Chapter 50: A Winter¡¯s Conundrum

 

 

***

 

The Prophesy of the Riddle:

 

 

On the night the lone wolf calls,

And the angel¡¯s feather falls,

Through icy cliffs, the raging gale

Echoes the forlorn mother¡¯s wail.

 

Vengeance sought and powers lent,

Children found and contracts bent;

Wind blows and the cherry blossom branches shake,

Woods divide and the eye of the dragon will wake.

 

Desperate times summon forces combined;

Moon rises, circle rejoined, blood intertwined,

Moon wanes, eye cracks, world goes round;

Two conceived lost forever would once more be found.

 

Shadowing the golden stars way up high,

Thunderclouds loom ominous in the distant sky,

But the lone star will shine again

As the years brush by with the rain.

 

 

 

To capture me, the wisest one,

Is a daunting feat, if can be at all done.

Foolish one, to dare challenge me,

Prove your wit to find me,

And I shall humble you gladly.

 

***

Part I: The night before¡¦

 

Lying awake on her bed, Tanaka Miho once more recalled the challenge of the Riddle, set out to her weeks ago. Rolling over on the slippery satin bed sheets, she reached over for her notebook lying on her nightstand and switched on the lamp carved out of green crystal, imported from Berlin. A warm orange light illuminated the bedroom, a room which any girl would dream of, from the exquisite gold-framed mirror and her polished mahogany wood bureau to the richly dyed tapestry hanging from the walls, souvenir from Eriol¡¯s trip to India. 

 

She tapped her pen tip on the leather cover of her notebook. On the night the lone wolf calls, and the angel¡¯s feathers fall¡¦ She had almost completed her challenge riddle; now she just had to locate the dark force, which chose to appear and disappear at its own will. But where? An icy cliff¡¦ It must be somewhere high, on some mountains, she concluded.

 

¡°Miho, are you still awake?¡± Eriol asked, walking into her room with an extra blanket. ¡°We have to wake up early tomorrow for the school winter field trip. You should try to sleep.¡±

 

Letting Eriol pull the two layers of blanket over her, Miho murmured in revelation, ¡°That¡¯s right, we¡¯re going on a ski trip. Icy cliff¡¦ The Riddle must have meant the mountains—it¡¯s going to appear when we go on the ski trip. That must be it!¡±

 

Patting her head, Eriol said kindly, yet rather apathetically, ¡°Trying to capture the Riddle is fine, but don¡¯t put too much pressure on yourself.¡±

 

¡°No, I¡¯m going to beat if for once and for all. So just wait and see, Riddle!¡± Miho declared, slamming her notebook shut triumphantly. ¡°Besides, there¡¯s a question I want to ask it, once I defeat it.¡±

 

Smiling to himself, Eriol tucked her in and turned off the night lamp. ¡°Good night, Miho,¡± he said, slowly walking out and gently shutting the door, remembering to leave a crack open as usual.

 

¡°G¡¯night ¡®Riol,¡± muttered Miho.

 

As Eriol walked down the hall to return to his room, Kero-chan commented snidely, wiping off a crumb of chocolate cake from his cheek, ¡°Mama-Eriol¡¦ how becoming. To see what¡¯s become of the Greatest Magician of the East and West— what would your former rivals say?¡±

 

¡°You can help yourself to any of the food in the refrigerator; it¡¯ll last for about a week—just remember not to give Spinel Sun any sweets. Also, I would appreciate it if you don¡¯t enter my study. On a final note, please don¡¯t mind Ruby Moon; she¡¯s been extra hyper lately, but means no harm,¡± Eriol replied, deliberately ignoring Cerberus¡¯ snide remarks.

 

From downstairs, they could hear Nakuru singing, ¡°Tou-ya~ delicious boy~ Why do you always shun me? Eriol never plays with me, and I am oh so alone~ I want to go ski too~¡±

 

Arms crossed, Kero-chan grumbled, ¡°I can¡¯t believe Sakura-chan is leaving me behind, going on some fieldtrip. Well, I guess it¡¯s better to stay here—it¡¯s dangerous to be alone in her house, with her brother around.¡± He shuddered, feeling the pull of the moon more profoundly than ever, a nastily conflicting power against his.

 

Outside, the wind howled fiercely. If one listened intently, it almost sounded like a weeping woman.

 

¡°Eron? What have you done?¡±

 

¡°What have I done? Nothing much.¡±

 

¡°You idiot! You think just rashly releasing those forces would appease the Dark Ones?¡±

 

¡°It would do for the moment, Erika. It will protect our lifestyle a little longer.¡±

 

¡°What¡¯s there to protect?¡±

 

¡°Everything.¡±

 

¡°What is it, Eriol?¡± Kero-chan interrupted, watching the glassed dark-haired boy. Like Clow Reed did when deep in meditation, Eriol had a glazed over expression, eyes downcast.

 

Looking up, realizing that Kero-chan was peering at him suspiciously Eriol explained, ¡°The Emotions have finally been released.¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Kero-chan looked around.

 

¡°Never mind.¡± Slowly, Eriol walked into his bedroom, glasses flashing in the dark. It might not necessarily be a bad thing.

 

***

 

Unable to fall asleep, Li Syaoran lay awake in bed, staring up at the ceiling. Those steely ice blue eyes that haunted his dreams. Who did they belong to? Why did he have a bad premonition about the upcoming winter fieldtrip? Sighing, he sat up. Wolfie-chan whimpered, rolling off his stomach.

 

¡°Well, who told you to sleep on my stomach?¡± Syaoran ruffled the puppy¡¯s fluffy golden-tan fur. Though the dog resembled a Siberian husky, it acted more like a mutt. ¡°Sorry¡¦ I¡¯ll be away for five days. You¡¯ll be okay by yourself, right? You can keep Perro-chan company.¡±

 

¡°Grr¡¦¡± The puppy turned his head away and hopped off the bed, trotting off to a corner to sulk. Wolfie-chan didn¡¯t want to be left behind.

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry. It can¡¯t be helped,¡± Syaoran said remorsefully. When had he grown so attached to that dog, a mere dark force? He stared at the wall; he wondered if Kai would be going to the ski trip also. Probably not. Sometimes, it was hard to digest that Mizuki Kai was only about an older than himself. When he saw Kai, Syaoran got the sense that despite his carefree, joking façade, the former Kaitou Magician was a true adult, someone who made and acted upon decisions that were not routed in his personal desires or whims, but on what had to be done. Here was a person who could outwit the Li Clan and steal the Five Force Sword right under the noses of the Li Elders and all their highly-trained security guards.

 

At that moment, he heard a shattering crash from next doors. Syaoran bolted. What was Kai up to now? On first instinct, he tried to ignore the sound and go back to bed. Who cared what that thief was up to? It was not the first time he heard disturbing noises through the walls. Syaoran sat up. Then again, what if something was wrong? What an annoying habit he had picked up from Sakura.

 

¡°Probably is nothing,¡± he grumbled to himself, as he made his way out in his slippers and knocked on his neighbor¡¯s door. There was no answer. He tried the doorknob; the door was unlocked as usual. Wondering why he had to bother, Syaoran entered the house. ¡°Kai? Mizuki Kai?¡± The rooms were unlit. He made his way into the kitchen. Glass shards gleamed in the dark, on the floor. A puddle of water was near his feet.

 

¡°What are you¡¦ doing here?¡± a voice asked in gasps.

 

Finally, Syaoran noticed Kai, hunched over on the floor, leaning against the sink. ¡°What are you doing there, on the floor?¡±

 

¡°Go away,¡± Kai said, clutching his chest. Who said they weren¡¯t cousins? A nosy bunch the Li¡¯s were.

 

Noticing that Kai was in pain, Syaoran demanded impatiently, ¡°What¡¯s wrong with you? Are you hurt or something?¡±

 

¡°I said, it¡¯s nothing,¡± Kai snapped, wobbling to stand up. A shot of pain shuddered through his body, and he buckled over.

 

¡°I thought so,¡± Syaoran murmured, eyes hardening. ¡°I suspected, but thought you wouldn¡¯t be that stupid. I knew it was strange when you showed up in Tokyo this summer, so shortly after you were supposed to get your ¡®surgery.¡¯¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Forehead glistening with sweat, Kai looked up trying to laugh, but laugh coming out in broken gasps.

 

¡°Tell me, am I not right? Sakura and I went through the lengths of trouble to recover your locket, so that you could get that bullet removed from your chest meanwhile—but you didn¡¯t actually have the surgery, did you?¡± Syaoran said lowly.

 

¡°Did Meilin tell you?¡± Kai asked, taken back. The Little Wolf was sharper than expected.

 

¡°I see. She knows already.¡± Syaoran stared at Kai grimly. ¡°Do you have a death wish or something? Or are you just a plain idiot? Did you expect sympathy? How do you think you¡¯re going to protect Miho in that state?¡± He wasn¡¯t worried at all, merely annoyed at how dumb Kai could be at times. After all that hassle Sakura and he went through that summer!

 

¡°Idiot,¡± Kai muttered, reaching for a fresh glass of water. ¡°She has many others that can protect her, besides me.¡± He had clumsily dropped the other one in another pang of pain in his chest, bringing over his pesky neighbor. ¡°Hand me the pills over there on the counter, will you, if you¡¯re done berating me.¡±

 

Sighing, Syaoran found a white container full of pills. ¡°What¡¯s this?¡± he asked suspiciously.

 

¡°What do you think?¡± Kai asked, filling the glass with tap water. ¡°No, it¡¯s nothing hazardous. They¡¯re just antibiotics.¡±

 

¡°Heh, that solves the mystery of the disappearing medicine in the hospital,¡± Syaoran commented, sliding over the pills, down the counter. ¡°Sakura¡¯s brother would throw a fit if he knew.¡± He couldn¡¯t help chuckling inwards—Yamazaki would be devastated to find that it wasn¡¯t the vengeful spirit of a dead patient playing tricks on the doctors. ¡°

 

Swallowing the pills and gulping down the entire glass of water, Kai took a deep breath. The pain had lessened. ¡°Don¡¯t tell anyone else about this, okay? Especially not Sakura.¡±

 

¡°Why? Sakura won¡¯t get mad or anything—she¡¯d probably get really sad.¡±

 

¡°Exactly,¡± Kai said, smiling lopsided. ¡°She is someone who would actually feel sorry for me. I don¡¯t want sympathy, so you don¡¯t have to fret over me, Syao-kun.¡±

 

¡°Who said I care whether you kill yourself or not?¡± Syaoran muttered, crossing his arms. ¡°But you¡¯re not planning on leaving that bullet in there, are you?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯ll get it removed, sooner or later,¡± Kai replied staidly. ¡°But I still have more to do before I can take a vacation.¡±

 

¡°You are constantly in vacation.¡± Living next to an ex-thief was definitely a pain in the neck. Patting Kai¡¯s back, Syaoran said more amiably than before, ¡°Anyway, I¡¯m kind of relieved. Now I see how you blackmailed Meilin into being nice to you.¡±

 

Kai turned around indignantly, scowling at Syaoran. ¡°Ouch.¡± He crumpled down on the floor and sighed, burying his head into his knees. How pathetic was this?

 

¡°Blackmail, blackmail!¡± squawked Perro-chan.

 

¡°Shut up, stupid parrot,¡± Kai muttered. ¡°Mei-chan wouldn¡¯t care if I die, rotting from inside out because of this infection.¡±

 

¡°Not that I care, but you should value yourself more, Mizuki Kai,¡± Syaoran said, walking out of the kitchen. ¡°The worst kind of man is one who can¡¯t even take care of himself.¡±

 

Kai leaned back on the kitchen counter, breath easing. His neighbor¡¯s footsteps faded away. He murmured, ¡°As if I don¡¯t that know myself.¡±

 

***

 

¡°Do you seriously have any idea what the consequences of releasing the Emotions just like that, without any plan or strategy, would be?¡± Erika demanded, arms crossed. Her wet violet curls hung down from the towel wrapped around her head. A midnight shower didn¡¯t do much to cool her frustration at her selfish twin. ¡°And what in the world are you doing right now?¡±

 

A nonchalant Eron stuffed the duffel bag with thick woolen socks, cashmere sweaters and long underwear.

 

¡°By the way, I am not wearing that,¡± Erika stated, pointing to the long underwear in distaste.

 

¡°You¡¯ll freeze to death without it in the ski slopes,¡± replied Eron, carefully folding articles of clothing into two duffel bags, one labeled ¡°Erika¡± and the other ¡°Eron.¡± It was a gamble, him releasing all of the Emotions. On one hand, it had been too long since he had summoned a dark force, and on the other hand, he was frightened by what remaining forces remained to be released. He couldn¡¯t stall them for much longer, but his safest bet was releasing the Emotions—top tier classification in the potential level of destruction that they might cause, but in themselves, they were pretty harmless. The most dangerous part of the Emotions was that they were unpredictable, for they couldn¡¯t be controlled once he released them, but that was their vice also, for maybe they would avoid causing harm. Each Emotion had its own whims and extremities, and Sakura was a stouthearted girl—she should be able to fend them off. Eron smiled dourly; there weren¡¯t much options left anymore. Sooner or later, he would have to use It. But not yet. Somewhere out there, Sakura would be sound asleep, eagerly awaiting the school field trip. Was there ever a trip that he hadn¡¯t ruined for her? Yet, she would still look forward to the next excursion. She was that kind of girl, who looked forward to each new day.

 

¡°We can¡¯t slack off, going on some kind of school ski trip!¡± Erika exclaimed, shaking her wet towel at Eron, when there was no further response.

 

¡°Have you ever gone skiing before?¡± Eron asked, zipping up his personal ski equipment.

 

¡°No,¡± was the sullen reply. ¡°Neither do I care to—it¡¯s dangerous, I heard.¡±

 

¡°Since we have to destroy them sooner or later, we might as well have some fun before we get serious.¡± Eron said matter-of-fact. Having finished packing for himself and his twin, he set the luggage in front of the doorway.

 

Shaking her head in disbelief, Erika muttered, ¡°What has she done to you?¡± But sometimes, she too felt the distance between her objective and reality. Somehow, she and Eron had settled into this neighborhood, this school, this group of friends. Someday, despite all her nagging and complaining now, she would be very reluctant to give this lifestyle up.

 

 

 

Across the town, safe from the harsh winter wind under the tiled blue gable roof, Kinomoto Sakura snuggled into the thick covers of her down blanket in anticipation of the winter field trip the following day. Though she had long since learned that trips don¡¯t always turn out as anticipated, she was excited to have an excuse to spend time with Syaoran, far from the hawk-like eyes of her brother.

 

******

 

Part II: The next morning¡¦

 

Twelve chartered school buses left from the Seijou Junior Field, jammed with jittery students from the first years to the third years. Not only was it a hassle to load all the luggage and the ski equipments, but the overworked students simply refused to sit still despite the exasperated teachers¡¯ scolding, for five days of liberation from school awaited them.

 

¡°You guys, stop jumping up and down on the bus!¡± Akagi Aki said crossly, looking slightly green as he leaned against the cool glass of the window. The Seijou Junior High student body president looked more like a juvenile delinquent than a model student with his long and straight bleached hair, and his cool, pale eyes, yet he was considered a born leader if simply for his tenacity and bossiness. The excited students of Seijou Junior High were on their way to their annual winter field trip. This year, it was being hosted at the Akagi family-owned ski resort high up in the mountains, a couple of hours away from Tomoeda. 

 

¡°Stop being a poor-sport, Aki-sempai! I know, you¡¯re car sick!¡± Miho exclaimed gleefully,

swerving around and sticking her tongue out at Aki over the top of her seat.

 

Yamazaki Takashi, who was seated beside Akagi Aki, inched away towards far edge of his seat. ¡°Speaking of vomit, it is said that an ogre lies in the bottom of each person¡¯s stomach, controlling their hunger, and when they are displeased, they wage a war in the stomach, expelling everything out¡¦¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s disgusting! Do leave us in peace for once, Takashi-kun!¡± Chiharu snapped, popping her head up from her seat next to Miho¡¯s. ¡°We can never go on a trip without hearing your nonsense.¡±

 

¡°Ahem. Sit straight and put on your seat belts,¡± Aki reminded. He glared at Takashi, who was too smiley for his own good.

 

¡°Oh, stop bossing us around.¡± Miho wrinkled her nose in contempt.

 

¡°I¡¯m the bus monitor,¡± Aki stated haughtily. ¡°And you should have been on the bus with your grade, not with the third years.¡±

 

¡°Well too bad,¡± Miho replied pertly.

 

¡°Have respect for your upperclassmen, Tanaka Miho,¡± Aki said warningly. At that moment, the bus jolted and Aki gulped.

 

Most of the other students were in a better mood. ¡°It¡¯s the first field trip we had in ages!¡± Sakura exclaimed, eyes sparkling and lost in her own world. ¡°I haven¡¯t been skiing since elementary school!¡± Sakura and Tomoyo were seated across the aisle from Miho and Chiharu, near the back of the bus. Behind them sat Syaoran and Kai, both silent and disinterested from the ruckus of the excited students, on their way to the ski resort on the annual school winter field trip.

 

¡°Sakura-chan is so cute!¡± Tomoyo exclaimed, holding up her camcorder. ¡°You can wear the new ski outfit I made you!¡± For a second, her eyes flitted to Eriol, seated by himself several seats away, quietly reading a book, ignoring the noise. Back in fifth grade, they had all gone on a ski trip also. As was in his tradition, Eriol had created trouble for Sakura, consequently rescuing her himself. Back then, when Tomoyo saw him carrying Sakura back from the slopes on his back, she realized that despite his mysterious exterior, his heart held an incomprehensible kindness.

 

¡°Do you think we¡¯ll be able to meet the Abominable Snowman or the Ghost Wolf this time?¡± Naoko asked, leaning over on the armrest in the seat in front of Sakura and Tomoyo¡¯s. ¡°Or at least the Yuki Onna.¡±

 

¡°She¡¯s joking, she¡¯s joking,¡± Rika, who was Naoko¡¯s bus-mate, reassured Sakura.

 

¡°I¡¯m pretty sure the ski slopes are haunted,¡± Naoko insisted, eying Sakura turn pallid. It was so much fun to scare her gullible friend.

 

¡°Students, put on your seatbelts and sit straight,¡± Terada-sensei, one of the fieldtrip supervisors called out from the front of the bus. ¡°We¡¯re almost there!¡±

 

Blushing, Rika settled back down on her seat, tugging at Naoko¡¯s jacket sleeve to do the same. 

 

¡°Told you guys,¡± Aki muttered, watching the snow-covered slopes come into view with relief.

 

¡°Know it all,¡± Miho retorted. She wondered why Aki was so grouchy lately; he was usually so polite to girls. Then her smoke-grey eyes rounded as she caught the first glimpse of the icy mountains. ¡°It¡¯s beautiful!¡±

 

All the girls clambered over to Miho¡¯s side of the bus to see the glorious view of the sun shining on the glittering slopes. Even Terada-sensei had given up in disciplining his extra-enthusiastic students. His third graders were a hard-working bunch—they deserved this trip.

 

¡°You don¡¯t look too excited,¡± Kai commented dryly under his breath, leaning back in his seat, eyes still shut and headphones blasting away as usual.

 

¡°Neither do you,¡± Syaoran replied, zipping his jacket up all the way up to the neck and watching Sakura lean across the aisle in front of him, trying to catch a glimpse of the scenery over the other girls¡¯ heads. She was always so energized by these troublesome fieldtrips.

 

¡°It was a perfect opportunity to ditch. I can¡¯t believe I¡¯m wasting my precious time on such a stupid trip with these kids,¡± Kai muttered, knocking his head on the windowpane. ¡°Stupid Meilin.¡±

 

¡°This is one trip I would gladly have skipped with you,¡± Syaoran replied, stuffing his hands in his jacket pockets.

 

¡°Oh yeah, Mei-chan told me that you are especially susceptible to cold. She also told me that it would be worth watching to see you shudder and sniffle on the ski slopes.¡± Kai smirked slightly. ¡°So, I thought maybe I might join this merry little break from classes.¡±

 

¡°My dear roommate-to-be, did Meilin tell you how I¡¯m extra grouchy when I¡¯m cold?¡± Syaoran said wryly, raising any eyebrow, betraying that he was rather peeved that Meilin contacted Kai and not him.

 

¡°Any more so than usual?¡± Kai snickered.

 

Seated near the front of the bus, Erika shuffled in her seat and demanded, ¡°Are we there yet?¡±

 

Frowning, Eron replied, ¡°Stop asking every five minutes. We¡¯re almost there.¡±

 

¡°You should stop fretting over the fact that Sakura went to the Winter Wonderland with Syaoran by now,¡± Erika said crassly. ¡°What did you expect?¡±

 

¡°Shut up Erika—I can¡¯t believe you¡¯re not over that yet. Okay, I asked her and got rejected. There, are you satisfied?¡± Eron crossed his arms and stared out the window without particularly taking notice of the beautiful scenery.

 

¡°Yeah, well, are we there yet?¡± Erika replied, ignoring her cranky twin—she knew she had hit a sore spot.

 

To everybody¡¯s relief, at that moment Terada-sensei stood up and announced, ¡°Okay students, I know it¡¯s been a long ride. We¡¯ll be arriving at the resort in five minutes.  Don¡¯t get up until the bus has completely stopped. We will gather at the front lobby once we arrive. Find your assigned roommates and line up together. After taking attendance, I will be handing out your room keys and the other supervising teachers will go over the rules once more. Well then, we¡¯re here!¡±

 

The bus driver winced as everyone roared out in a cheer. Students fumbled to unclasp their seatbelts and gathered their belongings, leftover trash and random articles of clothing, all eager to be the first out of the bus.

 

¡°Wait, I can¡¯t find my mitten!¡± Chiharu squealed, holding up her bare hand and holding up the traffic.

 

¡°Just get out!¡± Everyone behind her screamed, some desperate to use the bathroom, some unable to wait a second later to leave the bus.

 

¡°Amazing!¡± Sakura gasped, as she stared up at the ski resort, ominous against the snowy hills. Breath-taken, Sakura hugged her duffel bag to her chest and breathed in the crisp mountain air as she stepped into the snow. Her eyes flitted towards the twins, who seemed quite miserable to be there. Of course, Erika always had a dissatisfied pout on her face, though she had been more subdued lately, but Eron was as decipherable as ever. Students had been looking forward to this trip so much—she hoped nothing would ruin it.

 

¡°Sakura-chan! What are you doing out there? I received our keys!¡± Tomoyo called out from the entrance. ¡°Isn¡¯t this place wonderful? We¡¯re so lucky that the Akagi family owns this ski resort—or else we would never have dreamed of coming here for our school winter trip.¡±

 

Being the last one to remain standing outside in awe, Sakura ran in, almost tripping on the slippery road and slamming into Syaoran¡¯s back. ¡°Hoe—sorry!¡±

 

¡°Clumsy girl,¡± Syaoran chuckled, turning around and picking up Sakura¡¯s bags. ¡°If you can barely balance yourself on flat land, how are you going to manage it on the slopes?¡±

 

Sticking out her tongue, Sakura stomped into the resort, followed by Syaoran, wrestling with her bags, along with his own, up the pathway.

 

Stealthily walking beside Eron, Kai quietly said, ¡°Don¡¯t glare with those kind of eyes. Jealousy is quite unbecoming.¡± Laughing, he tossed his duffel bag over his shoulder and walked inside.

 

The look that Eron gave Kai was even more terrifying, for Kai had never been on his favorite people¡¯s list.

 

***

 

For the next two hours, the students busily settled into the resort, finding their rooms, unpacking, and exploring their home for the next five days.

 

¡°We¡¯re in room 303,¡± Tomoyo said, inserting the card key into the slot. The door swung open.

 

¡°Wow, this room is amazing!¡± Miho exclaimed, jumping onto one of the three beds. Tomoyo and Sakura claimed the other two. 

 

Setting down her bags, Sakura walked into the room and swung open the curtains.

 

¡°The view is gorgeous too!¡± Chiharu stated, popping out from the room next doors; she was roommates with Rika and Naoko. ¡°We have clear view of the ski slopes.¡±

 

¡°There¡¯s cable TV too!¡± Naoko said, having thoroughly examined the room in hopes of finding secret passages or maybe body parts. ¡°Rika-chan! Stop unpacking—we can do that later. We need to go explore the resort!¡±

 

¡°Hurry, let¡¯s unpack and look around too!¡± Miho exclaimed, quickly flinging open her suitcase and stuffing her belongings into the drawers.

 

¡°By the way, Miho-chan, how did you end up rooming with us?¡± Sakura asked. ¡°Aren¡¯t you supposed to be paired with the other second years?¡±

 

¡°Oh, there was an uneven number of girls in my grade—I volunteered to room with the third graders,¡± Miho replied. ¡°Besides, our grade supervisor teacher likes me, so she consented.¡±

 

¡°I see,¡± Sakura said. Like brother, like sister—somehow, Miho always got her way at school.

 

¡°Let¡¯s go now! I heard there are shops and even an arcade in the basement!¡± Miho stated, already out of the door.

 

¡°Wait, don¡¯t go alone!¡± Sakura called out—she had yet to unpack.

 

Down on the second floor, the guys were a little less enthusiastic.

 

Kai had sprawled across the bed, on top of the covers, without unpacking at all (not that he had brought much).

 

¡°Your bag is getting in the way,¡± Syaoran said crossly, kicking Kai¡¯s black duffel bag to the side. ¡°And can¡¯t we turn on the stupid lights?¡±

 

¡°Watch it—my laptop¡¯s in there,¡± Kai said, fumbling for the TV remote control. ¡°Cool, they have adult channels— Ouch!¡± Syaoran had thrown a boot at him. ¡°Hey, the girls¡¯ rooms are up on the third floor, right? Want to sneak in and see what they¡¯re up to?¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t get us into trouble with your foolish antics; you heard Terada-sensei,¡± Syaoran said, collapsing onto his bed in surrender. ¡°Anyway, what kind of idiot brings a laptop to a ski resort?¡±

 

¡°What kind of idiotic rule is it that guys can¡¯t visit the girls¡¯ rooms?¡± Kai replied, rolling over onto his stomach. ¡°Boring. How did I get stuck with such uninteresting roommates?¡± From his skewed sunglasses, he glared at Eriol, who was nonchalantly sitting on the sofa next to the blinded window and reading in the dark.

 

There came a knock on the door. Without waiting for an invitation, Aki burst in. ¡°The teachers announced that dinner is at six sharp. Don¡¯t be late. We have free time till then.¡±

 

¡°Did you guys hear the story of the ski resort ghosts?¡± Takashi asked, popping up behind Aki. He was rooming with Aki and Eron—he would rather have roomed with Syaoran. ¡°Long ago, the ski resort was completely snowed in and cut off from external connection for weeks because of a ferocious storm caused by the wrath of the Snow Demon. Soon, the kitchen ran out of food and all the people were starving. Some died because of malnutrition. The cook became worried, knowing he had to feed the people, yet there was no food left. Then, he saw the fresh corpses and¡¦¡±

 

¡°EWW!!! That¡¯s disgusting!¡± Chiharu yanked Takashi¡¯s ear and pulled him towards her. The girls were in the process of exploring each floor and had ended up on the second floor. ¡°Poor Sakura-chan heard it—now she won¡¯t eat anything here!¡±

 

¡°No, it¡¯s true—I¡¯ve heard about the story too,¡± Naoko interrupted with sparkling eyes. ¡°About the ghosts of the souls of people who became the victims of cannibalism and got turned into fresh sashimi.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s horrible!¡± Rika shuddered. ¡°It¡¯s not true, is it?¡±

 

¡°It is true,¡± Eriol said solemnly. ¡°And the legend goes further to say that the storm was caused by the soul of a grieving woman who had lost her soul in a snowstorm, many years ago. As long as she was searching for her child, the storm would not cease.¡±

 

Both Syaoran and Sakura glanced at each other uneasily.

 

¡°I-I¡¯m not scared of ghosts anymore,¡± Sakura squeaked.

 

¡°Boo!¡± Kai had somehow slipped outside the room, behind Sakura, and tapped her on the shoulder.

 

¡°KYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!¡± Sakura screeched, her voice echoing down the long hall. All the guys clambered out of their rooms, thinking there was an emergency.

 

¡°You¡¯re horrible, Kai-kun!¡± Recovering from her shock, Sakura glared at Kai, who was clutching his stomach and laughing hard. She blushed furiously red as all the boys in her grade chuckled and returned to their rooms.

 

Patting Sakura¡¯s head, Kai said, ¡°Your so cute, Saku-chan, I want to eat you!¡±

 

¡°Not funny!¡± Sakura stuck out her tongue—sometimes, Kai reminded her a lot of her older brother, especially when he teased her. Turning to Syaoran, she demanded, ¡°What are you laughing at?¡±

 

¡°Nothing,¡± he replied, straight-faced. Sakura was so red and flustered.

 

Even Tomoyo merely videotaped without interfering.

 

¡°Shouldn¡¯t you be reassuring Sakura that ghosts don¡¯t exist?¡± Eriol asked, leaning a foot against the wall.

 

¡°But she¡¯s so cute when she¡¯s scared,¡± Tomoyo replied, blinking innocently.

 

¡°She is, isn¡¯t she?¡± Eriol smiled, pushing up the bridge of his glasses.

 

For a second, Tomoyo¡¯s set down her camcorder. Eriol had always been fascinated by Sakura. His eyes were always on her. Sometimes, he reminded her of a cat who had found a new toy; other times, he was like a father watching his daughter grow.

 

¡°Well, let¡¯s continue exploring,¡± Sakura said, eager to get off the second floor as quickly as possible. She noticed that Rika, the only person who never teased her, seemed rather nervous, glancing over her shoulder frequently.

 

¡°Is anything wrong, Rika-chan?¡± Sakura asked, peering down the hall.

 

¡°Isn¡¯t nothing,¡± Rika replied quickly. ¡°Where is Miho-chan? Didn¡¯t she come with us?¡±

 

¡°That girl, she always likes to wonder off on her own,¡± Chiharu said, shaking her head.

 

 

 

After dinner that night, the students had free time again until curfew at 9:30. Sakura¡¯s friends gathered by the great fireplace in the common lounge. The warmth of the fire flickered on their faces as they sat on the sofas by it.

 

¡°Horror story time!¡± Naoko announced.

 

¡°Say, don¡¯t you guys want to go to bed early?¡± Sakura asked, gently inching off the edge of her seat. ¡°We need to wake up early tomorrow—it¡¯ll be the first day of skiing.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t be a poor sport! Or do you want to play truth or dare instead?¡± Naoko asked, eyes twinkling mischievously.

 

¡°NO!¡± This time, she was joined by Syaoran¡¯s voice. They gazed at each other then looked down at their laps.

 

It all rushed back to Sakura, Syaoran¡¯s cruel eyes gleaming behind the fireplace, the indiscernible curve of his lips, as he tossed into the fire the pale flower he had picked from a tree for his dare. The camping trip had been ages ago, not long after Syaoran had returned from Hong Kong. Yet, Sakura couldn¡¯t help wondering if there had been any progression since then. Sure there has been, she wanted to reassure herself. Carefully she fingered the flower-shaped watch on her wrist. Sure there has been, but in a sense, she knew that Syaoran was still as inapproachable in some aspects as ever, as hard as it was for her to admit this. Even after all their conversations, spending all the time together, sharing moments of connection, there would always be a part of Syaoran she would never know.

 

¡°Times goes by, but people can¡¯t change so easily,¡± Eron said quietly, so that only Syaoran, who was sitting beside him, could hear. ¡°Duty calls, and what will the lost wolf do? Return to its pack, of course, for it can¡¯t survive long as a stray.¡± Noticing that Syaoran was about to leave, he continued softly, ¡°Don¡¯t bolt up like that. Sakura will worry.¡±

 

Trembling to control himself, Syaoran sat down again. More than anything that Eron said, Syaoran hated the way Eron said Sakura¡¯s name in a different tone, the way he gazed at her with those inconsistent golden eyes, and the fact that the Dark Ones already knew his weakness. Truthfully, he wasn¡¯t sure he would be able to survive another encounter like last time¡¯s with the Obedience. What Eron had up his sleeves this time, he did not know.

 

¡°I¡¯m all for scary stories!¡± Miho stated, plopping down on the empty seat next to Kai, who was as usual typing away on his silver laptop. ¡°I heard quite a few in England.¡±

 

¡°Really?¡± Naoko squealed. ¡°Do tell us some.¡±

 

¡°Oh, Eriol¡¯s much better at telling them than I am,¡± Miho said, hugging a cushion her chest. ¡°Do tell us a story, Eriol!¡±

 

¡°Do!¡± urged the others.

 

¡°Hiiragizawa-kun¡¯s scary stories are always the best,¡± Naoko declared, shivering in anticipation.

 

¡°Well¡¦¡±  Eriol cleared his throat. ¡°I¡¯ll tell you a story, not from England but closer to home, about these very mountain regions indeed.¡±

 

¡°Hoe-e,¡± Sakura curled into a ball.

 

Leaning over to slam Kai¡¯s laptop shut, Miho stated, ¡°Stop playing around with your computer and spoiling the mood, Mizuki-sempai.¡±

 

Flinging open his laptop again, Kai ignored her and continued to type. Irritated by the tap of the keys, Miho glared at Kai.

 

¡°Hush Miho,¡± Naoko said, when Miho was about to resume in an indignant rant.

 

¡°Rika-chan, come join us!¡± Chiharu called out to Rika who had just entered the common room.

 

¡°Huh? Sure.¡± Rika walked over to the couches, looking around uneasily, as sheet took a seat on the carpet, in front of Chiharu..

 

In a hushed voice, Eriol continued, ¡°My story begins long, long ago, when these mountains were barren and uninhabited. You all would have heard of folktales of the Yuki Onna, the Snow Queen, who appeared and disappeared with blue mist, who caused fatal snow storms, and froze all those who touched her. It is said that when there is a dramatic drop in temperature and a sudden unexplainable blizzard, and the fog is so thick that you can¡¯t see in front of you, it is sign that the Yuki Onna is approaching. Some say that she is an ugly, misshapen hag, others say her icy beauty is unparalleled by any queen or princess. Some say that she is a woman holding a dead baby in her arms. Others say she captured live village children, who nevermore returned to their village. Others say she was a deadly maiden who lived off human blood. If an unlucky man was caught in her snare, he would surely have met his end, for it was said that nobody survived her deadly cold kiss.

 

¡°The Yuki Onna could have been any of these characters, or none, but the story I relate to you now incorporates all of these features, for she was as old as the mountains, but retained eternal beauty and youth. She had a maiden¡¯s frigid heart, but was a loving mother, as vengeful as an ogre, but the creator of many beautiful things. Thus, a curious and foolish young man set out in search of the legendary sovereign of snow, and braving the ferocious blizzard, he finally stumbled into a village in the midst of mountainous region, very similar to where we are now. A village it was called, but a village no longer, for have of it was buried under snow, and all the houses and vegetation was frozen. At first, the man thought that the village was abandoned, for there was no life in sight. Yet, trailing into the raging wind he heard voices, many voices, of old people, of children, of women, and men. Thinking himself delusional, the man continued through the village, when he tripped over something buried in the snow. It has a shriveled arm, blue from frostbite and wrinkly like a raisin left out in the sun too long, merely skin and bones. As the man waded through the snow, he discovered different limbs, some corpses whole, some fractured. Finally, he saw a small trembling hand reaching out from a mount of snow. Thinking that it might be a survivor, the man pulled up the hand.¡±

 

¡°And it was a moving hand!¡± Naoko exclaimed, unable to restrain herself.

 

¡°Kyaa!¡± Sakura squirmed in her seat.

 

¡°No,¡± Eron continued reassuringly. ¡°It was the hand of a small child, spared by the protective arms of his mother, the only child left in the village. ¡®Snow¡¦ Freeze¡¦ Death,¡± murmured the half-dead child, lips blue and eyes bloodshot. Where were the other children, the traveler asked, and the child replied fearfully, that they were with Her. Why did this happen, questioned the curious man. And the child answered that one ignorant boy had been foolish enough to claim that he wasn¡¯t scared of the Yuki Onna, that there were things more powerful than Her. In the mountains, the Yuki Onna was considered a deity, and such insolence was unheard of. Despite what the child said, the young man remained skeptical and thought that he would have to meet the woman who destructed an entire village for the sake of her pride. It was snowing again, but now the snow was not white, but crimson. ¡®It¡¯s the children¡¯s blood,¡¯ whispered the lone child, red snow settling on his hair and shoulders. ¡®The Yuki Onna¡¯s vengeance.¡¯

 

More students had gathered around to hear Eriol¡¯s story, and only the storyteller¡¯s low, chill voice could be heard. The scarlet flames from the fireplace reflected off the window, tinting the slowly drifting snowdrops outside a faint crimson. Despite the heat from the radiators, the listeners felt a sudden chill creep up their bodies.

 

¡°Then, clouds of fog shrouded the village and there was a sharp drop in the subzero temperature. And the unfortunate man set eyes on the Yuki Onna for the first time, a tall stately woman who wore mist as a veil and crystals and diamonds that clung to her hair, skin and sheer white kimono. Without a sound, she sunk her long blue fingernails into the child¡¯s yielding skin, and in an instant, the child shriveled up, froze crisply to the bone, then crumbled away into the wind. All in a matter of seconds. And the horrified man stared at the Yuki Onna, wondering if she was a beast or human, god or devil. And he realized that the village wasn¡¯t abandoned at all—its inhabitants¡¯ bodies were mummified under the snow, and their vengeful spirits wailed out during blizzards, forever grieving upon losing their children to the snowy storm, souls forever frozen to the mountains. Even now, when people hear the howling wind, if they listen closely enough, they hear the voices of these desolate villagers.¡±

 

******

 

Part III: The dispute¡¦

 

Luckily for Sakura, the next day was bright and sunny on the slopes. Since she slept soundly the previous night, she was bursting with energy. To her relief, she didn¡¯t dream of shriveled corpses and ghostly snow queens—in fact, she hadn¡¯t dreamt at all. Besides, she had enough worries, having learnt about the Winter Competitions.

 

¡°The students would be split into two teams, which will compete in varying activities, including skiing, a snow fight, and storytelling contest,¡± Terada-sensei announced the next day, before the students hit the slopes. ¡°Each team will elect a captain. On the last day, we will hold the Winter Competitions, and the losing team will have a week of cleaning duty when we get back to school.¡±

 

The students groaned; they definitely did not want to be in the losing team. So much for having a pressure-free trip.

 

¡°Okay, now, we¡¯ll draw the lots. If you draw a red strip, you will be in the Akai (Red) Team and if you draw a blue strip, you will be in the Aoi (Blue) Team,¡± Terada-sensei continued, holding up a bag.

 

It¡¯s a fifty-fifty chance. Please let me be on the same team as Syaoran, Sakura prayed. It¡¯s not too much to ask, is it? She had so little time to spend with Syaoran these days. He was always so busy, as was expected. Just this once, on this field trip, she wanted to be closer to him.

 

¡°Here you go, Kinomoto-san,¡± Terada-sensei said, holding the raffle bag to Sakura.

 

Closing her eyes, Sakura drew out a strip.

 

¡°Sakura-chan, I¡¯m in the blue team; what about you?¡± Tomoyo asked eagerly.

 

¡°So am I,¡± Syaoran said, holding up a blue strip. ¡°That¡¯s a relief—you¡¯ll definitely win in the ski competition.¡±

 

¡°Heh, so I¡¯m in your team too,¡± Aki said, running a finger through his carefully blow-dried hair. ¡°Of course I¡¯ll be captain.¡±

 

¡°No way,¡± Chiharu stated, holding up her blue strip. Expectantly, she looked up at Takashi. To her relief, he too had a blue strip.

 

¡°We must be connected by fate, Chiharu-chan!¡± Takashi exclaimed. ¡°We¡¯ve always been on the same team, since kindergarten!¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s a relief, I¡¯m with you guys,¡± Rika stated. She glanced towards Terada-sensei, who was supervisor for the Aoi Team.

