On The Scent
“Do you think it's?” Kento asked, standing with Ryo and Rowen at the base of the mountain.
“Yeah, I think so,” Ryo rose from his crouch by the turned earth and carved initial. “There was talk about strange sounds and activity up here the same day Sage left.”
“It is Sekhmet,” Cye finished his descent from the plateau with a graceful leap. “The ground is all sliced up there, and I'd recognize the mark he leaves anywhere.”
“Looks like Sage left one of his own,” Ryo remarked, looking again at the S.
Rowen didn't say anything. He hadn't since he told them what was really going on, and stood a little apart from them now. He knew Ryo, and the others probably, still were angry with him.
“There was blood up there, too, but I don't know whose it is,” Cye added quietly.
“So we know he got Sekhmet, but where did he go from here?” Kento wondered, looking around.
Ryo turned to Rowen. “Do you know?” He asked sharply.
“I already told you what I know,” he responded flatly.
Cye stepped between them as the air began to crackle. “Come on, guys,” he said lightly, looking at Ryo. “What's done is done. Now we just gotta catch up to him, right?”
After a moment Ryo shrugged a shoulder. “Right.”
“Hey guys!” Kento called.
They hadn't seen him leave. They all walked over to the Jeep.
“There were more reports of strange things going down in the Hishegaru area!” he said excitedly, pointing at the radio.
“Then let's go!” Cye climbed in. Without a word, Ryo and Rowen followed.
The drive was made in a silence that the radio could not cure. Kento fidgeted, and it was clear Cye wanted to say something, but Rowen's indifferent attitude and Ryo's unnecessarily tight grip on the wheel squelched any effort at meaningful conversation.
Finally, Ryo asked something. “Did it say where in the Hishegaru area?”
At the signaling inhalation, Kento and Cye had turned eagerly, but leaned back in their seats again in disappointment. “Nah, not really. There's not many people that go through there. Somewhere around kilometer 89.”
Another half hour passed, the tension slowly growing. The terrain changed from rocky hills to flat fields and large river beds, back to verdant woods.
“Here!” Rowen said suddenly, jerking up from staring broodingly out the window.
Ryo hit the brakes, bringing the Jeep to a jarring halt. Rowen jumped out of the car as soon as it was safe, but waited for the others before running off.
“What is it?” Cye asked, coming up next to him.
“Something feels wrong, and it's in the right area,” he noted Ryo and Kento joining them, and began to head in the direction his senses had singled out.
They sped through the woods, following the faint impression of the tracks still impressed in the earth, then further, until they came to an unnatural opening in the thick trees. Debris was scattered to the edges from the force, and the ground was bared and scarred.
“That's from the Thunderbolt Cut,” Ryo said, and the others nodded their agreement.
His gut unsatisfied, Rowen went to the side and stooped to examine the ground.
Kento had followed. “Bloodstains!” He shouted to the others, then followed the blue haired young man again. The others came running to his call.
They caught up to them in a place where the woods had again been brutally wounded. Here, smaller vegetation was shredded, and more solid objects were riddled in charred, crippling holes.
“Lady Kayura,” Cye whispered. “Sage wouldn't actually have killed her, would he?”
“No man,” Kento replied quietly. Then less sure. “At least, I don't think so.”
“What's so wrong with it,” Ryo growled. “When she was trying to kill him?”
Rowen said nothing. The epicenter of misgiving had not yet been reached. He was growing afraid of what they'd find. He knew Sage would never want to kill a woman, no matter how wicked she was. What if Sage had hesitated at a crucial moment? What if he had misunderstood the feelings that had assaulted them all, and Sage's body was actually out here somewhere, and the Warlords were only waiting for them to find it and become demoralized before attacking them? He knew they would find out. The Warlords would not have the courtesy to bury his friend. Again leading the way, with the others following, he walked on.
He noted an even darker, larger set of stains close by. Whose? He followed intently for a meter, then looked up. He stumbled backwards a step in shock. Kento stopped next to him, speechless.
“What is it? What's wrong?” Cye asked anxiously from behind, as he couldn't yet see. He stepped around. He turned right and ran back, past Rowen, past Ryo, and retched.
Ryo looked for himself. His eyes widened. “Did Sage?”
“Yeah,” Rowen answered slowly, still staring. Lady Kayura was pinned like a rare specimen by a five year old. Unpreserved, and incomplete. He didn't understand. He couldn't comprehend. Sage couldn't possible be capable of something so monstrous. Something else must be at work.
