Camping outside was damnable, especially when one had the misfortune to be traveling with the kind of companions one could hardly bear even within a warm, comfortably furnished house.
At least that was the reason Anna gave herself as an excuse to get away from her companions for a while, not that they tried very hard to stop her otherwise. After the hit that answered the first question Manta posed, everyone who wasn't already asleep and was paying attention knew better than to hinder her any longer. She had spared a long glance at the figure of Yoh, but her face remained as passive as ever as she moved away from the warm fire.
Despite her short sleeveless dress, she didn't even consider returning to fetch her winter clothes. She was well used to the cold – after all, she knew they all thought her to be the ice queen, so why shouldn't she be able to handle a bit of a breeze during the night? Her bandana was once more tied around her neck as a quasi scarf, the ends of it blowing loosely in the wind, along with her almost boyish bobbed dark blonde hair. To an outsider, had any been present, she would have appeared a young girl lost in the desert; to one that would take notice of her face, she would seem to be the predator on patrol. The two obsidian razors that were her eyes, a sharp contrast to her hair and proof that she was indeed Japanese, showed no fear, no concern, no worry.
Anna was never one for complex plans. Complexity was a concept she preferred to avoid and, if she would have her way, her life would be simple and easy, just as she wished it to be. After all, she was the wife of the Shaman King… or would be the wife of him in the future, but that was a minor detail. The goal she had set for herself before she was even able to understand the consequences drew nearer with each day and with each battle. That she herself couldn't take the title for herself didn't bother her, though it perhaps took a bit of the glory out of her plan. The fact remained that there was no other alternative acceptable other than winning – and she had made sure there would be no other alternative.
As much as his companions annoyed her, a small part of Anna was able to admit that Yoh was getting better and stronger, in no small part thanks to her, another part of her added. Night and day, every day, never stopping, he would slave away under her iron fisted rule… and he had learned not to complain. She closed her eyes for a moment and let out a breath, still not stopping in her stroll. She did love him, really – after all, he had saved her all those years ago and was, despite his laziness and goofiness and at times too "I'll-help-everyone-I-can" attitude, quite worthy of her love. The years spent away from him had made a hole in her that was now being filled, though of course she would never say such a thing out loud. It was her curse to always mean well but remain, well, herself, at heart, and speak her mind shrewdly.
Her left hand slowly fingered one of the beads of the long chain of pearls around her neck. Jewelry and fashion was not her cup of coffee, but she knew a useful weapon when she saw one – and these beads had proven more than useful in her battles thus far. Now even she, though she wasn't a shaman warrior herself, had two guardian spirits of sorts. Only she had kept her head cool when faced with the pair of shikigami and realized that the answer to her little problem might be in the book from whence they came. And now, controlled by her own power, the two guardian spirits served her, not Hao anymore.
She was one of the few people who felt no chill at the thought of his name. Their first and hopefully last encounter had ended as most of Anna's first meetings did – with a sharp slap. The thought of the red sting the legendary left hand left as a mark f its victory on his otherwise immaculate cheek sent some part of satisfaction through her. Certainly she had been the first – and possibly the last – who managed to land a hit on him, on his face no less, and lived to talk about it without having to face a full frontal assault of a horde of angry followers while the insulted fire shaman watched with amusement. Yes, amusement. That was what his face had displayed when he had been toying with her, pushing her against the rock and gripping her wrist, believing himself to have won the little squabble they had over the usual subject Anna argued over with people too dense to understand that she was right.
Ten points for the courier girl. He would certainly not forget that slap anytime soon.
She had reached the edge of the valley, a path that went between two high rock walls of the canyon. Her feet stopped almost on their own accord and she began wondering why she had even left the camp after all. There was anger building up in her and she could use a certain impish short someone to beat up after they would inquire about what was wrong with her again. She hadn't spoken much… at all… since the moment she managed to get the Hanagumi to back down and retreat. In truth, she was more worried now that they were gone.
