Peter, Mathew, Clandolin and I, were all huddled in the kitchen, listening to our guests fighting in the next room. Peter had tried to calm the situation down in his usual diplomatic way, but Clandolin thought it would be clever to shout 'FIGHT!' as we left the Green Room and weapons were drawn. Peter had no choice but to hide with us.
'Do you want me to go in and see if I can calm things down?' asked Clandolin.
There was a chorus of 'NO!' from the rest of us. He'd already done enough damage, after all.
'What made Mitsurugi come here anyway?' I asked, feeling really quite stressed and considering going back to The World As It Is.
'He's on a quest to find the lost shards of the Goddess Amaterasu. He was told to speak to the Green Isis of Rotokia.' Peter explained.
'So that's what you were talking about.' I exclaimed, relieved.
'Indeed, and I was just about to take him to speak to her when this stupid old clown came in.' he snapped, pointing at Clandolin who just pulled an innocent face, as though shocked that anyone could possibly be blaming him for anything. Peter continued, 'I was also going to show him the Shinto shrine, to see if that held any clues. He was interested when I told him it's a gateway to the Shinto dreamworlds...' he was interrupted by a loud crash and a lot of breaking noises. Mathew cringed almost as though he was in pain.
Just then the door pushed open. It was Yoshimitsu.
'Boku no kappu ga warechatta. Mou hitotsu ga aru n'desu ka?' he chirped, very calm and politely as eyes flickered from red to green with a slow pulsing motion. He held out his hand containing the pieces of the broken cup.
I grabbed his arm and tried to pull him into the kitchen. He didn't budge at first but then when he looked down and realised what I was trying to do, he came in, closed the door behind him and placed the chips of china on the table.
'Doushita?' he said, sounding genuinely puzzled, as though getting into fights half way through a polite tea party was a perfectly normal thing to do.
'Yoshi, you've got to stay out of there otherwise you'll be fighting all night.' I said, with a slight pleading intonation.
He didn't seem immediately impressed so I added, 'I'm only asking you because I know you're a lot more reasonable than Mitsurugi. You've been so nice to me all night. Please just do this one little thing for me.'
Yoshi did not reply strait away but his eyes settled on red and softened to the warm glow I had seen earlier. I didn't take my eyes off him while I waited for his answer.
'Hai... koko de tomaru.' he declared with a sigh, and sat himself down at the kitchen table.
Peter seized his moment and went to speak to Mitsurugi. I thanked Yoshi and placed a bottle of cola on the table in front of him.
'Would it help if I gave you a straw?' I asked my curious new friend with a chuckle.
'Sore wa benri da kamo, onegai shimasu.'
I wasn't actually expecting him to say yes but luckily we had some in the residents' cupboard.
As I opened the cupboard it reminded Mathew that he had other duties to attend to.
'Oh shoot, is that the time?' he gasped, 'I haven't started dinner yet! Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!' he said rushing around like a puppy chasing its tail. 'The residents will be starving...'
'Tomarikyuka...?' Yoshi repeated, in his own tongue, as he took the straw from me and jabbed it into his bottle.
I decided it was time to reveal the function of Magpie Manor.
'Oh, yeah, there are a lot of people who stay or live here at the manor, most of them have no where else to go. You see, Clandolin, apart from being a total knucklehead, is also the leader of a very successful group of warriors, called the 'Night Travellers' who venture into the collective unconscious of the people who live in what we in Rotokia call The World as It Is. That's where you were thought up.' I added for clarity, 'Their job is to help and heal those beings that are otherwise at the mercy of human imagination. My job is to try to help the humans who created the mess in the first place.'
I paused and waited for Yoshimitsu to ask me to explain it better. Instead he nodded his head and said 'Wakatta.'
We heard the main doors close and realised that the Greem Room was now free of any bad tempered samurai, so moved ourselves back through there.
'Curandoran-sama, shitsumon wo ikutsu kikitai...' Yoshi said once we were sat down together -this time on the sofa. Mathew stayed in the kitchen frantically trying to knock something up for dinner. Both Yoshi and Clandolin were looking at me and it was a few moments until I realised what they were waiting for.
'Oh, I see, um, Yoshi says he would like to ask you a few questions Clandolin.'
Clandolin grabbed another flask of sake, the only one not to be knocked over, broken or otherwise rendered useless by the earlier fight.
'Fire away Yoshi my man.' He said, sitting back comfortably.
I explained that I didn't want to be trying to translate everything all night so Yoshi suggested I found him some paper and a pen. As well as being able to understand spoken English, it turned out he could write like a native speaker too.
He wrote his first question on the paper and handed it to Clandolin.
