AN: Ugh. You do not even want to know the BS that has transpired since my last update. I promise I have not been lazy.

Warnings: Some language.


Chapter 9: The Dream

Kenshin awoke with the nagging sensation someone was irritated with him. It was on a level that an average being would not be able to understand—it was not intuition, it was not extrapolation, it simply was.

It was a sensation he had not felt since the last time he had communicated with his Essence.

With that realization did the Aspect of Spring sit up, violet eyes wide in shock, red hair tumbling down his back.

He had just felt a connection with his Essence. A faint one, but it was there. His heart leaped up against his ribcage, joyous, anxious and shocked all at the same time.

It was then he realized he was in his chambers in the castle, and he had absolutely no clue how he had gotten there. A moment of clarity brought forth a rush of memories of recent events that sent his brain careening into frantic mode.


Tae sighed softly as she walked down the hall, a tray of rice balls in her hands. It seemed like over the course of the past week the castle had went from a silent, but organized entity to one of bustling, crazy chaos.

She knew a little of what transpired, with the Listener and Summer's summons. How could she not know when her own Aspect took off in a tornado of anger and Spring's fury? His rage had radiated through all the lesser Aspects under his allegiance so strong that they felt his anger, his wounded pride, his need to protect.

Spring's emotions knew no boundaries, and unfortunately anyone under his servitude was subject to the effects.

That, she could handle. She had for years. Having the Wolf show up on the castle's doorstep with the Listener and Master Kenshin unconscious and half-drowned was not something she had been prepared for.

Neither was the sudden influx of other individuals barging in unannounced. Captain Shinomori was expected, he came and went as he needed and was as unobtrusive as an entity could be, short of perhaps Hannya. However, the little wiry girl who had followed him was a bustle of untamed magic and energies that bounced off the castle walls like a ping-pong ball, frazzling her nerves. She did not know how Captain Shinomori could handle the unrefined energies bouncing off of the girl, but perhaps it was in her own self the problem lay. Was she so used to subtle, soft magics outside of Master Kenshin's that she had forgotten what kinetic magic felt like? Tsubame was a slight individual when it came to magic. Her spells were geared towards subtlety and finesse. This girl, if she could learn to control it, would be an explosion of fireworks; or Essences forbid, a volcanic explosion.

And then there were the two that came with her, both of them unsure of themselves, one more than the other. Neither held a trace of talent, but seemed to be aware of the world around them for what it truly was. She could feel the lingering residue of Spring's magic. He must have lifted the veil. The young man seemed to make himself right at home, which she could appreciate being who she was.

The woman seemed to assess everything with skepticism, despite it all being right before her. It was somewhat sad, but Tae promised herself she would not judge. After all, they were all here to make sure the Lady Listener was doing well.

Tae sighed. Well indeed. The young woman had been asleep since Sir Saitoh had brought her back to the castle. Exhaustion played a large part of it, she was sure, but beyond that the young woman just seemed to not be ready to wake up. There was nothing truly alarming about it, no foreign magic or spell, but even with coaxing she was not ready to wake and some nagging feeling insisted she should let the girl rest.

Too bad it was driving everyone else crazy. Especially a certain red-haired, heart-driven Season.

Pressing her hand to the door, Tae surmised from the castle that she was not interrupting, and gently knocked to announce her presence. The Lord's chambers had been dusted once she had returned, and appeared as if they had never fallen into disuse. Kenshin sat in a chair, still dressed in his night robes, and was staring at the waterfall the room was built around. It fell in a thin sheet from the ceiling, offering a canvas for a myriad of scrying spells. She knew immediately what he was looking at, and she almost huffed in exasperation.

"Master Kenshin," She tsked without preamble, walking into the room at a brisk pace. "You are being most rude!"

The small man jumped, obviously too lost in his own thoughts to have heard her announce her presence, must less sense her. "It is not like that, Tae-dono!"

