AN: I know, I know. I said not to expect much with that little one-shot I did. And I've a suspiciously long list of half-completed fan fictions from 2008 or earlier... but this little thing has been itching in my head and I need to get it out or I'll drive myself crazy. I thought I'd broken away from fan fiction in general but here I am sucked back in, and with my love of fantasy playing hard against my love of Kenshin, this is the result.

Warning: This story will have heavily M-rated themes later on. Watered down versions will be available here. Anything uncut will be posted on an appropriately themed site. I will let you know what chapters are edited.


Sortiarius

Prologue


The world, it thrums. Can you hear it? It beats like a drum, and from it everything falls into rhythm. Life, death, the progression of everything you know... it is all connected. What?

You can't hear it?

Sad.

Once upon a time, you listened. You learned. You created. You helped build this world at that time. And now... now look at it.

Now the world is starting to move to a different sound, a different drum. One of destruction, of war.

You hear that, don't you.

This is the drum you have sounded. You turn your ears away from the sound of what created you, of what you wished to employ. Now the machines and buildings that touch the sky block out the sound of our voices... you can no longer hear us, but we're still here... waiting...

Waiting, always... lest you destroy yourselves.


Kaoru was not certainly exactly when she had dozed off, but it could not have been for very long. After all, her coffee was not yet cold and the sun had not moved too much in the sky. A few minutes at best. She could not help it, after all; this place... this place was something else.

She inhaled and looked around, her back against a tree overlooking the stream that circled the edge of the city. It was so peaceful here that it was hard to imagine the quickly spreading war in the north. It was all too real to her though, especially in knowing that her home city had been bombed a mere two days after she had left. It had not been luck she had escaped, either. Something had told her, deep in side, that she needed to leave. She had learned to listen to these intuitions over the years. She was not ungrateful for them.

And yet, those intuitions, those impulses... they led her here. She was not yet sure why. Ishin City was not known for its strong defenses. It did not have a strong military, nor was it a city with leading researchers and institutions. No, in fact, this place was only unique for two reasons. One, it was a city almost stuck in time. Settled in rolling hills, it held a very rustic feel despite the modern buildings, technology and even the large airport just past the outskirts. Perhaps it was the frequent brick and cobblestone streets, or the affinity for hanging baskets from the street lamps, or the large amount of parks and natural décor running through the grid. Whatever it was, it gave a very peaceful, calm, and serene atmosphere, one that seemed to be oblivious to the turmoil going on elsewhere... Or maybe it was in defiance.

The second reason would involve the very structure the city was founded on. It was nestled into the hillside, a beautiful construction of mossy stone that weaved and branched off into the rises and falls of the ground around it. The castle loomed quietly, a piece of history from a time of old; a very strange, peculiar history.

Or perhaps it was not so strange and peculiar, but merely... incomplete. After all, everyone knew how devastating the Sounding War had been. All that they knew had been affected, altered, forever changed. This castle was of no exception. An abandoned relic of the past, it sat there with a history that was a locked secret which seemed to have been sealed when the war was over. No surprise there; when the ashes had finally settled and the blood had soaked into the ground, people wanted to forget. And they did so. So well in fact, that things that should not have been forgotten, were also lost.

Kaoru blinked and yawned. She had zoned out again, had she not? Her coffee really would get cold at this rate. She felt very relaxed in this city, more so than she suspected she should, but perhaps she needed the rest.

Pulling herself to her feet, she picked up her mug and her backpack, slinging the latter over her shoulder. Her eyes settled on the castle in the distance. She had such a beautiful view of it here. It was drawing. She wanted to see its insides, what stories it could tell. When she thought of the past and what mysteries it held, something always stirred in her. Maybe it had something to do with the intuition she sometimes had. Maybe she was just weird.

Smiling slightly as a breeze picked up, she turned back toward the city. Few people ventured up the hills toward the castle. The city guard were not appreciative of people trespassing. It was a historical landmark, but also allegedly private property, however that worked. She was under the impression it had not been inhabited for ages. Probably some family descendent wished to keep the property private and had refused buy out, or something of that nature. While somewhat saddened that it meant she could not see it, it also pleased her that it meant no one else could, either. It might lose some of its timeless appeal.

