what the future will bring. Wraeththu is a sign of their gods for them, I think. They can’t go against it but they don’t feel it like a punishment or a calamity. It’s something that’s been given and that they have to live with… Suzu works hard to make them feel like they’re all included in their gods’ favor… even the women.”

“But why all this secrecy?” Akio protested. “Even the men don’t know exactly what their women do in the mountains.”

Kel smiled at him mischievously. The healer blushed.

“It’s not time yet for us to know. You’ll come to feel it too, but there are many powers playing here to gather the children of this land under their influences, its sons… and its daughters.”

Akio was taken aback by the certainty in his voice. After this conversation, his curiosity abated somewhat and he wondered if it wasn’t a spell cast on his head. But he felt also relieved, as if he had received the certainty that the fate of his people was in good hands.

Little by little, women were detaching themselves from the men’s authority and following their own secret guidelines.

***

As the earth’s tremors decreased, a group of scouts was sent back to the ruins of Shinseimon to look for what had been left behind. It took some time for them to gather enough volunteers – Shinseimon’s ground was now considered soiled ground – but eventually, Suzu’s assurances won them over. When they came back, they were accompanied by a small group of people. They were a small tribe of fishermen who had taken refuge inside the land in fear of high tides after the first earthquake. Those men used to live on the eastern coast when one day, they witnessed a great column of light bridging earth and skies rising from the west. And then a few hours later, as a minor tremor shook the ground, in front of their awed eyes, the sea opened up to dark rock. They had headed west in the direction of the column of light, hoping to find a wise man to listen to their story and guide them: a new island had emerged from the sea.

At their words, Akio and Kurozuki glanced at each other in wonder. Honokami and Yuugami’s memories hinted at something grand for their land, but they had never thought of something like that. Of course, it would take many years for this new part of the land to be fit for life, but it was a sign for hope.

***

Kel and Suzu had agreed that Suzu would be the one to incept Kurozuki, because even though he wasn’t qualified in terms of magical knowledge, he could tap into energies still foreign to his more experienced mentor.

A simple ceremony was held near the former hot pool, the blessing of the spirits was called forth and Suzu pressed his bleeding arm against the similar wound on Kurozuki. The shaman cried out and fell back into Akio’s arms who secured him in his thrashing. His spasms lasted only a few minutes and suddenly ceased when the healer dabbed his feverish face with a cloth soaked with the pool’s water.

The transformation took three days, during which Kurozuki was sheltered in a tent by the pool. Akio watched over him and left his place to Suzu when the shaman woke up.

“How are you coping?” the healer asked as he was having lunch in the temple with Kel.

“Coping with what?” the har asked too cheerfully.

“You know.”

“Something you’ll have to learn as a har, is that jealousy is pointless. What we call ‘aruna’ is a blessing that has to be shared with as many as possible.”

“I was not talking about that. I was talking about you and Suzu. He’s grown fond of you… again.”

“I’m his teacher,” the har replied with a shrug. “And I’m a much more skillful lover than Kuro will ever be. Talk about experience.”

“You love Suzu, his stolen memories were as much a punishment for you than for him,” Akio said gravely.

“Maybe, then maybe not.”

“I think he’s falling for you again,” repeated the albinos finally. “The way he looks at you… the way he talks to you and about you… Maybe I shouldn’t say it, but he’s started to ask questions again about his past… and you. A lot more so since we prepared for Kurozuki’s inception.”

Kel grunted non-committedly.

“You know, I even suspect he offered to take over Kurozuki’s althaia so that he wouldn’t have to share you with someone else.”

Kel stood up and went at the window. The winter that had taken so much time to come this year, blew a cold wind in his face.

“He’ll learn,” he replied on a neutral tone.

But Akio had glimpsed the happiness on his face.

***

Kurozuki smiled, or at least tried his best to smile while the students bent to salute them before walking out of the teaching room. He could almost feel Akio’s stare fixed on his stiff back. Recently there had been times like this one when all he wanted to do was run away, run until his body and mind were so exhausted that nothing would touch them anymore.

