We descended into the wound in the hillside carefully, watching every step. The bright, hot, summer sunshine dimmed behind us as we walked into the dark, hot, humid depths.
The dirt underfoot was loose. There were no tracks there, just roots, stones, and clumps of clay. Roots like hairs stretched out of the walls and dripped clots of dirt as we passed.
On one steep part, a stone rolled under my foot and I started to fall. A strong hand caught me under the arm and held me until I scrambled my feet back under me. I turned in the heavy silence to thank my rescuer, expecting Juri. It was Nanami, however, who smiled grimly and nodded when I made a sheepish face at her.
No one spoke. It was as if a blanket had settled over all of us, as if we were afraid of what might come from the darkness ahead.
I thought vaguely of the cemetery we'd left behind, and wondered if, somehow, we were still under it. Then the ground under my feet slithered away like a living thing and I slid -- irrecoverable by any of the others -- down the slope in a small landslide.
I scrabbled for a hold, any hold, but everything was loose, slippery, rumbling down the slope in great, soft thumps. It was abysmally lightless.
Something abruptly -- and painfully -- caught my feet and stopped them. My upper body, still traveling at some speed and being impelled by the force of gravity to continue doing so, heeled over so that I was plunging headfirst. I crossed my arms in front of my face, sure that I was about to die.
I landed hard. The impact knocked the breath out of me so that I didn't notice much detail about my landing place for several moments. I saw purple and blue flashes of light before my eyes in the blackness that enfolded me. Finally, I managed to inhale.
I panicked and tried to get up. I hit my head on a long, low piece of wood. There were walls. Sharp pains pricked me all over as I thrashed, deafening myself on rustling noises. I finally stopped, in agony, and tried to conquer my hyperventilation.
I was in a coffin.
I was in a coffin full of dried roses.
I was in a coffin full of dried roses with long, vicious thorns. Or short vicious thorns. I couldn't quite tell. I just knew I was in a lot of pain.
I closed my eyes. There was no difference in the darkness. I inhaled, trying to ignore the dry smell of the roses that caught at the back of my throat and made me want to cough. I exhaled.
Surely they'd be coming after me any moment now. Any. Moment.
"Don't open it. Please don't open it."
The voice came from far away, and was slightly muffled. But I could hear it clearly. A little girl's voice. Blood rushed in my ears as a rush of adrenaline surged to my heart. My voice.
A young boy's voice: "Why have you been hiding in a place like this?"
The girl: "Because this is where I belong. There are coffins lined up next to mine, right? My father and mother died today. And there was one coffin left over. It must have been meant for me."
No! I thought. I'm in one of these coffins! Let me out! Let me out! But my voice wouldn't respond. I couldn't move.
"Being alive is kind of sickening."
A different boy: "I see..."
"It's sickening... Why does everyone go on living knowing they'll end up dying anyway?"
Because that's what we do! I screamed inside my head. We live! We fight and we live and... and...
"I wonder why I never realized that until today. Eternity couldn't possibly exist, could it?"
Yes, it could. I live with Eternity.
Then I thought, with some surprise, Eternity is my lover.
"And so, it's all right now. I will never leave this coffin."
I gritted my teeth against the pain and pulled my legs up so my knees were against my chest. With some work, I got my feet flat against the lid. I took as deep a breath as I could, planted my arms against the bottom and sides, and shoved with all my might. For a moment, it seemed like it wouldn't open, and I had a flash of panic that I was really buried alive... but then the heavy wood screamed away from the box, and the lid fell to one side with a crash.
Eternity is my lover.
"Anthy!" I roared with my first lungful of humid cave air, which smelled nothing at all like roses. "Anthy!"
"Utena!" I heard back in several voices, from a distance.
"Stay where you are!" ordered Saionji's voice. "We'll come to you!"
I stayed still and, after a few minutes, I heard stones skittering and spotted the dim circle of someone's pocket flashlight above me. I scrambled up the steep slope, grabbing hold of Miki's hand as I neared the top. Juri held the flashlight, and skimmed over me with the beam. "You look like hell," she said.
"Bruised, but I'll live," I replied, prodding gingerly at myself. There were tiny spots of blood along my arms and hands. "Well, okay, bleeding a bit, too." Then I peered around. "Hey, where's Saionji?"
Everyone looked around then, but he was nowhere to be seen. We called for him without getting any reply. Anthy finally interrupted us. "We have to keep moving. Don't worry, he'll be returned to us."
