Author's Note: Damn, almost an entire month! I suppose you've noticed I've slowed down a bit. Well, that's life for you. With my job having taken its toll right until the end of October, and the fact I've returned to my drawing board, the stories have suffered slightly. But I will endeavor to get this season finished in at least two-week intervals, and hopefully as winter approaches, I will be freed from my time constraints and allowed to unreservedly indulge my hobbies (I'm also searching for a new scanner to match my new computer, so hopefully you'll see some new art near Christmas).

Author's Note 2: Question. If any of you rabid TGS fans out there know exactly how many eggs are in the Guatemalan clan rookery, or even how members were in the clan before they were destroyed, then please could you let me know (I can't find it mentioned anywhere). I need it for the next story, where it just comes up in casual conversation. I'm trying to get all the TGS facts right when I readdress them, and would hate to guess wrong.

69 - "Within The Heart, A Tainted River"

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." - Martin Luther King Jr.

Nagano forests, Japan, 1968
"Where have you gone?!" he yelled to the empty forest, a daring chase having led him into the dense foliage, the canopies above all but alive and grasping upon each other in a war for dominance. He trailed the forest floor, led by the crescent moon floating aimlessly across the star-dotted sky, and seeing the small tracks unique to his prey set into the soil. "I will find you, winged one." he called out, hoping his words would fall upon what he sought. "You cannot hide from me…"

It tracked him, seeing through glowing eyes of sapphire mist the elder human with wind-swept features of Japanese descent, his long hair streaked by steel, an evident mark of age, and bound into a tail. His scent was so strong, almost overwhelming, it served only to confuse the creature, unable to deter his young and powerful senses to the menagerie of chaotic odor and fragrances surrounding him. And in his inexperience, did he give his position away when rending a fragile branch with his spurred wing.

The longhaired man snapped his neck towards the sound, eyes searching through brush, limb and trunk, attempting to divide what gnarled shadows lay beyond, swaying branches becoming drifting specters. "I hear you." he announced clearly, seeing the shadow sweep away, the footfalls barely audible but there nonetheless. "You use the darkness to your advantage, young one, but I still will find you."

It circled around, running as fast as its legs would allow, its heart now pounding in the exhilaration of the hunt. The forests were his home, nature his companion, he became as one with the darkness and forged through the underbrush with a determined purpose. He crept to where the human had previously looked, unable to see what lurked beyond having disguised itself against the forest backdrop of looming, distorted foliage, forming clawed hands of some mythic creature. He waited until his back was turned, and chose this time to strike. "Father!!" he screamed, to both confuse his prey and confirm his victory, leaping on the human's shoulders and wrapping his arms around the elder's neck. "I got you!!"

"Ha ha, so you have, young one!" he laughed in surprise, swinging around the child suspended from his back, hearing his wings flutter excitedly. "You're getting quite skilled at this game, Shadow."

The young gargoyle dropped to the ground, and bared his fanged teeth, his features almost lost in the swaying strands of ivory falling over a jagged brow. He barely stood above the human's waist, a child of eight years possessed of flared wings and a spurred skeletal structure, and wearing a smile unburdened by the radical differences between he and his cherished caretaker. "Can we play again, father?" he chirped, his tail excitedly stamping the loose forest soil.

The human raised his chin, stroking the jutted feature thoughtfully. "I suppose so. But this time, my son," he kneeled, and placed a hand to the child's shoulder, bursting with razor bone, "please don't jump on me. You're getting quite heavy. You're not just an egg anymore…"


Nagano forests, now…
Her eyes were as if fire upon his dark flesh, searching, watching as every muscle moved in unison as he breathed through clenched teeth, snorting each violent rush of air through his nostrils. She curled around the room, the lower portion of her body forming a trail of forming mist the color of oblivion, and possessed by the haunting scent of forest bloom and the acerbic tang of a charged atmosphere, as if tasting the dark clouds of thunder and lightning. She roamed her eyes to Shadow's form, the ninja's fury rising in his throat to touch the roof of his mouth, ignited by her silent, dissecting gaze and lack of explanation to her presence here. "…magnificent…" she at last whispered, in a hollow voice that defied her existence as reality, cold and echoing, as the shadow moved in closer to catch a better look at her prize. "…I knew you would return…you have become so much…bigger, than I remember…"

"Explain yourself, yasha." Shadow warned, his grated rasp severe of tone and intent. "And your presence here in this village."

Her form enlarged, pulsated, as if mimicking the beating of an absent heart. Her features were womanly, austere yet edged with a demonic beauty, seductive. "…he speaks with authority…even I does he not fear…" she whispered. "…he is a warrior forged…"

"You still haven't answered my question." he snarled, growing fatigued in her constant evasion of the matter at hand. He slowly edged his way back, pulling Iliana with him in his languid path towards safety, the detective sealed within his closed wings. "Are you responsible for the damage here? The death?!"

She seemed to pause for breath, but none came, even in the bitter weather of an early autumn chill. "…he smells of human though…of fragile flesh, of iron and industrial toxins…" It was if she was speaking to her horde, and enjoying every single, subtle burst of anger shown unconsciously by the ninja. "…he has been tainted…and needs cleansing…"

His eyes flickered in sapphire, washing upon each of the shadows given the breath of life by their master, the demon ninja and the decaying legion forever shifting their forms. He was being slowly and calculatingly surrounded, and even his only exit had been skillfully blocked. He pressed his face deeper into Iliana's lush mane of silken fire, revealing his wary eyes dodging between hovering specters. He inhaled deeply her scent, an aroma of apprehension taken form in perfume and honeyed perspiration. She smelled of fear.

Her heart fluttered, heaving her chest and forcing the sultry breath as a visible mist into the air. "Shadow?" she whispered, seeing the army creep ever closer. "What the hell do we do now?"

He stalled, and matched his eyes to the demon's own searing gaze. "We have to leave. And thus, we have to fight our way out."

"…you are welcome to try…" she challenged him, the ninja, the warrior brimming with delicious power she could nearly taste. "…please…bring forth your skills, ninja, and show me what you have learned…"


Ishimura, 1996
She followed the darkened corridors, passing by suspended armaments once used by the ancient samurai of legend, to defend this hallowed place from invaders, and to keep what fragile peace had existed for hundreds of years. A brisk walk through her home since but a hatchling, her stride light and somewhat hurried in purpose, she followed his wafting scent of male musk and flowered silk garment, leading the lavender-hued female to the temple's eating area. Abandoned and sparsely lit at such a late hour, a few burning candles bobbed at her arrival through the arched doorway, even the softest gust dancing the flame nearly drowned in collected pools of wax, and sending haunted shadows scurried across the walls.

And she found him there at the farthest table, his back turned to her, perhaps oblivious to her presence when absorbed wholly in the tasking duties of a clan leader that always seemed to occupy his time. Hands placed demurely behind her back, she approached without a sound, her footfalls disguised as but a delicate trace of the evening breeze across the wooden floor. "Kai?" she whispered, peering over his shoulder to look upon hand-written scrolls scattered across the table's surface.

He turned slightly to discern who had disturbed him, and smiled at the sight, welcomed the striking beauty softened by the candlelight. "Oh…Sora. Pleasant evening."

She moved closer, suppressing the urge to sweep her talons across his broad, muscled shoulder, and hesitantly replaced her hand to her side. "You seem…contemplative." she mused, having noticed his changed demeanor since the departure of the Wyvern clan. "Ever since Goliath and his clan left…"

"I was just…thinking, Sora." said the large gargoyle submissively, returning to his work, as if attempting to completely immerse himself and removing the one distraction meant to strike viciously at his soul. "About another clan found, and more around this world."

"But there is something else." she questioned his indecisive tone, wrought with a lingering emotion, that of a question left unanswered and a hope for the future left unfulfilled.

"Goliath and Elisa." he answered quickly to Sora's demand, cursing what ability she retained to always drag out any information he kept secured behind a guarded exterior. "They seemed…very close, even for the best of friends."

"Do you think it's possible, Kai? Love between a human and gargoyle?"

"I truly don't know. But love…" he paused, when the drifting winds from the open window forced Sora's scent to his nose, nearly toppling the greatest of warriors in all of Ishimura. "Is more powerful than anything we could ever imagine."

"And can strike without warning when…least expected." she added coyly, hoping even her tone of voice would relay the intended message.

And unfortunately it did, as Kai stifled his smile immediately, and turned away, gravely silent and clenching his talons into the soft wood of the table, the lingering pause left between them uncomfortable even to him.

Sora too felt his uneasiness, but remained unaware to what plagued him, to what suffered his wings into a trembling mass of olive-colored flesh. "I was wondering if…you would like to walk with me in the gardens." she then asked of him, revealing her true intent. "There is a full moon tonight, it is rather lovely."

Kai dropped his massive shoulders, and pursed his lips, unbelieved he could even force the courage to answer. "I…I am sorry, Sora. I cannot." he said, effectively turning down her offer. "I am busy." he then added, brusque, unintentionally cruel even.

She near choked upon her taken breath when hearing Kai's unexpected refusal, and bowed her head in defeat. "Oh…I see…"

He hoped she would have brushed off his rejection as more tasks to be completed, but a frail excuse he knew he had fabricated, and perhaps a fragile heart he had torn in two perfect halves. "You should ask Yama."

She shuddered at the thought. "But Yama isn't whom I wished to spend my time with…" she whispered almost spitefully, out of earshot of Kai. And desperately, she pushed back her budding tears when retreating, seeing no point in continuing against his enduring and stubborn resistance of anything ever growing deeper than that of friendship between them. "I'll go alone then. Good evening, Kai."

"Good evening, Sora." he whispered, turning only to see the female leave quickly and dejectedly, witness to the trailing lines cascade down her cheeks as she stole away into the darkness. "I am sorry."


Ishimura, now…
Kai had struggled to gain his lost breath, the sheer disbelief having placed upon his heart a constricting hand, and compressing his entire chest to where he could not readily speak, let alone draw a wheezed gasp. He and Yama both allowed the intruder their eyes of dimmed charcoal, in seeing a lost clan member come back to life. "Sora…"

"This is a disgusting trick! Nothing more!!" an enraged Yama nearly screamed towards the lavender female. "Sora is three years passed! Dust! And whoever you are defile her memory!!"

Even through Yama's fevered ranting, Kai continued filling his eyes with a form once embraced by the moonlight and engraved within his fondest memories. Blushed lips turned downwards into an emotionless sneer, almond-shaped eyes filled with the vacuous mists that surrounded her body, she was yet as untouched and flawless as the day she had perished within the walls of the ancient castle ruins. "Sora…" he gasped, unable to trust in his own vision. "How…h-how did you survive?"

"You cannot believe this…imposter is Sora!" Yama screeched, surprised in Kai's apparent gullibility.

"How is irrelevant!" Sora cut through, her voice jagged, piercing. "It is only important that I HAVE survived!" She seemed angry at the question brought forth, her shoulders heaving, bobbing the spears held eager in her supple fingers. "Beneath the rubble of a castle, and covered in my own acidic blood…abandoned by my clan," her eyes matched Kai's mournful gaze, "and the man I cared for more than anything."

He inhaled a painful breath, as if a thousand knives tearing apart tenuous flesh, and Kai gasped his weakened response, "Sora, I thought you had died…I thought I had lost you…" He moved closer to gain a better vantage, to truly discern whether she had come back to him.

And yet, she held her place determinedly, even as Kai stepped forwards to meet her. "Hold." she then warned, wanting not this to approach any further, lest he spark what darkness now bred within her. She speared her sai to either side, a menacing stance provoked by Kai's steadied pace towards her. "Don't, Kai, unless you wish to taste my steel."

"You would never harm me, Sora." the leader whispered softly, sliding his right foot ever closer. "We are clan mates…friends…"

"Not any longer." Her voice once a seducing melody to the male members, now embittered and controlled, every word seethed through trembling lips.

"Why do you harbor such anger towards me?"

"You left me to die!!" she screeched, showing through her fury the resentment of being abandoned. "Left me to rot…until they found me…"

"Who, Sora?" Kai asked, still making his way towards her, keeping the dialogue alive both to inquire how she had come back to him, and to perhaps distract her from his silent approach. "Who found you?"

She fought to hold in such vital information, something clutched to her soul almost preventing her from allowing Kai's curiosity and compassion nourishment. "The minions…" she whispered, her voice at last showing a fragment of her true self, her eyes betraying the darkness. "Warriors…born of shadows…they took me and…and…"

Kai edged closer, coming arm's length from the woman lost so long ago, to see the chaos waging a war within her haunted gaze. "What? What did they do to you?"

