By the Seashore 05

*Disclaimer: Takeru, Hikari, Daisuke, and Taichi don't belong to me. And just to be safe, Digimon doesn't belong to me. If it did, there would have been a different epilogue written. The story "Nicholas Pipe" doesn't belong to me either. T_T So don't sue! .

By the Seashore

By: Ken's Gal

Hikari's first impulse was to run and hide, but she didn't. She couldn't just leave Takeru standing there and besides, there wasn't enough time. Even as the thoughts raced through her mind, Luorke came around the corner.

"You!" he choked in surprise. "You! How did you"

Hikari didn't let him finish. She charged at him and kicked him savagely in the shin. Luorke let out a chortled gasp and dropped to one knee. Hikari elbowed him in the side. In her mind, she couldn't believe she was doing this, but she really had no choice. Luorke toppled and clutched his ribs, his eyes wide with pain. "Youyou won't get away with this" he wheezed.

Hikari didn't answer. Instead, she ran back to the mare and swung herself into the saddle. She stretched a hand to Takeru anxiously. Even in his ill state, Takeru didn't hesitate a moment. He took Hikari's hand and also swung himself on. The smoothness in which he did it surprised Hikari for she was sure he had never ridden a horse in his life.

Luorke finally noticed Takeru. "You, witch, stop! Stop! He's not yours!" Even though the man was drunk, he was sober enough to comprehend the situation and his voice shook with rage. "Stop, I say!"

Again, Hikari didn't answer. She flicked the mare's reins. "Go!" she whispered urgently. "Go!"

The mare reared a bit and set off in a gallop. Hikari could feel Takeru holding on to her tightly. His face was pressed against her back and his arms were around her waist. As they zoomed past the side door, Hikari caught sight of a soldier coming out of the inn. The mare was going too fast for Hikari to see the expression on his face, but she heard him call out, "You there, stop! Stop!"

But of course, she didn't.

Hikari urged the mare on even faster as they reached the main street. The soldier and Luorke had seen them and she was sure they would take pursuit. The girl felt Takeru's heavy breathing on her back and she wondered how long he'd last. Suppose he lost consciousness and fell out of the saddle

No, Hikari didn't want to think about that. They were heading towards the outskirts of Ramona now and would soon be on the dirt road that Hikari had been on earlier that day. The girl heard a horse's whinny behind her. Hikari turned around for a fleeting moment and her heart sank. Already, the soldiers were pursuing her. They were far behind, only mere shapes or now, but that could change.

How long would I last against them if they caught up? she wondered.

Probably not very long.

Hikari considered cutting through narrow streets and between cottages to try to lose the soldiers, but then she decided not too. Innocent people could get hurt and she didn't want that. Instead, she stayed on the main road. Right now, speed counted the most.

If Hikari thought that the night in Ramona was black, the sky went darker when she sped onto the road with the surrounding forest. The soldiers were still on her trail, but the blackness of the night could help her. It was good that in their hurry, none of the soldiers had remembered to bring torches or lanterns.

In the distance, she could here the rumbling sound of thunder. She hoped that the storm would be a small one, one that would erase the tracks of the mare, not a big one that would hinder her flight.

Abruptly, Hikari swung the mare to the right until she was speeding along the edge of the road. She didn't know how much of an advantage the night was to her, and she had no idea when the rains would come—if they were going to come. The soldiers probably guessed that she was heading back to Kent, she had no where else to go. She had to take a chance; she had to throw them off now.

Hikari yanked at the reins and the mare skidded off the road and down the slope. It wasn't a very steep slope, about two or three feet tall, but Hikari still hoped the mare hadn't injured itself. A lame horse was the last thing in the world she needed now.

Behind her, Hikari heard the surprised shouts of the soldiers, but she didn't let that stop her. She urged the mare into the forest itself, crashing through the underbrush. Coarse branches scratched at her arms and sharp leaves cut at her face as she rode blindly on.

Soon they reached a small stream and that brought hope to Hikari. Although the mare hesitated, the girl made it step into the stream. If they traveled in the water, they would leave no tracks and the soldiers would have no idea which direction they went.

"Come on, girl, you can do it," Hikari encouraged.

The mare whinnied nervously. The water reached almost to her flanks and they were going against the current which slowed down their pace tremendously. But Hikari had put her faith in the water and gritted her teeth. She would go back in the direction of Ramona. It'd surely throw the soldiers off since they probably thought she was heading back to Kent. Her plan was to head back in the direction of Ramona then circle back towards Kent. And of course, she had to make sure it was safe first.

Suddenly, the mare floundered and Hikari felt herself drooping to the right. Water splashed onto her face and soaked the hem of her skirt. Her feet were already dunked in water. "Get up, girl, get up," Hikari pleaded. Please be okay, she said in her mind.

The horse obeyed and got into an upright position once more. On they trekked until they reached the end of the stream. By then, the awful fear of a hunted animal that had brooded in her mind had faded. She hadn't heard any signs of pursuit in a long time.

Hikari turned her head slightly and spoke to Takeru. "Are you all right?"

"Yes."

"Do you think you can sit on the horse on your own while I go and check onthem?" For some reason, she didn't want to say "soldiers".

"Yes."

Hikari was glad to hear that. Perhaps Takeru was getting better. Quietly, she got off the horse and landed on her feet on the ground.

"Be careful."

Hikari turned her head around to Takeru in surprise. His voice had been strained, weak, but his eyes were sincere. Hikari nodded. Then, she headed into the trees.

The main road was not too far away, about ten feet to be exact. Hikari tried to be as quiet as possible. When she reached the edge of the forest, she got down into a crouching position, like a predator ready to spring. She had hidden herself behind a large berry bush so she felt sure that she would not be seen. She parted some leaves and watched.

After a short while, the sound of thundering hooves reached her ears and Hikari drew in her breath. Sure enough, the soldiers themselves appeared on their horses. They rode past her, in the direction of Ramona.

Hikari let out a small sigh of relief when the soldiers had gone. But then, she frowned. There had only been about three soldiers in that group, what had happened to the rest? Had Brennan split his men up in search of her? That was probably what he'd done. When she had fled Ramona, they probably weren't one hundred percent sure where she was headed. Brennan had probably sent two thirds of his men towards Kent and led the remaining one third around Ramona and the other routes out of the city in search of her.

That could mean that Luorke was in charge of the soldiers that had pursued her.

They had probably been sure they'd catch her, so they didn't send notice to Brennan. Hikari could imagine that, Luorke being a very proud and over-confident man. And now that they had lost her, Luorke had finally decided to send some men back to Ramona and report. Hikari could not imagine what they'd say, what excuse they would come up with to the Captain. But that was none of her concern. What did concern her was to get herself and Takeru to safety.

Walking swiftly, she headed back to where she had left the mare.

She found the horse with no problem and was relieved that everything was as she had left it. Takeru's head drooped, but he raised it at the sound of her footsteps.

"I think we're safe enough," Hikari said to the merboy even though he hadn't asked her anything. "We've almost gone back to where we started. We're so close to Ramona, it makes me nervous. We'd better get going and ride to Kent as fast as possible."

"That sounds like a good idea."

"Yes."

"But what if they're waiting for us there?" Takeru asked. "The soldiers, I mean."

For a moment, Hikari did not reply. Finally, she said, "Then, we'll just have to think of some other way to evade them." She sighed. "This is all my fault."

