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By the time I arrive in Hou'ou City, the sky over Ohtori Academy is dark. the lights from the surrounding businesses and homes drown out the stars and leave the night a vast, empty black pool that stretches out over the ocean and over the shore towards Tokyo proper. Only a handful of people stepped off the train with me and Aoi was not one of them. I wonder if she remained behind and I've come all this way for nothing.
I spare a moment to call a hotel I am familiar with in the area and make a quick reservation. Regardless of whether or not I find Aoi, I will have to stay in Hou'ou City overnight. If I cannot locate her this evening, I will doubtlessly find her while school is in session in the morning. Even if I beat her back to the school, finding Aoi in the dormitories is not a guarantee. Many students don't reside on campus, especially the wealthier ones like Touga and Nanami whose families have homes nearby. I don't know enough about Aoi to guess where she might be heading.
Hou'ou City rests near the ocean in the Kanagawa Prefecture, southwest of Tokyo itself. The Academy is set upon a very large hill around which the city surrounds and somehow bleeds into. The closer one gets to the Academy, the more the architecture seems to mimic the European style of the school. At the base of the hill, the various shops and restaurants look as though they are part of the Academy proper.
The climb up from the shopping district at the base of the hill to the school is long and, depending on your fitness, grueling. The dormitories are set on the hill, just below the school and outside of the main fence that surrounds the campus. As a student, if you were fortunate your dorm assignment was near the top of the hill. While it made any return trip into the city a chore to come home from, it made getting to school each morning much simpler. Those whose dormitories were on the the lower half of the hill found themselves with quite a walk to start the day.
The hill itself is saturated with trees. Unlike the trees in the forest behind the Academy, these change color with the seasons and autumn has left their leaves the shades of red and brown that precede their inevitable fall. The paved path cuts into the woods and is littered with those leaves that have already fallen, and those that fell many days earlier, now crushed and disintegrating. I find myself thinking back several weeks ago to that day when I first returned here, the day when this maddening search began. It is much the same but time has moved on; winter is on the cusp of arriving and chasing autumn away entirely.
You've got the key to all of your answers resting on your finger. Go to the Arena and figure it out for yourself if you can.
This memory from Mizayaki City comes to me as I reach the first dormitory, and I stop walking. Something familiar. What am I missing. What else did Nemuro say?
Are you still under contract, then? Still a Duelist?
This was said as his eyes fell upon my Ohtori ring. it was this remark, said to Aoi, that caused her to flee my home. I remove Aoi's handwritten Code of the Rose Seal from my jacket and read it once more.
Only those who bear the Rose Seal shall be considered a Duelist. Only End of the World shall bestow the Rose Seal. Duels shall take place in the Arena. Access to the Arena is permitted only to Duelists.
I'm so close. So close. I just need to put it all together in my head.
Only those with the Rose Seal can enter the Arena.
The Rose Seal is the ring, the Rose Signet. Or so I assume.
Those who wear the rings are Duelists.
The ring is the key to the Arena.
The key to my answers.
My answers are in the Arena. But where? Where is the Arena? Where in the Academy would something like that be hidden? Not in the Fencing Hall or the Kendo Hall. The Balcony, perhaps? No, a true key is used for that.
The One Engaged may draw and wield the Sword of Dios.
The Duels were fought with swords. That's the connection between Saionji, Miki, Ruka, Touga, Nanami, and I. We were all trained to use swords. And I lent my rapier to someone...where were we?
I close my eyes and try to reclaim the memory.
The sky is dark over Ohtori Academy. I am holding out my rapier, my personal weapon, to someone I feel a great affection for though still consider a rival. This is the last time I ever held my weapon intact. The face of the recipient is obscured by shadow; I see only the delicate white of the standard female uniform as she approaches me. A few more steps and her face will be visible.
This took place on the Academy grounds. I can almost remember where. I need to find it where I stood, where I gave my rapier away. I leave the dormitory unsearched and continue on to the school. My pace picks up as a I get closer; a light jog at first, then a full run as I near the gates leading onto the campus.
The school is dark, and the quiet is unsettling. I walk up to the gates and find it difficult to take the last few steps across onto the grounds, despite my urgent need to know. Crossing this threshold is very much like walking into a world where the laws of nature you've become accustomed to do not necessarily apply. I have returned, and this time no class is in session to distract the monster from my presence. It is as though the academy knows I am here, and no daylight is present to keep it confined to the shadows.
