When Shadows Hover
When I woke up, the other Cygnus Saint was nowhere to be seen. There was, however, a basin of water on the bedside table. Presuming it was used to wash faces, I scooped up a handful. The water had a grimy quality to it that left a faintly sticky feeling to the skin. And people said life in the future was better. I went downstairs and saw the others were starting to gather around the dining table.
Seiya was the last to come. There was no sign of Gilland. I wondered if he had fallen ill again. A journey through time couldn't have had a positive effect on someone like him.
"Morning, Seiya," said Ikki as Seiya sat down beside him. "I see your sleep's been refreshing."
"Okay, I'm late, so sue me."
In front of each person were a lunchbox-like object and a short tubular glass. Would we have our breakfast served in that box? I thought, reminded of a prison.
Straight across me was the other Phoenix Saint, who looked serenely contented. "This is a memorable dining experience," he said.
"Whyever is that, Edan?" Desmo said. "Because another female other than Kelsey is also attending?"
"That, and the fact we have the honor to be accompanied by fellow Saints. It's a rare occasion."
Magaski sidled in, carrying a tray containing a huge bottle and an assortment of steaming bowls. His muscles and balance must be well trained, I reflected, noticing the deftness with which he handled the tray. He put it down on the table, eyes roaming around. "I know what you all say behind my back about my cooking," he said dryly, "but please don't spread your beliefs to our guests."
Edan looked injured. "Magaski, you know I always eat whatever it is you serve."
"All the same, keep your comments to yourselves and let me entertain myself with the illusion that there's nothing wrong with my culinary ability." Magaski began to go around carrying one of the bowls. Into one section of each person's lunchbox he ladled vegetables mixed with some kind of peanut brown gravy. The next serving was slightly aromatic rice.
"Where did you get rice?" Kelsey sniffed at her lunchbox.
Did twenty-second century people still grow rice? Where did they cultivate it? I recalled the junkyard we'd landed in, and the cold, hostile sky. I couldn't imagine anyone growing rice here.
"I keep it for special events." The third, and apparently last, item on the menu was slices of beef. "Don't try to hunt for it, Kelsey. I put it where no one would think of looking."
"Curmudgeon," she accused.
"Rebuke taken. Now please eat."
Shun smiled a little throughout these exchanges, and I was warmed to see the friendly banter. Magaski might be too blatant for courtesy, but his friends didn't seem to mind, probably because they were used to it.
"Does the enemy never attack in the morning?" Shiryu asked, pouring himself a glassful of the huge bottle's content, which was mineral water.
"Sometimes," answered Desmo. "But usually not this early. And there's no use to face the enemy on an empty stomach."
"If you're too replete, you're bound to spew it all up when you get socked around," Ikki remarked casually.
"It takes a shrewd person to know what and how much to eat - or say," Magaski said, equally offhanded.
Seiya hid a grin, while Ikki bridled. The others pretended not to hear and ate. No one remarked on Gilland's absence. It was clearly nothing out of the ordinary that he was missing. Why, I wondered, had such a man been chosen to be a Saint? Then again, Gilland might have other recommendable traits to compensate for his apparent shortcomings. His patience, for one, and he also seemed able to keep a cool head in most situations. The amount of his Cosmos, if my calculation of it was anything to go by, was quite impressive too for someone of his condition.
"It's quiet this morning," Desmo was saying with a small frown. "Usually by this hour monsters and all sorts of creatures would be coming."
"Maybe their master thinks to delude our guests into thinking we're making a tempest in a teacup," Edan suggested. "Hence the lack of disturbance. Our fellow Saints will think we're exaggerating and leave."
"After seeing yesterday what you had to deal with, we couldn't just pack up and leave," Shun said.
"Are monsters all that you have? I mean, has there been no human warrior at all?" I asked between spoonfuls.
All our future counterparts shook their heads. "None," said Kelsey.
"None at all?" Saori frowned. "Could it be that it was the main enemy isn't human either?"
We were silent at this. Poseidon and Hades had been spirits, not counting the time they attempted to possess Julian Solo and Shun, but the Generals and Specters had been more or less people. We were yet to deal with outlandish creatures led by a non-human entity. Would our ordinary Bronze Cloths suffice to smash them? After all, monsters rarely had it in them to reach the seventh sense. Or so I thought. I wasn't an expert on monsters.
I was thinking of a particular book I had been reading before I sampled the twentieth century when someone knocked softly, almost shyly, on my door. Kelsey's face came around the doorway. "Hi, how're you doing?"
"I've been worse. Where is everyone, Kelsey?"
She slipped in and closed the door behind her. Her face was flushed and excited at the same time, like a child keeping a delicious secret. "Desmo thinks that, while waiting for today's allotment of monsters to be shipped - Magaski's term - he'll show our guests around. It isn't every day you get visitors from another age."
"Couldn't agree more. Why aren't you with them? Don't you like our guests?"
"I'd rather stay here with you. Tiring journey to the twentieth century, wasn't it?"
"Well, yes," I said, instantly on my guard. Kelsey wasn't here merely to chitchat, so much I was convinced.
