Friday, April 2, 2010

"Seven Jade Doors" -- Act II


"Seven Jade Doors" is copyright 2010 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved.


BROKEN HEARTS: Wherein Alecto Attempts to Take Her Life; Stavros and Comet Fox Argue; Old Friends Go Separate Ways


Part 1

Darkness, sorrow and despair filled the heart of young Alecto. She lay, trying to sleep amidst the friends and the night, covered in a blanket of fleece. Eloqua lay snoring next to her. Alecto's eyes found the moon and watched its path beneath Kalavata. She pricked up her head, looking about. Everyone was asleep, even Stavros who was to be on guard for enemies. The rat sat leaning with his back against a cypress, his head bobbing with wear. When at last his head rested low and did not come up, Alecto removed her blanket and stood to creep away from the others.

Every move she made created some noise. She feared every step. Yet she moved onward, away from the camp and unseen. She wandered, heart weak with worry, until she came to the side of a creek. She bent low to watch the moon's reflection there and caught a glimpse of her own. She asked of her mirrored self, "Why must so much death rule the world? Why must my mother hate me and wish me dead like my father?"

Tears flowed from her heart, out her eyes and cascaded through the cold night air to land, rippling in the waters of the creek. She could not look at herself, her eyes darting from her reflection. Laying on the ground nearby was a short length of a fallen branch from a cypress tree. It's end came to a long and jagged point and she thought it might make a fine spear. She leaned forward, grabbed at the branch and picked it up in both her hands. She eyed the branch, wondered at its fall, then turned it round so that the broken point was directed at her own stomach. She weeped quietly, desiring her own death. Thought she that were she already dead, her mother might end her reign of terror and the others would not need flee with such effort.

A small sound startled her and she turned, afraid.

Came a voice, "Are you well, Little Empress?" It was Stavros who had seen Alecto slip from the campground.

Alecto hid the branch up her sleeve and answered with cracked voice, "Y-yes."

"I know lies," said Stavros as he stepped from the shadows. He drew near and sat by the creek's edge, beside the kneeling Alecto.

"I've no reason to lie," lied Alecto.

"Oh?" Stavros considered his reflection in the creek's water. "Once I was a small rat, did you know that, Little Empress?"

Alecto shook her head.

"It's true. I was but a mere mortal rat, a common pest no one wanted near. Yet here I am," Stavros leaned closer to the waters to consider himself, "a Blessed One that has witnessed much adventure, much death, much agony, I've had many good friendships and witnessed many triumphs - my own and those of others."

Stavros looked to Alecto and said, "There are times I wonder why I was chosen by the Misty Hands of the Cosmos to become what I am now. And yet, I chose to bite off that bit of the Jewel of Zingtai that made me what I am as I sit by your side now. I was so very hungry then and didn't understand what the jewel was. I had hoped it was food. It wasn't, of course. And my fate as I sit here now very much confuses me. I am blessed. I am cursed. I am Stavros the Red. Once I was little Garu, friend to Doku. Now I am Stavros, friend to Comet Fox and the Ruska Roma. What a marvelous and frightening life I've lived and it is far from over."

Alecto said, "You are truly blessed. You should not consider the events of your life a curse. They are as they need to be and you will act upon those events as you need to react. Your life is truly wonderful."

Stavros smiled at this. He gazed deeply at Alecto and spoke, "And you should do the same. There is no other Little Empress. You are now witness to many tragedies, but your triumphs will come due and your friends - myself included should you wish - will be there at your side."

Alecto could not fight the tears upon hearing this. She threw herself into the arms of the rat.

Said Stavros into her ear, "Allow me the branch, Little Empress."

Alecto drew away from him, afraid to learn he had guessed at her thoughts and actions. Somewhat ashamed, frightened, but comforted by the gentle nature of Stavros she admitted to her desires by producing the branch from her sleeve and handing it over to Stavros.

Stavros took the branch, floated it in the creek and let it go to sail with the flow of water. He looked to Alecto again and said, "Give us a chance to make matters right."

At this, Alecto determined to remain alive. She said, "Thank you, friend Stavros."

Together they returned to the others. Stavros covered Alecto with the fleece blanket to keep her warm and sat at her side while she fell asleep. Before she slipped away, she asked, "Stavros, do you think that one day all this suffering will end?"

