Disclaimer: Rituals used to avoid bad luck. Throwing salt over one's right shoulder after it has been spilt. Do not walk under a ladder. Perform a silly dance when mentioning the name of the Scottish play, and giving credit to all owners, distributors and holders of copyright licenses on the names of the characters used in this piece of fiction. And it can be promised on the highest authority, the said author of this piece does state that she follows all of these practices, especially the one about Mac Beth (ahhhh, runs away from computer to perform silly dance). You can't be too careful.

Notes: Warning, there is next to no sex, swearing, or violence in this story, if anything, there is only a few dirty thoughts and semi-angst, so read at your own discretion, probably better to just give the warning in any case, just to cover all angles. This was a story idea born out of Adimra's third contest, based on the drawings out of a doujinshi, particularly the title page of 'The Prince and the Show girl'. The story also somewhat reflects the idea behind Fuushgi Yuugi, well if anyone has seen that anime they might know what I'm talking about. I also apologise right now, and admit no real knowledge about Japan, Japanese legend, history or culture, just a smidgen of what I have seen, read or have been told.


The Memories of Spirit and Sword
By: Toshiba


Part I


That was the plan, she repeated once more in her head, the young woman wiping her long blue hair out of her eyes as the wind whipped her mane about, making her search all the more frantic. So far she had run up and down platform fifteen, as well as the five platform before and after it, her blue eyes searching for the distinctive muscular figure, spiked hair, and handsomely scarred face of her boyfriend, and so far she had come up with nothing.

"Damn it." The Capsule Corp heiress cursed under her breath, again wiping her unbound hair away from her face as she looked up at the central clock in the train station. Normally she would have taken pleasure in the warm breeze, the first sign of the coming spring, of rebirth and renewal, as this trip was supposed to be for her and Yamcha. This was supposed to be a time for them to rekindle what they had before and with any hope, find a life together before the boy's warnings came true. Instead, she had but seven minutes before the train left, and it looked as if the man of her dreams would not be on it. Maybe it was just traffic, that was it, he was held up somewhere, he was caught up in his training and was just running behind, but with every second that ticked away on the giant clock, her hopes gave way to her fears. Visions of him with another woman, out drinking with his friends, or simply ignoring her were creeping in and there was little she could do to stop the onslaught. He wouldn't just break a promise though, they had spent weeks planning this trip, every detail decided between the two of them, from the relaxing, romantic location, the itinerary, to the fact that they would be taking the train. It would be an escape, he had said on the night he dropped the various coloured procures into her lap. Just the two of them to get away from the impeding 'end of the world', from the stresses of her office, his training, but most importantly, from the horror that was the Prince of the Saiyajins.

"Last call for the express to Kofu and Numazu, leaving from platform fifteen, all passengers please make your way to platform fifteen, the train will be leaving in two minutes." Last call, Yamcha, Bulma said under her breath, but she was slowly losing hope that he would run down the platform and sweep her off her feet. Her shoulders began to slump in defeat, the hurried, annoyed look plastered to her face was now turning pouty and sullen, even the wind was dying down against the inevitable truth, she was alone in more ways than one. Holding back the many emotions that were bubbling towards the surface, she instead walked calmly back towards her first class private suite, pulling down the smart blue and white pantsuit that she bought for the occasion. She smoothed down her wildly blown hair and stepped onto the train as the door slid closed, and with a small jerk, sped away from West Capital Station, from her responsibilities, and her woes. Don't think about him, she chanted to herself, like a mantra through her head as she walked through the passenger cars to get to her own private room, her eyes licking over each down-turned dark head in the last lingering hope. But hope, it seemed, was not with her today, though she was on a train bound for a week at a renowned hot spring spa, a young, rich, beautiful woman, the one thing she still dreamed of eluded her, and the harsh pit of disappointment was forming in her stomach. She had glanced over every face on the whole train, even glance out the window a few times to see if by some insanity he was flying outside the train, racing to her side, but it was not to be. Resigning herself finally to the reality of her situation, she was at last in front of the private room she had booked for herself for the duration of the journey, the door sliding open with the swipe of her key card. The door had hardly shut itself before Bulma let her emotions flow down her cheeks and out of her mouth, uncaring of the eyes or ears that may have been witness to her tirade.

– _ —

"Hello, Kaasan, Tousan, well, it looks like Yamcha didn't show, but I've decided to forget him and I'm going on to the spa anyway. If he comes around tell him that he knew the time, date and place, and I'm not going to accept any excuses, he knew how important this was to us, and if he thinks it's so unworthy that he can just forget about it than he can forget about me too. Anyway, the number and address is on the refrigerator if you need to get in touch with me, as long as Vegeta doesn't eat it along with our whole kitchen. Try not to get him too spoiled while I'm gone, Kaasan. See you in a week." There, that wasn't so difficult, Bulma replied to herself, even as she kept her shaking to a minimum, she had said the word, put her foot down, even if it was to her parents and told to their answering machine. After finally calming down enough to speak in a normal tone, she called her parents and left a message, taking shot at the two men in her life, or the thorns in her side, as she referred to them; when had her life become such a soap opera? Okay, maybe it had always been a little bizarre and over the top, it should have been fairy tale, the story of a rich, beautiful, brilliant girl going out into the world and finding her dream man, her 'prince' or 'knight in shining armour'. She even went to the ends of the earth searching for legends, with a cast of characters that would do any fantasy, or comedic novel, to shame. How different her life was then, wild and untamed, unbound by her responsibilities, free to roam and find herself, to dream and wish for the possibilities, any desire in her head. She had found it all, friendship, adventure, happiness, a sense of security, love, all the things that she had dreamed of and read about, all the things that she could never buy with her family's money, but nothing seemed to last forever. The end of the adventure came with her oldest and dearest friend's wedding, to Chichi of all women, but they were happy, and even had a family, and even with their problems, the same looked possible for her and Yamcha, until Radditz, and the Saiyajins. Then came Namek, and Freeza, and the bright world she had found was thrust away, all of the things she had worked so hard for in her youth destroyed by the will of another. As devastating as the last few years had been, it too had been as enlightening as her youth, the importance of these things she had begun to take for granted was coming to the forefront. As of late, she was holding on to everything she could, trying to keep some of the love she had known before, the desire growing even stronger as the date of the androids' attack drew nearer.

"Well, that is one reason." She admitted, allowing her finger to trace out the lines of her cell phone, staring intently at tiny glowing screen as she studied the number and name on the display, contact just a button away. Oh Yamcha, what is happening to us? Once he was everything she could have wished for, a rogue, a rugged, dangerous desert bandit, brave and strong, loyal, even if he was afraid of women, she helped him over that one. They were so right for each other, but that was long ago, in a different time, their love was born of youth, and the transfer through adulthood, civilisation and respectability had not been kind. Despite their best efforts, and due to their stubborn, wilful natures, their relationship had suffered over the last few years, the spark between them, which had burned before his death, had begun to dim; the decline a steady one that neither wished to notice or speak about. And the ambivalence might have gone on unnoticed until Vegeta, dear Kami, Vegeta, Vegeta, Vegeta, the terror of her life, the source of her woes, her stress, every problem in her life; what was she thinking when she invited him to stay? Out of the kindness of her heart she offered him a place to stay, a roof over his head, food to fill his bottomless stomach, even a place to train, and he had been a nightmare ever since, or the perfect image of a spoiled Prince. Sure he was handsome, maybe even what some might call gorgeous, if you liked the strong, dark, muscle-bond, brooding types, with those black, penetrating eyes. Okay, so she did like to look at him in those spandex body suits, or after his training sessions, with that tanned skin and sweaty, naked chest … well, on paper it was a good combination, but living in the same house with the monkey Prince was quite another story.

Beyond his greater than thou attitude which was driving her crazy, the man was a walking argument waiting to happen, every time they were in the same room sparks seem to fly, both with their words and their glares. If only she had the strength to do it, she would kick his butt out of her house, off her grounds and off her planet, get the little bastard out of her life for good, and she might have kept that opinion, if it weren't for that damn explosion. She had to give him credit, even his injuries and destructive mistakes were calculated to strike at the most annoying time. Her family had sat down for a pleasant tea when he overloaded the gravity room, blowing up the whole room and could very well have taken out the whole compound. That in itself was not what annoyed her the most, a few minutes before she had been complaining to her mother about him and how the older woman fawned all over him. When the alarm went, she was the first one out the door, and the first to run into the flaming rubble to find him, disregarding all personal safety, all previous disputes, all sense and reason. And when he had crawled his way through the rubble, how she supported him, cradling him in her arms like a mother, easing his pain, and rushed him to the sick bay. It must have been some kind of madness, or the need to make sure he didn't destroy the house and complete his streak but she stayed by his side the whole time, sometimes holding his hand, even stroking his temple when he began to moan in his sleep. His injuries had left them all in a state of shock, her mother though still teased her about the way she acted, even she had to blush when she woke the next morning with a stiff back, a blanket draped over her shoulder and an empty bed beside her. Nothing had happened but she still felt odd about the whole episode, as if something had. Yamcha noticed it as well; the animosity between the two males had always been there, always been fierce, but now, it was on a new level, and the night after, he confessed that he wanted more from their relationship, and asked her to go away with him.

She should have known, she huffed, breaking away from the memories, he always did have the worst time remembering anything, dates, times; she always suspected that it was another woman, or women, but maybe she had been too harsh on him. What if it really was traffic, what if he thought to surprise her by getting there early, she was too hasty in saying it was over, maybe … maybe the dragon Shelong stepped on him and he was floating through heaven with a halo and wings. She would drive herself crazy with this, and this trip was supposed to be her time to relax, leave all of these silly concerns back in West Capitol, besides, nothing said she couldn't have fun in this place by herself. There was at least one thing she could give Yamcha credit for, he sure could pick a beautiful place, it was a charming little spa, with natural hot springs, and beautiful surrounding woods, with Mt. Fuji's slopes in the horizon. A perfect little getaway spot, ideally suited for honeymoons, well that little fact would have to wait and see, how that the most likely candidate to fill that position for her was in the doghouse. It was also near the site of a feudal dynastic seat, and various legends and stories of water spirits and magic were told of that area, the hints of a great tale enough inducement to make Bulma buy a book about the region. Deciding to make the best of the situation fate had thrust upon her, she skimmed past the descriptions of the local shopping and the quality of the hotel rooms to the last fourth of the book, to the index of local myths and legends. Several existed, myths about the hot springs and their power existing since the early times of the first peoples in Japan. Those too, like the travel information, she took a glance to until she reached the story of the great Daimyo warrior, who saved his province from invasion that was led by a powerful Northern Daimyo of Fuyu province during the Onin war. Sent away at an early age by the guidance of the province's most respected seer, he was made to learn 'the way', of the Bushido code and the arts of the samurai, in the hopes that through the way he would become a great ruler, warrior, and man. The legend told that the young Daimyo was to earn his throne through bravery and humility, through kindness, loyalty and courage and only when the time came for him to return to his throne. But how would they know should a thing, the Daimyo and his council of warriors had demanded of the seer, if the boy is to be sent away, how is he to be found when the time comes, how will they know when it is time? The fates themselves will give us sign, the brave seer replied, a water spirit will appear before bearing seals of hope and love and she will lead the Prince to his destiny. She had just read up to point where reports of the enemy Daimyo had killed his father and taken control of the army, and was amassing a force of ninja warriors to attack the province. The Prince, under the advice of the seer, had been left alone for twenty years to study the arts, and since that day there had been no word if the prince was alive or dead, it seemed he had simply vanished off the face of the earth. Fear that the rightful heir to the throne would never be found was running rampant, coupled with fear of the possible invasion all came to a head the night when the first shadow raid by the ninja army. That night there was an attempt made on the elder Daiymo's life, thankfully it was foiled but desperation was setting in, and there appeared to be no hope in sight that the people would survive. The Daimyo called again on his great seer, asking for advice as to what the fate of province would be; patience was the seer answered, the water spirit will come and lead us to our salvation.

Her eyes were almost half closed before Bulma jerked herself awake and stared down at the book in her hands, then out at the receding view beyond the train, no more than two in the afternoon and already she felt ready to call it a night. Must be those late nights repairing Vegeta's training robots with her father that was tiring her out, or it is just the association between simple fairy tale and her memories of her mother when she was growing up. Not one night went by when her mother wouldn't come to her room and tell her stories, wonderful tales from the West and East, her mother learned them all from her own nannies and caretakers when she was the daughter of a European diplomat. One of those great memories of youth, she used to fall asleep to the sound of her mother's voice, dreaming about what it would be like to live those stories. She wouldn't be surprised if those stories gave birth to the first tentative steps of her own exploration the world, once she had found her own myth of course. Thinking about the past did nothing more than make her think about Yamcha and the circle began all over again, but all the anger was gone now, eaten up in her earlier tirade. Still engrossed in reading more of her legend, the spirit to keep reading and weak to the need for sleep, must be the gentle whirl of the train or those nights catching up with her, but she was having trouble staying awake. She slipped off her heels and rubbed her sore feet, then lazily walked over to the plush couch, easing herself against the back before taking one last yawn and stretch. Blinking away the heaviness now overwhelming her eyelids, she looked over at the opened book still left on the secure wooden coffee table. The stiff pages spanned out from the binding like a multicoloured fan, bright photographs of the area and prints of the mythic characters swayed back and forth with the gentle movement of the train, but only one print captured Bulma's fleeting attention. Taking up a whole page, it was a print of a handsome young man, his features striking, his black eyes gazing out at her, the look so intense that not even time or distance could lessen it. Had she been in her normal state of avid curiosity, she might have thought it unusual, but another sway of the train it was gone, replaced by the print of a golden bird, the two images burned into his brain as she finally closed her eyes.

– _ —

It was early in the day, the mists of dawn that prowled about the woodlands and the slopes of the sleeping volcanic giant still clung upon the land, keeping the world under its haze until the rising of Amaterasu, whose beauty and light gave life to the world. This day though, would begin with a sad heart, the mist hiding all signs of the horrors, which had gone on the night before, but these events could not be hidden from the minds of men. From several homes in the surrounding city of Senzai, the candle light and incense smoke of memorial shires burned from dozens of small family homes for those caught unaware by the sudden attack, soon to be joined by a larger one in the local temple. All of the mourning the people of the Hazumi province would have for their dead was soon to be overshadowed, for a cloud of fear hung over every head that resided under these roofs that was thicker than the retreating fog. It was late that night when a decision had been made, an alert called out and teams of riders sent out to even corner of the land to spread the word, the simple yet frightening reality poised on every warrior's lips: Senzai has been attacked, we are at war.

Already outside the stately Daimyo residence, with its complex sloping roofs, the carved sachi which lined the roofs appearing to swim through the fog, which hid the white tenshu-kaku which towered above all other structures in the capital, the shouts from inside echoed loudly, only one topic was on everyone's mind and lips, the attack the night before, and what could be done.

"I say we lead an assault directly into Fuyu territory and end the matter once and for all. We all know that this will be only the first attack, more will come, we must act before the Hiyayaka can bring more harm."

"How do we even know it is them, not one guard or warrior saw the attacker's face, we can't even be sure if they were sent by the Hiyayaka. The whole land has been in a state of unrest, the new Emperor on the Imperial throne is too young and the infighting between the Daimyos and his father's old advisors is growing worse everyday. Ronin warriors are sweeping through the land, reports of murders and theft are running rampant, and no warrior who call themselves honourable would dare attack Senzai in such a manner, nor could I believe that the Hiyayaka could be so underhanded." The words were hardly out of the man's mouth before a dozen calls for his head followed, nearly every male in the room, all dressed in robes of the finest silk leapt to their feet, their shouts echoing off the white washed walls of the central hall.

"Ronins, ronins could never orchestrate a carefully planned attack. How could they get through our defences, how could they get close enough to cause such chaos?"

"How can it not be the Hiyayaka, no masterless warrior, even an army of them, could know the rounds of the night guard, the weak points in the battlement wall, whoever was behind this attack is far more organised than some insignificant band of thugs."

"It is what we have suspected all along, Heru-oni is living up to his name, the new lord of Fuyu arrogance to so great, he thinks now to strike even in the heart of the strongest province on the Southern region, Northern devil."

"There are rumours that he dines openly with Kamen, the blue skinned demon leader of the most dangerous band of ninja in Japan; the man even killed his own master."

"We should go to the Emperor, something must be done."

"How, we have no direct proof, not that anyone can make the boy see reason, he cares nothing more for his position than a ronin cares to have a master. Not that it would do us good to try, the boy is taken Heru into his court like a blood brother, even if we could make a case for help, our enemy holds the strings of power."

"There are still the Southern Daimyo? In times of strife, it is the wisest plan to find friends, do you not agree, Lord Bahoriki?" A slightly podgy man finally asked, and all eyes turned to the single, imposing figure seated in the stately wooden throne, his presence made only more majestic by the black and gold silk tapestry of a ho rising from the ashes of destruction. To the eyes of a visitor, or one not well accustomed to this scene, the tall man with the unusually upswept, spiked hair, well trimmed goatee and a piercing black gaze radiated power and authority, and could bring even the mightiest of men to this knees in fear. It was not with fear though this day that all the men looked over at their Daimyo, but with concern and a more deeply rooted fear, that for the imposing man himself, and ultimately for their own futures. Dark circles rimmed blood shot eyes, the purple marks standing out even more against the unnaturally white pallor of his normally dark tanned skin. Just the way he sat in his chair, shoulders slightly slumped, weakened from his own experiences from the night early, nothing else than an attack of the most sinister kind, a dram of cyanide in his wine.

"I think, Odoodo -san, that you suffer from a shortness of memory, it was only ten years ago that we attacked our neighbours over possession of the lands near the border and ownership of the sacred springs. Hostilities have not rested, even to this day, and unless the Fuyu lord attacked with an army of oni, they would not raise their hand to aid us." The deep voice was calm, smooth and steady, but there was a slight tremor in the Daimyo's speech that caused several of his advisors, commanders and comrades in arms to tighten their fists in anger at the cowardly means of attack. The brush with death seemed not to dull his mind, pointing the impossibility of such a plan. The whole hall echoed with his voice, the sound bouncing off the well-polished wooden floors and whitewashed walls, finally petering off, leaving an uneasy vacuum in its stead. Suspicion now reigned, every man watching every one else, all eyes meeting across the table, searching for any sign of guilt from their cohorts, as the cries from before echoed in everyone's minds, asking the question of how, and more precisely, who? It couldn't possibly be that Hiyakaya spies, or the men of this Kamen could be watching them, to think someone might have let such a slip happen, or worse, that one of them was an active participant.

"My Lord, no matter what, we must think of a strategy soon, it will be but a few hours before the warriors from every town and village in the province will be arriving to find out what has happen, and take up arms to fight back. Can we even say for certain who our enemy is?"

