A TGS-based story
by C.S. Hayden
Characters from the "Gargoyles" show are the property of Disney and Buena Vista Television. All other characters are from The Gargoyles Saga fanfiction series. Excerpt from "Much Ado About Nothing" by William Shakespeare.
En route to Ishimura, 2015
"Brooklyn-san! Stop that!"
The coquettish tone of her mother's voice pulled Ariana's attention from the script she was reading, a copy of Brock's latest adaptation for the London clan theater group. Her parents were curled up together on a wide double seat farther up the airplane. Sata was casting a cool look over her shoulder as she carefully checked to see if her hair was in place but the determined smirk on Brooklyn's face clearly said that he wasn't giving up. Something about the sight of her mother's shapely ears always brought out the amorous rogue in her father.
Ariana smiled; Brooklyn and Sata were a prime example of opposites attracting. She was an elegant Japanese samurai with a geisha's features carved from cool jade. He was rough-hewn from Scottish red granite with a wild mane of feathery white hair and distinctive beaked profile. They had met on Brooklyn's time-traveling adventures with the Phoenix Gate and in a way, this trip to Ishimura reminded Ariana of those days. She and her twin brother, Graeme, had spent the first eighteen years of their lives traveling. Most gargoyles preferred to stay close to their home clans but not Ariana – the second she'd stepped on board Xanatos' private plane, the old wanderlust began to tingle in her wings and she couldn't wait to see what adventures would be awaiting her in Japan.
Sata had changed into her best kimono – rich wine-colored silk with cascading bronze and ivory chrysanthemums -- in full anticipation of the welcome that her home clan would no doubt give her. There was no sign of the battle that had ensued getting Brooklyn to wear something other than his customary blue loincloth and armor, but ultimately Sata had won that contest of wills, if not in exactly the way she had wanted. Both Brooklyn and Graeme opted for the modified tunic suits popular with most male gargoyles in Manhattan instead of the formal haori worn in Ishimura.
Being her father's daughter, Ariana had also fought tooth and talon against the ornate kimono that her mother had selected for her. No amount of delicate embroidery or costly silk was going to hide the fact that she was a girl with a beak. She'd retaliated with a barely there kimono that was so high cut on the sides and so low cut in the front that it was basically two pieces of fabric held together with an obi. Brooklyn had promptly put his foot down about that and as result, Ariana got her way and was wearing a slinky silk cheongsam in teal decorated with a willow-and-flower motif. The way that it clung to her figure made Brooklyn glare at every male that glanced her way but it was also conservative enough that he really couldn't complain about it.
"They're at it again, eh?"
Ariana looked back at Graeme. Her green-skinned twin brother had taken over one of the workstations in the cabin, covering it with his usual assortment of electronic gear. Graeme had taken advantage of the current popularity that gargoyles were having in the public eye and had been attending night classes at NYU. He'd wrangled his way into an internship at Xanatech and it had been weeks since Ariana had seen him out of the labs.
"Oh, yeah," she answered, moving to a seat near him. "You know the 'rents, always fooling around. What are you doing?"
"Keeping up with my part of the research," Graeme answered, "but mostly I'm just burning up nervous energy." He looked wistfully at the white-furred, golden-haired lioness that served as the screensaver on his laptop. "Do you suppose she's changed much?"
Ariana laughed. "You should know that, bro. You're online with Lucy almost every night."
"Yeah, but it's not the same as being with her, you know?" Graeme sighed. "It's been three years, oniichan – what if she doesn't like what she sees?" He ran his hand through his newly short hair. "I mean, I look nothing like I did the last time she came to visit, thanks to that stupid accident."
"It's not your fault that your lab partner put the wrong chemicals together," Ariana said reasonably. "You're lucky that your hair was the only casualty. Stone sleep took care of the burns. Short hair makes you look all rugged and athletic, not like geeky old Graeme at all."
Graeme gave her a sour look down the length of his beak. "I'll have you know that Lucy likes the geeky me."
"Then what are you worried about?" She leaned towards him and peered at his monitor. "What's this? You were supposed to have requested time off."
"You know me when I get interested in something," Graeme said as he popped up a new window. "Xanatech is doing research on chronotons – charged particles that have a temporal resonance. If we can somehow manage to isolate them, it's theoretically possible to control the flow of time. The other tech guys are really excited. The application toward space travel and traveling at FTL speed--"
"Theory?" Ariana interrupted before he got too technical and raised an eyebrow. "Do these guys even know how much practical knowledge you have of time travel?"
Rubbing the back of his head sheepishly, Graeme admitted, "Well, I asked Owen about that. He pointed out that since I was just a kid, it wasn't like I was paying that much attention to the mechanics of the Phoenix Gate. Besides, I work with a bunch of guys that sometimes don't even know what day of the week it is, much less even know about magical time travel." He tapped his left sleeve where he still wore his time tracker. "If I really wanted to cheat, I'd let them take this apart."
"Of course not," he snorted. "Where's the fun in that? I'd much rather work on this from the ground up. Who knows – maybe I had something to do with it."
The cabin light came on to indicate that they were beginning to descend from the upper atmosphere. Graeme had to scramble to get all his things stowed away in time to strap in for re-entry. When the NASA space program had stalled in the early twenty-first century, Xanatos had bought the space plane design plans and developed the first working models. He'd quickly turned his space division into a profitable venture by leasing out his fleet of orbital planes for commercial use. As one of the perks, Xanatos had a private cabin on all his space planes and if he chose to give it to a family of gargoyles, then that was his business.
Since buying Gargoyle World, Xanatos had set up a local office in Sendai City. Acquiring his own private runaway at the municipal airport was nothing for the multi-billionaire. His office had a limo waiting to drive Brooklyn and his family up the coast to Ishimura. When they arrived there, a considerable crowd of both humans and gargoyles were waiting to meet them. Kai made a formal greeting which Sata responded to with equal grace before being swept away by her admirers. Ariana started to follow her father and brother when the sound of her name caught her attention. She turned to get a pleasant surprise.
"Midori!" Ariana crowed as her old friend swam through the crowd to greet her. The color of freshly-brewed green tea, Midori had changed from the jean clad hipster she had been years before; now she wore the red-and-white costume of a Shinto priestess. Double-pronged horns protruded from glossy shoulder-length dark hair that had once been short, gel-spiked and dyed bright pink.
"Ariana!" Midori hugged her and then held her out at arm's length to admire her finery. "Oh, Ari-chan, such a beautiful dress!" She narrowed her eyes conspiratorially. "Can I borrow it? Since I started on temple duty, I never have time to shop!"
"Same old Mi-chan," Ariana chuckled. "I've missed you! When did you become a miko?" she asked, referring towards her friend's garments. "You look like Sailor Mars on her off days."
"Ah, yes – but if I only had Rei's long hair and even longer legs!" Midori sighed dramatically and laughed in a merry little trill like birdsong. "But seriously, I made the choice to serve at the temple only last winter. We all take turns at it but it was pointed out that since we would be hosting the Grand Miai, extra miko would be needed to assist the Ancestress."
Midori giggled behind her wide sleeve. "Your mother, Ari-chan! We are honored to have Sata-sama here to preside over the matchmaking gathering." She clasped her hands together prayerfully. "Not many can say that they've served a legend!"
"Right," Ariana drawled as she crossed her arms and eased back on one hip. "Midori, you bakachan, you do know you're talking about the same person that tried to bully me into wearing the most hideous over-decorated housecoat only a few hours ago?"
"Ari-chan!" Midori exclaimed, eyes hurt and lips pouting.
"Relax, I know you're very serious about all this and I'm happy for you, but Mi-chan, no matter what you call her or whatever god-like status Ishimura gives her, Sata will always just be Mom to me."
"And thank God for that," Brooklyn said dryly as he came up besides his daughter, "because otherwise all this fuss will go to your mother's head." He smiled brightly at her friend. "Hello, Midori. You certainly look pretty tonight."
The Japanese gargoyle bowed her head to hide the blush rising in her cheeks. "Thank you, Brooklyn-san. You are too kind."
Ariana cocked her head. "Dad? Why aren't you with Mom?"
The brick red gargoyle snorted. "I got spit out of the crowd like a watermelon seed. Your brother wasn't so lucky." He looked at them both. "So, are you girls catching up on old times?"
"Oh!" Midori grinned and caught Ariana's hands. "That reminds me – I'm hosting a girls only party. Can you come?"
"Sounds great!" She glanced at Brooklyn. "Is that okay with you, Dad?"
Brooklyn made a show of being reluctant. "I don't suppose you'll be talking about boys there, hmm?" When Ariana and Midori both giggled at him, he threw up his hands dramatically. "Silly me – you two have boys on the brain. It's all right with me, sweetheart. I'll let your mother know about it." He looked sourly at the crowd headed for the temple. "Provided, of course, that I ever get near enough to tell her!"
"Come with me, Brooklyn-san," Midori offered generously, "and I can take you into the temple so you do not have to bother with the crowd." She smiled, wrinkling her nose. "Being a miko has its privileges."
Brooklyn grinned and offered an arm to both of them. "You know," he said to Ariana, "I knew there was a reason that I always liked this girl."
Giggling, Midori led them around the compound wall to a narrow corridor that ended up in the gardens behind the temple. They passed through a small white-washed room that served as a kitchen into an antechamber behind the main shrine. They could hear Kai's deep, slow voice speaking on the other side of the ornate gilt screens as he invoked the Shinto spirits.