'Can you please tell me more about the Night Travellers?'
'Sure thing.' He said, taking a gulp from the flask. 'It all started long before I met Jemma here. I used to be a member of a slightly sordid group of outcasts who called themselves the 'Shadow Rangers'. We lived in a world called Middle-Earth, an egragore world from the very famous 'Lord of the Rings' novels, although we were never written about sadly. We scraped a living by doing odd jobs for people and often, these jobs were dangerous, illegal or down right immoral. I wasn't exactly proud of the life I'd found myself in but we were closer than brothers and I was content.
'Then one day, while on our usual hunt for work, we stopped at a tavern where the punters were all discussing the tragedy of elves from Rivendell being taken captive by orcs. I was raised in Rivendell so the news was a shock. I wanted to go straight away to help them but my captain wouldn't allow the Shadow Rangers to intervene. I was torn but in the end deserted the group and decided to go and rescue the elves by myself.
'I managed to save a few of my fellow elves on my first visit to the orcs' fortress but the things I saw in there sickened me and made me realise that saving only a few at a time wasn't enough. On my next attempt, I tried to rescue over 20 elves at once and my foolishness not only led to them being recaptured and cruelly treated, but I myself was caught and tortured.
'Then, by some miracle along came this girl,' he patted me on the head and I grinned back at him, 'A friend of hers had been keeping a close eye on Middle-Earth and knew there was trouble. Jemma in her eagerness to help brought the whole of Rotokia to life, turning the land itself into a vast army. They found me and I befriended them, helping them to navigate through those dark, humid tunnels.
'The mission was a success and we realised we needed somewhere for the sick and injured elves to stay. The Manor was more than large enough and so, its job as a home for troubled egragores began.'
'I realised then the potential I had to help others. I ventured back into Middle-Earth once I was fit enough to travel and hunted down my old comrades. I told them that Jemma had offered to give them a contract to help her rescue those in need and they eventually agreed. Once again, I was a Shadow Ranger and many people passed through these doors thanks to us.
'But it was when we were asked to move away from Middle-Earth and start travelling into other parts of the Middle-Worlds, into the darkest corners of the minds of the living, that the Shadow Rangers showed themselves for the cowards they really were. I was kicked out and called a traitor for working for Rotokia and so, I decided to start my own group. One that would focus on the places where we were really needed, that would compliment the work that Jemma and the others did. I recruited the most talented people I knew, most of whom had actually been rescued and healed at the Manor themselves and soon we were off into the cruelest, most dangerous parts of the collective unconscious; the dream worlds; the nightmare worlds; the 'Middle-Worlds!!'. We are the Night Travellers!'
Yoshimitsu seemed impressed by Clandolin's answer and began to write his next question. They continued in this way and once Yoshimitsu's curiosity had been satisfied, I asked him if he'd like me to find him a room. He agreed that he was tired and asked if there was any chance he could have a room on the top floor so he could take in the views over Rotokia. The only room available up there was the room Smeagol and I used to use when we were a couple. It hadn't been used since before our divorce so I was a bit reluctant to offer it; after all, I still loved Smeagol in my own crazy little way. But it was nice that Yoshimitsu appreciated the beauty of my astral home, so I eventually smiled and told him I knew just the room.
I stood outside the penthouse room and called out 'open'. The door unlocked. I explained to Yoshi that once he told the door to close, the room would be his and obey only his voice. The doors all use voice rather than keys because not all residents have impossible thumbs and sometimes they are sick or crippled so can't get up to let visitors in. There is, however, a skeleton key for emergencies.
Yoshimitsu walked into the room and looked all around him. It was just as I had left it. It had completely white walls and carpet, a large semi-circular bed with a Celtic design around the headboard and a small table, almost a stool, holding essential oils, books and my sketch pad that for which I had been looking for months. There was a real log fire on the opposite side of the room, decorated with dried roots and a deer's skull hung over the fireplace -Smeagol's addition. The best part was of course, the window. It was an attic room so the window was in the sloping roof and took up almost the entire space. There were no blinds or curtains but to have them would have been a crime. When you lay on the bed you could watch the stars above you and it was simply magical.
The stars in Rotokia are breathtaking. They move constantly and the main constellations are outlined, like they are in astrological guides. You can actually watch as Pegasus beats his wings or see Leo the lion having a swipe at playful little Ursa minor.
