The dawn parted; and the sky's light shone further into the hole, alighting her face. With a quiet moan at the disturbance, she rolled over with hopes of going back to sleep. Leaves crunched and her eyes peeked open. She looked around at the four walls, then the piles of leaves. It took a minute to recall everything and wipe the blank, confused look from her face. Her eyes looked to the open and breathed in the crisp, morning air. As she stood and stretched, the leaves fell from her arms, swiping dew on her skin. A small smile appeared as she brushed her arms dry. Even through the tall walls, water still seeped through.

Inhaling another breath, her body stiffened as she easily broke through the wall, tired of being cooped up.

It wasn't the best way to escape her temporary home. Her white dress was severely dotted with brown splotches. Her hair, already worn down by time and stuck with leaves over the night, was now covered in dirt. She was sure her face was covered as well. It was surely felt on her arms as well as her legs.

As she brushed the dirt from her arms, her vision looked up. Eyes widened in shock and embarrassment. Her arms stilled. She was unsure whether or not having dirt on her face to hide the stain on her cheeks was a good thing. As she harshly swallowed, her eyes pulled away from ancient violet orbs of Korin.

"Good, you're up." He answered, not moving from what looked like a meditative stance.

When she snuck another peek as she brushed herself off, she almost SWORE those of his were amused.

"I could've called Kongo to take the walls down, you know."

Hands reached for her hair and started combing through her braids. "I didn't know you were there." She mumbled, staring intensely at the hands combing the long locks.

"Well, the five of us found a way to talk while you slept and there wasn't much to decide without talking to you as well." Korin explained. He eyed her once glamorous attire and tried to keep from smiling at how filthy she got herself.

Her eyes looked to Korin as he stood in the sunlight. Some type of deep blue armor covered part of his torso; gold-looking straps and purpose ribbons beautifully adorning it. Over his shoulders rested more bulky armor to his elbows. More shiny blue metal plates rested over his forearms. The same white clothing that Tenku had on rested underneath Korin's interesting and odd armor. Why he wore it though, she had no clue. The gold edging and straps complimented the god of light's hair extremely well, and the blue armor deepened his violet eyes to blue in a way.

Feeling thoroughly embarrassed and shamed for looking at the elemental, though THE first time she'd ever been able to see Korin's human form, her body abruptly turned and headed for the river she knew was nearby. A bath was DEFINITELY what she needed and wanted.

"Where are you going?" Korin asked.

Her gaze turned back to him, mouth opened to answer, but he was gone. She blinked.

"Behind you."

She immensely startled and spun around. Korin was indeed behind her, a wisp of a smile on his face. "How did you DO that?" She breathed in wonder.

Korin looked down with a little larger smile. "Light can travel faster than the human eye. I AM light. So...where are you going?"

Her hands pulled at the dress. "To the river. I need to clean up." She answered, her nose wrinkling.

Korin nodded and easily matched her pace. He needed to talk to Suiko again anyway.

The river was maybe a few yards wide and deep enough for someone to submerge themselves completely. Normally, she would've bathed naked, as was custom, but she was no longer surrounded by the familiar people of her tribe. She was at the mercy of elementals. It was a good thing her dress needed to be cleaned...

With a quick glance to Korin, she waded in and sharply gasped at the freezing cold. She would've stopped, if not for the need to get the grime off.

As Stardust headed in, a voice rang in the air. "Korin..."

Korin gave a small smile and nodded. His eyes briefly stopped on the bather as she wildly looked around. He gave a quiet, amused snort as Stardust quickly dunked her body into the water, as if someone would spy on her. "Suiko." He returned, stopping at the water's edge to sit in that same meditative stance.

"Is this the girl in question?"

"It is." Korin pleasantly agreed, nodding. "Will you come and introduce yourself?"

Stardust stared with extremely wide eyes at the water once going in one straight movement, now swirling upward mere feet away. Much like Tenku's whirlwind, she braced her body against the pull.

The water clumped together and formed a body before falling back to the rest of the water. She blinked and stared into the blue eyes of a dry Lord of Suiko. Remembering her manners, blue ducked as she timidly bowed. "S...Suiko..." She quietly greeted.

Suiko's kind face smiled back in greeting from his cross-legged stance on top of the water. Even though she was submerged to her neck and treading water, the ripples went under him without bobbing his position. "You're well-behaved." He congenially commented, gaining her attention. His eyes however, moved to Korin with a slightly raised brow. "At least the possibility is a good one. She has potential."

Stardust's brows shot up, but she was ignored as Suiko gracefully stood and walked on top of the river to Korin. His feet made no noise and barely rippled as he stepped from the shallows and to Kongo's land.

"Have you talked to her yet?" Suiko lowly asked.

"I wanted to wait until the six of us could talk more." Korin answered, looking to his elemental brother as Suiko sat.

Without warning, a mound of earth popped up and fell away to reveal Kongo in the same cross-legged position as his brothers. "But that won't be till dusk." Kongo quietly answered, sneaking a quick peek to the mortal. Stardust quickly whipped around, proving she'd see his arrival.

"Is this the right thing to do though?" Suiko almost uneasily asked.

"You haven't been around her as much as we've been able to." Korin reminded, his eyes closed. "We've all talked about this at great length and come up with many options. Tenku disagreed with the final of course, but he hasn't had to share his element before."

Korin's eyes opened as a hand thoughtfully rubbed his chin. "I suppose we'd ALL have objections... This has never happened to us before."

"But we're still responsible for her." Kongo quietly agreed.

"We're responsible for ALL of Gaia's creations..." Suiko thoughtfully muttered. The three sat in silence; heads bowed, hands clasped in contemplation.

When Stardust moved from floating on her back, her gaze rested on the elementals. They were still sitting in those meditative stances. Slowly treading water, her eyes watched them now that they weren't looking. In their colorful, magical outfits, the three truly looked like gods of their elements. She stared in a small mix of awe and wonder.

There was nothing she knew now it seemed, even though she studied them all her life. Though she studied Tenku mostly, it was impossible not to learn about the rest. The legends and tales...all the customs and ways of honoring their supreme divinity...all nothing. She didn't really know them at ALL now...

Dull eyes, shown a lifetime of lies, closed as she dove under the water.

Stopping when her hands touched rocks, she surfaced and sat in the shallows, hands in her lap. She sat toward the three, head bowed. A feeling of calmness assailed her soul as her eyes closed. Even though the water was cold and what dropped off her wasn't helping.

