It is not a big town, but it is crowded with people from day to day. Here lives, first of all, owners of shops, inns, and taverns, as well as manufacturers of weaponry, magical items, and other supplies. The rest of the population consists travelers - bounty hunters, merchants, performers from circus - you name it. The economy of this town depends on these travelers, whom in return see this town as a major turnpike.

This is town is called Arthel.

The traffic in the streets of Arthel was as busy as usual, even at night. At the mouth of the street near the periphery of the town stood two boys - one about seventeen years old and the other around eleven.

"Here we are," said Syaoran. "Arthel is the closest town we can reach today. We should be able to find a hotel with a reasonable price here."

"Umm, Li?" Zephel said, very cautiously, "Do we really, really, really have to go to Crystaline?"

Syaoran looked at Zephel with the corner of his eye. "What's the matter with you? You just have a real antagonist feeling for something there, do you?"

"Of course I do!!" Zephel then looked down, shifting his hands uneasily. "Besides, you don't have any urgent business there, do you?"

".... And what if I insist going there anyways?"

"Bully!!" Zephel's boomed with rage. "I have even begged you!!"

"That's your way of begging?"

"Well," Zephel was red to the tips of his ears by now, and every syllable from his month decreased in volume after another. "There should be some room for negotiation....."

Syaoran just starred down at Zephel for a moment. "Alright then," he sighed, holding his forehead defiantly. "Alright. I thought I will have a better chance of finding a commission in Crystaline, but if I can find one here that doesn't require us to go there...."

"Really?!" Zephel beamed before Syaoran finished.

"It just might be for the best. After all, a weird kid like you might have good reasons to stay away from Crystaline."

"ME weird?" The glee previously on Zephel's expression evaporated instantaneously. "I dare you to call yourself anything better than that."

"Yeah yeah," Syaoran headed down the busy streets without looking at Zephel. "Have to find a place to stay. It's already night."

"Hey! Wait up!"


The Rune Seekers

by Jia Li Labyrinth

Chapter 3

Innkeeper's Daughter


They finally found the coziest inn they could afford. The first thing that came into sight as they entered was the dinning lounge. On the two sides of the lounge, the ground level was raised and covered with tatami. The terraced area also have tables installed on it, with mattresses placed along each table, while the ground have chairs and tables made out of pine, the same material that covered the ground. Facing the main entrance was a bar, behind which the kitchen was located and, presently, the innkeeper stood.

Noticing the arrival of Syaoran and Zephel, the innkeeper led them into their room, and warned them around the quiet hours. Unlike the other inns, the rooms here were covered with tatami.

"And we have to sleep on the floor?!" Zephel certainly had never seen any inn like this in his life. "Can't believe it took two hours for us to find this inn," he then yawned. "Man! I'm exhausted."

"It's a nice room, considering the price, " said Syaoran. "It looks like the bar permits posted commissions as well. Maybe I can go down there tomorrow morning and ask if we can find a commission here."

"That innkeeper is always wearing the expression of a poker card," said Zephel, as the two of them were laying out their beds. "Sure gives me the creeps."

"Is that so?" said Syaoran. "We will probably be the creepy ones if they found out about that stone."

"....hump!" Zephel slipped himself into bed. "This is just ironic."

"What is?"

"That I ended up retrieving a Rune Stone at the end. When the reason I ran away was to have nothing to do with them for good."

Syaoran got under his blanket as well. "You are a shaman, aren't you?"


"A shaman. One that can use the power of the Runes."

"Oh, a shaman," Zephel fell silent for a moment, then continued, "No, I won't say I am. I know someone who is, but that's the closest connection I have with the Runes." He then turned to face Syaoran, "How about you, then?"

"Me?" Syaoran replied with a little astonishment. "Why do you ask?"

"Come on, you know you have something to do with it. By theory, a Rune Stone will not respond to anything, except..." Zephel then turned and cushioned his head inside his folded arms, "the presence of a shaman who's aligned with the deity magistrating that Rune."

Syaoran turned to look at Zephel, "What are you trying to get to?"