"It is Heru-oni, I don't believe any of us could think any different; the new lord makes no secret of his association with the young Emperor, or with the less affluent members of society. Even a blind man could see the pale creature's ambition, it has taken him to the throne of Fuyu ahead of his older brother; he is a man to be feared, as are all those with the blood of their father's on their hands." The calm, haunting voice spoke out, and every head turned in sync as the intruder came to the attention of the council. He possessed the same carbon copy traits that all the men of Hazumi, his face a deep tan from exposure to the sun, his hair a mass of black spikes that splayed about his head in all directions. Unlike the men of the council, he wore no robe of black, blue or white, but a course grey cloak with no adornment, only a flash of the blue and white kimono underneath was displayed, the cloak swaying with every step the man took into the inner sanctum. From the worth of his clothes displayed, he was not a man of wealth or means, but he spoke with all the knowledge and confidence of any man seated in the hall, his eyes sweeping over all of them and not one of them didn't flinch, just a little, under that gaze. Those were carbon copies too, highlighted by slanted, black brows, and as black as night itself, these eyes were different, all knowing, all seeing, and as common as he was, no one dare questioned him. Watching the man's progress in veiled silence, the council plastered false expressions of greeting on their faces, and mentally growled in rage that the seer had been called. The king must be desperate, calling the peasant swine, whose presence who threatened their own position; he must be thinking of his son, Buhogechi, and the prophecy. It was not long before the grey cloaked seer was in front of his lord, the former bowing his respect, then staring openly into his liege's eyes like one equal to another.

"Bayoken, has Radditz's patrol completed their rounds, I had hoped that we may have an exact damage report from the night before." The Daimyo met the seer's gaze and never flinched, nor did he shout or speak downwards to the man, his own stare resembling that of Bayoken. To the disbelief of every member of the council, the seer actually smiled, and cleared his throat, as if some sort of joke or humour had been shared between them.

"All but one my lord, Radditz finished with the southern part of the city and the surrounding wood, but Kouketsu has not completed his rounds of the North, I would imagine he will be nearing the sacred spring in a half an hour." What, what pointless, mindless, wasteful business was this; in the midst of chaos, the province at the very brink of a war that could rip it apart and its leader was having pleasant conversation with a local peasant crackpot.

"That is well." The Daimyo replied, finally lifting his eyes to his council. "You are all to be excused then, I wish to speak to this intruder alone." Slight resistance came, mostly from the more arrogant and power-hungry of the young nobles, those who only knew the peasant seer by reputation. It took only a well formed glare to silence them all, each of them shuffling out, heads held high, and fighting amongst themselves as to who could show the most reverence to their Lord, and who would be the last in his presence. Finally the two men were all alone, but from a single, slim pageboy, and the local physician.

"My Lord, are you sure that is wise? Your condition is still unstable, we were able to nullify most of the poison's effects, but … "

"That will be enough, if I cannot stand and greet my subjects, or rule this province in its hour of greatest need, then I should wish for such an dishonourable end to take me." The words of warning were hardly out of the man's mouth when the Daimyo snarled back, the colour flooding back to his face in anger at his own weakness. The small man of medicine did not hesitate or slow in his plan to escape, stopping only to bow his reverence, followed silently by the page, who did not wish to experience such a talk down. There were several moments of silence between the two remaining men, one staring the other down to see any sign of change apart from a new scar from a battle, or a new line of age. In true unconcerned fashion, Bayoken spoke out, ripping his own sight away from his Lord to look about the magnificently adorned room.

"I had gathered from your message that you wished to speak with me on a matter of great importance, I left a warm meal and a warm bed to come here, and I have not even be offered a serving of rice to keep me." Arching a brow at the insolence of the peasant's tone, and the familiarity with which he addressed his lord, even to the point of not saying his name or title. In the end, the Daimyo only slightly shook his head, the peasant before him was not just anyone, and their association was long and deep, to the point where it gave Bayoken's sons a place in the ranks of the guardsmen.

"I would have thought your gift was failing you; the messenger I sent said you were surprised by my summons." His face and voice were tempered with steel, not wavering from the implacable demeanour that the Daimyo had shown throughout the earlier meeting. Only a slight glint in his eyes betrayed the tiniest of amusement, the idea that Bayoken, the greatest seer of the age, could not anticipate the arrival of a simple, and rather obvious message, was quite amusing.

"It is more a curse than a gift, to see the future, or futures, to see twists and turns in the path of life, to fight against the current of fate itself; I might as well try to hold back the path of Amaterasu across the sky. The current cannot be stayed, I learned that lesson long ago at the cost of too many lives, I see only one path of refuge and enlightenment left for me, and I will ignore all other paths until I reach it." There was no humour now, all amusement dying away with Bayoken's voice, speaking of things long ago buried but still there, in the hearts and minds of both men. At the mention of the past, the Daimyo's even temper flared, what other sins the seer had committed with his 'sight' was between him and the Kami, but one decision and the subsequent events that came after it wore away at the man's patience. Maybe it was his brush with death, or a possible war against Fuyu, but he was soon hissing in anger at the seer, the tender strands of his stoicism snapped.

"I don't care what you feel is your duty to the path of fate and the way of enlightenment, you must have seen that night before, why did you not say anything to stop it. You dare take the high moral ground with me, speak for your sight as a curse, you must have seen last night, and yet you let those people die, just as you let my son." The dark tanned figure did nothing more than straightened his stance, but like his Lord before him, his black, seemingly emotionless eyes betrayed his thoughts. It is twenty years now, and still he cannot believe, he could not understand the fate of his son, the path the boy must face to ready himself for the day of his destiny.

"You said to me that it was the only way to save my son, instead of sending him to certain torment, I took the path of certain death. I once ago believed your stories, Kami help me, somehow I probably still do, in the same place where I hope and pray every day for my son's return. I would have been better to take the word of my generals and fight for the safety of the boy, to have warred against the old Lord of Fuyu when I had an heir to follow me. It has been twenty years since his disappearance, and as it now stands, Hazumi will not survive to see the time when he shall return, if he ever does. As much as it pains me to say in front of anyone but the Gods' of my ancestors, I came close to joining them last night, and still the threat of death looms over me. I fear that with my death today it would bring the end of my whole kingdom, there is no heir, Hazumi would be a land free to any lord or noble powerful enough to take it, you cannot tell me that that is the will of the fates?" The signs of the poison's effect grew with every word, his body seemed to lose strength, his mind and will falter, his face pale to a gaunt, sickly grey, or was it the thought of what his death would bring?

"It is in the time of greatest strife, darkest fear, bleakest hope that he will return, his fate, like yours, mine, and all those that claim this plane of existence as our own are ruled by the wills of chance, circumstance and fate. The gods have seen a fate for your son, higher and greater than we could see, we need only wait for the sign as to when we should find him, she will find him, and see his image when it is covered in shadows. Do not worry my Lord, you must have patience."

"She, she, yes, this great and beautiful water spirit that will guide us to my son, I cannot believe that I put my faith in such a myth as that. And how will we know it is she, when will she come?" The Daimyo asked, the tiredness that showed on his face and weighed on his conscience making his steel continence take on a tone of desperation and disbelief. He was a second away from grasping a goblet of water before he stopped his hand and clenched his fist, his enemies could not have thought of a worse way to die, a dishonourable death, and leaving no heir to act as guardian of the province in his stead. The tension of the room was becoming paralytic, the air was thick with uncertainty, with disgust for the tactics of the enemy.

It is often said that the hand of the Gods' was not found in the sublime and immense spectacles, but it was the simplicity of thought and action, in the every day moments of peace. And it was to the Daimyo's question that such an answer was given, in nothing more than a sudden cool breeze, crisp and refreshing in the stuffy room, smelling of the distant forest, the morning dew, with the barest hint of sulphur from the hot springs. Catching the tapestry behind the Daimyo's throne, the breeze seemed almost to bring the Ho on the black field to life, the great golden bird's outstretched wings snapping and waving in flight, its claws grasping out to devour and crush the hapless prey before it. Never before, in the times the banner had been displayed did it so resemble the mythic beast of legend that the noble dynasty of Hazumi took as its standard. Waiting a moment while the breeze blew his wild mane this way and that, the seer breathed deeply and smirked on his exhale, a sparkle of life flickering in his eyes, like a man at the end of a long voyage. He turned his gaze back to his noble lord and bowed low, the smirk still there, firmly planted upon his face.

"My Lord, she is already here …"

– _ —

"Ms. Briefs, we'll be arriving at your station in five minutes." The gasp of shock was audible through the sliding compartment door, as Bulma was jarred suddenly from a deep sleep back to the waking world by the gentle knocking on her door and the respectful voice of the young attendant. One of the peaks of being the richest woman in the world and whose father happened to have major contracts with every rail company in Japanese was the gold star treatment, and the most comfortable cabin on the whole train.

Yawning heavily, she stretched and sighed, calling out her thanks to the attendant as she began to gather up her spare belongings and store them in her travel capsule. Outside her windows, the picturesque scene of Mt. Fugi long off in the distance and the wide expanse of which carpeted the lands surrounding the dormant mountain, was slowing down, the stop was soon approaching. Not looking as she gathered up her things, she simply watched the passing horizon until her hand brushed against the upturned sheets of her guidebook. She didn't even shift her gaze, but brought the book to eye level, noticing for the first time where her fingers had separated the pages, and gasped in amazed. On one page was emblazoned the golden Ho against the black field that she had seen in her dream, and turning to the next page, there was a print of an ancient painting, who was a near copy of the man who sat upon the throne. He looked different though; some how this man in the painting was younger, there was a softness and kindness to his face. His eyes both seemed to pierce through the observer and yet, he looked unburdened by the forces of life, which had caused anguish in the eyes of the man in her dream. And then there was that other man, the only one who wasn't dressed like a great samurai of old, he was nothing but a peasant, but he spoke with the authority of a noble, he was a seer… seer, no, it couldn't have been. Nearly dropping her capsule on the table, Bulma's eyes widened, it had felt so real, like she was in the beautiful ancient palace, the smell of the early morning, the wood, even the scent of the men were still in her nostrils. When she was younger, even younger than when she began her quest for the Dragon balls, she used to have dreams like that, prophetic visions of things she didn't understand, even when her dreams became a reality. They had ended long ago, leaving her only with the memory that she had them, but whenever she did have them they felt like that, everything felt real, and alive. Flipping through the pages once more, she came to the creased pages of that particular legend; she knew she felt drawn to it, but to start dreaming about it? Kami, she really needed some adventure in her life, or at least a change, she was getting so bogged down with Yamcha, Vegeta, and her work that she was starting to have dreams about fairytales. Grabbing the book, she decided that she would need something to amuse herself on the ride to the spa, she had originally hoped that would be Yamcha, but now it looked like it was going to be just her, her mysterious legend, a bottle of chilled champagne and fresh strawberries. A decidedly sinister smile spread across her face at that thought, maybe there would be something to this out on her own; hmph, she didn't need Yamcha to have a good time. Her thoughts were interrupted by a final hiss of the train as it stopped at the opened air station and a crackled voice over the sound system announcing the name of the stop. With that she finished packing up, encapsulating everything but her book and throwing it into her purse, and proceeded off the train with nothing more than a simple jacket and her purse, her luggage all packed away in a handy capsule. She stepped off the train, her spirits dropping just a little when she saw it vacant of the one face she was really hoping to see, but the hour long train ride had helped to lighten her mood, it was just like being that wayward teenager again. Besides, how could anyone be upset or sad, the warm sun was shining down from its place in the cloudless blue sky, the air was warm and sweet with the promise of an earlier summer. She had a luxury spa, champagne and fresh strawberries just waiting for her, what more could a woman want?

– _ —

"The legend says that after the night of the attack, the water spirit was to have appeared in one of the many hot spring in this region of the former Hazumi province. Many of the records that have survived from that era can give no real description of what the spirit was supposed to look like, the only words used from the original chronicler was 'the child of the blue skies and brilliant sun'. Legends and retellings have distorted the picture a great deal, saying that she was supposed to be of human form, others say it is more like that of a mermaid, some others are not so nice, but I won't mention them on this tour." A small peal of laughter followed the young man's comment to the band of curious tourists as they passed by the spa and continued along the well kept path down to the lake, his topic now switching to local flora and fauna. Peaking over the small, vine covered wall that separated the spa's private hot springs from those for more public use, Bulma listened with interest to the snippet of the story. It seemed to be all around her, it wasn't just an old myth, she surmised, it's a business now, marketed well, a simple hook to lure in the curious. She could only imagine how demoralised the spirits of those characters must be feeling, their lives nothing more than a story told to sell t-shirts; the noble Daimyo must be spinning in his grave.

Laughing at her own comment, she cracked a smile and simply sat along the edge of the wall, the welcoming warmth of the hot spring beckoning to her, and she would give in, eventually. For now, she was just content with looking out over the sea of tree tops, watching the sun slowly sinking towards the edge of the horizon, within a half an hour it would be streaked with soft yellows, oranges and pinks. This was living, she thought, her hair nicely pinned, with a towel wrapped around it, a white and blue silk kimono about her shoulder and wooden sandals gracing her feet. Another perk of higher living, to go with her own private, natural hot spring, the only suite in the whole spa with it. It was no more than the size of a small room, very cosy for two, the water well filtered and the steam was rising high when the coming dusk. She wanted to wait until it was darker before she went in, there was more than a slight amount of embarrassment about her lack of a proper bathing suit, or any suit at all. When Yamcha and she first planned this little trip, they had made an agreement about enjoying every moment as much as possible, and even now her cheek blushed pink at what she had hoped to accomplish in that pool. Hmph, not as if she could, Yamcha hadn't turned up at the hotel either, she even snuck a look at the register, but none of the names stood out, neither did the handwriting. It was in her mind to check her messages, he could have left something, maybe call home to see if he thought he was picking her up first, or maybe something horrible happened and he was in the hospital …

No, she would not fall into this insane trap, she had come her to enjoy herself and that was what she would do; besides, it wasn't as if Goku or her father didn't have a ready supply of senzu beans, if such a crisis had arose.

They needed them just for Vegeta, with his all night training sessions in impossibly high gravity, not to mention the punishment he would put himself and that machine through. What a stubborn, obstinate ass, of all the demanding, inconsiderate, bossy, arrogant, proud, bloodthirsty bastards in the universe, why did she have to invite him to stay, why? Because you thought he was hot and you heard he was a Prince, Bulma girl, her conscience replied, before she very quickly shut it up. That didn't explain why Goku let him live after that first battle, and let him join forces with them on Namek, Vegeta would sooner stab someone in the back than sacrifice himself for a worthy cause. But he did sacrifice himself, the ever annoying voice of reason reminded her, Gohan's story about the way Vegeta saved him during the battle also came back to mind. Maybe it was that he was so complex, he was always this hard shell of a man, it was like the emotional battle armour he perpetually wore, there was this magnetism about his hardness, but something inside as well, there had to be for him to have such an inner fire. It just made him so mysterious, everything about him was so dark and unknown, his past, his emotions, whether he had any, what did he truly think, why was he so driven, did he have dreams other than those torturous nightmares? There was a curiosity with him, maybe born of her scientific mind, what was beyond that wall, or how many other walls stood between the image and the reality of the man? And what, what could make a man go to those lengths, that unspoken past at the hands of a tyrant, one who had killed off his race and demolished his planet and moulded him into image of a heartless killing machine. After seeing Freeza, or what was left of him in that mechanical shell, she could only being to image what it must have been like, and against her better sense, she paused at the thought. Whether it was mere curiosity, or desire to understand the man, to see what made him tick, she wondered about his former life, and to the biggest question in her mind, what would he had been had fate not made those set of turns and twists in him. He didn't even seem mortal, the way he focussed every ounce of his will into every thing he sent his mind too, whether it was achieve this seemingly impossible level of Super Saiyajin or cleaning out the fridge was beyond anything she had ever found. Not even Goku, with the same alien blood flowing his veins acting with that sort of discipline and determination, but then again, Goku spent his whole life on Chikyuu, his only goal was to protect his friends, his family, his home. Vegeta was different, he had that royal blood flowing through him, as he would often make note of to her as a means to annoy her for his own amusement, but who knew how many lives he had taken and with no remorse at all? What would anyone do to survive, Bulma solemnly realised, remembering what Goku told her about his death at Freeza's hands, the confession of the horrors of his life, that he had actually wept openly.

Kami, it was worse than she thought, she was actually feeling sympathy for Vegeta, would a straight jacket and a padded room be far off, her mother's constant fawning over him must be having an effect on her, darling man indeed. She had made the decision to come to this retreat to escape him, and now she was occupying her time on the workings of his inner psyche. Just because he was hot, and happened to be that stereotypical bad boy that she always went for in her youth doesn't mean that he was for her. This attraction is just because of what was happening with her and Yamcha, their relationship was in transition, moving from their wild days to respectability and she was still craving that wildness, and with him always being around, it was a reminder of what she could have. She couldn't deny that it would be exhilarating to know what it would be like to experience the sort of passion and energy that Vegeta represents, but what kind of future is that. On a perverse impulse, she actually attempted to see her living with him as his wife, or what ever equivalent Saiyajins have, raising kids with him, dealing with him every day. And the two biggest hurdles of all in the scenario, learning not only to love him, but to like him enough to be able stand him for more than five minutes. Shuddering at the thought, she replaced his face with Yamcha's in each of those images, even if her traitorous body and perverted mind reverting to the Saiyajin Prince, especially when it came to completely her wifely duties. Horrified, she decided to turn blame on the other man who was in the doghouse with her. It was all Yamcha's fault that she was doing it anyway, he was supposed to be here, taking care of satisfy these urges for her.

She tightened her kimono in a cosmetic attempt to cover her annoyance with Yamcha, drawing her attention back to the fact that she was naked under her robe. Maybe some light reading would take her mind off the whole issue, better to read the actions of fictional characters than relive her own soap opera; besides at this rate she would never find out how what happens. Failing rather badly at dispelling Vegeta from her mind, Bulma was satisfied to slip back into her room through the opened sliding door and grab the colourful travel book that was currently lying on the intricately carved rose wood nightstand. She gripped the book by its binding and ran her thumb over the half opened pages, the various pictures of the area, and representations of the regional history flashing before her eyes until she reached the desired page. It didn't take her long to find the line that she stopped at, the dream she'd had on the train still lingered in her memory and made her more curious to find if the 'seer' was correct. Sitting once more against the low, vine covered wall surrounding her own private balcony, she took one last look at the view, her interest particularly centred on the progress of the small tour group, before she creased back the binding and started again.

– _ —

Clothed in the finest black silk obi from the lands to the West, the deceptively small, pale figure kneeled in reverence before the ancient sword and the black lacquered scabbard that encased the deadly blade. It was a private corner of the luxurious room, in a place normally reserved for a shrine to the Buddhist and Shinto gods, and memorial to the ancestral spirits, that the sword was laid upon a finely carved stand, surrounded by candles and burning incense. With a veneration that resembled that of a monk or priest, the figure honoured the katana blade, before grabbing the hilt of the weapon, removing it from the protective sheath to run his finger along its sharpened edge. The expression on the man's face showed nothing but a momentary flinch as a thin line of red appeared on the razor sharp edge, speaking in a low tone as he recited the words written onto the flat edge of the blade as he anointed it with blood.

"Deathly is the sharpest blade,

Deadlier still the one that hides its edge,

And death to all who oppose my will.

For it is their blood my blade demands,

And for myself their heads."

