What up people? =D *hugs!*

Time for another installment of LH5W!

Including this chapter, there are only 6 chapters left until the Season Finale! *insert yays and applause* But Whoa, calm down peoples X3 We're not quite there yet! ;)

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to finish Season 2 b4 going back to school.

*sigh*

Now that i'm back in school, it'll be hard to get the rest of the season out as quickly as i'd like...oh well lol. Priorities i guess~

But no matter what, I promise to do my very best for you lovely peoples!

I'D LIKE TO THANK KittyLynne, MY SENPAI, FOR GIVING ME LESSONS IN HOW TO IMPROVE MY WRITING! YOU'VE BEEN A WONDERFUL SUPPORT AND SOOOOO MUCH HELP TO ME! I KNOW MY WRITING WILL GET BETTER AS TIME GOES ON BECAUSE I HAVE YOU AS A SENPAI AND AS INSPIRATION! So~ THANK YOU!

Here ya'll go! Chapter 45!


*On the last chapter of Love Hurts 5 Ways, Tasuki and Aki finally had a moment to try to reverse what had been done to her. Per Shokyoku's orders, Aki kissed him in an attempt to appeal to their mysterious connection. The surprised Tasuki was sent deep into Aki's psyche, coming face to face with her inner self—the truly honest inner self that was drowning in her own misery and made no effort to hide how much she had been suffering. Although he still didn't quite understand everything she has gone through or everything about her situation, Tasuki made a promise to this skeptical inner Aki that he'd get her out of this mess and make her smile again (even though he had absolutely no idea how to do this).

When it became clear to Aki that Tasuki didn't have what it took to help her at that moment, she and Shokyoku walked away from the bandits and their hideout, neither of them having a plan on what to do next.

Once Aki had come to peace with her inevitable demise and lack of ability to do anything about it or Stella, Chichiri showed up, taking a break from his pretending to be Hotohori in order to lend his assistance and encouragement. And then Tasuki appears as well, claiming that he wants to come along to help Aki out because he owes her (among other reasons). Tasuki finally figures out about Chichiri being a Suzaku Warrior as well (or rather, he was told). And so while discussing Aki's condition, Tasuki was debriefed about the situation, thus taking away some of his questions from before.

In the midst of this, the four of them get trapped in some other dimension resembling the inside of Aki's dark ring. Here, Shokyoku becomes visible and audible to everyone, allowing the two Suzaku Warriors to finally become more acquainted to her. But before anything like that could really happen, a beautiful but dangerous and suspicious woman who resembled Tasuki in a way appeared and put Aki under a sleep spell. Shokyoku remained frozen with fear as she revealed who the woman was: The Princess of Darkness.

The two Suzaku Warriors stood helpless as Aki stood being inappropriately handled by this woman who claimed that not only did she care more for Aki—thus knowing what's best for her, also that Aki belonged to her. Chichiri quietly formulated a plan for their escape, but in the meantime, the Princess taunted Tasuki, trying to probe out of him his true feelings for Aki, causing him to question that very thing himself.

While the Warriors of Suzaku tried to find a way to get Aki away from this woman, Shokyoku stepped in and used her powers to incapacitate the Princess, but only long enough for Tasuki to retrieve Aki. Once that was done, Chichiri, with extreme difficulty, used his Light to burn away the Darkness and get them out of that dimension. With her last words of that meeting, the Princess vowed that she'd come back for Aki when the time was right.

After having their first real conversation with Shokyoku, who soon returned to her ghost-like state, Aki awakened and questioned them about what happened to her. They didn't want to tell her to spare her feelings (the feeling's that they assumed she would have again). Chichiri then teleported Tasuki, Aki, and Shokyoku to the location where his priestess and fellow warriors had gone.

Landing in some creepy graveyard, Tasuki, now annoyed by her emotionlessness, once again tries to get Aki to confide in him, to which she brushes off. And before that conversation could get any further, a hoard of dead humans began bursting up from the ground.

The story continues to unfold…*


"…You will never escape from here…"

"Your flesh…"

"…we desire…"

"No hope…submit…"

Ghostly voices seemed to circulate around us in the formerly deathly quiet setting, originating from the abrupt arrival of what appeared to be the living dead come to haunt us.

The bony appendages of the undead spontaneously wrapped around my ankle, firmly rooting me to my spot on the lively graveyard. Even if I couldn't feel anything my brain persistently sent message after message to my leg to get it to move, but to no avail. Despite the lack of muscle definition…or, the lack of muscles in general, this skeleton, which barely had any biologically physical remnant of what it had in its past life had a surprisingly strong grip. While it was sure that it had me anchored in place, I calmly observed the phenomenon of the decaying corpse which was using me as a support to burrow its full form to the surface, crumbling away through the layers of gravel which had been its final resting place for who knew how long.

Bringing my gaze upwards, I witnessed the emerging of more reanimated corpses from their graves.

…It should have been all of their final resting place really…

Despite everything that I've witnessed and been through on this journey, this was definitely the most unnatural…at least in my opinion. And judging by Tasuki's alarmed expression as he reached back for his tessen, this really wasn't a common occurrence in his world by any means.

With all of these bodies popping up like daisies as if in some cliché zombie movie, no doubt they'd target the most vulnerable of their prey. And at the moment, that was me seeing as how I probably appeared to be some animal caught in a trap by poachers. I was a sitting duck being weighted down like that, unless something was done…and quick.

I narrowed my eyes. Well, I can always use my powers to get out of this…Splatters of blood manifested in my mind, so seemingly tangible while my imagination dominated my rational way of thinking. If I didn't know any better, it was like I was actually seeing them with my own eyes. The thought would indeed become real if I dared use my powers again. But what was honestly the harm? Most likely I wouldn't have been any worse off than I already was. So…

"Dark Claw!" Shokyoku, even though there was small possibility of these things touching her, still displayed an air of distress that flashed in her turquoise and orange eyes when they suddenly appeared. With her having little to no favor towards humans when they were alive and well, she had absolutely no qualms in reintroducing them to their dirt beds, even without my saying anything or giving her the ok. Her small hands emitted Dark energy as she guided a flying swarm of black-ish purple insect-like energy particles. Moving her arms in fluid motions, the swarm followed her directions in aiming for rotten body after body, their touch leading to either partial or complete disintegration. "Filthy creatures!" She announced with great distaste of the whole scene. "My eyes are forced to look upon your living selves day in and day out." Swiftly twirling on her toes to face the danger behind her, she expertly swiped her outstretched arm across her body, sending a signal to her spell to come to her aid and wash away the dead scum that came close to passing through her. "I will not be haunted by you monkeys in the afterlife as well!"

For once her focus wasn't even on me—these guests of ours managed to actually bother her and steal away her attention.

In the meantime, back with my own problem, my face showed no sign of immediate danger or fear, but it was becoming ever more apparent that the outcome of my inaction would probably churn out unfavorable consequences. Past experiences with cinema suggested that zombies weren't benevolent and just wanted to chat.

The head and torso of my captor launched up from the ground after much effort, and I could only imagine that it would have been staring up at me with its voracious eyes if it had any. Instead, the giant holes in its grey, cracked skull allowed me only to see the darkened depths of what I figured was a more or less empty head, topped with what was left if its scruffy hair. This thing had been dead for so long that I couldn't even tell if it was a woman or a man in life. Whatever. That detail didn't matter much anyway.

"…your flesh is mine…"

"Shoo…" I casually told it in a low monotone, trying to jerk my leg away. But it held on with incredible determination. Didn't take long for its "colleagues" to notice my immobility. Not surprisingly, they were becoming attracted to my "distress", coming in from every direction as well as from my periphery. What I didn't expect was for another one to pop up from the ground near me on the opposite side from its buddy. It was a tad alarming how this one emerged with much more speed and urgency than the other one had, immediately latching onto my waist, attempting to pull me down in the process.

The hasty motion caught the attention of Tasuki who, with a fierce and annoyed countenance, was doing a job fending off his own pests. Swinging his arm with the hand holding his tessen in preparation, he shouted out to me, "Aki! Don't move!" My body was already struggling to stay upright with all of the added mass, so I could really only stay still as long as my strength held out. "Rekka Shinen!" As I had seen once before, a blast of raging flames torpedoed with the wave of the iron fan. With extreme precision, the fire somehow split down the middle, charging ferociously on either side of me, thoroughly singeing the zombies hanging off of me down to a crisp, the majority of their bodies cracking away to the intense heat. As the flames dissipated, the smoldered forms at my side lost any life which had been given back to them, leading to their hold on me to become weak. Gravity immediately resumed its role in dropping what was left of them down to the dead ground below.

Thanks to the assault on Tasuki's part, I was able to stand erect and move around freely again. Peering around at the area where my imprisoners were, I inspected my own being. "Huh."

He blinked at me in confusion from my response. "What?"

"You didn't burn me this time."

Throwing my worded observation way out of proportion, the flame headed Suzaku Warrior exploded, his fangs more than obvious and face a tad flushed, "Dammit Aki! That was a one-time thing and it only happened 'cause my arm was pushed! Besides, I already said that I was sorry about that so lay off—I don't need to feel any guiltier." Even in all this chaos, this guy still managed to stop and complain about my choice of words. What exactly was it that he was getting riled up about? From what I could tell, what I had said was a positive thing—it was a compliment. "Jeez, can't you just say 'thank you' like any other normal person?"

"Oh. I see. My mistake." That's what he wanted, huh? Who would have thought that out of all people, he was a stickler for formalities? Giving him complete eye contact, I expressed as much gratitude as I could in my state. "Thank you for not burning my leg." And to that, his body stiffened accompanied with a small, almost inaudible sound escaped passed his lips, a sound which might have reflected the irritated glare he was giving me. But instead of addressing this matter, I went on, noting something about the situation which I found to be the most significant. "It would have been troublesome if I lost the use of both my arm and leg."

By now he was gritting his teeth…for a reason that I had yet to comprehend. Striding up to me with his eyes closed, he reached out his hand and forcefully grabbed the sides of my collar, yanking me closer to him, leaving only inches of space between us. "Ya know, I'm startin' to get the impression that you're holdin' a grudge against what I did to ya."

I showed no real response to his intrusive action. "Nonsense. I am unable to feel bitterness towards anyone. This circlet around my head takes away all my emotions if you recall." There was something I noticed about this guy: he was really sensitive. He took almost everything personally and would make a big deal out of the smallest things. His zeal made no sense to me—perhaps someone with emotions could comprehend him a bit better than I could. All I knew was that he needed to calm down. Any nefarious person could come along and exploit that weakness of his if he didn't get it in check.

"Yeah, right! That's just a crap of an excuse! Ya wanna know what I think—" Catching something off to the very side of his peripheral, the Suzaku warrior snapped his head towards the direction where his expert senses had detected the threat. Following his gaze, I found that yet another group of the undead had spawned before us. Beginning to encircle us from all around, they weren't exactly moving at alarming speeds, but that didn't necessarily mean that they should be underestimated in any way.

"Aki!" Shokyoku called out as she jumped from the incoming crowd, placing herself and her Dark energy filled hands before us with her back to us. "They just keep showing up! I don't know how to make it stop!"

"If that's the case, perhaps it's not even worth the waste in energy," I added. And to that she nodded, easing up on her battle ready stance and calling away her magic, making the black particle cloud she had been driving to fade away completely. She understood just as well as I did that you could be the strongest spellcaster in the world, but if at some point you ended up exhausting your energy, you'd be in trouble. On the chance that these zombies were the result of something or someone, then it would have been smarter and more efficient to locate the source rather than fight a never ending army.

Just as I was about to offer the question of whether any of them had any idea where these things could have been coming from, Tasuki got an almost excited look in his eye as the grip he had around the handle of his tessen tightened. "F%&k that! If you think you can't handle it Shoky, then leave it to me!" The sudden utterance of a new nickname for my tiny companion prompted her to shoot him a nasty look full of more than just resentment. "I'll torch every one of these sorry bastards if that's what it takes!" Somehow, he managed to totally miss the silent message that had spread throughout our little group—the one about being smart and not wasting your energy. And yet…this didn't surprise me. Then again…judging by the sparkle in his eye, perhaps he did get the message, but was just totally disregarding it because he was high off the fight. Again, another trait of his that could end up getting him killed. While I was still forming my thoughts regarding his excitement, he released my collar, only to wrap his free arm around my waist, pulling me up against him. Without looking at me, he said, "If you're so afraid of bein' burned, then just stay close. Nothin' will happen to ya when you're with me!" I stared up at him, his fierce amber eyes blazing with golden intensity. He's so sure of himself. A little too sure of himself…He'd end up being disappointed when it turned out that he couldn't come through with his promises.

Upon swinging his bewitched tessen for a second time, he loudly casted, "Rekka Shinen!" thus throwing out a rush of flames which violently spilled out like a roaring river, crashing into each and every zombie that was creeping towards us. The entire setting came to life as the fire's light temporarily ate up all the grey. Tasuki guided the flames has he waved the iron fan a few more times, pivoting us in the process so that he may ensure that all of our enemies were taken out in our radius. Shokyoku made an effort to stay out of the line of fire, keeping close to us and an eye on where the flames traveled next.

The moment it was clear that all targets had been set aflame, the fanged warrior eased back and retracted his energy, thus killing the fire off altogether. Now the only thing bringing any color to the environment were the tiny flames still ignited on the motionless victims of the bandit leader.

Tasuki grinned wide at his accomplishment. "Not too shabby, huh? The bastards didn't have a ghost of a chance!" Almost as if something had clicked in response to that trigger, he closed his eyes and let out a deep chuckle and turned to me, unaware that he was still holding onto my waist. "Get it? They're zombies and they're dead like ghosts? It's funny!"

My face remained blank towards his sense of humor. Shokyoku strained in twisting her neck and body around to catch him out of the corner of her eye. Even if I didn't see her whole face, I was sure that she had on a wide, angry grimace. "What a completely clueless moron of a monkey—so tasteless…"

Waiting a few more moments for my response, he just stood there with a more than satisfied grin which displayed his sharp canines. This guy…really was quite an enigma to me…not only was he sensitive, but he also bounced back awfully fast, totally disregarding the seriousness of a situation. It was a wonder how he survived living for this long…

Realizing that I wouldn't reward his joke with even the slightest of a smile, his grin fell into a disgruntled scowl as he peered down at me with his fierce eyes. "You're sort of a stick in the mud without your emotions, aren't'cha?"

Flatly, I told him, "If you were expecting anything more from me, then that's your own—"

"EIHHHHHH!" From somewhere in that area, or maybe just a bit further, the high-pitched squeal of a distressed girl streaked past our ears, catching our attention as quickly as a lightning strike.

"That priestess never makes it difficult for us to find her, does she?" Shokyoku noted.

"Miaka…" She wasn't that far away from where we were. Considering the peculiar occurrence that we just went through, her and her guardians were most likely experiencing something quite similar. If anything, perhaps those zombies stopped attacking us simply because they had new, unsuspecting prey to focus on.

Breaking away from me, Tasuki urgently ran a few steps towards the likely direction in which the sounds of anguish and chaos were coming from. Perching himself on what appeared to be a cliff of some sort, overlooking the rest of the graveyard, a sudden halt in his scanning suggested he had found the ones we had come to rendezvous with.

"Looks like those dead guys couldn't get enough so they're messin' with yer pals." Raising up his tessen-wielding arm, he prepared for another swing. "Those cowards—runnin' away when they knew they couldn't beat us…So they just went to pick on someone else!" Taking a steady step forward, he loudly demanded, "Hey guys! Miaka! Drop to the ground now! I'll handle these jerks!" Launching himself into the air over the cliff, he casted his spell as he fell to the ground, "Rekka Shinen!" He had already dropped below the point of my vision while I still stood on the higher elevation, but even so, I witnessed the illumination caused by the flames, bringing reds and yellows to the backdrop of the night sky. But that only lasted for a few short moments and the light dimmed down and eventually extinguished, almost like they had been controlled by an electronic switch on a wall.