"I'm saying the Rune Stone we got today responded to your magic! Your thunderbolts were in beat with that Rune."

Syaoran looked at Zephel in silence for a moment. "Fool," he turned away, his eyes starring into the ceiling. "If I am a shaman, I should be able to detect that Rune without any problem, shouldn't I?"

"What are you talking about? Isn't there at least one moment when you sensed something abnormal, when that Rune is nearby?"

"......Is there?" Syaoran tried to remember the first time he ran into the bull, the sudden quickening heartbeat he had right before he saw it.

"But that could well be a plain heartburn," he thought to himself.

"Yo, Li," Zephel pushed on, "Isn't there?"

"It's all in your head, kid," Syaoran closed his eyes. "Go to sleep now."

Zephel looked at Syaoran for a few seconds, then turned away from Syaoran, burying himself further under his blanket, "Gees...." He then looked at his backpack, where the Rune Stone was in, and shut his eyes.

A blurred figure appeared in front of him, blended with white and auburn. The figure was of short stature, but he then discovered that he had shrunk in size as well. Then, as if his body had a mind of its own, his right hand went to grasp something from the blurred figure in front of him. The smudged pile of lights gave out a short shriek. Then he heard another voice coming out of his throat in a higher pitch than his own, "Your power is too weak........"

Syaoran woke with a start in cold sweat. He sat up and looked outside. The blue sky was stained with a tint of gray that had yet to leave with the passing night.

"That is a peculiar dream though," he murmured. Nothing special appeared in it, yet it managed to leave him shivering afterwards.

"Well, I might as well get up now. That dream drove away my last bit of drowsiness."

Syaoran went to the public bathroom down the hall. He returned to the room after washing himself, where he found Zephel sound asleep and..... a weird looking box  sitting in front of the sliding doors.

"What is this?" Syaoran knelt down and felt the top of the box. Could this be one of Zephel's weird gadgets again? His finger then came to a circular trigger, which he pressed down intuitively. A cone of light projected itself from an opening of the box onto a blank spot of the wall. Syaoran starred at the projection dazed for a few minutes. Then his expression tightened nauseously.

"Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh~~~~!" His yell reached a sound level around forty decibels - definitely enough to wake Zephel up.

"Oh~~ the sun's not even up yet," Zephel supported himself up, sounding both sluggish and annoyed. "What the heck is it, Li?"

Syaoran didn't respond. Zephel followed Syaoran's frozen stare onto the projection on the wall. His eyebrows switched at what he saw.

The projections played out the scenes when Syaoran, Zephel, and their mare ran towards the island in the middle, when they were flushed onto the roof of the ruins, when the bull turned back for the Tarrars, up to when Syaoran let out a thunderbolt spell.

"WHOSE DOING IS THIS!!!???" Zephel bellowed in a voice that must have been over sixty decibels when the projection played out Zephel and Syaoran pulling the Rune Stone out of the bull's back. At that same moment, the doors slid open.

"Are you two awake? It's awfully early." The two of them turned their face - still pale as dirt - towards the door. There stood a girl about fourteen years old, holding a basket of laundries. "Breakfast will not be ready within an hour, but the hot spring bath is open now. Why don't you guys go down there and try it out?"

But the two boys didn't pay attention to any of the girl's words. "Do you know.... ummm....," Syaoran pointed feebly to the box. "You don't happen to know who... I mean..... anything about this, do you?"

"Oh that," the girl smiled while her left hand brushed her short hair. "I hope you are satisfied with our special room service."

"Special room serv....," Syaoran muttered confusingly, until he realized what had been going on, "You~~~~!!"

"This is a neat stuff we have here, isn't it?" The girl was still beaming as she picked up the box. "This thing can capture moving images and store them on films."

"You saw us there!! You actually saw us!!!" Zephel jabbed his fist up and down as he questioned the girl accusingly, "What's the big idea here?! Showing us something like that!"

"Aww, don't be so harsh, I just want to make a deal. You guys are shamans of the Runes, right?"
"No we're not," Zephel blurted out. "No - we're - NOT."