"Here's your breakfast, compliment of Magaski." She raised my dining box, which she had been carrying.
"What a way to start a day."
That made her chuckle, but briefly. She put the box on the table and went to the window to open it. "How did you do it - cross the time boundary? We'd no idea you owned that ability," she said, her back to me. Gentle sunlight slipped in and threw some warmth into the room.
"Neither do I. Let me tell you something really funny. At about the same time those monsters were dumped onto us, I had the weirdest dreams. In them I saw our twentieth century comrades, and some voice kept whispering to me that I should go there, ask them for help, which they naturally won't refuse. I dismissed it at first, but the voice wouldn't go away. It was like someone else talking inside my head. It told me that all I had to do was concentrate all my Cosmos inward and on the twentieth century. Desmo thought I was going bananas, didn't he?"
Kelsey made no movement. I was still talking to her back, but never mind that.
"So I tried. Imagine my amazement when I did get to my destination. But I was so exhausted I just passed out in front of Athena's house. Plus, a monster had been tracking me. Well, the Saints are here and no harm done. What is it you actually want to see me about?"
"Nothing. I just don't feel like being a tour guide, is all."
Silence descended. She left the window to sit on a chair. I studied the walls, not knowing how to start a talk.
"Gilland, I want to tell you something."
I grimaced. This was what I had been dreading. "Kelsey, I know what it is. You don't have to say it. Let's leave things as they are. Besides, there are enemies to contend with. After we do our duty as Saints..." I stopped. Wrong turn of sentence.
"I hate platitudes, especially when they come from you," she said sulkily. "How did you know what I want to tell you anyhow?"
Ever since mutual Sainthood united the five of us, I had been aware that for Kelsey I was more than a friend. But I couldn't reciprocate that feeling. Not because she was repellent or annoying, or even unattractive. She was a true sister, and I liked her company very much. Yet that was all she was to me: a sister. I couldn't accept her as something more.
"It's all plain to see - to me, at least. Kelsey, you're a good girl and I - we - couldn't have asked for a better comrade-in-arms. But believe me, in time you shall find someone more worthy of you."
Her eyes blazed green fire. "Gilland, if you're going to mention something about being unwell, I'll throw this dining box at you. You are not an invalid. You're a kind, thoughtful, caring man and I won't hear any objection to that."
Oh, to be so young again! Our ages were only about three years apart, but it might as well have been thirty. She still believed she had a right to be happy. "I'm unutterably flattered. But I apologize for not being able to respond to your - attention."
The silence cloaked the room again. Then she stood up heavily. "If you need anything, I'll be downstairs. Can I bring you a book or something?"
"That'll be grand. Thank you, Kelsey."
She exited, not looking back. She knew precisely which books I liked, which I found boring, and so forth. She would make a wonderful companion - so why was I keeping her at a distance? I didn't know, didn't feel I'd know in the near future. Heck, I was only sixteen, I couldn't be expected to make farsighted decisions, let alone turn psychoanalyst.
I settled back into my pillow, eyes closed. Too much was happening in too short a period. I thought about our fellow Saints, whom Kelsey said were being shown around. I wished them a pleasurable, monster-free time.
You did the right thing. Don't feel guilty.
"I don't," I muttered. "I just don't like to disappoint my good friend."
The voice chortled softly. Ever since it had arrived and revealed to me the way to go to the twentieth century, it was my secret mate. She'll come to her senses. It was an impulse, that's all.
An impulse? I stared out of the window. Sometimes I fervently wished to be as fit and spry as the others, so that I could move about freely. But now I was glad to be able to use my health, coupled with Kelsey's age, as an excuse. How could I tell her I only thought of her as a sister, nothing more? She wouldn't accept that easily, not Kelsey.
Having never been to formal school, this was the closest thing I'd got to a field trip. The nine of us strolled through a maze of narrow streets, numerous alleys and metal buildings under a benign morning sun. Our future guides talked in turns, explaining whatever we wanted to know.
"In a moment we'd reach the prizefighter club," Desmo was saying. "It's a form of entertainment, popular for the past several decades. Two contestants fight every other day, and the winner gets home with some money."
Reminiscent of the Galactic War, I reflected. I caught Magaski casting me a sidelong glance, and had an odd hunch that he knew what I was thinking.
Before us was a tunnel with sewers at either side of it. Saori's nose wrinkled as she dug out a handkerchief. The sewers did stink, and even in the shadows I could see rat carcasses drifting in them. Would she rather stay here, rather than crossing a tunnel choked with dead rats?
Edan mused, "Those rats weren't this many last week. Whenever I got past this tunnel, I had this suspicion that they were just faking it. Once we get in, they'd pounce on us." Seeing Saori blanch, he added in a hurry, "Forgive me, Lady Athena, my tongue sometimes runs away with me." He said it in so sincere and contrite a tone that Saori relaxed, if minutely.
Why was my fellow Phoenix Saint such a gentleman? Next to him I felt surly and bumbling. I was irritated, and said, "If you're not coming with us, Saori-san, maybe Shun would like to stay here with you."
"I'm coming," she said surprisingly.
