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Bubbles, she thinks at first, staring through water at the glints of refracted light as they swarm and rise toward the surface.  The fluttering trails surround her in the dark sea as the weight on her heart draws her inexorably downward.  The sun’s image, shattered and shifting, fades into a murky gleam, and she turns, tugged around as if by a string.  Below, barely visible, something waits in the dark, patient, powerful, and pure. 

She lands, no longer in water but still moving like she’s floating, drawn toward the tall gates of the shrine.  Cherry blossom petals dance around her, turning the night air into silk, and the essence of the thing in the dark pulses in time with her heartbeat…

Mia’s eyes snapped open, her heartbeat rolling through her like the slow depth of thunder.  She was on her feet and stepping into her slippers before her brain woke up enough to interject, “What was that?”  Her lips echoed it out loud, and hearing something, anything, beyond the sub-aural pulse in her dream finally brought her up short. 

She looked around her room—cluttered with the fall-out from her latest research paper, but it was a private mess, at least.  Old books formed epicenters of paper clouds, with outlying kanji dictionaries and translation guides and stray sheets of paper covered in her shorthand notes.  A desktop computer—not the newest model on the market, but newer than her grandfather’s, which was already full to bursting with his notes on the armor legends—skulked on her writing desk, and several empty teacups had been nudged in backward wedges behind the monitor to make room for more books.  She kept a trio of pictures on the wall above her (disgracefully disorganized) bookshelf—one of her parents on their honeymoon, one of herself as a child with her grandfather, and the last of a vacation to Okinawa with Yulie and the boys.

Mia tugged her shawl from the back of her desk chair and wrapped up against the chill of the late winter night.  There were only so many things a dream like that could mean, and at least one option was easy enough to check.  Three in morning, she confirmed with a glance at her clock; even Rowen should be in bed by now.  Unless the boys had had the dream too—but if it was what she thought, probably not.

Don’t get ahead of yourself yet, she thought, and slipped out of her room.

Padding down the hall took her past Sage’s room, which was peaceful, as was the master bedroom at the end of the hall, nominally shared by Ryo and Rowen.  Ryo had it to himself as often as not, especially during the school year, at least as much as one could have a room to oneself when one had a tiger for a pet.  She tiptoed down the stairs, pausing when she heard muffled chords running through the lower floor.  No light from under Cye and Kento’s door—Cye didn’t need much room, and Kento shared all his space with the amicable agreeability of the many-siblinged—and more indicatively no muffled laughter. 

Mia moved on into the den, unsurprised to find Rowen asleep on the couch with a chemistry book in his lap, a narrow sheaf of pages fallen across one hand.  The radio on the entertainment center’s shelf crooned Always, always I will wait, its display the dim yellow of a fading harvest moon.  She left it on to cover the sound of her tiptoeing to the study door and easing it open.

Once inside she flicked on a lamp and moved slowly to the framed print hanging on the wall.  It was one of Ryo’s father’s, brought along as a gift the first time he’d visited his son’s new home.  There was no way to explain properly to the man that his son didn’t have a particular affection for tigers in general, just the one special white one, and back then Mia had still thought of the study as more her grandfather’s than her own, so into the neglected room it had gone.  She’d had the wall safe put in two years later, when Yulie started junior high.

From the floor by the bookshelves she retrieved a leather footstool and stepped up onto it, running a hand behind the picture frame to find the wire hanging it and lift it down from the wall.  She paused, staring at the safe’s flat gray door, but it was no good—she’d always had all the spiritual awareness of a handful of iron sand and all she saw waiting was the little inset combination dial.  Steeling herself, she spun the numbered wheel back and forth: 12-10-45, her mother’s birthday, and not an easily guessed number, what with most of that paperwork being in French, and also in France. 

It wasn’t the shrine the Jewel of Life deserved, all sacred wood and consecrated ground, but on the other hand, she mused as she swung back the door, a Dynasty soldier wouldn’t know a safe if one fell out of the sky and landed on his head.  She’d kept emergency funds ever since Talpa’s second attack had proven that supernatural crises did not always shut the city down all at once; the box of money sat in the center of the cavity.  A smaller one rested on top of it, wrapped in silk, and that one Mia lifted out of the safe and opened, folding down onto the stool.

It’s warm, she thought, not truly surprised as she took the Jewel of Life into her bare hand.  The stone’s surface striations moved in slow curls, pale pipe-smoke whorls against a twilight purple sky.  Its heat banked against her skin in a slow heartbeat rhythm. 

Definitely not normal.

It’s because the Netherworld is being cleansed.  A familiar voice answered her thought, masculine and warm, but with a low undercurrent of ever-present regret.  Mia bit down hard on her startled yelp and gave Anubis’s spectral form the best hard glare she could muster, hand lowering from her mouth to her heart to her lap.  The man was supposed to be dead, but she had long stopped expecting the boundaries of life and death to be a final word on anything.

Anubis’s lips quirked with a rueful smile and he nodded to her in acknowledgement, or maybe apology.

I sent the dream, he admitted.  His mouth didn’t move with the words, but they beat the same pulse as the Jewel of Life, and the mist wreathing his hazy form traced the same paths.  I thought you should have a forewarning.

“A forewarning of what?” she asked, voice low as she climbed back to her feet.  “It it another enemy?  …A refugee?”  She ventured the last, remembering his word, cleansed, but he shook his head.

Lady Kayura will open a portal soon.  The Ronin Warriors have business to attend in the Netherworld.  He pointed with the Ancient One’s staff at the precious relic Mia still held close to her chest.  You, as well.

“Me?” she repeated, then looked down at the stone in realization.  “Oh.  They’ll need the Jewel?”

He smiled again, the expression wry as he regarded her with eyes that saw much farther than they had when he was alive. 

They will need you, Mia Kouji.  Your watchfulness, and your quickness to learn.

“What’s going to happen?”  Apprehension twisted a misshapen knot in her heart.  Every time.  Is this going to happen every time we’ve started to adjust?

If I explained, you would be looking for the wrong things, he answered, sobering.  A muted frustration narrowed his eyes, the only reason she didn’t raise her voice at his cryptic prevarication.  All I can say is this: sometimes our actions lay traps for us that we will not see for centuries.  I am sorry.

“No.  Thank you for the warning, Anubis.”  She shook her head, straightening her shoulders as the fog around his form began to thicken and the Jewel of Life’s insistent pulse slowed.  Her visitor bowed, then, deep and respectful, and the unaccustomed formality left her surprised and blushing.  Her next words came unplanned, louder than she liked.

“Stay well!”

For a moment he looked equally startled, then he drew himself up, pulling his hat low over his eyes, a rueful smile lingering on his lips as he faded away.

I’ll do what I can. 

Mia looked down at the Jewel of Life.  It had cooled some with Anubis’s departure, but a light still flickered at its heart like the pale nucleus of a candle flame.  With a sigh, she looped the stone’s cord around her neck.

I’ll call Yulie in the morning, just in case he had the dream too, she decided as she closed the safe and rehung the print.  He wore the Jewel of Life longer than I did, after all.  Maybe I should look at Grandfather’s notes again until the others—

A knock at the door pulled her out of her half-formed plans.  Rowen stuck his head inside, the sleepiness dogging his eyes clearing rapidly as he looked over the scene—her on the footstool by the safe, beaded necklace visible at her collar, the clock on the mantle showing a time still hours before dawn.  How must it look, she thought suddenly; her barefoot in her shawl and pink pajamas, a holy relic slung on over unbrushed hair?

“What happened?” the young man asked, pushing the door open wider.  “Mia?”

Mia took a steadying breath.  This can wait until I have a blouse on.  She pushed back her hair, pulling her shawl tighter. 

“Anubis came to give us a warning.”  Her friend sucked in a breath between his teeth as she went on, “It doesn’t seem like an emergency, but do you want to wake up the others?  Cye and Kento can start breakfast.  I’m going to get dressed.”

“Yeah, sure thing.”  Rowen knuckled fiercely at his eyes once, blinking hard, and nodded, a sharp, resolute movement.  Like it was the most natural thing in the world, waking up his friends on an hour’s worth of sleep to start talking strategy, he turned on his heel and strode off.

 

It’s natural for all of us by now, Mia thought with a sigh and headed back upstairs, the Jewel of Life a soft kiss of warmth suspended over her heart.

 


 

The day passed without incident, followed in turn by the rest of the week.  Tense waiting and speculation gave way to more detailed planning, a blessing of time that Mia would probably have appreciated more were she not hip-deep in end-of-the-school-year work.  Cye joined her in scouting out the course for the rest of their respective semesters’ classes; a sudden absence of unknown duration was going to be inconvenient no matter when it hit, so all there was to do was try to get a head start on the work.  Rowen, looking down the gamut of university-level entrance exams, joined their late-night cram sessions only two days after they started.

Kento, a restaurateur’s son through and through, took to meal planning amid horror stories about what a refrigerator and several cabinets stocked to feed six people would look like if left unattended for more than a week.  I hope everyone likes rice, Rowen told his study partners after sneaking a glance at his friend’s much-marked-upon scratch papers.  Because that’s all he has written down after next Wednesday. 

Sage remained more Zen about matters—at least, he commented, as long as we get this wrapped up before the cherry blossom festival back home.  I promised Grandfather I’d be there this year—while Ryo kept Yulie company when the boy convinced his parents to bring him over for a few nights’ worth of sleep-over the day of Mia’s morning phone call.   By Monday he’d returned to home and school with palpable disappointment.  Mia’s feelings on that were mixed; Yulie should be concentrating on his school life, and she certainly didn’t want him endangered, but at the same time she privately envied him his unthinking openness, with which the Jewel of Life had always resonated.

As she strained to find any new interpretations of her and her grandfather’s research that would explain what the Netherworld had in store for them this time, the boys took up their daily training again, turning the backyard into a tapestry of flashing blades and brightly-colored martial arts activity after school.  They worked out a schedule amongst themselves, with Kento rattling loose stones in the garden with the force of his strokes until everyone else got home, after which came group sparring.  Cye was next, swimming forward, striking and retreating in smooth repetitions until dinner, leaving Ryo to dance the sun down with his twin swords, their steel a burning ribbon in the orange light.  At midnight, when Cye and Mia turned in, Rowen headed out, and if she opened her window Mia could hear the low whistle of golden arrows humming in the yard for hours.  Sage, last and first, woke up in the dove gray hours before dawn and meditated cross-legged by the lake until the others had risen. 

That this was the rotation of guard duty none of them told her, but they hardly needed to.  White Blaze sunning himself on the front doorstep every day while everyone was at school was not what she would call subtle. 

Mia turned in the last of her projects—a list with speculation on at least six topics (she included ten) for her senior thesis—two weeks ahead of its due date, and consented to an essay test for her History in Poetry class in exchange for being able to finish early. 

Rowen sat for exams three days in a row, more to have the results to cite later than because they were for schools he wanted to attend.

Ryo took to practicing in the mornings as well, grave and concerned and so, so determined. 

Cye finalized a list of approved projects for extra credit to turn in over the spring break if the need arose.

Kento went out on his bike and came back with four sacks of take-out, which they ate on the back porch beneath the bare branches of the plum tree in an impromptu picnic dinner.

Sage, clad in his under-gear, watched the sunrise the next morning as if he expected it to whisper him some secret.  Sipping at the oolong tea Mia handed him, he admitted to a sense that something held Japan in its grasp, at the brink of bursting but waiting for something he couldn’t pin down.

In Mia’s mind it was like fingers on the skin of a peach—testing, pressing, but not yet ready to break—and when the gateway opened, an aperture of white against the dawn-pink skies, she understood what he meant. 

As Sage interposed himself between her and the portal, a standard-bearer walked through like a figure descended from the stage.  He stood at rigid attention, staring resolutely at nothing.  Two golden emblems decorated his flag, the seal of Anubis’s Oni armor and another she didn’t recognize, but Dais’s entrance left her no time to scrutinize it.

The warlord entered the world like a planet falling into orbit, a presence of vast power restrained by invisible force, a ghost of summer heat running a shockwave across the back patio’s masonry.  He wore his armor but held his helmet tucked under one arm, his white hair falling loose over his shoulders.  His one eye swept the yard briefly before pinning onto Sage; after a long, silent moment he half-turned to tell the soldier who followed him through, “Go and tell the others that it worked.  This is the place.”

“What’s this about, Dais?” Sage demanded, stepping forward as the soldier—blue and white armor, Mia noticed, and a pale-hued but human face inside the helmet—bowed and retreated.

Dais turned back, settling into a resting stance, and looked Sage over, expression shuttered. 

“It’s about all of us, Halo, or so I’m told.  We bearers of the nine armors.”

“What about them?”  Sage’s grip on his armor orb tightened infinitesimally. 

“Is it Talpa?” Mia asked, thoughts racing; there was so little else a matter involving all nine armors could mean.

“No and yes.”  Dais didn’t break eye contact with Sage, but he smirked.  It lit his eye with a memory of cruelty and Mia shivered.  “Call the others.  We’ll be needing all five of you.”

A muffled yell sounded from inside the house and, in a tumbling rush of pounding feet, the other warriors burst out the door, Ryo in the lead with White Blaze.  They darted to Sage’s side and, with the sudden wall of shoulders bristling between her and the warlord—when did they all get taller than her, anyway?—Mia noticed the look on the standard-bearer’s face.

He’s only a boy, she realized, not hearing the burst of questioning going on in front of her.  Like the soldier, his skin was not quite normal, a pale blue like the Netherworld’s priests’ had been, but his red-irised eyes were round with fascination.  They darted to each of the Ronin Warriors in turn as his hands fidgeted and shifted along the flagpole he carried.

“Ryo,” she said with low insistence, “everyone,” and that was when Cale stepped through the gateway with Kayura on his arm.

Mia read Genji Monogatari for the first time when she was all of twelve, and no small number of times since, for study or for pleasure.  It was, perhaps, her quintessential love story, though less now for the tale it told than the tale it represented.  She could and had delivered entire presentations on the merits of this or that translation, the thematic uses of color, the feminine framing and its significance when juxtaposed against its bluer content. 

Kayura could have been someone’s Lady Murasaki; she moved like a dancer, perfect grace matched with perfect intent, every cheerful band in her layered kimono showing exactly the same width, every strand of hair in place, shining like a spilled bolt of ink-blue silk.  Her hand sat on Cale’s arm like a sparrow, but oh, she tilted her head like an Empress.  For a moment Mia couldn’t breathe, horribly, horribly aware of how out of place she was in this gathering, in her sensible brown loafers and her puffy blue jacket. 

