The first thing Kaoru noticed when she regained consciousness was the deafening silence. Even without opening her eyes, she could tell that she was about as far from home as she could imagine. She laid on her back, on a surface that wasn't soft, but neither was it so hard as to be uncomfortable, and she had no way of knowing how long she'd been there.
In the absence of all other sound, the disembodied voice may as well have been coming out of a megaphone. It startled her.
She slowly raised one eyelid, and then the other. “Saejima...” she muttered confusedly, trying to piece everything together at one time and being generally unsuccessful. She closed her eyes again, and took a deep breath, and then she started to remember a few things. The name was correct after all. She was married to Saejima Kouga, and they had a child who would eventually inherit his father's golden armor and title of Garo.
“Saejima Kaoru,” the voice repeated. “You, who are not of Makai heritage.”
Her brow furrowed at this, and she pushed herself up to a sitting position, fully awake now. Tilting her head slightly, she knew that statement was also true. It didn't matter, though. She had acquired some small power not long after meeting Kouga the first time in that art gallery – the time he slew that one Horror and some of its blood splashed onto her. She thought about everything that had happened since, and smiled for a moment. Against all odds, she survived a danger she hadn't fully understood, and was later even able to help her new friends when they needed it most. The voice continued to attempt attracting her attention.
Kaoru had finally cleared her head enough to take stock of her surroundings. She had seen a place like this before, but it was only when accompanied by Kouga. It was a massive expanse, completely white except for the swirling black scrawl the texture of which reminded her of the written orders he often received from the Watchdogs. There was no indoor or outdoor to it, only a sense of existing within it, and she started to feel dizzy, and suddenly collapsed.
The entity noticed that she was struggling, and took pity. When it next called to her, it apologized. She opened her eyes a third time, to find that she was now on a grassy embankment beside a stream she didn't recognize. There weren't even any buildings she could use to get her bearings – it was still completely deserted, and it was still abnormally quiet.
A figure materializing a few yards upstream caught her attention. Kaoru heard her name once again, and knew it immediately as the same voice. She sat up fully as the person approached, and in a bout of uncertainty inched away as they sat down near her.
“Who are you,” she asked. “Where am I? Why am I here?”
The person stared out at the water and nodded. While Kaoru waited for a response, her artist's eye took in the other's appearance. Everything about them flowed – the long dark hair carefully held back with ornate barrettes, and the clothing – a matched set of pants and tunic. In that moment, she also noticed that she was dressed similarly, except that her own hair was tied up with a simple elastic band.
The entity looked squarely at her. “Yes, those are the questions you should be asking. I hope you will forgive me. I so rarely interact with normal humans, that I had entirely forgotten the proper etiquette. We actually have not moved from the place where you woke, however I noticed that your cognitive ability is strongly linked to your visual perception. You were having difficulty, so I changed the scenery to something calmer.”
Kaoru took this in stride. “If you've really remembered the etiquette, you'd introduce yourself to me. You somehow know things about me, but I don't even have your name. I'm not prepared to trust you yet.”
“Ah, yes, that is true,” the other person said, turning back to gaze at the distance again. “My name is Kazue. As for how or why you came to be here, I do not know. All I know is that you arrived here, and I am the one tasked with attending to your needs.”
“I suppose it's nice to meet you, Kazue, but you know nothing about me besides who I am?”
“That is correct. I am just as confused as you are on the matter. I know your name, and that you are not of Makai heritage. That last piece of information is in fact why they sent me.”
“That's true. It was a total fluke how I became exposed to this world. But Kouga saved me from a terrible death, even while he deceived me in the process. His friends became my friends, and while I'm not as strong as them, I was able to repay my debt.” She thought for a minute, jumping to her feet when she realized she'd been forgetting something important in the midst of the conversation. She started running down the river's edge, calling out her husband and son's names. She ran out of breath and stopped, leaning over to put her hands on her knees. She looked up as Kazue came back into her field of view.
“I can see you love them very much, but leaving this place is not so easy.”
“I need to get home,” Kaoru exclaimed, still trying to bring her heart rate back down. “How long have I even been here? I have no way of knowing if they're okay!”
“By most counts, you have not been here long, although I am fairly certain that time passes differently in your world. As for the safety of your family, Saejima Kouga is a strong man, and if the two of you are any indication, you have a very strong son. His will is good, and your friends will become his friends in time. When he falters, they will carry him. Please sit, and I will tell you everything I know.”
Kaoru looked on as Kouga dug a hole in the ground behind the Saejima family mansion. There was a training dummy laying on the grass beside them, and he was preparing to install it so that he could begin teaching his son the skills necessary for the life that lay ahead. Raiga was seven years old, and he was at a point in his maturity where he'd be able to start making his own informed decisions.
Kouga set down the shovel and lifted the pole. “It looks like a scarecrow,” Raiga said through his giggles.
His father looked up at the dummy's body and smiled. “It does, a little bit. I made friends with a training dummy once, I guess I wanted to honor him.”
Kaoru leaned down to Raiga's level and muttered in his ear. “Why don't you help your father make sure he's standing straight at attention?” Raiga nodded, always excited to have a hand in Kouga's work. He took a few quick steps forward, the long tail of his white shirt trailing behind him. Kouga directed him to where he should stand to get the best view, and they set to work.
Meanwhile, Kaoru watched with pride. She had never really seen a knight begin his training and was unsure that it was really okay to start Raiga going at such a young age, but Kouga had been able to reassure her. Despite entering this lifestyle as an adult, her own father had taught her of the mythology surrounding the Makai, and she trusted her husband to know the best course of action from his own experiences. She sat a few paces away and reached into her tote bag for a sketchbook and pencil.
“Did you really meet a scarecrow,” Raiga asked, thinking his father was pretty cool for still having imaginary friends.
“Things are not always what they seem in this life, Raiga. You'll find more truth in that than anything else if you keep an open mind, especially as you do battle with the monsters that plague this world.” Confident that the dummy was stabilized, he started filling in the remaining space around the pole.
“So he was real?”
“He was as real as you or I, maybe even more so, if I consider the other trials he'd previously gone through.” Kouga stood opposite his son and inspected the work. “Okay, how does that look?”
Raiga's smile was like a sunbeam. “It stands tall like you!” Kouga borrowed the wooden sword he'd given his son, and took a few practice swings at the figure. When nothing budged, he nodded in satisfaction and handed it back.