The question confused Stavros. He was uncertain if the Little Empress meant all the suffering in the world or merely her own suffering. He searched for a proper response and, finding a way to answer both possible questions, said, "I can only hope."

He stayed by her side through the night. He did not wake Comet Fox in the small hours when the moon fades into Kalavata's wings and before Etain crests the horizon. When Comet Fox scolded Stavros for this upon his waking, Stavros explained, "I could not sleep, friend, therefore I allowed you to rest while I remained awake."

Comet Fox sighed, saying, "Did anything happen to keep you awake?"

Stavros told a half-truth, "No, my own thoughts were keeping me awake."

Soon the entire gather band was awake, stretching with the morning sun. They were all startled when they heard the crashing sound of someone running through the wooded areas where they had slept. Came to them, by chance, Balin Pop and his young wife Jasmyn, refugees running for their lives and from their home in the small town of Caerraul near the river Ursk. When Balin Pop saw Comet Fox and the others, he gasped with fright, fearing they may well be in league with the demon Ketsueki Sato.

"Stay away from us!" he cried, placing his wife behind him so as to protect her.

"Who are you?" Comet Fox demanded.

Balin Pop stood, his wife peering from behind him, amidst the cypress trees, eying the Comet Fox and his band. "We will not go with you," warned Balin Pop. "We will not be tortured by your master Ketsueki Sato. You've destroyed our homes, you'll not lay another hand upon us!"

Comet Fox approached Balin Pop and Jasmyn slowly.

Balin Pop looked to the ground, found a large fallen branch and picked it from the ground. He waved it menacingly at Comet Fox, "Stay back fiend!"

"You do not understand," answered Comet Fox. "We are not in league with the demon. We are in flight from him as you appear to be. Tell me, what has he done to your people?"

Balin Pop, having run all night with his wife, gasped for air. He struggled to speak.

Jasmyn tugged at her husband's dark robe now torn from the efforts of their flight. She whispered into his ear, "I believe this to be the one called Comet Fox. He is a friendly spirit and son to Coyote."

Balin Pop eyed Comet Fox. "What are you called, demon?" he asked.

"I am called Comet Fox," came the answer, "but I am no demon. I am a god."

Balin Pop lowered the branch to the ground. He said, "Is this true? Do gods run from the demons now? I thought gods and demons stood against one another."

Comet Fox nodded, "Most often that may be true, but we've mortals in our midst and they cannot stand against demons, so we run."

Balin Pop heaved with effort, trying desperately to breathe.

Yele Prin Prin brought forth two skins of water and handed them to Balin Pop and Jasmyn. The two refugees took them hesitantly, then drank deeply from them.

"Thank you," said Balin Pop once he had nearly emptied the skin.

Jasmyn considered Yele Prin Prin, her dark skin and feathered wings. She smiled at her and said, "You are quite beautiful."

Yele Prin Prin blushed and thanked Jasmyn for the fine compliment.

Comet Fox drew nearer Balin Pop. He said, "Tell me what Ketsueki has done to you."

"He killed a family in our town of Caerraul, then set every building ablaze with his angry fire. We fled into the night, leaving everything behind," explained Balin Pop.

Stavros came to Comet Fox and said, "The demon's anger must lash out. A demon must destroy. Since we are keeping ahead of him, I suspect he's destroying everything else in his path along the way in frustration."

"Ketsueki's murdering because he cannot face us, is that what you mean to say?" asked Comet Fox.

Stavros nodded.

"Would one of you happen to be Xiao-tep?" asked Balin Pop.

Comet Fox's ears pricked up at this. He said, "What of Xiao-tep?"

"The demon called for Xiao-tep. He said if Xiao-tep does not appear before him to fight, he will continue to destroy and murder throughout world."

Comet Fox sighed at this.

"Am I to assume none of you are Xiao-tep, then?" asked Balin Pop.

Comet Fox shook his head. "Xiao-tep knows of Ketsueki Sato's presence in the world, but he will not face him."

"Then we have to face him," said Stavros. "We must make a stand and fight Ketsueki."

Comet Fox looked to Alecto. He said, "No, we cannot."

"Then the demon will continue his wrath," Stavros spat.

