Pilgrimage: Chapter Ten
By: TK Takaishi
**Author's notes: This chapter is dedicated to Kale, who has given us all some of the best writing ever to be seen on fanfiction.net. No wonder you went pro. ^_^ And though we will miss you, we know that you'll make a splash in the world of published books.
Take the message in this chapter to heart, Kale, because it applies to you the most. Especially the ending. Writing is a wonderful way to spread Christianity. Yay Christian fiction!
**one day later**
The early afternoon sunlight shone down on the six stand-masters as they stood with their mounts on the threshold of Palas' walls. Everyone hesitated as they looked at Takeru and Kari, who were both staring up the great, light-gray walls in wonder. Then Takeru dug his heels into his horse's flanks, and trotted forwards into the smashed south entrance. Wordlessly, everyone else followed.
The walls were so thick, walking through them was akin to walking through a tunnel. The clicking sound of the horse's hooves echoed off the stone walls loudly. As the six emerged from the other side, the sunlight seemed to reflect off the white, snow-laden rooftops of the ruins, dazzling them with a myriad display of white flames.
"Wow…" Takeru breathed.
Great, tall towers arced high into the sky, joined by delicate bridges and walkways of crumbling brick and stone that ran for hundreds of paces, seemingly too frail to support their own weight. Despite the fact that all of the buildings were damaged, burnt or smashed in one way or another, the white domed shapes somehow retained their majesty. In the distance, a crumbling church bell tower still stood towards the sky, the proud cross standing defiantly as if to scorn the passage of time, or the coming of Khaydarin itself. Everywhere Takeru looked, the smallest building dwarfed the greatest structures he had seen. Halidan itself looked like it could be swallowed within those great pale walls with hardly a ripple.
Before them, a great broad street plunged straight through the center of the city, intersected here and there with other roads. The flagstones of these roads were, for the most part, smashed, and broken shale and gravel crunched under the horses' hooves as they walked, the sounds echoing off the still city walls. It sounded unnaturally loud in this still place. Creepers were beginning to grow on the once proud marble walls, creeping upwards inch by inch. Weeds and plants had forced their way between the cracks in the paved streets, which were littered with shattered glass and charred wood. At every intersection there was a marble statue or fountain. Some were merely smashed piles of marble, but the ones that survived hinted at such grace and beauty that it was all Takeru could do not to weep at their loss. What had been lost that fateful day? Hundreds, thousands of years of history, gone in a blink of the eye?
Takeru had to but close his eyes, and he could imagine the sounds of people as they walked the streets, the splashing of water from the nearby fountain, the warm brazen tones of the church bell as it filled the air. He could almost picture the young ones playing in the streets. The elderly sitting by the fountains. Lovers as they strolled arm in arm along the garden walks. The Ishidan peoples going about their business.
Then he opened his eyes, and the illusion popped like a bubble. He sighed audibly, shaken by a memory that was not quite his. Davis gave him a strange look, but said nothing. Kari was trailing her hand along the edge of a pale marble wall of a nearby building, her eyes full of wonder. Cody and Yolei looked similarly lost. Even Ken was staring around with open amazement. The greatest city of Ichijouji could not hope to compare with this.
"It's…different than how I imagined it," Davis said at last as he stared around in unabashed wonder at the great marble walls. "Everything's so large! So grand…"
"This was once the city of one of the mightiest nations," Kari murmured. "For centuries, Kings and Queens have reached out from here to change the face of Gaea. Of course everything would be grand…"
"Imagine all that was lost," Ken said, his steel blue eyes momentarily overwhelmed. "All those centuries of wisdom and knowledge, lost in that one night. The art. The libraries. The records. I wonder…if any of it can be recovered?"
But they spoke in whispers. Palas was a deserted city. Takeru could tell the moment he stepped foot inside the city walls. And yet, the six traveled in silence. There was a holy stillness to the whole place. A strange aura of calm that conspired to keep them quiet.
Davis shook his head. "It's been fifteen years," he said bluntly. "This whole place has probably been looted and raided several hundred times over. I don't think there'll be anything left."
"Don't be too sure," Yolei admonished. "I'd be willing to bet there are a lot of things left for us to uncover. Oh, don't deceive yourselves. There will be no treasure or riches left. But that is not all there is to find."
"Where to begin looking for God's inheritance though?" Ken broke in. "There must be hundreds, thousands of places to start! Look at this building for example," he said as he gestured left at a huge, white-domed stone building. "It might've been a museum of some kind. Or a performing hall. Or a…"
"It's a library."
Ken turned to see Takeru staring at the building, looking slightly confused. "Excuse me?"
"It's a library," Takeru repeated. "Perhaps some other time we should come back and see what we can salvage. When we have the time though…"
"Right…," Ken gave Takeru a dubious glance, then turned back to Yolei. "See? That building alone would take us weeks to-"
"And that's the Yangian road," Takeru interrupted, as he looked around the road they were standing on. Then he started pointing. "That's the Massen Tower, and Dresdan hall, and…"
By then, he had stopped his horse, and was staring around him with a strange expression on his face, half alarm and half wonder. Ken was looking at him as if seeing him for the first time. "I didn't know that Vargas taught you the layout of Palas so well."
Ken rubbed his chin. "Ah…all right. Then how do you-"
Takeru suddenly shook his head. "The palace," he said abruptly.
This time, everyone stopped and stared at him. "Excuse me?" Ken said again, looking a trifle annoyed at being interrupted a third time.
"The palace," Takeru repeated, almost as if to himself. Hesitantly, as if unsure of his movements, he swung his arm out and pointed towards the east. "It's that way. We only have to follow this road for another mile or so, and we'll be there…"
Kari and Yolei exchanged glances. "Uh…"
Takeru lowered his hand hesitantly. "How…how did I know that?"
Kari squinted in the direction he had pointed. "I would hazard a guess in that direction as well," she said. "It makes sense, being in the middle of the city and…"
"No, no…," Takeru put a hand to his temple. "That's not it…. I…." Then he looked up and saw everyone staring at him. Self-consciously, he lowered his hand. "I…it's nothing. I guess… it was a guess after all. Perhaps we should start looking there?"
