He didn't even know there was going to be a shockwave.

But in the instant that followed Shiyoji was suddenly sent flying backward by a ripple of black magic. Imaki yelped as he passed her and crashed into the old, dusty wall near the door.

He slid painfully to the floor with a grimace, daring to take a look at the finished product of his spell. Rouken was now standing in the center of the room, calmly freeing his limbs of the shackles with short blasts of energy from his eyes. He was leaner now, and his skin was free of the wrinkles that had practically sketched a map of time across his body; he didn't seem to be bothered by the fact that he was still dressed in a mercenary's garb, or by the smoky white glow that was surrounding him and now starting to fade.

As the spell ended completely, Shiyoji felt his bardiche, which he had used to channel his aura, turn to ash in his hands. The sorcerer's old remains did the same, leaving nothing but his robes and the shining golden staff on the floor.

He felt the world begin to spin as the now-young Rouken picked up the staff and began to laugh. Imaki was running toward him, but he could no longer make out what she was saying.

'What have I done...?'

M i a s m a

Chapter XXXI
Entrapment: Fight or Flight

Somewhere in the heart of the harvester's twisted labyrinth Keiku, Guardian of Light and one of the two notorious traitors to Miasma, was starting to grow genuinely desperate.

As the translucent tentacles tried to force their way through the barrier Desuki had put up at the last possible second, he struggled to come to terms with the situation they were in. A large part of him still wanted to deny it…for the simple reason that there did not seem to be a way out.

"Ayami?! Ayami!!" He called out hoarsely to the girl standing as still as stone just a few paces away from him. She seemed to be in a trance, with deadened eyes reflecting the sheen of the lone tentacle wrapped tightly around her head. "Don't believe anything you see! It isn't real!"

"You know she can't hear you right now." The little girl's voice was soft and sweet, as expected of a young child. But beneath her suddenly cheerful demeanor, there seemed to lurk something sinister. "All she sees and hears will be whatever I want her to see and hear. You should just save your breath."

Keiku bit back a curse. In the few seconds the girl had spoken, Ayami had begun to tremble, and a look of pure horror was etched on her face that just moments ago had been blank.

"The illusion seems to be starting," Desuki said in a low voice. The magician was struggling to keep the barrier up with the tentacles ramming into it relentlessly, and the strain was clear in his tone.

The younger Guardian tore his gaze painfully from Ayami and turned to the smiling master of the room with a glare. "This shield of yours...wouldn't happen to be one-way, would it?" he asked the black-clad man beside him, although he already knew the answer.

Sure enough, Desuki shook his head. "Unfortunately, no...if you attempt to throw any lightning out, it will just bounce off and come back to you. So, don't."

"But we can't just do nothing!"

Desuki gritted his teeth, his gaze darting from Ayami to the little girl, before settling back to the glowing white tendrils that pressed down on his magic shield. "I'm afraid…we don't have much of a choice in the matter."

His blood froze. "What – ?"

"It's interesting." The girl's voice cut him off, and the two Guardians diverted their attention to her in an instant. She was staring at Ayami with a hint of a smile on her lips, and her eyes had taken on a glow not unlike the tentacles that sprouted from her head. "I've seen almost all of people's greatest fears...death, disease, ghosts and monsters and evil of all kinds...but I never expected to see someone whose greatest fear is...this..."

Keiku snarled, and Desuki's free arm barely restrained him from lunging at the mesmerized child. The barrier would have stopped him as well, he knew, as would the notion of attacking a child...but the girl had proven to be far from innocent despite her youth, and having to witness what Ayami was going through it was hard to hold the chaotic mix of emotions – anger, frustration, and sheer panic – at bay. "Let her go!!"

The little girl shook her head gleefully. "I think not. In fact, I'm pretty sure your master can't hold up his shield forever...when he gives up, I'll finally be able to see what a Guardian fears...I can't wait!"

'She's right...' He glanced at Desuki, seeing the beads of sweat that had begun to form at his temples, and the hand holding up the shield shaking ever so slightly. The girl was clapping her hands and giggling; he couldn't bear to look at how Ayami was holding up.

The feeling of helplessness weighed down on his shoulders almost painfully. His hands were tied; he couldn't do anything as long as the shield was up, and the girl knew that. They all knew that.

But just then he heard Ayami scream, and he couldn't take it anymore.

"That's it," he muttered darkly, flexing his right hand. Charged sparks danced above and around his fingertips, and he moved forward, standing as close to the surface of the field – and the restless horde of tendrils as well – as he dared.

"We've already discussed why that won't work," Desuki informed him tonelessly.

"I know," he answered quickly, staring down the ghostly tentacles as they bore down onto the barrier blindly. "But I have no choice. If we wait this out, we lose. I have to do something. Which is why..." He gave the older man a meaningful, sideways glance. The child had focused all her attention onto Ayami, but he didn't want to announce his intentions to her either, just to be sure. '…I need you to remove the barrier,' he thought silently, and hoping Desuki would understand.

The latter stared at him for a few seconds, as though waiting for him to finish. The man was sharp, though, and had known his ward long enough for him to be able to read the latter's intentions. "No," he stated emphatically. "You realize what will happen if you fail?!"

"The same thing that will happen if we do nothing!" he countered. "At least this way, we have a chance!"