She got onto the mare and steered the horse around. They rode through the forest and presently, they came across the same stream from before. Once again, Hikari forced the mare to tread on the water. This time, it wasn't as hard because they were going with the current.

When the stream ended, Hikari decided that if was safe enough to go back on the main road. The girl guessed that while Luorke sent the three messengers back to Ramona, he and the rest of the soldiers had probably continued the vain search. Either on the road or in the forest or both, she was not sure. If they had been clever enough to follow her to the stream, they had probably lost her after that. Luorke had probably given up a long time ago and headed back to Ramona. She hadn't heard him because she was still in the forest and the sound of rushing water covered any sound from the main road. All in all, she hoped that she had led the soldiers into a confused muddle.

A light drizzle began to start as the mare and her two weary riders traveled down the empty road.

Hikari groaned.

"You don't like rain?" Takeru asked from behind her.

"No," Hikari said. "It's just thatI don't feel very good traveling when I'm soaked to the bone. Or if I'm damp. I think it's worse if you're damp."

There was a thoughtful silence. "We could stop."

"No," Hikari said quickly. "No. We've got to keep going. What if the soldiers decide to search the road again? I think we've lost them for now, but we can't take any chances."

Takeru did not reply.

* * *

For the next seven hours, the two traveled without stop. Around midnight, Hikari started to feel weariness gnawing at her, but she had pushed it aside. But why wouldn't she feel weary? She had traveled to Ramona and then fled the city all in the same day. And through both journeys, all she had eaten was about one third of a loaf of bread, a bit of cheese, and a few spoonfuls of porridge. And she had not rested at all.

The air was still and crisp now, the drizzle had stopped a long time ago and Hikari had dried off. But the girl still had that uncomfortable, wet feeling about her and she shivered. She ran her tongue over her lips and was surprised at how dried and cracked they were. And along with the realization came an unbearable desire for water. Her throat burned and felt like paper and it was very hard to swallow.

"We should rest," Takeru said, as if reading her mind. "Please."

"But—"

"It's obvious that the soldiers have lost us. I'm feelingtired." Sure enough, Takeru's voice sounded so strained that Hikari consented. She steered the mare into the forest again, but they didn't venture very deep.

They came across a small pond and Hikari stopped there. She had to give consideration to the mare, who was looking little better than Hikari herself. Hikari helped Takeru down and assisted him in walking towards a willow tree. He had sat down heavily and propped himself against the trunk. The girl then let the mare wander to the pond and drink to her own accord. The girl knew the horse would not abandon them.

Hikari came back to Takeru and knelt beside him. She bit her lip when she noticed how much paler he had gotten. His skin was almost as white as the mermaids'. His breathing had become very labored. He raised his eyes to meet hers. They had lost some of their shine. "Leave me," he whispered.

"Leave you?" Hikari echoed in horror. "No! Never, Takeru, never! I won't leave you, not if the King himself came and tried to drag me away."

Takeru smiled faintly. "I'm glad to hear that."

Hikari tried her best to keep back the tears. "Are you still angry with me?"

"No. I figured out what really happened between you and Luorke."

"Then why do you keep insisting that I leave you?" Hikari asked desperately. Something was horribly wrong.

"Because," Takeru said after a moment of silence, "you're wasting your efforts." He paused. "I'm dying."

Everything seemed to freeze for Hikari, even time itself. Nothing stirred, nothing moved. Takeru's words rang harshly in the air.

I'm dying

"No!" Hikari cried. "What are you talking about? You're tired that's all! Tired!"

But Takeru didn't seem to hear. "When the sun rises, I will die." His voice was bland as if he had known this for a long time and had accepted it without emotion.

"Takeru!" Hikari begged. "Please, don't say that. The situation's not completely hopeless! We can make it, I promise"

Takeru shook his head very slowly. "It's not that. There was a part, a condition, to the spell that keeps me human that you did not know."

Hikari's heart began to thump painfully in her chest and she swallowed hard. "What condition?"

"In order for me to be human on land, I must touch the sea every day or I'll die," Takeru explained.

Hikari felt a painful lurch in her chest. She was sure that her heart had made its way up her throat by now. "No, it can't be," she whispered. "You touched water, Takeru."

"If you're talking about the water in the tank, it was fresh water," Takeru said. "I couldn't breathe in there. It felt choked"

So that was why he had been so still in the tank. But Hikari still refused to take in what Takeru had said. "There has to be some way around the spell," she insisted. "Some way."

"There isn't." Takeru leaned back against the trunk and closed his eyes.

"Then we had better get going, then," Hikari said. Her voice was determined, yet it still trembled. "We're going to have to ride very fast back to Kent."

"Kari, you know that Kent is miles away. We'd never get there before dawn. Don't try to fool yourself. Don't try to believe in false hopes."

Kari. Her pet name. The girl felt the tears begin to well up. It was like Takeru's way of saying good-bye to her. His final good-bye. "At least it's better than no hope at all," she argued stubbornly.

Takeru let out a sigh, but didn't try to answer. Hikari realized why. The sky had been turning gray and now it was a rosy pink. Dawn was steadily approaching.

Without knowing what she was doing, she seized his hand and began rubbing at it savagely. It was like ice and no matter how hard Hikari rubbed, she couldn't get the warmth of life into it.

"It'sno use" Takeru gasped. "Mytime is"

Hikari only rubbed harder, her brow furrowed in sorrow and frustration. She wanted to shake Takeru long and hard, shake some last strands of hope into his mind, shake so life into him.

Knowing in her heart of hearts that Takeru was right, Hikari looked around at the lightening sky. She looked at Takeru who did not move, did not talk any more. There was no color in his face and his golden hair was matted to his forehead. She knew the last couple of times he had spoken had been full of effort. She glanced around her once more. It was getting lighter and lighter, a warning, that time was ticking away. Hikari wanted more than ever to sit back and cry, but she wouldn't let herself. She needed to be strong at this moment. For both of them. And there was something she needed to tell himit may be her last chance

"Takeru!" she screamed. "Don't leave me!" She threw her arms around him.

To her relief, Takeru opened his eyes and looked down at her.

Hikari smiled sadly, leaned forward and kissed him.

The girl could feel his surprise, but he didn't resist. He had no strength to kiss her back.

Hikari drew away and then stared into his eyes. They were nose to nose. "I love you," she said softly.

The girl saw the ghost of a smile that flashed briefly across the merboy's face. "That's funny," he said, "I've felt that way about you for a long time." His voice had been quiet, like the whisper of the wind, and now it faded away completely. He looked at her for one last time and then his eyes slowly closed. His head fell to one side and his body went limp.

The sky had become fully light.

Hikari put her hands to her mouth, the tears finally spilling down her cheeks. "No," she whispered. "No!"

Her last bits of hope had faded with the night.

Sobbing uncontrollably, and still clinging to Takeru, she put her face close to the merboy's, her tears running down her face and onto his. The tears left a messy, watery trail on Hikari's face and she could taste the salt from it in her mouth.

Takeru's eyelids fluttered.

Hikari gasped and looked at Takeru. He couldn't have done thatcould he? Surely it had been an illusionShe stared at Takeru again. Her tears were trailing down his face as if he were crying himself.

Somebody put their arm around her.

