The Rune Seekers - chapter 5

Crystaline - the capital of Rosalia and one of the most well-known metropolis in the world which all Rosalians are proud for her effloresce. When night draws near, the city stands proudly under the velvet sky like an illuminating ivory. Inside the city, the crowd on the streets with the warm light from the street lamps and houses makes Crystaline a sleepless city. Even during night, when all activities come to an end in other towns, the metropolitans have many ways to pass the time, for this is when peddlers scatter along the streets and performers take their places in cafes.

Despite her relatively young age when compared to other cities, Crystaline is nevertheless a city with ancient history, and every building here, be it a sacred temple or an ordinary shop, retains the classic architecture style of Rosalia. The outer city, which is separated from the inner city by the city wall and a moat, presents another side of Crystaline. Unlike the grandeur from the inner city, the outer city is more down-to-earth with the modest resident housings and a bazaar mixed with small-scaled shops. The liveliness outside the city, nevertheless, rivals that of the inner city.

Perhaps the most eye-catching parts of the outer city are the two buildings that stand by the two sides of the city. They lack the elegance possessed by the buildings inside the city walls, but they are tall and made of stone - one distinguished characteristic of classical Rosalian architecture. Each of these buildings stood upon an island, which is connected to the shore by a stone bridge.

The gang's wagon rested on the shore that stood opposite to one such building. Meanwhile, the party gathered around the entrance of the shop.

"Thanks for all the trouble," Malcolm said, exhausted yet sincere. " Do get better soon, Malcolm," said Akiko. "Write us often, too."

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The Rune Seekers
Chapter 5
Tinder in the Lake City
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The party reached Crystaline by dawn. After Akiko, Syaoran, Zephel, and Daria helped Malcolm moving into the sanitarium and bade him farewell, it was already eight and a half in the evening. They moved along the moat and passed by the bazaar as they searched the city gate on their wagon. The cozy-looking shops and the crowd fluctuating on the streets resembled much with Arthel - or so Syaoran thought until his eyes met the marble city wall. The city wall - which stood a hundred meters high - reflected the tangerine firelight, making night as bright as day.

"It's quite impressive isn't it?" Akiko, who was now driving the wagon, showed her admiration as she starred at the towering city. "This isn't my first time in Crystaline, but she amazes me every time I come. Have you ever come to Crystaline before, Li?"

"Only once, as far as I recall, and that was during daytime," Li said, "I was only passing by, so I didn't even bother going into the city." He peered at the golden city wall and the burning lights from the bazaar, feeling he was in another dimension, "I never thought Crystaline can have such a scenery."

"Be careful," Zephel called out from inside the wagon, "Beautiful things don't last long."

"Tsk! This boy!" Akiko was quick in scolding him back. "Always anxious to spoil the romantic atmosphere. The sun shall rise from the west on the day you find a girlfriend."

"Well, excuse me~~ I'm not built to be romantic," Zephel replied with a half pursed mouth, "nor am I planning to have a girlfriend. So you can put an end to that satire."

Akiko, however, didn't hear him, "Oh, there's the gate." Across the moat, an arch about forty meters high was bolted with an iron gate, and in front of it clustered rows of soldiers. As the wagon passed the bridge that stood over the moat, a soldier came out to stop it.

"Excuse me, Miss," the soldier said, "The main gate of Crystaline is currently under blockage. You'll have to enter through the tunnels."

"What?! Why?" asked Akiko. "The main gate was fine the last time I came."

"Actually," Daria tucked her head out of the wagon, "the main gate was barred ever since that incident on Crystal Lake. If there's another flood, they want to make sure that the main gate keeps it out of the city."

"Precisely," said the soldier, "And you know that closing and opening a gate of fifty tones aren't easy procedures. We've opened the two tunnels on each side here, though," he pointed along the wall, "Just stay on the path near the wall and you'll get there."

That was when the party noticed for the first time that there were people moving along the bank beneath the wall on either side of the main gate. The stripe of the land between the moat and the wall was wide enough for the wagon to pass, but driving it would still be dangerous, since there were too many pedestrians nearby. The party therefore moved along the bank on foot as they led the wagon.

"Couldn't they come up with something better?" said Zephel, "I mean, the traffic between the inner and outer city will jam the paths from the bridge to the tunnels."

"That reminds me of something," said Akiko, "I saw a couple of men working by the moan. Are they putting up some temporary bridges, Daria? - Ouch!" A hunchbacked man bumped into Akiko and Zephel as he passed by hastily, leaving a brief murmur of apology.