"Oh!" Midori stopped suddenly. Brooklyn and Ariana peered curiously around her. An elderly male gargoyle with long white hair was there, clutching at the wall with dull talons. "Washi-san!" she said softly. "What are you doing here, ojisan? You were to wait in the Great Hall with the other elders."
"Sharp knives are piercing my joints," Washi whispered back. "I couldn't kneel any longer – the pain was too great. I will pay my respects to the Ancestress later. I was going to wait in the garden until after the ceremony but I needed to rest."
"Oh, dear." Midori glanced anxiously from the crowd gathered in the temple to Washi, clearly torn between two obligations.
Ariana decided to rescue her friend from an awkward situation. "Mi-chan, you go sneak Dad in to be with Mother, and I'll take Washi out to the garden." She motioned at them. "I'll be fine – go!!"
"What?" Washi peered at her owlishly, his eyesight faded with age. "Who are you?"
"A friend of Midori's," she answered softly as she put her arm around him gently. The elder felt as though his bones were as frail as those of a bird's – in fact, with his bald head, age-spotted blue skin, and sharp-bladed nose, he resembled a pigeon as he bobbed jerkily down the corridor. "You can call me Ari-chan."
"Ari-chan – that's sounds familiar."
"I have visited Ishimura before," she answered lightly, steering them into the kitchen. "I was just a child then."
"Ah! You are the Daughter of the Ancestress!" Washi tried to pull away from her. "You are a guest! You shouldn't be catering to a feeble old gargoyle that doesn't have the strength to walk on his own."
"Nonsense, ojisan ," Ariana said as she settled him on a pile soft cushions on the porch, overlooking the garden. "What kind of respect would I be showing if I didn't help you?" She spied a kettle boiling. "I'm dying for some tea – will you join me?"
Ariana took that for consent and proceeded to dig through the cabinets for the tea things. She remembered from the last time she had been in Ishimura that nearly all the buildings kept the same supplies and tea was considered a staple in Japan. Filling the tea bottle with hot water, she assembled everything she needed on a tray and brought it out to the porch.
Washi watched her with interest as she went through the motions of making tea. "Well, well," he said as she beat the green powder to a thick froth, "I see you have been learning Chaji from your mother."
"Yes," Ariana answered. "Mother feels that a samurai must be a master of many disciplines. I apologize for not having the time to do the full ceremony." She bowed subtly as she offered him the first cup.
"Apologies are not necessary," Washi said graciously as he accepted it. "I am flattered to have the company of a beautiful Tengu maiden like yourself."
"Tengu?" Ariana cocked her head. "Mother has mentioned them before – they were a clan of beaked gargoyles, weren't they?"
"Were? Are!" Setting his tea down, the old gargoyle eased back on his haunches, settling into storyteller mode. "The legend of the Tengu goes back to aboriginal times in Japan but it was in your mother's time that a group of outcast gargoyles brought the legend to life."
"Do they still exist?"
"Oh, yes. We have had contact with the Tengu from time to time. They are a secretive clan, living far from human habitation. They did live closer to us once but as the cities grew, they retreated farther into the mountains." Washi sipped his tea thoughtfully. "They came to us around seventy years ago, near the end of the second World War."
"Why?" Ariana leaned forward, so intrigued by the story that she'd forgotten to make her own tea. "What happened to them?"
"Nagasaki." Nodding at her shocked expression, Washi continued. "The Tengu had been living in the mountains to the north of the city but they were not far enough away to escape the effects of the atomic bomb." He shook his head solemnly. "Many died in stone sleep by rock slides and other falling debris but the survivors awoke to a world in chaos. The radiation made them terribly sick and only the strongest survived to reach Ishimura. Slowly, over several years, the survivors recovered and they decided to relocate to the Rokko Mountains near Osaka."
"Why would they want to leave?"
Washi shifted on his cushion and handed her his cup. "You must understand, young one, the Tengu had become unique, even among gargoyles. When Takakage, the first leader of the Tengu, led his band of thieves away to form their own clan, they were all non-human in appearance – muzzled and feathered and tusked and beaked, like yourself. After so many generations, very few of them had any human features at all and they felt so uncomfortable here in Ishimura that they left. "
"Really?" Ariana made him some fresh tea and passed it back. "I know what that's like. It's tough being a girl with a beak."
"Sometimes a young warrior will leave to find them," Washi commented, slurping his tea, "but they always come back. Wherever it is that Tengu have gone, they wish to remain hidden." He looked her shrewdly. "Somehow, young one, you do not strike me as one who hides from the world."
"I don't know, ojisan," Ariana said wistfully, "sometimes I wonder if it wouldn't be better just to be a face in the crowd."
"My eyes are weak and I can barely make out your features, young one, but I can tell you this – you have a beautiful spirit and that will always make you special." Washi chuckled. "It makes me feel young again, having you all to myself like this."
At that moment, the temple bells struck with a dull, hollow thump that Ariana felt in her bones. She and Washi both looked expectantly into the building and it wasn't long before Midori reappeared with Graeme and a teal-colored male with a three-pronged crest on his forehead and wavy blue-black hair. Turning slightly and showing off her figure to its best advantage, Ariana smiled at the newcomers.
"Look who I found, oniichan," Graeme called cheerfully. "Do you remember Tochi?"
Tochi smiled, his eyes crinkling to narrow ebon crescents. "I remember you – who could forget those line drives you hit?"
"Oh, fine!" Ariana said dramatically. "He only loves me for the way I swing a bat!"
"Talk baseball later!" Midori said in exasperation. She came around to take Washi's tea cup. "Toshi has been studying with our healer, Master Kado. He's going to take Washi-san to the bath house for long hot soak."
"Ah, that will soothe my old bones!" Washi said eagerly as several pairs of hands helped him up. "Thank you for your company, Ari-chan. We must share tea again."
Ariana bowed in response. "It would be my pleasure, ojisan." She and Graeme waited until Midori and Toshi had ushered Washi from the temple gardens. "Is Mother upset that I missed the welcoming ceremony?"
"I doubt it," her brother answered. "Dad told her you were off helping an elder. She approves of that kind of thing." He thrust his thumb at their departing friends. "Did you know that Toshi has been courting Midori?"
"Really?" Ariana felt oddly disappointed. Toshi was one of the few Ishimuran males that had been interested in her on their last visit and it had been thrilling to know he had remembered her. She had been wondering if that might lead to renewing their friendship on more adult terms.
"Him and two or three other guys. Midori can't commit while she's working at the temple so it's an open arrangement." Graeme shrugged. He glanced at her from the corner of his eyes and smirked. "So you can deflate your chest now. It doesn't impress me."
Ariana swatted him with the back of her hand. "Baka!!"
Graeme merely laughed and danced out of the way.
* * * * *
A few nights later, Midori led Ariana and a horde of young females to a large pavilion in the outer gardens, near the communal rice fields. The location, Ariana suspected, had been chosen not so much for its distance from the main compound but rather due to the decibel level of Midori's stereo. Graeme and his friend Toshi had been recruited to set up the entertainment systems and knowing her brother, there had been some serious high fidelity tweaking going on.
Sata's new notoriety as the Ancestress had been yielding some unexpected developments for the rest of the family. For the first day or so, they were the center of everyone's attention but Brooklyn insisted on their lives going on as normally as possible and the excitement of having a living kami among them soon died down. Poor Graeme, however, was besieged by a plague of attentive Ishimuran girls and her shy brother fled to the local Xanatech offices in Sendai City while he waited for Lucy to arrive from London. Toshi was kind enough to show Ariana around and to introduce her to his rookery brothers. She suspected that Midori had recruited Toshi to keep Ariana entertained while she was occupied with temple duty but Ariana appreciated her friend's kind gesture.
The boys that Ariana had met so far had been a bit disappointing. They were friendly enough at first but after the initial shyness wore off and Ariana felt comfortable enough to be herself, something always seemed to go wrong -- like the incident in the dojo. The martial arts master had put Ariana and Graeme with some of his top students to assess their proficiency levels. She had enjoyed having new people to spar and hadn't given it a thought – until it was over and she realized that she'd put the strongest of Midori's brothers through a wall. The boys were still as polite as ever but it was almost as if they were afraid of her. Graeme suggested giving them some time to get over the shock and Midori's party seemed like the perfect diversion.
The other girls were an assortment from Ishimura and some early arrivals from China. Ariana was looking forward to it; Angela and Sata were all right, Elisa and Fox were both cool, and Red Wind, Lexington's mail order bride, was nice enough when she could be pried away from her computer but Ariana had always regretted not being in a large clan with girls her own age. Midori's emails were always cheerful and full of stories about her rookery siblings.
Midori began the evening by having everyone contribute a favorite treat to the feast. One of her rookery sisters prepared the most exquisite sushi while another cooked beef and chicken yakitori over a small charcoal grill. Mochi, rice-cakes filled with sweet red bean paste shared the table with candied walnuts and sweet potato dumplings. Ariana's contribution was a gift box of Broadway's best cookies and Elisa's jalapeño fudge. It was fun watching everyone taste it and try to guess the secret ingredient. Finally, Midori tapped her chopsticks against an empty bowl.
"As you know," she began, standing before them in a Japanese flag t-shirt and low-slung sweats, "the Grand Miai will be held at the next full moon. It will be an opportunity for us to meet others our own age from other clans and hopefully to form new alliances."
"You mean to meet boys!" crowed one of the Ishimura crowd. Several of the girls around her giggled and whispered to each other behind their sleeves.