Sora's trembling hand lifted lethargically, to rest in her sight, the bindings formed from purest darkness still writhing upon her forearm. "They t-took me to a dark place…forests…and a woman…s-she…she turned me…filled me with darkness…"

Kai reached out for her, and touched lightly upon lavender flesh where the shadows left uncovered, an odd mixture of frigid cold and welcome warmth. For an instant, she allowed him the contact he so treasured, for a brief moment she accepted his hand placed to her cheek, the female delving into Kai's softened skin. "You can fight what these yasha did to you." he whispered, feeling a lone, iced tear spill from her tired eyes. "I will help you."

"I must…obey her…she's in my mind…" she said, a semi-lucid dementia afflicting her speech and settling upon her features, the war within taking its toll. "She's in what's left of my soul."

"Then fight her. Fight this person who causes you pain."


"Fight her!"

She clasped both hands to each side of her head, straining against two opposing sides, and that of the lasting vestiges of her spirit. "…no…"


"NO!!!" she screamed, and brushed his embrace away, raising her sai and savagely tearing into his skin with sharpened steel, painting a canvas of air with the spatter of blood. Kai felt the thick, scarlet fluid rush forth from the gash just above his eye and pour down his face, his brow split open from cheek to spur. He staggered back as Sora unleashed into his chest her fists, and struck fatally true, nearly collapsing his lungs with her great gargoyle strength reinforced by the consuming shadows slithering upon her form. "I am…of Kokuei's legion!" she reasserted, her will taken once more as she spouted the perverted indoctrination fed into her mind when transformed, the glimmer in her eyes dampened by the darkness. "I am…one of her chosen…I must perform what she has asked of me…"

"And what would that be?" Yama scoffed, helping his leader to his feet, though somewhat unimpressed by Kai's handling of this entire situation.

"I will judge who will be fortunate enough to join Kokuei from this clan. You defeat me, you are worthy. You lose…you die."

Yama stood to confront her, unmoved by what he deemed mere parlor tricks, and an enemy spoken of so highly and yet unseen. "Kai is convinced you are our lost sister, but I am not so easily deceived." he hissed, his lips curled back, his posture that of an animal prepared for the kill. "You may look, act, and even sound like Sora, but you are just an empty shell without a soul, and undeserving of any mercy."

"Now I know why I despised you so much…" Sora replied, taking solace in her sai, clenching her talons into the leather-wrapped handles. "You're an uncaring bastard."

She had garnered a vicious smile from the Japanese warrior, preparing his form for battle. "I know."


Nagano forests, 1984
"Focus, Shadow. Clear your mind of any distraction." A gentle summons commanded every action of the dark-skinned youth, manipulating his student and even the most subtle of his movement through cautioned words and a practiced voice, betraying his true age and projecting clearly throughout the woodland clearing. "Become as water. Yielding, yet impassable."

He strained, exerting power through steeled tendons and sinew molded from years of training, holding aloft his young body in perfect parallel to the ground. The talons of his right hand nearly tore into the granite boulder as he held himself completely upside down, with barely a shudder passing down throughout the entire length of his frame. An exercise in endurance and strength, the young gargoyle remained motionless, even as the elder human circled him unpromisingly, threatening lethal force to educate him.

"Are you ready?"

He opened his eyes, a deep chestnut brown, and peered towards his caretaker, with his receding hair tied back into a braid of sterling gray. A long coat, leggings and sandals, a simple garb for a simple man having abandoned any and all civilization, and giving himself completely to nature. "Yes." came a growl, afflicted by youth, and traced with an animalistic brogue.

"Then defend yourself." A candid warning, as he stalked around the upsided teenager, flashing a long bostaff and entwining the wood made weapon between his fingers. It became a blur in skilled hands, a perfect circle, the charged wind a tempest against the billowing sails of the gargoyle's wings. He swung at Shadow's side, through easily blocked by his free hand. Then at his chest, his neck and waist, each blow effortlessly shrugged away, the gargoyle's form rigid and as unwavering as ancient oak. But he then glanced the staff against his charge's inner shoulder, where he couldn't reach, eliciting a suppressed growl of pain. "You allowed your defenses to be easily breached." he scolded.

"I cannot protect myself properly in such a situation, grandfather." Shadow whined, annoyed by this exercise, his patience frayed by the rush of blood to his head and growing quite thin. "I have only one hand available."

"A true ninja will utilize everything at his disposal. And you have more appendages, my son, than a human." He battered his staff fiercely against Shadow's right wing, striking the sensitive membrane and streaking a band of fire throughout his nervous system, an ache forming in the gargoyle's broad, spurred shoulder. "It's time to use them as well." He continued lashing out where Shadow could not readily reach, each strike more powerful, and painful than the last.

Shadow twisted and contorted, using his free hand to fend off the staff and struggling for his balance, his legs held high and wavering just barely back and forth. His grandfather slipped around behind, and struck between his wings, nearly toppling the youth, but he remained firm.

"Use what you have been gifted with!" He struck again, the deafening crack of wood nearly splitting open Shadow's thick hide, the gargoyle driven to near madness and releasing a rabid growl from the base of his throat. "Hear me, Shadow! Sense my movements upon the grass, my clothes in the wind, my breath upon the air! Use not your eyes, but your greatest assets."

Shadow relented to his grandfather's advice, closing his eyes, and forcing the sight of his grandfather away, a dangerous tactic perhaps. He allowed the ethereal whispers suspended in the evening winds to brush upon his ears, dancing buoyantly and granting him perfect clarity to his grandfather's whereabouts. A snap of the staff to his right, rending the still air, and instinctively the gargoyle reached out to block the wand screaming towards his exposed midsection.

The elder human whirled around to hurriedly attack the other side, yet found his charge turning slightly to follow him, as if drawn by his scent and mindfully concealing his exposed side. He smiled in his triumph, a few lines creased into his aged skin, having learned this creature welcomed into his solitary life a valuable lesson. "Good. Recognize my scent, what sets me apart from your environment." he whispered, unleashing a savage thrust only to be swept away by a dark, taloned hand. "Your senses are heightened beyond any animal I know of. Use that to your advantage. Defend yourself." Slight of foot and stealth, a quick pace around the gargoyle's steady form, he moved with the grace of a fox, and masked his presence, disguised any sound. He tapped the ground on either side of him, trying to confuse Shadow's senses. "But sometimes," he warned, "you can't always trust even your own senses." His thinned eyes narrowed in on Shadow's one fatal lapse in judgment, a relaxed stance, that of dropping his guard to a loved one when heeding his advice. The elder man rolled behind him and let loose the staff towards his back, only to be thwarted by a long, slender tail, wrapping around the wooden bludgeon and wrenching it from his hands. He would not so easily let go, and struggled against Shadow's grip, only to end up being relieved of his weapon and thrown over into the soft embrace of the grass.

Shadow tore open his eyes, and swiftly flipped down to aid his fallen grandfather. "Are you all right?"

"Better than all right, my son." he answered to the gargoyle, placing a weathered hand upon the thick leather hide of his charge, proud in Shadow's growing abilities. "You have done well. Your tail is almost fully prehensile, it will serve as yet another arm." he added, scraping the earthen debris from his silk coat. "And how did you know I was about to attack?"

"I…felt you with my wings." the teenager explained, flaring his murky sails, his grandfather's praise welcomed and delivered to his heart. "Your movements caused tremors in the membranes, and as you moved closer, the tremors grew stronger."

He nodded. "Good. With every night, you master yet another skill. But you still have much to learn."

"The final lesson of the Black Dragon." Shadow quickly agreed, at his grandfather's reluctance, a technique yet untaught and barely even touched upon in casual or even sincere conversation. "To harness your chi, and become as strong and as fast as the wind."

"You are too young." he quickly swayed the gargoyle's want for such a mastery over his inner strength, and started a brisk walk towards their home.

"Why do you fear teaching me this?" Shadow called after him, angered in his grandfather's reluctance, seeming as if he did not hold even enough trust for his own son. "I have come so far…"

"You are barely a child!" he snapped, turning back to the gargoyle, cowing his adopted charge with but a raised voice. "And have not come far enough to master what you cannot possibly comprehend!" His temper had flared, and thus he calmed his heart and damned his words when seeing the winged creature lift his chin and lower his brow challengingly. "Shadow…" he breathed with composure. "I know you wish to ultimately complete your training. I know you wish to fill the emptiness within your soul with something besides haunting visions and forced isolation. But the Black Dragon is not something to be given freely. Only I will decide when you are truly ready."

Shadow yielded, if not grudgingly, to his father. "And how will you know that?" he inquired. "How do you know me so very well?"

"Because…I once changed your diapers, my son." he joked, as Shadow grimaced.


Nagano forests, now…
He pushed Iliana away in frantic speed, allowing the human safety as came the shadowed horde in one fell swoop, enveloping the winged ninja to overwhelm him with their sheer number. Shadow ripped around with talons bared, and slashed away at the first to cross his hide with the repellent touch of decay. He tore through the demon's face, literally exploding the decrepit flesh and relieving it of its head in a cloud of putrid vapor. His wings trembled, and he spun around to catch a form trying its luck upon his unguarded back, but rewarded in its deceitfulness was Shadow's arm being punched clean through the midsection and shattering the spinal cord.

The demons, those whose features were left uncovered, wore expressions of anger and pain, of eternal damnation at the hands of their new master having stolen their physical forms for her own twisted pleasure. They herded themselves towards him, and fought with a single, destructive command, take down the dark one, and give what little life remained in their decrepit forms for their conqueror.

"This is your greatest weapon?!" Shadow but belittled, impressed by their lightning ferocity, yet surprised by their fragility of flesh. "Decaying corpses with the fighting ability of children?! Your puppets are worthless!!"

"…they were of the best warriors in the land…" retorted the woman almost lost in the darkness of night. "…many years ago…" She watched as Shadow tore through the first wave of the dead, abandoned husks of human and gargoyle alike grasping upon his exposed skin with unwavering directive and a fevered resolve. "…it seems their skills sometimes fade after death…leaving me only half of what they were…"

Shadow clawed his way through, rending the very fabric of darkness, and resorting to killing blows to stop enemies that carried on the fight even after losing pieces of their very selves. Even when he shredded a warrior in two, it endured with a driven command to stop the winged ninja with every available limb. Hands clawed at him, limiting his movement as disembodied limbs snagged every available crevasse and jagged spur.

"…but these are merely fodder…after feeding upon their souls…they are now used simply to prove the skills of my shinobi…" She could now detect the tang of heated blood upon the air, the scent faint but there like a suspended mist, a summer rain shower, Shadow's defenses being breached with every cadaver thrown against him. "…and to slowly expend your energy…"

"Ahem." A quiet whisper forced its way to her ears, followed by a mechanism cocking into place. A thin stream of scarlet drifted across the room and eventually settled upon the forehead of the dead warrior now grappling with Shadow, the chaotic mass of bodies beginning to take its toll. "Expend this." Iliana aimed and pulled the trigger of her magnum .45, unleashing a single shaped bullet as if lightning given free rein to charge forth from the clouds. In a split-second spray of gunpowder, it traveled the entire length of the room before even the deafening sound could catch its streaked tail of copper fire. It split perfectly the dead skin and nearly tore the targeted cadaver's head off, with Shadow turning away to block the scattered fragments from spattering upon his features.

The phantom focused in on the detective as she carved into the ranks with her gun, picking off the stragglers getting far too close to Shadow for her penchant. Her eyes flickered eerily, as if anger leaked through the emotionless façade, and even a bare hint of jealousy. "…the helpless whelp…" the shadow watching from above whispered, her voice seeming to ice over when seeing the human protect what she deemed her own. "…how…interesting…"

"That's the biggest mistake all you bad guy types make…" Iliana hissed, reloading the chamber. "Underestimating the woman. And who ever said I was helpless…bitch." She took aim, bit her bottom lip and fired, toppling another dead warrior, and forcing a smirk upon Shadow's lips. She then took the opportunity to aim at something to perhaps end this fight, and settled her magnum's laser on what seemed the shadow's head, directly between her eyes. "Call off your boys, or I make two of you."

The darkness opened up to bared teeth in a rousing laughter, as the specter filled the room with a blaring scream, perhaps her version of enduring audacity. "…as you wish…" She waved her hand, and the dead men obeyed her very thoughts, releasing from Shadow and skulking away back into the misted depths of the building, leaving only a pile of shredded bodies around the ninja's feet.

"Now answer the man's question. Are you responsible for the destruction here?"

