The Rune Seekers - chapter 4
Disclaimer: the title for this episode is from a song performed by Enya; I don't own it even if I wish so.

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In the Temple of Nissa, Crystaline...

A girl was walking in the garden with a book in her arms. She was then eluded by a faint music coming from the second floor of the building. She ran into the temple, paced up the stairs, and then walked slowly towards a room when she reached the second floor. Hiding behind the door, she peeked into the room to see a man sitting by the window. The music she heard was from an instrument in his hand, one which she had never seen before. Numerous vertical pipes stuck out from a round drum, while the man blew into another pipe that lead into the drum. For a moment, the girl simply stood there, listening to the harmonic melody.

The music then came to a halt as the man sensed the presence near the door, "Who's there?"

The girl, startled as if awaken from a dream, stepped into the room to make herself visible. "I.... I'm sorry," the girl bent her head low as she stuttered, "I didn't mean to disrupt you...."

"That's alright," the young man replied kindly. "What are you doing around here? Taking a walk?"
"Actually," the girl lifted her head timidly, "I am looking for Daria. There's one part of the chant that I don't understand. I was wishing she could help me with it."

"Daria? I've sent her to Arthel this morning."

"Huh? What for?"

"It has something to do with another boy, who is under the curse, like you are," The man's brow heaved as he continued. "After the disturbance in Crystal Lake two days ago, I felt a mixture of presence, among which one belonged to him."

"How could that be?"

"My power isn't fully recovered yet, but if I haven't mistaken, the disturbance at Crystal Lake is caused by a Rune Stone. And more than likely, the boy and the Rune Stone are both in Arthel."

"HOE!!!???" the girl's yell nearly shook the room. "If it's about a Rune Stone, then I should have accompanied Daria to Arthel as well!" The girl held her head in her hands, almost wincing, "Oh~~ if only I haven't overslept this morning."

"Calm down," the man, who had yet shaken off the booming effects of the girl's yell, tried to sooth her, "She's just picking up someone from there. And that boy might have the Rune Stone with him. On the other hand, you still have a lot to learn about the Runes." He gave a light pat on the girl's shoulder, "Don't worry. We can trust Daria with the affairs in Arthel."

The girl nodded in response. Later, the man was reminded of something else, asking, "Didn't you say you have problems with the chants? Which one is it? Maybe I can help."

The girl left the room after the man pointed out several things to the girl, including the correct pronunciations of some words and a few syntax rules. The young man, once left alone, peered at the city's view through the window, occupied with his own thoughts.

"A Rune Stone, and Zephel's presence near Crystal Lake.... but I swear there's something more. If I didn't have to stay within the Temple of Nissa, I could have went to Crystal Lake and find out what that is." He then looked at the sky. "Daria and Zephel..... they will be alright, will they?"

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The Rune Seekers
Chapter 4
Tea-House Moon
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Meanwhile, back in Kurata Inn, Arthel.....

Soup and stew were being heated in two pots on the oven, filling the kitchen with steam. The innkeeper looked around the kitchen - he hadn't seen such sight for a long time.

"Say, you're good at this," he said to Syaoran, who was now chopping up the lettuce.

"Thanks for the compliment," said Syaoran, who kept his head down and moved the knife in fast rhythm. All the innkeeper could see was the lettuce gradually turning into shreds.

"You handle the knife pretty well, too. Where did you learn all this?"

"I don't know," said Syaoran, who was now putting the shredded lettuce into the soup. "I guess you just pick up that sort of stuff when you travel alone."

"How come you don't know?"

"Well....," Syaoran drawled uneasily; that was a question that not even he could answer.
The innkeeper also noticed the tension on Syaoran's face, and decided not to push it any further. "Anyhow, you are a good cook. What's you're name?"

Syaoran hesitated at the question, but answered nonetheless. ".... Li Syaoran," now cutting up the meat. "Why did you ask?"

"Mr. Li," said the innkeeper as he leaned on the bar. "I'll just go straight to the point - I want you to be our chef."

"What?!" Syaoran almost dropped the knife.

"As you have noticed, we don't have a decent cook around here. It's hurting the business."

"Wait a minute...," Syaoran tried to offer a word of protest while dumping the meat into the soup. "You're just joking, are you?"

"The boarding last night shall be free if you say yes," the innkeeper apparently meant business.

"I can't be a chef," said Syaoran, who was stirring the stew. "Guys like me aren't meant to stay in one place with a steady job....."

"I'll pay you extra."

"..... There's other things I have to do," such as snitching the mirage scrolls from Akiko, thought Syaoran.

"What?" the innkeeper drew his face very close to Syaoran. "You still can't accept my offer, even with me begging you?" His tone was flat and cold as usual, but Syaoran could sense the threat hidden behind his words. And just when Syaoran wanted to speak back, someone else came in.

"Yo, Hayama. Give me a beer, would ya?" said a man with rugged features.

"In a moment, Darren. Would you want something on the side as well?" With that the innkeeper slapped Syaoran on the back hard, "we found ourselves a nice chef here."

"Is that so?" replied the man immediately, leaving no space for Syaoran to deny this. "Let's see what kind of chicken claws can this kid come up with, then."

"No! I'm not the chef," Syaoran turned to the innkeeper in exasperation. "I haven't consented to this, Mister~"

"Hayama. Hayama Akido. This is Kurata Inn, and welcome to the team," His words shot out like bullets from a machine gun, making it impossible for Syaoran to rebut. "By the way, we do have a few customers coming here for brunch. Good luck."

"So, young boy, how about that chicken claw?" ..... Looks like refusal was not an option for Syaoran.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Akiko and Zephel came back before noon, just in time to enjoy Syaoran's brunch. While Syaoran and Hayama busied themselves behind the bar, Akiko and Zephel sat nearby with their food. Other than that, there were people drinking and a few more having lunch - the later being a very rare sight.

"Hmmm~~~ This is delicious~!!" moaned Akiko after finishing her bowl of beef stew. "It's food like this that makes living worthwhile."

"I dare say it is," said Hayama. "If you learn something from Li, Akiko, you will be able to come up with something eatable if not delicious."

"What was that suppose to mean?" It only took five seconds for the offended Akiko to turn her attention back to Syaoran, "But really, I'm impressed. Most of the boys I know can't even use a frying pan, let alone cooking." She then supported herself on the bar and leaned towards Li, "So, Li, is there a girl you took fancy of? If not, maybe you can marry me."

"Huh~~!!!????" Syaoran was stunned by her proposal, while Zephel almost spat out his food. Hayama stepped in to explain, "Don't get spooked by her, boys. She believes in matrilineage, like her mother." He then spoke to Akiko wryly, "If you're quite finished, perhaps you can do the dishes."

Many people were finished with their meals by then, and Akiko scurried around to gather the dishes and utensils. She carried the last set to the sink, where Hayama was washing the dishes. "On the other hand, Dad, I still find it hard to believe that you've persuaded Li Syaoran into cooking for us."

"Why?" Hayama didn't even bother turning his head. "Anything wrong with that?"

"For the love of Multius!! Dad, you should have heard of Li Syaoran."

"Course I do, Akiko. I've heard plenty about Li Syaoran. I've heard you mentioning him every five minutes. He is my friend."

"Are you trying to make fun of me? You could at least treat him with some discreet, even when you act saucy with others."

"Funny. That never occurred to me."

".... Honestly, you are the weirdest sort."

"No. I'm just in bad need of a cook."

While Akiko and Hayama were keeping each other busy, Zephel and Syaoran were also conversing in secret.

"You're telling me that during all this time when Akiko was away, you hadn't even searched her room?" said a rather dismayed Zephel.

"We also have to deal with her father," Syaoran replied in defiance as he cut up the lettuce. "He's kept me in the kitchen all morning. What else am I suppose to do?"

"Ahh~~ this is so annoying. Guess I'll have to do the searching if that guy has his eyes on you," Zephel took his frustration out on the meat in his mouth. ".... This is good, though. You cooked this?"

"Yeah.... Oh, shoot," Syaoran's expression tighten with disgust as his eyes shot towards the lounge's entrance.

"What?"

"Another customer. Means I have to prepare another dish or two," Syaoran watched a girl walking towards Hayama and Akiko. Zephel was about to turn and look, but a voice from that same direction froze his blood immediately ---
"Sorry to interrupt you guys, but may I have a cup of tea?"

Like a spell falling upon them, Hayama stopped teasing Akiko over her occasional lisp and Akiko stopped yelling at Hayama about his smoking habits. "Daria!" Akiko greeted the girl passionately, and had obviously forgotten whatever exchange she and her father had seconds ago. "What brings you here?"

"If you can go to Crystaline alone for your 'father's business', certainly I can come to Arthel for the errands in Crystaline."

"I've heard Akiko mentioning your name before," said Hayama. "Daria MacDaulvor, is that right?"

"It's Morgendofer!!" Akiko corrected Hayama in irritated gest. "How many times do I have to tell you that?"

"Though that name does sound better than the original one," said Daria. "I'll thank you for that."
At the further end of the bar, Syaoran stopped stirring the mushroom mixing and watched the three of them talking. "Looks like an acquaintance of theirs," he paused for a moment. "Osokin?"

"Ah...." Zephel replied absurdly. "What?"

"What's wrong with you? You've suddenly become unusually quiet."

"Oh. Li," Zephel began whispering to Syaoran, "I'm just thinking, now that both Akiko and Poker-faced are distracted by their guest, maybe I should go upstairs."
It didn't take Syaoran too long to figure out what he was talking about. "That's right!" He looked at them, then turned back to Zephel, "Go. Don't be too loud. I'll stale them for you down here."
With a tiny "Okay", Zephel theft towards the hallway, occasionally glancing back at Hayama, Akiko, and Daria.
 

Meanwhile, Daria commented - in her own ways - that the business here appeared more lively than she heard from Akiko.

"You've noticed, too?" said Akiko. "We rarely have people eating here. Until today, our business survived only because old customers will drop by for a drink."

