The Youkai and the Mononoke

The mononoke youkai traveled to the west to find the vortex were North meets South. The card lay with its front open to reveal the riddle that formed icily within the center of the painted paper. Flakes of purely white frost covered the corners of the picture as the lines of poetic verse moved up to reveal the rest of the new clues in short order. The iron hand was clenched as the mononoke's eyes turned to fire. The page moved to prevent memorization. All the mononokes knew that the cards held their secrets greedily – to avoid the eyes of men was their specialty. Yet, here stood a mononoke with the skills of generations in his bones and the secrets of time in his palm – None were obtainable… The card's image moved too fast to reveal even the tinniest spark of a secret. The magic engrained within these secrets would have to start again…

It was a warm Tuesday in March when the second of the five pages would be found. Every Youkai cringes to admit that the book of pages was not found by one of their kind. Strangely, the girl who found it had not idea that today would be different than any other Tuesday. She did not know that looking at an image and solving a short riddle would change the course of time and redirect the flow of her life forever.

Chapter One

"What is this?" A short, dark-haired girl asked as she looked down at her locker partner inquisitively and removed the brightly painted piece of paper.

"How should I know?" Asked the blond-haired girl that stood above the shorter girl. The blond shrugged and turned to leave for her next class, leaving the other girl to study the piece of paper.

The sheet was decorated with pictures and beautiful calligraphied text. Both the images and the words began to move as the girl stared at it. Her eyes never left the page as her heart raced and her interest peaked. A few of the other students in the hall stopped to glance over her shoulder but they quickly lost interest. The girl was on her own to ponder this strange paper before her. The girl's mind was moving at a mile a minute when a flash caught her eye. Three girls were running from the gym and down the hall.

"Hurry, Sakura! You don't want to be marked late again," one of the girls shouted back to her in a desperate attempt to warn the girl while running herself.

The dark-haired girl nodded but continued to stare at the picture without moving a muscle. She really couldn't take her eyes off of it – The pictures and the words around the edge both moved at an alarming rate.

"It's like a story," Sakura whispered in a breathy voice as her voice caught in the excitement. She was about to record the images with the camera on her lime green cell phone when the bell for class chimed. Sakura jumped up and ran to the math room.

"Late again, Miss Pilletera? This is the second time this week." The tall math teacher spoke in deep tones that did not seem to match his thin body. The man's back was ridged and his chest was puffed. His overwhelming forbearance intimidated most students. Sakura was one of those intimidated students. Still, she did her best not to let the nervousness show in her face or voice.

"It won't happen again, Mr. Gravvy."

"Be sure that it doesn't," he ordered in his deep tone. "I would hate to send a student to detention for such a minor offense."

Sakura quickly found her seat and took out her notes. Her hand was inches away from the pocket that held the mysterious paper and the cell phone that was strategically placed to record the constant movement. Sakura felt like it took all her strength to ignore the call of her inquisitive nature and gaze within the pocket. She could not afford to get distracted by anything in Gavvy's class.

He was not always a mean teacher but he would not tolerate even working on another class' assignments in his course classroom. To him, failure to work on his specific assignments meant one thing – that he did not give out enough assignments. If he saw one student working on another class' work, the whole class would get pages and pages of more homework. Sakura knew that if he saw her reach into her bag (even if it was only to bring out a sheet of paper) Mr. Gravvy would send whatever she took out to the office and give her more homework than she could imagine.

Avoid looking at the images now and you can see it for hours after class, Sakura reasoned with herself. She tried to imagine what would happen in the story that was forming on the paper. The last time she had looked, she had only seen a few seconds of movements and it looked like the man in green (Sakura had named him Robin because he reminded her of Robin Hood) had been about to charge at a moving purple spot that had been immerging from the opposite corner. Sakura began to imagine the purple blob turning into a monstrous dragon that the heroic Robin had to defeat to defend his village… but this dragon was not a normal, fire-breathing dragon. It was a riddle dragon! Sakura was trying to come up with a riddle that was hard enough to stump Robin when her joyful reverie was interrupted by Mr. Gravvy's deep voice.

"Sakura, why don't you show your classmates how to complete number thirty-seven on the white board." Mr. Gravvy said it as a command, not a question.

"I'm not sure I did it right," Sakura answered with the hush of a confession.

"You would be sure if you were paying attention and listening." He paused to let the words sink in and quickly continued. "Garret, would you please repeat the answer to the class for those who were not listening."

Garret flipped through a notebook until he found the answer he was looking for. "Three hundred seventy times pi," he answered in a loud voice that boomed against the walls for a full minute.

Sakura felt her face go red with embarrassment. He must think I am either depth or so stupid that I cannot even understand a simple numerical answer…Each step Sakura took toward the blackboard made her face turn a darker shade of red as she continued to think of all the eyes following her. She moved her hand towards the chalk and began to write out the problem in handwriting that was swirling and sharp at the same time. She underlined the answer that matched the numbers Garret had read off after taking up half the white board to show her work. Sakura breathed a sigh of relief that the whole thing was done and quickly turned and walked back to her desk.

"Obviously, Miss Pilletera got the right answer," Mr. Gravvy smiled at Sakura as he turned to the class and continued. "Can anyone tell me what Sakura did wrong?" Sakura's face went blank as the class fell silent. "Does anyone see where she made her mistake?"

"She did get the correct answer…" began Sue as three other girls in the front row nodded with confused expressions.

"She got it right out of luck. Look at her original work and tell me where she messed up," commanded the teacher in the stern voice that always seemed to make Sakura's blood boil over in her veins.

Sakura saw Mr. Gavvy flip through his teacher's edition textbook. Who was he to call her out when he did not know the answer himself? Sakura watched the seconds tick away slowly before Garret moved to the front of the classroom and began to erase her work to replace it with his. He seemed to redo her problem in record time. Sakura struggled to hide her amazement.