In hindsight, even if it was a waste in energy and resources, it wasn't exactly the worst idea to take those things out with fire…if anything else. If it worked for Frankenstein, then why not test it out in reality? Besides, how much energy could he really have been using up by using a weapon?

"Seems like the lesser being did the dirty work for us. Good thing too since this predicament wasn't worth sullying my hands over," Shokyoku said smugly as she joined me at my side, flipping her hair in the process. I just kept my eyes fixated on the spot where Tasuki once stood. "We could give him a treat, but wouldn't want to spoil him just yet~ I guess we should see if he'll flip for us a few more times." Paying no attention to Shokyoku's quip about Tasuki being equal to some kind of pet, I made my way over to the rocky cliff's edge, leaving her a bit baffled. "Aki?"

"I'm checking to see if everyone is still alive." It wasn't until I got a little closer that I started to hear a mixture of familiar voices—the expressing of thanks as well as some curious remarks as to why Tasuki, or "Genrou" would suddenly show up. By the time I was close enough to see that the fall from the top down to the others were was only about ten to fifteen feet high, I had witnessed for myself that Miaka and the others hadn't been killed off by the unforeseen zombie raid. Instead, it was the charred, re-corpsed corpses who were scattered about in the aftermath of the fire, who had gotten the rotten end of the deal.

Taking notice of my extended shadow brought along by the moonlight, the Priestess of Suzaku, who for some reason was rather pale and sitting on the ground supporting herself against Hotohori. She whipped her head towards me, her signature smile right on cue. "Aki-nee-chan!" Nuriko and Konan's emperor followed suit, with surprised yet relieved looks in their eyes. "You're here too!"

"Well it looks like she's well enough to state the obvious just fine," Shokyoku snootily noted while glaring at those she considered being an inferior species.

"Genrou, did you and Akimoto travel here together?" Hotohori asked him.

"Traveled?" Tasuki paused, darting his eyes to the side for just a second to think about an appropriate reply. "I guess you can say that. If you can really consider what we did to be travelin'." The emperor tossed him a look full with confusion, but before he could act upon it, Nuriko shouted up at me, taking notice of my distance from them.

"Aki! Why're you standing around on that ledge for? You didn't come back just to stay away, come on down!" The smile he wore on his face was that of a knowing one. Despite his reaction from my entrance, he somehow might have suspected on his own that I might return to them. Although I don't know how he'd assume such a thing, since nothing was exactly guaranteed.

Intending to follow through with his request, I inspected the less than lethal cliff, but realized that I would have found it to be rather difficult to land gracefully without injuring myself given my wounded arm and less than athletic body. Turning my head to the left and to the right, I couldn't see a close enough slope to lead me down to their level.

"I'll have to find some way to get down," I told them.

"What?" Tasuki asked in a rather astonished tone. "Just jump like I did—it's not that big a jump."

"I can't."

"Why th' hell not?"

"Unfavorable consequences are more than certain."

"Argh…jeez…" Tasuki groaned as he closed his eyes and scratched his head in aggravation.

Nuriko just giggled and shrugged to his fellow warrior's reaction. "Well what do you expect? Without her powers you can't expect her to be able to leap from place to place like some kind of animal."

Popping his eyes open, he shot Nuriko a dangerous look. "Who the hell are you callin'—!"

"Calm down Flamebrain," The purple-haired Suzaku Warrior sighed in exasperation and shook his head. "I'm just saying that without her magic, she's a normal woman. So do the chivalrous thing already! We don't have all night." With those last few words, he invested a bit of his strength to push Tasuki, whose expression read more than just annoyance, forward towards the wall of the cliff.

Giving Nuriko one final look of disdain, he lifted his head up to me, both of his arms extended out and palms facing up. "Alright Aki. Jump and I'll catch you." I stared at him. His gaze filled with impatience. "What?"

I turned my head, taking my eyes off him for a second as I said, "Nothing. Just gauging your competence." My body was already breaking down due to the trap that Stella left. If these people wanted me to live longer than I suspected I would, then it would have been to their best interest that I was handled more expertly. However…judging by my experiences with him in the past and with the knowledge of his being the leader of the Mt. Reikaku Bandits giving me reason to assume that he was more than qualified, his hand-eye coordination had to have been more than what was required to ensure my safe landing.

Completely taking what I said the wrong way once again, fanged celestial warrior narrowed his eyes at me. "I ain't gonna drop you, so cm'on!" His anger might suggest that he'd pull his arms back at the last second and I'd end up getting hurt regardless of his assurance.

Okay then…

Instinctively, I shut my eyes as I leaned forward, knowing that gravity would catch me regardless of whether I could feel it or not. In my body which had no sense of touch, I could only rely on the smaller probability that Tasuki would actually catch me, for with my eyes closed, I was just an existence floating in the blackened space behind my eyelids. Whatever happened to my soul's container would only be revealed the moment I opened my eyes.

For a little while, nothing happened. But what could have I honestly expected?

Anticipating that the fall should have only taken several seconds, I opened my eyes to find that I was towering over Tasuki's unruly blazing red hair, our bodies pressed closely together as he held me with arms elevated above his head and wrapped around my waist, his eyelevel potentially matching up with my bust if he hadn't been tilting his head so that we made eye contact.

He gave me a more than confident grin, which overshadowed his irritation of the situation a bit. "You don't give me enough credit, ya know that? Maybe next time I'll let ya fall just ta show you how good you have it!"

To that I gave him a straight answer and a flat tone. "Since that action is pre-meditated, I can justifiably call you out on that."

Smoothly sliding himself over to us in a peculiar fashion, Nuriko's hollow glower poked at us as he said, "Funny time and place for you two to be getting friendly. But in light of tonight's horrific events I suggest you two wait for another time."

Taking his eyes away from mine, Tasuki gave his acquaintance a look. "What the hell're you talkin' about—" It was at this point that the reality of our physical position came into play, he finally noticing that his face was only centimeters away from my covered breasts. "GAH!" A blush ran across his face faster than the flames from his tessen had spread, leading to his trying to justify what it might have looked like. "Wait a second! I wasn't…As if I would ever! This isn't what you think!" On an impulse, he released me. And without prior warning, I hadn't sent a message to my legs fast enough to catch me, so I was left dropping to the ground like a rock, right on my butt. Fortunately this fall was significantly less hazardous than the alternative. He was just catching me out of the air. Why was it that these people assumed everything to be related to sex? Right when my bottom hit the rocky floor, Tasuki instantly fell out of his vertigo. "Oh crap! Sorry about that…guess I lost my grip because of someone." Nuriko instantly caught the hidden meaning and meekly scratched the side of his cheek while maintaining a nervous smile.

"Guess it was sort of my fault…I didn't quite think it through all the way…"

In the matter of a blink, Shokyoku, who had managed to get down in one way or another, was at my side, kneeling with concern towards me…and then a sharp glare of contempt towards the bandit who dropped me. "You incompetent excuse for a monkey…have you no grace or decency at all?!" Relax Shokyoku. It's not like I was hurt. Her frown only grew wider after she childishly stuck out her tongue at him, to which he caught and returned with a dirty look.

"Genrou, excuse my saying this," The emperor came in before yet another tangent to the situation arose, "but you never did tell us why you're here. Although I appreciate your escorting Akimoto back to us, I can imagine that it's something more than that."

"Eh? Oh, that." Straightening himself up, Tasuki folded his arms and addressed his emperor and priestess, leaving me to be taken care of by Nuriko, who generously offered a hand that I took without question to hoist me back onto my feet. "Well, I debated over the matter fer a while and asked myself if I really wanted to put off bein' the leader over at Mt. Reikaku for a little while longer." Stepping out of his spot, he steadily made his way over to them. "But then I thought that it was worth it since I would be helpin' out a pal—not to mention than she's the older sis of the Priestess of Suzaku. So~ I thought I'd go and kill two birds with one stone." Ah. So the secret's finally coming out.

Having absolutely no clue where he was going with this, Miaka tilted her head to the side in bewilderment. "Genrou? What…exactly are you saying?"

The question made him grin smugly as he brought himself down to his knees at Miaka's sitting level. "You dummy—I've had you all fooled." Sliding down the sleeve covering his right arm, he revealed the crimson glowing character marking his existence as a celestial warrior. "I'm the one you've been looking for—Tasuki of the Suzaku Seven."

"WHAT?!" Miaka's green eyes grew wide as her shriek filled the empty environment with her disbelief. "NO WAY!"

Equally just surprised as his priestess, Nuriko's shock held bits of anger in it as well. Throwing down his fists in frustration, he yelled out, "Why the heck wouldn't you tell us about this earlier?! It could have saved us a lot of trouble! Flamin' bum!" That's true. If Tasuki had just relayed this information at an earlier time, none of us would have had to even come to this village and endure the hoard of the undead. Although, a part of me sort of wanted to believe that regardless of his confession or not, somehow we would have had to deal with this issue in one way or another… Huh…I wonder why I'd think something like that?

Instead of reacting negatively towards Nuriko's accusations of him, Tasuki just smirked and turned his head to the side, obviously amused by how things have played out. "Like I said, I wasn't sure if I wanted to go through with it or not. I had intended to just keep it to myself at first, but since the secret was sort of unravelin' anyway—"

"Wait," Nuriko interrupted, trying like the others to wrap his brain around everything that was happening. "The secret was unraveling? What do you mean by…" Taking a moment to work through the equation, the feminine Suzaku warrior held his chin in pondering. It didn't necessarily take long for him to figure out what the bandit was insinuating. His eyes widened as he snapped his head at me. "Aki! Did you know that he was a Suzaku Warrior?"

Without hesitation, I said, "Yes I did."

"Did you know this before we went out of our way to come out here?"

"Yes, I did."

Placing his hands on his hips in an authoritarian manner, he chastised me further. "You're just as bad as he is! Why didn't you tell us?! I know you don't have your emotions and all, but give us a break! Didn't you once stop to think that this might be important?!" Usually, I'd question why people got so mad about things—after all, that was just one way that an enemy could discover how to manipulate you. But…In this case, I had to agree that my keeping this sort of secret should raise some questions if not some tempers. I still couldn't understand why I simply couldn't just tell Miaka who Tasuki was. Konan was in danger of being overrun by Kutou and Taiitsukun was more concerned with Miaka going through "trials and tribulations" so that she could "grow as a person" and be "deemed worthy" to be Suzaku's priestess. If there was no enemy with a significantly bigger army threatening one's country, then okay, I could see the benefit of making Miaka do things for herself. But since time was not exactly on their side, a lot of trouble could have been avoided if I had just told them the full truth from the beginning. Even though I say this, I still kept the secret because that old woman told me to—because she controlled more of my fate than was preferred. Besides…in the end, it made no difference to me if Konan won or not, so why not just do what Taiitsukun said?

Also…

When I had found out about Tasuki, I sensed that it was important to him to keep his identity hidden. And so…for some reason, I complied with this wish. I couldn't remember why though.

"Because," I tried to explain to Nuriko, "I was told not to—it wasn't exactly my place to do so."

He then gave me more of a troubled look that dominated a bit more over his anger and annoyance. "What? But why—"

"Nuriko its fine!" Miaka smiled up at him weakly, a gesture which managed to make her warrior less tense and soften up. "I'm sure Onee-chan had a good reason for not telling us and I trust her. The only thing that matters is that we've found the fifth Suzaku warrior. Right? That means we're only two people away from getting Tamahome back…" By this point, her complexion had darn near lost most of its color, and she was breathing rather heavily as her body shrank down frailly in her spot—odd considering she probably didn't even do anything strenuous. What was wrong with her? Then she muttered something that was more to herself than to any of us. "Tasuki…"

"So you left the bandits behind to fulfill your Celestial duties," Hotohori stated as he addressed his new comrade. "I commend your decision, even if it was delayed. But is that alright? Will they be fine without your being there?"

"Yeah, ya don't have to worry about those guys." Tasuki assured with confidence. "My men over at the hideout aren't babies. They don't need me around holdin' their hands and their sake bottles. They'll do just fine with Kouji in charge until I get back."

Hotohori then gave him a slight nod in affirmation, almost as if he were sealing a deal. Then his concern turned towards me. "Akimoto, we didn't expect for you to separate from us when you did, but I suspect that you were planning to do that all along, correct? But now that you're here with us, is it possible that you found what you were looking for so soon?" Of the three of them who I had left behind earlier that day, Hotohori was the only one to accept the decisions I had made while in my current state. While I couldn't give him too much credit considering he was just as much of an emotional creature as his friends were, I did have to commend him for being rather rational when it really counted. I mostly credited that characteristic due to his being emperor and it being necessary to be that way in order to make important political decisions. In a way, he was a bit more superior than the others in that regard for he knew when to put his emotions to the side and make the wiser decision. (However I couldn't fail to mention that he did have his weaker moments when his humanity made him fall victim to his emotions. But this was to be expected since he wasn't a robot nor did he possess an enchanted circlet like I had).

In light of this, he questioned me the least regarding the paths I knew I needed to take for me, and he was the quickest to accept them. Without putting up much of a fight, he let me stay with the bandits even though Nuriko and Miaka continued to fuss. He knew, or at least I assumed he knew, that my business was of no concern to him—or any of them for that matter—and that they needed to focus on their objective. If anything, he had my gratitude for that.

Now that it was time to report to him the results of my temporary defecting from their group, it was unfortunate that I didn't have something more positive to say. "No. While I did find who I was looking for, I didn't exactly get what I wanted." And just as a formality, I bowed to him slightly and added in, "I apologize for not telling you of my initial intentions and for causing such a stir back at the bandit hideout." Of course I wasn't really sorry, but I figured that it was polite to say so.

Miaka strained in holding herself up. But despite whatever suffering she was going through, she had enough stamina to give me a reassuring smile. "It's okay Onee-chan, really! I'm just happy that you're here—" Upon the utterance of those last words, her energy finally gave out and she fell forward in a painful moan, her upper body's weight giving way to gravity.

"Miaka!" Catching her in time, Hotohori assisted his priestess in sitting back up, laying her against his chest with her eyes closed while breathing hard.

"Miaka are you alright?" Nuriko asked with worry washed all over his face.

"She ain't lookin' too good…" Tasuki observed, the grin completely wiped from his face as unease replaced his amusement. He then finally asked what I had been wondering the entire time. "What's goin' on with her anyway?"

Cradling her in his arms, Hotohori's hazel eyes were focused as he sat in thought. I automatically took notice of his grip tightening on her as a hard possibility became plausible. "It couldn't be…" What?

"Sire! You don't suppose that it's the disease that that old man was telling us about before, do you?!" Disease? What was Nuriko talking about?

Well, whatever it was, Hotohori didn't want to take any chances. Taking on a commanding tone fit for a respectable ruler, he demanded with incredible urgency, "Quickly! We need to get Miaka out of here and back into town!" Making sure that he had a good hold of her, Hotohori stood up while carrying the resting priestess in his arms, the other two warriors wearing distraught expressions as they proceeded to follow their emperor on a path away from the cursed graveyard.

Shokyoku watched them tending to the young girl, but her mind was actually elsewhere. "Something really weird is going on around here Aki. I don't know what it is, but humans coming back from the dead is a bad sign."

