Disclaimer: I do not own any of Yuu Watase's work.
"U… ruki, can you believe… this?" Tomite managed to utter, his face revealing that he was in complete awe. He slowly tore his gaze away from the young black-haired girl and looked at his companion beside him. Uruki's face said it all: delight, fear, excitement and relief. Every ounce of emotion rolled into one was evident on his face, and as he approached the young girl before him, it felt as though the entire forest was holding its breath.
"Are you… really…" he trailed off, still unable to believe what he was seeing. He closed his eyes and then opened them again, trying to recollect his thoughts. "Taki… ko… can you remember anything? D'you remember who… I am?"
The little girl tilted her head and looked up at him, her black eyes glistening like stars in the night sky. And after what felt like an eternity to Uruki, a small smile began to form on her face.
"Uruki," her tiny voice uttered. So, it finally dawned on him, reality right before his eyes. Finally coming to his senses, Uruki broke into a wide smile. He looked around at his fellow companions in sheer ecstasy.
But his happiness was short lived.
Just as he was about to kneel down before the young girl and embrace her tiny body in his arms, Takiko's eyes fluttered to a close and she collapsed against him.
"Takiko! What's wrong?" Uruki exclaimed, the elation he felt only seconds ago turning into one of anxiety. He placed a hand gently against her porcelain skin, hoping that she would open her eyes. The rest of his companions then hurried to his side, every one of them bombarding him with confused questions.
"Wake up, Takiko! Takiko!"
The fire in the dilapidated house lit up the entire dust filled room, showering the ten occupants with some much-needed warmth. Yet the hearts and minds of the Genbu warriors were hardly at ease, for the little black-haired girl lying on the ground and covered tightly in a blanket was still unconscious and had been so since quite a while ago.
Uruki, though still in heavily damp clothing, had refused to budge from young Takiko's side. Ever since they had returned to the abandoned house, he had been sitting there, watching over her with worry-filled eyes.
In the meantime, Hatsui had taken it upon himself to explain further to his companions about the information that Taiitsu had given to him and Uruki back at the river.
"Judging by what has happened so far, it does make sense," Hikitsu said thoughtfully.
"But I still don't get it," Tomite spoke, scratching his head. "She was smiling, she even said Uruki's name. Then all of a sudden… just what's going on here?"
"Perhaps the intensity of her transformation caused her to black out," Hagasu answered. "Her mind could've been exhausted."
"Well, we can only wait and hope that she'll wake up," said Inami, looking over her shoulder at little Takiko lying motionless on the ground. Uruki was silent and still as ever, his eyes fixed on the girl before him. He was watching her breath with such focus, observing her closed eyes intensely — just waiting for them to somehow open.
He was so fixated on Takiko he had completely forgotten about the deep cuts on his right arm and back, simply leaving them exposed. Then a touch on his shoulder startled him back to reality.
"Uruki, I think you should rest," said Tomite, squatting next to his companion. "That demon nearly killed you. We need to do something about those cuts too."
"I'll be fine," Uruki insisted bluntly. "I don't need any rest and these cuts are not important right now. We need Takiko to wake up."
"I know that. Look, if you're not going to take a break, at least let Hatsui treat these injuries. If you leave them out in the open, they are going to get infected."
With a solemn nod of his head, Uruki finally tore his gaze away from Takiko and watched as Hatsui sat beside him with a small clump of leaves.
"I… I'll need s-something t-to wrap around y-your arm and ab-abdomen," the young boy said, trembling slightly from the cold. He then ripped the leaves into minuscule pieces and sprinkled them over Uruki's cut. "P-perhaps you could t-tear out a few l-layers of cl-cloth from your sl-sleeves."
Uruki complied with silence, savouring the numbness on his arm and back as it felt like a calming drug for his anxious heart. The atmosphere in the small house seemed weighed, as if burdened by a lost cause. As the fire crackled on and the minutes passed, everyone sat in wait for that moment of relief to arrive.
"Make way, make way!" ordered a man clad in robes, guiding his horse through the large crowd swarming the marketplace. "Let us through!"
"Relax, Jin," said his smiling companion. "These people are too busy to pay attention to you."
"What is it with Konan and shopping, Makie?" Jin complained shamelessly, staring at the passing crowd. "Give them some money and a marketplace, and they'll swallow up the entire place before you know it."
