Ch. 1 part 5

1.



"Wake up, wake up? How can you sleep anyway? Get up," he felt a hard boot pressing into his ribs.

His eyes fluttered, he raised his head up and stared into orange bright eyes. "Finally you're awake, what happened here, anyway? Did you figure out the tree?"

Salem...he thought trying to sit up, but he was so tired and lethargic that he couldn't. He fell on his back breathing hard. "San?" he asked weakly.

"You slept the entire way, so did San...but we're still in Ancient Woods. I've made a campsite just about several miles where you were."

"Nitro?" he asked barely able to move his lips.

"Fine," he heard him say. "He followed my horse to my camp. San and Chip are still asleep...are you all right?"

He murmured and squeezed his eyes tighter trying to draw breath but couldn't. He relaxed, hating how helpless he was presently with Salem sitting over him. "Leave..."

"Leave? You're just ready to pass out again! You need attention, like it or not, I'm going to help you until you get better."

He opened his eyes breathing slowly; Salem loomed over him with a smug smirk on his white face. His blue lips parted, "Rest now, when you wake again, we'll continue this conversation."

He didn't want to rest, he wanted to sit up, and he wanted to be alert. He couldn't trust Salem, he did not want to be vulnerable in his presence.

He tried again to sit, but pain in his chest stopped him. He hadn't meant to wince in front of him but he must have because Salem pushed him down on his back again. "Don't be stubborn, rest...even if just for a few minutes..."

He fought but found that in his present state that Salem was stronger than him, Salem easily pressed him on his back again. He stared, glaring at him, hating his position, wanting to change it, but couldn't.

Salem looked satisfied, "Stay here...not that you can go anywhere anyway," he said standing and chuckling. "Consider it a favor," he said turning to smile at him.

He rested his head back and sighed, then he turned and found San curled a few feet next to him. She had Chip with her and a blanket over her, she was sleeping, he stared at her for a long while.

"She hasn't left your side since, you've been unconscious for nearly a whole day, you should be grateful for her services to you. What puzzles me is why she puts up with someone like you; you don't appreciate anything that she has done for you. Tell me, why don't you treat her the way you do?" asked Salem after a while.

He didn't answer and looked back in the sunny sky closing his eyes.

He felt Nitro's snout on his forehead, he opened his eyes and pat Nitro's cheek, then closed his eyes again.

The pain he felt inside of him seemed to cover his whole chest, he wanted to sit up again but he couldn't.

This is very unusual! Why is it that my recovery is taking so long? What is this inside of my chest? Could that demon sludge still be inside me, growing larger? He raised his hands above his face and stared at them.

They were unusually frail and thin, panic filled his chest and he sat up abruptly ignoring the pain and examined himself. His cheeks felt slack, and bony, he felt his chest and froze in shock. His torso was all bones, he could feel all of his ribs.

His eyes flew to Salem who was looking coolly at him.

"I see you've noticed...now do you see why you must rest? The demon inside of you has already taken a hold of you while you slept. Now it drains the life from you, and very soon it will kill you..."

No! he thought staggering to his feet, his legs felt like rubber and he fell on his stomach. The pain was incredible, he tried to keep his face composed but the pain was too great.

Salem laughed, "Stop being so stubborn, I know how to cure you. Just sit down and rest, when you aren't active, neither is the demon. The more stress you put on it, the more pain and suffering you'll go through."

His breathing was labored, he looked at Chip then fell on his back breathing hard.

Damn it all! I will not turn to Salem for help, I will find a way to cure it myself...I just need to get up and find the solution! Get up! Get up!

But his legs and body did not move, he felt as though something was on top of him weighing him down. He watched as Salem moved towards him, he was helpless as a baby, and it killed him.

"Drink this tonic, it'll boost your strength," said Salem taking a pewter mug and raising it to his lips.

He glared, his pride swelling rapidly inside of him. "I will not," he said quietly.

Salem's eyes flashed, "Then you will die...you only have a few days left before the demon starts to take your organs and blood for nourishment."

"Then..." it was hard for him to speak. He closed his eyes, "...I will die."

Salem was laughing, "Proud you are...just like your father and brother, I knew that you'd say that, that is why I injected it into you already." Salem smirked, "When you sleep I will inject you again."

He only stared.

Salem stood up again, "Stay here, San will be waking up shortly. By then, you'll be passed out again. The pain must be incredible, is it not?" asked Salem with a smirk on his white face.

He didn't answer and looked back in the sky.

Salem left into the trees, and only after he had left did he give into the pain gasping and straining.