"Yeah…" Miaka had potentially caught some type of disease and we were attacked by zombies—two events that just happened to happen around each other. I couldn't help but wonder if they had anything to do with each other or if it was all some big coincidence.

"Hey Aki!" Stealing me away from my thoughts, I my gaze lifted up towards Tasuki who was trailing behind the others only by a little bit, calling out for me as he was about twenty yards away. "You comin' or what?" A tiny groan came from Shokyoku, reflecting her dislike of our being included in the Suzaku people's plans. It wasn't exactly my ideal situation either, but it was the cards that were dealt to us, and I was, for some reason, going to play the game. "Miaka needs us, so pick up the pace or we'll leave ya!" Considering how big a deal he made about my staying around, I highly doubted he'd leave me behind.

But still. "I'll be right there."


The village of Choko…Generally, it looked like any other village or city in the Universe of the Four Gods—basically just what you'd expect a modest Chinese-like civilization to appear before hi-tech technology and European influence came into the picture. From the outside looking in, there really wasn't anything special about it. Unless you knew what was really going on, especially in that graveyard of theirs—crawling with zombies out of all things (something to which I wasn't even sure the residents of this place were even aware about). As if it weren't ridiculous enough, Tasuki and I were introduced this this young woman named Shoka, whom the others had already been acquainted with since before we met back up with them. She apparently was the one that we were all told about prior to coming to this village—the one who could apparently raise the dead.

Honestly, I couldn't really judge until I saw it for myself.

Anyway, because we (or they) discovered who the real Tasuki was, then there was initially no reason to even associate with Miss Shoka even more. But since Miaka was ill and they knew no one else in town, we ended up lodging at her home—which was actually pretty big, a nice size anyway that could hold a good number of guests if needed.

"A human who can raise the dead? Excuse me if I have a hard time believing that," Shokyoku leaned against the door sill to the bedroom in which Miaka was sleeping in, eyeing Miss Shoka pretty closely. I just stood near the door up against the wall like a wallflower, choosing to stay out of everyone's way as they discussed Miaka's condition and how to go about it. Miss Shoka was in the room too. She was a relatively taller woman with a fair complexion and soft, pale green eyes and long, olive-colored hair tied up partially in twin, braided knots on the top of her head.

She didn't even seem like she'd be anything special, and yet, Hotohori and Nuriko claimed that they saw her resurrect someone. It would have been unfair to doubt what they said, but there was nothing wrong with some healthy skepticism. There was always a chance that this woman was a fake. And how was it that some normal human who wasn't a Celestial Warrior had powers anyway? True, I hadn't lived in this world all my life so I didn't exactly know all the rules. But by what I'd gathered, the only ones with supernatural abilities were the ones who were blessed by one of the four gods. I supposed there was a chance that Miss Shoka could have been a Celestial Warrior…but, there was also a chance that she wasn't, which made her even more suspicious.

Why would they trust her so easily without questioning her a bit? They were supposed to be Miaka's guardians and they let down their guard. Even Tasuki didn't seem to think that anything was up with this woman—he, just like the others were standing around perfectly comfortable with their unfamiliar surroundings and letting her get close to their priestess in her weakened state. If she were a Kutou spy or assassin, this would be the best chance to kill Miaka while she's down.

Hmm…

It was just really careless for Suzaku's warriors to be so relaxed around a stranger…

As what was expected in this situation, Miaka's caretakers begged the woman to do something about Miaka's illness. But further confirming the details given to us by those who had already gotten fairly familiar with her, she told us, regrettably, that her only power that she had in the village was to raise the dead and nothing else.

"I'm sorry to be the one to say this, but Miaka's condition will only worsen from here on," Miss Shoka informed us as she stood away from the priestess's bed. Nuriko had been tending to the suffering girl similarly to how a mother would—tucking her under the covers, fluffing her pillow, helping her to get situated and as comfortable as she could possibly be given her ailment. Miaka flashed him a weakened look of gratitude past her light, ongoing panting, displaying a smile that appeared to serve the purpose of relaying a message of naïve assurance—assurance that everything would be fine despite what Miss Shoka had just announced. And just as quickly as it had appeared, the smile faded with Miaka being too weak to even keep it up.

"Why did this disease have to affect Miaka out of all people?" The emperor's countenance twisted in despair upon the sight of his most precious one, his fists clenched in frustration, knowing that there was probably not a thing he could do to help her. "If there was a choice, I would have gladly taken all the pain to keep her from suffering like this…" Wishful thinking. I couldn't help but briefly think how the world would be if such a thing were possible. Every time a loved one got sick or disabled in any way, someone would wish that they would trade places with that person...and when that happened, the person who got better would end up finding out what the other person did and end up wishing that they were the ones who should be suffering, not the other person, and so they would end up back where they started. And then the whole cycle would keep going on for all eternity.

That would actually be a pretty good way of giving physicians a hard time.

Tasuki crossed his arms, sharing a bit in Hotohori's concern. "So, what? Yer sayin' that there's absolutely nothin' we can do about this? Talk about a rotten deal…"

"Miss Shoka, isn't there anything you can do to help her? Anything at all?" Nuriko asked.

She shook her head, meeting their gazes with melancholic eyes. "No…In order for me to do anything, Miaka would have to die first. And then I'll be able to bring her back to life. In that case, she'll be freed from the disease upon her resurrection." Hmm…There was just something about that that just didn't sit well with me. Unfortunately, I haven' yet given this whole ordeal enough thought in order to figure out why.

"C'mon guys, stop looking…so worried…" Miaka breathed heavily while straining to turn her head towards us. Even with the extreme discomfort she was supposedly going through, she still managed to make that smile of hers that had the power to make people believe in whatever cause it was. "I know…that Miss Shoka said that there's no point…but…we can't give up hope. I think…that we should at least try to look for a doctor…no harm in that, right?" If there was a doctor capable of making a difference, wouldn't they have figured that he would have done something by now? There was no doctor who could fix this. This was just Miaka subconsciously trying to rope everyone else into her escaping the reality of her imminent demise.

It was sort of ironic, though. Out of all the things that could have possibly happened, Miaka was going to get done in by a sickness. If this were a book or story, that kind of ending would be rather disappointing.

In any case, Miaka's willingness to fight against this condition of hers pretty much just created more of a boomerang effect more than anything else.

I shall elaborate on this statement.

As per the priestesses request, she, her warriors, Miss Shoka, Shokyoku and I set out the next morning throughout Choko to attempt to find some supposed doctor who had the skills needed to aid Miaka in her time of need. Because she was still suffering from the symptoms of the disease, a high fever and pains that were said to be worse than death itself, Miaka barely even had any energy to keep herself up. She was more of a burden than usual, making us have to walk slower while the others supported her as she kept herself up with a long staff. While I understood her determination, it seemed more logical to me that we could have got a lot more done at a faster rate if we had just left her at Miss Shoka's place.

Then again…my mind was still trying to figure out the enigma that was this town and that woman Shoka. Having been given time to reflect on everything during the night, I was fairly certain that I was close to a revelation. Not having the trouble of worrying over Miaka and her well-being allowed me the luxury of doing precisely what the others could not. And because of that, I only needed a bit more time. Having said that, perhaps it was a better decision to bring her along even though it was rather inefficient. At the rate we were going, it was a miracle that we were able to cover as much ground as we did. Not like there was a lot of ground to cover anyway. It helped that Miss Shoka knew where pretty much all of the doctors were at in this village. However, from the moment that the first doctor turned us down, quite bluntly for whatever reason, the rest of that mission no longer looked promising. One by one, the few doctors that were in that village turned us away, probably on the chance that Miaka's illness could spread to them. Perhaps if any of them actually believed that they could do anything about this, they'd be more willing to risk it. If anything, this just proved more of how much of a futile effort this was in trying to get Miaka some sort of magical cure that didn't exist.

And then, we got sidetracked for a bit when Miaka suddenly and momentarily forsook her illness during an attempt to retrieve a fish that had been accidentally dropped by some passerby merchant. Somehow, her zeal for food managed to distract her long enough to forget that she was supposed to be sick and in pain. During which time she got into an unnecessary brawl with some large, scruffy man whose black hair was outgrown and messy and whose lower face appeared prickly from the lack of shaving, was also pursuing the fish. While those two were preoccupied, Miss Shoka started displaying signs that she was unwell as well—face going pale and her movements becoming less graceful and more sluggish. So instead of sticking round, she retreated back to her place, telling us to meet her back there once everything was said and done with the doctor hunt.

Not to really anyone's surprise, the healthier man managed to overpower Miaka and win the fish. Still ignoring her body's crying out in agony, she foolishly chased after the man, thus leaving her in an even weaker state once the rush of adrenaline wore off. The Suzaku warriors, Shokyoku, and I weren't far behind, making sure that we never let the girl out of our sight. At some point, we ended up at some small shack isolated in a forest atop a hill just outside of the busier part of town. After Miaka's threatening the guy to give her back "her" fish, they proceeded to walk up to the place and take a peek inside an open window. Shokyoku and I just stood back and allowed them to intrude on the man, neither of us thinking that this little charade had any real importance. Our perceptions were almost immediately overturned the moment when Hotohori pointed out the many medicine jars scattered around the one-roomed structure. He then went on to assume that this guy might have been someone they had previously heard of named Myo Juan—the healer. So Miaka unknowingly threw down with a doctor, that didn't necessarily mean that he'd take the time to help us.

And he didn't.

In fact, he was quite adamant about not helping us—growing unreasonably angry for no apparent reason and saying that he doesn't work with humans…whatever that meant.

Upon being kicked out, Miaka's body finally gave way to the worse part of the disease. She no longer possessed the ability to keep herself up let alone walk. And as we were making our way back to Miss Shoka's house, Miaka steadily began to lose her vision which ultimately lead to complete blindness. Something to which, under normal circumstances, she would have freaked out about. But by this point, she didn't even have enough energy to do that.

So here we had come full circle. Miaka had insisted the night before that we go out and look for someone to help her. But all that did was encourage this illness even more, leading her right back in the same place she was at when planning to attempt this feat—in bed. And thus, I have explained what I meant about this being somewhat like a boomerang.

Now, hours had gone by and it was deep into the night. When we had come back to Miss Shoka's, Miaka was assisted out of her wet-with-sweat school uniform into a much lighter white robe, her hair also wrapped in a ponytail instead of its usual twin buns.

From the moment she was laid back into bed, Miaka was forced to endure the waves of pain which seemed to be becoming ever more apparent through how her face would twist with agony from time to time in her unconscious state, and how her body would suddenly tense up as it tried to withstand the surges. And then, the pattern would end with her panting even harder than before. This trend continued on, and was growing more and more frequent as the virus persisted.

I quickly lost interest in watching Miaka as her condition worsened, so leaving the others behind in her room, I took a seat right outside her door, sitting quietly as I continued to work through the conundrum that had been wrapping itself around my brain ever since the zombie attack.

For the most part, I was able to tune everything and everyone out—both the moaning and groaning coming from Miaka as well as the concerned comments from her warriors. It also helped that no one really seemed to notice that I wasn't even present anymore, which was really how things were meant to be. Miaka was their main priority, not me.

My thoughts, however, were interrupted upon hearing the desperate pleas of Miaka's friends, a pointless gesture really since we all knew what Miss Shoka would end up saying again.

"I can't stand seeing Miaka like this. If this goes on for much longer, I can't even imagine the torture that she'll be going through…" Nuriko said.

Tasuki cursed under his breath. "Damn it all…" Raising his voice in that familiar way of his, he addressed Miss Shoka. "I refuse to think that we can't do a doggone thing to help her!"

Even though her answer would end up being the same, she didn't seem to display any sign of annoyance towards their tenacity. She kindly and calmly replied, "Like I told you all before, there really is no cure for this disease other than allowing Miaka to die. If you wish to do something for her and end her pain, then the only true solution here is to kill her. After that, I'll revive her and she'll be healed." At that, my head immediately snapped to the side towards the door. Kill her…so that Miss Shoka could bring Miaka back to life…huh? My eyes narrowed at the suggestion. That woman…

Fortunately, someone other than Shokyoku and I had enough sense to think that this might be a bad idea. "You've gotta be kiddin' me! You don't think that we'd actually kill her do ya? That's crazy!" Tasuki probably only shared in my skepticism because he, Shokyoku, and I were the only ones who hadn't witnessed Shoka displaying her powers. Earlier, I mentioned how Miss Shoka deserved for us to give her a chance, otherwise it wouldn't have been very fair to her…but after giving it a bit more thought…

Very faintly, Miaka's voice came through, signaling that she had been awake to hear this resolve. "My friends…it's fine. I believe…in Miss Shoka. Hotohori, Nuriko…we saw her use her powers with our own eyes, right? She can do this. Besides…what choice do we have? I need my strength so that…we can find the remaining two Suzaku Warriors…Just two more! We're so close. Don't you…" She paused to catch her breath. "Don't you think that we should do whatever needs to be done?" She then paused again before saying, "I promise you guys, I'll be just fine once Miss Shoka is done with me and then…we can keep going! Please…"

After a few moments of silence that befell once Miaka gave her okay to end her life, Hotohori spoke up, uttering the words that none of us expected him to ever say, "Everyone…can you please step out of the room? I'm…going to kill Miaka." Sure, I could see how this might be a good idea. If all the other pieces in this puzzle weren't involved, I might have endorsed it upon further investigation to prove that this method was legitimate. Even though I couldn't care less as to whether any of these people died or not, I still figured that it was irresponsible of them to be throwing caution to the wind as they were. But instead of protesting, the others slowly evacuated from the site, exiting the room to meet me on the outside, Nuriko and Tasuki's faces noticeably filled with dread. Shoka was the last to exiting, sliding the door closed behind her, thus muffling their voices, making it harder for any of us to listen to what was going on inside.

Before too long, Tasuki and Nuriko swiftly slid up to the door, both leaning firmly against it in such a way that their ears were practically glued to the thing as the eavesdropped on the concealed couple—their faces displaying determination to find out what was perspiring on the inside. Their curiosity was understandable, I supposed…

"He'll never be able to do it," Shokyoku stated from my other side opposite the door to Miaka's room. I faced her. Her arms were crossed and her eyes closed, a slight hint of irritation on her features.

"Huh?" Why wouldn't he? Because he's her Suzaku warrior?

"Well, I supposed that that would be a reason, but it's not the reason." She opened her hetero-colored eyes halfway, a small, sympathetic smile formed on her lips although she didn't look at me directly. "I wouldn't exactly expect you to understand right now, but…he loves her too much. And because of that, he'll never be able to kill the one he loves." Even if I couldn't feel the emotion, I still knew what love was, or what it supposedly was if it really existed. To put quite simply, Hotohori found Miaka too valuable to him. Yeah… I could see that…as best as I could anyway. "Also, I assure you, Yuki will not be dying from this illness either."

How could that be? "But it's supposed to be incurable. What makes you think that she'll be so lucky as to escape from this?"

Closing her eyes once more, the little girl flipped a shorter lock of her hair displayed in the front before resuming with her crossed-arm stance. "My dear Aki, it has absolutely nothing to do with luck. It's plain fact. I kid you not. If this disease gets too bad, then I'll have no choice but to intervene and deal with it myself. For I know a secret that can get Yuki out of this without that human performing such an abomination such as raising her back to life."

I blinked at her. "Since I have a feeling that you won't relay such a secret to me at this time, learning from past experience, then would you at least mind explaining why you would do anything to help anyone other than you and me?"

