I woke up with a headache of epic proportions. My body felt curiously loose, as if the joints were not tightly put together. For a moment my brain refused to work, paralyzed by the agony somewhere inside my skull. Then the headache subsided, leaving in its wake a jolt of memory. I sat up straight, only to have the headache return in full. The pain made me hunch my shoulders.
This was unacceptable. I had never gone through anything like this, being brought to my knees before I had so much as lifted a finger. I summoned my Cosmos, and it stirred. At least it was still there. But where the hell was I, and where was my Cloth?
First things first. I climbed groggily to my feet. To my relief, the headache receded once again. My eyes scanned my surroundings, taking in every detail. I was on some sort of a plateau, eggshell blue in color, and boundless. It seemed to be illuminated from beneath by a mellow light that suffused everything with a pale blue sheen. Above was total darkness. As I waited for the headache to leave, I happened to see something several paces away. It was a person.
Dead? I lurched toward the unmoving heap, my steps accentuated by stabs of pain to my occiput. When I was near enough to get a good look, I recognized him with no trouble at all; the red-haired man with the wolf. He was unconscious, lying half on his side. Then I saw something that chased all thoughts of my own pain away.
One of his eyes was missing. Under his left eyebrow was a hollow spot where his eye was supposed to be. I looked at his right eye, which was at its usual place, then back to the left side of his face. As I watched, the flesh under the left eyebrow twitched. I started.
The flesh started to bulge, short copper hairs sticking out from the skin. An eyelid surfaced, rimmed with eyelashes, slowly but steadily. I couldnít tear my own eyes away as the missing left eye came into form. The man shifted but didnít awaken.
Did the same thing happen to me? I wondered. Was my face also incomplete before I woke up? Then I recalled Seika telling me about a blank-faced man.
The man on my feet abruptly jerked to a sitting position, startling me. He glanced around wildly before he noticed me. Eyes growing cautious, he rose to his feet, keeping his distance. He probably thought I was one of his kidnappers.
"Whereís this?" he demanded.
"Beats me, " I replied coldly.
He blinked several times, rubbing his hand against his erstwhile gone left eye. I had a mind to tell him about it, but didnít. "YouÖyouíre Phoenix?" He was scrutinizing me openly.
"Go to the top of the class. And who are you?"
"Fenris," he said. "Aleronís got you too, huh? Your brothers got a nasty surprise when your armor was tossed into their front yard."
My anger, previously a spark, turned into a full conflagration. "What?"
He gave a brief narration of who he was, what brought him here, and the challenge letter. That did not please me in the least. "Sending my Cloth straight to the mansion," I muttered, seething. "What guts!"
"Yes, well, your brothers and Ann must be on their way to fulfill the challenge Ė and look for us Ė so I wouldnít worry too much."
I stared. "If you want to play the helpless victim and wait for their rescue, suit yourself. I am going to try to get out of here." Unimaginably vast though this plateau could be, it had to end somewhere.
"I am not planning to wait," he said, flashing me an impenitent grin. "What I meant by not having to worry was that we wouldnít be on our own should we run into Aleron and the rest of his jokers. So, any idea yet where you are going? This Ė whatever this is Ė seems to have no limit."
As he spoke, something moved at the edge of my vision. I swirled around, but saw nothing save for the two of us.
I frowned. "For a moment I thought Ė there was someone running past us."
"I didnít see anybody."
That could have been my imagination, then. I proceeded to forget it altogether. "Where do you suggest we should head for?"
Fenris motioned ahead. "Thatís as good a place to start as any."
With a brisk nod I strode off. He fell into step beside me, whistling tonelessly, eyes alert and watchful. The plateau was so silent as to be depressing, but I refused to give in to that mood.
Though I attempted to put it aside, I still couldnít shake the hunch that an unseen presence was following us, gauging us. But we were obviously alone. Had I perhaps developed a case of paranoia?
Either way, caution was the better part of valor.