"I haven't heard anything about it," said Daria. "It certainly will be a good idea."

When they saw people emerged and disappeared by a spot in the wall, they knew they found the entrance of the tunnel. The tunnel was actually quite spacious, and with every few steps they could see an aperture on the wall with chilling air flowing through it.

"They even have ventilation holes down here," said Akiko. "This tunnel maze is an impressive architectural work."

The party then ran into a crossroads. "It's probably a good idea to climb the slopes," said Daria, her eyes fixed on the path to the right.

"Isn't that the longer way?" countered Zephel.

"We can certainly take the route at the middle as well," Daria glanced at Zephel, " If you have some way to push the wagon up the stairs."

That sounded convincing enough for Zephel, and next they walked along a path where the floor inclined intermittently. It seemed to Syaoran that they were walking in circles, until a light appeared at the end of the tunnel. Outside the end of the tunnel was a city square with a fountain in the middle. Buildings, all at least three floors high, stood around the square while the streets spawned from the square in radiant form. The square was crowded with people, the lamps burning, the white stone reflecting the light from the moon and the lamps.

"So we've been walking under the city this whole time?" said Syaoran.

"Yeah, That tunnel also have many other functions," said Daria. "Let's get going now. If we reach the Temple of Nissa soon enough, we night even have dinner there - those pancakes just weren't enough...."

"Yeah, yeah, but just let me take some footage here," said Akiko, as she began rummaging for her mirage catcher through her bag. "The night scenery of Crystaline is always worth catching, no matter how many times you've done it before."

"Oh, please," said Zephel, "You're wasting everyone's time here!"

"Don't get so worked up, Zephel. I'm just going to catch those mirages as we move... Hey!" Akiko suddenly frowned, "It's gone!"

"What do you mean it's gone?! Maybe you just need to flip through your bag a few more times," being one who had visited Akiko's room before, Zephel gave her what he thought was the most sensible advice.

"I HAVE flipped through it more than once," she answered exasperatedly.

"Could it be inside the wagon?" said Syaoran as he peered into the wagon.

"I may be clumsy, and my bag may be clustered," Akiko looked at Syaoran and Zephel with damp eyes, "but I'm dead sure of one thing: I - always - leave - my - mirage - catcher - in - the - left - side - of - my - bag~~~~!!!"

"Knowing you, Akiko, I know this is rather far-fetched," said Daria, "but you couldn't have dropped it somewhere, could you?"

"What are you talking about, Daria? You know that mirage catcher is my life."

"If it's THAT important, then you should know better than keeping it in a place like that," said Zephel, as he searched through his vest for something, "keep it somewhere closer to your body, like I do with this vest..... Huh?" Zephel's expression frozed as his hands stopped.

"..... Osokin?"

"IT'S GONE!!" he shrieked, "MY MAGNETIC SENSOR 45~~!!!!"

"Are you sure?" Syaoran looked at Zephel, perplexed. "It could be in your bag...."

"I ALWAYS PUT MY MAGNETIC SENSOR 45 INSIDE MY VEST!!" Zephel howled, "I don't put it anywhere else!! I spent too much time on it to put it elsewhere!!"

"Wow. Things just get better every minute, doesn't it?" said Daria in a tone of either muse or indifference. "Two lost items in one day."

"Where could we've lost them, though?" Akiko was nearly sobbing, "We've been on the wagon for the whole day!"

"Exactly!" Zephel answered spontaneously, and the quarreling pair thus established an alliance. "And we still have our things up until the bridge."

A flash came to Akiko's mind right after that. "Wait a minute..... That's it! We lost our stuffs when we're entering the city."

"That's right! It was so crowded back there. It must be easy for someone to pickpocket us." Zephel then squinted, "Speaking of which, wasn't there a guy who bumped into us back then?"

"He's it!" Akiko said as a final declaration. "He must have taken our stuff back then. We have to find him soon, or else he might not even be in this city." Akiko sprang back to the tunnel, Zephel following her. " When I find that guy, I'm going to test the Orbit Stars on him."

"Wait!" Syaoran yelled behind them. "You guys... You guys really jump into action without thinking, don't you?" He turned around and eyed Daria helplessly. "Morgendofer, look after our stuff, will you? I want to make sure they don't do anything reckless." With that, Syaoran ran towards the tunnel as well. The three of them disappeared by the dark entrance of the tunnel, leaving Daria and the wagon standing in the middle of the square.

"What do you reckon?" Daria turned towards the two horses pulling the wagon. "I think we should take these back to the temple first."