"It is too risky," the magician insisted, shaking his head. "At this rate, we would be better off waiting for a few more minutes to – "

Another scream from Ayami drowned out whatever it was Desuki had said next. This time it cut sharply through the air, silencing even the steady hum of the glowing tentacles and matched only by the child's sadistically gleeful laughter. But unlike the first one which had been wholly one of terror, this sounded strangely like a cry of anguish, and pierced through his soul such that merely standing there pained him.

And it seemed like she was… '…Crying?'

A third scream followed, then a fourth in rapid succession. Keiku snapped.

"Kill it!" he yelled, throwing all caution and self-regard to the wind as he thrust his arm forward. The sparks jumped and buzzed excitedly, and he clasped his wrist with his other hand to steady it. "Kill it now!!"

The bluish magic barrier vanished, and in an instant the tentacles lunged forward.

But the lightning had already left his hand.

And it was an astonishingly powerful bolt that shot forward in a heartbeat and mercilessly flung him back with the recoil. He gasped in surprise, trying to dig his heels into the floor to kill the momentum as he glanced up.

The bolt had struck true to his target. The little girl's shriek of pain rang out clearly above the hiss of static and the whine of the tentacles as they halted abruptly, one of them poised to strike and merely an inch from his nose. For a few seconds the sparks lit up the darkness of the room, brightest where the girl thrashed and twitched in agony. The tendrils also writhed as though in pain, before slowly fading until they vanished completely.

Keiku released the breath he didn't realize he had been holding, and felt a wave of relief wash over him as he fully realized just how close that was. Speed had never been a problem, he knew: it was the timing that had been crucial to everything.

And if he'd released the bolt a split second too soon or too late...

He felt a slight shiver run up his spine. 'I can't believe I was able to pull that off...'

A whimper and a slight thud jolted him out of his thoughts. 'Ayami!' He swore as he and Desuki both ran to her side. She had fallen to her knees, and had propped her arms against the floor. She was mouthing something over and over again, a silent mantra that left her lips as she stared at her hands.

"Hey..." He knelt down beside her and clasped her shoulder. She was shaking like a leaf, and while her eyes no longer seemed glazed and dead as they were merely seconds ago, her gaze still carried a tortured kind of fear that he had never quite seen before. He cringed. The tentacle that had possessed her was long gone now, but he doubted if the shock of whatever it had shown her had passed. "Are you okay?"

It seemed she couldn't hear a word he was saying, and for a moment a cold sense of dread fell upon him. How long had she been under that illusion? 'Two minutes, three? Maybe even more...?' It didn't help that whatever she witnessed there was her worst fear; people had gone mad from less.

But as he leaned in closer and strained to listen above the buzz of the last sparks that still lingered in the air, he was finally able to understand the word she had been saying over and over.

It was his name.

"Ayami...Ayami, I'm here..." Scooting over until he was kneeling in front of her, he cupped her cheeks in his hands and tilted her head upward to face him. She was deathly pale. "Look at me," he pleaded, ready to beg if that was what it would take to get her back to normal. "Come on, snap out of it already...please..."

It took a while, but gradually the fear and anguish in her eyes gave way to recognition. And she collapsed, half-screaming and half-sobbing, into his arms, clutching his shoulders tightly.

"Shh...it's all right now..." Shocked at how cold she was, he shifted to a sitting position as he held her close, enveloping them both in a faint reddish aura of heat. She was tense; her fingernails dug into his skin painfully, showing just how effectively the illusion had gotten to her head. "It's okay..." He waited a few seconds for her to calm down a bit, before asking, "What did you see?"

To his surprise, Ayami shook her head furiously, refusing to say a word. And by the cold glare Desuki shot his way and the shivers that ran once more through her body, he realized his mistake. "Never mind," he amended quickly. "We...we don't have to talk about it."

Guiltily he stroked her hair, silently wishing, albeit belatedly, that he had been the one caught in the illusion, and not her.

"Is she...is she...?"

Through tears and muffled into his shoulder, he hardly heard what Ayami was saying. But Desuki replied for him: "She's no longer a threat now. He took care of her."

The little girl who had been taunting and laughing at them just seconds ago was now a crumpled, motionless mess on the floor. Upon a closer look he could see she was breathing, if barely; at least, it was certain she would truly no longer be a threat to them for some time.

"Even so, we should probably get a move on soon...how long do you think we have?" Keiku asked him in a low voice.

"You...destroyed her rather handily," the magician stated, resigning to sit down on the floor beside them. "I suspect we will not have to worry about her for a long while yet." He paused for a while, before glancing at his ward and adding, as though by afterthought, "Well done."

The swell of pride he'd felt upon hearing his mentor praise him gradually gave way to a hint of confusion as he thought about it more. That lightning bolt had been unusually powerful, he realized, especially as he regarded the illusionist's motionless and now slightly smoking form. As he looked at the damage, and recalled how the discharge had even sent him flying, he arrived at the disturbing realization that he could very well have killed the little girl.

He shook his head and tried to clear it. He decided that with their time in the labyrinth still running and neither amulet well within sight, he would have to push those thoughts to the back of his mind and deal with them some other time…perhaps, on the boat ride back to Savrel. "Thanks," he said instead. "I'm sorry I risked our lives though. It was crazy, I know."

"Don't be." The older Guardian regarded him with a hint of a smile. "That risk you took is the only reason we're still sane right now."

Keiku nodded and sighed. Desuki's reassurance comforted him somewhat. But it did nothing for the thought that still tugged at his conscience. 'If I'd missed...if I'd screwed up the timing...' If any of those had happened, either all three of them would be the illusionist's slaves, or he would be the one lying charred and senseless on the floor.

