A Time of Decision

by Karen Morgia


The king, draped in elegant folds of the midnight blue silks of his royal robes, sat comfortably, cross-legged upon his throne. A light breeze from the open castle windows gently ruffled the long strands of his dark mane and the fine golden fur which covered his face and hands. To the casual observer he would appear to be napping&endash;most dominate males tended to rest in the afternoon heat&endash;but Lord Matsuo-nimba was far from asleep. A visit that morning from his court magician had disturbed him and fanned to life the small flame of hope which had burned within his breast for over thirty years.

 

…My son lives… The thought echoed over and over through his brain. …My son lives!…

 

*****

For the past several nights, Vincent’s rest had been disturbed by strange dreams. Dreams of castles and kings and fierce female warriors. Normally, he would have scoffed at them; rationalizing them away as nothing more than the remnants of a fantasy story, but there was something different about these dreams, something which tugged at him for recognition. The flavor of these dreams tasted vaguely familiar--almost as if he recognized the vistas which flashed before his mind’s eye. Why did they seem so familiar and yet, at the same time, so disturbing?

Catherine stirred slightly in her sleep and his awareness returned to the present. Turning over, he enfolded her sleeping form within his gentle and loving embrace. A smile kindled in his startlingly sapphire blue eyes and turned up the corners of his uniquely formed mouth as he gazed down into her peacefully sleeping face. She responded unconsciously to his touch and turned in her calm sleeping state to nuzzle against his shoulder and wrap a possessive arm around him, pulling him closer. Even in her sleep Catherine would not be parted from him.

The disturbing dream was pushed from his consciousness as he cuddled down and tried to recapture the threads of sleep. Catherine’s tranquil state brought a further smile to a face which, up until three years ago, had rarely, if ever, smiled.

 

*****

Eyes closed, breathing deep and even, Lord Matsuo-nimba focused his awareness inward to that minute core of his being. There, even after all this time, he became aware of the essence of his son, sparkling like a small brilliant diamond within his soul, and wondered why he had never recognized it before. It was there deep within him; the small crystal-bright seed of his son’s essence. Matsuo admitted to himself that he had never been aware of it because never had he delved so deeply within his consciousness before. He should have&endash;meditation was important for maintaining control and a means of focusing one’s power, but his ritual contemplations had never been as in-depth as they should have been. He had been simply going through the motions for so many years that by now it was second nature. It was just easier to appear to be in control and let Kenji handle it all&endash;until this morning.

 

*****

Lord Kenji had forced his way into the audience chamber in a greatly disturbed state and demanded a private audience.

"My Lord, I must speak with you, immediately, on a matter of grave significance." His voice was steady and demanding of attention, but Lord Matsuo possess the ability to prove a person’s mind and hear his thoughts; to assess a person’s truthfulness by reading his emotions, and what he ascertained from his brother’s thoughts was wondrous.

 

…My Lord, I have news of your son!…

Lord Matsuo-nimba impatiently gestured for the guards to clear the chamber; the private mental message from his court magician echoing through his mind.

"Come forward, Lord Kenji," Matsuo said, waving the magician forward.

Lord Kenji, younger brother of Lord Matsuo-nimba, had at an early age shown signs of developing into a great and powerful magician. When, at the age of six, his innate arcane abilities threatened the serenity of the palace, the king, their father, had sent him to the mountain holy men to learn the required disciplines and lessons required to control that power. Kenji had learned well and after the king was killed during the yearly ritual challenge, Kenji and Matsuo had joined together to bring down the usurper of their father’s throne. Matsuo, being the elder, took the honorific ‘nimba’ at the end of his name and became king. Kenji was well satisfied with becoming court magician and his brother’s protector as he had never aspired to the throne anyway. The two brothers became a formidable combination and this in itself was unusual. Males of their species were not be nature gregarious. Quite the contrary, they tended to remain extremely solitary, unless and until they were chosen as mates by the principal female of a family or clan.

Matsuo had been chosen at an early age and, at the time of his father’s last challenge and subsequent death, had become well established as the predominate male of the Hidori-kai clan and was anxiously awaiting the birth of his first child. All the omens and portents had been favorable for the birth of a son. His joy was short-lived, however, upon the death of his father by the usurper, Shon-kai Khan.

Shon-kai began his brief but bloody reign by attempting to rid himself of all future threat by imprisoning Kenji and Matsuo to await their execution at his pleasure and ridding the kingdom of all children of the previously reigning household. They were ‘disposed of’…not killed, for that would have given the other clans provocation to rise against him…no, the children simply… disappeared.

Rumors of the usurper’s infamy reached even to the depths of the dungeon where Kenji and Matsuo joined forces and vowed revenge. Unfortunately, their eventual triumph over Shon-kai came too late to save Matsuo’s newborn son; he had disappeared along with the other children and his mother had been murdered trying to protect him.

The struggle to regain their father’s throne was long and difficult and not without great price, but finally the two brothers were victorious. Shon-kai’s final destruction was neither pleasant nor quick; but Matsuo was at last able to mourn his loss. All the while, buried deep within him, was the small seed of hope that one day his son would be found and rescued.

Now, after so many years of futile search for the lost children, Kenji’s words fanned that spark of hope.

"Tell me, Kenji," Matsuo demanded, barely containing his impatience. "What have you discovered?"

"My, Lord, he lives…of that I am absolutely certain. Exactly where he is and now to return her here, I have not yet discovered."

"Have you found nothing in Shon-kai Khan’s records? He must have left something that will lead us to my son. He…and all the other children…must be rescued from their exile." Matsuo’s voice was firm and resolute. Tears began to fill his eyes as thought of his son pervaded his consciousness. He closed his eyes and endeavored to center his thoughts on his inner serenity in an attempt to quiet his emotions.

"Kenji, show me my son?" he pleaded, quietly.

Lord Kenji bowed respectfully, not out of obedience, but out of compassion for his brother… the grieving father. Come, my lord, we must withdraw to my work chamber." Lord Kenji lead the way from the audience chamber through a hidden passage behind the throne.

 

*****

Vincent was up to his elbows in mud. Due to an excessive amount of rain falling upon the City Above, sometime during the night an old drain pipe that had seen better days, burst creating a virtual flood in some of the lower chambers. Nothing really serious, just a job that was wet, time consuming and very dirty. Vincent was jointed in his labors by Mouse, Michael, and a number of other members of the underground community. The section of pipe had been repaired to the best of their ability. He hoped that Mouse would be able to ‘find’ something that could be used to replace it when the rain stopped. The only task which now remained was to clean up the mess. Barrels had been placed on wagons to transport the water to a disposal point. The men and several of the children were quite literally bailing the water our of the chamber. Vincent had just emptied his bucket into a barrel and bent over to refill it when he had the distinct impression of being watched. His head began to ache and his vision to fog as he reeled momentarily against he chamber wall. Shaking his head to clear the haze from his eyes, Vincent looked down into the gently rippling water lapping around his knees. There, reflected in the gently moving water was a face; not his own, but one very similar…a face with dark many and fur-covered features. A face from a recurring dream which had for several nights, disturbed his rest. Vincent closed his eyes and shook his head and upon opening his eyes once more, the face was gone, replaced by the reflection of his own countenance.

 

*****

Lord Matsuo raised his head slowly, grimly, to meet his brothers’ unwavering gaze.

"Why does my son work as a common laborer?" demanded Lord Matsuo. "Has he been raised as a servant of a slave to toil so?"

"My brother, we do not know how he has been raised. We know nothing of the world in which he now lives. Search your feelings, brother, what did you sense from him?"

Matsuo closed his eyes and probed the feelings he had encountered as he watched the majestic golden-maned man working, "Contentment, peace, pride in accomplishment…Kenji," Matsuo’s eyes flew open at a further revelation. "He loves. I felt it within him. He has bonded with a woman of that world. We must rescue him before he is lost to us forever." Lord Matsuo’s voice was firm and forceful; his deep concern understandable. Their people, once chosen by a mate, bonded for life and nothing short of death could sever a life-bond.

 

*****

After the strenuous work in the flooded tunnels, Vincent returned to his chamber exhausted. With only enough reserve energy to grab some clean clothes, a town and soap, Vincent made his way to the bathing chamber where, after disrobing, he gratefully eased down into the naturally heated bathing pool of gently circulating water. The pools were small circular cuts along the bank of the underground river which flowed from the falls. The years of water action had worn their sides smooth and created natural swimming pools. While the river itself was cold and invigorating, the water in the pools was heated from an underground hot spring and the gentle current of the river eddied around and through each small pool constantly replacing and refreshing the water.

