Honestly, I just like this chapter because it gave me an excuse to use the word "cuprous" in context.
I love it when I cross a section of prose which calls up an obscure vocabulary word I hardly knew that I even knew (like 'atavistic') or use an obscure word in its PROPER context (like 'pristine.) If I can make my readers look up a word, that's awesome -- but if they DON'T have to look up the word, cos the meaning is obvious in context, that's even awesomer!~
The Missing Worlds - Water World III
Spoilers: This story is set in the uncertain period after Piffle World, but before Recourt; in other words, in the same never-neverland that the second season of the anime mostly took place in. This means that Fai has not yet learned to whistle, Syaoran is still the original Syaoran, and nobody knows anything about Kurogane's childhood.
Summary: The travelers face the evil at the heart of the vortex, and what kind of a lame power is Heart, anyway?
It was a long trek out to the canyon where the Sea Witch promised them they'd find the feather. The walk itself wasn't terribly difficult - it was a downhill grade most of the way, and while the sea floor was rough, the water made them buoyant enough to clamber easily over most of the obstacles. But as they left the bright, warm, living waters of the reef behind the going got harder; slowly, as the weight of water piled up above them, the daylight darkened as though ominous thunderclouds had rolled over the sun. It grew colder the further down they went, and the water seemed to resist their movements until even breathing became an effort.
The growing chill was not just an effect of the weakening sunlight, either. When the witch had told them about the cold current of water running endlessly down into the chasm, she wasn't kidding; it was like an invisible road of pure ice, enough to steal Syaoran's breath away if he stood in it for more than a few seconds. Traveling directly in it was impossible; they were forced to slog along a few yards to the side, staying on the same course as the cold current by feel.
The journey went on for hours, and was mostly quiet; for a change, neither Fai nor even Mokona had much to say. The only sound was a dull, ceaseless roar of the ocean around them, carrying noises from enormous distances away too muffled to make any sense out of, and Kurogane's occasional muttered curses as schools of bright silver fish flitted about his bare legs and poked inquisitive noses up under his loincloth.
At last they came to the caldera the witch had described to them, a wide crater in the ocean floor from some ancient, extinguished volcano. The cold current rushed ahead of them like a river, now, joined by a dozen others to create a whirlpool that emanated a deadly chill.
"Down... down there?" Syaoran called. His teeth chattered with cold. The currents buffeted them like hurricane winds, and he had to grab firmly hold of a rock projection to keep from being swept forward into the swirling vortex. The ground sloped steeply away beneath them, into a wide funnel set in the sea floor that seemed to be sucking water away like an immense drain. The seawater darkened to opacity as it swirled wildly in the vast basin, and the cold blasted them even from here. "I don't think we can get down there - I don't think we can even... survive down there." Even perched on the lip of the caldera as they were, it was hard to breathe.
"No need for that," Kurogane grunted as he planted his feet on the rocky floor, putting his hand to his sword hilt and tilting his head back. "They're coming to us."
And they were coming; at first Syaoran hadn't been able to make them out, ribbons of blackness against the murky darkness. But they came, streaming out of the churning vortex like comets trailing darkness.
They were serpents, or something like it; as they got closer Syaoran could make out undulating, smooth bodies with hides that reflected the light like an oil slick. Their mouths were full of needle-sharp teeth and their eyes glowed a smoky red, smoldering coals of rage and hate that strained against the water.
The serpents split into multiple weaving trails as they approached, and Fai, Syaoran and Kurogane automatically fell in back-to-back, the two swordsmen holding their weapons in a defensive posture, Fai shielding Mokona between them.
"You came!" one of them squealed, and the others took up the voice in a cackling echo. -came to us came to us came to us-
"They can talk?" Kurogane muttered, shifting his stance and tensing his muscles. "How intelligent are these things?"
If they could talk, maybe they could listen. "Please!" he called out, turning his head in slight jerks as he tried to keep an eye on the spinning, writhing flecks of darkness. "We came to find the feather! Do you have it? If so, then please give it to us!"
"How wonderful!" cried the biggest serpent, the one that seemed to be the leader. "Now we don't have to go out to hunt for food after all!" -hunt for food hunt for food after all.-
Fai sighed. "It can never be that easy," he mourned.
With a howl, the serpents surged forward. Syaoran swung up Hien to block the first attack, and barely managed to yank his leg back before a needle-sharp set of teeth snapped on it. Behind him, he heard Kurogane let out a roar as he charged the thickest group of the serpents.
