Into the sunrise they traveled for the fourth time, though that slowly rising orb was hidden beyond both the shadowy canopy of the wild forest that surrounded them and the gray clouds high above. Civilization was a thing far past; ever since they had decided to bypass the actual fortress of Grove and headed eastward to trim some time from their journey, none of them had seen any sign of habitation, human or otherwise. The woods were dense, the track they followed the only passable way for their mounts, though an occasional game trail crossed over their path.
They had spent the nights huddled together in bedrolls with a small campfire used for warmth, cooking and protection, and everyone taking turns at watch. Even had they loaded themselves down with sumpters carrying tents, the woods surrounding them were too overgrown to have made the use of tents possible. Still, Lady Utena and her party had spent over a year practically living on the road while the Kiryuu were used to having to bed down in the wilds, so all were acquainted with how to keep themselves relatively safe.
That there had been no trouble bothered Lord Touga. Either their foe was still unaware of their attempt to recover the sword or the Phoenix was too involved in reaching the Rose Gate first to bother with any delaying tactics. Even so, the Red Tyger felt as if things had gone too quietly, too smoothly, on this journey. A faint sense of dread, one he just couldn't shake, had come upon him after that first day on the road. Time would tell if his instincts were correct.
A thick mist hung over the forest, the silvery-gray wisps entwined around dew-speckled bushes, lush foliage and evergreen boughs. Once again the Kiryuu prince tapped Blizzard's flanks with black boot heels, setting a swift pace despite the decreased visibility of the fog. Today would see them reach the Rose Gate.
Tack jingled merrily; hooves thudded against the solid earth while the party forged on ahead in a canter. They were all quiet, eyes scanning over the countryside for any hints of danger looming up from the swirling mist, their ears straining to catch any sound not of their own making. High above, water condensed against pine needles into a drop, gravity pulling it from its perch to fall silently; down below, Utena jumped slightly as the cool water splashed against her cheek, then smiled wryly and wiped the drop from her skin.
The trail was as she remembered, including the penchant it had to be surrounded by fog at dawn and dusk. She sensed that they were getting close, and she felt a nervous excitement at once more standing before the impressive gates of white marble.
Lowering her hand to once again hold both leather reins in her steady grip, her attention was caught by sounds heard over the noise their own party was making.
At first uncertain of the source, Utena quickly had her suspicions confirmed when the regal Kiryuu chieftain stopped his mount. The prince held up a hand in a signal for the rest to halt. Quick to respond, the highlanders did as ordered. The pink-haired maiden swiftly echoed the gesture for her own people as she tugged back on her reins with a single hand.
Hardly daring to breathe, the party stood there for long moments, the mist eddying around them while they did their best to make out what was being said or from where it was coming. Cobalt-blue eyes narrowing, Touga realized that the voices were ahead, further down the dirt path. Not overly far, he mentally estimated, debating what to do. It would be best to assume that the strangers were traveling for the same reason. At the moment, he and his party held the element of surprise. If these others were searching for the magic sword, then Touga would have to overtake them and reach the Rose Gate first, and there could be a fight once the two groups came into close proximity. His best chance lay with rushing forward, overtaking them, and then racing onwards before they could collect themselves enough to do more then give chase. So be it, he thought, his course decided.
Turning in the saddle, the gorgeous lord looked over those behind him. All of them were staring back, waiting for an indication on how to proceed. Gesturing for them to follow, the Kiryuu prince twisted back and gave Blizzard the signal to run. The well-bred courser jumped into action, the stallion's lean body rippling beneath Touga as the animal burst into a full gallop.
Startled at seeing the highlanders dashing down the woodland path at full speed, Utena spurred her own mount into a swift gallop although she wasn't certain what the scarlet-maned noble had in mind. Trusting in his judgment--and noting that he had yet to pull his weapon--the lowlander noblewoman gave chase to the Kiryuu, her handmaiden and man at arms close on her back. Grasping branches and looming bushes seemed to grab at her while they raced through the silver fog; a couple of times Utena flinched as a sudden tree limb appeared very close to her, only to relax as she raced on by without the branch even scraping across her.
The flight through the mist was frightening, but the maiden only felt a true surge of apprehension when a group of mounted people appeared ahead. Numbering about twice as many as her own party, Utena noted that the unknown men were suddenly revealed to be more highlanders, given their similar appearance and clothing to others she had met. A commonality quickly noticed was the identifying colors of gold and red--just as Touga's own men wore something of white and red declaring that they were Kiryuu. Having not yet met a clan with that particular combination of hues, Utena had no clue who these people could be. As it was, she needed to concentrate on the way ahead and what would happen once the Kiryuu burst upon the strangers.
Aquamarine eyes flicked once more to the tall form leading the charge. Realizing that Touga still kept his sword sheathed, the pink-haired warrioress guessed that he meant merely to dash through them, using momentum and surprise to force them from their path. Steeling her own resolve, Utena leaned forward as her mount galloped on, keeping herself low over the animal's withers.
Touga also saw the identifying colors. Though startled at the implications, it wasn't enough to make him rethink his action or pause in his speed. The Arisugawa? Scanning over them as they came swiftly into view, the confirmation he was looking for came in the presence of a certain someone there.
At the sound of the thundering hooves, the party of strangers all halted, turning their gazes back down the fog-draped trail. While the dozen young warriors stared at the direction of the sound in silence, the regal figure at the head of the group frowned darkly. “What on earth could this be?” the angelic-appearing woman muttered, large turquoise eyes reflecting her surprise and annoyance at the interruption.
Next to her, mounted on a fine gray-colored palfrey, another woman--this one clad in a dress of the finest silk as opposed to the other woman's somewhat mannish but quite practical garb--turned violet eyes to the one that had spoken. “My lady, please. We must hurry. Others are looking for the sword as well.”
“Well, if these are some of those, then perhaps we should make a stand right here,” the first woman replied, a toss of her head sending her meticulously-curled tangerine-hued hair out of her face.
