Story Concept by Brian Dumlao
Written by Christi Smith Hayden
Previously on... :
Broadway: (frowning) "Are you still jealous of Angela and me? I thought you were over that."
Brooklyn: "Maybe just a little. I'm fine with it, really. Somewhere there's a mate for me, I just haven't found her yet."
Brooklyn: "In my clan, we had only one female and she chose my rookery brother, Broadway. Lexington and I were going to have to go outside the clan for mates." (half-hearted laugh) "Of course, I've gone WAY outside the clan now, thanks to the Phoenix Gate."
Sata: "Perhaps there is a purpose to its madness. Perhaps it is karma, fate that has brought us to travel together."
-- "Fleeting Encounters"
Brooklyn: "If anything happens to me, I want you to take the Phoenix Gate. It will get you home, even if I can't."
Sata: "Hush. Do not talk such foolishness. You made a promise to me, to take me back to Ishimura yourself. I intend to hold you to your word, Brooklyn-san."
* * * * *
The Arabian Peninsula -- 14th Century.
Radiant in the incandescent glow of the moonlight, the alabaster dome of the mosque shone like a beacon under the desert sky, welcoming travelers from afar. To the weary, wayward souls traveling the dusty road from Fez Jedid, the oasis at the halfway point appeared to be a gift sent from above, a safe haven to rest before moving on... but looks could be deceiving.
The members of the small caravan, a trader and his family, shrank back in terror as the band of bandits swarmed out of the nearby dunes, having hidden beneath sand-colored blankets. The women clutched their children to them and retreated to hide amongst the pack animals. The men drew what weapons they had but they were clearly outmatched by the shining scimitars of their attackers.
The bandits swept through the caravan, great curved blades striking away the staffs of the merchant and his men. They pulled the women and children weeping from their hiding places and threw them face first into the sand.
"Come, Merinid scum," a swarthy man in a soiled white turban called. "Show us the color of your money!"
"Oh, please!" a voice from on high answered. "Is that the best you can do?"
Both predator and prey looked up to see a winged demon descending from the stars, skin red as blood and hair white as cotton. It landed and glared down its beak at them with white-hot burning eyes.
"By Allah's beard!" the thief with the dirty turban exclaimed. "It's a devil of the desert."
The creature snorted. "All I wanted was to go into town and have a little couscous but no, you guys had to start a fight." His tail slashed through the air. "Just turn around and leave and nobody will get hurt."
"Hasim!" hissed one of the bandits to the leader with the dirty turban. "It is a demon! Can you kill a demon?"
"It is only one," Hasim answered. He narrowed his eyes at the creature before him. "Let's find out." He gave the word to attack and the bandits rushed forward.
A high-pitched shriek came out of the night and a second creature swooped down. This one was jade green, cool and polished, with the face and body of an angel. She whipped out two elegantly-curved blades of differing lengths and displayed them with the flair of an expert. Steel rang against steel as scimitar met katana in the pale moonlight.
Her companion wasted no time entering the battle. He concentrated on disabling his opponents using any means possible, whether by wings or tail. A lesser thief got in a lucky hit, smashing the red beast across the shoulders with a wooden staff. With a terrifying roar, the creature turned on him, jerking the weapon from his hands and throwing the unfortunate man across the dunes.
"Brooklyn-san?" the jade green demon asked as she parried with the bandit leader. "Are you all right?"
"I'm just peachy, Sata," Brooklyn grunted, grabbing two bandits and bashing their heads together. "You done dancing with that guy yet?"
"I believe so. This style of fighting is too simple to be much of a challenge."
Dirty Turban paused in his swordplay to stare at Sata. She merely smiled and sent the scimitar flying from his hand with an intricate flickering of her katana. A heel strike to his gut followed by punch to the jaw finished the fight.
Sata hefted the scimitar and tested it with a few experimental swings. "Poorly balanced," she said finally, "but it seems to hold an edge well enough."
With their leader lying at Sata's feet, the remainder of the bandits fled. Brooklyn watched the last of them disappearing into the dunes. Brooklyn picked up a loosely-woven cotton scarf left behind, and gave it to Sata. The interwoven blue and green pattern looked good against her coloring. "For you, my love," Brooklyn said grandly, bowing with a flourish.
Sata smiled and bowed her head. "Thank you, Brooklyn-san." She draped it over her shoulder, which neatly concealed her torn sleeve and tucked the ends into her obi. "A beautiful yet practical gift."
Brooklyn glanced over at the caravan. The trader and his family had retreated back into the oasis, looking at the two gargoyles fearfully. He frowned at them and muttered, "Yeah, you're very welcome."
Catching his disappointed expression, Sata reached out and stroked his beak. "Perhaps we should venture on to the city," she suggested, tilting her head to the cluster of buildings in the distance. "It would be nice to not have to catch our dinner."
"Yeah, you're right." Brooklyn grinned and slid an arm around her waist. "Come with me to the Casbah!"
The corners of Sata's mouth turned up and her eyes twinkled. "This is your odd sense of humor again, isn't it?"
Brooklyn wiggled his eyebrows in preparation to say something clever but as he opened his mouth, his expression changed. "Uh, oh."
"Here we go again," Sata finished. She stepped closer and placed her hands against his chest.
"Sata-chan!" Brooklyn said cheerfully. "That was almost a joke!"
"I know." She raised an eyebrow and smiled.
When the trader's caravan reached Tlemcen a few hours later, they told a wild tale that was repeated in the market place for days. It was a story worthy of Scheherezade, all about two wondrous travelers - the green-skinned houris who danced with two swords made of silver moonbeams and her consort, a mighty djinn made of fire and ice, who were whisked away in a twinkling by a mighty bird with wings of flame.
* * * * *
Tohoku Province, island of Honshu, Japan - 16th Century.
Crickets chirped in the cool, green shadows of the forest floor. Gentle breezes rang the chimes of the small temples scattered along the mountainside. Nightbirds rose from their roosts in a flurry of wings when a pinpoint of light suddenly blossomed into a brilliant globe of light, orange flames dancing over its surface. As quickly as it arrived, the strange phenomena departed, leaving two gargoyles behind.
"Mmm...," Brooklyn said, taking a deep breath. "This is an improvement over the desert. I wonder where we are this time?"
"I'm not certain," Sata said as she plucked a pink blossom off a low, flowering shrub, "but there is something familiar here." She sniffed the air. "There is just a hint of the ocean on the breeze. We must be near a coast."
"Well, I like the sound of a romantic walk on the beach," Brooklyn said, taking her hand. "How about you?"
Sata simply smiled and wrapped her arm around his. Pine needles crunched beneath their feet as they made their way out of the forest, emerging from the trees onto a sloping grassland. Far below, on the rim of crescent-shaped bay, the lights of a village glowed a warm welcome to the travelers. Sata caught her breath and her grip tightened on Brooklyn's arm.
He frowned. "What is it?"
"Oh, Brooklyn-san, I think...." Sata abruptly let go of him and took several steps away, turning and looking around, an excited smile coming over her normally serene expression. "Yes! Look there!" She pointed at a conical peak several miles away. "That's Mt. Zao where we would go for swims in the crater lake. And there, farther up the mountain, the temple of Yamadera -" Sata looked back at him, starlight dancing in her eyes, "Brooklyn-san, you did it! You brought me back home! This is Ishimura!!" She threw her arms around him and hugged him tight.
Brooklyn swallowed the uncomfortable lump in his throat and put his arms around her. "I don't want to rain on your parade or anything, Sata-chan," he began awkwardly, "but we may not even be in the same time as your clan."
She stiffened in his arms for a few seconds before pulling away. "Then we should go down to the village," Sata said resolutely, "and find out."
>From the air, the village did look very familiar. The houses were constructed in the Japanese style, stone foundations with elegant wood framework. Upon the top of a small hill overlooking the bay, a large building more impressive than the others stood sentinel over the town.
"That is Sendai castle," Sata said firmly. She canted into the wind and glided past it. "Look there, near the village temple!"
A group of young men were going through a series of katas. Their instructor was a blue gargoyle with a long sail-like fin running from his brow ridges to the nape of his neck and a similar fin on the end of his tail. Some other gargoyles were gathered nearby, some engaged in domestic duties, some instructing hatchlings, and others pairing off in sparring matches under the supervision of a bronze gargoyle with a split tail.
Sata and Brooklyn landed near the training class. The students were startled and several of them dropped into a defensive stance, as did their teacher. He narrowed his eyes under fin-like brow ridges and called out, "Hold, class! Strangers, who are you?"
"Mako!" Sata called out as she stepped forward. "My rookery brother, do you not recognize me?"
A smile split his broad face, revealing a mouthful of sharp, dagger-like teeth. "Sata? Sister, is it truly you?" He looked back over his shoulder. "Yoshi! Jun! Everyone, come and see! Sata has returned!"
