In a place beyond time and space, they wait. Culled from lands and eras beyond counting, they are the children of gods, demons, and humans. Some call them heroes, others monsters, yet they share a bond in that they are warriors, all of them. Long gone from the earth, but never forgotten, they yet exist in a place that is born of dreams - a place that offers them a solace which neither life nor death bestowed. Yet for this peace, there is a price. When the time comes, that peace must be laid aside, the land of dreams departed from, to return to an existence of flesh, blood, and war in the name of hope.
In the realm of legend they await the Call to battle - for the time is now, and the eternal war will begin anew . . .
She awoke with a start. To her surprise, she was still in her darkened bedroom, the sheets wrapped tightly around her form. Rain pattered lightly against the windows, in counterpoint to the ticking clock which read 3:08 AM. She lay there a moment, pulling the cloth closer to her, shivering in spite of herself as she listened to the downpour, a gentle prelude to the great storm she knew was coming.
“Not again,” Sakura whispered to herself.
Strike. Guard. Sweep. High. Low. Centre. Each movement graceful and precise, where a difference of a single inch would weaken its effectiveness, spoil the move - rendering one vulnerable to counterattack. Most people likened it to a dance, but to her it was music, a rhythmic melody where every note had to be just so, to sweep one’s sense of anything else away . . .
“Takara-chan . . . Takara-chan! Takara-chan! TAAAKAAARAAA-CHAAAAN!!”
Discord intruded, throwing off her timing by an instant, and jarring her back into the everyday world. With a gasp, then a sigh, she lowered the practice sword and turned to face the interruption.
“What is it, Momoko-chan?” she asked in a long-suffering, though not displeased tone.
The girl in question, a bubbly, baby-faced girl (an impression aided by her fondness for pigtails, despite her age), fairly bounced at the question. “I’m going to the ice cream parlour after school! Did you wanna come?”
Takara sighed. Momoko was one of her best friends, and meant well, but . . .
“I’d like to, but I’d better head straight home - I worry about Father,” she answered.
Momoko’s expression shifted to sadness, as though someone had taken her favourite doll. “He’s still not doing any better?”
Takara’s expression was grim. “No. And the doctors still can’t figure out what’s behind it.”
“He should be in the hospital,” Momoko said decisively.
“I know,” Takara groaned, “but he absolutely refuses, and Mother won’t make him go.” She sighed. “Mother won’t do a lot, lately.”
Anything else she might have said was cut off by the school bell. “I guess that’s it for the day.”
Bowing to her training area, she replaced the wooden weapon in its rack and made her way unhurriedly to the changing room.
Takara Aozaki was a lot of things. The seventeen-year-old girl was a good student, though nothing spectacular. She was quiet without being shy, tomboyish in her choice of activities but undeniably feminine, and reasonably well-off, but not snobbish about it. Her long, dark hair was tied into a ponytail when she did anything in gym or home ec, but otherwise it ran loose. Her paler-than-average skin hinted at her mixed ancestry, as did the sky-blue hue of her eyes, but her features were otherwise Asian, until you realised her “black” hair was in fact a very dark chestnut.
Sighing, she changed from her kendo garb into the navy-blue sailor uniform she usually wore on school grounds. Tying the yellow scarf into its customary knot, she snatched up her school bag and exited the changing room at a dash.
She slammed almost immediately into a solid body, and bounced off it. She was all set to unleash a few words her mother would not approve of when she locked eyes with the impromptu speed bump, and stopped dead.
“Mother?” Takara said, surprised. “Why are you here? Is Father - “
”He’s sleeping, Takara - and next time, apologise after you hit someone that hard.” She pushed her glasses higher up the bridge of her nose, turning them coldly opaque as the light hit the lenses.
Despite being in her mid-thirties, Ciel Aozaki looked easily a decade younger. Her face was unlined, her hair was still so dark it had blue highlights, and her figure had won a flawless victory over childbirth. Half the students in her social studies classes were won over through sheer admiration of her beauty and warm enthusiasm. The other half were brought into line through the iron will and inflexible discipline she exerted on them. Takara, having grown up experiencing both, swore at times that her mother had to have multiple personality disorder.
