Outline by Jonathan "Entity" Cotleur and Stephen R. Sobotka Jr.
Written by Jonathan "Entity" Cotleur
Illustrations by Noel Leas
* * * * *
Previously on TimedancerÖ
* * * * *
"There is no way of getting back?" she asked solemnly. "No way at all?"
Brooklyn shook his head sadly. "The only way back is through the gate. If and when it decides to return."
* * *
"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?
* * *
"Get that thing away from me!" Brooklyn growled.
"Easy, Brooklyn. Artus is just returning it."
"Well, I don't want it," Brooklyn mumbled. "It's brought me nothing but pain."
~Crossroads, Part 2~
* * * * *
Mt. Zao, Japan
On a ridge near the peak of the great mountain, a pile of stacked timbers crackled and popped. The large trunks, collected from the now night-shrouded forest below, propped against each other to form a pyre. A beast against its confines, the fire roared, threatening to break free of its wooden prison with wild lashes and uprisings of flame. The wood creaked, but held steady, as the flames grew and grew.
Its captors stood silently around it: two figures in dark robes with wide, straw hats and their hoods pulled over their heads. Difficult to discern against the blackness of the night, except where the stars blinked in and out of sight, was a rising pillar of smoke. To unknown heights it rose as the two figures bowed in reverence.
The rite continued into the night, until the last of the wood was burned and the smoke ceased to rise to whatever unseen deity it was intended for...
* * * * *
The gargoyles greeted sunset from the walls of Sendai Castle with a chorus of yawns. Akai breathed in deeply. He watched as the other members of his clan shook free of their stone skin, spread their wings, and swooped down to the ground.
There, their human friends awaited them. Akai followed his clan mates, alighting on the well-kept grass of the castle yard and caping his wings about him. His fellow gargoyles acknowledged him with reverent smiles and friendly bows, all of which he returned.
A few of the younger generation scurried by. "Hello, little brothers," he greeted. The young ones stopped and bowed before their elder with happy grins. "Good evening, Akai," they replied politely.
"Akai!" a homely voice called. The green-colored gargoyle turned towards the source of the voice, one of the primary human caretakers of the castle, Omi-san - and his familiar wife, Tai-Tai.
"Good evening," Akai greeted with a friendly bow.
"It is good to see you tonight," Omi-san said. "You look well."
Akai returned the pleasantry. "As with you, Omi-san." He turned to his wife. "And you, Tai-Tai-sama."
Tai-Tai smiled broadly. "You will be at this eveningís meal, I trust?"
Akai nodded. "I plan to, yes. As always."
"We will see you there, then," Omi-san resolved. "Come, Tai-Tai. Let us finish the last of the preparations."
"Do you need any help?" Akai inquired.
"Oh, no, no, Akai," Omi-san assured. "We have things well underway."
"Some of the hatchlings have volunteered their time to help set up everybodyís places," Tai-Tai added joyfully, as if she was speaking of her own children.
Akai nodded as they left, and the clan leader approached. "Good evening to you, Akai," he greeted. "I hope you are finding the night to be a pleasant one."
"I am," Akai replied politely as he shook arms. "Good evening to you, Yomawari."
Yomawari was a dark, mustard-yellow gargoyle of great age and stature; a stark contrast to Akaiís lighter green color, slender build, and relative youth.
"Shall we be on our way to the dining hall?" Yomawari invited. "The food should be laid out by now."
Akai nodded, and the two warriors joined the throng of winged and unwinged attendees.
* * * * *
Laughter and discussion echoed off the walls inside Sendai Castleís main hall. A large sprawling table invited everyone to sit down to numerous foodstuffs. Most of the clan was in attendance. Those not present consisted of the younger generation, and some of the very oldest members of the clan. Of the humans, about a half-dozen or so presided. Most were still in the process of guiding people to their places or bringing out the last of the food. Omi-san and Tai-Tai were always to be found with the latter group.
Akai and Yomawari found their way to appropriate seats, beaming as a kind human immediately served them some of the food from the nearest platters. A general calm descended upon the room once everyone began to eat.
"So, Akai," a human woman spoke up, "for those who were not there last night, tell us of what happened with your small green rookery daughter."
Akai hesitated as he was about to take a mouthful of food. Yomawari sat back comfortably as he replied, "She is more at ease with her brothers than with her sisters, it seems. She might prefer to be male, if she were given the choice."
Everyone laughed good-naturedly. All were familiar with this hatchling, Akai in particular.
"Oh, come now, Akai," Yomawari prodded. "Donít be so shy! Tell the good people of the last eveningís events!" The clan leader chuckled, as Akai placed his utensils down, responding with an amused smirk.
All eyes rested on him. "Well," he began, clearing his throat, "the rookery children were out in the main yard playing. The little one snatched a ball out of the talons of a smaller boy, just before barreling by him, knocking him down to the stones."
Some light laughter came over the table. "Then," Akai continued, "one of the older boys confronted her afterward, which in turn drew a second boy to defend her. Very soon, a squabble broke out, and," he gestured, "some of our caretakers and rookery mothers rushed to break it up."
"Oh, Akai!" Tai-Tai chided, "you leave out the very point of the telling!"
Akai blushed, as Tai-Tai took it upon herself to finish the narrative. "The boys were chastised for fighting, and the little one for playing rough. She bore her diatribe as best she could, but when dismissed, she stomped across the courtyard... and ran right into Akai."
"She responds to you like no other, Akai," Yomawari interjected. "You canít deny it."
"Itís true," Tai-Tai insisted. "She immediately calmed in your presence. And when I came to fetch her away, I could feel the way she hesitated to leave you."
"It seems to me Akai has always been a welcomed adult among the hatchlings," a middle-aged female gargoyle added.
"Too true," Yomawari agreed heartily.
"Well," Akai admitted, "if memory serves me, I was quite a rascal in my youth, as well. Perhaps, inside, I havenít quite grown up all the way. Why, I remember one time, I..."
"Go on," Omi-san prodded.
Akai quirked his eye-ridges. "Strange, I seem to have lost my thought."
"Well, not to fear, Akai," one of the elder gargoyles assured sweetly, "weíre more than capable of remembering your more tenacious exploits ourselves, Iím sure."
"Yes," Yomawari agreed.
A pause came.
Omi-san and Tai-Tai exchanged helpless looks, as the gargoyles shifted uncomfortably. After a while, all the smiles began to disappear.
From the far end of the table, one of the human caretakers raised his head from his food, which he had been eating inconspicuously to himself. His gaze swept the table of bewildered, disconcerted humans and gargoyles, until finally falling on Akai. His eyes narrowed suspiciously as he analyzed the gargoyle.
"Well," Yomawari finally broke the silence, "it seems as if weíre all suffering from a spate of amnesia."
General nods and murmurings of agreement traveled down the table, but Akai remained vacant. The human at the end of the table bunched his hands together nervously under his robe. A wide, straw hat lay on the bench beside him.
* * * * *
The Castle Grounds
The wind rustled the leaves on the overhanging trees surrounding Sendai Castleís outer walls. Akai walked the yard alone. He knew it had been improper to excuse himself from the dining hall as abruptly as he did, without even finishing his food. But then, it wasnít getting eaten anyway. He had no appetite, and what food did rest in his stomach felt uncertain there.