Just survive for another fifteen minutes – then you can go home, get away from Mr. Gravvy and watch that video for the phone, she tried to comfort herself with this thought even though the world seemed to be trying to get on her nerves all day. It seemed to take an eternity for the bell to ring. Sakura knew that she had been waiting for the bell to chime for longer than fifteen minutes… She began to loose hope and leaned over her math paper when the bell finally sounded. She grabbed her books, crammed them into her backpack and ran to the door. One thought rang supreme in her mind: she could finally watch that video! She smiled happily until Mr. Gravvy stopped her.

"Sakura, I need to speak with you." Sakura hesitantly turned to her teacher as if he were speaking a foreign language with a purple tongue. Weather he noticed her strange look or not, he continued. "You are a smart girl and a good student but you seem to struggle with math. I would be able to offer you some extra credit if you simply join the math club."

Sakura nodded her head in thanks and smiles. Her math grade isn't that bad, maybe a C minus at the lowest but Sakura also knows that she parents want her math grade to be closer to be B. So, even though she really just wanted to leave, she decided to avoid the long talk that her parents would have to have with her and turned to her teacher again. "When does the club meet?"

"The club cannot meet often. Most of the club members are also part of the chess and geography clubs. We meet the second Tuesday of each month."

Sakura breathed a sigh of relief – the club only met once a month. That left plenty of time for all of her hobbies. The less time she spent on math the better! Even better still, today was a Friday. Sakura could go home and watch her video. Without a second thought, Sakura got on the bus.

Her neighbor, Rosa smiled at her when Sakura moved to sit down on the seat next to her. "Ready for the weekend?"

The girls talked about their plans and gossiped about their other neighbors until the bus stopped on their street. They were always the last to get on and the first to get off.

"Mr. Gravvy may be a grumpy teacher but at least he never gives homework over the weekend," Sakura confided in her neighbor.

"Well, enjoy your weekend without any math!" Rosa and Sakura waved goodbye as they crossed the streets to their homes. Rosa's mother opened the door and hugged her daughter every afternoon… Sakura's family was different. There was no mother in the doorway. The driveway was so empty that the lack of substance opened a void in the pit of her stomach. Dad's still at the office, she thought to herself. "Lets go see where Mom went off to…"Sakura's thoughts became words.

She opened the door and walked into the kitchen. A pink post-it was taped to the refrigerator. Sakura leaned forward to read it:

Hon –

Had to go get

Grandpa's tickets. See you

Around six o'clock.



Sakura's mother's notes were always the same: "Had to get this or that… See you around six." It always seemed to be from about 3 o'clock to six. Why did it always seem to take three hours to get a prescription, or a few last minute dinner items?

Sakura had asked her mother that question years ago – about the time she had gotten old enough to realize that most people did not need three hours to run simple errands. "I can walk the three blocks to the store faster than that," the child Sakura had bragged.

"I try to optimize my time outside of the house by running all my errands at once."

"Why does the note just list one errand?"

"I don't always know all the errands I will need to run so I just put down first one. I don't want to bore everyone with the list of errands I need to run plus… It just takes too much time to write it all down." Her mother believed that she had provided a good answer for the child and she quickly walked away.

The whole thing seemed secretive. Anyone could tell that the statement was a lie. She seemed to say it as a second thought – like it was never really in her head or in her heart – like the truth was that she wanted to avoid Sakura at all costs. None of that really bothered Sakura because she continually gave herself new things to do. If her hands were moving, her mind never seemed to dwell on any of the sorrowful things that threatened to consume her. She was able to keep her mind off the bad things by keeping them on the flavor of the week or month.

But now… Now she had something real. It constantly changed and moved her interest in it could last forever. Sakura ran to the seclusion of her room, locked the door and carefully took out the phone and the paper. The image was still moving and she did not want to miss a thing! Sakura quickly switched on her web cam to record as much as possible. Not one moment of the paper's movement would be lost now. Every millisecond would be her's to see and to decipher. It was like a giant puzzle that beckoned for her to find a solution. She smiled to herself as she pressed the "play" button.

Sakura's breath came in shallow gulps and gasps. It seemed like she could never really get enough air but the adrenaline that flowed through her veins hid the fact from her exhausted body. She couldn't breathe because she could not believe what she was seeing. A map of strange words appeared in the background as words moved up the surface of the paper as if it was a TV.

Little One

Little One

Come See

The Truth that Rests Against

Your Party:

The Ruler went Down

Because he couldn't remember

To never let go of his Hand

Or his shiny Saber.

They both dropped with a clang

The sound made the wind shake

He knew he was to Blame

He waited in the sun and Baked

To show his followers that he would do the same

Without Saber or Hand…

She went on to read about the Emperor who could not loose even though he had nothing. No sword, no honor, or even a group of followers. The people had abandoned him when he humiliated himself by loosing the saber and hand. Usually, the saber is any ruler's greatest, most coveted possession. This Emperor is not so different from the other rulers. The saber had been passed down to him from generations past. Oil paintings adorned the walls and each painting held not only a past emperor but also a jeweled saber – the same saber that this young emperor had just lost. Servants whispered that he was too young and naive to sit upon the throne as ruler.

The young ruler did all he could to stop these rumors of course. He started by killing the man who was spreading the rumors: the distinguished captain of the guard – The image that accompanied this section was so realistic and violent that Sakura actually had to close her eyes. All the pictures were drawn in a hieroglyphic style but they still seemed realistic in a way that was hard to explain. It was like those cartoons of people with purple faces drinking blood: It is obvious that the people in the images are not real but it still seems too gross and it sickens everyone who sees it. Sakura could not help but be slightly nauseous but curiosity drove her to want to see more. She cautiously cracked open her eyes.