"'Be returned?'" Nanami echoed sarcastically. "Who took him?" She still wore his jacket, and one hand was plucking anxiously at the buttons.
Juri scowled. "Utena, did you see anyone when you vanished?"
"I fell," I said. "I heard voices but... but they weren't voices in the present."
"Memories?" Miki asked.
"Who cares?" snapped Nanami. "Kyouichi is the one to worry about now."
"We'll be tested," Anthy said. "All of us."
"Even you?" Nanami inquired with a saccharine twist to her voice.
"I've already passed my test." Anthy turned away.
We all exchanged looks and fell into line after her. The path was rocky and wet, the air stifling. Climbing was an effort. Staying upright while descending an incline was an effort. Just walking was an effort. My clothes were soaked with sweat.
Suddenly, Saionji hurtled out of a crevice. He collided with Nanami, who cried out and might have fallen off the path into a dark pit but for Miki's quick catch. The three of them ended up in a tangle on the ground. Juri and I hurried to extract them from the heap.
Juri hauled Saionji to his feet. He was muddy and his face dripped blood from a slash across one cheek. Nanami produced a handkerchief and reached up to dab at the wound. "Kyouichi, what happened to you?" she asked. There was genuine concern there, which startled me again. A lot about Nanami was startling me these days.
I saw the snarl on his face as Saionji started to shove her away. Then he caught himself and forced a smile, which was more a gritting of teeth. "I don't really want to talk about it," he said. "Ow!"
"Sorry," Nanami said unrepentantly. "Just getting some of the mud out of it. Now you can let it bleed clean."
"Thanks," he replied dubiously, touching the blood with one hand and then staring at it.
"Miki!" Juri swung the light around wildly. "Dammit, Himemiya, how much more of this?"
"As much as is necessary," Anthy said unhelpfully. "If we don't get through this cave soon, it will start all over again."
That was enough to get me moving. I noticed that Saionji limped a bit and clutched his katana tightly.
We walked for a long time. I started running over things in my head, what little we knew about the people we expected to find at Ohtori, the people who might be there, the one person who was certainly there, would always be there...
Miki dropped from the darkness above. Only Juri's reflexes saved her from being underneath him. He managed to make a decent landing on his feet, though he staggered. As Saionji caught his shoulder and steadied him, I saw blood on Miki's fingertips. So did Nanami, I think, because she gasped just before the light went out.
"Damn," I muttered. "Juri!" I fumbled around on the ground where I heard the flashlight fall.
"Miki, are you all right?" Nanami asked.
"Yes," he replied in a dazed sort of way. "Now it's got sempai."
My fingers encountered the light and I fumbled with the switch. Nothing. "Damn, damn, damn. And took out our light at the same time." I slid the broken thing into my pocket and reached out a hand for the last place I saw Saionji. "Need to hold hands, I think." What if Juri didn't come back? What happened if people failed their test?
It was Miki I found, and I felt him wince when our fingers collided, but he held onto me with a sure, if suspiciously sticky, grip. "Are we all together?"
Anthy's voice seemed very far away in the pitch blackness. "Yes. Follow me. I can see just fine."
That last bit of data rattled around in my head for a while. Finally, I just shook it out. "Nothing should surprise me anymore," I muttered to myself.
Miki squeezed my hand for a moment. "Maybe not, living with her."
The silence made my ears ring. I was desperately grateful for any noise my companions made, any drip of water that echoed through the cavern. Miki and I each twisted an ankle at different points in the hike. Saionji's step was getting heavier and wearier -- he even staggered occasionally. Only Nanami's step, firm and light, remained steady. Of Anthy, I could hear nothing.
I jumped when the sound of a sharp, hard inhalation ripped through the dark, followed by a pained roar. Despite the raggedness of the voice and lack of words, I knew...
"Juri?" I reached my free hand out, groping for anything. I found Juri's jacket and seized it. Miki planted himself firmly to help me haul. Juri finally turned and grappled at me, and all together we managed to get her back onto the path. I kept an arm around Juri's waist for a moment longer than was strictly necessary, I think, but I was grateful for her return. Flustered, I backed off until I found her hand.
"All right," she said, voice ragged and hoarse. "Let's get the hell out of here."
"The light broke," I told her.
I felt her shrug. "Just a matter of time." Her voice did not improve with use.
Miki and Nanami cried out simultaneously, and I couldn't brace Miki in time. He fell, and I staggered to one knee. "What happened?" I shouted.