"I think I'm okay now..."

"Are you sure?" Keiku studied Ayami's face closely as she pulled away and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. There was a clarity in her gaze now that had been lacking before, and he noted with relief that the color had begun returning to her face. "We could stay here for a while longer if you want."

"No," she shook her head. "It's better if we leave now before she...um..." The sorceress blanched as she took in the state of the master of the room for the first time. "Wow. Is...she still alive?"


"Which one of you did that?" she asked incredulously.

"Apparently, I did," Keiku replied with a sigh.

"We should probably get going now," Desuki announced at the lull that followed, rising to his feet with a slight fumble – it was small enough to almost be unnoticeable, but confirmed just how exhausted he was. "I still believe she will be harmless for quite a long time yet, but I would put as much distance between us and this room as humanly possible. Ayami, are you all right now?"

She nodded vigorously, mimicking him and up on her feet in an instant. "This room might turn into something nasty while we're waiting. I'm fine."

"Are you?" Keiku asked Desuki skeptically. He had rarely ever seen the older man run low on stamina, but considering how he had been casting spells almost non-stop for the past few hours, he understood the exhaustion now. What worried him was that they weren't even remotely close to their goal yet, and Desuki would surely have to use his magic a lot more.

"I'll survive," came the reply, with a mindless shrug. "Let's go."

There was an air of tension as the three exited the room, after several apprehensive glances at the illusionist before they did so. For a long while no words were spoken, and as Keiku found himself taking up the rear this time, with Desuki leading them, he found the relative silence only seemed to torment him with the thoughts that swirled in his head.

Ayami had just suffered through an illusion that showed her greatest fear. And when it had ended, she was saying his name over and over again. 'Did I have something to do with it?' He wouldn't get the answer to his question anytime soon though, as the sorceress had made it clear that she refused to talk about it.

"Um, thanks by the way." The said sorceress had her gaze nailed to the ground timidly. "For saving me, back there."

"No problem," he smiled.

Then he stared at his hands. There was also that insanely powerful lightning bolt – stronger and deadlier than anything he had ever been able to produce before, as far as he recalled. Where had that come from? Then he remembered his resolution to put off thinking about that until he next set foot on a ship, and promptly shoved it to the back of his mind.

A sudden, more important problem loomed just in the horizon though. Desuki, easily the strongest among the three of them and their best bet on staying alive, was starting to get tired.

Things did not look good.

She ran to the necromancer's side in a heartbeat, panicked at the sight of him crumpling lifelessly to the floor. 'Is he dead??' She didn't want to believe it, but then again she had never seen anyone cast a spell as powerful as that, and so soon after being accepted as a Guardian. And what had Rouken called it? 'The forbidden art…' From the sickening air of black magic that still filled the room, she could tell just how dark and shockingly powerful the spell had been. And all of a sudden it seemed as though the boy's death was not so far-fetched a possibility after all.

But just before she reached him, she was able to see the steady, albeit labored rise and fall of his chest. And she breathed a sigh of relief.

"Imaki!" Rouken's voice was sharper and richer now, free of the slight hoarseness she used to know. But it still carried that unmistakable, sinister edge, one she associated with Rouken and only Rouken alone. "Imaki, look…look!"

She turned around as commanded. The sorcerer was positively glowing, although she didn't know whether to attribute it to a side-effect of the spell or not. His dark, bluish hair framed a youthful version of the face she had known as her lord's for centuries. His skin was slightly a shade darker, and no longer carried the lines and spots that had mapped his face; only the scar on his neck remained, and led her to believe he must have gotten that injury before the War.

Shiyoji had done well. Not a single trace of the mercenary remained, save his clothes – the man before her was Rouken, though somehow both unfamiliar and yet recognizable at the same time. This was how Rouken had been in his youth: lean muscles gracing his limbs and torso, and an intense fire in his bright green eyes.

Free of the shackles that had bound him, the sorcerer leapt toward an open space on the floor, testing his new body with kicks and punches at the air. He dashed forward for a bit, ending in a somersault and landing gracefully with his legs fully extended. And he laughed, like a little child who had finally gotten his wish…but there was something laced together with the glee, something evil and malicious.

"Isn't it marvelous?" he continued at her silence. "A part of me had initially worried the boy might not be able to pull it off…but look!" And he held out his hands before her. "He is a natural! Look at this!!"

She had never seen such enthusiasm from Rouken before, and she was hard-pressed to smile, indicating her approval. "Congratulations, Rouken-sama…" He had good reason to celebrate; he had been released of his most limiting obstacle – his age – and was fully intent on abusing it.

And yet there was something about this new Rouken, something that made her sick to her stomach. She wasn't sure if it was the sudden, almost manic, jubilance in his eyes, or the dark magic still lingering and polluting the air. While she had held her old lord in high regard, she had respected him mostly, and feared him only in the way a subject would fear his master. But his cruelty these past few weeks, coupled by the sight of him young and invigorated before her…this new Rouken chilled her to the bone.

His voice dropped to an excited whisper, and a converging ball of black energy surrounded his hands. "Let us see what this has done for my magic…"

Rouken shot a burst of black lightning upward, and Imaki jumped back with a gasp. The bolt slammed into the ceiling and rocked the tiny dungeon, the whole floor…perhaps even the whole temple. She fell to the floor with a cry, scraping her arms against the rough surface as she broke the fall. Glancing up worriedly, she saw fragments of the ceiling falling down, dislodged by the impact, and panicked as she willed them away from her and the necromancer with her mind.

