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TechElf88: hey Mareo.

DarkHkrReo: ohayo, Sen! still grounded?

TechElf88: if I was grounded, would I be online?

DarkHkrReo: lol. course you would.

TechElf88: true. no, not grounded.

DarkHkrReo: makes things easier, ne?

“Sen! Are you still on the computer?”

Long, silver-skinned fingers stilled their rapid tapping on the keys of a compact laptop, and their elven owner grimaced in irritation. “I haven’t been on long, Kentaro.”

“Long enough. We agreed that you’d go outside for as long as you were on the computer. Spirits know you need the exercise!”

Vividly purple eyes glared up at the tall raven-haired elf. “We agreed on nothing,” Sen spat, ignoring the white-blonde hair that fell across his fine-boned face with the quick, angry motion of his head. “You ordered. I had no choice in the matter, Kentaro.”

“You will speak to me with respect,” Kentaro said between clenched teeth, green eyes flashing angrily. “I am your father-“

“You’d be my stepfather, if Sumi were my mother,” the younger elf corrected. “But she’s not. I have no father, and I have no mother.”

That blow hit its mark, Sen saw with satisfaction as the older elf flinched minutely. But Kentaro’s anger filled his face once more, chasing off any sign of Sen’s minor victory. “If your mother heard that, she’d be very hurt,” he growled, voice low so as not to reach the ears of the elven woman in the other room.

“No,” Sen replied quietly. “She’d only be hurt if her little angel Takara said that.” His words held a sardonic, bitter edge, one that made Kentaro furious almost to the point of speechlessness.

“If it weren’t for her, you’d be dead now!” he hissed.

Sen laughed harshly at that, purple eyes sparking an insolent challenge. “Really, Kentaro? Likely I’d still be wandering the streets, or picked up by an orphanage.”

“And who’d teach you magic then?” Scorn was thick in the older elf’s tone, scorn and perhaps a note of jealousy.

He shrugged thin shoulders carelessly. “Wouldn’t be hard for a Spiritmage to find me.” Purple eyes narrowed speculatively, fixed on Kentaro’s face to judge his reaction. “I’ve a pretty strong magical talent, after all, and most mages can sense that.”

Sen’s adoptive stepfather’s face turned a very satisfactory shade of purple-red. “Why, you… you-“ He was too angry to finish his sentence, spluttering in fury.

“Ken… Sen… Are you two fighting again?”

Both elves turned to the soft-voiced woman who had just entered the room. She looked from face to sheepish face, disappointment a shadow in her silver-blue eyes. “I thought you were going to try and stop arguing so much.”

Sen turned away from his adoptive mother with a slow, deliberate movement, as insulting as a slap in the face. He glanced quickly at the pale glow of his laptop’s screen, where Mareo was waiting for him to reply. Slender elven fingers danced across the keyboard, typing out a rapid note.

TechElf88: Kentaro’s snarling again. can I go over there after he kicks me off?

DarkHkrReo: sure

TechElf88: ja ne then

DarkHkrReo: matta ne

“Don’t worry, Sumi-chan,” Kentaro said to his wife in a gentle tone, completely different now that the elven mage was in the room. “Sen and I were just reaching an… understanding.” He turned to the younger elf, green eyes sparking with thinly veiled anger. “You’ve had enough time on the computer. Go outside, get some fresh air and exercise.” He gripped Sen’s shoulder with a hand that was surprisingly strong for its slender appearance. Kentaro adopted a falsely fatherly tone for Sumi’s benefit, but his hand clenched tight in a silent warning. “It’s good for you, after all.”

“Of course,” Sen agreed, but his eyes glittered dangerously. With deliberate care, he closed his laptop and disconnected it from the phone jack, and then smoothed his loose hunter-green shirtsleeve, a gesture reminiscent of brushing unwanted dust from superior cloth. The insult wasn’t lost on his stepfather, who might have let his temper out of control all over again if it weren’t for the entrance of a three-year-old girl, blue eyes wide beneath a shock of black hair highlighted with the same red of her mother’s silky locks.

“Give Taka-chan hugs?” she asked plaintively, reaching out arms thin for a human toddler, yet fat for an elven one.

Sumi bent down immediately, cooing to the child with utmost affection. “Oh, is my little angel feeling left out?” she gushed, sweeping Takara up into a tight embrace.

“Heehee! Otoo-chan, swing Taka! Swing!” the little girl commanded her father with a smile and a giggle. Kentaro responded with a laugh of his own, grasping his daughter by the arms and whirling her in a circle.

