Four Months Before the Golden Rooster

Part Four: Card Games

Time itself seemed to have come to a standstill.

This couldn't be happening.

No, it couldn't be! High above them, the vast, smoke-like storm clouds flickered with internal energy. But they made no noise. Nay, they made not a sound. As if they were frightened. As if they were afraid. As if they feared to break this moment of stillness. Of silence.

Rain was still falling.

Somewhere around him, he was vaguely aware of drops hitting the earth. The tink tink of water on water echoed across the lawn. Puddles and mud pits continued to fill past their breaking point. They sparkled everywhere… Everywhere. The raindrops. In the distance. He could hear them. Smell their dank breath…

But not a single droplet fell upon him.

Not a single sprinkle of moisture struck his face. As if they too were frightened. Like a child. Like a child who had done wrong. Like a naughty child awaiting punishment. Like a dog. Like a dog whining submissively. Like a sniveling creature, its tail between its legs.

But punishment from whom?

Who are you waiting on?

You. You storm. You terrible storm who had battled so fiercely all night. You who had shown no restraint. Who was responsible for the mud on his face, the weeds in his hair, the blood on his hands. You. You storm. You storm who—!

Storm…

Battle…

Mud, blood, and weeds.

Moments ago, he had been running, dodging, blocking. Moments ago, he had been gasping for breath, entire body sore. Tired from the endless fight... Now he could feel none of it. The pain was gone. Numbness had replaced it. The sky above gave a feeble growl, but even it did not dare roar as loudly as it had done before. The dog whimpered. Tail between its legs. With a whimpered growl, it begged mercy. Mercy, master. Please, mercy!

Mercy.

Master.

Why? What are you afraid of? You. You storm. Why do you hide? Why do you quiver? Why don't you strike? You were doing it before. Why don't you strike? We're here, sitting ducks for you. Why? Why don't you strike? You did it before! Why don't you? You're responsible for this blood! Why!? Why don't you finish what you started? Fight me! Fight me alone now! Nothing is holding you back!

Fight me!

You didn't hesitate before.

Strike me!

What's stopping you? No one is stopping you.

Kill me…KILL ME!

Mud.

Rain.

Blood.

Why don't you kill me?

Why don't you come and strike me down too? Why? What do you fear…?

Kill me. Kill me too. Kill me too!

The scene from a frame before was still burned in to his retinas. Fat, glowing blotches of purple and green obscured his vision, marking the place where the flash of light had been. They outlined the ghostly shapes of an explosive lightning strike, tendrils splayed to all sides, shattering the sky. Like a crack. Like a cracked mirror. Seven years of bad luck… And the darkness in the center. The object that had blocked the light. The target—the shape of the small feline body within the blitz, wings splayed, paws flailing, face contorted in a final cry of pain.

He felt his right hand suddenly twitch at his side, as if longing to clench up into an angry fist. But it stopped, halfheartedly, as suddenly as it had started. Just one twitch, that was all.

Time was still suspended. The rain was still sprinkling down from the heavens, but for a breath longer, it fell alone. His eyes were fixed on the skies, watching the bright spot of orange that was wrapped in their midst. It was still suspended in the air, the body. Unmoving, its flailing appendages still reaching upward toward the apex of its fall. Reaching upward? Upward to what? What have you left to reach for, brother? There is nothing up there for you to catch anymore, and nothing within you to desire it. A mockery. It's naught but a cheap mockery. A marionette cut loose from his strings.

Moments ago, he had been gasping for breath. Moments ago, he had been running—he…and the other. Moments ago, his heart had been hammering in his breast…but now it lay still…and silent.

Still and silent. Not a breath. Not a thought. Not a single pulse of life. Is that how the world is to be forever more for you, brother? Silent, silent like the grave. Shall I follow you? Yea, have I followed you already? Died with you, the one unable to exist without the other? Have I winked out of this mortal existence by your side and not even noticed the passing? Is that why I feel nothing either? Is that why I am standing here, cold, still, as you yourself must be? For a moment he almost believed it. For a moment, he could almost convince himself it was so…

But then time, as it always does, began again.

The rain fell faster.

The winds began to kick up.

Thunder and lightning began to crackle once more in the distance.

You. You storm. You were responsible… responsible for it all.

The weeds in his hair,

They were falling free now. Falling. Falling away of their own volition. He should have expected it. Their presence at his side had always been fatedly evanescent. Wasn't everything? It seemed so…

The mud on his face,

It dripped off his chin. Streams of fresh rainwater cascaded across the spattering. Cutting. Cutting inlets through the layers of muck until it rolled down his cheeks. But the storm, the storm couldn't reach him here. The storm couldn't touch him. Where was it coming from? This rainstorm upon his dirtied face…

The blood on his hands.

The blood on his hands!

He could feel again. The young mage could feel again. Slowly at first. He could feel his fingers twitching at his sides, his hands shaking like leaves. He could feel the chill of the night impress upon him, feel the burning of his blistered flesh, feel the icy touch of his rainwashed clothing. He could feel the streamlets running down his face. They dripped dirt and water down onto his shaking palms, stinging. Stinging like needles. Stinging like nails.

But still, but still the rain did not touch him. Still not a single new drop fell upon his bowed head or his tangled hair. As if frightened, as if afraid. Then, why? Why?! WHY!? Where did it come from? This rainstorm that pounded down upon his trembling limbs! Surely it was the mud that made it burn so. Surely it was the dirt. Surely. Surely! Surely it was not the sting—

Of saltwater…

With the pain in his hands, the numbness started to dissipate. First it shook in his fingers, where broken blisters were drenched with saline. It shot up his wrists, up his arms. It raced through his veins like the plague. Like the killer plague of London. And I was just as furious—just as deadly! It raced across his shoulders, where a renewed tension knotted at the thought. Like liquid fire, it shot into his core. Burning. Burning! Igniting a hot, heavy heat inside his breast. It weighed down upon his broken body, crushing, squeezing everything beneath it! It stole away his breath from the inside out, gripping at his chest until it stubbornly refused to expand anymore. Like a hangman's noose, he felt his throat constrict. Everything—everything suddenly tasted bitterly of bile.

He glanced down at his hands. They were still shaking, but now it was of an entirely different variety. Muscles and tendons tensed to their breaking point. Fingers, though blistered and burned clenched into fists. The heart that had lay so still with the dead now found life again. Racing. Racing! Stirring the centrifuge of fire inside of him—first soft, barely tangible, the flutter of butterfly wings; then faster, stronger, like the plight of a nervous lover; then hard! Hammering! The drumbeat of an entire invading army!

And, oh, there would be war!

Blood pounded anew in his ears, but this time it was not out of fear! This time it was not stress or exertion or some primitive survival instinct that consumed him, but anger! Hatred! Rage!

And as he watched the body in the air reach its apex—as he watched it begin to turn and fall back to earth at last—Yue Reed found the feelings that had momentarily escaped him. That creature in the sky was his brother! Cerberus Reed, who now was struck down in his prime! Their energetic lion now silent and limp, pelting towards the unforgiving ground! And that storm—that storm was the cause! He could not bear it! He would not bear it!

Throwing back his long mane of hair, Yue cast his eyes in fury upon the heavens as something from deep within his core—within his soul! Something ancient! Something powerful! He let go of all his inhibitions as it rushed over his entire being. And with an unearthly shriek that split the night, he threw back his head and cried:

"CERBERUS!"

Chapter 13, The Storm

An eerie stillness had swallowed up all of Lightwater valley.

