"Who goes there?"
By the time he reached the unicorn's clearing, Satoshi was so exhaused that all he could do was half-stumble, half-slide down the side of the hill. He was tightly controlling his hysteria, but choking sobs escaped him all the same. He looked upward toward the fire, where a brown-haired dwarf regarded him with suspicion.
"I-it's just me," he barely whispered. The unicorn reared back, as if furious or very afraid.
"You!" The dwarf glared. "You're the cause of all our sorrow!"
"I know! I'm sorry... I'm sorry...!" Satoshi sobbed, trying to force the words out past his numb lips. "I didn't know; please, I really didn't mean it! Forgive me!" He flopped forward onto his face, still shaking with fear and from the cold.
"*I'm* not the one you should be asking!" the dwarf shot back fiercely.
"I have to set it right!" Satoshi cried. "Please, let's hurry! They're going to come for her; the Dark Lord sent them back! We have to leave now!" He looked at the unicorn, who regarded him steadily. "She's got to get somewhere safe, before they come!"
"Before who come?" The dwarf frowned.
"Goblins! Hurry up!" Satoshi nearly screamed in frustration.
Too late. An arrow shot forward, piercing right into the dwarf's hat. "They've done for me!" he gasped, and crumpled to the ground. Satoshi choked back more sobs. *Another life... that's another life I've cost...* He ran forward, trying to urge the unicorn onward, but it seemed reluctant to leave the resting place of its mate.
Satoshi whirled around in a fierce stance, as the goblins advanced on him, net held ready...
* * *
"Brown-Tom!" Hiroshi ran ahead of the others, back into the near-empty clearing. He crouched beside his fallen dwarf. "You can't be dead!" He looked down sadly. "This is awful!"
"Brown-Tom!" Screwball crouched by Hiroshi, and Shigeru took the opposite side.
The dwarf's eyes slid open. "Hiroshi?" he murmured, then looked around. "Screwball? And Shigeru?" Puzzlement showed itself clearly in his eyes. "They killed you too?"
"Of course they didn't!" Hiroshi raised an eyebrow. "What are you talking about?"
"Goblins!" Brown-Tom exclaimed, causing Screwball to gasp. "They shot me right through my brain pan!" He moaned as Hiroshi lifted the hat. The broken pieces of Brown-Tom's wine bottle trickled to the ground.
Screwball chuckled. "That's one spot an arrow'll do no harm!"
"I did my best to fight them off!" Brown-Tom said earnestly. "But they swarmed up by the hundreds! Oh, fierce creatures they were!" He sighed, as if regretting something. "The little black-haired boy warned me, but -- "
"Satoshi?" Shigeru grabbed Brown-Tom's shirt, yanking him up to eye level. The dwarf nodded an affirmative. "He's alive!" Shigeru breathed thankfully, dropping Brown-Tom back onto the ground.
"He was alive still when they killed me!" The dwarf nodded solemnly.
"The goblins must have him!" Shigeru realized out loud, feeling worry flooding him once more.
"We can follow their tracks in the snow!" Hiroshi pointed. "See? They were kind enough to leave us a trail. We may as well take advantage of that."
"Right." Shigeru stood.
It didn't take a great deal of time to find where they were being led. "That's the Great Tree," Hiroshi explained to Shigeru. "The last remnant of Darkness left since Light took over. When evil ruled, this was a place of sacrifice." He frowed. "To some extent, it still is."
"Satoshi," Shigeru whispered anxiously.
"We'll get him," Hiroshi said reassuringly. "They'll be concetrating on the unicorn, not Satoshi. *That's* what we have to worry about most." He hurried forward again, and the others followed.
The stench was overpowering. Shigeru looked around with disgust. Surrounding the 'Great Tree', or whatever it was called, was a huge, soggy swamp. Unlike most swamps, though, everything in *this* one was dead. The moss was white, looking drained, and it hung over severed tree limbs and twisted, darkened chunks of land like masses of limp slugs. A hazy fog settled over the whole place. It seemed still, but... something gurgled in the thick waters, and a trail of bubbles swam off. The only way to the safe land on the other side was a cross a path of stepping stones and crushed tree branches.
"Ugly," Screwball commented. "I hate it."
"Nice to know." Hiroshi grinned at him. "Thanks for volunteering to go first, Screwball."
"Why always *me*?" the dwarf wailed.
"Oh, just get going!" Hiroshi told him. "You'll get there faster if you start right away."
Screwball grumbled, but obediantly started climbing across. The gurgling bubbles swirled across his path, and he 'eeped', but kept moving, trying to make it to safety as fast as possible. He reached the other end, and waved his hands. "I made it!"
That was when something pulled him abruptly into the water.
"Screwball!" Hiroshi cried, moving to dart across the swamp. Shigeru had beaten him to it, and managed to reach the land in time to see Screwball's head burst back up through the water's surface. On the other side of him, a green, slime-coated creature exploded out of the water. "Fowl-tasting fairy!" she shrieked at Screwball. Then her eyes lit on Shigeru. "Ah!" A greedy smile slid across her moss-covered face. "Come to me, juicy boy!"