"Saionji-san," Miki said, and I heard him scrabbling at the ground. "It was like the ground opened up and swallowed him."
"There's no hole here!" Nanami said. "Nothing! Himemiya, he's already been tested -- that should have been me!"
Anthy sighed and said, gently, "He failed his first test. He gets tried again. You'll have your turn, have no fear."
"This is a horrible place!" Nanami screamed. "Why did we follow you here? You're probably still working for him! Why should we trust you at all? You've brought us here to kill us!"
There was a scuffle happening. I started forward, but Juri and Miki kept hold of me. I heard the crunch of gravel, a soft grunt and thud as a body hit the ground, harsh breathing. Every muscle strained to launch me forward. When there was the sound of metal scraping on hard leather, I couldn't stay quiet anymore. "Nanami! No!"
There was no reply, just a harder thump as another body hit the ground and more scuffling. Then Nanami's dagger skittered across the stones to my feet. I stepped on it. Then I heard the sound of a fist striking flesh, and the skirmish ended.
"If I'd wanted to kill you," Anthy's voice was weary, "I would've dropped you into the first pit we came across, Kiryuu-san. But you're alive, and I didn't break your neck just then. So start walking, because we're behind time already and I don't know what will happen if we stay here much longer."
Juri picked up the dagger and tucked it into her belt, then the three of us moved forward until we found Nanami. Miki helped her to her feet and put her between himself and me. Then we walked on.
We encountered Saionji lying on the path. When he didn't stir to our calling his name and shaking his shoulder, Juri moved forward and lifted him bodily. I smelled blood. "He's hurt!" I exclaimed.
"Badly," Juri said, voice harsh as a raven's. "The front of his shirt is wet... there's the wound. Stabbed, I think."
Nanami began to weep angrily. I heard Juri grunt, and then she reached for my hand again. "Fireman's carry," she explained. "Let's go."
"Come on, Nanami," Miki said gently. "We've got to go."
"Did he fail again?" she snarled.
"No," Anthy said, "he passed."
"Passed!" She barked a laugh. "Great, maybe I can be incinerated for my test. Be sure to give my ashes to your oniisama."
Anthy laughed bitterly and continued to lead us on.
A few minutes later, with no warning, Nanami tore loose from our hands. I heard her leap off the path to my left.
"Nanami!" Miki shouted.
"Steady on, Miki," Juri rasped. "Keep going. She'll be back."
The darkness and exhaustion was beating my senses down. It was all I could do to keep marching. The hands I held periodically squeezed my hands, and I squeezed back. Some kind of reassurance. I was becoming a disembodied pair of feet that somehow related to a disembodied pair of hands. Nothing else was there. I was vanishing into the darkness.
We came into a thin patch of sunlight from a hole high overhead. It was blinding, but we paused briefly to have a look at Saionji. He groaned as Juri examined his wound, which did indeed look like a stabbing. I was bloodier than I thought I'd be, with a few dark patches spreading slowly on my jeans. Miki's hands... his fingertips were swollen, raw, and bloody. Juri showed no blood except where Saionji's had seeped onto her jacket, but there were livid bruises coming up around her throat.
Anthy stood just out of the circle of light, watching us. I stepped toward her, but she shook her head and glanced away. Just then a noise and motion drew my eye to the same place.
Nanami was on hands and knees on the floor, gasping, coughing, and spitting. Her clothes were soaked and her hair streamed water. I crouched next to her, one hand on her back. She looked up at me through her hair suspiciously, then coughed again.
"How the hell does... it... know?" she asked faintly, eyes on the floor.
"Kiryuu-san," Anthy said with a sigh, "all we meet in here are ourselves."
Nanami bowed her head and said something else, too quietly for me to hear. But I thought I caught at least, "Oniisama."
"Come on, Nanami. Almost through," I said, trying to be encouraging.
"The dyke is cheering me up," she said, with some attempt to regain some of her sarcasm and bravado. "I must be in a bad way."
"Yup," I said cheerfully, hauling her to her feet with a hand under her arm. "That's it, for sure."
The rest huddled close to us. Miki had a hand on Nanami's shoulder, Nanami was touching the front of Saionji's shirt, Saionji had his arm around Juri's shoulders (since she was propping him up), Juri had a hand at the small of my back... we were all together in a way we'd never been before. I turned to look at Anthy, and she looked small and forlorn in the shadows. With some effort, I stepped away from the group and toward her.