When her eyes finally opened, they widened with a blush upon finding herself watched by six eyes. It was almost like they were STUDYING her.. Awkwardly clearly her throat, she stood in all too wet clothes and fought not to cover what showed through the white garment to their eyes. She exited the river and dripped all the way past the sitting trio into the forest. Their eyes rested on her as she began gathering twigs and enough larger branches for firewood.

The task was laborious without help from any other source of fuel. She diligently worked in the cold, the task of drying off hurrying her movements to impatience. It kept her warm to a degree, and also emotionally occupied. She still felt embarrassed and grossly human with the three sitting mere feet away from her. Her eyes remained locked on her task, not wanting to look any of them in the eye. Her face was already burning up due to a task that normally seemed ordinary. Now it was mundane. The only person she was making a fire for was herself!

A chunk of tangled hair flopped into the fire's vicinity and she brushed it back in irritation. Seconds later, the other side mocked her as well. Just before giving in to the urge to cut her hair off, she momentarily abandoned the fire and sat up in utter annoyance. She took a deep breath and clenched her fists from pulling out her hair. She needed to calm down!

"Is something the matter?" She looked up and found the three watching her, all trying to keep from smiling. Even if the amusement was in their eyes.

She fought back irritation and sighed. She couldn't get mad at THEM. If she didn't need the fire to keep warm and finish drying off, she'd quit the idea.

If only she was like THEM. Her companions had no USE for fire. Especially SUIKO.

"It's...nothing." She mumbled, staring at her fists. "I've never had to make my own fire before..."

Korin's smile turned gentler at her predicament. Everything was always done FOR her. Korin knew...light was a big part of her world. "Would you like some assistance?"

Stardust didn't answer, but the look in her eyes told him she did.

Violet looked to the sky as he gave a mental call to his brother. After a silent moment, blue locked with violet. "Try again."

She nodded and succeeded in getting a spark from the smoke. It quickly engulfed the dead wood, almost unnaturally. She quickly leaned back to keep from getting burned.

"Whoops." Kongo mused. "Korin should've warned you first."

"Warned me against WHAT?" She quizzically asked, giving Kongo an odd look.

"Are you okay?"

Another voice assailed her head, warm and friendly. She quickly scooted back as the fire shot high, immediately going back to the tiny starter as it if was just a normal crackle. In a blood red shirt that looked SUSPICIOUSLY like Kongo's same design; those same pants; and wrappings on his forearms and hands, stood Rekka.

"You didn't get burned, did you?" Rekka asked, slight concern in his eyes.

She quickly sat up and gave a small, reassuring smile. "I am alright Rekka." Hearing the fire crackle, she got up and added more logs. "But now that you're here, may I ask for more of your assistance?" A hand waved to the garment clinging to her body.

Happy to help, especially to solidify his human form, Rekka soon had a small bonfire going.

Stardust stood in front, turning every so often to dry her dress or hair. After enough silent, partial questioning looks, Rekka shifted a little closer to the fire and eyed Stardust.

"I'm sorry all this had to happen to you."

Their eyes met. Her jaw clenched and her eyes misted at the sincerity in his eyes. Not letting herself break down, she put on a brave face and extended her hands to the flames.

"Thank you for your concern Rekka... But my fate was already decided before my birth." A grim smile appeared. "I try not to swell on the past and wonder what my future holds instead."

As those deep blue eyes went to fix her drying hair, the four elementals stole glances. After a bit, Rekka slowly nodded, a smile tipping his face.

Kongo followed Rekka's actions, then Korin and finally Suiko. It was decided then; all they had to do was tell Tenku their answer.

As soon as dusk settled in.

~*~*~

"So...you REALLY want to do this?" She asked, grabbing a handful of wild berries.

The day had been spent gathering what she could to appease her aching stomach. Having never been ALLOWED to hunt before cost her now, but she was quickly learning. She had been unsuccessful in gathering much game, but the forest provided the rest.

"We'll be able to explain better in a little bit." Kongo answered, sitting nearby. The five stayed around the campfire mostly all day to keep Rekka around.

All five were waiting for dusk to arrive.

Midnight glanced at Korin's form. "Will...will all of you be able to remain in your human forms though?"

Korin saw her uncertainty and concern, and gave a small smile. "Where there is Rekka, there is Korin. I will be fine." Korin reassured.

She sat back a little and nodded, satisfied.

At length, she looked to the clear, setting sky. Her mind remained lost in thought from the crackling fire and silence. There was much to ponder, but not much time given. From what they explained so far, they felt a little responsible for her predicament. It was their purpose to protect when needed and always watch. They mentioned Gaia many times since this morning, and Stardust knew she would have to wait until Tenku's arrival to know more. Even from his explanations, what seemed a LIFETIME ago, Tenku never mentioned any Gaia. She assumed his mention of their creator and mother was Gaia. It must be her given name...

Stardust drew her legs to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. With a quiet sigh, feeling a little nervous, her eyes pointed to the ground.

"I hope you haven't been sitting like that ALL day." Came an amused voice. Where there was none before, the wind whipped in a vortex.

"Hey Tenku! Careful!" Rekka protested, standing almost over the dying fire. His form blurred a little before a hand hovered in the flames to solidify himself. If the fire went out, the group would be out two members!

The mist tornado died in an instant, leaving Tenku's human form in its place. A small smile appeared as he sat down.

Briefly, as Rekka steadied the fire and sat back down, Tenku's eyes locked with Stardust's before looking to his brothers. "I managed to listen to some of your conversation. I take it we're doing this then?"

Kongo gave his brother a raised brow. "Don't sound THAT excited about it." He sarcastically mused.

Tenku returned Kongo's look. "Would YOU like to share your element for all eternity?" He returned.

Wide, deep blue eyes shot to Tenku. ETERNITY!?

"Calm yourselves, both of you." Rekka placated, waving his hands. "Remember, she stall has to pass everything before the final test."

"Test?" She dumbly echoed, blinking at Rekka.

"Sort of an initiation if you will." Kongo supplied. Their eyes met over to the fire. "There is a LITTLE power in you from your father's magic and that can be strengthened with time."

"But first we much make sure you pass all of our elements in order to reach the final stage." Tenku added.

"Which is?..."

