10,203 A.A.-Four weeks until the Summer Solstice
"Order." Azusa doesn't raise her voice much above a whisper but the spirits gathered in the clearing in front of her home fall silent almost instantly. "Thank you for gathering here today." She pushes up her glasses. "I assume you've heard the rumors about the Gorgon sisters and Asura."
"They're not rumors." Kirikou, guardian to the nature spirits Fire and Thunder, speaks up. "There's been weird creatures coming through our land and they stink of Medusa and Arachne." At his mentioning the Gorgon sisters' names, Fire and Thunder stop playing with each other and cling to his side.
There's a thump as a spirit flings a limp and misshapen body into the middle of the clearing. "Did it look like this?" Mifune, a warrior spirit, steps forward, his ever-present sheath of swords slung across his back. "I found it when Angela and I were out."
"Well, its organs were still in its body and it looked a bit like a spider," Kirikou says, covering Fire and Thunder's eyes. '"But there's no mistaking it."
"This is your doing," a squeaky voice says.
One of the Mabaa's clan, the only other spirits older than Azusa herself, points accusingly at her. She recognizes her as Mizune, a mouse spirit. "You used your sight for the Gorgon sisters long ago and whatever you told them started this!" She looks back at the other spirits. "How do we know you're not in league with them?"
Azusa doesn't answer her but instead removes her glasses. "Do you think I would have done this to myself?"
There is a collective gasp as the group of spirits takes in her ravaged eyes.
She walks slowly to the center of the clearing, kicking aside the Gorgons' creation. "I was set upon the youngest Gorgon sister a week ago to finish what her oldest sister started. She ultimately lost the battle but not before taking my sight into the other world." She locks eyes with Mizune. "Although my regular eyesight remains as good as ever." She continues, "And what I see is an unwillingness to act that will destroy us all. I had thought we had learned better when Asura attempted to make himself our lord nearly sixteen years ago."
The spirits turn away from her glare, shifting uncomfortably. Kirikou crosses his arms. "What would you have us do, Azusa?"
"Nothing I'm not willing to do myself," she answers. "I need a search party to check on Asura."
Immediately, several spirits protest.
"Going into the Fog of Lost Souls?"
"The Gorgon sisters aren't moving for nothing." Azusa replaces her glasses upon her face. "I wasn't blinded for nothing. We need to ensure that Asura is the same half-spirit as ever or else expose ourselves to the risk of being taken by surprise." She places her hands behind her back. "Or would you rather pledge yourselves to Asura now and wait for the sky to turn to ashes like last time?"
No one speaks, looking anywhere but at Azusa.
"I'll go." Mifune steps forward.
"As will I," Kirikou says. He looks down at Fire and Thunder, who pull at his hands. "It will okay, you two."
Mabaa says nothing but a few of her clan take a few grudging steps toward Azusa, including Mizune.
She turns to a spirit in attendance who has been unusually quiet. "Excalibur?"
"Say no more," Excalibur declares. He flits into the air, calling after his servant. "Hiro, fetch my purple traveling cloak. The one with the feathers!"
Azusa addresses the group again. "Go and gather whatever weapons or supplies you need. We meet back at sunset."
"Marriage?" Maka says in disbelief. The word tastes bitter on her tongue. She stares at Spirit, whose hopeful expression has slid off his face. She paces the living quarters of Chief Hartok's guest suite, suddenly finding everything repulsively grandiose. "You want me to get married? Do you think this is something you could have told me about?"
"Well," Spirit says after a moment. "As you've seen, the betrothal is already underway."
"Without me knowing?" she cries. She wants to blast a hole in the wall or possibly into her father's skull but since she can do neither, she settles for coming up with the most cutting insult possible. "Do you honestly think I want to married after the wonderful example you and Mom set for me?"
She almost regrets her words at seeing the pain on Spirit's face. Then her eyes drop down to Ox's necklace in her hands, what started this whole mess in the first place, and a fresh wave of anger washes away any guilt she might have.
"Your mother and I were incompatible," Spirit says slowly. "We wanted different things in life."