"Alecto and Eloqua cannot fight!" argued Comet Fox.

"I have been teaching Eloqua the use of weapons. She may not have our skills yet but she can help more than hinder at this point in her training," said Stavros. "We must fight the demon or let the world continue to suffer!"

"And what of Alecto?" asked Comet Fox.

"We will find for her a good hiding place before the fight."

"And should Ketsueki find her?"

"We will not allow that!"

Comet Fox shook his head, "You know as well as I that all the preparation in the world cannot truly bring us to the foot of battle. Every detail in a fight must be scrutinize as the fight unfolds and when a weakness is found, it must be exploited. Ketsueki is an old and wise demon, a demon that once had tricked me into being his slave. He will know the course of battle as much as we and we cannot control every detail. He will also be looking for weaknesses and he will be looking, most of all, for Alecto."

"Listen to this man," Stavros pointed at Balin Pop, "the demon's mind is clouded with thoughts of Xiao-tep! He'll not want Alecto!"

"But what if he should find Alecto?" asked Comet Fox.

"He won't!"

Comet Fox stepped closer to the rat and said gently, "But what if he does?"

Stavros sighed. Said he, "We both know what would happen."

Comet Fox nodded. "My task from the first day has been to protect the Little Empress. I will not stray from that path, Stavros."

"Then, perhaps," Stavros' words came slowly, thoughtfully, "we should part ways. You should take Alecto to safety while the rest of us remain behind to fight."

Comet Fox sighed with frustration. "And where would you go? What would you do?"

Stavros asked of Balin Pop, "Where is the nearest town?"

Balin Pop pointed to the south and west and said, "Liu-wal. It is, I could guess, a half day's travel on foot. We were going there at first, but then thought better of it. If the demon Ketsueki is traveling the merchant paths from town to town, Liu-wal shall be his next destination, so we steered ourselves north to these woods and now here we are."

"Will Ketsueki have made it there yet?" asked the rat.

Balin Pop shook his head. "He came slowly into our town and left the same way. I suspect he's taking his time, reveling in his destruction. I would suppose you could make it to Liu-wal before the demon."

Stavros looked to Comet Fox. "I will meet Ketsueki in Liu-wal and there lay a trap for him. When he comes to burn the town, I shall strike him down."

"You speak with a fool's tongue," said Comet Fox. "Once I fought Ketsueki Sato. I alone could not have defeated him. It took the combined efforts of myself, Wu Chan Chu, Xiao-tep and many others to bring down the demon. Though he has a new form, we cannot expect him to be any weaker. Stavros... friend," Comet Fox spoke these words pleadingly, "you alone cannot stand against him. You cannot defeat ketsueki Sato."

Stavros eyed the fox-god. His hand went to the hilt of his sword. He felt the weapon a moment before saying, "I cannot continue to run. I cannot allow Ketsueki to continue his reign of terror. I was born to fight. This may be my destiny."

"But you cannot defeat the demon!" Comet Fox cried out.

"Then that, too," answered Stavros, "may be my destiny."

"I would go with you," spoke Faryad. "I tire of the pursuit, as well. Not only is the demon hounding my trail, but Sharif follows. I wish to make a stand, as well."

"I will stay at Faryad's side," added Yele Prin Prin.

Comet Fox considered the three that desired the fight. He said, "I agree that we must fight at some point, that the infernal Ketsueki Sato must be put down... but not at this time. Alecto's safety must be our priority. And then we can turn our attentions towards the demon."

"Your promise to Alecto is that," said Stavros, "it is your promise, not ours. Though I doubt any of us would argue your heart's nobleness, we cannot allow more lives to be sacrificed for hers."

"I wish I had killed myself last night!" Alecto screamed at Stavros. "I wish you'd not stopped me!"

Eloqua wrapped her arms about Alecto as she fell to the ground, weeping without end.

Comet Fox cocked his head at Stavros. "What happened last night?"

"It is true, the Little Empress wished to take her own life last night," sighed Stavros.

"And what did you do?"

"I simply spoke with her. She gave up the branch she was going to use on her belly willingly."

"I hate my mother!" cried Alecto. "I hate myself! I no longer wish life! I wish the demon would come here and take my life and end it all! Ketsueki Sato! Be my savior! End my life!"