We set out after dawn in a station wagon Ė Hyoga, Shun, Ann and me. Shiryu was assigned to guard Tokyo during our absence. Monsters might run amok while we were away. He didnít like the responsibility, but said yes anyhow. I hoped nothing would happen in Tokyo, be it monsters or anything else.
Tatsumi was driving and Saori sat next to the driver seat. The rest of us managed to squeeze ourselves into what space was left, sharing our place with our Cloth Boxes. Shun had insisted on bringing Ikkiís Cloth parts. "Heíll need them."
"But the legs are missing," I pointed out.
"Weíll find them eventually. I donít want Niisan to be without protection."
Ann listened intently. "Canít you function properly if you donít have your Cloths with you?"
"We can, thank you," I said brusquely. "Itís just that our Cloths are both our fortification and additional strength. A lot of additional strength." Ann herself was clad in her customary jeans and sweatshirt Ė she didnít seem to feel the chill too much. "I suppose you Flathinnis folks donít need armors?"
"No, theyíre too heavy," she replied flippantly, and I snorted.
"Have you ever been in direct combat with Aleron, or any of his men?" Hyoga asked, changing the subject.
"I have. With Aleron, that is. But he wasnít that difficult to overcome. He seems to gain more power here. Maybe the weather agrees with him or something." She stared out of the window. "If thatís the case, we may be in for a really hard time. In battles like this things donít always come up roses."
"We know that," I countered, but Ann was lost in her own thoughts and didnít answer.
We covered the fifty miles in an hour, taking care to always head west and not turn to another direction. Tatsumi pulled over in a gas station to ask whether there was a small village at the end of the road. He came back, saying that there was a village all right, but few people lived there. The man at the gas station couldnít even tell him if those people were still living there. We decided to take the chance and Tatsumi drove on.
The road was cut short by a sloping valley. We got off and donned our Cloths, much to Annís fascination, I could tell. Shun and Hyoga roamed around to survey the area. The valley fell away in a ravine, across which was an elevated piece of land. The valley and the land were connected by a long bridge, chiefly constructed from ropes and planks.
"Thatís our rendezvous place, I presume." Hyoga studied the precarious looking bridge.
Shun wandered over to the ravineís edge. "It looks ready to fall apart at the smallest tug." Ann made a face at this. Then Shunís face whitened. He was staring at the bridge and I saw it too. The right leg of Ikkiís armor was lying precisely in the middle of the bridge.
I broke the silence. "At least we know weíre on the right way." Shun turned to me, blinking. He clutched the other parts of the Phoenix Cloth more tightly.
Saori was saying, "This time Iím not coming with you." We all looked at her, startled. I sighed in relief; no need for arguments this time. A small smile curved one corner of her mouth. "Anyway Aleron doesnít have any business with Athena. All I can do is wish you good luck."
"Thank you, Saori-san," I nodded, keeping the relief off my face. She glanced at me but said nothing.
We moved toward the bridge, keeping an eye on our footing. The morning sun was a weak white coin on the grayish winter sky. As we reached the bridge, we heard the station wagonís engine hum into life before ebbing away to finally vanish.
The bridge, despite its frail appearance, supported us quite stoutly. Other than the intermittent swaying and creaking, it stayed put. Shun picked up the right leg as we passed it by. We arrived at the other side without an accident.
Beyond the bridge was a small glade, the tree branches bare because of the season. We went through it and reached another valley, but it was much less deeper than the previous one. A lone house stood there, surrounded by palisades. Beyond the house was another glade.
Ann looked around, one hand tucked into the pocket of her jeans. "There isnít anybody here," she declared. "This is just a dead, empty place. Do you think we took the wrong way?"
"No!" protested Shun, tapping at the Phoenix Cloth he was carrying. "If we find the other leg, Niisan wouldnít be too far Ė and your friend."
I stopped. "Speak of the devil." I bent down and lifted the missing left leg, which had been partly hidden by the snow on the ground. Shun froze. I handed the leg to him, which he received with a mumbled thanks.
"Well, letís move on Ė " Hyoga began.