Hikari jumped in surprise and whirled around. No one was there. She looked down and realized the arm was Takeru's. She spun around and cried out his name.

Takeru's eyes were open and he was smiling at her. Already, some color was returning to his cheeks and his blue eyes were bright.

Hikari gasped. "How did youI meanI thought you were"

Takeru sat up from the trunk. "Your tears," he said, touching his wet face slightly. "The touch of the sea is in them."

Hikari looked confused. "My tears?"

"The salt," Takeru explained.

Hikari was beginning to understand. "See, there was a way around the spell!" she said. Laughing, she threw her arms around Takeru's neck and buried her face in his shoulder. Then she began to cry all over again, for no reason. She could feel Takeru's chin touching her hair and his arms were around her.

For a few moments, they were content to stay like that but finally Hikari drew away. "We must hurry," she said urgently. "We need to get to Kent and the sea as soon as possible."

Takeru nodded.

Together, the two got onto the mare. The horse was looking better, having rested and drank to its fill from the pond. Hikari led the mare onto the main road and she and Takeru continued on their journey.

* * *

It was well into the morning before Hikari saw any other travelers on the road. She squinted ahead but the only thing she could tell was that there were two riders. As she got closer to them and they to her, she let out a cry of surprise. "Taichi? Daisuke?"

Taichi had spotted Hikari and Takeru and pointed to them, making frantic gestures with his arms in case Hikari hadn't seen him. He urged his horse faster and reared it to a stop when he got to them, Daisuke close behind.

"Taichi, Daisuke, what are you two doing here?" Hikari asked, surprised. Her brother looked haggard and his hair was disheveled. There were dark rings under his eyes. A rough brown cloak had been thrown hurriedly about his shoulders. At that moment, Daisuke reached them. He glanced at Hikari and Takeru before quickly lowering his eyes to the ground. He looked extremely ashamed.

"We were looking for you," Taichi said. "Mother and Father were against it at first and so were Mr. and Mrs. Motomiya, but Daisuke and I managed to convince them." He let out a weary sigh. "I'm too tired to be angry with you. I didn't get a moment of sleep last night."

Hikari felt a stab of guilt. Taichi had probably been awake all night because of her. And she couldn't begin to imagine what her parents felt.

"We're just glad that you're safe," Daisuke said, not quite looking at Hikari.

"I'm sorry if I made you two worry," Hikari murmured. "And Father and Mother as well." She thought about how she had treated Daisuke that morning when Luorke and Brennan had left with Takeru.

"We'd better get back to Kent," Taichi said. "Mother and Father are worried sick and they'd want news of you." He started his horse in the direction of Kent.

"Wait," Daisuke said. There was a moment of hesitation before he went on, "I want to say something before we go." He led his horse closer to the mare. When they were little more than a foot away he stretched a hand to Takeru. "I'm sorry," Daisuke said sincerely. Takeru only stared in surprise at the boy's outstretched hand. "I've been thinking things over yesterday as well as today," Daisuke went on. "And I realized that the dislike I felt towards you was wrong. You're a good fellow, really. It was only me that was cruel. I was jealous becausebecause you had Hikari's affection. Forgive me. I'd-I'd like to start over." Daisuke's expression was solemn. There was a hint of fear in his face though. A fear that Takeru would scorn the offered friendship, would turn away.

But then, Takeru smiled. "I'd glad you thought things over." He clasped Daisuke's hand. Daisuke smiled back in relief.

"I would like to say I'm sorry too," Taichi said quietly. "But I think the reason I disliked you was because of the prejudice fear that everyone else had in town. I didn't think clearly" He gave a crooked smile. "And who am I to stand in the way of true love?"

Hikari blushed. "We'd better get going or else we'll be standing here talking till sundown," she said quickly.

"Yes," Taichi agreed. "Let's get going."

* * *

It was around noon when the four travelers neared Kent. That was when Hikari plucked up the courage to ask about the soldiers. And Luorke.

"So," the girl said casually, "Daisuke, Taichi, what happened in Kent while I was away?"

"Nothing much," Daisuke replied.

Hikari looked at him. "Are you sure? Nothing unusualnothing out of the ordinary"

"No." Daisuke looked back at her blankly.

Hikari smothered an exasperated sigh. But she wouldn't have called soldiers in Kent strange or out of the ordinary eitherafter all, they've already been there once before. "I meant, did any soldiers come to Kent while I was gone," Hikari finally said.

"Ah, so that's what you were worried about," Daisuke said. "No. No soldiers came while you were gone. Why do you ask?"

Hikari didn't answer, only looked at her saddle.

"I knew it." Taichi's flat voice interrupted the uncomfortable silence. "I knew it."

Hikari's head shot up. "Knew what?"

"I knew they wouldn't let you take him for free," Taichi said, giving her a hard look. "Took you long enough to mention this."

"Well" Hikari protested.

"Think of all the trouble we're going to get," Taichi went on. "For the family, for the town" But then, he let out a surrendering sigh. "But if he means that much to you, we will fight. Or, at least, I will."

Hikari looked at him in shock. She had never thought that her brother would give as much a grunt for Takeru and now"You're the best Taichi," she said with a wide smile. "You may be difficult sometimes, but you're still the best brother any body could have."

Taichi didn't say anything, only looked straight at the road ahead, but Hikari could tell that he was embarrassed.

"I'll fight too," Daisuke put in. "I think I owe it to you two for all I've done."

"Thank you, Daisuke," Hikari said with another bright smile at the boy. "That's very—" Hikari didn't get to finish because at that moment, an arrow whizzed by her shoulder, narrowly missing her by a few inches. The girl gasped and all four travelers whirled their heads around instinctively to see where the arrow came from.

And as they did, Hikari's horse began rearing and giving panicked whinnies. In the sudden commotion, Hikari could make out a soldier with an unsheathed sword who had suddenly appeared in front of them. He was waving the weapon crazily at the mare. At that moment, the mare shied ferociously and both Takeru and Hikari were tossed off. Hikari could hear Takeru yell her name, but it was suddenly drowned out a men came out from the trees surrounding them. There weren't a lot of soldiers, but enough to outnumber four, weary, unarmed travelers.

Hikari hit the ground hard, the wind momentarily knocked out of her. She could make out Taichi and Daisuke trying to fend off the soldiers desperately. Takeru, somehow, had managed to get a hold of the mare's reins again and he was mounted on the horse. A soldier came at him, but Takeru got away by pulling on the reins and making the mare dart in the opposite direction.

"Run, Takeru!" Hikari suddenly heard herself cry out. "Run! Don't worry about us!" The girl knew that Takeru was in desperate need of salt water. She had noticed earlier on that he had begun to look tired again. If he were captured, he might not get to the salt water in a couple of days or so, and by then, it would be too late. "Run!" Hikari yelled savagely. She was about to shout again, but the cry was cut off as she felt herself being pushed down face flat in the dirt. She struggled, but it was no use. Her hands were being pressed behind her back pain was already beginning to shoot up her arms and shoulders. Hikari couldn't see anything, but she could hear the sound of hooves and the cry of voices.

She knew that Takeru had gotten away.

And despite herself, she smiled.

"Well, well, well," a familiar voice suddenly said. "What have I caught today?"

Hikari didn't have to look up to know that it was Luorke.