She surveyed the heavy damage wrought in this massive chamber, acting quite indifferent by what devastation lay before her, and slowly reached down to the abandoned body found when Iliana pulled away the last board. She wrapped her tendrils around the fragile carcass, and raised it to her chest as if a newborn babe ravenous for nourishment. "…I offered them power…strength beyond imagining…in exchange for one simple gift…" She ran her hands delicately down the gargoyle's skull, her taloned fingers gracing decaying flesh and the lasting threads of putrefying hair, and her eyes ignited with an erotic pleasure in such desolation of spirit, as if aroused by death. "…someone who would take his place beside me…and help to cover this world in darkness…" But suddenly, did her fingers extend around the skull, and completely crush the fragile bone structure, resulting in a spray of powdered marrow, a yellow dust abound with the raw smell of death. "…they refused…"

"And that gives you the right to destroy them?!!" Shadow howled, his entire structure heaving, as if his form could not contain what fury raced through his veins, and boiled his blood. His hand brushed against the doll's ragged hair and hides, still attached securely within his belt. "To kill innocent children?"

"…they refused…and such was their punishment in defiance…" She opened her hands, and allowed the skeleton to crumble and pour to the ground, shattering upon impact and sending a sudden chill up Iliana's spine.

"What are you?" she asked.

"…I am the collective hatred…the malevolence of all human and gargoyle kind…given shape and form and function…"

"And why here?"

"…this village was made of some of the finest gargoyle warriors in all of Japan…and their leader and his mate were destined to produce an heir unlike that any generation has ever seen…" She glanced her eyes to Shadow. "…that child…was you…"

Shadow opened his mouth, yet no sound came save for a weighted breath being scraped across his tongue. To trust this creature now spreading her misted form around the entire room was a fool's game, but it was too perfect a fit to be denied, the final piece at long last set into place. "You…killed my parents?"

"Shadow…" Iliana called to him, to break him from the disbelief holding over him like a spell.

"…a thousand threads have wound together to form what you are today…the best of breeding…the most tempered of skills…a billion possible combinations have sired you, ninja…and my patience has been at long last rewarded…"

His tolerance had been severely tested, his nerves frayed, he wanted answers, and perhaps justice. "What are you driveling about?!" But with all sentient beings, his curiosity needed to be sated.

"…you have been bred for a purpose, ninja…"

"And what would that be?!"

"…to be my consort…"

Both Shadow and Iliana froze in morbid shock, as the buxom shadow licked her lips and roamed her eyes across Shadow's heaving chest.

"…I allowed them freedom for only so long…" she explained, the mists come alive as part of her form extended their grasp, and from below her waist where limbs would dangle, only a field of pulsing darkness spread forth. "…allowed them to believe their insignificant lives were theirs to control…and eventually, the leader and his mate would produce their first egg…you…" She held aloft her own shadows as if riding a cresting wave of ocean water, slowly encircling the room and further adding to Shadow's mounting rage. "…the day your egg was lost…was a day I shall never forget…they tried to escape from their village with you…and as their punishment…I destroyed every single one of them…"

"HOW DARE YOU!!!" Shadow howled, held in place only just by Iliana's forceful hand. "Who the hell do you think you are?!!"

"…I am your destiny, heir…your future…I am Kokuei…"

She had raised herself arrogantly upon a pedestal meant to warn him of her prominence, yet unexpectedly, only garnered a mere growl from the ninja. "I have never heard of you." he sneered in a breath of hellfire.

A glimmer of transparent indignation feigned quite clearly as she played upon Shadow's anger, and hoped to plant the seeds of hatred within his light. "…I thought I would be well known…I'm surprised…your grandfather never mentioned me…"

A thrust of a dagger to the ninja's heart, piercing his closely guarded reserve like nothing had ever before. "My grandfather…knew of you?!"

"…oh yes, he was quite learned in many myths…" she cackled softly in a jest of brimming iniquity, in which only she knew the meaning. "…especially when I showed up at his front door…"


Nagano forests, 1995
He watched his black skin turn to dulled gray stone, his flesh growing white hot and cloaking the winged creature in granite colored a dark slate, and marveled at this metamorphosis made a spectacle with each morning light. He found his hands guiding over his adopted son's frozen form, a statue appearing as if to tear asunder the heavens with but his grated howl. He then traced the newly formed tattoos his son had insisted on carving into his chest, from a vision he had suffered for almost all of his entire adult life, and released a shaken breath, hoping these strangely glowing symbols were not a more powerful harbinger of silent ruin.

But Hiro Minamoto now allowed his son his rest, as he noticed through the windows of his cabin the sun's distant curve melting from the horizon, where fire burned earth and the light devoured darkness. He moved towards the exit, a peaceful, simple life led now by his morning chores as he swung open the door, and only encountered a wandering haze holding itself just beyond. "What?" Hiro gasped, even as the mists swirled and formed an almost recognizable shape, that which spurred a forced constriction upon his heart. "You…what are you doing here?!" he hissed, showing a rare expression of anger towards the intruder suspended just outside the doorway, existing in the fading shadows of the foliage extending its grasp over the cabin.

"…just checking up on my favorite pupil…" She slithered through the doorframe, swathing the elder man in her wake and nearly choking him with what formed her misted body, coiling into every available orifice in his face. She approached the statue and curled around it like a faithful pet soothing her master, roaming her hands upon Shadow's muscular edifice. "…has he been prepared?…"

"…n-no." the human stuttered irritably, coughing the darkness from his throat, and incensed that she held such dominion over him. "I refuse to show him the final lesson of the Black Dragon. Not for you…not for anyone."

"…you will teach him…" Kokuei warned, the woman shadow embracing the entire cabin interior as if her own, her shadows extending to every wall and spilling from the windows. "…or I will kill you, and every single human in the nearby village…"

Hiro settled his hands into the pockets of his silken frock, hearing the unchanged threat holding both his soul and his son at Kokuei's disposal. "You appear to me when Shadow is but a child, force me to continue his training, and now you wish me to teach him possibly the most dangerous technique known to man and simply hand him over to you?"

"…one gargoyle…for an entire city?…" Kokuei then turned her attention back to the human purposely holding his position near his son, though dreading the frigid encirclement of her mists. "…a choice, human…one life…for seven thousand…"

"You will not have him, Kokuei." Hiro forewarned her, his tone rasped, his chest thrust with flame and courage. "He is of the light, and cannot be swayed by your manipulation." He stalked forwards, fixating his almond eyes on Kokuei's scarlet gaze. "He is too strong to be seduced by a creature like you, his soul is incorruptible."

"…we shall see…" she hissed, welcoming the challenge, and hoping her prize had molded his fiery sprit after his caretaker.

"If I have to, I will ensure Shadow never learns of his heritage, his true origins and race, his home you destroyed. I will make certain he lives free of your dark influence."

"…a song as old as time, human…" Kokuei whispered, nudging her cheek to Shadow's own, and feeling the odd sensation of warmth flowing through his statue. "…you cannot protect him for long…" She suddenly snapped out her hands and encircled Hiro's throat, lifting the human from his feet and playing his body as if a simple toy. "…teach him…empower him…or seven thousand innocents shall taste eternal darkness…"

"He'll…resist you…" Hiro sputtered, as the clawed hand contracted around his esophagus, stealing the breath of life from his lungs. "…he'll…destroy you…"

"…he'll be mine for all of forever and beyond…" She wrenched him close, his nerves almost numbed, paralyzed in such close proximity to her misted tendrils. "…teach him…make him one with the darkness…make him one with me…"

Her grip grew stronger, and it was all Hiro could do to keep conscious, and obey her commands, lest she take his very life and leave Shadow without his guidance and protection. "…a-as…you wish…" Kokuei let him drop to the floor, and backed from the room as the sun rose higher above the distant sloping hills, as if fearful of the growing light. Hiro stroked a soothing hand around his throat, bruised in the shape of a malformed hand, and set eyes to the fading mists, Kokuei's final vestige her searing glare and disfigured smile before she completely disappeared. He looked up to Shadow, engulfed now in the morning glow, and committed himself to his only choice.


Nagano forests, now…
"…you were born for one purpose…to be one with me…"

Shadow lowered his eyes, unwilling to have her damnably maddening smile be associated with the memory of his grandfather, a cherished past revealed to have a black streak. "No…it's…it's not true…"

"…you are my property, shinobi…we will join in spirit for all of time…and remake this world in our image…"

The ninja let loose his head, perhaps already defeated without her landing a single blow upon his frame.

"…once you fully embrace the Black Dragon…your soul will truly be mine…" She rose up, and spread her demon wings, contained with the screams of a thousand taken souls, where the imprisoned victims' faces pressed against the pliable mist, and implored to him, the dark warrior, to free them from their damnation. "…now show me, ninja, your true power…"

"Never." Shadow hissed. "You will not possess me."

"…show me the Black Dragon…fill your body with the sum of your anger and rage…"

"I am going to kill you, oni." the ninja rasped, his eyes erupting in sapphire.

"…you cannot kill…what has already been to the ends of the afterlife and back…I am death incarnate…I feed on the final moments of life…just as I fed on your clan…" She raised her vanquished warriors like the puppets attached to strings upon the tips of her talons, and heralded one particular corpse with a peculiar interest, parading disgustingly the body in front of Shadow's thinned eyes, rimmed with the beginnings of tears. "…do you not recognize your defeated prey?…" she cooed, and with a fluttered movement of her fingers, opened the wings of the cadaver ever slowly, tattered sails that matched Shadow's in perfect detail. "…you have been destroying members of your own clan…your own family…"

Shadow watched the corpse open its expressionless eyes, devoid of the spark of life, the color of the evening sky now a milky white. It was female, with identical shoulder spurs and brow ridges now wrapped in chalky, decaying skin nearly eaten away by forest scavengers. He nearly retched in the gruesome discovery, his stomach churned with emotion. "No…"

"…say hello…to your mother…"


Ishimura, now…
He swung around, only to miss completely, her speed unimaginable and her agility besting even his blows as swift as the evening wind. Yama was growing frustrated in this battle against a woman whose skills had never matched to his own, until now. Sora whirled around and glanced her closed fist against Yama's face, the sinewy gargoyle stunned and his features contorting with the pain erupting through his cheek. She thrust both her hands into his chest, winding him and pushing him against the wall.

Yama paused to catch his breath, and stared with renewed interest in this woman, her fighting ability increased tenfold. Their solitary war had waged in an ever-continuing dance, moving far from the previous room and leaving the wounded Kai far beyond their reach, and now, after twenty minutes of unceasing battle, Yama at last found the chance to rest. "Perhaps you truly are Sora after all." he whispered with a smile. "Though better trained, you still fight with her…spunk."

She never allowed his vindictive jest the added fuel of her retort, simply stalking forwards with sai speared to either side, her eyes bleached of color and sensation.

"You would have made a good mate."

"You wanted nothing but a token bride," Sora at last replied, breaking her maddening silence, "to show off to the others a pretty, silent and submissive mate." The shadows winding around her frame reacted to her swelling anger, becoming restless, trying as if to leap from her skin.

"I cared for you." Yama reaffirmed, his voice betraying the hostile demeanor.

"You cared for your own status." She blocked his thrust and jabbed the sai into his midsection, piercing the skin and lodging the steel spear into his most vital of organs. Yama shuddered, and felt even the sai curling his intestine and shredding fragile membrane walls within his body. "You cared for me as much as Kai did…" She toppled him, carving the sai through his stomach and causing the Ishimuran to scream in pain and fall helplessly to the floor. "As a young girl…whose foolish dreams could never be fulfilled." She raised her sai above Yama's blood-soaked body, and struck.


"Hold still, Kai. This is a nasty wound." Riko murmured, sewing his skin back together even as the larger gargoyle struggled against her ministrations, wanting back into the fray, desperate to release Sora from her bind.

"I am fine!" he growled, unaware of the stitches being hemmed into his very skin, but held firm by Brooklyn and Takashi, using the last reserves of their strength to hold the massive leader before his second. "This is unnecessary! Let me be!"

"Hold still, you stubborn fool." Riko snapped, finishing the last stitch.

"Why is Sora doing this, Kai-sama?" Sakura whispered, healing from her brutal assault less than an hour ago.

"She is being manipulated, by some unseen force…" He clenched his fist, a power flowing through skin and bone to rend brick and steel. "…that will regret ever taking her…"

"This does not sound like OUR Sora." Riko swiftly battled Kai's assurance this was their lost clan member, acting the true role of second, another voice to dispute that of her leader. "She would never attack us like this…never."

"Did you not see those shadows enveloping her body as if they controlled her?!" Kai hissed, pushing her away and standing to his full, impressive height. "I almost reached her! I almost broke through the control! She is still in there…fighting the influence of these shadows…"

"How do you know? How can you be so sure?"

