Chapter 70: Eye of the Dragon

 

 

 

Part I: A Midnight Toll

 

 

 

 

When [she] shall die,
Take [her] and cut [her] out in little stars,
Ands [she] will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

 

                                        – Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

It had been less than 24 hours since Kinomoto Sakura died.

 

Daidouji Tomoyo sat in a musty room with 19th century brocade curtains drawn over the long lattice windows, stroking the black hair of the girl seated on the floor who occasionally sobbed into her lap. An empty Kleenex box was discarded next to Meilin, who simply wiped away any tears that dripped down her cheek with the back of her hands. A soggy tissue was clenched into a ball in Tomoyo’s other hand, but she had no more tears left to cry, just a numbing dullness that came in the face of travesty after panic then stupor.

 

She closed her aching eyes. Yes, maybe when she woke up all this would just be a bad nightmare. Better yet, Sakura would walk in through the doors with a sheepish smile and say this was just a terrible joke.

 

After the initial chaos of the events that had happened the previous day, the remaining people in the room, her closest friends, were oddly subdued.

 

Mizuki Kaho had her arms around Tanka Miho, and the younger girl’s eyes were red and puffy. Miho’s older brother, Mizuki Kai, sat on a windowsill on the far end of the room, staring out into the pitch black sky outside. At his feet, Cerberus was slumped against the wall in a daze. Even Hiiragizawa Eriol, de facto leader of the group now that Sakura was gone, sat with his elbows propped on his big oak desk, forehead pressed into his folded fingers.

 

Nobody there could ever forget the events of that fateful day on April 1st.

 

It had been a rare sight to see that many people gathered at the clearing behind King Penguin Park, strangely abandoned over the weekend. It was late in the afternoon as the deep orange sun washed the park a garish rusty hue. On one end was a group of mostly middle-aged men, clad in Chinese robes with identical emblems of three white marks on a black circle on their backs. In their middle stood a tall man with silver-streaked black hair and a harsh, square jawline, known as Li Wutai, head of the Li Clan. Facing them off was an eclectic bunch of 12 humans and non-humans, members of Sakura’s Alliance of the Stars.

 

At the center of the crowd was Li Syaoran, in his deep green battle costume, sword unsheathed. He charged at the golden-brown haired girl in a fluttering white chiffon dress full speed, red tassel streaking behind him like a banner, gleaming blade point aimed at her heart. Sakura blocked, barely, with her pink star-moon staff. Everybody had watched terrified but fixated, as if they were watching a scene from a horror movie.

 

One minute, Syaoran’s grip had been uncharacteristically wavering, his sword blade pointed at Sakura’s chest. The next second, the tip of the sword pierced straight through her bosom and emerged through her shoulder blades streaked in glistening scarlet.

 

Tomoyo watched aghast from the sidelines as a vivid crimson sprouted out from the wound across Sakura’s white bodice like a rose in boom, and suddenly Syaoran had dropped his sword on the ground and was cradling her body to his chest, letting out a bone-shuddering howl.

 

His hands and sleeves were soaked in her blood, and he repeated brokenly, “Sakura—no—Sakura,” clutching her body, limp like a doll, in his arms.

 

Tomoyo tried to run up to them, but felt the resistance of a barrier invisible to her eyes. And as if in a dream, Sakura crumbled away in Syaoran’s arms into myriads of white-pink cherry blossom petals that dispersed in the wind like dust.  

 

And there was pandemonium. People around her were arguing, screaming, Touya was shoving them all aside, yelling and trying to break into the barrier. Tomoyo heard Yue’s crisp, quiet voice pronounce Syaoran as his new master.

  

Syaoran’s back was to them, and Tomoyo could not see his face as he held up the tome containing the Sakura Cards and turn to the Li delegation, who looked nearly as shocked. “I am now the Master of the Clow. Now, name me Chosen One.”

 

Tomoyo didn’t even hear if Syaoran was named the Chosen One by the Li delegation, nor see what Leiyun and Kara and the others’ reaction was. She didn’t know when the protective barrier broke, and when she stumbled forward and collapsed onto the ground where Sakura’s body disappeared moments ago. She clenched the cold, damp soil scattered with pale pink cherry blossoms stained with spurts of red. Sakura’s blood.

 

She saw Sakura’s brother lunge towards Syaoran with murderous eyes, and Eron looked ready to jump in, but Yue intervened swiftly. And before anybody could protest, Eriol called for the group to retreat, and swiftly transported them back to the Clow Reed estate. Until then, she hadn’t realized Eriol had transport magic, let alone capability of moving an entire group.

 

The next moments came as a blur because everybody was speaking at once in that confined study that had been used as the Alliance’s headquarters. Touya declared he was going to hunt down Syaoran and kill him, and could not be withheld by Yukito and Kai combined. Finally, Yue shut Touya up in a room down the hallway as he calmed his best friend down. Whether he succeeded to do so or not, at least they could no longer hear the angry shouts and crashing of furniture and china.

 

“It doesn’t matter what our duties as guardians of the Clow Cards are—what were you thinking, naming Li Syaoran as the new Card Master?” Cerberus roared at Yue when he returned to the study after having sedated Touya—it was the only choice he had, for fear what harm Touya would do to someone else, or himself.

 

“What were the other options then?” Yue lashed out, his silver eyes flashing. “Do you know what happens to the Clow Cards when they do not have a master—they’ll break the contract and scatter themselves. Then who will gather them again? Do you think we have the capacity, or time, to leisurely select and train another Card Captor and regain all the cards again or face destruction—and remember, we have double the amount of cards we had from before.”

 

“You could have waited!” exclaimed Cerberus with a deep rumble in his voice. “Just until we figured out what was going on! Until we could confirm that Sakura is…Sakura really is…” He could quite bring himself to say the word.

 

Spinel Sun retorted, “What is there to figure out? Li Syaoran killed Sakura. We saw with our very own eyes. She’s dead. Yue only carried out his duty. You two would start to vanish without a proper master.”

 

“Blasted duty! And I might as well vanish from existence without Sakura as my mistress. I knew that boy was bad news from the first day I ever set my eye on him,” said Cerberus. “What are we doing here— we can’t just let him get away with this!”

 

“What, by hunting out Li Syaoran? And then what? Kill the new Clow Card Master?” sneered Ruby Moon. “Great plan, Cerberus. Do you think that’s what Sakura would have wanted? For us to avenge her death?”

 

“What would Sakura have wanted? How are we supposed to know, if she didn’t tell us? What was she thinking, accepting the duel with that boy?” cried out Cerberus.

 

She could see Cerberus’ fur bristling, and Tomoyo put her arms around the golden beast’s neck. “She wouldn’t want to put you in danger. We’ve got to stay calm.”

 

“Stay calm?” demanded Eron, a tremor in the back of his throat. They all turned to him—they’d forgotten he was there, odd one out as he was. They saw Chang Eron in a rare disheveled state, with strands of his long dark violet hair slipping from his ponytail and creases in his day-old clothes. “We just saw Sakura murdered in front of our eyes. I don’t think I will be staying calm, not for a long time.”

 

“Eron-kun,” Tomoyo whispered, realizing that water flowed from Eron’s gold-hazel eyes freely, and he didn’t even seem to realize it. So, Eron too had been staying silent this whole time, trying to hold back tears in front of them, and it made her heart lurch again. If she had ever doubted Eron’s intentions for Sakura, his eyes at this moment banished such trepidations from her mind.

 

Eron continued, this time with some of the usual sardonic irony in his voice, “I don’t know what you guys are planning to do, but I refuse to just sit here and do nothing, as if Li Syaoran didn’t do what we all saw him do. And yes, I will kill him. I will give him a slow and painful death like no other before. I’ll not just kill him—I’ll destroy the Li Clan once and for all, like I always planned on doing.”

 

“Sit,” said Yue wearily—he had a similar conversation with Touya just moments ago.


“You have no right to command me,” Eron stated. “I am the Dark One.”

 

Yue said, “You are part of the Star Alliance, you can’t act alone.”

 

“What Star Alliance? Sakura’s gone. Without her, there is no Alliance,” replied Eron, his pupils dilated.

 

“Regardless, if you act alone, you’ll get killed by the Li Clan before you even reach Syaoran!” interjected Meilin.

 

Eron stared at Meilin, as if noticing her for the first time in the room. “You think I am scared of death? I’ve already seen death in the face and laughed. And what are you doing here? He’s your cousin—are you here to spy?”

 

“Excuse me, your very own twin is also working against us. If we have to fear anybody, it’s you!” retorted Meilin, pushing away Kai who slinked by her side protectively.

 

“You Lis are murderers.” Eron spat out his words. “Li Syaoran is a coldblooded murderer.”

 

“May I remind you, who tried to kill everyone with the Plague?” retorted Meilin.

 

“These are different circumstances!” Eron snapped.

 

“Eron-kun’s right, what’s the use of bringing those times up—what good will it do now?” said Tomoyo tiredly.

 

“Well, maybe Syaoran has circumstances too,” Meilin exclaimed, her ruby-amber eyes flashing in the curtained room. “I know things look bad, but there must be some explanation!”

 

“Sure, that he had been aiming to become Clow Master for the past decade, and he finally got rid of his number one obstacle?” replied Eron with a sneer. “That he killed her so that he could get back his full powers and become the head of the Li Clan? What more is there to know?”

 

“The thing is, he was pointing the sword at her. But she was the one who lunged forward,” murmured Kai. Tomoyo glanced at the auburn-haired former thief—so she wasn’t the only one who had seen that.


“What do the technicalities matter? It was his sword that stabbed through her heart!” Eron cried out. But his shoulders were shaking hard.

 

“Stop it! This is the last thing Sakura would have wanted. Us being torn apart at this crucial moment!” exclaimed Miho. “We’ve got to think.”

 

“There’s nothing we’ve got to think about. I am going to march over to the Li mansion and taken down Li Syaoran this very moment. I would have right away at the park if you hadn’t been holding me back.” Eron glared at Yue.

 

Cerberus demanded to Eriol, “That’s right, why did we retreat?”

 

“We were outnumbered—they would have destroyed us,” Yue replied. “And they have the Sakura Cards.”

 

“And whose fault is that? How could you name that demon as the Card Master? Were out of your mind?” Cerberus growled at Yue in his booming voice. “Sakura—Sakura will forever be my one and only mistress.”

 

Eron lunged forward at Meilin, ready to shake her by the arms. “You explain this—you must have been on this whole plot from the Li Clan!”

 

“Don’t you dare touch a strand of her hair!” growled Kai, as he pinned Eron down to the carpeted floor.

 

“She’s trying to defend Syaoran. We all saw what he did,” Eron said, smiling lopsided as Kai’s halfhearted hold on his lapels trembled. “She’s a Li, through and through. You forgot what the Li Clan did to your family already? They will betray you, each and every one of them.”

 

“No, Syaoran was different,” whispered Kai. “He cared for Sakura more than anybody else.”

 

“Even those who love you would betray you for the sake of power,” said Eron. “You don’t have to look far. Mizuki Mayura-sama should have known that best.”

 

When Kai faltered, Eron pushed him aside and faced the group sitting there. “You call yourselves her closest friends, and you couldn’t even protect her. Well, I’ll bring her back, what ever it takes. I’m going to find a way to bring Sakura back, I swear!”

 

“How?” Ruby Moon jeered. “By black magic? Are you going to resurrect her? Will you exchange your life for hers? She’s dead, and we’re going to have to face it even if the rest of you are in denial. Good Card Mistress she was, having no back up plan, no preparation at all for the rest of us in case something happened to her. Look at you all, you’re a complete mess. And we’ve lost the Clow Cards.”

 

Cerberus leaped forward and growled into Ruby Moon’s face. “Don’t you dare speak lightly of my mistress! What do you know?”

 

Preventing another altercation, Eriol raised his voice for the first time. “Silence!” he called out. Everybody turned completely silent, and had remained that way since.

 

 

 

*******

 

 

 

Chang Erika almost jumped as Syaoran appeared from the shadow of the hallway—those Lis had a way of skulking up on you without a sound. What’s wrong with you, Erika? Why are you trying to hide from Li Syaoran? He’s just Syaoran.

 

“I didn’t think you were capable of doing something like that,” said Erika, armed crossed. “I thought I had you pegged. But I guess I hadn’t.”

 

He gave her a dull look that she could not place. What was he feeling? Remorse? Despair? Fear? Sadness? Sakura’s death surely could not leave him unaffected. For she had glimpsed that look of shock in his eyes when Sakura collapsed into his arms with his blade pierced straight through her chest.

 

“Well, you’ve done it,” Erika said. Could she have really pinned him wrongly all these years? Was he not the boy she had thought him to be? Serious, devoted, boring Syaoran, who cherished every strand of the Cherry Blossom’s hair. “Your mission is complete. You’re the new Clow Master.”

 

Syaoran glanced at her with narrowed amber eyes devoid of any emotion.

 

She thought she would have liked to be any place except the Li mansion at that moment, alone with Syaoran in that first floor hallway. For frankly, in all three years she had known Syaoran, she had never thought she would feel terrified of the boy. And she did. The Li delegation was apparently reporting back to Hong Kong the situation and convened a meeting at a hotel downtown—there were too many of them to fit in the conference upstairs. Why Syaoran was not at the meeting, she did not know. But there he was, with the oddest expression, or lack of one, on his face. Was that regret? Or was he relieved? What was he thinking at the moment? What she would have liked to do was run home. How was Eron taking the situation? Had he known this was coming?


Erika had imagined the end of Sakura many times over again in her head when she and her twin first settled in Tomoeda three years ago. This scenario definitely was not one of them, though in retrospective, the Dark Ones may find it a morbidly fascinating outcome. But it’s still not enough, Ruichi-sama, is it?

 

She heard engines outside in the driveway and thought with a relief the dratted long Li Clan meeting must be over, and they were back. Li Leiyun, Kara Reed, and the Black Dragon filed in through the front door. Who knew there would be a day when she would be glad to see this particular trio?

 

“What are you two doing there in the hallway?” asked Leiyun, heading into the parlor, flicking on the lamps.

 

“I was just about to walk into the parlor myself,” said Erika. “I wasn’t waiting for you guys to come back or anything.”

 

As Leiyun glanced over at his silent cousin, Erika wondered what thoughts went on behind those slippery turquoise eyes. But Leiyun clapped his hands twice and drawled, “Bravo, Syaoran, Chosen One and Master of the Clow. I really didn’t think I would live to see such a macabre sight. I have to admit, we were all impressed. So were the Elders back home when they heard the unexpected news.”

 

Erika sank into her favorite couch in the parlor, unable to walk away, unable to join in on the conversation. Was Eron home? Though she hated to admit it, Eron probably cared for Sakura, and her death would surely unhinge him. When it came to matters involving Sakura, her twin seemed to lose all common sense. But seeing that Eron had not hunted down Syaoran yelling bloody murder, it surely meant the Alliance was up to something. Or thankfully holding him back.

 

“So, when are all those stodgy Lis going back home?” Kara asked, as she took a seat on the couch—she was the only one who seemed undisturbed by the whole situation.

 

“I know—they’re using up all the hot water and toilet paper,” said Leiyun with a sigh. “At least most of the delegation decided to stay at the hotel.”  

 

“Well, is a celebration in order? After all this years, the Li Clan finally has a Clow Card Master in its hands?” Kara asked. “I can crack open the Louis Roederer Cristal Rose from the wine cellar downstairs.”

 

“Father is in sort of a panic,” remarked Leiyun, glancing upstairs, where Wutai and a few of his cronies were in a second round of heavy debate. “See, he never expected Syaoran to really kill Sakura and get his powers back. That just put a damper on all his plans.” He turned to Syaoran. “You never fail to surprise me, dearest cousin. I shudder to think what you are capable of doing to your enemies if you can turn on your so-called friends like that.”

 

For once, Erika agreed with Leiyun. She had always known to a degree Syaoran’s steel-like determination, but she had never known his ambitions brewed so deep. No, this had all been a part of their data on the Little Wolf and Cherry Blossom. The Little Wolf was utterly loyal and devoted to the Li Clan. The Cherry Blossom was utterly loyal and devoted to her friends and would protect them at all costs. That had been their fatal weaknesses—she and Eron knew this and knew they would one day take advantage of these facts. But then, Eron had fallen for Sakura instead.

 

“I’m not sure if I can give Syaoran all the credit. It was very strange, what transpired,” said Kara pensively. “It was like Sakura tried to kill herself.”

 

Leiyun shrugged. “It was luridly ironic. Very tragic. To kill the person you love the most. I guess that is the worth of the Li Clan. At least you proved to the Elders you made your choice, Syaoran.”

 

Wei knocked on the door. He came in, the lines running from his nose to mouth deeper than before and a frown creasing his pasty forehead. “Wutai-sama is calling for you, Syaoran-sama.”

 

Syaoran nodded and followed Wei.

 

“Does he look fine to you?” asked Leiyun, when Syaoran was out of earshot.

 

Kara’s lavender eyes flickered to the seated Leiyun. “What do you mean?”

 

“Well, he’s handling things pretty well, considering all that’s happened,” Erika remarked. “I’m not sure I would be as calm if I killed Sakura myself.”

 

“He’s the one who said he would accept Sakura’s duel,” said Leiyun. “Frankly speaking, I expected Syaoran to pull some sort of stunt to stump the Elders. But I don’t think any of us was expecting him to actually get rid of Sakura once and for all.”

 

“It’s convenient, isn’t it, for the Li Clan?” asked Kara.

 

“It depends. Kara, do you sense Kinomoto Sakura anywhere?” Leiyun said.

 

Kara took out a small crystal globe and closed her eyes in concentration. Then she shook her head.

 

“At first, I have to admit, I had my doubts. I played over the events of the day over and over again in my mind,” said Leiyun. “A perfect little ruse to throw the Li Clan off track. But if it were a trick, it appears that no one on the Star Alliance side anticipated it, which is odd—and I was watching very carefully. And then there’s the problem of Syaoran.”

 

“What’s the problem?” asked Kara. “His powers are back. He’s the Chosen One again. The Elders have to accept him.”

 

Leiyun crossed his arms. “For the first time, I have no idea what the boy is thinking. I’m not sure he killed Sakura on purpose, but maybe he did—what did he have in mind when he entered a duel with her? He knew it was a lose-lose situation. But I would have expected him to lose to Sakura, if anything.”

 

“Most likely Sakura sacrificed herself—it was a very Sakura-like thing to do,” said Kara, seeming to have picked up the lingo from the Alliance. “The ultimate sacrifice.”

 

“What do you know what is Sakura-like?” Erika muttered. “You don’t even know her.”  

 

“Kara, you have told me before that it has always been Sakura or Syaoran. Syaoran or Sakura. One or the other.” said Leiyun. “This outcome should not be surprising to you.”

 

“It’s written in their destiny,” replied Kara, shuffling a deck of Tarot cards on her lap. “Or perhaps it’s the curse of the Dark Ones. The two of them cannot not coexist together. It’s a fate woven so deeply that any versions of their souls cannot be united in the same dimension and time without destroying the other.”

 

“And this duel was the result of their darkly woven fate, blame it on Amamiya Hayashi and Li Shulin or not,” murmured Leiyun. “I wonder if Sakura was aware of this fate.”

 

“Didn’t I tell you that I read her fortune for her at the cultural festival last summer?” said Kara shortly. “She drew the Hanged Man and the Death. She learned about the origins of the curse, how Chang Risa was married to Amamiya Hayashi, how she committed suicide after her miscarriage, how that drove her twin Ruichi onto the path of revenge.”

 

“That’s why Sakura forgot her memories of Syaoran,” whispered Erika. “She saw Risa-sama’s death and the origin of the course, and consequently why she can never be with Syaoran.”

 

Kara nodded impatiently. “Obviously. What else would drive her into such a state of despair, to the point where she would even shut herself in the Fantasy once she recovered her memories of Syaoran?”

 

“So do you think that Sakura willingly sacrificed herself because of the prophesy you showed her?” asked Erika.

 

“I don’t know,” said Kara. “If one or the other had to survive, would Sakura die for Syaoran? Would you really be able to die for the person you love?”

 

“No matter how much I loved a person, in the face of death, I don’t know if I would be able to choose another over myself. But who knows,” replied Erika. She had nearly died when she was 7, when the Dark One came to save her. She placed her hands over her heart. Because she had been given a second chance at life, she knew how precious it was and would not give it up so easily.

 

“The more difficult question is, will you be able to kill the person you love?” remarked Leiyun, closing his eyes. “Why do you think Mizuki Mayura-sama agreed to do be the one to kill Chang Ruichi-sama?”

 

“For a long time, I thought it was because she had grown to hate him, or what he had become,” said Erika slowly.

 

“The reason why she had to do it was because Chang Ruichi wouldn’t have expected Mayura-sama to betray him,” Kara interjected. “It had to be Mayura-sama because she was the only remaining person in the Great Five that he trusted, so he showed up when she called him out to meet her in secret.”

 

“Yes, it was a bloody ambush. And yet, the brunt of Dark Ones’ fury was transferred upon Amamiya Hayashi and Li Shulin’s descendants,” remarked Leiyun. “Ruichi-sama never seemed as keen on avenging his own death as he did Risa-sama’s suicide.”

 

“That’s probably because he knew she killed him because she loved him,” said Erika. “As one of the magicians of the Great Five, she had to make a decision for the so-called greater good of society. But as a woman, her heart never stopped loving him, I believe.”

 

“How do you know that?” asked Kara, exchanging a glance with Leiyun.

 

Erika looked up at the others. “I think the existence of Eron and myself today is a testament to that.” 

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Tomoyo remained completely wordless, her hands folded on her lap. She was not filming, not sewing, not sketching, nothing that would usually calm her down. She couldn’t help but keep replaying the previous day’s events over in her head. Had Eriol come to any conclusions in the long period of silence that filled the room?

 

Wondering how Tomoyo could remain so still, Meilin watched in irritation as a restless Kai paced back and forth across the length of the room. Under normal circumstances, she would have snapped at him. But even Eron stayed put, standing in a corner of the room, brooding. All of them had been a bit stunned by Eriol’s command of silence, but in that silence, the absence of Sakura slowly sunk in. Hot tears poured down Meilin’s cheeks again. Sakura with her bright smile, who had called her “Meilin-chan” even when she had tried her best to sabotage Sakura in every way possible during her Card Captor days, the Sakura who loved Syaoran probably even more than Meilin herself had, was never going to come back. Eron had been right, however, she had not only lost her good friend Sakura, but Syaoran as well. How could Syaoran have done something like this? She was too ashamed to look up at anyone in the room, for fear they might realize she had inadvertently been lamenting the end of over a decade-long camaraderie with her other best friend Syaoran.

 

Meilin suddenly stood up and stumbled over to Tomoyo’s armchair and collapsed at her feet. “Tomoyo-chan, did Sakura say anything to you? I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe Syaoran out of anybody would do that to her.”

 

“No, Sakura didn’t say anything to me,” replied Tomoyo softly, placing a trembling hand on Meilin’s shoulder. “But I’m sure in this mayhem, there must be some reason.”

 

“Like what?” Miho asked.

 

“There are three scenarios,” said Eriol staidly. “One, Syaoran betrayed her and killed Sakura, and she is dead. Or two, Sakura let Syaoran kill her. Or three, they were in on this together.”

 

“What do you mean on it together?” demanded Miho.

 

“What’s the difference between the three scenarios—the outcome’s the same: Sakura’s dead,” said Spinel Sun.

 

“There is a difference. If Syaoran betrayed Sakura, then as her Alliance, we will have to come up with a way to avenge her death and take down Li Syaoran and the Li Clan,” replied Cerberus.

 

Miho shook her head. “Take down the Li Clan? Isn’t that sort of a difficult task—did you see how many of them are here? Besides, I think we all saw that Sakura let him kill her. He may have attacked first, but she was the one who stepped forward.”

 

“No, she didn’t,” said Ruby Moon. “I saw Li Syaoran point his sword at her heart.”

 

“He hesitated—she had a chance to move away,” said Kai slowly. “But she didn’t.”

 

“He knew exactly what he was doing,” interjected Ruby Moon. “And he carried through with it—you can’t deny that.”

 

“Either way, we cannot rule out that Sakura may have sacrificed herself for him on purpose, possibly to prevent a full out battle with the Li Clan which could lead to many casualties,” said Spinel Sun. “Which unfortunately is a very Sakura-like decision.”

 

“How can you talk about this so nonchalantly?” lashed out Touya, after holding still the whole time since he had rejoined the group. “This is my sister we are talking about. She will not make such a selfish decision—what about father and—”

 

“This is Sakura we are talking about. I don’t think we can trivialize what she would to for Li Syaoran,” said Eriol.

 

Touya looked like he was about to protest but turned silent when Yue placed a hand on his trembling shoulder. “Don’t you remember this is the girl who almost burned through her life line to save everybody from the Plague?”

 

“You mean, you do think she made the ultimate sacrifice?” said Miho brokenly. “To protect Syaoran, or the Alliance, or maybe all of us?”

 

There was a pause, as the group let the notion sink in.

 

“So, how are the second and third scenarios different?” asked Ruby Moon.

 

“Well, the second scenario is providing that Sakura did not know of Syaoran’s intentions till the last moment and had to make an on-the-spot decision,” said Eriol. “Which may be most likely.”

 

Eron spat out, “And so the third scenario indicates she and Syaoran have premeditated this farce? That the bastard actually let Sakura know he planned to kill her?”

 

“Or Sakura convinced Syaoran to kill her, for one reason or another,” Eriol pointed out quietly. “If this was premeditated, then there must be more than what meets the eye.”

 

“Preposterous!” exclaimed Cerberus. “That is absolute blasphemy. That would not only mean both of them deceived everyone—but Sakura would have betrayed us, her Alliance.”

 

“Yeah, Sakura, and I don’t think Syaoran, would be able to do something like that,” said Meilin with a shudder, but did not look very convinced.

 

“You are forgetting a fourth scenario,” interjected Tomoyo in a small voice. “That the two were somehow in on this together, and Sakura is not dead.”

 

Everybody turned to her.

 

“The possibility that they were on this together to trick us into thinking Sakura is dead?” Kai finally asked. “I think there were too many witnesses to deny that Sakura is anything but dead.”

 

Miho said wearily, “I don’t mean to sound morbid. Nor do I want to baselessly raise anyone’s hopes up. But none of us took her pulse.”

 

Kai scowled. “This is not some murder mystery novel. I saw what I saw. And besides, do you seriously think it’s possible to trick not only the whole Li Clan—and though I don’t like them they are not dumb—but all of us, her Alliance, when we know her better than anyone else? Eriol even doesn’t deny Sakura’s dead.”

 

“She could have pulled a Juliet,” Miho squeaked. “She could have pretended to die and is alive somewhere, hiding?”

 

And suddenly, desperate, Tomoyo turned to Eriol. “Eriol, is there any chance—”

 

Slowly Eriol shook his head. “No, I’ve been checking ever since, but I do not sense Sakura’s aura anywhere.”

 

“She could have concealed herself,” said Miho. “Maybe she has a shield or some barrier. Maybe it was all some sort of an elaborate illusion.”

 

“Yeah, maybe Tomoyo’s right. It could have been the Mirror, or the Illusion—the Twin!” Meilin stood up, her eyes blazing. “Sakura could have used any number of tricks to replace her body, and what we saw was just an illusion.”

 

“Wish it were that simple—but don’t you think that if it were a Sakura Card, Yue and I would have spotted it right away?” replied Cerberus.

 

“Would you? If it was cast by our mistress?” remarked Yue with his inscrutable silver-blue eyes.

 

Ruby Moon stared up at Yue. “Do you truly think this was all just some silly trick and that Sakura possibly could be alive? Why did you name Syaoran the new Clow Master then?”

 

“As much as I too want to believe this is all a lie, if it was an illusion, I would have sensed it,” said Cerberus with a low sigh. “Or at least one of us here, or even the Li Clan Elders, would have been able to see through it, don’t think?”

 

That produced another prolonged silence from the group.

 

“I hate to be the one to bring this up, but when do we start making funeral preparations?” asked Ruby Moon after a while.

 

“Nakuru!” exclaimed Miho, glancing over at Touya. Kaho had spent many hours by his side, and Touya finally had returned to the group, pale but calmer. If it weren’t for Kaho and Yue, Miho had a sense Touya might have been on a death mission destroying the Li Clan, most of all Syaoran, this very moment.

 

“Touya, it’s been over a day—you’ve got to face reality,” said Ruby Moon. “Have you even told your father yet?”

 

“No,” said Touya.

 

“He has a right to know,” said Ruby Moon, making the first sensible remark that day. 

 

Touya clenched his fists. His father had called last night—call it fatherly instinct, but he seemed to sense something was amiss. Touya had given a vague answer, saying Sakura was out with friends, and that he had to go back to the hospital for night shift. “I’m not going to—unless I’m a 100% sure that Sakura is… Sakura is…”

 

“Dead?” Ruby Moon sighed. “I don’t know how long you will all be in denial, but we saw with our own eyes. She’s gone.”

 

“Ruby Moon is right. You need to let your father know of the situation,” said Yue.

 

Touya stared up. “I’ll tell him when he comes back—he’s returning this weekend. I can’t tell him over the phone.” He would never forget his father’s expression last year when Sakura collapsed into a coma after sealing the Plague and wouldn’t awaken for a week. But this was completely different. There was not even a trace of Sakura. So that he could pretend that she was on a voyage, and would return some time, if he hadn’t seen her killed with his very own eyes.

 

Ruby Moon turned to Eriol. “Shouldn’t their father be told?”

 

Eriol pushed his glasses up his nose. “Perhaps, such news is better told in person. It is hard news as is—to be told your daughter was killed over phone…doesn’t seem right.”

 

At this, a sob escaped from Miho’s throat. “How could something like this happen to Sakura-senpai? Why were we all watching and yet unable to do anything?”

 

Her brother wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “I don’t know, Miho, I don’t know,” murmured Kai. He had realized the Li delegation arriving in Japan had not been merely formality. It had been a direct challenge to the Star Alliance, and Sakura had known this. That was why she accepted Syaoran’s duel. Because a duel between the two of them could stave off a potential clash between the two sides that would most definitely end in bloodbath.

 

Ideally, the Li Clan would back down after the results of the duel. But Eriol had been cautious. He told them beforehand, “If Sakura ends up beating Syaoran, the Li Clan may attack anyway. If so, we’ve got to be prepared. We’re going to recover the Sakura Cards and retreat. If Syaoran beats Sakura—”

 

“We won’t let that Brat defeat Sakura!” Cerberus interrupted.


Eriol continued, “If Syaoran beats Sakura, Yue will have to name Syaoran the Card Master, by the rules of the duel.”

 

“Then what happens?” Miho had asked, not having imagined what it would mean if Sakura ended up having to step down as Card Mistress.

 

“We’re going to have to fight them, anyway, then,” said Eriol. “Sakura will have to regain the cards.”

 

“Why are we going into a duel then?” Kai had demanded. “If we’re going to end up fighting the Li Clan one way or the other.”

 

“We’re going to have to hope for a draw,” replied Kaho. “There has to be no winner, as not to disrupt the delicate equilibrium we have, and Sakura knows this.”

 

“But what happens to Syaoran then?” Spinel Sun asked. “Doesn’t that put his position in the clan in jeopardy?”

 

Recollecting the conversation that had happened just a day ago, Miho stared up at Eriol, tears trickled down her cheeks. “We got it all wrong. This duel—it was never about who gets to be master of the Sakura Cards. It was about Syaoran regaining his powers, wasn’t it?”

 

“So it appears,” said Eriol. “We underestimated him, yet again.”

 

Kai said, “But think of the other options he had. If he did not challenge Sakura to a duel, what would the Li Clan have done? They would have disposed of him and Leiyun, or even Li Wutai or the Black Dragon would have taken down Sakura. Or maybe the entire Li group will have attacked us to eliminate us all.”

 

“So what, we could have fought them!” exclaimed Miho.

 

“Possibly,” said Kai. “But not without great causalities. The Li Clan is powerful—I would know because I spent a good half decade trying to find their flaws and weakness. And at the end of the day, I don’t know how we would have fared against them—maybe with the Sakura Cards on our side, we might have stood a chance. If it was a purely battle of magic, I think we might do all right. But the Li Clan is brutal—they would resort to bloodshed. Did you see how many armed men they had yesterday? And Li Jinyu has yakuza here to back him. We are outnumbered by far.”

 

“The Li Clan wouldn’t go on an all-out attack on us,” whispered Meilin.

 

Kai stared at Meilin. “You truly believe that?”

 

“Right, they wouldn’t attack Meilin—she’s one of them,” said Spinel Sun.

 

“She’s not—else why would there be Li men tailing her ever since the Li delegation arrived in Japan,” Kai said.

 

Meilin turned around. “They’ve been tailing me? I would have known!”

 

“I took care of them before you noticed,” said Kai.

 

“They want to… eliminate me?” asked Meilin.

 

“I think they are just trying to keep an eye on you,” replied Kai. If anything, he was sure it was a challenge to him. “They hold our weaknesses. If we went on a full-out battle with them, we would not have been able to hold our ground. I know I wouldn’t have—they would use you in a way that would make me unable to fight.”

 

Meilin shook her head. “I can defend myself.”

 

“Can you? Can you stand up to not just Syaoran, or Leiyun, or Jinyu, but all of them against you?” Kai said. “Eron—they have your sister as hostage. Can you really fight against them if that may put her in danger? Isn’t that why you’ve been trying to get her to join the Alliance? And of course Sakura—I don’t think she would ever be able to beat Syaoran in a battle, not because she can’t, but because she won’t.”

 

“Syaoran had no trouble ending her,” said Cerberus bitterly.

 

Tomoyo murmured, “But I can’t erase that horrified look in his face when the blade pierced through her heart.”

 

“Well, he just killed the person who I thought was his most important one,” said Miho. “I would be horrified too were I in his position.”

 

“But it was unnerving because he looked utterly shocked by Sakura’s actions,” said Tomoyo. “Why? If he had planned on killing her in the first place, he shouldn’t have been surprised.”

 

“Well, the body disappeared before the blood was cold, which is pretty surprising, I would think,” said Spinel Sun crossing his black paws, “Speaking of which, how do you have a funeral without a body?”

 

“Don’t call her that!” snapped Touya, forehead clasped in his hands. “Crazy as this sounds, I trusted him. I brought Li Syaoran under my own roof. I even sold him my motorcycle.”

 

“We all did,” said Yue. “We all trusted Syaoran, in our own way. No one more than Sakura.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Returning to the empty apartment was a strange feeling—it felt like Meilin had been gone for months. But it was only a fortnight ago when she, Syaoran and Kai were squabbling over the remote control in the living room in between stressing over final exams. Just yesterday morning she had headed out of this door, and Sakura had been alive, and Tomoyo fussed with her wardrobe. Sakura had even joked that she would take down Syaoran in a jiffy so that they could celebrate the rest of her birthday.

 

Meilin set down her phone on the receiver after the dial went on to voice mail. As she had expected, it was impossible to get in touch with Syaoran—why she even tried at this point, she did not know. Perhaps, deep in her heart, she was hoping that he had some sort of logical explanation to all this. That this was some sort of trick. Or a really bad April Fools’ Day prank.

 

Her mother had told her that despite all the formalities of the Great Elder’s funeral, carried out in the finest style, everybody had been tense, especially since Li Renshu had specified in his will that Syaoran was to spread his ashes in the Hong Kong harbors.

 

And there was the minor setback that the Great Elder still had not been named. If Li Wutai was indeed named Great Elder, as was expected, he would surely find a way to annihilate Syaoran—and perhaps his whole family. Li Ielan, as wife of Ryuuren and a favorite of the Great Elder, had wielded considerable influence within the Clan, especially as she was one of the few remaining members of the Council of Elders that Li Renshu communicated with. Syaoran’s mother had been the person who had nursed the Great Elder in his final days. But if Li Wutai became the Great Elder, the rest of the Clan would be careful not to cross him because everybody knew how much he had despised his youngest brother, Li Ryuuren, for passing over him to become the Chosen One. Syaoran knew this.

 

If Wutai became the new Great Elder, surely Leiyun would then be appointed Chosen One. They all knew what a ruthless, cruel and callous man Li Wutai was. So long as Li Renshu was alive, he could not show his true colors, but if Wutai became the new Great Elder, she was sure a new reign of terror would begin in the Li Clan. Not only would he crush the Lis’ rivals in Hong Kong, but Meilin was sure he would attack the Star Alliance and any other powerful entities that may pose a threat to the Li Clan.

 

There really was one solution to thwart this. Syaoran had to gain control over the Li Clan. And before that, he had to earn the trust of the Clan, who at this point no longer saw him as the savior but the betrayer who couldn’t even defeat a mere untrained girl from Japan to become the Clow Card Master and gave up his powers to save the same girl. And a sinking feeling in her stomach told her that Syaoran too must have reached the same conclusion as her. 

 

Is that why he had killed Sakura? Just so that he could become the Master of the Clow Cards and the Chosen One again? Syaoran was ambitious, she knew, but also pragmatic. Yes. Aunt Ielan had once told her, year ago, that all Lis are bound to return to the clan, that they would always choose family over love.


Meilin crumpled on the floor, never having felt so utterly alone in the world. Eron had been right. She was still trying to rationalize Syaoran’s actions, trying to find an excuse from him. If the others knew, they would surely call her a betrayer. Kai’s question from before haunted her. “But what if they choose opposite sides? Which side would you choose then?”

 

“And I thought all the brooding in the dark came from me,” a drawl came from bedside. His periwinkle-blue eyes gleamed as he sat cross-legged, his white parrot perched on his shoulder.