"Communing with Gaia." Korin quietly answered, his eyes closed. "Even if you make it through earth, fire, wind, water, and light with our blessings, you must ask for GAIA'S permission before you are allowed to do anything."

She nodded and stared at the fire in silence. This was a quest. Something that would determine the rest of her life.

"What happens if I DON'T pass any of the tests? Or Gaia DOESN'T approve?" She quietly asked.

The five cast each other a skeptical look. Gaia's conscious was different and her opinion couldn't be predicted until the quest was done.

"We...don't KNOW what Gaia will say." Kongo quietly muttered. "But if you don't pass the tests, you'll remain as you are. The only thing is, you'll need to find your OWN path in life. We're doing the honorable thing, also as protectors of this sphere, and offering this. It is unorthodox, and probably not DONE, but had your tribe not concocted such overblown notions about us, this wouldn't have happened. We're responsible for EVERYTHING Gaia gives life to, and therefore...you."

Overblown notions... She supposed it WAS a little silly to worship these five, especially after spending the day with most of them. They rarely used their powers all day, and talked like normal mortals.

Her gaze returned to the fire in silence. She was touched they would do this for her, even though Tenku didn't seem all that enthused. She could see a little bit of his side...being older than time and alone in space. Having someone suddenly housed in your element for another undistinguishable amount of time would be an invasion of what you were.

Her brow twitch upward as she thought back. He sent her back the first time, when she was MEANT for him...what made her think he would be as pleasant a SECOND? Her lips pressed together. She didn't want to go with someone who did not WANT her there...

"I...I don't want...to be a BURDEN..." She muttered, keeping her eyes down. She couldn't look at them in her shame.

A few looked to Tenku with raised brows. At length, he sighed and stood. His hand reached down and pulled her up, but not letting go. "The rest of you stay here." Tenku muttered.

"Korin and I don't really have a CHOICE Tenku." Rekka dryly answered. Night had fallen upon the group and both elementals were using the large fire as a means of staying around. If either went TOO far, their human bodies would fade and leave them in their true forms.

"Hmph. No LISTENING either Kongo."

"Yea, yea. Spoilsport." Kongo called, smiling to his brothers. Being the least hindered, he could go anywhere and be anywhere. But he allowed the two their solo time because of the pain and worry he saw in Stardust's eyes and heard in her voice.

She meant what she said.

~*~*~

"This should be far enough." Tenku quietly answered.

He let go of their hands and turned around, only to find her back to him. He blinked and raised a brow. Not to be ignored, he walked to face her and was unable to meet her eyes. Her head turned away from him. He sighed and the wind blew.

A hand shot out and griped her chin, forcing her to look at him. "Stop ignoring me and tell me your reason for this behavior." He harshly, maybe TOO harshly, ordered.

Her chin trembled despite wishes of it NOT to. A quick blink spilled the tears in a path straight for his hand. "I...I won't be offended if...if you don't want to...share your realm." She shakily whispered, voice betraying her. She mentally cursed at how pitiful she sounded.

Tenku let go and heaved another sigh. The wind whipped around them as his eyes looked to the night sky. Was THAT what this woman thought??

Running a hand through his hair, he turned and walked a few steps for distance. He needed to think and being so close to this woman with eyes that reminded him of a late sunset sky was hindering him. "You must understand a few things Stardust." He quietly began, a hand idly going to a tree. "I have been alone until this prospect. I have ruled space and wind. I am the intelligence of anything that thinks. I am USED to all that. It's been that way even before the first animal crawled from Suiko's depths. What point was there to change it?"

With tears of rejection streaming down her face, trying desperately to hold them back, she turned around as well. "I...didn't know...you HATED me that much..." She trailed off, putting a hand to her mouth. Damn emotions and a woman's heart for making her so miserable!

Tenku whipped around to find her hunched form. His hand lightly rested on her shoulder. She tensed and he stepped around to face her. His hand brought her face to his again when she wouldn't look up.

He blinked at the emotions in her eyes. "I have NEVER hated you. What makes you think I DID?"

"The way you talk...and our first meeting..." She whispered. Her eyes looked past into the darkness. "I understand your views on solitude. But, for fifteen years, I was taught and raised to be a sacrifice to a god. When you saved me that night, I thought my life was beginning again." Her eyes went back to his.

"I was ready to do my duty and do whatever you asked of me. But you told me everything I learned was an illusion and my life was a lie. I had never FELT so empty in my entire life than I did that day... You sending me back magnified it." Tears fell again.

"It was like...a blow over the head. I didn't know what to do except go home...only to be accused and shunned."

His guilt was almost eating at him. There were a few things he was responsible for, some not of his doing. "Yes I told you your life was a lie and everything you learned was blasphemy. It was harsh at the time and my reaction to this is most likely a little extreme still. I AM logic and knowledge. I'm afraid that doesn't give me much room in the way of emotions."

Tenku gave a small smile and let go of her chin. "I apologize for any undue stress I've caused. It IS true what I said during our first meeting. Everything I told you about the Earth and its creation. But...there is much you still don't know that...I would be willing to teach you."

His slim hand extended and held in midair. "I am not implying that, should you pass everything, your presence would be an intrusion in my realm. It would be different, but something I could live with."

Her eyes looked to his hand. It was still open and waiting for her to take. "Could...you learn to live with...MORE than just my presence?" Her eyes, full of hope, speared his in the darkness. "I was brought to you with the intention of being yours. I learned to accept that and it made me whole on lonely nights of ritual isolation in my elder years."

Realizing what she was saying, her gaze shyly dropped. "I'm sorry, I'm being silly... Forget I said anything." Her hand quickly touched his and shook it in agreement. "I would be honored if you'd teach me everything you know Tenku."

Tenku's other hand covered hers and gave a small squeeze, effectively getting her attention. "That's quite an amount to learn and memorize. It will take me a long time to teach, but I'd be willing to share it with you." A different kind of smile touched his lips, one she couldn't discern. "I've never been loved by anything before... You flatter me."

Her eyes shot to their hands with a blush. When his hands squeezed again, she couldn't help but smile.

"When...um...when is the trial going to start?" She queried, trying to steady her voice.

"Tomorrow at dawn's first light. Your journey will begin then."

She gave an absent nod. Journey...

"Then...I'd best get as much rest as I can manage." Harshly swallowing at the feelings consuming her heart, she stepped back and lead the way to the others.

