PREVIEWS - Eternal Rain Novel

BOOK 1, CHAPTER 3

Toki woke up in a warm bed. What? Was it a dream after all? But, no, that wasn’t the case – the room was unfamiliar and crowded with books and rolled-up papers. Kita was at her side.

“Finally up, huh, Sleeping Beauty?” Kita joked.

Toki had to chuckle at the quip. “Where are we?” she asked.

“Takeshi’s place – it’s our meeting spot,” Kita replied. “Anyway, why don’t you get up and get changed?” she suggested. “Then you can come outside with me and the other guys.”

“Uh… Get changed?” Toki asked as she sat up.

“Yeah,” Kita told her, “I picked this up.” She showed her the dress they’d bought in the market and a number of accessories. “You’ve been sleeping for hours, you know. Hurry and try this on!” She grinned.

Toki smiled back. “All right.”

As Toki got up and sorted through the clothes, Kita left the room. She waited a minute, heaved a relieved sigh, and walked down the hall and out the front door. She saw Reka waiting just outside.

“How is she?” Reka asked.

“Fine, thank goodness,” Kita replied. “How’s the arm?” she asked in return.

Reka shot her a slightly annoyed look. “It was nothing to fuss over.”

A moment later, Toki walked out donning her new outfit – a pink sleeveless dress, reminiscent of some kind of American-Indian garb, with a low-cut collar and teal trim. She had a teal choker to match. “Aha! It looks great on you! I knew it would!” Kita exclaimed.

Toki blushed a bit as she noticed Reka staring at her as well. “Thanks,” she answered Kita. “You should’ve bought yourself one, too.”

Kita laughed. “Me? What, are you kidding? I’d never be caught dead in a dress!”

Toki felt her face completely flush. Oh, really? Is this your idea of a joke, then, making me wear something you’d never wear yourself?! She fidgeted and tugged at the side-slits of her skirt, under which she was wearing shorts so that her thighs wouldn’t show. “Oh… I see,” she muttered in disgust.

Someone approached them then – a very tall boy dressed in an orange sleeveless vest, who was definitely older than her and possibly older than Kita, with almond eyes and a slim but muscular build.

“Ah, Toki,” Kita said, striding over and slinging a hand over her shoulder, “meet your fencing teacher, San-Qiung.”

“Hello – ” Toki started to bow and froze midway. “Wait, my what?!” she cried, bolting upright.

“Your friend told me that you were struggling with your swordsmanship,” San-Qiung explained. “I’d be happy to help you.” He turned and showed her his sword in its sheath.

“He’s really good,” Kita whispered in Toki’s ear, “but he says he doesn’t go easy on newbies. I hope you don’t mind.” She patted Toki’s back and finally stepped back.

Toki stifled a scowl and bowed to San-Qiung. “I do need help. Please teach me.”

San-Qiung smiled. “It would be my pleasure.”

“Excellent.” Takeshi walked over to them, carrying Toki’s naginata. “Don’t lose this again, okay?” Toki took it from him with a guilty nod.

“Now that we’re all here,” Takeshi spoke up for everyone to hear, “let’s all come together and have a seat.” He motioned for everyone to sit in the grass near the small house. “First, let me introduce everyone.” He gestured toward each person as he said his or her name. “Reka, Kita, Toki, San-Qiung…” He gestured toward a twig of a girl, with dark hair in an unruly ponytail, who was sitting apart from everyone else. “…Jun-ai…” Then, he gestured to the oldest and most dignified of three dark-skinned girls. “…Sharon…” To the one sitting next to her, with a friendly smile and long, smooth hair. “…Mara…” And, last, to the one sitting next to her, with a slightly lighter complexion and short, brownish hair. “…and Kiara.” They all looked at one another, and some waved. “Welcome, Keyholders,” Takeshi continued.

“‘Keyholders’?” Toki repeated in a whisper.

“I brought all of you here because this place, the Water Gate, is in trouble. I know, most of you probably have never even heard of the Gates before. But rather than go into lengthy explanations at this time, just know that this dimension and the neighboring Fire Gate are colliding,” Takeshi went on. “It’s up to us to find a special something that will stop the collision from destroying both worlds.”

“Whoa, whoa, hold it!” Kita spoke up. “What do you mean, how can they be colliding?”

