Devin Raymond Normal.dotm Devin Raymond 5 67 2008-10-25T19:20:00Z 2008-10-26T00:50:00Z 2 6123 27554 430 135 42861 12.0 150 false 18 pt 18 pt 0 0 false false false / Style Definitions / table.MsoNormalTable mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin-top:0in; mso-para-margin-right:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:10.0pt; mso-para-margin-left:0in; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;

Author's Note: Wow. Never in a hundred years did I think I would pick this up again. It's only been, what? Three years? More? Less? Definitely more. I've been going back and forth with it. Was it worth picking up again? Would anyone read it? Would anyone even care?

In the end I decided fck it; I'm writing this for me, and that's what matters. When I go on dry spells with my original stories, fanfiction serves as a good way to fill to gaps. Keeps the gear grinding and prevents them from getting rusty. And the Guyver fandom must suffer for it.

Constructive criticism is welcome; however, I must implore that you do not flame me if you do not care for the story's content. If you don't like it, don't red it. It's a simple solution, and it saves time and energy on both our parts. Thank you.

Chapter One

The Tides of Fate

Ever since he was a child, Sho had always wondered what was on the other side of those mountains.

When he was a child, he and his best friend would talk for hours on the endless possibilities of what lie beyond the outskirts of Doblan, beyond the banks of the Orvon River and across the rolling granite peaks of the Ehcko Mountain Range. The stories they would dream up; the endless rein of adventures and mystery in the lands beyond their home, of fighting dragons and finding buried treasure and rescuing damsels in distress from atop high towers. He was nostalgic for the days of endless daydreaming, imagining a world outside schoolbooks and the low stone fences that marked the boarders of the sheep's grazing land, or the unending fields of corn and golden wheat.

But now was not a time for exploration or treasure hunting, or even for fantasizing about such tales of adventure. The flock had to be tended to, for now, and once he was done being the son of a shepherd, then maybe he could dream about such quests without being interrupted by the responsibilities of a standard, everyday life.

From the grassy knoll on which he sat upon, Sho snorted, shifting the shaft of sweet grass between his teeth from one side of his mouth to the other. And maybe when that happens, the moon will fall from the sky and the Orvon will run dry. Even then, I think both of those have a higher chance of happening before anything exciting happens to me. At least Tetsuro and Mizuki have a chance escaping here…

Sho sighed, finally taking his eyes off the grazing flock of white, wholly sheep to lie back on the grass, watching fluffy clouds coast slowly across a bright blue sky. He knew that there were chores to be done – there was always something to be done – but right now he did not feel like doing any of them. The garden still needed to be weeded and wood chopped for the fire that night, but it was too hot and humid to be doing any of it. He did not even want to begin thinking about the annual chore of sheering the sheep, which was going to be soon if the early season heat wave did not break.

However, it was not as if he had to rush to get through them for any particular reason. He did not have anywhere to be, nor did he have any appointments he had to keep. The world and time just seemed to slow to a crawl in this place, isolated from the rest of the world, bordered by the mountains and the river and containing them in their own little island of isolation from the rest of the world.

"Sho!"

The sound of his name being called pried Sho's eyes open. He was not aware that he had dozed off, but he was not surprised by it. Propping himself onto his elbows, he could not help but smile at the sight of his best friend, Tetsuro, crossing the green pastures to the place where Sho sat. It must have been later in the day than he thought, as well. Tetsuro was still wearing his long apprentice robes, which meant that he had just come the day's lesson. And for him to be moving so quickly in those heavy garments in the day's heat… He must have discussed something interesting today with his Masters.

"Your father said you would be out here." Tetsuro said as he took a seat next to the black-haired boy, pushing his round glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. "Don't you have work you should be doing?"

Sho shrugged, taking the shaft of grass out of his mouth. "Too hot today." He replied, lying back down. "And unlike some people I know, I actually have to be outside all day. Besides, if you can here to nag me, then you can save your breath. That job's been reserved for Mizuki." They both took a moment to laugh. It was, after all, pretty much true. "So, how was the lesson today?"

"Informative and interesting, as always." Tetsuro answered with a slightly excited tone to his voice. Sho could never understand why his friend was always in such a good mood after his lessons; while he was in school as a boy, he always found the lessons long, tedious, and extremely boring. But, then again, Tetsuro was learning a lot more than basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. "We began talking about the Faetes today."

