A Guiding Light -- Chapter 1

A Guiding Light

An After Talpa Story

By Melissa "Akemi" Ho

Author's Note: This is part of a 9 chapter story plus author's notes. It is COMPLETED. To best view this story, please visit my Ronin Warrior Wing on my web site -- http://www.geocities.com/libraryoflegends/

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Chapter 1 -- Gateway to the Sun

Whap!

Sage danced out of the way the return swing, just barely missing being scratched by the glittering blade. He retreated backwards and regarded his opponent carefully, gray eyes narrowed as he tried to formulate an appropriate strategy. Sweat matted his golden hair and he was panting slightly with exertion. He held his no-datchi up in a defensive posture, sunlight reflecting off the silver metal and throwing its rays around the little clearing. Somewhere in the distant background, birds were chirping and a tiny brook gurgled as it meandered its way amongst the oak trees. But Sage paid it no mind, intent instead on his opponent.

A slight movement of the opposing blade was all the warning Sage got as he brought his no-datchi up to parry. He broke the deadlock immediately, bringing his own blade downward. His stroke was broken by another blade, the two weapons causing a metallic clang to reverberate amongst the trees. Sage whirled on his heel, this time avoiding a swing aimed at his side. Grimacing at the narrow escape, Sage fell back to circling, patiently awaiting the right movement. Suddenly, his opponent charged him and Sage ducked below the outstretched sword, bringing his own no-datchi up. Something silver went flying and Sage followed up on his advantage, launching into a series of swerves and a well placed kick. He was able to knock the second blade from his opponent's grasp and aimed his no-datchi tip at the other's throat. Despite his heavy breathing, he let a smug smile spread across his face.

"Gottcha," he grinned.

"Okay you win." China blue eyes smiled back at him from beneath a host of unkempt black bangs. "But only because I let you."

"Yeah whatever Ryo," Sage laughed back, lowering his no-datchi and helping his friend up from his undignified position. "I can't believe you charged me. You know you're not supposed to attack an enemy head on."

"Well, I was wondering what you would do," Ryo shrugged as he bent to retrieve his fallen katanas. "Besides," he added with a laugh, "I was kicking your butt. Figured I'd give you a chance."

Sage rolled his eyes, "Yeah, virtuous Ryo, of course."

Ryo laughed at his expression, "Still, we're even now and I say we stop the chatter cause I'm in need of a shower." He used a white towel to mop the sweat from his forehead then carefully wrapped his two katanas in it. Sage mirrored his action and the two were soon walking down the familiar dirt path through the thick forest. Late afternoon sunlight filtered through the upper canopy whose boughs were dancing in the slight breeze. They didn't exchange any words but let nature take away the adrenalin of the duel. They came abreast a small lake which reflected a bright blue sky with cotton clouds like little islands drifting lazily by. Abruptly, the glassy surface of the water rippled and a brown head appeared. He blinked the water from his eyes and smiled at the two companions.

"Hey wait up!" he called, his strokes carrying him to shore. He eased out of the water and toweled off the extra water before joining the two on the path.

"Oh so Cye is actually leaving the water?" Ryo teased.

Cye made a face at him as he fell in step with them. "Quiet Ryo," he laughed, "You should talk, I wasn't in the water nearly as long as you two were practicing out there," he gestured to the trees behind them.

Ryo mumbled something under his breath and Cye's sea blue eyes danced. Sage hid his own smile and wisely kept his mouth shut. An easy silence fell between them as the threesome continued down the path. The forest trees soon gave way to a sprawling English style mansion. It was two stories tall with a balcony that lined the entire front section. Tiled in alabaster white, the windows glinted the afternoon rays with the darker roof accented its beams. A Samurai Jeep was parked in the driveway and Sage noticed a skateboard that had been left near the front door.

"Looks like Mia brought Yulie back today," Cye smiled slightly.

"No wonder I can't find White Blaze," Ryo returned.

An odd smell drifted past Sage's nose and he groaned. "It's not Rowen's turn to cook is it?" his tone tinged with a touch of horror.

Cye laughed at his expression, "Don't worry Sage, it's Kento's turn today. Last I saw Rowen, he was trying to fix Mia's laptop."