Grey, colorless mud was splattered everywhere across the underbrush; the little roads and walking trails from whence it had come were utterly unrecognizable. There had once been a time—not so long ago—when those pathways had ferried visitors in and out of their sweet village. Now, where neat, humble footpaths had once graced the hills and fissures, there was only an array of muck. The straight, clean lines now lay with entrails splayed about the ground around them. Like a dissection. Like an animal pinned down for dissection, their beautiful roadways were turned asunder. A dissection… of the very heart of Lightwater. That was what the storm had brought them.

But how did one go about curing a ruined village? It was not a usual patient.

Down the way, the little creek that ran around the main had overflown its banks. Now all the area around it had become like a great swampland. Water and slime and mud had rushed in to some of the low-lying houses. The water mill was completely flooded. Should he prescribe it a tonic for its congestion? Should he lance it? Bleed it? Drain its fluid away and tell it to watch those nasty humors?

The rain and wind had taken their toll as well. Houses, stores, stables that had once stood tall and proud now lay in piles of splinters. Here and there, roofs had caved in. Windows had shattered. Whole homes had been reduced to nothing but a pile of rubble. As a child losing his baby teeth, they left holes—gaps in the cluttered streets where they had once stood. An open gap in a once-lovely smile. They had fallen like a stack of cards while their neighbors still stood tall and unshaken. It almost looked comical, the perfect contrast between whole and broken. Erect and prone. Alive and dead.

Many proud trees—some as old as the village itself—had gone the way of the houses. Saplings scattered about the ground, their shallow roots torn prematurely from their earthen cradles. Torn to an early grave. Whole trunks had been rent cleanly in half, bright virgin wood splintered and displayed to the heavens. Broken branches were strewn everywhere.

Should he make it a tourniquet? Should he amputate the dead limb that was dangling still by only a thread? Should he take a brace to the broken bodies? Splint their shattered skeletons?

The hills all around them had been struck by the deadly lightning blasts. Small fires still burned in the distance. Even where they had gone out, dark swatches of ash dashed the green, grassy plains. From Lightwater, they looked like ugly wounds—a scar, perhaps. But he could not bandage injuries like these. Yea, he did not even know if there were wrappings large enough to stem the lifeblood flowing out of this town. *

The tempest had brought quiet devastation.

A pair of bright blue eyes surveyed the still, silent town around him. He had never known Lightwater to be quiet. There were times the town seemed quaint, true, and homely. Travelers to the City often preferred lodging here in the local inns rather than the dank, filth-encrusted alleys of their destination. He supposed, compared to urban life, Lightwater must have seemed quiet to some. It never had been so for him—nor, he would estimate, for any of her native residents. It was a traveler's town. Pubs to sleep in, ladies to sleep with, and a reliable cabby who did not judge his cargo. The only reason anyone ever bothered to put them on a map was as a convenient rest stop. But it was a fate that the village had always embraced: the new and varied company brought a sense of motion to the place. The comings and goings of folk kept the atmosphere interesting. It also made for some fiercely wild parties down in the square.

No, Lightwater may have been distant, remote, but she was never quiet. She was never still. Not like this. Now she was like a bear rug lying upon a hunter's floor. Her fierce, active expression of life was still plastered on her face—every part of her was preserved with perfection! Every hair! Every tooth! Every glistening glass eye! But she was cold. Lifeless. Dead.

Or, at least, she would be so soon.

There had been a house, thought the eyes. A house that had stood there, right next to his own. It had been there yesterday, and the day before that. A lovely little shack, its rounded shingles bright and cheery. Its windows and frames had been painted with festive colors, befitting of its residents. A small family had lived there. It had been standing just this morning.

But now there was only rubble.

A pile of wood lay upon the ground where the happy abode had once stood. Shingles, support beams, even a lovely painted plank or two was now gathered neatly into the basin of what had once been its basement. It was like a bowl of noodles now! A deep, cool basement acting as an enormous bowl, and the tattered remains of the house gathered within it like strings of pasta. Any Venetian would have been proud! There were no bodies. No cries for help. No little hands, still and pale, sticking out amidst the collapse. Just wood. Just neatly-gathered wood.

He hadn't even heard it fall.

Was it possible, wondered the onlooker, that the house had been deserted? Could, perhaps, the little family have taken up shelter in a neighbor's abode? It seemed utterly impossible that they could all be gone, just like that. So swiftly. So silently. Death was not supposed to be so neat, so easy. It was supposed to be loud, messy, graphic! Was it really possible that it could have simply slipped in while the tempest had raged, and then sauntered back out again? Without a word? Without a murmur? Soundless and immediate like the angel of death upon the houses of Egypt?

The pair of eyes meandered up to the sky. It was not as dark and formless as it had been before, though there was still no sign of the sun. Fat, dark clouds—a whole variety of greys—floated lazily overhead. They moved so slowly on the scant breeze that it almost seemed that they too were frozen in time like the town beneath them. Somewhere off in the distance, a low rumble of thunder still echoed over the hilltops. No. Not over just any hilltop. Over one in particular—to the East. Towards Reed Manor. Even as they stared through the gloom, the sapphire eyes could still see what looked like a thick air of smoke around the manor's hilltop. But it was not smoke. It was clouds. Storm clouds. The ones that had so recently covered all the surrounding area. The ones that had caused all this. They were now condensed somehow, centered over the Reeds' complex.

The eyes were not fool enough to believe it was mere coincidence. If there were sorcerers in that house, then this miraculous rescue was clearly sorcery. At least, rescue for the town… Pupils widened as they watched the swirling thunderheads flash with lightning. Another rumble of whispered on the wind. If that was the same tempest that had gutted the town, then there was no such relief or rescue atop that stormy hill. If this was Lightwater's salvation, then it was clearly also Clow's damnation…

The clip-clop of horses' hooves snapped the eyes and their owner out of his dark contemplations.

The man stood his ground, white knuckles bracing themselves against the smooth railing beneath them. What was it that was approaching now? Man, or beast? He would not be surprised anymore if it was the horsemen of the apocalypse that he now heard trotting towards him. And why not? He could not imagine the end of days being more terrible than this. He could not imagine a more profound stillness. A more complete silence.

But as the sound grew louder, he began to see shapes in the mist. It was not an apocalyptic horseman—at least, not unless they were suddenly traveling on wheels. The rhythmic thundering of four pairs of hooves echoed up the cobblestone street—whoever was approaching, they had clearly cut straight through the heart of town. The horses that peeked out of the fog were tall, strong animals. One was grey—almost exactly the same color as the gloom all around them—its complexion blotchy and speckled like the storm clouds above. Its companion, harnessed beside it, was a rich chocolate bay—so dark that it almost appeared black through the fog. Bumping behind them was a humble closed-top carriage, its roof laden with baggage.

The blue eyes squinted at the approaching vehicle. He knew that carriage. He knew those horses. But he simply could not believe what he was seeing. He had thought he would never again see that visage that was clomping towards him—not unless the town somehow survived this night! He had thought its owner gone for good. Gone…as Clow had warned him to be…

As the carriage drew nearer, he could just make out the driver. A rather short, thick man was seated at the cab's head, reigns in one hand, whip in the other. His clothes were not truly shabby—intricate embroidery along his vest spoke of considerable craftsmanship, metallic buttons and golden trim sparkled from his coat—but they were old and worn. Their once-bright colors were faded and washed out from a lifetime of days in the sun. His breeches were simple, his coat a medium length, his undershirt plain. It was a timeless fashion—never the height of courtly dress, but never out of style either. He wore a little ribbon around his neck, but no ruff. And never—never—a powdered wig. (Not that many in the humble country town had adopted that particular trend in the first place—not unless they were destined for city business.) Instead, a mane of wild, crimson hair billowed about his face and chin like a lion's mane.

Yes, the onlooker thought, a gleeful smile finding its way to his lips. He knew this man. He knew this carriage. But he still could scarcely believe his eyes!