Astounded at the urgency in Shunís cry, we followed the direction of his wide-eyed look. Standing in the glade beyond the abandoned house was a blue-haired man. At the distance I couldnít tell whether it was Ikki or not, but the resemblance was enough for Shun, it appeared. Hugging his brotherís Cloth parts, he broke into a dash straight at the glade.
"Shun!" Hyoga, surprised into running after him, called out. "Shun! Hey, Shun!"
"Wait!" I shouted, but Ann grabbed at my arm.
"Stay here," she ordered.
"But Ė "
"No! This is a trick!" She cupped her hands around her mouth. "Yo, Shun! Hyoga! Come back here, itís not Ė "
The air between the house and the glade shimmered. I watched, dumbfounded, as the glade wobbled, blurred, then disappeared, Shun and Hyoga along with it. There was only a vast empty whiteness where the glade had been.
I stood stunned for a second, then exploded, "Damn it!"
"Divide et impera," Ann muttered. "The oldest trick in the world and we still fall for it." I glowered at her, and she shrugged. "Donít look at me like that, itís no use. What weíve got to do now is find a way to get to your buddies."
I gestured at the white space before us. "Would you consider jumping there, both of us?"
She shook her head. "Nah. Either Aleron or Sloa will show up here, though Iíd bet on Aleron. Illusions and disguises are Sloaís field. Aleron is more honest."
"Honest people do not fight like this."
"Okay, sorry that I didnít manage to beat Aleron and co. while they were still in Flathinnis, but I didnít intend them to go here, either. Sorry also for dragging you Saints into this."
"I didnít mean that!" Did she say that to make me feel guilty? Well, she did a good job. "I just donít want to sit around and wait for somebody who may never arrive. I want to do something."
She folded her arms. "If this is any comfort, itíll be your friends and Fenris against Sloa. They canít lose. Can they?"
She had a point. But if Sloa was, as she had mentioned, a master of illusions, Hyoga, Shun, Ikki and Fenris might be in for a rough time. Ikki I didnít worry about Ė his only weak spot was Esmeralda, and heíd learned to cope with it Ė but Hyoga and Shun might be an altogether different case. And I didnít know Fenris well enough to know about his weak spot. I suddenly wished Shiryu were here.
"So, any suggestion?" I said.
"For the moment, nothing. We canít return, and we canít follow Shun and Hyoga. But we will have a guest shortly, of that Iím positive. Aleron doesnít like to waste time."
But this wasnít how it was supposed to be.
I drew the lot; I was the one who had to go to Death Queen Island. Why was it my Niisan? Why did he go?
Because he wanted you to be always a weakling, breathed a sibilant voice. Because it made him feel superior. He was the martyr, ready to go to living hell for the sake of his poor, defenseless little brother. You have always known it, havenít you, Shun-chan? You are his way of showing everyone just how courageous he is, and how pitiful you are. Oh, he has been using you all these years. You just wonít open your misguided mind to that.
No! Niisan wouldnít do that! Niisan went to Death Queen Island becauseÖbecause otherwise Iíd die there. He was my protector. He was my rock.
The voice chuckled ever so softly. Ah, Shun, you are well and truly Andromeda. Your heart is of gold. But it is time to awaken. Realize that Ikki is a man without feeling. You are nothing to him. Nothing but a burden. He saved you many times, didnít he? Why do you think he did so? He wanted to make it clear you are a worthless Saint, one who cannot survive battles without his succor.
I shuddered as if with ague. Who was speaking? Who was defiling my mind, turning me against Niisan? I tried to move my mouth but it was numb. My skin prickled all over, and around me was darkness. My body was light, as was my head. As I raised my eyes, I saw Niisan.
The blue-haired nine-year-old boy was sauntering away, his steps soundless, his back to me. He was carrying a backpack. I desperately wanted to call him, to run after him, but my will alone wasnít sufficient to move my leaden limbs. What was wrong? Where was this?