Kento moved forward.
“What are you doing?” Ryo asked.
“We can't leave her like this,” the Chinese boy answered. “It's not right.”
Ryo stepped to cut him off. “Maybe she deserves this. Think of all the people she's helped kill. She didn't care, maybe we shouldn't either.”
Cye joined Kento. “I'll help you,” His face was drawn and pale, but he met Ryo's stare coolly.
“I'm your leader,” Ryo snapped, glaring at the two of them. “You shouldn't be questioning me like this!”
“I've had enough!” Rowen growled, and when Ryo turned to face him, threw a punch to his jawbone. Not nearly as hard as he could have, but hard enough to let him know he meant it.
Surprised, Ryo was knocked to the ground by the blow. Rowen continued to talk as he regained his feet.
“You may be the leader, yes, but we're a team. You can't just push us around, tell us to do what we feel is wrong, and condemn us for not seeing things your way. It's a responsibility, not a free ticket to god status!” Why was he this angry? Why had it felt so good to hit him? Why was he so eager to do it again?
Ryo was standing now, and he wiped a hand across his jaw. There was a glint in his eye. “I dare you to do that again, Yankee punk.”
Rowen grinned back, and threw a round house kick. Ryo dodged, and threw his weight behind his shoulder, plowing into the leaner lad and taking them both to the ground. He tried to punch the other's face, but Rowen grabbed his hands, and tried to roll to put himself on top. Neither of them heard Cye and Kento yelling at them, so intent were they on the struggle.
“I said knock it off!” Kento grabbed Ryo and bodily pulled him off.
Rowen jumped athletically to his feet and lunged at his leader, but Cye stepped in front of him and braced, stopping his momentum.
“Just stop it!” he cried.
Rowen ceased trying to get past him, and in another moment shook his head, taking a step back amidst the fallen leaves. The fire seemed to die in Ryo's eyes, and he shrugged out of Kento's loosened grip.
“What would we have done a week ago?” Cye asked, still standing between them. His eyes were watery, and his voice was strained. “If we had found her,” he pointed to Kayura's body. “Like this a week ago, would we have fought like this, over whether or not to show some decency? Would fists have flown over a question of integrity?” He looked at Ryo, who was looking abashed. “You're not acting like yourself, Ryo. It's not like you to be this way, bossing everybody around, being angry all the time, and treating situations like this.” To Rowen. “And you've been sullen, and secretive. I know you believe you have good reasons, but you're not usually so withdrawn.” He wiped his eyes. “All I know is, ever since Sage left, and even before, nothing's been right. And I just don't know why. I don't know how,” he lost control. “How he could-”
Kento ran over, and wrapped Cye up in a big bear hug. “It's okay, buddy. I gotcha, man.”
“What's wrong with us?” Cye's voice was muffled by Kento's arms and his own tears.
Ryo let out a long breath. “Sorry, Rowen, I guess I don't know what came over me.”
“Yeah,” Rowen said, in truth unsure how to feel. For some reason he still wanted to throw a punch. Why? “Me, too. Something sure isn't right. I just wish I knew what.”
Kento nodded towards the tree. “Something's wrong with Sage, too.”
Ryo frowned. “He's turning into a monster.”
Rowen looked sideways at him. “Maybe we all are.”
Cye sniffed one last time, and withdrew from Kento's kind embrace, flashing him a grateful smile. “Let's take care of her.”
All four Ronin went to Kayura's tree and to work releasing her body from its fatal bonds. They then dug a grave and placed her in it. In the spring, the blossoms would flow from the tree she was carried under, allowing whatever left of good in her to fly freely, and never be bound to earth again. Into its bark, after the others had left, Ryo carved a K. He felt right, and knew they had done a good thing.
When he got back to the Jeep, he could hear the others engaged in a civilized disagreement.
“No,” Rowen said, his accent an immutable mark of his presence. “It's not just because Sage left. We've all been separated before, and we've never had anything like this happen.”
“Then what's so different this time?” Kento asked, sitting with his back against a rock.
“What's different is that he's actually killing the Warlords,” Rowen said, sounding annoyed at having to state the obvious. “But I don't see how that connects.”
“Is Sage affecting us, or is this something we all would face eventually?” Cye wondered, leaning against the Jeep, his auburn head turned thoughtfully to the sky.
“Good question,” Rowen said pacing, trying furiously to understand and piece it all together. “We are all connected, to a degree, after all, but without more knowledge, its hard to say.”