"Well, you guys are not doing too bad, considering the miso soup without miso."

Akiko went stiff for a moment, while Hayama narrowed his eyes. "I see. you know something about Akiko's cooking. You're in luck today, though," He pointed towards Syaoran, "We've found a chef just this morning."

"Umm...," Daria turned to look at Syaoran; Zephel had already disappeared into the hallway. "Where did you find him?"

"He checked in last night - I assume he has no commissions on hand. After having Akiko's porridge......"

"Enough, Dad! Daria, you want to try something? He makes great beef stews."

"I'll have something simple..... Chicken breast sandwich, is that okay?"

"Sure. I'll go place the order for you."

Akiko went to the other end of the bar, where she saw Syaoran placing mushroom mixings into bowls. "Li. My friend there ordered a chicken breast sandwich."

"Got that."

"Say..... where's Zephel?"

"He went outside for a short walk. You're looking for him?"

"No, just curious." Akiko then looked around and didn't notice Syaoran watching her with guard. "Well then, I guess I'll go and finish those laundries."

Seeing her walking into the backyard, Syaoran signed with relief; at least she won't run into Zephel for the time being.
 

Fifteen minutes later....

"Here. Your sandwich," Syaoran placed Daria's order in front of her, whom was sitting by the bar.

"Thanks," Daria took a small bite off the sandwich. Her expression remained stoic.

"How is it?" Daria's cold attitude got onto Syaoran's nerves somewhat. "Is it not good?"
Only after a few frozen seconds did Daria replied, "It's not bad."

".... Glad you liked it," realizing that the girl was giving a compliment, Syaoran moved to the next order in queue.

Much to Syaoran's amazement - since Daria didn't appear as a talkative person - she chatted with Syaoran as she enjoyed her sandwich. "I heard you were a traveler. Perhaps you've heard what's the ado lately."

"Ado?" Syaoran suddenly thought of the unpleasant incident that led to Akiko's blackmailing.

"You're not talking about what happened on the Crystal Lake, are you?"

"That too, in a sense. I'm really talking about the Rune Stones."

"The Rune Stones?" Syaoran lowered his pace in cutting the carrots, fearing Daria might have known the truth.

"Yeah. The authority said it's a disturbed pattern of the tide this year, but a rumor has spread and said a Rune Stone was present at the scene."

Syaoran's heart trumped uneasily - Akiko was already a handful; Syaoran couldn't imagine more people knowing the truth.

"You know something about the Rune Stones, don't you?" asked Daria. "I'm sure they talk about it in every tavern."

"It's a relic left by the deities that created Multius, to seal the Goddess of Destruction, Bartha," he answered. "After her death, it was used again to seal away the God of Destruction, Saruin - it's a popular tale told by bards all over the place."

"Yes, that's what it's known for," said Daria, "hopefully you also know what happened centuries later."

Now Syaoran really felt like walking on eggshells, though he managed to conceal that and diverted the subject from Crystal Lake. "Are you talking about," he replied in segments, "the boy who tried to collect the Runes two years ago?"

"Kind of," replied Daria matter-of-factly, "What do you know about him?"

Syaoran lowered his head as he started cutting cucumbers into chunks, "There was once a boy who searched for the Rune Stones with three shamans' assistance, but the Rune Seal as a whole shattered at the end. There are many versions of that story out there, though. Some said he found one Rune Stone by accident and began searching for the Runes, either in wish of obtaining its power - like most of the wizards nowadays - or he was cursed after touching the Rune Stone, and wanted to find a way to undo it. Other stories said by that time, Saruin was about to be awaken again, and the Rune Seal was starting to shatter under his influence - the boy was to bring back the missing pieces of the Seal, but failed miserably at the end."

"There are people out there who actually thought so?"

Syaoran couldn't tell if Daria was really as surprised as her words implied, but guessing that she wasn't after the Crystal Lake story, he felt more relaxed talking to her now. "There's even more debate about why the Seal shattered. Some said  manipulating the Rune Stones was already a lost knowledge - although it has been done before - and the shamans couldn't have fully controlled the Runes' power. Others said that a curse was placed on the Seal - either by Saruin's minions or the creators themselves - so that anyone daring enough to trample with it will get cursed themselves..... Man, you can write a book with all the things they say out there."

"You certainly can, can't you? That is one thing I have been contemplating upon."

Daria continued with her sandwich, while Syaoran glanced at her with muse. "You also know a lot about the Rune Stones, do you?"

"It's my job, after all," replied Daria. "I'm working under someone who is related with the Runes. Part of my job is translating archaic records about the Runes. He also found some shamans to conducts experiments upon the Rune Stones."

"You're not a shaman yourself, then?"

"Nope. Neither is my supervisor."

"That's weird," said Syaoran. "Why would people who couldn't use the Rune Stones be so interested in them?"

"Lots of non-shamans wanted the Rune Stones," Daria replied without hesitation.

"And if you ask me," butted in Hayama, with four tankards in both hands, "Neidhart in Crystaline was one of those people. His was-to-be bother-in-law was involved, after all."

"Though I won't say he has no desire for the Rune Stones," continued Daria. "He is an ambitious ruler, after all."

"And there's that guy in Roubon."

"Cornelleo? He hasn't won much golden opinions from others."

"Right. Looks like he had something up his sleeves ever since the Seal was shattered."

"What about Ahfmed?"

"Glachad's Prime Minister? Don't know what good the Runes can do for someone infamous of corruption, but who knows? If someone can help him secure his power with the price of the Runes, he may be on the hunt as well."

"Yep."

"Ah Hmm."

While Hayama and Daria were engrossed in "earnest" conversation, Syaoran, who had been listening all this time, was wondering whether or not the two was blood related.

"One sausage rice and a dish of fried broccoli, Li," Hayama now turned to Syaoran in a manner of business. "Make it good and snappy. Don't waste too much time chatting with other customers here."

When Hayama left, Daria continued with her story. "The guy I worked for had been doing research on the Runes out of personal reasons. As for me, I do it for the sake of leaving that sad town I'm from. This job requires a lot of traveling."

"What do you mean, a lot of traveling?" Syaoran was washing the rice as he talked. "Especially when your job is more academic."

"If everything can be done in an ivory tower, this job will be a lot easier" said Daria. "Sometimes I am sent to ancestral sites, where I collect paleographic data. Other times I have to go all the way to Melbear - they've got an impressive library there." She then watched Syaoran cutting up the sausage for a moment. "Well, so much about me. What about you, then?"

"What about me what?"

"You couldn't tell from Akiko's reaction when you guys met? The exorcist who can create and use magical wards. He demonstrated his skills a month ago when he defended Bruele against invaders from the Baerue Plateau."

Syaoran stopped stirring the rice at this remark.

"Very few people know how to use wards," Daria now looked at Syaoran, checking his reaction. "Where did you learn it?"

Where did he indeed! Syaoran was reluctantly stuck in the same situation he previously was with Hayama - only this time he was not getting away as easily.

"It just sort of.... came to me," replied Syaoran, a silly yet honest answer. He placed the rice over the fire. "What's so special about it?"

"Those wards you use trace back to a very distant history. It belongs to the branch of Creation Magic," Daria made a dramatic pause, "A branch of magic only shamans had been able to use, especially the shamans of Freya."

Syaoran turned his back and started chopping the broccolis, but Daria could tell that he was not at all unconcerned.

"Creation Magic has became a specialized art nowadays, due to supply and demand," Daria lifted the corner of her lips slightly. "So far as I know, only shamans from two places in Multius are currently interested in the studies of Creation Magic. One would be the Assemblage of Mages from the Dominion of Knights, which had been established by the dominion as a consultant group over spell casting matters - some members are Freyan shamans who are devoted to the area of Creation Magic. The other one - though their existence remained enigmatic - would be the sorcerer clans in Northpoint."

At this, Syaoran placed the fried broccolis onto the table inelegantly, almost dropping it. The two remained silent, until Syaoran murmured in a volume barely enough for Daria to hear, "One sorcerer clan amongst them is named Li, isn't it?"

Daria watched Syaoran curiously, though she showed little trace of it. "Yes," after another few seconds, as if trying to find the proper words, she added, "The same name as yours."

Everything between them fell silent again - Syaoran was thinking hard, while Daria observed the boy. This girl seemed to be interested in him as well as the Runes, thought Syaoran - should he feel afraid or glad? Suddenly, as if his memory had a life of its own, he thought of the time when he woke up in the middle of the Plateau of Baerue. No. Wait. Maybe that lukewarmth he felt from the teddy bear came first, though that also seemed too vague to be true.....

Then, it was Hayama who broke the ice, taking away the bowls of rice and the plate of broccoli as he placed another order of steamed sausages, winter melon soup, seafood ramen, and fried cabbages.

Hayama lifted the tray of food onto his right shoulder, and went to the tables of diners in a rather unenthusiastic pace. Watching Hayama's back, Daria said to Syaoran, "Akiko told me he had been a troublemaker when he was little. Who would have thought he will be in the service industry today?"

When Hayama was quite a distance away and appeared to be busy with a group of diners, Syaoran spoke to Daria in pressed voice, "Actually, Morgendofer, there's something that's been in my mind, but I don't know to whom I should discuss this with. You don't seem like the sort that speaks without sense, so maybe I can trust you with this...."

That certainly triggered Daria's curiosity, "I'm listening."

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"This is just perfect," Zephel mumbled as he ran down the hallway. "Being blackmailed isn't enough; now even she is here."

When he reached the second floor, he trotted towards the room they had found this morning. "This should be it, if I remember correctly."

As he expected, the door was locked. He took out a pin-like tool from his vest and inserted it into the keyhole - no lock shall keep him out. After twisting and turning the pin for twenty seconds, the lock gave out a heavy click. "Wonderful," thought the boy. He then turned the knob and slipped inside the room, closing the door without a sound.

