A/N: Hello there, reader! Thank you for keeping up with my story. I thought I'd add a note that beginning with this chapter, I have removed Nari's illness. I have gone back and edited the previous chapters subsequently. I have also fixed some issues with POV jumping around.
Episode Nine: Return to the Eastern Capital
Chichiri was ticked. Ticked and worried. Although he had been tracking the movements of Takayama Shii and his followers for years, it disturbed him that they had somehow managed to recruit seishi to their side. Tatara from the looks of it. Who else? Any of the Suzaku seishi? No, it couldn't be. None of them could be swayed that easily.
He would have said that about Tatara, too. Not that he had had any chance to meet the Byakko seishi yet, but from what he knew of the seishi from the past, he had a strong will, one not easily fooled by the sweet words of the enemy. Had he missed some vital clue in his travels? His magic allowed him to transform his appearance and even now he was taking advantage of it so that others would trust him more easily. The appearance of the first Chichiri did not match his own and he wore it only so that people would recognize him as his reincarnation. In reality, they both still had the same blue hair and brown eyes, but the features were different and his mask one he had made himself. People in Kounan knew what the first Chichiri had looked like and as a result, they trusted him when he wore that Chichiri's face. It was of great importance that they trusted him, because it was highly possible that one day he would need to rally them behind him and the other Suzaku seishi again. In his travels, he had heard rumors of trouble brewing in the west, something regarding the mythical Tenkyoku, who was rumored to be protector of not only Nyosei but also the satellite countries of the four main ones. People were gathering. Their exact intent he did not know, but he did know that it was not for peace. Now with the alleged "Summoner" of Tenkyoku arriving into their world, what sort of part would he play in the twisting, weaving plot that was developing? And this sister of his that he had mentioned. For him, there was no doubt who the Summoner was; it had to have been the young man he met. It could not be his sister. He had only spent a short amount of time with the young man, but he possessed the same inner strength that Miaka had had. It was not possible that his sister be the Priestess and him not. True, he was a bit hotheaded, but that didn't mean it was a fault. The fact that he had been the one attacked also confirmed this. The enemy would not waste resources on someone who did not have the power to summon Tenkyoku. They would not risk revealing that they had seishi on their side if they did not think it was something that had to be taken care. So what was going on with the sister? Could it be through some other witchcraft that she had been brought to this world? Was that even possible? Had he underestimated Shii's power and influence? If she had been brought here by other forces, was it even possible for the seishi to send her back? As much as he didn't want to admit it, he needed Taiitsukun's counsel.
It was not the time to make hasty decisions and possibly jump to the wrong conclusions. Right now, the most important thing was to save the young man. He was perceptive enough to have picked up their names during the conversation. Shiho, for that was what the young man, Nazo, had called the girl with him, had raced ahead already, far out of sight. Chichiri recognized that feeling. He had seen it in the other Suzaku seishi when Miaka had been in trouble and he had experienced it for himself in his first reincarnation. Now it was what drove him to race across the trees in unfamiliar territory to save what could be their most important wild card in the war that was developing throughout the world.
Chichiri blasted his way through a wall of vines that suddenly blocked his way. The writhing mess collapsed and fell apart, and he jumped over it. Damn it. Where was the puppetmaster, or in this case, the vinemaster? If he could find him, this fight would be over. Ahead of him, he could hear screaming and yelling. He cursed and slammed his staff into the branch he was crouched on, causing an explosion that shriveled the vines in front of him. Chichiri vaulted over the debris with his staff. Locate the chi, locate the chi... Ahead of him, fire erupted in the vines, and he swore again. Damn it. He was taking too long.
"Ah, if it isn't Taiitsukun's wretched servant," he heard the same cool voice say behind him, and he whirled around. The vines parted, revealing a young man dressed in the style of Sairou. Most of his dark brown hair was tied behind his back, but a few locks still hung loose. His long bangs covered one of his grey eyes, and his mouth was grim. Around his neck was a string of seeds. The stranger was tall, at least six feet, and Chichiri recognized him immediately.
The monk tightened his grip on his staff. "Tatara," he said evenly. "It's you, isn't it? Why are you doing this?"
"I don't need to answer that," Tatara replied. "You wouldn't understand."
Chichiri flared up. "Understand what?! You just attacked another country's Summoner! What good reason did you have for that? Are you trying to bring war to your country?"
