CHAPTER 4, Part 3
Hanami ran along the same forest path she had seen in many a nightmare, but this time her flight was freeing, joyful. She was naked, but confident and unafraid… it was exhilarating to be like this, so that she shuddered with delight. For once, no demons snapped at her back, no past tragedies weighed her down… all she had to do was run. She didn’t even have to think about her destination; her feet guided her as if they had a will of their own.
The lake… of course. She could smell the wet, earthy scent of the shore and the sweet fronds growing from the water, see the moonlight reflecting in its still waters… With a gleeful shout she emerged from the bushes, ran down the bank and dove in. The coldness of the water was a blessing, shocking her senses into clarity with its chill. For a few moments she remained motionless, suspended in the depths, until the need for air threatened to burst her lungs… and then she breached the surface, droplets flying in a spray from her golden hair.
Hanami fell onto her back and floated languidly on the still water. The sky above her was a glorious expanse of stars in black velvet, and a spectacular full moon shone down on her, clearer and brighter than she could ever remember. Seized by sudden desire, she reached up to that sky and grasped at the pebbled white disc up there. To her surprise, the moon came away in her hand. It was so small, so very small and fragile. Hanami clutched it to her breast like a precious treasure and smiled. Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.
Slowly the stars above began to fall as she drifted, a tranquil rain of diamonds that came to rest on the water’s surface, floating along with her. Surrounded by a million tiny lights, she gazed back up at the empty black sky and wondered: if the stars and moon were all there beside her, how would anyone find their way at night…? Glittering teardrops fell from her eyes and into waters of the lake, then rose to the surface to become new stars…
The doe let out a short choked gasp as she awoke. Searing fingers danced up and down her spine, driving the remnants of the dream away. In agony she clenched her fists hard enough to draw blood from her palms, and bit down on her tongue to stop herself from screaming…
She remembered: N’Ktane, Zero, Lady Terra, everything. A tide of memories rushed back in to fill the void. Zero stabbed her with his kunai when she tried to protect him… no, it was N’Ktane who made him do it… She should have died back there, but the Goddess spoke to her, made her a new keshin, transformed her Mage Flower into a scepter and sent her into battle…
But where was she now? The last thing she remembered was speaking to Zero back in the meditation chamber. Everything was hazy and indistinct; this place was undoubtedly a temple of some kind, but nothing built by the Order… it was all sandstone, torchlight throwing shadows on low ceilings, unfamiliar patterns on the walls. Perhaps if she could move she could begin to get her bearings, but the pain was too intense to do anything but lie there and stare at the ceiling and try to bear it…
“Hanami!” The familiar voice came from one of the doorways; she glanced to one side, making conscious effort not to move her head doing so. Zero stood there with an expression of joy and grief finely intertwined, clearly restraining himself from rushing forward to embrace her. His mouth opened and closed awkwardly, and his ears turned back as he averted his eyes.
“Zero, what’s-” She chanced a look down. Her tunic was in bloody shreds beneath her, her upper body was bare. Her ears laid flat in embarrassment, and she tried to move her arms to cover herself, to no avail; even attempting to lift a finger made her dizzy and sick. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, resigning herself to indecency. “I’m so sorry…”
His footsteps crossed the stone floor. Without a word, he retrieved his ruined, bloodstained jacket from where it lay on the slab next to her, and draped it over her like a blanket.
“Th-thank you…” Hanami smiled faintly, touched by the gesture. Even through the metallic stench of blood, the jacket still smelled like him; taking a few deep breaths of his scent helped to lessen the pain just a little.
Gently Zero took her hand in his and held tight. “I’m here. It’s going to be all right.”
There followed a long period of silence broken only by intermittent gasps from the doe. Zero held onto her hand through the worst of it as she slipped in and out of consciousness.
After a while, the jackal appeared at the doorway behind them. Zero could feel his gaze burning the back of his neck. “She’s suffering,” he said without looking up. “Isn’t there anything more you can do for her?”