He is leaving you, the voice sighed. He always does, no matter how much you think he loves you. He does not need you. He never needs anyone. So spare yourself the pain of being removed from his life by removing yourself first.
Niisan will never push me away! I cried in a mute voice. Get lost, whoever you are!
The boy dissolved in a burst of orange flames and suddenly my chest was hurting me. I had an absurd but inexplicably forceful notion that this was the last time I would ever see my Niisan. Aleron Ė someone, anyway Ė had taken him from me for good Ė I would be lost and missing him as I once had, only this time I would wait for his return in vain.
That did it; I screamed with all my might, my Cosmos geared up, my fear fueling it. The emptiness broke apart and shapes began to take place, to have meaning.
Blinking fiercely, I focused my sight. Hyogaís concerned face filled my vision. He was frowning.
"Shun, are you all right? A while ago you were twisting and turning. I thought you were illÖ"
His dear, familiar face was a haven after the nightmare imposed on me. I was going to throw my hands around his neck, then restrained myself. He would think I was really ill if I did that. I struggled to sit up. To my relief I still had the Phoenix Cloth with me. "Where are we?"
"I have no idea." He straightened up. I saw that we were on some sort of a blue plain which stretched on and on. Above us was darkness. We must have been plunged here after someone tricked me into seeing Niisan.
Hyoga was testing the ground under our feet. It was solid, but felt more like thick glass than soil. Something beneath it emitted bluish light. "Maybe Ikki and Fenris are here already?"
"Letís go look for them," I suggested, and the next second my heart skipped a beat.
You still wish to seek your brother, Shun? asked the voice which I had estimated gone. After you understand that you are nothing to him?
"NoÖ" I shivered.
"No, what?" Hyoga was peering at me, puzzled.
"Nothing, nothing," I said hastily. "Letís move." He nodded, still a trifle worried. Probably he thought I was still dazed.
Whose was that voice? My own? Somebody elseís? I couldnít be thinking Niisan blamed me for Death Queen Island, could I? Or he probably did, and I was simply deluding myself. I had that coming, though. If only Iíd been a stronger boyÖbut ifs would only lead to never-ending regrets. Iíd have to hear it straight from Niisan. I would ask him about it if Ė when Ė we met him in this strange blue place.
The voice, whomever it had belonged to, stayed quiet for the next few minutes. I hoped it was permanently gone. I ambled along behind Hyoga, trusting my chains to warn me if there was any danger. The air in this strange place was cool and even somewhat fragrant. Like a girlís room. That was an odd comparison, but it was the most suitable I could think of.
Hyoga was slowing down to a halt. "No sign of anyone else here," he said, bemused.
I thought. "This plain Ė do you think itís flat, or round like planet earth? Because if itís flat, once we reach the edge Ė " I motioned at the horizon " Ė weíll be out of here. But if itís round like the earth, weíll only wander on for hours and hours."
"Itís round like the earth, I suppose." He was straining to see ahead.
Startled, I looked too. Two figures were emerging on the far edge. My heart leaped. "Niisan!" Then, remembering that hasty judgment had led us here, I added cautiously, "But it could be another trapÖcouldnít it?"
"Similar traps one directly after another? Shun, Aleron must have really taken you for a moron."
"WellÖ" One of the two figures seemed a lot like Niisan. Besides, my chains werenít reacting. I decided to make the opening gambit. "Niisan! Niisan, weíre here!"
To my joy, there was an answering shout, "Shun!" It was my brother, all right. I broke into a race, and he was increasing his pace too. The other person, I saw, was Fenris.
Who grinned broadly as the four of us got within normal earshot. "Youíre here too? Where are the others Ė Ann, Seiya and Shiryu?"
Niisanís eyes dropped to my arms. "Is that my Cloth, Shun?"
The parts floated off my arms and flew at Niisan, to fit into his frame, as I gave a brief narrative of what had happened. Fenris watched the transformation with interest. Niisan, ignoring him, said, "Weíd better get out of here, fast. This place is spooky. I donít know why or how but thereís a nagging feeling that somebodyís been observing us."