Tatara's eyes flashed. "No. I'm trying to prevent it."
"You're trying to -"
"I told you you wouldn't understand."
"You don't make sense!"
"Think of the nation that Tenkyoku is the guardian of!" Tatara said fiercely. "You really think. Knowing what you know about what's going on, that they will help us? No! They will simply make things worse!" He paused as if something had caught his attention, and then he smiled. "Never mind. It doesn't matter. I've finished my work here."
"Tatara!" Chichiri shouted, but before he could chase after the Byakko seishi, vines abruptly surrounded him and he toppeled to the ground, his limbs bound. His staff fell uselessly with him and rolled to a stop several feet away.
"I can't have you following me. Out of respect for our past alliance, I won't kill you right now," Tatara said as he turned away. "Keep in mind I hold no such qualms for those aligned with Tenkyoku." That said, he took off, jumping from tree to tree until he was out of sight.
Chichiri yelled after the Byakko seishi a few more times, but it was useless. He bonked his head against the dirt floor and gritted his teeth. He had really made a mess of things, hadn't he? Suzaku. Well, he wasn't about to give up now. Shiho was still somewhere out there, and if he were to believe Tatara (which he did), she was either dead or near death. He had to do what he could to help her.
But damn it, he couldn't get loose. He looked around for some rocks he could use to saw the vines off, but there were none sharp enough. Chichiri groaned. Great. Now what to do?
Nari tightened her grip around Shoshi's waist as the three of them raced through the forest. She was doing her best to remain calm even though her hands were clammy. The brusque way Shoshi had been acting since she returned from speaking to her mother frightened her, but she was even more afraid to ask why. Instead, she had mutely gone along with everything. The clothes she wore now reminded her of the TV dramas that Nazo used to watch. They were colorfully decorated and warm due to the layers of cotton and silk. When she had first put on the silk overcoat, she had balked, but Shoshi urged her to put it on, saying it was needed. Not knowing what else to say, Nari could only bite her lip and slip it on. Now she calculated that what she was wearing now was probably more expensive than anything else she had ever worn. It was an awkward thought to have in her head and again she berated herself for being distracted by material matters.
And the horse. Riding the horse was so much more different than she would have expected. It had been so much harder to climb up its back than she had thought it would be. Since there were no other women to help her like last time, it had taken a good five, maybe ten minutes, it seemed to her, until she was able to stay steady on the horse's back. She was sure that Shoshi was losing her patience with her. Once that ordeal was over, Nari had held herself stiffly so not to fall backwards while the other two got on. Almost immediately, Tei had scampered up her leg and clamored onto her shoulder, squeaking comfortingly into her ear as if it could sense her discomfort. It cheered her to have a companion who could read her so well, tiny though he was.
"Hold on," Shoshi had said. "And don't worry about hurting the horse or me."
Nari silently obliged, but was unable to prevent herself from gasping a little when Shoshi started the horse off in a gallop from a dead start. She squeezed her eyes, trying not to imagine what would happen if she were to slip off.
Once she managed to gather her bearings, she found that riding the horse wasn't actually too bad, even if it did jolt her and make her feel like she was doing splits repeatedly. It was certainly more exhilarating than anything else she had ever done before. She was certain that prolonged riding would make her extremely sore, but hopefully that was something she could become accustomed to. Her left cheek rested on Shoshi's back, and she peeked an eye open to watch the scenery speed past them. Even if she didn't know what was going to happen to Nazo and her now, she was still secretly glad that they had come here. If she had never come here, she would have never seen the sights she was seeing now. The forest that they were galloping through was nothing like the tamed versions she had seen before in Japan. This was no park. It was alive. The undergrowth was a thick emerald green and the trees stretched far above her until she could barely make out the darkening sky. They rode on no path, instead leaping over fallen trees and rocks when the need arose.
A swallow flitted by them and chirped out a message. Shoshi nodded and she abruptly directed the horse after the bird.
Suddenly, they came across a person lying on the ground. He was struggling against some sort of green rope that tied his limbs to his body. Startled, they were barely able to clear him, and Shoshi just managed to wheel the horse around without losing their balance. She immediately leaped off and pulled out her sword, pointing it at the man's throat. Nari almost fell off the horse when Shoshi did that, having not expected her support to suddenly disappear like that. She caught herself just in time and awkwardly slid off the horse.