"If it so happens that romance blooms," Midori said coyly, "then consider it a blessing!" She laughed. "The planning committee has several formal events planned but we have been asked to come up with some social occasions of our own."
"Yeah," Ariana spoke up. "If we leave it up to the guys, it'll be one sporting event after another. I don't mind having a friendly martial arts competition but I talked to Toshi yesterday and he's planning a multiple elimination baseball tournament." She shuddered and others copied her.
"But you love baseball, Ari-chan!" Midori exclaimed.
"Yeah, but I didn't come all this way here to sweat!" Everyone laughed at her joke and Ariana continued. "Maybe we could have each clan do something as an icebreaker. I know that the London Clan is going to do an excerpt from "Much Ado About Nothing" – it's a Shakespeare play that they've adapted for their drama group."
"That's a thought," Midori said, typing that up on a laptop. ""We could make it into a cultural event. We practice many traditional arts here in Ishimura and I'm sure the other clans do the same."
One of the Chinese girls raised her hand shyly. "We do a skydance in my clan called 'The Winding Dragon.' It's based on a traditional Buddhist lion dance."
"That would be excellent, Kwan Lin," Midori said, bowing to her guest. "In fact, a skydance exhibition would be something that everyone would enjoy."
"And something modern!" one of the Ishimura girls cried out. "Let's do a J-pop party with music and videos!"
"We could pick out the tunes right now!" replied another and several girls headed for the stereo. The booming of the music soon drowned out any further conversation but Midori seemed satisfied with the feedback that she'd received.
"I really like the idea of that play," Midori said loudly in Ariana's ear. "How'd you hear about it? From Graeme?"
"Him? Please?" Ariana snorted. "Graeme's so full of Lucy when he gets off the phone with her, he drifts like a helium balloon. We practically have to tether him down." She laughed. "No, I was invited to be in it. I always get a part in their plays when I'm in London so Brock sent me a script. Do you want to see it?"
"But of course!" Midori followed her into the smaller antechamber where it was less noisy. "I hope Toshi didn't bore you last night. I asked him to show you around, not play baseball with the hatchlings!"
Ariana laughed ruefully. "I didn't mind. He did introduce me to a lot of nice guys and the kids weren't so bad. You forget that I only had Graeme to play with growing up." She hunkered down to dig through her backpack.
While she was busy, a few more girls passed through the room to congregate in the garden. They were giggling and gossiping amongst themselves as they settled on the benches outside the window.
"'Didn't come all this way to sweat!' Ha!"
"Did you see her at the dojo? Giggling and playing up to the boys, even after she'd beaten them?"
"As if any of them would be interested," the speaker drawled, her voice leading into a malicious snicker. "It is a shame that a beauty like the Ancestress should be cursed with such a busu for a daughter."
Her friends all laughed as well. "A great pity! Perhaps that is why the poor girl spends so much time training, to hide her ugly face!"
It was the first time that she'd actually heard her own words spoken by somebody else. Her fists twisted in the tough fabric of her backpack as Ariana fought the urge to hurt those gossipy girls, just as much as they were hurting her. However, Ariana knew that a samurai must resist such urges; she reminded herself that she was above such pettiness and that if she ever lost control, she could easily kill someone.
"She does have excellent taste in clothes. Did you see the beautiful dress she arrived in?"
"It just goes to show that you can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear – eeeeerrrrr!!"
The cruel speaker's words ended in a screech as Midori upended a basin of dishwater out of the window on her. "If you thoughtless girls are finished insulting our guests," Midori said in a cold fury, "you may begin cleaning up. You do NOT want me going to the elders with this."
Ariana took a deep breath and began to pile things back into her backpack. A hand dropped onto her shoulder and she looked up into Midori's distraught face. Tears were rolling down her friend's face as she searched for something to say.
"Don't," Ariana said softly. "It's not anything that I haven't already heard."
"But—" Midori dropped to the floor besides her. "It isn't right, to say such things about you. They are just stupid, heartless, horrible girls."
"Why not? It's true!" she said bitterly. "Do you know that most of the time that I was with Toshi, he was talking about you like I was just one of the guys? And it's not just him!" She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "It makes me wonder what I'm even doing here." Taking a ragged breath, she screwed her eyes shut and turned her face away. "No guy is ever going to see past this beak!" Her shoulders began to shake.
Silently Midori wrapped her arms around her and hugged her tight while Ariana dropped the tomboy act and let herself cry. "Ari-chan," she whispered, "You are my dearest friend and I love you but I do not how to make this right. You cannot change who you are or what you look like and I wouldn't want to you try."
"Just once," Ariana said haltingly, "I'd like to be judged not for whose daughter I am or what I look like but just for me." She sighed deeply and stood up. "If it's all right with you, Mi-chan, I think I'll go. I'm not going to be very good company tonight."
"I understand, Ari-chan," Midori replied. "It will be all right, you'll see."
It was a short glide from the pavilion to the suite of rooms that Sata had been given in the east tower of the compound. Ordinarily, most gargoyles lived communally but Ishimura took great pride in their role as hosts and allocated private quarters to all of the visiting clans. Their rooms were spacious, not so much due to Sata's status but to having only four occupants. Ariana knew that Graeme was likely to be over at Xanatech labs but the privacy she so desperately wanted wasn't to be. She just had time to change clothes to a high-necked sleeveless black shirt and cargo shorts when her parents walked in, clearly intent on enjoying some privacy of their own by the way they had their arms around each other.
"Ariana?" Brooklyn raised his brow ridges in surprise and pulled away from Sata like he'd been up to mischief. "Aren't you supposed to be at a party or something?"
"I was," she answered, stuffing the clothes she had been wearing in her backpack. "I decided to come back early."
Brooklyn and Sata glanced at each other and exchanged a silent communication unique to parents. Sata immediately took a seat and looked expectantly at her daughter. It was a look that Ariana knew well and dreaded – a prelude to the notorious 'Let's have a talk' conversation.
"You might as well get it over with, sweetheart," Brooklyn said lightly. "She'll find out eventually, you know that."
"I'm fine, really!"
"Uh-huh." Brooklyn smirked at Sata. "You work her over, I'll get the rubber hoses."
Ariana gave her father a dirty look. "Why is everything a joke with you? This isn't funny!"
"Brooklyn-san," Sata said sternly, "that's enough." She turned her attention to her daughter. "Something is on your mind, Ari-chan. There has been ever since we arrived but I haven't had the time to ask you about it."
"Mother," Ariana sighed as she flopped into a neighboring chair, "haven't you noticed? Everyone's pairing off but me."
"Ari-chan, you mustn't take this so hard," Sata said soothingly. "I was much older than you when I met your father. We cannot be as lucky as Graeme-kun and have love fall in our laps." She smiled at her daughter. "Sometimes waiting for what fate brings us makes it all the sweeter."
"Except for Agnes over in London, I'm the only girl with a beak that I know." She glanced at Brooklyn ruefully. "I wish I didn't look so much like Dad."
"I've always thought that Brooklyn-san was very handsome but then I'm biased." Sata studied Ariana for a moment, noting the unhappy look in her eyes. "The way you look makes you special, Ari-chan. You are a skilled warrior, an accomplished actress, and you are my daughter. Is your appearance more important than that?"
"It seems to be to other people." Ariana shrugged and looked away. "Midori and I overheard some girls making fun of me."
"You didn't hurt them, did you?"
"I wanted to but Midori took care of it." She smirked. "She dumped the dirty dishwater on them."
"Good for her!" Brooklyn chuckled.
"I just wish I wasn't so different," Ariana said, staring at her toes. "Washi was telling me about the Tengu and why they left Ishimura. I wonder if this is how they felt."
"You know," Brooklyn began, "I once asked Takakage what it meant to him to be a Tengu. He said that it meant that they were noble beings and that their appearance was inconsequential as long as their lives had purpose."
Ariana blinked. "You MET Takakage? The original Tengu?"
"I don't know if he was the first, but yeah." Brooklyn reached over and stroked Sata's hair. "That was back in the twelfth century, right before I married your mother."
"Really? What did you think of him?"
"He was okay, considering he was running with a bad crowd but he managed to straighten things out in the end. He just needed to find out where he belonged." He eyed his daughter shrewdly. "You and Graeme have been growing apart for the last few years. He's been busy with his university studies and work and I think you've just been feeling a little lost without him. Maybe it's time that you went and found your purpose."
"No matter how risky that might be?"
"Sometimes the risk is worth it," Brooklyn said, putting his arm around Sata. "Otherwise you and Graeme wouldn't be here."
"Meanwhile," Sata suggested, "Midori's party is still going on and I'm sure she'd like you to be there."
Grinning to herself, Ariana slung her backpack into place between her wings. She paused at the window to look back at her parents. "You know, Dad, sometimes you're really smart."
Brooklyn winked at her rakishly. "Hey, you know me -- I'm not just another pretty face."
* * * * *
Talking to her parents had given Ariana an idea. Brooklyn was right about one thing; sitting around moping about things was getting her nowhere – she needed to do something about it. Going back to the party wasn't an option – she would only be stared at and gossiped about more. What she had in mind required research and research required computers and computers meant Graeme.
The flight to Sendai City was a smooth glide down the coast from Ishimura. Xanatech had set up their offices in the center of an industrial park not far from the airport. Ariana had made the trip once already with Graeme and Toshi so it was simple matter to find the right building. Graeme had access to an upper level room with a wide window which he left open for emergencies. Following his trail was no effort at all.
