The Darkest Road
by Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs

Episode Eighteen: Ashes to Ashes

* * * * * * * *

Resting my elbows on the windowsill, I leaned as far out as was possible while still staying obscured by the shadows from the thick ivory that clung to the walls, reminding myself yet again of how inappropriate it would have been for me to actually attend the funeral I was keeping watch over. Going there would only result in a barrage of vexing gossip. Or that was my surface-reason, at least.

I ought to have been able to come up with a better one, because it wasn’t as though I could – or was interested in trying to – keep track of even half of what the servants whispered about me, and it would be only them, as no one else would believe a handmaid who claimed that Lord Tennou Nephrite had visited her late employer’s burial. Not when all Kalana’s other acquaintances seemed to have more urgent issues to attend to.

And it wasn’t as though I couldn’t manufacture an invisibility-spell, if need be. Not a very lasting or stable one, granted, but more than sufficient to lure an assembly of unsuspicious humans.

Indeed, it was a transparent excuse for an explanation, but seeing how my creative intelligence had deserted me, it was presently the only cloak with which I could curtain my thoughts. Digging beneath the surface, down in the depths, one would find just a trace of guilt before reaching the uncomfortable belief that it would be a degrading hypocrisy to follow my wish to the priest and the urn of ashes.

My guilt and my questions urged me down, but I refused to give in because of that same guilt and the lack of answers that should have been familiar to me. I still couldn’t even really remember her. She’d been just another beautiful bedfellow to whom I had no emotional bonds, whom I had erased from memory the moment I left her. All I could recall was a blurry image of black hair and golden skin, a fuzzy sensation of something silken and a strong scent of roses and oil. Even the picture in the hall hadn’t stirred more than a vague feeling of recognition, like a dream lived thousands of nights but forgotten in the moment of awakening.

And now her remnants lay in the Earth like those of any poor unhappy whore whom I’d spent time with might.

I should have sent flowers. A heap of big, bright orange-yellow blossoms that could at least light up the damp blue-black soil; I’d been to enough funerals to know how the smell of flowers couldn’t completely obscure the heavy, sweet-murky stench of decay that seeped up from the inside of the planet. And this time it had to be overpowering, as the only blooms were a few pristinely white lilies and a bunch of red roses.

Only the royal family had the, in my opinion, not very enviable privilege of using roses of that particular shade, which meant that the queen had made a rather surprising stand and sent the sole bouquet. Most others were fully occupied with being desperately anxious to keep away from the dead woman now that her correspondence and the few diary entries she’d written were out on the black market and well on their way to ruin a number of reputations beside their owner’s.

Personally I paid it no mind, which was quite natural considering that my image – as opposed to, for example, that of the Minister of Ethics – was not one that would suffer injury should anything juicy leak out. Even if it had been, it was the smallest of prices to pay as penance for what I might have done to the stupid wench.

If she had indeed killed herself over some beloved lordling, as the rumor suggested, I had a fairly good idea of whom he was.

Without my conscious will, though without any attempt on my part to prevent it, my thoughts replayed the memory of a sobbing voice that in its upset state had reverted to a dialect from the North; a pallid, teary face with quivering lips; a fumbling courtesy that almost made her fall.

“…m’lady, she was so madly in love with you, good sir, she couldn’t eat or sleep. And then, when you broke it off…she was devastated, was she, m’lord. Couldn’t even cry at first. Even when she’d gotten that out of her, it wasn’t the same… She lost her touch with the clients, couldn’t pretend to laugh anymore. These noble folks don’t appreciate it when their woman starts crying or screaming at them, m’lord, but she couldn’t help herself, you see…”

So a glorified prostitute’s crush on me might have ended with her committing suicide. How very…picturesque. Probably she’d been just as completely unwilling a victim as everyone else who’d had the misfortune to hold residence in the building that the terrorist-induced explosion had eliminated. Her maid, the crying countryside-girl, claimed that her mistress had contemplated and eventually acquired a small number of lethal poisons, but mortal palace servants who needed money to get back home weren’t the trustworthiest source of information I could imagine.

However, one of the most distressing details in this entire uncomfortable incident was the fact that Kalana, for some unfathomable reason, persisted in reminding me of the golden lady who’d died on Venus. Though I didn’t appreciate the simpleness that that line of thought suggested of my mind, it was possible that I made the connection because they were each other’s diametrical opposites. A woman who’d used the world of men for her own purposes, and a woman whom the world of men had used to further their own ambitions.

