Chapter 70: Eye of the Dragon
Part II: The Dragon Isles
As Hermes once took to his feathers light,
When lulled Argus, baffled, swoon'd and slept,
So on a Delphic reed, my idle spright
So play'd, so charm'd, so conquer'd, so bereft
The dragon-world of all its hundred eyes
– "On a Dream," John Keats
Tomoeda, a quarter of a century ago…
A girl with long violet hair, dressed in a sailor uniform, stood on top of a hill overlooking the city watching the red and white Tokyo Tower gleam against the cerulean sky. Next to her was a tall young man with dark brown hair and a large red-tasseled sword strapped to his back.
"Can you believe it? After all these years, we are so near finding the Clow Cards," whispered Amamiya Nadeshiko, age 16, clutching the Five Force Scroll to her chest. Her knee-length navy blue pleated skirt fluttered in the wind.
"Don't get your hopes up to high—heaven knows how many times we've been thwarted before. We've got to get to them before Ryouta does," said Li Ryuuren. "And we don't know if we will be able to get there. Of course the cards have to be hidden in the most difficult place for humans to reach."
"So, how exactly do we get there?" Nadeshiko asked, tugging on a violet curl with her slender forefinger.
"Via the Fantasy. Or I heard the Eye of the Dragon can also serve as a portal to the Dragon Isles, which we unfortunately don't have," said Ryuuren. "The Fantasy can have its heyday."
The Fantasy glimmered. "A one-time deal to allow a passage for both of you to enter to the Dragon Realms. What do you offer, Chosen One and Angel?"
Ryuuren turned to Nadeshiko. "You stay here. One of us is enough. Besides, with the Plague rampant—we've got to deal with that once we retrieve the Clow Cards."
"No," said Nadeshiko with a frown. "I'm going with you. We will deal with the Plague when we return. Mayura-chan, Reiji-san and Keisuke-san said they will keep watch while we are gone. Besides, how do I know you're not just going to claim the Clow for yourself?"
Ryuuren flinched. "After all we've been through, how can you—" Then he realized she was joking by the way the corner of her eyes were crinkled.
"Shut up Ryuuren, I'm going and you can't stop me. It will take both of our powers to retrieve the Clow, I am sure," said Nadeshiko. She looked up at him imploringly, biting her lower lip. "Ryuuren, if we find the Clow Cards, surely we'll be able to use them somehow to stop the Plague?"
"Yes, we'll find a way," said Ryuuren gently. "Or maybe we can finally track down the mysterious Amamiya diamond, the so-called Eye of the Dragon, if it exists. Legends say it was hidden within the Dragonlands. How grand it would be to have all the Five Force Treasures collected and in the same space again. Can you imagine what kind of secrets they may hold or powers they may unfold?"
Nadeshiko smiled slightly—it was almost like having the old animated Ryuuren back. These past weeks had been difficult, ever since the outbreak of the Plague epidemic. This was their final wildcard. To the Fantasy, she said, "What price will I have to pay to enter Fantasia?"
"You have naught of importance to me," said the Fantasy, "save your name, soul or memory. Which will you choose to offer?"
Nadeshiko frowned in serious contemplation.
"No!" Ryuuren scowled. "That is a trick. Without her name, she will be trapped in Fantasia forever, without a soul, she would be a walking corpse, and without memories, she would never reach the Dragon Isles."
"Then, what do you propose, Li warrior?"
"I will pay the price. Both our prices," said Ryuuren, sapphire eyes blazing.
"No!" screamed Nadeshiko, but Ryuuren shoved her through the prismatic barrier.
Moments later, he joined her. She ran to him, her fingers tracing his face, her green eyes were ablaze. "Are you all right? What did you do? What's your name?"
He gave her his usual cocky grin. "The handsome and awesome Li Ryuuren-sama."
"Who am I?"
"Amamiya Nadeshiko, the ultimate klutz."
"And where are we heading towards?"
"The Dragon Isles, you silly girl—of course I have name, soul and memories in tact." Ryuuren raised his arms in the air, and a dragon swooped down from above high.
"Then what price did you pay for both of us to enter and leave?" whispered Nadeshiko, voice quivering despite her initial relief.
"Shush—I worked out a bargain, don't fret about it now," he said, placing a finger on her lip. "We have a long road ahead of us. Let's get going." He hopped atop the back of the dragon and hoisting Nadeshiko up behind him, for their final quest to retrieve the hidden Clow Cards.
Once more, Li Syaoran sprinted through the prismatic gateway into the Fantasy that Sakura had kept open. The first thing he noticed as soon as his vision cleared from the initial blinding sunlight was an overwhelming musky, floral scent. He found himself standing in a field of lavenders, waving wildly in the wind in a violet frenzy. For a second, he panicked—it was different from the other times he entered Fantasia. Here, it was so still, so quiet, as if there was no other living being the world.
But the lavenders leaned their tall stalks forward, as if pointing, and he looked ahead. There, under a bright pink cherry blossom tree atop a small hill, there was a silhouette of a girl with golden-brown hair whipped back from her face, sitting on a white unicorn.
He blinked, as if she would disappear, as if she were merely a mirage, and now, he stumbled, forward, half running, half tripping, up the hill.
"Sakura?" he croaked.
"You took long enough," said Kinomoto Sakura with a faint smile. In her short, wispy hair twinkled a pin shaped of clusters of golden stars of all sizes, his birthday present to her.
But Syaoran stepped up to her side in one stride. He pulled her off the unicorn, and she didn't know if she tumbled into his chest first, or he was the one that pulled her to him. Both hands cupping her cheeks, and his thumb traced her brows and the curve of her lips, as if he had to check if she was really flesh and bone.
"You're here," he murmured.
"Of course I'm here. I told you I will be waiting."
"You really are Sakura, right?" Syaoran voiced cracked, and Sakura realized she too was overwhelmed by the sudden burst of urgency in his liquid amber eyes. The Syaoran she knew had always been calm and collected, gentle and reassuring.
"It's all right, it's me."
"You're not an illusion." And like a marionette cut from its strings, he slumped to his knees, and she realized that his shoulders been trembling this whole time. "That was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life. Never. Never…" He could not even finish his sentence and still kneeling, his arms snaked around her waist with such ferocity that she could not breathe, let alone pull away. For her, time had stopped within the Fantasy, but for him, a week had been an eternity.
"I thought the hardest was dressing up like a princess for the fifth grade Sleeping Beauty play," murmured Sakura, stroking his head nestled against her stomach.
"You don't know how these past few days have been for me. I kept doubting everything, even you. I was going crazy because I had to see you, but I couldn't leave right away. I was so scared. That was all so real. And this may all be a dream."
"Maybe it is," said Sakura, dropping down on her knees and pushing away a lock of chestnut brown out of his eyes. "But we still have a long way to go into this dreamland."
He nodded, and stared off into the distance at the blazing orange sunset. "Head west and to the farthest west, to reach the Land of Fire." So had Amamiya Hayashi once told him when he was training in the House of Five in his previous trip to Fantasia.
At one point, they both had figured it would boil down to this. But it had come much sooner than expected. Deep into Fantasia was Memoria, where all memories were sapped from you the longer you stayed. And beyond Memoria was a place very few humans had ever visited.
The Dragon Isles, the realm of the most regal of beasts, where very few human made it out alive.
"Sakura," he said, when he could trust himself to speak again. "Why did you do it?"
"Do what?" she asked, tilting her head. He could see the blank glint in her left eye—she couldn't see out of that eye.
"How could you… even think of giving up your eye?"
"You noticed, after all."
"I didn't, at first. How could I—it's not something I could have conceived of. I never fathomed you'd go to such extremes. It wasn't until afterwards, when I found this." He grimaced and held out an emerald crystal on his palm.
"I was running out of time, and this was the only option I could think of," said Sakura, sighing half in relief that Syaoran had retrieved it. "I'm sorry if it caught you by surprise."
Surprise was an understatement, and he could not recall the events of the duel without his guts turning. And that final moment when she looked his eyes and lunged forward…He had panicked. For the girl had resonated Sakura's soul. He choked out the words, "It was a very, very stupid and dangerous thing to do. Do you know how much you scared me out of my wits in more ways than you can imagine?"
"Well, it was needed to give my clone magical powers and my aura," replied Sakura. "And you were able to trick the Li Clan too, because that should have had a bit of your power of the moon. So they must have believed your powers truly came back."
Syaoran's thumb brushed her left eyelid gently. "Does it hurt?"
"No," said Sakura. "But I could sometimes see what the clone me was seeing in our world."
"You were…" Syaoran felt his throat clamp up. "Watching everything?"
She couldn't look him in the eye. "I saw you hesitate. Why? You could have ruined everything we had planned."
"I couldn't do it. I thought I could—I told myself that she just looked like you and was not real. But she felt like you, smelled like you, had your voice and even your eyes. It was impossible for me!" Syaoran burst out. "Sorry."
"No, I'm sorry," said Sakura, cupping Syaoran's sallow cheek with her hand. "For asking you to do something so difficult. I know, I had the easier part, waiting here. You, you had to face them all."
"She killed herself. To save both of us." Syaoran swallowed hard, shaking, as if reliving that moment again. "Why? Did you tell her to do so?"
"No," said Sakura wistfully. "But I must have done a good job with replicating a living soul."
"You should take this back," said Syaoran, holding up the round green stone which he had wrapped in a crisp white handkerchief.
"How did you know what it was?" she asked, tilting her head.
"Maybe that final moment when I looked into her eyes. Your eye." He swallowed hard as his throat began to clench up again as it did whenever he recalled that day. Syaoran set it gently on her palm. "Here take it back, quickly."
Whatever words that had been sprouting from her lips faded, as she stood up and looked at the distant western horizon. "We are going to make it through this, right, Syaoran?"
Shielding his eyes with her hand from the sun, he stood up next to her and also looked westwards. "We have a long way ahead of us, don't we?"
"Syaoran, do you remember what I made you promise that morning in Hong Kong?"
He didn't respond.
"Our top priority mission this time is for you to become the next Great Elder. We will do whatever it takes for this objective. This is not just for you. This is for the future of the Star Alliance as well. So, you have to promise, you're going to focus on passing the Test of the Great Elders and leave the rest to me," said Sakura.
He only nodded.
"Are you ready?"
He took a deep breath before replying, "Never more ready." Syaoran raised his hand towards the sky. And a majestic black dragon swept down, lowering his long neck. He climbed on and reached out his hand.
Sakura took it and hopped on behind him. "Well, this is an upgrade from you sitting on the back of my poor staff with the Fly. Well, with how much you've grown lately, I'm not even sure it will support both our weight anymore on my poor little staff."
He almost chuckled. "That was mighty uncomfortable, even when we were kids. Well, this time, hang onto me." For the way to the Dragon Isles was of course by dragon.
She smiled slightly—she remembered the awkward moment when Syaoran had to ride behind her back for the first time on her staff, when they tried to capture the Mirror and thought her brother was in danger. He had tried to avoid touching her, gripping on to the staff with both hands to keep from sliding any closer towards her. She wrapped her hands around his waist. "Ready."
"Let's go!" called out Syaoran, and the dragon drew up its black webbed wings and lurched into the sky.
Leiyun stood atop the roof deck of a tall office building, chosen for its strategic position in the middle of the city, where north, east, south and west were all within view. He could see Tokyo Tower gleaming sporadically from the afternoon sunlight that streaked through the cloud of locusts which covered the sky.
"Syaoran's gone," reported Jinyu to Leiyun in a low voice, as there were Li bodyguards standing within earshot.
"What do you mean gone?" Kara said, noting that Jinyu looked the worse for wear. This wasn't like Hong Kong, where he could mobilize his men through the dark allies and underground sewer system only known to the triads, where he could execute orders silently and unnoticeably without lifting a finger. It was difficult to fight on foreign terrain, with limited resources and men, minimizing civilian casualties. "Like he went off to use the bathroom or you lost track of him or something?"
"No, he's completely vanished," replied Jinyu. Erika and Kara exchanged troubled looks, recalling how Syaoran had run off earlier in the direction of Tokyo Tower.
Leiyun asked mildly, "Have the Elders noticed?"
"I don't think so, they're a bit distracted at the moment with the high concentration of locusts swarming the hotel," replied Jinyu. "And the Wu Clan seems to have caught onto the Li delegation plans on leaving the country tonight and is barricading the airport and hotel."
"Clever boy," said Leiyun. "Leading the Li delegation in circles."
"Leiyun, you surprise me," Erika said, peeking at the man with silvery hair that caught the sunlight. "I swear, sometimes you seem bent on sabotaging the Li Clan."
Leiyun blinked. "The Li Clan won't fall so easily. After all, it has a 2,000-year-old history and allegedly has divine blessing. But the Elders need someone to keep them on their feet, and Syaoran single-handedly is doing a better job at that than anyone has in decades."
"This comes from someone who was once ready sacrifice everything for the clan?" said Erika, turning to face amicable Leiyun with the cold, cold turquoise eyes. "You don't have any ambitions of taking over the Li Clan for yourself do you? Didn't you once aspire to be the Chosen One?"
"Maybe, years ago, when I was just a naïve boy around Syaoran's age," Leiyun said distantly. "But why waste your precious time being chained to titles and formalities when life is so brief and transient?"
That was the oddest statement she had ever heard coming from a Li bound so deeply in tradition and decorum. "I always meant to ask, what sort of mission were you on which left your family thinking you were dead all those years?" asked Erika. It was a topic that Leiyun had always been evasive of. Kara knew, as she was somehow related to his rescue. Erika thought he was going to refuse to answer.
Instead, she saw Leiyun with a distant look, as if he recalling something he had not thought about in a while. "Isn't that obvious? It always comes down to collecting the Five Force Treasures. I was told to find the Amamiya diamond. Also known as the Eye of the Dragon."
"Why?" asked Erika, knowing well the value of the Five Force Treasures and why the Lis would covet it. "Was it something worth risking your life for?"
"Uncle Ryuuren also went on that same mission, 13 years before I did," replied Leiyun. "He never came back. But if the clan sent me, someone nowhere near as experienced as Uncle Ryuuren who was at that time the Chosen One, it was not my place to question the order. That is the way of the Li Clan."
Erika found it fascinating to see a trace of wistfulness in Leiyun's usually blisteringly sunny countenance. Whatever he thought about the Elders, he seemed to have admired Li Ryuuren. "So what's so special about that crystal?"
"You must have already heard the legends," said Leiyun.
"Right," said Erika. "The Eye of the Dragon was the symbol of the greatest swordsman in Japan, and was passed down generations and generations of warriors and samurai who beat the previous owner for the privilege to carry the stone."
"Yes, until Amamiya Hayashi beat his master and earned the right to the Eye of the Dragon," said Leiyun. "The stone was named so because it was round and clear, like a star embedded in an uncut crystal. But even older legends say, the stone actually is the left eye of the White Dragon of the Western Isles, who gave it up after losing a bet with a Japanese samurai from the feudal era. He became the first owner of the Eye of the Dragon and was heralded as the strongest swordsmen of his country, winning many victories in battles and showered in glory. Some say the Dragon's Eye has protective qualities or is a good luck charm."
Erika nodded, fingering the crystal she wore around her neck. It was a well-known fact that the eyes of magical beings were very powerful tools.
"And you know probably better than I do about how the Great Five at the peak of their golden era decided to choose a relic to seal some of their powers in it, also binding each of their chosen treasures to each other to magnify their strength when used together," Leiyun continued. "It was an experiment. But it grew to be a dangerous experiment."
"Because Ruichi-sama broke away from the Great Five?" Erika remarked.
"Partly, and because Amamiya Hayashi realized that all Five Force Treasures gathered in the wrong hands in the future could have disastrous repercussions. So he considered destroying the Five Force Treasures. But he couldn't ask Shulin to give up her family heirloom sword, or for Mayura to break the holy Mirror of Truth, or for Landon Reed to give up the star sapphire which became Shulin's engagement ring. And, his own treasure was impossible to destroy. So he did the next best thing—conceal it somewhere people could not reach it."
"So, where did Amamiya Hayashi conceal the Eye of the Dragon then?" asked Erika.
"Isn't that obvious?" said Leiyun with a thin smile. "In the Dragon Isles, the place of its origin, where very few human reach and even fewer return from."
The Dragon Isles…
Syaoran and Sakura on the black dragon glided higher and higher through the burnt sienna-hued sky. When Sakura looked back, she could barely see the green fields and Clow's lush botanical gardens with flowers of all hues and shapes, some not found back in their world, nor the hill with the lone cherry blossom tree in full bloom.
Flying atop a dragon was an experience quite different than on a winged staff or unicorn. The dragon's scale was dry and scaly, and there was not much to hang onto, but its movement was smoother and faster than any other mode of transport.
Sakura peeped up at Syaoran's profile, his dark brown swept back from his frowning brows as he looked ahead with a sense of urgency. She could see the past few days had taken on a toll on him. He looked somewhat foreign with his grim and honest gaze, wearing a long black sleeveless high-collar tunic with a green rising dragon emblazoned on the front, off-set with orange buckles on his arms, collars and a matching belt buckled around his slim waist. He wore this over white trousers and sturdy black leather boots.
She too was in a matching sleeveless white dress with black lace trimmings adorned with a black dragon pattern creeping up her delicate throat, with matching arm-length white gloves. Her shoulders were covered by a magnificent white fur cloak with a black spiky collar fashioned like dragon, tied in place with maroon ribbons, and on her head was fastened a small black tiara with onyx jewels adorning each spike, offset by rubies.
It had been Sakura's ideas to change into battle costumes to face the dragons. "Tomoyo-chan would have liked it," she had told Syaoran, as she conjured up outfits for the two of them based off a sketch she had see in Tomoyo's ever-growing design book. "I never realized it but wearing Tomoyo's battle costumes makes me feel braver, like I really transformed into a Card Mistress. Is that silly?"
"No, I usually feel most comfortable wearing my Li Clan green robes," replied Syaoran with a faint smile. "It becomes a part of our battle armor."
While both of them were impatient to find the Dragon Isles, there also was a sense of reluctance to reach their destination, where who knew what perils awaited them.