 

“I can’t reach him,” murmured Meilin and sank down onto her bed next to him. “Time after time, I have been tricked over and over again. I have always thought that I was his right hand, his partner, the one that he could confide everything into. But since I was a child till now, he has been a lone wolf, and it was just me always chasing him. He never, not once, relied on me for anything important. And look what it brought us, this day.”

 

“Well it took you long enough to realize,” Kai said, more cruelly than he had intended.

 

Meilin stood up again, the moonlight seeping in from the open window haloing her long black hair. “I’ve got to talk to him.”

 

“Where are you going at this time of the night?”

 

“I can’t just sit around here, not knowing!” exclaimed Meilin. “I’ve got to see him.”

 

She didn’t care if Kai was following her. She didn’t even care if she bumped into the Li Elders. All she knew was she had to speak to him in person right this moment.

 

 

 

Meilin lingered in front of the Li mansion until she saw a black Mercedes-Benz parked outside the gates. The chauffeur came out and opened the door. Syaoran stepped out and momentarily halted, as if he sensed her presence.  

 

“Syaoran!” Meilin called out, her eyes burning.

 

He turned to face her. He was wearing a crisp black suit and black tie, still in mourning for Great-uncle Renshu. And he stood there just staring at her, perfectly fine. As if he had no recollection of what he did just one day ago.

 

“How could you Syaoran? How could you?” she exclaimed, closing the distance between them.

 

Two bodyguards in black stepped forward, but Syaoran raised his hand to dismiss them. They discreetly melted back into the shadows, but Meilin knew they were keeping watch. Wei did not meet her eye, but she thought his eyes were red-rimmed.

 

“You monster!” screamed Meilin at Syaoran, pounding both her fists into his chest. And he let her hit him and shout at him, wordless.

 

Her throat hurt from yelling, her fists too. But it was an abrupt and awakening sensation after being in a daze for the past day. “Say, something, anything!” wailed Meilin. “Please.”

 

“What do you want me to say?” he said finally, in a low voice.

 

“Why did you do it? How could you? To Sakura?” Meilin said, her voice coming out in sobs, searching Syaoran’s downcast eyes. Anything. Any sort of expression.

 

But Syaoran shook her off. “There is nothing to say, Meilin. You already saw all there is to see.”

 

“No, I don’t know what I saw. You explain to me!” said Meilin. “What are you trying to accomplish? Why did you have to do something like this?”

 

“Meilin. You’re not safe here anymore. Go back. Take her away, Kai.” Syaoran turned away and walked into the gates of the Li mansion, followed by a line of men in black, not looking back.

 

Her voice came out cracked. “Are you threatening me? I’ll never forgive you, Li Syaoran. Never!” Meilin called out as the iron gates creaked shut on her face with a creak.

 

She felt a tight grip on her shoulder. “Go away, Kai. I want to be alone.” She stomped off down the dark lane, shortcutting through someone’s backyard, feeling brambles scratch up her legs. Her eyes were so hot with tears that she could not see clearly where she was going. She didn’t want to return home, to the apartment filled with memories of Syaoran, the dear, clumsy and earnest boy she remembered of childhood days, not this cold, calculating young man in a black suit that she had just seen, that had that same glint in his eyes that she had feared in the Council of Elders. She ran across the street though it was a red light, heedless cars honking at her.

 

“Meilin, wait, you’re going to get run over by a car!” exclaimed Kai in gasps, grabbing her shoulders and swirling her around. “Are you crazy! Watch where you’re going!”

 

“What part of I want to be alone don’t you get?” Meilin demanded, wiping her eyes with the back of her sleeves to glare up at Kai.

 

“There, you’ve heard his answer,” snapped Kai. “It may not be what you wanted to hear. But now we know. He betrayed her. He betrayed all of us. Justify his actions all you want if you need to make yourself feel better. But if you choose to do so, you choose him. Then leave the Alliance forever and be the Li you are destined to be.”

 

“Are you actually doubting my loyalty to the Alliance?” Meilin demanded. “After all we’ve been through? Don’t you know me better?”

 

“Meilin, I wasn’t just testing you earlier,” said Kai quietly. “Nobody will blame you if you choose to return to the clan. You said it yourself—you would gladly be Syaoran’s Protector if you had the opportunity. Well, now, he is the Chosen One again, your place is by his side again, isn’t it?”

 

“This is all different—this is not what I had in mind,” said Meilin. She didn’t need to say she never thought Syaoran would turn on Sakura—Kai already knew this.

 

What Kai didn’t tell her that when he had caught the two men following Meilin, he had knocked one out and then, the other, he had pressed a knife to his throat and demanded what his motive was. The man would have refused to speak, but Kai had not been the disciple of the unruliest villain of the Tokyo slums for no reason.

 

“My orders were to eliminate Li Meilin—Please, spare me!” sputtered the man.

 

“Who? Who ordered you?” Kai demanded, pressing the blade closer to his throat. 

 

“I can’t tell! Let me go—you’ll never see me again.”

 

“Leave, with your comrade, and never come back again,” Kai told him. “If you come within a 10-meter radius of her again, I will find you and kill you.” The two scampered, but others would be coming. And better assassins than these hired hands. Why was Meilin being targeted? What threat did she pose to the Li Clan?

 

He found Meilin staring up at him resentfully with her ruby-amber eyes, deadly silent. It could only mean one thing. Her grief and loss had been transferred to fury towards him. Good.

 

“Isn’t it a lie to say that you aren’t wavering though?” demanded Kai. “What’s keeping you here? Syaoran? He’s the Chosen One again. Sakura? She’s gone.” He laughed out shortly. “I won’t even be as egotistical to ask, me?”

 

Meilin slapped him across the cheek hard, knocking his sunglasses to the ground. For a second, she cringed, thinking he would hit back. But he stared down at her with those penetrating pale blue-gray eyes, almost silver in the dark.

 

“Why can’t you tell me stay, and that you will be by my side? Why can’t you say you will protect me and support me during my moments of hardship?” demanded Meilin. “Isn’t that what a normal boyfriend would say?”

 

“Your choices should be made for yourself. Not for me, not because you expect me to stay by your side forever,” said Kai.

 

“Why are you being so hateful?”

 

Kai gave a mocking smile. “Human life is transitory, unexpected—Sakura’s death showed this all to us. Syaoran’s betrayal showed this to us. Don’t trust me. Don’t trust anyone but yourself.”

 

“Fine, I won’t. I won’t trust you, ever again!” And Meilin felt a raw burning ache in her throat as she ran towards the streets to catch a cab home. Only in the cab did she allow herself to sob into her hands, for losing Sakura, losing Syaoran, losing all her friends who were likely never to trust a Li again, and even losing her deplorable boyfriend, who had looked so wistful even when he spat out such poisonous words at her, as if trying to push her away. For Kai had over the years lost many people dear to him, and perhaps shutting her out was also a defense mechanism for him. She hated to admit he was right, but it was true—there was no one to depend on but herself.

 

 

 

Syaoran from the second floor hallway window watched Meilin disappear down the street, with Kai chasing after her. He noticed a rustle in the bushes and shadows, two, no three, follow after them. They were not wearing the Li crest, nor were they local yakuza that the clan had hired. He said quietly, so that the Elders in the other room could not overhear, “Jinyu, why are your men tailing Meilin?”

 

Jinyu stepped out from the corner of the hallway and said in a low voice, “She’s been followed ever since the Li delegation returned to Japan. I’ve sent some of my men to keep an eye on her.”

 

With a frown, Syaoran asked, “Have you received any orders on her?”

 

“No.”

 

Then Jinyu keeping watch on Meilin for his own purposes. “How many from the Wu Clan are in Japan now?”

 

“Two dozen. But they’ve recruited hired yakuza,” replied Jinyu.

 

“How many?”

 

“At least a hundred,” said Jinyu.

 

Syaoran grimaced. They might actually outnumber the Lis, but he didn’t know how many men Jinyu could mobilize through his mafia connections and how trustworthy they were.  

 

“Were you there?” Jinyu asked suddenly, a rare moment he made conversation with anyone.

 

Syaoran turned to his older cousin. “Where?”

 

“During the Great Elder’s final moments. Were you there?”

 

For a moment, Syaoran hesitated, then nodded once.

 

“Did he…go peacefully?” Jinyu asked.

 

“Yes,” Syaoran replied softly, recalling the faint smile on the Great Elder’s wizened face, the look of final tranquility. “Yes, he went peacefully.”

 

 

 

~~~~~

 

 

 

Hong Kong, a week ago before the April 1 incident…

 

 

 

From the moment since he received the phone call from his mother that the Great Elder was on his death bed after Arima and Asuma’s sudden wedding ceremony, to when he set foot on the Hong Kong harbors was all a blur. Except recollection of tickly wisps of Sakura’s hair brushing against his cheeks, the strange warmth of her body nested against his chest and wafts of a light floral scent that soothed him as they soared through the starry night sky on the Unicorn.

 

All Syaoran knew was that he had to reach the Great Elder as soon as possible. If he had been thinking clearer, he would not have let her come to Hong Kong. But even he couldn’t pass on the opportunity to see Great-Uncle Renshu one last time.

 

He loathed leaving Sakura by herself at the bottom of Victoria’s Peak—but the Unicorn was with her. He knew Sakura was watching him as he walked off. She probably had a worried frown on her brows. He had not turned around last time he had left her on this very harbor. But he knew she had been watching him then too with tear-filled evergreen eyes.

 

Syaoran was not surprised to see Wei waiting at the bottom of the hill with their chauffeur—his mother had an uncanny sense for tracking their family. He stepped into the black Mercedes-Benz—the house was a five-minute drive away up the Peak’s winding hills but it felt longer. It wasn’t until he reached the Great Elder’s chambers that he felt a sinking in his stomach that this would be his very last moment with his great-uncle who had been his master and trainer and over recent years, a mentor and sometimes even a grandfather-like figure.

 

His mother looked frazzled for the first time in his recollection—her stark black hair was pulled back loosely from her forehead, wisps of her hair falling out of the ribbon, and she was wearing a plain, wrinkled beige robe. She had aged over the past year, he thought bitterly. 

 

“You made it,” said Li Ielan upon seeing her son, and he saw the immediate relief in her amber eyes. “He’s waiting for you.” And she led him to the back chamber. She drew back the curtains of the canopied bed then stepped away, out of the room. And Syaoran stepped closer to the bed, until he could see the Great Elder, lying upon his Ming dynasty rosewood bed.

 

This was not the Great Elder, this shriveled, wizened old man. Had his great-uncle always been so tiny and bony? And his skin was so ashen, so wrinkled, like crinkled paper. He was clad in a white robe, and his wispy silver hair was unbound, fanned out on the pillow. His chest rose and fell rapidly, and Syaoran could hear his raspy breath. Ever since The Great Elder’s illness last year, he had wasted away until he was barely clinging on to dear life. Waiting.

 

Syaoran clenched his fists. He had kept the Great Elder waiting. It was unforgiveable. 

 

Li Renshu did not open his eyes, but in a feeble voice, barely more than a cracked whisper, he said, “You are here, my boy. Syaoran.”

 

“Great Elder.” Syaoran dropped to his knees, next to the bedside. “I apologize for keeping you waiting so long.”

 

“You came. That’s what’s important.” It seemed as if the Great Elder was chuckling slightly though it sounded more like a cough. “I knew you would come back.”

 

“What can I do, Great-Uncle? What can I do to help you?” Syaoran asked, kneeling.

 

“I do not need help. I am old and weary. I am ready to join my Yunhua and your father now, and the many generations of Great Elders before me.” The Great Elder tilted his head ever slightly, so that he was turned to Syaoran now, though his eyes still remained shut. “Syaoran, do you remember the conversation we had last year?”

 

“Yes, Great-Uncle, I do.” Syaoran closed his eyes. The Great Elder last year had offered him the option to leave everything behind, leave the Clan, leave his name behind and start anew somewhere.

 

“No Elder, my place is with the Clan. I will not run away from it. I will face the consequences here.”

 

“What if I tell you, there is a slight chance that it can return to you?” Renshu asked. “There was less than 10% chance that your power transfer to the Card Mistress would be successful. But it worked out fine. So, there is also less than a 10% chance that your powers may return to you. Probability is slim, perhaps impossible, but as long as there is 1% of chance left, there is hope.”

 

“The simplest way would be if the Card Mistress is killed. When the power transferee’s lifeline expires prematurely, the powers by default return to the transferor.”

 

“Never! Something like that should never happen.”

 

“I said that is one possibility of your powers returning. There should be other options yet. Another method is a power transfer. Like you did for the Card Mistress, another person may be able to transfer their powers into you. However, that is highly unadvisable because chance of rejection of power and backlash on both parties is quite high. It is quite surprising you were able to successfully transfer your powers to the Card Mistress in the first place. The Amamiya and the Li energy force should not be very compatible. Well, that shows that powers change and are reshaped by the environment. Of course, there is a tiny chance that the power will just return one day—”

 

“That’s impossible. Eriol—Clow Reed’s reincarnation mentioned that once you give up your powers completely, they won’t return,” said Syaoran.

 

“Then, you may have to find another energy force all together,” replied Renshu. “I am not saying that your powers will return to you overnight, and you might somehow have to learn to live without them. What I am doing is giving you an opportunity to consider your future possibilities. Give it some thought, Syaoran. You may give me your answer later.” 

 

And Syaoran had spent a long time reflecting those words.

 

“You have changed over the year,” said the Great Elder. “And if I’m not mistaken, you have seized the 1% chance. So, have you given my question a thought?”

 

“Yes I have, Elder,” said Syaoran.

 

“And your answer.”

 

“I will do whatever you wish of me as. I will protect the Li Clan with all of my powers,” Syaoran said slowly and staidly. “Please trust in me this time, and I will not fail you.”   

 

Li Renshu opened his eyes for the first time. And his keen amber eyes were as bright as they had been in his youth as he gazed at Syaoran with unclouded vision.

 

And he called out, “Ielan, Wei, come in as to stand witness.” And Li Ielan and Wei stepped in. 

 

With trembling hands, the Great Elder slipped off a heavy gold and onyx seal ring from his index finger and reached over to Syaoran’s right hand and slipped it on his finger. “On this day, I, Li Renshu, 76th Great Elder, by the powers vested upon me by the Writ of the Li Clan, the Council of the Elders and the Dragon Ancestor, appoint Chosen One Li Syaoran as my successor as the 77th Great Elder of the Li Clan.”

 

“I’m not the Chosen One anymore,” Syaoran remarked quietly.

 

“Yes you are, Syaoran. You passed the Test of the Chosen One and there is nobody else after you who has claimed that spot. To me, you have always remained the Chosen One. And now, you are my chosen successor as Great Elder. Do you accept or not?”

 

Syaoran knelt down, kissing the back of his great-uncle’s wrinkled hands, and bowed his head. “I, Syaoran, son of Li Ryuuren, promise to fulfill my duty till my dying day.” 

 

And Li Renshu smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “That is my boy...” His voice was barely air passing from his lips. “You will… make your father… proud.” And his head rolled over to the side.

 

“Great-uncle!” Syaoran exclaimed, standing up and panicking. “Mother—”

 

“Uncle Renshu!” exclaimed Ielan, rushing forward. “Fuutie, call the doctor, the Council of the Elders—”

 

“Great Elder, I won’t disappoint you. I swear to you that I will make you and my father proud. I won’t fail the Li Clan,” said Syaoran in a choked voice, back turned from his mother, head lowered, clasping the Renshu’s lifeless hands, so cold, as if all warmth had been sapped away. “I promise.”

 

Then Syaoran saw that Li Renshu still had a smile on his face. Yes, Renshu, whom he had feared, venerated and loved, had been waiting for him. And he had made it back in time. Thanks to Sakura. “Thank you, Great-uncle, for waiting.” He checked his pulse. Then slowly, he drew the white sheet over his face. “Rest in peace.”

 

 

 

Syaoran wasn’t quite sure how many hours he had spent by the Great Elder’s side, but it was grayer than black outside, a sure sign that the long night was drawing to a somber end. He did not know what he told his mother as he left the house, nor whether Sakura would still be waiting by the harbors. The gold and onyx seal ring of the Li Clan weighed heavily on his middle finger. It was a huge mistake leaving Sakura alone like that. What if something had happened to her? Or what if she had run into the triads—he knew they’ve been lurking around the Peak ever since Jinyu’s disappearance to Japan. But without Sakura, he would not have seen his Great-Uncle Renshu one last time, never have heard his final words. Words he almost wish he hadn’t heard.

 

Sakura, where was Sakura? How was he going to find her here? What if the Uncle Wutai had gotten to her first? His breath was uneven and a chill washed over his bones though he was perspiring. Or maybe she had the sense to have returned already. Unfortunately, both of them had left their cellphones behind.

 

Please be gone, please be back in Japan. I can’t see you like this…

 

But there she was, in the very spot he had left her, staring off at the silver-lined sea, in that whimsical rose-colored chiffon dress that flickered in the morning breeze like a waving flag. And she turned around, as if she had been waiting for his footsteps all night, her jade green eyes full of anxiety. Seeing her so worried, something clamped in his throat. He quickly spun around, knowing at once it was a huge mistake returning to her. But he could feel the flutter of her fingertips on his arms, as if beckoning him to turn around to face her. He would not, he could not see her like this, for who knew what kind of wretched face he wore at this moment.

 

She wrapped both her hands around him from his back, and he tried to pull away. But she pulled tighter, as if she thought she could support his weight with those slender arms. Every time he pulled away, she held on tightly, and he let her. And a reassuring warmth like the summer’s sun spread from the center of his back. He could not stay like this. He had to send her away. It was more dangerous for her than ever. Daylight was approaching and the Li staff would be out and about in preparation for the funeral. Go away, go away, go away. Leave while you have a chance. But her quivering fingers curled into his crumpled shirt, as if telling him she was not going to leave.

 

The sickly verdant sun crept up the Hong Kong skies, and Syaoran turned around and stared down at Sakura’s tear-stained face. Smoky violet shadows were cast under her eyes, and her skin was clammy, as if she had been the one to just witness death.

 

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Syaoran reached over and cupped her cheeks with his icy fingers. “You’re worried. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. I’m not going to let the clan defeat me.”

 

“How can I not be worried?” she asked, placing a hand over his hand against her face, closing her eyes. “You’ve been shaking ever since you returned.”

 

“I’m sorry.” Syaoran dropped his hand to his side. Now that Sakura’s arms no longer held him, he realized for the first time he had been shaking the whole time. “I knew this day will come some day. I knew that the Great Elder was going to die. But now that he has, I’ve never felt so much at loss. I don’t know what is going to happen now with the different factions of the Clan. I don’t even know if my family, Meilin, anyone is safe. No, my mother’s strong. She’ll protect my sisters though I don’t know how long they’ll last. Uncle Wutai has been preparing to take over the Clan. He couldn’t so long as the Great Elder was alive. But now that he’s gone, he won’t wait a moment.”

 

“I know you won’t give in to the Clan,” whispered Sakura. “Everything will be all right.”

 

Yes, Sakura knew he was shaken by the death of the Great Elder. She knew he was weary from the loss, from not sleeping all night long, from the sudden burden of having to take on the Li Clan. But something else was disturbing him, more than anything had before.

 

“Will it be, Sakura? I wish it will be,” he said, his voice low like the waves withdrawing from the shores. “Great-uncle Renshu. Before he died, he appointed me as the next Great Elder. He told me that I will make my father proud. But I think he made a huge mistake. I don’t know the first thing it takes to leading the Li Clan. The Council of Elders will never accept me, let alone ever take me seriously. I don’t even know if I will pass the Test of the Great Elder—my predecessors have spent at least a decade preparing for it—Great-uncle Renshu never got around to telling me what I’m supposed to expect from it. And even if I do pass it, I don’t know how I am going to keep the clan from bloodshed and chaos.”

 

“I see. That’s what was troubling you. But before all that, if you are going to lead the Li Clan, you have to become the Chosen One again,” said Sakura, cool and logical as she was known to become in times of duress. “To become the Chosen One, there is something you must do, isn’t there?”

 

She saw Syaoran’s shoulders tense. He shook his head.

 

And Sakura again reached out and took his hands. “It’s okay. You’ve got to do it. You’ve got to become the official Chosen One in the eyes of the Clan for them to accept you as the Great Elder.”

 

“There are other ways,” said Syaoran.

 

“No.” Sakura, still holding his hands, saw the large golden seal ring with the Li crest gleaming from his finger. “I haven’t known you all these years to underestimate what the Chosen One means to the Li Clan. You are the beacon, the savior, the champion of the Clan. They will look up to the Chosen One, the one hope to keep the Clan from falling part. You will be able to unite the Clan once you are accepted as their leader again. Because Syaoran, you will be a great leader to the clan, I know for sure. And you know what you have to do in order to become the Chosen One again.”

 

“No—I can never—” he could not finish the sentence.

 

“You have to become the Master of the Clow Cards,” said Sakura. “And to become the Master of the Clow Cards, you have to defeat me.” Her piercing emerald eyes looked directly up at him. “Defeat me, Syaoran.”

 

He jerked back. “No.”

 

She continued to stare at him with those haunting eyes. “You must. You have to kill me, Syaoran. It’s the only way to save everyone.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Most of the Star Alliance members convened again at the Clow mansion the next day, under Tomoyo’s instruction. Tanaka Miho sat gnawing on her nails in the living room of the Clow Reed mansion, the only one with a television set, and a brighter room than Clow’s study. She reached for the remote control, unable to bear the uneasy silence that persisted.

 

The newscaster came on. “So, where is spring? It’s already April, and high time for cherry blossom season, but there is no sign of the blossoms in sight. When can we expect cherry blossoms this year?”


The onsite reporter came on the screen, standing in front of bare sakura trees. “We all remember last year’s very disappointing cherry blossom season following an unusually cold winter, and this year again, we are again waiting for the blossoms to bloom.” There was buzzing in the background, and the reporter frantically waved at a cloud of locusts fly overhead, their humming sound multiplied by the microphone. “Sorry about that. As I was saying, the temperature is warming up, but there has been an onslaught of locusts in the Greater Tokyo Area, raising concern that they may strip away local vegetation. This of course would be devastating to our annual cherry blossom festival season—”

 

Nakuru entered the room, followed by Touya and Yukito, picking out a locust the size of a thumb from her long maroon hair. “I hate spring—all the bugs start crawling out,” she muttered. She had completed night shift at the hospital.

 

From his armchair, Eriol glanced up at Touya whose midnight blue eyes that flickered back and forth nervously, as if he could not comprehend why he had walked into the room. Yukito followed closely behind Touya, watching, a frown on his pale brows.

 

“Don’t you guys have work?” remarked Kero-chan.

 

“Well, Touya was not himself—and the department head realized it when he nearly ended up amputating a patient—so he was dismissed for the day,” replied Nakuru, shaking out her jean jacket. “Lucky to be related to the director of the hospital, I guess. Yukito submitted sick leave to keep an eye on him.”

 

Meilin and Kai arrived shortly afterwards, separately, though they departed from the same apartment.

 

“So, I thought we did all the talking yesterday, what did you call us here for, Tomoyo?” Kai said, frowning and flicking a beetle from Meilin’s shoulder before she noticed it.

 

“I’m sorry, I know this is a difficult time for all of us,” said Tomoyo, glancing over at Eron who had showed up again wordlessly, though she had been sure he would ignore her text message. “But I’ve been thinking a lot since last night, and there are things that I can’t wrap my head around.”

 

“I think we all can agree with you on that,” said Kai in a dull voice. “But what does that change?”

 

“We’ve been carried away by what we saw during the duel because the terrifying act unfolded in front of our very eyes. But we are forgetting who Syaoran is,” said Tomoyo. “Li Syaoran was someone who would never truly harm Sakura. No matter what happened over the years, we must all have truly believed that.”

 

“The Syaoran I knew wouldn’t, I know that very well,” said Meilin, burying her face in her hands. She couldn’t tell the others that she had met Syaoran last night. “But people change. With all the craziness of the Li Clan, the death of the Great Elder, even Leiyun’s mysterious return—I just don’t know if I know him like I thought I once did.”

 

Kero-chan said, “Tomoyo has a point though. That wretched brat, no matter how debased he is, will never do something like that to Sakura in his right mind.”

 

“That’s right.” Tomoyo frowned. “Maybe he was being controlled by the Clan. Maybe he was put under a spell—maybe his body was taken over.”

 

Eriol spoke slowly. “Do you remember when I once controlled Syaoran with threads, years ago? When I tried to get him to attack Sakura, what did he do?”

 

“He fought. He fought hard to break the control,” Tomoyo murmured. “You’re right—he probably can’t be controlled by anyone in the Li Clan, when even Eriol-kun couldn’t force him to attack Sakura.”

 

“I heard from Kara, once, that Leiyun locked chained Syaoran up and tried to use the Memory on him multiple times, but he refused to forget her,” remarked Kai. “Of course, that might be because Leiyun can’t use the card properly.”

 

“I can’t forget what Eriol said about the three scenarios,” said Miho. “Don’t you want to find out what Sakura’s motivation was? What if there was a hidden message in all of this? There must be a reason why they held this duel in front of so many witnesses.”

 

“Miho has a valid point,” Spinel Sun said.  

 

“This is kind of grotesque, but Tomoyo-senpai was filming everything until we realized… until we realized what had happened,” said Miho. “Do you have the footage of what happened? Maybe rewatching it might help us understand something.”

 

“You’re crazy,” snapped Eron, speaking for the first time. “How can you expect us to watch something that horrendous over again? And Tomoyo will not have kept something like that.”

 

“Actually, it should be here,” said Tomoyo, pale, fumbling in her bag for her camcorder. “I don’t know where it cuts off, but I was holding it until I realized what had happened. Sorry. I don’t think I can watch it though. Miho, if you want to look for some evidence...”

 

Even Miho looked pale. Kai put a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll look with you.”

 

“What a horrible idea,” muttered Kero-chan, as the siblings disappeared into a separate room to review the video.

 

Sometime afterwards, the two emerged from the screening room. Miho, face ashen, shook her head. “Sorry. I thought I would be but I wasn’t able to watch it through.”

 

“It’s all right, Miho-chan,” said Tomoyo softly. “It was worth a shot.”

 

“Onii-chan—did you spot anything?” asked Miho.

 

“No. It is what it is. As we recall it. It happened instantaneously, and as far as I can tell, there were no gimmicks,” said Kai, also shaken, who had watched until the video clips shook and flickered, somewhere between when Sakura was stabbed to when she dissipated into cherry blossom petals, then faded into black. “If anybody is a master of illusions, it’s me. I can spot most tricks at the blink of an eye.”

 

“That’s true,” murmured Miho in defeat.

 

“But there is something that gets me,” said Kai.

 

“What is it?” Tomoyo asked, as if grasping the last trickle of possibility.

 

“How well-coordinated everything was, how everything was so clear in sight. The stabbing, the angles, it was as if he wanted all of us to see it and leave no doubt in our minds that he killed Sakura.”

 

“What are you rambling about?” snapped Eron.

 

“I’m a magician. That’s what we do. We make sure everybody sees everything in blatant sight in order to shed any shrouds of doubt from the onlookers. We want an audience. Once anything is hidden, done out of sight, the spectators begins to suspect some sort of trickery,” said Kai. He slumped onto the floor, leaning his head into his knees. “Sorry, I don’t know what I’m saying.”

 

“No, onii-chan, you may be on to something,” said Miho, falling to the floor next to him, clasping her brother’s arm tightly with both hands. “Something that still gets me is how Sakura’s body just disappeared. Why did that happen?”

 

Spinel Sun said stiltedly, “I might be to blame. Last time, Sakura was suddenly curious about why sorcerers never leave behind their body when they die.”

 

“They don’t?” asked Meilin.

 

“No great sorcerer leaves behind their mortal trace. Their corpse. It is like asking their remains to be misused. Too many horror stories about necromancers and dark magic using the bones, blood, hair and relics of dead magicians,” replied Spinel Sun.

 

Meilin shuddered. “And why was she asking you about something so morbid?”

 

“She wanted to know the spells to make her body dissemble into dust if she died,” replied Spinel. “And I showed her Clow’s old books.”

 

“As if she knew that Syaoran and the Li Clan were going to kill her,” whispered Miho.

 

“I thought it was just a safety precaution,” mumbled Spinel Sun.

 

“I should never have told her about the power transfer,” said Touya, closing his eyes.

 

“Sakura-senpai found out about Syaoran transferring the power of the moon to her to save her?” squeaked Miho. She glanced around and saw the Yukito and Kaho already knew. “When did this happen?”

 

“Do you think not knowing that would have changed anything?” asked Kaho. “Sakura did what she could to protect the most important person to her. Like she always has.”

 

“The Plague.” Tomoyo said slowly, recalling the terror of last year when she saw Sakura lying in a coma in the hospital after having burned through her life-line in order to seal the Plague and heal all those infected. But even then, she did not have a shred of doubt that Sakura would recover, somehow. “We’ve been forgetting something fundamentally important about Syaoran-kun. This is the Syaoran who was willing to give up all his powers to save Sakura last year when she nearly died from using up all her power of the stars. Not just that time. Time and time again, Syaoran has stepped in to save Sakura. I don’t know what happened to him over the past year in Hong Kong and with all the happenings in the Li Clan. But we cannot ignore that part of Syaoran.”

 

“That Syaoran-senpai might be the person hurting most right now?” asked Miho.

 

“If only it really was a trick that the strongest magicians of our generation and the Li Clan couldn’t figure it out,” muttered Kero-chan.

 

Tomoyo said slowly, “Why not? What if they tricked us all?”

 

“Still hung up on that theory? When? Sakura and Syaoran haven’t had a chance to see each other since Arima-san and Asuma-san’s wedding,” Kai said. “He was called in right after the wedding about the Great Elder’s situation. When did they have the time to come up with such an elaborate plan? Certainly not this past week with the Li Clan breathing down Syaoran’s back.”

 

“Besides, Sakura and that boy haven’t made contact since he returned,” added Kero-chan. “I would know because I’ve been around with her every moment of the day since I was worried she’d do something stupid. Not even a phone call.”

 

“That may be true. They might not have made contact since he got back to Japan after the funeral. But it could have been from before,” remarked Miho.

 

“What, at the wedding?” Meilin said. “Syaoran didn’t find out about the Great Elder’s death until just shortly before I did. And Syaoran left for Hong Kong right away.”

 

“Why didn’t I think of it before? If Syaoran found out shortly before Meilin did, it still would have been too late to catch the last flight to Hong Kong,” said Kai. “By the time we wrapped up the wedding after party, it was already past 6 p.m. And it takes at least two hours to Haneda Airport from the chapel in the evening traffic.”

 

“Well, he got there in time nonetheless.” remarked Tomoyo. “I wonder if Sakura was there when Syaoran got the phone call. She disappeared off to somewhere that night without even taking her wallet and cellphone.”

 

“What are you talking about? She stayed at your house for a sleepover after the wedding,” said Touya.

 

Tomoyo stared at Kero-chan. “No she didn’t. I didn’t see her since after the wedding, when she walked out with Syaoran.”

 

“Wait, so nobody saw Sakura since the wedding ended till the next morning, at school?” Kero-chan asked. “She certainly didn’t come home that night—I would know.”

 

“Then where was she during that time?” Miho asked.

 

They all glanced at each other.

 

Kai said slowly, “What does that mean that Sakura whereabouts that night of the wedding was unknown.”

 

“You don’t mean to say she went to Hong Kong with him?” demanded Touya. “I think I would know if she leaves the country—her passport hasn’t been stamped otherwise.”

 

“There are other ways for Sakura to leave the country without a passport,” said Kai. “After all, you were wondering how Syaoran did make it to Hong Kong so quickly. Because evidently he didn’t take his passport with him. I checked.”

 

“He’s a Li. We have special jets,” replied Meilin.

 

“We’re missing the point here,” said Tomoyo. “There were numerous moments for Sakura to slip away, even with all of us keeping an eye on her. What if everything was a setup to trick us?”

 

“Why would she trick us?” demanded Miho. “We’re her friends. We would have backed her through anything.”

 

“What if the point was not to trick us but them? The Li Clan.” said Tomoyo.

 

“We still would have supported her anyway we could have,” replied Kero-chan.

 

Tomoyo glanced around at the group. “But what if in order to trick them, they had to trick us too?”

 

 

 

*******

 

 

 

Chang Erika sat curled up in her couch, feet tucked under her folded legs, watching a huge cockroach the size of her fist scamper straight across the blue Persian rug of the Li mansion parlor. She swatted at a pesky buzz in her ear before she slapped a mosquito that landed on her arm. Black juice spurted out, staining her blouse. And she saw a huge grasshopper-like creature land on her armrest and stare up at her with buggy eyes. She stifled a scream as she caught sight of the Black Dragon standing off to the corner, heedless of a moth landing on his head.

 

“Leiyun, do something!” shrieked Kara Reed, drawing the black hood of her jacket over her golden head.

 

Li Leiyun swatted at some locusts with a white silk fan. “It’s just a few pesky flies.”

 

“Why, I thought you like spiders, rats and other grotesque creatures,” said Erika snidely to the older girl.

 

“Not swarms and swarms of disgusting locusts!” snapped Kara. She jabbed her forefinger at Erika’s chest. “This is all your fault! Get rid of it!”

 

“It’s not me!” retorted Erika. “I hate insects! Do you think I’d call the Insect when I’ll be the one most adversely affected?”

 

“You’re useless!” sighed Kara. “Get Syaoran to do something. Where’s that grouchy kid?”

 

“Do you think the Li Clan Chosen One is some kind of personal exterminator?” drawled Leiyun. “He’s busy entertaining my father and all those annoying Elders.”

 

Kara rolled her eyes. “Well, hope he’s doing some exterminating there.” She turned her head. “Jin! Do something about the cockroaches in this house! It’s disgusting!”

 

Jinyu reached for his pistol in his inside breast pocket.

 

“No, don’t!” cried out Erika, much to the surprise of Kara and Leiyun. But Erika happened to like the parlor of the Li mansion—and the giant hole blasted by Eriol last time straight to the basement dungeon level had been difficult to mend as was.

 

Jinyu replaced his pistol in its holster.

 

Leiyun cheerily drew out a box full of bug repellant from under the coffee table. “Wei bought this—they’re sold out in all the stores, and he had a special order placed from the black market. Through yakuza connections.”

 

He sprayed abundantly at a cockroach, and Erika sputtered at the fumes. “I think you’ll extinguish us before you fumigate the bugs from this house!”

 

“Well, on the bright side, the Li delegation has all moved out to a hotel,” Leiyun said. “You should have seen the look on Uncle Daifu’s face when he found those cockroaches crawling out of his bed having hatched eggs on his pillow.”

 

Kara smiled into her teacup, recalling the fiasco the other day.

 

“This country needs to do something to control the pests,” Wutai had declared, swatting at a cockroach crawling up his chair with a rolled up newspaper during the last Elders meeting the conference room.

 

“What, like spraying down the city with insecticide?” asked Leiyun with an angelic smile. 

 

“Yes, something like that,” said Wutai, reaching over to the plate of cookies then realized fruit flies were buzzing around it. “Wei, have you had this house fumigated?”

 

Wei blinked. “Fumigated? I don’t think this place has ever been fumigated since it was built.”

 

Wutai glared at Kara and Leiyun. “This house is creeping with insects—how do you live in such filth on a daily basis? It’s absolutely unhygienic.”

 

Kara batted her long blonde lashes innocently. “Oh, you get used to it—it’s not too bad really. Just be careful not to leave out your coffee cup for too long though—you might find a spider or two have dropped in.”

 

And Wutai glanced down at the bottom of his cup in horror as hairy, leggy creature crawled out. “Well, get some wards out or burn some incense or something!” 

 

Some hours later, Wutai came wobbling out of the conference room after a long debate amongst the Elders about a shipping deal, demanding, “What is this sickly odor? It’s giving me a pounding migraine.”

 

Leiyun’s turquoise eyes widened. “We just burned some incense to knock out the cockroaches, as you requested, Father.”

 

“Bah, I can’t breathe. Give me some fresh air.” Wutai staggered over to the windows, which wouldn’t budge open, until he put his shoulder to it.

 

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you—” Leiyun protested weekly. But even as Wutai opened the windows, dozens of angrily buzzing bees swarmed into the room.

 

“Where are these coming from?” demanded Wutai, covering his face with his arms as the bees landed on the sticky honey crumble cake on the conference table, for the Elders’ snack time.

 

“Ah, spring must be in the air,” said Wei.

 

“Spring?” snorted Wutai. “It’s freezing in Japan!”

 

“Oh dear, we’re going to have to lock down this room till we can get rid of the bees,” said Leiyun. “It looks like you disturbed a beehive just outside the window. Isn’t Uncle Daifu allergic to bee stings? Why don’t I suggest you all make yourselves comfortable at the Hoshi Plaza Hotel for the time being—I heard they fumigate the place weekly, and I’ve booked suites for each of you. You have all your meetings with the Japanese stockholders and investors there anyway, so it will be convenient. And they have limitless hot water supply, excellent spa facilities, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and complimentary breakfast buffet.”

 

Erika snickered as she passed by the conference room—she swore she had not seen the Elders look any happier at a suggestion since they arrived in Japan. The problem was, the rest of them were stuck living with the angry swarming bees, creepy crawly cockroaches, and myriads of fruit flies that attached themselves to whatever food out for over five minutes, and she swore a maggot fell into her hair from the shower that morning. She was enjoying a nice, long hot shower, thanks to all the Elders finally being gone, when she felt something slimy crawl down her dripping wet hair.

 

She felt it wriggle into her violet curls and screamed and screamed. She heard one knock on the bathroom door. She ran out of the steaming bathroom, towel hastily wrapped around her body, forgetting she was at the Li house, not at home. “Get this thing out of my hair!” she yelled, as she would have at Eron, shampoo suds dripping down her back and forehead.

 

Except it was not Eron. It was the Black Dragon, in his dark silk cheongsam with his usual inscrutable grimace. He peered down at her dripping hair and pulled out something from her hair with his thumb and forefinger and held it up in front of her face. “This?” he asked.

 

And she screamed as she stared at the sluggish, big juicy maggot writhing in his fingers as he crushed it.

 

Only later did she recall with a faint blush, that he had seen her covered only in a bath towel. It was only Jinyu. But how could he not even bat an eye after seeing a half-naked girl? Or was he used to seeing scantily dressed girls back home in the triads? Or maybe he didn’t even see her as a girl.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“Blasted pests,” grumbled Kai swatting at gray moths overhead with his leather jacket as he trailed behind a boy with long violet hair tied back with a narrow sky-blue ribbon down the winding alley. “Where are all these bugs crawling out of? Surely it isn’t this bad every spring?” He dodged behind a lamppost, grumbling as a moth landed on his black leather jacket, leaving behind powdery white traces on his shoulders.

 

Finally, Eron turned around and glared at Kai. “If you think you are following me discreetly, you are doing a horrible job of it. And you call yourself a world-class thief?”

 

“I wasn’t particularly hiding the fact that I was following you,” said Kai with a lazy shrug. 

 

“What, did the Alliance send you to watch over me? Were they scared that the Dark One might crack under the pressure or turn berserk or something?” demanded Eron, his hazel-gold eyes flashing.

 

“Actually, no they didn’t send me, though they probably should have,” Kai said. “And frankly, I’m more concerned of the rest of them, than you. I just figured you were up to something. Either tackling the dark force, or tracing Sakura.”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

Kai shrugged. “You are like me. I don’t have deep-found bonds to the Alliance.”

 

“Your sister, cousin, girlfriend, are all part of the Alliance,” Eron reminded him.

 

“True, but I hate being bound down to anything,” said Kai. “I was here for Sakura. Because she saved me, and I owed it to her. That was it. You were like that too. Which is why, I think you’re having a hard time of this whole fiasco. Yet you’re still here. Why?”

 

“What about you then? You’re trying to get to the bottom of this too, aren’t you?” Eron said.

 

Kai peered at Eron over his black sunglasses, silver fang earrings catching the light. “Either you know something. Or you are delusional. Probably the latter. But why not jump the bandwagon. What’s your idea?”

 

“Eriol made a valid point earlier. That Sakura and Syaoran might be in on this together,” said Eron. He stared at Kai. “You know too, that those two have made up for quite a while now.”

 

“Yeah. As if they could hide it,” said Kai. “I thought it was odd though that at school, they were trying to keep up the pretense that they were still at odds with each other, sneaking around break time to the rooftop and music room to meet up. I admit, it’s not that I haven’t replayed that scenario in my mind a dozen times. If it were Sakura and Syaoran’s powers combined, they might just be able to pull off something. But with just Sakura’s powers, especially without the Sakura Cards, it’ll be a difficult stunt to pull off. Only if Syaoran’s powers were back…”

 

“Well, that’s it,” said Eron slowly. “I think they’ve been coming back, for some time now.”

 

“Syaoran’s powers? How is that possible?” Kai asked.

 

A soft-spoken voice from behind them interjected. “No, Eron-kun may be right.”

 

“Tomoyo-chan!” Kai looked back and saw Miho, with Kero-chan in her purse, and Eriol.

 

“What a coincidence to bump into you guys here,” said Tomoyo. That was of course a lie. They were scouting the city to check out the extent of the bug infestation, but Miho had actually been trailing Eron, concerned he might take some rash measures. Perhaps Kai had the same concern. How alike the siblings were at times.

 

“So, what makes you think that Syaoran’s powers had returned, Tomoyo?” Kai asked. 

 

Tomoyo continued, “I never told you guys. But some weeks ago, when the Tokyo Tower was under attack by the Metal, I saw a strange sight. Sakura fell off the Tower…”

 

“Wait—what?” exclaimed Kero-chan.

 

“Syaoran jumped down after her. And wings sprouted from his back. Black wings.” Tomoyo paused. “Dragon wings.”

 

“Summoning dragons—that’s an advanced Li capability,” murmured Kero-chan.

 

“Why didn’t you say anything before?” demanded Miho.

 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know exactly what I saw. And Sakura never brought it up, so I figured she had her reasons.” Tomoyo paused, not able to meet Eriol’s eyes. 

 

Kai frowned. “Syaoran never said anything about this incident either. Eron, what made you think Syaoran’s powers had returned beforehand?”

 

Eron looked reluctant for a second but he finally continued, “Remember that day when we got involved in the yakuza warfare after the Vogue reception party? Syaoran and I were dueling on the beachside. I threw a barrier so none of you could come in. I was ready to finish off Syaoran. But Sakura broke the barrier I cast and threw her body over him so I couldn’t hurt him.”

 

“Right, and she put up a barrier to protect Syaoran from you,” said Miho. She recalled Syaoran, crumpled on the sand, Eron ready to attack with a stream of fire, and Sakura, running forward, throwing her body over Syaoran’s. A light green barrier had formed around the pair.

 

“No. He threw a barrier to protect her,” Eron said.


“What are you talking about?” Miho said, shaking her head. “Syaoran was powerless because he gave all his powers to Sakura, remember?”

 

“Syaoran drew up the barrier,” Eron maintained. “Sakura didn’t have the Shield Card on her. And she doesn’t know how to draw instantaneous barriers.”

 

“Maybe it was the power of love or something,” snapped Kero-chan. “And she’s been able to draw up Sakura Cards remotely recently.”

 

“No, it was the power of the stars,” said Eron.

 

Kero-chan snorted. “Of course. That’s Sakura’s power.”

 

“No, it’s not. Remember? She lost all her powers because of the Plague. Because of me. And Syaoran gave all his powers to her. The power of the moon.”

 

“But I didn’t sense the power of the stars,” said Kai.

 

“That’s because you guys were on the other side of the barrier I drew,” said Eron. “It was a void-level protection and detection prevention barrier.”

 

Kai stared over his sunglasses. “What does that mean? That Sakura’s original powers are back?”

 

Eron shook his head. “I don’t know, but all I know is that the barrier was Syaoran’s technique. Li-style barriers are complex—multi-layered, even if they are drawn up in a second. Because it was drawn up so rapidly, it’s more evident. Sakura’s barriers, if they were drawn last second, would just be raw energy spouted out to form a barrier, clumsily structured.”

 

“What is he talking about?” Miho asked Eriol.

 

Eriol said, “Eron-san’s right. Barriers are different depending on the person who draws them. Some are elaborate and complicated, built to be durable over long periods of time, others are makeshift, defense-oriented, emergency-type.”

 

“Well, he should know,” muttered Kero-chan. “Clow Reed draws about the most complex, undetectable barriers possible.”

 

“And why do you bring this up now? Why didn’t you say anything before, that you thought Syaoran’s powers were returning?” Kai demanded.

 

Eron frowned. “Because I hoped I was wrong. Maybe I didn’t want Syaoran’s powers to return. Perhaps I believed that so long as Syaoran’s powers didn’t return, he would not be able to truly return to Sakura’s side.”

 

“I can’t grasp this situation,” said Miho. “What does this all mean, anyway? Syaoran has Sakura’s power of the stars now?”

 

“Some sort of powers returned to Syaoran, either way, and Sakura must have known this, and they were keeping it a secret anyway,” murmured Tomoyo. “Moreover, Sakura knew why Syaoran has lost his powers, and knew that he had not abandoned her last year out of choice but necessity.”

 

Miho said slowly. “Doesn’t this just support that Sakura wanted to return the power of the moon to Syaoran and pay back what he did for her last year?”

 

“Who knows, but one thing for sure is Syaoran did not kill Sakura to regain his powers—he didn’t have to. He had some sort of powers he was working off of, for quite some time now, if what Eron-kun observed is correct,” said Tomoyo.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Meilin collapsed into her living room couch without bothering to the turn on the apartment lights. She heard television next doors—was Kai back? Where had he been all day? Because they were on spring break, she had no excuse to even go check on him.

 

Stupid Kai—always, in times of duress, he would pull away, weasel out of any bonds. Because he was the one most terrified of being hurt. She knew that the crueler Kai was, the more he was just trying to set expectations low to set himself up for disappointment. “Idiot Kaitou Chicken,” she muttered into a cushion. 

 

And then, she thought something flit across the wooden floor out of the corner of her eyes. Meilin shrieked, throwing her slippers at a huge black cockroach with twitching inch-long feelers scamper across the living room floor. No—it wasn’t one—there was one by the lamp—and another one crawling out from the kitchen—and was one creeping up the wall? She screamed again. Her apartment door flung open.

 

“What’s wrong Meilin?” demanded Kai, breathless. His hair was damp, and his shirt and jeans were rumpled, as if he had hastily thrown them on. And he was barefooted.

 

She didn’t even question that Kai had broken into Syaoran’s front door despite all the security spells put on it. Her bottom lip wobbled as she curled atop the coffee table, and she pointed to the swarm of cockroaches below.

 

With a sigh, Kai entered the house and scooped her up in his arms gallantly and headed out.

 

“Where are we going?”

 

“My place, where else?”

 

There was something about being lifted up in a princess hold, Meilin thought, which made her compliant.

 

In a temporary truce, the two sat on the living room couch of Kai’s apartment, eating shrimp fried rice that Meilin had whipped up in a jiffy. Kai did not have a proper dining table in his apartment, but Meilin found it was somewhat nice eating curled up on the black leather couch, chatting nonchalantly with Kai, television on with volume lowered in the background. Meilin had been taught at home to always eat at the dining table, and they would never have been allowed to leave the television on while eating.

 

“How come you don’t have any cockroaches?” asked Meilin suspiciously. “I swear you don’t even vacuum the house, do you? I clean every day and always take out the trash.”

 

Kai shrugged. “Maybe Perro-chan ate them all up.”

 

“Ew!” squealed Meilin.

 

“Oishii!” squawked Perro-chan.

 

She sipped her cup of Earl Grey tea, eying over the rim of the mug Kai, who seemed to have regained his usual mocking composure. No, not quite—he was avoiding meeting her eye.

 

“Meilin,” Kai said slowly, after the two had finished eating and turned on the evening news. “I’m sorry about the other day. I wasn’t questioning your loyalty. I was afraid and selfish. I thought maybe you would be safer back with the Li Clan.”

 

Meilin glanced up at Kai, tucking a strand of her long hair behind her ear. It must have been hard for Kai to admit that he was wrong. She saw that the slap that she had given earlier must have been a hard one, because there was a slight redness remaining on his left cheek. “I know. You were thinking about my best interest in your own warped way.” She held up her right hand and traced her cold finger tips across his lean left cheek. “Sorry about that. Does it hurt?”

 

“Not anymore,” he replied, closing his eyes.

 

So, Kai, who seemed least affected by the fiasco, had been as shaken as the rest of them, Meilin realized. She leaned over and pressed her lips softly on the chiseled cheekbone. “Does that make it better?” 

 

“Hmm…Another one might, one right here,” said Kai, pointing to his lower lip, making her turn a deep pink to her hairline. Instead of teasing her further, he drew her into his chest, letting her ebony black head rest on his collarbone.

 

“Hey Kai?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Call me wishful, or maybe biased because I’d like to think I know Syaoran better than anyone else. But I really don’t think he would have betrayed Sakura. Sakura simply can’t be gone forever.”

 

“Well, dear Meilin, everybody knows I am no optimist. In fact, I probably fall into the category of the most callous of cynics,” Kai said. “But I don’t believe Sakura is dead, either.”

 

“Then you must be right. Because you speak the truth when you take off your sunglasses,” she sighed into the warmth of his shoulder. Meilin found being cuddled against this aggravating boy to be oddly soothing, and she felt more level-headed than she had in days.

 

“Where did you come up with such a silly theory?” said Kai, running a hand through his auburn hair, which he hadn’t bothered to spike up yet. He didn’t tell her about his discussion with Eron—not yet. He didn’t want to raise her hopes up falsely.  

 

There was some solace after all the chaos and turmoil in such an ordinary activity as watching the lulling news. It was one of the little details about Kai she had discovered recently—that he avidly kept up with the daily news, both local and international, through newspaper or TV. After all, his mother had been a journalist. Or maybe he was just monitoring news on Kaitou Magician. There were more similarities between the Tanaka siblings the more she examined them together—like their shrewd observation skills and ability to analyze a situation logically.

 

Meilin turned her attention back to the television, as the news anchor said, “Updates on the locust outbreak in the metropolitan area now. Is it an epidemic? The millions of locusts have been stripping trees and greenery, and there is concern they will rapidly swarm to the rural areas and farms. The Ministry of Agriculture issued a warning today on the spread of locusts which can be devastating to this year’s farm crops if left uncontained. Exterminators and etymologists have been dispatched to gage the situation, but so far, the source of the locust outbreak has not been confirmed. In other related news, there have been reports of multiplied cockroach infestations in the metropolitan region, especially in crowded areas such as shopping malls and cinemas, but also in private homes and apartments. Ten more restaurants have been shut down today under health inspectors due to cockroach contamination.” 

 

“I didn’t realize this was a nationwide crisis,” Meilin remarked, waving her hand, indicating the cockroach infestation.

 

“I saw hurrah for cockroaches,” replied Kai. He had an odd, distracting way of playing with the ends of her silky hair with those sinewy fingers, with the same ease he had turning cards.

 

Meilin reluctantly drew away. “Well, I better go back home. I’m not even sure I even turned off the living room TV.” She shuddered at the mere thought of the crawling cockroaches in the nooks and crannies of her flat and under her bed.  

 

“You can just stay here,” said Kai. 

 

She stared at him. “I can’t.”

 

“You should just move in with me. You know, that’s a good idea actually. You can cook me delicious food. And I can see you all the time. Didn’t you say you want me to stay by your side?”

 

“Not literally! I can’t live alone with a guy, it’s not decent,” mumbled Meilin, vaguely thinking of the horrified expression her mother would wear at the mere thought of it.

 

“Sakura and Syaoran did it,” said Kai.

 

“Well, they had circumstances. Besides, Syaoran is trustworthy.” She paused. “Well, was. I think he was. I mean, he’s pretty innocent. Was. And Sakura’s too dense. Well, but if a guy and a girl stay in a house alone all summer long—”

 

“Are you implying I’m not trustworthy?” he interjected, suddenly drawing closer to her.

 

Meilin leaned back further, to realize that she had already reached the end of the armrest and would fall back if she scooted back any further on the couch. “No, of course you’re not.”

 

“In fact, we’ve already lived together before. Wasn’t I good to you then?” he asked, tracing his finger along her right ankle up her calves, leaving a trail of goose bumps. “When you broke your leg, who nursed you back?”

 

“Things are different now,” Meilin mumbled, looking away and tucking her bare legs in and clutching the leather cushion in front of her—any sort of barrier to keep her away from him. She couldn’t trust herself to make any sort of logical decision in this state.

 

“What—because you have feelings for me now?” He gave a devilish grin and in a low voice and said, “I’ll be on very good behavior.”

 

“You’re the one who said to trust no one, not even you,” she pointed out. When he made a huffish face, she permitted herself to smile slightly, the first time since the incident. Was this Kai’s strange way of distracting her from her grief? What a strange boy. One minute he was ready to push her away completely, and the next, he was inviting her to move in with him. He really knew no middle ground. But more importantly, if Kai thought that there was any sort of chance that Sakura was alive, then she wasn’t going to give up hope either.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

As much as the Li Clan seemed to be deliberately ignoring the invasion of insects in Tokyo, Syaoran spotted clusters of locusts devouring away the leaves in a nearby park and all the shrubbery lining the sidewalks. It was spreading, and very rapidly at that.

 

“Syaoran-sama, the Elders want you to report to them,” said Wei, as Syaoran stepped into the Hoshi Plaza Hotel. 

 

Syaoran nodded, walking towards the hotel suite with a sense of dread. He saw the look of trepidation in Wei’s eyes that had been present ever since the April 1 incident.

 

Absentmindedly, Syaoran noted that a line of cockroaches were marching across the first floor lobby, weaving in between suitcases, heedless that it was a five-star hotel. He and Sakura had stayed at this hotel once, two summers ago, when they were on the run from the police, thanks to Kaitou Magician. For these past days, he had tried to block all thoughts of Sakura from his mind. He wasn’t able to sleep at night—he was afraid to sleep. If he closed his eyes, flashes of that day would replay in his mind so vividly, the feeling of her limp body against his chest, how she dissipated into cherry blossoms as he tried to bring her cold frame closer to his body.

 

When he closed his eyes, all he could see imprinted on the back of his lids was red that seemed to blossom out from the center of Sakura’s chest and was smeared across the blade somehow pierced through her, and of the crimson tassels from his sword hilt flickering in the wind.

 

And worst was when he recalled the look in her jade-green eyes that filled with tears that brief second as she saw his hesitation.

 

Again, Syaoran felt a sickness surge through his body, and he dashed to the restroom, and he found himself crumple over, trying to retch out the contents of his stomach into the sink. Except he hadn’t eaten in days, so there was nothing to heave out. He swayed, and stood upright, realizing he was drawing stares from the hotel guests.

 

“Syaoran-sama, are you all right?” Wei asked, this time out of genuine concern, as he trailed behind his master.

 

“No, I don’t think I am,” replied Syaoran wearily.

 

“I am very worried for your well-being.” Wei frowned and almost didn’t ask. “Perhaps I am stepping out of my line, but why did you do it, Syaoran-sama?”

 

“I had to, in order to keep my promise with the Great Elder,” replied Syaoran in a whisper.

 

 

 