During the times of her loneliness – as she felt lonely without Yoh – she kept contemplating on what exactly Hao´s plans were. His motives and goals were crystal clear, but her problem was that the answer to the question where Yoh came into the picture kept evading her more skillfully than a slippery wet fish. The fact that she learned that he wanted Yoh to have the Chou Senji Ryakketsu, that he wanted Yoh to grow stronger to help him disturbed her somewhat. Her faith and trust in Yoh was iron, but she somehow doubted that what Hao had told her had something to do with her fiancé's willing cooperation. The fool, really, she mused. Perhaps not at the current moment, but one day, Yoh would be ready to take his place as the Shaman King and beat all of his opponents, be they Hao or his minions or anyone else.
She didn't even notice her foot kicked at the nearest pebble before she heard the small sound it made upon impact with the earth dozens of feet away.
"I pity whoever you imagined in place of that piece of rock."
Anna turned slowly, her mood not shifting, towards the source of the voice, not even bothering to hope that she was wrong. Certainly he was a lot of things, but petty wasn't one of them, thus it was doubtful he was there about the slap. Yet there he was, sitting on the nearest rock as if it was a golden throne, just like he had been the last time she had encountered him. Apparently, he had a natural talent or a hobby of making dramatic unexpected appearances, though there was nothing intimidating about his appearance. To the innocent eye, he seemed to be a boy in the kind of clothing that was praised for usefulness, not outward beauty – a surprisingly pristine creamy white poncho that almost fell to his knees and dark brown pants that matched his almost too long straight hair. Even his expression was one that suggested nothing but friendly intentions and serenity – eyes that could almost be warm and a carefree indulgent smile he rarely dropped.
Anna knew better. "Pity yourself, then. What do you want now?" Her manner was straight to the point, her tone leveled – there was no fear in her. The smile on his face never wavered. It was then that Anna realized what was slightly off – he was alone. True, she had encountered him only once before, but still, it was strange. Even the small child that seemed to follow him around was absent.
"There is nothing wrong with me checking upon Yoh and his companions. That you strayed away from them for a while is only a momentarily pleasant distraction. They tend to be rather boring in their childishness, Yoh´s companions."
There was a story behind each of them, the people Yoh had collected along the way to the tournament victory. Some had aided him, some had sought to stop him, but now, they were almost sickeningly loyal to him. But Anna had no desire and felt no need to explain anything to anyone, least of all to Hao. Thus, she repeated her question, her eyes narrowing slightly. "So you slithered down here simply for my personal annoyance? I thought you would have better pastimes to indulge yourself in other than spying on people."
"Yes, well, I wanted to see how much capacity for learning Yoh had when it came to my little book with my own eyes." He said, almost nonchalantly, still observing her. "And to encourage you to continue training him, given the opportunity to do so. As I've told you, I've heard a lot about you. A lot that I found to my liking." Momentarily, his calmness was replaced by a mischievous happiness. "I see you're a quicker learner than Yoh and are putting my shikigami to good use."
"They aren't yours anymore." she countered, folding her arms defiantly, "And you still haven't answered the question to my satisfaction."
"Yes, I see being kept in the dark doesn't suit you well. You'll simply have to learn that not the entire world answers to you, Anna. Not yet, anyway." Hao said pleasantly, using no honorific after her name. He merely shifted a bit on the stone but otherwise showed no sign of being uncomfortable. It was as if he had been sitting there for the longest time, that she had only failed to spot him. "Suffice to say that I meant it when I said that I liked you, even after you ruined my momentarily amusement at watching your little companions squirm by that slap of yours."
"I've told you before that Yoh isn't going to help you with your insane plots." Anna said flatly, ignoring what she wished to ignore.
"There are some things about Yoh you don't know yet." Hao noted, hopping down from the stone with the kind of grace that was more than enough to annoy Anna even more, especially since he promptly ignored that her fingers had curled into fists. Not too tightly, of course, but she was preparing herself just in case. And, not without reason – though he showed no sign of that – the fire shaman stopped just out of the range of her hands. "And there are even more things about my insane plots, as you call them, you do not understand." He was repaying her for the slap, she knew. The score appeared to be even now, as he was the only one who didn't show the slightest sign of even having the decency of flinching when she fixed him with her iciest stare. "I come to you with an offer, Anna. Your powers and wit have not gone unnoticed by me, as they might have gone by those who left you behind. You would have a place of honor among my followers."