Vincent, allowing himself to become lulled by the gentle current of the water, relaxed and eased back against the side of the pool and let the soothing action of the warm circulating water float away the grime and stress of the day. Closing his eyes while relaxing, he wished for the hundredth time that Catherine could be there with him enjoying the peace and tranquillity. She had been out of town for a few days taking a deposition from a witness who loved up-state. The case, which had so monopolized her time the last couple of months and forced this separation, was almost ready for trial which meant that she would soon be able to take a few days off. Now that she lived Below, they were able to spend more time together, but Catherine’s mob still kept her busy, making every moment they spent together precious.

Vincent slid further down into the warm water until almost covered by the soothing liquid up to this neck. As was customary at the end of a hard, lonely day, Vincent cast through the bond to determine if Catherine was well and safe.

 

…Catherine, are you well?…

 

*

Since Catherine had become a permanent resident Below, the bond connecting them had strengthened considerably, enabling the lovers to touch mentally and speak together even though they might be separated by great distances. It allowed them to be always in touch and to feel one anothers presence and love no matter the distance which might separate them, be it between the tunnels and Catherine’s apartment or office; or cross-country. They were forever joined mind and spirit.

 

…Yes, love. I am well&endash;tired, but well. I sense your weariness, Vincent. Is Father working you too hard again?… Vincent could sense a small mental chuckle in Catherine’s thoughts. She had often chided him for working too hard during her absences, although she knew he did it primarily to keep busy, thereby not worrying too much. Nothing would ever keep him from missing her, but if he remained busy during her absences, at least his restlessness was kept to a minimum until her return.

 

…No, Father is not working me too hard. We had a minor emergency in the lower tunnels. Don’t worry, everyone and everything is fine. Will you be home soon, Catherine: I miss having you near…

…I miss you as well, love. My task here is almost completed and I should be back soon. Will you meet me at the Park entrance? I do have to go to the office when I return, but I will clear matters there as soon as I can and meet you at the Park junction. I don’t intend to let Joe talk me into anything for the next three days…

…I love you, Catherine. Be well, my love. Hurry home… Vincent’s parting thought brushed across her mind with the hint of a kiss.

Vincent was not even aware of the smile on his face as he dozed off, lying neck-deep in the warm, soothing water.

 

*****

Unbeknownst to the brothers quietly conversing in Kenji’s work chamber, an unbidden eavesdropper lurked just outside the door. Akiko-cha, scion of the Hidori-kai clan overheard every word spoken within the magically sealed room. Kenji had neglected to insure that the magical spells of protection, or wards, placed about his workroom were soundproof as well as intrusion and magic-proof.

The impact of learning that Lord Matsuo had a son caused her to seethe with anger and hatred. No one&endash;least of all a mere male&endash;would supplant her as head of the clan. Akiko-cha, firstborn of Matsuo-s second mate and his adopted daughter, was head of the household guard. A formidable fighter, she had risen through the ranks rapidly and was proficient in all forms of combat, with and without weapons. A determined glint in her steel-blue eyes boded ill for anyone who came between her and her goals.

 

*****

Vincent sat up abruptly, the water surrounding him creating nervous ripples; a feeling of danger invading his thoughts. He cast wide through his bond; Catherine, Father, the entire tunnel community all were safe. Yet the sense of danger persisted. Rising from the water of the bathing pool to stand dripping upon the shore, he puzzled at the feeling of danger which gripped his heart and mind.

 

*****

Catherine was bone tired. The hectic pace she had set herself had enabled her to finish the trip early, but had exhausted whatever energy reserve remained. Very nearly asleep in the back of a taxi on her way to the airport. Catherine sensed Vincent’s puzzlement and dismay. His reaction through the bond they shared was very strong, but Catherine poured all the love and support she could muster, through the gossamer mental thread, to wrap protectively around his heart. She would be home soon, then she could find out what had disturbed him so.

 

*****

Lord Matsuo-nimba had closeted himself in his quarters ever since his meeting that morning with Kenji. He tried to sift through his ambiguous feelings, feelings of both hope and sadness. His mind was in great turmoil. There had to be a way to return his son to his rightful place, but if Kenji could not find a way, Matsuo knew of someone who could&endash;the old hag Wakani. The old witch had been Shon-kai’s magician for his short and bloody reign. Some said her powers were even greater than Kenji’s, but she had been the one who arranged the disappearance of the children so long ago, and because of that, her life had been spared on the hope that she could be ‘persuaded’ to reveal their whereabouts. Matsuo thought of her milk-white eyes and shivered.

Over the years Matsuo and Kenji had tried to wrest the secret of the locations of the lost children from the veil witch, but their schemes had been in vain. Eventually, and with great difficult, Kenji had at least been able to learn the fates of all the children, save one. Of the children stolen that night, only one still lived, Teng-gai, but his location had always remained hidden by the mists of magic…until now…now there was hope.

 

*****

Akiko-cha crept silently down the stone steps, watching her footing closely. It would not do for the commander of the guard to be found with a broken leg, or worse, at the bottom of the stone staircase to the lower dungeons. No one must know of her visit to the prisoner kept in such absolute seclusion. No one must ever know that she even knew of Wakani’s existence.

"Come in, Aki. I know you are there." A thin reedy voice greeted Akiko as she neared a cell at the end of the long, dank, dark corridor.

The cell itself was no more than eight foot square, with cold damp granite walls. This far down in the castle there was not even a high barred window to let in fresh air and the atmosphere revealed much concerning the treatment, or rather lack of treatment, the old woman received. Against the side wall was a raised ledge upon which lay a thing mat of dried rushes. The only light in the cell came from a single flickering candle, mere inches tall, which sat on the floor next to the ledge. There was a malodorous wooden bucket standing in the far corner, its use obvious. Akiko-cha, proud warrior of the Hidori-kai clan, wrinkled her nose at the offensive odor coming from the cell and apprehensively entered the lair of the old witch, Wakani.

There were no other prisoners on this level of the dungeon, and as Wakani was stone-blind as well as crippled, the door to her cell was not locked. Precautions had been taken to prevent her escape by arcane means…the cell was warded against magic. The use of magical power of any kind would be turned back upon the user three-fold. The door, although unlocked and open, effectively prevented her exit in much the same manner. No magic user, regardless of power, could pass through the portal of the cell. Persons with no magical ability could gain entrance easily, but Wakani, with her abundance of power was quite securely trapped until the king decided to free her…or she died.

"Old woman." Akiko spoke scornfully. Dealing with the ancient hag made her skin crawl and she felt soiled. Never would she be able to get used to the dread which crept into her soul whenever she visited Wakani.

Always a curious, possibly fool-hardy child, Akiko had happened upon the old hag many years ago while exploring. Foreknowledge of Akiko’s fate had led the old woman to play upon the girl-child’s imagination with stories of warrior-maidens and over the years, those stories fed the fires of her ambition…an over-powering ambition to rule.

"So, I see you have learned of the king’s son," Wakani cackled gleefully. She had waited long for the seeds sown during her talks with Akiko-cha to bear fruit. Her sly hints about the need of a female ruler were now reaching fulfillment. Her revenge against Matsuo had begun many years ago and now the plans she had set into motion before her imprisonment, were finally culminating in this…her ultimate revenge. Akiko-cha would kill her own step-brother to attain a throne which she believed could be hers. In his grief and despair, Matsuo, for the sake of honor, would be compelled to execute his step-daughter, which would then lead to his own ritual suicide in order to restore his family honor. The seeds for this eventual betrayal, murder and death had been sown even before Matsuo had taken the throne a little over thirty years ago. Wakani was nothing if not patient.

The use of magic may take its toll upon the body, the proof of this was the old woman’s crippled body and blind eyes, yet the mind stayed clear. Wakani had foreseen the outcome of the old king’s death by Shon-kai Khan long before it actually happened. She even warned Khan of the consequences of his lust for power, but he had scoffed and paid no heed. It had cost him not only the throne he coveted, but his very life as well.

Now she would do the same for Akiko-cha. Her foreknowledge did not come through the use of magic, but through dreams. She had known that Akiko-cha would come seeking aid in destroying a long-lost brother. The time for vengeance was at hand.

"Help me destroy this so-called brother who would come between me and my dreams," Akiko ordered, "and when I rule, I shall free you from these hideous surroundings and you will be well cared for."

