Subuki Gaiden: An Ikebana Novel

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

- Edgar Allen Poe, "A Dream Within A Dream"

Chapter 1: "Birth of a Flower"

When the gentle sigh sounded, it did not go unnoticed; the tug was ever so faint and yet it reverberated with the power of a claxon to those who noticed. The gods stirred restlessly, feeling the pull in their veins; it was time, once again.

.x.x.x.

Moonlight filtered through the base of the scaffolding of Tokyo Tower. The silver light created shifting patterns of darkness across the ground; if one was looking closely, it might have appeared that the shadows themselves were bending around the moonlight. They swelled and coalesced briefly, and when they finally receded a man stood in their place, alone in the night. He was big and burly, with broad shoulders and a shock of unruly golden hair sprouting haphazardly from his head. He spun on his heel, searching his surroundings with narrowed eyes and then grimaced, revealing the glint of fangs.

"I hate this damn kingdom," he muttered under his breath. His eyes locked on a tiny patch of earth almost directly before his feet; shadows ringed a small lump of earth that shone almost too brightly against the darkness of the night. "So… here we go again," he said with a wry smile, squatting on his heels to inspect the mound of dirt more closely. A gentle wind blew past him, ruffling his hair. He pushed his bangs out of his face and scowled, tearing his gaze away from the ground.

"Lucifer." The softly-spoken greeting came from the short, frail-looking old man who was standing across from him. His face was wrinkled, and his golden eyes shone with kindness. Lucifer made a half-hearted attempt to control his wince of disgust.

"Yahoe," he responded, drawing himself up to his full height before inclining his head in the barest of nods towards the other man. "Can't say I'm happy to see the King of Heaven in person once again."

Yahoe chuckled softly, clasping his hands behind his back. "I must admit, I do not enjoy visiting the Earth Kingdom very much myself." He sighed and looked at the clod of dirt that Lucifer had been inspecting. "But we cannot ignore the call of the Ikebana."

"I'm not lettin' you have it, old man," Lucifer replied quickly, crossing his arms and fixing a menacing stare onto Yahoe.

"You are the regent of Hell, Lucifer," Yahoe sighed, shrugging his shoulders carefully. "It would behoove you to control your temper, don't you think?"

"You stay outta my business, and I'll stay outta yours," Lucifer growled. Then he bobbed his head at the ground. "And I got business with that flower." He paused and drummed his fingers over his forearms. "Don't make me go to war over this, Yahoe," he added tiredly. "I will, you know."

The old man smiled, though it was a bit strained. "I have no wish to instigate unnecessary tensions with an old friend such as yourself."

Lucifer noted the emphasis Yahoe had placed on his age. Yahoe was the eldest of the monarch-gods; he had been ruling the Kingdom of Heaven for as long as anyone could remember. And though he looked like a weak old man, ready to keel over at the slightest gust of wind, he had held firmly onto the reins of power for centuries. If it came to a battle between them, it would be a difficult fight. Age had also granted Yahoe with a strange sort of wisdom, or at least a patience that most of the other deities didn't possess.

"These weary eyes only wish to see Ikebana once again. Perhaps this time will be the last." Yahoe smiled and settled cross-legged before the small patch of earth. Lucifer regarded him suspiciously before sighing and joining him on the ground.

"You say that every time," he noted with a snort. Then he looked around again, drawing his brows together suspiciously. "Where are the others? Is Gaia finally gonna come this year?"

Yahoe shook his head. "She sleeps still. You know as well as I that Gaia cares little for the politics of the Four Kingdoms. She will not involve herself with the birth of Ikebana, neither tonight nor ever."

Lucifer snorted loudly, rolling his eyes. "I don't get that broad," he grumbled. "How can she still call herself a Queen? She doesn't do anything for her Kingdom at all. Just look at these humans! They've practically overrun the entire place, and most of them don't even know she exists!"

"It could be that she doesn't want them to know," the old man replied diplomatically. "As you said… it is not our place to question the ways of the other Kingdoms." He frowned slightly and looked at the moon. "How unusual… the time is almost upon us. Where is King Poseidon?"

Lucifer's scowl deepened and he hunched over, planting his chin in his palm and glaring at the ground angrily. "Don't know," he answered gruffly. "Don't like it, either. I don't trust that guy."

Yahoe smiled placidly. "You do not trust me either, do you Lucifer? And yet here you are, sitting with me peacefully."