“Ronin Warriors.”  Kayura spoke with a curl of affection, a satisfied smile pulling at her lips.  “It is my honor to see you again.”

The boys glanced at each other and came to an unspoken decision.  Ryo stepped forward, straight-backed and grave.  He should kneel, thought Mia, part of her brain still working in Heian—the twitch of disapproval at one corner of Cale’s mouth told her he was probably thinking likewise, which brought her around.  Of course Ryo shouldn’t—he and the others had saved the Netherworld, and they didn’t owe any allegiance to it. 

“What’s this about, Lady Kayura?” Ryo asked, one hand still cupping his armor orb.

“It is an invitation, Ryo of Wildfire.”  Kayura tucked her hands into her long sleeves and Cale and Dais stepped back to stand at her shoulders.  “These past years, I, along with the other bearers of the seasonal armors, have been working to heal the scars of Talpa’s reign of the Netherworld.  It has been a long labor, and will be yet longer still, but recently we made a great discovery—we uncovered a himorogi.”

Sage sucked in a breath as Kayura went on.

“The tree lay hidden for centuries, protected by stalwart hearts, as Talpa would surely have desecrated it had he ever found it.  Its shrine sits atop a mountain, and from that mountain springs a waterfall, whose waters purify anything they touch.  Ronin Warriors, I know you must have had this fear, for I have shared it: is my armor tainted by the hand of its maker?  Can this power be stopped from turning to evil?”  She smiled more broadly as Kento swallowed, his gaze jumping to Dais, who inclined his head in acknowledgement.  “Talpa is no more—but will you come with me and set your minds at ease?  Purify the nine armors and the hearts of their bearers?”

The boys looked at each other again, drawing together into a loose huddle.  Mia eased half a step closer, listening to them talk while keeping an eye on the Netherworld delegation.  Cale’s gaze—and the standard bearer’s—remained fixed on the group of them, while Kayura politely averted her eyes to the lake, placid in her patience.  Dais had either lost interest in the conversation or was simply more curious about the surroundings.  He tipped his head up to scan the back of her house and the stray contents of the windows: a baseball pennant there, a bonsai tree there, a coffee mug that Mia had been looking for for three weeks…

“I say we go for it.  No more bad guys yanking our chains about our armor and how it’s just waiting for one slip-up to start killing people.” 

“I thought you were over that, Kento.”

“Yeah, and that’s why I wanna go.  How many times has one of us gotten all rattled about how the armors are evil, the armors draw conflict, the armors this, the armors that?  Lets go purify so the next time someone tries to pull that on us, we can be like, ‘Bam!  The Queen of the Netherworld says we’re in the clear!  Now eat fist!’”

“Mental crutches aren’t things you should be out there looking for, Kento,” Sage chided.  “And I doubt she’s a queen.  But—a himorogi in the Netherworld…  I’d like to see that.”

“You don’t have a half-dozen entrance exams this weekend.”

“I’ve never done a waterfall purification before,” Cye chipped in.  “It can’t take all that long, right?”

The group of them looked at Sage, who answered reluctantly, “Hard to say how their rituals are going to look, but I’d guess ‘involved.’  It could take a day; it could take a week.  It could take all month.”

“No way’s a hardworking girl like Kayura gonna take a whole month for this.”

“You just want to taste the food, right Kento?” Cye teased, and the shorter boy elbowed him with, “That’s not the only reason!  Hey, what do you think, Ryo?”

Ryo, who’d been holding Cale’s stare, turned back toward the group, frowning in thought. 

“…I think we should do it,” he said finally.  Kento pumped a fist in the air with a whoop and Rowen’s head drooped.  “Not just for the purity—I trust my armor, and I trust all yours.  But—what if we have to trust all nine someday?”

Kento’s enthusiasm drained from his face as the boys looked at each other, the two warlords, and back.

“Kayura’s one thing; she’s got Anubis’s armor,” Ryo finished, “but we’ve never fought with the other warlords before.  We don’t even know them.   I couldn’t trust my back to them the way I could you guys.”

“I guess it wouldn’t be just us, would it?” Cye asked, sobered, and Sage shook his head, voice lowered.  

“Ryo’s got a point.  If it’s all nine, it’ll be the warlords, too.  And they’ll have a lot more to purify for than us.”

Ryo simply nodded, looking over at Rowen for confirmation.  The other boy ran one hand through his hair, shaking his head. 

“Well, I’m not going to let you guys run off by yourselves again.  I guess we gotta go.”

“Act a little more put-upon, Mr. Unmoored in the Stream of the Sky,” Sage quipped with a grin as they all clasped hands in agreement.  “Anyway, just think of what the stars will look like there.”

“All right, Lady Kayura,” Ryo said, speaking for the group.  “We agree.”  As the Netherworld’s inhabitants all looked back to them, Mia touched his elbow in reminder; he added, “But Mia’s coming too.”

“That is ridiculous.  A mortal woman has no place,” Cale started to say, but Kayura cut him off with a touch on his arm, giving Mia an appraising stare.  Her eyes dropped to the Jewel of Life and she smiled suddenly—it surprised Mia with how girlish it was, almost lost in all of Kayura’s court regalia.

“The bearer of the Jewel of Life is as welcome in the Netherworld as the bearers of the nine armors,” she said warmly.  “And besides, this will mean that I won’t have to purify by myself.”

With that, the formality dissolved entirely as Sage looked horrified for a split second then saw Cale’s scandalized expression and burst out laughing.  The warlord glared at him darkly, which only got the other Ronin Warriors started, Dais snickering, and even Kayura chuckling behind one sleeve as she stepped back toward the open gateway, gesturing for the group to follow.

 

Oh, Mia thought, brain still processing “won’t have to purify by myself,” dear. 

 


 

They spent most of the rest of the day in travel.  The mechanics of it were lost on Mia, but apparently passing between the two worlds required the right departure point, in this case the better part of a day’s ride from the capital.  The horses—ruby-eyed beasts with manes like stormclouds that Mia had only previously seen from the nostrils up—were a terror of coiled power and uncertain temperament, but intelligent enough to regard long stares from White Blaze with caution rather than skittishness.

“Normally there would be a palanquin,” Kayura told her from where she sat the saddle like one born to it, changed into the light armor she’d worn as a warlord for the journey.  “But speed was important this time, so I overruled it.  I hope that’s all right!”

Mia smiled and told herself not to voice the sentiment that she might never walk straight again.  “It’s fine!” she called back.  “But what’s the hurry?”

Kayura laughed, spurring her horse ahead.  “The stars!”

She takes to non-answers like a natural.  Anubis should ask her how to do it. 

Mia rebuked herself for the thought.  Kayura had to be talking about astronomy, after all, so presumably they were drawing up to some solstice or convergence or eclipse that had been deemed significant.  The memory of Anubis brought her mind back to his warning, though.  She tried to puzzle it over again now that she had new information, but the pace of the ride and the need to hold on up steep trails and down sharp drops kept her attention well divided.

Like the real word, the Netherworld hovered on the cusp of spring.  Fresher, paler growth sketched an impatient image on the bracken of the woods, the tips of branches swelling with unburst green, or laden down by tightly furled flower buds the color of spilled wine.  It’s like riding through a painting, Mia thought when they stopped to take water in a grove of bamboo, new shoots dotting the floor amidst the tall, waving stalks that had survived the winter. 

The capital was far more populated that Mia remembered it; folk with human shape and others more monstrous wandered the streets in archaic clothes, clearing the streets as Kayura’s procession drummed toward the huge palace that had once housed Talpa and his armies of dark spirits.  New banners blew at the corners of the building now, the same that the standard-bearer in the garden that morning had carried—the other seal, she remembered with more time to study it, was that of the Ancient’s clan.      

The palace turned out for the party on its return, levels of finery and formality that had Kento complaining under his breath within minutes.  Sage gave him a dark look, and Cale a good deal darker, though it turned into a glare at Dais when the latter smirked and commented, “Just be glad it wasn’t a diplomatic function, Hardrock.  You can hardly even imagine how long the speeches would be taking then.  Unless you’d like to see, of course.”

“Bite me, Dais,” Kento answered, at the same time Cale snapped, “Still your tongue, Dais.”

Kayura, Mia noticed, was watching the proceedings in front of her with a polite smile, occasionally nodding to one courtier or another, hiding her tittering at the sniping going on behind her with a demure sleeve held over her mouth. 

Finally, when one courtier really did look like he was winding up for a speech, a man stepped out of the crowd and pointedly trod on his foot.  He yelped and spun around, but fell back a step when he met the newcomer’s eyes.  Mia strained to get a better look—the man wore court dress, a long single-paneled court official’s coat in forest green with hanging sleeves, red and white kimono showing at his neck beneath it.  He’d forgone the hat, though, likely because his hair wasn’t long enough to tuck back into it.  Green hair, she noticed, and when he turned to face the party and she saw the heavy, discolored eyelids and waspish set to his features, she finally recognized him.

“Lady Kayura,” Sekhmet greeted with a short bow.  His eyes, small and sharp, darted over the entourage and returned to her face.  “Welcome back.”  The words were perfunctory, his voice clipped and unrevealing, but Kayura smiled at him all the same, finally dismounting and handing off her horse. 

“Thank you for watching over the capital, Sekhmet.  Have the arrangements been completed?”

He nodded, impassive, and answered, “The messenger returned last night.  The guardians of the himorogi will welcome us in two days’ time.  I’ve ordered the skyward carriages prepared.”

“Yes, we will need them.  Only two days…”  Kayura’s brow creased and, as the rest of the group dismounted, she turned back to them.  “We will set out again in the morning.  All of you, please rest and refresh yourselves.  We will convene again for breakfast.”

“No offense, Lady Kayura, but we’d really rather not split up,” Ryo said, stepping forward with White Blaze. 

“Naturally not!”  She smiled again, cheeks dimpling.  “Your rooms will all connect to each other.  And the Jewel Bearer may sleep in a room beside mine, if she wishes.”  She looked to the taller woman, bright-eyed.

“I’d rather stay near the others,” Mia answered, keenly aware of eyes in the courtyard turning to her in curiosity.  She rested one hand over the Jewel of Life for reassurance.  “Please.”

The light behind Kayura’s expression dimmed, though her smile held, and nervousness jolted through Mia at the change.  Had that been wrong?  How significant was it as a mistake?  Was it rude, or too forward?

“Very well, then!”  The other woman recovered and called out with clapped hands.  “Servants!  Show our guests, the Ronin Warriors and the bearer of the Jewel of Life, to their chambers.  See that they have all that they ask for, for we owe them more than one night’s hospitality can repay!”

A handful of servants broke ranks from the side of the courtyard and approached, bowing to Ryo, who stood at the head of the group.  He scratched the back of his neck and shot Mia a bemused look; she hid a smile, relaxing a bit with the realization that she wasn’t alone in feeling out of her depth.  The other warriors gathered up around her and they headed inside.

Mia stole one last glance over her shoulder, a gesture Rowen echoed; the last they saw of their host that night was her standing in a loose circle with the warlords, their heads bowed in a whispered conversation that was lost to the cold breeze.

 

 


 

When Mia woke in the morning, she found an array of clothes laid out for her, white hakama pants and kimono in a fan of colors like a color swatch.  She did the best she could with them—white underlayer first, then the dark green, and lastly three progressively darker shades of pink, scattered with seashell-pale peonies.  The silk whispered on her fingertips, and slid down her back like rain, but the sleeves took some fighting.  She tweaked the arrangement by degrees, smoothing the panels down over and over.  It called to mind Cye arranging flowers for their Christmas dinner last year, or Ryo sliding his katana smoothly back into their sheaths. 

After dressing, she brushed out her hair and tied it back just beneath her shoulders with a twist of white cloth, then turned her attention to makeup.  It seemed faintly blasphemous to assume that the Netherworld had a problem with lead poisoning, but coating her face in it remained deeply unappealing.  How much difference was one breakfast in or out of the makeup going to matter, in the rushed circumstances?  Still, she didn’t want to make a display of herself.  On the other hand, Kayura wore nothing but the red highlights and lipstick.  Then again, she was the ruler.

Mia sighed and picked up the dish of red paint, drawing a small crimson bow in the center of her lips.  She filled in markings at the corners of her eyes, rounder than Kayura’s triangle darts, and blended the red with white for a softer color, then finally stood back to give her reflection a critical stare.  She didn’t look much like herself, admittedly, but still—not bad.  The layers seemed to drape like they should, she didn’t see any obvious mislaid folds, and the red wings brought out the blueness of her eyes and made them look larger. 

It would have to do.  As growing levels of noise announced the boys waking and figuring out their own attire, she centered the Jewel of Life at the junction of the layered kimono and picked up the ornate fan set on the side of the vanity.  She flicked it open with a twist of her wrist, nodded to herself at the unfurled wings of the phoenix painted across the fabric, and closed it with a click, then headed out to find a servant.  The boys could catch up. 

The maid she found bowed to her deeply and agreed to take her to the dining hall, but otherwise said little.  She wore a thin blue veil; less, ran Mia’s uncomfortable suspicion, to cover her face than to cover her lack thereof. 

Cale and Sekhmet had already arrived, dressed in lighter versions of the court official’s attire the latter had been wearing the prior evening.  Their color preferences ran true, though, Cale in dark brown and Sekhmet in a deep mossy green.  They gave her nearly identical unimpressed glances, but Sekhmet looked away first, returning to a spare meal of rice and a pale miso soup.  Cale, place still empty in front of him, went on staring.

Mia straightened her shoulders and followed the maid to her seat, pointedly looking away from the warlord of winter.  She lowered herself into a kneeling position as evenly as she could, then smoothed back sleeves that had rucked up against the table.  As she settled, more servants slipped in, wordlessly setting a place for her with a cup of pale wine.  She glanced at the warlords, hoping for a clue to the dining etiquette, but if there was something to be gleaned from autumn eating while winter waited, it was lost on her.

“Sekhmet is following a regimen,” Cale told her brusquely.  “The rest of us wait until the lord arrives.”

“I see,” Mia folded her hands on her lap, noting Sekhmet’s lack of response to what had sounded like a barb despite not being phrased as one.  “Who is the lord here?  I thought—”

“It is Lady Kayura, of course.  Don’t you think we would have been greeted if this were another lord’s household?”

We were greeted by a lot of people, Mia thought, tilting her chin up to meet Cale’s stare.  “I do,” she answered, rallying to dampen the sharp edge of the words.  “That’s why I asked.  I didn’t think women could be feudal lords.”