There was motion behind Kaoru that caught Kouga's attention, and he turned to see the butler Gonza standing behind her. “I'm so sorry to interrupt, but lunch is ready,” he said, bowing. Raiga's stomach growled, causing his face to turn bright red in embarrassment. He ran towards the house while his mother packed her materials and stood up. Gonza had already started back so that he could set the plates on the garden table under the tree, so Kouga and Kaoru walked back together just the two of them, hand in hand.
Kouga looked at his hand, feeling that singular loneliness that accompanies being separated from a loved one. His other arm hung down, grasping the red sheath that contained the sword which struck fear in Horrors and awe in humans. It was the symbol of his title, emblazoned with the golden circumscribed triangle that represented Garo.
He was still unsure of exactly what had happened the night Kaoru disappeared. He'd received a notice from the Watchdogs that evening regarding a particular Horror that was wreaking havoc nearby and gone to slay it. It was a long and furious battle, and he'd had to summon his armor earlier than expected. As the seconds ticked down from the moment he held the sword aloft and drew a circle of light, he began to worry that he wouldn't be able to defeat the monster before Garo started to exercise its will on him.
Right before the time was up though, he made the final slash and managed to maintain his sanity for one more night.
What he hadn't anticipated was what he returned home to.
Gonza met him at the door. “Master Kouga, something terrible has happened!”
It was a long time since the knight had seen him in such a panic, and he began to worry as well. Kouga took the other man back into the house and they sat on a bench in the hallway. Gonza's training prevented him from fretting, but all the same the words poured from his mouth faster than Kouga could process them. “I couldn't keep them from taking her,” he said finally, hanging his head in shame.
Kouga looked at him squarely. “This is not your fault, Gonza. None of us could have known that Horror had been sent to distract me. Even if we did, I probably still would have gone. Where is Raiga?”
Gonza met Kouga's eyes. “Master Raiga is asleep in bed, sir.”
“Good. I'm going back out.”
“I need to find her and bring her back safely.”
“Yes, I understand.”
Kouga sighed heavily. “Gonza... I don't know how long it will take to find her. If we're not back by morning, I'm sure Raiga will have questions. I trust you to answer them discreetly and to your best ability. Don't let this get in the way of his training. I'll contact that man on my way just in case.”
“You mean Master Rei?”
“Yes, I trust him implicitly to conduct Raiga's training in my absence.”
They stood and went back to the door. Gonza bowed. “I promise to look after Master Raiga. Please bring Miss Kaoru back safely.”
Kouga nodded, and disappeared into the wee hours of the night.
The first thing Kouga had done that night was to seek out an audience with the member of the Watchdogs who had originally summoned him. He was seething as he entered the dimly lit hall. An anonymous figure appeared as if under a spotlight, and she stood resilient as he approached. “I have no information for you at this time, Golden Knight Garo.”
“You sent me to slay a Horror, and while I was gone my wife was kidnapped. You know nothing?”
“We have nothing to do with any activity besides protecting humans. It is a terrible thing that she was taken from you, but I am limited to reporting Horror attacks. I have no other information for you at this time.”
Kouga growled, a wolf in every way except for the summoning of his armor, the energy release causing the tails of his long white coat to lift on a breeze. “It's a big world, how am I supposed to find her?”
The Watchdogs' representative waited while he calmed back down. “It is likely she was transported away from the human world. She is unlike any other humans, and that gives her a special strength to withstand the trials that faced her in the past and will come in the future.” She paused to give her evaluation some weight. “We will not summon you for your normal duties while you search, and we will also investigate using our means.”
Aware of the restrictions the Watchdog organization placed on its members regarding communication, Kouga knew he had to take her words as the best she could do under the circumstances. He bowed to her and turned to leave.
He didn't expect her final words. “This will be your most difficult challenge. Do not let your love for her falter. Your bond is everything.”
Immediately after exiting the hall, he found the closest entrance into the Makai world and began his search in earnest. That was over three months ago, in his personal time line. As expected, he'd already come across more monsters than he would have if he'd stayed in the human world, although none of them were actually Horrors. Horrors feed specifically on the dark energy of humans with fears and evil desires. There were no ordinary humans in the Makai world, but most of the demons that could be found there were much worse. He'd had to summon his armor several times, and the entire experience was starting to take a toll on him.
It didn't help that any friendly face he met also told him they couldn't help, but that they'd lend any aid they could spare.
So when he was summoned again to the Watchdog center a year to the day after his last visit, it wasn't because he wanted to be there.
“Your son has requested your title,” the representative announced unceremoniously.
Kouga took a step backwards. Had it really been that long? Had he really missed that much of his child's life? “I see. How old is he now?”
“He has reached the age of knighthood. You may have been conducting your search for the span of a year, but for him it has been much longer. We told him that you are still the Golden Knight Garo.”
Kouga did the math in his head. It didn't make sense based on what he knew about the discrepancy in the passage of time between the two worlds, but this wouldn't be happening if Raiga wasn't of an age to properly accept the responsibility of being a knight. Rei would have made sure of that. Weighing his needs against those of his son, he started to slide the Madou ring Zaruba off his finger.
“Are you sure about this, Kouga,” Zaruba asked, feeling his hesiatation. “After I bond with Raiga, it's unlikely that I'll remember having supported you in battle, as was the case with your father.”
Kouga made his hand into a fist, and brought it up so he could face the ring directly. “I understand, and I'm making this decision knowing that to be the case. When I was here the last time, I was told that the strength of my own will would be what saves Kaoru. I've been relying on you quite a bit, and I see now that Garo is needed once again to fight Horrors. I can't monopolize its power for my own needs, but neither can I give up my quest.”
The Watchdogs' representative observed the exchange in silence. After Kouga had placed his sword and ring on the table that sat between them, she spoke again. “We commend your honor and your years of service, Saejima Kouga. Out of respect for the decision to relinquish your title, please accept this sword. It will not summon armor for you, but as it is a Madou blade, it should be a worthy tool to resume your journey.”
“Thank you.” With a heavy heart he lifted his new weapon. He had become used to wielding the Garo sword, and this blade wasn't balanced the same way that one was. Still, he agreed that he would make good use of it. Sensing that the conversation had ended, he turned to leave.
“One more thing,” the representative called out. “In exchange for also turning over the Madou ring Zaruba, a familiar face will meet you to accompany you the rest of the way until you reach the end of your journey.” Kouga nodded in acknowledgment of receiving the information, and continued walking.
