Syaoran wandered through the tunnels at the end of his supervisory shift, heading deep into the mines. The roughly hewn passages sloped downwards, lit by weak, flickering bulbs set at long intervals – the darkness stretched out to cover much larger areas in between the parts where light shone. Whenever he reached a fork in the tunnels, he would take a moment to stand and study the two equally dark passageways before picking the one on the right. He always picked the right tunnel. In a way, he decided it was a good decision since it would simplify his path for whenever he decided to head back to Meiling's apartment.
With nothing but the sound of his footsteps echoing across the rocks for company, Syaoran found his thoughts drifting back to the conversation he'd had with Touya. The man hadn't given him a definitive answer for when he would be able to speak with Kuanos. Touya had cited some difficulties faced by the Liberalists in getting Kuanos to agree to request. Given how desperate he had been to speak with Syaoran when Kuanos had visited the Scavenger base, he had trouble believing Touya's explanation.
What made Kuanos change his mind? Syaoran wondered as he descended deeper into the darkness. Why would he— Syaoran stopped, feeling a shift in the air as he reached a fork. Inky blackness stared out at him with a gaping maw in the right tunnel and somewhere further down that way, he could hear the sound of falling water. Syaoran frowned, turning his head just enough to focus his vampire hearing in that direction. That's strange. Touya never mentioned any underground rivers or streams going through these mines.
Syaoran called on his vampire vision and the world was immediately lit up in shades of amber, letting him see the uncertain path ahead. The rough tunnel was littered with rocks of varying sizes with a few sharp ones jutting outwards at dangerous angles. He wouldn't have been able to see those without the aid of his enhanced sight. Without hesitation, Syaoran strode into the dark passage.
Kurogane tried not to let his discomfort show as he let Subaru feed from the cut on his wrist. Five days. It had been five days since he'd marched out on the Liberalists and met Subaru. Five days since he should have been posing as a slave entering the Final round of the Gladiator Program sent in by the private sponsors. Five days since his latest near death experience after losing his only chance to rescue the mage.
"Thank you, Kurogane-san," Subaru murmured, wiping off a stray droplet of blood from his lips with a small paper napkin. Cat-like eyes peaked at him through long lashes and for a moment he remembered the cold, uncomfortable nights in Infinity when he had forced the mage to feed.
Kurogane grunted noncommittally.
"I've managed to acquire the maps for the tunnel system that runs underneath the wastelands," Subaru told him in the accented Japanese that Kurogane had long since grown accustomed to. "I know you'd been planning to enter the tournament under the guise of an enslaved Lupine but—"
"You also know why I never went through with that," Kurogane cut him off gruffly, his temper rising. These days anger always lurked so close to the surface.
"I know," Subaru agreed, calm and unflappable as always. "There wasn't anything you could have done."
Coming from someone else, the words could have sounded demeaning, patronizing, but when Subaru said it, they were tinged with sincerity. "Now that I have the maps for the tunnel systems, we no longer need for you to go in as an undercover slave. Once the tournament begins in earnest and we have a lock on their location, you can simply sneak in and retrieve them both."
Subaru wanted his brother out of that place just as badly as Kurogane wanted the mage. The Liberalists had been willing to help him by providing the disruptor nanites. Kurogane didn't see any reason as to why that would have to change just because the original plan was no longer viable. And yet, looking at Subaru's face, Kurogane knew the young vampire was still bothered by something.
"What is it?"
"In order to gain access to the wastelands, we will need to utilize the mining tunnels run by the Scavengers."
The sound of falling water grew louder the further he walked, though as he drew closer to its location, he realized it that wasn't a single waterfall but several, the sound interspersed by the steady trickle of shallower streams. A brilliant light pierced the darkness at the end of the tunnel. Syaoran let the transformation fade away before it could blind him. The eerie amber gave way to honeyed gold as the light spilled into the tunnel from whatever lay beyond it. Syaoran slowed his approach as a melodious hum filled the tunnels, soft and distinctly feminine.
His brows furrowed in confusion. Who would be down here?