"And you are right to have no fear, my lady," said Edan gravely. "Eight Saints are enough to defend you from rats, whether dead or alive."
As we entered the tunnel, Shun leaned a bit toward me, whispering, "Niisan, Edan is getting on your nerves, isn't he?"
I looked down and Shun smiled, the sight of which eased up my irritation. If anyone could fathom my mind, it would be my brother. I considered ruffling his hair, then remembered that Shun wasn't exactly fond of being treated like a baby. "Somewhat. I don't know if he intends to or not, but he shows me up as unsociable and unsophisticated. Maybe I am, but I don't like people throwing it in my face."
Shun nodded, big green eyes understanding. "He isn't trying to make you look bad, Niisan. He's simply being what he is."
How was it that years of training had done little to dent my brother's sweet innocence? I envied him for that. "It makes me feel weird, Shun, all this double Saints business," I said, changing the channel. "Like looking at a mirror expecting to see yourself and finding a stranger instead."
"Me too. Desmo is so different from me. He's the leader among the five future Saints. I can never be a leader."
"If you could, you wouldn't be Shun. Stay the way you are."
The tunnel's end was visible, an oblong of light a few meters away. Ahead, people were thronging into a door. "There's the place," Magaski said. "It's a rough, coarse place unfit for Lady Athena. If she doesn't wish to go in, one of us should stand guard with her outside."
Saori hesitated. Seiya looked torn between his curiosity to watch prizefighting and staying with her. Saori solved his dilemma for him, "I'll be all right. You eight go ahead and have a good time."
Desmo frowned. "Are you sure, my Lady? This can be a nasty, dangerous place. All sorts of people come and go." He was standing in such a position that what sunray there was fell on the left side of his face, highlighting the scar. It suddenly occurred to me that he might have been a prizefighter himself and got that scar during his career as one. On second thought, though, it sounded implausible. I couldn't see Desmo engaged in a fight, egged on by cheering spectators, just for some piddling money. He just wasn't the type.
"I'm sure," Saori said firmly.
"If rats or folks bother you, just yell," Magaski suggested, already shouldering his way in. The crowd at the door gave him dark looks but none said a word. The rest of us trailed in, Seiya still looking uneasy.
The room was dim and reeked of liquor. A boxing ring was placed in the middle, where two men were pummeling each other. They wore knee-length pants and boots, their exposed torsos glittering with sweat. The audience were shouting themselves hoarse as one of the participants received a nicely directed blow, which made him topple to the floor. Shun winced a little. I could guess what he was thinking of: this was a barbaric show. Fighting with enemies was one thing, but clobbering another human being just for cash was despicable.
Magaski noticed Shun's expression. "It does anyone no harm. Besides, no participant ever gets killed or fatally injured. We're not animals."
"I didn't say that," Shun murmured.
Shiryu and Hyoga simply looked passive, while Seiya frowned. "Do many people earn their living this way?" he asked.
"No," replied Edan, who was standing closest to him. "After a certain period, a prizefighter usually isn't as strong and agile as he used to be. So the manager looked for a new one. An ex-prizefighter more often than not ended up in being bodyguards, or he could move to another town to become a prizefighter there. I admit this isn't much of an entertainment. We can take you to some singing performance if you want."
At that moment a woman separated herself from the crowd, and I was surprised I hadn't noticed her before. She was a work of art, designed to be stared at, from elaborate but deceptively natural-looking pile of light blue ringlets to a crimson dress which clung like a second skin. Look but don't touch, I thought cynically. Her tilted yellowish eyes - not unlike a cat's - rested on Desmo.
"What a pleasure, Desmo," she said in a trilling voice.
Edan moved to intercept her, kissing the back of her hand. His eyes, however, were hard and assessing. "You look as splendid as ever, Aislinn."
"I've got to be. The manager of this place couldn't afford to look shabby and disheveled, now could she?" She was speaking to Edan but had her gaze fixed on Desmo, who returned it unflinchingly. "I see you bring new friends here. Would you be so kind as to introduce me?"
"Seiya, Shiryu, Hyoga, Shun and Ikki," Magaski said in his arid way, "meet Aislinn."
"The pleasure is all mine," Aislinn said, bowing a little. "Well, I'd better be on my way, the next round is coming. This one seems to going to end soon. If you will excuse me, gentlemen." She walked away.
Seiya watched her a little dreamily. I was about to comment when Magaski said, "Nice bun she has, right, Seiya?"
His ears turning an alarming shade of red, Seiya mumbled, "Nonsense."
"Don't feel guilty. She aims to be contemplated and enjoyed. Just don't lay your hand on her. Her husband is twice your size, and, Saint or not, he'll grind you flat."
"Let's get out of here," Shun suggested. "We can't leave Saori-san for too long outside."
Hyoga nodded. "I agree with you there."
Some passersby gave me rude or lascivious stares every now and then, but nobody went so far as to stop, which was an immense relief. I was beginning to resent being taken to this place: was there no other, safer place? The twenty-second century was so bleak and depressive. No wonder Athena hadn't made her appearance here. She might be disgusted to be reborn in such a time.