 

¡°That¡¯s too bad; I¡¯m in the Akai Team,¡± Naoko sighed. ¡°What about you, Sakura-chan?¡±

 

Please let me be in the Blue Team. Slowly, Sakura uncurled her fingers, revealing a red strip. Her heart sank.

 

¡°That¡¯s too bad,¡± Tomoyo said disheartened. ¡°I don¡¯t want to compete against Sakura-chan.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m all by myself,¡± Sakura sighed.

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry; I know I¡¯m not any good at sports,¡± Naoko said dejected.

 

¡°Count me out too,¡± Kai said nonchalantly waving his red strip. ¡°Competitions are just too bothersome.¡±

 

¡°Eh, no way! Why do I have to be on the same team as Mizuki-sempai?¡± Miho demanded, having slipped away from the second years who were busily drawing ballots as well.

 

¡°How annoying. I¡¯m stuck in such a crappy team—I have no intention of being stuck with cleaning duty,¡± Eron muttered, glaring at Syaoran, who had already been nominated as captain of the blue team, much to Akagi Aki¡¯s annoyance.

 

¡°Well, I think Sakura-san should be the captain of the Akai Team,¡± Eriol said, holding up his red slip.

 

¡°Eriol-kun! You¡¯re in my team?¡± Sakura asked, brightening up. ¡°What a relief.¡±

 

Great, the two I least want to see by her side, Syaoran thought, glancing between Eron and Eriol. Then he eyed Kai, who had been dangerously restless these days. Make that three—I trust him even less that those other two; at least they are predictable. But, I really can¡¯t tell what Kai has up his sleeves. He likes to fool around too much, but is as tight as a sealed bottle about himself.

 

Clearing his throat, Terada-sensei announced, ¡°The Winter Competitions has officially begun! The captain of the Aoi Team will be Li Syaoran, Class 3-1.¡± He handed Syaoran a blue sash as the badge of the leader. ¡°And the captain of the Akai team will be¡¦ Kinomoto Sakura, also from Class 3-1.¡± He handed Sakura a red sash.

 

¡°Hoe?¡± Sakura blinked, red sash tied around her upper left arm, facing Syaoran with his blue sash. She hadn¡¯t even realized that the other students had unanimously voted her as captain of the Akai Team. She realized that Syaoran, arms crossed, was staring at her with his eyes half-shut, exasperated, very typical of him. ¡°It¡¯s not my fault they voted me captain!¡± she protested. Why did this somehow feel familiar?

 

¡°Hai, hai, what ever you say,¡± Syaoran replied, shrugging his shoulders.

 

¡°We¡¯ll definitely win!¡± Miho shouted.

 

¡°Sure,¡± Aki snickered, eying the Red Team comically. What a joke—talk about an imbalance in team members.

 

 

 

¡°We have no worries,¡± Aki stated, snapping his boots into his personal skis; he and Tomoyo were one of the few students who had brought private equipment. Most of the others rented them at the resort. ¡°No offense to Sakura-chan, but our team has all the talented skiers. They only have Hiiragizawa-kun; but we have Tomoyo-chan for the Advanced Level ski competition, Li-kun for the Intermediate competitions, myself for the snowboard competition...¡±

 

¡°Wait a second,¡± Syaoran said. Though he was wearing five layers of clothes, he still shivered. Geez, I really don¡¯t like winter. ¡°I myself haven¡¯t skied in years, and the only frequent skier on our team, besides Tomoyo is yourself, if you can live up to our expectations. I¡¯m not sure if we can be so off-guard.¡±

 

¡°They also have Eron-kun and Mizuki-kun,¡± Chiharu stated.

 

¡°No need to worry about Eron,¡± Erika said, yawning. ¡°He¡¯s never skied before.¡±

 

¡°Seriously?¡± Chiharu exclaimed. ¡°Have you?¡±

 

¡°Nope,¡± Erika replied, fluffing up her hair, which was flattened by her wool hat. ¡°I don¡¯t know what we¡¯re doing on this field trip. Personally, I think this whole competition is stupid; but I really don¡¯t want any more cleaning duty, so we must win.¡±

 

¡°And Mizuki-kun doesn¡¯t seem to be a problem; he didn¡¯t even show up on the slopes today. Poor Miho-chan is hopeless too.¡± Aki grinned. ¡°This is just too easy.¡± They were interrupted by a piercing screech.

 

¡°Hoe-e!¡± Sakura shrieked as she landed on her bottom, cushioned by the snow.

 

¡°Are you okay?¡± Tomoyo asked, rushing towards Sakura, helping her up.

 

¡°Ouch. Thanks, Tomoyo-chan,¡± Sakura said, untangling herself from her skis and poles. She hadn¡¯t remembered skiing being this difficult. At this rate, she had to relearn how to ski from scratch.  

 

¡°Daidouji-san, you can¡¯t help someone from the other team!¡± Aki exclaimed, horrified.

 

¡°But¡¦¡± Tomoyo brushed off the snow from Sakura¡¯s pants. Poor Sakura-chan¡¦ she was faring far worse than Syaoran.

 

¡°I¡¯m fine, Tomoyo-chan,¡± Sakura said, wobbling on her ski boots.

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry—I¡¯ll look after Sakura-san,¡± Eriol said, swerving besides Sakura. ¡°Sakura-san, you¡¯ll get the hang of it again, in no time.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s right, Sakura-chan. You improved so much, last time. With Eriol-kun¡¯s help, you¡¯ll master skiing in no time,¡± Tomoyo said, smiling. ¡°I¡¯m counting on you, Eriol-kun!¡±

 

 

 

¡°Are you okay with that?¡± Syaoran asked, when Tomoyo reached the bottom of the slope, halting next to him. Eriol was holding Sakura by her hands, to keep her from tripping over on her skis. Watching the pair, Syaoran¡¯s brows twitched in spite of himself, and the usual blood rushed to his face, even in the cold.

 

¡°With what, Syaoran-kun?¡± Tomoyo repeated, blinking innocently. She hid the lower half of her face in her scarf, to smother a giggle, as not to offend her easily agitated friend.

 

¡°It bothers me. Whenever that creepy four-eyes hangs around her. Doesn¡¯t it bother you?¡± Syaoran took off his ski goggles, gazing at Eriol with slanted eyes.

 

Unable to stop herself, Tomoyo giggled; how typical of Syaoran to look so peeved. ¡°Not at all; I¡¯m thankful that Eriol-kun¡¯s always looking after Sakura-chan. And Miho-chan, too.¡± Tomoyo looked around. ¡°Where is Kai-kun, anyway? I haven¡¯t seen him all morning.¡±

 

¡°Probably in the room, sleeping,¡± Syaoran replied dryly.

 

¡°What a waste, after coming all the way here!¡± Tomoyo commented. She watched Sakura fall over flat on her face and winced. Though Sakura had excellent athletic capabilities, her coordination was completely off at times, especially when she was distracted. ¡°You don¡¯t seem to have any problems recalling how to ski, Li-kun.¡±

 

¡°Eh, it just stuck with me, I guess,¡± Syaoran muttered, ears turning red at the recollection of his past catastrophes in the ski slopes. No way he was humiliating himself in front of Eriol again.

 

¡°Erika-chan¡¯s doing better than I expected,¡± Tomoyo added, watching Erika on the beginner¡¯s slope with Naoko and Miho. Her gleaming red pro skis were probably unsuited for a beginner, yet no doubt Eron would buy no less for his sister.

 

¡°Heh, that bastard Eron is far worse than expected,¡± Syaoran said smugly, easily forgetting his first trial on the slopes, crashing into trees, falling on his face, having to be saved by the four-eyed creep. Then his eyebrows twitched again, displeasure written all over his face as he gazed down at two figures down in the beginning slopes with his sharp vision. Goggle came over his eyes, and he resumed practice.

 

 

 

Half-tripping herself, Sakura had made her way to Eron on her skis. ¡°Are you okay Eron-kun?¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re not doing so great yourself, Captain,¡± Eron replied, self-conscious at being caught in such an unflattering position.

 

¡°I know, but I¡¯ll get the hang of it.¡± Sakura laughed sheepishly, hand behind her head, only to drop her stick.

 

Balancing himself on his skis again, Eron stated, ¡°I have to admit, out of the many sports out there, this is the silliest on of them all. Why anybody would want to pad themselves in these horrendous marshmallow-like outfits and tumble down a sleet of ice beats me. It¡¯s quite a dangerous sport, I declare.¡±

 

¡°Ooh, but once you do get to make it down the slope without falling, it¡¯s the most glorious sensation, sliding across the pure white snow, cold wind streaming past you. For a second, it feels like your soaring.¡± Sakura smiled.

 

¡°Is that so?¡± Eron couldn¡¯t help but chuckle shortly. ¡°If you want to feel the sensation of soaring, why not just use the Fly card without going through all this trouble?¡± At least Sakura was talking to him normally now. That was more than he could ask of her, with all the things he¡¯d done to her.

 

¡°Hmm¡¦ isn¡¯t that like asking why at amusement parks people wait in an hour-long line to ride a two-minute roller-coaster, instead of riding the longer-lasting tram?¡± Sakura said.

 

¡°I still don¡¯t understand,¡± Eron said, shaking the snow off his jacket. ¡°But since you¡¯ve requested for me to compete, I must not shirk my duty. Anyway, who will I be competing against?¡±

 

¡°I heard the representative for the beginner slope for the Aoi Team will be Erika-chan,¡± Sakura said.

 

¡°Competing siblings. That would be interest,¡± Naoko commented, glasses sparkling, before she tumbled her way down the hill. They really were a hopeless team.

 

 

 

¡°Those two have been talking for ages,¡± Syaoran muttered, positioning himself on top of the intermediate slopes. Eron¡¯s ridiculous ponytail stuck out from under his wool hat. ¡°What is Sakura doing down there, anyway? She¡¯s not beginner level.¡±

¡°Eh, I told her that it might be safer to start down there and work her way up,¡± Tomoyo said, laughing. It was surprising that Syaoran could see all the way down to the bottom of the slope. ¡°But isn¡¯t it cute how Sakura-chan is trying to teach Eron-kun to ski? I think it¡¯s adorable that Eron-kun can¡¯t ski—he¡¯s usually good at everything.¡±

 

¡°Are you trying to aggravate me, or is this your sick idea of humor?¡± Syaoran asked crossly to his one trusted confidant. ¡°Well, I¡¯m going now. Time me.¡± He kicked off, speeding down the steep hill. Tomoyo pressed the stopwatch.

 

¡°Eron-kun, someone¡¯s coming this way!¡± Sakura exclaimed, looking up the intermediate slope.

 

¡°It looks like the skier lost control! He¡¯s going to crash into us—move out of the way!¡± Eron exclaimed.

 

Alarmed, Sakura and Eron jumped in either direction as the skier skid right through where Eron had been standing, and landed in a crumpled mess a few meters away.

 

¡°Syaoran-kun, are you okay?¡± Tomoyo exclaimed, having skied down after Syaoran as soon as she realized that he had lost control of his skis. Eriol had also rapidly skied down from another part of the slope, halting near Syaoran—it had been too late to save the fall.

 

¡°Li-kun, do you need help?¡± Eriol offered a gloved hand.

 

Syaoran knocked it away. ¡°No thanks. I¡¯m fine.¡± Slowly, he stood up, wobbling on his skis, joints creaking. It was a hard fall, and five layers of clothing did little to cushion it.

 

¡°You were doing so well earlier today,¡± Tomoyo said sympathetically. ¡°I didn¡¯t expect you to lose control of your skis like that—you almost hit poor Eron-kun.¡± She tilted her head questioningly. Surely¡¦ No way. With all his dignity, Syaoran would never intentionally make a fool of himself in front of all these people and fall flat on his face.

 

Syaoran looked up at Tomoyo and grinned in spite of herself. ¡°I do have perfect control over my skis.¡±

 

At this, Tomoyo could merely gape, then chuckle.

 

¡°Syaoran—I thought it might be you,¡± Sakura exclaimed, finally having caught up, sliding on her skis. ¡°Are you okay? You landed so hard; I thought you were going to collide into us. What happened?¡± 

 

¡°I¡¯m fine, I¡¯m fine,¡± Syaoran said hastily. ¡°I¡¯m sorry, I almost bumped into you.¡±

 

¡°Where did Eron-kun go?¡± Tomoyo asked, looking around.

 

Shaking her head, Sakura replied, ¡°He decided to call it a day. It was just too much on the first day, I guess.¡±

 

Hopping back on his skis energetically, Syaoran skied away triumphantly, as if he had never fallen.

 

¡°Hoe? He¡¯s okay?¡± Sakura blinked. ¡°It¡¯s really not fair. Why is he better at skiing than I am now? We both started at the same level.¡±

 

¡°Most important is concentration, discipline, and control,¡± Eriol said, smiling in spite of himself. Li Syaoran never failed to amuse him.

 

***

 

After dinner that night, Sakura¡¯s friends gathered once more in the great common room. Most of them were exhausted after a day in the slopes. Sakura found her entire body aching, especially her thigh muscles. Still, she felt refreshed after a steaming hot shower. Forgetting the hostility between the Red Team and the Blue Team for the moment, they lounged on the cushiony couches, sipping hot chocolate and sharing various snacks.

 

¡°Poor Kero-chan—he would be so jealous,¡± Sakura chuckled to Tomoyo, who sat beside her, busily knitting a pink pompom hat for Sakura. She bit into the crispy apple pie in bliss. Nothing like hot chocolate and warm pie after a day out in the cold. ¡°Miho-chan sure must be hungry—you took three slices of pie!¡±

 

Coughing on her drink, Miho said, ¡°Whew, I never knew that skiing would be so difficult.¡±

 

¡°Is this your first time, Miho-chan?¡± Naoko asked, delighted to have a sympathizer; she hated all sports.

 

¡°No, I went to ski resorts several times when I was young, with my family. But then again, I was never really into sports,¡± Miho said sheepishly. 

 

¡°Mizuki-kun, where were you the whole day?¡± Naoko asked Kai, who was sitting off to the corner by himself, again with his laptop.

 

¡°Indoors,¡± he replied.

 

¡°Why did you come all the way here if you were going to spend all the time indoors?¡± Sakura demanded in exasperation. ¡°And aren¡¯t you hot wearing that thick coat indoors?¡±

 

Shutting his laptop, Kai stood up, laptop tucked under one arm, and spun around once, modeling his coat. ¡°Nee, isn¡¯t this coat sooo nice? It¡¯s warm and snug and beauuuutiful. My darling Mei-chan bought it for me for Christmas. Don¡¯t you think it¡¯s a sign that she loves me?¡± Everybody had heard him rant about the coat at least a dozen times.

 

Shaking his head and sighing, Syaoran muttered, ¡°He¡¯s been going on like that since Christmas and all through New Year¡¯s.¡±

 

¡°And he only wears the coat indoors, because he¡¯s afraid it might get dirty if he wears it outdoors,¡± Sakura added, also sighing. Kai was so silly sometimes.

 

¡°At least I don¡¯t keep a beat-up old teddy bear in my bed,¡± retorted Kai.

 

¡°I don¡¯t see Rika-chan,¡± Sakura remarked rapidly, looking around for her quiet friend, who nobody really noticed when she was present, but when Rika wasn¡¯t there, everyone missed her. ¡°Where is she?¡±

 

¡°Oh!¡± Chiharu looked around mischievously. ¡°Ah, I really can¡¯t say it but¡¦¡±

 

¡°What is it?¡± The others demanded.

 

¡°She promised me not to tell anyone,¡± Chiharu replied, tugging at her braid.

 

¡°Tell us!¡± They pelted Chiharu with bits of chips and chunks of bread.

 

Almost falling over on her chair, Miho peered over the back of the couch. ¡°Who is that boy talking with Rika-san? He¡¯s pretty cute.¡±

 

¡°Where?¡± The other girls scrambled towards Miho¡¯s couch. Indeed, Rika was in conversation on the far corner of the lounge with a smiling brunette boy, probably from a different class.

 

¡°Eh, he is kind of cute—I think I¡¯ve seen him around before,¡± Naoko said. She pouted. ¡°Rika-chan always gets the hot guys.¡±

 

¡°Who is that guy?¡± Sakura asked, squinting. Various heads covered her view.

 

¡°Yutaka Ichiro,¡± Syaoran and Chiharu replied in unison.

 

¡°Eh, you now him, Li-kun?¡± Chiharu asked, surprised.

 

¡°He¡¯s in the soccer team—left midfielder,¡± Syaoran replied, pretending to be disinterested again.

 

¡°I see, no wonder he looked familiar,¡± Sakura replied. ¡°Anyway, how do you know him, Chiharu-chan?¡±

 

¡°Ah, I really shouldn¡¯t be saying this but¡¦¡± Chiharu looked up at Takashi helplessly. ¡°It happened a little before the Winter Wonderland. Rika-chan and I were walking down the hallway at school, when a guy we didn¡¯t recognize stopped in front of Rika-chan. He said that his name was Yutaka Ichiro, from Class 3-3, and he asked Rika-chan to the Winter Wonderland. Of course, she politely refused, since she had other plans for the evening. And we both forgot about him completely. Today, Yutaka-kun, who¡¯s in our team also, saved Rika-chan from crashing into a tree, so they were reintroduced, I guess. I guess she¡¯s thanking him.¡±

 

¡°So, does he like her?¡± Miho asked, eyes rounded.

 

Shrugging, Chiharu sipped her hot chocolate. She wasn¡¯t going to say anymore.

 

¡°Wait, but what about Tera—¡° Miho was cut off as Chiharu covered Miho¡¯s mouth frantically.

 

¡°Well, let¡¯s call it a day. We should go to bed early today!¡± Tomoyo exclaimed. ¡°Especially our two captains, who¡¯ll have a grueling couple of days ahead of us, whipping the respective teams into shape.¡±

 

¡°That is, once I relearn how to ski myself,¡± Sakura said glumly. ¡°I thought skiing was like riding a bicycle—once you learn, you never forget.¡±

 

¡°Bedtime already?¡± Naoko asked, disappointed. ¡°I saw we should tell more horror stories. Eriol-kun¡¯s story yesterday wasn¡¯t really scary at all. And he never finished telling us what happened to the man after he met the Yuki Onna because it was curfew time.¡±

 

¡°Naoko-chan didn¡¯t think it was scary?¡± Sakura shuddered.

 

¡°Oh, that wasn¡¯t one of Eriol¡¯s scary stories,¡± Miho stated, surprised. ¡°Did you think it was?¡±

 

¡°Hoe-e~¡± Sakura wondered why her friends had such morbid fascinations.

 

***

 

I can¡¯t sleep! Sakura bolted up from her bed later that night, way after curfew. Images of moving limbs and a pale woman with blood dripping down her white clothes flittered through her mind. Careful not to wake Tomoyo and Miho, both sound asleep, exhausted from a day on the slopes, she silently pulled on a cardigan over her pajamas and stuffed her icy feet into slippers. Noiselessly, she slipped out of the room and made her way down three stories of stairs to the common room.

 

There was a shadow in the common room. Resisting the urge to scream, Sakura walked towards the dying flames.

 

To her surprise, Eron appeared from the shadows. ¡°Sakura?¡±

 

¡°Eron-kun? What are you doing here?¡± Sakura asked, drawing her cardigan around her tighter. The last person she had been expecting.

 

¡°Heh, were you expecting someone else again?¡± Eron smiled half-heartedly and sat down on the couch again. His eyes were downcast, and his silky hair fell into his eyes.

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry to interrupt you¡¦I¡¯ll go back to my room,¡± Sakura said hurriedly, inching away from the fireplace, recalling a certain starry night by the oceanside.

 

¡°Please don¡¯t feel obligated to leave because of me,¡± Eron said, looking up at Sakura. ¡°If you feel uncomfortable being alone around me, I can leave instead.¡±

 

¡°I—no, it¡¯s not because of you,¡± Sakura stammered, taking the seat furthest away from Eron without offending him. Her toes curled from the cold, Sakura sat in awkward silence. Truthfully, she had wished Syaoran to be there, like he had been five years ago. Still, it was better to be with Eron than all alone.

 

¡°Are you cold?¡± Eron asked. He pointed to the dying embers, which burst into full flame again, startling Sakura. ¡°Come closer to the fireplace.¡±

 

Hesitantly, Sakura moved towards a seat nearer to the fireplace and closer to Eron. She wondered what the extent of Eron¡¯s powers was. It was rather startling to see him use his magic so openly. ¡°Thank you. It¡¯s warm.¡±

 

¡°Say, Sakura,¡± Eron said, toying with the eye-shaped crystal dangling from a black cord around his neck. It glowed red in the dark, like an eye peering out in the shadows.

 

¡°Yes?¡± Sakura gazed up at Eron, whose mesmerizing gold-flecked hazel eyes captured her once again. Whenever she looked too deeply into his eyes, she was seized with the sense of unfathomable familiarity, as if she had seen them before, had always known him. Eron always had some sort of unearthly charm, as if he was some elven prince or of fairy blood. Maybe it was his delicate features, slightly pointed ears, long, smooth hair, or his silken voice. His movement was that of a courtier¡¯s, not the practiced, calculated suaveness of Kaitou Magician, nor the smooth, courteous gestures of Eriol, but an elegance grace bred in his very limbs, an attribute even lacking in his twin, Erika. One would never guess that he and his twin had been abandoned after birth and spent most of their childhood in the orphanage. Unlike her other friends, Eron always struck her as being very adult-like, in his manner of speech, his outlook of life, the slight cynicism and the scorn he held for humankind. Maybe that was why it was more frightening when his composure broke, for in such rare times, he returned to being a mere adolescent boy, confused, angry and deluded. It was at such times that Sakura realized that she must reach out to Eron, for he too was another by-product of their ancestors¡¯ inscrutable games. 

 

¡°Remember how I asked you once what you like so much about him?¡± Eron said softly, velvet voice breaking the still of the room. ¡°I¡¯ve been thinking since then.¡±

 

Sakura remained silent, recalling the summer¡¯s evening at the Best Couple¡¯s Contest, when Eron had caught her off-guard like this time.

 

¡°Would you still have liked him even if he had never returned? It isn¡¯t fair, for he had a head start. If only I had come back five years earlier. Or if he hadn¡¯t returned, and if you had only me next to you now¡¦¡± Eron trailed off, looking up expectantly.

 

Meeting his eyes staidly, Sakura said, ¡°If we lived our lives full of ifs, we wouldn¡¯t get far, would we?¡± She smiled slowly. ¡°I¡¯ve been thinking a lot too, since last summer, trying to put to capture what is intangible into words. I grew to love Syaoran long before I realized it myself. My mind was full of Yukito-san, but actually, it had always been Syaoran who was there for me. For love is subtle, and it sneaks upon you before you know it. He had always been there for me, even before I was aware of it, so now, it is my turn to be there for him in times of hardship. Truthfully, I went through a period of bewilderment then resentment when he left me. Then, he returned, only to shatter all my dreams, for he was not the person I remembered. At one point, I almost wished he had never returned, so that I could retain my fantasy, the ideal love that I envisioned in my mind. Who doesn¡¯t want happiness? But now, I¡¯m finally beginning to realize that love isn¡¯t simply the cotton candy sweet dreams of a little girl. What do I like so much about him? I still do not know. All I have is this sense within me, that no matter what choice he takes, no matter how many obstacles we have to face, the only thing I can do at this moment is be able to support him in his difficulties, without faltering myself. This is the extent of my feelings for him. Restraint, moderation, yet tenacity, these are the greatest trials in love, I think, and to survive this is to prove one¡¯s sincerity.¡±

 

¡°You must understand then, what I have to go through,¡± Eron said, standing up and walking in front of the fire. ¡°You say to love, you must show restraint, moderation, and tenacity? To hold back and be patient? How is it possible? It¡¯ll eat me away, drive me mad.¡±

 

¡°But for those who can endure it, don¡¯t you think the reward would be all the more blissful?¡± Sakura asked, pensive face lit by the warm, flickering fire.

 

¡°Is that so?¡± Eron grimaced. ¡°I always thought that those who do weather the storm become too disillusioned to see the rainbow in the end.¡± Then, his face softened. ¡°But maybe you¡¯re right. Maybe I should listen to you for a change. Life becomes sweeter when I see it in your eyes.¡±

 

Wondering what he meant with those words, Sakura looked up at the mysterious boy who never failed to catch her off guard and found it to be a mistake. For the first time, she realized that his beautiful golden eyes were less like the cool feline stare of a predatory cat, and more like the imploring ones of a stray kitten out in a storm.

 

¡°Listen, Sakura.¡± Eron knelt in front of Sakura, hands on the sofa¡¯s armrests. ¡°I¡¯ll be truthful with you like you have been to me. You may call me peculiar, mad, delirious, but please hear me out. It is difficult for me to say this and heresy to my bloodline, since you are the descendent of that hateful man, Amamiya Hayashi, and naturally you are my enemy. I don¡¯t know what insanity has seized me, but for some strange, inexplicable reason, if you can only give me your word, I feel like I can fight against my ancestors, all that I¡¯ve lived for. I can guarantee you nothing, and I know it¡¯ll be hard, probably impossible. But if you can be there to support me, I can try.¡± He looked up into her eyes, voice strained. With trembling fingers, he reached up to stroke her hair, hesitant, almost as if he were afraid to taint her with his touch. ¡°So please tell me Sakura, one more time. Do I really stand no chance?¡±

 

¡°Eron-kun¡¦¡± Sakura trailed off, grappling to comprehend Eron¡¯s words. Her tongue was leaden, and she had forgotten to breathe because of the awkward tension in the room. The fingers that brushed ever so slightly against her cheek were cold. Yet this moment, she felt he was more earnest than he had ever been before. What could she say? What was he saying?

 

A steel voice came from behind them. ¡°What are you two doing here?¡±

 

With automatic reflexes, Sakura leaned back in the chair, stiff, unable to turn around.

 

Instinctively, Eron dropped his hand down and looked up. ¡°Li Syaoran.¡±

 

Frozen in her seat, Sakura bit her lips. There was no reason for her to be feeling guilty, yet she couldn¡¯t help wondering why Syaoran had chosen to show up at this particular moment. ¡°Syaoran. It¡¯s not what you think.¡± Her voice came out unnaturally strained, as if she had been caught in wrongdoing. She knew that anybody who walked into the scenario could easily misunderstand the situation. But Syaoran, out of anyone, was different.

 

¡°Of course not. What would a girl and a guy be doing alone in the dark, in the middle of the night?¡± Syaoran said in a deadly tone, walking over to the two and dragging Eron up by the collar of his shirt. ¡°If you did anything to her¡¦¡±

 

Eron¡¯s lips curled into a malicious grin, purely to aggravate Syaoran. ¡°And if I did?¡±

 

¡°You¡¦¡± Still holding up Eron by the nape of his shirt with his left hand, Syaoran¡¯s other hand curled into a fist.

 

¡°Let go of Eron-kun!¡± Sakura snapped, standing up and spinning around to face Syaoran. ¡°We met down here coincidentally and were just talking.¡±

 

¡°Oh, and I suppose a platonic conversation consists of such physical proximity?¡± Syaoran said, scowling, trembling fist barely an inch away from Eron¡¯s face. He couldn¡¯t resist adding, ¡°In the still of the night, when everyone¡¯s sleeping, in an unlighted room.¡±

 

¡°Is it your position to intervene? Besides, what are you doing here in the first place—you probably came here with the same purpose as me. Eron stated demurely, knocking away Syaoran¡¯s hand and straightening his collar. ¡°Good night Sakura-san. I¡¯m sorry if there has been any misunderstanding.¡±

 

Nodding his head, Eron left the room. Frankly, he was not feeing very proud of himself at the moment. He was definitely not himself these days. What had come over him, possessed him to implore to that wretched girl like that? Yet, when Sakura looked at his with those luminous evergreen eyes, his tongue couldn¡¯t help loosening itself. Since he was a coward, he had to flee from the room for he lacked the courage to face Syaoran at the moment, though he would not admit so. As Eron walked out into the hallway, he heard a thud. More alarmed than when Syaoran had walked in, Eron called out, ¡°Erika! Is that you?¡±

 

Slowly revealing herself from behind a corner, Erika stared at Eron without saying a word. Her gold-hazel eyes reflected confusion and the anger; which was the more prevalent emotion, Eron couldn¡¯t decipher. Yet, he immediately realized that his twin must have heard everything. She must have been standing outside the door, listening, and probably hid when she saw Syaoran. If he had not been completely absorbed by Sakura, he probably would have felt her aura so near by.

 

¡°You weren¡¯t in you room,¡± Erika said flatly.

 

¡°It¡¯s not what you think,¡± Eron croaked, knowing it was futile to try to redeem himself.

 

¡°I¡¯ve always known your true feelings, but I thought you would choose us over her. I never thought you would betray me.¡± Erika¡¯s voice was cold. Yet, Eron also heard the dismay, the reproach, the disappointment in her voice. It wasn¡¯t only anger.

 

¡°Erika, listen,¡± Eron said, trembling in dread. This is the end. This is the end of everything we¡¯ve built, all due to my own selfishness and weakness. How could he have let himself get carried away? Erika must understand. They were together since birth. She must understand that nothing came above her. ¡°You must understand, Erika¡¦¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t want to listen anymore!¡± Erika burst out, before turning around and running up the stairway. For the first time in her life, she was truly afraid that Eron would betray her, that they were not as inseparable as she thought them to be. Someday, Eron might truly turn his back on her for the sake of Sakura. Then, she wouldn¡¯t forgive him.

 

 

 

¡°Well, what do you want?¡± Sakura hands on hips, turned to glare at Syaoran. The firelight was slowly fading, Yet, she didn¡¯t notice that the room was nearly pitch black.

 

Syaoran realized that he was left alone in the common room with an enraged Sakura.

 

¡°What were you thinking?¡± she continued, furious. ¡°We were just—¡±

 

¡°Why, would your rather that I had not interrupted?¡± Syaoran asked, knowing he sounded like a petty child, yet unable to restrain himself. Whenever she was extremely livid, her eyes flashed a distractingly vivid green color, even in the dark. Was she that angry that he had interrupted?  ¡°Well then, I apologize for interrupting your romantic little midnight rendezvous.¡±

 

¡°What has gotten over you?¡± Sakura asked in disbelief. ¡°You, out of people, should understand.¡±

 

¡°No, I don¡¯t understand!¡± Syaoran retorted, his infamous temper inherited from his father finally exploding. ¡°I don¡¯t understand why time after time again, you let down your guard with him. Do I have to remind you some of the things he¡¯s done to you? Don¡¯t be fooled! Don¡¯t you remember what happened last time you had a ¡®talk¡¯ with him? After all the times that I¡¯ve warned you!¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m not stupid; I know what I¡¯m doing. Besides, this time, nothing was happening. And no matter what you say, there is more to Eron-kun than you know about. Like you, or me, or Kai-kun, he too is suffering, and the least I can do is listen to what he has to say.¡± Sakura stopped, short of breath, as she realized that her words were not reaching Syaoran at all. ¡°As a friend,¡± she added at the last moment. When was the last time she felt this helpless, this cornered?

 

Letting out an exasperated sigh, Syaoran stated in the flippant tone that always aggravated Sakura, ¡°I can¡¯t believe that you are defending him. Whose side are you on? Do you hear yourself? You¡¯re sympathizing with our enemy, your tormenter.¡±

 

¡°We¡¯ve already had this argument before,¡± Sakura said, hugging her arms around her, shivering from the chilly draft that drifted into the lounge, as the last embers slowly died out. Could it be possible he was jealous?

 

¡°And we¡¯ve already confirmed that what I said was right; the Dark Ones are dangerous, and they mean no good. You simply cannot trust them,¡± Syaoran replied curtly. ¡°How many times do I have to tell you this?¡± There, he¡¯d done it. He had treated her like a child, disregarded all her arguments and probably made her hate him. Not that he blamed her. He didn¡¯t know why he was worked up like this. She was trembling, and he would rather take her in his arms and tell her it was all right, instead of shouting at her like this in the dark.

 

¡°Li Syaoran, I have to say, I can¡¯t help really hating you at this moment,¡± Sakura said through gritted teeth, her eyes watering not because she was sad, but because she was furious. And she was furious not because of anything to do with Eron, but because even now, Syaoran managed to make her feel so stupid, so insignificant. He hadn¡¯t changed at all. She was so furious that tears didn¡¯t even fall. That haughty, sneering voice of five years ago flitted through her mind. What, you don¡¯t even know what that is? Eh, it¡¯s been half a year and you still haven¡¯t managed to capture all the Clow Cards? Stupid, how can someone like you become a Card Mistress? Give up the Clow to me. You¡¯re unworthy. You don¡¯t deserve the Clow Cards. ¡°I though you would listen to me at least.¡±

 

Those words hurt more than he had warranted. He realized that he might hear them from her lips with such ferocity one day, that he probably did deserve it. Great, she really does hate me. Nice going, Li Syaoran. When can you become man enough to shield her without picking fights with her like some jealous teenage boy? Which is what I am, I guess. Of course I understand. I understand why she can¡¯t turn away Eron. It¡¯s her blasted kindness¡¦ Yet it¡¯s that very kindness which made me fall for her in the first place¡¦  In his gloom, he looked up, startled. Did he hear footsteps? They had raised their voices too highly, forgetting their location, right under the teachers¡¯ rooms.

 

¡°Someone¡¯s coming,¡± Sakura said, turning around to the doorway, momentarily forgetting her frustration.

 

¡°We were talking too loudly,¡± Syaoran whispered back, throwing a ward paper into the fireplace, killing out the last embers. It went completely dark in the room. ¡°Follow me—we have to leave here; it¡¯ll be no good if we¡¯re caught in here, together.¡± Instinctively, he reached out and grabbed Sakura¡¯s wrist, and guided her towards the door.

 

¡°Ouch.¡±

 

¡°Are you okay?¡± Syaoran turned around.

 

¡°I just stubbed a toe on a table leg,¡± Sakura replied, rather coldly for she remembered that they had been interrupted in the midst of another rampant verbal diatribe. Yet, the heart must be a very fickle thing, for she was already forgetting why she had been so irritated in the first place, though she wasn¡¯t ready to forgive Syaoran any time soon.

 

Eron had left the door open, and Syaoran peeked out cautiously to see if the coast was clear. Quickly, he shut it, leaving only a crack open.

 

¡°What is it?¡± Sakura whispered.

 

¡°Shh¡¦ It¡¯s Terada-sensei. He must be on night patrol,¡± Syaoran replied, flattening himself against the wall.

 

The footsteps stopped right in front of the common room. Both Sakura and Syaoran paled. Both of them knew that students caught roaming in the middle of the night, especially students of the opposite sex had to bear consequences, for they were no longer elementary students. Worse than any punishment assigned by the teachers would be the gossip the next day among the students.

 

Then, they heard a faint female voice out in the hallway. ¡°Terada-sensei.¡±

 

Carefully, Sakura peeked out the crack in the door. To her surprise, it was dark-haired Rika, looking pale and timid in her nightgown. What was she doing up at this hour?

 

¡°Rika. What are you doing her?¡± Terada-sensei asked. ¡°It¡¯s way past curfew.¡±

 

¡°I couldn¡¯t sleep,¡± Rika replied. ¡°And I thought maybe I could find you here, Sensei. I wanted to talk to you.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t be silly,¡± Terada-sensei said, glancing around nervously. ¡°We¡¯re on a school trip. There are other teachers patrolling each floor. It¡¯s too risky for us to be seen together. Go back to your room, Rika.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s always like this, Terada-sensei,¡± Rika said, looking down at her feet. ¡°It¡¯s so difficult to see you. I just wanted to talk to you. We can never be seen together, and sometimes, I feel like everything¡¯s just my own childish imagination, that you are just humoring me, because I am your student.¡±

 

¡°Rika, because I am a teacher, it is my duty to be fair to all my students. That is why I have to be strict at times like this. It will be unfair if allow you to break curfew, while enforcing it upon all the other students, don¡¯t you think so?¡± Terada-sensei smiled, bending over to pat Rika¡¯s head. ¡°That¡¯s why you should return to your room.¡±

 

Looking up with unusually defiant eyes, Rika said in her respectful, soft-spoken voice, ¡°Don¡¯t you think as a man, you are being unfair to me for always treating me like a child? I¡¯m fifteen now; I will not always be your student.¡±

 

¡°Rika.¡± Terada-sensei stared at Rika, speechless. Rika never spoke up against anyone.

 

¡°I am sorry to disturb you, Terada-sensei. I¡¯ll return to my room now. You can mark me down for breaking curfew and report me to the other teachers. I¡¯ll have my essay of repent ready for tomorrow.¡± Without waiting for an answer, Rika walked away.

 

¡°Rika!¡± Terada-sensei was about to run after her, when there came another voice.

 

¡°Terada-sensei, is there a problem?¡± another teacher asked. ¡°I¡¯m going up to the second floor now.¡±

 

¡°No, first floor is clear, Ogata-sensei,¡± Terada-sensei replied. Both of them left.

 

Both Sakura and Syaoran sighed in relief as the teachers left.

 

¡°I didn¡¯t know,¡± Syaoran said quietly. ¡°About Sasaki-san and Terada-sensei.¡±

 

¡°You better keep it a secret,¡± Sakura said in a low tone. ¡°She¡¯s my close friends, and if any word leaks out...¡±

 

¡°What do you take me for?¡± Syaoran demanded, offended. ¡°Wait, you knew about them? And what about Yutaka-kun?¡±

 

It was ridiculous how she and Syaoran always would up fretting over other people¡¯s problems instead of sorting out theirs, and more ridiculous that they were sneaking around in the dark like this. ¡°I need to get back to my room—I think Ogata-sensei¡¯s going to do room-by-room check. She¡¯ll be delighted to catch students out of their rooms,¡± Sakura said. ¡°I hope Rika-chan made it back safely.¡±

 

Before any more teachers came by, the two made a mad dash up the staircase.

 

¡°I hear footsteps on the third floor,¡± Sakura whispered frantically—why was security so tight today? ¡°It¡¯s not safe to go up right now.¡±

 

¡°Wait, someone¡¯s coming down from upstairs. We¡¯re not safe standing here.¡± Syaoran pushed Sakura towards his room. ¡°Just hide in my room until they¡¯re gone.¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Sakura didn¡¯t quite think that was the best plan—a female student caught in the guys¡¯ room in the middle of the night was even worse.

 

Syaoran opened his door and shoved Sakura in, then locked the door behind him. They both sighed in relief for the time being.

 

¡°Welcome back, welcome back,¡± came a sarcastic drawl from the corner bed. ¡°Did our Syao-kun have a romantic expedition bringing back the princess? I must applaud your seducing skills, my friend. Please don¡¯t mind me.¡±

 

¡°Kai-kun. You¡¯re still up?¡± Sakura coughed, peering in the dark. Kai¡¯s face was illuminated by his laptop screen.

 

¡°Seriously, I know this is junior high, but come on. Room curfew at 9:30, lights out at 10:30? It¡¯s like some kind of military school or something.¡± Kai yawned. ¡°And here I was, bored to death because both Mister Four-Eyes and our Wolf-boy disappeared in the middle of the night. And I, the marvelous Master Thief of the Night, was left to keep house. Talk about the ironies in life.¡±

 

¡°Where¡¯s Eriol-kun?¡± Sakura asked, fumbling for the light switch.

 

¡°Ah, too bright—turn it off,¡± Kai said, shielding his face. ¡°Who knows? At first, I thought Eriol-kun and Syao-kun disappeared off together on a rendezvous.¡± He snickered.

 

Syaoran shot Kai a warning glare. Kai was especially cranky these days, and the crankier he was, the more sarcastic he became.