She pinned him a look that made him shy back a step or two, and he swallowed uneasily, smoothing out the folds of his robe. "Really, now? She is going to sense you, asleep or not. The Dragon is not a subtle creature, nor are you. Your scrying abilities leave much to be desired."

"I am merely keeping watch!" Kenshin defended adamantly, which caused his subordinate to arch a brow in response.

"Is that so?" Tae inquired, placing the tray down on a small table nearby. "Then why are you blushing?"

Much to her amusement, he had no good answer.

"You know, there was a point in time where I had regular dreams. Like, showing up to class naked, being chased by clowns on motorcycles, dreaming Misao was a pink octopus. I kind of miss those dreams."

If there was anyone listening at that moment, they were choosing to not deign Kaoru's statement worthy of a response. With a huff, Kaoru threw her hands up in the air. "Look, can we just cut to the chase? You're an Essence, I'm the Listener, Summer is really screwing things up and I need to fix it. So what new thing do you want to add to the pot?"

There was a ripple in the white haze surrounding her, and Kaoru turned to follow it. The movement took form, and she found herself staring at a woman dressed in a white kimono, contrasting her black hair. She did not appear to be completely solid, the edges of her form blurring into the white light around them, much as if she were a vision.

Or a dream, itself.

Kaoru watched her quietly, willing to put money on this woman being another Aspect, and likely of Dreams. She stood poised with dignity and beauty, but there was something very somber in her expression, as if she did not know how to be happy.

"I take it you've been the conductor for all the dream meetings I've been having with the Essences," Kaoru wagered, putting a hand on her hip.

The woman responded with a bow of her head. "That would be me, yes. I apologize for waiting so long to introduce myself. My work is... delicate."

"Well, you really haven't introduced yourself. Just because I know what you are doesn't mean I know who you are." Something about this woman seemed to irritate Kaoru, though she could not place what it was.

"That is true, as well. My name is Tomoe, the Dreamwalker." As she spoke, she seemed to come into better focus, and Kaoru could make out details she could not see before. The painted lips, the silver embroidery of her kimono, and the old lantern hanging from her slender fingers.

"Kaoru, the Listener. But you knew that."

Tomoe offered what might have been a smile for her and gestured for Kaoru to follow her. "Please come with me."

"Where are we going?"

"There are things that would benefit you to see," Tomoe replied, and Kaoru began to realize it was the vague manner of speaking that was irritating her.

"What, other people's dreams?" Kaoru inquired, her tone somewhat flat.

Tomoe did not look back. "Dreams are gateways for thoughts, ideas, and memories. Some are more receptive to them than others. Some are more influenced by them than others. Sadly, many of the dreams are lost, because the world has forgotten our importance. I'm sure you have awoken from sleep and cannot remember what you were dreaming countless times."

"Well," Kaoru started, thinking. "Sure, I have. However, now I remember them more often than not."

"Because you are aware of what the world really is now; of the Essences and their Aspects, and their importance. However, the rest of the world who are not Sortiarius do not know, and that is very detrimental to my existence."

Kaoru frowned. "What do you mean?"

Tomoe stopped walking, and Kaoru came to a stop beside her. The Aspect stared straight ahead quietly, before finally admitting, "The more they forget, the weaker my existence becomes. As it stands right now, I can no longer manifest outside of the dream world."

"That veil that the Weaver created..."

"Is killing me."

She spoke the words simply and easily, as if her own demise was something she could readily accept. Whether or not that was the case, Kaoru could not tell, but the abrupt change from vague to blunt threw her off. She opened her mouth to speak when the white melted away with such a startling velocity that she forgot her words. She found herself suddenly standing in the middle of a battlefield unlike anything she had ever seen. Swirls of colors wrapped around craters, fallen trees, and fallen bodies. The sky bled red and the rolling clouds were a black contrast against it. The world was weeping.

"What is this?" Kaoru asked, and she could not keep the troubled tone out of her voice.