For just an instant, I saw the Rose Bride, impaled on the Swords, and I screamed Anthy's name...
I was falling. I was in pain. Run through in betrayal, stabbed a thousand times by hatred for what I embodied, suffocating in the wind of millions of flying things that sucked the air from my lungs.
The noise wasn't just outside me, it was inside too: in my head, rattling my ribs, shaking the flesh off my bones.
I was falling past clouds and shattered bits of stone. The sky beyond was eerily still and beautiful, silver gossamer clouds stretched over a bright blue vista. Around me sang the swords, a cacophany of hatred. Periodically, one would shoot out of line, punching through my skin with a wrenching pain that was all too familiar.
I reached out, caught hold of a big piece of the shattered castle. I pulled myself close to it, remembering a time when the castle broke apart and was miraculously whole again moments later. I clung with one hand.
With my free hand, I took hold of a swordhilt that protruded from my side. There were a lot to choose from. This was the jeweled and gilded one with the gracefully latticed guard.
It hurt. It hurt like hell. It burned. It scraped against bone. But it came free.
Hot blood surged out of the wound; I could feel it running down my side and soaking the top edge of my jeans. I managed to step on the sword blade so that it was braced against the stone. Then, with one sharp, agonizing motion, I snapped the blade.
I landed hard, on my back.
I heard a thin whispering sound all around me, like the wind blowing through trees. Small pieces of metal rained down, pattering gently into the dust.
The sun was bright in a brassy sky. Anthy knelt over me, pulling me into her lap.
I think I was crying. Everyone was staring at me. I buried my face in Anthy's neck until I could breathe again.
"It's over," Anthy whispered to me again and again. "It's over." Then, finally, "This part is over."
"There's more?" I asked, my voice weaker than I'd expected.
"Oh, yes. But no more tests." She smiled down at me. "And you'll all feel better soon."
"Good," Juri said, the sardonic accents of her voice ruined by the hoarseness. I looked up at her with a wan smile, and she smiled back. There was an echo of horror in her eyes, though, that made me suspect that perhaps the last test wasn't as invisible as the earlier tests.
Silver splinters littered the ground, shining.
"So all we have to do is follow you and keep breathing?" Miki inquired, a little disbelieving.
"Keep breathing, and keep focussed on what we're doing," Anthy corrected.
"We could lose our way?" asked Juri, her voice still ragged but sounding a little better.
"More," Anthy said cryptically, and led us forward again.
My feet crunched on the pale path we walked on. I looked down and found that it was paved with small bones. About the same time, the others discovered this as well. We stepped more carefully as we advanced. I felt particularly superstitious about the tiny rodent skulls.
Our road wound through bizarre territory where the grass grew in dusty patches and the trees were short with round clusters of leaves at the tip of every branch. The sun had parched this land bare. Every breeze engulfed us in choking gusts of sand. Every plant was thin and withered. The sky was full of blinding glare. I swallowed and my throat hurt.
So the vast lake stretching to the horizon was the last thing we expected to see.
The path of bones led straight to it. And into it. I could see it through the clear water. We followed Anthy -- it was surprisingly cold -- until we were up to our waists, and then Saionji balked.
"We can't just walk into this lake," he protested. "That's insane."
Anthy turned to look at him, then glanced at the rest of us. "Insanity," she said, "is relative. Keep walking or we'll never get out of here."
Nanami was not looking happy as the water lapped gently at her belly. "I don't want to," she said quietly.
"Then you'll remain here forever," Anthy said, then continued to walk.
Juri and I urged Saionji forward, and Miki did the same for Nanami. They went reluctantly. We walked. Saionji winced as the water touched his wound.
The water reached our chests. Then our shoulders. Then our chins.
I watched as Anthy continued on, completely submerged, with no sign of floating. In fact, I felt nothing lifting me. It was like the water wasn't there. Yet it was.
The water closed over my head.
I had to will myself to take my first breath, but when I did, it wasn't any different from air. A little moister, maybe, than the desert atmosphere we'd just left.
We looked at each other, amazed, as we all breathed.
Anthy kept walking.
So did we.
Deeper in the lake, my vision started to do funny things. It was dimmer here than at the edges, and whatever it was I was seeing through seemed to get thicker. It shimmered, wavered, and blurred any time I looked anywhere but straight ahead at Anthy's back.