 

At that moment, there came a sharp knock on the door. Their teacher¡¯s brisk voice came through. ¡°Are you boys awake? Don¡¯t pretend to be sleeping—I heard the voices, and I can see the light through the door crack.¡±

 

¡°Shoot, its Ogata-sensei. What are we going to do?¡± Syaoran looked around for a place Sakura could hide in.

 

¡°Let me handle this,¡± Kai said, hopping off his bed. ¡°Sakura, get into Eriol¡¯s bed and pull the sheets over your head completely.¡± Then, to Sakura and Syaoran¡¯s amusement, Kai proceeded to strip out of his clothes.

 

¡°What are you doing, Kai-kun?¡± Sakura, who turned beet red, hissed.

-

Syaoran quickly covered her eyes with his hand. ¡°Shush, now, hide in the bed.¡± He drew the blanket completely over her face, then scowled at Kai, notorious for his spontaneity. Where was Eriol, he wondered—if Kai had been missing, he wouldn¡¯t have flitted an eye, but it was rather rare for Eriol to be so blatantly rule breaking on a school trip. Maybe he was up to more mischief again.

 

Wriggling out of his pants and left in black boxers, Kai opened the door with a smile to greet their disliked music teacher. ¡°Ogata-sensei!¡±

 

¡°M-Mizuki-kun!¡± The teacher, upon seeing Kai shirtless, in his black and white checkered boxers, blushed. ¡°I-I saw the light on in your room—you should well know that light¡¯s out was two hours ago.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry; I was taking a shower,¡± Kai replied, leaning against the doorframe to prevent her from stepping in.

 

¡°Are your roommates in?¡± Ogata-sensei asked, clearing her throat.

 

¡°Shh¡¦ They¡¯re both sound asleep like good children, exhausted after a day on the slopes. Sensei should get her beauty-sleep too. Tomorrow will be another long day.¡± Kai winked. ¡°Bonne nuit, sensei!¡± Gently, he shut and locked the door, then walked back towards his bed and plopped back down. The heard the footsteps fade away down the hall.

 

¡°Coast is clear,¡± Syaoran muttered, shaking his head. Sometimes, he didn¡¯t if Kai was too clever for his own good, or just extremely dumb. ¡°But that¡¯s just wrong; she¡¯s like fifty years old.¡±

 

¡°More like thirty-two, single, blood type B and a Leo, and she has eyes on Terada-sensei, four years her junior,¡± Kai replied nonchalantly.

 

¡°How the heck do you know something like that?¡± Syaoran was always impressed by Kai¡¯s people database.

 

¡°But Terada-sensei only has eyes for Sasaki Rika, thirteen years his junior, and has been secretly seeing her for the past five years,¡± Kai continued ruthlessly. ¡°I wonder where he gets his pedophilic tastes from.¡±

 

Sakura crawled out of bed. ¡°Hoe. Don¡¯t talk ill of Terada-sensei—we all respect him very much and wish the best for Rika-chan; we know it¡¯s hard for her.¡± Then she looked up and blushed again. ¡°Kai-kun, put on some clothes.¡±

 

¡°Why, didn¡¯t Meilin tell you I like to sleep bare?¡± Kai said, nonetheless reaching over for his clothes, because Syaoran was shooting poisonous glares in his direction. ¡°Of course, Saku-chan is sympathetic because a certain sixteen-year-old Amamiya Nadeshiko married a teacher, Kinomoto Fujitaka, eight years her senior.¡±

 

¡°That scar on your chest¡¦¡± Sakura, ignoring Kai¡¯s remarks, stared hard at the whitish marks on his upper left chest.

 

Pulling on his black shirt, Kai said, ¡°Well, you better get back to your room—the teachers our still out.¡± He walked over to the window and flung it open.

 

¡°What are you doing?¡± Sakura asked as a blast of cold mountain air rushed into the room.

 

¡°Our room is right below yours,¡± he replied. Without waiting for a response, he grabbed Sakura by the waist and jumped out the window. Sakura didn¡¯t even have a chance to scream, for he had grabbed onto a pipe and lithely wriggled up to the windowsill above.

 

Hearing a thud outside, Tomoyo, unexpectedly awake, rushed towards the window and helped Sakura back in. ¡°Where were you, Sakura-chan? I was worried to see your bed empty. Though I figured you might be with Syaoran-kun.¡± Then she blinked. ¡°Aren¡¯t you cold, Kai-kun? I have a wonderful fur-collared leopard-print jacket...¡±

 

¡°No thank you,¡± Kai said, smiling politely, perched on the windowsill like a bird. ¡°Heh, I was wondering where the Four-eyed Creep went.¡±

 

¡°Eriol-kun! What are you doing here?¡± Sakura asked, realizing that the dark figure in the far corner of the room was not a shadow but a person.

 

¡°Miho-chan was having nightmares,¡± Tomoyo replied. ¡°And Eriol-kun somehow knew and came down to our room. She¡¯s okay now; she just fell asleep.¡±

 

¡°Nightmares?¡± Sakura stared at Miho¡¯s peaceful sleeping face. She was holding Eriol¡¯s hand tightly.

 

¡°Ever since the fire, Miho has had nightmares—she has gotten better in recent years,¡± Eriol explained. ¡°But once in a while, she still has dreams of fire, or being left alone. Her mother¡¯s health has been unstable again, and she¡¯s been worried about the Riddle recently, so she must have had more stress than usual.¡±

 

¡°Poor Miho-chan. It¡¯s a relief that Eriol-kun is always by her side, to look after her,¡± Sakura said. If she had been through the things that Miho experienced, she probably wouldn¡¯t have been able to smile as brightly as Miho always did. Then again, at least Miho had such caring people by her side. Sometimes, she couldn¡¯t help wondering if Kai was more reluctant to return, because he felt like he no longer had place in Miho¡¯s life. She spun around—as expected, Kai had already returned to his room. Unwilling to think of anymore complicated things that night, she crawled back into bed and forced herself to fall asleep.

 

******

 

Part IV: The night the lone wolf howls¡¦

 

Most of the students were barely awake when they came down to breakfast the next morning, and Sakura wondered bemusedly how many students had actually been out of their beds last night. She had already heard that Takashi, Aki, and some other guys from different classes had snuck into Chiharu¡¯s room the previous night.

 

¡°The girls from next-doors joined us too—it was so much fun!¡± Naoko stated. ¡°We wanted to ask you guys to join, too, Sakura-chan, but Chiharu said that you guys would be sleeping. Ah, and Rika-chan went missing for a while.¡± Naoko nudged her friend knowingly. Rika looked away, eyes downcast.

 

¡°Takashi was being so loud, I was really afraid that the teachers would come,¡± Chiharu said loudly, glaring at Takashi, who was happily gobbling up the scrambled eggs, showered in salt and pepper.

 

¡°Luckily, there was some incident in the first floor which distracted the teachers, and we were saved,¡± Aki stated. He glanced over at Tomoyo, the only person who seemed like she had a good night¡¯s sleep, quietly eating her breakfast in small bites, oblivious to the chaos of breakfast.

 

Unintentionally, Sakura looked up as she gulped down her glass of orange juice, and her eyes met with Syaoran, who was sitting several seats down, across the table with the other guys. They both looked away rapidly, a little scene which was unnoticed to all but two.

 

Tomoyo and Eriol both hid a snicker inside their napkins, in pretense of neatly wiping their mouths. They glanced at each other in realization, cleared their throats, and set down their napkins again.

 

 

 

Since Tomoyo and Eriol were the best skiers, they spent most of the next day coaching the beginners. After lunch, most of the students had gotten the hang of skiing; even Naoko managed to ski down the beginning slope safely without crashing into anyone. All were busy preparing for the winter competitions.

 

¡°If you¡¯re not busy, do you want to try the advanced slopes, Tomoyo-san?¡± Eriol asked, gazing up at the highest, which had an almost vertical drop and was the most difficult and dangerous on the course. ¡°The teacher said we can only go in pairs, and I wanted to have a try before the sun sets.¡±

 

¡°Well¡¦¡± Tomoyo glanced hesitantly at Chiharu, who she had been teaching how to brake.

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry about me. Go ahead,¡± Chiharu urged. ¡°Takashi will help me practice. Right Takashi?¡± She gave a warning look at Takashi.

 

¡°S-sure,¡± Takashi replied. ¡°Speaking of the origins of skiing, skis used to be the length of a boat and¡¦¡±

 

Chiharu whacked the back of Takashi¡¯s head with her ski pole. ¡°Who said we¡¯re speaking about the origin of skis?¡±

 

Smiling, Tomoyo said, ¡°I¡¯ve wanted to try the advanced slopes too.¡±

 

¡°Hurry then, let¡¯s go,¡± Eriol replied. ¡°The lifts only operate till sundown.¡± Turning to Chiharu, he couldn¡¯t help but add, ¡°Not only were skis the size of boats, but the poles were the length of a house, with a pointed end, and could be used as a javelin to hunt down preys, right Yamazaki-kun?¡±

 

¡°Right, right!¡± Takashi grinned at Chiharu, who gaped back in disbelief.

 

 

 

¡°Sakura-chan, are you sure you¡¯ll be able to beat Li-kun with those skills?¡± Miho asked skeptically; the Red Team was seriously in lack of proficient skiers. Taking out Eriol, who was to compete in the advanced competition, and a handful of the decent skiers who would participate in the ski relay race, the rest were beginners who refused to volunteer for the intermediate race; instead, they nominated Sakura to represent them. Despite Sakura¡¯s excellent athletic capabilities, skiing seemed to be outside her range.

 

¡°Who knows—Li-kun has a soft spot for Sakura-chan,¡± Naoko stated. ¡°We might possibly pull it off.¡±

 

¡°Maybe if we get her to ski in a miniskirt,¡± Miho stated skeptically, watching Sakura tangle her skis together and topple over.

 

¡°Please don¡¯t mention that near Tomoyo-chan,¡± Sakura said, hoisting herself up. At this moment, she wanted to be anywhere else except the ski resort. Who recalled skiing to be this hard? That¡¯s right; when she had finally got the hang of it five years ago, it had already been the last day.

 

¡°Did someone say something about miniskirts?¡± Aki asked, swerving down the slope on his gleaming new skis. ¡°I¡¯m all for it! I¡¯ll even root for the Akai Team if the girls ski in miniskirts.¡±

 

¡°Pervert!¡± Miho stated, shoving Aki, who slipped down the rest of the slope, crashing at the bottom.

 

¡°It was your idea in the first place,¡± Eron commented—he was rather ruffled at being stuck in the beginner slopes with hopeless klutzes like Miho and Naoko. He hadn¡¯t spoken to Erika since she ran off from his last night, and focusing on skiing seemed like the best idea for now. ¡°Well, it¡¯s good to see you¡¯ve forgotten about your brother for the time being.¡±

¡°I haven¡¯t forgotten him,¡± Miho said hotly. ¡°If I capture the Riddle¡¦¡±

 

¡°No such chance,¡± Eron cut off. Why was this girl never fazed, always so determined? Yet, people like Sakura and Miho did exist.

 

¡°Look, it¡¯s snowing!¡± Miho exclaimed, gazing up at the thick snowflakes falling from the sky.

 

Reaching up to catch the fluffy, feathery flake, Sakura stated, ¡°The snowflakes are so much larger up in the mountains. They look like pure white feather¡¯s falling from sky.¡±

 

 ¡°Oh¡¦¡± Miho looked up, startled. ¡°Angel¡¯s feathers¡¦ Snow. That must be it! The night the lone wolf howls¡¦ it¡¯s full moon tonight!¡± She clapped her hands together and rushed off back towards the resorts without much of an explanation. ¡°See you guys later!¡±

¡±What¡¯s wrong with her?¡± Aki muttered, shaking the show off his head.

 

 

 

¡°Ah, I can¡¯t think of the last lines for my riddle,¡± Miho despaired, welcoming the warmth of indoors, plopping down at a table in the great common room. She opened up her notebook, full of her scribbles. ¡°Let¡¯s see¡¦¡± She bit on the end of her pen in frustration. ¡°I didn¡¯t know it would be this quick. I¡¯m running out of time. It has to be tonight. Now, think calmly¡¦¡± Crumpling up a piece of paper with useless scribbles, she flung it over her shoulder. ¡°This so hard!¡±

 

¡°Ouch.¡± A cranky, low voice interrupted her stream of thoughts.

 

¡°Eh?¡± Miho spun around. She hadn¡¯t realized there was someone else in the room; she thought everyone was still outside, skiing.

 

Sitting up from a couch facing the other direction, Mizuki Kai said grumpily, ¡°Can¡¯t I even sleep in peace here?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry—I didn¡¯t see you,¡± Miho exclaimed. Then, realizing who it was, she continued indignantly, ¡°Anyway, this is public space. Shouldn¡¯t you be outside supporting your team? Have you been here the entire day?¡±

 

¡°What are you doing indoors then?¡± Kai asked, uncrumpling the piece of paper. ¡°Eh, don¡¯t tell me this chicken scratch is your riddle.¡±

 

¡°So what?¡± Miho retorted. ¡°I¡¯m just editing it and tinkering with the words a bit, that¡¯s all, so it looks rather messy.¡±

 

¡°Can I hear the final version?¡± Kai asked, shoving up the bridge of his sunglasses with his finger.

 

¡°No!¡± Miho replied, clutching her notebook to her chest. ¡°You¡¯d laugh.¡±

 

¡°Why are you so intent upon catching the Riddle, anyway? Leave it to the pro Card Captor,¡± Kai said.

 

¡°It¡¯s the least I can do—who else would be able to come up with such a magnificent riddle besides the great poetess Miho-sama?¡± Miho said, patting her notebook. Then she sighed. ¡°But maybe what I¡¯ve written is just trash. And the Riddle will mock me—I¡¯ll disappoint everyone and be of no use once again.¡±

 

Expertly folding the crumpled paper into an airplane, Kai said, ¡°Don¡¯t worry. I¡¯m sure your riddle would be superb, and the Riddle will bow at your feet humbly. Right, Tanaka Miho?¡± He smiled reassuringly and flew the paper airplane back towards Miho. It landed on her lap. He added, after a second thought, ¡°And even if it is bad, nobody would have expected much, anyway.¡±

 

¡°Thanks a lot, Mizuki-sempai, for your great encouragement.¡± Glaring at Kai, Miho slammed her notebook shut and stomped out of the room, scattered pieces of paper falling to the ground. For a second, she had thought he was being nice. Why didn¡¯t anyone take her seriously? There must be someone who had faith in her abilities. Just wait and see—I¡¯ll show you what I can do.

 

******

 

¡°Whew, I finally got the hang of it,¡± Sakura stated, as she landed at the bottom of the slope smoothly. She looked up at the clouded sky. The snow was falling thicker than before. Many of the students had already called it a day and had headed indoors.

 

¡°Students!¡± Terada-sensei called out, patrolling the slopes with the other teachers. ¡°There is a snowstorm alert for tonight. Please gather your gear and head indoors.¡±

 

¡°No way!¡± Chiharu exclaimed. ¡°I wanted to practice more.¡±

 

¡°Thank goodness,¡± Naoko sighed in relief. She had been miserable, shivering on the top of the beginner¡¯s slope, afraid to go down.

 

¡°Do you think there would really be a snowstorm?¡± Rika asked timidly, gazing up at the clouded sky. ¡°It¡¯s kind of frightening.¡±

 

¡°I know—remember the snowstorm last year, during the Winter Wonderland? There was a blackout in the gym,¡± Naoko stated. ¡°That would be so cool, if we¡¯re trapped inside the resort. Just like my horror story.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t say stuff like that!¡± Chiharu said, shuddering. ¡°Its okay, Sakura-chan, something like that won¡¯t happen.¡±

 

By the time all the students had cleared the slopes, the snow was falling thicker than ever. Most of the students were glad to be indoors; after having changed out of their wet clothes, they gathered into the main common room, where steaming hot chocolate and chocolate chip cookies were being served. The wind howled outside.

 

¡°Look how much snow is piling outdoors,¡± Chiharu murmured, peeking outside. ¡°It¡¯s a good thing we all came indoors.¡±

 

Pressing her nose against the window, Miho stated, ¡°It really does sound like a wailing woman.¡±

 

¡°Like in the story Eriol-kun told us!¡± Naoko exclaimed, excitedly.

 

¡°Oh, you were in here already, Miho-chan?¡± Chiharu asked. ¡°I was wondering where you were.¡±

 

Clearing his throat, Terada-sensei said over the noise of chattering students, ¡°Due to bad weather, students would be forbidden to go outdoors until further notice. Again, I repeat it is forbidden for students to go outside until the storm dies down. The weather forecast anticipates at least a meter of snow, if not more, so it is highly dangerous to be outside. Students, make sure to keep an eye on your two roommates, to make sure you are at all times. Now, we should proceed to do roll call. Please stand with your roommates to make this process quicker. We can all have dinner faster if we get this done efficiently.¡±

 

¡°Yanagisawa Naoko. Mihara Chiharu. Sasaki Rika,¡± Terada-sensei called out.

 

¡°Present,¡± the three girls stated in unison. Rika didn¡¯t meet Terada-sensei¡¯s eyes.

 

¡°Kinomoto Sakura. Daidouji Tomoyo. Tanaka Miho,¡± Terada-sensei continued, reading off his checklist.

 

¡°Present,¡± called out Sakura and Miho.

 

¡°Where¡¯s Daidouji-san?¡± Terada-sensei asked, looking up.

 

Shrugging, Miho said, ¡°Maybe she¡¯s still in the room change.¡±

 

¡°Okay. Tell her to report back to me later,¡± Terada sensei said. He resumed roll call. ¡°Mizuki Kai. Li Syaoran. Hiiragizawa Eriol.¡±

 

There was no response. Frowning, Terada-sensei looked up again. ¡°Are all three of them missing?¡±

 

¡°I think they¡¯re still up in their room—I don¡¯t think they realized that there was a roll call,¡± Takashi stated.

 

¡°Yamazaki-kun, run upstairs and tell all three of them to report to me after roll call,¡± Terada-sensei stated, sighing. What was wrong with his homeroom class?

 

¡°Next, Akagi Aki, Yamazaki Takashi is here¡¦ and Chang Eron.¡± Terada-sensei looked up. ¡°All here. Good.¡±

 

After roll call, which passed along smoothly afterwards, Terada-sensei announced, ¡°Dinner would be served in the great dining hall in half an hour.¡±  

 

¡°Where¡¯s Tomoyo-chan?¡± Sakura asked, when Miho and she returned to an empty room. ¡°Didn¡¯t you say she¡¯s in the room?¡±

 

¡°She isn¡¯t?¡± Miho asked. ¡°I thought she was.¡±

 

¡°Who¡¯s the last person that has seen her then?¡± Sakura looked up at the other girls.

 

¡°Let¡¯s see,¡± Chiharu began, frowning. ¡°Now I remember. Earlier this afternoon, she went up to the advanced slopes with Eriol-kun. That¡¯s the last time I saw her.¡±

 

¡°And has she returned?¡± Sakura asked. ¡°Has anyone seen her since?¡±

 

Rika and Naoko shook their heads.

 

¡°We should go check if Eriol is back yet,¡± Miho stated. ¡°Here, let¡¯s check with the guys downstairs.

 

The five girls headed downstairs. Sakura burst into room 202 without bothering to knock.

 

¡°Syaoran, you were in here, after all! Anyway, did you see Eriol-kun?¡± Sakura demanded, swinging open the door.

 

Blankly, Syaoran stared at the five girls who had burst into his room. Then, he continued to wipe his wet hair with a towel; he had just finished taking a shower and was only wearing his pants. The other four girls blushed and turned around.

 

Meanwhile, Sakura continued, staring at her feet, ¡°Has Eriol-kun come back from the ski slopes yet?¡±

 

¡°How should I know?¡± Syaoran asked crossly. He waded through t-shirts lying around the ground towards his suitcase for a fresh shirt. ¡°Kai, I told you not to leave stuff lying around on the ground!¡±

 

¡°Stop nagging,¡± Kai mumbled, turning over on the bed, covering his head with the pillow. ¡°Obsessive compulsive.¡±

 

Pulling on a shirt, Syaoran commented crossly, ¡°Then stop sleeping—it¡¯s impossible to see anything with the lights off.¡±

 

¡°Anyway,¡± Sakura said, impatiently. ¡°About Eriol-kun¡¦¡±

 

¡°I told you, I don¡¯t know,¡± Syaoran snapped. ¡°I don¡¯t care where he is, or what he¡¯s up to now. Maybe he¡¯s planning another snow storm, for all we know.¡±

 

¡°Well you should care, because he¡¯s your roommate,¡± Sakura exclaimed, hands on hips.

 

¡°Uh oh¡¦ Did those two have a quarrel or something?¡± Naoko whispered to Chiharu.

 

¡°Probably¡¦ Maybe because they are the captains in the opposing teams,¡± Chiharu whispered back. ¡°It was wicked of us to vote them as captains, knowing their personalities.¡±

 

¡°But it¡¯s so interesting to watch them compete against each other!¡± Naoko exclaimed.

 

¡°Wait, that means Eriol and Tomoyo are both missing,¡± Miho interrupted, turning pale.

 

¡°They must have not realized a snowstorm was coming up, so they must still be stranded up in the mountains. I think all the lifts were stopped,¡± Chiharu said.

 

¡°Then we have to report this to Terada-sensei,¡± Naoko stated. ¡°There must be snow patrols who can look for them.¡±

 

¡°No, let¡¯s wait a little while longer,¡± Sakura said. ¡°If Eriol-kun and Tomoyo-chan are together, then it should be okay. We don¡¯t want to cause any unnecessary hassle for anyone.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s right. They should be on their way back—they must have realized that a snowstorm is brewing,¡± Rika stated practically.

 

¡°You guys head down to dinner,¡± Sakura said. ¡°I¡¯ll wait in the room a little longer.¡±

 

¡°Okay. We¡¯ll save you a seat,¡± Chiharu said. ¡°Takashi, don¡¯t you dare comment upon the history behind the food served at the table.¡±

 

¡°Yes ma¡¯am,¡± Takashi replied, following after her. The others trailed after them.

 

¡°Aren¡¯t you eating, Kai-kun?¡± Sakura asked, peering in the unlighted room.

 

¡°I¡¯ll get something at the vendor later on,¡± Kai replied.

 

¡°How about you?¡± Sakura questioned Syaoran, rather icily. They were still on rather cool terms since the other night, trying to make it less noticeable to the others but failing nonetheless.

 

¡°Go ahead. I¡¯ll catch up,¡± Syaoran said sullenly. He knew it was his fault—he shouldn¡¯t have shouted. Yet, couldn¡¯t she show the slightest signs of remorse for making him always worry so?

 

¡°Fine.¡± Sakura turned around and slammed the door in his face.

 

¡°Did something happen between you two?¡± Kai asked, rolling over on his side.

 

¡°Not really,¡± Syaoran replied, leaning against the wall. It drove him crazy whenever that bastard Eron approached her. ¡°She wouldn¡¯t crush a mosquito even if it is sucking out all her blood. But there¡¯s not much I can do about it.¡±

 

¡°Humph. Jealousy drives people to do some strange things,¡± Kai commented, hands crossed behind his head. ¡°Emotions are so fundamental to humankind, yet can be quite uncontrollable, temperamental. To get carried away by emotional impulses is always sheer stupidity.¡±

 

That¡¯s right. Five years ago, would I have dreamed that I would throw away the title that I have strived so hard for? Yet, for dignity¡¯s sake, he could not claim that Kai was right. Syaoran sighed. ¡°I know that someday, I will get punished for betraying my clan. But when I do, I hope I can still protect this lifestyle, so that I can always be beside her.¡±

 

¡°Silly kid,¡± Kai scoffed. ¡°Don¡¯t you know that paradise can be preserved only through sacrifice? The order of heaven could only be maintained at the expense of Satan, trapped in hell.¡±

 

¡°You know, there can be other ways to make Miho happy without making yourself miserable,¡± Syaoran said, turning towards his friend. ¡°I believe so. That¡¯s why I believe that there must be a way for Sakura and me, against all odds.¡±

 

¡°Heh, annoying idealist,¡± Kai muttered, taking off his glasses and wiping it on his shirt. He had to laud Syaoran¡¯s expert technique in changing the subject.

 

¡°Well, get up you passive cynic. We¡¯re going to miss dinner,¡± Syaoran replied, kicking Kai¡¯s bed.

 

¡°Hai, hai!¡± Kai rolled out of the bed reluctantly. He¡¯s a good guy, though. Better than I¡¯ll ever be.

 

***

 

¡°It¡¯s snowing quite a lot,¡± Tomoyo commented to Eriol, seated beside her on the ski lift, on their way up to the top of the advanced slope. Her feet dangled off into the air. Below them was an expanse of white mountains.

 

¡°The Yuki Onna must be sadder today,¡± Eriol replied, reaching his hand out to catch a snowflake which condensed into a water droplet on his glove.

 

Sometimes, Tomoyo found it difficult to distinguish whether Eriol was in jest or whether he was serious. Yet, the wailing of the wind did sound like a sorrowful woman. At that moment, the ski lift jolted in midair. They waited for a while, but it had completely stopped. ¡°What happened?¡± she asked, looking up at the cable. ¡°Was there a power failure? It¡¯s too early for them to have stopped the ski lifts for the day.¡±

 

¡°Let¡¯s wait; I¡¯m sure it will start working again,¡± Eriol waited. ¡°The ski patrol must be fixing it now.¡±


The two waited for a while, yet there was no change; only the snow fell thicker than ever.

 

Teeth chattering, Tomoyo asked, ¡°Do you think the ski patrol didn¡¯t realize that we are still on the ski lift?¡±

 

Brushing the snow off his shoulders, Eriol replied, ¡°That could be possible—it seems like there¡¯s a snowstorm. The ski patrol must be busy preparing for it; of course, they shut down all the ski lifts. I can¡¯t see any people on the slopes, either. They must have all returned indoors.¡±

 

¡°Surely someone noticed that we are missing,¡± Tomoyo said, misty puffs released from her mouth. ¡°We must have been gone for some time. Sakura-chan would have noticed.¡±

 

¡°Actually, with everything hectic with storm preparation, two students missing out of hundreds might not be noticed,¡± Eriol replied, his glasses fogged up and vision blurred. ¡°They might not notice until hours later.¡±

 

¡°Then, are we stranded here?¡± Tomoyo asked, blinking the crystalline snowflakes from her eyelashes. The ski lift waved dangerously as a blast of wind blew from the south. Luckily, she wasn¡¯t afraid of heights, since it would be an awful long way to fall should the cables break.

 

¡°It seems to be the case,¡± Eriol replied, turning to glance at Tomoyo before slipping on his glasses. They fogged up again immediately. 

 

¡°Oh.¡± Tomoyo smiled. ¡°I just hope the cable doesn¡¯t break under the weight of the snow. Even in the worst case scenario, I guess I should be grateful that I am stranded with a magician.¡±

 

Staring hard at Tomoyo for a second, Eriol chuckled. Most girls in such a situation would be in tears or frightened out of her wits, but as expected, Daidouji Tomoyo did not lose her nerve under any conditions. Her peculiar outlook on life was unlike anyone else¡¯s; she positively amused him.

 

 ***

 

A pale Sakura approached him after dinner. ¡°Tomoyo and Eriol are still not back?¡± Syaoran demanded, after a rather unsatisfying meal—all the hot food had been consumed by the time he finally reached the dining hall. ¡°Did you report to the teacher?¡±

 

Sakura shook her head. Temporarily, she had forgotten she and Syaoran had fought. ¡°I thought that they would be back by now; I didn¡¯t want to cause unnecessary trouble. Maybe I made a mistake.¡±

 

¡°I should go report to Terada-sensei,¡± Chiharu said, frowning. ¡°I don¡¯t understand how they are not back yet—they must have realized that there¡¯s a snowstorm coming up.¡±

 

¡°Do you think something happened to them?¡± Sakura asked, brows creasing. Obviously, she hadn¡¯t worried much since Eriol was with Tomoyo, but even Eriol was only human. After all, humans were helpless against the wrath of nature.

 

¡°No way. Eriol can take care of himself,¡± Miho stated. ¡°There¡¯s nothing to worry about.¡±

 

¡°Still¡¦ Sakura-chan is right. What if one of them got hurt, so they couldn¡¯t return in the snow? Or they might have gotten lost in the mountains somewhere, and it would be impossible to get back in this weather, especially because it¡¯ll be dark by now,¡± Chiharu trailed off.

 

¡°Or they might have gotten eaten by wolves. Maybe they stumbled upon a snow ghost,¡± Naoko said. ¡°Who saps the warmth of life out of you, leaving a frozen corpse.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t joke around at a time like this,¡± Chiharu said. ¡°You¡¯re worse than Takashi, Naoko-chan.¡±

 

¡°Sorry,¡± Naoko laughed lightheartedly. ¡°But we don¡¯t really have to worry much about Eriol-kun and Tomoyo-chan. They¡¯re both responsible people and expert skiers. Who knows—it might be a chance for them to ¡®bond.¡¯¡±

 

The girls giggled, despite the rather grave situation.

 

***

 

¡°How long have we been waiting here, Eriol-kun?¡± Tomoyo asked through chattering teeth. Her skis, dangling off from the lift, felt like lead, and her fingers, even though they were protected by thick gloves, were so numb she could no longer hold onto her ski posts. ¡°Shouldn¡¯t someone have fixed the lifts by now?¡±

 

Eriol looked up, rather dazed. The snow had accumulated on his head and shoulders, and his glasses were completely fogged up. ¡°I¡¯m sorry—we have been waiting for an awful long time. Tomoyo-san, you must be freezing¡¦ It¡¯s not a good idea to sit out like this in the snow. It was very inconsiderate of me. I¡¯m rather immune to the cold, so I did not even notice. We¡¯ll have to get off this ski lift first, then find a way down.¡±

 

¡°We¡¯re near the top of the mountain, aren¡¯t we?¡± Tomoyo asked, shivering thoroughly now. How could Eriol look so unperturbed by the icy weather?

 

¡°First, take off your ski poles and skis, and drop them down,¡± Eriol said, fumbling to unfasten his skis from his boots, after dropping his poles down to the snowy woods below. ¡°Next, climb out of your seat. Be careful and keep your balance.¡±

 

Having been seated in the open cold for so long, Tomoyo found that her legs were cramped, and with difficulty, she shed her skis, then climbed out of her seat. The lift shook, swaying on the narrow cable holding it up.

 

¡°Now, don¡¯t be scared, and don¡¯t let go of me,¡± Eriol said, wrapping an arm around Tomoyo¡¯s waist. ¡°I¡¯m jumping.¡±

 

Together, they leaped off the ski lift. For a second, Tomoyo thought her heart would drop, and then, they were shrouded in a warm light. Then, she found herself on soft snow. She looked up at the empty lift above her, still dangling on the cable. How had Eriol managed such a smooth landing? ¡°That was quite a jump,¡± she commented.

 

¡°Well, now, we have to get back down,¡± Eriol said, squinting up at the sky. ¡°It¡¯s too dangerous to ski in this weather, for we can¡¯t see a meter in front of us, and we threw away our skis, anyway.¡±

 

¡°We¡¯re near the top of the slope, aren¡¯t we? Shouldn¡¯t there be a cabin or a rest lounge near by?¡± Tomoyo asked, logically. Never would she complain of the cold, especially not in front of Eriol. She sensed that the cold did not effect Eriol particularly at all.

 

¡°You¡¯re right, I can see a caretaker¡¯s cabin a little distance away. We can find shelter there until the storm dies down,¡± Eriol said.

 

Trudging through the deep snow, they made their way to the cabin. The front door was unlocked, and inside, it was dark, damp and musty. But at least they had a roof over their heads.

 

¡°There¡¯s a stove—I think I can heat it up,¡± Eriol said, taking off his gloves. He fumbled around a wood cabinet to find matches. Lighting one, he threw it into the stove. The coals flickered, then slowly glowed, lighting the electricity-less room.

 

Amused, Tomoyo watched Eriol poke at the coals with an iron prong, almost burning his hands. With a final poke, he looked up at Tomoyo content. ¡°It¡¯ll get warmer,¡± he said.

 

It would have been much easier to light to stove with his magic, yet Eriol went through such a hassle to do it manually. He really doesn¡¯t like to use his powers, Tomoyo reflected. Unless necessary.

 

 From a corner of the room, Eriol found two creaky stools and brought them by the stove. ¡°I tried the telephone, but the line is dead,¡± Eriol said. ¡°I think the electricity and telephone lines are down due to the storm.¡±

 

Straining the water from her long braids, Tomoyo huddled by the fireplace, watching the black coals glow then crumble. The wind howled outside, and the log roof creaked under the weight of the piling snow.

 

¡°Are you scared, Tomoyo-san?¡± Eriol asked, looking up at the silent girl. ¡°I¡¯m sorry. I should have gotten us out of the ski lift earlier—I didn¡¯t expect there to be this bad of a storm or the electricity to be out. When the storm dies down, I¡¯ll go look for help.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s okay Eriol-kun,¡± Tomoyo replied, looking up with bedazzled eyes. ¡°I think it¡¯s quite exciting, being stranded like this in a storm. I wish I brought my video camera with me.¡±

 

For a second, Eriol gaped at Tomoyo. He was more used to girls being in tears, frightened. Yet, this girl was unfazed. Eriol began to chuckle. Strange girl; just when I thought I had her figured out, I find out she¡¯s even queerer than I dared to presume.

 

¡°What¡¯s so funny?¡± Tomoyo asked, blinking.

 

¡°You are one amazing person, Tomoyo-san,¡± Eriol said, wiping the tears from the corner of his eyes.

 

Laughing shortly, Tomoyo said, ¡°I¡¯ll take that as a compliment.¡± How can I tell him that I am not scared because I am with him? That I¡¯m not different from a child like Miho, whose nightmares are soothed by his pacifying presence. If only he knew the true state of my mind, he would scorn me.

 

***

 

After dinner, all the students had been called to the great common room for safety precaution, and were amusing themselves playing board games, telling stories, or just chattering. The teachers sat together at a table, discussing alternative schedules should the students be snowed in tomorrow.

 

Sakura sat in one corner of the noisy lounge, by the window side. She looked up every couple minutes, peering out at the blizzard through the foggy glass panes. A steady hand rested on her shoulder. She looked up. ¡°Syaoran.¡±

 

¡°They¡¯ll be okay,¡± Syaoran said quietly. ¡°It would be stupider for us to go out to look for them; Eriol can protect himself and Tomoyo, and we just have to be patient and wait.¡±

 

Sighing, Sakura replied, ¡°I know. We can trust Eriol-kun, and it¡¯s not like we can go outside in this weather. But still, I can¡¯t help being worried.¡±

 

¡°Sakura-chan! Come here, we¡¯re going to play a board game!¡± Chiharu called out. ¡°Takashi¡¯s a pro—you can¡¯t beat him, but it¡¯ll be fun.¡±

 

¡°Rika-chan, come here and play too!¡± Naoko called out.

 

Rika, who had been staring into space, shook her head. ¡°I¡¯ll just watch,¡± she said. She glanced over her shoulder toward the teachers¡¯ table. Terada-sensei was smiling at something Okuda-sensei said.

 

¡°Where¡¯s Miho-chan?¡± Chiharu asked absentmindedly looking around. There was the pleasant-faced boy who had a crush on Rika, Yutaka Ichiro, staring at Rika, who was obliviously staring at Terada-sensei as usual. The twins were in opposite corners of the lounge—they were rarely seen together ever since the beginning of the trip, which was odd, since they had always been inseparable. Eron, though with a book in his hands, was actually watching over the brim of the pages a certain corner windowsill where an anxious Sakura sat upon with her arms around her knees.

 

At that moment, the lights flickered. Some students shrieked.

 

¡°The snow ghost is angry,¡± Naoko whispered, in awe. The lights flickered on and off again. There was a buzz amongst the students.

 

¡°Students, calm down!¡± Terada-sensei called out over the noise of all the students. ¡°There is a chance that there might be a lights out. For safety reasons, I recommend you all stay in this room. Okuda-sensei will be passing out flashlights—we don¡¯t have enough, so form a group in which you can share flashlights, if someone needs to go to the bathroom or something, go in pairs. Always keep an eye out on each other, especially your roommates.¡±

 

As the flashlights were being handed out, the electricity power completely shut up. This time, there was chaos.

 

¡°A ghost!¡± Naoko exclaimed.

 

¡°No way!¡± Chiharu said apprehensively. ¡°Why did the electricity go off?¡±

 

¡°It¡¯ll come on again,¡± Takashi said, patting her shoulder. ¡°The storm must have blown out the electricity, but look at the fireplace. Doesn¡¯t the flames flicker so friendlily?¡±

 

Realizing that the room wasn¡¯t pitch black, that the great fireplace still roared, lighting the large common room with an orange glow, Chiharu smiled. ¡°You¡¯re right.¡±

 

¡°Come, let¡¯s get closer to it—I¡¯m assuming the heating is off too. It¡¯ll get colder soon,¡± Takashi said, taking Chiharu¡¯s hand and pushing through the students to get a seat nearer to the fireplace.

 

¡°Here¡¯s a flashlight,¡± Okuda-sensei said, handing Sakura one. She scowled at some boys who held the flashlights underneath their chins, making ghoul faces. ¡°Save the battery for later. We don¡¯t know how the power-down will last.¡±

 

Peering at the shadowed faces, Sakura searched for Syaoran.

 

A flashlight shone on her face. ¡°Good, you manage to get a flashlight too. I got one also,¡± Syaoran said, waving his flashlight around.

 

¡°Where is Miho-chan, anyway?¡± Sakura murmured to herself. ¡°Maybe she was in the bathroom or something when the lights out occurred. She must be scared.¡±

 

¡°Want to go look for her?¡± Syaoran asked.

 

Sakura nodded; she hadn¡¯t wanted to wander around by herself in the dark. They made their way towards the door, tripping over students sitting on the floor.

 

¡°Where are you two going?¡± a teacher guarding the doorway asked.

¡°Bathroom,¡± Syaoran replied quickly.

 

If the teacher thought a girl and a boy going to the bathroom was strange, he didn¡¯t comment, for he was too occupied with keeping an eye of rowdy boys who insisted upon playing tag in the dark, knocking about furniture, bumping into everyone.

 

¡°Let¡¯s check my bedroom first,¡± Sakura said. ¡°She might still be there.¡±

 

They entered Sakura¡¯s room, which was unlit.

 

¡°I guess she¡¯s not here,¡± Syaoran said, waving the flashlight around to examine the corners of the room. There was a thudding sound.

 

¡°What¡¯s that sound?¡± Sakura asked, jumping. A muffled thud came from the closet.

 

¡°I don¡¯t know. It¡¯s coming from in here,¡± Syaoran said, walking towards the closet.

 

¡°D-don¡¯t open it!¡± Sakura caught up to Syaoran. ¡°Do you think it¡¯s a g-gh-gghh¡¦¡±

 

¡°Ghost?¡± Syaoran swung open the closet doors. ¡°Or maybe a corpse.¡±

 

Sakura muffled a shriek into Syaoran¡¯s back.

 

¡°See, no ghost or corpse,¡± Syaoran said, shining the flashlight on a duffel bag in the closet.

 

¡°D-did you see that?¡± Sakura asked. ¡°The bag moved!¡±

 

¡°Eh, how is that possible?¡± Syaoran asked, examining the bag.

 

¡°Help, Sakura-chan¡¦ help!¡± came a faint voice from the duffel bag.

 

Sakura dropped her flashlight. ¡°It talked.¡±

 

Gulping, Syaoran unzipped the duffel bag.

 

¡°SAKURA-CHAN!!!¡± An unidentifiable creature streaked out of the bag and flew straight into Sakura¡¯s face.

 

¡°GAHHHHHHHHHH!!¡± Syaoran and Sakura jumped back.

 

¡°Sakura-chan! It¡¯s me!¡± the horned monster piped in a recognizable voice, picking up the flashlight and holding it up, round face reflecting ghastly shadows.