Kaoru and Kazue sat in silence for a long time. Kaoru spent it mostly looking around and trying to take everything in. She still couldn't figure out why there were no other animals to speak of, but rather than voice her concerns, she waited for Kazue to begin talking.
“This world is entirely fabricated according to your needs,” Kazue said. Kaoru's attention snapped back at the abrupt resuming of the conversation. “This, I have told you.”
“You said you were given instructions to take care of me? Who do you answer to, what kind of person are they?”
The guide shook their head. “I am only in contact by proxy with my superiors, and I have been given no indication of their plans for your future. At the moment, we are to stay here, and you are to be made comfortable.”
Kaoru couldn't decide whether it would be better for her surroundings to feel more natural, or if it should stay the way it was as a reminder that it was completely fake. She remembered her family again, and concluded that she had to start making her own efforts to get home. It was important not to become complacent. She decided to try a different angle. “How did I get here?”
“I brought you here,” Kazue replied, not understanding the distinction.
“You did this.”
“Yes, I brought you to the riverbank.”
Kaoru nodded her head slowly, discovering the miscommunication. “That's not what I meant. I know this isn't the human world, but I'm missing some time from my memory. In other words, I was asleep at home, and then I woke up in that swirly space that reminded me of Kouga. How did I get there? Was it another Horror?”
Kazue sat silent for a while, and Kaoru started to worry. It was as if the guide had completely checked out and left their body for another plane of existence. Even five minutes started to feel like an eternity in this place, and Kaoru decided she had no choice but to try to explore her surroundings again. She hadn't gotten far before Kazue's voice rang out clear to her again. “I am sorry, I have not been authorized to be privy to that information.”
Kaoru sighed and came back to where Kazue sat. She lowered herself unceremoniously to the ground, and laid back to look up at the sky. “I got here somehow... there must be an exit.” She lifted a hand to shield her eyes, and noticed that even though everything was brightly lit and she had no trouble seeing, there wasn't actually a specific light source anywhere that she could tell. That was almost more disturbing than the silence.
“Logic would dictate that to be the case,” Kazue agreed. “However, if such a thing exists, it is likely sealed from the outside. Otherwise I would have a better idea of how to find it.”
Upon exiting from his audience with the Watchdogs' representative, Kouga found a nearby open field and took a few practice swings with his new sword. It really wasn't balanced the same, and that would make things difficult until he got used to it. He held his hand up so he could face the ring Zaruba to get another opinion, and then remembered that his long-time adviser and friend was now gone too. Zaruba would take good care of Raiga, there was no doubt about that, but suddenly the idea of being alone bothered him much more than it ever had in the past. He resolved that nothing could be done by standing still, and went back to pick up the search where he'd left off.
The moment he crossed back into Makai space, someone came bounding up behind him. “Still not smiling much, I see. You really aren't a normal human, are you?”
Kouga scowled. “What are you doing here?”
Kakashi pouted. “No 'long time no see, how've you been?' Is that any way to talk to your new traveling companion?”
Kouga spun around to face the other man. “You're the one they sent?” Kakashi's appearance hadn't changed from the last time they saw each other – scratched face, big floppy hat, mismatched clothes, and the striped cane.
“Hey, you brought me back into existence when you started training your son. I wasn't expecting to see you in person again so soon either, by the way.”
“What did they promise you?”
“You don't seem the type to just do things out of the goodness of your heart... if you even have much of a heart to begin with. What did they lure you in with?” Kouga's head swiveled as the anthropomorphized training dummy walked a circle around him.
Kakashi put a hand over his own chest, closing his eyes and leaning back as if struck in the heart by an arrow. “I'm hurt that you would think that about me.” He opened one eye to gauge Kouga's reaction, and when he saw it wasn't working, he decided to come clean. “They told me they'd grant my wish.”
Kouga hadn't realized how long it was since he'd gone searching for the Fang of Lamentation. Not only that, but he'd been so focused on trying to find Kaoru, that he had to work hard to remember what that wish was. After a few moments, he met Kakashi's eyes. “You wanted to become human.”
“Correct,” he exclaimed, leaning into Kouga's face a bit and wagging a finger at him. “Although even if that's impossible, they'll still allow me to live among humans.”
Kouga turned to resume walking. “Congratulations, let's go.”
Kakashi stood in his wake, and then took a few long strides to catch up when he noticed the conversation had abruptly ended. His face appeared in Kouga's peripheral vision. “So... what are you doing here?”
“My wife disappeared one night while I was fighting a Horror. It was a setup, and she was taken right out of our home without anyone knowing. I've been searching for her for about a year, but in the human time line it's been much longer than that. I just passed the title of Garo on to our son, and that is why you're here.”
Kakashi's mouth gaped. In the entire span of their previous adventure, he'd never heard so many words from the other man come out all at once. It was quite a revelation, and a sobering one at that. He processed the information and nodded. “I knew something was different. You're so serious all the time, but I don't think I've ever seen you so angry.”
Kouga knew it was true, but hadn't been prepared to hear anyone else say it. He kept walking, staring straight ahead as if it was false. Kakashi realized he'd hit a nerve, and followed in silence for a while. He was surprised when Kouga was the one who broke it.
“They told me it was my emotional connection to Kaoru that would save her.”
Kakashi had been strolling with his hands in his pockets, watching things go by as they walked. His attention snapped back and he almost made a joke, but barely managed to hold his tongue. “You said you have a kid with her, why don't you tell me about him? Is he more like you, or like her?”
Kouga's expression softened as he thought about the child Raiga had been. “He's clever. And smart. And... while I'm not sure whether he inherited his mother's talent for art, he certainly has her sense of humor and levity. There aren't many people who are as honest as the two of them.” He paused for a moment, recalling the discrepancy in the passage of time. “All I know about him now, is that he's reached the age of maturity to become a knight.”
“Mmmmm... I think they were right,” Kakashi mused. “In the Makai world, you need to hold onto that.” He tapped Kouga's chest. “Those feelings are what will lead you to your wife, and then eventually back to your home.”
Kouga glanced down in reaction to being poked, and then looked at Kakashi's face and nodded. Having reached an understanding, they continued walking, this time with a renewed sense of purpose.