"But you know so much about it," the girl bent closer towards Zephel's face. "And I am at the knowledge that a Rune only resonates with the power of the shaman that could seal it," at this, her eyes turned sheepishly towards Syaoran.

"Who are you?" Syaoran straighten himself up to interrogate the girl. "What could you possibly want from us, anyways?"

"It's nothing, really," her hand trailed along the edge of the box. "I'm no shaman, but it just so happens that I'm interested in the Runes myself."

"What's the point?" said Zephel. "You want the stone?"

"No~~~," the girl threw Zephel a 'radiant' smile. "I want to join you guys on your journey."

"Forget about it!" Zephel turned away from the girl with his arms crossed. "We ain't taking no girls with us. They're nothing but trouble."

"I'm not fond of that idea either," said Syaoran, in a relatively controlled tone. "A traveler's life is dangerous. I doubt Osokin and I have the power to protect a defenseless girl on the way."

"You guys are so sure that I will be dragging the two of you down, aren't you?" The girl's smile turned into a mischievous smirk, "But you will HAVE to accept it."

"Or what?" Zephel snapped back.

Just then, another voice came into the room. "Akiko, what are you doing?" Syaoran and Zephel noticed the innkeeper by the door. "The tables aren't arranged yet. Putting away some laundry shouldn't have taken that long."

"Oh, Dad," the girl replied.

So the girl was the daughter of the innkeeper. Zephel might have complained to the innkeeper about his daughter's horrible behavior, but the girl spoke before he had the chance.

"Just give me a minute. These two gentlemen here were asking me about the news. I was just telling them about the disturbance near Crystaline."

"Crystaline?" the innkeeper sounded puzzled, even with his flat tone. "I haven't heard anything from there."

"The words have only spread out yesterday," said the girl. At the same time, Syaoran's heart was beating with an ominous vibe. "The fishermen there reported an unusual increase of slut in the Crystal Lake. It seems as if the ancestral temple on the lake is vandalized, too."

("Oh shit!") Syaoran felt like every piece inside of him was being ripped away. He turned to look at Zephel, who stretched his pale lips wide across his face as if restraining from vomiting.

"Yeah, the bridge is now a wreck. Everything inside the temple is messed up as well."

"Is that so?" said the innkeeper. "If I recalled correctly, Prince Neidhart was repairing the temple."

"I heard they were starting at the underground level first. Many parts of the temple are worn out, and they have to make sure the base is sturdy enough before carrying on with the rest of the reconstruction."

"Guess it's Neidhart's ill luck that this happened. But the whole thing is just bizarre. What can possibly damage the temple whiling leaving sluts behind? Young man here," the innkeeper turned to Syaoran, "what do you think caused this?"

"Umm.... yeah... I....," the best way Syaoran could go through this conversation now was pretending he was thinking, lest the innkeeper would notice something amiss.

Then the girl spoke up again. "The explanation they came up so far is an obscured pattern of the river's tide. Of course, if it's of human cause, I'm sure Neidhart will be happy to know who's responsible for it." Slowly, Zephel turned and shoot the girl a venomous look before she finished.

"I spent too much time over chitchatting," the innkeeper concluded. "I have to prepare for breakfast. Akiko, finish whatever you have to do here as soon as possible. I really could use some help down there."

The innkeeper left the room. When it sounded like the innkeeper was far enough, Zephel hissed at the girl with a deadly air, "Listen, if you think you can threaten us...."

"But I can," the girl gave him another 'radiant' smile of hers, "can't I?"

Zephel's inside hardened, while Syaoran could hardly feel any warmth within.

"Enough with rubbish, now. That will make us a team from now on. My name is Akiko Kurata, future mirage collector. And I heard a lot about you." Akiko turned to Syaoran and took his hand. "Li Syaoran from the famous Li family in the north. I've always wanted to meet you."

"Oh, do you?" Syaoran said coldly, "Then maybe you can consider giving us back that...."