“That was in Japan, and it was a long time ago.”  The warlord’s tone darkened.

She stared at him.  “I’m sorry.  Are you telling me the Netherworld has gender equality?”

He scowled at her, and he made no attempt to soften his tone.  “No, woman, I’m telling you not to bring human thoughts about who is allowed to rule to a place where only the strongest—”

Cale,” a voice broke in from the doorway, soft but with a delicacy of enunciation that underlined its mastery in a bold black stroke.  Kayura moved into the room, flanked by servants, and finished, “Rudeness does not suit you.”

His face wiped blank, as abruptly as a puppeteer dropping strings.  Down the table, Sekhmet’s lips twitched, just for a moment, before he too faced Kayura with a still expression.  Mia looked between the three of them, lost and not liking the looks of the forest.  The boys were like that sometimes, reading each other’s thoughts with just a glance, but with them it was a sign of their trust.  Here, leashed emotions flashed warning signs in the faint downward turn of Kayura’s lips, and the stiffness gathered at the back of Cale’s jaw.

They hate each other, she thought, an awful void dropping in her stomach.

But the next moment left her unsure, as Kayura released the tension with a tilt of her head and asked, “Where is Dais?”

Cale all but rolled his eyes, a chuffed breath bursting against his teeth.  “Sleeping late again, I don’t doubt.  If you want him up on time you should station a guard with a water pail.”

“You know he dislikes formalities,” Sekhmet said, speaking at last.  “And we have guests.”

“All the more reason…” Kayura sighed, sinking like a falling flower petal into her seat, not a stitch out of place.  “Go and rouse him,” she told a servant, who nodded and vanished—literally vanished, in a slash of blue against the backdrop of paper walls.

Mia hesitated, then spoke, stumbling when Kayura looked at her and opened her mouth in the same moment.  “The others will be here soon.  I heard them getting ready when I left.”

Kayura recovered neatly and gave her a gracious smile that still wasn’t quite as warm as last night’s.  “Of course.  Shall we give them a few more minutes?”

Mia, accustomed to a kitchen that served as more of a waystation anywhere between five and noon, nodded, and stewed in the silence that followed.  But the boys, thankfully, didn’t keep them waiting much longer, coming up the hall in a long clamorous forewarning of youth. 

“I mean, what do I look like, Japanese?”

“Do these even look that different from old Chinese court wear?” Ryo sounded curious, but Mia could imagine the winces going around the faces of the boys more connected to their old family traditions. 

“It’s no wonder I had to tell you how to put on an obiage,” Sage sighed. 

“Would you guys cool it?” Rowen interjected.  “We’re here.” 

Conspicuous silence fell; Kayura was smiling into her sleeve again, while Cale looked terse.  Sekhmet drained the last of his cup and looked to Kayura.  She dismissed him with a nod and he stood, bowed, and departed.  Though a door, Mia noted, and wondered why, given the servant’s disappearance and that the warlords had certainly come and gone ably enough during Talpa’s invasion.  Come to think of it, why could they come and go so easily then but require such travel times now?  Was it because—

At which point the boys came in, and Mia’s running thoughts dissolved into warmth.  Whatever trouble they’d had putting the outfits together, they looked wonderful, tucked into matching coats and hakama in an array of colors and patterns alluding to their powers or even personalities or histories—bamboo shoots for Kento, dragonflies for Ryo.  Though…  She smiled behind her sleeve at the sight of Rowen’s ankles just visible beneath the edges of his pants.  He was the one who had grown the most since they were last here.

Cye, least interested in staring matches with Cale or cataloguing the contents of the room, noticed her first.

“Mia, you look great!”

That swiveled the attention around from the others, who grouped up around her in a flurry of more-or-less able compliments.  (Poor Sage, with all his sisters, was somehow still the worst at it.)  She smiled, pleased but embarrassed.  “Thank you, everyone, but you can’t buy off being late with flattery.”

“Blame Ryo—” Kento started, cheerfully ribbing, but Sage hooked his elbow and dragged him away with a long-suffering expression. 

“I apologize for how long it took us to get here, Lady Kayura,” he said as he pressed Kento down, pointedly ignoring the other boy’s disbelieving gesture.  The others settled down as well, Ryo sitting nearest Mia, sobered and attentive.

“Thank you, Sage of Halo, but it’s all right,” Kayura demured, rueful.  “You have still outshone us for manners this morning.”  Cale gritted his teeth, though Kayura hadn’t looked at him; she spread her hands to the table.  “Shall we eat?”

“Music to my ears,” Kento sighed happily, and they set in.

Breakfast was simple but elaborately presented fish and rice, though tinged with oddly foreign flavors even to Mia, who had lived in Japan since she was seven.  Wilder flavors than she could identify punctuated the meal, sauces and glazes produced from plants that didn’t grow on Earth and never had. 

After a few minutes, Rowen cleared his throat and leaned forward, looking down the table at Kayura, who glanced up and nodded to him, raising her eyebrows in a questioning lilt. 

“So how’s this gonna play out?” the young man asked.  “What can you tell us about the himorogi and the guardians?”

Though tired, the Ronin and Mia had spent some time talking before they’d gone to bed, revisiting Anubis’s warning.  Our actions lay traps for us, he’d said.  The consensus had been that an old victim of Talpa’s—or of the warlords more directly—would confront them, and a shrine forced into a thousand years of hiding was a better candidate than most for containing dissidents not convinced of Kayura’s good intentions, or desirous of vengeance against Dynasty soldiers.  Sage had felt that anyone that could guard a sacred site for a thousand years was probably above things like revenge, but conceded that if the problem lay elsewhere, they didn’t have enough information to predict it yet.

“Sekhmet found the himorogi two months ago.  He was on business of his own, and found a pool on the mountain he had never heard of before, though he had been many times.”  Kayura set her chopsticks aside and folded her hands in her lap.  “He was greeted by Astra, the mistress of the hidden shrine, who had sensed Talpa’s defeat.  They spoke at some length, and Sekhmet was taken to see the waterfall to which we will be journeying.  The offer of a ritual purification was extended, Sekhmet brought word to me, and I accepted.  We have spent the weeks since arranging for the most fortuitous time.”

The Ronin exchanged glances, and Sage, playing advocate for the group’s doubts, ventured, “They’re just opening the place up like that?  Aren’t they worried about being betrayed, or…”

He trailed off, and Kento, less tactful, finished, “Or about certain peoples’ old habits kicking in?  How’d they know Talpa going down wouldn’t just mean someone new trying to take his place?”

“There have been many who sought to do just that,” Kayura conceded.  “But none that have yet been strong enough to defeat the seasonal armors.  Astra has not revealed to me all of her reasons, but I am blessed that she has chosen to trust us.  The opening of the himorogi’s shrine will brighten this whole world—and provide us with a strong ally in restoring the peace.”

“What are the chances that someone could interfere with the ceremony?” Mia asked.  “Someone who doesn’t want you and Astra allied?”

“The shrine’s guardians have protected it for nearly a thousand years.  If they do not want trespassers, then no one will trespass.  Cale?”

The warlord nodded and continued Kayura’s explanation.  “We looked into it when Sekhmet brought word the first time.  After Talpa first declared himself Emperor of the Netherworld and took Badamon under his rule, he sent armies looking for the place.  All they ever found was an abandoned shrine.  After enough years had gone by, he assumed they’d fled instead of having to face his power.”

“They stayed hidden all that time?” Ryo asked, eyebrows raised.

“What else?  They’d have been no match for Talpa.  They would have revealed themselves and then they would have died.”

“If all else fails, retreat, Wildfire,” Dais commented from the entrance.  As the group looked up at him, he came in, bowed to Kayura, and took his seat.

“Sun Tzu?” 

“The Thirty-Six Strategems,” the warlord answered Rowen’s guess, and smiled, sardonic.  “Did you actually study those before you put on that armor, then?”

“Hush, Dais,” Kayura rebuked, though without much heat.  “You have been rude enough to keep us waiting.”

“Apologies, Lady Kayura.”

After breakfast, Kayura bid them a temporary farewell to attend to matters that required her attention before she and the warlords left the castle again.  Mia and the others were guided to a courtyard where three carriages waited, surrounded in a bevy of servants packing and repacking, calling back and forth about weight and balance.

“That’s weird,” Rowen commented, echoing Mia’s thoughts.  “They didn’t seem so worried when it was half a dozen soldiers hanging onto every side.”

“It was all empty suits of armor before, though, wasn’t it?” 

“Yeah, but are we sure those things are gonna be stable?” Kento asked, peering over at the commotion. 

“I’m sure they’ll be fine; they wouldn’t put Kayura in them if they were dangerous.”  Cye scanned the crowd as well, then said, “Look, there’s Sekhmet again.”  The man stood on the other side of the yard, observing, arms folded over his chest and occasionally nodding or commenting inaudibly to a servant that broke from the crowd and approached him.  The visitors watched for a few moments before Cye went on, slowly.  “Does anyone else think it’s strange that he’s the one administering the castle?  Of all the people Kayura has?”

“I think I know already, but—what do you mean?” Rowen asked.

“It’s just…”  Cye paused, working words around the thought.  “Dais is so calm, and Cale’s the one who cares the most about propriety.  The last time I fought Sekhmet he was poisoning the Sea of Tokyo to get at one person.”  He didn’t mention that the one person was him, but Mia remembered the low fishing yields that had continued in the years after the invasion.  The invisible war had left several scars that lingered in the human world; signs, if one knew what to look for.  Sekhmet and Cye’s battle had impacted humanity more than most. 

“Cale did an awful lot of talking about how the armors call their bearers to destruction for anyone to put him in charge of organization,” Sage observed, Kento piping in with, “Dais too.”

“Those servants look nervous, but not afraid,” Ryo said, and waved at his eyes when the others looked at him.  “He blinded me the second time I fought him.  I’d worry about having to report to him.”

“Cale said Sekhmet was—following a regimen, whatever that means,” Mia said, bringing a hand up to her chin, then lowering it again with a sigh when the gesture made the sleeves on the layered kimono slide down her arm.  “Maybe they’ve changed their minds about the armors?”

“Guys, heads up.”  Rowen nodded across the courtyard; when Mia looked, Sekhmet was walking toward them, cutting a clean swathe through the busyness.  The boys straightened up, on their guard as the warlord approached, stopping a few feet away with his arms still crossed and a narrow set to his eyes. 

“The animal isn’t going to fit,” he said without preamble.  When the group just looked at him blankly, he flicked thin fingers toward White Blaze, who tilted his heavy head and sat down on his hind legs, watching the warlord.  “The tiger.  You can’t bring it on the carriage.” 

“What?  I’m not going anywhere without White Blaze.”  Ryo broadened his stance; Mia recognized him digging in his heels for an argument. 

“The tiger is not in need of purification, Wildfire.  We do not have the time to make this journey on horseback.  Leave the animal here; no one in the castle could hurt it if they tried.” 

“No way.  You couldn’t make him stay behind anyway.”

Then let him catch up.”  The words came clipped and short as the man took one step closer, eyes narrowing.  “This ritual is too important to endanger over a pet.

“Hey, Sekhmet, just because you guys have a thousand years of evil deeds to work off doesn’t mean the rest of us have it so rough,” Kento challenged.  “Back off of Ryo.”

Mia transferred the fan to her other hand and, tamping down self-consciousness, touched it to Kento’s arm.  He blinked at it, then at her when she stepped between him and Ryo, looking at the warlord.  “We’ll talk to Kayura about it.”

Holding Sekhmet’s gaze was like staring down a cobra; Mia pressed down on the fan harder, posture rigid as the warlord took her measure.  Her heart raced beneath her many layers of clothes.  Unable to look away, she could only stare back harder.  Sekhmet’s eyes flickered, a bright madness rising, and Mia’s blood ran cold, the fan jerking along her friend’s arm as her muscles twitched without her control.

Just as her lungs were beginning to burn from lack of air, the warlord closed his eyes, breathing in a short breath through his nose and letting it out the same way.  When he opened his eyes again, calm—or at least a semblance of it—had returned to them.  He turned on one heel and headed back into the thick of the preparations.  “You do that.  She’ll tell you the same.”

Mia wobbled in place, caught by Ryo, who smiled at her proudly.  “Good job, Mia.”

“Yeah, we don’t have to take that from that jerk.”  Kento’s broad hand closed over hers, warm and steady; he squeezed reassuringly in spite of the flippant words, and she sighed shakily.

“But we should take it up with Kayura when we have a problem,” Sage said from behind them, watching Sekhmet leave.  “The last thing we should be doing right before a purification is picking a fight with old enemies.”

“You’d think that’d be the best time,” Rowen quipped, and grinned at the look Sage gave him.  “So what are we gonna do about White Blaze?”

“Doesn’t he take off on his own all the time anyway?”  Cye gave the tiger a doubtful look.

“The real world’s not the same thing.”  Ryo rubbed a hand over White Blaze’s ears; the tiger hurmed and twisted his head up to look at his friend. 

They talked about the problem and possible solutions for a few more minutes—White Blaze balancing on top of a carriage, White Blaze staying at the castle to hang out with the celestial handmaidens—before Kayura and the other two warlords made their entrance. 

Sekhmet intercepted her first, and his report sent her gaze darting over to the Ronin Warriors.  Her response dismissed him and Dais, and they took up station at the rear two carriages as she proceeded over to the visitors, Cale at her shoulder. 

“I’m not going anywhere without White Blaze,” Ryo reiterated when she made eye contact, then stammered as she bent at the waist, offering one hand out to the tiger.  “Uh…”

“Well, White Blaze?  Do you know the way?” she murmured.  White Blaze lifted his head, sniffing her hand and blinking his dark eyes at her with slow consideration.    He bumped his nose into her hand once, and she straightened back up with a chuckle.  “I don’t think it would be too difficult for him to follow along.”

“Has he—been here before?”  Ryo looked between the two of them, bemused.  Kayura only smiled. 

“Perhaps not, but he is a very special animal.  I remember him, from when I was a girl.  He had been the Ancient One’s companion for as long as anyone could remember.”

“Really?”  Ryo crouched down, rubbing one hand over his friend’s cheek.  “You’ve got your secrets, huh, boy?”  The tiger only looked away, yawning.  Kayura giggled. 

“Okay, so pretending Ryo didn’t just totally shrug off hearing that his tiger is hundreds of years old: what are we going to do about Ryo not wanting to leave him?” Rowen pressed, then gave the other boy a suspicious look when he slung one arm around White Blaze’s neck and looked up. 