Kari directed her horse closer, and peered into Takeru's face. "TK, are you all right? You look a little pale."
Takeru backed off. "I…I do?" Again, his hand touched his temple. For a moment, his eyes slid out of focus as if he was staring inwards. Then he shook his head again. "Never mind me. The palace. Ken was saying we need to start looking for what's left. Perhaps the palace is the best place to start…"
Ken nodded slowly. "Yes," he said. "Yes it would. Well then, let's get on with-"
"No, wait," Kari said as she held up a hand. Ken bit off his sentence with an angry click of his teeth, but Kari didn't pay him any attention. She frowned as she peered at Takeru's chest. "What's happening to that thing?"
Startled, Takeru looked down. His tunic was glowing a pale green in the center of his chest. He stared at it for a second, then hurriedly reached inside the neck of his shirt, and drew out his pendant.
Everyone stared at the pulsing green jade nestled in Takeru's hand. The mysterious aura seemed to come and ebb, like a beating heart. The glow was faint, barely illuminating the width of the boy's hand, but it was visible. Takeru stared at it for several seconds before he drew the pendant's string from around his neck, and examined it even closer.
The stone was not merely glowing. As he peered into the pendant, he realized that the jade was jade no longer. It had become clear, like a beautiful piece of green crystal. In the depths of it, strange patterns formed like mist, then just as quickly dispersed again, all in time with the steady pulse of the light. He strained his eyes to see more. It couldn't be. Those patterns were so simple, yet so infinitely complex. It was too regular…
"Let me see that," Ken said as he reached out a hand. Takeru obligingly handed him the stone, and Ken stared at it, even shaking it to see what was wrong.
"Uh…," Cody finally said. "Is…is that supposed to mean something?"
"Don't look at me," Takeru said, looking just as mystified as the rest of them. "I don't know what that is. Though…Ken, give it here for a sec."
Ken handed it back, and Takeru gazed at it again, this time much, much closer.
The vague, simple shapes he had seen earlier were becoming more distinct. More concrete. The shapes and patterns were becoming more complex, and the pulse was quicker now. Brighter as well. "Look at this," he said. Swinging the stone to the south, the glow receded, the shapes fading. Turning back to the north, the pulse quickened again. The shapes became even more distinct, cutting through the fog.
Cody tilted his head. "The key to lies in the stone of Ishida," he quoted by rote. "Is this what Adun meant?"
"Those old scriptures have been translated so many times over, who knows how the meaning could have been distorted," Ken said. "Sometimes, it's hard to tell when Adun is being figurative, and when he's being literal. You could be right, Cody."
"Don't be too sure," Kari said as she gazed to the north. "I have a feeling that that stone might have another role to play than a simple pointer…"
Yolei was gazing north as well. "But the castle's to the east…," she muttered. "We won't be going towards it, we'll pass right below it."
Takeru looked back and forth between the east and the north. Then he held the pendant up again, gazing into its depth. Was he imagining it, or was his hand tingling from its touch?
"The palace was only a guess anyway," he said softly. "I for one, want to follow the stone. Does anyone have any better ideas?"
Everybody looked at one another, and shook their heads. Takeru nodded in satisfaction. "Good. Then come on."
Wheeling his horse about, he heeled his mount to a swift canter down the broken north road. Without hesitation, Kari fell in step with him. Davis and Yolei looked at one another. Then the brown-haired Taelidani sighed. "Well," he said as he shrugged and set off. "We followed him this far. Might as well go with him now."
So off they went through the cracked and crumbling streets of Ishida. They together rode in silence, past streets that seemed relatively untouched, with only the first hints of wild foliage creeping out from under the white flagstones. Others appeared totally smashed, the houses burnt down to the ground and vines and ivy climbing up the ruined walls out of the ash covered soil. A light covering of snow and ice covered everything, icicles hung off of roves and smashed window-frames.
Slowly but gradually, the street began to climb upwards. Three times the stand-masters were forced to dismount and lead their horses up flights of broad steps. Each tier was surrounded by a short brick rampart, and numerous streets ran along the edges of the stairs, crisscrossing the main road at neat, right angles. Takeru followed none of them. His eyes remained fixed on his pendant, and he drove his horse resolutely towards the north.
About half an hour and five miles later, Takeru abruptly stopped. The broad road had opened up onto a huge plaza, splitting off into four different directions. From among the remains of Palas' buildings, other roads could be seen snaking through the snow to converge on the large public square.
"I think this used to be the famed Masaharu's Square," Ken said as he looked around. "It fits the description anyway…. I've never been here."
Kari gazed around in wonder. It was a huge courtyard, with a large elevated stage with two flights of stone steps leading up to it. She could scarcely see the other end of the place, obscured as it was in the slightly blowing snow. The remains of a large garden could be seen to their right, apparently once the royal orchard, but now overgrown until it was unrecognizable.
"I know this place…"
Kari started. She turned her head to see Takeru, who was looking around with a strange look in his eyes. "I…I've been here before…"
"Of course you have." Kari raised a quizzical eyebrow. "You were born here."
"No, no! I remember this place! This…this was the place in my dream!"
Kari looked around again, trying to recall what Takeru had described to her about the dream he'd had those many months ago. The beautiful garden in his dreams. A statue had once stood in the middle of the square, but the marble figure had been smashed long ago. Two thick columns of marbles which used to be legs stood on its stone foundation, pointing impotently up at the sky. The body was nowhere to be seen, but the face was still recognizable among the mounds of debris along the ground. It looked strange lying there, half shattered and cracked.
"Merde," she said as she frowned. "But how could you have known? You were seven months old! Takeru, you can't possibly have remembered…"
"Look behind you!" Takeru said, as he turned around to gaze out from the square's edge. "Look! The city spread out over the valley. The snow-capped mountains in the distance. The river Alph running down from the slopes. It's all there! It matches!"
"But how could you have known?!"
"I…I don't know!"
At Cody's words, everyone looked down again at the talisman hanging off of Takeru's neck. It was burning brightly now, pulsing faster with a rhythmic regularity, one end glowing brighter than the other. Takeru looked up.
His eyes fixed upon the great altar at the end of the courtyard. Again, he heeled his horse to a canter, making a beeline for the altar. Davis spared Ken a shrug as he hurried past him to catch up with Takeru. And as they grew closer, Davis realized it was no ordinary stage.
