Foreword: The author of this fic is Louise, a most excellent writer. ^_^ I wrote 'Rune Master' and 'The Next Level', which she felt deserved a prequel. Since I was a little busy to seriously consider writing one, I asked if she would be so kind. And so, here it is, the prequel to 'Rune Master'... 'More Than Bargained For'! Enjoy!
Events are dealt.
For a moment life seemed just the same as it had always been.
For a moment.
Koushiro was waiting for me in the park half way between our houses. His hair was spiked untidily, he'd probably spent one moment too long answering e-mail this morning, and had not had time to organise it properly--I grinned as I caught up with him.
"Taichi--" he blinked at me, face suddenly going serious. "Wow. You look . . . older."
I felt uncomfortable. "I am older than you, you know."
"I know. But this," Koushiro's face stayed grave. "I suppose I wasn't expecting this."
"I know," I said softly. "I mean, I knew that I'd be starting High school, but I never thought it would actually happen . . . "
Without needing to say anything more the two of us turn and start walking to the bus stop that will take us to school. Koushiro keeps stealing glances at me as we walk, and doesn't say anything. I sigh.
"I don't think I've ever seen you clothed in a shirt before," he admits.
"I feel like I'm being choked," I admit. "And this blazer!"
"It's very smart," Koushiro says without a trace of humour in his voice.
Of course I would be walking to school with the one person in Odaiba who probably likes uniforms--unless, Jyou does. It would figure he would.
We're passing a department store. In the glass I catch a glimpse of myself--it doesn't look at all like me, I know. Well, that's easily fixed--
"Wait up a minute."
Koushiro watches as I dump my bag and re-arrange my shirt and blazer to my satisfaction.
My friend hides a smile. "I have to confess, you do appear more like your usual self."
"Now to get rid of these shoes--" I look at them. My mother refused to let me wear my sneakers, instead making me wear these wretched things--uncomfortable is not strong enough to describe them. "I wonder if there's a rune for making shoes fall apart?"
"Sssh!" Koushiro grabs my hand. "Do you want people to hear you?"
I look around. "Koushiro, no one is listening to us. Even if they were, they wouldn't pay that much attention." I leant closer to him and whispered. "Do you really think anyone would believe that we could do magic?"
He stared at our reflections in the mirror. A short, serious boy, his taller, rather skinny friend. You'd never believe I was a rune master, and he an element adept--or that it had been seven months since we'd found our manuals together. Of course, that wasn't so great a surprise. I mean, Koushiro and I had been friends for ages, most of lives in fact. We went to kindergarten together, primary school and intermediate together, and when I wasn't playing soccer and he wasn't downloading, we hung out together--so naturally we'd discover magic and go on our trial together. We almost got killed together too, but hey, they have to make the trials hard, otherwise they wouldn't be trials, would they?
And now . . .
I was going off to High school on my own.
"It's going to be so weird--" I said.
"I don't know who I'll sit next to at lunch."
"You'll find someone," I said.
"Me, hah. You're the one with friends."
"You've got friends. Unfortunately, they just don't go to our school," I said. "What about Wallace and Jyou and that?"
Koushiro smiled. "Still, I'll miss you."
"Yeah. It'll be strange having to find my way around another school--and I'll have new teachers."
"That might be a good thing," Koushiro said cautiously.
We'd reached the bus stop. He'd be catching a bus here while I walked on down the street to the train station. "I guess this is it," I said. "Meet you after school."
"Yeah," Koushiro looked around. "Have you looked at the listing at the back of your rune book?"
"Every morning. We're still the same. I'm a novice, you're level one--"
"But Jyou's gone up. He's now a--" Koushiro broke off as some kids approached us. "See you after school, Tai."
High school was even scarier than I thought. Everyone was so . . . tall.
And there were so many of them.
Of course this was nothing compared to, I don't know, fighting dragons, and other rune stuff, but by the end of the third period I found myself thinking wistfully of the zweptarg that had almost decapitated me. That I could deal with.