Sho rose an eyebrow skeptically. "The Faetes? I thought you only dealt with facts in your schooling, Tetsuro."

"You don't believe the Faetes are real?" Tetsuro countered.

"Oh…I don't know. You only ever hear about them in stories."

"Then what about Summoners? What do you think they are, then, if there are no such things as Faetes?"

"Really powerful mages?" Sho said flatly as he pushed himself into a sitting position.

"You can't be serious." Tetsuro sounded slightly taken aback that Sho was treating the matter of the Spiritual Guardians being nothing more than a mere myth. "There are historical documents telling of the Faetes being used in battle to defend Llewelyn throughout the centuries. The Summoners are always the first called to the front line. The line between historical fact and myth is not always a solid one, Sho."

"Oh, I don't know. I've only heard of them from stories and such, seeing that the Summoners are the only ones who really have to deal with them – and there's only a handful of them every hundred years – it just doesn't seem like something that should concern anyone else. Including a rookie Red Mage."

Tetsuro grabbed a dirt clod off the ground and threw it at his friend. It struck Sho in the temple and exploded in a shower of powdered earth, lightly sprinkling his black hair with dust. "Who are you calling a rookie? Master Kobe says I'm bordering on obtaining my intermediate spells."

"Yeah…sounds great…"

Tetsuro blinked. The tone of Sho's voice was droll, distant…just overall very unlike Sho in general. "What's wrong, Sho? You seem out of it today."

"Oh, I don't know." Sho sighed, lying back down. "Just been doing a lot of thinking, lately."

"About Mizuki?" Tetsuro ventured, cocking an eyebrow knowingly.

Sho huffed. "No. For your information, this is one of the few times when you sister isn't on my mind."

"Not even after you chose to dance with Ricki Telbard over you at the Spring Solstice festival last week?"

"I wish you would stop reminding me about that…"

"Sorry. So, what is it you've been thinking about?"

"Well, nothing in particular, really. Mostly about how boring this place is. I mean, you have the chance to get away from here once your training and lessons are complete. While you're making something of your life by learning history and magic, I'm stuck here watching the flock." He tossed the shaft of grass out into the pasture where it stuck a ewe on the side of her flat head. She sniffed lazily at the piece of grass, then ate it.

The two friends remained silent for a very long time, watching the clouds drift by and the sheep graze in the lush green grass. Tetsuro felt unsettled. It was not like Sho to dwell on such issues. It was as if a dark cloud had passed over his usual bright and optimistic heart. He looked up, shielding his eyes against the sun. "Bloody hot today. Let's go down to the river bank and cool off."

"What about the sheep?"

"I don't think anything will happen to the sheep. Unless they start eating each other. Besides, you look like you could get out of the sun for a while."

Sho put a hand over his eyes and looked out to the flock. The sheep were still only bleating placidly, rattling their brass bells and eating grass without a care in the world. As gruesome of an image as it might have been, the mental picture of the lazy woolen animals starting to eat one another made Sho smile. "All right. Let's go."

Tetsuro got to his feet, brushing the grass off his robes before reaching one hand down to haul Sho to his feet. Together, they made their way down the slick, grassy slope that swept down to the grove of trees that shrouded the Orvon River from view. The shade was drastically cooler than the open field, and as refreshing as stepping into a pool of spring water. The woods surrounding Doblan were mostly composed of soft, green firs and white-barked birch trees, creating a comfortable, lush atmosphere that was the perfect place to come and just relax. As children, Sho and Tetsuro would be in these woods from sunrise to sunset, playing amongst the trees and tall, rounded granite boulders, acting out their make-believe adventures. Only a short walk away from the tree line the two friends heard the babbling of the Orvon River, the trees thinning away before the shores to reveal sun-washed banks hugging the crystal-clear waters. How many countless summer days had they spent on these banks, escaping from the heat of the season within the refreshing, cold water?

Tetsuro sat down on a mossy rock crop hanging over the river, removing his soft leather boots and dangling his feet into the water. Sho removed his shoes as well, rolling his slacks up to his knees, then picked up a flat rock on the banks and skipped it over the smooth, passive waters. "So what's been on your mind, Sho? You've been awfully distant lately, and getting further away all the time. Quite frankly, I'm becoming concerned. Mizuki's been noticing it as well."

Sho skipped another stone across the water before he straightened and sighed. "Oh… I don't know. Just been doing a lot of thinking. How far are you from finishing your Red Mage training?"