"I wonder how long we've been flying," murmured Sakura. "I wonder if it really exists. The Dragon Isles."
"It must," said Syaoran. "Can't you feel it?"
He was right. It was getting hotter and hotter as they flew deeper and deeper into the core of Fantasia. The sky was a deep orange-crimson—she could not tell if it was night or day—she suspected that there was no sense of time in the Dragon Isles.
And they felt intense pressure as if a tornado was ready to rip their flesh away. Sakura's hair whipped back from her face, and she could barely keep her eyes open. Tears stung in her eyes as she felt scorching heat. Syaoran lifted an arm protectively to shield her from the heat. "Are we passing through a barrier?" she whispered, barely croaking out her question.
"Or another dimensional portal," he replied.
Her hair sizzled. Glancing up, she could see Syaoran's skin was aglow. And she could no longer see any traces of Fantasia, only the vast crimson sky above and below. They swooshed past huge boulders like huge molten boulders suspended midair, nearly grazing the indigenous rocks, but the dragon always glided past the obstacles without actually hitting it.
"Look," whispered Syaoran in awe.
And they both saw it. A huge rocky volcanic island floating in the sky at the very heart of the realm of the dragons, clouded in what seemed like wisps of smoke or fog. Sparks sizzled by, crackling as it hit their bare skin.
"It's like lava is bubbling within," said Syaoran, half in awe, half in terror.
Even now, Sakura wanted to tell Syaoran to turn back. But she could see his amber eyes fixed upon the center of the Dragon Isles, reflecting gold specks of the volcanic activity. As they grew nearer and nearer to the central isle, the heat grew more intense. Pools of sweat formed at the nape of her neck and at the small of her back. And they landed. The Dragon gracefully swept down and lowered his body so that the two could slide off.
They stepped off the Dragon onto the rocky terrain. Through the cracks, they could see molten red and gold lava bubbling from the center of the island.
It finally seemed to hit Syaoran that they had arrived. "Sakura… Maybe this is not a good idea after all. You should go back with the Dragon. I don't know what I was thinking bringing you here in the first place. We don't know what awaits us, if this will even work out."
Sakura placed her hand on his arm and shook her head slowly. "Don't even think of it. You forget, we decided this together. We have a joint mission here. And it can only be accomplished with both of us here."
They climbed up a long winding path up a rocky terrain, until they came to a towering opening to a cavern in the center of isle. They did not speak, and though they saw no one, they knew they were being watched.
"Do you really think the legends are real?" she asked.
"Well, we've got to bet on them being true," replied Syaoran, and stepped into the ghoulish entrance.
Sakura reached to her neck and clutched the half shard of the crystal necklace that Syaoran had thrown at her before she entered the Fantasy. Was it pulsating? Tentatively, she reached out for Syaoran's hand, which was cool despite the flush on his face. The cavern entrance was dark, but they had a sense that they were walking downwards.
"Do we even know where we are going?" Syaoran said, his voice echoing down the tunnel
"We don't need to," said Sakura, holding up the crystal shard that gleamed. "It knows where to go." Syaoran took out his half, the half he had picked up from the ground after Sakura's clone dissolved away. He gave it to Sakura, who fitted together the two halves.
"It's glowing hot," Sakura said. They walked deeper and deeper into the cavern, until they could feel the crystal shards humming.
"Look," said Syaoran, half in wonder, half in terror.
Sakura gasped. A great dragon with milky white scales was curled up on the floor, almost blending right into the pale limestone like a huge boulder. This dragon was much bigger than Syaoran's black dragon, and seemed somewhat older and more sedentary.
"I think he's sleeping," whispered Sakura. "Do we wake him?"
"How do you wake a dragon?" Syaoran replied. "We can't exactly shake him."
"You don't think he's—dead?" asked Sakura.
"I don't think so—he's seems to be breathing—his nostril is huge enough. You can feel shafts of hot air," replied Syaoran. "The question is, is he the right one?"
Sakura nodded. "I still feel the crystal vibrating—it's been getting stronger the closer we came."
"Well, maybe we should try to shout in his ear," said Syaoran. "I don't know how well he'll take to being waken up—for all we know, he might have been sleeping for centuries."
"How do we reach his ear?" asked Sakura. "And where are his ears?" She courageously stepped closer, peering at the dragon's large angular face, nearly reachable because the creature was slouched over apparently in deep slumber.
And suddenly, the White Dragon opened its right eye, a startling milky marble color.
Sakura stifled a squeal and would have toppled backwards hadn't Syaoran been standing right behind her to balance her.
The dragon spoke slowly, in a booming voice which made the cavern quake. "What foolish humans dare intrudes my lair?"
"Oh, he's up!" Sakura exclaimed, delighted.
Syaoran was a bit dumbfounded that this girl afraid of her own shadow, thunderstorms, and nonexistent ghosts was not at all daunted by this huge glaring reptilian beast the size of a small house that seemed ready to spew out fire at the two or swallow them whole. With one swipe of those fanged claws, she could be ripped in half.
But Sakura, chin up, declared in a clear, unfaltering voice, "My name is Kinomoto Sakura. I'm from Japan. And this is Li Syaoran. He's from Hong Kong."
"I know who you two are," said the dragon, stretching his neck and then sitting up slowly, peering down at the girl and boy with his right eye. His left eye remained shut. "And do you know who I am?"
"The White Dragon of the Western Isles," stammered Sakura. "The owner of this crystal." She held up both shards of the crystal that had splintered in half last year as she tried to seal the Plague.
The White Dragon now stretched to his full length, and Sakura and Syaoran stepped further back as the winged creature towered over them. "You know who I am, and you show your face here?"
Syaoran instinctively reached for his sword hilt, but Sakura shook her head. "We are sorry to intrude upon your space," she said. "But we have a request to ask of you."
"Foolhardy things," said the White Dragon. "You have the nerve to even think of asking a favor of a dragon?"
Sakura exclaimed, "We know the procedure. If you grant us our request, we will pay you a price. Whatever you want."
"You know that is a very risky bargain you are striking with me," said the White Dragon. "Only one human ever got the best of me, a thousand years ago. He was a brazen Japanese swordsman, the strongest in the East, he called himself. And that was the man who took my left eye from me, the one you have so unceremoniously broken in half and hold in your hand right now."
Syaoran whistled. "So legends are true. It really is your left eye."
"Yes, that dratted Japanese swordsman robbed me of an eye," said the White Dragon, without much venom.
"But surely you could have taken it back anytime if you wanted to," said Sakura.
"True," said the White Dragon. "But he's long since dead, and where's the fun in that? Since then, the Eye got passed down to the strongest warrior of each generation. And it was interesting, because I was able to see the strongest of each era, some leading battles, some spilling great bloodshed, some saving the country, some falling into the pitfalls of ambition and power. Until it fell into the hands of the samurai Amamiya Hayashi, the so-called leader of the Great Five. And he did something odd with the Eye of the Dragon. He put a spell on it. He bound it to four other treasures and amplified its magical worth by sealing some of his power in it. When the Great Five fell apart, he hid the Eye of the Dragon. Hence, I was deprived of watching the developments in the human world for a while. Until it found its way back into your hands, Kinomoto Sakura."
Sakura said, "I have tried all sorts of spells to put the crystal back together, but they have failed. But you are its owner. Surely you can surely make this crystal whole again."
"Unfortunately, even I can't put it back together," the dragon told her. "It's a pity. I did like my left eye quite a lot."
"Aren't you angry that I broke it?" Sakura asked.
"Perhaps I would have been, a millennium ago," said the White Dragon. "But I got so used to doing without it. And it's not like I needed the extra magic. People used to be much more interesting back in the olden days, you know, but history just repeats itself over and over again, and I grew weary of you humans. I'd rather rest peacefully and not be interrupted by pesky intruders."
"I promise I'll find a way to fix your eye and return it to you," said Sakura.
"Human promises do not hold much meaning for me. But let me at least hear what favor you want to ask of me," asked the dragon.
"You must know last year, I used up all my power of the stars in order to seal the Plague," said Sakura. "With the aid of the Five Force Treasures. My focus then was this Dragon's Eye, and it cracked in half."
"Obviously it would since you tried to seal such an immense dark force single-handedly," said the White Dragon. "I don't know if you were plain foolish are braver than all the hundreds of warriors that had owned the Eye of the Dragon before you."
"Because I used up all my powers and was at the brink of death, Syaoran gave me all his powers, the power of the moon, to save me. Of course, I didn't know it then." She glanced up at Syaoran, suddenly feeling hesitant.
Syaoran continued for her. "I thought I had lost all my powers. But some months ago, I realized that some powers had awakened in me—I was able to set up a barrier, calling the Dragon and even perform some of my old spells. But it was not my power of the moon. I couldn't figure out what the source of the power was for the longest time. And I finally realized, it was the power of the stars. Sakura's powers. They hadn't disappeared."
"And how is it possible that this girl's power of the stars started regenerating in you?" asked the White Dragon, somewhat bemused.
"We have several theories," said Syaoran. "But we think it is most likely that when Sakura was sealing the Plague, I was also bitten by the Plague, and she was trying to heal me. I think she must have thrust the last bit of power in me to do so. And it was latent within me, too small to amount to anything, hence I believed myself to be powerless for the past year. But I began to notice it first when I began living with Sakura last December. I first thought it was my imagination, but then, it became more substantive." This was actually Eriol and Touya's theory—that Syaoran's powers might be triggered to regenerate by staying in close proximity with Sakura. "Have you seen anything like this happen before?"
"No, but it is not implausible. Because yours is the power of the stars," said the White Dragon to Sakura. "The power of the stars is one of the rare power that has its own light, the ability to grow exponentially—it can seem insignificant at first but it can absorb quickly and is a durable power. That is why, if there were any traces of the power of the star anywhere, it could have multiplied in a vessel—in this case, within Syaoran's body. The Eye of the Dragon would have had traces of the power of the star since you wore it for a long time. But because your body already was being occupied by the power of the moon, even though the power of the stars had regenerated, it had nowhere to return to."
"Great Elder Renshu was right," murmured Syaoran. "That 1% of chance we gambled upon."
The White Dragon said, "I admit, your story is fascinating, and I commend you for even making it here, where few mortals set their feet. But what does this have to do with me?"
"We want to switch back our powers," said Sakura.
"And is that any of my business?" asked the White Dragon. "How did you transfer it to her in the first place?"
"When Sakura didn't have any power in her, I could just push it in her, as an emergency resort," said Syaoran. "Because she was drained and near death. But now, I can't push the power in her because she already has the power of the moon in her."
"True, if you try to push extra power into her, at best, her body would simply reject it. Or, the additional power might end up overwhelming her body and fry her. Many foolish magicians have tried that in the past—trying to absorb others powers with devastating reasons," said the White Dragon. "That's why they have come up with so many crutches like artifacts, wands, crystals and spells—because the human body itself is too fragile, so they need objects to amplify their magic."
Ignoring the dragon's condescending jab, Syaoran continued, "Because we are weak in that way, and can't afford to take such risks to switch our powers back, we have come to you, oh honorable and wise White Dragon of the Western Isles."
"Humph, they still teach the young ones respect to their elders these days?" remarked the White Dragon. "And what will you give me in exchange?"
Sakura bit her lower lip. The dragon had no need for material wealth, power, immortality or anything that a human would desire. She said, "What would be a fair exchange? I can give you my left eye in exchange." She held up an emerald crystal globe the size of a large marble.
"No!" Syaoran exclaimed, spinning around to face her. The reckless girl hadn't absorbed back her eye this entire time, and he hadn't even noticed.
Completely ignoring him, Sakura held up the green gem higher.
The White Dragon bared his yellowed teeth in what could have been a smile. "What use will I have from the eye of a puny human girl? Have you not heard a wise human from your world once say, 'An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.'"
"Then what do you want that I can give you?" Sakura asked, cold sweat forming on her brows despite the heat in the cavern. This was turning into their worse case scenario imagined. She had been somehow hoping the White Dragon would take back his eye as a tradeoff, or be able to fix it at least. Entrusting a third party to transfer their party was a very dangerous risky business, Syaoran had pointed out. It also required their utmost trust in the third party. Sakura felt she could trust the White Dragon, the original owner of the Eye of the Dragon, because in a sense, he had been by their side for many years. As well as by the side of Amamiya Hayashi.
"Nothing, particularly. But since you came all the way here, I won't spurn your efforts. Why don't you show me the worth of a human promise?" said the White Dragon. "You promised me you would mend my eye and return it to me. Keep that promise, and I will switch back your powers."
"Now you've done it," whispered Syaoran to Sakura. "How are we going to mend that crystal and return it to him? We just heard him say a broken eye can't be fixed."
The White Dragon stared at the two bemused. "Well, how about I just make things fair for you. You can return to me a dragon's eye. It can be mine somehow miraculously fixed, or you can find me another dragon's eye. An equivalent exchange I think—the only thing worth a dragon's eye is another dragon's eye."
And Syaoran blanched. "How are we going to take an eye from another dragon?"
"That's your problem," said the dragon.
"All right, we accept your offer," said Sakura.
"What?" Syaoran glared at Sakura, wondering if she decided to come along just to drive him mad on the spot. "What are you thinking—are you crazy?" he said in a lower voice, but Sakura was not listening.
"To you, passage of time has no meaning, but we are here under a time limit," said Sakura, half to the dragon, half to Syaoran. "Syaoran has a task he must accomplish, and I will find a means to fix this eye. When we come back, please keep your side of the promise and switch our powers back. I was hoping we could find a way before…but this will have to do."
Before he could protest, Sakura spun around and pressed the emerald stone cradled in her palm into Syaoran's chest.
"What did you just do?" Syaoran demanded, gripping Sakura's wrist. But it was too late. She pulled her hand away. His fingers pressed warm spot beside his heart, where he saw a star seal flash briefly before fading.
"I sealed it inside your body," said Sakura. "Don't worry—it's temporary. Just until we make it through this."
"Why would you do this?" demanded Syaoran, not knowing what to make of her, feeling the urge to shake her because of her recklessness. "Your eye—"
"I've been fine without it all this while in the Fantasy—and I'll be fine a little longer. You'll be needing that bit of the power of moon, I believe, if you are going to pass the Test of the Great Elders," said Sakura. "It's a loan. Just like how you lent me your power."
"This is not the same!" exclaimed Syaoran.
"No, it's not," said Sakura. "You gave me all of your powers. But I'm giving you a wee part of my soul, just till we make it through this."
Syaoran was about to protest, but the White Dragon cut him off. "Deal. I will wait for you two."
"No, this isn't right." Syaoran's hand clenched over his chest.
"The girl is right. You won't be able to pass the Test of the Great Elders without any of your original moon power—that bit of the power of stars awakened in you certainly won't be enough, and you'll need all the help you can get," said the White Dragon. He peered at Syaoran, adding, "Don't protest. You now have to travel to the Cavern of Reservoirs to meet Celes the Blue Dragon, the Guardian of Dimensions. Good luck, you have a long road ahead of you, if I ever do see you back here again."
While Syaoran had always known Sakura's obstinacy, her recent impulsiveness was dropping his heart—or whatever was left of it—to the bottom of his boots. Sometimes, though he refused to admit it, her instincts were right, and he knew he had to go with her decisions. But if this was the extent of his nerves, he shuddered at how he was going to face the Blue Dragon.
The two traveled down a long winding cave, descending lower and lower. Sakura drew her cape around her arms. She swore that it should have been getting hotter, based on their theory that the center of isle was hot lava, but instead, she felt goose bumps prickle her skin. Syaoran had been silent as they felt the temperature drop. She wasn't sure if he was mad at her for making a rash deal with the White Dragon. How to keep her end of the bargain, she would have to think about later, but for now, she could see Syaoran's hunched shoulders and serious expression as they drew closer to the center of the isle. Was he mad about what she had done? He hadn't spoken to her since the White Dragon's cave, but then again, she too would be tense if she were him.
He knew that Sakura was worrying for him, her brows crinkled, but Syaoran dared not speak because his voice might betray his anxiety. At the very heart of the isle was not molten lava, as they had presumed. It was ice. Such a chill, Syaoran had never felt before. He felt a blast of frosty air as he stepped towards a narrower passage to an icy cavern. He lowered his head to avoid the dripping crystallized stalactites. And the two walked furthered in, deeper and deeper until they were in sudden pitch darkness. Too late, he felt rocks crumbling below his feet. "Sakura—step back—I think there's a gorge—"
Whether it was simply the law of gravity or through some other force, Syaoran never finished his sentence and fell headfirst straight into abyss. It was not a long drop, and moments later, he fell with a soft thud. He stood up, bruised, barely in time to cushion Sakura as she came hurling from above and landed into his arms, topping him over again.
"Syaoran! Are you all right?" she asked, wading through layers of skirt and quickly jumping to her feet.
"I think I was, before you landed on me," said Syaoran with a feeble smile, to give her some sort of reassurance because she looked mortified. A part of him was furious at Sakura for her rash behavior, but a part of him was relieved she was here, to keep him on his feet, to give him a strange repose in spite of the unfamiliar terrain.
Syaoran could hear the quiet plopping of water drops, like someone had left the kitchen faucet on. A wetness dropped on his forehead. He opened his eyes. It was not dark at all—there was an eerie greenish light like Will-o'-the-wispswhich lit the cavern, though there was no artificial or natural light source to be seen. Slowly, he sat up and looked around, realizing he was by some sort of lake.
No, there were myriads of little cerulean pools of water around him. That was where the rippling sound was coming from. No matter how far he craned his neck, he could not see the sky, nor an exit out. They seemed to be at the heart of the isle, in some sort of canyon.
"This must be the Cavern of Reservoirs," whispered Sakura in awe. Her voice echoed around them.
"I've got to go alone from here," Syaoran said slowly. He had never meant to bring Sakura with him this far, but she had insisted on following him as far as she could. He did not know if he will make it back, but there was some solace in that the last image he had before he set off on this quest was of her.
She nodded. "I know. I'll be waiting here."
"I'll be back," said Syaoran.