At the edge of my vision, something changed. I glanced aside. Saionji was walking there, but not Saionji. A lithe young man slunk along at my side, decked in tight black leather with rhinestone-studded chains draping his hips and shoulders. His hair stuck out stiffly and artistically in front of his face, while the back of his hair fell in art nouveau ripples to the backs of his thighs. Stark white face makeup, airbrushed into a flame design, startled me most though. His thickly lined eyes darted toward me, then away, then back for a surprised double-take.
I looked down.
I was wearing a pink dress... no... THE pink dress. Sleeveless, with cuffs. I could feel the weight of the crown on my head. I could feel something at the back of my mind that had... expected to see this.
My hands, of their own volition it seemed, tore at the gown, clawed at it, trying to shred it, to get it off my shoulders, away from my body. I heard fabric tear... but the dress slipped through my fingers, insubstantial, and I was left trying to tear my own clothes off. The seam under one arm gaped open. I let go of my shirt, confused.
Anthy continued to move, unchanged.
Someone staggered into me from behind.
It was Juri.
She wore a white uniform with a half-cloak thrown over one shoulder and white gloves on her hands. But the front of the uniform was torn open, her old locket flashing in the light, her undershirt soaked with blood. There was blood elsewhere, too: down her legs and one arm. All the edges of the cloak were tattered and torn. With one hand, she clutched a broken sword to her chest. She limped. Long, tangled hair hung to her waist.
Her horror-filled eyes were fixed on Anthy.
Anthy glanced back once, I think.
Juri's hand rested on my shoulder and, back to her normal appearance, she shook her head as if to clear it.
We kept walking.
This... road of possibilities... did not give over easily. Nanami fell to her knees at one point, clutching a blind old teddy bear and whimpering, her hospital gown barely covering her. Miki helped her up, the gold braid and tassels on his tight-fitting red uniform vest shining, his trousers immaculately creased, his long hair caught into a knee-length ponytail, bound round three times with wide golden bands etched with roses. Large, round glasses flashed when he turned to gaze at me dispassionately.
Saionji strode next to me in a fancy black uniform jacket, draped with braid, and white slacks. Juri walked along on the other side in a ragged gi and hakama, a katana in her sash, and her hair pulled back and up into a ponytail. When she turned her head toward me, I saw an X-shaped scar on her cheek. Nanami stomped past in hiking shorts and a tank top. There was a suspicious bulge at the small of her back -- something tucked into the waistband. Miki ended up in some strange giant mecha thing with a horn on the front of its head -- he walked very carefully for a while, so as not to crush any of us. I clanked along for a while in cumbersome black armor that was crested with a rose.
With every change, I could feel the whisper of someone who knew or expected it, the edges of powerful emotions that were mine... and yet not mine.
We broke the surface. It was bitterly cold, and we crunched into hard-packed snow as we waded out of the lake. Fortunately, we weren't actually wet. The pine-dotted snowfield stretched away to meet the grey sky at the horizon.
Anthy smiled. "We've come more than halfway now."
"Oh, damn," Nanami groaned. "I was hoping we were done."
"Feeling better?" Anthy asked innocently.
We all looked at Saionji. Saionji looked down. His shirt was unbloodied and his chest unhurt. The rest of us examined ourselves and found no hint of the hurt we'd taken in testing.
"How...?" Miki began.
"Possibilities," Anthy said. "I thought I might as well use the possibility that none of you had been hurt."
We all blinked at her.
She smiled again.
Anthy chose a direction and led us through snow that occasionally reached my knees. It was the kind of snow that squeaked underfoot, a dry snow that blew wildly in the gusts of the bitter wind. I regretted my t-shirt and jeans, envied Nanami and Juri their jackets. Saionji marched onward manfully, though I did catch him glancing wistfully at his jacket once. Miki shivered unashamedly along with me.
"How much further, Anthy?" I called over the roar of the latest blast of wind. "We can't keep on like this much longer!"
She glanced back at me from her position on a small hill and looked a little surprised. She seemed unaffected by the temperature. "Not much," she said, and pointed.
I scrambled up on her hill, which had been nearly scoured bare of snow by the wind, and followed her finger. About a kilometer further, the snow reached a black, frozen river that was lightly dusted with snow.
Beyond that was a lush green field, populated with huge, lazy butterflies, that led up to a green and brooding forest.
Juri cursed over my shoulder. "Something tells me that's going to be one of the longest walks we've ever had."