She found him in a corner of the darkened computer lab with his earphones on while code scrolled by on three different monitors. The driving bass beat of the technopop he was listening to could be felt rather than heard. It wasn't surprising that Graeme's other senses made up for his auditory overload as his head went up and he sniffed the air like a bloodhound.
"Ari-chan? Is that you?"
Frowning, she crossed her arms over her chest. "What gave me away?"
"The smell of Elisa's jalapeño fudge! Sweet on the lips and spicy hot going down!" Graeme took off his earphones and swiveled around in his chair to face her. He'd ditched his formal clothes for a comfortable pair of jeans and one of his many vests. "How'd that go over? I gave some to Toshi and I thought he was going to explode!"
"All right, I guess. I left early." She leaned against the desk. "I need to get on the Internet. Got a spare workstation that I can use?"
"You're kidding, right?" Her brother looked down his beak at her. "What was wrong with the computers back at the compound?"
"Ah, gotcha." He led her out of the lab and into an office a few doors down. "I know what you mean – every time I tried to work in our rooms, Mom would show up with a new bunch of old aunties." He laughed. "I was starting to feel like a little green rooster at a hen party!"
"No chance of that happening tonight," Ariana commented as she sat down and began to log on to the computer. "Dad had Mom all to himself when I left."
"Oh, really?" Graeme smirked. "Were we invited to roost elsewhere?"
"I certainly plan to." She squinted at the monitor and selected a search program.
"Well, I'm going to check on my build. Are you going to be all right in here?"
"Peachy." Ariana became engrossed in her web surfing and barely noticed his departure. His return a few hours later, therefore, came as a surprise when he suddenly spoke up.
"So why are you interested in Osaka?"
Ariana turned to see Graeme leaning against the doorway. He was gazing at her with a vaguely amused look on his face. "I'm going off to find the Tengu," she answered calmly. "Washi told me that they relocated in the mountains near there."
"Are you sure? There was a nasty earthquake in that area in 1995. Kobe had to practically be rebuilt from the ground up. They might have moved."
Glancing back at the screen, Ariana frowned. "Well…."
"Move." Graeme reached over and accessed his Xanatech account, opening an entirely different set of windows. Ariana relinquished her chair without protest; her brother knew far more about computers than she did and she knew it. A topographical map of Japan popped up and Graeme fine-tuned it to show a series of glowing dots.
"This is direct feed from one of Xanatos' satellites. This one is in geosynchronous orbit over Japan. I'm isolating Hyogo prefecture at the moment… there." He pointed at the screen, tapping an area just above a large cluster of lights. "Here's the Rokko mountain range above Osaka and Kobe. At this time of night, most humans will be asleep but if there's any gargoyle activity, the infrared scan should pick it up." Typing in a set of commands, he leaned in as the map zoomed in and re-formatted. A smaller cluster of lights showed up farther north-west into the mountains, far from any marked human habitations on the map.
"There they are!" Ariana threw her arms around her brother's shoulders and rubbed brow ridges with him. "Graeme, you're brilliant!"
"Nonsense," he snorted. "You're the one that was looking. I just tweaked the parameters." He eyed her cautiously. "Were you serious about going to find them? What about the Grand Miai? Mother's probably expecting you to be involved in it."
"I need to do this, oniisan. I'm so tired of feeling like I don't fit in." Ariana sighed. "Mother doesn't need me and frankly, I'm sick being in her shadow."
"But you love training with her!" Graeme exclaimed. "You're a level above most of Kai's students. You have a talent for martial arts that I'll never have, oniichan. Don't cut yourself short!"
"I'm not! I just—" She bit her lip. "I just need to do this for me. You've got all this," she swept her arm around the office, "you know where you're going. I can't spend my life waiting for Mom to hand over her swords. I need to find a purpose in life and I think that it's going to start by finding the Tengu. Every time I hear the stories, my wings start to itch and my feet start wandering. It makes me want to go out into the world and make things happen." Cocking her head, she looked directly at him. "You know?"
For a few minutes, Graeme merely sat there and stared unblinkingly at her. He began to shake his head slowly. "I cannot believe I'm going to do this…"
"Are you going to try to stop me?"
"Nope." He stood up and pulled her in for a full-winged hug. "You were going to do this whether I wanted you to or not, oniichan – why else would you be dressed like Lara Croft?" He gestured at her sleeveless black top and cargo shorts. "I'm not about to let you go off on this adventure half-cocked and unprepared."
"Then you'll help?"
"Just a bit." He thrust a thumb at the screen. "I'll download the maps you'll need into one of my smaller computers to take with you. While I'm doing that, you'll need to go down to the employees' lounge and scrounge for supplies – bottled water and something to eat." He glanced at her and shook his head. "It's like the old days – you're the go girl and I'm the man with the plan. Where would you be without me?"
Together the twins worked to get Ariana ready for her road trip. She had been planning to spend the night at the pavilion with Midori and the other girls so her backpack already had what Ariana considered the basic essentials – some clothes, her hair kit, several boxes of Pocky, her collapsible bo staff, chocolate bars, a compact high voltage taser that Fox had given her 'just in case a boy decides to get fresh', strawberry shampoo, and a can of pepper spray from Elisa ironically also 'just in case a boy decides to get fresh.'
Graeme shook his head. "This isn't a backpack," he commented dryly. "It's a transdimensional pocket." He handed her a couple of water bottles and some ramen noodle cups that they'd found in the break room.
"It's all in how you pack," Ariana quipped as she shuffled the contents around. She stowed the taser and the pepper spray in one of her cargo shorts pockets; Graeme's palmtop computer was in the other.
"So, given any thought on how you're going to do this big adventure of yours, o sister mine?"
"I thought I'd hop a train," she said as she zipped up the bag. "The Tohoku Shinkansen runs right down the coast."
"Ari--!" Graeme threw up his hands. "You can't hop a bullet train, bakachan! The velocity would tear your wings off and the air pressure would compress your lungs. You wouldn't be able to breathe!"
"Oh." She frowned. "That's a shame because I was hoping to start tonight. The bullet train would be the fastest way to make some distance before I have to go into stone sleep." She stopped speaking because Graeme was walking around her and drumming his fingers on his beak. "What?"
"You know," he said thoughtfully, "you're sweet and petite. I'll bet if we poke a few air holes in it, you could fit inside one of those shipping crates that Xanatech uses for their computers."
Ariana curled up one side of her beak in disbelief. "You want to MAIL me?"
"It'll only take seven hours or so by my calculations to send a package to Osaka," Graeme said, an eager light coming into his eyes. "There's only an hour until sunup but if we pack you up all snug in a packing crate, you could snooze in stone sleep on the train and wake up in Osaka safe and sound."
"I'll mark it fragile so they won't put you on the bottom of a stack and for same day delivery so it would have to be there before sundown." He grabbed her hand and led her downstairs to the shipping bay before she could change her mind.
As luck would have it, there were several large crates waiting on a wooden pallet. Graeme picked up an empty one from one of the racks and began to fill it with packing material. When it was half-full, he gestured to it with a flourish.
"Well, Cinderella… it's not a pumpkin but it'll do."
With some initial misgivings, Ariana caped her wings around herself and stepped delicately into the box. The Styrofoam packing crunched and squeaked as she settled in, curling herself around her backpack as she lay on her side. She watched as Graeme poked a few air holes in the sides. "You're enjoying this way too much," she observed tersely as he pour the rest of the packing around her.
"Don't you know that it's every brother's dream to stuff his sister in a box full of Styrofoam doodles and mail her somewhere?" Graeme grinned evilly as he started to lower the lid.
Ariana glowered at him. "You send me anywhere but Osaka and you'll regret it, buster!"
"Relax, oniichan – as far as anyone knows, you're a computer shipment from Xanatech to be picked up at Umeda Station on the Hankyu rail line. It's the station closest to the mountains." He leaned in and kissed her on the beak. "If I don't hear from you in a few days, Ari-chan, I'm coming after you, okay? Those Tengu had better treat you right."
She smiled back at him. "I wouldn't want it any other way. Bye, Graeme-kun."
"Kick tail, Ari-chan." Her brother gave her a shaky smile and shut the lid.
The last golden rays of the summer sun slanted across the station floor as the sweepers criss-crossed it with their brooms between train arrivals and departures. Visible in the open doorway of the storeroom was a shipping crate on a roll away cart. The stationmaster checked the address label on it and then his watch. He'd been conscientiously watching for the owner of the package to arrive for most of the afternoon but no one had yet arrived and it was getting close to the end of his shift. He checked his watch again and frowned as he looked down the platform as the local commuter run from Kobe approached. If no one came when he was finished with this train, he concluded, he would definitely call the Xanatech main office.
Two minutes later, the decision was firmly taken out of his hands.
There were worse places to wake up, Ariana reminded herself. She'd been to most of them while she was still a child – war zones, desert islands, urban jungles, and one terrifying incidence as a toddler when she and Graeme had been separated from their parents. However, waking up in crate with a mouth full of Styrofoam doodles was definitely going down as one of her least favorite experiences. She spit them out and could still feel bits and pieces of them on her tongue. A sharp kick knocked off the side of the box and she rolled out onto the floor in cascade of packing material.
There was a chorus of startled gasps and excited whispering. Ariana looked up to see a group of Japanese school girls in matching school uniforms goggling at her. Their chaperone was busy arguing with a station official so Ariana smiled and held a finger up to her beak.