Catching the appearance of nine riders approaching at top speed, the all-too-familiar form of the Red Tyger in the lead, the second woman gasped in intense fright. “No time!” she shouted, watching the distance between the two groups rapidly disappear.
The first woman growled in irritation, realizing that her companion was right. The way that fool Kiryuu was racing forward, there would be little time at all to pull weapons and deploy. Already the mad riders were nearly upon them.
Utena swallowed hard, her eyes glued to the form of what could be described as an angel come to earth; the sunset-maned woman's stunning countenance was divinely impassive. Then a feminine shout from a familiar voice caught Utena's attention. Gasping in shock, the young warrioress scanned over the rest of the group, searching; a feeling of betrayal mingled with relief swept over her as her sea-blue gaze settled upon the well-known visage of Shiori. The brunette servant--dressed in clothing more fitting to a noble--sat astride a mount to the side of the regal woman.
Shiori, thought the Kiryuu chieftain, his attention also caught by the voice he'd recognized. Though again surprised at the discovery of that one in the company of the Arisugawa chieftain, he felt some relief at the realization that the missing handmaiden had not been spying for Lord Akio. At least the girl seemed to be in good health; that would make Lady Utena happy. Bracing himself, Touga plunged into the middle of the other group, shouting at Blizzard to keep up the full gallop.
The Golden Panther's men scattered, just as Touga expected they would; still astounded at the rapid appearance of a band of riders crashing through them, the Arisugawa gave in to instinct and dashed to either side. Of them all, only the tall woman at the head of the group held her ground. Only a little effort on the redheaded prince's part was needed to urge his courser to the right, avoiding the stern-looking noblewoman. Bursting unscathed through where the Arisugawa had been, Touga continued to urge his mount onward at a breakneck speed.
The other Kiryuu followed suit, thundering past where the Arisugawa had scattered and riding to either one side or the other of the woman that remained still on the earthen path. As Utena passed through, she glanced to the side and noted the scared look Shiori tossed her way. For a single moment, their eyes locked gazes. Then the moment was gone, the lowlander carried past where the brunette girl remained just to the side of the trail.
The minute they were past, Shiori slapped her heels against her palfrey's flanks and shouted as the gray mare clambered back onto the track, “We can't let him get the sword, my lady! Please! We must hurry!”
The woman addressed sighed in exasperation. There were times she truly hated her feelings, and this was one of them. However, one look at those stricken, fearful violet eyes and the tangerine-haired angel could hardly refuse. This entire situation was tearing Shiori up inside, hurting her unmercifully. Well aware of the turmoil the situation could cause within her own holdings, the regal woman nodded to her longtime friend and wheeled her horse in the direction the other highland chieftain had disappeared. “We're not beaten yet, my friend,” the Arisugawa warrioress vowed. “To the Gate!” she shouted to the men who just now returned to the trail. “We'll not let the Tyger have the prize!” Her order ended on a shout as she spurred her mount into a gallop, giving chase to the others seeking the mystic sword.
The race was on through the fog. Leaning low over his mount's withers, his long hair streaming behind him, Touga concentrated on his progress down the trail. Behind him, he heard the thunder of hooves; his party was hard on his heels. The dirt track wound through the trees, the dark trunks looming up through the curtain of silvery mist. Were there not the trail, it would be easy to become utterly lost.
Following another bend, Touga gasped when his mount burst into a clearing left untouched by the spectral mist. The lush, emerald ring was bound by ancient oaks, whose gnarled branches and sturdy trunks gave testament to their durability. A massive gateway of gleaming, polished marble stood opposite him across the clearing. The first thought that struck him was the oddness of such a structure being there in the middle of nowhere. The second one was a surety that this was what he sought.
Wheeling his mount around, the highland chieftain watched as the rest of his party galloped into the clearing. Noting the awed expressions on his men's faces and their otherwise dazed affect, he shouted, “Line up at the entrance! Keep the Arisugawa from gaining the glade!”
“They can go around your men, through the brush,” Utena pointed out, urging her mare to come to a halt near her scarlet-haired companion.
“I know that. I'm just looking to delay them enough to open the gateway,” he explained, turning Blizzard around again and tapping the stallion's flanks. Though uncertain how he knew, the knowledge was there that only he would actually be able to ascend the stairs.
Utena opened her mouth, only to shut it without a sound as the other noble rode away. Determined to give him directions in how to use the Champion's brooch to unlock the Rose Gate, she spurred her own mount into action again.
Heeding their lord's words, the knot of Kiryuu warriors drew their weapons and gathered together, making a wall of men and horses across the dirt trail leading into the grassy clearing. Hearing their foe's rapid approach, they braced themselves for the coming onslaught. Among them stood Tatsuya, determined to help further his lady's goals the best he could.
Still mounted on her palfrey, the two of them in the center of the woodland glade, Wakaba turned her gaze from her lady back to the men making ready to face the other highland clan. Spying the familiar form of the Tenjou man at arms, she felt a sense of uneasiness wash over her. They had already lost Ryu; it would hurt to lose Tatsuya as well.
Still leading the charge, the sunset-maned woman rode as fast as she dared under the foggy conditions, her nearly hip-length hair rippling behind her like a silken banner. This was foolish, part of her admonished, to rile the Red Tyger at a time when her own land's internal situation was so volatile and danger threatened from the far south. The other part of her, spurred on by the frantic desperation she had seen in Shiori's eyes, was fiercely determined to do what it took to make the pretty brunette happy again. Suddenly noting the wall of Kiryuu warriors blocking the way, the angelic noblewoman veered to the side and came to a halt, turning and shouting to the others, “Punch through them! I want past those men!”
The warriors riding in her wake galloped on by. Turning her turquoise gaze to watch their progress, the stern woman mentally sighed when she became aware of another presence halting there next to her. “If the Tyger gets the sword, my lady, then we'll lose any chance of getting him back.”
“I'm well aware of that, Lady Shiori,” she responded. Don't worry. I swear I'll do my best to make you happy again, though it breaks my heart to do so. The shouts of men and the clash of bodies could be heard, a grim punctuation on her thought.