Akiko's room, in some aspect, was just like any girls' room. Zephel could see a couple of stuff toys sitting by the window. On the other hand, the un-tidied bed covered with marine blue sheets, the dojo uniform hanging on the chair, the punching bag sitting at the corner of the room, and the various assorts laying around the floor reminded Zephel of his own room - to Zephel's relief, for he would be drivven insane by pink wallpapers and flower pattenrs.

"Now, the scrolls have to be somewhere in here," Zephel quickly scanned the tatami floor. There were notebooks, water bottles, bandages, clothes, hand garnets.... "Doesn't she ever clean her room?" Zephel couldn't help complaining, although he wouldn't be complaining if it weren't for the fact that he had to search this room. After looking and stepping over many objects on the tatami, the one thing Zephel was looking for still didn't appear.

"It must be inside the drawers or closet then," he went to the desk and opened one of the drawers. Thanks to the pencil sharpener, pieces of papers, half-used erasers, and other small junks, the drawer was as tidy as the floor. Then, a continuous beeping sound interrupted Zephel's rummaging. "Now what?" That beeping sounded all too familiar - it was from the sensor gadget he had been using a few days ago. Abandoning his task here, he ran into the hallway and into his room.

When he arrived, the beeping pierced through his bag and filled the whole room. Zephel quickly took it out and checked. The display screen glowed with a mixture of chromogenic colors. "What the heck is this? Is this thing still broken?!" As irritated as he already was, the beeping from the sensor didn't make things any better. He decided to switch the sensor off before inspecting it, and when he did, he dropped and sat on the tatami, with his head letting in a new surge of heat and his chest tightening. Silence filled the room and was much welcomed by the boy; after running around for half of the day, he needed to sit in quietude so that the knot inside him would loosen up. Then his mind went astray.

"But really, why is Daria here, anyways?" He murmured, the knot and heat within him still remaining. "She couldn't have come to look for me, could she?" By now, he felt his skin burning, and breathing became more difficult. "I think..... I've caught a cold....," that was when a voice rang in his head...

It's here....

I can sense it.....

Startled, Zephel looked around the room. "Who is it?!" No one was there, but the voice came again.

I have to find it....

"Wait.....," he could barely control his body, and something was trying to burst out of him. "You can't...."

NOW!!!

"No...," resistless against the force that dash out of him, the only thing Zephel remembered before falling unconscious was a blackout.

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"...el.... phel..... zephel..... ZEPHEL!!!" pinned by a shrill, Zephel recovered his senses to find Akiko and Syaoran sitting on each side of him. "Back then....," as he was laying down with something supporting his head, he could clearly see the hole on the ceiling; half of it was devoured.

"Zephel!!" Akiko's head came looming over him. "Are you alright?! We were so worried!!"

Zephel returned her a nasty grimace; in a time like this, Akiko wasn't the one he wanted to see. He then noticed other parts of the room. The walls, windows, and the sliding doors were pulled into and out of the room, as if they had been washed by a whirling wave, forming a tornado towards the hole in the ceiling. Pieces of woods scattered all over the tatami.

Zephel looked at Syaoran. "What happened?"

"All of us were downstairs, then we heard the explosion," said Syaoran, his face solemn and frozen. "It was a big one, I tell you. When we came, this room was demolished, with you knocked out here."

"Why did this happen? I remember back then that....," Zephel pressed his head, unable to say more.

"You looked drained back then," said Syaoran. "Good thing we have a healer here."

"You also know healing magic?" Zephel looked at Syaoran quizzingly, wondering what other tricks he was capable of. "I don't know that."

"It was me," another voice rang over his head. "Disappointed?"

Zephel realized that the voice came from the person cushioning his head, who, to his horror, was also the person he would least prefer running into. Holding the glimpse hope that he was wrong, he twisted his head only to see,
"DARIA??!!" Zephel sprang up and straddled backwards, until he tripped over a piece of wood - bringing him down onto the tatami.

For Akiko and Syaoran, Zephel's reaction made the matter yet more peculiar. "Osokin, you know this girl already?" asked Syaoran. "Daria, you and Zephel actually know each other?" Akiko asked beamingly.

"Yes, we are previously acquainted," Daria answered them both before Zephel could make any comments. "Literally, I used to baby-sit him."

"WHAT!!??" Zephel could hardly believe what he'd just heard.

Akiko, on contrary, was in a celebrating mood. "That's great! A reunion of old friends - what could be better?"

"Don't believe a syllable of what she said. It wasn't like that!!"

Zephel was steaming with fury, but Daria confronted him as a glacier would. "It's nice to see you again, too, Zephel Osokin. After all those years, your dynamic and irritable temper hasn't changed a bit."

Zephel was boiling both from anger and embarrassment when everyone's attention turned to Hayama, whom had just entered the room. Akiko could tell that Hayama was quite distressed. "Dad, is everything down there okay?"

"Well, we can't stay open for today. I'll need you and Li to clean up downstairs, and then this room."

"Someone has to take care of Zephel," protested Akiko.

"I can do that," Daria answered without hesitation.

"You can? Well then, we'll leave him with you." Akiko hustled Syaoran along and left the room.

"This place isn't safe. Let's move him to my room," Hayama picked up Zephel and walked towards the end of the hall, Daria following behind. Zephel searched for Syaoran pleadingly, whom - to Zephel's ill fortune - was nowhere to been found on the other eend of the hall.

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The dining lounge had only a few people left; Hayama evacuated most of the diners after the explosion. A crowd of onlookers clustered near the windows when Akiko and Syaoran cleaned the tables. Later on, Hayama came down and shooed some of them away, but a few of those, taking great pleasure in gossips, remained there.

Hayama soon got annoyed and decided to drop it. "It's not enough hearing tall tales from travelers; they have to stick their noses into their neighbors' business as well."

As the three of them busied around the lounge, a shadow crept into the door, muttering in a dry voice, "Ha.... yama?"

Hayama turned to look at the entrance. "Oh. It's you."

Akiko, contrasting to her father, greeted the guest enthusiastically. "Malcolm. What brings you here? At this time? .... Oh, what a mess this place is. Maybe we can serve you some tea if you come back later."

"I heard what happened..... What was going on here?" asked Malcolm.

"I wish I know," said Hayama. "Many people are bugging us over it, but I'm rather surprised that you have come over."

"Dad! That's rude."

"What?" Hayama replied. "The guy is quite busy those days, and I didn't expect him to have the spare time."

"Actually," Malcolm breathed out words miserably, "I don't have that much time. I came to say goodbye."

Hayama lifted his eyebrows slightly, "Goodbye?"

"You're leaving already?!" asked Akiko.

Syaoran had been able to summarize the whole conversation as he continued cleaning up. Malcolm, the owner of the magic shop (which was burned into ashes three weeks ago), had everything ready and would be moving to Crystaline by tomorrow.

"I'll be off early in the morning, so this might be the last time we meet." The tall, thin man stood with his head bent down, the dark velvet cloak draping weight upon his body.

Hayama only starred for a good moment. "Come," he finally gestured, "and have a drink. It's on the house."

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"Exactly what happened back then? With that blast?"

Back in Hayama's room upstairs, Zephel laid under a blanket with Daria sitting beside him.

"Like I would know. If you could see what was on my Magnetic Sensor 45 back then.... Wait! What are you doing here?" Zephel turned to Daria accusingly.

"I had an errand here. Why aren't you in the Temple of Nissa, Zephel Osokin?" Zephel held his tongue, unwilling to speak. Daria didn't wait for an answer, either, "Worried about Julius scolding you? You don't need to worry about him. He's returned to Byzenhiem; he has business more urgent than looking over a little boy."

"Daria, if Albert sent you here," said Zephel, looking at the girl with the corner of his eyes, "then you can go back and tell him to drop it - I ain't going back to Crystaline."

"I supposed. Albert said the Rune Stone that caused the commotion on Crystal Lake is somewhere near Arthel." Daria placed a damp towel over Zephel's head, and watched him while she asked very subtly, "Are you involved, by any chance?"

"That was a coincidence, Daria. The giant bull found me."

"A giant bull?" Daria grabbed a pencil and started jotting on a notebook. "Sounds like a gorgon. And you said that Rune hosted on it?"

Zephel was irritated by the fact that Daria could talk about the Runes when she knew he hated to. Then again, this would probably be the last favor he could offer before quitting. "Yes. The beast was just an ordinary wild ox, until the Rune fostered onto it. Its roar was powerful enough to induce boom shell waves."

"Boom shell?" Daria pointed the pencil at Zephel lightly, "Very professional. Playing around with technology does pay off. Which Rune is it?"

"I don't know. The thing was already in its stone form, so I didn't need any chants to seal it back - thank God. It's in my bag now," he threw his arm towards his backpack (their luggage were removed from the damaged room). Perhaps you can tell me what it is."

Daria searched through the bag, until she took out a gray pebble. Her turned the pebble around to make out the wedged-in symbol on it.

"This is UR, under Freya's magistrate. Yeah. You couldn't have sealed it. Makes good sense that the bull it hosted on could move masses of water by howling; this Rune has the ability to summon a good quantity of energy."

But Zephel didn't feel like listening to her anymore, and only flipped aside. "Yeah, very interesting. Now, can you go?"

Daria looked at Zephel, and spoke a moment later. "You know, that Rune Stone you got back in the Dominion of Knights hasn't undergone the Recognition ritual. That means it is still subjected to other forces' effects."

"Fine!" Zephel pulled himself up, storming, "You can take PEORTH with you, too. What else do I have to do to get you off my back?!"

"Why don't you just come back with me, finish the Recognition ritual for PEORTH, and tie up the loose ends before you leave?"

"No," he retorted, "I'm through with cleaning up Albert's mess."

"Is that what you think?"

"Stop!! God!! I don't want to hear your voice again," and Zephel buried his head under the blanket.