Of course there were people in my class that I knew. The guys on my soccer team, others of my old school friends. Of course none of them were in my homeroom.
I wondered how Koushiro was doing.
There had to be some way I could use runes to talk to him, short of actually bonding of course but--
The bell rang for lunch.
The cafeteria was not hard to find--I shook my head at the vast amount of students filing into it. How on earth was I supposed to find people I knew to sit with in that?
Actually, scrub that. Just finding a place to eat would be accomplishment enough.
I joined the food queue, curious to see if high school food was any better than grade school--nachos. That was promising. I loaded a tray then headed to the seats. Where to sit? I hesitated looking around at all the other students, all in the same green uniform. It was a little daunting to tell the truth--
"Are you just going to stand there kid?"
I was now aware that a queue had started to form behind me and sat down at the closest free space. The occupants of the table gave me a brief stare then returned to their conversation. I began to eat, slowly.
I hated high school.
Let's see. Only three hours and fifteen minutes until it would be over--
"So Leon, you want to go down the back field after? I can show you all what I learned at soccer camp."
"Why are you looking at me? You don't need my permission."
"He needs your ball, stupid."
"My ball? What's wrong with yours?"
"I didn't bring it."
"Well, I left mine at home."
"You didn't! Idiot, what did you do that for?"
"I thought you were bringing yours!"
"Well, now what do we do?"
"Um," I said. They all looked at me. "I have a soccer ball."
The boy closest to me frowned. "Are you any good?"
"Nah," I said. "In fact, I don't play soccer at all. I just brought my ball because itís a great conversation starter."
He snickered. "What's your name anyway?"
The soccer players and I got a good game going. My friends from my old team joined in and it was a really good game. Then one of the senior students came over and asked if we'd considered trying out for the school teams, and told us where to go to do that. Turned out he was the Captain of the A-team. Koushiro smiled as I enthusiastically detailed my day.
"So High school was not all bad then?"
"No, not all Bad," I said. "How was your day?"
"Okay. I'm going to run for president of the computer club, and there's a new student who has a--well, the technical term wouldn't mean anything to you--"
"Let's just say a really big computer and leave it at that," I said.
"I also have another element adept in my class. You know Mimi Tachikawa?"
"Yeah--wait you mean Mimi? Mimi?"
"Mimi? How on earth did she survive her trial?"
"Apparently she has depths we never imagined. I've been talking to her and she's surprisingly comprehensible--Tai?"
"Did you hear that?"
"It sounded like Hikari--she was screaming."
"You didn't hear her? She's in trouble!"
"Taichi, there's nothing to hear--"
"I've got to go!" I said urgently, running in the direction I thought the sound had come from. To be truthful, I wasn't even sure I'd heard it. The tone of her voice though--panicked, hurt--meant I couldn't ignore it.
There was a park that we sometimes played in. I almost ran by it but a flash of pink caught my eye. Hikari's scarf. "Hikari!"
She was lying on the field, next to a blond boy. Standing over both of them was the scariest thing I'd even seen.
She was a woman, at least part of her was. The rest was scaled and wound around my sister and the boy like the coils of a snake--she looked half snake if that was possible. There was a greenish tint to her arms, I saw as she leaned closer, pulling my sister towards her--
"Let go of her!" I demanded, shaking myself out of my trance--since when had I become frozen to the spot?
She hissed, making my neck prickle. "Are you going to stop me, child?"
"Darn right I am! That's my sister you've got there!"
She looked down at Hikari with a trace of a smile. "I must beg to differ. This is now merely my next meal."
I was so horrified I forgot how to act for the next few minutes.
She laughed cooly at my inaction. "So you've decided not to dispute me? A wise decision."
"For your information, I'm not wise!" I said angrily. I traced the runes I wanted without even having to think about them--"Take that--"
"Oh come now, you donít' really expect me to think you're going to use that on me? Why, I've got your precious sister here with me."