"Aiden," he called fondly as clip-clopping horses came to a stop just before his wooden railing.

"Afternoon, doctor!" the driver boomed merrily in reply, small, dark eyes grinning up at the blond atop the balcony. "Out enjoying the weather, are yeh?" he laughed ironically.

"Wouldn't miss it for the world," the 'doctor' replied with distaste. But whatever his tone, his eyes, his lips, his entire face was beaming—glad to have company after all, here at the apocalypse. "But if you were hoping to get back to the other side of town, I'm afraid the paths are ruined."

The cabby dismissed his concerns with a lazy wave of the hand. "Nonsense," he chortled, "There's more than one way to the stables, you know. We'll manage all right!"

"Hello, Ben!" a rich feminine voice called from somewhere inside the cabin. The covered windows slid open and the young physician's gaze fell on a beautiful, exotic matron waving at him from within. She looked nothing at all like her husband. Where the man called 'Aiden' was fair and freckled, his bride had skin as dark as fresh coffee. Her hair, carefully braided down her back was dark and heavy like Cleopatra's.

"Mrs McKinley," Benjamin Hawkins nodded, giving the lady a little bow. "I must admit, I'm pleased to see you," he said with a smile, "Even if a little surprised. I thought you'd all left town."

"We had done," Mrs McKinley replied from her window, "We were half way to London before we decided to turn back."

Hawkins looked back and forth between husband and wife, brow furrowed with confusion. At last, Aiden McKinley sighed. "We had to come back, Ben," he murmured, rubbing tired eyes with the back of his hand. "We couldn't leave her—we couldn't leave Lightwater." He glanced around at the dismal scenery, a sad smile twitching at his lips. "This town has been our home—it was good to us, even if it didn't always take us seriously. We can't leave her now—not if this is truly her final act."

The good doctor let his eyes fall gloomily to the floor. He knew what the old cabby meant by that. Like Sodom and Gomorrah, it appeared that Lightwater was doomed. He could feel it in his bones. He could feel it even as Clow Reed had come to warn him. Hell, he had seen it in a sense… But this time, unlike the biblical cities of old, the righteous were not fleeing the village. Lot and his company were standing here, unable to leave this place—this town they had called home. Between these three, there was an understanding. Would their God keep his promise? Would he spare the city for the sake of the one, or two, or three righteous living within it, as he had told to Abraham? Or would he let it crumble down upon them, regardless? …did they three even count as 'righteous'…? Hawkins had made his choice. He would rather die in the burning house than stand by and watch it fall. He had thought he was the only one… And yet, here they all were. Here to watch the end of days together. A sorrowful silence descended between the trio, only punctuated by the rolling of faraway thunder and whispering wind.

But there was one other sound that broke through the void. A small, haunting voice. It resounded around the desolate alleyway, bouncing off the broken trees, the fallen houses, the bubbling roads splayed out all around them:

"I saw three ravens sat on a tree…"

The sound of the sweet music bid the doctor look up once again, hopefully glancing about for its source. At first, he thought it might have been a phantom—one of the young casualties that surely laid amongst the rubble of the ruined homes—the ghostly song of a child dead before his time.

"Down a down!" the voice hummed softly. It sent a chill down the doctor's spine. "Hey, down a down…"

But as he listened further, Hawkins could hear the little song cracking with youth, pausing for breath. It echoed imperfectly as it struck wood and rock and earth. This was not the sound of some ghost, he realized as the quiet tones washed him over. It was real—here, like the rolling thunder! But it was no less haunting. Hawkins timidly leaned against his railing, allowing him a better view of the carriage before him. He grinned at what he saw within. Instantly his fear was washed away with the wind. Seated across from his mother, and staring out the far window, was the form of a small boy with richly tanned skin and tightly-curled hair. He was staring out at the muddy, wrecked village beyond, treble voice singing quietly to himself.

"I saw three ravens sat on a tree…"

"Hello, Adwin*," Hawkins muttered to the child, but was granted no response. Indeed, Adwin seemed not even to have heard him. The boy continued to stare transfixed out the window, as if hypnotized by the murky grey ruin.

"…with a down!"

"I think it comforts him," Mrs McKinly sighed, casting a momentary glance towards her son. "The singing. Truly, I don't know if he even really understands what's going on."

"I saw three ravens sat on a tree…"

"Oh, I think he does," Hawkins replied darkly, staring at the child as well. He knew that song, recognized it. He had sung it himself as a boy. Even as he quietly stood, listening to Adwin McKinley, the words were dancing upon his tongue. It was a fitting tune. A very fitting tune indeed. The doctor could have thought of none more appropriate for this sad occasion.

"They were as black as they might be!"

But before young Adwin could sing another note, an explosion—like the sound of the Romans rushing the seashore!—suddenly cut across the valley. Man, woman, and child alike all shouted in pain at the sudden noise, clapping their hands tightly over their ears. Whirling around, Hawkins tried to squint towards the source of the cacophony. Towards the East. Towards Reed Manor. But before he could glimpse more than the faint outlines of burning trees, a hot, violet light burst out from the hilltop. With another crack of murderous thunder, it rushed across the village, searing at defenseless retinas like acid. Weakly, Hawkins feel to his knees, eyes watering as the beams passed over his porch.

When he opened them again, the skies had darkened once more. The smoky clouds that had previously been hovering over the manor now shot across all the heavens again like an inky stain. Lightning flashed. Thunder cracked. Down in the square, he could hear the sounds of powerful gales roaring through the collapsed alleyways. Slowly, the rains began to fall anew. Judgment day was here again.

Little Adwin threw himself against his mother, squeezing her for dear life. He stared wide-eyed up at the roaring heavens above them. His final note died away, becoming nothing more than a feeble whimper.

Hawkins sighed, his gaze meandering upward, towards the distant hill once more. "With a down," Hawkins finished for the frightened child, "Derry, derry, derry down down…" *

Clow could scarcely move—could scarcely breathe! All around him, rain was still falling. The wind was still blowing. Thunder and lightning still crackled dangerously behind him. The roof was no less slick than it had been all evening.

But Clow Reed wasn't concerned about any of that anymore. He was scarcely even aware of it. He stared in horror at the grisly scene that was unfolding before him. Moments ago, he had been running, dodging, throwing himself roughly upon the slippery rooftop…and now…!

The aging sorcerer was settled high above the lawn atop one of the highest peaks of Reed manor. He was up here for a reason. Clow was a man on a mission. Exactly two years, ten months, and twenty-odd days ago, he had left his hometown of Fai, China and settled in his father's ancestral home here in Lightwater. In September, 1680. Four months before the golden rooster. Four months before that shining new zodiac year was declared back in his homeland. And that year…that year had brought a lot of good things into Clow's life. It had brought him friends—one particularly good one, a gentleman doctor who worked down in the village—it had brought him a home of his own—the one he was currently standing atop—and it had brought him two beautiful boys. Two golden roosters back in his family's old astrology. Gold was strong, firm, and self-assured. And roosters were honest, charismatic, and loyal to the brink of death. Those were his two boys: loyal, confidant, and desperately strong in their own ways. The sun and the moon—gods and spirits of legend the world over.

The westerners saw them beneath another zodiac—one based upon the stars. Cerberus was born on the twentieth of June, sixteen-hundred and eighty-one. He was a Gemini: a sign considered extroverted, expressive, and highly mutable. Cerberus had a truly beautiful horoscope—a work of art. It had taken Clow half his lifetime to decide the right moment to bring his little lion into the world. He had spent years doing the calculations—to make sure that the eastern astrology was just as perfect as the western. East and West in perfect harmony. The key to his magic. He had three major bodies under water signs, three in air, two in earth, and a midheaven filled with fire. Perfectly balanced all. Each of his planets were carefully planned and complimented each other. There were a few that stood at opposition, especially in the area of his passions—after all, no one could avoid all conflict in life, no matter how well planned—but all in all, it was a harmonious chart. Perfectly planned to a tee.