"The Emperor of Konan is known to be a generous man. Naturally, his people would follow suit. But anyway," the long-bearded Makie then turned to look behind him. "Mugen seems to be doing all right back there."
Trailing behind the two royal ambassadors of Hokkan was Uruki's personal adviser, clad in stark black robes and looking rather amused by the festive atmosphere surrounding him. He tried his best to weave through the crowd carefully whilst guiding his restless horse.
"Wow. I wonder what's the occasion," Mugen said with a slight grin. Hearing his two colleagues calling him, he then quickened his pace. "Sorry, the horse was holding me back, she's a little agitated by the crowd."
"Hah! It's okay, Mugen. Just admit you were enjoying what you saw," Makie replied cheekily. "Don't worry, the King's not here. We won't tell him you were actually having a bit of fun."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Mugen said with a frown. He looked on with confusion as Makie and Jin exchanged glances and then burst out laughing.
"Relax, m'boy!" Jin exclaimed, he then placed an arm over Mugen's shoulder and urged him on in the direction of the Konan palace gates. "You need to learn to loosen up, y'know! Why are you so serious all the time? I know King Rimudo's not the jolliest of characters, what with his moping around and all. But, c'mon!"
"I'm really not interested in continuing this conversation," Mugen retorted, looking completely disinterested.
Hearing such a cold response, Jin and Makie looked at each other with defeated expressions, realising that he was absolutely no fun. They continued their journey in silence.
It took the three of them half an hour before arriving at the gargantuan gates of the Konan palace, in which a royal guard approached them and demanded identification.
"We're representatives of the Hokkan empire," Jin replied, not hiding his annoyance at all. "Are you new here? Surely you should've been notified of our arrival."
"Easy there," Mugen intervened. "We've come to see the Emperor to discuss legal affairs, as we do every year. Allow us entry, please."
The guard, obviously taken aback, nodded fervently and signalled to a fellow soldier. The gates slowly opened, revealing an expansive courtyard decorated with the familiar caricature of a giant red phoenix. Mugen and his colleagues then made their way to a giant set of steps up ahead, where an equally large pair of double doors awaited them.
"I wonder how his Highness is doing," Makie said curiously. "He went off on that mission so suddenly with the rest of the Genbu warriors. Didn't even explain to us where they were going. And whose baby was that?"
"What does it matter to you?" Mugen was quick to reply.
Hushed giggling suddenly caught Mugen's attention as he walked on, he looked to his left and saw a small group of women lounging by a veranda. Every single one of them was staring in his direction with looks of amusement on their faces.
"The Emperor's concubines, I suppose," Makie remarked, looking on with obvious interest. "Y'know, I hear they come running in droves whenever they find out King Uruki's coming. All of them wanting to get a good look at him."
"Well then I guess they'll be disappointed when they find out he's not here with us," Jin replied with a laugh, causing Mugen to roll his eyes in annoyance.
"Beg your pardon there, Jin," Makie continued with a smirk. "But I doubt it's King Uruki that they're looking for at the moment."
At this, Mugen frowned and turned to look at the group of women again. As he did, several of them broke into flirtatious giggles. Realising what Jin meant, the adviser blushed furiously. He then quickened his steps towards the double doors, determined to get away from the courtyard as fast as possible.
The shuffling of leaves, the sound of crickets resounding in the night and the soft crackling of a fire. It was peaceful. So he would continue to sleep. But then, something foreign reached his ears — the sound of a broken twig. His eyes opened in an instant.
Uruki sat up and looked around him, acclimatising his vision through the faint light of the dying fire. He must have dozed off. His companions and Megumi were surrounding their only source of warmth, sound asleep. His gaze then fell upon the small shape of Takiko. She was stirring.
"Takiko!" he exclaimed, excitement hitting him.
He bolted towards her and watched with baited breath as she rubbed her eyes. She looked up at him, apparently still in a daze. Then…
Uruki stood stupefied as young Takiko screamed aloud. She was staring at him with eyes so full of fear and confusion. The Genbu warriors and Megumi were startled awake, and upon seeing a screaming Takiko, they got on their feet and exchanged confused glances. Seeing more people surrounding her seemed to frighten the young girl even more as she stared at everyone, shrieking louder.
"W-wait, wait! Takiko, stop!" Uruki finally said, motioning towards her. His actions caused her to scramble further backwards in fear. She stopped shortly after, breathing heavily.
"W-who are you? Where's my mother and father?"