With every inflection of his voice and whispered word spoken of the chant, the blade seemed almost to glow black, the air in the room grow as cold as death, even as a warm fire blazed in the hearth and several candles lit the room. Caught up in the ritual, in his chant, or in the spell of the sword, the pale man took no notice of the subtle changes, even as the air currents began to whip the hems of his clothes, causing the light to flicker. The words grew louder, the trail of blood rounding over the top of the curve as if the blade seeming to crave the taste of blood, and in response the whole room seemed to thump like a beating heart, every light flickering dimmer and dimmer. As if possessed by a demon of hell, the final line was shouted out as the last of the katana's edge was lined with the hot red fluid and the whole room became darker and cold in reply. Bouncing off the tapestry lined walls, the words seemed to catch and mix, creating a garbled wash of sound that joined with the beating, the cracking, the whirling of the subtle air currents, building into a mini climax of noise. The darkness held its death grip on the room before it began to fade, lingering in the air until not even the beat of the words and the flicker of the fire remained to mark that the event had even happened. In the place of the noise came silence, and an eerie calm until the static figure holding the sword blinked himself back into a state of consciousness and wiped the blade clean of the drying blood, not ready to returned it to the scabbard. Still caught in grips of his previous trance, he finally pulled his gaze from the sword to his injured thumb, absently noticing the blood coating his hands. Blood, the thought cut through his conscious, whispering through the room, the sword always demands blood. Fighting off the urge to lick it up, he simply raised his hands to his face and sniff the pungent odour, took in the sight, the feel, warm and thick, the essence of life itself, then jerked them away and wiped all traces and temptations away. Placing the katana on a red silk cushion, he spread the blood-covered cloth around it, the whiteness of the cloth contrasting sharply against the red of the cushion upon which the blade laid, and to the stains on the material itself. Ready to place the sword back in its scabbard, he hesitated for another moment, gripping the hilt and preparing to reveal it out once more, only to loosen his grip and rested the sword in its sacred place. Bowing once more to the weapon, he rested the curved, black sheath and took one last glance; this time he merely looked upon it, regarding it with a shrewd and calculating eye.

On the outside he was much like that scabbard, polished with court manners, seemingly dedicated to the wishes of the insolent young Emperor, working tireless to maintain the fragile order of the land as an honourable follower of the way. At that thought he actually smirked at the utter irony of it, that anyone could believe that he was one of those mindless sheep, he was like the scabbard, the peaceful exterior hiding a viper as deadly as that katana sheathed within that harmless covering. With a sense of longing, he looked back at the katana as it called to him, the seductive pull of chaos and blood, death, pain, cruelty asserting itself over him, but he had other business to attend to, but the sword's song still rumbled through his veins. The sword had been his father's, Ko Ori, and its song was strong upon his father, making him the most ruthless warlord in the land. Every morning he went through the ritual of anointing, and slaughtered armies enough to satisfy the need for blood that was scrolled upon the katana's surface. His father though was not strong enough, his sire knew only of the need for blood, but not of cunning, he could not hide his intent, play the game as both a politician and warrior, was held too strongly to the way. It was that misplaced honour that caused his death; the sword craved another, craved and called, until the night he claimed his birthright, giving the sword its blood, and to himself, his father's head. Since that time he built his power base and his hold over the Hiyayaka grew, exile and destroying his brother's claim, expanding the territories under his grasp by conquest, or more devious means, until Fuyu had grow twice the size as it had under his father's reign. And best of all, he had gained the ear of the young Emperor, the fool was young and easily manipulated, youth craved power, but not the responsibility of such a position. With such an attitude, the foolish boy delegated power, but had all the shrewdness of a new born kitten, he gave influence liberally to the young lord of Fuyu. Oh father, how stupid he had been, thinking that warfare was the only means to power, all the years he had held that great sword and never understood its inscription, but now the sword and his father's seat of power was firmly in Heru's hands, and the inscription was his guide through life. He had achieved more than he had ever dreamed, but now there was still more, the sword was not yet quenched; it wanted more, it wanted a new sparkling jewel, the rich Southern province of Hazumi. Legends abound about the place, its ties to the mountains and the hot springs, the beauty of the land, and the riches of the seas that came through the many ports along its coast. But there was still more, the sword's will pulling upon him, the wish for future conquest, but beyond that it was the whisperings of a great seer, by the sword, if he were to capture such a man, the power he could wield, even … . Quickly dispelling the thought from his mind, Heru Oni extinguished the remaining candles and incense burnings, and finally stood, straightening out his obi and making his way to his receiving room.

It wouldn't be long before Kamen returned to give him a full report of the attack against Hazumi, but already he had heard of the terror wrought the night before. Many had died from the raid of the infamous and mysterious assassin, but it seemed that the Daimyo Bahoriki was not amongst the number of fallen, that fact that did not sit well with the young lord. Heru Oni had worked forever complementing and fawning over the reckless, weak-minded Emperor to get into a strong enough position to enter the Imperial council and take over all military affairs. With power enough to terrify any enemies into silence, and a sob story about the horrors of his own father's death at the hands of ninja warriors, he was granted power over the Emperor's army of samurai. It was his position to bring order back to the land, and quell the rising of ronin warriors and the ninjas clans, fools, most of the ninjas in the land where on his payroll, doing his bidding. More important than the power of the whole of the Emperor's army behind him was the ancient law that gave land claim rights. Hammered out before any man or Imperial advisor could remember, it was stated that the military head of the land was entitled to claim any province or territory where no heir or noble successor was chosen to maintain the order before a successor could be named. With death of the current Daimyo, it was his right to claim all of Hazumi for his own; nothing could stand in his way; unless … no, even if the 'lost Prince' could still possibly be alive.

Within moments of leaving his private quarters, the pale, young Daimyo was escorted into his main hall, and it seemed he was not alone. Obviously unaware of the sudden appearance of the lord young, the unusual visitor continued to look about the lavish room, taking care to feel every banner and tapestry of red, black and white silk, and examine the various weapons that hung about the walls. With the lingering effects of the anointing still pumping through his veins and the fact that Daimyo Bahoriki still lived, coupled with the ninja's total lack of respect, Heru Oni took matters into his own hands. Walking stealthy up behind the larger, older warrior, the young warrior tensed momentary before sweep the feet from under the unsuspecting Kamen. The muscular figure was too slow to stop his fall, or to defend himself before a short sword was brandished and set at his jugular, an inch away from slicing open his neck.

"When I first hired you for this job, I was under the impression that you and your colleagues were the greatest ninja in Japan, and not only did you fail in your given mission, but you failed to even realise that I had walked in the room. Is your greed so great that you think to steal my weapons from my own hall, or is the very generous price I am paying you not enough for your very best work?" As even and calm as the words flowed from his mouth, it was accentuated by a subtle kick or the sharp grinding of the heel of his boot, and always the sword was levelled at the assassin's head. Sweat poured down the handsome face of the tall, ninja house leader, a shadow like warrior with a quick, deadly aim with his daggers and throwing knives, and a weakness for the use of cyanide.

"My, my lord, I had no thought at all of stealing, I was merely admiring your weapons. I can see now that a lowly ninja like myself could never hope to compete against so skilled a samurai as yourself …"

"Shut up, Kamen, stop with this worthless snivelling, it is unbecoming of a deadly assassin to beg, and do not mention such a word in my presence, a samurai serves a master, and I swear no one but myself, now telling me, why is Hazumi's Daimyo still breathing?" The hot sting of Heru Oni's contempt caused Kamen to flinch, but he forced his wildly beating heart to slow as the young lord took the sword from his neck and the booted foot from his sore ribs. Jumping to his feet, Kamen bowed to his employer, his eyes though were firmly fixed on the sword still clasped in Heru's hand.

"I broke through the palace's defences easily enough, the guards might be strong but their movements are too easy to predict, I disposed of most of them before an alarm could be raised. Originally I had planned on stabbing Bahoriki but my agents in the village were not as careful in their duties, the alarm had been sounded and a contingent of guards was surrounding him. I took the only plan I could, and snuck several drops of cyanide into a jug of wine. He took a sip of it before one of the guards, a younger, wild haired boy must have smelt the poison and knocked the mixture from his hand, but the damage must have been done. I left after that, Bahoriki was nearly wheezing out his last breaths and his eyes were rolling back into his head, I don't know how he could have survived."

"You over estimate your opponents, Kamen, for not only was it not his last breath, he still breaths now, and to the general thankfulness and relief of the realm," Heru replied, speaking as if reciting an official communication. "He will be breathing for many years to come. Thanks to your bumbling, I now have a very powerful enemy against me, have lost the opportunity to advance my position as military overseer, and with it, a potential springboard for future conquests in the south." The grip on the short sword seemed to tighten as the pale Daimyo walked ever closer to the ninja, Kamen only tensing, looking for the coming attack and a way that he might avoid a stomach full of steel.

"Please, my Lord, it will not happen again, I promise you that tomorrow night I will kill Bahoriki, even he cannot remain guarded forever …"

"You, maggot, will do no such thing, there is too much attention now, guards from every corner of the province will be in Senzai, he will be watched like a hawk; no, they are expecting another attack. I want you for another matter, one which I'm sure will be headed out shortly. This little assassination attempt will have made the Daimyo very anxious about having no heir, but even he knows what will come if he appoints one of his advisors. He has been keeping a balance of power for years and the realm couldn't withstand a war for the successor, he has only one option, he must find his lost son, and you, Kamen, will find him first."

"But sir, after all this time the heir must be dead, they say he was lost as a boy, that the envoy carrying him to a sanctuary away from your father's decree was lost and all the guards were killed. You can't possibly believe that legend about a water spirit and the Prince returning in a moment of greatest strife?"

"Oh, can I not, since it was my father's men that ambushed the envoy, and the child somehow escaped, it is not inconceivable that he might have survived and is living in some hovel living the life of a rice farmer. It doesn't matter whether he is or not, but that seer, Bayoken, says he is, and that will be enough for Bahoriki to sent an army of warriors out looking for the boy, and he will put Bayoken at the lead. They may or may not find the boy, but you will follow the group with Bayoken and you will track them down. If the find the lost 'Prince' you will kill him and if you don’t, you and as many men as you wish to take with you, will kill the envoy and bring Bayoken here alive. I have plans for him."

– _ —

It wasn't from a pleasant if unusual dream that she woke from but a nightmare, dear Kami, she just looked at the pages of the book, she didn't even feel herself falling into sleep. With a crash upon the polished stone floor, the book fell from her quaking hands, her arms and legs were in the same state, her whole body a wreck, shaking and all the energy zapped from her muscles. There were more times in her life that she had looked into the face of evil things, Emperor Pilaf, the Red Ribbon Army, Radditz, Vegeta, Chichi in a rage, but there was nothing akin to the corruption that she felt from that pale, black eyed man, and that sword. Holding her kimono closer to her trembling body, she forced down the icy chill from the invisible wind that whipped through her hair, or was it the memory of that blood rite, of the cold, nothingness of the sword and the spirit that resided within it? It was definitely a toss up as to which was worse, the sword or the man, dear Kami, what did a man have to do to earn such a name, Heru Oni, hell demon. She started rubbing her hands against a nearby towel to rid herself of the sensation of blood on her hands, checking her thumbs for bruises, before she let her hand fall into her lap. What was happening to her, why was she having these dreams, ha, they weren't even dreams, the last one she didn't even feel herself fall asleep. It was that story, it had to be, that name, Heru Oni, she recalled with a shudder and a low moan, the dream before he was mentioned, but he wasn't in the story from the book. And what of the other man, he looked like an angel sent down from heaven, but in his eyes, they were as soulless as Heru's, and he was the one who tried to kill Bahoriki. He wasn’t in the book, nor did they mention anything about the name of the Daimyo, those of his council or that of the seer himself, where did that information come from?

Trying to convince herself that all of merely stress related, she forced her mind to repress all of the images that had just come to her, it was nothing but a dream, a freaky, non-sleeping nightmare, but it was only a fantasy. Swallowing hard, and looking about the balcony, she once more reached for the book, hesitant at the fear of what might come with the next touch, maybe the book itself would grow a set of teeth and attack her. For the first time since she had opened her eyes back into the present time, her heart slowed its frantic patter as her fingers slid across the smooth cold surface of the travel guide. Picking it up with still shaking hands, she allowed her fingers to brush against the edges of the pages, once more seeing that phoenix and the handsome young man. The look of utter calm in the man's eyes, and fierce loyalty reassured her somehow, as if he was looking straight at her and his stare was meant only for her, wishful thinking, still dreaming of that Prince, aren't you, Bulma girl? Tracing out the lines of the charcoal face, she was mildly awed by the fact that the page was warm to the touch, like real skin, maybe it had more to do with the heat of the stone balcony and the hot spring than any mystic occurrence. At the mention of warmth, Bulma took another shiver, the icy touch of death and fear still hung on her body, made all the worse by the sweat on her brow and the cold wind that was picking up with the coming of dusk. Soon it would be night-time, she would have to go back into the big, luxury bed alone and pray for a peaceful night. Never before had she wanted someone to be with her, even if it was just for the knowledge that another soul was nearby, heck, even Vegeta's presence would be welcomed now. Why did Yamcha have to bail on her, at least he was enough of a distraction that he could take her mind off that 'vision', but more than that, she wanted to be warm again, dispel the chill from her bones. But Yamcha wasn't here, it was her time alone, to relax, to get away from the noise, the stress, the growing awkwardness she was experiencing around Vegeta, she was woman, and no man, or dream equivalent was going to hold Bulma Briefs down. Looking over at the hot spring pool, she actually smirked, the mischief nature of her younger self taking hold of her and reminded her that she was at a luxury spa, with her own private hot tub and nothing under her robe.

Peaking over the side of the vine covered wall between her balcony and the open air, she could barely see the tour group now through the trees, the voice of the guide now just a faint memory. Shivering once more, she left the book on her seat and walked slowly towards the hot spring pool before her feet, the curling steam and warm scent of the water, was beckoning to her, the heat like a comfort against the cold emptiness that had assaulted her earlier. With a quick glance around the balcony and shooting a look through the uncovered windows, she let the silky material of the kinomo slip down her shoulders, the soft touch heavenly against her naked skin. Leaving the kimono where it lay, she slipped quickly past the edge of the pool and under the surface of the heated water, the pull of the heat easing the tension from her body. Sighing softly at the sensation, it wasn't long before she was gliding back and forth across the length of the pool, giggling like the young girl she used to be. Already her mind was repressing the odd nightmare from before, the once graphic images fading into obscurity, her anger was ebbing as well, leaving only a wild spirit, and a desire to know what else she could do in this hot spring. Claiming a side that was shaded by the awning branches of ancient leafy giant, she leaned against the side of the smooth carved water, stretching her legs as far as she could, then lifting her leg until she could see the tips of her small toes. Hmmm, what it would be like to have Yamcha here, no scrap that, too unreliable, and it was hard to fantasise about a man who she learned the arts of lovemaking with, she knew his every trick, now Vegeta … . Vegeta would be interesting, if only for the body, Bulma closed her eyes as she tried to picture the Saiyajin Prince coming out of his training sessions, just omitting the tight black training shorts. She didn't think she still had it in her but she actually blushed at the thought of picturing Vegeta naked, no matter how hot he was, how nice his ass, that was all he was, an ass, personality wise that was, he was definitely not for her. Sure she would admit to having more than a passing curiosity about the man that had nothing to do with sex, but that was nothing but a fool's dream, he would never let her or anyone in close enough to see anything but that pride of his. It would be great to see what it was like, to find the real him, what he was like, not the hard, cold, impenetrable exterior that he showed the world, not that he would appreciate her efforts. Kami, you would think he would be thankful that someone wanted to take care of him, especially with the way he trained, he just seemed too lost and alone when she watched him fight his nightmares. She didn't know why she even cared, but bandaging up the guy's wounds and nursing him back to health gave her a slightly different perceptive, he was spiralling out of control, and fate seemed to have chosen her to save him.

Raising her arms out of the water, she rested her elbows on the not so polished surface of the tub, funny, she didn't remember any cracks. As wonderful as the heat was against her skin, it was making her sweat heavily and she wanted nothing more than to cool down. Maybe her time in the pool was over, as it was she didn't want to stay too long, getting crinkly fingers and toes; the wind was picking up too, not even the wall offered any protection for it. Deciding that it was better to boil than freeze, she slipped back into the pool, her eyes still closed, not wanting to break the relaxing spell of the warmth and her earlier, more devilish thoughts. As soon as it came up, the wind died down again, replaced with an easy calm breeze that smelt sweet and dewy, like mid morn, that association only made stronger by the unlikely chirping of a nest of songbirds. It wasn't until her foot struck a runt that was not there before that her eyes fell open and a loud curse passed her lips, followed by another and another. Dear kami, what happened to the balcony, the wall, the hotel, there were all gone, and she was lost in the middle of the woods, with no money, no food, no capsules, no clothes.

"This isn't happening, this is a dream, just a dream, all I have to do is pinch myself and … ouch." The tiny yelp of pain cut through her train of thought as she tested her theory, only to find that it was trees that surrounded her, not the luxury hotel. Looking frantically around her, her eyes passed over a semi-familiar sight, only to bring her gaze back to the spot, her eyes going wide at the stark realisation. Just reaching beyond the level of the smaller bushes and brush was a growing young tree, its strong but slender branches growing wide, though one had already started to spread over the hot spring. Her mind unable to grasp hold of what this might mean, she surged out of the water until she was uncovered to her waist; somewhere under the brush, her kimono had to be there, this was the same spot, she hadn't moved, had she?

"What is this, freak out Bulma day? If you think this is funny, Kami, I swear; I want answers, and my clothes, and if I don't get at least one by the time I get to three, I will make you wish you'd never been hatched. One … two … th …"

"Spirits of my ancestors, it's her." She couldn't even finish her count before a soft, hauntingly familiar voice cut through the gentle fanfare of nature that echoed through the forest. Her eyes followed her ears, amazed by the sight that had just appeared only a second ago; it was a handsome, young man in ceremonial garb. Gasping at the sight, she took in the sight of the boy on the verge of manhood, his broad, young shoulders wrapped in a blue top, his wild, untamed hair spiking out around his head, and his wide eyes planted firmly on her exposed chest. It took only a moment for the shock of another human voice to wear off before her eyes went wide with embarrassment and rage, and Kami help any who were in ear shot.

"AHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!! HENTAI!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

– _ —


Through the walls she could hear them talking, the words were garbled, muffled and muted through those thick wooden walls and the imposing iron door that separated the white washed hallway from the inner sanctum of the palace. No one had walked in or out since her arrival, but she knew without question that she was the main topic of conversation, but what was the nature of the conversation, she couldn't guess, nor did she want to. Looking over to the young man seated across from her upon a bench that had been brought out for the occasion, she found him staring at her with a sense of awe and reverence in his eyes, well at least they were levelled at her face and not her chest. She mustered her most withering look on him, if nothing more than to get that odd look out of his eyes, as she wrapped her kimono around her soaked and still naked body, at least the gods of irony had been kind enough to leave her clothes. Someone must be laughing at her though, or she had done something horrible to upset the powers that be to get herself into a predicament like this. Clasping her hands together, a throw back from her mother and her western teachings, she whispered a prayer to any deity that could hear her; whatever she had done, she was sorry. If this was because she was having less than pure thoughts about Vegeta, she replied, pointing out one of her more recent transgressions, than the first things she would do when she got back was join a holy order, if she ever got back. The skin of her forearms was still red and stung to the touch, she had pinched herself so often from when she had opened her eyes and found herself in this insane past world, every pinch an attempt to make it end. Not only didn't she know where she was, she didn't even know when she was, or her mind was not willing to accept the answer whispering at the back of her head. Everything she had seen so far, had been eerily similar to her visions earlier, but she couldn't be in this legend, could she?

"Listen, Koko …" She snapped, her anger from having found him staring at her, or a very specific part of her, hadn't ebbed during the long journey back to semi-civilisation.