"Give me one good reason why I should not run you through with my sword right now," Shoshi said.
"I'm not your enemy," the man responded.
"Not good enough." She was about to stab him when Nari grabbed her arm.
"Shoshi, wait!" Nari cried. "He's bound. Something must have happened! Men don't voluntarily come to this island like this, right?"
The look that Shoshi gave her was a long one, but she finally lowered her sword. "Out of respect for the girl's wishes, I will give you a chance to explain yourself then. However, if you try anything, I will not hesitate to kill you."
"Thank you, no da," the stranger said.
Tei scampered down Nari's shoulder and began working on the vines furiously with its teeth. For a second, Nari caught a bemused expression on Shoshi's face, but just as fast, it disappeared. Without saying anything, the princess knelt and began sawing at the bonds with her sword. When he was finally free, Shoshi backed away. Her sword was still pointed at him, but it was nowhere near as it had been earlier. Tei lingered by his side, ready to pounce if he attempted something.
"Now explain," Shoshi said.
The young man (because he didn't look that much older than Shoshi) brushed the last of the vines off of his body and stood shakily. "My name is Suzaku seishi Chichiri," he said with a slight bow. "Now if you don't mind waiting for an explanation, we need to save Shiho and Nazo."
Nari's hand flew to her mouth. Nazo! What had happened to him? Before she could say anything however, Shoshi stopped him with her sword. "What did you just say?" the princess asked silkily.
"We were attacked by Byakko seishi Tatara," he said, his gaze steady on Shoshi's face rather than the blade at his neck. "He ambushed us. Dragged the young man away before either of us could do anything. Shiho took off after him immediately, no da. I couldn't catch up with your two friends, and I fear for their lives. We must track them down."
"How do I know it is not a trap?"
Nari watched as Chichiri seemed to struggle with something inside of him. He closed his eyes and it was a moment before he spoke. "You just have to trust me, no da."
"Trust. That is placing much in a complete stranger, even one who claims that he is a Suzaku seishi."
"I swear on Suzaku's shrine that I am telling the truth, no da."
Something about that statement seemed to release some of the tension in Shoshi, but she retained her position. "How do you know who we are?"
He looked down. "The young man, Nazo, he mentioned something about his sister coming. He asked if there was a way to send her back to her own world." Chichiri hesitated. "I heard rumors of Tenkyoku being involved in some sort of coup, so I-" He flinched as Shoshi thrust the blade forward, causing it to ring in the otherwise silent forest.
"You what?" she asked, the sword touching his neck but not breaking the skin.
He met her gaze steadily. "Rumors, no da. You should know as well as I do that the existence of Tenkyoku is taken more as a myth than truth. I've been sent by Taiitsukun to study the situation and report back to her."
"Surely Taiitsukun should believe in Tenkyoku, as she is the one who passed down our copy of the Universe of the Four Gods to Nyosei?"
He was not surprised by that admission; it was more like he had been expecting it. "Yes," he said. "Taiitsukun does, but she asked me to travel the countries to learn what the people believed, no da. The worshipers of Tenkyoku are spread out, not organized as they are in the other four countries. Nyosei as I can understand is the stronghold, but there are also many satellite countries that also believe in her as their guardian. There are some in the main countries who believe that this is dangerous, a threat to their own security."
Shoshi's grip on her sword relaxed slightly, but Nari could tell she was still distrustful of Chichiri. "You speak of other countries," the princess said. "What do you mean?"
"I don't mind explaining it to you later, but rescuing Shiho and Nazo are of vital importance," he replied. "They never told me their names, but I heard them screaming for each other after he was taken. As I know it, Shiho is the name of one of Tenkyoku's seishi." A wry smile graced his face. "She also did not behave like a typical Nyosein woman would towards a man, no da. That was another hint."
Shoshi was silent. Nari glanced back and forth between Chichiri and Shoshi. If the man was speaking the truth, oh she didn't want to think about what could have happened to her brother. At the same time, she was afraid of asking Shoshi to believe him. The princess had already called her naïve; if she asked for him to trust Chichiri, would her naivety destroy the three of them? Tei clamored back onto her shoulder and rubbed his furry face against her cheek. It comforted her if only a little.