 

Sakura rubbed her eyes. It couldn¡¯t be¡¦ A familiar yellow stuffed animal face came into view. ¡°Kero-chan?

 

¡°Sakura-chan! I was so scared. And I¡¯m starved,¡± whined Kero-chan.

 

¡°What are you doing here?¡± Sakura demanded crossly. ¡°I left you at Eriol¡¯s house.¡±

 

¡°I wanted to come to the trip too,¡± Kero-chan replied, hands on hips.

 

¡°So you snuck into Miho¡¯s duffel bag?¡± Sakura frowned.

 

¡°No, Miho-chan brought me along,¡± Kero-chan stated, nodding. Miho had grown quite fond of Kero-chan over the summer in England. ¡°Unlike some very mean, self-centered mistress that I know of.¡±

 

¡°She agreed to bring you along? Why?¡± Sakura asked in disbelief.

 

¡°I just told her I didn¡¯t want to be left behind,¡± Kero-chan replied shortly. ¡°And she always smuggled away food from the dining facilities and fed me while you weren¡¯t looking. Tomoyo-chan too.¡±

 

¡°Everyone knew except for me?¡± Sakura demanded.

 

Shrugging, Kero-chan replied, ¡°I knew you would get mad if you found out. Besides, I thought something smelled fishy here. Thought I might keep an eye on Miho-chan and keep her out of trouble; she seems to think she can capture the Riddle. Even Clow Reed couldn¡¯t outwit the Riddle.¡±

 

¡°Too late. She¡¯s already disappeared,¡± Syaoran said grimly.

 

¡°EH?¡± Kero-chan blinked. ¡°No wonder she didn¡¯t come feed me today.¡±

 

¡°You and food.¡± Syaoran rolled his eyes. ¡°Good for nothing stuffed pig.¡±

 

¡°We should search indoors completely before we jump into conclusions,¡± Sakura said, petting Kero-chan¡¯s head sympathetically. Miho¡¯s a nice girl, a really sympathetic, considerate one. It was my fault for trying to leave Kero-chan behind. If I knew this would happen, I would have just brought him along myself.

 

¡°Well, I can see where this is heading,¡± Syaoran muttered. Of course they wouldn¡¯t be able to rest safely in the resort. Something just had to go wrong, and he would have to brave the storm. ¡°While we¡¯re here, you should grab a jacket—I think the heating system has turned off too. It¡¯s getting chillier.¡±

 

¡°Really? I didn¡¯t notice a difference,¡± Sakura said, giggling.

 

 ¡°Getting cold, Brat? You can get a blanket,¡± sneered Kero-chan, from Sakura¡¯s pocket.

 

Zipping up her jacket, and tucking Kero-chan in her pocket, Sakura asked, ¡°Where is Kai-kun? I haven¡¯t seen him all day.¡± They made their way downstairs.

 

¡°Probably in the room,¡± Syaoran mumbled. Kai didn¡¯t seem quite like himself these days, and this worried him. One of these days, that idiot is going to do something really stupid. I just know it.

 

¡°Maybe he can do something about the power line,¡± Sakura said, recalling when he tinkered with the school¡¯s electricity generation system to give them a holiday. ¡°Let¡¯s check in your room if he¡¯s there.¡±

 

¡°Fine,¡± Syaoran sighed. They made their way to room 201 down the dark hallway.

 

¡°Kai-kun, are you in here?¡± Sakura asked, peering into the unlighted room. She shone her flashlight on his bed. ¡°Kai-kun? Are you sleeping?¡± Carefully, she walked over to the bed, almost tripping over the various articles of clothing on the floor. Even in the dark, his forehead seemed to be glistening with sweat. ¡°Kai-kun, are you okay?¡± she asked again.

 

¡°Just leave him alone—I guess he¡¯s sleeping,¡± Syaoran said, walking over to the closet to take out his ski jacket. He stared at Kai uneasily. Even if it was an expert thief, Syaoran did not know how Kai could walk around with a bullet in his chest for half a year, let alone why he would do so. ¡°Let¡¯s go.¡±

 

After searching all the floors, Sakura sighed. ¡°We can¡¯t find Miho anywhere. Do you think she really went outside?¡±

 

¡°We should check back in the lounge; she might have returned,¡± Syaoran said practically. They walked back downstairs with heavy hearts. Secretly, he knew that he was just stalling time, that Miho probably wouldn¡¯t be inside, that they would eventually have to go out in the storm. Either way, I¡¯m just glad Sakura¡¯s not scowling at me anymore. But she probably would never understand this feeling, the feeling I get when I see her with Eron. It leaves a bad aftertaste in my mouth; it¡¯s worse than if he kicked me in the stomach.

 

¡°Sakura-chan, where were you?¡± Naoko asked, shining her flashlight on Sakura¡¯s face. ¡°Did you find Miho-chan? I don¡¯t think anyone¡¯s seen her since dinner.¡±

 

Staring out the foggy window, Chiharu commented, ¡°Look, it¡¯s the full moon tonight. It¡¯s almost pretty outside, with all the white snow, if you look from this side of the window. You can see the moon peeking through all the clouds and snowflakes.¡±

 

¡°The night when the werewolf is unleashed,¡± Takashi murmured.

 

At this, Chiharu shuddered, recollecting the incident during the Best Couple Contest. Supposedly, the town was haunted by a werewolf. Leaning her head against Takashi¡¯s shoulder, she said, ¡°Takashi, tell me another story, a cheerful one.¡±

 

¡°Wolf¡¦ The night that the lone wolf howl¡¯s,¡± Sakura repeated, distracted, looking up at the night sky in alarm. She had been suspecting all along but had hoped her intuition had been wrong. ¡°Syaoran, do you remember the Riddle¡¯s challenge poem?¡±

 

Squinting his eyes, Syaoran recollected, ¡°Something like:

 

¡°On the night the lone wolf calls,

And the angel¡¯s feather falls,

Through icy cliffs, the raging gale

Echoes the forlorn mother¡¯s wail.¡±

 

Turning pallid, Sakura said in a low voice, ¡°You don¡¯t possibly think tonight¡¯s the night¡¦ and Miho-chan went to look for the Riddle all on her own in this weather?¡±

 

Syaoran gulped Yes, Miho would do something like that, pretending to be brave and strong¡¦ What a nag she was. Then he heard the shuffling of feet by the doorway behind them. His heart sank.

 

Sakura, too, spun around. ¡°Is someone there?¡± There was nobody there.

 

¡°Could he have heard?¡± Syaoran ran out into the hallway and staring at the wide-open door swinging back and forth in the wind. As expected from a thief, there were no imprints of footsteps leading away from the front entrance of the lodge on the freshly piling snow.

 

¡°Maybe it was just the wind,¡± Sakura said, shutting the door to prevent the draft from sweeping in the snow. She knew that blundering out in the blizzard in search for her missing friends was not the best idea. Yet, it was the only plan she had.

 

¡°Well¡¦¡± Syaoran looked at Sakura without finishing his sentence. They knew the situation, they knew their options.

 

¡°If Miho went out there to find the Riddle all by herself¡¦¡± Sakura trailed off. Tomoyo was with Eriol, but Miho alone could be put into any danger, especially if there were dark forces lurking around. It had already happened once before; she didn¡¯t want Miho to be put in any more danger.

 

¡°I¡¯m going to look for her,¡± Syaoran said, zipping up his waterproof navy blue ski jacket to his neck and pulling his wool hat on. His gloves were in his pocket.

 

¡°Where do you think you¡¯re going to find her?¡± Sakura asked helplessly. ¡°She might have been gone for hours.¡±

 

¡°Well, I¡¯m better at tracking down people than you are,¡± Syaoran replied, rather smugly.

 

¡°Show off,¡± Sakura muttered, pulling her fur-lined red jacket on and fastening the claps. ¡°Well then lead the way.¡±

 

¡°What are you talking about? I¡¯m going alone,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°You have to wait here, just in case they return. You would then be able to communicate to me that they¡¯re back, and that I don¡¯t have to search for them anymore. It¡¯s not like cell-phones would work here, and you¡¯re the only one who can do telepathy with me.¡±

 

¡°We¡¯re looking for Tomoyo-chan and Eriol-kun too?¡± Sakura asked slyly.

 

¡°I am,¡± Syaoran replied grudgingly. ¡°You stay here.¡±

 

¡°Silly, if there¡¯s a dark force out there, I¡¯m the only one who can seal it,¡± Sakura said, heading towards the door. ¡°You can¡¯t expect me to wait for you here, twiddling my thumbs.¡±

 

Stuffing his wool-socked feet into his snow boots, Syaoran said, ¡°That¡¯s not an excuse. If there¡¯s a dark force, I¡¯ll bring it back for you to seal. So you wait here. Besides, it is less obvious if one person is missing than two.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m going with you—I¡¯m worried about them too,¡± Sakura said, crossing her arms.

 

Blocking the doorway, Syaoran replied flatly, ¡°No.¡±

 

¡°Syaoran.¡± Sakura looked up at him with her large, imploring eyes. ¡°You¡¯ve asked me to wait before. It¡¯s more nerve wrecking to have to wait, wondering whether you are safe, if you really would return back soundly. I would rather just go with you. Why else did you make me get my jacket? We both knew it would come down to this. Please.¡± She waited for an answer.

 

How could he refuse when Sakura made that kind of expression? ¡°Fine then, if you insists,¡± Syaoran said gruffly.

 

Double-checking to make sure that nobody was nearby, Syaoran swung open the door. They were greeted by a blast of wind and swirling snowflakes.

 

¡°I changed my mind. Let¡¯s just wait for them here,¡± Syaoran muttered; but despite his grumbling, he drew his hood over his head and bracing himself for the cold.

 

They were too preoccupied at the thought of having to go outside to notice footsteps behind them. A pale girl with dark, wavy hair stood at the head of the hall, holding up a flashlight.

 

¡°Rika-chan!¡± Sakura exclaimed in dismay. At least it wasn¡¯t a teacher. ¡°What are you doing here?¡±

 

¡°Where are you two going?¡± Rika asked, frowning. ¡°We¡¯re not allowed to go out.¡±

 

¡°We have to find Miho-chan and the others,¡± Sakura said. ¡°Please, don¡¯t say anything to anyone.¡±

 

¡°Terada-sensei is responsible for all of us,¡± Rika said softly. ¡°I¡¯m sorry, Sakura-chan, but as your friend, I really can¡¯t let you and Li-kun leave. It¡¯s dangerous out there. And if there are missing people, we have to report them right away to the teachers.¡±

 

¡°Rika-chan, please. This is really important,¡± Sakura said, imploringly. She knew Rika only spoke out of concern for her. ¡°You have to understand.¡±

 

¡°Sasaki-san. We¡¯ll bring back our classmates safely; I can guarantee that,¡± Syaoran interrupted, for the longer they waited, the more difficult it would be to catch up to Miho. They already wasted enough time. ¡°If you told on the teachers, that will only leave Terada-sensei in a difficult position. He would insist upon going out in the storm to find his students. Would you want that? Even a grown man could die in this kind of blizzard.¡±

 

Biting her lips, Rika looked up at Syaoran almost resentfully. Then she sighed. ¡°If you are implying that I would sacrifice my dear friends over the man I love, then you are wrong. But I¡¯ll cover for you guys, if that¡¯s what you want me to do. I trust Sakura-chan¡¯s good judgment. So, bring back Tomoyo-chan and the others, okay? I don¡¯t know how long it would be before they discover how many students are missing.¡±

 

¡°Thank you Rika-chan,¡± Sakura said, grabbing her friend¡¯s hand and smiling warmly. ¡°Thank you for understanding.¡±

 

Fumbling in her pockets, Rika drew out her fur earmuffs and pulled it over Sakura¡¯s head. ¡°Please be careful, both of you.¡±

 

¡°Thanks, Sasaki-san. Let¡¯s go, Sakura,¡± Syaoran said, grimacing at the biting wind as he flung open the front door a second time. Without any more interruption, they stepped outside.

 

***

 

Shuddering, Miho waded through the thick blanket of snow, uphill. Though she was wearing snowshoes, she still struggled to climb the slippery path. She hadn¡¯t counted on the ski lifts to have completely ceased operation. I¡¯ll never reach the top of the slope in this manner, she thought, peering up ahead. It was impossible to see an arm¡¯s distance in front of her. Adjusting her snow goggles, Miho braced herself and continued upwards. I don¡¯t have a lot of time. It¡¯s the night of the full moon tonight. I¡¯ll finally be able to face the Riddle.

 

 

 

The snow blizzard showed no sign of quailing, and Eriol sat silently on his stool, occasionally poking into the iron stove with prongs, while Tomoyo sat on a cushion by his side. The world seemed surreal in this little log cabin deep in the northern mountains. Tomoyo wished Eriol would speak, but he was too deep in thought to notice her watching him in odd fascination. Yet, just being by him, she felt oddly soothed and calmed by his presence. Her stomach rumbled. They hadn¡¯t eaten since lunch.

 

¡°You must be hungry,¡± Eriol said. ¡°I¡¯m sorry—I don¡¯t have any food producing magic. I can create the illusion of food, but it won¡¯t be able to alleviate your hunger.¡±

 

¡°Ah, I remember!¡± From her coat pocket, she took out a bag of cookies, and held it out to Eriol. ¡°Have some. It¡¯s lucky that I smuggled it in my pocket, because I was meaning to give it to Kero-chan when I got back to the room.¡±

 

Munching on the moist oatmeal and raison cookie, Eriol smiled. ¡°Tomoyo-san has a magic pocket full of surprises.¡± He wouldn¡¯t be surprised to find that her pocket was bottomless, with all sorts of useless gadgets hidden inside.

 

While Tomoyo nibbled on the cookies, realizing that she was thirsty now, Eriol stood up and walked towards the window.

 

¡°What¡¯s wrong, Eriol-kun?¡± Tomoyo asked, tilting her head. Eriol¡¯s expressions were always difficult to read. He never smiled because he was truly happy, never raised his voice in anger, never showed hesitancy, fear, or sadness. 

 

¡°That¡¯s strange. It can¡¯t be,¡± Eriol said, smooth forehead creasing ever so slightly. ¡°Miho¡¯s out there, somewhere.¡±

 

¡°Why would she be on the mountains, in this weather?¡± Tomoyo questioned. Magically gifted people always puzzled her, how they could sense another person¡¯s aura at such a distance.

 

Gazing up at the full moon, still low in the sky, peaking through the clouds, beyond the flurry of snow, Eriol murmured, ¡°Surely not¡¦ It¡¯s the night the lone wolf calls¡¦ She¡¯s out there to catch the Riddle.¡±

 

¡°The Riddle?¡± Tomoyo frowned. The Riddle, a force which had plagued them since that summer. ¡°By herself?¡±

 

¡°That girl.¡± Eriol pressed his hands against the glass. ¡°I should have stopped her, discouraged her.¡± Unconsciously, he began to pace up and down in the small cabin, then paused in front of the window again.

 

I¡¯ve never seen Eriol so perplexed, not that you can tell it from his expression, Tomoyo reflected silently, tugging on the fringe of her scarf. Of course, he tends to show a weakness when it¡¯s involving Miho. She watched Eriol loose color in his already pale cheeks, and his midnight blue eyes dilate. He¡¯s trembling, ever so slightly, but I can see it. That¡¯s right. Clow Reed had prophetic visions. Eriol must be having a vision right now. Cautiously, she asked, ¡°Are you okay, Eriol-kun? Is Miho-chan in danger?¡±

 

Shaking his head, Eriol replied shortly, ¡°I don¡¯t know. I¡¯m not sure what I saw.¡±

 

That¡¯s right. I¡¯m holding him back. He can move around easily on his own, but I¡¯m a burden to him right now, because he feels obligated to look after me. He¡¯s worried for Miho. She spoke softly. ¡°Eriol-kun, you can go out and look for Miho-chan. You don¡¯t have to worry about me; leave me here. I¡¯ll be safe here, in the cabin.¡±

 

Eriol stared at Tomoyo, as if a solution previously unthought of had struck him, surprised at her blunt suggestion, startled that she had read his mind. ¡°I can¡¯t leave you alone here.¡±

 

¡°Yes you can,¡± Tomoyo replied firmly. She walked up to him and looked out the window. ¡°Miho needs you more than I do. I¡¯ll be fine here. I can look after myself, as you know already, Eriol-kun.¡±

 

Smiling, Eriol said, ¡°You¡¯re always so fearless and unfazed despite what calamity, Tomoyo-san. I¡¯m not sure if it¡¯s a façade or sheer brazenness, but I can¡¯t help admiring your composure.¡±

 

¡°Compliment well taken,¡± Tomoyo smiled reassuringly. Eriol, out of anybody, knew her fears and insecurities very well, yet she could fool even him. ¡°Now hurry up and find Miho-chan.¡±

 

¡°I will then,¡± Eriol said, his gaze already elsewhere. ¡°Wait here and don¡¯t move a step outside, okay? I¡¯ll definitely be back.¡±

 

¡°Good luck, Eriol-kun.¡± Swallowing hard, Tomoyo watched Eriol¡¯s figure fade away in the blur of snow before she let her smile fade. Then, she shut the door of the cabin hard, and leaned back on the door. Suddenly the cabin seemed a lot damper, darker and colder, and the storm outside a lot fiercer and daunting.

 

Now alone, she laughed out loud with only herself for company, and murmured to the crackling stove, ¡°Daidouji Tomoyo, you liar. Why couldn¡¯t you tell him that you were scared, that you didn¡¯t want to be left alone?¡± Sighing, she shifted nearer to the warmth of the stove. That¡¯s right. Miho was in danger. Eriol was her guardian, and he had to protect her. It was only natural that he be so concerned. She, herself, had told him to go. Yet, a tiny voice in the back of her mind had hoped and hoped that Eriol would stay by her side, nonetheless. If someone cared for me as much¡¦ I would desire nothing more.

 

***

 

It¡¯s so cold. How long have I been walking? My legs ache, and I¡¯ve lost all sense in my limbs. Maybe it¡¯s impossible to get anywhere in this weather, after all. Miho sniffed and crouched down for a second. The snow pelted down at her. Never before had she understood what bone-shuddering cold weather might be like. If she had, she would not have ventured to search for the Riddle on her own. She had wanted to impress everyone. But I just want to lie down and collapse here. What¡¯s the use of continuing on? I¡¯m so cold and hungry. Why am I here anyway? Even if I just close my eyes and disappear¡¦ it won¡¯t make a difference in the world, my existence. At that moment, she felt the ground shake. She shook her head. No, the ground couldn¡¯t have trembled; she must just be extremely tired. Then, she heard a loud, rumbling noise above her, like a roaring waterfall, as the snow-covered mountains shook. No way. This only happens in movies or something. Almost scared to look up, Miho peered above here, greeted by a wave of white sheet crashing down from the heights of the mountains. An avalanche!

 

Almost paralyzed in fear, Miho blindly stumbled towards the woods, having some notion to find some groove to hide under. She fell flat on her face, swallowing a mouthful of snow. Her eyes watered. The roar was getting louder, and she could see the deadly white flood approaching. If she was caught in the snowslide, she would be buried for good. Nobody would even be able to find her corpse. I¡¯m going to die. But I don¡¯t want to die here. ¡°Eriol! Eriol, help me!¡± she called out, voice weak against the wailing wind. ¡°Eriol! Otou-san! Okaa-san!!! Anyone!¡± She curled into a ball in the snow, ignoring the wetness seep into her body. Once before, she recalled feeling this helpless. Back then, smoke filled her room and she was besieged by heat; her home of ten years was burning and she lay on her bed, not caring, wanting to crumble away into ashes and be set free from everything. She was so freezing cold, that she felt like she was burning again.

 

But I can¡¯t die here. I still need to defeat the Riddle. And I still need to see my brother again. ¡°Somebody, save me! Onii-chan! Onii-chan! Onii-chan¡¦¡± Her voice grew weaker as it was swallowed in the roar of the snow flooding down. Unable to crawl any further, Miho was engulfed by the rush of snow sliding down the mountain. Chunks of rock and stray logs hurdled her way, swept down by the avalanche. The last thing she saw was whiteness blanketing her, then an arm extending out to her, a black figure in contrast to the stark whiteness piercing through the snow and grabbing hold of her, shielding her body from the avalanche. Maybe I¡¯m not going to die yet, after all, she thought, shutting her eyes. So warm and comforting¡¦ Eriol?

 

 

 

¡°What was that?¡± Sakura asked, looking up towards the mountain peak, submerged in thick fog. They were slowly making progress at the base of the slopes—it would have been quite a hike without the storm, but with the weather, they were hardly advancing.

 

¡°I don¡¯t know,¡± Syaoran replied, voice muffled in his scarf; he had forgotten how much he disliked the cold—he abhorred it. He struggled to hold out his lasin board, which was glowing. The ground rumbled again.

 

¡°Not good, not good at all,¡± Kero-chan muttered. ¡°The Snow Queen is feeling extra spiteful today.¡± Kero-chan curled into his feathered wings then emerged in his true form, better suited to fly in this weather. ¡°We have no time to lose—get on my back!¡± His voice boomed through the mountains.

 

¡°Isn¡¯t it too dangerous to fly?¡± Sakura asked, placing a hand on Cerberus¡¯ soft neck. ¡°Because of the storm.¡±

 

¡°Nothing fazes the great Cerberus-sama. Just hang on tightly,¡± Cerberus replied. Sakura climbed on his back, almost tripping over her thick snow boots. ¡°What are you doing, Brat? You get on, too.¡±

 

¡°Eh?¡± Syaoran grimaced, then hopped on behind Sakura. He was tired of wading through the snow, anyway. Cerberus¡¯ fur was surprising warm. And Sakura¡¯s hair, damp and tangled, still faintly smelled of spring flowers.

 

 

 

Some minutes later, Miho realized that the thunderous roaring had seized, and that she had somehow managed to survive the worst of the avalanche, sheltered by a thick tree trunk and a strong pair of arms keeping her from being swept away. Fragments of boulders and splintered wood lay around them. It might have been her end if she had been hit by them. Taking a deep breath which turned to a cough, Miho shifted slightly, suffocated by the tight hold. They were safe now. Miho peered through fogged goggles. ¡°Eriol?¡± As the steam cleared, she blinked as if in a daze. Onii-chan? She shook her head. No, that wasn¡¯t right.

 

¡°We have to move from here,¡± a vaguely familiar voice said, and Miho was dragged back on her feet. ¡°It¡¯s dangerous to stay in the same spot—another avalanche can occur at any moment. We need to seek some shelter.¡±

 

Her breath came out in short gasps. ¡°M-mizuki-sempai?¡± she said in disbelief, wiping at her goggles with the back of her gloves. ¡°What are you doing here?¡±

 

Instead of answering, he proceeded up the slope, indicating her to follow. Dazed, she staggered after him.

 

¡°Wait, I can¡¯t keep up,¡± Miho panted, tripping over her feet. ¡°Mizuki-sempai, wait for me! I can¡¯t keep up!¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re a slowpoke, aren¡¯t you?¡± Kai said, continuing to walk briskly.

 

¡°I said, wait,¡± Miho said, sniffling. How horrible Mizuki-sempai was! For a second, she had almost thought he was a nice person for saving her. Even though she was wearing snow boots, the snow was too deep and slippery. How Mizuki-sempai could walk through the snow so effortlessly with regular boots (black of course) was beyond her. In fact, he glided over the surface of the snow, without even sinking into 8t. What is he, an elf or something? Miho scowled. ¡°Mizuki-sempai! I can¡¯t walk anymore! Are you listening?¡±

 

Kai simply ignored her. Sneezing, Miho sunk down on her knees, teeth clattering. What a despicable person! At this rate, he didn¡¯t have to even save me—I¡¯m going to drown in all this snow, anyway! Her skin stung from the bitter chill. No wonder Dante said that the deepest pit of hell is ice. Never had she felt her mind so blank, her body so heavy.

 

¡°If you don¡¯t keep moving, you¡¯ll get frostbite, and your blood will stop flowing,¡± Kai said quietly, voice carried away by the howl of the wind.

 

¡°I don¡¯t care,¡± Miho said weakly. Her goggles were so fogged up, and everywhere she looked, the world way a bleak gray-white. Kai¡¯s voice seemed miles away.

 

¡°If your toes freeze, you¡¯ll have to get them amputated. So get up and keep moving,¡± Kai said, turning around impatiently.

 

¡°Ha ha, not funny.¡± Defiantly, Miho wobbled back to her feet and brushed the snow off her shoulders in vain. Kai had already started walking again. Clumsily, Miho followed, against her will. She really couldn¡¯t stand this person at all; he was the meanest, most inconsiderate person she had ever met. Why had he even bothered to rescue her? Her foot sunk through the snow, which came almost to her thigh. She tumbled, then steadied herself. How can Mizuki-sempai walk on top of snow so easily? She placed her foot on his footprint. His footprint was so much larger than hers, and his stride much longer. She hopped into another footprint, which was fast being covered with new snow, then another. Strange, I¡¯m not sinking into the snow anymore. It can¡¯t be that my snow boots are suddenly functioning. Why can I suddenly walk on snow? Carefully, she stepped on another footprint. It must be Mizuki-sempai¡¯s footprints. That¡¯s right. I¡¯m not sinking into the snow anymore, because I am stepping where he has stepped on. Squinting through her goggles, Miho stared at Kai¡¯s broad shoulders, his black ski jacket flecked with white flakes. Though he did not turn around, he seemed to be walking slower than before. Maybe the weather was finally catching up to him, and he was getting tired. She no longer had trouble keeping up, now that she figured out how to keep from sinking into the snow. I see¡¦I remember Mizuki-sempai has some special power or another, something about being able to manipulate wind. He must be pushing up his weight with wind, so that he won¡¯t sink. I bet he doesn¡¯t know he¡¯s leaking out power so that I¡¯m benefiting also. Good, serves him right. Miho snickered smugly. Yet, it was still strange. The blizzard seems nowhere near as frightening nor as dreadfully cold, because I¡¯m with another person, even one as unreliable as that horrid guy. Even the ferocious wind didn¡¯t seem to blow on her face so harshly anymore. How peculiar. Miho looked up at the sky; it was still snowing as heavily before. But the snow seemed to circumvent her, as if the wind was parting for her. Shaking her head, she gazed at Kai¡¯s sturdy back again. Would he, for me? No way; he¡¯s not that considerate. It¡¯s for himself, and I just happen to benefit by walking behind him. Giggling contentedly, she followed close behind him.

 

In this fashion, the two slowly continued up the mountain. If either of them heard a disturbing low howl in the distance, they dismissed it as the wind. Even Kai started to lose speed, however, as the blizzard showed no sign of ceasing. Miho stared at the snow, so shimmery and formidable. Why had Mizuki-sempai taken such measures to rescue her? Where were they going, anyway? Lost in her own thought, she didn¡¯t see Kai¡¯s steps grow steadily heavier. Through the corner of her eyes, she saw drops of crimson stain the white snow. Was it blood? It was already covered by more snow falling on the ground.

 

Finally she dared to ask, ¡°Mizuki-sempai, are you injured?¡± Was it from saving her? As expected, Miho didn¡¯t get any answer. He¡¯s walking, so he must be fine.

 

Suddenly, Kai halted. Miho bumped right into his back and bumped her nose.

 

¡°Ouch, what¡¯s the matter, Mizuki-sempai?¡±

 

¡°Do you sense that?¡± Kai asked, voice low.

 

¡°Sense what?¡± Miho demanded, irritably. Then, she paled. She didn¡¯t have to sense anything—she could see it, a great, ominous shadow approaching in the blur of snow and mist.

 

¡°Damn, things just get worse and worse.¡± Urgency ringing in his voice, Kai said, ¡°Miho, don¡¯t look behind and run, far away from here.¡±

 

¡°No, I can fight it,¡± Miho replied. She slipped out her key from her jacket pocket. ¡°Key that hides the power of fire. Show your true self to me. I, Miho, command you under contract. Release!¡± With gloved hand, she grasped the deep red staff.

 

There was a growl, and the silvery beast stepped forth into sight, gleaming fangs bared.

 

Miho gulped. What was this? Though her aura-sighting was not very strong, it was enough to sense that this foe was very powerful, maybe more powerful than anything she had faced before. And it leaped forward, straight at the two.

 

¡°Duck, Miho!¡± Kai exclaimed, shoving Miho out of the way. The silver creature slashed down with its claws, ripping through Kai¡¯s clothes.

 

Clambering to her feet, Miho swirled around, aghast at the sight of the crumpled figure on the ground before her, a stark black in contrast to the white surrounding him, tainted with a startling crimson pool slowly spreading out around him. For a moment, she had the horrible sensation of being on top of the gray tower back in the Fantasyland. A throb of disbelief rippled in her stomach. ¡°Mizuki-sempai!¡± Her piercing voice echoed throughout the valley.

 

Gnarling its fangs, the beast bent low, ready to attack again.

 

Raising her staff, Miho cried out, ¡°Stand back, you monster!¡± Concentrating her energy, she pointed her staff down, a burning red light accumulating at its tip. ¡°Honoo no tori!¡± A jet of flames, spreading wings like a firebird streaked from her staff.

 

The silver creature jumped back, buying enough time for Miho to bend over Kai. She hung her head down. ¡°Mizuki-sempai! Mizuki-sempai!¡± Don¡¯t die!¡±

 

Slowly turning his head away from Miho, Kai grinned cheekily. ¡°Silly, nobody dies from just a scratch.¡±

 

¡°Sempai!¡± Miho sighed in relief, finding it hard to swallow the lump in her chest. ¡°We need to tend to your wounds.¡±

 

Brushing her hand aside, Kai looked up at the clouded sky and the snow drifting down and landing on his cheek. How peaceful, to close his eyes on this freezing winter¡¯s day, buried in the chilling calm. ¡°Miho, you need to run away. Sakura and Syaoran are on their way. You¡¯ll be safe once you get to them.¡±

 

¡°What about you?¡± Miho asked curtly. She was feeling annoyed with herself for showing her worrying.

 

¡°I¡¯ll serve as bait to distract the wolf-monster,¡± Kai replied, groaning as he tried to sit up. If he had half the power Eriol did.

 

¡°Don¡¯t be stupid. You¡¯re bleeding!¡± Miho exclaimed, pushing him down again.

 

¡°Am I?¡± Kai murmured. His head felt rather light—his body was really breaking down on him. He couldn¡¯t even dodge such a simple blow. The constant throb from the bullet shot came frequenter and stayed longer than in previous months. Pathetic, the state I¡¯m in. Still a teen, and I¡¯ve already past my prime. Sometimes, I wonder what the point of going on is. But I can¡¯t let her worry.  ¡°It¡¯s not as bad as it looks¡¦ I just got snagged by the creature¡¯s claws—only my clothes got torn a bit. Pity too. This is my new ski jacket.¡±

 

¡°Well, where are you injured?¡± Miho demanded insistently. Before he realized what she was doing, she opening up the front of Kai¡¯s shredded jacket. A silver locket tumbled out from under his shirt. With trembling fingers, Miho reached out for the oval locket with a ruby embedded in its center. Her mouth opened then shut again, for before she could blink, Kai slapped her hand away. He dragged himself up, swaggering a bit, breathing heavily. Not meeting her eyes, he zipped up his ragged black jacket to his neck again, tucking away the locket under his tattered shirt. Pitch-black ski goggles masked his eyes, and his wet, disheveled bleached hair blew in all directions. Wordless, he stood shoulders hunched, watching Miho like an untamed animal.

 

***

 

Unable to grasp Miho¡¯s location, Eriol held up his sun staff to form a barrier around him and the ferocious storm, so that he could focus his powers to track her. Though he was generally immune to the weather, he had to admit this was the worst storm he had seen in this lifetime. She is very displeased tonight. And I hate to say it¡¯s probably because of me.

 

From the distance, he heard the resonating howl of a wolf. Flinching, Eriol closed his eyes and spanned the area around him with his aura. Miho¡¦ I have to find her... Kaho¡¯s soft words echoed in his ears on a wintry day not so long after Miho had first come to live with them.

 

~~~~~~

 

¡°She¡¯s a strong girl, isn¡¯t she, Eriol?¡± Kaho said, tucking her long auburn hair behind her ear, a couple weeks after their return to England with Miho.

 

¡°That¡¯s right.¡± Eriol smiled. ¡°She¡¯s already adjusted to attending a British prep school, even though she¡¯s the only Japanese in her class. Her English has improved dramatically too.¡±

 

¡°And she was such a weak, unstable girl when we first brought her in,¡± Kaho murmured, her marigold eyes full of gentle pride. ¡°She could only cry and hallucinate during the first month, not eating, not sleeping. Who knew she had so much resilience in her.¡±

 

¡°Well, she comes from a long line of strong women,¡± Eriol commented, looking up at Kaho.

 

¡°Even so, she¡¯s still a young girl, whose dreams will easily get crushed, whose path is winding and upward climbing.¡± Kaho gazed at Eriol, solemn and silent. ¡°Please watch over her, Eriol, and protect her from more harm. The next time she is shattered, I don¡¯t know if she will be able to stand again. Only you can help her.¡±

 

¡°I promise, Kaho, I will watch over Miho and protect her. You need not worry.¡± A sorcerer never broke his words. Yet less than a duty, an obligation, watching over Miho had become a pleasure for him.

 

For the first time, Eriol learned what it was to have a family. After adopting Miho into his strange household, he learned what it was to be a father, mother, and brother.

 

 

 

¡°Eriol! Baka! Those glasses are fifty years out of fashion!¡± Miho stated, still in her St. Christopher¡¯s uniform, plaid skirt flying up as she jumped on top of Eriol and snatched his glasses off his nose. ¡°Maybe if you get contacts, you¡¯ll be more popular at school. That is, if you come to school more often!¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t learn anything new at school,¡± Eriol replied, reaching out for his glasses—he was half blind without them.

 

¡°Silly, you learn social skills,¡± Miho stated. ¡°And you certainly need them with you horrible, eccentric personality. It¡¯s not healthy for a young person to be cooped up indoors all day, reading dusty parchments.¡±

 

And for the first time, through watching Miho grow, Eriol learned what it felt like to be a child again, as if he was having a second chance to grow up.

 

~~~~~~

 

Blinking, Eriol looked up. A great wall of snow had formed and towered over his head while he had been shortly lost in deep thought. It contorted and then twisted around him, trapping him in a hurricane of snow and ice chunks.

 

She¡¯s here... That woman. Eriol held his staff horizontally over his head and formed a barrier around him. He leaped through an opening and looked around him for Her.

 

¡°My, my, your power has diminished quite a bit,¡± came an icy, smooth voice. A tall, flawlessly beautiful lady with pale skin and long ice blue hair, dressed in white robes emerged from a flurry of fog and snow. ¡°It has been a while, hasn¡¯t it, Clow Reed?¡±

 

¡°At least a century,¡± Eriol replied, smiling grimly.

 

¡°Finally the day has come,¡± the queen of the snowy mountains said, trembling in anticipation. Her icy silver pupils were dilated. ¡°I can finally avenge my children. Tonight you finally meet your death, Clow Reed!¡±

 

¡°I am sorry for spoiling your resolve, but Clow Reed is already dead,¡± Eriol said politely.

 

¡°Liar. What, are you frightened of the Snow Queen now? Clow Reed doesn¡¯t die!¡± the Snow Queen exclaimed, laughing shrilly. ¡°He can¡¯t!¡±

 

¡°Well he has.¡± Eriol gazed up at the pale lady solemnly. ¡°He grew weary of living.¡±

 

¡°Impossible,¡± the Snow Queen stated contemptuously. ¡°Either way, you reek of his scent, boy, and you will have to die in his place. Of course, I¡¯ll make you suffer first.¡±

 

Sighing, Eriol muttered, ¡°Why did Clow Reed have to make so many enemies in his lifetime?¡±

 

¡°Too late for you to be regretting now,¡± the Snow Queen said, the corners of her lips curved. ¡°Anyway, should you be off guard like that? A pretty young girl is stranded out there all by herself. Would be a terrible tragedy, wouldn¡¯t it? Girl buried under a collapsed old log cabin, during a ferocious snow storm.¡±

 

Startled, Eriol turned around towards the top of the mountain. Tomoyo-san! Why hadn¡¯t he thought that she would be targeted?

 

¡°Go ahead, and save her,¡± chided the Snow Queen. ¡°Of course, it wouldn¡¯t be as exciting as a young girl being torn apart in the jaws of a ravenous beast.¡±

 

Blood turning chill, Eriol recollected the pale face and hollow smoke-grey eyes which had stared at him, back inside the Fantasy, after the fake Mikai had dissolved away and her dream-world was shattered. Then the corners of her eyes wrinkled as its usual soft glow returned, and she burst into a smile, as radiant as a sunflower. ¡°I¡¯m¡¦ really grateful¡¦ that I have such wonderful friends,¡± she had whispered, before fainting in his arms. As Clow Reed, he had been omniscient, powerful, fearless. Almost inhuman, his heart had turned into granite, emotions paralyzed; that was how he had lived.

 

Thing had changed since then. Now, the world frightened him. Watching Sakura and Syaoran grow, he realized his own deficiencies, that those two, young and inexperienced as they were, far surpassed him in courage, pluck, and sheer determination. Though once the most powerful and feared in the world, Clow Reed had been but a mere wreck of a man who had lost meaning and purpose in life before he fully grew into manhood, who had tasted hate more often than love, a recluse who knew not the meaning of friendship nor camaraderie, joy nor sorrow. Sakura can grow stronger than Clow Reed ever was, because she has great friends to support her, Eriol reflected. I know, having fought a duel with Li Syaoran. That their potential is limitless, that Clow Reed¡¯s reign is truly over. Then he smiled ruefully. If his reign was truly over, why was he still plagued by it? Is there really no escaping that cursed name of Sorcerer Clow Reed?

 

¡®Eriol is still number one for me even if you lose a battle, because Eriol-sama is my one and only Eriol-sama!¡¯ Miho had stated, after his defeat against Syaoran. For the first time, somebody wanted him just as he was.    

 

Then, he recalled Kaho¡¯s words. ¡°Please watch over her, Eriol, and protect her from more harm. The next time she is shattered, I don¡¯t know if she will be able to stand again. Only you can help her.¡±

 

I¡¯m sorry Tomoyo-san. Hold on a little longer. Vast wings sprouted from his back, and Eriol soared towards the base of the mountain where Miho was.

 

 

 

Eriol-kun¡¯s taking a long time. Tomoyo stared out the window, her breath fogging up the glass. It was completely dark outside, and she had lost track of time since she was not wearing a watch. The coals in the iron stove were growing fainter. Humming to keep herself company, she picked up the last wooden log and flung it into the hungry flames.

 

¡°I know you¡¯re waiting for him, but he won¡¯t come,¡± said a chilling, smooth female voice. ¡°You¡¯re all alone.¡±

 

Startled, Tomoyo looked up, then around her. There was no one. ¡°Who is that?¡± Tomoyo asked, warily. After her experience with the Phantom, she had sworn not to fall into any dark force¡¯s trap, never to cause a hindrance to her friends again. Most of the time, she was glad she had no troublesome powers like Syaoran or Sakura did, but at times, she wished she was able to fend for herself.

 

¡°Another lonely soul, such as yourself,¡± returned the crisp voice. ¡°Queen of my icy domain and the seeker of justice. Don¡¯t you feel betrayed, hurt, pained, pretty girl?¡±

 

Tomoyo shuddered, as the fire flickered and the windows rattled. She felt a chill as if tasting the breath of Death. From the concentration of thudding on the roof, Tomoyo presumed the snow was falling thicker and heavier than ever, almost as if only the cabin was being targeted. Eriol, please come back soon.