"Yes." Maka laughs. "She wanted a faithful husband and you wanted to parade around as chief."
"It was complicated." He raises his hands in what's meant to be a calming gesture. "I won't deny I have a lot of the blame but Vakirah chose to leave."
"Don't say it like that," Maka fumes. "She didn't abandon me."
"That's not what I-" Spirit cuts himself off. He sighs, pulling out his wolftail and shaking his head. "This is a conversation that I've tried to have with you many times. But right now is not the time to discuss it. Ox and everyone else are wai-"
"And he can keep waiting if he didn't understand that me leaving the dinner was a refusal," Maka responds, hurling the necklace to the floor. A small fissure appears below her feet. "I'm not getting married."
"Maka, this is a betrothal announcement." Spirit takes a step toward but eases back when she fixes him with a glare. "It's already been decided."
She stares at him, anger abruptly leaving her. "Why?" Her eyes sting. She feels like a child again. "Why?"
She tenses when Spirit approaches and places his hands on her shoulders but she doesn't pull away. "I have only wanted the best for you, Maka. To be the best father possible. But I think I've hurt you more than I've helped you." He envelopes her in a hug and her eyes widen in shock. "There have been a lot of mistakes I've made and I wish I could take them back. But this isn't one. I think you'll be happy."
Maka grits her teeth, sorry for the tears she let escape. She wrenches himself from his grasp and wipes at her eyes with her sleeve. "You thought wrong, didn't you?" She doesn't let him answer but stalks away to her rooms, slamming the door with a resounding boom.
Locking the door, she falls to her knees. Blair is instantly at her side, meowing in concern. Lifting her head, Maka buries her face in Blair's neck, ignoring the knocking at the door.
Blair's fur is soaked with her tears before Maka raises her head. She sees her extravagant surroundings in a new light now, nothing more than a prison under its gilded facade. She sniffs and speaks softly to Blair. "You want to go on a trip?"
She wasn't going to leave a note for her father. He didn't deserve one.
Maka pulls the window open, adjusting her bag's strap around her shoulder. The wind has began to pick up and she adjusts her hood around her face to block out the snow. As she hoists herself onto the window sill, Maka's eyes fall on her gloves.
She bites her lip, wondering if she should say goodbye to Soul. As it is, she has very little time before someone comes to check on her and yet, she can't help picturing Soul's face when she doesn't show up tomorrow. She raises her hands, snow already shaping into stairs. She and Blair step out onto the snow and she turns to close the window.
I have only wanted the best for you.
Maka looks into the room for a few more seconds before launching herself back in. "Stay here," she tells Blair.
The letter is short-there isn't much need to explain anything. But saying good bye, she thinks as the ink brush hovers over the page. That was harder. Just as she thinks she's done and has set down the brush, Maka is seized by a sudden impulse. She writes the three words quickly, ignoring the sudden pain in her chest.
In her haste, the I love you looks like it was written by a five year old but she's already wasted enough time. Placing the letter on the bed, she leaves without a backward glance.
Wes is the one to open the door. It throws Maka off, her rehearsed speech to whichever servant she assumed would open the door flying out of her mind.
"Maka, how nice to see you again," Wes says, a smile replacing his shocked expression. "And you brought Blair."
"Ni-, wait" she says. "I don't remember telling you Blair's name."
"Soul may have mentioned you a time or three," he replies. "Seems like you two became fast friends."
"Yes, we have." She shifts her weight from one to the other. "Speaking of Soul, that's why I came here. I need to talk to him."
"I'm not sure I understand." Wes tilts his head in confusion. "When I caught him sneaking out a while ago, he said he was going out to meet you." He frowns, talking more to himself thank to her. "Where could he be then?"
"I'm sure he's fine," Maka says quickly. "If I see him while I'm out, I'll tell him you want to see him."
"Oh, that's not necessary." The troubled look on Wes' face disappears. "I'm quite used to Soul keeping secrets. He'll be back soon. Sorry you came out here for nothing though."
"It's no trouble. If you see him, could you tell him I came looking for him?" Maka says as she backs away. She begins to turn around when she stops. "Wes."