Hearing the chaos erupting behind him, Touga called out a halt to Blizzard, then gracefully dismounted the moment the gorgeous stallion stopped. Pulling the Champion's brooch from where it sat pinned to the left shoulder of his scarlet-trimmed white tunic, the tall chieftain loped over to where the Rose Gate stood, cobalt gaze sweeping over it for clues on the proper use of the piece of jewelry.
“Lord Touga!” Utena shouted, nearly leaping from her mount before the palfrey had come to a complete halt. “Open the brooch!”
Hearing her instruction, he frowned while looking from the golden object to the pink-veined marble structure. Lifting his head and looking at her while she ran toward him, he asked, “What exactly do I do once I've done that?”
The rose-maned maiden dashed beyond him, reaching out to grasp the smooth stone handle projecting from the right-hand panel. Pointing to the depression at the top of the object, Utena explained, “You set the brooch in here and that unlocks the gate.”
Eyes still on Tatsuya, Wakaba gasped as the fighting among the two clans intensified in a matter of seconds. While the Arisugawa concentrated on just pushing the Kiryuu out of the way and clear a path, the other highlanders were attempting to push the Arisugawa back into the fog-enshrouded forest. However, the followers of the tangerine-haired woman had momentum on their side. With a violent push enforced by a number of sword blows, a way through the ranks was forced open. Her heart in her throat, the normally-gregarious handmaiden watched in fear as the two women in the other party shoved through their men. “My lady!” Wakaba called out in warning, twisting in the saddle to see what the pair of nobles was doing.
It wouldn't be long now before the Arisugawa could actively interfere. Slipping the pin from its catch, Touga pushed it away from the glimmering gold in much the same manner he had the night he had stabbed himself with the thin, sharp-tipped rod. “Like this?” he asked, looking to the slender girl next to him.
“Aye, that's correct,” Utena confirmed, her words coming out in a rush. “There's a hollow in the depression there in which you must slide the pin. Once the brooch is settled, turn the handle to the left. The Rose Gate will then open on its own.”
The scarlet-maned chieftain did as directed, peering down into the area long enough to align pin with hollow, then dropping the brooch into its resting place. White light erupted from the depression, sweeping over the large stone gateway; the very marble took on a warmth and luster it had lacked before. Fingers curled around the handle, Touga made ready to twist the object to the left when the sound of hooves came from close by.
“That's far enough, Tyger. Open that and I'll skewer you where you stand.”
A faint smirk curled across Touga's lips as he lowered his hand and slowly turned around. He knew--somehow--that only he could open the Rose Gate and that only he could ascend the stairs beyond. Such was the outcome of letting the brooch taste his blood in the manner that it had. It would be far better to deal with the Panther now then to tempt the other chieftain's wrath. Glancing up at where the fierce-looking noblewoman sat astride her horse, a deadly-looking sword in her hand and pointed straight at him. “I wouldn't advise doing so,” he cautioned. “No one else can open that gate.”
Blue-green eyes narrowed in annoyance. “Then I suggest you do what I say or no one will get that sword.”
“Just who do you think you are?” Utena asked, astounded at the woman's boldness. “What lies beyond the Rose Gate isn't meant for you.”
Those cold eyes turned their turquoise gaze to stare at the Kiryuu prince's companion. The pretty little boy had his nose into things that weren't his concern. “And just who the hell are you to address me so and dictate for whom that sword is meant?” Juri queried, her voice icy.
“Prince Juri, meet Lady Utena Tenjou, from the lowlands. Lady Utena, this is Prince Juri, the Golden Panther, chieftain of Clan Arisugawa,” Touga interjected, smoothly answering both questions.
“Prince?” Utena asked, astounded at the masculine title applied to a woman.
“Lady?” questioned Juri at the very same moment, staring back in equal astonishment. Now that it was pointed out, the girl's femininity was apparent in her facial structure.
Smiling at the reactions of the two of them, the scarlet-haired Kiryuu stifled a chuckle. His dark azure gaze flicking over to stop on the still mounted Shiori, he said, “As for her right to dictate, my lady prince, she has been sent by the Fey who rule this place to find the wielder of the sword. However, someone has some explaining to do.” Gesturing toward the brunette still astride her palfrey at Juri's side, his voice took on a steely tone. “Is this why you ran off, Shiori? To tell the Panther of the sword?”
“You don't understand what's going on,” the former handmaiden replied, her voice harsh.
“Enough,” the woman prince called out, cutting off her companion's words. “Leave it to me.”
“Who are you really?” the lowlander noble asked, staring at the one she had taken in during the dead of winter.
“She is Lady Shiori, and one of my retainers. That's all that needs concern you,” Juri insisted.
“Your retainer there spent a number of months being Lady Utena's maidservant,” Touga pointed out. “I'm rather curious as to why she did so.”
“As am I,” Utena added, crossing her arms over her chest.
Frowning, the Golden Panther looked the two of them over. “She was attempting to help me discover the whereabouts of Lord Ruka. In doing so, she learned that the one holding him wants to exchange the sword known as Love's Honor for him.”
“You came to me hoping to learn where the sword was in order to have someone steal it,” the pink-haired maiden growled, astonished at the effrontery.
Quick as lightning, the point of Juri's sword swung over to menace the other woman. “Tell her to curb her tongue if she wishes to retain it, Lord Touga.”
Just as swiftly, Utena pulled her own weapon and slapped aside the sunset-haired chieftain's blade, determination in her sea-blue eyes. “I shall not. You have no idea what you're messing with, Prince Juri. That sword was not meant for you.”
The Red Tyger swallowed hard, wondering if the two warrioresses would come to blows. “Enough. Lady Utena, Prince Juri, let's try to deal with this peacefully. This sort of discord is what will only help Lord Akio.”