The altar was at least twenty feet tall, with twin flights of broad stone steps leading up to its summit. Beautiful scriptures and runes had once been carved into the edges of the stone, but some of them had been obliterated by a crushing force that had splintered and smashed solid rock. Behind the stage, a sheer rock wall rose another forty feet, planed completely smooth by skilled stone smiths. The rock wall seemed to wrap around the stage in a smooth semi-circle, opening up towards the rest of the square. Inscribed in the middle of the cliff was the symbol of Ishida, now half-obscured by ivy, and the rock cracked in three places.
Ken looked at the glowing pendant, then at the altar, then back at the pendant. After a moment of awkward silence, he voiced everyone's thoughts. "What are we supposed to do now?"
Takeru dismounted swiftly. Without even bothering to tie down his horse, he leapt up the stone steps, taking them two at a time. A moment later, his voice called down from above. There was a strange ringing quality to his voice. "Come on up! It's still solid. It won't collapse."
The other five looked at one another, then dismounted as well. Since there was nothing to tie the horses to nearby, Ken hobbled the horses instead. Then, along with the others, he climbed up the stairs.
At the top, they found Takeru standing in the middle of the elevated courtyard, waving his arms eagerly. He gestured out towards the square. "This must have been some kind of public gathering place for the people," he said. "Can't you hear what happens to my voice when I stand here?"
Indeed, his voice seemed to have been magnified tenfold simply by standing there. Takeru sounded like he was shouting, but there was no strain on his face as he spoke. Most probably the entire square could hear him if he spoke loudly.
Kari strode forward to meet Takeru. "Incredible," she said as she looked around. Her voice seemed to echo back at her from the rounded stone walls. Walking up to the back of the wall, she examined it closely. "Look, this wall is solid! The stone smiths must have carved this entire wall out of the cliff!"
Then she frowned. There were cracks spreading through the stone like spider webs. "And it looks like someone tried to smash this wall in with a battering ram," she said, puzzled. "But why? Out of sheer spite maybe? Perhaps destroying this symbol meant something…"
"Don't count on it," Yolei said as she stepped up. "Take a look at the middle."
Kari looked, as did Takeru. Frowning, he unhooked his sword from his belt, and stared at the Ishidan symbol intently. Then he raised his head again to look at the symbol inscribed on the stone. They were different.
The tail of the rising meteor was slightly longer, and where the one on the sword was simplified into three streaks, it was in actuality much more complex. Small lines and swirls decorated the tail. Holding the sword's insignia right up to his eye, Takeru saw the afternoon sunlight glint off minute grooves on the emblem, tiny lines he had not noticed before. Again, he marveled at the precision and skill of the sword smith that had forged this blade.
But the two circles in the middle of the meteor itself was completely absent from the symbol on his sword. On the stone altar, the circles were arranged one on top of the other, the top one slightly larger than the bottom one. Takeru stared at his sword again, wiping the emblem with the edge of his cloak. They were not there.
"What's this?" he murmured as he held the sword up to the symbol on the wall. "They don't match. This symbol has two extra circles that shouldn't be there."
Ken examined the two marks. "They don't look like battle scars," he said. "Far too regular and perfectly carved. Kari, I'm beginning to doubt whether the ramming was done out of spite only…"
"Maybe they mean something?" Takeru murmured to himself as he moved closer.
"Script perhaps?" Davis ventured.
Ken frowned. "I don't think so. Too simple-looking."
"Maybe that's how the Ishidan crest really looks like? They probably couldn't carve that kind of detail onto your sword's insignia…"
"No. If they could even get the grooves for the meteor's tail in right, these circles shouldn't be a problem." Takeru held up a hand to reach for the strange marks. "A symbol for something perhaps?"
"Two circles." Ken frowned in concentration as he stared hard at the twin symbols. "Without beginning, or end. A cycle? But why two? Coexisting? Can one exist without the other?"
"I think you're reading too much into it," Takeru said as he reached up to touch the symbols. "The real question is, why is it there, but not on my-"
As Takeru's hand brushed the lower circle, his pendant suddenly exploded in a dazzling display of emerald light. Shouts of alarm burst out from the entire party as everyone jumped back. Davis instinctively shielded his face from the burst of light until his eyes adjusted. Then he squinted at the burning orb of green, now no longer pulsing, but shining brilliantly. "Takeru, what's going on?!" he shouted.
Takeru didn't answer as he stared at the shining pendant in his hand. Unlike the others, he didn't even flinch at the sudden flash. His blond hair began waving gently in the currents of green wind swirling around the scene.
"Takeru?" Yolei called out worriedly. "What's happening?"
"I can't see anything! Damned snow…"
"Is someone summoning his stand? Cut it out!"
"What's going on?"
"Get him away from that pendant!"
"No! Wait!" Kari said as she flung herself in front of the others. "Look at him! Look at his eyes!"
Takeru turned to look at her, and everyone stepped back in astonishment. His blue eyes had suddenly gone blank, the pupils contracting until they were mere dots in his irises. The already light blue had been diluted even further, until his eyes appeared almost white. "Do not worry," he said in a tone that was not quite his own. Strange harmonics seemed to underscore his soft-spoken voice. "You are safe."
He turned back to the stone wall. Without hesitation, he stepped right up to it, and placed his right hand upon the lower stone circle. The circle abruptly glowed a deep green, slowly fading away to a royal blue. But nothing else happened.
Then with a swirl of snow, Takeru's stand appeared. Shimmering in the air above the boy's shoulders, it gently placed its right hand upon the upper circle. The golden ephemeral spirit's fingers rested lightly on the stone. A second later, that circle was also glowing a deep blue.
At long last…a seeking heart…
With a rumble and a mighty hiss, the entire stone wall gave way. Airtight seams that had not been opened in hundreds of years grinded apart, loosening centuries of dirt and soil. Stone dust mingled with the blowing snow on the outside as the hidden door opened into the stone altar, revealing a narrow flight of steps that led downwards into the gloom. A cool dry breeze brushed against their faces.
Takeru turned to give his stunned companions one final word of advice before he stepped in. His strangely modified voice echoed in the yawning opening.