Silence engulfed the camp.
"What's the matter with you?" Uruki asked in confusion. "Don't you remember me?"
He watched as Takiko began to whimper, tears glazing those frightened eyes. She was at a complete loss, Uruki could tell. A sinking feeling crept on him and he sighed in defeat.
"Why doesn't she remember us?" Tomite asked in bewilderment. "She mentioned Uruki's name right before she fainted. I would've thought…"
"Don't you understand, warriors?" said a child-like voice from behind. Everyone turned their heads, their vision falling upon the small form of Taiitsu. "She doesn't remember ever meeting you. She has only been reunited with her ten-year-old memory. She has no knowledge of the Universe of the Four Gods."
"But, Taiitsu, she uttered Uruki's name before," Hikitsu explained. "How could she not remember?"
"He must have left a strong impression on her," Taiitsu replied calmly. "The fact that she was capable of remembering Uruki for that one moment, shows that her memory of Uruki, and perhaps the rest of you, is powerful… enduring… capable of transcending age and time. Even if it was only for a short moment."
"Th-this is g-good then," Hatsui said, a hint of joy in his wide eyes. "N-now we kn-know there's a ch-chance."
"Even so…" Taiitsu began, walking towards a trembling Takiko. She placed a hand gently on the young girl's forehead and closed her slit-like eyes. A moment's silence took over, as Takiko's trembling body began to calm and her sobbing slowly ceased.
"She is not complete. You have to find the rest of her memories, before it's too late. You must know, the longer a piece of her memory remains unified to that of the demon that stole it, the higher the chances of it losing its sense of belonging to Takiko."
"We're trying the best we can," Tomite insisted, rubbing the back of his neck in frustration. "But since we have no clue where to search for her next memory, we don't know where to go from here."
"Ensure the necklace is with the Priestess when you have managed to retrieve her subsequent memories," Taiitsu advised. "It is a vital channel. Therefore, keep it safe. Good luck, Genbu warriors. The fate of your beloved Priestess is in your hands."
And with that, the magical being, Taiitsu, vanished from sight.
"You know, for a God, she's not very helpful," Tomite complained. "She just appears out of no where, tells us we haven't got much time and that the Priestess is doomed to live a soulless life. And then 'poof'! She's gone, leaving us to do the dirty work! I mean, you'd expect her to -"
"Shut up, Tomite," Uruki intervened, not hiding his annoyance. He was looking at Takiko, motioning towards her with caution. Miraculously, the young girl did not seem terrified, although there was a hint of worry in her eyes. Uruki sat down directly opposite and grinned at her.
"Hello there, feeling better now?"
Takiko merely stared.
"Don't worry, I know who you are," Uruki continued gently. "Your name's Takiko Okuda. I'm… Uruki. These are all my friends. That's Inami… Megumi, and those two young boys are Hatsui and Tegu. You see that small creature made of stone? That's Namame. The big man over there is Hagasu… and that's Hikitsu. The talkative idiot is Tomite. But you can call him 'baka'."
"Hey, I'm standing right here, y'know!"
And to their utter surprise, Takiko broke into giggles that rang melodiously around the clearing. Uruki smiled, feeling that dejected weight on his chest lighten.
"You asked for your mother and father just now, right?" Inami suddenly stepped in. "I think… the three of you may have gotten separated. We can help you find them. Would you like that?"
Uruki turned to look at his companion, impressed by her quick wit. Young Takiko then nodded her head in agreement, looking down at her feet shyly.
"I'd like that… very much."
"Great," Uruki said. He then stood up and extended his hand. "C'mon! Let's go find them. The sooner, the better."
Takiko looked at his hand, as if in contemplation. After several seconds, she slowly slid her small hand in Uruki's and he helped her on her feet.
"Okay, guys. I have an idea," Uruki began; he then looked up, observing the night sky above him. "That scent… the capital's not too far from here. We can make our way there and get some provisions to continue our journey."
"Agreed," Inami said without hesitation. "I can trade my earrings for a hefty price. Should be more than enough to get us through. We should get proper clothing for the child as well."
"All right then!" Tomite exclaimed, excitement hitting him once more. "Let's get to it! Namame, do your thing!"
It took an hour before the Genbu warriors and Megumi could catch sight of a town ahead. The capital of Konan, even from a distance, seemed warm and inviting. The surrounding sturdy walls did nothing to dampen the festive atmosphere that emanated from within, carrying with it sounds of laughter and fervent chatter. Namame slowed to a halt before the unguarded gates, allowing everyone to get off before returning into its natural form.