* * *

Blindly, Takeru fled down the road, not knowing if the soldiers were on his trail or not. Presently, he realized that they weren't and he slowed the mare down. Strangely, he was breathless himself and his chest heaved violently. Staying in the saddle had been in a miracle.

He looked back down the road and the attack replayed itself in his mind. He cursed. They should have expected itthey should have known that Luorke wouldn't let them off so easilyand now they had Hikari. Along with Taichi and Daisuke. Perhaps that's why they did not pursue him. Perhaps they knew that they could use the three prisoners to bait him.

Whatever their reasons were, Takeru swore that he would save them. Whatever the cost. Yet, he couldn't very well save them if he were dead, and right now, the hot sun was beating down mercilessly on him. The effect of Hikari's tears wouldn't last any longer and he needed salt water badly. Already, he felt himself tiring.

The best thing to do first was to return to Kent.

Quickly, Takeru spurred the mare on. Kent wasn't as far away as he thought because in a short span of time, the first cottage reached his sight. Not wanting to attract attention, Takeru got off the horse and gave it a slap on the hind. The mare took off into the village. The merboy waited a few minutes before setting foot into the village himself. Not wanting to be seen, he went behind cottages and took back alleys until he was close enough to the sea to hear the roar of its waves. Perspiration dripped from his forehead and into his eyes, making it difficult to make them stay open.

All of a sudden, he found himself at the cliff and in a daze, stumbled down the steps. He was almost to the shoreline when he collapsed and everything went black.

* * *

"Hikari, Hikari, are you all right?" Taichi asked. "Are you hurt?"

Hikari couldn't turn her head too look at Taichi, but she said, "I'm okay."

"No talking!" Luorke snapped. He kneeled in front of Hikari. "Now, you, are going to help me get that merboy back because you were the one that made off with him in the first place."

"What about them?" a soldier asked. Of course he was talking about Taichi and Daisuke.

Luorke made a disgusted sound. "Put them in a closet, cellar, whatever. I don't care. Just get them out of the way until the trial's over."

Trial? What trial?

Suddenly, Hikari got a chilled feeling, like cold fingers on her skin.

A blindfold was forced on her and a gag stuffed in her mouth. Her hands were tied behind her. Someone heaved her onto a horse and presently, the band of soldiers and Luorke started moving. And worst of all, Hikari had no idea where they were going.

After a while, the horse came to a stop and someone pulled her down. She was dragged along until suddenly, she was shoved hard from behind. Hikari stumbled forward and fell to her knees just as she heard a door slam shut.

Hikari got to her feet and by pressing her back against the walls, felt her way around the room. It wasn't a very big room, and already, she was getting that mustered, choked feeling. There seemed to be no window because she didn't feel any light shine upon her at all. And obviously, she was alone.

Slowly, the girl sank down to the floor; her back propped up against a wall. She was glad that Takeru had been able to escape. But she was worried about one thing: what Luorke had in store for her.

* * *

When Takeru came to, he found sand and seawater in his mouth. He could feel the wetness of the sand against his face and a small wave played over him. He lay on the shore for a moment, stunned and dazed and then everything that had happened flooded back to him.

Groggily, the merboy sat up. He didn't feel weak and light-headed any more. It was as if he had been sick and now the illness was gone. He felt very refreshed. Takeru looked around realized, with a start, how much time had gone by. It was already getting dark. Everything was bathed in a gray light. Who knew where Hikari, Taichi, and Daisuke were by now? They could be halfway to Ramona or even be as close as in the next town. Takeru stared at the sand dejectedly at this thought. They were caught up in this partly because of him and it was his responsibility now to make sure that they were safe. And besides, he would never forgive himself if something happened to Hikari.

* * *

Hikari gave a start when the door opened and banged against the wall. She had been leaning against the wall, staring drowsily into the uniform nothingness, neither asleep nor awake. She had slipped into uneasy slumber earlier on; she had been so tired. Through the entire time she had sat in this room, she had shifted from consciousness to sleep and back again. She was getting cramps in her arms and hands and no matter what she did, it seemed she couldn't get into a comfortable position with her hands tied behind her back.

"You, get up," Luorke's voice said.

Hikari got unsteadily to her knees.

Luorke grabbed her by the arm and yanked the blindfold off. Hikari's vision adjusted quickly because the darkness didn't get any better when the blindfold was off. A furtive glance revealed to her that she had been in Luorke's cellar all this time.

"Come along," Luorke said gruffly and pulled out the cellar and through his cottage. He shoved her out the main door. A thin, sour looking man was standing there, appraising her from head to foot along with two soldiers bearing spears.

"Inquisitor Lowell, this is the girl," Luorke was saying to the man.

Inquisitor. Hikari didn't like the sound of that.

The Inquisitor looked Hikari up and down once again before making a sound in his throat and having a quick change of expression as a response.

"Well?" Luorke asked.

"She doesn't look any different from regular folk," he said in a tone that matched his bored expression. But then, he shrugged. "But I suppose they all look innocent."

Luorke rubbed his hands gleefully and turned to the two soldiers. "Get her to the town square," he said.

With stony expressions, the two soldiers each took hold of one of one of Hikari's arms and began leading her away. Desperately, the girl wanted to know what was going on, but she wasn't in the mood to ask questions.

When they reached the town square, a small crowd had gathered. As Luorke, the Inquisitor, Hikari and the two soldiers approached, whispers immediately started. In the center of the square, a stake had been set up surrounded by hay and pieces of wood. The rest of Luorke's, or rather Brennan's, men were positioned around it.

Hikari swallowed hard.

With Luorke leading, the small group pushed their way to the stake and Hikari was tied roughly to it.

"Now," Luorke said grandly, "let the witch trial begin."

* * *

Takeru watched in horror at the outer edge of the crowd. He had gone into Kent to get a horse and hopefully pick up on Luorke's trail, but that was not necessary any more. He had noticed the crowd gathered in the town square and went to see what the commotion was about. He was horrified to see Hikari being strapped to the stake. He guessed what was going on, although his knowledge was a little shallow in this area. Now, it was clear to him that the humans feared everything that was different then what they were used to. Then what they were taught. Then what they believed. And if they could, these "abnormalities" were often persecuted.

It seemed to him that Luorke had accused Hikari of being "different".

And from what he heard by eavesdropping on some of the folk in the crowd, Hikari had been accused of being a witch. A woman that was said to possess Black magic and belay all sorts of misfortunes on her community.

Takeru looked at Hikari desperately. They were going to start the "witch trial" any minute now. And if Luorke won, Hikari would have to die by burning at the stake, her name and her family's name disgraced forever. (These things he also learned by eavesdropping). The thing that made the merboy most angry was that the accusations were not true.

Without knowing what he was doing, Takeru spun around and ran for the shore.

* * *

Daisuke didn't know how long he and Taichi had sat there in the dark. It just seemed like an eternity and Daisuke feared that they might be locked in this place forever. Or at least until they died. Which wasn't a very pleasant thought either.

When they had first been put in here, the two boys had investigated of course. They had found out that they were in a storeroom because the place was filled with sacks of apples. (They had found this out when Daisuke stumbled into a sack and sent the fruit rolling everywhere on the floor). The only person that Daisuke knew who had apples was Mrs. Leonard. Which meant, they were probably in her storeroom.

"Ah, well," Daisuke had said earlier, trying to lighten things up a bit, "at least they didn't put us somewhere foul smelling." He had breathed in a large breath of air for effect.