Brooklyn hung back and let Sata enjoy her reunion with her clan. One after another, the members of the Ishimura clan welcomed their wayward wanderer home. Yoshi, the clan leader, waded into the crowd. The bronze gargoyle with the curved pronged horns like a samurai's helmet wore a stark white kimono with simple crimson embroideries that contrasted vividly with his dark coloring. A space cleared out as he and Sata bowed to each other.
"Yoshi-sama," Sata said formally. "At long last, I have returned. I ask your forgiveness for my absence."
"All is forgiven, Sata-san," Yoshi replied. "Your safe return is a blessing to us all." He swept a massive hand to the building behind them. "Come, you and Brooklyn-san must refresh yourselves and tell us all that has happened in the five years since you left us."
"Yes, there is so much for us to catch up on," said a coral-colored female at Brooklyn's elbow. Her dark hair was piled up elaborately and held in place with two lacquered combs and her kimono was sky blue and decorated with fanciful birds. "Midori, Kiku, bring refreshments to the Great Hall and Sata, you must let me lend you some of my garments. I can see from here how badly your tunic needs mending."
"Ah, ~domo~, Jun-chan," Sata said with a slight bow, "Yes, I would be grateful for that." She turned to Brooklyn. "I'll only be a moment."
He smiled in return. "Sure, take your time, Sata."
The smile faded as Brooklyn watched Sata walking away surrounded by several females and hatchlings, all babbling away in Japanese. As they turned the corner, he caught sight of Sata's face, all lit up with excitement and his heart fell.
"Brooklyn-san!" A massive hand clapped on his shoulder and the time-dancing gargoyle looked up into Yoshi's good-natured face. "Come! We will have some sake while the females tend to Sata's wardrobe."
Brooklyn cast one last look in Sata's direction and let the Ishimura leader guide him inside the low-walled building that served as the clan's domicile.
* * * * *
Sata sighed blissfully as she sat on the low stool in the bath house and her rookery sisters washed her hair with jasmine-scented shampoo. Jun clucked over the state of her clothing.
"In all honesty, Sata, your tunic is ruined. I could have replaced the sleeve but what are these faded stains?"
"Blood," Sata answered. One of the older hatchlings brought a fresh bucket of water to rinse her hair. Cleansed of soap, the jade green gargoyle stepped into the large communal bath fed by the nearby hot springs. "Ancestors, this feels marvelous."
"Blood?" Jun repeated. "Whose blood?"
"Not mine to be sure," Sata replied. She lifted her hair over the edge of the tub so one of her sisters could comb it. "It could that of pirates or soldiers but it's most likely to be Brooklyn's." She smiled.
Jun raised an two-pronged eyebrow ridge. "You took your sword to him?"
Sata laughed. "I wanted to at first," she said, not opening her eyes, "he was so irreverent about our situation. I was terribly angry at being snatched away from battle like that."
"I trust you kept your head then."
"Just barely," Sata said with a stifled yawn, "although it was a near thing. Our journeys have taken us to many places and I have learned many things." She smiled. "Wonderful things."
"Oh-ho!" The coral gargoyle carried a towel over to the tub's edge. "I wondered if you would, especially when the mating season came and went in your absence." She lowered her eyes and flicked an invisible speck of lint from the towel. "I hope you will not be angry," Jun said carefully, "but Yoshi and I chose to be mates."
Sata blinked and sat up, casting deep ripples in the water. "How splendid for you, Jun-chan! Congratulations!"
"You are not upset?" Jun asked anxiously. "I know Yoshi fancied you for a mate. When you vanished, he chose me as his new second. He had to show me everything and, well," she smiled, "we grew to love each other."
"I cannot think of any two gargoyles better suited to be mates." Sata stepped out of the tub into the waiting towel. She clasped Jun on the shoulder. "I am truly happy for you, sister. I would have made Yoshi a poor mate."
"Perhaps," Jun agreed. "Still, you will make someone an admirable mate." She clapped her hands and two younger females came forward, folded garments in their arms. "And I will see that you are properly dressed for the occasion."
Sata smiled back and let the towel drop to the floor.
* * * * *
"....And after the pirates, we spent three months in India," Brooklyn said. "We found an abandoned tea plantation and stayed there undisturbed for a long time. Sata really liked it there."
Yoshi laughed and held out his sake cup for Mako to fill. "I can only imagine that she did. Our Sata spent as much time studying the tea ceremony as she did her iaijutsu, the art of the sword."
"It certainly surprised me," Brooklyn said, "almost as much as the first time she cooked for us."
"Yes," Mako agreed. "I remember how Sata, in her younger days, used to hang about the kitchen and watch the cooks at work. You have been a fortunate male, Brooklyn-san, to have had our clan sister all to yourself." He raised the delicate porcelain cup in his talons. "Banzai!" He and the other Ishimura males downed their sake.
Brooklyn sipped his sake more cautiously. He wasn't accustomed to drinking the strong, hot wine but it would have been considered impolite and extremely bad manners to refuse. "Sata's brought me good luck all right," he agreed.
"The best kind of luck," Yoshi said jovially. "A warrior of great skill and great beauty is a rare treasure." He looked past Brooklyn and smiled. "Ah, Jun-chan! We were wondering when you and Sata would finish your preparations and join us."
"My apologies, Yoshi-san," Jun said as she sank gracefully down onto the cushions at the bronze leader's side. "I believe the results were well worth the wait."
A whiff of jasmine preceded the rustle of silk at his side and Brooklyn's beak gaped open as Sata sat down besides him. She was garbed in a kimono of peacock blue with intricate flying birds embroidered in gold thread. Her dark hair was twisted up in a loose knot held with two chopsticks. Sata regarded him with barely hidden amusement before gently shutting his beak with her index finger.
"Have you told them of all that we have seen since we left Ishimura?" Sata asked sweetly.
Brooklyn swallowed. "Almost. I had just gotten up to India."
"Yes, I did like India. You were finally starting to speak Japanese properly." She laughed and glanced across the table at Jun. "Remember how awkward we thought it was learning English from the Jesuit priest in the village? It took me almost a year to get Brooklyn-san to speak with a civilized tongue."
Mako narrowed his eyes. "Why teach him Japanese at all? Brooklyn-san speaks it very well."
"It was something to do to pass the time," Brooklyn said with a shrug. He had long since stopped explaining the little peculiarities of the Phoenix Gate to everyone he met on his travels. One of the stranger things was that a few weeks after coming under its influence, it stopped translating for Sata, and out of necessity, they had decided to learn each other's language. "Anyway, after India, we went many places. The last place was a great desert. We spent weeks traveling from oasis to oasis until we found signs of civilization."
Sata rolled her eyes. "I never want to look at another lizard again."
"I don't know," Brooklyn countered. "I thought they tasted like chicken."
The jade green female smacked lightly him with her tail as she focused her attention on her clan leader and his mate. "And how has Ishimura fared in my absence, Yoshi-sama? I must congratulate you on picking Jun as your new second. She is an excellent choice."
Yoshi reached out and patted Jun's hand. "My mate is indeed a wise second-in-command but no one could better your skill with a sword. We have been fortunate to have had peace these past five years." His eyes flicked around the room. "You've picked an auspicious time to return, Sata. As you know, our temple is one of the oldest on the island of Honshu. There has been some unrest in Edo and the head priest there has decided to send their most valued treasures here for safekeeping."
"What kind of treasure?" Brooklyn asked. "Sacred writings, scrolls and things like that?"
"Yes, Brooklyn-san," Jun answered, "but also a rare golden Buddha which is over seven hundred years old. The temple shipment should be arriving very soon and we are honored to have the keeping of it."
"Only the village headsman, the temple priest and I know the route it is taking," Yoshi said firmly. "We are taking all the precautions we can to see that the Buddha arrives to its new home safely."
"What of Ganryu?" Sata asked. "What happened to him?"
"Now that is a tale you must hear," Yoshi said. "After we banished Ganryu, he and his Tengu warriors made an alliance with a band of ronin, masterless samurai selling their services to the highest bidder. Rumor has it that Ganryu quarreled with the leader of the mercenaries over some trivial matter. He thought the argument had been resolved but after the sun rose, the mercenary smashed Ganryu in his stone sleep."
"Do you have proof of this?" Sata asked, frowning.
"The bandits have given us no trouble in all this time," Jun answered. "If Ganryu was alive, his honor would demand facing Yoshi in battle again."
"I don't know..." Sata began but Yoshi cut her off.
"Sister, you worry too much! Let's feast and celebrate your return to the clan before the moon sets."
The impromptu party lasted until the early morning hours when the members of the Ishimura clan made their way onto the broad walls surrounding the temple. Sata was leaning against Brooklyn's arm and laughing. He gazed back at her owlishly.
"Have I told you how beautiful you look tonight?" he asked wistfully.
"Only with every other breath, Brooklyn-san," Sata answered wryly. "I do not mind."
Brooklyn grinned and started to speak but Yoshi's voice boomed across the courtyard. "Sata-san! It's good to have you home again to greet the day with us once more!"