Saori, you quit it, I ordered myself. Desmo and his friends had a tough life too, even though they hadn't had any training. They were born in a grim age, they had to defend Earth from unknown forces, and they'd never even seen Athena. And here I was whining at a little discomfort.
Although I had come to terms with being Athena, Saori was sometimes the more dominant of the two. She didn't like this having to stay in a house where she couldn't summon servants or have a room of her own, used that she was to the luxury of privacy brought about by money. On the other hand, she did want to belong with the Saints, to have them think of her as a sister. Bodily discomfort was therefore a small price to pay.
A tug at my skirt dispelled my thoughts. Looking down, I saw a boy of about seven or eight. He might have been nondescript but for his eyes: so black the pupils didn't show, with ruthless intelligence blazing out of them. Those eyes, unsettling because they were unexpected in one so young, bore into me.
"Are you lost?" I asked with what I hoped to be a sympathetic smile.
He shook his head so violently that his closely cropped dark curls danced. Those eyes hadn't left mine for a second. He lifted his hand, passed it across one side of his head, and shook his head again, clearly hoping I would grasp his meaning.
Which I didn't. "What is it, little brother?" I said. "What do you want to say to me?"
The boy drew himself up. His mouth opened, and a series of inarticulate sounds came out. I was growing uneasy: why weren't the others out yet? This situation was beyond either my comprehension or my control, and I hated it. The boy, perhaps sensing my distress, tried again. "La..." he grated, "La - dy...lady..."
It hit me like a lightning bolt: the boy was deaf, and as a result he couldn't produce sounds properly, since he had never heard them. Ashamed but no less bewildered, I bent down, so that my face was closer to his. "Yes? What is it again?" Chances were he had been separated from his parents in the crowd and wanted me to find them for him.
Joy lent the boy's black eyes softness and his countenance beauty. He knew he had caught my attention. Inhaling, he tried again. "La...dy..." What followed were vowels so bizarrely pronounced that at first I had no idea whatsoever what it was he struggled to say. When I did, ice water filled up the inside of my chest.
He was trying to say 'Lady Athena'.
I cast a quick glance about, but no one seemed to be watching. I held the boy's shoulders, meeting those fiery eyes straight on. "Can you read lips?" I said slowly. As he nodded eagerly, I continued, "Let us wait until the Saints come out. Then we will take you home..."
He backed away so fast that he nearly bumped into a passing woman, his black eyes now huge with terror. Shaking his head so energetically it made me rather dizzy to see it, he leaped with feline agility, whirled around and ran.
"Wait - wait!" I cried out, forgetting he couldn't hear me. It was too late; he was already gone. One moment there, the next nowhere in sight.
I leaned against the wall, frowning. The boy had known I was Athena, and was going to tell me something when the mention of the Saints frightened him. Who could he be? Desmo and the others had never said a thing about a deaf boy. The more I tried to tick off possibilities, the more numerous they became. I decided to leave well enough alone and worked this puzzle out later.
Ikki came out of the building first, looking his ordinary wooden self. Seiya and the others followed behind, with Edan taking the rear. I was about to ask had they liked their visit when a voice rang, "Hey, look! Another body!"
Soon a few people had clustered around the speaker, a barrel-chested man with a paunch that even his robe couldn't conceal. He was motioning at a spot some yards away, where a vaguely human-shaped lump was sprawled half in and half out of the street. Some of the crowd trickled away to inspect the corpse. I suppressed a shudder. The Saints were listening quietly.
"Just like the last one," the paunchy man was explaining animatedly. "Lying in the gutter, shrunken and crabbed. I used to know him, though, he lived not far from me. He was only twenty, but look at his corpse! He looks a hundred years old. So withered!"
The crowd murmured. "The fourth case this week," someone mumbled.
"This town is accursed," said someone else.
"Tell me something I don't know," said the first speaker caustically.
Seiya waved a dismissive hand. "None of our business. Maybe the guy just drank too much and forgot which foot was which."
None of our business? First the boy, now the dead man, one directly after the other. Was it coincidence or was there any relation between those two? My brain was spinning. Whatever was facing the twenty-second century Saints was more complex than a troop of monsters.
"So, what's the next stop?" said Ikki.
Being rejected rankled on me, but since I knew myself, I also knew the anger - or hurt pride - would simmer down in an hour or two. What I didn't quite accept yet was his attitude. He made it sound as if I was having a schoolgirl crush. Well, it wasn't so, and he had to understand that. I didn't want to walk hand in hand with him, spend an afternoon together in a café, or do equally useless things. I wanted to be his wife, for crying out loud. How was that for serious? But that was all right. There were years ahead to convince him of how sincere I was.
I stopped at the stairs, suddenly remembering my father. He was placid and kind, the sort of man that some people - including, it turned out, my own mother - would feel a bit contemptuous about. Mother had a tempestuous affair with a younger man and walked out on us. Father never recovered from the heartbreak up until his death. From then on I had scant trust on women who wielded their looks as a weapon - like Aislinn. Lady Athena, however, didn't strike me as such a woman. Good for her.