“Please! Lord Akio's the one that wants the sword. If he doesn't get it, then he'll murder the one I love,” Shiori called out. All eyes turned to the short-haired brunette, including the men on either side--the warriors had stopped fighting the moment the two chieftains had begun speaking-- and the girl felt her cheeks redden at being the focus of everyone's attention. “You must believe me. He took Lord Ruka captive during a scouting mission and he means to keep my love in torment until he gains Love's Honor. A man came bearing tokens of my love, giving me a message to attend a meeting at a certain place and time, and it was there--”
“Let me handle this, Shiori,” Juri again insisted, interrupting the other's tearful narrative. Giving the lowlander a cold stare, the Arisugawa prince sheathed her sword. “For the sake of my retainer, I'll deal with this peacefully. To make a long story short, Lord Akio made it certain that he would only release Lord Ruka for this sword and he sent Lady Shiori on her way. She's done what she's needed to do to see her love returned home safely. Once she knew where this place was, she hastened to me, told me what had happened, and appealed to me for help.” Her gaze settling on the other highland chieftain, her frown remained. “You know what could happen should Lord Ruka be murdered. I will have a third of my followers in chaos as they sort out who would be prince next at a time when Lord Akio is threatening to war on us all.”
“All the better to aid me, Prince Juri,” Touga countered. “I'm fairly certain that the Phoenix has black magic at his disposal. If he gains this sword, he may become unstoppable. Lady Utena came to the highlands seeking one worthy to wield Love's Honor, and I was about to attempt it just now.”
“Love's Honor belongs to the one chosen to be the Champion of Love itself,” Utena added, slipping her sword back in its scabbard. “And that one becomes the defender of all those who honor Love.”
“That isn't going to help me,” Juri snapped.
“My lady prince, listen to me. Allow me to open the gate and attempt to gain the sword,” the Kiryuu chieftain said. “Should I be deemed worthy, I will do everything in my power to help you recover Lord Ruka, including offering to meet Lord Akio with the sword and negotiate an agreement.”
The Golden Panther gave no reply. Instead, she gracefully dismounted and pushed her way past the two standing there before the faintly glowing edifice. She would accomplish this on her own; she needed no one's assistance. Ignoring the other chieftain's startled expression and the look of horrified shock on the lowlander girl's face, Juri grabbed hold of the stone handle. She knew, from having heard some of the conversation between them earlier, in which direction to turn the object. Giving it a twist, she was astounded to find the handle immobile. It would not turn at all.
High above, in the ever-present sea of flowers, all that remained of Anthy lifted her head at the feeling of something touching the Rose Gate. The wind picked up, a coldly bitter one, racing through the bushes and carrying with it rose leaves and blood-red petals. Nearby, before the tender's emerald eyes, one of her prized blooms suddenly took on a frozen, crystalline beauty before shattering into a million pieces under the force of the howling wind. Heartless doll that she was, even she could feel the icy chill of this breeze to the center of her bones. Dropping her watering can, she hugged herself, slender form shivering. Whatever touched the Rose Gate, it was baneful to all that made this place exist. Deep within, Anthy hoped that the bitter wind would swiftly pass.
With a look of disdain, Juri let go of the handle and took a step back from the construct of white, pink-veined marble. So the Tyger was right and not just anyone could open the gateway, even with the key in the lock.
Utena stared at her, astounded. The overly confident prince should have been thrown back by a blast of magic the moment she touched the Rose Gate, yet nothing had happened. What sort of person is this? the young warrioress wondered.
Touga remained silent, observing both the lady prince as well as his own female companion. Noting that Utena looked as if something she expected to happen had not, he wondered what she had thought would occur while he waited for Prince Juri's next move.
For a moment, the Arisugawa chieftain scowled at the still-locked gateway, reluctant to accept that she could not make it move. Mindful of Shiori's violet eyes upon her and knowing how much returning Lord Ruka meant to the brunette retainer, Juri then turned her scowl to the other highlander, stepping back again so that he would have plenty of room in which to achieve his task.
Realizing that she meant for him to carry on, Touga gave his peer a slight nod before turning back to the massive doors. Once more taking hold, he wondered why the other prince was adamant about this. As overlord, she could certainly dictate to the Tsuchiya some manner of leadership during Lord Ruka's absence, yet she seemed to be doing all this for the man himself. Mulling it over, he gave the stone handle a twist.
This time the appendage moved smoothly. The Kiryuu chieftain felt the door begin to rise. He let go and took a step back, watching in wonder as the twin marble panels within the freestanding frame transformed into something spectacular. Under the grinding sound of stone on stone, he could also hear the sound of running water, though a swift look around revealed none to be seen. Around the glade, everyone was watching, wide-eyed, as the stone rose upward, the metal gates within sliding apart. With a final solid sound, the movement stopped, the way beyond open.
Marble petals of a great stone rose reached upward toward the evergreen boughs, sprouting from the top of the structure. Under the sculpture, Juri could see the other side of the oaken glade. Whatever the entry had guarded, to the Arisugawa chieftain it seemed to be nothing at all. “What goes here?” she demanded, cold gaze on her contemporary.
Scarlet eyebrows rose in puzzlement, a gesture echoed by Utena as well. Touga tilted his head slightly; the other prince's reaction was an unexpected one. “What do you mean?”
“There's only the other side of the clearing through there.”
Their astonishment deepening, Utena and Touga glanced to one another and then back to the stern chieftain. Could she not see the stairs that were so obvious? The Red Tyger wondered about that, having heard of Prince Juri being a skeptical one.
“But certainly you see the rose-covered stairway?” the pink-haired maiden asked, her voice with a puzzled tone.
“I see exactly what I said I do,” Juri snapped. If they were determined to make a fool of her, she would show them. Squaring her shoulders, she stormed through the now-open gateway--
--and found herself unable to enter the area underneath the marble frame. Feeling as if she had walked into an invisible wall, Juri nearly fell as she stepped back, her body jarred by the force of her momentum. Astonished, she looked to the pair standing there to either side of the gateway; the Arisugawa chieftain's expression changed to a scowl as she recovered her composure.
Meeting the other woman's gaze, Utena nodded toward her masculine companion. “Lord Touga, if you would continue, I shall do my best to explain to my lady prince what is going on,” she softly suggested. The important thing at the moment would be to see if the Kiryuu chieftain was truly the one worthy to wield Love's Honor. Once that was established, there would be time to see what could be done to help the Arisugawa with their problem.