"And you are?" Akiko cut Syaoran short and turned to Zephel.

"WHAT?!" Zephel shouted in disbelieve, "Do you actually expect us to give you our names after what you've done?!"

"Oh, I know Li calls you Osokin," Akiko replied casually, "which will be fine for me to get by. But I reckon that's not your first name, and I would hate to call you by the last name - it's rather cold that way, you know?"

"Have you no shame?! Talking to us as if we're buddies after blackmailing us!"

"Come, come, Osokin. Do be a pal. Else there's no telling where that film will get to."

"That's it!" Syaoran, who had been restraining his temper all this time, could stand this no more and shot his hand towards Akiko's arm at his first word. "I never use force on women, but that box is not leaving this room."

But his hand got nothing except thin air as Akiko dodged swiftly.

"Using force will not work on me," Akiko held up the box with triumph. "My mother had taught me everything she's learned from the drama troupe."

"What kind of drama troupe teaches that kind of stuff?!" saying that, Zephel tried to grab her from behind - another blank shot as Akiko swirled aside.

Syaoran summoned all his moves in wish to get hold on Akiko, only ending up chasing her, who was swirling around like a spinning top. "Damn it! She's too quick!"

"O ho ho ho~! Give up now. You will never catch me like.... Ah~~!!" Just when Akiko was gloating, something got tangled between her feet and caused her to trip. As she fell onto the tatami, the box slid out of her hand and landed near Zephel, who was now holding his crossbow.

"If I can't get you even with my inventions, then I'm no longer Zephel." He then picked up the box. "I do have to say, though, this junk here is new to me."

"Oh... how could I be so careless?" Akiko winced in a tiny voice while she supported herself sadly on the tatami. The pathetic display almost evoked Syaoran's sympathy.

"Man, you sure are a handful," Syaoran huffed defiantly. "We'll pretend this has never happened, but you better change that troublesome streak of yours, else you might get into a mess which you can't pull yourself out of." Syaoran then turn to Zephel, "May want to pack up our things after breakfast. We might leave in the afternoon."

"You guys are leaving?" Akiko lifted her head up.

"YES we might be leaving!!" after this incidence, Zephel certainly had no desire to stay in this inn, "You have a problem with that?"

Zephel and Syaoran were about to leave the room when Akiko called out to them. "Mr. Li, and Osokin here. I know this is an unpleasant way for us to meet, but meeting  new people is a precious experience. I wish you can accept this as a token." With this, Akiko tossed out a circular object.

Syaoran caught it and took a minute to inspect the object. It appeared to be a long, thin piece of layer scrolled into a cylindrical bundle that fits nicely inside his palm, and its silvery surface gleamed with a band of rainbow. "What's this?"

"Well, the mirage you saw back then were kind of 'written' on scrolls like these," Akiko pointed to the box. "If you open the mirage catcher there, you would find the same thing."

"This junk?" Zephel fumbled the box, until he pressed on a switch that jarred one side of the box open. Inside the box were numerous pieces of gadgets, some of which he could name, and another cylinder scroll placed in the midst.

"This one here caught the scenes that night....," murmured Syaoran, and shifted his attention to the scroll in his hand. "And this one will be?"

"A duplicate," answered Akiko. "Same mirage with the one inside the mirage catcher right now."

"...Oh....," Syaoran responded passively. Then a thought of horror struck Syaoran, "and..... how many other duplicates do you have?"

"What? You need another one? Here," Akiko tossed out another silver scroll, "There you go." The scroll only bounced off Syaoran's forehead, who was obviously stunned.

"I can't believe this!! Give them to me - ALL OF THEM!!" Zephel was going to leap towards Akiko, when four more scrolls hit him - two of them right into his face.

Akiko took the opportunity and slipped herself to the door. "There's plenty where that came from. Might as well go with the flow, guys. You won't regret it."

Syaoran, still stunned, only had his back facing Akiko and didn't seem to note a word from her. Zephel, on contrary, was erupting, "Stop playing smart with us! What do you think you can do with those scrolly things without THIS here?" He held out the box.