“I told you already, I lack the ability to heal,” said Renubis. “With the proper herbs, though…”
“Herbs,” said Zero, wanting to slap himself for not thinking of it. “I’m sure there are medicinal herbs back at Woodhaven! But which ones-”
He felt Hanami faintly squeeze his hand. “W-willow bark,” she gasped through gritted teeth as another spasm of pain rocked her body and darkness flickered in her vision. “Cloves. Ca… caraway… Bottled… in my medicine cabinet…”
“Willow bark, cloves, and caraway,” Zero repeated, committing them to memory. “Just hold on, Hanami, I’ll get them for you as soon as I-” His shoulders sagged. To go to Woodhaven and back would take at least an hour, far too much time.
Renubis read his expression. “There is a faster way, you know.”
Only then did Zero glare back over his shoulder. “If you’re thinking of using that sand transport spell, forget it. There’s no way she’s strong enough to make it through the trip.”
“No, she is not. Think again, young keshin.” With that he pointed at Zero’s sword.
It took the buck a moment to catch on. “My God form?” He frowned. “But I’ve never used it for something like that before…”
“There is a first time for everything, is there not?” Renubis grinned, his fangs gleaming in the torchlight. “A simple lightning spell should suffice. Besides, I’m curious to see if you can do it. It would be an interesting application of your abilities.”
“If it’s for her…” He gently patted Hanami’s hand before laying it down. “Please hold on. I’ll be back.”
“I know,” she mumbled, closing her eyes. “Be careful…”
“I shall remain here, watching over her,” said Renubis. “There are spells I can use to ease her back to sleep.”
Zero shot him a fierce glare. “Keep her safe. I’m trusting you.”
“I can assure you shall do my best. I have a vested interest in keeping the both of you alive.”
He still had a nagging suspicion that this “vested interest” didn’t bode at all well, but now wasn’t the time to worry about it. He was off and running for the tower’s main entrance before the jackal could say anything more.
Once outside, Zero drew his sword from its sheath and raised it high. Snowflakes swirled around him as he closed his eyes and whispered, “Keshin.” A thunderclap split the chilly winter air and his body began to shine from within with golden light as his robes changed from black to the Shogun’s white and red. A cloud of steam surrounded him as the heat of his divine aura melted the snow in a rough circle under his feet. He was impressed; transforming this time was even easier than before, perhaps he was growing used to it… Another curious thing he noticed was that his sword remained whole this time instead of dividing itself into two blades. Perhaps it only split when he needed to battle with it?
There was no time to dawdle, though. Hanami was counting on him. Gripping his sword tightly, he thought of all the times he had used the boltpath spellstones that he so hated… lightning magic. Lightning was a combination of wind and fire magic, both elements associated with the God of Time. Zero was no mage, but in theory it should be as simple as Renubis claimed, right?
The first step in using a boltpath was to visualize your destination. Zero had no trouble picturing Woodhaven by now: the small cottage inside the living oak, blanketed with wildflowers even in the dead of winter, the interiors warm and comforting and filled with enticing smells…
That was step one. Step two was usually commanding the spellstone to release its stored energy, but with no spellstone, how were you supposed to-
He barely had time to wonder. No sooner had he thought of it than the boltpath spell activated, transforming him into a brilliant golden fork of lightning that hurtled through the trees of Tasakeru at impossible speed… Zero found himself grinning despite himself. This he could get used to! Unlike standard boltpath travel, there was no unpleasant stretching sensation, no feeling of leaving most of his mass behind. He had become lightning instead of merely riding it, and it was wonderful… his sword point leading the way, it only took the slightest nudge to veer left or right, and anything in his way he either phased through or burned up in passing. Before he knew it, Woodhaven’s clearing loomed before him, and he sent a conscious command to the sword: Stop.
All his energy caught up with him at once. With a crack of thunder, he skidded to a stop, his transformation fading as he plowed a furrow a foot deep in the clearing, the soles of his boots kicking up small tongues of flame in his wake. He was amazed that he was even still on his feet; the other two times he transformed had ended with a two-day coma and sudden unconsciousness, respectively. Now all he felt was… well, extremely disoriented and sick to his stomach, but the dizziness was normal for boltpath travel. Of more concern was that he was outside in the snow without his jacket… but with Hanami at stake, a little cold was nothing.