"This is the finale of the Sounding War—the first attack Summer made on the rest of the world."

And right in the middle of the sky, wrapped in ribbons of glittering gold light that spread out like a great pair of wings, casting a great shadow over the hillside in the shape of a dragon was the Aspect of Spring. Kaoru's breath caught at the sight of him. His magic spread about him like a curtain over the fallen soldiers in his shadow, shielding them from what stood before him. Protector.

Across from him with all his fury was Summer, his magic taking form of a great firebird, with flames pressing against the barrier of Spring's magic. For all of Shishio's strength, he seemed to be equally matched against Kenshin's fortitude, and they were momentarily at a standstill.

Kaoru frowned, looking at the scene. "Where is everyone else? I mean, there are four Seasons. What happened that Kenshin didn't pair up with Winter and Fall and kick Shishio's ass?"

Tomoe stared at the scene, something dark hidden in her expression. "Lord Summer is a Tactician as much as Lord Spring is a Protector. He made sure to eliminate as much of the opposition as he could."

"Wait... you don't mean..." Kaoru trailed off, mouth hanging open in a mixture of horror and surprise.

Tomoe nodded, "Lord Shishio murdered the Aspect of Autumn, disrupting the balance and signaling the start of the Sounding War."

Kaoru could not fathom what it took to kill a Season like that. Frowning, she found herself asking the words she almost dread to hear the answer to, "What happens when an Aspect dies?"

Tomoe tilted her head in thought. "Typically when an Aspect chooses to give up his mantle, he passes it on to a successor. When the mantle is removed forcefully, such as death, it latches onto the closest compatible entity."

"So there is still an Autumn?" Her tone was a mixture of hopeful and relieved.

The other woman, however, was still grim. "There is."

Before Kaoru could push the subject, Tomoe lifted her hand, palm stretched out to the scene in front of them. "This dream is one that must not ever be forgotten. You should watch it well, and engrave it into your memory."

"I don't understand," Kaoru replied, staring up at the two Aspects at odds. "Isn't this the past?"

"This is a dream of the past. Of a memory. The magic surrounding this event is too important to forget."

Kaoru furrowed her brow, staring up at the scene. It was not enough that it just happened? It was not enough that she knew it had happened? What Tomoe was saying was that Kaoru needed to all but be there, to see the event to the best of her ability. She paused, her breath catching.

Or perhaps... Tomoe wanted her to listen.

Chewing on her bottom lip, Kaoru asked the question that was nagging her. "If this dream cannot be forgotten, who has been keeping it alive up until now?"

Tomoe bowed her head in a manner unbecoming of her. "Very few remember this dream. Winter has forgotten. Autumn was not truly there. Summer no longer sleeps..."

Kaoru swallowed, feeling unease spread through her.

"Only Spring bears the burden of this memory, and has done so ever since the Sounding War."

She was not certain where the fierce anger came from, but it was all she could do to keep it out of her voice, "You mean, the whole time he was trapped in his castle, he was dreaming of this event over and over? That he was dreaming of what led him to be trapped there in the first place? Of everything that went wrong that he blames himself for?!"

Things around them began to shimmer and quiver, but despite Kaoru's building anger, Tomoe simply nodded. It only seemed to add fuel to Kaoru's fire.

"Why would you do that to him?!"

"He asked it of me."

All the anger came to a sudden, screeching halt. Kaoru stood there, mouth open for a verbal assault that did not make it past her lips. Blinking, she stared at the Dreamwalker. "What? Why would he do that to himself?"

Tomoe smiled, and yet it was the saddest expression Kaoru had ever seen. "Perhaps you should listen, my Lady."

Both women turned to look back at the scene. This time though, Kaoru forced herself to see, knowing whatever transpired she would never be able to forget. Now instead, she felt like she was watching many scenes at once, and on varying displays. Too many colors, sounds, tastes, and scents invade her other senses, and she felt herself grow faint. She tried to reign in control of the sensations, when suddenly the intensity dropped tenfold. Kaoru blinked, and looked over to see Tomoe adjusting the light on her lantern. The soft glow seemed to filter out the magic trying to drown the younger woman.