“I know you think I should stay put and let someone come find me,” Kaoru said. “But I can't help but feel like I need to be doing something. I'm going to search for an exit, and I'd appreciate the company... if you don't mind indulging me at least that much.”
The conflict between the request and the directive showed as plainly as the nose on Kazue's face. Concluding that the woman would do what she wanted while disregarding warnings, they stood up. “Your feelings are strong, and they guide you well. I will be of what service I may, while you are here.”
Kaoru smiled and nodded. As she also stood, she noticed a pocket in her tunic that she wasn't sure had been there before. Reaching into it, she pulled out a calligraphy brush. She looked at Kazue confusedly.
“You know what that is.” It was more of a statement than a question, and Kaoru nodded. “Then I imagine you also know what it does, and how to use it.”
Kaoru turned the brush over in her hands. It had a long wooden handle, and soft white bristles. The handle had carvings in it, and a hole at the end where a strand of beads hung off. She admired it, and then tried to give it back. “It's beautiful, but... I'm not a priest. I don't know any of the motions or spells, and I don't think I can actually make appropriate use of it.”
Kazue faced her and gently pushed the brush towards her with both hands. “I know you can feel the energy in this place. You would not have been so affected by it when you first woke, otherwise. The brush will serve as enough of a conduit to focus your will. You will be okay without the priests' formal training.”
Kaoru nodded hesitantly, and held the brush in both hands with the bristles facing upwards, as she'd seen the Makai priests do. She closed her eyes and thought hard about her destination, about Kouga, and about Raiga. She felt a pang in her chest that ached with homesickness and started pulling her in the opposite direction from where she was facing. She opened her eyes and took Kazue's hand, and started running.
Raiga sat up violently in his bed. He'd been fast asleep, when a strong emotional tug jolted him awake. He swung his legs over the side, and sat holding his head for a moment. When the sensation subsided, he decided he probably wouldn't be getting back to sleep for a while, so he took the Madou ring Zaruba and went to the kitchen to get a cup of tea.
Gonza met him in the doorway. “Master Raiga, is everything okay?”
Raiga was still trying to figure out what exactly had happened, but didn't want to worry the butler too much. “Yes, I'm fine. I just found myself unable to sleep.”
Gonza had a feeling he knew what was troubling the younger man. Something had also roused him, although if it was the same thing, and he felt like there was a high likelihood of that, it seemed like it had a greater effect on Raiga. He invited Raiga to sit on a stool near the counter top while he filled a kettle and set it on the stove to warm up. He then joined his charge, and waited.
It didn't take long. Raiga clutched his chest and looked pointedly at Gonza. “Just out of curiosity, did you feel that pang a while ago? I'm trying to figure out what it was.”
“I did feel something,” Gonza said, nodding. “It woke me, but that's all. I nearly went back to sleep, except that I heard you moving around.”
Raiga smiled in appreciation. In the next moment, though, he turned serious again. “What kind of thing could exert that much energy and hit the entire household with varying degrees of impact? Mayuri stirred, but I don't think it actually woke her.” The kettle began to whistle, and Gonza finished making the tea.
“Don't you think it felt a little familiar?” Raiga lifted his hand so that he and Gonza could face Zaruba directly.
“I'm not sure,” Raiga said. “It did feel nostalgic, but I have no recollection of the specific force behind it.”
Gonza's face lit up in disbelief. “You don't think it was her, do you?”
Zaruba nodded. “It's been a long time, but if that was any indication, the end may be drawing near.”
Raiga looked back and forth between his ring and his butler. “The end? What's going on? Who do you think it was?”
Gonza clapped his hands and started puttering around trying to figure out a fitting meal to cook. Zaruba directed his attention to Raiga.
“Before I tell you what's happening, you need to know that this is something you can do absolutely nothing about. Your duty is here, fighting Horrors and protecting humans.”
“Understood.” He said it without a second thought, having no clue as to the impact of what Zaruba would say next.
The ring paused for a moment to gather itself. “Raiga, that was your mother.”
Kouga dropped to one knee, doubling over. He clutched his chest and looked around. The wave of energy felt distinctly human, but he couldn’t believe what else it felt like. Kakashi had taken a few extra steps, but stopped when he noticed as well, and turned around. “Hey, are you okay? You know… I don’t get my wish if you fail.”
Kouga breathed heavily, as if he’d just finished a particularly challenging training session. “I’m fine,” he said with a smirk. “I don’t think you have to worry about not getting your wish.”
“Really,” Kakashi asked. He leaned forward on his cane, the stance doing nothing to conceal his excitement.
“Did you not feel that surge of energy?”
“There was something, but I have no idea what it was,” Kakashi said with a shrug.
Kouga stood back up and looked squarely at the other man. “That was her.” He started walking again, but suddenly stopped and closed his eyes so he could focus.
Kakashi’s mouth gaped while he tried to understand. “That… was her. Okay.” He noticed that Kouga had paused again, and moved around to observe his face. “You want to follow it, but you can’t tell what direction you need to go.”
Kouga glared at him. “It was a lot of energy directed in a very specific manner.”
“But I didn’t feel it as strongly as you did. Maybe the ability to sense it was determined by the degrees of separation from the source.”
“That means everyone at home probably felt it too, and the other knights and priests we worked with in the past. This is good, we can try to use all the information to narrow down places to search.” He started moving again, this time towards an exit to the human world.
“You’re forgetting something very important,” Kakashi said, crossing his arms. He paused for dramatic effect, but when it still didn’t get the desired reaction except to regain Kouga’s attention, he continued. “I’m here, right next to you. I wasn’t overwhelmed like you were… and I know what direction it came from.”
Kouga’s eyebrows shot up and he searched Kakashi’s face, almost pleading for the words to be true.
Kakashi nodded solemnly. “I can’t guarantee she won’t move, of course, and certainly another event would help.” That earned him another glare, more out of concern for Kaoru’s life than anything else. “But we have to at least keep making progress, right?”
Kouga used his Makai training to mask his joy. There was no sense letting this conversation devolve into an opportunity to be teased about emotions or the apparent lack thereof, especially after gaining a lead like that. “Okay, so which way did it come from?”
Kakashi simply pointed.
“What do you mean, that was my mother?” Raiga nearly started running back to his room to collect his coat and sword, before Gonza stopped him.
“Master Raiga, please sit down! There’s nothing you can do about it with the way things are right now,” the butler said, as much for his own benefit as well.