The outside air had succeeded in soothing his mind, but the underlying tension was still present. He could not remember. None of them could remember. Why? It was a question that forbade an answer. Something he could not identify was residing beneath the surface of his mind. What was it? Another breeze came in, again rustling the foliage and relaxing his body. He closed his eyes and drew in a breath, letting his thoughts clear...
Like clouds parting over a vast black ocean. There was no light anywhere. The waves were visible. The waves splashed and churned. But he couldnít penetrate the surface. What was down there?
His eyes flung open. His hand felt cold. Glancing to his side, he saw that he was bracing himself against the stone wall of the castle. He stood up straight.
"All right," he declared, "This is stupid. Just remember. Thatís all. Itís that simple." He concentrated, sifting through emptiness, trying in vain to find something... anything. Any memory now would suffice. But he came upon only dead ends.
A growl rose in his throat. "This is unbearable," he yelled, his talons bared. He began to flex his hands, overwrought with frustration. "Just one memory," he demanded, "just one! But no! Not my Rite to Adulthood, not my first hunt, not my first flight, not anything beyond a day in the past!"
He grasped his head with his hands. "Vague intuitions, bare facts, what is-- but not how and why..." With an agitated grunt, he slammed a fist into the wall.
* * * * *
The Dining Hall
Everyone sat in silence. Some ate their meals quietly and kept to themselves; others picked at the food. The rest only sat in mute contemplation.
Finally, Tai-Tai disrupted the silence. "One of us should go after him," she pleaded with open concern. She looked to her husband for reassurance. Omi-san nodded glumly.
Yomawari rose from his seat, gathering everyoneís attention. "I will go, Tai-Tai-sama. I will talk to him."
With that, he removed himself from the table and exited the hall. The others remained in their seats, as if afraid to leave the room to go anywhere.
From the end of the table, the mysterious human gathered his straw hat and slipped out through the side door.
* * * * *
Akai turned to see Yomawari approaching from across the yard. He had his wings caped about him, walking with an unassuming gait. Akai sighed inwardly. Yomawari was his friend and his leader, but right now he felt detached from him in both ways-- he felt detached from himself. He needed to be by himself until... whatever it was that was happening, was figured out.
He managed a weak smile as the mustard gargoyle came up to him. "Akai," he greeted. He glanced over Akaiís shoulder to the orchards and stars, taking in a breath as he did. "How goes the night?"
Akai hesitated for a few moments, the two of them gazing into each otherís eyes. Yomawari sighed, shifting his place and reaching a hand forward to him genially. "Akai, you neednít be out here by yourself. Come, return to the hall."
Akai shook his head. "Iím sorry, Yomawari, but I canít. Do not worry about me. Tell the others that I am fine. I am all right."
"I canít face everyone else right now. I donít know whatís happening..."
"Happening? Nothing is happening."
Akai replied intently, "Nothing happening? Yomawari, I cannot remember my life! You cannot either! None of you!" He threw up his arms to illustrate the poignancy.
Yomawari looked away. "It is... nothing, Akai. Nothing. Just something seasonal. Bad sunlight. An ill affection of the mind..."
"You know it is not any of those things, Yomawari. It is something much more disturbing than that."
There was a silence. "What?" Yomawari asked hesitantly.
"I donít know!" Akai responded. "Thatís what Iím trying vainly to understand. Until I do, I cannot be in their presence, Yomawari, I canít. Even before you I find myself failing. Within the dining hall, it was worse, it was a suffocating feeling I had to escape. I feel as if I am a stranger, all of a sudden." He began to walk slowly around the yard, the trees, and the shrubs, looking at it all as if it were alien, looking at it all with new eyes. He gasped, as the unexpected new perspective flooded him.
Yomawari followed him cautiously. "Akai? Akai, I am worrying about you. We are all worrying about you. We all care for you. We are clan. Whatever you are facing, we will face it."
"But you are facing it," Akai replied as he turned back around. "And that is why it is so real. Why is it so frightening? You cannot remember either."
Akai swept his hand over the yard, gesturing far off beyond the stone walls of Sendai Castle. "All of this? It is new to me. I have not looked on it before."
"Akai, of course you have!"
"No, I havenít. I have only seen it with idle eyes. Accepting it at its surface appearance, never delving any deeper than that. So itís been with my memory, as well."
Yomawari squinted his eyes closed and shook his head. "Akai, you are not making sense."
There was only the breeze for a few moments, then Akai asked, "Tell me, Yomawari, can you remember?"
Akai shrugged. "Anything. Any of our past together. Specific events."
Yomawari paused as he considered the question. Finally, he answered, "I remember that we are friends, Akai."
Akai sighed irritably. "But do you remember how? When? Where? Why?"
Yomawari was poised to answer, but before he could speak, hesitation gripped him.
Akai frowned. "Exactly."
"But it doesnít mean..."
"What? That I donít exist? Because that is what it is starting to feel like."
"Akai, donít say such things. You know they are not true. You are here, standing before me. You are Akai, valued member of our clan. A gargoyle. A kinsman and a friend."
Akai sighed. "Do you know what it feels like? Like a dream. A dream that I have awoken in..."
* * * * *
From behind the corner of a hut on the opposite side of the yard, the man in the straw hat watched cautiously. The two gargoyles were too far away to hear, but he could discern the general meaning of what was being discussed. It wasnít hard. He bit his lip as he observed the conversation continue.
Something tapped him on the shoulder. The man spun around, startled. He looked down to see a small, jade-green adolescent staring up at him with a curious look on her face.
The man forced a shaky smile upon the sight of the young gargoyle. "Hello, little one," he said under his breath, with a half-successful attempt at sweetness. His voice lost feeling as he asked, "What do you want?"
The girl continued to stare up at him curiously, but now with a suspicious glint in her eyes. "Are you spying on Akai and Yomawari?" she inquired bluntly.
The manís color drained as the question sunk in. The girlís face remained fixed. He laughed uneasily, as he replied, "No, no... of course not. What gave you that-"
"Are you one of the caretakers?"
The man let out a congested breath. "Why, yes, I am. Assistant to Omi-san-"
"I donít remember seeing you around very much."
Now the man was clenching his teeth. "Well, I... spend a lot of time outside the village."
Finally, her suspicious gaze lifted. Now she eyed him with a wholly curious expression. "Doing what?" It was not often the younger generation ventured outside of the village.
The man felt slightly relieved at the girlís change in manner. "I collect herbs," he explained, "for the healers."
* * * * *
Yomawari sighed as he shook his head. "I donít know what to say, Akai. I will leave you now, to your thoughts."
Yomawari placed a consoling hand on Akaiís shoulder, then turned and left. Akai remained in his position as the clan leader walked back to the front entrance of the castle. He let himself be immersed in his thought, as Yomawari suggested. He felt himself pulled back in.
After a few moments, he regained an awareness of his surroundings. He glanced around, noting the change in vegetation. He was now in the villageís ornamental garden. Heíd evidently wandered there.
"Pretty," he thought aloud as he surveyed the garden. "I never stopped to-" He frowned. "Well, itís starting to look like I never really knew anything here." He was about to step out, when something in his mind grabbed him. The garden was familiar. In a moment, he realized it was jogging something - a memory.