New words were appearing but they continued to tell the story of the fictional emperor who had lost his prized saber. The young, implosive ruler turned into a good, just emperor. The land began to prosper, as everything the emperor touched seemed to. He was truly blessed and his blessing seemed to transfer to the land he ruled. The empire's treasury seemed to grow as treaties were signed and warriors were brought home. The common people rejoiced as the emperor's luck seemed to rub off on everyone who was near him. Everyone quickly forgot the whole ordeal with the saber and the violent mistakes the emperor had made in his youth. Unfortunately, the emperor's luck was about to run out.

The Empress had recently announced that she was with child and all the kingdoms in the empire were still rejoicing the good fortune. They feasted even as the Empress labored, believing that the prophecy that the wise woman read from the stones would be true and that the emperor would soon have a son as an heir for the land. No one would have guessed what would really happen next: The Empress died giving birth to the child and the little boy was too weak to even eat. The baby boy did not live a day. The emperor found himself alone and angry once more.

Sakura had to stop at this point because her eyes filled with tears. She paused the cell phone video there and began to unpack her school bag and place her things on her desk. Sakura sat down to do the homework Gavvy had given her but she did not get far when a noise came from outside. She jumped when she heard a car door slam. Her mother was home. It must be six…

Sakura walked down to the kitchen. Her mother usually comes home carrying an armful of groceries. The door squeaked open as Sakura's mother, Ann walked into the room. Once again, her arms were full of over flowing grocery bags. The bags fell over as Ann set them on the counter. Sakura moved to pick them up and her mother seemed to actually notice that she was there.

"How was school, Sakura?"

"It was OK," she tried to explain. "I got a new project."

"A real project or one of your fake ones?"

Sakura blushed with embarrassment. "None of them are fake," she mumbled.

"Speak up, Sakura!"

"It is not a school project yet." Ann looked at Sakura suspiciously with thousands of questions in her eyes. "I'm going to use it for my video assignment in Communications class," Sakura tried to explain further but her mother seemed to be preoccupied.

"Oh, what a good idea. You should try to use all your projects in your schoolwork. It will be easier for you to get into college. That way, you won't have to do so many extra assignments." Sakura nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Her mother just didn't understand her. She hated these forced conversations and had to stop herself from breathing a sigh of relief when her father walked in.

"How was work, dear?" Ann asked her husband.

"What a day!" Brad started. "Osmann sent me seven emails in one hour because he needed help with pricing. He should have been done with that project weeks ago!"

Brad was the head of a large financing firm. His company handled the finances and savings of dozens of other companies. The companies paid Brad a lot of money to save them even more money. Sakura knew that her father tried to make it sound more complicated than that but money for money was basically what his company boiled down to. She zoned out as her father continued to explain how three of his employees could not write a simple excel presentation for a perspective client. What would the emperor do to get away from this? He had been through so much more than her and had survived more than any other person she had even heard of…

"Sakura, help me finish making dinner," Ann ordered.

"What are we making?"

"Lasagna. It's your father's favorite and he has had a hard day."

Sakura and her mother moved to the stove and began to make the rich pasta. Sakura boiled water and chopped up the cheese while Ann prepared the meat and added spices to sauces. Ann hummed while she worked because she hated silence. Sakura used the time to think. He had a far away look in her eyes that could only be matched in severity to her mother's look of concentration.

The lasagna was made in what seemed like seconds to Sakura. Still, Brad breathed a sighed "finally" when Ann announced that dinner was ready. Brad always wanted things to be done on a moment's notice. He wants things now, if not sooner.

Sakura found the habit annoying but her mother chastised her:

"At least your father channels what would otherwise be an annoyance to make him a great businessman." Sakura always had to sigh in defeat when her mother said this. She was right: the habit did give him an edge but that did not make it any less annoying when he was at home.

Both her parents, like the king, seemed to prosper at everything that they did. They both made money at the jobs they had chosen even though they had both taken "the road less traveled" in their careers. Brad owned his own business even though he could have made just as much money in an average financial adviser position without having to spend so much time at the office. Her mother ran a business online. Her business sent package all over the world and was very popular in Asia. Sakura admired her parents' courage and determination but she never wanted to be like them.

Sure, they were successful but they seemed to be disconnected from the rest of the world. Sakura doubted that either one of her parents could say the name of the current president or even Sakura's school because neither one of them knew it. Brad could list the current balances of all his clients' accounts and Ann could list all the shipping methods available on her site… Sakura's parents could have wonderful memories when they wanted to but they were so busy remembering the things that they needed to know for work that they never seemed to stop and think about remembering the things that mattered to Sakura.

Sakura tried to push these memories away as she and her parents ate. Maybe I'm the one messing things up, thought Sakura. Maybe things would be better if I acted like they were better. I need to stop expecting the worst in people… Especially my parents:

She thought back to when she was five. Sakura's parents had taken her to the beach that year. It was just the three of them and she had loved the trip for one reason: Her parents were her's and her's alone. They did not go into work or check their emails. Sakura could tell that they liked it too: They smiled constantly and actually laughed every now and then – which they NEVER did at home. It seemed like it had literally been years since they smiled.

Sakura tried to push all her memories away… They seemed too painful now. That was why Sakura always had some kind of project because she always needed some kind of distraction. The thought of discovering something new and enveloping her mind into something whole-heartedly brought her comfort. So, she thought of that now. Sakura thought of her cards and the video that awaited her in her room. A cold feeling traveled down in tingling back. Anxiousness rose up inside of her because she wanted nothing more than to watch the rest. She could not hold the mix of joy and worry inside of her for long. Sakura quickly excused herself and ran upstairs to her room.

Chapter Two

Sakura excused herself from the table, anxiously running to her room. She was enthralled in the story of the cards but she did not think that it was real. Sakura had the cards in front of her but she could not appreciate it because she did not believe that it was true. Diejed knew that the story was true because he lived in the world they described but he did not have the cards. He did not have what he had wanted so badly but not for lack of trying. Diejed was a youkai and his reason for living was to find the cards and make them give him more power. Diejed knew that the cards could also be used to bring others down – they bent to the will of whoever held them. Still, Diejed was not afraid because he had plans.