~~~~~~

 

 

 

Hong Kong, a week ago…

 

 

 

Since the day the Great Elder passed away, he always returned back to that morning with Sakura by the Hong Kong harbors, a week ago. His head had been turned from her because he did not want to show her his vulnerability at that moment. But the arms that were wrapped around him told him that she knew this. The warmth of the tears that had sodden his back, the compassion in her brilliant emerald eyes when she looked up at him, the sudden chill that washed over them as she pushed him away, as if she can come to a sudden conclusion in a matter of minutes.  

 

Seagulls screeched as the first rays of dawn pierced through the still grayness of the sky, and the distant sound of waves lapping up on the silver shores of the Hong Kong harbors, near the edge of Victoria’s Peak.

 

Syaoran saw her lips move but did not hear her words.

 

“To become the Chosen One again, you have to defeat me,” Sakura told him, matter of fact.  She did not tremble, and her eyes looked at him without a trace of hesitation. “You have to kill me, Syaoran.”

 

“Don’t say such scary things from those lips,” said Syaoran with an inadvertent shudder. “I will never lay a finger on you to harm you.”

 

But Sakura continued to clench his hand. “I know that. I know you won’t harm me. I don’t want to die, either. But maybe, you won’t really have to physically kill me. You just have to make it appear like you killed me. Just to bide you enough time to get the clan under control and prove yourself to them. So that you can pass the Test of the Great Elder.”

 

“An illusion of killing you?” For a second, he paused, eyes darting back and forth calculating the plausibility of such a plan. He finally shook his head. “We will never fool everyone. Especially not Leiyun. He can see through everything.”

 

Sakura shook her head, her eyes gleaming with resolution, the kind that made him feel uneasy from the pit of his stomach. It was a look he knew only too well. “That’s the key. We have to fool everybody. And that means everybody.


“It’s impossible.”

 

“Nobody knows that your powers are coming back,” whispered Sakura, clutching his arms. “We can make it work with the two of our powers combined. We have to make it work.”

 

“It’s too risky.”

“We have no other choice.” And Sakura, in a Sakura-like fashion, had the last say. If he had been thinking straighter, if he hadn’t been overcome by shock from Li Renshu’s death, if he wasn’t wearing the Li seal on finger, he may have protested harder. The plan she told him was so terrible, he might almost have laughed it off if there hadn’t been so much at stake. But he had been too terrified of what she would say his other option might be.

 

“As soon as everything is sorted out, I promise I’ll return to Japan, to you,” he had told her, clasping her hand. It was even more difficult letting her go this second time. Because, when he left her a year ago, he had been sure that he would never see her again. But he had also prayed that she would go on living happily, bringing joy and laughter to those around her, and that he may catch some news about her in the distant future.

 

“I’ll be waiting,” she had said, slipping her hand out. “You can go back now. Your family will be waiting for you.”

 

The next time he saw her. No, he couldn’t start doubting. His words came out brokenly. He didn’t want her last memory of his to be his back. “I won’t turn around until I can’t see you anymore.”

 

As he watched Sakura fly off into the cerulean sky on the Unicorn, he was filled with a dreadful foreboding sense. Yet, what if there was a possibility, the slightest chance that they could pull this off?

 

And so they had parted like that on the Hong Kong harbors overlooking the crimson sun rising cruelly overhead to herald in another morning. Her voice lingered in her ears. “I’ll be waiting for you, Syaoran.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Tomoyo found herself walking through a field of lavenders, blinded by a brilliance of the pale violet flowers waving in the wind in all directions, breathing in the distinct musky scent. She ran down the rows and rows of flower beds. “Sakura!” called out Tomoyo. “Where are you, Sakura?”

 

And she saw Sakura with her back turned to her, wearing a fluttering white dress, like the one she wore on the day of the April 1 duel with Syaoran.

 

“Sakura! Wait!” Just as she reached Sakura, she crumbled away into fluttering butterflies that scattered in the wind. She whirled around and saw that she faced a man with long dark hair, dressed in a blue haori over gray hakama. He strung an arrow to his bow, and pointed it at Tomoyo.

 

And Tomoyo felt a pain erupt in her left eye as the arrow pierced through her pupil.

 

She woke up with a start, a hand clasping her left eye.

 

“Tomoyo-san. Tomoyo,” came a low, gentle voice. She stared at an antique crystal chandelier hanging form the ceiling. She was stretched out on a couch in the living room of the Clow mansion—she must have fallen asleep. Someone had covered her with a cashmere blanket.

 

“What is it?” Eriol asked, his blue eyes fixed on her. “A bad dream?”

 

Tomoyo murmured, sitting up from the couch, “I usually don’t usually have nightmares, but I saw Sakura in it—well, I think I saw her. She dissolved into butterflies. Or moths.” She didn’t speak of the second part of her dream, however.

 

“It’s just a nightmare,” said Eriol, not touching her, but kneeling by her side. “How are you holding up? Don’t tell me you are squeamish of bugs as well.” He stared at a hairy centipede crawl across the carpet.

 

“Not particularly,” said Tomoyo. “They’re cute.”

 

Eriol flicked away the moth from her sleeve with a forefinger. “Though you’ve been the only one trying to act normally these past few days, it’s okay to admit that you are not okay, Tomoyo-san.”

 

“What is normal, I wonder. All I know is the moment I crumble, I will be accepting that Sakura truly is dead,” said Tomoyo. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have watched the video footage I took of the duel.”

 

“You should have asked me to watch it with you,” said Eriol softly.

 

She shook her head. “It was hard—really hard. But I had to see it. And it felt sort of like watching a movie, surreal. Something about the situation reminded me of that painting by Shing-sensei. You know, the one that we saw in the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts in New York of the Angel and Warrior series.”

 

“The Destruction,” said Eriol, recalling the painting of the brunette man pointing his gleaming silver sword at the neck of a girl with long violet waves facing each other. Both sapphire and emerald eyes were glistening. It had been the most poignant piece in the collection.

 

“Yes, that one,” said Tomoyo. “It brought more doubts in my mind. And I also noticed in the clip, Sakura dropped her star staff. And when the barrier broke that day, after she disappeared, I looked for it, and I didn’t spot it. Syaoran must have picked it up. He also picked up half of the Amamiya diamond necklace as well. She was wearing it, I saw that day.”

 

“He would pick those two items up if he were to become Card Master,” murmured Eriol.

 

Tomoyo frowned. “But Kai told me that Syaoran was last in possession of the crystal—Sakura must have given it to him. But why did Sakura have one half. Does that mean Syaoran had the other half? Or maybe I didn’t see correctly—the footage was blurry. It’s just wanted one proof, any indication, that she is alive—and I thought she would have at least taken her staff with her,” said Tomoyo.

 

Eriol stared at Tomoyo wordlessly.

 

“What ever you are going to say, don’t say it,” said Tomoyo. “I don’t care if you think I am in denial. Maybe I am. But how else will I continue on living knowing Sakura is… Sakura is…”

 

“Shhh... It’s all right. I was just going to say we are all of the same mind. We all want Sakura to be alive, so we will continue to believe so as long as there is 1% of chance that she might be.” And Eriol paused.

 

It took Tomoyo strength to look up into Eriol’s usually inscrutable midnight blue eyes. To her surprise, he was struggling with words. Why? Was this something he had not foreseen? Was Clow Reed’s reincarnation really helpless in this situation, or was he withholding information?

 

Eriol was about to reach for her shoulder, but there was a short knock on the door. “Sorry to interrupt,” said Mizuki Kaho. “But there’s a situation you should check out.”

 

The three of them walked out to the Clow mansion backyard, famous for its lush gardens with an array of flowers including romantic violet-hued hydrangeas, brilliant yellow tulips, snowy white plum blossoms.

 

“Parasites are overrunning the town,” declared Kaho swatting at a swarm of moths that flitted about. “Not the least in our award-winning garden.”

 

“Okay, this is it,” said Nakuru, drawing the hood of her jacket over her head as slugs pelted down from low tree branches overhead. “I’ve had it.”

 

“Do you think it’s a dark force?” asked Miho.

 

Kaho nodded. “Most likely.”

 

“I hate bugs,” said Miho with a shudder. “Well, what do we do?”

 

“What do you mean what do we do. It’s Syaoran’s problem now—he’s the Clow Master,” said Eron.

 

“But this is a large-scale dark force, dangerous because of its ability to multiply and spread rapidly over a short period of time. Like the Plague. Can he handle it on his own?” asked Kaho.

 

“Well, I’m sure the high and mighty Li Clan can help out,” said Eron snidely.

 

“If they’re not the ones who set it out in the first place,” said Suppi-chan. “Isn’t Erika in charge of releasing dark forces?”

 

Eron looked uncomfortable. “The dark forces don’t always act the way you expect them to.”

 

“Can Syaoran even seal dark forces? I thought that was Sakura’s special skill,” said Miho.

 

“Well, he did once before, to seal the Crystal. But that was a one-time instance,” said Tomoyo.

 

“Well, he’s the Master of the Clow now,” said Nakuru. “If he can’t even handle one pesky dark force, what good would he be for?”

 

“Yeah, let him deal with it himself,” said Suppi-chan. They dodged an angry swarm of locusts that flew at them.

 

Miho shrieked shaking the locusts from her cable-knit sweater. “But do something to protect our gardens—you know my mother was excited to see the famous Reed garden in full bloom.”  

 

Eriol raised his hands and set a barrier around the house, preventing anymore insects from entering.

 

“So, why didn’t you do that from the first place?” grumbled Miho, scratching her arm.

 

“He was attached to the bumble bees, butterflies and earth worms that followed,” said Nakuru, rolling her eyes. “A lover of nature.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Tanaka Miho was not so easily content with just sitting around with a dark force on the loose. She frowned as she read the newspaper—the locust epidemic was spread to the outskirts of Tokyo now. “We can’t sit around doing nothing. We’ve got to put a stop to this insect epidemic, if it really is a dark force!”

 

“Why?” asked Touya dully. “Let Syaoran deal with it. It’s his problem now.”

 

“This dark force is dangerous, isn’t it?” Miho said. “What happens if it doesn’t get sealed? Eriol-kun, we’ve got to do something about it, or else the farms and livestock in rural areas will be impacted—this will not only ruin the cherry blossom festival but have a permanent damage on the agriculture industry and the livelihood of farmers!”

 

“You’re right,” Kai said. “But I’m sure the Li Clan has the situation under control. Besides, what can we do about it? It’s not like we have the power to seal the dark force, nor do we have the Sakura Cards on our side.”

 

Miho’s eyes flitted across the room. Sakura was gone—the Alliance was broken. Nothing really connected this group of people without Sakura. Sakura, who she oftentimes thought was too timid, too easily sidetrack, too caring, too good-willed for her own good was gone. She had never realized how much they all had relied on her for her subtle leadership. Without Sakura, this group of highly-skilled people was at a loss, while a dark force was invading not only Tomoeda but Tokyo area and rapidly expanding.

 

Eriol—he probably must have some idea of what must be done—would never step up to a leadership position. He had always worked alone or Ruby Moon and Spinel Sun. When he collaborated with the group, it was only when he saw merit or amusement in cooperating. Miho had no idea what he felt about Sakura’s death. After all, your successor was supposed to outlive you.

 

Tomoyo, while she had close bonds with each individual in the room was tight-lipped since her best friend’s death. In a different, situation, she would be making comments, never making orders or taking the lead but guiding opinions with her shrewd acumen, She had been unusually silent, and that frightened Miho more than the panic of the rest of the group.

 

Touya was distraught, understandingly, and Yukito for once also was distracted to the point where the two best friends were not even speaking to each other or offering moral support in difficult times. It was Mizuki Kaho who stepped in and put a calming hand on Touya’s shoulder—she seemed to be telling him that he had to call in to work and take extra time off and contact his father. Otherwise, cousin Kaho might have been able to offer some insight—any insight.

 

Of course, her brother would be of no use in leading the group—he was used to moving by himself and did not know the first thing about leadership. And Meilin perhaps was the most shocked of all because she trusted Syaoran more than anyone else in this room. Otherwise, she might be the one shouting out orders or taking some sort of action with her short-temperedness.

 

As for Eron, Miho never expected anything to him. But there he stood in the back of the room, by the windowsill, looking quite lost, and for the first time in her life, she sort of felt sorry for him. While she thought that everybody else in the room at least had some glimmer of hope that this was all just a horrid dream and Sakura would come back, by now, Eron looked as one who had given up all hope. Because Eron fundamentally was a pessimist who probably thought nothing good will stay.

 

And Miho stared at the blue Persian rug. What would Sakura do in this situation? What could she do in this situation—she was the youngest, most insignificant in the group. But that wouldn’t stop her in the newsroom. Of this group of people, she was sure at least that she had the most leadership experience. After all, she was the editor-in-chief of the junior high school newspaper. She had also been a proctor at her prep school back in England. There was the other nagging thought in her mind that she could not erase, ever since Tomoyo and the others had realized Sakura had gone missing on the night of Arima and Asuma’s wedding, when Syaoran returned to Hong Kong. If Sakura had gone with him, everything clicked into place.

 

“Eriol’s scenario 3,” said Miho.

 

“That again,” groaned Nakuru. “Like your crazy theory that Sakura went to Hong Kong with Syaoran?”

 

“Bear with me. Let’s play this out. The two must have communicated since Syaoran got back to Tokyo,” said Miho, leaning her pointed chin on her folded forefinger.

 

Nakuru rolled her eyes. “So when and where do you propose that Sakura and Syaoran were able to sneak behind our backs to meet up since they got back?” 

 

“The two couldn’t have met since Syaoran returned from Hong Kong after the funeral,” said Meilin. “He has been guarded by the Li delegation ever since he came back to Japan, 24/7.”

 

“I guess they could have had a phone conversation though,” remarked Tomoyo. “We wouldn’t know.”

 

“No, they didn’t,” said Kero-chan. “I checked Sakura’s cellphone log—she didn’t have any conversations with the boy or any unknown numbers over the past several days. Neither did she use the house phone.”

 

“Yeah, I don’t think the two would have been able to have a phone conversation. Syaoran left his cellphone back in our apartment. And all of the Li mansion phones are bugged,” said Meilin.

 

“There’s payphones, borrowed cellphones,” pointed out Miho. “Emails, texts.”

 

“I’m sorry if this sounds creepy, but I’ve hacked into Syaoran’s email account,” Kai said. “No private emails or messages.”

 

Meilin turned to Kai. “Why in the world are you hacking into Syaoran’s email account?”

 

Kai shrugged. “I thought I might find some dirt on him. Speaking of which, I checked all flight information and Li Syaoran did not fly out of this country by commercial airlines for sure.”

 

“How did he get to Hong Kong?” Meilin asked. “I confirmed no Li jets were in Japan that day.”

 

Kero-chan said, “Regardless, I’m pretty sure between all of us, there has not been a moment over the past week where Sakura was by herself because remember, we were keeping a close watch ever since she received the dual challenge from Syaoran.” 

 

It was true. They had been concerned about Sakura’s state, especially after the events of last year when Syaoran had left Japan and had an implicit pact to keep an eye on her at all times.

 

“Last week was the end of the school semester, so we had classes, then we had an Alliance meeting afterwards pretty much every single day. Except Saturday, March 31,” said Miho.

 

“Right, we held Sakura’s birthday a day early. Because her real birthday was the day of the duel,” Tomoyo said.

 

Miho slammed both her hands down on the coffee table and leaned forward. “And don’t you see, Syaoran would of course meet Sakura for her birthday.”

 

Tomoyo frowned. “But we spent the entire from morning to midnight with Sakura. I mean, us girls even went to the restroom together. We were in town, then bumped into the Wu Clan, then went to the Tokyo Tower and held a surprise party with her at Club 333 there. She went straight home afterwards with her father and brother. The next morning, I went to pick her up at her house in my van, and we all gathered together to prepare for the duel, then went to King Penguin Park together in the afternoon. There was not a gap of time where she could have met with Syaoran over those 24 hours leading to her birthday.”

 

“Actually, there might be,” said Meilin. “She went to the restroom, right before midnight.”

 

“Yeah, she met the Brat in the women’s bathroom on the main observatory deck of the Tokyo Tower at midnight,” said Kero-chan, arms crossed. “Great story.”

 

“No, I don’t think she went to the restroom at all,” said Miho.

 

“Where did she go then? I mean, I know it takes 45 seconds to go down the elevator from the main observatory to the first floor. But she was gone for no more than five minutes,” said Kai.  

 

“I don’t thinks she went down,” said Miho. “I think she went up.”