"Sssh!" Ariana whispered mischievously. She started to slip on her backpack when one of the girls pointed excitedly to the limited edition Sailor Senshi keychain hanging off of Ariana's pack. The girl brandished an identical one of her own and grinned.
"Eternal Sailor Senshi Fan Club! Me too!!" Ariana crowed in sotto voce, ducking down so she was hidden behind the crowd of girls. "Look, I need to get out of here," she said quickly in Japanese. "Can you girls shuffle towards the exit and cover me?"
Delighted to be involved in something secretive, the girls quickly agreed and managed to sneak Ariana to a nearby gate right under the nose of their teacher. A chorus of excited oohs and aahs accompanied her as the red gargoyle clambered up the side of the building. Ariana grinned and gave them the Sailor Senshi salute before swooping dramatically off into the night sky.
"I'll bet they'll be talking about that for days," she commented as she headed for the tallest building in Osaka to get her bearings. That turned out to be a fifty-six story hotel complex overlooking the harbor which had a panoramic view of the inland mountains.
Perching on the edge of the building, Ariana took the palmtop computer out of the side pocket of her cargo shorts. She recognized the design – it was a LGX-1000, one of the first hardware designs that Lexington and Graeme had worked on. Xanatos had been so impressed with it that he had put it into mass-production for the new multi-species market. It was specifically designed for gargoyle use with wider keypads and more durable construction but many humans had also found it useful.
Sliding back the cover, Ariana booted up the compact computer. Graeme had made it simple for her – the icons for the maps were right on the view screen, along with an email and a digital dial-up. She smirked at those – it was Graeme's not-so-subtle way of hinting that he wanted her to stay in contact. Ignoring them, she popped up the maps and began to study them. She'd just gotten her bearings when the email program popped up with a NEW MAIL icon beeping at her.
"Honestly, Graeme!" Ariana rolled her eyes and opened the message. It was from her brother and all it contained was a link. She clicked on it.
The wireless Internet icon blinked and the small liquid crystal screen was filled with her brother's green-skinned face. He waved and it was at this point that Ariana noticed the small inset digital camera at the top of the screen. "You sneaky little—"
"Okay, I planted a prompt in the software so I'd know when you'd come online, so what?" Graeme spread his hands and shrugged, the motion looking strange and choppy over the internet line. "Everything okay? Where are you?"
Ariana looked over at a sign near the roof door. "I'm on top of the Rinku Gate Tower. It's a big hotel in Osaka," she answered. "It's a dinky thing, not even half the size of the Eyrie Building."
"Well, as long as it's got a good view. Have you gotten your bearings yet?"
"Yeah, I think so. That satellite map you downloaded has the Tengu pinpointed about thirty-five miles northwest of here. I'm going to grab a bite to eat and head out ASAP."
"Sounds good." Graeme looked around. "So, what am I supposed to tell the 'rents? Mom called last night and I said that you were roosting over here with me. That's only going to buy you a few hours."
"Relax," Ariana replied. "I saw Midori's schedule. There's a big committee meeting tonight and another one tomorrow. That's the beauty of it -- Mother's going to be busy to notice I'm gone!"
"Which is why," a singularly unamused voice announced off-camera, "I decided to glide over here to spend time with you guys." Brooklyn came into view and Ariana had a distorted view of his beak as he leaned towards the monitor to glare at her. "What's going on here? Where the devil is your sister?"
Graeme winced as he cast a desperate look at the webcam. "Well, um, you see…"
"I decided to go looking for the Tengu, Dad," Ariana said firmly. "You said I needed to find a purpose in life. Well, this is it."
"I meant here!" Brooklyn bellowed, pointing at the floor. "Where are you?"
Ariana put on her most beguiling, wide-eyed expression. "Osaka."
"How on earth did you get to the other side of Japan?"
"I, um, mailed her?" Graeme rolled back in his chair and threw up his hands in defense as Brooklyn turned on him. "Hey, I only aided and abetted. She was gonna do it anyway!!"
"Oh, shards!" Brooklyn sank down in a neighboring office chair. "This is my rookery mother getting even with me from beyond the grave." He ran a hand down his face. "Ariana, what possessed you to do this? Sata's going to lay an egg when she hears about this!"
"Dad…," Ariana drawled as she took a more comfortable seat on the edge of the building. "Do you remember what I said to you and Mom last night?"
"Well, I've been feeling restless and unhappy for the longest time." She paused and looked pensively at the city spread below her. "I need to spread my wings, Dad, or I'm not going to go anywhere. I just can't stand it any more."
"Couldn't you just spread your wings here?" Brooklyn said plaintively. "Ari-chan, if something goes wrong –"
"I'll handle it," Ariana said firmly. "Dad, did you and Goliath declare in front of everyone in the clan that I was an adult last year or not?" She narrowed her eyes at the web cam.
Brooklyn made a curious whining growl under his breath.
"Haven't I just been through a nasty little crime war with Thailog and his goons?" she continued. "Where, I might point out, I was on regular patrols where I held my own with the worst that they could throw at us?"
Graeme, who had been keeping quiet, cleared his throat. "She's got a point, Dad." He winced at Brooklyn's pained expression. "Look, as long as Ari-chan's got her time tracker on, I've got a direct link to her and that palmtop she's using has a built-in GPS receiver – if she gets in trouble, we can find her."
Ariana gaped at the device in her hand. "You put a tracker in this thing?!"
"No – it came as part of the standard hardware package."
"You were planning to spy on me!"
"SomeBODY has to keep an eye on you!"
"Enough!" Brooklyn said forcefully to cut through the bickering. "Look, you're already there so it'd be stupid for me to come after you now. If you're going to look for the Tengu, I'll give you a week to find them. That'll give you plenty of time to get back to Ishimura for the Grand Miai – agreed?"
"And if something happens and I can't?" Ariana asked, raising her chin.
Graeme leaned forward. "Dad and I will come after you."
"Because your mother won't be speaking to either of us if we don't," Brooklyn added sourly. "I have no idea how I'm going to explain this to her."
"It's a deal!" Ariana smiled winsomely at the webcam. "I'll be fine, you'll see! Love you, guys!!" She blew kisses at the screen and dropped the link before any of them could change their minds. The email alert blinked angrily at her but she ignored it. She slapped the palmtop shut and tucked it neatly in her pocket.
"Right," she said as she shifted her backpack into place between her wings, "You wanted adventure, girl? Let's get to it!" She took one last look around Osaka before diving off into the night.
* * * * *
"Oh, shards!" Ariana said disgustedly, wishing she could think of more colorful way to express her frustration. It had taken most of the night to get into the mountains and the first thing she'd discovered was that taking a reading from a satellite map was not the same as trying to get one's bearings in flight. She'd nearly gotten hung up on the cables of a suspended cable car, narrowly avoided a work crew repairing a bridge, and had to detour around several campsites. Finally, she put down at a temple shrine halfway along the Rokko mountain range.
"'Dairyuji Temple,'" Ariana read on a bronze marker besides a stone pathway, "'originally built in 1585.' Huh, it's younger than Mother." She looked over the temple grounds at the tile-roofed buildings and wide-spreading trees sheltering them. "It's no wonder I can't find anything from the air. These trees are enormous – it's practically a rainforest in here!" She walked around the complex, stopping briefly at the shrine to clap her hands twice to invoke the spirits and bow her head respectfully. If there was one thing she'd learned in her travels, it never hurt to pay homage to the local customs.
A colorful flyer, forgotten by some tourist earlier in the day, tumbled by in the evening breeze. Ariana slapped her tail on top of it as it sailed by and picked it up to put it in the trash when a glimpse of a map caught her eye. While she spoke Japanese fluently, Ariana had never gotten the hang of the written form so most of the text was indecipherable to her but many of the place names on the map had English subtitles. She quickly managed to find her location and as she traced her route with a delicate talon tip, a word jumped out at her.
"Tengumichi Path," she mused out loud. "'The way of the Tengu.'" Ariana grinned over her shoulder and looked at the long steep trail leading up to Mt. Maya and away from the temple. "This looks promising." She adjusted the straps on her backpack and headed up the hill.
It was more strenuous trekking up the steep trail than it would have been gliding but Ariana was fascinated by the sub-tropical forest around her. Out of respect for their religious significance, logging and urban development had been severely restricted around temple sites and it was evident in the tall oak and laurel trees that towered over the under canopy of evergreens and flowering rhododendrons. The rough granite steps beneath her feet were ancient and hand-carved. She kept hoping to find signs of a gargoyle's talons on the weathered stones but centuries of foot travel had worn them smooth.
Finally she reached a handy trail marker printed in both English and Japanese. According to it, the original Tenjo Temple had been established in 646 but had burned to the ground in 1976. The locals had re-located the shrine to the summit of Mt. Maya. Ariana frowned. "I could continue on," she mused, "and go up to see what's on the summit or—" she turned to follow the signs of burn growth on the trees, "—I could go check out the original site. It's been there a lot longer and now that the human visitors are headed up to the summit, it's got to be a lot more appealing to a secretive bunch like the Tengu."
Ariana drummed her fingers on her thigh while she thought about it and studied the overgrown trail leading away from the main path. There were little strips of nylon ribbon tied in the bushes. She plucked one from a thorny bramble and studied it, wondering what the Japanese printing said on the end of the safety orange streamer.
A sudden rush of night birds made the choice for her and she shoved the ribbon in her pocket. Ariana slowly reached back and took out the collapsible bo that was sticking out from the top of her backpack. The back of her neck was starting to prickle and that was always a bad sign. In one smooth move, she flipped her bo staff out to full length and locked it in place with a twist.