I move through the marble archway, feeling phantom curtains of silk brush along my exposed face as I make my way onto the grounds. I am enveloped by the absence of white noise, the stillness of sound as the wind whips along the marble fencing and buildings within the campus. The world of Hou'ou City, its shops and homes beyond the gates, is forgotten.
I did not donate my rapier near the main hall, and I walk around the massive structure without giving it much thought. I cling to the perimeter, sticking to the long, open corridors. The rose garden, called the birdcage by many for its shape, comes into view and then vanishes; the glass surrounding it reflecting the inky blackness above. The tower and the Balcony loom over me as I turn and head toward the main part of campus. I realize my destination even before I arrive. Like puzzle pieces snapping together in an unbroken chain when you realize you know how to put them together.
Everything begins making sense.
I remember looking at the building that was left in ruins after the fire decades ago that was never rebuilt, and was suddenly hit by a terrible emptiness.
Of course you were, Miki. The ruins of that building are before me now, the building where Nemuro taught all those years ago. The charred remains of something forgotten, of memories lost and uncertain.
From here, a simple few turns and a brief walk along the athletic field and I am at the point in my memory; the place where I gave up my weapon. I can see the trees whose branches shadowed the rapier's recipient and the path leading back to the main portion of the school.
I remember looking at the forest behind the school...
The one with the ornate stone rose sculpture gateway and high stone fence with no apparent door that was forbidden to everyone, even the faculty.
Of course, it would be the forest. Everyone's curious about the forest.
Access to the Arena is permitted only to Duelists.
You've got the key to all of your answers resting on your finger. Go to the Arena and figure it out for yourself if you can.
My heart pounds against my chest and I feel my stomach twist as I turn and make the walk up the long stairway to the rose sculpture gateway. So close now. So close as I scale the final stair and take the last few steps down the narrow walkway. Past the reflecting pools that surround the gate.
The handle at the wall is shaped from the stone, elaborately carved and without apparent mechanism. No keyhole in the gate, no hinges or visible door to allow entry. Yet, my left arm moves instinctually, firmly gripping the handle as though it has done this many times in the past. Nothing happens for several seconds, and then I feel the icy kiss of water upon the finger bearing my Rose Signet.
Ancient gears, unseen, awaken to life with a terrible yawn. The ground around me trembles with each turn, each catch of the gears' teeth as they grind painfully together. Water shoots out on either side of me from enormous spouts at least a meter above my head, spreading out around in a cascade; a literal shower curtain that obfuscates me from casual view and conceals the Academy behind me. Dust litters the air as mechanisms apparently unused for years unseal the door and raise the entrance to its full height.
Beyond the now open gateway, the forest is dark save for the marble walkway that cuts through the middle of the trees. Behind me, the water continues to cascade, shielding my trespass. As I push through the gate the water slows and then ceases entirely, exposing the entrance. I wonder if this has ever been observed by eyes not meant to see it.
The forest is thick, nearly overgrown, and yet the path between the trees has no fallen leaves or twigs upon it. Everything is green, like it has always been, as though winter has no hold here. The path is without curve or bend, as I near what I assume to be the middle of the woods I am aware of some massive structure barely visible through the darkened branches. When I come upon it at last, my cohesion begins to fail me.
A spiral staircase climbs impossibly skyward, unsupported by pillar or frame, surrounding a central column set slightly at an angle to the ground. Aside from the angle and apparent self-suspension, the stairs themselves are unremarkable. On the other hand, the column is magnificently and intricately carved; the designs on it echo those of the romantic Academy architecture with great looping arches cut into the circumference. I can see no end to it from the ground, though with the black sky above they could merely be a trick of shadow.
I am staring at an anomaly of physics, something that violates several accepted principles of mathematics that I have accepted throughout my life. No structure such as this should feasibly remain upright and yet, this one does without so much as a creak or sway in the light wind.
My mind reels. This is not what I expected to find when I started down this path. How could I forgotten something so grand? Is it possible to have forgotten it?
Tentatively, I take one step upward. And then another. And then another, until I am certain this is no mirage and that it will support my weight. Confident of both, I increase my pace and begin making the journey towards the top and to whatever might be found there.