"Eh? Oh, I don't know. A while, probably. I mean, I haven't even learned my second-level spells yet, and they're only now teaching Mizuki the most basic white magic, so it'll be a long time before either of us will be close to being finished." He paused, only the singing of the cicadas filling the grove. "Why do you ask?"

Another stone skipped across the water. Five, six, seven times. Not bad. "What will you do when you're training's over?"

"Well, Master Kobe and Lady Aniall can only teach us so much while we're here. When they've taught us all they know, we'll probably head for Caer Llion and finish there…" Tetsuro trailed off, looking down at Sho, who was seeking out another pebble. "Is that what this is all about? Us leaving?"

The corner of the black-haired boy's mouth quirked as he tossed the new stone. This one only made four jumps before sinking.

"Sho…that's not going to be for a long time. I mean, we're only seventeen. Mages don't master their skills overnight, and Mizuki and I still have a lot to learn before we're even applicable to travel to Caer Llion. Even then, they might not accept us at all. Besides, if we do go, you know you're always welcome to come with us…"

"And do what? It's kind of hard to raise sheep in the city."

"So what's with the depressing thoughts all of the sudden?" Tetsuro asked after another moment's pause. "This is really unlike you, Sho."

Sho sighed again and threw the stone he was holding unceremoniously into the water. "Like I said before, I don't know. Just restless, I suppose. Something inside of me just really wants to get out, get beyond this town, at least, and see what this world has to offer. You and Mizuki, though… You both have the chance to do that. With your talents, you two can get out of here, but I…I have to stay here and watch the sheep, and unless they decide to up and leave the village, I'm pretty much stuck here."

Tetsuro frowned, but said nothing. It was strange to hear his friend speak like this. Sho usually wasn't one to dwell like this; at least not that he was of until now. He always seemed content with living in the present. Not happy, per sae, but never having anything to complain about. He also knew, even though his friend would never admit it, that he was thinking about Mizuki more and more as the secret that Sho had for Tetsuro's little sister grew. "So how does Mizuki play into this new anxiety?"

Sho whipped around, his black hair striking at his face, blue eyes defensive. "Will you stop it already? I told you before she has nothing to do with this!"

"Come on Sho, we've known each other since we were what, five?"

"Four and a half."

"See? You know you should be able to talk to me about anything. It's more than just the dance at the Spring Solstice, is it?"

Sho chewed his lip, looking over his shoulder briefly just to make sure there was no one lurking in the shadows. "Well…lately, Dad's been pressuring me into… erm…" He scratched the back of his head, muttering so low under his breath that Tetsuro almost missed it.

"Come again?"

"Marriage."

"Are you serious? You're not even technically a man yet!" Tetsuro exclaimed, standing up on his rocky ledge. Sho said nothing, but a strip of deep crimson was laid across his face. "Uh, well, you know what I mean. But still, marriage?"

"Don't get me wrong, it's not something he brings up all the time! He hasn't really even brought up that word specifically, but I can tell that he's hinting at it. He's not nagging about it in a 'secure-the-family-line' kind of way. It's more of a 'I-want-to-see-you- happy' kind of way."

"What did you tell him?"

"Nothing. I act like I think he's talking about something else. Besides, I'm not ready yet, and don't plan on being ready for a while."

Tetsuro did not say anything immediately as he chose the right words, not wanting to upset Sho in his already anxious state. "Not ready…even though you have someone in mind?"

"Don't start with that, Tetsuro." Sho said dangerously. "It's not like I can just waltz up to your sister, hand her a bouquet of flowers and say 'Hey, we grew up together, will you marry me?'" The black-haired youth sighed, kicking at the river rocks under his feet. "It's not that simple. Besides, Mizuki only sees me as a friend. A friend and…nothing else…"

"Well, don't take it personally. I'm her older brother, and I know that Mizuki has no taste in men. Unless you step forward, I don't think she's be coming around on her own any time soon."

Sho laughed a little at that, but it was dry and forced. "Thanks for the consolation. At least I know I can always count on you being there."

"Hey, what are friends for? Don't ever feel as if you can't talk to me about…" His voice trailed off, and his eyes grew wide behind his glasses. "Sho…don't move."