“I’ll go with him.”  As Rowen and the others begin to protest, he shook his head.  “He’s faster than a horse, and this way someone can keep an eye on the carriages from the outside.”

“He’s faster than a horse carrying Yulie, not you,” Rowen retorted.  “What are you gonna do, just run all the way?”

“Sage did say purification took a lot of physical activity first, right?”

The blond splayed his fingers over his face, exasperated.  “I didn’t mean you should go volunteering to run a marathon, Ryo,” he responded.

"It’ll be fine.  I wanna see more of the Netherworld, anyway.  It’s not like flying carriages will be hard to keep track of, right?”  Ryo looked at Kayura for confirmation.

“They fly above the trees, but not in the clouds,” she answered, then lifted and opened a fan in a circle of motion, tapping it on her cheek.  “One horse will travel faster than a baggage train,” she acknowledged.  “Let us send you with a messenger’s horse.  We can send word to have a fresh mount prepared halfway.”

Ryo grinned, victorious, and stood up.  “Sounds great.” 

The arrangements were made, and Ryo and White Blaze lead away to get a head start on the journey.  The rest of the group migrated toward the carriages amid thinning bustle.  Kayura and Cale headed to the one in the lead, the former gesturing to the waiting vessels.  “Choose whichever you like, Ronin Warriors,” she said warmly, then looked at Mia, sobering almost imperceptibly.  “Will you ride with me, Jewel Bearer?”

Mia glanced at the boys, who were already eyeing the division of one warlord per carriage and muttering to one another.  Splitting up looked inevitable anyway, so…  She looked back at Kayura and nodded, putting on a smile.  “Of course.”

“I’m coming with you two, then,” Rowen declared.  “There’s some more I wanna ask about how things are looking in the Netherworld these days.”

Behind him, Sage jerked a thumb at the last wagon, guarded by the warlord of summer.  Cye nodded and looked over at Sekhmet, chest rising on a shallow breath, then whispered something to Kento to get him to stop glaring at Dais.  The three of them traded nods with Rowen, then Kento and Cye headed to the second carriage while Sage moved to stand at attention by the third, ignoring the twitch of Dais’s smirk.

“No one is riding with the two of them,” Cale told Rowen.  “It’s improper.”

“Look, improper or not—” 

Mia could see Sage’s ire building all the way from the back; she broke in hurriedly.  “It’s all right, Rowen.”  She leaned closer to him, adding under her breath.  “There wouldn’t be room without sitting on my sleeves, anyway.”

Her friend turned and reexamined her attire, then sighed heavily.  “Yeah, I guess not.”  He looked down at her, adding, “Be careful, all right?”  She nodded, and he headed off to join Sage.

“Very well.  Then shall we depart?”  At Kayura’s words, a servant rolled up the carriage door and Cale held out his hand, helping Kayura step over the sill.  As the servant arranged her skirts, the warlord turned to Mia, expression impassive.  After blinking at him for a moment, she realized his hand was still raised, and gingerly put her fingers over his own.  The strength in just that much of him lifted her up like machinery, like her father whirling her overhead when she was a girl.  Mouth dry, she watched him nod to Kayura and stride off. 

A last few clerks and dignitaries approached for words with Kayura as the procession finalized its affairs, then the reed door was rolled down again, leaving the two women in a dim enclosure, looking at each other and away again.  Mia fought the urge to fiddle with her fan—Kayura wasn’t so successful, she noticed, watching out of the corner of her eye as the other woman’s fingers traced the dragon painted along her fan’s lacquered edge.

The carriage jolted once—Mia gasped, one hand pressing against the wall—then a sinking sensation and the shifting of the light through the door’s narrow bands told her that it had begun to rise.  She edged a finger between the slats and peered out, watching the ground drop away beneath them.  She swallowed, reminded of a gondola ride she’d made at a ski resort some years back.  No cable this time, though, she thought, biting down on the spinning sense of vertigo. 

Drawing her hand away from the door, she leaned back.  The less disturbed the door was, the less disturbed she’d be.  She glanced back up to find Kayura observing her again, fingers tense on her fan.

“How are you and the others faring, Jewel Bearer?” Kayura asked.  She smiled, hopeful but unsure.  “If I may ask.”

“We’re…  I suppose we’re well.”  Mia thought over events of late, at least the more mundane ones.  “They’ll be graduating from high school in a few months.  Ryo’s been looking into schools with good environmental programs.  Rowen’ll be going to one of the public universities, but he wants one with a good baseball team—he finally joined one last year.  Sage is going to be getting his driver’s license in the fall.  He’s already looking at motorcycles…”  She trailed off, looking at Kayura’s expression—interested but uncomprehending.  “I’m sorry; most of that probably doesn’t make any sense at all, does it?”

“Very little,” Kayura agreed, then hid an apologetic smile behind one sleeve.  “But please, go on.”

So Mia did, telling her about Kento’s plans for after school and Cye’s experience in college.  She talked about the process of moving the boys in, Yulie’s visits on the weekends, about redoing the deck in the back of the house, about working out routines and the division of bills, about holidays and vacations and how fast the boys had grown in just the few years she’d known them.  It kept Kayura happy; the woman smiled behind her fan and sometimes laughed aloud, shoulders shaking, sleeve-draped hands pressing to her mouth to muffle the noise. 

She looks so young, Mia thought, privately stunned. 

But when she mentioned the growth spurts, Kayura’s cheerfulness dented—only slightly, but Mia caught the flicker in her smile, the quick shadow of pain. 

 “Yes,” Kayura said, not acknowledging whatever it was that had stung her.  “I had not accounted for that when I ordered the clothes prepared.  My apologies.”

“Oh, it’s all right.”  Mia smiled.  “Actually I’m impressed they fit as well as they do.  After all, it’s been three years, and you never even saw them out of their armor, did you?”  The other woman looked at her for a long moment, lips half-parted around unspoken words.  Mia caught the end of the sentence hanging in the air and blushed, waving one hand aimlessly.  “I mean, you never saw them in normal clothes.”

“The nine armors are not so different from one another in how much height they add to their bearers,” Kayura answered, then, at Mia’s blank look, brought her hand up to her eyes, gesturing with her fingertips.  “The eye level.  The warlords and I crossed blades with the Ronin many times.  But you speak so little of yourself, Jewel Bearer,” she went on, looking back at Mia with a smile.  “How have you fared since we last met?”

“Mia’s fine.”  She said it encouragingly, putting all of her warmth into her smile.  “There isn’t much to say.  I’m working on my Bachelor’s degree in Literature, I’m continuing my grandfather’s work…  I go out cycling with Kento sometimes, I trade tea recipes with Cye…  Oh, they’ve been teaching me how to use the naginata.”

Kayura brightened.  “Have they?  Then you will be able to spar with me!”

Mia waved, abashed.  “I’m nowhere near good enough,” she protested.  “I—”

“Oh, please, Mia!”  Kayura cut her off, leaning forward.  “I haven’t had another woman to spar with in—in ever.  I’ve fought other women, but never just for training.”

“I suppose I can if you really want, but it won’t even be at the level of sparring.”

“Then I can teach you!”  She clasped her hands together, dimpling.  “I have never had a chance to teach anyone, either.  And that will be good for the purification.  So long as you don’t get frustrated.”  Her expression fell, and she looked at Mia anxiously.  “You must try not to get frustrated.”

Mia smiled, rueful.  “I won’t.  The boys are all so much better than me, I got all that out ages ago.  But—what should I be thinking about?  And what are we going to be doing once we get there?”

“Well…”  Kayura tapped her closed fan on her chin, lips puckering in thought.  Not very ladylike, supplied Mia’s thoughts, but that was cheering.  She was reaching a more genuine Kayura, it seemed.  “Meditation, I suppose.  Fasting.  Exercise.  I was hoping we could go on a hunt, but Cale said only if we did it before we got there.”

“You enjoy hunting?”

“Yes.”  Kayura looked embarrassed this time.  “It isn’t a pursuit that court ladies are meant to enjoy, but…  The truth is that I was raised as a warrior.  Sometimes I want to engage in warrior’s pursuits.”

Mia hesitated, then, tipping her fan to one side, admitted, “Well, I’ve never been hunting, but I think I know what you mean.  I’d like to get my Master’s degree, and it seems like everyone but the boys has a speech for me about how it isn’t necessary unless you want to be an academic.”

“And do you?”

“Very much.  They’re mostly men, though; academics, I mean.” 

She shared a private smile with Kayura who, after a moment, said, “I am glad we’re getting on better, Mia.  There’s only so much I can talk to the warlords about.”

Mia paused, remembering the scene at breakfast.  “How are things with them?” she asked at last.  “They seem…”

Kayura fell quiet, mulling the question over for a long while.  “We are—adjusting.  They lived directly under Talpa’s control for so long…”  She looked down, turning her fan over in her hands.  “To tell the truth, they tried to separate at first.  Talpa’s betrayal made them allies, not friends.  But one by one they came back.”

“Did the armor draw you together?” Mia asked softly. 

“Not so much the armor,” the other woman answered.  “We are the only four humans who live in the Netherworld.  As much as it’s changed us, being human still marks us apart.  We understand each other in a way that nothing else here ever will.  So even if at times we dislike each other—I suppose we’re all we have.”

Human…  It’s so easy to forget that about them.  Mia bit the inside of her lip, searching for words.  “I’m sorry,” she said finally.  “I’m sorry anyone had to go through all that.”

Kayura smiled, a small, muted expression, and reached over to rest one of her small hands atop Mia’s own.  “Thank you, Mia.  But you needn’t worry about us too much.  We are all very strong.”

Mia put her other hand over Kayura’s and squeezed, giving her a half-smile in return.  “You are,” she affirmed. 

Kayura let their hands rest together for a few more moments, then drew back, reaching up to peek through the door slats.  “Ah, we’ve been talking for so long.  Would you like something to eat?  We won’t be stopping until we’ve reached the mountain.” 

It had, Mia realized, gotten warmer, enough so that the layered kimono were beginning to stifle.  She nodded gratefully.  “That would be lovely.”

They dined from carefully prepared boxes, thin slices of pheasant and leek intricately stacked and drizzled with brown sauce, each taking a scoop of packed rice.  The Netherworld’s rice wine was dry and spicy, with an herbal aftertaste that burned down Mia’s throat like a medicinal draught ready to rout out every impurity. 

After putting the dishes away, they talked for a while longer.  Eventually, Kayura cajoled Mia into looking out the door again, encouraging and giggling by turns.  Endless fields passed by below, and running through them was White Blaze, glowing against the fallow winter earth like an ivory sculpture in motion.  Ryo rode behind him, and Mia sighed to see that he’d donned his under-gear rather than ride in the kosode he’d worn that morning.  The sigh was followed with a yelp when Kayura rolled up the door to wave to him, the whole curve of the world visible from much, much too high in the air.  One hand locked around the bench, Mia waved a trembling hand at Ryo, grateful that he wouldn’t be able to see how sickly her smile was, then sank back gratefully while Kayura fastened the door again.

Her heartbeat slowly returned to its normal pace, and not long after, she slipped into a doze in the quiet afternoon heat.  

 

 


 

When she opened her eyes, it was to sunset stamping the inside of the carriage with molten gold, the stripes of shadows from the door moving upward as the carriage descended. 

“We’re there?” she asked, straightening up and resisting the urge to rub her eyes.  Kayura nodded, tying up the train of her kimono.  She handed Mia a cord, which the other woman accepted, laying it over her lap while she began folding up the layers of cloth to spare the fine fabric being dragged across open ground.

“It will be dark soon.  The warlords will make a camp ready in the old shrine.”  Kayura smiled with a touch of mischief.  “Assuming they can still remember how.”

“Has it been a while?”

“Only two or three centuries, I guess.”

Mia chuckled, and a few minutes later they set down.  Kayura, still brimming with energy, rolled up the door herself and stood, ducking out of the carriage.  As Mia stood, fussing with her hems before she tried to exit, Cale appeared at the door.  He held a hand out to her, though he was looking after Kayura, and helped her down.  She took a few steps away from the carriage to look around. 

They’d landed in another forest, thick woods of black pine.  The ground was rocky, and sloped slightly; remnants of an old footpath wound away into the rising shadows of trees.  On the other side of the knot of carriages, a mountain rose, features obscured by the evergreens, and alive with the evening cries of birds.  At its foot, as Kayura had said, an old shrine sat in disrepair, painted beams worn bare by the elements, the wall of one building collapsed, with vines creeping over two of the roofs. 

Sekhmet, she saw, was walking toward the gate at a clipped stride, Kento and Cye looking after him with, respectively, puzzled and pensive stares.  Dais stood at the back of the last carriage, passing off wrapped equipment to Sage, who was examining the shrine with narrowed, grave eyes—at least until the warlord of summer prodded him with a tentpole and the comment, “Less staring, more unpacking, Halo.  I was up early this morning and I’d like to go back to bed.”

“Early?”  Sage looked at him with exasperated disbelief, but bent to the task, picking up an armload of rolled-up pallets and heading for the shrine.

Rowen, standing to one side and examining the line of the woods below, glanced over at Mia and jogged over.  “Ryo’s not here yet,” he supplied.  “Was the ride okay?”

“It was fine,” she answered, looking into the trees.  “How far behind do you think he is?  I saw him still following this afternoon.” 

“I dunno.”  Her friend scowled.  “I wish he’d of just come along like the rest of us.”

“I’m sure he’s fine.  The horse is probably just tired.  And it’s not like he could miss this.”  She looked back up at the mountain.

Rowen hummed in his throat, unconvinced.  “Woods’re awfully thick, though.”  He frowned at them for another few seconds, then shook his head.  “I’m gonna help with the camp.  Yell if you see him coming.”

But as the sun dropped slowly below the horizon, tents going up around the lees of the shrine and a fire being started to heat dinner, Ryo still failed to appear.  A tense meal followed, largely silent, the night gathering darker and darker around them.  Finally Kento stood, resolute, and looked down at group.

“We gotta go find him!” 

The other Ronin didn’t argue, glancing around at each other and nodding.  Kento gave the warlords a challenging glare.

“You’ll only go in there and get yourselves lost too,” said Cale, giving them an annoyed look.  “And then the whole trip will have been for nothing.”

“Yeah, I’m so scared of a bunch of trees.  Come on, guys.  He could be in trouble.”

“He’s probably in trouble,” Rowen amended.  “Lady Kayura, is there anything you know about this mountain that we should watch out for?” 