To her relief, the rest of the ceiling held up, although it had large cracks snaking through as a testament to the unbelievable power of that blast. Rouken's laughter filled the chamber, and just then she realized that she was now deathly afraid of him.

"My only regret is that I was not able to recruit him sooner."

'Shiyoji!!' She cursed at how she had completely forgotten about the boy and whirled around, kneeling beside him. She almost drew back in shock when her hands touched his skin – he was cold, and when she pulled his body towards him he seemed to suck the very warmth out of her. She shivered.

"Shiyoji," she called, trying her best to ignore Rouken who was happily trying out his spells on the hapless dungeon walls. "Shiyoji, wake up…Shiyoji!"

She cradled his neck and shook him violently, hoping to get a reaction. But she got none, and he seemed like a rag doll in her arms; he was covered in dust, and was scorched and singed in places by his own magic. His clothes had splotches of blood on them, and for what it was worth she desperately hoped the blood was not his.

She took a deep breath and tried to calm her nerves. Silently, and as Rouken continued destroying the room, she tried to pull up any knowledge that might be helpful. It wasn't easy, as she knew precious little about resurrection except for shady rumors that were all disquieting: very few people specialized in the art of life-magic, and even fewer in the arts that dealt with death. Shiyoji dabbled in both, it seemed, and must have had considerable potential even before coming to Miasma; she and Murasaki had been the ones dispatched to recruit him, after all. So it should have come as less of a surprise to her that he was able to pull it off.

'But…' she swallowed hard, and dared to glance at Rouken once again. Resurrection was aptly named the forbidden art, and the spell had been perfect, so much so that even the sorcerer seemed to notice it. 'What will it require of the caster in return…?'


"Shiyoji? Shiyoji!" She bent down and supported his head with her other hand; his cheek felt like ice to the touch. "Nod your head if you can hear me!"

But he didn't. His eyelids tensed, and his teeth were gritted as though in pain. "Help me…" he merely repeated, his voice a hollow whisper that sounded like death itself. She released his head, careful to brace his neck on her other arm, and picked up his wrist between thumb and forefinger. His pulse was almost nonexistent, and his breathing had slowed.

Her initial relief upon seeing him alive dissolved completely as she realized he was dying and there was nothing she could do about it.

She glanced up again. Rouken was clearly enjoying himself, and no longer needed her. And from how unconcerned he seemed regarding Shiyoji's well-being, he obviously did not need him either.

She bit her lip. And in a split second, she decided.

Holding the dying necromancer in her arms, she closed her eyes and focused. A smoky, greenish aura began to surround them both, and in a flash they vanished into thin air.

Ayami squeezed her eyes shut for a moment before opening them again, then repeating the action a few more times. The repetitive sight of checkered black and white tiles was starting to hurt. And it didn't help that they had been wandering around aimlessly in the maze proper for what must have been hours since they left the room with...

'No.' Through sheer force of will she pushed down the unwanted memory of the illusion the little child had chosen to show her. She glanced at her two companions, biting her lip. If they showed any suspicion or resentment from her adamant refusal to tell them what she had seen, they didn't show it. Perhaps they understood her, and she was grateful for that.

She was not grateful, however, for the silence that had settled over their group as they walked through the Words had been sparse since they left the illusionist's room, and the last time she had heard anyone say anything at all had to have been over an hour ago. But it was not an awkward kind of silence, with tension thickening the air. No, the silence was rather somewhat empty, and could be attributed to a surprisingly simple reason: they were all tired, and talking consumed energy.

A distant rumble made its way to their ears.

"There's that sound again," Keiku mumbled, turning to where it had come from.

Ayami frowned. They had first heard it a few minutes after returning to the maze proper, and then several more times, at seemingly random intervals. At first they had merely dismissed it; the sound seemed far away enough to be safely ignored.

But there was something that slightly disturbed her...

"Does anyone else think the sound is...perhaps getting closer?"

Desuki's comment mirrored her thoughts exactly, and she nodded as she turned to him. Of the three of them, he seemed to be the worst for wear – he must not have gotten any sleep on the ship, and it was beginning to show in his visible eye. She couldn't tell for sure, but as she walked beside him it seemed as though his aura was more difficult to sense, and thus not as strong as it usually would be. That, and given how tired Keiku was beginning to look and how terribly exhausted she felt as well, began contributing to the lump of dread in her stomach.

Keiku shrugged. "I wouldn't be surprised if it were. But I don't want to worry about it. If it comes our way, we deal with it; if not, then better."

She sighed, blinking a few more times as they rounded a corner with particularly gleaming tiles. It seemed they had all agreed that this was the best, if not only, way they could deal with the events and encounters in the maze: to take them as they came. Once they realized it was nigh impossible to predict or anticipate anything the maze threw at them, it only seemed logical to stop trying. Nobody could have predicted the shifting rooms, the sadistic hangman game Koebi had to go through, or the illusion-master's –

'Stop!' she commanded herself, shaking her head quickly. 'It was an illusion. You shouldn't keep thinking about it!'

"You all right?" Keiku asked her, a look of concern on his face.

"Yeah." She nodded, and then grimaced slightly as the rumbling sound echoed in the air once more. "There it goes again," she commented.

"That definitely sounded like it was closer than last time," he agreed, stopping in his tracks and looking behind them.

"Do you think...?" Ayami chewed on her bottom lip as she glanced around furtively. It was difficult to see anything useful, as the tiled hallways were narrow and twisted almost every few feet or so. "Do you think it's coming towards us?"