"What?" he asked himself frantically. "What is it?" He squeezed his eyes shut as he tried desperately not to lose it, whatever it was. "What is so familiar about this place... What? What am I remembering?"
A disappointed breath left his mouth as he reopened his eyes. The memory, whatever it was, had escaped him.
Suddenly, something erupted over the garden. Akaiís eyes widened with disbelief, as the actual air itself combusted right before him. A contained sphere of red, vibrant light hung above the ground, drenching the garden in an incandescent glow. It lasted but a second, giving off an unnatural crackling sound mixed with a pulsating hum. The second lasted several moments to him, saturating every sense. The fire entranced him; the sound seemed to sing to him. Everything seemed to be coming together, all the lost pieces of his mind, to appear to him in one image offering perfect clarity. And then the sphere disappeared, and the silent, blackness of the night refilled his numbed senses.
Akai stood there, motionless, soundless, almost thoughtless. Then a new, unexpected sound caught his ears: a thump. Something, he realized as his brain caught up with the influx of perceptions, had leapt out from the sphere. It lay now by his feet. He looked down to see it, a gold and blue amulet with a bird inscribed on its surface. He marveled at the beautiful craftsmanship, as the moonlight shone off it.
Methodically, he bent down and picked it up off the cool grass.
* * * * *
Something sounded in the manís ears. He looked into the childís eyes. She looked back into his with innocent confusion; she hadnít heard it. It was so faint that only ears such as his could have, ears that had been tuned to listen for it. Now he felt his blood pump faster and his skin begin to grow cold with sweat.
"Itís happened," he said bluntly, his eyes staring into nothingness.
The girl looked back at him with a patronizing expression. "What?"
The manís eyes came into focus on her, and he began to panic. He had to get rid of her. Suddenly, a female voice called from the inner yard. The man recognized it as the voice of one of the clan elders, and she was calling for the young one.
The girl frowned, but upheld her discipline. "Coming!" she yelled out, and ran off.
The man sighed in relief, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead with his robe sleeve. Carefully, he left the sanctity of his hiding place behind the hut to look for Akai, to wherever he had wandered to while the girl had distracted him. He spotted the green gargoyle with the familiar gold-and-blue amulet in his hands, standing in the middle of the ornamental garden.
* * * * *
The ball of fire replayed in his mind as he gazed at the amulet, studying its every curve and surface. It seemed familiar to him, somehow, deep down in the unreachable depths of himself where he could not go, but was sure all the answers lay, buried but straining to spring to the surface. For all his common sense told him it should be foreign to him, that something suggested it was more familiar to him than anything else he knew.
Akai was forced to abandon his thoughts as the sound of someone approaching snapped him into awareness. He turned around, but to emptiness. Only a vacant garden stared back at him. His skin tingled. He could feel the presence of another.
Suddenly, an invisible force snatched the amulet from his grasp. "What the-" An impish chuckle echoed through the garden.
Then, he heard footsteps. He spun around, yelling into the air, "Who is there?" He came to face the man in the straw hat, heading for him from half-way across the yard. He stopped dead in his tracks upon locking eyes with Akai.
Akai peered at the man in puzzlement. The man stared back at him, choked for words. Before either of them could speak, the amulet flew by, sailing through the air as if on invisible wings. Akaiís eyes narrowed on the amulet as he heard the sounds of footsteps, and noticed the way the amulet bounced as it went, as if being carried. But the footsteps did not sound human or gargoyle. They didnít sound bipedal, but more like a scamper or a trot.
Set with determination, Akai prepared to go after the invisible thief.
"Please, do not follow!" the man pleaded from where he stood. "Stay where you are!"
This immediately incited Akai to do the opposite, but as he was about to dart off, he stopped himself. Turning back to the man, he flared his wings.
"You!" The manís eyes widened at the accusation, and he stood in his place, frozen, as the gargoyle stalked forward. "Youíve been watching me, I knew I recognized you! Why? What do you want?"
"No, please!" the man begged, putting his hands out as if to keep him from coming. "It will all be well, but only if you do not pursue."
All of a sudden, the man made a break for it. Akai sprinted after him, but soon the glint of the amulet caught his eye from the other side of the yard and he changed direction.
He followed the floating amulet around the corner of a hut, when a tree root sprung up from the ground and tripped him. Spitting out dirt, he picked himself back up, eyeing the now lifeless tree root warily. He continued after the amulet, catching it within sight right before it turned another corner.
When Akai turned this corner, a branch swung down, smacking him in the face. He tore the branch away with his talons, his eyes now aglow. Another chuckle echoed through the night air. Akai sensed it from his left, and followed it. He came to another hut, just in time to see a shadow pass by and the glint of the amulet. He rushed after it.
Akai rounded the corner extra cautiously this time, but nothing happened. He came face to face with the straw hat-wearing man again. Akai felt frustrated. Who was he chasing? He spotted the amulet in his hands and approached. They were in between two huts, with the towering wall of Sendai Castle behind them. Akai had him trapped.
"Thereís nowhere else to run," he informed the man tiredly. "Now, who are you?"
The man only stared back with a smug smile and an uncanny air of calmness, a stark contrast to the panic-stricken man he recalled encountering just mere moments ago in the main yard. Akai felt his anger rise as his confusion did. Further confusion was not what he was in the mood for.
"What are you!" he roared, his talons bared.
The manís calm demeanor did not waver in the slightest. With the same smile, he held out the amulet. It sparked, and then gave birth to a blossom of flame just like the one in the garden. He let it engulf him. When the flames were gone, so too was the man. Akai stood facing an empty alley, staring ferociously at the back wall. He was about to release a roar, when new movement caught his attention from behind.
"You!" he bellowed, at the sight of the straw-hat man. Unlike his calm doppleganger, this one reacted with shock and fear. Akai felt certain this was the man he had originally met, and darted after him.
The man ran, but didnít get far before Akai tackled him to the ground. He hit the pebble walkway hard, his hat falling off, and put his hands up in defense. "Please!" he begged. "You do not understand!"
"I know!" Akai yelled as he stood over him. "Which is why," he said as he grabbed him by the front of his robe, "you are going to start making sense of all of this!"
There came voices from nearby, as gargoyles and humans, alerted by Akaiís wails, started to home in on them. Akai noticed the sounds with worry.
The man leaned forward and said, in a whisper, "You cannot possibly have the faintest inkling of how large the veil is that covers your eyes... Timedancer."
Akaiís eyes reflected shock. "What did you call me? What do you mean?" He shook him. "Time what? What was that ball of fire? That... thing that disappeared. The gold amulet."
The man went on, "You know. You know you know. You just are not willing to admit it, not to me. But I know you have-- to yourself." He lowered his voice before continuing-- as if they were being watched by unseen forces. "It will not abide by the incantation of binding cast upon it. It returns, stubbornly, to its original host."
Akai started. Swallowing, he asked, "Host?"
The man nodded, as his voice intensified. "You."
Akai recoiled, dropping the man just as Yomawari, Omi-san, Tai-Tai, and a couple of other gargoyles and humans arrived. Yomawari saw the human trembling at Akaiís feet. Turning to Akai, he asked, "What is happening here, Akai?"
Akai was speechless, as Omi-san tried the same interrogation on his assistant. "Yoshi, what happened here? What is going on?"
