A.N. Sorry again for the long wait, but here's the next chapter :) Hope you guys like it.

Disclaimer: No changes here.


Chapter 16

It was the dead of night but he could see a light seeping out from beneath the study door. The voices that had woken him had lowered to a faint murmur but the note of urgency was still almost tangible. What was going on?

He moved closer, his steps quiet despite the urge to be outright. Eavesdropping wasn't something he usually indulged in, but he reasoned his parents didn't usually argue in the middle of the night either. The door opened before he reached it though and he looked up into his grandfather's weary, lined face. He didn't seem surprised to find his grandson standing in the hall.

"Kunimitsu," he said, his voice calm but edged with a note the boy had never heard there before. It took him a moment to realize it was fear. "Come inside."

The study was flooded with warm light from the fire that leapt and crackled in the hearth. It filled the air with an amber radiance that softened the edges of the world until it became all but insubstantial. And yet even it could not smooth the jagged edges of unease that had cast the room's occupants in wood and stone.

There were four of them, he noted, one more than he had expected. The extra was a man dressed in healers' grays whose face bore the unmistakable pall of weariness. There was something familiar about him that reminded Kunimitsu of hurried conversations in the corners of rooms at which times he would be appointed to watch the shop.

The door was shut behind him as his father gestured for him to take a seat on one of the study's many, straight-backed chairs. The faint tingle of a shield being raised around the room went uncommented upon.

"Kunimitsu," his father began, the slight hesitation in his voice foreign and uncomfortable. "This is Healer Oishi, you will be leaving Sanko with him tonight."

There was a long moment of silence. When it became apparent that no explanation was forthcoming Kunimitsu frowned. It wasn't like his parents to leave things half said. "Why?"

"Kunimitsu," his grandfather started in that stern tone that meant there had been one too many questions asked only to be cut off by the room's only female occupant.

"He needs to know." Her tone was firm, demanding, but beneath it ran the faintest of tremors. "If—no, when—everything is done he will have to know. Now is better than later, just…in case."

Her husband and father in law traded glances but it was apparent o the boy watching that a consensus had already been reached. For the next hour or so he sat and listened as his parents and grandfather explained to him the existence of the Elite. He listened in silence. It wasn't that he had not known a lot of what they were saying—it was hard not to notice certain things when one has been taught since birth to hide some things and show others—but this was the fist time his parents had really elaborated on the matter. It had never really struck him until that moment just how serious the issue was. What he still didn't understand was why they were telling him now. He had however spent enough time reading the many books lining the walls of that very study to make an educated guess. And yet part of him needed to hear them say it.

"We don't have much time." It was the first time the healer had spoken since Kunimitsu's arrival and his voice was urgent. The boy bit back his question, his mouth pressed into a grim line. "They—I was only able to get ahead because the rain made the river rise."

His father sighed, moving to stand in front of the hearth. He stared into it for a moment, unmoving, but the line of his shoulders was tense. Then they sagged, shocking Kunimitsu in a way he couldn't quite explain. Finally, he turned, leveling his son with a look that was somewhere between stern and weary with a touch of what seemed strangely akin to wistfulness.

"Kunimitsu, the Elite will be here in a few minutes. We've known they'd be coming for a while now," he added, catching sight of the surprised expression that flitted across the boy's face. "We simply weren't expecting it to be quite so soon."

"They're here."

All eyes turned to the only woman in the room. Her face had gone still but for a thin crease of concentration on her forehead. For a moment no one moved. Then Kunimitsu found himself being hurried out of the room by the healer as his parents moved as one into the hall and towards the front door. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his grandfather reaching into the hearth, apparently unbothered by the flames, and he sensed the hum of power as those bright snakes of light spiraled up over his grandfather's arm and over his body until the old man was aglow with an orange gold halo and the hearth was empty but for a blackened lump of wood amidst powdered ash.

A little taken aback by the display, he sought to turn, but the healer's iron grip on his shoulder prevented him and he was out the back door before he knew that his feet had started moving. Rain lashed across his face, turning his glasses into a fractured kaleidoscope through which he could make out nothing but whirling patches of darkness. He stumbled in the soft mud of the path. The hand on his shoulder tightened impossibly and hauled him forward regardless until he was running. It wasn't until the dull roar of the swollen river reached their ears that they slowed.