He had sacrificed his humanity to reach his goals, to gather in his hands the power that would make him worth of Suzu. This power, this fount of light that was Suzu, all these were his now but they left a bitter taste at the back of his throat.

He could still feel the Avatar wrapping his arms around him, the hot lips pressed on his… he could hear the lustful moans responding to his thrusts… everything was his… except for the most important. Suzu’s heart would always belong to one, and he was not this one.

The amazing powers of his transcended body, the admiration of the crowd, all these seemed like empty trophies. He was empty.

The solace of Suzu’s embrace felt like a sacrilege now and he even refused the obvious invitations of the young har who couldn’t help but notice his distress and act accordingly.

How he envied Suzu’s amnesia! Stepping over the boundary of species was supposed to offer them a new freedom, of body and mind, but only the purest could really enjoy it. Those like he were condemned to struggle under the heavy chains of moral strictures of a time that had passed away.

His last student approached them and bent to salute. And stayed there, smiling uncertainly. Why was he still here? Kurozuki doubted he could keep on smiling very long!

“Err, I’m sorry to impose on you…”

His discomfort was so strong it pervaded through the shaman’s unhappiness. He sensed the frown of Akio behind him.

“Yuuta? What’s the matter? Did you have any difficulty with today’s lesson?”

The young har shook his head vehemently.

“Not that… just… what you said about aruna today… I don’t want to doubt your words, but…”

“Well, you’ve been incepted only recently, at first it’s difficult to accept but…”

“Ah, no, I wasn’t… I mean, I’m not!…” He blushed, unable to continue.

Kurozuki became intrigued. Recently incepted hara were often confused with the urges of their new bodies. Depending on their background, they were more or less comfortable at first with what they had difficulty to see as anything but homosexuality. Fortunately, the majority of those who were willing to undertake inception were made aware that in a sense it was homosexuality, because there was only one gender in Wraeththu… or at least, it was the easiest way to go and explain it to them!

“You managed very well,” Kurozuki assured him. “You’ve chosen your partner very well, so it’s normal that it turned out well. If you feel lasting emotions, that may be real attraction or simple infatuation because all this is so new. I’d advise you talk about it with Natsuo. Your body can be tricky.”

Yuuta nodded faintly, looking still hesitant. The shaman heard Akio moving to his level.

“May I?”

Kurozuki nodded. He felt a bit worried. Yuuta was one of his best students, motivated and sensible, and he wondered if somewhat he hadn’t missed something.

“As Kurozuki… Master Kurozuki said, you managed very well. Does it mean that you want to talk to us about something else?”

Yuuta, visibly relieved, nodded with force.

“Something about you or another student?” Akio asked softly.

He shook his head vehemently.

“Then, something about… us?”

The young har’s turned crimson and his gaze dropped down to the floor.

“I… I know it’s not proper for a student to talk about such things… I mean, I’m so unskilled and just a child compared to you… but my old master, back at Shinseimon… he told me it was a fault not to point out things that may cause disturbances to our masters… so…”

“Don’t be afraid. Your master was perfectly right,” Akio said reassuringly. ”Tell us what you noticed.”

Kurozuki felt a bit miffed but kept his mouth shut.

“When you demonstrated… There was a moment when… I don’t know… the vibes felt wrong… as if… the energy went astray…” He looked up sharply, pleading with his eyes. “It was only for a brief moment! But I felt it very strongly! As if the energy summoned by Master Kurozuki through Master Akio was disrupted!”

Kurozuki resisted the urge to slap the student. How dared he?! Akio simply nodded thoughtfully. One of his hands had come to rest on one of his clenched fists.

“We’re thankful you took upon yourself to tell us. We’ll see to it. It won’t happen again.”

Yuuta smiled widely and bent deeply, his forehead touching the mats.

“I look forward to our next session!” And then he stood up and walked out quickly.

Kurozuki was so furious he couldn’t say anything even after the student’s departure. Akio turned to him, his face very grave.

“Kurozuki, let’s face it, we should ask Suzu to help you for the demonstrations. We don’t go along well enough.”

