It had been nearly three hundred years since Searcher had begun his quest.
Alone, he had crossed oceans and desserts alike. He had combed though forests and vast arid plains. He had searched the meanest of hovels to the grandest of cities with palaces of twisting spires that touched the skies. For three hundred years he had searched, always moving, and always alone. He no longer remembered his given name. His obsession had obliterated it as something inconsequential to commit to memory. All he did was search, and so the self-given name Searcher seemed appropriate.
Searcher only remembered two names, the only two names that mattered. They had been scarred into his very being and burned like a torch blazing in the night sky. Those two names were his beacon, his sole purpose for living.
The name of his love, and the one who stolen him away.
Searcher’s enemy was an elusive cowardly prey, yet cunning enough to always remain three steps ahead of the hunter. Now the prey had given Searcher the slip and the trail had gone cold. For fifty years Searcher had wandered through cities and towns alike, but not even a whispered rumor was to be found for him to pick up the trail.
After three hundred years the raging inferno that was Searcher’s spirit had been beaten down to a guttering spark.
Memory fades with time…and he was so, so tired.
Searcher wove through an unforgiving crowd that only held shelter from the storm in their minds. He was a stranger in these parts, so he had drawn the oiled cloak tight and pulled the hood to hide his face. With the darkness of night the hood was almost unnecessary despite the rain, as a dark woolen mask concealed the lower half of his face, but Searcher was weary that his silver hair might attract unwanted attention. Both mask and hood were a long standing precaution to disguise himself from his prey, though now he wore it more out of habit than necessity.
The people that passed Searcher on the muddy streets possessed hard faces that were permanently lined with deep-seeded suspicion. Some of those faces held a predatory assessing gleam. The entire town had an air of danger, as it was nestled deep inside the mountain pass far from the moral laws of society. It was a haven for lawbreakers that had fled to escape the justice of their communities. Searcher would have avoided this nameless town altogether but the early spring storm had made traveling dangerous in the mountain pass. Flash-floods. Rockslides. Toppling trees. Mudtraps. All could easily kill him. Elementals possessed a generous lifespan but were not impervious to the forces of nature as the humans fancied them to be in their fairytales.
Three hundred years was a long time by reckoning of humanity, but among Elementals Searcher would be considered a young man just about to reach the cusp of his prime. Or he would have been, if he were still living in the homelands. He doubted that any of his comrades would be able to recognize him now, dressed as he was in tattered traveling clothes and with a despondent spirit to match. He was but a pale shadow of his former self.
Lightening forked across the night sky. Searcher lifted his face skyward to glimpse the electric brilliance. The flash briefly illuminated his eyes under the deep hood, which were oddly mismatched crimson and grey. The electric current sent a delicious shiver down his spine, one that for a moment pulled him out of his lethargy. Lightening was his favored Talent. It was only during storms that he truly felt alive.
Humans believed Elementals were creatures that only existed in myth. In truth, Elementals were a reclusive people that kept to their island nations far across the sea. Humans were fearful short-lived beings that were suspicious of anyone different, and were apt to use violence to assert themselves as the superior race---or at least, that was what the elders had preached in Searcher’s homelands.
Searcher glanced at the sight of a heavy man slapping aside a drunkard that was too slow to move out of the way. Three hundred years secretly living among humans had taught Searcher that very little separated his lofty people from the most petty of humankind. At their core Elementals were a warrior society, and just like their human cousins they frequently squabbled amongst themselves for any number of reasons. Power. Land. Pride. Revenge. Elementals and humans were not as different as the races liked to believe.
What separated Elementals from the rest of the world was magic, though it was called ‘chakra’ in Searcher’s homelands. All living thing possessed chakra but it was only Elementals that were able to tap into their inborn energy. Every Elemental possessed a unique Talent to bend the elements of nature or the energy of spirit. With proper motivation and training, every Elemental could become a great asset to their country, community, and clan.
Searcher was a fully trained Warrior born with a Talent for Lightening. The Talent to manipulate electricity was unusual, and at a young age Searcher was indicted as an acolyte for his Talent to be cultivated to its full potential. The elders had claimed Searcher was one among two of the most gifted Elemental Warriors of his generation, the other had also been recruited as a boy with an equally unusual Talent for manipulating Wood. It had been no particular surprise that the two youngest of the acolytes had become fast companions during their training. It was a relationship that should have developed into a tight comradeship to benefit their adulthood, but their friendly rivalry had made a turn for the worst when it became apparent Searcher would surpass his friend in both Talent and rank.
Yes, that was right. They had been friends, once.
Searcher’s grip on the oiled cloak tightened at the hated name of his ever-elusive prey boiled to the surface. ’Tenzou.’ It had been Tenzou’s jealousy that had started it all. It was funny how a small thing such as childhood rivalry could be the root of events to dictate one’s destiny.
Searcher shook his head, a motion that made rainwater fly from his hood. No. That wasn’t right. It had not been petty jealousy that had prompted Tenzou to betrayal and escape across the seas to hide among the humans. There had been something else…
Greed. Yes, that was it. It was something Tenzou had coveted above all else. Tenzou had stolen something very precious, something so dear that Searcher had abandoned obligation and duty to pursue Tenzou without a second thought…what was it again?
Searcher stumbled to his knees and landed with his hands planted in the reeking mud. His breath came out in panicked white puffs against the freezing air as his mismatched eyes stared dully to where his wrists had sunk. ’How could I forget?!’
The faint image of Iruka’s smile was a ray of sunlight slipping through a crack in the darkness. The Iruka inside Searcher’s heart was the only light he had left in the world, his entire being of what he had once been and everything he could dare hope for were all tightly packed in the space of a few fragmented memories. It was terrifying that the most precious were slipping away while those of his hated enemy firmly remained. Searcher knew that he would break if he did not have the memory of his beloved to carry him on.
The gritty mud scrapped against Searcher’s palms as his hands curled into fists. The inferno that had been his rage had cooled into a lukewarm pulp. More often than not, he wanted curl up and weep until even the marrow of his bones had been wrung dry from all the loneliness and suffering he had endured. The crushing failure of his hopeless quest was finally coming to a head.