She was right. It went on forever. Anthy no longer made any sort of pretence at plodding along like the rest of us. Somehow, she walked on the surface of the snow, as if she weighed nothing at all. The rest of us staggered along, huddled together. Nanami and Juri each put an arm around me with half a jacket over my back -- I guess that they noticed when I couldn't control my chattering teeth any more. Miki walked in front of us, since we provided a windbreak for him, and I noticed Saionji taking advantage of it too, near the end.
We finally reached the broad line of the frozen river, and Anthy signaled for us to stop at the edge. She stepped out onto it in her bare feet and crouched down, laying her hands flat on the surface. There was a long moment of her being absolutely still, and then she stood up and came back to us, wiping her hands along her arms.
"We can cross now," she said. "But it is ice. You must step carefully. Follow me." She turned back and strode confidently out onto the ice.
Nanami and I started forward, but Juri stopped dead. She was staring at the ground. I looked down and saw Anthy's footprints on the snow... perfect bloody prints. Then I remembered the reddish streaks on her arms, and looked, horrified, at the river.
Miki cleared his throat. "It's, um, common in myths and legends. It seems logical that we'd encounter it. Come on. I'm freezing and so are you. Let's get on across."
After much slipping and sliding and falling, which left our clothes bloodied with the melt of the river, we dragged ourselves ashore in the field. A strange, twilit world tilted weirdly all around us. The shapes of the trees and stones and hills struck the eye as distorted, but when I focused on any one object, it looked completely normal. The air was still and thick with heavy, green scents. The forest ahead was dark and hung with moss, the grass under our feet was lush and springy, and everything seemed to be blooming.
I looked to Anthy as the others stared. She seemed to be looking for something, squinting into the dim distance. Then a look of combined relief and fear flooded her face. "We must go through this land as fast as we can," she said at last. "Keep moving and keep to the path, no matter what seems to be happening. The path will wind through the woods and cross a plain on the other side. If you leave the path, I won't be able to bring you back to it, and you won't be able to leave this place."
The others nodded. My stomach tightened. I looked ahead at the path. It seemed clear enough, a well-packed dirt road.
I looked back to Anthy and saw only a tiny streak of brown and grey feathers. Behind me, the others surged forward and I had to leap ahead to keep from being knocked aside. I ducked my head and fell into the regular beat of the run.
I lifted my head after a moment to look around. Juri was pacing me, Saionji was in front of us, Miki was on Juri's heels, and Nanami had slipped behind. A small raptor - an owl? - flew just ahead of and above us.
My feet seemed to be flying along with the owl, barely touching the ground, although I could hear them thudding firmly against the dirt. My breath began to move freely, as if I weren't actually running as fast as I could. The wind rushed past my ears, streaking my hair out behind me and giving me a dizzy sensation, although I continued to run along the path without a stagger. The world blurred dreamily with the speed.
Juri flowed out of her clothing... or maybe the clothing just vanished. She ran beside me, grim and oblivious, a pale, smoothly muscled shape. I watched her from the corner of my eye, envying that un-self-conscious grace, the curve of her hips, the rippling muscles beneath her hide, the long legs reaching, the sailing stride that ate the seeming miles...
I blinked. Where Juri had been now ran a lean, beautiful, white hound with ears the color of her hair. I looked ahead and a young stag leaped and sprinted, the whites of his eyes showing. Unfortunately positioned on the path ahead of the Juri-hound, Saionji seemed to be fighting the instincts that would take him from the path. I turned my head to look behind.
A handsome white and black bird with a long tail shot past me. Dragging in the rear, Nanami stumbled along. She was exhausted, bedraggled, and naked, pale in the thin light of the wood, but kept doggedly putting one bare foot in front of the other.
Then I realized that I could see a long, pale tail streaking out behind me...
My hooves beat the ground under me, consuming the distance. I had to duck and dodge within the woods, losing strands of my streaming mane. Juri had no such problems: being smaller and more agile, she dodged between and through and under things I had to avoid completely or jump. Saionji seemed to have himself under better control and I envied him the effortless springs over forest debris. The magpie danced ahead through the branches, only brought into our line as the little owl ducked ahead and screeched a rebuke. I quickly lost sight of Nanami in the woods.
The path did wind, and wind more than I had feared it would. But I could follow the white flash of Saionji's tail and the pale streak that was Juri, trusting to their better vision in the darkness.
Eyes in the trees peered out at us suspiciously. There was a curious malevolence there - distant, though, hating for the sake of hating, not because we were a particular target.