This demon...from the tree...it will probably kill me if I don't do something!

San murmured and he turned his head to look at her, she was still asleep.

Sighing he looked back into the blue sky moving his lips with no sound, Nitro sensed his pain and came over comforting him.

He was so tired, he felt so exhausted, he rolled his head to the side unconscious again.

2.

"Shou Lang!" she cried sitting next to him and placing a tentative hand on his chest. He was still breathing, but slowly and in loud rasps, he looked as frail as an old man.

Tears met her eyes and she hugged herself, "He's getting worse! When I saw him last he didn't look like this!" she cried to Salem.

Salem put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "He's a stubborn idiot, but eventually he will heal. The demon is still inside of him, there is no getting it out. Shou Lang has to fight it off for himself, but don't worry," he said quickly and squeezed her shoulder. "Shou Lang is strong...this will not kill him, his stubborn nature will."

"He looks so weak..." she said and touched his cheek, the skin stuck to his face, giving it a skeleton-like appearance. She felt more tears building up, "Is he going to die, Salem?" she asked.

Salem shrugged, "I don't know how to get the demon out of him," and then he looked down at her sadly. "We need Kithara, she's good at this sort of thing," he said.

"We need to find her!" she said determinedly. "He's going to die."

For the first time in her life she actually wanted Kithara's help.

"We don't know where to find her," said Salem in a cool voice. His hand around her shoulder was comforting, she rested her head on his and sighed. "I should go and look for her," he said absently.

"I don't know how to take care of him," she cried.

"We're going to have to travel with him, it'll be bad, but there is no other way."

San looked back at him sadly, then she felt so guilty. "This is all of my fault!" she cried looking away from him. "If I had stayed longer in that pool...maybe the demon inside of him would've-"

Salem put both of his hands on her shoulders. "It isn't your fault, don't carry a burden that you aren't responsible for." His eyes were gentle, "Relax, we'll help him somehow, he isn't going to die."

Somehow with him saying that she felt a little at ease, she sighed again.

"We should leave now, get Chip, we shouldn't waste any time at all," he said leaving her side and saddling his white horse.

Chip was still sleeping on the ground across from Shou Lang, she knelt down and picked him up, then looked over at Shou Lang. His eyes were closed, his breathing was raspy, after staring at him, she touched his shoulder.

Don't die, Shou Lang...

Shou Lang's mouth closed a little, then he sighed and remained unmoving again.

She felt Salem's hand on her shoulder, "Let's go..."

She looked up, "Alright," she said.

...

The woman was laughing, so was he, she hugged him tightly and wiped the bangs from his eyes. He stared up at her smiling; she had a bonnet over her head and a long old-fashioned dress. Her eyes were brown, honey, so was her skin. Her laugh was airy and light, a large fire was behind them.

She grabbed his little hands, laughing, and danced with him around the fire. He threw his head back laughing along with her, she picked him up and kissed his face.

She set him down and hugged him tightly, "My little Shou Lang! Look how big you are, do you know how old you are? You're only a month old and you can talk and walk!" she cried as if impressed.

He had swelled with pride, he beamed at her and stretched his arms out again.

She took his hands and circled around the fire, laughing, singing. He sang along with her as best as he could, her dress swirled around her legs. Her hair spilling out of her bonnet as she twirled faster around the fire, he thought that she looked like an angel.



Her scent was sweet and seemed to fill his heart and soul with it, he was so light and happy. He laughed again, she stopped twirling and leaned in his face. She was an angel, he decided. She kissed his forehead..."Shou Lang...I love you..."

Love...he had thought. I love her too.

3.

"That's really him? He looks so...different!" cried Chip looking in her face.

"Yes," she said dully. "I hate looking at him like this..."

Salem rode his horse with Nitro following a few trots behind, Chip sat in her lap, she sat behind Salem with one hand around his waist.

"He'll get better, San. Don't worry about him," said Salem coaxingly.

Shou Lang was on his stomach, sideways along Nitro's back. His arms and feet dangled to the ground.

She looked back ahead sighing, "The temple is so far away, Salem. I don't think that he's going to make it in time!" she cried.

It was early sunset, the sky was turning into a deep orange and light purple. The clops of Salem's horse echoed against the forest trees.

"Think positive," said Chip.

"Go ahead and rest, San...all of your worrying will only tire you out. Go to sleep."

"I can't," she sighed and hugged his waist. "I don't want him to-"

"He won't," assured Salem quickly. "Go to sleep, you need rest, San."