Zaruba intervened too. “Did the energy not feel familiar to you? It’s part of your own signature, and yet quite individual. Unfortunately, even though we know who generated it, you’re so close spiritually, that you were overwhelmed by it. I know that, because I was too. As such, it would be quite a challenge to run off without knowing which way to go. Remember what I said – your responsibility is to find and slay Horrors right now. Let your father continue to pursue this matter.”
Raiga’s shoulders slumped as he remembered the promise he’d just finished making. Big things were happening, and he was being told to cool his heels. He was far less than happy to follow the instruction, but he dropped into a nearby chair anyway.
Gonza came around the kitchen island and stood beside him with hands clasped. “I know this is difficult. We all want to see your parents return home safely.” He shifted his footing a bit as he spoke. “But your father is a resourceful man. Even if he was disoriented, he would still find a way to reach her.”
Zaruba nodded. “At this very moment, he’s probably already on his way.”
Raiga sighed. “I just remember so little about them.” He looked to the side, and then upwards, when Gonza gently put a hand on his shoulder. The older man was smiling.
“Go wake Miss Mayuri and tell her what happened. Your parents will likely be exhausted when they arrive, so I’ll start preparing a welcome home meal.”
Raiga pushed himself up from his seat. “Yes, that sounds like a good idea. Thank you.”
Kazue stopped running, and Kaoru toppled backwards from the remaining force of the grip. Kaoru looked up confusedly, the excitement of having a direction to go slowly dissipating.
“We have run a long way already,” Kazue said. “I can neither sense a portal nor a barrier.”
“That's impossible. I know the energy I channeled through the brush pulled me in this direction. I want to try it again.” She raised the brush and closed her eyes to focus. This time, though, the sensation felt like it was facing the way they'd come. Not only that, but it was also weaker. She sat dejectedly on the grass with the brush in her lap. “I just... don't understand,” she said, looking up at Kazue.
“I have told you that leaving this place is no simple task. Unfortunately, you are also now learning that the power behind a spell depends entirely on the mental state of the wielder.” They sat in silence for a while. “While we think of how to proceed, perhaps you can tell me about your family. That may raise your spirits.”
While Raiga and Mayuri were on their way back to the kitchen, Raiga had to stop again. The sensation passed much more quickly this time, and he hurried back to Gonza. She followed swiftly behind him.
“Master Raiga, is something wrong,” Gonza asked as they entered. The worry he saw in the knight's eyes as he leaned on the counter top said everything.
Raiga stared at the smooth stone. “I felt it again, but it didn't overwhelm me this time. I know which direction it came from.”
Gonza's mouth gaped at the revelation. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely positive,” Raiga said with a nod. He looked up and met his friends' eyes. “Zaruba, I know you guys said this isn't my job, but I also have this information available to me now. I need to find them.”
At that moment, a messenger arrived at the door. Gonza went to see who it was, and returned with a red envelope. Raiga took out his lighter, ignited the green flame, and set the envelope alight. As it burned, text in the Makai language and the color of the fire floated in front of them. Raiga growled as he read it. “Horrors have no sense of timing.”
“If they did, they might not be Horrors,” Mayuri quipped unintentionally. “Shall we?” She had long since served out her purpose of finding and re-sealing Eris into the stone tablet, but the priests who had woken her allowed her to remain with Raiga this time. When he roused her, she anticipated an excursion, and had dressed in her black dress and glove, with the adornment that fitted over the top of her left ear. She tugged at the glove to signal to him that she was ready, and he took his sword and coat from their place by the door as they left.
“I don't have time for this right now,” Raiga growled as they walked.
Zaruba clinked his jaws together, and Raiga lifted his hand. “On the contrary, this is exactly what we need. You are a knight, but don't forget that sometimes it all eventually fits together like a puzzle.”
Raiga stared off into the distance, suddenly remembering his father's words from so many years ago. “Things aren't always what they seem in this world.” He looked at Mayuri. “I've always lived by that idea, but it was only conceptually. I have a guess at what's going on, we need to go!”
Kouga and Kakashi ran in the direction that Kakashi had pointed. The initial energy burst had long since disappeared, but suddenly Kouga had to stop again. He looked around, unsure of what to make of the new development.
Kakashi used his cane like an umbrella missing its canopy to float back to where the other man was, his longer legs having carried him a bit further. “What is it this time? I figured you'd go nonstop until we get there.”
“I felt it again.”
“Really,” Kakashi said, tilting his head a bit. “I didn't notice anything.”
Kouga looked around, trying to figure out if what he just experienced was coming from the same direction they'd been going. He closed his eyes to focus again, and determined that the new energy came from a point only a few degrees off their current path. He opened his eyes again, and addressed his companion. “I'm not surprised, it was much weaker this time. Something must have happened, we need to hurry.”
Kakashi nodded in understanding while Kouga took off again, and then followed closely behind.
Some time later, they came to a place where the barrier between the Makai world and the human world was much thinner than it should have been. However, even though it felt spiritually penetrable, before their eyes stood an immense stone wall that stretched to the left and right until it disappeared from view, with no discernible breaks. Kouga leaned against it and slammed the back of one fist on its hewn surface.
Kakashi began to tap the wall with the handle of his cane. “This is weird. We probably would have arrived here, no matter whether we stopped when we felt her energy the second time or not. But... you can't just have a fence with no gate.” He kept tapping – above his head, around his knees, at eye level, and he even started to move down the wall toward where they would have come out if they'd followed his original direction. Part way down, the tonal quality of the tapping changed. “Hey, I found something!”
Kouga caught up in time to notice Kakashi moving his hands in a wide circle against the section of wall in front of him. “Is this where the gate is?”
“I'm not sure, but probably. This is the only section where the tapping sounded hollow. I'm looking for a mechanism to open it.” Kakashi’s eyes followed the motion of each hand as it moved, desperately trying to find the way through.
Kouga thought about how Zaruba would have been able to find it, and noticed he was missing his friend yet again. This wasn’t the time for that, though, now that they were so close. He closed his eyes and tried to channel his own energy. It was as foreign of an act to him as taking up the different sword had been, and on top of everything else, he didn’t really have anything to control it with like the priests’ brushes.
The longer they stood there, the more their frustration grew. Kouga had quickly taken up the task in a different section of the wall. Not being able to focus his thoughts, he started out using the same method Kakashi was using, but he discovered quickly that the puzzle wasn’t meant to break under physical means. In a last ditch effort, he drew his sword. Taking it in both hands and pointing it at the wall, he started waving it around.