Taking care not to make a sound, Syaoran edged his way to the mouth of the cavern, for it was a vast cavern up ahead, washed in buttery sunlight, the scent of wet earth and stones carrying over to him on a light breeze. There was an undertone of something sweet and floral, causing a rush of nostalgia in his heart even though Syaoran couldn't remember ever having come across the scent before. He paused by the opening, choosing to remain in the shadows, feeling the breath catch in his throat as he saw the person within the cavern.
The woman was a vision draped in layers of white, like a princess straight out of an epic fairytale. The style of clothing was unlike any he had encountered before, but it looked breathtaking on her, contrasting nicely with her tanned skin. She wore a lot of gold, delicate chains of varying length hanging from her neck, embellished with jeweled beads that sparkled like tiny stars. Her arms were adorned with bangles, each carved with a flowing script. A multitude of gold chains were also looped around her waist like belts. Gold coins decorated with the same flowing script as the bangles hung from the ties.
She stood in a shallow pool of water that reached barely to mid-calf. Multiple waterfalls and streams trickling down the rocky walls of the cavern fed into it. Syaoran could see where the water fell, and yet the surface of the pool was calm like a mirror, reflecting its surroundings with perfect clarity. The woman stood with her eyes closed and hands clasped in front of her chest, facing the right wall as she continued humming that haunting melody. The wall before her glowed with the same calligraphic designs as the ones adorning her jewelry and Syaoran realized with a jolt that he could actually understand what it said.
Unable to contain his curiosity, Syaoran took a step across the threshold, forgetting for a moment that he had been trying to keep his presence concealed. His foot collided with a rock, sending it skittering across the floor and the sound echoed across the large cavern, startling the woman. Her eyes shot open as she whirled in his direction and Syaoran felt the apology freeze upon his lips.
Her eyes were a deep shade of emerald, but it was the depth of emotions shining in them that made Syaoran's jaw dropped open.
"Syaoran!" the woman yelled before racing across the space that divided them. Syaoran barely managed to catch her as she wrapped her arms around him, enveloping him a hug that was as warm as the sunshine lighting the cavern.
"I was so worried about you!" she cried, and Syaoran was surprised by the dampness that soaked through his shirt. She drew away, eyes shining with happiness as she looked at him in a way that Meiling never had. In that moment, Syaoran found his thoughts drifting back to the story Kuanos had told him of the princess from the desert. The woman that he had supposedly sacrificed seven years of his life for without a moment's hesitation. Hadn't he first encountered the princess in a cavern full of magical water, according to that story?
"Sakura?" Syaoran murmured, the name rolling across his tongue like it belonged there.
"I'm so glad you're here," she said with a grin, wiping a tear trailing down her cheek.
"This..." He trailed off, looking at the cavern's roof in disbelief at the midday sun. Surely he hadn't wandered the tunnels all night? Glancing down at the digital watch he wore, he confirmed that it had only been two hours since the shift's end. "This isn't really a part of the mines, is it?"
"No." The woman, Sakura, shook her head. "The reservoir is still inside the ruins at Clow. It's just that the convergence has created a temporary link between our two locations."
"Convergence?" Syaoran asked, unease slowly stirring in his gut. This doesn't feel right.
"It's what Yukito-san is calling the equilibrium shift in space-time continuum," she explained, her smile turning sheepish. "Timelines of all the dimensions are moving, slipping through time itself. There's—" she paused, looking away as she bit her lip "—some sort of anomaly, creating an imbalance. The convergence is a result of reality trying to set itself right once again. This is... Oh Syaoran." She threw her arms around him once more, burying her face in his chest. "This is like Fei Wang Reed all over again."
Syaoran patted her back in an awkward attempt at comfort, not really sure how to help the woman who seemed to know him, or at least a version of him. Even though he had been skeptical of Kuanos's story, it was hard to not believe the man's words when he had a sobbing princess in his arms. Are all women like this? he thought, wondering if perhaps Kuanos had been telling the truth after all. Meiling had acted the same way. But why had Touya lied to him? And why was every Scavenger going along with the deception? Surely, he wasn't that important. He didn't even have any substantial memories. Either Kuanos or Touya was lying to him, but to what end?