Damm, she was right. "If you so much as look at her the wrong way I'm releasing these runes, and I mean that," I told her.
"A stand off then? Interesting--" she purred.
I tried to concentrate. I knew there had to be a rune for 'sister' I could use to direct the flame away from Hikari but I couldn't remember it--I had to get to my book, but I couldn't do that without taking my eyes off that thing--
"But I'm afraid I don't do stand off's."
I started at that only to get whacked full in the face by her tail.
"Ow!" I thudded into the ground, landing uncomfortably on my school bag. That was the least of my worries--I had to wriggle fast to escape the heavy coils of her tail. Her tail caught my foot and I toppled over.
"Let me go!"
"Oh, come now, do you really think that's going to work?" She hissed. "Now stop wriggling."
She punctuated that by slamming me hard into the ground.
Lucky I'd been playing soccer so long. I knew how to take a fall--it still winded me a moment. The thing took advantage of that to sit on my chest.
I squinted up at it. It looked like it was making runes--
I looked around. The field was empty of anything that might help me. If only I had Koushiro, we could have used a rune/element combination. As it was, not knowing the runes to direct anything at the snake thing I was stuck--
Wait a minute--I did know 'snake'--
I didn't wait to think it through. She was getting close enough to use her own runes--it was quite a complicated formula-- still mine was short and sweet. Snake + flame+ my own symbol to give it power and--
It was her turn to scream.
I got tossed aside as her whole body contorted.
"Take that!" I yelled, letting my pain fuel the runes further.
She glared at me.
"You haven't won. I still have your sister, pest!"
Damm. I suppose the runes could only affect the snake part of her--it wouldn't take her long to break it either. I looked for my book. I had to find something to stop her quickly--
"Yamato, wait! Oh my--what is that thing?"
I had company--and magical company by the sound of it, if they could see the creature.
"You--" I was picked up by my collar. "What is that thing, and what has it done to my little brother?"
I got the impression of angry blue eyes. I couldn't be sure. I was too busy trying to breathe. "I don't know but we've got to stop it quickly before it breaks my runes."
"Yamato, I think that thing can use magic," the girl said uncertainly. "You have to do something!"
"Too late!" our opponent hissed. "Take that meddlers!"
Green tendrils wrapped around us, pulling us to the ground. I struggled against them but they were thick and slimy, impossible to get a hold of.
On the plus side, I wasn't being choked. On the down side . . . "I can't move my hands!"
"Neither can I--Yama-chan, we can't use the runes. Summon the elements!"
"I can't--" the guy who a few moments earlier was trying to strangle me said, sounding as if he was being strangled himself. "Not with this stuff on me. It's polluting everything I try and touch--"
"We can't give up!" I said. "There has to be someway to get out of here and save them!"
The snake woman just hissed at us mockingly, settling down with Hikari and the boy again. She began to trace the same elaborate runes. I frowned at them. Something there could possibly help us--
"Taichi, I leave you alone for a moment and what happens" said an exasperated voice from my side.
"Koushiro! Dude--this is not time to develop a sense of humour! Hikari's in danger! That thing wants to eat her!"
"Hikari?" Koushiro looked over towards the creature and gulped. "What is that?"
"Get us out of here, quickly!"
Of all the stupid questions . . . "You're the element adept, not me!"
"You're an element adept?" The boy by me wriggled so he could see Koushiro. "Use water--I think it will melt this stuff."
"There's no water in park--" Koushiro was beginning to sound panicky.
"So? Get some--use the clouds. Compress them or something--" I snapped.
"Taichi--that's brilliant! I'll have to ask you how you thought of that later--" Koushiro shut his eyes and a few seconds later we were pelted with rain.
"Way to go, Kou-kun!" I said, scrambling upright.
"Thank-you," he said. "Not bad for my first attempt at rain--"
"Keep it going," the element adept said. "She doesn't seem to like the water."
She didn't, she was hissing, trying ineffectually to stop the rain from washing away her half formed runes--
I grinned. "Anyone else thinking we turn on the hose?"