Down the tunnel, the torch hanging from the wall made Akiko's and Zephel's figures barely visible for Syaoran. When he caught up with them, still running, Zephel demanded assistance immediately. "Li, use that laser plate again. You said it can detect Akiko's mirage catcher."

"You can do that?" asked Akiko over her shoulder.

"Yeah. Fine. As long as we can get this thing over with," Li took out the compass as the three of them ran through the tunnel.

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The light outside the city walls were still burning bright when one man sneaked into the shadowy alleys. The hunchback looked around, and when he made sure no one was watching, he pulled off his cloak, revealing someone with a slender yet firm stature. Pulling himself straight, a bag full of junks slid along his legs down to his feet.

"Now," the thief chuckled as he looked at his trophies, "let's take a look at our day's work, shall we?" He sat down and picked up the largest item from the pile. "Hum... What's this? A steel box?" As he turned the box around to inspect the bottom, his thumb accidentally pressed upon a knob on the box.

Then, to the thief's great surprise, a pole of light came out from a round lens on one side of the box. The thief quickly pressed the knob again, not even bothered to look at the light projection. Perhaps it was best to inspect this at somewhere more private.

Laying the box on the side, the next thing that caught his attention was something that resembled a thick, heavy hand-mirror. Of course, a closer look told the thief that this was no mirror, and the handle was covered with buttons and switches. A black yet slick material also filmed the flat cylinder at the top of the device.

"Boy, we sure got a lot of weird junks tonight," said the thief. "What uses are all these buttons for?" he said as he pushed one down. A shrieking beep swelled from the gadget, almost sending the thief to his back. His heart pounded with the beeping sound as he fumbled with the buttons and switches nervously, wishing that he could silence the thing somehow. And then, miraculously, the beeping sound came to a halt. The thief also let out a sigh of relief.

"What a night," he fanned himself with his hand. "Kinda think of it, I really shouldn't be doing this, especially when I still have business in Crystaline..... Oh well," he thought as he threw his hands in the air, " What's the chance that I'm seeing any of those people again? I have an appointment inside the city."

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"That way!" Akiko said breathlessly, as they ran towards the direction pointed by the ray from Syaoran's compass. It wasn't as easy as they thought, for there were many people on the streets, and they had already made a few mistakes when they blocked those carrying magical items, none of which were the ones they were looking for. These setbacks, however, did little in reducing the enthusiasm from Akiko and Zephel. They could think of nothing but retrieving their valuables.

Syaoran, on the other hand, had dim hopes in the search. Aside from catching the wrong persons on their way, the compass also led them to the outer town. "He could be leaving Crystaline at this very moment," he thought grimly. His thoughts were cut short by Akiko's shout as she pointed at another guy on the road.

"You see that?" she said, "This time it's that spiked-hair boy there."

"Great!" said Zephel, "Let's go get him." He and Akiko dashed towards the guy, Syaoran trotting after them.

The boy had his back towards them, and Akiko tapped him on the shoulder without braking her pace. "Excuse me," she said, "You have some magical items on you, right?"

The boy turned to see three people standing behind him, one of them holding a plaque that shot a ray of light into him. "You're asking me if I have what?" He then pointed at the compass, "And what is THAT?"

"It's called a 'Luo Pan'," said Syaoran, "It's can detect sources of artificial magic."

"Yeah," said Akiko, "And it's telling us that you might have my mirage catcher."

"And my Magnetic Sensor 45," added Zephel.

"Never heard of those," the boy only shrugged causally.

"Come on, now! Then what is this thing inside your vest?" Akiko lunged forward to grope the boy on where the ray pointed at, but the boy dodged and drew something out from his vest.

"Here," he held out a dagger to them impatiently, "Is this what you're looking for?"

Akiko and Zephel were quite taken aback by it, while Syaoran undone the ray from his compass and went closer to inspect the dagger. The boy was right; Syaoran could feel a faint vibe of magic from the dagger.

"Well, this dagger is certainly one of a kind," the boy said smugly, probably due to the triumph of proving his innocence. "It has magical powers - But I can't tell you what they are, seeing that we're strangers."

So this was another miss? The thought hovered around Akiko and Zephel grimly, and the boy's jolly spirit was no improvement on theirs. Syaoran spoke for them, as he had done for so many times, "Sorry to bother you, then."

"Oh, I'm not bothered," the boy answered discernibly. "Now, if you'd all excuse me, I have a date tonight," and so he went, leaving the dismayed Akiko and Zephel with Syaoran --

For only a few steps, that is. Soon enough, something beneath the boy's vest beeped uncontrollably, and there was no mistake on what caused that beeping.