Taking a quickly glance at the door beside me, to which Tasuki and Nuriko were still attached to, Shokyoku answered, "I can't tell you everything at this moment, but I can say that in the grand scheme of things, Yuki is an important factor, even if I don't care about her in the least. And so in this case, I'm ignoring my feelings and would be doing the sensible thing should things come down to that." Her smile fell then as she glared over towards Miss Shoka, who was standing around doing nothing of particular interest. "That particular monkey disturbs me somehow…I really don't like the idea of her having anything to do with Yuki or you Aki." She took her eyes off of the woman and painted a softer expression onto her face as she looked at me. "I hope you don't think that I'm being paranoid in any way…"

I shook my head and kept my gaze fixed on Miss Shoka as well. "No…you're right…something is off about everything…" Almost as if someone were controlling a mini projection slide show in my mind, the facts were presented to me one click at a time, thus allowing me to visualize everything as I were actually able to see it in front of me.

Zombies…

A woman who has the power to bring people back to life…

A mysterious disease with no medical cure…

The only way to be "healed" is to die and/or be killed…

Miaka, Nuriko, and Hotohori all saw Miss Shoka bring someone back to life and they were in full health again…

Hmm…In there lies another problem that I had trouble figuring out.

If Miss Shoka's method was such a for-sure thing, then death shouldn't be that big of a deal in this village. I mean…in a sense, there is a cure—death and resurrection. Since that might be the case, then why were those doctors who turned us away so afraid? Naturally, people would avoid dying at ant cost, even if resurrection was a choice. But still…

Well, that answer was obvious: they knew something that they weren't telling us.

And if Miss Shoka's method was such a for-sure thing, then what happened to the patients that she's "cured" so far? Why haven't we been given testimonies of those who were brought back?

My brain just had to dive deeper into this. I would have been much more inclined to believe in all this if I had more proof. But where was that proof? What happened to that man that the others saw before Shokyoku, Tasuki, and I showed up?

...

And then, as if a bolt of lightning had suddenly stricken me, the answer invaded my mind halfway through my thought process.

That was when I smiled. Of course, it wasn't a real smile since I couldn't feel any emotions, but this just seemed to be an appropriate moment to smile upon such an obvious epiphany.

So…My eyes traveled over to Miss Shoka, who caught my stare and returned it with a kind, yet sad smile. I gave no real visual response other than to continue looking at her. That's what's going on here. Probably feeling as if we were keeping eye contact for too long, she broke her gaze rather meekly, returning to turn her concerned attention back towards the room where Hotohori was supposedly getting the dirty deed done.

What was left was my contemplation on what I should do next regarding my discovered truth. But before that train of thought could progress any more, Hotohori abruptly slid open the door with a distraught look on his face as he held his sheathed sword, making Nuriko fumble backwards and scramble into an inconspicuous pose in order to avoid from making it any more obvious that he was eavesdropping on them. And for some reason, one to which I wasn't paying any attention to, Tasuki was sitting on the ground rubbing the back of his head, tending to the wound that was made probably from his impalement into the wall behind him—the wall even had a deep crater-like imprint in the shape of his body that he must have peeled off from. He must have done or said something to upset Nuriko enough to provoke the super-strength Suzaku Warrior to hit him all the way across the room.

Trying to appear as innocent as possible, to hide his recent actions, and returning to a mostly sincere countenance, Nuriko addressed his emperor. "Sire?"

Securing his weapon onto his side once more, Hotohori replied in a manner that was meant for the whole room to hear, not only directed at Nuriko. "I'm going to beg Myo Juan one more time for his help. Even if he says no again, I'll never be able to live with myself if I didn't at least give it another attempt." Now he faced his comrade warriors. "Nuriko, Tasuki, I'd like you two to accompany me."

"Of course!" Nuriko complied.

"If it'll help out Miaka, then I'm in too," Tasuki said as he recovered from Nuriko's assault, walking up to the man he didn't even recognize as his emperor (no one had even bothered to tell him now that I thought about it).

Then I realized that something that I was expecting hadn't been said. I asked Hotohori, "Not me?"

And to that query he turned in my direction and smiled at me, his hazel eyes providing me their full attention. "Akimoto, I would prefer that you stay here." Would I be that troublesome for them? Perhaps…Before I would have assumed that they didn't want me to accompany them because they thought that I was too reckless, which of course wasn't the case, I was just more willing to make certain sacrifices and chances than they were. And in response to that I had to say that they were much too sensitive to acknowledge that they were being irrational. However, in this case presented before me, Hotohori probably didn't want me to come along because with this body beginning to break down, I could imagine that I would start to become a burden as well. My assumption was somewhat overturned when the emperor followed up with, "I'll feel a lot better if you and Shokyoku were here to look after Miaka. I'm sure nothing worth worrying about will happen in our absence, but it'll just give me peace of mind. I trust you completely."

I wasn't quite sure how much I could believe that. For all I knew, he was lying to me thinking that his words would somehow make me feel better—not that it mattered to me one way or the other. But if he figured that my staying put would do the group some good as a whole, what reason did I have not to comply?

"Alright."


A little bit of time had passed since Hotohori and the others made their way back to Myo Juan's, perhaps half an hour, maybe more. Miaka had once again fallen asleep, her body trying to use her slumber to recover from a disease which was supposedly incurable. And Shoka, after leaving to retrieve something from another room some time ago, had returned and had been with the young priestess, watching over the girl as she slept. I didn't really know when to expect the Suzaku warrior's return, so all I could do was wait and marinate in my thoughts a bit more.

Maybe it was the better idea for Shokyoku and me to stay behind. After figuring out that Shoka was really the villain in all this, leaving Miaka alone would have been foolish. Have I been given a few more moments, I would have become conscious of this myself and would have volunteered to stay instead of having Hotohori suggest it. Either way, I had decided not to do or say anything regarding my findings—at least, not yet. Naturally, I'd step in if the situation got too bad, like if Shoka suddenly decided to stop playing the role of the innocent maiden. Besides, even if I was sure that I knew what was going on, it didn't mean that I had every single piece to this puzzle. There were other factors that I had to take into consideration—

Without any warning, my form spontaneously began to conduct think streams of purple and black electricity, my upper body jerked forward as I released an involuntary, violent cough, my hand already instinctively made its way to my mouth in preparation. Upon opening my eyes, my sight had honed in on the blood splattered in mini pools on my palm. Foreseeing the bodily liquid dripping onto my clothing, I reached into my robe and brought out a white handkerchief that Nuriko had given to me the night before during my first really violent coughing episode. He said he wasn't sure if it would really help at all, but he didn't know what else he could do to help me. So he asked if I would take it, to make him feel like he had actually done something useful. Knowing full well that this piece of cloth would accomplish absolutely nothing other than to shield the world from my blood, I took it anyway and thanked him.

The fact of the matter was that I was getting weaker. But the others had no reason to concern themselves with my condition.

While I wiped the blood away from my mouth and hands, Shokyoku stared solemnly at the blood ridden cloth in my possession.

"It's really unfair…" she said in a low voice.

"What is?"

"It's unfair that not even a doctor, human or otherwise, can save you either…Its unfair that your condition doesn't have as easy of an answer that Yuki's does…" Her head lowered once she tore her eyes from the handkerchief. "What good is the world if Yuki lives but you die?" What kind of question as that? The world wouldn't be much different without my presence in it…Why were these so people so hung up on my probable death?

Just then, Miss Shoka had said something in Miaka's room, although I wasn't investing enough attention onto her at that moment to catch what it was. Is Miaka awake? Trying to listen for anything else, a few moments went by before I suddenly heard Miss Shoka yell out, "I'M NOT CHOCOLATE, I SWEAR!"

…What?

Now I was curious as to what was going on in there. "Shokyoku…"

As if we were in sync, Shokyoku took herself away from the wall and went to go investigate, which in retrospect was much more efficient than my going since neither of them would be able to see her. Once Shokyoku reached the doorway to take a look inside, she dropped her arms and widened her eyes in alarm.

"That bitch—no class at all! She's trying to stab Yuki while she's sleeping!" What? Immediately standing up in my spot to get ready for anything, I couldn't help but think of how I didn't expect for this to happen. At least…not with me around anyway. This seemed like something she'd do if she and Miaka were left alone. It was either she was that confident about how below the radar she was, or she really didn't consider me much of a threat. Perhaps both.

Well, if Miss Shoka has finally decided to move the plot along, I guess I have no choice but to—

At that moment, I discovered that Shokyoku's face had transformed from an alarmed one, to that of a bewildered one. "What's…going on here? Is she serious?"

I titled my head in confusion. "What is it?"

"That human woman has been trying a few times to stab Yuki, but every time, Yuki just rolls out of the way and avoids it somehow…Is she even really asleep?" Turning only her head to me, she pointed towards the inside of the room and asked, "Should we do anything about this?"

Whether or not Miaka was asleep, she seemed to be doing pretty well for herself. Either that or Miss Shoka just wasn't trying that hard and was being insincere about murdering her. And so figuring that the situation wasn't as dire as I has just assumed, I brushed it off and replied, "Nah, she's fine." However, the situation wasn't over. Miss Shoka, even if she was going easy on Miaka, knew that I was right outside the door, so she had to have known that I heard the majority of what was going on, and for all she knew, I had seen everything too. Which of course meant that I was now a witness. And learning from past experience, a villain almost never allowed a witness to roam free. Since that was the case…

We were nearing the climax of our little adventure in Choko.

"She's putting her dagger away and coming towards us," Shokyoku reported, taking a step to the side so that the emerging woman wouldn't walk right through her.

Once she cleared the doorsill to where I could see her clearly, she walked a few more steps ahead of us, landing her in the middle of the room, before stopping and speaking to me without looking back. "Why didn't you try to stop me? Or…why didn't you run to get help? Isn't Miaka your friend?"

Answering her questions in reverse order, I told her, "No, she is not my friend. The only people who'd I'd consider skilled enough to deal with the likes of whatever you are happen to be somewhere else at the moment—chasing after them would have merely given you more time to do what you please. And if I honestly thought that you were going to kill Miaka, I would have intervened…if you really must know."

"To add to that, you couldn't even kill a helpless sick girl who was asleep," Shokyoku taunted with a sneer. "How pathetic." As usual, Shokyoku's snide comment went without recognition since Shoka had no insight about her existence.

During the middle of this interrogation, Shoka spontaneously dropped to the floor, her whole body beginning to shake as her arms crossed over the other in an embrace. Her head then dropped low while her nails clawed into the robe's material covering her arms.

Momentarily ignoring this turn of events, I continued on since it appeared as if she wouldn't volunteer any information on her own. "Who or what are you? Why are you terrorizing the town with this illness and creating zombies?"

Struggling, she turned her head as much as she could and looked at me out of the corner of her eye, that lone eye itself admitting that she had been shocked by my accusation. "Wh-why would you say such a thing? I was…trying to…help Miaka. I already told you…" Breathing heavily now, I could see that she was growing pale. "If Miaka dies, I can bring her back. But not as a zombie as you say, but as a healthy, alive young woman—same as she was before." My eyes narrowed at her. "No matter what you and your friends try, no doctor…i-in this whole village can save her except me—"

"It appears that way, doesn't it?" I blurted out. With her body still shaking for whatever reason, she shifted her position just a tad so that she could face me a bit more. "It's peculiar…a deadly virus swept only into this village. People die of this sickness and then you show up to revive them. Not only that, but my companions and I couldn't help but notice the stunning number of the undead you have crawling along the graveyard near here. While I didn't have the time nor the interest to check the personal data on all of those you have 'revived' or on those zombies, but I think it's a pretty safe assumption to make that those zombies were once your patients. The people you bring back are still dead, even if they don't appear to be so at first. For whatever reason, you infect people with this virus and at some point, they turn into your puppets—probably after the sickness eats away at their life." At that moment, the woman's eyes went sharp as she sent me a dirty look. If nothing else, that reaction alone told me that I was right.

"Y-You…" she growled past her apparent discomfort, her hands clenching even more to her arms.

"It might be helpful for you to know a bit about me," I said, guessing at what she was curious about. Pointing to the silver ornament around my head, I told her, "You see, I don't have any emotions." Her eyes widened at that statement. "Therefore, I can think more rationally than mostly anyone. Because of that, I wasn't distracted with fussing over Miaka like the others were. I simply didn't care about her. I was able to see the full picture and make connection. And while I'll admit that it took me longer to figure out than I'd have liked it to, I eventually realized how simple this riddle was." I supposed you could say that I was thinking too hard at first about it, but at the very least, things eventually fell into place. "In fact, when I think about it, you were quite clumsy with covering your tracks. It sort of puzzles me how you were able to get away with it this long…"

Shoka's glare continued to fire bullets at me, her lack of providing a retort even further confirmed my hypothesis. "You want to kill me now, right?" I bluntly asked her, sensing that she was trying to formulate some way to do me in. "You're welcomed to try. However, I must warn you that it won't turn out in your favor." Shokyoku tossed me a knowing look then, nodding at me as she took a step forward in preparation for whatever I might command her to do, shifting her eyes toward the enemy. "To be honest, you're already on the road to termination as it is…"

Giving up on her silent death threat, her anger fell from her face as she lost the will and energy to keep it. Shoka then faced forward again, hiding herself from us as she continued to hold herself as if she were in pain. "I…I never wanted to kill anyone. I don't want to kill anyone…especially not Miaka…" Huh? Doesn't want to kill anyone? Is she lying? Burying herself deeper into her arms, she demanded, "Please, get Miaka out of here before I hurt her…" I really expected her to threaten me then, but instead, she was asking for sympathy? And asking me to save one of her victims?

"What's…going on here?" Shokyoku asked, probably just as confused as I was. "Isn't she some merciless witch or something?" I don't know about her being a witch…but…perhaps there was a detail I missed during the contemplation process…Apparently there was another factor I had yet to discover…even if everything else I said was true, there was a detail that was missing.

Again, Shoka asks, but this time crying out, "Please! I beg of you take Miaka away from here! Quickly!"

Shokyoku relaxed her stance a bit as she wondered what to do. "Aki?"

Perhaps I could figure out the remaining parts of this puzzle later…Shoka was dead serious about my taking Miaka away. And so, without asking any more questions, I headed into Miaka's room, making sure that Shokyoku still had her eyes on the mysterious woman.

Sure enough, Miaka was still asleep through all of this. So to wake her up, I placed my hand on her shoulder and shook her, investing enough force to pull her out of her slumber.

"Miaka…wake up. Miaka…!" The girl just mumbled incoherently in response to my actions. Although I was fairly certain that she mentioned something about a deep fried Tamahome somewhere in there…So I tried again. "Miaka. C'mon…" Still nothing. That sickness of hers really knocked her out. In that case, I'd have to try something that I knew would work. "Miaka, breakfast is ready."

On cue, the Priestess of Suzaku opened her eyes up wide and sat up in the matter of a second, blurting out with a wide smile and some drool hanging over the side of her mouth, "Great! When do we eat?! I'll have one of everything!" Blinking a few times, she sniffed around for the food that wasn't there. "Oh no! Please don't tell me that my sense of smell is gone too! That's one of the best parts of eating!" For no real reason at all, I gave her a few moments to just let her figure it out on her own. Allowing her brain to finally process a bit, she settled down and called out for me, "Onee-chan? There's no food, is there?"

"Not right now…no."

"What's wrong?" Now a sense of urgency has stricken her, as she reached out to feel for my sleeve and clenched onto it while an expression of worry wiped onto her face. "How are the others? And Miss Shoka? Is everything alright? Are the zombies back?" Her eyes darted into every direction, not knowing where to go or what to look at since she was still unable to see.

"Miaka…" Jerking her hand away from my sleeve, I grabbed onto her upper arm. "It's time to go, we can't stay here."