“Much like land masses,” Takeshi explained, “the dimensions shift in relation to one other. Right now, the balance between the Gates is unstable, and this Gate and the Fire Gate are on course to hit each other. If they do collide, both dimensions will be destroyed.”

San-Qiung interjected, “What is this special something that we need to look for, and what makes you believe that it will save your home?”

“It’s called the Legendary Water Key,” Takeshi replied, “and with it, we can readjust the movements of the Gates. If we can find it in time, I know for a fact that it will prevent the collision.”

“So we just have to get this ‘Key’ thing? Piece of cake,” Kiara surmised.

“It’s not that simple,” Takeshi warned her. “There’s a war raging between the two Gates. We’ll be caught right in the middle of it while searching for the Key.”

“W-War?!” Toki gripped her arms in unease.

Takeshi paused uneasily, and Reka continued in his place. “The Fire Gate’s Llanian army has been invading other Gates and leaving their standing Guard units to keep watch on the claimed territories. The Llanian Guards have been posted in the Kaita village for two months now. It’s only a matter of time before the military comes back.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets. His hand brushed against the gemstone inside. And they’ll be gunning for us.

“Those guys in the gorge – who were they?” Kita asked.

Jun-ai’s almond eyes narrowed. “They were dressed like you,” she commented, pointing Reka out. An uncomfortable silence settled in.

“They were Llanian Guards,” Reka replied.

“If they were only supposed to be protecting their territory, then why did they attack you?”

Takeshi tried to step in for him, but Reka answered. “They go after anyone that the army has marked as a threat. That currently includes Takeshi, myself… and by extension, this team.”

“Then, the Guards will keep attacking us?” Kita asked.

“Yes.”

“What if we want out?” Jun-ai asked pointedly.

“Look, I need all of you to make this plan work,” Takeshi entreated them. “The Councilwoman of this village, Ms. Akibana, is also counting on us. She entrusted me – entrusted us – with this mission.”

“Oh, so you’re going to force us – !”

“That’s enough, Jun!” San-Qiung intervened. His cousin, who was standing with her fists at the ready, sat back down.

An awkward silence once again set in.

“For now,” Takeshi spoke up, “why don’t we set up camp?” The others looked at each other questioningly. “And after that, maybe a little meal will put us all at ease,” Takeshi suggested. He led everyone a bit of a distance from the house, then watched the others break up into their little cliques to go and fetch water and wood.

Hearing footsteps approaching, Takeshi turned around to face a girl with long, ice-blue hair tied back in a braid. “Here’s the ‘team’,” he said with a bashful laugh. “We’ve got a long way to go before I can call us that, huh, Yuki?”

“They did only just meet. Give them some time,” his friend giggled. “Oh! The rice for the meal is almost ready,” Yuki reported.

Takeshi grinned. “I’m looking forward to your cooking.”

Yuki blushed. “Thank you.” She watched the others meandering about and added, “I hope they will enjoy it too.”

“Hey, Takeshi!” Kita called. “We aren’t gonna have to make beds outta leaves, are we?”

Takeshi had to laugh. “No, Kita,” he called back. “I prepared sleeping bags for you all.”

“Phew! Thank goodness!!”

Yuki giggled. “Would you like me to bring anything else with me when I bring the food here?” she asked.

Takeshi replied, “If you could bring the tent cloths and the sleeping bags from my house for tonight, that’d be a great help.” He grinned at her.

Yuki grinned back. “Hmm, maybe if you let me join you – ”

“We already discussed that,” Takeshi cut her off, suddenly serious. “The answer is ‘no’, Yuki. I’m sorry.” At the dejected look on his friend’s face, he felt a bit guilty. “I just don’t – ”

“I know,” Yuki said quietly. She said nothing more as she quickly took her leave.

Takeshi sighed and got up to help his teammates. Mizuki-sensei should be coming to meet them all tomorrow morning, he thought. I hope we can at least build some level of together-ness before then.

Apparently, his worries were written on his face, since it only took a second for Reka to make a comment about it. “If the leader keeps looking like that, they’ll get anxious,” he said quietly as he lit the campfire. “Do you want to make them needlessly worried before the fighting even starts?”

Takeshi awkwardly twisted his frown into a smile. “Ah… I guess you have a point.”

“Yeah… That look won’t cut it, either,” Reka tried to joke.

That was when Yuki returned with a large pot of food and bundles of fabric. “Let us help carry that,” Takeshi offered, and he and Reka rushed to her aid.