Diejed knew that one man could be in power at a time. If more than one man took the throne, then they all fought each other in vain. Nothing could happen because the two were fighting each other. The common people would grow restless and exile the king that was left alive. The fact that the ruler was selfish enough to fight for more power while the poor got poorer still told the commoners that the risk of getting exiled themselves was worth getting the man off the throne.

Diejed knew that the only way to keep the common people in check was to rule with fear and in solitude. The people had to know that the punishments would be severe if they made any move against the ruler. Diejed would rule with anger, fear, and war. War kept the nobles, leading generals, and warriors busy. Anyone who could over throw him with influence would be too busy chasing an unknown enemy. Diejed knew that ruling could not be that easy – if it was no one would have been exiled. The hardest thing, would be finding an "unknown" enemy and Diejed knew just where to find them…

In another dimension there is a place called Earth and on that planet live mortal humans who delight in conquering new things with strange and powerful weapons. All Diejed would have to do to earn the military's attention would be to show how much destruction and death this one invention caused. The generals would beg to go and protect their families from this new threat. It would be a long war to distract everyone but in the end, Diejed was convinced that the mononoke kingdom would win. The mortals had weapons of mass destruction but the mononokes had magic and auroras. Diejed knew that the humans could be beaten and he did not see the humans as a threat. The war was not really about beating them. The Shuna Nature Spirits would come out to save the dieing world and Diejed would delight in killing not only the Earthlings but the Shuna as well.

The Shuna Nature Spirits have been a constant bother. They stole the Emperor's Saber centuries ago and almost caused the destruction of the most prosperous empire in the whole mononoke dimension. The Great Empower fell when his Saber was stolen and different groups of rulers began to rule. The idea was that the groups of rulers could have different ideas that would lead to a rebirth of the empire. Unfortunately, the different ideas lead to war instead of to prosperity. The king had left specific instructions in the form of the cards but the first new rulers hid the cards, believing that the people could not rise up. The loss of the cards did not stop the mononokes from exiling the rulers. Now, all the different spirits and mononokes are at war. Mononokes even turned on each other.

A vote was taken centuries ago that still effects the lives of all the dimensions today. Most mononokes were content to watch the nobles take over after the emperor had past. Others, like Diejed, voted that the mononoke should take over and that the spirits who started this trouble should face the consequences. The mononoke separated and the mononoke who refused to sway from the majority vote began to call the others youkai. Diejed detest the new name at first but it became a thing of pride: he was now a youkai and soon all the youkais would raise again and the day that they had dreamed of for centuries would be here sooner still.

All Diejed needed to do was get to the mortal dimension and take the cards from an unknowing mortal human. A young girl had unknowingly called them to her. Diejed did not believe that she could possibly be the one the prophesies of Old spoke of (no mortal could ever hold such power) but still, the cards would not just come to anyone. This girl would have to be handled with delicately.

"What is needed, Master?" Asked a raspy voice from the corner of the room. It was Aspon, Diejed's unabsorbed humanistic conscience.

"The only thing that I need is your silence! I need to think." Why did Aspon even need to ask? Even though the conscience was unabsorbed, the two of them could still share thoughts.

"Are you going to kill her like you killed all those others?" A note of dread could not be hidden from Aspon's voice.

Diejed ignored most of Aspon's questions but this suggestion was worth considering. The tall mononoke turned youkai sat and thought for a moment (delicacy was not one of Diejed's strong points). The girl could not know about dimensions or the box travel that allowed Diejed to move between them. The best thing to do would be to sneak in and take it without the girl knowing. He could not risk having to kill her – she may become useful in the near future; especially with the impending war with the Shuna Spirits… This human could be quite useful indeed.

Chapter Three

Sakura was out of breath by the time she made it to her bedroom door. She did not have to travel far to get from the kitchen to the bedroom but she had run the entire way. "Yes," she breathed as she saw that the cell phone had not lost its' place as sometimes happed when she put it in her pocket. She looked to her webcam to make sure that the movement of the pictures was still being recorded. She made sure that everything was at the correct angle and quickly moved back to the cell phone. The image that was displayed on the screen stilled showed the sorrowful scene of the Empress' death. Remembering the story thus far, Sakura took a deep breath and pressed play.

The Emperor went into hiding, refusing to see anyone. His grief ruled him and he seemed to throw himself in this grief. He wanted something to control him because he did not have the heart to do anything. The servants and noblemen tried their best to coax him out of the room where he had imprisoned himself. They pleaded and bribed but nothing worked the emperor refused to come out into the real world. The advisors and other men that he had practically grown up with came to coax him out but it seemed to only make him go deeper into himself.

After months the empire came out and addressed his people. The commoners assumed that the ruler would announce that the time of mourning was over and that it was time to move on even though the people who had been lost would never to forgotten. Margaret saw the images change from bluish black to a yellow gold. She knew that the events that were taking place on the paper were only in the people's minds. All eyes watched the emperor but no one's ears were prepared to hear what the ruler would say.

"My people," he began, "we have been through a time of great tragedy but now is the time for healing." The crowd gave off a great sigh of relief. They assumed that all the trouble of the previous weeks would soon be over. "The empire cannot heal with me on the throne because I will never heal. Therefore, I have decided to resign from my position. I could not leave my throne to a son but I will give my predecessor the best noble fatherly advise I can." The emperor paused to hold up the paper (Margaret could see that it was identical to the paper that she was holding in her hand) and continued his speech. "This paper holds all that I have learned about being a great ruler in all my years on the throne."