Searcher wanted peace.
He wanted rest.
He wanted to go home.
Muffled curses and a few hard prods from b oots shifted Searcher back on his feet. He stumbled about in a daze and allowed the flow of the crowd to carry him into the blackened heart of the disreputable town. The windowed curtains of popular establishments glowed enticingly with the promise of comfort and warmth, but Searcher desired a quiet place to collect his thoughts. From the corner one eye he spotted a small single-storied building nestled between a whorehouse and a granary, one that could offer a brief respite for his troubled mind. He ducked through a small gap in the crowd and proceeded to kick off mud from his boots before climbing the stone steps to shuffle through the wooden door.
The tavern he entered was a single wide room that stank of stale urine and sour wine. Inside was a furnace compared to the chill outside, a roaring fireplace crackled in the far left wall where half a dozen patrons had moved their tables to enjoy the warmth. The air was thick with heat and the sweat from unwashed bodies, and the rattle of dice could be heard over a low mummer of conversation. Most of the patrons had spared the ragged newcomer a single dismissive glance before returning to their meal or game. Searcher noted the few tables that scrutinized his intrusion, and he felt those unwelcoming eyes follow as he claimed a small round table on the empty side of the room that was far from the ill company and the heat of the flames.
Searcher placed his back towards the wall as he settled himself on the rickety stool that served for a chair. He then marginally pulled back his hood to broaden his view of the tavern and of the humans that regarded him with open suspicion. He did not lower his hood, as his silver hair framed a face that was too youthful to have the right to possess it. It was better to endure the heat than give an excuse for the humans to pester him.
A young man appeared to wordlessly plop a tankard of wine on the table, the young human then left to provide service the other patrons. Searcher reached for the ceramic tankard but did not allow it to touch his lips as he made sipping motions. It was an old habit to study the layout of an unfamiliar territory before he partook in anything that could muddle his senses.
The master of the tavern appeared to be the lean man behind the bar who had a face that could have been called handsome if it weren’t for the permanent scowl lining his face. The barkeep stood glaring behind the rough-planked bar as he busied himself with the menial task of shaking out the few droplets of wine from empty bottles into a tin cup. No doubt he had some unlucky customer in mind to offer the bitter dregs of his wine. At the opposite end the opening to the bar was guarded by a skinny dog asleep over a pallet of rags. The dog was a pitiful thing that shivered despite the heat of the nearby fireplace. Apparently the barkeep did not hold much affection for the animal aside from sparing it from the cold weather outside.
Searcher had liked dogs, once.
The unbidden thought made Searcher frown in mild confusion. It had been long years since he had spared a thought to his animal familiars. Recalling them opened yet another wound in his soul. Searcher had kept for them a small place inside his weathered heart. They were all gone now, lost forever to the passages of time. It had been centuries since Searcher had any form of companionship. He had been alone for a very, very long time.
“I'm going mad” The whispered confession grated against his throat and sounded like rusty metal to his ears. For that matter, when had Searcher last spoken aloud? Months, perhaps years…or was it more? How strange he only now realized this. Maybe he was already mad.
Focus. He had to focus on the present task at hand. If the storm broke tomorrow he could cross the mountains to the next city where a merchant that dealt in information lived. The trail Searcher followed behind Tenzou had gone cold these last few decades and he was now desperate for something to cling onto. Any little scrap of information would do. All of Searcher's reliable contacts in the underworld were either expired or long dead, and now all his hopes were pinned on what one aging human could provide…of whom Searcher had heard was not in the best of health. If luck was with him he will arrive in time to find the man alive and with information to sell, and hopefully it would not be too many decades out of date.
”Fool!” Tenzou’s voice sneered from the darkest pit of Searcher’s subconscious ”You know in your heart that you have lost and I have won!”
On impulse Searcher yanked down his mask and drained half the tankard of wine in a few hasty gulps. He coughed once before replacing the fabric over his nose, he had caught a full whiff of the stink of the room. Shaken, his hand trembled over the handle of his drink. It was an odd sensation, this dull realization that he was reaching the limits of his sanity. Searcher was a broken man crippled by the failure of an impossible quest. He had to return to his homelands before his grip on reality was entirely lost, but to do so would be to forever give up on Iruka. Searcher could not do that. He would rather succumb to his encroaching madness than abandon the quest.
Because Iruka was still alive.
It was not wishful thinking but hard fact. Searcher could forget his own name and even the face of the one he loved…but he could never ignore the small piece of Iruka’ s soul that had been gifted to him all those centuries ago. It pulsed with the presence of life like a butterfly gently brushing its wings against his skin. Searcher would know the moment Iruka died when that presence was replaced by the piece of his own soul that he had given to the other man in return. It had not happened, yet. And it was that proof alone which had driven Searcher to carry on with his quest.
Searcher took another long pull from the tankard. The sour wine made his tongue writhe with distaste but helped his mind become more limber. By sheer force of will he withdrew into himself to grasp at the tattered threads of his memories.
He had to keep them.
Because they were all he had left.
A golden sun hung lazily in a clear summer sky. Sunlight streamed sparkling rays through the canopy of an ancient oak. The leaves cast an emerald glow over two young men sitting side by side under the shade of the immense tree. They talked quietly so as not to upset the butterflies that rested over the youngest of the pair’s lap. Both wore the long flowing robes of acolytes in the colors of their field of study. One wore the pale green of a Healer and possessed a dark complexion, which was an unusual feature to be found in these parts. His companion was snow-pale in comparison--though the effect was heightened by the steel grey robe marking him a Warrior, as did his shock of silver-white hair.
Searcher carefully studied the tight look of concentration that had taken over Iruka’s face. Eyes that were the brown of rich fertile soil flickered between the iridescent blue wings of the newly born butterflies as they wriggled over his lap. Searcher’s grey eyes could not visibly see the chakra flows like the Elementals belonging to the Sharingan clan, but he could feel the energy vibrating from Iruka’s splayed hands and into the four butterflies that fluttered dried wings that were freshly released from the confines of cocoons.