"I don't have to trust you. I know you won't stab me in the back," Lucifer replied quickly. "There's a big damn difference between trust and respect. Least I respect you. And don't expect me to believe you'd let yourself get this comfortable with Poseidon, either!" Then he shifted uncomfortably and peered at the ground again. "You sure this is the right place?" he asked impatiently.

"Hmm," Yahoe murmured in agreement. "You know as well as I do that it is. You can feel it." Then his eyes opened fully; at the same time, both men stiffened. "It blooms."

.x.x.x.

A man leaned back in the shadows, a tiny smile playing over his face as he quietly listened to the conversation of the two gods sitting on the ground. So once again, Gaia won't be coming. Good… that will make my task much easier. He stooped and slumped against the scaffolding as a trembling thread of power washed through him; then he straightened up and smiled.

Ikebana… so you finally wake.

His smile widened, and his fingers tightened around the grip of the heavy trident he carried.

Come, then… and I will show these fools how an empire is truly made.

.x.x.x.

The spout pushed out of the ground with agonizing slowness; one by one, its petals unfolded, the dark pink bud lightening as the flower spilt open. The light seemed to shimmer around the blossom, gathering along the tips of the petals and dusting them with a golden glow. The true beauty of the flower lay in its center, however; light and color collided there, mixing to form a breathtaking sphere of energy. It held the two gods in an awed rapport, calling to them with its hypnotizing power.

Perhaps that was why they didn't notice the figure that quietly rose behind them; or perhaps it was because, when they were able to finally tear their eyes away from the flower, the barriers of jealousy and mistrust had risen between them once more, clearly defined by their desire to possess the strange flower. Either way, both men were completely unprepared for the mocking laugh that rose from the intruder's mouth.

"F#&!" Lucifer growled, scrambling to his feet and spinning around. "Poseidon!" He took in the poised trident of the other man instantly and stretched his arms upwards, clenching his teeth. Black tendrils of lightning crackled through the air, swirling around his fingertips, and space itself seemed to rip apart over his hands, tearing open into a blood-red gash. Lucifer reached in without hesitation and pulled a large axe from it; dull and black, it pulsed with a faint, unholy red glow. He spun it comfortably in his hands once before crouching with a feral grin, eyeing the other man coldly.

"Did you really come here just to fight, King Poseidon?" Yahoe interrupted. The old man had stepped in front of the blooming flower protectively; his hands were no longer behind his back, but held splayed before him, two fingers raised to his chest. He cut a deceptively simple figure against the crackling, angry auras of the two larger men; both knew better than to ignore him, however. The Regent of Heaven had never needed weapons to fight his battles.

"Is that any way to greet an old colleague?" Poseidon mocked in response, leaning on his trident with a bored grin. "Really, you two are overly suspicious for your own good. Perhaps you've been stuck in your own kingdoms for much too long. You really should get out more."

"We do not interfere in the affairs of the other Kingdoms," Yahoe responded sharply. "That is our codex, that is our law."

"Your law," Poseidon sneered. "Follow it if you wish. I've only come for Ikebana. You could say it's somewhat necessary for my plans. Now, if you'll just hand over the flower, I can leave you both in peace, rather than pieces."

"Like hell!" Lucifer roared, slashing his axe down possessively. "Ikebana will be mine!"

"Ikebana belongs to neither of you," Yahoe told them coolly, his eyes slitting open; gusts of wind began to circle around him, playing at his robes and lifting his beard. "Do not let yourself be swayed by greed, Lucifer," he added. "Can you not sense the greater threat here?"

"Old man," Lucifer grit out, edging closer to Yahoe. "We'll discuss the plant later."

Poseidon laughed loudly, hefting his trident with a gleam in his eye. "So it's to be two against one then? How… quaint." His smirk deepened into an evil grin, and he fell into a low crouch, tiny drops of moisture materializing in a circle around his feet and drifting upwards in a lazy disregard for the rules of logic and gravity. "Well then, gentlemen. Shall we let the games begin?"

.x.x.x.

"It's so beautiful…" She was entranced by the vision before her; a delicate flower, floating above her hands. Tiny motes of light drifted around it, and the barest shimmer of gold touched the tips of its petals, resting there like molten sunlight. It called to her, somehow; she felt its tug in her soul, pulling her towards it. Her fingers twitched, eager to feel the satin of its petals beneath their touch.