"Where can anyone be hiding here?" Hyoga asked.
"I donít know! Weíll just have to be extra careful." Niisan frowned. "Now which direction should we take?"
I gazed at him. The voice was wrong, I said to myself. It wasnít that Niisan didnít care about me or considered me as a burden. He just didnít show his affection the way most people did. Partly it was because he was what he was, partly it was the scars from Death Queen Island. Yes, he wouldnít have been inflicted with the scars had it not been for meÖbut then Niisan had always been my guardian angel. One day I would repay him a thousandfold. I probably never could repay him as he deserved it, but I would do something. That would be sufficient to hush the alien voice.
"What if we canít get out of here?" Fenris was saying.
"What?" I blinked.
"Well, I donít mean to sound pessimistic but what if this is some kind of an enclosure? We canít get out unless whoever sent us here wants us to. This place is harmless, but at the same time itís sealed tight." He shrugged apologetically. "Iím open to other opinions."
Very unpleasant though that sounded, it was not altogether impossible. Niisan was beginning to scowl. "No," he stated firmly. "We can get out. All we have to do is discover how."
Presently, however, I was totally clueless Ė as were the others, I could tell from their faces.
It was almost funny how your memory could store some of the moments in your life in perfectly preserved details. Some parts were fogged by time, and some remained intact, often disturbingly so. Or perhaps that only applied to me and a few others. Whether it was a blessing or a curse, I could not determine.
That morning so far away I could still recount to you in no uncertain terms. I remembered waking up very early, feeling excited, a butterfly fluttering in my stomach. My brother and sister shared the feeling, but she was more expressive in showing it, as was Ė as had been Ė her wont. Along the way she kept speculating what the King of Flathinnis would be like.
"He will be very benevolent," she said. "A great ruler and a kind man."
Sloa had laughed at her. "Thatís wishful thinking. I bet heís old, crabby and snobbish."
She made a resigned face. "Will you stop that? Youíre ruining my expectations."
How little had we known then, and how innocent we had been. The tragedy that was about to wreck our lives was yet to occur.
I loved my siblings, and it hurt at times. There was almost no space to love anything or anybody other than Sloa and our little sister. It frightened me Ė what if something should befall them? Could I bear living after that? But nothing ever did. Not until that fateful morning.
Ann Lavesque had a right to learn of this tale, I perceived. Flathinnis was now her responsibility, and she must know its history and all the boils and buried bodies it ever concealed. But I could not be the one to tell her. She was new to Flathinnis, its defender though she might be, and she would be prone to think I was inventing lies. And I very much doubt any historian in Flathinnis ever penned what had happened to my sister.
Now here she was, with the Pegasus Saint, waiting for me to come and challenge them to an open fight. I had been spying on them from a safe distance Ė if I were too close, they might detect me. I was debating with myself what was best to do. Approach them and ask for a peaceful, unprejudiced talk? Wait and see how this would develop? Wait for Sloa? Where was Sloa, come to that?
Ann was twirling strands of her hair around her finger. "Aleronís late," she said. "Maybe he gets caught in a traffic jam."
The Pegasus Saint Ė whose name was Seiya Ė glowered. "Donít even try to be witty at a time like this." She simply looked unrepentant. He was studying the empty whiteness. "You know, jumping there may not be a bad option. Thatís better than just sitting here for some lousy bastard who may or may not arrive."
"What? You must be nuts, mister. Jump there if you feel like it but Iím not going with you. If we go there weíll be rats in a trap."
"So what do you suggest?" From his tone I could tell that Seiyaís temper was rising.
She blew out her breath. "Hey, believe me, I hate wasting time just like you do, but between going to whatever that is and staying here, the latter sounds wiser. We donít know whatís in there."
Seiya saw the logic of this, but was not giving up. "But weíve got to do something," he persisted.
"I know," Ann said with pretended exasperation. "But I donít have any idea right now. Do you?"