" Kouketsu." He supplied, this voice now decidedly elated at having her attempt conversation with him; all she had done since he found her was yell at him, or ignore him, but he never seemed fazed by it. The boy had been like a lovesick puppy since he first saw her, as if she was the break of dawn after the darkness; he certainly treated her like that, as if she was a goddess. He was no slouch either, as young as he was, he didn't look much older than twenty years old, wonderfully built, he had the body of a man, and the eyes, face and smile of a child. It was rather disengaging to look at him, this strange, handsome, sweet-natured boy, he almost seemed too pure for her, like a samurai Galahad; when the light hit his untameable hair and black eyes just right, he almost looked like Goku.

"Great spirit, what did you wish to tell me?" This quiet, peaceful voice sliced through her musings, she had sunk so deep into her own thoughts that she forgot her own question, rather the many questions now circling through her head.

"I'm sorry, Kou ket su," she replied, breaking down his name and repeating it slowly, letting her tongue adjust to the sound of it. He smiled at her gesture, brightened purely by the fact that she had made the effort and honoured that she spoke to him by name, the smile only helping to make that eerie resemblance to Goku grow stronger.

"But I was wondering if you could tell me, just where are we, and when are me, I mean, what year is this?"

"Why, this is the province of Hazumi, well, the whole area of it is very extensive, but we are in the Daimyo's palace in the capital city of the province, Senzai. It is the second year of Emperor Senpaku, and a horrible state the land is in; but not anymore, now that you have come to us."

"I was afraid you would say that."

She had refused to believe it until she was walking behind the young soldier, the fleeting images from a leftover dream, of a sparkling white palace shrouded in the mists of early morning had come alive before her eyes. The ornate, curved roofs, the extensive network of towers and four separate battle wall, each ten foot in height that surrounded the huge gardens that made up the palace grounds; it truly was a page out of feudal history. Against her own personal beliefs, it was that moment when she began to question and to consider the unthinkable, what if this wasn't a dream, so far the twenty pinches had still not given a satisfactory result, and she was doubting that the twenty-first would break that record. And whether all of this was real or not, the people around her did, the tiny conversations she heard on her way into the main palace, the smells of food, smoke, of life was too strong to be a figment of her subconscious. It didn't help that everyone seemed to stare in amazement at her, and a tiny voice in her head had replied that it was disgust born of the fact that she was being led through the streets with nothing more than a thin kimono to defend her honour. The kimono was only of fleeting interest, as she took in their gazes, and the dozens of sets of eyes that were glued to her unusual colouring, blue hair and eyes definitely stood out in a village of all black features. Through every street and thoroughfare that she was paraded through, everyone ran out of their homes, market stalls, even the temple itself to watch her progress. And every person she passed all bowed in a sort of reverence, proclamations and caught whispers about water spirits, the prophecy coming true, the 'Prince's' return. No, this had to be some sort of dream, but with every step she took, her well-placed sense of reality slipped away. In the place of comfortable normalcy, a sense of self-pity overwhelmed her, why this, why her? What had she done, she wasn't this great 'spirit' they had all hoped and prayed would come since their future Daimyo had been lost. She couldn't find this lost heir, couldn't perform magick, and taking a helpless look over at Koketsu, guilt mixed with her pity. All these people had this expectation that she would save them, that the gods had sent her for some great task. The details of her earlier vision came back with a vengeance, brought on by the rich smell of heavily incense, the stale scent of burnt wood and paper from the ruined homes; the attack had occurred just the night before. "It is in the time of greatest strife, darkest fear, bleakest hope that he will return … she will find him, and see his image when it is covered in shadows", oh Kami, what was she going to do?

"Spirit …?" Again, Kouketsu's calm, quiet voice broke through her reflections. If she did anything at all, she was going to lose that handle.

"Bulma." She answered back, smirking a bit at his look of amazement that she both had a name and was willing to share it.

"And I'm not a spirit, I'm a flesh and blood person, just like you. See." She replied, grabbing hold of a lock of that wild hair and giving it a light tug.

"Ouch … but you appeared out of the hot spring, and in such a state of, of … um." He shuttered over the words and that deep red blush stained his face once more.

"Never have I seen a kimono of that material, it is so light and fine that only the gods could have made it. Nor have I seen such exotic eyes, or hair, they are the very colour of the sea itself, and on a face so fair, it could only be that of a spirit sent by the gods. It can be none other, my father told me about the water spirit that would come in the time of greatest need, he even described the colour of her hair and eyes; you are more beautiful than I had ever imagined." If it had been anyone else spouting out this impromptu sonnet, she would have gagged at the obvious attempt to get in her pants, err… kimono, but not with Kouketsu. Like a samurai Galahad, or a human Goku, there was no pretence of sexual need or any romantic feeling towards her in any way, just the true, honest emotions of a young man who has seen a long held hope realised. Opening her mouth to bat down his proof of her deification, she stayed her reply, her self pity was losing out to that look of hope in his eyes, in everyone she had seen since she had arrived. It wasn't just the belief that she had come to save them all, but there was the need to believe that she could, that somehow they could be saved from the horror that happened the night before, and the horror that had yet to come. Her second, more frightening vision flashed before her then, remembering the diminutive tyrant and his sword, if she couldn't help them, would that be their fate? She couldn't let that happen; even if she wasn't this great water spirit they had waited so long to find, she had to do something, anything to prevent the boy in front of her from being another victim of that sword and its owner. So caught up in her thoughts, she nearly jumped a foot when the imposing iron door swung open with a bang.

"The council will see you now." A deep, venomous voice called out, turning Bulma's good intentions to ice that flowed through her veins.

Standing as fast as she could and still maintain a measure of dignity, she almost lost her nerve to the deadly stare of the bald giant standing before the door, but it all died away with the look of anticipation on Kouketsu's face. Don't worry, Bulma, she replied to herself; she had lived under the same roof with Vegeta, how bad could this council be?

It was an eerie sense of dιjΰ vu, walking into the room and to know every tapestry, the position of every table and chair, could look into the eyes of each and every man there and know them, though she had never stepped foot into the room or seen any of them before. Allowing her gaze to flicker across each face, taking in each identical set of black eyes, every one full of suspicion, her own went wide with shock when she found a friendly face. Well, it was more of a smiling face that was the spitting image of Kouketsu, but hardened and made distinguished by several scars.

"You are the one who claims to be the water spirit?" It was more of an accusation than a question, the voice catching her off guard; to her credit she didn't jump, but all the venom in the other man's voice was nothing to the authority of this one. Turning quickly, she was almost knocked off balance by the young samurai at her side as the boy dropped to his knees in respect, and took her with him. Biting her lip to keep from shouting out when her knees collided with the polished tile, she grabbed a tight hold on her robe, hoping that her lack of clothing wouldn't show through.

"I have claimed no such status, my Lord, it is other who have given it to me."

"Do you confirm or deny the charge then?" She chose that moment to lift her eyes to him, unsure of what she would say, or how the man would take it. He sat upon the throne with the strength and honour befitting the mythic beast behind him, every inch and gesture was that of a hardened, noble warrior, but even he couldn't hide the circles under his eyes. His face looked like a man who had been shown all the mortality he could stand in one lifetime, he had lost his son, and was staring into the very real possibility of losing his realm and his life. But even in that, there was a glimmer of what she had seen in Kouketsu's eyes, hope, or even just the fleeting need to believe that hope was still possible. The Daimyo was not a stupid man, he knew the whys and whos of what had happened the night before, and like a caged animal he could only beat back against the inevitable, the enemy was just too strong. All he had left was hope, it was all that he had to left to hold on to, maybe since his son's disappearance and the weight on his shoulders threatened to crush even that. He needed a reason not to bend against the impossible push of one tyrant's greed, he needed his son.

"The gods brought me here, you can make your own call."

"Insolent wench, you dare make light of the Daiymo, and the very gods themselves. I should …"

" Hanappari, do you forget your own honour, or my own? I asked the question and she answered, as insolent as her answer was. Are you now publicly questioning my authority over how to handle her?" At the first mention of honour, the bald man who towered over her in a rage went white in the face, as did several of the others who were seated in a circle around Bulma and Kouketsu. A series of vehement denials came on the heels of the Daimyo's accusation, but all were quickly silenced with a gesture from the man seated upon the throne.

"Stop, you embarrass yourself and I with you, why even this girl has more spirit and pride in her. It does not matter, the girl's fate is up to me, and if there is no objections." The Daimyo paused, leaving a silence so think that not even a breath could be heard. "You are all dismissed, go back to your post or villages and prepare, the next attack will no doubt come, but this time, we will not be so meek. Go, I will decide the girl's fate, and yours, son of Bayoken, since you brought this girl upon us, you will face the same punishment, you and your father."

"But, my Lord, the blame should be mine, why must my father's honour be brought into question? If there is a punishment it should be mine alone, and I will accept that." The outburst caught everyone off guard, Bulma couldn't believe the boy had enough nerve to speak out against a man he so revered, but his father's well being and honour was worth more to him than his own. Half the council was out the door by the time Kouketsu had made his proclamation, and the other half seemed content to stay and watch the young boy get his due for talking out of line. Bulma herself could only look helplessly at Kouketsu, for the look on the Daimyo's face after that declaration seemed to turn murderous, but his gaze was levelled not on the kneeling boy, but to his more disobedient councillors.

"Silence, boy." The Lord replied, standing up from his seat and slowly walking down to the main floor, that deep, authoritative voice irrevocably calm. "Your father raised you and you still live within his house, you are under his rule and hand, even before my own, and since he has not felt it prudent to discipline you, I will see to the job myself. I will need every samurai I can get, and you will be of no use to me at your minor rank." The procession didn't slow, but she caught several smirks of satisfaction at the put down of both father and son; they resented the older man his position as seer, she remembered, and meant to get to the man through his son. She had to bite her tongue to keep herself silent, wanting nothing more than to defend the poor, sweet boy who was defending both her honour and his father's. Finally raising her head, she was again puzzled by the small smile that had never seemed to leave this Bayoken's face.

"Do you think me and my rule so weakened that you can defy a direct order, I said I would see to this matter personally, and that means in private, unless you wish to share in their punishment." It was like some kind of strange drama or show, with another word, all of the noblemen's smirks disappeared, so too did the noblemen, until it was just herself, Kouketsu, his father and the Daimyo. What gave her the most apprehension was the expression on Bayoken's face, he was actually chuckling.

"Stand, boy, when I speak with a man I want to see him in the eye." As quickly as he had fallen to his knees, Kouketsu jumped to attention, trying to appear completely unaffected and falling miserably. The Daimyo seemed not to notice, his eyes glued to Bulma, boring into her eyes, and for the first time since she had arrived, she began to fear for her life, and the consequences of showing defiance to such a man. Attempting to hold herself as straight as Kouketsu, she failed miserably as well, she could not keep herself from shaking like a leaf before this great lord, who looked as if he could crush her with one well positioned punch. She maintained eye contact as long as she could before allowing her eyes to drop to the floor, her false courage was all gone, and though it ashamed her to say it, she was very scared. It wasn't long before he was standing in front of her, one large, callused hand grabbing her by the chin and forcing her gaze up, and to her credit, she looked up at him, and gasped. The man was chuckling at her, as was Bayoken to her right, Kouketsu was still standing like a statue in front of her. That set of black eyes studied her face carefully, and his thumb brushed over the curve of her jaw and cheek, his other hand simply rolling a lock of her silky blue hair between his fingers.

"You never cease to amazed me, Bayoken, your water spirit came, just when I was beginning to doubt, and she is more lovely than I could have hoped to dream, and more stubborn by half. If you keep this sort of predicting up, I may begin to believe that tale you told me of the dragon wish charms."

"It is not my doing, my Lord, the Gods brought her here, I merely told you she was coming. This is only the first step, the way is still fraught with danger and uncertainty. As much as the Gods have allowed me to see, there is still more that they keep hidden, or information which is so sensitive in nature, to even speak of it would bring disaster. I do know, somewhere, that the Prince is alive, your sacrifice has not been in vain, and with the arrival of this girl, our path is a little clearer." Bulma couldn't even shift her gaze, so focussed was the Daimyo's attention on her, simply studying her face, taking in her features with a thoughtfulness, putting her appearance down to memory. His examination didn't faze her, it was the look in his eyes, they were so blood shot, they seemed so old, lined with remnants of fatigue, age and the poison, but there was a glimmer of happiness, and hope in him. Like a dying man grasping for something to hold onto, he was admiring her, taking her face in, it had become his life preserver now. She was his hope now, prophecy said she would bring back his son, and just like Kouketsu before, he was struck with a look of awe and something akin to worship, to love, for what she represented. A mini-war broke out inside of her, whether she should tell him the truth, at the cost of that hope, or spare him the agony when he learns she could not find his son. With a shaky, nervous voice she answered herself, not wishing to look into the man's eyes.

"Lord Bahoriki, I cannot continue with this pretence any longer, while I know I must look unusual to you, and the hows and whys of my being here are still unknown to me, but I'm not this great spirit that you hope for. I cannot promise anything, whether I can find your son at all, or if I can stop Heru Oni, or this Kamen …"

"What, how do you know those names, girl?" The moment Heru Oni's name passed her mouth, the Lord's hand left her chin, his eyes going wide, and he turned away from her, walking thoughtfully towards the various weapons adorning the walls. Glancing over at Bayoken, even he seemed shocked by her dropping those names out of thin air, but her attention was drawn back to the Daimyo, when the decisive ringing of sharpened steel vibrated through the tense air.

"I … I saw them in a dream I had, a vision, my second in this time, Heru Oni was speaking with this handsome ninja, and he spoke of how you had been poisoned, with cyanide in your wine, that the boy, Kouketsu, had saved you. The pale faced lord spoke about killing you and your son, when he finds him, and claiming Hazumi through his favour with the Emperor. He is more evil a being than I have ever seen, a demon must live in the sword he wields, he anoints it with blood, feeding the sword while reciting the poem on its side." Turning back to her, his stern face back in place, he walked to her side, the weapon still in her hand, and again Bulma fought back the desire to tremble as he raised the unsheathed dagger … and placed it in her hand.

"Here, it was to be my son when he came of age to study the samurai way, you can give it to him when you find him. If he understands anything of honour, he will take it will all respect, since it is used by, and to protect such a woman." She was sure she must have looked completely dumbfounded, and as if understanding her confusion, the Daimyo continued.

"Whether you are of spirit body or flesh, you have been sent to us, you have more guts and nerves than any I have ever seen, but still, you hold a great sense of honour, worthy of a warrior. Anyone, man, woman, child, who can say the name of Heru Oni, even know that Kamen is, we believe, linked with the attacks, and knows the poem scrolled on the Hiyayaka royal sword, is not to be taken lightly. You have proven you're worthy, just as Bayoken said you would, but with such men as Heru Oni and Kamen as your enemies, even a 'spirit' needs protection, since I fear Bayoken shall not be enough for your journey. And you, Kouketsu, you have but one task to complete before I give you the title of full samurai, so I charge you know, as the girl's punishment is to find my lost son, so it is yours, you are to swear an oath of loyalty and serve to our spirit girl, our …. I guess the chit is not a spirit, then by what name should we call you, such a guide deserves a name, one that shows the way; you shall be, show girl." A reaction couldn't be helped this time, a sweat drop appeared at her brow and had her jaw been long enough, it would have hit the floor.

"I think we should stick with just Bulma."

– _ —

This couldn't be a dream, Bulma decided, wincing and brushing her unbound hair from her face, no dream could be this deranged, or this painful. It had taken no more than a moment for Kouketsu to swear his oath, and a substantial bag of moneys to be given to his father before this all important mission was underway, stopping only long enough to grab a measure of food and spare clothing for the two men. The whole thing was completely unreal as she was nearly thrown on a stubborn mare and they were off, with nothing more than a blanket for sleeping, the dagger from the Daimyo and the silk kimono on her back. She quickly realised two things on this trip, she didn't like her horse, and the four-legged spawn of Satan didn't like her either; her back ached, as did her hands, her legs, her shoulders, even the soles of her feet from attempting to keep herself in the saddle. How long did she have to suffer through this, what was she thinking, she wasn't this great Chosen One, and with every gallop across the countryside that the mare made, her loyalty swayed from the people of Hazumi to herself, what did she really owe them anyway? She didn't even have proper clothes, what was she going to wear, especially if this trip was as difficult as Bayoken believed it to be. Dust from the road coated her mouth, adding to the parched, exhausted misery she was in. Her self-pity once more on the rise, but by her determination, and the dryness of her throat, she didn't yell or request a stop until they the towers of the palace were out of sight.

"Please, please, can we stop, just for a minute, if I breath in anymore dust, I swear I'll choke on it, can we not stop for water, and some food; I'm starving." At first her request went unheeded, even by her once champion Kouketsu, it took her completely off guard when their procession slowed to a walk, then stopped all together, but still sat on the uncomfortable beasts. Whatever exasperation the elder samurai had with her died away when he saw the frazzled mess she was, clutching on to the reign of her horse like grim death. The son, on the other hand, had a face full of guilt, and rode immediately to her side, handing her over his supply of water, and helping her to a better position on her horse, the effort hampered by his stopping every time she whimpered or winced.

"We will stop soon, but it is better that we are as far away from Senzai as possible. The longer we stay, and the more people who know of our mission, the greater likelihood we would be followed, by the more glory seeking of Lord Bahoriki's nobles, or the assassins that Heru Oni hired. Do not worry about your clothes either, but there were no women of the palace, nor within my own home, that would have suitable clothing for a deity, or for someone of your size and colouring. Before we begin our main search, I have one place I wish to visit first, to get the rest of our supplies, and your clothes, so if you are finished pampering the girl, Kouketsu, we have at least another hour of riding before we reach our destination." The words were hardly out of Bayoken's mouth when he spurred his horse forward and was soon shrinking out of sight. The young man could only grin sheepishly, the expression turning more genuine when Bulma returned it, the look of admiration had yet to drop from his eyes and her smile seemed only to brighten his dark pupils.

"You'll have to forgive my father, he's a little rough around the edges, and he takes his duty and his honour very seriously. Since he took on the responsibility of seer in Senzai, he learned a great deal of respect for such things as your visions; he must have thought we had more time before the Prince is found and is scared of what could happen. Don't be frightened though, he's almost like a pussy-cat with my kaasan, he is just sensitive about new people, unable to display more emotion than the old codes dictate. He likes you, I can tell, and know that he, and I, would do anything to keep you safe. I think it was how you spoke of Heru Oni and the ninja leader, Kamen, those names are not often said by anyone without a measure of fear. He is right, we should be starting again, there is a long journey ahead of us, made all the longer by the fact we have no map or set destination to guide us. Do not worry, show girl, I will not let any harm come to you, and do not worry for your clothes, we will get you more; the Daimyo's emissary cannot be in such distress." Kami, how many women could that boy melt; if it wasn't bad enough he had those look, the utter sincerity in his manner when he said them made her feel as if she was the only woman in the world. The natural flirt in her responded immediately, flashing him her best seductive smile and inclined her head in a bow of thanks, while showing just a hint of cleavage. He only smiled back, a genuine expression of happiness, though his cheeks took on a tinge of pink. Loosening her death grip on the reigns, she copied Kouketsu's father, kicking her horse into a brisk trot and followed the trampled down path, fighting with all her might to keep herself steady on her mount, and for the first time since she was stuck on his horse she laughed. Already, the rhythmic thumping of a speedy horse sounded behind her; she still had it, and damn it if she wouldn't make his chase her.