His attention was drawn towards the sunlight dancing across the shallow waves on the surface of the lake. She was using magic to hold the water still?
"Is Fai-san with you?" she asked. "I've been trying to get in touch with him, but something keeps blocking my spells. Is he all right? Tomoyo-chan told me that Kurogane-san was separated from you guys somehow, but don't worry, he's searching for you too."
"Fai?" he said, thinking back to the blond hybrid he had seen in the televised match for The Company. "No, I haven't met my sire yet."
"Your sire?" Sakura pulled away to look at him once more, confusion clear in her pretty green eyes. "What do you mean?"
"According to Director Bia, Fai was the one who turned me into a Vampirosa," he replied, his hand subconsciously traveling to scars around his heart. Pain pinched at his temples.
Her warm fingers connected with the scars through his shirt and she gasped. Eyes wide, she met his gaze. Her voice was bare above a whisper when she spoke. "What happened? Why did he— What made him turn you into a vampire?"
In the distance a bell tolled, the sound creating a hollow echo throughout the cavern.
"I don't know. I've lost all of my memories."
"No." The color drained from Sakura's face as she took a step back, fear flashing in her eyes as she looked him over. "That was just a dream. This… this shouldn't be happening." Worrying her lip, she met his gaze. "H-How did you lose your memories?"
"Head injury from a mining accident," Syaoran replied, wincing at the sensation of a white hot knife poking at his brain. The bell tolled once more, the sound shaking the very ground beneath their feet. A wave of dizziness washed over him and Syaoran dropped to his knees.
"Syaoran!" Sakura cried as she rushed to his side and reached for his arm. Her fingers ghosted right through him, and when Syaoran tried to grab her hand instead, it phased right through hers. An indescribable sense of loss welled in his heart as he stared down at the spot where his hand should have met hers. "What's wrong?"
The bell tolled once more and he tried to hide his wince. "It's just a headache," he mumbled, trying to reassure her even though he had begun to massage his temples with his fingers. He waited for the vertigo to pass before attempting to stand. Maybe I should head back to the apartment and get some rest.
The bell tolled louder just as he managed to get back on his feet. His unsteady legs folded underneath him and he collapsed as the ground began to shake. A jagged rock dug into his ribs, the sharp jolt of pain nothing compared to the bolt of lightning that struck his brain, leaving him gasping for breath. The ghostly outline of Sakura hovered by his side, her intangible fingers skittering across his skin as the sunny afternoon light began to fade. Her lips moved, though he couldn't hear her past the rushing in his ears. The only sound louder was the tolling of the bell.
Something warm trickled down his nose, the taste of copper exploding across his tongue. Rather than leaving him invigorated, the blood only turned him into a sick, shivering mess.
"I'm fine," he murmured at the fading apparition of the woman in white. To prove his point, he tried to push himself into a sitting position, but his limbs had no strength. There was a brief feeling of cracks spidering across his soul before it shattered and a wave of hot and cold filled him. It set him ablaze, hundreds of flaming tongues licking at his insides, slowly consuming him until he couldn't even tell where he ended and the pain began. Agony surrounded him, lovingly taking his existence into its arms. It coursed through his veins in frigid waves until he was bathed in it. He was fire. He was ice.
Blood trailed down his cheeks, filling his throat as he attempted to crawl across the darkening tunnel. He had to get back. He had to get help. Someone would notice he was missing when he didn't show up for his shift in the morning, but morning was so far away. He needed help now. He needed to— He was fading. He was creation. He was destruction.
The sound of the tolling bell reverberated within his chest, deafeningly loud, and a coughing fit wracked his trembling body, tearing at his throat as he spat out a thick globule of blood. Sakura and her sunlit cavern were nothing more than faint outlines by now, though Syaoran's focus was elsewhere. I have to get back to the surface.
His breath whistled in and out of his lungs. With each toll of the bell, Syaoran could sense the passage of time, but he felt disconnected from his body. He watched himself from far away, writhing on the ground in agony but no… that was some else. He was…
He was the light. He was the dark.
He was everything. He was nothing.
Who am I…
The next bell toll threw him back in the body convulsing alone in the dark tunnel.
Syaoran threw back his head and screamed.