Conversation temporarily abated as they reached the doorframe and let themselves in. The scent Sage had smelled was coming from upstairs, not the kitchen where Kento was bustling about. They could hear him repeating his little litany.

"One for me, and one for them. One for me, and one for them . . ."

Cye sighed in exasperation and took himself in the direction of the kitchen with the hope of preventing Kento from eating all of their dinners, while Ryo headed straight to the shower. That left Sage to investigate the upstairs and when he peered into Mia's room, he found Rowen's blue haired head bent over a laptop while Mia leaned over, watching him with interest. Rowen straightened, rescrewing the bottom then working the screen through the start-up sequence.

"There you go," Rowen said, rising, "It should work now, Mia."

"Thanks Rowen," Mia responded gratefully, seating herself in the space Rowen had just vacated. "Now I can finally finish researching."

Rowen nodded then met Sage's gaze with a grin. "Hey Sage, what's up?"

"Nothing much, just wondering what that less than pleasant smell was," Sage answered easily, "I thought you were cooking again."

Rowen glared at his golden haired roommate then let his expression become more jovial. "Sorry to disappoint you. Somehow the wires in Mia's laptop crossed. There was an electrical discharge and some of the bits burned."

"Right, I'll take your word for it," Sage said in answer.

They retreated back downstairs where Cye was helping Kento lay out his dishes on the table. Ryo emerged from the shower with an expression of satisfaction on his face.

"Smells good Kento!" he said cheerfully.

Kento grinned, "Mama Faun's secret recipes, of course. So let's eat before it gets cold!"

"Wait, where's Mia?" Cye began.

"Coming!" Mia called. She emerged from the upstairs a smile of satisfaction encompassing her face. "Sorry I'm late," she added, taking her place at the table, "But I had to finish researching. According to my grandfather's old files, there's an old ruins near here known as the 'Gateway to the Sun.' It was once a Shinto shrine dedicated to Amateratsu, Goddess of the Sun."

"'Gateway to the Sun'?" Rowen cocked his head at that. "I think I've vaguely heard of a place like that. I didn't know it still existed."

"Neither did I," Mia said excitedly, "And what's more, I think I'm going tomorrow to check it out."

"What's so interesting about a bunch of ruins?" Kento humfed, shoving food into his mouth.

"Hey! I think Japanese History is fascinating," Ryo threw a look in Kento. "Why don't I join you Mia," he leaned forward, a gleam in his blue eyes, "And it's not like we have school or anything since tomorrow's Saturday."

Sage mulled that thought over in his head. "Why don't we all go? It'll be a nice change of scenery."

"Yeah, I wouldn't mind checking it out either," Rowen added.

"And don't forget me!" Yulie said, finally joining the others from his play outside. An added roar from outside caused Ryo to grin.

"So how about it Mia?" Cye turned back to her.

Mia laughed at them all. "I'd love to have you guys around," she replied with genuine happiness. "And it's not more than an hour away."

Kento sighed. "Sure, why not?" he grumbled then finally assumed an air of defeat. Cye couldn't help but grin at his ash-haired friend.

"Oh come on Kento, you'll enjoy yourself, I promise." His expression grew crafty. "It's either that or we have more swimming lessons tomorrow," he arched an eyebrow.

"The ruins sound great!" Kento said a little too enthusiastically, while at the same time throwing a look over his shoulder at his friend.

Laughter erupted around the table and plans were quickly made for a leisure day of exploring.

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The thick forest opened like a lotus in bloom, bringing with it all the sweet smells of forest flowers. Songbirds flitted from tree to tree and a light breeze sent the boughs dancing. Early morning sunlight filtered through the interwoven branches making the atmosphere decidedly pleasurable. A white tiger led the way through the dense underbrush, tail whipping back and forth next to an energetic eight year old boy. Yulie babbled excitedly to Mia who answered all of his questions with a laugh. Behind them, five other teenagers brought up the rear, each settling to a companionable silence, broken only by a tease here or there or a jovial laugh.