Iruka was an Amplifier. It was the rarest of Talents among all Elementals across the lands. Iruka was an orphan whose Talent was in syncing his energy with another Elemental to allow the user to manipulate chakra in ways that were almost unimaginable. The talents of an Amplifier were greatly sought after, most especially in the fields relating to combat. Though the young Amplifier had potential, he was gentle by nature and had chosen to lend his aid to the Healers. As beneficial as his Talent was it sometime gave Iruka more trouble than he liked to admit. It was because of his Talent that Iruka had many suitors vying for his hand, and some were aggressive in their determination to obtain the rare prize of an Amplifier.
Searcher was an already powerful Warrior that held no particular interest in Iruka’s Talent to further his status, and it was that reason alone that had been enough for Iruka to allow only Searcher to court him in the first place. The length of their courtship would hardly be a blink of an eye to their elders, but to the lovers it had seemed to have lasted a lifetime and more. They were two pieces that made the other whole. Searcher could not imagine a life without Iruka next to his heart. He would have felt the same even if the young Amplifier had been born as one of those fabled humans that lived far across the seas, whose lifespan blossomed then crumbled to dust as abruptly as a seasonal leaf on a tree.
A slight stir in the breeze made the leaves on the oak whisper overhead and the four butterflies bounded from the young Amplifier’s lap to flutter into the air. Iruka sighed as he rested his hands on his now vacant lap. “That’s as much as I can do for them,” he sounded regretful as if he could have done more. “They are so tired, and they have such a long journey ahead of them.”
“You did plenty,” Searcher smiled. The sunlight danced warmth across his face. His expression faltered to one of utmost seriousness. “The other day you…asked me something that I was not prepared to hear.” Searcher noted how his words caused Iruka to stiffen and clench at the pale green fabric of the robe over his lap. Iruka did not turn his head to meet his companion’s gaze, and Searcher took a deep breath before taking the plunge “Why me?”
The dappled shadows of the leaves did nothing to hide the faint blush that warmed Iruka’s smooth cheeks. Iruka had a reputation of being the most headstrong and outspoken among the young acolytes but Searcher had discovered long ago that there were many sides to the younger man, the most surprising of which was how bashful he was on approaching matters of the heart. It was a trait that Searcher found enduring, most especially in contrast to the fact that Iruka was anything but timid when it came to the physical act of lovemaking.
“Because…oh, I can’t say!” The blush on Iruka’s face deepened and he turned his face away. The light tenor of his voice had dropped to a whisper. “Do I really need lay my heart open to you?”
“Yes,” Searcher replied, then immediately wished that he hadn’t. He was a man of swift action and blunt words. Blessedly, Iruka did not seem to take offence. The younger man turned to give Searcher one of his rare smiles, the one that seemed to understand the deeper meaning behind Searcher’s brusque nature.
“I want us to always have a part of one another” Iruka said. “The Council might send you on a mission that would last several years and I couldn’t bear knowing if…” Iruka swallowed hard, and Searcher understood the unspoken “Whether you’re alive or not.”
“Is that the only reason?” Searcher asked quietly.
“Of course not, you idiot” Iruka chuckled and shot the silvered haired man a grin. “It’s because I love you!” A light breeze fluttered the gathered tail of Iruka’s shoulder length hair. Searcher felt his stomach flutter with the impulse to unbind Iruka’s hair and he hesitantly lifted one hand to do so. Iruka placed one hand over his heart and leaned into the other man’s touch, his eyes closed as the dark brunette hair tumbled to frame his face.
Searcher’s touch turned into a gentle caress as he ran his fingers through those silken strands, savoring the feel. “You know what this means once it is done.” Searcher’s voice was a heavy with growing need as he coaxed Iruka to lie back into the cool grass. His grey eyes were intent on the brown trapped beneath his weight. “It would be forever.”
“I know,” Iruka’s breath hitched in his throat when his lover bent to nibble at a sensitive spot at the base of his neck. “I know that I wouldn’t want to be bonded with anyone but you. I choose you, and only you.”
“I also give myself to you” Searcher replied huskily as he tapped inward to open himself to the younger man, and Iruka did likewise for their chakras to flow freely between them. It was not the first time Searcher had received chakra from the young Amplifier, but it was his first experience mingling chakra in such a way. What they initiated was the most sacred of bonding rituals that could only be attempted once during an Elemental’s lifetime. It was lasting. It was forever.
It was for lack of better words, a Bond of trust.
The two lovers laid together with their foreheads pressed to one another, their eyes widened and their mouths parted with wonder as a small piece of themselves flitted through the joined chakra to nestle inside the other’s soul. A surge of joy coursed through Searcher when he felt a light weight settle upon his psyche, the essence of Iruka’s soul was a shining jewel that was as delicate and as beautiful as one of those blue butterflies.
He saw his own joy mirrored in the eyes of his love. “You’re beautiful!” Iruka breathlessly laughed as he wrapped his arms around Searcher to pull him down for a kiss. When their lips met, small ripples of chakra energy danced between them like bubbles in the wind. Searcher could envision Iruka’s energy as a golden light and his own a shining silver, the chakras writhed and twined together to match the rhythm of their increasing passion. Searcher slipped a hand through the opening in Iruka’s pale green robe to expose a tightly muscled brown chest, a warm contrast against his pale hand. Iruka arched into the touch and broke off the kiss with a throaty moan. Those rich brown eyes fluttered open, glazed with the mist of lust “Oh, Ka—“
Iruka abruptly cut off with an audible gasp from something that peered down from the boughs of the oak tree. Searcher’s head jerked up in time to spot a man half hidden in the leaves with a face that glared daggers of hate upon the pair. In a flash Searcher had rolled to his feet and dragged Iruka protectively behind, but there was no need. The face belonging to Iruka’s most persistent suitor had melted back into the foliage as if he had never been.
It took great effort for Searcher to force himself to relax. The rejected suitor could glare for all he was worth but there was nothing he could do to affect the newly forged Bond. The bonding of souls was irreversible and just as binding as any marriage contract—more so in fact, in accordance to the laws of the land.