From there, it all devolved into a confusing melee. The dark snakes swarmed about helter-skelter, attacking from every direction. They were fast, but not very strong, and unarmored. However, Syaoran soon found himself facing another handicap; the heavy pressure of the water slowed him, dragging at his limbs and dulling the cut of his sword.
Every movement became a huge effort, and each swing or dodge was slowed by an extra few seconds. Panic and frustration began to build up in Syaoran's throat; all his training was useless when he just couldn't make his limbs respond as fast as his mind demanded. He managed to avoid any crippling bites, but he was soon bleeding from a dozen jagged toothmarks. Despite the intense chill surrounding them, he felt like he was burning up, and his lungs heaved like he'd already been fighting for an hour. From the sound of the curses coming from the other side of the ridge, Kurogane was running into almost as much difficulty, and Fai didn't even have a weapon. All he could do was dodge and weave, and he couldn't evade the sinuous creatures forever.
Desperately he gave up on Hien and tried to revert to his old style, with brutal overhand kicks; but without the swift cutting edge of the sword to pierce the water, he was dragged down even further. One bold serpent, its skin pulsing with smoky colors, latched onto his left arm. Sharp agony flared up Syaoran's shoulder and down to his finger's, and he yelled out. Instinctively he brought Hien slashing around, and a cloud of dark fluid erupted into the water as he severed the serpent's head from the rest of its body.
His shout of triumph died on his lips, however, as the serpent's thrashing body refused to slow. Instead the cloud of blood writhed, seeming almost alive, before suddenly drawing into a long dark ribbon trailing from the severed head of the eel. Within moments, what had been one dead serpent was two live ones, both circling him and letting out taunting jeers.
"They're regenerating!" he exclaimed in dismay.
"These aren't ordinary monsters," Fai called out. Syaoran saw him out of the corner of his eye, but the serpents seemed to be driving him further away from the others.
"I can see that!" Kurogane snarled. "Damn, these are as bad as those demons in Outo!"
"If they aren't monsters, what are they?" Syaoran called back, slashing at one of the snakes to drive it back.
"They're emanations," Fai said, and the word blurred a bit in Syaoran's ears, even over the chaos of the fight, so that he wasn't sure what word the older man used. Fai raised his voice, addressing the serpents directly. "Who created you?"
Syaoran saw Fai stiffen, his evasive moments stilling as a strange blank expression crept over his face. The serpents swarmed, converging on their suddenly unmoving target. "Fai-san!" Syaoran cried out in warning.
Kurogane roared, and his sword swept around letting a furious blast of force rush outwards from the blade. The serpents shredded away before it, and Kurogane followed in the wake of destruction, charging over to Fai's side. He grabbed the wizard's arm and yanked him out of the path of the snapping, needle-sharp teeth, and turned a burning glare on the serpents. "You're lying!" he shouted. "None of us have ever been to this world before! What the hell do you mean?"
The serpents laughed, a nasty sniggering that seemed to pass from head to tail out along their sinuous bodies. "We are created out of Mankind's evil - hate, avarice, anger, and fear," they said, in a many-echoing voice. -hate fear anger greed hate anger fear - "So long as any darkness remains in men's hearts, we are indestructible - we will live on forever!" -forever and ever and ever.-
"So that's it," Fai said, his voice surprisingly calm over the tumult. "I pity whatever poor fool of a wizard first let you out. This ocean, it was made to contain you, wasn't it?"
The serpents hissed in fury, black tails lashing. "Stupid, foolish humans - to think they would go so far to undo their mistakes, that they would drown all the world under this vile water!" -drown the world drown the world-
"What are they talking about, mage?" Kurogane demanded. "If these are magical things, isn't there anything you can do to get rid of them?"
"I already told you I can't do anything, Kuro-pon," Fai said, with an edge to his voice. "As soon as I touched the water of this world, all my magic was blocked."
"What?" Kurogane demanded incredulously.
"It's true!" Mokona piped up, from her perch clinging to Fai's shoulder. "This water negates magic! Mokona can't do anything, either!"
"Why the hell didn't you tell me about this sooner?" Kurogane roared furiously, making a grab for Fai.
Fai ignored him, slipping deftly just out of reach. "Because you're beings of pure magic, this water would render you helpless, wouldn't it?" he asked. "So for all this time you've been sleeping down here, harmlessly sealed away. What changed? How can you come out of your prison now?"