“Hey! Watch where you’re swinging that,” Kakashi yelled. “You could poke someone’s eye out!”
Kouga glanced sidelong at him. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand something like this.”
“Excuse me?” Kakashi took a couple deliberate steps to shorten the distance between them, incensed at the insult, but found his mouth gaping when Kouga reached an arm out to block his path back to the wall. He stood obediently to the side with his arms crossed, muttering something about the knight not actually needing his help.
Kouga, meanwhile, started trying to focus again, this time pleading with the sword to help him accomplish his goal. His feet slid slowly across the ground while his shoulders made wide circles parallel to the wall’s surface. His expression suddenly turned as hard as the stones in front of him. “She’s definitely here.”
“Well of course she’s here,” Kakashi replied with an exaggerated sigh and shrug. He realized a bit too late that the banter wasn’t helping, and kept his mouth shut the rest of the time while Kouga tried to figure out how to get in.
Something a little further down caught both of their attentions at the same moment. “What the heck was that? It felt like the energy changed,” Kakashi asked.
Kouga put his sword back in its sheath. “I don’t know, but it definitely wasn’t her that time. Come on.”
They quickly found the spot. The difference was subtle, and they wouldn’t have noticed it at all if they hadn’t been looking. Kakashi pointed at it and smirked. “It was not doing this before.”
“Agreed. And there’s only one way to find out what caused the change.” He reached out to touch it and confirmed his suspicion that the texture had been modified, and was now only a projection. Satisfied with the results of his test, he stepped through to the other side.
Kakashi, not wanting to be left behind in such a place, glanced over his shoulder, and then followed.
Raiga and Mayuri stopped short in front of a building on the opposite side of town from the Saejima estate. They nodded to each other, silently agreeing that they’d found the Horror’s hiding place. The building was only three stories tall, and Raiga knew it wouldn’t take long to locate the monster inside. He started walking towards the entrance, as he would have on any other job. A few yards from the door, an invisible force caught him off-guard, and sent him backwards a few steps.
Mayuri went to check on him. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I wasn’t expecting this Horror to be capable of this kind of barrier.” He stood up straight and moved closer again, reaching out to see exactly how far he could go. This time he was met with a sort of static-electric shock that radiated from the point of contact.
Zaruba clicked his jaw. “If you’re right, and your mother is being held here, it may not be as big of a surprise as you think.” Raiga considered that perspective and nodded.
Mayuri took the glove off her right hand, and held her palm out in the general direction of the building. “It’s possible my power could be of use here,” she said. When Raiga responded by stepping back and out of her way, she started her work. A couple minutes later, she collapsed to the ground, panting. “That was a valuable experiment. It should be okay to go in now.” He watched while she put the glove back on. “Go. It won’t be long before whatever’s inside notices that something happened.”
Raiga helped her back to her feet, and gently tilted her head so he could look into her eyes. “I don’t think it’s wise to leave you here alone.” He discreetly looked her over. “Will you be okay to keep going?” In answer, she took the hand that he offered, and they went inside.
They searched each floor thoroughly before moving up to the next one. The first two were deserted, the furniture in the rooms covered by drop cloths with a half-inch layer of dust and cobwebs. Just before they were about to exit the stairwell onto the third floor, a man’s voice called out from above them.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t come to greet you properly at the door, but I was ordered to stand guard here.”
Raiga's attention now riveted, he growled and took off for the topmost landing. He grasped the man’s shirt collar tightly in one hand, and pinned him against the roof access door. In his other hand was the sheathed Garo blade, ready to be drawn when he needed it. “Who are you? Is my mother here?”
“Like you, I am but a pawn,” the man laughed, further frustrating the knight.
“What does that mean,” Raiga asked, redoubling his grip.
The mirth on the man’s face was completely at odds with the situation he found himself in. “The one pulling the strings has plans. Neither you nor your father can win the day this time."
“Raiga,” Mayuri called up from the mid-level landing. “His goal is to slow us down. We need to get to the roof!”
“I'm afraid I can't let you do that,” the man said. He transformed suddenly into a monster, and the change in energy and size forced Raiga to let go and take a couple steps back down towards the third floor. The Horror's form would have terrified anybody else, but Raiga's instincts kicked in, and he drew his sword as the monster leaped snarling towards him. The metal blade made a clanging noise against the monster's claws, which sent off sparks. Mayuri had to duck out of the way as they fell.
Raiga was doing all he could just to keep the Horror from crushing him by weight alone. He decided to make some attempt at turning the physics around by stepping the rest of the way down. The Horror lost its balance when the resistance disappeared, and stumbled a few steps as well. In the precious few seconds in which that happened, Raiga braced himself on the landing. He raised his sword aloft, and drew a circle. The Garo armor followed the downward motion of his arm after the summon, and he made note to begin an internal timer ticking down 90 seconds, hoping that this battle wouldn't actually fill that entire time.
With renewed energy from the armor, Raiga lunged at the Horror. He pushed it back up the stairs with enough force to open the door. The outside didn't look like the roof of a building, though, and Raiga lost focus for a moment. The Horror laughed and tried to attack again, but this time Raiga regained himself quickly and made a swift slash across its middle, finally defeating it. He canceled the summoning of his armor and re-sheathed the sword as Mayuri walked up beside him. She removed her glove again, in order to imprison the Horror's spirit within herself.
“This... isn't the roof of a building,” she observed.
“No,” Raiga agreed. “It feels like it’s been overlaid with some sort of space that’s part of neither the human world nor the Makai world.” Holding the sword ready in one hand, he reached out for hers with the other, and they proceeded further into the space.
The air thickened with fog as they went, and after several paces, Zaruba interrupted their respective trains of thought. “Raiga, someone’s there!”
Raiga’s attention snapped to a direction vaguely over his left shoulder. He let go of Mayuri’s hand, and brought both arms up into a protective stance. They stood silently waiting for whatever Zaruba had sensed to come into view, but it didn’t take long. The silhouettes of two figures were moving quickly towards them, and Raiga dropped to readiness.
The strangers also stopped when they noticed they had company. They faced Raiga and Mayuri for a few moments, each waiting to see who made the first move.
“Wait, Raiga,” Zaruba called out. “It’s okay. They won’t harm us.”