Yue was not quite as fortunate. He had calculated the year perfectly, but Clow had never expected to bring Yue into the world the way he had done. He had had a beautiful day picked out for his other little angel too… but it had not been meant to be. Yue was born on the thirtieth of June, only ten days after his brother. He was a Cancer: emotional, protective, but desperately loving—calm and cool like the waters that bore him. And unlike his brother, Yue was filled with the influence of water. With the exception of a meager four, all of his major planets fell within a watery sign. They lined up in a neat row within the sign of cancer—each vying and fighting for a space within a sign that simply had no more room for them. If Clow had known how chaotic that day was, he might have reconsidered sealing his son upon it. Yue's horoscope was terribly unbalanced. While his heart was loving and his soul pure beneath the element of water, he was doomed to failure. Fighting for non-existent space, all his stars were battling each other—blocking each other. His moon, the very ruler of his heart was eternally crushing all of his loving intent. Eternally withholding its own deepest desires. Clow didn't see it yet, but it was a recipe for disaster.

But Yue was not the problem tonight.

No, the problem tonight was something else entirely—something that Clow Reed's brilliant brain seemed simply unable to process. It was not a chart. It was not an algorithm or a story. He simply could not…grasp the concept.

The theory had been easy enough. He had begun this quest long ago—begun a quest to seal the very essences of nature itself, the ones that other sorcerers merely tapped upon with timid hands. Beyond the so-called elements—beyond 'spirits' or 'kami' or whatever other name these forces had been called by. They were all only part of the whole. A small summon of a greater monster. * And so, he created the cards. Beautiful. Simple. With the sun and moon on his side, it was like child's play: each spirit of creation rushing like moths to a flame—rushing to be with their rulers. Here, in the physical world.

It had all been… so simple in theory.

And even tonight had been so simple. These cards—these last cards wished to test him for his worthiness. They would not give him the full set without a fight. And well, they should! He had seen it all. He had forecasted it. How many times had he forecasted it? But this… but now… This was not the way it was supposed to happen! He had seen! He had been so sure! All the signs had seemed to point to—!

But the lightning flashed. And the thunder grumbled.

At first, the weary sorcerer was not sure what had made him turn around. Perhaps it was the hesitation he had sensed in his opponent. For a split second before it had happened, the storm had frozen. It had lessened its assault against him—given him an easy escape when it could have lashed at him again! When it could have tried once more to smite him! It could see it too, the opportunity…

He had turned around just in time to see it happen:

His worst nightmare.

The thing that was so incomprehensible…

He watched it strike.

For a moment, Cerberus Reed—his valiant knight in soft golden armor—had been suspended in the air. His face was determined. His wings beating powerfully against the gusts! He was shouting something on the ground to his brother, but he—but Yue…

But Yue had been screaming back—more frightened, more worrisome!

But Cerberus—sweet Cerberus—hadn't heeded. And Clow had felt the storm hesitate. He had felt it turn, and then…

The protective circle around Reed Manor crumbled into dust as the bolts hit home, and the storm, with a victorious growl, shot across the skies of Lightwater again. Its cage was shattered. Shattered…like their broken trio.

And the ear-splitting scream pierced the night as hot energy pierced the body in the air. Not Yue's scream. Not Yue's flesh and blood!

…but Cerberus'…

But his precious,

precious little lion…

All the visions… all the signs…! But the signs had been wrong. He had been looking at them all through a rose-tinted glass—a filter of love, and of the fear of losing that love. He had never once thought of Cerberus—had never once thought that it would be his older son whom the universe would dare take away. No, he had always assumed Yue. Always. Even when the evidence was so strongly to the contrary… He had always assumed…And why? Why!? Why should he have feared so irrationally that it would be Yue he would lose, and not Cerberus? Was it because he so loved the boy? Was it because he felt for the child a strange passion that was utterly unlike his love for anyone else on this world…

Was it because he, like the Englishmen around him, felt that his passions were themselves a terrible sin?

Clow had failed his elder boy.

He watched the lightning strike and fall away. He watched the body in the air contort, and then go limp. He watched it begin to fall…but he could do nothing. His feet would not move. His voice would not cry. His brain simply could not process it. In the back of his mind, the echoes of his fancies still lingered. It couldn't really be happening. It couldn't! Any moment now, Cerberus was going to leap back into action. His little wings would twitch. He would give a hearty laugh. He would mock the storm for its pitiful attempt. That was the way things worked here in Reed Manor.

He was frozen.

If the storm had chosen to attack him just then—if it had chosen to make one last onslaught against the sorcerer that particular moment, it would have had him! But it did not. The thunder was quiet, and the wind did not roar. It too seemed unable to process….

Any second now. Any second now…

Unable to look away, his eyes lingered, waiting—hoping. But a shred of doubt was starting to trickle in. Reality was beginning to make itself apparent. Up in the sky, Cerberus still hung like an autumn leaf upon the wind. Like a marionette whose strings had just been cut. He still floated for one moment longer, limbs tossed every which way. Any second now, Clow repeated. His arms and legs felt cold and leaden. He tried sending signals to them—bidding them to rise, to stand. But they did not respond. The impulse died upon his fingertips as a tiny, spastic twitch. Any second now. Any second…

But the next second came.

And the next one.

And the one after.

Cerberus Reed did not leap magically back into action. His wings hung slack, feathers scattered haphazardly by the wind. He reached the apex of his journey…and then he began to fall. He didn't even look real. It all looked like a sick mockery—!

And Icarus in his pride flew too close to the sun. And his wings of wax melted in the heat. And he fell to Earth…

Weakly, Clow collapsed back against the roof, his limbs still stubbornly refusing to obey him. Now the numbness was spreading even further. It crept up his spine. It bound his ribs like some medieval torture device. He was numb from the neck down and helpless as he watched…silently. Watched silently, in silent horror. As Cerberus—his Cerberus!—

Began…

…to…

…fall.

There was a flash of hot violet light.

The rains suddenly stopped falling.

The winds…stopped blowing altogether.

Not even the thunder dared to crackle.

Clow was snapped out of his brooding immediately as he was hit in the face with something both incorporeal and yet somehow very very solid. Crying out, the sorcerer felt a surge of energy suddenly shock his feeble form, but this time it had nothing to do with lightning. He fell back onto the rooftop, stumbling and rolling over his own sodden cloak. His broken and bruised body crashed like a stone against the tile, Clow in his weakness nearly screamed in pain as he was blown violently backwards—blown by some violet, glowing force that he could not even identify!

The storm was frozen—frozen for a moment in time. And the air around the manor was suddenly hot and crackling with energy—energy that seemed to be daring the storm! Daring it to so much as rumble! Hot. Burning. Furious! And powerful. Power such as Clow Reed swore he had never felt before in his life. As if the gods of old had suddenly descended from the heavens—deus ex mechina! As if Zeus himself had come to save them! To end this nightmare!

The little lion, still caught up in the midst of the storm suddenly halted in his decent. Clow coughed, the sudden thickness of the air crushing down on his finely beaten body. It choked him like poison gas, and burned like the hot sun. But still he muscled through. Still he would not tear his eyes away! Not now! He had to watch! He had to see this miracle! The sorcerer squinted through the glow and gloom. He watched as a soft violet aura wrapped itself around his flailing little cub.

It cradled him. It drew his haphazard limbs in closely and swaddled him like a newborn infant.