Shigeru brought his shield up in time to halt her advance. She seemed hampered by this, but only a little. "And what would the name of this tender little morsel be," she purred, "who disturbs my rest?"
"Shigeru," he gasped, recoiling from the stink she emitted. "My name is Shigeru!"
"Mmm." She leered, teeth clashing. "And what a fine, *fat* boy you are, Shigeru!"
"Ah... you don't really want to eat me!" Shigeru stammered. "I'll probably make you sick! You don't want -- "
"Oh, yes I do!" she shrieked. "Yes I do!" She lunged at him, but he jumped back and swung his sword out wildly. Her shriek faded abruptly, and he looked up in time to see her body crumpling. *I cut off her head!* he realized, feeling sick.
Fighting back bile, he brought his sword back up. "I did it!" Shigeru said breathlessly, swinging the weapon. *I won... Maybe I can do this, after all!* He ran off after the others, and recieved a light punch on the arm from a grinning Hiroshi.
"A rope." Screwball gazed up at the tree above him, where a grungy rope dangled. "Hmm." He reached for it curiously.
"No, wait!" Hiroshi lunged forward to stop him, but it was too late. The ground beneath them crumpled as Screwball gave the rope a sharp yank, and then all four of them -- plus Kasumi -- were tumbling down a dark tunnel.
Shigeru landed first, and rolled out of the way in time to avoid having Hiroshi land on him. He scrambled up smoothly, and Brown-Tom and Screwball thumped down in a grumbling heap. Kasumi flickered lightly, skimmed through the air.
"Trapped!" Hiroshi moved to one side of the room, where a door of steel bars blocked their escape. He glanced down at the heavy lock that kept it shut. "We have to get out of here," he frowned. "But I can't see how..."
"What about if we get Kasumi to fly out and find the key?" Shigeru suggested, joining him. "She could bring it back and let us out."
"Kasumi?" Hiroshi blinked, then shook his head. "No, it won't work. She's too small. There's no way she'd be able to carry that key."
Kasumi flickered angrily, flying sharply up to flutter in front of Shigeru. "It's our *secret*!" she cried furiously.
"Our secret will die right here if you don't *help* us!" he shot back.
Kasumi shimmered into her full size. "You *promised*!" she hissed, glaring at Shigeru.
"Kasumi!" Hiroshi gasped out, his glare even more fierce than hers as he stared at her in shock. "You spiteful little brat! Who told you to keep secrets like that!"
"They're mine to keep!" she retorted defiantly, then glanced back and Shigeru, and knelt down beside where he sat. "I'll do what you ask," she whispered softly, reaching out to brush her fingertips over his cheek, "If you'll kiss me -- Shigeru." Her expression was a mix of compassion and longing.
"I -- " Shigeru shook his head. "Well... that's simple enough." Jerkily, he bobbed his head forward and planted a brief peck on Kasumi's lips. "There! Done!" Brown-Tom hissed out a cackle.
"You call *that* a kiss?" Kasumi snorted derisively. "That was barely a touch!" She leaned forward, once again running her soft fingertips over Shigeru's face. "Aren't I sweet enough, Shigeru?" she breathed, an enticing look on her face. A smile curved on her lips, secretively.
Shigeru closed his eyes and thoughts of Satoshi flooded him. Satoshi was sweet... The sweetest thing Shigeru could think of. "So sweet..." he murmured out loud, the remembered feel of Satoshi's soft skin and warm body making his palms tingle with longing.
Kasumi smiled softly. "Sweet is the wind... that blows me to you." Her voice shifted halfway through, and Shigeru gasped. Her face blurred, and her skin softened to pale ivory, her hair growing dark and silky, her eyes darkening to that soft, luminous brown. Satoshi's lips smiled sweetly at Shigeru, that familiar, beloved face gazing up at him.
"S-Satoshi..." Shigeru's breath caught in his throat. He stared longingly, and barely managed to gasp out, "This... this isn't... real..."
"Oh, it is," Satoshi's voice whispered. "It's real; *I'm* real. Feel my hand, Shigeru. I'm solid, and perfectly alive." He shut his eyes and opened them again slowly, lips parting so enticingly. "I want you, Shigeru. I want you to hold me. *Please...*"
*My beautiful Satoshi...* Shigeru leaned forward, cupping those soft cheeks in both hands. He wanted to believe this, to lose himself in the feel of *Satoshi*, to kiss those willing lips until no breath remained in either of their bodies. He ached to pull that lean, delicate form against his once more, feeling Satoshi's heart beating right next to his, revelling in the life flowing within him. He leaned forward some more, ready to do just that. But... under that facade, it wasn't Satoshi. Not his curious, happy, too-full-of-energy Satoshi... And this wasn't right.
"No!" Shigeru pulled back, shaking his head to clear it. "No, I can't do this! I can't!" Satoshi's image shifted abruptly, and Kasumi stared back at him in outraged shock. "A human heart -- *my* heart -- doesn't work like that," he said stubbornly. "My heart belongs to Satoshi -- not just his appearance."