Kai turned to face Riko, his eyes burning with an emotion rarely seen, threatening to consume the gentle leader. "I know." He flittered his fingers, the hand that had touched to Sora's skin, an embrace not unlike that of snatching the starlight from it's nighttime perch, unfelt for three long years. And a choice he made that had continued to haunt his dreams, and place strife upon his soul. "She has been appearing for an entire year, but did nothing of any consequence, because she still remains, inside the darkness. She is fighting a war within herself, and we must help her…one way or another." Kai swept away, heading towards the room where Sora and Yama had chased each other, as he had moments ago watched powerlessly, them disappear from his blood-hazed sight.

Riko followed, as did the rest of the Ishimura clan, leaving the Wyvern stragglers to look at each other and eventually trail behind, both a vacation and honeymoon interrupted. Brooklyn soon caught up to Riko, and slowed her with a braced arm. "Hey, we're all in for helping you, but how about a little background? What is it between Kai and Sora?"

Riko espied the beaked gargoyle from the corner of her eye, and pursed her thin lips. "Sora loved him." she said simply.

"And did Kai return those feelings?"

"…yes. But silently. He is a stubborn man, he felt a leader should stand alone to better serve his clan. He also felt Sora was too young, though I'm sure he used that as yet another excuse to distance himself from her."

"Unrequited love." Sata mused from behind, with a quirky smile. "But if this intruder truly is your friend, then perhaps Kai has a rare prospect indeed, that of a second chance."


Kai rushed into the room, only to see a blood-covered spear pull itself from Yama's stomach, held firmly in Sora's hand. He slowed his pace, though even the lightest of steps alerted the female to his presence. She lifted from Yama's limp body and faced him. "Sora?" he breathed, unbelieved she could resort to such brutality even under another's control. "What have you done?"

"Nothing permanent yet," she answered, as Yama fortunately roused to life and covered his wounds with a forceful hand to sway the flow of blood, the growing pool of thick scarlet beneath him reflecting ominously the dancing firelight, "for it seems I did not cut deep enough." A dry pronouncement, as she wiped the fluids from her sai with her tunic, replacing crimson for sterling steel. "Both him, and you."

Kai mindfully caressed the stitches, straining to keep his severed skin together until the light of dawn still hours away. "You don't mean that." he whispered.

"Yes, I do. I am of Kokuei. And Yama frankly, was not worthy." She was speaking with her voice, but her chosen words were carefully directed. "Which was not hard to deduce."

"Then why have you not killed him?"

"You interrupted me. Allow me another few seconds."

Her tone chilled his blood, sensing the woman he had reached was buried once more, beneath the layers of shadow and all-consuming oblivion. "It seems I have awakened your master to your struggle within. You are once again the puppet." Kai stated, walking slowly towards her, his tread constant and without hesitation, while running through his mind a grisly alternative. "You pose a bigger threat than I ever thought possible, and as such, leave me no choice."

Sora took up a defensive position as Kai continued his suicidal path directly towards her, even the mindless pawn wary of the leader, betrayed by her all too human heart.

"If I cannot bring you back, Sora-chan, I will at least free your soul from this force the only way I know how…"

"And…what is that?"

He stood a foot from her, the woman trembling with her eyes opened ever wide. In his presence, she was as different as day to night, for gone was the emotionless automation, now replaced with the frightened woman fighting a war for her soul. "Honorable death." he then whispered, causing a violent shudder through his opponent. "You fear dying," he presumed, noticing the sudden change in her posture, "don't you?"

"The minions of Kokuei fear nothing." she covered, sliding a foot back to possibly prepare an escape.

Kai moved closer, and she skipped away. "Then where is your bravado? Your constant boasting for this force that you have embraced?" He herded the woman into a far corner, Sora either unwilling or unable to strike back at him with his sudden and bold change in tactic, that to play the aggressor against an unstable adversary. "You said you were going to kill me. Then do so. Please this Kokuei. Destroy this entire clan, kill the hatchlings and elders, run your sai through each and every one of your family!" He lunged on her with an impulsive advance, causing Sora to back forcefully into the wall, her sai held willingly just beneath her chin and her chest heaving as with her throttled breath. "How unfortunate for Kokuei that she chose such a fragile servant…" he then chided her, hoping to unleash her spirit, allow to run riot the fire of her unburdened soul. "A frail child, a weak-willed coward."

"I am stronger than you realize…" she whispered, even as his shadow bared down on her, revealing in the winged silhouette a paired platinum ember, as his eyes burned.

"Oh yes, frightening innocents, attacking in cold blood your clan…allowing your soul to be corrupted…how brave of you…"

"How dare you…you shall taste my steel, and then oblivion."

"I've savored oblivion, Sora." Kai snatched away at her swiftly, clutching his hand to her tunic, the shadows reacting to his touch as if acid. She curled her sai around the flesh of his arm, preparing to sever a misplaced limb if he would not release. But he held firm. "I've lived in darkness when losing clan and loved ones, and I will not allow it anymore." He pushed her against the wall, impacting on her lithe frame with a forced fist, exerting increasing pressure to cause her pain. "I will not allow anymore of my clan to fall prey to this force that holds you, and if it means killing you…then so be it."

She swallowed her own blood when a fist raked across her face, unexpecting of such ferocity from the oft-gentle leader, and thus overwhelming.

"You wish to concede defeat so damned easily? So be it." Kai struck her again, drawing more blood and well assuredly surprising the crowd watching from afar.

"Uhm, is provoking this woman…safe?" Todd mentioned coolly, as he stood by his wife, both pulled from their bedroom when hearing the commotion.

"No. But she reacts differently to Kai, and he knows that." Riko surmised, watching Kai hold Sora in an embrace of fear. "He is using it to his advantage. He must reach through what holds her...even if it means bringing forth the true rage she contains within."

"You were ready to kill me mere moments ago." Kai continued, driving a knee to her midsection and wrenching the woman over his shoulder to fall her to the ground below. "What happened to the fire this precious Kokuei granted you?"

"He is hurting her! We cannot allow this!" Sakura attempted to rush in, to aid a sister and friend once though dead against Kai's onslaught.

"No." The second swathed in ashen lavender braced her impetuous sister with an arm across her chest, and held her in place along the sidelines, though just barely. "This is Kai's decision. Let him deal with this. None of you will interfere…"

"You wish to wholly embrace the summons of darkness?" Kai continued, aiming his hand towards Sora's face. "So be it."

Yet this time, the possessor of shadows slapped away his clenched fist, blocking the coming blow and rising shakily to her feet. "I AM STRONG!!!" she screeched with all the power her lungs brought forth. "STRONGER THAN YOU OR YAMA OR ANYONE EVER REALIZED!!! AND I WILL NOT BE DEFEATED!!!"

"So Kokuei speaks at last."

"I am not Kokuei!! I am her chosen!! I am Sora of clan Ishimura!!"

The anger he had sought so hard to uncover now surfaced with a vengeance, Sora entwining her fingers between his own as she wrested against him in an impressive show of strength. "Sora died." Kai argued. "You are merely her discarded husk."

"Only because you left me!!"

"Interesting…" said Riko broodingly, rubbing her talons across her rounded chin in seeing Kai's peculiar stratagem bear fruit before her eyes. "It seems Kai has found the source of anger that this Kokuei uses to enslave her."

"I never left you, Sora." said Kai, his voice lessened in such aggression. "I thought…you had left me…"

"You thought wrong!!" She swiped at him with her sai, the sharp points just grazing past his flesh, and Kai dodged from the path of her flailing hands. A dance arose between two skilled fighters, between limb and whirling steel and a blurred touch as if lightning crossing the other's skin. Sora fought imbued with anger, and with such unbridled viciousness the line between the young gargoyle and the possessed demon became obscured. Tears streamed down her face, her emotions frayed, the shadowed tendrils covering her skin ill tempered and lashing out at Kai when close. "Hours, days, I had no idea how much time passed as I lay trapped underneath the rubble! Hoping I would see the stars at least once more…"

"We searched for you…I searched for you, but found nothing."

"…he lies…" Sora heeded the voice spilling into her thoughts, wiping away her identity and spurring her savage want for nothing less than total conquest in their combat. "Lies!!" she screamed, thrusting forwards and catching the silk of his kimono, tearing remnants of the steel-threaded cloth away.

"Fabricated by whomever stole you away from us."

"You lie!"

"And you concede to a false truth. The Sora I knew would never allow herself to be duped in such a way."

The sai swiped just past his cheek, awarded was his dispute with Sora's frighteningly quick expertise. "The Sora you knew is no more. That girl is no more."

"Perhaps." Kai blocked the coming sai and allowed it to plunge into his forearm, effectively disarming her of one of the spears. "I truly hope not, for Bushido demands you die an honorable death in order to release Sora's soul."

"I will not perish tonight." But using her momentum when pushing against his larger body, and snaked her tail behind his legs, and toppled him from his lofty perch. She fell on top of him, and raised her sai up against the bottom of his chin. "I am the chosen. I am strong, and I shall prove it with your death."

"And then what?" Kai struggled, the weapon trailing his flesh and smoothing over his major arteries, testing his limits and patience. "Kill the rest of our clan?"

"If need be."

"Then what can I possibly do to sway your allegiance?"

"Admit to her, you stubborn fool," Riko spilled out unintentionally, hoping Kai would save his own life by releasing what he held inside of himself for so very long, "your true feelings."

"Don't bother, Riko." hissed Sora, picking up on her sister's distant whisper as she pushed the sai against the pliant, olive flesh of his neck, the would be lovers face to face and clashing their dark eyes, where the searing heat from their breath fused. "He will not have the chance…"


Ishimura, 1999, April 29th…
"Perhaps now is your chance, Kai."

"What?" Kai looked up and through the gathered warriors, as Riko entered into the weapons room, where the clan prepared themselves for a coming war of sorcery and brother's blood holding the entire globe in its clutch. "What do you mean, Riko-chan?"

She leaned in closer, her voice subdued to keep from her clan the topic of conversation. "We all know the grim reality of this battle, and there is a very real chance not all of us…will come home. And to conceal from Sora the truth of how you feel only serves to dishonor her." She grabbed his arm, forcing his absolute attention towards her. "Tell her."

Kai's calm demeanor swerved into an annoyed grimace as he swiftly turned away from his second, striking through his belt the leather scabbard for his katana. "This is not the time, Riko." he whispered angrily.

"On the contrary," she argued, unwilling to let this go even as a pending crusade licked at every thought surfacing through her mind, "this is most likely the best time. The only time."

He moved her away from the others, mindful of their suspecting glances thrown his way. "We've been through this. I can't let personal feelings interfere with my duty to the clan. Bushido demands it."

"Damn Bushido! You have fought longer than any of us to keep our clan safe. You deserve happiness." She looked back to where Sora took possession of her weaponry, being counseled by a clan elder and imparting a last advice before they confronted the enemy still unseen. "And she can give you that happiness."

Even as Kai allowed the dark charcoal tarn inherited from a lineage past to settle upon her fair lavender, his soul screaming in torture as he continually swept away a potential life devoid of forced solitude, he resisted obstinately. "I am the leader of this clan." he whispered solemnly. "I must remain alone. I must..."

"Deny yourself love?" she countered, and Kai then dropped his reflective gaze. Riko sighed in his stubborn silence, and backed away from him in reserved respect of his position. "If you wait too long, Kai, you may lose her forever…"


Ishimura, 1999, April 30th…
"Kai!! Ryu!! Ryu!!" Sora's last words, before the walls collapsed and enveloped her slender form, and stole her away from Kai's fear-filled gaze in the thick smoke. The female disappeared completely into the fiery breath brought up from the murky depths of the dilapidated structure, only to release a dragon in her place.

"NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" Kai screamed in horror, his eyes deceiving him with such atrocity he could not readily bare. The final battle now waged against the Unseelie beasts and Rangda, their master, as Kai took one last look to where she had stood seconds ago and lept into battle with tearing eyes and a heart filled with vengeance. "Sora…"


"Sora…" A ruddy gray of soiled earth and blood spilled across the stones as he feverishly tore through the rubble, desperate to find her, and in his madness, he allowed no moderation to his own flesh being torn away, uncaring of the anarchic trail spattered wherever he lay his wounded hands. He tore away rock and carved brick, searching for any sign of life. The battle won, his clan assured of their safety, Kai now turned his attention elsewhere, in attempting to locate a member lost, a woman fallen before her time.