"You can keep the mirage catcher, if you want. I can conjure those mirages with illusion magic anyways," Akiko's figure disappeared behind the door for only five seconds, after which she casually peeked into the room again. "Oh, and..... Zephel - did I get that right? - I would appreciate it if you can put the mirage catcher back to my room. And while you're at it, can you put those laundries back to the cupboard, please?"

Zephel and Syaoran could hear Akiko hustling down the hallway, which was followed by nothing save cricket chirps.

"Is it just me, or can women look innocent no matter what they're thinking?!" Zephel was the first to break the silence.

"We've just arrived here, and trouble is already knocking on our door," Syaoran wore a loathing frown.

"Li, we have to find all those scrolly things," Zephel tugged Syaoran's trousers as he spoke with exasperation, "else we'll become her slaves for sure!"

Syaoran went into contemplation, and turned to pull out his compass board out from his backpack. "If those scrolls are magical artifact, then maybe I can track it down."

With his hands holding the board, Syaoran sank into deep concentration, murmuring,
"Spirits of the Four Seas, by the name of the Jade Emperor, Clear a path for me, Show us to the Source."

A hemispherical light emerged from the center of the board, which then shot out a beam of light. The beam went into the hallway and turned straight to the left. Syaoran and Zephel followed it down the hallway, until they saw it pointing into a closed door.

"I think this is it," said Syaoran.

"Well, then, what are we waiting for?" Zephel reached for the door in anticipation, then---
"Yo! You two. Breakfast is ready," the voice almost set Syaoran and Zephel jumping. They turned to find the innkeeper behind them, holding the basket of laundry.

"There's nothing interesting there; only the rooms my family lives in. Ahhh hmm...," the innkeeper noticed the box Zephel was holding. "Isn't that Akiko's mirage catcher? First leaving the laundry in customer's room, and now this....," the innkeeper held his head and let out a sigh, though his expression was as stoic as usual. "Well, it's nice of you guys to put this back for her, but," he snapped the box out of Zephel's hand, "she's gotta learn to take care of her stuff."

Syaoran and Zephel could only star as the innkeeper started to walk away. Then the innkeeper turned around, which startled them yet again, "Well, aren't you guys going down for breakfast?"

Now, Syaoran could have lied and said they would go later, while Zephel might argue that the man had no business telling his customers what to do.

Nevertheless, the innkeeper's word landed on them like a heavy command.

Just when the three of them entered the dinning lounge, the innkeeper tossed the box to Akiko, who was standing by a table laid with dishes, "Akiko, you left this in these boys' room. Can't you be a bit more careful?"

Akiko caught the box with suave, "Dad, you were hushing me into preparing breakfast." She then glanced at Syaoran and Zephel, who were moving towards the table in frozen aura.

"So, what's on the menu today?" asked the innkeeper.

"I made some pancakes. There's also some porridge with minced meat."

"Hopefully this should be better than yesterday."

"Geez~~ thanks for the confidence, Dad," Akiko then turned to Syaoran and Zephel, seated at the opposite side of the table. "Well, eat up. Tell me what you think of it."

Akiko was still wearing that casual smile of hers. "Oh man, might as well....," Syaoran thought to himself as he took a sip of porridge.

Zephel also assaulted the pancake with his knife and fork angrily. "Hell, I'll eat till they're broke," he then brought one torn piece of pancake into his mouth.

Then, almost simultaneously, Zephel spat out the piece of pancake while Syaoran's mouth tighten, the spoon still between his lips.

"Looks like another failure, girl," the innkeeper said in a matter-of-fact fashion.

"This thing is SOUR!!" Zephel stormed at Akiko while pointing at the pancake. "You didn't add vinegar in the mixing, did you?"

"Of COURSE not! I'm not that pathetic," Akiko defended bluntly, but her head was trying to recall the steps to mix up the flour.

Syaoran, on the other hand, pulled out the spoon from his mouth. He could have sworn by his life that the porridge tasted somewhat bitter.