What she faced now was the serious side of Ciel, the staunch traditionalist. Takara was not quite afraid, but she was wary - summer vacation was too close to risk provoking the Wrath of Mother (second only to the Wrath of God, but only just).
“Yes, Mother,” she said carefully, bowing low. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s better,” Ciel said quietly. She smiled, and her face softened. “I’ve come to take you home, Takara-chan. Are you ready to go?”
The teenager blinked. “Uh, yeah.”
Ciel’s eyes twinkled. “Such rough speech, after all my work to make a proper lady out of you - it’s got to be your father’s influence.” She turned and began walking to the car.
Takara jogged a little to catch up. “How is Father?”
Ciel’s expression turned sombre. “Tired, as always. He was asleep when I left for work, had some soup for lunch when I came home, and was napping when I left to come get you.”
Takara frowned. “Will you be going out again tonight?” She asked it in a tone that said she already knew the answer. It had been going on for two weeks, after all.
Takara said nothing, but pressed her lips together so hard they turned white.
“I know you don’t approve, Takara,” Ciel said tiredly. “But the church is doing its best to try and support us - when they ask for my help, it’s the least I can do.”
“What kind of work can they have you doing that’s more important than being with us?” Takara wanted to ask. But she couldn’t. Good girls didn’t scream and shout at their mothers for abandoning their families. And even if she wasn’t perfect, Takara had been raised to be a good girl.
“Please, just look after your father again tonight,” Ciel said in a soft tone that was not quite begging. “In another week, hopefully, I’ll be finished - and then it’ll be the three of us, together.”
The phrase For however long it lasts was not spoken, but it hung in the air between them, nonetheless. Both of them might not vocalise it, for fear of making it irreversible, but they knew the truth. The only man that mattered in their lives was dying, and nothing, it seemed, could stop it. And it infuriated Takara that her mother would squander what little time was left by not being with her husband.
The silence stretched as Ciel navigated out to the bungalow by the lake they called “home.” Finally, they reached their destination, and Takara unbuckled her belt.
“I’ll try to be home soon,” Ciel promised. “Just in case, can you make dinner on your own?”
“I guess,” Takara muttered.
Her mother smiled, a little wistfully. “Thanks, treasure. Have a good night.”
Takara got out of the car, and didn’t quite slam the door.
“I love you,” Ciel said to the empty seat. She took a suddenly shaky breath.
“Please let this work, and quickly,” she prayed. “Please, God - I’m running out of time.”
“Bungalow,” while being the correct word for the place Takara called home, was really an inadequate term. While everything existed on only one level (not counting the storage attic or the basement), it was a vast structure, containing several rooms. Thus, there was really no need for Takara to be quiet as she entered - it was unlikely her father would hear her - but she was careful all the same, and didn’t announce herself as she entered.
Thus, it came as a complete surprise to hear a voice call, “Welcome home, Takara-chan.”
Dropping her school bag, Takara quickly donned her house slippers and made her way up the foyer stairs and out to the back patio, where her father was hanging laundry. He put up a blanket as she watched.
“Father! Why aren’t you in bed, resting?”
Shiki Tohno’s eyes twinkled, “Because if I’d left your mother’s things alone for much longer, I would have had to herd them into the washing machine. As much as I love her, that woman has no sense of proper housekeeping.”
He turned with obvious slowness to pin another shirt to the clothesline. Takara winced just watching him.
For as long as she could remember, her father had always been a strong, handsome man. Not a musclebound hulk, but subtly resilient - a tree, instead of a mountain. Likewise, he’d never be a movie star, but there was a freshness to his features, an open sincerity, that turned otherwise plain looks into something attractive. But ever since the illness had hit, he seemed to have aged almost twenty years. His hair was more gray than brown, and his slender body had receded into a more skeletal appearance. His complexion was paler, his skin wrinkled. Movement was an obvious effort, and he tired very easily.
“You shouldn’t be pushing yourself,” Takara said quietly.
“I refuse to waste whatever time I have left lying uselessly in bed,” Shiki replied in an edged tone. “So, how was school?”
“It was all right, I guess.”
“You still have no date for the summer festival, hm?”
Takara flinched. “Father!”
“What? I can’t have an interest in my only child’s social life?” His tone was undeniably teasing. “What’s wrong with the boys at your school? Do I have threaten them with a knife to get them to date you?”