As with all their people to some degree, Wakani was not only empathic, but prescient&endash;powerfully so, and, as such, was entirely cognizant of Akiko’s true thoughts and feelings regarding her future. Once Akiko attained her goals, Wakani would die silently, her throat cut in the dark and no one would ever be the wiser.

Sitting cross-legged on the filthy mat, arms folded, eyes glazed and gazing into--who know where&endash;Wakani rocked back and forth cackling gleefully. "You cannot hope to succeed with your plans, warrior. You will fail and that failure will mean your death." The old blind woman sat rocking gently, turning her blind eyes this way and that. Finally locating Akiko’s position, she fastened those eerie mild-white eyes upon the quaking warrior, much as a hungry rat eyes a piece of discarded cheese.

The proud warrior paid no heed to Wakani’s warning, however, so intent was she on her plans for victory against a brother she had not know existed until a short while before. The ancient hag’s words were as if never spoken. Even at the instant of her death Akiko would curse the old woman for not warning her of the futility of her plans.

"Stop that infernal racket you old harridan. There is nothing funny about this situation and I have much work to be accomplished. I must destroy this person my father thinks is his son. How do I destroy him? Tel me!!" Akiko demanded.

"You cannot go to him, warrior. I cannot aid you in that aspect. I am very effectively prevented from using my powers."

"You tell me nothing I do not already know, old woman. Tell me then, how am I to…", Akiko began.

"Do not interrupt me again." The tone of the old witch’s voice had changed to one of steely determination and command. Akiko-cha, proud noble warrior, was cowed into submission. "You cannot go to him," Wakani repeated. "But…he can come to you."

Akiko stared at the aged old woman, dressed in filthy rags, in astonishment. "How? How can I bring him here? If he is my brother, he will be as formidable as our father. He will read my thoughts instantly and will not pass through whatever portal connects our two worlds."

"The means by which he will come to you has already begun to manifest itself, my dear." Wakani’s words dripped with sarcasm as honey drops from a too full honeycomb. "I set the wheels in motion long before you were even born. When I took the prince to his exile, I instilled within his mind the seeds which would eventually flower into a compulsion to find his beginnings. Already he is tormented by dreams and visions of our world. He will be compelled to follow those clues and will eventually find his way to you…and his destiny." The old woman’s face crinkled as she grinned broadly and began her maniacal laugh.

Akiko looked at the ugly old hag, suddenly afraid that her life was no longer her own; that she had become a pawn in a much larger game. It was not a pleasant thought. She believed that, should her plans be discovered, she would still be able to kill the crazy old woman. Somehow, gazing through the cell door at the hysterical old woman, that thought brought no peace.

Akiko left the dungeon cell more nervous than when she entered. The sound of Wakani’s laughter followed her down the corridor giving speed to her steps in an attempt to put as much distance between her and the crazy witch as was possible. …Perhaps this is not a wise idea…, she thought, but as soon as it brushed across her mind the thought vanished. Nothing, absolutely nothing and no one, would be allowed to stand in her way.

 

*****

"What is wrong with your attention this evening, Vincent? That is the third opening you have permitted since we started this game." Father was becoming concerned about Vincent’s lack of concentration. He hadn’t played a game of chess this badly since he was twelve and just learning the game. "Is Catherine all right?" he inquired.

They were seated in Vincent’s chamber for their nightly game. Catherine was working late and Vincent wanted to be near little Jacob, who was sleeping peacefully by his side in the ornately carved cradle which Cullen had made for their newest arrival.

"I apologize for my inattention, Father. Catherine is well and safe. It is just that I have not been sleeping well of late."

Father chuckled a little, remembering his own sleepless nights when Vincent was a babe, but then he noticed the dark circles under Vincent’s eyes and his attitude of general weariness.

"Vincent, are you coming down with…?" Father’s continuing concern for Vincent’s health deepened as memories of the nearly fatal breakdown last year flashed through his mind.

"No, Father. I know what you are thinking and you need not be concerned. I am not ill." Vincent tiredly shook his head. "I just have not been sleeping well."

"Is little Jacob, all right? Has he been keeping you up at night for some reason?" Father inquired, his concern and affection for his small grandson apparent.

Vincent smiled, turning to gaze down at his sleeping son. "My son is quite well, Father. There is no need for you to worry about him. It is just that I have been annoyed by recurring dreams and visions. The visions, of late, have begun to torment me when I am awake, as well as when I sleep. They are very disconcerting and the truly disturbing fact is that I seem to recognize what I see in these visions." Vincent bowed his head and rubbed both hands up and down his face distractedly. When again he raised his head, there was a haunted look in the troubled azure blue eyes.

The dreams had been interrupting Vincent’s sleep to such an extent that he was now unable to get any rest at all. No matter what he did to relax before retiring, the dreams and visions would awaken him. His lack of sleep was even beginning to interfere with the performance of his duties and on more than one occasion, he had roused from a particularly vivid vision in the middle of conducting a class, causing concern among the children. So many reports of Vincent’s lack of energy and inattention had begun filtering back to Father, that he decided it was time to find a solution and their nightly chess game presented the perfect opportunity.

Vincent had come to almost the same decision. In his heart he knew that Father would exhaust himself trying to find a rational explanation for the visions…he would speculate and postulate and theorize, never truly finding a solution. Vincent realized there might not be a rational explanation…that only left an irrational one…and for that, there was one person who might be able to help. One individual among the inhabitants Below who might conceivably be able to some up with an answer; one person who would not scoff at his, so-called ‘flights of fancy’; one person who could help him solve the riddle of his visions…Narcissa.

Early next morning, after spending another sleepless night, Vincent rose from his bed in the guest chamber and dressed quickly. He had moved from his own chamber days ago so as not to continually disturb Catherine and little Jacob’s sleep. Neither Catherine nor Vincent were happy with the change in sleeping arrangements, but both realized its necessity.

Grabbing a piece of fruit on his way through William’s kitchen, Vincent began the long descent to Narcissa’s chamber, the remnants of last night’s vision still clear in his mind. Upon crossing the threshold into the Chamber of the Winds, however, Vincent sensed a change in the ever-present air currents. Something was not right, but it was an observation to be pondered at another time. There were more pressing matters.

 

*****

Narcissa was seated at her work table, calmly grinding some innocuous powder with a mortar and pestle, when a familiar presence made itself known through her heightened senses. "Come in, child. Do not stand out there." She smiled knowingly. "I knew that you would come to seek my aid."

Vincent smiled and shook his head in wonder, Narcissa always knew when he was coming for a visit…even when he didn’t know himself.

"Have you come to any conclusions about your dreams and visions, Vincent?" she asked, one eyebrow raised in query.

"I have no secrets from you, do I, Narcissa?" He spoke almost angrily for he realized she already knew of his dilemma.

"Only such things as affect your safety, Vincent. You are very special. These dreams have been deliberately sent to torment you, to force you to hunt for your beginnings. This quest is not wise. It will be a very dangerous time for you, child. You must be wary. I had hoped that they would hold no power over you; that they do, is unfortunate." She spoke softly to herself, regretting the mental anguish that was tormenting this kind, compassionate soul.

Deliberately trying to change the subject she asked, "Did you happen to notice anything unusual as you came through the Chamber of Winds, Vincent?"

"I sensed something, Narcissa. I don’t know what it is, but the wind currents in the chamber do not ‘feel’ right," he answered, remembering the sensed impressions.

"There is a force of influence at work there, child, which may have a bearing on what has been happening to you. The omens have spoken to me and told me what you must do. You must be careful and Catherine will want to journey with you. It is essential that she remain here, Vincent. She is your lifeline, your anchor to this world. Without her, you could become lost to us. Do you understand me, child?" she demanded. "Now, you must go."

"Go? What do you mean ‘go’, Narcissa?" Vincent was completely mystified by Narcissa’s words.

"Yes, child, ‘go’. You will find that there is a change in one of the upper archways in the Chamber of the Winds. It now leads to another place, another time. You must pass through to find the reason behind your tormenting dreams and visions." Narcissa’s unsettling opaque gaze was sad. "I fear for you, child…I fear for you greatly. There will be much personal danger where you go, for there is one there who wishes you great harm, even your death. You must beware of the female whom you will meet past the threshold. She is your enemy."

Vincent listened carefully to all Narcissa said, still confused but attentive. "When must I make this journey?" he asked, not at all certain he should.