Such thoughts on her mind, she began to weave her way down the cobblestone street, blending in with the other pedestrians. The background noise of a city teeming with life created a blanket for her thoughts, allowing her to drift in and out of her surroundings. She was so lost in them that she almost did not feel the brush against her shoulder, and she would have thought so little about it except the street was not very crowded. And no one had walked by her.

Brow furrowed, she glanced around, but saw nothing near her. Perhaps it was an errant gust of wind, or some sidewalk debris. Blinking, she realized it had tugged her in the direction of the castle—or maybe it was moving in the direction of it?

Great, now she was over analyzing things. Wrinkling her nose, she turned her attention back forward and picked up her pace. Sano was probably done with work now. Might even be waiting on her. He probably deserved to wait on her more than she made him, but she did have standards. Sort of.

Turning around the corner, she put her back to the castle and entered into the merchant's square that led to the market. She rather liked the market. It was open trade, where both coin and barter were acceptable. It was new to her; her city had been one leaning heavily on credit and cash value, but here people were much more willing to trade goods for goods than swipe a piece of plastic that claimed you were good enough to use borrowed money. It seemed to bring the heart back into a market, in her opinion. She smiled at the rich smells and lively sounds. Someone was calling out about baked bread, and she walked by a boutique of electronics. She had not bothered fixing her phone situation yet. Her pilgrimage out of her previous life had cost her that phone through some accidents and misplacement. The phone was a trivial loss if one considered the majority of her contact list was likely dead. Between the two, the latter was a more pressing matter.

It was a tentative thread that held her emotions in place; much had happened recently. She had wept, she had hated, she had screamed. Now, she was trying to heal. Having a routine helped. So did settling down. Now that she was in this city, she had no desire to leave. Misao originally had protested; they were not far enough South to be in the clear, something could still happen. This place had no good defense against the attacks. And yet... despite that, Kaoru had wanted to stay. And Misao was not one to leave without her. Kaoru was the closest thing she had to a big sister.

And so they stayed.

Kaoru broke out of her thoughts once again when she neared her destination. She smiled slightly to see a familiar head peeking up over a stand, full of brown hair that stuck out in odd spikes. She had met Sanosuke her first week there while trying to figure out the market thing. He had apparently felt pity on her, much to her ire, and showed her some tips of the market. He ran a stall of questionable merchandise at the far end, which was imported from a city due west. Weapons and technology that were easily accessed over there, but not so readily available here. It was not a...very demanding market. However, the clashing tides up north had gotten many worried, and his business had seen a strong increase in recent months.

"Yo, Jo-chan," He drawled, a lazy smile on his face. No one was at the stall at the moment, and Kaoru approached with a slight wave. His nickname had not bothered her too much. Truthfully, the familiarity had been appreciated.

"Sorry it took me so long. Went to get coffee."

"At four in the afternoon?"

"There is never a wrong time for coffee," She replied sagely.

Sanosuke shrugged at that, glancing at his watch. "Was gonna stay open a little longer, had a couple of folks promising to come back this evening for some purchases."

"Then I can go see about picking up dinner. I'm thinking pizza."

"You buyin', right'?"

Kaoru shot him a withering look, "It's your turn."

"Hmm. I'll think on it. Hey, run this down town for me, will ya?" He tossed her a package.

She caught it on reflex, and scowled, "You could have asked me this morning—wait, no, I am not your errand girl!"

"You want me to buy dinner, right?"

Kaoru growled, but did not put up much more of a fight. She was having a bit of trouble securing a steady job, and so Sanosuke really did make more money than her. She suspected, based on what she knew about him and his fiscal habits, that this was not the norm. "Whatever. Where am I taking this thing to?"

She flipped the package over, and the weight made her suspect the contents inside. He jerked a thumb back towards the way she had come in. "Someone down at the municipal building put in an order for it. It arrived around lunch but I haven't been able to leave to deliver it."

She sighed, but nodded. "Fine. Meet you back at the flat?"

"Yeah, sure. Squid, mushrooms and mayo, right?"

Kaoru made a pleased noise that was all the confirmation Sanosuke needed. He waved her off with a grin and she turned to march off out of the market.

It did not take her too long to make it back to downtown, where the oldest buildings stood and the scenery was much more rustic and antique. The municipal building was near the edge of the city that led up to the rolling hills with the castle. Really, half the reason Kaoru had been willing to deliver the package was that she would get to see the castle again. The other half was because pizza sounded really, really good.