Clow stared in astonishment—not daring to breathe, let alone move. He stared as the sparkling light held his child in its embrace and slowly, lovingly lowered him to the ground. All the while the skies did not so much as rumble. The burned and broken trees did not crackle. Raindrops hovered, suspended in their journey to ground. Nothing dared to move. Nothing dared to speak.

On the lawn below, a bright spot of luminance shimmered in the darkness. It was the source—the god, the goddess, the angel himself. Surely! It must have been… But the figure was obscured, wrapped in its waves of light. The little lion seemed to take forever, hesitating just a moment as he neared to the heart of the glow. A pair of long white beams reached forth, like welcoming arms. And, in the space of one last heartbeat…

They touched.

Thunder immediately exploded like canon fire. The rain, no longer halted, began hammering down again upon the drenched landscape. Lightning flashed. The wind blew. The storm was back on and raging as if nothing had happened in the time between. The violet aura was gone as if it had never existed, and with it went the warmth and weight and awe. The battle was back on.

Clow for his part sat dumbfounded a moment or so longer. His mind was apparently still in shock. No stray thoughts swam across it. No brilliant ideas or inspired theories. He was only vaguely aware of the raindrops striking down upon his head.

A finger twitched. A numb foot moved an inch. Pinpricks from lack of blood flow exploded up the wizard's calves. In one fast movement, like a bolt of lightning, Clow Reed leapt to his feet, tangling himself in a mess of cloaks and hair and ornaments. The sorcerer growled in frustration, ripping his sodden garments to the side. Like a man possessed, he dashed and scrambled to the roof's edge once more. He had to know! He had to see! See the power that was causing all this—the power that could halt even this storm against which Clow himself was defenseless!

But it was not a god that stood there, stood upon the sodden ground below—stood rooted to spot where the brilliant glow had erupted. It was not Zeus. It was not even Yahweh.

It was Yue.

He was not glowing anymore. His flickering aura was no longer a vast, primal force, but the soft cooling breeze to which Clow had grown so accustomed. The raging river had been dammed. It trickled deceptively again as a tiny stream…

Clow blinked down at the boy as if not really seeing him. Even from a distance, every detail now seemed as sharp as day. His hair was a terrible mess, caked with mud and blood, plastered to his face. His once-white clothing was now stained and torn, so washed with water that most of it was nearly transparent. He was trembling—shaking like a leaf from head to toe. But somehow Clow doubted it was from the cold and wet. His face was hidden, veiled in shadows beneath the boy's long fringe.

The weary wizard felt himself drawing nearer to the edge of the roof. Nearer still until his toes hung off the fragile tiles. If the storm had struck up just then…if it had hit him with one good, resounding gale…then this battle might have been over and done with. But it didn't…why? At the moment, Clow's brain was too numb to think it through properly, but he knew it would bother him immensely later. Isn't that what you want, storm?, he thought angrily to himself. Isn't that what you want? To kill me? Do it, then. Kill me. Kill me like you killed—!

His mind wouldn't say it.

As he drew nearer to the edge, his still could not properly see his son. Yue was knelt over now, his knees given way. His face was set determinedly on the ground. And in his lap, he cradled a broken bird… a wide expanse of orange fur. Large, oversized paws folded neatly before him. Wings stretched back behind the pair of them. In another time, Clow might have convinced himself that Cerberus was sleeping. That this was a sunny afternoon and his boys were out lazily enjoying the weather. But he could not delude himself now… Yue's scream had broken his dreams. Broken his very ability to fantasize… It was too neat, the sorcerer thought, his throat tightening with a sudden spasm. He blinked away a heavy burning that was growing now at the corner of his eyes. Cerberus was never so neat and tidy. When he slept, it was always in a disarray. His bed sheets were proof enough of that. He was too still. Cerberus was never so still. Even in the most peaceful of times, he would have a tail still twitching, a perked ear still oscillating.

Languidly, he watched Yue's injured hands clench tightly into his brother's fur. He watched the boy's tiny body contract and shiver. At long last, he turned his eyes up towards the heavens. Not a drop of rain fell upon him. It didn't dare to even come near. He met Clow's gaze, amethyst eyes meeting with sapphire.

And there were tears in them.

Taken aback, Clow stumbled and nearly fell backwards atop his capes and cloaks. Rarely, rarely ever had he seen Yue cry. And now… and now his face was ruddy, tear streaks drawing long lines in the caked-on mud. Washing it away.

Yue was crying. Yue! As he shook with emotion and tears. As he cradled the body of his fallen brother. As his snow white garments were stained a sickly red—stained with blood that was not even his own!

And, at that moment, something inside Clow

snapped.

As a clap of thunder resounded overhead, the sorcerer leapt to his feet. He couldn't stand for this. No! He wouldn't! He would not stand for this! He would have his revenge! This storm—this storm would taste his wrath! The Power of Darkness bubbled and churned inside the rain-washed warrior, begging to be unleashed—to be let free! He feared that power, feared it terribly. But now—but NOW! Perhaps this was the one use for it. Perhaps this was the good he could do with it!

New resolve—new anger—burning in his heart, Clow reached down and ripped his staff off the rooftop. Swirling it around his head, he gripped the shaft viciously with both hands, sun-tips pointed menacingly at the skies above. He brandished it like a sword, poised at the ready. Yes, this ended now. This ended now!

"SEAL!"

At his feet, one of the glued-down tarot cards exploded with orange light. It exploded like hot fire and licked at its master's ankles. But Clow did not move. Clow did not so much as flinch. As the light faded, he released one hand from his staff and, obediently, the card shot off the ground and into his grasp. He could feel its orientation before he even looked down at the emblazoned picture. Solar. This would have been one of Cerberus' cards.

And the name on the front, as if in mockery of the fallen lion and his failed flight…

Was Jump.

Roaring with renewed fury, Clow swung his staff around again, a trail of thick, smoke-like plasma trailing behind it. It cast an eerie violet light as its tendrils cut across the sky. Black light. Ultraviolet. A color so far in the void that it cannot even be seen by man. It sparkled around the edges of his dark, inky power. It burned like fire. It crackled like lightning. The cards that had deactivated when the storm had shattered the circle now zoomed across the lawn. They shot across the night like thrown darts, each rising from the place it had fallen. Each coming, coming to their master! Coming to his aid! They swirled around him like objects locked in orbit, each glowing with energy and life. The hot aura of power atop the roof grew to its most fervent and passionate pitch.

Yes, this ended here. This ended now. It was time to stop running. It was time to fight back! It was time to really use a power that had long been left sleeping…

With new purpose, Clow slashed his staff across the sky, striking one of the nearest cards as it swirled past him. The tip exploded with warm red light as its master screamed:

"FIERY!"

An explosion of light and flame ignited the sky over Reed Manor.

There was red on him.

There was red everywhere.

Silent raindrops continued their pitter patter on the ground. Somewhere. Off in the distance. Or maybe they weren't. He didn't particularly care anymore…

Overhead, he was vaguely aware of an orange light lashing off the rooftop. But then again, perhaps he wasn't. It didn't matter. Everything was inconsequential now.

There was still a peculiar ring in his ears. If Yue Reed though hard enough, he was certain he could remember why it was there. If he thought hard enough, he was certain he could remember why his hands were shaking so. Why his arms were shaking so. Why, on a summer's night, every part of him was trembling as with winter cold.

But he couldn't think. He couldn't think properly right now.

He could not see the faint violet glow that was still flickering on his fingertips. He could not feel the tremulous storm still swirling within his own soul. No. For the first time in a long while, Yue could not feel the touch of the ancient and explosive power whirring deep within his being—struggling! Struggling to beat itself back into submission. Struggling to re-contain itself into a tiny, weak human body. He wasn't aware of what had happened moments before. He was hardly aware of what was happening now. Time itself was a thing hard to grasp just this moment. Like the rain. Like everything.