I wondered absently what Princess Arianne’s connection was to Artemis, that he should cry so despairingly over her corpse. The obvious reason was far from obvious when taking in consideration the righteous and dutiful nature that all and every description bestowed on her. Something had implored a Lunarian Counselor with the moral of an alley cat to hold the distraught daughter of another man’s dead wife in his arms while remaining dry-eyed himself during her mother’s funeral, but what, more exactly, that something was was actually none of my business.

Since that mad rush of blood and death and terror that had broken loose on Venus, I’d seen a lot of funerals. Death was a state of being that I’d become intimately acquaintanced with, searching for and seeking absolution for that dark chaos and the light that was embedded in it.

I was a murderer. I had witnessed deeds that clawed at my sanity. I had crawled on the surface of the planet like a spewing worm. I had heard my name on the Harp.

I had shared my soul with Naru. I had touched the brightness of the stars. I was a hero. I had heard my name on the Harp.

I had seen Naru. While that wasn’t greater than having the universe vibrate with the notes of my soul sung by the Harp of Destiny, neither was it lesser. And so I stared at the destruction and the people who had survived mourning those who hadn’t, and I could not regret.

And so I went to the funeral service for the just short of three hundred nameless, helpless human soldiers who had died in Verena because I had slain them as a sort of penance. I expected to feel ashamed, to suffer indescribable guilt when meeting the eyes of their families, to be a hypocrite. In the beginning, I did and was. But the ceremony brought a sense of something temporarily akin to peace and closure, and the mortals were only made uncomfortable by my presence, not angry or relived or upset. And so I did not go to Kalana’s burial.

Aside from everything else, getting my mind fuzzed by some priest adept at bullshitting was not a very mature or intelligent way to deal with any situation. Facts remain fact, whatever one chooses to term them. That was important. It was unbelievably simple to delude humans with nothing more than a little selective wording – never lying, just being careful of what not to tell, and how to present that which is reviled. At some indeterminable point, the phrases replace the meaning as the most important part of the rhetoric.

Of course, it was a rule ad hoc, applicable only to the vast majority of inferior intellects. Any of the other Tennou would see through it, as would Relisiana and Luna, I was fairly certain. This, of course, made the practice something of a dividing line between moldable incompetents and people that were individuals rather than ignorants.

If I were of a mind to, I could place the burden of guilt and responsibility for the entire Venusian incident on my own shoulders – my fault, because I hadn’t been more thorough or talented when divining the stars, because I hadn’t forced the authorities to listen to my intuition, because I hadn’t been quicker to get to the abused planet, because I hadn’t been more efficient with my magic. Most of the time, though, I chose not to blame myself for more than I had been directly responsible for. Which was, in its own right, not a light burden.

And most of the time I chose not to repent all the days I’d spent with sinful pleasures. The slow fever of gambling, the soft detachment of drinking, the oblivion granted by sex – all my ways to dull the pain for not having Naru, and all my ways to retaliate against her and my obsession with her. Why wasn’t she here with me? How could she hurt me so? And so I tried to find my vengeance and my release both in acts of what could most flatteringly be described as youthful foolishness. I still didn’t see anything really wrong with that. It was just that now that I’d started thinking that perhaps I ought rather to try to be worthy of my love, it couldn’t grant me those things anymore.

I had a lot to live with after Verena, a lot of memories that had nailed themselves in the gallery of very likely everlasting memories. My being something so bright as to defy the description god. My being a slayer. My having seen things that humans are too innocent for their language to have words for.

Hence, I was lounging in front of a window, staring at a funeral. Refocusing my attention on watching, I discovered that the only evidence left of such a service ever taking place were the traces of digging, the smudges of mud darkening the grass. The priest and his assistant were both apparently long gone, and seemed to have taken with them the flowers and the candles.

The way the rain started to pour down, I was rather convinced the light would be put to better use in the living rooms of the grave robbers.

* * * * * * * *

“Goddamn you to hell,” I whispered to the wall against which I rested my face, unsure whether I intended the words for Jadeite or for myself. In either case they were tingled with anger, frustration, guilt, exasperation, weariness and tears. Like with the exhortation, I couldn’t quite decide if said feelings were aimed at my companion or me. We’d both done enough to merit them.

