"I woke up to the shadow of a man standing over me
Here in the land of frozen hands
I came out here to kill you father like a Sergio Leoni picture
I hope you understand
And as the red soaked the sand..."
The Desert Song – Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros
"Wake up, lover boy."
Naru opened his eyes, squinting into the shadow of Takigawa looming over him. The monk waved.
"Have a nice sleep, did we?" He asked with a wink.
"Nothing happened. I had to talk to her without you listening, and we fell asleep." Naru growled, sitting up and looking over, to the space where Mai lay, which was now only an empty space . "Where's Mai?"
Takigawa looked at him, puzzled
"I—we thought you knew. She's not with us."
"What?" Naru stood and, without waiting for the monk, ran over the roof, carefully aware of the exposed rafters. He flung open the propped stairwell door and rushed down the stairs, his heart racing. As he reached the floor where the group had slept, he nearly ran through the door, flinging it open so hard it banged against the wall. The group, in the midst of eating another improvised breakfast, all turned to him.
"Naru?" Mai asked, sitting up as she dusted her shirt off. "What's wrong?"
He stared at her and, upon seeing nothing wrong with her, realization smacked him in the face.
"I'm going to kill Hoshou."
He looked up at the rest of the group, staring at him with bewildered expressions, and he discretely leaned in to Mai.
"He told me you were…missing." He admitted quietly.
"Oh," She sighed. "Well, I've always wanted to see your reaction when that happens…and it seems to happen a lot, doesn't it?" She looked at him and smiled softly. "It was nice, just…don't put yourself into a coronary over me, okay?"
The stairwell door opened and Takigawa walked in, whistling, hands in his pockets. He stopped at Naru's narrow glare.
"What?" He shrugged. "It got you up, didn't it?" He gave Naru a look as if his plan was obviously genius then continued walking.
There was no sound in the air other than the hot, dry wind, rattling through the empty buildings with a slithering echo. The group trudged through the dusty streets, the hollowed out skeletons of the skyline blurring into each other in repetition.
"It's like the city goes on forever…" Ayako murmured, staring into the distance. The heat waves shimmered off the ground, rippling their silhouettes against the remains of the dusty, decrepit city.
Unnoticed by the group, among the broken rafters, in the deteriorating beams and collapsing concrete slabs, horned shadows moved, flitting around the dusty sunlight.
Past the city, there was a desert. As sand began to litter the road, the group stopped.
"Should we continue?" John asked. "If we do, there's probably no going back."
"We'd be risking our water rations." Takigawa pointed out.
"It's not like there's much either way." Ayako said solemnly. "Although I do have some iodine in my first aid kit if it comes to it."
"Onward?" Gene asked, turning to Naru.
"Onward." He nodded.
If the city had seemed endless, the desert was infinite. Sand dunes lapsed into each other as the group trundled on, the wind burning acrid in their noses and mouths. Mai pulled her shirt over her face, crossing her arms over her chest. There was nothing to say, or could even have been heard above the howl of the wind. Their conversations where as exhausted as they were. Ahead of them lay a shadowed valley, walls rising up like a mineral forest. She could hear the wind whistle through holes in the rocky face from the distance.
"So…" Takigawa began another fruitless attempt at conversation. "The weather's nice."
Mai let out a half hearted giggle then sighed as she looked ahead to where Naru and Gene walked side by side.
The brothers hadn't spoken since they entered the desert.
"Noll, we've got to talk at some point." Gene said quietly as the group trudged into the valley of the whistling rock walls. His brother only turned to look at him in response. "I know and you know that we're going to get nowhere fast if we keep walking through the desert. We'll either starve or die of thirst, whichever gets to us faster."
"What do you think we should do then? Please, share your ideas."
"I do have one, actually, you idiot scientist."
"Alright, I'm listening."
"I was thinking of leaving the way we came."
"Wonderful, I'll just get to summoning a hurricane that can transport us back to our plane then, shall I?"
"I can't lie and say I didn't miss your oh-so sarcastic attitude." Gene sighed. "I meant the way I came. I could create a portal door."
"A portal door. Only Guardians can create them, and we usually need express permission from the Board, but I think this constitutes as an emergency."
"Why did you do this before?"
"The portal door creates a black hole of sorts. I needed an emptier space than the city."