Kayura, looking torn, said slowly, “Many things may come from the woods at night, Strata.  The mountain is not a safe place.  They could not afford to have it be, not without drawing notice.  But we must be prepared for the morning.  The shrine guardians will not wait.”

“Better go, then, so we can get back.”  Sage stood, and Rowen and Cye followed suit.  “Don’t worry,” he added with half a grin.  “We have to go save Ryo all the time.”

Kayura hesitated for a moment longer, then turned her gaze to Cale.  The two locked stares for minute, Kayura’s eyes growing rounder and rounder as Cale’s lips drew off his teeth in disgust.  Finally, she tilted her head half an inch, said his name once, and he threw one hand up in defeat.

“Fine!  If it will stop this whining.”  He stood and stalked away from the fire, armor orb rolling into his palm.  “Armor of Winter!  Dao Tei!”  He hissed in concentration but didn’t break his stride as plates of shadow settled on his limbs and torso.  The darkness melted away as he sat down with his back to the camp, tan and red armor shifting and clanking as he removed his helmet.  He placed it on the ground in front of him, turned to face the woods, and settled his sword across his knees.

“Uh.  What’s he doing?” Kento asked, having taken, along with the others, a defensive stance on reflex.

“All we bearers of the seasonal armors have been exploring their other powers, from before Talpa corrupted them,” Kayura answered.  “You will find your armors have these powers too, Ronin, when you come to know them more deeply.”

Around the joints of Cale’s armor, a black crackle of energy emerged, gathering around his shoulders before it leapt through the air to strike the ground in front of him, charring the earth.  When the haze cleared, a shape in front of the warlord turned eyes that glowed a dim red on the gathering, then huffed and turned away.  A black wolf, formed of shadows, trotted down the forest path, ears perking forward.

“His senses will be sharper in the dark than anyone’s,” Kayura finished, a faint smile of pride tracing over her lips.  “He will guide you to Ryo.”

The boys looked at each other again.  Rowen broke the silence first, with, “Yeah.  Lets go.”  He clenched one fist out in front of him, clothes dissolving into his under-armor in a flurry of scattering light.  The others followed suit, and they headed into the woods.

Honestly, it was like telepathy.  Mia sighed, and Kayura turned to her with a smile.  “They’ll be all right, Jewel Bearer.  If Ryo is anywhere nearby, they will find him.”

“You’d think the heir to the Sanada clan could avoid combat more easily,” Dais commented, smirking. 

“The boy’s a Sanada?” Sekhmet asked from the far side of the fire, incredulous.  Dais turned to him, his good eye alight with vicious amusement. 

“Hardrock’s from China, but the rest of them are all from old families.  The Date, the Mouri—Strata’s family name is Hashiba.”  Sekhmet stared at him, clearly annoyed, but blank at the last name, and Dais finished, “Hashiba Hideyoshi—Toyotomi Hideyoshi.”

Sekhmet’s eyes narrowed.  “Nobunaga’s—?”

“Nobunaga’s successor.”  A fatalistic enjoyment edged Dais’s words.  “The first to unify Japan.  He went on to great things.”

Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  Common-born general of Oda Nobunaga.  Unified Japan, codified the samurai class, invaded China, martyred twenty-six Christians… Mia thought numbly, brain throwing up facts while she tried to process the gossiping—what else to call it?—about Warring States politics going on in front of her. 

“Halo’s well-read on it.  You should ask him if—”

Sekhmet spat out a curse, cutting Dais off with, “That is more than I needed to know, Dais.  Lady Kayura, permission to retire?”

Kayura, who’d been watching as quietly as Mia, nodded.  “Of course.  Good night, Sekhmet.”

The warlord of autumn bowed and took his leave, lips still twisted in disgust.  Kayura gave his companion a quelling look. 

“Why provoke him, Dais?”

The white-haired man snorted.  “If Cale and I had to hear that absurdity so did he.  What about you, Lady Kayura?  Any family fates you’re just dying to hear about?”

Dais,” Kayura snapped, anger blooming in her eyes.  The man raised his hands defensively, shrugging, and she sighed.  “Just watch to be sure nothing happens,” she said wearily.  “Mia, would you like to see some of the shrine before bed?”

Knowing a cue when she heard one, Mia nodded and stood.  The two of them left Dais staring moodily at the fire and drifted past the tori gate toward the small clutch of buildings that made up the shrine.  Kayura turned right, avoiding the erected tents, and wandered toward the farthest building.  Away from the fire, the darkness closed in rapidly, and Mia glanced back, wondering if she should offer to fetch a torch.

Almost as soon as she’d had the thought, a familiar ringing jangled in front of her.  She spun, blinking in the sudden hazy white light, only to find Kayura lowering the Ancient One’s staff.

“It seemed appropriate,” the woman said apologetically.  “I’m sorry if it startled you.”

“No,” Mia said, breathing out.  “It’s fine.”  Now, she added internally, what do I do first?  Ask what that was all about or tell her about Anubis’s warning?  Kayura’s drawn expression, turned up to examine her, stung her to sympathy.

“He came to see us recently, actually.”  At Kayura’s tilted head, she gestured at the staff.  “Anubis.  He said you’d be contacting us.  It’s why we weren’t more surprised to see you.”

“Anubis came…?”  Guilt fluttered across Kayura’s shadowed eyes.  “Then he’s…”

“Still—I don’t know if ‘alive’ is the word.  But he’s still at work in the world, yes.  He had a warning for us.”

Kayura looked up at her, concerned.  “A warning?”

Mia nodded.  “All he said was, ‘Sometimes our actions lay traps for us that we will not see for centuries.’  And that if he tried to explain more, we’d be looking for the wrong thing.”  She gave Kayura a moment to absorb the words, then added, “We thought it meant that someone the warlords hurt before would attack while we were here?”

The other woman nodded slowly, frowning.  “We haven’t had any signs of an attack,” she mused.  “At least not any more than usual.”

“We wondered if it could be someone at the shrine…?”

She’d expected Kayura to shake her head with conviction and declare, like Sage had, that treachery from the shrine was impossible, but instead the her face clouded.  “Could that be…?”  Pain seeped into the expression, a betrayed disbelief that left her looking so vulnerable that Mia scrambled to assuage her.

“Sage disagreed.  He said that if someone had been guarding the shrine for this long, they wouldn’t be the sort of people who would set a trap like that.”

Kayura turned her gaze up the mountain, stricken, and didn’t answer.  After a moment, she nodded and resumed walking, stepping over the threshold into the building.  “Let us hope.”

Mia followed her, looking around the inside of the room.  The doorway faced an exit on the other side of the building, but between the two doors, on either side of the walk, rows and rows of bronze lanterns hung suspended from the ceiling.  It would have been beautiful in the daylight, Mia supposed, but even then it would need repair—the metal of the lanterns was tarnished nearly black, and several had fallen or vanished entirely, leaving gaps in the neat rows.  To make it worse, the walls sported broad picture windows lined vertically with wooden slats, through which an insistent wind whispered, swaying the lanterns on their chains, making the metal creak and whine. 

Kayura had walked a little way into the room and knelt by a fallen lantern.  The staff waited beside her, standing upright even with no one’s hand on it, its light rendering Kayura a pale figment, a childlike ghost as she picked up the lantern with both hands, examining it forlornly. 

“Whatever it is,” Mia said firmly, crouching down next to her, “we’ll sort it out.”  She put her hands over Kayura’s and tugged her up, glancing around for an empty hook.  Spotting one, she drew Kayura over to it and let the smaller woman hold the lantern while she readjusted its hanger and slipped the hook through it. 

“Oh!”

A ghostly flame fluttered to life inside it as they pulled their hands away; Mia stepped back sharply.  On the other side, Kayura finally smiled again.  “It’s all right,” she said softly.  “It belongs here.  They ought to all be lit.”

“I-I see.”

“You didn’t know?”

Mia shook her head.  “I understand spiritual things about as well as you do motorcycles,” she said ruefully.  She lifted the Jewel of Life in one hand, pensive.  “Anubis said I should come too, but I don’t know what I’m going to do when whatever it is happens.  I don’t really know how to use this.”

Kayura tilted her head, reaching out for the staff, which moved into her hand as if winched in on invisible rope.  “You have never trained in how to use a relic, then.”

“It’s not the sort of thing they teach in college.  Usually when it’s helped, Yulie’s been the one wearing it.”

“True mastery is the work of a lifetime,” Kayura said, half-comfort, half-warning.  “But the beginning of it is the same as our purification tomorrow—concentration, a meditative state.  Would you like me to show you?”

“Could you?”  Mia wrapped her fingers around the stone, looking at Kayura, who nodded. 

With a gesture from the staff, dust and dried leaves blew outward, leaving a clean circle of stone in the center of the walk.  Kayura knelt, leaving the staff standing at her side again, and reached both hands up to Mia.  The other woman followed her lead, adjusting her sleeves—tomorrow, she vowed, I’m tying them back, ladylike or not—before reaching out to take Kayura’s hands. 

“Our thoughts are always busy,” Kayura said.  “Cans and shoulds and oughts.  But for a sacred artifact like the Jewel of Life there is only will.  Your will, and what you will to happen.  You must clear your mind of all else.” 

Mia looked skeptically at the stone resting placidly on her chest.  “Usually it did whatever it wanted.”

“Objects of enough power can have their own sort of will,” Kayura explained.  “And the Jewel of Life is very powerful.  Part of using it reliably will be mastering its will.  Now come, clear your thoughts.” 

She closed her eyes.  Holding back a sigh, Mia followed suit, trying to clear her mind of the dozen desires that had spilled into it as soon as she turned her attention inward.  Helping Ryo, solving the hidden problem, easing Kayura’s burden, learning how to use the Jewel, even a whisper of don’t get held back a semester and make the lanterns shine.  Largeconcerns and petty ones, all in a flood—surely there had to be a better way? 

“Hear the world, and then forget the world.  That’s how I think of it,” Kayura confided.  “Let the world draw you out of your baser self, and then draw yourself back in to your truer self.  Serenity and insight—these are the virtues of meditation.”

Mia breathed out through her nose, focusing: Kayura’s hands clasped around her own, calm and still.  The weight of the layered kimono on her shoulders.  The beginning of a cramp of protest in her—no, no.  She sighed, trying again. 

The whistle of air moving through the slats in the windows.  The soft clink of the hanging chains.  There, and there, a leaf turning over in the light breeze. 

A shout from outside, and the ringing clash of steel blades. 

The two were on their feet in an instant, and Mia gasped.  Golden light streamed from every lantern, but just for a heartbeat; before she’d caught more than a glance, it was gone, scythed away by the darkness like falling grain.  Another shriek of metal, and Kayura was gone, staff snatched up as she ran.  Gulping, Mia followed, clutching the Jewel of Life.

“Armor of Summer!  Dao Nin!” 

They found Dais fully armored and crouching for better purchase on the ground, the six kama at his back stretched out and hooked into the shoulderplates and knees of Sekhmet’s red and green armor.  The warlord of autumn, a katana unsheathed in each hand, loomed over a half-kneeling, half-risen Cale, who gripped his long nodachi and snarled, straining in the awkward position to push Sekhmet’s blades away from his bared throat. 

“Sekhmet, stand down!” Kayura cried.  “Dais, is—?!”

“Yes,” Dais gritted, one hand clenching against the earth.  “He’s having an attack.”

Kayura seized the staff in both hands, lifting it and bringing it down in a sure strike.  Gold rings danced and flashed, chiming, and Sekhmet looked over one shoulder.  Mia shivered, falling back a step even from where she stood well behind Kayura.  She knew the smile on the warlord’s face, an off-center slash visible behind his helmet’s crafted fangs that set off the shine of mad anticipation in his widened eyes. 

“Ah, Kayura,” he said, “come to interfere yet again?  You really ought to let me finish him, you know.  Some corruption”—he shifted his footing against Dais’s pulling and pressed in harder against Cale—“runs too deep to wash out.”

“Sekhmet, we are on the edge of purification!  Do not let your blood control you this way!”  Kayura struck the ground again, the sound of the staff pealing through the trees like the tone of a singing bowl. 

The warlord winced, smile distorting.  “Always such a nuisance.  Who knows how far my blood might have taken me without all of you in my way?”  His voice raised, and he turned back on Cale with a shout.  “Why don’t you let me find out?!

Cale’s arm buckled and the tips of Sekhmet’s blades crossed each other and slashed out, flashing red as they slid over Cale’s throat.

“No!”

The Jewel of Life flashed white on Mia’s chest, matching a flare between Sekhmet and Cale.  They both stumbled back, and Sekhmet wheeled on Mia with a feral snarl.  He crouched and leapt, but Dais, still watching, surged to his feet, gesturing with one arm.  His kama seized the warlord of autumn in mid-flight and dragged him to the ground, where Kayura was waiting.  She drove the staff into the ground again with a final cry.

“Be cleansed, Sekhmet!  We are almost there!”

He reached for the staff with a shaking hand, eyes glazed over with hatred, then they rolled up into his head and he went limp.  For a moment no one moved, until at last Kayura stepped back with a sigh, lowering the staff.  She looked over to Dais, who nodded, coming to her side.  He gazed down at Sekhmet with thinned lips, then up to Kayura, who tilted her head, watching them both with sorrowful eyes.

Dais crouched and pulled one of Sekhmet’s arms around his shoulders.  “I’ll get him through the night,” he said roughly, then pushed himself back to his feet and turned for the tents. 

Kayura watched them go, then turned to Cale, who looked away from the other two warlords when he felt her attention.  “The Ronin?”

“We found Wildfire fighting a few stragglers from the Black Water.  The five of them together won’t even need the Inferno.  Though it may have kept them busy long enough to miss this display.”  He gave Mia a long, narrow-eyed stare.

She looked back at him helplessly.  You’re all you have left.  It was all she’d been thinking at the time, but she had no right to say it out loud.  Thankfully, Kayura intervened again.

“Don’t stare, Cale.  She may have saved your life.  At least she saved us having to trespass up the mountain in the middle of the night looking for waters to purify poison.”

If anything, he looked more resentful.  But he turned and sat back down, re-centering his jostled helmet.  “I’ll make sure they find their way back.”

Kayura shook her head at him, then turned to Mia with a strained smile.  “You did well, Mia.”

Mia sighed.  “It happened on its own again.  I wasn’t even thinking about using it.”