Alecto's words echoed throughout the woods. Eloqua clasped her hand over Alecto's mouth to silence her.

The gathered band looked about, listening, watching, waiting to see if Ketsueki had heard, waiting to see if the demon would come.

"We can only pray the infernal did not hear," said Balin Pop and Jasmyn nodded in agreement.

"Comet Fox," said Stavros in a low voice, "Alecto is badly hurt. Her heart yearns for an end to this. Take her in your arms and carry her to the Peony without the rest of us. Those of us that wish to make a stand will do so at Liu-wal. This should give you enough time to get her to the safety of Wu Chan Chu's care."

"Wish that I could know you three were enough to defeat the demon," answered Comet Fox. "But I cannot say. I beg you all to reconsider. I beg you to remain with me as I travel to the Peony Teahouse to find Wu Chan Chu. She is the greatest fighter I've ever seen. Her fists and knees would be of great help to us."

"All this fighting discourages me," complained Sarut as he flew to rest atop Faryad's shoulder.

"Stay quiet," warned Faryad.

"Why should I? They yell so that the Many Gods Within the Many Heavens should hear. Why should I remain silent?"

Upon hearing Sarut's small voice, Stavros snapped at him, "Quiet, little bug, or I'll squash you as you perch upon Faryad. And I could do so without rustling a single hair on his face."

"Bring any harm onto Sarut," warned Faryad, "and I'll shatter both you and your sword into many pieces."

Stavros' pride willed him to say, "I would cut you in twain, first."

"Do not snap at the bug, Stavros. Attacking the weaker is far beneath you. I've never seen you do this before," scolded Comet Fox.

"Do not look down upon Stavros," urged Faryad. "Sarut has a way with his mouth that causes anger. It is not a flaw in Stavros, but in Sarut."

"How dare you!" cried Sarut. "First you kill my family, now you insult me! Were I larger I would strike you down!"

"I have apologized for what I have done to you and your family, Sarut. I fear I cannot do much more. I've brought you with me so that I may care for you, to repay my debt I owe to you. I will not, however, kowtow to your every whim for every whim that you may have may not always be righteous. What good would it do to promise obeisance if you are to have me conduct ill? As I am trying to live a righteous life and repay my debts of the past, I will hold you in the same regard."

"Do you suggest to command me?" defied Sarut. "Those are very many pretty words, Faryad the Exploding Sword, but do not think me ignorant. I know you've given a poetic flair to telling me to shut my mouth!"

"In essence, perhaps-"

"No more with your lies and flair!" Sarut interrupted Faryad. "Perhaps the rat is right. I think our parting is imminent. I would not stay it's arrival. Fare well to you, Faryad. May the demons of the Many Hells pursue you to death and beyond!"

Sarut took to flight. Comet Fox lifted into the air after him and gave chase, calling him, "Sarut! Wait! Talk with me!"

Comet Fox followed Sarut some ways through the cypress woods, his comet's tail streaking behind, Sarut fly with desperation and anger. Finally Sarut landed on the back of a needle-like leaf of a cypress and Comet Fox passed him by, having lost sight of the small ladybug. When Comet Fox returned to the others, Sarut slipped from behind the cypress leaf and flew from the woods unseen.

"I've lost him," said Comet Fox to the others.

"It may be best he's not with us at the moment," said Faryad, "though I feel horrible for I know from whence his anger comes."

"Do not consider yourself the source of all anger," soothed Yele Prin Prin. "Sarut has the right to be angry with you, but at some point he has chosen anger over forgiveness, pain over pleasure. You have made the attempt to help him and you can do nothing more."

"Take the Little Empress," said Stavros to Comet Fox, "remove her from this place. Get her as far away from here as possible."

Comet Fox nodded. "I do not agree with our parting ways," he said, "but I agree I can fly with Alecto in my arms more swiftly than if we remain grounded and running."

"Get her to the protection of Wu Chan Chu," agreed Stavros.

"What of me?" asked Eloqua.

"I cannot carry you both and maintain my flight for long," admitted Comet Fox. "I may be a god, but my strength is not as apt as my guile."

"Than I must stay behind," Eloqua realized. "You would trust your own life with this Wu Chan Chu?"

"I would," answered Comet Fox, "and I have."