"Yes, ever since that time we have been trapped here, in these cold, lightless depths," the serpents hissed, furious resentment filling their voice. "But not any more! Once the bright thing came, it woke us from our long slumber and freed us! Nothing can stop us from making this entire world ours!"
"So you do have the feather?" Syaoran cried, his attention latching on to the object of their inquiry. "Give it back! Princess Sakura would never let filthy things like you use it for evil!"
He drove his sword forward with a new energy, but the serpents slithered away before him, their mocking laughter ringing in his ears. Through the temporary gap in their ranks Syaoran saw into the heart of the dark maelstrom made from the semi-substantial bodies of the serpents. There, glowing like a lonely star, was the pale form of the feather.
"The feather!" Syaoran gasped, and instinctively he tried to run forward, stretching his hand out for it.
Without meaning to, he dropped his guard, and the circling serpents took immediate advantage of his lapse. They swarmed him, their dark bodies buffeting him bruisingly about. Semi-transparent, sticky trails of smoke wrapped around his wrists and legs, wrapped him; the dark half-real bodies seemed to gain substance as they clung to his skin. "Yes, struggle, boy, struggle," the serpent laughed gloatingly. -hate anger avarice fear.- "The stronger your wicked emotions burn, the stronger we become. You cannot defeat us, for we are born of your heart!"
Leaden exhaustion dragged down Syaoran's limbs, and with it something else; despair. How could he fight against something that drew its very strength from him? As he grew weaker, more furious and frustrated and afraid, they only grew stronger. From the other side of the writhing mass of serpent bodies, he could hear the shouts and cries of Kurogane and Fai, locked in their own losing battle.
But he couldn't give up. He had to get to the feather. Grimly, he began to marshal his strength for one last, desperate burst of resistance.
"Leave him alone!"
The shrill voice called from nowhere, and a bright energetic figure blundered into the mass of serpentine bodies, scattering them. Syaoran looked up, startled, and for a moment he saw Sakura's face and figure above him, silhouetted as though she stood in front of the sun. The shadowlike serpents fled from her, hissing and scuttling off to the side; one that clung tenaciously to Syaoran's side, fangs dug stubbornly into his tunic, was punished with a sound whap of her powerful copper tail.
"Princess - " Syaoran choked off his glad cry of welcome, tempered by anxiety at her entering the dangerous melee. "- Tideflower!" he choked out weakly, flailing to right himself and regain his balance and guard. "What are you doing here? It's dangerous!"
"If it's not too dangerous for Syaoran, it's not too dangerous for me!" she shot back, her blue-green eyes flashing and chin jutting in a terribly familiar stubborn expression. "You and your friends don't know anything about this ocean! I had to come and make sure you were all right!"
"But the serpents -" Syaoran stared around him. The serpents' retreat had been temporary; they circled now at a distance just out of arms' length, hissing and glaring murder at the young pair. But although their teeth snapped at Syaoran, they seemed to want to avoid Sakura; when they came close to her, their dark bodies turned paler, almost translucent.
"They're the ones that have been bothering my father and the other traders, aren't they, I know!" Tideflower pirouetted in the water and surged upwards, her copper hair flying about her face, and glared accusingly at the horde of evil animals. "You! You've been hurting a lot of people, and scaring everyone, and making a terrible mess of the water around the reefs!" she called out to them. "You don't belong here and we don't want you! Why don't you just go back to sleep where you came from?"
"Princess!" Syaoran grabbed her shoulder urgently, pointing with his free hand towards the center of the maelstrom, where the feather still glimmered like a fading star. "There it is! That's what woke them up and lets them keep moving. We have to get that feather away from them!"
"What?" Her aggressive posture faded somewhat as she turned towards the new objective, her expression becoming interested and then absorbed. "Oh, it's so pretty!" With a powerful swish of her tail, she pushed off and glided towards the pinprick of light.
"Princess, don't -" Syaoran tried to scramble after her. Once outside of the mermaid's aura, however, the serpents returned as solid as ever; they rushed forward and snapped at his face, trapping his struggling limbs and holding him back. "Wait! Don't touch that feather!"
He was seized with a sudden terror inspired by Tideflower's abrupt appearance. This young girl was Sakura's equivalent in this world; Mokona had even said that their vibrations felt the same. If Tideflower touched the feather, it might be absorbed into her body instead; and then how would he ever be able to restore Sakura's memory to her?