The strangers whispered to each other, and then started moving forward. Raiga held his posture, but squinted to try to see through the fog. His eyes widened as they approached. One of the men wore a long white coat with black underneath, much like Raiga himself. The other man appeared to be clownish, save for the scratches on his face. Raiga stood up, no longer on guard for the moment, and Mayuri came up next to him. “Is that...” she started to say.
Raiga smiled at her and nodded. “For a long time, I've only had photos, but I'd recognize him anywhere. Mayuri, this is my father.” The two of them bowed as Kouga and Kakashi stopped in front of them.
Kakashi tapped Kouga's shoulder with his elbow. He balled his hands and placed them on his hips. “An excellent greeting, don't you think?”
Kouga took a few extra seconds to resolve in his head exactly what was going on. He noticed the ring on Raiga's finger, and the sword he was holding, and made the connection immediately. “It seems Rei has taught you well,” he said.
“How did you find this place?”
“I received a notice of a Horror, so Mayuri and I went to find it. We came to a building, but when we got onto the roof, we were no longer in the town.”
Zaruba took that moment to interrupt. “I'm sorry, but the reunion will have to wait a little while longer. Raiga has only defeated the gate keeper. We've yet to encounter the person in charge.”
Kaoru dropped her shoulders from where she stood holding the calligraphy brush out in front of her again. She looked over her shoulder at Kazue. “If there's anything you can tell me, now would be the time. Something's going on. I can feel the energy changing.”
Kazue's head shook. “I still know nothing. Or rather, you already know what I know.”
“Then why did they even send you? What good is it to have you here, if you can't help me,” Kaoru shouted in a rare burst of anger. Something dawned on her in that moment, and she turned to hold the brush defensively in Kazue's general direction. “It's you, isn't it? You weren't designed to help me, you were sent to keep me here!”
“I was sent with no purpose other than to keep you calm and help you work through what is happening.”
“And a lot of good that's doing!” Kaoru pointed the brush's bristles at Kazue and shouted as she fired off a burst of energy. There was a small blast of smoke, and when it cleared, her companion was gone.
With nothing to pull her surroundings into focus, the stream and field also disappeared, reverting to the black-scrawled emptiness.
“Mayuri, if you wouldn’t mind coming with me,” Kouga said, trying to puzzle out how to strike two birds with five stones. “I believe it may be best to rearrange ourselves. Raiga, you take Kakashi and try to find the monster who kidnapped your mother. They’re probably together, but if we do this now, there won’t be any confusion once we find them.” Raiga and Mayuri looked at each other again and nodded.
Nobody had a clear bearing in the fog, but they all took off in the same direction without another word.
Some way down the invisible path, they saw another shadowy figure. It was definitely human, and as they got closer, Kouga and Raiga's pace changed from running to sprinting. They stopped just short of laying hands on her, Kouga blocking his son's reach.
Kaoru stood unconscious. Her eyes were closed, and there was nothing securing her to the spot. She just stood there, completely non-responsive no matter how many times they called to her. Mayuri and Kakashi caught up, and Mayuri assessed the situation.
“You were right not to touch her,” she said. “I can't tell exactly what has her trapped, but if you had, you may have become stuck as well. With enough time, I might be able to open a portal for you to get in to reach her.”
Kouga nodded in understanding. “I see now. I can tell you're not a Makai priest, but your power is what allowed us all to enter this space.” He bowed as thanks when she acknowledged his evaluation.
“Your wife is a lovely lady. A bit too strong-willed for my taste, though,” said a voice that didn't belong to any of them.
“Oh? If that's the case, I can see what about her appealed to you, Kouga,” Kakashi quipped with a smirk. Kouga and Raiga had already moved back into defensive stances, but took a moment to shoot matching glares at him. “That's great, like father like son! Don't be mad though, I call 'em how I see 'em,” he followed with a shrug.
The fog parted enough to form a vaguely round clearing, with the group in the center. At the edge off to the left a person stood casually smug. They wore flowing clothes, with long hair pinned back using ornate barrettes.
Raiga stepped towards them, holding his sword ready to be drawn. “I will be your opponent.”
The person nodded. “You must be the son she speaks so highly of. That is fine. I will defeat you, and then I will take your father.”
“Not if I can help it,” Raiga growled. “You won't be getting past me!” He started running, sword ready to attack. Kakashi rolled his shoulders and neck to loosen them up, and then followed.
Kouga also drew his sword, but he continued to stand defensively in front of Mayuri while she attempted to break through the bond that was holding Kaoru. He watched the fight closely to make sure they didn't disrupt his rescue effort. Raiga and his foe moved quickly in and out of the fog, throwing sparks any time they made physical contact. Kakashi for his part managed to keep up, his long legs compensating for Raiga's pure speed. They came dangerously close to the center of the clearing a few times, but Raiga was skilled enough to draw the other person away without interfering.
Mayuri came out of her trance and turned to Kouga. “I made enough of a gap in the barrier that you can reach your wife now. Once you go in, I'll make a shield around us, but that means I won't be able to hold the gate open. The good news is that it seems to be set up such that if you can break it, you'll be able to get back on your own. You do need to hurry, though. I don't know how long I'll be able to hold the shield, and we also don't know how strong that thing Raiga's fighting really is.”
“Understood. Thank you for your help.” The moment Kouga embraced Kaoru, Mayuri refocused her attention on Raiga and Kakashi's fight, erecting a shield barrier in a small circle around herself and the couple behind her.
Kouga was honestly surprised at where he landed. He wasn't sure what he expected, but he didn't think it would be something that looked so much like Makai space. He called out Kaoru's name.
Having no clue where to search in such an expanse, he waited for him to come to her. Which she did, holding her calligraphy brush warily in her outstretched hands. She squinted at him from a distance, stepping slowly towards him.
“It's okay, Kaoru, I know you're scared. I'm here to take you home.”
“Where's Kazue? I didn't think there were any ways in or out. How do I know you're you?”
“Kazue? I'm afraid I don't know who you mean.”
“Yes you do – dressed like me, but with hair clips.” Suddenly realizing she didn't actually know that much about her companion, she struggled to choose a pronoun. “They were keeping me 'company', but I figured out what that really meant, and they disappeared after I shot them with the brush.”
It dawned on Kouga that his wife was describing the person Raiga was currently fighting. He took a few steps towards her. “I'm afraid Kazue isn't dead.” He reached out a hand to her. “If you come with me, we can help Raiga in battle.”