“All right, everyone!” Takeshi called. “Dinner is served! Gather up around the fire!”

The others all drifted back and sat around the fire pit; as they did so, Reka handed out their sleeping bags and tent cloths, and Takeshi passed around bowls and spoons.

“This is kind of fun,” said Mara as she got comfortable beside Toki and started to eat.

“Yeah, I guess,” Toki said quietly as she sheepishly poked at her dinner.

“How long have you all been here?” Mara asked her and Kita.

“I just got here,” Toki replied.

“And I’ve been here for a couple weeks,” Kita chipped in.

“Do you like it here?” Mara asked, as Kiara, who was sitting next to her, kept nudging and elbowing her. “I kind of think it’s nice – ”

“Mara, do you mind?” Kiara broke in. “I was speaking to you first!”

Attention-seeker much? Kita thought, but kept it to herself, as Mara apologized and turned away. Kita looked back at Toki and realized that she’d stopped eating altogether. “You okay?” she asked.

Toki didn’t answer for a moment. She suddenly felt a pang of longing for the ordinary meals she would eat at home, and she even sort of missed her sister’s obnoxious pestering and the humdrum routine of going to school – at least she didn’t have to worry about learning to use a weapon to protect herself from Guards and armies. “I wonder what they’re doing right now… My mom, my dad and my sisters…”

Kita fell silent suddenly and looked away. “Yeah,” she said absently. “My sis’ is probably worried…”

“What is she like?” Toki asked.

“Huh? Oh…” Kita fidgeted a bit. She seemed a little strange – she was suddenly so subdued, like all her usual energy had left her. “Shiori can get on your nerves like any little sister, I guess,” Kita finally replied. “She’s a sweetheart, though.”

Toki felt a bit more at ease, talking about home. “I’ve got a little sister and an older sister. The little one’s name is Atsuko – she’s as annoying as can be. But my older sister, Yumi, is really cool, and I look up to her… She’s just moved far away, though. I miss her.”

“Oh, quit whining!” Jun-ai snapped.

“Jun!” San-Qiung hissed.

Jun-ai paid her cousin no heed. “If you really want to go home so badly, then why don’t you actually learn how to fight, so you won’t hold the rest of us back?”

Toki flinched. Just like school… I’m useless here too…

“Shut up!” Kita barked.

You’re all talk and posturing!” Jun-ai spat back. “So don’t try to act like some protector!!”

“Hey,” Toki spoke up shakily, “stop it, you guys!”

“Oh, the wimp’s going to pretend she has guts?” Jun-ai mocked her venomously.

“That’s quite e – ”

Before Takeshi could even finish his sentence, Kita had jumped up from her spot on the grass and grabbed Jun-ai’s shirt collar. “Just keep running you mouth, brat, and you’ve got yourself a fight!!” Kita shouted angrily.

“Get your hands off me, wretch!” Jun-ai hissed. Next came a punch. The others who were sitting around the campfire started to back away as Kita stumbled backward.

“That’s IT!” Kita retaliated, punch for punch.

“Stop it, both of you!!” San-Qiung yelled.

Kita and Jun-ai traded blows until Toki ran between them and took a punch from Jun-ai. “Get out of my way, you little fool!” Jun-ai yelled as Toki hit the ground and held her swollen cheek. Only a moment later, Yuki ran to her aid.

“How DARE you touch her!!” Kita pulled out her fan and blew Jun-ai across the grass.

“STOP IT, NOW!!” Takeshi yelled.

Jun-ai had already charged back and knocked Kita into Yuki, who stumbled back too close to the campfire – an ember popped and lit her skirt aflame. She shrieked as Takeshi ran to her and doused the flame. “Look at what you did!!” Takeshi yelled. “Both of you, leave, NOW!”

Jun-ai fiercely stood her ground. “I’ve had it! I’m not taking orders from the spoiled child who’s trapped us all here for his own – !”

“GET LOST!!!” Takeshi exploded.

Toki flinched at his anger. She looked over at the timid blue-haired girl who’d come to help her. The girl was shaking and lightly brushing her hand over her leg. She’s hurt… She’s burned…

Reka stomped to Jun-ai and started to grab her, but she batted him away and yelled, “Don’t touch me!” before stalking off by herself.

Kita trudged off after her. “We can’t keep that girl around,” she muttered to Takeshi as she walked past. Casting a regretful look back at Yuki and Toki, she finally went off by herself a few feet off the campground and laid out her sleeping bag.