“You know Suzu has not enough time to spare us some!” the shaman exploded.

He stood up and paced the room angrily.

“It was just a small hesitation! It can happen to anyone! How dare he criticize our work?!”

“He didn’t criticize anything. He’s just worried. He’s already feeling insecure about his own condition and sexuality, so if we’re not like rock he can lean on, we should reconsider our positions.”

Kurozuki swirled towards him, as if he was going to strike him.

“Are you saying I should quit my position as a teacher?!”

Akio sighed. “No, I’m just saying you should ask Suzu. Education is important. We have to help our people to adapt to their new condition and you’re perfect in this.”

He hesitated than said: “I saw you when you walked out of his room last time. Aruna isn’t enough for you, is it?”

Kurozuki refused to meet his gaze.

“Maybe I should consider joining the community of the women and settle in the mountains,” he said with a thick voice.

“You know that’s impossible. They don’t accept any men nor hara.”

“Then I’ll go live as an hermit and…”

“Kuro… be sensible, we need you here. You’re like Suzu’s Prime Minister. People love you. If only you’d open up to them. How many hara I saw trying to attract your attention! You never took aruna with anyone except with Suzu. And it’s not sufficient enough. You know it. Your body needs more. Find yourself another partner, at least for when Suzu is visiting the other settlements.”

Kurozuki glared at the healer.

“You’re har now, Kurozuki,” he said softly.

The shaman closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. Somewhat he knew he should see reason but…

“Akio, will you share breath with me?”

Share breath with me, see what’s inside of me, share my burdens…

Akio stood up slowly. He came very close, his lips slightly parted. The shaman didn’t have to open his eyes. Warmth insinuated itself in his being, the pure white hand of a gentle healer, baring his soul. The shaman folded himself around him. He felt the albino shudder in his mental embrace. They had never taken aruna together nor shared breath.

Their minds fused in the image of a falcon soaring into the clear skies. Suddenly the air burst into flames! Scalding it burned their lungs and feathers! They fell, their wings torn. Water closed on them, wild currents ready to tear their aching body to pieces… Akio gasped and tried to free himself from the clutching talons of the vision. Far above them, they could see the gentle face of Suzu, compassionate, trying to tell them something that they couldn’t hear.

He was never mine, the shaman whispered. Yet he was the only one to keep me from the abyss. If I let go of him, I’ll fall.

Akio closed their eyes and stopped their desperate thrashing.

You’re afraid to let go because you’re afraid of what you don’t know. There are people willing to break your fall, if only you’d accept to catch their helping hands.

The water entered their lungs and stopped the burning ache. Their glazed eyes were open. They were floating upwards, towards the light.

I don’t love you, Kurozuki said, his eyes blinded by the star above them. Their body emerged at the surface of the calm waters.

I don’t love you either, Akio replied. So we suit ourselves well, don’t we?

The hard ground shook them out of their trance. They had fallen onto the mats.

“I denied you,” Kurozuki said gravely. “That’s what Yuuta felt. I was afraid to surrender myself to you… because I don’t love you.”

“I don’t love you either,” the albino repeated, his arms closing around his companion’s neck. “That’s what we are. Denying fools, both of us. That’s the gods’ legacy. Maybe one day we can deny this legacy as well.”

“Maybe.”

The flacon spread his wings again and soared away in the azure.

***

Kel let the sea lick his toes.

“Are you done?” shouted Suzu from the cover of the trees.

Kel gestured at him and he ran to him, waving a large straw hat.

“You should have taken it,” he said reproachfully. “Haven’t you seen how Kurozuki was sun-burnt yesterday?”

He nodded and obediently put the hat on.

“So?” Suzu asked impatiently. “What did your allies of the mainland say? Is it OK for you to stay here?”

Kel shrugged.

“Keeeeel! Will you talk or shall I pin you in the sand and extract the words from your mouth?!”

His companion burst out laughing.