Following my location by my voice, she looked up at me with worry. "Why? What's wrong? What about Miss Shoka?" Tugging more on her arm, she finally complied, although still incredibly bewildered for waking up to such alarm. Even as she stood up, she requested, "Onee-chan, please just let me see Miss Shoka so that I know she's alright. Well, I know that I can't really see her, but hearing her voice should be alright. It's not that I don't trust you—far from that…I'm just concerned, because you're being pushier than normal…" I remained silent. There was no reason for her to find out everything at this present moment. I'd inform her and the others once we got to a safer distance. Miaka struggled very little, but as we walked out of her room, she still showed a bit of resistance, reflecting her concern over Shoka.

Shokyoku met us at the room's exit, her tiny body once again readying itself for whatever might happen. "Something really weird is going on Aki. That woman's hair suddenly snapped out of its hold and her skin's turned into a different color…" It was true. While she still sat hunched up on the floor, Shoka's hair had somehow freed itself and actually appeared to be somewhat spikier than what it originally had been. As we inched closer to the door, I was beginning to see what Shokyoku was talking about Shoka's skin. It had lost its lively color and was reducing to a deadly greyish. The more I noticed her holding herself the way she was, the more I was thinking that instead of being in pain, perhaps she was…actually trying to keep something inside of her.

The door was so closely in my grasp when Miaka decided to rebel and break free of my grip, hurrying closer towards the whimpering sounds coming from Shoka, even though she couldn't see what was going on before her.

"Miss Shoka! Are you okay? Where are you?"

"Mi…Miaka…You…"

"Miss Shoka, please be alright." Holding her hands up, Miaka tried to feel her way around, just like anyone would if the lights had suddenly gone out on them and all they could see what pitch-blackness. "Onee-chan, I'm sorry for breaking away like that, really I am. But I can't just leave Miss Shoka here." I was actually not that surprised that she did that. But still…it didn't make her actions any less foolish.

"Miaka…you must…get away from me!"

"But Miss Shoka, why—" With Shoka's metamorphosis seeming to have been at its end, the "woman" shot up from her spot and spin around, revealing just how much she had changed. Her previously healthy skin had shifted into the grey, lifeless complexion of a corpse, becoming so tight that the blue veins under her skin seemed to have created ridges along the surface. The iris and pupil in her eyes had now become so beady that they were barely even visible, almost making it appear as if she didn't even possess them to begin with.

Possess…Possessed. I wonder…could that woman be…?

Bearing her sharpened teeth like a wild animal, she reached her arms out towards the clueless Miaka, her nails grown out like claws as she slowly advanced.

"Miaka…" Taking no further time to wait this out, I quickly stepped in front of Miaka, wondering both why my body reacted like this and why this girl couldn't just do what she was told.

"It's too late!" The woman hissed, rushing up to me, planting her palm over my face.

"Aki!" Shokyoku called out in panic, but nothing could be done, for in that moment, used some supernatural force to blast me backwards. The whole action was like a blur. It was too fast. I could barely see the world pass me in the instant I flew, but reality slowed down again upon my sudden halt. Somehow, I had ended up on the ground and my body was having difficulty moving. Deducing that I had been hurt, I carefully, tossed my head to the side to see what had stopped my path.

The wall. Well, that made sense. At least the attack wasn't powerful enough to send me through it. So fortunately, I can hope that my body is only stunned for the moment.

Bringing her hands to her moth in worrisome shock, Shokyoku uttered my name in a low tone…"Aki…" With a violent glare, Shokyoku tuned to Shoka, her body vibrating, and began to produce a dark indigo aura around her body which grew as the seconds went by. "How dare you hurt her!"

Using a little of the remaining strength I had, I tried to calm her down. "No…Shokyoku. You can't do an attack yet."

Her aura diminishing a bit, she tossed me a baffled look still mixed with anger. "But Aki…"

"Miaka is standing in front of her…it's one thing to attack knowing you'll hit the mark despite the sacrifices. But…it's another story when there's more of a chance at your not being quite as successful. Wait…for a better opening."

The door to the building suddenly flew open then, Hotohori bursting through the door with his sword unsheathed. "Miaka! Get away from that monster!"

His priestess only heard his voice and turned to where she thought she heard it, still feeling around the air with her hands. "Hotohori?"

The urgency never left his voice as he gripped both hands onto the sword's handle. "Miss Shoka died almost a year ago!" What? She died? I had to admit…I wasn't expecting that to be another detail.

"Wha-What did that monkey say?" Allowing a slight shiver to crawl up her spine, she quickly regained her composure. "I knew something was wrong with that woman!"

"What?" Miaka blinked in confusion, still not comprehending the severity of the situation. Before she even had a chance to do so, the evil being behind her smacked her hand atop Miaka's head and used her claws to keep her grip.

In an airy demonic tone which still had remnants of the human Shoka's voice, the monster, droned, "Your warning came a little too late! And now I shall devour this girl and then I shall devour all of you! No one will escape!"

The moment reality finally hit her, Miaka struggled ferociously, waving her arms and kicking her legs, trying to break out of her captor's old. "No! Please don't eat me! Miss Shoka, I promise you I'm not very appetizing! Let me go—" Shoka then silenced Miaka by harshly wrapping her hand around the girl's throat, squeezing harder in an effort to suffocate her.

In the midst of all this, the door came open once more, but this time, three people emerged from it, quickly shutting the door behind them. Two of them were Tasuki and Nuriko, who were backing up some tall, muscular man with short, black spikey hair—two cloths colored light purple and yellow tied around his forehead to match the rest of his attire. And for some reason, he had a white cloth wrapped around the palm of his left hand. Who's this guy?

"Vile demon! Release her at once!" Raising his sword to the ready, Hotohori prepared to launch himself at his priestess's imprisoner. But his plans were overturned by the sound of a command given by the unrecognizable voice of the new member.

"Enough!" Oddly enough, the monster actually stopped what she was doing and gave her attention to the new guy, her eyes instantly going wide once her inspection of him was over.

Hotohori peered over his shoulder at the newcomers to the party. "Tasuki! Nuriko! You made it back alright. But who is this with you?"

Nuriko just shrugged, also not knowing what to think of the situation. "We don't exactly know Sire. He really helped us out back there with those possessed people and just insisted on coming here."

Suddenly remembering something, Tasuki looked around for something. "Hey…I see the brat over there," he said while motioning his head over to Shokyoku, "but where's Aki?" His searching finally came to a halt when he spotted my motionless body lying against the back wall. He gasped, "Aki!"

Nuriko followed his gaze and shock appeared upon his face as well, "Oh no, Aki!" Both of them rushed over to me, Nuriko crouching down to my height with distress written all over his face. "Are you alright?!"

"I don't really know…" I told him, "I can't imagine that I would be though…" My body was still apparently stunned and had trouble moving on its own. Such a bother that was…this circlet around my head, according to Taiitsukun, was supposed to allow my brain to control my limbs and other parts of my body by unconventional means—metaphorically extending out strings to all my parts so that I could manipulate my body as if it were a marionette since because of what Stella did making it impossible for me to move on my own on a normal basis. In a way, I figured that this would give me an advantage. Despite my injuries, I should have been able to still move a bit more that other people normally would because I couldn't feel anything. Even if hurt, humans or beings of the like had the capacity to do so much more than they think their body really could. But most people don't even know that because they aren't put into situations where going past their "limits" were even called for. However, since my situation was different, I was hoping that I'd be able to tap into that hidden potential because I had no other distractions preventing me from doing so.

Clearly though, I was expecting too much from this headdress…or maybe I wasn't. After all, when I thought about it, my body was reacting exactly to how it should have been after all its been through…Perhaps…I had already gone past my limit and was experiencing the physical energy decline…

Either way, it was hindering me from doing things for myself.

"Here…" Nuriko took it upon himself to lift my arm around his neck as he wrapped an arm of his around my waist, pushing up with his knees to support me and help me up from my spot.

"Damn it…" Tasuki growled and looked towards Shoka in disdain. "What are we supposed ta do about this dead broad?"

Immediately after that question was asked, the demonic woman had still been paused from her actions upon seeing the man who had confronted her. She uttered in a low voice, "Juan…"

Still unable to move from the woman's grip, Miaka decided to take the time out to figure out the riddle. "Juan? Now where have I heard that name…?" Her green eyes trailed upwards as she rattled her brain on this one, as if she were digging through a chest filled with a bunch of old thoughts and memories. She squinted her eyes, giving all she could to regain enough of her vision for her to see this mysterious man. Some of it must have returned, for her expression immediately lit up into that of surprise. "Oh! It is! It's Mr. Myo Juan!" Myo Juan? Do they mean that doctor who was supposed to be the best but refused to treat Miaka?

"What?!" Tasuki and Nuriko blinked at the guy with intense disbelief. "How could that old scruffy guy from before be this young guy?!" I couldn't exactly blame them, I mean…this guy had really cleaned himself up from that poor hermit we had seen earlier that day. But what I wanted to know was why he had shown up here? And now?

"Shoka," Myo Juan spoke up again. "You've died, but now you've come back as a monster who has spread a horrible disease amongst the villagers—a monster who feeds off the souls and flesh of her victims." His hands clenched at his sides. "You must put an end to this now." Alright, so these two had some kind of history, that's what I had gathered. My attention suddenly then got diverted to the window, where a hoard of zombies were attempting to climb their way in, most of them either taking hold of the window sill or lifelessly reaching out their arms in an attempt to grab at something. While I was aware of the seriousness of the situation, all I did was blink at them and give an uninterested stare.

I knew two guys though who might not have shared in my nonchalance. "Not to alarm anyone, but the reanimated corpses are trying to get inside…" Nuriko and Tasuki immediately snapped their heads towards the threat in alarm.

"WAHHHH!" They both shouted out. Releasing me to be on my own, Nuriko, along with his fiery-haired ally, found it more urgent to run up to the window and shut it immediately, making sure to keep their bodies up against it to prevent the mob from getting in. Without the support, my body fell to its knees, still needing time to recover from Shoka's blow.

"Aki we understand that you can't feel anything, but could you at least pretend to be normal and be a little more alarmed next time?!" The purple-haired Suzaku warrior yelled out.

"Yeah! Warn us before it gets this bad!" Tasuki agreed with obvious irritation.

Tilting my head similarly to how Miaka did earlier, I asked, "Are you expecting this to happen again anytime soon?"

"THAT'S BESIDES THE POINT!" They yelled out in unison. From behind them, the walking corpses banged on the window's doors, each attempt becoming more persistent and forceful than the last.

"What the hell is with all of these people anyway? Why do they keep bothering us?" Nuriko asked to no one in particular.

This was when Myo Juan said something that proved my theory. "Those people are no longer living. They're the townspeople that Shoka had resurrected. Even if they seemed alive and well after she 'helped' them, the fact is, they're no more alive now than the moment they passed away to begin with. Now, they are only zombies under her control." He paused for a moment and then said something that sounded like a spoken thought. "If all of this is true, then all I want to know is why? Why are you doing this Shoka?" His tone insisted that he was demanding an answer out of her.

"Huh, so they are only zombies! Man! I coulda taken care of them on our way here with my tessen!" Tasuki complained.

"But you didn't," I said as Shokyoku ran up to me wrapping herself around my arm.

That statement irked him a bit. "That's only because Mr. Proper over there thought that they were alive and worth sparing!" He motioned over to Hotohori. "It was my idea to toast them in the first place! I knew I shoulda followed my gut!"

"Silence!" The banter was immediately ceased once the demon keeping hold of Miaka spoke with much contempt in her voice as she addressed Myo Juan. "Upon my death bed a year ago, I suffered beyond anything you could have ever possibly imagined. The pain was unbearable…Every night, I called out for you, but you never came! But I still had faith in you and I put every ounce of my strength into waiting just one more minute after the other hoping you'd come for me. And despite all of my effort and suffering, you weren't there. You allowed me to die alone…" The red veins in the corners of her eyes accentuated even more. "You have no right to question me now when you have done nothing." Myo Juan said nothing in response to this, so Shoka continued while resuming strangling Miaka. "I guarantee that you'll never come close to feeling my pain, but once I'm done devouring this girl, I'll give you a horrible death worthy for what you did to me!"

"How sad…" I commented straightforwardly, prompting everyone to turn my way in what seemed to be disbelief. "All of this because of some pointless vendetta? So many people have lost their lives all because you let your emotions get the better of you, even after death. Were you honestly so weak as to throw away all of your morals and become a monster? This is a prime example of why the world would be better off without emotions. History doesn't lie… Such strong emotions such as love and hate only lead to sacrifice and destruction—they show weakness and prevent progress and make people behave in unacceptable ways due to irrational logic and poor decision making—"

"No Onee-chan, you're wrong!" Miaka, even in her predicament managed to get the opportunity to speak her mind. Her voice strained with the contraction of her wind-pipe due to Shoka's strangling, but still, the girl persisted, peaking at me out of her half-closed eyes. "I-I know it's…difficult for you to grasp onto what I'm saying, but please try! Emotions aren't a sign of weakness and…they aren't unnecessary or useless! They are important parts to living, without them, how else can we truly experience life? I mean…sure, sometimes they slip us up and make us make foolish decisions, but…isn't that what makes us human?" Humanity…huh? But…I'm not… "Miss Shoka…I don't think you're a monster at all!" Shoka's eyes widened at Miaka's note of sympathy, causing the demon to weaken her grip as she became tamer. And with this, Miaka relaxed a bit, but turned to face the woman to continue her point. "You…You just made a mistake! You shouldn't have to die because you're guilty of loving someone as much as you did. And it's…perfectly understandable why you did all this. Your heart was broken because Mr. Myo Juan wasn't there for you in your time of need. Of course you'd want your most precious one to be there by your side when you die, but for some reason, he wasn't. And that made you sad, didn't it?"

Miaka turned to me for a moment, "Onee-chan! You said that an emotion such as love displays weakness, right? But when you think about it, Miss Shoka's love for Mr. Myo Juan was so strong that she came back from the dead just to see him! Can you honestly call that weak?" I couldn't really say that it was "love" that brought her back—I'd be willing to bet on a more tangible answer, but if Miaka was so insistent on being zealous regarding this issue, then there would be no point in trying to talk her out if it. By this point, tears were forming in the priestesses eyes, showing just how much of herself she was willing to give towards this issue. She really was taking this a bit too personally. "Miss Shoka. Love isn't perfect, but it is strong. And when you lose it, it feels like you died inside—that's the impact it makes. So…you have to understand that it's not okay to get back at Mr. Myo Juan just because you're sad! Because…Because I'm sure that he suffered too! No, I know he did! For he was just as much in love with you! His heart broke just like yours did. So please, reconsider what you're doing!"

"Miaka…" Shoka's expression had transformed into that of a sad one, which was apparent even past her demonic features. But slowly, Miaka's words somehow got through to the monster, causing her to calm down and revert back to her human self—her skin returning to its normal, healthy color, her irises and pupils enlarged and became visible and distinguishable again, and her hair lost its edginess. Shoka's eyes were willed with much regret and tears as she seemed at a loss for words. Out of fatigue, she fell forward, only to be caught by Miaka. "Juan…I never…meant to hurt you or anyone else…but Aki was right. In my moment of desperation and emptiness, I was weak and allowed myself to carry this demon within me—it possessed me—and it just fed off of my sadness and anger. So…please…" She cried, "I know you couldn't help me then, but please, I beg of you. Help me now!" Something on her back started to crack and expand then, moving in a very unnatural way.

