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Prologue: My Happy Past

I hope to always live a life of wonder,
To relax before my heart can beat like thunder,
I’ll never take a single life for granted.
Love can never leave me empty-handed.

I’ll feel small beside the giant ocean,
I’ll always have that hunger for emotion,
I’ll always give my faith a second chance,
And I’ll always talk before I raise my lance.

That’s the beginning of a song my mother used to sing to me. She raised me to base my life on that song, but I think I’m beginning to forget the words. My mother has been dead for five years now, but I used to have Selwyn and Perun there for me.

Selwyn was three years older than me. He was often described as a "charismatic dork with a sword." He wasn’t the brightest person in the world, but he had to be the friendliest. He practically grew up with a sword in his hands because his father was an expert, but he never fought unless he had to, save harmless sparring matches. He had bright green innocent-looking eyes and brown hair that he attempted to control with a band of sky-blue cloth around his forehead. Despite his annoying habit of being completely clueless, he never seemed short of logic when we needed his guidance.

Perun was one of the few remaining full-blooded elves, and he was two years older than me. He used powerful damage-doing magic, and he was a great cook. We turned to him for day-to-day logic, and, of course, for edible food. He was an inch or so shorter than me, and he had long yellow-green hair he kept in a ponytail.

They were my closest friends. Our parents were a group of five warriors fighting a war versus huge armies of evil demons called Yasha almost entirely by themselves. My father died of natural causes when I was very young, and his abilities would have been helpful to my mother and her friends. Yet, despite the five of them being out-numbered by the thousands—if not millions—they would win one small battle after another until the forces of the Yasha withered away.

Selwyn’s mother was an impeccable archer with notable skills using a sword or spear, while his father’s sword was unbeatable. Perun’s father was a wizard using spells of the Earth and Fire elements, and his mother was a druid of Air and Water. Mother was a cleric—she used healing and power-up spells, strengthening her allies as opposed to weakening her enemies. She was often thought of as the person that stayed in the back and kept her friends alive, but she could fight when she had to using her staff or a spear. Our parents taught us their skills, but I doubt anyone could ever be as powerful as them.

Five years ago, when I was ten, the supposedly defeated Yasha retaliated on our parents. We were all captured, and the adults were killed before our eyes. We were thrown in the dungeons to be dealt with later, but Selwyn somehow hatched a scheme to escape. Our age made the Yasha underestimate us, but we’d done more than I thought we ever could.

We followed in our parents’ footsteps fighting the Yasha. Presumably they fought them because they were a danger to the people of the world, but we had revenge as a motive as well. The three of us had only known each other for a year, but we grew together in our half-hour fight for freedom. For the next three years, we did everything together. We were each other’s family, and it was like our hearts beat in unison. Perun was sort of like an uncle, and Selwyn was the big brother I never had. Our fighting took us around the world. We loved to travel, and it was like I’d die without the wind in my face.

Of course, that ended two years ago. Selwyn and I were laying in the grass star-gazing and finding pictures in the scattered clouds, as we often did together. Perun was most likely making dinner. We were attacked by fire Yasha and the prairie went up in flames. We fought hard, but at one point I was knocked out. When I came to, Selwyn and Perun were no where within miles, but the field was vacant of Yasha too.

We’d been separated before, so it was no big deal. After waiting a day in hopes that I would be found, I had to go look for food. The town of Machi was nearby. It was a general rule to look in nearby towns when one of us were lost.

Due to the battle in the prairie, the white dress I wore over my chain mail was shredded, and my chain mail wasn’t a pretty sight either. The priests of the town’s church spotted the markings on my dress—gold borders, little more—and found them oddly similar to that of the dresses worn by the children in the town’s orphanage for girls, part of the church.

I was only thirteen, so I couldn’t argue when they put me in the orphanage. The girls there were being taught to become priestesses, and they were all very small and prissy. I have nothing against those who are short—I’m only a bit vertically challenged myself—but their stereotypical ‘frail maiden’ attitudes were sickening.

The girls were only sweet and innocent when the adult priestesses were around. Prissy all the time, they were major snots when no one was around to punish them. Some were also rather sluttish, and they all seemed bent on giving me a hard time.

We were supposed to learn the art of healing, but the priests’ methods were much different than the ones I’d learned, and they weren’t nearly as effective. My magical energy was at an all-time low, but a nice nap wouldn’t make me stronger again, as it usually would. All the females around here are supposed to wear gold circlet, a halo of sorts, tiara-style on their heads. Despite my circlet’s tendency to fall off at the worst possible times, I agreed to wear it seeing that I would be allowed to keep my white headband. It’s identical to Selwyn’s save the color.

The religion of this place, known as the Gohka—and they call their individual churches that too—is rather. The symbol they’re associated with is the common cross with a semicircle beneath the horizontal bar connecting the two ends. This unnerves me by making me think of it as a silhouette of person hanging on the cross, but I’ve thought it best not to verbalize this fact.

This is the first time since my mother died that I’ve been away from Selwyn and Perun for more than a week, and it’s already totaled to two years. Two long, boring, annoying years…. By now it’s safe to assume that Selwyn and Perun have either been killed or have simply forgotten me, and I don’t know which would be worse.

Selwyn made sure that I remembered the words to the song my mother sang to me. Yet I can’t travel, so I never can stand beside the ocean, and I don’t know how big I’ll feel. ‘That hunger’ I was supposed to keep has yet to even be teased by nourishment, and I’ve long since began to question how much one more breath is really worth. Faith had its thousandth second chance, and love left poor Chizome empty-handed two years ago….

Chapter I

Dear Journal,

Having again lost that bloody circlet in the presence of some religious big shot, I was out in the church courtyard pulling weeds again today. I hate plucking weeds, as I should look up to them. Throughout the strongest storms, the coldest snow, the hottest droughts, and the angriest gardener, dandelions and their fellows are always there with their petal heads held high. I hope the courtyard is overgrown with dandelions, or possibly something containing a lot of very sharp thorns. Either way, good night. As if you had a choice, thank you for listening to my hopeless problems for yet another day.

A teenage girl with long brown-blond hair placed her inky quill and her booklet of yellow-tinted paper on the small table beside her bed next to a water-filled cup containing a trio of dandelions. She lifted the gold ring she was supposed to wear on her head and turned it over a few times. She sat up in bed and raised it in one hand, about to throw it. She relented and lowered it back into her vision before placing it on the table as well. She sighed, laid back down, and closed her eyes.

"I hope to always live a life of wonder," she mumbled to herself, "To…relax before… To relax before…. I’ll never take a single breath for granted. Love can never leave me empty-handed…. I’ll…. I’ll feel…small…?"

* * *

The tall grass of the prairie was ruffled by the wind as the sound of clashing swords rang through the peaceful silence. The swords were drawn apart with a scraping sound, and one pushed the other away to block its swing.

The girl, her green eyes narrowed with concentration, held her stance carefully and kept careful watch on the matching green eyes of her opponent. His eyes, which were almost hidden by his brown hair, were centered on hers, but they twitched toward her left shoulder. His knees bent slightly.

There was utter silence as the fighters held their breath. After what felt like eons of stillness, a pair of battle cries echoed with their swords as the girl forced the opposing blade away from her right shoulder. She grinned to state that she’d spotted the male’s trick, and she swung at him when he was farther off.

After several blocked swipes, her head band slipped from her forehead and stopped in front of her nose. Her left hand quickly moved to return it to its proper place, but by the time it passed over her eyes, the tip of her rival’s blade was held steadily an inch from her throat.

She looked at it blankly for a moment, blushed a bit, and smiled in goodhearted acceptance of her defeat. The boy smiled back and pulled his sword away.

"You’re getting good, Chizome," he said, "You get that headband tied on right, and you might be able to beat me." He fingered his own headband as if in thought.

"Yeah, right, Selwyn," Chizome laughed, pulling her band off, "I know you were going easy on me." They both tossed their swords lightly onto the ground near Chizome’s staff.

"Would I do that?" Selwyn asked, feigning affront.

"Yes."

"You caught me!" Selwyn exclaimed in an obviously over-dramatic tone, "You’re just too smart for me!" As he said this, he made his way around her and snatched her headband. She laughed at his words as he began to retie it. He braided it after the first two knots so that the final knot hung down behind her, and he said, "You have to get it nice and tight…. There you go."

Chizome smiled. "Thanks…. You’re the big brother I never had."

"And you’re the little sister I’ve always needed," Selwyn responded. He hugged her from behind and kissed the top of her head.

A few yards away, a greenish-haired elf looked at them and rolled his eyes, which were the same green as theirs, and turned to look at the ground and the tall grass that nearly hid it. He wore an open short-sleeved gold-lined black cloak with fire patterns at the bottom. His shirt was very light blue with a wind-like pattern on it, his pants depicted waves, and his knee-high boots looked vaguely like tree bark.

He pulled uselessly on the grass, stood back, and looked thoughtfully at it. He raised his arm and quickly brought it down, yelling, "Ria nintil!" Chizome and Selwyn looked at him quizzically as a small bolt of lightning fried the offending circle of grass. With a similar motion, he yelled, "Erif llab!" and sent a fireball hurtling onto the ground. It started a small fire in the grass-less area which he began circling with rocks.

"Well, Perun, someone’s feeling violent today," Selwyn called.

The elf looked toward him and said, "I didn’t have my tea this morning." He went to a nearby sack, pulled out a frying pan, and added, "You might want to be careful."

Chizome giggled. She turned her gaze to the setting sun and sighed contentedly.

"I shall have the food ready in a while," Perun said. After several minutes of muttering to himself about seasoning, he looked over toward Chizome and Selwyn and found them to be out of sight. He shrugged and returned to the meal.

Chizome and Selwyn had flattened the grass so that they could lay down. They were laying in opposite directions parallel to each other with their shoulders side-by-side.

"The stars are… pretty…" Chizome said quietly as the sunlight began to give way to the stars.

"Yeah," Selwyn agreed, "That cloud looks like a bird… or possibly a trident…."

"Mmm-hmm," Chizome said. She pointed to another cloud and asked, "What about that one?"

"Looks like a horse."

"I think it looks like a deer."

"Nah, it’s a horse."

"It’s a deer."

"It’s a horse."

"It’s a deer."

"It’s a horse."

"It’s a deer."

"It’s a horse."

"It’s a deer."

"Maybe it’s some kind of hybrid."

"A ‘dorse?’"

"No, it’s a ‘heer.’"

Chizome immediately burst out laughing, causing Selwyn to grin. Through her giggles she asked, "What would I do without you?"

"You’d have to settle for Perun saying it’s a moose."

This, of course, only made her giggle more. "The wind moved it," she said, "It’s more of a swan now."

"Chizome, come on," Selwyn said, "It’s clearly a goose."

As Chizome cracked up again, Perun came up, frying pan of spicy-smelling food in hand. He looked up at the cloud and back down at them. He said, "Looks like a chicken to me, you turkeys."

As if by accident, Selwyn yelped out a bit of noise that sounded like a turkey. As startled as his companions were, he abruptly stopped and put his hand over his mouth. After a few seconds of surprised silence, the three of them burst into a fit of laughter.

Their laughter was immediately cut off by the sound of a loud shrill screech. Perun looked up and gasped as Chizome and Selwyn jumped to their feet.

Surrounding them was a large group of red-skinned creatures with feminine stature and long pitch-black hair. Only the faint glow of dozens of pairs of glassy yellow eyes could be seen in the darkness beyond the first few creatures. The glows appeared at varied heights, as the beings seemed to have a choice of being bipeds or quadrupeds. Chizome, Selwyn, and Perun carefully repositioned into a triangle facing outward.

"Bariaa Maji—ooh!" Chizome’s voice broke the deathly silence, but one of the demons gave her a swift kick to the gut to make her would-be incantation little more than a glimmer of light fading from her fingers. Selwyn gripped her arm protectively and steadied her.

He made a quick movement and used his toe to reach his sword from the spot on the ground where it had been placed. He stomped on it and propelled it up to where his hand could reach it. The move was impressive, but the demons were unimpressed.

"Fire yasha," Perun muttered; he yelled, "Retaw tsalb!" His left palm, which was extended toward the demons, gained a bluish glow. With a shriek, the closest yasha lunged forward and swiped at him with its talon-like hand. He barely missed it the attack, but it stopped his spell.

He swung his right arm out of start and ended up showering the yasha in the contents of the frying pan. Surprised by the thought of being attacked by mildly seasoned potatoes, the yasha was distracted long enough to be knocked out by the frying pan itself.

It swooned and collapsed. Its fellows lunged. Selwyn swung his sword. He opened a gash in a demon’s chest and kicked it back. Chizome dove for her staff as a yasha dove for her. Its claws dug into the cloth in the upper part of her skirt. It’s weight knocked her to the ground.

"Get off!" Chizome squawked. She kicked uselessly and made a grab for her staff. The yasha clamped its fangs into her flank, finding metal links. Chizome screeched in pain, still kicking. She crawled forward and grabbed her staff. She twisted and made a downward jab with the lower end.

The yasha shrieked as it received a blow to the eye. Its grip loosened when Selwyn’s blade sank into its back and shoved it away.

"Retaw tsalb!" Perun repeated. A beam of water sprayed from his palm and knocked a trio of demons back. The one he missed was whacked with the frying pan. The yasha that were farther off began spraying fire from their mouths. The grass went up in flames.

Chizome knocked a demon away with her staff. She turned and saw another one with its glowing claws raised. It sliced at her. She drew back, but her dress and chain mail were shredded. Three shallow slashes appeared across her belly.

"Pawaa Majikku!" she chanted. A moment passed, and she glowed slightly. She raised her staff and struck a blow. The yasha lurched back under the magic-induced force.

Chizome felt a blow to her head. The burning scenery around her blurred. She stumbled and stood. The demon behind her backhanded her again, and she fell.

"Chizome!" Selwyn and Perun called together as everything went black.

She opened her eyes weakly. There was sunlight shining onto the blackened grass. She pushed the corpse of a yasha off her and sat up, groaning. She spit out blood-filled saliva and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She gingerly touched the throbbing portion of her head and winced in pain as she felt something wet and sticky. Her fingertips were soaked in red.

As far as her vision reached, there was an ocean-like wasteland of ashes, burnt grass, and demon bodies. The corpses were rotting fast, as those of the yasha did. More than half of the small army of them had been slain, but Selwyn, Perun, and any living yasha were nowhere in sight.

"Perun? Selwyn?" she called. Her voice was swallowed by the thick silence.

Chapter II

With the deep sound of church bells reverberating through her groggy head, Chizome’s eyes reopened. She sat up in bed and looked around in confusion. Recognizing her room, she cried out and punched her mattress in fury.

"That day happened over two years ago," she mumbled sadly. She gripped her head and cried, "Why won’t it stop haunting me?!" She lowered her hands to the sheets and sobbed. She heard a knock.

"Chizome? Get ready! You mustn’t be late for your practices!" a woman’s voice cried from outside the door. Chizome glared at the door with hatred and picked up the strip of white cloth that had been curled around the cup that contained dandelions. She tied it around her forehead, braiding the ends. She lifted her circlet and scowled at it.

The hallway was tiled, but there was a purple gold-bordered carpet down the center. Spears were mounted on the wall at an upward angle; there were banners that matched the carpet hanging from them. The banners each had a gold Gohka cross emblazoned on them.

"Hello, Gelida," she said, fighting to sound cheerful, after she left her room. The brown-haired girl she spoke to stopped on her way through the church hallway and began to look uneasy.

"Um…hi…" she responded quietly.

"Are you okay?" Chizome asked.

"Uh, yeah," Gelida said quickly. She gave a quick nod and walked quickly down the hall. Chizome looked after with a mix of sadness and anger before going slowly in the same direction. She heard the sounds of several pairs of feet behind her, but she kept her eyes straight forward.

She stumbled forward when she was sideswiped. A girl with long wavy white-blond hair grabbed her arms and kept her upright. She looked at her sadly, but her bright blue eyes twinkled with mischief.

"Oh, I’m sorry," she said, "It seems like I’m always bumping into you, doesn’t it? Are you okay?"

"Yeah," Chizome said, moving away and trying not to scowl. The five girls behind the first one had expressions of false sincerity, and two of them were having a lot of trouble stifling their giggles. Chizome played along and said, "It’s okay. I’m fine, Kamilla."

The girl nodded. "Okay then. See you in the Main Hall." She turned away and continued down the hall with her train of friends behind her. They were still snickering. Chizome glared after them and walked at her previous pace.

There was a young boy laying on the church altar. Tears were streaming from his eyes, and his ankle was clearly broken. Chizome and eleven other girls stood in two straight lines headed by real priestesses on either side of the main isle. Daisaishi, the head priest of the church, came behind the altar.

"Maidens," he said, "This boy has been injured by an incident of misfortune. Grant him your powers of healing. Kamilla."

Kamilla, the first in Chizome’s line, climbed the short flight of stairs and stepped to the front of the altar. She put her hands together and bowed her head in a praying position. She waved her hands over the boy before placing them on the broken section of his leg. He cried a little harder until she pulled them away a few moments later.

She looked at the boy’s injured leg, then turned her apologetic gaze toward Daisaishi. She said, "I’m sorry."

"You did your best," he said, "Come, Sequa."

The short black-haired girl that had been in Kamilla’s train of friends approached the boy and did the same thing with the same results. The priest filed through the girls one-by-one, but the boy only cried louder every time his leg was touched.

As Chizome tried, she felt everyone holding their breath. She was very gentle when she touched his leg, but her efforts were as unsuccessful as the girls before.

Daisaishi sighed and looked at the boy with pity as Chizome returned to her spot. He sighed and called the name of the last girl. "Talitha."

Talitha was a ten-year-old with short curled gold hair in pigtails, and she was the last person in line behind Chizome. She walked up to the altar with her head held high and her brown eyes twinkling with confidence. She did the same moves as the others, but her motions were quicker and a bit sloppier. She gripped the boy’s leg and caused him to scream. She drew back in start.

"Back to your quarters, ladies," the head priestess Mara said. Talitha, her face red, fell into step behind Chizome as the girls filed out of the Main Hall in the direction of the orphaned girls’ wing of the church. The priest and the red-haired woman that had called Chizome out of her room were attempting to heal the boy together.

Chizome looked at him sadly. Luck would be his only savior, because luck was the only backing to the Gohka healing prayers. He was seven at the oldest, and if his leg was not fixed properly, he would be handicapped the rest of his life. If his parents were religious enough to bring him to the church first, they wouldn’t believe in taking him to the town clinic.

It was a pity really….

* * *

Chizome placed her journal on her table as she had the night before, ran her fingers over the petals of her bedside dandelions, and attempted to sleep. After a few moments, she got up, tiptoed to her door, exited the room, and headed right.

The lesser halls of the church were dimly lit with lanterns that hung from the ceiling, but Chizome wished they were darker. As she approached the corner where the hallway turned left, the last door on the right opened slowly. She practically threw herself into the foot-deep alcove that contained the preceding door. After a few seconds and the sound of a closing door, Kamilla came into Chizome’s view and went around the corner.

Absentmindedly noting the fact that Kamilla was wearing her boots, Chizome stood in the alcove for several minutes. She then stepped quietly across the hall and peered around the corner. Only a few yards away was the junction of the hall she was in and two others. She crossed her fingers and silently passed the halls leading to the children’s ward and the priestesses’ quarters as quickly as she could.

She looked into the Main Hall with utmost caution. The lighting was brighter, and there were five people standing next to the main entrance of the gouka. Chizome recognized Daisaishi, Mara, and Temerita, the red-haired priestess. They were talking to two unfamiliar people dressed like civilians. The man looked grim and the woman was in tears.

The three gouka ministers turned the two people to the large open arch-shaped double doors and lead them out. While all five were turned away, Chizome silently sprinted across into the junction of hallways on the far side of the Main hall. Ignoring the halls leading to the priests’ and boys’ quarters, she turned into the hall leading to the ward of handicapped children.

She made a face upon stepping into the large room; the place had the light but noticeable smell of sweat, blood, and bodily waste. The room was unlit, but moonlight shined through the high narrow arch windows, and lantern light was shining from the hallway junction.

There were lines of small beds lining either side of the long wide corridor. Following the sound of weak sobbing, Chizome found the bed that contained the boy with the broken leg. She sat down on the edge of the bed, and the boy noticed her for the first time. She lifted him into a sitting position and hugged him.

With the side of his head against her chest, she stroked his hair the way his mother would. She whispered, "Shh…. Don’t cry, my friend. I need to tell you something. If your leg doesn’t get better soon, it will hurt forever."

The boy let out a loud sob.

"Shh…" Chizome murmured, "I can fix it for you, and it will only hurt a little while, but it’s going to hurt a lot for a while. It will get better soon. Do you want me to fix it for you?"

After a moment, the boy sniffled and nodded.