"What are you?" she asked, reaching for the blossom as though it could respond. She gasped as her fingertip grazed the edge of a single petal; it answered, though not with words. The flower burst open suddenly at the touch, spilling a soft, soothing light from its core into her outstretched hands. She tried to look into the center of the blossom, but it was bright, much too bright; as her hands wrapped around the stem, she heard a whisper slip through her mind, and she knew the name of the flower she held.

"Ikebana."

The light wavered, and a smile traced her face. Gently, she loosened her grip and released the stem, dropping the flower from her numb fingers. It slowly drifted towards her feet, but the light grew brighter and shattered before she could see it touch the ground.

"Ohh!"

Subuki shot out of her bed with a gasp, her blankets snarled around the lower half of her body from her restless twisting and turning during sleep. Her heart was pounding, and her eyes darted around the room suspiciously searching for intruders before she let out a long sign.

"Just another dream," she mumbled, dropping her head into her hands with a groan. She winced and rubbed her forehead tenderly; the dream-visions that often plagued her always left a pounding headache in their wake. "Being a miko is definitely more trouble than it's worth," she muttered to herself, angrily pushing the blankets aside and struggling to her feet. "What did I ever do to deserve this kind of karma anyway?" she continued to grouse, shoving her feet into the slippers by her bed and trudging towards the small bathroom. "Here, have a vision or two, Subuki. Oh, why don't you inherit some of those miko powers, Subuki. Why, we haven't seen it this strong in generations, Subuki!" She slammed the switch in the bathroom up angrily, wincing as the harsh white light burned her eyes. Then she made her way to the sink and flipped open the tap, dipping her hands into the cold water and splashing her face mercilessly with it. When she was sure the last vestiges of the dream had been washed away, she shut off the water and looked up, swiping her eyes dry with the back of her hands.

A solemn little girl stared back at her from the mirror, dark rings circling under her coal-black eyes. She looked tired and worn, her hair stringy and her face pinched and pale. The girl reached out towards her and smiled faintly; it was a sad smirk, with no trace of the joy or humor that should have graced such a young child's face.

Subuki rested her fingertips on the cool glass of the mirror, letting the smile drop. "I'm only twelve," she said to herself softly. "Why do I have to lead the clan?" The girl in the mirror stared back with her silent eyes, accusing, the answer as plain as day on her porcelain face. Because you are Subuki Matobo, last heir of the Matobo demon hunting clan, at least ever since she disappeared. Because it's your duty. Because of your honor.

"It's not fair," Subuki replied sullenly, dropping her hand away.

"It rarely is, miss."

Subuki whirled around, glaring daggers at the tiny middle-aged man who was standing at the door of the bathroom. He smiled at her and bowed slightly, a silent apology for his intrusion.

"What are you doing here, Shinshi?" Subuki asked curtly, reaching for a towel and quickly drying off her face.

"I heard a noise, and I thought I would check up on you," he answered, stepping aside as she stormed out of the bathroom and towards her closet. He followed her a few paces into the room, quirking an eyebrow when she flung her miko uniform onto the bed. When she grabbed a hairbrush out of her nightstand and began to run it through her hair in rough, harsh strokes, he quickly moved behind her and extracted it from her grasp. "Please, allow me," he chided her gently.

Subuki scowled at him, but remained still as he began to carefully brush out her long, dark hair. "I'm not a baby anymore, Shinshi. You don't have to come running every time I have a bad dream," she complained.

"Another nightmare?" he sighed, hovering the brush over her head uncertainly. "Did you have another vision, miss?" he asked her cautiously.

Subuki pursed her lips together and frowned. "… I don't know," she answered uncertainly. "It wasn't one of my normal dreams," she mused. "This time, I just saw a flower, nothing else. I don't know what it means, though…"

"Just a flower," Shinshi repeated, carefully binding her hair back with a loose tie. "And that's why you're preparing to rise at…" He spared a quick glance over to the small glowing clock on Subuki's nightstand. "… four in the morning. Goodness, even for a shrine maiden that's rather early, don't you think?"

"I can't sleep anymore, okay?" Subuki answered sourly. "I'll just go to the dojo and meditate for a little while. I'll be careful not to wake anyone up!"