Sen watched this idyllic scene with his lip curled in disgust and his eyes smoldering with an angry jealousy. When Takara was finally set on the ground, angular elven face glowing with excitement and laughing the carefree laugh of a child, she was met with glowering purple eyes filled with something very close to hatred. But the elven child was not easily intimidated, and never into silence. She toddled up slowly to Sen and gazed up at him with wide blue eyes.

“Sen give Taka-chan hug?” she asked in a small, pleading voice.

He stared down at his sister, lip curled slightly with the cold disdain that came so easily to his race, his gaze still holding that near- hatred. Sen pushed past her, not saying a word, and walked with all the casual grace of his species to the door. Kentaro’s voice rang out sharply behind him.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded.

“Outside. Like you told me to.”

Sen wasn’t facing his adoptive stepfather, but he knew the elf’s expression from long experience: veins bulging, eyes flashing, brows low and angry. “Your sister asked you a question,” Kentaro snapped. “Aren’t you going to answer her?”

A silver-skinned hand clenched into a tight fist, nails digging crescents into a bony palm. “She is not my sister,” he said quietly, voice tight with fury.

The door slammed behind him, rattling the windows. He paused on the porch for one long moment, hands clenched by his sides, muscles tensed. Tapered ears caught the infuriated yells of his stepfather, and he sneered in disgust. Let Kentaro yell all he wanted. It served no purpose but to make him hoarse and to show his weak unrestraint.

Sen’s vividly purple gaze roamed over the busy neighborhood. It was just outside of the actual city of Shukumei, but it could not be truly called suburban. The houses were all alike, differing only in color and by the plants in each tiny yard. Hybrid cars buzzed by the cookie-cutter buildings, none noticing the tall, ethereal elf on the screened-in porch of one such hunter-green house.

An insane impulse tugged at Sen’s mind, one he experienced every day. It was the crazy desire to go out into the world unconcealed by illusion, receiving stares from startled humans and seeing the thoughts in their unshielded minds that he was an alien or that they were hallucinating. But good sense won out, and he clipped a single silver earring to his left ear, smirking again as he did so. His stepfather hated his choice of an earring as an illusion fixture. It was a style used by humans, not elves, and thus undignified for an elf to wear.

Sen tapped his foot on the wooden floor, waiting impatiently for the illusion to settle. Tapered ears faded into human ones, concealed by long, platinum-blonde hair. His purple eyes changed to slightly less unusual violet, and his fine-boned face grew more human in structure, less angularly elven. Silver skin warmed to merely pale, and finally a human stood where an elf had been moments before. A remarkably thin, fine-boned human with strange hair and eyes, to be sure, but a human nonetheless.

His illusion complete, Sen flicked his silver looped earring with one long, thin finger and stepped off of the porch with the fluid grace that came naturally to all elves. He pulled a hair tie out of his jeans pocket and quickly tied back his long hair, heading for where his bike rested against the garage.

It was only minutes later that Sen braked his bicycle in front of a towering series of apartments in an area much more urban than his own neighborhood. Gears rattled as he walked his bike to the stand, shoved it in unceremoniously, and secured it with a clatter of chain on metal. He knew the apartment building like it was his own house, navigating the numbered hallways with practiced ease. It was oppressively silent, as most of its occupants were either asleep or at work. The carpeted halls were empty, and the typical ring of elevators reaching their destination was conspicuously absent.

The one sound in the entire hall, that of Sen’s footsteps, ended abruptly as the elf paused before a door numbered 212. He didn’t need to knock; Mareo was expecting him, and was accustomed to the seventeen-year- old walking in at any time unannounced. The door creaked on its hinges and clicked shut behind him. The pad of light elven feet on stiff navy carpet began again as Sen walked quietly to his friend’s room. Sitting amidst the mess of crumpled clothes and discarded paper was a thin, bespectacled teenager, dark brown eyes fixed on his computer screen, hands tapping rapidly on the worn keys. The extra wires and appliances that cluttered the desk told that the auburn-haired hacker was doing more than just surfing the web.

“Whatcha hackin’ this time?” the elf asked curiously, unconsciously slipping into the less cultured accent of most humans.

“Anti-hacker site,” Mareo replied with his usual mischievous grin. “‘Bout done, though.”

A minute passed, silence interrupted only by the tapping of fingers on a keyboard and the clicking of a cordless mouse. Finally the hacker stretched, wrists and thumbs crackling, and flicked off his computer. The room seemed suddenly silent without the steady mechanical hum filling the air.