"It would be best if you went now, Vin-cent. There are those across the threshold whom you need to see and who need your aid. One of them is you…," she hesitated before continuing, "your father."

"My father?" he exclaimed. With eyes narrowed, brows furrowed in astonished disbelief, Vincent violently shook his head. "But how…?"

"No questions now, Vincent. Know that I shall watch over you and do all in my power to keep you safe. You may rely on one there called Kenji; trust him as you trust me."

"Narcissa, this is all too fantastic! Why must I leave at once?" He shook his head in denial, "No! I cannot just leave without saying anything to Father and Catherine. Whatever is going to happen can surely wait one more day. Besides, I must think on all you have told me. I shall meet you in the Chamber of the Winds in the morning."

"Vincent…," Narcissa began.

"Please, Narcissa. I know you can see my heart and my thoughts…please try to understand," Vincent pleaded.

Narcissa bowed her head and closed her eyes in resignation, remembering a very small boy who could never be swerved from a chosen path…the man was no less determined. "Very well, Vincent. Say your good-byes. I will meet you in the Chamber of the Winds at dawn."

"Thank you," Vincent said, as he bent to kiss her lightly on the cheek. With a swirl of black wool and leather, Vincent exited the wise woman’s chamber to begin his long journey back to the upper levels, her words spinning around in his mind.

 

*****

All through dinner, Vincent was very silent and introspective. Not only was he mulling over everything Narcissa had said, he was also trying to decide the best way to tell Catherine that he had to leave her for a while and that she would not be able to accompany him…that she, in fact, must remain behind. It was not a welcome prospect. As they retired for the night, he still had not mentioned anything to her. Telling Father had been difficult enough, but telling Catherine was becoming well-nigh impossible.

Catherine had sensed restraint in her beloved as soon as he returned from his visit to Narcissa. She realized where he had gone when he hugged her upon returning, recognizing the scent which clung to him…the incense which Narcissa always kept burning. Though she seethed with curiosity concerning the mysterious visit, Catherine had long ago learned not to pry. Vincent was still a very private individual. When ready, he would tell her what was bothering him. Perhaps with her lawyer’s ability to unearth the hidden truths behind a person’s words, she might be able to help with whatever was troubling him. Finally, Vincent broke the silence.

"Catherine, what I have to tell you is difficult, but you must listen and believe that what I tell you is true," he bowed his massive golden-maned head in sadness; the words difficult to say. "I must leave you for a time and I have no way of knowing when, or even if, I shall return."

As he spoke, a dread feeling wrapped itself around Catherine’s heart. Eyes wide with fear, she shuddered slightly at the chilllness brought by his words.

"Leaving me…?"

"No. love. I sense your fear…it’s not like that. There is a journey I must undertake and…"

"I’m coming with you," Catherine declared resolutely.

"No, Catherine. That will not be possible. According to all of Narcissa’s omens and signs, your continuing presence here is all that will ensure my return. You know I do not like to leave you, but this time I must. Narcissa mentioned something about," he hesitated slightly, unsure if he should continue, "my father."

"Father?" she asked. "What’s wrong with Father?"

"No. You misunderstand," he corrected hastily. "My real father."

Catherine looked deeply into the troubled depths of those marvelous crystal blue eyes, to the core of his soul, and realized that he completely believed with the old witch woman had told him. "Vincent…," she began.

To halt her argument, Vincent leaned forward and gathered her into his arms to hold her tightly; to indelibly imprint upon his heart and mind the feel and scent of her. With one gentle clawed finger, he tipped her chin upward and gazed into two misted sea-green pools. Leaning forward, sensing her fear for his safety and her ever constant love, the great golden-maned head bowed near to bestow upon his beloved a kiss of love and of longing. Catherine’s arms left his waist and wrapped themselves around his neck, drawing that unique countenance ever closer. They met in a passionate kiss of desperation that only made the thoughts of his leaving all the more unbearable. The fear of his leaving gradually grew into a whirlwind of feelings and emotions which swept them into a maelstrom and carried them along in its wake. As their senses became overloaded and conscious thought was tossed aside to lie beside the ever-growing pile of discarded garments upon the floor, even Vincent’s formidable self-restraint was no match for the emotions flowing around and through them. No longer did his imminent departure hold power over them as lips kissed, tongues tasted, and hands caressed all the hidden, intimate, erotic places in desperation and longing. Hearts beat faster, breaths came in gasps, spirits soared and soon there was nothing to hold them back from achieving that ultimate pinnacle of physical sensation where they soared together. As hearts slowed and breaths gradually eased, they lay peacefully in each other’s embrace; she, head on his shoulder, an arm tossed possessively across his chest; he, an arm gently cradling her to him, head nestled against her hair; they lay with legs entwined completely sated.

Having returned to himself, Vincent must now decide how best to abandon this haven of love and tranquillity and embark on a journey fraught with uncertainty and danger. It was hard enough on them when Catherine had to leave to return to her job Above, even knowing that at the end of the day she would return Below, safe. But this time…it would be he, they worried about. Of course, his safety was always paramount in the minds of those who loved and cared for him, but this time his journey was fraught with danger and unknown perils and there was the very real possibly that he might not prevail against the mysterious enemy of which Narcissa warned him. All these fears were felt, but no voiced as Vincent and Catherine nestled in each other’s embrace. Morning would come too soon; their parting too bittersweet to dwell upon. They soon fell asleep content in their love; their apprehension pushed aside. For now, there was only each other, their bond, and the constancy of their love.

 

*****

"I am here, Narcissa," Vincent called, trying to make himself heard over the persistent roar of the ever-buffeting currents…the Chamber of the Winds had been well named.

"Come, child. It may already be too late. You must enter through the mist. You will be met on the other side, but beware of the one who first speaks to you and do not trust all you hear and see. Remember, trust the one called Kenji, for it is by his power that you will return." Head bowed, she hesitated before continuing, "Take great care, child of light." At this last, Narcissa’s voice broke with emotion though she tried to maintain control. Vincent had always been very special to her.

Observing her distress, Vincent placed a comforting arm around her shoulders. "Do not worry, little mother. I will be careful."

At the use of a name not used since his childhood, Narcissa raised her head and wished once again, as hundreds of times before, that she could see the incredible face of this very special individual. Her memory only held the vision of him as a child, for her sight had failed long before he had become a grown man. Now she saw him only in her imagination. "You have not called me that in many years, Vincent," she commented. A gentle smile appeared upon her face and her eyes crinkled with amusement and then immediately sobered, "Come, it is time for you to go." She placed a gentle hand on his arm and indicated an archway filled with mist.

Turning toward the threshold of the unknown, Vincent felt a burst of trust and love flash through the bond he shared with Catherine and realized that she had sensed his hesitation. Looking down at Narcissa standing quietly at his side, he was fully aware of the thread which now connected him so steadfastly to another; another life, another heart. Never would he be alone again…no matter the distance which might separate them physically, Vincent and Catherine were joined together eternally. Eyes closed, Vincent endeavored to touch Catherine with his thoughts of love and knew instantly that he had succeeded as once again her love brushed across his heart and mind with the feather-touch of a kiss.

The faint caress of Catherine’s thoughts still brushing across his mind, Vincent opened his eyes and gazing at the portal through which he must soon pass, his demeanor sobered instantly.

Thoughts of Catherine prompted him to make a request of the ancient wise woman. "Narcissa?"

"Do not worry for the woman’s safety, Vincent," Narcissa interrupted. "I already know what you would ask. She will be well protected."

"Thank you," he said quietly and realizing that there was not further reason for delay, turned and stepped toward the daunting threshold to the unknown.

 

*****

As he stepped through the veil of mist, Vincent felt a tingling sensation and paused to look back over his shoulder at Narcissa. She stood, eyes closed, arms raised, palms facing outward toward him as she sang a lilting, sing-song change in a soft voice. Halted as he was, halfway between two worlds, Vincent could have sworn there was a delicate tendril of golden light crossing the distance between himself and Narcissa, and as he watched transfixed, it gently coiled itself around his body bringing with it a sense of love and warmth. As the end of the golden light detached from Narcissa’s fingertips, the tingling sensation ceased. Narcissa’s eyes opened and she nodded with satisfaction. Looking down at himself, Vincent observed a pale golden aura surrounding his body.

Realizing that the old wise woman had somehow used her power to provide him with a means of protection, Vincent continued through the misty curtain that separated him from this world and the next.