"It is good to be back!" Sata called. "Domo arigato, Yoshi-sama!"
Turning away from the sun like the others, Brooklyn felt his heart sink. After months of hearing Sata speak of her clan, he knew how deeply she had missed them. It was only a matter of time before the Phoenix Gate would whisk him away again. He didn't dare take this away from Sata again, the home and the clan that was dearest to her heart. His features froze into a melancholy mask with the break of day.
* * * * *
Far down the coast from Ishimura, sentries stood guard at a deserted temple atop an oceanside cliff. Their sharp eyes watched as the fishing fleet left Ishimura-wan in the early morning light, fishing with colorful nets as did their ancestors did before them. The sounds of running feet drew their attention and the sentries thumbed their swords loose for fast release.
The runner held up a hand and panted, "Hold! I bring a message for Supaiku-sama!"
The sentries exchanged a quick look and let the man pass. He crossed into the inner sanctum of the temple. Rags of forgotten curtains floated in the slight breeze of his passing like drifting ghosts. Hideous stone statues of demons ringed the raised platform where a rough-featured man in a purple and black striped kimono sat, cleaning a katana blade. The warrior took a oiled square of cloth and wiped off the polished metal before turning his attention to the waiting messenger kowtowing before him.
"You may speak."
"Thank you, my lord." The messenger sat back on his heels. "The shogun's convoy took ship at Nihongo-wan and the treasure will be transferred over to the Ishimura fleet at some unknown point at sea."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, Supaiku-sama! The head fisherman himself is to bring the Golden Buddha on his boat. There is to be a ceremony to purify the temple and then a feast to celebrate immediately after. The men of the village will be too drunk on sake to put up a decent fight."
"Good." Supaiku looked at the stone figures standing in the shadows around him. "Our allies will take care of the temple guardians and we can be in and out of the village with the loot before anyone is the wiser." He smiled slowly and picked up the oval honing stone. "It is good karma when a plan comes together."
The abandoned temple was filled with the deadly whispers of a sword being sharpened.
* * * * *
The evening sky was streaked with deep purple and vermilion as the Ishimura clan greeted the newborn night with mighty roars. Sata stretched out her arms, the long sleeves of the peacock blue kimono fluttering in the breeze, and her face infused with joy. Brooklyn was both transfixed and heartbroken at her beauty.
Sata caught a glimpse of his expression and her smile faded. "What is it, Brooklyn-san?
Before he could answer, Jun called up from the courtyard below. "Sata-chan! Tai-tai has your clothes all ready for you. Come down and try them on!"
"Go on, Sata," Brooklyn said. He forced a small smile on his face. "It's okay, really. I'm fine."
Sata frowned. "No, you are not. Something is troubling you." She glanced down at her rookery sister waiting for her. "I'll only be a few moments, Brooklyn-san. Please wait for me and we will talk."
Brooklyn watched her leap down into the courtyard. Jun glanced up several times while Sata spoke to her and then both females disappeared into the building. His face sank back into the unhappy frown that he truly felt. Ever since it had become clear that they had returned to Sata's beloved Ishimura, a cold icy feeling had seized his heart. It was only a matter of time before the Phoenix Gate whisked him away that it had done before - with Pandora, with Meryt, with anyone for whom he had begun to feel any kind of affection.
He took the magical talisman out of his pouch and scowled at it. "What is it with you anyway?" Brooklyn asked bitterly. "So jealous that you can't let me have any happiness at all?"
The last few weeks with Sata in the desert had been some of the happiest he had known. It had been hard too; scrounging for food, going hungry more often than he cared to remember, flying for miles and seeing nothing but sand - yet with Sata at his side, all that remained were the good times. They'd spent hours talking and learning about each other. Brooklyn smiled. He'd never guessed how deeply passionate Sata was beneath her disciplined warrior's facade.
The temple bells rang out and Brooklyn watched as dozens of people began to stream out of the main shrine. Clusters of orange-robed priests mingled with the crowd and everyone seemed rather pleased about something. He sighed and turned away, staring moodily at the darkened sea.
* * * * *
"Those are the temple bells."
Standing on a high ridge, concealed by the spreading branches of a Zelkova tree, Supaiku looked at his associate sharply. "Are you certain?"
The tall dark gray gargoyle at his side nodded, his slanted eyes narrowed to mere slits. "I've listened to those bells most of my life. That is the pattern they play at the end of a ceremony. The festivities in the village should start momentarily."
"How long do you think?"
"Hmmm," the gargoyle paused and sniffed, "the fish stew has been cooking for hours and I can see the barrels of rice wine stacked outside the village headman's house. In a half hour, everyone will be on their third cup of sake and singing very badly. Time your attack for then and my warriors and I will take care of the temple guardians."
The bandit chief nodded. "Sounds good." He turned back to the warriors hidden in the forest shadows. "Come, men. We move now to take the golden Buddha."
One of the Tengu warriors stepped forward, a sooty black gargoyle with a bird-like beak and feathered wings. The gray gargoyle glanced at him and nodded for him to speak. "My lord, a party of a dozen warriors has left the compound, headed for the mountains. Another group appears to be gathering in the temple courtyard."
"Mmm, my brother's stepped up his patrols. Good strategy for ordinary enemies but he's dividing his forces." He raised one heavy brow ridge and thought a moment. "Takakage, take four warriors and give the mountain patrol something to tend to. Set the old temple on fire, start a rock slide, anything. Keep them busy."
"Will that leave you with enough warriors to breach the temple, my lord? There will be a goodly number of guardians left at the temple."
"Our -" the gray gargoyle cast a scornful look at the bandits moving away from them, "-associates will draw away the rest of the warriors. Any of the clan still at the temple will either be too old or too young to give us any difficulty."
"And when we have the Buddha?"
A cold smile spread across the leader's broad face. "Then we leave the bandits here to face human justice while we fly free. As it should be." His eyes narrowed to glittering black slits.
* * * * *
Sata waited patiently while Jun tied up her flowing sleeves at the wrist. She kept glancing anxiously back out towards the courtyard, jumping at the slightest sound.
"Whatever is the matter, Sata-chan?" Jun asked, tucking the ends of the thin leather strap in with a chopstick. "You seem ready to fly."
"Something is troubling Brooklyn," Sata confided to her sister. "I have to know what's wrong - before it's too late."
Yoshi rapped his knuckles against the doorway. "Konbanwa," he said, politely bowing. "Good evening, ladies. I've just sent Mako out with the early patrol. You have the training session tonight, Jun-chan." He smiled at his mate and then focused his attention to Sata. "Would you and Brooklyn like to join my patrol? We must make sure the temple is properly guarded."
"No, I think not, Yoshi-sama," Sata answered, "but I thank you for the honor. There is something I must attend to first."
"Ah." He exchanged a look with Jun. "Perhaps later then. I must see to the posting of the temple guards." Yoshi gave them another small bow and left, his footsteps muted against the tatami mats in the hallway.
Sata left soon after, bounding across the courtyard and up the thick outer wall. Brooklyn was leaning against the curved ridge of the temple roof, looking at the Phoenix Gate in his hand and muttering. He shook his head, his wispy white hair tossed in the evening breeze and shoved the talisman back into his belt pouch.
He looked up and smiled, but his eyes were sad and distant. "Hey, look at you," he said glibly, "You look as good as new."
Stroking out the material of her familiar dark red short kimono, Sata stepped towards him. "It is not important. The temple servants cleaned my garments and replaced the tunic. That is all." She reached out and stroked his brow ridge with the back of her knuckles. "Now, beloved, shall we talk?"
Brooklyn reached up and took her hand, rubbing his cheek against it as he gazed at her. "Not just yet, Sata-chan. Why don't you show me more of your home?" His fingers tightened around hers.
Inwardly, Sata frowned. This behavior was so unlike Brooklyn that she went from merely concerned to seriously worried. Outwardly, she simply smiled and threaded her fingers through his. "I know just the place."
Leading him away from the activity around the temple, Sata guided Brooklyn to a small secluded area in the adjoining gardens. Glistening white sand was raked in swirling patterns around a number of carefully positioned rocks. An artfully constructed waterfall danced over polished river stones, passing around a large boulder before trickling merrily away into another part of the garden. Sata sank down gracefully onto a waiting cushion and patted the one next to her.
Brooklyn arranged himself on the cushion and looked out at the serene scene just as Sata herself was doing. She watched him carefully out of the corner of her eye. As she had hoped, the peaceful arrangement of the rock garden seemed to calm him. The worry lines in his face began to ease and his tension in his body began to slowly relax.
"This is one of my favorite spots," Sata said in a hushed voice. "The priests call this a Zen garden, where the earth meets the sky. To look upon it is to clear the mind so that one may focus on what is truly important." She pointed to two large rocks. One was almost a small boulder, rugged and weatherworn. The other was smaller and the same color and shape but with smoother edges. A thick, reddish, hemp rope was coiled about them, linking them together. "Do you see those two stones?"