“So y’wanna play Gamestation?” Mareo asked, judging his friend’s mood correctly.

Sen nodded agreement, flicking on the game console and TV, then picking up a controller. The human flung himself into a beanbag chair and scooped up the other controller, pressing buttons impatiently as the start- up screen and titles rolled by. “I’ll be Taro,” Mareo announced, picking the hulking character on the screen whose name resembled that of Sen’s stepfather.

The elf grinned viciously, selecting the lithe yet powerfully built character named Noru. Sen pressed START and the battle began, both characters hammering away at each other on the television screen. The only sound in the dimly lit room was that of the video game and the fierce tapping of buttons. Noru wielded a katana, the long curved sword inflicting major damage on the bigger, slower Taro. Yet Taro’s strength was as deadly as the other’s speed, and his long, weighty chain-weapon snaked out at every opportunity to try and wrap about Noru’s legs.

Speed won out, though, and the first round went to Sen. He glanced over at Mareo with a smirk. “Y’sure you wanted t’play Taro the Baka?”

The slim human laughed, nodding towards Namu’s low health meter. “I’m just warming up, shrimp!” he taunted, grinning as he pressed START. The second round began with a whirl of chain.

Mareo was determined to win this time, pressing button combinations with a vengeance. His character attacked relentlessly, not giving the faster Namu a chance to use his most effective strategy of striking and retreating with lightening speed. Taro hammered away mercilessly, bashing away at Namu’s defensive stance, driving him to the edge of the battle platform and finally off of it. End of round two.

The hacker leaned back in his chair with a satisfied smirk. “And that’s how ya win a battle!”

Sen watched Taro’s victory dance in disgust. “That was a cheap win,” he said flatly.

Mareo shrugged. “Hey, all’s fair…”

Abruptly he fell silent, earning a sharp glance from Sen. “What’s wrong?” he asked, seeing the strange expression on his friend’s face. The human had frozen in mid-sentence, completely immobile, mouth open to form another word but not moving beyond that point. Perplexed, Sen poked Mareo’s arm- and yelped in surprise. The hacker’s arm felt as if it has been turned to stone! He tried poking the beanbag chair, and found the same strange phenomenon had occurred to it as well. “Nani…?” The elf began poking everything insight, rising from the carpet and trying to move something- anything.

He tripped over some object and whirled, cursing. His voice fell silent, however, as his violet gaze fell on the wire of his controller. It hung, frozen, in mid-air. Sen stared, astonished, and then cautiously kicked the cord. It felt as if he’d just struck a steel pole, and the wire didn’t even budge. “Something very strange is going on here…” the elf murmured, eyes traveling slowly about the room as the back of his neck prickled with the eerie sensation of being watched by some too-intent gaze.

He whirled suddenly, sensing a spirit behind him, and summoned Spirit magic in one swift act, forming mental thought and emotion into a deadly spear. All this took less than an instant, and then he mentally fired the “bolt” of Spirit at the intruder. The energy shattered against the other’s psyche, the repercussions of interrupted magic cascading back to Sen, taking him by surprise and crashing against his own mind and emotions with terrible force.

Sen was still gasping, bent over double, when cold steel turned icy with an innate magic such as the elf had never felt in all his life touched the hollow of his throat. “A bit reactive, are we?” The voice was a baritone rumble, thick with undeniable power, yet amused at the elf’s ineffective attack.

The blade tilted Sen’s head upwards so that he was forced to look down its deadly curving length at the being that held it. The person before him, if a person he was, towered over even the tall elf. A mane of foam-white hair interspersed with strands of blue and sea-green tumbled down his back, stirred by the presence of an ocean breeze that carried the scent of salt to Sen’s keen nose. He wore a sea-green kimono of some ancient style, one that a samurai might wear, complete with a white-trimmed jacket, wide white obi, and dark blue hakama pants. Dark blue, white- trimmed arm guards decorated with gold dragon inlays forced his wide sleeves to close unencumbering about his lower arms. Tucked inside his obi was a daisho – one long katana alongside the shorter wakizashi, although the katana itself was now unsheathed and at Sen’s throat.

Violet eyes flicked upwards from the wicked gleam of the silver-blue blade to the wielder’s face. It was a sharply chiseled visage that spoke of strength and power and cold decisiveness. Yet somehow Sen could not meet this being’s eyes. His gaze would avoid them, twisting aside at the last minute to look instead at something else – anything else. It took a supreme force of will to meet the stranger’s gaze, and what he saw immobilized him.