 

 

 

~~~~~~

 

 

 

Tokyo Tower, March 31, 11:56 p.m.…

 

 

 

Sakura stood on the top level of the Tokyo Tower, hands pressed against the glass, overlooking the cityscape from 250 meters above, minutes before her 17th birthday. She had never gotten a proper chance to appreciate the view from the special observation deck, 100 meters higher than the main observatory and completely empty. It was closed off to the public since it was under renovation. She sometimes forgot how bright Tokyo at night was—so bright that all the stars in the night sky were drowned out by the glare of the city lights.

 

It was nearly midnight.

 

Her friends had thrown her a surprise birthday party at the Tokyo Tower—well not so secret, since they were not very discreet during the planning. But, she had been moved by everyone’s efforts to empty out Club 333 on the main observatory deck on a Saturday night and decorate it with balloons and streamers with all shades of pink. She could see they were trying their best to be cheerful. Tomorrow was the day of the duel. But today, at least at this moment, she didn’t want to think of tomorrow. She had changed into one of Tomoyo’s dresses, a frilly white dress with gold lace detailing around the bodice and edges of the high-low skirt. She had spritzed a new perfume scent from Meilin, laughed hard at Kai’s magic show, and shed a silent tear when Tomoyo sang her an Italian-language song. Everybody had put so much effort to make this night perfect for her.

 

Minutes ago, she had excused herself, stating she had to use the restroom. This was polite, since it would give time for her friends to prepare the birthday cake. Instead of heading towards the restroom, however, she had headed straight up to the special observatory deck.  

 

She heard footsteps behind her but did not turn around. For she could see reflection of a handsome boy with mussed brown hair and in a black suit in the window. Sakura took a deep breath and turned to face him. They had last seen each other less than a fortnight ago in the Hong Kong harbors. But they just stared at each other in silence, as if to desperately imprint each other’s faces there atop Tokyo Tower, and for this moment be suspended above the bustling city, just the two of them.

 

Though it was nighttime, and the special observation was dimly lit, outside, a myriad of neon lights lit the Tokyo streets like bursts of twinkling stars of red, blue, green and yellow.

 

He spoke first. “I’m here.”

 

“You made it.” She noticed that his face was still flushed, and his chest was heaving.

 

He glanced at his watch. “Barely. I could’ve gotten here sooner if the darned elevators to the special observatory were in operation.”

 

“You know they give a special certificate for people who make it all the way up via stairs,” said Sakura with a lopsided smile. “Though I guess you have to prove it to them.”

 

“You won’t make me do that climb again—it’s positively dizzying.”

 

“How did you manage to sneak away?”

 

“Wasn’t too hard,” replied Syaoran. “The Li mansion is infested with cockroaches, so most of the Li delegation is holding meetings at a hotel nearby. Uncle Wutai thinks I’m back at the Li mansion exterminating—Leiyun thinks I’m at the hotel since I’m terrified of roaches.”

 

“Cockroaches?”

 

“Don’t ask.” Syaoran said with a sigh, staring at his watch.

 

“You can’t just leave me with that.” Sakura’s eyes were twinkling. “Really, cockroaches?”

 

And he placed his forefinger on her lips. “Shush now.” The minute hand reached twelve’ o’clock and in the distance, they heard the chiming of a clock tower. “Happy birthday, Sakura.”

 

She just stared at him with those iridescent green eyes that seemed puzzled and somewhat amused.

 

“I have a present for you.”

 

“I thought you would have forgotten,” said Sakura finally, the phantom trace of the fingers that had brushed against her lips burning. She wanted to add, in light of recent events, with the death of the Great Elder and with the whole hassle of the funeral and traveling, how had he the time to remember? And she realized, he had chosen this specific time and place for this reason.

 

“It’s just something small,” he said, holding out a rectangular box the size of a book. “I didn’t have time to wrap it.”

 

“Can I?” she asked, him taking the box. He nodded. She opened the lid and gasped. It was a beautiful gold enamel comb in the shape of clusters of stars of various sizes. She lifted it from the delicate petal paper and realized with a sinking feeling by the weight it was real gold.

 

“I got it last year. I didn’t get a chance to give it to you before,” he mumbled. “When I got it, I didn’t realize you had cut your hair.” Then he looked troubled. “Ah, now that your hair is short… I should have thought beforehand…”

 

For a second, Sakura felt a stab of regret for cutting her hair last year—Syaoran had loved to play with the ends of her pigtails. He was probably berating himself right now for buying what may have been an inconsiderate gift because it was clear the hair accessory was supposed to be pinned into long hair wound up in a bun—it would look pretty as an accessory to wear with a kimono or yukata. “Odd, would you buy a birthday present for someone you planned on never seeing again?” she said lightly.

 

And she saw his amber eyes flicker in pain, as if recalling that misty morning when he sent her away when she went to see him in Hong Kong. He replied, “But when I saw it, I thought of you.”

 

“Thank you, Syaoran, I’ve never seen anything so lovely,” said Sakura, turning to the window—because it was dark outside, she could use the reflection in the glass in lieu of a mirror. Carefully, she fastened the comb to the left side of her short golden brown hair, so that it swept back loose tendrils from her face, giving a diadem-like effect. “See, I can wear it like this.”

 

As if he couldn’t help himself, he reached over and brushed away a few strands of hair and helped reposition the comb in the most flattering angle. “It looks pretty. Like you have shooting stars caught in your hair.”

 

Sakura almost blushed at the rare compliment, but didn’t because Syaoran was still fussing with her hair and would notice. 

 

“This is last year’s birthday present,” murmured Syaoran into her ear. “But you’re going to have to wait for this year’s present.”

 

Sakura blinked. “You have something else?”

 

“You told me on Christmas that recycling last year’s present really doesn’t count as a proper present,” said Syaoran.

 

“I did?” His face was so close to hers, there was a surreal moment when she was staring at each bristle of his dark brows and the length of his black lashes cast over the fire-gold flecks in his eyes. She found herself holding her breath as she stared his lips, which curled into a sardonic smile.

 

After brushing away a wisp of her hair back into the pin, he stood to back to examine his handiwork, breaking that strange moment of breathless tension. “But I don’t have it with me right now. I will give it to you afterwards. You can wait, right?”

 

“I don’t know.” Sakura smiled up at him coyly. “I might die of curiosity before then.”

 

 

 

*******

 

 

 

“Wait a second, we’re not filming some romance movie here,” said Meilin interrupting Miho. “Does it make any sense that Sakura could have slipped away to the special observatory—which need I remind you is closed off to the public—in the midst of our surprise birthday party for her at the Tokyo Tower, to meet Syaoran? All in just five minutes?”

 

“What’s sillier is that Syaoran would risk slipping away from the Li Clan just to wish Sakura happy birthday,” said Kai, rolling his eyes.

 

“Seriously, as if Syaoran would be able to escape the Li Clan bodyguards to celebrate Sakura’s birthday at midnight with her,” said Nakuru. “Were they even on speaking terms last time we saw them?”

 

Tomoyo tilted her head. “They could have used the Time.”

 

“I would have sensed the Time,” Kero-chan sniffed, paws folded.

 

“Not if the Time was used within a null-void whatever barrier,” Miho pointed out.

 

“So, if we are going by this theory that Sakura made some sort of replica of herself, which is totally implausible, she then made the switch that night?” Kero-chan asked. “With all of us waiting downstairs to celebrate her birthday?”

 

Tomoyo stared at Eriol. “There is one of us capable of seeing through illusions cast by Level 1 sorcerers like Sakura and Syaoran to confirm that.”

 

“I wish I can tell you all that it was an illusion, a trick. But if it was an illusion, it must have been such an intricately woven spell, the likes of which I have not seen over centuries,” replied Eriol. “I wish I could say otherwise, but I could not sense an illusion at all.”

 

Miho frowned. “Wait Eriol. Say that again.”

 

“What, I could not sense any illusion?”

 

“No, before that.”

 

“If it was an illusion, it must have been such an intricately woven spell?”

 

“Yes, we might be on to something,” said Miho. “Remember when the Mikai-onii-chan clone appeared—I couldn’t sense he was a clone. But basically, he was a complex replica of a person that could mimic not only the appearance but the personality, even the aura. He was the product of the Transform and the Fantasy—and onii-chan’s locket, which bound the spell together.”

 

Eriol stared at Miho. Then he remarked slowly, “You may be onto something. You really are my disciple.”

 

“Huh?” Miho blinked.

 

“There is no such thing as a perfect clone,” said Spinel Sun. Then he paused. “Let me rephrase myself. There is no such thing as a perfect replica of a person.”

 

“Which means there is such a thing as a perfect clone,” Tomoyo said, looking up at Ruby Moon.

 

“Or at least a clone close enough to her that would deceive us for a short period of time,” said Kai thoughtfully.

 

“Ridiculous!” exclaimed Kero-chan. “As if none of us would have noticed that our Sakura went out to use the restroom and came back a different person.”

 

“Even if there was such a thing, Sakura could not have mastered it in such a short time,” Ruby Moon pointed out.

 

“You are forgetting, it’s not just Sakura. It would have been Sakura and Syaoran,” said Miho.

 

“You really think they were in on this together?” whispered Meilin. “How would they have pulled off something like that though?”

 

“But Syaoran lost all his powers,” Ruby Moon interjected.

 

“No, he’s had his power return to him, for some time now,” said Eron. “Not necessarily the power of the moon, but some sort of power. And Tomoyo saw him call a dragon that time the Metal was bent on destroying Tokyo Tower.”

 

“Okay, suppose that Syaoran’s powers miraculously did come back to him some while ago, and we didn’t notice it. Even with him on the plan, how are we supposed to believe that Sakura suddenly had the magical skills to create a clone of herself, so similar to her that none of us were able to tell them apart?” stated Kero-chan.

 

“Well, if you remember, the fake Tanaka Mikai was created through the Transform and a photograph of Mikai and Miho, supplemented by the Fantasy,” said Suppi-chan. “It was a good enough replica of Mikai that it tricked most of us, including Miho.” 

 

“But that was a different circumstance—this is Sakura we are talking about,” said Miho with a frown. “I haven’t seen onii-chan in ages, and he was created through my desire. I saw what I wanted to see. And the rest of you took my word that he was real. But Touya-san would know if it wasn’t Sakura. Tomoyo would know—she’s been her best friend all her life. I think I would even know if Sakura was not real.”

 

“But we’re talking not about a mere illusion or a transformation,” said Eriol. “We’re talking about an actual clone.”

 

“This goes back to Sakura not having the ability to create a clone that will deceive not just her friends and family, but someone like Eriol, who would have been able to sense if it wasn’t Sakura’s aura,” said Kero-chan. “That’s impossible.”

 

“No,” said Eriol. “I believe Sakura is plenty capable of creating a clone that may even deceive me. Is she not the girl that defeated the Fates, sealed the Plague and even the Fantasy, something Clow Reed was not able to do even in his prime? The question is, borrowing Miho’s terms, how did Sakura learn to create one in such a short period of time? And when was she able to create the switch without any of us noticing?”

 

“Well, if we go back to the theory that Sakura really did go back to Hong Kong with Syaoran,” said Meilin.

 

Eron shook his head. “No. Even if such a thing as a perfect clone were possible—which I don’t believe is—if I were Sakura and went through the trouble of making such a clone, I still wouldn’t risk having a clone live at home next to her father and brother and go to school and interact with the Alliance for a whole week.

 

“Eron’s right about this,” said Kero-chan. “It would have to be the last moment possible where we would have been too distracted to notice the switch. Perhaps Miho’s right and they did meet that night at Tokyo Tower.”

 

“Maybe it is a lack of sleep or just how rock bottom we’ve all hit. But why the heck does this sound more plausible than anything else we’ve come up with thus far?” remarked Kai.

 

“Okay, with a stretch of imagination, say that the two indeed plotted this who fiasco up together. Why would, Sakura and Syaoran have to go through such an elaborate scheme?” said Eron.

 

“To buy time,” said Eriol.

 

“Buy time for what?” asked Kero-chan.

 

“Buy time for Syaoran,” Meilin murmured. “Syaoran met with the Great Elder before he died, which makes me think he must have made some sort of pledge to protect the Li Clan.”

 

 

 

*******

 

 

 

Kinomoto Touya found his hand trembling, but Yukito, standing beside him, nodded. The moment he had been dreading all week had come. Touya picked up the phone. “Otou-san.”

 

“Touya-san,” Fujitaka’s voice came over the receiver. And he seemed to immediately know something was wrong. “What is it? Did something happen back home?”

 

“Father, there is something I need to tell you, but in person. Please come home as soon as you can.”

 

“I’ll take the first plane back tomorrow,” said Fujitaka. “Unless, it’s an emergency, and I can try to find a way to return from Sapporo right way.”

 

“No, it’s all right. I’ll speak to you tomorrow,” said Touya in a choked voice. “Have a safe trip back outo-san.” And he hung up the phone.

 

Yukito put a reassuring had on Touya’s shoulder. “If you want, I can be there with you tomorrow.”

 

Touya shook his head. “No, I think I’ve got to tell the news to him alone.” He crumpled to the floor. “Yuki, I’ve failed to keep my promise to my mother, to my father. I swore that I would protect Sakura. I knew at some point when she became Card Mistress that she might actually be more capable of protecting herself than me, that I might one day become a liability for her instead. But I thought, I my own way, that I can guard her for as long as I could be by her side. I never thought she would be the one to leave first.”

 

Yukito knelt down beside his best friend and wrapped his arms around Touya. “Touya, you did the best you can, and Sakura knows that. Your father knows that too.” 

 

“I’m not going to let her go without a fight though,” said Touya. “Call me foolhardy, but I refuse to believe Sakura’s dead.”

 

 

 

*******

 

 

 

“Eriol is not going to be pleased to find that you are nosing through all of his magic books,” remarked Chang Eron, arms crossed, standing by the doorway. Tomoyo nearly toppled off the small ladder she had climbed to reach the top row of Clow Reed’s bookshelves, known to be the black magic books section. While Eriol had not explicitly forbidden anyone from reading the books, Tomoyo figured it was because he figured nobody would look. 

 

Over the past few days, Tomoyo had been keeping a closer eye on Eron than she had on anyone else. He felt the loss, as much as she did. But he looked troubled by something else. By what? There were times when she felt wary of the pretty face which seemed to mask inner demons she did not want to know of. But today was not one of those days. In a sense, she couldn’t help thinking Eron was the most distraught of the bunch. After all, despite Touya’s uproar, he seemed to be in complete denial that Sakura was gone for good. Or someone like Kai was a complete pessimist and thought the absolute worst first. With Eron, however, he didn’t seem to know what to think or what to feel. Because the rest of them were mourning a longtime friend, sister, mistress or in her own case, best friend. But what had been Sakura’s existence to Chang Eron?

 

Tomoyo glanced at him and realized he had been observing her as well. After all, she had slipped into the library when she thought everybody was locked in another heated debate outside in the backyard on how best to deal with the locust infestation in the neighborhood. “I just was curious if Clow had any books on cloning humans. Did you notice Sakura had been reading a lot ahead of her duel with Syaoran? I wondered what she was reading so diligently.”

 

“You’re not going to find any informative books on cloning humans out in the open here,” said Eron. “Either Clow Reed destroyed them, or Eriol has kept them safe from prying eyes. I can tell you though, there are very few proper books written about dark magic, and even if there were such books, they would be destroyed because it is too dangerous. I know, because I have inherited a collection of old spell books dating back to the Dark Ones’ time. You probably won’t be able to even read the runes.”

 

Tomoyo climbed down the ladder and stood beside Eron. “Chang Ruichi-sama—he tried to create a clone of Risa-sama?”

 

“What didn’t he try?” Eron gave a short laugh. “Though it all ended in failure. But when I lost Sakura, I somehow understood what must have gone through Ruichi-sama’s mind. First, you think there might be a way to revive the body—except, there was no body. Sakura simply disappeared. Then, you think there must be a way to bring back the dead. And it brings you to thinking of clones, turning back time, and all sorts of crazy forbidden black magic and it becomes a lethal obsession.”

 

“Clow-san, too, fell into the pitfalls of such an obsession. But he learned to let go of Mika-san eventually,” said Tomoyo.

 

“Did he?” Eron shrugged. “I do not know. I don’t think he would have reincarnated himself had he truly learned to let go. Same as Ruichi-sama—he could not let go, so he decided to curse everyone instead, including the Chang line, so we can all be miserable.”

 

“Surely you don’t think he cursed your own bloodline as well,” said Tomoyo.

 

“You know why the Chang line always has a twin in every generation?” said Eron with a twisted smile. “One to carry out the revenge and one as spare. And no Chang twin has lived more than a couple years after producing an offspring. Which is why I will never have a child—to end this curse for once and for all.”

 

“What about Erika?”

 

“Erika’s body is too weak for childbirth—the doctors told that it would be dangerous for her to have children long ago, that it will likely put her life at risk,” replied Eron shortly. “That’s why she probably began dating around with boys she didn’t care for—she doesn’t see any future in any relationship she makes with a guy.”

 

Tomoyo thought there was a trace of sadness in Eron’s eyes, not for himself but for Erika. “Medicine has advanced enough, I’m pretty sure there would be a way for her to have children if she wanted to.”

 

The other Amamiya descendent had always stumped him, and Eron found Tomoyo’s gaze uncanny, as if she could see right through the soul; he did not like that she seemed to pity him, at that moment. “Yeah, that’s what I told her. She said she didn’t mind. But I wondered if she did.”

 

“You care so deeply for Erika, it must have been difficult to choose to join the Alliance,” remarked Tomoyo.

 

“I didn’t choose to join the Alliance,” said Eron. “Sakura chose me.”

 

“I see.” Tomoyo paused. “Eron-kun, I have a question to ask you. Why did you break up with Sakura?”

 

Eron stared at her as if she had gone mad too. “Are you trying to get on my nerves too—or do you need someone to talk about your precious memories of Sakura with. Because I have no intention to oblige. Go commiserate with Cerberus or something.”

 

Tomoyo was unfazed. “You are not the kind of person to let someone go out of the kindness of your heart. Nor are you the kind of person to accept defeat or be discouraged by competition. Why then, did you break things off with Sakura? Because you knew she would never break up with you?”

 

“Yes, rub salt in the wounds when the dog is down,” said Eron wearily, as if too tired to put on a front. “If it makes you feel better, go ahead. These few days, it’s like we couldn’t even speak her name. It kind of feels good talking about her.”

 

“You said you knew that Syaoran’s powers were returning through your fight with at the beachside, after Sakura was kidnapped by yakuza. You broke up with Sakura because Syaoran’s powers were returning, right?”

 

He didn’t bother to deny it. “Perhaps.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because, I know theirs is a destiny interwoven so tightly, that one such as myself cannot interfere,” replied Eron.

 

Tomoyo titled her head. “What does that mean?”

 

“It means, I’m a coward and thought I could save my face before I got dumped for real or became eternally despised.” He laughed out loud. “Maybe I should have hung on a bit longer if I knew this would be the outcome.”

 

“Oh.” Tomoyo blinked her large violet eyes as if something grew clear to her. “You wanted Sakura to be happy. That’s why you let her go. Because the greatest happiness is seeing someone you like stay happy.”

 

Eron shook his head. “No. I don’t know if what I had for her was love. I don’t know if I wanted her to be happy. I don’t even think I know what true happiness is.”

 

“You do, Eron-kun. You do,” said Tomoyo. “I’ve seen it in your eyes when you teased Sakura-chan at school numerous times. I’ve been it when you are with Erika, watching over her, always looking out for her. I’ve seen it when you played in the soccer team and Seijou Junior High won the championships, and even when you were volunteering at the orphanage, talking with the kids there.”

 

“I see,” said Eron. “Maybe you are right. If I were to see Sakura again, I would like to ask her what makes her happy. Because she was not happy when she was dating me. She was not happy when she lost her memory of Syaoran, though she did not even know she had forgotten him. I realized I could not make her smile a true smile for me so long as she was bound to me. Do you think she would forgive me for taking advantage of her when she was the most vulnerable? I purposefully split them apart. Do you think she knew that but still stayed by my side and even told me she would unconditionally trust me because I am a part of her Alliance?”

 

“You will get a chance to ask her when you see her again,” said Tomoyo.

 

“Where do you get your certainty from?” Eron asked. “Don’t you hear the rest of us powered ones telling you that Sakura’s aura has disappeared from the world, that she is gone?”

 

Tomoyo said, her purple eyes unblinking, “Well, I am glad that I do not have powers then, because I’m going to trust my intuition then.”

 

“What if your intuition is wrong?”

 

“It can’t be,” replied Tomoyo. “Because my intuition is to always bet on Sakura.”

 

“You should meet Ruichi-sama someday,” said Eron with a sigh. “You two warped individuals with no logical sense might get along if you don’t strangle each other in the process.”

 

“I want to meet him too,” said Tomoyo. “So many questions I have for him. But before that, are you going to tell me what’s troubling you even more than ways to plot for revenge on Syaoran? I believe you came here because you have something you want to say to me, Eron-kun?”

 

“If I’ve become that transparent, I’m a failure as the villain of this story. Well, the thing is,” Eron stared at his feet. “I don’t know how to put this in words.”

 

“Is it something about the dark force?” asked Tomoyo.

 

Eron looked sick. “Listen, this is really hard to say, but I think someone should know. I may have set off the dark force.”

 

“The Insect?” Tomoyo’s expression did not change. “How so?”

 

“Well, you know Erika has been staying with at the Li mansion for a while now. So I might have thought to give her a little fright, just enough so that she returned home.”

 

“So you set off the Insect on the Li mansion?” Tomoyo asked.

 

“Well, yeah, just a couple cockroaches—okay quite a lot. But it was contained to just the Li mansion. This was some two weeks ago.”

 

“And did she return home?”

 

“No, I tried to get her to return to me,” said Eron. “But we fought again, and she left. And I didn’t give the dark force further thought.”

 

Tomoyo asked, “Well, if you released it, can’t you make it withdraw?”

 

He shook his head. “I’m sorry. The problem is, I sort of lost control over it, and I can’t seal it. Sorry.”

 

Tomoyo could figure how Eron had lost control over the dark force—Sakura’s death must have been the trigger. “We’ve got to tell the others this.”

 

His face was grim. “Do we have to? I’m not quite sure how they’ll receive it, atop everything else they are enduring.”

 

“Eron, you know what happened the last time you lost control.”

 

The two were somber for a moment as they recalled the disastrous Plague epidemic that struck town.

 

“All right, you tell them,” said Eron. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to help with taking down the Insect. And if they decide to kill me, at least I’ll be where Sakura is.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“Are you kidding me? We have enough to deal with, and now this?” Touya glared at Eron, who actually looked pretty guilty. “You are telling me the Insect is our fault—no—his fault?”

 

Tomoyo had briefly shared with the group what Eron had told her earlier, and the varied reactions made her reconsider whether this really was a good idea. But something had signaled in her that when Eron had sought her out, he must have been truly desperate. She remembered Eriol had once told her there were dark forces that had latent potential to become lethal, rapidly. The Insect was like that—at first, it could be dismissed as merely being pesky, but aside from becoming an epidemic that destroyed harvest, it could also rapidly spread disease or even attack humans and livestock.

 

“I knew he couldn’t be trusted!” exclaimed Cerberus. “How can you set off a dark force like that?”

 

Eron opened his mouth but Tomoyo intervened. “It was a mistake,” she said. “Eron said it was just a few cockroaches on the Li mansion. But it got out of control.”

 

“What, are you some idiot novice sorcerer’s apprentice? I thought you were the high and mighty Dark One who’s been turning this town upside down since you appeared three years ago. And you can’t even handle a couple of cockroaches?” demanded Kai.

 

Eron snapped, “It was a prank—it started out as a prank to spite those pompous Lis and get Erika to return home. Only—I didn’t think—” And to his shame, he felt his throat clog up.

 

And those in the room didn’t have to hear Eron say the words to understand. Nobody had expected Sakura to die. And they said what was more dangerous than an evil magician was one who could not control his emotions. The dark force must have fed off of Eron’s sorrow.

 

“Well, either way, what is done is already done,” said Meilin. “So you set it off. You must know how to seal it.”

 

“I can’t seal it—Sakura was the only one who could seal dark forces,” said Eron.

 

“What can you do then, as Dark One?” Meilin asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

“I can summon dark forces, lure them, bargain with them and guide them,” said Eron. “In exchange, I feed them dark energy and sometimes they listen to me.”

 

Kai fiddled with the rings on his fingers. “And Erika has the same sort of power?”

 

“Yes, but I’m better,” said Eron.

 

“Humble as always,” mumbled Meilin.

 

“Well, we’ll have to see if Card Master Syaoran has the capability to seal cards like Sakura did, then,” Nakuru said.

 

“What if he can’t?” asked Kai.

 

“We’ve got to do something to contain the locusts—it’s eating away all the vegetation,” said Kaho slowly.

 

“Eww, that means we’ve got to help Syaoran?” said Nakuru.

 

Miho stood up abruptly. All eyes were on her. “It doesn’t matter if Syaoran-senpai is the Card Master or not. What he did to get the Sakura Cards was horrible, and we shouldn’t forgive him. But, we are the Alliance of the Stars. We can’t just let a dark force run loose and ruin all the crops and kill all the trees and shrubs and gardens in our town and in the entire metropolitan area.”

 

“I refuse,” said Touya. “I refuse to help out Li Syaoran, who betrayed my sister and all of us too.”

 

“We are not helping Syaoran-senpai, per say,” Miho said. “It’s just that our common interests align at the moment. And that is to seal the Insect before it devours all of Tokyo, nothing more. Because we can’t let our feud harm the population.”

 

“True. So far it’s parasitic and disgusting—but it’s contained mostly to the metropolitan area. Once the locusts spread to the countryside and attacks all the crops, that’ll be very problematic. They spread so rapidly, who knows when they will spread through the whole country,” said Kai.

 

“Should we take a vote then?” asked Tomoyo.

 

Kero-chan looked up. “No, Miho is right. A dark force is a dark force. Even though Sakura is not with us, she would have wanted us to protect our town. And the cherry blossom trees.”

 

“I guess it’s decided then,” said Eriol, standing up also. “We will unite to take down the Insect. Touya-san, you don’t have to join, if you would rather not.”

 

“No,” said Touya shortly. “Tell me what to do. I can’t let Sakura down, as her older brother. It’s what she would have wanted.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Ever since Kai pointed out that she was being followed, Meilin had been on guard and realized he had been right. If she wasn’t mistaken, she was sure there were at least two groups following her. There was a set of common thugs chasing after her—she could spot them immediately, for they were clumsy and careless. But there was another man or two shadowing her so silently liked professional assassins that she would not have noticed them were not trained by the best herself.

 

She adjusted her earpiece. “How’s the situation to the west?” came Miho’s voice. Miho was positioned at another section of the city.

 

“Under control—most of the Li men seem be in position, possibly waiting for the Wu Clan to make the first move,” replied Meilin into the mouthpiece. “How is containing the Insect going?”

 

Miho replied, “Eriol’s gotten the locusts over at the north end cornered and contained. Eron-senpai, how goes things on your end? Eron-senpai?” There was no response. “Meilin-nee-chan, Eron’s not responding. You’re near him—can you go check? He might be in danger. Or maybe he’s just technologically impaired and doesn’t know how to use the hands-free headset provided by Tomoyo-senpai.”

 

“Sure leave it to me, he should be near by,” said Meilin. She glanced over her shoulder and frowned. There were markedly more people tailing her than usual. Who was trying to take her down? And why now?

 

Finally, she broke out into a sprint—she had to locate Eron and make sure he didn’t do anything foolish. Meilin never had much fond feelings for Eron, until last winter, when he broke up with Sakura. The romantic fool inside her felt empathy, if nothing else, for him.

 

Meilin reached out and unsheathed her double blades—swords that had once belong to Li Shulin. Two men charged at her with curved katana unsheathed. She felt the ringing of her metal blade over her head as one of the man attacked her taking advantage of his height and hefty weight. The other man attempted to slice at her bare legs, and she blocked by jerking her left swords from floor up, slashing his sword away.

 

She missed a dagger that hurled her direction, and flinched when it was knocked away by an ornate silver knife that flew out of nowhere. Meilin glanced above and saw a figure in black, leap down, flinging out eight pocket knives that had been fitted to between each of his fingers at the group of attackers with perfect aim.

 

“Run,” called out Kai. “I never thought the day would come when I say this—but I’m pretty sure all those suspicious thugs are targeting you, not me.”

 

She didn’t need reminding, and Meilin dashed ahead, glancing over her shoulder. “Who are they?”

 

“Which ones?” asked Kai.

 

With a frown, Meilin veered towards her right, away from Kai, diving into the alley closest to her. And she could hear the pattering of footsteps close up behind her. Who would be trying to attack her? Li men? The Black Dragon’s triad members? Yakuza? Or maybe the Wu Clan?

 

She saw that Kai had his hands full fighting off a gang of four men, each armed with a sword, axe, halberd, or a triple staff—and he wasn’t even armed, save several pocket knives. But she had no chance to worry about him, because a stocky woman with a chain whip wrapped the metals links around her sword and yanked them out of her hands. Meilin leaped back, dodging the woman’s high-kick.

 

Meilin had no problem with hand-to-hand combat, or fighting against bladed weapons, but with the chain whip lashing at her like a metal snake, she could only dodge. She grimaced as it whipped the side of her thigh, leaving a gash.

 

“Who sent you?” Meilin demanded. She was afraid to hear the answer. 

 

Luckily, the woman seemed to be more intent on finishing her off. Meilin leaped atop the roof of a storage cellar, as she gaged how many more attackers were coming. “They can’t think they need this many men to take me down,” she muttered. “I don’t know whether to be flattered or alarmed.”

 

She saw that Kai had men running in circles after him, proving that his Kaitou Magician skills have not gotten rusty at all. And she spotted that despite the large number of hooligans that had seemed to be chasing after her, they seemed to be more engaged in fighting with each other. She squinted, trying to check their crests. No, they weren’t fighting with each other. There was an additional group of combatants—on whose side? They weren’t wearing the Li crest, but neither were they local yakuza, like the rest of the group seemed to be.

 

Meilin jumped down and swerved behind a crate as the chain whip woman chased after her. She knocked over the crate, retrieved her fallen dual swords, and as the chain links came and snaked around her blade, Meilin jerked it back. The attacker lost her balance, and Meilin wrenched away the chain whip. She caught the hilt of the whip in one hand.

 

Glancing around for an opening, Meilin climbed up a deteriorated 20-story building overlooking the city and spotted clusters of gang members engaged in scuffles throughout central Tokyo. Most of the streets were abandoned, it appeared, perhaps thanks to Jinyu’s monitoring of the crowd. Jinyu had always been meticulous about not involving civilians in triad brawls. Or perhaps, it was Eriol who had set another barrier. She took out her smartphone specially programmed by Kai, through which she could track the location of the Alliance members since she didn’t have special powers like the rest of them. Miho, Eriol, Ruby Moon and Spinel Sun were reining in the Insect through the north and east of the city. Kaho, Yue and Cerberus were in charge of the South. And herself, Touya, Eron and Kai were assigned to the west, where the fight between the Wu and Li Clan was heavily concentrated. Meanwhile, Tomoyo was stationed at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Agency, thanks to her inspector chief father, monitoring the situation throughout the city and feeding them live updates.

 

The scuffle between the Wu Clan and Li Clan was divided into tiers. There were the actual Wus and Lis, trained warriors, who were fighting high-level combat. There also were mafia that followed Zian and Zilai, facing off of Jinyu’s triad men—but their fight was half-hearted, since Hong Kong mafia feared the Black Dragon. Then, there were the hired underlings, mostly ruffians and local yakuza members, who seemed to be hired for money by both sides. They mainly were out there for mischief or quick cash but caused more damage to each other than anything else.

 

The problem, Meilin realized, was that the key Li delegation members were missing. They were probably cooped up in their hotel room, not lifting a finger. Meilin could imagine Elder Wutai stating with a shrug, “Who cares about the Insect—we’ll be going back to Hong Kong. Let what remains of the Star Alliance deal with it themselves.”

 

As for the attack of the Wu Clan, the Li Elders probably brushed it off as a minor mafia squabble and left Jinyu to squash it. But in reality, if Zian, the head of the Wu Clan, had mobilized all these men and were attacking the Li Clan, that could be seen as a declaration of war between the clans. She knew what that meant. If Syaoran was in charge, he wouldn’t have let everything spread to this stage. No, there was not use thinking of what ifs. She realized belated that the gash on her thigh had left a long trickle of blood down her leg. She quickly ripped off a sleeve of her cream and red battle costume with her teeth and wrapped it tightly around her leg as a makeshift bandage. It wasn’t pretty, but it did the job.

 

“Tomoyo-chan, what is the situation on Cerberus’ end?” asked Meilin into her mouthpiece.

 

She heard Tomoyo’s calm voice through her earpiece, “Cerberus reported that the insects have not spread that far, luckily, and they are doing their best to draw the dark force towards the center of the city.”  

 

Miho added, “Same here, the Insect has not spread as far as Saitama, luckily.”

 

“Where’s the Gold Leopard?” asked Meilin.

 

“We’re not sure—but the highest concentration of the Wu men seem to be to your seven ‘o’clock,” replied Tomoyo. “Stay safe, Meilin. I heard the police have been monitoring the recent tension between yakuza in Tokyo—they of course don’t know about the presence of the Hong Kong triads. But the Tokyo police officers turn a blind eye to yakuza happenings and won’t step in unless there is harm done to regular civilians.”

 

“Roger.” Meilin jumped down into the alley again and dodged through a group of assailants, who were immediately countered by a group of men in black, who clearly were trained to fight in classical martial arts—but were not Lis. They must be Jinyu’s men. Were they helping her out—or were they simply taking down the hooligans because it was their duty? But she didn’t have time to ponder. Take down the big boss—that’s what she had to do. She entered the crumbling lobby of a large, abandoned building.

 

She saw a shadow approach her and decided to test out her new weapon, flaying out the chain whip. But the golden-haired man caught the end of metal whip with his bare hand and yanked it towards him. Meilin nearly fell into the young man’s arms. Only years of training kept her from losing balance.

 

“Greetings, glorious fire goddess,” the man murmured in his low voice, with a hint of humor. “We meet again.”

 

“You.” Meilin felt a fierce scowl come over her face seeing the Gold Leopard. Just the person she had wanted to see.  

 

“I’m Zian,” he said. “Wu Zian.”

 

“I know what you’re name is, dolt. I grew up hearing it all my life,” said Meilin, arms akimbo. “And I’m pretty sure the Elders were trying to arrange an engagement for us a couple years ago.”

 

“What an honor,” said Zian. “The offer still holds. It would make a great alliance, the Flaming Peony of the Li Clan and the Golden Leopard of the Wu Clan.”

 

“If you are proposing to me,” Meilin remarked, “I think you can start with keeping your men from stalking me and attacking my family members.”

 

“I will, if you accept my proposal,” said Zian.

 

And Meilin sized him up for the first time, pondering how serious he was. Wu Zian, like his moniker, had a sleek leopard-like grace. Unlike triad head Jinyu, Zian was slighter and moved with aristocratic lightness. But Meilin knew he fought ruthlessly, like the rest of the Wus, the original mafia family. Rumor had it that Zian’s older brother had been the king of the Hong Kong triads before Jinyu. Furthermore, Zian was the Chosen One of the Wu Clan—Syaoran’s counterpart and rival for many years, not that anyone in the Li Clan, including Syaoran himself, ever recognized Zian as a rival. If she got rid of him, she might be able to end the clash between the Wus and Lis. Her right hand snaked over her left shoulder—she would be able to taken him by surprise and maybe hold him hostage and—

 

Before she had a chance to draw her sword, he had somehow closed the gap between them and pinned her arm above her head so that she could not reach for the hilt.  

 

“Don’t, Meilin, I don’t want to hurt your pretty face,” said Zian softly, as she squirmed against him.

 

He suddenly let of her arm, and only when released did she realize how tight and expert his grip had been, as oxygen rushed to her lungs, belatedly sending warning signals to her brain that he could have crushed her ruthlessly but chose not to. Why was he sending men to attack her though? Or had it been him?

 

Up close, Meilin had to admit grudgingly that Zian was a good-looking man, with dark wheat-gold hair that he wore long over his shoulders and pale caramel-brown eyes with orange-rimmed pupils, which gave him a somewhat angelic appearance. But that was juxtaposed to his ostentatious fashion sense as he chose to wear a flashy leopard-printed shirt under a shiny black pin-striped suit. If his sister Zilai had been loud, impulsive and aggressive, Zian was the opposite, reserved and calculating behind his flashy façade. She realized he may be more unpredictable and even terrifying than Zilai because she did not know what made him tick.

 

“I’m not a bad catch, eh? What do you say?” he asked in a light tone.

 

“We just met,” said Meilin dryly.

 

“We’ll get to know each other,” Zian responded.

 

“Our families hate each other.”

 

He didn’t blink. “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny.”

 

“I have a boyfriend.”

 

“Who, the hot-tempered porcupine-head?” He smiled thinly. “We can get rid of him.”

 

“I—I don’t love you.”

 

“As you loved Li Syaoran? Could it be that you still care for him? After all, he was your fiancé for years.” Zian cocked a pale brow. “It’s all right. I don’t want love. I just want you.”

 

“You’re an idiot.”

 

“I know. Zilai tells me that all the time.” Zian looked over her shoulder. “And speaking of idiots, another one is heading this way.”

 

The porcupine-head idiot in question kicked open the glass door and charged at them, coming in between Zian and Meilin. “Get away from my girlfriend or I’ll bash your head into the cement pavement!” Kai growled, after having taken down the group of men after him. Meilin suspected he used none too honorable means to do so. 

 

And Zian snorted. “Why? We were having a pleasant conversation before you rudely interrupted.” 

 

“Get your grubby paws away for her, you lecherous leopard—she doesn’t have time to talk to criminal outlaws like you,” retorted Kai.

 

Zian grinned. “Are you seriously calling me a criminal, oh nefarious Voleur de la Nuit?”

 

“Seriously, is your secret identity a secret to anyone anymore?” asked Meilin, rolling her eyes.  “Get out of the way, Kai, I can handle the situation perfectly fine on my own.” Kai always overreacted, and it was not a good sign that Zian seemed to know Kai’s true identity.

 

She turned to Zian. “No, I don’t care for Syaoran still—and if I ever did, his actions have completed negated any feelings I’ve ever had for him.” She jerked her thumb at Kai. “That hot-tempered porcupine-head is my boyfriend, unfortunately, so I have no plan of getting rid of him. And I have no intentions of marrying you, not even if you were the last man left on earth.”

 

If Kai hadn’t been gaping at Meilin’s tirade, he would have been amused by the shock in Zian’s face. “Wait—this Leopard-freak was proposing to you? Didn’t you just meet him?”

 

Meilin heaved a long sigh. “Why do I only attract creepy stalker idiots? I wish I can just have a nice, normal boy for a change.”

 

Kai stopped short. “Even you prefer Tanaka Mikai over me.”

 

“Yes. That Tanaka Mikai from the Fantasy was completely my ideal type of guy,” replied Meilin. “Considerate, family-oriented and normal.

 

“But he was a fake, a clone of me!” replied Kai. “So in reality, I am your ideal guy!”

 

Meilin blinked. “Repeat that.”

 

“I am your ideal guy?”

 

“No, the other part.”

 

“Clone of me?” Kai’s eyes met Meilin.

 

“Kai, how much of that fake Tanaka Mikai was really you, I wonder?” Meilin said. “And how much was simply what Miho wanted to see. Did you see yourself in that Mikai? Was there any truth in him?”

 

Zian, arms crossed, muttered, “Hey, stop ignoring me, you two.”

 

Meilin glared at Zian. “So, why have you been sending men after me? Is it because I’m a Li? Do you plan to take me down? Why?”

 

With laughter, he replied, “Why would I want to take you down? What use would you be of to me dead? Look closer at home to see where the real danger is. After all, it seemed just a fortnight ago when your dear Li Syaoran and Miss Green Eyes were all chummy in Hong Kong. And what’s this news I hear that he killed her to claim the Clow Cards? It seems decades pass, and the Li Clan’s brutality never changes.”

 

Meilin paled. “What did you say?”

 

“The Li Clan’s brutality never changes?”

 

“No, about Green Eyes and Syaoran in Hong Kong,” said Meilin. “You don’t mean to say you saw Sakura in Hong Kong?”

 

He gave her an aggravating grin. “Why should I tell you?”

 

“Tell me, exactly what you saw. You saw Sakura in Hong Kong. When?”

 

“I might tell you if you kiss me in return,” Zian said.

 

Meilin frowned, then grabbed him by his leopard-shirt collar and gave him a peck on the lips. “Now tell me. Hurry!”

 

She ignored strange croaks coming from Kai’s direction, while Zian just gaped at her. Finally, he stammered, “I’m pretty sure that Card Mistress girl was in Hong Kong the night that the Great Elder died. She was by the Peak, alone, I presume waiting for Syaoran.”

 

“Do you know what this mean?” said Meilin breathlessly, turning to Kai, who was still zoned out. “We have proof. It may all be true. Sakura was in Hong Kong with Syaoran. They were up to something together, for sure.” She frowned and kicked Kai in the shin. “Are you listening to me? Let’s go find the others and tell them this news.” She’d forgotten all about taking down Wu Zian, or the chaos within the Li Clan.

 

“Hey, you aren’t going to just leave me here?” Zian said, arms crossed, fingers on lips as he watched the girl with the black pig-tails hop onto a motorcycle behind Kaitou Magician. “Interesting girl.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

To her annoyance, Erika found Wutai and a group of the Li Elders gathered in the hallway of the Li mansion. “What are they all doing here?” she whispered to Kara, who stood in the corner, arms crossed.

 

“Looks like they finally finished business in Japan. The investors’ meeting went better than expected, since Li Corporation CEO Li Daifu came in person to Tokyo for the first time in years,” replied Kara. “Good riddance.”

 

Wutai turned to Syaoran. “We will be returning to Hong Kong tonight. Get packed.”

 

“Elder Wutai,” Syaoran said. “I don’t think that will be possible.”

 

“Possible?” Wutai’s voice had an unnaturally high tone.

 

“As you can see, there is a dark force on the loose,” said Syaoran. “And Jinyu’s men are still in the process of taking down the Wu attackers. We can’t retreat right now.”

 

“Retreat?” Wutai snorted. “Who said we are retreating? The Li delegation, including you Syaoran, is merely returning home because we completed a very important business negotiation with our Japanese partners, and we have the very welcome news that our Chosen One has finally been named the new Clow Master. It is imperative we go back home and celebrate this event. And of course, as you may have already heard, the Elders have voted me as the new Great Elder, for Uncle Renshu wouldn’t have wanted the position to be vacant for too long.”

 

“I agree that it is important to inaugurate a new Great Elder,” said Syaoran. “But I think it is irresponsible to not only ignore an active dark force but to run away from the Wu Clan. It makes it seem as if we are afraid of a bunch of untrained ruffians.”

 

“Irresponsible?” sputtered Wutai, changing colors for the second time, this time a deep purple to his scalp. “Afraid?”  

 

“Great Elder Wutai, the driver is waiting outside. We should head back to the hotel now in order to be ready for the flight,” said a man in a cheongsam with a dragon crest, bowing his head. “Protector Jinyu asks if he should summon his men back. He’s contained the two brawls downtown reported earlier, but there are a suspicious number of men surmised to be affiliated with the Wu Clan in Minato area in central Tokyo.”

 

“Yes, we should get going. I can’t get ready to leave this filthy, infested city and cold weather behind,” said Wutai. “Leiyun, get packed over here, and meet us at the hotel in two hours. Let Jinyu know the flight details.”

 

“How many Wu Clan men and hired assassins were spotted today in Minato region?” asked Syaoran, ignoring Wutai.

 

“Around 50—but there may be dozens more lingering in nearby districts,” said the messenger.

 

“I see, that is nearly triple that of yesterday. They might be thinking of making a move today then,” said Syaoran. “Send reinforcements into Minato, but keep the rest of our men on standby nearby. The locally hired yakuza can be bought. But the Wu Clan has been circulating rumors that the scuffles in off-limit areas in the city were started by the Yamamoto-gumi, and such rumors would put a damper on the Black Dragon’s alliance with Taoka Yoshinori, the head of the Yamamoto-gumi. It’s an alliance Jinyu has worked hard at making, so I don’t think it would be a good idea to upset it.”

 

“Yes, Chosen One Syaoran,” said the man with a bow.

 

“What do you think you are doing?” Wutai demanded. 

 

Syaoran looked Wutai in the eye with a tilt of his chin. “I believe the Chosen One has authority over any martial actions taken by the clan.”

 

“A vote by the Elders or the command of the Great Elder overrules the authority of the Chosen One,” said Wutai sharply.

 

“In times of emergency, the Chosen One is entitled to decide upon the best course of action until the Elders can reach a decision,” Leiyun interjected. “And it appears the Council of Elders is not here to make such a decision. And you are not officially Great Elder yet, Father.”

 

Erika would have giggled at the sputtering Wutai if the rest of the room wasn’t dead serious, as if awaiting the Li Clan Head’s wrath. If others were not present, Wutai might have thrown a fit, but there were many eyes watching.

 

“Well, if you insist on wasting our time and resources to take down a couple of dogs, Chosen One Syaoran, you are welcome to send in reinforcement,” said Wutai dangerously pleasant. “Just make sure the issue is taken care of before our flight tonight.”

 

Watching Wutai and his bodyguards leave in a huff, Syaoran glanced over at Erika.

 

“I’m going to deal with the Insect. If you can do what you can to at least try to keep the dark force from spreading outside of the metropolitan area, that would be helpful,” Syaoran said.

 

Erika crossed her arms. “Are you ordering me around?”

 

Syaoran’s voice was crisp. “No, I am giving you a suggestion.” And he walked out of the house as well.

 

“Well, what a day to see Syaoran finally grow a backbone and speak up to his uncle,” remarked Kara. “Wouldn’t have missed that for anything—did you see your father’s face turn livid purple?”

 

“Yes, Syaoran never fails to pleasantly shock me,” Leiyun said.

 

As the boy was out of earshot, Kara turned to Leiyun. “But did you see the look in his eyes? Completely hollow, like he’s dead inside. It’s kind of like you. When I first found you.”

 

“No, it’s slightly different,” Leiyun said slowly. When Kara had come to him, he had been emotionally dead. But with Syaoran, he was different. He was feeling all sorts of things. And containing it all within. And that was much more frightening.

 

“Syaoran, he hasn’t slept for even a minute since the April 1st incident,” said Kara. “Is he going to be all right?”

 

“How could he be?” asked Erika. “If I were him, I too would be scared to fall asleep at night after what he did.”

 

“Well, he will pay the price for his ambitions, I suppose,” said Leiyun slowly.

 

“Why did he do it if it was going to break him apart inside?” Erika continued. Jinyu had allegedly killed his old boss to get to be mafia king. Would Jinyu understand what it was like to choose ambition over loyalty, family over friend? Was this taken for granted within the Li Clan? Li Shulin allegedly abandoned her husband and son for the sake of the Li Clan. Li Ryuuren likewise left the love of his life to return home.

 

“He was trained all his life to be the Chosen One, to put the priority of the clan above his own desires and needs,” replied Leiyun.

 

“By the way, why isn’t the Li Clan doing anything about the dark force?” Erika asked. “Surely the Li Clan can contain the Insect if it wants to.”

 

Leiyun replied, “Well, I think the Elders figure that since they’re leaving the country since they closed the business deals, it’s not their problem.”

 

“But Syaoran has to deal with it since he’s the Card Master,” replied Erika. “Even I know that.”

 

“Yes, so they are letting him deal with it on his own, since he’s the Card Master,” said Leiyun.

 

“What about the Wu Clan—they’re up to something too,” said Erika. “Isn’t it strange that Flaming Flamingo girl disappeared off the radar all of a sudden?”

 

“So long as the Li Clan doesn’t acknowledge it, then it’s not a battle of the two families but just a scuffle of maybe some underlings,” said Leiyun. “Syaoran’s Chosen One, and Jinyu’s Protector. It’s their role to deal with it.”

 

“And you. What about you? Where do you play in all of this?” demanded Erika, waving her hand. “Surely you don’t agree with your father—and by the way I now know where you got your sadistic streak from.”

 

“Don’t insult me by comparing me to him—he’s not sadistic, just selfish and greedy. And no, I rarely do agree with that old geezer, never had,” replied Leiyun lightly, if not with a hint of acidity. “Because he’s fine thinking that either the dark force or the Wu Clan assassins will take Syaoran down and save him the trouble.”

 

“Surely even the Li Clan is not callous enough to destroy its own Chosen One,” said Erika, wondering if the rumors that it was Li Wutai who had ordered his own son to embark on an impossible mission years ago and left him to die were indeed true.

 

“Perhaps, if he sees a big enough danger in Syaoran,” said Leiyun. “Up until now, he considered Syaoran a controllable threat. But now, he’s just an outright threat, since he’s Card Master and Uncle Ryuuren’s son who will outright challenge him.”

 

Erika yawned. “Well, I don’t really care what you guys do, but we’ve got to do something about the Insect. This is getting ridiculous—I mean, the Li mansion is unlivable.”

 

“You should blame your twin for that,” said Leiyun.

 

“Eron? You think he set the dark force on us? No!” said Erika. Then her eyes widened. “No way.”

 

Leiyun gave a little shrug. “Why, do you feel a little socially responsible for the advent of parasites in town? Maybe you can take Syaoran’s ‘suggestion’ to heart.”

 

Erika gleaned two things from their brief but rather enlightening conversation—first, Leiyun too was testing the extent of Syaoran’s powers of the Clow Master. Second, he despised his own father, though he treated Wutai with nothing but reserved politeness. It was the first thing resembling any sort of emotion she had gathered from Leiyun after more than half a year of observing his every move.

 

 

 

*******

 

 

 

Five days since Sakura had disappeared, Eron found himself facing Syaoran once again, in the midst of Tokyo streets. It was no coincidence that they met there, since Syaoran too must have been attracted to the large concentration of energy from the dark force in the area. Just a day or two ago, Eron’s first instinct would have been to charge at Syaoran and burn him into ashes on the spot. But now that Syaoran was actually in front of him, Eron watched him, curious what face he had, what sort of excuse he might have for himself.

 

Eron released a katana, a long narrow sword with a black blade and grip. “Well, if this is how we are to meet again, so be it.”

 

Syaoran stared at Eron wearily. He brushed away Eron’s blade from his neck with his bare hand. “I do not have the time to waste with you.”

 

And Eron snapped. “You bastard. How could you? How could you—”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Syaoran stared at Eron. “Let her?”

 

What did that mean? That Sakura was alive, and Syaoran knew it? That Sakura was dead, because she chose it? No, it meant that Syaoran knew the truth, and a dead Syaoran would not be able to give any answers.

 

“Just tell me. Is she really dead?” asked Eron, his voice trembling. “Answer me!” It was an afterthought that he added. “Please!”

 

But Syaoran was not listening, as he raised the Five Force Sword in the air to let out a jet of crackling electricity. Looking overhead, Eron saw a swarm of poisonous bees fall to the ground, stunned.

 

In this method, Syaoran continued on his path, circling around the outskirts of the city, marking certain points with ofudas, stunning the largest swarms of bugs. This while unidentified attackers in various Chinese and Japanese garbs charged at him out of the blue.  

 

Eron watched Syaoran dash through a group of a half a dozen men and with a series of side kicks and punches, toppling them over in a heap. He didn’t even use a weapon. And then he continued his task of flinging out ofuda. He was not even bothering with the Sakura Cards.

 

He planned on taking Syaoran down eventually, but at the moment, he was more interested about what Syaoran was up to. Eron heard buzzing overhead and found himself facing the hugest swarm of locusts yet, humming so loudly that it drowned out the sound of construction, cars honking and sirens ringing in the background. He realized that the swarm was beelining for the local park. Syaoran was distracted taking down the Wu Clan henchmen. He hadn’t watched Syaoran all these years to know that Syaoran, with his powers back, could probably handle the matter on his own, eventually.

 

“But can’t let you guys eat away at Tomoyo’s famous rose garden, or cherry blossom lane, or the local park, now, can I?” Eron muttered to himself. He released a jet of fire. The locusts sizzled away midair and dropped to the ground, fried.

 

Syaoran glanced at him, looking a bit stunned at the unsolicited help.

 

“This is not for you,” said Eron. “This is for Sakura. I have this area under control. Go do what you have to, to contain the Insect. We can settle our debt afterwards.”

 

Nodding, Syaoran leaped up onto a tree branch, dodging his assailants.

 

“So you’ve come down to helping out your mortal enemy?” came a melodic voice next to him.

 

Eron scowled. “He knows something, and the quicker we take down these pesky bugs, the sooner I might find out. It’s not too late to kill him then.”

 

“I was really worried you might lose control again this time.”

 

“Well, this time there’s no Sakura to save me,” said Eron. “She never gave up on me, so I’m not going to give up on her. Wouldn’t she say, taking down the dark force is always priority?”

 

 

 

Several blocks over to the north of the city, Miho swatted through the densest swarm of locusts with her staff in one hand and insect repellant in the other. “This is insanity.”

 

“Ugh—whose horrible idea was it to come out here to the center of this insect zoo?” demanded Ruby Moon, flapping her sheer black-and-maroon butterfly wings to create a gust that dispersed the bugs around her.   

 

Miho could barely keep her eyes open as they walked down the street, where not only locusts but all sorts of winged insects including flies the size of a thumb, mosquitoes, and moths swarmed around them. She couldn’t even squeal for fear insects would get in her mouth and pushed her scarf up to her nose. “Isn’t it ridiculous that the Li Clan is not giving any hand with the Insect?” she asked, stabbing her red staff in front of her to open a path through the swarming locusts.

 

“I think they’re watching how Syaoran will handle the situation,” replied Tomoyo, staring up at the highest building in the neighborhood, where Syaoran stood in his green battle costume trimmed with gold and orange, striking against the dark, cloudy sky. Tomoyo had joined them with news that a greater number of Li henchmen were gathering in the city, meaning the Li Clan was up to something.

 

They could see Syaoran hold up his glowing Lasin Board; the ward papers he had positioned across the city lit up, sending beams of light to the compass.

 

“The dilemma is, there is only a limited number of ways of getting rid of the Insect without harming the actual local insect population,” said Cerberus. “The problem is these insects have been climbing into every nook and cranny of the city. He can try to burn them out, or electrocute them, but that can very well do too much harm to the city. He has to first lure them out. At the same time, he can’t let the Insects escape out of this area and into the agricultural towns outside of the city, where they will surely destroy the crops.”

 

Then they watched Syaoran lift up his Five Force Sword, the long red tassel whipping out in the wind. They saw his lips move. “Shield!”

 

“Look,” said Miho pointing. “He’s not using a staff—he’s using his sword to summon the Shield Card. Will that even work?”

 

“Well, obviously, Sakura’s key staff was just her focus. Syaoran’s the Master of the Cards now—he can use what ever focus he wants, and of course his sword makes the most sense,” said Spinel Sun. “That’s what he’s always used.”

 

A swarm of winged insects swirled around trying to find an escape—but they were trapped by an invisible dome-like barrier encircling the entire city, fortified by Syaoran’s ward papers. Some hissed angrily, trying to fly up higher into the sky, and gathered like a black sheet, blocking all sunlight and casting a shadow across the city.  

 

“So he can command the cards, just like Sakura,” said Ruby Moon.

 

“He’s always been able to command the Sakura Cards,” Cerberus pointed out.

 

“More like Syaoran Cards now,” muttered Miho.

 

Cerberus frowned. “They are still Sakura Cards, unless he goes through the whole arduous process of transforming them from the power of the stars to the moon or something. Just like Sakura had to transfer the Clow Cards from the power of darkness to the power of stars.”

 

“So Syaoran too will have to convert them eventually,” remarked Ruby Moon.

 

Cerberus glared at Ruby Moon. “That brat in just an interloper—a temporary master. Yue and I will never accept him as the true master of the Sakura Cards.

 

“Well, if Eron’s observation is correct, and Syaoran’s using the power of the stars now, there will be no need to convert the cards, right?” Tomoyo said.

 

“But he got his power of the moon back when he killed Sakura,” remarked Ruby Moon. “Sure that’s his dominant power now.”

 

“If he killed Sakura,” Miho said. “Wait, this is the first time we’re seeing Syaoran use his power. Has his power of the moon returned?”

 

Eriol closed his eyes. “It’s hard to tell with such a jumble of powers in the city, but I’m pretty sure I sensed the power of the moon from Syaoran when he was calling the Shield.”

 

And Miho frowned. “But doesn’t that mean he really killed Sakura, and his original powers returned?”  

 

“I’m not sure,” replied Eriol.

 

 

 

The dark force was struggling against the Shield, magnified in strength by the ward papers he had positioned across the city to protect the flora and fauna within Tokyo. Finally, Syaoran glanced over towards the distance at the Tokyo Tower silhouetted in the dusky sky. He didn’t have much time.

 

“Okay, so you contained the dark force—how the heck are you planning on sealing it?” asked Kara, arms crossed. “Can you even seal it?”

 

Syaoran didn’t respond. Kara was right, the barrier would keep the insects confined for the time being. And oddly enough, it seemed that the Alliance of the Stars were helping keep the dark force in control. The Li Clan was busy fighting off the Wu Clan—that would keep them plenty distracted. This was the only opportunity he would have.

 

All week, he had waited for the right moment to slip away—and it was now or never, as he was expected to return to Hong Kong with the Li delegation that night.

 

“Where are you going?” Kara called out, chasing after Syaoran who headed to the streets.

 

“Taking care of some business,” said Syaoran. He swung his leg over his motorcycle—the one which used to belong to Touya—and zoomed down the ally.

 

“Do I follow him?” asked Kara to Erika.

 

Erika sighed. “Why bother—it’s not like he’ll get far before he collides into the Wus or the Li bodyguards or Jinyu himself. Or my brother, or Sakura’s brother, who seems to be out for Syaoran’s blood.”

 

A couple blocks away, Kai jerked his head towards the streets below them as a black Yamaha motorcycle zoomed past. “Look, Syaoran’s heading off somewhere.”

 

Meilin peered over the ledge. “Where is he going?”

 

“There.” Kai pointed towards the distance.

 

And Meilin followed the direction of Kai’s forefinger, to a gleaming red and white lattice structure. “Tokyo Tower.”

 

Of course—the only location that was an amalgam of all sorts of powers thanks to the recent attack of the Metal. All the members of the Alliance had pitched in to restore the Tokyo Tower to its formal glory. And in result, it was the only place with energies muddled enough to completely conceal such a strong portal.

 

“Miho’s portal theory may not be so off, after all,” remarked Kai with a sudden grin.

 

“Come on, let’s go!” exclaimed Meilin.

 

 

 