Shinshi dropped his hands onto Subuki's shoulders and gave her a reassuring squeeze. "You don't have to explain your actions to us, miss. You are, after all, our leader. We will follow your orders without question." He paused, and a small smile flickered across his face. "Even if they do involve waking up at ungodly hours to meditate in the dojo."

In spite of her sour mood, Subuki felt herself grinning at Shinshi's words. The man was one of her senior advisors and her closest friend; he had always been a mentor and emotional support for her through thick and thin. "I'll be fine by myself, Shinshi. Go back to bed. That's an order," she instructed him.

"As you wish," Shinshi replied, giving her a low bow and backing out of the room.

Subuki waited until she heard the door shut behind him, and then let out a soft sigh. Though she knew Shinshi only meant the best for her, sometimes his gentle concern grated on her nerves. She quickly donned her miko garments and paused to look at herself in the full-length mirror of the room.

The solemn girl that stared back at her coldly was almost intimidating in the formal costume that she wore; she hardly appeared to be the twelve-year-old that she really was. "I look like her," she murmured, tilting her head and squinting in concentration. The image in the mirror shifted and wavered, and she saw an older miko standing in her place; taller, with higher cheekbones and a graceful, feminine air that Subuki never managed to capture no matter how she tried. The dark eyes and the china-white skin were exactly the same, however; but for the woman's cascading blonde hair, the two girls could have been sisters - which, in fact, they were.

"Pip," Subuki murmured to herself.

"I'll always be here for you," the girl in the mirror whispered to her with a smile.

Subuki squeezed her eyes shut and willed the memory away. When she opened them again, it was only her own reflection looking back at her. "Liar," she whispered harshly before turning away. She flipped the latch on the window and pushed it open, letting the cool breeze sweep into the room. It was early fall, and while the weather was still temperate, there was already a chill bite to the early morning wind. Subuki smiled, reveling in the cold; warmth and comfort were, in her mind, meant to be reserved for times of happiness.

She closed her eyes and pressed her hands together, praying silently. Like all of her ancestors in the Matobo clan, Subuki possessed the supernatural miko powers that allowed her to hunt demons so successfully. Among them was the ability to assume a spirit form, a totem of nature that a miko identified most clearly with. Most members of the clan had spent years meditating to create a connection that would allow them to shapeshift; even Pip had waited until she was sixteen to assume a unique form.

Subuki hadn't had that luxury. Just another one of the "wonderful miko gifts" that I'd rather not have had, she thought sourly as she tapped into the magic in her soul, feeling her body bend and shift with her thoughts. It was always just a little bit painful to transform; she wasn't sure if it was because of her age or simply because she lacked mastery of the skill necessary to completely assume a new shape. Either way, she let out a yawn of relief when it was over and stretched, arching her back and extending her claws.

"Just another typical restless night," she murmured to herself, leaping to the windowsill and letting her ears swivel back and forth as she drank in the sounds and smells of the night. In her smaller cat body, everything she experienced was louder and sharper than when she was a human; it usually took her a few moments to orient herself against the rush of sensation. When she felt she was ready, she carefully leapt down onto the ground and padded her way silently across the moonlit courtyard.

Should I meditate in the dojo? she thought to herself restlessly. I know what I told Shinshi… but maybe I'll just cut loose and have some fun instead. Hah! Subuki Matobo, mouse hunter extraordinaire. Nagano would never let me live that one down. Cats couldn't normally smirk, but Subuki did an excellent job of coming close as she switched course and made her way towards the shrine gate. "Mmmmrrrow," she purred to herself. "Freedom, if just for one night."

.x.x.x.

"W-we really s-s-shouldn't abandon our posts," Yoroshi squeaked nervously as his companion hefted a wicked-looking spear over her shoulder. She ignored him in favor of fastening the gate, murmuring a few words that caused a glyph to form over the closed doors.

"This seal will have to hold until we get back," the woman replied, glaring at the boy beside her. "Bring your sling, Yoroshi," she demanded, tapping her foot impatiently.

"B-but Enma! I don't like fighting!" he pleaded, his eyes growing large and watery.

Enma hissed in annoyance as her eyebrow twitched. "I have no idea what Raphael was thinking when he gave you this assignment," she muttered under her breath. Then she refocused her glare on the cowering boy and pointed the butt of her spear at him with a fierce expression. "Yoroshi, you will get your sling, and you'll get it NOW," she growled. "Our lord is in danger, and we're the only ones who can protect him."