"I have a son about your age," the healer had told him as they hurried through the night. It seemed to Kunimitsu a completely irrelevant piece of information but the man appeared to feel some great need to fill the air with words so he remained silent. If the man needed a distraction, it was not his place to object. And yet he couldn't help but strain his ears in a vain attempt to catch any sound drifting from the direction from which they had come. Why were there no other footsteps? Should not at least someone have caught up to them by now? Even his grandfather could run faster than most of Sanko's residents. Perhaps it was the rain, it masked most sounds and the growing rumble of river rapids only aided in the concealment.

"Tezuka."

Someone was shaking him lightly. Forcing his eyes open he found himself face to face with Fuji. He blinked, taking a moment to collect his thoughts and let the fog of sleep slip away.

"Is it my turn to stand watch?"

"About, but that's not it." Fuji was whispering and Tezuka realized that the night had gone still. He tensed, the last traces of sleep fleeing his mind in an instant.

"What is it?" he inquired, voice barely even a whisper.

Fuji held a finger to his lips then gestured off at the screen of trees to one side of the clearing. Tezuka's brows furrowed as he strained his ears. There were voices—faint but unquestionably human. He started to rise, mind racing for a way to get the horses out of sight, but Fuji put a hand on his shoulder and shook his head.

"They'll pass us," he murmured. "Just stay still."

Gradually the muffled voices resolved themselves into words.

"…don't understand why we still have to go and tell him we're here," an extremely annoyed voice was complaining. "I mean, we've already got permission to search the place and we know they know we do."

"Yes, but when has that mattered to the lieutenant? There are some forces it is best not to trifle with."

The first speaker snorted but there was a distinct note of discomfort hidden beneath his derision. "I still don't see why it has to be us going. Atobe's the captain, he should be the one tramping into the demon's den."

"In case you have forgotten, we are not in the best of graces at the moment," came the dry reply as the voices drew away. "I would highly suggest…"

The voices faded into the distance and Fuji let out an almost inaudible sigh and sat back on his heels. Several seconds more slipped by in tense silence before both sorcerers relaxed.

"We should go," Tezuka murmured, eyes losing focus for a moment as he cast careful mental fingers out questing amidst the trees in search of further disturbances. For the moment the night seemed safe. "There may be others."

Fuji nodded, getting to his feet before casting a curious look in Tezuka's direction. "You were frowning in your sleep. Bad dream?"

Tezuka paused a moment then shook his head. "Just memories."

He had never thought of them as dreams. Dreams were supposed to be creations of the mind—the embodiment of thoughts and emotions set free by the mind's wild brush. They could sometimes reflect the present or the past, and in the case of seers even the future, but they were not orderly things and were never meant to be. No, he did not dream. Instead his sleep had always been filled with memories when they had anything in them at all. They were always vivid and chronologically accurate within themselves, as though something within himself was trying to remind him not to forget because to forge would be too much like saying they no longer mattered.

Fuji was watching him now with slightly raised eyebrows. Tezuka half expected the other sorcerer to question his response, but he didn't. Instead they gathered their things, went over the campsite with meticulous care to obliterate any signs of inhabitation, then the four of them, two humans and two horses, disappeared into the thick shadows of the forest night.

X

He had seen many things in his time for it had always been his duty to see—to see and to remember. Sometimes, near the beginning, he had wondered if anyone could truly be content with a fate such as his, to watch but not to interfere, but there was a certain joy in being allowed to observe as the paths of existence unfolded and gradually the concern had become irrelevant. Over time he had come to record these memories on paper, partially because it was a way to occupy his hands but mostly because something in him couldn't help but wonder how long he had and how his knowledge would pass on if it ever came to that. Memory was, after all, one of the most precious things in the world for it was in memory that life became eternal. And yet all the millions of strange sights he had witnessed in his years had not prepared him for being there—in the midst of the darkness with his companions incapacitated and a malevolent presence bearing down upon them—and even as the entrance hall came into sight he could feel the pounding of his heart and the chill of uncertainty vying with each other inside his chest.

He had seen much, but even he could not know when, what, or how things would happen. He was no seer, and he knew from experience that even if he had been the powers of divination were limited.

The last flight of steps to the floor of the entrance hall was wide and elegant despite the degenerating conditions of the mansion around it. Inui and Kaidoh had to slow their movements lest they send the unconscious Oishi tumbling down to what would doubtlessly be a painful landing. It was nerve-wracking having to walk when one wanted to run. Every few steps Inui would cast a look over his shoulder, trying to gauge how much time they had left. Part of him wanted to just go back while the steps above were still less than those below and just wait on the landing, but the rest of him knew with the clarity he had been cursed with that if they were going to make a stand then the spacious entrance hall would be far preferable to a precarious perch atop the stairs.

