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 couldn’t tear my own eyes away as the missing left eye came into form. The man shifted but didn’t 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.
"Where’s 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 didn’t. "You…you’re Phoenix?" He was scrutinizing me openly.
"Go to the top of the class. And who are you?"
"Fenris," he said. "Aleron’s 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 – and look for us – so I wouldn’t 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 wouldn’t be on our own should we run into Aleron and the rest of his jokers. So, any idea yet where you are going? This – whatever this is – 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 – there was someone running past us."
"I didn’t 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. "That’s 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 couldn’t 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 – Hyoga, Shun, Ann and me. Shiryu was assigned to guard Tokyo during our absence. Monsters might run amok while we were away. He didn’t 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 Ikki’s Cloth parts. "He’ll need them."
"But the legs are missing," I pointed out.
"We’ll find them eventually. I don’t want Niisan to be without protection."
Ann listened intently. "Can’t you function properly if you don’t have your Cloths with you?"
"We can, thank you," I said brusquely. "It’s 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 – she didn’t seem to feel the chill too much. "I suppose you Flathinnis folks don’t need armors?"
"No, they’re 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 wasn’t 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 that’s the case, we may be in for a really hard time. In battles like this things don’t always come up roses."
"We know that," I countered, but Ann was lost in her own thoughts and didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 Ann’s 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.
"That’s our rendezvous place, I presume." Hyoga studied the precarious looking bridge.
Shun wandered over to the ravine’s edge. "It looks ready to fall apart at the smallest tug." Ann made a face at this. Then Shun’s face whitened. He was staring at the bridge and I saw it too. The right leg of Ikki’s armor was lying precisely in the middle of the bridge.
I broke the silence. "At least we know we’re 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 I’m 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 doesn’t 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 wagon’s 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 isn’t 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 wouldn’t be too far – 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, let’s move on – " Hyoga began.
Astounded at the urgency in Shun’s 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 couldn’t tell whether it was Ikki or not, but the resemblance was enough for Shun, it appeared. Hugging his brother’s 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 – "
"No! This is a trick!" She cupped her hands around her mouth. "Yo, Shun! Hyoga! Come back here, it’s not – "
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. "Don’t look at me like that, it’s no use. What we’ve 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 I’d bet on Aleron. Illusions and disguises are Sloa’s field. Aleron is more honest."
"Honest people do not fight like this."
"Okay, sorry that I didn’t manage to beat Aleron and co. while they were still in Flathinnis, but I didn’t intend them to go here, either. Sorry also for dragging you Saints into this."
"I didn’t mean that!" Did she say that to make me feel guilty? Well, she did a good job. "I just don’t 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, it’ll be your friends and Fenris against Sloa. They can’t 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 didn’t worry about – his only weak spot was Esmeralda, and he’d learned to cope with it – but Hyoga and Shun might be an altogether different case. And I didn’t 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 can’t return, and we can’t follow Shun and Hyoga. But we will have a guest shortly, of that I’m positive. Aleron doesn’t like to waste time."
But this wasn’t 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, haven’t 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 won’t open your misguided mind to that.
No! Niisan wouldn’t do that! Niisan went to Death Queen Island because…because otherwise I’d 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, didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 – someone, anyway – had taken him from me for good – 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. Hyoga’s 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 ill…"
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?"
"Let’s 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?
"No…" I shivered.
"No, what?" Hyoga was peering at me, puzzled.
"Nothing, nothing," I said hastily. "Let’s move." He nodded, still a trifle worried. Probably he thought I was still dazed.
Whose was that voice? My own? Somebody else’s? I couldn’t 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 I’d been a stronger boy…but ifs would only lead to never-ending regrets. I’d have to hear it straight from Niisan. I would ask him about it if – when – 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 girl’s 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 – do you think it’s flat, or round like planet earth? Because if it’s flat, once we reach the edge – " I motioned at the horizon " – we’ll be out of here. But if it’s round like the earth, we’ll only wander on for hours and hours."
"It’s round like the earth, I suppose." He was straining to see ahead.
Startled, I looked too. Two figures were emerging on the far edge. M