"Or we could be walking towards it, whatever it is," Keiku ventured.

"Let's walk faster just in case," Desuki pronounced, quickening his pace.

She nodded, dutifully doing as he suggested. Keiku lagged behind, but his gaze was conspicuously alert, and he glanced behind his shoulder every so often.

"How many hours do you think we have left?" she wondered aloud.

"Unfortunately I have lost all track of time," the magician sighed. "To be on the safe side, we could assume it has been twelve hours already."

"That means we have less than twelve hours to get to Kiyomi," she realized.

"Perhaps more. But since we are bound to run into more obstacles along the way, we will need all the time we can get."

Ayami managed to keep herself from jumping in surprise as the rumbling sound returned again, louder and clearly a lot closer to them now. And she could almost swear she felt the ground beneath her feet shake a little, but rationalized that it must have only been her imagination.

'We will get the emerald,' she thought to herself, gritting her teeth to try to calm her mad heartbeat. 'And the rest of the ruby. In twelve hours we'll be on a boat back to Savrel, and all this will be over. And I'll never have to see Kiyomi again.' She paused for a moment, wondering how much of that had just been wishful thinking. But she pushed all thoughts away and tried to clear her head – Desuki had been right, this place was insane and had little mercy for those who happened to have a lot on their minds.

The rumbling sound made its way to their ears again, and this time the floor and the walls all shuddered unmistakably. They stopped in their tracks, slowly turning around and facing the path behind them.

"What...what is that?!"

Her companions had no time to reply to her question, as the rumbling sound returned again...and again and again, each time louder than the last and making the whole maze seem to tremble more violently. Whatever was causing the sound seemed to grow stronger and angrier by the second.


Her heart hammered as she realized the alternative. 'It's getting closer...'

"Guys..." she started, straining to be heard over the series of rumbles and what seemed to be explosions that were filling the air, now only seconds apart. "What's the plan?"

Neither of them seemed to have an answer. Desuki closed his visible eye with a sigh of resignation, beginning to glow in the translucent blue aura characteristic of his magic. Keiku, the closest of the trio to where the sounds appeared to be coming from, had taken a few steps back in apprehension. His arms were free but tense at his sides. "Ayami, can you...?"

"Call the water," she finished for him. "Of course." The fear and anxiety had turned her hands to ice, but she felt nothing of it as she brought them together and began gathering what she could of her magical energy.

But the source of the sound had been closer than they thought, and just a blink of an eye after that exchange the wall to their left was smashed into chunks of stone and tile barely a few paces from where Keiku stood.

The impact swept all three of them off their feet, and Ayami yelped as smaller pieces of rubble and shrapnel ricocheted off the opposite wall and went flying her way. Most of them barely missed her, but she was not so lucky, feeling the sting as cuts and bruises left their mark.

She winced, not noticing the cloud of dust as she struggled to her feet. She barely even noticed the wreckage undoing itself – pieces of the wall, large and tiny, began flying back to where there was now a gaping hole, mending it efficiently.

What she noticed was the beast.

It stood maybe twice as tall as Desuki, and had a wide frame beefed up by powerful muscles that rippled along the lengths of its limbs and torso. It was a horrifying amalgam of bull and man: it looked very much like a grossly oversized brown bull, but the proportions of its body and the way it stood on its hind legs betrayed that. Its two front limbs ended not in hooves but in clawed hands, and a sinister spark of intelligence shone in its golden eyes as it turned its gaze onto them.

No sooner had it done so when it dropped onto all fours, and charged forward with a growl.


The beast had closed the gap well before her shout of warning, and the Guardian was barely able to put up a field of static in time to avoid being skewered by one of its lethal horns. Paying no heed, the monster simply lowered its head and rammed harder, swinging its head upward; Ayami winced as the sound of tearing cloth and flesh made its way clearly to her ears despite his cry of pain. In a flash the field was gone; Keiku flew up over the beast and landed hard on the floor behind it.

She reeled back in terror, realizing there was now nothing between her and the beast. But with surprising agility for its bulky frame it merely whirled around, grunting angrily and heading once again for Keiku.

"Ack! Shiro Rai!!" The lightning bolt connected immediately, and the beast roared as sparks sizzled and cracked in the air. Keiku pulled himself up off the ground and jumped onto the animal's head, kicking down sharply and propelling himself towards the rest of his allies.

He landed clumsily beside her, and that was when she saw the gaping hole leaking blood on his thigh.

"Are you okay??" she asked in alarm.

He nodded swiftly, but the look of sheer panic in his eyes was still there. "Sensei...Sensei!!"

Because of the anxiety she had felt upon seeing Keiku injured, a part of her had somehow amazingly forgotten about the beast. It had recovered from the previous attack and was now barreling towards them again, slightly singed but twice as angry as before. Luckily, Desuki was paying attention, and a bluish magic shield that stretched from wall to wall stopped the beast dead in its tracks. It roared in fury and perhaps pain, glaring at them with slitted eyes before rushing forward again, ramming its horns and claws repeatedly into the barrier in an attempt to break it.

"What is that thing!?" Ayami screamed as she helped Keiku to his feet. "What does it want?!"

"Whatever it is...it's incredibly strong..." Desuki's voice was riddled with strain. With a grunt he placed both hands flat against the shield, strengthening it as he matched the bulls' death glare. "I don't think I can hold it off for long."

Keiku pressed a hand against the wound in his leg in an attempt to stop the bleeding. "Then what do we do?" he asked hoarsely.