The itako made a half-snort-like sound with her lips and folded her arms challengingly. "You're madder than I thought. I will never betray Yoh, as you very well know. Your cause is foolish; you have nothing to offer me."
Hao raised an eyebrow, but it wasn't more than a simple gesture. "What about the offer of allowing you to survive this encounter?"
"You won't kill me." Anna said, without the slightest doubt in her voice. "You could. But you won't."
"And my reason for that would be?"
"You seem to invest too much time into pestering me. You wouldn't have put this much effort in this attempt to convert me if you wanted to kill me upon my refusal."
And the smile returned at once. "Again you impress me, Anna. After a millennium of living, that is no easy feat for anyone to accomplish. I'll give you a chance to reconsider your answer. You need not give it to me now. One day, you yourself will want to speak to me, after your eyes have been opened to the only constant truth in this world."
Blonde eyebrows rose; the black eyes were full of doubt. "And what truth would that be?"
"That humans, no matter how many centuries they have to evolve and consider their actions, will always remain selfish, inconsiderate, a burden to this world. Even those of them who claim to be good cannot say they have never done a single wrong against the natural harmony. They, the only creatures that set themselves apart from nature, above all other beings, destroy the gifts they have been given, unaware of how precious and fragile those gifts are." Hao explained calmly, "Only shamans such as you and I understand that in order to help nature and progress on the path to enlightment, harmony must replace chaos, selfishness must be banished by sacrifice. We who know the spirits may gain their wisdom of the ages and understand how to better ourselves and this world."
"There is no "we". You are the only one who sets himself apart from humankind – all shamans are part of it, only their powers are a gift or a curse to them. They have faults just as those who don't see and command spirits. They can be good and evil, as all humans are." Anna shrewdly said, clearly unimpressed. "It is only you who fails to understand this. Even if you succeeded in creating your "perfect shaman kingdom", there would be those who would lust for power and conspire against you. And then you would have to be forever the tyrant, destroying each opponent. What harmony is that?" she demanded, her voice rising a little.
For the first time throughout their conversation, Hao looked away from her face, glancing at the stars, briefly. He then lowered his gaze and sighed almost inaudibly. He had heard these things from others, those who didn't understand that it didn't make sense in the larger concept. Wasn't the power of the King of Spirits unlimited? It could alter the world, it could change the way things were more completely than anyone could conceive. The power of spirits would change the destinies of all and thus save them from the destruction that was otherwise inevitable. And when all others would use these powers for selfish quests, childish needs… what wrong was there in questing for the good of the world itself?
"And you believe Yoh is the one who would use the power of the King of Spirits wisely?" Hao looked at Anna again, an almost twinkle-like spark passing through his brown eyes, both of amusement and of mocking. He was making her remember that, although he was better than most people, Yoh was still perhaps not the most perfect person in the world – after all, he was very much human, with faults that at times outweighed his strengths.
But he was her fiancé. He had saved her so long ago. And the first argument was answer enough, so she repeated it. "You believe you are the ideal person to change the world?" she added.
"I have watched the world of men for centuries."
"And it has evolved – only you have not." Anna said, her arms relaxing slightly. She lowered them to her sides again, but her brow was still in a deep frown. "Perhaps it is only you who don't belong in this world any longer, Asakura Hao. No one wants your perfect shaman world, just as they have never wanted it. People don't like being compared to the ideal. It highlights their faults."
For the briefest moment, his smile flickered, like a candle swept by a sharp breeze. However, he recovered almost immediately. "And suppose I succeed."
"Then I wonder how much time it will take till you become disgusted by your followers." Anna's frown deepened momentarily. "Before you kill them for some thing or the other. In the end, you will be alone."
Even the sound of the wind could be heard in the following silence. But them – to Anna's greatest annoyance and surprise – Hao laughed softly into her face. "Even if I would kill them all, I wouldn't kill you." Slowly, he tilted his head to the side with an interest matching that of a child looking at an exotic animal in a zoo. "You almost make me want to spoil your surprise and tell you exactly why Yoh will help me, Anna, just to savor the look on your face."