"Yes," Brooklyn answered. He cocked his head as he looked at them. "I suppose there is a story behind them?"
Sata nodded. "They represent yin and yang, the male and female elements that balance the universe. To achieve harmony in life, one must try to balance the yin and yang of one's life."
"And the rope?"
"That is the life force that binds them together and makes them one." Sata turned her head and looked at him through her eyelashes. "It is karma -- it is meant to be." She reached out and touched him. "It is love."
Brooklyn closed his eyes and swallowed hard. "Do you remember," he asked hoarsely, "what you said when we first started traveling together?"
A cold wave of realization swept over Sata. "I vowed that if we ever returned to the clan of my birth, that I would never leave again."
Eyes still closed, Brooklyn continued. "I can't predict the next time that the Phoenix Gate will send me some place else. There's no way of knowing if it would take me back here again. That's why," he drew in a painful breath, "that's why this is probably the last we'll see of each other."
"Yes, Sata!" His look broke her heart. "I love you too much to take away all the things that are precious to you - your clan, the village, all of Ishimura - I can't take this away from you again. I will not break your vow."
Sata lowered her eyes and looked helplessly at her empty hands. He was right; to break her vow was to stain her honor. As samurai and as gargoyle, her word was her bond and she had never broken it.
"It's killing me thinking of going on without you," Brooklyn said softly. "There were other times when I had to leave those I loved behind but even when I left my clan, it never hurt as much as it does right now. We've spent almost a year together, fighting and arguing and getting to know each other. I don't know what I'm going to do without you."
One solitary tear broke Sata's composure and she fought to regain it, focusing on the rock formations in the Zen garden before her. In her youth, the solitary sharp spike of the Warrior had brought her comfort but she found her eyes straying to the Female stone, bound forever to Male, always following. Until she had fallen in love with Brooklyn, she had felt that the Female stone was the lesser of the two but as she watched, the red rope swayed with an errant breeze. It seemed as if Female was anchoring Male, keeping him from being blown away in the wind.
She glanced at Brooklyn. He looked lost and utterly miserable. Without her to anchor him, what would become of the gargoyle she had grown to love?
* * * * *
Mako's fin-like head crest cut through the evening fog bank over the harbor in a manner not unlike that of his aquatic counterpart. He led the seven warriors following him back towards the high cliffs that formed the northern curve of the almost perfect crescent that was Ishimura bay. All the fishing boats were accounted for and all the coves and inlets were clear of any unknown ships.
Drums could be heard from the distant village. The dark green gargoyle on Mako's right laughed. "Sounds like the party's going well," he commented. "They've started in on the drinking songs."
"Not to worry," Mako replied. "Omi-san has promised to save us a barrel of wine and an eight course feast to have on our return."
"Ah! That will make this patrol fly by more swiftly then."
The others began to murmur agreeably amongst themselves at the prospect of a private party, in lieu of the one they were missing. The Ishimura clan were always invited to join in village celebrations and often did; however, since there were some important guests from Edo, it had been decided that it might be wiser for the clan to keep a discreet distance. Over the years, it had been observed that outsiders responded better to a gradual introduction rather than being suddenly faced with a clan of gargoyles. Their time would come.
A dusty, acrid scent filled Mako's nostrils and shook him from his introspective musings. "Does anyone else smell something strange?" he asked.
A slim, lilac-hued female flying on the outer edge of the formation sniffed curiously. "Yes," she answered, "I smell it too, Mako-san. It is too difficult to pinpoint where it's coming from in this fog."
"Is it my imagination," the dark green male asked, "or shouldn't we have flown free of this by now? The fog seems... thicker."
Mako frowned. "Odd..." He beckoned to the web-winged warrior flying on his far right. "Takashi, rise above and tell us what you see." The dark brown gargoyle sailed upwards like a living kite and disappeared into the mists.
"Oh, my head...," moaned the lilac female, wings wavering and causing her to swerve. "There is something about that smell, Mako-san, I don't know..." She suddenly went limp and began to fall. The gargoyle flying nearest her quickly dove beneath her to make a neat catch.
"Everyone! Head for the cliffs!" Mako commanded. "Quickly before anyone else faints!"
Swiftly, the eight gargoyles swept down to the rugged cliffs ringing Ishimura Bay. Takashi, the web-winged gargoyle landed last and scurried on all fours to the lilac-colored female. "Mika! Mika-chan!" he said as he took her from her rescuer. He watched her face closely as she began to stir. "What happened?"
"We do not know," Mako answered curtly. "Did you see anything?"
Takashi tore his eyes reluctantly from his mate. "There is a column of smoke rising from the old monastery, probably some traveler taking shelter for the night." He thought for a moment. "The smoke was a strange color. I stayed well away from it."
Glancing around at his warriors, Mako made a quick decision. He glanced at the other female in his group. "Kiku, stay here with Mika until she is ready to travel. The rest of us will go investigate this strange smoke."
* * * * *
"They're coming," the lookout reported. "Only six of them. The poison smoke has thinned their numbers."
"Good," said the sooty black gargoyle leading the small party of Tengu warriors. "Have the traps been set?"
"Yes," another warrior interjected. "The main supports have been weakened and the trip wires are in place. One misstep and the whole temple will collapse on them."
Takakage nodded and smiled grimly. "Then let us rejoin the others. These gargoyles will think it's the collapse of an old building and nothing more. By the time they dig themselves out, we'll be miles from Ishimura and this distasteful business with the Golden Buddha will be over."
One of the females spoke up. "I do not like this, Takekage-san. We should have never returned to Ishimura."
The sooty black gargoyle frowned. "I do not like fighting other gargoyles either, but Ganryu has an old score to settle here. When it has been settled, we can return to our old lives again."
"What of the ronin Supaiku and his bandits? Won't they be upset when they return here and find their hideaway in ruins?"
"Those honorless mercenaries? If Ganryu-sama hadn't decided them to be useful scapegoats in this little venture, we would have parted company long ago." Takakage laughed harshly. "No, let them fend for themselves. They'll survive without us when we return to our home in the mountains."
"They're at the edge of the clearing," the lookout hissed.
"Tengu!" Takakage hissed. "We go!"
Like shadows, the renegade gargoyles drifted away from the deserted temple. They paused under the cover of the thick forest canopy to watch as the blue gargoyle with the head fin led his warriors into the booby-trapped structure. Within seconds, hidden trip wires pulled the last few remaining supports free and the roof caved in in a thundering rush of dust, tiles and flying timbers.
With a satisfied nod, the sooty black Tengu beckoned to his comrades and soared down the mountain.
* * * * *
The central marketplace of the village was strung with paper lanterns and banners of colored silk. The fisherfolk and the merchants, the artisans and the priests, most of the residents of Ishimura were laughing and singing, making this an occasion to remember. The village drummer had brought some of his smaller drums and was beating out the rhythm of a traditional festival song. The deep voices of the men boomed along to the drumbeats, inviting hands not occupied with food and drink to clap along.
The older children were engaged in a circle dance under the watchful eye of some of the old aunties but already many of the younger ones were being taken away to their beds by their mothers. Their lanterns dispelled the shadows of the narrow streets as they wielded their way home but their glowing light did not reveal the danger lurking nearby.
Dark eyes glittering, Supaiku, the leader of the ronin bandits, grunted approvingly. "Good," he said to the warrior standing besides him. "The noncombatants are leaving the field."
"Would it not be wiser to keep all of the villagers in one place?"
Supaiku scowled, his dark eyebrows coming together in one thick black line across his forehead. "I may walk the world as a displaced samurai, a ronin," he said with quiet conviction, "but I will not butcher women and children. It is not conduct befitting a warrior." His tone of voice brooked no argument.
"The others are in position, Supaiku-sama."
"Good." The ronin chief edged into the street. "Give the signal."
One of the older women had been persuaded to sing and was on the third verse of a humorous kabuki song with strange warriors swarmed into the square. The remaining women snatched up the children and took shelter while those men still sober enough to stand took up whatever weapons were handy and began to defend themselves. Keeping his head, the village drummer switched to his biggest, deepest-sounding drums and began to pound out the alarm.
* * * * *
The bronze leader of the Ishimura clan came to the door of the vaulted room that served as their rookery. He bowed respectfully to the old couple who served as their rookery keepers by day. Omi-san's family had served the clan for generations with honor and the gargoyles had always regarded them as an extension of their own clan. Jun and one of the younger females were inside, turning the eggs.
"Has the guard been set, Yoshi-san?" Jun asked pleasantly as she rose gracefully to face her mate.
He nodded. "Old Sempei is overseeing the defense of the compound. I will take some of the younger warriors with me to patrol the village. The celebrations will be getting festive soon."
Jun smiled. "You mean the wine barrels will be getting low."
"Yes, and the headman has asked that we try to keep the disorderliness down to a minimum." He gave one last wistful glance into the rookery. "And how are the eggs tonight?"