A sort of cold dread settled in Sho's chest, wondering what could possibly be behind them that had suddenly spooked Tetsuro so badly. Trying hard to suppress the urge to whip around, he looked over his shoulder slowly to not attract the attention of whatever it was that had snuck up from behind.

Sho felt his blood run cold, his stomach turning over. Standing not more than a dozen paces behind them was an Ehcko wolf. Sho had only seen one once before, but that was over five years ago, and it had been dead, killed by a local woodsman when the half-starved creature wandered too close to Doblan. This one, however, was very much alive, its splotchy, red-gray coat and inch-long canines protruding from its mouth unmistakable. Sho felt his blood run cold, and desperately wished that he had something with him to fight the creature away if it got too close.

But the wolf was not looking at them. It did not even seem to acknowledge the presence of the two young men at all. Instead, it had it ugly snout turned down to the bank of the river, sniffing at something out of sight on the shores. "Tetsuro…what should we do?"

"Leave." Tetsuro whispered, slowly making his way down from the rock he had been seated upon. "Slowly though, we don't want its attention…" Sho nodded, not daring to take his eyes from the wolf, and took a tentative step backwards.

Curse his luck, there had to be a twig under his foot at that exact location.

The audible crack of breaking wood caught the attention of the wolf immediately, making its head snap up, sickly yellow eyes locking with the two youths. It growled, a deep, rumbling sound that sent a chill sweeping down Sho's spine. It stepped away from the river, the fur on its back bristling and standing on end.

Without thinking twice, Sho reached down and grabbed and handful of rock, chucking one at the monster with all his strength. It missed by several inches as the wolf took another threatening step forward. "Go away!" Sho shouted at the creature, tossing another stone at it. This one hit it squarely on the shoulder, making it hiss and snarl in rage, the muscles in the back of its legs coiling like tightened springs.

The temperature around them suddenly dropped rapidly, chilling Sho's skin and making him temporarily forget that it was summer. Small glowing particles appeared in placidly the air around him, floating like delicate faeries, and in a flash of blue light, a large chunk of ice slammed into the wolf, making it yelp and tumble to the ground. Bits of ice clung to its coat as it picked itself back up, confusion swimming in its eyes, but with a last snarl at Sho, it bounded off into the shadows of the forest.

Sho breathed a sigh of relief, then looked back at Tetsuro with one eyebrow raised. "Not bad. I take it that spell's new?"

"Blizzard. Just learned it last week." Tetsuro said with a note of pride in his voice. "That means that I have all the primary element spells now. Technically, I'm not allowed to used my Black magic outside of Master Kobe's instruction just yet, but desperate times call for desperate measures."

"Good thing too. I think it just saved our lives. Do you think we should tell people about this?"

"Of course we should. Ehcko wolves normally don't come out of the mountains. There could be more of them."

Sho nodded, his eyes returning to the spot where the wolf had been standing. "What do you think it was so interested in that it didn't see us?"

"Probably just a dead rat. Nothing worth looking into."

But Sho was never one to be satisfied with simple answers. He always had to look for himself. Part of him assumed that Tetsuro was right and it really was nothing more than a dead rat or possum or something like that, but curiosity always got the best of him.

When he was close enough to see what it was that had been so interested in, he was a little more than surprised to see that it was not a dead creature of any kind. In fact, it was something that Sho had never seen before in his life, wedged tightly between two rocks on the banks of the Orvon River. Frowning deeply, he knelt down and was able to free it from its rocky confinements.

The object – he could not even put a name to it – was about as big as a good-sized book but surprisingly heavy for its size. Sho peered at the object, turning it over in its hands. It was bound together in what looked like old pieces of iron, but when he ran his finger over it, it was almost…soft to the touch, like old, worn leather. It was holding within it coils of slick, dark material that swirled around to the center of the object, nestling within its core a shiny silver orb.

"Is that what it was looking at?"

Sho had not noticed Tetsuro approaching from behind; the sudden sound of his voice made him jump. "Y-yeah…I think so."

"What is it?"

"You mean you don't know?"

The larger boy shook his head. "Never seen or read anything about it." He looked down at the object, touching one metal plate with a finger, then shuddered, pulling away. "I don't like it. Neither of us knows what it is, so we should just set it back downstream or something…"

"It looks old. It might be valuable."

"Or dangerous."

"Will you lighten up?"

"Seriously Sho, this could be a weapon of some sort. A magical bomb, or something. How do we know it's not already activated?" Tetsuro eyed the object nervously, stepping away.