I felt sorry for Jadeite, yes, and I conceded that he had every right to be down, but couldn’t he start getting over it soon? After all, the object of his adoration was a stupid sailor girl who’d ditched him for a silly Moon Princess that she’d never even met. Honestly, what was that to kill yourself over?

Moreover, I wasn’t suited for this kind of thing, and I knew it. I might care for Jadeite, and I might have been good enough at manipulating to have talked him down from the cliff, but I was at a loss when it came to means to prevent him from walking up on it again. Patience and encouragement and listening just weren’t among my qualities, nor had I ever wanted them to be. Nor had I ever needed them to be, because one smile or hug or whatever used to be enough to accomplish what I needed.

Cue Jadeite with a heart so badly broken that not a hundred shows of affection from my part could even begin to mend it. Damn Rei, anyway.

And the situation was worse, as of late, since I felt like such a hypocrite around Jadeite. How could I offer him solace and seriousness when I was ready to burst with delight? And so, in an effort not to start laughing for joy, I acted guilty and snappy and bored when I couldn’t find anymore patient understanding to give. Oh, I tried to be there for Jadeite, but he was no more the most important person in my world than I was in his.

I had loved Kunzite-sama since before I could remember. That was the pillar around which my universe revolved. And, just lately, I’d fallen in love with him as well.

He’d always been there, always been the most important presence in my world. I remembered tulting across the room into arms that lifted me. Sometimes, if it was a happy day, they swung me around in the air, causing joyous giggles. When it was night, or if I was tired for some other reason, they just held me, letting my head rest against the torso to which they were attached. And there was the scent, the fragrances of soap and skin that composed the smell of him; a smooth voice that gradually darkened as it read me stories; eyes that always carried a hesitant smile. A drowsy feeling of warmth and security and care.

I remembered clinging to him desperately, seeking those sensations in a desperate attempt to quench the fear and hurt of the white light in the underground. I never did learn to handle pain with dignity or detachment down there. I only cried. Sometimes I was angry and sometimes I was hysterical, but I never stopped crying until the day he picked me up from the attendants holding me and brushed the tears away. Yes, he was still overprotective, but I was good enough at sneaking off that I considered it sweet rather than constricting.

I remembered hugging him in the dark silence of our bedroom the night that Isila had died. There always had been a physical comfort, though it had changed/developed slightly during the last year or so. That had been made very evident during the ball in the West. I couldn’t help smiling at the consuming happiness that coursed through me at the memory. His voice had agreed with his embrace, spelling out clearly that he loved me. And Kunzite-sama was not so good a deceiver that I spent one moment doubting his words. Neither was it the limited, brotherly affection that perhaps I’d once feared was all he felt for me, or he wouldn’t have kissed me like that. It had been very much different from past mouth-to-mouth experiences with Nephrite and Jadeite, or even with Kunzite-sama himself. I’d been of a mind to reciprocate it, but the languid heat spreading from my lips had distracted me, not allowing me room to act before he’d already withdrawn from my face.

I shook my head, which was no minor accomplishment, considering that I was still resting it against the wall. Too many nights with too little sleep made me feel like crying every other second. I hadn’t suffered this many dreams since I was an infant, and whereas some of them were quite pleasant scenarios featuring Kunzite-sama holding me, kissing me, doing any number of things with me, the majority of them were horrendous, fueled by guilt and fear. It probably didn’t help that they had some fairly extensive raw material to draw on.

I all too vividly remembered entering the drab room, drawn by what was commonly called “magic contrivance” – that is, if supernatural forces of a certain magnitude are at work and you are familiar with such powers, you’ll nigh-on inevitably turn up, be it because of any conscious decision or not.

The chamber was not one I recognized, but looked just like the dozens of empty rooms in the Complex; sterile and Spartan with a few pieces of durable furniture. Probably it’d been intended as quarters for a servant. It was clearly not lived in, and I was rather surprised to find Jadeite there. He was sitting on the floor with his back towards me, slumping shoulders resting against the bedpost.


Except for the air of misery around my comrade and the general unlikeliness of his being here, I didn’t notice anything strange or amiss, fool that I was. It was only as I leaned over his shoulder with a mostly unconcerned, “Watcha doing?” that the spell he was constructing caught my attention.