 

¡°I told you, he won¡¯t come,¡± the voice interrupted. ¡°He went to save another. He chose her over you. How does that feel?¡±

 

Calmly, Tomoyo, facing the opposite wall, not knowing where to direct her response to, replied, ¡°I know Eriol-kun went to save Miho-chan. She was in danger. And he told me to wait here. I¡¯m fine with that—I was the one who told him to go.¡±

 

There was a harsh laughter. ¡°Flat denial was never healthy. Be truthful with yourself. Aren¡¯t you weary of always being left behind? He won¡¯t come back; you don¡¯t matter to him at all. You are but a mere baggage, a distraction. Your feelings rest alone with you. He left you in the mercy of my hands. That¡¯s right, he left you do die here. Clow Reed is that kind of man, one who only associates with people of use to him. He¡¯s a cruel man, one who know not how to love nor hate, who betrays you and hurts you with his feigned kindness.¡±

 

¡°I know not of Clow Reed, only of Hiiragizawa Eriol,¡± Tomoyo said softly. ¡°And what I know of him is that he is kind and thoughtful, gentle and caring.¡±

 

¡°Well deceived you are,¡± said the Snow Queen. ¡°So we all were.¡±

 

What does she mean by that? It¡¯s strange¡¦ She sounds more sad than angry. Tomoyo heard a loud thud outside. She peered out the window; it wad dim outside, but she could make out large chunks of ice, some the size of a watermelon, fall from the sky, colliding into the wood cabin. The cabin creaked. At this rate, the cabin won¡¯t last another hour. Once it collapses, I¡¯ll be buried alive in here. Since she had been in so many bizarre situations over the past years, she wasn¡¯t particularly frightened.

 

¡°Come out,¡± cried the Snow Queen¡¯s voice outside. ¡°The cabin will collapse any moment.¡±

 

Inside, the last coal crumbled, and the room went pitch black. In a corner, Tomoyo sat crouched, hugging her leg to her chest. I¡¯ve survived worse nights before, she reassured herself. The hail intensified by the sound of clattering on the rooftop. This is an old cabin. I¡¯m surprised it hasn¡¯t collapsed already. It is true, that I¡¯m always left behind. As with Sakura, with Eriol, with father. It¡¯s always been the same. But I¡¯m not resentful, nor angry. I know it¡¯s not their fault. I understand very well that Eriol had to save Miho. I understand, but I admit, I did wish the tiniest bit that he had stayed. When can I stop feeling this selfish?

 

¡°If you stay in there, you¡¯ll be buried alive,¡± returned the voice. ¡°Even if you stay there, he won¡¯t come. I¡¯ll lead you to a safe place. Come outside to me.¡±

 

Slowly, Tomoyo stood up and swung open the window with some difficulty, since the snow had piled up against it. Outside, she could faintly make out the figure of a tall, ghostly woman, completely pale, with icy eyes gleaming in the dark. Why didn¡¯t she enter?

 

¡°He left you here. Don¡¯t stay here and meet your death. Who knows when another avalanche will come? You have to save yourself now,¡± the ghost-like woman said, extending out her pale hands. She would have been beautiful, if her eyes weren¡¯t so slanted and full of hatred.

 

It¡¯s true, Eriol may not return for a long time. No one else knows I¡¯m here, and I may be stranded here, all by myself. Who knows when the storm would cease? But¡¦ Pushing back her long violet hair from her face, Tomoyo said, firmly but polite as usual, ¡°I¡¯m sorry. But I¡¯ll stay in here.¡±

 

¡°Why?¡± The pale lady with icy eyes demanded.

 

Tomoyo smiled, meeting the Yuki Onna¡¯s eyes. ¡°Because the best thing I can do in this situation is to patiently wait.¡± That¡¯s right. The reason that the Snow Queen isn¡¯t entering is not because she doesn¡¯t want to, but she can¡¯t. Eriol must have set a strong barrier around this cabin before he left, to keep my safe. That is why it hasn¡¯t collapsed yet, even under the attack of the Snow Queen. She¡¯s trying to lure me out because she can¡¯t come in. Thank you Eriol. Shutting the window, Tomoyo walked towards the stove and poked at the dying embers with the prong. It burst into flame again. Eriol will come back for me, if I wait long enough.

 

***

 

Humans tend to have a foolish attachment to materialistic goods attributed with sentimental factors. I¡¯ve always known it was a mistake to keep this locket. But I was a coward, and I couldn¡¯t throw it away. It was a last reminder of who I was. As if the last traces of my identity is embalmed in a single little trinket a quarter the size of my palm.

 

Clutching his throbbing chest, Kai looked away from Miho¡¯s penetrating gaze. Does she suspect?

 

At that moment, the silver creature leaped towards them again, not leaving any term to think. Wildly, Kai grabbed hold of Miho¡¯s arm and half ran, half-stumbled out of the way. He collided into a boulder, and heard something crack in his ribs, but managed to fling Miho out of the way. The impact on his shoulder left no impression on him because his body was too numb from the cold. Having missed its prey, the immense creature snarled, then rebounded back towards the two. Think, Kaitou Magician, think. Why is this creature attacking us? I don¡¯t recall offending anything recently. Is it merely hungry?

 

Saved once more by Kai shoving her out of the way, Miho, half her face buried in snow, peered through her scratched, smoggy goggles, her breath coming out in short gasps. She spit out a mouthful of snow. Why does he take such measures to save me? Is he okay? I need to get up. The beast was bounding towards them again. This is it. Clumsily, she held out her fire staff, knowing it would not even scorch the creature. If only she could distract it long enough to get Mizuki-sempai away—he seemed to be in no condition to walk. He was more trouble than he was worth. Why couldn¡¯t Eriol have come and saved her? Eriol would blow away all troubles with a wave of his staff.  I can¡¯t die yet. I didn¡¯t survive everything I did to freeze to death, to be eaten by this monster. I didn¡¯t find out why. Just a bit more. She braced herself, ready to start forward with staff in hand, only to be halted by a golden streak which interjected in between her and the canine creature. It was Cerberus, with Sakura and Syaoran on his back.

 

Syaoran jumped off Cerberus¡¯ back, sword in hand, crimson tassel whipping about from the base of its hilt. He ran up to Kai and Miho. ¡°Are you two okay?¡±

 

¡°Thank goodness you guys are here!¡± Miho exclaimed, a big lump forming in her throat. She sunk to her knees. ¡°Mizuki-sempai, we¡¯re okay now. Mizuki-sempai!¡± Desperately, she shook Kai, who had smashed against a boulder in attempt to dodge from the beast. Eriol may be able to blow away all troubles with a wave of his staff, but Mizuki-sempai came all the way here, and he saved me, risking his life for someone as ungrateful and selfish as me. ¡°Answer me, Mizuki-sempai!¡± She waited for him to grin languidly as usual, scorning her for worrying, but the lump in her throat grew tighter and tighter.

 

Kai stirred. His mind felt unusually blank. Pure white speckles drifted down like crumpled flower petals. This was not the first time he lay flat on his back, watching the snow fall from the gray, gray sky, without the strength or will to stand up again. Just watching the quiet sky like this, tranquil, what more could he ask? No, it wasn¡¯t quiet. A nagging, piercing voice pounded through his skull. For a second, he thought he saw a woman with long unbound auburn hair, in a white kimono and red hakama, frown at him. His eyes focused on a heart-shaped face framed by short reddish hair sticking out in all directions like a lion¡¯s mane. Miho¡¦

 

¡°What are you doing in that pathetic state?¡± Syaoran asked, extending out a hand and pulling Kai to his feet.

 

¡°Took you long enough to come,¡± Kai said, cracking his neck and managing a feeble smile. ¡°Give me the sewers any time; wilderness is not my area of expertise.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re okay?¡± Miho demanded in disbelief, breath hovering from fright. She was right; even if Mizuki Kai took a thousand falls, he would still stand up again, with that same unconcerned expression. ¡°You were bleeding¡¦ and then you bumped against that boulder, trying to save me. I really thought you were a goner this time.¡±

 

¡°Would I die yet, in the prime of my youth?¡± Kai asked, laughing as heartily as he could muster with several cracked ribs, brushing aside all concerns Miho had for him.


Scowling, Miho muttered, ¡°Foolish of me to have been concerned.¡±
 

 

Meanwhile, Sakura, star staff extended out in one hand and riding on Cerberus¡¯ back, keenly observed the growling beast, calculating an attack. Through the blur of the snow, she could decipher the outline of a great wolf, regal and proud, glistening fur as silvery as the snow surrounding it. Its deep golden eyes gleamed in the dark, and its long ivory fangs gleamed.

 

Tentatively, Sakura slipped off Cerberus¡¯ back and walked towards the silver wolf.

 

¡°Sakura, what are you doing?¡± Syaoran demanded. ¡°Stay back.¡±

 

For a moment, the silver wolf gazed at her, motionless. Unfazed, Sakura walked up right in front of the beast. Cerberus followed behind her, hunched over, unable to keep his head up proudly as usual.

 

Clear voice with no trace of fear, Sakura said, ¡°Please, do not harm my friends. We mean no ill and are sorry if we disturbed your territory.¡±

 

¡°Does that girl think she can converse with a wild beast?¡± Kai muttered, shaking his head. Sakura was the type of an idiot who would befriend a criminal or embrace a foresworn enemy with murderous intent. She wouldn¡¯t survive five minutes in the slums of the city.

 

If a wolf could chuckle, this one might have. Gracefully, the silver wolf stepped forward. Cerberus growled. Instead of bearing its teeth, the wolf merely sniffed Sakura¡¯s hand with its velvety nose.

 

Originally, the wolf seemed to have tower over them, but up close, they realized that this wolf might have been larger than an average wolf, but was no larger than Cerberus and clearly not the size of a house. The curve of its back and neck, its strong, graceful limbs, its pure white, silver-tipped fur, and its keen, intelligent golden eyes indicated that this was no ordinary wolf, however.

 

¡°If you may be the lord of this region, can you tell me where a cliff lies?¡± Sakura asked politely.

 

¡°What are you doing, asking a dark force for aid?¡± Cerberus questioned.

 

Setting down his sword, Syaoran laughed shortly. ¡°You¡¯re calling that wolf a dark force? What a mistake. And you call yourself the glorious sun guardian?¡±

 

Growling lowly, Cerberus replied, ¡°Not a dark force?¡± He hated it when the Brat took that particular, smug tone. So what, if his aura-tracking skills were a little rusty?

 

¡°Foolish beast. I am the father of these mountains, older than any of you can imagine,¡± the silver wolf replied in a low, sonorous voice, if it could be called a voice for it was as deep as the woods and more powerful than a roaring waterfall. ¡°No one can bind me or summon me, for I am of my own free will and spirit.¡±

 

¡°But why did you attack Miho-chan and Kai-kun?¡± Sakura added in a small voice. ¡°Meaning no disrespect.¡±

 

¡°I didn¡¯t like their smell, and I was thirsting for a little blood today,¡± the wolf replied, snarling rather sinisterly. ¡°The Snow Queen is throwing a fit today, and it is not easy being her neighbor.¡±

 

¡°The Snow Queen?¡± Sakura stared up at the stormy sky. ¡°Why is she angered today?¡±

 

¡°The man she hates the most has appeared,¡± replied the silver wolf. ¡°Well, I¡¯ll guide you to the once you seek. Today, I will allow you humans to ride on my back.¡±

 

¡°No way!¡± Miho exclaimed. Slowly, she lost her fear of the beast. After all, writers had to be open-minded.

 

¡°I refuse to trust that thing which has attacked us just a moment ago,¡± Kai said, arms crossed. Suspicion was his nature, and he all the more despised canine creatures.

 

¡°And I refuse to carry a worthless being such as you, insolent boy,¡± replied the wolf, tail swishing. ¡°Cerberus, follow my lead, and carry those two cowardly creatures.¡±

 

¡°What does he think he is, ordering me, the great golden-eyed Cerberus-sama around?¡± muttered Cerberus, tail between his legs.

 

¡°Can we really ride your back?¡± Sakura asked, placing a hand on the great wolf¡¯s thick, soft gray-white fur. True, she was a little hesitant, but she was even more in complete awe. Never had she met a nobler, more dignified beast.

 

¡°Unless you are scared, that is—I travel quicker than anything you would have experience before,¡± the wolf replied. ¡°That boy does not trust me yet, it seems.¡±

 

¡°I have to remain skeptical of a creature that is neither mortal, nor the usual breed of dark forces, nor a manmade creature like Cerberus or Spinel Sun,¡± Syaoran said, analytical as usual. ¡°Why you attacked my friends, and why you choose to aid us at this moment further puzzles me.¡±

 

¡°Logical and sharp as always, as would be expected from a successor of the Li Clan,¡± the wolf commented, bemused. ¡°Guess the bloodline hasn¡¯t thinned yet, right down to that exasperating stubborn streak. It is true, I can devour all of you without blinking an eye, but I choose not to. For I haven¡¯t been this amused by any group of mortal children in more than a century.¡±

 

Having no choice, Sakura and Syaoran mounted on top of the silver wolf.

 

¡°I do wish you to answer, if you¡¯ll permit,¡± Syaoran said, more politely than usual. ¡°Why you are choosing to help us.¡±

 

¡°Well,¡± the wolf began. ¡°You two have taken good care of my son, and this is a token of my gratitude.¡±

 

¡°Hoe?¡± Sakura glanced over her shoulders at Syaoran, who shrugged, equally clueless. He knew they should probably humor this frightful creature, who might devour them with a change of mind at any moment. Without any warning, the wolf took off and everything around them streaked past. They did not know if the wolf was running or flying, but the two had a sensation of soaring through clouds, faster than any plane or train. Behind them followed Cerberus with Kai and Miho, a piercing silver streak followed by a blazing golden streak.

 

***

 

Hovering midair, Eriol spanned the mountain range, scoping for Miho¡¯s aura, which had a distinct fiery radiance that he was so familiar with. It was a lot fainter than Syaoran¡¯s and Sakura¡¯s, but he could recognize it anywhere. He blinked through his snow-caked snow goggles, and the wind whipped across him, shedding white feathers from his wings. Flying wasn¡¯t particularly his favorite pastime, and he had avoided if as often as he could. A white aura drifted from down below and enveloped him. Sakura and the others are there. They had found her quicker than he had. And even before they had, Mizuki Kai had reached Miho first. Really, there was no use for him anymore.

 

 It was getting difficult to fly through the snowstorm, as the wind blew him off course, and his sense of direction was diminished because of the heavy clouds covering the sky. Judging by the aching in his shoulder, the barrier he had set up around the log cabin at the top of the mountain was being pressured. It was a strong barrier, barriers being one of his specialties, but how long would it last under constant attack of the Snow Queen? Tomoyo was in danger. Miho was already in safe hands, but only he knew where Tomoyo was hidden. For he had not only put a protective barrier around the cabin, but a shielding devise to conceal her presence from ill-doers. At least he could be reassured that Tomoyo was safe.

 

Then, out of nowhere, a sharp ice shard, the width of an arm darted out from the snow, piercing through the center of his left wing. A sharp pain seized him, same as if the shard had pierced his flesh. Wings crumbled away, and he plummeted down from midair. Without losing time, Eriol released his staff and pointed it towards the snowy ground. Just in time, a huge mound of snow formed to cushion his fall.

 

¡°You were off guard, Clow Reed,¡± stated the Snow Queen, walking towards Eriol, pale lips curved into a smirk. In her domain, she could appear and disappear as she pleased. Her long, light blue hair whipped out behind her, and her white robes shrouded her like mist.

 

¡°I was,¡± Eriol said, ski goggles askew and his wings having disappeared. He picked up the sun staff and hobbled onto his feet.

 

¡°Your performance has been quite disappointing, once-called greatest of the East and the West,¡± the Snow Queen continued. ¡°In that condition, you can barely look after yourself, let alone your comrades. How careless of you, to think that you can discard one girl for another. Poor thing, she shouldn¡¯t have had so much faith in you. Your attention was diverted into too many directions.¡± Extending a white, long hand, she revealed a large block of ice, as tall as she was.

 

Squinting, Eriol realized that there was a person trapped in the ice. A deathly pale girl with dark, wavy hair spread around her. Tomoyo. He had brushed off the thought that Tomoyo might be targeted also.

 

¡°I told you that you let down your guard.¡± The Snow Queen smiled maliciously. ¡°You thought she would be safe with that mediocre barrier of yours, didn¡¯t you? Well, you were mistaken.¡±

 

There¡¯s now way she could have broken through my barrier. How did she... Eriol looked up at the Snow Queen, undiminished in her beauty even in her reign of thousands of years. 

 

¡°That¡¯s right, when you were falling from the sky, you briefly lost control of your powers. I took the chance to break through your barrier and seize this human girl,¡± the Snow Queen stated, long lashes lowered. ¡°Yes, I¡¯ve realized that you no longer have the Clow Cards with you. Which may explain your great reduction in power. The barriers you create must be generated with your own power, not a borrowed power from a dark force; therefore, when you slip, the barrier slips.¡±

 

¡°Release her,¡± Eriol said in a low voice. ¡°She has nothing to do with our business.¡± Clow Reed made a mistake maybe once in a decade, and even that was rare. But he could not reproach himself for putting Tomoyo in danger yet. He couldn¡¯t afford to make any more mistakes. 

 

¡°Oh yes she does,¡± the Snow Queen replied. ¡°As do all of your comrades. They have wondered right into my palace, foolish ones, right into the trap. Now I¡¯ve finally found your weakness, Clow Reed, the one with a heart of steel. How does it feel, having to worry about protecting others? A burden, isn¡¯t it? You were always alone, you probably do not know what it means to have and lose a loved one.¡± 

 

Wordless, Eriol took off his ski goggles and stared at the Snow Queen with his somber midnight blue eyes. Startled, the Snow Queen stepped back. It was as if the boy was standing straighter, prouder, radiating the intense, overwhelming aura of Clow Reed in the days of his prime, once more. When the smile disappeared from Clow Reed¡¯s lips and his eyes were slanted and cold, his voice low, barely above a whisper, people knew they had truly angered the greatest magician of the East and West.

 

¡°So, you really are Clow Reed,¡± stammered the Snow Queen, losing poise for once. Though she was taller and more luxuriously decked, very few found it easy to keep their heads up in the presence of the notorious sorcerer. ¡°I had my suspicions.¡±

 

¡°No, I am just Hiiragizawa Eriol.¡± His voice was quiet, yet definitive and authoritative.

 

¡°Is that so?¡± the Snow Queen asked haughtily, regaining her poise. ¡°Well then, Hiiragizawa Eriol, if you want this girl back, come find me.¡± She laughed, and with a flurry of snow, Tomoyo and the Snow Queen disappeared.

 

Expressionless, Eriol stared at the snowflakes floating down, like white feathers torn from an angel¡¯s wing.

 

***

 

Meanwhile, back in the resort, the electricity still had not returned, and after the initial excitement from the dark, the students were not restless, tired and cranky. The snacks had run out, there were no more ghost stories to tell. By this time, the teachers were exhausted, and let the students do as they please.

 

Uneasily staring out the window, Chiharu turned to Takashi. ¡°The storm shows no signs of ceasing. Don¡¯t you think we better tell Terada-sensei that Miho-chan and everyone are missing? Sakura-chan¡¯s been missing for hours.¡±

 

Shaking her head, Rika said, ¡°We must wait a little longer. She promised to return safely.¡±

 

¡°No, we must report to Terada-sensei at least,¡± Takashi declared. ¡°It¡¯s midnight already, and they might not return till morning. We can¡¯t cover for them much longer—they¡¯ll be doing bedtime roll call soon.¡±

 

¡°But¡¦¡± Rika looked up helplessly.

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry—if it¡¯s Terada-sensei, he¡¯ll understand,¡± said Chiharu quietly. Takashi was right; it was no longer right to keep it from the adults, worrying by themselves.

 

 

 

¡°What do you mean they¡¯re missing?¡± demanded Terada-sensei to his four homeroom students. Chiharu, Takashi, Naoko, and Rika hung their heads guiltily. ¡°And you chose to report this to me now?¡±

 

¡°We apologize, Terada-sensei,¡± Takashi spoke for the girls. ¡°We thought they would return shortly and thought it best not to bother the teachers.¡±

 

¡°There is a line between covering for your friends, and keeping such critical matters from your supervisors. If anything goes wrong with Kinomoto Sakura, Daidouji Tomoyo, Tanaka Miho, Li Syaoran, or Hiiragizawa Eriol, then who would take blame?¡± Terada-sensei wrung his hands in frustration. He should have noticed earlier, yet hadn¡¯t in the chaos of the dark.

 

Chiharu protested, ¡°Sakura-chan only went out to search for Tomoyo-chan and Eriol-kun, who were missing since the afternoon. Please don¡¯t report to the other teachers.¡±

 

Shaking his head, Terada-sensei said solemnly, ¡°I¡¯m very disappointed in all you. I thought I could have trusted you.¡± His eyes met Rika¡¯s dark ones. She looked down ashamed.

 

¡°We¡¯ll have to organize a late-night search party for them,¡± Terada-sensei continued.

 

¡°No!¡± Rika exclaimed. Everyone stared at her, for she rarely raised her voice. Abashed, she said, ¡°Sakura-chan promised she¡¯ll bring back everyone safely, and I believe her. The blizzard is too harsh for anyone to go out in, and the only thing we can do is wait.¡±

 

¡°I cannot let my precious students be missing in a storm like that, and sit and wait, doing nothing,¡± Terada-sensei replied.

 

¡°Yet there are situations in which the only option is to sit and wait patiently,¡± retorted Rika. ¡°Terada-sensei, we could have chosen to keep this from you, and the teachers might not have known Sakura and the others were missing, for they would be back before morning, I know they will. But we chose to report to you because we believed you had a right to know if your students are missing.¡±

 

His students gazed at him fiercely and determinedly to protect their friends, and also to protect him. They had come a long way, making such decisions on their own. They would make fine, responsible adults some day.

 

 

 

¡°I overheard Yamazaki-kun tell Terada-sensei that Sakura and the others are missing,¡± Erika said to her twin briskly. ¡°Did you cause the blizzard? Supposedly, Tomoyo and Eriol were trapped in the storm, and never returned to the resort. And Sakura went out to look for them.¡±

 

¡°What do you mean they¡¯re missing?¡± asked Eron, looking up from his book. It was difficult to read by the light of a flashlight.

 

¡°You mean you didn¡¯t even know they were gone?¡± Erika laughed shortly. ¡°For a moment, I thought it was a dark force out there. After all, that¡¯s no natural storm.¡±

 

Slamming his book shut, Eron stood up from the couch. It couldn¡¯t be¡¦

 

¡°Where are you going, Chang Eron?¡± demanded Erika.

 

¡°I¡¯ve got to find her,¡± Eron murmured. ¡°I never meant for this to happen. I promised her that innocent people won¡¯t be harmed, but I released the Emotions¡¦ The Vengeance must have awakened the queen. No wonder...¡±

 

Hands on hips, Erika stated, ¡°I do not understand a word you¡¯re saying!¡±

 

Eron fumbled to zip up his jacket—all the students were wearing their jackets because the heating system was down.

 

¡°Surely you¡¯re not planning to go out in that weather? Are you crazy?¡± Erika wrung out her hands in frustration.

 

¡°Yes, I¡¯m crazy,¡± replied Eron with a cruel laugh.

 

¡°The Dark Ones won¡¯t forgive you for betraying them!¡± exclaimed Erika. ¡°All you powers will be stripped from you, and you¡¯ll become helpless!¡±

 

¡°See if I care,¡± retorted Eron.

 

¡°And see if I¡¯ll help you. I don¡¯t pity betrayers,¡± retorted Erika, tears blurring her eyes. Never had she felt so alone in this world.

 

******

 

Part V: A forlorn mother¡¯s wail¡¦

 

Before they knew, it, Sakura and company were at the crest of another mountain range. In the distance, they saw the faint outline of a ghostly ice palace, gleaming white even in the dark, standing on a cliff jutting out from the mountainside on the opposite side of the crevasse. With one bound, the wolf leaped across the gorge and landed at the gates of the glimmering palace. 

 

¡°The domain of the snow queen,¡± murmured Miho in marvel. Such a palace only existed in fairytales, a wondrous vision of a winter wonderland. She patted Cerberus¡¯ head. Such a setting befitted her dramatic showdown with the dark force. Riddle, beware! From behind her, Kai hopped off the beast and walked up towards the gates, entirely made from ice, like the rest of the palace.

 

¡°The gates of the Snow Queen only open once a month, on the night of the full moon. This is as far as I would take you,¡± the silver wolf said. ¡°What awaits is for you humans to deal with.¡±


¡±Thank you, Okami-sama,¡± Sakura said, stroking the wolf¡¯s fur, which rippled in her hands like silk. For some reason, the wolf made her feel peaceful and calm, as if she had known him for a long time.

 

The four humans walked ahead, followed by Cerberus at the rear end, through the gates at the edge of the cliff-side.

 

Looking over his shoulders, Cerberus asked, ¡°Do you think that the Riddle would really be here?¡±

 

¡°Of course,¡± Miho replied, walking ahead, down the glassy corridor. ¡°If I solved the riddle it set me correctly, that is.¡±

 

Looking around her in wonder, Sakura murmured, ¡°Who would have thought such a wondrous palace would be situated on the top of the highest mountain?¡±

 

¡°An icy fortress built by a heartbroken woman, trapped in her wintry despair for eternity.¡± Syaoran paused, looking ahead with narrowed eyes.

 

¡°Hoe?¡± His words sound poetic, pretty, but somewhat sad. Taking off her fur-lined hood, Sakura asked, ¡°Where did you hear that?¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s the legend of the Snow Queen,¡± Syaoran replied. ¡°Who lost her two children, and swore revenge on the one who took them away. And she waited and waited, fading away into a mere gust of wind. Folklore says that when the temperature suddenly drops without reason, and the blizzard sounds like the wail of a woman, she is outside, searching for her lost children. And parents are warned to keep their children safe indoors when the Snow Queen is out, because she will take stray children back to her icy domains, and once they are taken, they will never be seen again. And when she finds the man who stole her most loved ones once more, she will finally seek justice.¡±

 

It was rare that Syaoran told tales, and Miho was always fascinated by stories, especially of this kind. It was different from the cruel and vicious Yuki Onna of the story told by Eriol. ¡°So what happened to the Snow Queen?¡± she asked, tugging on her short hair, as she did when she was engrossed by something. ¡°Did she find her children?¡±

 

Shrugging, Syaoran replied, ¡°It¡¯s just a tale. Who knows what happened.¡±

 

¡°Where did you hear it?¡± Sakura commented, watching Syaoran¡¯s nonchalant expression as he told the story. ¡°It¡¯s very sad. I feel sorry for the Snow Queen.¡±

 

¡°Either Wei or Leiyun. Maybe it was my father, I don¡¯t really remember. Lots of useless tales like this are told in my household. Then again, they are important lessons for magicians-in-training,¡± Syaoran said, turning to look back. Kai was lagging behind again.

 

¡°Why?¡± Miho questioned, eyes sparkling, her writer¡¯s mind already ignited.

 

¡°The moral would be not to intervene with the forces of nature,¡± Syaoran said grimly. ¡°Which is ironic because those manifested with special powers in themselves defy the laws of nature anyway.¡±

 

¡°What, are you saying that we are freaks of nature then?¡± Miho demanded. ¡°Humans are granted such special powers to help the world, to make it easier to coexist with nature.¡±

 

Staring at the wall to his left, Syaoran remarked, ending the discussion, ¡°I sense something. Be on guard.¡± He took off his gloves, stuffing them in his pocket, and released his sword.

 

¡°Kai-kun, hurry up,¡± Sakura called out. Sometimes, she sensed that Syaoran¡¯s impression of the world was not very optimistic. In fact, he may not have been so different from Eron. Yet, why did Syaoran still try so hard to do right? Was it upbringing or personal conviction? Maybe it was simply his nature. She spun around to face the wall. She was back to duty once more. ¡°Key that hides the power of the stars. Show your true self to me. I, Sakura, command you under contract. Release!¡± Gripping her staff, Sakura nodded at Syaoran. What was this immense aura, unlike anything she had sensed before?

 

***

 

In a round crystal globe set on an ice platform, the Snow Queen watched the intruders in her palace. As the image faded, she walked up to the block of ice in the center of chamber, entrapping the pretty girl with long raven hair and pale, pale face. ¡°Nobody knows you are here, though they are in the palace, you poor thing. You¡¯re little friends don¡¯t even know that they are walking right into a trap,¡± she said, stroking the cool ice and staring at the peaceful frozen face, a somewhat vaguely familiar face, underneath it. ¡°You almost match my beauty. Too bad you are merely a mortal, and that beauty fades. You¡¯re safe here, though. I can preserve your lovely youth in this eternal ice. A fool, aren¡¯t you, falling for that kind of worthless man? Then again, all women are foolish.¡± She laughed shortly, caressing the crystal ball with her long, white fingers. ¡°Now, what should I do? I can leave you as a pretty statue in your frozen state, I can pierce you with ice shards and end your misery, or I can bury you in snow and leave him to find your lifeless body.¡±

 

¡°Or, you can come to your sense and return to the regal being that you once were,¡± Eriol said, from behind her, metal tip of staff pointed at the nape of her long, pale neck.

 

Startled, the Snow Queen demanded, ¡°How did you get up here?¡±

 

¡°Do you think anything can hide from me, once I want to get to it?¡± Eriol replied grimly, long black staff with the golden sun emblem at its head. His black robes billowed out behind him, and his glasses reflected off the eerie, dim light given off by crystal lamps hanging from the walls.

 

Staring hard at the mirror-image of the one man who could intimidate her in a thousand years, the livid Snow Queen raised an outstretched trembling hand, then clenched it into a tight fist, her elongated sharp nails cutting into her palm. Immediately, the floor under Eriol contorted and engulfed him in an icy coffin, hard as a diamond.

 

¡°You shall serve as a pretty ornament to my palace, along with this young lady here,¡± the Snow Queen stated, her lips curling into a malicious smile. Even Clow Reed wouldn¡¯t be able to break free from her confinement spell. A mere human could not defy the forces of nature. Though he did have time to change clothes before his grand appearance, even in such dire situations.

 

Without resistance, the ice block shattered, and Eriol stood unhindered and unblinking.

 

¡°Impossible¡¦¡± The Snow Queen raised her other hand and snapped her long fingers. Ice shards, sharper than the blade of a sword flew from all directions, directly towards Eriol.

 

Without much effort, Eriol blocked them off with his staff. When the intensity increased, he stamped the foot of his staff down on the ground, and immediately, all the shards halted, then reversed direction.

 

Ducking barely in time, the Snow Queen glared at the formidable magician standing in front of her. How could he use her own spells against her? She bit her lips till they were whiter than paper. Yes, it had been too long since she had faced a human as intense and all-powerful as Clow Reed. Never could she forget the man whom she swore revenge upon all these years. His voice was low and deep, eyes kind until his true face was revealed; then he became a monster. He was unlike any other human she had met before, too wise, too cynical, too strong, too emotionless. He was more like a god than anyone she had ever encountered in her centuries of reign. There was no way he could have died. Yet, he was a mere mortal, and mortals perished.

 

Extending out her hand, she materialized a crystal dagger from thin air, grasping its hilt with both hands, then rushed forwards, blade pointed towards Clow Reed¡¯s heart.

 

Not even flinching, he knocked aside the dagger with a flick of his staff, revealing incredible speed and instinct well concealed by his usually latent disposition. The dagger flung across the room and crashed into the crystal globe, which dropped off its platform and shattered on the floor.

 

¡°So, I can¡¯t harm you, is that what you are telling me? Then what about this? This is the end of the pathetic little songbird.¡± The girl had been humming a little song while waiting alone in the cabin, as if nothing else in the world mattered, when the barrier finally broke. Face turning even paler, so that it was almost translucent, the Snow Queen drew out an ice spear this time, then flung it across the chamber, straight towards the block of ice in which Tomoyo was trapped in. It would have pierced right through the ice, into the center of her heart, hadn¡¯t Eriol released a jet of fire, which consumed the sword up in an instant.

 

Panting, the Snow Queen stared at the young man standing before her. No, he wasn¡¯t Clow Reed; he was much younger and had a different ambiance from the steel-like man she recalled. They were the same, but not the same. His powers were undeniably as immense as Clow Reed¡¯s, for no ordinary fire could have melted her diamond blade. Yet, she knew his weakness now. Ghostly beautiful face turned monstrous by her wrath, the Snow Queen murmured, ¡°Should you be so idly entertaining me, when your friends are walking right into my trap? They are at my mercy.¡± She pointed at the fragments of the crystal ball which reconstructed itself into a globe and floated up midair, revealing another chamber in the ice palace, where Sakura and her friends were passing through.¡°

 

Why were they here? ¡°What are you planning to do?¡± asked Eriol gravely.

 

¡°We¡¯ll see. I haven¡¯t felt this excited in at least a century.¡± The Snow Queen laughed shrilly.

 

***

 

Spinning around, Sakura asked, ¡°Did you hear that?¡±

 

¡°Hear what?¡± asked Miho.

 

¡°This place is spooky¡¦ Everything is so perfectly crafted, it seems so artificial, so contrived in this setting,¡± Sakura murmured, stepping carefully.

 

¡°I thought you would find the palace pretty,¡± Syaoran commented. Should he mention that he felt Eriol¡¯s aura near by? Why would he be here? Probably up to no good as usual.

 

Following behind, Cerberus grumbled, ¡°I¡¯m hungry.¡±

 

¡°Wait, where¡¯s Kai-kun?¡± Sakura asked, looking back at the long corridor they had passed through.

 

¡°Eh, he¡¯s not following us?¡± Miho strained her neck to look down to the end of the translucent lily-white hall. Hands on hips, she stated, ¡°He¡¯s always making trouble for everybody.¡±

 

¡°What should we do, look for him?¡± Syaoran asked, sighing. He was sick of Kai always appearing and disappearing as he pleased. Furthermore, the entire structure reeked too much of unnatural aura, so intense that it completely drowned out Kai¡¯s much paler aura.

 

¡°Looking for the Riddle is the priority right now, isn¡¯t it?¡± Cerberus asked, twitching his tail and walking on. He sniffed. What was Eriol doing here, somewhere in the palace?

 

At that moment, a wall slammed down from the ceiling, down to the floor, blocking off the end of the corridor.

 

Jumping back, Cerberus said, ¡°Where did the wall come from?¡±

 

¡°I have a bad feeling about this,¡± Syaoran muttered, turning around and seeing another wall inch down from the ceiling to block off the entrance to the other end of the corridor. Dashing down the corridor, sliding on the marble-smooth floor, he shouted, ¡°RUN!¡±

 

The other three followed after him, down the long span of the hallway. Cerberus made a mad dash, and slipped across the floor on his stomach to reach the shrinking opening, only to bang into the wall, which closed down completely just as he reached it.

 

Banging his shoulder against the brick-hard wall, Syaoran said, ¡°Someone must be trying to trap us in here.¡±

 

¡°Who?¡± Miho asked, glancing around her nervously. She hadn¡¯t thought the palace was occupied. ¡°The Riddle?¡±

 

¡°No, the Riddle doesn¡¯t have powers such as these,¡± Syaoran replied. ¡°Its only weapon is words.¡± It wasn¡¯t the Riddle, but whoever it was, he should have known that they would be at the mercy of the occupant of the palace, probably the one radiating the immense aura.


If the situation couldn¡¯t worsen, the confined chamber rumbled and on either side of the corridor, the walls creaked. Slowly, they began sliding inwards.

 

¡°They¡¯re not only trying to trap us in here, they¡¯re trying to kill us!¡± Miho exclaimed.

 

¡°No way!¡± Cerberus roared out a stream of fire from its mouth. It didn¡¯t even make a mark on the rear wall.

 

¡°Stand back,¡± Syaoran said, walking back several meters from the wall. Holding out his sword with both hands, he then raced forward, jamming his sword into the edge of the wall, trying to heave open a crack. The hard impact made his arms ring, and he fell back, startled. ¡°Sheesh, the wall is made out of diamond or something.¡±

 

Smugly, Cerberus asserted, ¡°Of course you wouldn¡¯t be able to make a scratch, when I, the great Cerberus-sama could barely scorch it.¡±

 

¡°This is not the time to be having a power contest,¡± Sakura remarked, feeling relatively calm in spite of the walls inching in on this icy confinement.

 

Throwing up her arms in anguish, Miho declared, ¡°You¡¯re all useless! I need Eriol; he¡¯s the only one who can get anything done!¡±

 

¡°Humph,¡± Syaoran crossed his arms in dissatisfaction. After all, he had beat Eriol in battle. Though he had a nasty feeling that it had been more luck then skill. He would not be able to gloat till the day he truly knew that his skill, not his gut, surpassed that of Eriol¡¯s. ¡°Where is that Kai when you really need him? He¡¯s the master of escaping tight scrapes like this.¡±

 

¡°Thinking about it, he escaped on his own, that scoundrel,¡± Cerberus muttered.

 

Meanwhile, the walls were still closing on them on either end. It was a long hallway, but it was barely half its original length.

 

¡°What are you doing, Sakura, instead of thinking of a way to get us out of here?¡± demanded Miho, bending over Sakura, who sat kneeling on the floor, with her cards laid on the floor in a diamond pattern.

 

Turning over the Sakura cards one by one, she called out, ¡°The Storm, the Mist. The Silent.¡± She turned over two cards simultaneously. ¡°The Libra, the Illusion.¡± She turned over a single card. ¡°The Twin.¡± Finally, she flipped over the last two cards. ¡°The Snowy and the Freeze.¡±

 

¡°So, what did you find out?¡± Syaoran asked. How Sakura read the cards was always beyond him. Maybe it was because she was their mistress that they could reveal to her glimpses of vital clues. Yet, did she really see an image from reading the cards? Fortune-telling was never his forte. Once more, he realized that Sakura was a much better master to the cards than he would ever have been. Why he hadn¡¯t realized that so much sooner, he knew not why. Probably pride and pigheadedness, more than anything else.

 

¡°Sakura, watch out!¡± cried out Cerberus, as he spotted a huge chunk of ice fall from the ceiling.

 

Gathering her cards, Sakura dodged expertly. Soon, they were pelted by hail the size of a fist.

 

¡°Great, an attack from all directions,¡± muttered Syaoran, watching the walls on either end draw closer. He stepped aside as another block of ice crashed down.

 

¡°Not all directions. Nothing from the ground yet—¡° Sakura jumped up as a pinnacle sprouted from the ground. ¡°Miho, get on Cerberus¡¯ back.¡±

 

Jumping on Cerberus¡¯ back, Miho watched the pinnacles pierce through from the ground, as Cerberus flew up to avoid them. Looking up, Miho cried out, ¡°Duck, Cerberus!¡± They barely missed another ice shard falling from the ceiling.

 

Slowly, as the walls closed in on them, the corridor shrank into a confined chamber no larger than Sakura¡¯s bedroom.

 

¡°We¡¯re in quite a scrape here,¡± Syaoran muttered. He tried to blast open a wall with his ofuda, without much avail.

 

¡°HELP ERIOL!!!¡± Miho shouted tearfully. Her solution to difficult situation always was this simple. ¡°I know you can hear me!¡±

 

¡°How horrible. That Thief-kid escaped on his own,¡± Cerberus growled.

 

¡°Maybe he¡¯ll be able to save us by stopping the mechanism from outside?¡± Sakura suggested.

 

¡°Don¡¯t count on it,¡± Syaoran muttered. ¡°We need to get out of this scrape on our own.¡±

 

***

 

How many stairs are there? Kai wondered, unaware of his comrades¡¯ scrape, as he found himself spiraling down the underground passage of the palace. Many wonders of the world he had seen over the past years, but none as splendid as the interior of the Snow Queen¡¯s abode. How much would it cost to build an architectural nightmare of a place like this? It probably isn¡¯t feasible to carve out a palace out of ice like this and preserve it. Then again, the divine magnificence of art that can be created through these dirty, vile hands of mankind is evermore astounding. Humans can just about create everything.