"Fine," Daria replied with discern. "If that's the way you want, we'll just have to find someone else to volunteer. And now that I know Li Syaoran is here, there's now more on my hands than I expected; I don't have the spare energy to quarrel with a child."

"I'm no child, you know that. And why are you bringing Li up?"

"I thought you don't want to talk to me anymore," Daria paused a bit. "How did you guys meet?"

"Well," Zephel shrugged with embarrassment, "he saved me out there. He also helped in retrieving.... that Rune Stone on Crystal Lake. I couldn't think of anywhere else to go, so I tagged along with him afterwards."

Zephel sank back into his sleeping mattress, while Daria's eyes remained solidly fixed on him. "Zephel," she finally said, "You do know who you have been hanging around with, don't you?"

"He's Li Syaoran the Exorcist, isn't he?!" he yelled in reply, more out of confusion than anger, for the conversation with Akiko in the morning was coming back to him like poison. Li... Li was.....

"Yes. You've known him for a while. Did he say where he's from? What is his family like? Why has he became an exorcist? Where did he....."

For Zephel, Daria's words started to fade as his mind span and drifted. "No," he said exhaustedly when he felt calmer, "I have to admit, I know nothing about him. I've never thought about it until today, in fact."

Daria looked away from the boy. "Zephel, I was sent here to fetch you. But Li, he's an unexpected surprise."

Zephel watched Daria quizzingly. "Daria.... you know something about him, do you? Akiko....," he sat up, still feeling shaky, "Akiko said he's a shaman. Is he the replacement shaman of Freya? Or Tyr?"

Daria was silent for - what seems to Zephel - a long time, until she answered mistily, "Neither."

This certainly was an unexpected scenario for Zephel; the story he had in mind crumbled under Daria's words. Syaoran was an ordinary exorcist who just happened to cross his path.
Or so Zephel thought before Daria added, "But his ties with Albert is by no means fresh."

"What do you mean?!" asked Zephel, completely confused, "What kind of past can a guy like him have with Albert?!"

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Down in the dining lounge, Malcolm was sitting near the bar with Hayama filling his drink. Akiko and Syaoran joined them after finishing their chores.

"That shop was there for four generations, Hayama," said Malcolm. "I know it's all for the best, but if I have done things differently.... God, I feel like a failure."

"You need this trip to Crystaline." Hayama offered a rare word of comfort. "Stop being so glooming about it. You can start over again when you've got your health back."

"What's your plans once you get to Crystaline?" asked Akiko.

"Doctor Rackman recommended a physician for me there," said Malcolm, rolling the cup between his hands. "I might also ask someone from the Temple of Nissa for help; I heard they've got some pretty decent healers there."

"Daria works for the Temple of Nissa," Akiko offered. "We have to introduce you guys."

The door swung open and a chilling breeze swept into the room, catching everyone's attention. Three men stood at the door, one of them calling into the room hoarsely, "Hayama! Give me a beer, pal!"

Everyone in the lounge was stunned by the guests' intrusion - everyone except Hayama. "What are you doing here, Gomi? Can't you see we're closed?"

The man with dark hair scratched his head jollily as he came in. Syaoran guessed he was about the same age as Hayama. "I just heard what happened, so I decided to drop by and check on you guys. Is everything okay?"

"Fine," Hayama shrugged, "And if you really know what has happened, you would also know that the dinning lounge is closed for tonight."

"Oh, come on, Hayama. This is your friend since elementary school asking for a drink," Gomi clasped his hands in front of him imploringly. "Just one. Is that too much to ask for?"

Everyone looked at Hayama. "Heck," he swung the towel over his shoulder, "You guys always come here at this time. I suppose I shouldn't rob your pleasure of drinking after work."

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"You've gotta be kidding!!" Zephel flung his arms in exclamation. "He can't be!!"

"I had doubted that, too," said Daria. "But he certainly resembles the boy from the picture. And after speak to him, I'm sure he's the guy."

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"Phew~~!" Gomi leaned back complacently. "Nothing beats having a beer after a day in that weaponry workshop." Gomi and the other two men were sitting at the bar, Malcolm sitting about meters away. Gomi turned to Hayama, "Do you have any idea what caused the explosion? Someone saw a pole of light shooting from your place."

"Everyone in the inn were downstairs then, and the only witness got knocked out."

"Well, if you have to rebuild something, we have something in the workshop that you might find.... Oh," Gomi finally noticed Malcolm for the first time, "So you're here, too."

"....," Malcolm only concentrated on his drink, trying to ignore Gomi. Akiko watched the two with unease, and Hayama apparently sensed her worries, "I'm going to move the bulkier garbage out from the room," he said to Akiko, "After that, you can go up there and sweep it."

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"He never told me anything about it!" Zephel couldn't stop feeling a sense of betrayal at the news. "Why?!"

"After spending half an hour with him, I think I can guess why."

"Wait," Zephel stared at Daria with some disbelief, "You guys talked?"

"Does that strike you as amazing?" Daria's eyes snorted at Zephel. "Anyways, I think what really happened to him was that..."

Daria had barely finished when a flow of piercing noise jammed the room. "This stupid piece of crap!!" Zephel dragged his backpack towards the mattress and pulled out the sensor gadget, which was beeping excitingly.

"That's the Magnetic Sensor you've been working on back in Crystaline," Daria, rather amused, watched the frenzying Zephel, "The beeping sounds soggier, though. Had it been dipped in water since then?"

"Very funny, Daria," Zephel scowled at her and slapped the sensor. "This thing has been dyfunctioning all the way from the steppes to Arthel..... hey!" Zephel was drawn to what he saw.

"What is it?"

"I'm getting a reading here," Zephel showed her the sensor, its screen displaying vibrating lines. "I think we have a Rune Stone nearby."

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Syaoran was not entirely pleased by the presence of Gomi and his cronies. What started off as a simple drink after work became a small scaled drinking party. Considering the inn had suffered an explosion today, these guys' were nowhere near considerate. Akiko, probably out of good service, continued serving the three men and warned them for restraint at times. Apparently, Kurata Inn was accustomed of Gomi coming after the lounge's business hour.

"I say, Gomi, you really should watch your drinking," said Akiko.

"Chill, Akiko, I know where to draw the line," Gomi placed the mug onto the bar while rubbing his leg with his other hand.

"Fine," Akiko turned away from him with a harrumph, "Just don't forget what happened during the Autumn Festival."

Gomi then turned to Syaoran, "Haven't seen you before? Are you new to this town?"

"Li Syaoran the Exorcist," Akiko answered for Syaoran. "Now, he's also the new chef of Kurata Inn."

"I don't know much about exorcist businesses," Gomi took one gulp of his beer, "Well, you certainly came at the right moment. Arthel could use your talent right now."

"For goodness, Gomi," scolded Akiko, "don't tell me you bought those old wives' tales, too."

"It's been almost half a year," Gomi rambled on, paying no attention to Akiko's words. "Our crops are failing, people's health are deteriorating, monsters are starting to appear, and today we have an inn blasted in the roof. A good majority of people thinks Arthel must have been jinxed."

"I just don't see why people are assuming so many things those days! Arthel has survived many crop failures," said Akiko. "And Rosalia has been safe from the plagues of monsters thus far, hasn't it?"

"True enough, Akiko. Nevertheless, people are scared those days, and you know how superstitious people here can get when they're scared." Gomi leaned on the bar and turned to Syaoran. "Some think the spirits living near Arthel are angry, and the crop failure is one of their ways for vengeance." He rocked back on his chair crudely, "If you ask me, I kinda agree with them, only the spirit came in human form," Gomi's seemingly casual remarks must have some hidden malice in it, for Malcolm clenched his cup with firmer grips.

"Enough of that," said one of Gomi's companies. "I heard you're leaving tomorrow, Malcolm."

"To Crystaline, right?" said the other man venomously. "That's wise. Very wise, knowing how topsy-turvy Arthel has been those days."

Gomi chuckled, "I don't know, man. Rosalia is just no longer that safe. Once he leaves Arthel, it might be Crystaline's turn." He ended his sentence with a snicker.

Even Syaoran, who hadn't figured out what this conversation was about, sensed the uncomfortable atmosphere filling the lounge. Akiko wasted no time to divert the subject. "How about you then, Gomi? Your business with the weapon shop."

"Not bad, actually. As long as Arthel remains a traveling turnpike in Rosalia, I'll always have customers coming into my workshop and bread coming onto my table. It's people like us that keeps Arthel going. Travelers need somewhere to repair their weapons and armors, just as much as they need other supplements. Last but not least, they'll need a place where they can rest. That's the idea Arthel is built upon, boy," Gomi wagged his finger at Syaoran as if giving a grandfather-to-grandson lecture, "everyone of us has worked together to make Arthel a pivot for traveling routes; absolutely no one established here should think otherwise. Of course, there's always those that tried to profit at others' expenses, or thought themselves higher. People like that couldn't last here, and their only way out is to pack their stuffs and leave."

Syaoran hadn't understood what Gomi meant until he saw Malcolm placing his mug onto the table and searching his pocket.

"It's getting late. I have to go home now. Give your father my thanks, Akiko," Malcolm pulled over his cloak as he stood up.

"Sure," said Akiko. "I'll drop by tomorrow morning."

As Malcolm walked towards the door, Gomi clattered yet more. "Yeah, Malcolm, watch yourself in Crystaline; I heard that Neidhart isn't someone to trifle with." The three men held out their mugs in midair and toasted, "To Malcolm, bon voyage."

The black-cloaked man stopped and peered back at the three, standing just before the door. Gomi took the opportunities to add the last words, "And beware of the angry spirits!!" All three men roared with laughter at this. Akiko watched Malcolm with alert, but the man only turned back to face the door, and the three drinkers resumed their own clishmaclaver. After half a minute, Malcolm spoke breezingly, "Yes, the angry spirits. They drive away those that doesn't stick with the rest, including those driving wedges among people." The glee of the three drinkers died out, and they turned to watch Malcolm moving out of the lounge. "You take care of yourself, too, Gomi. Else you'd be the next one to pack and leave."