~*~*~

The five woke her at dawn. Everything was quickly explained as the light took Tenku away for the day and Suiko doused the fire with his magic, making Rekka disappear. There was no time to waste and she started away from the land she grew in without a glance or regretted thought.

From what she understood, her journey was going to take her across the world. This was a pilgrimage to a land where she could closely commune with Gaia. The five didn't say WHERE, only that she'd know after battling through all their elements. Being closer to the Earth would awaken her heart and mind, and she'd know the place when she reached it.

The journey was long and tedious, especially to get off the mountain. The rocks jutting from the ground weren't kind to her feet and the pine trees were sharper in the cold temperatures. Food was scarce in the cold weather and many times she had water or nothing at night. Her first task was to survive and cross Kongo.

Follow the sun until you must cross water, they said.

She didn't really know what THAT meant...but she knew her first task was Kongo. The first element she needed to brave.

It wasn't EASY. They told her none of them would smooth the way or help in the least. This was a test of her endurance, strength, stamina, will of survival, her physical body, and spirit. Their elements were intertwined, so she'd face MORE than one of their powers, but there were spots in the Earth where one was stronger than the other.

She heard of lands so hot, it burned the feet to walk on ground.

Places with no foliage or water

Water that stretched out forever.

Places where darkness prevailed for many full moons.

Lands that were void of life, and places that looked like paradise.

There weren't many rules to follow. One major was to avoid as many people as possible. Especially in the mountain area. She was well-known by many surrounding tribes. People would ask questions and they were NOT to be talked about. She wasn't allowed help on this or it would defeat the purpose and meaning. So she was forced to change her position a little and backtrack miles whenever she came within the vicinity of well-worn trails.

It truly WAS a test of her body, spirit, and emotions. But, constantly telling herself that she was a shaman's daughter with powers inside her, she forced herself to adapt.

She quickly learned to sleep in trees at night; managed to cover miles and ignore the dull pains of hunger inside her; know which plants were safe to eat in her travels; better herself at trapping animals, building fires, and creating things out of their skins for warmth.

She mostly traveled east with the rising sun and rested until it was behind her. She kept a brisk pace until the chill of night came and found shelter where she could. There were times when she had to travel at night if her awakening senses told her the land wasn't safe.

By the time she reached water, she was a different person. Her hair was in a single braid and slicked away from her head from many weeks without a bath. Skins hung on her shoulders and waist. Her original outfit was no longer white and now torn in many places. Her skin was darker by many days of following Korin. The baby fat of her youth quickly evaporated into muscle. Her feet and hands were severely calloused from hard traveling and work. Her eyes were the most different in intelligence and the harshness of the wilderness. She was more woman than girl, even if her body didn't look it.

The ocean stretched out in front of her, the waves gently lapping against the sand. She stood still in a pose learned to keep her out of harm's way and watched. This was her first glimpse of so much water at once. This was where she followed Korin to for so long. As the sun set over the water, creating a beauty all its own, she sat down and continued to watch. Before the sun set completely, she decided the first part of the quest should get finished.

"Kongo!" She loudly called, using a voice rarely heard anymore. It sounded strange to her ears. Older.

Silence followed her voice, so she chose to wait. Whether or not she was ALLOWED to converse with them was uncertain. Kongo would come when his confusion became great enough. She KNEW he was around; she could feel his ever watchful presence at times.

Not too much longer, a mount of free earth shot into the air and rolled off his human form. He quietly, but pleasantly, sat next to her in the same cross-legged stance and silently regarded her.

As the pair quietly looked at each other, Kongo's face slowly gained a proud smile. "You've changed quite a bit since our last physical meeting."

She allowed a small smile. "There was no choice in the matter." Her eyes looked to the animal skins. "I wouldn't have lasted long had I not changed."

Another silence passed. "Why did you call me?" Kongo queried, straining to see her in the near dark.

She gave him a sideways glance. "Where do I go after this? Is the first part of the quest over with?"

Kongo sat back and stared at the ocean. "Your trials on land will never TRULY be over because unlike us, your feet rarely leaves the ground. But now, you've adapted and it's easier for you. So, it's PARTIALLY over." Kongo stood and grabbed a loose rock, taking a few steps to the ocean.

"Suiko will have to advice you on your next journey. From here on, I am relatively powerless." The rock skipped across the waves to bring his brother.

She nodded and stood. Before she knew what she was doing, her arms were around Kongo's neck in a loose hug. Her hard edges softened a little as she gave him a small smile. "Perhaps I haven't changed THAT much...at least deep inside." She softly mused.

Kongo just smiled back and gave her a small squeeze. "Wish me luck Kongo." Deep blue looked to the crashing waves. "I shall surely need it." She got a pat on the shoulder, which said more than words, before the earth swallowed him up again.

After a brief conversation with Suiko, Stardust dug a small hole in the sand and covered herself with a skin before putting as much over her body as possible. From what Suiko told her, she had an even HARDER journey ahead of her. Sleep was essential, even if it eluded her due to a full mind. This would be harder, Suiko said, because food wasn't as available and not all the water could be drunk. Some of it would taste odd and that's what she should NEVER have. It could kill her.

When she awoke, everything was dark until she stood from the sand. She inhaled a breath of fresh air and removed the skins, leaving her in just the tattered dress.

All the beads had been thrown away long ago for many reasons...all boiling down to not being needed. Though she hated parting with some of the only valuables she had, it was better this way. Less weight meant she wouldn't drown and it was much warmer here. The crude knife was tossed with the skins. She could make another one, and nature would provide. It had SO far...

She carefully tread against the waves, trying to walk along the bottom as much as possible. Suiko said she'd need to conserve her strength on this, since her body would be severely tested. She still had to follow the sun, but some of the tide would carry her. And she needed to beware more than on land. Creatures unimaginable rested in depths too dark and deep to see in. They'd kill her without conscious.

It was hard to ride the waves out far enough to where they wouldn't be a burden. When she was free of the pull, she experimented with different swimming techniques for stamina. Her legs provided greater power after hundreds of miles of toning. It also made following the sun easier as she floated on her back and kicked.

Just out of sight of land tested her survival skills. Animals of fins and teeth were her first predators, but she luckily fended them off without getting bit. Even in water, she assumed these creatures could find a way to smell blood. After that experience, she always glanced to the water, part in paranoia for her safety.