Sho frowned. It was not like Tetsuro to be this paranoid over such a little thing. Then again, he well knew Tetsuro's sever dislike of being caught in situations that he either did not know how to handle, or did not read about in a book somewhere. He held the object up to his ear, listening. "I don't hear anything. I don't think it's mechanical. And you can feel magical flows, right?"

Tetsuro nodded.

"Do you feel any coming off this thing?"

"No."

"Then, we have nothing to worry about."

"Still…it's probably not our place to deal with something like this. We need to take it to Master Kobe."

"You're right. It probably will be something he'd want to look at, anyway. Is he in?"

"No, he left for Nagi after lessons let out for the day. He won't be back until the day after tomorrow. So until then, one of us needs to hide it so no one else finds it."

Somewhere behind them, a twig snapped, and leaves whispered together as branches were moved aside by someone who was heading their way.

"Quick…" Tetsuro hissed. "Hide it!"

Sho fumbled with the object, looking desperately around him for a proper hiding place, and shoved it into the pouch that hung at his hip and out of sight as a petite, white-clad figure stepped out of the forest shadows and into the sunlight of the river banks. The object hung heavily at his side, but he forgot about when he saw who it was approaching them.

"There you two are!" Tetsuro's little sister said at the sight of her brother and his childhood friend, a slight note of annoyance in her voice. "Mother sent me to get you, Tetsuro, it's getting late. It figures you two would be in the last place that I checked." She flicked her short brown hair over her shoulder, looking at them both with disapproving eyes.

Even though they knew each other since they were children, Sho could never stop the blush that rose to his face whenever he saw Mizuki. She was a petite girl a year younger than he and Tetsuro, her soft brown hair whispering at her shoulders and large blue eyes always holding a mix of scorn and amusement in their depths. Today, though, there was something different about her, and it did not take long to pinpoint what it was.

A smile crossed Tetsuro's face as he temporarily forgot about the object that he and Sho had just found. "So, Mizuki…I see Lady Aniall finally gave you your new robes. Congratulations."

Mizuki giggled, then turned around in a small circle to show off her new garments, the snowy white linen bordered at the hems and cuffs by the traditional red White Mage markings. They were hardly as extravagant as the robes the village's veteran White Mage wore, but they were still a clear enough representation of where Mizuki would eventually be in her training further in the future. "Do you like them? Lady Aniall gave them to me today since she's been so pleased with my progress. Most White Mages in training don't get their first robes until they're beyond novices."

"Y-yeah…they look really great…" Sho stammered, fumbling with a long piece of bramble twig that he pulled from the bush behind him.

Don't blush…don't you dare start blushing…

"Are you okay Sho?" Mizuki asked, her voice slightly laced with concern. "You're looking a little flushed."

"Oh…uh, fine, its just the heat, you know…" He bent the twig in half too far, and with the audible crack the wood snapped, making Sho hiss between his teeth as it lashed across his palm and leaving an angry red welt in its place. "Ow! Damn…"

Mizuki sighed, trying to sound frustrated, but she could not hide the small trace of sympathy and amusement there as well. "I swear, you are so clumsy at times. Let me see that…" She reached out for his hand. Sho flushed deeper, pulling it closer to him.

"No thanks, Mizuki, its fine…"

"But it might get infected. Besides, Lady Aniall gave me permission to practice whenever I need to, unlike my brother and anyone else studying Black Magic."

Tetsuro scoffed. "Not full Black magic. Its forbidden to train a full Black Mage within the Ehcko Valley, and you know it."

"Oh tish-tosh. I was only making a statement. Sho, let me see your hand."

Sho hesitated a moment longer, then extended his wounded hand and let Mizuki grasp it in her cool, delicate one, making blood rush to his face. Her touch suddenly became cooler, and Sho felt his skin tingle as a soothing sensation washed over him, making his eyes slightly droop and the pain in his hand greatly diminished. "There." Mizuki said, releasing his hand and looking proud of herself. "Better?"

Sho flexed his palm. The welt was gone, as was the sting, and he even felt slightly refreshed. "I…do. Thank you." He used his gratefulness as an excuse to grin like a fool then without worrying about covering it up, and it only grew wider when Mizuki smiled back.

"What are you two doing way out here, anyway?"

"Just trying to cool down. Hot day out, you know."