Iruka’s grip on Searcher’s hand was tight as if he were afraid to let go. “I don’t know why…” Iruka’s voice sounded very small. “But Tenzou frightens me terribly.”
“Oi, can you hear me? I’m talking to you!”
The gruff voice snapped Searcher back to the present. He blinked down at the half filled tankard held loosely in his grasp. He must have fallen into a light trance while wrapped in the reverie of the past. Sorrow swelled inside his chest. ’Iruka, my heart…’ He wanted to break down and weep. ’My Iruka, you were so beautiful…’
Unfortunately, those three glowering men were not going to allow Searcher the grace of wallowing in his misery in peace.
“Hey, are you deaf, or are you just stupid?” The stockiest of the three men sneered and then kicked at the stool Searcher sat upon. All three jerked with surprise when the ragged Searcher smoothly rose to his feet a moment before the chair was knocked out beneath.
The wooden stool clattered hollowly on the ground as the tall Elemental stared down at the stupefied toughs. Searcher had been careless to allow his attention to waver in a place where any sign of weakness was seized upon by cutthroats and thieves. He glided around the table to collect the fallen stool and sat upon it on the opposite side of the table. Searcher reached for his wine and drank the last of it though a small hole in his woolen mask. The mismatched eyes glittered deep within the hood and over the rim of the tankard. Searcher sensed the rest of the tavern had gone still. Even the barkeep had ceased arguing with a drunkard to watch.
The ceramic tankard clunked audibly against the rough wooden tabletop. “You picked a bad time to interrupt my thoughts.” A show of steely bravado was sometimes enough to drive would-be-bullies away, but not today.
“Cocky son of a…” The stocky leader growled and drew forth a broad knife and motioned for his subordinates to restrain Searcher and the two toughs circled the table in a few quick strides. The fattest of the toughs was grinning as he smacked a sweaty fist into a palm, while the other, a beanpole of a man, sneered openly. The wiry man reached to throw back Searcher’s hood, then jerked his hand back with a scream.
The fat digit of a thumb bounced to the floor. A thin stream of blood trailed behind as it rolled across the uneven floorboards. The wiry man clutched the wounded hand to his chest and fell crying to his knees. The fat man hesitated, then took a step forward at his leader's darkened expression and raised his weapon.
“Don’t,” Searcher warned with a deft twirl of the thin knife in his left hand. It was enough to encourage the fat thug to take a few steps back. A second dagger materialized in Searcher’s other hand as if by magic. He kept several tucked inside his clothes. “I was already in a foul mood before you three appeared.” The dancing blades caught the glow of torchlights and captivated the thugs like mice under the hypnotic spell of a snake. Both the stocky leader and the fat man were sweating buckets at the display, and the scent of their fear offended Searcher’s nose. The blades stopped moving to point at either foe. “Collect your wounded man and leave before I decide to take something more precious than a thumb from each of you.”
The threat had the desired effect. The two toughs scrambled in their haste to drag the wiry man up on his feet and out from the bar. Mummers from the remaining patrons beside the fireplace rose in speculation of what they had just witnessed and a few laughed as if the event of a man losing the use of a hand was all a good joke. Searcher tucked the two knives back into his sleeves. He had attracted too much attention. It was time for him to leave.
The young waiter seemed to have scurried off to hide somewhere. It would not do if Searcher left his payment on the table where any of the unseemly patrons could snatch it out in the open. Barkeeps were generally respected in their towns and could cause trouble, it was a fact Searcher had learned the hard way. He went to the source standing behind the bar to present a full copper coin to pay for both the wine and the trouble.
The lean barkeep scowled at the offered coin that gleamed in the dim lantern light. “It takes effort to scrub blood off the floor,” the man growled. His expression softened somewhat when two full coppers flashed between Searcher’s fingers, and both coins disappeared inside the barkeep’s filthy apron, and then the barkeep dismissed Searcher to round on the drunkard slumped across the corner of the bar. “So, Geld, you were saying you have a problem with my stock?”
“It tastesh like slop!” The drunkard slurred over the rim of his tin cup. Despite his claim, Geld appeared to have no trouble guzzling it down, which was evidenced by the rivulets of wine that had streamed down the fatty folds of his neck to add scarlet stains to his tunic.
“I’ll have you know that my kegs are the best in this town!” The barkeep’s eyes blazed as he smacked a hard fist over the bar top. The empty leather pitchers rattled and a few precious glass bottles tinkled musically at the motion. “I’ll gut you like a rotten fish if you say otherwise,” the barkeep snarled. “I won’t have you spreading false rumors to affect my business!”
Geld’s mouth pulled away from his cup with a sigh. He appeared unperturbed by the irate barkeep as he smacked his lips audibly before replying with a cheeky grin “Nope. I do believe it’sh not good enough to water my own pigsh!”
The barkeep quivered with indignation “Why you uncultured slop-sweeping lout! I’ll have you know--!”
Searcher had lingered to stare at the scrawny dog guarding the entrance to the barkeep’s domain. The animal wearily regarded the stranger from its pallet of rags. The sight of ribs poking through fur had stirred pity inside Searcher’s weathered heart.
He had liked dogs, once.
A small basket of baked potatoes sat behind the counter. For the second time that day Searcher gave into impulse and made a motion to the ill-tempered barkeep that he wanted to buy one.
“A copper bit!” The barkeep snapped. Searcher quickly produced the severed coin and it too went into the deep pocket of the filthy apron. The barkeep whirled about to snatch a wrinkled potato from the basket, his argument with Geld seemed to have worked him into a fine temper, and rather than hand the food over he threw it hard, aiming to smash it against Searcher’s head.
Searcher deftly caught the potato in one hand and nodded his thanks. The barkeep blinked as if disbelieving his own eyes, but then a raspy chuckle from Geld recaptured his ire. The scowling man turned with a firm shake of his head to pick up the threads of their argument.