"Wipe off your shoes and step lightly, for you tread on holy ground."
Kari looked around as she descended the narrow stone steps. The moment she stepped into the yawning cavern, the voices of the moaning wind and the blowing snow instantly stopped, and she was plunged into a world of stillness. Hesitantly, she stepped out onto the stairs, and started descending into the darkness after Takeru. One by one, the other stand-masters followed her into the gloom.
Takeru shared none of their hesitation as he padded boldly down the stairs. As the light began to fade, he extended his hand toward the wall. Out of his gloved hand, his stand's palm appeared, stretched out further, and touched another circle on the stone. The circle flashed once, and the entire flight of stairs suddenly began glowing an ambient blue beneath their feet. Cody jumped and almost fell, had Ken not been there to grab him. Everyone's faces suddenly seemed to be pale shadows of themselves, lit up by the blue from beneath. Yolei gave Davis a shaken look, and even Kari was more than a little uncertain. But she had come this far. Taking a deep breath, she hurried after the receding figure of Takeru.
"Takeru," she said as she came up behind him. She put a hand on his shoulder. "How do you know all this? What…what happened to your eyes?"
Takeru turned and gave her a mild look. Kari flinched as those blue eyes seemed to glow briefly in the darkness. "Don't worry," the Ishidan prince admonished. "I'm fine. Kari, have a little faith. God led us this far. He'll see us safely to the end."
Kari swallowed hard, and let go of the boy's shoulder. Despite herself, her lips twitched upwards in a wan, nervous smile. "All right then," she said. "Lead the way."
Takeru took her hand and pulled her along. For a moment, his eyes seemed almost normal. "Come. Lead the way with me as you always have."
As they descended, the stairs became wider. Then the ceiling began to get higher. Eventually, they were traveling down a huge column of steps carved right into the solid rock. Side passages and alcoves yawned into the darkness, joining the main path like tributaries joining a river, but Takeru ignored them all. He strode purposefully deeper and deeper underground. And, nervous yet determined, everyone else followed.
The ceiling arched higher and higher, coming to dramatic curves and sweeps above their heads. Patterns of blue light from the ground danced on the ceiling like ever-expanding ripples on a placid lake. All around them, pictures and paintings were carved onto the walls, faded with age. Then one of them flashed.
Davis' step faltered as he caught the crimson flicker of light from one of the carvings. Stepping up to one, he examined it closely under the blue light.
"Yolei! Look!" he exclaimed. "Isn't that your symbol?" His finger pointed towards a heart-shaped symbol composed of intersecting, concentric lines.
Yolei stepped up as well, rubbing her eyes. She frowned as she looked. "It is," she said. Looking down, she saw the small inscription beside the symbol. "The symbol of Jakt," she read slowly.
"Look!" Cody's excited voice exclaimed. "Over here! It says the symbol of Sheid!" He was gesturing excitedly at a spectacle-like symbol.
"Chironsala," Ken said as he pointed to a flame-shaped insignia beside Cody. "I don't even have to read the inscription. That's me."
Davis looked around for his own symbol desperately. "That…that would make me…"
"That would make you a stand-master of Fan-Tzu," Kari tossed over her shoulder. "Look! It's over there." Stunned, Davis followed her pointing finger to see the symbol of a sun carved into the underground wall. It was similar to Kari's own Yagami crest, but the circle was larger, and the rays smaller. It was uniquely his own crest.
Takeru and Kari however, passed right by the depictions of their own crests without sparing them a second glance. Ishida and Yagami hung side by side on the cavern's walls, glowing in the blue light. As both stand-masters passed, the crests flared up briefly, one with a pure, snow-white light, and the other with a deep, platinum-gold colour. The flames died down again the moment they stepped away. Neither seemed to notice. Bewildered, the other four glanced at each other in confusion, then hurried after them.
For almost fifteen minutes, they descended deeper and deeper underground. If the silence above-ground was still, it was nothing compared to what it was like underground. There was no dripping water, no crumbling rock. A holy stillness and utter silence pressed in on them from all sides.
Eventually, the flight of stairs ended, leveling out into a long hallway. A single, twelve-foot strip of pale shining blue lit up the way before the six stand-masters like a luminescent runway in the darkness. Without hesitation, Takeru followed the line of light, while Kari followed determinedly. At the end of the long hall, the six stand-masters encountered a towering, narrow archway, at least fifty feet tall.
"Through here?" Kari asked, giving Takeru a sideways glance.
Takeru nodded. "Come," he said simply, pulling on Kari's arm. Kari looked at each of the stand-masters in turn, then took a deep breath, and stepped inside.
The moment they stepped into the cavern, small pinpricks of blue light began to flicker all around them like tiny stars and floating fireflies. Gradually, as Kari held her breath, the little motes of blue brightened, flaring up to reveal themselves as pinpricks of phosphorescence in the rocks themselves. And the cavern that the lights illuminated took Kari's breath away.
The cavern was huge. Larger than anything the girl had ever seen. The farthest blue lights were mere pinpricks in the distance, so far away they seemed to melt into one another like a carpet of flickering lanterns. The ceiling arched so far overhead it disappeared out of sight, and the large stone floor was perfectly flat, smoothed and paned with painstaking perfection. Six thrones stood on the large altar on the upraised stage in the middle of the echoing chamber, and a large stone carving, resembling a huge flower bulb, dominated the very center of the cavern.
"What is this place?" Cody said, his whisper magnified a hundred-fold by the echoing chamber, disturbing the century-old silence. "It looks…familiar somehow. But I've never been here!"
"Familiar?" Ken said as he looked around, wild-eyed. "You too? But I've never been here in my life! How can I…"
"This is the Ishidan Kondou," Takeru said, his strange-sounding voice certain. "The gathering place for the Council. A place of sanctuary, if you will, a backup from the Council's Temple in Palas, which is nothing more than a field of rubble by now. If I'm not mistaken, this dates all the way back to Adun's time."
"How do you know all this?" Davis demanded. "How can you be certain?"