The climb to the Academy from Hou'ou City is nothing like this. Soon I have moved the tallest tree in the forest and I realize the Academy, Hou'ou City, and the Kanagawa Prefecture are nowhere to be found below me. Indeed, Tokyo itself seems to have vanished entirely, leaving in its wake only more trees. I am not yet even half-way to the top, by my estimates, and already the journey has taken yet another turn towards the unreal.
Where am I? None of this can possibly be happening.
The long trip continues, and I am suddenly aware that I am able to see stars above me. Curtains of stars, blanketing the sky, in a manner that should not be visible from this point in the city. And just below them, finally, some indication of my destination. At last, I am able to make out something large at the top which blocks out the light of the stars. Some manner of platform towards which the stairs allow access. The stairway widens slightly near the top. As I reach the final stair, I pause.
The silence is so overwhelming, I can barely must the strength to step onto the floor. No wind, no birds, no insects. No sound at all, except my breathing and the heartbeat pounding within me.
The light of the stars illuminates a pristine, circular field made of stone perhaps fifty meters in diameter. The same marble that makes up every other structure on the campus. Heavy stone, the kind that should send this unbalanced tower tumbling to the ground. Red lines are emblazoned along the surface, meeting in the center in a stylized, circular symbol. Along the perimeter of the field, the marble is elevated a good meter above the surface in the manner of a fence.
This must be the Arena, the one where the Duelists fought. The one where my rapier was presumably shattered. Another gate stands between the stairs and the Arena, one that by all appearances was designed to look unfinished. When I step beyond it, it is like the very light of heaven itself blinds me and shines down upon the floor. Immediately, I shield my eyes with my right hand and turn away. I see every color in the visible spectrum reflected upon the white marble, blending and blurring along the emblazoned red lines, and finally settling in a gentle, pink hue. My eyes adjust moments later, and I look upward and see it.
Hanging over the Arena, the tip of the tallest tower is perhaps one-hundred meters at most from the top of my head, centered over the red circle in the middle of the Arena floor. The very walls of it radiate light and color, shimmering brilliantly and causing the white stone to reflect it back up at me from below.
No word exists that I am aware of to fully define this moment. I know now that forgetting this place was likely the best thing that ever happened to me. More than anything else, I want to go to that Castle and see what is inside. I want, no, need to know what it means, what history it holds. My heart yearns and aches for that kind of understanding, and I know that I have probably forgotten this place because I was not the final Victor. I have not set foot inside that phantom fortress and learned its secrets.
I have forgotten because the pain of knowing this place exists and being unable to go inside would be too great to bear, too heavy a burden on my soul. On any soul. Miki, Saionij, and Nanami have all forgotten it as well, and it is good that they are not burdened by the obsession that brought me back here. At this moment, I would give nearly anything to be as I was before finding the Rose Signet on my finger.
Nemuro was correct. It would have been better for me to walk away. Instead of asking myself what I have forgotten, I find myself cursing that I had to remember even this little bit. Why am I remembering this, now? Why am I the only one of my Council who felt compelled to return here?
Thunder booms in the distance, and I am reminded of the day I read Miki's notes and learned nothing. It rained that day, as well. The ultimate insult in all of this is that finding this here, discovering this place, has not returned to me any of my missing memories. I have learned only that this is what I have forgotten but not my connection to it.
"This is a most unexpected intrusion," a voice near the entrance says just above a whisper. It echoes across the eerie stillness of the Arena. "I dare say it is also a most welcome one, given this incredible circumstance."
I look over my shoulder to see a man with flowing hair, bound in a loose ponytail, dressed in a rich-red collared shirt. He is not Japanese; likely Indian or Pakistani by his skin tone. Many of them find their way to Japan after leaving their homeland. At the same, he speaks Japanese flawlessly without any hint of a foreign accent.
I am entranced by his movements as he walks towards me. He has the grace of a dance combined with a spider's delicate poise. It is beautiful and unsettling. He pauses mid-step as I turn to face him. In the pale, pink light of the Castle, I can see his authoritative expression shatter and reveal his shock at seeing me.
I should recognize him. I know I should recognize him. Of all the inconvenient times for this to have happened, this could not have come at at worse one. I begin taking a step backwards and stop. He is between me and the spiral stairs. I have nowhere to go but down.