"My Magnetic Sensor 45~~!!!" howled Zephel, "Let's see how you talk yourself out of THAT!!"

"You pretentious thief!! Give me back my mirage catcher!!" Akiko bounced upon the boy, whom was terrified more by the beeping then the threats from his victims.

"Crap!!" he delayed no time and dashed into an alley. Akiko and Zephel pursued him, cursing and calling him as they ran; they forgot Syaoran, whom had his own plans and took another route.

The alleys behind the shops were narrow, and occasionally there were gutters in the middle. Akiko and Zephel nearly tripped as they ran beneath the lights from the shops, but the boy sped along the alley as if the wind was aiding his feet. It was quite a relief for Akiko and Zephel when they saw a dead end ahead of them. "Pinned him in the spot," Akiko said excitingly.

That joy didn't last long, for the boy leapt into the air when he reached the wall.

"No~~!" moaned Zephel.

"You guys are good," the boy glanced at them at midair, "But still not good enough to catch me. Maybe next time when you have a chance... Ow~~!!"

Akiko and Zephel saw another figure in middle air - Syaoran was stepping right on top of the boy's head. As the two figures separated, the boy fell down screaming, and Syaoran landed swiftly afterwards.

Akiko and Zephel wasted no time to lung upon the boy and hammered him with their fists as they searched him, while the poor boy struggled upon the ground as he tried to block their blow.

"My mirage catcher! Where is it, you stupid---" " The sensor is in your vest, right?" " Stop it, you two - Ouch! My stomach! No~ Ouch~ Stop that!"

Syaoran only stood there, watching the three of them rolling in a bundle of dust.

"I SAID STOP!!" the boy finally managed to pull himself away, and he tossed out two objects to Akiko and Zephel. "There! You can have them back. I hate machines anyways." Akiko and Zephel caught the objects and took a brief second to confirm that these were the missing objects. "Damn it! I wasted too much time here," the boy ran away immediately without giving them another thought.

"Wait!" cried Akiko, but Syaoran stopped her from following him. " Morgendofer is waiting for us back in the city. We don't have much time to waste."

The three of them went into the tunnel again; there were fewer people now. " And I thought we were rubbed by an old man," said Zephel. "That disguise he used back then could have fooled me." " I really wish I could slap him a couple more times," Akiko hissed resentfully. " Guys, guys," said Syaoran, who was walked at the rear, "You should be glad that you have found your stuffs after all that."

The three of them chatted as they went, and failed to notice the torches on the wall flickering slyly as they passed by.

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Contrary to the empty quietude in the tunnel, people hustled uncertainly upon the ground. People that were bypassing all stopped to see the royal guards huddling near a manhole, and soon a circle of crowds formed in the middle of the street. A soldier of higher rank was kneeling besides the manhole as he peered into it suspiciously.

"So," he asked his fellow soldiers without letting his eyes off the manhole, "Where's the fire you guys were talking about?" Another soldier, who stood behind his supervisor, answered him nervously, " Someone reported a fire here ten minutes ago. There's a streetful of witnesses, too."

"And the flame suddenly died out during our way here?" the officer slowly pulled himself onto his feet. "What the heck have you guys gone during that time?"

"Nothing. The fire burst from underground through this manhole, but it then.... well.... sunk back again. When we went down to search, we can't find any trace of fire down there, not even a burnt wreckage was left behind."

"I don't like this," the officer said. "It's one thing if it's an accident. But this is becoming more like an incinerator's work." " The Security Patrol of Crystaline awaits your command, Sir." " Bar the ends of the tunnels from pedestrians, and guard all the ventilation holes in the city." " What shall we tell the people, Sir?" " Might have to tell them to prepare some water in their houses," replied the officers. "We also have to send some firemen down there, just in case there are other tinder in the tunnels."

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"So, which way do we go from here?" asked Akiko as the three of them stopped on a four-way crossroad.

"I think we can take the middle this time," said Zephel. "Now that we don't have a wagon to worry about, let's just take the stairs."

"Zephel, you sure know the tunnel inside out," said Akiko as Zephel led them along the tunnel. "From all those times I've came to Crystaline, I never managed to remember every path in the underground tunnel, mainly because I never used it as much."

"Well, I had studied the tunnel during my last stay in Crystaline," said Zephel. "It embodies a lot of interesting engineering ideas."