Sharon was kneeling next to Toki and Yuki, asking them all kinds of questions – “Are you all right? Is anything broken or bleeding?” – but Toki was only half-listening by the time Sharon and Takeshi were taking the blue-haired girl back to Takeshi’s house and Reka was coming to check on her.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Reka asked Toki.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Toki mumbled, hiding her face from him.

Kiara and Mara were gathering up the leftover food, and San-Qiung had disappeared off – probably to talk to that jerk of a cousin of his. “What a mess,” Reka murmured as he surveyed the campground. He went to help the girls clean up.

Toki got to her feet and dragged herself away, head hung. She finally stopped in the castle courtyard where she’d stayed the first night. She dropped into the grass by the stream and just stared at the water flowing past and glimmering in the fading sunlight. No matter where I go, it’s the same… She dipped her hand into the cool water.

“That’s where you went.”

Reka’s voice startled Toki, and she jerked her hand out of the water and spun to face him. She hadn’t even heard his footsteps.

“…Sorry,” Reka apologized. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He settled cautiously by her side. Toki buried her head in her arms again and curled up. “What’s wrong?” Reka asked.

Toki gripped her knees. “I screwed up,” she finally murmured.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Reka told her.

“I couldn’t do anything right, either,” Toki vented bitterly. “I just got in the way, like I always do! And because I stuck my neck into it, somebody got hurt!”

“That wasn’t your fault,” Reka said.

“What do you know?!” Toki lashed out at him.

“I know that you had the guts to stand between those two,” Reka stated matter-of-factly. “That’s got to count for something.”

“It doesn’t count for anything when you’re a failure like me!”

“Failure?” Reka spat in disbelief.

“Everyone back home knows how hopeless I am!” Toki cried. “I can’t play sports, my grades suck, and I try to be a good writer, but I’m not even good at that! What use does anyone have for a failure like me?!”

Reka frowned. “Don’t put yourself down like that,” he told her. “Who cares about that stuff? What counts is that you try your best.”

That was the first time in a long time that anyone had told her that. Toki had forgotten, after all the criticism she received from all the teachers, relatives, counselors, and classmates who told her she would never make anything of herself. Yumi used to tell me that, she recalled.

Toki noticed then that Reka was gripping his bandanna. “That’s something my friend used to tell me,” he added.

“He sounds like an amazing friend,” Toki commented. “What is he like?”

Reka paused. “Hisao was poor. It was obvious that his family was having a hard time, but he never let that get him down. I admired him for always trying his best, no matter what came his way.”

Toki realized that he was speaking in past tense – that the more he said, the tighter his grip on the bandanna became. “Are you two…not friends anymore?” she asked.

“That’s not it,” Reka replied. After a long pause, he explained, “He’s dead. Someone shot him.” He was shaking a little.

“I’m sorry,” Toki murmured.

Reka released his hold on the bandanna and took a deep breath to calm himself. “No, let me apologize,” he said. “I didn’t mean to unload my sob stories on you.” He didn’t know what had gotten into him – he didn’t usually go around telling people about his childhood trauma. I guess I just… thought about the fact that I failed to save him, he surmised. I can imagine how she feels… but it hurts to see her beating herself up over such trivial things. He stood up from his spot in the grass. “Anyway,” he said, “it’s getting late. We should head back.”

Toki flinched a bit at the thought. “Yeah… I guess you’re right,” she said uneasily – though, in truth, as she remembered the tense atmosphere back at the camp, she didn’t want to go back yet. Even so, she got to her feet. Reka turned to start back, but waited for her to follow. As they started to walk, Toki’s mind drifted back to what Reka had told her about his friend. He’s younger than me…right? She found herself measuring him and looking at his smaller hands. And yet he already has something like that weighing on his mind… She summoned up some courage to break the silence that had since set in. “Reka,” she called.

“Hm?”

“Thank you,” Toki said.

Reka paused and flashed a brief smile her way.

They walked the rest of the way in silence. But when they reached their campsite, the tents were in shambles, and the gathered dishes were now strewn, broken, across the ground. The camp was deserted, save for them. “Wha – What happened here…?” Toki stammered.

She received no reply. Reka was instead staring dead ahead at two shadowy figures that were approaching them from the other end of the campsite. She watched Reka bristle as one voice called out, “So, you’ve finally shown your face.”