"B-but our duty is to guard the Gate!" Yoroshi replied, twisting his hands together nervously.

"Yoroshi, you are an angel of the Tenth Circle! You serve directly under General Raphael himself! You, boy, are a Soldier of Heaven! Now pull yourself together and start acting like one!" she roared at him.

"But I don't want to be a soldier!" he whined. Enma's glare intensified, and with a small sniffle, he drew his palms together, forming a cross. Light filled the space between his hands, and he clapped them quickly. When he pulled them apart, the light had disappeared, leaving a small, pathetic-looking sling in its place. It looked more like a child's toy than a weapon, though somehow it was perfectly suited to the cowering boy who held it.

His more Amazonian companion simply gave another sigh and rolled her eyes upward, grabbing Yoroshi by the collar. "Come on," she said, clenching her teeth tightly and parting the misty clouds with a wave of her spear. "We're going to Earth." It was the only warning she gave her companion before she leapt forward, sending them both plummeting towards the distant ground below.

.x.x.x.

Lucifer grunted, staggering. Blood was oozing from the deep wound in his side, and he grit his teeth and tried to stand. His legs, however, wouldn't obey him, and he fell to his knees with a sharp gasp.

"Finished so soon already?" Poseidon's cruel taunt made Lucifer grimace in disgust and clutch his axe even more tightly. "It's as I've always suspected," Poseidon continued lazily, whirling his trident in easy, looping arcs as he approached the flower. "You denizens of the Hell Kingdom burn so brightly… always ready to fight, but with no discipline whatsoever. This was almost too easy." He smirked and directed his attention to the old man, who was sprawled senselessly across the concrete, a small trickle of blood leaking from his mouth.

"Yahoe, on the other hand. Now he was a real challenge. A pity he's so old," he said mockingly. "Who would've guessed that he held such regard for you, Lucifer? Why he bothered to save your life at all is beyond me." He shrugged, kneeling by the blooming flower, an evil smile stretching across his face. "No matter… Ikebana shall be mine, and there's nothing either of you can do to stop me," he laughed. The laugh dropped away and he sprung to his feet, leaping back from the flower moments before a bolt of lightning struck the ground where he had been.

"Heretic!" Enma landed with a thump onto the scorched ground, glaring daggers at Poseidon.

"You fool!" he snarled at her, whipping his trident around. "You nearly damaged the flower!"

"That's not the only thing I'm going to damage around here," she promised, clutching her spear tightly.

"Enma!" Yoroshi's panicked voice interrupted them; the boy was kneeling by Yahoe's side, carefully lifting the old man up, his face pale with fright. "King Yahoe, he's…"

"… still alive. Damn," Poseidon finished, his face drawing into a scowl.

"You're… the one… who'll be damned," Lucifer ground out, stumbling to his feet and using his axe as a prop. "I'll take you… to Hell… myself!"

"King Lucifer!" Enma gasped, her spear wavering between the two gods uneasily.

"Large talk from a would-be soldier," Poseidon sneered at her. "Be a good pet and look after your fallen god," he told her. "Even that dog Lucifer would be more of a challenge than you, you pathetic angel."

"Angel? I'll show you what a mere angel can do," Enma promised dangerously, brandishing her spear.

So caught up in the trade of insults were the three combatants that they didn't notice when Yahoe's eyes fluttered open; they didn't see him lean his head towards Yoroshi and whisper a few words to the frightened boy. Nor did they notice when Yoroshi crept towards the magic flower and carefully plucked it from the ground, forming a bottle out of light and dropping the blossom into it. They did notice, however, when Yoroshi drew back his sling and shot a sizzling ball of energy into the ground between them, one that flared up into a solid wall of light, blinding them momentarily.

Poseidon also noticed when the light faded that he stood alone under the tower. The only remnants of the recent battle were the splashes of blood that were splattered across the ground and over his trident.

"Ikebana," he growled, swearing as he saw the loose patch of earth where once the flower had stood. "Damn you, Yahoe," he snarled to himself. Then he raised his arm, and with a crash of water, he was gone.

.x.x.x.