I felt a pat on my shoulder and looked over it. "Where are the rest of the Saints and Fenris?"
"Nowhere dangerous." Sloa craned his neck to get a better view of Ann and Seiya. "One way or another we had to prompt them to join the others. Why are they still here?"
"Because they think following the others is highly risky. They think I will come and challenge them."
Sloa snorted. "What, do they assume if they defeat you their friends will automatically return to them? It doesnít work that way. All right, if an open fight is what they want, letís go down there and have a go at it."
"Where is your troop?" It was how I usually referred to his creatures.
"I left them at that city they call Tokyo. One of the Saints is there. I thought Iíd better keep him occupied, or heíd come here and lend his comrades a hand. That wouldnít be convenient for us."
I gazed at his face, so hard and unyielding and Ė I hated to use the phrase but it was appropriate Ė cruelly single-minded. He was bent on revenge. I knew my brother too well to delude myself with false hopes that one day he would abandon his quest. He would employ any means to gain his end. If other parties, that is the Saints, intruded, they should be gotten rid of too.
"Can we forget this?" I appealed to him, the hundredth of a litany of futile pleas. "We are doing ourselves more harm than good. Besides, these Saints are very strong, stronger than humans have a right to be. They arenít people weíd like to run afoul of."
He turned blazing eyes to me. "No! Donít you get it? Thereís no place where we belong now. And until I can make Flathinnis defenders pay for it Ė "
"But it isnít their fault! Ann hasnít even been in Flathinnis for long! And Ė "
Sloa made an impatient gesture. "We shall talk later. Now, what do you say if we meet Ann and that Saint? It is a fight theyíre after, so a fight it is."
I held his eyes for what felt like an eternity. At length I said, slowly, "You go. I didnít believe in this from the start."
"I am not. I simply think differently than you do."
"Think of our sister! Think of what happened to her in Flathinnis!"
My soul writhed, as it always did when our sister was mentioned. "I donít want to fight and thatís that."
"Fine!" Sloa hissed. "Lurk here and be the coward you are." He stalked away.
Once alone, I sank to my knees, my heartbeat drumming against my ears. Faintly I heard Ann saying, "Look whoís coming for dinner. Whereís Fenris, you jerk?"
"Heís alive. Waiting for Aleron, are you?" replied Sloa curtly.
A flare of unknown power tapped at my senses. It was not Annís; it must be the Pegasus Saintís. "Release our friends and weíll forget this ever happens." His harsh voice belied his words. He sounded eager to, as I had heard Ann put it, have a piece of Sloa.
"Why not?" Sloaís own energy was growing.
I had to stop this. I had to, before more became victimized by this useless conflict. But dare I? After things had gone this far? After everyone was now straining at the leash to tear at each otherís throat?
I couldnít shake the hunch that someone had been having us under surveillance. The person could be hiding underneath this blue plain, or just being invisible. That was absurd, of course, probably just a touch of the jitters. All the same, I knew that things intuited werenít to be discarded easily. Which meant we were, nine out of ten, being watched.
Shun lagged behind, eyes cast down. Something was obviously weighing on his mind. Fenris and Hyoga walked in the front, their glance flicking vigilantly about. The vast silence crowded in on us, almost hurting my eardrums. The hunch still didnít go away.
I turned to meet Shunís large green eyes. They were sober. "Yes?"
He dropped his voice so the other two wouldnít hear us. "Have you ever hated me for sending you to Death Queen Island?"
The shock was double: from such an apropos of nothing question, and the directness with which it was delivered, so unlike Shun. "Why do you ask, and why now?"
"I need to know. I sincerely apologize if this isnít the right time Ė which it isnít Ė but Iíve got to know. Please, Niisan. Be frank with me."
"If I ever hated you, it was an aeon ago. I donít now."
"So you did hate me?" His voice was so low I couldnít tell whether it quivered or not.
