"Song of the Gondola"

She was tired of it! Rimudo was so cruel, constantly sending her mixed signals about the way he (occasionally a she) felt. Though he had finally admitted his feelings for her shortly after the group had found Uramiya, their relationship was as strained as ever. It didn't help that Kutou kept ambushing them left and right, and that Takiko was close to summoning Genbu. In fact, they were already at the shrine.

The shrine. Takiko stopped mid-thought and stared at the campfire, her eyes transfixed on the flames. Soon she would be summoning Genbu, making her three wishes. "And," she thought, "returning—" She was interrupted by a light punch to the back of her head. Takiko turned, but she knew, even before seeing him, that it was Rimudo who was behind her. She averted her eyes, turning back to the fire. Rimudo frowned, then sat next to her without a word. The two sat in companionable silence for a few moments. Takiko thought about Tomite and Hikitsu…how they had died and she had been powerless to stop it from happening.

"Still awake at this hour?" he asked after some time had passed. Takiko nodded. "What is it?" Takiko was reluctant to answer, but after a short pause and a glowering look from Rimudo, she sighed.

"It's just that…to be honest, I'm scared about summoning Genbu." She admitted. Rimudo raised an eyebrow, entreating her to elaborate further. "I still can't help but feel that I'm inferior, that I'm a terrible priestess. I don't have any confi—"

"Don't say that," Rimudo stopped her from finishing. Takiko wondered if he would say any more, or try to comfort her, but after a few moments' hesitation, she knew that he wouldn't. It wasn't part of his nature to be compassionate, she remembered. At this realization, Takiko sighed again. "You have plenty of good qualities." he interjected softly, almost unintelligible against the sound of the crackling fire. Takiko's eyes widened, and she turned to face him. Rimudo, however, was trying hard to not make eye contact. It was hard for her to tell whether the red on his face was from the fire or from sheer embarrassment. Takiko mentally laughed, knowing that those six words had probably been hard for him to say. The smile must have shown on her face, because Rimudo suddenly got defensive, and looked her straight in the eye, sputtering, "Well, you do! You're kind, wonderful, beautiful. Even if you can be stubborn and unreasonable at times, it's—!" Rimudo's sudden passion died down and he finished gently (if not bitterly), "It's…why I love you."

She was in awe, her mouth open, her eyes staring at him and drinking in every part of his being. This was her seishi…her prince. He was strong, handsome, and he had saved her countless times from countless dangers. Usually silent and brooding, Rimudo's sudden outburst left Takiko pleasantly surprised, though she had sensed a bit of sadness in his tone. "Rimudo…?" she ventured. Biting his lip, he looked back down, concentrating very hard on his boots. "Are you all right?" she asked. It was Rimudo's turn to sigh.

"Don't you get it?" he snapped. Takiko stared at him, obviously confused. "You're going to be summoning Genbu!"

"Isn't that a good thing?" she questioned. "I won't have Tomite and Hikitsu's deaths be in vain! You fulfilled your destiny, and it's time I fulfilled mine!" She was referring, of course, to the death of Hokkan's emperor, Rimudo's father, by his hands. Rimudo ignored the latter.

"No, it's not a good thing!" he yelled, standing up and looking down at her. Then he blushed and averted his eyes to the right. "You'll be…leaving." Rimudo sat back down and looked to her intently. When Takiko didn't answer, he closed his eyes angrily and blurted out, "I won't see you again! I won't hold you ever again! I won't be there to protect you when you need me! DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND?" Takiko was speechless, as usual. She found herself unable to respond, finally understanding why Rimudo had been so cold lately. He hadn't been able to cope with the thought of losing her. Taking a deep breath, Takiko started to sing her song again…

"Life is short, so love, maiden.