"Yoh will never help you." Anna repeated firmly for at least the sixth time that evening only. "I will never join you. Our conversation is over." Spinning on her heel, the blonde itako turned away from the shaman and proceeded to walk away in steps that would have crushed any unfortunate creature slithering on the ground if it had the misfortune of finding its way under her foot.
Hao´s eyes continued their observation of her hair being swept by the wind for a few seconds. Finally, he realized who the girl reminded him of and why he had picked her out of the crowd with such natural ease. And while her defiance was slightly irritating, it was also highly amusing. She didn't understand that there was simply nothing she could do, for all her claims of Yoh´s firmness. Anna had no idea that Yoh was simply a byproduct of the process reincarnation that, under any other circumstances, would never have even existed, and that all of his power had very little to do with the Asakura lineage. The split soul of Asakura Hao, part of which resided in Yoh, had given both of the incarnations power, though the balance was tipped considerably in the favor of the boy that had gained full memory of his past existence.
There was no Yoh – there was only Hao, whose soul had divided into two parts, one composed of his former cheerfulness and love of humans, the other of his cunning and power, all the more effective now that it lacked the traces of doubt it might have contained before. Of course, both halves were Hao – the half which was Yoh simply had no memory of his previous life and little idea of how amazing the powers of Asakura Hao were. For now.
Anna was an unlikely companion – and fiancée – for Yoh, but certainly the correct trainer. And there was simply something highly likable about her from Hao´s point of view. Not that he loved her – what a preposterous concept that would be. In all of his long life, Hao had been dead set only on completing his plan. Before that, he had been a monk and thus had never been even remotely tempted to start a family of his own. In fact, he had not given women much thought throughout the years, only if they were useful to him as followers or enemies that needed to be disposed of. The only woman he had ever thought of fondly was his mother. And upon encountering this girl, who was walking away from him in a fashion that would have granted anyone else a swift and untimely death, this Kyoyama Anna, he found himself reminded of his mother in many ways. He found her amusing with her stone-cold manner, her iron-clad belief in Yoh, and the way she cared for little else except getting her way. Her power, her beauty, her defiance – all those were simply things that made her who she was.
One day soon, she would realize it all, once she knew the truth about Yoh. How he wished he could see her face the moment she would understand that by accepting and honoring the fact that she was Yoh´s bride logically made her his as well. After all, they were the same entity, the same soul, the same being, only divided into two bodies.
"Anna." He saw her stop, but tense as well. It seemed that her mind was telling her to move and forget about all this, but a part of her was still curious about what he wanted to say. Anna didn't turn. "I'm looking forward to the day you realize that was the wrong answer. I'll be waiting for the right one."
Before she had a chance to even move a muscle, there was a second of bright illumination and the distinct sound of flames behind her, which showed that he had vanished more clearly than his actual absence. It made one wonder how he had managed to appear so easily when his disappearance, albeit more flamboyant, was also more attention-drawing.
The itako stood there, statuesque, for several minutes, simply listening to the night. Although they were predictable, she didn't like Hao´s last words one bit. It gave her the feeling that he knew something she should know, but didn't. And, if there was one thing Anna despised (apart from not getting her way) it was being kept in the dark. And in the dark she was, literally. Not that any of those soundly sleeping at camp knew or cared, really. Not that she cared about them, really.
Not that she contemplated those last words more than her normally down-to-earth behavior and strict mind would have allowed her to. They had been too certain, even for Hao. Filled with some hidden meaning. And, knowing full well that Hao was many things, but certainly not stupid, her thoughts strayed to Yoh… and how she would kill anyone who would do anything to him. Then she would kill Yoh for failing her, of course, though perhaps not literally this time.
For the first time, even the ice queen felt a chill, recalling the smile he had given her. She couldn't place the instinctive wariness she felt or the slight sinking sensation in her stomach as she tried and failed to forget that there was so much similarity, if only outwardly, between him and Yoh, because they were blood-relatives... only separated by roughly a thousand years.The breeze swept her black dress and her hair again. But she showed no signs of weakness. She would be damned if she would give anyone the chance to see her unsettled like this. For all she knew, the two brown eyes that had surveyed her with an unblinking interest were still watching her from somewhere – she wouldn't put anything past Hao.
Not even the fact that he might have actually meant every word that he told her.