 

“Then it answers your pure heart.  You will master the Jewel in time; I’m sure of it.”  She reached up to pat Mia’s arm.  “Come.  Cale will see the Ronin back to us.  And we have another early morning ahead.”

She lead the way back to the tents, pausing to look in on the two other warlords.  Sekhmet lay stretched out on a pallet, helmet set to one side.  He lay mostly still, but movement twitched at his fingertips and his eyes darted beneath closed lids.  Dais sat at his head, one elbow resting on his drawn-up knee, the other tucked around his own helmet, which rested in his lap.  His head was bowed, good eye closed, and concentration pulled subtle tension across his face.  A haze of purple light glowed around both men.

“What’s Dais doing?” Mia whispered as they headed to the other tent. 

“It is his armor’s ability.  His illusions can soothe the mind, as well as disrupt it.”

“And Sekhmet…?”

Kayura ducked into the tent, quiet for a moment as she felt in the darkness for a flint and struck a spark, lighting a candle.  She watched it flutter and still, then turned toward the two kimono frames set up on the wall. 

“Sekhmet carries the blood of Orochi the Serpent.  It is in his lineage.”  She began undressing, one layer at a time, and Mia went to help manage the sleeves, taking the kimono from her and hanging them on the form.  “It gives him keen senses, and swiftness in battle, but it disturbs his mind.  Of the four of us, finding peace is hardest for him.”

“I see.”  Mia tried to will away a deep unease at the prospect of legendary Japanese monsters being in any form real enough to pass on hereditary traits.  There probably were explanations involving genetic mutations, of course, but at this point in her experience, one possibility was not necessarily more likely than the other.  “Will the purification help?”

“I hope so,” Kayura answered fervently.  “I hope so.”

 


 

The morning dawned chilly, and between dressing and the arrival of the himorogi’s guardians, Mia didn’t have the time to eat, much less talk to her friends about the events of the previous night.  She wasn’t sure she would have done so if she’d had the opportunity, but still, some time to think it over would have been nice.

Kayura gasped at the appearance of the head of the group.  “It’s you!”

The man, tall and broad and with distinctly yellow skin beneath his green and white monk’s clothes, bowed, a long red ponytail spilling over one shoulder.  “My apologies for the deception, Lady Kayura.  Mother Astra wished to have someone observing your court.”

“But you have been at the capital for nearly a year.”

“Mother Astra has found it wisest to know her possible enemies well before they reach her gates.”  He straightened, a grin tugging at his lips.  “But she hoped you would not be an enemy, and believes now that you can be trusted.”

Kayura sighed, recovering her composure.  “Ronin Warriors, two days ago I would have introduced him as a visitor from the Drifting Forest in the Eastern Quadrant, but this is Sanjaya.”  She glanced at him questioningly.

“Still Sanjaya, yes,” he acknowledged, and bowed again to the Ronin.  “Well met, armor bearers.  You have the gratitude of all who have suffered under Talpa’s heel.”

The boys shifted some, unused to public displays of thanks, but Sage nudged Ryo, who mimicked Sanjaya’s fist-in-palm bow and replied, “It’s the least we could do.”

“Then, will you walk with us?  We will show you to the places set for your use.”

The group headed through the gate behind the shrine, following the path up the mountain.  It petered out rapidly, and the guardians lead them on through the trees, which soared up higher than any Mia had seen on earth—eighty, maybe one hundred feet at least.  The Ronin looked around in high interest, admirably energetic after the night’s adventure, pointing and speaking to one another under their breath.  Even Ryo looked none the worse for wear; if he or White Blaze had been wounded, they didn’t show it.  The warlords, on the other hand, looked far less at ease.  Cale marched at Kayura’s shoulder, flint-faced, and Dais strode behind, the look of boredom on his face not matched by the shadows under his eyes.  He had not, Mia thought, gotten any sleep at all.  Sekhmet looked better-rested, but haunted, his mouth tight and angry, brows knotted. 

Mia sighed and went back to looking at the forest.

“You’ll both be going to different areas,” Sanjaya was explaining to Kayura.  “The men to the eastern side, you and the Jewel Bearer to the west.  Use the morning to exercise your bodies and clear your minds, then wash in the springs.  We’ll guide you to the waterfall after that, where Mother Astra will perform the purification.”

“So no food in there anywhere, huh?” Kento asked, getting an elbow from Sage in retaliation. 

Sanjaya grinned.  “Fasting focuses the mind, Ronin.  Do not cloud it with thoughts of your next meal.”

Rowen caught up to her, trailing at her elbow and asking in an undertone, “Hey, Mia, was everything okay last night?  Cale disappeared on us for a while in that fight and he wouldn’t say why when we got back.  And they aren’t looking so good today.”

She mulled over a response that wouldn’t betray Kayura and the others’ privacy.  “The warlords had an argument.  It’s all right now.” 

“What about?” 

“Whether or not all this is going to work.”  She gestured vaguely at the mountain surroundings.

“If they don’t think it is, why go through with it?”  He frowned.

“Because maybe it will.  They need something, Rowen.”

“And here,” Sanjaya broke into the conversations, “is where we take separate paths.  Pasha?” 

The girl who came forward from the end of the group looked like Sanjaya not just in the skin tone (faintly darker), but also in the strong bridge of the nose and broad set of the cheeks.  She bowed to Kayura.  “Please come with me, Lady Kayura, Jewel Bearer.”

“Hey, good luck, Mia!” Ryo called over, waving. 

“Yeah, we’ll see you after!”  Kento raised an arm over his head, waving it vigorously.  Rowen sighed.

“Careful up there.”

Mia smiled, returning the boys’ gesture.  “I think you’ll have a more exciting time than me.”

He rolled his eyes, looking at the warlords with a skeptical expression.  “Yeah.  I’ll do my best to keep it boring.”

Then Sanjaya and his group lead the men away, leaving Pasha and a few other women to guide Mia and Kayura further up the mountain.  They were quieter than the cheerful, talkative Sanjaya, leaving Mia little to do but marvel at their knowledge of the woods.  The path—such as it was—bent and dipped, hairpin turns and careful climbs leading through hidden passages through the trees.  Finally, they arrived at a clearing, framed by trees.  A thin brook ran through it, and nearby a low house pressed against the side of the mountain.  At the end of the clearing, a tori gate lurked in the cover of the trees.

Pasha took them into the house, which turned out to be two simple rooms: a flat dojo floor with a number of practice weapons lining the wall, and a changing room, where Mia and Kayura were helped out of their clothes and into plain white kimono, tabi socks and sandals, and long white headbands to tie back their hair. 

“You have until the afternoon.  I’ll be at the gate below if you need anything.”  Pasha bowed, solemn, and retreated with the other guardians. 

Kayura thanked her, then turned to Mia with an eager light springing into her eyes.  “Shall we begin?” 

They spent the first half hour in prayer by the brook, Mia filing away the names of the higher echelon Shinto gods worshipped in the Netherworld—or perhaps just by Kayura; with her history and nothing to compare to, who could tell?—and scrupulously not mentioning her own Catholic background.  Not that it had been especially relevant to her life in Japan, of course, particularly since her involvement with the Ronin Warriors—but still. 

Afterward, they moved to meditation, Kayura talking her through clearing her mind while trying to explain how one kept one’s thoughts focused but blank.  The memory of blades clashing hovered intrusively at the back of Mia’s mind throughout the exercise.

As the sun rose more fully into the sky, Kayura breathed out a long breath, held the moment expertly, then opened her eyes. 

“Well, then,” she said, smiling, “shall we exercise our bodies now?”

Mia nodded, privately grateful, and brushed off her kimono as she stood.  Moving into the dojo, Kayura lead her in a series of calisthenics exercises, gracefully executed lunges with her arms out to the sides, squats that were less graceful but more powerful.  Mia echoed as best she could—lord, the woman’s thighs—trying to keep her breathing deep and glad she’d been able to pull her hair back. 

Kayura gave them only long enough for a quick sip of water, then moved to the racks of weapons.  She tossed a long stave to Mia, who caught at it with her fingertips but managed to reel it in before it fell.  Kayura looked thoughtfully over her options, lifting a long sai before replacing it and picking up another stave. 

Taking a deep breath, Mia firmed a grip on her staff—one hand in, the other out—and adjusted her footing into a ready stance.  Kayura looked at her and grinned outright, then leapt in a tight backflip to land five feet away from her.  Mia swallowed. 

“You are prepared?” Kayura asked, raising her staff. 

Mia nodded.  “As much as I’m going to be.”

Kayura came at her slowly at first, testing with broad, telegraphed swings using the full length of her arms without using her full power.  Mia parried them with little movement, keeping her stance wide and firm, bringing a spark of recognition to Kayura’s eyes.

“Hardrock taught you,” she surmised, throwing a stroke toward Mia’s ankle; the other woman leaned forward on the targeted foot and twirled her staff, knocking Kayura’s aside.

“Hardrock is a fine warrior,” Kayura went on, “but solid, best in a place where he can keep his back to a wall.  The naginata offers such range!  You must not be afraid to move in it.”  She pushed in, narrowing the space between her hands to tighten her strikes, adding twists into her angle of approach.

Mia backed away in slow half-steps—it was retreat, certainly, but even that much movement was a change from the Kento’s firmly grounded style.  Kayura pursued her in a wide circle, grinning, and teasing now with feints.  Sage had taught her feints, though, and what to look for; she watched Kayura’s feet and the line of her shoulders, parrying the true strikes away.

“You aren’t bad all!” Kayura laughed, just before clipping Mia’s shoulder with an upward slash from the back of her staff.  “But why the naginata?  Did they expect you to ride White Blaze into battle?”

Mia ducked back another few steps, raising her weapon again.  Catching a quick breath, she pushed onto the offense before Kayura closed, driving the butt of the staff toward the woman’s midsection.  “It’s traditionally a woman’s weapon, isn’t it?” she gasped.

Kayura hopped back, knocking the blow aside then sliding forward and down on one leg, staff driving over the ground like a pool cue in another blow aimed to swipe Mia off her feet.  “The naginata?  The naginata is a cavalry weapon!”

“Not since the Battle of Nagashino!”  Mia stumbled back, staff sliding off of Kayura’s with not enough force; she let out a short cry as her feet were pushed roughly out from under her and she tumbled.  Kayura drew back, not assisting, so she stood back up, let out a short sigh, then raised her staff again.  “Once firearms were introduced to Japan, cavalry tactics changed completely.  That was in the Warring States period—weren’t you there?”

“Mia, have you any idea how old I was when I was brought to the Netherworld?  You must talk to the warlords if you wish to hear the details of military tactics from our time.” 

Guilt at bringing up the topic flashed through Mia, but Kayura didn’t seem ruffled; she began pressing Mia again, the staff in her hand spinning and dancing out like a living creature.  Mia set the feeling aside, concentrating again on the sparring. 

She’s so much shorter than me—I do need to use my reach.  But she’s so fast!  Stealing a glance at her surroundings, Mia fell back into retreat, maneuvering around the stray obstacles in the dojo.  A leaden ache was slowly adding weight to her arms, making parrying Kayura’s whip-quick strikes harder, but finally the other woman crouched again to avoid the back end of the staff Mia had swung at her head. 

As Kayura struck upward, staff catching Mia’s and bearing it in a half-circle toward the ground, Mia shifted her rear hand to plant it on the back end of the staff.  She stepped closer in two quick paces, driving the staff forward and pinning the edge of Kayura’s kimono.  The other woman, intent on Mia’s unguarded chest, drew her stave in close and lunged forward, only to stumble and look back in alarm at the hem of her robe. 

In the split second she had before Kayura’s attention returned to her, Mia took a long step forward, locking the position like Kento had taught her, and gripped the staff as hard as she could in both hands.  Pushing with the back and pulling with the front, she spun in place, heels pivoting as she swept Kayura’s feet to one side. 

The woman caught herself before she hit the ground face-first, and rolled to the right to avoid Mia’s returning stroke.  On her feet again in an instant, she laughed aloud.  “Mia!” she exclaimed, sounding frankly delighted.  “That was a dirty trick!” 

Satisfaction, temporary though she knew it to be, pasted a smug little grin on Mia’s face, just barely showing teeth.  “I was taught to be resourceful,” she answered.

“Indeed you were!”  Kayura leapt for her again.

After that, she didn’t hold back, and Mia weaved and ducked and dodged, deflecting some, but not even most, of Kayura’s attacks.  The woman moved like a serpent, quick and darting, wheeling off strikes with deadly precision until finally an upward stroke to Mia’s chin brought the taller woman off her feet and sent her crashing to the ground.  Mia let her own staff go, holding up her hands in surrender before sitting up, curling her legs under her and cradling her jaw.

“Ow,” she said, and left it at that, working on catching her breath. 

Kayura trotted over and crouched down in front of her.  “Are you all right?  Here, look at me.”  Mia peeled her hands away and obeyed, neck still smarting from the whiplash strike.  “Just a bruise,” Kayura pronounced.

“That’s easy for you to say; I’m sure you heal faster.”  Mia rubbed the spot again, giving Kayura a rueful smile.

The other smiled back—beamed back, really—and offered her a hand up.  “The waterfalls will ease the pain.  Thank you very much, Mia, for sparring with me.”

Mia nodded, picking up her fallen staff.  “Thank you for the very practical lesson.”

“I see I did neglect lessons there.”  Kayura ducked her head, abashed.  “My apologies.”

“It’s all right.  So what now?”

Kayura trotted over to one of the dojo’s small windows and looked out, studying the angle of the Netherworld’s pale sun.  “We will be needing to find the springs soon.  Let us meditate again, and then close with a prayer.”  She held out one hand for Mia’s stave, and put them away as Mia blew out a long breath and rearranged her sitting position.

Kayura said less this time, leaving Mia to focus on the warm, half-pained throbbing in her limbs, listening to the sound of her own slow breathing, still catching faintly at the end from the workout.

‘Our time,’ she thought, aware of the feel of the white kimono clinging to her lower back and her fingertips pressing against the backs of her hands.  They’ve been alive for so long…  Why is that?  Talpa’s power, or the armors’?  Or the Netherworld itself? 

She breathed out again, pushing the thought away. 

In and out, Mia.  In and out.  She breathed, listening to the distant hum of the wind in the trees, shivering slightly in the chill of the mountain air.  Let it go. 

The thought of Anubis crossed her mind, wielding the Ancient One’s staff with a perfect clarity of intent burning in his eyes like the sun.  Kayura, as well, had struck the earth and commanded power with no hesitation in voice or gesture.  The boys were the same when they donned their armor, focused and sure of their course. 