Takeru tilted his head. "I have dreamt of this for a long time," he said. "Dreams I cannot explain. Memories that are not mine. I have seen events that have taken place centuries before my birth. And some merely years ago…"
Kari shook her head. "TK…if you're still TK. I didn't dream of anything like this. I didn't-"
"You all did, though you may not remember." Takeru turned, his cloak swirling as he strode up to the stone statue at the very center of the cavern. "The stands in you are young yet. The stands are passed on from generation to generation. The accumulated wisdom, thoughts and memories of each successive stand-master goes with it. Not all of them, but merely echoes, shards of thought from the greatest kings and emperors ever to rule this land. You should all be honoured. You carry a part of them inside you."
He stepped further into the Kondou, and swept out his arms. "Can you not feel it? This is holy ground, the ancient Kondou built by Adun himself. This place speaks of more than just the memories of Emperors long dead, sings with more than just the spirits of deeds long done. No. These stones ring with five hundred years of faith. Five hundred years of hope. And five hundred years of love…."
Ken and Davis looked at one another. This was all news to them. They had had dreams that they could not explain, but those were just dreams, right? "Takeru?" Davis said hesitantly. "What…what happened to you? You sound weird, you're talking weird, are you sure you're-"
But Takeru wasn't listening. Striding right up to the stone carving, he paused for a moment as he studied the intricate designs on the bulb. He stood for a moment, gazing up at the altar. Then he began speaking.
Once the words came forth, Kari was almost certain that this was no longer the Takeru that she knew. He was more than that. Something had happened to him since the pendant began shining on his chest, something more than just the obvious physical change that had overcome his eyes.
"Father," Takeru said, keeping his eyes on the ground. He did not dare look up. "The world has rejected your truth. They have shattered your covenant, trampled your promises, and killed your prophets. The Age of Gods is a dream of the past, the legend of the Tenken is no more. This generation has lost hope, Lord. We are lost wanderers without guidance, sheep without a shepherd. We need Your teaching. Now more than ever."
He did not know where the words came from. He didn't think about it, he just said it. It was as if he had been meant to say these words, as if his entire life had been leading up to this moment. The boy took a deep breath before he continued.
"I have come one year to seek your inheritance, as promised by your prophet Adun. My life is yours. Take it and use it as you see fit. Use it for the furtherance of your kingdom in this forsaken world. Use me in your perfect plan. I am your servant, and you are my master."
A deep pause fell over the gathered six. Kari stepped up behind Takeru and placed a hand on his shoulder. Takeru did not look back, but she could sense his gratitude through the lightest touching of their minds. And alongside him, she sent her own fervent prayer to the heavens. When Takeru spoke, her heart spoke with him.
"Oh Father," Takeru finished with a simple plea, whispered in the faintest of whispers.
"Father, show me your glory. Tell me what I must do…"
For a moment, nothing happened. Kari held her breath as she looked around in apprehension.
At long last…a seeking heart!!
Takeru was blinded by a brilliant flash of white. Then darkness…
"The seeds of the future are buried in the past…"
- Vargas Takaishi
Alarmed shouts rang in the Queen's ears as she ran along the corridors of the palace, clutching her precious bundle to her chest. The brazen, urgent ringing of the palace gong, and several bugles signifying danger added their voices to the melee. Soldiers rushed by all around her, all in various states of undress and disarray. Some of their shirts were only half-buttoned. Some of them weren't wearing shirts at all. Running along at the frantic commands of their captains, the soldiers struggled to find their places, to stem the rushing flood of black that poured through the breached walls.
Beside her, a tall, powerfully built man with short brown hair loped easily, his eyes taking in anything and everything in the corridor. He kept one hand on the hilt of the sword swinging from his side as he ran. The pair pushed through the throng of soldiers going the other way. "Make way!" the man roared. "Make way! All for the throne! All for the throne!"
Finally, the Queen reached the room she wanted. Without bothering to knock, she threw the door open with her free hand and charged inside. "Masaharu!"
The man inside looked up from his cloak and sword. Without a word, he dropped both as he ran over and embraced his wife. "Natsuko, I thought…when I heard that the East wing had fallen…"
"Vargas found a way out for us," Natsuko Ishida said, gesturing at the Knight beside her. "Out a third-floor window and through the grounds. We had to hide in the garden. We barely managed to escape with Takeru…"
"Takeru," Masaharu said, looking down at the blanket-wrapped infant in Natsuko's arms. The baby was red-faced and crying, his blue-eyes alarmed by the commotion all around him. "What about Yamato?"
"I can't find him!" The Queen looked strained, even scared. "He wasn't in his bedroom when I looked! I thought he was with you!"
"He is not," Masaharu said heavily. Abruptly, he swept his cloak on, royal blue trimmed with gold. His sword swung at his side.
"Then…we have to find him! Perhaps the West wing. Perhaps there is still time…"
"No, Natsuko!" The Ishidan Emperor caught her arm. "Don't go searching for him. It's too dange-"
"What are you talking about!" The Queen was almost in tears as she battered at her husband's arm. "It's Yamato! He has to be all right! We just have to find-"
"Natsuko, his bedroom was in the East wing. Khaydarin swept through that part first…"
"No! He's a smart boy! He's a quick boy. He must've found some way to hide, some way to escape…"
"We have to find him." Tears were running down the Queen's cheeks now, dirtying her long blond hair as it dripped off her chin. "There's still time. There has to be…"
"Natsuko! It's too late! We can't afford to look for Yamato!"
The Queen looked at her husband for a long moment, then collapsed into tears on his chest, sobbing bitterly. Little Takeru started crying as if sensing her mother's distress. Masaharu wrapped his arms around his wife and son, and tried to shelter them from the far-off screams, from the approaching clash of metal on metal. For a moment, the two greatest stand-masters in the land clung to one another like lost children, and pretended they were safe. For a moment…
"Natsuko, you have to leave. Get Takeru out of here…," the Emperor said softly into his wife's hair.
"I can't leave you…"
"Go now. Go quickly."
"I won't leave you Masaharu!" The Queen's eyes flashed fiercely. "Let them come! I'm not running!"
"Natsuko, don't you see?" The Emperor said harshly. "The battle is already lost!"
Natsuko stared at her husband as if seeing him for the first time. Tears carved twin tracks on her dirty face.