"Then I also trust her. Take Alecto to her side. I will remain and, if I have to, I will join the fight."

Snow Fox stepped forward. He said, "Brother, I do not wish to part with you, but I cannot follow."

"I will return as swiftly as I can," answered Comet Fox.

Comet Fox gather the sobbing Alecto up in his arms. Eloqua stroked the small mustache at his maw and kissed his nose. She struggled with words and her emotions at the moment of parting. All she could say was, "Please..."

Comet Fox nodded. "With my life, I will protect her."

He then looked at Stavros and said, "Once she is safely with Wu Chan Chu, I will fly as fast as I can to Liu-wal and meet you there before the fight begins."

Stavros nodded.

The fox-god took to the air and was soon flying northward towards the Peony Teahouse, the others watching him go.

Stavros then turned to Balin Pop and said, "I assume we also will part?"

Balin Pop nodded. "I think that would be best."

Jasmyn tugged at her husband's tattered robe and said, "Balin, perhaps we should accompany them."

"What is this? Why would you want to face the demon again?" her husband asked.

"For all we know we may be the last of our people, the last of Caerraul. I would assume that if we could get away, however, others did as well. But we've no children, no home, we've barely the clothes we wear. If anyone is to bring honor and glory to our little town, let it be the two of us. Let us join these people in their fight against the demon that would destroy us."

"Glory and honor are not good reasons to fight," said Stavros. "One should fight only when it is the right thing to do."

"But you go to fight, correct?" asked Jasmyn.

Stavros nodded.

"Because it is the right thing to do?"

Again Stavros nodded.

"Then we should join you."

"If we were going to fight, dear Jasmyn," said the frustrated and fearful Balin Pop, "then why didn't we last night? Why did we spend the night running for our lives?"

"Because we were afraid," answered Jasmyn. "And maybe because it was the right thing to do. It allowed us to cross paths with gods."

"There was only one god here," corrected Stavros, "and he left."

"We still crossed his path and the paths of Blessed Ones," said Jasmyn.

Balin Pop sighed. He looked to Stavros, Yele Prin Prin, Faryad and Eloqua. He said, "I suppose being in your company would be a good thing. Jasmyn and I can always run again if we need to. Dear wife, are you certain about this?"

"As certain as the day I married you, dear husband," answered Jasmyn.

"Climb on the horse Gullnir with Eloqua, then," Stavros instructed Jasmyn, then asked of Balin Pop, "Will you be able to keep up?"

"I will do my best," said Balin Pop.

Stavros bowed slightly. He introduced himself, "I am Stavros the Red. Follow me."


Part 2

Lei-zi came to Taleisin amidst a field of butterflies. She was in awe of the layers of colors they created throughout the Mountain That Lives in the Sky and the air around it. She stood upon the soft grass watching the flitting and fluttering of the thousands and thousands of butterflies. She held out a cupped hand and guided a Rhetenor Blue Morpho named Zyanya closer to her. The butterfly landed on her hand and crested her first finger to look at the goddess.

"Little one," said Lei-zi, "are there always so many butterflies in Taleisin?"

"No," said Zyanya. "We have come here recently, fleeing for our lives."

"Why do you flee? What would have you so frightened?"

"A demon has come into the world," said Zyanya. "And he means to destroy all life. Now we fear being here and are discussing flight to a new land. A mere day ago the demon called for the blood of Xiao-tep, Taleisin's caretaker. Taleisin is no longer safe."

Lei-zi considered this. "What is the name of this demon?"

"Ketsueki Sato. Xiao-tep has faced him once before and defeated him. Now the demon seeks his vengeance against the fish-god."

"Where might I find Xiao-tep?" asked Lei-zi.

Zyanya hesitated. She asked, "You are not in league with the demon, are you? I would not deliver death unto Xiao-tep."

"No," Lei-zi shook her head vigorously. "I am Lei-zi, Xiao-tep's mother."

Zyanya thought this over, then said, "He is atop the mountain where he communes with the dove Aglina."

"Thank you, little one."

Lei-zi released Zyanya and the butterfly joined the many layers of flying colors swirling about Taleisin. The goddess then ascended the mountain.