"Oh, Akiko," the innkeeper supported his chin with his hand. "Kurata Inn could have got twice as many customers if you can improve your cooking."

"Is that so?" Akiko snapped back relentlessly. "I dare say we could have trice the people coming if you can treat the customers with more friendliness!"

"Sorry for the bad meal, guys," the innkeeper turned to the two boys. "My wife would have given us an eatable meal if she's around. But she's got her own business out there. Guess that means we're stuck with my daughter's bad cooking for now."

"You know, cooking isn't just a woman's job," said Akiko. "I would like to see you making something decent."

"You know the only food I could make that's eatable is oatmeal, Akiko. But we're out of stock. Why else would I let you do the cooking?"

"Oh, for the love of God," Akiko stood up, picked up the mirage catcher and a bag, and strutted towards the door.

"Where are you going?" asked Syaoran.

"What silly question. I'm going to pick up some oatmeal from the farmer's market."

"Not alone you're not!" Zephel sprang up from his seat immediately and followed Akiko.

"Oh, how sweet. You're going with me?" Akiko and Zephel went outside, with Zephel bickering on his way.

"Her mother is good with Bafal style food. Akiko must have got her cooking skills from me, then....," the man murmured to himself as Akiko started off the carriage.

"Umm..., may I use the kitchen?" Though Syaoran really wanted to search Akiko's room for the scrolls, he thought it might be better to wait until the innkeeper was distracted by something else. Besides, he was quite hungry.

"Help yourself."

The carriage drove into the suburbs of Arthel, where most of the farmlands and cottages lay. After following the sinuous path for awhile, a bazaar ,erected in the middle of the farming fields, came into view. Akiko spoke from the front seat, her hands holding the rein, "My, the wind feels good today."

"But there's no sun," grumped Zephel, sitting stiffly in the back. His body bumped up and down with the carriage.

"Nice of you to think of accompanying me out here, though," Akiko turned her attention from the road to Zephel. "When a girl runs around alone, people just start talking behind your back, know what I mean?"

"I didn't come to protect you. Just want to make sure you don't show whatever is on that scrolly thing to others."

"You mean the mirage on the mirage scroll," Akiko corrected him. "I had a lot of other mirages in my room, and I do take pride in most of my works."

"Oh, please! If you also go around and capture images of your neighbors, then I prefer not to know what are on those.... mirage scrolls."

Akiko then let out a mischievous smile and turned her focus back to the road, "You sure have a dirty mind for a little boy. Why would I want to take mirages on those kinds of stuff? Monsters and exotic creatures - those are the main subjects for my mirages."

Zephel looked at her rear for a second. "Then maybe other people are right to talk behind your back. Any person with common sense will know better than throwing herself near monsters."

"O ho ho ho~ thanks for the compliment," Akiko's laughter then receded somewhat. "I am glad, though. I saw that giant bull running near Crystal Lake that night, but I was quite surprise to see Li Syaoran there as well."

"You're speaking as if he's really something."

"You haven't heard of him? Really, Zephel. You don't go out a lot, do you?"

"Well, excuse me. Three years ago, I was cooped up inside this palace so that they can stuff me up with a bunch of things I should know."

Akiko eyed Zephel weirdly, "Interesting place you came from..."

"Okay...," unwilling to let the conversation fall upon his past (as it had with Aisha), Zephel tried to change the subject. "Li haven't told me anything about his past. So who is he?"

"Well, to start from the beginning," Akiko paused for a deep breath, "There are some sorcerer clans stationed near Northpoint, but led their lives isolated from the common world, so few people know what's going on within the clans. Rumor has it that even Albert Rudolf Isenhiem of Isthmus had went to Northpoint during his quest." She then paused for a moment. "You do know who's Isenhiem, do you?"

Zephel's expression turned into one of contempt. "That guy," he finally managed to speak, "Isn't he the one who started seeking the Runes three years ago? I heard the Seal was shattered instead, thanks to him."

"Ahh. So you heard about him?"

"Yeah," Zephel muttered unwillingly, "But what has Li got to do with all this?"