And when Yulie used it to save Ryo…  Every thought in his head was of just that—‘someone save Ryo.’  When I protected Cale, I wanted them to not have to lose someone.  Single thoughts.  Pure thoughts? 

A warmth floated at the center of her thoughts; she orbited its periphery, letting herself drift in her contemplations. 

Ryo had struggled against the will of the Inferno armor in many battles before conquering it with the Ancient One’s aid.  But they also talked about their armors’ power—and its potential for destruction—in terms of trust, both in the armor and their own spirits.

Then…  Do I trust my own spirit?  I’m not born to this like they are.  I wasn’t trained for it.  But does that matter in the end?  They’re my friends, and I want to help them however I can.  If I could use the Jewel more freely… 

The Ancient One’s words of warning returned, of the destruction the Jewel could cause in evil hands. 

What would I do to protect them? 

A dark current pulsed through her and she gasped, eyes flying open. 

“Mia?”  Kayura stirred, looking up.  “What is it?”

Mia lifted the Jewel of Life, chilled to see the swirl of light flickering in its heart.  It faded under her stare, slowly, and she looked up at Kayura. 

“I thought—I was thinking about what I would do to protect the Ronin Warriors if I could use the Jewel of Life better.”

Kayura looked back at her for a long moment, searching her eyes.  “You mean, what you would not do,” she said at last, inclining her head, her words a statement rather than a question. 

Mia nodded, disturbed.  “The light in the Jewel just now…  It looked the same way it always has when it’s working.  I thought it would look—different, if it was being used for evil.”

“Mia…”  Kayura trailed off, quiet for a moment, though she reached over to rest a hand on top of her companion’s.  “The Jewel of Life is an immensely powerful thing.  It is also a pure power.  I do not know if there is anything in this world strong enough to truly alter it in the way that corruption does.  There is no ‘good’ or ‘evil’ with objects of such power—only in the uses to which they are put.”

She lifted her hand to rest it on Mia’s shoulder.  “If you fear for what you might do with control over the Jewel, remember that its highest purpose is to strengthen the pure and aid the weak.  Let the Ronin Warriors fight the battles that they must, but remember that not all our battles are against the wicked.  Hear grievances, Mia.  Intervene when something purer than bloodshed must be brought to bear, but not until then.”

“That’s…”  Mia looked down at the Jewel again, feeling the weight of it on her chest like a stone pressing down on her heart. 

“It is a grave responsibility.  That is why the Jewel was kept in hidden shrines with guardians who could not be tempted by it.”  She smiled encouragingly, squeezing Mia’s shoulder.  “But you have tended to it for three years, and nothing has come of it.  Anubis thought your heart was pure enough, and so do I.  I have no fear for the Jewel while it is in your keeping, Mia.”

Mia nodded, reaching up to clasp Kayura’s wrist, and breathed out shakily—then nodded again, more steadily.

“I suppose that’s quite enough meditation for one morning,” Kayura said, standing and pulling Mia to her feet.  “May the gods bless and protect us.”  She clapped twice, then smiled brightly.  “Shall we go and wash now?”

 

Mia smiled and nodded, squeezing Kayura’s hand once more before letting it go. The two of them left the dojo and headed over to the tori gate, where Pasha straightened from a lurk behind the pillar and bowed to them again. 

“This way.” 

The walk this time was simpler, thankfully, though the girl sent another of the guardians ahead with instructions to watch the path for men.  Mia could hear the running of water the whole way, growing louder until they climbed up a steep path.  At the top, a broad but shallow circle of water lay flat in the sunlight, fed by slips and streams of water running down the far rock face, in which Mia could see roughly carved stairs. 

“This is where the men will bathe.  There is another pool at the top,” Pasha said, taking them around the pool and to the rock wall.  “Careful of your step.” 

They climbed up narrow, slick stairs, passing beneath rippling curtains of water and up to a smaller pool above, where the girl instructed them, “Remove everything but the kimono and headband and wash away the sweat and dirt.  Afterward, we will take you all to Mother Astra.”  She paused, glancing at Mia.  “You may leave on the Jewel.”

She and her companions retreated into the treeline beyond the pool.  Mia sighed at the inscrutable departure and slid into the pool with a shiver.  Mountain springs at the end of winter!  What were they thinking?!  Curling up on herself, the white kimono tugged close against its initial drift across the surface, Mia enviously watched Kayura pace into the water with no sign of discomfort. 

“Aren’t you cold?” she asked. 

Kayura smiled at her ruefully.  “Very.” 

She left it at that and Mia didn’t press, particularly since at that moment she heard a shout from below in Kento’s voice, followed by more muffled dialogue. 

“Oh, thank goodness,” she sighed.  “They all lived.” 

Kayura giggled and they fell into a companionable silence, scooping water over their faces and limbs to rinse away the salt of the morning.  Mia adjusted slowly to the frigid water, at least enough to uncurl a bit.

“Lady Kayura…”

“Mm?”  The other woman looked over at her, hair half submerged and drifting around her hips. 

“Do you mind if I ask you something?”  When Kayura tilted her head, Mia went on slowly.  “You and the warlords…  Talpa took you—sometime in the early sixteenth century?  It’s been over four hundred years since then.  How did you all live so long?  I can think of at least three reasons, but none of them quite fit.”

“Mm.”  Kayura cast her glance aside, thoughtful.  “It is a combination of factors, I think.  The Netherworld, and the armors.  The warlords have been connected to the armor for all the time that they have lived in the Netherworld, and from what they say, have not aged a day.  I grew slowly here, but I have grown from when I first arrived.  But since taking up Anubis’s armor, I think even that has stopped.” 

“But the Ronin Warriors have still aged.”

“But not while living here.”  She looked at Mia, studying her face.  “…Have you aged, Mia?”

Mia blinked at the question.  “Have I…?”

“You look little different from when I saw you last,” Kayura explained.  “You and the Ronin are all young, but artifacts like the armors and the Jewel of Life…  You should be aware that bearing them may change you.  Not your spirits, if you’re strong—and all of you are—but in how strongly affected you are by the flow of time and age.  Perhaps even fate.”    She traced a fingertip over the surface of the water, brows drawn together slightly.  “I wish I could give you better answer.  But there is so much I’m still learning from what my clan knew, and so much of it lost.” 

After a quiet moment, Mia offered, “Have you thought about going back to where the village was?”

Kayura looked up at her, startled.  “Oh, I couldn’t leave.  I have no memory of where that village is, and I am still needed here.”

“We know where they hid the Jewel of Life,” Mia countered.  “I’m sure I could find more if I looked.  I could let you know once I’ve found something, if we had a way to get in touch.”

Kayura looks crestfallen.  “If I had that, I would have contacted you before to give you time to prepare.”

“There must be something we can do…”  Mia frowned at the water, then, at Kayura’s soft hiss of breath, looked back up.  The woman sat frozen in the water, eyes widened, head turned to one side to look out over the lip of rock and toward the lower pool.  “…Lady Kayura?”

“Can you sense it?” the other woman breathed.  “That awful presence…  It cannot be...”  She stood up suddenly, kimono wrapping itself around her legs, and reached up to grab the Ancient One’s staff from thin air. 

“What is it?” Mia stood up hurriedly—then gasped at the sight of the figure that had appeared in front of them.  “The armor?!” 

Anubis’s armor of spring stood at the edge of the water, leaking dark miasma, a red light glowing behind the helmet’s mask. 

Kayura stepped closer to Mia, staff raised defensively.  “What is the meaning of this?!”

Kayura of the Clan of the Ancients.  You would have me cleansed.  The voice rolled out of the armor in a wave, spectral and reverberating.  It sounded like Anubis’s voice, but darker, whispers of other voices echoing at the edges of the words.  

“Who are you?” Kayura demanded.  “How dare you taint that armor!”

The spirit in the armor threw back its head and laughed, old screams weaving in and out of its voice.  I am the spirit of the armor of Cruelty.  I bathed in blood for four hundred years.  I will not be denied, nor will I be cleansed. 

Cye’s voice rose up from below, an alarmed cry—“There’s something in the water!”—and a riot of splashing and shouting filled the air. 

Face pale but resolute, Kayura swept the staff into a vertical line.  “Anything,” she said, with slow enunciation, “can be cleansed.  If there is the will.”  She struck the water with the staff.

Golden light flared across the surface of the pool, matching the glow from the top of the staff.  The dark armor took one step back from the lapping edge of the water and lifted its hands.  Anubis’s kusari-gama fell into them, heavy and black, the weight swinging at the end of the chain like Poe’s pendulum. 

Kayura looked back at Mia and commanded, “Go to the others, Mia!  I will handle the armor.”

 “But what is it?!”  Mia stared in horror at the possessed armor, which had begun to swing the iron weight in a buzzing circle. 

“Remember Anubis’s warning?” Kayura rebuked, an edge of grief whetting her voice.  “This is the trap laid by the actions of the armor-bearers.  Four hundred years of cruelty and slaughter.  The memories of that suffering have come to confront us.”

Come, girl!  I have defeated you once before. 

Anubis defeated me with the power of the Ancients,” Kayura replied, turning back to the armor, which she gave a hard smile.  “That power and your own are now mine.  You will not defeat me a first time.  Mia, go!” 

The dark armor leapt toward the center of the pool and Kayura surged up to meet it.  Mia stumbled back, the water already heating around her ankles from the clash of energies, then turned and splashed toward the rough-hewn steps, tightening the kimono around her.  So much for gender segregation. 

Down below, a thick darkness blanketed the lower pools; sounds of shouting emerged from within it, but nowhere near as much clashing of weapons as Mia would have hoped. 

Are the Ronin Warriors’ armors affected too?  Are they in there trying to fight with no weapons or armor at all?  Determined, she caught up the stone around her neck in one hand as she ran.  Jewel of Life!  Dispel this darkness!

And perhaps all the work and prayers had been successful at that—the Jewel strobed out a light from behind her fingers, a white flash that blasted away the shadows hiding the water.  The tableau painted itself in front of her one dreadful image at a time—the Ronin scattered around the pool, clutching their armor orbs but still dressed in white kimono and darker hakama.  A bright suit of armor standing in front of each youth, weapons levelled.  No sign of White Blaze.  Cale, staggered, holding just a branch against the armor of Corruption; Dais on his knees in front of the armor of Illusion, wide-eyed and white-faced with shock; Sekhmet doubled over in the water with his face buried in his hands, shoulders shaking with hideous laughter, the armor of Venom casting its shadow over him like a cobra spreading its hood against the sun.

The armor of Illusion looked over its shoulder as the darkness dispersed, then spread its fingers out before it, pulling its mounted kama from its back.  Dais looked up sharply and dove in toward his armor’s legs, barely rolling back to his feet as the armor cried out, Web of Deception! 

Mia scuttled back, but the attack hadn’t been targeting her.  Instead, the kama shot out over the pool, trailing webbing.  Cale cursed and leapt to one side; his armor’s retaliatory sword-stroke cleaved straight through his impromptu club, leaving a rapidly spreading line of red on his chest.  The boys and the Ronin armor moved in tandem—where Sage and Ryo tried to press in, their armor gave ground, Hardrock and Torrent mirroring Kento and Cye to the sides, Strata pursuing Rowen backward.  Still the webbing caught them at the ankles and wrists, lashing at them all indiscriminately.  Only Sekhmet did nothing, still cackling as the attack jerked him back and into its net, exposing the rictus of despair on his face and the tears streaming down his cheeks.

Dais straightened behind his armor, close enough to the center that he’d avoided the webs.  “What is this?!” he demanded, turning his eye from the armor to a point over its shoulder.  “I thought you wanted us purified!”

Mia followed his stare up to the treeline, where the group of guardians from before had spread out in the limbs, marked out against the green by their bright hair.  They watched with no expression, save Sanjaya, who scowled with frustrated discontent at the scene.

“That is what we want, warlord!  But your long years of evil must be confronted before they can be banished!  You will have no help from us until you have overcome them!”

“With no arms?” Cale spat, and Ryo echoed, “You can’t let them fight empty-handed!  At least give them a weapon!”

“Ask them, Ronin, how many weaponless innocents they have cut down!” the guardian shouted back.  “I would help them if I could, but it is not in my power or yours to do so!” 

Then who has that power?  The thought nearly drove Mia to her knees; her hand clenched around the Jewel of Life. 

‘Hear grievances, Mia.’  Kayura’s words echoed in her mind.  ‘Strengthen the pure and aid the weak.’

But they aren’t the weak!  This is the shape of a thousand grievances!  Four hundred years!  Agonized, Mia watched as the armor of Illusion backed Dais toward the wall of strands, as Venom drew two katana, dripping poison along the edges, and stepped closer to the immobilized Sekhmet, as Cale tore at the webbing looped around one wrist while Corruption closed in, lifting its nodachi. 

A burst of light flared from overhead, and a bellow echoed out over the water.  The possessed armors turned, looking up, then as one unit leapt away from the dark shape plummeting toward them. 

“Red Lightning Flash!”  Kayura, dressed in the Oni armor, landed at the center of the pond like a boulder, scattering water, the lead chains of her attack slashing away Illusion’s webs.  “Stand up, warlords!  We can win this battle!”

Cale and Dais obeyed instantly, but Sekhmet fell limp, drifting on the tainted surface of the water.  Kayura jumped to his side, pulling him up by the arm; he looked up at her with a crazed, hopeless grin. 

“It’s no use, Lady Kayura.  The armors know our hearts.  Don’t they—Jirougorou, Kujuurou?”  He dropped his head over his shoulder to look at his two companions.  Dais flinched at the address like he’d been struck, eye narrowing.  Cale’s lips curled in a snarl. 

“What…?”  Mia breathed. 

“It’s their names!” Rowen skidded to a stop at Mia’s side, turned away from the battle.  The armor of Strata followed half-way before halting, but continued to watch its bearer, white light spilling out of the helmet, golden bow half-drawn.  Rowen grimaced at it, but went on.  “Their real names.”

“I didn’t think…”  Mia trailed off.  She hadn’t thought, but it was true.  Dais, Anubis, Sekhmet, Cale: those were not names from mid-Sengoku Japan. 

“Neither did they,” Rowen said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder to where Kayura had handed Sekhmet over to the two warlords and turned to face the re-converging armor.  “I don’t think they even remembered they had ‘em—that’s what’s got ‘em so rattled.”

The other Ronin, seeing Rowen’s successful retreat, darted up to join him, regrouping around Mia.

“Some purification this is turning out to be,” Sage said, eyes hard as he watched the fight.