Margaret wanted nothing more than to continue reading and watching her film but a loud boom startled her so much that she actually stood without bothering to press the pause button. The lamp shook and the vases fell off the shelves along with books and papers. The noise was so great that the whole house shook. Sakura was certain that the county had walked into an earthquake. She ran to the doorway – was where you stood during a storm, right? Sakura's mind was so muddled that she did not know what to do! The ground seemed to shake harder and harder as the seconds ticked on. This could not be a normal quake! Sakura was so terrified and confused that she could hold it in no longer: she opened her mouth and let out the loudest scream she could, pulling all of her pent up emotion into it.

As soon as she finished screaming, the earthquake seemed to stop. Sakura was about to breath a sigh of relief when a strange voice caused her even more alarm. "You're quite the screamer…Not something I expected from the one who holds the cards."

Sakura just looked at the speaker; a tall man with big eyes and dark hair that waved all the way to his shoulders. She tried to back away from him slowly but the man had other plans. His fingers were spiking swords as they reached out to grab Sakura. She was so scared that her brain froze. She had survived an earthquake but now an insane man with the uncanny ability to appear out of nowhere was on her. Sakura knew that she could only test this kind of fate once and her chances were running out. Pure survival instinct kicked in. Sakura did the only thing that she could think to do: She ran…

"Get away from me!" She yelled as she ran with all her might.

The strange man below her laughed. "Do you really think that it is you that I want?" His strange hand seemed to grow and stretch forward. He could reach the door of Sakura's room without even moving his feet. Sakura's sprint of a run screeched to a halt. Still, his hand grew further… The hand was in Sakura's room now. She dove forward to close the door on the still-growing fingers but the owner of the hand saw her coming. He simply "nudged" her mid-leap. Sakura ended up landing on the wall with a loud thud. The man didn't seem to notice her cry of pain as she hit the side. He just kept letting his hand grow. It was in her room and the large fingers seemed to be delicately moving her things around. Why doesn't he just destroy it? Sakura asked herself. He's looking for something!

"What do you want?" The man with the stretched hand ignored her question. "Whatever it is, I'll get it for you. Just stop!" Sakura said these things as if she were issuing an order but both she and the man knew who was in charge and they both knew that it was not Sakura. "Please!" She yelled in a final attempt.

The man paid her no mind… His hand had finally found what he was looking for. The man never answered because his maniacal laugh filled the air and made the hairs on the back of Sakura's neck rise. "Yes!" He yelled. "I have it!" Sakura was too shocked and confused to do anything. Her heart almost stopped when a flash of burning light filled the room. She focused all her will power on going against nature and not closing her eyes. Unfortunately, fighting instinct is a loosing battle. Sakura let her eyes close when the pain of the light was too much. When she opened them, the man and her new project was gone.

Some people may have been disheartened but Sakura remembered one important thing: she still had the video! She raced into the now empty and disheveled room. Paper and broken glass littered the floor and covered the ripped sheets of her bed and the open and cracked computer. She sighed, knowing that her webcam was lost. Sakura waded around in the mess, searching for her phone. It was the only recording left and it was invaluable even though it was a partial recording.

Sakura continued to dig through the debris hurriedly when she heard a low moan behind her. Sakura turned so quickly that her long dark hair hit her in the face. Through the hair, Sakura saw her mother crawling into the doorway. "Mom!" Sakura called as she ran towards the hurt woman. "What happened?"

"I was in the garage putting the last of the things away when the whole place started to shake. I ran in side to find your father but something fell before I could get to the bedroom…" Her mother trailed off there. Sakura's first thought was to make sure that her father was alright. She ran to her parent's bedroom and was surprised to find that the bed was still made. Sakura turned back to her mother.

"No one is there. The bed is still made and everything." Sakura waited a moment for her mother to answer but no explanation came. She had been patient for so long that these last few minutes seemed like the last straw. She could not hold all her questions in and wait patiently for the proper time anymore. "Where's Dad? Why were you in the garage? What is REALLY going on?" All the questions poured out of her like a warm torrent but she suddenly went cold when her mother gave her answer.

"I could be asking you those very same questions. Who was that man and why did the ground really shake?"

Sakura stopped cold and looked at her mother in disgust. She turned back to the bedroom. With her back to her mother, Sakura said, "You can't blame this on me! You have been keeping secrets and I just wanted to keep my mind on other things!" Sakura had never been angrier than she was now. The words that she had just spoken needed to come out of her and now that they had she saw that her mother needed some type of answer to find her father.

"The video project I was doing involved some pieces of paper with moving pictures and words. The man took those when he came."

Ann gasped in surprise. "How big were these pieces of paper?"

Sakura held out her hands to show that the paper was about half a computer sheet in length. Ann let out a shocked, gargled breath. Sakura looked at her mother with a questioning stare but the stirring questions that pulled Sakura's thoughts in all directions would have to wait. Sakura turned to see what her mother was staring at with such large eyes. As she turned, a black flash suddenly appeared at Sakura's side. Its movements were too fast for Sakura to even react. She was knocked down almost before her brain could register what just happened.

The black monster made its way to Ann with the same speed it had attacked Sakura. The monster quickly knocked Ann down but instead of moving on, the monster placed its gigantic paw on Ann's throat. Sakura struggled to get up and stop the monster from hurting her mother but the world was still spinning from the blow to her head. A bump was already forming and a few rips were cracked from the earlier battle with the stretching handed man.

"Run," Ann managed to choke out even as the monster put more pressure on her neck. "Go," the older woman said more urgently. Now not even a breath could escape Ann's mouth. The monster was putting all his weight on her throat. Sakura tried again to get up. Her mother needed help desperately. She could not do without air for much longer. Sakura managed to get into a kneeling position but as soon as she tried to stand the dizziness forced her down again.

The monster noticed her movements and turned his head to her while his lower body remained still so that the paw on her mother's neck. "Naïve human," his eyes glowed red, "have you ever defeated a warrior? I have defeated thousands from hundreds of worlds. It is over!" The monster's voice raised in triumph as Ann's body went limp. Sakura's anger and fear allowed her to rush at the monster in an all-out run. She dove for him as a purple-blue cloud began to form around the monster and quickly closed on them both.