I knew who Aislinn was, of course. Before he met the rest of us, Desmo was one of the prizefighters working in her club, hence the scar in his face. I suspected he had lain with her but dared not ask. Desmo never even raised his voice during the time we were friends, and I certainly didn't intend to ruin our friendship by poking my nose where it wasn't welcome. The past was the past. I firmly believed in that, as did the others.
The problem with Gilland was, I reflected as I lumbered down the steps, that he tended to think of me as a kid. Well, I was not. I was as grown-up as any of my fellow Saints, either from the present or the past. I'd lived for fewer years, was all. One way or another Gilland had to see that.
A backlash of Cosmos swept me from behind like a tidal wave, erasing all these thoughts. Jolted, I leaped two steps upward, my own Cosmos rising. What was that? Then a new realization made my heart skip a beat: that Cosmos was coming from Gilland's room.
"Gilland!" I yelled, dashing to the top of the stairs. "What is it?" Monsters didn't possess Cosmos, the ones we'd contended with this far anyhow. Either this was a different and improved breed, or something unknown.
Shots of light escaped through the frame of Gilland's door. Without stopping to think, I grabbed the doorknob and yanked. To my astonishment, it didn't budge. Impossible! I didn't lock it, and Gilland wouldn't have. I took a step back. The local repairman would have an extra job this weekend.
My blue-streaked-with-pink Cosmos swirled out of my open palms, slamming into the door, and it flew off, complete with hinges. I stumbled inside. My feet went cold.
The window, through which blinding colorful light poured in, was wide open. The dining box had crashed off the table, its contents smearing the floor. Gilland was hanging on desperately to the bedframe, that awful light dimming his Cosmos. I realized with mounting shock that it was as if he was being dragged up toward the window by invisible strong hands. His legs weren't touching the bed anymore.
As I went near him, some of that light brushed me in passing. All my muscles ached in unison and all joints tightened, as if someone stretched them. I cried out, shrank back in reflex. Gilland was halfway up to the window, though his fingers were still curled up doggedly around the bedpost. His beige hair - how I loved that color! - blew about his head crazily, made almost white by the light.
Ignoring the pain, I ran toward him and was in time to catch his fingers, which were slipping off the bedpost. "Hold on!" I shouted.
"I am holding on," he panted, half laughing. Then a powerful yank tore his fingers out of mine. I screamed as he was hurled out the window, and still screamed even when the light blinked out like a candle blown by the wind and brisk footsteps sounded behind me. A hand fell on my shoulder and Desmo's broad solid chest collided with my head. I wanted to cry against it; instead my knees dissolved and he held me with his arms, his clear voice telling me to hush. I hadn't stopped screaming.
Seiya was a trifle impatient, which wasn't surprising. We were squandering time better used in discussing our next step. But the others - Shun especially - didn't look as though they minded too much. It still surprised me to see that the Desmo's fellow Saint was so young and retained much of his innocence, while his brother's seemed to have been devastated.
"Next stop, as Ikki puts it, is a sidewalk tavern," Desmo answered. "Those things are fashionable again these days."
"And no, we don't spend our spare time indulging our gluttony in taverns," I added. "Not all of it anyway. Today's special and we intend it to be special. Our treat, fellow Saints."
We were walking again when a titanic surge of power hit us from behind and we all stood rooted to the spot. Somewhere not so far away a huge amount of Cosmos was being unleashed, an alien energy none of us had ever encountered. Lady Athena's eyes grew wide, and plain surprise mixed with apprehension was sketched across everyone's faces.
Desmo was the first to regain his wits. "Back to the house, hurry!" Needing no second order, we swung around and ran, heedless of the pedestrians we crashed against and their curses.
Once we got to the house, we raced to the second floor, where Kelsey's keening wail resounded. Even when Desmo had hugged her, the scream took some time before winding down completely. Gilland was nowhere to be seen.
"Kelsey, what happened?" I rapped urgently.
Shiryu and Hyoga, brows knit, were contemplating the open window, while Seiya examined the topsy-turvy bed. Ikki cast a suspicious glimpse around, and Shun went to Kelsey, who was pale and shaking.
"It's all right, we're all here," he said soothingly. "Can you please tell us where Gilland has gone?"
Kelsey stared wildly at Shun, maybe momentarily forgetting who he was. "A light - a Cosmos - came through the window, took him away," she whispered, burying her face in the folds of Desmo's robe.
Desmo patted her back, then addressed Edan, "Could you take Kelsey to her room and make sure she gets something warm to eat?"
"Come on, honey," Edan said, gently detaching Kelsey from Desmo. At first she clung to him, then desisted. Her eyes were still glassy and remote. Edan ushered her out. Desmo folded his arms, frowning.
"Well, it seems that the enemy is taking a drastic step further," Hyoga said.
"What will he gain be kidnapping Gilland?" demanded Seiya.
I shrugged. "A perfect way to ensnare us into visiting his lair."
"Which means in a short while he will let us know where to find him," contributed Shiryu, still gazing thoughtfully at the window. "Unless he has some other purpose."
"Like what, eliminating us one by one?" Ikki asked.