"I will. This something my father wanted more than anything else. Since it was a dream he could not achieve." His earnest gaze met hers. "Don't do anything foolish about the Dragon's Eye by yourself. We'll figure something out together, all right? Promise?"
She just looked up at him with an impassive smile. "Just focus on your mission."
Syaoran took out the Time Card from his pocket. The card manifested itself into its physical form and turned upside down a full hourglass. Fine gold sand began to trickle down the hourglass. "Sakura, if I don't make it back by the time the last grain of sand falls, you need to go back to the real world. You need to seal the Insect and let Meilin and the others know that I failed to pass the test." He took out the Sakura Card tome from his pocket and handed it to Sakura.
"You'll need this," said Sakura.
Syaoran shook his head. "No, everything's up to my own skills. No Great Elder candidate before me also had the perk of being a Card Master, after all. Besides, I want to pass on my own ability, not on borrowed powers. And if I don't make it back…"
Because she understood where he was coming from, she nodded. "Good luck, Syaoran."
And Syaoran looked ahead, wondering how far the pools of water stretched back into the uncannily still limestone cavern. He instinctively continued forward. He didn't dare look back, for fear he might take Sakura by the hand and run away from this place, once and for all, never to look back again at this path.
He walked around then frowned. There were hundreds and hundreds of little reservoirs in this canyon. There was no indication how he had arrived here, and how he could escape. By now, he wasn't even sure which direction he had left Sakura at—only that she had been near the entrance, and she should be able to fly out if she chose to.
What he did chance upon were human skulls, rib-cages, bones, some yellowed and decayed beyond recognition, some more eerily white, as if they were less than a century old.
Of these remains, some would be the Lis who never made it back from the Test of the Dragon, to become the Great Elder of the Clan. Others might have chanced upon the Cavern of Reservoirs and met their untimely end here. Others might have foolhardily sought out the place in between dimensions for some quest, or out of mere curiosity, and never left. For there seemed to be no other living soul here.
But there was no time to think of all the lives before who had entered this space and never left. Because Syaoran had to a mission to accomplish.
"You have finally come, Chosen One Li Syaoran," came a soothing deep voice which filled the caverns, one he had heard many times in dream before.
There he saw a great azure dragon, even larger than the White Dragon earlier, though more slender in frame and a long, graceful, arching neck.
Syaoran said in a staid voice, "Yes, I have come to take the Test of the Great Elder."
"Many have come before you, but you are the first candidate to have brought a non-family member with you to the Dragon Isles," remarked said Celes, the Blue Dragon. "Interesting."
"Promise you will let her return safely should I not make it through," Syaoran said stiffly.
"She can leave if she chooses to. I have no business with her."
"Now, what am I to do?"
"Well, the test is always the same. I am going to drop you into one of these reservoirs, a portal into a different dimension or time. Find your way back to this Cavern of Reservoirs in one piece." Celes stared down at the boy. "You are the youngest the Li Clan has ever sent my way as Grerat Elder candidate. Many older, wiser and more powerful than you have failed before you. Are you ready to accept the consequences?"
"Yes, I am," said Syaoran.
"You realize, you might never find your way back here," said Celes. "And you will forever be separated from your Sakura. You may wander worlds for all eternity and never reach her again."
"I will return."
"I commend your self-assurance. Then, goodbye for now, Li Syaoran." Celes let out a puff of breath, and the wind sent Syaoran hurling into one of the pools of water.
Anyone who chanced upon the top observatory floor of Tokyo Tower by mistake might have chanced upon the odd sight of a group of people crouched in a half-circle by the floor in the center of the deck, peering at the empty floor.
"Do you really think Sakura and Syaoran can be in there?" asked Kinomoto Touya, who had received a call from Tomoyo to join the Alliance at the Tokyo Tower. He stared hard at the invisible portal—he couldn't send it, but he had to believe it was there behind the barrier.
"It's a theory," said Tomoyo. "We are sure Syaoran is there, at least, since this barrier seems to be Li-created, according to Eriol-kun."
Spinel Sun asked, "And so, where exactly do you propose they are right now?"
Miho replied, "In a different dimension—that's why we can't sense their presence. Sakura must have hid inside the Fantasy first, and Syaoran followed after her."
"If she indeed created a clone of herself while she was in the Fantasyland—that's how she had all the time and practice she needed to create a perfect replica of herself," Cerberus murmured.
"So, the Sakura that Syaoran killed may not have been really Sakura?" said Meilin.
"If that is true, then it must be the grandest deception of the century," said Kai with a crooked grin.
"Isn't there any way for us to break through this barrier?" demanded Touya impatiently.
"No—even if we could, we shouldn't," said Eriol. "We might upset their portal entrance and then, Syaoran, or Sakura, or both, will not be able to return."
Eron muttered, "Of course, neither of them might be in there, and we might just be wasting our time sitting here, imagining there is an invisible barrier around a nonexistent portal."
"Eron-senpai! Stop being such a wet blanket!" exclaimed Miho.
"A Schrodinger's cat in a sealed box with a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter and a bottle of poison," murmured Eriol. "Is the cat alive or dead, or both? After all, you all have only my word that there is a barrier here."
"But I can feel the barrier too!" exclaimed Touya.
"You might feel it because I told you there is one—perhaps it's just wish fulfillment," Eriol pointed out.
"Well, until the barrier breaks or someone returns, we will not know the answer for sure," said Kai. "All we can do is wait and speculate. So long as the box remains closed, the cat can be alive or dead."
"If only Sakura really were alive in there too," said Meilin, kneeling on the floor, with a wistful sigh.
"What ever do you think they are doing in there, if they really are in there?" asked Miho, craning her neck.
"Well, I'm sure the two are on some grand journey or quest," said Tomoyo. "And they'll tell us all about it when they return."
Sakura forgot all about hiding from the Blue Dragon as she saw Syaoran fall into a pool of water and vanish into the prismatic ripples of water. Her voice left her lips before she realized she had called out. "Syaoran!" She realized that it was in vain to hide from the dragon, who would most likely be able to spot her anywhere upon his realm anyway.
The Blue Dragon did not look surprised at seeing that the green-eyed girl slip out from behind a craggy stalagmite and gaze up at him with trepidation. But she did not cower when his golden reptilian eyes fixed upon her.
"You do not have to fear me, Kinomoto Sakura," Celes told her. "This is his test, not yours."
"Where did you send him?" she asked solemnly. She had imagined all sorts of tests, not the least an image of a gallant bronze armor-clad Syaoran combatting an evil fire-breathing dragon. She had not expected Syaoran to disappear from the Cavern of Reservoirs just like that, through a shallow pond.
"To some other world, far from here," said Celes. "You should have said a proper goodbye to him. You may very well never see him again."
"No, he will come back," said Sakura.
"What makes you so sure?" asked Celes. "Your sight? Your intuition? Wishful thinking?
Sakura smiled slightly. "No, I believe in Syaoran and his abilities. He will come back for sure, because he is strong."
"Being strong may not be enough," said Celes. "Have you heard the story about the first Li Clan Great Elder?"
"Yes, Syaoran told me a little about him. He made a contract with a dragon to enable his family to become strong and prosper," said Sakura. Of course, she had thought he was making up the story when he told it to her two summers ago.
"Yes, over two millenniums ago, during the time of the Warring States, a warrior once sought me out. His name was Li Dairon. He made a deal with me. He told me he will build the most powerful magical family in China, and he asked me to lend him my blessings and power. For with my blessing, his clan would not only proper, but gain luck and power. In return, he said, I could test the best of his warriors, the leader of his clan. And the leader of the clan has to be someone that I approved of."
"Do you always give the same test?" asked Sakura.
"Yes, for I am the Guardian of Dimensions, after all," said Celes. "It's the same test I gave Li Dairon. He was an impertinent human, marching into the dragon's lair and trying to bargain with me. But most of his family and comrades had been wiped away by battle, and he was desperate. He wanted a miracle. Of course, miracles don't exist. I thought over his proposal, and so I sent him away to another dimension, thinking he would never make it back. But he surprised me. He returned. Was he the same idealistic man I sent off? Perhaps not. But I kept my promise. He lived to bear 13 strong sons and daughters, and built up the Li Clan as you know it today, the original clan of magicians that has endured as numerous dynasties rose and fell over the course of the millennia."
"How did Li Dairon make it back from another world?" asked Sakura.
Celes glanced down at Sakura quizzically. "How did any of them make it back, I wonder. It's a test of tenacity, endurance, direction and a bit of luck. It's perhaps a game of probability, more than anything else. There have been a few dimensional travelers among the Li Great Elders—those had the easiest time with the test. Some met the right people, got their hands on the right tools in other worlds. Some were simply lucky. Most were simply plain determined to return back to their real world, for various reasons.
"With this method, I've had a mixed throng of Li Great Elders over the centuries. Some were sagacious and steadfast, like Li Renshu. Some were simply power-greedy and selfish. Those ones didn't stay in power too long, however. Others, like the brazen and resolute Li Shulin, were ready to sacrifice everything for the clan to prosper and were for me most memorable. But many deserving Lis didn't make it through the test. Some didn't even make it to this cavern."
"I wonder what kind of Great Elder Ryuuren-san would have made," Sakura murmured, recalling that earnest look Syaoran had in his eyes when he swore on his father's name he would return safely to her.
"I too wonder," remarked Celes. "I would have enjoyed testing his limits, because he really was a rare, disciplined warrior you see only every century or two. But he was also arrogant and proud, perhaps his downfall, perhaps his saving grace, for only in the face of death did he hold complete humility, as he was very much alone."
Sakura stared up at the dragon's bright golden eyes. "You know how Ryuuren-san died, don't you? You weren't the one to… the one to—"
"No, I didn't kill him, if that's what you are curious about," said Celes. "He was already too far gone, anyway."
"He shouldn't have had to die alone, away from his family," said Sakura. "It was unfair."
"But that was the death he chose for himself," replied Celes. "He never wanted to show his weakness to anyone, especially not his wife and children."
"No, it wasn't," whispered Sakura. "Nobody would choose to die alone, in a strange place, with no loved one nearby."
The Blue Dragon tilted his magnificent head. "You are young and full of vitality. But in the final moments of one's life, your life flashes before you. Some grovel, despair, curse the skies for more time. Others, death comes almost as a relief, a sanctuary after long suffering."
"I was told that I nearly died last year after I sealed the Plague," remarked Sakura. "Looking back now, I realize how foolish I was, throwing away everything, worrying so many people. I panicked. I had to save everybody, and I was terrified I wouldn't be able to. And you know the Plague is the dark force that killed my mother and Ryuuren-san, and made Mayura-san ill for many years. When I was sealing the Plague, I sort of felt a sense of vengeance. It was a very ugly feeling, one I don't want to ever feel again, but there was a part of me that wanted to seal the Plague for very selfish reasons. It also made me think, if my mother and Syaoran's father were able to find a different means to seal the Plague, if they were able to live, how different everything would have been. They were so close to finding a way to defeat the Plague." She stared into the rippling pool. "If they were able to find the last Five Force Treasure, the Eye of the Dragon…"
"Or if they were able to track down the last Reed descendent in time," Celes said. "Or if they able to somehow utilize the Clow Cards to contain the Plague before it spread so rapidly—there are so many different scenarios, but in the end, we all know how their story ends."
"Yes," Sakura traced a finger in the green-blue water, sending ripples across the pool. "I wonder what Ryuuren-san promised in order to gain passage into the Fantasy for both him and my mother, to reach the Dragon Isles."
"Well, that is between him and the Fantasy," replied the Blue Dragon.
"What ever deal there was, it couldn't have been a fair exchange," said Sakura. "I've learned that my name and memories of the people I love are invaluable. Nothing is equivalent in value to that."
"I wish more people realized that and stayed in their respective worlds," said Celes. "But no, humans are greedy and irresponsible. They want to make bargains to gain powers and wishes that should not be granted to them. They cannot simply be content with what they have, the fate that has been dished out to them." He paused. "Are you not the same?"
Sakura replied, "Is it a sin to wish and dream? It's what makes us human."
"True, your resilience that comes despite your frailty makes some of you so beautiful and shine so brightly," said Celes. "But you too want to ask something of me. You are thinking, is it possible to steal this eye of mine?"
"No!" exclaimed Sakura. "I'll figure out how to fix this crystal on my own."
"Even if Syaoran made you promise not to? Well, I'm not going to help you in any way," Celes told her.
"I don't need your help. I have this under control," she replied, knowing the dragon could see right through her lie. A hint, she had to gain any sort of hint. Could she trick it out of this wily dragon?
"You are about as pigheaded as Clow Reed said you will be," remarked Celes.
"Clow Reed called me pigheaded?" Sakura asked, not in the least bit surprised the Blue Dragon had met with Clow before.
"No, he called you cute, adorable, brave and strong-willed," said Celes. "Which brings me to the question of why in the world did you bring yourself here in the first place?"
"Syaoran and I, we had to pull off a huge deception so that we could buy enough time for him to face the Test of the Great Elder and also find a way to switch back our respective powers." Sakura glanced up at the dragon. "You see, the Sakura Cards have been unstable for quite a while now since I've been using the power of the moon. But ever since Syaoran realized the power of the stars was returning in him, we realized that there was a chance that the Sakura Cards will scatter or break the seal if we didn't convert them to the power of the moon soon."
"So you decided to transfer ownership of the cards to Syaoran to circumvent the problem temporarily?" asked Ceres.
Sakura nodded. "Under the current situation, I couldn't imagine trying to convert all the cards into the power of the moon, and besides, if my power of the stars is really is back, it's only natural to try to switch it back."
"Killing two birds with one stone. And tell me, how did even pull off such a magnificent deception that managed to trick not only all the stuffy Lis but the reincarnation of Clow Reed?" asked Celes, trying to sound bored.
"Perhaps it was thanks to Clow Reed," said Sakura. "It is a rather long story."
"Well, we have a lot of time," replied Celes, watching the thin layer of sand coat the bottom globe of the hourglass. The Great Elder candidate had left the first world by now.
April 1, shortly after midnight….
Minutes after Kinomoto Sakura celebrated her 17th birthday at the Tokyo Tower, she transported herself to a place where time was suspended. Just briefly, very briefly, she turned her head to see Syaoran's face before it faded across the portal. His lips moved, as if calling out her name. She clutched the half of the crystal shard he had thrown her. She placed it against the other half hanging from a chain around her neck. The pendant had been a Christmas present three years ago. It had broken last year, when she sealed the Plague and burned through her powers using the Heal afterwards. Syaoran, what were you trying to tell me up there at the Tokyo Tower? Will I ever hear the end of that sentence?
When she emerged through the portal from the Tokyo Tower observation deck, she walked out into a lush garden in full blossom of every hue of the rainbow from vivid oranges, to sunburst yellows and brilliant violets. It was still the beginning of spring back home and barely any flowers were in bloom there. Sakura wasn't surprised to see the landscape of the Fantasy much different from the last time she had visited, when she had entered Memoria, when she had been sucked into a mystical kingdom with three moons which was ruled by her mother, Queen Nadeshiko. It was also different from Miho's colorful fairytale wonderland with lemonade rivers and cupcakes trees.
Some may call it a sanctuary, some a dream world or hallucination, some a prison. She knew exactly why she had come here, so she was taken aback by the tranquil environment she will carry out her task in.
"Why, you thought I might be confined in a dark, windowless dungeon with bubbling cauldrons and clutching a skull or two?" came a pleasant but jesting voice.
Sakura turned around to face the bespectacled man she had wanted to meet. She had met him face-to-face in a garden similar to this one seven years ago, as a novice Card Mistress, but that had been an older Clow Reed, one who had been near death. The man standing before her was much younger—she could tell despite the fact Clow seemed to have an ageless face. The Clow she had met years ago had a gentle, calm ambiance. This one was also composed, but had a dark, ruthless gleam to his midnight blue eyes and his mouth was hard, with a certain bitterness she had not realized could come from the Clow Reed she had grown to know. He was a tall and imposing in the garden, in a deep navy mantle that cloaked his broad, straight shoulders. His silky, long dark hair was tied back from his lean angular face, which still had a somewhat youthful countenance.
"Clow Reed-san," said Sakura.
"That's the name I become widely known as," he replied. "Though I am still called by my birth name, Edward Alexander Cleau Reed. But those green eyes. I think I know who you are. Or will be. Card Captor Sakura."
Clow circled her, almost fascinated, as if he were sizing her up. "And what may you want from me, little Card Mistress?"
"I need to make a doppelganger of myself," she replied. "A copy so complete that someone as powerful as you will not be able to realize it's a copy."
"So, you want to create a perfect clone of yourself," said Clow Reed dryly. "And you think I would be the right person to teach you how. I won't even ask you why you need a clone. Don't do it."
Sakura frowned. "Why?"
"The process is not worth it—don't fall down that pit of dark magic. Blood magic. And even if you manage to make a successful clone of yourself, no good will come of it."
"Why would you say something like that?" Sakura asked. "Is it your vision of the future?"
"No." Clow wore a thin smile. "But I can attest to that as one who has traveled far and wide, not only in your world but many worlds."
"Even if you don't help me, I will do it myself," said Sakura.
And Clow replied with a shrug, "You are welcome to try." And he disappeared like that.
Sakura sat in the center of the garden, where she had discovered a goldfish pond, and stared at her reflection in the glimmering water. She touched the golden star pin in her hair that caught the brilliant sunlight. She could almost feel Syaoran's fingers against her hair. There, watching over the city from Tokyo Tower, she had felt giddy, not just because she knew what task awaited her. At midnight, just briefly, she had forgotten all else when he told her, "Happy Birthday, Sakura."
Over the past week, she had repeated the conversation the two had at the Hong Kong harbors right after the Great Elder's death in her mind again and again.
For the deception to work, Sakura had to hide her presence. Had she remained in the real world, the likes of Eriol and even her brother would have spotted her immediately. The foolproof way to remove her presence from the world was to remove herself from it.
With Syaoran holding Time in her world, she could leisurely create a clone of herself inside the Fantasy—it was his suggestion that she do it inside the Fantasy. He had mastered summoning a dragon last time he was in the Fantasy—and was successfully able to transfer the skills in the real world, much to his own surprise.