"Well, it's cooled down enough now that you can come home without melting. Mom needs some help her around the house before Papa gets home. Sho, your father asked me to find you too. He needs some help with the broken sheep pen, he told me to tell you."

Sho sighed, his shoulders slumping. He was supposed to fix the sheep pen earlier that day, had the summer heat not made him so lethargic. That meant he was probably going to get a lecture from his father when he got home. "All right. Lead the way, Mizuki."

Mizuki nodded briskly and turned to leave the forest. Tetsuro glanced at Sho sympathetically before following his sister, and just as Sho was about to follow them, he remembered the strange object that he and Tetsuro had found just before Mizuki arrived. It was still in his knapsack (not like it had anywhere else to go), and thankfully, Mizuki had not noticed how it bulged awkwardly. Should he leave it where they found it? Just drop it back in the river and not look back? He knew how some of the village elders hated anything that would bring drastic change to their sleepy way of life…

"Sho! Hurry up!"

Forgetting about the strange object he carried with them, Sho took off at a short, dashing run to catch up with his friends.

The heat was still the same as it had been when Sho and his friend ventured into the woods, but the shadows were longer now, even if it was just be the slightest fraction, and the sun did not seem so harsh. Mizuki was running ahead of them, as though she was enjoying the way her new robes flowed behind her as she ran, completely oblivious to the ominous shadow that had been lurking among the trees that Sho still felt.

A sudden flurry of noise from above drew Sho's attention skyward, stopping all three of them in their tracks. The deafening din of shrieks and cries came from the thousands of birds that had suddenly burst from the forest canopy in such numbers that they turned the sky black.

"What's happening?" Mizuki cried as she ran back towards Sho and her brother, sheltering herself in between them. "What's gotten into them?"

"I don't know!" Tetsuro said, his eyes glued to the sky and the throng of birds that filled it. "It looks like something spooked them."

"But what? What could have scared them, and all at once?" Mizuki said, her voice distressed.

Sho and Tetsuro exchanged anxious, knowing looks with each other, their thoughts both drawn back to the Ehcko wolf they had seen not moments before. But a single monster could not have been the cause for every single bird in the forest to take flight in such a panic. A whole pack of wolves could not have even been capable of it. So what in the world could it have possibly been?

Sho shivered. "Let's get back to town."

The small farming village of Doblan lay nestled in the basin of the Ehcko Valley, hugged closely by the steady, gently flowing Orvon River; a sleepy little place of hard-working, honest folk who lived out their simple, content lives without so much of a care of the outside world. The village was composed mostly of small, single-storied thatched-roof houses bordered by white picket fences around neatly kept gardens. From the crest of the hill on which they stood, the group of friends had a clear view of the modest village green, the small domed huts where Doblin's mages resided, all amongst the tall wooden windmills that rose out of the village like sunflowers in a field. It was all any of them had ever known. It might as well have been their entire world.

They made their way down the gentle slope of the hill back towards the town, the long grass rippling in the breeze that promised to bring a cooler evening in contrast to the heat of the day. Once they reached the hard-packed dirt road of Doblan, they bid each other farewell, taking opposite sides of the path that would take them to their homes. Tetsuro and Mizuki lived near the village green, where their father worked as the town's blacksmith. Sho and his father lived on the outer outskirts of the town, where the sparsely-spaced houses merged into the farmlands and grazing pastures. They lived together in a modest, one-story farmhouse, built in the traditional river rock and timber design as all the other structures in town, the roof tightly thatched to keep out the worse of the Ehcko Valley's weather. Their property was enclosed by low stone walls and a single waist-high gate in the front. Their farm was so small, in fact, that their barn – which was only really used to store sheering supplies, feed for the sheep, and their one old milk cow – that people often mistook it for a larger shed. About two dozen sheep continued to graze peacefully in the back pasture, without a care in the world. Sho sighed, almost with remorse as he looked onto the arms that he had always known as his home. It was his whole past, present, and quite possibly his future. It was a thought that was both comforting and depressing at the same time.

Before Sho crossed the threshold onto their farm, he cast a quick glance around for any sign of his father. The weight of the mysterious object that he and Tetsuro found was a prominent presence in the pouch that hung at his hip, and he had to get it up to his room and hidden before his father had the chance to track him down for that evening's chores. When Sho saw neither hide nor hair of his father outside, he quickly jumped over the low fence and quickly walked up the pebbled path towards their front door, hoping that his father was in the barn and not the house. He opened the door slowly to avoid its telltale creek, then peaked inside to make sure his father was not in the front room.