The man only stared back, speechless as well, frightened beyond wits by what he had revealed to Akai. Yomawari and Omi-san interpreted that fright differently, as they looked from the man to Akai with questioning eyes.
Before another word could be spoken, the man jumped to his feet and darted off into the night. Omi-san called out after him, "Yoshi! Where are you going? Come back!" But the man made no indication of hearing the caretaker as the night quickly swallowed him up.
* * * * *
The Next Night
Akai shook himself free of his stone skin, as the rest of the clan stretched and yawned around him. He looked from side to side. Both clan mates on either end of him avoided eye contact, jumping down from the castle walls to meet the human caretakers, all of whom kept their eyes at level, never venturing up. Akai felt a chill wind curse the air around him.
With a miserable breath, he leapt down from his perch, landing inconspicuously in the corner, away from the masses. As he made his way across the yard, he noticed an uncharacteristic lack of commotion. Everyone went on their way almost methodically. Besides some hushed exchanges and a few passing greetings, the mood seemed stifled.
No one smiled and nodded as he came to them. No more did he receive the "Good evening, Akai" that he had become accustomed to. Omi-san was nowhere in sight, nor was his wife, Tai-Tai. He spied Yomawari on the other end of the yard, leaving to attend some duty or other that Akai presumed needed the Leaderís attention.
He came upon a pair of hatchlings, a boy and a girl. "Good evening, Akai," they greeted. Akai was caught off guard. He managed a weak smile for the children, before an elder called for them from somewhere, and they departed. The boy gave a final glance in Akaiís direction. Akai saw the puzzled expression on him; the lack of understanding. The young ones knew not what their adult counterparts had been awakened to; they knew only what their instincts told them.
In the corner of his eye, Akai caught sight of someone. He looked over his shoulder to the front entrance of the castle. Tai-Tai stood with a bowl of used water. Upon meeting eyes with Akai, she lowered her gaze and, ducking her head, retreated back through the entrance.
Akai turned to the opposite direction and continued on his way, his wings hung limply on his shoulders. When he came to an invitingly isolated mud bench behind one of the main huts, he sat down.
"Iíve brought it all on myself," he concluded miserably, with his head supported by his hands.
"All what?" an innocent voice inquired.
Akai turned his head and saw none other than the little jade-green youngling. He didnít know how to respond. Fortunately, for him, she proceeded for him. "Why are you sitting all by yourself?"
Akai smirked. "It is for the best." Looking away, he added, "Our friends do not know how to react to me."
Realizing she was still standing, he slid down and offered her a seat. She accepted, climbing onto the bench and sitting down neatly beside him.
"It is not anything you need concern yourself with," Akai assured half-heartedly.
"But everyone likes you. You are... Akai-san."
Akai sighed and hung his head. "I was... once, for a blissful short time, a day or two. And in that time, I knew who I was, I knew where I belonged, and I felt secure in all that I knew."
"So what is different now?"
"Now... I have succeeded in isolating all of the clan, and all of the humans; all of the residents of our home. I have been selfish in my self-pursuit. I desired, and still desire, the truth, and in that search and the self-righteous determination that it has spawned, I have rejected all whom I once called friend, brother, sister, and elder."
"What about me?"
Akai looked at her, as she looked back at him with full, sincere eyes. "You, I have apparently not lost." He cast his gaze back down to the ground. "As yet."
The adolescent made no immediate reply. The two of them sat in silence together for a while, listening to the sounds of the night. The crickets chirped, the breeze wafted the leaves and grass, and the sounds of the nightly routine echoed in the background.
Akai felt something rise in him, being with her. Her voice chimed softly in his mind. Her face ingrained itself into his eyes. Here mere presence was consoling.
He turned to observe everyone in the yard from afar. He felt as if he was an outsider, a foreign person to the land, looking in on something alien from himself. He wasnít looking on home anymore. And, strangely, the feeling felt familiar. Enticingly familiar.
They both stood up. He turned back to the little one, and noticed she was looking, too. "Last night," she began, "there was roaring and the elders ran off to the outside yard." Akai nodded, somewhat apprehensively. "I was there, until I was called back. I saw the man in the straw hat. He said he was a caretaker under Omi-san, but I never saw him before."
Akai nodded slowly. "You were there?" She nodded. "And you saw me?" She nodded again.
"You got in trouble last night, didnít you?" she ventured. "From fighting with the straw hat man? Kind of like me."
Akai smiled in spite of himself. "No, not quite like you. But close. What happened last night was far worse than what you were responsible for."
"Afterwards, Yomawari and the others were very troubled. They said you werenít being forthcoming. They seemed afraid."
"I was very elusive, yes," Akai agreed, "offering only vague answers to their questions. It was all I could do..."
"And now, no one is your friend anymore?"
"Their common sense tells them so. But, unfortunately, their memories disagree. And now, thanks to me, prudence would seem to side with their memories." Akai felt a lump rise in his throat. "Is it so with you?"
She thought about it for a moment. "I donít remember you," she finally replied. "But I like to be around you. Weíre... friends, are we not... Akai-san?"
Akai considered her words. He realized that, true to what she said, they really were friends. She was the only friend he could remember making. Thus, that probably made her his only true one. He smiled. "Yes, little jade. We are friends."
She smiled. But Akai felt something strange; a twinge of nostalgia. The words he spoke jogged something.
"What is it?"
Akai shook his head. "I do not know."
* * * * *
Yoshi collapsed to his knees before Akuma and Hajime, as the two elder monks glared down at him. Hajime sneered at the groveling manís robe, tattered and smeared in dust.
"I spent all day journeying up the mountain," Yoshi explained in a trembling voice.
Akuma stared down at Yoshi with an expressionless face. "For what purpose?"
Yoshi swallowed as he looked up into the dark, imposing face of the grand elder. "Akai has... he has..."
Akumaís features hardened, as Hajimeís twisted into outrage. "No! He hasnít!" Grabbing Yoshi by the collar of his robe, he pulled him up. "You insolent fool! What have you done? What have you done now to destroy what we had painstakingly implemented?"
Yoshi choked on his reply.
"How much does he know?" Akuma demanded.
"He... he... nothing."
"You dare lie to us?" Hajime challenged in a threatening whisper.
"It is true!" Yoshi pleaded. "He does not remember anything. He has only become aware of what he does not know. That is all."
Akuma eyed Yoshi intently. "Very well. How much did you tell him?"
Yoshi sighed, bowing his head back down. "He encountered the Gate. I told him that he was its original possessor, and that it returns to him."
"So," Akuma said, satisfied now that he had uncovered the extent of the situation, "it is indeed the same problem again."
Softly, Yoshi added, "Actually, this time he began to remember beforehand. It was a discussion during the evening meal that triggered it."
Akuma closed his eyes, as Hajimeís widened in shock. He looked frantically from Yoshi to Akuma. "What-what are we going to do?" His voice assumed a more foreboding tone as he added, "What will the Kitsune think?"
Akuma reopened his eyes, and stared disdainfully at Yoshi. Pointing a gnarled, accusative finger, he answered, "We will tell them who is at fault. It was your responsibility to oversee the former carrier of the Gate, to ensure that the spell took proper effect."