His heart was still racing inside his chest—this and this alone he was aware of. It made his entire fragile frame shake with the effort and the resonance. Every part of him was broken and trembling as if he had run the battle of Marathon. But the marathon messenger had died upon arrival… Then again, perhaps that made the theory all the more plausible.

He felt like he could die here. He felt weak. He felt sick. Kill me, echoed a voice somewhere far within his mind, KILL ME! Kill me too! He couldn't remember that. He couldn't remember where the words came from, but they made his stomach give another sickening lurch, and filled his world with the taste of hot bile. The urge to be sick rose again in his throat, but the mage bit down on it with all his remaining strength. He would not disgrace himself here. He would not show weakness. He couldn't break this repose…

That too was familiar… or was it? Where was it from? The past? The present? Was it some future he was still mauling over in his mind…?

It was difficult to be certain…

Time.

Time was a funny thing.

Or perhaps it wasn't.

It was difficult to be certain.

His fingers shook like autumn leaves as he faintly caressed the soft presence in his lap. They were about as many colors. Red and orange and brown from the blistered burns. They were. His hands were. And…and so to was he. Oh, God, so too was-! His insides contorted yet again, and this time Yue had to brace himself against the ground to keep his composure. One hand flew to his throat as he spluttered and panted—as if ready to strangle the impulse out of himself if it did not subside. He would not be weak now. He would NOT! As his entire body shook with one last sickening lurch, Yue gritted his teeth. Unable to contain everything, his breath came out as a desperate sob. Saltwater so hot it burned welled up along the rim of his eyes and he collapsed upon his supporting arm. As it tumbled upon his wounds, the boy let out a series of half-cries that he could no longer hold back.

Saline and mud and the weight of his whole trembling form stung at his injured hands. With a tearful scoff, he clenched them ever tighter, letting the pain shoot up his arm as far as it fancied. As far as it would go. He would clench and bite at his fists until all the nerve endings went numb. Numb like his mind. Numb like his heart. He wouldn't allow the petty weaknesses of his own flesh selfishly steal the limelight. They would not have his focus. They would not!

He did not deserve it.

Throwing his upper half off the ground, Yue felt his wet hair slop around him. He paid it no mind. He didn't give a damn what it did with itself right now. He didn't give a damn if it ever came untangled again.

God knew his scarred soul never would. Why should not the flesh reflect the madness within? …or the sorrow…

Still shivering from head to toe, he resumed his original position, though this time he settled himself somewhat harder upon the dank earth. To his mild surprise, his blistered limbs did not protest. Mild surprise because that was the most feeling he could muster. Towards himself, anyway…

Numbly, his fingers resumed their ritual. They stroked soft fur. Soft, orange fur. Gently at first, so gently. His skin scarcely grazed the tips of the matted hairs. He could barely feel them. Barely. Like a breeze. With a heavy heart, the mage hesitated as if afraid. Afraid to stroke this mighty beast, so familiar. But he could not break the contact. He could not stay away. Though his numb brain did not understand, he could not…he could not. Slowly, the boy reached deeper, streaking his hands through taller patches. A coarse jungle to explore. Caked in mud. Bathed in blood. The burning tears cascaded down his face as he ran his hands through the ruff upon the little lion's chest. Creamy white color was stained with red. The red that was on him. The red that was all around them.
Memories burned at him as he scratched the creature's ears—as he caressed the slacken face that lay upon his lap. Memories. Memories from when, he could not be certain. Time… but time was starting to right itself now, and he knew that the visions before his eyes were from long, long ago. Another life. It felt like another life. As torrents of saltwater obscured his eyes, they burned at his mind more than the lightning ever could…

"I'm sucking the warmth out of you like a leech does blood!" a persistent feline yelled, snuggling ever closer to his sibling. Yue detested when he insisted on getting so close. It was always unnerving waking up to find a lion on one's chest. "Now get back here!" Cerberus whined as his companion tried to make a hasty escape...

A languished cry caught in Yue's throat as more tears ran down his face. But it died there, snuffed out by its own volition. As if he had not the strength to weep anymore. To sob. To scream in pain and anguish! Shifting in the mud, he cuddled the precious cargo in his lap ever nearer. Nearer…they had to be nearer. Please…want me nearer again, please! This time I won't care. This time…! As he let out another strangled sob, a second memory cut across his helpless mind.

"My wing has its own heartbeat," the little lion pouted. His brother paid him no mind, sizing up the feather he had just plucked from the rather troublesome little creature. He glanced over his shoulder to see his companion obsessively guarding over the removal site.

"Have you ever heard of molting?" was all he offered in reply.

"I'm sorry I hurt you…" Yue whispered, surprised to find at how resistant his voice was to obey him. It was high and cracked as if the air itself did not want to pass through his bloodstained body. Bloodstained… but the stain was not his own. "I'm sorry," he muttered again, even weaker this time. There was simply no pressure behind it. He had not the force of life in him anymore. "Yell at me again" the boy begged, the words strengthened only by a terrible sob, "Yell at me…again…"

Its own heartbeat…

Its own heartbeat…

As the phantom words echoed in his head, the mage continued to stroke his sibling's fur, trending farther and farther down his lifeless frame. His hands worked in circles, progressing downwards and then falling back. In another life, he might have been combing the strands, but now… But now he feared the progression. Now he feared moving onward, for it would mean that time would move forward. It would mean reality crashing down on him…

Crashing down on him…

His body shook as a final vision burst forth behind his ruddy, waterlogged eyes.

He was flying through the air, but it was not his wings that propelled him. All around, colors and shapes were blurred together into indiscernible streaks. With a resounding cough that shook his body to the core, he crashed hard upon the solid wood floor, something at least a hundred pounds or more collapsing down on top of him.

Still dazed, he watched fat, oversized paws parting his hair away from his face. "Hello, beautiful," a youthful voice cooed, phantom laughter resounding in every nuance of his tone. "You still alive down there?"

"Hello, beautiful…" Yue repeated silently, his second hand raising off the ground to stroke his brother's unmoving face. Teary violet eyes scanned over their shining golden counterparts: hoping. Praying. But he was met with no response. Those lovely eyes were softly closed. The rest of the sentiment died before he'd even a chance to utter it. The sound that would have formed those terrible words instead came out a scream. A cry! A noise of lament and torturous sorrow so profound that it defied common diction. There was no word for it. There was no word for any of it! Not the pain in his heart that was killing him from the inside. Not the emptiness of his soul as he gazed upon the broken, unmoving lion that was strewn across him. Whose lifeblood, hot and sticky, was staining his clothing, his hands, his face! He, a boy so filled with life. Always! Always so filled with life! A boy who radiated laughter and mirth!

Now lying cold… and still…. Oh GOD, too still!

"Cerberus!" he shrieked, the last of his reservations shattering around him like glass. Arms at last giving way, he collapsed forward onto the mighty, fallen warrior in front of him. Hands caressing his fur. Desperately! Desperately! They could find no release. No! No he could not let go! He could never let go! Not while the warmth yet lingered in his brother's body. Not while he could maintain the illusion! He had to memorize every inch! Every inch! He had to burn it into his memory like the visions in his mind! Forever. Forever!

His tact failing him, Yue wept. Yue sobbed. Yue cried and cried until he thought there was not a single drop of water left in his entire body. Water. Water like the vicious rain falling all around him. Falling on him now! Water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink!* He rubbed his face against the lion's belly, disregarding the smell of burned flesh around him. Disregarding the sticky, barren texture where hair had been singed away. He didn't care. He didn't care about anything anymore. His tears, bitter and stinging, cascaded down upon the open wound beneath him. They fell as a rainstorm, mixing with the sticky, red blood that covered everything. The blood that, even as he cried, oozed out even more onto his face, rewetting the wound that his weeping had cleaned.