 

Finally, he reached the bottom of the stairwell, staggering a bit. His head pounded and his throat was dry. He was still paying his toll for surviving an avalanche and the attack from the Silver Wolf. Yet, It must be here. Indeed, a creature resembling the mysterious Sphinx sat perched on a platform, paws crossed in front of it, as it stated: 

 

¡°So-called Thief of the Night,

The day you took flight,

You closed off the way of the light

And chose the path of wrong over right;

Though your misfortunes, alas, I find a bit trite,

Should I hear out your desperate plight?¡±

 

¡°Found you, Riddle.¡± Kai smiled grimly. So, once in a while, god was still in his favor. ¡°Let me get to my point. I care not for your little word games. Just answer my question, and I care not if you are sealed or not.¡±

 

¡°You do not expect to hear an answer from me without a fair exchange, for curious strays do not come within my range,¡± the Riddle asserted, feline eyes narrowed. ¡°A Riddle for a Riddle; to humor me, be a bow on a fiddle.¡±

 

Taking off his ski goggles, Kai stared straight at the Riddle. ¡°I¡¯m not the writer in my family, and I cannot come up with a Riddle that can defeat you. I have a question I cannot ask in front of the others, thus I cannot ask you after you are sealed, for I know you will get sealed for. But if you ask me to humor you, I can do that, and a fair exchange, you say, and a fair exchange I will offer.¡±

 

The Riddle merely smiled lazily.

 

¡°So, will you answer my question?¡± Kai asked, straight to the point.

 

¡°In exchange for a piece of my wisdom, give up your identity; henceforth, you shall forfeit all rights to your name, Tanaka Mikai.¡±

 

¡°I gave up that name years ago,¡± replied Kai somberly. ¡°If we have reached an agreement, answer me now.¡±

 

Sitting up, the Riddle yawned and stretched its lion-like limbs. ¡°For me, you are but an amusing toy; but go ahead, insolent boy. And to your hapless cry, may I perhaps in honest reply.¡±

 

***

 

¡°Help Eriol!!! I know you can hear me!¡±

 

Startled, Eriol looked around him. He could clearly hear Miho¡¯s voice calling for him. His eyes darkened, as he walked in front of the Snow Queen, who was gazing into her crystal ball, bemused.

 

¡°I give you one last warning,¡± he said quietly. ¡°Cease this nonsense, and let us make peace.¡±

 

¡°Never,¡± the Snow Queen snarled. ¡°I¡¯ll make you suffer as you made me, for Clow Reed is the one man I swore to never forgive.¡±

 

In the round globe, they could see that the chamber was barely the length of Cerberus.

 

¡°You have tried my patience,¡± said Eriol, voice sonorous as a black light shone from his staff. He stamped his staff down, and there was a tremor throughout the palace. His eyes were uncompromising and his aura truly terrifying.

 

¡°W-what have you done?¡± demanded the Snow Queen, glancing around her nervously. The floor of the chamber was shaking.

 

¡°Too long have you been confined in your own icy sepulcher. Behold your own shameful state, which does not befit the stature of one of your kind. No longer harbor resentment for the man who has died decades ago, and face the changing times,¡± Eriol stated, ignoring the rapid droplets of water falling from the stalactites on the ceiling.

 

Looking up in alarm at the dripping room, the Snow Queen gasped as she finally grasped Eriol¡¯s judgment. ¡°My palace! It¡¯s melting!¡± she cried out. Then, she glared at Eriol with flashing silver eyes, out of all control, more like a mad woman than a regal goddess. ¡°How dare you!¡± She madly flung the crystal ball at Eriol¡¯s head.

 

***

 

As the ice walls on either end drew in closer, Cerberus stated, ¡°We¡¯ll all get squashed at this rate.¡±


¡±Well, I can use the Small card to make us all miniscule, and buy us more time,¡± Sakura said. ¡°Or I wonder if we make Kero-chan really big, will he be able to burst through this chamber?¡±

 

¡°And have my head pierced with all those stalactites up there?¡± demanded Cerberus, indignant.

 

Plop. A droplet of water fell on Miho¡¯s forehead. ¡°Is it just me or, has it gotten considerably warmer in here?¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t feel any difference,¡± Syaoran replied crossly. Still, when another drop fell on his head, Syaoran too looked up. ¡°Strange, I can swear that this place is melting.¡±

 

¡°That can¡¯t be happening. There¡¯s a blizzard going on outside; and it¡¯s below freezing weather,¡± Miho stated unconvincingly.

 

¡°Well, it is a magic palace,¡± Cerberus explained. ¡°Its strength is only equivalent to that of the creator¡¯s, like anything else derived from a magician.¡±

 

¡°A magician¡¯s creation, huh,¡± Syaoran murmured. Cerberus and Yue were the product of Clow Reed¡¯s inspiration, as were the three staffs of power. Yet, when could the distinction between a magician¡¯s creation, and a soul, a being, be determined? There a fine balance between nature and magic, and much depended on a magician¡¯s fair judgment. It was so easy for one to abuse his power.

 

Placing a hand on the slippery block of ice trapping them in the room, Sakura stated, ¡°The wall¡¯s getting thinner. I think we can break through it if we combine forces.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re right; it¡¯s definitely melting,¡± Syaoran replied, knocking on the wall. ¡°If we heat it a bit more and break through, we might be able to escape before we are crushed in here. Cerberus was having a hard time moving at this point, as the walls closed in on both ends. If he took on step back, he would hit the rear wall, one step forward, he would collide into the front wall.


¡±That¡¯s right. The three of us have fire magic,¡± Sakura stated, glancing at Cerberus and Syaoran.

 

¡°You mean, the four of us,¡± declared Miho, holding up her staff.

 

¡°Oh yeah. Do you know how to use that thing?¡± Syaoran commented dryly; Miho¡¯s antics thus far left him fairly unimpressed.

 

¡°Yes I do!¡± Miho stuck her nose in the air, indignant. In fact, that was about the extent of her powers. The others remained skeptical.

 

¡°At the count of three!¡± Sakura called out. ¡°One¡¦ two¡¦ THREE!¡± She flung out a card. ¡°FIERY!¡± A crimson creatures burst out.

 

Slapping the flat of his sword against a fire ofuda, Syaoran called out, ¡°Raitei Shourai!¡±

 

Simultaneously, Cerberus breathed out a jet of fire, while Miho managed to conjure up some fire at the tip of her staff, then directed it to the wall. Receiving the full blast of fire, a definite crevasse formed where the three fires converged on the wall.

 

¡°Cerberus!¡± Sakura nodded. ¡°POWER!¡±

 

Cerberus, with his strength amplified by the Power, lunged forward and burst through the wall, which cracked, then shattered.

 

The four cheered, as the further wall closed in on where they had been standing seconds ago.

 

¡°Hurry now, let¡¯s get out of here,¡± Syaoran stated. ¡°I have a bad feeling this palace is going to crumble away on us.¡±

 

¡°Which way is the way out?¡± Miho asked, looking around at the labyrinth of passages.

 

¡°Doesn¡¯t matter, let¡¯s just find an opening somewhere,¡± Syaoran replied, looking around him.

 

As he felt the ground reverberate, Cerberus muttered, ¡°I don¡¯t like the feel of this.¡± Clow Reed¡¯s fury was indeed terrifying; lucky that he was so rarely enraged. Bounding forward, Cerberus burst through another wall. Drops of water were falling as constantly as rain now, and the four leaped through to another corridor, running rapidly.

 

¡°Ah, I feel Clow Reed¡¯s aura!¡± Sakura exclaimed, stopping and looking up surprised. She shuddered; what an intense aura, which felt like the blast of an amplified speaker on full volume.

 

¡°You mean Eriol¡¯s,¡± Miho corrected, still slipping and running. ¡°Hurry, Sakura-chan! We need to find an exit!¡±

 

¡°Eriol-kun¡¯s aura, that¡¯s what I meant—AHHH!!!¡± Sakura¡¯s sentence was cut short as the floor she was standing upon gave way, and she slid right through the hole.

 

Syaoran and the others halted, turning around.

 

¡°Sakura-chan!¡± exclaimed Cerberus, leaping forward to save Sakura. Just then, the ceiling above them collapsed and a huge boulder fell down, completely blocking the crack that Sakura had fallen through. Frantically, Cerberus shoved the iceberg. ¡°We¡¯re blocked! Sakura-chan!¡±

 

The floor was rumbling now, as if it would collapse any moment.

 

¡°Can we move or break through that block of ice?¡± Miho asked, holding up her staff.

 

¡°No, don¡¯t waste your remaining power on this,¡± Syaoran said, taking a deep breath. ¡°Continue ahead—if we don¡¯t escape from this corridor, we¡¯ll be crushed in it.¡±

 

¡°But Sakura—¡° Miho was cut off.

 

Firmly, Syaoran stated, ¡°Sakura can look after herself. She too will find an exit out. We don¡¯t know where she¡¯s fallen into, and by the time we break through that solid boulder of ice, which is at least five times as thick as the wall that took all four of us to break through, it would be too late. We will all be trapped in here.¡±

 

¡°But we can¡¯t leave Sakura-chan in there!¡± Cerberus exclaimed indignantly, glaring at Syaoran. He dodged a chunk of ice that fell from the crumbling ceiling. ¡°How can you not care?¡±

 

¡°Believe me, I want to chase after her too, but this is what she would have wanted me to do,¡± Syaoran said with restraint. ¡°Now hurry— I think I can find a way out.¡±

 

Helplessly, Miho and Cerberus exchanged looks. Cerberus clearly didn¡¯t like being ordered around by Syaoran, but he knew that the Brat was right. Out of anyone, Cerberus knew that Syaoran would be most desperate to find Sakura. But Sakura was powerful enough to escape on her own. They were already greatly spent, and back-tracing would waste the precious little energy left that would be needed to escape this magical castle. Besides, Eriol was near. For some reason, Cerberus felt that Syaoran was trying to reach Eriol first. If Eriol could be found, everything would be okay.

 

¡°This way!¡± Syaoran exclaimed, running forward as chunks of ice continued to collide down from behind them. Miho road on Cerberus¡¯ back, as he leaped forward to dodge being crushed into a pancake. They burst through a door at the end of the corridor, as what remained of it crumbled away.

 

The three found themselves facing a large, eerie chamber, lit by a ghostly bluish light.  In the center of the room stood a tall, pale woman with long bluish hair and white robes, with an axe made of what seemed like ice in her hands. She might have been beautiful, had not her face been contorted in uncontrollable rage. As soon as they entered the room, they realized that it was her who emitted such a strong, wild and overwhelming aura.

 

¡°Eriol!¡± Miho exclaimed, not knowing whether to be relieved or alarmed as Eriol turned around to observe that the wall behind him had collapsed. Her eyes widened at the strange, pale woman came forward with axe in hands, aimed straight at Eriol¡¯s neck. Miho felt her lips move, but her voice was lost into the hollowness of the chamber. ¡°Watch out!¡±

 

Without looking, Eriol ducked the Snow Queen¡¯s blow with the sharp-bladed axe. As she staggered from the momentum, the Snow Queen looked up to see the new intruders, a girl, a boy, and a large beast. She grabbed the nearest person, which happened to be Miho, by the arm, and dragged her to the floor. Then, she raised her arm to bring down the blade over the terrified girl¡¯s neck.

 

¡°Miho!¡± Syaoran rushed forward with his sword, tassel whipping behind him.

 

Before the Snow Queen could lower the axe, it shattered in her hands, ice fragments flying out like clusters of diamond. Miho took the moment to wriggle out of the Snow Queen¡¯s deathly cold grasp. Her heart still beat rapidly. Too many close calls in one night. What happened? The axe just crumbled away, as if it were made of sand.

 

Miho looked up to see Eriol¡¯s relentless expression, then shuddered. Never had she seen such a chilling look on his face. This Eriol scared her. Yes, this was his other side, the one she didn¡¯t know about, the Sorcerer Clow Reed he kept hidden inside.

 

¡°So be it,¡± the Snow Queen murmured, sighing. ¡°Leave, all of you; leave me in peace.¡± She walked over to a block of ice that had been unnoticed before, and wrapped her arms around it, stroking the ice fondly with here white hands. ¡°But I¡¯ll keep this girl for company. It¡¯s not too much to ask, is it?¡±

 

¡°Tomoyo!¡± Syaoran exclaimed, aghast, as he recognized the eerily pale form entrapped inside the bluish frost. For once, he was glad that Sakura wasn¡¯t there. Even before he could rush forward to try to save her, a bolt of blue lightening struck the ice, tracing back to the tip of Eriol¡¯s sun staff. Fissures etched its way up the block of ice, which then cracked open. The Snow Queen stepped back, as Eriol walked forth, formidable and terrible, and extended his arms out to Tomoyo. She collapsed into his chest as she emerged from the ice, which melted away into a puddle on the floor.

 

¡°So cold,¡± Tomoyo murmured, water dripping from her hair and skin, shivering uncontrollably.

 

¡°I¡¯m sorry, Tomoyo-san,¡± Eriol said quietly, covering her with his black cloak with the golden sun emblem embroidered on its back.

 

¡°What happened?¡± demanded Syaoran, glaring at Eriol. ¡°How could you, being the great sorcerer you are, allow her to be capture by that witch?¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s all right; I¡¯m fine now,¡± Tomoyo said, smiling meekly. Eriol¡¯s heavy cloak wrapped her in unexpected warmth.

 

¡°There¡¯s no time to spare—we need to get out of here,¡± Eriol stated, for even as he spoke, large chunks of ice were falling from the ceiling. ¡°Where¡¯s Sakura-san? Wasn¡¯t she with you guys?¡±

 

¡°She was separated from us. Well, where is the entrance?¡± Cerberus demanded. ¡°I can fly out, but I don¡¯t think I will be able to carry four humans on my back at once, and¡¦¡±

 

Eriol pointed his staff towards another wall, which blasted apart without much resistance. The next wall ahead, blasted open also, and the next, until a clear pathway was open for them to pass through. Syaoran sighed. And it had taken all four of them, including Miho, to make a dent in one of those diamond hard walls. Though he despised Eriol as a person with all his heart, as a magician, Hiiragizawa Eriol sure had style.

 

They ran through long white corridors, Tomoyo and Miho on Cerberus¡¯s back, then up spiraling staircases, for the bottom level of the palace was disintegrating. Bursting through a doorway, they found themselves at the edge of a cliff inside the crumbling palace. They were at the top of the palace. From above, stalactites dropped down, like deadly spears. 

 

¡°Look, there¡¯s an opening up in the ceiling!¡± Sakura stated, peering up at the pale moon that can be glimpsed through the crack in the dome.

 

¡°We can¡¯t fly up though—my wings will be pierced by those stalactites,¡° Cerberus said, shuddering.

 

Pointing his staff to the end of the cliff, Eriol stretched out a long extension of ice, and constructed a stairway leading to the top of the dome.

 

The company lost no time in clambering up, carefully stepping for the staircase was slippery. Eriol brought up the rear, blasting away the chunks of ice that were falling down and the occasional darts of deadly ice shards that flew out of nowhere, obviously a final attack of retaliation from the Snow Queen.

 

***

 

¡°Ouch.¡± Sakura rubbed her bottom as she picked herself off the floor. She had slid through the floor so fast that she hadn¡¯t even been able to conjure up the Fly. More than falling, she had slipped through several stories, and found herself near the bottom of the palace. Hopefully the others had continued to find a way out. Syaoran would lead everyone out safely. ¡°Now, I need to find a way out of here, before the whole place collapses on my head,¡± she uttered out loud in a bright tone.

 

Slowly, she stood up. Her body was bruised, but she had survived the fall quite well. By now, she was used to falling. Observing that the other three sides were blocked, all she could do was walk ahead. Though she wasn¡¯t particularly scared, she couldn¡¯t help wishing that she hadn¡¯t been separated from the others. Syaoran had a much better sense of direction than she did, and it would have been easier to find an exit with his lasin board. But she couldn¡¯t always depend on him, after all. She had mixed feelings about this trip. More than anything, she loved being with her friends, joking, laughing, relishing the last months of junior high. True, there were more complications than she wanted to think about, ranging from various tensions in relationships between certain people to dealing with the Dark Forces, but everything was where it was supposed to be. If things were just where they were now, she would be able to deal with them one by one. Even the Dark Ones. I wonder what Eron was really trying to tell me by the fireplace the other night. My mind felt so blank, and I don¡¯t know what I was thinking or feeling at that time. I still don¡¯t. I can¡¯t figure out what I think of him. Every time I think I know him, he surprises me.

 

As if responding to her thoughts, she realized that a person in a navy blue jacket with a fir-trimmed hood was standing ahead of her. His head and hands were bare, and his breath emitted a steamy puff in the subzero temperature of the castle. It was rare that she saw him so disheveled, long strands of deep violet-blue hair tumbling out of its usual neat binding. ¡°Eron-kun,¡± she muttered, her heart dropping, holding out her staff. She didn¡¯t need more intervention right now. What did he want from her? Why was he even here? Shouldn¡¯t he be back in the resort? She stepped forward hesitantly, grasping her staff tightly with trembling hands. More than anything, she didn¡¯t want to fight with him. Yet, when the time came, she knew she had to.

 

¡°Sakura?¡± From the startled expression on his face, Sakura realized that he too hadn¡¯t been expecting to see her. Brushing back his bangs from his face, Eron said, regaining coolness, ¡°You should get out of here. The Snow Queen has been defeated, and this palace will collapsed any second now.¡±

 

¡°The Snow Queen? Who was she defeated by?¡± Sakura asked, already suspecting the answer. Somehow, this encounter was not quite what she expected it to be. Wasn¡¯t he going to attack her? Rather than predatory, he seemed distracted.

 

Laughing shortly, Eron said, ¡°I didn¡¯t expect to be caught in here.¡±

 

¡°What are you doing here, anyway?¡± Sakura demanded, brows furrowed, remembering that it was likely that the Dark Ones had caused the storm and also endangered Miho, Tomoyo, and the others.

 

¡°Contrary to what you think, no this wasn¡¯t our causing,¡± Eron sighed. ¡°Well, I can¡¯t say we aren¡¯t to blame, but I think you¡¯d have better luck pointing fingers at that wretched Clow Reed. It was his fault for angering the Sovereign of the Icy Domain in the first place.¡±

 

¡°What has Clow Reed to do with this?¡± Sakura asked, slowly lowering her staff. Eron shifted nervously and was not focusing on her at all. Since when had he been so agitated? That¡¯s right, the last time I was him this tense was back when we visited the orphanage.

 

¡°Oh, you didn¡¯t hear?¡± Eron smirked. ¡°Supposedly, Clow Reed infuriated the Snow Queen back in his days, and she yet holds a century-old grudge. He really shouldn¡¯t have taken her two children away from her. Familial love. It drives you to do crazy things.¡±

 

For once, Sakura agreed with Eron, though she couldn¡¯t quite admit so. In fact, Eron always made more sense than she wished he did, for it scared her. There was such a fine line from following the path of justice and the path of vengeance. Though she didn¡¯t quite understand Eron¡¯s story, she decided to leave Clow Reed¡¯s business to Clow Reed. It was not her position to question Clow Reed¡¯s ways. After all, he was dead. Glancing around, Sakura asked bluntly, ¡°Where¡¯s Erika-chan?¡± At the momentary dismay reflected in Eron¡¯s face, she realized she had struck a chord.

 

Staring at his feet, Eron admitted reluctantly, ¡°I don¡¯t know. She might still be in here. Maybe she returned by herself.¡±

 

Swallowing a cough, Sakura stared hard at Eron. ¡°Did you two fight?¡±

 

Hesitant to reveal anymore about his situation, Eron asked, ¡°How come you didn¡¯t attack me? In this situation, I wouldn¡¯t be surprised if you thought the worst of me.¡±

 

¡°You didn¡¯t attack me first,¡± Sakura replied straightforwardly. ¡°Well, we¡¯ve got to look for Erika-chan.¡±

 

¡°Idiot, you should be more worried about escaping here with your comrades safely,¡± Eron said. ¡°Why are you on you own, anyway?¡±

 

Sheepishly, Sakura replied, ¡°Ah, I kind of got lost—But the others can manage fine without me. I¡¯ll help you look for Erika-chan—you¡¯re really worried, aren¡¯t you?¡±

 

Before he could respond, Eron felt the ground below them rumble again. Pelted by chunks of ice, the two quickly ran towards the grand staircase leading upstairs. They were now wading through ankle-high water gaining volume from the melted ice. Boots and socks soaked, Sakura stumbled as the stairs beneath her feet cracked open.

 

Eron extended out a hand, steadying her.

 

¡°Thanks,¡± Sakura said, short of breath. When in mutual danger, there was no enemy, no dispute—it was a mere matter of escaping and staying alive. And this is not the first time Eron¡¯s helped me.


¡±Erika¡¯s near by. Sakura, you continue up the stairway—it leads to the rooftop. That¡¯s your only bet to escape this palace now; the main entrance is already submerged in water,¡± Eron stated, as the stairway behind them disintegrated into slush.

 

¡°Ah, wait Eron-kun!¡± Sakura called out, as Eron jumped off the railing and dashed down a dark hallway, towards a narrow bridge of ice.

 

On the opposite end of the bridge stood a girl with wild curls blowing over her face, her unbuttoned coat flapping around. Eron never had much difficulty finding his twin. Even though Erika had tried her best to block off all signals, she was still always found. Or maybe she finally wanted to be found.

 

Stepping onto the bridge, which was dripping rapidly, Eron called out, ¡°Erika! Come here! We must get out of here!¡±

 

Beneath them roared the melted water, steadily rising. In a few minutes, it would completely swallow up the bridge. Eron stretched out his hands. He took another step on the frail bridge, wondering if it would give away under his weight. ¡°Please, I¡¯m sorry. Let¡¯s go back, Erika.¡±

 

¡°So, did you find her? I see you did.¡± Erika shouted across the length separating them. ¡°Just leave me, Eron!¡±

 

¡°Are you an idiot?¡± Eron was shouting now, as he walked up the bridge. ¡°Do you want to die?¡±

 

¡°Yes, I want to die!¡± Erika replied, furiously. ¡°I should have died eight years ago. That¡¯s right, I shouldn¡¯t be alive right now. And then, everything would have been fine for you. You wouldn¡¯t have had to gone through all of this. You would be a normal junior high student. I shouldn¡¯t have lived. I messed up your life completely, and now it¡¯s too late.¡±

 

A large slap echoed through the empty halls, as Eron slapped his twin across the face with his bare hand. He had crossed the bridge while she had been talking. The stinging on right cheek bringing her to her senses, Erika stared at her twin with furious golden eyes. Never had her twin laid hand on her before.

 

¡°Don¡¯t you ever talk about dying again,¡± Eron said through gritted teeth, trembling in fury. ¡°Ever. The only reason I live right now is because of you. If you ceased to be, eight years ago, I wouldn¡¯t be. I would have seized to exist. Living on would have been meaningless.¡±

 

¡°Liar.¡± Swallowing a hard lump in her throat, Erika held her red cheek with her hand, stepping away from Eron. Over the past years, the one thing she might have learned about humanity was that humankind was resilient. They were made to stand up again despite any adversities.

 

¡°Erika!¡± Eron reached out to her. ¡°Just listen to me.¡±

 

In an attempt to avoid her brother, Erika stepped back rapidly. Her foot slipped momentarily, and she felt herself tumble off the edge of the bridge. But, I didn¡¯t really want to die¡¦ No, I wanted to live. And that steady hand that had always held hers, through happy times and sad times, once more reached out for her. And I still do¡¦ I want to live!

 

¡°Erika!¡± Eron threw himself on the edge of the bridge and desperately grabbed her wrist. The entire bridge creaked dangerously as it grew warmer. There was no way either of them could perform any magic in that position. It was a matter of hanging on for dear life.

 

¡°Let go of me!¡± Erika struggled to free herself. Her twins¡¯ grasp was too tight, cutting off all circulation in her veins. Weakly, she said, ¡°You¡¯re going to fall too.¡±

 

¡°Then we¡¯ll fall together,¡± Eron said, frantically grabbing the slippery edge of the bridge, mind suddenly very blank. I understand now. If only he was there a few seconds earlier. If he had been able to save her¡¦ Would history have changed? But still¡¦ ¡°We¡¯ll always be together, Erika.¡±

 

Erika felt a wetness drop on her cheek from above. She wasn¡¯t sure if it was the dripping icicles. For the first time since the day of her surgery when she was seven, she prayed. Dear God, I love Eron more than anything else on this earth. He is the only thing I love, and I will die for him if with my life I can save him. I¡¯ve always known that I¡¯ve been his dark shadow, for can¡¯t you see he was born to shine? All my life, I¡¯ve been holding him back. Someday, he¡¯ll leave, and I¡¯ll be really sad then. Just a little longer, I thought I could hold on to him. But his heart is no longer mine. I want to set him free. Please, let me be able to save him this time.  

 

Unable to uphold its own weight, the entire bridge gave away and gave way into the flowing river below. Eron reached out and held Erika close to him as they fell, desperately chanting some muddled spells in his head. The Dark Ones had forsaken him for betraying them; he had not a drop of power left in him. This was his lesson for his selfishness. For the first time since that chilling day eight years ago, when he was told his sister¡¯s surgery had failed, that she was dead, he felt completely helpless.

 

Then, unlike that time, he was greeted by a heavenly golden-white light. He squinted, and behind the white light stood on the opposite cliff, a girl with long pale brown hair whipping around, shrouded in a rose-colored aura. An angel? Her bright emerald eyes were glistening.

 

¡°Float!¡± Sakura called out, and the twins rose up, landing gently on one edge of the bridge. Her heart pounded, relieved that it wasn¡¯t too late. With the addition of the melted bridge, the water level rose up rapidly, quickly overflowing the edges of the chasm. Bitingly cold water lapped up their ankles, then thighs.

 

Without wasting any time, Sakura exclaimed, ¡°Hurry, this way to the stairs!¡± The ceilings were too low to fly, and the water was rising up far too rapidly.

 

Grabbing Erika¡¯s wrist, Eron ran to catch up with Sakura who was leading the way. Much of the stairway was already emerged in water, and it was almost impossible to climb up the slippery matter. After they had slipped and stumbled up another flight of stairs, they realized that there was no way they could outrun the rising water. Erika¡¯s legs had failed to work anymore, and Eron was half dragging, half carrying her up. They were both wordless—all they knew was that they were sliding one moment, climbing the next. Sometimes, one could be too cold and too tired to ask questions or argue or be arrogant.

 

¡°This is no good,¡± Eron said through gritted teeth. ¡°We¡¯ll never make it like this.¡±

 

¡°I can¡¯t¡¦ run anymore,¡± Erika gasped.

 

¡°Erika, hold on a bit longer,¡± Eron murmured helplessly. This sense of uselessness, vulnerability, he had thought had been left behind in his wretched childhood days.

 

¡°We¡¯re nearly there,¡± Sakura said, fighting a wave of nausea. It wouldn¡¯t do her any good to collapse here. She could faintly hear the distant howl of the wind. That¡¯s right, they must be near the roof! With trembling hands, she held her staff high above her head and shouted, ¡°FIRE! Melt away all that obstructs us!¡±

 

A jet of fire blasted above her head, through the ceiling above them. Through the hole in the ceiling, they could see the open-top dome roof. ¡°There, we can fly through the opening,¡± Sakura stated in relief.

 

¡°Sakura¡¦¡± Eron¡¯s voice was weak, as he supported Erika¡¯s weight. He couldn¡¯t admit that they were magic-less at this point. ¡°We¡¯re both spent. We can¡¯t fly. You go ahead.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m nearly spent too,¡± Sakura said, frowning. She found it hard to believe that the Dark Ones would be so exhausted after only this. For she had seen them show much greater capacities with their powers previously. Yet, they too must have their reasons. ¡°But I think I can manage to fly us out of here. I can only take one person up at a time though.¡± Releasing they Fly card, Sakura said, ¡°One of you climb up behind me.¡±

 

¡°Take Erika first,¡± Eron said, pushing Erika forward to the levitating pink staff with sprouted wings on its rear end.

 

¡°I¡¯m not leaving you behind,¡± Erika stated to Eron.

 

¡°I¡¯ll come back right after I land you on the roof,¡± Sakura said, smiling, holding out a hand.


¡±Why are you doing this for us?¡± Erika demanded to Sakura, almost sounding like her old self.

 

¡°Because we all need to survive,¡± Sakura said softly. ¡°That¡¯s most important.¡±

 

¡°You¡¯re an idiot. You¡¯ll regret this later,¡± Erika scoffed. ¡°I refuse to accept your patronization. Just leave both us and go. We aren¡¯t so powerless that we¡¯ll meet our ends here. In fact, how do you know this is not all a set up, a trick to trap you? It¡¯s rather stupid of you to waste all your energy trying to save us, when you probably have more foes to meet this evening.¡±

 

¡°Well, that will be then,¡± Sakura replied patiently. ¡°And I¡¯ll deal with it later.¡± Again she extended out her hand. ¡°Erika-chan, grab on!¡±

 

Slapping away Sakura¡¯s hand, Erika stated angrily, ¡°I¡¯d rather die here than receive help from the likes of you!¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry, I¡¯m not doing this for you,¡± Sakura said shortly. She had to admit, she didn¡¯t grow to like Erika anymore since she had met her. In fact, she liked her less. ¡°It¡¯s just, I know somebody would be really sad if you drown in melted icebergs in the middle of nowhere.¡± Her eyes met Eron¡¯s. Her voice was soft. ¡°People have the choice to live, but they don¡¯t have the choice to die.¡±

 

Wordlessly, Eron shoved Erika onto the staff, and Sakura and Erika soared up straight above, through the hole in the ceiling and out of the roof of the palace. All before Erika could come up with a retaliation. Landing Erika on a ledge, up in the open air, Sakura said, ¡°Wait here. I¡¯ll bring Eron up now.¡± Dumbly, Erika watched Sakura dive down on her staff down to where Eron waited with a smile of relief to see his twin peer down from the rooftop. The water came almost to his waist now.

 

¡°Eron-kun, get on,¡± Sakura said.

 

¡°Say, Sakura,¡± Eron said with a sardonic smile. ¡°I thought there would never come a day when I would stoop to such a pathetic state.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s not embarrassing to help each other out in tight scrapes like this; you¡¯ve saved me more than once,¡± Sakura replied, levitating off the ground, straddled on her staff. ¡°That¡¯s what friends are for.¡±

 

¡°We are not friends.¡± Eron gazed at Sakura, her hair whipped back from her face, cheeks red from the biting cold. ¡°But thank you anyway.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry. I¡¯ll expect you to do the same for me someday,¡± Sakura said demurely, as Eron climbed up behind her.

 

She doesn¡¯t question why I¡¯m so powerless right now. She doesn¡¯t even question why she should save us. She just does. Sometimes I don¡¯t know if she¡¯s stupid or just really kindhearted. Doesn¡¯t she know her own good intentions will be turned on her later? ¡°Why were you crying back at the bridge?¡± he asked in a low voice as they rose up towards the sky. ¡°Was it pity?¡± It was aggravating that someone like her would pity him. If she pitied him, he would crush her till pity turned to contempt. 

 

¡°No, it wasn¡¯t pity,¡± was her reply. They landed on the dome top. When they emerged to the open-dome top, they were greeted by the full blast of the blizzard, and Sakura wavered. As soon as Eron jumped off the staff, he went to Erika and wrapped his scarf around his sister¡¯s neck. Back with the Poison incident, and again today, she realized, He loves his sister very much, Sakura thought, smiling slightly. Such feelings she understood.

 

¡°Sakura-chan!¡± Cerberus exclaimed, hovering the top of the palace. ¡°What took you so long? We thought you weren¡¯t coming! Here, get on my back—the roof will collapse any minute now.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m fine; I can fly,¡± Sakura said, hovering midair on her staff. ¡°Take those two, please.¡±

 

Blinking his golden eyes, Cerberus stared hard at the twins who stood behind Sakura. Goggling at Sakura, Cerberus demanded, ¡°Are you serious? You want me to carry those wretched, stinking, evil, horrible¡¦¡±

 

¡°Please, Cerberus.¡± Sakura¡¯s tone was final.

 

With reluctance, Cerberus carried the twins down to the ground, where Syaoran, Tomoyo, Miho, and Eriol awaited anxiously.

 

¡°Sakura, are you okay?¡± Syaoran asked, running up to Sakura, who tumbled off her staff in exhaustion.

 

¡°I¡¯m fine, I¡¯m fine,¡± Sakura murmured, as Syaoran¡¯s steady arms caught her.

 

¡°Why are you soaking wet?¡± he demanded. ¡°You¡¯ll freeze in your clothes at this rate, and catch pneumonia.¡±

 

¡°No worries, no worries,¡± Sakura said, leaning against Cerberus.

 

The Chang twins stood in the background, trying to be unnoticed, when the others finally realized their presence.

 

Sword drawn, Syaoran asked, ¡°What are you to doing there? What was your idea? If Sakura didn¡¯t come out of that palace alive¡¦¡±

 

¡°It wasn¡¯t us this time,¡± Erika said sulkily. Her hair was flat, and she was too miserably cold to feel any of her usual spark of pride.

 

¡°Then who¡¦¡± Syaoran trailed off, glaring hard at Eriol.

 

¡°Ah, sorry.¡± Eriol rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. All eyes were on him now. ¡°I might have gotten carried away¡¦¡± There was a large crack.

 

Just in time, they turned around to watch the remains of the massive palace on the edge of the cliff sink down and collapse. Some minutes passed, and all that was left of the magnificent structure was a massive mound of snow.

 

¡°You mean, you made that huge thing collapse?¡± Miho demanded in disbelief, after they recovered from the shock. She stared at Eriol with new wonder.

 

¡°Perhaps,¡± Eriol replied slowly. ¡°I only meant to teach the Snow Queen a little lesson.¡±

 

Grabbing Eriol by the nape of his turtleneck, Syaoran shouted, ¡°Little lesson? Do you realize that you almost killed up in there?¡±

 

¡°I trusted in all of your abilities to escape safely,¡± Eriol said cheerfully.

 

Pulling Syaoran back and forcing him to release Eriol, Sakura said, ¡°That¡¯s right—Eriol-kun meant no harm. Thanks to him melting down the palace walls, we were able to escape that chamber, or else we might be pancake right now.¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s still a pity,¡± Tomoyo commented morosely, breaking the tension. ¡°It was such a marvelous palace. I would have liked to videotape it.¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m glad being a solid block of ice didn¡¯t dampen your wacky appreciation for creativity. And it probably wouldn¡¯t appear in photographs. It¡¯s usually not visible to human eye, since it¡¯s just a big chunk of supernatural magic.¡± Syaoran glared at Eriol another time. ¡°Show off. That¡¯s what he is.¡± What human would be able to make that enormous, monstrous structure collapse in a matter of minutes? Only the Sorcerer Clow Reed had such magical capacity and capability.

 

¡°Well then, what are they doing here?¡± Cerberus asked, eying the twins, who still stood watching the group maliciously. ¡°If they weren¡¯t causing all this chaos.¡±

 

Cracking his knuckles, Syaoran said, ¡°That¡¯s right. How convenient. Since we are all gathered here, once and for all, why don¡¯t we sort out our differences?¡±

 

¡°No.¡± Sakura pulled Syaoran back. ¡°Not tonight. They¡¯re not here to fight us. And I do not want anymore fighting tonight.¡±

 

Gazing at Sakura in surprise, Syaoran asked in disbelief, ¡°Are you actually shielding those two?¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s right, she is,¡± Eron replied smugly instead, walking up to Syaoran. ¡°She saved us in there. It¡¯s thanks to her that Erika and I are standing here right now.¡±

 

Though Syaoran clearly knew that Eron was provoking him intentionally, nonetheless, his grip on his sword hilt betrayed his fury—his hands were trembling, not only because of the cold. It was ridiculous that the Dark Ones couldn¡¯t escape on their own. Unless¡¦ Suddenly thoughtful, he turned silent.

 

Turning to Sakura, Cerberus demanded, ¡°Why in the world did you do that? Is that why you took so long to come out? You could have been killed—probably by the Dark Ones¡¯ hands quicker than by the collapsing palace.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s right, all of us standing here right now were enemies at one point or another, though of course the Inner Circle yet chooses to discriminate against the descendants of the Dark One,¡± Eron said, staring Eriol and Syaoran defiantly. ¡°Both of you have undeniably challenged Sakura in the past.¡±

 

Yes, he had been Sakura¡¯s rival five years ago. ¡°But that¡¯s all in the past,¡± Syaoran reiterated rapidly.

 

¡°You miss my point, Li Syaoran.¡± Eron smirked. ¡°I am merely pointing out that to each of us, everyone else can as easily be an enemy as a friend.¡±

 

¡°Wait, where¡¯s Mizuki-sempai?¡± Miho asked, distracted. ¡°He disappeared ages ago.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t tell me that idiot is still in there.¡± Syaoran frowned, looking at the ruins. His aggravation with Eron was briefly thwarted.

 

¡°No way; he won¡¯t wait for a palace to collapse over his head!¡± Miho declared, hands on hips.

 

¡°Of course not,¡± Sakura replied. Kai would be the first to escape in any catastrophe. ¡°Besides, I would have felt his aura inside the palace, if he had still been in there.¡±

 

¡°I wonder if that frightening woman dead?¡± Miho asked, blinking, staring at the ruins.

 

¡°What frightening woman?¡± Sakura asked, relieved that Syaoran had been distracted.

 

¡°The one who kidnapped Tomoyo-chan,¡± Miho replied.

 

¡°Eh, Tomoyo-chan was kidnapped?¡± Sakura turned around to her best friend with huge eyes.

 

¡°Ah, it wasn¡¯t not a big deal.¡± Tomoyo waved it off briskly, for Sakura would fret over it otherwise.

 

¡°No, the Snow Queen does not perish just because her palace broke down,¡± Eriol replied to Miho¡¯s question. ¡°It wouldn¡¯t take much effort for her to rebuild it, either.¡±

 

¡°Who was she, anyway?¡± Miho asked. ¡°She seemed very angry about something.¡±

 

¡°A story of gone by days, of a foolish magician learning much about the world,¡± murmured Eriol. ¡°How love is such a peculiar emotions, which drives people to do strange things, which makes the sane, insane, the perfectly content, miserable, and the strong and formidable, terribly weak.¡±

 

 ¡°I wonder why the Snow Queen captured Tomoyo-chan, though,¡± Miho pondered.

 

¡°She was lonely,¡± Tomoyo replied softly. ¡°Sadness turned into resentment. And then anger and vengeance.¡±

 

¡°And her temper is not yet appeased,¡± Eriol said, watching the stormy sky. It was his fault that Tomoyo had been captured. ¡°A single man¡¯s mistake snowballed into a matter too big for that single man alone to absolve.¡± To the others watching him, they realized that his expression held a weariness of one who has lived to long, despite its youthful fifteen-year-old face.

 

¡°So what did Clow Reed do to anger her so?¡± Miho persisted.

 

¡°She might be better to answer that.¡± In a respectful, but steadfast voice, Eriol commanded, ¡°Show your self to us.¡±

 

There was a distortion, then the Snow Queen appeared in front of them, as regal and proud as ever. Seemingly unfazed at her collapsed palace, she still held her head high, and the diamond tiara on her brows twinkled, as blinding as ice reflecting sunlight. ¡°That is right. I shall forever loathe the man who took my children from me.¡± Her voice was crisp and low.

 

She walked over to Sakura, and lifted the girl¡¯s chin up, examining the girl¡¯s face intently. Sakura blinked up at the icy cold woman¡¯s silvery stare. So this must be this must be the Snow Queen. Her face was like an ice sculpture—too perfect to be human. Sakura wondered how much of Eriol¡¯s tale of the Yuki Onna was true.