“There was no problem, of course,” he said cheerfully. “Why would they mind? They were a bit surprised, but it’s OK. Maybe they’ll come visit us in a few months, but they’re currently very busy with their coastal structures. The earthquakes and shifting of the tectonic plates have caused major disturbances and they haven’t been able to do much during the winter. I guess they’ll be busy re-thinking their towns set up for quite some time. I thought it wiser not to mention our involvement in the latest natural occurrences. And I guess they wouldn’t understand it if I’d tell them that I’m now chained to this land.”

“You’re not exactly chained!” Suzu protested though not too strongly. “I guess the spirits would let you go if it were for an emergency. It’s not as if your heart would stop beating or anything like that if you’d stepped beyond the land’s boundaries…”

“Not that I mind my punishment,” Kel reassured him. “I’m very happy to spend the next fifty years or so here with you.”

Suzu blushed with pleasure.

It had been during their first ‘official’ Grissecon, to celebrate the summer festival, that they had finally discovered the ‘punishment’ inflicted on Kel by the spirits some months ago. His soul was now entwined with the land’s essence and during magical ceremonies, he could now tap into its wondrous well of energy. As a side effect, he could feel in his body all the major events affecting the land and he wouldn’t be able to stay away from it for too long. As Suzu was the Avatar for the land’s gods, Kel had become the Avatar for this very land.

Kel had fugitively thought about contacting Thiede about that – distance wasn’t a problem anymore – but he felt that there’d be plenty of time ahead for their glorious leader to come and examine his case.

He took Suzu in his arms and kissed his forehead. The younger har hugged him back and lifted his gaze to stare at him with his luminous eyes. He looked a bit sad.

“Sometimes, I wonder about my past. About what I lost…”

“Don’t think about it, the past is painful,” whispered Kel wistfully.

“Yet there was something precious enough in it that the spirits thought it worth my life. Somewhat I think I should miss it, but strangely enough I don’t.”

Kel pulled away from him, just keeping his hands on his shoulders.

“Maybe because you didn’t lose it in the end.”

He bent and kissed Suzu on the mouth… just a kiss, the mere touching of lips.

“I love you,” Kel murmured to his ear.

Suzu smiled fondly at him. “ I never lost it… and I never will.”

Epilogue

Akio was a very competent healer, a lot more so since his inception and the awakening of his hidden powers. He had proved even more gifted than Kurozuki, but he preferred not to boast about it. The shaman was still a bit touchy on this side.

But the albino’s current condition was so unusual that even his trained mind had trouble grasping it. Briefly he wondered if Suzu was coping really that well or was putting up an act. His belly wasn’t exactly as large as a woman’s but he couldn’t help feeling the hard ball within his lower body. Being a healer too curious, that was his worst default, he thought to himself with a wince. If he had known Kel and Suzu had planned to try by themselves, he would have gladly let the experiment to them alone and he would have been happy enough with observing the phenomenon from outside. And what made it even worse was that that idiot of Kel had been carefree enough to let himself be inseminated as well! What were they thinking of, those two, when they were so clueless about the whole process?!

Even though he had ascertained thoroughly that his harish body could and would give birth, he was very anxious about the whole thing. He had trained Shin as well as possible – as well as any midwife – but one could never be sure… And he had so wanted to be the one to help with Suzu’s birthing – because he felt his baby would be special – but from his examinations, they were only a few hours apart in the harlings’ development.

Of course, Kurozuki never missed an occasion of mocking his ‘spirit of adventure’. Well, at least, when he was gloating, he wasn’t blaming him for what he had made him do so unwillingly. Akio knew he had stepped over the line. He still wondered about his own motivations, just when their relationship had settled in a cautious intimate ‘friendship’. Kel had blamed him for acting so foolishly and without consideration and surprisingly, at the time, the shaman had supported him, but it was only on the front. The healer felt that Kurozuki was reacting like that because he didn’t know how to face him.

Akio stifled a groan as a sharp pain hit him in the belly. Was it the time? He stood up from his stool and walked slowly about his meditation chamber. He sent a furtive glance to Tsukisa’s portrait on the small altar. He would have been so happy to have her by his side now… but he guessed it would have been awkward.