Luckily, not ALL the animals were dangerous. She encountered animals with holes in their heads and long mouths. A few swam with her and let her grab onto their fins, proving just how fast they could really GO. Some brought her to a school of large fish, which she managed to eat along with them. Hunger gnashed her stomach like none other, only staved by gulping large amounts of water around her. She was relieved to find it safe to drink.

Her mind forced itself to think of different things to keep occupied. Seeing nothing but the same scene for days and getting little sleep for fear of being eaten and/or drowned was taking its toll on her. But being in cold to barely warm water all the time gave her a sensitivity to its temperatures. After a while, it seemed warmer.

The hope of land spurred her on and also gained her another deadly visit by more animals of fins and teeth. She had many close calls, but managed to get out alive and unbitten.

Many nights, unable to do anything to keep safe in her water travels, she floated on her back and gently kicked in the direction of what she was sure was land and stared at the stars. With rarely any cloudy days as the water grew warmer, she was given a good view of Tenku. A wistful smile remained on her lips whenever she thought back to their final talk before the quest; what seemed like a lifetime ago. If she clasped her hands just right, she could almost imagine his hands holding hers. Thoughts like that strengthened her heart and drive to continue, but filled her with a deep sadness and longing to see him again. But she wasn't allowed until the quest was over with. On an almost ritual end to nights of those thoughts, she abruptly turned and swam a little harder to banish it all with exhaustion.

The blissful traces of land made themselves known in lighter colored water and warmer temperatures. The heat revived her body a little bit, allowing her more time to swim. Exhausted relief finally hit when the ocean turned lighter than her eyes; she could see even farther to the bottom; and there was a trace of a current. She made for the pull of land, doing only floating and letting it sweep her in.

Finally...land made itself known.

After her feet touched bottom, she road the waves in enough to crawl the rest without fear of drowning and dropped onto the sand. After a bit of rest, Stardust managed to stand and wearily trudged a little further to the surf's edge.

Caught off-guard while looking around, a voice startled her. "Welcome back to land Stardust..." Kongo softly greeted.

With a smile, her eyes closed by themselves as she gave in to sleep, heavily falling to the earth.

~*~*~

During that time, she dreamt of a land full of plants and animals. It was lush and green, with much water to drink. There was danger of many predators, but also an abundance of food. She walked over the water as if it were land and noticed many bushes...then looked down and saw the ground many feet below her. That was it...she was walking next to trees. A small smile appeared as she watched a few fish swim underneath. Was this how Suiko felt in his element? When he walked on it?

A beam of light from Korin gained her attention and she followed it, as she'd done for so long. After walking around trees and watching in delight at the flock of multi-colored birds leaving the safety of their cover, she came to a thick grove of leaves. There was no way around it; no way to climb over. She thoughtfully pouted for a while before looking to her feet again. The water gently moved under her toes and she gave a small smile. Under water it was then.

Inhaling until her lungs hurt, she sank below the surface.

It was harder to see where she was going in water than going over it. There were many vines and the light made things blur. Korin's inadvertent doing she knew.

After going around many trees, using them as leverage to pull herself quicker, she was forced to surface. After a quick second to wipe the water from her eyes, still gasping for breath, her eyes widened at the beauty around her. Even with the water up to the top of the trees around her, the mammoth in front was still dozens of feet above water. Its girth was huge; its bark smooth and white. The leaves were plentiful; thick limbs holding many different birds and animals that stared down at her. She looked to their many eyes and knew this was the place she traveled so far to. This was where she needed to speak to Gaia.

This...was paradise.

And magic.

In an almost trance-like motion, her arms rested on top of the water and pushed herself to the top again without thinking. Her eyes remained on the tree and the little bits of light that filtered through its canopy. The way the wind blew at its branches...it almost seemed alive...

Slowly, she walked to the wide trunk, a hand timidly extending. As she touched its smooth surface, a million thoughts and voices rushed her head. After the echoes of animals and plants gradually died down, a gentle voice sounded above them all.

"Come..."

She knew she'd do as that voice commanded. This was the end place she needed to go. To talk to that soothing, firm voice... With a gasp at the mental onslaught, she jerkily stepped back and heavily fell to the water. It still held her as she shakily gasped for breath. She blinked in shock at seeing her sleeping form on the beach instead of the tropical ground below. After a quick look to the massive tree, she nodded in understanding and closed her eyes. Her body sunk below the surface and floated to the physical half.

~*~*~

The next day was spent resting and feeding the aching hole in her stomach. She ate enough to satisfy her, even if she was wishing for the knife she discarded. Two days were used getting her body back to normal, also getting her started on gauging the climate.

The days were hot and sunny, with only relief from oddly-shaped trees. They were unlike any she'd ever seen before. After enough time of studying her surroundings, she decided to get on with it.

"Rekka! Korin!" Her voice echoed as she sat and waited for their arrival.

At the hottest time of day, when the sun cast rarely any shadow, they appeared.

Sparkles of light suddenly outlined into human form. The view blurred and changed to interesting blue armor and Korin's human form. His eyes opened in that normal meditative stance and slowly smiled. His mouth opened to speak, but stopped as his vision calmly turned to the side.

Powerful heat blurred the land and seared her face. The ground melted a little as swirling fire appeared. Rekka stood in his human form, the ground smoking a little under him. With a greeting smile on his face, he plopped down on the burnt section and looked to the two.

"Now that everyone is here..." Korin answered.

The two gave her little to go by, only that the temperatures were harsh opposites and she would have to find a way to adapt once again. Korin commended her on a five job of surviving Suiko. The two disappeared shortly after proclaiming the start of the next quest. She didn't tell them about her dream, but said she didn't intend on following the sun. She knew where to go, she told them.

Both seemed to understand.

She didn't get very far without the need for a break. The heat was sweltering, but she pressed on. She was determined not to give up. She made bad time due to the concentrated combination of heat and light with the wind blowing sand in her face.

During a particularly bad windstorm, she was forced to dig a hole in the sand and cover herself for shelter. Her dress served as a cover as she easily tore strips to tie around both hair and head.

When the winds finally settled down, night had come. She managed to crawl her way above the sand and looked to millions of glittering stars. It was Tenku's simple magnificence. She sat and watched, seeing steam come from her mouth.