Shun's eyes revealed a flicker of dismay, but he brought it under self-control. "I think I agree more with the bait theory."
"Me too." Desmo passed a hand across his face, looking tired. "Any idea what to do next? Because I confess I'm at a loss. I'd never have imagined Gilland will be taken away."
We were all silent. If the enemy had expected us to be confused, he couldn't have done better. The problem was that we didn't have the slightest clue of what we were up against.
Then Shiryu spoke slowly, "The Cosmos we felt - it was enormous. Too much like Hades', in fact." His friends looked at him, startled, as he continued, "What we have here is indeed more serious than mere monsters. Could it be Zeus?" He looked at Lady Athena for confirmation.
She shook her head positively. "No. I'd know if it was."
Silence again. Outside, the sky was darkening rapidly with clouds. Rain was impending, and from the sound of it there was going to be a downpour.
"I'm okay," said Kelsey as I opened the door for her. "Stop fussing over me."
"No doubt all that screaming has done you much good, but you still need some rest. Hop in and I'll get you something I prepare myself."
A faint smile lifted one corner of her mouth as she plopped down at the edge of the bed. "Good. After what I just saw, I don't suppose I can stand anything Magaski makes."
I said as delicately as I could, "If it isn't too much for you, Kelsey, would you care to retell what happened, in more details? We're facing a cul-de-sac here and maybe you can supply us with some helpful info."
Her eyes glittered. I knew what Gilland meant for her, even if the gentleman himself didn't. "I was downstairs when this huge Cosmos came. I ran to his room and that Cosmos was dragging him out of the window." She looked down on her lap, rage suddenly replacing grief. "I couldn't do a thing! Edan, I feel like an idiot!" A tear trickled down her cheek. She rubbed it off absently with the heel of her hand. "You...you don't think he's harmed, do you?"
"Of course not. The enemy is holding him hostage, that's all." I wished with all my heart that it were true. "Now what's all this crying and carrying on? That's not the Kelsey I know. Gilland will be fine."
"After having a little rest, I'll join the others."
I ruffled her hair, pale green strands she rarely bothered to comb. "That's the spirit. Would you like me to close the window?"
She made a face, apparently still traumatic with windows. "If you don't mind."
As I latched the window closed, I happened to look down. A boy was standing in front of the house, intense black eyes observing every nook and corner. When he noticed me, he scurried away. I left the room, frowning. Who was that boy? An agent of the enemy? I chided myself for being so paranoid; it might just have been an ordinary street urchin. All the same, the boy's eyes haunted me as I left the room.
The enemy had outwitted us, and I hated it. If he intended to hold Gilland as a means to lure us into his place, I guessed we'd receive a map to reach it soon. In the meantime, we had to plan our next move.
But how did we plan the next move, if we didn't even have the vaguest idea who or what we were dealing with? In the past most enemies barged in on us, declaring themselves with trumpets and drumrolls. This time the enemy was sneaky and discreet, making us helpless.
Magaski was laconic about it. "If the enemy wants to make himself known, he will. If not, there's little we can do."
"But we can't just sit around and wait for his next strike," Hyoga pointed out.
"I just knew today was too good to be true," said Kelsey, having recovered from shock and returned from her room. "I'd rather battle with monsters rather than have Gilland kidnapped." There was a note of anger tinted with grief in her voice.
All in all, there was little we could do. Neither, however, did I want to spend the rest of the day doing nothing. I said as much to Shiryu.
"I'm afraid Gilland is just the start," he said thoughtfully. "We may receive more nasty surprises and we can't do a thing to stop it."
My frustration grew. "What can we do?"
"As I said, nothing. Let us just hope Gilland is all right."
The situation was getting out of hand. My Saints were helpless, which infuriated them. Truth be told, I wasn't very happy either. The deaf boy and the dead man in the gutter kept looming at the back of my mind. They were both linked to this conundrum we were faced with, I was certain.
Who was that boy? He knew who I was, yet he was loath to meet the Saints. If only we could communicate without hindrance! Some way or other I had to find him and question him, away from the Saints. The boy seemed to have taken much trouble to locate me, so whatever it was he wanted to say must be very important. And I didn't even know where I could find him.
Then there was the dead man, another one of a series of victims to some unknown sudden disease. That seemed more the style of our present enemy: insidious terror. Monsters were easy to demolish and drive away. Killing off citizens one by one was more likely to make people look over their shoulders uneasily.
Lunch was strained and silent. Everyone ate without a sound. Desmo was grim, Edan and Magaski sober in a controlled way, while Kelsey struggled to appear composed. Seiya's brown eyes challenged anyone to bring up the unpleasant subject of the mysterious enemy, his fury boiling beneath the surface. Shiryu was tranquil as usual and Hyoga was outwardly indifferent. Shun didn't meet anyone's eye. Of Ikki there was no sign. No wonder: he liked to be missing.
After the meal, Edan excused himself by saying he was going out.
"Do you think it's wise?" Desmo asked.
"I'll be fine. I just needed some fresh air."
Hyoga got to his feet. "I think we all do."