With the barkeep safely distracted, Searcher squatted before the dog and held the potato under its nose. The animal appeared to be as uncaring for the world in a way that matched Searcher’s listless spirit. The dog did not twitch a muscle at the offered food. “Eat” Searcher coaxed when it became apparent that the dog was content to starve. The cold potato broke apart in his hand in hopes that the smell was enticing to the canine senses. “Your master seems to care more for his pride than he does for you.” His soft voice seemed to have reached the animal in some way, for its lips pulled back for a tentative pink tongue to lap up the broken bits in Searcher’s palm. In three quick bites the potato was gone and the scrawny dog had lifted its head to allow Searcher to scratch its dark tufted ears.
Searcher felt the corners of his lips pull hesitantly from a smile when the dog’s tail began to wag. “I wish I could take you with me,” Searcher murmured. The poor thing looked like it suffered the brunt of the barkeep’s cruel temper; its fur was mottled with naked patches bearing scars. Searcher was careful not to touch the fresh welts as his hand traveled down the dog’s face to scratch at a scar furrowed deep over its muzzle. It was an old wound that looked like it itched. The animal’s dark eyes were half closed in pleasure, and then it gaze peered into Searcher’s hood.
Eyes the color of rich fertile soil.
Searcher snatched his hand away from the dog as he fell backwards onto his rump. Cold sweat dripped beneath his clothes and he shivered despite the sweltering heat of the fireplace. He placed a hand over his eyes, he was afraid to look. He was mad to think that he saw the eyes of his love in the face of a tavern dog. No, madness was not the right word. Insane. Yes, that was better. He was finally going insane.
Motion caught Searcher’s attention. He peeked through his fingers to see the dog had half-raised from its pallet. There was an unsettling intelligence to how it studied Searcher, as if it were struggling within itself to draw forth a conclusion. Searcher’s fingers curled over his left temple with the temptation to tap into his crimson eye. He had traded everything in his name for it before he had set off on his quest. The Sharingan eye could visibly spot chakra when it was in use, but it was a tool that gave him pain and swallowed his chakra reserves like a sieve. It was not to be used lightly in any circumstance.
Searcher’s hand fell away with a sigh. What was the use of wasting his energy over a mangy dog? He was so, so tired.
The dog pawed dirty claws over its pallet and shot a fearful glance at the barkeep’s back. Searcher felt his heart wrench with uncertainty when the animal gave him a pleading look and whined.
No. This could not be just his imagination.
Searcher eyed the barkeep suspiciously and found that he was hard pressed to guess an age for that hardened face. The lean man looked nothing like his sworn enemy, but three hundred years could do a lot to change a person. That, and chakra manipulation. But transforming one’s face was nothing compared to forcing the natural shape of a person into that of an animal. It was feasible, but it took considerable power and skill.
’But with the aid of an Amplifier…’ Searcher turned back to regard the pensive dog, and made his eyes look beyond the surface that was the animal. Cinnamon brown fur that seemed to echo the shade of Iruka’s skin, and the darker fur over the tufted ears and tail likened to brunette hair. But it was the animal’s desperation in its too-human eyes that finally convinced Searcher to reach back under his hood to whirl the Sharingan to life.
What Searcher found took his breath away. Green chakra that sparkled with veins of gold wrapped over the entire length of the dog’s body like a glove straining at the seams to fit over a hand that was too big. Searcher barely noted the pain of the Sharingan eye burning in his socket as he trembled with unprocessed emotion. He wanted to run away right here and now.
He was insane.
He was insane to believe what he saw.
Three hundred years, here of all places…a half-starved beaten dog…insane!
It took all of Searcher’s willpower to regain control of his instinct to flee and study the strange creature before him. He discovered that the green and gold chakra did not extend around the entire animal. A thick collar of solid green was wound around the dog’s neck with a long chain leading away behind the bar. Searcher’s eyes followed the green chain to see it anchored over the wrist of the barkeep, whose attention was still fixed on the drunkard.
Searcher felt foul bile rise in the back of his throat. He could strike at the unsuspecting barkeep and end his life here and now, but doubt still gnawed at Searcher. It would not be the first time that Searcher had discovered another Elemental living among the humans, and it was not like Tenzou’s character to take on the guise of a mean spirited little man hiding in the slums of a nameless backwater town. The incredulity of the situation hit Searcher again. He did not forget that his own sanity was still in question. He had to be sure that what he saw was real and not a fancy created by a broken mind.
For the first time that Searcher could remember purpose coursed through his veins. The murky waters of his mind and senses pooled together to focus into a point as razor sharp as one of the many knives he kept hidden beneath his clothes. He took extreme care to be subtle as he gathered a tiny amount of chakra energy into his right fingertips and reached for the vibrant green chakra-collar. The dog strained against the invisible chain for his touch, and in one deft swipe the link between dog and master shattered.
The bar exploded into a rage of splinters and smoke.
Searcher’s eyes cracked open once he had gathered his senses. Instinct had prompted his body to move across the room before his brain could process the danger. Smoke from the collapsed fireplace stung at his eyes and dust stifled his breathing through the woolen mask. His ears rang from the destruction. He heard the screaming first, and then the pained groans of wounded humans crawling out from beneath the debris. Some were sobbing with the effort to escape through one of the many openings that had been wrought through the thin-planked walls.
The scrawny dog trembled in Searcher’s arms, he did not remember snatching it up from the floor. The animal wriggled free and rounded about on its feet, the dark tufted ears were pulled back as it faced the direction of the bar and snarled at the settling dust where a tall silhouette of a man stood. Searcher felt his throat tighten when the dim glow of the surviving lanterns penetrated through.
The thin lines of the barkeep’s face had fleshed out into someone unrecognizable to all but a few. Tenzou’s appearance had not changed much during these last three hundred years, except now those deep-set black eyes held a glimmer of madness within them. Geld’s blood stained the front of the filthy apron. Tenzou’s arms glistened red in the flickering lanterns that swung crazily on its chains attached to the rafters. Tenzou must have torn the unfortunate human apart the moment his link to the dog had severed.
“YOU!” Tenzou snarled as he flung an accusing finger at Searcher. Flecks of blood followed the violent motion. “I knew it was you! No mere human could dodge one of my throws!”