She blinked in confusion, remembering the warnings of the elementals. But her skin was so battered by sun and heat from days of leaving the shade that she rarely felt it. She stood with a decisive nod and continued on her path. She would travel by night and outsmart the heat, but also travel hard to keep warm and make up for lost time.

So passed a routine as such. Harsh travel with a brief rest to conserve her reserves at the lack of food and water at night; dig a deep hole in the sand and sleep until the heat wore off.

Many nights, she encountered more unknown animals. Animals with claws and tails, of long bodies and teeth. Wariness helped her feet to fly away from the ones with tails, finding them overly threatening...but hunger helped her to set traps for the ones with fangs. She couldn't make a fire with no wood around, so she settled on eating what little meat she could.

Travel by night was sometimes better than day, but the cold quickly made her switch. After many days of traveling in sweltering heat, she soon traveled during sunrise and sunset, resting during day and night.

Many times, hunger pained her into unconsciousness. Her body was betraying her spirit. Often she had to remind herself that she had mysterious powers and that the others were waiting for her to finish...almost in expectation. The pride in their voices after she passed out alive and evolved into something stronger from their elements pricked her courage to get up and trudge on. She HAD to do this...she HAD to! They were COUNTING on her! She must have as much faith in herself as they did in HER.

~*~*~

During one of the early mornings, she crawled over a mound of sand and blinked...rubbed her eyes...and blinked again. Just as she thought the elements and lack of sustenance had mastered HER, relief was sitting at the bottom of the hill.

With a happy cry, calling forth reserves deep within her body, she stumbled down the hill, rolling the rest when a foot crumpled from lack of strength. She stopped and rested with her cloth-covered face in the sand, heavily laying on the ground. After fighting to gain consciousness, regrettably bringing herself to the land of the living, she crawled on hands and knees.

As soon as her body got past the surrounding plants, her head gracelessly plunged into the water, drinking as much as she could before pulling away for air. Regaining her breath, she slumped to the ground and instantly fell asleep, despite the mass amounts she'd gotten so far.

When she awoke again, the sun was setting. She carefully sat up and stood, looking around. She slept the whole day away.

AGAIN.

Forcing herself to stand, she heavily drank again and felt much better. After a deep breath, feeling invigorated after quenching her thirst, she looked around for something more solid. There weren't very many animals out, so she ate what she could from the mysterious plants. After eating all she could, she buried herself in some of the warm sand and slept again.

The next time she woke was to the early morning light. She passed the day rejuvenating her body for another long journey. Who knew if another small lake like this existed in the miles she had yet to go? Maybe the others were all dried up, like this was already doing.

She dared only stay another day before the want to hang back became oppressive. So she slept away the afternoon under shade and took a heavy drink of water before trudging next to the setting sun.

She traveled a lot by night, using a more hurried pace. She needed to make up the lost miles and part of her body was healed enough to be pushed. She was also a little excited to get back on the move. She lost track of how many months, and couldn't rely on the seasons, but wondered if it was a year since she started all this. Her mind was used to always traveling anymore...

The longer she traveled, the more she could see and feel a change. She was getting closer to where she dreamt about. Shrubs barely peeking from the ground and dead grass told her water used to be near. The thought of water and food for her tiring body helped her to push everything aside and ignore the beginning familiar ache. At least she was able to ignore the feeling, not that she already experienced something ten times worse.

By the time another full moon rose in the night sky, she left the sandy area and trudged through strange plants and terrain. She was almost near the lands of Gaia. She could tell by the more small ponds that dotted the land.

She often stopped to drink for sustenance and keep going. There was rarely a moment's rest as she pushed to reach the end. She was getting close; there was a yearning in her heart that said she was.

Soon, ponds turned to streams. She followed it night and day, stopping only to eat and drink. Only resting when she refilled her body. Trees soon showed up, with more lush grass. Bird calls sounded in the distance. She escaped death wastelands and made it to the land of the living. That alone gave her the courage and inner strength to push aside exhaustion and keep walking. Only once was she forced to deep sleep when her body refused to continue.

Though she lost precious hours and half the day, her body was rejuvenated enough to work harder again. She went into a run and soon, the stream became a river. A good sign. In the dream, the lands were flooded.

Continuing to follow this course would lead her to where she needed to end up. Even if she was going on blind faith...

An unexpected twist came at the ends of the river...which was actually a WATERFALL. She looked way down to the ground below, not realizing everything slopped DOWNWARD. But it WAS the direction she needed to go, as indicated by the high water level.

The floods were spotted through small holes in the canopy. It was still not high enough to touch leaves yet. The only problem...the river went two ways.

She looked to either side as far as she could and bit her lip. Her eyes closed, trying to find that magic within...or at least the yearning that correctly led her so far.

She sat for a while with no answer forthcoming. Dull eyes opened with a sigh. Well...she would have to WAIT until her heart directed her again. Deep blue looked to the river below. A smile slowly curved her lips. If she was fated to wait for a sign, then she was going for a BATH. The last time she remembered being doused with so much water was her time in the ocean.

Giving a joyous cry, she dove in. Her eyes experimentally opened after submersion, but didn't stay that way for long. She swam away from the pounding water and surfaced.

Hands went to her hair, trying her best to unbraid the greasy locks. It was a task near the end, but her hair was in the simple design for many moons. As she unbound the top, she was surprised to see it'd grown out. Now unbound, the thick locks went past her waist and almost touched her thighs in the water.

She was content to tread water and massage her head as best she could. The motion quickly relaxed her. The water beating together thudded in her ears and gave her peace with the sound. Maybe this was what she needed to find the path again. Relax a little and let her mind wander.

Except the false sense of security and loud water shrouded the noises immensely. It was a help to the predator and hindrance to the prey.

With her back turned toward the waterfall and eyes struggling to stay open with the massage, she didn't see the obvious danger until it attacked with teeth. The only thing that saved her from being eaten was the sudden, sleepy forward bob of her head. After that, her instincts kicked in with a rush of adrenaline and fear. She darted to one side as the massive head shot from the water.

Her eyes widened in panic. It was HUGE!

It looked like the same fanged creatures she saw in the sands. But this looked nearly as tall as she was, with different markings. That tongue stuck out of its mouth before it dove at her again with an open mouth. She pushed to the side again, but her shoulder was struck by its head. A dull ache was already forming, but she pushed it aside and looked under the water. The long body was circling in preparation to strike again.