As it turned out, none of the Saints fancied being cooped up inside the house. Walking seemed to be more incentive to lucid thought. I said I'd stay in the house, just in case. So out they went under a sky so gray it was bordering on black. The house was mine for the moment, which provided me with the serenity I needed to sort out the problems I had in my head.
Not meaning to make light of Gilland's disappearance, I was still dwelling on the deaf boy. Now that I was on my own, I hoped he would seek me out. He had been able to single me out from amidst a throng of people, so he should have no trouble finding me in an empty house.
There was a bright flash followed closely by booming thunder, making me jump, so close did it sound. Soon afterwards came a sudden heavy rain which was almost a squall. I didn't expect the rain to fall so soon, and wished the Saints had time to find shelter. That was when rapid knocks rattled the door. I ran to open it, thinking it was lucky they still managed to reach the house.
The door swung open, and I stood stock-still. The deaf boy was standing in front of me, separated by the threshold, his hair and clothes dripping. The intelligent black eyes stared searchingly at me, demanding me to let him get in.
We happened to be near a deserted warehouse when the rain started pouring down on us, so we scrambled into it, already halfway soaked. Between them the Cygnus Saints managed to open and shut the massive heavy door. In the shadowy corners rats scurried and screeched at our approach. Shiryu pushed back damp hair from his forehead and looked at them askance.
"They don't usually attack humans, especially when there are more than five humans," I said, shrugging my robe off me. It was nearly drenched and had been clinging unpleasantly to my back.
"On the other hand, I don't want any trouble from them," retorted Seiya.
Overturned empty crates overlaid with dust littered the place. Shiryu, Hyoga, Shun, Edan and I sat down on some of them, while Seiya paced the floor, obviously disliking to be trapped inside a place as gloomy as this. Magaski leaned against the wall, arms folded, staring into space. Kelsey drifted this way and that until she finally stopped near Shiryu. He lifted mildly questioning eyes at her.
"I want to be a really good Saint," she confessed, apropos of nothing. "Does it really take much hard training to achieve that?"
He nodded solemnly. "That, and an iron will to defend Athena to the last breath."
"Oh. Well, I think I have the will, but as for training - can't say I've had any. But I will do my utmost best so as not to shame you as a fellow Saint Dragon. I bet my power isn't even half of yours."
I suppressed a smile at this unrestrained, childlike confidence. Shiryu's calm did not alter. "I see you and your friends more than match us when it comes to will," he said. Kelsey seemed to beam at this. "It takes a certain kind of courage to live in this not so friendly world and guard it."
"Uh-huh." Her eyes clouded. I knew she was remembering Gilland. I wondered if she had told him of her feeling yet.
After that, no one wanted to speak. The sound of the rain rose to a nerve-racking pitch and violent water struck the window almost horizontally. The old warehouse shuddered a couple of times, giving me faint tremors of alarm. If this building should cave in on us, we would be exposed to the raging rain and that wasn't something I would like to happen, Cosmos or no Cosmos. So far, however, the building held. I hoped it would stay in one piece as long as the rain lasted.
"Odd," Edan was saying. "I've never been in such a strong rain since I was small." For the benefit of Seiya, Shiryu, Hyoga and Shun, he added, "Usually the weather was temperate, either cool or warm. There's never been anything like this rain for a long time."
"Another manifestation of the enemy's presence, maybe?" Shun contributed.
Magaski's keen violet eyes flashed, and I recognized it as an indication of quiet anger, but he said nothing. Hyoga spoke up, "The enemy will announce himself to us. It's just a matter of time."
"Hope so," Seiya said, having to half-shout because the rain drowned any other sound. "I don't want any more of us to get snatched."
Everybody fell silent. Outside, the rain was growing in intensity, pounding at the building and shaking it. Would it end soon? It had better. Spending the afternoon locked up with a pack of rats wasn't exactly my idea of leisure time. I wondered how Lady Athena was doing, and if she worried about us. I knew I worried about her.
Drawing air in resulted in tight pain in my throat, but since I very well couldn't give it up, I kept on inhaling and did my best to ignore the pain. Slowly it subsided, though not entirely gone. It lingered, warning me that it had no intention to go away. The respiratory trouble momentarily solved, I opened my eyes cautiously and they sprung wide open.
I was sitting under a dome whose colors defied description, so profuse and mixed up were they. Red, blue, green, yellow, brown, black and white of all shades, and more besides, blended into a motley to stunning to forget. These colors didn't stay still; they swirled and slithered across the dome's inside surface, fluid and indescribably beautiful. I rose to my feet, eyes and mind riveted on my surroundings. When I looked down, my hard-won breath clogged. The floor was transparent glass, through which I could see the earth far below. I stumbled back, feeling dizzy, feeling that any second the glass would shatter and I would drop to my death.
Don't be afraid. The glass is steel-solid.
It was the voice that had been with me for the past several days, guiding me on how to reach the twentieth century and return to my own time safely. Yet this time there was menace in it, menace and malicious pleasure, at my expense, no doubt. My eyes narrowed as I searched around. I was alone in the dome.
"Show yourself, don't be a coward," I called out.