"Really?" said Syaoran with his eyes narrowed, "You didn't study the tunnel system so that you could use it to escape from Crystaline?" Zephel gave Syaoran a sharp glower in response.

"It's quite unusual that the torches can stay so bright into this time of the day," commented Akiko. "Do they have someone doing the maintenance down here?"

"Probably," Zephel shrugged. "People come in and out of Crystaline even till midnight."

"There isn't that many people around now, though," said Syaoran, hearing their steps echoing through the tunnel. "Speaking of which, it's getting rather heated down here."

Akiko and Zephel went silent on Syaoran's comment. "Now that you've mentioned it," said Zephel, "I'm feeling a little hot as well. And when you'd think those ventilation tunnels will be of some good."

They continued to walk in silence, yet things seemed stranger with every second passing by. "This isn't right, don't you think?" said Akiko as she rubbed her neck. "It wasn't this warm during the last two times we came here."

"Yeah, but we were also in a hurry the last time we came down here," said Zephel, trying to sound normal. "Maybe the temperature here was warm enough with all those torches; we just... didn't notice."

"But it has risen during the last few minutes," said Syaoran, who stopped and peered back. Akiko and Zephel also came to a halt and watched him apprehensively.

"... Li?" " Oh heck," he pulled his eyes away from the other end of the tunnel and walked passed them. "It could be me overreacting. Let's just get out of here..... Morgendofer must be very impatient by now."

They had only walking for a few seconds when they heard a crack echoing through the tunnel, which also sent Akiko shrieking.

"Did you HEAR that?!" she huddled her head under her arms. "I swear by my life that there's something following us!"

"Oh shut up, Akiko!!" Zephel also raised his voice in response to Akiko's squealing. "That's the crackling from the torches. It's just that!!"

Syaoran stopped again, thinking they would take another minute this time. " Li! What do you think?" Akiko asked imploringly. Meanwhile, Zephel also clung on his position, "It's just the torches, I say. Now can we move on, or are we gonna spend the night down here becasue of you?"

"But...."

"It's alright, Kurata," Syaoran finally said. "Just move on...," he suddenly stopped as a flash of red stole the corner of his eye. He turned to have a better look, but saw nothing except the torches and the crimson light emitted from them.

"See! I told ya!" Akiko was keen to notice Syaoran's distraction, " Something is following us!" She fell into shuttering silence, and no words were exchanged among the three. When the frozen silence and the crackling of the torches became too unbearable, Zephel broke out in anger.

"Alright! I don't know what's wrong with you two, but I'm getting out of here." He strode forward in an antsy fit, and soon enough, he screamed at something, which both Syaoran and Akiko noticed soon afterwards.

A belt of fire jumped across the tunnel amongst the torches fluidly, nearly catching the tip of Zephel's hair. Even after he fell back onto the floor, the flame continued to fly swiftly from one torch to another, and eventually lunged itself towards Akiko and Syaoran. Both of them dodged it, though Akiko did so with a horrific yell.

"What!? What is that thing?" Just when Zephel, still sitting on the floor, had pulled his senses together, the fire came swooping upon him again. If Syaoran hadn't pulled Zephel up in time, the boy would have been cooked on the spot - where the fire snake now left a brown burnt mark. The trio ran with all their might, as the flame advanced towards them along the rows of torches.

"Aiieee~~~!! That fire has a life of its own!! It's no ordinary flame!" screamed Akiko.

"Thanks for the insight, Sherlock!" Zephel turned to look at Syaoran, "Li! Do something! You have wards that conjure thunder and fire, right?! Surly you also have one that conjures WATER!"

"I do," said Syaoran as he looked at Zephel uncertainly with the corner of his eyes, "but....."

"Yeah, Li!" Akiko yelled from behind, "Get some water for us, even staling it will help!"

"For the Love of Multius!!" Syaoran burst out impatiently, "It doesn't work!! I have been able to use most of my wards, but somehow the one for water al-ways-fails-me!!" His howling left an echo behind them, where the flame was not far behind.

"Great! Now what then?" spat Zephel, and just when things couldn't seem any worse, they turned at a corner only to discover their path bolted with an iron gate. " Oh, CURSES!!" growled Zephel, as he grabbed the bars on the gate and peered into the other end of the tunnel.

"Why did they block the tunnel?!" Akiko was near tears. The walls at the turning corner were now glowing with a tangerine hue.

"There has to be some switch to open this stupid thing!" Zephel stuck his arm through the bars and ran his hand along the wall near the gate. But the living flame was already at the corner, hovering in midair as it jumped amongst the four torches hanging on the wall - so Syaoran did whatever he could think of.