~~~~~~

 

 

 

Tokyo Tower, April 1, 12:02 a.m.…

 

 

 

“Look at the Tokyo night view from here,” Sakura said, glancing out the window, from the special observation deck of the Tokyo Tower. The special observation deck was empty except for the two of them. It was as if they were suspended in time from the bustling city life below them. “It took us seven years to get here.”

 

“Hmm?” Syaoran was instead staring at Sakura’s face reflected in the glass, her evergreen eyes sparkling brighter than any neon city light and a faint smile on her lips. But she looked strangely lonely and vulnerable.

 

“I said, isn’t the view from here marvelous? We finally made it to the top, together, after all these years. I wonder what Tomoyo and the others would say if they knew I was up here with you. Well, they’d probably never even imagine it, because this is a rather ridiculous scenario.” Sakura peeked at Syaoran through her long side bangs.

 

Syaoran repeated more to himself than to her, perhaps in a daze, “We finally made it to the top.”

 

“Yeah. I don’t know when we ever came to Tokyo Tower without facing a Clow Card, or some dark force,” said Sakura, thinking of the Dream Card incident, Yue’s judgment, and the incident with the Metal. “It’s sort of surreal after all that has happened recently. It almost makes me feel like this is all a dream, me being here with you.”

 

“Really? This is the most alive I’ve felt all week.” She didn’t notice he was still looking at her, not the magnificent view they had to themselves. After the Great Elder died, every minute of his day had been moderated by the Li Clan, from funeral preparations to the wake and procession as they sent away Li Renshu. The last words were barely audible. “I wish we can just stop time right here, and we don’t have to go back down there.”

 

And she gave him an impish smile, tilting her head so that the golden clusters of stars in her hair caught the light. “Well, since you gave me such a wonderful birthday gift, I will grant your wish and stop time here at midnight. Though I can’t grant the second part of your wish because you have to go back.”

 

Syaoran frowned, not missing that she had specifically told him that he had to go back down—not her. “I’ve been thinking, we don’t have to carry through with this—we’ll find another way. There must be an alternative.”

 

Sakura shook her head now. “This is the only way, and you know it. It’s the only way to save bloodshed on both sides and set things straight.”

 

“No,” Syaoran said, voice cracking, divulging for the first time his actual anxiety. “I can’t—I can’t do this.”

 

“No, you can. You must.” Sakura pressed her hands over Syaoran’s. “We are going to make it through this.”

 

Before he could protest, she abruptly let go of his hand, and released her staff. “Fantasy!”

 

Syaoran watched as the prismatic portal into the Fantasy opened once more. Last time he entered, he had been ready to give up everything. But now, he was afraid, so afraid to lose everything.

 

“Did you bring them with you?” she asked.

 

He nodded, pressing a stack of cards into her hands. Being Card Mistress, she could summon one or two from the tome remotely, but drawing the whole bunch surely would draw suspicion from Leiyun or Kara. And she probably would not be able to summon them from within the Fantasy.

 

“How did you break the barrier that Leiyun cast around the cards?” Sakura asked. “Kai told me it was a complex and nasty one.”

 

Syaoran shrugged, with a return to his usual levelheadedness. “Do you seriously think there’s a barrier spell I haven’t studied in that house?”

 

Sakura stared up at Syaoran, who could be so self-assured to the brink of arrogance, and yet sometimes so humble and patient. Truly, there would have been no better Clow Master.

 

“Do you think you can hold the Time?” asked Sakura, pressing the Time Card into his hand. “You were always better at controlling Time than I was—it was your specialty.”

 

“Making me grant my own wish, are you?” he asked with a lopsided smile but unable to control a tremor in his voice.

 

“I’m afraid my grasp on it would slip once I pass through to the Fantasy,” said Sakura. “I’m sorry—I know it’s difficult for you to control your powers right now—but—”

 

“This is nothing,” Syaoran said. “But you—once you go through will you be safe? We should go together.”

 

Sakura shook her head. “No, you have to guard the portal for when she returns.” And she turned her back to him, ready to pass through.

 

He grabbed her wrist last minute. “Don’t go.”

 

“Let me go.” She didn’t turn around, afraid that she would falter if she faced him. His shaking fingers dug into her wrist with a desperation that he had not betrayed just until now.

 

“There must be another way. This is too dangerous. It’s a gamble—we don’t know how it will turn out,” he said.

 

“We’ve already been through this.” Sakura kept looking ahead. “Don’t back down now. There are things you have to accomplish, you said so yourself. Frankly, I think I’m getting the easier task. Do your part, Syaoran. And I will do mine.” And she shook off his grasp and walked through the portal.

 

“Wait! Take this!” He threw her the broken crystal stone, the so-called Dragon’s Eye that she had given him for “safekeeping.” She turned and caught it with both hands. She nodded her head in thanks. His lips parted, and his voice blasted out desperately. “Sakura, I—”

 

But she had already faded off to the other side.

 

 

 

Li Syaoran sat in the center of the special observation deck, the highest level of front of the Tokyo Tower portal, with his blade pointed at the Time Card, beads of perspiration rolling down his temple. He didn’t know how much time had passed since Sakura had left. Minutes, hours, days, who knew? His watch, the one that Sakura had given him as a Christmas present two years ago, still read 12:02 a.m. That was the down side of the Time—you lost track yourself. And who knew how much time was passing within the Fantasy.

 

White dots danced in front of his eyes—he knew he couldn’t hang on much longer with the Time because he was barely used to having powers back. But one year ago, he had thought he would not be able to use magic again. And the realization that he was wielding a Sakura Card once more was somewhat exhilarating.

 

“Sakura. Sakura…” His voice came out in a whisper to the prism colored portal to the Fantasy. “Come back, Sakura.”

 

As if in response, there was a flicker in the portal, as if a shadow stood on the other side.

 

A girl with short golden-brown hair, unbound, emerged from the portal. She was wearing the same cream-colored dress that Sakura had been wearing. From her neck hung the star-moon key on a gold chain. And half a shard of the Dragon’s Eye.

 

He stood up in shock, and his hold of the Time collapsed. “Sakura?”

 

She stared at him with placid jade green eyes. “She said you are the ultimate test.”

 

She looked exactly like her, had the same voice, even had her aura. Was it really not Sakura? Just for a second, he doubted. What if she had been lying? Was it possible there was another Sakura so identical that he could not tell her apart? 

 

Her left eye caught the glint to the city light outside, and seemed pierce straight into his innermost thoughts. “She said she will be waiting on the other side,” she told him.

 

Syaoran nodded, trying not to stare at her, stunned.

 

She glanced around the top observation deck till she found the stairwell and disappeared through the emergency stairwell, leaving him sitting there, on the empty floor.

 

The portal hadn’t closed. Sakura was still inside, waiting.

 

She couldn’t hear him, he knew, but he said into the portal. “I’ll come find you, Sakura. So wait for me.”

 

And he knew he had to make it back to the Elders before they missed him. Slowly, he stood up then stared down to the bottom of the tower. He wasn’t sure his legs would carry him all the way down to the ground floor. But the Elders were waiting. And it wouldn’t do to bump into Meilin, Tomoyo, Eriol and the others who were downstairs, celebrating Sakura’s seventeenth birthday. 

 

He could almost see Sakura—or the girl who looked just like her—enter into the dimly lit Club 333 on the main observatory floor of the Tokyo Tower, where all her friends and family awaited. The gang had especially booked out the restaurant for the party.

 

“Hush, Sakura-chan’s back!” stated Meilin.

 

“It’s already passed midnight!” wailed punctual Miho.

 

Yukito came in, holding a luscious pink-frosted heart-shaped cake with seventeen candles.

 

Sakura’s family—her father Kinomoto Fujitaka and brother Touya—were there. And Yukito, Kero-chan, Tomoyo, Miho, Meilin, Kai, Eriol—everybody was there to celebrate with her. 

 

“Thank you everyone,” she said, smiling at everybody.

 

“Make a wish!” exclaimed Tomoyo.

 

Nodding, Sakura leaned over and blew out all seventeen candles.

 

“Happy seventeenth birthday Sakura!” cried out her friends.

 

Despite the success of the party ended on a somber note as each of them realized that less than 17 hours later was the fated duel between Sakura and Syaoran.

 

 

 

*******

 

 

 

“You’re here too!” exclaimed Tomoyo, as she saw Meilin and Kai who had parked his Harley Davidson motorcycle in front of Tokyo Tower. “You guys really think Syaoran’s here?”

 

“We’ll see,” replied Kai, looking up at the top of the red-and-white latticed structure.

 

Eriol, Miho and Eron followed behind Tomoyo, since their job containing the Insect had been accomplished for the time being thanks to Syaoran using the Shield.

 

Meilin told them, “Did you hear—the Li delegation is supposed to head back to Hong Kong tonight.”

 

“They can’t just leave in the midst of all this chaos,” said Miho. “What about the dark force?”

 

“Apparently they don’t think it’s their problem,” said Eron darkly. “So, did Syaoran really come here? Or are we just on another mad goose chase around the city?”

 

“He’s got to be here,” Miho said in a whisper.

 

The group rushed into first floor entrance, pushing through the crowds of families, students and tourists. It was spring break season, so the tower was extra crowded.

 

Meilin saw the huge line to buy tickets, and then there was another ridiculous long line for the elevators up—it would be a good two-hour wait from experience. She groaned as she headed towards the end of the line.

 

And Kai rolled his eyes. “We’re not going to wait through that.”

 

“What then, are you going to cut the line?” asked Meilin. “And don’t even tell me we’re going to climb up all those steps. Or pull the fire alarm or something so we can get everyone out of the building?”

 

“Hey that’s a great idea—” said Kai, before he saw Meilin’s expression. “Just kidding. Just leave it to me.” He fumbled in his pockets and help up an identification card to a Tokyo Tower, who quickly whispered to a supervisor. Suddenly, a group of employees cleared the way to the third elevator.

 

“What did you just do?” demanded Meilin. “Did you just hypnotize them?”

 

“Yes, I hypnotized him.” Kai sighed as Meilin opened her mouth to begin a long rant. “No, I’m a shareholder with the Nippon TV Corporation. This is one of the few perks we get, I suppose.”

 

“Which means?” Meilin blinked.

 

“The owner of the building is Nippon TV,” Tomoyo explained. “The broadcaster.”


“Why are you a shareholder for a broadcasting network?” demanded Meilin. “Wait, why am I even asking? No wonder you managed to have such extensive flattering coverage of Kaitou Magician over the years.”

 

“That was totally not my objective,” replied Kai. “But yes, it helps to have inside scoop in media if you are a thief. But it’s mainly because Madhouse is a subsidiary, and I’m a big supporter of Madhouse animation.”

 

“What other cards do you have in your hands?” asked Meilin, arms crossed, dismayed that he could still surprise her after al this time. “No wonder you managed to book out Club 333! You didn’t hack into some other corporate company’s database or use blackmail. You just used your real name, shareholder Tanaka Mikai.”

 

Kai grinned. “When will you realize, dear Meilin, that I abide by the law a lot more often than I do not?”

 

“Onii-chan manages our family assets now,” Miho told Tomoyo. “My mother and father are hopeless at keeping account or making any wise investments, so he told our father and mother, ‘go paint and write, and leave the rest to me.’”

 

Nose in air, Meilin stomped into the elevator, for she couldn’t stand the smug smile Kai wore on his face. The group whizzed up to the main observatory deck, where they had all gathered less than a week ago to celebrate Sakura’s birthday. There was no sign of Syaoran to be seen.

 

“Any signs of Syaoran or a portal?” asked Tomoyo.

 

“No, it must be the special observatory deck, after all,” said Miho.

 

They were promptly told by the information desk guide: “I’m sorry, the special observation deck is closed down for renovations.”

 

“It doesn’t matter! We have to get up there!” exclaimed Meilin.

 

“I’m sorry for the inconvenience. But the special observation desk is closed down for renovations, and the elevators are shut down for reparations,” repeated the guide robotically.  

 

Meilin was about to stamp down her feet in frustration and throw a fit, but Kai dragged her away.

 

“Let’s go up the emergency staircase,” he said.

 

“Of course you know the location of the emergency stairs,” mumbled Meilin.

 

Miho found herself gasping for breath as they climbed up the steps to reach the special observatory deck. “I am dying,” she panted, wiping sweat from her brows.

 

Meilin and Kai looked down at her from the top, not even out of breath.

 

“Take your time!” Meilin called out, as she tested the door. “It’s locked.”

 

“What should we do? Maybe we can find a key somewhere. The janitors maybe?” Miho’s eyes rounded. “Don’t tell me we have to go all the way down again!”

 

Kai rolled his eyes. “Hello, have you forgotten that you have Kaitou Magician in your midst?”

 

“Oh, right, Kai-kun, maybe you can steal the keys?” said Kero-chan.

 

Sighing, Kai bend down next to the door. “These flimsy locks? You hurt me.” He flicked a bobby pin from Meilin’s hair then jammed the curved end into the lock. “One, two, three.” He gave a final wiggle of the pin and the lock popped open.

 

Tomoyo and Eriol had finally made it up to the top, at their own pace, and clapped their hands, impressed but not particularly surprised.

 

Miho ran into the empty special observation deck and circled the entire floor. “There’s nothing.”

 

Tomoyo glanced at Eriol, who was slowly walking along the observation deck, a hand reached out. “Eriol-kun?”

 

“It’s here,” said Eriol finally, waving his hands in front of him as if he felt some sort of resistance. “There’s a barrier—one very difficult to spot.”

 

Eron circled around. “You’re right. It’s a strong barrier.”

 

“Who made it?”

 

“It’s a typical Li-style barrier,” remarked Eriol.

 

“So Syaoran must be there,” Tomoyo said.

 

And Meilin seemed to exhale. “That means they both can be in there.”

 

“Where exactly are we talking about?” Kero-chan asked.

 

“Oh.” Miho clapped her palms together. “That conversation we were having last week, about where Clow Reed hid the Clow Cards so that it didn’t fall into the wrong hands. Sakura was very curious about that, I remember.”

 

“You were the most curious one,” remarked Kai. “Well, Clow likely hid the cards in a different dimension, which is why it too Amamiya Nadeshiko and Li Ryuuren so long to track it down.”

 

Miho glared at Eriol accusingly. “You know exactly where they are, and you’re not telling us, aren’t you?”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Part II: The Dragon Isles

 

 

 

As Hermes once took to his feathers light,

    When lulled Argus, baffled, swoon’d and slept,

So on a Delphic reed, my idle spright

    So play’d, so charm’d, so conquer’d, so bereft

The dragon-world of all its hundred eyes

 

                                                     – “On a Dream,” John Keats

 

 