The eyes were the windows to the soul, or so the saying went, and Sen knew that it was true. One trained in Spirit magic could examine another’s thoughts and emotions and spirit through that one’s eyes. But this being was no mere mortal, and the glimpse he allowed the elf of his inner self was overwhelming. This was a being of stars and sea, unknowable, incomprehensible. He wielded awesome power- he was power- the power of the wild ocean, the power of the celestial bodies… the powers of the universe. That power threatened to engulf Sen’s lesser spirit in its powerful current, drag him under, and destroy him.

He tore his eyes away forcefully, desperately, falling backwards as he did so. The katana tip never left his throat, yet never pierced silver- pale skin. Sen came away with the impression of eyes that never held a single hue for more than a second, shifting color constantly. “Who… what are you?” the elf whispered, eyes fixed on the gleaming blade a hair’s width from his throat.

“My name is Hoshikami Ryu,” the being said calmly. “I am the dragon- god of the north, known to mortals as Ryu.” There was almost a sneer in his voice as he said “mortals,” disdain and condescension and amusement all in that one word.

Sen nodded slowly before the cold shock of steel beneath his chin choked off that motion. He didn’t doubt the truth of the stranger’s claim. The glimpse of Ryu’s spirit was enough to make him believe that the intruder was a god, or very close to one. “Is the sword really necessary?” the elf asked at last, forcing words past the fear that clenched his throat.

The dragon-god looked as if he’d forgotten about the blade he held, although it continued to follow Sen’s every move. He stared at it in slight surprise, and then sheathed the katana in one easy motion. The rasp of steel sliding into the scabbard sent chills up the elf’s spin, the sound itself a traditional predecessor to death. “She’s mischievous,” Ryu said with a shrug. “Ginleiko has a mind of her own at times.”

“She?” the elf echoed, confused.

“The katana,” was the reply, casual and amused, even surprised. “Surely even you could sense that she is no ordinary blade?”

“I sensed power…” He rubbed his throat as the memory flicked across his mind of the silver-blue edge against his skin, and power unlike any he’d ever felt pulsing across the blade. “But you speak as if it… she… the sword is a thinking being.”

Ryu laughed, a sound like the roar of storm-tossed waves crashing on half-submerged rocks. “And why not, sennyu? A mortal-forged blade in the hands of one such as I would last for but one kata, if that.”

Sen froze at the use of the word sennyu. “Sennyu… elf… How did you know-“ He stopped, feeling for a brief moment as foolish as the dragon-god seemed to think he was.

The powerful immortal ignored his faltering words, instead continuing to speak. “What do you know of the Prophecy of the Ancients’ Return?” he asked.

Now it was the elf’s turn to laugh. “I know it’s a load of-“ He broke off mid-sentence once more, violet eyes widening in sudden realization. “’The day the Dragon ascends from the sea…’ You mean it’s true?”

“Brilliant deduction,” Ryu commented dryly. “Now perhaps your little mortal mind can make a few more.”

He disregarded the condescending tone of the dragon-god’s words, instead working methodically through the information he had to draw astonishing conclusions. “The first thing you’d probably do would be to seek out the Ryuko… and you’ve come to me, an elf, a sennyu…” Shock coursed through him like a wave of electricity. “I’m the Ryuko Sennyu?”

The dragon seemed almost surprised at Sen’s quick conclusions. “Better than I’d have thought for an elf.” Ever-changing eyes watched the mortal carefully, scrutinizing him more closely than before. “You don’t agree with the purposes of the Ryuko?”

Sen grinned viciously, thinking of his family. “My adoptive family all favor the Kouko. I can just imagine what would happen if they found out that I was the Ryuko Gatherer!” He laughed softly, harshly. “If it goes against my family, I’m all for it, Ryu-sama.”

Ryu studied the elf for several long moments, and then nodded decisively. “Very well,” he said, condescension and disdain banished from his voice. “I think you’ll do just fine, Murasuzu Sen. Your task is to find all of the Ryuko- the Dragon, the Centaur, the Unicorn, the Gryphon, and the Human. You’ll know each of them in your… spirit,” he added, with a curious emphasis on the last word. “I can tell you no more than that.”

“Why not?” Sen asked, his curiosity piqued. “You’re a god, aren’t you?”

“Hai,” the dragon-god replied, nodding as he spoke the affirmative, “but there are always beings that are more powerful than the last, as there are always less powerful ones. You are a god to a dog, who is a god to a mouse, and so on.”

“I… see,” he said slowly, not sure he liked being compared to a dog. He tilted his head to look up at the tall god, his normal irreverent attitude beginning to return. “So why should I go along with all of this?”