 

*****

 

…He is here!…she thought.

Akiko-cha was secluded behind a large pillar in the throne room, for this was where the old hag had said ‘he’ would appear…and appear he did…big and strangely attired in a long black cloak, its hood pulled up to shadow his features. As she moved from her hiding place, the stranger turned toward a barely perceived motion across the cavernous room and pulled the hood further down around his face.

The sight which greeted Vincent, however, was astounding. Stepping from behind a massive pillar was a figure nearly as tall as he. Clad in a short leather skirt, leather breast-band, and thing-high leather boots, she, for the figure was very obviously female, also wore leg and arm guards, dagger hilts protruded from her belt and a boot-top, and she had a sword strapped across her back. Stepping nearer, Vincent observed a fine golden fur covering her entire body and the steel-blue eyes staring unblinkingly in his direction contained no hint of welcome. Unlike him, her hair was close-cropped and the countenance which faced him was as like his own as his reflection in the Mirror Pool.

She moved toward him slowly. "You will not…," she seethed. Her threat was interrupted as another figure entered the room from the secret door behind the throne.

"Lady Akiko, what are you doing…?" At the sight of the tall stranger in black leather and wool, Kenji halted his progress down the steps from the dais and instantly recognized the identity of the individual gazing at him curiously from the depths of the concealing hood.

"My Lord Teng-gai," Kenji murmured as he bowed to his lord’s missing son and heir.

Not knowing what else to do, Vincent bowed in response and was disconcerted when upon meeting the other male’s eyes, was greeted with a full-throated roar of welcome and a smile which did little to hide massive canines. The roar brought immediate response from the guards standing sentry duty outside the throne room and upon realizing she had missed the chance, for the moment, Akiko snuck quietly from the room; vowing to remove this dark stranger from the picture at the first opportunity.

Lord Kenji instructed the sentries to inform the king of a long-awaited visitor and then slowly approached his long-lost nephew.

At his approach, the golden aura surrounding Vincent flared momentarily and Kenji was taken aback in awe at its power.

"You have powerful protection, my lord," observed Kenji with interest, well aware of the identity of the tall, golden-maned stranger, standing so silently in the center of the cavernous throne room. Kenji was, nevertheless, also aware that the aura of power surrounding the stranger had been placed there by a powerful magic-user, for there was no hint of magic from the stranger himself.

Vincent was still a little overwhelmed by the events which had so recently transpired. One moment he was in the Chamber of the Winds…the next in an entirely different setting…quite obviously a different world. He had stepped through a misted archway to find himself in an alcove curtained off from a much larger room. Stepping through the curtain he is confronted by a perceived enemy and then greeted by an official-looking personage he remembered from his dreams and who hailed him as ‘my lord’. Everything was happening too quickly and while he normally felt in complete control of his life, there he seemed to be floating along upon a current of events which threatened to carry him away. It was a very uncomfortable feeling and one, he wasn’t at all sure he liked. For the moment, however, there was not enough information available to make a decision as to a course of action. The impressions he has sensed from the warrior who had crept silently from the room upon the mysterious male’s arrival, were definitely hostile; yet he sensed no such psychic warning from the very official-looking personage walking toward the door. Vincent stood silently, not moving, as the doors to the throne room opened slowly.

Sensing the stranger’s hesitation, Kenji halted and turned to face him. "If it pleases you, my prince…I shall escort you to your father." Kenji bowed respectfully and gestured for Vincent to proceed him through the massive, ornately carved wooden doors that were slowly being opened from without by the sentries on duty.

"Who are you?" The simple question rumbled through the cavernous room as the echo of Vincent’s deep, soft voice reverberated off the walls.

Kenji was taken aback, for the voice was exactly as he remember his father’s sounding…deep and soft; full of confidence and barely controlled power.

"Your pardon, my lord," apologized Kenji, bowing once again. "I am Lord Kenji, Master of Mysteries, magician to your father, the illustrious Matsuo-nimba. I also have the distinction of being his younger brother and…your uncle," he answered smiling.

"My uncle?" exclaimed an astounded Vincent.

"Yes, and you are the Lord Teng-gai, firstborn of Lord Matsuo-nimba, king of this land. Please, my prince, no questions now. Your father will answer all." Once more he gestured for Vincent to precede him. The guards outside, all female warriors, stood at attention and formed themselves into an escort of honor as Kenji led the way toward the King’s private chambers with Vincent walking silently beside him.

Vincent’s mind was awash with questions. Where was he? How did he get here? His ‘father’? Was Catherine safe? Tentatively, he felt for the bond which connected his spirit with the beautiful woman who loved him and had banished his aloneness forever. He loved her deeply, with all his being, and yet as far apart as they so obviously were, the bond connecting then held true; she was there close and safe within his heart.

 

*****

The next few hours passed as if walking in a dream and Vincent gradually began to believe that these were truly his people…his family, yet he felt no connecting ties. For all their connection by blood, these people could never take the place in his heart and mind occupied by Father, Catherine, little Jacob, and the rest of his subterranean family back in the world he knew best. After being shown to his quarters for the night, Vincent remained awake for long hours reviewing all that had transpired since leaving Narcissa’s side.

Just as he began to drift off the sleep, Vincent, sensing a malevolent presence in his room, started awake and rolled off the bed to the floor just as a dagger imbedded itself in the wall above where his head would have been. A palpable feeling of animosity permeated the atmosphere of the elegant quarters.

"You will never sit on the throne, pretender," hissed a female voice from out of the shadows.

"I have no wish to," he replied cautiously. "Who are you that you feel so much hate for someone you do not even know?"

"You will learn the answer to that only when I kill you…male." This last was spoken with such venom, Vincent sprang from his crouched position on the floor with fangs and claws bared for battle against his unseen assailant.

"Come no closer," he warned through clenched teeth. "I have no wish to harm you, but I will defend myself and anyone else whom you would harm."

"You are the only one I wish dead," came a whispered reply from across the room. "Be assured, I will kill you, but it will not be like this, in the dark like a common assassin. No…I will kill you honorably…in combat. Though such a death would be wasted on such as you, you will die in the arena of honor." There was the whisper of leather against stone; a silhouette in the window, outlined by the moonlight, paused and turned, "Prepare yourself for death…brother." Vincent’s unseen antagonist disappeared out the window leaving him standing tensely in the center of his room, contemplating both the words spoken as well as the unvoiced, underlying emotions. There was a familiarity surround the emotions permeating the atmosphere of the bedchamber…a familiar flavor to the taste of the hate which touched his mind…the warrior from the throne room that morning.

"Brother?" he pondered the possibility. "If so, why does she hate me so?" He shook his head sadly, climbed back into bed an calmly pulled the dagger from the wall before falling into a fitful sleep.

 

*****

The next weeks passed in discussions concerning the state of the kingdom, the rituals of the people, and all the other day-to-day duties of an heir to the throne. Vincent was given little time to even explore the new world he now found himself heir to. Yet all the while, there was an apprehension sensed by Matsuo whenever Vincent mentioned ‘the Tunnels.’

The Lord Matsuo was known for his tenacious spirit and indomitable will. In the weeks since his appearance, he had steadfastly refused to call Vincent by any other name but ‘Teng-gai’. This rankled Vincent, but he soon grew accustomed to it; though he abjectly refused to think of himself as anything but ‘Vincent’. In addition, Matsuo availed himself of every opportunity to belittle the circumstances and people surrounding Vincent’s upbringing…his prime target&endash;Catherine. He could not countenance an alliance between his son and a female from another race…from another world. Vincent’s attitude toward this new land became tainted because of Matsuo’s incessant derision of the people and places he loved.

Despite all his efforts, Lord Matsuo could no more destroy Vincent’s love for his family than he could…than he could fly. Though he refused to admit it’ even to himself, his son was for now and ever after, irrevocably connected to that other world by a thread as insubstantial as a thought, as gossamer as a spider’s web, and as beautiful as the sound of a child’s joyful laughter.

The bond which had sprung to life that night in the park, when he had found Catherine, was Vincent’s hold on himself, his reason for living. Catherine was as necessary to his life as breath. Never again would he feel alone in a world which threatened his very existence, which would look upon his face and cry out in fear. Surrounded as he was now by people who looked as he looked, that other world seemed far away, as indeed it was, and yet soon a time of decision would be upon him…to stay or to return.