She recalled words that Syaoran had once told her when sealing theCreate, the Illusion, the Transform, the Change and the Animate set. "Giving birth to a new soul, giving the impression of a soul, the mimicking of a soul, the switching of souls and giving animation to a soul-form. The Soul Set. Dark forces which can mimic the impression of life. But in the end, empty souls are not equivalent to a living soul."
She reached into her pocket and drew out those very cards that Syaoran had slipped to her before she entered the Fantasy's portal.
The Create, Illusion, Transform, Change and Animate. She drew out other cards. The Mirror. The Twin. She released the Mirror. The Mirror, with her mint-colored hair woven with green stain ribbons smiled at her. She rippled and took on Sakura's expression.
"Hey, Mirror, when did onii-chan figure out you weren't me?" Sakura asked.
"Probably from the beginning," replied the Mirror, pale green lashes downcast and two forefingers touching.
"How silly of me to think I could trick my brother so easily," said Sakura. "It must have been hard for you to act like me."
The Mirror nodded. "But I had fun."
"Hey Twin," said Sakura. "You can act like me and mimic all my moves, right?"
The Twin nodded, pretending to swirl around an imaginary staff and mimicked all her exaggerated moves as Card Captor.
Sakura giggled. "Do I look that ridiculous?"
The Twin grinned.
"Oh, you don't have a voice," murmured Sakura, fishing out another card. The Voice.
Now, her physical doppelganger said, with her exact voice, "Hoe—Tomoyo-chan always comes up with flashy new moves. And pretty new outfits. We like them a lot."
Sakura was not sure how much time passed in the Fantasy. In this world, there was no nightfall, only daytime. There was no clock, and the sun didn't even to change its position from the sky. Because the sun didn't set, she did not sleep. She did not eat. All she did was work at creating her clone. Sometimes, she would go into the cottage in the garden, which apparently belonged to Clow Reed—though he often mysteriously disappeared. There seemed to be books on creating humans, some on dark and tabooed magic. There were scrolls written in dark red ink with theories on bringing back people from the dead and even necromancy, but she didn't read those.
Sometimes, Sakura had to remind herself why she was there. Because even though she had sealed the Fantasy, the longer she stayed in here, the more susceptible she was to forgetting herself. Luckily a little nightingale would perch on her shoulder and peck her cheek. Or a gorgeous orange monarch butterfly would land on her nose and tickle a sneeze out of her. Buzzing bumble bees landed on the huge colorful flowers, sapping the sweet nectar, never stinging her but becoming part of background noise. Later, fuzzy little garden creatures emerged from their nests and burrows to keep her company, as if to stave off loneliness. When she first arrived in the garden, she had been pretty sure the only living presence besides herself was Clow Reed.
A little red-brown chipmunk with bulging cheeks came up to her and offered her an acorn.
"Thank you, but you can keep it." The chipmunk stuffed the nut into its cheek then scampered away. Sakura sat on the crisp grass, closing her eyes, breathing in the fresh scent of flowers. That's right. Scent. How could she have forgotten that?
"How do you lure the scent?" she asked the other Sakura with hair unbound, in a simple white dress, barefooted.
The other Sakura looked at her and replied, "Scent?"
"Yes, one of the five senses," said Sakura. "Sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell."
"Lure scent. With scent," replied the other Sakura monotonously.
"My clone is smarter than me," remarked Sakura, staring at the garden with its myriads of flowers of all shapes and colors, some she had never seen before in her world.
It seemed that Clow Reed was a curious sort. He entered the cottage, sniffing. "What is the heavenly smell?"
"Flowers, fruits and herbs from the garden!" called out Sakura. She was mixing a liquid in a vial that shifted through all colors of the rainbow while retaining a luminescent translucence.
"What are you making?" asked Clow again, when Sakura ignored him.
"A perfume that has never been smelled before," replied Sakura.
"To lure the Scent, of course," said Sakura, breathing in the fumes from the flask. "Meilin gave me a personalized perfume scent as my birthday present—that's where I got the idea. Now that I think about it, this must be the longest birthday I've ever had. It's technically still April 1st back home, I guess."
"Do you even know how to make perfume?" Clow Reed asked.
Sakura turned to him, almost exasperated. "We're inside the Fantasy anyway. And you had some books on perfumery over there." She pointed to the bookshelf in the corner.
Clow caught a whiff of something sugary and light, somewhat fruity. "What is this now?" He watched the flask turn from a cherry red to a pale turquoise, and he breathed in what felt like a waft of crisp oceanic breeze and warm sunlight all rolled into one smell. He saw a row of birds lined up on the windowsill. Little rodent creatures also peeped up from nooks and crevices in the wood cottage.
"You're making an aphrodisiac perfume, aren't you?" muttered Clow Reed more to himself. "Dangerous girl."
"Hmm?" Sakura breathed in the flask, now a bright apricot shade, smelling musky and sweet, with a touch of ripe peach.
"I said, what sort of scent are you creating?"
Sakura grinned up at Clow. "Are there things that even you don't know? I'm capturing the scent of the rainbow, of course."
And Clow stared down at her, again at a loss for words. "You think that it is possible to capture the scent of the rainbow?"
Sakura held up her flask, now a pale rose-violet, emitting a grapy freesia scent. "I already have."
Sure enough, a tiny fairy-creature with a bubble skirt, shaped like a rounded perfume flask, popped up in the cottage, sniffing the room with her pointed little hyperosmic nose. She kept sniffing as the vial changed colors.
"What is this?" asked the Scent in a shrill voice. "I have never smelled this before." The concoction turned a lime-green, with notes of fresh-cut grass, tangy citrus and crisp watermelon, reminiscent of summer. "Now, what is this?"
Sakura help up her little glass flask with her thumb and forefinger, as the liquid turned a warm amber-gold, filling the room with a cinnamon-honey scent laced with vanilla, apple and bergamot. "I will tell you, if you we agree to a deal. You enter a contract with me, and I will give you this perfume."
The Scent hesitated, but as the room filled with the smell of sugary rosewater laced with raspberry and a hint of sandalwood, it declared, "Deal."
Sakura grinned and handed the pixie creature the vial. "It's the scent of the rainbow."
"You can't capture the scent of the rainbow," replied the Scent, grabbing the vial, nearly its height, with both hands, burying its nose greedily in the explosion of all sorts of fragrant odors.
"Yes, but I imagined every single wonderful smell I have ever smelled and imagined I could smell, and extracted all of that into this vial," replied Sakura. "Of course, I've learned new smells here in Clow's garden alone. And because the smells were made here in the Fantasy, using the Create, they continue to shift on its own, mixing to create all sorts of new scents I did not even think of."
"I see because the scents were born within the Fantasy, they have a mind of their own," replied the Scent, apparently satisfied with the answer, hugging the vial to its chest. "Impressive, human girl. Thank you for presenting me with scents I have never smelled before."
Sakura held up her star-moon staff and called out, "Spirit of the dark forces. I, Sakura command you. Return to a new shape under contract. Sakura Card!" And she held up a new pink card with a little sprite creature holding an elaborate rainbow glass perfume bottle.
After that, Clow seemed to be more willing to spend time with her in the gardens, sometime walking beside her as she walked through the field of lavenders, apparently favorites of Lord Landon Reed, breathing in their musky, therapeutic fragrance.
"This garden was created in the Fantasy by Edward Cleau Reed as a place of escape, as a haven away from greedy humans who always demanded something from him, away from the Li Clan who always felt threatened by him, away from the Reeds who always saw him as a half-breed misfit, away from all the burdens of being the greatest sorcerer of the East and West," Clow told her one time. "It was made to resemble Lady Eleanor Reed's English rose gardens."
Sakura knew that the time she could spend here in Clow's sanctuary were drawing to a close, as she noticed that the leaves outside seemed to be faintly tinged with orange—the only indication of time passing she had ever noticed within the garden.
She stared at a girl with short golden-brown hair, seated on the grass, leaning back on the trunk of a lofty beech tree with her eyes closed.
The Star Key was the object that Sakura had worn every day for nearly seven years, so it was the best object to use as the magnifier of the spell. The rest was a mixture of the Twin to give her a physical body, the Voice to give her speech, the Mirror and Transform to replicate her mannerisms and fortify the body, the Scent to mimic her pheromones, the Memory to implant enough data about Sakura's past to deceive everybody, the Create to give her ability to react to unexpected situations, the Fantasy and the Illusion as a double shield, and the Veil to act as a shield for the deception from being discovered. That idea, she had gotten from the Dark Ones.
Clow's voice came from behind her. "You have made remarkable progress during a short period of time. She looks, speaks, smells and moves like you. But she's lacking something."
"She doesn't have a soul," said Sakura wearily. "Without a soul, she will not be able to trick anyone."
"Yes," said Clow Reed. "Many lesser magicians would stop here. Normal humans wouldn't be able to tell the difference anyway."
"But my friends would know. The Alliance would know," said Sakura. "Clow-san, you know how to give a being a soul. How can you do it?"
"There are different ways to create a soul. But you don't have a lot of time, and want to create a soul that is like yours. It's quite simple. You have to give it a part of yourself," replied Clow grimly.
"Like what?" Sakura asked.
"I recommend an eye—you have two of them anyway," remarked Clow. "But I warn you, even if you give a part of yourself, you will only have an empty soul, not a living one. And you also put yourself in danger of losing your own soul, should something go amiss."
Sakura frowned. "What's the difference between an empty soul and a living soul?"
"An empty soul can be your puppet—you can have it do your biddings. In other words, it can be an extension of yourself, but in the end, it's just a mimicry of a soul. But a living soul has the ability to independently feel, think for its self and make decisions. A living soul has free will," replied Clow slowly. "You may say an empty soul does not have a beating heart."
And Sakura stared up at Clow intently. "You failed in bringing back Mizuki Mika-san because you were not able to recreate her complete soul."
Clow stared down at her over the rim of his spectacles, taken aback. "You know about Mika. You are correct. I tried many ways to bring her back. I was able to make beings that looked like her physically. I was even able to create a living soul that felt remarkably alike to her. But in the end, it was not my Mika. You can never bring back the dead once they are gone, though for a brief while, you can live a darn good illusion of it."
"How did she die?" asked Sakura softly.
"She died in front of my eyes. Protecting me from one who wished to destroy me," said Clow quietly.
"That must have been painful for you," said Sakura.
Clow looked down at the younger girl. "It was worse because I've returned back to that time numerous times, wondering if I could change the course of history. Through the Time. The Loop. The Return. But I never was able to."
"Which is why you tried to resurrect her," said Sakura. "You still want to bring her back."
"I may give up eventually," said Clow Reed. "Even one as all powerful as myself can't change the laws of magic."
"What if your reincarnated soul was to be reunited with her reincarnated soul one day?" asked Sakura.
Clow gave her a sad smile. "I don't know. I won't be able to say. Because, I Edward Cleau Reed, with my name, experience, memories, heart and soul, will not be alive to tell you. But maybe my reincarnated self would be satisfied. Who knows?"
Years ago, a Clow Reed from the past had told her, "Just like the seasons continue to pass by with no pause, people pass on and change, and that is how anything living on this world should behave." She thought she understood him now.
Sakura stared at her soulless clone. A puppet, that's what she was. She was pretty sure Syaoran was reaching his limits with the Time by now—his powers were fully not recovered at this point, so he would not be able to hold the Time for long. And though time flowed differently in the Fantasy, none of her friends who were waiting at Tokyo Tower to celebrate her 17th birthday with her must know of her absence. So much was at stake here, and there was simply no room for failure.
There was no time left—she could feel Syaoran's grip on the Time outside the portal faltering—that's probably why the leaves were changing colors here in the recalled Clow's eerie words. "I recommend an eye—you have two of them anyway."
He was right. She had two anyway. And an eye not only was a part of herself—it was a source of strong magical power. This would be a means to enable her doppelganger to have her powers, enough to deceive everybody. Another factor she had not thought of until she came here.
Sakura shuddered and took out a pocket knife. She pointed the blade at her right eye. To her disgust, she realized her hand was trembling too hard to carry through.
"You're a magician, aren't you?" said a low voice into her ear. "You don't plan on doing thing physically—that can get very messy you know."
"Oh. I see." Sakura almost sighed in relief as she lowered the knife.
"It's an ugly task. I can extract it for you, if you want," said Clow, tilting his head pensively.
"No, I have to do it—I can't risk having any traces of your power in the clone," said Sakura. "Even though you probably aren't the real Clow anyway."
"A good precaution," Clow Reed said.
Sakura spread her right hand, palm up, in front of her.
"Aren't you going to think twice about doing this?" asked Clow. "You realize that your eye is not just any eye—body parts of a Level One magician are very dangerous tools because it holds a lot of power."
Sakura smiled. "That's why it will work. It has to." Beads of perspiration gathered on her forehead and rolled down in her cheek. Her hand trembled. She felt a searing pain her left eye socket and muffled a scream. And wisps of smoke gathered as an emerald stone crystalized on her palm, burning hot, as she gasped, trying to steady her breath.
Then, she pressed it into the clone's chest. The clone Sakura opened her eyes. She reached over and touched Sakura's left eye, which was shut, and asked in her voice, "Does it hurt?"
Sakura shook her head. "Not anymore." And she reached to her neck and slipped off her key necklace and half a shard of the Eye of the Dragon, fastening it around her clone's neck, the final touch. "Go back to Tokyo Tower. Syaoran would be waiting for you there. Let him now, I will be waiting here."
The clone nodded.
"Thank you," said Sakura, finding it odd, like she was talking to her reflection in the mirror. It wasn't like this was the first time she had met her doppelganger. She'd even had one visit her in her dreams before. "And I'm sorry."
"Everything will be all right," her clone told her.
And Sakura got the odd feeling that her clone seemed calmer than she was. Maybe because she did not know of fear yet.
Say, Tomoyo, I wonder if this choice I made is the correct one, after all. If I choose to support him, that means I have to let him go so he can carry out his destiny. But how is the greatest happiness wishing the happiness of the other person, when the right decision will take him away from me forever? Once he becomes the Great Elder, he will have to return to Hong Kong permanently to lead the clan. He won't be free to be by my side anymore. He will never be able to fill the last spot in the Alliance of the Stars. He will leave me, just like Ryuuren-san had to leave my mother, like Li Shulin-sama left her husband and son.
Tomoyo, will you and everybody else forgive me for making this selfish choice and lying to you all? I promised I would be there for him this time because it's the last thing I can do for him —for I realized all this time he's been here for me, and yet, I could give him nothing back. I don't want to hold him back, and I realize that's what I've been doing all this time. I was being unfair to him, always making him choose. Will you understand this choice I made?
"Did you order your clone to die if Syaoran could not carry through with the task?" asked Celes, the Blue Dragon asked the pensive girl.
Sakura shook her head. "No. I didn't think Syaoran wouldn't be able to do it."
"You should have factored that into your plans," Celes remarked. "That he wouldn't be able to follow through. It was risky that you had no back-up plan. But your amateur abilities in this scenario seem to have paid off—the natural reactions tricked everybody watching. Why do you think your clone killed herself then?"
A single trickle of tear rolled down Sakura's eyes, as if she recollected the look in Syaoran's eyes as he was about to drop his blade and forfeit. "I don't know."
Celes remarked, "It was interesting that even though your clone simply was your semblance, and not real, Syaoran was not able to kill it. What I'm more curious about is, why would you go to such lengths in order to help Syaoran become the Great Elder?"
"It's not just to help Syaoran become the Great Elder," said Sakura. "I also want to regain my power of the stars and return his power of the moon to him and set everything right again."
"Even though you are afraid when that happens, your last link to him will be broken?"
Sakura looked up at the dragon of the glistening azure scales. "Syaoran has been there for me, all this time, when I captured the Clow Cards, when I had to convert them to Sakura Cards. When the dark forces first showed up nearly three years ago, Syaoran returned to Japan for me, defying his family. When I nearly died last year, he gave up his powers to save me. In all my times of need, he was always there for me. This time, I am going to be there for him, no matter what."
Celes' long head drooped down as he remarked, "The irony that by you supporting him, you drive him further and further away from you. So, what are you going to do about switching your powers back?"
"Syaoran and I spent some time discussing this matter," said Sakura, holding up the cracked diamond globe. "It's strange that the crystal broke in half because I have heard that the Dragon's Eye is made of harder substance than diamonds and is near indestructible. It shouldn't have cracked simply because of power exertion—and none of the other four treasures were affected. True, I was using the crystal as my main focus. But in retrospective, Syaoran said that is what probably saved my life. I had already burned through all my powers, and was drawing on the power of the Five Force Treasures with my lifeline. The crystal breaking broke my contact with the Five Force Treasures, and I fainted before I burned through any more of my lifeline, which would surely have killed me on the spot. I would have died if Syaoran didn't transfer his powers to me."
"True, Amamiya Hayashi knew that the Five Force Treasures when combined holds extraordinary powers—powers that after the Great Five were gone, could be abused should they call into the wrong hands," remarked Celes. "So, he put a seal on his diamond necklace, a cap on the powers than can be used, perhaps as a safety precaution. He made it so the necklace would self-destruct before too much power could be abused, being the farseeing schemer he always was. Then, he hid it away, out of human reach."
Sakura gazed up at the dragon with a sly smile. "Then you do admit that there is a way for the eye to be repaired, even though the White Dragon said even he can't repair it. Because, it still retains some powers on each of the halves. If it was truly broken, it should have turned into regular stone. But it reacted when it neared the White Dragon. It also helped trigger the regeneration of the power of the stars when Syaoran took it. In other words, it's fixable."
"You tricky little thing," said Celes with what sounded like a long sigh. "The White Dragon can't repair it because it broke because of human magic. But the original spell-binder can probably know how to repair it, for it is his spell. And human spells generally are generally made to be reversible."
"Meaning, Amamiya Hayashi-sama should be able to tell me how to fix it," said Sakura.
"Perhaps, if he hasn't been dead for the past century and a half," muttered Celes.
Sakura's hands were clenched in a ball. "You said all these reservoirs are portals, didn't you? Some are time portals, are they not?"