She looked back at Shou Lang's dead form on Nitro's back, his tail hung loosely to his ankles.

I've never seen him so...weak. Why is it that this demon has such a big effect on him and not Chip? Didn't he say that Chip swallowed the demon also? Or did Shou Lang hold up both up?

She turned back around, "Kithara...what if she isn't home?" she asked.

"She might not be...after the tournament she left, she could be anywhere," Salem said in a cool voice.

Her heart felt as if it was being shredded to pieces, she gasped and clutched her dagger whirling to look back at the unconscious Shou Lang on the other horse.

"...San?" asked Chip touching her hand. His green eyes wavered, "He'll be all right, Kithara could even be in Ancient Woods looking for us," he said.

His words were kind, but unrealistic. Of course she wasn't in Ancient Woods, what business did she have there?

San sighed heavily and looked into the sky painfully, "It isn't fair!"

"You want him to live so badly? Why is it?" asked Salem mildly.

She lowered her head, "He's a good person...underneath all of his ego and stupid mood swings," she said quietly. "I know that...he doesn't deserve to end this way. He has this demon saving Chip's life...and mine."

Salem sighed, "He's going to live, San," he said.

She looked back at him, "I wish I could...say the same with such confidence."

"Shou Lang's a tough guy," squeaked Chip offering a smile. "Nothing can destroy him, he's like a rock!"

He doesn't look like one now, though...she thought heavily.

"Ether is about a two days ride from where we are now, I really don't want to leave Ancient Woods. You said that the demon got away with the box, correct?" Salem asked.

"The box!" she gasped suddenly. "I forgot all about it, but you're right! He did get away with the..." then her heart sank and she held her head. "We were too late!" she moaned.

"Maybe your visions were wrong?" offered Chip.

All of those people are going to die! She thought feeling lost and helpless. I was too late...I was too late! And because of it, Shou Lang is dying and so will everyone else!

The vision with Chip and Shou Lang in the cornfield came into mind, she covered her face and sighed heavily in her palms to keep herself from crying.

"You're upset," Salem said without emotion. "Rest, San...something might turn up."

What could turn up? We've lost...the box has the demons inside of them, if they get released out into the open...

She hugged his waist and closed her eyes, "I'm going to rest," she said shakily.

"That's good, very wise," Salem said in a quiet voice. "Don't worry, I'll take care of everything, you just need to take care of yourself right now."

His words were very soothing, she rested her head on his back and drifted off.

4.

The forest seemed to whisper around them, the moon was a crescent the leaves were glowing green. Everything was visible except that the sky was black; she saw dew falling down a stem of a nearby leaf. Moss covered the trees, white butterflies raced around the bushes.

Everything was still and quiet, giggling behind her was a red Chibie with large black eyes. It was sitting on Nitro's head laughing at her, other Chibies joined around them but quietly. Their large eyes wide and open, as if watching and observing, taking mental notes in their heads...

Again the beauty of the forest stunned her, the leaves glowed with the grass underneath Salem's hooves.

"It's pretty," said Chip looking around with his whiskers twitching.

"Yes," she breathed, "It is," she said looking into the treetops with awe. "I'd love to live in a place like this. It's so beautiful."

"Try not to speak so loudly," said Salem in a quiet voice. "Many gods rest here, we do not want to disturb them. The god around this area is Mirth, the River God."

"River God?" she asked looking into the trees beside her.

"Yes, Mirth lives around here, he means no harm, but if we disturb him he could flood us out and drown us."

"Gods?" she breathed.

"I've heard that Mirth was a woman!" protested Chip. "A beautiful woman with a long glittering white gown, and blue skin."

"SHH!" she said to him, "Either way I don't want to disturb Mirth..."

"We will stop for a moment while I gain my bearings, then we'll keep on for Ether Forest," said Salem jumping off the horse.

San jumped off with him and stroked his horse's side, "What's his name?" she asked. Salem smiled at her, "I call him Pelican," he said then led the white horse behind him.

She took Nitro's neck and had him follow Pelican and Salem. Salem walked a long while then stopped in front of a lake with a tree in the middle of it.

Salem strode next to her and pulled Shou Lang off of the horse, he was like a pile of bones and slid off easily in his arms. His ears were flat against his head and his tail sagging on the grass. It pained her to see him so weak and fragile, she watched as Salem dragged him in the lake, so that his head and shoulders were out on the shore and the rest on the bottom of the shallow lake.

She knelt beside Shou Lang and looked up at Salem, "Will you be long?" she asked.