"You see, many shamans in history came from sorcerer families such as these, so it will make sense that Isenhiem went to Northpoint in search of a shaman. Well, we don't know exactly who he took with him, save from the fact that it was someone from the sorcerer clans of Northpoint. I've went through some history books, and one of the sorcerer clans is also named Li. Don't you find the relationship between Li Syaoran and that shaman rather curious?"

"You do realize you're not saying much, don't you? Li sharing the same name with that sorcerer family doesn't make him one of them."

"Ah, but the magic he uses is exactly the same as those passed down in the Li family," answered Akiko without hesitation. "Creating charms that can conjure magic - that is an ancient trick which only the Li clan succeeded in preserving."

Zephel was pushed into contemplation when Akiko continued with her theory, "And those sorcerers normally don't send any members out of their hidden territory, unless something really urgent calls for it. So why would a Li be wondering outside? Li Syaoran must have been sent by his people to gather some news about his lost kinsman."

"Isenhiem's three shamans," Zephel replied bitterly, "had perished two years ago."

"True. Rumor has it that the three shamans were killed when the Seal shattered. But there were still the Runes. No one had heard anything about them after the Seal shattered. Rumor also has it, however, that the Runes are awaking again, and some are afflicting curses upon people. This all happened two months ago - the same time Li Syaoran made his first appearance."

Her words summoned a sour pain into Zephel's heart. He - of all people - knew what the curse was about; that was the reason he came to the Empire of Rosalia. Could it be that.... Syaoran was the same? Never during those days with Syaoran had he mentioned about his connection with the sorcerers in Northpoint, but it would make sense if he was, indeed, one of them. Was he in fact looking for the Runes, like so many other people in the world? Still, ("If that's so, he certainly knew too little about the Runes,") he thought.

Then another grim thought came to him. He never thought it that way, but... could it be that Syaoran's ignorance about the Runes was merely a playact?

"What is it? You looked troubled," Akiko's words brought Zephel back to reality. "Here we are. The farmers' market."

Zephel now noticed the people passing by, carrying loads of crops or hustling their herds. There were dairy farmers selling milk under tents and grain farmers displaying sacks of rice under nothing safe the dim sunlight from the sky. The butchers hung their meats on hooks, while a couple of farmers stood on the front seat of their carts, calling out for customers to take a look at the ripe vegetables that laid on the carts' platform. Yes, one could believe this is the farmers' market....

With something lacking from the picture, too.

"This place is usually the liveliest spot in the farming section," said Akiko, "people appears out of spirit today. Guess it's the weather."

For the first time, Zephel had to agree with her. Instead of the brisk pace and rowdy atmosphere expected of a market place, only people moving in lassitude filled the market, with two or three shouts occasionally vibrating the loose air.

Akiko's carriage stopped near a tent with tall sacks of grains. She hopped off the seat, so Zephel got off as well. A mid-ages, plump man was standing under the tent, fumbling with a gigantic scale slung from the top of the tent.

"Morning, Mr. Stalviski!!"

"Ah, Akiko," the man turned, trying to lift a merry smile. "How's your father?"

"Just as usual. Always scaring customers away. What's the best oats you have?"

The man led Akiko to a bag, while Zephel played around with the huge scale. He could still hear the conversation between the grain vender and Akiko.

"Say, those grains don't look as ripe as they were last year," this was from Akiko.

"Yeah. The harvest this year is just bad," the man replied, still smiling sadly.

"Anything wrong this year? I don't recall any draughts."

"No, nothing wrong happened this year. But somehow the crops just stopped growing during summer. I can't explain it either, even with my experience as a farmer. I think everyone here has the same problem."

"I sure it's just the bad climate this year," Akiko offered a word of comfort. "Cheer up a bit. It will be better next year."

"I certainly need to believe in that - is this enough?" the man had just finished shoving oats into a smaller bag.

"Yeah, that's good enough."

"Okay then. Let me weigh this thing here - move over a bit, boy," said the man as he placed the bag onto the scale.