– _ —

Through the ancient woods and well tended fields, along the rut infested road and by the paths mapped out in Bayoken's head they kept riding, until the blessed sight civilisation loomed before them.

"We will stop here, Miss Ichirui's tea horse will provide us with a place to rest our heads for the night and clothes for you, Bulma." The roll of her name sounded soft and well practised, the familiarity the older man had with speaking such unusual tones and inflection gave her pause, but all was soon forgotten by the smile that spread across Kouketsu's face. Hmmm, to get new clothes would require someone to admire and tell her which ones to keep, it would only be fair for that job to go to Kouketsu, he was her protector and if she was to find this Prince, she should be dressed in a style worthy of a man of his rank.

Yagai was a bustling village, the outpost before passing from Hazumi province to the main land mass of Honshu. A naturally resting point for travellers, almost every good was sold in its streets, clothing, food, shelter, supplies and information. Bulma couldn't help but stare at the bolts of finely woven silk, every colour and pattern imaginable on displayed, and she felt ashamed of her dust-covered kimono. There was no halting or slowing in Bayoken's agenda and it wasn't long before the trio had left the main market area and were stopped in front of a small, quaint dwelling, the house painted white with touches of red, yellow, and black. Looking back at Kouketsu, she pouted a little, his eyes were focussed completely on the house, watching each of the paper covered windows, hoping for some kind of movement behind the screens.

"Come boy, we should leave our charge to her own devices, I'm sure we could be of no help in her selection of clothing. I hope you won't mind our absence, but there is much worked that we must do; it has been twenty years since Buhogechi went missing and any information that we can find will be of great benefit. A piece of rumour or news could be a valuable clue, but I do not believe that we will be long. Bulma." Before she could argue, the two of them were gone, leaving her to her own devices with no money, help, or an idea of where she was. Damn it, it was like Namek all over again, them running off and leaving her to fend for herself in a foreign place with ruthless killers probably chasing after her.

"Excuse me, but can I help you?" The unrecognisable voice came out of no where, the sudden interruption of her rant took the young woman totally off guard and she cried out as if the demons of hell were at her heels, causing her to lose her balance. Her abused muscles decided at that moment to seize up on her and her traitorous horse took care of the rest as she bucked in response to her rider's movements and threw Bulma from the saddle into a nearby mud puddle.

"Stupid horse." She growled, a soft snicker rumbled from the horse, and she searched about frantically from her puddle for the person who had caused her fall, or at least set the chain reaction in motion. The suspicions and wild stories from her rant earlier were still present in her mind, already she was dreaming up the face of her attacker; a huge hulking beast of a man with a body full of tattoos and armed to the teeth. In her panic, she scrambled to grab the dagger that the Daimyo had given her, if it wasn't too late. Why did they have to leave her, how could they leave her here, to defend her honour, her very life against a dangerous, giggling murderer …giggling?

"I'm so sorry, I've seen more visitors come to my door than stars in the night-time sky and I've never seen anyone dismount from a horse quite like that, nor have I ever seen such exotic eyes or hair." Pushing back the said mud and dust encrusted hair, Bulma found herself looking up into the smiling face of a sweet young woman, no more than a year younger than her own 'guard'. Like every other person she had encountered, the girl had a head of black hair that shone brightly in the late afternoon sun, the majority of it twisted and gathered up into a loose bun. Two strands hung down to frame a warm, smiling face blanched white with makeup, but even that could not hide the flush of laughter from her cheeks, the whole effect brightening the girl's deep brown eyes. There were very few times in Bulma's life that she felt ugly, to see this well made up girl, she could only imagine the sight she must be, covered in mud, dirt, dust and sweat, her hair a wild mess around her head. Nervously, she gripped the ornate hilt of her dagger, wishing that the girl could be a million miles away from her, or better, that she could be back home enjoying that hot spring.

"Please, I didn't mean to startle you; allow me to make reparations for the damage to your poor kimono. I'm afraid that nothing I have would come close to its quality, but you may have any three of mine in return." Turning back to the girl, she found an outstretched hand, and that same warm smile, and never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, to use an expression, her muscles moaned, she took the offered hand, and began to dust off. The girl tried her best as well to wipe away the mud, but stopped with a gasp, and suddenly fell to her knees.

"I'm sorry, my lady, I did not realise that you were a member of the royal house of Hazumi, please, you may take any of my kimono that you wish, just please do not punish me for my laughing earlier."

"What are you talking about, how did you know I was from …" About to yell out her whole mission, she caught herself and simply knelt before the girl, this time reaching out to grasp her chin and force her back to eye level.

"Your dagger, Mistress, it holds the emblem of the house of Ho, the phoenix bird is carved into its handle. Only a member of the house can carry such a weapon, it is such a sacred symbol that even the males of the family have the symbols marked on their skin. I … I believe I saw two riders with you as well, samurai of the Lord Bahoriki, please, I meant no harm, my family has been loyal to the Ho family since my first ancestor, do not take my punishment out on my parents." This is what she had so feared, Bulma almost wanted to laugh at the irony of it all, but she dare not, she would probably cause the girl to weep, but she did crack a smile.

"If I even was who you believe me to be, you should have used the ridiculous spectacle that I made for myself as blackmail, but unfortunately, the best you could get out of a person like me is my kimono, for that is all I have which is my own. Do not fear, I'm not a member of the royal family, I've just been sent on a mission to present this dagger to its rightful owner, and the two riders you saw were my guides, Bayoken and his son, Kouketsu."

"Kouketsu is here, oh by the heavens I must look a fright; when is he coming back? Please come in, any messenger from Senzai who travels with such kind company deserves the best of treatment, a warm bath and a set of new kimonos, as long as you tell me your story, and when your companions will return." The girl's reaction to her sworn protector was a source of curiosity, but it was soon swept away by the promise of new clothes and a warm bath. Taking the generous offer, Bulma couldn't keep back the infectious smile spread across her unknown benefactor's face; it was no matter, she would learn it soon enough, the additional promise of a good chat making her step lighter. With a good scrubbing, a little make-up, and a kimono as nice as the one draped about her hostess, she might even be able to get a little friendlier with her handsome, young protector, things were definitely looking up.

– _ —

No matter if it was her time or this one, she was a man reject; as Robert Burns once said, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and here she was all dressed up and no where to go, using old euphemisms and drowning in pity. She had worked so hard to make herself presentable, fixing her hair up and applying touches of make-up to her face, all in the hopes of continuing her game with the young minor ranked samurai. But when she and the young woman, a Miss Ichirui, came down to meet her companions, the young man who she had been put so much effort in trying to attract did not even spare a glance or a word in her direction. The second the two horses had stopped, he had jumped off and bowed low to Ichirui standing beside her, speaking out an oath with more care and consideration than he had even the pledge of oath. Even now, he was glued to her side, openly admiring the girl, whispering and treating that, that child like she was the most beautiful creature under the sun, and the feeling of rejection she had felt since Yamcha's absence at the train station stung her heart. Fighting back tears, she took another gulp of the warm rice wine to burn away her sadness, to drown back her misery as the liquor marked its fiery trail down her throat to her stomach.

"Do not mourn the loss, your destiny has never been linked with my son, your spirit is meant to know him, but only as your protector, as a confidante, a friend. The boy is too young for a woman like you, his soul is always been one of innocence, not matter how old it is, he was never meant for you. He and Ichirui are promised to each other since they were children, he has loved her since they were ten years old, made his first oath to take her as wife when he picked up his first katana. He will never see you like that, nor could he, you are a spirit, a heaven creature, something never to be desecrated by the affections of a lowly bushi; but that still does not explain why you wish to cover yourself with that make-up. I have understood the need to wear a false face, it hides the beauty behind a self-conscious mask, you will not need such a face when you meet they to whom your soul desires, appearance for you only get in the way." When Bayoken's voice suddenly broke through her self-pity, she almost replayed her reaction from earlier that day, only her need to nurse her wounded pride and the saki in her system kept her calm. About to tell him not to bother wasting the breath on someone like her, she decided instead to remain quiet, his voice never feeling so soothing before, nor his words so true, and she absorbed in his advice, until he reached the part about soul mates.

"If your son is too young, does that mean that you think I should be putting my efforts on to you?" She replied back, sarcasm dripping from every word. He actually chuckled at that, and sat by her side, a warm hand resting on her shoulder and a glint of fatherly affection shining out even in low light of the lantern lit common room.

"No, Bulma, as lovely as you are, you are not meant for me either, I already found they with whom my soul intertwines; your destiny is not so clear, nor so easy, your is the uncharted path, the longer road, but you will never be satisfied with anything less." What, anything less than struggle, than rejection, than heartbreak, her life was like a game to the gods of emotion. As wayward and love-struck as her younger self was, she had lost those silly, sentimental beliefs, there was no one for her, but a lifetime of loneliness and disappointment. Tipping back her head to down the contents of her glass, she would it swiped away from her grasp by the mysterious seer.

"You will see, there are too many forces at work in you, a sensible mind, a natural arrogance and stubbornness, with a sense of danger, at least as long as you don't deal with horses." The last part brought up another chuckle and Bulma began to wonder how precise his esoteric sight he possessed really was.

"You have a good heart, you must let that lead you, both here and back there, for you are searching the same thing." Now that got her attention, 'back then', as if he knew that she was of a different time, and worse, he seemed to know about her original time. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask him what he meant, how much did he truly know, but he brushed away the stray hair that fell over her throat, his touch a little hard at one point and a wave of exhaustion overwhelmed her. At the first moment of tiredness, the stresses, strains and sleepless nights that she was originally escaping came back to haunt her, along with the fact that the last time she had gotten any sleep was on the train over a day ago, at least that's what it felt like.

"You should get some sleep, it would not do to have our guide so tired that she couldn't stay upon her mount. Well … still, you had a long day, and it will be another long one after that, and I cannot promise how many nights you will be able to enjoy such luxury. I'll finish your drink for you, but go to the room, and gather up any clothes and supplies that Ichirui might have given to you, we head out at dawn." Maybe Kouketsu was right, he was warming up to her, but that still didn't mean he had to order her like a child, and take her drink; but if he thought she was sleeping in the wilds of Japan, he had another thing coming.

– _ —

"We have another half an hour until we reach the next village, and we should look for lodgings, check for any leads, unless you have any other suggestions, show girl." Had she enough nerve, or energy, she might have snickered at that title, Kouketsu had long stopped using the title and adopted to calling her Bulma-sama, but recently his father had taken up calling her that. After a week of checking out every small, nameless village from Yagai to Kyoto, she never wanted to see another village, inquire about the lost Prince or get on another horse as long as she lived. Never had she felt so lost, since it was her duty to find this man, she couldn't think of where he could possibly be, though she now knew where he was not. How was she even to know what he looked like, there had been only one painting made of him before he left, and in the style of feudal era work, the figures all looked alike and took on more religious and godlike features than anatomically correct human ones. She didn't even have the story of he became 'the lost Prince' do go on, though from Bayoken's mention of sacrifice to the Daimyo her imagination had comeup with some highly fanciful theories.

It was later that night that she heard the tale while warming her aching muscles by the fire at an unnamed inn, in the small room that would be home for eight hours, and she actually found herself missing the luxury of Ichirui's lodging house. After that night, she and Bayoken had begun to form a relationship, every night the man would steal any alcoholic drink she might have ordered, and speak to her of his plans, his thoughts, and his cryptic descriptions of her part of the grand scheme. It wasn't long before she would counter with her own opinions, often leading to stimulating conversations, like the ones she would have with her father, her real father back home. This particular night she waited quietly for her partner in crime to join her, maybe he would finally take up her request to teach the principles of one of the strategy games he had spoken of. Instead, when she came to investigate the knock on her door, she was surprised to find that Kouketsu had came, laden down with their dinner, which they shared in her room. Since her failed attempts at seduction, they were growing simply as friends, and as handsome as the young samurai was, Bayoken was right, he was far too young and naοve for her. Grabbing whatever rice and venison soup that she could from the food vacuum known as her protector, she finally left him to sit down before the fire, trying to warm herself from the chill of the drafty room.

"Are you scared about the future?" She was about to quip that he would have to specify which future he meant but she bit her tongue, and let the young man continue, since she was sure it was the first time he had answered her such a pointed question. Kouketsu took her silence as a positive answer and moved with her to sit by the fire, such a move would have been welcomed before Yagai, but after, she shifted away from him and hugged herself close.

"Has anyone ever told you the story of how the Prince was lost? It is such a well known tale, I had thought everyone would know it, but I guess the doings of us meagre mortals is of little consequence to the gods above, or their messengers." Smiling at his tone, she nodded that she would like to hear the tale, it was only right that she should know the legend that had taken over her life.

"Many years ago, my father used to tell me, twenty or more for certain, the last Lord of Fuyu, Ko Ori, Heru Oni's father, was the most powerful Daimyo in the land, through his powerful army, and some say, through the forces of dark magick. Soon after he solidified his position in his own holdings, his sights moved to other territories, and wielding his armies like he could wield the ancestral blade of the Hiyayaka, claiming territories from his rivals. It took no more than three campaigns but soon he was vying for supremacy over the whole of North Honshu, maybe even the whole of Japan, but with his growing influence came growing concern, and the Shogun at the time took steps to curb his rise, everything short of assassination. During one of the skirmishes, between the Imperial army and Fuyu's, it was said that the shogun was injured, to the point of death, and the elder Emperor was not strong enough to counter Ko Ori. The new balance of power would all hinge on the new shogun, who would be chosen by the Emperor and his court, and with the new shogun, a shikken, or regent would be selected to rule in their stead and act as a guardian to the boy chosen shogun. Heru Oni's sire saw his chance to take the power that not even his own army couldn't achieve, first by putting his own son in for the position while killing off or gaining control over the other candidates by threats of invasion. At this time, the young Buhogechi was said to be the most favoured choice; Hazumi had close ties to the Emperor and previous Shogun by location alone. There were other practical reasons for the appointment; the young boy, even at five years of age, could already handle a sword better then any of his father's warriors. Already showing all of the authority and power of a great leader, but he was headstrong, wilful and spoiled, with a pride as immense as the sea. That was a time of great peace, my mother would tell me, when Hazumi was at his most prosperous, and my father the happiness, our land was not in conflict and had a strong enough military to keep it in such an amiable state. There was much hope for Hazumi's future, with a great Daimyo at its helm and a boy who promised to be even greater to succeed his father, but the people were naοve, and thought themselves above the conflict, but that was not meant to be. Seeing his chance too take over all of Honshu slipping through his fingers, Ko Ori took the final steps, offering to take the boy as his charge in the Imperial court. The proposition was made under the pretence of leading the boy to greatness, but even the most gullible reader could see the threat of attack if his summons were not met. After the many tales of heirs and hopefuls for the position of shogunate, it would be akin to a death sentence to send the Prince to Ko Ori, and a death sentence for Hazumi if he was not. Ko Ori still had tremendous power, and while the Imperial army could be a match for him, Hazumi's forces were not. For days and days, the Daimyo's council argued over the fate of the boy, many believing that he was too important for Ko Ori to wish him dead, but most thought better, saying that the boy should be sent to Kamakura, to learn of the ways of the Shogun. Others said that it should be the court of the Emperor, but all those suggestions were fraught with uncertainty, the line between survival and all-out war against Fuyu was razor thin. Each of them were effectively an act of open defiance against Ko Ori, and none could guarantee that the boy would be made shogun, which seemed at the time the only means to keep Hazumi from the threat of attack. As all of his warriors and advisors argued, Bahoriki ignored them all, unwilling to risk either his people or his son to such a fate, particular if it was at the cost of sending his only child away. The winter before, the Daimyo's wife and Buhogechi's mother died from fever and with the loss, the Daimyo had grown close to the boy and fiercely protective, to the point spoiling his heir rotten.

With the date of the ultimatum fast approaching, the Daimyo called upon my father, requesting guidance, the power of my father's sight was well known." Kouketsu finally paused in his telling if it were the need for a breath or dramatic effect, Bulma didn't know, but she wanted to kick him for stopping. There was something almost magical about the young man's words; just his voice as he retold this story of time, place and circumstance that he only knew from his father's own lyrical retellings, each tone, pause and verbal effect lovingly memorised and copied. Beyond just the style of the telling was the need to learn the truth, whether it was the real truth or not, the bits and pieces filtered through her earlier visions with that she had already deduced herself were finally forming into coherence and she wanted more than anything to hear it all.

"And what happened next?" The young man bowed his head and sighed, keeping his peace for a few moments more.

"I do not know which path my father chose, he never told me directly, only that the path for young Buhogechi was already chosen, the fates had set his way, and it only remained for him to stay upon it. Father says that there is always a way for us, sometimes it is clear and only a small push is needed to get us back, that the path of good will flow from us and fate will come to us; I'm not quite sure about that one myself. He tells me not to worry now, somehow the path will always be there for me to follow, not like the others, 'for even fate can be corrupted'." Kouketsu replied, again mimicking the father he adored.

"There was difficult paths too, every life is a myriad of possibilities, it is only the strength of the person and those with whom they share this and every life with that decide the ultimate fate. Whenever I hear that story, I think of all of those possibilities, all the paths that my father must have seen for the young Daimyo and what would have happened if my father wasn't there, if things had been different and he went to Fuyu? I'm sorry, it's rather late, and I've been talking your ear off the whole night, we have a busy day tomorrow. Father says we are close to making a break through, something is coming which will bring us to our goal, but he still has not told me what we should expect. Just remember, if you need anything, Bulma-sama, Father and I are just next door." Kouketsu bowed and left her there, warmer herself by the fire while her mind whirled with the new information humming through it, and she wondered how strong Bayoken's sight truly was. That night she didn't sleep, her body though exhausted, there was no comfort for her and she laid about in bed, her mind in turmoil, shifting from Bayoken's words, to Kouketsu's talk of fate and paths. For the first time since arriving in this strange place she wondered about it all, this strange, sublime reality in which she found herself, so many paths there were in life, was this hers, or one of hers, or was a path her own soul travelled long ago? How many paths had she travelled, the thought of past lives was never something that she put much credence in, but every time she looked over at Kouketsu she could see flashes of her best friend. All of those possibilities that can lead us in one direction or another, the choice of our path was as free as the direction of the wind, or was it? Her head hurt from it all, this subjective, inconsequential theoretical thinking about the will of omnipotent beings, look at how they pulled and moulded the life of the boy in Kouketsu's story. His path was decided for him when he was but a boy, and one move one way or the other could bring the boy into hell, or something far worse, she shuddered, recalling the demonic energy that surrounded the horrible sword and its master. To be a pawn of greater power before he was even old enough to truly chose his own path, but it could be worse, that life under Heru Oni being the worst, what would the boy's life had been if Bayoken had not intervened? But then what would any of us become under such a tyrant, under such an evil, look at Vegeta. For all of his overwhelming pride and arrogance, she had seen the veil over his emotions lifted during his nightmares, and had seen the scars from beatings, and other, more sadistic punishments, how had he survived a life under Freeza? It wasn't long before her restless mind shifted back to her own quest, this Buhogechi, what would he be like, what sort of life had he lived these past twenty years, forgotten by the world? A sudden flash of curiosity struck Bulma and she reached out to the sheathed dagger laying next to the bed, the inlaid gold pattern of the hilt and the carved rendering of the phoenix at the bottom of the handle. Slipping the dagger from its covering, she admired the glint of the metal in the low moon light that shone through the curtains, then she returned the dagger to its sheath, touching the ho on the hilt once more. The moment her finger brushed against the bird, the world around her went black, devoid of all light, sound and warmth, but the isolation didn't last long. A blinding light suddenly appearing in the distance and the dead world was filled with life, or more specifically, a life. It came slowly, quick flashes of images and muffled voices of an early life and a young boy, a child made too old by the weight of responsibility and the harsh reality of life. Soon the sounds grew louder, from soft whispers into cries and screams that assault her ears, the sounds of combat, of cheering. A flash of something white and cold passed by her eyes and joy descended into sorrow and hatred, a backwash of emotion followed as the consciousness which had enveloped her split into two. She couldn't speak or move, could hardly breathe, just take in the two lives that passed before her, flashes of torment and lonely countered by one of peace and solitude, but the two were one in the same. The end was coming, somehow in the back she knew, she could feel it approaching as the world of emotion and memory flowed through her ever faster, even the two lives were blurring together, back into one soul, one existence that was pulled her own along. Closing her eyes to keep the rush back, she was amazed to find that it was over, it was gone, the world had stopped whirling, the noises and emotions all gone, but she was not alone. Something warm brushed against her face, and her eyes opened wide and snapped shut at the intensity of the light before her. She tried to move backwards or get away from the light, it was too bright, she would never be able to face it, to touch it, it was beyond her, but it touched her face once again and she simply melted, wanting to go towards it. There was a sense of completeness there, it was warm and strong and beautiful as it enveloped her in light, as the darkness had done when she entered this vision, but there was no confusion here, just blissful existence.