"The battle is lost…," Masaharu said, more gently. "You have to go. Take Takeru and Vargas. Go down the secret passageway in the west wing, and into the Kondou. Run as far as you can along those underground passages before you have to come up. God willing, Khaydarin don't know about the Kondou."
"I," the Emperor said, riding right over her objections, "will try to buy you as much time as possible. If Khaydarin wants to advance, they'll have to fight over every last meter of my palace."
"I will destroy the Kondou's opening behind you," Masaharu continued as if he had not heard. "They will not be able to follow. Go quickly, and don't look back…"
"Just this once, woman, will you listen to me!" the Emperor exploded. The clashes were getting closer now. Khaydarin was advancing, despite the Ishidan soldiers' efforts. He looked close to tears himself. His brown eyes looked unnaturally bright, and he kept blinking. Natsuko looked worse, with her long blond hair in tangles. But she looked at her husband, and held her tongue.
"Please Natsuko…," the man pleaded. Taking his wife's slim hands, he enveloped them in his own blunt fingers. "Takeru must live. The bloodline must continue. Don't you understand? Khaydarin is coming again, and this world needs a leader.
"We need another Adun. This goes beyond me and you. This goes beyond this city. This goes beyond Ishida, even. Takeru must grow up to lead all of Gaea, every nation against Khaydarin, or all is lost. There is hope yet, Natsuko. But if Takeru dies, we lose everything. Everything!"
Natsuko lowered her head, and bit her lower lip until it bled. "Another Aeon of Strife," she whispered. "A Kannanshinku. Will it never end?"
An echoing scream rang down the hallway. Vargas shifted uneasily beside the Queen. Hurriedly, the Emperor unfastened the sword from his side and pressed it into his wife's hands. "Take this, my love," he said gruffly as he took up another sword and pushed them out the door, into the corridor. "And go. Run quickly. Hide, do whatever it takes. Remember, you hold the future of this land in your hands."
Natsuko stared at the sword in her hands. The Royal sword of Ishida. And the Emperor was giving it to her. Which meant… "No, please don't. Masaharu, please don't make me do this…"
A faint ripple shimmered into view at the opposite end of the corridor, slowly solidifying into the dreaded black-cloaked figure. Beside her, the Emperor twisted, throwing out his right hand. There was a brief flash of gold, a fleeting streak of light that blazed like chain lightning into Natsuko's eyes. The soldier died before he had finished uncloaking.
"Run," Masaharu said brusquely as he unsheathed his sword and ran straight for the rest of the uncloaking soldiers. "Run!"
Tears blinding her eyes, Natsuko turned and ran in the other direction, Vargas pacing her easily. Behind her, she heard her husband roaring over the clash of renewed battle. "An Caldazar jetan soldats!" he screamed. "All for the throne!"
Takeru could hardly breathe. His head was swimming with images. Was that his father and mother? Had he just witnessed his father's death? In the howling maelstrom of sounds and colours, he touched his cheeks. They were wet. He was crying. Why? What was that his father had said? Unite Gaea? It was too many…too much…
His name was Mazin, Emperor of all Fan-Tzu, and he was an old man. The face he saw in the mirror each morning was wrinkled and tough, topped with a shock of white hair. When he looked down, the backs of his hands were corded and wrinkled. He could no longer run ten miles like he could in his youth, nor step through the katas as easily as if he was breathing,. He couldn't even seem to summon his stand anymore, at least not without a considerable amount of concentration.
At least, in this day and age, it should not matter whether he could pick up a sword or not. And at times like these, it was hard to imagine when it would ever matter.
Standing on his high balcony, the Emperor watched in satisfaction as the colourful parade danced and wound its way through the streets. Firecrackers snapped and crackled, exploding into brightly coloured confetti that showered down upon the heads of the celebrating people. In the middle of the main street, a bright red ribbon, made up to resemble a dragon, was supported at intervals by a hundred men supporting poles. The long, sinuous dragon danced and wound its way down the street in time with the steady beat of the gongs and the drums, to the delight and laughter of the people. Mazin smiled as he saw a child being hoisted up onto the shoulders of his father so he could peer over the crowd. His people were happy. That was all that mattered.
Mazin turned around and sighed at the sight of the man standing before him, his helmet beneath one arm. It was a cruel reminder that all was not right in the world, despite what it looked like out there. "So, Lynn, you're back. I've been expecting you for a week now."
"Yes, my Lord. Just in time for the Shin Xuang, it seems."
Mazin cast an eye out the open balcony. "Why yes. The Festival of Peace seems to be going strong this year. Even grander than last year, if possible. I must remember to thank Shernam for her exemplary efforts."
"Indeed." The man seemed uncomfortable. He had made a mistake mentioning the Festival. The next seven days were all devoted to celebrating Adun's victory over Khaydarin two hundred years ago. It made his message all the more ironic.
"They are back, Sire. Of course, they cannot rejoin their families for another month. The timing would seem too exact. People might suspect."
"I imagine they are not happy about being unable to partake in the Festival?"
Lynn remained stone-faced. "They will survive until next year's Festival."
"Yes, well, Lynn." Mazin sighed. "You must learn to be softer, my man. Your men have been away for six months, away from their families and children. They have a right to be disgruntled. We cannot begrudge them their grumbles. Well, they have served faithfully. They will be rewarded."
There was a long pause.
Then Mazin stepped into the room and closed the balcony doors behind him. He summoned his stand briefly, and the door behind Lynn slid shut quietly as well. Mazin nodded in satisfaction. He could still summon. No eavesdropper would be able to hear anything through the stone walls and heavy oak door.
"Well," he asked in the suddenly quiet room. "How goes the silent war?"
"Not well." Lynn grimaced. "The faction was more widespread than we had thought. Yagami did well to alert us to the threat growing on our borders. By the time I got there, Lord Mordan had already managed to whip the dissatisfied citizens of his province to a frenzy."
"You did not have to use force, I hope."
Lynn shifted uneasily again. "I had to," he said quietly. "Or we would have been killed. If I hadn't, the war would no longer be silent, and this year's Shin Xuang would not have happened."
Mazin stood very still. His next question was a single, whispered word. "And…"
"There are a fifty dead, ten of which were ours, and three times that number exiled quietly. There was bloodshed that day."