But hours of relentless exploration heeded nothing, save only to add to his aching soul, where lay a massive rift as his frantic struggle grew futile with every passing moment. "Please…" he rasped, moving an entire section of wall effortlessly, revealing but more stone underneath. "You cannot be dead…please…Sora…" His fading vestige of strength stolen by his battle delivered a shattering blow to a blackened boulder, cleaving the burned rock in two, and he then collapsed, driving his hands into the debris upon finding nothing. "Where…WHERE IS SHE?!!!"


"Riko." Sakura whispered to her second, gliding a soft hand across her sister's shoulder. "He's returned."

Riko turned around from the wounded warrior she had tended to, only to see a silhouetted figure stagger through the front gates and into the courtyard, a trail behind him of blood-drenched soil. His skin marred with massive wounds, his flesh a frenzied mass of open wounds and a covering of heavy dust and earthen debris, he appeared more as demon kin then a gargoyle. "Kai?"

The leader heaved himself into a bare standing position, as the others stared in reverent silence, the injured and uninjured alike knowing they had suffered grievous losses to their clan in the Unseelie battle, but none that would impact this hard upon the guarded leader so very personally. Kai drifted a wandering, wraithlike gaze contained of fatigue and subdued furor to his clan through a distorted mask not of his own and held a bloody, trembling hand to his face, the normally reserved gargoyle eventually faltering to his knees, as if emptied of the strength to hold aloft his form. He spilled his tears to the courtyard stones, and wailed aloud her name, as the sudden realization now hit all of them watching on, even those who had remained in the proverbial darkness.

He had lost her, and Riko's parting declaration tore into him, at last bringing a pain to his body numbed of sensation. He wept, his tears pooled in watery, fragmented ponds, a mirror collected of the entire night sky above, and he spit upon the very gods he once took solace in for wrenching her spirit away.

"Her soul is freed to the light," whispered an elder gargess, shivering within even the embrace of her woven shawl and emaciated wings, "but may she forever live within his heart."

"I'm afraid, elder," Riko breathed wistfully, peering into the heavens with eyes brimming of emotive crystal, "that his heart may forever be tainted with the burden he bares…that of allowing the woman he cherished to live in ignorance of his love for her."

"For within the heart of a leader, flows a tainted river of principle, faith, and eternal solitude." the elder quoted an ancient proverb, born centuries before her hatching, and inexplicably brought to surface with Riko's chosen words. "For when faced with the choice of love or duty, young Riko-chan, a true leader shall choose the path that will assure his followers peace and certainty, but shroud his heart in darkness."


Ishimura, now…
The memories like swords he wielded in combat, striking fatal to perhaps his greatest weakness, that of his heart, now replaced with the burning sensation of a sharpened steel point burrowing deeper into his neck. Kai held firm, as Sora lanced the remaining sai deeper into his flesh, her eyes alive in a cresting scarlet wave. To see her once more, to smell what scents adhered to her beneath the shadows, was both a gift and a torment merciless in its deliverance. But he held to his convictions, grasped to a single concept if not lethal in its approach. "Kill me." he whispered to her, a daring challenge both to her and the force having dominated her soul, and for a moment suspended did she appear as if tempted, but something held her back and allowed Kai a second longer of life. "Why do you hesitate?"

Her pale lip trembled delicately, her eyes wavering of the once hostile nature and intent. "I…I…don't know…"

"A weak answer for the minion of Kokuei."

"I am…the will of darkness…I must fulfill my chosen duty…"

"Your words are frail, your intentions spineless."

"I will kill you…"

"Then be silent and do so. You have proven me unworthy, so kill me. Kill the man who…" A pause ensued when words failed him, a cultured dialect once melodic in expression at a loss when faced with either his survival or that of the woman on top of him. "Kill the man who loved you."

Sora's grip on her sai loosened, only just. " loved me?" she replied in surprise.

"Her. I loved her. I loved the young gargoyle who lived every night with passion, who opened my eyes to the simple beauty of the stars or the lagoon in the hills behind the temple. I loved Sora."

"But you abandoned me. You left me to die!!"

"No, Sora," Riko cut through, approaching delicately the young woman atop Kai's bulging chest, and holding his life within her hands, "it was Kai that never gave up. He searched from dusk until dawn's light for you, even after all of us had conceded to your seeming death."

"He shed tears over you, my sister." Sakura added, crossing her arms across her stomach. "I have never seen him cry...except when he thought you dead."

She hesitated, heeding her sisters' declaration, and aimlessly clenching a hand to her furrowed brow, a chaotic mass erupting in corrupted thought. "Kai, I…"

"…lies…" It forced her, the voice, to obey.

And in the battle for a fragile landscape, a mind fractured and torn between two loyalties, did Sora lose the focus once so clear. She swept away from Kai, clenching to her weapon as if trusting only in the embrace of chilled steel, furrowing her delicate ridges. "You feed me lies. You tell me of your love to confuse me, to sway my task."

"No." Kai rose up, hoping the barrier between malevolent force and innocent woman was fracturing, hoping he could possibly reach inside through the opening rift. "This is no lie," Kai whispered, quickly coming up behind her, "it is a truth I have hidden from far too long. This voice that speaks to you lies."

"You damn yourself in your perjury!!"

"And you continue to hide yourself at Kokuei's side. You suckle at her breast like a child!"

"I am not a CHILD!!!" Sora turned and in a deadly instinct bred by her master, she thrust the sai deep into Kai's chest. Kai jerked, his entire body tensing and growing rigid, seeing the spear jutting from his chest, having pierced his heart. Sora stared wide-eyed at the results of Kokuei's corruption, the blood spilling down Kai's chest and a deep crimson seeping into his garment.

Kai shot her a look of sheer surprise, and eventually faltered, dropping to the ground in a heap, the blood pouring from between his fingers. The others watching stood in morbid astonishment, as Sora stood over the limp form of the man she worshipped from afar, the gargoyle leader struggling to breathe.

He reached a bloody hand up to Sora, and she timidly accepted. "Do not…follow what voices call…to you…" he whispered, his eyes growing drowsy. "Follow…your heart…"


Nagano forests, now…
"…she resists me…" Kokuei whispered, switching her attention from Shadow to a distant puppet twisting its strings. The light thread connected between her and the outlying temple shivered and frayed, and she knew an outside force now threatened Sora's control. "…that Kai is becoming an annoyance…but they all resist in the beginning…" She turned her cold eyes back to Shadow. "…as did your mother…"

The ninja reached out to timidly press his talons to the animated corpse's withered flesh, upon the sunken cheekbone desiccated and sharp, and the dead gargoyle moaned in feeling Shadow's hand roam its features, as if taking solace in the warmth after decades of entrapment to her master's side. "Mother?" Shadow whispered tentatively, testing the word across his tongue. "Is it truly you?"

The corpse slacked her distended jaw, her brow drooping above eyes without discernable tint or even a suggestion of retina, and raised a hand towards Shadow's face, her fingers bereft of skin and ending in skeletal points. It was if she recognized him, tracing Shadow's spurs and trailing down his face.

"…she was a fierce warrior…who resisted me until the very end in order to save her child…" said Kokuei maliciously, delivering a blow far worse than any physical strike. "…but like all organics…she was ultimately far too frail…" She placed her hands together, and the corpse suddenly shuddered, lifting her open mouth as if to scream, a silent cry for mercy. Kokuei then pulled her arms apart, and in front of Shadow's eyes was the confessed cadaver of his mother sheared in half, her form torn into pieces from the side of neck to between her thighs.

Iliana turned away, concealing her exposed skin from the body parts and the ghastly cloud of dust released from the gargoyle's rotted entrails. When cleared of the haze, Iliana seethed. "YOU BITCH!!!" she screamed rabidly, holding back the impulse to retch and stepping forwards from a stunned Shadow, embracing the intoxicating authority given to her by her specialized magnum. "You fucking monster!!"

Shadow, anesthetized to any feeling, crouched to touch upon the severed head of the gargoyle where attached barely the right shoulder, arm and remnants of the spinal vertebrae, and closed her eyelids with two of his talons, granting her a gift stolen half a century ago, that of dignity.

"What gives you the fucking right to kill without even blinking?!!" Iliana continued her tirade, angered beyond the capacity for fear of this creature hovering above her. "Go back to hell where you fucking belong!!"

Kokuei sneered. "…I don't like you, human…" She waved her hand, a mere flick of her wrist, and instantly was Iliana thrown from her place, cast across the room by an invisible force treating her akin to a plaything fit for disposal, her momentum only ceased when crashing through a decorative bamboo sculpture. The young woman, now bloodied by the shards of wicker having snapped at her frosted skin, groaned and fell nearly unconscious in such brutal treatment. "…now, ninja…back to what I desire…"

Shadow peered from the corpse to Iliana, seeing the woman move slightly and attempt the slow crawl from the speared rubble, a diminutive form betrayed by her ferocity of spirit. "You killed her." he whispered while rising languidly from his mother's remains, a resurgence of his soul sparking the first flame of rebellion. Shadow released a growl from the bottom of his throat, a warning, "You wish to see the Black Dragon, oni?" The still air electrified, and the breeze, now gentle, trembled and swayed in fear.

Even Kokuei felt the subtle change in her environment, her misted tendrils recoiling upon contact with such expanding energy. But all her efforts now, after centuries of waiting, were to pay off. The heir to the Nagano clan, his tattoos glowing brighter than that of the sun itself, would provide her with an equal in power and a companion identical in darkest soul. "…yes…embrace the darkness…"

His wings outstretched and quivered only slightly before becoming completely rigid, every muscle in his body flexing beyond their limit with the incredible rush. Shadow allowed his mind to fade to narcosis, and never before did he consent to such a loss of control, as anger dominated his choice, and ironically, just as Kokuei had hoped.

But she wanted more, she wanted all, she wanted the rage to conquer him, and thus corrupt him beyond redemption and forever bind him to her side. "…it was I who gave you those visions…" she said, hoping to kindle the embers of his hatred for her, to unleash the fury of his anger. "…of the brands you now wear upon your chest…to forever remind you of your place…"

The winds grew violent, lifting from the ground and slowly revolving around the ninja, twisting and contorting as his anger swelled, his heart prepared to tear from his chest.

"…it was I who destroyed the entire population of this village…it was I who killed that little girl…I wrapped my hands around her neck and she screamed as if a pig being gored…before it snapped like a twig…"

The deep mahogany lightened and erupted into a blinding fire, his eyes glowing sapphire, the air around him alive with thunder.

"…it was I who forced your grandfather to teach you the Black Dragon…"


Nagano forests, 1997
Through his arms, legs, wings came the addictive flow of energy, subtle tingling evolved with every moment into a streak of flame winding through his very nerve endings, and concentrating into a ball of purest fire centered in his gut, his stomach pulsating with the incredible force breeding within.

"Control it, Shadow!" yelled his father, aside him and watching as the gargoyle's brands grew ever brighter, alighting his extended chest in soft burning amber crossed with jagged shadow. The wind blustered furiously around Shadow's form, lost within the debris stirred up from the forest floor and winding into an eerily silent tempest. But it was too fast, too great, he sensed the power building within his charge to a degree far surpassing his own, by either skill, or distant lineage or genetic superiority, and it now threatened to consume all. "Gain control over the energy you wield, Shadow! Before it devours you!"

But like all the lessons come before, the gargoyle stood motionless within the circle of wind, now tearing into the ground around him in a flawless, unbending ring. Unaware, or perhaps unwilling to break what he had fought so hard and long for to gain, his body centering the energy, Shadow remained enclosed and numbed to any sensation save the energy he wielded.

Hiro Minamoto now bore witness to the ancient teachings forced on his adoptive son wreak havoc within a brittle forest, the creature of wing and claw holding himself rigidly and oblivious to his grandfather's frantic cries. "Shadow, listen to me!! You must stop!!" Hiro tried to reach for him through the winds, to make contact with his son's flesh, but the years had faded his once great strength and abilities and disallowed him the touch crucial to calm Shadow's euphoric state.

But ultimately futile were his words as Shadow reached the peak, his very identity wiped away as the energy took control of his form, wielding such a weapon born and thirsting to test this stolen body in combat. Shadow's eyes were bleached of any color, and the gargoyle crouched slightly, turning his head towards the only moving target within sight, that of Hiro.

"SHADOW!!!" Hiro screamed in horror, watching his son eye him as mere prey. The gargoyle now his namesake, a living shadow, became a blur to his eyes, sweeping forwards with wings flared and masking his approach as if the winds themselves had come alive and reached for him through the forest canopy. Hiro tried desperately to defend himself against his massive charge as Shadow lashed out at him, blocking familiar-styled blows that nearly fractured his bones in their ferocity and mercilessness. "Shadow, the Black Dragon is controlling you!!" he struggled through the beating, maddeningly rapid thrusts being driven into his unguarded form faster than the pain could even register to the elder human. "Shadow…please…"

But unpossessed of any sentience, an embodiment of energy with one purpose, Shadow could not heed his grandfather's cries. And instantly, did the sum of knowledge passed down to him, an entire lifetime of tutelage and constant training, unleash one fatal blow without his realizing, and Hiro Minamoto fell to the ground.