Sage let himself relax and observed the scenery around him. His senses wandered the area idly and the natural energy swirls were like a breath of fresh air to his soul. It wasn't often when they could all cut loose and enjoy a retreat like this. There were times when school life was almost as stressful as a battle with a Dynasty solider. Sage sighed. Popularity was sometimes a very unfavorable thing to have. He was constantly out in the spotlight and the pressure to continue to take the championships in kendo became unbearable at times. Then there were the fears he always had, ever since he had discovered he was a Ronin Warrior. The fear that the Dynasty would return and threaten the world once again. Sage's gray eyes closed to the thought. It was why he spent so much time out in the forests meditating or practicing.

A shout jarred Sage from his reverie and he looked up to see Yulie pointing excitedly to something beyond the bushes. Pushing the disturbing thoughts from his mind, Sage joined the others at the edge of the trail. His eye caught the scene and stopped any words that would have escaped his mouth.

A massive torii gate, its beams painted a red long faded by exposure to sun and rain, was the first thing he noticed. It stood as silent sentinel to the area that lay beyond. A ring of glimmering water full of white water lilies circled an island with what looked to be an old shrine placed on it. But the shrine looked nothing like one Sage would have associated with a holy Shinto site. The architecture was reminiscent of a large pagoda. Moss covered pinnacles rose from the circle of green, its worn edifice reaching for the sky. Wisteria vines draped their pale lavender flowers over the crumbling walls and weeping willow trees obscured the entrance in a screen of green. A bamboo bridge arched gracefully over the murky dark green water, only to dissolve into a tiled path of smooth gray stones polished by rain. Bamboo groves accented the lush greenery and were place at regular intervals both on the island and across on the other side. The sweet songs of nightingales blended with the gurgle of the water while the wind whistled through the bamboo branches. Brightly colored koi swam lazily in the water and tiny emerald hummingbirds could be seen flitting from lily to lily. For a moment, the six onlookers were loathe to disturb that tranquility and merely stared around in awe. But slowly, curiosity began to overtake them and, without saying a word, they passed under the torii gates and over the bamboo bridge.

The shrine loomed before him and Sage was filled with reverence for the massive structure. For being abandoned for centuries, the shrine was in extremely good condition. He stopped at the entrance and traced his fingers over the stone near the doorway. His fingers discovered a groove and Sage, his curiosity aroused, brushed back the hanging wisteria vines. He blinked when he realized there was actually a phrase engraved in the stone. It was difficult to make out the characters but Sage was finally able to put a coherent sentence together. "Wise one, open the gates with your wisdom." Sage frowned. That's an odd phrase to put at the entrance to a shrine.

"Sage? Where are you?"

Sage shrugged and let the vines fall back, turning toward the source of the question.

"Back here, why?"

"It's pitch black in here!" that was Kento's voice. "Can't you make a light or something?"

"You know it doesn't work that way," Sage answered, with a bit of irritation.

"Here, I brought some flashlights," came Mia's voice. Abruptly, the area was lit with a circle of bright light, giving definition to their surroundings.

"Hey! Look at that!" Ryo pointed to a large mural on the ceiling. In ages old paint was a scene of destruction. Women in cotton dresses and aprons clutched tiny children to their breast while their facial expressions were twisted into ones of absolute horror. Men ran toward them, mouths frozen in the midst of a scream. Behind them, black wolves with eerie red eyes chased them. Fangs bared with foam dripping from the deadly canines. The ground was blanketed in snow and ice and the trees around the people were bare of greenery, branches sagging. Above them, a figure in jet black robes gazed over the scene, arms outstretched with beams of black lightning streaming from his fingertips. Behind him, the sky was the color of night but with no moon or stars to alleviate the darkness.

Mia held a hand to her mouth in horror. "Oh my goodness!"

"How horrible!" Cye exclaimed. "Why would something like this be painted in a Shinto shrine?!"

Kento's mouth was open in shock. "Man, talk about morbid. This just takes the cake!"

"Mia, those people . . ," Yulie trailed off and White Blaze butted his leg reassuringly as Ryo reached to encircle him with a reassuring arm.

Rowen's midnight eyes blinked up at the mural in confusion. "You're right Cye. This place is called the 'Gateway to the Sun.' It doesn't make sense for something like this to be here. Mia," he turned to her, "Do you remember reading anything about this?"

"No," Mia shook her head, "All the documents I read said simply that feudal leaders often journeyed here to pay homage to Amateratsu. It was said that she entered our world here at times of great need. The shrine itself has been unused for centuries. That's all I really know."