Those eerie eyes shifted to darkest black, glittering dangerously. “If the Kouko succeed, all the ancient races that have been locked into human bodies will return to their true forms. There are mixed marriages everywhere- dragon and human, centaur and gryphon, unicorn and human. The sudden change will cause more than a few problems for the mixed families. How can a water-dwelling dragon live with, much less reproduce with, a land- dwelling human? Families will be split, worse than ever before.”

“Or if you don’t care about families, think of your own life,” Ryu continued. “There will most certainly be war. People will panic and try to kill these monsters in their midst. The ever-curious humans will want to experiment with magic and the ancient races. Atrocities such as have never been seen in all history will be committed. Even if you remain cloaked in illusion, posing as a human, there will surely be those of the ancient races who would see you as a threat and attack you. And how will you fare in a world of chaos?”

“How do you know this will happen?” Sen asked, although he was shaken by the grim vision of the future that the dragon-god painted. “Doesn’t the last verse of the Prophecy of the Ryuko say, ‘Be sure your cause is right, lest the races fall, or oppression cover Earth darkness eternal’?”

“I believe it is what will happen if Kou gains the victory,” Ryu said, eyes narrowed in quiet anger as he spoke the Phoenix’s name. “Logic tells me this, as does instinct. You will have to decide which you believe.” He touched one hand to his katana’s hilt in farewell. “It is your decision, Murasuzu Sen. Take care in what you choose to do. Your world depends on it.” With that last, power swirled about him as the liquid blue of ocean waves, a storm raging about a man who no longer held the shape of a man but that of an oriental dragon, fangs gleaming white as his jaws opened in a thunderous roar that vibrated in Sen’s very bones.

And then he was gone, and the elf was sitting on the floor with the Gamestation controller in his hands as time once again resumed its normal flow.

“…in love and war,” Mareo said, completing his earlier sentence, one that felt to Sen as if it had begun an age ago. The human pressed the START button, and the two figures on the screen began the third dance of death. Sen pushed aside the thoughts that clamored for attention, forcing his mind to the game with a savage will.

The agile Namu attacked with all the swift agility that was the lithe character’s main strength. The katana flashed as it spun with mesmerizing speed, its wielder darting in for a health-draining slice, then out before the slower Taro could bring his formidable strength to bear. Mareo’s character’s health meter steadily fell, and then the round ended. Victory for Sen.

Sen glanced at the clock that blinked red on his friend’s nightstand. “I’d better get back,” he said, as Mareo threw down his controller in disgust.

The hacker looked at him curiously, not without some surprise. “But you just got here!”

The elf’s head began to throb as he realized that the seemingly long encounter with Ryu had not happened at all for his human friend. Time paradoxes were so confusing… “Er, I just remembered something I had to do,” he said quickly, unconvincingly. “Besides, my dad will get suspicious if it seems like I’m obeying him too much.” He grinned insolently. “More the fool him, ne?”

Mareo shrugged, not really convinced but conceding the point. “All right then. See you later.”

“Ja ne.” Sen walked quickly out of the apartment, hurrying to his house as fast as his legs would pedal.

Dusk found the elf in downtown Shukumei, tired and somewhat irritated. He wore a backpack the same black shade as the laptop within it, snatched quickly from his house in the five minutes it took to duck in, grab his laptop, backpack, and his family’s copy of Shinwa Shiranai, and hurry back outside.

He made eye contact with every person he passed, searching their spirits for some sign that they were of the Ryuko. Yet he found nothing… The elf was certain that Ryu had been alluding to Spirit magic when he said “you’ll know each of them in your spirit.” But it wasn’t working, not that Sen could tell. He’d searched almost all of Shukumei by now and found absolutely nothing.

He braked his bike next to a spluttering street light, giving barely enough light to read by in the dimly lit alley. Paper rustled as he took out a map of the city and examined it carefully, trying hard to read it by the unsteady light. This section of the city made him uneasy, especially as the sun sank low on the horizon, and he wanted to get out of there as fast as he could before the less savory occupants of Shukumei began to work the streets.

The map stilled in his hands as cold steel pricked his throat for the second time that day, a sharp edge close against his skin. A voice that held a similar amusement as Ryu’s chilled his blood with its cold humor, murmuring almost inaudibly into his ear. “Now what have we here?”

------
Music: A complex series of sounds written onto paper by the composer, misinterpreted by the conductor, who is ignored by the musicians, the end result of which is abhorred by the audience.


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