He had changed so much since she left. Controlled by the urges of his new body, he had discovered some aspects of himself he would never have suspected. It had taken him far more time to get accustomed to it than he had let it show. He had always been a kind of monster, because of his illness and his appearance. Once incepted he had truly become a moon child with hair like pale silk and eyes like two rubies – or so believed one of his extravagant admirers among his young medical students. But even though he knew now that people turned to look at him in admiration rather than fear, he was still feeling a bit uneasy with this attention. And the high respect in which he was taken due to his enhanced powers made him very uncomfortable too. He wasn’t a god after all, all he was doing was redirect the currents of energy that had gone astray and caused illness for both humans and hara. It was just one step beyond his old skills of detecting where something was wrong.

Another arrow of blinding pain ripped at his body and this time he couldn’t suppress his cry. He fell on all four panting, and tears filled his eyes. He didn’t need his powers to tell him where it was currently wrong with his body! His mind resonated with the loud thumping of his heart, his labored breath…

Kurozuki… he was teaching in the neighboring room…

The door slid open abruptly and the cool breeze refreshed Akio’s feverish frame.

“You, stubborn idiot, I told you to rest today!” he heard the shaman say worryingly. He supported him to his bedroom and sent someone to fetch Shin.

“It’s all right,” the albino managed to croak, “my body knows better than I how to do it… Just if you would…”

His sentence was cut off. He didn’t hear his own cry. His mind swam in an ocean of pain briefly before it completely shut down.

***

Kurozuki had had a dream that night. That’s why he had postponed his visit to the breeders’ camp and had discreetly modified his schedule so that he’d stay at home all day.

Though he hated to admit it, he had come to care for Akio and their would-be harling. Throughout the delivery of the round black thing that contained their son, he kept having flashbacks until he understood he was linked to Akio’s memories. He never told him about it, but that gave him a deep insight of everything the albino had suffered and gone through in his life. Both of them had been rejected and had sought means to keep their dignity and build their own place in the community. Their son would never have to suffer the same fate, he vowed to himself.

So he dreamed of Shinseimon as it was before.

He was sitting on the floor of a wide room, waiting for someone. Then a messenger came and told him through the paper panel that his visitor couldn’t come and had sent someone else in his stead. The door slid to the side and a small perfect child of maybe three years old stepped shyly in. He wore a short tunic of white linen. What struck Kurozuki immediately were his bright red hair and his crimson wide eyes. The door panel slid back on its rail, leaving them together alone. The child put his hand over his mouth and looked around, obviously avoiding his puzzled gaze.

“Who are you?” Kurozuki finally asked, wondering if the child would understand him and be able to answer back.

“…ami,” he heard from the muffled reply.

“I didn’t hear you,” he said, trying to appear reassuring. “What did you say?”

But the child seemed suddenly afraid and tried awkwardly to open the door. The shaman, even more puzzled than before, walked to him and caught him in his arms.

“Now, now… calm down, sweetie and tell me…”

Tears-blurred eyes turned to him and he lost himself in those bottomless wells.

He had woken up with a start.

Now, as he was contemplating the gleaming dark leathery sphere in front of him, he wondered what it really had been about.

Akio and him had taken turns incubating what was called the ‘pearl’ in their cushioned bed.

At first they had been clueless in front of that thing that looked like a dark egg. The healer had established a mental link with his son, but he had never suspected it would come out in a shell. They had wondered if they had to rip the membrane open, in fear that the harling would be too weak to do so and suffocate. Akio had been the most panicked and would have torn the leathery surface if Kurozuki hadn’t stopped him. Together they had connected with the primitive mind of their son. It was sharply awake, absorbing avidly every bit of information filtering from the outside, somewhat amplified and concentrated within the tiny world of the pearl. It responded with curiosity to their mental contact but was quickly distracted by the faint sound of music drifting in through the window. The gentle melody of the pipe lulled him into sleep.