Yoshi bowed his head lower. "Please forgive my stupidity."
"It is not for me to forgive," Akuma replied coldly. "The Fox Spirits will decide your fate."
"In the meantime," Hajime ordered, "return to your duties. Go, and find Akai. Do not let him find out anything more than he already has." He added under his breath, "Perhaps things can still be salvaged."
"Can not the Fox Spirits recast their spell, and start anew, as they did before?" Yoshi inquired meekly.
"The Kitsune have already had to mend things once, they will not be pleased at having to do so again! They are not of great patience," Hajime replied sharply.
"Will not his memory always return? It has happened twice now. How-"
Akuma rose his hand to silence him. "Last time things were mended before he or the others could begin to suspect too deeply. This time, thanks to your blundering, weíre worse off than then. But we will see to it that matters are returned to their proper state. Ourselves."
Hajime looked at him nervously. "We will not call upon the Kitsune?"
"No," Akuma replied acidly, "we must not fail them again. This we will mend ourselves."
"But we havenít the power-"
"Enough!" Akuma yelled, angrily. "Go now, stop Akai. Waylay him. I will, in the meantime, prepare a means of restoring him and the village."
Yoshi nodded and bowed as he backed away, then turned and darted back down the trail leading to the base of the mountain, leaving Hajime to stare in astonishment at a grim-faced Akuma.
* * * * *
Akai placed an orange and a small loaf of bread, the last of some meager provisions, in his satchel and hefted it over his shoulder.
"Thank you, Tai-Tai," Akai said sincerely. Tai-Tai nodded meekly, and was about to turn to walk back into her hut, when she asked, "Are you sure that will be enough? I have more loaves inside..."
Akai shook his head. "I thank you, Tai-Tai, but what I have will be more than enough."
Tai-Tai nodded, lowering her gaze uncertainly. Her eyes searched the ground for something to look at. Akai looked at her earnestly, and as if sensing his gaze, she looked up. "Tai-Tai, please. Is it that discomforting even to look at me?"
"I donít know," she replied. "I donít know how to react to any of this, Akai. I... I feel betrayed, almost, as foolish as that sounds. And then frightened. And now, what I think is despair. I donít want you to leave, Akai..."
"I know itís hard, and I am sorry for the heartache that I have caused. All the more reason why I must leave."
"But... surely... surely we can-"
"You have done enough," Akai interrupted gently, shaking his head. "It is time for me to carry this burden myself, and lift it from all of you."
Tai-Tai sniffed, as she wiped away a fleeing tear. "Then, you will not be coming back."
"I donít think so. Iíve been awakened to something. I must now discover what it is. And from the indications I have gotten so far, it promises to be something that will render me incapable of remaining here." He placed a hand on her shoulder, causing her to sob. "Farewell, Tai-Tai."
With his satchel on his shoulder, he turned to go. It took a few minutes before anyone else began to notice him walking towards the village boundaries. The first ones only watched from where they were, not knowing how to act. Some of the others began exchanges with each other. Soon, there was a faint murmur issuing throughout the village, as Akai came upon the outer fence: the final marker of the village, beyond which lay the untamed wilderness.
"Akai!" Akai stopped. He recognized the voice. Turning, he saw Yomawari hurrying to meet him. When the clan leader reached him, he immediately eyed the satchel, and then the country ahead. "Akai, where do you go?"
Akai smiled softly. "To find myself."
Yomawari shook his head furiously. "Akai, you canít do this. You canít walk out on your clan. You belong here."
"I would have liked that, my friend. But events have revealed to me otherwise. I cannot ignore them. Neither can you, nor have you - you have indeed paid heed to them, by ignoring me."
Yomawari recoiled, pain issuing from his eyes. "Akai-"
"It is all right, Yomawari. This is why it is needed that I leave."
The crested gargoyle sighed. "But... what will you do? Where will you go? Live your life a hermit? Travel to another clan?"
"I would not burden you," Akai answered sincerely. "I donít know what Iíll do, where Iíll go, ultimately. Thatís what I have to discover. But, I know where to start..."
"You pursue Omi-sanís assistant, donít you?" Akai nodded. "But how... how does he hold the answers?"
"Oh, he holds them. He holds something."
The pair glanced back to the village, where a group had accumulated, comprised of both races. Omi-san stood near the forefront. He reached out for Akaiís gaze with his. When heíd acquired it, all he could do was manage a weak smile. Akai nodded, then looked away. "It is time."
Yomawari nodded, slowly. "After you meet this man, would you send him back to the village? Omi-san is... is worried," he requested absently. Akai nodded.
Yomawari rose his arm in a gesture that appeared to be an offering of a handshake, but hesitated. He grabbed Akaiís shoulder, instead. "You shall not go. As clan leader, I forbid it."
Akai gently lifted his hand from his shoulder. "Yomawari... I will miss you, too." Yomawari turned away to quench a tear. When he turned back, Akai was beyond the fence, heading for the outskirts of the nearby woods. Everyone watched, as he disappeared into the green of the larch and fir.
* * * * *
A twig snapped. Akai stopped. He listened carefully. There werenít so many crickets here as there were in the village. There was more scurrying and rustling. He tried to filter out the excess noise, and heard... a footstep.
Akai jumped, and spun around to face his assailant. He blinked at the sight of the little jade. She quirked her eye ridges at the sound of his heavy breathing. "Did I scare you?"
Akai nodded, sighing. "Itís okay. But, what are you doing out here?" He eyed her suspiciously. "I doubt the elders allowed you to go on a walk out in the forest."
"No," she answered with her eyes cast to the ground, "I... snuck out."
"I wanted to help you."
Akai sighed again. He supposed he should chastise her, but his heart just wasnít in it. In truth, it did his heart good to see her.
"So, what do you plan on telling the elders?"
She shrugged, hesitantly. "Well, if I returned with you... they might not be as angry."
Akai nodded in understanding. "You donít want me to go." She shook her head. "You want me to stay." She nodded. "And... you came to bring me back."
"I just donít understand why you are leaving. Youíve always been with us..."
Akai shook his head. "You know thatís not true. I... am only a ghost, an echo, a transient spirit, to your clan. I will miss all of you, especially you. But I cannot return. And, in time, you will cease to remember me, and go on with your life."
"I donít think so."
Akai frowned, kneeling down to her. "Little jade. Please. Go back to the village." He could feel his heart wrench against the words. He had to fight it to get them out. No matter what he felt, he couldnít let her go with him. "Your place is with your clan."
"But you are of my clan, Akai-san. I will return, but you must promise me something."
Akai felt relief wrestle with anguish. He nodded cautiously. "Very well, what do wish me to promise?"
She looked deeply into his eyes. So deeply tears flowed out, down her cheeks in little streams, without one blink. "Your promise must be," she answered, "that you will return some day to me."
Akai closed his eyes. He could not bear to look at her, and her promise made him feel light-headed. He would make it in a heartbeat, if he knew for sure what was going to happen to him. But he didnít. The journey he was on right now could lead him to his death, for all he knew. When he reopened his eyes, she was still looking at him with pursed lips, waiting on her breath.
In barely a whisper, he answered, "I promise."
Smiling, she hugged him. He returned the hug, but felt hollow inside. He hid his doubt from her as they parted. "Now, follow your part," he instructed.