Ayami whirled around. "What about you?" she demanded. The beast was furious now, and in the confines of the narrow labyrinth walls the three of them, mages all, were clearly disadvantaged. Facing the monster, at least here and now, was out of the question, but she would be damned if the magician thought they were leaving him behind.

"If I even so much as blink right now, this shield will disappear," he said through clenched teeth, wincing slightly every time the beast's horns made contact with the now-fading blue shield. "You don't have much time."

"No!" she shouted defiantly. Releasing Keiku's arm, she worked on gathering her aura once more. The sudden rush of bravery she felt was illogical, she knew, and would certainly vanish once the barrier dissolved. But a stubborn part of her refused to leave. A bluish-white glow began to coat her, brightest and almost opaque at her palms.

"What are you doing?" Keiku asked her.

"Trying to buy us some time," she replied, steeling her gaze. Lightning had had little effect on the beast, but what about pointed, flying stakes of ice? She was already envisioning the attack, one she had spontaneously christened 'Icicle Smash,' in her mind. "If I can hurt it, maybe it'll be stunned enough to give us a head-start."

"Here." She almost jumped when she felt Keiku's hand on her shoulder, and felt her cheeks burn as her concentration wavered. But then she felt something else – the warming, comforting sensation of his aura leaking in and adding itself to hers. "Make it a big one," he said, staring warily at the beast through the barrier. "Something tells me we'll need all the head-start we can get."

Nodding resolutely, she tried to focus on the task at hand. The beast wasn't getting anywhere nearer to them by ramming repeatedly into the shield, but it seemed as though the latter was getting weaker and weaker with every crash of the animal's horns and slice of its claws. It seemed to realize this, and there was an almost disturbing likeness to a sneer in the way it bared its fangs at them. It looked as though it were taunting them –

'Focus!!' She locked her gaze onto the gleaming floor beneath the animal's hooves. Keiku's aura had strengthened her magic, and she felt the energy almost humming in her fingertips. She glanced worriedly at the barrier, and hoped that she could cast her spell fast enough before it gave way completely.

But she felt her concentration shatter when she heard, for the first time, Desuki screaming in genuine panic. "Run, NOW!! I can't – !"

To her horror she saw the last of the beast's strikes break the barrier once and for all, and it vanished cleanly into nothingness. With a shriek she dropped to her knees out of instinct, pressing her hand against the floor...and letting out a gasp as the aura practically rushed out of her, seeping into the floor and forming a thick wall of ice that stood exactly where Desuki's barrier had been.

For a moment she just crouched there with wide eyes, wondering if it was her imagination...but the ice wall's reality was confirmed by a sharp crash and a deafening bellow of rage from the other side.

"Impressive," the magician commented after a long silence on their part.

Keiku blinked at his reflection in the smooth, gleaming surface of the wall. "That is awesome."

Ayami stood up, flinching as the beast commenced its attacks onto its newest obstacle. The ice wall shook precariously, and the next impact forced cracks to begin forming on the surface. "Okay, now let's run," she suggested, all thoughts of celebrating her newfound accomplishment suddenly pushed to the back of her mind.

"Agreed. Get on."

She belatedly noticed that the magician had begun shape-shifting again, and turned in time to see him in the middle of the process – he was half-man, half-cat, and had dropped onto all fours. It was too late to warn him about overusing his magic, but as she saw the outline of spots beginning to form on his torso and the rough, rather dog-like face she knew she had little authority to argue. She jumped onto his back just as the transformation completed, and she held on to what she could of his backside - a ride on a cheetah, after all, was bound to be a dangerous one.

"What about Keiku?" she asked worriedly.

"I'll be fine!" The Guardian was grinning despite his injury and the plight they were in, and had a hand pressed against the ice wall. His fingers glowed red for a moment, and he swept his hand over and to the side, tracing a wide arc. The ice melted and a large but thin slab gave way, crashing down onto the floor and breaking up into several smaller pieces. With excitement shining in his eyes for the first time since they had set foot in the maze, he stepped onto the largest of the flat slabs; crouching for a second he used his magic to melt and re-freeze some of the ice surrounding his feet, locking his ankles onto the slab. "This is going to be so much fun."

"Let's go!"

She shrieked as Desuki dashed forward, clutching onto the fur at the back of his neck, half of her hoping she wasn't hurting him while the other half just tried to hang on for dear life. Keiku charged up for a moment, before shooting out a lightning bolt that looked more like a blast of pure, charged energy that he aimed below and behind him, propelling himself forward fast enough that he was next to them within a second.

Just then, and just as they had cleared maybe twenty or thirty meters, the beast succeeded in breaking down the ice wall. Ayami screamed.

"Not good. Can you go faster?" she heard Desuki's voice from below.

As she glanced at Keiku, she felt a mixed rush of emotions - relief and happiness, neither of which seemed appropriate for their situation at all. But it had seemed like forever since they entered the labyrinth, and she caught a glimpse of the Keiku she had missed – daring, confident, and with a genuine smile on his face, as though all of the worries that had been burdening him – Kiyomi, the emerald, and of course their sheer mortality - had temporarily vanished.

"Is that a challenge?" he said, ignoring the barreling beast and increasing the power of the blast behind him. He shot forward, turning a corner effortlessly.

"Hang on tight," Desuki told her, and she was barely able to do so as he accelerated, putting more and more distance between them and the monster.

As he turned the same corner following Keiku and nearly flung her off, she felt her nerves beginning to calm. It seemed as though they could realistically shake the beast off after all.