Takara sighed. “Well, let’s see. I don’t make a habit of pointing out we have money, so the fortune hunters aren’t interested. You’re not connected politically, or in the business world, so the career ladder climbers aren’t interested. I’m too good at athletics for the jocks to feel comfortable, my grades aren’t good enough to deal with serious academics, I’m too tomboyish for the ones who like feminine girls, too good for the ones who like bad girls . . . and I’m half-blooded, so that lets out the traditionalists. Honestly Father, I think the only way that I could get a date is to be someone else entirely.”
“Takara!” Shiki snapped, and she jumped. She could count on one hand the number of times she’d seen or heard her father be truly angry - and this was one of them. He turned to face her, and his eyes blazed with more life than she’d seen in weeks.
“There is nothing wrong with who you are,” he said, in a tone that dared her to disagree. “I can see the young woman you will become in a few short years. You are intelligent and beautiful, strong and compassionate - a girl that I’m proud to call my daughter. And as for your blood, your mother is the woman I love, more than my own life. If you take after her, how can I be anything but elated?”
Shiki slumped, as though the speech had drained him of any energy he had left. He moved towards the laundry basket, then stopped and shook his head. “I think I should go back to bed - would you finish this for me, sweetheart?”
“Of course, Father,” Takara said quietly. “Sleep well.”
He nodded, and stopped to place his hand on her shoulder as he passed. “Be proud of yourself, Takara - I am. The only thing you could ever do to disappoint me is despair.”
“Yes, Father.” She smiled slightly.
He managed a weak smile of his own in return. “That’s my girl.”
As he went into the house, her smile faded. “You love her more than your own life - and while it slips away, where is she? Mother, how in the name of God could you do this to him?”
Sakura had drawn the ritual circle with care, set all the proper materials in their place. Now it was time, and she found herself hesitating. What if it didn’t work? What if she failed?
No, she told herself firmly. It would work - it had to. No one had more right to this than she did. With that to bolster her confidence, Sakura began the incantation.
“Warrior soul, plagued by strife,
If ye be willing, return to life.
Renew thy spirit’s chosen form,
And tread anew in flesh reborn,
The path from which you were torn.
Heed now the spinning wheel of fate,
I command thee, INCARNATE!”
The candlelight flared an unearthly colour, echoed by the glow of her ritual seal. That light gathered at the centre of the seal, expanding with a roar of wind into a humanoid form. There was a crash, as though of thunder, and the light in the room suddenly extinguished, sending it into abyssal darkness.
After a moment of silence, the voice of a nervous girl pierced the darkness. It asked a single question, hesitantly.
Ciel frowned, scanning her list. This was taking too long. She had to find a way to move things along faster, or else it would be too late.
How could she make things move quicker? If only she could find a way to add to the time she had . . .
Forgotten memories surged from her subconscious, triggered by desperation. Yes, that would work . . . but could she make it happen?
Ciel withdrew a cell phone from her purse, and reluctantly dialled a number she’d long ago memorised, but never used.
“Yes, this is Ciel. Do you remember who I am? . . . That’s right. Listen to me, please - I need your help . . . My husband is dying, miss. It’s slow, and painful, and right now there’s no way that anyone will be in time to save his life. You and I both know that you can help him - so I’m begging you to try. Please.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the line, and then agreement. Ciel tried not to weep with relief.
“Thank you. Now, let me tell you how to get here - hurry, please, time is of the essence.”
After finishing with the laundry, Takara retreated to the attic. More specifically, the attic room that was used for the family’s rare guests, usually one in particular. Takara’s favourite aunt was a Gypsy-like wanderer who breezed in and out two or three times a year, a little brash in her manner, but always arriving with some wild story to tell, or a trinket for her favourite (and thus far, only) niece. She’d typically stay no longer than a week, just to catch up, and then vanish again for parts unknown. It used to disappoint Takara that there was no fixed address she could write to, or phone number she could call in order to converse with her aunt - but thinking back, the woman always seemed to show up when she was really wanted, didn’t she?
“I wish you were here now, Aunt Aoko,” Takara murmured into the empty room, before correcting herself quickly, “Sorry - Onee-chan.”