Sakura was left floating in the dark. She was alone and confused. Even as a small child, Sakura was not afraid of the dark but she had never seen a dark as empty as this. She felt like she would cry and brake down because she could no longer stand the darkness when a new fear broke in. Sakura began to fall. She tried to grab at anything that she could but the walls around were smooth. Everything she touched began to glow.

Sakura could see flowers and beads of light all round her but she could also see the spikes almost floating beneath her. Sakura moved her hands to shield her face but even at this height Sakura could see how sharp the spikes were. She would need more than hands to stop a killing stroke. She closed her eyes and silently prayed for a miracle as she fell. No one could survive this by himself or herself. She needed help and she knew it. Her parents were gone; her friends were probably still sleeping in her bed. There was no one else to ask but a higher power.

Sakura's decent seemed to slow as she fell. Inches before she hit the spikes, Sakura came to a complete stop. Feeling the sudden lack of movement, Sakura tentatively opened her eyes. She saw that she never really hit the ground. It looked like she was floating above it. Sakura slowly reached out her hand to touch the surface beneath her. She half-expected that the spikes that could still be seen under her found stab at her should she move her hand in the wrong way. Sakura pushed the fear she had aside and quickly touched the surface beneath her with two fingers.

Sakura was relieved the find that nothing happened… Nothing moved. She was not falling to her death or floating back up. The world seemed to be utterly still and it did not start moving even when Sakura got to her feet. The glass-like surface over the spikes seemed to be able to hold her weight well. All the same, Sakura made sure to walk slowly and gingerly. She was only able to walk for a few moments when a painfully familiar sound came from her left. It was a low grunt followed by a deep-throated growl. She knew at that moment that the monster was there, only a few meters from her. She slowly turned towards the sound; giving a silent prayer once again that the monster had not seen her.

The first thing that Sakura noticed was that the monster was below her and to the left. The monster had not landed on the glass-like surface as she had. The spikes had pushed through him. The monster's gigantic head was covered in blood and the once strong tail looked to be broken. Sakura could not help but feel sorry for this monster. It had killed her mother and tried to do the same to her but Sakura felt in her heart that the monster was tricked. It looked so pitiful now…

Maybe the monster had a family waiting for him somewhere, Sakura thought to herself. This monster could have been threatened or tricked into doing the evil man's bidding. Sakura took a step towards the monster but instantly stopped after that one. She couldn't forget the look on her mother's face as the monster killed her. It would be unwise to trust this thing fully. Even if it was tricked the monster could still kill her by being tricked again. This situation had to be met with cautiousness. She inched towards the monster. – the idea of leaving it there seemed too cruel to be a real option.

The monster continued to moan and growl. The long teeth were bared as the monster snarled at her. Still, Sakura did not feel threatened. She continued to walk towards it until her small hand touched its side. The monster was so immense that her petit hand seemed to shrink further as it rubbed against its matted fur. The monster stopped moaning when Sakura started to stroke it.

"It's OK," Sakura said this to both the monster and herself. "Shhh," she continued to sooth the beast. The monster started to attempt to raise to its feet. Sakura moved to the beast's side and saw a shadow in the distance.

Then, the shadow started to speak. "I see that this lazy abomination did not do its job." Sakura's blood ran could cold… she could recognize the voice. It was the strange man with the stretching arm. Sakura tried to move to the monster's other side, away from the strange man. She could see a small smile form on the man's face even though he was surrounded by shadow. "I thought about letting you live but your mother ruined that. I sent our good friend there to take care of you both. I thought that he would be strong enough to defeat two mere women without much of a problem."

The man was looking at the monster's blood-covered face with anger forcing his lips to turn up in a sneered and frustrations making his eyes burn. His terrible green eyes found their way to Sakura, who still stood at the monster's side. "Luckily, I always plan ahead. Your father should serve as a suitable captive," paused to see her reaction. Hope flashed across her face as he cheeks lit up and her mouth smiled. Only her eyes showed the dread that she still felt deep inside. Good, thought the Youkai in the guise of a man, the girl knows that we are someone to be reckoned with.

"What do you want me to do? If you don't tell me where he is I'll make sure that you live to regret it!" She was braver than Diejed had originally thought. The girl was not afraid to take charge. Diejed smiled at her then; amused that she thought that she could ever intimidate him or any of his kind.

"You think that you can make me tell, child? I can do things that you never even imagined."

Diejed stepped towards the girl with a renewed purpose. No one should have the nerve to speak to him in such a way! The man was about to pass in front of the monster to get the girl when the beast stood up in one sharp motion. Now its teeth were bared at its master! The best's large, red head swiftly made its way to Diejed. The Youkai was still in his human form but the heart of him remained in its Youkai form. Stabbing Diejed in his human parts was only stabbing an illusion but if the beast could hit Diejed near where the man's heart would be…

Diejed knew that the beast would try to attack him in his most vulnerable point (the only part of his human body that was still him) and was prepared for it. Still, the force that the monster used in his strike had enough speed to knock Diejed past the spike field and out of sight. His body went from being the shrinking shadow of a man to being a small dot in the air. The dot that was Diejed seemed to get smaller and smaller. Sakura did not know where the monster had knocked the man to but she could tell that it was far away from her and she wanted things to stay that way.

The monster seemed to be thinking the same thing as Sakura as the best struggled to get to its feet. Sakura ran to its side and tried to help support the poor creature. The dark hair on the monster's flank was matted and covered in blood but it felt soft and warm in her hand. Working together, the two of them were able to work the spikes out of the beast's side.

"Come on," Sakura urged the creature. "We must hurry. That man might come back!" Sakura lead the monster in the opposite direction of that the man had flown. The field of spikes was surrounded by a thick forest of gnarled and broken trees. The large best was having a hard time moving through the small openings but it continued to follow Sakura.