 

¡°I see, you are the new Card Mistress,¡± the Snow Queen murmured, still peering at Sakura with unblinking ice blue eyes. ¡°Strong eyes, but otherwise a disappointment. What was Clow Reed thinking in choosing such a weak one to be his successor? You don¡¯t even compare to his shadow! Yet, you are the new Card Holder.¡± She laughed shortly, her long nails scraping against Sakura¡¯s cheek.

 

¡°She has nothing to do with this,¡± Eriol said. ¡°The dispute is between you and me. I apologize for everything that has happened. So do not involve our business from over a century ago with anyone besides me.¡±

 

¡°Oh, so you are finally taking up liability as Clow Reed now?¡± The Snow Queen said, unhanding Sakura. ¡°It¡¯s too late, too late to turn back, too late to repent. What do you know what if feels like to love, to lose loved ones, the feeling of a parent? You were always a cruel, heartless being, unloving and unloved.¡±

 

¡°No he¡¯s not!¡± Miho exclaimed, stepping up in front of Eriol. ¡°He¡¯s the kindest, most gentle person ever. And I love Eriol, just like my family!¡±

 

Everybody stared at Miho.

 

Crackling harshly, the Snow Queen, ¡°Do you hear that silly girl?¡± Striding forward to Miho, her long white robes trailing behind her, the Snow Queen said, ¡°Clow Reed, what do you say to that. That girl says she loves you. Shall I tell her that her feelings are wasted on you? For Clow Reed shall never be able to love. That is his curse.¡± 

 

¡°You¡¯re wrong,¡± Cerberus stated in his low gruff voice, startling the Snow Queen. She had not expected the creature to talk. ¡°I know Clow Reed better than anyone else here, which is not saying much, but one thing I know is that Clow Reed and Hiiragizawa Eriol are different people. What ever grievances you had with Clow Reed, it cannot be helped, because Clow Reed no longer exists in this world.¡±

 

¡°Anyway, what could Clow Reed have done so wrong, that you hold a century old grudge against him?¡± Miho asked. ¡°He was the greatest sorcerer in the world. His name is a legend in our society.¡±

 

¡°Being a good sorcerer doesn¡¯t necessarily make a good man,¡± Syaoran murmured, shifting his gaze between the Snow Queen and Sakura. As long as she retained the former Clow Cards, she would be as much of a target as Eriol. That wretched Clow Reed, why couldn¡¯t he have lived a simple, clean life, so that all these lingering unfinished businesses didn¡¯t have to habitually recur.

 

¡°Ask the person in question, if you are so curious,¡± the Snow Queen stated, looking straight at Eriol. ¡°You yourself knew what you did wrong. Look, he¡¯s not denying it, is he?¡±

 

Since Eriol was not answering, Cerberus said hesitantly, ¡°For once who held as many responsibilities as Clow Reed, he encountered many difficult choices in his lifetime, and of course, it is impossible for a man to be all-knowing, and always make the right decision. Clow Reed, though he may have had his crooked, mysterious side, never intentionally injured anyone. He always tried to choose the path that would hurt the least number of people. Which meant that his decisions were often at the expense of himself. I don¡¯t know if Clow Reed was necessarily a good man, for he was too different, too peculiar to reveal his true face to the public, but he was indeed a great man.¡±

 

¡°I don¡¯t understand what you mean by he took your children,¡± Miho stated to the Snow Queen, unfazed. ¡°The Clow Reed I¡¯ve heard about is not a murderer. You must be mistaken about something.¡±

 

Before the Snow Queen could answer, Eriol interrupted, ¡°No, Miho, she¡¯s right. Clow Reed did wrong.¡±

 

¡°But¡¦¡± Miho stammered. ¡°Y-you don¡¯t mean Clow Reed really did kill her children?¡±

 

¡°Not necessarily kill, but he did take them, nonetheless,¡± Eriol said. ¡°He really is to blame.¡±

 

¡°Explain,¡± Syaoran said flatly. ¡°We have a right to judge for ourselves.¡±

 

¡°Cerberus, you already know this, and Li-kun, you may have heard parts of it, but I¡¯ll explain to you all where the Clow Cards came from.¡± Eriol began slowly. ¡°Everything has its origins, and the forces that came to be known as the Clow Cards were not created by a single man called Clow Reed, but subsisted long before he was born, coexisting with nature. Thus, it is the job of the magician to protect the general population from the side effects of these dark forces. Magicians are tamers of these dark forces, in a sense. Of course, there are some forces more hazardous to humankind than others. Such dark forces have to be sealed to protect the people. That was one of the tasks that the Great Five, and many successors before them have held, amongst other things. However, dark forces sealed can be prevented from causing mischief for the span of the seal. The lifetime of a seal depends on how much power the magician bound to it. But all seals, after a certain time, wear off, and after the death of the sealer, there is not much that can be done, and the dark force can eventually break free from its seal and do as it pleases again. Clow Reed had the idea of forming a voluntary contract with the dark forces, instead of entrapping the dark forces against their will. By forming a legal contract of magic, the dark forces became bound to him under his name, so that he could call upon them whenever he wanted to borrow their powers. In return, he gave them protection and sanctuary from the chaos of dark forces out there. It was an effort to create order, a compact. As you know, there are still many dark forces out there, for Clow Reed could only form contracts with certain forces, and others, he still had no reign over. Some he could not control, some he did not think necessary to bind, and still others, he did not have time to capture.¡±

 

¡°Ah, the Dark Forces that I¡¯ve turned into Sakura Cards are the ones that Clow Reed didn¡¯t convert in his days,¡± Sakura stated.

 

¡°That is right,¡± Eriol said. ¡°Sakura-san has been the first since Clow Reed to be able to sign contracts with the Dark Forces. Other magicians have been able to bind them, seal them, command them, or simply request of them certain favors, but this reciprocal contract can only be achieved by the true holder of the Staff of Justice, Card Captor Sakura.¡± 

 

¡°That¡¯s all good, but what does all this have to do with the Snow Queen¡¯s missing children?¡± Syaoran asked impatiently. Though Eriol had organized the facts neatly, a feat in which his History of Seals tutor had failed to ever do, he hadn¡¯t really learned anything new from the lengthy lecture.

 

¡°You¡¯ll never know,¡± answered the Snow Queen instead. Looking behind the humans¡¯ heads, the Snow Queen smiled defiantly. Deeply lost in listening to Eriol¡¯s words, the other hadn¡¯t realized that the ground beneath the wrecked palace was trembling, and the crumbling ice brick walls were not sufficient enough to contain the fountains of melted water inside the mound of snow. Once the walls completely gave away, the water would pour over all of them. Miho gave a little shriek. The remaining walls of the palace collapsed and the water poured down in full fury, like a raging waterfall. 

 

Without losing any time, Sakura whipped out her staff and threw out a card. ¡°Freeze!¡±

 

The water pouring out froze momentarily, before shattering the Freeze through sheer force. Wavering, Sakura struck down on the card again. ¡°Freeze!¡± She didn¡¯t have much power left in her—it wasn¡¯t likely that her power would sustain the Freeze at all. She toppled back, colliding against a strong chest. Steady arms came around her again, helping her hold up her staff.

 

¡°Try it again,¡± Syaoran said shortly. ¡°I still have some power left, I think.¡±

 

Just like when they battled against Eriol, Syaoran stood behind her, channeling his power into her body. Even in the midst of the snow, Sakura felt the warmth of Syaoran¡¯s aura drifting into her staff.

 

¡°I¡¯m going to use the Snowy,¡± Sakura said, taking out another card.

 

¡°What will that do?¡± Syaoran asked skeptically.

 

¡°I need to lower the temperature of the water even more so that it will freeze quicker,¡± Sakura said furtively.

 

¡°It doesn¡¯t make much sense to me, but if it works for you¡¦ I¡¯m at your disposal.¡± Syaoran nodded. Sakura always had a tendency to amaze him with her unexpected yet ingenious strategies. ¡°Ready.¡±

 

Throwing up the two cards simultaneously, she cried out, ¡°Daughter and Son of the Sovereign of Ice, protect all those who stand before you. Snowy! Freeze!¡±

 

The two forces intertwined, streamed towards the rushing water which poured through the widening cracks in the walls, and the Snowy turned the melted ice into slush, while the Freeze finished by freezing the slush. Meanwhile, the others stood, wondering what plan Sakura had up her sleeves; only Eriol stood calmly with a knowing smile.

 

Striding over to Sakura, and blocking her from the two forces, the Snow Queen whispered in a deathly low voice, ¡°You cannot use my own children against me.¡±

 

Syaoran, dropping his arms, stared at the back of Sakura¡¯s head in blank admiration. So that was what she was up to. How did she ever know the Snowy and the Freeze were the Snow Queen¡¯s missing children? Then he recalled the cards that had turned up when Sakura read the future in them¡¦ The Twin, then the Snowy and the Freeze. Had she known since then?

 

¡°Don¡¯t just watch—do something,¡± Miho hissed to Eriol, who had held his staff up, only to end up watching what Sakura and Syaoran did, bemused. ¡°What is she talking about?¡±

 

¡°Yes I can,¡± Sakura replied the Snow Queen staidly. ¡°Because I am their Mistress now. I love them as I do all my Cards, and under contract, I shall protect them as they do me.¡±

 

¡°That man took them from me,¡± the Snow Queen said in a broken voice, glaring at Eriol venomously.

 

Holding out her Sakura Cards for the Snow Queen to see, Sakura said, ¡°All these forces stay with me because of a voluntary contract. It was their choice to enter the contract, and if I tried to force them into servitude, such a contract would not be able to be made. It is not within my abilities to force a dark force to serve me. Similarly, I would suspect that all of the original Clow Cards chose to serve under Clow Reed. Because he would provide them protection and give them a purpose for existence in exchange for being able to borrow their powers.¡±

 

¡°I knew I chose the right person,¡± Eriol said, smiling admiringly at Sakura.

 

¡°I¡¯m rather jealous.¡± Miho pouted. ¡°Eriol never looks like that at me.¡±

 

At this, Tomoyo laughed. After all, Sakura was Clow Reed¡¯s protégée. Then she turned grave again, knowing that this was not a situation to be bemused in. She herself had tasted the frost of the Snow Queen¡¯s bitterness. Yet, her heart pounded upon meeting one who knew of Clow Reed, an outside perspective. Until now, she had only looked upon Eriol as he was, but more and more, she realized that she could not simply ignore his other half, the memories of Clow Reed.

 

¡°What do you plan on doing?¡± the Snow Queen asked cautiously. The overflowing water completely froze again in an amorphous lump the size of a lake. ¡°Card Mistress.¡±

 

The Freeze and the Snowy joined Sakura¡¯s side again.

 

¡°Can you not forgive Clow Reed?¡± Sakura asked slowly.

 

¡°Never.¡±

 

¡°He loved the Clow Cards. That¡¯s why he had to find them a new master when he ceased to be. If he didn¡¯t love them, he would not have taken the trouble to appoint his most trusted one as the Guardian of the Clow, or reincarnate himself into to this world, to personally train his successor,¡± Sakura said, looking up at the Snow Queen¡¯s glassy eyes.

 

¡°Why did he have to choose a new master for the cards? Why couldn¡¯t he have continued to be their master?¡± the Snow Queen demanded, looking over at Eriol. ¡°Clow Reed could have attained immortality should he have desired. Or that boy over there, his reincarnation, could have held on to the Clow Cards.¡±

 

¡°No, I think Clow Reed made a wise choice,¡± Syaoran spoke quietly. Everyone¡¯s eyes were on him now. ¡°Should he have held on to eternal life, he would eventually have misused the Clow Cards, and he wouldn¡¯t have wanted to do that. And his reincarnated self cannot love the Clow Cards like his former self did because they bring back the burdens of the Sorcerer Clow Reed. It was the only logical choice of a master who really loved his subordinates.¡±

 

¡°So please do not resent Clow Reed anymore,¡± Sakura implored. ¡°If you wish, I would return the Freeze and the Snowy to you. I will release them from the contract.¡±

 

¡°You¡¦would do such a thing?¡± the Snow Queen asked.

 

¡°She would¡¦ but would they comply?¡± Syaoran said, looking at the Snowy and the Freeze. Both of them were not particularly to his liking—he still remembered being almost frozen by the Freeze, and flying through a blizzard to capture the Snowy, unpleasant experiences for one who was accustomed to warmer climate.

 

¡°Snowy. Freeze. Return to your mother. ¡° The Snow Queen turned to her two children and waited hungrily. Her expression slowly changed from haughty triumph to astounded disbelief. ¡°Why? Why would you choose to stay with her over your mother? Why don¡¯t you embrace freedom? How can you be content under servitude?¡± She wrung her long-nailed fingers in frustration.

 

¡°Listen to them¡¦ listen to their answers,¡± Cerberus said lowly.

 

Though no one could hear their voices, they all knew that the Freeze and the Snowy were speaking, and their mother listening gravely. They waited in silence, wondering what was being said, yet wise enough not to interrupt. When the Snowy and the Freeze slowly turned around and returned to Sakura¡¯s side, they realized that they conversation was over. Sakura looked up questioningly. Slowly, the Snow Queen glided over to Sakura. Holding her breath, Sakura met the regal Queen¡¯s eyes, bracing herself.

 

Tears fell from the Snow Queen¡¯s eyes, except instead of water, droplets of crystal fell. ¡°I see now. I understand. I accept defeat.¡± She turned to face Sakura, her head tilted as proud as ever, ¡°To think that I, the Snow Queen, should be humbled by a mere mortal girl like you. Yet, my children chose you over me. They love you, not just them, but all of your Cards; they love you and want to protect you, for arduous times lie ahead. And what can a mother do but let her children grow?¡±

 

Not knowing how to reply, Sakura said, throat tightening, ¡°I¡¯m sorry. But I promise I¡¯ll look after the Snowy and the Freeze, and love them like I do all my Cards. And whenever you want to see them¡¦¡±

 

¡°What are you sorry for? It was their choice,¡± said the Queen shortly. She lifted up Sakura¡¯s chin again and looked hard into her eyes with her steely gaze. Her voice was much gentler than before. ¡°He would have been proud of you, the only man I have ever respected. You have his eyes, gentle, yet determined, level, yet strong.¡± Then, she turned around to face Eriol again. ¡°This doesn¡¯t mean that I have forgiven Clow Reed, or that I ever will. In fact, I probably won¡¯t forgive you, either, Hiiragizawa Eriol, for breaking down my lovely palace.¡±

 

¡°My apologies,¡± Eriol said. He turned to Sakura, who grinned, and was impressed that she had read his mind. She handed the Freeze, the Snowy, and the Create to him.

 

¡°I¡¯m still saving up a little strength for sealing the Riddle, but I¡¯m sure Eriol-kun would do a magnificent job,¡± Sakura stated with a bright smile, a sign that she had yet another ingenious idea.

 

¡°A mere mortal can¡¯t build a palace even near to my suiting,¡± the Snow Queen scoffed, though clearly amused.

 

¡°Eh, I completely forgot about sealing the Riddle!¡± Miho exclaimed, smiling gratefully at Sakura.

 

¡°Well, then, let us hurry with rebuilding the ice palace, then track down the Riddle,¡± Eriol said, throwing up the three cards. His signature magic circle of the golden sun embedded in a star appeared, and he struck down his heavy black staff. ¡°Freeze, Snowy, Create. Rebuild a palace of ice and crystal fitting for your Mother Queen.¡± The three forces sprouted out towards the mounds of frozen water and slush at the cliff side, and set to work. They began to sculpt a rectangular block of ice the size of a stadium to serve as the foundation.

 

¡°Now,¡± Eriol began, turning to his spectators, who gaped in awe. ¡°The fun begins. I have to admit, I¡¯m not nearly creative enough for this sort of large-scale artistic construction. I would need the hand of someone very imaginative to give directions to the Create. Tomoyo-san, would you mind helping?¡±

 

Startled at being called upon, Tomoyo stammered, ¡°I don¡¯t have any magic, and I wouldn¡¯t know what to do.¡±

 

¡°All you need to do is close your eyes and picture what the palace would look like—the more vividly you can imagine it, the easier the Create will be able to conceptualize it. Just put your hand on my staff, and fantasize to your heart¡¯s contact the most magnificent, sparkling palace made of ice.¡±

 

¡°Can I really do something like that?¡± Tomoyo asked, hesitantly reaching over and laying her hand on the staff. Taking a deep breath, she pictured a German-style castle as a base, then employed her fantastic imagination and artistic temperament to her heart¡¯s content. Since her eyes were shut, her lids fluttering rapidly as the castle grew more and more splendid in her mind, she didn¡¯t see what was happening with the Create, which briskly swerved around the enormous block of ice, carving away to perfection the visual concept formulating in Tomoyo¡¯s mind. Yet, she heard everyone gasp, and figured that the magic was really working. She gripped tighter the staff that Eriol was holding up and channeling all his energy into, and flooded into the staff all that she had.

 

¡°It¡¯s amazing!¡± Miho exclaimed, clasping her hands in rapture. ¡°Just like a dreamland, fantasy castle.¡± The block of ice had been carved away into an elaborate palace, with towers and windows, walls and a garden of crystal, chiseled to the precise perfection and detail ensued in Tomoyo¡¯s mind.

 

¡°Now, the exterior is finished,¡± Eriol said. ¡°We must move on with the interior.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s right!¡± Sakura exclaimed. Of course, a palace was not just about its appearance, which was of course Tomoyo¡¯s expertise, but of the actual living quarters inside.

 

¡°And, who would be better suited to build the interior than Mizuki-kun?¡± Eriol stated, turning around and nodding at Mizuki Kai, who had been standing behind them all along, unnoticed. Though initially hiding, amazed by the architectural impossibilities unfolding before his very eyes, he had drawn nearer and nearer until he was in plain view. Beside him stood the Silver Wolf.

 

¡°Kai-kun! You were safe, after all!¡± Sakura exclaimed. She wondered if he had managed to befriend the wolf—at least Kai didn¡¯t look half-eaten. ¡°You made us all worry.¡±

 

¡°Of course I figured it was dangerous to stay in there too long, so I made an early escape,¡± Kai replied carelessly.

 

¡°Well, hurry up and give a hand,¡± Miho said impatiently.

 

¡°You¡¯ve got the wrong person—I¡¯m nowhere near as imaginative as Tomoyo, and this sort of thing is out of my league. My expertise lies in precise, concrete things,¡± Kai stated.

 

¡°Exactly why Eriol-kun¡¯s asking you. Who¡¯s better suited to build the interior of a building, than one who¡¯s business to study where everything is, where all the exits are, what material it is made of—you¡¯re the perfect person. You¡¯ll make the interior stable and practical,¡± Sakura asserted.

 

Knowing that Sakura was right, Kai sighed and trudged over to Eriol¡¯s staff and placed a hand on it, wrinkling his nose in contempt at Eriol. ¡°We wouldn¡¯t have to go through all this trouble if you didn¡¯t break down the palace in the first place.¡±

 

¡°He meant well,¡± Cerberus reminded.

 

Though the couldn¡¯t see the Create, since it had submerged itself inside the palace, they knew it was working rapidly by the chunks of ice that was deposited outside through the windows, with the Snowy and the Freeze moving back and forth, carrying away the loads. Kai worked formulaically, from bottom level up to the top. ¡°Dungeons are finished, medieval torture chamber and all—great hall way is based off a cathedral I saw in the Vatican,¡± Kai stated out loud.

 

¡°What do you need dungeons for?¡± Miho exclaimed in horror.

 

¡°To lock away naughty little children,¡± Kai replied. ¡°Don¡¯t break my concentration. The ballroom in grander than the Romanov¡¯s¡¦ And I included a stately library—Miho, come here and fill it up with books.¡±

 

¡°Eh? Me!¡± Delighted, Miho poured into the library all the books she¡¯d ever read and heard of, historical text, fiction, nonfiction, poetry and prose, and even books that she might write some day. Not that the Snow Queen had nothing better to do than read.

 

¡°Good, now decorate the main bedroom chamber,¡± Kai said, as he saw in his mind the many shelves in the library filled with books made of ice, all the way up to the ceiling. ¡°A room that is fit for a queen, that even Marie Antoinette would have envied, more fantastic than the Versailles, but also warm and like a home. Syaoran, come over here. You¡¯re the obsessive-compulsive perfection. Double-check everything and make sure everything¡¯s secure.¡±

 

The Snow Queen watched dumbfounded as mere humans, through collaborative effort built a palace more intricate, more marvelous than she would ever be able to build, not because she lacked the power, but she lacked the imagination, the practicality, the willpower to join together and achieve the impossible. And she gazed at the one holding the link together. The girl who stood at the center of a star, spokes extended out to each of the individuals standing around her. Even to the Dark Ones, who watched from a little distance, unable to leave, unable to join.

 

At last, Eriol lowered his staff, beads of sweat rolling down his temple even in the cold, collapsing on Cerberus who had been supporting him from behind. They knew the ice palace was finally completely, the tiniest details such as the paintings on the walls, the sculptures on their pedestals, each furniture and each drapery, having been catered to.

 

¡°Well, enter and see if it is to you suiting,¡± Sakura said excitedly.

 

Wordlessly, the Snow Queen disappeared. She was back in a matter of minutes, but they all knew she had already seen every room and every nook and cranny of the palace. And she was impressed.

 

¡°Lots of unnecessary human utensils cluttering the place,¡± stated the Snow Queen, very approving of the sculptures decorating her galleys. How did the thief-boy know she had a soft spot for beautiful Roman young men with rippling muscles? Turning to Kai, she asked, ¡°So, how did you replicate the David to such precision?¡±

 

¡°Well, all we need to do is find the Riddle now,¡± Sakura commented, gazing at the snowy mountaintops. ¡°The night will be over soon.¡±

 

¡°Are you sure the Riddle¡¯s here?¡± Cerberus asked, yawning. He was hungry and exhausted.

 

¡°Positive,¡± replied Miho, folding her arms in front of her chest.

 

¡°But we haven¡¯t seen any traces of it all night long. And we should be getting back now—we¡¯ve been missing for ever,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°I¡¯m not sure how Sasaki-san is holding up.¡±

 

¡°Eron-kun, it¡¯s here, isn¡¯t it?¡± Miho demanded.

 

¡°I don¡¯t know,¡± Eron replied sullenly. ¡°It¡¯s one of those forces that does as it pleases. Heck, it gives me problems sometimes.¡±

 

¡°It is here,¡± Kai said quietly.

 

¡°How do you know?¡± Syaoran asked, cocking an eyebrow.

 

The Snow Queen surprised them all by interrupting. ¡°If you are speaking of that pesky Cheshire cat-like creature which has been tailing me for some time, I can make it appear. Or else I can lock it up in the dungeon. Everything has to obey my command in my domains.¡±

 

Even as she spoke, the Riddle materialized in front of them. It sauntered around Miho, swiping its long tail around her legs, grinning toothily. ¡°Found at last:

 

¡°Here is my wager, since you have found me:

If I cannot answer your riddle, I shall do as you command,

But if I do guess correctly,

You will thus understand

That you were always under fate¡¯s mercy

 

Everybody waited for Miho to speak. When she remained silent, they shifted uncomfortably. Syaoran yawned, combating sleep. Shivering to his bones, he wished that Miho would get over with it. In fact, he found it difficult to believe that a fourteen-year-old girl could come up with an original riddle that one as shrewd and wise.

 

¡°Well¡¦¡± Cerberus said to Miho. ¡°Let us all hear your riddle.¡±

 

Fidgeting in her heavy fur-lined boots, Miho mumbled, ¡°I don¡¯t remember it.¡±

 

¡°WHAT?!¡± Cerberus coughed. ¡°You wrote it, didn¡¯t you?¡±

 

Clutching her hair with her gloved hands, Miho exclaimed, ¡°I know, but so much happened tonight, I don¡¯t remember what I wrote.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t you have it written down somewhere?¡± Syaoran asked staidly.

 

¡°No.¡± Miho hung her head down. ¡°I memorized it by heart. Or thought I did.¡±

 

Patting Miho¡¯s shoulder, Tomoyo said, ¡°Miho-chan, you must be feeling great pressure and anxiety right now, but just take a deep breath, and have confidence. You don¡¯t have to be so hard on yourself.¡±

 

¡°Tomoyo-chan¡¯s right,¡± Sakura stated. ¡°We all would like to hear the riddle you¡¯ve been working on for weeks. We¡¯re all impressed—none of us could have attempted to write an original riddle. And furthermore, you even figured out the location of the Riddle. You¡¯re already an associate Card Captor, right Miho?¡±

 

Shaking her head, Miho burst out, ¡°It¡¯s not use. I can¡¯t do it. It¡¯s stupid of me to think that I can outwit the Riddle. I¡¯m just making a fool of myself, and I caused so much trouble for myself. The riddle I had was stupid, anyway. I¡¯m sorry Eriol. I really wanted to impress you this time. I¡¯m sorry.¡±

 

¡°What a disappointment,¡± drawled the Riddle. ¡°To hear such a boneless statement.¡±

 

¡°Wait,¡± Kai interjected quietly. ¡°Miho never said that she¡¯s withdrawn her challenge.¡±

 

¡°I told you, I don¡¯t remember it. I can¡¯t do it,¡± Miho snapped. ¡°I can¡¯t, I can¡¯t!¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s all right, Miho-chan, no one is forcing you to do anything,¡± Sakura said, frowning at Kai. ¡°There will be other chances to seal the Riddle.¡±

 

From his pocket, Kai drew out a crumpled piece of paper and threw it at Miho, who caught it, surprised. ¡°There. You can¡¯t use not remembering as an excuse to escape from the situation. You said that you will write prose which will defeat the Riddle. And there you have it, in your hands. Now, don¡¯t back out on your words, and do what you set out here to do.¡±

 

With trembling hands, Miho unfolded the crumpled piece of paper. It was the scrap from her notebook that she had been doodling on, the one Kai had folded into an airplane yesterday, back in the resort lounge. She crumpled it in her hands again. Since December, she had worked on this Riddle; of course she knew every line by heart. She hated Mizuki-sempai for making her a fool in front of everyone. Yet, he was right. She had been escaping, because she was scared of making a bigger fool of herself in front of everyone. Actually, she had little confidence that she could outsmart the Riddle, but she was taking a risk. For once, she wanted to prove to everyone that she was more than just a silly, pampered, sheltered girl. She wanted to be able to contribute against the battle against the Dark Ones, and be accepted as a partner, not as a dependant, a nuisance. When she began reciting, her voice was shaky. Yet, as she poured herself into the nuances of the words, her voice grew richer and stronger:

 

A tingling thrill,

That melts away the bitter chill,

Like the first bud of a blossoming flower

That peeks through the layer of winter frost to greet the spring shower;

Brush by the spirit of the wind as you race along,

To feel wild and free—that you belong!

Or dance with the sunbeams on a rainbow

And forget the ferocious storm spent in the dismal shadow;

Sitting by a cozy, crackling fireplace

With the friendly flames flickering on your face,

Your thirsting soul is glowing and alight,

As you drink in the meaning of life and delight—

Blissful warmth slowly spreads through your body.

 

Watching the shimmering night sky, distant and afar,

To see the celestial glow of an undimmed star;

Stare dreamily with a wistful smile,

And look back at the oblivious joy, ringing with rich laughter while,

Inside, you are trapped in an entangled snare,

Yearning with the cry of a forlorn child for someone to care!

Yet despite all, to be true, you are willing,

To give all your heart and soul, and wish for every means of fulfilling,

Another¡¯s utmost happiness, though it may deem

Swallowing all your own hopes and dream;

But if you are fully ready to sacrifice your desire and wish,

For another¡¯s well-being, comfort, and bliss,

You have seen divine light.

 

As Miho trailed off, she looked up at the Riddle expectantly. The others were frowning, puzzling over the answer to the Riddle.

 

¡°Are you sure it¡¯s a riddle?¡± Cerberus asked. ¡°It¡¯s awfully difficult—it just sounds like a pretty poem.¡±

 

¡°Just a pretty poem?¡± Sakura stated, ¡°Did you really write it Miho? I can¡¯t believe you can write something like that. I don¡¯t know how to put it¡¦ It¡¯s really touching.¡±

 

¡°Well, what does it mean?¡± Cerberus demanded.

Tomoyo looked up with a twinkle in her eyes. She was first to realize the answer, and Miho was not very surprised. Anxiously, she waited for the Riddle¡¯s response.

 

Watching the Riddle in a stump, Erika whispered to Eron, ¡°Do you know the answer to that Riddle?¡±

 

¡°No,¡± Eron replied, perplexed. ¡°It¡¯s a trick—there are so many clues, yet they are all so contradictory. They make no sense whatsoever.¡±

 

Rather relieved that his job was now over, Eriol fully took advantage of relishing the situation. ¡°You seem amused about something, Tomoyo-san,¡± he commented mildly. ¡°I figure you have already figured the riddle out?¡±

 

¡°It¡¯s just that she was so ingenious,¡± Tomoyo murmured, pulling on a loose strand of hair, stretching out the curls. ¡°Taking something so simple for most people, giving it another face, and reapplying it against the Riddle, who would not know of it, comprehend it.¡±

 

¡°Well, what is it?¡± Cerberus demanded.

 

Tomoyo just smiled, without replying.

 

¡°Let¡¯s see,¡± Sakura murmured, determined to decipher the meaning of the words. She should be able to figure out the riddle—certain phrases were very familiar. The problem was the whole jumble of the riddle as a whole. It¡¯s a tingling thrill¡¦ But to be free, yet also to belong¡¦ That makes no sense. I do understand of rainbow joy and the warmth of the hearth, yes, that very sensation when you feel the tingling down your spine and your toes curl. The second part of the Riddle makes me sad for some reason¡¦ It¡¯s like the first stanza is the heart, and the second is the mind¡¦

 

¡°You¡¯re wrinkling your forehead,¡± Syaoran said teasingly, reaching over and smoothing his finger over her brows.

 

That leisurely attitude¡¦¡± Did you figure out the Riddle already?¡± Sakura asked.

 

¡°You haven¡¯t?¡± Syaoran replied in surprise. Heaven save me, no wonder she is so dense at times. Well, what did I expect, after all that I went through trying to make her understand my feelings.

 

There¡¯s so many facets to the poem, it¡¯s muddling. And I don¡¯t want Syaoran to know that I haven¡¯t figured it out yet. ¡°Are you making fun of me?¡± Sakura asked accusingly. She recalled that she had been very angry with him just the previous night, for not trusting her, for jumping into conclusions, for being his arrogant, condescending self. Yet, in the flurry of events, stranded in the depths of a snowy mountain, she no longer cared that she had vowed not to let him off easy this time. After all, it was not once or twice that she argued with Syaoran, but she also joked with him, laughed with him, knew he would lend a comforting shoulder when she was weary. She drew a sharp breath. Could it be? She clapped her padded hands together. ¡°Ah, I got it.¡±

 

¡°Good girl.¡± Syaoran patted her tasseled hat.

 

Tapping her foot impatiently, Miho demanded to the dark force, ¡°Well, do you have an answer?¡±

 

¡°Do I get three guesses?¡± the Riddle asked sulkily. ¡°It¡¯s a stupid riddle, unworthy to be contested against me.¡±

 

¡°What are you guesses, then?¡± Miho crossed her arms.

 

The Riddle grimaced. ¡°Let¡¯s see¡¦ Is it a rainbow?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m not so stupid as to incorporate the subject at hand in actual words into my poem,¡± Miho answered bluntly.

 

Twitching its tail, the sphinx-like Riddle finally revealed slight signs of apprehension. ¡°Then, is it dream?¡±

 

¡°No.¡± Miho grinned. ¡°Last chance.¡±

 

¡°Is it¡¦¡± The Riddle hesitated for dramatic buildup. ¡°It is human emotion?¡±

 

Clutching her hands anxiously, Tomoyo turned to Eriol to double-check his reaction. Nodding reassuringly, Eriol smiled as he gazed upon Miho¡¯s determined heart-shape face overcome with relief. They both knew that the Riddle¡¯s chances were gone.

 

¡°Too vague,¡± Miho stated triumphantly. ¡°You¡¯re guesses are up. Riddle, you lost!¡±

 

¡°So it is a type of emotion, isn¡¯t it?¡± insisted the Riddle. ¡°Cheat, I didn¡¯t lose then. Besides, there is no single emotion which can encompass joy, sadness, delight, loneliness, hope and pain, all at once, as you have stated in your cute, little prose!¡±

 

¡°There is, and you lost. And it¡¯s not about emotion. The essence of this riddle is about existence! You missed the point completely!¡± Miho declared.

 

¡°Then what is the answer?¡± the Riddle demanded in frustration.

 

¡°Rather aggravating and humbling to find mere, ignorant humans such as us all know the answer, isn¡¯t it?¡± Syaoran asked the Riddle mocking. He looked at Sakura who smiled. They knew that this challenge had been a gamble. And Miho had won.

 

¡°Isn¡¯t it obvious?¡± Miho asserted. ¡°It¡¯s love. Love has many faces, yet in the end, it is still an essence in all human¡¯s hearts.¡±

 

¡°Admit defeat, Riddle,¡± Syaoran said grimly. ¡°Strange to be beaten by a riddle which took another form of one you made on the same subject, isn¡¯t it? ¡®Throw a stone into a lake; it never reaches the bottom. Look at your reflection; nothing is seen. Cry your heart out; tears don¡¯t fall. Give your soul; face betrayal.¡¯  So you stated back at the Best Couple Contest, upon our first encounter. Right, Miho?¡±

¡°That¡¯s right,¡± Miho said, looking over to Eron, who she had sat next to during the competition. ¡°At that time, I thought the riddle was wrong¡¦ it only portrayed one side of love; but love is multifaceted.¡± Back then, she recalled Eron murmuring the answer to himself. ¡®It¡¯s the pain of love. Love only results in suffering. Love betrays you in the end. Love leaves no tears. Love leaves you empty. Love leads you astray.¡¯

 ¡°Love¡¦ You say the answer is love?¡± cried the Riddle, outraged. ¡°Do not take me for a fool, little girl. What do you know of love, at your age?¡±

¡°I still have a long way to go,¡± Miho replied. ¡°But the basis of my riddle is not just my perceptions—it¡¯s everybody¡¯s words woven together. For love is bitter, sweet, jealous, generous, tender, lonely, many juxtaposing emotions at once for many different people. There are many different ways to act on love, different ways to change because of love, different ways to express love, but love is still just love. The essence itself is the same. You don¡¯t stop loving a person, even if you are angry with him or her. Similarly, you don¡¯t love a person because have a choice.¡±

¡°You don¡¯t choose love, but love chooses you,¡± Eriol murmured to himself wistfully.

¡°I see. That¡¯s why you were going around asking such strange questions!¡± Sakura exclaimed. ¡°For you riddle!¡±

¡°It was to brainstorm,¡± Miho replied bashfully.

¡°Really, it¡¯s interesting to try to decipher which lines are inspired from which person,¡± Tomoyo murmured. Of course, loving a person may mean sacrificing your own happiness was her own line. A piece of everyone, a slice of each person¡¯s life experience and philosophy had been incorporated into Miho¡¯s poem. It was easy to guess the first lines of the second stanza, watching a distant star from after, were Syaoran¡¯s.

Chuckling maliciously, the Riddle said, ¡°To think that a sage such as I, would be bested by a mere girl with her head in the sky. Well then, Card Mistress, seal me, for I must contemplate upon my loss of dignity.¡±

¡°Miho-chan, did you not have a question to ask the Riddle?¡± Sakura asked, turning to the younger girl. ¡°Before I seal it.¡±

¡°No¡¦¡± Miho replied slowly. ¡°I don¡¯t need to ask anymore.¡±

¡°Are you sure?¡± Sakura asked. She held up her staff, taking a deep breath. Having had a little rest to restore her powers, she finally sealed the troublesome force. ¡°Spirit of the dark forces. I, Sakura command you. Return to a new shape under contract. Sakura Card!¡±

Before the Riddle disappeared, it laughed, murmuring his challenge riddle to Miho.

On the night the lone wolf calls,

And the angel¡¯s feather falls,

Through icy cliffs, the raging gale

Echoes the forlorn mother¡¯s wail.

 

Vengeance sought and powers lent,

Children found and contracts bent;

Wind blows and the cherry blossom branches shake,

Woods divide and the eye of the dragon will wake.

 

Desperate times summon forces combined;

Moon rises, circle rejoined, blood intertwined,

Moon wanes, eye cracks, world goes round;

Two conceived lost forever would be found.

 

Shadowing the golden stars way up high,

Thunderclouds loom ominous in the distant sky,

But the lone star will shine again

As the years brush by with the rain.

The onlookers shivered as they stared at the new card with the figure of the Sphinx-like Riddle, lying on the white snow. The long night had at last ended, and a new day was about to begin.

¡°Well, that was that,¡± Miho declared, picking up the card and handing it to Sakura. ¡°Maybe now I can repay you for the numerous times I¡¯ve inconvenienced you.¡±

¡°Thanks, Miho-chan,¡± Sakura said, misty-eyed, taking the card. The dark force which had been a thorn on her side for the past half year, that she would never have been able to seal without Miho¡¯s determination, was finally in her hands.

¡°That¡¯s what friends are for, right?¡± Miho grinned. Turning to Eriol, she stated, ¡°You saw that, didn¡¯t you? I did it! I defeated the wisest dark force out there! That makes me the wisest person in the world, and you the most powerful!¡±

Clearing his throat, Eriol said, ¡°I don¡¯t really think it works out like that, but if that¡¯s what you want to believe.¡±

Even the silver wolf chuckled, amused by the most eccentric group of humans he had yet encountered. Out of the corner of his silver eyes, however, he kept an eye on the boy of the silver locket.

¡°I¡¯m impressed,¡± stated the Snow Queen, who had also been listening silently, wondering if the Card Mistress¡¯ circle of friends had any more surprises up their leaves. ¡°I have yet to meet one who posed a riddle that the notorious Riddler himself could not answer. Even Clow Reed wouldn¡¯t have been able to outsmart the Riddle.¡±

¡°He wouldn¡¯t have,¡± agreed Eriol, gazing at Miho proudly.

Watching Clow Reed¡¯s reincarnation with the keenest interest, the Snow Queen murmured, ¡°If of all wonders, he has learned to love again. Though what caused the change, I will never now.¡± Eyes flitting to the great wolf who glided next to her, she said, ¡°It¡¯s been a long time, Okami-sama. What brings you here?¡±

 ¡°What do you think of those children, Shirahime?¡± asked the Silver Wolf in his low voice.

¡°Probably the same thing you do,¡± replied the Snow Queen, chuckling to herself.

¡°Ha, you double brats! Take a look at that!¡± jeered Cerberus at the twins, both rather stunned to see the Riddle captured.

¡°I¡¯m rather impressed,¡± Eron drawled. ¡°Then again, the Riddle is not good for anything except talking its head off. Unfortunately, it won¡¯t bring back dear Mikai-nii-chan.¡±

Tomoyo and Sakura shifted nervously, exchanging furtive glances. Leave it to Eron to bring up the tabooed subject.

Tossing her head up, Miho walked up to Eron brazenly as she stated in a clear voice. ¡°You asked me if I hate my brother, last summer. Shouldn¡¯t he have stayed by my side, shouldn¡¯t he have protected me. You said that he betrayed me.¡± Eron had further said ¡®Betrayal is the greatest of sins, and betrayal of friends, let alone blood is the most unforgivable crime.¡¯

She continued, ¡°I¡¯ve thought about it. You aren¡¯t wrong—I did feel angry in the beginning, when I was left alone. My father was dead, my mother ill, and my brother gone. I was in despair—I probably would have died if Eriol and Kaho-san didn¡¯t save me. Who could I blame? I had to blame the very brother who promised to be always by me. The brother who always had protected me. Then, I felt resentful that he had pampered me so much, that I was so helpless. And finally, I realized that I cannot depend on anyone, not onii-chan, not my cousin Kaho, not Eriol. Now, I am neither angry nor resentful. In a way, onii-chan leaving my might have been a blessing in disguise. If he had stayed, I would have always lived my life hiding behind his back. I know my weaknesses. But I also do know that should anything happen, now, I can stand back on my feet on my own.¡±

Eron laughed out loud, wondering why the pesky girl was trying to explain herself to him. ¡°How generous of you to be so forgiving. Then again, Mizuki¡¯s were always rather weak-willed—it runs in the blood.¡±

Syaoran grabbed down Kai¡¯s shoulder to keep him from leaping at Eron. Remembering himself, Kai sighed—he couldn¡¯t stand having Chang Eron insult Mayura-sama.