"Thanks," Kaoru muttered.

Tomoe shook her head. "Magic in this layer is different to experience. Do not apologize. But, please continue."

The scene before them only seemed to progress when Kaoru was paying attention. Turning her focus back toward the battle, she could feel that although both Seasons were equal in their power, Kenshin was at a disadvantage. Not only was he defending those on the battlefield, but part of his power seemed to be directed elsewhere, as if there were other things he was protecting. She tried to focus in on just what that was when Shishio pushed his offense and bared down onto the Dragon. Somehow, from seeing everything, Kaoru knew that physically killing Kenshin was almost impossible. However, the magic that spun out of Shishio's grasp was unlike anything she had yet to witness. It had Summer written all over it, but all she knew was that it was a pure intent to kill, to destroy.

To Destroy.

As a being of cycles, for something to be created, something else must be destroyed. With Kenshin's defenses divided, that attack would slip through his magic and completely undo him all the way down to the Mantle. Kaoru watched the attack move in, and despite knowing she could not change a memory, she found herself shouting for something to happen; for Kenshin to move, for Shishio to stop.

Just as the magic pierced Kenshin's shield, there was slight ripple in the air between the two Seasons. Tomoe was there in an instant, despite the fact she still stood beside Kaoru. Many things happened all at once, and Kaoru could see them all as if she had watched them separately. As Shishio's attack hit Kenshin's shield, Tomoe reached out and whipped her lantern between the two, where it passed through them like it did not exist. She was gone after that, and neither men seemed to notice she had ever been there. Shishio's magic then broke the shield, but instead of trying to outright avoid the attack, Kenshin took it head-on.

There was an explosion of light, one half of soft, glittery gold, and the other of red hot sparks. From the explosion two objects flew out in opposite directions, speeding off like two comets into the sky. The memory tracked one to land in the area that Kaoru knew to be Phoenix City. She watched the other land within a very familiar looking castle settled in front of a small village.

Kaoru looked back to Tomoe. "What did you do?"

There was a heavy sadness weighing on the Dreamwalker's features. "My strength is in the world of dreams. There is little I can do in the physical realm. However... I can blur the lines between both layers to my advantage."


"I pulled part of Lord Kenshin into the Dream—enough that he could not be completely destroyed." Tomoe looked over at Kaoru, "Do you understand the rest?"

Kaoru frowned, glancing back at the memory before her, and allowed her abilities to tell her everything else. "Kenshin's counterattack was a reflection. What was done to him was done to Shishio. So both of their bodies were destroyed, except for what you pulled out?"

"Yes. What you saw flying away was what was left of both Aspects. I had to release them immediately, or their mantles would have left them. In that vulnerable form, both sought their respective Nexus for protection. There, they would sleep until one strong enough to reanimate them came to do so."

Kaoru exhaled softly, taking in all of this information. How could she be so weary in a dream, anyway? Glancing over at Tomoe, "So he took on that dream to repay his debt to you?"

Tomoe nodded, "I prefer to think of it as a necessity rather than a debt repaid."

"Yeah, well, now I've seen the dream." Kaoru turned to Tomoe, folding her arms. "There's no need for him to keep seeing this over and over. It weighs him down with guilt he doesn't need. I'll dream it for now on, OK?"

"It would be better if..." Tomoe did not get to finish her thought.

"I will dream it for now on." Kaoru's words left no room for argument.

With a soft sigh, Tomoe nodded a voiceless agreement. "Well, then," She murmured, glancing behind them toward the swirly white abyss. "I have kept you for far too long. It is time for you to wake up."

Kaoru nodded, shoulders slumping. All this dreaming had worn her out. She had not felt this tired since her fight with Aoshi in the castle. At that memory she paused, an errant thought crossing her mind "Hey..."