Before the colour of your dark hair fades,

Before the fire of your heart disappears…

Today is something that will not come again…"

Within moments, Takiko felt the sensation of Rimudo's lips on her own, his arms holding her to him. However, this kiss was more intense and more passionate than any other the pair had shared. The couple toppled over off of the log they had been sitting on, and Takiko felt herself lying on the blankets that were supposed to be her bed, (however, she hadn't slept a wink) with Rimudo on top of her. Even as Rimudo's kisses moved down to her neck and chest area, and as she felt him slowly loosen her kimono, Takiko did not resist. Here, in his arms, in his embrace, she felt more at home and more needed than anywhere else in the world.

----

Takiko awoke early the next morning, still under the covers next to Rimudo. She wondered momentarily what the other seishi would think if they saw them in such a position. With a smile, she imagined that Tomite would have been a bit horrified, were he still alive. She had a sad smile from the thought of him. It was with much surprise that Takiko noticed that Rimudo was also awake, and gazing at her. Blushing deeply, she muttered, "What is it? Why are you awake?"

"I could ask you the same thing," he replied coolly. Takiko slapped the top of his head playfully.

"You're so much more charming when you're asleep," she teased. Rimudo chuckled lightly, a rarity.

"Now you CAN'T summon Genbu. Not after that," he argued, the sun rising behind him.

"And why not?" Takiko asked with a frown.

"I don't want you to leave," he replied angrily, sitting up. "You can't go."

"You sound like a 5-year-old," she bluntly remarked, but inside she agreed. Wouldn't it be so much easier if she didn't have to summon Genbu? If she wasn't the priestess…? How many times had Rimudo remarked that things would have been easier for them if she wasn't the maiden of Genbu?

Her thoughts were interrupted by the whistling sound of an arrow, and the sound of it piercing through flesh. With horror, she realized that the arrow had hit Rimudo. "No—!"

Takiko's cry awoke the other 4 seishi, and any disgust or perverted thoughts they would have had at the sight of her and Rimudo together in bed vanished once they saw the arrow stuck through the center of his chest. They all looked to the east where a silhouetted figure stood atop a tree branch. As the sun continued to rise, it shed light on the attacker. After a few moments, they saw that it was Shigi.

"What! I thought you were dead!" Uramiya yelled, having "killed" the Kutou assassin earlier.

"I will absolutely NOT let Genbu be summoned!" he yelled, an evil gleam in his eye, and a crossbow in his hand. Takiko wasn't paying attention to this, she was more worried about Rimudo.

"Rimudo! Are you all right!" she yelled worriedly. Rimudo tried to move, but winced after the attempt. "Rimudo!"

"Damn…the arrow's poisoned…" he muttered. "Shigi, you bastard!" he yelled at the pretty-boy devil, though with less energy and rage than he could usually muster.

"And now…I shall kill your beloved priestess of Genbu…Genbu WILL NOT be summoned!" Shigi pulled out his strange, whip-like weapon and flung himself at Takiko. At the last possible instant, Rimudo moved to shield Takiko, using his wind power and turning into a woman, his character glowing a bright green on his chest.

"YOU WILL NOT TOUCH HER!" he cried, using his wind to try to rip Shigi apart. At the same time, Namame used his power to send a barrage of rocks at Shigi. The two seishi's powers combined to form a whirlwind of flying boulders, which completely caught Shigi off-guard in his recklessness and struck him.

"Hakei-sama…Kutou…" the assassin blurted out weakly, and then he was killed.

Rimudo turned to the little gingerbread figure that was Namame and smiled weakly. "Thank you…Namame…" his eyes closed and Rimudo collapsed in Takiko's arms.

"Rimudo! RIMUDO!" she sobbed, unable to control her emotions. It was too much! First Tomite…then Hikitsu…there was no way that Rimudo could die! "You can't die!" she cried, hugging him to her.

Rimudo looked up at Takiko and smiled as brightly as humanly possible. "Takiko. You were right. You have to summon Genbu. It's your…destiny, as this is mine," he shakily wiped away her tears with his index finger. "Please don't cry. I will always be by your side." Then, slowly, his eyes closed again, and his breathing slowed. Takiko's eyes widened, and when his breathing finally ceased and he turned back into male form, she sobbed even more uncontrollably, clutching his body and calling out his name.