¡°I never said I forgave him,¡± Miho said coolly.

¡°Why do you want to find him so badly?¡± Eron asked evenly.

¡°I want him to see me now. I want him to know that I am doing well. I want him to be proud of me.¡± Miho tried hard to keep her voice level.

And Tomoyo realized that all of Miho¡¯s effort towards sealing the Riddle was not for Sakura¡¯s sake, not for triumph¡¯s sake, not even for Eriol¡¯s sake. It was all for her brother. That was Miho¡¯s love. And suddenly, she felt ashamed of herself. All around her, her friends had such sincerity and motivation as they faced their love. They strove towards their dreams, their aspirations with such clarity of vision, such directness. Miho, who swore to not only find her brother, but make her proud of her, Rika, who aspired to grow into a magnificent woman for the sake of Terada-sensei, Chiharu and Takashi, who grew up with each other as each other¡¯s pillar, Syaoran, who threw away his title for the sake of Sakura, Sakura, whose devotion to her Cards enabled her to defeat the Snow Queen, and even Kai, who sacrificed his own health and sanity to find a way to protect his family. 

Stroking Cerberus¡¯ head, Tomoyo sighed, ¡°I really wish I had brought my video camera.¡±

Someone knelt down beside to her and mildly commented, ¡°You really must stop that habit of hiding behind the camera and try standing in front of it.¡±

¡°Syaoran-kun.¡± Tomoyo looked down at the top of Syaoran¡¯s head. ¡°What makes you think I¡¯m hiding behind my video camera?¡±

Pulling his glove off, he ran his hand through the steady stream of icy glacier water flowing down the mountain from melted snow. ¡°Life is not about merely observing, for it will stream past you before you know it, like a running brook slipping through your outstretched fingers.¡±

¡°Funny to hear that coming from you,¡± Tomoyo, bending down next to Syaoran and dipping a bare finger in the water. It was biting, yet refreshing. ¡°You¡¯re the one who said love is about patiently watching a distant star, didn¡¯t you?¡±

¡°Maybe,¡± Syaoran said, taking off his ski goggles and hat. ¡°Yet, I found that I can¡¯t wait forever. I think it¡¯s okay to be a little selfish sometimes, and wish for some happiness for yourself. Sometimes, instead of letting the water trickle through, it¡¯s okay to try to catch it.¡± He cupped his hand, scooping up the water with both hands. ¡°Of course, it will eventually trickle through your fingers, but at least you know you tried and you have a little taste of it to remember it by.¡± He splashed the water on his face. The sharp cold snapped off his drowsiness. Then he brought another scoop of water to his lips and took a deep sip. The glacier water was sweet.  ¡°For if you just let it run by, you will forever wonder what might have happened if you had a little more courage.¡±

¡°Syaoran-kun¡¦¡± Tomoyo let her dripping hand drop to her side, watching Syaoran shake the water off his face. A handkerchief dropped on top of his head. Sakura had silently walked up behind him, and smiled at Tomoyo.

¡°What are you two talking about behind our backs?¡± Miho asked, popping up and flinging her arms around Syaoran¡¯s neck.

¡°Don¡¯t do that—you¡¯re rubbing Eriol germs onto me,¡± Syaoran said, wiping his face with Sakura¡¯s flower-scented lace-edged handkerchief. ¡°Thanks.¡± It was wet, and he didn¡¯t know quite what to do with it, and stuffed it in his pocket. ¡°I¡¯ll have it washed.¡± Sakura wasn¡¯t even listening.

¡°Look! The sun is about to rise!¡± Sakura exclaimed, running up to the edge of the cliff. The mountains tips were lined with silver, and the others gathered by her side, amazed that so much time had passed, and that the night was finally over. Slowly, the eerily bluish shade of the snowy mountains of predawn was dyed a deep, sparkling rose as the golden sun peaked up in the distant, jagged horizon. They were nearly blinded by the brilliance of the mountains as it reflected off the brightening sky.

¡°The snow looks like shining golden sand!¡± exclaimed Miho in wonder.

Staring at the warm-hued, cloudless sky, glasses glared from the radiance, Eriol smiled. As the rising sun greeted the ice palace, its glassy walls refracted dazzling rainbow-hued light which danced upon the snow like twinkling prisms. ¡°The storm¡¯s finally over. It¡¯s going to be a beautiful day.¡±

Walking beside Syaoran, Sakura said, ¡°This is my second time seeing the sunrise with you on the top of a mountain. Once, it was in autumn, when the mountains were a deep crimson, amber, and yellow. This time, the world is a shimmering white.¡±

¡°And once was on a running train, in the heat of the summer,¡± Syaoran murmured, watching Sakura instead of the horizon now. Though she lacked sleep, her cheeks were flushed, her eyes more dazzling than the snow reflecting off the sun. Even the fact that Erika and Eron were lurking behind them, grudgingly staring at the sky, did not sour his mood.

¡°I was scared that you wouldn¡¯t come back then.¡± She swallowed hard.

¡°And I was clinging for dear life on top of the freight car, watching the break of dawn, knowing I promised to return to you safely. And while I hung on, I wondered what would be the first thing to say to you when I returned. I knew that I had to return, no matter what.¡± Syaoran trailed off, wind whipping through his bare head. He had stuffed his hat and goggles into his pocket, yet he welcomed the crisp morning breeze. Compared to the cold of the previous night, the warmth of the sunrays was a blessing.

Somehow, Sakura knew Syaoran was no longer talking about the incident of that summer. Yet, what did it matter? He was standing here, next to her, under the same sky. The moment he had returned, that autumn day when he saved her from the Knife, she forgave him for leaving her so suddenly. Even though he was distant and callous towards her, initially, at least he had returned. Eron was wrong. Even if Syaoran hadn¡¯t returned, she would have continued to love him. Because her love was so difficulty realized, because she needed that year of separation to realize how much she appreciated Syaoran. In life, people come and go; it is only natural that acquaintances are formed and broken. This is something my brother taught me. Yet, when your paths cross more than once, shouldn¡¯t there be some greater significance? Somehow, standing here on the peak of these alpine slopes, I feel as if I¡¯ve made lifelong friends.

Slowly squinting at the pristine scenery, Eron realized grudgingly that these cold mountains that seemed so ominous in the nighttime were overwhelmingly awe-inspiring, majestic. He felt small and significant standing here by the cliff side. Yet, he was glad that he was able to stay and see such a spectacle. The very mountains which weathered the tumultuous blizzard shone so splendidly as the sun rose, heralding the world with the beginning of another day.

¡°It¡¯s beautiful,¡± Erika uttered, before she realized she had said it out loud. Blushing, she glanced away from her brother, ashamed after having made all the fuss the previous day.

¡°It is, isn¡¯t it?¡± Eron squinted his eyes, unaccustomed to such glorious light. If Erika noticed Eron¡¯s line of vision was directed towards Sakura, standing at the cliff¡¯s edge, she chose to let it slide from her notice. For there Sakura was, unhindered by a sleepless night, smile as radiant as the sunbeam, hair streaming around her, glistening almost as golden as the morning sky. ¡°As if the gates of heaven are opening to the human eye for a brief second.¡± An electric shock ran through him. Eron ruminated, Ah so is this what they call having seen Divine Light?

¡°Come to think of it, I think it¡¯s my first time seeing the sunrise,¡± admitted Erika.

¡°No way!¡± Miho exclaimed, glancing over at the twins. Though she wasn¡¯t particularly fond of the two, she had always been fascinated by them, for she didn¡¯t quite hold a grudge against the Dark Ones like she should. Eron, when he didn¡¯t mock her, amused her, and Erika was slightly more pleasant to Miho than she was to most other girls.

¡°Well, who gets up early enough just to see the sun rise?¡± Erika replied haughtily.

¡°Syaoran does,¡± Miho giggled. ¡°He wakes up at the break of dawn to do his morning exercises like a Spartan.¡±

¡°Well, better than Kai, who doesn¡¯t fall asleep until it¡¯s light outside,¡± Syaoran grumbled.

¡°Speaking of sleeping, we should be heading back,¡± Sakura recalled. ¡°I promised Rika-chan we¡¯d return promptly.¡±

¡°We¡¯ve dawdled quite a bit in the ice palace,¡± Syaoran sighed. How Rika had warded off the teachers, he did not want to know. There were so many of them missing, that it would be impossible for the teachers not to notice.

¡°How are we going to return?¡± Tomoyo asked. ¡°Truthfully, I¡¯m not quite sure where we are in these mountain ranges—I was unconscious when the Snow Queen took me.¡±

Everyone blinked at Sakura blankly.

¡°Ah—the Silver Wolf brought us here,¡± Sakura stated, wondering how far they truly were from the resort. Were they even in the same province?

Cerberus added, ¡°And I just followed him—he was going so quickly, all I could do was fly at full force, and I didn¡¯t pay any attention to the surroundings.¡±

Thus, they all turned to Eriol, who adjusted his glasses somberly. ¡°I don¡¯t think I have enough power left to transport all of us back at this point.¡±

¡°How about you two? How did you guys end up here?¡± Miho demanded the twins.

¡°Well¡¦¡± Eron began slowly, reluctant to admit that he had no power to transport himself and Erika back, let alone the entire group of them. ¡°The Teleport sort of left after bringing us here, and I¡¯m not sure if I can call it again.¡±

Dropping down on her knees, Miho wailed, ¡°What was the point of going through all this if we are stuck in the middle of nowhere with no means of escaping?¡±

Clasping her hands together, Sakura called out in her clear voice, ¡°Okami-sama, I beg of you another favor. Please guide us back to those who await us.¡±

¡°Silly, he won¡¯t answer to a mere human¡¯s summon,¡± said Cerberus. Truthfully, he was yet intimidated by the great and noble beast.

A sleek tail brushed by her legs. Slowly circling Sakura, the silver wolf, who camouflaged in with the snow, stated, ¡°You have courage, Card Mistress, to summon I, the Lord of the Mountains. I might have come to devour you all, for I¡¯ve been craving fresh meat lately.¡±

¡°Please, mighty Silver Wolf, I beg pardon for my rudeness, but we need to find a way to return,¡± Sakura said, humbly kneeling before the wolf.

¡°You need not bow before me. Very well, Kinomoto Sakura, Card Holder,¡± the Silver Wolf replied in his low voice. He eyed Eron and Erika. ¡°Transporting all you back to your side of the mountain will take but a mere second through my command, however do you wish those two to be sent back also? They are intruders and unwelcome in my presence. You are aware that they are descendants of the Dark One?¡±

Blocking Erika who was about to give a rude reply, Sakura replied, ¡°Yes I am aware. And I plead under my behalf, that they too should be sent back.¡±

¡°As you please, Bearer of the Staff of Stars.¡± If the Silver Wolf were a human, he would have been smiling. Turning to the twins coldly, he said, ¡°You have a benevolent protector—should you ever be caught in my presence under different circumstances, beware. I would show no mercy though human business rarely concerns me.¡±

Long silvery tail swishing, the Silver Wolf examined Eriol. ¡°You¡¯ve grown much too idle and careless, Sorcerer Reed—a disgrace to your parents, I should say.¡±

For a second, Tomoyo thought that a stormy expression crossed Eriol¡¯s turbulent slate-blue eyes, but that might have just been the glare off his glasses. Such a grand creature as the Silver Wolf, she had never seen before, and felt honored to behold. She almost felt as if she had to bow down humbly before such a regal creature. The wolf passed her with what seemed like a nod of approval, then passed by Miho and Kai without so much as a sign of acknowledgement. They were beneath his consideration. Yet, out of the corner of his golden eyes, he glanced at Kai, who stared back gravely, before lowering his head.

Stopping before Syaoran, the Silver Wolf said, ¡°You have a difficult path ahead of you, Chosen One of the Li Clan.¡±

¡°I¡¯m no longer the Chosen One,¡± Syaoran said grimly.

¡°People aren¡¯t entitled to be the Chosen One; they are born Chosen,¡± replied the Silver Wolf without so much as a proper explanation. Then, he turned to the entire group. ¡°Well, an unsightly lot you are, all of you, mere children thinking they are a lot more important than they actually are. Yet, all of you are with potential for greatness. As soon as you have a roof over your head and your stomachs are full, you would return to your useless broodings and scheming. Only when you are thrown out in the middle of the wilderness, when animalistic instincts to survive take over troublesome logic and rationale, do you value what is truly important. Humans are silly, self-absorbed creatures, so easily lead astray. Yet, when the circle is once more joined, and the children set their priorities straight, the stars will bless you all. Well now, return back to you domain and those who await you.¡±

Throwing her arms around the wolf¡¯s thick fur, Sakura said, ¡°Thank you so much!¡± The others gaped at her, for they all preferred to keep a distance from the sharp fangs of the wolf, for indeed, they felt like silly children in front of such a great presence.

¡°We shall meet again, Card Mistress,¡± reassured the Silver Wolf in a kindly tone, almost fatherly. The wolf leaped across the gorge in one bound to the other side of the cliff, but before he did, Sakura caught him murmur lowly, ¡°You really do resemble him.¡± 

 

Squinting her eyes through the morning mist, on the opposite cliff edge Sakura could make a faint outline of a man with pale brown hair lightly blowing in the breeze. His kimono was a slightly darker color than his peaceful, spring green eyes. One hand was rested upon the silver wolf¡¯s head, but he was looking up at her. He had a smile, a gentle, warm smile which reminded her of a mild summer¡¯s days. Then, everything came a blur, and she felt herself soar higher and higher through the mountain range, until she saw the smoke billowing from the chimney of the resort, all in a blink of an eye.

 

******

 

Part VI: The Winter Competitions¡¦

 

Rubbing her blurry eyes, Chiharu peered out the window. Down the snow-covered pathway, she saw eight figures approaching. Grabbing Takashi¡¯s arm, she exclaimed, ¡°Oh my goodness. They¡¯re finally back! Sakura¡¯s found Tomoyo-chan and Miho-chan, and everyone!¡±

 

Falling out of her seat in relief, Rika tumbled over to the common room and called out, ¡°Terada-sensei! Terada-sensei, they¡¯re back!¡±

 

Hours ago, the storm had ceased and the electricity had returned, and most of the students had returned to their rooms. However, Chiharu, Rika, Naoko, and Takashi asked for permission to wait downstairs, and had dozed throughout the evening, huddled in flannel blankets on the couches by the window overlooking the front of the resort. Terada-sensei and the four remained downstairs, anxiously awaiting Sakura and everyone¡¯s return.

 

Yawning, Naoko fumbled around for her glasses. She had fallen asleep on the sofa. ¡°No way, I thought they were really goners. Do you think they met the Yuki Onna?¡±

 

¡°I¡¯m so glad they¡¯re safe,¡± sniffled Chiharu. Though she knew her friend had a tendency to disappear suddenly, they always returned safe and sound. Yet, she was so afraid that one day Sakura would disappear and never come back again, for Chiharu knew that Sakura faced dangers greater than any normal school girl could comprehend.

 

Wiping Chiharu¡¯s nose with his sleeve, Takashi said, ¡°Of course they¡¯re safe. You would expect no less from Sakura & Co.¡±

 

Rika, Chiharu, Takashi, and Naoko dashed out the door to greet their friends.

 

¡°Rika-chan!¡± Sakura exclaimed, waving her hand excitedly. Syaoran, Miho, Tomoyo, Eriol, and Kai followed behind her. A little behind them trudged along Eron and Erika.

 

¡°Eh, I didn¡¯t know the twins were missing as well,¡± Naoko stated, shivering in the morning chill. Sakura and her friends seemed worse for wear—random articles of clothing were ripped, gloves missing, faces scratched and bruised.

 

¡°Kinomoto-san!¡± The teachers having heard the news that the missing students had returned, rushed out to the doorway.

 

¡°Terada-sensei!¡± Sakura gulped. Bowing her head, she said, ¡°I¡¯m sorry, Terada-sensei, we¡¦¡±

 

¡°Abominable! Eight students missing all night long! What will we ever say to their parents! You must all be punished!¡± interjected Ogata-sensei, still in nightgown, her hair in curlers.

 

Terada Yoshiyuki stared at the eight students. This was not the first time Sakura and her friends went missing on school trips, nor the first time he suspected that they were part of something more immense than he could ever imagine. What they had been up to last night, he would probably never know, nor did he care to question about. However, he still trusted them. They were good kids, and furthermore, responsible, bright young adults, leaders of their group.

 

A timid hand touched his sleeve. ¡°Terada-sensei, please don¡¯t scold them—Sakura-chan and Li-kun only went out to look for Hiiragizawa-kun and Tomoyo-chan, who were missing.¡± Rika stared up with large timid chocolate brown eyes.

 

¡°We must punish these students as an example to others of what happens to naughty students who break rules!¡± Ogata-sensei declared, thin lips pursed.

 

¡°That is right; these students must be punished.¡± Terada-sensei said grimly. Rika¡¯s hand fell from his sleeve. ¡°All of you, immediately go to bed and get some rest and sleep—hopefully you will be able to wake up in time for the afternoon activities. I¡¯ll ask the cook to set up food for you if you are hungry later.¡±

 

¡°But—¡° Ogata-sensei was flabbergasted. ¡°You are going too easy on them, Terada-sensei! These children were missing all night, endangering our reputation as their guardians on this trip!¡±

 

¡°These children have had a horrifying experience last night, all an unfortunate accident because of a natural disaster, and must have some rest before anything else! I¡¯m sure they made their way back as soon as they could, when the storm cleared. It was unwise, but very courageous of these students to go out to look for their missing friends; isn¡¯t that so, Hiiragazawa-kun, Daidouji-san?¡± relied Terada-sensei, who never raised his voice, very firmly. And his voice was final.

 

Eriol and Tomoyo nodded their heads frantically, transporting the offense of eight students¡¯ all-night truancy to a circumstance where a group of valiant students braved the storm in search of their missing two friends, trapped in the mountains because of the blizzard. The other teachers murmured words of concern, and ushered the eight students up to their room, without asking any more questions.

 

Gazing at Terada-sensei gratefully, Rika said, ¡°Thank you, Terada-sensei, for understanding.¡±

 

Ears reddening, Terada-sensei cleared his throat and declared, ¡°You four must return to your rooms and get some sleep as well, in you beds. So that you have energy for the competitions later on today.¡±

 

¡°Yes, sir!¡± chimed Naoko, Chiharu, and Takashi, smiling brightly.

 

¡°You too, Terada-sensei—you stayed up all night waiting for them,¡± Rika said. Before as a man, Rika foremost admired Terada-sensei for being such a dedicated teacher, one who truly cared for his students.

 

¡°What teacher would be able to sleep, knowing his students are missing?¡± asked Terada-sensei quietly. ¡°Unable to protect his students, because he is but one helpless man. The least I could do was wait.¡±

 

Rika smiled up at him before heading upstairs to her room.

 

***

 

Sakura and her friends woke up in time for lunchtime. She was dismayed to hear that the Aoi Team was way ahead in the first part of the competitions held that morning. Since the Aoi Team had gained 100 points for winning the relay races, Sakura realized that there was more pressure put on the individual skiers, including herself.

 

¡°We were really worried, because all the key members of our team were missing,¡± Aki stated, dunking a chunk of bread into the creamy soup. ¡°Including our captain.¡±


Yawning, Syaoran poked at his food with a fork. He was not particularly hungry, practically falling asleep over his food. But his team needed him for the afternoon competitions. How the others were so refreshed an energetic after only a couple hours of sleep was beyond him.

 

¡°Don¡¯t be so disappointed, Sakura! We¡¯ll win in the afternoon competitions, and crush the Aoi Team!¡± Miho exclaimed triumphantly, glaring at Aki.

 

¡°I¡¯m so glad that I can videotape Sakura-chan skiing,¡± Tomoyo said, polishing her dear camcorder. ¡°Don¡¯t worry, you¡¯ll have no problem beating Syaoran-kun.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t route for the other team, Tomoyo-san,¡± Aki exclaimed.

 

¡°But Sakura-chan will look so cute with a medal around her neck, won¡¯t she?¡± Tomoyo stated dreamily. ¡°It was my greatest calamity when Sakura-chan quit gymnastics, but here, Sakura-chan can stand in spotlight again.¡±

 

¡°Ah, right.¡± Aki ducked his head down, ears turning red.

 

¡°Eh, is Mizuki-sempai not awake yet?¡± Miho asked, tucking rolls underneath the table, into her pockets to feed Kero-chan later.

 

¡°Yeah,¡± Syaoran replied, glancing at Sakura. ¡°He¡¯s participating in several activities for your team, isn¡¯t he? I wouldn¡¯t count on him showing up.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry. Kai-kun will come,¡± Sakura said, patting Miho¡¯s back reassuringly. ¡°We can win.¡± She smuggled some of the cookies off the table onto her lap. Kero-chan was craving sweets.

 

Leaning her chin against her hand, Naoko stated, ¡°I think the twins competing would be the most interesting thing to watch.¡±

 

Eron sat at the end of the table, picking at his food, immersed in deep thought. Why he had bothered to show up, he didn¡¯t quite know. Maybe because he knew Sakura would have been disappointed if he dropped out from the race. Besides, Erika had told him that she would beat him the competitions today.

 

 

 

¡°Now, Aoi Team, Akai Team, it is time for the Individual races!¡± Terada-sensei called out into the speaker. ¡°We will begin with the beginner race! Chang Eron, Chang Erika, take position!¡±

 

The twins took position on the top of the beginner slopes. There was a buzz of excitement amongst the students. It was their first time to see the twins compete. Of course, Eron was considered the more athletic of the two since he was in the soccer team, however, Erika looked the more confident of the two as they stood on top of the slopes.

 

¡°Ready¡¦ GO!¡± A shotgun went off with a bam.

 

Erika and Eron shot down the slopes.

 

¡°Amazing how much both of them improved in three days,¡± Chiharu murmured to Takashi.

 

¡°Some people are born with all the talent,¡± sighed Takashi.

 

¡°Who do you think is going to win?¡± Naoko asked excitedly.

 

¡°Eron-kun, over course,¡± Chiharu replied rashly.

 

¡°No, look!¡± Rika pointed to the nearest figure approaching the end-line.

 

¡°It¡¯s Erika-chan!¡± Naoko exclaimed in surprise.

 

¡°And victory goes to the Aoi Team!¡± Terada-sensei called out, holding up Erika¡¯s hand. Even Erika looked startled, looking around panting. Eron had arrived a couple seconds later than she, and it was clearly her victory. Nobody looked more surprise than the winner herself.

 

¡°I can¡¯t believe Eron lost!¡± raged Miho. ¡°We really can¡¯t afford to lose another round!¡±

 

¡°Hoe-e.¡± Sakura¡¯s head drooped. She was up next, and all the pressure was on her.

 

Sakura felt dizzy looking down from the top of the slope. Since when had the intermediate slope looked so steep? Trying not to glance at Syaoran standing on the other side of the slope, Sakura took a deep breath in, waiting for the start signal.

 

From the bottom awaited the eager spectators. Sakura and Syaoran were both popular figures in Seijou Junior High, especially since after the Star-Crossed production, and there was not a student who did not know their names.

 

¡°100 yen that Li-sempai will win!¡± stated an underclassman from the soccer club.

 

¡°No way, 200 yen that Kinomoto-sempai will win!¡± insisted another student. ¡°Li-sempai won¡¯t have the guts to beat her!¡±

 

¡°Ha, you haven¡¯t seen them competing before, have you?¡± chuckled Naoko. ¡°Let¡¯s see¡¦ 200 yen that Sakura-chan will win, also, because she¡¯s my close friend. And because she¡¯s in my team.¡±

 

¡°Oooh, 100 yen that Li-kun will,¡± Takashi stated.

 

¡°Don¡¯t participate in the betting,¡± Chiharu said, bonking Takashi on the head.

 

¡°The act of placing bets developed from chariot racing back in the age of the city-states, when¡¦¡± Takashi was cut off.

 

¡°Though Sakura-chan is my friend, I wouldn¡¯t place any bets on her,¡± Chiharu sighed. ¡°She can barely ski.¡±

 

¡°But she¡¯s surprised us before,¡± Rika reminded. ¡°She can learn to skate in an hour, ski overnight.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s right.¡± Chiharu¡¯s brook brown eyes twinkled. ¡°But I would rather bet that Li-kun will surprise us all.¡± She chuckled by herself, as Takashi eyed her suspiciously. 

 

¡°And now, the much anticipated Intermediate Race, between the captains of the Aoi Team and the Akai Team!¡± Terada-sensei called out. The gun shot rang out.

 

Sakura and Syaoran kicked off down the slope. Good, I didn¡¯t trip over the start signal, Sakura thought. She concentrated in moving smoothly over the snow, weaving in and out to control her speed. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Syaoran pass her. Don¡¯t rush¡¦ Use control, concentrate.

 

¡°Ooh, I¡¯m so excited; I can¡¯t miss a moment!¡± Tomoyo¡¯s eyes were glued to her camcorder.

 

¡°So, who are you placing your bet on, Tomoyo-san?¡± Eriol asked, standing beside her to get a better view of the bottom of the slope.

 

¡°Sakura-chan, of course,¡± Tomoyo replied without hesitation.

 

¡°But Li-kun is the better skier,¡± commented Eriol, waiting for an explanation.

 

¡°Exactly. Look! They¡¯re coming!¡± Tomoyo zoomed the lens out. Syaoran was approaching first, but Sakura was catching up.

 

¡°GO SAKURA!!!¡± shouted Miho.

 

Just a little more, Sakura repeated to herself. Just a little more; I can do it! Go at my pace. It doesn¡¯t matter if Syaoran¡¯s ahead of me. If I just focus on my path¡¦

 

And just then, Syaoran, so fiercely making way for the end line, tripped over his skis and fell flat on his face into the snow. His teammate groaned. Stifling a snicker, Sakura swerved around his heaped figure and made it to the end. Her team cheered frantically—the Akai Team¡¯s first victory!

 

Picking himself up, Syaoran trudged back to his reproachful teammates.

 

¡°How could you?¡± Aki demanded. ¡°You were so close! That was the clumsiest fall I¡¯ve ever seen in my life.¡±

 

¡°I can¡¯t believe you stumbled, when even a beginner such as I made it down safely,¡± Erika stated haughtily.

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry about it, pal,¡± Takashi said, patting Syaoran¡¯s back sympathetically. ¡°But I really shouldn¡¯t have placed my bet on you.¡±

 

¡°Hand it over.¡± Chiharu held out her gloved hand gleefully.

 

¡°Yes, ma¡¯am.¡± Sighing, Takashi placed a crumpled bill into her hand.

 

¡°I see what you mean,¡± Eriol said to Tomoyo, who was videotaping Sakura swarmed by her excited teammates. Never mind that they were supposed to make their way up to the highest course, for their round. Tomoyo seemed oblivious to her own race coming up in a couple of minutes. After all, neither of them were the type to fret.

 

¡°Hmm¡¦¡± Tomoyo smiled blissfully. Dear, softhearted Syaoran!

 

Syaoran, despite all the snide remarks thrown at him from his teammates, was heedless as he gazed across the field to the Akai Team, where Sakura was beaming at her friends.

 

¡°Are you listening to me?¡± demanded Aki in frustration.

 

¡°Eh?¡± Syaoran turned his attention back at his angry team members.

 

¡°I asked, if you fell on purpose!¡± repeated Aki.

 

¡°No way,¡± Syaoran replied, crossing his arms. ¡°As if I have no more pride than that.¡±

 

¡°That¡¯s right,¡± Miho giggled. ¡°Li Syaoran would never make himself a fool in front of the entire school for anyone¡¯s sake—Sakura-chan won fair and square!¡±

 

¡°Next is the Advanced Race!¡± called out Terada-sensei. He was glad to see Syaoran¡¯s fall was not too serious. Another boy had been called away to the infirmary earlier that day. ¡°Aoi Team¡¯s Vice-Captain, Daidouji Tomoyo, and Akai Team¡¯s Vice-Captain Hiiragizawa Eriol!¡±

 

At the start of the gun, the two took off, full speed. The spectators watched in awe as the two sped down the almost vertical slope, the most difficult course in the entire resort. Unlike the rest of the students, the two competitors skied with the grace and coordination of a pro, neck-to-neck, so that it was impossible to determine who was the better skier.

 

¡°This one will be a difficult round,¡± Chiharu murmured. ¡°They¡¯re both such excellent skiers and the course is much longer and steeper.¡± This was the students¡¯ most anticipated race, not only for the competition, but for visual entertainment also.

 

Trying her hand at videotaping for a change, Sakura zoomed the camcorder to the two distant figures at the top of the highest slope. ¡°Tomoyo-chan and Eriol-kun are both so wonderful.¡±

 

¡°Humph. Tomoyo¡¯s decent,¡± Syaoran remarked.

 

¡°Really, I have no idea where to place me bet on,¡± Naoko murmured.

 

Swerving in and out of the cones with ease, Tomoyo ducked lower to accelerate her speed. Her long braided hair trailed behind her. Just focus on my course. That¡¯s right. Though she wasn¡¯t a competitive person, she didn¡¯t particularly like to lose. Neither did Eriol.

 

¡°Oh my gosh, they¡¯re coming!¡± Sakura exclaimed, jumping up and down in excitement. She held up Tomoyo¡¯s video camera to capture the victory scene.

 

¡°They¡¯re practically neck to neck,¡± Syaoran pointed out. Come on, Tomoyo, I know you¡¯re made of better stuff than that glass-eyed freak.

 

Aki cleared his throat loudly. ¡°No chance that Hiiragizawa-kun will fall flat on his face.¡±

 

The two skiers crossed the finish line. The students rubbed their eyes, for it had been such a close call, they needed the judges to clarify the verdict.

 

¡°And the winner is¡¦¡± Terada-sensei paused, verifying with his fellow teachers. ¡°Daidouji Tomoyo of the Aoi Team.¡±

 

The Aoi Team, after their previous crushing defeat, screamed in excitement, flocking around Tomoyo, not even giving her time to catch her breath.

 

¡°Good job, Tomoyo-chan! I can¡¯t believe you beat Hiiragizawa-kun! It was such a close call!¡± Chiharu exclaimed, patting her friend¡¯s back.

 

¡°That was amazing—you should go pro,¡± Aki stated. ¡°If you need a sponsor, my father—¡°

 

¡°It was so a tie!¡± exclaimed an indignant Miho.

 

¡°Good job, Tomoyo-san,¡± Eriol said, taking off his glove and holding out his hand. ¡°I haven¡¯t had such an exciting race in quite a while.¡±

 

¡°Thank you,¡± Tomoyo replied, extending out her hand. Her fingertips tingled as they brushed against Eriol¡¯s cool hands. ¡°We were seconds apart, so this race was practically a tie.¡±

 

¡°No.¡± Eriol shook his head. ¡°You won because you were more disciplined and focused.¡±

 

Finally having pushed through the crowd, Sakura exclaimed, ¡°Tomoyo-chan, you were wonderful! I¡¯m so proud of you being my friend.¡±

 

¡°I heard you cheering for me all the way from the bottom of the slopes,¡± Tomoyo replied. ¡°Thank you, Sakura-chan.¡±

 

¡°Aren¡¯t you cheering for the wrong team, Captain?¡± Miho asked grimly. Patting Eriol¡¯s back sympathetically, Miho assured, ¡°Don¡¯t worry—the judges didn¡¯t see properly. I was pretty sure you crossed the end line first. Nonetheless, your race was one victory I had been taking for granted.¡±

 

¡°Nonsense. Hiiragaizawa Eriol lost. Tomoyo, you¡¯re my newfound role-model!¡± Syaoran said, giving a thumbs-up to Tomoyo. At least after his own humiliation, he didn¡¯t have to see Eriol gloat.

 

¡°Dear Syaoran!¡± Eriol sighed to himself. ¡°Why does he hate me so much?¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t worry; it¡¯s not a lack of you trying,¡± Miho stated pertly. ¡°I mean, you even lost to him in the Duel, to try to appease him, without much avail.¡±

 

¡°Who lost to who?¡± Syaoran scowled. He had poured all his effort in his duel against Eriol, to prove himself to everyone, and also to test himself, for his own self-evaluation of his progress. Yes, he had won, barely, yet why did he feel somewhat unsatisfied by the result? Yes, that¡¯s right. Because he knew how truly skilled Hiiragizawa Eriol was, that he could not hold a candle to such immense knowledge and power; he had rather been humbled by the experience. For, he knew he still had a long way to go to become as great as his father had been.

 

¡°Come on, you saw Eriol last night, his true powers. It was amazing. I must know never to anger the most powerful magician of the East and West,¡± Miho stated.

 

No wonder he¡¯s exhausted today, Tomoyo thought, glancing at Eriol, who had dark circles under his eyes, well hidden by his ski goggles. After using all that immense energy, tracking down Miho, finding me all the way in the Snow Queen¡¯s territory, crumbling down the entire palace, rebuilding it, not to mention all the power he had used inside the palace, defending them all. What he did yesterday was not humanly, and it was amazing that he could function today at all. On the other hand, she herself had quite a good night¡¯s rest while she had been trapped inside the ice block, and had left Sakura and the others to do all the fighting, a mere observer.

 

¡°Next will be the snowboarding competition. The representative from the Aoi Team is Akagi-kun,¡± Terada-sensei announced, abruptly ending the Aoi Team¡¯s ecstasy.

 

¡°Well, this will be the last race,¡± Aki stated, crossing his arms smugly. This race was his victory.

 

¡°Sakura-chan, what are we going to do? Matsumi-kun, who was supposed to be in the snowboard race, sprained his ankle earlier during the relay race,¡± Naoko said. ¡°Is there anyone who knows how to snowboard in our team? We have alternatives for each category, right?¡±

 

¡°Actually, Mizuki-kun was signed up as the alternative for this category, since he didn¡¯t sign up for any of the other activities,¡± Sakura said, flipping through her list of students.

 

¡°Did Mizuki-sempai even wake up yet?¡± Miho asked skeptically.

 

¡°If the racer doesn¡¯t show up, it¡¯s immediately forfeit,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°Which means your team will automatically lose.¡±

 

¡°Don¡¯t count on it already,¡± Sakura said, chin held up. ¡°Someone, run up to the resort and check if Kai-kun is there.¡±

 

¡°No need to,¡± Naoko stated, pointing way up to the advanced slopes, next to the red flag. ¡°There¡¯s our representative.¡±

 

A student completely dressed in a black ski suit, wildly spiked hair pushed back from his forehead by a black headband, and with gleaming black ski goggles covering his eyes appeared, popped up on the top of the slopes, propped against a black snowboard.

 

Squinting her eyes into the distance, Miho asked, ¡°Who is that?¡±

 

¡°That nerve,¡± muttered Syaoran.

 

Fastening his boots to his professional snowboard, Aki smirked, looking up to see his competitor. ¡°You shouldn¡¯t have bothered to show up, Mizuki-kun. There¡¯s no way you can win, when this is your first day on the slopes. It¡¯s my victory by default.¡±

 

Grinning amiably, Kai replied, ¡°But you might have looked kind of silly sliding down the mountain by yourself. Oh wait; you enjoy the world looking at you and only you.¡±

 

¡°Humph.¡± Aki didn¡¯t think his classmate was worth answering.

 

Terada-sensei held out his hand. ¡°Ready. GO!¡± The gunshot went off simultaneously.

 

Aki kicked off without hesitation, leaving Kai standing motionless, frozen to the spot. Looking back, Aki smirked. There was no way Kai could catch up with him now.

 

From the bottom of the hill, Syaoran uttered, ¡°That idiot, what does he think he¡¯s doing?¡±

 

¡°The gunshot,¡± Sakura whispered, eyes large. Kai stood at the top of the slope, paralyzed by that thunderous bang.

 

¡°Aki-sempai had a huge head start—he¡¯s going to win!¡± lamented Miho. She called out, ¡°Mizuki-sempai, get a grip!¡±

 

¡°Besides, Mizuki-kun hasn¡¯t even practiced at all since we came to the resort; he didn¡¯t even set foot on the slopes once,¡± Naoko stated. ¡°His odds against Aki, who¡¯s had private lessons by former snowboarding champion coaches, are not very high.¡±

 

¡°Look, Mizuki-kun is waving at us,¡± Chiharu stated. ¡°He doesn¡¯t look nervous.

 

Indeed, Kai waved from the top of the hill, then bowed, right hand forward, an elegant introduction to his ensuing performance. People tilted their heads, wondering what he was up to. When Aki was about halfway down the slopes, Kai shot off, snow flaying behind him. Everyone gasped at his speed, as he swept down the mountain, a mere dark blur against the sparkling white snow. As he reached the most difficult part of the course, where there was a sharp precipice, he flew off into the air, turning three somersaults on his gleaming black snowboard. The students standing at the base of the mountain gaped, for from the distance, Kai¡¯s black figure against the sunlight was like an eagle soaring into the sky.

 

It was a refreshing sensation for Kai, gliding midair with the world below him and the blue sky within his reach, and he got carried away with his antics in the air. Shoot, didn¡¯t mean to do something so fancy. When Kai landed back on the ground, he reminded himself not to lose control again. Yet, for a brief moment when he was facing up at the clouds, he had felt liberated.

 

Gulping, Sakura said, ¡°Kai-kun¡¯s truly amazing. I would never be able to do that.¡±

 

¡°Show off,¡± muttered Syaoran.

 

¡°How beautiful,¡± sighed Tomoyo, glad she had caught every second of Kai¡¯s movement on film.

 

That¡¯s right. Sometimes I am awed at how beautiful human figure can be, Miho contemplated. ¡°It¡¯s strange that even someone as crude and vulgar as Mizuki-sempai can be so graceful,¡± she stated.

 

¡°Oh, but he¡¯s naturally graceful and charming,¡± Chiharu stated in surprise. ¡°Can¡¯t you tell it¡¯s bred into his bones?¡±

 

Much to Aki¡¯s astonishment, he heard a swoosh behind him, and in a matter of seconds, a black figure swished ahead of him, leaving him wading through the snow. Pumping his legs for momentum, Aki wondered how a person could be so quick, even on a snowboard. Even as he made his way down the slope, Kai had already reached the end-line, much to everyone¡¯s amazement. Who would have though Mizuki Kai, who didn¡¯t show up for a single practice, who came barely in time for the last race that day, who was so lazy and clumsy during PE class, who cared nothing about team cooperation, would show up and be the saving grace of the Akai Team?

 

¡°Kaitou-kun, you were great!¡± squealed Sakura, throwing her arms around Kai¡¯s neck. ¡°We¡¯re almost a tie with the Aoi Team now!¡±

 

¡°How come you bothered to show up, Mizuki-sempai?¡± Miho demanded.

 

¡°If you were that good, why didn¡¯t you tell us earlier?¡± asked Naoko, bedazzled. She was seeing Kai in a new light.

 

¡°Humph.¡± Grumpily, Aki walked over to his teammates.

 

¡°Tough luck,¡± Chiharu reassured Aki. ¡°You were fine—Mizuki-kun was just too quick, that¡¯s all.¡±

 

¡°Did you see that? It took Mizuki-kun half the time it did Akagi-kun to get down the hill,¡± uttered a classmate.

 

Fuming, Aki glared at Kai, who nonchalantly stood in the midst of the worship of his fellow students. The spotlight should have been mine. The victory should have been mine. Everyone should be congratulating me right now. Yet, they idolize that lazy, good-for-nothing delinquent, who played hooky for the entire trip, went missing all night long, and shows up at the last moment. Why? What¡¯s so good about him?

 

¡°