Gomi got to his feet slowly. "You're trying to talk smart to me, Malcolm?" Malcolm only moved on, which irritated Gomi yet more. "I'm talking to you, boy!!" He bellowed, "You're saying that I've wronged you, huh? Don't you turn your back on me while I speak, you~~!!" Before Akiko and Syaoran could stop him, Gomi darted towards Malcolm and grabbed him by the collar.

"Put the guy down, Gomi," the voice came from the staircase. Hayama walked into the lounge, both of his hands carrying buckets filled with broken planks. "Kurata Inn would not tolerate brawls in here. Not while I'm the master of the house."

"No~ Hayama," Gomi hissed vengefully, pinning Malcolm to the wall, "Let's spill our guts on this, for once and for all. You think he found that stone out of innocent coincidence? This guy here summoned the curse of the Runes upon us." He then glared at Malcolm straight in the eye. "Surprised that someone like me will know about the Runes, huh? Guess you got good reasons to do that. You had always been the one to be picked on, and now you want your sweet revenge. He~~!" Gomi slammed Malcolm on the wall before he continued, "has that ill will to use his magic and perform those venomous deeds upon us!!!"

"I'm warning you again, Gomi," Hayama placed the buckets on the floor, "Let the guy go."

"Stop it, Gomi." Akiko also stepped in and confront Gomi firmly, "You'll hurt him."

Malcolm, however, chuckled frigidly. "You don't need magic to do ill deeds," he glanced at Gomi coldly, "All it takes for you is a torch and....."

Before Malcolm finished, Gomi already had his hands on Malcolm's neck, growling with fury burning in his eyes. "I'm gonna break your neck, you bastard!!!" Gomi pressed on Malcolm with his weight. "They should sent someone from Crystaline and show you something; they know what to do with your sort!!"

"No~~!" Akiko went up to pull the two apart. "Gomi! You let go of him right now... Dah!!" Akiko had enough strength to loosen Gomi's grip around Malcolm's neck. Hayama prepared himself to chop Gomi right on the head, something he had always done to keep Gomi in line.

Before he made his move, however, something else happened.

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"What do those two waves stand for?" asked Daria. She and Zephel were now pacing down the hallway.

"Those are the energy measurements from the Runes," said Zephel. "Each Rune should have a distinct and unique pattern on my Magnetic Sensor 45, like fingerprints.... Hold a sec!!" Zephel came to a sudden halt.

"What?" Daria slowed down as well.

"I know this wave pattern here!" Zephel pointed at the cyan wave on the screen. "It's PEORTH!! And it's activated, too."

"How could that be? It's in sealed form." Daria then thought of something and asked suspiciously, "You're not using it now, are you?"

"Of course not. I have it right here...." Zephel stuffed his hand into his vest. His eyebrows then heaved, and tantalizingly searched through his vest again.

"Zephel?" Daria watched Zephel searching every pocket on him, until he stopped and looked up at her.

"It's gone." He looked around heatedly, "Where could it be?! I had it with me all the time, right here in my pocke......" Then he stopped, murmuring, "That explosion back then... I felt something coming out of me. It's PEORTH!!"

"Huh, Zephel," Daria interrupted. "What about the other wave?"

"I don't know what that is!!" Zephel answered impatiently, "The thing ran away without my permission. That stupid son of a...."

"Zephel," Daria jerked his hand that held the sensor. "Where are they?"

Now reminded of the timing, Zephel flipped a switch on the sensor embarrassedly. Two dots gleamed on the screen, and Zephel drew close to read it. "They're.....," he drew a deep breath, "both right below us?! This thing's gone haywire again!!"

Daria then heard noises - crackings, crashings, and wailings - coming from downstairs. "Maybe not," she said, and they ran downstairs.

They nearly reached the landing when they noticed shimmering lights of cyan and emerald green leaking into the hallway from the lounge. When they reached the lounge, Zephel was dumbfounded by what he saw, while Daria also narrowed her eyes. Malcolm stood with green rays of light running over him. The light not only surrounded Malcolm, but also tainted Gomi's right hand, who was kneeling on the ground and groaning painfully as his fingers twitched. His two companions watched him apprehensively, Akiko backed away with seizing fear, even Syaoran and Hayama, both men who Zephel thought had seen much of the world, could do nothing but stare.

What really caught Zephel's and Daria's attention, however, was another sphere of neon cyan light, hovering near Malcolm and spraying blue cloudy bands. "PEORTH?!" Zephel let out a cry, to which the cyan light quivered at. The light then shot towards Zephel and stopped in front of him to form a more solidified object. A gray pebble emerged as the cyan light faded away, and landed onto Zephel's palms.

"Zephel, I think I know why PEORTH ran away on its own," Daria eyed Malcolm challengingly. "You see that man there? The other Rune Stone shown on the sensor was hosted on him."

Zephel pointed the sensor towards the glowing green light and checked the wave pattern. "Looks like it's a Rune under Heimdall," Zephel murmured, "Just like PEORTH."

"So that's that," Daria crossed her arms in front of her. "Runes under the same deity always have higher affinity with one and another. PEORTH must have been attracted to that Rune Stone, even enough to activate itself without your command."

"What the heck is going on here?" Syaoran demanded from Zephel and Daria. Gomi, on the other hand, also squealed to Malcolm with whatever strength remained, "What..... gulp.... what have you done to me?!"

Malcolm didn't budge at Gomi's question. "The reason why you find no difficulty in abusing others.... is because you have never known what it feels like to be the weak." A malicious smile emerged from his face as he bent down and lifted Gomi's chin with a finger, "Tell me now, Gomi: how does it feel when you can't fight back?"

"You...,"Gomi glared at Malcolm, coughing and wincing at the same time, "We might have bullied you back in elementary school..... gulp.... but look at all the things you're doing now..."

"Putting those childhood memories aside," Malcolm pulled away his finger, allowing Gomi's head to drop onto the ground, "it was you and your men that burnt down my shop that night, wasn't it?"

"Why.... I don't know what gibberish you're.....," before Gomi could finish, he curled up with a more severe fit, the green smoky light now rising from his back.

"Let go of him!!" Gomi's companions charged towards Gomi and Malcolm. "You stop whatever hocus pocus you're playing or...," both of them stopped midway when the light swooped towards them. Within a breath take, one of them hugged his stomach painfully, while the other collapsed onto the floor, his legs barely under his control.

"This isn't good. The Rune is responding to his will," Daria said to Zephel as she watched Malcolm with increased unease, "That means he's absorbed some of the Rune's energy. You'll have to do the sealing."

Zephel turned to Daria with disgust. "You mean... by saying that stupid chant?!"

"How else?" she said, "You're the only one up to the job."

Zephel grunted with dismay. Very well then, he thought to himself, he could do this. He wasn't a scholar on Runes like Daria was, but at least he knew the one Rune under Heimdall that was capable of paralyzing subjects. He took a deep breath, his left hand stretching forward. "In one you're born, Thus in one you shall remain. In the name of the God of Justice, Tyr, I command you - resume your given form. NYD!!!"

Nothing happened. Zephel became perplexed and worried; was that Rune not NYD? Daria answered his question, "Why are you saying the chant of Tyr when you're sealing a Rune under Heimdall?"

Now that he was reminded of this, Zephel felt both embarrassed and silly. Before he had time to turn red, however, his throat was fogged by another green light, and he felt the muscles on his neck twisting in suffocating pain. Syaoran ran over to check on him, while Daria, who was closest to Zephel, held him up as his legs became too weak to support himself.

"We have to cut his connection with the Rune," said Daria, her eyes pointing at Malcolm.

"Attacking him alone will bring us nowhere closer than Gomi had," Hayama lifted the bucket of planks up. "Li, you're also a fighter, right? On your call."

"Fabulous," Syaoran drew up his sleeves and leaped towards Malcolm as Hayama swung and tossed out the bucket into midair. Syaoran was only that close when he felt his left feet stemmed to the ground and his fist numbed with a strange coldness. Just when Syaoran fell to the ground, the bucket landed on Malcolm, and the wood planks in it poured out onto him. Malcolm was quick enough to block his head, but not quick enough to notice Akiko, whom was behind him.

Out of the few planks that fell pass Malcolm, Akiko aimed at one and gave it a sweeping kick, sending the plank right into the back of his head. He fell forward, giving a good thud on the floor.
Akiko stepped over what laid on the floor to get a better look in Zephel's direction. "What a day! What was that back then?"

Those that had been bonded by the Rune's power were able to move somewhat after Malcolm was knocked out; Gomi and his men were not fully recovered yet, but Syaoran had enough strength to stride towards Zephel, and Zephel was able to glare at Syaoran.

"Now that it's over," Syoaran stuck his hands in his waist as he scowled at Zephel, "will you mind explaining a couple of things, Osokin?"

Daria tried to intervene, "We'll talk about this - later...."

But Zephel wasn't ready to back off, "I'll explain them - if you tell me what you're hiding first!"

"What I'm hiding?" Syaoran was baffled and confused by Zephel's last sentence, "I'm not hiding anything."

"Sure you're not," Zephel pointed his finger heatedly at Syaoran, "You'd never told me who you are or where you're from!"

"Guys," Daria raised her voice, wishing to catch their attention, "There's something more urgent..."

She was cut off by Syaoran, whom snapped back at Zephel relentlessly, "Nor did you!"

Zephel clenched his teeth, hissing, "You could have told me that you're a shaman of Freya!! And to think that I once believed you when you said you knew nothing about the Runes!"

"Shaman of Freya?" Syaoran first starred at Zephel with vexation, then looked at Daria questioningly.

"You're wasting your breath, Zephel," Daria pressed her hand on Zephel's shoulder, trying to pull him back. "He doesn't remember a thing."