“Or maybe Sage is actually a psycho, and even he didn't know it until he started this,” Ryo chimed in, leaning against a tree. Cye looked shocked and hurt. Kento looked angry, and Rowen just stared at him, expressionless. Ryo said almost apologetically. “I'm not saying it to be mean, or that I believe it, so just relax you guys. I'm not getting on his case just because, it's just an angle no one's put out yet. I'm in control now.”
Rowen threw his hands in the air, and exclaimed, “That's the key word in this whole mess! Sage wouldn't have done that to anyone if he was in control of himself, I'm sure of it!”
“But when it comes to himself, Sage is like a total control freak,” Kento added. “He hardly even lets himself smile and laugh with us.”
“Maybe we're supposed to all be together so that something like this doesn't happen, maybe it's just too much for one person alone,” Ryo. “The Ancient One always tells us to stick together.”
“Then how is Sage powerful enough to take these guys on by himself?” Rowen asked, frustration tinging his voice. “How is he able to beat them alone, when all of us can barely hold our own against one of them?”
“It must not be easy for him,” Cye said, reflecting on the echoes of feelings alien to him.
“If we can't figure it out and stop it, it might get to all of us,” Rowen was agitated.
“He shouldn't have gone off by himself,” Cye said quietly. “We should have done it together.”
Rowen rounded on him with an unexpected heat in his voice. “He's doing this for you, Cye, and for all of us, but especially you! So how dare you criticize him!”
Cye stood up straighter, anger sharpening his tone. “Well I didn't ask him to! Maybe I don't want to sit on the sidelines to be babied! I know what we're up against and what it means for the whole world, just as well as you do, Rowen, and the rest of you! It's not easy for me, but I understand my part, and I'm willing to do it, so stop acting as if I'm so fragile! I'm here to protect, not be protected.” He went on, distinctly. “I would never want any of you to get hurt or worse for my sake.” He stepped back. “None of you have any idea how it makes me feel to be coddled like some pet or infant, when I am just as old and responsible for myself as the rest of you.”
“Cye,” Kento said gently. “We never meant for any of that, buddy.”
“I know,” was the Englishman's response. “But that doesn't change much. And now Sage is out there, alone, and who knows in what kind of trouble, and it's all my fault.”
“As you want others to value your choices and decisions, young warrior, so must you learn to accept and respect the decisions of others.” With the staff ringing to each step taken, Anubis joined them.
“The Ancient One!” Ryo was caught by surprise.
“Where's Sage?” Kento asked, leaping to his feet.
”What's going on? How do we fix it?” Rowen asked, glad to see him.
“Is Sage okay?” Cye queried eagerly.
“So many questions,” Anubis sighed. “Apparently I have work to do here, as well.”
“What do you mean?” Kento pushed. “Have you seen Sage?”
“I talked with him at length very recently,” The Ancient One answered, sitting on the ground. The four young men quickly joined him. “But he does not wish to speak with you, or for you to know how to find him.”
“He's okay,” Cye whispered to himself in relief. The others burst out with more questions, but the Ancient One waved them to silence.
“Let me tell you a story,” he said. “There will then be time for more organized discussion, and I believe it will answer many of your questions.”
They quieted to listen as Anubis told them the same history he had revealed to Sage, only this time it was punctuated with questions. He answered them with a patience he had long thought himself incapable of, before assuming the mantle of the Ancient One. By the time he finished, the others were looking at him and each other with a sense of doom and uncertainty.
“So that's why Sage went nuts,” Kento said. He looked at his own hands and shuddered.
“And why Ryo's been so aggressive, and I hit him,” Rowen observed.
“But Kento and I haven't been acting that way, why?” Cye pondered.
“It has been ever so slowly eating away at all of you, but the real catalyst was when you killed Saranbo, as I'm sure you could have figured out on your own. Ryo fielded the blow, and as he has the more chaotic armor of Wildfire, it has sparked and fueled it more than the others. Join that with his own nature, and it was a strong combustion.” Anubis saw Ryo's scowl. “Do not be angered, Ryo. Right or wrong it simply is as it is. It does not make you any less or more for it.”
“Sage is so even keeled, I'm surprised it affected him as much as it did,” Rowen said. “And why would I be affected worse than Kento or Cye?”