Tomoe lifted her head, indicating for Kaoru to continue. "Who woke Summer from his sleep?"

The Aspect of Dreams shook her head. "I do not know. Likely it was a collaborated effort, as no one Aspect besides a Season could do it alone."

"Hmm, all right then." Kaoru nodded to Tomoe. "Thanks for the information. I'll do my best to bring back your power."

The Dreamwalker tilted her head, regarding Kaoru with consideration. "Thank you, Lady Listener."

"It's what I do, it seems."

"She's awake!" The exclamation was sudden, loud, and much too close to Kaoru for comfort. With a gurgled snarl, she whipped a hand out to the offender, and was somewhat satisfied when she heard them crash into something in the room. She had no idea just what she had in her bedroom that made the sound of broken pottery, but that would teach Sanosuke to yell in her ear. Grumbling, she pulled the pillow over her head, and tried to remember when she bought detergent that smelled of sandalwood and amber. It kind of smelled like the castle.

Wait, wait, wait. Slowly, Kaoru's sluggish mental processes began to function, and one by one did they realize that she was not in her room. Besides, Sano knew better than to come into her room unless it was a dire emergency.

Pulling the pillow off of her head, Kaoru looked up and around herself blearily, hair sticking out in all directions. Yup. She was in the castle. And there was Sanosuke, picking himself up off a pile of what may have once been a vase. Oops.

Megumi was staring at the scene with a strange expression on her face, a medical journal in her hand. After several long seconds, she quietly shut the book and folded her hands in her lap. "Good morning."

"Ngrhh," Was Kaoru's response as she rolled over, tangled in a mess of sheets. She draped an arm over her eyes, unable to even wonder why she felt so tired. Normally, she could bounce right out of bed.

"OK, I take back what I said earlier. This magic shit is not cool," Sanosuke grumbled, pulling a piece of pottery out of his hair. "See if I worry about your sorry ass next time."

His response was the finger, without Kaoru even bothering to look at him. "S'what you get for yellin' in my ear. Nnngh, I feel like I haven't slept at all..."

"Quite the contrary. You've been asleep for four days."

At Megumi's words, Kaoru pulled herself into a seated position to stare at her friend. "What? No way!"

"Uh, yes way. You've had us all worried. Well, except that jerk who brought you here."

"Huh?" Kaoru blinked at Megumi, rubbing at an eye. "What jerk? I know you're not talking about Kenshin."

"No, the –" Megumi's explanation was cut short as the door burst open with a gust of wind that blew through the room like a miniature storm. Like being summoned by his name Kenshin stood there, in a position that made it appear as if he had run across the castle to get to her room at full speed. His hair was slightly disheveled, his overcoat falling off a shoulder, and his breath was noticeably quick.

When his eyes fell on the girl sitting in the bed, he visibly relaxed, pulling himself up into a less harried posture.

"Hi, Kenshin," Kaoru said simply, otherwise unfazed by his grand entrance. Perhaps she was getting too used to the showy nature of the Dragon.

"Kaoru," He breathed back, taking a few steps into the room towards her. He paused, though, casting a glance at Sanosuke, then at Megumi. Desperate concern faded into something a little less intense, and he offered a small smile, "I am glad you are awake."

"Yeah, me, too..." She trailed off, memories of what had happened with the Phoenix coming back with sharp clarity. With a sharp inhale, she pressed a hand to her head, unable to drive away what she had seen with Shishio, of what he had done to Fire.

"Kaoru?" He was beside her in an instant, ignoring any social boundaries in favor of pressing a hand to her back. She could feel the bed shift with his weight, and frustrated tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. Things were just happening too fast, and she was so tired, and there was so much on her shoulders, and everyone expected everything of her, and how was she supposed to continue this? The wave of self doubt, stress and negativity hit her full force, and she squeezed her eyes shut, forcing the first tears to fall. They kept coming after that, spilling forth all the pent up negative energy that had been building in her from the beginning.