She just hoped they wouldn't run into a dead-end.

"…Wow. Look at this place."

Koebi had been walking in the rear of their group, but when he heard Mayi's breathless statement he looked up and immediately found himself agreeing. The room they had just entered was magnificent; it seemed as though they were in a giant gazebo, octagonal in shape and with a glass dome for a roof. The sky above was clearly visible, and dotted with stars. He almost panicked when he took notice of the color though, a dark sheen that seemed closer to blue than black – how many hours exactly had they been walking through the maze? But then he remembered it was probably an illusion altogether, and snorted in disgust at his own short-lived rush of anxiety.

He trailed his gaze downward and scanned the rest of the area. At each of the eight corners stood a wide stone column, with elaborate figures carved into the material. And lining the walls were paintings on canvas of various sizes – some were as large as the door, others smaller than his palm – but they filled all the spaces on the walls, leaving nothing bare.

All of the art seemed almost real. Each piece was painted in rich, vibrant colors and depicted a certain scene or image. The one nearest him, about an arm's length away, showed a lone fisherman walking on the docks of a place that looked suspiciously like his native Savrel. Next to it was a painting of a gigantic hot-air balloon against a bright noontime sky, underneath a portrait of a young boy who seemed… 'Confused? Worried? Lost?'

He shivered, glancing uneasily at the pieces of artwork that dominated the room. Unwillingly he remembered just how close he had come to dying the last time they encountered a painting in this labyrinth…

"Hello, all. Please, do close the door behind you."

The three of them had been so engrossed looking at the countless paintings that they failed to notice the master of the room. She was sitting on a stool in the center of the chamber, and was eclipsed by a large piece of canvas propped up by a wooden stand against the floor, facing away from them. She had long blonde hair pinned up haphazardly and tamed by a crooked beret, and a pair of rimless glasses was perched precariously on her nose. "I rather like the painting on that door," she continued. "I think it is my best, and I use it for inspiration. As it is now, I cannot see it, so if you please."

Koebi nodded and closed the door dutifully. Just as she had said, the inside of the door was painted over with a scene depicting a young woman surrounded by flowers, apparently arranging them by candlelight. With the door closed, the room seemed isolated, and they found themselves surrounded on all sides by art.

"Thank you." The woman's voice was cheerful now, and she seemed to assess them all with a quick gaze before wiping her hands on her apron, picking up a messy palette at her side and dipping her brush in a splotch of brown paint. "It is not often I get visitors nowadays. How may I help you?"

"We're...acquaintances of the harvester," the blacksmith offered. "We wish to go to the center of the labyrinth."

The painter tipped her head thoughtfully, dipping the brush now in white paint and swirling it around to form a flesh-colored pigment. When she finished, she began painting something onto the canvas in smooth, albeit unseen, strokes. "Ah, you are the travelers looking to claim an artifact from my mistress," she pronounced.

At that, Mayi tensed visibly, and Koebi tightened his grip on his bow. Shigeru was the only one who didn't react directly, but the older man shifted from having his arms folded across his chest to simply hanging loosely at his sides. "That's right," he continued. "And we've been instructed to meet her there…as soon as possible."

"Hmmm. That's such a shame, then." She took time to gaze briefly at each of them, before returning to whatever it was she was painting. "It's just that I haven't had anyone to talk to for at least several years…I'm not even so sure anymore, it's rather hard to keep track of time in this place, isn't it?" She laughed at her own joke, dipping her brush into black paint this time and continuing her task. She shifted a bit from her position on her chair, rising slightly to paint near the center of the canvas, and crouching low to reach the parts near the floor.

Koebi craned his neck, but it was impossible to see what she was painting; the canvas was placed in the center of the room, parallel to the door and with the back facing them, and it seemed as though she did not intend on showing them whatever she was painting anyway. 'Is she just doing it for fun, then? Is this what she always does…or all she does?'

As though reading his mind, she looked pointedly at him and smiled. "Be not impatient, Fukurou-san. I will show it to you once it is completed."

He blanched, and Mayi blurted out, "You know us??"

The painter merely smiled impassively. "My mistress has briefed us all on your arrival. I just did not expect to run into you so soon, since this room is rather far from the entrance."

"Would that mean, by any chance, that this room is close to the center?" Shigeru asked hopefully.

"I'm not quite sure." She frowned at her painting for a moment, then glanced at the blacksmith and studied his face for some time, before getting back to work. 'Is she painting my brother?'

"What…does that mean?" Shigeru asked hesitantly. The long look she had given him had obviously not gone unnoticed, and Mayi seemed to have picked it up as well.

"Exactly as it sounds," she shrugged. "I myself have never been to the center of the maze, so I am afraid I cannot help you there. And, no…I am not painting a portrait of Kobake Shigeru, thank you very much."

This time they openly exchanged uneasy glances. For a long while nothing was said, so Koebi decided to venture, tentatively, "Are…are you reading our minds?"

But the woman only smiled and, after a particularly long look at Mayi, continued her painting. "Quite an interesting group of warriors you are. Two former assassins, one ranked right below the infamous Scythe. And…" Koebi tried not to let the uneasiness show as her even gaze bored straight into him. "One who ought to have been a Guardian, but refused."

"And stole all the pretty gems," Koebi finished for her, rolling his eyes. "My reputation's been spreading down to even Rouken's minions' minions, I see."