 

~~~~~~

 

 

 

Tomoeda, a quarter of a century ago…

 

 

 

A girl with long violet hair, dressed in a sailor uniform, stood on top of a hill overlooking the city watching the red and white Tokyo Tower gleam against the cerulean sky. Next to her was a tall young man with dark brown hair and a large red-tasseled sword strapped to his back.

 

“Can you believe it? After all these years, we are so near finding the Clow Cards,” whispered Amamiya Nadeshiko, age 16, clutching the Five Force Scroll to her chest. Her knee-length navy blue pleated skirt fluttered in the wind.

 

“Don’t get your hopes up to high—heaven knows how many times we’ve been thwarted before. We’ve got to get to them before Ryouta does,” said Li Ryuuren. “And we don’t know if we will be able to get there. Of course the cards have to be hidden in the most difficult place for humans to reach.”

 

“So, how exactly do we get there?” Nadeshiko asked, tugging on a violet curl with her slender forefinger.

 

“Via the Fantasy. Or I heard the Eye of the Dragon can also serve as a portal to the Dragon Isles, which we unfortunately don’t have,” said Ryuuren. “The Fantasy can have its heyday.”

 

The Fantasy glimmered. “A one-time deal to allow a passage for both of you to enter to the Dragon Realms. What do you offer, Chosen One and Angel?”

 

Ryuuren turned to Nadeshiko. “You stay here. One of us is enough. Besides, with the Plague rampant—we’ve got to deal with that once we retrieve the Clow Cards.”

 

“No,” said Nadeshiko with a frown. “I’m going with you. We will deal with the Plague when we return. Mayura-chan, Reiji-san and Keisuke-san said they will keep watch while we are gone. Besides, how do I know you’re not just going to claim the Clow for yourself?”

 

Ryuuren flinched. “After all we’ve been through, how can you—” Then he realized she was joking by the way the corner of her eyes were crinkled.

 

“Shut up Ryuuren, I’m going and you can’t stop me. It will take both of our powers to retrieve the Clow, I am sure,” said Nadeshiko. She looked up at him imploringly, biting her lower lip. “Ryuuren, if we find the Clow Cards, surely we’ll be able to use them somehow to stop the Plague?”

 

“Yes, we’ll find a way,” said Ryuuren gently. “Or maybe we can finally track down the mysterious Amamiya diamond, the so-called Eye of the Dragon, if it exists. Legends say it was hidden within the Dragonlands. How grand it would be to have all the Five Force Treasures collected and in the same space again. Can you imagine what kind of secrets they may hold or powers they may unfold?”

 

Nadeshiko smiled slightly—it was almost like having the old animated Ryuuren back. These past weeks had been difficult, ever since the outbreak of the Plague epidemic. This was their final wildcard. To the Fantasy, she said, “What price will I have to pay to enter Fantasia?”

 

“You have naught of importance to me,” said the Fantasy, “save your name, soul or memory. Which will you choose to offer?”

 

Nadeshiko frowned in serious contemplation.

 

“No!” Ryuuren scowled. “That is a trick. Without her name, she will be trapped in Fantasia forever, without a soul, she would be a walking corpse, and without memories, she would never reach the Dragon Isles.”

 

“Then, what do you propose, Li warrior?”

 

“I will pay the price. Both our prices,” said Ryuuren, sapphire eyes blazing.

 

“No!” screamed Nadeshiko, but Ryuuren shoved her through the prismatic barrier.

 

Moments later, he joined her. She ran to him, her fingers tracing his face, her green eyes were ablaze. “Are you all right? What did you do? What’s your name?”

 

He gave her his usual cocky grin. “The handsome and awesome Li Ryuuren-sama.”

 

“Who am I?”

 

“Amamiya Nadeshiko, the ultimate klutz.”

 

“And where are we heading towards?”

 

“The Dragon Isles, you silly girl—of course I have name, soul and memories in tact.” Ryuuren raised his arms in the air, and a dragon swooped down from above high.

 

“Then what price did you pay for both of us to enter and leave?” whispered Nadeshiko, voice quivering despite her initial relief.

 

“Shush—I worked out a bargain, don’t fret about it now,” he said, placing a finger on her lip. “We have a long road ahead of us. Let’s get going.” He hopped atop the back of the dragon and hoisting Nadeshiko up behind him, for their final quest to retrieve the hidden Clow Cards.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Fantasia…

 

 

 

Once more, Li Syaoran sprinted through the prismatic gateway into the Fantasy that Sakura had kept open. The first thing he noticed as soon as his vision cleared from the initial blinding sunlight was an overwhelming musky, floral scent. He found himself standing in a field of lavenders, waving wildly in the wind in a violet frenzy. For a second, he panicked—it was different from the other times he entered Fantasia. Here, it was so still, so quiet, as if there was no other living being the world.

 

But the lavenders leaned their tall stalks forward, as if pointing, and he looked ahead. There, under a bright pink cherry blossom tree atop a small hill, there was a silhouette of a girl with golden-brown hair whipped back from her face, sitting on a white unicorn.  

 

He blinked, as if she would disappear, as if she were merely a mirage, and now, he stumbled, forward, half running, half tripping, up the hill.

 

“Sakura?” he croaked.

 

“You took long enough,” said Kinomoto Sakura with a faint smile. In her short, wispy hair twinkled a pin shaped of clusters of golden stars of all sizes, his birthday present to her.

 

But Syaoran stepped up to her side in one stride. He pulled her off the unicorn, and she didn’t know if she tumbled into his chest first, or he was the one that pulled her to him. Both hands cupping her cheeks, and his thumb traced her brows and the curve of her lips, as if he had to check if she was really flesh and bone.

 

“You’re here,” he murmured.

 

“Of course I’m here. I told you I will be waiting.”

 

“You really are Sakura, right?” Syaoran voiced cracked, and Sakura realized she too was overwhelmed by the sudden burst of urgency in his liquid amber eyes. The Syaoran she knew had always been calm and collected, gentle and reassuring.

 

“It’s all right, it’s me.”

 

“You’re not an illusion.” And like a marionette cut from its strings, he slumped to his knees, and she realized that his shoulders been trembling this whole time. “That was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life. Never. Never…” He could not even finish his sentence and still kneeling, his arms snaked around her waist with such ferocity that she could not breathe, let alone pull away. For her, time had stopped within the Fantasy, but for him, a week had been an eternity.

 

“I thought the hardest was dressing up like a princess for the fifth grade Sleeping Beauty play,” murmured Sakura, stroking his head nestled against her stomach.

 

“You don’t know how these past few days have been for me. I kept doubting everything, even you. I was going crazy because I had to see you, but I couldn’t leave right away. I was so scared. That was all so real. And this may all be a dream.”

 

“Maybe it is,” said Sakura, dropping down on her knees and pushing away a lock of chestnut brown out of his eyes. “But we still have a long way to go into this dreamland.”

 

He nodded, and stared off into the distance at the blazing orange sunset. “Head west and to the farthest west, to reach the Land of Fire.” So had Amamiya Hayashi once told him when he was training in the House of Five in his previous trip to Fantasia.

 

At one point, they both had figured it would boil down to this. But it had come much sooner than expected. Deep into Fantasia was Memoria, where all memories were sapped from you the longer you stayed. And beyond Memoria was a place very few humans had ever visited.

 

The Dragon Isles, the realm of the most regal of beasts, where very few human made it out alive.  

 

“Sakura,” he said, when he could trust himself to speak again. “Why did you do it?”

 

“Do what?” she asked, tilting her head. He could see the blank glint in her left eye—she couldn’t see out of that eye.

 

“How could you… even think of giving up your eye?”

 

“You noticed, after all.”

 

“I didn’t, at first. How could I—it’s not something I could have conceived of. I never fathomed you’d go to such extremes. It wasn’t until afterwards, when I found this.” He grimaced and held out an emerald crystal on his palm.

 

“I was running out of time, and this was the only option I could think of,” said Sakura, sighing half in relief that Syaoran had retrieved it. “I’m sorry if it caught you by surprise.”

 

Surprise was an understatement, and he could not recall the events of the duel without his guts turning. And that final moment when she looked his eyes and lunged forward…He had panicked. For the girl had resonated Sakura’s soul. He choked out the words, “It was a very, very stupid and dangerous thing to do. Do you know how much you scared me out of my wits in more ways than you can imagine?”

 

“Well, it was needed to give my clone magical powers and my aura,” replied Sakura. “And you were able to trick the Li Clan too, because that should have had a bit of your power of the moon. So they must have believed your powers truly came back.”

 

Syaoran’s thumb brushed her left eyelid gently. “Does it hurt?”

 

“No,” said Sakura. “But I could sometimes see what the clone me was seeing in our world.”

 

“You were…” Syaoran felt his throat clamp up. “Watching everything?”

 

She couldn’t look him in the eye. “I saw you hesitate. Why? You could have ruined everything we had planned.”

 

“I couldn’t do it. I thought I could—I told myself that she just looked like you and was not real. But she felt like you, smelled like you, had your voice and even your eyes. It was impossible for me!” Syaoran burst out. “Sorry.”

 

“No, I’m sorry,” said Sakura, cupping Syaoran’s sallow cheek with her hand. “For asking you to do something so difficult. I know, I had the easier part, waiting here. You, you had to face them all.” 

 

“She killed herself. To save both of us.” Syaoran swallowed hard, shaking, as if reliving that moment again. “Why? Did you tell her to do so?”

 

“No,” said Sakura wistfully. “But I must have done a good job with replicating a living soul.”

 

“You should take this back,” said Syaoran, holding up the round green stone which he had wrapped in a crisp white handkerchief.

 

“How did you know what it was?” she asked, tilting her head.

 

“Maybe that final moment when I looked into her eyes. Your eye.” He swallowed hard as his throat began to clench up again as it did whenever he recalled that day. Syaoran set it gently on her palm. “Here take it back, quickly.”

 

Whatever words that had been sprouting from her lips faded, as she stood up and looked at the distant western horizon. “We are going to make it through this, right, Syaoran?”

 

Shielding his eyes with her hand from the sun, he stood up next to her and also looked westwards. “We have a long way ahead of us, don’t we?”

 

“Syaoran, do you remember what I made you promise that morning in Hong Kong?”

 

He didn’t respond.

 

“Our top priority mission this time is for you to become the next Great Elder. We will do whatever it takes for this objective. This is not just for you. This is for the future of the Star Alliance as well. So, you have to promise, you’re going to focus on passing the Test of the Great Elders and leave the rest to me,” said Sakura.

 

He only nodded.

 

“Are you ready?”

 

He took a deep breath before replying, “Never more ready.” Syaoran raised his hand towards the sky. And a majestic black dragon swept down, lowering his long neck. He climbed on and reached out his hand.

 

Sakura took it and hopped on behind him. “Well, this is an upgrade from you sitting on the back of my poor staff with the Fly. Well, with how much you’ve grown lately, I’m not even sure it will support both our weight anymore on my poor little staff.”

 

He almost chuckled. “That was mighty uncomfortable, even when we were kids. Well, this time, hang onto me.” For the way to the Dragon Isles was of course by dragon.

 

She smiled slightly—she remembered the awkward moment when Syaoran had to ride behind her back for the first time on her staff, when they tried to capture the Mirror and thought her brother was in danger. He had tried to avoid touching her, gripping on to the staff with both hands to keep from sliding any closer towards her. She wrapped her hands around his waist. “Ready.”

 

“Let’s go!” called out Syaoran, and the dragon drew up its black webbed wings and lurched into the sky.

 

 

 

*******

 

 

 

Tokyo…

 

 

 

Leiyun stood atop the roof deck of a tall office building, chosen for its strategic position in the middle of the city, where north, east, south and west were all within view. He could see Tokyo Tower gleaming sporadically from the afternoon sunlight that streaked through the cloud of locusts which covered the sky.

 

“Syaoran’s gone,” reported Jinyu to Leiyun in a low voice, as there were Li bodyguards standing within earshot.

 

“What do you mean gone?” Kara said, noting that Jinyu looked the worse for wear. This wasn’t like Hong Kong, where he could mobilize his men through the dark allies and underground sewer system only known to the triads, where he could execute orders silently and unnoticeably without lifting a finger. It was difficult to fight on foreign terrain, with limited resources and men, minimizing civilian casualties. “Like he went off to use the bathroom or you lost track of him or something?”

 

“No, he’s completely vanished,” replied Jinyu. Erika and Kara exchanged troubled looks, recalling how Syaoran had run off earlier in the direction of Tokyo Tower.

 

Leiyun asked mildly, “Have the Elders noticed?”

 

“I don’t think so, they’re a bit distracted at the moment with the high concentration of locusts swarming the hotel,” replied Jinyu. “And the Wu Clan seems to have caught onto the Li delegation plans on leaving the country tonight and is barricading the airport and hotel.”

 

“Clever boy,” said Leiyun. “Leading the Li delegation in circles.”

 

“Leiyun, you surprise me,” Erika said, peeking at the man with silvery hair that caught the sunlight. “I swear, sometimes you seem bent on sabotaging the Li Clan.”

 

Leiyun blinked. “The Li Clan won’t fall so easily. After all, it has a 2,000-year-old history and allegedly has divine blessing. But the Elders need someone to keep them on their feet, and Syaoran single-handedly is doing a better job at that than anyone has in decades.”

 

“This comes from someone who was once ready sacrifice everything for the clan?” said Erika, turning to face amicable Leiyun with the cold, cold turquoise eyes. “You don’t have any ambitions of taking over the Li Clan for yourself do you? Didn’t you once aspire to be the Chosen One?”

 

“Maybe, years ago, when I was just a naïve boy around Syaoran’s age,” Leiyun said distantly. “But why waste your precious time being chained to titles and formalities when life is so brief and transient?”

 

That was the oddest statement she had ever heard coming from a Li bound so deeply in tradition and decorum. “I always meant to ask, what sort of mission were you on which left your family thinking you were dead all those years?” asked Erika. It was a topic that Leiyun had always been evasive of. Kara knew, as she was somehow related to his rescue. Erika thought he was going to refuse to answer.

 

Instead, she saw Leiyun with a distant look, as if he recalling something he had not thought about in a while. “Isn’t that obvious? It always comes down to collecting the Five Force Treasures. I was told to find the Amamiya diamond. Also known as the Eye of the Dragon.”

 

“Why?” asked Erika, knowing well the value of the Five Force Treasures and why the Lis would covet it. “Was it something worth risking your life for?”

 

“Uncle Ryuuren also went on that same mission, 13 years before I did,” replied Leiyun. “He never came back. But if the clan sent me, someone nowhere near as experienced as Uncle Ryuuren who was at that time the Chosen One, it was not my place to question the order. That is the way of the Li Clan.” 

 

Erika found it fascinating to see a trace of wistfulness in Leiyun’s usually blisteringly sunny countenance. Whatever he thought about the Elders, he seemed to have admired Li Ryuuren. “So what’s so special about that crystal?”

 

“You must have already heard the legends,” said Leiyun.

 

“Right,” said Erika. “The Eye of the Dragon was the symbol of the greatest swordsman in Japan, and was passed down generations and generations of warriors and samurai who beat the previous owner for the privilege to carry the stone.”

 

“Yes, until Amamiya Hayashi beat his master and earned the right to the Eye of the Dragon,” said Leiyun. “The stone was named so because it was round and clear, like a star embedded in an uncut crystal. But even older legends say, the stone actually is the left eye of the White Dragon of the Western Isles, who gave it up after losing a bet with a Japanese samurai from the feudal era. He became the first owner of the Eye of the Dragon and was heralded as the strongest swordsmen of his country, winning many victories in battles and showered in glory. Some say the Dragon’s Eye has protective qualities or is a good luck charm.”

 

Erika nodded, fingering the crystal she wore around her neck. It was a well-known fact that the eyes of magical beings were very powerful tools.

 

“And you know probably better than I do about how the Great Five at the peak of their golden era decided to choose a relic to seal some of their powers in it, also binding each of their chosen treasures to each other to magnify their strength when used together,” Leiyun continued. “It was an experiment. But it grew to be a dangerous experiment.”

 

“Because Ruichi-sama broke away from the Great Five?” Erika remarked.

 

“Partly, and because Amamiya Hayashi realized that all Five Force Treasures gathered in the wrong hands in the future could have disastrous repercussions. So he considered destroying the Five Force Treasures. But he couldn’t ask Shulin to give up her family heirloom sword, or for Mayura to break the holy Mirror of Truth, or for Landon Reed to give up the star sapphire which became Shulin’s engagement ring. And, his own treasure was impossible to destroy. So he did the next best thing—conceal it somewhere people could not reach it.”

 

“So, where did Amamiya Hayashi conceal the Eye of the Dragon then?” asked Erika.

 

“Isn’t that obvious?” said Leiyun with a thin smile. “In the Dragon Isles, the place of its origin, where very few human reach and even fewer return from.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

The Dragon Isles…

 

 

 

Syaoran and Sakura on the black dragon glided higher and higher through the burnt sienna-hued sky. When Sakura looked back, she could barely see the green fields and Clow’s lush botanical gardens with flowers of all hues and shapes, some not found back in their world, nor the hill with the lone cherry blossom tree in full bloom.

 

Flying atop a dragon was an experience quite different than on a winged staff or unicorn. The dragon’s scale was dry and scaly, and there was not much to hang onto, but its movement was smoother and faster than any other mode of transport.

 

Sakura peeped up at Syaoran’s profile, his dark brown swept back from his frowning brows as he looked ahead with a sense of urgency. She could see the past few days had taken on a toll on him. He looked somewhat foreign with his grim and honest gaze, wearing a long black sleeveless high-collar tunic with a green rising dragon emblazoned on the front, off-set with orange buckles on his arms, collars and a matching belt buckled around his slim waist. He wore this over white trousers and sturdy black leather boots.

 

She too was in a matching sleeveless white dress with black lace trimmings adorned with a black dragon pattern creeping up her delicate throat, with matching arm-length white gloves. Her shoulders were covered by a magnificent white fur cloak with a black spiky collar fashioned like dragon, tied in place with maroon ribbons, and on her head was fastened a small black tiara with onyx jewels adorning each spike, offset by rubies.

 

It had been Sakura’s ideas to change into battle costumes to face the dragons. “Tomoyo-chan would have liked it,” she had told Syaoran, as she conjured up outfits for the two of them based off a sketch she had see in Tomoyo’s ever-growing design book. “I never realized it but wearing Tomoyo’s battle costumes makes me feel braver, like I really transformed into a Card Mistress. Is that silly?”

 

“No, I usually feel most comfortable wearing my Li Clan green robes,” replied Syaoran with a faint smile. “It becomes a part of our battle armor.”

 

While both of them were impatient to find the Dragon Isles, there also was a sense of reluctance to reach their destination, where who knew what perils awaited them.

 

“I wonder how long we’ve been flying,” murmured Sakura. “I wonder if it really exists. The Dragon Isles.”

 

“It must,” said Syaoran. “Can’t you feel it?”

 

He was right. It was getting hotter and hotter as they flew deeper and deeper into the core of Fantasia. The sky was a deep orange-crimson—she could not tell if it was night or day—she suspected that there was no sense of time in the Dragon Isles.

 

And they felt intense pressure as if a tornado was ready to rip their flesh away. Sakura’s hair whipped back from her face, and she could barely keep her eyes open. Tears stung in her eyes as she felt scorching heat. Syaoran lifted an arm protectively to shield her from the heat. “Are we passing through a barrier?” she whispered, barely croaking out her question.

 

“Or another dimensional portal,” he replied. 

 

Her hair sizzled. Glancing up, she could see Syaoran’s skin was aglow. And she could no longer see any traces of Fantasia, only the vast crimson sky above and below. They swooshed past huge boulders like huge molten boulders suspended midair, nearly grazing the indigenous rocks, but the dragon always glided past the obstacles without actually hitting it.

 

“Look,” whispered Syaoran in awe.

 

And they both saw it. A huge rocky volcanic island floating in the sky at the very heart of the realm of the dragons, clouded in what seemed like wisps of smoke or fog. Sparks sizzled by, crackling as it hit their bare skin.

 

“It’s like lava is bubbling within,” said Syaoran, half in awe, half in terror.

 

Even now, Sakura wanted to tell Syaoran to turn back. But she could see his amber eyes fixed upon the center of the Dragon Isles, reflecting gold specks of the volcanic activity. As they grew nearer and nearer to the central isle, the heat grew more intense. Pools of sweat formed at the nape of her neck and at the small of her back. And they landed. The Dragon gracefully swept down and lowered his body so that the two could slide off.

 

They stepped off the Dragon onto the rocky terrain. Through the cracks, they could see molten red and gold lava bubbling from the center of the island.

 

It finally seemed to hit Syaoran that they had arrived. “Sakura… Maybe this is not a good idea after all. You should go back with the Dragon. I don’t know what I was thinking bringing you here in the first place. We don’t know what awaits us, if this will even work out.”

 

Sakura placed her hand on his arm and shook her head slowly. “Don’t even think of it. You forget, we decided this together. We have a joint mission here. And it can only be accomplished with both of us here.”

 

They climbed up a long winding path up a rocky terrain, until they came to a towering opening to a cavern in the center of isle. They did not speak, and though they saw no one, they knew they were being watched.

 

“Do you really think the legends are real?” she asked.

 

“Well, we’ve got to bet on them being true,” replied Syaoran, and stepped into the ghoulish entrance.

 

Sakura reached to her neck and clutched the half shard of the crystal necklace that Syaoran had thrown at her before she entered the Fantasy. Was it pulsating? Tentatively, she reached out for Syaoran’s hand, which was cool despite the flush on his face. The cavern entrance was dark, but they had a sense that they were walking downwards.

 

“Do we even know where we are going?” Syaoran said, his voice echoing down the tunnel

 

“We don’t need to,” said Sakura, holding up the crystal shard that gleamed. “It knows where to go.” Syaoran took out his half, the half he had picked up from the ground after Sakura’s clone dissolved away. He gave it to Sakura, who fitted together the two halves.

 

“It’s glowing hot,” Sakura said. They walked deeper and deeper into the cavern, until they could feel the crystal shards humming.

 

“Look,” said Syaoran, half in wonder, half in terror.

 

Sakura gasped. A great dragon with milky white scales was curled up on the floor, almost blending right into the pale limestone like a huge boulder. This dragon was much bigger than Syaoran’s black dragon, and seemed somewhat older and more sedentary.

 

“I think he’s sleeping,” whispered Sakura. “Do we wake him?”

 

“How do you wake a dragon?” Syaoran replied. “We can’t exactly shake him.”

 

“You don’t think he’s—dead?” asked Sakura.

 

“I don’t think so—he’s seems to be breathing—his nostril is huge enough. You can feel shafts of hot air,” replied Syaoran. “The question is, is he the right one?”

 

Sakura nodded. “I still feel the crystal vibrating—it’s been getting stronger the closer we came.”

 

“Well, maybe we should try to shout in his ear,” said Syaoran. “I don’t know how well he’ll take to being waken up—for all we know, he might have been sleeping for centuries.”

 

“How do we reach his ear?” asked Sakura. “And where are his ears?” She courageously stepped closer, peering at the dragon’s large angular face, nearly reachable because the creature was slouched over apparently in deep slumber.

 

And suddenly, the White Dragon opened its right eye, a startling milky marble color.

 

Sakura stifled a squeal and would have toppled backwards hadn’t Syaoran been standing right behind her to balance her.

 

The dragon spoke slowly, in a booming voice which made the cavern quake. “What foolish humans dare intrudes my lair?”

 

“Oh, he’s up!” Sakura exclaimed, delighted.

 

Syaoran was a bit dumbfounded that this girl afraid of her own shadow, thunderstorms, and nonexistent ghosts was not at all daunted by this huge glaring reptilian beast the size of a small house that seemed ready to spew out fire at the two or swallow them whole. With one swipe of those fanged claws, she could be ripped in half.

 

But Sakura, chin up, declared in a clear, unfaltering voice, “My name is Kinomoto Sakura. I’m from Japan. And this is Li Syaoran. He’s from Hong Kong.”

 

“I know who you two are,” said the dragon, stretching his neck and then sitting up slowly, peering down at the girl and boy with his right eye. His left eye remained shut. “And do you know who I am?”

 

“The White Dragon of the Western Isles,” stammered Sakura. “The owner of this crystal.” She held up both shards of the crystal that had splintered in half last year as she tried to seal the Plague.

 

The White Dragon now stretched to his full length, and Sakura and Syaoran stepped further back as the winged creature towered over them. “You know who I am, and you show your face here?”

 

Syaoran instinctively reached for his sword hilt, but Sakura shook her head. “We are sorry to intrude upon your space,” she said. “But we have a request to ask of you.”

 

“Foolhardy things,” said the White Dragon. “You have the nerve to even think of asking a favor of a dragon?”

 

Sakura exclaimed, “We know the procedure. If you grant us our request, we will pay you a price. Whatever you want.”

 

“You know that is a very risky bargain you are striking with me,” said the White Dragon. “Only one human ever got the best of me, a thousand years ago. He was a brazen Japanese swordsman, the strongest in the East, he called himself. And that was the man who took my left eye from me, the one you have so unceremoniously broken in half and hold in your hand right now.”

 

Syaoran whistled. “So legends are true. It really is your left eye.”

 

“Yes, that dratted Japanese swordsman robbed me of an eye,” said the White Dragon, without much venom. 

 

“But surely you could have taken it back anytime if you wanted to,” said Sakura.  

 

“True,” said the White Dragon. “But he’s long since dead, and where’s the fun in that? Since then, the Eye got passed down to the strongest warrior of each generation. And it was interesting, because I was able to see the strongest of each era, some leading battles, some spilling great bloodshed, some saving the country, some falling into the pitfalls of ambition and power. Until it fell into the hands of the samurai Amamiya Hayashi, the so-called leader of the Great Five. And he did something odd with the Eye of the Dragon. He put a spell on it. He bound it to four other treasures and amplified its magical worth by sealing some of his power in it. When the Great Five fell apart, he hid the Eye of the Dragon. Hence, I was deprived of watching the developments in the human world for a while. Until it found its way back into your hands, Kinomoto Sakura.”

 

Sakura said, “I have tried all sorts of spells to put the crystal back together, but they have failed. But you are its owner. Surely you can surely make this crystal whole again.”

 

“Unfortunately, even I can’t put it back together,” the dragon told her. “It’s a pity. I did like my left eye quite a lot.”

 

“Aren’t you angry that I broke it?” Sakura asked.

 

“Perhaps I would have been, a millennium ago,” said the White Dragon. “But I got so used to doing without it. And it’s not like I needed the extra magic. People used to be much more interesting back in the olden days, you know, but history just repeats itself over and over again, and I grew weary of you humans. I’d rather rest peacefully and not be interrupted by pesky intruders.”

 

“I promise I’ll find a way to fix your eye and return it to you,” said Sakura.

 

“Human promises do not hold much meaning for me. But let me at least hear what favor you want to ask of me,” asked the dragon.

 

“You must know last year, I used up all my power of the stars in order to seal the Plague,” said Sakura. “With the aid of the Five Force Treasures. My focus then was this Dragon’s Eye, and it cracked in half.”

 

“Obviously it would since you tried to seal such an immense dark force single-handedly,” said the White Dragon. “I don’t know if you were plain foolish are braver than all the hundreds of warriors that had owned the Eye of the Dragon before you.”

 

“Because I used up all my powers and was at the brink of death, Syaoran gave me all his powers, the power of the moon, to save me. Of course, I didn’t know it then.” She glanced up at Syaoran, suddenly feeling hesitant.

 

Syaoran continued for her. “I thought I had lost all my powers. But some months ago, I realized that some powers had awakened in me—I was able to set up a barrier, calling the Dragon and even perform some of my old spells. But it was not my power of the moon. I couldn’t figure out what the source of the power was for the longest time. And I finally realized, it was the power of the stars. Sakura’s powers. They hadn’t disappeared.”

 

“And how is it possible that this girl’s power of the stars started regenerating in you?” asked the White Dragon, somewhat bemused.

 

“We have several theories,” said Syaoran. “But we think it is most likely that when Sakura was sealing the Plague, I was also bitten by the Plague, and she was trying to heal me. I think she must have thrust the last bit of power in me to do so. And it was latent within me, too small to amount to anything, hence I believed myself to be powerless for the past year. But I began to notice it first when I began living with Sakura last December. I first thought it was my imagination, but then, it became more substantive.” This was actually Eriol and Touya’s theory—that Syaoran’s powers might be triggered to regenerate by staying in close proximity with Sakura. “Have you seen anything like this happen before?”

 

“No, but it is not implausible. Because yours is the power of the stars,” said the White Dragon to Sakura. “The power of the stars is one of the rare power that has its own light, the ability to grow exponentially—it can seem insignificant at first but it can absorb quickly and is a durable power. That is why, if there were any traces of the power of the star anywhere, it could have multiplied in a vessel—in this case, within Syaoran’s body. The Eye of the Dragon would have had traces of the power of the star since you wore it for a long time. But because your body already was being occupied by the power of the moon, even though the power of the stars had regenerated, it had nowhere to return to.”

 

“Great Elder Renshu was right,” murmured Syaoran. “That 1% of chance we gambled upon.”

 

The White Dragon said, “I admit, your story is fascinating, and I commend you for even making it here, where few mortals set their feet. But what does this have to do with me?”

 

“We want to switch back our powers,” said Sakura.

 

“And is that any of my business?” asked the White Dragon. “How did you transfer it to her in the first place?”

 

“When Sakura didn’t have any power in her, I could just push it in her, as an emergency resort,” said Syaoran. “Because she was drained and near death. But now, I can’t push the power in her because she already has the power of the moon in her.”

 

“True, if you try to push extra power into her, at best, her body would simply reject it. Or, the additional power might end up overwhelming her body and fry her. Many foolish magicians have tried that in the past—trying to absorb others powers with devastating reasons,” said the White Dragon. “That’s why they have come up with so many crutches like artifacts, wands, crystals and spells—because the human body itself is too fragile, so they need objects to amplify their magic.”

 

Ignoring the dragon’s condescending jab, Syaoran continued, “Because we are weak in that way, and can’t afford to take such risks to switch our powers back, we have come to you, oh honorable and wise White Dragon of the Western Isles.”

 

“Humph, they still teach the young ones respect to their elders these days?” remarked the White Dragon. “And what will you give me in exchange?”

 

Sakura bit her lower lip. The dragon had no need for material wealth, power, immortality or anything that a human would desire. She said, “What would be a fair exchange? I can give you my left eye in exchange.” She held up an emerald crystal globe the size of a large marble.

 

“No!” Syaoran exclaimed, spinning around to face her. The reckless girl hadn’t absorbed back her eye this entire time, and he hadn’t even noticed.

 

Completely ignoring him, Sakura held up the green gem higher.

 

The White Dragon bared his yellowed teeth in what could have been a smile. “What use will I have from the eye of a puny human girl? Have you not heard a wise human from your world once say, ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.’”

 

“Then what do you want that I can give you?” Sakura asked, cold sweat forming on her brows despite the heat in the cavern. This was turning into their worse case scenario imagined. She had been somehow hoping the White Dragon would take back his eye as a tradeoff, or be able to fix it at least. Entrusting a third party to transfer their party was a very dangerous risky business, Syaoran had pointed out. It also required their utmost trust in the third party. Sakura felt she could trust the White Dragon, the original owner of the Eye of the Dragon, because in a sense, he had been by their side for many years. As well as by the side of Amamiya Hayashi.

 

“Nothing, particularly. But since you came all the way here, I won’t spurn your efforts. Why don’t you show me the worth of a human promise?” said the White Dragon. “You promised me you would mend my eye and return it to me. Keep that promise, and I will switch back your powers.”

 

“Now you’ve done it,” whispered Syaoran to Sakura. “How are we going to mend that crystal and return it to him? We just heard him say a broken eye can’t be fixed.”

 

The White Dragon stared at the two bemused. “Well, how about I just make things fair for you. You can return to me a dragon’s eye. It can be mine somehow miraculously fixed, or you can find me another dragon’s eye. An equivalent exchange I think—the only thing worth a dragon’s eye is another dragon’s eye.”

 

And Syaoran blanched. “How are we going to take an eye from another dragon?”

 

“That’s your problem,” said the dragon.

 

“All right, we accept your offer,” said Sakura.

 

“What?” Syaoran glared at Sakura, wondering if she decided to come along just to drive him mad on the spot. “What are you thinking—are you crazy?” he said in a lower voice, but Sakura was not listening.

 

“To you, passage of time has no meaning, but we are here under a time limit,” said Sakura, half to the dragon, half to Syaoran. “Syaoran has a task he must accomplish, and I will find a means to fix this eye. When we come back, please keep your side of the promise and switch our powers back. I was hoping we could find a way before…but this will have to do.”

 

Before he could protest, Sakura spun around and pressed the emerald stone cradled in her palm into Syaoran’s chest.


“What did you just do?” Syaoran demanded, gripping Sakura’s wrist. But it was too late. She pulled her hand away. His fingers pressed warm spot beside his heart, where he saw a star seal flash briefly before fading.

 

“I sealed it inside your body,” said Sakura. “Don’t worry—it’s temporary. Just until we make it through this.”

 

“Why would you do this?” demanded Syaoran, not knowing what to make of her, feeling the urge to shake her because of her recklessness. “Your eye—”

 

“I’ve been fine without it all this while in the Fantasy—and I’ll be fine a little longer. You’ll be needing that bit of the power of moon, I believe, if you are going to pass the Test of the Great Elders,” said Sakura. “It’s a loan. Just like how you lent me your power.”

“This is not the same!” exclaimed Syaoran.

 

“No, it’s not,” said Sakura. “You gave me all of your powers. But I’m giving you a wee part of my soul, just till we make it through this.”

 

Syaoran was about to protest, but the White Dragon cut him off. “Deal. I will wait for you two.”

 

“No, this isn’t right.” Syaoran’s hand clenched over his chest.

 

“The girl is right. You won’t be able to pass the Test of the Great Elders without any of your original moon power—that bit of the power of stars awakened in you certainly won’t be enough, and you’ll need all the help you can get,” said the White Dragon. He peered at Syaoran, adding, “Don’t protest. You now have to travel to the Cavern of Reservoirs to meet Celes the Blue Dragon, the Guardian of Dimensions. Good luck, you have a long road ahead of you, if I ever do see you back here again.”

 

While Syaoran had always known Sakura’s obstinacy, her recent impulsiveness was dropping his heart—or whatever was left of it—to the bottom of his boots. Sometimes, though he refused to admit it, her instincts were right, and he knew he had to go with her decisions. But if this was the extent of his nerves, he shuddered at how he was going to face the Blue Dragon.

 

 

 

The two traveled down a long winding cave, descending lower and lower. Sakura drew her cape around her arms. She swore that it should have been getting hotter, based on their theory that the center of isle was hot lava, but instead, she felt goose bumps prickle her skin. Syaoran had been silent as they felt the temperature drop. She wasn’t sure if he was mad at her for making a rash deal with the White Dragon. How to keep her end of the bargain, she would have to think about later, but for now, she could see Syaoran’s hunched shoulders and serious expression as they drew closer to the center of the isle. Was he mad about what she had done? He hadn’t spoken to her since the White Dragon’s cave, but then again, she too would be tense if she were him.

 

He knew that Sakura was worrying for him, her brows crinkled, but Syaoran dared not speak because his voice might betray his anxiety. At the very heart of the isle was not molten lava, as they had presumed. It was ice. Such a chill, Syaoran had never felt before. He felt a blast of frosty air as he stepped towards a narrower passage to an icy cavern. He lowered his head to avoid the dripping crystallized stalactites. And the two walked furthered in, deeper and deeper until they were in sudden pitch darkness. Too late, he felt rocks crumbling below his feet. “Sakura—step back—I think there’s a gorge—”

 

Whether it was simply the law of gravity or through some other force, Syaoran never finished his sentence and fell headfirst straight into abyss. It was not a long drop, and moments later, he fell with a soft thud. He stood up, bruised, barely in time to cushion Sakura as she came hurling from above and landed into his arms, topping him over again.

 

“Syaoran! Are you all right?” she asked, wading through layers of skirt and quickly jumping to her feet.

 

“I think I was, before you landed on me,” said Syaoran with a feeble smile, to give her some sort of reassurance because she looked mortified. A part of him was furious at Sakura for her rash behavior, but a part of him was relieved she was here, to keep him on his feet, to give him a strange repose in spite of the unfamiliar terrain.

 

Syaoran could hear the quiet plopping of water drops, like someone had left the kitchen faucet on. A wetness dropped on his forehead. He opened his eyes. It was not dark at all—there was an eerie greenish light like Will-o'-the-wisps which lit the cavern, though there was no artificial or natural light source to be seen. Slowly, he sat up and looked around, realizing he was by some sort of lake.

 

No, there were myriads of little cerulean pools of water around him. That was where the rippling sound was coming from. No matter how far he craned his neck, he could not see the sky, nor an exit out. They seemed to be at the heart of the isle, in some sort of canyon.

 

“This must be the Cavern of Reservoirs,” whispered Sakura in awe. Her voice echoed around them.

 

“I’ve got to go alone from here,” Syaoran said slowly. He had never meant to bring Sakura with him this far, but she had insisted on following him as far as she could. He did not know if he will make it back, but there was some solace in that the last image he had before he set off on this quest was of her.

 

She nodded. “I know. I’ll be waiting here.”

 

“I’ll be back,” said Syaoran.

 

“Promise?”

 

“I will. This something my father wanted more than anything else. Since it was a dream he could not achieve.” His earnest gaze met hers. “Don’t do anything foolish about the Dragon’s Eye by yourself. We’ll figure something out together, all right? Promise?”

 

She just looked up at him with an impassive smile. “Just focus on your mission.”

 

Syaoran took out the Time Card from his pocket. The card manifested itself into its physical form and turned upside down a full hourglass. Fine gold sand began to trickle down the hourglass. “Sakura, if I don’t make it back by the time the last grain of sand falls, you need to go back to the real world. You need to seal the Insect and let Meilin and the others know that I failed to pass the test.” He took out the Sakura Card tome from his pocket and handed it to Sakura.

 

“You’ll need this,” said Sakura.

 

Syaoran shook his head. “No, everything’s up to my own skills. No Great Elder candidate before me also had the perk of being a Card Master, after all. Besides, I want to pass on my own ability, not on borrowed powers. And if I don’t make it back…”

 

Because she understood where he was coming from, she nodded. “Good luck, Syaoran.”  

 

And Syaoran looked ahead, wondering how far the pools of water stretched back into the uncannily still limestone cavern. He instinctively continued forward. He didn’t dare look back, for fear he might take Sakura by the hand and run away from this place, once and for all, never to look back again at this path.  

 

He walked around then frowned. There were hundreds and hundreds of little reservoirs in this canyon. There was no indication how he had arrived here, and how he could escape. By now, he wasn’t even sure which direction he had left Sakura at—only that she had been near the entrance, and she should be able to fly out if she chose to.

 

What he did chance upon were human skulls, rib-cages, bones, some yellowed and decayed beyond recognition, some more eerily white, as if they were less than a century old.

 

Of these remains, some would be the Lis who never made it back from the Test of the Dragon, to become the Great Elder of the Clan. Others might have chanced upon the Cavern of Reservoirs and met their untimely end here. Others might have foolhardily sought out the place in between dimensions for some quest, or out of mere curiosity, and never left. For there seemed to be no other living soul here.

 

But there was no time to think of all the lives before who had entered this space and never left. Because Syaoran had to a mission to accomplish.  

 

“You have finally come, Chosen One Li Syaoran,” came a soothing deep voice which filled the caverns, one he had heard many times in dream before.

 

There he saw a great azure dragon, even larger than the White Dragon earlier, though more slender in frame and a long, graceful, arching neck.

 

Syaoran said in a staid voice, “Yes, I have come to take the Test of the Great Elder.”

 

“Many have come before you, but you are the first candidate to have brought a non-family member with you to the Dragon Isles,” remarked said Celes, the Blue Dragon. “Interesting.”

 

“Promise you will let her return safely should I not make it through,” Syaoran said stiffly.

 

“She can leave if she chooses to. I have no business with her.”

 

“Now, what am I to do?”

 

“Well, the test is always the same. I am going to drop you into one of these reservoirs, a portal into a different dimension or time. Find your way back to this Cavern of Reservoirs in one piece.” Celes stared down at the boy. “You are the youngest the Li Clan has ever sent my way as Grerat Elder candidate. Many older, wiser and more powerful than you have failed before you. Are you ready to accept the consequences?”

 

“Yes, I am,” said Syaoran.

 

“You realize, you might never find your way back here,” said Celes. “And you will forever be separated from your Sakura. You may wander worlds for all eternity and never reach her again.”

 

“I will return.”  

 

“I commend your self-assurance. Then, goodbye for now, Li Syaoran.” Celes let out a puff of breath, and the wind sent Syaoran hurling into one of the pools of water.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Anyone who chanced upon the top observatory floor of Tokyo Tower by mistake might have chanced upon the odd sight of a group of people crouched in a half-circle by the floor in the center of the deck, peering at the empty floor.

 

“Do you really think Sakura and Syaoran can be in there?” asked Kinomoto Touya, who had received a call from Tomoyo to join the Alliance at the Tokyo Tower. He stared hard at the invisible portal—he couldn’t send it, but he had to believe it was there behind the barrier.

 

“It’s a theory,” said Tomoyo. “We are sure Syaoran is there, at least, since this barrier seems to be Li-created, according to Eriol-kun.”

 

Spinel Sun asked, “And so, where exactly do you propose they are right now?”

 

Miho replied, “In a different dimension—that’s why we can’t sense their presence. Sakura must have hid inside the Fantasy first, and Syaoran followed after her.”

 

“If she indeed created a clone of herself while she was in the Fantasyland—that’s how she had all the time and practice she needed to create a perfect replica of herself,” Cerberus murmured.

 

“So, the Sakura that Syaoran killed may not have been really Sakura?” said Meilin.

 

“If that is true, then it must be the grandest deception of the century,” said Kai with a crooked grin.

 

“Isn’t there any way for us to break through this barrier?” demanded Touya impatiently.

 

“No—even if we could, we shouldn’t,” said Eriol. “We might upset their portal entrance and then, Syaoran, or Sakura, or both, will not be able to return.”

 

Eron muttered, “Of course, neither of them might be in there, and we might just be wasting our time sitting here, imagining there is an invisible barrier around a nonexistent portal.” 

 

“Eron-senpai! Stop being such a wet blanket!” exclaimed Miho.

 

“A Schrodinger's cat in a sealed box with a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter and a bottle of poison,” murmured Eriol. “Is the cat alive or dead, or both? After all, you all have only my word that there is a barrier here.”

 

“But I can feel the barrier too!” exclaimed Touya.

 

“You might feel it because I told you there is one—perhaps it’s just wish fulfillment,” Eriol pointed out.

 

“Well, until the barrier breaks or someone returns, we will not know the answer for sure,” said Kai. “All we can do is wait and speculate. So long as the box remains closed, the cat can be alive or dead.”

 

“If only Sakura really were alive in there too,” said Meilin, kneeling on the floor, with a wistful sigh.

 

“What ever do you think they are doing in there, if they really are in there?” asked Miho, craning her neck.

 

“Well, I’m sure the two are on some grand journey or quest,” said Tomoyo. “And they’ll tell us all about it when they return.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Sakura forgot all about hiding from the Blue Dragon as she saw Syaoran fall into a pool of water and vanish into the prismatic ripples of water. Her voice left her lips before she realized she had called out. “Syaoran!” She realized that it was in vain to hide from the dragon, who would most likely be able to spot her anywhere upon his realm anyway.

 

The Blue Dragon did not look surprised at seeing that the green-eyed girl slip out from behind a craggy stalagmite and gaze up at him with trepidation. But she did not cower when his golden reptilian eyes fixed upon her.  

 

“You do not have to fear me, Kinomoto Sakura,” Celes told her. “This is his test, not yours.”

 

“Where did you send him?” she asked solemnly. She had imagined all sorts of tests, not the least an image of a gallant bronze armor-clad Syaoran combatting an evil fire-breathing dragon. She had not expected Syaoran to disappear from the Cavern of Reservoirs just like that, through a shallow pond.

 

“To some other world, far from here,” said Celes. “You should have said a proper goodbye to him. You may very well never see him again.”

 

“No, he will come back,” said Sakura.

 

“What makes you so sure?” asked Celes. “Your sight? Your intuition? Wishful thinking?

 

Sakura smiled slightly. “No, I believe in Syaoran and his abilities. He will come back for sure, because he is strong.”

 

“Being strong may not be enough,” said Celes. “Have you heard the story about the first Li Clan Great Elder?”

 

“Yes, Syaoran told me a little about him. He made a contract with a dragon to enable his family to become strong and prosper,” said Sakura. Of course, she had thought he was making up the story when he told it to her two summers ago.

 

“Yes, over two millenniums ago, during the time of the Warring States, a warrior once sought me out. His name was Li Dairon. He made a deal with me. He told me he will build the most powerful magical family in China, and he asked me to lend him my blessings and power. For with my blessing, his clan would not only proper, but gain luck and power. In return, he said, I could test the best of his warriors, the leader of his clan. And the leader of the clan has to be someone that I approved of.”

 

“Do you always give the same test?” asked Sakura.

 

“Yes, for I am the Guardian of Dimensions, after all,” said Celes. “It’s the same test I gave Li Dairon. He was an impertinent human, marching into the dragon’s lair and trying to bargain with me. But most of his family and comrades had been wiped away by battle, and he was desperate. He wanted a miracle. Of course, miracles don’t exist. I thought over his proposal, and so I sent him away to another dimension, thinking he would never make it back. But he surprised me. He returned. Was he the same idealistic man I sent off? Perhaps not. But I kept my promise. He lived to bear 13 strong sons and daughters, and built up the Li Clan as you know it today, the original clan of magicians that has endured as numerous dynasties rose and fell over the course of the millennia.”

 

“How did Li Dairon make it back from another world?” asked Sakura.

 

Celes glanced down at Sakura quizzically. “How did any of them make it back, I wonder. It’s a test of tenacity, endurance, direction and a bit of luck. It’s perhaps a game of probability, more than anything else. There have been a few dimensional travelers among the Li Great Elders—those had the easiest time with the test. Some met the right people, got their hands on the right tools in other worlds. Some were simply lucky. Most were simply plain determined to return back to their real world, for various reasons.

 

“With this method, I’ve had a mixed throng of Li Great Elders over the centuries. Some were sagacious and steadfast, like Li Renshu. Some were simply power-greedy and selfish. Those ones didn’t stay in power too long, however. Others, like the brazen and resolute Li Shulin, were ready to sacrifice everything for the clan to prosper and were for me most memorable. But many deserving Lis didn’t make it through the test. Some didn’t even make it to this cavern.”

 

“I wonder what kind of Great Elder Ryuuren-san would have made,” Sakura murmured, recalling that earnest look Syaoran had in his eyes when he swore on his father’s name he would return safely to her.  

 

“I too wonder,” remarked Celes. “I would have enjoyed testing his limits, because he really was a rare, disciplined warrior you see only every century or two. But he was also arrogant and proud, perhaps his downfall, perhaps his saving grace, for only in the face of death did he hold complete humility, as he was very much alone.”

 

Sakura stared up at the dragon’s bright golden eyes. “You know how Ryuuren-san died, don’t you? You weren’t the one to… the one to—”

 

“No, I didn’t kill him, if that’s what you are curious about,” said Celes. “He was already too far gone, anyway.”

 

“He shouldn’t have had to die alone, away from his family,” said Sakura. “It was unfair.”

 

“But that was the death he chose for himself,” replied Celes. “He never wanted to show his weakness to anyone, especially not his wife and children.”

 

“No, it wasn’t,” whispered Sakura. “Nobody would choose to die alone, in a strange place, with no loved one nearby.”

 

The Blue Dragon tilted his magnificent head. “You are young and full of vitality. But in the final moments of one’s life, your life flashes before you. Some grovel, despair, curse the skies for more time. Others, death comes almost as a relief, a sanctuary after long suffering.”

 

“I was told that I nearly died last year after I sealed the Plague,” remarked Sakura. “Looking back now, I realize how foolish I was, throwing away everything, worrying so many people. I panicked. I had to save everybody, and I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to. And you know the Plague is the dark force that killed my mother and Ryuuren-san, and made Mayura-san ill for many years. When I was sealing the Plague, I sort of felt a sense of vengeance. It was a very ugly feeling, one I don’t want to ever feel again, but there was a part of me that wanted to seal the Plague for very selfish reasons. It also made me think, if my mother and Syaoran’s father were able to find a different means to seal the Plague, if they were able to live, how different everything would have been. They were so close to finding a way to defeat the Plague.” She stared into the rippling pool. “If they were able to find the last Five Force Treasure, the Eye of the Dragon…”

 

“Or if they were able to track down the last Reed descendent in time,” Celes said. “Or if they able to somehow utilize the Clow Cards to contain the Plague before it spread so rapidly—there are so many different scenarios, but in the end, we all know how their story ends.” 

 

“Yes,” Sakura traced a finger in the green-blue water, sending ripples across the pool. “I wonder what Ryuuren-san promised in order to gain passage into the Fantasy for both him and my mother, to reach the Dragon Isles.”

 

“Well, that is between him and the Fantasy,” replied the Blue Dragon.

 

“What ever deal there was, it couldn’t have been a fair exchange,” said Sakura. “I’ve learned that my name and memories of the people I love are invaluable. Nothing is equivalent in value to that.”

 

“I wish more people realized that and stayed in their respective worlds,” said Celes. “But no, humans are greedy and irresponsible. They want to make bargains to gain powers and wishes that should not be granted to them. They cannot simply be content with what they have, the fate that has been dished out to them.” He paused. “Are you not the same?”

 

Sakura replied, “Is it a sin to wish and dream? It’s what makes us human.”

 

“True, your resilience that comes despite your frailty makes some of you so beautiful and shine so brightly,” said Celes. “But you too want to ask something of me. You are thinking, is it possible to steal this eye of mine?”

 

“No!” exclaimed Sakura. “I’ll figure out how to fix this crystal on my own.”

 

“Even if Syaoran made you promise not to? Well, I’m not going to help you in any way,” Celes told her.

 

“I don’t need your help. I have this under control,” she replied, knowing the dragon could see right through her lie. A hint, she had to gain any sort of hint. Could she trick it out of this wily dragon?

 

“You are about as pigheaded as Clow Reed said you will be,” remarked Celes.

 

“Clow Reed called me pigheaded?” Sakura asked, not in the least bit surprised the Blue Dragon had met with Clow before.

 

“No, he called you cute, adorable, brave and strong-willed,” said Celes. “Which brings me to the question of why in the world did you bring yourself here in the first place?”

 

“Syaoran and I, we had to pull off a huge deception so that we could buy enough time for him to face the Test of the Great Elder and also find a way to switch back our respective powers.” Sakura glanced up at the dragon. “You see, the Sakura Cards have been unstable for quite a while now since I’ve been using the power of the moon. But ever since Syaoran realized the power of the stars was returning in him, we realized that there was a chance that the Sakura Cards will scatter or break the seal if we didn’t convert them to the power of the moon soon.”

 

“So you decided to transfer ownership of the cards to Syaoran to circumvent the problem temporarily?” asked Ceres.

 

Sakura nodded. “Under the current situation, I couldn’t imagine trying to convert all the cards into the power of the moon, and besides, if my power of the stars is really is back, it’s only natural to try to switch it back.”

 

“Killing two birds with one stone. And tell me, how did even pull off such a magnificent deception that managed to trick not only all the stuffy Lis but the reincarnation of Clow Reed?” asked Celes, trying to sound bored.

 

“Perhaps it was thanks to Clow Reed,” said Sakura. “It is a rather long story.”

 

“Well, we have a lot of time,” replied Celes, watching the thin layer of sand coat the bottom globe of the hourglass. The Great Elder candidate had left the first world by now.

 

 

 