"No," Salem answered and patted Pelican. "I'll be gone for at least ten minutes, stay here," he told her with warning eyes. Chip bounced on his shoulder, "Look after him for me, will you?" he squeaked. "And inject him with the tonic," called Salem behind his shoulder.

She waved and settled in her shirt looking into the lake. It was clear as clear could be, it reflected the treetops and moon. The tree in the center was small and delicate, but very beautiful. It had large pink blossoms, she watched a petal fall into the water, and there wasn't even a ripple in the water.

Calmness swept over her and she looked into Shou Lang's skeletal face, his cheekbones protruded from his face showing the bones in his jaw and skull. He had large black bags under his eyes and lips were cracked and turned into a slight greenish color.

She touched his shoulder again, "Everything is going to be all right, Shou Lang," she said quietly. He had no reaction, she smiled and took his skinny hand in hers and squeezed it. "I feel it...you aren't going to die, not yet, anyway," she said.

She released his hand and took out the pewter mug in Salem's sack; she raised Shou Lang in a sitting position and tilted his head so he was even with the mug. She gently tipped the contents in his lips, he squeezed his eyelids tighter, tensing slightly, and then relaxing again.

"That's it," she said gently. "You have to drink this up, all of it," she said tilting it up just a notch.

Shou Lang coughed, spluttered, she quickly set down the mug and stared into his face, his eyelids were fluttering. He opened them partway and for a long moment he stared at her, his eyes were green with flecks of red inside of them.

It scared her, he looked nothing like himself at all.

He murmured something, trying to speak, she shushed him with her hand and raised the mug to his lips again. He resisted at first, then took it, relaxing what muscles he had left.

"You're going to get better," she told him as he drank slowly. "You don't even need the injections, if you're not so stubborn all of the time and just drink..." she said draining the last portion of the tonic in his mouth.

Once finished he rested his head back looking up with glazed eyes, he might have passed out again but she wasn't sure. She touched his cheek with her hand feeling sorry for him and guilty about his situation.

A sound startled her; she looked up into the lake. The tree in the center of the lake was glowing slightly. Ripples circled the tree as petals fell into the water; she looked down at Shou Lang and then back into the lake.

The outline of the petals shone gold, San was sure that she felt the wind pick up a little bit. It tugged the lake and sent an easy shower of ripples touching the water's surface.

She placed the pewter mug back inside the sack and then sat beside Shou Lang staring into the calm water with a serene expression on her face.

Even though the demon has the box...I have a feeling that we can still stop from whatever happening from happening, she thought. And Shou Lang...he'll heal, Salem said so, and I'm starting to believe him.

She looked down at him again, his eyes were closed, she watched the steady movement of the rise and fall of his chest and then looked back into the water.

In the center of the lake where the tree was stood a long graceful deer, it's feet did not seem to touch the water's surface, but it was there. She gasped and clutched her dagger, the deer walked forward on the water and then stood in front of them.

It was the most beautiful creature she had ever seen, it blinked at her, somehow telling her that it was harmless. She immediately felt at ease with the deer, the deer seemed to glow gold, it was a soft light that illuminated from its glossy coat.

Shou Lang murmured and winced sharply, she looked down at him then up at the deer, the deer had long black eyelashes. It blinked at her again, its whole grace put her at ease, and she felt very calm.

The water rippled again and lapped at Shou Lang's chest and shoulders, the deer took another step on top of the water. It bent its long slender neck to her and stared at her with its large head just inches from hers. Then it looked at Shou Lang, she stared at him too.

Shou Lang opened his eyes, they dilated, she watched with her eyes wide but without fear. The deer looked down at Shou Lang's body in the water then shut its eyes. As it did so, the wind picked up sending the blossoms whirling down on top of their heads.

She looked up at the blossoms and held out her hand, a pink blossom landed in the palm of her hand, she looked at the deer and found that it was looking at her.

The wind stopped, the water rippled again and then the deer turned to leave, and as it did so Shou Lang stirred. On top of his chest was a leaf, it was shining gold and glittering, San picked it up delicately then turned to the deer but it was gone, and the tree remained.

...

The water lapped his shoulders; the wind shuddered around them both sending another shower of blossoms over them.

She held the leaf in her hand staring at the tree with a confusing sereneness about her, she wondered why she wasn't afraid, after all, the deer had come out of nowhere and walked on water, but strangely of all things it had left her the leaf.

She looked down at it, the leaf was shining, the stem was yellow with the soft glow of it, it was shaped like a spade.

Shou Lang moved again, this time moving his head the opposite direction.