Kasumi stood, face flushed red and made fierce with anger. "What do I care about *human* hearts?" she hissed, furious. "They're all so soft and spirituous -- like *porridge*! A fairy's heart beats *fierce* and *free*!" Her image shimmered, and a small flickering light flew from their cage, the sound of Kasumi's crying following after it.
"Kasumi!" Hiroshi yelled after her. "Great," he muttered, when she didn't respond. "Of all the times to throw a temper tantrum... Thanks for the love lesson, Shigeru. *Now* what do we do?"
"Ask her," Shigeru smirked. Kasumi crouched by the bars, the key clutched tightly in her hand. "You all look like mourners at your own funeral!" she commented airily. Hiroshi reached through the bars to snatch the key from her hand, but she pulled it back out of reach.
"Kasumi!" Hiroshi pointed firmly at the lock. She stared back defiantly, not moving. Deliberately, he snapped his fingers, still pointing. After a brief second of hesitation, she hastened to obey, unlocking the door and swinging it open for them.
"Come on!" Hiroshi cried, and he bounded out the door without waiting another minute.
* * *
The Lord of Darkness stood still beside the gate to his dungeon, watching over the two new prisoners. The unicorn was not comfortable to look at; her light was too blinding, and that angered him. But the other -- the boy... His face twisted in a smile. Neither of the captives could see or hear him, but they likely sensed his presense. He could see that, watching them.
The unicorn paced restlessly, and across the chasm between them, Satoshi watched her. He couldn't turn his gaze downward, for the wicked pit of flames dizzied him. To all sides were gaping caverns, dark and ominous-looking. Satoshi had not even once thought of bolting down them. There was no telling what evil sorts of creatures might be lurking about. He pressed himself against the rock face behind him and kept his eyes resolutely fixed on the unicorn, trembling violently with fear and suppressed emotion. His heart continued to cry out a single name: *Shigeru*!
The Dark Lord watched him silently, feeling his discontent growing. Every motion the boy made -- every swallow of fear, every shift of his muscles, every time his hand reached up unconsciously to brush damp bangs out of his eyes -- increased the feeling tenfold. A dark desire, the need to possess, rushed through the Dark Lord's veins. *His*, this boy. The thought filled him with an almost gleeful satisfaction. He turned from the gate and glared with frustration into the fire that burned always in his throne room.
"Father," he growled, "I hold the world in my grasp. And yet this... boy... distracts me. It's been an eternity since I felt such desire. What am I to do?"
A hissing voice came from the fire almost instantly. "He fassscinatesss you becaussse hisss sssoul isss pure. To make him one of usss, charm him. Ssseduce him. Change hisss ssspirit. Hypnotize him, ssset him free. Bring him to you."
A shiver ran through Satoshi's body suddenly, and he felt a burning gaze on him. His eyes slid shut, and then opened wide. Somehow that gaze filled him with an irresistable compulsion. Slowly, he stood, then bolted down a nearby tunnel, the only thought in his fear-clouded mind being to run and keep running.
But it wasn't he who picked the direction.
* * *
We should split up," Hiroshi decided, looking around at them seriously. "We'll have more chance of finding either the unicorn or Satoshi if we go in teams. Kasumi can work alone," he said, with a glance at the flickering light beside him. It seeemed to flutter an assent.
"I'll go with Shigeru!" Brown-Tom called, glancing about nervously at the large silver plates that shimmered at him from where they hung on the walls. More were on the sturdy tables, heaping with ominous-looking carcasses that were likely intended as food.
Shigeru shook his head. "No, Hiroshi should come with me." He looked at Brown-Tom and Screwball. "Be careful, you two. Come on, Hiroshi." He left the room, Hiroshi on his heels and Kasumi flitting on ahead.
"There's just one thing I want to know," Screwball said unhappily, watching them go.
* * *
Kasumi resumed her larger form and glanced around. She was in a large, dark room littered with white pillars. Something about the feel of the room was... strange. As if it were being used, or there was something happening. Power made the air thick, and she shivered, taking another look around.
Had she...? Yes, she *had* seen something. A flash of white, over... Kasumi flitted toward it, running almost as she would fly -- softly; silently. Somebody darted forward, cringing against a pillar, hazy eyes staring forward as if in a trance.
"Satoshi?" Kasumi whispered softly. Yes, it was -- had to be -- Satoshi. But he didn't respond to her voice. With a moment's hesitation, he ran forward again, as thought in a dream. Or rather a nightmare, from the frightened-rabbit look on his face. Kasumi ran after him, feet soundless on the cold marble floor. He continued onward as if hynotized, and she watched as the great stone doors at the end of the room swung open. With a little whimpering noise, Satoshi rushed forward into the room beyond, and was swallowed up as the doors boomed shut behind him.
Kasumi darted forward to the keyhole and peered in, to see Satoshi creeping toward a large fire, seeking warmth. Like a lost little boy coming out of a storm, Kasumi mused. Shadows fell across the room, ghosting about as if they wished to devour him up whole.
Without waiting another minute, Kasumi shimmered back into her small form and zipped off to find Hiroshi and Shigeru.