Jadeite’s face was blank and sweaty the way it normally got when he struggled with some particularly straining magic, but the faint golden sparks trailing over his hands and up his arms were barely visible. Had I not invoked my own powers and thus cut through the disguises, it would have been too late.

The innocent-looking dots of light carried a numbing strength, employed in a devious manner. Shine no hotaru was the spell that, according to legend, had killed Susamo-wo, brother of Amaterasu Omikami and god of thunder. It was a vicious way of attack, heavily warded so as to not arise suspicion before it was too late, designed to slowly disintegrate the target from the inside out. Once it had started to break down the magical structure of the victim, s/he had nothing left but an agonizing death. Despite its lethal effectiveness, it was a rare spell to see in use since its structure was complex and the power needed to fuel it very great indeed. It would have to be, to destroy a god.

Conclusively, it was only advisable to use in one-on-one combat against a formidable opponent – or against yourself, if you are a Tennou and aware that your magic will quench practically every other method of suicide.

And those little fireflies of death were already passing Jadeite’s triceps. Discarding a fleeting idea of trying to get enough sense back in him to stop the spell himself as too time-consuming, I let a tightly restrained blast of blazing energy burn through Jadeite’s hands, crackle over his knuckles. The magic runs deep there, so having that particular area assaulted by aggressive energy when trying to work sorcery hurts like you wouldn’t believe it.

The sound that escaped him as he desperately pressed his hands to his chest was somewhere between a gasp and a sob. He had to be in agony, considering that the shine no hotaru weren’t simply disappearing but rather trailing down the way they’d come, slowly passing his arms and hands before thinning out into nothingness. Jadeite wouldn’t use any magic for a long time if he wasn’t secretly a pain-addict. Even then, he’d likely pass out.

“Dammit, Zoisite, it’s my life!” he sneered, his voice thin from suppressed tears. “It’s perfectly all right for me to end it whenever the hell I want!” And he fell forward, his entire body shaking with sobs.

I hurriedly kneeled beside him, defeating a token resistance on his part before cupping his face in my hands and using low-level telepathy to get a rudimentary idea of what pains where on his mind. Rei Rei Rei Rei Rei.

“There, there,” I mumbled, cradling him against me. He didn’t resist, but simply slumped against me, submitting to my caressing his hair without reaction. As caught up as he was in his private misery, he probably didn’t notice it. Shifting his weight to free my right arm, I traced a meaningless pattern on his forehead. It helped me concentrate when smoothing over the pain in his mind, if not his heart. It wouldn’t take the hurt away, but at least it softened a little, the worst of it blocked away by the good energy of care and concern. Hopefully, it would be enough to bring him through the worst of it, give him time to find some new reasons to live – hopefully, it would be enough to save his soul and his life.

Until now, it had been. I just wasn’t sure how long that would last.

Sighing, I pushed away from the wall and allowed my knees to falter, making me fall backwards into a convenient chair. Perhaps I had better just bring Mamoru up to date on this, after all.

* * * * * * * *

I stared into the ceiling, concentrating fiercely on white paint over light tree. I’d switched quarters several times the last few weeks, finding in each new room something to remind me of the suite that Rei and I had shared or the temple where we had…had…

I closed my eyes, counted to ten, opened them. The room was exactly the same. Rei had not miraculously appeared before me, neither had I moved back in time to when we were together.

It was more than two moons since she had left, and the pain just wouldn’t stop. Not lessen, not soften, not thinning out. In anything, it hurt more. The memories were sharp and fresh, and they cut – gods, did they ever.

I’d done all those things people do when they lose someone – cried, screamed, raged, hurt myself, hurt others, attempted suicide, gone into apathy, cried some more. And none of it worked. Not in the slightest.

Not even Zoisite’s presence, which had soothed me in the beginning, did much good anymore, not when he so obviously wished himself elsewhere. I was long past the stage during which I wanted others to suffer as I did.

Mamoru, fortunately or otherwise, had been extremely busy with some new training-schedule, and Zoisite had shooed him away the few times he’d dropped by. Considering my comrade’s present desire to attend to some issues in his own life, I should probably be grateful for that – while he normally disliked Mamoru, he’d likely be more than happy to move the responsibility for my well-being onto the prince’s shoulders, and my remark that Mamoru was not the sort of person I’d want to dump on was probably the sole reason he hadn’t.