“You didn’t throw the potato very hard in the first place,” Searcher countered, and his own retort nearly unbalanced him. That’s right. The elders had complained that he possessed a mouth that was too eager to goad an opponent into a rage. It was funny how easily one could fall back into old forgotten habits.
“You ruined EVERYTHING!” Tenzou shrieked. He took a wide step over the broken planks of the ruined bar. “I had only a few more years until I could return to the capital. Do you know that lords pay their own weight in gold just to enjoy the privilege of an Elemental dining under their roof?”
“You’ve always had a weakness for status and expensive things,” Searcher said with a distasteful snort. He really should stop, but his mouth kept going. Tenzou was a coward and he wanted to add salt to the wound. “It was what made your trail so easy to follow all these years.”
Tenzou did not appear to have heard Searcher’s remark. His hands gestured wildly at the ruined expanse of the bar. “Do you even know what it’s like spending twenty-six years wallowing in this cesspit of a town!? Well, do you?? I did it all to outwit you!” the pitch of Tenzou’s deep voice had risen with the fervor of his temper. Searcher could tell that something had broken within the Wood Elemental. Long years of isolation could do that to a person.
The dog growled a warning next to Searcher. Its hackled had risen in preparation to fight. Tenzou’s entire demeanor changed when he caught sight of the animal, and he lifted bloodied arms to it imploringly “Come back to me,” he crooned. “I promise things will be better. You know that I always keep my word…” Tenzou’s face twisted when the dog took a step back then shied away to hide behind Searcher. “After everything I’ve done for us—for you! You ungrateful--! Ungrateful, scheming--!” Tenzou took hold of his rage with a shuddering breath. “I tried to be fair, but you leave me no choice. You are mine. MINE!!”
Cold fury gave venom to Searcher’s voice “He was never yours to begin with!” What Searcher said seemed to amuse Tenzou, as the Wood Elemental threw back his head and laughed. It was a rasping, choking cackle that reminded Searcher of rusty hinges on a barn door swaying in the wind. The man’s mind was truly and utterly cracked, and his grasp on reality had apparently gone along with it.
Searcher kept one eye on Tenzou as he turned to address the cowering dog. “I want you to run. It’s not safe here.” He received a flat look and a dismissive snort from the animal. ’So be it,’ Searcher thought as he threw back the hood of the oiled cloak, and the unkempt mane of his silver hair sprang free from confines of the deep hood. After a few twists of a leather string the cloak fell to a crumpled heap on the floor.
A dagger appeared in Searcher’s hand, but the Lightening Elemental did not yet summon his Talent. The Sharingan eye was an advantage that Tenzou would not expect, but Searcher’s disadvantage was that he was limited to its use. It had been a very long time since he had engaged an Elemental in combat and his endurance was not what it used to be. With the Sharingan he could see green chakra flowing like tentacles out from the Wood Elemental. Already Tenzou was gathering power to lash out through the ruined timbre of the building. The Sharingan caught the vibrant green of Tenzou’s chakra sparkling with gold, imbued with stolen chakra.
This could be bad.
Searcher jumped just when the floorboards lurched beneath his feet. The rough planks of the wooden floor had split to resemble gaping jaws filled with splintered teeth. Searcher danced about as more appeared beneath his every foothold, each snapping with crushing force. The dog yelped in alarm as it scrambled for safety. Tenzou was not above crushing its legs in order to recapture his prize.
Searcher called upon his Talent. The raw energy of lightening coursed through his limbs and into the dagger in hand. He jumped to where the dog had been cornered by the wooden teeth. “You should have run,” Searcher growled as he scooped the dog under one arm. He leaped into the air to grab hold of one of the wooden rafters exposed in the thatched ceiling, but not before throwing the lightening infused dagger to into the ground below. A white flash filled the room as long tendrils of electricity crawled forth from the blade to envelop the space over the floor. The gaping wooden jaws froze in place, nullified by lightening energy. Tenzou’s jaw-trap spell was a deadly trick, but it was one Searcher remembered from back when they had been acolytes.
To Searcher’s disappointment he saw that Tenzou had scrambled up the shelves behind bar before the lightening could touch him. Glass bottles shattered as they were knocked to the ground in Tenzou’s haste, and then the Wood Elemental slapped a hand to the wall and shot a smirk at Searcher above.
The roof trembled. Dust and clumps of thatch rained over Searcher’s head. Searcher’s fingers had sunk into the rafter as if the solid wood had turned into putty. With alarm he tried to release his hold and found that his hand had stuck. Tenzou grinned from his perch against the wall, and spears made from broken planks shot forth from the ground. Without thought Searcher curled into himself to brace his feet against the thatched roof and push with all his might, the dog in his arm squealed from the added pressure. Searcher’s hand broke free in a shower of broken wood a moment before they were both impaled.
Searcher had the presence of mind to land on the floor palm-first to dismiss the lightening spell. Lightening itself could do him no harm, but the dog was another matter. He rolled away to regain his feet, and a sharp pole embedded into the spot where he had first landed. Searcher flung the dog towards the safety of the fireplace rubble where the smoke would provide it cover. Hopefully the stubborn thing had enough sense to stay put.
Tenzou was now flinging wooden splinters bolstered with his chakra energy. The deadly bullets sang through the air and left sparkling energy trails of green and gold in their wake. It was hard going, dodging missile and gaining ground over debris and potholes made by the Tenzou’s previous spell, but with the Sharingan Searcher could pinpoint each missile’s passage as he evaded and deflected with his knives in turn.
“A Sharingan!?” Tenzou’s incredulous shriek was almost a weapon in of itself. “You are a cheater!” His missiles were becoming more desperate the closer Searcher advanced. “CHEATER!” Tenzou screamed, and with his anger the aim of the wooden bullets were less focused yet more difficult to read. There were now several bloodied rents in Searcher’s clothes. It was sloppy work, but Searcher was glad to see that he was not the only one rusty in combat.