After purchasing the oats, along with some vegetables and meat (as it suddenly occurred to Akiko, "Say, we could use some of those, couldn't we?"), Akiko and Zephel were ready to head back.

"People are acting so gloomy here," Zephel said to Akiko as he climbed into the carriage. "Kinda makes you feel awkward....."

"Well, they did have a bad harvest this year," said Akiko. "Things like this just happens.... Oh!"

"What?" Zephel asked nervously, "There's something else you have to get?"

"That's Malcolm. He used to own a magic shop here. Just wait for me, Zephel. I'm going over to say hi."

Akiko trotted towards a man of medium height in a dark blue cloak. Not favoring the idea of Akiko conversing to others under this circumstance, Zephel hopped off the cart and staggered behind her.

"Malcolm!" Akiko called out, and the man turned around. "Hello there! I never thought I will see you out here."

As Zephel got close enough, he was appalled by what he saw. The man's face resembled eroded marble, his eyes socked out, his back slightly hunched, and his lips strained across his face miserably. The man's hallow eyes settled on Akiko at last.

"Ah, Kurata Akiko....," Malcolm slurred out. "You look as energetic as usual. I hope your father is doing well, too."

"He's getting by fine. It's sure a relief to see you outside again. You've been staying indoors all this time ever since you decided to move. We're getting worried, to be frank"

Malcolm only starred at Akiko with his hollow eyes. Then he walked away, leaving only a few cold words, "Then maybe it's better if you stay away from me. I give everyone ill luck here."

This was the first time Zephel had seen Akiko baffled. "What the heck is that suppose to mean?!" Malcolm kept on walking, and Akiko called out in vain, "Oh, gees. Take care then."

As they were heading home, Zephel brought out his question, "What is with that Malcolm guy anyways? I could have mistaken him with a zombie raised from the grave!"

"Malcolm runs a magic shop in Arthel," said Akiko. "He and my dad had known each other since elementary school. I also go to his place whenever I had problems with my mirage scrolls."

"A magic shop? Li and I had stepped through every inch of Arthel yesterday, and we didn't see any magic shop."

"Nope, I don't think anyone will," said Akiko. "The place was burnt down three weeks ago."
"You mean.... a fire accident?!"

"Dunno. I have to say, though, things just weren't going well for him since he caught that sudden illness."

"An illness? What else has happened to him?"

"His health started to deteriorate about four months ago. Soon after that, he became more irritable as well." Akiko continued in a remorseful tone, "That's why he has decided to go to Crystaline after shutting down the magic shop. Maybe he can find some help there."

"What's the cause of his illness?" asked Zephel.

"No one knows, which is the problem. He complains about constant pain all over his body, but none of the doctors can find anything wrong with him."

Zephel shrugged. "First bad harvest, then a man who lost his business after catching an incurable illness. Arthel is just a great place to live this year, isn't it?"

"Rubbish," said Akiko, resuming her chirpy manners. "People are just under the effects of the chilly weather."

To be continued......
Author's corner
This year I finally got the time -here and there, put them all together- to write this thing up, little by little. And just in case anyone of you guys think the prose that appeared in chapter 2 is lame, well..... it is (<- have to admit it). Proses and poetry are just not my thing.....

Anyhow, some notes on the background so far:
The so-called 'Shamans' are the people who can use the power of the Runes, which are all parts of the Runic Seal created to seal an entity into immorbidity; Saruin is one of those whom the Seal was used upon, as was his mother, Bartha. Since Saruin and Bartha conjure the power of destruction, the Seal conjures the power that creates the world. In other words, each Rune Stone is that which the ancient deities created Multius with; this perhaps is the reason why the Runes are such desirable relics. The three deities that created the Seal are Fraya, Heimdal, and Tyr. Throughout generations, each Shaman is aligned with one of the three deities, and can only activate the Runes that are under that deity's magistrate.

Sounds scratchy, huh? That's because it's still in progress :p

Also, I will try to come up with an explanation (of some sort |||||) as to why de la Isthmus and his shamans have to act in low-profile........

March, 2002