"Alright," Chizome said, "I’ll be back in a few minutes." She laid him back down, got up, and left the room. She ventured into the Main Hall. The doors were still open, but the hall was empty. There was a large crate behind the altar. There were several Gohka crosses made of wood filling it. The semicircle and the horizontal beam were each two separate pieces of wood, but the center beam was a straight piece of timber a foot long. She passed the crate and crept into the children’s’ ward. She returned to the crate with a large clump of dark-red yarn, gathered several crosses, and went back to the boy’s bedside.

She kneeled on the floor and began deconstructing the crosses quietly. After breaking the glued joints, she used the pieces of the horizontal beam to give support the three vertical beams that she tied end-to-end. She put another beam horizontally in the center of the top beam, and one halfway between that one and the tip of the bottom. She stood and tested the strength of the finished product. Satisfied, she put it down.

She sat on the bed and spoke to the boy again, saying, "If I don’t help you, this will only get worse, but I can’t help you if anyone finds out I’m in here. If they come in and see me, they’ll stop me; I’ll get in trouble, and your leg will be hurt forever. You understand?"

Tears still pouring soundlessly, he nodded.

"Good," she said, "You have to promise me that you won’t make any sounds at all while I’m helping you. It’s going to hurt, so you’ll want to cry, but you can’t make any sounds. I need you to be strong and brave. Can you do that for me? No sounds?"

He nodded again.

"You promise? Not any crying or squeaks at all?"

He nodded again, a bit more frantically this time, and Chizome got back on the floor near his ankle. She put her hands onto his injury, and he make a stifled sob.

"Not any sounds," she reminded. He nodded again, only to emit a shrill but quiet squeal as she rearranged his ankle bones. She reprimanded him again and pressed another piece of wood against his leg.

As she gently wrapped yarn around the beam and his leg, she thought to herself, I’ve never used such shoddy tools before. Oh, please let this work, please let this work….

"Remember," she whispered, "No sounds. I’ll tighten this on the count of three. One…" She jerked on the yarn, hearing the hiccup-like sound of the boy bravely choking on his cry. She tied the yarn as necessary and hugged him again. She whispered, "That was very brave of you. I know it hurts you, so you should be very proud of yourself. You’re very strong. Now I’ll try to show you how to use your crutch. Stand up, put your weight on your good leg." She helped him up. "Shh… can’t wake anyone."

She looked at her other yarn-and-wood creation with a mix of worry and disgust. She helped the boy put it under his arm appropriately, but it was almost too big for him. She helped him learn how to move around before she put him back in his bed.

"If that thing gets broken, you’ll have to hobble around without it," she said, "so try to be careful with it, and keep this piece of wood on you for a fortnight. Okay?"

He nodded again and whispered, "Thank you."

"You’re welcome," she answered. She hugged him again, kissed the top of his head, and said, "Get well soon, okay? Take it easy. I can’t make any promises that I’ll be able to come back and check on you, but I’ll try."

"Okay…."

"Goodnight," she said, "Sleep well." She laid him back down and tucked him in.

"Night-night, Miss Angel," he said, "Bye-bye."

"Goodbye," Chizome said, confused as to why he called her ‘Miss Angel.’

* * *

Upon making another attempt at sleep, Chizome found that her weary efforts were still useless. She carried her boots out of her room and returned to the Main Hall. It was still deserted, and the doors were wide open….

Chapter III

"Wish I’d had more time to prepare for this," Chizome mumbled to herself as she looked at the gouka from atop the hill beyond the field that was behind it. "If I’d had, there wouldn’t be a reason to come back." She observed the space between the building and the hill from the same angle she had two years before. There was a gold-bordered path of white brick cutting through perfectly groomed grass. There was a line of four marble pillars on each side of the path, and there was a short flat-topped marble pyramid of sorts at the end. The pillars each had a spear and banner hanging from them.

It was six steps high and was topped by an altar identical to the one in the Main Hall. Between the altar and the hill were three non-Gohka crosses. They were about fifteen feet high, were made of two logs strapped together with rope and leather strips, and were stuck into the ground side-by-side.

Finally choosing to ignore the despised place, Chizome looked out beyond the gouka to the small town of Machi. The buildings were all darkened and silent, so she turned and looked out upon the forest. It felt peaceful, even from a distance, with the moonlight glinting of the leaves while the smell of springtime flowers hung lightly in the air.

Chizome closed her eyes, inhaled the fragrance of the outdoors, and exhaled with a peaceful sigh. She looked contentedly at the trees before breaking into a sudden run. She gathered speed as she ran down the hill, but it was out of sight among the trees by the time she stopped to catch her breath.

She sighed again and sat down; she was still grinning with the feel of freedom. She said, "Forest of Demons, they call it. Hah. They’re the only demons within miles of this place…." An owl hooted, and she stood and strolled forward until she fought her way through some bushes and entered a clearing. She took a half of a step before she drew back in surprise.

She stared in shock and confusion at the area before her. There was a large but shallow circular hole covering most of the clearing with a diameter of about ten feet. It was filled with dried leaves, large shards of something, and a lot of something gooey. There were the occasional quiet cracking sounds.

Seeing nothing around to stop her but being wary of the quiet sounds she heard, Chizome crept forward for a closer look, discovering that the shards were those of a dozen-or-so very large broken eggs with orange white-striped shells. There were bits of gruesome evidence scattered around that the eggs had been near hatching when something had cracked them open.

"Looks like something that really likes raw eggs had a nice feast and was really wasteful with the leftovers…" she mumbled. Pieces of a few half-formed hatchlings were too indistinct to identify as anything she had seen throughout her yasha-killing days; those demons were always training or employing all sorts of freakish beasts. With the eggs’ widths just barely small enough to get her fingers on both hands wrapped around, there didn’t seem to be anything ‘normal’ that they could be.

She searched cautiously for the source of the quiet sounds and quickly spotted one of the wall-like bushes that hung over into the nest. It was against all of her better judgement, but—keeping her eyes carefully on it and tiptoeing more quietly than she had all night—she inched slowly toward the bush. She ignored the shallow puddles of blood she noticed on the way and slowly pushed the bushes branches aside.

Her mind immediately recognized the bush’s contents as just another egg, but she drew back upon realizing that the crack in this one was incomplete and still growing. Her eyes widened as the crack enlarged vertically around the egg’s center. The shell split neatly in half, leaving one half containing and beige-brown wiggling animal the size of a guinea pig.

After several seconds of gaping at it, Chizome cautiously extended her hand and gently touched the creature. It was covered in soft damp fuzz-like fur. She considered a moment and transferred the animal from the shell to her hand.

It was a kitten-like beast with a set of rounded ears and four stubby legs tipped with paws. It had limbs like featherless wings on its shoulder blades. Its finned tail looked and moved like a guppy stranded on land. Its eyes were closed, and it was making quiet mewing noises.

Chizome looked uneasily toward the blood-coated ground littered with the occasional large feather behind her and then to the rest of the eggs. She looked at the squirmy infant reluctantly for a moment and shook her head sighing. With a look of defeat on her face, she cupped her free hand over its back, stood, and walked slowly back toward the gouka.

* * *

"Poor thing…" she mumbled quietly, "I don’t know what happened to your mother, but I bet it wasn’t pretty…." She was sitting in her bed with the kitten on its back in the crook of her arm. It was weakly gnawing on the tip of a baby’s bottle she had sneaked from the children’s area.

She could now see it more clearly in the dim light of her lantern; its fur was colored like a tiger with no stripes. Its smooth-scaled fishtail was white, and its wings were bald and pinkish.

Looking down with the uneasy look she’d had before, Chizome sighed and said, "What have I gotten myself into…?"

* * *

Chizome wasn’t quiet sure if she was awake or not, but she heard the faint sounds of banging. She was tired, and the sounds were distant, so she ignored them.

"Chizome! Up!" bellowed a much clearer sound. Chizome’s eyes snapped open in response, spotting the red-haired priestess.

"Temerita?" she questioned tiredly. She nervously pulled her blanket over the loose bundle of sheets that contained the hatchling.

"Up! Up!" Temerita cried in her annoyingly cheerful voice, "I have been banging on your door for a good five minutes! Get up! The sun is shining, birds are singing—"

"I am sleeping…" Chizome mumbled too quietly to be heard.

"—and you’re being late!" Temerita finished. She took hold of Chizome’s arm and pulled her up, "Get up! Get up! I don’t want to be held responsible for your lack of punctuality."

"It’s like that around here," Chizome muttered as she struggled to recover the kitten before it was spotted, "Everyone’s always getting blamed for what someone else does…."

"Hey, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all," Temerita said, releasing her. "Get ready for your practices. Chop, chop! Hurry!" She hurried out of the room.

Chizome adjusted the bedding around the squirmy kitten. She pointed her finger at it and said, "Stay." There was no visible effect, but the creature was only moving its head around. After quickly dressing and practically running out her door, Chizome collided with another fast-moving person.

"Oh, sorry," Talitha gasped, helping her up, "but guess what?!"

"Huh, what?" Chizome said dizzily.

"Something happened!" Talitha squealed excitedly.

"What happened?" Chizome questioned.

"I don’t know, but something happened! Nothing ever happens around here, but something happened!" She pulled on Chizome’s wrist and dragged her out of the hall.

A large group of people living in the gouka were gathered on the far side of the Main Hall. Kamilla and her friends were gathered by themselves a bit closer. Chizome resisted being dragged as she neared them, but the younger girl’s enthusiasm won out over her tired legs.

"What happened?" Talitha demanded of the other girls, "I know something happened; tell me what it is! Tell me! Tell me!"

"I’ll tell you what happened!" Kamilla whined, her palm pressed against her cheek, "I had the most horrible nightmare last night! I was being chased and then eaten by this horrible ugly demon! It was awful! Such an awful creature it was, trying to kill and eat me!" She took a graceful step around Talitha and pointed her finger in Chizome’s face from a very short distance, saying, "Strangely suspicious how it had a startling resemblance to you…."

Chizome grinned and snapped her teeth twice. Kamilla quickly pulled her hand away.

"Something tells me that these people aren’t all excited about your stupid nightmare," Talitha snapped, "What happened?"

"I don’t know," Kamilla asked, "Go ask someone that’s over there. Gelida’s over there someplace. Scat, little beast."

Talitha rushed toward the crowd. Having nothing better to do, Chizome followed at a normal walking pace. Talitha disappeared, but she spotted Gelida quickly.

"What’s going on?" Chizome asked. Gelida noticed her and gave her a reluctant-looking scowl before turning curtly away. Chizome shook her head sadly and sighed, thinking, She’s a lost cause. Oh, well… Maybe next time there’s a new girl, she’ll be on my side.

She managed to find tiny gaps between people and squeezed to the center of the attention. Mara and Daisaishi were standing there with the broken-legged boy, crutch in hand, and two other children. The other boy was a bit younger than Chizome and had tan hair, freckles, and a cane; Chizome didn’t know his name but knew he was blind. The girl was about five years old and had her orange hair in braided pigtails; her arm appeared to have been broken for a very long time.

"Back up, everyone," Mara pleaded, "Give the child his space." Everyone complied with difficulty moving.

"Now, what happened?" Daisaishi was asking the boy in a loud slow voice as if thinking he was deaf and stupid, "Who did this to your leg? Who gave you this thing?"

"An angel!" the boy exclaimed cheerfully, "She was an angel and she came to help me!"

"An angel?" Mara demanded.

"Yeah," the boy insisted, "It was dark and hard to see, but she was really pretty, and she made me feel better."

Chizome pressed her lips together as her face reddened a bit. Daisaishi asked, "You two were awake, what did you see?" and Chizome gave a silent gasp. She bit her lip nervously.

"I saw the same thing I always saw," the blind boy said, "Absolutely nothing. I did hear a female’s voice though. She was talking to him. My bed is the one next to his, but she was speaking too quietly for me to make all of it out…. Something about him being brave… or quiet?"

"I couldn’t hear her, but I could kinda see her," the girl said, "I was in the far corner of the room, and it was dark. I saw someone. I don’t recall seeing any wings on her, but it was dark, and I wasn’t looking for them. She just did something to his leg, and helped him up so she could teach him how to use his stick thing."

"I heard her breaking something apart," the blind boy said, "I think it was some crosses."

"What sort of angel," Daisaishi said bitterly, "would break crosses. She wasted her time on a lost cause. If this boy had not sinned at some point before his injury, our arts could heal him. Sounds like an act of the devil… destroying crosses…hmph."

"Not what it seemed like to me," the blind boy stated uncertainly.

"Oh?" Mara asked tartly.

"She used pieces of the cross to heal him. It… kinda feels like a sign or something to me…."

"New ways of healing?" Mara mumbled.

"What?" Daisaishi snapped.

"Our healing methods haven’t worked on anyone lately," Mara pointed out more loudly, "Perhaps he’s right, and this angel is showing us a new path."

Daisaishi frowned and muttered, "We shall see…."

* * *

"Well, I can’t name your family, little one, but you need a name of your own, and no one else is looking too creative." Chizome had the kitten lying on her chest facing her as she lied down in bed. She rambled, "I hear tiger kittens don’t have stripes when they’re first born, but you have some little dark spots on you, so maybe you’ll get some stripes, eh? Let’s call you something cute like you are. Maybe a cute name and a cute appearance will make you act cute your whole life, because I don’t know what you are, but you look like you’re built for blood…."

"Mmm?" it squeaked curiously.

"Stripe? Stripy?" Chizome mumbled, "Tora, tola… Torafu? Now that sounds cute. What do you think?"

"Mmm?"

"Good enough. Torafu it is…. Nice to meet you." She gave the kitten’s paw a tiny shake. As if he had just noticed her presence, he opened his eyes weakly. Chizome looked at him more closely. "Do you have green eyes? Oh, you do…." She smiled, and her eyes watered up. She said, "My friends, Perun and Selwyn, and I were like family. We loved each other, and we did everything together. Selwyn always said that we had to be related to each other because we all had bright green eyes…." She sobbed. "It’s nice… to have another friend with green eyes like us…. Oh, I miss them…."

She hugged Torafu and started to cry. She said, "They were the best…. Every now and then, Selwyn had a poetic side. He’d say something beautiful, then he’d register what he’d said and be like, ‘Where did that come from?!’ We’d all laugh at him ‘cause it was funny…." She closed her eyes and smiled. She talked awhile longer until she’d made herself and Torafu fall asleep

Chapter IV

"Nyaaaa!"

"You brought this on yourself, now cooperate!" Chizome snapped. Torafu, now two months old, wiggled wildly in her lap in an attempt to escape. Now that he was older, he did indeed have tiger stripes. His tail was white, but it had stripes as well. His wings were orange and striped with white on the undersides. His fur had lengthened only a bit, and his front paws had come to look like a cross between paws and talons.

He’d gotten more dexterous as well. He couldn’t fly, but he could walk and run quite well, and he wouldn’t stay where he was told.

"I told you to stay under my bed when I’m not in here, and you keep getting out," Chizome grumbled, "So come here!" She force him under the edge of her bed where she slipped a leash of braided yarn around his neck. The leash was tied to the bedpost that was against the corner of the wall.

"Nyaa!" Torafu protested as Chizome stood and stepped back from him. He was unable to get as far as the bedside.

"For your own good," Chizome explained, "The both of us are going to be in a lot of trouble if someone walks in here and sees you. Be quiet, I’ll be back in a while. Bye-bye, Torafu."

"Reerrrr," Torafu grumbled as she left. In hopes on making her come back, he growled at the door. He had his teeth now. Between his fangs on either jaw was a single vaguely triangular tooth that curved inward a bit, making him look as if he had a beak in his mouth. He paced back and forth, looked at the door, laid down, and continued grumbling.

"Chizome, Sunday Ceremony, hurry up!" Temerita said as she rushed past Chizome in the hallway. Chizome groaned inwardly and forced a weak smile. She watched as Kamilla walked from her room, looked back at her, and matched Temerita’s pace.

The feeling that something bad was about to happen made her uneasy. She fidgeted with her skirt and walked a bit faster.

* * *

Chizome stopped on the side of the gouka while on her way to the field behind it. Tired, she leaned against the wall and looked up. The branches of a nearby tree were hanging near one of the many arch-shaped windows that were about seven feet off the ground. The leaves were those that she looked out at everyday, as the nearby window was hers. Watching the leaves sway back and forth in the breeze only made her more tired.

"I would have told you sooner, but I didn’t have any proof," someone was saying from the front of the church, "I still don’t, but someone needs to hear this."

"Hello."

Chizome realized she had nearly dozed off standing up and looked over to a blond teen next to her. He was a bit older than her, but he didn’t look like the nicest guy. His clothing was grungy, and he most likely did not have permission to be on the church grounds.

"Um, hi…?" Chizome answered. She was cautious and had no idea why he’d be talking to her. He reached for her, grabbed her belt, pulled her toward him, and pressed his lips roughly against hers.

"Chizome?!"

"Argh!" Chizome shrieked, pushing and kicking him away. He held onto her belt and arm for a few seconds before releasing her. She demanded, "What do you think you’re doing?!"

"Precisely what I was about to ask!" Looking over in surprise, Chizome noticed Temerita storming up with an expression of outrage on her face. Kamilla was trailing behind her with her hands cupped over her face in shock.

"Who are you?!" Chizome demanded.

"Oh, so a nun comes around, and suddenly you don’t know me anymore?" the guy said.

"I’ve never known you!"

"It seems that we know each other very well after last night…."

"What? I’ve never seen you before in my life!"

"I suppose it was a bit dark."

"What are you talking about?!"

"Did you forget what I did for you last night already?"

"You didn’t do anything for me last night."

"That’s not what it sounded like you thought…."

"Argh!" Chizome growled, "Get out of here, you knavish piece of trash!"

"Yes! GO!" Temerita screamed, heading toward the teen with her fist clenched. Finally taking the hint, he turned tail and hurried into town as Temerita turned on Chizome. She cried, "The audacity…!" Her anger rendered her speechless, and she struggled for something else to say. As Chizome started to speak, she flared, "The nerve of you, child, a supposedly prestigious lady!"

"What?!" Chizome cried.

"Oh, I told you! I told you!" Kamilla was whining.

"This…this is an outrage!" Temerita screeched, "The indecency, the disgusting, dirty… ugh!"

"I knew it!" shrilled Kamilla.

"What do—?" Chizome began helplessly.

"Come with me," Temerita ordered and snatched her arm, "You filthy little…." She began dragging her toward the field behind the church.

"But, but, but, I, I, du-uh-er, I…" Chizome stuttered uselessly.

"I just knew it! I’d seen them before!" Kamilla protested.

"What?!" Chizome cried, trying to dig her feet into the ground, "So you’re behind this! You bloody scoundrel, you—!"

"Come on!" Temerita growled, dragging her harder.

"This is a misunderstanding!" Chizome insisted. She went unacknowledged.

* * *

Torafu, his leash gnawed off few inches from his neck, had climbed up in Chizome’s windowsill. The window was at a height that Chizome would be able to reach the middle of the bottom pane while standing on her bed. The window was about two feet across and three feet high and was divided into two panes. The lower pane could be easily pushed out in order to open the window.

"Nyroo?" Torafu squeaked as the red-haired woman tried to drag Chizome away. As the three females on the ground below moved out of sight, he pushed on the window, causing it to pop open. Looking down at the ground, he licked his lips nervously and backed up an inch.

He sat there for several minutes, simply enjoying the view, until he heard something from outside the door. As the doorknob turned, he panicked and leapt into the tree. Scrabbling at the branch to keep his hold on it, he managed to seat himself safely behind the shield of leaves. He watched the two distraught women in the room with curiosity.

"Something, anything, to prove this," Temerita was saying.

"As if the scene wasn’t proof enough," Mara argued.

"She just had this look on her face…" Temerita mumbled, "It looked like she’d been… set up."

"Who is the more reliable maiden, Chizome or Kamilla?" Mara asked.

"Point taken…."

"Nyaa…" Torafu mumbled. He looked in the direction Chizome had been taken.

* * *

"I didn’t do anything," Chizome said firmly, standing straight, "This is all a misunderstanding." She was standing against one of the huge crosses behind the gouka with several church officials surrounding her. Her wrists were bound by rope that were draped over the cross’s horizontal beam. She was dressed differently now; she wore a long plain dress of white silk. The collar was cut very low, and her long sleeves flared out at the end. He feet were bare.

"The Lord shall decided," Daisaishi said, "Following tradition, your act of indecency will be punished. We shall bleed the demonic plague from your body for three days. If you still have enough pure blood within you to live, He has seen you fit for life."

"Excuse me?" Chizome questioned.

Daisaishi wordlessly pulled out a dagger and made a quick motion. Chizome choked down her surprised shriek as a three-inch vertical cut was made on her chest. It was shallow, but few drops’ worth of blood drizzled out.

"Three days…" Daisaishi sighed. Two civilians loyal to the church pulled on her ropes, and she yelped as she was yanked upward. With a bit of fancy tying, Chizome was left hanging more than ten feet and watching with shock as the small crowd walked away and blood stained her dress.

Chapter V

"Chizome…? Where are you?"

The weightless seeds of a dandelion flew up into the air like softly glowing fairies. They floated out of sight among the bright blue sky.