Xiao-tep was the first to notice her coming. He stood from where he was sitting next to Aglina's nest as they spoke and ate fruit. He watched his mother coming carefully and welcomed her with a hug and kiss when she drew near.

"Mother!" cried Xiao-tep with a smile.

"Hello, son," Lei-zi smiled in return. They embraced and Lei-zi touched lightly the ankh now glowing golden upon his head. She said, "You've undergone a change."

"Yes, mother, I have."

"Has it been a good change?"

"I believe so."

Lei-zi smiled at this.

"Mother, this is Aglina the Dove. She resides here upon Taleisin and is a dear friend. Won't you join us for a lunch of fruits?"

"I would like that," answered Lei-zi.

Together they sat, eating fruits and chatting idly about Taleisin. Xiao-tep told a few of his tales to his mother as he broke apart a mango and fed bits of it to Aglina.

"Have you spoken with father?" Xiap-tep uneasily asked.

"I have," said Lei-zi. "And recently."

"Is he well?" asked Xiao-tep.

This question surprised Lei-zi. She folded her hands upon her lap and eyed her son. She swallowed a bit of pomegranate and asked, "Xiao-tep, please forgive me, but how is it that you would care about a father that would have you dead? he still desires your death, you know."

Xiao-tep sighed at this. He merely said, "It is his way, mother."

Lei-zi thought this over. She asked, "Xiao-tep, what ha become of you? A murderous father like Hapi would surely create a child of woe and anger. Where is your anger? What has become of Xiao-tep the Ankh-fish of 100,000 Sorrows?"

Xiao-tep looked down upon the plain at the foot of the mountain. He said, "It was there, mother, below us that I took my last life. I killed Fei Li Mi upon Taleisin and struggled with the killing for some time. But then the world opened up for me and became as a beacon, a light and - as I sit before you I swear this to you - it was as though I could see the very Hands of the Cosmos themselves and their intended destiny. My vision has since become muddy, but the feeling I got that day remains. I cannot say I know the truth in all things, but I know murder can no longer be a part of my path. I must instead love the world. And why shouldn't I? It is a glorious world, even when it is ruled or stained by ugliness. As a demon must be demonic, so my father must desire my death. I cannot say he truly hates me and that eases my pain. He does not know me. True hatred cannot be bred through ignorance, though often hatred is the child of ignorance. This is the case for my father. he does not know me. He cannot hate nor love me. But to be angry and afraid that I am alive is in him. He has much to lose if my existence becomes known to the many gods."

"But Xiao-tep," said his mother, "the gods know."

Xiao-tep looked at his mother. "Do they? How?"

"Freyr had discovered the truth of your being and when he came to me with the obvious questions, I could not lie to him. A council within the Courtyard of the Seven Jade Doors was held and it was decided your presence is requested within the same courtyard to be introduced to the many gods."

Xiao-tep looked over the world, then to his mother again. "What effect will this have on my father?"

"He is angry," Lei-zi could not lie, "and he is not in general favor with the gods, but he will deal with this as he must."

"Is that why you've come to Taleisin? To retrieve me for this meeting of the gods?"

Lei-zi nodded, "And to visit with my beloved child."

Xiao-tep smiled at this.

"Tell me more of your adventures. And please tell me of your friends!" urged Lei-zi as she ate another bit of pomegranate.

Xiao-tep smiled. "I have been blessed, mother. My friends are many. Did you know I've a half-sister? I am fortunate to be able to call her friend."

"Oh?" asked Lei-zi.


Part 3

Comet Fox came streaking across the sky above the Peony Teahouse. He circled once then landed. Alecto had fallen asleep, exhausted from emotion, in his arms on the way to the teahouse. Comet Fox woke her and said, "Dear Little Empress, we are safely here. We have come to the Peony Teahouse."

He set Alecto on the ground. A few passersby eyed them, though not for long.

Alecto wiped at her face and looked up at the glorious teahouse. "It's beautiful," she said.

"It is not as it seems," Comet Fox informed her. "It can be quite the den of ill-will."

"Where would we find Wu Chan Chu?"

"If she is here she will be the house champion. We will go inside to find her."

"House champion?"

Comet Fox nodded. "Remain close to me and do not speak to anyone."

Alecto felt a sense of danger and wonder at once.

Together the two entered the Peony Teahouse.