Zephel only looked at her resentfully. "Wait a minute," Akiko was now filled with a million questions, "What's the business h....," the last word was stolen by a scream. Malcolm was gripping Akiko's neck, with a knife pointing at her throat.

"You people.... just never get off my back, do you?" Malcolm's eyes were now burning with blazing green as he panted deeply. "Everyone of you!"

Malcolm's sudden captivation of Akiko threw everyone into a seizing fear. Hayama was the only one who stood forward, "Akiko has nothing against you, of all people. Drop that knife, and end this nonsense right now."

"Oh, but you certainly owe me something, Hayama," Malcolm pointed his knife to the inn keeper, "Now I remember something. Back in fifth grade, you and your gang locked me up in the storage room and threw away the keys; it took them five hours to find me and get me out!!"

Syaoran, Zephel, and Daria all turned to look at Hayama - the boys looking somewhat astound while Daria was obviously having a good show.

"Dad," Akiko seemed to find it unbelievable as well, "You had actually done that?"

Hayama held his chin, thinking hard. Finally, he murmured, "He actually remembered that....."

"You HAD!?" squealed Akiko. Malcolm tugged her back again.

"There!" he howled as the knife drew closer to Akiko's neck, "Any of you come closer, and the tomboy gets it!!"

"Curses!!" Syaoran found himself springing forward but was held back by Hayama.

"Stay put," Hayama said, "and don't worry."

"Are you out of your mind?!" Syaoran yelled at Hayama with disbelieve, "That's your daughter we're....."

But Syaoran was distracted by what ensued immediately: within one second, Akiko bent sideways and threw her elbow back into Malcolm's face, sending his head right into one of the tables. So there he was, lying among the broken pieces of the table; this time he was knocked out for sure.

"Who are you calling tomboy?!" Akiko turned to the man fumingly. "That's so mean! I won't forgive anyone who calls me that, not even my friends!!"

Everyone now looked at Akiko with both terror and amazement. Only Hayama seemed unmoved. "There it is," he said musingly, "the backward elbow slam."

Syaoran and Zephel now looked at Hayama. "You... taught her that?" Zephel asked, making sure he hadn't misheard.

"Never thought it would come in handy so soon," Hayama replied airily.

"I can't believe this!" Zephel squealed, "What people are we dealing with here?! First a former Freyan shaman, then a tomboy who knows martial arts... Ouch!!" Akiko's fist landed on Zephel's head without alarm.

Syaoran took a deep breath as his spine felt a chilling surge. (She isn't a defenseless girl, after all....,) he thought.

"Really, Zephel!! I may know karate, and I may not look girly-wirly, but I do think I deserve to be treated as a lady!"

"Come on! Who are you kidding here?" Zephel snapped back as he rubbed his head, "What kind of 'lady' will beat someone up just for telling the truth?"

"Why, you are such a....," Akiko was loaded with angry words, but Daria stopped the argument with a few dry coughs, eyed Zephel and then glanced at Malcolm.

"Right...," Zephel trotted towards Malcolm and observed him, "Before he wakes up again." He stood next to Malcolm, held his left hand up front, and murmured,

At peace we strive,

And in chaos we divide.

Once those words came out, diluted blue lights started to emit in front of Zephel and soon swelled into a glittering sphere. His arms swung the lights around to draw a symbol resembling a scimitar.

In the name of the God of Order, Heimdall,

I command you - resume your given form.

His hands clasped in front of him again, soon followed by, "NYD!!"

With that command, Malcolm's body was soon soaked in - as far as Syaoran could make out - a jelly-like energy field. The energy, barely visible from the refraction of light, slowly broke into clouds of smoke, rising and then reaching to Zephel in slow motion. They gathered a tint of emerald green as they concentrated in Zephel's pawn, and eventually condensed into an oval. The green light faded, revealing a gray stone in the boy's pawn.

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Daria and Zephel returned to the bedroom upstairs with four more people - namely Gomi, Malcolm, and Gomi's companiions. Akiko and Syaoran had to clean up the mess left by the previous brawl, while Hayama went to scout other areas of the inn.

By then the story as to how Malcolm hosted the Rune Stone had became clear. NYD had been wandering near Arthel for a long time since the Seal shattered. It remained docile until this year -as its effect showed on the crops and people here. Four months ago, Malcolm found NYD when he was collecting herbs in the wildness. Daria thought that NYD's power was amplified as it fed on Malcolm's power.

"It's true that Malcolm was always picked on back in elementary school, especially by the gang led by Dad," said Akiko as she swept the floor covered with wood shreds, "which will include a lot of boys. But lots of things had happened and changed between those twenty years. I never recalled him being bothered by what happened then."

"According to Morgendofer, that Rune has the ability to evoke pain from people," Syaoran dumped the freshly smashed table outside. "Perhaps it had something to do with it. Is the bath house still open?"

"Yeah," she pointed at the hallway, "turn left and you'll find it."

When Syaoran was about to enter the hallway, "Wait, Li," called Akiko, "there's something I want to give you."

Syaoran had only just turned around when Akiko stuffed something in his hand. It was a mirage scroll.

"This one has the mirage on Crystal Lake that night?" Akiko nodded in reply to Syaoran's question. He only said gravely, "What good does this do? You still have a million copies of this."

"Nope," Akiko wiggled her finger and smiled slyly, "That's the one and only copy."

"The only copy? But back then....."

"Those are just blank scrolls," she flapped her hand with dry laughter, "Only illusion magic can duplicate mirage scrolls. I can't use magic at all, and Malcolm's shop wasn't available for that service anymore."

"So that means," Syaoran felt the air burning around him, "You tricked us!!"

"Come on, Li, I admit I've been really manipulative back then, but I've kept your secret, gave you guys free shelter, and helped you guys get that Rune." Akiko threw a pitiful look at Syaoran, who still wore an awful expression of comtempt.

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"This fool kinda deserved it, though," Zephel said to Daria as he starred at Malcolm, who was lying right next to him. "As a mage, I'm sure he can recognize a Rune Stone when he sees one. Instead of consulting with a shaman or a scholar like you about it, he hogged it for himself."

"Thus playing with fire of unknown source," continued Daria. "He needs to rest and heal himself from now on. Even as NYD no longer has its effects on him, he has been staying with it too long." Daria then looked at Zephel sullenly. "Enough of Malcolm. What about you, Zephel?"

Zephel raised his head and looked at Daria quizzically.

"Isn't it about time to come back and accept your duty as shaman of Heimdall? Not that I believe in duty and honor myself," she watched Zephel sullenly, "but the fact that PEORTH can be activated without your command just shows how immature your abilities with the Runes are. Or you might want to turn the Rune Stones you have over to us, and pull your hands out of this, but how do you plan to dispel your curse then?"

Zephel scowled at her for a while. When he turned away and rested his head on his knees, Daria found further pursuits to be futile. "We're leaving for Crystaline tomorrow, so you still have one night to think about it."

"Is Li leaving with you guys?" Zephel asked dully from the dark side of the room. She nodded. "I don't understand, Daria. Didn't they say that ALL of Albert's shamans had died? And yet we're seeing the living Freyan shaman back then."

"When Albert told me three months ago that the three shamans had been resurrected, I didn't believe much of it either." Daria changed into a more relaxing pose, "Well, there goes my ten copper pieces."

"Reincarnated...," a flash of hope overcame him, and he drag himself closer to Daria. "So the... other two shamans are alive, too?"

"I dare say so," said Daria. "With a tremendous price, too."

"Huh?"

"I thought you should have realized by now," Daria heaved a deep breath before continuing, "that Li has lost his memory because of the Runes."

Zephel looked dumbfound for a moment, and Daria didn't wait for his reply. "I thought his response towards the Runes and Albert's name was rather dull, and he eventually told me that he remembers nothing beyond the last three months."

"And that's also because.... of the curse from the Runes?"

"Probably. It's has been different for each shamans in history."

Zephel then looked at Daria quizzingly. "But why did Li agree in returning to Crystaline with you?"

"What's wrong with him doing so? Most people who had amnesia would be curious of their past to some extent."

"Is that so?" That was a rather far-fetched answer for Zephel.

Soon, Zephel rolled out his own bed, but was unable to sleep. He still had six hours to decide his next step. Return to Crystaline, perhaps, and let Albert win this round? Or return to Byzenhiem? Now he knew the person he was sent to look for might still be alive; how would it be for him to return without even trying to look for that person? Quietly returning to his hometown was another idea, except now he didn't want his parents to see what had happened to him. And staying in Kurata Inn with Hayama and Akiko was definitely not an option.

Daria, on the other hand, had something else to think about. "Li Syaoran is alive.... I think she'll be glad to know that. But can she take what has happened to him?"

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It was still twilight when a wagon stood in front of Kurata Inn. The wagon was already loaded with Malcolm's trunks and belongings. While Malcolm sat drowsily in the wagon, Syaoran and Daria threw in their baggage.

"What about Osokin now, Morgendofer?" asked Syaoran as both of them climbed into the wagon. "Aren't you supposed to take him back?"

"That's also up to him," said Daria, "if he doesn't want to become part of this, we have no choice but to let him be."

"He's just a kid, though."

"Believe me, Li, that kid is older than you think," with that, Daria noticed three people approaching the wagon. First, there was Hayama with a cigarette in his mouth. Second to come was Akiko carrying a cloth-wrapped bundle and a backpack. Last but not least, there was Zephel with his backpack and a disgruntled-looking face. The three of them stopped by the wagon without saying a word.

"Decided to come back, Zephel?" asked Daria. He turned his eyes away in response. "I thought you'd say that," she said, "Come on now."

When Zephel scrambled himself into the wagon, Akiko passed the bundle to Daria. "These are scallion pancakes for the trip," she said, "should be enough for one day's meal."

"If you guys take off now, you should reach Crystaline by dusk," said Hayama. "I guess Arthel will have more peace from now on, but don't let that stop you from coming back, Li; I'm still counting on your cooking."