~~~~~~

 

 

 

April 1, shortly after midnight….

 

 

 

Minutes after Kinomoto Sakura celebrated her 17th birthday at the Tokyo Tower, she transported herself to a place where time was suspended. Just briefly, very briefly, she turned her head to see Syaoran’s face before it faded across the portal. His lips moved, as if calling out her name. She clutched the half of the crystal shard he had thrown her. She placed it against the other half hanging from a chain around her neck. The pendant had been a Christmas present three years ago. It had broken last year, when she sealed the Plague and burned through her powers using the Heal afterwards. Syaoran, what were you trying to tell me up there at the Tokyo Tower? Will I ever hear the end of that sentence?

 

When she emerged through the portal from the Tokyo Tower observation deck, she walked out into a lush garden in full blossom of every hue of the rainbow from vivid oranges, to sunburst yellows and brilliant violets. It was still the beginning of spring back home and barely any flowers were in bloom there. Sakura wasn’t surprised to see the landscape of the Fantasy much different from the last time she had visited, when she had entered Memoria, when she had been sucked into a mystical kingdom with three moons which was ruled by her mother, Queen Nadeshiko. It was also different from Miho’s colorful fairytale wonderland with lemonade rivers and cupcakes trees.

 

Some may call it a sanctuary, some a dream world or hallucination, some a prison. She knew exactly why she had come here, so she was taken aback by the tranquil environment she will carry out her task in.

 

“Why, you thought I might be confined in a dark, windowless dungeon with bubbling cauldrons and clutching a skull or two?” came a pleasant but jesting voice.

 

Sakura turned around to face the bespectacled man she had wanted to meet. She had met him face-to-face in a garden similar to this one seven years ago, as a novice Card Mistress, but that had been an older Clow Reed, one who had been near death. The man standing before her was much younger—she could tell despite the fact Clow seemed to have an ageless face. The Clow she had met years ago had a gentle, calm ambiance. This one was also composed, but had a dark, ruthless gleam to his midnight blue eyes and his mouth was hard, with a certain bitterness she had not realized could come from the Clow Reed she had grown to know. He was a tall and imposing in the garden, in a deep navy mantle that cloaked his broad, straight shoulders. His silky, long dark hair was tied back from his lean angular face, which still had a somewhat youthful countenance.

 

“Clow Reed-san,” said Sakura.

 

“That’s the name I become widely known as,” he replied. “Though I am still called by my birth name, Edward Alexander Cleau Reed. But those green eyes. I think I know who you are. Or will be. Card Captor Sakura.”

 

Sakura nodded.

 

Clow circled her, almost fascinated, as if he were sizing her up. “And what may you want from me, little Card Mistress?”

 

“I need to make a doppelganger of myself,” she replied. “A copy so complete that someone as powerful as you will not be able to realize it’s a copy.”

 

“So, you want to create a perfect clone of yourself,” said Clow Reed dryly. “And you think I would be the right person to teach you how. I won’t even ask you why you need a clone. Don’t do it.”

 

Sakura frowned. “Why?”

 

“The process is not worth it—don’t fall down that pit of dark magic. Blood magic. And even if you manage to make a successful clone of yourself, no good will come of it.”


“Why would you say something like that?” Sakura asked. “Is it your vision of the future?”

 

“No.” Clow wore a thin smile. “But I can attest to that as one who has traveled far and wide, not only in your world but many worlds.”

 

“Even if you don’t help me, I will do it myself,” said Sakura.

 

And Clow replied with a shrug, “You are welcome to try.” And he disappeared like that.

 

Sakura sat in the center of the garden, where she had discovered a goldfish pond, and stared at her reflection in the glimmering water. She touched the golden star pin in her hair that caught the brilliant sunlight. She could almost feel Syaoran’s fingers against her hair. There, watching over the city from Tokyo Tower, she had felt giddy, not just because she knew what task awaited her. At midnight, just briefly, she had forgotten all else when he told her, “Happy Birthday, Sakura.”   

 

Over the past week, she had repeated the conversation the two had at the Hong Kong harbors right after the Great Elder’s death in her mind again and again.

 

For the deception to work, Sakura had to hide her presence. Had she remained in the real world, the likes of Eriol and even her brother would have spotted her immediately. The foolproof way to remove her presence from the world was to remove herself from it.

 

With Syaoran holding Time in her world, she could leisurely create a clone of herself inside the Fantasy—it was his suggestion that she do it inside the Fantasy. He had mastered summoning a dragon last time he was in the Fantasy—and was successfully able to transfer the skills in the real world, much to his own surprise.

 

She recalled words that Syaoran had once told her when sealing the Create, the Illusion, the Transform, the Change and the Animate set. “Giving birth to a new soul, giving the impression of a soul, the mimicking of a soul, the switching of souls and giving animation to a soul-form. The Soul Set. Dark forces which can mimic the impression of life. But in the end, empty souls are not equivalent to a living soul.”

 

She reached into her pocket and drew out those very cards that Syaoran had slipped to her before she entered the Fantasy’s portal.

 

The Create, Illusion, Transform, Change and Animate. She drew out other cards. The Mirror. The Twin. She released the Mirror. The Mirror, with her mint-colored hair woven with green stain ribbons smiled at her. She rippled and took on Sakura’s expression.

 

“Hey, Mirror, when did onii-chan figure out you weren’t me?” Sakura asked.

 

“Probably from the beginning,” replied the Mirror, pale green lashes downcast and two forefingers touching.

 

“How silly of me to think I could trick my brother so easily,” said Sakura. “It must have been hard for you to act like me.”

 

The Mirror nodded. “But I had fun.”

 

“Hey Twin,” said Sakura. “You can act like me and mimic all my moves, right?”

 

The Twin nodded, pretending to swirl around an imaginary staff and mimicked all her exaggerated moves as Card Captor.

 

Sakura giggled. “Do I look that ridiculous?”

 

The Twin grinned.

 

“Oh, you don’t have a voice,” murmured Sakura, fishing out another card. The Voice.

 

Now, her physical doppelganger said, with her exact voice, “Hoe—Tomoyo-chan always comes up with flashy new moves. And pretty new outfits. We like them a lot.”

 

 

 

Sakura was not sure how much time passed in the Fantasy. In this world, there was no nightfall, only daytime. There was no clock, and the sun didn’t even to change its position from the sky. Because the sun didn’t set, she did not sleep. She did not eat. All she did was work at creating her clone. Sometimes, she would go into the cottage in the garden, which apparently belonged to Clow Reed—though he often mysteriously disappeared. There seemed to be books on creating humans, some on dark and tabooed magic. There were scrolls written in dark red ink with theories on bringing back people from the dead and even necromancy, but she didn’t read those.

 

Sometimes, Sakura had to remind herself why she was there. Because even though she had sealed the Fantasy, the longer she stayed in here, the more susceptible she was to forgetting herself. Luckily a little nightingale would perch on her shoulder and peck her cheek. Or a gorgeous orange monarch butterfly would land on her nose and tickle a sneeze out of her. Buzzing bumble bees landed on the huge colorful flowers, sapping the sweet nectar, never stinging her but becoming part of background noise. Later, fuzzy little garden creatures emerged from their nests and burrows to keep her company, as if to stave off loneliness. When she first arrived in the garden, she had been pretty sure the only living presence besides herself was Clow Reed.

 

A little red-brown chipmunk with bulging cheeks came up to her and offered her an acorn.

 

“Thank you, but you can keep it.” The chipmunk stuffed the nut into its cheek then scampered away. Sakura sat on the crisp grass, closing her eyes, breathing in the fresh scent of flowers. That’s right. Scent. How could she have forgotten that?

 

“How do you lure the scent?” she asked the other Sakura with hair unbound, in a simple white dress, barefooted.

 

The other Sakura looked at her and replied, “Scent?”

 

“Yes, one of the five senses,” said Sakura. “Sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.”

 

“Lure scent. With scent,” replied the other Sakura monotonously.

 

“My clone is smarter than me,” remarked Sakura, staring at the garden with its myriads of flowers of all shapes and colors, some she had never seen before in her world.

 

It seemed that Clow Reed was a curious sort. He entered the cottage, sniffing. “What is the heavenly smell?”

 

“Flowers, fruits and herbs from the garden!” called out Sakura. She was mixing a liquid in a vial that shifted through all colors of the rainbow while retaining a luminescent translucence.

 

“What are you making?” asked Clow again, when Sakura ignored him.

 

“A perfume that has never been smelled before,” replied Sakura.

 

“Why?”

 

“To lure the Scent, of course,” said Sakura, breathing in the fumes from the flask. “Meilin gave me a personalized perfume scent as my birthday present—that’s where I got the idea. Now that I think about it, this must be the longest birthday I’ve ever had. It’s technically still April 1st back home, I guess.”

 

“Do you even know how to make perfume?” Clow Reed asked.

 

Sakura turned to him, almost exasperated. “We’re inside the Fantasy anyway. And you had some books on perfumery over there.” She pointed to the bookshelf in the corner.

 

Clow caught a whiff of something sugary and light, somewhat fruity. “What is this now?” He watched the flask turn from a cherry red to a pale turquoise, and he breathed in what felt like a waft of crisp oceanic breeze and warm sunlight all rolled into one smell. He saw a row of birds lined up on the windowsill. Little rodent creatures also peeped up from nooks and crevices in the wood cottage.

 

“You’re making an aphrodisiac perfume, aren’t you?” muttered Clow Reed more to himself. “Dangerous girl.”

 

“Hmm?” Sakura breathed in the flask, now a bright apricot shade, smelling musky and sweet, with a touch of ripe peach.

 

“I said, what sort of scent are you creating?”

 

Sakura grinned up at Clow. “Are there things that even you don’t know? I’m capturing the scent of the rainbow, of course.”

 

And Clow stared down at her, again at a loss for words. “You think that it is possible to capture the scent of the rainbow?”

 

Sakura held up her flask, now a pale rose-violet, emitting a grapy freesia scent. “I already have.”

 

Sure enough, a tiny fairy-creature with a bubble skirt, shaped like a rounded perfume flask, popped up in the cottage, sniffing the room with her pointed little hyperosmic nose. She kept sniffing as the vial changed colors.

 

“What is this?” asked the Scent in a shrill voice. “I have never smelled this before.” The concoction turned a lime-green, with notes of fresh-cut grass, tangy citrus and crisp watermelon, reminiscent of summer. “Now, what is this?”

 

Sakura help up her little glass flask with her thumb and forefinger, as the liquid turned a warm amber-gold, filling the room with a cinnamon-honey scent laced with vanilla, apple and bergamot. “I will tell you, if you we agree to a deal. You enter a contract with me, and I will give you this perfume.”

 

The Scent hesitated, but as the room filled with the smell of sugary rosewater laced with raspberry and a hint of sandalwood, it declared, “Deal.”

 

Sakura grinned and handed the pixie creature the vial. “It’s the scent of the rainbow.”

 

“You can’t capture the scent of the rainbow,” replied the Scent, grabbing the vial, nearly its height, with both hands, burying its nose greedily in the explosion of all sorts of fragrant odors. 

 

“Yes, but I imagined every single wonderful smell I have ever smelled and imagined I could smell, and extracted all of that into this vial,” replied Sakura. “Of course, I’ve learned new smells here in Clow’s garden alone. And because the smells were made here in the Fantasy, using the Create, they continue to shift on its own, mixing to create all sorts of new scents I did not even think of.”

 

“I see because the scents were born within the Fantasy, they have a mind of their own,” replied the Scent, apparently satisfied with the answer, hugging the vial to its chest. “Impressive, human girl. Thank you for presenting me with scents I have never smelled before.”

 

Sakura held up her star-moon staff and called out, “Spirit of the dark forces. I, Sakura command you. Return to a new shape under contract. Sakura Card!” And she held up a new pink card with a little sprite creature holding an elaborate rainbow glass perfume bottle. 

 

After that, Clow seemed to be more willing to spend time with her in the gardens, sometime walking beside her as she walked through the field of lavenders, apparently favorites of Lord Landon Reed, breathing in their musky, therapeutic fragrance.

 

“This garden was created in the Fantasy by Edward Cleau Reed as a place of escape, as a haven away from greedy humans who always demanded something from him, away from the Li Clan who always felt threatened by him, away from the Reeds who always saw him as a half-breed misfit, away from all the burdens of being the greatest sorcerer of the East and West,” Clow told her one time. “It was made to resemble Lady Eleanor Reed’s English rose gardens.”

 

Sakura knew that the time she could spend here in Clow’s sanctuary were drawing to a close, as she noticed that the leaves outside seemed to be faintly tinged with orange—the only indication of time passing she had ever noticed within the garden.

 

She stared at a girl with short golden-brown hair, seated on the grass, leaning back on the trunk of a lofty beech tree with her eyes closed.

 

The Star Key was the object that Sakura had worn every day for nearly seven years, so it was the best object to use as the magnifier of the spell. The rest was a mixture of the Twin to give her a physical body, the Voice to give her speech, the Mirror and Transform to replicate her mannerisms and fortify the body, the Scent to mimic her pheromones, the Memory to implant enough data about Sakura’s past to deceive everybody, the Create to give her ability to react to unexpected situations, the Fantasy and the Illusion as a double shield, and the Veil to act as a shield for the deception from being discovered. That idea, she had gotten from the Dark Ones.

 

Clow’s voice came from behind her. “You have made remarkable progress during a short period of time. She looks, speaks, smells and moves like you. But she’s lacking something.”

 

“She doesn’t have a soul,” said Sakura wearily. “Without a soul, she will not be able to trick anyone.”

 

“Yes,” said Clow Reed. “Many lesser magicians would stop here. Normal humans wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway.”

 

“But my friends would know. The Alliance would know,” said Sakura. “Clow-san, you know how to give a being a soul. How can you do it?”

 

“There are different ways to create a soul. But you don’t have a lot of time, and want to create a soul that is like yours. It’s quite simple. You have to give it a part of yourself,” replied Clow grimly.

 

“Like what?” Sakura asked.


“I recommend an eye—you have two of them anyway,” remarked Clow. “But I warn you, even if you give a part of yourself, you will only have an empty soul, not a living one. And you also put yourself in danger of losing your own soul, should something go amiss.”

 

Sakura frowned. “What’s the difference between an empty soul and a living soul?”

 

“An empty soul can be your puppet—you can have it do your biddings. In other words, it can be an extension of yourself, but in the end, it’s just a mimicry of a soul. But a living soul has the ability to independently feel, think for its self and make decisions. A living soul has free will,” replied Clow slowly. “You may say an empty soul does not have a beating heart.”

 

And Sakura stared up at Clow intently. “You failed in bringing back Mizuki Mika-san because you were not able to recreate her complete soul.”

 

Clow stared down at her over the rim of his spectacles, taken aback. “You know about Mika. You are correct. I tried many ways to bring her back. I was able to make beings that looked like her physically. I was even able to create a living soul that felt remarkably alike to her. But in the end, it was not my Mika. You can never bring back the dead once they are gone, though for a brief while, you can live a darn good illusion of it.”

 

“How did she die?” asked Sakura softly.

“She died in front of my eyes. Protecting me from one who wished to destroy me,” said Clow quietly.

 

“That must have been painful for you,” said Sakura.

 

Clow looked down at the younger girl. “It was worse because I’ve returned back to that time numerous times, wondering if I could change the course of history. Through the Time. The Loop. The Return. But I never was able to.”

 

“Which is why you tried to resurrect her,” said Sakura. “You still want to bring her back.”

 

“I may give up eventually,” said Clow Reed. “Even one as all powerful as myself can’t change the laws of magic.”

 

“What if your reincarnated soul was to be reunited with her reincarnated soul one day?” asked Sakura.

 

Clow gave her a sad smile. “I don’t know. I won’t be able to say. Because, I Edward Cleau Reed, with my name, experience, memories, heart and soul, will not be alive to tell you. But maybe my reincarnated self would be satisfied. Who knows?”

 

Years ago, a Clow Reed from the past had told her, “Just like the seasons continue to pass by with no pause, people pass on and change, and that is how anything living on this world should behave.” She thought she understood him now.  

 

Sakura stared at her soulless clone. A puppet, that’s what she was. She was pretty sure Syaoran was reaching his limits with the Time by now—his powers were fully not recovered at this point, so he would not be able to hold the Time for long. And though time flowed differently in the Fantasy, none of her friends who were waiting at Tokyo Tower to celebrate her 17th birthday with her must know of her absence. So much was at stake here, and there was simply no room for failure.

 

There was no time left—she could feel Syaoran’s grip on the Time outside the portal faltering—that’s probably why the leaves were changing colors here in the gardens. She recalled Clow’s eerie words. “I recommend an eye—you have two of them anyway.”

 

He was right. She had two anyway. And an eye not only was a part of herself—it was a source of strong magical power. This would be a means to enable her doppelganger to have her powers, enough to deceive everybody. Another factor she had not thought of until she came here.

 

Sakura shuddered and took out a pocket knife. She pointed the blade at her right eye. To her disgust, she realized her hand was trembling too hard to carry through.

 

“You’re a magician, aren’t you?” said a low voice into her ear. “You don’t plan on doing thing physically—that can get very messy you know.”

 

“Oh. I see.” Sakura almost sighed in relief as she lowered the knife.

 

“It’s an ugly task. I can extract it for you, if you want,” said Clow, tilting his head pensively.

 

“No, I have to do it—I can’t risk having any traces of your power in the clone,” said Sakura. “Even though you probably aren’t the real Clow anyway.” 

 

“A good precaution,” Clow Reed said.

 

Sakura spread her right hand, palm up, in front of her.

 

“Aren’t you going to think twice about doing this?” asked Clow. “You realize that your eye is not just any eye—body parts of a Level One magician are very dangerous tools because it holds a lot of power.”

 

Sakura smiled. “That’s why it will work. It has to.” Beads of perspiration gathered on her forehead and rolled down in her cheek. Her hand trembled. She felt a searing pain her left eye socket and muffled a scream. And wisps of smoke gathered as an emerald stone crystalized on her palm, burning hot, as she gasped, trying to steady her breath.

 

Then, she pressed it into the clone’s chest. The clone Sakura opened her eyes. She reached over and touched Sakura’s left eye, which was shut, and asked in her voice, “Does it hurt?”

 

Sakura shook her head. “Not anymore.” And she reached to her neck and slipped off her key necklace and half a shard of the Eye of the Dragon, fastening it around her clone’s neck, the final touch. “Go back to Tokyo Tower. Syaoran would be waiting for you there. Let him now, I will be waiting here.”

 

The clone nodded.

 

“Thank you,” said Sakura, finding it odd, like she was talking to her reflection in the mirror. It wasn’t like this was the first time she had met her doppelganger. She’d even had one visit her in her dreams before. “And I’m sorry.”

 

“Everything will be all right,” her clone told her.

 

And Sakura got the odd feeling that her clone seemed calmer than she was. Maybe because she did not know of fear yet.

 

Say, Tomoyo, I wonder if this choice I made is the correct one, after all. If I choose to support him, that means I have to let him go so he can carry out his destiny. But how is the greatest happiness wishing the happiness of the other person, when the right decision will take him away from me forever? Once he becomes the Great Elder, he will have to return to Hong Kong permanently to lead the clan. He won’t be free to be by my side anymore. He will never be able to fill the last spot in the Alliance of the Stars. He will leave me, just like Ryuuren-san had to leave my mother, like Li Shulin-sama left her husband and son.

 

Tomoyo, will you and everybody else forgive me for making this selfish choice and lying to you all? I promised I would be there for him this time because it’s the last thing I can do for him —for I realized all this time he’s been here for me, and yet, I could give him nothing back. I don’t want to hold him back, and I realize that’s what I’ve been doing all this time. I was being unfair to him, always making him choose. Will you understand this choice I made?

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

“Did you order your clone to die if Syaoran could not carry through with the task?” asked Celes, the Blue Dragon asked the pensive girl.

 

Sakura shook her head. “No. I didn’t think Syaoran wouldn’t be able to do it.”

 

“You should have factored that into your plans,” Celes remarked. “That he wouldn’t be able to follow through. It was risky that you had no back-up plan. But your amateur abilities in this scenario seem to have paid off—the natural reactions tricked everybody watching. Why do you think your clone killed herself then?”

 

A single trickle of tear rolled down Sakura’s eyes, as if she recollected the look in Syaoran’s eyes as he was about to drop his blade and forfeit. “I don’t know.”

 

Celes remarked, “It was interesting that even though your clone simply was your semblance, and not real, Syaoran was not able to kill it. What I’m more curious about is, why would you go to such lengths in order to help Syaoran become the Great Elder?”

 

“It’s not just to help Syaoran become the Great Elder,” said Sakura. “I also want to regain my power of the stars and return his power of the moon to him and set everything right again.”

 

“Even though you are afraid when that happens, your last link to him will be broken?”

 

Sakura looked up at the dragon of the glistening azure scales. “Syaoran has been there for me, all this time, when I captured the Clow Cards, when I had to convert them to Sakura Cards. When the dark forces first showed up nearly three years ago, Syaoran returned to Japan for me, defying his family. When I nearly died last year, he gave up his powers to save me. In all my times of need, he was always there for me. This time, I am going to be there for him, no matter what.”

 

Celes’ long head drooped down as he remarked, “The irony that by you supporting him, you drive him further and further away from you. So, what are you going to do about switching your powers back?”

 

“Syaoran and I spent some time discussing this matter,” said Sakura, holding up the cracked diamond globe. “It’s strange that the crystal broke in half because I have heard that the Dragon’s Eye is made of harder substance than diamonds and is near indestructible. It shouldn’t have cracked simply because of power exertion—and none of the other four treasures were affected. True, I was using the crystal as my main focus. But in retrospective, Syaoran said that is what probably saved my life. I had already burned through all my powers, and was drawing on the power of the Five Force Treasures with my lifeline. The crystal breaking broke my contact with the Five Force Treasures, and I fainted before I burned through any more of my lifeline, which would surely have killed me on the spot. I would have died if Syaoran didn’t transfer his powers to me.”  

 

“True, Amamiya Hayashi knew that the Five Force Treasures when combined holds extraordinary powers—powers that after the Great Five were gone, could be abused should they call into the wrong hands,” remarked Celes. “So, he put a seal on his diamond necklace, a cap on the powers than can be used, perhaps as a safety precaution. He made it so the necklace would self-destruct before too much power could be abused, being the farseeing schemer he always was. Then, he hid it away, out of human reach.”

 

Sakura gazed up at the dragon with a sly smile. “Then you do admit that there is a way for the eye to be repaired, even though the White Dragon said even he can’t repair it. Because, it still retains some powers on each of the halves. If it was truly broken, it should have turned into regular stone. But it reacted when it neared the White Dragon. It also helped trigger the regeneration of the power of the stars when Syaoran took it. In other words, it’s fixable.”

 

“You tricky little thing,” said Celes with what sounded like a long sigh. “The White Dragon can’t repair it because it broke because of human magic. But the original spell-binder can probably know how to repair it, for it is his spell. And human spells generally are generally made to be reversible.”

 

“Meaning, Amamiya Hayashi-sama should be able to tell me how to fix it,” said Sakura.

 

“Perhaps, if he hasn’t been dead for the past century and a half,” muttered Celes.

 

Sakura’s hands were clenched in a ball. “You said all these reservoirs are portals, didn’t you? Some are time portals, are they not?”

 

“Yes,” Celes replied. “But there’s always a risk in portals not taking your where you expect it to and not being able to return to where you started off. And of course, you’ve already been warned that history cannot be meddled with without consequences.”

 

Sakura smiled slightly, over her shoulder. “I’ll call for you if I get lost.”

 

“You impertinent thing—what makes you think I care if you get stuck in a black hole somewhere?” Celes asked.

 

“You probably don’t,” said Sakura. “But you’ve spent two millennia as the patron dragon of the Li Clan. Surely you do that because you see some worth in that family. And right now, I have Syaoran’s power of the moon in me. You probably want me to return it to Syaoran when he returns.”

 

“If he returns.”

 

“When he returns,” Sakura reiterated.

 

“You aggravating chit,” grumbled Celes. “I take no responsibility for you. And you won’t get any more information out of me either.”

 

But she walked over to a pool, and gathered her skirts in one hand, staring at her reflection in the water. She glanced over at the sandglass—about a quarter of the time Syaoran had allotted had passed.

 

“I’m serious—don’t go,” said Celes. “You are not in good condition, having given up a part of your soul like that. It’s dangerous, and there is little I can do for you if you leave the Cavern of Reservoirs.”

 

Sakura smiled faintly. “I’m going to look for Amamiya Hayashi-sama.” She jumped into a pool without making a splash.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Scorching heat beat down on her back, prickling the back of her neck. Her muscles ached as if she had completed a marathon. She picked herself off the gravely ground. Someone prodded her back with a long staff or perhaps a sword sheath.

 

“Hey, you, lump of sheep fur,” said a sharp female voice.

 

Sakura sat up, flipping her crumpled fur-lined white cape back over her head and stared up at a woman in a red silk cheongsam embroidered with gold thread that hugged her figure but allowed freedom of movement. Sections of long jet-black hair was partitioned and twisted up into an elaborate braided bun, clasped with gold and jade hairpins that blinked in the light. She held the sheathed Five Force Sword in one hand. They were in some sort of ridged canyon with no clear landmarks to indicate their location.

 

This was the first time Sakura had seen the infamous Li Shulin up close, and indeed, her breathtaking beauty was undeniable, if not terrifying. There was nothing subtle about her features, her almond-shaped eyes were like a tiger’s, pupils gold-lined with flares of crimson and amber, with long, heavy black lashes fringing both upper and lower rims. Her brows were also dark and slanted upwards, and her chin pointed and determined. But her scarlet lips were full and bow-shaped giving her a feminine and vulnerable effect. Her age was indiscernible, and though she appeared to be in her late 20s, it was impossible to tell for sure.

 

“You.” Shulin knelt down and grabbed Sakura’s chin with the V of her thumb and forefinger like a pincer, twisting her head left and right. Her long nails dug into Sakura’s cheek fat making her lips pucker like a fish. “These green eyes, the straw-like hair, this aggravatingly familiar face. You don’t happen to be related to Amamiya Hayashi? Maybe his daughter with that plain and boring woman? What’s your name, girl?”

 

“My name is Kinomoto Sakura.”

“Sakura. His favorite flowers.” Shulin glared at her accusingly.

 

“I am Amamiya Hayashi-sama’s descendent from the future,” squeaked Sakura. “I know you are Li Shulin-sama, of the Great Five.”

 

“And yet, why do you reek strongly of the Li Clan’s ancient power of the moon?” Shulin demanded—she was used to being recognized wherever she went, as a Li, as a member of the Great Five, even for her peerless beauty. “It’s creepy, like you are Hayashi and my lovechild.” She abruptly let go of Sakura’s chin.

 

“Amamiya Hayashi-sama. Do you… love him still?” Sakura blurted out.

 

Shulin covered her mouth with the back of her right hand and cackled artificially. “What makes you think I loved Hayashi of all people?” She held up her left hand, where a star sapphire ring, identical to the one Sakura wore in a chain around her neck. “I’m married, with a son. What a ridiculous question to ask.”

 

Sakura rubbed her sore cheeks. So, this was an older Li Shulin, one who had already married Landon Reed. “But didn’t you love him, many years ago?” If you hadn’t loved, Risa wouldn’t have killed herself. And the Dark Ones’ vengeance would not have led to centuries-old hurt.

 

Shulin gave a little shrug. “Did I ever love him, I wonder now? True, I was childishly infatuated with him for a very long time. He had that kind of effect on people. He was infuriatingly fair, a pacifist to the bone, yet deadly skilled with his sword, the only man who could beat me in combat, yet wouldn’t. But, those are just fond memories of the golden era of the Great Five. We’ve all moved on since then.”  

 

Silently, Sakura stared up at this woman’s whose face was said to have been able to launch a thousand ships, the Helen of Troy of the East, as Shulin had been nicknamed by the poets who sang her praise. Shulin could rightfully be vain, but rather, she was ambitious and somewhat manipulative, sometimes cruel and selfish. Sakura also knew that Shulin had once really cared for Hayashi deeply, enough to try to splinter Hayashi and Chang Risa’s brief marriage. But could she hate this fiercely proud woman who abandoned husband and son for the sake of the clan, who had rattled up so many lives, who had ultimately split up the Great Five? 

 

“Ugh, those eyes,” said Shulin. “I hated when Hayashi stared at me with those uncanny green eyes, as if he was reading my thoughts. Don’t tell me you have the Sight as well?”

 

“Not like Hayashi-sama,” replied Sakura softly.

 

“Nobody does, quite like Hayashi. Anyhow, I don’t have time to chitchat with you, cute as a button you are,” said Shulin. “Unless you too are a part of the Test of the Great Elder or Celes in disguise.”

 

“Oh, are you in the midst of the Test of the Great Elder as well?” said Sakura.