"Right," she said coolly. "Let's check this out."
Trekking through the forest at ground level was a lot harder than it looked; Ariana found herself fighting tangled creepers and twisted vines as she followed traces of the path that had once led to the original temple. There were still traces of crushed gravel beneath the layers of fallen leaves and undergrowth. It had a strange texture that Ariana couldn't identify but seemed familiar. Finally, she burst through a copse of young trees into a clearing.
It was a woefully inadequate word. Spread out before her was a wide, gravel-strewn circle dotted here and there with large, strangely-shaped boulders. Their placement was seemingly random but Ariana was struck by its similarity to the Zen garden back at Ishimura. She could see where the gravel was swirled around the massive stones. Beyond that was a steep drop and the roar of fast-moving water below. She skirted the edge of the clearing; crossing it would have been simpler but she felt it would be sacrilegious somehow.
A huge slab of rugged granite was jutting out over a gorge fifty feet below. Ariana could feel the cool spray from a series of cascading waterfalls plummeting from farther up the mountainside. She spread her wings and swooped down into the gorge in order to loop up to perch on top of the massive rock. The view was amazing – she could see the whole mountain range from the highest peak to the rushing white water far below her.
"What a view!" Ariana commented to herself. "The trip is almost worth it just for this." She took a moment to stretch and made a disheartening discovery. "Eeeuw! What is in my hair?" Leaves and small twigs from her trek through the underbrush had gotten tangled in her waist-length locks. "I knew I should have put it up in a ponytail or something," she grumbled as she pulled her hair kit out of her bag. It unrolled to reveal two combs, a brush, collection of hair ornaments, and other things. She selected a wide-toothed comb and got to work smoothing out the tangles.
Normally she found combing out her hair to be very soothing but after a while, Ariana realized that the prickle on the back of her neck had increased. The little night sounds that she'd grown accustomed to had ceased – gentle twittering of night birds, rustle of the treetops, and the falling water in the gorge – it had all become diminished as her senses refocused. Ariana rolled her kit back up and replaced it in her backpack. She concentrated, trying not to telegraph her moves as she sniffed the air for random scents. Whoever it was, they were staying upwind but there were traces of movement in the trees. She tucked her wings to put on her backpack and stood up, her bo held loose but ready in her hand.
Walking towards the treeline, Ariana cocked her head to one side. "I know you are there," she said simply. "I mean no harm to this place. I am traveling from the lands of the Ishimura clan to seek the Tengu." She hoped the formality of her words would have the required effect.
The leaves in the trees whispered around her as if stirred by the drifting moonlight. A quiet if gruff voice answered her. "You travel a long way, young one, if you have come all the way from Ishimura."
"It is a journey worth the risk," she replied, "and I am not afraid of danger."
"Indeed." The word was said with a hint of wry humor. Footsteps crunched in the underbrush behind her. "Why do you seek the Tengu?"
"I seek their wisdom."
"No, you don't – no one comes just for wisdom." She could feel the humid air stir as he came closer and his words took on a cruel tone. "Speak plainly – you come because you want to hide from the world. I've seen it before, foolish hatchlings like you who think that they're too different, that they're too ugly, and that no one will ever love them." His taunts cut her to the bone but she let the icy calm of her bushido training fall over her. He was close, very close – she could smell the musky scent of warm leather. "The Tengu have no use for warriors that don't have the heart to face their own destinies! Go back home, girl – I have no time for you!"
Whirling, Ariana lunged at him with her bo staff, the blow catching him across the forearms as he blocked her move. She focused totally on his movements as he went on the defensive. He may have had the greater strength but she had been under Sata's training since birth. It was hard to get a good look at her opponent as she drove him back into the trees – all she could tell about him was that he was roughly Goliath's size and his skin was a mottled green that nearly disappeared in the shadows.
"You know," she snarled, "I'm getting really sick and tired of people talking to me like that." She leaped up, twirling around her staff and kicking him in the chest. "If you think I'm going to take that from you, think again!" A split-second movement out of the corner of her eye and her backswing caught him on the side of the head with a rattling crash. He stumbled and came up with a drawn tachi – a curved long sword nearly half Ariana's height.
"You show spirit," her opponent said bitingly. "But can you show skill?"
Ariana smirked. "Hey, do gargoyles duel in the woods?"
He made a peculiar huffing sound and charged. Sparks flew as his tachi shrieked along the edge of her bo as she pivoted with his attack. They circled and weaved intricate patterns of parries and lunges around each other. He kept trying to draw her into closed spaces beneath the trees but Ariana was used to the concrete canyons and narrow alleyways of New York City. Her smaller size worked to her advantage as she vaulted up tree trunks and attacked from above. She discovered that her opponent had an impressive rack of horns that protected his head like a helmet. The noise of her staff smashing against them seemed to irritate him. Grudgingly, she had to admit that he was more challenging than the fighters she'd sparred against in Ishimura. Under normal circumstances she might have found this fight enjoyable.
"What's the matter?" she called out as she parried a volley of rapid sword strokes. "No more smart-mouthed comments?"
"You talk too much, girl," he shot back.
"Hey, you're the one that started this," she retorted. "If you were a little nicer to people, maybe you'd get more visitors." She danced in under his sword arm and gave him another hard love tap across the antlers.
His eyes flared and with an earsplitting roar, he swung his tenchi down at full strength. Ariana blocked it but the blade lodged in the locking mechanism of her staff. They tussled for a few minutes, grimacing at their jammed weapons but finally her opponent managed to jerk his sword free. Before Ariana could react, her bo came apart in her hands. She stared at it in disbelief.
"You broke my bo."
The unseen gargoyle gave a harsh laugh and sheathed his sword. "Go home, hatchling."
"You BROKE my bo!"
Before he had a chance to respond, Ariana struck with a one-two punch across his face. The two halves of her broken staff bounced off his skull as she twirled them around like a deadly juggler. She followed by driving both staves into his gut and whipping his feet out from under him as he doubled over. Ariana made a mental note to thank Fox for teaching her Filipino stick fighting – switching to a different fighting style seemed to have momentarily confused her opponent.
"Do you know how LONG I've had this one?" she yelled at him as she thrashed him with scissor strikes. "It was custom made for me, you bakayaro!" She drove him to his knees in her anger but it was a deception; scooping a handful of sand from the ground, he threw it into her face. She spluttered and stepped backwards but before she could recover, he pounced on her like great cat.
"So, little samurai girl," he growled softly as he pinned her to the ground, "it would seem someone has taught you well." As he spoke, two fleshy things like tentacles fell into her face. Sandy grit was making her eyes tear too much to see but she could tell that the things moved when he talked so they were somehow attached to his head. He leaned on her a little more and his weight forced air from her lungs. "Maybe I should teach you some other things as well, neh?"
Reaching out with her hand-like wing talons, Ariana grabbed the two dangling things in her face and yanked. Her opponent's eyes became two blazing white orbs and his agonized bellow shook the trees. Not waiting for him to recover, Ariana head butted him right in the throat and followed it up with a knee to the groin that turned nicely into a hip throw. She somersaulted over the top of him and sprang up to a three-point landing, digging in her side pants pocket for one of her little toys.
A rush of displaced air warned her in time to pivot with the next attacker, a smaller male gargoyle with feathers. She grabbed him by the shirt and hurled him into the underbrush. Her hand came up out of her pocket to meet a second newcomer with a high-voltage taser. The third broadsided her from behind, tumbling her head-over-heels across the clearing. The taser went flying from her hand. Snarling, Ariana twisted free from his grip and ricocheted off a tree trunk to strike from overhead, landing both fists in a long-nosed face.
Dusting her hands off, Ariana stood up and surveyed the three bodies lying in the dirt. They all appeared to be adolescent males, dressed in matching dark grey tunics. "Well, boys," she drawled, "that's Tic, Tac, and Toe to me."
A large hand deftly pinched the nerve cluster in her neck and Ariana felt herself falling into someone's arms as her body went limp. A wave of vertigo swept over her as she began to fade away.
"Sensei! A thousand pardons! We didn't –"
"Do not concern yourselves, my students." There was a soft snort. "This one is trouble enough all by herself."
* * * * *
Deep in the Rokko Mountains
The fragrant scent of ginseng tea tickled Ariana's nose. She groaned softly and rubbed her cheek against soft cover of a well-padded futon. Wiggling her fingers and toes and subtly stretching wings and tail, she determined that she had no injuries. Before she dared to open her eyes, a voice spoke.
"Ah, you're awake now, young one."
Ariana opened her eyes slowly, feigning grogginess. She was in a traditional Japanese room – bamboo walls of translucent washi paper and a woven tatami floor. Shadows of activity and murmured voices hinted at village life outside. An elderly female gargoyle dressed in a dark kimono was kneeling by a small brazier and pouring boiling water into a tea bowl. Her dun-colored features reminded Ariana of a carved Noh doll – her rounded face was exaggerated and grotesque, but her white hair was as fine as spider silk and swept down her back to touch the floor.
"Where am I?" she asked tentatively. "Are you Tengu?"
The old female nodded and smiled kindly. "Come now, have some tea. It will refresh you." She offered Ariana a tea bowl. "I am O-tama, the clan healer. I have been instructed to bring you to the elders. It won't do to make them wait."