After I had killed my own teacher and attained the Phoenix Cloth, there was a sense of liberation so heady it made me drunk. I felt then that I could take the world, for I was the mightiest of Saints, the Gold Cloth my right. It didnít last very long. Being compelled to relive Esmeralda and my teacherís deaths had seen to it. I could see that I had, up to a point, only wanted to hurt back a world which had hurt me. And seeing that Shun forgave me Ė after I had planned to take his head off, no less Ė was nothing short of shattering. I hadnít thought I earned that amount of love, but I could reciprocate.
Time went by and I didnít feel so rotten anymore. In a relationship there was bound to be good times and awful times. All we could do was adjust and understand. I was never great at understanding people, but my brother was another case.
I considered my reply. "That was during my period of insanity. Iím not saying Iím totally cured of it now Ė some things I just canít forget Ė but you are my brother and not even Athena is as important to me. Does that answer it, Shun?"
He didnít look at me. "If you hate me still, Niisan, I can live with it."
"Well, I donít. Okay? I donít hate you now. I love you more than anybody in this screwed-up world. And who knows, maybe Iíve benefited from living in that cursed place. There are losses of course, but what matters is weíre here and thatís that. Anyway what makes you bring it up all of a sudden?"
"Oh, this place gives me the blues, I guess," he said airily. I didnít believe that, and he must know I didnít, but I let it pass. "Get it? Gives me the blues?" He smiled fleetingly.
I noticed that Hyoga and Fenris had halted. "What is it?" I asked sharply.
"Someone else is here." Fenris whirled around, then his eyes grew wide.
We saw what caused it: a girl was lying on her side several yards away, where previously there had been nothing. Her dark blond hair half hid her face, and she was dressed casually, almost like a schoolgirl.
Fenris hurried to her. "Ann?" That must be his companion from Flathinnis, ordinary apparel notwithstanding.
Eyes fluttering, she stirred and stared vacantly, pushing hair away from her face. Then her sight came into focus. "That creep Sloa," she mumbled.
I glimpsed at Shunís chains. They were not reacting, which was a sign this girl was the genuine person and not some false imitation. I still remembered how Fenrisí left eye had been sunken before it reappeared. His face might have been borrowed then returned without him realizing it. Borrowed by someone whose pastime was masquerading as others.
The girl called Ann Ė that sounded quite a common name, considering she was from another world -- rose to her feet, blinking, probably to clear her head. I noticed that Fenris didnít help her stand up.
"He threw you here?" he asked.
"Sort of. Seiya and I were waiting for Aleron, but Sloa came instead. We had a little tussle and before I could say boo heíd managed to push me here. Seiyaís still on the other side, though. Whereís this?"
"Thatís where weíve been trying to puzzle out," I said levelly.
She peered at me, then beamed. "Youíre Saint Phoenix, correct? Nice to meet you. Iím Ann Lavesque."
I said to Hyoga, "You still canít detect anyone else other than the five of us?"
"I can, but itís not perceptible enough to be an actual sixth person."
"In any case, weíd better be on our guard."
Fenris said, "It could be Aleron."
"Or maybe itís the monsters," Ann interjected, not put out by the fact that I more or less didnít pay her any attention. "Maybe theyíre formed from the same stuff this plain is made of."
"Thatís silly," I said.
"But not impossible," she said, almost enthusiastically.
Shun was frowning down at his chains. "If only my chains could also function as a compass." For Annís benefit, he elaborated, "They can track the enemy down or warn me of his presence, but theyíre doing neither now."
We were quiet for a while. "Letís go on walking, then," said Hyoga. "There isnít much we can do except that."
The strangers sauntered on, the men quietly observant, the girl Ė Ann something, her name was Ė somewhat less so. None of them sensed me. The Warrior with the Chains was confident his weapon could locate any alien presence. The Chains did not feel necessary to inform its Master of me; I was not an alien presence. I was this place; I was its substance.
There had been days, gone and lost forever, when I was a girl like any other, my brothers my entire world. Now I could only smile bitterly and did not weep for my lost innocence. Aleron would have been startled had he known Ė but I would leave Aleron out of this.