The Ancient One refrained from rubbing his forehead. “Sage was affected by the taint to that degree because he attempted to fully merge with his armor, which acted as an open invitation to all its aspects. He then initiated combat, and took life with intent, which feeds the taint a great deal more than simple combat alone.”
He drew a breath, and hoped he would not have to explain Sage's condition anymore. “As for you, Rowen, your armor of Strata is from and of the merciless conditions of space. It's cold depths are often harsh and unforgiving, despite the brilliant punctuation of the constellations. Your Gin is life, which exists, or does not, and fights for that existence at every turn and waking moment. There is warmth, and joy, in abundance, but it is grit and fight at its core.
“ Kento's armor is well grounded, and immovable. A very part of the foundation of the world. Like his own nature, difficult to change or destroy. His Gin, Justice, is also an ideal and an innate core principle of aware beings. Cherished and expected by more than humans alone. True Justice takes a mighty act to corrupt. But the rocks can be deaf, and Justice blind.
Cye's armor of Torrent is also tricky to sway. It will often go its own way, nearly regardless of the forces exerted on it. It's roaring voice will not easily bow to the command of another, and being water, retains a fluidity that is itself a forces of change, guided by its own will. Cye's Gin of Trust is an important factor, as a thorough trust is nearly unshakable, and it is through Trust, and determination, qualities Cye possesses in great quantities, that some of man's greatest accomplishments have been reached. Yet, it is the one element most easily polluted, and Trust, once broken, nearly impossible to regain.
Even the raging Wildfire is often a cleansing force when coupled with Virtue. Properly guided, it is a purifying combination. Wiping out wrongs and pain, and creating fertile ground so a new future can rise in its stead. But when Virtue is forgotten, direction is lost, and it reverts to its harmful destructive instincts.
“Each of you have positive and negative qualities, in a finely tuned balance.”
“But it will get us, too?” Cye sounded defeated.
Anubis dipped his head. “It is likely, if you are forced to fight longer. I know that the rate of corruption has been accelerated, and if the situation is not resolved quickly, and with minimal violence, then I fear irreversible consequences may be inevitable.”
“So should we let Sage finish the job, now that he knows what he's up against, and trust him?” Ryo asked, hoping not to incur the others' wrath, but wanting an answer. “Or do we try to help him, and risk a complete collapse?”
The Ancient One rose to his feet. “I cannot answer that for you. These are questions to be decided between yourselves.”
“So you're just going to run away?” Ryo challenged. “I thought you came to help us. Or maybe you're just worried about your old buddies.”
Anubis looked at him levelly. He understood they might not fully trust him, but he had hoped his actions and his own story might have clearly illustrated the truth. Perhaps it would never be enough for some. “I told you, Ryo, they have no meaning to me anymore, other than a dark learning stage in my life. I could tell you what to do, but even I am not sure what is best at this juncture. It may seem that I am merely doing what is easiest, but I find my inability to provide a clear solution disappointing. It is tempting to advise a course of action, to tell you what to do, but I judge it is outside of my jurisdiction to take a leading hand in your lives.” His gaze became more intent. “Would you prefer it if I did?”
“Not on your life,” Ryo growled unreasonably.
“Then you have your answer,” Anubis answered without bitterness. “Now, does anyone else have any more questions, or is it time for me to go?”
“Will Sage be okay?” Kento asked. They all knew he meant if they couldn't catch up to him before he went into battle again.
“I don't know,” Anubis answered, truth in his eyes. “I only knew that he was asking himself the same question. I could not advise him either, only inform. Your world is shaped by your own choices, and it is a world I am not sure I have claim to, anymore.” He turned to go.
“Thank you,” Cye said quickly. “Thank you for coming, and telling us your story. I know it wasn't easy for you, but now we know so much more, and we'll figure out what to do.” He smiled, and it cheered the man's weary heart.
“Yeah!” Kento boomed, giving him a thumbs up. “We know who's side you're on, and we'll sock ol' Talpa once for you, too!”
“Sorry for being a grump, we really do appreciate your help,” Rowen added, regretting Ryo's attitude.
“Yeah,” Ryo said grudgingly. “Thanks.”
“You are welcome, my friends,” Anubis began walking away. “And I will be close by, for whenever you truly need me.” In a moment, he was gone, with his staff echoing sweetly in the breeze.
“So guys,” Kento said eventually. “How do we beat this?”
“I don't know,” Rowen answered. “But I do know I don't want to leave Sage alone in this anymore.” He closed his eyes, focused on his friend, and sent out a query into the void. Sage, where are you?