"Perhaps," she drawled, setting her gaze onto the blacksmith once again before selecting a pigment of a bright reddish hue and letting the brush dance across the canvas, near the top. She had to reach up considerably to do so, as the canvas was as tall as Shigeru, and proportionately wide. It made him wonder all the more what it was she was painting, and why it needed to be that large. If she wasn't painting his brother's portrait…then what was she painting?

"Well, we really do need to get to the center," Shigeru pressed. "And we're rather short on time. We'd be grateful if you could help us, but if not, it would probably be best if we went on our way."

To their surprise, the painter laughed, and the sound echoed hollowly in the open chamber. Rising to her feet, she dipped her brush one last time in a small spot of dark green paint, and set her palette aside. Almost daintily, she pressed the brush against the canvas at eye-level, and then again a short distance away.

"You are all quite welcome to try."

All of them noticed how her tone had darkened all of a sudden, and they whirled around to face the exit. But all that remained was the painting of the girl with the flowers…as he ran to where he knew the door was and ran his hand along the canvas, he felt no doorknob, no doorjamb…nothing but wall.

He stepped back slowly in a mix of horror and dread. He saw a hint of a purple glow in the corner of his eye, and as he turned around he was able to witness Onifu shifting into a large sword in Mayi's hands. Shigeru had armed himself in an instant, and the circular blades gleamed in his hands as he brandished them with a stony glare. "I'm not sure if you misunderstood me the first time, but we're kind of in a hurry. Normally we wouldn't be so brash as to use violence, but so far this maze has not been kind, so you'll excuse us if we are not so nice this time around."

The painter merely regarded them coolly. "While it is true that my mistress did allow me to 'play with the travelers,' I'm afraid it is not me you will be fighting…" And she turned over the canvas so that it faced them. "But him."

They had barely gotten a glimpse of a tall, life-sized figure in the painting when it flashed all of a sudden, coated in a white aura that nearly blinded them. Koebi yelped in surprise, shielding his face with his arm right after he swiped an arrow from the well-stocked quiver strapped across his back. He cursed loudly. 'What now?! Who was in that painting??'

"Oh, he's someone I'm sure all three of you are quite familiar with," she answered his mental question. "And to answer your question, yes, I have in fact been able to read your minds quite easily...and from your combined consciousness, I was able to come up with quite an interesting opponent."

'So she is a psychic after all!' Koebi's mind raced, trying to think of who this opponent she mentioned might be. He knew that Shigeru and Mayi had worked together in the Ring for roughly four years, and would have an endless list of enemies and colleagues they had in common. But he was there too, so it had to be somebody he knew as well. 'Desuki? Keiku?'

Then, a particular name crossed his mind, and the thought chilled him to the very bone. "Don't tell me…" he started, lowering his arm as the glare died down.

But just as the words left his lips the ethereal figure stepped purposefully out of the canvas, suddenly acquiring a fleshed-out and solid form – blinking, breathing. Mayi screamed. And as he took in their opponent's familiar tanned skin, snaking red hair and menacing green eyes, he felt the fear slowly beginning to wash over him.


Review Responses: Cake!

listentoher: Yup, I really tried to write at home, but somehow found it too stressful. So whenever the opportunity presented itself outside the apartment, I jumped at the chance. I'm really glad you liked it though, especially the scene in the middle where Akiwa finally said something substantial regarding his feelings. Took him long enough – 30 chapters haha.

rydia: I'll try to get chapters out faster from now on. Thanks for your review!

blank: You know, I was actually about to upload the new chapter when your review came in. Haha thanks for reading, and I'm happy you like that scene in the middle too; that wasn't one of the easiest to write, so I'm pleased that it was worth the trouble it caused me.

Another one down, more to go. This is nowhere near as long as Chapter 30 was, but I regret that it took so long to come out. I took some freelance tutoring hours, and that really eats up a lot of my time. And I just recently got hit by a rather nasty case of the flu, which would explain – but in no way excuse – the long delay. Again, I'm really sorry and I only hope this chapter was worth it.

I'm still continuing the writing-experiment, largely because it's still hard to write at home. But I've been trying to get the hang of home-writing back; all scenes with Ayami in it were written outside, but the rest were written here at home. I was rather frustrated since apparently, emailing scene drafts to myself destroys the formatting now and it's a real pain to fix; if anyone can help me get around this problem, I'd be very grateful.

Revisions continue; I have recently finished Chapter 16 and will get on with the rest whenever I have the time. No promises, though.

As always, please review! Feedback is really the only thing that keeps me going with this story; as much as I regret the 2-year hiatus that cost me eighty per cent of my past readers, I now have no idea how many people exactly are still following this. So…yea. Please do leave a review. They really do help me get these things up faster, and hopefully improve my writing.

(Next chapter: …Will take place entirely in the labyrinth, as we give the residents of Miasma some peace for once. Koebi was lucky with Bartoch the last time, but even with two ex-assassins who know their opponent better than anyone else, can he pull it off again? Meanwhile, Ayami and the Guardians have an angry monster on their tale...chaos ensues, but suffice to say that at the end of the day, Keiku finally finds himself at the harvester's mercy. Part 3 of 'Entrapment,' will come out…soon, but hopefully by early- to mid-October.)


Yes, the bull-like beast was a nod to the Minotaur of Greek mythology, a monster placed in the center of the Labyrinth (a huge maze built for King Minos.) It was eventually killed by Theseus. The Minotaur, however, was explicitly half-man and half-bull, as it was born of the union between Pasiphae (a woman) and the Cretan Bull (a…bull.)