Taichi hadn't said anything.

"And at least we won't starve to death." The boy had even managed a crooked grin. Not that Taichi could have seen it, of course.

Again, Taichi didn't respond. After a few minutes of silence, he finally spoke. "I wonder what they did with" It had been in a strange, detached sort of voice.

"Look," Daisuke had said. "She can't be off any worse then we are. I mean, I'm pretty sure Luorke wants to keep her alive so he can bait Takeru. He did get away, you know. Maybe he'll even bring a whole bunch of sea monsters to save Hikari and then us." There was a hint of amusement in Daisuke's voice. He hoped Taichi knew that he was only joking. Partly.

A piece of him really did wish that Takeru would bring sea monsters and other creatures of destruction. Mainly so they could tear up Luorke, bit by bit.

And here they were, hours later, still stuck in the same storeroom. Daisuke had talked most of the time to get Taichi to brighten up a bit, but of course the older boy had remained glum and mostly silent.

With an exasperated sigh, Daisuke sat down heavily by the door. He had heard murmurs coming through it and now pressed his ear against it to see what he could pick up. Perhaps he would get some information on Hikari.

"This entire thing stinks," one of the soldiers said. "I can't believe Brennan made us listen to thatto that"

"Idiot?" the other soldier offered.

"Yes, to that bumbling idiot," the first soldier said. "This mission could have been easy. We get merman, we return to Ramona, we give merman to King, King is happyend of story. Why did we have to have all these complications?"

"Well" the second soldier said. "It does make things a whole lot more interesting. Where has your sense of adventure gone?"

The first soldier responded with a grunt. " Yes, wellI don't like witchcraft to get mixed up in this."

"I agree with you on thatI don't think the girl is really a witch, do you?"

"Probably not, even though she does have an uncanny ability to "control" the merman. Luorke just wants to get attention." He sighed. "This better not go on for long. The King is very unhappy at this moment and getting impatient. If we don't get the merman back and if we don't have him delivered, I daresay he's going to have our heads."

"Oh yes. That. Don't mention it, will you. I—"

Daisuke drew away from the door. He had heard enough. "Taichi," he whispered urgently. "Hikari's in trouble!"

Taichi looked at Daisuke sharply. "Trouble? What kind of trouble?"

"I think Luorke accused her of witchcraft and they might—"

"What?" Taichi cried and Daisuke made shh-ing motions with his hands.

"We've got to save her, Taichi," Daisuke whispered. "Who knows where Takeru is and if he he's even got energy to stand up. He was looking pretty weak earlier on for some reason"

"Daisuke, I think I have an idea," Taichi said hurriedly. "We can stand back to back and untie each others bonds. Let's give it a try. You untie me first."

Finally, Daisuke thought, something's happening.

He got up and went over to Taichi and the two were able to stand back to back. Daisuke groped for Taichi's ropes and then searched for the knots. After a while of fumbling and yanking, Taichi's bonds came free. A few seconds later, Daisuke was stripped of his blindfold and he felt Taichi working feverishly to untie the ropes that held him. Taichi was able to get them undone very quickly and the two boys were free.

Well, almost.

"How are we going to get past the two guards?" Daisuke asked as he and Taichi pressed against the door, listening to the soldiers' voices.

"I don't—" Taichi stopped in mid-sentence. He looked at Daisuke. "Do you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

"It's another voice. A female voice. I think its Mrs. Leonard."

"Mrs. Leonard?" Daisuke repeated. He listened and realized that Taichi was right. "What is she doing down here?"

"That's what I was wondering," Taichi muttered. He pressed his ear harder against the door. There was the sound of conversing voices and then a sudden thud on the floor.

"Oh, how clumsy of me!" It was Mrs. Leonard.

Light had been coming in from the narrow slit between the bottom of the door and the floor. Now, everything had gone black.

"I'm so sorry," Mrs. Leonard was saying. "Knocking over the candle and dropping my things and all. I'll go upstairs and light the candle again. Say, why don't you two come upstairs with me as well? You two look tired and I think you could use something to eat and drink."

Daisuke felt something brush against his hand which had been resting right by the slit. His hand closed over the object absent-mindedly and he was much surprised when he found that it was a key. He was about to tell Taichi, but then decided not to. The other boy seemed concentrating too hard on what was going on outside.

After a few moments, Taichi whispered, "They're gone!"

"I heard it too!" Daisuke said excitedly. "Do you think Mrs. Leonard's helping us on purpose?"

"Perhaps," Taichi replied with a slow smile.

"She probably is," Daisuke decided. "She gave us the key." He held it up, grinning.

Taichi gasped and grabbed it. "Good, good!" He pressed his hand against the door and a section of it gave away. "There's a section of the door that can open up," Taichi explained. "I remember it from two years ago when I was working for Mrs. Leonard and I had to bring all the apples down here. I tried this mini door earlier, but of course it was locked. It's held close by a latch. Mrs. Leonard must have somehow unhooked the latch for us just then."

"Good old Mrs. Leonard," Daisuke said. Then, "Well, actually, she's not old, but you know what I mean."

Taichi wasn't really listening. He had stuck his hand through the opened section as far as it would go and was muttering to himself. "Just a little bit further"

"Did you get it?" Daisuke asked.

"No, I'm trying to," Taichi said with gritted teeth. "It's hard to see in the dark." Just then, the key scraped loudly on the lock.

Daisuke gulped, hoping that the soldiers wouldn't hear upstairs.

Taichi thrust his arm forward and he felt the key go in. There was a click and the door swung open.

"Follow me," Taichi said immediately, not wanting to waste time. "There's a second stairway that leads out a side door of Mrs. Leonard's house." In a few minutes, Taichi had found it.

"You know, Taichi, I think it's a good thing that you've worked for Mrs. Leonard," Daisuke commented.

Then the two boys sped up the stairway as quietly as possible.

* * *

Witch trialThe words ricocheted in Hikari's mind. She should have expected it; Luorke had been calling her a witch quite frequently. And he was pretty confident too, it seemed, he had tied her to the stake before the trial was over. That means that he sure that he would win.

Which didn't do much for Hikari.

But perhaps this was all a bluff, perhaps this was all set up so he could get Takeru's attention and lure the merboy here. After all, Luorke had decided the trial should be at night and you'd think if he really thought Hikari were a witch, he'd have the trial during the day. But then why had he called the Inquisitor? Did Luorke want to capture Takeru and do away with Hikari?

At this moment, that's what it seemed like.

Ignoring her pounding heart, Hikari looked around the crowd. There weren't a lot of people. Most of them, she wasn't very familiar with. It seemed that a lot of people had stayed home tonight. Hikari wondered why. Were they ashamed that they knew her, an accused witch? Or perhaps it was something else. Perhaps it was fear of being associated with her now that she had gotten herself into this jumble? Hikari didn't know.

Luorke had taken his place in front of her. "Silence!" he shouted, his arms raised. The crowd immediately ceased their talking. Satisfied, Luorke continued on. "I, Luorke Gragen of Kent, accuse Hikari Yagami of Kent of being a witch, an upholder of the Dark Arts. I will shortly present evidence and if any of you have evidence against or with her, please state it when it when I am through. Inquisitor Lowell from Fenn, the nearest town to Kent, shall be the judge of this trial."

Luorke paused a bit for effect and was about to go on when a woman's voice cried out.