 

*****

Time passed slowly for Vincent. The first rose-gold rays of the rising sun found him upon the battlements gazing out across the countryside. It was quiet moments such as this that he missed Catherine the most. She had always dreamed of seeing him in the daylight, the sun bathing him in its soft golden light; but it was also at times like this when she seemed most near and he could feel her thoughts of him.

For many weeks, Vincent had found himself wooed by the beauty and apparent peace of this land. The people were friendly and congenial, the vistas breathtaking, yet he was always aware of an underlying feeling of tension in the people, of violence tightly controlled.

Sometimes that control slipped. There were sporadic outbreaks…males fought among themselves for status, females fought over mails, adolescents battled for the fun of it. Though none of it contained the mindless madness that had at times gripped Vincent, it all put a great strain on his inner balance. He was constantly mindful of the raging river of emotions which lay just beneath the surface of his consciousness. It was hard enough keeping rein upon those emotions back in the Tunnels, where Catherine could help, but here among a people who accepted such violence as a way of life…it was nearly impossible.

Sitting down, he leaned back against the rampart wall; one leg stretched out before him. The other was bent with one arm wrapped around it. It was a position Catherine would have recognized as his thinking pose, for she had often found him sitting thusly at the Chamber of the Falls when there was an important decision to be made in Council.

The one dark spot in his possible acceptance of this world lay in Catherine’s absence. He had, at first, hoped that this land could be the answer to the dilemma of his life with Catherine; hoping that, perhaps, they could live in this world. There was much in this land to admire, and perhaps with time, come to love; but it was not home, with its constant golden illumination of flickering candlelight and continual tapping of messages on pipes. He could feel her love pulsating continuously through the bond they shared, but he longed to gaze upon her beauty once more and his arms ached to hold her.

The decision was not so difficult to make after all.

 

*****

Events, however, have a habit of stepping in when a person least expects it and messes things up. Before Vincent had a chance to speak with Kenji concerning his return to his own world, the time of the ritual challenge of the king’s right to rule arrived. Vincent’s morning, spent in closed discussions with Matsuo and Kenji, was interrupted as a sound deep and mournful rolled over the countryside. The sound reverberated through the glens and valleys, echoed through the halls of the castle with a foretelling of death and blood. The ringing of the temple gong announced the king’s ritual challenge, and as proscribed, Matsuo retired to prepare himself, while Kenji and Vincent answered the call of the temple bell. Entering the temple, they were surprised to find the altar of Challenge occupied not by a male wanting to prove his worth, but by

Akiko-cha, dressed in battle armor, a katana held in her hand. She spoke the ancient words of challenge all the while her eyes glued to Vincent’s large, frowning, silent form.

"Now is your time…brother," she hissed through clenched teeth, her eyes narrowed with hate. "The time for weakness is past. If you are to be our new lord, you must prove yourself." Raising her sword above her head she roared her challenge.

Kenji stared aghast at his niece. "What do you think you are doing?" he demanded. "No female may issue challenge to the king."

"I do not challenge the king, Lord Kenji. I challenge his heir…my brother…to prove his fitness to rule this land," Akiko uttered with scorn, sword still clenched tightly in a clawed fist.

"I will not fight you," stated Vincent calmly. He could sense the warrior’s almost palpable animosity, but would not, could give in to the emotions writhing through the chamber and turned to leave.

Her hate and anger became more than she could bear. With a snarl and a scream, Akiko leapt from the altar, her sword raised high to strike. The magical golden mantel surrounding Vincent flared protectively to life as he turned, fangs and claws fared.

 

*****

The tunnels in Vincent absence, were too lonely to remain there without him. So Catherine had moved herself and little Jacob Above to her apartment until his return. With her son sound asleep in the bedroom, she was sitting on the pastel blue settee in her living room, legs curled beneath her, calmly perusing a deposition she had brought home from the office.

The trial was going well and would, hopefully, go before the jury tomorrow; right after this witness’ testimony. But as on other nights since Vincent’s leaving, she couldn’t seem to concentrate on the words swimming around on the page. Her mind preoccupied with worry for him, she put the file aside, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes. She became instantly aware of Vincent’s danger. Throwing the file on the coffeetable, Cathy rose swiftly and paused only enough to slip on a pair of shoes, bundle Jacob in a blanket, and grab her keys. Once reaching the tunnels below her building, the sense of urgency increased as she sped toward the Home Chambers. Her speedy passage reported via the pips, Father was waiting as she entered his study.

"Catherine, it’s so…," Father began.

"Father, I’ve got to get to Narcissa’s chambers and I don’t know the way myself. Please," she pleaded, "help me." Her brow furrowed, green eyes wide with worry, Catherine desperately needed to get to Narcissa’s secluded retreat. Jacob, waking and sensing his mother’s distress, began to cry.

Father hesitated. He neither believed in nor approved of Narcissa’s so-called power; yet, somehow, Vincent’s affection for the strange woman had carried over to Catherine. That knowledge, plus the fear and desperation in Catherine’s eyes, made his decision for him.

"Very well," he agreed resignedly. "I’ll have Mouse guide you." Rising stiffly from the chair behind his desk, Father exited the chamber momentarily, leaving Catherine pacing back and forth, nervously wringing her hands. Father reentered the study to find Catherine sitting in Vincent’s large red velvet chair, her eyes gazing at nothing as she absentmindedly tucked one errant spray of hair behind an ear.

Brows furrowed with worry as well, Father reentered his study to stand silently in the archway studying Catherine. She was obviously distressed and understandably so. Vincent had been gone two weeks and no word had reached them as to his whereabouts. He had met Narcissa one morning in the Chamber of the Winds and had then vanished. The only reason they even knew this scant bit of information was because Mouse had followed Vincent to his rendezvous with Narcissa and reported back to Father. Mouse’s narration of what followed could only have been a fabrication, and yet the young man was not capable of lying. What he had recounted could not really have taken place…could it? Father combed nervous fingers through steel-gray hair and descended the last few steps to the floor of his study. So intent was Catherine, she never heard his approach and jumped, startled, as he placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"Mouse will be here presently, Catherine. What is it that disturbs you so?"

"Father, I know you don’t understand this…connection that Vincent and I share." Her voice faded as she remembered the last time she had seen him. "But believe me when I tell you…he is in danger. Don’t ask me how I know…I know and I must help him any way I can. He forbade me to follow him, but…"

At that moment a figure appeared in the upper archway of Father’s study.

"Yes, child. Come, he needs your strength."

Narcissa held a hand out for Catherine. Not even thinking, Catherine raced up the spiral staircase to join Narcissa on the upper landing. The two women turned and entered the passage without even a backward glance at the bewildered elder gentleman standing in stunned silence in the center of the book-lined chamber. "My word!"

 

*****

Catherine was surprised when Narcissa did not lead the way down to her chamber, but instead headed toward the Mirror Pool. Almost as if to answer her silent query, Narcissa turned and sadly shook her head. "There is no time, child." With that terse statement, their pace quickened until they passed through the final junction to the pool. Without saying a word, Narcissa knelt at its edge, closed her eyes and began a quiet chant, then motioned for Catherine to kneel beside her.

"Watch!" she commanded, and Catherine was compelled to comply. The scene she saw reflected in the quiet water nearly stilled her rapidly beating heart. Vincent was engaged in mortal combat, unarmed, against an obviously crazed, sword-wielding female.

"Concentrate, Cath-er-ine. Concentrate on your love, concentrate on the bond which connects you. It is the only thing that can save him."

 

*****

 

Akiko, sword raised high to strike, was so single-minded in her anger that she completely ignored the other presence in the chamber and was taken completely by surprise as she began her downswing, to find another person standing between her and her goal.

Lord Kenji had begun a chant of protection immediately as Akiko leapt from the altar, but incantations require time, an few moments, a few heartbeats to execute. He never got the chance. With a snarl, the cross-swing of Akiko’s blade cut Lord Kenji open from shoulder to hip, He crumpled, dying, to lie in a growing puddle of blood on the floor.

Vincent, crouched, claws extended, surrounded by a bright golden light. As he died, Kenji did the only thing possible to help protect the nephew he had come to love. Pooling his last vestige of strength, he gave all he had and transferred his last remaining power. There was a brief flash of bright light as the aura surrounding Vincent flared and crackled with additional energy. Lord Kenji fell back, dead to the floor.

Lips drawn back, fangs exposed, Akiko attacked again, but as she attempted another killing blow with her sword, it slid harmlessly along the edge of the magical shield surrounding Vincent. She screamed with rage, threw the sword aside, and leapt for Vincent’s throat, claws extended.