Hotohori must have caught onto this detail as well since he shouted out to his priestess, "Miaka! Get away from there! It's not safe!" But it was too late. From the depths of Shoka came out a large, abominable red creature shooting out of her back with a single yellow eye and long, razor sharp silver teeth which could probably rip through anything. The monster had slimy looking skin and a plethora of skinny tentacles each with a small mouth sprouting from its body. The sound of shock spread throughout the room, not even I was expecting something this drastic. But even in all this madness, I was content, as content as an emotionless person could possibly be, to discover that what I was beginning to think earlier was correct: that Shoka had indeed been possessed and it wasn't exactly her will for everything that has happened to have been done. And…at least we finally knew how a human such as herself, or in her case, a dead human, came to own such a power such as raising the dead.

Without a moment's hesitation, the monster reached out with its appendages and coiled themselves around Miaka's limbs as well as wherever her limbs met her body, leaving the priestess to shriek out in terror.

Shokyoku gritted her teeth as her hold on me seemed to have tightened. "What a repulsive creature…such an eyesore…I can't believe that that thing managed to conceal itself this whole time." I guess Shoka finally found a reason to repel it. Too bad there had to be so much pointless bloodshed in order to get here though. It really is a pity…and such a waste.

Tears streamed down Shoka's cheeks as she was forced to endure and witness this creature using her for its own ravenous desires. "Juan! You have to put an end to this! Only you can! Please! You must do something before the demon devours Miaka!" With its mouth opening wider, the monster hung the priestess over its head and began to lower her into its depths. All she could do was scream.

Myo Juan actually did nothing in this moment, only stood there in shock. Well, actually I'd been in back of him this entire time so I really had no idea what facial expressions he was displaying, but given the circumstance and the response that most people would give, I could only assume that he was paralyzed with shock.

By chance, the tentacles seemed to act on their own accord and found me as a next target. Launching themselves at my immobile state, I did nothing, only watched helplessly while that knowing I couldn't react in time.

"Aki! Watch out!" Much to my surprise, Hotohori, Nuriko, and Tasuki all volunteered to put themselves in the line of fire, denying the tentacles their access to me. But in doing so, they were effortlessly caught into the trap as well—leading them in the same tangled predicament as their priestess. Why would they do something like that? Surely they could have done more if they kept their distance from the monster and figured out a plan.

"Well, at the very least," On shaky legs, I mentally demanded that the strings hold me up. I was being met with so much resistance, almost like gravity had just increased in my spot alone, still, I knew I needed to at least be able to stand and move. Otherwise, what was the point in even having this circlet? "Those guys gave me enough time to counterstrike. Shokyoku!"

Standing up on command, the little girl nodded, "Right!" I didn't exactly know what this woman was expecting from Myo Juan, but since he wasn't making an effort to even move, I would have to step in in his stead.

"Here we go. Dioga Gravid—" Luck not exactly playing in my favor, my body's ongoing meltdown chose now, in the middle of my spell-casting, to act up again. As always, the unwanted surges of Darkness electricity held me in place and once it dispersed, the after effects lead me to cough even more into my hands, the sudden motion leaving me unbalanced on already shaky feet, causing me to fall forward. Mid-fall, the tentacles seized their chance once more and this time, it got its way. Within a swift movement, several of them reached out and took hold of me, lifting me up into the air, facing the ground, away from a more than distressed Shokyoku, who was outstretching her arms upward in a pointless effort to grab for me.

'I can't attack now that it's got you! What do I do?' Shokyoku asked inside my head.

You can attack just fine. Just be careful. With the monster continuously moving us around, I had to admit that it was a tough target, but it could be done. Perhaps someone would have had to get hurt in order for it to have gotten done, but at least it would have gotten done. A few injuries are nothing when you look at the grander scale.

She begrudgingly lowered her head in a pout, apparently not favoring the order I had given her. 'I'm sorry Aki…but…I…I can't put you and the people you care about in danger!'

Huh?

Since when did Shokyoku ever care about what happened to anyone other than me or herself? I continued to look at her, but she still had her eyes low, avoiding my gaze as a slight blush spread across her cheeks.

Hmmm…This might be something I'll have to explore later. Especially if this decision of hers ended up hindering us in the future.

But as for this present moment, I had to accept that she wasn't going to be useful to me—my safest way to perform spells in my current state and she backed out. Lifting my head up, I could see the others struggling for dear life, doing everything they could to break free. Unfortunately, the tentacles, which were now beginning to take tiny nibbles out of everyone, restricted their movements, a bad thing for Tasuki and Hotohori who both needed to swing something in order for anything to get accomplished. However I was a bit surprised that Nuriko wasn't able to break free considering his monstrous strength. This monster was not one to underestimate.

I supposed I could always use my own power and suffer the consequences…For all I knew though, that might not even have been necessary…

So I guess, for now, I'll leave it up to Mr. Myo Juan himself. If Shoka is so confident in his abilities, then there must be something to him that none of us had seen yet.

"Juan! You must destroy me!" Shoka cried out from behind her ears, the monster coming from her not caring at all for how upset it was making her. "Killing me is the only way that the demon will disappear and leave everyone in peace. Please…before it's too late—use your power and destroy me!"

Giving it some heavy thought, and I had no idea what there was to think about, if he really had this power, he needed to use it, Myo Juan clenched his fists even more, like he was enduring some type of pain or something. But eventually, his inner conflict must have resolved itself since he finally decided to make a move. Unwrapping the cloth around his left hand, he opened his palm out towards the possessed woman…who actually appeared to be smiling at his decision.

For the first time in a while, Shoka's voice became calm and gentle, reflecting gratitude and acceptance towards her imminent demise. But first, she felt it necessary to say her good-byes. "Lady Miaka…thank you so much for your kindness. I promise that you will be healed soon so do not worry anymore. You'll be healthy enough to live happily with your loved ones. Suzaku Warriors, I thank you all as well and I'm terribly sorry for putting you through all this. I wish you all health and happiness. And Miss Aki…" She actually had something to say to me? "I hope you…come to learn of true love and its importance one day…And when you find this love, never let them go." …What a pointless thing to say…

From the center of Myo Juan's left hand, a bright green light materialized along with what appeared to be bubble-like energy that shone in reflection to that mysterious light.

She closed her eyes one final time, allowing the rest of her tears to fall as she said, "Juan…I have missed you so much. To see you here one last time makes me so happy….I wish you all the happiness in the world, all I ask is that I'll always have a piece of your heart. Even if you should fall in love with another, and I hope you do find someone who can bring you such joy, just please don't forget about me! Farewell my love!"

Choosing not to respond to her parting words, Myo Juan only invested more of his bower into that beams of light being produced by his hand, keeping intense concentration as it stroke Shoka and the monster all at once. Of course the whole room illuminated a bright green from such a display, some of the bubbles even floated around a bit without any care in the world, but the true target were really the only ones to feel its wrath. What is this power? Once the monster was able to marinate in Myo Juan's light, it instantaneously erupted into an even brighter light before bursting into pieces, not a remnant of it to be found.

Upon its destruction, my comrades and I found ourselves being freed, with nothing to catch us out of the air except for gravity, which sent us to the ground below. Testing out my arms and legs, I thankfully discovered that they were all still useable, my right arm to a slightly lesser extent since it had been burned, but at least it wasn't broken. Good thing for us that it wasn't that high of a drop. And just as we were coming to terms with our victory, the house we were in suddenly vanished into thin air, taking us back outside to the darkened sky of Choko, which, off in the distance one could see the first color gradients of morning beginning to lighten up the horizon. Was all that…?

"The place was just an illusion!" Tasuki said, pointing out the obvious. All around us, the resurrected villagers all fell to the ground, thus severing the rest of the ties they had with this world and returning to the position they were never supposed to have been taken from: death. Both the newly dead as well as the ones who had been gone for quite a while, finally they could all rest in peace.

"Aki!" Shokyoku flew herself onto me as she came out of nowhere, using enough of her power to solidify herself and embrace me. "I'm so happy that you're alright! I don't think that I would have been able to show such restraint if that revolting creature had done anything dire to you!" Cradling my head, she began stroking my hair, which I could only tell she was doing by how rhythmically my bangs were being pressed against my head. "My precious Aki is nice and safe with me again~!"

Tasuki, who was witnessing the whole scene, tossed the little girl a look of disgust. "Such a weird, creepy kid…"

She shot him a deathly glare, which he seemed to have ignored, before returning to what she was doing. "I shall ignore that this time monkey, for I wouldn't want to risk my proper, ladylike air just because of your immaturity. And plus, I don't wanna separate from Aki!" As she said that, mini hearts started swarming around her head.

"Miaka…Miaka!" Shokyoku's hearts all popped once her fawning was interrupted by Hotohori holding an unconscious Miaka. "Please wake up!" Nuriko and Tasuki also grouped around her to investigate the state of their priestess, both of them looking pretty apprehensive while awaiting her diagnosis by Dr. Myo Juan. Immediately jumping into the role, the man squatted down to take a look at her, ultimately concluding that she'd be fine she was only suffering side-effects from being too close to the demon. Holding up his left palm, he held his hand only inches away from her face, alarming me a bit after seeing what that hand was capable of doing. But instead of some big, intense beams of light shooting out, it was more like a warm glow of that same color as before, bubbles emerging once more as he displayed his power in front of Konan's priestess.

Surely, her eyes slowly opened to the man curing her of the illness that had been plaguing her…with that mysterious power of his…how come he—?

Miaka abruptly woke up out of her trance and took hold of Myo Juan's hand with bugged out eyes. "I CAN'T BELIEVE IT! IT'S A SIGN OF SUZAKU! ON HIS HAND!"

"Look who's got all of her energy back! It's such a relief!" Nuriko pointed out while he and his fellow warriors all smiled knowing that their priestess was okay.

Getting up from my spot and out of Shokyoku's embrace, I decided to stroll over and see the sign for myself. And sure enough, in the palm of that man's hand was the glowing red kanji sign signifying his being a Suzaku warrior.

The sixth one…Well, since we did end up finding him, I couldn't help but entertain the idea that it wasn't such a bad think that Tasuki had tricked Nuriko, Miaka, and Hotohori into coming to this village. If he hadn't done that, then we would have had no reason to stop by here at all. So in a way, the credit for the success of this mission went to him.

"Well that explains it," I said out loud. Finally everything that had either happened to us or come before us since coming to this village had been clarified. I was beginning to think that the mysteries would just keep piling on and on without any hope of discovering a solution.

"So…your being able to defeat that demon and heal Miaka…was all because of a power that Suzaku gave you?" Hotohori asked.

The sixth warrior nodded. "Yes…I am the Suzaku warrior, Mitsukake—given the power to heal…" Figuring that Miaka didn't need his help anymore, he turned his back to us and made his way over to the lifeless body of the woman who had caused us trouble since the moment we arrived in Choko. Crouching down, he delicately took her in his arms and continued on with his story. "Because I was given such a wonderful gift by Suzaku, I felt that it was my calling to use this power and become a doctor. All I wanted to do was help people, and for a while, I got to live my dream and be with the woman I loved. But the dream started to chip away once Shoka developed a deathly high fever. I had been called away to another village to treat someone while I left her here suffering all alone. If only…" He held onto her tighter, his own tears falling onto Shoka's face, making it appear as if she were still crying. "If only I had arrived sooner…but it was too late! I was supposed to be a doctor, yet I couldn't even save the one I wanted to save the most. I had no right to even affiliate myself with that title anymore! I didn't deserve it."

I parted my lips to speak, but from behind me, Nuriko's hand swooped up and landed over my mouth before I could say anything. He whispered in my ear, "I have a feeling that I know what you're about to say. So I'm asking you in decency and respect for other people's feelings not to say it." What was up with him? All I was going to say was how even as a doctor, it didn't mean that you could save everybody all the time. That was just improbable. Things happen and you can't really change that, sometimes, something happens that is just out of their control. Mitsukake just had the misfortune of the person closest to him being the one he couldn't save. Perhaps this was a life lesson for him. If he couldn't take that fact of reality then maybe a doctor wasn't the right career path for him.

"And so…because I couldn't look at myself as a doctor anymore—all I saw was a failure," Mitsukake told us. "So I decided to turn my back on the world…at least until I found a way to where I could improve upon myself as a healer and never let anyone down again…That day…seemed to never come though…" I stood by my statement in saying that he wasn't suited to be a doctor.

"But it did!" Miaka told him with her usual optimistic tone, walking up to him to show him her support. "You might not realize it, but you were able to save Miss Shoka this time around."

"I…saved her?"

"Yes! Can't you see…?" Her voice began to crack a bit, making it sound like she was tearing up. "Look at that smile on her face…she looks so peaceful. And that's because you were here and that's…that's all she really wanted…for you to be there with her in her last moments. You had finally given her most precious gift Mitsukake…" She proceeded to wipe away her tears which weren't shy to flow any more. In fact…I observed our whole group and it looked like every one of them was crying for some reason. Was there something I was missing? Looking down to my side, I could see that even Shokyoku was crying. Since when do you cry at things regarding human affairs?

Trying to appear strong now that I've taken notice, she couldn't do everything to hide her tears. She was still sniffing and her cheeks were all puffy—some stray tears even managed to still escape. "I really couldn't care less about these people…It's just that…I couldn't help but think if it were you in this situation instead of that woman. What if…wha-what if you had died in the same way that she had that first time? All alone…and suffering." Using her hand to wipe away her tears, Shokyoku told me, "This whole thing just reminded me of how I can't do anything about your current condition. But…I just don't want you to have the same fate as her…it would be so sad…"

Sighing, I disregarded the fact that people were still around to hear me say this, and patted her on her still tangible head. "Believe me, at the rate I'm going now, I won't suffer one bit since I have absolutely no sense of sorrow. So don't worry about it."

Without looking up at me, she said, telepathically, 'That…really doesn't help me all that much…sorry…'


After finding that Shokyoku's inner grief was temporarily laid to rest for the time being, or at least it was being suppressed, the six of us remained relatively silent at day break, while Mitsukake mourned over the loss of Shoka, taking the time out to give her a proper burial. Instead of just standing around watching him, the others had decided that it would be the right thing to do to help re-bury all the rotting corpses and to give burials to all those who appeared to have been revived just recently—or at least contact their families or enlist the help of any villagers who also felt the responsibility. That demon's sickness had captured so many people in the village, I wouldn't have even been surprised if the population had reduced to half…maybe even more than that. I couldn't help but think that all of this could have been avoided quite easily. But others say that it was much more complicated than that. It was a matter of opinion I supposed. Either way, as all of the dead had been buried, it was also the final burial of the plague. So now this village could move on, recover, and people could get on with their lives.

With any luck, Mitsukake will have come to terms with everything and would agree to fulfill his Celestial duty. In that way, we wouldn't have to spend any more time in that village than we honestly had to.

… "we"? That was a slip of the tongue so to speak. There was no "we". And soon, there wasn't even going to be a "me".

That's life…I guess.

Before I knew it, I found myself staring into space, standing next to a dead tree while watching the sun make its ascension—me almost completely disconnecting with the world, thinking nothing in particular or…I wasn't thinking anything that I hadn't thought before. I had simply just…detached myself. I barely noticed anyone walking by, and I was pretty sure that no one had called out to me. The more I had invested myself into this Suzaku Seven business, the more it was becoming ever apparent to me that Miaka was overshadowing my existence. Her warriors were paying her more attention as well as the affairs in Konan.

Finally.

Of course I didn't matter because I had nothing to do with their equation. I had my purpose, and they had theirs. I couldn't achieve mine…but Miaka had sort of surprised me so far not only by the fact that she was still alive, but also because she was actually a petty competent priestess. And all of her warriors so far seemed to all have their uses…If they all assembled before the Seiryuu Seven managed to, then Miaka could just get rid of all the problems if she wanted to, so the whole Stella issue was most likely going to get solved even if it wasn't by my hand.