The next thing she knew, she had been pulled into someone's arms, wrapping around her comfortingly. She could feel warmth against her bare shoulders, sending soothing sensations down to the tips of her toes. It was all she needed to turn her head into Kenshin's shoulder and cry.

Megumi stood to approach, but Sanosuke caught her arm, shaking his head at her. Quietly, he murmured into her ear, "Let her be. She's got a lot goin' on and needs someone who understands it."

She shot Sanosuke a sharp look, obviously offended by his words. He gave her an even stare back. "Whether you like to admit or not, this magic stuff goin' around is important, and she's stuck in the middle of it. What can you seriously say to her at this point? You still don't wanna believe you saw Shinomori disappear from thin air yesterday."

Turning to face him, Megumi jabbed a finger into his chest. "I may not want to believe this is happening, but it is. I may not know what is going on, but it's going on. She is still my friend and I can still be supportive of her, even from in the dark. You can, too."

Sanosuke blinked, before he crooked a smile at her. "Yeah, you're right. But I don't really wanna butt in on that."

Megumi cast a glance to what that was, and quirked a brow. "Didn't peg you as a romantic."

"I ain't, but I also ain't a voyeur. Watching them is just awkward. Let's go watch Shinomori beat up on Misao."

They made their way out of the room, quietly bickering back and forth and leaving the Listener and the Dragon to themselves. Without even lifting his head, Kenshin waved his hand at the door, whisking it closed.

Outside, a sudden storm had swept the skies, rain pattering against the window panes.

She must have cried herself to sleep again. Kaoru remembered breaking down, and Kenshin holding her. He said little, but instead let his magic do the talking, his essence enveloping her in warmth, comfort, and security. She remembered being lulled by the steady thrum of energy, the soft scent of amber, and warmth not unlike a stone that had been bathed in the sun.

The next thing she knew she was in the Sounding War, hearing the crying of the world as its guardians fought against each other, for reasons it could not understand. Summer clashed with Spring; she felt the remorse and devastation that had left Winter shattered, and the confusion and chaos that was Autumn's new host.

She awoke just as the Phoenix and Dragon shattered, with a ringing in her ears that vibrated down to her core. Her heart beat against her chest, and there was an itching in her fingers like a desire to reach out for something, anything.

Instead she found herself curled against the plane of Kenshin's chest, soothed by the slow, steady beat of his heart. At some point he had moved them both to the oriel window, perched on the cushioned ledge and supported by an array of decorative pillows. The sun was starting to set, casting a palette of warm colors into the room, and she blinked at the view of the courtyard and city in the distance. It must have rained earlier, as she could see light reflecting off of the wet surfaces.

She felt much more rested now than she had earlier, and a significant weight had been lifted from her shoulders. The situation had not changed, but crying was cathartic. It released some of those pent up emotions that had building, and much as she liked to think of herself as invulnerable to stress, Kaoru knew she was anything but such. But at least she could say she had quite a bit of stress.

Slowly, gently, she pulled herself up into a seated position, and was somewhat surprised when Kenshin did not stir. His expression serene, she could not help but appreciate his appearance, from the high cheekbones to the odd scar over his nose and cheek. The strands of hair that framed his face were fine and of a red that rivaled the setting sun itself. Smiling, she reached up and pushed back a few of those hairs, and was amused to find his power reached even the individual strands.

Despite her desire to continue, Kaoru chose to instead slide herself away from him as best she could. She could not bear to wake him, not when she knew this was the first sleep he had had since the war in which that dream would not plague him. The thought pleased her, and she smiled brightly, before glancing down at herself.

Someone had done her the favor of changing her into pajamas, but she refused to go meandering around the castle in a tank top and cotton pants that had sushi cartoons all over them. The castle seemed to hear her desires and urged her toward a closet, where she found varying clothes that seemed to be her size and fit. All were from different time periods, with the ones closest to the door being the most recent. Tae did her job quite well.