The tall redhead smiled at his companion before turning and stepping through the Rose Gate. Unlike the other prince, Touga easily passed between the white stone pillars, stepping onto the first step of the rose-adorned staircase. Glancing upward, he could see the stairs wound their way upward through the thick pine forest, seemingly reaching toward the sky. Up there awaited his fate. Steeling his resolve, he continued onward.
“Just what is going on?” Juri demanded, seeing both the ease of Touga's passing and then the Red Tyger's form disappear into thin air.
“He's gone to be judged,” Utena responded. “If he's found worthy, then the sword called Love's Honor will be his by right.”
“But what about Lord Ruka?” Shiori called out, her expression one of desperation.
The slender lowlander turned her aquamarine gaze to her former handmaiden. “You heard him. Should he win the sword, he will find a way to help you recover your missing love. As the defender of Amor and those who follow it, such a task is worthy of the office he would claim.” Noting the skeptical looks given to her from both ladies, Utena thought over how best to explain to them about the Champion of Love and the magic sword.
The bitter winds left as swiftly as they came. Slowly relaxing, Anthy glanced about, noting a number of the brilliant roses stripped of some of their ruddy petals. Then came the feel of someone beginning to climb the stairway, the bushes around her swaying and whispering in a breeze only they could sense. Turning to stare in astonishment at the broken archway at the edge of the garden, she blinked as sudden light flooded over the area as if a cloud had departed from in front of the sun.
The Light of the World. It was here once again, casting off the gloom and cold that had settled over the Rose Arbor. Were she still in possession of a heart and soul, both would be leaping in glee at the return. But she was only a projection, the shell of what used to be. Her eyes blank above her faint smile, Anthy awaited the Light of the World's ascent to the roses.
Why was she doing it? That was the question that weighed on the would-be champion's mind while his lean form took the stairs one by one. Prince Juri's concern seemed to run deeper then her duties to clan. In fact, were he in the same position, he would write off his retainer as a casualty and force the subordinate clan to pick someone of their royal blood to be their prince. To do otherwise would allow Lord Akio to retain a weapon against both the retainer and the ruling clans at a time the Phoenix should be stripped of as many sources of power as possible. From what he knew of the Golden Panther, she was a person of action and intelligence, yet what she was doing now seemed contrary to her usual self.
Why endanger two clans for the sake of one man? Her people already loved her, seeing her as fair and just in a mostly uncertain world. Though unaware of the Tsuchiyas' feelings toward their overlord, Touga suspected they liked her and were loyal; there had been no rumors of troubles between the two clans before.
Chivalry then? Certainly, it was the ruler's place to ransom a captured bondsman; the oath of fealty made it the duty of the liege to protect the vassal. But the ransom in this case was beyond what any lord would be expected to give up. If Lady Shiori had accurately described the worth of Love's Honor, then the Panther had to be aware that giving one such as Lord Akio the sword would bode ill for all the highlanders. Again, why risk both clans--and more--for the sake of this one retainer chieftain?
Was it Lord Ruka himself? Did the Panther value him that much? As he took another step up the flight of stairs, Touga found himself shaking his head in denial. No, that thought didn't have the ring of truth. Granted, Prince Juri more then likely valued her retainer quite a bit--she was the sort to value all under her care, from what he knew of her--but to give up a magic sword into the Ebon Phoenix's keeping? If anything, Juri would be the type to gain the sword just so that she could assure herself that it couldn't be used against her people.
However, it did have the feel of being done for personal reasons. So if not for Lord Ruka, then whom? Cobalt blue eyes narrowed slightly as Touga recalled snippets of the confrontation down in the glen. Lady Shiori was Lord Ruka's love, and thus had been her motivation to learn what she could of Love's Honor by being near the one with the key to the sword. And each time the brunette noble had attempted to defend herself, the Panther was there, saying that she would handle it in Lady Shiori's stead. Add to that the fact that Lady Shiori seemed to be in little trouble for disappearing from her prince's court for months...
Was it possible then that the personal reason was Lady Shiori? If that was true, then what was the value of the girl to the Panther? But even as that thought crossed his mind as he neared the top of the stairs, he knew that he had stumbled upon the truth. Shiori was the reason, and the why of it--
“--Is love,” he murmured to himself, glancing up at the lantern-adorned archway looming before him. Love was a motivator beyond all logic at times, a powerful force sometimes hard to deny. Even the most cool-headed could be induced to commit seemingly foolish acts for the sake of a loved one. Prince Juri loved Shiori in some manner; that alone explained the risk the Panther was taking.
Love. Once again, the path of his destiny was overshadowed by that powerful concept. Taking the last step, he paused in astonishment at the sight that greeted him.
Roses. Thousands of the blooms, their fragrance scenting every breath he took. A lake of blood red, they covered what appeared to be a platform high in the sky. A seemingly infinite backdrop of cloud-filled azure surrounded the lofty garden. Yet even as he scanned over the scene with his dark blue gaze, he got the sense of somehow having come home. Puzzled by the feeling that he belonged here, Touga carefully stepped forward through the shattered archway.
The figure that approached her left what remained of Anthy feeling confused. This man, this redheaded stranger, was the Light of the World? How could that be, when she had seen what remained of her beloved earlier? Yet the sunshine radiating benevolently down upon the whole of the garden could not be a mistake, nor could the sense of this being her beloved--somehow--be wrong.
The Fey was there, the same gorgeous image that he had seen in his dreams and visions. Her long violet hair loose and glimmering in the sunlight, she carried with her the sense of being the archetype of all femininity. Suddenly nervous, the image of her slender brown hand wielding a shining sword in order to cleave a purple rose in two playing through his mind, the Kiryuu prince made his way toward her.
Anthy remained silent as she waited for him; green eyes stayed focused on the unfamiliar flesh that clothed the oh-so-familiar soul. If this man was the one she had hoped for, then who was it that had come wearing the image of her beloved...? The rose tender lifted a hand while her eyes widened, calling to her an object that would help prove things one way or another. The weight of the object resting against her palm, Anthy glanced down and saw the gold and rubies sparkling there.