"Wow! That's so cool!" young Takiko exclaimed in amazement upon seeing this transformation. "I didn't know a stone could do that!"
"Pretty amazing, isn't it?" Uruki said with a smirk as he lifted the child and held her in his left arm. "Oof. You're getting heavier."
"Then put me down, silly!"
"Not while you're wrapped in a mere blanket. It's not safe, silly."
"Perhaps I could help you carry her, your Highness," came the unassuming voice of Megumi, as she trailed behind her king.
"It's all right, I can cope."
"Thought I'd never see this village again," Inami said, as she looked around her vibrant surrounding. "Hasn't changed at all. Anyway, we'd better find a suitable place to trade my earrings. We need to get Takiko some clothes."
"Wait," Hagasu suddenly said, pausing in his tracks. He was looking at something up ahead. "Look over there. Isn't that…?"
"What is it?" Tomite responded, standing on tiptoe and squinting his eyes. "Geez, I can barely see anything through this crowd! How tall are you, Hagasu?"
Uruki followed his towering companion's gaze. Like Tomite, he needed to stand on tiptoe. His eyes finally fell upon three men weaving through the crowd with their horses. Two of them were clad in navy blue robes, while the other was in stark black. After a moment's observation, he finally recognised who they were.
"Megumi, hold on to Takiko. Wait here, guys."
Uruki passed through the tight crowd, pushing his way around until he managed to come within touching distance of the three men, all of whom were currently standing before a booth. Uruki then quietly stood behind them.
"Enjoying yourselves, I hope."
"Your Highness -!" exclaimed one of the men in blue robes.
"Shh! Don't bow! Don't cause a scene!" Uruki said, looking around him with worry as several passers-by glanced over. "What are all of you doing here? Mugen?"
"Your Highness…" Mugen began, looking a little less surprised to see his king standing before him for some reason. "We were on ambassadorship duty. We had an audience with the Emperor of Konan just half an hour ago."
Uruki scowled at this. "Agh! I forgot about that. How did it go?"
"Smoothly, your Highness. Although King Hamori was disappointed in not being able to see you, and sends his best wishes. He was especially generous with his gifts this year. He has even presented us with a set of specially grown herbs, believed to be absolutely rare!"
"That's great, Mugen," Uruki said, beginning to feel impatient. "Listen, I need your help. My companions and I have lost all of our provisions, and we need to re-stock before continuing our journey."
"I've brought plenty of clothing, your Highness. And you can take whatever gifts we have. D'you have a place to stay, your Highness?"
"Then you can stay in the inn we've already booked. It's not too far from here."
Within the next half hour, Uruki and his companions were led to an expensive inn located in a quiet corner of the Konan capital. There, Mugen booked more rooms to allow the Genbu warriors and Megumi to settle for the night.
Soon after, Uruki called for him to discuss the events that had taken place. The adviser merely sat before his king with a calm, yet thoughtful, expression as Uruki explained to him about Takiko.
"We don't know where to go from here," Uruki continued, trying to ignore the slight twinge coming from his injured arm and back. "Taiitsu told us pieces of Takiko's memories were located across the four countries, so we know one, if not a few, of them are here – we're just unsure where exactly."
"Curious," Mugen commented. "Well, at least you know you're on the right track, your Highness. But it's getting tricky. You can't possibly scour this entire country to find another piece of the Priestess's memories. That would take too much time."
"And time is exactly what I'm running short of now," Uruki said, and he gave a long and exhausted sigh. "There must a faster way! Damn it!"
Silence filled the room as the two men sat in deep thought.
"Hold on," Mugen suddenly said, excitement in his tone. "Your Highness, you said that the holy necklace is a vital channel, am I correct?"
"Yes, according to what Taiitsu told me a few hours ago. Why?"
"Then perhaps the necklace is the key to finding the rest of the Priestess's memories. You could use it to seek them out. My hunch would be that there is some sort of strong connection between the two. Why else would Taiitsu make mention of the necklace's importance?"
Uruki considered this for a moment, recalling the words of Taiitsu herself.
"It's possible. But, how exactly do I use the necklace to seek out pieces of Takiko's memories?"
"There has to be some kind of a force or… or energy that acts as a trigger."