"Yes," Celes replied. "But there's always a risk in portals not taking your where you expect it to and not being able to return to where you started off. And of course, you've already been warned that history cannot be meddled with without consequences."
Sakura smiled slightly, over her shoulder. "I'll call for you if I get lost."
"You impertinent thing—what makes you think I care if you get stuck in a black hole somewhere?" Celes asked.
"You probably don't," said Sakura. "But you've spent two millennia as the patron dragon of the Li Clan. Surely you do that because you see some worth in that family. And right now, I have Syaoran's power of the moon in me. You probably want me to return it to Syaoran when he returns."
"If he returns."
"When he returns," Sakura reiterated.
"You aggravating chit," grumbled Celes. "I take no responsibility for you. And you won't get any more information out of me either."
But she walked over to a pool, and gathered her skirts in one hand, staring at her reflection in the water. She glanced over at the sandglass—about a quarter of the time Syaoran had allotted had passed.
"I'm serious—don't go," said Celes. "You are not in good condition, having given up a part of your soul like that. It's dangerous, and there is little I can do for you if you leave the Cavern of Reservoirs."
Sakura smiled faintly. "I'm going to look for Amamiya Hayashi-sama." She jumped into a pool without making a splash.
Scorching heat beat down on her back, prickling the back of her neck. Her muscles ached as if she had completed a marathon. She picked herself off the gravely ground. Someone prodded her back with a long staff or perhaps a sword sheath.
"Hey, you, lump of sheep fur," said a sharp female voice.
Sakura sat up, flipping her crumpled fur-lined white cape back over her head and stared up at a woman in a red silk cheongsam embroidered with gold thread that hugged her figure but allowed freedom of movement. Sections of long jet-black hair was partitioned and twisted up into an elaborate braided bun, clasped with gold and jade hairpins that blinked in the light. She held the sheathed Five Force Sword in one hand. They were in some sort of ridged canyon with no clear landmarks to indicate their location.
This was the first time Sakura had seen the infamous Li Shulin up close, and indeed, her breathtaking beauty was undeniable, if not terrifying. There was nothing subtle about her features, her almond-shaped eyes were like a tiger's, pupils gold-lined with flares of crimson and amber, with long, heavy black lashes fringing both upper and lower rims. Her brows were also dark and slanted upwards, and her chin pointed and determined. But her scarlet lips were full and bow-shaped giving her a feminine and vulnerable effect. Her age was indiscernible, and though she appeared to be in her late 20s, it was impossible to tell for sure.
"You." Shulin knelt down and grabbed Sakura's chin with the V of her thumb and forefinger like a pincer, twisting her head left and right. Her long nails dug into Sakura's cheek fat making her lips pucker like a fish. "These green eyes, the straw-like hair, this aggravatingly familiar face. You don't happen to be related to Amamiya Hayashi? Maybe his daughter with that plain and boring woman? What's your name, girl?"
"My name is Kinomoto Sakura."
"Sakura. His favorite flowers." Shulin glared at her accusingly.
"I am Amamiya Hayashi-sama's descendent from the future," squeaked Sakura. "I know you are Li Shulin-sama, of the Great Five."
"And yet, why do you reek strongly of the Li Clan's ancient power of the moon?" Shulin demanded—she was used to being recognized wherever she went, as a Li, as a member of the Great Five, even for her peerless beauty. "It's creepy, like you are Hayashi and my lovechild." She abruptly let go of Sakura's chin.
"Amamiya Hayashi-sama. Do you… love him still?" Sakura blurted out.
Shulin covered her mouth with the back of her right hand and cackled artificially. "What makes you think I loved Hayashi of all people?" She held up her left hand, where a star sapphire ring, identical to the one Sakura wore in a chain around her neck. "I'm married, with a son. What a ridiculous question to ask."
Sakura rubbed her sore cheeks. So, this was an older Li Shulin, one who had already married Landon Reed. "But didn't you love him, many years ago?" If you hadn't loved, Risa wouldn't have killed herself. And the Dark Ones' vengeance would not have led to centuries-old hurt.
Shulin gave a little shrug. "Did I ever love him, I wonder now? True, I was childishly infatuated with him for a very long time. He had that kind of effect on people. He was infuriatingly fair, a pacifist to the bone, yet deadly skilled with his sword, the only man who could beat me in combat, yet wouldn't. But, those are just fond memories of the golden era of the Great Five. We've all moved on since then."
Silently, Sakura stared up at this woman's whose face was said to have been able to launch a thousand ships, the Helen of Troy of the East, as Shulin had been nicknamed by the poets who sang her praise. Shulin could rightfully be vain, but rather, she was ambitious and somewhat manipulative, sometimes cruel and selfish. Sakura also knew that Shulin had once really cared for Hayashi deeply, enough to try to splinter Hayashi and Chang Risa's brief marriage. But could she hate this fiercely proud woman who abandoned husband and son for the sake of the clan, who had rattled up so many lives, who had ultimately split up the Great Five?
"Ugh, those eyes," said Shulin. "I hated when Hayashi stared at me with those uncanny green eyes, as if he was reading my thoughts. Don't tell me you have the Sight as well?"
"Not like Hayashi-sama," replied Sakura softly.
"Nobody does, quite like Hayashi. Anyhow, I don't have time to chitchat with you, cute as a button you are," said Shulin. "Unless you too are a part of the Test of the Great Elder or Celes in disguise."
"Oh, are you in the midst of the Test of the Great Elder as well?" said Sakura.
"As well?" Shulin frowned. "Someone else is as well? Don't tell me the Li Clan sent a back up? Who? Shenji? Why, because they couldn't trust a female after all?"
"No, it's a Li descendent from the future," said Sakura. "Nearly a century and a half later."
"I see. Well, how reassuring it is to know that the Li Clan is still thriving then," Shulin said. "We didn't get eliminated, I presume. Which means I will pass the test."
"Are you not scared of not making it back?" Sakura asked.
"No, why should I be scared? I am Li Shulin, the Chosen One of the Li Clan and of the original Great Five," replied Shulin. "I've made a lot of sacrifices in my life to get to this point—why should I lose to some silly old dragon who is guardian to the Li Clan, when I'm more skilled and powerful than any of my predecessors in the past millennium?"
Humility was not a trait Shulin seemed to possess. And yet, despite her bravado, there was a trace of loneliness in her amber eyes that were so similar to Syaoran's. "Shulin-sama, what did you pay the Fantasy in order to gain passage into the Dragon Isles?" asked Sakura. But she thought she already knew the answer.
Shulin stared at her sharply, her black brows burrowed down. "Don't look at me like that, as if I am some horrible wife and mother. I did what I had to do. I gave up my family, my relationship with my husband and son—it was a choice I knew I would have to make to become the Great Elder. I can't be some sort of perfect wife to Lord Landon, hosting tea parties and tending to the rose gardens. I was born to be a Li Clan warrior, the Chosen One. The Great Elder died suddenly in this period of turmoil. Political leaders in Shanghai are trying to persecute our clan because of our close ties with the British merchants and consul—they will destroy us if we stay. We can fight back, but at what expense? We will be outnumbered, our men slaughtered, and our family stripped of all our property, status and wealth. I don't care if some of the Elders call it an exile—we have no choice but to start anew in Hong Kong. We'll leave behind all our magnificent estates, property and traditions routing back from 1,000 years in Shanghai—and who else will lead the clan in a new city? The island was seceded to the British Empire—it's completely nomad's land, I heard. So we will need to build up everything all over again from scratch. I don't even know if that's possible, or if we will succeed. But the clan needs me, and I won't abandon it in time of need."
And Sakura realized, this was not the bold young teenage girl who arrived in Edo on her own to defeat the strongest swordsman of Japan, nor a Great Five magician who dominated the golden era of magic, undefeatable and invulnerable, nor the brazen pretty woman who played with the hearts of two men, who spurned the love of Lord Landon Reed while yearning for Amamiya Hayashi, nor even the mysterious mother of Clow Reed, the greatest sorcerer of the East and West. She was a born leader, determined to carry out her destiny.
"Landon knew I was never happy there, in England. It's not my home. But little Edward—I don't know what to do of him." Shulin sighed. "He's such an odd kid. He never cried, not once. He stared at me with those queer blue eyes. He's an old soul, always observing, watching. Maybe he'll resent me for abandoning him. But he'll turn out to be a great sorcerer—more powerful than even Lan or me, because he will have both our best traits."
"Yes, he will," murmured Sakura, then drew back when she realized Shulin was peering at her—or at her chest.
"What I'm curious about is why you have Landon's ring around your neck."
Sakura grasped the star sapphire ring, identical to the one that Shulin was wearing on her fourth finger. "I—Syaoran-kun gave it to me."
Shulin's rosebud lips curved into a coy smile. "I'm presuming Syaoran-kun is the name of my cute little descendent who is the latest Great Elder candidate. So, is this Syaoran your husband? Or betrothed one? That might explain why you reek of Li powers."
"N-neither!" stammered Sakura, turning beet red from the base of her neck to her ears. "He's just—he's just…an acquaintance!" Well, not exactly that, either. How could she explain this strange relationship the two shared, allies yet rivals, best friends but enemies.
"Oh?" Shulin tilted her head, her ruby drop earrings blinking. "You do realize what it means when a Li man gives a woman a powerful family heirloom ring right? It's a vow. A proposal."
"Hoe—actually, it's just a loan. I'm going to give it back to Syaoran when he comes back," said Sakura, fiddling with the ring around her neck, cheeks flushed. "Because he will come back."
"He might not," said Shulin. "The Test of the Great Elders—it's not as simple as I thought it'd be. I knew what to expect, and I've been preparing it for it well in advance. The Great Five has meddled with dimension theories in the past, and Landon would have been fascinated by this whole process. He studied more about portals and dimensions than any of us. But dimension traveling is extremely dangerous for those who have no aptitude for it."
"Actually, I was hoping to find Hayashi-sama, but I was led to you instead," said Sakura.
"Interesting," said Shulin. "Maybe your power of the moon—if it is indeed yours— was attracted to mine. Why are you looking for Hayashi?"
"I broke the Eye of the Dragon and was hoping to find a way to fix it."
For a moment, Shulin's eyes glinted at the knowledge that Sakura possessed the Eye of the Dragon. "It may be a good thing it is broken, after all. If whole, it holds many powers and can even serve as a portal. Sorry, I can't help you with fixing it. Those complicated spell things—that is not my specialty. The whole Five Force Treasure project definitely was more of Landon's line of expertise. And I myself haven't seen Hayashi in years, not since… not since Ruichi's death." Again, that rare trace of vulnerability when she spoke of Hayashi.
"I was sure I'd be able to find Hayashi-sama," murmured Sakura with a sigh.
"Well, that makes two of us. Maybe I was hoping to see Hayashi after all this time," said Shulin with soft laughter. "You know, it's sort of ridiculous to say this after all that has happened, but I sometimes miss Hayashi as a friend more than anything else. He was someone who knew how to listen and not judge—you know how rare it is to find someone like that? I miss all of them, for we really were the best of friends once. Mayura, who was like a big sister, sometimes wittily sarcastic but with the warmest heart I have ever seen. She left us far too soon. If there only had been another way…Ruichi, when I think back to when I first met him, he was such a mature and solemn boy, and he had such wild, suspicious eyes, which is probably why Mayura looked after him so. Rui was part Chinese, so we had that in common, and once we did get him to loosen up, he was earnest and hardworking, always looking after his sister. And Lan, I probably ruined him, though he was a hopeless case to start with. But I did enjoy our terrible rows—there's nobody I fought with quite as much. I do love him dearly, in my own way."
"Surely you can tell him so when you go back," said Sakura.
"I can't. He told me if I left England, he will never let me see Edward again," said Shulin. "He told me not to write, never to come back, that we will be strangers from now on." She smiled wistfully. "He once told me he had two great rivals for my heart. Amamiya Hayashi and the Li Clan. But Hayashi never was a rival. He didn't ever love me, I think. I don't think that man knows how to love. I could never understand Hayashi's heart, not after all those years of being by his side."
Between Hayashi and the Li Clan, would you still have chosen the clan, Sakura wanted to ask Shulin.
"So, there is no choice but for me to become the Great Elder and laugh at Landon's face. But first, I'm got to give Celes an earful for making this horrid test and wasting my precious time and energy. I'm sure I got a few white hairs from this ordeal," said Shulin, tugging on her jet-black hair. "You hear me old fire-breathing geezer! I'm coming to get you!"
Sakura blinked. "Can he hear you?"
"Of course," replied Shulin. "We are on the Dragon Isles, after all."
"We are?" Sakura's jaw dropped. "I haven't traveled far at all. I was trying to get back to Edo Japan."
"Good luck with that," said Shulin. "I've been just looping the Dragon Isles the past 100 tries. All the dimension traveling was fun at first. I admit, I got distracted sometimes, especially when I saw familiar faces or ended up in fascinating futuristic places—it helped me envision what I want for the Li Clan's new home. An international, urban city of commerce and trade—how does that sound? I'm going to build our new headquarters on a hill, I think. Then, I focused, and got my self back to the Dragon Isles—except, wrong time period every try. I've met a good bunch of my old predecessors, including Li Dairon. He told me I am like him—that nerve. I'm nothing like that arrogant, pompous, womanizing ancestor of mine. I half think Celes designed the Test of Great Elders as a test of endurance. And maybe an opportunity to speak with our ancestors and seek guidance. Except, most of them don't seem to have much of a clue at all despite being ancient."
Sakura frowned. "There must be some sort of trick or tactic though, to get back to the Cavern of Reservoirs in the right time period." Do I even know how to get back myself? She had not paid any heed to Celes' warnings.
Shulin shrugged. "Many novice magicians fall into the trap of trying to find their way back through blindly traveling various worlds—seeking help of others who can open portals for them or relying on dimension travel devises. It's not about luck. The key is first finding your way back to the Dragon Isles. This can be a difficult feat depending on what sort of world you fall into—but any Great Elder candidate made it to the Dragon realms once before so should be able to again. Once you've reached an optimal dimension where passage to the Dragon Isles is possible, you have to make it back to the Cavern of Reservoirs. From there you've got to find the time travel portal of that dimension and keep cycling till you reach the right time period in the Dragonlands. It's a tedious process but it's a foolproof method because probability-wise, even if it takes you a million tries, you will eventually end up back to where you started out—and it shouldn't even take that many tries once you get the hang of it. Time travel is much easier than dimension travel for Lis. Besides, if you keep traveling through different worlds, you are separating yourself further and further from the starting point, both in terms of dimensions and passage of time, lowering the chances of you being able to return."
So this was the analytical skills of a Five Force Magician. Sakura paled. Did Syaoran know any of this? Or would he meet anybody in his travels who would be able to tell him this?
"Of course, this doesn't apply to those who have dimension traveling abilities, which sadly, I don't," said Shulin. "The worse trap though, is being caught in Limbo."
"Limbo?" Sakura repeated.
"Or some call it dreamscape," said Shulin. "Sometimes our souls drift there in our dreams from our world. But amid this journey, when the body travels too far, too long, or is put under great duress, it can be thrown into the dreamscape, or the place in between dimensions. How should I put it…If the Fantasy is a place where all of one's greatest dreams and wishes are realized and fulfilled, then the Limbo is a place where all of one's greatest nightmares and fears come true."
"I feel like I've been there before," murmured Sakura, recalling when she was trapped during Yue's judgment in a world where everybody who had contact with the Clow Cards had forgotten their love for their most important person. So, that's where Clow Reed got his inspiration from, when he devised Yue's final judgment for the next Card Mistress. She was only able to escape thanks to Mizuki Kaho's Moon Bell, an artifact created by Clow Reed. "How did you escape the Limbo?"
"Didn't you hear what I just said—I did my best to avoid it. I won't be able to make it out, I think, if I get trapped in there," said Shulin. "I've sinned too much in life. A soul stuck in Limbo will eventually crumble under the duress and be permanently splintered from its body which will never wake up again. But then again, there are people like Hayashi who would drift into the dreamscape to meditate—I swear, everybody thought he was a saint, but anyone who knew the Great Five should have been told, each and every one of us were sadists."
Syaoran wouldn't get stuck in the Limbo. He was far too logical, too pragmatic. Sakura clenched her hands into a tight ball. But when she had been stuck in the Limbo years ago, during Yue's Final Judgment, in an alternate world where all those she had close contact with had forgotten their memories of their most loved ones, she hadn't been able to escape with her own powers at all.
"I'm ready to end my test now—I've got to get going," said Shulin. "I wish you the best on your mission, descendent of Amamiya Hayashi. If you ever to end up seeing Hayashi, tell him…tell him Li Shulin became the Great Elder and moved to Hong Kong."
"He probably knows that already," Sakura pointed out.
"I know he knows," said Shulin, chin up. "He's the one who told me my destiny in the first place."
Sakura wondered if Shulin made it back to Shanghai safely after she passed the Test of the Great Elder, if she had been able to orchestrate a smooth move to Hong Kong, if she ever did get to see her husband and son again. But she already did know Shulin would become the most famous and venerated Great Elder of the Li Clan in recent centuries. Sakura should have felt intimidated by having a conversation with one of the Great Five Magicians. But she realized that the sharp-tongued woman had felt familiar because she had recognized in Shulin traces of Meilin's impetuousness and bluntness in speech, a bit of Clow Reed's sardonic sense of humor, Syaoran's determination and sincerity and an air of Ryuuren's aloof smugness, flair and confidence.
Rather than worrying about failing to fix the Dragon's Eye, she couldn't help wonder if Syaoran was back in the Cavern of Reservoirs by now. Surely, he would find a way back. It seemed that searching for Hayashi was a complete failure—or maybe he had never meant to be found by her.
She drew her fur-lined white hood over her head as she walked through a snow blizzard. It was impossible to tell where she was, which country, which time period, because of the icy storm through which she could barely see a meter ahead of her.
Then, she thought she saw a pale blue glow eerily light a lone frost-covered tree.