"The eggs are fine," Jun answered, "Do not worry. It will be many years until they hatch." She tied her black hair out of her eyes with a printed headband. "Tonight, I will concern myself with the current brood of hatchlings."
"They are shaping up well," Yoshi commented as they walked outside. A few of the young gargoyles were already out in the central courtyard, pairing off for their workout katas. "Mako says the ones who have had you for their early training are quicker to pick up the more advanced skills."
"Perhaps. I have Sata to thank for that, all those years I helped her teach the young warriors." The coral gargoyle looked around pensively. "Did you see where Sata and Brooklyn have gone?"
Yoshi frowned. "Surely they have not disappeared again?"
"It is not that, beloved," Jun answered. She shook her head and sighed. "I am afraid our sister has set her heart on Brooklyn and his karma may be too great for either one of them to bear."
"If there is one thing I am certain of, Jun-chan," Yoshi said as he brushed her brow ridges with his knuckles, "it is that no burden is too great when two share it."
His mate simply smiled and rubbed her head against his hand. "Yes, that is very true, my love. Your words have great wisdom."
Yoshi laughed and swept her into a winged embrace. "I am only as wise as you would have me be, Jun-chan."
"Forgive me, Yoshi-sama," came a voice from above. The Ishimura clan leader looked up to the cadre of warriors on the eastward wall. A pale gray female with snow-white hair pulled up into a feathery pony tail was glancing back between Yoshi and some undefined point in the distance.
"Yes, Yuki-chan? What is it?"
Yuki frowned. "Something is not right in the village. The singing has stopped."
Yoshi released Jun and leaped up the wall. As his feet touched the bricks, a deep roll of drum beats sounded and his whole body became alert. "We are summoned!" He glanced down. "Jun-san! We go to aid the village. Be on your guard here!" The bronze gargoyle spread his wings and soared towards the village with the other warriors in his wake.
* * * * *
All across the valley, drums rolled like thunder and gongs and bells rang out in a brassy clatter. Sata jumped to her feet, head turning to gauge the direction of the sound.
"What is it?" Brooklyn asked as he stood up.
"Intruder alarm," Sata answered. "Mako and Yoshi are out on patrol. We must make sure the temple is secure."
They both dropped to all fours and hurried back inside the compound.
* * * * *
"Midori!" Jun shouted across the courtyard at a dark-haired red female as she shooed a group of youngsters before her, "Take the hatchlings into the rookery. Tai-tai and Omi-san, go with her. Hurry!" The coral gargoyle had discarded the elaborate robes of the previous evening and was wearing a simple white tunic like her mate, her hair tied back with a chrysanthemum-printed headband. She passed out weapons to some of the adolescent gargoyles and elders guarding the temple.
"Sister!" Sata called as she and Brooklyn approached. "What has happened?"
"I am not sure," Jun said quickly. "There was a disturbance in the village and Yoshi went to investigate. Mako's patrol is still out but I sent an elder and two young warriors after him."
"Yoshi should have not left you so short-handed," Sata said disapprovingly. "The temple is too vulnerable right now."
"Indeed," came a deep voice from above. "Wiser words were never said."
A dark gray gargoyle swooped down to perch on the wall nearest the temple, followed by several others in warrior's garb. Their leader, Brooklyn noted, had Broadway's massive girth and Goliath's towering height. His kimono was yellow and black and he had yellow linen wrapped around his hands and feet.
"Ganryu," Sata growled, her eyes burning red.
"Mister Bad News himself," Brooklyn agreed and moved to back her up.
Ganryu drew his tachi, a two-handed sword much longer than a katana. "My warriors and I have come to collect our prize."
"There is nothing here that you may call yours," Jun called defiantly. "You dishonored the clan of your birth!"
"Foolish female," Ganryu said mockingly as he jumped down into the courtyard. "There are no warriors here with the skill to face me - or the courage."
"Not so, thief." Sata drew both her katana and her wakizashi with a silken hiss, weaving them in an intricate, deadly pattern before her. "You will find me a most formidable opponent."
The ronin gargoyle narrowed his eyes to slits. "You must be a ghost," he said slowly as he began to circle her. "I killed you."
"You did a poor job of it," Sata commented. "For I am no ghost."
"You soon will be," Ganryu said confidently, a cold smile on his face. "Tengu! Take the Buddha!" He kept his eyes on his opponent and likewise, she on him.
"Ishimura Clan!" Jun shouted, snatching up a bo staff. "Defend the Temple!"
Within seconds, the outlaws of the Tengu clan were in the compound. Brooklyn went to the aid of one of the temple attendants, an old man with a staff, trying to fend off a tusked gargoyle twice his size. Brooklyn broadsided the Tengu warrior and knocked him into a rack of temple bells with a crash. The time-traveling gargoyle picked up a loose bronze bell and bashed him in the head for good measure. Then he looked up to check on the fight.
Jun was holding her own, backed up with two adolescent gargoyles. The delicate coral gargoyle used both tail and bo staff to extend her reach, leaping into battle and striking several opponents at once. A pair of Tengu got past the defenders and started into the temple. The slim red female in charge of the hatchlings re-appeared with the clan's beast, a short-legged sinuous creature with iridescent scales, looking very much like a small dragon.
"Oki!" Midori shouted. "Keep them away from the rookery!"
The beast's eyes lit up and roared, digging its talons into the ground as it leapt at the rebel gargoyles. One of the Tengu whipped out a three-sectional staff - a deadly weapon composed of three lengths of hard wood connected by chain - and attempted to wield off the ferocious guardian. He found himself suddenly being shook like a dog with a rag, back and forth, from his weapon clenched in Oki's powerful jaws. Three adolescent gargoyles overpowered his partner while Midori darted in and snatched away his weapon.
The clashing of steel against steel brought Brooklyn's attention back to Sata and Ganryu. The larger dark gray male had strength and reach on Sata, but she used a double sword technique, katana blocking the two-handed tachi long sword defensively while the shorter wakizashi slashed at mid-section and forearms. Moving to a rhythm that only she could hear, Sata wove an intricate and deadly dance with her swords. Already Ganryu bore several razor-thin slices here and there, ribbons of red soaking through his yellow kimono.
"You've slowed down," Sata commented. "You move like a fat, lazy toad, Ganryu."
Her opponent growled but his narrow eyes flicked skyward. Brooklyn caught the eye moment and looked up. Five more Tengu warriors soared in, their sooty black leader barely visible against the night sky.
"Takakage!" Ganryu snapped out. "There! In the temple! Take our prize!"
The black beaked gargoyle nodded, and turning in mid-air as one, he and his warriors sailed directly onto the steps of the temple, barreling over the humans and gargoyles that were there to defend it. Jun managed to get it a few good blows before she was overpowered and thrown into a pillar.
"Jun!" Sata cried. Ganryu took advantage of her momentary distraction to strike away her short wakizashi with slap of his tail. Sata snarled and switched to a two-handed grip. "Brooklyn! You must stop them! The Tengu cannot take the Buddha! The honor of Ishimura is at stake."
"There is no honor here," Ganryu sneered, "as long as I am denied my rightful place as clan leader."
Eyes blazing scarlet fire, Sata leapt at him with an eagle's defiant shriek, pressing her attack.
Brooklyn forced himself away from their fight and rushed into the temple. Hanging oil lamps lit the narrow dim room but there was more than enough light to see the scenario unfolding before him. The high priest stood resolutely in front of the shrine with his acolytes, shielding the golden statue behind them with their bodies as the Tengu approached.
"Do not interfere, priest," Takakage ordered harshly, "and you will not be harmed."
"We will not fight you," the high priest replied calmly, "but we will not let you take that which is not yours. These things have been giving into our safekeeping and we will not break faith with the great temple in Edo." He gestured and an acolyte stepped forward with a small gilded chest. Setting it on the floor, the young man opened it and revealed a glittering collection of gold, pearls, silver and jade.
"Take this instead," the head priest said simply. "Leave the sacred relics to the temple and you may have the chest. There are more than enough riches to keep an entire clan of gargoyles in comfort for a lifetime."
Takakage narrowed his eyes and looked over the cache of riches thoughtfully. The other Tengu were eyeing it as well.
"Sounds like a deal." All heads turned in Brooklyn's direction, his normal speaking voice a booming presence in the temple sanctuary. He stepped forward, wary of provoking the Tengu further. "I'd take it if I were you."
"You know nothing of what I or my clan want," Takakage said.
"Oh, yeah?" Brooklyn tapped the end of his beak with a talon and pointed to the sooty black gargoyle's own beak. "I might know better than you think. Look at us, nobody could mistake us for human." He glanced at the other Tengu, males and females, with a wide variety of beaks, snouts and other facial protrusions. "We're the last to attract a mate, the most likely to be called 'demon' or worse."
Takakage glanced at his comrades, some who were nodding in agreement. "This is true, but what of it?"