"Priestess…" Hatsui called out. But he had nothing to say. None of the remaining seishi had anything to say. They just watched helplessly as their beloved priestess cried over the death of the man that she had desperately loved.

---

The next morning, Takiko and company were ready to begin the summoning ceremony. Dressed in the glorious, beautiful priestess robes, Takiko knelt by Rimudo's body before ascending up the stairs. "Rimudo…I go now to fulfill my destiny…for the both of us," she whispered to him, then stood back up. "Let's go. Genbu is waiting for us." She said to the other seishi, who nodded and followed their priestess up the stairs.

In the center of the shrine was a large, green flame. There were 8 circles around it, meant for the priestess and her seishi. Only five spots were filled when the ceremony began. Takiko chanted the incantation, and threw a scroll upon the flames. "I summon thee, Genbu!"

There was a brilliant flash of light and it took all of Takiko's will to not topple over in recoil. After a few moments, there stood two figures before her: a man with silver hair and cold blue eyes, and a woman with long brown hair and golden eyes that sparkled with playfulness and mirth. It was, not surprisingly, the woman who spoke. "Greetings, priestess. I am half of the god Genbu, known as 'Bu'. My companion is the other half, known as 'Gen'. For what reason have you called us today?"

"I have endured many trials, and suffered many hardships. I come to you today to ask for the three wishes I was destined to make," Takiko replied, with more fear in her voice than she would have liked.

"Do you know, priestess, that your body is impure?" Gen interjected harshly. Takiko's eyes widened.

"Im…pure?" she asked, bewildered. Then she quickly covered her mouth with her hands, remembering the night before. "Oh god, no." she whispered, her face turning white.

"You cannot—" Gen started, but was interrupted by Bu.

"Under normal circumstances, we would not allow you to make your wishes, as the priestess who summons the protector god of her country is supposed to be pure so that she may receive the god's power. However, because you lost the man you love," Bu looked up at Gen, who abruptly averted his eyes, "We—I will allow you mercy and grant your wishes." Bu smiled at Takiko.

"Thank you, goddess," Takiko sighed gratefully.

"Any time you wish to call upon us to make a wish, simply say the word 'kaijin' and we shall appear," Bu told her.

"Mercy is all very well and good, Bu," Gen snapped. "But we gods devour those who are not strong of will. Those who are," he looked at Takiko, "unworthy. Choose your wishes wisely, priestess! They will be the last thing you ever do!" Bu looked shocked, but before she could protest, the two gods disappeared. Takiko slumped down onto her knees, thunder stricken.

"Devoured…" Hatsui murmured. It was the word on all of the seishi's minds. "Priestess! You musn't make your wish!" Takiko looked at Hatsui, a look of horror still on her mind.

"That's right, priestess! You'll die!" Uramiya cried out. Inami nodded, showing agreement to Uramiya's outburst. Namame, however, said nothing, and walked over to Takiko, putting his arms around her arm in a small hug. Takiko knew, as Namame did, that it was her duty to make those wishes. It was what she had come for, and…now that Rimudo was gone, there was no point to her staying.

"Kaijin!" she called out, despite protests. In an instant, Gen and Bu appeared before her.

"What is your wish, priestess?" Gen asked. Takiko looked to Bu, but Bu seemed unable to argue with her partner, though angry about it.

"I wish…that Hokkan would forever be peaceful and protected from the likes of Kutou!" Takiko cried.

"Your wish shall be granted, priestess," Gen bowed, and there was another brilliant flash of light. With that, the two gods were gone. Takiko felt something pierce through her, and she fell to the earth, unconscious.

"Pr-priestess?" Takiko heard a faraway voice call. Her eyes fluttered open and she saw Hatsui and Namame sitting beside her.