She walked forward from the darkness to a solitary figure lying on the snow-covered ground. A little bit closer—she had to see who it was. She gasped when she finally recognized who it was. He looked so much older, wearier than she remembered him. It was so startling, she realized, because it was as if she was given a glimpse of an older Syaoran, lying at the brink of death.
Slowly, he turned to stare at her with piercing sapphire eyes. At least those eyes were the same. He squinted and blinked. "Nadeshiko?"
Sakura walked forward, closer to him and knelt on the snow, next to him, hood falling from her hair. His head turned to her, and he whispered in a cracked voice, "You're not Nadeshiko." He could not hide the disappointment in his voice.
"No… I am her daughter. Kinomoto Sakura." Her heart ached to see Li Ryuuren like this, face lined in pain and exhaustion, lips cracked, body like lead… as if he were dying. But he couldn't be dying. He couldn't be older than thirty at the most.
"I see. Sakura… Of course… You have her eyes." Ryuuren smiled and the corners of his eyes crinkled. "A bright green like the evergreen woods of Japan. You probably don't remember me, but I once saw you in Tomoeda when you were about three. The same age as my youngest child. You met him too. I'm… a friend of your mother's."
"I know," Sakura said softly bending over. A silver chain slipped from her neck, with a sapphire ring dangled from it.
Ryuuren pointed to the blue gem. "I gave that to her once… But she returned it to me." He looked up at the girl, her delicate facial features a split image of Amamiya Nadeshiko at age sixteen, especially with the layer of frost covering her hair. "I wish I could have protected her… She mustn't… she mustn't give up. She loves Kinomoto Fujitaka—and her son is so smart. I wanted to see her one last time. I wanted her to live. Before I leave this world, I wanted to see her and tell her…"
Sakura realized that with his last remaining strength, he must have summoned for Nadeshiko and had called her instead. She clutched the ring in her hand. If only it had been her mother standing here at this moment, not her. What could she do for this man in so much pain? This man who was broken and desperate. Li Ryuuren who had always been so confident and self-assured, handsome and sharp-tongued. He was now reduced to a wasted man who accepted the chains of human mortality.
"I went to Japan to see her that last time… But I still didn't tell her…" He closed his eyes and his dark brows furrowed down. Then, he realized a warm hand pressed against his large, callused hand.
"She knows," Sakura said softly, holding Ryuuren's broad right hand with both of hers. "She's always known, even without words."
"I see." Now, Ryuuren stared up at the sky. "I see. So that's how it was… Some words are never meant to be said. But they are still heard." He glanced over at leather-bound book by his side. It was his journal—Sakura recognized it, though at this point it was still new and not burned. "How much do you know, Sakura? About your mother and me."
"I have a good idea of the general story," replied Sakura.
"Till this day, I wonder what would have changed if I made a different choice back then. If I didn't leave. If I didn't believe that was the only option I had. Yet, if it was fate, no matter what I chose to do, things would never have worked out." Ryuuren smiled crookedly. "I've been a horrible husband and father. All I feel is guilt towards my wife, Ielan, for not being able to give her my everything. I have four beautiful daughters. And Syaoran. I'm sorry I didn't get to see him grow up. He's a little warrior already. Stubborn as a horse and agile as a small wolf. I hope he grows up to be a better man than his father. I wish he knows I never meant to leave him so early. I wanted him to have a father in his life. I wanted him to grow up to be strong and noble, courageous and courteous."
"He did," said Sakura. "He's strong and braver than anyone I know. He's stubborn but has a deep, deep heart. He tries to solve everything on his own so he has a hard time sharing his own problems, but he's always there to help everyone in time of need. He's a wonderful friend and teacher and so talented at the violin, just like you, Li-san. And he's so proud of his father; he looks up to you so much, Li-san, and became the Chosen One, just like you."
"Is he… your friend?" Ryuuren stared at Sakura with hungry azure eyes. "Tell me more about my son. What does he like? What does he do for fun?"
"Yes… We're friends." Yes, they were friends but not friends. Allies but not allied. "He became the Chosen One at age ten, the youngest ever in the history of the Li Clan, and came to Japan. He was the captain of the Seijou Junior High soccer team. Everybody at school looked up to him. His strongest subject at school is math and science. His favorite color is green. His favorite flower is the peony. He cooks like a pro-chef, and he was even the star of the junior high musical, Star-Crossed, though he claims he has stage fright since our fifth grade play."
"Not our musical that my friends and I wrote for fun many years ago?" Ryuuren smiled nostalgically. "Does the boy still have that cute habit of frowning really hard when he thinks and pouting his mouth?"
Sakura nodded. "He's quite scary at first appearance."
"But he's a big softie, isn't he?" Ryuuren chuckled. "His sisters liked to dress him up in dresses when he was a toddler—don't tell him I told you that."
"He has a good sense of fashion." Sakura added, "But his best skill is in martial arts—he was the Great Elder's most prized pupil, said Meilin."
"Poor thing. Uncle Renshu is a relentless training master," said Ryuuren. "But there would have been no one better to learn from."
"He even taught me some martial arts too," Sakura said. Yes, the Syaoran she knew. The Syaoran who was gentle and kind. The Syaoran who was a little awkward and sharp-tongued but the Syaoran was always by her side to lend her a shoulder to lean on, to steady her when she tripped, to laugh together with, bicker with and depend upon. But she no longer really knew him. The Syaoran who would be the Great Elder. The Syaoran who would lead the Li Clan in Hong Kong. The Syaoran she probably will not see again for a long time, if they ever did return to the real world.
"I'm glad to hear… he grew up all right. I was always worried." Ryuuren's voice was weary again. "I don't want him to follow in his father's footsteps. At least him, I want him to be free."
Sakura's lips trembled. "You can see him—he is very near by. I can bring you to him!" Yes, she had to find Syaoran somewhere within those many facets within the Cavern of Reservoirs, and bring him to his father.
"No, dear, it's all right. It's too late," whispered, Ryuuren. He lifted his hand which had been clenched over his stomach till now, and Sakura gasped to see a deep, raw wound. The pure white snow was dyed in a brilliant scarlet around him as his hand lifted. "Just stay and keep tell me about him."
"He is loyal to the Clan," said Sakura in a clipped voice. "He'll become a great leader of the Clan someday—he already is a great leader."
"Do you have someone you love, Sakura?"
Sakura paused only for a second. "Yes."
"Then no matter what, don't let that person go."
"He's already left me," replied Sakura softly. She knew this when he returned home six years ago after the last Sakura Card had been converted. She realized it a year ago when he walked away at the Hong Kong harbors and again after the Great Elder died, when he told her that he was going to take over the clan. She reaffirmed this when she saw the serious look in his eyes as he faced Celes to embark on his test to become the Great Elder.
Ryuuren frowned. "You are still young and have a lot of time ahead of you." He broke out in a fit of coughing, wincing as it strained the gash in his stomach.
"Yes, that is why I will always be waiting for him." Carefully, Sakura fished for a handkerchief and wiped the specks of blood from his lips. If she could use her powers to help this man—but could she do anything? It was nearly 14 years ago. Li Ryuuren was already dead. What could she do for a dying man?
"Thank you, Sakura. You are very kind," said Ryuuren, in a fainter voice than before.
"No, the kind one is Syaoran. Years ago, I was crying from a broken heart. And Syaoran told me that everything would be all right. He told me that someday, I really will find my most important person. He gave me a blue handkerchief to wipe away my tears." Sakura smiled. "Just some months ago, I cried over a broken heart again, and he did the same then."
"I always worried about him growing up without a father-figure. But I guess he grew up fine." Ryuuren shut his eyes. "I don't want to die yet. I have so much left to do. I have to see Syaoran inherit the Five Force Sword. I have to marry off all my four daughters and weep as I walk them down the aisle. I have to apologize to Ielan for causing her so much heartache and show Leiyun the Typhoon Dragon move I've been promising to teach him. And I have to teach Syaoran… not to make the same mistakes I did."
What can you say to a man who is in his last hours of life, with Death waiting at his side to take him away? Sakura could but remain silent. She noticed that the blizzard had calmed and occasional large snowflakes drifted down, glistening like frozen teardrops from the sky.
"I'm sorry, Sakura, for calling you here." Ryuuren opened his eyes again. Though his face was pale as snow, his eyes were a brilliant ocean blue. "Please stay till I am… asleep. I don't want to die alone. It is frightening yet… almost a relief."
"Ryuuren-san, if there's anything I can do?" Sakura reached into her pocket for the Heal.
He shook his head slowly. "No… I just want someone by my side. To remember my existence, that I once lived and then didn't. Just keep talking to me, Sakura, so I know that you are there. My eyes are starting to blur. It won't be long now. Let me hear your voice. That voice. How about your mother? Tell me about her."
"My mother is the most beautiful person I know."
"I know that." Ryuuren smiled ruefully.
She didn't have the heart to tell him that she was long since dead, that she barely remembered Nadeshiko as a mother. "She loves music. She plays the violin—but she mostly plays the organ at home." She didn't remember, but her brother did. Sakura paused. What did she know about her mother? Nothing. Who was Amamiya Nadeshiko? The girl who had once loved the man lying in front of Sakura at his very moment? Or the loving wife and mother? Or the bedazzling model in the photos? Or a powerful sorcerer who gave up her life to save all her loved ones?
"Your mother was born to make people smile," said Ryuuren. "She brought sunshine into the room where she walked. It's a rare gift, and she was very blessed. She was blessed because everyone loved her. Who can hate an angel? She had a loving heart. She truly loved your father. You are like her, Sakura, so I believe you will make everything work out all right."
"Yes, everything will turn out fine. Because you are her daughter. I know what you can do for me. My journal is in my left pocket. Take it with you. I want my son to read it some day, when he is of age. It contains all my innermost thoughts, fears, failures. I want him to be able to see the real me."
She gently took the blue leather-bound journal that she and Syaoran would many years later find. It was not burned. Could she read the final pages that had been illegible? But she didn't have to—
she had finally met him in person.
And he seemed to stare up at the sky. "So I kept my bargain. Here, I give you my body, name, soul and memories. Are you satisfied now? Is the price paid?"
Who was he talking to? Not her. Sakura's eyes blurred. She took his large, callused hand in her own. "Ryuuren-san." The price he had paid the Fantasy in order to gain him and her mother passage to the Dragon Isles many long years ago.
"Tell Nadeshiko I lo—" his voice trailed off, never finishing his sentence. "Ah, I am so cold … and tired… I think I will rest now."
Then, there was silence. Her throat choked up. "Ryuuren-san! Ryuuren-san, you can't leave now. Syaoran… Syaoran is so strong and admirable. He looks just like you. And he's so smart—he always ranked in the top five at school—even though Japanese is not his native language. He spoke so highly of you. You don't know how much he respects you. And he misses you so much, though he never shows that he's lonely, because he is a true warrior. You'd be so proud of him. I am. I loved him so much… and I still do. I will always love him, even if he has to leave me, and I will always wait for him." Hot tears poured down her face.
There was a faint smile on Ryuuren's pale face. His cold hand turned limp. Sakura knew he had passed on. For the first time, she had witnessed death firsthand. She had always thought of death as a loss, a passing of a life. Instead there was a still, a silence. He was, and now he wasn't.
"Rest in peace, Ryuuren-san," she whispered, folding Ryuuren's hands on his chest. But even as she did so, he dissipated into tiny ice particles that with the wind flew away with the snowflakes.
She didn't know how long she sat there in the snow, trails of salty wetness burned down her cheeks, only to be frozen in streaks by the bitter wind. She clutched the leather notebook to her chest, standing up with wobbling legs. It was the notebook that reminded her she must get moving, find a way back, or forward. If she remained here, she would slowly freeze to death.
In a feverish state, she slogged forward. While it was hard to see in front of her through the blizzard, she thought she could make out the silhouette of a man approach her.
Li Syaoran crawled out of a shallow pool and collapsed onto the limestone banks. Every limb was aching like they'd been ripped apart from his joints, and his clothes were in tatters. He had never known of hunger before, this persistent hollowness in the pits of his stomach; he had not known thirst, his throat parched like sand coated his mouth and his lungs were full of dust. His lips were so cracked, they bled if he opened his mouth to speak—and what did his voice sound like, he wondered. He hadn't spoken in so long. He was afraid to close his eyes at nightfall but even more afraid to open them in the morning and realize he was further from Sakura than ever before. The image of Sakura standing on the observation deck at Tokyo Tower, looking over her shoulders at him with the clusters of stars in her hair, smiling at him, seemed like a hazy dream. Who was Sakura? Did she even exist? Maybe she was someone he had dreamed up of to make this humdrum life more tolerable.
He stared at his reflection in the waters, half afraid to find a wasted savage beast, or even find himself a shrunken, gray-haired old man. But his skin was still smooth, albeit soot and mud-stained, and his hair darkly matted from the water. Why was he doing this again? That's right, The Li Clan. How was this the road to becoming the Great Elder? What was the Blue Dragon trying to test him on? What did any of this have to do with leading the Li Clan?
He dragged himself out of the water, glancing around in a daze, trembling, terrified this was another hallucination. Pools of greenish-blue water all around an endless hollow cavern. Could it be? It was the Cavern of Reservoirs again, he was sure, as a sense of relief washed over him. Sakura—he had to find Sakura. He crawled forward, barely, before his knees gave out on him.
"So you are here," said Celes.
"Where's Sakura?" he croaked.
"Too bad you are in the right dimension, but the wrong time," the dragon said. "Though just off by a couple years in your time, very trivial."
And Syaoran almost let out a roar of frustration, as he fell to the ground, pounding his fists down in agony. How, how could he ended up in the right place and not the right time?
"But, there must be a reason why you came back here," the dragon said, staring ahead at him.
Syaoran followed his gaze and stared at an iceberg at the center of the silvery-green cavern. And there, encased behind the block of ice, was a familiar face. "Leiyun!" he called out.
What was Leiyun here? He dragged his legs forward and pounded on the glacial encasement. "Leiyun, can you hear me?"
"He can't see or hear you," said the Dragon.
Syaoran frowned. Then looking closer, he saw that Leiyun looked not much older than himself. Now, his pale blue eyes were open, but instead of seeing him, he seemed to be looking somewhere far off. Sometimes, he smiled wistfully. Sometimes he trembled, as if frightened. Sometimes, he wept silently.
"Hey, Leiyun, what are you seeing?" asked Syaoran, placing his hand on the glacier block. He turned to Celes. "Why are you keeping him here?"
"I am not keeping him here. He chose to walk in here. And the price he paid to enter was his time," said Celes.
"Release him—you have taken not just his time—you took away his family, his friends, his youth."
"It is not your place, Li Syaoran of the future," said Celes. "He came here of his own free will. To serve the greed of the Li Clan, before his time, before he was ready. So here he will stay and pay his dues until he can escape or someone comes to pay his price instead. Or he crumbles away into dust."
Syaoran frowned, whispered to himself rather than Celes. "But nobody came to rescue him. The Elders said that he died in his mission. And nobody went to look for him." He buried his head into his hands, sinking down on his knees. "I didn't know. I swear, I didn't know, or else I would have come to rescue you."
"But you didn't know. And so for many years, this boy was trapped here, in between dimensions, in what seemed like eternity in this place where time flows differently," said the Blue Dragon. "It would be enough to drive anyone mad."
"What is he seeing?" asked Syaoran, as he saw that Leiyun seemed to be screaming a soundless scream.
"This is the core of the Dragon Realms, a window into many different time periods and many different dimensions." said Dragon. "Of course, in the beginning, he couldn't choose what he wanted to see, so he was subject to all sorts of scenes, some of times and worlds that have no relevance to him. But he's a mentally strong boy. He seems to have mastered calling up scenes that are of his interest to him. For a while, he was fascinated with seeing the Great Ones, his Li ancestors. He went through a Clow Reed period. Then, he watched you, very obsessively, all your ventures in Japan, capturing the Clow Cards. That's probably when he seemed to have the most peace at heart. What he saw during the Great Ones' time and Clow Reed's era was pretty devastating—he couldn't continue watching and went to other places for long periods of time before returning. But with you, he seemed endlessly amused, almost interactive. Those were the days he would still talk to me, try to bargain and make some conversation. He was quite an inquisitive one. Very intelligent, for his age. Of course, that was then, and now, he's broken far beyond that point. He doesn't try to direct his vision—just watch whatever scene the dimension windows show him. Lots of wars, bloodshed and violence—for those are the scenes that the dragons keep the closest watch over, that we find most fascinating and also disturbing."
"So, he doesn't talk anymore?" asked Syaoran.
"No, I don't think he's spoken at least for the past year—your time," said Celes.
"And what will become of him?"
"Well, he would have withered and died, like many before him," said the dragon. "But an unexpected visitor comes along."
"Unexpected visitor?" Syaoran looked up to hear unexpected footsteps. Celes shoved him behind a boulder.
It was a girl with golden hair and wide lavender eyes. There was a gash across her cheek, and the black shirt and jeans she wore were in tatters.
"We're getting a lot of unwelcome visitors lately," drawled Celes, to the girl.
"I came here to take Li Leiyun." Kara here was somewhat younger, more waifish—her tousled blond hair was shoulder-length, and she had an even more feral, more guarded look than now.
"You cannot take him without paying a price," responded Blue Dragon slowly.
Kara stared up at the Blue Dragon with her cool quartz-like eyes. "I believe I have already paid the price. I had a vision before coming. I had two choices. My father is going to get shot today. I could warn him and save him. Or I could come here. And save Li Leiyun."
"Why do you save a stranger?" asked the Blue Dragon.
"Because he needs to be saved," said Kara. "And only I can do it."
"And at the price of your father's life?"
"He too had to be saved," said Kara, closing her eyes. "And now he is. He has suffered for a long time, and this is what he would have wanted for me, I believe. Because long ago, he chose himself and spent the rest of his life regretting that choice."
"As the descendent of Landon Reed, you have a way with words. Very well, I will let you pass."
She walked straight into the cave until she came to an iceberg encasing a young man who stared at her with aqua eyes. Kara placed her palms on the iceberg which shattered into a million shards. The man in white collapsed in front of her. She had thought him older because his hair was a shock of silver. But his handsome face, though gaunt, seemed boyish. She figured he mustn't be much older than herself.