"Please!" Chichiri said, his fear now visible. "The more we stand here, the more time we waste! Tatara took off as soon as he incapacitated me. I'm afraid of what he might have done to the two of them!"
It was impossible to read the mask on Shoshi's face, but what she said next relieved Nari. "I do not know what business you have interfering with our nation, but let us go," the princess said and slid her sword back in the sheath at her side. "My horse cannot take three, and I do not trust you to ride your own mount, so we shall run."
Nari bit her lip. Running? She wasn't sure she could handle that too well. At the same time, she was afraid of speaking up for fear of delaying them. The princess caught the apprehensive look in her eyes and softened. "Get on my back," she said. "I will carry you. It will be faster that way." Shoshi glanced over at the squirrel on Nari's shoulder. "Tei," she added. "Be useful. Ride on the Suzaku seishi's shoulder. Bite him, climb over his face, trip him, do whatever it takes if you feel he is about to betray us in any way."
The squirrel chittered and jumped down and bounded onto Chichiri's shoulder. Nari could tell he was stunned and wondered if the squirrel was really a seishi. It was an interesting thought. If a squirrel could be a seishi, what else could be? A tree? A rock? She mused over the thought as she herself climbed onto Shoshi's back. Her heart pounded. Nazo. He would be all right, right? He was stronger than her; he'd never be killed in this world. Chichiri's fears couldn't be realized.
"Do not worry," Shoshi said softly so that only she could hear her. "I will take care of you if something happens."
That hadn't been what she had been worried about at all, but Nari could only nod. "Thank you," she murmured.
"I must also add that your brother is no longer in our world," Shoshi said. "I cannot sense him. Perhaps due to the trauma he was drawn back to your world."
"Thank god," Nari whispered. She was relieved, so relieved. At least she didn't have to worry about Nazo. The thought of being alone in this world threatened to overwhelm her, but she reminded herself that she had Shoshi. Shoshi wasn't going to let anything happen to her, and if her brother could find a way home, surely she could, too.
Chichiri picked up a metal staff off to the side that Nari hadn't noticed and adjusted the navy cloak around his shoulders so it wouldn't get in his way. "Let's go," he said grimly.
"Oh god.." Kari whispered, frozen. Her gaze was locked on Nazo's prone body. What was she supposed to do? Call the police? How could she explain what happened? Say Nazo's injuries came from being attacked in a book? They would throw her in an insane asylum first, and then how could she help him?
"Kari, what's going on? How did he just suddenly appear out of nowhere?"
"Call an ambulance," she said. "Please!"
Her father seemed like he wanted to continue, but he refrained from doing so and ran down the stairs. Her mother came up to where she was standing and touched her arm. "Kari," she said, a pleading note in her voice. "Kari, please, what just happened?"
Kari ignored her mother. Slowly she approached Nazo, her steps hesitant. She touched him gently on the shoulder, afraid he might be dead, but his breathing was shallow. Good, so he was still alive, but god, why was there so much blood? What could she do to help him? Quickly she grabbed the blanket off her bed and draped it over him. Keep him warm, yes, that was the first part. She wanted to try to stop the bleeding, but there was so much blood! Where to even start? Better to wait for the professionals to arrive, she thought painfully. Now for the ambulance to come. If she tried to shift him to a more comfortable position, she might cause an internal injury. Or something. Something like that. First aid was not her strong suit. She caught her brother's eye and saw that he was glowering. She begged him silently not to say anything. To this he pursued his lips and stomped out.
"An ambulance is coming," her father said tersely as he came back to her room. "Now do you want to explain how this young man suddenly materialized into your room?"
"I-I don't know for sure," she replied faintly. How was she going to explain this? She glanced helplessly over at the book her friend had come from, but it gave her no answers.
"He just, he just appeared out of nowhere!" her mother exclaimed. She edged towards Nazo and crouched down. "Kari! This, this person, isn't he your friend from high school?"
Kari nodded mutely.
"What's he- how did he?"
"Please don't say anything about this to anyone!" Kari blurted out.
"Never mind," her father said as the phone rang. "The ambulance is here. Let's get him to the hospital first. I'll lead them upstairs. Kari can explain everything later."