"And you didn't mention this earlier because—"
"I've only ever done it a handful of times before, in practice. It takes an enormous amount of concentration to open it for even half a minute. I'm not sure if I could keep it open long enough for everyone to get through."
"Is there a way to practice?"
"Perhaps." Gene looked up, an ephiphany glazed over his face. "What if you and I—"
A scream cut him off.
They all looked to Miyu, pointing to the sandy dunes above them with a terrified expression. Shadows had begun to conglomerate, clotting together in a shimmering, wavering mass. Slowly, distinctive features began appearing; a leg here, a tail there. Soon, fully formed wolves began breaking through, made of the shadows themselves, as if the sun had peeled them off the ground and gave them life. The largest of all, what must be the alpha, suddenly bounded down the hill towards them. The rest of the pack followed, kicking up dust and darkness.
"Run! To the valley!" Takigawa shouted. The bristles of the wolves stood on end, their red eyes gleaming in the heat. Kasai had taken Miyu's hand and Ayako had Takigawa nearly falling behind her. In the dampening, dusty heat and chaos, someone snatched Mai's hand.
"Come on!" She followed, running as hard as she could while keeping a grip on her things. She looked back, sand and grit flying in her face; she choked a little as dust ran down her throat. Through the wall of flying sand, she could make out John's distinctive blonde hair, followed by Masako's barely visible dark locks. Fast as the two were running, the wolves were faster, snapping at their heels. Masako tripped with a strangled cry and John stopped, turning back for her as he helped her up. Suddenly, the wolves were upon them.
"No time!" The voice leading her shouted. "In here!" They ducked out of the way into a tiny alcove she would never have noticed in the panic and confusion. She slid against the wall, her body shaking with shock; she could feel tears dragging down her cheeks through the dirt and grit. The wolves had already disappeared, and she wondered if it were all her imagination, if John and Masako were fine and whole, but she knew that to be false.
"Mai? Mai, are you alright?" She looked up, into Gene's dirt streaked face. She said nothing in response, but let the dehydrated sobs wrack her body. A quiet wind rippled through the holes in the rock.
"They're—they're dead, Gene. I can't—it happened so fast, I didn't help them—"
"Mai, I don't blame you for running. You would have to have been suicidal to go back to get them."
"But they—I could've done something."
"What? What could you have done? Remember Mai, we are not on your plane. Death here is not permenant."
"Then…then where did they go?"
"I'm not sure." He said grimly. "But we need to find out. Come on, the others must be waiting."
"Wait, Gene," She tugged on his sleeve and he turned to her. "You saved my life…again."
"It's my job, Mai." He smiled. "At least I seem to be doing it well."
It was the third time he had doubled through the path. Mai was nowhere to be found, nor was John or Masako. He would not entertain the thought that they were gone. Things just didn't happen so quickly and irreversibly.
Look at the facts, look for footprints, for dropped items, look for anything—
"Naru!" He bolted up at the sound of her voice, and relief swelled and fell in him like a wave washing at the shore. But, as she came closer, he sensed something was wrong.
"Mai—" He was cut off as she barreled into him, her face pressed to his chest.
"N-Naru they're gone. I saw it. I saw it all. They—they—"
"Slow down, Mai. Who? Who is gone?"
"Brown-san and Hara-san." Gene said with a sorrowful glance down the path to where they were ambushed. "I took Mai and got the hell out of there, but she says, well—she says she saw the wolves…overcome them."
"What?" Naru looked to the collected group, then back to the path, but somewhere he knew it to be true. "Houshou, Lin, check the path for anything they may have dropped. Ayako, Miyu, search the area in case they found a spot to hide." Ayako and Miyu nodded, though both knew it was an empty order.
"There's nothing left." Takigawa said blankly from behind them. "It's like they just…vanished."
"But the wolves—" Mai began.
"Take heart, Mai. I don't think they were eaten." Gene said solemnly. "If they were, there would be something left behind, such as Masako's fan, which couldn't be swallowed. No," He stood, squinting into the sun. "Whatever has us here is playing games.
I try not to ask often, but to all of you who are just reading this and adding it to your alerts, please review! Clearly you like it and reviews make me write longer chapters! To all who are reviewing, thank you so much, each one makes me so happy!