Following a sharp blow to the head, Selwyn nearly toppled off his horse. He steadied himself and glared down at Perun, who was riding a donkey and still had his hand raised.

"What was that for?!" Selwyn demanded.

"I’m not going to wait all day for your brain to return itself to this planet," Perun grumbled. He patted his donkey’s neck and said, "It’s kinda sad when this ol’ slowpoke here is getting ahead of your stupid beast because it’s falling asleep and you’re too spacey to wake it up. So anytime you’d think it’s a good idea to get a reality check, I shall back you completely."

Selwyn snorted angrily and turned his head away. His face softened. Perun saw him looking at the dandelion plant alongside the road they were on.

He sighed and said, "I know how you feel, Selwyn. I miss Chizome just as much as you. If she’s anywhere on this world, we will find her. Until then, she’s a big girl and can take care of herself. As much as I want to see her again, we have other things to do right now."

Selwyn nodded sadly and nudged his horse forward.

* * *

Chizome, a mere decade in age, watched the grim battle-hardened face of the thirteen-year-old boy, of whom was known to make anyone laugh, as he said, "If they wake up, we’ll distract them somehow. Perun, what are the chances that you have a spell that makes the ground move?"

"Quite high." Perun grinned.

"Great," Selwyn nodded, "Be ready to cast it, but hopefully we can avoid any fighting." He studied the area in front of them. There were more than a hundred yasha of all colors and a few gooey egg-like pods scattered throughout a dirt basin within the brick fort. All of the yasha were piled amongst one another or curled up ever which way. They were all asleep.

There was a relatively clear path through the center of the group. Occasionally stepping over an arm or something, a person could get to the open drawbridge on the far side. The sun was low in the horizon, but the fort faced east.

Chizome weighed the odds of getting out without waking the demons; they were extremely low. She frowned at Selwyn, wondering why he hadn’t considered that.

But what are our odds of getting out another way? she thought suddenly. Looking back to Selwyn, she could see it in his eyes that he knew their chances well.

"Come on," he whispered. With his companions right behind him, he tiptoed down the short cracked stairway that led into the pit. Chizome stepped on a brick that slid down an inch. She froze.

The three of them waited anxiously, but the yasha didn’t move. They continued onto the dirt, getting more fretful with every tiny crunching sound beneath their feet.

Why does this nice soft dirt make so much noise? Chizome questioned silently.

A movement! They froze again. An air yasha was stirring. It caused the one using it as a pillow to stir as well. After a few seconds, they were still again.

I bet those things can hear me breathe, Chizome thought bitterly, If not, my heartbeat might wake them up…. We’re almost out of here… just a few more feet….

They were stepping onto the bridge and crossing it. The wooden planks made unnerving squeaks.

"Sreeeaaar!"

"Run!" Selwyn cried in response to the high-pitched demon shriek. They broke into a run, heading to the forest in the distance.

Mesh raised his arm "Thray Ek—!"

"No!" Selwyn snapped. He snatched his friends’ wrists and ran faster.

Chizome glanced over her shoulder. The demon that had cried out was crouched in the fort’s opening. It glared it them, its tail whipping. Its black white-streaked hair flew in an unseen breeze.

There were five subspecies of yasha. There was one for each of the four elements and one with minor powers of all of them: the defense of Earth, the strength of Fire, the speed of Air, and the endurance of Water. It was rarely seen, but it was black and could fly, swim, tunnel underground, and withstand flames.

The black creature in the doorway inhaled deeply. A few seconds passed, and it used magic to cough up something that would be too large otherwise. At the same moment, it was hit by Perun’s lightning bolt spell. The spike it coughed up hit Selwyn in the stomach as he turned around. It impaled his ring mail and sunk into his skin.

"Selwyn!" Chizome cried as he stumbled backward. She caught him and tried to hold him up. The shrieks of more awakened demons were heard from within the fort.

"Repus Erif Llab!" Perun cried. He sent out a huge fireball. It collided with the top of the doorway. The stones cracked and fell. With no support, the others fell. As more demons arrived in the doorway, the whole arch caved in and buried them.

A black claw burst through the rubble. Its owner cried out uselessly.

"Come on!" Perun said. He and Chizome each took one of Selwyn’s arms and ran. Once they were among the trees, they removed the spike and laid him down.

"Selwyn…?" Chizome whimpered, "Are you okay? Say something…."

Selwyn simply groaned. He opened his eyes and squeezed them shut again.

"Don’t worry; I can heal you," Chizome promised, silently adding, I hope…. She pressed her hands together and called out, "Chiyu Majikku!" An orb of bluish light appeared in each hand as she pulled them apart. She made her hands into fists and the orbs shrunk out of sight. Her palms glowed as she pressed them against Selwyn’s chest. Fighting to keep his head up, he watched her hands tiredly.

Her hands stopped glowing, and Selwyn’s head went back down. Chizome stared at his wound. After a moment of thought, she tried the spell again, but it still didn’t work.

She looked at her hands desperately and began to cry. She thought, I’m just not strong enough. Isn’t there something I can do?

She clasped her hands together and bowed her head. She mumbled, "Oh, tsuyoi kokoro. Genzuru watashi anata no tsuyosa youni watashi yoroshii nakusu watashi no yowami. Watashi no kokoro oon pawaa watashi kirenai kansei. Yurusu watashi sashiageru tsuyosa inai watashi. Kyuukyoku Chiyu Majikku!"

She pressed her hands down again, ignoring the fact that blood was coating her left hand. Selwyn groaned and winced. He went limp.

"I’m sorry… I’m just not strong enough," Chizome wept. She collapsed onto her friend and fell unconscious.

 

* * *

Torafu crouched beside the pyramid and glared at Sequa and Gelida. They were watching Chizome cry in her sleep.

"I guess it’s working," Gelida said quietly.

"Sure it is," Sequa said and rolled her eyes. She picked a rock and tossed it up in down in one hand, saying, "Kamilla says that a few rocks ought to any demonic tendencies leave her faster." She grinned.

"Sequa, she’s hanging on a cross practically bleeding to death!" Gelida cried, "You can’t start throwing rocks at her!"

Sequa started to respond, but Chizome interrupted her with a loud whimper. Blood began to show from beneath the ropes that cut into he wrist. A glowing blue orb appeared in each hand.

Sequa’s eyes widened. She grabbed Gelida’s forearm and shrilled, "Let’s leave now!" They ran off in panic as Chizome’s fingers closed around the orbs. Some sparkles shimmered around her in a spiral. As they faded away, the bloody marks on her chest and wrists did as well. The red stains on the ropes and her dress were the only evidence she’d ever been injured. Torafu was using his claws to climb the backside of the cross as her eyes opened.

I’m sorry… I’m just not strong enough, echoed in her head. She moaned, "Stupid, stupid dream. That’s not what happened…. I healed him… didn’t I?" She thought, It’s too blurry. Selwyn… help me…. She sobbed loudly and coughed; her throat was dry. Tired and overwhelmed, she fainted.

Only seconds later, the rope binding her right hand broke. She swung down and remained hanging by her left arm. Her shoulder made a popping sound, but she didn’t wake. Torafu looked at her expectantly. After a few seconds of no response, he trotted across the beam and began biting at the other rope.

Chapter VI

As soon as Chizome’s eyes fluttered open weakly, her vision was filled with a cup of tea. She took it, confused, as she realized she was in her bed.

"I trust you’ll behave yourself from now on."

Chizome looked up and managed to focus her blurry eyes on Temerita. It hurt to used her raspy voice and say, "I didn’t do anything though…."

"There won’t be anymore arguing about it; it’s over," Temerita said. "Drink your tea and try to enjoy some rest on a level surface."

Chizome asked, "What happened?"

"Two days and your ropes broke," Temerita explained. "We would assume that that boy cut you down and would have tied you back up, but your cut was gone." Chizome felt her chest where her skin had been sliced and frowned in confusion. She took a gulp of her tea as Temerita left the room.

"Torafu?" she asked quietly. Her voice was a bit more easily used.

With a mewing sound, Torafu came out from under the bed. He jumped up next to her and laid a few pieces of something stringy on her belly. She picked them up and brought them closer to her face.

"Rope fibers," she realized, "You saved me, didn’t you?"

"Nyaa!" Torafu rubbed against her.

"Thank you, Torafu…" she said gratefully. She pulled him close and hugged him, saying, "It’s nice to have a friend again…thank you so much."

Torafu licked her cheek and looked at her pleadingly.

"Oh, you haven’t had anything to eat in a few days, have you?" she asked, "I’m sorry I don’t have any food to give you, but you can have this." She took another gulp of tea and held her cup down to him. He sniffed it and studied it. He looked at as if he was trying to figure out which was the stronger power: his hunger or the disliked scent of the tea. The emptiness of his stomach won out, and he began lapping it up.

* * *

"Torafu?" Chizome asked as she walked into her room a few days later, "Where are you? I have food. Tora?"

"Nyaa!" The feline jumped onto the sill of the open window and plopped down on the bed.

"Torafu!" Chizome snapped, "You’re supposed to stay under the bed. The bed is in the room!"

"Rreeow?" Torafu questioned innocently.

"I shouldn’t give you this since you were bad," Chizome said, "but if you behave from now on…." She tossed an apple onto the bed.

"Nyaaa!" Torafu tackled it playfully, batting it around. He trapped it and sank his beak-like teeth into it.

Chizome looked at him and said, "I swear you were made to be a carnivore."

"Reeou?"

"Never mind…. I have to go meet the choir. Bye. Be good." She left the room after setting an orange on the bed.

After destroying all evidence that the fruit ever existed, Torafu sprang back onto the windowsill, flapping his wings pointlessly in the process.

* * *

"As you know," Mara said to the group of children standing on two sets of wooden bleachers, "His Honor, the Gohka Berwyn shall be attending tomorrow’s Sunday Ceremony. You will all stand straight—"

She looked at a kid who was slouching, and he immediately stood straight.

"—and sing like a choir of angels. You shall make the Berwyn honor us as the proper Gohka church," Mara finished, "Now practice!" She gave a small bow to Temerita and left the room.

"You heard her," Temerita said, "You are the children of the Lord. So sing like it."

Chizome focused on the words to the song while letting her mind wander a bit. Each riser was six steps high. She was on the left end of the top row of the right bleacher. The two were be pushed together, but they would be on either side of the pyramid during the ceremony. Kamilla was right next to her, but the top row had too many people crammed onto it.

Just my luck, she’ll shove me off and blame it on the limited space, Chizome thought. All the while she sang.

The junior priestesses lined the top rows. Gelida, followed by Sequa, was on the far side of Kamilla. The boys being trained as priests were on the next row. The children that were between ages four and ten and would enter training soon filled two-and-a-half rows. The rest of the space was occupied by the handicapped children who could speak easily and who’s injuries didn’t make them look unpleasant.

I’d better stay firmly planted up here, Chizome thought, I am not going to let myself be shoved off this thing.

Mara returned and listened to the end of the song. She said to the children, "Nicely done, but try a bit louder. I came back to tell you I have just received the information that a small demon was captured by some townsmen."

Some of the children gasped. A few little kids clung to the older person beside them.

Small demon? Chizome wondered, A miniature yasha? Or some unfortunate animal?

"Practice the Sacrificial Song for demons," Mara said to Temerita. She left again.

"Alright," Temerita said, "Be louder this time. Put feeling into it. Tomorrow morning there will be one less beast of Satan in the world. Show that this means a lot to you."

Something bad is going to happen, Chizome thought bitterly, I just know it.

* * *

Stupid, stupid, STUPID little fishtailed rat! Didn’t I tell you to behave?! Look what you’ve gotten us both into! If you’d stayed where I’d told you….

Chizome thought these words as if Torafu could hear them while she gave him the corresponding scowl. His paws, tail, and wings were fastened to the altar atop the pyramid, and his mouth was bound shut. The singers on the top two rows of the bleachers were all staring at him. Some looked with awe or fear, and some looked with hatred, while Chizome glared with anger.

He let out a muffled cry and wiggled a bit. He looked pleadingly at Chizome while his green eyes shimmered with sadness.

Church officials and civilians lined the side of the marble walkway, and candles on gold posts were lined up along the center. Daisaishi, Mara, and three men that were apparently of another gouka were set apart just in front of the pyramid. Judging by his beret, one of the men was the Berwyn. He was very old and had long white hair and a matching beard.

The bleachers were a good five feet from the pyramid. There were large stone cubes on the ground between. They were used as tables holding fifteen-foot-high gold posts. There was a bowl shape full of fire atop the posts. The top of the altar appeared to be a bit less than twenty feet from the ground.

Daisaishi gave a small speech to welcome the Berwyn and to instruct everyone to begin the sacrificial prayer. Chizome often feigned this prayer. She did pray this time, but her prayer was different.

Push me, push me. You know you’re dying to, so push me! This has to look realistic.

At the end of the prayer, Chizome glowered at Kamilla, who was being a perfect angel. The two boys in front of her and Kamilla were tall and pressed together. She saw the dagger Daisaishi was holding was the same one he’d used to cut her with. She noted that Talitha was on the end of the top row of bleachers.

Please have steady feet and a foolish temper, Chizome thought to Talitha. Daisaishi offered something to the Berwyn, who turned it down politely, and then signaled to Mara. She took out a wand and moved to where all the choir members could see her.

Chizome swung her hips and gave Kamilla a small sideswipe. Due to how closely packed the girls were, there was a domino effect. Talitha nearly fell off the riser and clung to the girl next to her. Once she was sure she wouldn’t fall, she got mad at the girl and gave her a hidden shove.

Mara noticed the disturbance and frowned as the new chain of shoves came back to the first one’s starting point. Kamilla stumbled into Chizome, who was standing as close to the edge as possible.

Chizome shrieked as she fell. In feigned panic, she grabbed the post with the fire atop it. It began to tip toward the pyramid. She landed hard on the pyramid steps as the post fell with a loud bang, but she kept her eyes closed.

The sound of a snapping rope was followed by cries of terror. She heard Torafu’s paws start to shuffle in her direction, but he turned and headed toward the hill. There were several angry shouts.

"Your space isn’t that small, you little strumpets!" Mara cried, surprising everyone that could hear her over sound of panic. A few of the girls gasped.

"Chizome!" Temerita cried. She came over and lifted her head. "Wake up, Chizome. Say something…. Come on… wake up."

"It’s gone, it’s gone!" Daisaishi was yelling, "It’s run away. It fears the wrath of the Lord and will not attack this town. Someone will be sent to kill it! Calm down! Go home!"

"Chizome!" Temerita hissed and patted Chizome’s cheek. Chizome opened her eyes with an attempt to look very weak.

"Oh…ow…" she moaned.

"Are you okay?" Temerita asked.

"I…ow…. I fell?" Chizome mumbled, "My head…. What happened? What’s going on?"

Temerita sighed. "It shall be explained later." She led Chizome back to her room once the commotion died down. She said, "Stay in here a while and rest." After she left, there was a clicking sound.

Wondering if she’d heard incorrectly, Chizome went to the door and tried to turn the knob. It was locked from the outside.

Chapter VII

It was the next night when Chizome heard a mewing sound. She sat up in bed and looked at the window. Torafu was sitting there with a look of apology on his face.

"Oh, Torafu!" Chizome cried, sitting up, "You’re okay!" She stood on her knees on her bed beneath the window and held her hands up. Torafu shuffled away nervously. She asked, "You don’t think I was trying to hurt you with that fire, do you? I was just breaking your ropes. I’m glad you’re okay; come give me a hug, Tora."

Torafu looked ashamed of himself, but he shuffled to the edge of the sill and uncertainly dropped into her arms. She hugged him so tight he made a gagging noise. She loosened her grip and kissed the top of his head.

"It seems like you’re almost twice the size you were the other day," she said, "You’re growing fast."

Her stomach growled.

"Oh, they haven’t fed me since they locked me in here," she mumbled.

"Nyaa!" Torafu jumped and disappeared.

"Hey! Where are you going?" Chizome called. A few minutes later, he returned and dropped an apple into her hands. She smiled gratefully and said, "Thank you, Tora…."

"Riu," Torafu mewed. He sat up straight in an attempt to look indifferent. Chizome ate most of the apple and gave him the core, which he gladly devoured.

"Wish this window were lower…" she said wearily, "But maybe…. Nah…."

"Nyaa!" Torafu called, sensing what she wanted. He jumped onto the tree branch outside and called out to her more.

"I can’t jump as high as you," she said.

"Nyaa! Nyaa!" he cried reprovingly.

"Well…" Chizome mumbled uncertainly. She picked two sheets off her bed, tied one around her waist, and made a lasso out of the other one. She put her boots on, grabbed a leather pouch off her table, looped the lasso around her neck, and stood on the bed in front of the window.

"Nyaa! Riooer!" Torafu cheered.

"Okay, let’s try this…" Chizome said. She bounced three times on the mattress. On the third bounce, she propelled herself onto the windowsill. She landed on her chest and wiggled farther through so that she was on her belly. She removed the lasso and said, "Catch this."

Torafu caught the sheet in his teeth, and, upon her instructions, looped it around a thick twig that protruded from the branch he was on.

"Wish me luck," Chizome said. She looked at the ground and added, "I’ll need it." She clung to the sheet and inched out of the window. The twig broke, as she’d expected, but its momentary help allowed her to swing and land roughly on her feet.

* * *

"Machi Tavern…. Do you think there are going to be a lot of drunk people on a Monday night?"

"Ruu?"

"Never mind…."

Chizome was standing in the streets of Machi Village looking at the sign of the local bar. She was wearing one sheet like a cloak and had Torafu bundled up in the other. There weren’t many people out at night, but sounds of laughter coming from within the building.

"I hear a lot of bad things about this place," Chizome said, "but I’m starving and there aren’t any restaurants open."

"Nyuu?" Torafu asked.

"They say every here is always drunk," Chizome explained. "There’s supposed to be a lot of bad people around here." Her stomach growled, so she added, "But if they serve hot food, I don’t care." She walked up the three steps to the door and hesitated. The door was unlatched, so she just pushed on it a little and peered inside.

There were lanterns hanging from the ceiling to provide a medium amount of light. The bar was in the far right corner of the large room. There were round tables scattered around, and about half of them had two-to-six people around them. The people came in all heights and various ages within adulthood.

Most of them were fairly sober, but those that weren’t were just laughing loudly at stupid jokes being swapped among those at their table. Between the bar and the closer right-hand corner was a small stage of sorts. A black-haired boy, who looked about twelve, was playing a semi-slow song on the piano.

Chizome drew back a bit as the bartender, a red-haired bearded man, noticed her. He beckoned her in and called, "Come on, I’m not gonna serve you from that far away."

She walked in cautiously, keeping Torafu hidden by both sheets. She kept her head down as she walked quickly yet uncertainly toward the bar.

"Do you serve anything without alcohol?" she asked sheepishly.

"Milk, water, and lemonade," the bartender said.

"I’d like a lemonade, please…."

"Five copper pieces."

Chizome removed five copper coins from the leather pouch she had tied to her belt. The bartender gave her a beer mug full of lemonade.

"Something wrong?" he asked.

"Wha…?" Chizome mumbled.

"You seem to be acting very cautious, like you expect someone to be spying on you," the bartender laughed, "You keep looking around and such."

"Oh…I’m… just not used to being around so many people I don’t know when I’m un… by myself," Chizome explained, nearly saying, ‘when I’m unarmed,’ but thinking better of it.

"You don’t have to worry about these people," the bartender said, "I know most of ‘em, and anyone else is a friend o’ someone I know. You don’t have to worry ‘bout ‘em unless their body odor kills ya."

Chizome laughed a bit.

"So… are you a traveler or a runaway?" he asked, looking questioningly at her makeshift cloak.

* * *

"What’s in there?"

"It’s about as empty as your horse’s head."

Selwyn’s horse made a miffed snort while Perun’s donkey emitted a laugh-like bray. Selwyn ignored Perun’s joke and the animals’ response to it. He narrowed his eyes at the fort before them. It looked like all Yasha buildings: ugly and crude yet strong and dependable.

"Let’s get out of here then," Selwyn said, "There’s a little town nearby." He turned his horse around and nudged it into a trot.

Chapter VIII

"Since they give us all our food and clothing, and we’re not expected to have anything else, they don’t give us any money," Chizome said comfortably a half-hour later as she speared a piece of fish with her fork.

"What’s that thing you’re holdin’?" the bartender asked, getting off the topic.

"My puppy," Chizome answered, figuring that Torafu was too big to disguise as a cat.

"Nyuu?"

"Weird puppy," the bartender commented. "Anyway, if they give ya everything, why do you need to have any money?"

"I want to get out of here," Chizome said. "This isn’t my place. I came to this town looking for my friends, but I still need to find them. If I had more gold, I’d go down to the armory—this town does have an armory, right?"

"Yeah."

"—and buy a suit of chain mail and a staff or something. I don’t want to go very far unarmed."

"You know how ta fight?"