Comet Fox quickly found Sal Igo and questioned him of Wu Chan Chu's whereabouts.

"What do you mean she's not here?" demanded Comet Fox.

"She left," explained Sal Igo. "We have a new champion, one called Iron Shirt. His skills are far superior to Wu Chan Chu's and he will not run out on me on any little whim. So when Wu Chan Chu came here looking for her old position I turned her away."

Comet Fox shook his head. "That was a stupid thing to do."

"Why? Should I feel threatened by the mighty and powerful frog?" Sal Igo mocked.

"No, because she is a great draw and your losing money every day she's not your house champion."

"Only if she remained here, but her history with the Peony shows she cannot be trusted to do so. She comes and goes and then I have periods wherein my profits are slack. Iron Shirt is a constant and steady money-maker. He may not be quite the draw, but he more than makes up for it in the long run."

"Where did Wu Chan Chu go?" demanded Comet Fox.

Sal Igo shrugged. "Can anyone say? That dastardly frog goes where she will and when she will. She could be in Taleisin for all I know."

"How long ago did you last see her?"

"Three, maybe four days ago. I cannot remember. Her presence here was so unimportant to me."

Comet Fox grabbed up Sal Igo by his robes and said, "Listen to my words, profiteer: When next you see Wu Chan Chu tell her Comet Fox seeks here. It is a matter od dire importance."

Afraid, Sal Igo raised his hands and said, "I will convey the message."

Comet Fox let go of the Peony's proprietor.

Said Sal Igo, "Now, unless you wish to make a bet on the next fight or be in the fight yourself, go away from me. I've business to conduct."

Comet Fox glowered at Sal Igo, grabbed Alecto's hand and lead her out of the Peony. They stood side-by-side outside the teahouse's doors. Comet Fox looked in every direction, wondering which way Wu Chan Chu might have gone.

"Where do we go now?" asked Alecto.

Comet Fox sighed. He said, "I suppose our only option is to return to Liu-wal to meet up with Stavros and the others. Or, I suppose I could try to find Balori in Ife and leave you with him, but I'm uncertain where exactly in Ife he is and I'm not familiar with his country."

"Does that mean we're returning to Eloqua and the others?"

"I'm afraid so," said Comet Fox.

"Oh," said Alecto. "Can't we look for Wu Chan Chu?"

"I do not know where else she could be. I cannot search the world over looking for her. If she is not here, she could be anywhere."

Comet Fox gathered up Alecto in his arms once more and flew from the Peony Teahouse.

"What about Xiao-tep? Could you take me to him?"

"No. Ketsueki wants both of you and Xiao-tep now refuses to fight. Taking you to Taleisin would be most dangerous."

"Oh," said Alecto.

As they traveled, streaking across the sky, Alecto asked of Comet Fox, "Do you ever wonder why the Cosmos made us, Comet Fox?"

"There have been times when I've questioned my purpose," admitted Comet Fox.

They traveled on some ways more before Comet Fox asked, "Did you truly intend to kill yourself?"

Alecto nodded. "I did."

"How did Stavros stop you?"

"He merely came to my side and spoke with me. He asked for the branch I was going to use to impale myself and I handed it over. He then covered me again and made sure I was warm to go back to sleep." She then mused, "He is a good person."

Comet Fox agreed, "He is also a good friend. It hurts me that he and I argued."

"Perhaps you should speak with him on the matter," suggested Alecto. "Apologize for yelling at him."

"I am not sorry for trying to get you to safety," said Comet Fox.


"But I am sorry I yelled at my friend," he added.

"Speak with him, Comet Fox. Speaking with him made me feel better and made me give up the branch."

Again they were silent for a while. Then Alecto asked, "This fight with Ketsueki is going to be bloody, isn't it?"

Comet Fox reluctantly nodded. "Fights with demons are always bloody."

"Will you hide me, as Stavros suggested, then go to fight?"

"I will."

Alecto fought against tears. She asked, "What if Ketsueki does find me?"

"I will protect you," said Comet Fox. "With my life... remember?"

Alecto smiled. She gave the fox-god a small kiss, then nuzzled her head into his shoulder.

Comet Fox flew through the sky, his tail streaking with mad brilliance.


Hope you enjoyed! Check back next week for Act III!

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