The Champion's brooch, the seal of her beloved's power. Energy filled it, making the gems and metal faintly glow. Recalling how dead it had become, how lusterless, after the sundering had destroyed him, to see it alive now meant only one thing. This man was the one she had sensed. This man was the one she had been expecting, not the shadow clad in a well-loved form.
Stopping before the woman clad in a royal gown, a tiara of golden rays adorning the crown of her head, Touga gave the regal figure a bow of respectful greeting. “Lady of the roses, ‘tis an honor to stand before you. I am Lord Touga, prince of Clan Kiryuu, sent here by the noble lady who seeks a new Champion of Love.”
“Prince Touga of the Kiryuu,” Anthy replied, putting a name to the unfamiliar form. “I am Anthy, tender of this garden.”
“Well met, my lady,” he responded, straightening. “I wish to become the new Champion of Amor.”
“Love is not for the faint of heart, for even as it gives the greatest of inspiration, it leaves one open to the greatest of despair.”
“I would risk my heart and more,” Touga answered, sincere. He wanted this, for the sake of all those he could defend. He desired to be the light that held back the darkness, of being a source of hope in a chaotic world.
“Love is not an easy road, for the way is rocky and many times the path uncertain,” Anthy countered, continuing to stare at the scarlet-haired man.
“I wish to be the trailblazer, to make a path others may follow. Through the guidance of the Virtues of Amor, I have what I need to create my own way where no trail exists.”
“Love is overshadowed by a cold and bitter world. The chaos and darkness overwhelmed he who was the Light of the World, destroying him.” Though as passive and emotionless as before, the tone of the Fey woman's voice took on a note of warning and infinite sorrow.
“I want to be that Light,” the Red Tyger insisted, his desire remaining strong.
For a long moment, Anthy merely stared at the mortal standing before her. Even the flesh around him could not dim the radiance she sensed within him, though he seemed as ignorant as any other human. “If you truly desire this, then cloak yourself in your belief in the Virtues. With them as your armor, reach into the roses and pluck from them the white one that grows in their midst.” She gestured to the left, a silvery light appearing in response to her words. “But be wary, for the thorns surrounding the white rose are poisoned with hatred. If hate has ever been your master, then you would do better to not even try.”
Glancing over at the indicated direction, Touga's cobalt gaze was caught by a gleam of bright light, like a tiny star in a sky of blood. He made his way between the thorny bushes toward the source of the radiance, drawn by the argent sparkle. Once there, he looked down in fascination. Near the ground and guarded by the prickly canes of the larger plants, a small rose bush bore a single delicate bud of purest white. The shining flower blossomed fully even as he watched, the snowy petals unfurling to expose the glowing center. Gasping softly at the exquisite beauty of the rose, the Kiryuu chieftain carefully lowered himself to a knee.
He would need to pick the flower by the Fey's command. Heeding the tender's words, Touga took a moment to reflect on the six virtues that were the traits held dear by those who followed the tenants of Amor. He was certain the Virtues were strong in his heart. He trusted himself to be able to complete this task with the strength they would give him. He reached through the bushes, feeling the points of the thorns slide over his skin without breaking it. A slight tug and the bloom came off easily into his hand. Closing his fist around it, he pulled his limb from the plants. He rose to his feet, then returned to the regal woman's side, offering her the snow-white object.
Eyes the same color as the lush leaves surrounding them stared down at the delicate item still glowing like a small star. “You are...” Were he not the one, the light would have died. What remained of Anthy's emotions, both dread and sadness, stirred deep within her. Stepping forward, the dusky-skinned maiden pinned the Champion's brooch to the cloth covering the young prince's left shoulder. “This is yours by right, Champion of Love.”
Touga held his breath as the Fey invested him with the ruby and gold object, though he wondered momentarily how it had come to be in the gorgeous woman's possession. The moment Anthy stepped back he felt the weight of something settle on his shoulders. A grave sense of responsibility--the burden of the Champion--enveloped him like a mantle. Squaring his shoulders, he welcomed the challenge, sensing the light within able and willing to take on the weight of the world.
“But as for the manifestation of your power, I fear you must wrest it from the shadow that has claimed it,” Anthy continued, clasping her hands together in front of the full skirt of her royal gown and focusing her eyes on the rose-covered ground.
Dread washed over the scarlet-maned chieftain. “What do you mean?”
“Where Light can be found, there will always be Shadow. When the way was opened, one came bearing the look of the fallen Champion and I did not recognize the Shadow within.”
The new Champion stared at her, stunned. The Ebon Phoenix. It had to be him. “You gave Love's Honor to Lord Akio?”
“I thought he was the one that had opened the way. I did not know he was the Shadow of the Champion,” the rose tender explained.
Touga frowned, glancing back to the shattered archway that opened on to the stairs. Somehow, he would have to find the Phoenix and take from him the power of the Champion of Love.
Prince Juri stared at the boyish lowlander, frustrated and astonished both. “And you expect me to believe all this rot you're telling me?” she asked, voice harsh. “A fallen Fey Champion, a magic sword, and the power to change the world? Do you take me for a fool?”
“Of course not, Your Highness,” Utena replied, opting to address the other noblewoman in a neutral manner befitting her station. She understood how bizarre it would seem to one unaware of all that had gone on. Glancing about, the rose-haired warrioress noted that while Juri, Shiori and herself remained near the still-open Rose Gate, Wakaba had stayed in the center of the clearing while the two groups of clansmen warily watched one another near the beginning of the woodland trail, Tatsuya among them. “But consider that Lord Akio believes in all this as well. Why else would he use the capture of your vassal to manipulate someone into fetching the sword?”
The sunset-haired woman nodded, realizing the truth in the other's statement. It mattered little what the belief was, only that faith in it was enough to motivate the Phoenix into causing all this heartache to Juri's beloved Shiori. “Well then, we'll just have to do something about that.”