So…things had worked out for the best.

"…ki"

My vision started to shake unnaturally, bringing me back to the world. And upon my return, someone was calling my name.

"Aki-nee-chan!" I spun around to face a smiling Miaka, who was now at one hundred percent health wise and back into her brown school uniform and familiar hair buns. She stood in front of everyone else, Hotohori, Tasuki, Nuriko, and now Mitsukake, all of them smiling at me for some reason. Given the events of the night before, I didn't expect for them to be at such high spirits yet. Even more curious than that, why were they all grouped up beaming at me like that? Things became a bit clearer, or maybe they became more confusing, when Miaka asked, "We're sorry that it took so long, but, are you ready to be healed?"

What?


It didn't take long for them to explain what she meant by "healing me". Apparently, during the time when everyone was helping out around the village, getting everything said and done, Tasuki had herded everyone together since he suddenly had a "brilliant" idea. Oddly enough, he had made a similar connection towards my condition and needing the proper "doctor" that Shokyoku had mentioned before. And before anyone else could even think of it, the bandit himself thought of using the Suzaku-blessed healer Mitsukake's powers to…well, heal me. No one really knew if it was going to be a sure-fire thing, but…I guessed it wasn't that bad of an idea. Mitsukake wasn't a normal man. His powers to heal came from Suzaku, so they were probably nothing to scoff at.

I couldn't really say that I had full faith in this idea, but for an idea from Tasuki…it was actually worth trying. He even told me, "You can thank me later. But keep in mind that if this works, then I'll be one closer to fully repayin' ya for your help. Never say that I'm not a man of my word!"I never really held him to any of those times I came to his aid, but whatever.

There was also to consider how Mitsukake's powers worked. While he said that he'd be more than happy to help me, we would have to wait until the next day because he could only do really serious healings only once a day. That wasn't much of a problem for me, and so…I waited until the next day break. But on the night prior to our testing out this plan, I began to ponder on what would happen if this actually worked. I mean…I already knew what was going to happen if it didn't…But if it did? I just didn't know what to think…

…but something did stir within me for a split second. I wondered what that could be?

And so, morning had come once again, with all of us facing our fourth day in Choko. If all went well, it would most likely have been our last.

We had all traveled just to the outskirts of the village for my examination. Conveniently finding a boulder with a flat enough surface, Mitsukake instructed that I sit atop it so that he could inspect me before initiating anything. For some reason, this process took even longer than waiting twenty-four hours for this day to get here. He had really only been asking me questions about everything that had happened to me since the incident with Stella, as well as checking my vitals and current physical state. All standard things really…even if this was an ancient Chinese world, doctors were still doctors.

Then…

What was going on with me? There was some kind of constant beating of a deep drum assaulting my ears. No…wait…I wasn't hearing that at all…It was coming from me! I refrained from bringing my hand up to my chest, but there was no doubt about it. How was it that I could feel a beating in my chest? I recognized this sensation…I was…anxious? That… shouldn't have been possible. I couldn't feel anxiety. And I was positive that I still couldn't, and yet my heart was acting on its own.

This was my last chance at survival.

The others just sat around and found miscellaneous ways to entertain themselves while the doctor was doing his job. Just before we had arrived to that location, Miaka had been displaying her regained energy by jumping around and laughing, saying how wonderful it would be for me to be myself again. I glanced over at her, playing with a small white cat with a brown patch over its head almost looking like it had bangs, and its tail's tip was brown as well. The feline supposedly followed Mitsukake all the way here and Miaka decided it would be a good addition to the group.

She sometimes acted like she had no cares in the world…like she was just so sure of herself…and the others shared in her optimism. If they could see things more rationally like I could, then they'd know that this wasn't a sure-fire plan. Or…maybe they did know and were only putting on smiling faces somehow thinking that their positive energy would contribute to anything.

That notion wasn't even worth commenting on.

Finally, Mitsukake completed his inspection and sighed. Not exactly a promising sign. "Alright, I think that I've gathered the information I needed. Thanks for your cooperation in all of this Aki."

Ignoring the beating, I gave him a smile customary of such an occasion, although insincere. "If you're somehow able to fix my malfunctioning in any way, then I'll have to be the one thanking you, now won't I?"

Our conversing served as a signal to the others, who all flocked towards us with increased interest.

"How does she look Mitsukake? Do you think you can help her?" Hotohori asked.

"This is a very peculiar case," the sixth warrior admitted. "I could always try using my powers and hope for the best, but I have a feeling that something extra might be needed. Basing my knowledge off of what Aki has told me, doing anything to mess with her system might set off something else…maybe even another trap. So to be honest, I'd rather be careful while going about this so that I can make sure to get it done right."

Appearing at my side like a loyal dog, Shokyoku intervened the perplexed healer and told me, "Don't lose hope Aki. I'm pretty sure that I know what needs to be done here~. Tell them to call the fox-faced monkey here."

"Hmm…Chichiri?" I said out loud.

Miaka mimicked me while she continued to tease the cat with a long piece of grass. "Chichiri?" Then she dropped the grass for the cat to finally catch and clapped once as the borrowed idea suddenly stroked her. "That's what we should do! Get Chichiri here! I'm sure he'll know what to do—"

"You called priestess?" The blue haired monk wearing the cheery, fox-faced masked appeared next to her without any warning whatsoever, the rings on his golden staff clinging together as if wind had blown through them, even though in that instant, I was positive that no wind had passed our way. The sudden addition to the group caused Miaka as well as her other warriors to jump with surprise in their spots. Sporting a rather cheery smile, which was what made that mask so notorious, he held up a hand in greeting, "Hey everyone! I can see that you've made progress on your journey, ya know?"

The others were still standing in guarded positions with their eyes bugged out wide from the intrusion.

"Wha-Where the heck did you come from?!" Nuriko asked in a quick, panicked tone.

"From the palace! But you already knew about that, ya know, so I don't exactly know why you wanted to ask that…"

"Chichiri you damn monk! What did we say about poppin outta nowhere like that?!" Tasuki loudly chastised. "You nearly gave us all heart attacks ya jerk!"

Playing innocent, Chichiri placed an index finger under his lip as he pretended to recall something. "Did you really tell me not to do that? Guess I forgot all about it, ya know!"

"That's a damn lie and you know it!"

Completely disregarding Tasuki's frustration with him, Chichiri nonchalantly slid over to Mitsukake and extended out a friendly hand in greeting. "Hey there! My name is Chichiri! I'm a fellow Suzaku Warrior, ya know!"

"Hey! Don't ignore me!"

The benign giant looked down at Chichiri's hand and immediately extended his own out to comply with the gesture, saying, "It's a pleasure working with you. I'm Mitsukake."

Shokyoku, who by this time was crossing her arms and closing her eyes, had been tapping her foot and was beginning to growl in annoyance. Not being able to take it anymore, she threw her arms down and stomped over to Chichiri. Jumping at quite an impressive height, she solidified her hand to catch hold of his dangling bangs, thus bringing him down to her height as she landed.

Making sure she had a good enough grip on his hair, she tugged a bit more to get his attention—the attention she was striving to get even though he still couldn't see her let alone hear her. "Listen monk! We didn't summon you here to go around in a circle and say hi to all you friends. You are here for one thing and one thing only," using his bangs to guide him, and this whole performance was being rewarded by peculiar faces by everyone else mind you, she jerked his head to the side to face me, "you're here to help my Aki get better. You promised to do everything in your power to help, so, here's the time to match your words with action! Got it?"

Even while his face was twisted into that of a rather discomfort-filled expression, given the position he was in, he still managed an uneasy smile. "Yes, yes Shokyoku, I understand."

Releasing him, her eyes popped wide in astonishment. "Did he actually hear me?"

"Oh wow Chichiri! You've become able to see and/or hear Shokyoku as well?!" Miaka asked, sparkles in her eyes showing just how impressed she was by the concept.

Adjusting his bands back into the correct way that he wanted them, Chichiri denied the assumption. "No, I've just become used to her presence and deduced that what was happening was because of her, ya know? Besides, it was rather obvious what she wanted after she turned my head towards Aki." To that, he tossed me a smile, to which I gave no real response. Tossing his arm towards the back to his head, he smiled anxiously and said, "I guess I've overstayed my welcome a bit, huh? Then I'll get right to it! What can I help out with?" Chichiri was debriefed about the situation and about Tasuki's plan. And to that, the monk was impressed and patted the flame-headed warriors head, "Wow! That's a pretty good idea! You never cease to amaze Tasuki!"

Getting annoyed once more, Tasuki muttered an order, "Stop it."

The monk complied and took his hand away. "Alright then…" He crossed his arm and concentrated as he searched his mind. "Give me a second to think about this…" We all just stared at him until the moments he requested were up. Snapping his fingers, in realization, he relayed his knowledge onto us. "Okay, so earlier, Aki sought out Tasuki on the hunch that he might be able to do something to help her. But the fact of the matter was, he couldn't heal her because he didn't know how to exactly utilize his bond with her in such a way to take care of the problem, ya know? And to add to that, Tasuki had to compensate for Aki not contributing—through no fault of her own. But even with his efforts, it didn't work, ya know? The job was just too precise and sophisticated for their present levels."

"A bond?" Nuriko curiously wondered out loud.

Chichiri turned to him. "It's a long story. One that can wait for another time, ya know?"

"Akimoto, is this why you stayed behind back at Mt. Reikaku? Because you were hoping that Tasuki could help you?" Hotohori asked me and I nodded.

"A bond, huh?" Still Nuriko stayed fixated on that point of Chichiri's explanation. Leaning over to his brother warrior, Nuriko, with a mischievous grin, nudged Tasuki with his elbow. "What exactly did you two do when we left you alone?"

Tasuki's cheeks started to redden, as the memory of our time there etched itself back into his short-term memory. Taking his arm out of Nuriko's reach, he turned his head to the side and closed his eyes—acting rather aggravated which was obvious by the volume of his voice beginning to rise. "Nothin' happened so don't start assumin' things. And even if something did happen, it wouldn't be any of your damn business." I don't see why it's that big of a deal. So I kissed him. It was merely for scientific purposes. There was no need to get all flustered about it.

"Aww…Red's getting mad, how cute!" Nuriko tauntingly cooed.

"I am not cute!"

"So like I was saying…" Chichiri interrupted, probably figuring that those two had the capability to keep that up for longer than any of us really wanted to stick around for. They returned to more serious demeanors as they listened intently to the monk's words. "Aki's situation is a very delicate one, ya know? So I figure that with the convergence of Mitsukake's great healing power and Aki and Tasuki's bond, it should be the proper boost needed to heal what mess that Shadow Maiden left inside of her."

This…might actually work…

The malfunctioning…might actually be fixed.

my constant unfeeling nature wasn't as constant and iron clad as I initially thought. I had experienced…I guess you could call them hiccups. Those hiccups had opened my eyes to a flaw that was buried someplace…

I could see cracks…

pieces of something that wasn't filled in…

broken shards of something…or somebody…

Buried deep inside…

Something was missing.

I wasn't complete.

The thing that I had lost…whatever it was…I was reminded of what I had told Shokyoku that day before we set out to find the remaining three Suzaku warriors.

"I can't feel my body… I can't feel anything at all. You're right when you say that I shouldn't be able to feel anything. But now even I know that something isn't right. I don't know what it is…The only thing I have right now is my life—my…existence. I function only to ensure that I maintain this existence. However, I don't know why. When I destroy Stella, then what? What's to become of me? There has to be a reason for me to automatically be programmed to ensure that I go on. Otherwise, it wouldn't matter if I lived or died. But since it does matter for some reason or another, I think…I think that whatever I'm missing is important for my survival. And…I need whatever it is to fully function, so that I won't be threatened…I need to be complete."

Will I be completed again?

And so, I gave my answer. "I'll try anything."

Tasuki nodded as well. "Me too. This time, we'll get it right!"

Exchanging glances between Tasuki and I, Mitsukake gave a similar reply. "I'll do anything in my power to help."

"I'm glad to hear you all say that!" Chichiri smiled, then reached inside of his sleeve to reveal a small, smooth silver ring. What's that for? Offering it to Mitsukake, he said, "Here wear this, it'll protect you for what's to come, ya know?" The tall warrior complied without question, slipping the piece of jewelry onto his right hand's ring finger.

"Hey…how come yer not givin' me one of those things?" Tasuki pointed to himself, a slight hint of complaint lathered on his words.

"That's because you don't need one, ya know?"

"Oh…really?" He looked around and made note of his companions. "What the heck do they do anyway?" I sort of wanted to know that myself. This was actually my first time seeing those rings—I hadn't even realized that everyone was wearing one. How long had that been going on?

"You see Tasuki, you weren't there after Stella was finished with Aki…you really don't know what state she was left in afterwards." Tasuki's countenance suddenly became solemn upon the news he was hearing. Chichiri too had lost the air of cheerfulness that usually came equipped with that mask, thus becoming more urgent. It was a magical mask after all, so it did have the potential to change expression when appropriate. "Aki's Darkness suddenly became an overwhelming, dominant force—and that's a very dangerous and destructive element, especially when left with no control." Now addressing everyone, he seemed to have been re-affirming information that they had already received before. "These rings had been enchanted to protect you from the effects of Aki's Darkness which will return once we take that knotted circlet from her head. And that will be necessary for her cure, ya know?" So…they had those things since the beginning of all this. Chichiri didn't necessarily need to say it, but I had a hunch that it was Taiitsukun who had those rings at the ready.

Smart move.

Taking a moment to pause, his fox-faced mask immediately transformed back into that of a cheerful one as he held out his hand for me to take hold. "Having said all that, are you ready Aki?" My answer lied in my actions as I placed my hand in his and he helped me to my feet. Extending his golden monk staff out towards Nuriko, he asked, "Can you please hold onto this while we're getting this done?"

"Umm sure, no problem."

Next, Chichiri instructed Hotohori, Nuriko, and Miaka to get a safe distance away—probably at the least, twenty yards. At first, they all refused, saying that they wanted to be here for me and support me through this.

But to that I replied, "Fools. This precaution is for you not me. I can just barely handle my own Darkness when it's that bad, what hope do you have? Besides," I met Miaka's gaze for a second, as she held the small cat in her arms, she gave me such a look of concern in those wide green eyes of hers, them alone telling me her desperation to stay with me. "You guys have a duty to protect your priestess. You'd be failing if you allowed her to get caught up in what's about to happen. Go…and watch from afar until its safe for you to approach me again." With my demand, they reluctantly obeyed and swiftly made their way away from us towards some direction. I lost sight of them once they exited my periphery. I wasn't going to babysit them and watch to see if they followed my orders. I warned them. Chichiri warned them. It was up to them if they decided to listen or not.

Grabbing Tasuki's hand, Chichiri said to the bewildered bandit, "I'm going to need you to put your hand…here," In a swift motion, Chichiri tugged Tasuki hard enough for him to step closer towards me, his hand then pressing up against the space in between my breasts. In immediate panic, Tasuki's eyes popped wide with his complexion reddening more and more by the second.

He struggled to pull away but somehow, Chichiri's strength was too much for him. "What the hell Chichiri! Are you out of your mind?! I can't put my hand there!"

Shokyoku popped up right in the middle of us, her hetero-colored eyes blazing with fury while witnessing the position that the monk had put us in. "I don't approve of this either!"

The monk then shot him a look that instantly shut him up. "You want to help her, right? Then get over being shy and just do it!"