The wooden bullets pinged off the daggers in Searcher’s grip, the blades glowed silver with the power of his Talent. He was now less than twenty paces from reaching Tenzou. He could see frustration in those black eyes as well as the gears of that cunning mind at work; Searcher could sense that Tenzou was about to go on the defense. Tenzou favored defense spell was to evoke the wooden planks beneath his feet to create a protective barricade and then shoot the boards out like a porcupine raising its quills to drive an enemy back. Searcher had to break the man’s concentration before he could initiate the spell.
Searcher released a dagger to force Tenzou to duck his head. The weapon buried itself between the wooden shelves set into the wall. More knives flew from Searcher’s clothes and each crackled with thin tendrils of lightening. Tenzou leaped about to avoid the flying weapons as Searcher closed in. Tenzou threw his arms over his face as Searcher drew back his last knife to drive it deep into his sworn enemy and electrocute him on the spot.
Then the impossible happened.
An immense bubble of pure chakra energy surrounded Tenzou just before the blade could hit. A wall of vibrant green with golden veins halted Searcher in mid-strike, and in that moment their eyes met, one dumbfounded and the other gloating, and then Searcher was thrown back as if he were a rubber ball struck against stone. Searcher felt his chakra freeze in his veins, his Talent diffused. He cried out when he hit the ground. The wooden floor cracked against the back of his skull to stun him, but it was nothing compared to the agony of Tenzou’s chakra shield. Fire felt like cool water in comparison. The chakra residue crawled over Searcher’s flesh like insects biting into his flesh, and he couldn’t move from the agony of it.
He was too out of practice. Searcher could see that now. He had spent too much time wallowing in the pit that was his misery. He had been careless. He could have done more. He should have done more. If only, if only…
He forced his unwilling body to move. He dully registered his last knife was gone from his grip. He must have dropped it when he had been tossed through the air. A weapon. Searcher needed a weapon. Wait, there was a small knife sewn inside the hem of his left boot. It was a small paltry thing more fit for cutting food at the table, but anything metal to conduct his Talent would do. It was a struggle for Searcher to sit up and reach for his boot. He hissed through his teeth as razor-sharp pain lanced up his spine and to the back of his head. The dull ache of his eye socket was proof that the Sharingan was still activated. He still had a chance, as long as he could see Tenzou’s chakra flows.
Searcher let out a gasp when the wooden floorboards sprung to life to wrap around his neck and pin him in place. Searcher choked out a curse and clawed at the plank tightening over his windpipe. The heels of his boots skidded against the floor as he arched his back in an attempt to gain leverage. From the corner of his sight, he spotted wooden clogs sidestepping the debris strewn over the ruined bar.
Tenzou moved at a languid pace. It was the confident stalk of a predator about to finalize its kill. He held what appeared to be the broken end of a broom molded by his Talent into a deadly point. “You are not so intimidating now,” Tenzou chuckled as he twirled the sharpened stake in his hands. Searcher strained as Tenzou approached, but the wood could as well have been made from iron bars.
In desperation, Searcher tried to summon the last dregs of his Talent but then the chokehold tightened against his efforts. He could just barely squeeze the tips of his fingers underneath to allow a thin trickle of air to pass into his lungs, already he was growing lightheaded from lack of oxygen. Panic began to set in. Searcher saw murder in Tenzou’s eyes, and the inevitability of his death closed over what was left of his spirit. Bitter tears stung at the corners of his eyes. Three hundred years had led to this moment, and he was going to be slaughtered like a rabbit caught in a snare. Searcher had failed. He had failed Iruka, the shining jewel within his heart.
Four furry limbs appeared before Searcher’s bleary eyes. “Stupid dog,” Searcher croaked over the plank against his throat. ’I told you to run away.’ He could not see the dog’s expression, but he felt more than heard the low rumble of a growl deep within its throat.
Tenzou halted with a bewildered look over his face. “Why are you doing this?” he demanded to the dog. “Why would you choose him over me? He is weak!”
In answer, the dog lowered its head and snapped its jaw over a vicious snarl. The dark fur of its long tail bristled with warning as it refused to budge guarding Searcher.
Tenzou shot a hate-filled glare at his captive. “You always had everything handed to you! EVERYTHING!” Tenzou gestured to the growling dog with the wooden stake. “Even him!” Spittle flew from the Wood Elemental’s mouth. “What makes you so special that he would want you over me!?”
“You…never wanted…his love” Searcher rasped on the floor. “He was just…a thing for you…to possess.”
“LIES!” Tenzou cried. “I saved him from a life of mediocrity. He would have been nothing, nothing without me!” The Wood Elemental was too far gone to be reasoned with. Tenzou locked eyes with the dog and fell to his knees; the sharpened stake clattered to the floor as his bloodstained fingers reached out to it. “You understand do you, my pet?” Tenzou’s plea was almost a whine. “Everything that I have done, I have done for you. Please, come back to me and I will set things right.” Malice flashed abruptly in the black eyes and the sweetness in Tenzou’s voice dropped into one filled with dark promise “And you know what happens when you make me angry.”
Tenzou’s threat was like a spell over the dog, and the bristly fur of its tail fell flat in defeat. Searcher’s heart sank as the dog’s defiant growl tapered off into a whimper, it was a sad sound wrought from a broken spirit. The dog turned about to look at Searcher, those rich brown eyes held only sorrow, and Searcher could do nothing as the dog bent down to lick at his face. ”I’m sorry,” it seemed to say.
The dog whirled about and leaped with teeth bared to rip out Tenzou’s throat.
Tenzou cried out in alarm. The dog turning on its former master had been the last thing he could expect, and by instinct Tenzou’s chakra barrier sprang forth to repel the animal the moment before its fangs could clamp over his neck. The dog flew back like a leaf buffeted by a storm, a pained howl ripped from its throat. Its scream was abruptly cut off as it hit the far wall to drop limply to the floor. The wounded dog moaned as it tried to rise, then collapsed. It released a shuddering breath, and then its head lolled before falling still.
The silence was like a hammer against Searcher’s heart. ’NO!!’