"You have come so far, but this is not a reality yet, what you seek is still lost on those paths and you must bring it back. You must leave soon, it is almost time." The presence spoke into her, causing her to shudder at the contact. It then softly nudged, loosening its grip and shook her head if she still had it, unwilling to break the connection.

"No, don't go. I don't know which way I'm going, how will I find you, where do I look and what will I do when I find it?" A smile and soft chuckle followed her plea.

"You will know, how open your eyes, it is time." Reluctantly she lifted her lids, and caught a glimpse of a face in the light, the features familiar. Blinking her eyes again to see if she could get a better look, she opened her eyes to find that she was still in the inn, with a bed underneath her, and a presence above her.

"Well, well, what do we have here? I bet you would fetch a pretty penny in the brothels, maybe I can convince Oni-sama not to kill you." Hot breath brushed against her face and she could see two large, sexy eyes staring down at her from a perfect, sharp featured, handsome face, and felt a large hand running up her hip, trying to find a way through the sheets. Had she never seen his face before, she might have swooned at the idea of this gorgeous man petting her, but she could never forget those cold, lifeless eyes, and the pain wrought by his hands. Paralysed with fear, Bulma's hand brushed against something warm and she tightened her grip around the familiar curve of a handle; it was the dagger, she mentally cried, thanking Kami for this small miracle.

"You led us on a nice chase, but you were too careless, allowing us to track you so easily, you should have known it was only a matter of time before you would be found out. Don't try anything, wench, one scream and I'll ring that pretty neck of yours, not that it would do you much good, your friends are already dead, if my men haven't taken their heads yet. Just lay back and if you're any good, I might just keep you for myself instead of taking you to Lord Oni." Being raped or being killed, she definitely didn't like those choices, so, it will have to be number three, scream out and hope to see sunrise.

"KOUKETSU, BAYOKEN, HELP!!!" Her shrill cried cut through the tense silence of the room and startled her attacker, the man actually rearing back in pain. Getting the opening she needed, she didn't hesitate and in one quick move she slid the dagger from its sheath, raised it above her head and struck, hitting flesh. A gurgled moan bubbled up from her assailant but she didn't even notice, the adrenaline pumping through her as she pushed the large man off of her and ran for the door; Kami, if anything happened to those two she would never forgive herself. Throwing caution and sense to the wind, she flung the door opened and screamed again as a huge silhouette of a man lunged towards her. She side-stepped out of the way and watched dumbstruck as the black clad body fell to the ground, with the hilt of a daito sticking out of his back.

"Bulma-sama, are you okay? We heard you scream, and were coming to help you, I wanted to go to you sooner, but as you could see, we have our own little problem to deal with." Kouketsu replied before his attention dodged the raised Daishi that was aimed at his head, Bulma staring dumb founded at the transformation before her. Always, during all the time that she spent with him, Kouketsu was so innocent, almost childlike in his view of the world, if it were not for the armour on his back and the katana by his side, she would have thought him a simple peasant boy. It was eye opening, to say the least, to see him wielding his blade like a master, his movements so quick and precise that she couldn't see them clearer, nor could his black garbed opponent, and the battle was soon at an end, with Kouketsu standing victorious over his downed enemy. Even in the low light, the glint of battle and inner fire that burned in those normally kind eyes was clearly visible, and caused Bulma to take a step back. For the first time she saw the sort of power her vowed guardian possessed, and it both frightened and reassured her, thank Kami he was on her side.

Pausing only to make sure his downed opponent was truly dead, Kouketsu stepped over the fallen body next to her and grabbed the dagger from the man's back, and his eyes must have caught her own dagger, still clutched tightly in her own hand.

"Bulma-sama, what happened, they did not strike you, don't worry, we'll find you a doctor." The sounds of battle pouring from the room quieted slightly but Kouketsu paid them no mind, his whole focus on his charge.

"No, quite the opposite, I strike the only blood, then came to try to help you, not that it seems as if you need it." Had she not noticed the resemblance to her long time friend before, her senses screamed it now, the man who not a few moments ago, had fought a grown man who was armed to the teeth with hardly breaking a sweat was now laughing like a fool and buried his hand in the back of his hair.

"We don't have time for this; just tell me girl, how many were there in your room?" Bayoken's voice cut through the nervous laughter of his son, as he joined them at the threshold, sheathing his own katana in its scabbard.

"It was just the one, but it was the one I saw in my dream, the leader, Kamen." The older man looked at her with a mixture of shock and admiration, to survive an attack of that nature took a great deal of skill and determination. Not bothering to explain his motives, Bayoken pushed past them and kicked open the door to Bulma's former room, his keen eyes searching for something. Muttering out a few curses under his breath, he quickly returned to his stunned son and charge.

"I have no doubt that you did strike him, but your aim will have to improve, he's gone and I fear that will not be the last we will see of him. It is said that no one dares look upon the ninja leader's face and lives to tell of it, and there must have been a reason for him to choose you instead of joining the party that attacked us. I've have my suspicions that we were being followed, but we have to move quickly, there may be more of them, and it would only be a matter of time before they will simply overwhelm us. There is nothing for it, we'll have to stay off the main roads, travel through the woods and circle up towards the mountains, an old friend lives there and he could offer us shelter and help. We can't risk travelling through the towns, we will be too readily seen, and with your features, Bulma, we could be easily tracked; our time of luxury is over, there will be no more inns after tonight. Help pack up the girl's things, Kouketsu, and watch her carefully, nothing is above a ninja. When you're finished, bring her down to the stables, I'll have the horses ready." Disappearing into the shadow, soon it was just Bulma and Kouketsu left, the young man leading Bulma forward into her room, then keeping himself at the threshold to guard the area. No caring for anything more than her own survival, Bulma grabbed up everything and threw it into her pack and joined her protector in the hall, wrapping her night clothes around her to keep out the chill. Catching her shiver, Kouketsu grabbed one of the blankets from the bed and wrapped it about her shoulders, Bulma gladly taking the makeshift cloak. They moved like wraiths through the darkened inn, not even the muffled sounds of battle had been enough to wake most of the guests and they simply slipped out undetected by anyone. Still clutching her dagger firmly in her hand, she prayed it would not be Kamen's lifeless eyes that would greet them when they finally made it outside, and she breathed a sigh of relief when she saw Bayoken with the three steeds. She had hardly enough time to secure her pack when a set of strong hands grabbed her waist and she was unceremoniously dumped into the saddle. There was only a second to steady herself on the saddle and grab hold of the reigns when she heard Bayoken yell out for them both to follow. It was the first time her horse obeyed without question, the seriousness of the situation cutting even through her horse's stubbornness. All thoughts, questions and concerns were wiped from her head, only the need to keep moving, to get as far away as she could from those dead men, that handsome, evil man, and that frightening Kouketsu. Her nerves were frazzled and raw but she kept up with the two samurai, fighting back the pull of exhaustion and her very real fright of whose eyes might be watching them, when would they be attacked, would they even survive the night? In all of her travels with Goku and all the adventures she had ever had, she had never seen a more beautiful sight than the yellow burst of light as the sun peaked across the horizon, stray rays of light shining through the canopy of leaves above them. Riding up next to her, Kouketsu smiled over at her, patted her back, the sudden jarring enough to cause her to lose her balance, and nearly tumbled off the mare.

"I think we've abused the poor girl enough, boy. Tie her mount tether to your pack and let her sleep, we've got a three hour ride ahead of us and she doesn't look like she could keep on that mare for another moment." About to argue that she was not some weakling who needed to be coddled, she didn't get the chance, when another pair of hands wrapped about her waist and she found herself riding side saddle with her body leaning up against Kouketsu's for support. She could only imagine the state she must have been in, her hair a mess, her eyes blood shot from the hard riding and lack of sleep, wrapped only in a blanket to keep out the chill, but Kouketsu only smiled down at her and let her get more comfortable on his mount. Soon they were off again, whipping through the thick woods, this time heading Northeast, and as much as she fought against it, her eyelids began to drop, the rhythm of the horses steps oddly soothing with a pair of arms were there to hold her steady. Admiring the sight of the early morning for as long as she could, the world finally receded to blissful unconsciousness, a restful sleep with no dreams, but a slight tugging by that peaceful force that touched at her the night earlier.

– _ —

It seemed only a moment since she had closed her eyes but when she opened them again she found that she was lying down on warm sheets, blankets piled over her, in a bed and a home she had never seen before. Turning her head back and forth, wincing when she had pulled her muscles too far in one direction or another, she took in the rustic charm of the place that Bayoken and Kouketsu had taken her too. A far sized home, it was made of two rooms divided by a sliding paper screen, devoid of any paint or decoration, which separated the kitchen and eating area from the relaxing and resting quarters. The lack of windows made the home dark, leaving Bulma to squint and stare to make out anything past the end of the bed, but slowly and surely, her eyes began to adjust. Amazed at the sparse living conditions, she could make out only the barest of necessities, a small table with a few scrolls and stylus for writing, one or two manuscripts lying next to those, and a single candle to light the way. A trunk of what she assumed was clothing stood sentinel in the far corner, and above it on the wall, hung a myriad of weapons, a set of watazaki blades, stars, throwing knives, and a large Kyujutsu bow and arrow satchel up against the wall. Upon seeing the weapons, Bulma stiffened, maybe they had been attacked before they could reach the safe point Bayoken was leading them? They certainly couldn't be in another inn, could she be a hostage, but if that was they case, where were the guards, or for that matter, where was anyone? Turning her searching gaze to the floor, she calmed and rid herself of her former theory, her pack, Kouketsu's and Bayoken's were all laying upon the smooth stone floor, propped up against the paper screen. But if they were safe, where were they, or more accurately, where were those two, and how long had she been asleep? Her stubborn wish to stay in the warm bed warred against her curiosity and the latter won out, helped along to victory by the smell of cooking meat and a rumbling from her empty stomach. Pushing back the heavy covers, she swung her feet down on to the soft rug next to the bed, yelping in dismay when her warm skin touched the freezing stone, but there was nothing for it now. It wasn't long before she was wrapped in a simple black and white kimono, the material thick and warm enough to keep down the chill, and grabbing her sandals, she went exploring. She had only to walk through the paper barrier when she found her companions, and they were not alone; through the thick wooden door she could hear them laughing and shouting out, the sounds mixed with grunts and the clash of metal against metal. With a strong push, the door slowly swung open to reveal the source of the noise, and Bulma gasped at the sight before her. All around the small stone cottage, ancient trees towered above her, their foliage reaching high enough to touch the sky, and the sun, now low in the west, shone through the leaves, giving the world below green, misty and mysterious. And through that misty world, through the green giants, she could see in the distance a mountain range of green and grey peaks, tinted at the top with the last wisps of winter snow. Surrounding the cottage in a twenty metre radius was a meadow of green, newly grown grass, the smell of it heavenly, and mixed with that of the bushes and brush at the start of the line of trees. Off a short distance away she could hear the distinct rush of a water swelled brook, and Bulma wondered how such a peaceful, beautiful place could even exist …

"Ha, Bayoken, your son handles a staff like it’s a live snake." Well, maybe peaceful was not the best word. Slipping out of the door, she smiled at the three men before her, watching in awe as the two older men fought tooth and nail with their swords, while poor Kouketsu attempted to learn the use of the staff, or more aptly, tried to avoid hitting himself with it. Both tasks he seemed to have little luck with. Bulma bit her lip to keep from laughing at the poor young man, deciding instead to watch the battle between the two older warriors, Bayoken against an unknown, yet somehow familiar face. Darker even than the people of Hazumi province, the mysterious warrior stood well over six feet, with a sharp, strong face, his eyes slanting downwards, giving him a sinister, almost demonic look. Unsure if she should even consider this man friend or foe, she found herself staring into those hard, black eyes, the look on his face alone could have brought most men to their knees, but Bulma stood her ground and was rewarded with a small smirk and a flash of amusement in the drawn eyes. Sighing in relief, she did not get much time to savour her victory before all three men turned to her.

"Bulma-sama, you're awake; I almost thought that you must have gone into shock after we stopped, you didn't even stir after we put you in bed." Kouketsu broke the silence first, flinging away the bow in the process, and Bulma chuckled, he might hate it now, but he'll become an expert at it soon. Bowing to her, Bulma smiled back, and turned her gaze to confront the dark skinned giant before her, with Bayoken standing by his side. The pair remained silent while Kouketsu proceeded with the introductions, informing her that the tall man was the owner of the house, and the bed she was just in, and that Juukou, was an old friend of his father. She gave a short thank you for his hospitality and bowed to him, attempting to show her gratitude and he nodded in turn, hardly giving her much attention before he smirked over at his old friend.

"I never knew you to be one to play around with children, Bayoken; the girl has some spirit in her, your son though, how he has survived this long is a mystery. Come here, boy, and let's see if you're better with your blade than you were with that bow." It was beyond her comprehension how Kouketsu could be such an innocent, taking every one of the half hearted insults like they were made of rubber, then smiling like a madman when he was challenged to a duel. Ignoring Bayoken beside her, whom she assumed was simply watching the fight between his son and this Juukou, she began walking in search of the stream, the isolation of the place giving her a sense of adventure.

"I would not recommend that, show girl, this place may seem safe but if we could get to it, so could Kamen, or Heru Oni's men. After last night, I would not believe that you would travel anywhere without one of us by your side, they came looking for us for a reason, and I believe I am right in thinking that you know why. There is also a reason why they attacked you first, and by their strongest fighter, they seek your blood, Bulma, over any of us, the legend about you is very strong, and now that you have seen and wounded Kamen, he will not rest until he has found you." Bulma turned beat red as the deep, detached voice broke through her reverie, and she shifted her head to stare at Bayoken, who himself was watching the match before him with mild interest. It was the first time since they had left the inn that anyone had mentioned what happened the night before, but it was the casual air that Bayoken took with his warning of her personal safety that stopped Bulma in her tracks. Pulling his eyes away from the duel, Bayoken walked to her side and nudged her softly, Bulma finally taking the hint and walked forward, taking the opportunity that was being given to her to explore. They passed the line between the tamed meadow of Juukou's home and the wild, chaotic wood, standing along the overgrown, moss covered bank before Bayoken stopped, and sat down on a large rock and gestured for Bulma to do the same. Now that she had time enough to rest her mind and muddle through the events that had brought them to this place, she was bursting with questions, and quandaries, and her companion's comments just before had only whetted her appetite. Looking back on all the travelling and encounters they had went through, nothing seemed to add up right, the whys piling up everywhere, and last night had made it clear that there was something else going on, something more ulterior.

"I didn't think you were one to keep things bottled up, not when they ate at you like this, you never had trouble talking with me before, girl, why do you fear me now?"

"I do not fear you, I fear the knowledge you have been hiding from me, and Kouketsu, the Daimyo, everyone, I fear how you are deciding our fates with a sight that you never speak of directly yet is the main thing guiding us in this journey. Tell me this then, why did you send Kouketsu to tell me the story of Buhogechi, why did he say that a great change would be happening soon? You knew, you told him, that's why you were dressed and ready when the ninja came, you knew it would all happen, you even knew that Kamen would attack me, and yet you held Kouketsu back from helping me. Everything since this journey began you have been testing me, testing my intelligence with your questions and debates, testing my stamina on that damn horse, tell me then, what was last night a test of, how well could I handle being raped? There is more than what you are telling me, why are we travelling in such a bizarre fashion, we are moving in circles and I doubt that you have hit one lead, but then why would a seer such as yourself need a lead? It didn’t even strike me until that bastard was trying to force himself on me, laughing at the fact that we were so easy to find, you wanted them to find us, wanted last night to happen, but why? Tell me that, Bayoken, are you nothing but a fake, or is the Prince already dead and you just wanted your show girl to die on route so that your failure would never be known? Answer me now, tell me before a ninja attacks me where I sit, or maybe you will wish to do it yourself, but I'm still not afraid of you." Amazed that she could even keep herself calm and dispassionate in her tone as she accused the samurai before her of dishonouring his own code, she felt no fear at all, just satisfaction when Bayoken's face flinched infinitesimally. No matter what, she managed to force an expression of shock on the man's face, and no matter the fate she would be facing because of that; she would carry that victory forever. Staring him dead in the eyes, he settled himself down, allowing himself to assume a passive expression again, only the slight movement of an upturned lip showed that he felt anything towards her tirade at all. Whatever she had been expecting from him, she was not prepared from what did come, namely the old samurai leaning back against a nearby tree and assuming a meditative position. They remained like that for several minutes, silence reigning between them, disrupted only by the gentle lapping of the stream, the echo of battle back towards the cottage, and the stray cry from an animal deeper in the woods. Locked in a wordless deadlock, Bulma not leaving until she got an answer and Bayoken in no hurry to give one, it seemed an eternity before the silence was broken by a deep, calming voice.

"What I see is what the fates allow, maybe even more than that, I saw last night, and a hundred other outcomes that would have been reached had another word been spoken or another turn taken before that point. I see the future, in this timeline, and after, and after, into realms that I could not imagine, seen my own death and those I love over again, seen my own mistakes, and the sins of a hundred lifetimes. I have also watched my sons' life, and my wife's, my Daimyo, my people, my squa … and yours, and your travels with my son, no not that one." Bayoken replied when Bulma turned back to the sounds of swordplay.

"When I first saw you, it was long ago, before you were old enough to even realise, and have watched you since, but it was only when you were riding along in the belly of that giant, metal snake that you looked back. Our souls have often met, but never in the way you would probably think, you and I have a kindrence between us, you share a gift of sight, that was how you could look back at me, and that has not been your only vision. Tell me something, girl, how did you know to have the dagger at the ready last night, I can't imagine Kamen would have let you search through a darkened room to find it, so tell me, why last night? My sight sees far, but not into the centre of the soul, and something made you awake at that moment, and keep that dagger by your side, you were surprised by Kamen's presence, but not shocked, why?" How could she explain what she had seen, both before this time and after she had entered it, the most alarming of all being the one last night, what words could see use to explain a vision that intense, or the presence at the end.