"Of course. I’m not really a fighter though; I just know the basics of staff- and polearm-use. I always left the tough stuff up to my friends and healed them when they needed it."

"That’s interestin’," the bartender said. He shrugged. "Can ya sing?"

"Sing? I don’t have notable talent, but I can hold a tune okay."

"Melos, our pianist, is my nephew," the bartender informed, pointing out the twelve-year-old at the piano, "He’s great with the piano, and he sings with some o’ his songs. But we give ‘im ‘bout another week ‘fore his voice changes. He wants a soprano performer to sing for us. If he likes your voice enough and you could be a regular here, somebody’d pay ya, either him or me. If the customers like ya enough, you’ll get tips too."

"I can’t get a job," Chizome said. "I can’t get out of the church unless I’m lucky."

"Talk to ‘im anyway," the bartender said. "He’s desperate."

"…Okay, I guess," Chizome mumbled.

"Just wait ‘til he’s done with the song he’s playin’ now. He’s hates bein’ interrupted."

Chizome waited to Melos’s song was finished, then said, "Stay, Torafu… or else." She put the bundled-up feline on the stool and walked up to the piano-player. Torafu sniffed the air near his mistress’s fish dinner and started to inch closer to it.

"She told ya ta stay," the bartender reminded him.

"Nyaa…." Torafu glared at him.

"That’s one weird hound…" the bartender thought. He went back to washing mugs. Torafu emitted a cross between a growl and a sigh and turned to watch Chizome. She was reading a piece of parchment while Melos played the same verse-long series of notes repeatedly on his piano.

Chizome sang, "They have no notion/Of the pain I feel inside/They laugh at emotion/I just turn away and hide/Letting love lead me/To your heart’s my only trail./There’s nothing safer/I’ll follow you through heat or hail…" The verse ended sounding as if it were about to merge into the refrain, but Chizome stopped there. She turned red as the crowd behind her clapped.

"Are you sure you can’t come by every night?" Melos asked.

"I’m sorry," Chizome answered.

"It’s okay," Melos said. "Especially if you could learn that song tonight."

Chizome considered. "I’m sure I could, with the exception of forgetting a few lines."

"No one will care if you’re reading them," Melos said. "Let’s head backstage."

"Let me get my puppy," Chizome said. She went back to Torafu, finding him asleep with the sheet barely hiding his wings. Oddly the rest of her dinner had mysteriously vanished from her plate. She sighed, picked the kitten up, and followed Melos into the building’s side room.

"G’night, Batten," a man said to the bartender as he passed, heading for the door.

"Aren’t you going to stay to hear that girl sing?" the bartender asked.

"She sounds nice and all, but I have to get back to the shop," the man said. Batten waved goodbye.

Backstage several minutes later, Melos said, "I take it you’ve lost someone important to you…."

Chizome looked at him, a bit startled, and turned away, mumbling, "Yeah… my friends…."

"If there’s a person with a perfect life anywhere in the world, he or she couldn’t put that much feeling into that song."

Chizome nodded absentmindedly.

"Let’s practice some more," Melos said, "and then you can have your first performance."

A half-hour later, Melos practically had to push Chizome on stage. He said to the crowd, "Attention, everyone… hello, up here, look at me…. Anyway, I’d like to introduce a lady will be singing a song that everyone used to love and then got tired of…but she sings it very nicely, so I’m sure you’ll start liking it again." He ushered Chizome closer to the edge of the stage and sat down on the piano bench.

She nervously gave a small wave to the crowd, all of whom seemed to be paying her at least partial attention. She waited through Melos piano intro and read the lyrics off the paper. She sang:

My heart’s been broken for so long without you here,
Already shattered, there’s few things that I still fear,
My death began when you had to go away,
You’re my best friend; I could have helped to make you stay.

If only I could cry you a sea,
If only you could swim to me.
If I could, I know I would for you,
To swim to me.
I’d pay the world my heart,
If you could swim across my sea.

They have no notion
Of the pain I feel inside,
They laugh at emotion;
I just turn away and hide.
Letting love lead me,
To your heart’s my only trail.
There’s nothing safer,
I’ll follow you through heat or hail.

If only I could cry you a sea,
If only you could swim to me.
If I could, I know I would for you,
To swim to me.
I’d pay the world my heart,
If you could swim across my sea.

And this ocean,
Is full of emotion,
I know I’d brave the harsh waves.
For your fellowship is what my heart craves.

If only I could cry you a sea,
If only you could swim to me.
If I could, I know I would for you,
To swim to me.
I’d pay the world my heart,
If you could swim across my sea.

By the end of the song, Chizome had everyone’s undivided attention; most of them were teary-eyed. She felt fortunate that she’d memorized the chorus, because her own eyes were too watery to read the parchment. She let out a sob and gave an awkward bow as the crowd applauded.

She turned to Melos. "I think—" she sniffled, "—that I should probably get back now."

"Alright," Melos said, smiling sadly, "Here." He gave her a handful of five coins marked with a ‘10.’

"Fifty gold?" Chizome questioned, "That much for singing one song?"

"You put life back into a dead song," Melos explained, "and I wanted to make sure you know that we want you back if you ever happen to have any free time…."

"I’ll come back if I can," Chizome promised. "Thank you."

Melos sighed as she left through the front door of the bar, but she immediately turned and came back.

"I forgot my puppy…" she explained, blushing.

* * *

On her way back to her window, Chizome froze at the border of the church grounds. She saw someone standing against a nearby tree. Upon looking closer, she realized it was actually two people, but they were busy enough for her to pass by unnoticed.

Was that Kamilla? she wondered. The nerve…after she got me in trouble….

She woke Torafu up so that he could climb the tree and hop into the window. With a lot of climbing involved both before and after she jumped from the tree branch, she managed to get through the window and land tiredly on her bed. She crawled to her pillow, kicked her boots off, and covered herself with her blanket. She forgot about the sheet she had tied to her, but Torafu tunneled under her blanket and curled up at her side.

"Someday, somehow, someway," Chizome whispered, "If you could swim across my sea…." A teardrop emerged from each of her eyes.

Chapter IX

Torafu wandered aimlessly around Chizome’s room the next morning. He sniffed around in an attempt to find something to do, as his mistress was still asleep. After searching every inch of the room for the third time, he attempted to wake her up.

She merely groaned, shoved him onto the floor, and rolled over.

Miffed, he began sniffing around again. He dashed back to the bedside upon hearing a voice from outside. Chizome was still practically out-cold, so he crept over to the door and pressed his head against it.

"Are you sure this is a good idea…?" questioned Temerita’s reluctant voice.

"Yes," Mara snapped.

"She clearly needs a second chance," came the Berwyn’s low quiet voice. "This ceremony will give her such. Reincarnation is her only hope."

"I agree," Daisaishi said. "We’ll kill her at the next Sunday Ceremony."

"Temerita, dear," the Berwyn said. "Don’t look so distraught."

"But… never mind," Temerita mumbled.

"It really is in Chizome’s best interest," Mara stated.

"And, my dear lady," the Berwyn said, "not to speak ill of the girl, but I’m sure you could use a break from the distress that seems to follow her. I know she’s troubled you quite a bit…."

"Actually…" Temerita said, seeming as if she were extremely nervous but trying to be assertive, "she’s been no trouble to me at all."

Following was the sound of her boots walking quickly down the hall.

"Nyoo…?" Torafu mumbled sadly, laying down by the door. He looked hopefully at Chizome, but she had yet to show signs of life since pushing him off the bed.

Outside the door and to the left, Gelida stood in the alcove of her bedroom door. After Temerita’s timid exit, the conversation was irrelevant. Even if it had been important, she was too distracted to have heard it.

* * *

"Hello, how may I help you?" Batten greeted the two people that approached the bar and sadly plopped themselves down on the stools.

"Steak or something," Perun said, "Two orders, please."

"Coming right up," Batten responded. He moved away to prepare the food.

"What’s up with you guys?" asked one of the barmaids.

"We’ve been looking for our friend," Perun explained, "But we’ve had so much on our hands that it’s been awhile since we’ve seen her." He patted Selwyn’s back and said, "I’m afraid Selwyn here has obtained a case of chronic depression."

"His girlfriend?" the barmaid asked.

"My sister…" Selwyn whimpered, "My only sister… Chizome…."

"Chizome?" the barmaid asked. "What does she look like?"

Perun began, "It’s been awhile but—"

"She had long sun-colored hair that ended two-thirds of the way down her back," Selwyn described. "And her eyes were the same color of green as the grass on the Verde Fields in the first half of the last week of spring. Sort of like a clone between a jade and an emerald, and…."

"Ignore him," Perun advised, "Once he gets like that, there’s no stopping him before he’s done. What he means to say is that she has long blond hair and green eyes, and that she’s…well-built…."

"Hmm," the barmaid mumbled. She spotted Melos coming out of his side room with a stack of sheet music and called, "Melos! That girl that was here last night? What’s her name?"

"Chizome," Melos answered.

"And she… what?!" Selwyn demanded.

"Where is she now?" the barmaid asked.

Melos shrugged. "Maybe Uncle Batten knows where she lives."

"Here you go, sirs," Batten said as he approached. He placed their plates of food in front of them.

"Batten, do you know where Chizome lives?" the barmaid asked.

"She’s under custody of the church," Batten answered. He walked off to serve someone else.

"The church!" Selwyn said hysterically, "We saw a gouka in town. Come on, let’s go find her!" Before Perun could stop him, he was out through the front door of the tavern.

"Thank you," Perun said to the barmaid before rushing after him.

* * *

"Selwyn, wait!" he called after his friend.

Selwyn ignored him and gave his horse a kick to speed it up. The animal shot through the open gates of the church and was reined to a skidding stop in front of the marble stairs leading to the large golden doors. There were a few people kneeled in the courtyard praying; they looked at Selwyn in surprise.

He hopped off his steed and ran up the stairs. Breathing hard and quivering, he pounded on the door. The left-hand door was pulled open from within.

"May I help you?" Temerita asked, sounding a bit annoyed. She looked preoccupied.

"A girl…" Selwyn gasped between breaths, "Chizome… I need… to talk to her…. Please? Is she here?"

"I’m sorry," Temerita said. She began to close the door, but Selwyn held it open.

"Please?" Selwyn asked, "If she’s here… I have to see her."

"I don’t care who you have to see," Temerita snapped, "We are training the girls here to be proper maidens. I’m sure the girl you’re looking for is no longer interested in mingling with random yokels."

Selwyn had to hold the door open again. He insisted, "I’m not a random yokel! I’m her friend."

"I’m not sure I want to know your definition of ‘friend,’" Temerita hissed, "but she apparently used to have a lot of them. She’s a proper lady now."

Selwyn winced as his foot blocked the slamming door. He demanded, "Proper ladies can’t have friends?!"

"They can’t have people like you for friends…." Temerita grumbled, pulling on the door.

"Please," Selwyn pleaded, his eyes filling with tears, "If she’s here… just let me talk to her…. Just so I know she’s okay…."

"She’ll be fine as long as she’s nowhere near the likes of you!" Temerita’s insistence was punctuated by two of the more heavily muscled males in the courtyard yanking Selwyn away from the door. She gave the men a nod of thanks and quickly closed the door.

"Chizome!" he called, trying to get back to the door again. He struggled against the two men holding him and managed to bang on the door again.

"Selwyn!" Perun shrieked as his donkey made it through the gate. He ran up the stairs and got the two men to release him.

"She’s in there," Selwyn said in a whisper, "I know she is; the lady said she was."

"Selwyn…!" Perun grumbled. He turned his friend toward him, seeing the tears that streaked Selwyn’s face. He said, "Selwyn—look at the size of this building." He turned him toward the rest of Machi. "Look at the size of that town." He turned him back. "A gouka church that big in a town that small means that nearly all the citizens are very strong followers of the church. Don’t you think it’s best that we not make the church mad?"

"But…but…" Selwyn sobbed, "Chizome…."

"I understand why you’re upset," Perun said. "I miss Chizome as much as you do. I care about her, but you’re my friend too. I am speaking as your friend when I say this: You… have… LOST IT!"

Selwyn drew back in surprise.

"Chizome loves the outdoors!" Perun cried. "She can’t stay locked in that building forever! The second she comes out, we’ll see her again…! Until then, cheer up, dammit!"

Selwyn started to protest, but he just slumped over wordlessly. He wipes his tears off his face with his glove. There was a look of bitter defeat deadening his eyes.

Chapter X

Torafu dashed under Chizome’s bed as a clicking sound came from the door. Chizome rolled over as it opened.

"Chizome?" Temerita asked. "Have you eaten anything?"

"No," Chizome grumbled.

"I’m very sorry," Temerita said, coming all the way in with a tray of food. "We assumed you’d bang on the door or something when you got hungry. You were so quiet, we sort of forgot about you for awhile. Then everyone assumed someone else had attended to you."

Chizome sat up and took the tray with a blank expression.

"Why don’t you start eating before you waste away?" Temerita said apologetically. She started to leave the room, but she stopped and turn around.

"What is it?" Chizome asked.

Temerita hesitated. "…You’re always getting into trouble," she said finally.

"I’m… sorry," Chizome said.

Temerita sighed. "What’s wrong?"

"I don’t belong here," Chizome stated. "I don’t get along with the others. You people made me stay here because my parents are dead, but nobody ever thought to consider the rest of my family. They weren’t really related to me, but they were my friends and they cared about me." Her eyes watered. "I got lost, but I can’t find them now…. Two years… they could be anywhere."

"Goodbye," Temerita said quietly. She left. Chizome tossed the apple she was given onto the floor where it was immediately tackled by Torafu.

Chizome stared into space for several seconds. She half-sang-half-mumbled a song to herself.

* * *

Nearly a week later, Chizome was cloaked by her sheet again. She asked the bundled Torafu, "Last Monday was fine. What’s Saturday night like?" as she climbed the steps to the door of Machi Tavern. As she walked in, she noticed that it was much busier.

"Chizome, hello!" Batten said to her after she’d squeezed through the people enough to reach the bar.

"Hi," she greeted. She ordered the same fish entrée and lemonade she’d had before. As the bar area was too packed for her to sit down there, she moved to the far corner of the room and sat down at the only empty table in the room. Melos looked busy with the fast piece of music he was playing, so she slipped Torafu a piece of fish and slowly ate her dinner.

"Hello there," someone said.

With the sense of uneasiness shooting through her as if she’d been hit with a small lightning bolt, Chizome turned her head to the source of the sound and politely said, "Hi." Her eyes widened as she recognized the speaker as the person who’d gotten her in trouble before. There were four other guys behind him. They all had smirks.

"I don’t believe we were properly introduced before," the guy said. He held out his hand and said, "I’m Sordeo. Nice to meet you."

"Hi," Chizome said curtly, making no move to shake his hand.

"What’s a proper lady like you doing in a place like this?" Sordeo asked.

"Making a failing attempt to get away from tactless jerks," Chizome grumbled. Sordeo only gave a small laugh, so she said, "What’s your excuse for the last time I saw you?" She picked up her glass and took a drink in an attempt to look unconcerned.

Sordeo casually strolled around behind her as he said, "Nothing personal. My friend has this ‘thing’ for a girl that doesn’t like you much. I was just helping him score points with her; I wasn’t trying to start anything. However…if you’d like to start something…." He leaned over her shoulder and got a face full of lemonade.

He walked back to his comrades as Chizome calmly placed her empty glass back on the tabletop.

"Now what’d you do that for?" he asked, but she was silent. "Well…?" He leaned forward, banging the table, ‘Answer me you little b—!"

"Rrrowwwrrr!"

A trio of deep-red lines appeared diagonally over Sordeo’s face. He yelped and stumbled backward away from the orange mass of raised fur and ruffled feathers that stood on the table with tensed muscles and bared fangs. His friends echoed his yelp, grabbed his arms or clothing, and made a beeline for the exit.

"Bad dog! Bad dog!" Chizome was yelling. She grabbed Torafu with his sheet and quickly wrapped him back up. Realizing how quiet everything suddenly was, she turned to the rest of the people in the room. She laughed nervously and said, "They’re… afraid of my puppy…."

Confused, everyone went back to what they’d been doing. Chizome sighed in relief.

"Weird puppy," Batten repeated to himself.

"Thank you, Torafu," Chizome whispered as she hugged her pet protectively, "but please don’t let anyone see you, Tora…."

"Nyuu…" Torafu cooed.

"You busy?" Melos asked Chizome a few minutes later when she walked up to the stage.

"Nope," she said cheerfully. She subconsciously held Torafu a bit tighter.

"That’s good because I—" he was cut off by a squeak coming from his own throat. He blushed.

Chizome giggled. "It’s okay; I’ll sing. Any preferences?"

"If you happen to know any songs that have a lot of energy…" Melos said. "Just remember that I can’t play every song in the universe." He squeaked again.

"Okay," Chizome agreed, "I can think of a song I learned when I was little."

Melos nodded and smiled as opposed to speaking. His voice clearly wasn’t cooperating as he introduced her to the crowd again. He moved back, and she stepped forward, curtseyed, and picked a song.

The crowd wasn’t quite as moved as they had been before, but they were still clearly positive. Somebody called out for an encore. Chizome blushed and looked questioningly toward Melos, who was sitting at the bar. He nodded.

She searched her mind for another song.

* * *

Several hours later, Perun exited the tavern looking annoyed. He looked at Selwyn and sighed apologetically. Selwyn winced.

"We ‘just missed her,’" Perun explained.

"Just a few minutes sooner…. Damn blood-thirty demons…" Selwyn muttered. "Where is she now?"

"The church."

Selwyn groaned.

* * *

The sense of uneasiness was tingling in her again as Chizome was awakened by Temerita the next morning. Her three years as a warrior made her instinctively notice the priestess’s dull automated voice. It seemed like she was deliberately avoiding eye-contact.

Might as well be nice, Chizome thought, sighing inwardly as she and Temerita happened to be walking out to the Sunday Ceremony together. She tried to sound completely awake as she asked, "Are you okay, Temerita?"

"What?" Temerita asked quickly drawing away in surprise. She stopped walking near the tree outside Chizome’s window.

"Are you okay?" Chizome repeated kindly. "You seem like there’s something on your mind…."

"No," Temerita choked. "Nothing’s wrong; everything’s perfect. Come now, don’t want to be late. Got to sing, sing." She walked quickly in their previous direction.

Something’s wrong, Chizome thought firmly. She rolled her eyes and followed.

Standing atop the risers next to Kamilla as she did every Sunday, Chizome felt her sense of uneasiness rising. Now that the Berwyn had left this church, perhaps Kamilla would push her off the bleacher this time.

One of the in-training priests, of whom Chizome knew as Nephas, was a bit late to the riser. He bowed in apology as Mara gave him a look. He brushed his brown hair out of his matching eyes and grinned at Kamilla. She only glanced at him and casually ignored him. He took his place on the second-highest riser between her and Chizome.

Chizome spotted Temerita talking to Daisaishi. She looked nervous and was ignored. She hung her head as she made her way to the other priestesses. Daisaishi approached the riser.

"Chizome," he said, "Would you come with me please?"

"O…kay," Chizome said uncertainly. She saw Gelida bite her lip and squeeze her eyes shut as she stepped down. As soon as she was on the ground, there was a chopping sound. Nephas spun and gripped Kamilla’s hips as the entire bleacher set lurched to the right. With a shriek, Talitha fell and hit the ground.

"Is this going to happen every week?!" Mara demanded.

"Talitha!" Temerita cried, rushing toward the fallen girl. Chizome couldn’t see her through the bleachers and the people on them, but some of the civilians gasped.

Everyone else repeated that response as Temerita walked stiffly around the bleachers. There was a man walking right behind her. He was wearing a mask and had a sword pressed against her throat. Four other men followed him into view.

Chapter XI

"You church-goers have little baskets you pass around and put money for the poor in, right?" called the man that was holding Temerita. He seemed to be deliberately disguising his voice, but it sounded familiar to Chizome. "Well, we’re kinda poor ourselves. Why don’t you pass that around and toss it this way… or one of your angels might just go to heaven a bit sooner than she planned… or lose that burden of chastity…."

Temerita’s eyes widened. "You sick pi—!" She cut herself off with a fearful squeak as the blade got a little closer to her throat.

"Come on, we could all use a little change," the man said. Daisaishi passed the basket to the assembled people. They passed it among themselves, filling it with gold coins.

"What about that little girl back there?" one of the other men asked.

"New playmate?" the leader suggested.

"She looks about ten."

"So? That’s old enough."

"I’m closer to your age than she is," Temerita said through clenched teeth, "Do what you want with me, but don’t you touch her…."

The man laughed. "I’ll remember that." He spun his head around and looked at Chizome. She looked at him with a blank expression, but her fingertips of her right hand were touching her circlet. He looked her up and down and returned his gaze to the larger group of people.

"Don’t you think you’re taking a long time?" he asked the crowd. They sped up the passing of the basket. In a flash, his sword was jerked away from Temerita. Chizome had slid past him as she looped her circlet around the blade. Temerita bolted; her first goal was Talitha.