She nodded and scurried into the woods back towards the village. He watched her go wistfully. When she was out of sight, he turned back around and resumed his journey.
* * * * *
He did not recall being an experienced tracker, but he was able to follow Yoshiís trail exceptionally well for the most part.
"Some more of my memories surfacing?" he asked himself aloud. So far, it had been a tumult. In his time alone to think, whole gaps were being restored, but they were still only parts of the whole. Isolated, they were fascinations, but not revelatory.
The most recent developments have included a bizarre feeling of self-consciousness. He somehow did not feel right, physically, but he couldnít understand why. Other than that, heíd become increasingly aware of past events, mostly of his childhood. Strange imagery had also been flooding him. Tastes and smells, as well. Everything he interacted with as he trekked through the forest - a bird chirp, the feel of a breeze, the taste of his orange, the smell of a tree - seemed to remind him of some new memory.
Finally, the forest opened up. Akai marveled at the sight. Heíd noticed it from far away, as obviously what he was heading towards, but up close it was something entirely different. He gazed as far up as he could before it melted into the night sky.
He followed the tracks until their very end, upon some flat shale beside a modest spring. Beyond it, he saw a trail. The tracks started again. He followed the trail with his eyes all the way up. "It goes to the very top," he breathed.
"Oh no," a stunned voice uttered from behind.
Akai turned to face Yoshi. They both stared at each other, locked into place. Akai resisted leaping at him, and he resisted running.
"What are you doing here?" Akai demanded, at a lack for a better question on such short notice.
Yoshi recoiled. "I was washing myself off and taking a drink of the spring water," he explained. "What are you doing here?"
"What do you think?" Akai answered sarcastically, surprising himself.
After an anxious pause, Yoshi asked, "How much do you remember?"
"A lot," Akai replied. "And Iím remembering more and more as time goes by."
Yoshi broke into a nervous pace, back and forth on the shale.
"Not the answer you were hoping for, I gather."
"You have no idea."
"Maybe I can help, with... whateverís the matter. Just explain to me what you know."
Yoshi stopped pacing. "If you pursue this further, Akai-san, you will only find a temporary truth. There is no escape from what is. You are a part of the Ishimura village now. A member of the gargoyle clan. That is your life."
"No, no it isnít!" Akai exclaimed. "Iím remembering more than you know! Stretches of high-rising metal and glass towers! Places Iíve never been to, could not be a part of Japan! Iím remembering people, places, events... foods! I am somebody else, arenít I?"
Yoshiís eyes widened.
"I told you," Akai declared.
"No, it is not just that..." Yoshi managed to utter from a shaky jaw. Akai eyed Yoshi inquisitively. "The water, look at yourself in the water..."
Bewildered, Akai did as he was instructed, and walked up to the small pond embedded in the shale. He gazed at his reflection. At first, he looked in shock. But that soon wore away, and he examined the face that peered back at him with captivated eyes.
"You see yourself now," Yoshi explained softly from beside him, "as you really are."
"Iím... red," Akai breathed, as he reached up and felt his face. He ran his hand along his long beak, then back over his thin horns, and down his mane of white hair. He looked down at himself, seeing that he was now completely red. He flapped his wings, feeling the difference in weight and structure, and whipped his tail about. Suddenly, his eyes seemed to re-focus inward.
"Memories... all the memories..." His eyes darted from side to side, up and down, seeing things only visible to him. "Itís all coming back, in one huge rush!" He laughed in ecstasy as the memories overwhelmed his ability to process them, and they began inflowing as a blur.
Then, a piercing pain struck him behind the eyes, and he wrenched in pain. When it subsided, the influx was finished. He reveled in the new memories, too many to explore.
He finally broke from his enchanted state to notice Yoshi on his knees, sobbing. "Whatís wrong?" he asked.
"It is lost! Things have gone too far now to be restored!"
"Good!" Akai blurted, abandoning tact.
Yoshi shook his head. "You donít understand. It is not that easy. The Fox Spirits, you are a part of their sport. You canít be free of it. Not until they relinquish you."
"These Fox Spirits, they are the ones that did this to me?"
Yoshi nodded. "My brotherhood worships them. In return for our services, we remain free of their fancies. We are their instruments for those duties which they deem beneath them."
Akaiís eyes narrowed. "I see," he said coldly. "Take me to them."
* * * * *
Akuma and Hajime heard the sounds of footsteps. To their shock, they turned to the sight of Yoshi.
"What are you doing here?" Hajime barked. "Why arenít you back in the vill-"
As Yoshi walked forward, Akai emerged from behind him, with a piece of sharp shale held to the manís back.
The monksí jaws fell open upon the sight of Akai. Akuma breathed in haggardly. With a gasping, vindictive voice, he hollered, "You not only return from your appointed duty, you do so in the presence of he who is chosen, and restored to his original flesh!"
Yoshiís eyes stayed fixed to the ground. He shook, as Akai declared, "Leave him out of this. It wasnít his fault, I came to be this way on my own. Your Fox Spiritsí magic has worn off. It could never last on me. Now, you are going to call them here... however it is you do that... or else-"
"Or else, what?" Akuma challenged. "You will run him through with your shale? Do so. Bringing him into our circle was a mistake. He is not worthy. Only a coward, a commoner, a pathetic nothing."
"The Kitsune will have fair game with your family, now, villager!" Hajime added acidly.
"Enough!" Akai yelled, letting go of Yoshi and coming towards the other two monks with the shale. Yoshi slumped to the ground in a heap to himself. "Now," Akai said as he approached them, "call these ĎKitsuneí or get ready to fail them, most miserably."
Hajime stood his ground, raising his chin defiantly. "You wouldnít harm us with that. You havenít the gall."
"You know, youíre probably right. I usually try to avoid messiness. But, if I were to simply throw you off the ridge of the mountain, that could work. I wouldnít have to see you when you struck the ground."
Hajime sneered, as Akuma replied, "Very well, outlander. We will summon the Fox Spirits. But when they arrive, you may wish you hadnít coerced us so..."
"Yoshi," Akuma bellowed. "Help to erect the pyre."
"Uh, excuse me? A pyre?!"
Akuma grated his teeth. "Yes, a pyre. With which to call the greatest of the Fox Spirits, our master, by the heralding of his namesake-"
"Okay, got it," Akai said, motioning for him to stop.
Akuma looked back to Yoshi. "Come."
"Uh, no, Yoshi, you stay right there," Akai interceded. Akuma and Hajime glared at the gargoyle. "You two erect this pyre of yours, yourselves," he ordered.
"No," Yoshi spoke up, getting to his feet and walking towards his brethren. "I will help them. It is my duty."
Shocked, Akai could only nod and let him. As the three of them began to collect the wood and pile it, Hajime whispered, "Donít think this will save your family."
Akai frowned. As the three men went to work, he leaned back against the side of the mountain and watched.
Yoshiís voice rang out, suddenly. "Stop stalling," he accused Akuma and Hajime. "You can go as long as you like and you wonít be able to stall until sunrise." The two monks seethed at him, as Akai smirked.
The moon was not much farther before the pyre was completed and set fire to. They watched the flames engulf the wood and rise in intensity. Then, to Akaiís surprise, they muffled it. The result was a heavy mass of thick, black smoke that rose steadily into the air.