Subuki paused mid-stride, her tail extended and her nose lifted to the air, twitching. "Something's coming," she muttered uneasily, bristling as she sunk into the grass. She hadn't managed to get very far from the shrine when the waves of spiritual energy assaulted her senses; even in her cat form, they were strong enough to raise her hackles. Demon hunting was a part of the everyday life of the Matobo Clan; none of them could be easily cowed by the presence of intense spiritual pressure. What she felt, however, eclipsed anything she had ever sensed before; it was as though the gods themselves were passing through the Earth. She might have gotten up and run right then if she had realized how right she was.

"Argh!" Lucifer yelled as he came tumbling out of the sky in a flash of light, rolling to a stop with a groan.

"King Lucifer!" Enma yelled after him as she landed on her feet, her spear at the ready. "What are you doing in the Earth Kingdom anyway? You don't belong here!"

"E-enma! Help!" Yoroshi's panicked cry cut through the air, and after a quick glance upward, Enma cursed and threw her spear to the ground. She leapt up just in time to snatch Yahoe out of the smaller angel's arms, safely guiding the injured old man to the ground. The boy was not so lucky, landing painfully on his chin with a loud thump before falling over.

"My lord! Are you alright?" Enma asked hurriedly, carefully checking over the old man for wounds.

Yahoe ignored her, stirring faintly and cracking his eyes open. His gaze landed directly on Subuki, who remained deathly still, trying to hide herself in the tall grass. "Human child," he rasped, pointing a finger at her. "Show us your true form."

Me? Subuki thought, panicking. She didn't even have time to consider his words; as the strange old man pointed at her, she felt herself transforming, as though he was pulling her out of her totem shape against her will. She looked up in shock, still on her hands and knees in a very undignified position when she regained her human form, and quickly sat up with a dark blush. "Who are you people?" she asked, studying them warily.

"How dare you address Lord Yahoe with such disrespect!" Enma growled, glaring angrily at Subuki.

"Please, Enma. It's quite alright," Yahoe managed to cough out, giving her a placating smile. He turned his attention back to Subuki and grinned weakly. "I must… apologize for dropping in on you like this, Subuki Matobo."

Subuki flinched, willing herself not to step backwards. It wasn't that difficult, because shock had frozen her in place from the moment Enma opened her mouth. Yahoe… Lord Yahoe. That's Lord Yahoe, the King of Heaven himself! And if she's Enma… Her gaze roamed over to Yoroshi, who was sitting up slowly and rubbing his head with a wince. … then that is Yoroshi… two angels, the legendary guardians of Hell's Gate. But what are they doing here, on Earth? She swallowed loudly and dropped to her knees, bowing low. "F-forgive me, my lord," she mumbled hastily. "I hadn't recognized you!"

"Humans," Enma said scornfully, carefully helping a weakened Yahoe to his feet.

"Almost as bad as you stuck-up angels," Lucifer spat, having managed to drag himself towards the others.

Subuki's head shot up at the sound of his voice, followed quickly by the rest of her body. "You!" she hissed, anger beginning to boil through her chest. "How dare you return to this kingdom!" she grated out, her voice rising in fury.

Lucifer stopped walking and turned to stare at her, blinking in confusion. The curiosity slowly faded into recognition, and a wane smile crossed his face. "Ahh, little Subuki," he said crossly. "Still busy being a thorn in my side, are you?" His gaze traveled up and down her trembling form, and his smirk widened. "Nice robes," he added with a sneer. "Though they looked better on your sister."

"You would know, you lecherous old bastard!" she screeched, her hands balling into fists. "Answer my question, what are you doing back here on Earth?"

"He is here for the same reason I am," Yahoe interrupted her gently. He gestured for Yoroshi, who stepped forward hesitantly. "Little miko… I'm afraid I must place another burden on your shoulders."

"Umm…" Yoroshi said uncertainly, and smiled when Yahoe gave him a firm nod. He drew the small flask from his pocket, and everyone's breath caught as the flower within it lit up the night with its brilliant golden shine. "I think this is meant for you," Yoroshi told Subuki nervously as he pressed the bottle into her numb hands.

"This flower…" Subuki murmured, entranced by its unearthly beauty. This is the flower from my dream. "… why me?" she choked out in surprise, seeking out Yahoe's knowing face.

"Yeah, why her?" Lucifer cut in crossly, holding his side. "I nearly got shish kebabed for that thing, and now you're just handing it over to a damn human?"

"Demon! You should show more respect to your savior!" Enma hissed, bristling at Lucifer with barely contained hostility. "Don't think we don't know that Lord Yahoe was injured saving you from Poseidon's wrath!"