"He's left his recipe with you, haven't he?" scolded Akiko. "You'll have to stop depending on others so, Dad."

"Watch it there. Given the right instructions, I reckon I could still cook when time calls for it," he puffed out a smoke ring. "Farewell, now. You guys watch over Malcolm on the way, alright?"

"Sure, Dad," Akiko then turned to the people on the wagon. "Let's move it, shall we?"

Everyone except Malcolm, who was too sleepy, looked at Akiko with astonishment.

"What do you mean by.... 'we'?" Zephel's heart pumped with an ominous vibe.

"Exactly what are you up to, Akiko?" Even Daria couldn't guess what was currently in Akiko's mind.

"Don't tell me you're.....," Syaoran didn't dare to finish his sentence.

Akiko looked around at the questioning faces. "What's wrong?" she broke off matter-of-factly, "Malcolm could use a familiar face around him when he is settling down in Crystaline."

"That's it?" said Hayama as he approached her from behind.

"And to get the most extraordinary mirages, too." Akiko took out the mirage catcher, her eyes glittering. "TWO shamans, one of them is from the trio that helped Albert of Isthmus!! How many opportunities like this will you get in a lifetime?"

"Haven't you given us enough trouble?!" scolded Zephel. He then appealed to the innkeeper, " Hayama, aren't you going to stop her?"

Hayama went into contemplation. "So, you're leaving, too?" he murmured, "Well, I might as well ask for some favors, then. This package," he handed her a stuffed envelope, "I doubt the chance, but if you run into your mother, make sure to give her this."

"Wait a second!" Zephel protested, "You're just gonna let her wander off like that?!"

"Not that I haven't tried to stop her," Hayama smoked out rings languidly, "She's just the type that runs all over the place. Sooner or later, the kid will have to take care of herself; might as well let her learn from now on."

"What kind of father are you?" Zephel muttered, annoyed.

"Are you sure about this?" Syaoran gave Akiko a reproaching look as she hopped into the wagon. "I know your good at karate, but that probably doesn't compare to what we're up to."

"You haven't seen what I'm capable of," Akiko lifted a finger dignifiedly. "Wait till you see what I've got from the hotel industry."

"You're so-so with chores, and your cooking is good enough to kill rats," said Daria, "The only thing you've got from the hotel industry is gathering tidbits of rumors and gossips."

"And I'm very good at that," Akiko continued earnestly, "That why I'm always on beat with what's going on in the adventure business. You of all people should know that, Daria."

"Yes, you are. Your ears catch the winds blowing through Multius. Now, can we go?" Daria drawled.

"Of course, Crystaline is quite some distance away. Bye Dad," Akiko turned to wave goodbye to Hayama as Syaoran slapped the rein. So the gang took off.

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Everyone except Syaoran, who was now driving the carriage under the blazing noon sun, was sitting inside the wagon. Malcolm was still half asleep, while Zephel, Daria, and Akiko sat in a circle.

"My, the sun really is good today," said Akiko. "Arthel hasn't had such weather for months." She then looked at the other two thoughtfully, "But that Rune has been here for two years. I find that hard to believe."

"I'm more amazed at Akiko being immune to it," said Zephel, leaning back with his arms cushioning his head. "NYD has the power to induce pain and restraint - Is that right, Daria? It halted the crops' growth, along with causing Malcolm's illness and cranky temper."

"But....," Akiko casted down her eyes, "do you guys think Malcolm really activated the Rune for revenge?"

"I would hesitate to say that," Daria was now scribbling on her notebook. "NYD could have found and exploited Malcolm's weakness, which would be his childhood grudge."

"Let alone Malcolm, it might have done that to other people in Arthel as well, Gomi being one of them," said Zephel.

"Very likely. Although I personally like my own version of the story."

"Your own version?" Akiko and Zephel parroted.

"Malcolm found the Rune and decided to keep it for himself. With a host, NYD's strength grew strong enough to instill illnesses into other townsfolk and cease the crops' growth. Then Gomi (or someone like him), already aggravated by the weathering of the town, heard of Malcolm and the Rune, thus assumed that he caused all of it, and went to burn down Malcolm's shop."

No one said a thing for a long time. Zephel turned to Akiko, "That's what happened?"

"I don't know," said Akiko. "We don't even know how the fire started." Of course, to both Zephel and Akiko, Daria's story sounded irresistibly convincing.

"Speaking of which," Akiko nudged Daria earnestly, "Is Li Syaoran really the Freyan shaman that had been killed two years ago? Is it true that he comes back alive with amnesia now? I've heard all those stuff about the shamans, but had he ever shown any reaction to the Runes or tried to find his way to Albert?"

"All he recalls is waking up near Bruele."

"Bruele?" said Zephel. "That's in Bafal! A different country all together!"

"Hey, I never knew you have such good sense of geography," said Akiko musingly.

"Zephel is also from the Empire of Bafal," said Daria. "Back to the subject, Li stayed in Bruele until a month ago. I think he has regained his strength and power during that time."

"I've heard of what happened then," Akiko cocked complacently. " A group of stirges came down from the Baerue Plateau near that town, and he was enlisted to the defense force. That battle made him famous, due to nothing but the magic he used against the stirges."

"The magic he used?" Zephel now recalled how Syaoran fought on the steppes. "Yes.... he uses wards. Now thinking of it, that isn't a common way of spell casting, is it?"

Akiko rocked back and forth playfully, "It's a good ending, after all. Malcolm is going to refresh himself in Crystaline while everyone in Arthel is back to normal. Zephel's going back to Crystaline - I dare imagine that finding Li and another Rune will be great news for your boss."

"There will be more work, that's for sure," Daria's eyes were locked on the notebook even as she spoke. "Zephel's Initiation, the training of the new Freyan shaman, settling Li down...."

"Wait, Daria," Zephel sat up straight. "There's a new Freyan shaman?"

"Yes. I forgot to mention this to you, Zephel. A girl from Obil was also cursed by the Rune. I brought her to the Temple of Nissa last week - You know, Akiko, the day when you were iin Crystaline?"

"So you returned to your hometown for work?" Akiko then caught something awkward. "Isn't Li a Freyan shaman himself? Why do you need another one?"

"Because Dear Old Albert of the Royalty is anxious to have the Seal repaired A.S.A.P.," Zephel cocked with a drawling tone. "At least he doesn't have to worry about the supplies of shamans. Some curse will find its way onto some shaman in the world. What else will that person do other than coming to him for help?" With that, he stumbled out to the driver's seat before Akiko comprehended his words.

"Geez! What extraordinary temper, that boy," said the irritated Akiko.

"There he goes again," said Daria. "He rebels as often as he breaths."

"But Daria, correct me if I'm wrong, you guys will need at least three shamans to repair the Seal, won't you?"

"Yep, each serving Freya, Hiemdall, and Tyr."

"And a new Freyan shaman is found, not counting Li. That leaves you guys the shamans of Heimdall and Tyr."

"Once Zephel undergoes the Initiation, he'll be our new shaman of Hiemdall," Daria then tipped the end of the pencil to her lips. "The shaman of Tyr will be tricky, though. They are usually found among humans with pure ancestral heritage or tribes of antiquity, making them really hard to find."

"Zephel sure didn't look like a shaman," Akiko combed her hair slightly. "I had never seen him using magic until that Rune sealing. Sure had me fooled."

"Shamans don't have to be magicians, and vice versa," said Daria. "You can find plenty of examples where Zephel came from."

"Where does he come from, anyways?" asked Akiko.

"He hasn't told you? South of Rosalia is the Dominion of Knights...."

"Yes, I know that," Akiko rolled her eyes at Daria. "I know the countries neighboring Rosalia."

"The Dominion has its own wizardry consulting organization in Byzenhiem, called the Assemblage of Mages."

"Oh," Akiko appeared to be amazed by this, "Zephel's a member of the Assemblage of Mages?"

"And," Daria came to the main point, "there's also a group of shamans in the Assemblage, the Nine....."

Daria's word hung there faintly. "Nine?" Akiko repeated vaguely. Then, she yelled out, as if stunned by lightening, "The Nine Pillars!? That obnoxious, sharp-tongued, quick-tempered Zephel is one of the honorable members of the Nine Pillars?! Why~~~?"

"Whatever drives a shaman's power, it certainly has no eyes for personality," said Daria.

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Syoaran was feeling rather lax as he drove the two-in-hand wagon slowly along the path. He heard Zephel stepping out of the wagon and sitting next to him. Then both of them kept mute for a good amount of time.

"Aren't you mad at me?" Syaoran said without looking at Zephel, whom only concentrated on swinging his legs on the seat. It took Zephel another three minutes to spill out what was pressing on his mind.

"Li......, is it true that you've lost your memory?"

"Don't remember anything from my past," said Syaoran, "If that's what you mean."

"Geez," Zephel pursed his lips, "Why couldn't you tell me?"

"You never asked. And besides," Syaoran glanced at Zephel, "why should I tell a secret like this to an eleven-year-old boy I've only known for three days?"

"You've told it to a girl you've only met for half an hour," Zephel snapped back. "Speaking of which, how did Daria convince you to go to Crystaline?"

"Morgendofer invited me to stop by Crystaline. Someone there knew about my past." Syaoran looked into the sky longingly, "She also told me something about the sorcerer clans in Northpoint."

"So that it? She convinced you that you were a Freyan shaman, based simply on the fact that your surname is Li? You've lost your memory, and there are lots of possibilities. What makes her story plausible?" Zephel somehow took pleasure in believing that Daria came up with some elaborate story to mislead the amnesiac Syaoran - which, as Zephel's more logical side also realized, was not likely, since the Syaoran he knew wasn't the sort to be easily misled.

"Her words has something to do with it," replied Syoaran, "But I have been following my hunch on this decision."

"How is that so?" Zephel asked yet more curiously.