 

“As well?” Shulin frowned. “Someone else is as well? Don’t tell me the Li Clan sent a back up? Who? Shenji? Why, because they couldn’t trust a female after all?”

 

“No, it’s a Li descendent from the future,” said Sakura. “Nearly a century and a half later.”

 

“I see. Well, how reassuring it is to know that the Li Clan is still thriving then,” Shulin said. “We didn’t get eliminated, I presume. Which means I will pass the test.”

 

“Are you not scared of not making it back?” Sakura asked.

 

“No, why should I be scared? I am Li Shulin, the Chosen One of the Li Clan and of the original Great Five,” replied Shulin. “I’ve made a lot of sacrifices in my life to get to this point—why should I lose to some silly old dragon who is guardian to the Li Clan, when I’m more skilled and powerful than any of my predecessors in the past millennium?”

 

Humility was not a trait Shulin seemed to possess. And yet, despite her bravado, there was a trace of loneliness in her amber eyes that were so similar to Syaoran’s. “Shulin-sama, what did you pay the Fantasy in order to gain passage into the Dragon Isles?” asked Sakura. But she thought she already knew the answer.

 

Shulin stared at her sharply, her black brows burrowed down. “Don’t look at me like that, as if I am some horrible wife and mother. I did what I had to do. I gave up my family, my relationship with my husband and son—it was a choice I knew I would have to make to become the Great Elder. I can’t be some sort of perfect wife to Lord Landon, hosting tea parties and tending to the rose gardens. I was born to be a Li Clan warrior, the Chosen One. The Great Elder died suddenly in this period of turmoil. Political leaders in Shanghai are trying to persecute our clan because of our close ties with the British merchants and consul—they will destroy us if we stay. We can fight back, but at what expense? We will be outnumbered, our men slaughtered, and our family stripped of all our property, status and wealth. I don’t care if some of the Elders call it an exile—we have no choice but to start anew in Hong Kong. We’ll leave behind all our magnificent estates, property and traditions routing back from 1,000 years in Shanghai—and who else will lead the clan in a new city? The island was seceded to the British Empire—it’s completely nomad’s land, I heard. So we will need to build up everything all over again from scratch. I don’t even know if that’s possible, or if we will succeed. But the clan needs me, and I won’t abandon it in time of need.”

 

And Sakura realized, this was not the bold young teenage girl who arrived in Edo on her own to defeat the strongest swordsman of Japan, nor a Great Five magician who dominated the golden era of magic, undefeatable and invulnerable, nor the brazen pretty woman who played with the hearts of two men, who spurned the love of Lord Landon Reed while yearning for Amamiya Hayashi, nor even the mysterious mother of Clow Reed, the greatest sorcerer of the East and West. She was a born leader, determined to carry out her destiny.

 

“Landon knew I was never happy there, in England. It’s not my home. But little Edward—I don’t know what to do of him.” Shulin sighed. “He’s such an odd kid. He never cried, not once. He stared at me with those queer blue eyes. He’s an old soul, always observing, watching. Maybe he’ll resent me for abandoning him. But he’ll turn out to be a great sorcerer—more powerful than even Lan or me, because he will have both our best traits.”

 

“Yes, he will,” murmured Sakura, then drew back when she realized Shulin was peering at her—or at her chest.

 

“What I’m curious about is why you have Landon’s ring around your neck.”

 

Sakura grasped the star sapphire ring, identical to the one that Shulin was wearing on her fourth finger. “I—Syaoran-kun gave it to me.”

 

Shulin’s rosebud lips curved into a coy smile. “I’m presuming Syaoran-kun is the name of my cute little descendent who is the latest Great Elder candidate. So, is this Syaoran your husband? Or betrothed one? That might explain why you reek of Li powers.”

 

“N-neither!” stammered Sakura, turning beet red from the base of her neck to her ears. “He’s just—he’s just…an acquaintance!” Well, not exactly that, either. How could she explain this strange relationship the two shared, allies yet rivals, best friends but enemies.

 

“Oh?” Shulin tilted her head, her ruby drop earrings blinking. “You do realize what it means when a Li man gives a woman a powerful family heirloom ring right? It’s a vow. A proposal.”

 

“Hoe—actually, it’s just a loan. I’m going to give it back to Syaoran when he comes back,” said Sakura, fiddling with the ring around her neck, cheeks flushed. “Because he will come back.”

 

“He might not,” said Shulin. “The Test of the Great Elders—it’s not as simple as I thought it’d be. I knew what to expect, and I’ve been preparing it for it well in advance. The Great Five has meddled with dimension theories in the past, and Landon would have been fascinated by this whole process. He studied more about portals and dimensions than any of us. But dimension traveling is extremely dangerous for those who have no aptitude for it.”

 

“Actually, I was hoping to find Hayashi-sama, but I was led to you instead,” said Sakura.

 

“Interesting,” said Shulin. “Maybe your power of the moon—if it is indeed yours— was attracted to mine. Why are you looking for Hayashi?”

 

“I broke the Eye of the Dragon and was hoping to find a way to fix it.”

 

For a moment, Shulin’s eyes glinted at the knowledge that Sakura possessed the Eye of the Dragon. “It may be a good thing it is broken, after all. If whole, it holds many powers and can even serve as a portal. Sorry, I can’t help you with fixing it. Those complicated spell things—that is not my specialty. The whole Five Force Treasure project definitely was more of Landon’s line of expertise. And I myself haven’t seen Hayashi in years, not since… not since Ruichi’s death.” Again, that rare trace of vulnerability when she spoke of Hayashi.

 

“I was sure I’d be able to find Hayashi-sama,” murmured Sakura with a sigh.

 

“Well, that makes two of us. Maybe I was hoping to see Hayashi after all this time,” said Shulin with soft laughter. “You know, it’s sort of ridiculous to say this after all that has happened, but I sometimes miss Hayashi as a friend more than anything else. He was someone who knew how to listen and not judge—you know how rare it is to find someone like that? I miss all of them, for we really were the best of friends once. Mayura, who was like a big sister, sometimes wittily sarcastic but with the warmest heart I have ever seen. She left us far too soon. If there only had been another way…Ruichi, when I think back to when I first met him, he was such a mature and solemn boy, and he had such wild, suspicious eyes, which is probably why Mayura looked after him so. Rui was part Chinese, so we had that in common, and once we did get him to loosen up, he was earnest and hardworking, always looking after his sister. And Lan, I probably ruined him, though he was a hopeless case to start with. But I did enjoy our terrible rows—there’s nobody I fought with quite as much. I do love him dearly, in my own way.”

 

“Surely you can tell him so when you go back,” said Sakura.

 

“I can’t. He told me if I left England, he will never let me see Edward again,” said Shulin. “He told me not to write, never to come back, that we will be strangers from now on.” She smiled wistfully. “He once told me he had two great rivals for my heart. Amamiya Hayashi and the Li Clan. But Hayashi never was a rival. He didn’t ever love me, I think. I don’t think that man knows how to love. I could never understand Hayashi’s heart, not after all those years of being by his side.”

 

Between Hayashi and the Li Clan, would you still have chosen the clan, Sakura wanted to ask Shulin.

 

“So, there is no choice but for me to become the Great Elder and laugh at Landon’s face. But first, I’m got to give Celes an earful for making this horrid test and wasting my precious time and energy. I’m sure I got a few white hairs from this ordeal,” said Shulin, tugging on her jet-black hair. “You hear me old fire-breathing geezer! I’m coming to get you!”

 

Sakura blinked. “Can he hear you?”

 

“Of course,” replied Shulin. “We are on the Dragon Isles, after all.”

 

“We are?” Sakura’s jaw dropped. “I haven’t traveled far at all. I was trying to get back to Edo Japan.”

 

“Good luck with that,” said Shulin. “I’ve been just looping the Dragon Isles the past 100 tries. All the dimension traveling was fun at first. I admit, I got distracted sometimes, especially when I saw familiar faces or ended up in fascinating futuristic places—it helped me envision what I want for the Li Clan’s new home. An international, urban city of commerce and trade—how does that sound? I’m going to build our new headquarters on a hill, I think. Then, I focused, and got my self back to the Dragon Isles—except, wrong time period every try. I’ve met a good bunch of my old predecessors, including Li Dairon. He told me I am like him—that nerve. I’m nothing like that arrogant, pompous, womanizing ancestor of mine. I half think Celes designed the Test of Great Elders as a test of endurance. And maybe an opportunity to speak with our ancestors and seek guidance. Except, most of them don’t seem to have much of a clue at all despite being ancient.”

 

Sakura frowned. “There must be some sort of trick or tactic though, to get back to the Cavern of Reservoirs in the right time period.” Do I even know how to get back myself? She had not paid any heed to Celes’ warnings.

 

Shulin shrugged. “Many novice magicians fall into the trap of trying to find their way back through blindly traveling various worlds—seeking help of others who can open portals for them or relying on dimension travel devises. It’s not about luck. The key is first finding your way back to the Dragon Isles. This can be a difficult feat depending on what sort of world you fall into—but any Great Elder candidate made it to the Dragon realms once before so should be able to again. Once you’ve reached an optimal dimension where passage to the Dragon Isles is possible, you have to make it back to the Cavern of Reservoirs. From there you’ve got to find the time travel portal of that dimension and keep cycling till you reach the right time period in the Dragonlands. It’s a tedious process but it’s a foolproof method because probability-wise, even if it takes you a million tries, you will eventually end up back to where you started out—and it shouldn’t even take that many tries once you get the hang of it. Time travel is much easier than dimension travel for Lis. Besides, if you keep traveling through different worlds, you are separating yourself further and further from the starting point, both in terms of dimensions and passage of time, lowering the chances of you being able to return.”

 

So this was the analytical skills of a Five Force Magician. Sakura paled. Did Syaoran know any of this? Or would he meet anybody in his travels who would be able to tell him this?

 

“Of course, this doesn’t apply to those who have dimension traveling abilities, which sadly, I don’t,” said Shulin. “The worse trap though, is being caught in Limbo.”

 

“Limbo?” Sakura repeated.

 

“Or some call it dreamscape,” said Shulin. “Sometimes our souls drift there in our dreams from our world. But amid this journey, when the body travels too far, too long, or is put under great duress, it can be thrown into the dreamscape, or the place in between dimensions. How should I put it…If the Fantasy is a place where all of one’s greatest dreams and wishes are realized and fulfilled, then the Limbo is a place where all of one’s greatest nightmares and fears come true.”

 

“I feel like I’ve been there before,” murmured Sakura, recalling when she was trapped during Yue’s judgment in a world where everybody who had contact with the Clow Cards had forgotten their love for their most important person. So, that’s where Clow Reed got his inspiration from, when he devised Yue’s final judgment for the next Card Mistress. She was only able to escape thanks to Mizuki Kaho’s Moon Bell, an artifact created by Clow Reed. “How did you escape the Limbo?”

 

“Didn’t you hear what I just said—I did my best to avoid it. I won’t be able to make it out, I think, if I get trapped in there,” said Shulin. “I’ve sinned too much in life. A soul stuck in Limbo will eventually crumble under the duress and be permanently splintered from its body which will never wake up again. But then again, there are people like Hayashi who would drift into the dreamscape to meditate—I swear, everybody thought he was a saint, but anyone who knew the Great Five should have been told, each and every one of us were sadists.”

 

Syaoran wouldn’t get stuck in the Limbo. He was far too logical, too pragmatic. Sakura clenched her hands into a tight ball. But when she had been stuck in the Limbo years ago, during Yue’s Final Judgment, in an alternate world where all those she had close contact with had forgotten their memories of their most loved ones, she hadn’t been able to escape with her own powers at all.

 

“I’m ready to end my test now—I’ve got to get going,” said Shulin. “I wish you the best on your mission, descendent of Amamiya Hayashi. If you ever to end up seeing Hayashi, tell him…tell him Li Shulin became the Great Elder and moved to Hong Kong.”

 

“He probably knows that already,” Sakura pointed out.  

 

“I know he knows,” said Shulin, chin up. “He’s the one who told me my destiny in the first place.”

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

Sakura wondered if Shulin made it back to Shanghai safely after she passed the Test of the Great Elder, if she had been able to orchestrate a smooth move to Hong Kong, if she ever did get to see her husband and son again. But she already did know Shulin would become the most famous and venerated Great Elder of the Li Clan in recent centuries. Sakura should have felt intimidated by having a conversation with one of the Great Five Magicians. But she realized that the sharp-tongued woman had felt familiar because she had recognized in Shulin traces of Meilin’s impetuousness and bluntness in speech, a bit of Clow Reed’s sardonic sense of humor, Syaoran’s determination and sincerity and an air of Ryuuren’s aloof smugness, flair and confidence.

 

Rather than worrying about failing to fix the Dragon’s Eye, she couldn’t help wonder if Syaoran was back in the Cavern of Reservoirs by now. Surely, he would find a way back. It seemed that searching for Hayashi was a complete failure—or maybe he had never meant to be found by her.

 

She drew her fur-lined white hood over her head as she walked through a snow blizzard. It was impossible to tell where she was, which country, which time period, because of the icy storm through which she could barely see a meter ahead of her.

 

Then, she thought she saw a pale blue glow eerily light a lone frost-covered tree.

 

She walked forward from the darkness to a solitary figure lying on the snow-covered ground. A little bit closer—she had to see who it was. She gasped when she finally recognized who it was. He looked so much older, wearier than she remembered him. It was so startling, she realized, because it was as if she was given a glimpse of an older Syaoran, lying at the brink of death.

 

Slowly, he turned to stare at her with piercing sapphire eyes. At least those eyes were the same. He squinted and blinked. “Nadeshiko?”

 

Sakura walked forward, closer to him and knelt on the snow, next to him, hood falling from her hair. His head turned to her, and he whispered in a cracked voice, “You’re not Nadeshiko.” He could not hide the disappointment in his voice.

 

“No… I am her daughter. Kinomoto Sakura.” Her heart ached to see Li Ryuuren like this, face lined in pain and exhaustion, lips cracked, body like lead… as if he were dying. But he couldn’t be dying. He couldn’t be older than thirty at the most.

 

“I see. Sakura… Of course… You have her eyes.” Ryuuren smiled and the corners of his eyes crinkled. “A bright green like the evergreen woods of Japan. You probably don’t remember me, but I once saw you in Tomoeda when you were about three. The same age as my youngest child. You met him too. I’m… a friend of your mother’s.”

 

“I know,” Sakura said softly bending over. A silver chain slipped from her neck, with a sapphire ring dangled from it.

 

Ryuuren pointed to the blue gem. “I gave that to her once… But she returned it to me.” He looked up at the girl, her delicate facial features a split image of Amamiya Nadeshiko at age sixteen, especially with the layer of frost covering her hair. “I wish I could have protected her… She mustn’t… she mustn’t give up. She loves Kinomoto Fujitaka—and her son is so smart. I wanted to see her one last time. I wanted her to live. Before I leave this world, I wanted to see her and tell her…”

 

Sakura realized that with his last remaining strength, he must have summoned for Nadeshiko and had called her instead. She clutched the ring in her hand. If only it had been her mother standing here at this moment, not her. What could she do for this man in so much pain? This man who was broken and desperate. Li Ryuuren who had always been so confident and self-assured, handsome and sharp-tongued. He was now reduced to a wasted man who accepted the chains of human mortality.

 

“I went to Japan to see her that last time… But I still didn’t tell her…” He closed his eyes and his dark brows furrowed down. Then, he realized a warm hand pressed against his large, callused hand.

 

“She knows,” Sakura said softly, holding Ryuuren’s broad right hand with both of hers. “She’s always known, even without words.”

 

“I see.” Now, Ryuuren stared up at the sky. “I see. So that’s how it was… Some words are never meant to be said. But they are still heard.” He glanced over at leather-bound book by his side. It was his journal—Sakura recognized it, though at this point it was still new and not burned. “How much do you know, Sakura? About your mother and me.”

 

“I have a good idea of the general story,” replied Sakura.

 

“Till this day, I wonder what would have changed if I made a different choice back then. If I didn’t leave. If I didn’t believe that was the only option I had. Yet, if it was fate, no matter what I chose to do, things would never have worked out.” Ryuuren smiled crookedly. “I’ve been a horrible husband and father. All I feel is guilt towards my wife, Ielan, for not being able to give her my everything. I have four beautiful daughters. And Syaoran. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see him grow up. He’s a little warrior already. Stubborn as a horse and agile as a small wolf. I hope he grows up to be a better man than his father. I wish he knows I never meant to leave him so early. I wanted him to have a father in his life. I wanted him to grow up to be strong and noble, courageous and courteous.”

 

“He did,” said Sakura. “He’s strong and braver than anyone I know. He’s stubborn but has a deep, deep heart. He tries to solve everything on his own so he has a hard time sharing his own problems, but he’s always there to help everyone in time of need. He’s a wonderful friend and teacher and so talented at the violin, just like you, Li-san. And he’s so proud of his father; he looks up to you so much, Li-san, and became the Chosen One, just like you.”

 

“Is he… your friend?” Ryuuren stared at Sakura with hungry azure eyes. “Tell me more about my son. What does he like? What does he do for fun?”

 

“Yes… We’re friends.” Yes, they were friends but not friends. Allies but not allied. “He became the Chosen One at age ten, the youngest ever in the history of the Li Clan, and came to Japan. He was the captain of the Seijou Junior High soccer team. Everybody at school looked up to him. His strongest subject at school is math and science. His favorite color is green. His favorite flower is the peony. He cooks like a pro-chef, and he was even the star of the junior high musical, Star-Crossed, though he claims he has stage fright since our fifth grade play.”

 

“Not our musical that my friends and I wrote for fun many years ago?” Ryuuren smiled nostalgically. “Does the boy still have that cute habit of frowning really hard when he thinks and pouting his mouth?”

 

Sakura nodded. “He’s quite scary at first appearance.”

 

“But he’s a big softie, isn’t he?” Ryuuren chuckled. “His sisters liked to dress him up in dresses when he was a toddler—don’t tell him I told you that.”

 

“He has a good sense of fashion.” Sakura added, “But his best skill is in martial arts—he was the Great Elder’s most prized pupil, said Meilin.”

 

“Poor thing. Uncle Renshu is a relentless training master,” said Ryuuren. “But there would have been no one better to learn from.”

 

“He even taught me some martial arts too,” Sakura said. Yes, the Syaoran she knew. The Syaoran who was gentle and kind. The Syaoran who was a little awkward and sharp-tongued but the Syaoran was always by her side to lend her a shoulder to lean on, to steady her when she tripped, to laugh together with, bicker with and depend upon. But she no longer really knew him. The Syaoran who would be the Great Elder. The Syaoran who would lead the Li Clan in Hong Kong. The Syaoran she probably will not see again for a long time, if they ever did return to the real world. 

 

“I’m glad to hear… he grew up all right. I was always worried.” Ryuuren’s voice was weary again. “I don’t want him to follow in his father’s footsteps. At least him, I want him to be free.”

 

Sakura’s lips trembled. “You can see him—he is very near by. I can bring you to him!” Yes, she had to find Syaoran somewhere within those many facets within the Cavern of Reservoirs, and bring him to his father.

 

“No, dear, it’s all right. It’s too late,” whispered, Ryuuren. He lifted his hand which had been clenched over his stomach till now, and Sakura gasped to see a deep, raw wound. The pure white snow was dyed in a brilliant scarlet around him as his hand lifted. “Just stay and keep tell me about him.”

 

“He is loyal to the Clan,” said Sakura in a clipped voice. “He’ll become a great leader of the Clan someday—he already is a great leader.”

 

“Do you have someone you love, Sakura?”

 

Sakura paused only for a second. “Yes.”

 

“Then no matter what, don’t let that person go.”

 

“He’s already left me,” replied Sakura softly. She knew this when he returned home six years ago after the last Sakura Card had been converted. She realized it a year ago when he walked away at the Hong Kong harbors and again after the Great Elder died, when he told her that he was going to take over the clan. She reaffirmed this when she saw the serious look in his eyes as he faced Celes to embark on his test to become the Great Elder.

 

Ryuuren frowned. “You are still young and have a lot of time ahead of you.” He broke out in a fit of coughing, wincing as it strained the gash in his stomach.

 

“Yes, that is why I will always be waiting for him.” Carefully, Sakura fished for a handkerchief and wiped the specks of blood from his lips. If she could use her powers to help this man—but could she do anything? It was nearly 14 years ago. Li Ryuuren was already dead. What could she do for a dying man?

 

“Thank you, Sakura. You are very kind,” said Ryuuren, in a fainter voice than before.

 

“No, the kind one is Syaoran. Years ago, I was crying from a broken heart. And Syaoran told me that everything would be all right. He told me that someday, I really will find my most important person. He gave me a blue handkerchief to wipe away my tears.” Sakura smiled. “Just some months ago, I cried over a broken heart again, and he did the same then.”

 

“I always worried about him growing up without a father-figure. But I guess he grew up fine.” Ryuuren shut his eyes. “I don’t want to die yet. I have so much left to do. I have to see Syaoran inherit the Five Force Sword. I have to marry off all my four daughters and weep as I walk them down the aisle. I have to apologize to Ielan for causing her so much heartache and show Leiyun the Typhoon Dragon move I’ve been promising to teach him. And I have to teach Syaoran… not to make the same mistakes I did.”

 

What can you say to a man who is in his last hours of life, with Death waiting at his side to take him away? Sakura could but remain silent. She noticed that the blizzard had calmed and occasional large snowflakes drifted down, glistening like frozen teardrops from the sky.  

 

“I’m sorry, Sakura, for calling you here.” Ryuuren opened his eyes again. Though his face was pale as snow, his eyes were a brilliant ocean blue. “Please stay till I am… asleep. I don’t want to die alone. It is frightening yet… almost a relief.”

 

“Ryuuren-san, if there’s anything I can do?” Sakura reached into her pocket for the Heal.

 

He shook his head slowly. “No… I just want someone by my side. To remember my existence, that I once lived and then didn’t. Just keep talking to me, Sakura, so I know that you are there. My eyes are starting to blur. It won’t be long now. Let me hear your voice. That voice. How about your mother? Tell me about her.”

 

“My mother is the most beautiful person I know.”

 

“I know that.” Ryuuren smiled ruefully.

 

She didn’t have the heart to tell him that she was long since dead, that she barely remembered Nadeshiko as a mother. "She loves music. She plays the violin—but she mostly plays the organ at home.” She didn’t remember, but her brother did. Sakura paused. What did she know about her mother? Nothing. Who was Amamiya Nadeshiko? The girl who had once loved the man lying in front of Sakura at his very moment? Or the loving wife and mother? Or the bedazzling model in the photos? Or a powerful sorcerer who gave up her life to save all her loved ones?

 

“Your mother was born to make people smile,” said Ryuuren. “She brought sunshine into the room where she walked. It’s a rare gift, and she was very blessed. She was blessed because everyone loved her. Who can hate an angel? She had a loving heart. She truly loved your father. You are like her, Sakura, so I believe you will make everything work out all right.”

 

“Ryuuren-san…”

 

“Yes, everything will turn out fine. Because you are her daughter. I know what you can do for me. My journal is in my left pocket. Take it with you. I want my son to read it some day, when he is of age. It contains all my innermost thoughts, fears, failures. I want him to be able to see the real me.”

 

She gently took the blue leather-bound journal that she and Syaoran would many years later find. It was not burned. Could she read the final pages that had been illegible? But she didn’t have to—

she had finally met him in person.

 

And he seemed to stare up at the sky. “So I kept my bargain. Here, I give you my body, name, soul and memories. Are you satisfied now? Is the price paid?”

 

Who was he talking to? Not her. Sakura’s eyes blurred. She took his large, callused hand in her own. “Ryuuren-san.” The price he had paid the Fantasy in order to gain him and her mother passage to the Dragon Isles many long years ago.

 

“Tell Nadeshiko I lo—” his voice trailed off, never finishing his sentence. “Ah, I am so cold … and tired… I think I will rest now.”

 

Then, there was silence. Her throat choked up. “Ryuuren-san! Ryuuren-san, you can’t leave now. Syaoran… Syaoran is so strong and admirable. He looks just like you. And he’s so smart—he always ranked in the top five at school—even though Japanese is not his native language. He spoke so highly of you. You don’t know how much he respects you. And he misses you so much, though he never shows that he’s lonely, because he is a true warrior. You’d be so proud of him. I am. I loved him so much… and I still do. I will always love him, even if he has to leave me, and I will always wait for him.” Hot tears poured down her face.

 

There was a faint smile on Ryuuren’s pale face. His cold hand turned limp. Sakura knew he had passed on. For the first time, she had witnessed death firsthand. She had always thought of death as a loss, a passing of a life. Instead there was a still, a silence. He was, and now he wasn’t.

 

“Rest in peace, Ryuuren-san,” she whispered, folding Ryuuren’s hands on his chest. But even as she did so, he dissipated into tiny ice particles that with the wind flew away with the snowflakes.

 

She didn’t know how long she sat there in the snow, trails of salty wetness burned down her cheeks, only to be frozen in streaks by the bitter wind. She clutched the leather notebook to her chest, standing up with wobbling legs. It was the notebook that reminded her she must get moving, find a way back, or forward. If she remained here, she would slowly freeze to death.

 

In a feverish state, she slogged forward. While it was hard to see in front of her through the blizzard, she thought she could make out the silhouette of a man approach her.

 

 

 

****** 

 

 

 

Li Syaoran crawled out of a shallow pool and collapsed onto the limestone banks. Every limb was aching like they’d been ripped apart from his joints, and his clothes were in tatters. He had never known of hunger before, this persistent hollowness in the pits of his stomach; he had not known thirst, his throat parched like sand coated his mouth and his lungs were full of dust. His lips were so cracked, they bled if he opened his mouth to speak—and what did his voice sound like, he wondered. He hadn’t spoken in so long. He was afraid to close his eyes at nightfall but even more afraid to open them in the morning and realize he was further from Sakura than ever before. The image of Sakura standing on the observation deck at Tokyo Tower, looking over her shoulders at him with the clusters of stars in her hair, smiling at him, seemed like a hazy dream. Who was Sakura? Did she even exist? Maybe she was someone he had dreamed up of to make this humdrum life more tolerable.

 

He stared at his reflection in the waters, half afraid to find a wasted savage beast, or even find himself a shrunken, gray-haired old man. But his skin was still smooth, albeit soot and mud-stained, and his hair darkly matted from the water. Why was he doing this again? That’s right, The Li Clan. How was this the road to becoming the Great Elder? What was the Blue Dragon trying to test him on? What did any of this have to do with leading the Li Clan?

 

He dragged himself out of the water, glancing around in a daze, trembling, terrified this was another hallucination. Pools of greenish-blue water all around an endless hollow cavern. Could it be? It was the Cavern of Reservoirs again, he was sure, as a sense of relief washed over him. Sakura—he had to find Sakura. He crawled forward, barely, before his knees gave out on him.

 

“So you are here,” said Celes.

 

“Where’s Sakura?” he croaked.

 

“Too bad you are in the right dimension, but the wrong time,” the dragon said. “Though just off by a couple years in your time, very trivial.”  

 

And Syaoran almost let out a roar of frustration, as he fell to the ground, pounding his fists down in agony. How, how could he ended up in the right place and not the right time?

 

“But, there must be a reason why you came back here,” the dragon said, staring ahead at him.

 

Syaoran followed his gaze and stared at an iceberg at the center of the silvery-green cavern. And there, encased behind the block of ice, was a familiar face. “Leiyun!” he called out. 

 

What was Leiyun here? He dragged his legs forward and pounded on the glacial encasement. “Leiyun, can you hear me?”

 

“He can’t see or hear you,” said the Dragon.

 

Syaoran frowned. Then looking closer, he saw that Leiyun looked not much older than himself. Now, his pale blue eyes were open, but instead of seeing him, he seemed to be looking somewhere far off. Sometimes, he smiled wistfully. Sometimes he trembled, as if frightened. Sometimes, he wept silently.

 

“Hey, Leiyun, what are you seeing?” asked Syaoran, placing his hand on the glacier block. He turned to Celes. “Why are you keeping him here?”

 

“I am not keeping him here. He chose to walk in here. And the price he paid to enter was his time,” said Celes.

 

“Release him—you have taken not just his time—you took away his family, his friends, his youth.”

 

“It is not your place, Li Syaoran of the future,” said Celes. “He came here of his own free will. To serve the greed of the Li Clan, before his time, before he was ready. So here he will stay and pay his dues until he can escape or someone comes to pay his price instead. Or he crumbles away into dust.”

 

Syaoran frowned, whispered to himself rather than Celes. “But nobody came to rescue him. The Elders said that he died in his mission. And nobody went to look for him.” He buried his head into his hands, sinking down on his knees. “I didn’t know. I swear, I didn’t know, or else I would have come to rescue you.”

 

“But you didn’t know. And so for many years, this boy was trapped here, in between dimensions, in what seemed like eternity in this place where time flows differently,” said the Blue Dragon. “It would be enough to drive anyone mad.”

 

“What is he seeing?” asked Syaoran, as he saw that Leiyun seemed to be screaming a soundless scream.

 

“This is the core of the Dragon Realms, a window into many different time periods and many different dimensions.” said Dragon. “Of course, in the beginning, he couldn’t choose what he wanted to see, so he was subject to all sorts of scenes, some of times and worlds that have no relevance to him. But he’s a mentally strong boy. He seems to have mastered calling up scenes that are of his interest to him. For a while, he was fascinated with seeing the Great Ones, his Li ancestors. He went through a Clow Reed period. Then, he watched you, very obsessively, all your ventures in Japan, capturing the Clow Cards. That’s probably when he seemed to have the most peace at heart. What he saw during the Great Ones’ time and Clow Reed’s era was pretty devastating—he couldn’t continue watching and went to other places for long periods of time before returning. But with you, he seemed endlessly amused, almost interactive. Those were the days he would still talk to me, try to bargain and make some conversation. He was quite an inquisitive one. Very intelligent, for his age. Of course, that was then, and now, he’s broken far beyond that point. He doesn’t try to direct his vision—just watch whatever scene the dimension windows show him. Lots of wars, bloodshed and violence—for those are the scenes that the dragons keep the closest watch over, that we find most fascinating and also disturbing.”

 

“So, he doesn’t talk anymore?” asked Syaoran.

 

“No, I don’t think he’s spoken at least for the past year—your time,” said Celes.

 

“And what will become of him?”

 

“Well, he would have withered and died, like many before him,” said the dragon. “But an unexpected visitor comes along.”

 

“Unexpected visitor?” Syaoran looked up to hear unexpected footsteps. Celes shoved him behind a boulder.

 

It was a girl with golden hair and wide lavender eyes. There was a gash across her cheek, and the black shirt and jeans she wore were in tatters.

 

“We’re getting a lot of unwelcome visitors lately,” drawled Celes, to the girl.

 

“I came here to take Li Leiyun.” Kara here was somewhat younger, more waifish—her tousled blond hair was shoulder-length, and she had an even more feral, more guarded look than now.

 

“You cannot take him without paying a price,” responded Blue Dragon slowly.

 

Kara stared up at the Blue Dragon with her cool quartz-like eyes. “I believe I have already paid the price. I had a vision before coming. I had two choices. My father is going to get shot today. I could warn him and save him. Or I could come here. And save Li Leiyun.”

 

“Why do you save a stranger?” asked the Blue Dragon.

 

“Because he needs to be saved,” said Kara. “And only I can do it.”

 

“And at the price of your father’s life?”

 

“He too had to be saved,” said Kara, closing her eyes. “And now he is. He has suffered for a long time, and this is what he would have wanted for me, I believe. Because long ago, he chose himself and spent the rest of his life regretting that choice.”

 

“As the descendent of Landon Reed, you have a way with words. Very well, I will let you pass.”

 

She walked straight into the cave until she came to an iceberg encasing a young man who stared at her with aqua eyes. Kara placed her palms on the iceberg which shattered into a million shards. The man in white collapsed in front of her. She had thought him older because his hair was a shock of silver. But his handsome face, though gaunt, seemed boyish. She figured he mustn’t be much older than herself.

 

Still hunched over, he clutched his arms around himself as if he could not keep warm, jerking and shaking, as if he could not get rid of the cold. Finally, his dilated pupils hazily made out a girl with pale gold hair and piercing eyes the color of amethyst. He croaked, “Angel? Or devil?”

 

“Neither and both. I am Kara Reed, and I have come to rescue you,” she said, wrapping her bare arms around the boy.

 

Leiyun repeated her name in wonder. “Kara Reed. Why have you come to save me?”

 

“Because nobody else will,” replied Kara. “And besides, you called for my help, didn’t you?”

 

“How… did you hear me?” asked Leiyun.

 

Kara looked up at the boy with the silvery-blue eyes that were all too familiar to her now. “I don’t know. But I heard it, so I found you. Come. We have to leave here now.” She held out her hand. And he took it, with his ice-cold fingers. She leaned his body over her slight shoulders to support him, and they left the Cavern of Reservoirs.

 

“And you let them leave, just like?” asked Syaoran.

 

“Yes,” said the Celes. “Many have come into my layer, and some have left through their own means, many others have perished in attempt. But never in all my time did I have someone risk her life to save a complete stranger. Our kind values true courage. And Leiyun perhaps did not deserve to rot away here because of the greed of the clan.”

 

So it really had been Kara who had helped Leiyun escape from the Dragon Isles. Syaoran had to hand it to her—was there anything she was not afraid of? But how had she known how to save Leiyun? Was it because she was a Reed? And why had Kara come for Leiyun? But somehow, it took his view of Kara and put her into a whole new perspective.

 

“Well, you are not in a position to worry about Kara, or Leiyun,” said the Dragon. “For in Leiyun’s place, I can have you to keep me company for eternity. Either that, or you can continue to enter into the reservoirs until you perhaps find your way back to Sakura. Need I mention, you have one in a quadrillion chance of stumbling onto the right world. And that’s if she’s remaining stagnant. Because who knows where’s she’s traveled to at this point with her impatience.”

 

“Sakura!” Syaoran called out into the cavern, his voice ringing loudly, letting the stalactites tremble. “What do you mean she’s traveled?”

 

“Maybe she’s gone looking for you,” said Celes. “Or maybe she’s where you left her. Who knows?”

 

“You’re just trying to confuse me,” said Syaoran accusingly.

 

“It’s not so bad here,” Celes said. “You can still see what’s going on. Even your own world. It’s almost like a picture book, once you get the hang of it.”

 

“Then Sakura, I will be able to see Sakura,” whispered Syaoran, crawling on the floor to the edge of the pool and staring into the water. Kinomoto Sakura. He tried to remember her smiling face, and all he could recall was an image of a 10-year-old girl in a charcoal gray and white-collared sailor uniform, glaring at him with flashing green eyes.

“Well, you’ll probably see a Sakura,” said Celes. “It took Leiyun some years before he mastered conjuring up the correct world and time period he wanted to see—and even longer to conjure up the right person. And he’s one of the most adept at doing so that I’ve ever seen.”

 

“That’s how he was able to communicate with Kara,” whispered Syaoran. Why hadn’t he tried to communicate with the Li Clan then? Or had he?

 

“Yes, I didn’t know he was doing that,” said the Dragon. “He first saw her by coincidence. Because he became obsessed with tracing down the Dark Ones for a while and locating all the descendants of the Great Five. It’s the only thing that kept him alive all those years, I believe.”

 

“I can find Sakura then,” murmured Syaoran.

 

“Perhaps, eventually,” said Celes. “But meanwhile, your world will decay. It’s what happens when you try to gain everything. You let Sakura into your selfish ploys to become top of the Li Clan. It was a gamble you took, knowing you could lose.”

 

“It’s not a gamble. I made a promise, and I will keep it,” Syaoran lashed out. “I will return to Sakura.”

 

He dragged his body up and dove into a pool.

 

“Foolish boy,” said Celes.

 

 

 

******

 

 

 

He opened his eyes to an eerie greenish light and the sound of dripping of water droplets. It was the cavern, again. Syaoran scrambled up and found himself staring at a boy encased in a sheer block of iceberg. They were about the same age, and the features of the boy in the iceberg were eerily similar to his own, almost like looking into a mirror. But the boy, whose eyes were shut, was wearing a white cheongsam, and his brown hair was a shade lighter than his own.

 

Syaoran pressed his palm against the cold ice. And the boy in the iceberg opened his eyes, a startling turquoise blue. “You’ve come, Syaoran.”

 

“Leiyun,” Syaoran said. When he had last see his cousin, he had been nine, and Leiyun 16. Back then, he had seemed so tall and adult-like. Now, he seemed like a mere boy, young and vulnerable. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I’ll get you out of here!”

 

“How?” asked Leiyun. “Are you willing to take my place?”

 

Syaoran jerked back, but Leiyun’s hand had already stretched out through the iceberg and grabbed his wrist.

 

“Come, you take my place. You get stuck here, and I’ll be free. Can you do that for me?” Leiyun asked. “It’ll be an equivalent exchange.” And he jerked Syaoran into the iceberg and slipped out.

 

And Syaoran found himself on the other side of the iceberg, pounding on the barrier, his voice lost in the cylinder of ice.

 

Leiyun peered at him from the other side and said, “You see what being trapped there for years and years with no one coming for you does to you. I believed, the first year, I truly did believe someone will come to save me. But no one did. Not even you.”

 

“I’m sorry, Leiyun. I would have come, had I known.”

 

“Why didn’t you? You didn’t even look. You didn’t even ask.” Leiyun smiled. “You always wanted me dead. Because you wanted to become the Chosen One. Because you wanted the Five Force Sword. Because you wanted to follow your father’s footsteps.”

 

“No—that’s not true!” Syaoran exclaimed, pounding his fist inside the iceberg.