Only an avid observer would have noticed the sudden clench in Mazin's jaw muscles. Otherwise, his face seemed to remain as impassive as solid stone. "My warrant for the use of armed force," Mazin said slowly, "was to be used only in the most extreme of cases…"
"It was!" Lynn suddenly looked very tired, as if the sword at his side weighed a hundred tons. "Sire, if I hadn't authorized it, I swear to you I would not be standing in front of you today. My men and I would be captured, or dead. This…Mordan fellow, who came out of nowhere, he was not interested in treaties. He was not interested in land or trade, or anything. He wanted war. Whatever he feeds his followers with, that was all he wanted! I could have offered him all of Fan-Tzu, and he would have wanted more."
Mazin sank into a chair as if the weight of his years was hanging heavily off of his shoulders. "The Old Blood from the Aeon of Strife dies very hard indeed So he meant that declaration of intent he sent to us."
"Every word, sir."
"And what about now?"
"He is dead now. His faction is crushed beyond remaking."
"Who the hell are we to force our ideals on others. Who the hell are we to crush others just because they do not follow us? Is peace at sword-point really peace?" Mazin said wearily. "No, don't answer those questions."
Lynn swallowed his words, and waited in silence for his King to continue. Mazin looked at the closed balcony doors, at the sounds of celebration filtering through them. Shin Xuang, he thought to himself.
What a cosmic joke…
"Nobody knows, I hope?"
"None, sir. All my men have been sworn to secrecy, and like I said, they will not be returned for a month to avoid any rumours."
"Good." Mazin closed his eyes. "If the people knew, this would destroy us. More effectively than Khaydarin's armies ever could."
Lynn said nothing. Mazin did not seem to be listening. Instead, he seemed to be absorbed deep in thought, his white brows drawn together in a worried frown.
"But we few who know the truth…we must face it…," Mazin murmured, more to himself than for Lynn. "Adun was not the Tenken, or else this would not have happened. I would not have had to deal with this three times in thirty short years. The Tenken still has not come. Perhaps it will never come…"
"Do not let the people hear you talking like that, Sire," Lynn admonished. "It may be a lie, but it's a lie people take heart in. I can continue this indefinitely Lord. As long as we keep alert, as long as we can put out the bushfire before anyone notices…"
"Indefinitely? It will come, Lynn. The day will come when we cannot reach the bushfire in time, or once there, cannot put it out. We can only keep this up for so long."
Lynn fell silent again. Emperor Mazin was not one to be coddled with gentle lies.
"We need change." Mazin had lapsed back into muttering again. "It is not enough to have a King that is wise or virtuous. The people need to change. Every one of them, or the Council will fall. Perhaps it will have to fall anyway, before the Tenken can come. I do not know.
"If even a war as bloody and violent as the Aeon of Strife could not change humanity…," Mazin shuddered. "Then when the Tenken does come…what would it take? Stavik, it is too horrible to contemplate.
"What would it take, Lynn? What would it take?"
Change. To change.
Takeru clung onto that word as if it as his lifeline to sanity. Was that it? To change the old? To lead into the new? What did that mean? Why was He showing him all this? The swirling storm of memories crowded upon his consciousness, clamouring for attention. Thousands upon hundreds of thousands of voices shouted, whispered, snarled and laughed at him. His knees buckled as he clutched at his head. It was too much…too much…"What do you mean?!" he shouted desperately.
"What is it that I have to do?"
The young man adjusted the pack on his horse, and looked around for the last time. The stables of the barracks were empty and silent at this hour of the night, at least three or four hours until sunrise. Even the stable hands had retired. He was grateful. As Captain of the Mesaidan guard, it wasn't as if he couldn't simply order anyone who remained to leave. But then, the news would've gotten out that he was leaving. He couldn't afford that.
"We leave tonight, Jaer," he murmured as he stroked the stallion's mane. The horse whickered softly, as if it understood its master. "Take a good look around. We won't be coming back for a long time, if ever."
The horse shifted on its feet and blinked. With a last sigh, the man looked around, then took the animal's reins and led him towards the stable door. A few of the horses whinnied sleepily at the quiet click of Jaer's hooves on the stone floor of the stable, but none loud enough to rouse anyone. The man heaved a sigh of relief, and wiped his sweaty palms on the edge of his cloak. If he was discovered…
He could not see how. His men were all asleep in their quarters. He knew where the guards he had posted along the perimeter were, and he knew exactly how to get past them. The other Captains were probably asleep as well. All he had to do was ride out, and never look back…
Then a white-cloaked figure slid out of the darkness beside the stable's wall, gliding soundlessly into view in the moonlight. Jaer whickered again, this time uneasily, while the man stopped short. There was a long moment of silence.
"I hope you're not doing what I think you're doing," the white-cloaked figure said. It was a woman's voice that emerged from that dark silhouette.
"You know what I'm doing," the man replied.
"You swore an oath! How can you leave the Duty?"
"'To protect and defend,'" the man quoted. "'unto my last breath and the last drop of my blood.' I am doing just that."
"And to obey. You seem to have forgotten that part."
"You tell me. Should I obey the decrees of God, or the decrees of men?"
The other's slender shoulders slumped. The man was obviously not going to back down. "I…I can't let you pass. If you insist, I'll have to stop you."
The man stood stock still for a long moment, saying nothing. The woman shifted subtly onto the balls of her feet, letting the white cloak fall off to one side to reveal the sword strapped to her side.
"Come with me, Seidre," the man said at last, his voice little more than a whisper.
"It will not work."
"You are a dreamer, and a foolish one at that."
"Perhaps I am a dreamer, but I am no fool."
Seidre shook her head. "What you wish to do…this is ludicrous. It is impossible."
" Trust, Seidre... you must learn to trust," the young man murmured to the woman in front of him.
"Trust! You are asking me to trust the impossible! These people have been warring for centuries. Centuries! And you believe that you, a young Mesaidan officer, can hope to end it in your lifetime? How can you, by yourself, conquer the nations of Gaea, when great kings and emperors have died trying? I at least, know my limits. I am Seidre Yagami, a mere Captain of the Mesaidan guard. I am not an Empress, not a Queen, and certainly not a warlord!"