Still hunched over, he clutched his arms around himself as if he could not keep warm, jerking and shaking, as if he could not get rid of the cold. Finally, his dilated pupils hazily made out a girl with pale gold hair and piercing eyes the color of amethyst. He croaked, "Angel? Or devil?"
"Neither and both. I am Kara Reed, and I have come to rescue you," she said, wrapping her bare arms around the boy.
Leiyun repeated her name in wonder. "Kara Reed. Why have you come to save me?"
"Because nobody else will," replied Kara. "And besides, you called for my help, didn't you?"
"How… did you hear me?" asked Leiyun.
Kara looked up at the boy with the silvery-blue eyes that were all too familiar to her now. "I don't know. But I heard it, so I found you. Come. We have to leave here now." She held out her hand. And he took it, with his ice-cold fingers. She leaned his body over her slight shoulders to support him, and they left the Cavern of Reservoirs.
"And you let them leave, just like?" asked Syaoran.
"Yes," said the Celes. "Many have come into my layer, and some have left through their own means, many others have perished in attempt. But never in all my time did I have someone risk her life to save a complete stranger. Our kind values true courage. And Leiyun perhaps did not deserve to rot away here because of the greed of the clan."
So it really had been Kara who had helped Leiyun escape from the Dragon Isles. Syaoran had to hand it to her—was there anything she was not afraid of? But how had she known how to save Leiyun? Was it because she was a Reed? And why had Kara come for Leiyun? But somehow, it took his view of Kara and put her into a whole new perspective.
"Well, you are not in a position to worry about Kara, or Leiyun," said the Dragon. "For in Leiyun's place, I can have you to keep me company for eternity. Either that, or you can continue to enter into the reservoirs until you perhaps find your way back to Sakura. Need I mention, you have one in a quadrillion chance of stumbling onto the right world. And that's if she's remaining stagnant. Because who knows where's she's traveled to at this point with her impatience."
"Sakura!" Syaoran called out into the cavern, his voice ringing loudly, letting the stalactites tremble. "What do you mean she's traveled?"
"Maybe she's gone looking for you," said Celes. "Or maybe she's where you left her. Who knows?"
"You're just trying to confuse me," said Syaoran accusingly.
"It's not so bad here," Celes said. "You can still see what's going on. Even your own world. It's almost like a picture book, once you get the hang of it."
"Then Sakura, I will be able to see Sakura," whispered Syaoran, crawling on the floor to the edge of the pool and staring into the water. Kinomoto Sakura. He tried to remember her smiling face, and all he could recall was an image of a 10-year-old girl in a charcoal gray and white-collared sailor uniform, glaring at him with flashing green eyes.
"Well, you'll probably see a Sakura," said Celes. "It took Leiyun some years before he mastered conjuring up the correct world and time period he wanted to see—and even longer to conjure up the right person. And he's one of the most adept at doing so that I've ever seen."
"That's how he was able to communicate with Kara," whispered Syaoran. Why hadn't he tried to communicate with the Li Clan then? Or had he?
"Yes, I didn't know he was doing that," said the Dragon. "He first saw her by coincidence. Because he became obsessed with tracing down the Dark Ones for a while and locating all the descendants of the Great Five. It's the only thing that kept him alive all those years, I believe."
"I can find Sakura then," murmured Syaoran.
"Perhaps, eventually," said Celes. "But meanwhile, your world will decay. It's what happens when you try to gain everything. You let Sakura into your selfish ploys to become top of the Li Clan. It was a gamble you took, knowing you could lose."
"It's not a gamble. I made a promise, and I will keep it," Syaoran lashed out. "I will return to Sakura."
He dragged his body up and dove into a pool.
"Foolish boy," said Celes.
He opened his eyes to an eerie greenish light and the sound of dripping of water droplets. It was the cavern, again. Syaoran scrambled up and found himself staring at a boy encased in a sheer block of iceberg. They were about the same age, and the features of the boy in the iceberg were eerily similar to his own, almost like looking into a mirror. But the boy, whose eyes were shut, was wearing a white cheongsam, and his brown hair was a shade lighter than his own.
Syaoran pressed his palm against the cold ice. And the boy in the iceberg opened his eyes, a startling turquoise blue. "You've come, Syaoran."
"Leiyun," Syaoran said. When he had last see his cousin, he had been nine, and Leiyun 16. Back then, he had seemed so tall and adult-like. Now, he seemed like a mere boy, young and vulnerable. "I'm sorry. I didn't know. I'll get you out of here!"
"How?" asked Leiyun. "Are you willing to take my place?"
Syaoran jerked back, but Leiyun's hand had already stretched out through the iceberg and grabbed his wrist.
"Come, you take my place. You get stuck here, and I'll be free. Can you do that for me?" Leiyun asked. "It'll be an equivalent exchange." And he jerked Syaoran into the iceberg and slipped out.
And Syaoran found himself on the other side of the iceberg, pounding on the barrier, his voice lost in the cylinder of ice.
Leiyun peered at him from the other side and said, "You see what being trapped there for years and years with no one coming for you does to you. I believed, the first year, I truly did believe someone will come to save me. But no one did. Not even you."
"I'm sorry, Leiyun. I would have come, had I known."
"Why didn't you? You didn't even look. You didn't even ask." Leiyun smiled. "You always wanted me dead. Because you wanted to become the Chosen One. Because you wanted the Five Force Sword. Because you wanted to follow your father's footsteps."
"No—that's not true!" Syaoran exclaimed, pounding his fist inside the iceberg.
"Bye-bye, Syaoran," said Leiyun.
Syaoran screamed but fell numbness settle through his body. If I die here, no one will come find me, no one will know I am here.
There was a gentle shake on his arm.
"Syaoran. Syaoran. Wake up."
Syaoran opened his eyes, and he was lying on a soft bed that smelled of lilacs. He blinked up to see a pair of emerald eyes gaze at him inquisitively. "Where am I? What happened? Leiyun—the Cavern of Reservoirs and the Blue Dragon!"
"What are you talking about?" Sakura asked. "We're here in your room, and you've been keeping me waiting for a long time. You know how hard it was to sneak out without everybody noticing?" But she leaned her head over, brushing his bangs back from his forehead. "But I know it must have been tough for you after the Great Elder died. You must not have had time to sleep at all, not even after you returned to Japan."
It was all right. Sakura was by his side. They were in Japan again. It was all over.
"Just hang on till tomorrow, until the duel is over."
He bolted up, green blanket falling from his chest. "What date is it?"
"March 31, of course," said Sakura. "Remember, we promised to meet today, so that we can talk about the duel."
"The duel. It didn't happen yet."
Sakura sighed, and had a knowing look, as if she realized how frazzled Syaoran must have been over the past week. "It's tomorrow. Don't worry. We have it all planned remember. We must tie in our duel tomorrow. You can't reveal that your powers are returning—and I'll keep magic to a minimum as well. But remember, we have to make sure it's a believable fight."
"Plan B," whispered Syaoran.
"Don't worry, everything will turn out fine," said Sakura. "Well, I've got to get going now—Meilin and the others are waiting for me in town to celebrate my birthday early. You can wish me happy birthday tomorrow, after the duel, all right?"
It was minutes until 5'o'clock, on the day of the dual, April 1. All day, he had been watching the hands of the clock tick by. Syaoran felt the weight of the Five Force Sword strapped to his back. He wore a new green battle costume as he had outgrown his old one, the golden hems crisp and gleaming, an orange sash cinching his waist, over the Li emblem of a three white marks in a black circle.
"Remember, Syaoran. This time, you must become the legitimate Clow Master, once and for all," said Li Wutai. "It is what the Great Elder and your father would have wanted."
He stepped into the clearing behind King Penguin Park, and found that Sakura and her crew were already waiting. Sakura wore a white dress with layered lace-edged skirts that fluttered in the wind. Her pink star-moon staff was drawn. He recalled their conversation the day before. They had to tie in this dual. It would not be an easy feat, since she could not use martial arts and he could not use magic.
She fashioned a sword from the Metal and Forge and dashed at him lightly. He blocked her easily—even with the added prowess that the cards bequeathed on its wielder, she was no match for him. Perhaps if she had the Sword Card. And yet, how could he deceive the Elders into believing that he was putting up a sincere fight?
Sakura looked up at Syaoran, eyes cold. "Let's get this over with." She dashed at him, this time with traces of electricity laced in her blade.
She was going all out. Syaoran dodged slowly, as if his legs were tied down with lead. His head felt wooly, though he knew he had to concentrate, not just on Sakura's rapid movements but the Elders watching him, and also Eriol, Eron, Yue and the others waiting by the sidelines tensely.
"What are you doing, Syaoran?" called out Wutai. "Do it properly!"
Syaoran breathed hard as Sakura twirled around and slammed her blade against his blade in a maneuver he must have taught her years ago. Sakura, we have to tie—I can't, if you come on this strongly! He hoped she could hear him. But no, she was already dashing towards him, blade pointed to his heart. Syaoran held out his blade, his grip on the hilt wobbling. Maybe he should forfeit—this was getting to dangerous.
And in the distance, he heard shrieks of terror coming from Sakura's end of the field and low murmurs in rapid Cantonese coming from behind him. And he stared down, and saw his blade had pierced straight through Sakura's chest and had emerged from her back. Scarlet blood spurted out, dripping down his gleaming blade to the sword hilt and his hand. He yelled. "SAKURA!"
She crumbled onto the ground, gasping, blinking up at him rapidly as her last breaths escaped her. "Why… did you betray me… Syaoran?"
"No!" Syaoran crumbled onto the ground, cradling her chill body to his chest. "No, this was a mistake. I never meant for this to happen. I'll fix this. There must be a way."
"It's too late… I guess this was how things were meant to turn out." And she crumbled away into millions of sakura petals that whirled away in the wind like a hurricane.
There was an animal sound—later he realized it was coming from his own throat. He stared at his hand, streaked in warm crimson, his new robes, stained with flecks of blood.
No, this wasn't it. Sakura couldn't be gone. He had to see her. She couldn't be dead.
His eyes were fixed on the ground, and he pinned a petal in his palm, the last trace of her. "Where is Sakura? Let me see her. Take me to her," whispered Syaoran.
"What will you give me?" said a voice which he recognized as the Fantasy.
The ground beneath him seemed to ripple and his body lurched into an abyss.
It was a blur how she got there, but some time later, Kinomoto Sakura found herself back in the Cavern of Reservoirs, kneeling in a fetal position, sobbing into her knees.
She did not hear the graceful blue dragon lean his majestic head down next to hers. "Why do you cry, human child?"
"It hurts," whispered Sakura, clutching her chest. It hurt more than when she had to break up with Eron, when Syaoran had left her in Hong Kong last year. It hurt more than knowing why Nadeshiko and Ryuuren had parted ways. "Because my heart hurts for him."
She had known Ryuuren had loved her mother. And Nadeshiko had loved Ryuuren. But she had died loving most Kinomoto Fujitaka, her father. And she had died in Fujitaka's arms, happy, content, and smiling, Touya had told her.
But Li Ryuuren, he did not die with his family. He died alone, without a single soul. And till his last breath, he had loved her mother.
Even though he was married to Li Ielan. Even though Syaoran, only three, would barely remember his father's face.
"Humans are weak and frail," Celes stated. "He already died some 14 years ago. Why mourn for him now?"
"Because he is the father of the person I care most for. He is a friend of my mother. And he is a man whom I respect greatly," replied Sakura. "Because he is a human, and he was alone here, far from his family and loved ones."
"When you die, you all die alone anyway," said Celes. "That is the law of nature, for humankind."
"I want to see Syaoran," whispered Sakura. "Take me to him."
"He has not completed his mission yet," said Celes. The dragon seemed to gaze into one of the pools in the cavern.
"Where is he?" demanded Sakura, staring into the pool, wondering if she could catch a glimpse of Syaoran, any sense of him. She saw that two-thirds of the sand in the hourglass had already trickled down to the bottom bulb.
"He seems to be lost in time," replied Celes. "Too bad, just like if you spend too much time in the Fantasy, the longer you travel between worlds, the more likely you are forget your name and memories of the real world, spending too long roaming through different dimensions has the same effect. This something you already should know. Inevitably, he will begin to forget his name, his mission and even his memories of you."
"Syaoran hasn't fallen into Limbo yet, has he?" demanded Sakura.
"Oh, you know of Limbo," Celes said, without answering her question.
Sakura swallowed hard. "What happens if he can't get out of there?"
Celes replied coolly. "Li Syaoran, Ryuuren's son, will die in a strange world, alone, without knowing who he is or what purpose his life has served."
Syaoran found himself atop a tall, rocky cliff. The sky above was grayish-burgundy and ominous. But what struck him was the odd stillness, with no sound except his own breathing. There was a blast of sakura petals, and he shielded his face with his arms.
When he opened his eyes again, he found himself staring at a girl in a fluttering white dress, golden-brown hair framing a pale face. White bandage was loosely wound around her left eye, the ends unraveled behind her, with a single piercing emerald eye fixated him.
"Sakura!" he exclaimed, almost in relief. "I found you, Sakura."
But she looked at him coldly. "How could you betray me, Syaoran?" she asked. "I trusted you."
"What are you talking about, I—"
And in front of his eyes, she clutched her left chest, where blood seeped our rapidly, streaking the white dress, collapsing onto her knees. "I trusted you, Syaoran."
"I've come to save you, Sakura," he exclaimed, rushing to her.
She looked up at him. "Then, will you be willing to take my place? Will you die instead of me?"
Syaoran frowned. "If you want me to, I will."
The girl stared up at him. "Why, when you know I am not the real Sakura?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to harm you."
"I didn't ask to be born," said the girl who looked like Sakura, clasping her chest. "I didn't ask for your kindness. I didn't ask for your pity! Plan C. A plan you only knew. You would have followed through with the Li Clan's orders and killed Sakura."
"And Plan D, I would have let Sakura kill me instead," said Syaoran. "You are not Sakura, nor her clone, who has already left this world. From the beginning, there was no Plan B or Plan C. There was only one plan. We bet everything on that plan."
"If I am not Sakura, then who am I?" asked the girl. "Who am I? Please tell me."
He replied, "You are me."
And there was a large crack, and the bandaged Sakura, the cliff, everything shattered like pieces of mirrors levitating around him.
Syaoran tumbled out of the iceberg, and onto the ground of the cavern, chest heaving hard. Trembling hard, he crawled forward, then tried to hoist himself up with his sword. "Celes."
"Back again? What plan are we on now?" remarked Celes. "How many times do you want to see yourself kill Sakura before you give up and just rest here?"
"Where is Sakura?" he asked.
"You've wasted a lot of time—you simply have to come to terms with reality. Look what happens, with both you and Sakura gone," said Celes, pointing to a pool. "The Insect takes over Japan—destroys the crops, destroys all the greens. The country's agricultural industry collapses and there is a food shortage."
"No," whispered Syaoran. "I've contained the Insect—it's trapped within the city. And there are plenty of people who can stop it even if I'm not there."
"Really? The Li Clan won't lift a finger—it's not to their benefit. The Alliance is in havoc with Sakura's death."
"Sakura's not dead. Even if I am trapped here, she will return," said Syaoran..
"Yes, she can return. But Sakura, when she returns without you, will be attacked by the Li Clan. Li Wutai will try to destroy her—and of course, the war between the Li Clan and the Alliance that both of you have been trying to prevent will break out anyway. And there will be great casualties on both sides. And this will be the beginning of the demise of the mighty 2,000 year old Li Clan and also break apart the Star Alliance. It's the beginning of the destruction of the world."
"No—Leiyun—he won't let the clan collapse," said Syaoran.
"Have you not heard anything I've told you? Leiyun has no love left for the Li Clan. He wants to destroy the clan, if anything." Celes paused. "You thought you could win everything. Well, if you were worthy of being the Great Elder, would you have asked Sakura to take such a risk and accompany you on this futile journey? Would you have left the world in a chaos, without containing the dark force properly? You have failed your the Li Clan, your closest friends, Sakura, your father and mother, everyone who believed in you. Your father, who died all alone in this world, raised a failure."
Syaoran drew out his sword and dashed at Celes—if there was no way back, he could beat this dragon and force him to take him back. The dragon breathed a jet of fire, and Syaoran stumbled over, skidding on the ice. Something fell from his pocket. The star key. He had forgotten to give it back to Sakura. He had carried it with him since he had picked it off the ground after the clone Sakura had disappeared into a flurry of pink cherry blossom petals. He had been terrified that he might have killed the real Sakura instead. Because a clone shouldn't have looked at his with such sad eyes and lunged forward, piercing herself instead. He knew what he had to do, but he became frozen that last moment. He couldn't pierce his sword through someone who looked and felt just like Sakura.
He gripped the key in his hand. He had to return it to Sakura. And Syaoran slowly stood up, staring up at the Dragon's silver eyes. "I see. I get it."
"What do you get?"
"You are not showing me my world. You are testing me," Syaoran said staidly. "Great Elder Renshu told me that the Ordeal of the Chosen One tests a warrior's courage, skills, physical strength and prowess. I passed all that, eight years ago. There's no reason to test me on that again. But the test of the Great Elder is about psychological endurance and strength of the will. Because the Great Elder is responsible for leading the Clan as a figurehead and to make decisions that can alter the course of history."
"Oh?" Celes blinked at him. "Maybe I am testing you on your strength of the will. But that doesn't tell me how you will make it back to Kinomoto Sakura from Limbo."
Syaoran placed both his hands over his chest, where he could feel a green glow pulsating next to his heart. "A bit of Sakura has been with me this whole time. I could have returned to her any time I wanted to." Because a fragmented soul always is drawn to its core.
He could feel the heat from the seal over his heart, where Sakura had sealed her eye it, so that he could have enough power of the moon to sustain him through his voyage. And many a times, it had saved him. With just the power of the stars, he was not sure he would have made it through some of the perils he had faced along the way. And there, he could see a faint green beacon of light pointing towards a reservoir a little way over at the end of the cavern.