His enemies vanquished and with no scent to drive him further, the ninja's power could no longer reach out to an empty battlefield, and instead dissipated, allowing him at last some precious sense of conscious thought, and when peering down to his grandfather, Shadow found the limp form deathly still. "G-Grandfather?" he wheezed, leaning down to inspect what damage he had possibly wrought when under the influence of the Black Dragon's sharpened teeth.

Hiro's eyes were left blankly open, his neck twisted and wrenched from it's natural alignment. Shadow hesitated, and then fearfully touched his hand to the human's neck, where a jagged protrusion jutted from the skin just beneath, that of a shattered spine. Shadow felt no pulse, no breath, and instantly pulled his hand away from the dead body. And in the midst of the paralyzing stagnancy of his consuming fear and guilt, he discovered blood spattered across his dark skin, the scent of human within the blackened fluid. "No…" He stumbled backwards, and fell to his knees, an innocent gargoyle now become a killer, having stained his hands with the blood of family. "No…NO!!!" The entire forest erupted in a bloodcurdling howl, as Shadow released his pain like fire burst from his lungs.

And beyond, cradled comfortably within the darkness, she watched, and smiled, and praised how well her designs had formed ever since she had rediscovered her lost egg in the care of this solitary man, now lying dead in front of his wailing charge. He was now the last of the Minamoto family, heir to clan Nagano, and bonded to her through a deliverance of her powers, his path fated before he was even conceived.


Nagano forests, now…
"…it seems your grandfather was right all along…you could not control such power…"

"You perverted my quest for perfection!!" Shadow screamed, his entire body an avatar for the energy now coursing through his form, and even stolen from what life remained in his surroundings. "You twisted my wants to aid your own…and my grandfather died for it!"

"…I did not kill your grandfather, shinobi…you did…and how ironic that I spared his life only for you to take it so savagely…you killed him without mercy…you have no remorse or regret…you are truly meant for me…"

The power continued to build exponentially, and Shadow now had trouble keeping his conscious mind intact, his intellect drifting as he slowly relinquished the control he so savored. "We…shall see…"

Kokuei silently raised her hands, drawing her army into a defensive position, as Shadow nearly achieved the pinnacle of his power. She ordered them towards the gargoyle, to converge on him, and in seconds, would the true battle at last begin. He crouched and dug his talons into the ground to anchor his convulsing form, the ninja hanging loose his jaw and emitting a muted growl, a droplet of saliva falling from his teeth.

As they approached on Kokuei's command, Shadow hunched his back and streamlined his wings, slipping both nunchuku from his holsters, allowing the weapons freedom for the first time. Under the influence of a technique that suppresses all but pure instinct, he spread like wildfire through the army, perhaps more members of his clan he destroyed, brothers and sisters, but the concern was far below his attention as he slashed through the ranks with lightning ferocity, gutting the corpses efficiently and callously. The wooden sticks cleaved through decaying flesh, littering the ground with broken corpses behind him.

Even still possessed of years of battle experience, the taken bodies could not readily form an adequate response to the ninja's skills fueled by an otherworldly strength, as he ripped through them, leaping from adversary to adversary and rendering them unable to battle, either relieving them of their limbs or tearing them completely apart with a blurring speed.

"…bravo, shinobi…" Kokuei whispered, watching as her army fell to the force taken gargoyle shape, an almost erotic sensation spreading within her form.

But watching as well, Iliana cringed with every blow forced through dead flesh, and sensed quite clearly the dark creature had lost himself to the Dragon, the story he once related to her fresh in her mind and the similarity all too frightening to ignore. "Shadow, stop!!" she screamed, though wincing as she clutched to her side, her ribs bruised from the earlier assault. She hoped to sway Shadow's blind, rapturous destruction, yet only served to alert Kokuei to her place. "You're playing right into her hands!! She wants you to kill, to destroy!!"

"…yes, I do…" A clawed hand swiped at the detective, and unleashed the tendrils around her neck, lifting the wounded human from the debris. "…so please be silent…"

Her throat compressed under Kokuei's claws, and even under the incredible pressure, she squeaked, "…shadow…"

Shadow shrugged off both Iliana's whispered summons floating upon the breeze and Kokuei's seeming indulgence in his destruction, and continued the carnage, and each time he destroyed a controlled, decaying drone, a part of him would die, a part of his soul turned as black as night, precisely what Kokuei had wished for all along.

"…no…" Iliana wheezed, held aloft in Kokuei's vice like grip.

"…oh yes, fresh meat…" she replied, her red eyes the only reflective surface in her slightly translucent form, and alighted with bloodlust. "…with every corpse he destroys…his soul comes that much closer to darkness…"

"But they're just…empty, soulless shells…they're…already dead…"

"…dead yes, soulless not quite…they still retain a part of their essence…and with every warrior fallen, and their form unable to hold their soul…it is at last bonded forever to me…"

Iliana struggled to release herself, her small hands digging into the all too solid mist secured around her neck, causing her short breaths and barely allowing enough oxygen. Through her tearing eyes she could see Shadow delve into the midst of the army, lost in his power and unwittingly fulfilling Kokuei's twisted desire. With every warrior fallen, Kokuei's body pulsated with a new soul to feed upon, clawing hands and tortured faces attempting to force their way from her form, muffled cries forming an unceasing death chant. And with every warrior fallen, did Shadow's form take on an even darker hue, becoming as black as Kokuei. "Shadow…"

"…he cannot hear you…he is lost within the Black Dragon…and the overwhelming gargoyle instinct to kill…"

"But with all…sentient beings, that instinct…can be fought," she countered, refusing to relent to such an easy statement, "and defeated." Using all the strength contained within her small body, she released her throat just enough to unleash a tormented scream in the ninja's direction, "SHADOW!!!"

And at last, the call of the woman close to his heart, and an echoed reminder of the past, brought his attention from the army to the young human being crushed of her life, and he stalled his battle. "…'ana…" A growl birthed from somewhere deep within his heart, he stared longingly at Kokuei whose expression turned somewhat sour.

"How many more…must die, Shadow…" she whimpered, but for only her friend's welfare. "Before you realize you've…always had the…strength…the power…to control your destiny…"

"…c-con…trol…destiny…" echoed Shadow brokenly.

"…quiet, human…" Kokuei completely closed her fingers around Iliana's throat, effectively and brutally silencing her, lengthening her talons and pressing them to her neck, five tiny points drawing each a trickle of blood from milky peach flesh. "…it seems you are still anchored in the human world by friendship…devotion…love…" she responded to Shadow, as if a wounded animal edged into a corner, his form trembling and shuddering violently with the energy coursing through him, his wings and tail becoming floating mists just as Kokuei's. "…do they truly mean this much to you?…"

He stared, his mind still clouded. "……yes."


Ishimura, now…
Her hands were bloodied, settled into the growing pool of scarlet, fighting a desperate war to stop the constant flow. "Kai…please…I'm so sorry…" she begged to him, the gargoyle lying motionless upon where he had called his home, and now threatened to die here as well. Sora pressed upon the hole in Kai's chest, where once the shaped steel had pierced flesh and opened a hole in his heart.

"He's dying!" Sakura screamed in anger, still being held back by Riko.

"I am well aware of that!" she argued, forcing her body in front of the younger gargoyle. "But we will not interfere!"

"You can't be serious, Riko-chan." Sata approached the Ishimuran second, her eyes darting between both her and the lavender female huddled over Kai's chest. "You are willing to risk your leader's own life?"

Riko squeezed shut her eyes, and rested her head to Sakura's shoulder. "It is his life to risk, and if he has decided to sacrifice it to save Sora…then I cannot intervene."

"You risk much, second."

"I know."

"Kai…speak to me…" Sora pleaded huskily, her voice a whisper choked and thick with emotion, and with her plea the olive-skinned gargoyle fluttered his eyes and opened to a sight once thought a dream when encased in stone. "You can't die…you can't leave me alone…"

"…you are never alone…" he wheezed, the force of life slowly slipping from his body. "You have…your clan…"

"But I need you." She stroked his face, unintentionally smearing his brow with his own blood. "Why…why would you give your life so freely? For someone without a soul?"

He smiled, and coughed, spitting up a spatter of crimson. "Then my soul, beautiful Sora…for yours…"

"You have no right to be so damned noble! Especially after I…" The shadows were wilting, the ravenous darkness adhering to her flesh losing their power over her, as she broke down in tears and pressed her brow into the cleft of Kai's neck. "I can't lose you, Kai…I won't…"

His heart was slowing, his essence fading quickly. "…you must…go on…you have a second…chance…at life…but only if you…are strong enough to…fight the darkness…"

"It is not a life without you!"

His eyes were drooping, and Kai's hand slipped from Sora's, the wound and tremendous loss of blood having taken its toll, and forcing the leader beyond his limits of endurance. "…as long…as you are…free…"

Sora peered to her arm, the shadows sloughing off from her skin, Kokuei's influence evaporating much like the rage she once held to for cold consolation. The control held over her was nearly gone, replaced by the stark reality of Kai's fatal injury by her very hand. She at last broke down, throwing herself over Kai's still chest, hearing the steady beat once a deafening thunder slow and wither. Yet, in the far recesses of her mind, an instant of clarity uncovered, her eyes suddenly flashed open and she pulled away as if struck by inspiration in the last desperate seconds. "Kai…Kai!"

He roused to life once more, though too weak to converse.

She graced both hands to his cheeks, and brought her face in close. "Kai…I can help you, but it means surrendering yourself…to Kokuei." She watched him mull the decision over as his brow creased, his features twisting. "It is the only way…to restore both your body…and perhaps my soul."

"You are willing to give him to this Kokuei?!" Sakura hollered from the side. "Better he die an honorable death then being subjected to what happened to you! Being turned into a mindless slave!"

"I can help him!" she barked.

"How would you accomplish this, my sister?" Riko inquired, acting as the rational voice, her staple, and hoping Sora would be the one to heal her leader and friend.

"I was chosen to grant those worthy of great power. If I take his soul, it can be strengthened through merging with what Kokuei bestowed upon me."

"And do you believe his soul can be returned after such a merger? Can he be freed of Kokuei's influence?"

Sora paused and looked back to Kai. "I…don't know…but I have to try! He's dying, Riko…because of me." She peered with pleading eyes towards her clan, the firelight glinting off her tears. "Give me this chance."

"What about you?"

"Believe in me, sister, as you once did so before."

Riko nodded.

Sora turned quickly back to Kai, taking his limp hand within her own. "Kai…you must allow me to do this, or you will die." She edged closer, and lightly touched her lips to his cheek. "Do you trust me?" she whispered adamantly, her voice strong and balanced, as Kai nodded slowly and exhaustedly. "Then concentrate." Sora pressed her brow to Kai's own, allowing the shadows to take complete control of her, reaching out to bite upon Kai's own exposed flesh. "Think of your clan. Of me." The darkness soon enveloped them both as Sora lay herself upon Kai and pressed his wound between them. She snaked her arms around him, as the shadows with the touch of ice coated them and stole the breath from their lungs. She could feel the slightest shiver of hesitation flow through his skin, she could taste the horror he now experienced, helpless as a child, a frightening comparison when first taken. They were drowning in oblivion. "Think of me."

It was a world unlike any other, initially painful to the touch, for their skin burned and their eyes when opened witnessed each other's deepest memories captured in the swirling, platinum tide pulling them together and into a womb, milky and embracing, soft, without a single sharp edge.

Kai found himself moved without sensation in his form towards Sora, though unhindered by a wound having completely vanished. They were fusing, coalescing into a single being, and feeling the edges of darkness attempt to take them. Olive emerald became as sunset lavender, and the power of their union gave them the strength to keep their minds clear of Kokuei's corruption, a singular, inescapable white noise echoing all around them, imploring them to heed her commands. "Sora." he whispered, her voice merged with his.

"Kai." she would respond, inside of him and one with his soul. "Don't allow Kokuei's voice to touch you. Think of me."

"I am. I have. I will."

"My power for you."

"And my soul for you."


Even with the power of lightning entrapped within his heart, he was ineffective against an ancient element, that which echoed all living, standing things in perfect and distorted symmetry. Like trying to grasp a hold of the air itself, but Shadow, empowered by the addictive Black Dragon would not so readily give up his task as he shredded through more of the misted tendrils, as Kokuei held steady, holding an injured Iliana in her grasp.