That morning so long ago we had been preparing to meet the king of Flathinnis. We were, as Sloa had just discovered, his very distant relations. His grandfather Ė the first Flathinnis king, Lindor Ė had an older sister who married someone beneath his brotherís notice. So she went away and built her own family. My brothers and I were some of her descendants. I had been delighted when we discovered this old story Ė I had been very young, very impressionable, and from one point of view very foolish Ė for it was like a dream.
"Imagine, we are the kingís relatives!" I had chattered to my brothers that distant morning. "And Grandmother never said a word! Itís like a dream. Do you suppose itís true?"
"His Majesty obviously thinks it is," said Sloa with a mischievous grin. "He sent for us, at any rate."
Sloa never took things seriously. That was also only a memory. Now the three of us bore the unhealed wounds of a past better forgotten, yet wasnít. Sloa was relentless, bent on a vendetta he thought I desired. Aleron was almost a husk of the man he had been. As for me Ė well, I was what I was. Time would not reverse itself. All we could do was live with it, or didnít.
I could hear Sloa laugh his brittle laugh. "If we live with it, weíll die by inches. If we donít, likewise. I go for the first option. How about you two?"
My brothers. No matter what had happened to us, I loved them still. How else did I stay sane? We still had each other. The scepters, which in our case went by the name the past, must be laid to rest. But would Sloa let it? I doubted that very much.
Yes, the King had welcomed us. Yes, he had been glad to have us live in the palace. He had a young son, his heir apparent, a sober boy called Sulwyn and another son, then a baby, Strahan. The boysí mother had passed away after Strahanís birth. Having us in the palace livened it up. I soon found myself playing with the kingís sons as if they, too, were my brothers. Iíd always liked children, and they were angels.
The King spent hours with my brothers, conversing, practicing archery or doing some other physical activity, or discussing things. I was rather envious, thinking they robbed me of the attention I was entitled to.
But gradually the attention was channeled my way. The maids were ordered to put fresh flowers in my bedroom every three days. The cook asked what my favorite dishes were, and they would be served in the most unexpected times. I liked embroidery, and fresh supplies of colorful threads and fabrics were at my disposal.
I had mentioned I was young and foolish. The Kingís attention swept me off my feet. I began to feel I was somebody special to him, not just another resident. I began weaving imaginations of the King coming to me to say, "You have been a good mother to my boys. Letís make it formalÖ" After that I usually blushed and giggled. Now I didnít see anything hilarious about it at all.
I didnít share those daydreams with my brothers. I knew how they were likely to respond: Aleron would be mildly discouraging, Sloa would scoff at what he would think of as mere infatuation. I kept the daydreams secret and cherished them.
Not that I wished to be the new Queen of Flathinnis Ė nothing like that. It was just, to my inexperienced eyes, the King was a man worthy of reverence Ė and of love. I didnít care a jot he was old enough to be my own father. My father vanished, no one knew where or why, when I was very small, too small to recall what he was like. Perhaps I was looking for him in the King? I hadnít known; I didnít know even now.
"Hey!" Annís shout broke into my reverie. "Over there!" She waved fervently ahead.
"What?" said the tallest of the men, the one with blue hair and muscular frame. Then understanding dawned in his eyes. "That must be where this plain ends." They had noticed the edge, then.
His brother, the one whose weapon was the Chains, asked, "Do you think that will get us anywhere?"
I had been sort of eavesdropping when the two brothers talked, and it was rather touching. I hadnít understood the conversation too well, only that the younger one had caused his Niisan, as he called his older brother, a lot of anguish and pain. He was still feeling guilty, although his Niisan had forgiven him.
How did you forgive somebody who had done you terrible wrong? By putting yourself in his shoes? By accepting the fact that he hadnít meant it, any of it? By simply being big-hearted enough to forgive and forget?
Fenris, the Red Wolf of Flathinnis, said, "Letís hurry and get out of here."
Not so easy, fellows, I thought, and the ground underneath their feet began to undulate.
Continued to Choices