"Hikari! Hikari!" The cries were wracked with sobs as Mrs. Yagami pushed her way through the crowd followed by Mr. Yagami. "She's innocent!" Mrs. Yagami screamed. "Innocent, do you hear me? This is ridiculous! Ridiculous!" She turned to her daughter, tears streaming down her face. "Hikari!" She rushed to get to the stake.

Mr. Yagami grabbed her just in time. "Wife, be silent," he whispered. "Please, for the sake of our daughter." Mr. Yagami pulled Mrs. Yagami back, stroking her hair and murmuring to her. He shot his daughter a desperate, helpless look.

Luorke was about to signal to his men to silence Mrs. Yagami but now satisfied that the job was already done, he continued on with his speech. But, once again, he was interrupted.

"Luorke! Luorke! I've been looking for you!" Ms. McFlintock pushed her way to the front. "Well, where is he? Where is Takeru?"

Luorke stared at the old woman in outright surprise.

Ms. McFlintock only scowled at him and waved her cane impatiently. "Someone told me that you dragged my Takeru off. You had no right to do that. He was in my service and—"

Luorke had snapped out of his daze and shouted orders to Brennan's men. "Get the woman back to her cottage! She's obviously deluded. And make sure she doesn't come back and interrupt this trial again!"

Two of the soldiers followed Luorke's orders and began leading a now, furious Ms. McFlintock away.

Luorke let out an angry heave of breath, cross at having been interrupted twice in a row, and then resumed with the trial.

"Now, as all of you know, this girl is able to control the merboy that has been living among us for some time now. That, I think, is proof enough in itself. How can such a simple girl control something that is of magic? Unless of course, she had magic herself. Second, I have reason to believe that it was this girl who freed the merboy seven years ago from our beach. The merboy was washed too far ashore for the waves to reach him and he was too weak from his wound to drag himself back to the water. And I do not think his own kind would have dared ventured on land even to save one of their kindred. Yet, despite all this, he was gone the next day. And when he returned some three years later, he befriended this girl. I think he had to have known her before then just pop out of the water and suddenly become friends. We all know that the Mer Folk are a wary people, they do not give their trust blindly. Any objections?"

"Well" said one woman who was bolder than the rest, "what else has she done besides enchant the merboy?"

"You don't understand," Luorke said, his brow furrowing slightly. "By enchanting the merboy, she could have done a lot of things through him. For instance, calling up storms. She may have even called up the storm that killed her own grandfather."

Hikari sucked in her breath, horrified at what Luorke at said. "That's a lie!" she cried. "I would never—"

"Be silent!" Luorke hissed. "You have no right to speak!"

Hikari bit her lip.

"And consider that one time when there had been a storm. Did she not blunder headlong into it. That meant that she wasn't afraid the sea would take her. It meant that she had the power to control it, so she wasn't afraid. And who did not see the merboy go after her shortly?"

"She went out there to save her brother," someone else protested.

Luorke glared. "That was just an excuse. So nobody would get suspicious of her. Who knew what she and the merboy were doing out there in the sea?"

No one said anything.

"And," Luorke went on, "I have seen her have meetings with the merboy."

Hikari caught her mother and father's eye. They looked at her in horror and her mother burst into tears once more.

"Once when I was taking a rest from work, I was walking along the cliff one afternoon and I saw her down by the shore talking with the merboy. I got suspicious and a month or so later, when I stayed home to mend the nets, I took another walk along the cliff, around the same time as before, and there! Once again, I see her talking to the merboy." Luroke paused for breath. "And just to prove it even more, ask her parents. Ask them. Was the girl not always out sometime during the afternoon with some excuse or another?"

Everyone turned to look at Mr. and Mrs. Yagami. There was only silence.

"You see!" Luorke crowed. "It's true, it's true!"

Hikari listened to all of this in despair. Luorke was going to win, she knew it. Luorke was going to win, and she was going to die. He had turned all the things he had seen her do into sins and half the evidence he had against her was inferred. For instance, how he said that she used Takeru to summon sea storms. But the crowd didn't know that, Inquisitor Lowell didn't know that, and there was nothing she could do.

* * *

Takeru ran until he reached the shore. He stood in the sand, but he did not touch the water. Closing his eyes, he forced pictures of his kin sisters into his mind. He imagined that the sea was fierce and uneasy, the waves crashing onto the rocks. He imagined that storm clouds would gather and threaten with rain. He kept these pictures in his mind and let out a long, eerie wail. It was beast-like, inhuman. After a few moments, he called out again. He wished for a conch shell which would have been more effective, but he didn't want to waste time looking for one.

After a few moments, he was surprised to hear his call being answered. The replies were exactly like his call, only higher pitched and more alluring.

Takeru opened his eyes to see the sea as he had pictured it to be in his mind. The waves were churning restlessly and were crashing among the rocks, sending salty spray splattering all over him. Dark clouds were already gathering overhead.

It had worked.

Takeru had known that he had the power to summon storms, just like any other of his kind. He just never knew he would have to use his powers one day. He had always hoped that things wouldn't come to this. Calling storms was tricky and sometimes dangerous. Storms got out of control all to frequently. He didn't know if he could control the storm he had conjured, he realized he had put too much power, too much energy into it. He wondered if Kent could stand up to its rage. Perhaps now, he was no better than the monster that they had accused him of being.

Just then a huge wave rolled towards him but it didn't crash down on Takeru. Instead, it stopped right by the shore and mermaids appeared out of its midst. They sang to him, called to him and reached out their slender hands enticingly. And there was just a bit of scorn as they looked at his human legs.

Takeru shook his head but only sang back, asking them to help him bring the storm upon Kent. He didn't tell them that he was doing it for Hikari because if he did, they might not help him, knowing the reason behind all this was for a human.

The mermaids laughed gleefully when they heard his plea and their beautiful eyes shone with a hungry light. The dove back into the wave and it subsided into the sea. The mermaids surfaced again, very close to the shore.

They reached their hands towards the sky, all the while singing their song. A turbulent wind started, blowing salt water into Takeru's eyes. It took all his might to stand his ground. When he looked at the sea again, he gave a gasp of horror. The mermaids had called upon the wind and had started a swirling water tornado. This wasn't what he had asked for. He had asked them to help him move the storm from the shore to Kent not add to it.

The tornado swirled closer and Takeru could feel its power. He could feel its force trying to draw him to it. He jumped out of the way just in time as the tower of water crashed into the cliff. The ground literally shook from the force and it took a few minutes before Takeru could steady himself. He looked at the mermaids.

They only laughed at him, their eyes dancing with malice.

What have I done?

* * *

"What is your say in this, Inquisitor Lowell?" Luorke asked. He had finished giving out all his "evidence".

The Inquisitor, who hadn't said anything at all during the entire trial, finally spoke. "Hmvery interesting indeed. I must say that your evidence, Mr. Gragen, has overpowered all the protests. Very well, she is condemned." Inquisitor Lowell turned to Hikari. "Now is your chance to speak. Do you confessor do you still insist you are innocent?"

"Believe what you like, but I'm innocent," Hikari said stubbornly.

Inquisitor Lowell didn't look surprised at her claim. "Shall we try the river method then?"

"No," Hikari said bitterly. "Either way, I'll die."

"Since you have refused the river method, and all evidence is saying that you are guilty, you must be prepared to die by burning at the stake. Do you accept your fate?"