Akio had sighed in relief and slumped back on the cushions. Kurozuki dabbed his face with a soft cloth and kissed his forehead lightly, like a blessing and a thanking.

Curiously enough, the hours the shaman spent with the pearl had been the most peaceful of his life.

Suzu had made a special aromatic oil from various plants and flowers that was to be applied on the supple membrane and it filled the air with a light and sweet fragrance.

Currently, the strange membrane of the pearl was so thin that they could make out the movements of their harling and for some time, it had been very active. Akio who had been in charge of it when it had started, was propped up on one elbow and watching with amazement.

Fugitively Kurozuki felt a bout of envy for the healer’s increased powers that enabled him to precisely sense what was really happening inside of it. He wondered if Suzu and Kel could do the same with their own pearls, as there was no doubt theirs would be about to hatch too.

Suddenly, the leathery surface opened in a wet ripping sound and shreds of the membrane fell to the sides while a clear liquid soaked the drapes and cushions. Mixed with the fragrant oil, it gave a strange smell of soaked earth and green mosses.

Their harling… it still clutched a part of its external womb in his tiny perfect fist. It was half kneeling, half sitting, his thin body supported in his already strong arms. Its face…

Akio wiped softly the little cheek from its thick translucent protective fluid and it babbled with glee. Almost timidly the healer took the harling in his arms. The short fiery red hair contrasted strongly against the paleness of the albino. Kurozuki felt moved to tears by the unusual picture, the atmosphere of closeness that was including him. Akio whispered softly to his son and it burst in a clear laughing. Then it turned its head towards the shaman and sent him a questioning glance, its mouth hidden behind his hand. It looked very much like the child of his dreams, except that it was smaller.

“Do you want to hold him?” Akio asked with a voice thick with emotion.

Kurozuki nodded. The harling was so light and felt so fragile, he was afraid he might somewhat break it or drop it if it moved too much. But it was as if the little creature was well aware of his fears and it stayed quiet, never letting his dark eyes off his sire’s.

“Hello, little one,” he said softly. “I’m your father, Kurozuki.”

A discreet cough from behind the screen warned them that they had a visitor. Kei stepped in and bowed with reverence. The harling writhed in his sire’s arms to watch the newcomer and squealed in alarm.

“Don’t be so ceremonious,” Akio said with a wide smile to their friend. “Tell us how it was for Suzu and Kel.”

The younger Tenki smiled back and told them about the same story they had just lived through. Kurozuki listened absent-mindedly, absorbed by the contemplation of his son. Suzu’s pearl only had hatched. Kel’s was due for a few more hours or maybe a day. When Kei had left them, they were arguing about their first son’s name.

“Kel thought the name was pretentious, but Suzu insisted it was the only possible name,” he said with a chuckle. “Personally, I think it has a very nice ring to it.”

“Well, you’re of the water after all,” Kurozuki said lightly, caressing his son’s head.

His comrade looked at him with surprise.

“Kel will come around eventually,” the shaman added with a shrug. “‘Yuugami’ is a very promising name. I just hope he won’t dislike our harling when he’ll learn we’ll call him ’Honokami’… if you agree with it, of course,” he added hurriedly to Akio.

The healer nodded with a smile. “I doubt they’d answer to any other names.”

***

Kel caught Honokami and Yuugami by the back of their tunics and separated them with a resigned sigh.

“Sweeties, one more fight behind my back and you’ll be confined in your rooms, and you won’t be able to see each other for two weeks! And no Orei sneaking in either to help you communicate, I guarantee it.”

The lower lip of bright-haired Honokami began to quiver and the large ocean blue eyes of Yuugami filled with tears.

If you can’t live apart, why can’t you help going for each other’s throat every time you’re left alone? Kel thought with a hidden sigh.

“And that also applies for you, Sora,” he said aloud with a forced severity. “You’re a bit too happy to arbitrate their fights. Next time I catch you encouraging your brother and Hono to fight, you’ll be confined as well.”

That erased the gleeful expression on the kid’s face. Among the three first harlings of their community, Sora was the most ‘normal’ looking, in that he didn’t harbor any strange color of hair or eyes, but Kel had often wondered what the spirits had in store for their second born.