His heart sank as he stepped through Woodhaven’s open door. The Silver Order had ravaged the beautiful little place in their search while under N’Ktane’s control. Chairs were overturned, cushions were torn apart, dirty bootprints marred the floors, snow gathered on the sill of the broken window, and arrows still peppered one of the walls. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky it’s even still standing, he thought bitterly. She might have just made them burn the whole place down. Zero felt a fresh wave of hatred toward the spider as he stepped carefully around the debris, making his way toward the back of the house.
The herbs were right where Hanami said they were, carefully preserved in small glass bottles each labeled with a thin strip of bark paper bearing her neat script. Using a sheet from the bedroom as a makeshift haversack, Zero grabbed as many as he could carry of the three herbs she’d specified, and a few others just to be on the safe side. All right. Now to go back… I hope I have enough energy to transform again…
Once more he threaded through the detritus of the Order Knights’ presence and made his way to the front door. Taking one last look around, he opened the door and stepped outside…
Someone was waiting on the front step.
It was a samurai dressed all in grey armor, of an ancient style that Zero recognized from the books he used to read. Far too much armor; even the warrior’s tail was bound by leather straps. None of his face could be seen through his mask save for his piercing dark eyes, eyes that seemed to draw in the light…
The two stared at each other for several very long minutes.
Finally, the grey samurai spoke in deep and cultured tones. “Lord Zeromaru Takaichi?”
Zero tensed and shuffled the haversack to his other shoulder. “That’s me. What do you want?” It was a rude response, but politeness was the furthest thing from his mind right now…
Instead of answering, the warrior drew his sword, long and deadly with a serrated blade, its blunt side painted crimson. The sword point hovered an inch from Zero’s nose. “I should think that would be obvious, young buck.”
Zero’s temper flared up. Of all the times, why now? “I don’t have time for this,” he said as he made to move the sword out of the way with his free hand.
The grey samurai held his ground, keeping his sword steady as a rock. His helmet tilted slightly to one side. “I have searched long for you, Takaichi. You will not deny me.”
“The hell I won’t,” growled Zero, attempting to move past him. “Out of the way.”
“Perhaps you do not understand.” The voice from the helmet was calm and even as the surface of a lake. “Let me remind you, Takaichi, that when challenged to a duel, a samurai is honor bound to do so. Or did you desert your honor along with your service in the Militia?”
The insult cut deeper than he would admit, but Zero wouldn’t let himself be baited. “You seem to know a lot about me, stranger. Who are you, anyway?”
Only then did the strange warrior drop his sword. Sheathing the weapon, he put his hands to his sides and bowed. “I am Gen Tsurugi. I seek to duel with the chosen keshin of the Shogun, Zeromaru Takaichi.”
Zero dropped the haversack. He recognized the name immediately, and he couldn’t determine which part unnerved him more: that the samurai somehow knew of his power as a keshin, or that the figure in front of him was claiming to be the implacable rogue samurai from the final tale of Hayaoh, the one that had dealt the legendary warrior his mortal blow… For a moment he was awed, humbled even, to think that Gen Tsurugi would appear before him…
And then he came to his senses. Gen Tsurugi was from a kit’s tale, set a thousand years ago. This samurai’s act was good, almost perfect, but it had to be just that, an act… unless he was simply insane. Either way, someone he loved was hurt, possibly dying, and depended on him to deliver the herbs that could ease her pain, and legendary samurai or not, the buck claiming to be Gen Tsurugi was standing in his way.
Zero retrieved the haversack and shoved Gen aside with his shoulder as he strode past him. “Sorry. Whoever you really are, I can’t afford to duel with you right now. If you-”
The sword was drawn too quickly for Zero’s eye to follow. With one stroke it split the haversack open and sent glass bottles tumbling to the doorstep, a few of them making musical sounds as they shattered and spilled their contents.
“I apologize,” said Gen, “but you will recall I did not indicate you had any choice in the matter.”
Zero stared in disbelief at the spilled herbs and broken glass. When his eyes lifted to meet Gen’s once more, they blazed with fury as anger swelled up hot in his breast. “Fine,” he snarled as he put his hand to the hilt of his own blade. “I accept your challenge, Tsurugi. If you want a duel, you just got one!”
END OF CHAPTER 4