"I don't want to fight you," Brooklyn said, "and I don't think you want to fight me. Gargoyles do not fight gargoyles."
Frowning, Takakage took a step back from the shrine. Brooklyn took this as a good sign and continued speaking. "Sata has told me of the tengu legends. Some of them are tricksters, malevolent spirits but most of them describe the tengu as wise beings that serve as teachers and advisors to great warriors. What does the legend mean to you?"
The sooty black gargoyle blinked and shifted his wings nervously, the feathers rustling loudly in the stillness of the room. "That we are noble beings," he said at last, "That our appearance is inconsequential as long as our lives serve a purpose."
"What purpose does your life serve now?" Brooklyn asked softly. "All this stealing and raiding and looting, whose idea was this?"
One of the females stepped up and put a hand on Takakage's arm. She was a muddy brown color with a curved beak like a parrot but her eyes were large and luminous and they bore into Takakage's. A long moment filled with unspoken meaning passed between them.
"If I gather the Tengu and leave," Takakage said finally, "will you follow?"
"I can't speak for Yoshi," Brooklyn replied, "but I'll do everything I can to convince him to leave you alone."
"Your words have brought home something that has troubled many of us for some time. We did not want to make war with Ishimura. We did not want to make allies of the ronin bandits. These were things of Ganryu's doing but he is -- was our leader."
"Sounds like you've made a decision."
"Yes." Takakage extended his hand to Brooklyn. "I will take those Tengu who so choose with me and we will leave Ganryu and the bandits for human justice. Is this agreed?"
"I give you my word," Brooklyn said as he shook forearms with him. "I'm sure I can get Yoshi to go along with it."
The gargoyles began to walk away from the shrine. The high priest called after them. "Wait! These riches are yours to keep."
Takakage bowed low to the priests, the first sign of respect he had shown to anyone. "We have regained our honor this night. That is all we will ever need, revered one." He turned and followed Brooklyn out of the temple.
Jun was staggering up the temple steps, leaning on her bo staff when Brooklyn and the Tengu came out. She snapped to an attack posture when she saw them but Brooklyn caught the end of her staff before it struck.
"These Tengu wish to surrender and leave Ishimura," he said quickly. "In return, they will leave Ganryu and the bandits in the village to human justice. As second-in-command, do you agree to this?"
"Is this a trick?" Jun demanded. "Have they bewitched you, Brooklyn-san?"
"The red one merely reminded us of a simple truth we had forgotten," Takakage replied. "More of the Tengu look to me than Ganryu. This fighting is wrong. I have only to say the word and gargoyle will fight gargoyle no more."
Jun wasted no time. "Call off your warriors, and I will agree. These are only elders and younglings. I will not see them hurt further." She narrowed her eyes. "If you break your word, Tengu, you will find that Yoshi's anger is nothing compared to mine."
Takakage merely bowed to the coral gargoyle and vaulted to the top of the nearest wall, his followers behind him. He raised his beak to the sky and gave a wild screech, stopping the combatants in their tracks. "Tengu!" he thundered. "We are finished here. Follow me!" He launched, an inky splotch against the stars, and several other gargoyles joined the original four of his squad in gliding after him. The few renegades that remained cast sharp glances at their leader, locked in combat with Sata.
"No!!" Ganryu raged. "I am leader. You obey me!!"
Sata's eyes narrowed to scarlet glimmers. "Your Tengu smell your defeat, Ganryu." She deflected away a downstroke with the back of her blade. "Your strikes are growing weaker, fat toad. Yield now, and I will be merciful."
Enraged, Ganryu roared and pressed his attack. Sata countered with the tricks she learned from fighting against cutlasses and scimitars and using those techniques against him. Her blending of styles threw Ganryu off and, step by step, Sata began to drive him back.
Brooklyn saw Ganryu swing his tail back and in the two seconds that it took for his brain to register what was going on, it was too late. Ganryu whipped a tailful of grit across Sata's face, striking her katana away with a bright ring. He howled with triumph and swung back for the death stroke while Sata tried vainly to clear her eyes.
"This time, dear sister," Ganryu said, madness shining white-hot in his eyes, "this time you will stay in the land of ghosts." The blade of the two-handed sword came sweeping down.
"NO!" bellowed Brooklyn as he leaped off the temple steps.
A white blur soared over the high arched gate of the compound and a flash of silver stopped Ganryu's tachi inches from Sata's head with a ringing crash. Yoshi growled low in his chest, breathing heavy as he stared down the traitorous gargoyle. "Do you recall," he asked softly, "what I said would happen to you if I found you or any of your followers in Ishimura again?"
Ganryu backed away from the sword pointing at his chest. "You do not have the courage to slay me," he said scornfully. "Your honor will not allow it."
"My honor is unstained," Yoshi retorted. "You have betrayed all that a gargoyle should be - your word is nothing, for you have no honor." He smashed away at Ganryu's sword, sharp shattering flashes of light and sound. "The bandits you sent to attack the village told us your plan to steal the temple treasures sent here from Edo for safekeeping." Yoshi's lip curled in disgust. "You went from being a guardian to being a common thief."
"Oh, no, my brother," Ganryu said smoothly, "I am a most uncommon thief."
Sata wiped the last of the sand from her tearing eyes and started to look around for her swords when Brooklyn pressed it into her hands.
"Here you go, beloved," he said hoarsely, cracking a nervous grin. "Don't let Yoshi have all the fun."
"You and your odd sense of humor," Sata murmured and smiled even as she twirled katana and wakizashi back into position. She began stalking Ganryu, Jun and Brooklyn joining her to close the circle around the renegade. Other members of the clan subdued the remaining Tengu.
"Throw down your sword," Yoshi commanded, "and we will grant you an honorable death according to our traditions."
"Never!" Ganryu roared and charged directly at Jun. She blocked him instinctively with her bo staff but at the last second, he grabbed it and hurled her directly at Yoshi. He leaped up the side of the wall and disappeared into the night.
Brooklyn and Sata went after him but it soon became apparent that catching Ganryu tonight would be almost impossible. A thick blanket of rolling fog was filling the valley and visibility was low. Flying forms came towards them through the mists.
"Sata!" Mako called. The blue finned male was scratched and battered, as were several others with him. "What are you doing here?"
"Trying to track down Ganryu," Sata replied. "He and his band tried to steal the treasures from the temple."
"I feared as much. We found evidence of several people living in the abandoned temple on the coast - just before the walls collapsed on us." Mako looked back at the gargoyles in his patrol. "We were lucky Mika and Kiku were free to dig us out. They saw five Tengu warriors flying back to Ishimura."
"Well, when Ganryu tries to meet back up with them, he won't be very welcome," Brooklyn commented. "In fact, I believe it'll be down right ugly."
They searched for almost an hour more before finally returning to the temple compound. Yoshi was standing in the courtyard talking with a human when they touched down. "Ganryu?" he asked anxiously.
Sata shook her head. "The fog is too thick," she answered. "The traitor has eluded us."
The human, a stout man with burly arms, spoke up. "His associate, a ronin by the name of Supaiku, has escaped as well with a handful of his men. The others are locked up in the granary. The delegation from Edo will be taking them back to the capital. The authorities there will pass judgment on their crimes."
"All in all," Yoshi said, "not a bad night's work. The Golden Buddha rests safe in our temple and the bandit band has been broken up." He smiled and bowed to Sata. "If you had not been here to face Ganryu, dear sister, things could have been much, much worse."
Sata returned his bow gracefully. "It was my honor to serve the clan, Yoshi-sama."
"Still," Yoshi insisted, clapping his hands on her shoulders and beaming, "you were the only one besides myself who could have matched Ganryu's skill with a sword." He turned to Brooklyn and bowed to him. "We owe you a great debt, Brooklyn-san. You brought Sata back when we needed her. Thank you."
The red gargoyle shook his head. "It is I who should thank you. Sata has been a companion that I'll never forget." He swallowed hard, his heart in his eyes.
The gaze that passed between Sata and Brooklyn was so intense that the others present quickly found other things to do, the human returning to the village and the gargoyles going to their places on the walls around the compound. Silently, Brooklyn and Sata joined them.
"I should probably move on tomorrow night," Brooklyn said. "We don't want a repeat of last time, accidentally taking someone along." He smiled wanly. "This is where you need to be."
Sata frowned, an imperceptible downward tug on the corners of her mouth. "You are trying to be noble, Brooklyn-san, but I believe I am the best judge of my own fate." She reached out and took his hand. "Before you do anything, there is something that my clan should know. Promise me you won't leave until then."
Brooklyn raised one brow ridge, puzzled. "Okay, Sata, but what -"
"At nightfall, Brooklyn-san." The sky behind Sata took on a pink cast. "I'll tell you then." She squeezed his hand even as their fingers turned to stone.
* * * * *
Supaiku raged silently as he fled with the few surviving members of his ronin band. His gargoyle ally had assured him that the temple defenders were soft and no challenge. Instead, a dozen winged demons came at them just as they had subdued the villagers and were preparing to collect their valuables. Three warriors were lost in the battle and four others were assumed captured as they regrouped in the foothills above Ishimura.