"Damn circlet finally became of use," Chizome muttered, tossing it aside.

She dashed backward and grabbed one of the gold candle-holding posts that lined the walkway. She swung it like a polearm, and the candles clattered to the ground. The leader ducked, but one of his comrades were banged hard in the side of his head. He swooned and collapsed.

The leader swung his sword, but it only collided with the post. He was jabbed in the chest. Chizome jerked and sent a powerful hit backward, hearing a grunt of pain from her unseen target. While warding off the remaining three men, she made her way to one of the marble pillars.

"Rrriiiiiiooow!" Torafu, using his half-developed feline grace to appear suddenly from nowhere, clawed at his mistress’s attackers. Snarling, he advanced on them. Chizome looked at him in surprise as the men backed up. She cried out as the leader’s blade barely missed the top of the feline’s head.

"Ryuuu…?" he mewed nervously. He was sliced at again, and, with a screech, he dashed out of sight to the left. The battle proceeded as it had been going.

Chizome threw the post to push the men away. She knelt and sprang up with every bit of strength she could squeeze into her leg muscles. She wrapped her hands around the spear hanging on the pillar and swung her legs. Her feet collided with the nose of one of the advancing men. She pressed her feet against the pillar and pushed, removing the spear. She fell to the ground and quickly backed up, sliding the banner off the weapon’s handle.

She got a good look at the spear; it was actually a very nice weapon. Its point was wider in one dimension, making it good for slicing or stabbing. She sliced at the two men once, missing their skin but cutting into their leather tunics. She changed her grip on the spear, holding the point downward and using it as a staff. She blocked their swords and jabbed the second man dead-center on his forehead. He fell.

The leader’s blade made a long shallow cut running the length of her left forearm. She winced and growled, thrusting at him with her weapon. He moved back and sliced at her, but her staff had the reach advantage.

She changed her grip on it again. The point began a few inches passed her elbow as she had it pressed against the lower half of her forearm. She moved back cautiously and looked blankly at the center of her opponent’s chest. She relaxed her eyes so that she could watch his sword as well.

The two of them lunged. The end of Chizome’s staff connected squarely with his chest, easily outreaching his sword. It was pulled back and thrust again, this time whacking his shoulder. Another thrust in his stomach. Another glancing off the side of his head. Another in his ribs. His other shoulder. The side of his chest. Again and again.

She twirled it in her hand like a very long baton and changed her grip again. The handle closest to the spearhead smashed into the side of the swooning man’s head. He fell onto his side, dropping his sword. Chizome kicked it out of his reach.

He rolled weakly onto his back and looked up the handle of the weapon; its point was centered on his throat. Chizome looked at the other men. Two had been knocked out, one of them had run off after receiving a painful hit, and one was kneeling and holding his bloody broken nose. With a quick movement, Chizome ripped the leader’s mask off his head.

"You again?" she grumbled. "Don’t you have a life?" Sordeo looked up at her with a lopsided grin.

"Precisely." Chizome looked up at another group of men. They weren’t disguised, and they looked more professional. Their leader nodded and smiled to Chizome, saying, "We’re the village guards. We commend your bravery, but we’ll take over now."

They already had their swords drawn, so Chizome stepped back and allowed them to do their jobs. They made Sordeo stand and walk towards the nearest exit, doing the same for his conscious followers.

Daisaishi looked bitterly at the blood spilled from the man with the broken nose. Chizome looked to Temerita, who was cradling the dizzy Talitha; both of them were fine. All of the children looked immensely relieved save Kamilla and Nephas. She heard some people talking and discovered that Sordeo and his friends had chopped a few inches off the leg of the bleacher set.

"Our plans for this ceremony will have to be carried over until next week," Daisaishi said to Mara, still staring at the discarded blood. "Get the children to practice the demons’ Sacrificial Song."

Mara nodded.

* * *

"It’s dinnertime," Chizome said to Torafu that night as she got off her bed and moved to the door. He gave a sorrowful whimper. He was lying on his belly, and he put his forepaw over his face in shame. Chizome turned back to him and smiled sympathetically. She said, "It’s okay, Tora. You’re just a kitten; it’s okay to be afraid sometimes."

She went to the door and twisted the knob, but it wouldn’t turn. She tried again uselessly.

"Well, how do you like that?!" she demanded of Torafu.

Torafu snarled in response.

"My thoughts exactly!" Chizome grumbled, "The nerve! Locking me in here again!"

* * *

Selwyn was sitting up in the bed; he and Perun had gotten a room at the inn. He watched blankly as Perun performed some sort of magical ritual with stones, sticks, herbs, and a cauldron full of smoking liquid. His eyelids drooped, and his head lolled forward. He jerked it back up and blinked several times. He yawned and turned toward the window. He looked at the quarter moon.

"A boy, filled with doubt," he whispered, "down and out, and so alone…. This would have been if there hadn’t been you…. Maybe you’re looking at the moon too…. Chizome…." Tears spilled from his eyes as he squeezed them shut.

Perun used a set of tongs to remove a stone from the red liquid in the cauldron. He said, "There we go. This will help us locate black Yasha, even if they’re in possession…. Selwyn?" He rolled his eyes, realizing Selwyn was asleep.

* * *

Sure enough, Chizome was looking at the moon. She stood outside her window, decked out in her usual sheet attire.

"I don’t know about you," she said, "but I’m not in the mood for the indoors right now."

"Nyou," Torafu mewed. Chizome turned toward the forest. Once among the trees, she put Torafu on the ground and wrapped his sheet around her waist. After a few moments of sniffing around, he dashed up a tree. Chizome looked up at him.

"Whatcha doing up there?" she asked, laughing.

"Nyaa!" he cried, walking the length of a branch. He knocked a pear down.

Chizome caught the fruit and ate it as she studied him. His proportions had changed a bit since he’d hatched; his wings were nearly as big as he was. She noticed that he seemed to have had a growth spurt over the last week. With his head reaching two feet off the ground, he was starting to get too big to carry.

"Can you fly?" Chizome asked.

"Mrew?" Torafu questioned. He looked over his shoulder, flapped twice, and looked back to Chizome.

"Are those wings just for decorative flapping," she asked, "or do they do something? Why don’t you jump down and start flapping?"

Torafu shuffled his paws and mumbled nervously.

"It’s not that far to the ground," Chizome laughed. "You’ve jumped farther than that before. Just jump down and flap." He looked nervously at the ground. She said, "Tora, you’re getting too big for me to carry everywhere. If you’re supposed to fly…."

"Ryuuuu," he mumbled. He faced her and crouched.

"Don’t—!" Torafu sprang off the branch. Though flapping all the while, he collided with her and knocked her down. After skidding a few feet, she muttered, "Get off me, you big chicken…!"

"Mmmrrrr," Torafu grumbled, stepping away.

"We should get back," Chizome said, getting up and brushing the dirt off of her, "Torafu?"

"Grrrrr…" Torafu was grumbled. Already back atop a tree branch, he leaped again. He seemed to glide for a moment before he crashed straight down.

"Oh, are you okay?" Chizome asked, going up and hugging him. He pulled away and got into another tree, jumping with his previous success. Chizome said, "We can try again next time. Let’s get back now. Come on, Torafu."

"Rrrrrr," Torafu grumbled, ignoring her. He crashed again.

"If you want to stay here and practice," she said, "don’t come back during the daytime." She took his head in her hands as he fell to the ground again. She said, "If you’re not back in my room by dawn, don’t come back until tomorrow night. You’re getting big; you’re too easy to spot."

He snorted and climbed a tree again.

"Be careful," Chizome said. "Don’t hurt yourself. Goodnight, Tora." She turned and headed back to the gouka.

She dashed behind a tree on church grounds as she spotted Kamilla again jogging toward a different tree. She saw Nephas as soon as Kamilla quietly called his name.

Chizome made a very large arch around them in order to remain unseen. Once in her bed, she laid on her back and stared at the ceiling.

As fast as he’s growing, he’ll be too big for me in a few days, she thought. Then he’ll be too big to fit in through the window or under my bed…. I know my mistake: I named him…. I hope he learns to fly soon, so he can fend for himself in the wild without me….

Her eyes got watery as she thought, Selwyn…Perun…. If only I had the freedom I had when I was with you. With the whole world as my bedroom, there’d be plenty of room for him….

Chapter XII

"We’ve received a message from the Berwyn," Daisaishi said to Mara.

"Oh?" Mara asked, "What does it say?"

Daisaishi looked wearily at the roll of parchment in his hand. He said, "His Honor is angry with us for not sacrificing the girl yesterday."

"Why? Doesn’t he know the ceremony was interrupted?"

"Yes, but he says that it’s important that she be killed as soon as possible," Daisaishi said. "He even used the words, ‘as soon as possible.’ That time, I assume, is the Sunday after next."

"Why not this coming Sunday?"

"There will be no sacrificing this Sunday, as the ceremony will be a small one. His Honor has ordered that a Byakuren Test take place this weekend."

Mara’s eyes widened. "The Unicorn Trials?! Only six days away?! It takes a lady days to prepare for such an event! Call Temerita at once!"

"Calm down," Daisaishi said. "I already have. She should be here at any moment."

"You called, reverend?" Temerita asked, entering the Main Hall as if on cue.

"Prepare your maidens for a Byakuren Test," Daisaishi said, "It’s this Sunday."

"Yes, sir!" Temerita rushed off before Daisaishi could add to the order.

"Do you think she’ll prepare Chizome?" he asked Mara.

"No," Mara said. "She knows the girl is dangerous."

"Chizome wouldn’t see any unicorns unless one of them decided to kill her for us."

* * *

"CHIZOME!"

"Wha?!" Chizome jumped and fell out of her bed.

"It’s noon!" Temerita stressed, towering over her, "Get up already! Get ready fast and meet me in the Main Hall!"

"Yes, ma’am," Chizome mumbled dizzily. Temerita stormed out, slamming the door. Chizome got up and looked under the bed, "Torafu…? Hmm, he must be waiting for nightfall."

* * *

The twelve junior priestesses assembled in the Main Hall. Chizome and Kamilla yawned in unison, and Temerita gave them a look.

"Some of you may have heard of the Byakuren Test," she said. "This Sunday, you will each go into the Forest of Demons one at a time."

Some of the girls gasped. Chizome rolled her eyes.

"It is said that unicorns live in the forest," Temerita continued, "and that they have the magical strengths that keep the demons in the forest. As you’ve probably heard, unicorns only appear to the purest of young ladies who have a strong desire to see them. The Byakuren Test is to test your purity. There’s no point in questioning the strength of your desires to see the unicorn; your life as a priestess depends on it.

"Oh, your life period counts on it a bit too, because if you don’t find a unicorn, you might just find a demon. If you run into a demon before you have time to find a unicorn, you’re not expected to fight it or anything, so just come back. You will be expected to return with a bit of the unicorn’s fur as proof you saw it. Any questions?"

Several girls were wide-eyed and pale-faced.

"Good," Temerita said. "Over the next six days, you’re expected to be perfect. No make-up, no perfume, no meat, no non-organic foods, no snide remarks, and don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. Go do… whatever you have to!" She ushered them toward their wing of the building, saying, "And for the sake of the Lord, walk with the grace of the angels you’re supposed to be!" Those few fear-stiffened girls attempted to lighten their steps.

"Looks like Chizome got lucky for once," Kamilla said from behind once they were in the hall. Four of the girls kept walking as Chizome and the others stopped.

"Oh?" Chizome asked.

"Unicorns are mythical creatures," Kamilla said. "Nobody’s going to find one… but at least you’ll feel at home in the Forest of Demons." She and the others laughed. Talitha barked out an over-enthusiastic laugh, and Gelida forced a small smirk.

"Don’t laugh at me," Chizome said calmly, her hand on her doorknob.

Their laughter stopped as they gawked at her. Kamilla snorted and asked, "What did you say?"

"We’re not that different, you know," Chizome said. "Someday we’ll all have perfect wings, so don’t laugh at me."

Everyone save the weakly smirking Gelida cracked up with giggles. Kamilla wiped a tear away and said, "That’s good…. That’s a good one…. You’ll have perfect wings alright… perfectly red and scaly."

"What are we fighting for?" Chizome asked.

"You tell me," Kamilla laughed.

"I don’t know," Chizome said. "I know that we’re rivals, that our anger and hatred burn like the inferno of hell when we see each other. I know we’ve practically come to living for the sake of making the other miserable. We’d rip each other to shreds the first chance we got…. But I don’t know why. Tell me why, Kamilla, and our war will continue on until we’ve destroyed our own souls with it. But if you can’t give me a reason, we ought to shut our mouths and pretend this war never began."

"Ooh, poetic demon…" Kamilla said. She laughed and turned back toward her door. The other girl dispersed toward their rooms.

"Is that it?" Chizome questioned, "Do you really think I’m a demon? Are you afraid of me? Well?" Kamilla’s door closed, and Chizome growled in frustration. She entered her own room and stood against the door. She sighed and whispered, "I’m sorry, Mama. I said everything you told me to… but there wasn’t any change. It works with everyone else; it’s how Selwyn and I became friends. What’s wrong with her…?"

She sighed, "No matter. I come back without unicorn fur, and they might just kick me out of their little cult. Hmm…perfect." She closed her eyes and smiled.

She heard a sound like something lightly banging against the door. A piece of paper slid across the floor as if it had been kicked under. Chizome quickly whirled around and opened the door. The hall was empty. She turned and picked the paper up. She unfolded it.

In neat letters, it said, "If unicorns are myths, get white rabbit fur. Your life might depend on it."

"My life depends on rabbit fur?" Chizome demanded.

Chapter XIII

It was unlikely that anyone should miss one banner and spear. This was good, as the gouka’s decorative spears were excellent weapons with their wide flat points, making them as useful as halberds. Chizome gently tapped the tip of the spear head, winced, popped her finger into her mouth, and grinned.

"This is perfect," she said giddily. "I should have thought of it before. If coming back without white fur is a threat to my life, I won’t come back." She giggled. "Why shouldn’t I take this?" she questioned, suddenly bitter. "They took my freedom, my friends, my family… my life…. And I take a spear. Not exactly a fair trade, but it’ll give me my heart back."

Assuming that a spare piece of cloth could be used for nearly anything, she kept the banner as well. She put both items under her bed.

"Torafu…" she grumbled. "It’s nighttime, get back here already."

* * *

By the following Saturday, Chizome would have given nearly anything to go to back to the tavern. Instead she headed toward the forest with her spear in hand. She was carrying the banner as well, using it as a bag for the fruit, vegetables, and bread she had harbored in it. She’d wrapped a sheet around it to give the food extra protection from the wildlife.

"Torafu!" Chizome called. "Torafu! Come on, Tora, you’ve had almost a week! If you can’t fly yet you can learn some other time! Torafu!"

Silent, she closed her eyes. She heard cricket chirps, the occasional owl hoot, and the sound of a nearby raccoon. There were no sounds hinting at Torafu.

"Come on!" Chizome cried out. "I can’t spend all night looking for you; I have to get some sleep tonight! I’m leaving in the morning! I won’t be back!" She paused and called, "Don’t you want to come with me?" She traveled as far west as she could go, hid the spear and bag in a bush, and turned back toward the gouka, shouting, "You have to be back by dawn!" as she neared the area Torafu had been.

She glanced up at the tiny glowing sliver that was the waxing crescent moon. Its miniscule bit of light glinted off the extra bit of wetness in her eyes. She walked the rest of the way with her head down.

* * *

"I saw them!" Selwyn called as his horse galloped down a hill toward Perun, "North-northwest of here, there’s a small army of them, mostly Earth."

"Small army?" Perun asked worriedly.

"Fifty or so," Selwyn said. "If we’re going to do this, can we get it done already?" His horse snorted in reflection of its master’s impatience.

"Fine, fine," Perun said, moving his donkey forward, "But with fifty of them, we’ll probably be best off just taking out their leader and running."

"Sounds good," Selwyn said. "Get your Thunderclap ready."

Perun nodded confidently. They continued through the field of tall yellow grass until they entered forestland.

Selwyn asked, "Is this still the Forest of Demons?"

Perun nodded. "Different section. Machi’s still across the canyon."

Selwyn sighed and sped up his horse.

* * *

Chizome’s patience was waning quickly. The other girls were ridiculously slow walkers, some due to the fact that they feared getting the soles of their boots dirty. She and the others were being led to the edge of the forest. They weren’t going to enter in the convenient area Chizome usually did. Rather they were going to gather right next to the canyon where the foliage was thick.

Being the head priestess and the priestess in charge of caring for the maidens, Mara and Temerita were the only adults with them. Once they were in the proper place, which was a quarter-mile from the church, they stopped the two lines of girls.

"Something wrong?" Temerita whispered to Mara.

Chizome, Mara mouthed. She turned toward the girls. "You’ll go into the forest one at a time. If you don’t return within an hour, it will be assumed that some ill fate has befallen you, and the next person will be sent. You shall go in order opposite of seniority."

Talitha gulped right before Mara called her name. She headed slowly and reluctantly into the trees until she disappeared from sight.

"Isn’t the sunrise pretty?" one of the girls whispered to make conversation.

"No, it’s too dark out at dawn," one of the others whined.

Chizome rolled her eyes. A few minutes later, Talitha returned. She beamed and held up a tuff of inch-long white fur.

"Very good," Mara commended, patting the girl’s head. "Gelida?"

Gelida was as nervous as Talitha had been. For the first few minutes after she left, Chizome rocked on her heels anxiously, knowing she was next. She watched the sun, willing it downward.

Come on, Gelida, she thought, I don’t want to wait an hour to leave. She assumed Gelida would look for rabbit’s fur like Talitha apparently had and began wondering why a simple task would take more than five minutes for her if Talitha could do it in seven.

Everyone was beginning to fall asleep standing up, only to be fully awakened by a shrill scream.

"Gelida!" Temerita cried. She started toward the forest, but Mara grabbed her arm. Chizome ran past them both. She came to a clearing at the same time Gelida came bursting through the bushes on the other side of it. She stumbled and fell forward.

"Are you okay?" Chizome asked, quickly kneeling by her. She saw a movement in the bushes Gelida had come from, and something brown quickly moved back into hiding. A pair of red glowing eyes blinked then disappeared as the creature retreated.

Gelida groaned as Chizome helped her roll over. Chizome stifled a gasp at the sight of the three slashes across her chest. There was an unpleasant-looking scrape on the side of her face from when she’d stumbled forward. She mumbled, "Brown… awful…."

"Come on, I’ll help you back," Chizome said. She helped Gelida up, discovering that she was very weak and had a hurt ankle. She supported her for a few steps before realizing that this wouldn’t work. Gelida was nearly unconscious.

With her mind flashing back to all the times she’d climbed in and out of her window, Chizome thought, Arms, please don’t fail me now. She lifted Gelida and began carrying her toward the others.

She assumed the Gelida was about a year or two younger than she was. If that was the case, she was about average height for her age, but she was skinny and fairly light. Still, at over a hundred pounds, it didn’t take long for Chizome’s back to start aching.

She was gasping for breath by the time she got back to the others and set Gelida on the ground. While Temerita was kneeling by her and crying with relief, Mara said, "It’s your turn, Chizome."

Chizome looked worriedly at Gelida and asked, "She’ll be okay, won’t she?"

"Yes, now on your way," Mara urged.

"Bye," Chizome said, walking off.

After she’d calmed down and dried her eyes, Temerita turned her head toward Mara. There was an expression of hurt and disbelief on her face.

* * *

Spear and bundle of food now in hand, Chizome walked wearily north after disdainfully tossing her circlet away. She ignored the dozen or so rabbits she saw, but she inspected every rustling sound hopefully. She knew there was a small canyon to the east and could hear the river within it.

The forest looked different in the daytime, especially in the unfamiliar area. Not only was there a rabbit in what seemed to be three-foot intervals, but the leaves appeared to have duller colors.

Chizome began to get into an area without as many trees. She strolled along more easily now that she didn’t have to fight with bushes. Tired of holding it, she fashioned the sheet around the banner into a backpack of sorts and hung it on her shoulders. She spotted another movement to the west that was higher than a rabbit could possibly go.

Tora?! she thought and almost said. Her eyes focus on a red humanoid creature sitting frog-style in a tree about fifty yards away. Its back was to her, and its long whip-like triangle pointed tail waved idly back and forth.

Chizome froze and eyes widened. Her heart paused before it began racing. She came to her senses right after the fire yasha turned its head.

Chapter XIV

The demon almost didn’t notice her stone-still form. When it did, it seemed surprised. Thankful that her brain had begun to start functioning again, Chizome weighed her chances of being able to beat it.

She was armed with a high-quality spear, but the fire demons were known for their attack strength. She had no armor, and her easily enflamed dress would provide no protection.

Making her decision, she bolted. Likewise, the yasha sprang from the branch and scrambled after her, chasing her east. Much to Chizome’s dismay, she found herself amongst dense foliage again.