Kari closed her eyes as her father left her room. She knew that the ambulance drivers were only that – drivers. She could only hope that traffic would be clear and that they could get her friend to the hospital in time. If her friend went into shock, there was nothing the drivers would be able to do for him. At least he was out of that damn book however. All she had to do now was make sure he never touched it again. As for his sister, she would figure out another way to get her out.
Nari hugged Shoshi tightly as they ran through the forest. Her face was buried in the princess' shoulder, afraid of what they would find. Again they were led by one of Shoshi's paper creations, who flitted from tree to tree as they moved at a more or less even pace. The smell of sulfur and copper was thick in the air before they reached their goal and so it came to be no surprise when they rounded the bend and found a white-haired bloody mess that could only be the missing Shiho.
"Oh my god," Nari gasped. The others were equally horrified although none of them vocalized it. It was almost impossible to distinguish human from plant, so intertwined were the two of them. As they edged closer, they saw that the vines were not embedded as deeply into her flesh as they had feared. There was merely such a mass of them that they draped around her like silk, albeit with none of the gentle touch that material had.
Chichiri was the first to reach her. He crouched next to her and felt her pulse. "We have to get help," Chichiri said through gritted teeth. "Let's go. I'll bring her to Taiitsukun. Nyan Nyan can heal her."
"He has been correct so far," Shoshi whispered only so Nari could hear. "We will trust him for now." She released her grip on Nari's legs and bent down so Nari could slide to the ground. Nari was about to run over to the girl when Shoshi grabbed her arm. "Wait," she said, her voice unusually gentle. "Perhaps you should stay back."
"No," Nari said. "She was protecting my brother when she got into this state. I have to help her."
Shoshi released her, but the expression on her face was unreadable. "If you wish then," was her reply.
Nari nodded. She held her breath as she approached the body on the ground. Her heart pounded. The unconscious girl before her wasn't some vicious animal; she was merely a girl not much older than herself. If like Shoshi she had only met Nazo a few hours ago, the loyalty Shiho had showed him was admirable. Nari had no idea where her brother was right now, but one thing she could do for him was focus her attention on the person who had seen him last and fought so desperately to protect him. Nari knelt down next to the seishi and touched her hand. "Shiho?" she asked. "Shiho, can you hear me?"
There was no answer, not that she had expected one. The girl's breathing was shallow, barely there. Nari steeled herself. Well, if Shiho wasn't awake, she had to do whatever she could to help her. Most importantly, they needed to keep her warm so she would not go into shock. She stripped off her outer layer and was about to lay it over Shiho when she hesitated. Probably best to remove the vines first. Nari set the clothing aside and began to pick through the vines, delicately removing them from Shiho's body. As soon as they realized what she was doing, both Shoshi and Chichiri began to help. The thorns had punctured Shiho's body and removing them out was difficult work. Her fingers were bloodied by the time she finished, although most of it wasn't her own. There was no water around them so she could only hope that whenever they got to the place Chichiri was going on about, they would be able to find some in order to clean the wounds. She didn't even want to think about the bacteria that might be in the dirt. The possibility of an infection from the injuries was frightening. Even so, there was nothing she could do but pray that the girl would be all right. It was a wonder she was still alive.
"It is in Tenkyoku's hands now," Shoshi said softly.
Chichiri was all business. He slipped his cloak off his back and laid it on the ground. Gently he picked Shiho up, adjusting her so he could support her easily in his arms. "Give me your jacket," he said to Nari.
Nari picked up the layer she had discarded and draped it gently over Shiho. It didn't provide much protection but at least it was something.
"I'll take us to Taiitsukun, no da. Step through the cloak."
Shoshi took Nari's hand. "Come," she said. Nari had no time to wonder how they could be transported simply by a mere piece of cloth. Then again, she was in an unfamiliar world, so what did it matter what made sense and what didn't? Tei had somehow found his way to what he had apparently designated as his shoulder to perch on.
The two of them walked onto the cloak and they fell through.
Next episode: The Holy Mountain and the Frightening Face - Nari and the others find their way to Mt. Taikyoku where they meet an oracle with a frightening face and adorable goddess clones. Nazo and Kari reconcile somewhat, but will Kari be willing to let Nazo back into the book?
A/N: I decided to keep the episode previews because even if they're extremely cheesy, they're still fun for me to write as long as I don't worry about how cheesy they sound. However! Feel free to skip them. xD