Anxiously as she sipped the tea, Ariana looked around and saw her backpack lying open against the wall. Her clothing was in a neatly folded pile next to it, along with her personal items. She frowned as she noted the absence of her palmtop and her weapons. "Do I have time to make myself presentable, obaasan?" She looked down at herself and began to brush anxiously at the dusty smudges on her black shirt. Her fingers paused as she touched her left arm and Ariana froze – her time tracker was missing. The one thing that she absolutely, positively couldn't let out of her possession partly because of the advanced technology it contained and partly because it was her link with Graeme. She covered her reaction by clicking her tongue at the state of her clothes.
Fortunately, her Tengu chaperon hadn't noticed. "That would be a good idea, young one," she answered, gesturing towards a basin of water and a soft cloth. "A good brushing and a quick wash will not take long."
With O-Tama's help, Ariana changed to a summer yukata, a lightweight cotton kimono in royal blue with a white carp pattern and tied with a wide white sash. She had packed it to wear at Midori's party but never had the chance. Her hair was easily piled in a loose twist and secured with a pair of ivory combs. Nodding her approval, the elder slid open the door and led her out into the compound.
There was a brief hush as Ariana stepped out of the house. Every eye was on her and for a moment she was reminded of the first time she had performed in one of Brock's plays in London. She composed herself and folded her hands like a proper maiden as she followed her guide through the compound. True to the stories she had heard, the Tengu were truly unique. Nearly all of them had beaks or muzzles, huge curling tusks or long pointed noses, and all them were staring at her. Ariana forced herself to recite the rules of bushido to calm herself.
They entered a large building in the center of the village. A dozen gargoyles were there, sitting on both sides of the room, separated by a dais where another gargoyle, clearly the clan leader sat. He resembled a venerable raven dressed in red robes. As Ariana got closer, she could see that he was quite old; he was slowly losing his feathers and dark leathery skin showed in balding patches over his head and shoulders. O-tama stopped and indicated a cushion on the floor. Ariana bowed politely to the assembly and knelt on the cushion, arranging her skirts neatly around her.
"I am Takamatsu, leader of the Tengu clan," he said as he delivered a courteous bow. "We are honored by your visit. Will you make yourself known to us?"
Ariana gave him the full formal bow, touching the tip of her beak to the floor in acknowledgement of his status. "I am Ariana, Takamatsu-sama," she answered formally. "I have come in search of the Tengu and their wisdom. I hope your clan will find me worthy."
Takamatsu nodded. "My elders and I have spoken with the ones who fought you at Tenjo Temple. You passed the first test, but be warned – there will be others."
"Your warriors were young," Ariana replied, "but they showed great promise. It was their teamwork that overcame me."
O-tama had settled in by Takamatu's side and she leaned over to whisper something to him. He nodded and continued to speak. "Ah, yes. Tancho, Takakura, and Mozo – our three warriors-in-training. You gave them quite a lesson in overestimating their opponent." He laughed and gestured to the right. "And you, of course, have met their teacher, Kirin."
Ariana blinked up at the tall figure standing in the shadows. It was easy to see how he could blend so effortlessly into the forest; Kirin's leathery hide was a dappled green that formed his own camouflage and he wore a diamond-checked grey kimono over it like a shadow. A fiery cloud of hair fading from red-gold to white swirled around a variety of twisted horns protruding from the tangled locks. His facial features were broad and grotesque, a long ridged nose like a baboon, fleshy barbels drooping from the corner of his wide-lipped mouth like a fish, folded ears like a cow, and a long wispy beard on his chin like a goat. Most unusual of all for a gargoyle, his shins and tail were all draped with long, curling red-gold hair; it hid that fact that his feet were not three-toed but two-toed, resembling cloven hooves. Meeting his half-lidded eyes, Ariana could see the self-depreciating scorn evident there. The corner of his mouth twitched.
Refusing to rise to his challenge, Ariana merely arched her brow ridges. "Yes," she said mildly, "he owes me a new bo staff."
The elder seemed amused. "So I am told," he said simply. "Not many warriors can fight Kirin to a standstill. Who was your sensei?"
"I was taught by Sata of Ishimura."
Takamatsu raised his brow ridges and murmured to one of the others who scurried off but Kirin's round eyes flared angrily like hi-beam headlights. "Lady Sata is kami, a revered ancestor to the Ishimura clan! How dare you invoke her name!"
Ariana glared back. "She is still my teacher. You have proof enough of that."
"I cannot believe this!" Kirin snapped as his voice grew to a roar. "Have you no sense of honor or duty?"
"Be still!" Takamatsu glared at Kirin and then glanced back at Ariana. "You do not resemble the gargoyles of Ishimura. Where do you come from?"
"I was born in Manhattan," Ariana answered, adding silently 'or will be over a century from now.' "My family and I are here to represent our clan at the Grand Miai. It's a gathering of gargoyle clans from all over the world. As leader of the home clan, Kai-sama is hosting it." She took a photo that Graeme had taken of her and Midori from her sash. "Here is a picture that was taken only a few nights ago at Ishimura."
Takamatsu examined the photo carefully for a moment and then passed it on to Kirin. The horned gargoyle took the photo from the elder and scowled furiously at it. "Yes," he finally said reluctantly, "this is the Shinto temple in the main compound. I'd recognize it anywhere."
"You're from Ishimura?" Ariana asked incredulously.
"Yes, it is difficult to believe with his poor manners, isn't it? Kirin came to us nearly twenty years ago after the Great Earthquake," Takamatsu said as he took back the photo for another look. "He was a great help to us." The gargoyle that had left earlier returned and handed him a scroll. "Ah, thank you." He traced a column of kanji figures with a withered finger. "It was recorded in the clan scrolls that Lady Sata of Ishimura mated with a strange male in the twelfth century. A magical artifact in his possession caused them to disappear shortly after their wedding. The record keepers were advised to keep a watchful eye out for their return." He looked at her thoughtfully. "My ancestor, Takakage had his likeness copied into the records so that we might know him." He turned the scroll so all could see.
Ariana winced. It was in the classic Japanese style but it was an accurate portrait of her father fighting a Tengu with great curling tusks. The artist had even included the blue and gold shield of the Phoenix Gate tucked in his belt. Sata was in the background of the picture, fighting another gargoyle with a great sword. Everyone was looking from the picture to her and it was clear that she wasn't going to be able to keep her anonymity.
"My father, Brooklyn, will be flattered," she said calmly, hiding her true feelings. "It's a good likeness of him." She frowned and tilted her head. "However, Mother will be upset that she's been drawn using her swords in the wrong position. Sata always prefers the Kagamatsu-ryu style when countering an overhead sword stroke."
"You bear a striking resemblance to your father," Takamatsu said slowly. "We Tengu do not pay much attention to the outside world but Kirin keeps irregular contact with Ishimura. There have been strange happenings since the turn of the century and it was always thought that your mother's return would herald a time of great changes. Was the magical object that Takakage described responsible for your return after so many years?" He tapped the image with a talon.
"Yes, the Phoenix Gate," Ariana said. "My father spent forty years traveling with it. Eventually we all did – my brother and I can't remember all the different places we went." She gave a little laugh. "Finally, the Phoenix Gate took us back to where Dad's adventures started and returning full circle to the beginning turned it to dust. We've been living in Manhattan ever since."
"But you are here," O-tama observed. "Why did you not stay in Ishimura?"
"And why did you not acknowledge your parents from the very beginning?" another elder with a face like a yellow turtle interjected. "Why do you not show proper parental respect?"
"This is my journey," Ariana said firmly, "not that of Sata or Brooklyn. I chose this path. My father supported my decision. I was given a week to search for you before I must return for the Grand Miai." She flicked a small glance at Kirin who had snorted rudely. "As for Ishimura, I do not entirely fit in there. One of the elders called me a Tengu maiden and told me roughly where to look for you so I decided to go." She shrugged. "What can I say? I've always been curious."
"Then—" Kirin eyed her skeptically, "—you're really the daughter of the Ancestress? You fought in her style?" He seemed interested in spite of his distrustful attitude.
"I said so from the very beginning." She rolled her eyes impatiently. "Haven't you been listening?"
"You fight like a bar room brawler." He stuck his chin out, his wispy beard jutting out like a goat's. "A true samurai would not resort to such tactics."
"Are you always so insulting to girls you just meet?" She glared at him. "Or is it just me?"
O-tama was wearing a little smile as she sat besides Takamatsu. She exchanged a brief look with her mate before she gazed demurely at her hands. Takamatsu cleared his throat to restore order. "It would seem that this young female made an impression on you, Kirin-san," he said blandly. "If she could hold her own with you, it would seem that she is worthy of consideration, neh?"
"There is the matter of the documents she was carrying, Takamatsu-sama," said an elder female with a parrot face. "Ask about them!"
"Ah, yes. Kirin, if you would?" The Tengu leader held out a sheath of papers in a slim plastic binder.
Kirin strode over and took the papers as he sank to his knees on the floor. He read silently for a moment, his hairy eyebrows rising and falling as if they were separate living things. "It is written in English," he said slowly. "It would seem to be a literary work of some form."
Ariana rolled her eyes. "It's a script for a play."
"Really?" Takamatsu was interested. "Can you translate for us, Kirin?"
Twitching his fish-whiskered upper lip, Kirin scowled briefly at the page and said in Japanese, "'What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?'"
On cue, Ariana retorted with Beatrice's line: "'Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such food to feed it as Signior Benedick?'" She raised a brow ridge at Kirin. "'Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come into her presence.'"