A scream escaped her throat as she burst through one of many bushes only to find the sudden lack of a ground. Her momentum carried her about five feet away from the edge of the cliff. With a splash, she landed in the rapids below.

The yasha skidded unwillingly off the cliff as well, but it grabbed the rocks and scrambled back up. It looked at the water worriedly and turned away.

Gasping for breath, Chizome clung to a rock near the eastern shore of the river. She made her way to dry land, thinking herself to be very lucky that she still had her spear and food. She stood and looked around. The canyon and the river continued north and south. Following her original plan, she headed north.

She’d only walked a few yards when she heard the dreaded shriek of a yasha. She spun and spotted the white blue-eyed beast hanging in the sky above the water by its big scaly wings. It whipped its tail, grinned, and began to glow.

Knowing a spell when she saw one, Chizome turned and ran. The air yasha shot a lightning bolt at her. It hit the canyon wall, and rocks showered down. The demon flew a bit higher, searching for its missed target. Content with its actions, it flew away.

* * *

"It’s been an hour," Temerita whispered. Even after Gelida awakened and stood, she remained kneeling. She stared into space.

"Next," Mara said drearily.

The girl in question fainted. Her friends, though startled, caught her.

"Your turn then, Sequa," Mara said. For the first time since she’d stopped worrying about Gelida, Temerita made her eyes focus. She looked up at Mara with an unreadable expression before turning her gaze to the clouded sky.

* * *

Among Chizome, Selwyn, and Perun, it was a well-known fact that most yasha were about as intelligent as a well-trained hound. Only the black yasha had full sentience.

Chizome had rarely been more thankful for this as she pressed herself against a fallen boulder; the air yasha didn’t fly high enough to see her. After waiting long enough to be almost sure it was gone, she stood and inspected the rubble.

The blast had been tough; a few boulders had been blown into the river. The newly built wall was impassable. The river was too deep to cross. North was the only way.

Chizome sighed with weary relief and continued her journey, muttering about how apples should weigh less. She was distracted by her fatigue and didn’t notice the abnormality in the canyon wall until she got to it. She jumped back in start.

The elevation of the cliff above was about a third lower than the average height of the other areas. A foot off the ground, there was a ramp of sorts carved into the earth. It was clearly man-made, as the walls of it were lined with vertical logs.

For lack of a better direction to go, Chizome climbed the incline, digging the spearhead into the dirt to keep from slipping off the steep slope. Once she was on level ground, she grinned knowing she was finally out of the canyon.

She was in another part of the forest. She was a bit annoyed that she’d been thrown off her original course, but she had no way of knowing whether or not her new route was better. With the same unknown target she’d had before, she set off to the northeast.

She soon discovered a trail that cut through the woods. She followed it but stayed within the foliage in hopes that she’d be harder to spot away from open areas. She passed a thick red puddle containing something that looked very much like a dismembered limb and was glad for her decision from then on.

A bit after this sight, she whirled around and studied the motionless bushes. She hesitantly turned back on her route, only to look around again a minute later.

"Who’s there?" she whispered assertively. She attempted to ignore her sense of being followed and kept walking.

After what had to be at least half a mile of hiking, she came to a clearing. The surrounding brush and tree branches hid it for the most part, so she felt a little safer as she plopped down and leaned against a tree. She leaned her head back and nearly fell asleep. Regaining full consciousness, she spotted a small dandelion only a foot away from her.

She touched its petals and smiled. She mumbled, "Little weeds give me strength and inspiration." She absentmindedly laid down on her stomach, her face inches from the little flower. She petted it again and said, "How lucky… never having to go anywhere…. Where you grow up is where you belong…. Without Selwyn and Perun, there’s nowhere I belong.

"I suppose I’m just weakly following a whim…" she said quietly. Despite her sadness, there was a small smile on her face and her eyes were bright yet softened. She continued, "I’m unfolding my map… and drawing it as I go…." She rested her head on her arms. "My destination lies somewhere in my heart." After a moment, she got on her hands and knees, grinned at the weed, and said, "I will find it." She stood and stretched as if her conversation with the little plant had been the equivalent of a nap.

She froze. Her arms still in the air, she called, "Okay, I know you’re there. You can come out already." She returned to her normal position. Her eyes flicked toward her spear, and she prepared herself for the quick movement she needed to grab it.

There was a rustling as three figures stepped out of the bushes; they were evenly spaced around her. They were men dressed with less prestige than Sordeo and his company. They had swords drawn.

"How odd for a young lady to be all alone out here in the forest," one of them sneered, "Such a nicely dressed young lady too… must have lots o’ money."

"I wish." Chizome snorted as they began to circle her like wolves.

"So do we."

* * *

Torafu was at least two inches bigger than he’d been the last time he’d seen Chizome. He’d made his way to a small lake within the woods was sitting atop a nearby branch as he looked out over the water. There was a frog sitting atop a floating piece of tree trunk, and a few dragonflies were flitting around.

Torafu crouched on his branch, flapped, and jumped. He executed a very nice glide save that it sloped too far downward. He splashed into the water. After a few seconds, he burst to the surface, gasping for air, and fought his way to the log. As the frog jumped away, he used the log for a floatation device. He raised his wings and the water slid off his oiled feathers. He looked at the sky and grumbled.

* * *

Chizome stabbed and grazed the shoulder of the thief in front of her. She spun and warded away the other two. She slid out of their strategic formation and stood ready.

"Ooh, warrior princess," one of them laughed. "It’d be easier to just give us your money." He was stabbed in his sword hand. He yelped and dropped his weapon.

Chizome swung again. She lunged and slammed the spear handle across all their foreheads at once. As they reeled, she traded her polearm to her left hand, bent down, and snatched up the sword. She slashed at her oncoming foes.

"More like warrior goddess," one of the men grumbled, correcting his comrade.

Chizome tossed the sword over her shoulder and returned to her use of her spear. She slammed the handle into the unarmed man’s head. He started to lean backward and fall, but his friends grabbed him and quickly retreated into the brush.

Chizome drooped and sighed. She inhaled sharply and spun around. Another man rushed at her with the discarded sword. She cringed, suddenly hearing the sound of impact and a yelp of start. She looked up as something white disappeared into the bushes.

She listened to the sound of a brawl before everything was silent. She waited and called, "Who’s there?" There was no answer. "If you saved me, thank you…."

Who are you?

"Uh…" Chizome stuttered. She debated over whether or not she’d heard a voice.

Who are you?

"I’m… Chizome," Chizome said cautiously.

That’s your name.

"Yeah…."

I did not ask for a name. Who are you?

"I’m… a maiden from the Gohka of Machi," Chizome said.

That’s ‘what’ you are. In a sense, at least. Is that who you are in your heart?

Chizome considered what the voice meant. She thought back to her friends. Whenever Selwyn couldn’t think of how to explain something, he spoke in poetic riddles.

Feeling a bit awkward, she said, "I’m Tousan of Ikka’s daughter, and I’m the likeness of my mother. I’m the friend of… those who are lost to me. I’m lost. I’m kinda foolish. I’m lonely. Somewhere out there… I’ve got friends that love me…. That’s who I am. If it’s not, I don’t know."

That’s who you are. Why are you here?

"I’m supposed to be collecting unicorn fur to take back to the church as proof of my purity," she explained, "but I’m running away. I don’t know where to."

You said it was a destination in your heart.

"I guess that’s what you’d call it."

I am a mother who loves her child. That is all I am save that I am one seeking help… and of course, that I’m a creature who’d prefer keeping her fur to herself. The source of the voice stepped placidly from its hiding place and stood tall in its graceful white elegance.

Chapter XV

Chizome’s eyes widened. She stuttered, "Y-y-you you’re, you’re, you’re a…a…."

Unicorn? Yes.

"You have wings."

Yes.

"And a horn."

My, aren’t we observant….

"Sorry," Chizome muttered, still gawking at the creature. Her eyes flitted to its right wing. "Oh, you’re hurt!"

Nothing time will not cure, the unicorn stated as Chizome rushed to its side. A few small cuts, some plucked feathers, a sprained joint, and minor paralysis.

"You’re paralyzed?" Chizome asked worriedly.

Air demons can do that, the unicorn said. May I have your assistance, maiden?

"Of course," Chizome said. "I’m sure I can find some herbs around that heal paralysis and—"

Not for me. I cannot fly, but I can walk. My child cannot do either, as he is male and does not have wings.

"All female unicorns have wings?"

Of course.

"Okay…" Chizome said. "What’s wrong with him?"

His leg is damaged. He is hidden in the demons’ village.

"He’s hidden with yasha?" Chizome demanded. "Do yasha make villages?"

The demons are not there, the unicorn explained. They destroyed the village and left. Only the human children remain.

"Oh, my," Chizome said. "Show me the way."

As the lithe white steed easily picked its way through the undergrowth, Chizome fought to keep up. They soon reached the trail again; it curved around.

"You introduced yourself as a mother," she said, "Do you have a name, or should I call you Mom?"

My name is Tenba.

"Nice to meet you, Tenba."

Likewise.

"Out of curiosity," Chizome began, "how are speaking to me?"

Telepathy, Tenba explained.

"Ah."

Chizome had to force herself to choke her hatred as she and Tenba walked through the broken gate to a shambled village of small wooden buildings. There were no flames, but the scent of burnt flesh and wood weighed down the air.

Very sad, Tenba expressed, shaking her head. Tenko is this way. Chizome followed her to a partially intact building. The horned colt Tenko whinnied incessantly as she inspected his back leg. He was standing awkwardly on the other three.

"His bone between his knee and hoof is fractured," she said. "If I can make a splint for it, he may be able to walk on three legs. The bone has snapped in half, so it’ll have to grow together again before it’ll work properly."

Tenko snorted as his mother nodded her head. The unicorn nodding was almost a comical sight.

"This’ll hurt," Chizome said. "I’m sorry, but you have to be really brave for me, okay?"

He repeated his snort. Tenba stomped her hoof, and he suddenly looked much more cooperative. Chizome discovered the properly sized piece of wood among the rubble and tore the gold strip of cloth off the bottom of her skirt.

She found herself wishing for another brave human boy as opposed to the anguished unicorn, for the colt neighed loudly in pain. He’d have probably tried to kick her if his mother hadn’t forbidden it.

"There you go, little one," Chizome said softly, stifling her annoyance. She stroked his mane and smiled upon receiving the first positive-sounding snort the foal had produced. She turned to Tenba and asked, "Where are the people of this village?"

Tenba seemed unprepared for the question, but she said, The adults have all been killed or taken into slavery by the demons. Most of the children were killed as well, but there are a few whose parents hid them before they were slaughtered.

"Do you know where they’re hidden?"

They are in the storm cellar of this building, Tenba said. The entrance is outside.

Chizome made her way to the cellar entrance, which was locked with no more than a piece of plywood slid through the handles. She pulled the wood away and opened the doors. The children at the foot of the stairs shielded their eyes from the sudden light. A baby within the shadows began to cry.

"Are you all okay?" Chizome asked. She went unanswered, but she felt at least ten pairs of eyes focused on her as she descended towards them.

"Who are you?" someone with a rough voice asked. "What do you want?"

"My name is Chizome," she said, wondering if she’d have to give another speech of identification. "I’m here to help you. Is there an adult down here?"

"No," the rough voice snapped. "I’m fourteen. Talk to me. What makes you think we need help?"

Chizome began to become a bit angry by the harsh-voiced teen. She stood up straight and said, "I used to be with a small band of warriors. I know the scent of blood and sweat when I smell it."

A fourteen-year-old boy with disorderly blond hair and sad blue eyes stepped out of the shadows. He kept a tough look for a few moments. He softened visibly as if melting into sadness.

"We’re dying," he whispered, his voice still rough from dehydration. "We need food, water, and medicine."

"How many people are down here?" Chizome asked.

"Fourteen and five corpses."

Chizome winced. She took her bundle of food and beckoned the children forward. Most of them were between ages five and ten. Their hair was messy, their clothes were ripped, their skin was dirty and scratched, and their eyes were dulled by the expression of misery. One dark-skinned girl with pigtails, who was about age four, was carrying an infant that was likely to be her brother.

"What about my sister?" she asked the kids around her.

It is very generous of you to share your food, Tenba said as Chizome passed out fruit. She was still above ground, but her soundless voice was as clear as if she’d been in the cellar. She said, You may want to leave. These children are sick, and the disease is fatal.

"What?" Chizome demanded. She shoved the remaining fruit into the arms of the fourteen-year-old and trotted up the stairs. She asked, "Can’t they be healed?"

If they have the proper herbs, Tenba said. Those herbs do not grow within several hundred miles of this place. A town’s clinic may have the sufficient supply, but even that is unlikely. The sickness is the result of a spell used by the black demon. It hit one of the older girls. She and the other children were locked away by their parents. The girl’s disease spread to the others, but she has already died.

"The nearest town is Machi, and it’s to the southwest," Chizome said. "They may have the right herbs."

Do you wish to take them? Tenba asked. The time it takes to travel may be your death if your town’s clinic is not supplied properly.

"When you hear about wars," Chizome said, staring into the cloudy distance, "and there’s a battle where only fourteen soldiers are killed, you think, ‘Wow, only fourteen. That’s pretty good.’ But when you see that those fourteen soldiers are fourteen children fighting the Battle of Life, it’s different. And when you see them face-to-face, when you see their bright eyes that will so be cold and lifeless soon, when you see fourteen children that will never have the chance to fall in love…. It’s different." She smiled sadly at Tenba and said, "Everyone dies someday. I might as well die by helping someone else live a little longer."

Tenba’s ears flicked, and her big blue-black eyes showed no expression. She said, I will check the availability of an easy route. She snorted to Tenko and galloped through the village gate. Chizome turned and stepped back uneasily; the fourteen-year-old was standing at the top of the stairs.

"Where are you taking us?" he asked quietly.

"Machi," Chizome said reluctantly. "It’s the nearest town." She swapped her spear to her left hand and held out her right one. "We weren’t properly introduced, were we? I’m Chizome, it’s nice to meet."

He looked at her hand bitterly, but he relented upon her smile. He shook her hand and said, "My name is Shijo."

Tenba returned breathlessly several minutes later. She said, The demons are to the south; the canyon is to the west. We must go north, around the canyon, and south through the forest.

Chizome turned north and looked at the horizon. She asked, "That mountain…? Is it within our route?"

Yes, Tenba said solemnly, The canyon may contain demons as well. It may be safe, but it most likely is not. She lowered her head and scratched in the dirt with her horn. The picture was messy, but it was clearly a small map.

"This is where we are?" Chizome asked, pointing.

Yes, said Tenba. We cannot reach this bridge because it is south of the demons. We’ll go around the canyon to the north. We’ll have to cross the river here, but it shouldn’t be too difficult. Once we’re on the west side of it, we’ll continue south, over the foot of the mountain. We’ll go through the forest and into the city. Does this match your knowledge of the area’s geography?

Chizome sighed. "Yes."

She and Shijo walked back down the stairs where the latter said, "Listen up everyone. Get some rest tonight, because we have to go somewhere tomorrow morning. It’s going to be a long walk, so you don’t want to be tired."

"Shijo?" the little girl with the baby asked. "My sister is still sleeping…."

Shijo looked into the shadows of the cellar where a girl Chizome’s age was laying in the dirt. He looked at Chizome with a pained expression.

"When is she going to wake up…?"

Chapter XVI

"Figures we’d end up back here, eh?" Perun asked Selwyn as they looked through the trees at the fort that had been deserted before. There were a group of at least twenty yasha entering it.

"The minute the last one’s inside," Selwyn said, "we’re up the wall."

"Right," Perun affirmed.

They dismounted their steeds and tied them to the trees. As soon as the last spiked-tipped tail disappeared, the two of them broke into a run. Like most Yasha forts, this one did not have a moat; they pressed themselves against the huge stone wall.

"Thray Seniv!" Perun hissed. The ground between him and Selwyn burst open, and big thick vines climbed up the bricks of the wall.

"Very nice," Selwyn commended as the vines disappeared over the top edge. The two of them climbed the vines with swiftness that comes only from a few years of practice. Within minutes they were inside the castle.

The interior was as bare and ugly as the outside; there was the occasional bit of leftovers from the demons’ meals strewn around randomly.

As Selwyn and Perun began to turn a corner, they intercepted an air yasha. It started to call out, but Selwyn’s sword had already pierced its vocal chords. He drew his blade away, and the yasha fell.

"The stairs are that way," he said, pointing down the hall as he stepped over his enemy. They battled a few more creatures as they climbed down three sets of stairs and crossed through a total of five minor hallways. They reached a large set of wooden double doors.

"Ready?" Perun asked. "Thray Enots Chitip!" a small boulder appeared seemingly from nowhere and slammed into the doors, blasting them open. Enraged shrieks came echoed from within the room.

"Kill the intruders!" cried someone with a low normally quiet voice.

"Ria Palcrednuth!" Perun chanted. Two planes of lightning appeared on both side of the five earth yasha that were rushing to the door. The lightning slammed together like clapping hands and knocked the demons off their feet. Perun took his stone out of his pocket. It was glowing. He said, "That man back there! He’s your target!"

Selwyn was already passed the weakened yasha by the time they stumbled to the their feet. The man he was lunging for was none other than the Berwyn, who was surrounded by three more guards.

"Derei Majikku!" he called.

Selwyn felt his feet becoming heavier as his blade sliced through the torso of the weak skin of the air yasha. It fell out of its low flight as Selwyn spun to deliver a blow on the blue-scaled webbed-toed water demon.

It slid back with only a gash across its chest. It slapped at him with the flukes on its tail.

"Chiyu Majikku!" the Berwyn shouted. The wounds on the water yasha faded away, and the fire demon behind Selwyn clawed at his chain mail.

A healer, Selwyn thought bitterly. Just my luck. He paused before delivering a powerful thrust that skewered the water creature beyond healing.

The fire yasha’s claws were blocked by Selwyn’s sword as the warrior grabbed its whipping tail. He made a slice on its palms and hacked most of the tail clear off the remaining stump.

"Skreeee!" it cried. It received its death blow seconds before the Berwyn’s healing spell graced its corpse. The second Selwyn had his sword free, the blade was being thrust at the man.

The Berwyn moved to the side with shocking speed, bringing his staff down on Selwyn’s back. Sliding for several feet, Selwyn jumped up and swung again.

Perun was fighting with his club. He called out, "Ria Lamentela!" A human-shaped cloud appeared at his side and helped him fight off his five attackers.

Selwyn’s foot collided with the Berwyn’s knee. He shoved his blade through the man’s chest, and a pair of large pitch black wings burst from his shoulders.

The wings flapped and a woman’s shape rose from the body like a sable apparition. It shot to the rafters of the room and disappeared among the shadows.

"Show yourself, you wretched brute!" Selwyn called.

Its wings folded neatly, it climbed down the wall like a lizard of sorts. Once within the light of the surrounding torches, it grinned at him. Its black white-streaked hair hung over its shoulders.

Selwyn’s eyes widened.

* * *

"Mama!" Chizome screamed

"No!" Selwyn cried. Perun nearly fell over as five bound, gagged, and bloodstained adults were shoved to their backs on a large slab of stone. A black yasha was pacing on fours atop the wall behind them like some sort of huge mutated cat. It combed its claws through its white-streaked hair and jumped to the ground next the brown-haired man.

"Took us a while," it said to him in a hissing feminine voice, "but we got you." She giggled and said, "It’s only a matter of time before we win for good." Seeing that he had something to say, she removed the man’s gag.

"It’s only a matter of time before you lose," the man corrected. "This may be our end, but we aren’t the last of the resistance. They’ll kill you, Sananshi, and they’ll make you fear for your life first." He grinned.

"Hmph," the demon mumbled. She returned the cloth to his mouth. She stood back and checked that the five parents were lined up. She looked past the bars of a nearby cage and grinned at the three children inside. She said, "Aren’t you cute?" She turned back to the adults, formed an imaginary line that crossed all their necks, flung her arm, and released a blast of slicing energy.

"Mom! Dad!" Selwyn called, his tears falling like drops in a rainstorm. Perun fell to his knees and Chizome fainted as the fifty surrounding yasha emitted shrill cheers.

Sananshi….

* * *

The sight of five heads being neatly detached from their bodies planted itself firmly in the back of Selwyn’s head and refused to vanish even as he thought of being impaled through the gut with a big spike. His boiling blood made his body quiver, and his eyes blazed with a flame of pure hatred.

But the yasha grinned.

"Sananshi…" he growled at her.

"Selwyn," she laughed, "That’s what you’re called, isn’t it, vermin?"

"It was you." Selwyn fought to inhale. "I’ve killed dozens of you’re kind, but it was you…."

"Yep," Sananshi giggled, "I was the lucky one…. I got to see five of the ugliest heads in the world rolling."

"Not quite, you haven’t seen your own go yet…."

"Hah," the demon muttered. "I seem to have forgotten that scene a little…. Let’s see… their heads each went approximately a foot to their right… but how loud did they scream again?" She giggled.

"They didn’t."

"What?"