The riders burst out of the fog-enshrouded woods with no warning. Utena blinked, taken by surprise, as a number of dark-clad warriors galloped into the clearing from all sides. Gasping, she watched as the strangers closed with the Arisugawa and Kiryuu, the sound of steel ringing out as weapons were drawn. Chaos erupted around them as the men engaged. Horses neighed and men shouted while blades clashed. Running for her mare, Utena swallowed hard. On foot, she was at a major disadvantage.
Cursing under her breath at the sudden attack, Juri dashed toward her charger. While she leapt gracefully up into the saddle, she shouted, “Stay near me, Shiori!” Pulling her blade, the Golden Panther was determined to protect her beloved.
Fire exploded into existence next to Utena's palfrey; both horse and maiden screamed in sudden fright. Pulling back violently and falling to the ground, the lowlander noble shielded her eyes from the abrupt heat. The thunder of the buff-colored mare's hooves were lost in the sounds of pitched battle filling the clearing.
Juri glanced about while whirling her mount around, searching for the most immediate threat. The strangers were clad in all black, with no identifying marks. Seemingly more interested in keeping the clansmen busy then attacking either Shiori or herself, the woman prince noted that even the lowlander handmaiden remained unmolested.
Fright and determination both in her violet eyes, Shiori pulled her own short blade and made ready. The ring on her hand felt warm, like it had before when the ambush against the Kiryuu and Saionji had taken place. How she wished she had found it possible to remove it once she had made up her mind to enlist the help of her childhood friend, the Golden Panther.
“Lady Utena!” Wakaba shouted, watching her lady fall after that frightening gout of flame had appeared from nowhere. Spurring her palfrey into motion, the good-natured handmaiden raced toward the fallen warrioress.
“I'm okay!” the woman in question shouted in reply, picking herself up off the ground. Utena glanced about and pulled her sword, her long hair flowing about her. The blast and her fall had knocked her hat from her head. Glancing about, she looked for any immediate danger, taking note that her horse had fled.
From the fog wafting around the ancient trees, a figure on a magnificent white horse rode out into the clearing. Clad in white, pale lavender hair flowing about his shoulders, he made for a princely sight. Utena gasped, recognizing the Ebon Phoenix himself; his presence seemed to fill the clearing. Somehow, he seemed more powerful, more princely, then she remembered from her few glimpses of him in the royal court of the southern kingdom.
All was going well, Akio decided, a smile on his handsome face. His men were keeping the highlanders here well occupied, leaving the true target wide open. That he had used a bit of glamour to chase away his prey's mount was well worth the prize at hand. The innocent maiden that had held the Champion's brooch for so long was the perfect catalyst for what he hoped to achieve.
But a chill was here in the glade, a bitter coldness unexpected. The smile faltered as emerald eyes swept over the scene. Settling upon the fierce-looking Arisugawa chieftain, Akio frowned. There was something dangerous about that one. Prudently deciding to linger only as long as needed, the Ebon Phoenix spurred his stallion into a canter.
Lord Akio! Juri softly growled, noting the appearance of Shiori's tormentor. That he was here meant that he too had come to claim the sword on his own. Should he do that, then the chances to recover her missing vassal were greatly diminished. “I command you to return Lord Ruka to me!” she shouted at the other chieftain.
“I follow no command but my own,” Akio retorted. He kept his gaze focused on his quarry who was even now facing him with sword in hand. Come, little maiden...
The Phoenix dared ignore her? Snarling, Juri urged her mount into a full gallop, determined to exact some measure of satisfaction from the other prince's hide. Her charger's hooves thundered across the emerald grass as she closed the distance between them.
The chilling frost came closer. Dread filling him, Akio felt his strength drain away, sapped by the unbearable cold. What was this, to take his energy so? A grim expression settled on his face as he yanked his stallion's head by the reins; he veered away from the vengeful angel and shouted for his people to engage the Arisugawa chieftain.
Noting the distraction, Wakaba put heels to her palfrey, urging the mare to greater speed. The brunette lady in waiting gripped her saddle tightly with her knees and prayed to whatever beneficial powers were looking down upon the scene. A daring lean over and she scooped her lady up from the ground. “Hold tight!” the brave servant yelled while sliding back, doing her best to help the lowlander noble perch upon the saddle before her.
Utena was very grateful for her handmaiden's assistance. Reaching forward, she grabbed for the reins with her free hand, her other still gripping her sharp weapon. She gained control of the galloping mount and turned the mare to face the one apparently responsible for the attack. She could not let him climb the stairs to the Rose Arbor!
“I will not be denied, Phoenix!” A swift look showed Juri that the sable-clad men were hastening to do their leader's bidding despite the hindrance of the Arisugawa and Kiryuu warriors. Not much longer and she would be cut off from engaging the one responsible. Determination in her eyes, Juri chased after the dusky-skinned lord.
He could feel the cold surrounding him, sucking away both glamour and power. This one's very presence was more then just a danger; somehow, the woman prince was potentially lethal by her existence alone. Recognizing her stubbornness, Akio steeled himself as best he could. One swift but decisive melee and he would improve his chances to escape the deadly frost. Wheeling his mount around, Akio charged the sunset-maned chieftain.
Steel rang against steel as the two locked weapons. Juri fought with uncanny accuracy and graceful speed; Akio matched her in skill and dexterity. But the encounter was lasting too long, the bitter cold too draining, for the lavender haired prince's health. Each swing became harder and each moment made his limbs feel as if they were encased in lead. “Retreat from this place if you wish to ever see your Lord Ruka again,” Akio hissed.
“You will not dictate to me,” Juri growled in reply, giving her opponent a jab that he didn't quite parry. She felt her blade vibrate with a momentary connection. The fight was almost hers; she could taste victory. “I will make you release my vassal.”
He couldn't win this way. Already he could feel the chill in his bones. Desperate, he spurred his mount into a retreat, his frantic gaze settling upon the figure of Lady Shiori. Perhaps he could use the brunette as leverage against the Arisugawa ruler. From Lady Shiori's own admission, Prince Juri was a close, lifelong friend. The maiden had been useful before...