As Yoshi and Hajime hummed a chant in the background, Akuma declared in what was evidently his summoning voice, "Volcano Smoke, great spirit of the mountain, we call you to us!"
Akai crossed his arms as he observed the ritual. At first, nothing. Then, a figure flashed into existence within the shroud of the smoke. As it faded, Akai could discern its features. He gaped.
The creature stood an imposing seven feet tall, with fur that was coal-black. It was fox-headed, but humanoid, dressed in beautifully-crafted, ornamental, multi-colored robes. Lastly, eight mighty tails pronounced themselves from behind.
All three of the monks bowed to him. "Kemuri-Kazan," they greeted humbly.
The creature looked over his three subjects, as they formed a circle around him. "You may raise your heads now," it informed. For its appearance, the voice surprised Akai. It was unexpectedly moderate in pitch, as opposed to the booming, thunderous voice he anticipated. He also detected more than a slight twinge of pomposity.
"What are you?" Akai asked bluntly.
Kemuri looked up at Akai, startled. Then, he took on an amicable semblance. "Who are you?" he asked back.
"I am Brooklyn," the gargoyle stated firmly. "The Timedancer."
All three of the monks registered their shock at the response. Not even Yoshi had expected that much. But Kemuri wasnít impressed.
"Former Timedancer," the Kitsune corrected smugly.
"Great One, we beg your forgiveness!" Akuma pleaded from behind in a special, reverent tone of voice apparently reserved for just such an occasion. "We could not help his memory from returning!"
Kemuri rolled his ebon eyes. "Not all of his memory can be back," he corrected. "But apparently enough."
Brooklyn nodded firmly. "Enough to know who I am, and that the Phoenix Gate is mine. I donít remember how, but you took it from me, and dropped me in Ishimura with a new, manufactured identity."
The Kitsune grinned. "My, you seem to have it all figured out, donít you? But is that how it really went, Timedancer? As I recall, when I first encountered you, it was you who wanted something, not I..."
Brooklynís eyes went wide as something suddenly exploded in his mind. Another memory was not only resurfacing, it was taking over every sense. With his last moment of awareness, he realized with shock that he was about to relive whatever it was...
* * * * *
Outside Ishimura, 5 Days Ago
The Phoenix flames erupted over a small prairie. Brooklyn fell out of the flaming sphere, plopping onto the grassy earth head-first. After the flames dissipated, Brooklyn heaved himself up and wiped some dirt off his beak.
He glanced around. "Nice," he commented to himself. "Rural. And without any hordes of rampaging Mongols, or poison-dart-spitting natives." He nodded approvingly. "Always a welcomed change of pace."
Suddenly, he heard the sounds of laughter faintly in the distance. Curious, he trekked the short distance across the prairie, to where a hill sloped off. A ways beyond, he caught sight of several young children running and playing - gargoyle children. Not only that, but from their garb and physical traits, Japanese gargoyles. And he knew of only one gargoyle clan in Japan...
"Ishimura," he breathed. An adultís voice cut through the giggling and laughing, calling the hatchlings to attention. It appeared as though training of some sort was about to begin.
Brooklyn surveyed all of the children anxiously, until his eyes finally fell on a jade-green youngling, as she ran to the end of her line.
"Who?" came a voice.
Brooklyn started, jumping up to his feet and looking in every direction. "What the-"
A thud caught his ear, and he saw some grass bend down, as if something or someone was standing on it. As it took steps closer, the grass imprinted in the shape of paw prints.
Brooklyn observed the phenomenon puzzledly. "Are you... one of Oberonís Children?"
A chuckle emanated from the invisible creature. "No, no, not of his children. But, of his blood, yes."
Brooklyn groaned. "Great, a halfling, right?" He rolled his eyes. "And, somehow, I anticipate youíll feel exempt from Oberonís laws..."
The laughter of two distinct presences joined together. "As if any of Lord Oberonís children obey his laws," the original voice replied.
"Canít argue with that..." Brooklyn remarked.
"But no," the new voice added, "we are not governed by Oberonís laws, any more than we comprise his ranks. Our body of rule is the Council of Nine-Tails, and rule it does, ever so pretentiously. But enough of us, odd stranger. Tell us of you."
All of a sudden, Brooklyn felt as if they were no longer present. A complete silence fell. But he knew better than to think they vacated. He cleared his throat. "Well, I, uh..."
"Your name, perhaps?"
"Brooklyn," he answered with finality.
"I see!" the second voice said jubilantly as he materialized over top of Brooklyn. The gargoyle found himself looking into the fox-creatureís face, hanging upside down in the air, and backed away.
He popped out of sight, and reappeared standing. "I am Kemuri-Kazan," he introduced. Brooklyn nodded wearily, noting the creatureís large stature.
Out of nowhere, the other one popped into sight, a lighter umber-colored fellow with five tails. "He is Inu-Jozu," Kemuri introduced. Brooklyn nodded again, pausing as the Japanese filtered through.
"Your name means... ĎClever Dogí?"
Inu didnít reply, but capered around the stunned gargoyle, making like a fool. "You are in the home of the Imperial Sun," he stated.
Brooklyn attempted to disentangle himself from the Kitsune, as he replied, "Yeah, Iíd gathered that."
"Ah, then you are aware of this land?" Kemuri declared, somewhat impressed.
Brooklyn sighed, turning back towards the training grounds below. "Yeah, Iíve had my fair share of visits to this place," he explained glumly. He caught sight of Sata practicing with a pint-sized katana, under the observation of an elder, and smiled.
He drew back when he realized both Kitsunes were right up to him on either side, analyzing his facial expression.
"Who is it you find fancy with?" Kemuri inquired.
"Nobody." He turned his back on the training grounds, and began to walk away. But as he did, he felt something tug at his gut. He tried to take another step, but couldnít. He could feel his heart contracting in his chest. He couldnít bear it.
He turned back around, to face the two Kitsunes, who stared back at him blankly, their tails swaying tentatively in the air.
"Could you..." he started, but stopped.
"Go on," Kemuri urged.
Brooklyn cleared his throat. "I... would like to ask a favor of you."
Both Kitsunesí eyebrows lifted. "Oh? And what favor would you like from us?"
Brooklyn hesitated. Then he heard another giggle from the grounds below. It caught the ears of the two Kitsunes, and Kemuriís eyes lighted up. "Ahh, I see," Kemuri declared, earning him a curious glance from Inu. "You wish for companionship, yes? Of someone down there?"
"Well, kind of, yeah... Iíd like to be able to meet someone," Brooklyn corrected.
"Well, then, meet them!" Inu replied.
"No, itís... not that easy. If I just waltz down there, I risk..." He bit his lip, as the two Kitsunes leaned in closer. "I risk... altering time."
Both their eyes widened. "A time traveler?" Kemuri said excitedly.
Inu popped into sight beside Brooklyn and lifted the Phoenix Gate to look at. "And this, is this your time travel amulet?" He turned it upside down and shook it, before Brooklyn reclaimed it and put it back in his pouch.
"Well," Kemuri announced, "I donít see why we canít do a favor for a guest to our land. Anything less would be inhospitable, no, Jozu?" Jozu nodded excitedly.