The serpents screamed in terror and furor and charged at her, rampaging through the water in a tidal wave of evil black fury. As they reached her, however, they either were forced to veer off in another direction, or became completely insubstantial as they reached her, passing right through her limbs and body like a ghost. Without seeming to notice them, her expression rapt, the mermaid reached forward and plucked the feather from its perch.
A collective, soundless scream rent through the dark, chill waters of the undersea caldera; it throbbed in Syaoran's ears like a file being drawn across his brain. All at once, starting from the bottom but advancing in a swift collapse, the serpents dissolved into piles of dark sand, sinking impotently back to the sea floor.
Tideflower turned to face them, the glow of the feather between her hands illuminating her look of surprised excitement. "I found it, Syaoran!" she called out happily. "I found what you were looking for! It's a triangle, white, with black markings, with ribbed edges! This is it, right?"
Syaoran lowered his sword and looked cautiously around, still not quite able to believe that his opponents had vanished so suddenly. Kurogane and Fai were standing back-to-back a dozen yards away. It was hard to tell in the murky darkness of the water, but he thought he saw blood issuing from their wounds into the water; even so, they were both still standing.
Mokona poked her head out from her hiding place under Fai's shirt collar, and her eyes BOINKED open in an all-too welcome sight as she laid eyes on the feather. "Mekyo!" she cried out. "She's got it!"
"Yeah," he called weakly, getting his balance back and swimming over towards Tideflower. The feather perched meekly in her hands, glowing softly, seemingly perfectly inert and in no hurry to vanish magically into her body. Still, Syaoran reached out his hands as soon he was close enough, and gingerly took possession of the feather. "This is it, all right."
As soon as it was in his hands, Syaoran felt the by-now familiar tingling sensation of magic, the subtle thrumming and warmth that he had come to associate with Sakura. He had to get it back to her right away! He clutched the feather close and stared around for his companions. "Mokona!" he called out. "Where are you?"
"Over here!" Mokona chirped happily. Kurogane and Fai were approaching, both of them somewhat battered from the battle with the serpent. Fai was holding his hand tightly over his side, where little ribbons of blood trailed from between his fingers.
"Fai-san, are you all right?" Syaoran asked worriedly, momentarily diverted from the feather.
"He'll be fine once he gets treatment," Kurogane grunted, one hand on Fai's shoulder to steer him. "Unlike some people, he wasn't wearing armor." Kurogane himself was limping, but seemed to have no serious bites or cuts, and looked rather smug about that fact. Fai rolled his eyes.
"We have the feather, we can go now!" Syaoran exclaimed happily. "As soon as we get back to the Witch's house where Sakura is, I'm sure we can some medical care for Fai!"
Fai raised an eyebrow, and Kurogane scowled at him. "Aren't you forgetting something, kid?" he growled.
"What?" Syaoran asked, somewhat nonplussed.
"The princess!" Kurogane exclaimed, gesturing at the young mermaid who floated nearby, watching them all with wide, sea-green eyes. "We can't just leave her here out in the middle of nowhere!"
"Yes, the responsible thing would be to escort her safely home," Fai added. "Especially since she risked her safety to come and help us, and we would never have survived without her aid."
"Oh… I…" Syaoran looked over at the mermaid princess and stammered, his face turning read. Of course, the princess was just a little girl, and she had put herself in such danger to help them. Syaoran would never forgive himself if they didn't make sure she was home and safe.
But… but… it was a long trip, and it would take even longer with them walking uphill, injured and tired. And no doubt there would be formalities that would drag out even longer, and… and every minute that he was separated from Sakura he became more anxious that something would happen at the last minute to snatch the feather out of their hands. They would be attacked by sea bandits on the trip back, or he would drop it down a crevice, or put it down somewhere in the palace and lose it, or something. And meanwhile, back in the Witch's shop, Sakura was lonely and waiting…
"I don't need an escort!" the mermaid said indignantly, swishing her cuprous tail indignantly. "I'm not helpless! I made those serpents go away, didn't I? I can take care of myself!"
The three men looked at each other, and Syaoran sighed in resignation. "Princess, please allow us to see you back home," he said meekly. "Fai-san needs medicine, and we need to thank your father for his hospitality."
Taking pity on him, Fai suggested kindly, "Syaoran, perhaps it would be a good idea for Mokona to hold the feather? That way, its influence could allow her to use her magic."
"Oh… of course," Syaoran said, but hesitated. He recognized the logic in Fai's suggestion, but he still unreasonably didn't want to let the feather out of his hands. His fingers clutched it tighter.