He kneeled down and thought he saw Sakura kneeling and looking into a pool, anxiously awaiting his return.
"I am coming, Sakura," he called out, though he was not sure she could hear him. It was like a slender green ribbon was attached from him to her, all along. "I have finally found you. You were within me this whole time."
If the dragon could smile it might have been smiling. "So, what makes you worthy of being a Great Elder worthy of Li Renshu, or Li Shulin, or those many whose names may have been forgotten except for in the Li Clan annals? You, who have abandoned the Li Clan once before—how can you regain its trust? If you had to choose between Sakura and the Li Clan, what would you choose? That is the ultimate question I will ask of you. Sakura or the Li Clan."
Syaoran looked at Celes straight in the eye. "Both. If I am the Great Elder, it is to the advantage of the Li Clan that Sakura is my ally. So I can choose both."
"That's cheating," yawned Celes.
"No, that's strategy," replied Syaoran. "The Li Clan in the 21st century can no longer go on being insular and stuck in 19th century decorum. We need to expand our horizon—that's a part of Leiyun's original vision. And from there, I will be able to help Sakura build her Alliance of the Stars—that's our dream together. To that, I am going to stand up to the Elders, and to that I need to have authority over them. I will help the Li Clan be strong but also compassionate. That's what the Great Elder and my father would have wanted, and I will carry out their legacy."
"And I can grant you that authority." Celes stretched his long neck and peered at Syaoran. "I will pass you now. Because I think you will make an interesting Great Elder to watch over. You are young and naïve in many ways—but perhaps that will also be your strength as the Great Elder. You are not like your father or the many generations of Li men and women before him. Your father would always choose the Clan till his final day. But you, you are one who would readily abandon the Clan. Yet, you choose to return and seal your fate with the Clan. Humans with power always show the same patterns—they bore me. Perhaps you will fall into the same pitfalls of the Great Five. Perhaps your foolhardiness will bring about destruction anyway. All odds are against you two, but I will watch you and Sakura anyway."
The Blue Dragon breathed a gust of fire over Syaoran. But it did not burn him. Syaoran felt a searing heat pulse beneath his veins, as if the thousand years of wisdom of the hundreds of Great Elders before him had been vested upon him.
"I proclaim Li Syaoran, 212th Chosen One of the Li Clan, as the 77th Great Elder of the Li Clan," the Celes said.
The onyx Li Clan seal ring blazed and Syaoran looked up at the Blue Dragon. "I'm going back to Sakura."
"As you wish."
Syaoran leaped into the pool, without a doubt that this time he will find his way back to Sakura.
For Syaoran, it seemed like eons had passed since he had left Sakura at the mouth of the Cavern of Reservoirs, but she stood there as if she hadn't moved an inch from the last time she had seen him. Just like when she had waited for him at the Hong Kong harbors after the Great Elder had passed. Just like when she was waiting for him atop the Tokyo Tower on her birthday, which should have been just a week ago, but now seemed like an eternity ago. The hourglass beside a pool showed the last grains of sand were dropping fast down into the bottom glass.
"Sakura." Syaoran staggered forward, looking dazed. "Sakura."
"Syaoran, are you all right?" Sakura placed her hand on Syaoran's arm. "What happened? Did you pass the test?"
"I guess I must have." He was shivering uncontrollably, his hand covering his right eye.
"What's wrong, are you hurt?" Sakura hands on his chest, his arms, his face, just thankful to feel his flesh, to know he was alive and breathing. Yes, he was breathing unevenly, as if he had been running, and his heart was thumping rapidly. His cheeks, smudged with ash and dust, glistened with misty sweat, and his flushed skin burned—or maybe her fingers did. But his bronze-amber eyes glazed with a fire of determination and gravity that she had never seen before.
He grabbed her wrists then yanked her forward. Then he wrapped her in the tightest embrace, knocking the wind out of her lungs. It wasn't gentle, caring, considerate but rather, the arms encircling her drew her roughly, tighter, desperate, one hand buried in her hair and the other encasing her shoulders.
"Syaoran, I can't breathe. Let go." Her voice was muffled in his shredded black tunic.
"No, I won't let go." He seemed to squeeze her even closer, if it was possible, so that she didn't know where her body ended and his started. "Days and months and years I wandered through dimensions and time and space to find to you. But I had to keep going and going. It was my curse, the price to pay, in order to reach you. And yet, life after life, I could not be with you."
She decided he was slightly delusional after going through the Great Elder Test. "Shush, I'm here now. I'm here beside you," said Sakura, stroking his back.
"You are here, right?" Syaoran's lips grazed the nape of her neck, as if to breathe in her fragrance and to check her warmth and pulse. "You are my Sakura, right?"
He had never called her that before. "My Sakura." In the real world, she might never hear such tenderness from him again. But here, he was her one and only Syaoran. And she was his. "Yes, I'm your Sakura. And you are my Syaoran."
It seemed perfectly natural to lean against Syaoran's shoulder and let him stroke her hair and murmur strange little stories off far off worlds, to which she would add little comments and consolation, encouragement or questions.
"And you, what were you up to while I was gone?" asked Syaoran. "It would be too much to ask you if you just stayed at the entrance of the Cavern of Reservoirs and waited."
And Sakura smiled up at him through her pale brown lashes. "Look." She held up a globular crystal, whole again.
Syaoran didn't know whether to feel terrified or relieved. "You fixed it. How did you do it? You didn't do anything rash—"
"No, I managed to fix the Eye of the Dragon on my own. Well, almost on my own," said Sakura. "I couldn't sit around doing nothing while you were off on a quest."
With a faint smile, Syaoran said, "Looks like you're the one who was off on a quest, bargaining with dragons, and heaven knows what else you were up to, while I'll I was just doing was trying my darned best to find my way back to you. You have a lot of explaining to do when we get back. But not now—I don't have the energy to scold you. Besides, in the end, it was your power that guided me back to you." He drew out a green stone from his heart. "I broke your seal. I'm going to return this to you now. You know, this probably saved me. Did you know?"
Sakura smiled slightly as well. "I knew you would be able to find a way back to me, either way, like you always have."
He gently pressed the stone into her left eyelid, which absorbed the stone. He could see the marble-like eye regain its usual emerald fire. "Does it feel better now?"
Sakura nodded. "It feels a lot better to be able to see out of both eyes properly. My sense of depth perception was off. Though I went around with no sight before when I was struck with the Veil so I should've been grateful I still had half my vision."
"How can you speak of something like this so lightly?" he demanded. "What if I wasn't able to recover your eye? What if I didn't figure out what it was? What if it was misused if it fell into the wrong hand? What if I misused it? What if, I didn't come back?"
"Well, luckily you recovered it for me, and you had all the more reason to find me again and return it to me," said Sakura. "And if you didn't, as Clow Reed put it, at least I have the other one."
"Clow has a grotesque sense of humor," Syaoran remarked darkly. "Is that who kept you company in the Fantasy when you were making the clone you?"
"Sometimes," said Sakura. "He seemed fascinated by the whole process of making a clone. But he mostly made snide comments—he's sort of like Yue and Spinel Sun rolled into one."
"Well, I have to admit, I'm a little bit curious on how you made a clone that could confuse even me. But perhaps, it's better I do not know." Syaoran shuddered again.
"Really, I was considering making more clones—one to go to school for me, one to be a Card Captor, maybe one to model exclusively for Tomoyo-chan," said Sakura with a feeble giggle, more of relief that they could joke about it now. She did not want to think of the pain it had caused her friends and family, to Syaoran, who could not even carry out the ultimate deed, to the clone of herself who she had made in the Fantasy, who might have grown her own heart in the brief life that she had.
For now, it was enough knowing that Syaoran had returned to her, even for this temporary moment, even though she knew that he would soon leave her again when they returned back to the real world.
"Let's go find the White Dragon," said Sakura. Celes was nowhere to be seen, or else she would have said goodbye.
"Celes didn't finish you off," said the White Dragon, when he saw the boy and girl return, perhaps looking more weathered and solemn than the last time he had seen them. "He's going soft."
Sakura cradled the crystal stone in both hand and presented it to the White Dragon. "Here, I am returning your eye to you. It's fixed.
And the White Dragon blinked his right eye. "So you did it. I didn't think you'd actually keep your word." But he didn't look remarkably impressed, either.
"We kept our side of the bargain. Now, will you keep yours?" asked Sakura. The crystal blazed and levitated towards the White Dragon, before sinking into his left eye.
"Silly girl, if you have the power to fix the stone, you probably don't need my help in switching back your powers," said the White Dragon, both his marble-white eyes fixed on Sakura, highly amused. "Well, come now, let me show you something, since you showed me how to see the world with both eyes again."
The White Dragon finally stirred from its stagnant position and with a flick of his tail lifted the two on his back, then flew out of the cavern. They emerged at the top peak of the isle, and set the boy and girl down. "Look down," he said.
Sakura and Syaoran stared ahead at the dark expanse surrounding them. Nightfall seemed to finally come upon the Dragon Isles, and stars here were larger and more colorful than any they had seen back home, like brilliant bursts of confetti in the sky. They fizzled and showered down like comets, leaving a blazing trail behind them.
More and more stars rained around them. "It's a meteor shower. How beautiful," murmured Sakura.
Syaoran too watched Sakura's face lit up, eyes sparkling as she saw a marvelous light show unfold before her, one that could never be seen on Earth. "What's that?" she gasped, pointing to a distance where they saw a luminous burst of light swirled with blazing crimson, green, pink and violet. With a solemn silence, they witnessed a stellar explosion emitting a blinding flare like a million bursting at once.
"You just witnessed a star being born," said the White Dragon. He spread his great white wings, glowing milky iridescent in the dark. "Step forward, Kinomoto Sakura and Li Syaoran."
They stepped forward, and found themselves encompassed by the dragon's great wings. Sakura and Syaoran both felt their heartbeats matching the slow and thundering pulse of the dragon's, and it seemed that all their bodies were one. And with the dragon as a vessel, the power of the moon flowed from Sakura's body to Syaoran's, and the power of the star from his body to hers. And suddenly, the great beast withdrew his gleaming webbed wings, and Sakura and Syaoran stepped back, staring at each other, then at the White Dragon, dazed.
In their backdrop, stars sizzled down, like detonated firecrackers of neon pinks, iridescent greens and electric blues.
"How do you feel?" Sakura finally asked him, feeling a tingle rush through the tips of her fingers and toes, feeling light as a feather.
Syaoran raised his hands, and the moon fizzled from his fingertips. "Great. Greater than ever." And right. He felt right again for the first time in a long time. "And you. Are you okay?"
She nodded. "I never noticed before. But how do you carry around with you such immense powers daily? It's exhausting."
"The power of the moon is strong but can get drained quickly, that's why you have to hold a lot of it in the first place," he explained. "But your power, I sort of understand now how you were born with it but never noticed it for ten years. It's subtle, almost unnoticeable. But it suddenly bursts out in dire moments."
"Nightfall comes only once a century here," said the White Dragon. "You've seen something rare—there are shooting stars constantly, but you can't see them unless it's dark. Darkness illuminates the subtle light of the stars, otherwise drowned out by the fire of the Dragon Isles."
"Thank you White Dragon-sama," said Sakura, turning to the milky white reptilian beast.
"Silly girl, what are you thanking me for?" asked the White Dragon. "You two transferred back your powers with your own strength. I only acted as a vessel. In fact, here, you can take this back." From his left eye levitated a white stone which dropped down, and Syaoran caught it with both hands.
"Why are you returning this to us?" Syaoran asked.
"Seeing with two eyes is better than seeing with one," said the White Dragon. "But seeing through the eyes of humans is even more fascinating than I recalled it to be. As I told the Japanese swordsman long, long ago, it's a loan. If it falls on the wrong hands, I will descend on your world and take it back. But till then, show me the worth of human courage. Besides, boy, isn't it something that holds sentimental value? It won't be done to take away a Christmas present." It seemed that the dragon's right eye twinkled.
Syaoran then reached over and fastened the crystal to its chain and reached around Sakura's neck. "Who would have thought I bought you a Dragon's Eye for Christmas? I wonder how it even wound up in the store in the first place." But mostly likely, it was the Dragon's Eye that had chosen to find them. He fastened the clasp, and the heavy stone settled over her heart, reflecting all the lights of the meteor shower, shining like a bright star itself, hanging from Sakura's neck.
Sakura cradled the rejoined stone in her fingers. She was happy to have the crystal whole again.
"Thank you Dragon-sama," said Sakura. "I will treasure your eye very much and will make sure it is returned to you someday."
"Sure, I will hold you up on that promise," said the White Dragon. "Now, that's more excitement than I've had since the Boshin War. Farewell, Card Mistress Sakura, and Great Elder Li Syaoran. I doubt I will see you again in this lifetime."
They watched the majestic creature swoop back into his lair, content to watch a galaxy forming overhead on the ledge of the highest peak in the Dragon Isles as they were sitting on a grassy hilltop back in Tomoeda, watching the brightest stars overhead on a summer's night.
"I've been in a place like this here before," realized Sakura. "And I didn't know. It's when I met Clow Reed for the first time, after I became Card Mistress."
"Of course he does everything with style," remarked Syaoran.
"I don't know," said Sakura. "Don't you think we give him fair challenge, the two of us?"
This produced a genuine grin from Syaoran as he stared into Sakura's matching grin. Wrenched from familiar settings and set on strange lands, and after even stranger toils and tribulations, there was nothing as pleasurable and satisfying as being able to look into each others' eyes here in the fantastical dreamlike realm of dragons.
Rather reluctantly, it was Syaoran who remarked, "We probably have to go back soon—I don't know how long the Fantasy will keep open the portal. And the barrier to keep the Insects in is weakening—I can sense it. The Wu Clan is attacking the Li Clan, and if I don't show up soon, I think Uncle Wutai will use this as an opportunity to declare himself Great Elder. And everyone is waiting for your return, of course."
"Do they know?" Sakura asked slowly.
"They might have a good sense by now," replied Syaoran. After all, Sakura's friends were the most suspicious and perceptive bunch he had ever seen, aside from himself, hence the need for the ultimate deception which had been a ticking time bomb.
"Do you think everybody will forgive us for deceiving them?" asked Sakura.
Syaoran reflected solemnly. "I don't know," he admitted truthfully. Because if Sakura had faked her death without telling him, he honestly didn't know how he would have reacted. "But we'll have to face them sooner or later."
He reached out with his left hand and took Sakura's hand. "Come, let us go home, Sakura."
Sakura shot Syaoran a hesitant smile and nodded. Hand-in-hand, they headed through the dimensional portal, back to their world.
Wish-chan: (4/19 - 6/15/2014) Belated Happy Birthday Sakura! I had this chapter 98% done for Sakura's birthday, but you know when everything sort explodes at once with work and real life. The weird date annotation is because that's when I posted Part I of the chapter. So I'm over two months off schedule, thanks to work, real life drama and a cold back in April. I've recovered from my cold completely (which I partially blame on the yellow dust season and all the dust particles from construction in my neighborhood). Don't write while on cold meds—I found so weirdest typos in this chapter as I was editing. I was done with this chapter last month, but there was one scene I was stuck on that I decided to add in Part II, and I had to take the time to think it out. And basically, this chapter is the length of two chapters.
So, I think I saw it about every chapter recently but this perhaps was the most difficult chapter to write till date. Last chapter was difficult because of the emotional content, but was pretty straightforward and linear looking back. This chapter was difficult because of the technical aspects, especially with the lack of presence of the main protagonist for the first half of the chapter. I hope nobody really thought Sakura was gone for good, but at the same time, I hope readers were a little bit worried. But the way I approached this chapter, more than anything else, was probably as a mystery adventure. Again, I think this chapter would work better as an actually animated sequence, with all the flashbacks. I've wanted to write about dragons for a long time, since the beginning stages of New Trials (before TRC was ever conceived). The first story that I ever wrote, when I was 8, when the writer in me awoke, was about a dragon cave, inspired from Puff the Magic Dragon. John Keats is my favorite Romantic poet and Shakespeare my favorite playwright.
Those of you who have read Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles probably recognized Sakura and Syaoran's outfits for the Dragon Isles, which was based of CLAMP's design because it's one of my favorite outfit designs from TRC. Unfortunately CLAMP never got around to writing in a dragon dimension arc, which could be briefly glimpsed in the Clamp in Wonderland II AMV sequence, which is what I based the visual setting of the Dragon Isles on. This is probably the chapter that I most liberally cross-referenced TRC in. Some years ago, when TRC first came out, I wrote that I was scared to read the manga partially because I was afraid that it will sway my vision of New Trials of CCS (since it also dealt with an older Sakura and Syaoran) and a part of me probably was probably scared it might ruin our favorite CCS characters. But in retrospective, I am glad TRC came out because for me, it was a valuable character and design study to help me better understand CLAMP's mindset, and it aligned even better with my vision for New Trials. Either way, the TRC influence probably ends there—a lot of the Cavern of Reservoirs may be reminiscent of the Chronicles of Narnia's wood between the worlds. I read the Narnia books when I was in second grade, and was very impressionable for me as it was one of my first forays into dimension travel.
My favorite scene in this chapter, and perhaps for me the most heartfelt one was that between Sakura and Ryuuren. I wrote that scene probably a good 7-8 years ago. So technically, this may have been the chapter that took the longest to write, ever. Initially, I hadn't planned on writing about Syaoran's side of his mission in this chapter, but I changed my mind and decided to include excerpts, or the tip of the iceberg, since I believe this chapter already is the longest one to date. Back in April, I decided to cut off a third of the end of the chapter so it didn't end where I wanted to with this one, but perhaps it's for the better. At least I have over a third of Chapter 71 written already. Probably more since as you know I have been writing ahead as we get closer to the end of the series.
Belated Happy Birthday Sakura 2014! Though I guess it's getting closer to Syaoran's birthday now. I drew a picture of Sakura hugging Syaoran at the Hong Kong harbors. It's actually one of my more favorite pictures I drew recently. I like how the emotions, colors and background came out, which is rather rare. art/I-m-here-for-you-Syaoran-S-S-in-Hong-Kong-397189080
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