We crossed a bridge, my hooves and Saionji's clattering heavily. The atmosphere of the forest was getting to me. I could feel panic rising in my chest and throat, lengthening my strides. Every shadow threatened, and it was all I could do to keep from veering into the woods at random.
We broke out of the trees at last into the summer twilight of a broad, grassy plain. The perfumed breeze, warm and soft, lifted my feet and let me forget the hateful dread behind. I began to outstrip Saionji, built as I was for greater endurance than he.
I suppose it was a long road. I suppose that it wound over rolling hills and down through the dales between. I felt like I was running forever. But when we reached the end of the road, a broad, flat, bare hilltop, I wanted to keep running. Somehow, though we were in the middle of a wide green land, there was nowhere else to run. Anthy suddenly stood before us and we all stopped. We milled about, Saionji, Juri, and I. Miki perched upon Anthy's extended hand.
Juri sat down and scratched her ear. I nuzzled Anthy's shoulder and nibbled on her hair. Miki preened. Saionji eyed the tall green grass that ringed the hilltop greedily. He stretched down to taste it -- Juri snarled and snapped at him, driving him back. It reminded me of Anthy's seemingly long-ago admonition not to eat here.
It should've taken longer, I think, but I wasn't really perceiving time all that well. The sound of running feet reached my ears and I turned to look...
I was filled with rage -- unreasoning, blood-searing rage. I think I screamed. I know I wheeled back toward the road and began to plunge back along it.
Anthy leaped onto my back and looped something over my head. And then... it was gone. Just gone. Anthy was on my back, holding my mane. I could see Saionji and Juri charging a shrieking Nanami, who was desperately trying to figure out how to avoid these enraged creatures without leaving the road.
Anthy cast something over Miki, who shot off her hand, and thudded my ribs with her heels. I leaped forward as fast as I could. It was clear that I couldn't catch up with Saionji and Juri in time, but we got about halfway there when I felt her weight shift. She threw something after Saionji. I couldn't see it clearly, as if it were blurry or partially invisible.
Then I saw Chu-Chu run up Saionji's back and neck to hold on for dear life between Saionji's ears. There was one long moment, as Saionji lowered his rack to impale Nanami, as Nanami shriekd and fell, covering her face with her arms. And then Chu-Chu did something...
I think he bit Saionji's ear. In any case, Saionji screamed, reared, plunged, wheeled, completely forgetting Nanami in his fury at the pest on his head. This effectively kept Juri from getting to Nanami until Miki caught up with her and flapped in her face, driving her back toward us.
In a few minutes, the flurry was over and we were all standing around, looking normal, back in our clothing, feeling out of sorts. Miki was attempting to comfort Nanami. Saionji was rubbing his ear and shooting evil looks at Chu-Chu. Chu-Chu, for his part, was sitting innocently on Anthy's shoulder, nibbling a cookie. Anthy looked relieved and pulled something from around my and Miki's necks. I peered closely.
"Hairs?" I asked, disbelievingly.
"Mine," she said simply, rolling them up and putting them in her pocket.
In the distance, I heard a horn. The call rose and fell and rose again. The eerie wails that rose after it made gooseflesh rise on my arms and the back of my head. I saw Juri's head snap around to face that direction.
"No, Arisugawa-san," Anthy said quietly.
Juri's whole body strained. One foot lifted... and she put it back down again. She turned away, and the tension drained out of her form. "I... know."
Juri took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "No. I think not."
There was a silence.
Saionji looked around restlessly and said, "Where to now?"
"We rest a bit," Anthy said, "and wait for the moon to rise."
Twilight eventually faded to full night. Weird noises drifted up our hill from time to time, and the horn call came several more times, always a little farther away. Juri sat on the ground, fists clenched, head bowed. Saionji, Miki, and Nanami spoke together quietly. I napped, curled on the grass with my head in Anthy's lap.
When the moon rose, a strangely blank white face shaped like an egg, the rays played over the countryside, transforming the landscape. Trees became arches and grand halls of pale lace. The grassy slopes were patterned grey silk, rippling in gentle breezes. Between the moon and our hilltop stretched a straight, shining road paved with tiles of silver filigree through which a bright, clean light shone.
We all rose and stared at it. Miki seemed drawn to it, gazing, rapt, up at the featureless moon.
"No," Anthy said sharply, just as Miki's foot was about to come down on the path.