"Spirit of Thunder!" A bolt of thunder spammed from his wards, and struck the flame in the core. The fire didn't budge, however, and was still closing in upon them like a cat preying upon a mouse.

Zephel also pulled himself from the gate and tuned to face the fire with a round object in his hand. "Stay back!!" he yelled, "Or this bomb will go off!!"

"Have you lost your mind!?" Akiko punched him hard in the head, "You want us all killed?!"

Suddenly, all three of them felt a breezed from above, and the next moment, something rushed pass them and flew towards the flame. It crashed with the flame and emitted a mass of smoke. Syaoran looked closely, and realized that the entity was a water blob - no, to be more precise, the liquid took the shape of a young girl with wings and fanned ears.

Syaoran and Zephel watched confusingly as the water sprite and the flame struggled in the thick smoke, entangling each other fiercely. Akiko, however, felt something hitting her lightly on the shoulder - a ladder. She raised her head and discovered that she was standing beneath a ventilation hole - the water sprite probably came through there. The ladder hung from the top of the ventilation hole, and Akiko could also make out some figures kneeing at the other end of the hole.

"Up here!" a voice came down from above, "Quick!"

"They found us!!" Akiko took the ladder, "Bless Multius! Li! Zephel!" The two boys turned to see Akiko hanging on the ladder. They went to the ladder and climbed themselves up to the top of the manhole as well - though Syaoran occasionally turned back to watch the water sprite and the flame of unknown source, and even listened to the sizzling tentatively when he was halfway in the ventilation hole.

Near the end of the manhole, Akiko felt her hand tugged by someone. When she was safely out of the hole, she threw herself upon that person. " Daria~~~~ You won't believe what had just happened!" Over Daria's shoulder, Akiko noticed another girl, her eyes closed and her hands holding a staff in concentrated stance. "Who's that?" Just when she asked, Daria helped Zephel out of the hole.

"There's a water spirit down there," was the first thing he said to Daria.

"I know," she pulled him away and reached for Syaoran, who took her hand and stepped out swiftly from the hole.

"So now what?" Zephel went near the manhole, where Daria and Syaoran joined him. They could see nothing but a cloud of steam running up the ventilation hole and over their heads. The steam eventually dispersed into the chilly air onground, and when they peered back into the hole, they could see the ground of the tunnel covered with - to their relief - a much dimmer light.

The water sprite came into view and flew along the ventilation hole. They stood back slightly as the sprite flew out of the hole and towards the girl with the staff, bringing their attention to this curious-looking mage. Slowly, the sprite's formed began to mold into a small object, and as it landed on the ground lightly, the girl also collapsed. Akiko caught her just in time. "Daria," she turned to her bespectiled friend fearfully, "She's passed out."

Daria knelt down besides the girl, placing her hand on the girl's forehead. " The curse limited her power over the cards, and it's been a while since she used them," she and Akiko heaved the girl up to her foot, "She must be exhausted from that conjuration. Other than that, she's okay."

"So the water spirit was her doing," said Zephel as he picked up what had become of the sprite - a card with a gramary sign composed of star shapes. " And she did it with this? What is this suppose to be?" he flipped the card and saw the water sprite's pictorial figure on it.

"That is one of the Clow Cards," said Daria. "Li, would you mind carrying her?"

"Right, Li," Akiko chimed, "I mean, you are the man here."

Syaoran didn't have any reason to protest. After they helped the girl onto Syaoran's back, they made their way on the empty, dark street.

"Speaking of which," said Daria, who was in the lead, "Li has some ties with the Clow Cards as well."

"Really?" said Akiko, looking at Syaoran curiously.

"Is that so, Li?" Zephel held out the card in front of him as they walked side-by-side, "Do you recognize this?"

"..... No," Syaoran answered faintly. He had never imagined how this palm-sized card would relate to him. He turned to look at the girl, whose head rested on his shoulder. After starring at her side-profile for about half a minute, this girl felt like... well.... just a girl with short chestnut hair, now resting tranquilly on his back.

"And this girl," Zephel looked at the girl curiously, "Is she who I think she is?"

"Yeah," was Daria's reply.

"So she's the Freyan shaman, just like Li. Her cards really has a lot of similarities with Li's talisman wards," said Akiko, who turned back to Daria. "So... where's the wagon?"