The one time Takara had referred to her relation by her proper title, she’d been asked, “Are you trying to make me feel old, Takara-chan?” The question had been jovial enough, but the chill in the redhead’s eyes had convinced the girl that she never wanted to make Aoko feel old. Though, to be fair, she never looked that old. Aoko had probably inherited the same genes that kept her mother youthful, as well. Takara wondered if she’d be as lucky.
She wondered if she’d even be lucky enough to spend this Christmas with her family intact.
Shivering, Takara wandered around the small room, delicately picking up the small keepsakes and books scattered around - partly to dust them, and partly to remember where and when they’d come from, happier times that now seemed so long ago and far away.
A framed photograph of Aoko and her other aunt, holding a written certificate for winning some eating contest - Takara wasn’t sure what kind, but since her mother wasn’t there it obviously hadn’t been curry . . . A small hand mirror, inlaid in pearl, with what looked like a highly-stylised “Z” on the back . . . a basket bed for Aoko’s cat, when she was brought along . . .
Mostly, they were all little things - small items to make Aoko feel at home whenever she stayed, but nothing too valuable, nothing she couldn’t afford to lose by leaving them at someone else’s house. The only real oddity in the room was a carved wooden sword hanging on the wall. At least, it appeared to be a sword - a foreign design, Takara thought, though given the pictures on the “blade,” the shape could be a coincidence.
The carving depicted a pack of wolves standing in a pine forest, howling at the full moon in a starlit sky. Bordered by thorny roses, it was a masterful work, and it never failed to catch Takara’s attention when she saw it. Aoko had brought it from some trip, saying she thought it would be a good decorative piece for the room in general. Seeing it now, her niece agreed.
She reached out to brush one of the wolves, and seemed to feel the ridges of fur under her fingertips. The carving had a story attached, didn’t it? Some old fairy tale of wizards and warriors.
“It was made by a master woodcarver, long ago,” her aunt had said. “A symbol of friendship for his comrade, who loved the wild places, and was a skilled warrior and healer - skilled enough to bring the woodcarver back from the edge of death.”
Takara felt tears start to burn hotly in her eyes. That was what her father needed now - a healer who could work miracles. Why did it have to only be a story? Why couldn’t someone stop her family from falling apart? Why couldn’t there be someone to save them?
“Why?” she demanded of the heavens.
The Call has come again, and the realm of legends trembles in its wake. Warriors stir from their repose as it spreads over them like a net, for this summons holds power like they have rarely felt. Yet, for all its strength, it is unfocused, uncertain. It does not truly understand what it seeks, yet will not yield the search for its goal - a warrior of power, who can make miracles come true.
He is not what he was, pained and confused by a death that was not so long ago. It would be easy to allow another to follow the shining beacon back to the realm of war. Though the Call is strong and the presence of the blade chains him to its path, he still holds power enough to resist it. Were it only desire that beckoned, he would ignore it, as he so often has. But there is something else in the Call as well - a deep, soul-aching need. To be wanted is one thing . . . to be needed is another.
Very well. Though he is weak and ill-prepared, though the path is long and uncertain, he will answer the Call. Because there is need of him, and because it is what he has sworn to do.
And his word is his life, even in death.
The air split, not with a crack of thunder, but a scream, as though a thousand newborns had suddenly begun wailing in unison. In the rift, a colour that was everything and nothing could be seen, swirling chaotically with the potential to be any colour at all. Wind roared into the absence, and as it filled the gap, the light that was not light assumed a shape that was human, and the wind’s howl lessened, from the mournful cry of a lone wolf to the agonised groan of a merely mortal voice.
When all was calm, and Takara could see again, she was staring at a man in a hooded cloak as green as the forest leaves. Black leather breeches and boots emerged from the cloak’s lower boundaries, and a tunic of the same colour as the cloak covered what she could see of the upper area. Rough hands attached to muscular-looking arms lowered the hood, revealing an angular face framed by midnight-black hair and a rough beard. He seemed a young man, perhaps half again her own age, with high cheekbones, a hawklike nose, and green eyes that held hints of gold.
Those eyes stared almost angrily into her own, until Takara felt her own defiance rising. Why should he look at her that way when he was the intruder? She spoke, her words matched precisely by a gravel voice that seemed to growl as much as speak.
“Who the hell are you?”