 

*****

"Vincent!" Catherine screamed, clutching at the woman kneeling beside her. Narcissa, help him!" she pleaded, frantic with worry.

"I cannot…but you can. Follow what your heart tells you," she instructed hastily.

 

*****

Vincent intercepted Akiko’s airborne body in mid-leap and, reaching up, propelled her across the room. As he touched her, she roared with frustration and swiped at him with razor sharp claws. He barely managed to turn his head aside to protect his eyes as she clawed at his face, just missing the carotid artery in his neck and slicing along his jawline. Akiko landed with a thud. The metal fastenings and stiff leather of her armor scraped across the marble floor as she slid nearly thirty yards away from the massive male roaring in pain. She watched as the had he placed against the side of his face came away covered with blood.

The adrenaline pumping through his veins, the smell of blood in his nostrils, broke through the barrier he had placed around his other self…the half of his personality that was so abhorrent to the cultured being who inhabited the gentle Tunnel world so far away. Vincent shook his head, trying to maintain control, all the while a deep menacing growl was growing deep within him…the Beast would be free. As Akiko rose from the floor and once again charged at her hated for, the Beast broke those final feeble restraints holding him captive and, now released, steeled himself for the coming onslaught of his assailant.

Lips pulled back in a menacing snarl, the Beast lunged at his advancing enemy. All that mattered to his rage-filled brain was revenge against the one who had hurt him. The blood pounded in his brain and everything appeared in a reddish haze to his crazed mind. All rational thought was wiped away and in its place was the instinctive primordial reactions of a wild beast. Once released from constraints, he didn’t think, didn’t consider his actions, all he did was react to the situation surrounding him; usually with lethal results.

Akiko-cha didn’t realized what she had unleashed when she attacked Vincent. Now, there was no Vincent…only the Beast with a taste for blood…her blood.

Roaring his rage, the Beast dived and rolled under Akiko’s charge, immediately leaping to his feet behind her. She turned instinctively as he attacked, feinted to the left and then changed direction slashing at his chest with her razor sharp claws. Again, she was successful in drawing blood, as the chamber reverberated with the renewed roars of the Beast’s pain.

One corner of his crazed mind registered the knowledge of his injury, but Vincent was too overcome by the rage of the Beast to regain control. The Beast crouched low, awaiting his foe’s next rush, completely oblivious to the blood dripping from the wounds on his chest and puddling on the pristine marble floor. He never took his eyes from his enemy’s face.

 

*****

Catherine crouched helplessly beside the Mirror Pool, tears pouring down her cheeks splashed soundlessly in the serene water. The drama unfolding before her eyes was terrifying, yet she could not turn her gaze away. The emotions roiling through the bond were so primal, so frightening, and yet they excited her, and she was ashamed. Vincent always tried so hard to control that violent side of his nature, to keep it in check, and oft times were successful. But there had been times when only Catherine’s presence had insured his return to sanity. How could she help him now? He was so far away. She never felt the compassionate hand that Narcissa placed on her back.

 

*****

Akiko stood, shaking. Never had she been bested in hand-to-hand combat, yet this untrained male was holding his own. He was strong…much stronger than she had anticipated, but she was confident of her victory and began her next attack. Contemplating her next move, Akiko was unaware of the subtle movements of her target as he slowly inched his way toward her. Thinking herself almost victorious, Akiko committed the cardinal sin of personal combat…she took her eyes from her foe’s face for a split second.

Only a fraction of a heartbeat, but it gave the Beast the opening necessary to attack his prey. Springing forward with astounding speed for such a massive individual, the Beast dived toward Akiko. His razor sharp claws hooked the large calf muscle in her leg and flipped her over, where they tumbled together on the floor. L Instantly, rolling this way and that over the cold marble, they were locked in a primitive battle of fang and claw, Akiko-cha fighting for her very life. The Beast, fighting now only on the instinct of survival, endeavored to sink his fangs into the soft unprotected neck of his prey. In that, he was unsuccessful, but at one point he was able to make a slashing attack, opening a large gash across her chest just above her armor, and slicing through the top three layers of her lacquered battle dress. No small feat, considering the armor was designed to stop a steel tipped arrow. She finally won free and scurried backward across the floor from her snarling antagonist in a desperate attempt to get away. Gasping for breath, she warily eyed the slavering Beast rising from the floor to face her once again.

This outcome was no longer so certain. The thought that she might not emerge victorious had never occurred to her before now. Akiko-cha na Hidori-kai didn’t like to lose. Tickling at the edge of her mind, however, was a thin reedy voice that kept repeating something…words she refused to acknowledge or recognize.

The Beast, rising slowly, never took his eyes from the face of his adversary. The cold, rage-filled, ice-blue gaze held no compassion, no remorse, no pity. A snarl from deep within his massive heaving chest, rose in intensity to the crescendo of a rafter shaking roar and the chamber reverberated with its primal force. Step by agonizingly slow step, the Beast advanced upon his for; each claw-tipped finger flexed and ready to tear and rend.

Seeing her death reflected in those clod, unblinking eyes Akiko’s blood ran cold. She knew that no longer could she rely on her own prowess to win this battle. There were other less honorable ways to win. Swiftly, she bent and reached a hand to her boot, withdrawing a small white-handled, thin-bladed dagger. There was no need for a larger weapon; one nick of the poison-coated blade would be enough to finish off this last obstacle in her path to the throne.

In the next moment, three events happened almost simultaneously. First, the door to the chamber crashed open as Matsuo-nimba strode into the room surrounding by his personal guard. His entrance was heralded by the sound of maniacal laughter filling the room. Then just as Akiko drew back her arm to fling the poisoned dagger, a familiar, beloved, anguished voice screamed a name. "VINCENT!"

Even through the befuddled reddish haze fogging his mind, that voice was recognized and acknowledged by the Beast. Dazedly, the Beast turned in an attempt to locate the source of that beloved voice, and in doing so, made his unprotected back a prime target for his very dangerous adversary.

Akiko couldn’t believe her luck. The way looked open for her victory at last. Once more she readied the dagger for flight, completely unaware of the danger at her own back.

So intent was she on vengeance, the sound of the chamber doors crashing open, masked by the insane laughter, never penetrated her single-mindedness. All that was important was removing the last stumbling block to her plans. As she threw the dagger, willing it to fly try, her brain finally registered the additional sounds of shouts, clanking armor and roars of outrage behind her.

A scream of terror cut through the air like a knife through soft butter, as the Beast dropped instinctively to the floor. The poisoned dagger whizzed past him and clattered to the floor, its deadly velocity spent.

Akiko, staring dumbfounded toward her quarry slowly rising from the floor, crumpled to a heap as a dagger protruded from her back, thrown by the hand of an angry king in protection of his son. Guards scurried methodically around the chamber securing all entrances and exits, as Matsuo, tears flowing unheeded down his face, knelt beside the fallen body of his dying daughter. "Why?" he pleaded. "Why?"

Her words were faint and barely audible to the king’s ears. Just before expiring, Akiko-cha na Hidori-kai finally recognized the words that had been buzzing around in her brain like an angry bee…Wakani’s solemn words of warning, "You cannot succeed, warrior. You will die at the hand of your father." With her last breath, Akiko cursed the old witch to the Hell of a Thousand Tortures, just as had been foretold.

Matsuo rose slowly to his feet, faltering slighting, his heart aching for the death of his beloved daughter. His brother, dead; his daughter, dead; his son…

Vincent stood dazed in the center of the chamber staring at his blood-stained hands. His face and chest burned with the pain of his injuries; his heart, crying out to Catherine in agony at what he had been forced to do. No matter where he went, Death followed. "CATHERINE!" His anguished roar echoed through the room, mocking him. Only in her arms could he find forgiveness; only in her arms could he mourn; only in her arms could he find peace once more, but she was not here. The decision had been made.

"Teng-gai!" called Matsuo as he walked sadly toward his son. "Vincent," he said more softly as he placed a comforting hand on Vincent’s shoulder. "None of this is because of you."

"No!" Angrily, Vincent shrugged the hand away. "It is not because of me," Vincent growled, jerking his head up to gaze into his father’s sorrowful eyes. "It is your doing! Why couldn’t you have left me in peace with those I love and who love me. If you had left well enough alone, they," he pointed angrily at the bodies on the floor, "would still be alive!" Eyes closed, fists clenched tightly at his sides, Vincent raised h is face high and once more cried mournfully, "Catherine!"