"I moved it to the temple," she answered airy. "Funny, now thinking back at it. Just when I was dismounting our stuff from the wagon with Sakura here, someone rushed into the temple and informed us about the rumpus outside and the unusual incineration. He even told us that you guys might still be in the tunnel. That was when Sakura and I came out looking for you three."

"Sakura?" Zephel frowned. "That's the girl's name? What kind of name is that?"

"It's from an ancient tongue in Northern Rosalia," Akiko retorted, "You may not understand it with Bafaline linguistics, but it means 'cherry blossom'; it's quite an enchanting name, if you ask me."

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The group soon arrived a temple made of beige stone, which stood serenely within the wall-like hedges. As they entered, a spacious garden came into sight. They couldn't make out any flowers in the dark, but the sweet aroma suggested how vivid and colorful this garden would be in daytime. At the other end of the garden stood the temple, its interior glowing with dim tangerine, contrasting with the dark shapes of the columns and facade.

"So who is this person who told you about our whereabouts?" asked Syaoran. It was one thing for the people in the temple getting news about the fire down in the tunnel, but who would go through the trouble to tell them where Zephel, Akiko, and he were back then?

"He came to the temple for business," said Daria. "He'll be staying for the night as well, so you'll get to see him yourselves."

Inside the temple, a few attendants could be seen. Daria told them to wait there as she went to speak with one of them. The attendant trotted into a dark gallery, and Daria returned to the party. Soon enough, the attendant came back with three more people. They came near Syaoran and heaved the girl off his back. After they disappeared into the dark gallery at the other side, Daria also signaled them to follow her.

They were led into the gallery on the right, where they could see the garden bathing under the moonlight. They climbed up a stone staircase, and as they came to the landing, they proceeded on the arcade. The rooms stood on one side of the hall, facing the night scenery on the other side. Only one of the rooms was lit, and Zephel became tenser as they approached it. They stopped in front of it, and Daria called in, "Albert, they're here."

The room was dimly lit with a candle on a table cramped with books, and a shadowy figure stirred at Daria's voice, also sending Zephel two steps backwards.

"Are they alright?" the dark figure asked as it rustled towards them. The crisp voice suggested this to be a young man of noble bearing, and while most of his feature was still hidden in the darkness, Syaoran could see a faint flick of gold on his hair and a green outline on his tunic. The man spoke again, "Where's Sakura?"

"I sent her to her room," said Daria. "She was completely drained after using the Clow Cards."

"She used the Clow Cards?" the man asked with dismay, "under that condition? She should know better in taking care of herself."

"Well, we saved those three, thanks to her", said Daria as she shifted aside. The man's eyes landed on the trio behind Daria for the first time - on Syaoran, to be more precise. "Yes, I see," the man smile slightly, "Sakura saved you back then. It has been awhile, Li Syaoran."

The man came closer, and Syaoran finally got a clear look at the man. He was about the same age as Syaoran, with wavy blonde hair trialing along his face, leading Syaoran's sight onto the man's emerald green eyes. And though Syaoran looked at this man with interest, his feelings were just the same as he had with the girl back then - Was he suppose to know this man here? The man, noticing Syaoran's troubled expression, broke his smile. "You don't remember me."

Syaoran found it futile to deny that. "No," he replied faintly, "Sorry."

A tint of remorse slipped through the man's eyes as he sighed expressionlessly. "It's okay. Time will sort this out," The man continued with a more relaxed tone, wishing to reduce Syaoran's unease. "I'm Albert Rudolf Isenhiem, stationed scholar on Runic Studies in the Temple of Nissa." The two shook hands, as Albert tried to give Syaoran a reassuring smile, "As limited as my abilities may be, I'll do my best to help you with your memories. Now," he looked over Syaoran's shoulder, "how about the one who's hiding behind you?"

Zephel darted away from Syaoran and held his stare at Albert stubbornly. "I didn't come back for you," he said, "I just want to know what happened to the other shaman of Heimdall before I return to Byzenhiem."

Syaoran turned to look at Albert, whom shown no indication of offence. "As you wish, Zephel," was all he said.

"Don't take Zephel's words by heart, Al," said Akiko as she pointed to Zephel casually, "That's how he talks to everyone. But then again, you probably know that, too."

"Akiko? You're here, too?"

"Yeah, to escort an old friend here."

"Sure~~~," Zephel drawled.

"I think I should settle them into their rooms now," said Daria.

"Just give me another minute, Daria. There's something else I have to tell you."

"Yeah?"

"The guy who came to the temple just awhile ago," Albert whispered to her and jerked his thumb at the direction of the table, "He has a Rune Stone with him. Furthermore, he's also a shaman under Tyr."