"Ah," he smiles, the shock sliding away from his eyes and lips. "I see now, I understand."
"Yes," I say, mostly to myself, "but I do not. You know me?"
"Of course," his words come with an amused, but patient smile. "By your question, then, I assume that you do not remember me."
It is spoken rhetorically, and I don't bother to confirm it.
"That is to be expected," he nods, still approaching me. I end up taking steps backwards despite myself. "Tell me, how did you come here?"
Perhaps noticing my backward movement, he stops his approach and stands just outside of the red circle.
"I suppose that is unimportant." He looks upward, smiling distantly as the light of the Castle reflects in his eyes. I cannot explain why this relaxes me, but it does, and I feel secure enough to query him.
"You know what this place is?"
"Of course," he looks back to me, offering no further explanation. "It is beautiful, isn't it? I had forgotten just how beautiful it was."
"I, myself, have not been here in some time." He raises his eyes upwards once more. "The Castle represents hope. Hope is a terrible mistress, you must realize this."
I nod again, almost involuntarily. Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees my acknowledgement.
"Yes, you know this. Hope is just out of reach, out of both of our reaches, in the light above. Locked away in a distant tower as so many faerie tales would write. As so many poets might sing."
I look up at the Castle again. So many spires, so many towers, each of them glistening with sparkle and spectrum. He is correct, of course. His words practically pluck the very thoughts from my head as they were mere moments ago.
"You would think that I wouldn't have forgotten something like this," I say, no longer able to remain silent. Almost as if something is drawing the words out of me and towards him.
"Sometimes it is easier not to remember," he whispers, and I am started as I realized he has crossed the distance between us without me even noticing the slightest movement on his part. Somehow, he is behind me now, his lips near my ear and one hand taking my right wrist.
We are both looking up at the Castle.
"Especially when hope has been taken from you," he says softly into my ear. "Forgetting the pain is easier than holding on to it."
"I don't recall losing hope," the words feel heavy as they leave my lips.
The touch of his fingers is very much like gold wrapped in fine Thai silk: delicate, gentle, and smooth, but obscuring something much stronger beneath it.
"Oh," he takes my left wrist with his other hand, "therein likes the conundrum, though, correct? You don't remember, but yet you are drawn here regardless. I must confess that it puzzles me, as well. I, on the other hand, remember but feel no call to return here. Too much has been lost for me to have forgotten, and the pain far too bright for me to desire reminders."
The aroma of roses is thick upon him. It is suffocating me as assuredly as opium might. My thoughts are becoming cloudy.
I have made a terrible mistake in coming here.
"That you found your way back here after having hope taken from you," his breath is warm upon the flesh just below my ear, "is impressive. Most unanticipated, and I dare say, quite welcome. Have you dreamed of the Castle, Arisugawa-san?"
I shake my head, and it takes a supreme force of will to able to do that much.
"No," he sighs. "I suppose that would have been too much to hope for."
Thunder rumbles again, and the rain that threatened several minutes ago now drops upon us. The cold water upon my face and exposed hands snaps me back from the brink. I can feel him looking skyward behind me.
I hear him mumble the word "What" just over the sound of the droplets hitting the marble floor, over the downpour now beginning to soak us. His grip on my wrists weakens.
I summon every bit of remaining strength I possess and rip myself free of his grasp, stumbling for a few steps on the wet marble as I do. I breathe in deeply, nearly gasping, as I regain my footing. Once I am in no danger of tripping or collapsing, I sprint towards the spiral stair.
If he says anything to try and slow me, or makes any attempt to pursue me, I take no notice of it.
As soon as I cross the gate separating the Arena from the stairs, the light from above vanishes instantly and the Castle disappears into the stars. I give this only a second's notice as I continue sprinting down the stairs, around and around, until the forest comes back into view. The rain continues on, pressing hard around me, even though the spiral stair protects me from the worst of it. Despite the wet stone, I do not stop running, not enough as the rain stops as I leave the rose gate and emerge back onto the Academy grounds.
Even then, I do not lessen my pace. Not until I've crossed the fence that separates the Academy from the hill leading to Hou'ou City. Only then do I slow down to a job, and only when I reach Hou'ou City proper do I stop to catch my breath.
Last edited by Ashnod (09-26-2015 10:16:51 PM)