"Hatsui…Namame…" she muttered weakly. Takiko sat up in bed.

"Are you all right, priestess?" Uramiya asked.

"Yes. I'm fine. Just a little drained," Takiko felt something rough against her skin, and when she lifted her sleeve, she started. The "something rough" WAS her skin, which was now covered in scales.

"Priestess!" Inami cried. "Genbu…is devouring you."

Takiko felt cold, helpless. She looked at her faithful seishi one by one. "You all…I will miss you. Thank you for making my life meaningful!"

"Priestess, no!"

"KAIJIN!" Takiko cried, and with another bright flash of light, Genbu appeared once more.

"You called, priestess? What is your wish?" Bu asked her.

"I wish for Uruki to return to me!"

Gen and Bu exchanged glances. "Priestess…" Bu said sadly. "We cannot bring back the dead. That would cause a distortion in time, and people would suffer for it."

"…no," Takiko closed her eyes, faith shattered. "Then…I wish to return home, please."

"Your wish, dear priestess," Bu smiled sadly, "is granted." Takiko waved at her seishi, who were all dumbstruck and not wanting her to go, and then disappeared.

"PRIESTESS!"

---

"…iko…Takiko!" Takiko opened her eyes once more, and for one, painful moment, she though she saw Rimudo's face peering at her. After her eyes focused, she saw that it was her father. She was home.

"I'm home, father," she smiled weakly, feeling the dark cold overtake her once more.

"Takiko…you…" her father looked away. He knew of all of her adventures in the book, he had read along and knew all of her trials. "You will die?"

"Yes, father. Genbu will…devour me. After I make my final wish, I will die," she said, ready to face her fate with courage, as she knew Rimudo would have wanted.

"I…cannot allow it!" her father quaked with rage. Takiko was surprised.

"What? What do you mean?" she asked, confused at his words.

"You will absolutely NOT summon Genbu!" he yelled at her. Takiko smiled sardonically.

"You sound like Shigi, father," she said to him lightly. At this, her father calmed down considerably. "No matter, I will summon Genbu and make my final wish, as soon as my strength is up," she professed. Takiko felt sleep claim her, and her mind drifted off to dreamland.

Einosuke watched his daughter warily. There was absolutely no way that he could let her give herself to a god. The only way he knew that her death would be justified…would be by his own hand. Since Einosuke found out that his daughter would be devoured by Genbu, he had decided that he had to kill her himself if she would not stop making wishes. He knew that this was the only way. The filthy god Genbu would not have his daughter! He would redeem himself to her, all the years he had ignored her…he would now bring her salvation!

It was with a heavy heart that Einosuke produced a small pistol that he had purchased in his travels to distant foreign lands. There was a loud bang as he aimed and fired the pistol at Takiko. This would not continue. Einosuke went to his desk and wrote a letter to his friend, Takao Oosugi. "This book must never be read again," he wrote. "I lost my daughter to it, and it must never be allowed to claim more innocent lives. It is in your hands now." He wrapped the book and letter in brown paper, wrote Oosugi's address on it, and put it outside on the doorstep.

Einosuke then went back to the room where Takiko lay, now in an eternal sleep. Then, as if in a trance, he aimed the pistol at his head. A shot rang out, followed by a thud.

---

Takiko felt herself surrounded by white light, and looked down at herself. She was wearing the kimono she had worn when she had met Rimudo, and her scales were gone. She no longer felt any pain. Takiko took feeble steps forward, not knowing what lay before her. In the distance, she saw a small boat in a lake, with someone sitting on it. Takiko hurriedly ran towards the boat, and saw her beloved Rimudo sitting there, waiting for her. Impatient as always, Rimudo conjured up a breeze to lift Takiko into the boat. Takiko and Rimudo embraced, as if a thousand years had passed between them. As the two floated away on their little boat, she started to sing:

"Life is short, so love, maiden

Now grasp his hand, into his boat.

Now the burning cheek is your cheek.

There is no one that will come here."