A plan was quickly forming.

When the head shot to the surface, mouth and fangs leading the way, she dove under and went straight for it as well. Before the bubbles crowded her vision and her eyes failed her, she twisted at the last second and grabbed the monster a little behind its head. The thing surfaced and tried to shake her off, but her arms tightened.

She fought a compiled battle to stay above water, to keep her grip, and keep her legs from being entangled in its body. It wasn't easy, especially after the creature dove under water without allowing her to get much air beforehand. Her eyes were forced to close after the stinging became unbearable. It continued on as her face was hit with what FELT like leaves. This thing, in its blind panic, had to be taking her SOMEWHERE! Regardless of WHERE, she was determined not to let it take her for its meal.

Her teeth quickly bit into its scaly hide.

They haphazardly swirled around before surfacing. She thankfully gasped and quickly rubbed an eye before regaining her hold. As it tried to dislodge her grip, a quick scan found them to be among trees, just past the river she saw from the top of the waterfall. This thing, in its fury and equal need for survival, inadvertently took her from the pool and to the other side of the wide river.

Even though she was grateful for its help, this thing initially intended on eating her. Determined not to die so close to the end, her teeth sunk in deeper as she tasted its soft flesh. The thing hissed and dove backwards into the water. She was ready and took as much air as she could and prepared for another ride.

They twisted in the water continuously until it took off again. Not long after, her head harshly struck what she quickly knew was a tree and her eyes opened.

She let go and hurried to the surface, taking to the trees.

When she was a few limbs up, finally out of harm's way, Stardust wiped the water from her eyes and spit the creature's scales from her mouth as she looked down. The predator was slowly circling the tree and looking up, trying to find her. She noticed the small mark on its head from where her teeth met.

After tense seconds of crouching in wait, the creature swirled one last time before heading with the stream. She gave a triumphant smile, and sigh of relief.

Relaxing a little more on the limb, hands went to her hair to braid it as she could with no comb or water. The creature really made a mess of it, getting twigs and leaves in it. After much bad luck of trying to sort it out wet, she was forced to let it go. A hand ran down the mass once, feeling everything on the top of her head like a crown.

With a sigh, she climbed the thickest limb and peeked out. Trees were EVERYWHERE! The mid afternoon sun shone down, lighting the thin sliver of water that must've been the river. Teeth bit her lip. Did she backtrack and follow the river? Or stay and rest after her ordeal?

She looked around in indecision, admiring the land in the meantime. This land wasn't home nor the ocean, but a combination of both. It was Kongo submerged by Suiko.

Her eyes widened, then squinted as she spotted a large grove of trees, what SUSPICIOUSLY looked like one treetop. Feeling excitement bubble her veins, she pointed the sun's position for direction and hurried to the lowest branch above the water. She was mere YARDS away! Since it was too dangerous to travel by water, as her last battle showed, she had to tree-hop it. With the massive amounts around her, that didn't seem too hard.

Calculating the distance, she leapt off the branch.

~*~*~

It was harder than she thought, but she quickly became adjusted.

Just like everything else.

The familiarity of being in trees from the beginning quest quickly surfaced as she constantly shimmied up and down limbs to make sure she was still going in the right DIRECTION. It took longer doing it that way, but this WASN'T going to be hurried!

The mid afternoon turned to beginning sunset and she tried to speed up the journey. She couldn't be caught in this strange water land at night. Not after that attack... And the trees were becoming sparse...she was nearly on TOP of it!

This massive tree that managed to withstand the elements year after year...that was where she would talk with Gaia. No WAY would she stop after being so CLOSE!

Late sunset tipped through the trees as she reached the barrier. Massive amounts around her said this was it. She looked around the ring of smaller trees, their branches hidden under the flood. Unlike her dream, this was real and she couldn't walk over the water.

She gulped and looked to the dark waters, wondering what lurked below. She feared going under water at this time of nightfall, but going THROUGH the leaves and branches would get her stuck and she could drown. Without a knife to hack her way through, under was the only option.

She gulped again and sat back, clasping her hands for courage.

Her eyes peeked open when a small bit of light appeared. Korin??

A hand came out and gently cupped the moving light. When her fingers uncurled, the light was gone...with a bug in its place. Curious, she watched it crawl around her fingers before the light appeared again and it flew off. So...such a tiny creature did that...

She smiled and looked to the air. The little bugs were everywhere, flying around with those lights blinking. The smile turned to one of gratitude as she shimmied down the branches and quietly dropped to the water.

Stealth was needed now.

She managed to make it to the leaves without incident. With a breath for courage, she deeply inhaled and blindly pulled her way past trees. The lack of sight and sound pricked her fear, but she pushed it aside and continued on.

'Almost THERE...'

She just barely passed the trees when her head broke the surface with a gasp. She reached up and rubbed the water from her eyes and looked around. The light bugs made it look like the stars revisited. She could see a few birds moving around, feeling their eyes. Gaping in awe and wonder at the vision, wondering if she was asleep once again, she slowly paddled forward.

"I...made it." She whispered. Deep blue blinked and looked around. "I'm actually...HERE. I SURVIVED."

"And we're all PROUD of you too."

The wind struck up and soon Tenku appeared in the same, full-bodied white and blue armor that she saw under his battle armor so very long ago. A gentle smile came from his place on a low branch of the old tree.

"Tenku!..." She breathed, feeling her eyes water. She hadn't see his human form in what seemed a lifetime. Now he was here... "Does that mean I passed the quests?" She hoped.

"Like we knew you WOULD..."

Suiko made his usual appearance, wearing white and light blue armor in the same design as Tenku's.

He gave a smile and stood, extending his hand. "Now that you passed, it's okay for us to help you. Give me your hand..."

She did as told and with a burst of Tenku's air, found herself above water. When the air stopped, she was still above it.

She gasped and looked down. "This!...just like my DREAM..." She whispered.

Suiko let go of her hand and idly went to the tree, leaning against it.

"So...what happens now?"

"What happened in your dream?" Kongo asked. Instead of coming from the ground, he materialized on a limb near Tenku.

She gave a small gasp of surprise. "Kongo...HOW..."

Kongo just smiled. "There're rocks where a few birds who make this tree their home. As long as THEY are here, I can be here."

She looked to his orange and white armor, same design as the others. She never saw it on anyone but Tenku before... "Will...the others be able to come?"