She started at a fast pace. She was a short person but she was used to moving fast and her small frame allowed her to move easily through the trees. After she had made her way in to the woods, the monster gave a deep cry. Sakura turned to it and saw its eyes staring at her as if pleading. Sakura knew that speed was important and that she should travel as quickly as possible to avoid the stretching man and find her father as quickly as possible but she could not ignore the beast's cry. Sakura turned around and knew that she had to help it.

"Alright," she sighed, "I'm coming. We will travel together." The beast began to calm as he saw the girl get closer and closer to him. She moved several branches out of his way and the beast was able to get deeper into the forest without hurting himself further.

Roots stuck out of the ground and caused the monster to stumble. Branches pulled his thick hair and scratched at his wounds. He would moan every so often when the branches cut him wounds further or deeper. The large beast was not meant to be in these woods or in any other as far as Sakura could see.

Sakura spoke to encourage both her own movements and the monster as they slowly made their way to the forest's center. "I know that the branches are getting closer together and that you are having a hard time. Don't give up. There is only one reason for the trees to be this close: We are getting closer to the center of the forest. There is probably a trading post or something there."

Sakura remembered seeing a map at the beginning of the film. She could not say exactly where she was but the thick woods on the map had spikes on the outskirts. She had thought that they were mountains then but they could have been the spike field. The map had shown a dot in the center of the woods marked, "post". This was really all Sakura knew. Sakura could only hope that the post would be able to help them.

Sakura looked at the monster. "Don't you go choking or butting the people at the post, now. Once we get there we need them to like us and help us." The monster only grunted at her but she was confidant that he would not hurt anyone – especially since the monster could hardly make his way in the woods. The wounds that he carried would be deeper by the time they made their way to the post and Sakura doubted that he would feel like doing anything once he got there.

The beast looked as if he could go no further when a short man with a big nose poked at him. "Hey, no cuts! I know you're hurt but that ain't no excuse!"

"Are we near the post?" Sakura asked excitedly.

"Only about a fourth of a mile left now, girlie." Sakura stretched her neck trying to see where the line stopped. She gasped in amazement at the size. "This is one of the shorter lines. People come from miles around just to send letters and talk to family on the other side."

"The other side of what?"

"The other side of the woods o' course! Only the mailmen know the paths through these treacherous woods." The small man laughed in a high-pitches squeal as he finished speaking. "You really don't know nothing about these here forests!" Sakura blushed at his jibe. "Ya must be new. I'm Crankeet by the way. We be in line for awhile so we might as well get to know unanother."

"I'm Sakura," the girl said automatically and flinched. Should have used a fake name, she thought.

"I ain't never seen no one travel with a big thing like that… It's friendly ain't it?"

Sakura just petted the beast. She didn't trust herself to answer. Sakura knew that she was a terrible liar but the man did not seem to notice that she was avoiding his question. He just walked closer to the beast and rubbed his hand in the monster's fur.

"He a gentle giant, he is," declared Crankeet.

Sakura nodded her agreement. "So, what's on the other side of the woods?"

"The Grand Palace o' course. I thought e'ryun knowed that!"

"I am new…" Sakura started lamely.

"I thought you was new to the post; not new to Nefet World! E'ryun knews about the Grand Palace and the King, even country folk like me," the small man with the large nose stated his status proudly and puffed out his chest.

Sakura was surprised to see that she could suddenly see the front of the line. There was a brightly painted sign on the front of the post window. If said two small words but the words went right into Sakura's heart and logged it in her throat: "now hiring," the sign said.

A plan was forming in Sakura's mind. She needed out of Nefit World and back into her own world. Who would know how to do that? Surely, the great minds in the palace would know what to do! All she had to do was ask for a job and make her way to the palace. Someone there would know how to get her father back and take her home!

Sakura went over what she should say in her head over and over. By the time she made it to the front desk, she was jittery and nervous.

"How can I help you?" The woman at the front desk asked Sakura through the glass.

"I am here in response to the help wanted request," Sakura stated formally if a little shakily.

"Oh, wonderful! Garret will show you were you are to be working." The woman motioned to her right as a tall man walked behind her and round the side to a door.

"I'm Garret," he introduced himself. "Nice to have you on the team. The job can be dangerous but it is worth it to get to see the palace."

Sakura nodded as if she had been thinking the same thing since she was very young. "I can't wait to get started."

"There is some minor training you have to do first… For security and all."

"Of course," Sakura said confidently. Her teachers in school had always told her that people should act confidant when they are nervous. If you act confidant long enough, you begin to feel it too. She was sad to see the beast go into his own clearing in the forest but she knew what had to be done.

Chapter 4

The next two days were the longest and most taxing Sakura had ever known. She was woken hours before the sun rose and started the day was jogging. After jogging around the parameter of the post (which was about a mile) three times, Sakura and two other new employees would be given a bow and three arrows. Sakura did not know what to do with these at first.

"Where are the targets?" She whispered to the new employee on her right.

"The arrows are for hunting. It is time to get some breakfast."

"We hunt our own food?"

"Yeah," the employee at Sakura's other side confirmed. "Try to get something big and then you won't have to hunt at lunch and dinner."

Sakura's face paled. She had never hunted before! The whole concept was foreign to her. She had shot an arrow at a target in gym class a few times but was never any good at it. She was resigned to let her stomach growl for a while. Sakura was about to hand the bow and arrows back to the instructor when she saw a berry bush.

Her mind went back to the summer when she and her father picked berries at Aunt Martha's farm to help her make three-dozen pies for the fair. She may not need to hunt for food but she needed to show these people that she was ready for the job. She needed them to show her how to get to the palace.