"Yes."

Somewhere within the crowd, Hikari thought she saw her mother faint.

"All right," the Inquisitor said. He turned to Luorke. "You heard her."

Luorke nodded to the soldier who held a flaming torch. Just as he was about to light the wood and hay around Hikari's feet somebody cried out.

"A storm! A storm is coming! Run for shelter!"

Everyone turned to see who it was. The man collapsed to his knees just as he got to the edge of the crowd. Even though his face was ashen and he was clearly out of breath, he struggled on. "It's like nothing I've seen before," he whispered in a frightened voice. "The seait's like a living monsterthere were columns of swirling water and the waves churned and tossedand it's headed-headed this way"

And then as if to prove the shaken man's words, thunder rumbled in the distance and a long streak of lightning cut the sky. A light rain began to start.

Luorke who had gone near enough to hear the man gave a shout of triumph. "You see! The girl has obviously summoned, or used the merboy to summon, this storm to save herself! Is that not proof? Is that not proof?" He turned wildly back to the soldier who held the torch. "Do it," he commanded.

"But" the soldier said, hesitating. He looked at the sky.

"Do it, you coward!" Luorke screeched. "I don't care if it's raining, just do it!"

The soldier obeyed.

Hikari's heart almost thumped out of her chest as the soldier thrust the torch amid the wood and she struggled. The soldier didn't do anything for her of course. He just turned around and hurried to Luorke who was calling him over.

Hikari could feel the heat of the flames near her feet and she wondered how long it would be before the fire seared her. Already, billows of smoke were starting up and it was choking her. A part of her wished the rain would come down harder and douse the flames, yet another part wished the flames to engulf her so that her death would be quick.

"Hikari!" Two male voices called to her, but the girl didn't turn her head. Black dots were dancing in front of her eyes and any minute now, she was going to pass out. It was getting hard to breathe amidst the smoke. "Hikari!" The voices called again, but they sounded distorted to Hikari. Slowly, almost calmly, her attention turned to the flames around her. Had the fire gotten to her yet? Funny, how she didn't feel any pain

And then everything went black.

* * *

Taichi watched in horror as he saw Hikari's head slump forward. "No!" he screamed. He and Daisuke pushed their way to the stake, only to be held off by the soldiers.

Just then, Taichi heard a voice shout his name. He whirled his head around. "Takeru!"

The merboy was flushed and he was running at a face pace towards them. Absently, Taichi heard Luorke utter a cry of surprise and glee.

"Get him! Get him!" Luorke shrieked.

At the same time, Taichi shouted, "Hikari! Hikari!" And began pointing at the stake.

And by then, the crowd had begun shouting and yelling as well.

In the confusion, Takeru stopped in his tracks and yelled something wordless to the sky. The rain started to fall down harder, in thick, heavy globs. The wind picked up and the thunder rumbled louder followed by the brilliance of lightning. There was a sudden crash as a rack of fish put outside a cottage to dry during the day fell over. Someone screamed.

In fact, the whole crowd had been thrown into mayhem as the rain began to come down even harder and people ran in the directions of their homes to find shelter. And some people were so bewildered that they had begun cutting across the center of the square so they could get away fast enough.

The soldiers tried to hold the panicked people back but they wouldn't be held off. Several of the soldiers found themselves being trampled under hurrying feet and others were swept away in the rush of the crowd. There were only two men standing and instantly, Taichi lunged at one of them from behind, grabbing onto the soldier's neck, bringing him down. Daisuke, on the other hand, kicked the other soldier behind the knee. That method was also effective because the soldier also dropped.

Takeru ran the rest of the way to the stake. People darted out of his way, but he paid no attention. The rain he had called had doused the flames around Hikari, but he didn't know if she was okay. A lot of the wood around her had been burned and her dress had been seared badly. And, she was also unconscious.

Takeru finally reached Hikari and untied the ropes that held her and then hoisted the limp girl piggyback style onto his back. Taichi and Daisuke reappeared at Takeru's side

"Where to?" Takeru asked. Or rather, shouted. His voice seemed a little breathless, having ran all the way from the shore to here and also using a lot of energy to summon the storm.

"My house," Taichi said.

Takeru nodded but gave a start as somebody gave a wild scream behind him. He jumped out of the way just as a blade came slicing down at where he just was. "Luorke!" he gasped.

The red-haired man looked at all three boys with half-crazed eyes, all the while brandishing a sword that he had somehow gotten hold of. "I'll get you!" he cried. "I'll get you all, then you'll pay for what you've done!"

"He's gone mad," Daisuke whispered.

Luorke lashed out again and everyone jumped away. His eyes fell upon Takeru. "You," Luorke whispered. "You're going first. You and that pathetic witch." With a roar, he slashed in an arc at Takeru, but the merboy was able to dodge the blow.

Daisuke launched himself at Luorke, grabbing hold of the man's right arm. The arm that held the sword.

"Get off me!" Luorke screamed and in all the sudden struggling, managed to elbow Daisuke in the side. Momentarily stunned, Daisuke was thrown off. The boy hit the ground with a sickening thud.

For a moment, Takeru was afraid that Luorke would chop Daisuke's head off—he had the chance—but the older man came after him instead. Automatically, Takeru took flight. He didn't know where he was going, but then realized that his mind had instinctively made him head in the direction of the sea.

Blindly, Takeru plunged into the woods, trying to loose Luorke, but the man stayed on his trail. Takeru swerved to the right, then to the left, leapt over roots and dead branches but no matter what, Luorke was behind them. All too soon, the wood ended and Takeru found himself at the edge of the cliff. Luorke burst out of the woods a moment after. Both had stopped running.

"Well, merboy," Luorke said, his face flushed from the chase, "this is the end."

Takeru only stared, too horrified to speak.

"This is the end," Luorke repeated, a smile spreading across his face. He gripped the sword and lunged.

Everything seemed to happen in slow motion for Takeru. He saw Luorke charging at him and for a moment, he couldn't move, couldn't do anything. Then, a split second before the sword hit, Takeru leapt to the side.

Luorke's sword plunged into the air, but the swing had made the man lose his balance. He teetered for a moment, trying to regain his balance, but his feet slipped on the rocks which were now slick with rainwater. He tipped sideways and with a furious scream, fell over the side of the cliff.

Takeru stared at where Luorke had been, unable to believe what had just happened. Still in a half daze, he crawled over to where Hikari was. He had lost hold of her when he had fallen, but was glad that she appeared unharmed. But, she was still unconscious.

Takeru checked to see that she was still breathing then clutched the girl to him. He was glad that she hadn't been awake to experience what had just happened.

"Takeru! Hikari!"

Taichi and Daisuke appeared and caught sight of Takeru and Hikari. They ran towards them and knelt down next to the boy and the unconscious girl.

"Are you two all right?" Taichi asked.

Takeru nodded.

"What happened?" Daisuke said. "Where's Luorke?"

Takeru swallowed. "Dead." He swallowed again. "He fell over the edge of the cliff."

There was a moment of silence. The only sound was the rain which was pelting down on the four of them.

"Let's get out of this wet," Taichi finally said.

"Merman's Cave," Daisuke suggested. "It's the closet, driest place from here."

Taichi and Takeru nodded in agreement. Unusually quiet, the three boys got up, Takeru still holding Hikari, and headed towards the cave.