“We gotta do something.”  Ryo, standing guard with Kento nearest the battle, looked up at his companions, eyes fiery.  “They don’t stand a chance out there.”

“Ryo’s right,” Cye agreed.  “They came here to make a new start.  What good does all this do for anyone?” 

“Ryo,” Mia asked, watching the battle below as Kayura hurled the kusari-gama’s weight at Corruption, slashing the sickle at Venom, only to have to wheel into a kick at the approaching Illusion.  “Can you call the Inferno armor?”

Ryo and the others shared a look; Sage provided the answer.  “Our armor’s not responding.  Unless we can figure out how to make it, Inferno’s off the table and we’re in the same boat as the himorogi’s guardians.”

“So how come Kayura got back okay?  Man, what is with them?” Kento burst, frustrated, and added in a shout, “C’mon, Dais; get with the program!  Who’s supposed to be the master of mind-games around here, anyway?!”

“Kayura didn’t wear that armor for four hundred years; Anubis did.”  Sage shook his head.  “I’m sure she’s got things to account for, but that’s not the armor’s call to make.”

They can’t do anything.  And Kayura can’t hold out forever.  Mia scanned the battle with desperate eyes.  “Oh no…”

Corruption had slashed its sword out to one side, command rolling up the trees.  Black Lightning Flash! 

The weighted end of the kusari-gama fell from Kayura’s hand as, without hesitation, she summoned the Ancient’s staff again.  She cast one distraught look over her shoulder at the warlords, then dropped to her knee as she grounded the staff firmly at the bottom of the pool.  A shield of energy sprang up around her and the warlords, and she pressed her head to the shaft of the relic as the light-devouring strikes of Corruption’s power rained down on the white dome, flashing into the shapes of wolves and teeth, crackling and biting. 

Venom laughed and drew the rest of its blades, adding the slicing, snapping bolts of its Snake Fang Strike to the assault.  You should listen to my weak human, Kayura!  He accepted me as a way to power!  He is too much a coward to change paths now!

“We can’t just keep standing here while they get their butts kicked!”  Kento lowered one shoulder and charged down the slope over the cries of the others; Hardrock met him at the edge of the water, hands out. 

“She won’t last out there!  What do we do?”  Rowen punched the wall behind Mia in frustration, glaring at the dark armors.

“There’s nothing we can do!” Sage snapped.  “Not if they don’t believe they’re masters of their own armor!”

‘My’ weak human, Mia thought.  “The warlords and the armors are still connected,” she said.  “Is killing them what the armors really want?” 

“It’s the same thing we all had to learn,” Cye said.  “That our armor’s power comes from us!”  He cupped his hands at his mouth and yelled, “Sekhmet!  Cale, Dais!  You have to trust your hearts!  You control the armor!  It doesn’t matter where it comes from or what it’s done—all it can do is reflect you!

“Can they even hear you in there?”  Rowen shaded his eyes, peering at the dome. 

“It’s starting to crack!” Ryo exclaimed as the white light of the dome began to dim. 

Mia looked down at the Jewel of Life, inert in her hands since her thoughts had fragmented into turmoil.  They can’t trust themselves.  Talpa turned their own virtues against them, and they hated each other for all that time…  It hasn’t been long enough for them to understand that it’s different now.

They tried to separate at first, Kayura had told her.  We’re all we have.  The image flashed through her mind again, of Dais sitting at Sekhmet’s bedside, head bowed over the other man’s in sleepless vigil.  Of Cale, at all times watchful at Kayura’s shoulder.  Even the sniping at the breakfast table had not been so different from the sorts of teasing she and the others did, that of companions and friends. 

Ryo, at the very beginning, clear-eyed and speaking of trust in the Ronin armors, which he proved over and over again, every time he donned Inferno.

They have each other.  They have to understand that.  If the armor-bearers can trust each other, then nothing can stop them!  That’s as true for the warlords as it is for the Ronin!

Mia sucked in a breath—hear the world, forget the world—and pulled the Jewel from around her neck, holding it to the sky.  “You all have each other!  Jewel of Life—make them understand!”

The burst of light knocked her back into Rowen’s quick arms, spearing toward Kayura’s dome and revitalizing it.  The dark armors winced away from the glow, turning the malevolent presence of their stares onto Mia.  Ryo and Sage stepped in front of her, and down below, Wildfire and Halo’s blades rose and crossed, blocking the path to the stairs. 

Shaking, Mia stood up again, rising up on tiptoe to peer over her friends’ shoulders.  Below, the dome roiled with a swirling purple light.  One by one, around it, the armors stiffened and howled protests—first Corruption, then Illusion, and at last a furious, screaming Venom—before the dark spirits burst from them and dispersed, leaving the armor to crumple to the ground and vanish. 

Sage watched the banished spirits’ flight, then looked back at the group.  “Looks like the same way Talpa controlled his army.  Are we worried about that?”

Ryo, studying the group below as the dome dissolved, revealing Kayura embracing Sekhmet and the other two standing on either side with their heads bowed, said, “No,” and turned back to the others with a satisfied grin.  “It doesn’t matter if it was a bit of Talpa or not.  He’s never getting his hands on the armor again—any of the armor.”

“You think they agree?” Rowen asked, pointing up at the mountain’s guardians, who’d gathered up in a group, talking animatedly.  A moment later, Sanjaya started down the tree in a fleet leap, bounding toward the ground.

“You’re going to pay for that, Jewel Bearer!”  Dais’s voice rose up from the huddle below, sharp and annoyed, and Mia dropped back down behind Sage. 

“Hey, says you and what army, old man?” Kento demanded, climbing up from his sudden sprawl into the water when his armor had vanished.  “Ugh…” he groaned a moment later.  “Hey, Cye?  What you were saying before, about something in the water…?”

Cye smiled fondly.  “I’d better go take care of that.  Good job, Mia.”  He gave her a two-fingered wave and set back off down the stairs, clothes dissolving into his under-gear. 

“Yeah, that was amazing.”

“You’re really getting good with the Jewel.”

“Mm.  Kayura must be a good teacher.”

The remaining three Ronin looked to her in agreement, leaving her suddenly intensely aware of the thin, wet white clothes she and all of them were wearing.  She put the Jewel of Life—calming again now—back around her neck and tucked her arms high up on her waist, nodding to them.  “Here comes Sanjaya,” she pointed out, keeping her voice level.

They turned away and headed down to where he had approached Cye, waving his arms in broad negative sweeps at the young man when he held up his armor orb.  Pasha followed after him, breaking off to greet Kayura and the warlords.  Turning away from her companions at last, Kayura faced the girl and listened, nodding.  As she turned her gaze to the warlords and began speaking again, Kayura looked around, catching Mia’s eye. 

 

Still glowing, she raised her arm and waved.

The rest of affairs became a bit of a blur for Mia.  Whether it was the travel, the fasting or using the Jewel so often in so little time, she was worn out by the time they’d filed into the grotto containing the sacred waterfall.  The nine armor bearers had gone in as a group and come out, thankfully, looking refreshed and hopeful—though admittedly expressions of rejuvenation and hope on the warlords’ faces were harder to read than on the Ronins’.  Kneeling in the white kimono and leaning on White Blaze—who'd ambled back up from an impromptu wander through the forest, Ryo said—she drifted in and out of a shallow sleep. 

Pasha woke her long enough to guide her into the grotto.

Astra was an old woman, as old as mountains, Mia was certain, as sagging and wrinkled as a baggy sweater with her voluminous robes and skin the color of dried wax.  But her eyes were scalpel-sharp, her croaking voice swift as she directed Mia to stand in the freezing spray of the water.  Half-awake, or half-frozen, or half-tranced, if any of it made much difference in that place, Mia obeyed without complaint as the old shrine mistress rubbed a ritual daub of salt on her tongue and instructed her to spit it out into the water. 

The blessing, delivered in a language Mia couldn’t follow, seemed to flow out over the stones, like the water, like a turning prayer wheel, like the running of time, slipping into someplace deep and secret inside and burying itself like a hidden gem.  She would not remember seeing the himorogi—though Sage spoke of it glowingly—but Astra’s blessing would remain, a prayer for protection wrapped in the woman’s muttering voice, that Mia felt in her marrow whenever she thought back on it. 

Afterward, she fell asleep shored up against Ryo, his arm strong and gentle around her back. 

 

 


 

“So Kayura couldn’t leave from here before, but she can now?”  Mia woke up to logistics planning being lead by Rowen.  

“I can open a portal from here,” Kayura confirmed.

“Hey, Mia,” Ryo greeted her quietly, smiling.  She rubbed at her eyes, looking around at the interior of an unfamiliar room, all bright sunlight and shining wood floors.  “You woke up just in time.”

“What’s going on?  Where are we?”

“We’re in Sanjaya’s house.  But we’re going back home early.”  Ryo nodded toward the discussion.  “Lady Kayura says the mountain’s a bridge point, so we don’t have to miss anymore school.”

Kento leaned over.  “Yeah, we might even be able to squeeze out an extra day off.”

“We’re not going back to the capital, then?”  She yawned.

“And ride a whole ‘nother day with one of those guys?  No thanks!”  He jerked a thumb at the warlords, provoking a grin from Dais. 

“You don’t want us to hear all about your glorious lineage, Hardrock?  Ah, yes, you’re from China.  Of course you don’t.”

Hey!  What was that, you jerk?!”  Kento dove off the wall to go and glare at Dais.  “I’ll have you know I have a long and dignified family tradition of kicking butt!  I’ll go up against your old strategist grandpa any day!”

“They’re both tactless,” Sage sighed, then looked over at Cale.  “But he’s got a point,” he called.  “Next time, we can talk about your families.  We aren’t the only ones with famous relatives.  I’m pretty sure you’ve got a nephew or something who fought the greatest swordsman Japan has ever seen.”

Cale looked intrigued in spite of himself, though Mia had to hide a smile when Rowen leaned over from her other side and muttered, “Sasaki Kojirou.  Miyamoto Musashi beat him with a boat oar,” leaving Ryo’s shoulders shaking from suppressed laughter.

He helped her up—someone had slid another kimono on over the white one, swallows flying against a pale green sky—and they walked over to join the group. 

“Will you be coming back to the capital, Sanjaya?” Kayura asked the guardian, who grinned at her over Pasha rolling her eyes behind his back. 

“Will I be enjoying proper freedom for the first time in my life?  I certainly will, Lady Kayura, and I thank you for the invitation!  You will want to be keeping in touch with Mother Astra in any case, yes?”

From his position at Kayura’s shoulder, Sekhmet nodded, the gesture as placid as any Mia had yet seen from him.  “That is correct.”

Kayura shot the warlord of autumn a smile, nodded to Sanjaya, then turned to the Ronin, clasping her hands at the front of her kimono—gold chrysanthemums on purple, thought Mia, oh my, she’s been endorsed. 

“Come, Ronin.  You have done all I hoped for and more.  Let us return you home.  Mia…” 

Mia patted Ryo’s arm and went over to the other woman as the group headed outside into a chilly but gorgeous mountain evening, the sun beginning to color the clouds in the west a hazy pink. 

“Thank you, Mia,” Kayura murmured to her, taking her hands and holding them tightly.  “For everything.  You saved us, at the end.”

“Are you all right?” Mia asked, a bit concerned after some time to think back on the whole affair.  “I didn’t think much about how the Jewel would help, I just knew what it needed to do.  Was it too invasive?”

“It was just right,” Kayura assured her.  Behind her, Cale had turned an ear to the conversation; he caught Mia’s eye and gave her a slow, grudging nod. 

Mia gave him an exasperated look—Just a nod, after all that?  Why not an apology!—but smiled back at Kayura.  “I’m glad I could help.  And thank you for all the advice—about the Jewel and everything.” 

“It was my honor, Mia.”

“I’ll see what I can find on the Clan of the Ancients.”  She laid a hand over the stone around her neck.  “We already know where they enshrined the Jewel of Life—it can’t have been that far from their village.  I know!” she burst, making Kayura blink at her in surprise.  “Come and visit us!  If you can’t be away from the Netherworld long and we can’t keep in contact reliably, you could still come once a year, couldn’t you?” 

Kayura opened her mouth, closed it, then burst into a smile.  “I’m sure we could!”  (“We?” Cale asked from behind her, and went ignored.) 

“And that way the Ronin Warriors and the warlords can get to know each other better,” Mia enthused.  (“Is that a thing we want now?” Rowen asked.  “They may be redeemed, but they’re still kinda jerks.”)

“Yes!  So that all nine armors’ hearts will be united in the future.”  (“This is already decided, isn’t it?” Dais sighed.)

“Yes!”  (Ryo shook his head at them, grinning.  “Better get used to the idea, guys.”)

The two women beamed at each other, then Kayura stepped back and pulled the Staff of the Ancients from the air, striking it on the ground in regular intervals, the rings’ chiming harmonizing with the low thrum on the earth. 

“Oh heavens, open me a bridge!  To the mortal realm!”

The gateway of light opened in front of them again and the Ronin headed through it in a jostling stream.  Joining Ryo and White Blaze, Mia waved at Kayura a last time, then turned toward the portal, holding her breath as she walked through.

The bridge closed behind them, a seam of white light stitching itself shut and vanishing into the weft of the world.  Mia looked around at the back of their house, all their things in the windows, the edge of the lake…  She shut her eyes, sighing in relief at the feeling in the air—nothing she could ever define, but home

“Well, I think that went pretty well,” Cye said cheerfully.

“Yeah,” Ryo agreed.  “The Netherworld’s got a better time ahead of it now.”

“Yeah, if by ‘better time’ you mean Dais smirking at it all the time.”  Kento put his hands behind his back and headed back up toward the house.  “Man, I wanna punch that guy!  I can’t believe I didn’t get to hit him even once!”

“Well, they’ll be comin’ for a visit before too long,” Rowen reminded him as he followed, sighing.

“Hey, yeah!  And this time they’ll be on our turf…”  The anticipatory cackle brought a giggle to Mia’s lips.

“Hey, look,” Ryo said, pointing over to the tree overhanging the porch.  “The plum blossoms are out.”

“Mm.”  She followed his point to the early burst of lavender petals.  “Thank you for agreeing to Kayura’s request, Ryo.”

“Huh?”  He looked briefly puzzled, then smiled at her affably as they walked back up toward the house.  “Sure thing, Mia.  You hit it off with Kayura, huh?”

Mia nodded, looking up into the flowering tree branches and smiling at the signs of the beginning of spring.

THE END