The other rune master traced the symbol for water in the air. "Hurry Yama-chan, lend me your power."
"Don't! Hikari and that kid are in the way--" I stepped in front of them. "Unless you shield them out of it, you'll hurt them!"
"He's right--Jun, do you have the runes to do that?"
"I left my manual at home--"
"I've got mine--" I pulled it out. "Let's see--" I traced the shield, sister and boy runes then sealed them with the enchantment that meant 'from'. I then drew the water rune over top of it--"and done!"
"Great--" I was surprised when the element adept took my hand. "Enable them, now!"
I'd never worked with anyone not Koushiro--I shook that thought out of my head and concentrated on wet thoughts. Water . . .
And suddenly water was everywhere.
I felt this enormous surge of power and Yamato yelled--the water surged round and in a huge wave crashed down on the snake woman, slamming her away from Hikari and the boy. It was so strong it took her all the way across the field.
I just stared.
Did we do that?
"I'll show you what happens to people who mess with my brother!" Yamato yelled, letting go off my hand to run after her, pulling the remaining water with him. I stared after him. What had just happened?
"Taichi? Tai-kun?" Koushiro tugged at my sleeve. "Are you all right?"
"I don't know, I--Hikari!" I ran to my sister. "Hikari?"
Her skin was cold, clammy. She didn't respond--"Hikari? Kari--"
"Taichi, its likely that . . . thing placed some sort of rune on them to disable them--"
"Good thinking." I flipped my manual open until I found the rune for display. Sure enough a muted green symbol indicated that a fairly simple sleep spell had been placed on both children. 'Restore' was easily applied.
She groaned, and her eyes slowly fluttered open. "Taichi?"
"Shush," I wrapped her in a hug. "It's okay."
She dissolved into tears.
"Shush," I soothed, rubbing her back. "It's all right."
"Are you injured in any way?" Koushiro asked. I looked up to see him assisting the blond boy into a sitting position.
"I don't know. I don't think so." The boy's eyes turned anxiously toward my sister. "Hikari--are you okay?"
"She's fine," I told him.
"It was the weirdest thing that ever happened. You might laugh, but it was like I was trapped in this nightmare--nothing made sense. There was this awful women only she wasn't and we couldn't get away from her--"
There was a slight waver in his voice. I recognised it.
I reached across and put a hand on his shoulder. "She's gone. You don't have to worry. We'll take care of it."
He blinked at me a minute then with a sob, sort of fell on my shoulder. I now had two people crying on me. I looked at Koushiro.
He shrugged. "Mind if I take a look through your manual?"
I calmed down the two kids, as he flipped through the book. As we finished the other two rejoined us.
"It got away--how are they?" the girl--Jun--asked.
"They appear shaken but unhurt," Koushrio reported.
I was aware the other boy was watching me. I couldn't read his expression. "Takeru?"
"Yamato!" The boy dislodged himself and ran to the taller blond. Obviously brothers--"I was so scared--I called to you--"
"I called you Tai," Hikari said from where she leant against my neck. "And you came. How did you know?"
"I--uh--" It was there on the manual, the initiation ritual--up there with promising to use our powers for good--do not tell anyone about this!
"I think they should know," Koushiro said, closing my manual.
"Not a chance," Yamato said. "Come on Takeru, let's get you home."
"Um, our home is closer," I said. "On the other side of the park. We can get these two lying down, then we can discuss what we're going to do."
"All right," Koushiro said. "I'll stop by my place and get my computer. I think we're going to need it."
"What makes you two think we need to discuss anything at all?" Yamato said.
I frowned, looking at Hikari and Takeru. "She's gone," I admitted. "But we don't know where, or if she'll be back."
"We don't even know what she was," Koushiro said softly. "She's not in the manual."
Yamato swore. "This just gets better and better, doesn't it?"
I helped Hikari up.
"Thanks Tai--I think I can walk," she said. "Mum's going to have a fit when she sees your uniform."