"I saw with whom my soul was meant to be with, it's the only way I can think of it, it pulled me through its life, its two lives more precisely, and in the end, it came to me. Its being intertwined with mine, then told me to open my eyes, that it was time; the vision started when I touched the ho on the dagger, and it was still in my hand when I … came back." Bulma replied, her voice low and dreamy, like she was reciting some long forgotten fairy tale or legend of old, not a intense dream from the night before. Caught up in her trance, it took her along time before she could lift her head, to remove her gaze from the lapping stream to her silent companion, but even he seemed entangled in the blissful, sedate atmosphere of the wood.

"I see, I knew you wished for the other soul, but not that it wished the same for you, not so openly, it must be pining greatly, or it is lost in doubt, or both; and yes, girl, you have proven worthy." The last line was hardly spoken above a whisper, but Bulma heard it none the less, and like Bayoken, she could not keep back her look of amazement at his words, but he would not give her time to respond.

"As to your question of tests, I do not give tests, but I do have the cursed knowledge of what is to happen, most of the time, and what will the outcome be if the path is altered or changed. Last night was one of those nights when intervention on my part was not an option, these things must come to pass. Know only that I would defy the will of Kami, the pantheon and fate itself, if I though I was bring you, or Kouketsu into that sort of danger. I knew you would escape, you had only to prove your spirit to me and them, and you did me proud; that you received such a vision last night only confirmed to me what I had hoped. It will not be long before we find Buhogechi, the final pieces are falling into place, the path is now for you to manoeuvre, you are the one that must lead the way." With that last bit of cryptic advice as to the will of fate, Bayoken pushed himself away from his relaxing seat and began to walk back towards the camp, leaving Bulma in stunned silence, seated on that rock by the calm stream.

"How close is our goal then?" At first she didn't know whether he heard her, or cared at all to reply, but he stopped again and sighed defeatedly, a heaviness weighing down on his spirit that had not been there before.

"The boy is very close, but our goal, it is still lost and a long journey is still in front of you, show girl; I hope you are ready for it." Ready for what, this wasn't her time, her fight, what had she signed herself up for? She thought it was a mission to find this boy, or man he would be now, just bring him back to his people and he would solve everything, both for the future of Hazumi and getting her back to her own time. What would it take to satisfy these fates, what was that spirit last night; the farther in she got, the deeper the quagmire became. Bayoken was not much help either leading her on a wild goose chase, looking for some lost Prince, Kami, if his sight was as immense as he claimed it to be, she should know where …

"How long have you known where the missing heir has been?" It must have been her tone, or the imaginary light bulb clicking on in her head, but she stopped him right in his tracks, his back straight as a pole. Turning back to her, his eyes that only a moment ago were clouded over with foreboding now seemed to shine, even in the low light.

"I knew you were intelligent, and you did not disappoint; truth be told you are the first to ask me that question in twenty years. After Buhogechi went missing, I foretold that a water spirit would find the lost Prince, but no one asked me such an obvious question of whether I knew the location myself. Since it was not in the boy's interest, in fate's or in my own to reveal such information, it has remained a secret all these years. It is not my destiny to find him; I must only lead you to the boy. It is you who must find him, the man who is meant to rule, not the spoiled heir, or the hardened, destroyed warrior he would have become in Fuyu, or even the man he is now, but someone beyond that, what he could have been and still is inside. You have started already, made a dent where no one else has, but then, that was part of your destiny as well, as last night has already shown." If the last proclamation had caused a spark of comprehension, this gave birth to a full-blown, mind spinning epiphany, all that Bayoken had revealed to her, his subtle hints and cryptic speech finally began to click together into a semi-formed picture of … her destiny? No, they could not mean, could it possibly be; Kouketsu was, did that mean that …, no, but the split lifeline, a life of pain and one of peace, what could it possibly mean? But could it really be true, this great intertwining of souls, the light at the end, could her destiny be linked with …

"Father, Bulma-sama!" The close of the sedate exchange ended with a physical snap as the breathy, exuberant voice of Kouketsu echoed through the forest as he ran under the cover of the towering trees, giving no thought to stealth as twigs and brush cracked under his feet. Flush with his recent trials and presumably a lesson or two from Juukou, he was filled with the childlike innocent to fight and grow strong, merely for the challenge and need of it; he was so much like Goku.

"You should have seen it, father, I countered every attack Juukou-san made, even had him on the defensive a few times, until he kicked the katana right out of my hand. He gave me a few tips as to the weak points of armouring, maybe you and I could test some of them."

"Later I think, boy, but I am certain you didn't wake the forest spirits with your shouting just to tell us that." The older man replied with a pointed, knowing look and just as the boy who would become her closest friend would adopt, he buried his hand in the riot of black hair at the nape of his neck.

"No, I wanted to tell you that evening meal is ready and that I had to invite you and Bulma-sama in so we could eat. But what have you been talking about?" So caught up was the boy in his story that it took him a while to wonder what the delay between she and his father must have been. Maybe he was a little wiser in the ways of men and women to know that, he did have a love of his own that he was highly attentive of, for Ichirui's sake she hoped he knew marriage wasn't something you eat. But to have two people of such importance in his life join together like that, especially his father with anyone but his mother, was a bit more than he was comfortable with. Rising to her feet finally, she simply smiled at Kouketsu, placating him with her easy manner as she strode through the sea of ferns towards the pair.

"We were only speaking of our mission, of what will lie ahead of us now that we know Heru Oni and his ninja assassins are on our heels. Your father's sight is greater than my own and he was telling me of our way, and the challenges we may be facing on the way there." There was more truth than fiction in what she said, but it was the truth, with a few omissions the innocent boy would not understand; he was satisfied by her story, and the ever-present smile splayed across his face again. It was a strange mix of enthusiasm and foreboding as they walked back the small cottage, the happiness displayed on Kouketsu's face was infectious. The promise of a good meal, a good night, and a peaceful morning brought a sense of joy to them both, but underneath, like the sudden chill of the breeze, a shadow lurked that could bring it all crashing down. The only questions were, what, and when.

– _ —

"You must leave soon, it's almost time."

Bulma woke with a start and bolted upright in the bed, pushing back the heavy covers in an attempt to cool her sweat soaked skin. Dear Kami, what was happening to her? It was the second night in a row where she had felt that warm, encompassing presence beckoning to her, this time the pull was even stronger than before, to the point where she might have willingly stayed in that dream world to remain with it. This time though, there was something very different, she did not feel its life, or lives, but just it, there and warm and she felt complete, but with the pull of the light, she felt something else, a sinister evil, the same spirit that flowed from Heru Oni's sword. At the back of her perception, she felt it approaching them but gave it no mind, denying everything but the light wrapped about her, until she felt it pull away from her and she actually shivered with the chill from the lack of warmth. It was at that moment that the evil lurking in the background came upon them, the darkness surrounding them and inching not towards her, but him. She tried to cry out to it, warn it, but it looked her straight in the eyes, and shook its incandescent head, whispering to her that it had taken on this fate. Screaming her refusal to accept defeat or to allow the evil to overtake it, she fought against the darkness, her skin burning as soon as she touched it, her body shaking with the overwhelming feeling of pain, hatred and misery that flowed through her at that touch. She backed away in fear, trying to get away from the darkness, only to look back in horror as the dark battled with the light, and the light screamed out in agony. Rooted to her spot, she watched as the light and darkness battle for the single essence, the two merging, neither winning nor losing, but fighting all out for supremacy in the one soul. Another cry of pain ripped through her consciousness and she ran back to it, to him, as she reached for the soul and felt flesh, and looked into a face that looked almost human, male in characteristics and two piercing black eyes staring out into her. Still shrouded in cloud, she couldn't see any distinctive form, just those two eyes that rooted her to her place, the love and warm from before was there, but it was hidden behind a cold, hard exterior. Torn between wanting to walk up him and touch what a few minutes ago was so welcoming to her, or running in panic at this unknown amalgamate of shadow and light, the decision was not her own to make as a deep, rich voice spoke out to her.

"You must leave soon, it's almost time." She shivered again at the memory, the last time she had heard those words she awoke to find a man towering over her, and narrowly escaped the very real threat of rape. Kami, why was this happening to her, why was she having these odd dreams? Since she found herself trapped here, she was, thankfully, free of the visions which had plagued her before; why were they coming back with a vengence now? Something must be happening, the time for … something must be approaching, yeah, but what, that was the million zeni question that no one here seemed to be able to answer for her. Oh well, at least this time there was no intruders, at least she hoped, the light from the dying fire revealing that the tiny room she had awoken in yesterday had not changed, it was just her, and from the soft snoring near the screen, she knew Kouketsu was nearby as well. Stretching her muscles, she knew that sleep was not an option right now; she was too hot and wired, the dream circling through her head and the questions surrounding it and everything had already planted itself in her brain. It was only a few hours until they were off again, on a meaningless quest for something they didn't know how to find, and someone that they did. The Fates, they couldn't make anything simple.

Checking the room once more for any unwanted eyes, she quickly changed, wearing a few thick layers of clothing under her travel robes, the chill of the air was much harsher in the Northern Latitudes compared to Hazumi. Within a few moments she was all packed, and cautiously slipping out of the tiny room and towards the door, the need to freshen up and heed to the call of nature guiding her to tiptoe over her snoring protector. A pitcher in hand and her dagger in the other, she spied Juukou sleeping silently on the hard stone floor, a straw pallet, a blanket and a feather pillow his only comforts. Maybe when she was finished she could try to help with cooking breakfast, or cleaning up the already immaculate cottage, to show her appreciation for his sacrifice; if only the place had a toilet and electricity it would be paradise. Slipping on her wooden sandals, she groaned at the task before her, if there was one thing she couldn't stand in this place it was the lack of proper plumbing. As soon as she got home, she was going to start encapsulating porta-potties and carrying them with her at all times, that and maybe a few other tools for survival. The stars and the moon were still hanging above her head, but both the darkness and the light of the night-time sky was starting to be eaten away at by the coming sun, the mists from the forest still gripped the land. It felt like the first vision she had ever seen of Senzai, after that horrible night, dear Kami, how were they faring? Since they had left, a few snippets of news had reached their ears, more like rumour; the attacks had halted, at least for now, but how long before they would start again, probably when she, Kouketsu and Bayoken have been eliminated. Shuddering then, she pulled her robe in tighter and removed her dagger from its sheath, her thumb absently rubbing over the stylised bird on its hilt. She crept silently through the woods, eyes looking over her shoulder as goose pimples spread over her arms; something wasn't right. For the second time that night she felt torn, wanting to run back inside and hide from whatever was lurking around her, but a part of her was spurned onward, she could not hide or cower in fear. If this was her time and mission, she had to face it head on; damn it, why did she have to be the one to be brave?

Snipping the air, she smelt the rich, damp aroma of grass and dirt, and the sweet, searing pull of danger as well, and she walked forward, clutching her water jug and knife as she stalked towards the edge of the grass sanctuary. The blustery wind only confirmed her suspicions, already thick wall of grey cumulonimbus clouds was approaching the mountain range, the time for … something was drawing near. A storm was brewing, a particularly fierce one, the last one of the winter, early spring season, the ominous sense of destruction reminding her of Bayoken and his visions. Had he ever mentioned a storm, or had seen the one ahead, a man who can see the future should at least be able to predict the weather, even their horses could sense the coming change, or was it the presence of something not right? Damn it, she wished she had woken Kouketsu before she came out her, or asked Bayoken … wait, where was Bayoken? Thoughts immediately swirled in her head that it was yet another test, she couldn't remember seeing him in the house, and as small as it was, there were very few places he could hide, where could he have gone, unless he truly wished to leave her alone. No, he made that promise to her by the stream just yesterday afternoon, and inexplicably her feet were drawn back to that spot. She was near the edge when she heard it, not the gentle lapping of the water against the riverbed, but the lowered tone of voices, one voice, deep and low, and one she had heard before, and she held back a gasp of shock. There was nothing for it now, all fear and trepidation was gone now, curiosity spurred her forward; dear Kami, even in the middle of no where they had found them. Keeping low to the ground, the jug and dagger still in her hands, she crouched closer until the intangible mutterings became words, and the shadows in the mist took on a human shape, several human shapes; Kamen came with company.

"I had always heard you were strange, seer, but I didn't realise you were suicidal, or maybe naive might be the better word. Did you honestly think we couldn't find you, a blind dog could find the path you travelled along, though you did lead us on quite the chase last night, I didn't think we would find you, but fortune smiles upon those who help themselves. It's over now seer, don't try anything stupid, Master Oni has expressed a great interest in you, and with all the trouble you've caused us, I'm still going to be lenient, if you agree to be more co-operative. Come with us and we'll let that whelp of yours live, for the price of that that girl who travel with you, I still have a little score to settle with the little bitch. Come on, old man, what is one nameless whore to the life of your son?" The slowly rising sun was burning off the mountain mists, the shifting dark fog thinning out to reveal the silhouettes of at least two men, the strong back and the distinctive spikes confirming the identity of the shadow closest to her. It was the second figure that gave her pause, the broad frame of Kamen pacing slowly back and forth in front of the immovable Bayoken until he stopped short near the end of his rant and stared the seer right in the eye. Kamen's quiet voice echoed through the trees, the sound and meaning distorted, but at the very last she heard the threat against her own life, and Kouketsu's, but even the words were nothing to the sight of the ninja's face. Naked of the black covering that hid his face and identity to the world, she found herself looking up into the face of a determined madman, his jaw set, his light hazel eyes hard and cold, like his voice. And, oh Kami, trailing down his cheek, from the corner of his right eye to the tip of his chin, was a thick, red gash. His flawless face, his skin appearing almost blue from the mist, was now horribly marred; shining out like a brand from the Daimyo's dagger, wielded by her hand, the visible proof of the encounter the night before, and how good her aim had been. With every mumbled word, Kamen traced out the scar, and Bulma knew now the full weight of Bayoken's warnings. She had seen the ninja's face, attacked and scarred him and lived to tell of it, and by whatever code of honour or vengence he held, Kamen would not rest until he had paid her back ten fold.

The only question now was Bayoken, he had not moved since she had stumbled upon the scene, not flinched at the ultimatum Kamen had given, what she wouldn't give to know what he was thinking, what he was seeing. How much of his cold exterior born of the steel nerves of a hardened warrior, how much was due to seeing this scene before, played out a hundred different ways? Holding her breath for fear of revealing her position, she watched transfixed by the stand-off, the two men silently staring each other down, watching for the first signs of weakness.

"I like to think of myself as a patient man, but if you think I'm scared of your power, or that I'll back away quietly if you do not answer me, think again. This is a courtesy, from one warrior to another, to see how great your honour truly is, if you could sacrifice your own life for your son's; you killed off the Daimyo Bahoriki's heir, are you willing to do the same with your own to save yourself?" Still Bayoken didn't flinch, didn't seem to take in the seriousness of the situation around him, but to Bulma it was becoming more dangerous with every passing minute, her hand stinging with her tightening grip around the dagger's hilt. Bastard, she spat out, that he would dare speak of honour, he could not comprehend the word, and she cursed to herself that her aim had not been better the night before. Sparing a glance up into Kamen's face again, the strain of keeping in his rage and anger was showing, his fingers once more coming up to trace out the scar on his chin, he was coming to the end of his patience, and was about to test Bayoken's. A rustling of feet from behind Kamen only helped to remind her of the advantage Kamen held over them and by the look of triumph in his eyes, he meant to use it.

"I would have thought leading your fellow bushi to their deaths would have taught you some humility, but I see you need to be taught further. Tell me, seer, did you see this, did you see us slowly cutting your son apart, or maybe we can bring both him and you to Master Oni, he has some very unusual tastes I've heard. How does it feel to know that you led him, and that bitch to their deaths, to know that when I take that girl and make her scream that you led them all to it? All for a fool's quest, to hunt for a fairy tale, Buhogechi is dead, and so too is Hazumi, it will only be a matter of time, and a considerable amount of bloodshed before Heru Oni gets his way. So tell me, seer, what do you see?" Of all the reactions she could imagine, denial, anger, violence, complacency, she almost gasped out in shock at the low, rolling sound that rumbled from the huge warrior's stomach. Chuckling, he was actually chuckling.

"Fear what you cannot understand, assassin, for once more you will feel cold steel, wielding on that girl's behalf, the ghost from the past will come, and take back from the darkness that which belongs to the light. Do you know what I see? I see the frightened sycophant of a demonic tyrant, neither of whom understand the weight of their punishment that fate has in store for them, I see your death." Even Bulma shuddered at Bayoken's tone, at first it was light, jovial, punctuated by low chuckles, then slowly it took became darker, thicker, hardly above a whisper, the last phrase nothing more than a gravelled murmur that hung in the receding mist. For the first time she could put primary features on the voices behind the ninja as she made out four figures, three of whom belong to the emeny, all of them muttering low to themselves, their faces plainly showing their fear and apprehension.

"Silence, you cowards, you fear one man and some phoney vision, a stubborn and soon to be in great pain is what he is, and if he will not come nicely, we will have to persuade him to comply. Kirimi, Sadisuto, grab the girl, or the boy, and will see how long he'll put on this high and mighty act when he has to watch them drown in their own blood. I see things too, 'Bayoken', I see a failure of a man, and soon I'll see your son screaming in pain, and that wench writhing in agony underneath me, but I may spare the boy's life, if you come quietly." Two sets of footsteps suddenly echoed through the woods and Bulma tensed at their approach; with only her dagger and the water jug, she felt her senses heighten as she prepared to fight for her life. Looking over at the turned silhouette of Bayoken, she watched as his fist loosened to an open palm and started to wave back and forth, as if staying her hand until the time came for action; he knew she was there, dear Kami, what was he planning?

"I'd rather find my death at the hands of that girl than have my life spared by a man with no honour." Too fast for her eyes to take in, she heard the deadly hiss as the sword at Kamen's side was drawn, a fast glint of light from the polished blade, a sharp whirl as the sword cut through the air and sliced through Bayoken's side. Before Bulma's very eyes the man who had guided her, who had promised his life for her own, list to the side, crying out once in pain as his blood began to pour out through his fingers, staining the forest ground below. All the warnings came flooding back and tears rose up in her eyes, sorrow as she had only felt at Goku's and Yamcha's deaths came upon her, her sadness quickly turning to rage as Kamen's voice ripped through the glade.

"Maybe you can settle for death at my hands, tell me, old man, did you see that?" Harsh, sadistic laughter followed the sound growing into a cacophony that rang through Bulma brain, denial and hatred swirling through her head, pounding through her veins. All of this was her fault, she should have stopped it, and done something, even while she knew there was nothing she could have done. All of her life she had been physically weak, in need of protection, that protection coming at the cost of her loved ones, she could not let it happen again; she was strong, she was worthy, she would not fail.