Wait…

What?

Yue sat bold upright, his hair flying somewhere off behind him. He paid it no mind. His eyes immediately stopped their leaking as something cold—and yet wholly invigorating—slipped its way into the boy's core. Did he dare? Did he dare, the mage wondered, brain stunned and aghast. Did he dare think it? It couldn't be… it wasn't possible!

His trembling renewed, but this time it had nothing to do with contained sobs. This time it was an icy anxiety that was brewing in his belly. Like December frost, it crept up into his chest and bid his broken heart to flutter.

Could it be? Could it truly..!?

Hands now shaking so much that he could scarcely aim their direction, he reached back out. Back towards the collapsed little lion, stewing in the mud. Carefully, he touched the deep, ugly wound in his side—the place where long, lightning-shaped scorch marks exploded across the beast's fur. Pressing down lightly he bid fresh blood to pool around his fingers, covering the burned flesh. Then, releasing, he wiped it away until the skin was clean once more. Then he waited. And watched. His breath halted in his throat, not daring to release.

Slowly but surely, a fresh stream of red trickled out to fill the void.

Letting out something that was half between a strangled cry and a hopeful laugh, Yue hurled himself back down on the ground. His palms braced him painlessly against the earth as he moved the injured lion, turning him to lie almost on his back. He had to know. He had to! His own blood hammering in his ears, the mage grabbed at the nearest front paw and shoved it away—perhaps a bit too roughly. He hadn't time to think about it. He had to be sure! The mage knelt down beside his brother, pressing an ear to the ruff of fur across his chest. The movement splashed him back into the mud, but he cared not—not even as muck splattered across his face.

He closed his eyes…

And listened.

Instantaneously, a soft sound greeted his ears—not unlike the flapping of butterfly wings. It was faint, and it was rapid, but it was regular—and it wasn't his imagination. Letting out an awkward cry, Yue felt his eyes well with tears once more, but this time they were of an entirely different emotion. "Your heart," Yue whispered, his voice nearly giddy with awe, "I can hear your heart. You're alive!"

With the new hope blossoming in his own breast, he could scarcely say whose was beating faster.

He sat up at once, tossing himself to his feet a little too quickly and nearly falling backwards back into the mud. As he clumsily regained his balance, the mage laughed heartily and tearfully at his own predicament. He didn't care anymore. He had not a care in the world! His ailing soul had burst back to life, and with it he found new resolve! At the moment, he didn't give a tinker's damn about anything else!

His mind was working once again. In fact, it was flying feverishly! Hurriedly! Racing! Racing at a mile a minute as if making up lost time! Everything was clear now. Everything was crystal. He didn't know how on Earth it was that Cerberus was still alive, but the fact of the matter was that he was alive! And right now, the young blond didn't care why this was so. He would have plenty of time to figure that out later—now was the time for action! He had to stabilize this situation before it slipped through his fingers. Again. No, as it nearly had before! He'd thought he'd lost his sibling once. He would NOT let it happen again!

Glancing down at the beast in question, he let scrutinizing eyes survey him carefully. Now, with a clear head, Cerberus Reed didn't seem quite so lifeless as he had before. True, his body was still limp, unconcerned with the pounding rain or the muck all around him. But now he did not seem so still—so frighteningly still! Tiny muscles all up and down his flesh twitched and jerked with the aftereffects of the lightning. Amidst all the minute tremors and the wind that rustled his fur, Yue still could not pick out whether his brother was breathing. But he had to be! He must be! Elsewise he could not have lasted this long while Yue had sat around dumbfounded! Yes, the mage was confident that there was still breath and life in his fallen charge, even if he could not personally discern it.

But he was also still bleeding.

There was a wide, arching burn shooting right through the lion's middle where the lightning had struck. Long blackened tendrils spread out from the wound center, marking the place where flesh was burnt and dead, where fur had been reduced to ashes. Similar tendrils, less severe but still angry, raced across his neck, his limbs, his tail. But Yue did not pay these much mind. They were not his primary problem. In the heart of the charring was the place from which all the blood was issuing—the blood that Yue now realized was covering almost every part of his shirt and breeches. But under all the dead and blackened skin, he could only guess at its depth. And, if he was not greatly mistaken, there must be a similar exit wound on the other side, where he could not see. Hopefully, the boy thought to himself in a silent prayer, the dirt and mud beneath was helping to seal the injury—helping clots to form. He didn't dare move the beast for fear of disturbing such clots if they were indeed there. He would have to trust. He would have to have faith!

…what an utterly odd concept…

But none of that mattered right now. He needed help. He couldn't handle this alone: he was not medically trained. He needed experienced hands…Cerberus needed experienced hands…

Yue turned this thought over in his mind as he cast a furtive glance back up at the stormy heavens. A terrible realization was starting to dawn on him. There was only one person who could help them. And that very person was conveniently still here! …somewhere… down in the village below…

But the village was more than a mile away, and Yue did not have the time—Cerberus did not have the time! There wasn't a moment to waste. There was only one way…

There was only one way.

Reaching up with a soaked sleeve, Yue wiped away the last of his tears—and the mud and blood that had likewise smeared itself across his face. Then, carefully so as not to disturb his blistered hands, he peeled back the thin, sodden material.

Glancing behind him, he cast his stained and ruined shirt away; it fell to the ground with an unceremonious plop. The warlock sighed. "Well, I'm sorry you're going to miss it, Cerberus," he muttered to the unconscious cub upon the ground. "I know you've waited long for this…But it does solve my problem of how to get my nerve up…"

As he spoke, he turned himself back forwards, facing the storm with a steely glare. The chill of the wind licked at his newly-exposed flesh, but Yue refused to acknowledge it with so much as a shiver. No. He wouldn't give it the satisfaction. He had fought through snow and ice and bitter cold once before. What did a little summer drizzle have to compare? Tearing his gaze away from the rumbling heavens, Yue closed his eyes, focusing. At once, his icy aura began to pulse again with energy. Deep within his mind, the boy felt the spell around him: the spell that was shrouding a part of him from this rain-washed existence. He felts its borders, tossed and hanging about him like a tarp over a yet-uncovered statue. Well, he thought soberly, it was time for the unveiling! Casting his arms purposefully to the side, he released the enchantment—as if gripping the metaphorical sheet with his own bleeding palms. His wings appeared instantaneously, displacing not a waft of air around them. It was as if they had always been there. Always. As if they had, this whole while, been trailing behind him.

But of course, they had not been. Rolling his shoulders and shifting his back, Yue stretched his long feathered arms luxuriously into the sky. It had been a while, he mused, a devilish smirk playing about his lips. Too long. While the rest of him was beaten, battered, drenched, not so much as a single drop of water graced his plumage. Perfectly dry. Of course they were! The place they had been hiding away was not of this world.

Whatever sphere, whatever power had been protecting him from the weather before, it had returned—returned like his hope. Like his resolve. Without even consciously thinking it, the raindrops around him simply seemed to miss. They would not strike him. They would not fall upon him. They did not dare.

"Well," he murmured to himself, giving his limbs one last stretch before he returned them to their resting position, "I guess this is it. No more practice runs. No more snow to catch me. Tonight

"It's do or die."

With one last glance above him, the mage closed his eyes once again. Crouching down low to the Earth, he extended his wings to the side, parallel with the ground. They stood at the ready, tiny muscles trembling in anticipation. He was feeling. He was feeling the world around him.