He turned, tearing his eyes from his intended destination. "What?"
"That's not the road for us." Anthy swept her hand out, indicating the other side of the hill.
An equally straight road stretched out from our hilltop, but it was a path of shadow, dark and paved with rough stones. Only a hint of moonlight dusted over it, making it glow faintly around the edges of the slates.
"That?" Miki said, unbelieving.
"Yes." Anthy took my hand and stepped off the hilltop onto our road. The others followed; Miki dragged behind, looking over his shoulder until we lost sight of the moon and the moon's road.
"So, this is the road to Ohtori?" he asked, finally. "Where did the other one go?"
"Oh, they both lead to Ohtori," Anthy told him. "This is just the one we must take."
It was a long walk. Nanami was exhausted, and it took all of Saionji's efforts to propel her forward with anything like speed. Juri walked along behind me silently, responding in monosyllables if I happened to speak to her. None of us were very talkative, I suppose.
We emerged, suddenly, into watery gray light.
I inhaled sharply -- for a moment or two I thought we had gotten turned around somewhere, if such a thing were possible. It looked as though we were back in Mount Auburn Cemetery.
But the gentle rolling hills of dead grass, the leafless trees, and the tombs seemed to slope strangely upwards on all sides. If it was Mount Auburn, it was a part that I'd never seen before. Then I noticed the single word carved across the marble and iron door of the nearest tomb.
Above the word, a tiny stained-glass window depicted a rose.
I backed away from it hurriedly, glancing around. On a pediment under a weeping angel: PRINCE. And the obelisk carved with vines of some sort -- PRINCE was the only word on its pedestal. A formless panic rose up in my throat and I backed into Nanami as I turned around, trying to see in all directions.
"Sorry," I muttered.
Nanami shot me a poisonous glare. "We need to be careful," she said, only a trifle sarcastically. "The Chairman could find us at any moment."
"No," said Anthy quietly. "He prefers to forget this place."
I turned toward Juri, mouth open to ask... something, and saw that she wasn't paying attention. She was staring at Anthy, with something dangerously close to pity in her eyes. I glanced aside at Miki and Saionji, only to see them both also staring at Anthy. I turned.
Anthy's hair had come down, and hung in long tangled waves down to her knees. She stood with her arms wrapped around herself, as though she found the breeze more bitter than we did. That same gentle breeze picked up the hair around her face and delicately pulled it back.
She looked so young and sad. She looked as young as she must have back when we were at... Then the breeze flung her hair across her face and back again, and for a moment she looked terribly, terribly old, not wrinkled or worn, but old and hurtfully beautiful. Then the illusion -- if it was one -- faded, and it was familiar Anthy, still beautiful and still sad, but it didn't hurt to look at her anymore.
Anthy sighed. "We're underneath Ohtori now."
I glanced apprehensively up at the gray, distant, clouds.
"Where are we?" asked Miki tentatively, after a pause.
Anthy stared upward distractedly. "Can't you tell? This is Ohtori's foundation."
"Buried hopes," said Juri abruptly, in a low voice. Anthy turned to look at her, but Juri turned away, apparently looking towards the curiously close horizon. "We ought to move on."
Anthy sighed and ran her fingers through her hair as if she were considering braiding it again. She apparently decided against it and dropped her hands. "He won't be expecting us to enter this way," she said, "but he'll know when we enter the campus itself. Let's hope that something will distract him, at least for a while." She looked away.
I walked over and hesitantly took her hand. Anthy smiled.
"Let's go," said Saionji.
We're such a pack of selfish children (snarled Juri). Every day, I deal with people who are lost, people who are poor, people who are homeless, people who are insane, people who are sick, people who are devastated, or people who are dead. The real world is pain and fear and madness and death. And here we are, bemoaning the fact that we were, for a few months of our young, rich, privileged, pampered lives, the pawns of something that enjoyed twisting our emotions like knives for its own pleasure. A few months, Utena. How does it cause such scars? Why do I still wallow in self-pity over it sometimes? It can't compare with the pain of the woman who has just seen her husband of forty years stabbed to death before her eyes, or the mother whose child has been stolen, or the children whose bodies are sold and sold and sold...
Yes, I understand Himemiya's pain. I understand how terrifying it must be to be used, hunted, stalked. But why am I so frightened? Why am I so self-absorbed? What can he possibly do to me that has me this paralyzed?
And then I think, What if he offers me the power of miracles again?
@---Go on to Part Nine---@