Boots touched entrance hall floor amidst a sea of silence that had taken on a heavy, menacing aura. Moving to the center of the hall the two laid Oishi carefully on the floor so they would both have the use of their hands when the time came. Inhaling deeply to steady his nerves, Inui turned to face the stairs. He could feel Kaidoh's confusion as the other did the same but that was when they caught sight of the others—the others and what came behind them.

X

Momoshiro saw the others first. He cried out to them, releasing his death grip on the girl to wave frantically at them. He wasn't sure if he was trying to call for help or just get their attention—or possibly warn them away, not that he really needed to do any of those things considering both Inui and Kaidoh were staring up at them with looks of grim anticipation and horror fixed on their faces respectively. Somewhere in the back of his mind he wondered why Oishi seemed to be sleeping on the stone floor behind the two, it seemed an awfully strange time for a nap, but there were more important things at hand.

Ryoma's path of ice ended abruptly beneath them and all three were tumbling down the stairs. They landed on the bottom landing in a heap of flailing limbs. Untangling himself from the mass, Ryoma scrambled to his feet and spun to face the stairs. The opening of an incantation was already on the tip of his tongue before he realized one very important thing.

The creature was gone.

It was not a reassuring discovery.

"Where…?" Momo trailed off, eyes shifting warily from side to side. His hands flexed and he wondered if he should draw his sword but something told him it wouldn't be much good. It was a galling realization.

"It's waiting."

Startled by the unfamiliar voice, they all glanced around before all four travelers focused on the girl who was now sitting on the floor. Her earlier panic seemed to have melted away to be replaced by an almost eerie calm.

"It's waiting," she said again. "It knows that is all it has to do."

"Is it?" Ryoma turned away from the stairs to give the girl a long, hard look. A small voice in the back of his mind was trying to tell him that, much as he loathed to admit it, the girl might be right—they were facing something he had no idea how to deal with, but he had never listened much to that voice in the past and he wasn't about to start now. He refused to be defeated before the battle had begun. Without waiting for an answer he headed for the main doors. He could feel the others watching him as he went.

The great double doors stood shut. He frowned at them. He couldn't remember whether they had shut the doors when they came in or if the things had shut themselves. It was irrelevant anyway. Stepping closer, he placed his hand against the carved surface—and jerked back with a yelp. His palm stung as though he had tried to grab hot coals.

"What is this?" he murmured, more to himself than anyone else. It was power, clearly, but it was not a sorcerer's power. He had learned of supernatural entities and even humans who wielded energies both like and unlike that of a sorcerer, but this thing wasn't so much a living thing as a presence—a source of power in itself and not a carrier of it.

"It is an embodiment."

He glanced back over his shoulder to find that Inui had come to join him. The Observer moved up beside him and tilted his head back to study the doors. "I believe some people call them demons."

"Ah." Demons had been a taboo subject among the Sorcerien. "How do we defeat it?"

Inui glanced over at him, the corner of his mouth twitching in amusement. "How, you ask? Not can we?"

"Hn."

"Well, if that is how you see it, I do have some theories."

X

Where was he?

He blinked slowly, staring out across a vast expanse of dull, red stone. It was a dry place—dry and vicious, he could feel it in the unnatural stillness of the air. The sun never set here, but it was a sun that burned.

He frowned, glancing down at himself. The gray fabric of his cloak hung limply over his shoulders but rather than the insufferable heat he would have expected the cloak felt cool and soothing against his skin, as though it had been woven not of thread but of water. And…was that a faint glow he could see around its edges?

Giving himself a sharp shake, Oishi returned his attention to the rugged, rocky landscape. He could think about his cloak later. Right now he felt…as though there was something he needed to find…

Yes, that was it. He was here to find something.

Satisfied, he started forward, his steps slightly uncertain but determined.

TBC


Notes:

The Memory: The healer in the memory is our Oishi's father, just in case it wasn't clear.

A.N. ...Well, this chapter didn't quite cover all the ground I was originally planning, but it started a lot of things I wasn't expecting so I guess it's even. Eiji's coming back into the story next chapter. Hopefully it won't take as long to write as the last one...? Questions, comments, and suggestions are much appreciated. They remind me I should keep working, hehe. I'm feeling a little strange right now so I will take my leave.