The abandoned temple was a tumbled pile of timbers and stone. They searched in vain for the food and supplies they had kept cached there for just this eventuality but it was a futile search. Everything was lost beneath the rubble. Supaiku cursed the day Ganryu crossed his path. It was clear now that the gargoyle had no intention of honoring their agreement.
Bobbing lanterns on the path leading from the village shone dimly through the fog. The Ishimura gargoyles might not be able to track the ronin bandits in the heavy mists but the Ishimura humans were being persistent.
"Go!" Supaiku ordered. "We will travel faster apart and leave too many trails for them to follow. Meet me at the shrine at Kunai in three days." His men filtered into the trees like shadows.
The bandit leader took a different route from his men, risking discovery by the search party as he came dangerously close to their path. A second cache of supplies had been secured in a small cave on Mt. Zao by the Tengu and Supaiku had been present when Ganryu had given the orders for it. Having no wings, it took Supaiku the better part of the night to make his way to the renegade's hideaway.
At first, the ronin bandit could hear nothing but the rasping heaves of his own lungs, straining after his long climb up the slope of the dormant volcano. As his breathing stilled, Supaiku became aware of roars and guttural swearing echoing throughout the cave system. He clung to the shadows and approached the source of the disturbance. The dark gray gargoyle, that once was his ally, was rummaging through a small side cave with growing agitation.
"Where is it?" Ganryu demanded, tossing a basket aside, spilling its contents across the floor. He removed a large rock from the wall and felt around inside the resulting hole. He came up with a crumpled piece of parchment and growled as he read.
"'The Tengu follow a new leader. We are returning to the ways that you have abandoned.' Feh!" Ganryu hurled the wad of paper away. "Weak-willed cowards!" His tail snapped irritably. "I am well rid of them, as well as those mercenaries." He laughed, the sound booming throughout the cavern. "By now, my dear brother has that ronin's head decorating the eastern gate."
Supaiku ground his teeth, forcing himself to remain calm. He stepped upon some cylindrical object on the cave floor and it rolled under his foot. Bending down, he picked up the stone-tipped club and hefted its weight, his eyes narrowing as he watched the sky outside changing from deepest blue to lighter shades of purple. The moment must be perfect, he told himself silently as he watched the gargoyle rummaging through a discarded chest, to strike swiftly and surely.
At last, Supaiku took a deep breath and stepped from his hiding place.
Ganryu swirled around only to see the silhouette of his former ally against the delicate pink sky at the cave's opening as Supaiku swung back the heavy club. Stone skin formed over his eyes as he watched oblivion approaching.
* * * * *
The first breath Brooklyn took that night was flavored with the scent of cinnabar and sandalwood, incense carried on the breeze from the temple. The stone skin fell from his eyes to reveal a glorious crimson vista from one horizon to another. Fingers squeezed his hand and he turned to Sata, a sad smile on his face even as he drank in her beauty, for what very well might be the last time.
Sata returned his gaze for a few seconds before turning her attention to the others around them. "Yoshi-sama!! Jun-chan!! I ask your permission to speak to the clan!"
The bronze gargoyle paused in the act of jumping from the wall and straightened. "What is it, Sata? You know I value your words."
"I know, my brother," Sata replied, "but what I must say will be hard for you to hear."
"Is it..." Jun glanced at Brooklyn's expression, "is it something to do with your travels?"
"Yes," Yoshi said, curiously, jumping down into the courtyard as Sata and Brooklyn did the same. "You have returned home to us. It has been good karma having you here."
"Too true, Yoshi-sama, but there is something else that I must tell you. When I began my journey with Brooklyn-san," Sata said, raising her voice so all could hear, "I made a vow that when I returned again to the clan of my birth, that I would never leave again." She took a deep breath. "Therefore, tonight I make a new vow. I swear, here before my clan, that the only way I will leave Ishimura again," she looked at Brooklyn and smiled, "is as Brooklyn's mate."
Brooklyn's mouth went dry. "S-sata," he stammered, "do you know what you're saying?"
The jade green gargoyle did something that Brooklyn never imagined the proud warrior would do. Sata knelt at his feet, head bowed demurely and said simply, "I wish to be your mate, Brooklyn-san. My sword is yours, my life is yours. All I ask to be allowed to share your journey for the rest of my days."
Words escaped him as Brooklyn gently lifted Sata to her feet and gazed wonderingly into her eyes. The whispering silence around them would have lasted indeterminably if Jun had not nudged Yoshi with her elbow. The bronze leader of the Ishimura clan cleared his throat and stepped forward.
"Well, Brooklyn-san," Yoshi asked amiably, "the greatest warrior of Ishimura has claimed you as her mate. Will you give Sata that honor?"
Without looking away, Brooklyn answered, "Oh, no. I'm the one who is honored." He smiled like a fool as he cupped Sata's cheek and felt her nuzzle his hand in return. "Having her for my mate is all I've ever wanted."
"Tai-Tai! Kiku! Midori!" Jun clapped her hands. "We must get everything ready! Omi-san, if you would, please summon the priest." The coral gargoyle came up to Sata and Brooklyn and put a hand on their shoulders. "Tonight, we must have the ceremony tonight, before anything else can happen!"
"Yes, Jun-chan," Sata agreed. She looked to Brooklyn, her eyes dancing with excitement. "Brooklyn-san?"
He nodded. "Sounds good to me."
Jun beamed at both of them. "Then that's settled!" She took Sata by the arm and began to steer her away. "Yoshi-san, you are in charge of Brooklyn. Make sure he's ready!"
Brooklyn stared after them. He honestly didn't know what all the fuss was about. Sata was being shuffled off by the Ishimura females and a fluttering party of Japanese women. Yoshi took the red gargoyle aside and escorted him to another area of the compound.
"Females will be females, Brooklyn-san," Yoshi said with the air of one who had been through it all before. "Sata is a samurai of the highest order but you'll find she is also a beautiful flower with petals of steel." He laughed at the expression on Brooklyn's face. "Come along now. Jun will have my head if you are not properly attired for the ceremony."
The bath was very soothing after Brooklyn got used to it. He almost dozed off, floating in the steaming waters. All too soon, Yoshi came back with an armful of garments and several human helpers. Torture would have been preferable to what they did to his hair. His wispy white mane seldom got more attention than being raked over with a set of talons. The old man tending to it, a barber of sorts, fussed over him, muttering in Japanese as he combed out the tangles and snipped away the snarls until the gargoyle's hair lay smooth and silky against his shoulders.
Next, Yoshi had Brooklyn put on a tradition male's wedding outfit; a white lesser kimono with a black one over it. His own wings were draped over his shoulders to replace the customary black wedding robe. He felt ridiculously overdressed.
"Is this really necessary?" Brooklyn asked. "In my clan, you swear to be mates in front of your clan and go away together on your mating flight, not all this -- this fuss!"
Yoshi laughed. "Ah, Brooklyn-san! That is our way too, but we honor human traditions as well. By doing this little thing for her, you will make Sata very happy, trust me."
In an annex off of the main gathering room, stood the small Shinto shrine common to most Japanese homes. A priest and some helpers were removing the rice paper walls to make an altar for the ceremony. Several females and children, both human and gargoyle, were decorating the room with flowers.
The leader of the Ishimura clan guided Brooklyn to a spot next to the shrine. "You and I shall stand here. Now, what is the name of your clan?"
Brooklyn blinked, a little stunned by the magnitude of the preparations. "Um, Manhattan. We live in Manhattan."
"Excellent." He clapped his hand on the red gargoyle's back. "I will act as your go-between during the ceremony. It is very simple and I'll help you if necessary."
More villagers began to arrive. Several musicians gathered in a corner not far from the shrine and began to arrange their instruments, from the barrel-chested drummer to the women kneeling to pluck what looked like a type of harp on the floor before them to the young orange-robed priest lifting a bamboo flute to his lips. The humans were joined with some gargoyle musicians; a light blue female with violin-like instrument and the web-winged Takashi taking up one of the drums. The resulting combination of sounds was both discordant and melodic. With a start, Brooklyn realized their music was similar to the tune Sata often hummed and he began to smile.
Yoshi noted his appreciative expression and nodded approvingly. "A proper wedding must have music," he commented. "The ladies play the koto harps, the priest's alcolyte the shakuhachi flute and combined with the drums, their music is known gagaku, a popular style played at the imperial court. It is our poor attempt at imitating the sounds of nature but the results are quite pleasing."
Brooklyn glanced at the bronze gargoyle a few times before clearing his throat and bringing up something that he had been dwelling on more and more as the proceedings continued around them. "I would really appreciate any advice you could give me about this," he said, just loud to be heard over the music. "Between you and me, I don't know what Sata expects from me."