__________

When Hikari came to, the first person she saw was Takeru.

Slowly, she sat up, rubbing her head. "What happened? How did I get here?"

Takeru only stared at her. "Do you really want to know?"

"Yes."

"Are you sure you're feeling well enough to listen to the entire story?"

"Yes, I feel fine."

Grimly, Takeru told her what had happened.

"I'm sorry," Hikari said after he was finished. "I'm sorry, that Luorkedied."

Takeru didn't say anything.

"Where are Taichi and Daisuke now?"

"In the town. Reassuring your parents that you are still alive and well. They should be back in a while. Your parents might come too."

"Oh." Somehow, the prospect of seeing her parents and explaining everything and answering all their questions didn't seem too appealing to her right now. "How long have I slept?"

"A day or so." He was silent for a moment. "It was a miracle that you weren't brunt. You've got some minor bruises from the fall from the horse earlier on, but other than thatyou're fine." Suddenly, he smiled. "I'm glad."

Hikari looked at Takeru. She thought about all that had happened to her. Only three days had passed, but it had seemed like three months. Without a warning, she threw her arms around Takeru and pressed her face into his chest. "I love you," she murmured.

Takeru was surprised for a moment, then hugged her back. "You should get some rest," he murmured, stroking her hair.

Strangely, when he said the words, Hikari realized how tired she had suddenly become. "All right," she said quietly and settled down into a comfortable position. She was smiling when she fell asleep.

* * *

When Hikari awoke again, she was in her own bed, in her own room.

For a moment she was confused and dazed, but then suddenly, everything came back to her. Her father and Taichi must have somehow managed to carry her all the way from Merman's Cave back to their cottage. But where had Takeru gone? She had hoped to talk to him, in private, now that everything was over

Getting out of bed, Hikari got up and gave her aching bones and muscles a stretch. Quietly, she left her room and she stepped into the living room. To her surprise, she found her mother and father, Taichi, the Motomiyas, and Mrs. Leonard all there, as if waiting for her. When the group saw the Hikari, they immediately got out of their chairs and ran to give her sympathetic hugs.

"Oh, my daughter, my Hikari," Mrs. Yagami was saying, "thank God you're alive."

"Yes, it is a good thing," Mrs. Leonard said with a smile.

"That Luorke" Mr. Motomiya muttered.

They all began fussing over like a newborn and Hikari felt dazed and rushed all over again. Taichi was the first one to notice.

"I think we should give Hikari a little air, she looks like she's going to faint," Taichi said with a smile.

"I would like some fresh air," Hikari said, thinking of Takeru.

"Fresh air? As in a walk. Outside? Alone?" Mr. Yagami raised an eyebrow.

"Yes," Hikari said.

"I suppose" Mrs. Yagami said, but she looked suspicious too.

"Thank you Mother, thank you Father," Hikari said and then hurried out of the cottage quickly before any of them could change their mind.

TakeruIn a haste, Hikari's feet led her to the cliff. She stopped there, bathing in the warm glow of the sun. Everything was just so wonderful. Hikari smiled. Perhaps it was a side effect of being in love. And she was in love, she wouldn't deny it any longer. With Takeru.

Suddenly, Hikari caught sight of Takeru's golden hair by the shore. Still smiling, she walked down the steps. But when she got to the bottom, she felt queasy. She hoped that they had cleaned up after Luorke and she wouldn't see a dead body.

Letting out a sigh of relief when she didn't, Hikari ran over to Takeru. The merboy had taken on his fish tail form and was sitting on one of the rocks. Hikari suddenly realized how long it had been since she had last seen him in this form and how much she had missed it.

"Oh, Takeru!" she said as she reached him. "I'm so happy!"

Takeru smiled at her, but there was something faraway in his eye. He looked out to sea.

Sensing something was wrong, Hikari became worried. "What is it? You look sad. Are ill?"

After a moment, Takeru said, "It'snot that." The words seemed difficult to get out. "Thereanother part of the spell that I didn't tell you about."

Hikari's blood immediately ran cold. "Another part?"

"Yes."

Suddenly, Hikari seized Takeru's arms. "Tell me," she said, desperately, urgently.

Takeru wouldn't look at her, but looked at the sand instead. "In exchange for the spell," he began, "I bargained away a year of my life under servitude."

"You mean, you said you would serve the sea witch for a year if she put the spell on you?"

Takeru nodded. "The problem isshe asked me to return to her the day after I turn sixteen."

Hikari's heart had begun pounding again. "When is your birthday?" she whispered.

"I turned sixteen yesterday."

All of a sudden, everything began to make sense to Hikari. So that was why he was out here, in his Mer Folk form. He hadn't done it because he had felt like it; he had done it because he had to.

And as if to confirm it, Takeru said, "I can't become human any more."

"No" Hikari whispered. "No! No! This can't be happening!"

"It is," Takeru said gloomily. "You should return to Kent. Your parents, Taichi, Daisuke they're all waiting for you. They care about you. You should—"

But Hikari wasn't listening. "Three yearsonly three years" she murmured, still in shock. She gazed into Takeru's eyes. "Why didn't you tell me?"

He looked away. "It wouldn't have changed anything."

Hikari was about to protest, but then stopped. He was right. Bitter tears began to well up and she hugged Takeru. One last time. "Don't forget me," she pleaded in a whisper.

"Never," Takeru said. Then, "How could I?" He leaned down and kissed her. "But you must promise never to forget me." Tenderly, he caressed her face.

"I'll remember you always," was Hikari's answer. "And you shall remain forever in my heart."

"After I finish my servitude, I will come back to you," Takeru promised. "Remember that, and remember my love for you and don't lose hope."

"I will remember," Hikari promised.

Gently, Takeru drew away. He tried to smile. "A year isn't very long," he said. "If you keep busy while I'm away, it will pass by very quickly."

Hikari nodded emphatically even though the tears still streamed down her face.

"Good-bye," Takeru said. He turned and smiled at her once more before diving into the sea.

Hikari stared out into the blue-green waters. "Good-bye."

A gentle breeze picked up and ruffled Hikari's hair and skirt. The waves crashed gently among the rocks. The seagulls called. Slowly, the girl began to smile through her tears.

Remember me alwaysI shall always remember you

And when the year is up, find your way back to me

BecauseI'll be waiting for you

I promise

__________

I wrote your name in the sand

And the waves washed it away

I wrote your name in my heart

And forever it will stay

——Connie

Author's Note: Wwweeellllll folks, how was it??? The part where Takeru and Hikari met up with Taichi and Daisuke was done the day before school started. So don't sue me if this chapter's a little rushed. Anyhow, romantically, I tried to make this chapter as sad as possible. This may be a love story, but I never said that it was going to turn out all sappy and perfect! Mwahahahahahahaha! I just luv bittersweet stuff! ^0^ And if any of you cried, let me know!!! *Rubs hands gleefully* And I must thank Connie, who is a friend of one of my friends. She's the one that made up that sweet little poem at the end.^^ Okay, I know you're all still staring at the screen with your mouths open at this super sad endingbuuuuuut, I might consider a sequel. Now doesn't that just make you feel so much better? If you want a sequel: SAY SO IN YOUR REVIEW. For more news/updates on the possible sequel, check my bio on ff.net.

Well TTFN, ta ta for now. Till then, my readers!