Magic was the only things that helped at all. During those short, glorious moments when the song of the Harp vibrated through my soul, I felt nothing, knew nothing, but my existence as a god dancing around the stars. In the hot, dark hours of the night, I cried for Rei, and when my tears for her had run out, I cried for the magic that could sweep me away and make me whole again.

But it wasn’t enough, it was never enough, only so much as to make the return to pain all the more bitter – I wasn’t sure if that had been his intent, but Zoisite’s spell through my hands had crippled me for longer than I would’ve thought possible before experiencing it.

With all the healing energies I could muster and more than a moon’s time to rest, they still refused to let the magic flow smoothly through them. They were getting better, thank the Player, but only slowly. An hour or so of blessed oblivion a day was nowhere near enough. How happy could I not have been, filling myself with power until nothing human remained, dying for the third time and reawakening as Tennou, free and forever? They might have killed me, but then, wasn’t that what I had wished for?

I’d thought I was accustomed to pain, or I would never have dared apply the shine no hotaru to myself. And after the first eternal instant of freezing pain, it had turned out that I was right. The little dots of ultra-destructive light that went by the name of butterflies of death had felt like needles, no more. With my entire being slowly consumed by bitter flames, what was that to worry over?

I might have tried again, expect now, thanks to Zoisite, I couldn’t muster the necessary magical strength. Sometimes I hated him. Sometimes I loved him; most often I did both.

I remembered stumbling into the little chamber, practically numb with pain. It wasn’t long before my legs gave way beneath me – they’d been uncharacteristically prone to do that, as of late. Sitting, I’d finally remembered the one thing that my damnable instinctive wards would not be able to fend off. I’d tried cutting open my wrists, I’d tried to hang myself, and nothing worked.

Looking back on it, I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t simply let the magic carry me away – perhaps I’d been too afraid that Rei would wait for me there too, taunting and torturing.

And then, when I was so close to stop hurting, to be rid of myself, Zoisite stopped me and held me and tried his level best to help me. It just wasn’t good enough.

Really, I’d never had a very enviable life, never had much too lose. Quite to the opposite, actually – my existence had been one long lesson to the effect that it can always get worse.

I’d hated myself for as long as I could remember. Whereas a very select few might have cared for me a bit, I’d spent my childhood without anyone’s love. The times people attended to me were the times they caused me pain. Mother, who seemingly only caught sight of me when I deserved her scorn and anger. Zoisite, who noticed me only to forget me again when someone better came along. Teachers and scientists who forgot me the moment I left their domain beneath the Complex.

I’d screamed a lot down there, but it had never been like this. There in the bright light, I’d yelled because it had an effect, lessened the pain just a little, enough for me to make it through. Now the only thing I gained by screaming was a sore throat.

Obviously, I had grown desperate and delirious. Obviously, since I with sudden startling vividness relived a few seconds of my life. At the time they had actually taken place, I’d considered them meaningless, without sense – a few moments in my bedchamber in Hertig’s mansion, tear-wet linen under my cheek, pain-heavy exhaustion spreading through my limbs. Only my mind was still feverishly awake, spinning with memories.

Because, though I could not say why and though it frustrated me greatly, I couldn’t stop dreaming. About her. Dreams that became new memories, more memories, that became new dreams became new memories became new torments. Even so, I wanted desperately to sleep, to fall into the dark senselessness to gain, if not even a short relief, at least some rest. But the memory-dreams woke me up, had kept me awake so many nights now that my entire perception of reality had started to waver. I was rarely absolutely certain whether I was asleep or awake, and so I could not with full confidence decide if the images that tormented me were real. Was it memory? Was it delusion? Was it reality?

If indeed I was lying on this bed now, then was it real that Rei stood beside me, caressing my face? Was it true that Zoisite sat beside me? Considering that Rei suddenly disappeared, it seemed appropriate to conclude that she’d been a figment of my own treacherous imagination – but then, had I ever really met her at all?

I smiled bitterly. That one thing was beyond doubt, because it was so tightly bound to the pain, and the burning hurt was the single feature of reality that I did not question. Hell, my world was my Rei and my love and my pain. I could only dimly remember it being anything else – a series of vague impressions of weaker hurt caused by smaller wounds.

Zoisite was there; I caught sight of him at the edge of the picture, almost obscured by the central figure of Rei. Now, after her, he was here again – or had he ever left? Was it just that I hadn’t noticed him, when I couldn’t see anything but her? It made very little difference, really.