"…I offer you the world…and you attack me?…" she hissed, as Shadow continued clawing at her, relentless in his attack and mindless in his enduring approach. Her claws burrowed deeper into Iliana's neck to better show her intention, and the detective would have screamed if her throat were not completely closed.

"…let…her…go…" Shadow managed, nearly frothing at the mouth, his power having built to such a degree as to want to burst from his skin.

"…join me…or she dies…"

"…re…lease her…" Shadow countered, desperately maintaining a clear mind through the rush of energy. "…or you…suffer…"


The cocoon cracked, the hardened shell fractured and shards loosened from the black skin fell to the ground with the sound of shattering crystal. They watched as the layers peeled away, dried, desiccated flakes littering a huddled form. Riko held Sakura back, peering to the pair of wings holding within either her restored friends or yet more minions taken by Kokuei's evil.

The sails trembled, and opened slightly to reveal a pair of rounded, rising spurs. Kai opened his eyes, and blinked several times to get used to the light. But instantly did two hands clench into his chest, the quick bout of pain rousing his attention to another form seated in his lap, as Sora rose from the embrace of his wings, her eyes a blinding ruby red and the arteries rising to the surface of her skin, bulging repulsively and pulsating with a rapid beat. The darkness needed an escape, and Kai knew her form could no longer contain what had possessed her, as part of his soul now resided within her. He allowed her solace in his strong arms as she tilted her head back, and screamed, filling the entire temple with a horrific, deafening shriek. The darkness flooded from her mouth, even her eyes, rising shafts of devouring darkness shooting through the temple's ceiling and drifting aimlessly into the stars.


"…ungh…" Kokuei faltered, her form flittering, losing the control over her transparency, her protective barrier, and the only weapon that held Shadow at bay. "…no…how can she escape?…"

And her momentary lapse in attention to the ninja proved costly, as Shadow leaped towards her and tore away her chest, bringing forth the first scream of pain as three distinctive rifts opened in her form, a blinding white light nearly escaping, alighting the entire room and forcing back the remaining cadavers. She swiped him away, and closed her hand over the gashes in her chest.

"…how…dare you…" Her grip tightened to Iliana, the detective shedding tears in the relentless pain. "…it seems you never had any feelings for this human at all…you are without a soul…"

"…on the…contrary…" he replied while standing straight, his eyes containing a crisp sapphire gleam. "I care for her…a great deal." He fought for his control, unwilling to have anyone else die by his hands or oft-lethal lack of restraint and lowered his eyes to the wound in her chest, a bright light streaming through her taloned fingers. "It seems you have…taken one too many."

"…I will not be defeated…especially by you…"

Shadow's form slowly returned to normalcy, as did his intellect. "But I will not defeat you, yasha…my clan will."

Kokuei looked down, her chest bulging from where Shadow had struck, the remnants of her plundered spirits clawing their way through the rift, and besting her efforts to force them back inside. Led by Sora's escape and allowed a rare path, they yearned for their freedom, they longed for the light.

"It seems your stolen souls are fighting back…"


Lightheaded, he swallowed the rising bile and settled his stomach after such a tasking ordeal to his form. He opened his wings farther, delicately peeling back the membranes to drift a hand to his chest, where once his skin had been torn open. But smooth now, with only a blackened mark burned into his hide, a diagonal line of charcoal gray. He looked beside him, where the sai lay as if untouched, and unbidden by the stain of his blood. "Sora?" he called softly to the woman settled into his lap, the leader broken from his reverie by the shifting weight. "Sora?" She fell limp, and Kai pulled her close by resting her to his chest, Sora left completely nude and at last revealed her creamy lavender flesh. She was trembling, and Kai rubbed his hand soothingly between her wings.

"Kai!!" she unexpectedly screamed, flashing eyes gorged with fear, and the lasting, chaotic flashes of a former life almost lost. "Ryu!! RYU!!!"

"Sora!!" he cried, clasping both hands to her face. "It's all right. I'm here…"

She slackened her breathing, and calmed herself. "K-Kai?"

He nodded thankfully, in seeing her realization come at last. "Yes."

"I…I don't hear the voice…"

"We're free, Sora. Because of your strength, we beat her. Because we gave ourselves to the other, we're joined in soul."

"…and heart." She rested a hand to his chest, where the soft flesh gave no sign of the wound she inflicted, the only exception an oddly shaped mark crossing the length of his chest. She trailed a talon down the brand, kneading her brow quizzically.

"It seems I was touched by the darkness, and I'm guessing a result of giving half my soul." Kai answered her silent question. "But a worthy one." Sora almost tried to form what seemed to be a smile, but released a choked breath instead and released her tears into his chest, as Kai wrapped his wings around her, holding tightly the sobbing woman. He lifted his eyes to his slowly approaching clan, with Yama helped to his feet by Takashi, his wounds bound by blood-soaked bandages. Riko lay a soothing hand to her sister's shoulder, as the entire Ishimura clan surrounded the embracing couple and welcomed home their lost sister.

"Well," Todd whispered to Annika, standing outside of the excited rabble, "this was one hell of a honeymoon."


Nagano forests, now…
"…no…" she pleaded, showing for the first time fear. They burst from her chest and stomach, Kokuei birthing an entire feast of stolen sprits from her body, the forms of human and gargoyle glowing a translucent cerulean haze.

Shadow slipped past and grabbed Iliana as Kokuei dropped the helpless detective to keep her tearing form in one piece. The ninja lay her gently to the ground far from the woman shadow, drifting a hand lazily through her fiery strands as she coughed and cleared her bleeding throat.

"…not yet, shinobi…" Kokuei grabbed him, and wrested the gargoyle from the ailing woman. "…it will not end this way…I will…have you…" Even as her form was being torn from the inside out, lighted fractures creeping their way into her entire body, she fought to gain ownership of the object she so desired. She enveloped him, coating his flesh in the frigid tendrils, hoping to corrupt him, to ultimately dominate his free will in the last desperate seconds. "…you are mine…you were born for one reason and one reason only…"

"No." he defied, clenching his talons into her own arms, tearing apart her mists and forcing her claws back. She was weakening, her powers from feeding on the innocent fading as the taken warriors rebelled against her. Shadow held her, wrapping his arms around what formed her neck. "My grandfather may have granted me your power under your guidance," he hissed triumphantly, empowered by her expression of apprehension, "but he allowed me the strength to control my own destiny. My future is what I make of it, oni."

"…help me…" she pleaded, a last-ditch effort. "…and I will grant you the world…"

Shadow bared his fangs and let loose the fire in his eyes, bestowing the gift of fear upon her, taking great pleasure in allowing her to savor the acidic taste. He unleashed the lasting traces of the Black Dragon, and fed it into her tendrils, hoping to over satiate her unappeasable appetite for energy and spirit. "Die."

Kokuei swelled ever larger, disembodied hands exploding from her scorched surface and stretching beyond what her pliable hide would allow. It continued building, until at last, she could take no more. Shadow ripped from her grasp and lept from her, still attached to his flesh pieces of her mists. He ran to Iliana and gathered the woman into his arms, folding his wings about them both as he swept from the building to protect them from the blinding ghostly fire. Kokuei screamed as brilliant shafts of light pierced through the darkness, through the structure, and streamed into the sky, even touching the starlight. The entire village and forest lit up, as the woman shadow erupted, shattering the massive structure with the shockwave of pure energy. It moved like lightning through the entire village, destroying the fragile constructs and nearly bowing the mighty oaks in such raw power.

Shadow moved as fast as he could, exhausted and spent of his own strength, until he fell to the ground and fortified his position with darkened sails. He clutched Iliana to his chest, as the wave overtook him within seconds, engulfing his form within the unbridled potency of a thousand stolen souls unleashing their pain. Shadow peeked from beneath his wing, and stared into the heart of the maelstrom itself. And just barely, perhaps due to tired eyes and a weakened state, he could see the wafting silhouette of humanoid forms within the blinding fury, possibly the innocents, and his clan, at last allowed sweet freedom.

Then all went dark. And deathly silent.

Left within the absence of the total lack of sound, were his heavy breaths filling the pocketed chamber of his closed wings. Shadow lifted them away, shaking the scorched membranes of the collected debris, and opened to the rush of fresh evening air. He peered to the remnants of the village, left devastated by the blast, and the smoking crater far in the distance where Kokuei made her stand, and lost her vaunted power by gluttony and consuming greed. Iliana shifted slightly, and his attention turned to her instantly. "Are you all right?"

"Y-Yeah…" she sputtered, her voice dragged with a low rasp, though healing. "I see…you got the control you've…always wanted…"

"Only because of you. But I still have far to go for total control of my abilities."

She grazed a hand to her side, where her ribs screamed in pain. "Thanks for saving my life."

Shadow leaned down, drawing his knuckles down the side of her face. "You would have done the same."

Iliana smiled, then peeked out from the crook of his arm and gasped at the destruction. "What do you think happened to her?"

"It seems she…overate." he sighed, drained both physically and emotionally, looking forward to the light of day and the needed rest. "And hopefully, she's been destroyed."

"Well…that's good…because I'm kind…of…tired…" she trailed off, and slipped deeper into Shadow's lap.

"Iliana?" he called to her. "Iliana?"


Nagano forests, the following night…
It was her ninja pulling her from the fires of destruction, where shadows reigned and took malevolent forms to steal her soul away. She drifted through a realm of her own making, influenced by her greatest fears and desires, her surroundings birthed from an imagination and ardent spirit. She tasted the heavens with him, and joined him in his domain of the sky, through the speckled stars and around the sun they flew arm in arm.

She woke with a start, a chilled rush of air tearing her from the delirious world of dreams, the startling fact her skin was exposed to the elements save for a wool blanket tucked over her form forcing her wide awake. Iliana abruptly sat up, and frantically roamed her eyes around her, the dreams turned nightmares turned dreams once more of the night before compelling her suspicions of her surroundings. "What the hell?" she whispered, holding the blanket closer to her form. She was lying within the main quarters of the CY.O.T.I. aircraft, her clothes piled neatly to the side of the bed. She rubbed a hand over her injured side, and found fresh gauze wound tightly around her midsection, her neck, and the numerous scratches taken from the fight. "I'm naked."


Fully dressed, she stepped from the room and into the main aircraft cabin, met with an assortment of aged artifacts, distinctly Japanese and piled wherever there was room to spare.

"Good evening, detective Starr." droned the CY.O.T.I. sentience through the speakers.

"Evening?" she echoed, surprised, walking through the banners, sculptures and weaponry evidently salvaged from the ruined village, pulling her leather jacket closer. "How long have I been out?"

"Approximately nineteen hours. The sun set almost four hours ago."

Iliana stepped into the cockpit, and lifted her brow when seeing the remnants of the village just outside the tinted screens. "We're right next to the village." she mused, seeing an enormous fire growing and lapping at the confines of the pit centered inside of the village square, and a massive, winged silhouette standing deathly still just in front. "Is that Shadow?"


She nursed her wounded side, rubbing tenderly the bruised skin just beneath her shirt, and hobbling with a discernable limp towards the crackling flames, and the figure unmoved since her fleeting journey started from CY.O.T.I.'s landing ramp several yards away. But with the light of the towering bonfire, she found the landscape slightly changed then what had been presented before, the ground littered with over a hundred rising humps in the soft, scorched earth, all marked with ramshackle crosses. "Graves." she whispered.

Shadow turned his head slightly, to lay his eyes towards the approaching human. "Iliana. I apologize." he said abruptly. "I had to strip you of your clothing to bandage you."

"Oh, yeah…I guess it's okay." she blushed, clearing her throat. "I mean…you've already seen me naked." She smiled bashfully, while taking his larger hand, and slipping her fingers between her own, marveling at the sheer strength. "Did you…bury them all?"

"Any body I could find I laid to rest." he replied quietly, his voice subdued and bereft of the cultured passion often associated. "Human and gargoyle, any victim of Kokuei. It was…all I could do to honor the innocents…and my clan…"

"I'm sorry." she said, pawing a small hand to his arm, a soothing massage upon the striated muscle. "But maybe, Shadow, there were survivors. Those who were fortunate enough to escape from this place fifty years ago…maybe a few of your family are still out there somewhere."

"Maybe." he agreed sadly.

She leaned in close and watched the flames curl and hiss as if granted the breath of life, holding her voice within to grant Shadow the respective silence. "Penny for your thoughts?"

"I was raised to be nothing more than a slave." he answered, the anger rearing itself in the heavy brogue and in the pressure applied to Iliana's fragile hand. "A damned servant."