It was completely empty.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Sho stepped into the house, carefully closing the door behind him, then made a quick dash towards the ladder that led up to the loft that was used as Sho's bedroom. Like the rest of their home, Sho's room was small, humble, but still comfortable and homey, containing nothing more than his narrow bed, a chest of drawers that he used to keep his clothing in, and a table that held a chipped pitcher and wash basin. The only real thing of interest in the loft was the pile of books that sat at the foot of Sho's bed, all of them about fantastic adventures in far-away places, all lifetimes away from Doblin. They were perhaps the only means of escape that Sho would ever have.

Sho stepped onto the floor of his loft bedroom, ignoring everything else around him as he fished the object out of the pouch. He took another quick look at it – it really was unlike anything he had ever seen before – then took an old, empty pillowcase and shoved the object inside, pushing it under his bed and out of sight. Tetsuro was right. Only Master Kobe, the village's resident Red Mage, would be able to tell them what it was, and they would just have to wait until he returned from Nagi to know for sure.

With the mystery object safely hidden and out of the way, Sho took a moment to compose himself before descending back down the ladder to seek out his father, Fumio.

As he had expected, Fumio was found working in the barn, emerging just as Sho approached with a sack of feed hefted over his shoulder. "Ah, son, there you are!" Fumio greeted cheerfully, giving his teenaged son a wide smile. "I was just wondering if I was going to have to do all these chores by myself."

"Sorry, Dad. I got distracted." Sho said with a sheepish smile. "What has to be done?"

"First, we have to get fresh feed and water into the pen before we get the sheep in for the night…"

It seemed that no matter how much work was done during the day, it never seemed to make much of a difference. By the time the fence was repaired the sun had already begun its descent into the west, and the glow of the Jeroen nebula rose to take its place, its iridescent light staining the horizon purple. The sheep still needed to be rounded up, watered, and fed. As night fell across the land the summer heat was replaced by an unseasonably cold wind that chilled Sho through his thin linen shirt and to his very core. He paused as he stood on the threshold of the low fence that encircled his home, looking out towards the woods where he and Tetsuro found that strange object in the river. A sudden, unexplained feeling overtook him that suddenly made the hair on his arms and the back of his neck stand on end. The air felt electrified, as though a storm was approaching but had yet to break. Bt the sky was clear; there was not a cloud in the sky, giving Sho an unprecedented view of the heavens above. And yet the night was a little too quiet and felt a little too still; there was something in the air hat just felt… off. Wrong. Unnatural.

A hand clamped down on Sho's shoulder from behind, startling him so badly that he leapt away from his assailant, swinging around with his arms held up defensively in front of him only to see his father standing behind him, looking as surprised as Sho felt. "Good Haven, son, are you all right?"

"Yeah… Yes, fine." Sho said breathlessly, even though his heart was pounding and lurching painfully behind his ribs.

"Is there something wrong, Sho? You normally don't jump at shadows like that."

"I…" Sho glanced over his father's shoulder at his bedroom window, where he could visualize the strange object laying dormant under his bed. He sighed. "No, dad, I'm fine. I promise."

Fumio looked at his son for one long, skeptical moment, but ultimately decided to let the subject drop. "All right son, if you say so. Why don't you gather some firewood while I start dinner? Looking like tonight will be colder than it has been." Sho nodded shakily, but as he walked to the shed to gather said firewood, he glanced back at his father, who was looking up at the sky with a troubled expression on his face.

As Sho made his way back to the house while balancing a stack of firewood in his arms, he tried to dismiss the threatening feelings that seemed to be stalking him from the shadows. He looked down the valley towards Doblan. The lights of the homes danced in the darkness like so many flamebugs, and in the still air Sho could hear the windmills creaking on their axels. Somewhere down there, Tetsuro and Mizuki were probably sitting down to dinner with their parents, completely unaware of the foreboding atmosphere just outside their door.

It had been a weird day all around, Sho thought to himself. It could all be nothing more than an overactive imagination. He tired to tell himself that there was nothing to worry about. Tomorrow morning he and Tetsuro would take the object to Master Kobe and it would no longer be any of their concern. However, as much as he tried to dismiss his paranoia on mere fancy, it would not be shaken off so easily. He knew that something was going to happen. It was just a matter of when.