Syaoran tightened his grip on the rein without saying a word. How could he explain to Zephel that Daria was not the first one to bring up the subject about the Li clan? Back in Bruele, people had joked about it once. No one really took it seriously, but he found himself thinking about it once and a while. Would Zephel believe him if he tell him that after that battle with the stirges, an even stronger voice grew inside him, telling him someone up north was waiting - for him.

Zephel only starred at Syaoran. "Is recalling your past..... important to you?"

"No, to be honest. But a person without a past has nothing. Given that, no harm is done in trying."

For a moment, Syaoran thought Zephel couldn't find anything to say - that was until Zephel sneered back, "Listen to yourself. I don't know you're capable of such self pitying."

"Yeah," Syaoan only looked away, as if he hadn't expected Zephel to say otherwise. "Now that I've told you my story, are you going to say anything about yourself for a change?" The part Zephel wanted to come upon least had finally arrived.

"What had Daria told you?" he said nervously.

"You were under the curse. That's why you were sent to Crystaline," as he paused, Syaoran didn't hear a word from Zephel. "I would have asked you what kind of curse it is. But you'll tell me when you want to, right?"

Zephel felt rather embarrassed by Syaoran's unexpectedly calm attitude. He couldn't help wondering if Syaoran had always been this way. Or maybe the loss of his memory altered his personality as well?

"Right," Zephel said lightly, "Because of the curse, I'm not the same as I used to be. I guess we're in the same boat after all, though the curse worked in different ways on us."

Syaoran's expression showed no response to Zephel's word, which - strange enough - encouraged Zephel to speak even more. "There were two more shamans besides you who followed Isenhiem back then - Do you remember those two persons who traveled with you?" Syaoran's expression suggested the answer to be negative. "Well.... I know one of them back in the Dominion of Knights. It's not that I care, but.... I do wonder if that person is okay sometimes. "It was said in a voice as tiny as a mosquito could make, and Zephel doubted if Syaoran even heard him.

That question was answered soon enough. "You're quite annoying when you talk mean," said Syaoran, "But hearing that, lamentation doesn't suit you, either."

Zephel's mouth dropped open. A surge of anger was telling him to give Syaoran a piece of his mind, if only Syaoran hadn't cut him off before he could say anything, "It's better that way, though. A kid at your age shouldn't act so cynical towards the world - it's scary, if you ask me."

Zephel's mouth now twisted - this guy was beyond his knowledge. "Honestly, for someone who don't speak until necessary, you sure talk pretty," he muttered.

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A bird - a hybrid between vulture and hawk in appearance, but pigeon-like in size - landed on a window in the Temple of Nissa, where the man spotted it. "Tint Wing? What have you got here?" The man tried to unfasten a bundle of paper from the bird's leg. At the same time, the girl came in with a tray of tea ware.

"I got some tea here," she spotted the bird when she placed the tray on the table. "Has someone summoned Tint Wing?"

"Someone summoned him to carry a message," said the man, "It's probably a memo between the priests."

"Tint Wing is only two years old, is he?" The girl stared at the bird with round, emerald eyes, "What will become of him when he grows up?" Her eyes then caught the weird looking instrument on the table, the one she saw the man playing yesterday. "Err... I've been wondering, what is that?" she asked, pointing to the instrument.

"You mean this?" The man walked back to the table with the note. "I hadn't played it ever since the day I started the quest for the Runes. It's an instrument of antiquity times, so most people probably never heard of it. I don't know how to pronounce its name with our language today, but I think it's called 'Xiao' in ancient tongue. My mother used to.....," the man then hesitated as he noticed the girl's heavyhearted expression. "Are you okay?"

"Ah...., I'm fine," the girl turned to look at the man again, trying to appear cheerful.

Seeing this, the man's brow heaved with a sinking heart. "I'd never felt so helpless in my life. I couldn't save them back then, and when I now know that they might be alive, I can't leave this place to look for them either. Instead, I have to rely on others who are suffering because of this as well." He then whispered with a very low voice, "I couldn't blame anyone if you and Zephel resented me...."

The girl looked at the man remorsefully, until she finally spoke, "I.... wanted to find out what happened to 'him'; that's why I came here to become the Shaman of Fraya. And I know that," she paused to watch the man firmly, "'he would never offer help to one unworthy of it. Likewise, I will offer you whatever assistance I can."

The man looked at the girl, returning a smile of comfort, "Thank you..... Now, we have to run this letter to...," he scanned the name written on the scroll, then he eyes widen, "It's for me. What do you know?"

He unfolded the note and started reading. The girl then observed the man's expression frozen in a rather complicated way.

The man heaved a heavy sigh when he finished. "It's from Daria. She's found Zephel."
"That's great," said the girl, feeling glad.

"Something more complicated happened, too," the man looked at the girl solemnly, "She found Li Syaoran with him."

This was obviously too much for the girl to handle, for her legs failed her and sent her sitting on the chair, and her face stiffen as her eyes widen. Thousands of emotions must be struggling within her: joy and sorrow, relief and anxiety..... but all she could say was, "Syaoran.... he's alive?" The man nodded, looking at the girl worryingly. When the girl finally recovered her senses, she stretched her hand towards the man and pleaded hoarsely, "Let me see that."

The man passed her the letter, which she snatched impatiently and read with an unknown hunger,
 

Dear Albert R. Isenhiem of Isthmus,

I wrote to inform you that I've found Zephel Osokin at Arthel. He admitted that he was present at the disturbance on Crystale Lake, during which he retrieved the Rune Stone UR. I've tried to negotiate with him about returning to Crystaline, but his reply will remain unknown until tomorrow morning.

Two things unexpectedly turned up during my mission, which I also felt necessary to brief you on.

First, NYD has been latent near Arthel and resonated with PEORTH last night, which caused  some disturbance and inflicted damage on an inn. Don't worry, though. Zephel has sealed NYD, and the inn's owner had let us off from further compensation.

Secondly, your hunch on the former shamans' reincarnation has scored after all, for Li Syaoran, an exorcist and the former shaman of Fraya, had been traveling with Zephel for a while, and had also contributed in retrieving UR on the steppes.
 

"Syaoran....," the girl held the letter close to her chest, warm tears glittering at the corner of her eyes. "I'm just so glad.... he's okay, after all that." She dwelled upon much delight before she continued with the rest of letter,
 

However, advise Sakura not to hold her hopes too high, either. Li Syaoran had lost his memories from the past, including his linage in the Li clan and his identity as the shaman of Freya. He agreed to come to Crystaline with me, but he might not recognize her when he sees her.

More details about this mission will be given in a report when I come back.

Daria
 

He had lost his memory.... about everything, including her. The girl felt her stomach twitching with fear.

"Sakura....," the man watched her, as if she might break any second, "I'm so sorry about this."

The grimness on her face, however, soon faded away. "No, Albert. It's okay," she looked at him with an assuring smile. "This letter brought more good news to me. Minutes earlier, I thought I've seen the last of him six years ago. The fact that he isn't dead is more than I could ask for." The girl stretched her arms, "And his memories.... there should be a way to recover it, right? I do want to gather all my strength to help him."

The girl's positive attitude comforted the man. This girl has an amazing recovering ability. "I shouldn't be grumping in a time like this, either", the man thought. "Sakura seems up to the job. If only Zephel will also agree to be the shaman of Hiemdall, and if we can find someone as the shaman of Tyr, the Runes shall be collected soon." He then looked at the sky thoughtfully, "But the curse from the Seal has taken away Li's memory. If the other two shamans have reincarnated.... I wonder what happened to them?"

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Author's Corner

That took another two months!! I am just so glad I've finished this - 21 pages!! Most of you guys are probablyy not so happy about me revealing Syaoran's identity so soon, but this story in the future will concentration mainly on the recovery of his memory.

So, I guess there's a lot of question I have to settle here. Lots of you must be confused over the relationship between magic users (mages, as I shall call them) and shamans. Although they often go hand-in-hand, not all shamans are capable of using magic, just as not all mages are shamans. The difference?

A shaman's power came from his/her devotion to his/her higher power; in this case, it would be Freya, Heimdall, and Tyr. In other words, the shaman has to ensure his/her bond with the deity in order to rear the Runes' power.

A mage, on the other hand, can evoke physical phenomenon with his/her own power and/or will. For those who played RS1, this shall be almost all of the spells that appeared in the game. Some people are born with it, while others have to acquire such abilities through artificial means.

Of course, there are also those who couldn't use magic no matter what. (Akiko: Hey!!)

As you can see now, "Assemblage of Mages" is not a politically correct name if shamans who aren't mages are included. But then again, most people in Multius do have such misconceptions. (Zephel: She's just trying to find an excuse for her mistakes.....)

Nontheless, shamans do share a past with mages, which I will talk about next time - don't kill me for that. :p

Now about the physics of the Runes. The three Runes that has appeared so far..... have very scary qualities......(*sweat*) The Runes and the Runic Seal are - in AD&D terms - magical relics. Those are items once used by deities, and despite the enormous power they have, they are also very dangerous for normal human beings to tamper with. In fact, shamans can't wield the Runes by themselves. They have to perform rituals and ask for their deities' assistance if they want to use the Runes' power. I'm planning to go through some of the rituals in the next episode, so hopefully a more elaborate explanation will be given then.

And I also promised to explain why Albert and his shamans had to work in low profile. I wanted to do this in the story, but I guess it didn't work out. Basically, when Albert started searching for the missing Runes Stones, the news about the Seal shattering (disintegrating) was not widely spread. It would be easier for Albert if he could search the Runes with the majority of Multinus unaware of that news. Who suggested him to do so? Well..... I thought it could be one of the deities.

Finally, about the characters. For Kodomo no Omocha fans: I really made Gomi a jerk in this chapter, haven't I? (And perhaps Hayama as well.) I don't hate them, but they fit into the story perfectly that way. Sorry, Gomi~~~~ (*weeping*) It's NYD's fault!! Blame it on NYD!! (Zephel: She's looking for an excuse again.....)

July 18, 2002


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