"This is as close as I can get..."

A blurry image of Korin on a high branch on top of the tree above looked down.

"Night is not my element I'm afraid."

Tenku smiled and shook his head.

"I will lose my form when the sun goes down completely, but the surrounding bugs will keep me from disappearing entirely."

"And Rekka?" Stardust hadn't seen him since leaving the ocean. She missed his kind eyes.

"Unless you have a way to make fire in Suiko's land, Rekka is unable to be here during the night. The days and nights are hot enough though, that you can feel his presence." Tenku answered. "So in a way, he is already here..."

She almost glumly nodded and stepped forward to the tree. Her hand extended and stopped inches from it. In a split second fear of what would happen, teeth bit her lip.

"Go on Stardust...have faith in Gaia." Kongo quietly urged.

She locked eyes with his and gave a shaky nod. She stared at the paused hand, took a deep breath, and pressed it against the trunk.

As in her dream, multitudes of voices crowded her mind. Animal, plant, and human. A wind roared past her, blowing against her body. Then all was still and her eyes peeked open. The widened and dumbly blinked at the soft luminescence surrounding the trunk and glittering leaves.

Tenku and Kongo still sat in the same spots, watching her with friendly smiles. Suiko was still leaning against the trunk next to her, and Korin sat a little above his brothers, now in solid form of green and white armor.

The last brother appeared when a dead branch broke off and suddenly caught flame. In an instant, Rekka was there to catch it before it fell into Suiko and stood on a low branch. He gave her a radiant, proud smile.

"Hey...you MADE it." One hand held the branch, the other stuck in the middle of the flame to keep his body solid and to feed the fire. His body was also covered like the others; red his chosen color.

With a smile, happy Rekka could appear, Stardust focused her attention to her hand on the trunk. A small glow covered her palm as tiny bugs continued to crawl on their home.

"I have come, like you commanded." She whispered, humbly closing her eyes.

"Yes..." Came that soothing answer. It was simple, but knowing. As if this woman KNEW everything that happened to her; every trial and moment since it started.

"If you know...what do I do NOW? If you are this planet, how do I seek acceptance to exist in Tenku's realm? I have heard about you from Tenku. I have the blessings of your elemental sons. By crossing their elements, I have gained their acceptance. Now I ask what I must do to gain yours."

There was a brief pause, as if the tree was thinking. She looked to the others, finding she already had their attention.

"My son and deity has not told you? I am the creator of everything you see, but I do not hold your life in my grasp. I give you your life to do with as you would. You should CHERISH what's around you. Though things live and die, be considerate in what you kill. You must be able to give a hand to both death AND life. Do you feel you have managed to do so, so far?"

Her head bowed in thought. She thought back to as much as she could in the journey...to the rest of her life. It was a serious question. Could she detach herself from something so precious as life? The day she left the mountains after being exiled and also to start the quest flashed in her mind. Yes...she left everything behind, regrettably at first, then without thought.

"Yes. I can." She quietly answered.

"Then you have my acceptance. That is all I wanted to know. Your journey has taught you much about the world and myself as a whole. I have been with you since you were brought here. You have ALWAYS shone great promise. If you will pledge everything you are, I will give you a role in creation."

She didn't hesitate. "I have traveled across your body to be here. My word is my bond. I pledge my life and my soul to what you would have me do."

"Be fair in creation and death. Be distant to allow things the room to grow, yet guide them in a moment of need. Kindness, patience, time, love, hardship, loyalty, friendship, knowledge. These are entrusted to everything. I give knowledge to Tenku; kindness to Rekka; loyalty and faith to Suiko; courtesy to Korin; and justice to Kongo. I will entrust in you patience. For in Tenku's realm, both time and patience are good tools to have. You will be a creator as I am; for women were given the gift to create life. I also give you the gift of death."

Stardust gasped and looked at her hand. As with Korin's appearance, sparks of light surrounded her flesh, creating a shine to her skin.

"Use this gift wisely. You will need assistance until you are able to work on your own. My sons will help you to learn more."

By now, Stardust was hardly listening. Her attention was on the brightening light that was slowly dissolving her skin to radiance. "Will I die?"

"The human spirit is untamable. Your human body is not necessary where you will be. As long as you keep your thoughts and spirit in tact, that's all you need. When your magic is stronger, you will be able to take human form if you wish. But you will find it pointless. Now...look to the stars and will yourself to be one with them."

Stardust did as ordered. The light now covered her entire body and it seemed to strengthen her sight. She could see almost every star shining brighter, almost in acceptance. Giving them a small smile, her eyes finally closed as her skin turned to a cluster of light. It shot through the leaves and into the night sky, exploding with magnificence. Nothing fell back to the earth, but the stars shone a little brighter before going back to normal.

"It is done." Gaia announced. "Watch over her Tenku. All of you." Her voice drifted to nothing as the tree slowly lost its luminescence.

When the light disappeared, so did Korin's form.

Rekka dropped the stick and also disappeared when it sunk into Suiko's realm with a hiss.

Kongo's body turned to dirt and fell back to its resting place.

Suiko turned to his watery form and sunk to the surface.

Tenku looked to the night sky with serious eyes, mind void of thought for the first time. His magic could pick up Stardust's pulse, spread out amongst the stars. After a long time of looking to his now divided realm, a misty vortex swirled around his human form and he lastly disappeared.

~*~*~

Space is comprised of nothing, planets, stars, black holes, and the infinite amount of darkness. Tenku comes from an old, dying language meaning firmament. Another word is space.

Space is age-old and existed when nothing did.

Space is knowledge, for it has seen from birth to death of everything in its realm.

Stardust is a combined word to describe the stars in space. From a person's view on Earth, the stars are nothing more than flecks of dust strewn across the night sky. Star dust.

Stars live as separate beings of light around the planets. Their times are vastly different than planets and their occupants. But like every living thing, stars are born and also die.

In life, plants are asexual; but mammals are both male and female. Females are the only beings gifted enough to create life outside themselves. Each cell that makes up the daughter is exactly the same as the mother-parent cell.

Stardust accepted the life as a mother in space. Just as Gaia is mother to the Earth, Stardust watched over each and every star in space. While Tenku commanded everything in his realm, Stardust became the birth and death of every star since her quest ended. She became mother and bringer of death in their time of need.

Stardust.

The name fit her well.