He pauses in closing the door. "Yes?"
"I don't know if he's ever told you this but Soul looks up to you."
His hand falls away from the door. "No, he hadn't."
She hesitates before adding, "He also said he was grateful you were his brother."
His eyes go unfocused for a moment before he looks at her. "That he most certainly has never told me." Wes' smile is different than his previous ones. "Thank you."
Maka nods. "See you around."
She feels guilty as she makes her way to the docks. Although there was no doubt Wes would be sure to deliver her message, she had wanted to see Soul one last time before leaving. Maka flicks her eyes up and down the row of ships, contemplating which one to stow away in, when a head of white hair catches her eye.
Soul is moving quickly down the docks and away from her and she almost loses him in the moving stream of sailors and dock workers. Luck is on her side, however, and she catches up to him just as he crouches behind a row of barrels. "Soul!"
He nearly jumps a foot in the air before whirling around. "Maka?"
"What are you doing here?" he demands, pushing an eager Blair away.
The look on his face gives Maka a jolt, haunted and twitchy. It's one she's seen before when he thought she hadn't been looking. When she asked, he had insisted he was fine.
Clearly, he was not.
"What are you doing here?" She crosses her arms. "Or is sneaking around the docks your new favorite pastime?"
As he opens his mouth, Soul's eyes fall on her bag just as hers fall on his. "You're leaving?"
"I asked first!"
They glare at each other for a minute before Maka says, "I don't want to get married."
"What?" Soul almost falls forward on his face. "Why didn't you tell me you were getting married?"
"Because I didn't know myself," she snaps. "That's what this whole trip was about but I wasn't told. If I had known, I would have never agreed to come."
"And who's the lucky guy?" he asks, the teasing tone in his voice sounding almost forced. "He's going to be one heartbroken groom."
"Shut up," she says sourly. "It was Ox."
He claps a hand to his mouth, choking down his laughter. "Well, I can see why you're leaving."
"And you?" she says, peeved. "Explain."
He fidgets with his hands, looking at anywhere but her. "Just tired of freezing all the time."
"You could at least try to sound a little believable." She pauses. "I can't believe you were going to leave without coming to see me."
"You were going to leave too," he points out.
"I went to your house," she shoots back. "I wanted to say good bye."
"And you think I didn't want to?" he retorts. His gaze shifts to somewhere above her shoulder. "All I wanted to make things as painless as possible."
"That wouldn't have stopped me from worrying," Maka says, ducking her head to meet his eyes. "I care about you."
As they look at each other, she can sense him leaning closer and herself doing the same. Then he moves back and sighs, running a hand through his hair. "The real reason I'm leaving, let's just say I'm looking for something."
She raises an eyebrow. "And that is?"
"Fine," she says. "I guess I'll find out soon enough."
His fingers still. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm coming with you," she says simply. "There's nowhere I really want to go except away from here. We could both use the company."
"No, you can't." The force of his words stings sharply. "I don't want anyone with me."
"And why not?" Maka struggles to sound indifferent. "Would my presence bother you that much?"
"No, that's not it." He makes as if he was going to reach out for her hand but he closes his hands and drops it. "I-there's something wrong with me," he says. "You don't deserve to worry about somebody who isn't going to get better."
The resignation in his voice dims her crossness. There are shadows under Soul's eyes and his skin looks stretched tight across his face as if he's missed one too many meals. The restless air springing forth from him is a mess of coils threatening to explode. She remembers the day she found him lying on the ground. Before he opened his eyes, he had looked like he was drowning.
He looks the same now.
"I don't leave people I care about," she says simply. "What's wrong?"
He goes silent for so long that she thinks Soul's just refused to answer her question. Then his hands begin to move again. "It's this pull, right here." He points to his chest. "Someone or something has been dragging me towards them for the past three years. Or maybe it's all in my head. Either way, I can't fight it anymore."
He looks at her apprehensively. "You think I've lost my mind."
"Believe it or not, this isn't the strangest thing I've ever heard." Maka glances down at her arms, always covered to hide the markings she received when she became a chain. "The world is weird." She meets his eyes. "After all, didn't I see you in my dreams?" She takes his hand. "Let me help you, Soul."