A curious, vaguely amused look passed over Yoshi's dignified expression. "As one male to another, I will tell you this, Brooklyn-san. The ceremony is merely a formality. It binds our clans together and is a cause for celebration. It is only when Sata allows you to take the Kanzashi from her hair, will you truly be considered mates."
Brooklyn glanced at him, puzzled. "Is that part of the ceremony?"
"No," Yoshi said, lowering his voice and leaning toward Brooklyn's ear, "that comes much later."
The drummers suddenly made a rolling fanfare and the musicians fell silent. Slim red Midori and dainty lilac Mika came into the room dressed in identical red-and-white kimonos, strewing flower petals before them. Jun followed carrying a lumpy bundle in her arms and gave Yoshi a particularly affectionate look as she took her place in front of the shrine.
Delicate cascades of musical notes plucked on the kotos announced Sata's arrival. The old human that Brooklyn had helped with the tusked Tengu, was escorting her.
"Omi-san," Yoshi said in Brooklyn's ear. "Sata's sire passed on many years ago when she was a hatchling but Omi-san was the sensei who taught her the art of the sword. He asked to perform this honor."
Brooklyn nodded but he was barely listening. His attention was riveted on the only figure in the room that mattered. It was a moment frozen in time. Sata was crowned with a cloud-like white hood covering an elaborate upswept hairdo. Her lesser kimono was pure white while her outer kimono was a rich green, embroidered with gold and silver threads. Bold red chrysanthemums and flying cranes formed an intricate pattern around the hem and the long drape of the sleeves. Her jade wings, only a shade darker than the kimono, were draped from her shoulders like a bridal train.
Sata lifted her eyes to his as she and Omi-san approached, a little smile dancing on her lips. The group gathered before the shrine bowed to the priest and he, in turn, bowed to them before beginning to speak, invoking the spirits to purify the meeting place and all those gathered there.
"Who represents this couple?" the old priest asked. "The union must receive the blessing of the families."
Omi cleared his throat and spoke haltingly, choked with emotion. "I speak for my old friend, he who sired this young female. In his absence, I give my blessing." Sata patted his arm lightly and murmured comfortingly to him. The old man smiled and gave her hand to Brooklyn. "Sata-chan was always more than my student. She was the daughter I did not have. Treat her with honor and love."
Jun nodded and Yoshi spoke up. "I speak for Brooklyn of the Manhattan clan. He has fought by our side unbidden when we were in need and has conducted himself with honor and wisdom. He now is a part of our clan, now and forever. In the name of the Ishimura clan, I give my blessing."
"It is the custom," the priest said, turning to Brooklyn, "for the bridegroom to pledge an oath for the couple to remain faithful and obedient. Yoshi can recite the oath in your place if you wish."
Brooklyn bowed to the priest. "My thanks, honorable one, but I think I know what to say." He took a deep breath. "My love, I've waited a thousand years and more for you. All my life, I looked for someone to make my life complete. I had to travel through time itself to find you and I know that no matter what life throws at us, our love will last forever."
Midori came towards them with fluid, gliding steps, a snow white, shallow cup in her hands. She bowed carefully to the priest before turning to Brooklyn and Sata. "This ceremony is called ~San-San-Kudo~," she said in a sweet, musical voice. "The sake we serve in this cup symbolizes the unity of your life together." She nodded to Mika, who stepped forward with a white ceramic bottle and poured a small amount of pale amber liquid into the cup. "You must drain the cup in exactly three sips." She bowed to Brooklyn and handed him the cup.
Doing as he was instructed, Brooklyn drank the strong rice wine and then watched as Midori and Mika performed the same service for Sata. The peculiar name of the ceremony, which translated to "Three-Times-Three Exchange", become evident when Midori produced fresh cups and repeated it not twice, but three times. Brooklyn was grateful that he was only imbibing a small amount of sake each time; otherwise he suspected he would be more than a little light-headed.
Midori and Mika, having performed their duties, retreated and the priest stepped forward. "As is the custom here in Ishimura," he said with great dignity, "we call upon the spirits of earth and sky to bless the union of Brooklyn and Sata. May they be true and faithful mates until the end of their days."
There was a meaningful pause and Brooklyn glanced about, wondering if he was supposed to be doing something at that moment. The priest merely folded his hands and smiled, arching one bushy white eyebrow and nodding towards Sata. The light dancing in her eyes told him everything he needed to know. Brooklyn leaned in for what he hoped was a dignified kiss but the second he felt her hands on his shoulders, he forgot all about appearances. The kiss would have lasted longer - if it wasn't for a persistent tingling sensation on the back of his head.
They both opened their eyes to see the Phoenix Gate closing over them, orange flames flickering and dancing. Jun dashed forward and tossed the bundle she had been holding into Sata's arms. Before they could say their good-byes or throw rice for luck, Brooklyn and Sata were gone.
Yoshi put a arm around Jun's shoulders and smiled sadly. "I hope Sata will be happy in this strange life she has chosen."
Jun leaned against him. "Of course, she will be, my love. They are together. What else will they ever need?"
"We must write their story down in the clan's scrolls," Yoshi said thoughtfully. "There may be a time when Sata and Brooklyn will need to call upon the gargoyles of Ishimura again."
"Tomorrow, beloved." Jun smiled as she looked around at the gathered clan. "But for tonight, we celebrate our sister's happiness!"
"A toast to the newlymates!" called Mako, a sake bottle in his hand. "To Brooklyn and Sata, wherever they are!" The clan of Ishimura saluted the absent guests of honor and continued the wedding party on into the night.
* * * * *
Niagara Falls, upper New York state, mid 1980s.
Even before the flames of the Phoenix Gate had started to fade away, Brooklyn had his wings snapped open and stretched to get the wind. As distracting as kissing his new mate was, the roaring of the multiple waterfalls cascading in an ear-shattering rush less than a hundred feet below him had his full and complete attention.
Sata's elaborate wedding kimono was so constricting that she could barely breathe, much less fly, so Brooklyn merely scooped her up in his arms and soared out of the thundering mists. She curled an arm around his neck, the other clutching the bundle Jun had thrown at them, and was content to let him do the flying.
The warmer air currents led them upriver from the falls. Landing in a clearing not far from the water's edge, Brooklyn set Sata gently down. He watched as she hung what appeared to be a type of knapsack on a broken branch of a neighboring tree. "What's in that anyway?" he asked.
Sata smiled as she turned. "My swords, travel supplies, food and our clothing." She raised a brow ridge. "Unless, of course, you prefer wearing formal attire."
Laughing, Brooklyn plucked at his sleeve. "Sata, I'm not even sure how I'm going to get out of this thing."
"I believe we can help each other with that pleasant task, Brooklyn-san." Her voice was soft and inviting as she stepped closer.
A fresh wave of nervousness swept over him. It just occurred to Brooklyn that this was the first time he and Sata were alone together as mates. Even though they had shared many adventures over the past year, Brooklyn suddenly felt as clumsy and unsure as a hatchling taking his first flight.
"Sata, I, ummm...." Cool fingers touched his beak and he felt their quiet tremble.
"Hush, beloved," she whispered, "The heart needs no words." Sata bowed her head, tilting forward so that he could see the ornate hair pins holding her midnight tresses in place beneath the stiff white linen hood which resembled a cloud encircling her head. Brooklyn carefully removed that and slowly pulled the Kanzashi free. Her dark hair tumbled down and he threaded his fingers through it as he stroked it away from her face. The glowing look in her eyes led to a kiss ....and then another ...and yet another, until the world around them disappeared entirely, without any form of magic except that which they made for themselves.
The play of clouds and rain
Winged shadows cross the jade moon
Two hearts, two souls
Forever... as one
* * * * *
An eerie howl shook the windows of the honeymoon cottage, waking the occupants. A blonde woman sat straight up in bed, clutching the sheet to her chest, her fashionably layered hair in disarray.
"Brendan! What was that awful noise?"
Her companion yawned and raised up on one elbow. "Probably some wild animal, Margot darling. This cabin is right on the edge of the state park after all."
"B-but what if it's dangerous? It could try and break in and..." Her objections were abruptly cut off and replaced by the soft, muted sounds of persuasive affection.
"Oh, Brendan! You a-a-a-animal!"
* * * * *
Cool water cascaded past as Brooklyn heaved himself out of the shallows onto the large outcropping of rock extending into the river. He sat back on his elbows and stretched his wings, listening to the sound of the drips on the stone. The surface of the water rippled and Sata emerged like a naiad from mythology, a breathtaking vision carved from wet jade.
"You know," Brooklyn said conversationally, "I could get to like bathing."
Sata raised a brow ridge. "Only bathing?"
He laughed. "I could get to like anything as long as I get to do it with you."
Moonlight glistened on Sata's skin as she tilted her head up for a kiss. For the second time that night, the world grew still. Crickets and night birds became the only sound for miles and the stars overhead the only witness to the joining of two souls below.
In a pile of rumpled clothing, the Phoenix Gate glittered impatiently.