 

*****

"Narcissa," sobbed Catherine, tears coursing unchecked from sorrowful green eyes, "we have to bring him home…how?"

"What does your heart tell you, child? Are you not still connected? Use your love…it is strong enough to reach across time, across any distance…call to him. The two must be made one."

Catherine’s sobbing gradually quieted as the old woman’s words touched her heart. Their love must draw him from that world of blood and death. He must come back to her. She took a deep, calming breath, closed her eyes so as not to be distracted by the images in the Pool, and softly called his name, allowing all the love and acceptance she possessed to flow through their bond to strengthen Vincent.

 

*****

There…a voice…calling his name softly, "Vincent!" It thrummed through his body like a vibrating harpstring, carrying with it the essence of Catherine’s love and trust in him.

He roared in anguish realizing that there was no longer anyone able to aid him to return to her…Lord Kenji was dead.

Suddenly Vincent stopped, eyes wide, he listened intently. A mental tug initiated movement and he began to walk slowly toward the huge bronze temple doors. All the while his heart felt her love, his ears heard her calling his name, "Vincent!" Without a backward glance, Vincent raced from the temple and ran headlong toward the castle; toward the place where he had originally entered this maddening world.

Reaching his destination, Vincent threw open the massive carved wooden doors to the throne room and strode impatiently into the darkened interior. Standing in the center of the dark chamber he felt entirely alone and abandoned, except for the ever-constant tug upon his heart. "CATHERINE!´ Her name was torn from h is lips as he felt her presence gradually fade. He could still feel her life-force through their bond, but could no longer hear her voice. Falling to his knees, he wept in despair. "Catherine!"

"Have you so little faith in my power, Vin-cent?"

The quiet, lilting voice invaded his anguished weeping and Vincent looked around for the source, having recognized it immediately. "Narcissa!"

"Yes, child." The voice was calm and full of compassion

"Narcissa…Kenji…he’s dead. There is no way for me to return," he cried, once again hanging his head in grief. Taking a deep calming breath he continued, "Please, watch over Catherine…"

"You will do that yourself, Vin-cent."

"But there is no way. Kenji…"

"I know of the magician’s death, Vin-cent. Do you not remember what I told you before you left? That it would be by Kenji’s power that you would return home…you now possess that power. Before he died, Kenji transferred all his remaining strength and power to you. Can you not feel it?"

Silently, Vincent delved within himself and felt the warm comforting feeling of his uncle’s love. "Yes…I can feel something, but I don’t have the knowledge to use this power."

"Child of Light, close your eyes," she instructed. "What do you see?"

"Only blackness, Narcissa," he replied flatly.

"No, child. You look in the wrong place. Look with your heart…now what do you see?"

The golden aura surrounding Vincent flared brightly, its flow interlaced with flashes of bright silver.

Matsuo, concerned for his son’s state of mind, had followed Vincent from the temple. Standing in the open doorway of the throne room, he was astounded by the brightness enveloping his son. Alone, he entered the chamber and silently pushed the great doors closed.

"I see a light in the distance, Narcissa. A very faint, but steady light," answered Vincent.

"That light, child, is your Catherine; her love for you shining brightly. It is the guide to lead you home," stated Narcissa.

"But how? I don’t know how to use the magic," argued Vincent.

"Child," Narcissa’s voice admonished gently, "never ask ‘how’ of magic. Just believe and it will be so."

Unable to remain silent any longer, Matsuo called softly, "Teng-gai…my son." Standing not ten feet from Vincent’s kneeling form, the king had witnessed only Vincent’s half of the conversation.

Vincent, startled, leaped to his feet and spun around to face his father.

"What are you doing here? Haven’t you done enough?" demanded an outraged Vincent. The air surrounding him began to crackle and spark with power. With definite effort of will, he calmed his racing emotions; they must not get out of hand now…now when he was so close to know the answer.

"I only wanted to make certain that you were well, Teng- …Vincent. You are my son…I love you," Matsuo affirmed.

"Love…you don’t know the meaning of the word. I have know more love in the world where I grew up than you can ever hope to experience." …Oh, Catherine!…, his heard cried. Vincent, head hung low, arms hanging almost nerveless at his sides, reflected deeply upon the possibility that he might never return to her side. Every second, every moment they had shared, now became even more precious. On…all the times that had been lost in their first years together. How could he have squandered all those precious moments? Nothing…absolutely nothing was more important to him than returning…to her…his heart.

"I cannot stay here! But I cannot return home, either." Vincent raised his head to face Matsuo, unshed tears glistening in eyes of deep sky blue. "You profess to love me, because I am your son; then, help me! I am nothing without her and she is not here. She is my life. Without her I will die. Please, help me return," he pleaded.

Matsuo could no longer deny the truth to himself. The bonding of mate-to-mate; life-to-life, was common among their people. Had this been a life-bond, as he originally suspected, his son’s life would have been a lonely one, but he would have learned to live with the absence of his mate. But this…this was deeper and more permanent. His ability to see within a person’s heart finally won out over his selfish desire to have his son near, for this was a bond few of their people had ever experienced, although it was not unknown. A soul-bond…a connection of destinies that was unbreakable and irrevocable throughout eternity. From one life’s journey to the next, two so joined were destined to find each other over and over, for…no matter how…love cannot be denied. Two so joined, when separated, could not live without the other…they were two halves of one soul and, therefore, incomplete without the other.

 

*****

"Narcissa?" Catherine’s voice cracked with emotion and tears.

"Patience, child."

 

*****

"I realize now, that my motives for wishing you returned were, as you say, selfish, and perhaps I did drive Kenji too far in my quest for your return. Also, I never truly let myself care for Aki; I am guilty of neglect of her, but I truly loved your mother, although apparently not with the intensity and depth with which you love this woman from another world. I do love you, my son."

Suddenly, they were interrupted by the sound of the chamber doors being opened. Matsuo whirled around and snapped, "Get out! Leave us!" As the doors closed once again, Matsuo turned to face his son’s desperation. Vincent stood dejectedly in the center of the chamber.

 

*****

"Now, child. Call to him!"

 

*****

"Vincent!"

His head snapped up, eyes searching for the source of that beloved voice.

 

"Come back to me!"

Vincent looked once more to his father. "I cannot stay here," he remarked bluntly. Then, remembering Narcissa’s words, Vincent closed his eyes and dived deeply within himself…his spirit surging toward the brightness at the end of the long, dark, mental tunnel…the brightness that was his Catherine.

Matsuo had to step back from his son as the aura surrounding him flared and crackled, lighting the chamber with flashes of gold and silver and enveloping Vincent in a cocoon of power. He stood silently within the maelstrom, head thrown back, eyes closed as tentacles of power writhed and coiled about his body with every-increasing speed. The coils quickly encased him in an opaque cocoon and Matsuo could only stand powerless as sight of his son was taken from him and as the flashes of power slowly faded, the king stood alone in the darkened chamber… Vincent had vanished. "Be happy, my son."

A gleeful, deranged laughter soon encroached upon his grief, filling the chamber with its venom.

With lips pressed firmly together in a thin harsh line of determination, steel-blue eyes turbulent with hate, Matsuo strode purposefully from the chamber. Throwing the massive wooden doors wide, he grabbed a dagger from the belt of a sentry standing guard outside the door and made his way resolutely toward the lower dungeons…it was time to put an end to this farce.

 

*****

At the Mirror Pool, Catherine kneeled silently, eyes closed, the bond connecting her to Vincent vibrating with the power of her love. She jumped, startled, as a gentle hand touched her shoulder. Expecting to see Narcissa’s solemn, concerned countenance, Catherine was shocked as she gazed up into a pair of tear-filled, piercingly beautiful, sapphire-blue eyes.

She leapt to her feet to become enfolded in a strong, safe, love-filled embrace.

"Vincent! Oh, Vincent!" she cried, tears unashamedly spilling down her cheeks.

Vincent, tears of joy coursing down his own face, pulled her tightly against his chest, buried his face in her hair and whispered, huskily, "I love you, Catherine. I love you."

Narcissa, standing just out of sight and holding a happy, cooing Jacob, nodded. "Come, little one, let us leave your parents some time for themselves. I will take you back to your grandfather." She smiled knowingly and turned down the tunnel toward Father’s chambers.

 


Written, 1991. Submitted/published in In Your Dreams, May 1992, by Guinn Berger.