She stepped inside the building, listening to the soft jingle of bells that made her smile. The building had old, curved archways and stole pillars, and was filled with tall, narrow rooms. It was just before closing of normal business hours, and she was glad she made it in time enough that she was not being rude. Showing up at the very last minute was just very unprofessional. Glancing around, she spotted the desk and walked up to it, peering at the man behind the counter. The man looked up from his paperwork and offered a bland smile. "May I help you, Miss?"

"I'm here to deliver a package from Sagara's Imports. The addressee is," She paused, glancing down at the package. She probably should have looked before now, huh? "Fujita."

"Ah. Yes, yes. He did mention in passing he was to be receiving a package. Thank you for your trouble of delivering it, Miss." He stood from his seat and outstretched a hand, "Do you need me to sign anything? Fujita-san is currently out of the office but I can see to it that it is delivered."

Kaoru shook her head. Sano did not really bother much with delivery confirmations. Too much paperwork for him. It was no skin off her nose if his bad planning resulted in the item being lost. She handed the package over. "Not necessary, Sir. Tell him 'thank you for using Sagara's Imports.'" She cringed. It wasn't like she worked for Sano. Of course, at this rate, he was probably going to be more steady work than anything else she had come across.

Not much interest in sword use in an age of guns and bombs, and no interest in history during the middle of an impending war. Those were her two strengths, after all.

The bland looking gentlemen smiled again. It bothered Kaoru just how much it did not stand out. Everyone's smile stood out. It was part of who they were. This man though... his smile did not reflect any portion of himself. It was almost like it was fake, but even a fake smile said something about its user. This smile? This smile said nothing.

She wondered about that. Maybe she was getting lightheaded from the lack of food.

"Thank you, Miss. Please enjoy your-" He did not quite get to finish his statement when a gust of wind picked up. In the office. With the door shut. He paused, glancing around, seeing some of his papers ruffle, and the hanging plants sway. "Mm, the spirits are restless this evening."

"Spirits," Kaoru echoed, brushing back some errant strands of hair. She thought back to the weird brush on her shoulder earlier. Strange things did happen, oftentimes she was around to witness it. She had not thought too heavily on the idea of spiritual activity, though. Ghosts, really?

That smile was back on the man's face. She watched him curiously then glanced out the glass door of the building. She could see the castle in the distance. "You mean the castle is haunted."

He said nothing, though his gaze also lingered on the castle. Kaoru glanced at him, at that strange smile. After a moment, she offered softly, "So much history must rest in there."

She hadn't quite expected an answer, but the response came in a prompt manner, "You have no idea."

She blinked out of her reverie, and looked back at him. He smiled again. "Is there anything else I can do for you, Miss?"

She shook her head. "Not unless you end up opening the castle to tours."

"Oho? You would like that, would you?"

She paused, and then shook her head. "No, actually. I take it back."

"Why?"

"Because that place is important. I can feel it. To have people suddenly rifling through its mysteries would be a shame."

"Hm. Do you not think they would appreciate the history it has to offer?"

His question had a hint of something else in it, something very close to actual... interest. Interest in her answer. She stared at the castle in the distance and shook her head. "What once was, many have already forgotten. They are not ready to listen. To learn."

She wasn't quite sure where her words had come from, but the silence that followed after had her turn to the man behind the counter. Her breath caught. The smile was no longer there, no longer fake. His eyes did not even look like his own. They stared at her, pierced into her, and she found herself defiant because of it all. Who was he to look at her like that? She set her jaw and stared back evenly. "What?"

In that moment the smile was back in place like nothing had happened. The antique clock began to chime, signaling closing time had come. "Ah...it is time to close. Thank you for delivering the package, Miss. I'll see to it that Fujita-san gets it."

What was that? Kaoru blinked at him, but got no more of a response from him than she could have gotten from a bowl of soup. Sighing softly, she gave a tight-lipped smile and nodded, moving to the front door. She could hear the shuffling of papers as the man behind her returned to his duties.

As she opened the door, however, a voice hit her ears. "Listen... can you hear it? Can you hear it yet? Are you ready to learn? Or are you like the others?"

She whirled around, door almost hitting her in the face as it was on its closing swing. The bland looking man had not looked up at her, walking to carry the package off. It had not been him. Stumbling back and out the door, she almost fell back onto the covered stone walkway in front of the building.