What did matter, was the sentence echoing through my mind, stretching from the memory and into my present thoughts, pronounced in his voice. Considering his short patience and lack of forethought, he might have said it. But it was also quite possible that it had been my own line of thought, that I’d interpreted it as spoken by him because I had never regarded myself as chivalrous or active enough to entertain the prospect of engaging in such bold activities.

You could just kidnap her or something, you know.

I’d imagined it often enough, as one of a thousand different scenarios that did not end with my heart broken. Most of the time, I preferred to picture a reality in which she simply stayed with me, but sometimes it felt nice to express my frustration and helplessness through fantasies in which it was I who took action, where I was her hero, rescuing her from what she’d chosen as her destiny.

Never had I not regretted indulging in such a daydream, because the soft-sweet bliss they hinted at could not make up for the sharp dark injuries they burned through my mind.

What if I went to her only to be rejected?

No, fuck that – any more pain than this would drive me over the line to insanity, and there the hurt could finally end.

What if I went to her and won her, only to discover that she could not, after all, let go of her identity as Sailormars? I would have to see her wither slowly, year after year, guilt and shame breaking her down.

My hands clenched. I couldn’t hurt her that way. But I couldn’t hurt both of us this way either – there was no way that she could be happy as Sailormars, but there was a chance for us as Jadeite and Rei. We loved each other, after all. We’d been happy here.

Time might have worn away the teary desperation in her eyes when I wouldn’t let her go, she might have realized that she’d been wrong, that she belonged with me and not to the Moon Princess.

Were I lucky, those things might have never happened outside of my own nightmares. Not that Fortune had ever been that fond of me. Then, if I had Rei, I didn’t need any gods or destinies. I’d pluck the Moon down from the sky and offer her if she but asked.

I needed to see her, and I was fairly certain that she needed to see me too. I was just so afraid that it was only as a closure she needed it.

It’s only ever the winners in life that can afford not to cheat – I decided suddenly, calmly, that I would go to Mars to take a peek into her soul. Traces of it must still be there, on the planet that she was so intimately bound to.

First, I needed to come up with a measure to make Zoisite believe that I was still on Earth, unmoving and inactive in my rooms. Oh, not that he’d be likely to try to stop me – the way things were going, he’d probably rather offer his help, but Rei was none of his business.

Normally such a spell as the one I needed should prove no difficulty, either in manufacturing or maintaining, but I had a feeling that I might need all the magic I could summon for more desperate measures later, so I had better treat my hands with care. Looking around for something to give me enough inspiration to focus my drifting attention on, a chunk of stone caught my notice. Forcing the second-nature impulse to have it fly into my hand down, I took the few steps necessary to retrieve the item in question from its place on a low shelf.

The heavy, silver-grey slab of rock had a simple light spell attached to it. For the life of me I could not remember why I had ever cared to bring it here or fix said spell on it, but then my memory hadn’t been all that trusty as of late. Dismissing the trivia from my mind, I brushed my right hand over the object, dismissing the weak shimmer of energy that covered it. I had another use for it, one that demanded it be cleansed of other magic, or this could be very taxing indeed. No, far easier to erase the old spell first.

That done, I cupped a hand upwards in the air, allowing a tiny ball of bluish energy to levitate over the palm – an exercise that demanded just enough energy for my seal, the quintessence and signature of my aura, to be manifest.

A thin sheen of perspiration laced my brow as I concentrated on moving the seal from the energy ball to the stone without causing my battered hands further injury. I needed the aura-signature fixed on a permanent, non-magical object, and I needed it strongly infused in said item, strongly enough for the rock’s energies to be mistaken for mine.

There. Got it. After the successful completion of the actual moving of the seal, the upgrade of its power went smoothly. As the energies only needed a simple one-way transport from me and into the stone, my knuckles barely twinged.

So, trembling with suppressed excitement, I stepped from the Golden Kingdom into Shadow Space. Enclosed in the gray mists of the mirror dimension, I closed my eyes and relaxed, letting my mind accommodate itself to the shifting directions. Such things aren’t constant in Shadow Space, but moving, drifting in a current of drowsy magical energy. That’s why mortals weren’t allowed here on their own – unable to feel the correct path, they’d get lost and wander forever in the timeless land of the forgotten.