Tenzou had frozen in dumbfounded shock. “I-I didn’t mean…” his bewilderment dissolved as he rose to his knees, but not before snatching the broken end of the broom from the floor. “It’s not my fault! You attacked me! Why would you do that?” The Wood Elemental advanced on the senseless dog. He held the blunt end of the broom like a cudgel. If the dog wasn’t already dead Tenzou was about to finish the job. “I thought I taught you what happens when you try…I warned you, I WARNED you about making me angry!”
Searcher called upon his Talent. Rage filled every pore of his being; the long dormant emotion gave life to his battered soul. Silver lightening sparked through his fingertips, and the poisonous remnants of Tenzou’s chakra dispersed as the plank over his neck shattered into a thousand pieces. Searcher bounded to his feet and grasped for the small knife in his boot to seize upon his enemy’s distraction.
“Wha--?” Tenzou spun around to face Searcher. He stared down at the small knife embedded into his chest and then up at the face of the man that held it. “…what?” Tenzou repeated with disbelief as his hands groped uselessly at Searcher’s wrist. Bright red blossomed over the dark blood that had dried on the filthy apron.
Searcher’s mismatched eyes held only contempt when he summoned Lightening into the weapon. He released his hold over the knife when Tenzou’s body stiffened as the electricity reached his brain. The light faded from the black eyes as Tenzou toppled forward, the stupefied expression forever stamped across his face. Tenzou was dead before his head hit the ground.
Searcher did not waste time to see Tenzou fall. He leapt over Tenzou’s corpse in his haste to reach the dog. His hands trembled as he gently cradled its head over his lap. The animal’s eyes were closed but its ribcage continued to rise and fall, just barely. The thin muscles under cinnamon brown fur twitched from the residue of Tenzou’s chakra. Searcher could see the venomous green energy skittering about the dog’s body to bite deep into its flesh, the thin veins of golden light were nearly consumed by it. The charka barrier was enough to floor Searcher, and he could not imagine what it could do to a weakened Elemental.
With alarm, Searcher felt the faint brush that was a piece of Iruka’s soul was fading fast. “No…!” Searcher choked. He hardly noticed the tears that streamed freely down his face to soak into his mask. The dog’s eyelids fluttered at the sound of his voice but remained sealed. There was nothing Searcher could do. Nothing.
Searcher bent for his forehead to meet with the dog’s head. The long scar over the muzzle lightly pressed against his lips. “Come back,” Searcher pleaded. He closed his eyes and reached for the thread that was their Bond and poured all that he was into it.
It did not want to be found, that golden light. It was buried deep in a pool of malevolent emerald green. To emerge would be to face sorrow and lost hope, all its dreams that had been ground to dust. The gold fearfully drew away as a silver light broke through the emerald.
”Come back” the silver light said.
”No” the golden light responded. From it radiated a deep seeded weariness; it did not remember the feel of a gentle touch. To be consumed by the emerald would bring peace. The golden light yearned for rest, and an end to suffering.
The dog whimpered and tried to curl into itself, but Searcher held tight. He would not allow their connection to break.
The silver light reached out. It was open and vulnerable; it was an offer of love and trust. ”I am here.”
Hesitant hope flitted though the golden light “I…know you.” It edged closer, and suspicion melted away. With wonder the golden light began to pulse with a faint rhythm of a heartbeat, it grew amidst the emerald green. “I remember you” The golden light reached out.
”As I remember you” the silver light replied, reaching out in turn. When they touched, the gold and silver merged to create a brilliant white light. Together they created a whole. The malevolent emerald could not compete with their strength; it was only an infection to be drawn out from a wound. The sparkling white chakra radiated warmth and unsurpassed joy. Before it the emerald evaporated like mist dispelled by the morning sun.
Beards of sweat had collected under Searcher’s mask in his effort to hold onto the Bond. Beneath his hands the bones of the animal’s skull cracked as it took on a new shape. He was determined not to lose concentration until the golden chakra had gained enough strength to stand on its own. Searcher kept his eyes firmly closed as soft fur yielded into the warmth of naked skin. Abruptly the shining white light dispersed into their separate chakra entities.
A shuddering gasp prompted Searcher to open his eyes. The thin face of his beloved stared up at him through a tangled mass of brunette hair. Centuries of harsh treatment had marked the young man's naked body with scars crisscrossed the length of his frame. The deep scar across his face would mark him for the rest of his life.
“Ka…” The young man in Searcher’s arms paused to blink, as if trying to remember how to manipulate his vocal cords to speak. The rich brown eyes regarded the man above with uncertainty as he lifted a dark hand. The individual digits did not appear to cooperate but one managed to hook over the edge of Searcher’s mask to tug it free. The young man sighed with immense relief. His voice was a hoarse whisper, but through it was a smile that could brighten the sun. “Kakashi, you found…me.”
So that was his name.
“Iruka, my heart” Searcher—no, Kakashi said reverently as he ran a calloused thumb over the edge of Iruka’s scar to catch where a single teardrop had fallen. “I have found you.”
Iruka’s eyebrows furrowed with mild confusion. “Iruka…?” a wry smile tugged tiredly at his lips and was followed by a hollow chuckle. “Can you believe that I forgot my own name?”
“It happens to the best of us” Kakashi agreed with low laugh of his own. The fringes of their Bond were battered from the centuries that had separated them, but at its core nestled a tiny bud that resonated with the vigor for life. The darkness inside their hearts would take a lifetime to mend. They had both been broken, but together they can heal.
Kakashi cradled Iruka in his arms as he stood. The discarded oiled cloak served as a blanket to cover the weakened Amplifier. “We’re going home” Kakashi said.
“Please, let me help,” Iruka pulled an arm free to wrap around Kakashi’s neck. A golden thread of Iruka’s freely given chakra twined lovingly about Kakashi’s silver to again create that shining white light. The white chakra wrapped the long-lost lovers with its glow, and from it radiated peace and contentment. Kakashi looked down at Iruka smiling in his arms. He could not imagine a star that could shine so bright. Together, they tilted their heads for their lips to meet...
...And the twinkle of chakra residue was all that was left glowing in the lantern light.