Strange things happened around her. But not in such frequency. Three times in one day? This was getting creepy. She glanced up at the castle, brow furrowed. The sun was starting to cast afternoon shadows over the hills, and the castle's presence appeared more haunting than ever.

Had the castle spoken to her?

She snorted at the ridiculous thought. Her stomach rumbled. The need for food was making her think strange things. Perhaps hear strange things too. Just because she could not explain what had happened did not mean it had no explanation. She heard something ruffle that sounded like words, or... her imagination had gone into overdrive. The latter was purely possible.

Inhaling deeply, she shrugged her backpack into place and tossed the nearly empty coffee cup into the trash bin. No more coffee for the night was probably a good idea, although she would never admit it.

Turning her back to the castle, she began to walk back toward the heart of the city when she felt the strangest sensation. The wind had picked up into a gentle breeze...and was caressing her hair. It was not enough to say it was blowing her hair, because no, that was not it. It honestly felt like fingers sliding through her ponytail, playfully tugging at the long black locks that were her own. Her hand shot up to smooth over her hair, reassuring her that nothing was truly in her hair but as soon as she let go, the sensation was there again; a playful tug, a gentle flutter. She whipped around to find no one there. Only the castle loomed in the distance.

Kaoru was not stupid. She was starting to get the feeling that all of these happenings were related to the object of her intrigue sitting so majestically and mysteriously on the hillside. As much as she tried to reason it was just her desire to explore that castle that was causing her to think this, that little nagging voice in her mind—that intuition that had shown its face at vital points in her life—was saying otherwise. Go to it. Explore. Learn.

She exhaled deeply through her nose, her nostrils flaring. She was hungry. Sano was waiting for her. And she had no reliable means to guide her. Rumor was that once you got onto the old castle grounds technology started failing. It was a rumor, a silly one...

Until she thought about the municipal building. It sat just outside of the castle grounds, in the old district of the city. Where had the computers been? The clock was an antique, the bells were real and not automatic. There had been phones there, but a lot of the modern devices found in other parts of the city had simply not been there. One could argue it was to preserve the look of the building, but there was not even a computer. Every reception desk had a computer, right?

She chewed on her lip thoughtfully, critically. There was something going on here. She was curious; too curious. Despite that voice, that wonderful voice that had saved her life before by making big decisions (the right decisions!), she found herself turning to walk back toward the city's center.

To placate everything opposing her, she muttered aloud, "I need to eat before I do any such thing... and get a lantern. Not going in there in the dark."

Whatever was calling her... it seemed to relent for the moment, and nothing strange happened the rest of the way back to the flat. Though she felt something still hovering in the recesses of her mind, wishing to speak but holding its tongue. It was only momentarily placated. She would have to revisit this after dinner.

Ye gods, Sanosuke and Misao were going to think she was crazy.

Maybe she was.


Notes:

Sortiarius - The Latin word which sorcery is derived from. In essence, it is one who influences fate. Be grateful, I almost went with 'Sound of Magic' which would have meant any time I wrote the title I'd have gotten Shinedown's "Sound of Madness" stuck in my head. Great song, but not conducive to writing.

-The pizza toppings were not meant as a joke. If you are unfamiliar with pizza in Japanese culture, squid and mayonnaise are very common toppings. I will admit I elected to ignore the fact that pizza is not cheap in Japan, and ergo not a typical take out dinner option. But since it's a fantasy world and not really Japan, I figured I could get away with it.

I do intend to use Japanese suffixes like -san, though I did end up using Miss here as well. It just seemed to fit better. I will keep the Japanese to a minimum, however.

I hope it is not too drawn out for an introduction. I promise more will happen from here on out, but I needed to establish a setting. I am still debating on how to portray Kenshin when he finally appears. Decisions, decisions. Promise you this, though. Kaoru is going to be an utter badass.

As always, any and all feedback is appreciated. Comments and reviews let me know you're interested, and constructive criticism helps me improve! (Plus the encouragement means I write more and faster!) Many thanks to Fen, my wonderful husband, for being my beta. I know it was painful for him, as he is neither a Kenshin or a fan fiction person. Any mistakes or inconsistencies are because I'm stubborn and refused his very logical advice.