He stares down at their hands before he looks up. "Okay."
Giriko jumps down from the upper deck of the steamship. "You wanna repeat that?"
"Ah, well," Free says. "She escaped. Ran away with a friend."
Free wrings his hands. "She was holed up in her room so I decided to take a nap. When I woke up, she wasn't there anymore. I followed her scent to the docks." He swallows. "The ship she was on was already too far away to board when I found it."
"You're part wolf spirit, aren't you?" Giriko spits. "Don't all dogs know how to swim?"
He bristles. "I wasn't going to go diving into that freezing ocean. Besides, that would have attracted too much attention."
"Would me slicing your stomach open attract too much attention?"
"Even here, I'm cursed to be immortal," Free says. "Plus, I don't think Mosquito would like that."
"That old fleabag isn't here."
Free decides to change the subject. "I did find out where the ship is going."
Giriko throws him a surly look. "I don't see how that's going to help."
He ignores him. "It's going to Ember Island. Should be there in about a month." He flinches when Giriko approaches him. "You're an incompetent fool," Giriko says. "But you're a lucky one."
The Fog of Lost Souls looms ominously in front of the small gathering party. Wisps of mist which unfold eagerly in front of them like a courteous host, ushering them in. Azusa straightens her glasses. "Stay alert. Even though we're not human, the fog can still be tricky. Moreover, since I no longer have my sight, I have no idea if the Gorgon sisters have laid any traps or not. And no matter what, do not leave the group. I will not send anyone to find you."
She marches them in at a brisk pace. Mifune is at her right side, with two swords drawn while Kirikou takes up the rear armed with the boxing gloves Fire and Thunder fashioned for him.
Save for sporadic rock formations, the terrain inside the fog is flat. As the group ventures deeper into the fog, any noise from the outside is swallowed up, leaving behind nothing but a silence that presses against Azusa's ears. But she knows what's coming. She points to the only peak tall enough to jut out of the fog. "That's where we need to go."
As they head towards to the peak, Kirikou speaks. "Not that I'm complaining but shouldn't have something happened by now?"
"Spirits are mostly immune to the fog but if there is a fear close to their hearts, they can become susceptible." She gives Mifune a glance out of the corner of her eyes. "Right, Mifune?"
At the sound of his name, he relaxes his grip on his swords and lowers the swords from where he subconsciously raised them. "Right."
Just before they reach the base of the peak, Mizune asks, "Whatever happened to the one who brought Asura here?"
"Lord Death's status is currently unknown," Azusa replies. "No one was ever able to find his body. In either world." They come to a halt in front of Asura's prison. "He was a brave man. Without him, the new Avatar would have never been born."
"There's no need for a new Avatar when the old one is right here," a voice rasps.
Several of the spirits gasp but Azusa keeps her face devoid of surprise. She surveys the face that's hidden in scarves pressed against the bars. "Hello, Asura."
"It's been a long time, seer." Asura's voice is muffled. He peels away from the bars but hovers in front of them. "Though I don't suppose it's right to call you that anymore."
"How did you know that?" Kirikou demands.
"A little bird came and told me," Asura says, tilting his head to one side. "Or rather a snake." A cold laugh escapes from him. "Since then, I've been wondering when you would come."
"So the Gorgon sisters have been visiting you," Azusa states.
"The only ones kind enough to keep me company during these fifteen years," he answers. "The only ones to leave me gifts as well."
Immediately, the group tenses and draws closer together. She looks back to Asura. "What gifts?"
"Spider silk has fascinating properties," Asura answers. "Especially when made by one as talented as Arachne." For the first time since they began talking, he moves from the door. "It was just one spider at first," he says. He gestures to the thousands of spiders crawling all over his walls, busily spinning webs. Some are larger than Azusa's head while others are no bigger than an ordinary spider. Strange sizzling sounds are made as the silk hit the walls. "Amazing, isn't it?"
"But I have to say there's not much more room here," he continues. "I think we may have to expand elsewhere." He backs away. "I'm glad you were able to be here to see this."