Jumping up from her hiding place beneath the ferns, she screamed a battle cry at the top of her lungs, startling her opponents, and attacked with the only weapon she truly knew how to use, the heavy ceramic water jug. With a mighty throw, she hit one of the Kamen's warriors right in the head, the pale skinned, fish faced ninja crumbling like a ton of bricks. His companion hardly had time to get over the shock when Bulma ran up, not slowly or pausing in consideration as she brandish the small trusted dagger and attacked, her eyes levelled squarely on his exposed throat. Her aim and intentions were true, but her speed was not, before she could even strike down with the blade, thick, stumped fingers grabbed her hand and wrenched the knife from her grasp, tossing her around like a rag doll. Closing her eyes until the spinning stopped, she didn't get a chance to adjust her bearings when a meaty, sweaty hand closed around the back of her neck, and the blade of a sword pressed up against her own throat.

"So far you're zero for two, seer." Kamen's voice lilted through the thin morning fog, and Bulma shivered, whether from the cold wind that blew from the mountains or the threat of death, she could not say. Daring to open her eyes against the tumult in her head, she truly wished she hadn't; Kamen was walking from Bayoken's side towards her, her own dagger in his large hands. She dared a glance back at Bayoken, and nearly cried out at the sight, he was loosing blood fast, his tanned skin now a deathly pale, his eyes were glassy. Coughing back the blood, he looked up at her with a unveiled look of sadness etched upon his face, she wasn't supposed to be captured, she realised, he sacrificed himself for her honour for her life, and his sacrifice is now for not. The snap from a broken twig jarred her back to a sense of reality, her gaze ripped from the good man who had become her protector to his polar opposite. Outwardly, his manner and expression were calm and collected, his whole demeanour was not unlike a fairy tale knight image that his visage conjured; if it were not for the red scar across his cheek, and those eyes. It was the eyes, she decided, no matter what emotion carried on his face; those eyes were dead, and full of the madness born of living a life in the darkness. Right now, the ninja was less than an arm length away; those hazel eyes glowed with a look of triumph and gruesome anticipation.

"Sadisuto, what do you think, should we use the dagger before," he paused for dramatic effect, the tip of the dagger dragged across Bulma's cheek to show exactly what he intended to do. "Or after?"

"During." The bulbous, sweat factory replied and proceeded to demonstrate as the stationary arm at his side trailed its way up Bulma's side, while the dagger at her throat scraped lightly against the column of her neck. It was a toss up now which emotion she would give into first: nausea or rage; a glance over at Bayoken made her choose for the latter.

"Tell me, pet, are you going to start screaming for us now, or are we going to have to make you?" Kamen's warm breath brushed against her face and she actually smiled up at him, a smile her friends and family knew all too well.

"Actually," she purred softly, "I'd rather hear you scream." With that she spat up into Kamen's face and dug her knee sharply into his groin for good measure, using the sudden confusion to hurl her elbow into the bloated gut of the lackey behind her, stamping the blunt heel of sandal across his toes. The move was enough to loosen his grip, enough for her to grab her dagger from Kamen's hand and face her fate next to the man who had seen it all like the passage of the sun through the sky.

"You little bitch." The sweaty octopus was only a step behind her, even with the pronounced limp, his foul breath assaulting her nose while his very presence caused the delicate hairs on the back of her neck to stand at attention. His fingertips were now scraping across the back of her travel kimono, Kami help her when he finally did grab her, the close proximity to the man had revealed not only the various odours of his body, but that he was getting off holding her. Jumping over a fallen log, she was only a few steps from her goal, when the man she had felled earlier played the final trump against her, one cold, clammy hand shooting out to grasp her ankle and she slammed face first into the ground, the dagger pitching out of her hand.

"Good work, Kirimi, nice to know you can't be taken out with nothing more than a heavy jug and a good throwing arm." The chuckled comment came from behind her and she knew there was no use in squirming, the wind had been knocked from her lungs and the adrenaline in her veins had turned to lead, weighing her down. With the greatest of effort, she turned to face the attacker who now towered over, his appearance even more menacing in the low light of early morn.

"Nice try, wench, but not good enough." On reflection the whole episode was dreamlike, one moment she was looking up into that fat, greasy face, thick lips curled in a cruel grin with the very real threat of rape and mutilation before her. Then, with nothing more than a whistle of the air, he stopped, stopped laughing, stopped grinning, stopped moving, stopped breathing and fell on his face, a Kyujutsu arrow embedded in his back. With another rush of the breeze, a second arrow sailed through the air, hitting straight and true through the neck of the man who had wrestled her to the ground. Looking through the mists, she could make out two silhouettes, one as familiar as Bayoken, the other like Kamen, though in this case it was infinitely more welcomed, as it seemed that the latter had flown the coop, turning tail as he did last night.

"Father!" Kouketsu's voice broke through any silence which had been achieved, rushed past me to his severely wounded sire, Bulma's gaze still lingered on Juukou, nodding her gracious thanks before turning to Bayoken.

"Don't mourn, I've lead a warrior's life, and faced a warrior's death, defending the honour of our show girl, and you've done me proud, girl, as unorthodox as it was." He chuckled lightly, only to have it end in a wave of coughing, the spasms rocking his whole body. Waiting from them to calm, he smiled up at Bulma and placed her lost dagger in her waiting hands, his eyes silently granting her the gift of the dagger, or rather the honour to wield it.

"And you too, Kouketsu, you've done your family and your code so proud, you are a worthy son; please protect her, lead her on the path of the light, as you always have, and will." The last part was said under his breath, and Bulma could hardly keep back her tears, her sobs easily drowned out the sounds of Juukou's approach.

"I see your aim has improved, you just have to start working on that timing." Bayoken said to his old friend, a certain measure of pride shining out even towards the grizzled old warrior, no hint of malice in the dying man's voice and Juukou smirked in reply before adopting his eternally disciplined expression.

"Stubborn old fool, what were you thinking, sneaking out without a weapon, if you think this is our last good-bye, you are mistaken. Come on, Kouketsu, 'show girl', we have to get going, they'll be back soon, as chicken as their leader is, it won't be long before he'll come back with reinforcements. Pack any weapons and supplies that we can and go, before the ninja returns." Turning sharply on his heel, Juukou started to march back to the cottage, his stance as straight as a stone statue. The two companions could only look over at each other in disbelief, Kouketsu's concern finally cracking through as he called out to his father's old friend.

"Juukou, we can't just leave, my father; what about my father? He can't ride with us, where could we possibly take him, he's lost so much blood, a hard journey might kill him."

"You do ill by your father, boy, he is bushi, he has his honour, and more strength than nearly any man I've ever seen, I have no intention of leaving him but we don't have the time to let him heal properly. He's loosing too much blood, we might not be able to save him, but I won't sacrifice all of our lives and his as well by leaving ourselves to be slaughtered. Bandage him up, Kouketsu, he'll ride with you and I'll take his mount; we head North-west, there are villages there with strong healers on the outskirts of Fuyu territory."

"But that is a day's ride, and in Fuyu territory. There must be another way, we have to go back to Hazumi, maybe at one of the villages we stopped at …" It was like fighting against the coming tide, or the clouds that were rolling overhead, the two stubborn warriors fighting over the place of their retreat, and instinctively Bulma knew that both directions would be a death sentence. Shock from the attack and the utter hopelessness of their situation left her with a sinking sense of dread; the arrival of the Saiyajins, the journey to Namek and the return of Freeza, even after all the disasters she had faced, death never felt so near, and so inevitable.

"Don't fret, show girl, they fight because they do not know what the future holds, they need to be given a direction, and it is time." She almost gasped at his words, the dream that had roused her from her bed just that morning coming back to her. Not pausing to analyse its deeper meaning, she instead began to pull at the edge of her kimono, ripping off strips of the material as she prioritised their problems in her head; first thing was to slow Bayoken's bleed, after that she could think.

"Here, you fought bravely, if not in an unorthodox manner, you do the Ho family proud." Tearing her attention from her task, she looked down at the hilt of her weapon, the majestically carved bird glinting in the low sunlight.

"They say the bird is one of great power, even in the face of death and defeat it rises from the ashes to return to the heights of heaven." She gripped the dagger in her hand, and stared at the wounded man, his words causing her eyes to scan upwards, towards the sky, towards the mountain range that towered above the trees. The touch of epiphany, or hope, struck her then, if the circumstances were not so grave she might have smiled at the realisation, she knew their path, and like the ho, they would enter the realm of the gods. Her priorities though had not changed, and soon she was wrapping the tattered bottom of her robe around Bayoken's middle and helping him to his feet. Looking around, for the first time she noticed that the arguing had stopped, Kouketsu and Juukou had gone and the distinctive sounds of packing could be heard, punctuated by a shout to hurry up, or to ensure that the necessary supplies had been packed.

"Father," Kouketsu yelled out when the two had emerged from the forest, pulling his and Bulma's mount along as he walked towards them. Relieving Bulma of her heavy burden, he helped his father onto the horse, the three of them were soon joined by Juukou, though it seemed as if the question of where they had to escape to was still in doubt.

"Father, are you alright, we're going to head back, it is too dangerous here, it's our only chance to survive."

"No, Kouketsu, all roads but one lead to despair, and as much as I trust your counsel and good judgement, and yours as well, old friend," he nodded in reply to Juukou, before looking back to his son and the dishevelled Bulma. "But this course is not your decision to make, it is the girl who was sent to show us the way, and fate has chosen this to be the moment for her to take up her task, we are to follow her, it is the only way." With such an unusual announcement, both men turned agape towards Bulma, unsure what to think, shock and adoration in Kouketsu's gaze, disbelief in Juukou's, and in her own, Bulma couldn't imagine. The weight of her task, the will of whatever force brought her to this place pressed down upon her and she gripped the dagger in her hand for comfort, the warm familiar pattern of the engraved bird giving her strength.

"Bayoken's right, if we return to Hazumi they will be waiting for us, they would be expecting us to go that way, so we must chose a different path, and escape through the mountains, through that path. If we leave now it would be a hour ride to the path, and once through that we could rest, tend to Bayoken's wounds; I do not know why, but fate leads us in this direction, and we must act quickly." The eyes that were trained so intently on her now shifted to the far off peaks and the wall of ill-boding clouds that towered even over the mountains. She could again she it in Juukou's eyes, the disbelief of her words, and now to add to that distrust was scorn for the move that could very well cost them everything.

"Are you mad, girl, do you know what those clouds overhead mean? A storm is coming, a particularly fierce one at that, how will we even know whether we can make it through alive, better to face an honourable death than death by freezing and starvation."

"All the more reason why they will not follow us, and why we should hurry, there is not much time until the storm will hit, it's been building all morning. You have been all through this area, please, is there any safe point that you know of, a place of shelter?" The question, though directed towards the silent giant was answered by a soft chuckle from the mounted figure, Bayoken smirking even against the pain that lanced through his side.

"He knows it as well as I, there is a monastery on the other side of the range, a little known place called Seidou. We went there once on our journeys, they have great teachers and healers, and some of the most ruthless sohei in the land, we barely survived the encounter with our lives, before we were taken in. Fiercely protective the monks are to their privacy, one of the last outpost to the old ways, to the Shinto, they even tried to recruit Juukou into their order, much to his own dismay; I'm not sure why, I think the robes of holy order suited you." For the short amount of time that Juukou had been in her acquaintance, he was the epitome of a warrior, strong, proud, silent, reserved, but just the mention of the monastery caused a red flush of embarrassment to stain his cheeks. Biting on her lip to keep back the giggle that threatened to come out, she instead glanced over at Kouketsu, who was wearing his own broad grin, his eyes staring only up at his father with awe, though still veiled with concern. He was sold now, if her own words had not convinced him to go through the forbidding pass, his father's say had pushed him all the way; heck, if she and his father asked him, he would ride to the ends of the earth. The last holdout was slipping as well, coughing to hide his embarrassment, Juukou growled and turned back to Bayoken's mount. Easing himself on to the horse, he rounded on the smirking trio and held himself tall, attempting to regain their respect by his size alone.

"Who am I to question the 'voice of the fates' and the water spirit messenger? But if you think I'm going to allow a slip of a girl who probably can hardly ride a horse to lead us, then they must have cracked your head as well as rip open your side. Get on your mount, girl, you're going to take the rear, make sure that we stay together, we leave now, so you get on that horse too, Kouketsu, try to keep your father as steady as possible. We're going to have to ride hard for the first half an hour at least, is that understood?" Juukou asked, his tone not leaving any room for argument.

"My friend, I wouldn't have it any other way."

– _ —

It was no false boast Juukou gave, almost as soon as she was secure in the saddle they were off, at first going at a slow trot until Bayoken confirmed that he would live under a faster pace and they were off through the woods at full gallop. Always being a lover of speed, Bulma now found herself praying for her survival, that one of the dozens of low lying branches that whipped against her arms and legs wouldn't take off her head; damn it, why couldn't horses come with brakes? Like his old friend, Juukou followed a path that seemed to exist only in his mind, but follow it she did, for truth she feared getting lost in the mist filled woods and being caught by Kamen again. Through it all though, she remained silent, as they all did, fear and determination driving them all forward, even as the temperature continued to drop and the wind pick up. After an eternity of being surrounded by woods, she had to blink twice as a wide, grass plain stretched out before them, and just beyond that, the first plateau of the range. Panting heavily with the effort to keep on her horse, she was amazed to find that none of her companions had broken a sweat for all their trouble when they finally stopped to give the horses a short rest and drink. The path that Juukou had chosen proved to be the best, the pass was before them, a narrow strip of land on par with the plateau, surrounded by the sheer, snow capped cliffs of the mountains. As short as the break had been, the rest was not for these weary travellers and they were soon off again, they pace more sedate with Kouketsu at the helm, Juukou now taking cab duty. They had just began the hazardous climb by a weather worn path up the foothills when the last unknown factor began to fall, beautiful and pristine white, as delicate as a crystal, and deadly than all of Heru Oni's army combined.

– _ —

"Keep up, keep together, we're half way through the pass." In front of her she could sense Juukou's voice, yelling at with all of his strength over his shoulder at her, but the warning was mostly lost in the roar of the gale winds that hammered down on them with the force she had felt only at Shelong's summonings. Tiny, frozen ice crystals whipping around her, her face long ago going numb from the freezing wind, her whole body now shivering with exhaustion and cold. Kami, what had she done, where had she led them, Juukou's warnings had all come to pass and it was all her fault for leading them down this path, she and Bayoken. Now he was near the point of death, and if the storm did not stop and shelter found soon, they would soon all share his fate. Had she had the strength she might have cried, or wailed out, why was she here, did the forces that pulled her from her world truly mean to kill her here, all of this was like some horrific cosmic joke with a mysterious punch line? More than anything she wished she could be back in her own time, warming herself in that personal hot springs, Yamcha's arms wrapped around her, keeping out the cold. Or waking up in that luxury, queen size bed, the covers pulled tightly around her, another body there to keep her warm, her mind flip flopping for a moment between the gentle face of her now former boyfriend to the smirking face of the Saiyajin Prince. Yes, even Vegeta would be a comfort now, anything would be against the shrieking, whirling, blowing, frozen white world before her. With every precarious step her stead took, the trio before her became harder to see, the snow enclosing around her, fatigue and cold taking its toll on her fragile endurance. Fighting with all of her might, she finally succumbed to the overwhelming urge and closed her eyes, her body growing lighter as her mind became heavy. Sleep, all she needed to do was sleep.

"LOOK OUT!" She jerked awake with a start when she heard it, the identity of the speaker was swallowed up in the pounding wind but the warning was loud and clear, and soon overwhelmed by the danger itself. It started out as a loud crack, then the shrill sigh of a whistle that grew stronger with every second, crescendoing just a few metres above her head as she looked up and say the massive ice chunk falling towards her. Rooted to her place in fear, her mare had better survival skills and reared back, this time the ice and snow caused the horse to lose its precious balance and horse and rider crashed to the ground, Bulma smacking her head hard on the frozen ground. In an instant the world went from white to black back to white again, but how long she was out she could not say, raising her head, she saw that she was now alone, truly alone, her four legged companion had wandered off, probably following after the others. Crying out in pain, she first crawled onto her stomach then pushed herself upwards, every muscle straining with the effort, every inch of her body in agony. There were only two options for her now, to fall back into the snow and give in to the need for sleep, or press forward, but she couldn't just give up, she had come to far, and she would get home, it wouldn't end here. Not knowing with direction she was going in before she had lost consciousness, she walked forward, or what she hoped was forward, stumbling and slipping all the way. Time and distance soon became meaningless in the whitewashed world, her mind focussed solely on putting one foot in front of her, but it didn't take long for it to wane. The cold was now seeping completely through her frost covered clothes, through her skin and into her bones, the chill like a sharp ache but now it was starting to fade as her body went numb. Focussing her eyes to see through the snow, she could almost see a silhouette through the blanched realm, and make out the soft crush of snow underfoot, until the strength that was keeping her legs up at last failed and she fell into the snow. It must have been a dream, a wild fantasy, her reasonable mind yelled out to her, it was the doing of the cold, mixed with precious, fleeting hope was making her dream of a rescuer. No one could possibly find her in this, not that they would even know she was missing, there was no hope, she could not go on, and succumbing for the last time, she closed her eyes, wishing to find herself in the warm, safe embrace of the light again.

She didn't dream at all when she closed her eyes, going instead from white to black, the blackness swallowing her whole as she fell into it, her body becoming weightless. Content to let herself fall, she couldn't keep back the knowledge that someone else was there, some force beyond her senses watching her. Now having a goal and a hope, she reached out like a drowning man to a life preserver, fighting back from the darkness, the presence becoming clearer, stronger, warmer, familiar.

"I will always find you." The voice from last night, that flooded her body and filled her with joy echoed again and she pulled herself towards it, back from the brink of death and the void, back to the light, until she opened her eyes, and stared in amazement. There before her, warmed in thick, plain robes and with his head covered, was a young man, and so beautiful a face she had never seen. Kneeling next to her, he seemed to tower over her, his body was hidden under the bulky covering but even she could see the cut of well-honed muscles and a warrior's strength and poise. Against the chalky snow, his skin seemed to glow golden, tanned and warm, highlighting sharp cheekbones and a fine aristocratic nose. Hidden underneath the cover of his clothes, she could still see thick, black hair; as short and well kept as it was, he couldn't hide the spikes that shot upwards, making him even taller to her imagination. It was his eyes which grabbed the most attention, the pair of inky, deep pupils and held her own gaze beyond any will of her own. They were filled with so many emotions, fear, shame, curiosity, admiration, mild affection, duty and the first threads of physical desire, they were so full of emotion she didn't know how he didn't burst keeping it all in. It occurred to her, somewhere in the back of her mind that she had seen these eyes three times before, once staring out at her from a older weathered visage, standing before a black and gold standard, asking for her help. She had seen it in a print, copied and reprinting over four hundred years, those eyes still had the power to stare into her and stop her in her tracks. The last was a fleeting imagine of a man born four hundred years from now, standing before her with an air of refinement and cruelty, the aura of a alien title swathing him like bandage that keep him whole and sane.

Lost for a moment in her remembrances, she was brought back to her icy present by the pleasing feeling of warm callused hands brushing against her frozen cheeks and a soft voice, the sound painfully familiar echoed through in her ears. For the first time she actually felt safe and she closed her eyes again, smiling up at him, even though she didn't know his name. He repeated the single word name again and Bulma actually shivered with the intensity of his emotion, not knowing whether he was saying the name in reverence or truly though she was the deity he spoke of.

" Amateras." He whispered for a third time as his hand brushed against the back of her neck and she let herself fall into a peaceful sleep.

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Table of Contents
Part II