"But I don't want to conquer them. I want peace, Seidre. Not peace at sword point."
"Then you are an even bigger fool than I took you for. Do you really think that asking politely would stop this…this madness?"
"And am I any less of a fool if I do nothing and allow Khaydarin to sweep over Gaea, acre by blood-soaked acre? What have I got to lose?"
"What have you got to lose? Your life, for instance…"
"Come now. If Khaydarin manages to win, then none of us will live anyway."
"Perhaps Khaydarin will not win. Perhaps they are only one more kingdom in this infernal, bloody war…"
"You do not truly believe that, do you? Even if they were, this cannot go on. The land was peaceful once, you know. The elders talk of a time before this Aeon of Strife, before these endless wars and battles. Perhaps…Gaea was a beautiful place then. Now, the kingdoms are little more than lost sheep."
"And you think you will be the shepherd? What arrogance!"
"The shepherd? Did I say that? I would be as lost as everyone else without Him. He is the shepherd. I am merely his sheepdog. That is all I profess to do."
"You are still a dreamer. If I wish to fly, I do not go jumping off cliffs! Accept it. This is impossible."
"By myself, perhaps. But then, I am not alone. Seidre, you cannot deny that."
"You were there, Seidre, when it happened. I saw you in my dream when He granted it to us, this…gift. You know what I'm talking about, I can see it in your eyes. With it, I can do anything. He gave it to you too.
"Don't talk to me about limits. Because you're right. I don't know my limits. Nobody does, because nowhere in the history of Gaea has this happened to anyone. You can do anything. Tell a mountain to move, and it will move. Trust, Seidre. Trust."
"This power…. It is dangerous. I can destroy anything, anyone with it, and for that, I am afraid…. What can I do? Level all of Gaea into a land of burning ash? How much better than Khaydarin could you hope to do?"
"Destroy?! No! You think that is power? You think that because we can overcome any army, any warrior, any Emperor in the land, that we are powerful? You do not understand the slightest fraction of what He has given us."
"Then what has He given us?"
"Emperors may have control over entire nations, but even they cannot hope to do what I aspire to. Seidre, we have the power to change people. He can…touch people. Change them in some new and beautiful way. Through us, He will turn the life of the most evil among us completely around. Through us, He will turn centuries of hate into love. Through us, He will bring this land together.
"You speak of power? That, Seidre, that is power!"
"Barely twenty, and you want to change the world? You are a dreamer!"
"The Creator has given us something precious and very special. Am I then to waste it on petty pursuits?"
Seidre was said nothing for a long moment. Then she held out her hand and clenched her fist. The faintest white glow shimmered around her knuckles, and her stand's fist suddenly appeared, superimposed upon her own flesh. The spirit, given form and shape. Her gift.
"You see?" The young man grinned. "You do have it. And you are already learning how to use it." He held up his own fist, and a golden glow surrounded it. His own stand's gauntleted fist appeared. "Come with me, Seidre."
Seidre Yagami took a deep breath, and allowed her stand to fade. It was so new. None of the elders had ever spoken of anything like this. And the elders knew everything. But this…
A gift. From the Creator…
"Adun Ishida, your foolishness must be infectious. If we die on this crazy journey, it's all your fault…"
Gasping, the rest of the stand-masters fell to their knees. Takeru stared at his arms as flickers of radiant golden light washed across them, slowly fading away into nothingness as he struggled to get his…changed stand back under his control. For a moment, there was nothing in the chamber except the six trying to get their breaths back.
It was several minutes before Takeru felt steady enough to stand again. Slowly, as if he did not trust his own legs, he rose and walked up to the still altar, approaching the unfolded flower petals. Looking down, he shifted away a few stray rock shards with his feet. Then dropping onto his knees, he picked up a large object from the very center of the formerly burning pyre. Taking a deep breath, he blew off the dust covering the thing, wiping it off with his sleeve, all the time wondering how it could have survived for the centuries that it did in the midst of a great flame.
With trembling hands, he removed the outer cover of the package. Stepping up, Kari peered over his shoulder as he opened up the leather-bound cover of the book. The ancient Gaean script shimmered in the blue light, the ink faded with age but clearly preserved so that not the least stroke of the pen had been erased.
There was a long moment as he read. When he had finished, he was weeping unashamedly. Rubbing at his eyes with his sleeve, he tried in vain to stop the tears from flowing. Yet his sobs seemed to be tinged with laughter. Indeed, his grin stretched from ear to ear.
"To move the mountain," Ken said in the still silence.
"To move the mountain," Cody, Yolei and Davis affirmed determinedly. Together, they raised their downturned fists, the Taelidani oath.
"To change the people," Takeru said, through a tight throat. "To change the world…"
Kari placed a comforting hand on Takeru's shoulder. Gratefully, the prince reached up to enclose her slim fingers in his own.
"To change the world…," she said gently. "Amen."
Many have tried to draw up an account of the things that have transpired among us. The events of heaven above that have shaken the foundations of this world below. Therefore, I, Adun Ishida, faithful servant of the Lord almighty, have found it good also to write a thorough account for you, Bringer of the Tenken.
When this comes into your hands at last, I will most likely be gone, returning to the dust from whence I came. But the Lord almighty has revealed to me what must take place. He has made it known to me through my dreams and my visions, and I testify to all I have seen through the Word of God and the visions of the Holy Spirit. Blessed is the one who reads the words of this book of prophecies, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. Have no doubt. The Seihad is at hand.
Therefore, run with perseverance this earthly race! Go to the nations, and unite them once again in the Creator's name. As I have done, so you will do also. The Lord of love has come to you! Pass it on, spread the good news, to every nations, and to every land…
Prophecies, 1: 1-25
**Author's notes: Well, that's that for Pilgrimage. Now onto Seihad.
It might be some time before I can post the first chapter of Seihad because I want to plan out the entire thing first. Some pre-saga planning must be set down before I dare start posting (I'm petrified of writing myself into a corner I can't get out of). Hope you enjoy. In the meantime, please leave a review, and I'll take it into account when planning out Seihad. (now is the time to speak out about what you liked and disliked, because at this point, Seihad is at its most flexible) Hope you enjoyed it. ^_^