A movement from above catches Azusa's eyes. The top of the peak sways threateningly. "Run!"
Mifune pitches one of his swords and it strikes true, splitting the falling rock into smaller fragments, while, Kirikou shields the spirits with blasts of fire and lightning. But as more and more of the prison begins to crumble, the spirits begin to split up and scatter in panic.
"Don't separate!" Azusa blocks her face, coughing as she inhales some of the dust kicked up in the air by the debris. As she retreats, she calls, "Follow the sound of my voice!" She fights to make her voice heard over the collapsing prison. "Do not run off!"
One of Mabaa's clan is the first to find her, with the rest of the clan members not too far behind. Kirikou and Mifune appear shortly after with the remaining stragglers. Kirikou raises his gloves. "Now what?"
"We are not equipped to fight Asura," Azusa says. She watches as the last of the prison falls to pieces, dread settling around her heart. "We need to leave now." She scans the group and counts heads. The number she gets comes up one short. She counts again, examining faces this time. "Where is Mizune?"
"Look at this little mouse I found." Asura stands in the middle of his former prison, spiders swarming around him. His hand is wrapped around the throat of Mizune, whose eyes are bulging in fear.
Azusa holds out her arm, barring the other spirits from moving. She narrows her eyes, meeting Asura's stare. "Wait."
Asura holds his gaze with her for another moment. He releases Mizune and she drops to the ground, clutching her throat. Gasping for breath, she scrambles to her feet and bolts to the group.
"I could have escaped this place a long time ago," Asura says abruptly. "But I didn't because I was afraid. Of everything." He continues, "Fear is the real prison, for both humans and spirits alike. It sets limits and breaks those who dare to cross them. Fear is why I failed fifteen years ago."
He unwraps the scarves around his face. "I am no longer afraid."
They are almost out of the fog when one of them finally speaks.
"Why did he let us go?" Kirikou says. "Those spiders could have easily defeated us."
"Asura's body is weakened from its years here," Azusa answers. "It may be that he wanted to avoid a fight for now. What I do know is that Asura is most likely halfway to Arachne and Medusa by now."
Mizune rubs her neck. "And what are we going to do about that?"
"The reason Asura was sealed away instead of killed was due to the fear of setting the precedent of killing the Avatar and what it would signify, if it would cause more conflict among the four nations. It was thought that the fog would be enough." Azusa keeps her eyes trained on the dissipating fog. "Obviously, we were wrong. The human world has not been able to heal and his presence here has thrown the spirit world out of sync."
"So now he must killed," one of the spirits says.
"Yes," Azusa says. "But now that Asura is with the Gorgons, we won't be able to lay a finger on him. More importantly, there is only one person who could kill Asura justly."
"And that is?"
"The new Avatar." They emerge from the fog at she speaks.
"That's difficult when they don't even know that Asura is back." Kirikou points out.
"He'll sense that Asura has risen again," Azusa says, turning her head. "And even if he doesn't, I'm quite sure he will soon have the chance to meet Asura."
"And why is that?" Mizune asks.
"Asura needs a new body to cross back to earth. One that can bend all four elements."
"But that's impossible when they're not here," Mifune interjects. "Isn't it?"
"Not with the spirit chains," she says. She clears her throat. "The Gorgons, Asura and his followers are working on creating a portal like last time with their power and I have every reason to believe it'll be done by summer solstice."
A stunned silence comes over the group.
"Ho, there!" Excalibur waves his cane as he and Hiro come into view, Hiro holding a purple cloak and wearing a bereaved expression.
"Excalibur, I thought you had left already," Azusa exclaims.
"A messenger never leaves without the whole of the message, you fool," he declares. "Especially one who is not coming back."
"Yes," Azusa says, suddenly feeling awkward. "I'm sorry you have to do this."
"Immortality is tedious," he says, taking the cloak from Hiro. "And I wish to make my legend known to the mortals."
Azusa nods once before moving on. "Tell Stein Asura is free. That it is likely that his plan will succeed this time."
Excalibur rises into the air. "Anything else?"
She shakes her head. "Good luck."