Sage stared up at the mural, gray eyes wide with the graphic detail of the painting. He suddenly frowned. Something's not right. There was just something decidedly wrong about what he was seeing. He felt a pressure on his mind the longer he looked at the mural. His breath caught in his throat and his heart went out to the people detailed, feeling the need to reach out and heal them . . .

Suddenly the ground below them heaved like a bucking bronco. Stone debris fell from the upper floors and pelted them as they lost their footing.

"Ahhhh!"

"Mia!" Sage dodged the falling debris trying to reach her side. Green light flashed briefly and the green and white undergear formed around Sage's form. He used the inherent speed to grab Mia as a boulder tumbled toward her. Other colored lights flashed and Sage knew that the others had called their undergears to them as well.

"Ryo!" Yulie screamed and Sage scanned the area until he saw a white form nab the boy.

"Good job White Blaze!" Ryo called with relief.

But no more words could be exchanged as the ground opened up and sent them all spiraling into darkness, the sounds of their screams drowned out by the rumbling of falling stones.

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Slowly, Sage became aware of where it was they had fallen. He was lying on his back on what seemed to be a smooth surface. He slowly opened his eyes but all he could see was darkness. It was a kind of smothering blackness that suffocated the life out of everything. Sage was instantly on his feet. He raised his hands and summoned his power.

"Armor of Halo! Dao Chi!"

Sakura blossoms and bolts of silk swirled around him, leaving the green samurai armor in its wake. Sage reached behind and pulled out his no-datchi. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the light. The blade flared to life, spreading motes of bright white light and illuminating the darkness.

"Mia? Yulie? Ryo? Anyone?" he called out.

Groans came to his ears and Sage swung his glowing blade toward the sounds. Ryo, Kento, and Cye were slowly rising to their feet, their undegear still present on their forms. White Blaze was curled protectively around Yulie's form and Rowen, also decked out in his dark blue and white undergear, was helping a shaky Mia to her feet.

"Is everyone all right?" Ryo's voice cut through the silence and echoed off the walls.

"Yeah," Kento answered. "It's a good thing I've got such a hard head," he added a wryly.

"What do you think caused all that?" Cye asked, rubbing his side where he'd hit the ground.

"I have absolutely no idea," Rowen frowned, glancing upward. "But it looks like we fell quite a ways."

"I'm okay too," Yulie finally put in. "Thanks White Blaze," he hugged the white tiger. White Blaze rumbled in response and nudged Yulie in the shoulder.

"Sage, I see something. Try turning your light over there," Mia pointed to something on the far wall and Sage obediently swung his blade there.

"Wow!" Kento exclaimed. In front of them lay two huge double doors, one black and one white. They rose nearly ten meters high and gleamed in Sage's light.

"That's amazing," Ryo breathed, blue eyes widening at the massive doorframe.

"Doors? I wonder where they lead," Sage mused aloud. No sooner had the words issued from his mouth when Sage felt the energy around him buckle, much like the ground had previously. "What the . . ?!"

Sage's no-datchi grew brighter with white light and his armor began to glow an accompanying bright green. His kanji flared into existence beneath his golden bangs and the rays caused the doors to open, rumbling outward on their hinges. A fierce wind erupted from the open doors, turning into a vacuum that threatened to suck them into its center.

"Ahhhhhhh!" someone screamed.

"Rowen! Do something!" Ryo called over the din.

"Armor of Strata! Dao Inochi!" Rowen screamed. Once the falling sakura petals and bolts of silk had dispersed, he shouted out in horror. "I can't stop it!"

"Help me!" Yulie screamed. A white form flashed and grabbed both Yulie and Mia from the air, a protective bubble around his form as he deposited them on ledge high above where the sucking air could reach.

"Ronins!" Mia shouted back down at them.

Sage drew on his power in an attempt to stop his forward motion but it was to no avail. Light streamed from both his armor and his no-datchi and flashed, leaving everything blinded in its intensity.

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"Mia! They're gone!" Yulie wailed, pointing toward the ground.

"No . . ," Mia trailed off in horror, but already the doors were closing, sounding a thud as they closed completely. White Blaze roared in anguish and the entire area was plunged once again into darkness.

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