She lowered the leaf and looked him over, she tilted his head up and put the leaf in between his cracking lips. "Chew," she told him.

Shou Lang resisted several times, but after a lot of coaxing and encouragement she got him to chew the leaf. He chewed weakly; she saw the movement working in his jaws, and then his throat move as he swallowed.

She cupped water in her hand and let him drink from it to wash it down, after he finished the water he laid back down with his eyes closed.

The color returned to his face and his lips slowly turned back to their normal color, his face was still slack but he looked as though he had improved a lot. The leaf had helped.

She looked back at the tree, "Thank you, god or demon you might be..."

The showering blossoms were her only reply.

5.

Sunlight streamed through the trees and spotted the grass around her. She opened her eyes and blinked several times, she looked in front of her at the lake. The tree was gone, but the petals around her remained, she lifted her head from Shou Lang's chest and looked around.

Pelican and Nitro stood together but Chip and Salem were nowhere to be seen.

"I must've dozed off," she said shaking her head several times.

She looked into Shou Lang's face and gasped, he looked normal. His eyes were still closed but his face had gained its color and shape. His shoulders were broader, hands bigger, and lips the normal color that they were, she noticed all of this in an instant and laughed.

"You're...you're all right!" she cried. "And I thought that it was all a dream!"

San grabbed his hand and squeezed it, she was so happy and relieved, tears met the corners of her eyes and she couldn't understand why, but she was too busy to care. She pressed his hand to her cheek closing her eyes.

Shou Lang murmured a little and twitched his nose and ears, she dropped his hand and stared into the lake teary-eyed. "The demon inside of him is gone...he's going to be all right now..." she said looking into the rippling lake.

She heard footsteps behind her, she turned, and Salem was standing by Pelican with Chip perched on his shoulder. Salem grinned, then his grin faded looking at Shou Lang. He came over and then stood back in amazement, "What the-?!"

"He's better!" cried Chip.

"But how the-?!"

"He's all right!" Chip squealed.

San smiled and looked down at Shou Lang, he was dozing with his mouth slightly open and eyes closed. She wiped the corners of her eyes and laughed.

"I don't...believe this!" said Salem incredulously.

Chip jumped on top of Shou Lang and buried his face in his chest wailing.

"Aw, Chip," Shou Lang said slurred with his eyes still closed. "You don't have to go and cry about it..."

"You're awake!" Salem and San cried together.

Chip looked up with red bangs falling into his eyes, "Shou Lang!" he wailed and hugged his neck. "Don't you ever do that again! You scared me half to death! We all thought that you were going to die!"

Shou Lang opened his eyes, she saw that they were crystal yellow.

She hadn't realized how much she had missed him until that moment when he opened his eyes, she felt more tears in the corners of her eyes again and looked into the trees away from them smiling to herself.

He's all right, he's going to live after all! I knew it, I knew it!

"How the hell did you recover so fast in one night?! What was San doing last night? Was the tonic I prepared really all that great?" she heard Salem say.

She heard Chip and Shou Lang laughing, it made her heart light hearing them laugh.

"I guess that tonic stuff really works," she heard Chip say.

She wiped her eyes and turned to look at them, Shou Lang was sitting up with Chip on his shoulder and Salem sitting down next to him. Her heart sang, she smiled and sat across from them.

Shou Lang made eye contact with her for a brief second, then he grabbed Chip and ran his knuckles in his scalp ignoring Chip's screams of protest. He was grinning, he was in a playful mood.

"What happened last night?" asked Salem looking at her.

She looked back into the lake, "Nothing..." she said absently, the water rippled with the breeze. She felt a petal beneath her fingers and picked it up.

"Something had to have happened," said Chip shaking his head. "A miracle, maybe."

A miracle? Maybe it was...

"Time to go," said Salem standing up, he helped her to her feet and dusted himself off. Then he looked at Shou Lang and cupped his hand over his shoulder, "Are you well enough to travel with us?"

"Well? Of course I am!" his casual cocky response was.

She smiled to herself again and walked ahead hugging Nitro's neck, Nitro pawed the grass with one hoof and then nuzzled and greeted Shou Lang tenderly. Shou Lang patted his head and then whispered something to him, Nitro nodded his head.

She gazed into the trees as Salem pulled himself on Pelican and Shou Lang got on top of Nitro. She stood on the ground looking out into the trees, she was just about to pull herself up when she saw movement in the distance bulk of trees.

Through the spotted sunlight she saw the form of a deer grazing casually, it looked up, then ran out of her sight. Blossoms trailed behind it...