She could hunt for her father and for her own world back… So, she crept into the woods with careful footsteps and a soaring hope in her heart. Sakura wanted to start as soon as possible but she knew that it would be foolhardy to go hunting for animals when she could hardly shoot a bow. She had to find a way to improve quickly.

The forest had thick tree growth but the plants themselves came in varying sizes. Sakura was glad of this because she figured aiming for a specific tree that was unique would be good practice. She could east berries until her arms were strong enough to pull the arrow back to pierce the hide of the toughest beast.

Sakura practiced four times a day to increase her accuracy and strength. Soon enough her arrows could piece all the way through the trees. She could aim for a thin crack in a tree and hit it with perfect precision. She believed that she was ready to try it on the real thing.

She crouched in the bushes where her berries rested. Animals craved the sweet nectar of the berry juice just as much as their human neighbors did. Sure enough there were large animal prints in the packed ground around the bush. She followed them easily even though she was not an experienced tracker. The trees that stood in the animal's path were pushed down and broken at parts.

A loud snort sounded a few meters away from Sakura as a large bear reared its head up. Sakura instantly ducked down. The bear sniffed the air and immediately went back to his berry eating. He ate greedily and the animal's snorts resumed with greater speed. Sakura knew that this was her chance. The bear was distracted and she needed to shot the arrow before the animal noticed her.

She stood to aim her arrow and shoot the bear. The arrow shook in her small hand as her arm flexed to pull the bow as far back as she could. She concentrated on her arrow and tried to forget the bear that was so close to her. Unfortunately, she was so busy trying to steady her arrow that she did not notice that the bear was getting on its hind legs to stand.

The bear let out fierce roar that was so sudden that Sakura's heart almost stopped. She was so shaken that the bowstring loosened in her hand. The arrow fell to the ground before it made it halfway to the bear. Sakura covered her eyes in fear; waiting for the killing strike.

The bear was running at full speed straight for her but it suddenly changed persecutory when the bear saw a large, gray shape running towards him. It was the beast from before, fully healed from its wounds. The beast's curved hooves struck the bear with deadly force even as it struck the animal's heart.

"You saved me again," Sakura admitted to the beast that stood still before her. "Maybe we can make it to the palace together." She stood silent for a moment and watched the beast's eyes for a sign of understanding. "You are a kind creature… The stretching man must have forced you to help him to so many cruel things. Crankeet was right when he named you a gentle beast."

Sakura looked down at the large bear in awe. She had seen several bears at home in zoos and during her time in the forest here but this was easily the largest bear she had ever seen. It had to be at least seven feet tall on its hind legs and it seemed like every bone in its body was covered in a thick layer of fat. Sakura slowly walked closer and closer to the bear but still not too close. The gentle beast that had saved her still seemed to be a little weary of the other animal and Sakura was not about to risk getting mauled when she had just recently escaped death.

To say she was surprised when someone suddenly pushed her towards the bear would be a drastic understatement. Her heart was thumbing at one hundred beats a minute and it felt like it would explode out of her chest at any second. She fought back a gasp; refusing to let the enemy hear her fear. It was not long after her startled thoughts that she had to fight back a laugh. Garret was the one who had pushed her… and he was not pushing her forward to let the beast eat her.

"I have never seen a new recruit take on a bear! This thing is huge. It is amazing that you were able to take it down on your own."

Sakura blushed at his praise but quickly wanted to set the record straight. "Actually, this guy here took the bear down." Sakura patted the large beast that still stood by her side.

"I have to say that I am no longer amazed," Garret began, "I am in awe! You used a tamed beast to take on a wild. It was a brilliant idea on your part."

"I think that it was really his idea," Sakura explained. "He chose me." Garret smiled. He seemed to be even more impressed by her meekness and humble replies. She mumbled for a bit as the two of them dragged the bear back with them; feeling awkward because of all the attention she seemed to be getting.

Everyone in the Post marveled at the girl's catch. The new cadets even had a feast in her honor. Sakura seemed to be getting more and more embarrassed and her face got redder and redder as a result. She did have to admit that it was nice to be noticed – even if it was by people from an interly different world. She also liked the idea that the beast no longer had to hide. He was allowed in the Post as a reward for his good job. Sakura was pulled back to the seriousness of her situation when she saw the bush and was reminded of her father. Her sorrowful reveries were cut short by Garret's arrival.

"Don't stay up too late celebrating," he commanded. "You'll have to be up early tomorrow to take your first message to the palace."

All the cadets whooped and Sakura jumped up with a smile on her face. She felt like she could have dived at Garrett and kissed him but she was too busy being excited:

This was her chance to save her father!

Hope blossomed in the girl's chest as she let herself absorb the news: She would be going to the palace… Saving her father was no longer just a wish but also a possibility! It could really happen. Sakura and her father could go home and live a normal life again. Sakura had to pause at that thought.

When the idea of having life go back to normal first appeared in her head, Sakura had been excited but as the thought finished forming in her head, Sakura found that she was not sure that she wanted life to go back to normal. What was so wrong about living here and hunting in the woods? She had only lived the life of a messenger for a few weeks but she could not imagine giving it up. The life just seemed to fit her… this job was all she ever wanted – she was popular, she had friends, and she had a family who loved her – still, Sakura could not just leave her father. She owed it to him. He had given things up for her countless times. Now it was her turn to make a small sacrifice for him. Still, she could not help but feel an overwhelming sadness in her heart.

Sakura did her best to push the feelings away as she readied herself for sleep and for the full day ahead. She could not have imagined what was waiting for her in the deep woods. If she had, Sakura may have questioned going there in the first place… it was something far worse than a bear.

The dark-haired girl woke up early the next morning. She was not normally an early raiser but the excitement forced her into waking ahead of schedule. She was glad that she had time to kill because in the stillness of the early morning, Sakura realized how much she would miss this place. She ran her hands along the moss-covered walls and walked along the pine-lined roads that connected all the buildings in the small community of post messengers.