He usually managed in keeping them quiet by telling them stories. It had begun quite awkwardly because the three harlings were much more quick-witted than any other children he had ever known and they got easily bored. But he learned quickly himself and his last story had won a fair success, dealing with the fight of the four Gods – water, fire, earth and wind – to regain their haunted land through a young mystic. Honokami and Yuugami had been delighted that the fire and water gods had the same names as they, but had been puzzled by the name of ‘Fuushuu’ for the wind god – they argued that ‘the master of the wind’ couldn’t be the same as the wind god. They thought Kel himself was certainly best suited to be a wind god than someone called ‘Fuushuu’! Those harlings!

“You’re no fun!” Honokami cried. “I want Akio!!”

“Yes! Akio is much more fun!” Sora added with force. And he ran outside, followed by his brother and friend.

“By the Aghama! Come back here, you brats!”

He froze when he felt a tingle course on his skin. The harlings had stopped abruptly on the stepping stone of the threshold. A whining heralded a foreign presence.

“’Aghama’ you said? I hope I didn’t make you wait too much.”

A tall figure appeared, slender and strong at the same time, red hair flowing out of his mantel. The powerful aura made you want to fall to your knees. Impulsively Kel ran to hug him.

“Thiede! I never thought I’d see you again!” he cried.

The newcomer laughed softly and held him in a fierce embrace.

“It’s good to see you too, Kel.”

They pulled away reluctantly, staring at each other with unashamed curiosity.

“You’ve changed so much,” Kel said with wonder. “You look… god-like.”

“From what I caught along the way, that would almost put me on the same level as you,” Thiede chuckled.

Kel blushed and motioned him inside.

“That’s just lip-service in fact. I helped them through hardships so they’re grateful, that’s all.”

His visitor tsk-ed humorously: “I know many of many leaders who’d dream of such a ‘lip-service’, believe me.”

The harlings followed them in an awed silence. Thiede winked at them and they froze in terror.

“Those two are my sons,” Kel introduced them to his friend with a wide grin. “I hosted Sora, and this is Yuugami, who was hosted by my chesnari, Suzu. Unfortunately, he’s gone to another village for a visit along with Honokami’s parents.”

“Well, I’ll have time to meet them later. And this way, we have time together to chat. So much happened…”

“It certainly looks like it! I’ve never thought you’d be fond of silk and embroideries!” Kel said with a laugh as he served tea. “And I never thought you’d get rid of your tattoos!”

“Well, I kept some of them,” Thiede said with a wink, “but we have young ears with us so I shouldn’t mention exactly where.”

They both burst out laughing.

“It’s been so long since I laughed so much,” Thiede said with a sigh. “I’ve been so engrossed in my studies, I’m glad I received this report about your situation and decided to pay you a visit. I’ve met other old friends along the way, but conversations between researchers aren’t that funny.”

“Well, I’m honored you came all the way from the other side of the globe.”

“Actually, I moved a few years ago,” and Kel felt his companion close himself. “I left the Uigenna. I felt I was passing by important things and I needed time and space to find them out.”

“And have you found?” Kel asked softly.

“Not yet. But I’m progressing. My… ‘horse’ will certainly astound you. It certainly astounds me enough!”

He sighed again and looked out through the window at the pale blossoms of the cherry tree some distance away. Then he turned to the harlings, sitting in silence, their eyes riveted to their visitor.

“So many harlings… it gives me hope for our future.”

The three friends squirmed under his steady gaze and that made Kel laugh, breaking the moody atmosphere.

“Well we’ve been pretty fertile in our small isolated island. But I guess that’s because we’ve had help.”

“Help? That sounds interesting,” Thiede said with a broad grin. “Please go on. You’ve picked up my curiosity.”

“Well, that’s a long story… what if I start by telling you about the miraculous properties of our hot pools?…”

The cherry tree danced in the gentle breeze and petals filled the air, falling to the ground in lazy spirals.

The End

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