"Only to Kokuei." she asserted, forcing herself in front, and reaching up to his face. "You're so much more."

"I had hoped to carry on the tradition of my grandfather's teachings, his skills…but now I find he made me into nothing but a mindless weapon."

"I don't think that shadow bitch gave him much of a choice."

"Why didn't he at least tell me of what I was?! After concealing my place of birth, my very history, he could have at least granted me the dignity of knowing my own species!"

She forced his eyes to hers, seeing the fire reflect itself within the mahogany tarn. "Maybe your grandfather never told you of what you are and where you came from, to hide you from Kokuei. To keep you safe." She pressed against him, adhering to his chest and running a hand down the tattoos now taken to a deeper meaning. "All fathers love their sons, Shadow, and he loved you. Or he wouldn't have raised you, wouldn't have risked so much to give you such strength, such intelligence and honor…and compassion."

Shadow released a steadying breath, turned away from the fire's hypnotic stare and discovered a light ivory flesh made a twilight amber in the gentle, flickering light of the flames. A seductive beauty having concealed a spirit made of fire, enough to risk her life and soul for him, and having pulled him back from nothingness. He leaned down, his features pulled back and spread into a rare, veiled smile, before pressing his lips to hers ever testingly, his parting mouth covering hers in a long, thorough kiss that sapped all her strength from her limbs. She tried with great difficulty to coil her arms around his broad neck and lurched him forwards, and truly taste him as it should have been, and he never held back.

In the light of the fire, where life and death converged upon the same, destructive path, they embraced.


Ishimura, February 22nd…
"Where are Todd and Annika?" Brooklyn asked of his mate, searching the temple grounds for the newly married couple, between bystander of gargoyle and human. "They're going to miss Shadow and Iliana."

"I believe they are still in their room, Brooklyn-san." answered Sakura beside him. "They seemed to want to take as much use of their time available to…ahem…" she trailed off, and allowed her foolish smile to effectively finish for her.

"Ah." Brooklyn nodded, though surprised he had not yet heard any screams erupting from the temple. "And…where are Kai and Sora?"

Sakura brushed a hand to the crimson second's shoulder and pointed past the landing site, guiding his eyes to a winding path opened through the dense foliage and leading towards the small lagoon beyond. "They're coming…"

"We are truly sorry." Kai immediately apologized as he emerged from the path, his hair still slightly damp and running over his broad shoulders. "We were, ah…you see…before they arrived, we thought we…could, ah…take a swim…" The others stared in disbelief, until Sora emerged behind him, fixing the fallen hem of her kimono and garnering several smiles and whispers passed through the crowd.

And near the back, Yama glared with damningly jealous eyes, his rival having taken the one woman he had set his sights on, and turned his thin lips into the usual scowl. Yet she was alive, and he thanked the ancestors for her second chance.

"What are you all staring at?" asked Sora, fixing the unkempt styling of her long raven locks, releasing from the strands a few droplets of water to cascade over the slick surface of her gown.

"It seems you two have not wasted any time." Riko mused, swaying back and forth beside her leader and nudging an elbow to his side. "Every time you have even a few minutes available, you seem to disappear."

"Oh be quiet, sister." Sora snapped playfully, crossing past her lover and trailing a few talons across his chest, sending enjoyable shivers through Kai's form. "Now, do you have my gift?"

Riko nodded and handed her restored sister a wrapped bundle. "They should be arriving any moment soon."

"There." barked Toshi excitedly, seeing the clouds break apart and give birth the sleek aircraft from their cottony folds. The entire crowd stepped back to allow the powerful engines and thrusters to land the craft gently, as if the rushed air stirring the winds suspended its tremendous weight. It lurched and settled, and the engines died down. Kai and Brooklyn both moved forwards as the landing ramp released from a panel in the undercarriage and unfolded to the ground. The door opened to the dark warrior, and he stepped down, guiding Iliana gently by the hand, causing a suspecting rise in both Brooklyn and Sata's brow.

"Greetings, Shadow-san." Kai whispered, bowing at the waist. "Welcome back."

Shadow simply nodded to the leader, their hostility seemingly settled in what they both had experienced and shared.

Sora immediately stepped forward, as if impatient, and offered the ninja the wrapped bundle. "I offer you a gift as greetings. These were seized from your village, ninja…where I was taken." She unwrapped the woolen shawl, and revealed the sai she had used, now polished and the handles re-wrapped with new leather bindings. "To remind you of your past, and to guide your future."

"Domo, Sora-chan." Shadow received the sai gratefully, and inspected the weaponry come from his home. "I see you have…recovered from Kokuei's influence."

"I suppose it is partly thanks to you, shinobi."

"Only your strength could have fought her corruption." he countered, as she smiled and nodded, looking back to Kai.

"After all you have told us over the communications link, Shadow," started Kai, "I hope you at least found what you were looking for."

He dipped his head soberly, sheathed the sai into his belt, and rested an arm on Iliana's shoulder. "I found more…than I ever expected."

"Well," Iliana cut through after meeting for the first time Sora, "after all the crap I just went through, I'm going to have a well-deserved shower." She rose high onto her toes and kissed Shadow, a full embrace without care of the two shocked expressions on both the Timedancers' features. She skipped away and headed towards the temple, as the beaked gargoyle quickly swept to Shadow's side.

"What the hell was that?" Brooklyn snapped incriminatingly, giving the ninja an exasperated glare.

Shadow merely cocked a spurred ridge to the question, though perhaps expecting such a response. "What do you mean?"

"The full-fledged lip lock with Miss Starr."

"Things change, Brooklyn." he said evasively. "Things change."


"You mean Shadow…and Iliana??!" Todd yelled uncontrollably, as Brooklyn simply nodded to his crazed expletive. "Man, what is it with that guy? He has women practically throwing themselves at him. Lucky bastard…"

"Um, hello!" He crossed an arm past Todd's nose and directed it to Annika across from them settling beside the table, her buxom frame swathed in the raven silk kimono given as a gift. "Look at your wife! And should I mention a certain blue-skinned, red-haired woman that has the hots for you as well?"

Todd flicked his eyebrows proudly, and leaned back, his face an immodest grin.

"Well, they do actually make a well-suited couple." Sata threw in her opinion, sitting beside her mate and watching as Iliana leaned comfortably upon Shadow's lap, the young detective allowing herself a luxury of a softened bathroom robe. "I am just worried about when we arrive home…"

"You mean when the ex gets a sight of Shadow and his new woman?" Todd muttered.

Sata sighed, delicately touching the cup of tea to her lips. "Precisely."

Todd leaned in close, elbows perched on the table to better speak his mind out of earshot of the ninja. "You guys…think he's okay?" he asked the older gargoyles, seeing a recognizable glance pass between them. "I mean…after everything that's happened? He hasn't had it easy the last couple of years…and now this…"

"He is perhaps second only to Goliath and Elisa in strength of will," Sata replied, "and in time he will heal."


February 23rd…
"Well, I hope you two have had the honeymoon you always wished for." Kai jested softly, clutching upon Todd's hand, bidding his farewell to the Wyvern clan.

"Oh yeah…" Todd joked. "Evil shadow ladies with her hordes of the undead…lost, brainwashed gargoyles…two people being joined in soul…relentless, fantastic, mind-blowing sex…everything I had hoped for."

Annika came forwards and edged a fierce elbow into her husband's side, as Todd placed a hand around her waist. "Thanks for everything, Kai."

"It has been my absolute pleasure." he said graciously, bowing to show his utmost respect, the young interspecies couple having noticed his buoyant mood the last two nights. "I am truly glad you two have found each other. You are more important to our battle than you could ever imagine."

"Uh huh, just make sure you don't ever take YOUR lover for granted." Annika chided.

Kai pulled Sora close to his chest, gracing his hands across her torso, as if a gesture formed in the last few days to forever keep her by his side. "Never again."


"Before you leave, ninja." Kai held Shadow back as the Wyvern clan loaded into the craft. "My words earlier this week…were ill-chosen."

Shadow thinned his blank stare, but relented to the apology. "Thank you, Kai-sama." he rasped. "I truly hope I can return soon, if only to finish our contest."

"You are welcome here anytime, Shadow-san." He bowed, as Shadow mimicked his gesture, and clasped to his hand. "Take care, my friend."


"It was a welcome send-off. But I do hope we can come back again." Sata whispered, her charcoal eyes reflected by the cockpit windows as she watched the Japanese isles grow ever smaller as the supersonic craft ripped into the stratosphere.

Brooklyn took to the controls, and adjusted the headset settled just behind his curling spurs. "Me too. I met a pretty bitchin' woman down there once…" His beak curved into a smile as he pushed the power regulator toggle forwards, and handled the CY.O.T.I. as if his motorcycle, though his limited path of concrete now opened into an infinite sky led by the stars. "All right, buckle up back there." Brooklyn projected his voice throughout the entire ship, utilizing the intercom system with a distinctive flair. "This sucker's on manual and in my hands for the entire trip back, so make sure you're all secured."

"Then I should ensure my souvenirs are secured as well." whispered Shadow, leaving the cockpit and walking through the interior carefully, the wind swells overtaking even the massive aircraft and Brooklyn's turbulent piloting unaccommodating to the ninja, his path through the craft irregular.

Todd and Annika sat silently to the side, the human having taken his wife into his arms, and watching through the window the live, unruly sea. They had spent the entire week in each other's arms, and played witness to true devotion and passion prevail over malevolence, a symbol of the unbreakable power of love. Though sometimes loud, boisterous, they were achingly still, needing only even the subtlest of contact to spread warmth through the other.

"I can't wait," Annika then whispered breaking the silence, rubbing a hand over Todd's arms encircling her waist, "to get back and start our lives as a married couple in our home."

"Yeah, me and you…" Todd replied, delving his lips into her neck and the satiny strands of spun gold. "Together in my apartment. Or should I say our apartment…"

"What?" Annika turned in surprise to face Todd. "But…I thought you were moving into the castle…"

"I thought you were moving into my place."

They paused, staring at each other with mouths draped open. "Uh oh."

Shadow smiled almost maliciously and washed his eyes from the newly married couple, brushing past a reclining Iliana, and meeting her hand in brief contact with a gentle sweep of his talons.

"You okay?" she asked softly, holding him in place when clutching upon his hand.

He squeezed back. "Yes…I believe so." He moved on towards the rear cabin, and as his eyes moved lazily away, the door hissed open and he stepped in without heeding the drooped tendrils just above.

It was glacially frigid, and the ninja looked up into the face of darkness itself, a misted form having engulfed the entire cabin. She rested on the bed's edge and bobbed the sai in her hands, rubbing her long, curved talons down the entire length of the spear. "It can't be…" Shadow gasped, his snorted breath become as a drifting haze in the chilled temperature. "You died."

The door slid closed and locked by an invisible hand, the electronic systems overridden, and the control stolen from the mechanical master. "…I told you I could not die…" she hissed, the same rasped voice, the same malicious tone that brought even the ninja a paralyzing fear. "…there is always enough hatred and malevolence in this world to feed me…to keep me forever eternal…"

"Kokuei…" Shadow wheezed, backing himself against the wall and avoiding her all-encompassing tendrils, feeling along the walls towards him. "How did you…how did you survive, yasha?!"

Kokuei raised her eyes to her ninja, and bared through the mists an unsettling smile. "…I exist everywhere, wherever there lay a shadow…and I was reborn from your dark heart…" She cackled softly, in seeing Shadow's face contort. "…you cannot escape, my handsome shinobi…no matter how far you run…once I feed, and regain my former strength…you will be mine…"

"You will never have me!!" he growled, filling the entire cabin with the angered brogue of a warrior born, alighting her shadows with the sapphire flame of his eyes. "I defeated you once, and I will do so again!"

"…your power was granted by me…and as such, a part of me forever resides within you… that darkness you have always feared…" She hovered towards him and snapped to a stop just as her face pressed inches from his own, and placed the sai into his hands. "…I own you, ninja…always remember that…" And before Shadow could even mount a suitable defense, her form compressed, imploding in on itself by a second's measure and slipped away through the ventilation system, escaping out into the night.

Shadow stood in trembling narcosis, a tomblike silence, his breath held deep within his chest, before the door clicked open and revealed an apprehensive Iliana on the other side.

"Did you say something, Shadow?" she asked of her newfound beau.

"No, Iliana." Shadow whispered, clenching a hand around the sai. "I said nothing." A haunted chestnut pierced the swelling vapors through the cabin window, as the aircraft drifted on towards New York, lost in the gathering clouds of lavender and menacing gray, a storm brewing upon the horizon. "Nothing at all."