It chuckled, the sound of which stirred the hair at my nape. Hiding doesn't always imply cowardliness, Pegasus Saint. I'm hiding because I'm gathering my power...which I will need when your friends come to rescue you.
I took a step forward, my guard not lowered in the least. "You've had it all planned, haven't you?" I accused. "You wanted me to fetch Seiya and the others from the twentieth century - including Lady Athena - then lure them here with me as bait. It was you who brought them here, and all that nonsense about concentrating my Cosmos was just that - nonsense. I'm telling you your plan won't work."
The ominous chuckle again. Your perception astounds me. Then again, you've always been the one with brain. Without you, Desmo and the others cannot do much.
"But Seiya and his brothers are no easy opponents, either," I said coldly.
All right, so they brought Hades down. What does that mean? Nothing. Facing Hades is child's play compared to facing what I have in store for them. As all those foolish Saints will shortly discover. They will be here - and there's going to be a showdown, oh yes.
As the voice talked, I listened attentively, trying to discern the nuances and inflections in it. True, there was the all too apparent menace, but there was something else - something that would be clear to me once I grasped it...Then it struck me. Madness. The voice was slightly, almost imperceptibly, tainted with madness. It wasn't the sort of thing you could readily put your finger on, but it was there, and it chilled me. When you listened to the voice, all your senses shouted danger.
"How do you tell them where to find you?" I asked, stalling. One way or another I must warn the others.
None of your concern, the voice replied, abruptly brusque. And much as I waited, it didn't speak again. Possibly it was bored of me and preparing itself for the others' arrival.
Who - or what - was the voice? It had tremendous Cosmos, that was one thing. Another, it had been waiting to get to meet the Saints, and maybe Lady Athena also. Someone who'd held a grudge against them for a long time? But why appear now, not in the twentieth century? Had it not been strong enough then? Too many questions, no satisfying answer and scant time. I clutched at my elbows and let my hands drop again. I must think calmly.
The fact still remained that I couldn't do anything, which gnawed at me. It was disgusting to be kidnapped and used as bait - it made you feel like a useless moron. And there was no escape from this dome, either. But, damn it, I couldn't just sit around and wait for the others to come to my rescue! I was a Saint, and though I was nowhere near the level Seiya and his brothers had reached, I was still a protector of Athena.
Seiya and his brothers...Something stirred at the recess of my memory. Something about how they were so closely linked that they shared a telepathic bond. As they struggled through hardships and enemies, the bond grew. Did it apply to us, the twenty-second century Saints? I would soon find out.
The prospect of having something to do, even if it wasn't guaranteed to work, gave me some hope. I closed my eyes, beginning to concentrate, my friends' faces swimming up from recollections. One face stood out more distinctly than the rest and I drew in as much air as my lungs allowed.
"Kelsey," I muttered. "Hear me. Don't fail me now; I need you."
"What a big rain! We've never had one like this for years," exclaimed the elderly woman next to me. She proceeded chattily, "Not that it's bad, I mean, it's a good sign. Rain means water, and water brings life to the soil. If rain like this falls nonstop for a week, that's going to be great for the land."
"That is, if we don't drown first," I mumbled.
"Don't be flippant, young man," she huffed. "I remember stories of deluge in the past. After the water receded, the ground must be really fertile."
"Fat chance. The ground would be so wet nothing could grow there."
At which she snorted and made no reply.
I had been wandering along the street, thinking of Gilland's kidnapping and the possible consequences. What sort of enemy tried to entrap us by holding Gilland hostage? Then again, Gilland might be a good change from Saori. If the enemy ever planned to take Shun instead, he would have to deal with me personally. That was when the rain fell, so heavily that it was as though a giant jugful of it was being discharged. People, including me, scattered in search of a dry place. I happened to end up inside this drugstore, along with a talkative woman.
I glanced outside. The curtain of rain was so thick that even the street wasn't visible. The elderly woman walked away, inspecting a shelf of labeled bottles. She picked up a few at random and stared at them, incurring distasteful sidelong looks from the pimply teenager behind the counter. He was probably suspecting her to be a picky customer, and I didn't blame him.
An unfamiliar Cosmos pulsed and reached me, making me tense. It belonged to none of the others'. I went over to the window and peered out. Nothing much could be seen through the rain. The Cosmos, however, was still there. Whoever owned it was going to pass this store soon. I silently summoned the Phoenix Cosmos, just in case. The foreign Cosmos grew in intensity. Then I saw her.
It was Aislinn from the prizefighter club, now clad in a low-cut vermilion drapery that revealed more than hid every inch of her. She strolled casually in the rain, without an umbrella or a raincoat, yet she was miraculously dry. White vapor covered her from head to toe, deflecting the rain. The vapor must be the source of the Cosmos I felt. Her head turned a little and our eyes met.
Time froze for a moment. Then she raised one perfectly plucked eyebrow and scrutinized me impudently. The message was clear - and so was the stark contempt. She swung on her heels and vanished.
Behind me, the elderly woman was bombarding the clerk with questions, but I hardly heard them, still stunned by this unexpected development. So Aislinn had Cosmos too - an enormous one at that. Was she the enemy we were up against?
Continued to Challenge