Normally, when teleporting or gating, I just stepped in and out, spending barely an instant in the mirror dimension before emerging wherever it was I intended to go. Those two methods, however, relayed on focused magic or location spells, and right now I wasn’t willing to waste my hands on either. Wandering here like a blind, slowly feeling my way forward might be slower, but not much so, and it was considerably cheaper energy-wise.

It was ironical that I needed to worry so much about my hands, as I as a Tennou didn’t need a physical fix from which to release my magic – I could pull it from my knees, a tree, thin air. It was simply culture to use one’s hands as focus, a human mind trying to cope with the supernatural by handling it as though it was a tool of definite form and shape. Unfortunately, the magic circulated my body like blood, pulsing through my every limb. Which meant that it passed through the hands as well, released from said extremities or not. And the more active the energy, the worse for my abused knuckles.

Well, that was the way it was, and my mental whining was not going to change it.

Finally feeling the required concentration of fiery energy against my up-turned palms, I proceeded to open a doorway. Finding one’s way to any given celestial body was child’s play since the aura of so large a power is distinctive and draws you like a beacon, but I didn’t want to end up just anywhere on Mars, but aimed to arrive in the capital where Rei had grown up and where the grand Shrine of the Universe was located. Fortunately, the building in question had acquired a flavor all of its own. Its seal was considerably weaker than the planet’s, but it was still there, and it was distinct, when I’d gotten the feel of it. Or at least I hoped I’d pinpointed the right spot – having never visited the holy place in person, I could only assume that the point which emitted a power similar to that of the royal temple on Earth was the correct one.

Furthermore, I would much prefer to have my brief stay on the fourth planet remain incognito, and for that I needed to disguise my aura from the seal-sensors. Such equipment adorned each one of the inhabited celestial bodies (and, technically, I assumed they were still present on Pluto, though they had doubtlessly long ago ceased to function), recording every spell that used more than a certain amount of energy. Which included teleports and, most definitely, gateways from other planets, Shadow Space between them or not. Normally nobody paid the records much attention – the number of travels through the latent gateways were too great and too boring. Unfortunately, my seal was not only strong and distinctive, but also much too well known for my liking.

I drummed my fingers against my thigh in irritation. Especially considering that I’d be facing the same problem when transporting from Mars to the Moon, I ought to have solved the matter beforehand.

Well, I hadn’t been thinking all that clearly lately, so perhaps it wasn’t surprising that I hadn’t managed to plan ahead even half as well as I would’ve liked to. I closed my eyes, pondering. If I shield, the damn monitors will simply register the energy needed to ward instead, so that’s no help. I guess I could tie the shielding-spell to an item instead, but since that’ll get noticed too I’ll need to destroy it as fast as I arrive, and then I’ll need to fix a new one before going to the Moon, and I’m pretty sure that’d be a little too much raw energy for my hands. Dammit! No, I wouldn’t be able to hide that a highly powerful magical entity gated in.

But, just maybe, I could hide which sorcerer they’re dealing with… I only needed to confuse my personal energies with someone/thing else’s, and they wouldn’t be able to properly identify me. Indeed, if I cleansed my aura again immediately upon arriving, I could send whatever authorities dealing with unknown demigods on Mars on a wild and hopeless goose-chase. The thought did have a certain appeal, though pranks of that kind was generally more Zoisite’s style than mine.

Said and done, then. Now I just needed someone whose aura I could use. And who would be more appropriate than she, the girl for whom I was putting myself through this entire ordeal?

Feeling my face go solemn, I called one of the ofuda that Rei had left behind. Storing things in Shadow Space was easy and convenient, especially as it didn’t take much energy to create a shielded pocket that no one else could access.

The sacred ward look like any ordinary slip of paper on which had been written a few black kanji characters, and, in my hands, it was no more than that, since I had neither the purity nor the training required to activate it.

Rei did. She’d used it. Well, otherwise it would have been pointless to try and use it now. So I pressed the fuda to my chest and let its/Rei’s energies envelope me, merge with my aura.

It gave a hollow feeling of closeness, as though my beloved’s ghost was embracing me. Squinting my eyes to keep from crying, I hurried to open a gate and step onto the Martian soil, dismissing the opening to Shadow Space behind me.

* * * * * * * *

return to Index / go to Chapter 19

The Nephrite and Naru Treasury