"They didn’t scream," Selwyn asserted. "They weren’t afraid, and they didn’t scream."

"No matter," Sananshi giggled again. "It was plenty of fun to see those big ugly head roll."

"If decapitation is just a sport to you," Selwyn said, raising his sword and stepping forward. "Let’s see who wins our little game…."

"The play is on!" she whooped. She crouched and sprang into a dive. Selwyn moved aside and sliced. Unharmed, Sananshi landed on the opposite wall. She dived again and her feet rammed Selwyn’s chest. He hit the floor, but the demon was gone.

He jumped up and swung his left fist at the shadow behind him. Sananshi lurched back then clawed. The swipe was blocked with Selwyn’s blade. They moved apart, and he focused on her chest.

They lunged again. Two sharp blows collided with Sananshi’s scales before she recognized the speed-induced move. She blocked five more of the lightning-fast blows, but the last one put a slash across her right eye.

She sprang up and landed on her original wall. With a flick of her wrist, a fireball was hurled at Selwyn. He was knocked back, but Perun caught him. His assisting air elemental had faded away.

"Sananshi…" Selwyn said, "It’s her…Sananshi."

After a moment, Perun’s eyes widened. Selwyn stood, and Perun used his previous lightning spell. Sananshi ran though the lightning and knocked them both off their feet as she passed. She fired an energy blast that hurled them into the wall.

"I think we’re losing…" Perun muttered quietly.

Selwyn grinned. "Nah…. We’ll kill her… and we’ll make her fear for her life first." He stood and helped Perun stand. The demon crept forward on fours. He lunged and was fast enough to block her blows. Her sliced eye was already beginning to heal, but she received several more gashes.

"Ria…!" Perun began. His fingers were interlaced, and his muscles strained.

Selwyn’s armor, shirt, and skin were sliced when Sananshi charged up her muscles and swiped at him. He jumped to avoid her swinging tail as he impaled her left biceps. She screeched and lashed out with her right arm. While he was distracted by that blow, she kicked. The spike on her knee tore through his leather boots and into his shin. He groaned and stabbed. She raised her leg and shoved him away with her foot. He ran back toward her.

His blade sank into her flank and emerged on the far side. She slashed at his face. He pulled his sword away and stumbled back.

"Rednuth…" Perun continued, his voice sounding strained, "Yuruf!" His eyes reflected some otherworldly illusion of lightning.

Selwyn cringed as real lightning filled his vision. He heard Sananshi shriek, but all he could see was flashing bursts of power erupting around him. He felt a tingle, but the demon was in pain. As the sparks cleared he saw his staggering companion gulping down a small bottle of dark-green herbal fluid.

Sananshi had ended up against the far wall. Her singed and bloody body struggled to stand. Once this task was done, she crouched and lunged again. She flapped her wings and shot upward. Selwyn took a blow to his chin and staggered back.

"Thray…!" Perun called weakly.

Sananshi kicked Selwyn to the floor and slid back. He tried to stand, but he fell again.

"Seniv…!"

She jumped forward, her extended claws glowing with magical energy. Selwyn’s eyes widened.

"NROTH!"

Selwyn cringed, but the floor in front of him exploded. He raised his hands to ward off chunks of bricks as three thick vines burst from the flooring. They shot upward with incredible speed, intercepting Sananshi in mid-lunge. They intertwined themselves around her as if she were just another chunk air before shooting carelessly through the ceiling.

As the vines themselves had done with the floor, six-inch thorns exploded from the plants. They speared ruthlessly through Sananshi’s flesh. Her pierced vocal chords emitted a slight squeak as her mind registered the fact that she was immovably entangled and impaled more than twenty times.

Selwyn stood weakly and gave a lopsided grin at the sight of the yasha’s horror-filled eyes. With his rough pain-filled voice, he said, "We won’t kill out of hate. When we kill, it shall be to protect and avenge the concept of love." He sunk his sword into her chest. She hacked up a bit of blood as she looked down at the blade. Her head lolled forward, and her red eyes dimmed.

Selwyn flinched as bud-covered twigs shot from the vines with the velocity of the thorns. The buds exploded into bloom and became white roses.

There was a thump as Perun, exhausted and gasping for breath, landed tiredly on the floor. Selwyn glanced at him to be sure he was okay before he turned to the stirring sound behind him. The Berwyn’s body, which was relatively unharmed, sat up and looked around in fear and confusion.

"Are you alright?" Selwyn asked. The man looked at the lifeless rose-entangled demon and shivered.

Chapter XVII

"Don’t rush, don’t rush," Chizome shouted over the roar of rapids, "Safety over speed!"

She’d led the children and the unicorns in an uphill journey to the shallow section of the river, which was not within the canyon. The water moved forcefully and was about three-and-a-half feet deep due to recent rains. There were storm clouds hanging mockingly overhead as if threatening to release more unwanted water.

Tenba, who had two children with a broken leg atop her back, was on the preferred side of the river with Tenko. The children each had a splint made from Chizome’s belt and headband. A discarded rope had been fashioned into a bridle for Tenba. The remaining portion of the rope crossed over the river where Shijo was holding the end. He and Tenba were both pulling on the rope as the remaining children held onto it to help cross. Chizome stood in the middle of the river gripping the rope and helping them as they crossed one at a time. The baby boy Sugo was on her back, clinging to her like a parasite.

His sister Keji was the third to try and cross. The water was up to her neck, and she tried to hold her breath to avoid inhaling the flying droplets. She took the rope in her right hand a Chizome’s hand in her left as she walked across the slippery stones that lined the riverbed.

Chizome’s remaining hand was locked firmly on the rope. Keji reached that arm and was released as Chizome traded hands. While both her hands were on the rope, the rock beneath Keji’s foot slipped.

As the little girl slammed into her, Chizome reflexively wrapped both arms around her and was pushed backward by the current. They both shrieked, and Sugo burst into tears.

"Chizome!" Shijo cried as Tenba emitted a shrill neigh.

There was a splash as something large landed in the deeper water that Chizome, Keji, and Sugo were being washed into. Beneath the surface of the rushing swirling water, Chizome kept a firm hold on Keji, hoping Sugo’s grip would endure, as she grappled fruitlessly for a grasp on one of the underwater rocks.

After missing another potential clasp, Chizome winced as something grabbed her hair while she continued to flow with the water. Her lungs burned as she looked up at a familiar orange and white black-striped face.

Torafu dragged the three of them to the west riverbank as Tenba ran up. Miraculously enough, Sugo began wailing again the moment his head was out of the water.

"He held his breath," Keji mumbled. "Mama always said he was a smart baby."

"Torafu…" Chizome said weakly between gasps. "Thank you, Tora." She hugged the feline, who seemed to fail miserably at looking disinterested. She whispered, "I thought you didn’t want to come with me…."

* * *

Once order returned to their party, they continued walking toward the foot of the mountain. It was mid-afternoon when Chizome recognized the shrill cries that were synonymous with danger. She whirled around, her spear held ready. The children shrieked at the sight of an air yasha landing.

It seemed surprised by their presence, but its claws were ready none the less. The children, Tenko, and Torafu scuffled for safety behind Chizome and Tenba as it approached slowly on all fours.

"Run," Chizome said through clenched teeth as the entire group inched back.

What? Tenba questioned.

"I said to run," Chizome muttered irritably. "Take Tenko and the kids and get out of here."

Tenba gave an affirmative snort and began to lead the children away. Shijo first looked at Chizome reluctantly, but the others followed without question.

If it calls for help…Chizome thought worriedly. She inched toward it, her spear ready to slice.

It screeched. She lunged and sliced. It jumped back and took flight. She ran and slashed upward, scoring a hit across its shins. It kicked at her; its talon scratched her head. She slid back and jumped forward, swinging in a downward arch.

The skin between two of its wing digits was easily cut. The yasha’s flight became irregular. It landed and clawed. Chizome jumped back, lunged, and stabbed her spear through the creature’s gut until it scraped against its spine.

She pulled her weapon free and swung to her right. Another yasha, a blue-scaled white eyed creature of water, had leapt from the river and climbed the canyon wall with its claws. It skidded out of range and jumped forward.

It rammed Chizome in her stomach and knocked her to the ground, rolling long-ways. It hopped up and jumped back toward its stunned target.

Chizome covered her face with her arms, but the yasha screeched as it was knocked away. Chizome looked and saw Tenba backing up, her silver-white horn coated with orange blood. She jumped to her feet and refreshed her grip on her spear.

She stepped toward the demon, slashed, and backed up. Tenba lowered her head and snorted. She charged forward, tossed the demon onto her back with her horn. It landed on her back, and she bucked to send it back to the ground in front of her. She reared up and trampled it with her sharp hooves.

"It’s down," Chizome said. "Let’s go."

Agreed, Tenba said. The blue demons cannot reproduce, correct?

"Nah," Chizome said as they headed southward, "Yasha are like bees. Females call the shots, females do the work, and the males are just around for reproduction, which only concerns the black ones."

Have you ever seen a male demon?

"No."

They do not exist. All demons are either female or both genders. The black ones have all the internal organs necessary for reproduction. The others have only those necessary for raising the offspring.

"Really?" Chizome asked. "Didn’t know that. Oh… thanks for saving me and all. I should have said that sooner."

I would not consider myself the proper creature upon doing less, Tenba said. You are so willing to end your life for these children. I could not let such generosity go unrewarded.

Chizome nodded slowly as if she was suddenly deep in thought. The two of them reached the children, who were huddled beneath a tree and frozen in terror.

* * *

"I suppose we missed this place," Selwyn said as he approached the gates of the shambled village. He ran his fingers through his hair to flush out the wetness, only to have it re-soaked by the continuing rainfall. His horse, which was being led as opposed to ridden, shook its head in a failing attempt to dry its mane.

"Come, everyone!" Perun called. He was leading his donkey, who was bearing the weary Berwyn. Approximately fifty teary villagers—those the demons had captured—stumbled past him in a rush to inspect the remains of their home.

"Is everything okay?" Selwyn asked a woman that came back up to them a few moments later.

"The children," she sobbed. "The few we could save…. A few are dead, but there is no trace of the others…. What could have happened?"

"Perhaps they’re looking for food or better shelter," Perun suggested.

"We have business in Machi," Selwyn said. "We can’t look for them now, but we’ll keep our eyes open and ask around."

"Thank you," the woman said weakly.

Selwyn sighed as she walked away.

* * *

"Run! Run!" Chizome shrieked. Her cries were echoed by those of the enemy. The children ran as fast as their short weary legs would carry them. They had ended up in the canyon upon being chased several times. Chizome had slowed the offending yasha down until Tenba could lead the children away. With every encounter, each person gained a few more scratches; their body and soul got a little bit weaker.

This, however, was different, for the creatures were more numerous and mostly of the hard-to-injure earth variety.

"You can’t stay here and fight them by yourself!" Shijo insisted worriedly as he ushered the younger children past him.

"I never said I intended to!" Chizome cried. "Now go!"

* * *

By nightfall they’d found a small cave of sorts in the canyon wall. Chizome made a fire in the back and had everyone sleep in front of it in order to make it less visible. She was sitting on the right-hand side of the entrance keeping watch as the others slept. Torafu was cuddled up beside her with his head in her lap.

She looked up at the stars and tried to picture Tenba’s poorly detailed map. With all the running they’d done, they had to be at least a third of the way to the bridge. That distance was quite notable for a group of children during only one day.

She looked down at Torafu and smiled before turning her gaze back to the stars.

Shijo was sitting against the left wall of the cave watching her intently. She would stare at the stars and go nearly a minute without blinking. Her lips would move, and she seemed to be soundlessly conversing with the sky.

She closed her eyes and sighed quietly, sounding wearied but content. Shijo watched her look around at her group of wards. His face reddened as she noticed he was watching her, but he kept his face marked with the same thoughtfully observant expression he’d had before. She looked at him as if waiting for him to speak.

After a moment, he asked, "Why are you helping us?"

Chizome looked at him with a mild quizzical look. She said, "I… don’t really know." She turned back to the stars, but she closed her eyes in thought. After a moment, she asked, "Have you ever heard the story of the scorpion and the swan?"

Shijo thought. "No, I don’t believe so."

Chizome said, "The scorpion needed to cross the river and asked the swan for a ride. The swan worried about being stung, but it figured that the scorpion won’t hurt a creature that it’s depending on. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the swan. As they’re both drowning, the swan asked why the scorpion stung it, because it was being helpful, and now they would both die. The scorpion answered, ‘It’s what I do.’"

Shijo frowned in thought, unable to fully grasp a connection.

"In my version of the story," Chizome said. "The swan walks away, and the scorpion’s fate depends on how well she can swim." She smiled sadly at her listener, saying, "But still, ‘It’s what I do.’"

Chapter XVIII

The next day had a very poor start to it. Everyone was soaked by the night’s rain, and their saturation worsened through the rest of the rainy morning. There were two encounters with small groups of yasha.

Shijo watched as Chizome seemed to slowly whither away. Her dress was torn and muddy, her hair was stained with blood from the wound she’d gained in her first battle, and the hopeful sparkle in her green eyes was beginning to dim.

She looked tired.

Torafu had the strong-armed baby Sugo atop his back as he hiked alongside his mistress. He looked as worried as Shijo.

The air was filled by sudden shrieks. It seemed to take Chizome a moment to register the fact that they were surrounded. Her muscles started to tense, but she dropped her arms in defeat.

* * *

"Aren’t you finished yet? This is your third day out here." Daisaishi grumbled.

"It’s bad enough we have to send them out in the mud," Mara said, kicking at the muddy ground, "but we don’t need the poor girls catching cold in the rain. We’ve only had a chance for four girls a day."

"This is day three," Daisaishi grumbled. "You ought to be finished." He looked around at the girls who were still participating in the frequently delayed Byakuren Test.

"We just got out here," Mara explained. "There’s four to go, including Kamilla. She’s out there."

"Then you’ll have to wait until tomorrow," Daisaishi said. "As soon as Kamilla returns, head back. It’s nearly sundown and I believe it’s about to start—" He felt a small bit of something wet splatter on his face, "—raining…" he finished dismally. Within moments, everyone was soaked.

"Something wrong, Temerita?" Mara asked with no enthusiasm.

Temerita was staring off the cliff. There was a huge hole in the earth. It deepened a circular portion of the canyon below and a crescent was carved into the cliff side. The river had been redirection around the said bowl.

"That’s been there since yesterday," Mara said. "Does it really matter where it came from?"

"It must be a hundred feet across," Temerita mumbled. "It seems rather odd that it should just suddenly appear…." Mara shook her head.

Kamilla came jogging up, showing off a bit of white fur. Between the sunset, the clouds, and the suddenly heavy rain, it was nearly as dark as the dead of night.

"Can we go inside now?" Talitha whined.

"Yes," Daisaishi mumbled. "Be quick about it."

"Temerita?" Mara asked. Everyone stopped and turned back to the younger priestess.

"I thought I… I’m coming," she said, sounding confused. She turned and took one step before she froze. Her eyes widened in horror. The others turned in unison. Everyone either screamed, fainted, or simply froze as Temerita had. A pair of glowing white eyes glittered through the darkness.

* * *

Much to Chizome’s surprise, the yasha that surrounded them did not try to kill them, as easy as it would have been. They urged the group forward and stayed in formation around them. They slashed at any sign of defiance, but they deliberately missed. Only their eyes were visible in the darkness.

"Where are they taking us?" Shijo whispered.

"I don’t know," Chizome answered.

Keji, who was up in front, screamed, and there was a skidding sound. The yasha behind the group shoved everyone forward.

Chizome felt herself sliding a long ways downward on very wet mud. Everyone landed in a pile at the bottom of the slope. Torafu, using his wings as a parachute, slid down the slowest and landed as everyone was getting up. Sugo was still clinging to his back. Chizome waited, holding her breath, but the yasha did not follow them down.

"Where are we?" one of the children asked through sobs.

"Some sort of hole?" Chizome thought. She jumped against the slope and tried to grab it. Her fingers slipped over the mud, and she slid back down. The mud on the ground was up to mid-calf, but the heavy rain quickly washed it off the rest of her body.

"Why did they bother to bring us down here?" Shijo asked.

"Food?" she wondered. "They’re not hungry, but they prefer fresh meat?"

Everyone cringed as lightning flashed, but Chizome got a look at their surroundings with its brief bit of light. She tugged lightly on Tenba’s rope, pulling her away from the group.

"Magical diseases usually work fast," she whispered. "Do you know how long these children have?"

Twelve hours? Tenba answered uncertainly. It is a generous estimate.

Chizome grumbled to herself and sighed. She looked toward the western side of their dungeon. She said, "We have to get out of here soon then." Lightning flashed again. "But it must be at least two-hundred yards to the top of that cliff." The rocky face was solid, but steep. Chizome mumbled, "Swim my little swans…."

* * *

"That’s it, that’s it," Gelida whimpered. "That’s what I saw…. Only the other one was brown." She and the others were shamelessly sitting in the mud watching in fear the water yasha mockingly paced back and forth in front of them.

It stopped its movements and turned its head south, suddenly alert. It hissed, and the humans began to hear splashing hoof beats. The yasha crouched lower than most people would think possible as the horse approached. It shrieked as lunged for the steed’s rider. There was a grotesque sound as a blade slid through its gut. The rider kicked it away, annoyed.

"Are there any more?" Selwyn’s voice asked the assembled victims.

They were all speechless for a few moments. Daisaishi stuttered, "N-not that we know of…."

"Very well," Selwyn said. "Are you all okay?" He lit a lantern and held it so that his horse’s head and neck shielded it from the wind and rain. Temerita’s eyes widened as she recognized him. He wasn’t wearing his chain mail, but red bandages could be seen beneath the rips in his shirt.

"Yes," Mara said, standing, "Thank you so much…. How can we ever repay your bravery?"

Selwyn had already spotted and recognized Temerita, who was still sitting in the mud as everyone else stood up. He looked around at each girl. He turned his gaze back to Temerita. His voice was stifled by grief and was almost too quiet to hear over the rain. He asked, "Where is she? Where’s my sister?"

Mara seemed confused and mildly surprised. Temerita stood and stepped forward. She said, "I suppose she’s run off. She doesn’t seem like the type to be frightened by wild puppies or to waste three days wandering around in search of rabbit fur."

Daisaishi frowned in confusion as Mara raised a brow. After a few seconds, all the girls save Gelida gained a look of severe discomfort.

"I’m sorry," Temerita said. "I should have summoned her the first time you asked…. Now all I can tell you is that she went north." She hung her head and pointed into the forest.

"Thank you," Selwyn finally said after several moments of silence. He thought, Perun made me promise I would go to the inn after I saw what that yasha was doing…. He said, "I’ll hang around here until my friend comes by."

* * *

"Ow," Keji squeaked. She came to a stop on a small ledge about fifty feet about the floor of the pit. Her brother was still on Torafu’s back, but the cat was in the back of the group. The two remaining lengths of spare rope had been tied to Tenba’s makeshift halter. One was strapped to Tenko, and one was in Chizome’s hand. The original rope was being held by most of the children and Torafu, allowing the unicorn to help them up the slope.

Chizome stopped tugging on Tenba and looked at Keji. The little girl was rubbing the bottom of her scraped foot. She felt herself being lifted before she was placed in Chizome’s boots. She looked up at the older girl’s faintly seen visage. Chizome smiled, strengthened her grip on Tenba’s rope, and climbed on barefoot.

She climbed faster than Tenba, and had to pull the unicorn, who was pulling everyone else. She climbed with her feet and spear only. Whenever the lightning flashed, Shijo’s sharp eyes caught the slight shiny redness left on the rope and on her spear handle.

She came to a small ledge of sorts, something it would be easy to stand or sit on for a while. She considered having the group stop there, but there was no room for all of them.

"Skreeeeeaaa!"

Its dirt-like scales had been darkened by the rain, so Chizome didn’t see the earth yasha until it was hanging on the cliff side with its glittering red eyes inches from her face. She gawked at it for a moment, but she was brought to her senses by a slash to the left side of her face.

"Back up!" she cried. "Hold yourselves!" She heard Tenba back down off the ledge on onto the slope. She stepped back to the edge and stabbed with her spear. The point glanced off its target as if the yasha were made of stone.

"Chizome!" Shijo cried worriedly as he took Keji’s wrist and backed up near Tenba. The battle was nearly invisible to him. There were sounds from the voices of both fighters. The demon’s screeches were battle cries while Chizome’s voice formed yelps of pain. Shijo called her name again.

The sound of snapping wood followed that of ripping cloth. Shijo spotted a tiny gleam off to his right as the two halves of Chizome’s spear clattered to the cliff side over ten feet away and began sliding to the ground.

"No!" he cried. There was a smacking sound, then something colliding with the cliff side; these were in unison with what was clearly a sobbing sound from Chizome’s throat. She fell. "No…" Shijo repeated, his voice barely a whisper, as the yasha raised its claw again.

"RRROWWWRRR!"