Although a bit taken aback by Chichiri's outburst, Tasuki reluctantly did what he was told, a blush still spread all along his face and to his ears, as he allowed Chichiri to make him press even harder on my chest. Even though Shokyoku supposedly didn't like nor respect him, she understood the importance of every aspect of this ritual, and refrained from blowing up again. The masked Suzaku warrior then trusted Tasuki enough to keep his hand in place as he let go, moving on to the next phase. He took his place behind me, preparing for something that he was expecting.

"Once I take the circlet from around your head, you'll lose your ability to hold up your body, ya know? So I'm back here to hold on to you when you fall." Temporarily, I'll lose the freedom to be able to move around on my own. But hopefully, this plan will work and I'll never have to worry about being helpless because of my immobility ever again. "Mitsukake, I'll extend my power to you to ensure that that ring does its job. I'm really praying to Suzaku that this will only take a matter of seconds, but even then, be ready for anything." The healer of the Suzaku warriors grunted in acquiescence, his expression turning hard as he already began to concentrate on supplying his end of the deal. "The moment I remove it from her head, you need to activate your power. And Tasuki, try to do the same thing you did before. Search for that spark and keep at it until you find it."

Slowly, he brought his hand over my head and I anticipated what was likely to happen next. I'd no longer be emotionless—everything would come back to me and I would be miserable again.

Well, if that's what it'll take for me to get back what I lost, then I have no other options.

'I'm here for you Aki, so everything will be fine.' Wrapping her thin arms around my bandaged one, she anchored herself onto me, determined not to let go.

"ONEE-CHAAAAN!" Miaka's voice echoed out to me, from which direction, I couldn't really tell. But the message came through to me all the same. "WE'LL BE WAITINIG FOR YOU! COME BACK TO US, OKAY?!"

Chichiri gave one final shout. "EVERYONE BRACE YOURSELVES!"

In the drop of a dime, a black, raging whirlpool began drilling itself into my head, the intensity of its cyclones already weighing me down so much that I thought that it would crush me faster than I could even blink. As much force as it was, for some reason, my body wouldn't immediately give in…It hadn't yet caught up with the reality of what was happening. I…didn't even know what was happening. Only that the whole world, except for the whirlpool draining its trapped contents into my being had slowed down. A never ending film strip, or what resembled one, rushed past with incredible speed, too fast for anyone to possibly distinguish any of the pictures.

And yet…I knew exactly what was on them. They were my memories. The memories I was cursed to always remember.

Each one of them played itself over in my head day…

After day…

…after day…even if I chose not to acknowledge them, I always knew they were there.

Just as quickly as the ribbons had presented themselves before me, they vanished, but their imprint never left my mind.

My knees finally began to budge, and I found myself beginning to drop even if only by less than a centimeter, but ever so slowly, my lips began to part, as if they were preparing for something to say…what was going to come out? The whirlpool that had claimed me as its own finally began to thin, preparing to dissipate altogether.

Then…it happened. The last remnants of its existence dissolved into nothingness while the world became reacquainted to normal time—moving forward from the mere second that had gone by since Chichiri had removed the circlet from my head.

The marionette strings had been severed…I lost all ounce of control.

Like an atom bomb making impact on ground zero, a shriek escaped past my lips and a fierce storm of dark indigo and black energy exploded from the cursed ring that had once disappeared upon placing the circlet onto my head. But now, it returned, and although compact, practically hugging against my body, it spun rapidly like a razor, each rotation creating smoky gusts comparable to speeds like that of the worst hurricane ever caught on record.

It wasn't, however, this outrageous burst of immense power and the terror it must have caused that had me screaming out in bloody murder. No. It was…pain.

The overwhelming combination of so much negativity…

Sadness…

Anger…

Fear…

I had all my memories but the emotion had been sucked away from them because of that circlet that Taiitsukun bestowed upon me. With the blasted thing being taken off my head so abruptly, it all came rushing back in one full force! Over the years...they had all built up and I could take it. But this? Having them fed down my throat all in one sitting…it was unbearable! My body was heavy, scary heavy, as if someone had filled me to the brim with sand and all I'd be able to do was sink further and further into this chilling, abysmal Darkness.

Shutting my eyes tightly, a waterfall of tears displaced from them, like they had been held back for so many years and just now they decided to burst. The feeling of shame that originated from knowing how others were witnessing this pathetically low point for me added to the list of emotions that were causing me to suffer.

My head…

My heart…

Both felt they were being squeezed like a grape. I could only take so much pressure until…!

"Please! Let me die! I can't take this anymore!" The cries that escaped were eaten up by the black hole that I knew I'd always be stuck in. No one would ever hear me. No one would ever help me. I would often deny the latter in my past. But now…I didn't even have the option of receiving it.

Because I was alone. No reality was ever more apparent than that one. And every day, my memory would only reinforce that thought into my head until the day I died.

After much hesitance, I slowly opened my eyes. Only to find that I was no longer in that field with everyone else outside of Choko. I was by myself, enveloped by almost nothing by pitch blackness. Upon an unexpected flash of lightning, I found my body hovering over what appeared to be a raging sea victimized by some perilous storm without rain…or wind…and yet, the water was so active, like someone was shaking it around in some giant, cosmic bottle.

Right after I was lead to believe that it wasn't present, I finally found the wind in all this chaos. But…it was howling. Continuously blowing past my ears, the rest of that world had been tuned out. All I could hear was the insistent howling. It sounded…so sad…almost…unsettling.

This isn't how things are supposed to be…

"Make it stop…please…please, please…" Being met with an uncomfortable amount of resistance, I used every ounce of my strength to lift my arms, fighting against the force that was trying to keep me immobile. But now, even if it hurt like hell, and even though my arms kept dropping after reaching a new milestone in height, I kept at it, refusing to stop.

Keep going..

Keep going…

After what felt like forever, I found that my hands had reached my head. But to keep them from falling, I actually had to use my nails to claw into my hair to keep my grip.

And then there was that howling still haunting me.

This world…was crying…it was in pain too.

This time, I prayed more silently, my voice filled with much strain, but sincerely asking for a miracle.

That was when a completely unique sound met my ears. Some type of…crackling?

There it was again. It sounded almost…electrical.

Making sure to keep my hands on my head, I looked up and found a crack in the black sky. The crack had a golden light shining behind it. But it was so small.

Another crackling sound. Suddenly, an electrical surge filled the entire sky, followed by someone shouting out my name. "AKI!" The crack in the sky got bigger, its golden light beginning to shine through and onto me.

My eyes grew wide. It's so warm…My body was actually beginning to feel a bit lighter the longer I basked in this light. I needed to reach for it. I needed that Light!

"AKI!" Reaching out one of my arms to the light, the feat was becoming easier and easier. "AKI!" The voice called out again.

Taking in a deep breath, I let it all out in a yell that filled the whole world. "I'M HEREEEEEEE!" Just then, my whole body somehow flickered a bright gold—as if it had just…sparked! The blackened sky couldn't take any more of this invading force whatever it was, and the whole thing suddenly shattered into incredibly tiny particles…but golden particles resembling snow.

Lowering my arms, I kept my neck bent back as I stared at this world's true sky. It was a rather soothing grey with fluffy clouds floating on by in the faint breeze that blew. The golden particles came from a place even higher than them…or so it seemed. Following the path of the gold snow, I lowered my head up until I noticed the sea. Or…a sea of some sorts. It was some kind of shallow clear liquid that extended on and on for as far as the eye could see…Upon further inspection, I found beautiful silver crystals displaced at various intervals between one another while shining just below the gently rippling surface.

Bringing my head back up, I resumed my inspection of this mysterious place.

Where…am I? I feel like…I've been here before. Suddenly feeling very weak, my body fell backwards with me half-expecting to splash into the water. But…no. No splash. And yet, I was on my back facing the never ending grey sky.

Fighting back the urge to shut my eyes, I couldn't help but think, This…is how it's supposed to be. And if not, it'll get better…Eventually losing the battle, my eyes closed and I drifted off to sleep.


'Hey Aki! I hope that you can hear me.'

It was Shokyoku's voice…

'Your friends were able to fix you, Stella's contamination is gone! So now I know that at least for a while, you'll be just fine.'

"Friends"? Fixed me? What did she mean by…?

'The dark ring has returned to your possession, and so, it's time for me to go back inside. I guess I am a little tired…So much has happened and I got to spend all that time with you! Even though it wasn't exactly under the best circumstances, I still loved being with you and knowing that I could have been a help to you in any way.'

Being with me? When had she ever stepped foot out of that ring?

'I had never experienced the world before…not in that way and it was…interesting. But now I'm exhausted from all the excitement. I'm sorry to say, but it'll be a little while before we can talk to each other again. You see, I have to regain my strength, so I need to sleep. Try not to miss me too much, alright?' Before her voice withered off completely, she added in, 'I'm overjoyed that you're back!' Right as she said that, I swore that I could feel a small pair of lips lightly kissing my cheek.

Or maybe that was all in my imagination…

What had happened to me?

More voices were able to break past my thoughts. These ones also familiar.

"Aki!"

"Aki-nee-chan!"

"Akimoto!"

"Aki! Wake up already!"

My eyelids slowly rose and I found myself laying on my back, staring up at a clear blue sky and birds soaring across it. When did I come outside? And… I was surrounded by people I knew….well, I knew most of them anyway. One of them was drawing a great big blank for me. Not only that, but…When have all these guys met each other?

With all of the eyes on me, I was becoming a little more than self-conscious, feeling my cheeks heat up as I trailed my eyes off to the side to avoid their gazes. How the hell did I end up the center of attention here?!

Taking in a deep breath, I sighed, putting on the cool, calm, and collected façade that I was so used to, even with the apparent blush on my face. Failing to resist the urge, given everything I had woken up to, I couldn't help but ask, "So…what did I miss?"


*With Shokyoku, before she went to sleep*

Dear Mother,

Not taking into account our recent reunion, it's…been quite a while since you've last come into contact with me.

Although I am sort of used to it.

Ever since you created me, I've always been in second place in your heart—that is, if there was any room for me at all. Because of your favoritism towards Aki, I used to resent her with every fiber of my being. I truly wanted to make her life miserable. But not for the reason that you wanted, I wanted her miserable solely so that she could pay for stealing you from me.

The fact of the matter is, though, that I never really had you, did I?

The truth became clearer and clearer to me as the years went by. And even though I knew that I was only created for the purpose of achieving your goals, I still did everything you said just so that I could win your love.

For the longest time, I also hated Aki because of her existence…because she became so important to you, she took away the life I could have had.

So naturally, I was more than happy to see her life become Hell. And I was happy to know that what I did pleased you.

However…spending a little over fourteen years with Aki, I couldn't help but sympathize with her. I couldn't help but idolize her for putting up with everything the way she had. Her attitude, her style—I became enamored with the person that she had become, so much so that I become angry when people don't realize just how wonderful and special she is.

I guess you've always known how wonderful she was, right?

And then, something amazing happened: I finally got to meet her. She was everything I hoped she'd be. It was just wonderful being in her presence. All these years I never even had a name. But she was so kind and thoughtful as to give me one.

"Shokyoku…"

*squeal* Ooooh I just love it so much because it was my first gift from her!

From the very beginning, you made a promise to me—promised me something that I could have if I fulfilled this duty of mine. And it was because of this promise that I forced myself to be completely okay with what I was contributing to Aki's life.

However I have to be honest with myself now, and with you.

So now…mother, I want to protect her happiness. Even if I can't reach my goals, and I pretty much know that by the time you read this you'll take back the promise you made me. And that's okay. Because of who I am, I know I'm limited to very little in my life. (However, even though I'm only working with very little, I've still come out as one of the most beautiful, smartest, and talented beings in existence! I don't give a damn about what those Shadow Maidens say about me. They're all just jealous and petty)

But Aki…she has so much potential and it would be wonderful to be able to see that potential finally realized.

I know you had plans for her…but I'm sorry, I cannot allow you to make those plans a reality.

So in case you haven't realized, I'm breaking away from you. And I am now determined to make Aki's future bright.

Maybe I will always be a curse to Aki, but I can always tone down my effects on others so that she can be free to become stronger and build more relationships. (Bleh! That is still so difficult to say since I still don't like the idea of people taking away Aki's attention from me…But! I'm doing it for her!). I'm not sure how much I can do by this point since it's not quite as simple as I'd like…*shakes head* No matter what! I'll help her achieve her wish! Even if I have to put up with those damn monkeys…

Mother…I can imagine that on some level, you're probably upset with me. Just know that I'll always love you and I'll always hope that someday you can return that love. Realistically though, I'm not expecting much from you.

Just think mother…now that I'm no longer on your side, I could really make a difference in Aki's life. It's a late start, maybe. But better late than never!

And you know what? I feel pretty confident about myself. Now, I know that I could never defeat you, but I have a feeling that when the situation eventually calls for it, Aki will. And if you even try to do anything to me, she'll get mad and come after you. She'll protect me…

…because that's just the sort of person she is.

Also, even though there are certain things I can't tell her right now. She'll find a way to get the answers.

One more thing. Think twice about the decision to kill me. I know you could do this at any time, but…I know you won't and you know I know exactly why you won't.

Mother…

….

I am your only successor yet I know that I'll never be able to measure up to you. *smiles* and I never want to try to…I just hope that being who I am is enough. And...I know that my tone has only been one of defiance but...I do still love you. Even though I know what you're doing isn't right. You're my mother after all. I'll always love you...

Forever walking in your shadow,

Shokyoku


*It appears as if Aki is back to normal…or is she? How much have things changed since her time of absence? Will things change now that she has her emotions back? Or will it be the same as before Stella got to her? And how WILL she react to what's been done to her?

I guess we'll have to find out next chapter!*

Well, that was the chapter, how did you like it?

PLEASE REVIEW! Tell me your opinions, predictions, hopes, anything that spiked ur interest during the chapter—anything!

Ugh…this chapter was actually very difficult for me to get through . I gotta say, one of my toughest to write for a few reasons. And its these reasons why I found it took so long to get out…But…now its over and AKI HAS HER EMOTIONS BACK! HECK YA BABY! I can write her with emotions again and I am just ECSTATIC about that *love* If this were DA, I'd be showing so many happy icons right now like YOU CANNOT BELIEVE.

*ahem*

In this chapter I had Tasuki say a joke, ya know, this one: "Not too shabby, huh? The bastards didn't have a ghost of a chance! Get it? They're zombies and they're dead like ghosts? It's funny!" That one is both dedicated and inspired by my Senpai, KittyLynne, who has Tasuki saying similar humorous things in her Fushigi Yuugi fic, The Promise: A Tasuki and Miaka Love Story. I'm pretty sure if you've ever read her story, you'll see what I mean ^_~ I saw the opportunity and I took a chance. I hope that was okay senpai! And I hope you enjoyed!

Also, for those of you not very familiar with Fushigi Yuugi or its English Dub, you might have been a bit confused when Shoka yelled out "I'M NOT CHOCOLATE, I SWEAR!", right? Well, that part was Aki missing the whole joke since she wasn't in the room to witness the whole thing. You see, in the anime, while Miaka's asleep and Shoka's trying to kill her, Miaka suddenly sprouts up from the bed, while still sleeping, and puts Shoka's arm into her mouth, trying to eat it. This is when Miaka says "Mmmm chocolate~!" Implying that she's dreaming about food. Shoka is freaking out, trying to convince the sleeping Miaka that she's not chocolate. And then, Miaka lets the woman's arm go, and lies back down saying, "Potato chips then~!"

Lol. This is from episode 16 if you wanna see that part X3

Please continue to check out my Deviant Art account for more pix regarding the story (drawn by myself and others) as well as other news and updates ^_^ If anyone ever wants to contact me, it's best to do it there ;)

Well, until next time, C YA!