He felt the wind as it swirled about his small frame.

He felt it kick up, pushing against his primaries.

In the distance, he heard the rush of rain falling in droves about the lawn.

He heard the rumble of thunder, and the moan of the stronger gales above.

Somewhere, he could even sense his father fighting, Fiery's flames lapping all around the night air.

He waited and he felt. The winds were still against him. Not yet. Not yet…

This time he would succeed, the mage thought quietly to himself as he stood, maintaining his stance. This time he was ready. He was strong. No more was he the frightened, frail little boy he had been when they first began this journey. He had matured—both in body and in spirit. And though he was wise enough now to realize he had a long way yet to go…nevertheless…he was ready for this! He was not the child whom Cerberus had thrown off a cliff face some two summers ago. No. Now he had trained tirelessly for two long years. He had honed his youthful body until it was firm, unyielding. There would be no accidents today. There would be no crashes. There would be no sprains. The triangular muscles that connected to his spine—his supercoracoidei—were still short, but they were strong now. They would not fail him. His wings recoiled effortlessly now on the Earth. In the sky….well, there was only one way to find out.

All the while he thought silently to himself, the winds around Yue Reed were continuing to blow against him. They flew up from behind, swirling around him. His feathers stood erect with anticipation as the gales teased at them. Teased. But that was all. They would not support him. No. Not yet. He had to keep waiting. The right headwind would come…

He couldn't afford to be rash this time.

But all the while he was waiting, the world around him was becoming more aware of his presence. He could feel something change in the atmosphere. The storm, for a split second, nearly hesitated. Yue's wing's twitched, but then returned to their parallel again. No, the storm was still raging. That wasn't the opportunity he was looking for. Nature was pausing, regarding him with curiosity, but she was not yielding to him. Not yet.

But the weather was not the only thing that had noticed him—that had noticed this insane suicide mission in which the young sorcerer was engaging himself. All around, he could feel the spirits of the natural world begin to whisper. They were worried. He could sense it. They knew what he was up to. He could almost hear Mirror's soft, crystalline voice pierce through his mind, though she was only in her card form. Screaming. Calling out to him. Across one of his senses, which his brother called 'telepathy'.

'Yue… Yue, are you mad!? Have you gone completely mental!?'

The boy allowed himself a single smirk at the thought. He knew not if the words were real or his own characterization of the girl—the girl who had stood by him on so many flight attempts. Both the successful and…otherwise. But then again, it didn't really matter. Reality or fantasy, nothing was going to stop him now. Mad? Well, perhaps he was a bit mad. But that was a truth he had resigned himself to long ago.

He was not a dry scholar like Clow. Nor was he a thoughtless warrior like Cerberus. No, he was the manifestation of Luna's light on Earth—and he had to obey the harsh standards of his heart! Such was the destiny of the lunar pole—it was written in the natal chart of every child who had ever been born.* The heart. The emotional center. It was inevitable… he could be no other way.

Once more, he felt the storm pause—and now the chaotic gales truly did still. But this time he knew why. He could no longer feel the intense fire of his master's attacks high on the roof above him. No longer could he see the faint flashes of orange pierce through his eyelids. A relative silence was suddenly spreading across the battleground. A hush. A hush through which only the pitter-patter of rain and the light moan of the breeze resounded. Clearly, there was a pause in the fight. Seeing without seeing, Yue knew immediately that both opponents were suddenly no longer focused upon each other, but upon himself. Upon the insignificant little blond boy sinking slowly into the mud. The mage nearly smirked at the thought—the irony! Even from their great distance, he could feel Clow's eyes boring down into him. And so too he could feel the storm, watching him with curiosity through whatever metaphorical means it pleased.

But its hesitation was his ticket in.

A strong headwind rushed over the drenched warlock, streaming through each of his feathers in succession. Now. This was the one. Now! As he snapped his wings high above his head, as he drew in as much breath as he could muster and held it like a lifeline…he heard Clow's voice echo in the distance. At first, the sound was only in his mind. Whispers. Like Mirror.

"Yue! Yue, what are you doing!?"

But as the young mage raised his feathers high, as he paused them at their apex, preparing to take off into the night, his voice grew louder. Louder. Louder! Louder still until it was no longer in the deep recesses of his mind that the man screamed—but all around them! In the air! Through wind and rain and the distance between them, his voice resounded across the lawn like a gunshot. "Yue!" He pleaded, voice raw and hoarse, "Yue, No!"

"Clow!" the boy hissed back—neither knowing nor caring if the man could actually hear him. "Do me a favor and shut your damn gob!"

In the space of a single heartbeat, he launched off the ground, wings snapping down like a slingshot.

And the storm overhead rumbled with delight.


No, Yue! You're going to crash and die! You suck at flying! XP

Tee hee, so here's the second part! I had originally intended this part (much like my first post for this 'chapter') to continue and close out the first arc, but once again-despite the cuts I had already made that divided this finale in half!-it was clearly getting too long, and so I decided to cut the finale now into 3 parts. The next one DEFINITELY will finish out the first arc. XP I promise!

The final third should be coming soon, as I FINALLY got over the chunk that was giving me trouble for the past several months! After that one, though, I will be taking a brief break before starting on the second arc of this story. A breather should help me get my inspiration up again, and I've decided to take on a rather serious fanfiction challenge that will need my full attention for a month or two. But, in all seriousness, it should only be a matter of a month or two. I will not allow myself to leave you all hanging for so long ever again (if I can help it).

I thank all my readers for their patience and their loyalty! You lot are too good to me! If you liked it-or even if you didn't-please review so I can both know someone is still reading and better know how to serve those who are!

Notes for this chapter:

"he did not even know if there were wrappings large enough"

If it's not obvious: I love making medical metaphors with Dr Hawkins-and considering I generally hate writing OC's, this is saying something. But in this case, his POV was somewhat necessary to give us a break and change of perspective from the Clow/Yue tennis match that would otherwise have evolved. Plus, I'm sure there's no foreshadowing in my mentioning the doctor. .

"Adwin"

The name means 'artist' and apparently originates somewhere in Africa-thought it sounds terribly like a traditional English name, such as one might expect to hear from one of the knights at the round table! I thought it was a fitting nod to the heritage of both his parents, and a way they could have incorporated his mother's origins into the boy without risking him even more discrimination at the time. :3

"I saw three ravens...with a down, derry, derry, down"

If I didn't mention this last time, the lyrics are from the rather morbid old madrigal piece, The Three Ravens. It dates from a little before Rooster's setting, and would have been pretty widely known at the time. The song was meant to tie all aspects of this massive 'chapter' together, but of course they've now been split up into 3 pieces. :/ Oh well, I shall still continue to drag this metaphor out until the very end, as planned. .

"A small summon of a greater monster"

Can you tell I've taken up my DS and some good old RPGs again? This video game allusion was purposeful, if anyone was wondering. Clow is one of my characters for whom anachronisms in narration are not only allowed, they are preferred. ;) But if there's a secret or two behind that literary choice of mine...hmmm, you'll just have to think it over for yourselves.

"Water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink"

Quoted from Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere. I love associating Yue's perspective with classical literature, and this is one you might notice recurring throughout Rooster's four arcs. .

"it was written in the natal chart of every child who had ever been born"

It is true that, in astrology, the moon is considered the seat of emotions.

"unless he wanted to rely on magic to stay airborne as, he suspected, did his brother"

I've done all the proper physics calculations regarding the boys' ability to fly. Yue, one can just barely convince themselves, could be a legitimate flier without any magical aid (provided he goes light on the armor-which he does, incidentally!). Cerberus...not happening. There is no way you can get several hundred pounds of lion off the ground without help. :/