He's going after Shiori, Utena thought while watching the Ohtori chieftain disengage Prince Juri. “Hold tight, Wakaba,” the slender warrioress ordered, echoing the very words the lady in waiting had earlier uttered. Feeling the other girl's arms wrap tightly around her waist, Utena charged toward Lord Akio, determined to intercept him before he could reach Lady Shiori's side.
“Damn you!” Juri shouted at her foe's retreating form. A firm tug on the reins and she gave chase, tension flooding through her when she recognized the other chieftain's new target. No! Not Shiori! But before she could do more then urge her mount faster, a number of the sable-clad men swiftly approached, keeping her from reaching her beloved friend's side. All at once she found herself in a desperate fight with four to one odds.
Utena maneuvered the palfrey between Shiori and Akio, slashing at the elegant prince in defense of the former handmaiden. Determined to do something to keep the other from harming Shiori or somehow ascending the stairs, the lowlander went on the attack, looking to incapacitate the Ebon Phoenix.
Good, the Panther's deadly presence was distant enough; Akio could feel his strength and power returning. Countering his prey's skilled attacks, the Ohtori chieftain faked a continued weakness as he searched for some way to quickly achieve his goal. He was not willing to risk everything on a bet that his men could hold Prince Juri at bay for a long while. If I can keep them occupied long enough to regain enough glamour...
Muted light glinted off metal as the rose-haired warrioress sought a weakness in her older foe's defenses. Wakaba held on tightly and huddled against her mistress's sheltering form. Each swing and thrust was almost easily turned aside despite the Phoenix's apparent weakness. His encounter with Prince Juri must have cost Lord Akio dearly in some way not immediately apparent. Utena pressed her attack, seeking to use her foe's weakness against him.
Juri snarled in frustration. The moment one of her opponents was downed with a stabbing strike to the chest, another came to replace him. Around them, Kiryuu and Arisugawa continued to fall though the highlanders made a good accounting for themselves in the number of black-clothed men lying about the woodland glade. Redoubling her efforts, the Golden Panther fought viciously despite the toll such activity was beginning to take on her endurance. At least Shiori remained safe for the moment; a quick glance assured Juri that the other lady was away from the pockets of conflict.
His power had returned. Now was the time to strike. Emerald eyes narrowing in concentration, Akio burst into a flurry of activity, calling to mind his every skill with a blade. The hammering blows were barely parried; each one made their ears ring with the sound of the clashing swords. Feeling his prey's defenses weakening, Akio slapped aside the maiden's weapon. A torque of his wrist and the girl was disarmed; the wrested sword fell to the ground below. The Phoenix lunged forward, grabbing Utena by the tunic with his free hand and pulled her to him with a strength that left her utterly astounded.
“No!” Wakaba shouted the moment her mistress was torn from her grasp. Glaring at the man that dared take away her Utena, she yelled, “Let her go! Leave her alone!”
Akio ignored the furious handmaiden's protests. He called for the retreat as he sheathed his sword, the maiden chosen to search for the Champion of Love held in a tight grasp. Having captured his prize, he was unwilling to risk being in the debilitating presence of the Arisugawa chieftain any longer. He rode swiftly toward the woods surrounding the clearing while easily keeping the struggling woman in his control. The moment he plunged into the fog, he wove glamour around himself and those following him. To the others, they would simply disappear into the silvery mist.
They were leaving! And she was no closer to recovering her vassal then before. Parrying the blow of one of her opponents given to cover his retreat, Juri answered with a swift strike that caught the man in the side. The sable-clad warrior fell to the ground with a scream of agony. “After them!” the woman prince ordered before inverting her sword and leaning over, making sure the man she had downed would never rise again.
Kiryuu and Arisugawa warriors both did as the Golden Panther ordered, plunging into the fog-enshrouded forest. Juri dispassionately wiped the blood from her blade then searched the clearing for Lady Shiori. Finding her friend intact and apparently in no distress, the tangerine-haired highlander rode over to the other lady's side. “Are you all right?”
“I believe so,” Shiori answered with a smile.
“He's got Lady Utena!” protested Wakaba. Her brown gaze focused on the Arisugawa chieftain, the ponytailed brunette continued, “Just don't stand there! Go save her!”
“The moment my men find their trail, they'll signal,” Juri replied in a cool tone.
But the signal never came.
He would have to find the Ebon Phoenix. Everything rested on somehow claiming the Champion's power from the one who had stolen it. His expression grim, Touga descended the final steps in the rose-adorned marble staircase.
Carnage greeted him the moment he stepped forth from the Rose Gate and re-entered the mortal realm. Bodies littered the ground--men and horses alike--and blood stained the emerald grass. Fear spiked through him as he stood there and searched for his men, for the lady he had come to love. While he abruptly ran forward, the Rose Gate ground into movement. The great stone rose slowly lowered itself while the metal grilles and marble panels slide closed against the world. “Lady Utena!” he called out, not seeing any sign of the beautiful maiden.
“She's gone,” answered a voice Touga recognized as that of the Arisugawa prince. “Where's the sword?”
“Gone,” the Red Tyger responded, whirling to face his contemporary. “Lord Akio made it here before us and convinced the holder to surrender the sword. What the devil happened here? Where's Lady Utena?”
“Lord Akio has her. While you were within, he attacked.”
Touga stared at the other chieftain, stunned. “Where did he take her?”
“I can't say. They vanished without a trace,” Juri replied. Glancing to where Wakaba and Shiori tended to some of the wounded, she gestured to the knot of people. “We've both lost men, and the wounded need treatment.”
“I mean to recover Love's Honor and Lady Utena from him, no matter what it takes,” Touga vowed in a voice ringing with conviction. “Will you assist me, Prince Juri?”
The Arisugawa chieftain gave the scarlet-maned prince a cold smile. “I have a score to settle with Lord Akio myself. Let us regroup at Grove and speak about what should be done now.”
Touga nodded, knowing that exactly that would be the most prudent course at the moment.