Torafu was instantly atop the ledge, the baby left in the care of a child. He slashed at the yasha’s leg. It clawed back, barely missing. Torafu growled uncertainly, backing up in fear. The yasha screeched, and, in a flash, his legs carried him out of sight. The demon looked in the direction he’d left in, expecting him to return. It raised its claw again, turning back to Chizome.

"Chizome!" Shijo shouted. He ran forward. Tenba bit his shirt and yanked him back a the demon turned its swipe on him. It missed him by such a small mark that the skin on his face tingled.

It grumbled as if annoyed and turned back to its rightful target. Its claws began to glow, casting just enough light to see the splashes of human blood on the rocks. It brought its claw down.

"NO!" Shijo shouted, his cries echoed by screams from the others.

* * *

Selwyn asked, "Why are you all out here anyway?"

"The girls are participating in a traditional test of purity," Temerita explained.

"I’ve been meaning to ask you," Mara said to her. "Why did you even bring Chizome out here?"

"Why shouldn’t I have?"

"Because the demonic little brat only gets in the way!" Mara grumbled. She felt something swish the air. She look up at Selwyn, whose sword was pointed at her.

Lightning flashed, but so did his eyes. He said, "It’s not below me to send your head rolling."

"NO!"

Everyone perked into alertness save Mara, for she was frozen stiff.

"Did you hear that?" Selwyn questioned.

Chapter XIX

With a roar that seemed to make every boulder within miles tremble, a piece of the shadows dislodged itself and dived down onto the offending yasha, knocking it from the ledge. It slide painfully down the rocky slope with the winged beast atop it, a minor roar still rumbling in its throat.

Lightning flashed again, revealing the shower of red that sprayed through the air around Torafu as his beak-like fangs ripped out the demon’s throat.

Then all was dark again.

A few seconds later, he was at Chizome’s side, nuzzling her. She weakly raised her hand to stoke his fur, and he only purred and nuzzled more in response.

"That’s a good boy, Tora…" Chizome whispered. "I knew you could be brave when you needed to be…. You didn’t let it hit me again. Thank you, my friend…." She sighed. "If you find a couple guys named Selwyn and Perun, try and hang around with them…. Even though you can’t tell them that you were my friend, my twinkle of light in the darkness…. Thank you, Tora…."

"Are you okay?" Shijo asked worriedly. He didn’t receive an answer for several seconds.

"What are you all standing around here for? You need to get to town."

Shijo smiled. "You should rest after that fight."

"…I…plan to…. There’s nothing else I can do."

Shijo stared at her vague shape for a moment. He asked, "What?"

"You’re almost to the riverbank…. But I’m not a strong enough swimmer. From here on, I only slow you down."

"What…?!" Shijo hissed.

"Go… take Torafu with you. If you see my two friends, tell ‘em I said ‘hello.’" She paused. "Then tell them I said, ‘goodbye.’"

"As long as I’m around," Shijo said assertively, his eyes tearing up, "you’ll be greeting them yourself, and it’s gonna be awhile before you say goodbye."

"…oh?"

"You can’t die," Shijo said firmly, kneeling beside her.

"…Why not?"

"Because angels don’t die."

"Funny…" Chizome murmured, her voice growing quieter. "You call me ‘angel’ when I’m a demon to the rest of the world…."

"Why did you do all this, when you’ll lay down and die in the end?"

"‘It’s what I do.’"

The boy asks quite a question, Tenba said. ‘ Why did you do all this, when you’ll lay down and die in the end?’ You bring these children so far, so close to survival, and now you’re quitting? Do you think that, because you’ve gotten them this far, that they can go on without you? Their village respects—and even worships—unicorns, but there has never been a child that looked at me with that sparkle of belief I see in their eyes when they look at you. You are their very hope; what would you do if your hope just died?

Chizome’s eyes were closed.

Tenba stamped her hoof. You said that everyone dies someday. You said that, as long as you were going to die, that you would die helping someone else live a little longer! You said that it’s ‘what you do!’ She snorted, her soundless voice shouting, but now you choose to lay down and die in vain! You’ve given these children false hopes! You’ve taken these children from their cold but dry cellar where they could lay down and die with as little pain as possible. You’ve brought them here, testing their strength, their hopes, their beliefs, and making them pass such a trial…. Only to leave them clinging to the side of a cliff in the rain until they’re too weak to grip and their blood stains the stones after they fall to their deaths….

You are as much of an angel as any mortal could ever be, and anyone who says otherwise is more of a demon than the creature your beast just killed…. But look at what you’ve done. Is this ‘what you do,’ Chizome…?

The unicorn waited, but there was no answer. She closed her eyes and lowered her head. Shijo had been trying to hold his tears back, but, as it no longer mattered, they flowed out like waterfalls and mixed with the rain. Torafu laid down and covered his face with his forepaws.

Tenba’s eyes snapped open and she reared back. A pair of bloodied trembling hands gripped her rope with nearly all the strength they had. Tenba landed and left Chizome standing shakily on her feet.

Lightning flashed; Tenba and Shijo received their first good look at her injuries. Along the left side of her body, her chest, shoulder, flank, and mid-leg looked like raw meat. She looked like something out of a butcher shop.

Shijo couldn’t hear the unicorn, but he could see it in her eyes: If Chizome was ready to give up, she was ready stab her horn through her chest and put there poor girl out of her misery. They all stared at her with their eyes full of awe and pity. She wiped her eyes, only to redden the skin around them. She observed her followers one at a time. They were all tired, hungry, injured, and soaked to their bones.

"Like I said, what are you all standing around here for? We need to get to town." She grabbed the end of Tenba’s rope and turned to the wall of rock behind her. Looking rather shocked, Tenba followed. Tenko and the children holding her rope climbed forward as well.

"She really is an angel isn’t she?" Keji asked Shijo, "but…I think her wings are broken."

"She’s still flying," Shijo answered. They climbed to catch up with Tenba, and Torafu fell into alignment behind the group. Sugo was placed on his back, and two other kids put their hands on his shoulders instead of the rope.

I can make it, Chizome thought. Just one more step. She climbed up a step, thought, Just one more step, and stepped up again. Her foot slipped from the rock on which she’d placed it, but her hand held as she climbed back up.

A few steps later, she stopped and hugged herself to the mountain face. The skin on her hands and feet had been scraped away, and blood streaked the rocks. She was trembling. There was more sweat and tears on her face than there was rain.

As soon as they reached a safe place to stand, everyone stopped and watched her. She turned her head up. Lightning flashed again.

Twenty yards? she wondered. Can I last that long? She took a few deep breaths and reached for another handhold in the stone. She lifted herself, trying to ignore the pain that shot through her.

I’ve done so much for them, she thought, still climbing. Can’t I do one thing for myself? Can’t I just end it now? Don’t I deserve that much…? She glanced down at her followers and thought, Can’t I be selfish just once? Is there any consequence of me living would benefit me?

A picture flashed through her mind, and she saw a cloud against the night sky. It could be in the shape of a horse, a deer, or possibly even a moose with enough imagination.

Yeah, there is, Chizome realized. She reached for another handhold.

"Are you alright, Chizome?" Shijo called, "Do you need to rest?"

"I can make it!" she shouted over the rain. I know I can…. Perun, Selwyn, I will see you again.

She pulled on Tenba’s rope and nearly pulled herself backwards. She grabbed a weed that was planted in the cliff side, but it was yanked free because its roots were gripping loose mud. She fell and grabbed Tenba’s horn to steady herself. She blinked at the weed in her hand, sighed, and tossed it aside before continuing on.

Within minutes she couldn’t see. The sound of her heart, which was pumping hard in a desperate attempt to send blood through her hollow veins, dominated her ears. All she could smell or taste was blood. Despite the pain in her skinless fingertips, she was able to feel the stones. She sensed a faint glow from above but it flickered out.

How close am I? I’m tired…. Maybe just one more step. Chizome thought of the children. I suppose it’ll have to be a very big step.

She bent her throbbing legs, and took a few breaths as she waited for Tenba to get right next her. She extended her arm and jumped with everything her life was worth.

Her feet scrambled on the stone; she was deaf even to her own heartbeat. The pain stopped, and the last thing she felt after her leap was someone’s hand close around hers.

She saw, felt, and heard nothing, but she still pulled on Tenba’s rope.

* * *

"Chizome?!" Temerita demanded. Everyone drew back in start as Selwyn, who had dismounted, pulled a body over the edge of the cliff.

"Chizome…?" Selwyn whispered, horrified. His lantern had been extinguished by the rain, but he could still recognize her. He pulled her into his lap. Her eyes were squeezed shut, but he could feel her tremble a bit. Nearly—if not entirely—unconscious, she was still pulling on the rope.

"Oh, my…" Temerita uttered.

"You think a demon got her?" Gelida whispered.

"Probably," Kamilla said quietly. "Even if unicorns did exist, that little beast couldn’t find one if it stomped up behind her and bit her on the butt."

Gelida’s eyes widened as they filled with tears. She hissed, "Kamilla…. You’re… you’re a monster…!"

Kamilla gave a short sardonic laugh. "Excuse me?"

"You heard me!" Gelida shouted viscously, gaining almost everyone’s attention. She clenched her fists and smacked Kamilla hard with her knuckles. She screamed, "I said you’re a monster! Look at her wounds; that’s not something to laugh about! That ought to be you down there bleeding to death!"

Upon the strike she received, Kamilla stumbled back into her friends’ arms. She snarled and lunged forward furiously. She tackled Gelida, and they landed in the mud. Gelida pushed her off and rolled aside.

"And if it was you," Gelida shrieked. "I’d be happy to know that you’d be burning in hell where you belong!"

"You’re a stuck up little brat!" Kamilla shouted. "Just like Chizome!" She lunged again, clawing with her fingernails.

"Stop it! Stop it!" Temerita cried. She dashed between them and tried to push them apart as Mara and Daisaishi gaped at the scene.

Kamilla got around Temerita’s arms and reached for Gelida again. The latter stepped back as the collar of her new dress was snatched. The dress was ripped, revealing the scabbed marks she’d gotten on her trip into the woods.

"If you’re so great," Kamilla shouted. "Why were you attacked by a demon?!"

"We were all attacked by a demon!" Gelida exclaimed, "but Chizome scared the first one away!" They dashed at each other, and Temerita tried to break them up again.

Selwyn ignored the event. He was on the ground holding Chizome gently, ignoring her blood, and softly stroking her face. He whispered, "Come on, Chizome, wake up…. Let me see your eyes again."

Talitha spent a moment watching the three older females wrestle for dominance before turning toward him. She observed a moment and asked, "What’s that rope for?"

Selwyn looked at the rope as if he’d just noticed it. Still holding Chizome up, he took the rope in both hands and pulled. A whinny filled the air and everyone stopped what they were doing as Tenba, who flapped her wings despite the injury, scrambled up the near-vertical wall of stone and onto level ground. Tenko, pulled by his mother and pushed from below, was next over the ledge, and Shijo climbed up on Tenba’s rope. He untied Tenko, and the little unicorn collapsed to his knees in need of rest.

Tenba pawed the ground with her hoof and ran. The other children, followed by Torafu, were dragged up. Everyone but Selwyn gaped.

"There’s the town!" Shijo cried, pointing at the lights coming from Machi. "We’re almost there! We made it!" His smiled faded when his saw Chizome.

Torafu saw her and ran at Selwyn, who was still stroking her face. He skidded to a stop in front of him and released a roar that made everyone else cringe. Selwyn ignored him, so he backed up to the edge of the cliff and tried again a bit louder. He gave up, seeing that Selwyn wasn’t hurting Chizome, and sat down.

"Is she okay?" Shijo asked, kneeling by them. Tenba left her riders sitting thankfully on the flat ground and approached slowly.

"I don’t know…" Selwyn whimpered. He began to cry as he repeated, "I don’t know…."

Chizome? Tenba asked.

Chizome’s eyes fluttered, and she mumbled weakly.

"Chizome…?" Selwyn asked hopefully.

"Huh…?" Her voice was almost too quiet to hear.

"Are you okay?" Shijo asked.

"Oh… it hurts…."

"Don’t worry," Selwyn whispered. "You’ll be on your feet in no time…."

"…Selwyn…?" she asked.

He smiled knowing she’d recognized him. He hugged her as gently as possible and said, "My poor, sweet angel… they clipped your wings, but here you are, soaring high in spite of it all…."

Chizome smiled weakly. "You’ve never said that before…. My imagination couldn’t come up with that, and it wasn’t my memory either…. It’s really you."

He nodded and sniffled. "It’s really me… and I’m not letting you out of my sight for a long time." His head was pushed away from her as Torafu scooted closer and began licking his face. His expression was quizzical but a bit disgusted. He said, "This certainly requires and explanation."

"Torafu," Chizome whispered, "…my baby." The people surrounding them gave her some weird looks. Torafu left Selwyn alone and laid down.

"Her wounds are dreadful," Daisaishi moaned.

"I’m sure she’ll be fine," Mara said, approaching her, "You’ll heal up nicely and come back to the church with us."

Chizome’s pained but happy face hardened. She gasped, "Whether or not my wounds are fatal, the only way you’ll take me into to that hellish pit is to drag my carcass back."

Mara looked surprised and slightly hurt. She said, "Don’t talk like that. Don’t you want to have a nice warm bed to sleep in?"

"No! Not from you!" Chizome hissed. She turned her face to Selwyn’s shirt.

Mara grew angry. She snapped, "Well, you’re an orphan like the others. You’re going to be a proper maiden someday, and the only way out is adoption or death."

"Then kill me…."

Mara drew back in surprise.

"No," Selwyn said. "I’m eighteen; let me adopt her."

Mara looked at him blankly. "You’ve got to be kidding …. You’re only three years older than she is; that’s undeniably indecent!"

"But I’m her friend."

"A young lady needs to be cared for by a woman," Mara said. "I assume you’re not married."

"No… b-but… but…" Selwyn stuttered.

"Selwyn?" a distant voice called. Selwyn swung his head in the direction of the city and the vague shapes of a few people coming from it.

"Perun!" he cried desperately. "Put your apron on and get over here!"

Chizome smiled weakly.

"What?" Perun called. "Why?"

"And we’d have to know she safe in reliable care," Mara said. "You are not safe. You threatened to kill me only a moment ago."

Anger rising, Selwyn grumbled, "The offer still stands."

"No point in arguing," Daisaishi said firmly. "The lady is returning with us."

"No!" The outburst had one of the most unexpected origins. Temerita stopped gaping at Tenba and Tenko and stomped up to Daisaishi. She said, "No, Daisaishi! Whether she’s adopted or she just up and leaves, she going with him!"

"I guess all that trouble I kept getting into paid off," Chizome mumbled.

"Temerita, if she’s too much for you…" Mara began.

"She will be if I’m left caring for some heartbroken youth!" Temerita snapped, "The worst thing that could happen to her with him is… something that doesn’t really need to be mentioned! But the best thing for her here is a blade!"

"What?" Daisaishi questioned.

Temerita’s eyes flashed with anger as she shrieked, "Daisaishi! Does the thought of a child’s life mean so little to you that your plans for this girl could just slip your mind?! Have you forgotten that this is the girl you plan to kill?!"

"What?" Selwyn asked.

"That’s right," Temerita continued. "I didn’t say sacrifice or ‘give a second chance through reincarnation.’ I said kill! And I said it in front of her so that she has verbal proof of what kind of monster you really are!"

"I do what I do with everyone’s best interests in mind," Daisaishi argued, "but why should it matter to you?"

"My mother died bearing me, and my father died of grief after his second wife died," Temerita said. "I came here when I was eleven, and I knew I could never have children of my own. You put me in charge of the girls a few years ago. They come to me at ten and leave me at eighteen, but for eight years in each of their lives, I can ease my lonely soul by pretending they’re my daughters. I cannot even try to replace their mothers, especially since I haven’t acted enough like a mother lately."

She straightened her back, standing assertively. "All I can say now… is that will not harm these any of girls—any of my daughters—in the slightest bit, physically or not, before you kill me. I will not care for Chizome only to watch her waste away in her loneliness."

"Why bother?" Chizome asked weakly. "I may never leave this spot…."

"Chizome, you’re a healer," Selwyn said. "Use a spell."

"Even if I had the magical power," Chizome began, "it hurts too much…. I couldn’t concentrate."

"Sister Temerita makes a good point," said the Berwyn, who was still riding Perun’s donkey. The two of them and the donkey had finally approached.

"My good sir," Daisaishi greeted. "Why are you here?"

"The details are fuzzy," the Berwyn said, "even to me."

"Chizome?" Perun wondered. He beamed and knelt by her, but his smile turned to a wince.

"Please try to use a spell," Selwyn pleaded. "We just found you; you can’t leave us now."

"I have the extra potions," Perun said as he gave her another tiny bottle of green liquid.

"I’ll try," Chizome promised. She took the little bottle, uncorked it, and swallowed the salty fluid in one gulp. Her voice was getting weaker, but she said, "Chiyu… chi…. Kyuu…."

"Chiyu Majikku!" the Berwyn exclaimed.

"Kyuukyoku Chiyu Majikku!" Chizome shouted, but her wounds were already fading. A blue mass of energy burst in the air nearby and sent out a wave of energy like a small nova.

Tenba flapped her wings. Tenko began walking on all fours as if he’d never been hurt. The children with injured legs stood, and the other children looked at their undamaged hands. The slash marks on Gelida’s chest faded, along with the injuries Selwyn had gotten from Sananshi.

They’re cured, Tenba informed.

"Whatever works," Chizome said. She stood up and turned to the Berwyn. "Thank you, sir."

"It was my pleasure, young lady," he said as Selwyn and Perun stood, "After all, your friends saved me from the demon Sananshi."

Chizome’s heart stopped a moment.

"Who was it that always called you a demon?" Shijo asked her. The other children were lined up in two horizontal lines in front of him. They all had one hand hidden behind their back.

"What?" Chizome asked blankly. Shijo looked at her worriedly and repeated his questioned. She stuttered for a moment and absentmindedly pointed out Kamilla, her friends, Mara, and Daisaishi.

"Commence fire!" Shijo shouted. Having obviously been planning for several minutes, he and his fellows swung their hidden arms in unison. The seven people in question were immediately splattered with additional mud. The kids bent down to rearm themselves.

Yet Chizome wore a haunted look. Selwyn pulled her into a hug and said, "Don’t worry, Chizome…. She’s gone." Perun placed a hand on her shoulder.

* * *

It was the next night. The storm was gone, and most of the clouds went with it. The sun had dried any grass that didn’t have standing water atop it.

"The stars were getting dim," Selwyn said to Chizome, "but they’re back to normal now." They were laying with their shoulders side-by-side atop the hill behind the gouka as they had before.

"And they’re pretty," Chizome added, smiling. She’d gotten a new dress, but not from the church. She’d gained another set of chain mail, but it was in a pile at her side. She was wearing a new headband.

"There’s another cloud that looks like a deer," Selwyn said.

"Are you sure it’s not a horse?"

"Nah, it’s a deer."

"Horse."

"Deer."

"Horse."

"Deer."

Perun was a few feet away preparing dinner over a fire. He shook his head and sighed. Torafu was sleeping a bit to his right. He opened one eye, looked at the food, and closed it.

"What do you think of the cloud, Perun?" Selwyn asked.

Perun observed the cloud for several seconds. He said, "It’s a North Island white-tailed mountain centaur, male, mid-to-late teens."

"Okay…" Chizome and Selwyn mumbled in unison.

"I know," Selwyn realized. "It’s a hybrid between a ‘dorse’ and that centaur."

"Well, if you want to be that eccentric," Perun said, rolling his eyes, "you might as well call it a cow and get it over with."

Selwyn looked at Chizome, who shrugged. He said, "Cow it is."

"Well, it’s a bit skinny for a cow," Chizome pointed out.

"It’s a North Island white-tailed cow-dorse," Selwyn decided.

"That’s it," Perun said dryly. He turned back to the food, which had mysteriously disappeared. He searched around for any clue as to what had happened. He looked suspiciously at Torafu, but the cat didn’t appear to have moved.

"Oh, look!" Chizome cried cheerfully. "It’s Tenba!" She pointed to a shape in the sky, but it was hard to distinguish until it flew in front of the full moon. There was a smaller shape prancing in the field below. She sat up to wave, but she turned upon hearing a sound from the area behind the gouka.

Four very aggravated people were in the courtyard near a bush. Nephas was standing in the bush. Temerita was standing to the side looking as if she had a very severe headache. Kamilla, who had a sheet wrapped around her, was whining as the shouting Mara pulled her away from the bush.

Chizome grinned smugly, laid back down, and returned to her gentle smile.

"Are you ready to help us save the world?" Selwyn asked her.

"Tonight?"

"Tomorrow."

"I don’t know…."

"The day after tomorrow."

"I’m with you. Tomorrow you get to listen to me whine about what’s happened the last few days."

"I don’t mind."

Chizome smiled and asked, "Perun, what happened to the food?"

"I… I have no idea," Perun said helplessly.

Torafu licked his lips.