Grabbing some jeans and a shirt, Kaoru left the Dragon Lord to sleep peacefully at the window.

She knew she probably should have mentioned to someone she was going to go on a walk but she suspected Tae was well aware of where she was, and as soon as Kenshin woke up he would know, too. Both were far too connected with the castle grounds to not know.

Honestly, she just wanted some time to herself. Time to think, to reflect, to analyze. Much had been thrown at her in rapid succession, and it was somewhat trialing to sort through it all. So many unanswered questions, imbalances and problems; so many dire situations, pleas for help, and pressing matters. She felt like she was one against the world, and she feared it was not too far from the truth. Of the four most powerful Aspects out there, one was on her side. Two were missing, and one was out to magically eat her.

Things were somewhat grim.

The fresh air was rewarding, however. The sun was mostly gone, casting the long shadows wherever it could still reach. The wet grass tickled her toes through her sandals, and she walked towards the worn paths that wove in s-shaped patterns down the hillside toward the fields and lake outside the city. Half-collapsed rock walls added to the scenery, covered with green moss and crawling plants. She stopped at the top of the hill, not wishing to leave the actual castle grounds. The view at this point was outstanding, second only to the castle's number of terraces.

Breathing in deep, she took in the world around her, from the warm thrum of Spring's protection to all the energy from the world around her. A rich smell rose up from the earth, the wonderful scent of soil after it rained; she sighed, closing her eyes. With it came a rush of some strange emotion, untamed wild energy that beckoned her to run through the fields, swim in the oceans, and climb trees. She pressed her palms against the stone wall, leaning her weight on it to look out over the city.

That was when she realized the change. The feeling had been so... natural, she had not been paying attention. It was neither subtle nor loud, but simply organic. The wind that touched her skin did not carry any of the heat from Shishio's prolonged Summer. No, instead, there was a slight chill, a reminder that the season was at the end.

A reminder that Fall was approaching.

Eyes opening, she became much more aware of everything around her, focusing on the changes she had not realized were happening. Season change was gradual, and with Shishio drawing power from his attacks, the heat wave had been perpetual. Everywhere outside of Ishin was suffering the effects. So was this a signal that his powers had stretched his term to the limit?

"Hey, lady. You made it rain."

She froze as the voice rolled across her senses, with a crisp scent of apples and rich earth. It came from her side, and she turned to see a figure perched on one of the high walls. The sun cast his shadow against the hillside, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw the silhouette of a lazy tail flick, like that of a large feline.

He sat on the wall, draped in clothing of furs and leathers, with a string of teeth around his neck. Untamed hair the color of umber stuck out in all directions. His skin was tanned from the outdoors, and his feet were bare of shoes. However, the strangest feature of all were the golden cat eyes that watched her carefully.

She stared at him without answering, as the pieces fell into place. Her abilities at work, she could now recognize him as Autumn himself, the Aspect of the Tiger.

And also, a child.

AN: So, on that note, the contest is officially over. I have my winners, though I will wait to announce the winner for Winter since that Aspect has yet to be revealed. I also will be rewarding someone else for guessing something I had not anticipated, and I was so pleased to see their line of thought. So once that part of the story plays out, I'll announce that.

As for Autumn, technically no one quite got it. However, one person admitted to toggling between two choices, one of which was the right one, but went with the wrong one. I lamented heavily at the results of their coin toss up. That said, I'm a sucker and nice guy, so FairyTaleFancy, please contact me for details of your one shot. :) (Remember, you get a choice of 3 things for me to write about – see the author's note of chapter 7 for a refresher.).

It will take some time to get the rewards written, so it's probably a good thing I'm not calling out the winners all at once. And now that I'm over this hurdle of a chapter, perhaps the next one won't take months. (Again, believe me when I promise you it's been chaotic.)

As always, thanks for reading and please comment!