Brooklyn felt something rise inside him. After all these months, it was going to happen, he was going to be able to meet his lost mate. As he thought about it, a pain struck him. No matter what favor these Kitsunes could grant, it would only be temporary. Would he ever see Sata again, as she was? What were the chances of dancing right into her hands like this? Would it ever happen again? Perhaps, any age would be better than nothing.
"Iíve changed my mind," Brooklyn said. The two Kitsunes awaited curiously. "I want you to allow me to be with the one I wish to meet... permanently."
Kemuri and Inu exchanged hesitant glances. "I donít know about that," Kemuri replied, "that is a heavy request."
Inu nodded his head in agreement. "And the Council of Nine-Tails, they might have something to say," he chimed as he twirled in the air.
"Please!" Brooklyn begged, falling to his knees. "Iím begging you, do this." Without warning, the Phoenix Gate rolled out of his pouch, falling flatly to the ground between he and the two Fox Spirits. Inuís eyes lit up.
Brooklyn stared at the Gate. It was the only thing of any value he had on him, and the two Kitsunes were already interested in it. It was his obligation, but obligations didnít matter to his heart. He thought of the Weird Sisters, smiling to one another as they snipped the string connecting him and Sata...
Well, he could snip strings too.
"Take the Gate," he offered. Both Kitsunes reacted with shock. "Your time-traveling toy?" Brooklyn nodded enthusiastically, as he pushed the Gate forward. Inu bent down and picked it up. "Itís yours," he assured him. Then, he looked up to Kemuri. "If youíll fulfill my wish?"
Kemuri grinned. "What fun! We have not dealt in fair trade with mortals in so long I canít recall. Very well, we will grant your favor."
The last thing Brooklyn heard was the inane voice of Inu prattling, "Now we have some sport! Now we have some sport, yes, yes!" as he hopped up and down with the Phoenix Gate in his hands.
* * * * *
Brooklyn felt his knees give out and fell. His eyes shook as he stared at the towering Kitsune. Horror reflected itself on all his features. "Could I have been so desperate...?" he asked himself in a whisper, holding his palms up to see. "To forfeit the Phoenix Gate itself?"
"Apparently," Kemuri answered, shrugging. "You had the perfect life in Ishimura. Friends to surround you, and your love at your side... to be with forever."
"But I did not know who she was!" he shouted, grabbing the ground with his hands as tears formed in his eyes. "I did not know who I was!"
"Unavoidable," Kemuri replied lightly. "We mustnít risk altering time, after all." His tone soured, as he added, "The Council of Nine-Tails would never allow it..."
Brooklyn bowed his head in shame. Akuma and Hajime looked on with raised chins and satisfied smirks, as Yoshiís eyes reflected conflict. Kemuri only waited patiently.
Finally, Brooklyn looked back up. "Please... reverse things. Undo our deal. Please! I was not myself!"
The Fox Spirit wagged his tails absently as he replied, "Love is a strong force. Yes, a judgment-hampering force, indeed. But... a deal is a deal. It is not permitted for a Kitsune to take back his word. That would be plain disreputable!" He shook a finger at Brooklyn. "Besides, you mortals must learn to live by your decisions."
Brooklyn breathed shakily. Kemuri would be recasting his spell, returning him to the village. The next night, he and all the others would awaken as if nothing of the past two nights had occurred. All would be as it had been. He would alight from his perch, to the sounds of "Good Evening, Akai"...
He shivered. "Please..."
"Stop this!" Akuma and Hajime turned appalled faces towards Yoshi. They tried to keep him at bay, but he broke through their arms and approached the Kitsune. "Stop lying, Fox Spirit. Your deceit has ended. It is over. Your game is lost."
Kemuri cocked an innocent eyebrow at the temperamental monk. Yoshi turned to Brooklyn. "He has deceived you yet again, Brooklyn-san."
"You will be silent!" Akuma bellowed.
"No, I will not!" Yoshi bit back.
"What is he talking about?" Brooklyn demanded from Kemuri. The Kitsuneís face twisted into a grimace, when all of a sudden a ball of fire appeared. The Phoenix Gate went flinging from the vortex before it closed, and Inu-Jozu popped into sight. The Gate bumped against the mountain-face and clattered to the ground.
"It does not work! It does not work!" the Kitsune complained as he stomped his feet and tails.
Brooklyn looked from the Kitsunes to the Gate. "You canít retain control over the Gate..." he realized, the events of the other night sliding into place. "I am its master, and as much as youíve tried to redirect it with your magic, it keeps coming back to me, doesnít it?"
Inu glanced to Kemuri, puzzled. "He knows?" Kemuri nodded.
"Think!" Yoshi interceded, "You know what really happened! The Kitsunes did not grant you a wish, they forced it on you! They wanted the Gate for their Ďsportí and you refused to give it to them, and so they took it by force! They gave you amnesia, changed your appearance, and left you in Ishimura with a fresh identity, rationalizing that theyíve fulfilled their end by giving you a life with your love. But you did not go willingly!"
He eyed the two Kitsunes accusingly. "Like your identity, they manufactured a false memory to try to trick you."
The Kitsunes twiddled their fingers and looked around innocently as Brooklyn turned his eyes on them.
"Well, itís been fun, but we must go," Kemuri spoke up quickly.
"But, our sport!" Inu complained. Kemuri smacked him on the back of the head with a tail, and he grinned sheepishly. Together, they took some steps back.
"Not so fast!" Yoshi yelled. "You know what must be done. The Gate will never conform to you. It is useless. Give it back."
Both Fox Spirits frowned, as Inu made an off-hand gesture with his hand, like skipping a stone onto a lake. The Gate leapt off the ground and into Brooklynís hands. "It is yours," Inu explained, "cleaned of our magic." He added, grumbling, "It wasnít cooperating, anyway..."
"Come, Jozu!" Kemuri called, "we will find better sport, elsewhere. This... has grown boring." With that, both Kitsunes vanished.
Akuma and Hajime ran up to the spots their masters previously occupied, and fell to their knees, bowing up and down, murmuring hymns of forgiveness.
Brooklyn looked at Yoshi sincerely. "Why?" he asked.
Yoshi sighed. "It was never right from the beginning. Neither was Volcano Smokeís and Clever Dogís attempt at making Ďsportí of my village. To be the object of a Fox Spiritís fancy curses you from anywhere to months, to years, to a lifetime. To save my family, I gave myself to the brotherhood."
"Thatís what they were threatening you with," Brooklyn concluded, in understanding.
Yoshi nodded. "Donít worry, they will be too busy trying to make amends to the Kitsunes, who will most likely find Ďsportí with them for a while, as a result..."
Brooklyn smiled. "Thick irony," he remarked.
Yoshi returned the smile, but it quickly melted away. "What of your love?"
Brooklynís gaze lowered. "I suppose I will have to find her, the right way. The Kitsunes did do me one favor. The memory of having to turn them down isnít one I think I wouldíve liked to keep."
Brooklyn felt the familiar tugging feeling, and looked down to see the Gate beginning to spark. Yoshi noticed it, too.
Brooklyn managed to lip a ĎThank youí before the Phoenix flames blossomed around him and swallowed him.
* * * * *
The Phoenix Flames
Brooklyn closed his eyes as he spoke into the vortex. "I will keep my promise, little jade."