Lucifer snarled at her, his face growing dark, and Enma paled in response and quickly dropped her head in submission. Even injured, he was far more than a mere demon; he was the King of Hell for a reason. Still, his gaze fell off of her and landed on the old man, and a guilty expression crossed his features. "So why her?" he asked again, this time with a note of reservation.

"Because she is a powerful miko," Yahoe replied, looking directly into Subuki's eyes. "You know we cannot remove Ikebana from this kingdom. We cannot risk a war, not when Poseidon has already made his move. And we cannot remain here. It goes against the divine codex."

"Like Poseidon is even botherin' with that!" Lucifer protested, wincing. "What makes you think that a mortal can protect Ikebana all by herself?"

"Excuse me," Subuki interrupted softly, still awed by the flower in her hands. "This… Ikebana… what exactly is it?"

The others fell silent and exchanged uneasy glances with each other. Yahoe spoke first, his voice gentle. "I'm afraid that is not for mortals to know, little miko."

The wonderment dropped away from Subuki's face, slowly being edged out by a dull anger. The presence of a god and a demon notwithstanding, she wasn't thrilled at being nominated for a new and potentially dangerous duty against her will. "You mean you want me to protect this thing from whatever it is that can beat up two gods and two angels, but you won't even tell me why it's so special?"

"Why? Can't handle it?" Lucifer asked her with a smirk. "Pip wouldn't have complained about something like this," he added nastily.

"I'm not Pip," Subuki shot back with a dark scowl.

"But you are a Matobo," Lucifer replied quickly. Then he frowned. "I hate to admit it, but the old bastard is right. Neither of us is capable of protecting Ikebana right now, not in the shape we're in."

"You are a powerful miko," Yahoe interspersed, giving Subuki an encouraging smile. "Much more powerful than many who have come before you, despite your youth." He winced and reached out, resting a hand on Subuki's shoulder, and she flushed in dismay.

I've been complimented by Lucifer and touched by God in the space of a minute, she thought with a nervous shiver. Just another normal day in the life of Subuki Matobo.

"It is a great responsibility, but I know you are capable of handling it," Yahoe was saying to her. "You must simply keep it safe and hidden from prying eyes until the time that we can return to protect the flower ourselves." He caught her eye and gave her an encouraging smile. "Have faith. I know you will succeed in this." Then he seemed to crumple on himself, his face growing ashen as he leaned heavily into Enma's arms.

"My lord!" she said quickly, her lips tightening with concern. "Yoroshi," she commanded. "Get over here. We're bringing the king back to Heaven right now."

"But Enma -" Yoroshi began, giving Subuki a sympathetic look.

"NOW, YOROSHI!" she yelled, gathering the old man into her arms and standing up. She turned to Lucifer and shot him an evil glare. "If you respect the divine codex at all, you'll also leave this kingdom, demon." With that, she leapt into the air, golden light swirling about her as her wings unfurled. With her humanoid form shedding as she rose, the holy aura that filled the air became unbearable, and Subuki had to squeeze her eyes shut and look away. She peered cautiously between her fingers when the light faded, and saw only Lucifer standing before her, doubled over almost completely and still clutching his side.

"F&$, I hate it when they do that," he was mumbling to himself, rubbing at his eyes. "Those damned angels know it burns!"

Carefully, Subuki reached into her sleeve and pulled out a small slip of paper. She whispered a charm and the paper crackled to life, standing up straight. With the divine presence gone, she trusted Lucifer as far as she could throw him. Which was to say, not at all. She wasn't sure how effective her demon-hunting charms would be against the King of Hell himself, but she knew that she wasn't going to go down without a fight. To her surprise, however, Lucifer didn't attack her. He simply straightened up and gave her a wry smile.

"Relax, kid," he sneered at her. "Pip would never forgive me if I killed her baby sister." He winced, glancing at the blood oozing from his side in a slow river of red.

Subuki didn't move, clutching her o-fuda tightly, ready to let it fly at the slightest movement.

He rolled his eyes and fixed her with a hard stare. "Keep Ikebana safe," he instructed her curtly. "It's worth more than all of you useless humans combined." Then with a scowl, the shadows rose around him; when they collapsed, he was gone, and Subuki was alone in the field, clutching the bottled flower against her chest.

"Ikebana," she repeated to herself, looking down at the flower once more. "What are you?"