"Hell, why waste time? Just have the manjuu send the feather back to the princess directly," Kurogane said. "If they can do it with an apple and a stupid chocolate cake, they can do it with a feather."
"Yes!" Syaoran's face lit, then fell. "But… but then I wouldn't be there when she took it back, and…"
"And?" Fai said teasingly, flipping Syaoran's hair.
Syaoran ducked his head forward. "And she might fall asleep, and… what if she hit her head on something, or…?"
Kurogane snorted. "Admit it, kid, you just want to be there so she can fall asleep in your arms."
Syaoran sputtered and felt his face heating so fiercely that even the cold water couldn't cool it.
Fai laughed out loud, and even Kurogane chuckled. Princess Tideflower joined in, enjoying the laughter even if she didn't understand the context; and the sound of all of their laughter echoed around the empty crater where only darkness had been before.
The merman king greeted them back with profuse gratitude and solicitous offers of medical aid, and accepted their assurance that they had met and dealt with the source of the danger with easy credulity. Almost as soon as the formalities were out of the way, he fell to scolding his daughter, who sulked and whined under the lecture.
"How many times have I told you and told you, you are not to leave the reef without an escort?" the king chided her.
"I wasn't alone! I was with Syaoran-kun and the others!" Princess Tideflower objected. "They were strong, they could protect me as well as any of the warriors here!"
"That's not the point!" the king said angrily. "You knew it was dangerous! You knew you were forbidden to go with them. You could have been hurt, even killed!"
"But I wanted to see what was out there," the princess said passionately. "I wanted to know what was threatening our kingdom! How could I just stay here and do nothing? You always treat me like I'm a child, but I'm not one! I'm eighteen!"
"Wait a moment," Syaoran said. "What?"
"Because you are our kingdom's most valuable treasure, that is why!" her father shouted back. "Whether you are eighteen or eighty-five, you will always be my daughter and our princess, and we -"
"I think it's time for us to leave, don't you?" Fai said. "Mokona, will you be able to make the circle?"
"Yup, of course!" Mokona said brightly, and sprang up from Fai's hands. The water began to warp and surge around them as the magic circles appeared, and cries of farewell from the surrounding mermaids filled their ears.
Syaoran didn't even hear them. "Eighteen?" Syaoran sputtered disbelievingly. "But she - I thought she - isn't she still a young child?"
"No," Kurogane said, somewhat surprised. "Why would you think that?"
"Because she - " Syaoran almost wailed. "She doesn't have -"
"Syaoran, didn't you pay any attention at all when we were in the mermaid city?" Fai asked him kindly. "All of the mermaids, male and female, have flat chests. Mermaids aren't like humans, you know."
Sakura was in the middle of sweeping the shop corridor - again - when she heard the familiar voices from the shop door. She gladly dropped the broom against the wall and ran out to greet them, beaming joyfully at her friends as though she hadn't seen them for months instead of days. "Fai-san! Kurogane-san!" she cried out. "Mokona-chan! Syaoran-kun! You're back, did everything go okay?"
Somewhat to her surprise, they were all dripping wet, water streaming in rivers from their clothes and hair. She began to feel a little apprehensive, especially when she saw the bruises and cuts on Syaoran's arms and the way Fai favored the bandage on his side. "Oh no, you're hurt! You'd better come inside right away!"
"You're so kind, Sakura-chan," Fai said, beaming at her. "But I think we'd better stay out here until we stop dripping, just so we don't damage the shop. But in the meantime, I believe Mokona has something for you?"
"Coming right up!" Mokona chirped, and opened her mouth impossibly wide. A moment later, the familiar glowing shape of a feather popped into view, and Sakura cried out happily and clapped her hands in joy.
"You found it! Oh, you found it!" she cried. "Thank you so much, all of you! I only wish I could have helped."
In a ritual they'd practiced many times by now, Syaoran plucked the feather out of the air and approached her, holding it out in his hands. As the feather touched her chest, she felt the familiar warm tingle as it melted in her body, and the floating lassitude that threatened another sleep spell.
As she sank towards the ground and sleep, she felt Syaoran's strong arms supporting her back, and she blinked up sleepily to see his serious, tender expression. Just before sleep took her, she blinked past him and frowned, as she noticed something from her lower vantage point that she hadn't before.
~to be continued...
Author's Notes: Yeah, Princess Tideflower is eighteen; Syaoran just jumped to conclusions about her age. And yes, that means that this version of Sakura is kind of a derp. Well, when you're part fish, you do the best you can