Kirin glared back. "'Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you as the exception," he sneered, "'and I would if I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for truly, I love none.'" He managed an arrogant growl in his words which Ariana knew couldn't be possibly contrived.
"'A dear happiness to women," she sighed dramatically in return, "'or else they would have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humor for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.'"
Thrusting his goat-like chin out, Kirin said hotly, "'God keep your ladyship still in that mind! So some gentleman or other shall 'scape a predestinate scratched face.'"
Ariana smiled sweetly. "'Scratching could not make it worse, if t'were such a face as yours.'" She gave a stinging little slap to her words and crossed her arms smugly over her chest as Beatrice would have done on stage, holding the pose for a few seconds before dropping it.
Kirin snorted and tossed the script to the floor in front of her. "It is harmless, Takamatsu-sama," he said dismissively. "One of Shakespeare's minor romantic comedies about love."
"You," Ariana exclaimed incredulously, "know Shakespeare?"
"I'm a teacher," he shot back. "I know many things."
"I thought it was very enjoyable," O-tama said pleasantly. "I would be interested hearing more of this play."
"Perhaps Lady Ariana and Kirin will grace us with a full reading another night," Takamatsu said magnanimously. "Tonight is nearly over. We should prepare to shelter for the day."
"Forgive me, Takamatsu-sama," Ariana said, bowing again to the floor. "Some of my things were missing when I woke. May I please have them back? You can see that I mean you no harm."
"No!" a squat elder with a face like a toad cried out. "Things from the human world are strictly forbidden here."
"Doryo is correct," Takamatsu said, regarding her sternly. "It is the Tengu way to exist without aid of technology. O-tama was careful to remove only mechanical things and, of course, your weapons. They have been put into our strong room. All will be returned to you when you are ready to leave."
"There is one thing that I must have!" Ariana shoved up the sleeve of her yukata and showed them her left arm. "I was wearing a black armband with red blinking lights, right here. I must have it back – it is a medical device. If I go into stone sleep without it, I might not wake up!" It wasn't entirely the truth but Ariana figured that the Tengu didn't need to know that. She let a tremor of panic creep into her voice. "Please!"
"Medical?" O-tama put her hand on Takamatsu's sleeve. "Child, are you ill?"
"It-It is complicated," Ariana stammered. "Before my brother and I were born, when my parents were traveling, my mother was exposed to a type of radiation—"
"Like Nagasaki?" another elder interrupted. "And Hiroshima?" The other elders began to whisper among themselves. It would seem that certain world events were still fresh in their memories.
Ariana nodded anxiously, now playing to a captive audience. "Yes, it was very similar. The radiation affected her, and in turn, affected my brother and myself. We were very sick when we hatched and we nearly died – except for the help of some human doctors who saved us." She pointed at her arm. "My brother and I have always worn these armbands. It monitors our condition, administers medicine, and gives us a normal life. It will not harm you but I must have it back, please!"
"You seem well enough now," Kirin observed, narrowing his eyes.
"As we grew older, our bodies adapted to our condition so that we could go for brief periods without it." She pressed her hand to her forehead and frowned dramatically. "I'm only a little feverish now but it won't be long before I have other symptoms."
"True," O-tama spoke up. "When I was tending to her earlier, I noticed that her body temperature was higher than ours." She gave her husband a severe glance. "The risk to her health is too great. As clan healer, I say that we allow Ariana-chan to keep the device."
"Kirin-san," Takamatsu said, turning towards him, "you have examined all of the things confiscated from our guest. What is your opinion?"
The tall gargoyle puffed out his upper lip, making him look like a gulping fish. "The armband might be what she says it is," Kirin admitted. "I have seen humans use similar devices. However," he glared at Ariana, "the miniature computer and the weapons stay in the strong room."
Takamatsu glanced around at the assembled elders, several of whom nodded. "Very well," he said formally, "it is agreed that we will make an exception this one time and allow you the medical device."
Ariana beamed and bowed fervently. "Thank you, honored leader! Thank you, revered elders!" She worried for a moment that she might be laying it on a bit thick but as Brooklyn had once observed; one could not possibly overdo etiquette and formalities with the Japanese.
Kirin returned with her armband and handed it over. "There is a light flashing on it," he observed. "It was not doing that before. Why?"
"It's a warning alarm because the monitor can't sense me," Ariana lied smoothly as she tapped a tiny dimple on the side with her talon tip. In reality, an alarm had gone off on Graeme's armband and her brother was checking up on her. "See? I'll reset it." O-tama was leaning forward with great interest as Ariana tapped in the 'all safe' sequence and Graeme stopped transmitting. She showed the display to O-tama. "Each row of lights indicates a different function – pulse, temperature, blood pressure, and medication level."
"Amazing!" O-tama seemed suitably impressed. "And healers have been using these things?"
"Not so much in gargoyles, but humans have been using them to treat diabetes and other diseases for decades." Ariana slid it back in place on her arm. "That's better." She laughed self-consciously. "I've been wearing it for so long, I feel naked without it."
Takamatsu cleared his throat. "Now that the matter is settled," he announced. "We should get the camp in order. This meeting is over."
Immediately, all the Tengu rose and went their separate ways. O-tama took Ariana by the elbow and began to usher her from the room. "Since many humans travel in these mountains by day," she explained, "we take special precautions to secure the area. The perimeter is planted with thick brambles to keep out the less adventurous but we do not like to take chances. I will show you where you can put your belongings for the day."
"All right. I'll change back into my traveling clothes then and keep this for nice," Ariana said, indicating her yukata. "I've never been comfortable going into stone sleep with my good clothes on."
"Be quick about it then," O-tama said, as she slid open the door. "I need to tend to a few things but I will return for you."
Safely inside the room, Ariana quickly changed her clothes and stashed everything back into her backpack. There was a sudden vibration on her armband and she grimaced. "Graeme…" She peeped out the door but everyone was hurrying about. "All right, Graeme," she said as she turned on the communicator function. "What'd you want, bro? Make it quick."
"Are you all right?" Graeme asked, his voice distorted by the distance between them. "You were off-line earlier."
"It's okay. They're big technophobes here and took my armband. I told them that it was a medical device and they gave it back."
"Medical?" Graeme laughed. "We haven't needed the medical functions in years!"
"Hey, it worked, didn't it?" Ariana heard footsteps crunching on gravel. "Someone's coming. Bye!" She switched off the communicator and was zipping up her backpack when O-tama opened the door.
"I thought I heard voices," the healer said curiously.
"I was running through my checklist," Ariana said glibly. "I hate to leave anything behind." She stood up with her pack in hand. "So where do you want me?"
O-tama led the way. "We do not pose like most gargoyles," she said as they walked through the camp. "Tengu have always kept themselves secret. We hide beneath our wings—"
"—so that any humans that stumble across you only see a bunch of rocks," Ariana finished for her. "I've had to do that a few times. No problem!"
They were heading for a deep fissure in the mountainside, surrounded by what at first glance appeared to be scree from an old rockside. A closer look identified it as roughly crushed stone skin. "This is the opening to our rookery. You may put your bag inside and take a place out here." She nodded at the gargoyles approaching. "Kirin and his students roost here, to guard our eggs from intruders. He will tell you what to do."
Ariana bit back the sarcastic comment she had for that and put a pleasant expression on her face instead. Kirin scowled at her but his students, the three young males that had attacked her earlier, were looking her over curiously. The shortest and shyest one resembled a crested bird with a semi-human face. The tallest was thin and lanky like a stork with a face that looked like it had been melted and re-formed into a comic puppet. His curved nose, rounded cheeks, and high-arched brow ridges looked too exaggerated to be real and he wore a black skullcap with stylish panache. The last reminded Ariana vaguely of Brooklyn; he had the same slouchy cockiness that she associated with her father. He was ruddy-skinned with black hair that draped rakishly against his forehead and would have had a handsome face with the exception of an indecently long nose and bulbous cleft chin. Just looking at him made Ariana uncomfortable and he knew it, staring directly at her far too long with a sneer dancing on his lips.
Kirin cuffed him on the back of the head. "Be polite!" he snapped curtly. "Rudeness is not acceptable."
"Yes, sensei," said the long-nosed one grudgingly as he rubbed his head. He gave Ariana a brief glare over his shoulder as if it was her fault and went to join his fellows.
"You," Kirin said, addressing her, "will stand here." He pointed to a spot a few feet to his left. "Be sure to keep your tail tucked in and take that off," he said as he pointed at the silver ring that she wore on one of her wing talons. "It will attract too much attention."
"Okie-dokie," Ariana said amiably to counter his foul mood. As she tucked her ring in her pocket, she couldn't help noticing what the other Tengu were doing. Their dwellings had been constructed from rough stone and tall plants had been planted to screen them from view. Various Tengu were taking up positions to protect their village. The curious thing was the behavior of the mated pairs – the females knelt upon the ground and the males encircled them both with their wings. She started to ask Kirin about it but her question went unasked when she saw the expression on his face.
His eyes were haunted by a strange longing as he gazed over at O-tama and Takamatsu taking their places nearby. The clan leader nuzzled his mate's brow ridges affectionately. Sighing bitterly, Kirin turned away and caught her looking at him. He huffed angrily, narrowing his eyes at her and Ariana hastily turned her face to the sky. Her skin was starting to tingle with the approach of the sun. She dropped to a three-point crouch, draping her wings over her, and let stone sleep take her.
To be continued in Part II of "Tengu"
in the next issue of Avalon Mists.