"Okay, but the thing is I need to know what exactly triggers the necklace. Ugh! This is too much guesswork. I'm not even sure if we're thinking about this correctly."
Mugen looked at his king, realising that he was simply too exhausted after everything that had happened.
"Your Highness," the adviser began slowly. "Could I make a request?"
"I ask that you please allow me to accompany you and the rest of your companions on your journey."
Uruki sat surprised for a moment, not expecting this at all from his adviser. Mugen barely fidgeted as he waited for his king's response, obviously serious about his request.
"I need you to supervise the people in the palace, Mugen. You're the only one I think that's fit for this responsibility."
"I implore you," Mugen insisted, his tone stern yet undemanding. "I have to go. As your adviser, I feel it's imperative that I come along. And… as a brother… I have to protect my sister, Megumi."
Uruki sat back, running the palm of his hand across his hair in frustration. His adviser, he knew, was absolutely stubborn about affairs that affected his sister. Once he made a decision, it would stick. And yet, he could not send Megumi back to Hokkan with Mugen now, it would be too dangerous. Furthermore, he was in no mood to argue.
"Fine, you can come with us."
"Thank you, your Highness. Thank you," Mugen said with a hint of gratitude in his normally expressionless face. The adviser then stood up from his chair and bowed before Uruki. "I only hope to be of help to you. I shall leave now and let you rest, what with your injuries. Perhaps you could try the herbs King Hamori has given you; could help it heal faster."
Uruki heard the door close behind him and the sound of Mugen's footsteps slowly began to dissipate from the corridor outside. He was about to turn in when a voice suddenly came to his head, as fast and furious as the wind.
…He has even presented us with a set of specially grown herbs, believed to be absolutely rare.
"Herbs…" Uruki uttered to himself with a heavy frown. He remained standing as he contemplated this statement in his head. He turned towards the stash of items at a corner of the room, all of them gifts from the Konan emperor.
Then it dawned on him.
Uruki made a dash towards a small, unassuming chest placed right at the top of the mound of items. It was slightly bigger than the size of his palm, with the seal of the Konan Empire on each side. He opened it and saw a clump of red leaves inside, shining like the feathers of a phoenix. Grabbing all of it, Uruki made a quiet exit from the room and went to the back garden of the inn. In the quiet of night, he was certain nobody was watching him.
"All right," Uruki said, readying himself. He closed his eyes and realigned his flow of energy, making sure to concentrate. He tried to acclimatise his senses to the movement of the wind, knowing it was crucial for what he was about to do.
When he was certain, he tossed the leaves into the air and opened his eyes. Within that split second, he summoned the wind before him, causing it to slash viciously through the red leaves shining in the air. Each leaf sparkled as the piercing wind split it into vertical halves. All the while, Uruki stood in fierce concentration in order to ensure pinpoint precision of the wind.
The wind gradually began to subside, and the many layers of red leaves retreated to the ground. The atmosphere began to calm and Uruki approached the shredded leaves, observing each and every one of them with great attention. Something stood out from amongst the splatter of red — it was small and beige in colour. Uruki squatted to pick it up and observed the small layer of parchment in his hand. So thin it was — capable of hiding between the layers of a leaf. Carefully, Uruki unfolded the paper twice and grinned upon seeing the minuscule writing on its translucent surface.
My dear friend,
If you have found this letter, then I have underestimated you. You are smarter than you look. I have to admit I was cynical at first about what you told me regarding the Priestess of Genbu. But I know how much you love her and that this is hardly a matter you would jest. I have sent scouts across the country and according to one of them, there have been strange sightings at a valley north of my capital, about two days' ride from here. Villagers near the valley have spotted a dark-haired woman appearing now and then before the river. From your endless descriptions of the Priestess of Genbu, I am almost certain that strange woman in the valley is the Priestess you are looking for. That is all the information I can provide you. Be careful, my friend. And please, come visit me soon. My concubines miss you terribly.
Author's note: Well, I guess I should apologise for my belated absence, eh? From the bottom of my heart of hearts I'm sorry for practically disappearing from FF. I was so caught up with school and, to be honest, I was feeling a tad lazy to update. Here's another confession, I don't think this was my best chapter. Truth is, I was thinking of extending it a little bit but then I realised it would be too long. So please bear with me. I will start on Chapter 11 as soon as I can. And this time, I will give it my best shot. In the meantime, I hope you liked this chapter.