I looked down at it. It definetly looked like one of mine now--
"Don't worry," Jun said. "I know a rune for getting dirt off things."
"Aren't we only allowed to use our powers for serious things?" Yamato said.
"Please. Cleaning up after my brother's been to a soccer practice is a serious business."
Something clicked in my mind. "You're not Motomiya Jun by any chance? Daisuke's sister?"
"Oh, you're that Taichi."
"You know each other?" Yamato did not sound pleased.
"How could I not? My little brother raves about him--"
"We're home," I said, glad to change the subject.
Luckily my mother had gone out to the health food store. There was a plate of wheatgerm cookies on the the table and a note saying there was plenty of onion juice in the fridge.
"Just great," I sighed. "Nothing to eat in the entire place."
"I'm not very hungry anyway," Hikari said. "I just want to lie down."
"Here," I got her onto the sofa. "Just sit back and I'll make you a hot chocolate."
She managed a smile. "A patented Yagami Taichi hot chocolate?"
"Using my top secret recipe and everything," I patted her hair. "You guys want one?"
Once I got out to the kitchen and was alone, I frowned. It was very confusing. On one level I was worried about Hikari--and wherever that monster was and what it was doing. One the other--I wanted to pigeon-hole Jyou as soon as possible. I had to ask him why working with Yamato had felt so different. I had a feeling it was more than just the fact he'd touched me--although that had been experience enough. I shook my head--that enormous feeling of power, the rightness of that action--
"It makes no sense," I said.
I jumped. I hadn't realized I wasn't alone. "Oh--Yamato, isn't it?"
"Ishida Yamato." He extended a hand coolly.
I stared at it a moment before I realized what I was meant to do.
"Yagami Taichi," I seized his hand eagerly.
There was this small jolt, not unlike an electric shock, just without the unpleasant part. He pulled his hand away abruptly.
"Did you feel that?"
"Mmmm," I said.
"What blue eyes you have."
"Um . . . what?"
I blinked. Had I really just said that?
The kettle whistled. "So," I said brightly, pouring into the mugs. "How do you take yours?"
"Ah, one scoop of hot chocolate, no sugar." Yamato watched as I scooped three into mine. "You're not drinking that?"
"No. This is for Kari." He looked like he was going to argue. I said "Tell me she doesn't need the energy."
He nodded thoughtfully. "I guess you're right." He narrowed his eyes. "Although I disagree with your partner's decision before--it's better they don't know about this."
"I don't see how we can not tell them now," I said. "There aren't any easy forget runes, not ones that are permanent anyway. I don't think we have a choice."
"If you'd been more careful--"
"Excuse me?" I said. "Are you saying that--"
The doorbell rang. I shoved the tray of finished drinks at Yamato. "Take these."
It was Koushiro.
"Thanks," he said taking the drink I'd prepared for him already. "Now my results. Give me a moment to set up."
I scooped things off the coffee table for him to set up his computer.
"You two are really a combination," Jun said, watching us. "How long you been partners?"
"Seven months," I said. "But we've known each other most of our lives."
"It would be nice to have a friend that long," Yamato said softly. I don't think he meant to say it out loud. I blinked at him.
"Brother? What's going on?" Takeru said. He was sitting beside Hikari, who was resting her head on his shoulder. They still looked pale but otherwise fine.
"It's nothing Takeru," Yamato patted his head. "Try not to worry about it."
"Some scary monster from a nightmare tried to kill me, and you guys are acting as if it makes perfect sense and you are telling me not to worry?" Takeru had a determination in him that his serene appearance belied. "I don't think so."
"This is potentially more serious than any of us have realised," Koushiro said. 'Whatever that creature is, it does not appear in my manual, Taichi's manual, or in any of the online records of magical creatures and arcane knowledge--"
"They put that stuff on the web?" Yamato sounded shocked.
"Password protected of course."
"Taichi--what manual?" Hikari asked.
I sighed. "The manual I got the day I found out I'm a runemaster."