“But... there are no exits. We searched. And anyway, I told Kazue about Raiga and about you, so there's no reason for you to be anything other than an illusion.”
Kouga took a deep breath, heartbroken at the words coming out of his wife's mouth. “I don't know how I can prove myself to you. I do know, though, that the only reason there aren't any exits is that you've convinced yourself that it's true.” He continued to approach her, almost within arm's reach now. “If you're willing to trust me, we can leave this place and finally go home.”
Kaoru shook her head to clear it. “Wait a second. You said Raiga is fighting Kazue?”
Kouga nodded. “Some time ago, while I was searching for you, he reached the age of maturity. He requested the title of Garo, and I passed it down to him. When we found you, Kazue found us. I can no longer summon armor, so I entrusted the battle to our son while I came here to bring you back.”
Kaoru dropped her arms and fell into Kouga's, sobbing and sensing that his words were true. “I am so sorry.”
“It's okay.” He held her for a few moments, and then lifted her head to face him. “Shall we go, then?” She nodded, and suddenly everything around them dissolved into darkness.
The next thing Kaoru knew, she was slowly opening her eyes to the light and sound of clashing metal. Having been closed for so long, it took a minute for her vision to come into focus.
“How long was I gone, Mayuri,” Kouga asked.
Mayuri glanced over her shoulder, relieved that part of their task had been accomplished. “Not long, actually. Raiga isn't doing well, though, but... he also hasn't summoned the armor yet.”
“He hasn't? Or he hasn't had a chance to?”
“They've barely stopped moving, and Kakashi doesn't seem to be enough of a distraction to give him the time. However, they've mostly been too far away for me to tell,” she explained, shaking her head.
As Kaoru regained her balance, she noticed that she was somehow still holding the calligraphy brush. She looked back and forth between the two of them. “Go help them, Kouga. I'll stay here with her.” Knowing this was the best course of action at the moment, Kouga nodded and ran off to aid his son.
“Raiga! Your mother is safe,” he called out when he reached them. The revelation was met with a wail from Kazue, and brief cheers from Raiga and Kakashi. He drew his sword just in time to block one of Kazue’s attacks from making contact with Raiga’s shoulder.
“How,” Kazue demanded. “How did you break my seal?”
Kouga smirked. “She and I have a special bond, you know. It’s something a Horror like you couldn’t possibly understand.”
Kakashi clicked his tongue and wagged his pointer finger in Kazue’s face. “You should have known better than to mess with the family of the Golden Knight.”
“No! Her power will be mine,” Kazue screamed while their body started to change. The resulting monster looked like some sort of giant arachnid, and the instant the transformation was complete, eight legs started running at breakneck speed at Kaoru and Mayuri. Kouga and Kakashi took off after it, but they weren’t fast enough to make it to the women in time.
A bluish light tinged the thin fog that still surrounded Kaoru and Mayuri. The monster smacked into it, unable to stop its forward momentum, but instead of backing up to try again, it found itself stuck there by a secondary power source. Kouga came around the side to find his wife with the brush in her outstretched hands again, this time projecting enough energy to keep the monster at the edge of Mayuri’s defensive barrier.
While this was all happening, Raiga used the opportunity to take an extra moment to prepare himself to deal the final blow. He raised the Garo sword into the air and drew a circle over his head with its tip. Following the downward stroke of his arm, the golden armor came through the gate the circle had created, one section at a time from the feet upwards. He made a mental note to start a 90-second timer, and set off running to where the group was.
The monster that had previously been Kazue flailed against the shield, but Kouga and Kakashi were able to parry the stilted attacks. It was strong, though, and the swipes regained their strength as Kaoru started to lose her grip. It nearly freed itself, and pushed hard enough with its legs to send both Kakashi and Kouga reeling backwards several yards.
Kouga recovered in time to see Kaoru straining to hold on. He was on his way back into the fray when he noticed a flash of light out of the corner of his eye. His attention diverted just long enough to identify the source as emanating from the Garo armor. His heart surged with pride as he watched his son make a wide slashing strike across the monster’s midsection.
Kaoru dropped to her knees from exhaustion, but by that time the monster had already been weakened enough that it wasn’t going anywhere. Raiga took one additional stab at it for good measure, and then Kazue finally disappeared for good. He released the armor well before time ran out, and went to join his family.
Kakashi craned his neck over where the monster had last been situated. “Remind me never to cross you guys,” he said.
Kouga helped Kaoru to her feet, and draped her arm across his shoulders. As a courtesy to Kakashi, they found an exit from the battlefield into Makai space.
A short time later, the four humans and one anthromorph stood before the entrance to the Watchdog Center.
“Are you okay to stand on your own, Kaoru,” Kouga asked.
She took a deep breath and tested her sense of balance. “I’m getting there, but not just yet.”
Mayuri stepped closer to them and offered to take Kaoru’s other arm, having recovered from her own efforts much faster. “If I can be pointed to a way that leads home, I don’t mind waiting with you nearby.”
Raiga located an exit for them, and then entered the Watchdog Center from a door in the human world. He found Kouga and Kakashi already in conversation with one of the representatives.
“He explained to me the deal he’d made with you,” Kouga confirmed.
“You believe he fulfilled his end of the bargain?”
“And then some, to be honest. Not only did he help locate my wife, but he helped my son and I defend her during and after I freed her from the Horror that had trapped her.”
Raiga chose this moment to speak up. “My father told me about this man when I was a child. What I saw today was nothing short of living up to those stories.”
The representative nodded. “As you two are known to be excellent judges of character, we will take you at your respective words. Kakashi will be allowed to live among the humans.” Kakashi cheered silently at the revelation. “However! We do not have the power to turn you into an actual human. What we can do instead is mask your true nature to anyone but the most well-trained eye. Is that acceptable to you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Kakashi replied, bowing his head.
“Very well then, you may all go. We congratulate you for your safe return.”
Kaoru and Mayuri stood to greet them as they exited through a gap in an otherwise nondescript stone wall. “How did it go,” Mayuri asked.
Kakashi slapped his chest. “Well, I’m here, aren’t I?”
Kaoru laughed. “You certainly are!”
“I meant what I said in there. You were a big help,” Kouga said, extending a hand to his friend.
Kakashi took it and gave one solid shake before letting go. “I guess this is where we part ways, then.”
“Until next time,” Raiga added before leading his family home.