"What!?" Zephel said harshly before Daria was able to respond. "So we have a Tyrian shaman now?"

"Looks like it. He's right here."

The others now looked curiously at where Albert pointed. Indeed, someone was reclining on a chair by the table.

"What a day," said Daria. "So we have all three shamans under Fraya, Hiemdall, and Tyr now. I was expecting more footwork." She was broken off by Akiko's shriek and Zephel's growl; they were already checking out the new shaman by the table.

"IT'S YOU~~~~," Akiko almost pulled out her hair.

"ALBERT!! What have I done in my previous life to deserve this?!" Zephel pointed at the shaman fumingly. "Are you telling me I'll be working with THIS punk here?!"

"Boy, you're quite lively, aren't you?" in comparison, the new shaman sounded perfectly comfortable. Syaoran went closer, and gasped at what he saw, though his reaction was mild compared to Akiko's and Zephel's. " You're...."

There was no mistake. The spiky hair of sapphire blue and the coyness playing around the corner of his mouth belonged to no one - but that thief they had encounter just moments ago. The thief - or Tyrian shaman - was sitting near the table and enjoying a bowl of noodles, and he lifted his hand -which was still holding a pair of chopsticks- with good humor at Syaoran, "Yo!"

"Adam, this here," Albert pointed to Zephel, "is Zephel Osokin, the shaman of Hiemdall from the Dominion of Knights. Kinomoto Sakura is the shaman of Freya; she's not present now, though. Maybe you'll get to see her tomorrow. Anyhow, you will be cooperating with them from now on." Albert then turned to the others, "Adam came all the way from South Estamiel to here. And... be easy on him with his rugged appearance; it's been a rough day on him, too. He said he was greeted by a roughhouse when he arrived Crystaline."

"Thanks for the concern, Albert. But you don't have to worry about me," said Adam as he placed the bowl complacently onto the table. "Growing up in South Estamiel, I'm used to getting beaten up. Besides, the noodles here are just de~~~licious!" He stood up and turned to face the others with a playful salute. "Adam Paedor, ladies and gentlemen. Also known as the Master Thief. Please to meet y'all."

Zephel only looked daggers at Adam, while Akiko hissed under her breath, " When I get the chance, I'm gonna rip you rib by ri...."

"Akiko," Daria nudged her as she whispered, "We're in a temple now. Take whatever business you have with him outside."

"This.... is a shaman, too?" Syaoran, pointing at Adam, asked Daria in pressed voice.

"Quite unexpected, huh? That's why I love my job."

Meanwhile, Zephel glanced at Adam sideways and murmured, "Now I really regret coming back....."

To be continued..................

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Author's Corner

After much scurrying around, I FINALLY got my webpage. I'll be posting this fic on it as well as illustrations (<- which I'm sort of behind now; sorry ^-^b) And, I promise that for the next chapter, there is definitely, surely, ABSOLUTLY going to have rituals about the Runes.

Zephel: Hey! You said in the last chapter that you'll be going through them in THIS chapter!

I know! I know! Geez. But I also have to introduce Sakura, Albert, and Adam first. You and Adam will have your Initiation Ritual next time.

Zephel: *mumbles* Procrastinator.....

Yeah! And that's what you get from collage life. Now, if you can't keep your mouth shut, I'll make your Initiation a world of pain in the next chapter.

Zephel: *pouts*

Anyhow, I don't know how many of you out there heard of Taiwanese comics. And for those who do, some of you might know the series "Legend of Rainbow" by Fox Kid. You know, the guys who's doing "The Adventure of Issac/Aisaku" and "Stone Age". "Legend of Rainbow" got put off ever since Fox Kid went to the army, and worst yet, he's probably never going back to it - EVER! NOOOO~~~~~~~!!! *punches ground* MY "LEGEND OF RAINBOW"!!!!!

Adam: Dude! Take it easy.

*cough* Okay.... back to the topic. "Legend of Rainbow" may not be my favorite Taiwanese comic now, but it certainly had a lot of impact on me, which is why I included characters from that work.

Adam: But... Wasn't I the hero in the original story? I look like a petty comic relief here.

You and the rest of us here, boy.

Albert: Exactly. I used to be the hero who traveled all over the world in order to avenge my family. And here? I'm cooped up in this temple.

Ah~~ But Albert also graduated from the original naive cute boy and evolved into a caring and mature man. *Big Hearts*

Albert: Oh-kay..... *shivers*

So, that's it for this chapter. See you next chapter. And R&R please.


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