When you stood up in the room, you could look out over all of Rotokia, you could see the unicorns twinkling at the edge of the forest. You could glimpse a dragon gliding through the sky and the living swan-boat sailing un-maned along the veins of rivers like a ghostly spectre. Standing at the door, watching Yoshi taking it all in, brought back floods of memories for me. I had forgotten just how lonely I can be in Rotokia. I wasn't romantically in love with Smeagol anymore but I missed the companionship, I missed being in that room, feeling special, watching the world drift by without us. I missed having someone to share my beautiful astral world with, instead of being forced to write about it in order to take people there.
I snapped back to find Yoshimitsu watching me, scratching his head awkwardly and making his already messy red hair even wilder.
'Oh, sorry, I drifted off there. So, do you like it?'
'Hirokute kirei na heya...' he moved to the window to take in the view, 'subarashii keshiki ga aru tokoro da naa.' he added.
I joined him at the window and looked out.
'Yeah, she's a beautiful world isn't she?' I turned to look at him and what I suddenly felt gave me a fright. Although I suspect it had been brewing inside since the moment I set eyes on him, only then had I been made consciously aware of it and it caught me off guard. 'I hope you enjoy it here. Goodnight Yoshimitsu.' I said with a polite bow before I hastily left the room.
'O-yasumi nasai.' Yoshi called after me as I closed the door.
It took me a few moments to pull myself together as I leaned against the wall outside my old honeymoon suite. Had I really just felt that? Had I really just looked at Yoshimitsu and felt a romantic attraction to him? I seriously needed a cider, maybe even a brain transplant, so I headed off to the Horizon, Magpie Manor's bar.
It was quite lively in the Horizon for a week night. I sat on a stool at the bar, while Watt the bad tempered barman poured me a cider. Smeagol was in the Horizon, playing pool as usual. I just pretended I hadn't noticed he was there. We are still very good friends, as I try to make a point of not falling out with people, but my head was all over the place and I couldn't cope with ex's right then. Not in Rotokia, not in the World as It Is. I just needed to gather my thoughts and decide what the hell was going on in my mind.
'You look pale Cleo.' Watt said, using my Rotokian name as he placed my pint in front of me.
'Do I?' I smiled, 'It's just been an odd night.'
'You know your ex hubby's in here?'
'Don't remind me. I'm pretending I haven't seen him.' I answered. Watt just shrugged his shoulders and went off to serve someone else.
While I sipped my drink, I tried to make sense of everything. What had started as a fleeting flutter of desire had already spread like an infectious rash to consume my common sense and dominate my thoughts. No matter what I did, all I could think about was Yoshimitsu. Just knowing he was above me, six floors up, made me feel butterflies inside. I found myself wanting to see him again, wanting to know the man behind the mask, and wanting to know if the bionic ninja was anatomically correct!
'Hey there Jemma.'
I looked round to see Peter pulling up a stool next to me. It was a good thing he appeared really because I realised I had just spent the last few minutes staring at my glass.
'How was Yoshimitsu after I left?' he asked, like a red rag to a bull.
'Yoshi? He, yeah... Yoshi... he's good... really, quite fine...um...'
'Are you okay Jemma?' Peter enquired, moving my cider out of my reach in case I was drunk.
'No Peter, I don't think I am...' I hesitated for a moment and then blurted out, 'I think I'm in love with Yoshimitsu.'
Peter rolled his eyes, 'Oh Jemma, not one of these again. I think you need to really think seriously about this before you make any rash decisions. For now though, you had better... WAKE UP!' He shook me suddenly and I found myself in Rusty's bedroom. Only my guides, Peter, Arkle and Mathew, can wake me from Rotokia. I had gone to bed before Rusty but he had since joined me while I was in Rotokia. I gave him a big hug and tried not to worry about the goings on in my other reality.
It would appear that I have found myself in an incredible world. If I had only thought such a place could exist, perhaps I would have come here in my dreams long before now. Instead, it was a curious letter which led me here to this world; a world that promises so much.
I expect it is too soon to make a clear judgement. I will need to speak to the girl and to the elf, but I feel that my entire existence, my creation, was not for the entertainment of kids with games consoles but rather so I could find this place. Of course, I know that is crazy. Still, I find myself feeling more real, more solid, in this world. I almost feel that this world is mine and mine alone.
The view from up here is breathtaking. I cannot seem to stop looking over this new kingdom. Habitats that should not exist side by side are nonetheless overlapping in an impossible patchwork of wilderness. Tomorrow I shall wake with the sun and begin to explore the contours of this land and I shall know it as I feel it already knows me.
No. No. This is very wrong. I do not like where this is going. This place is making me feel a dreadful emotion. I do not fear sorrow, loss, pain or even my own fate, but happiness... I will always flee from happiness. I will not allow myself to be happy while there is still so much injustice in the world. That is a battle that will never be won but one which I will nevertheless keep fighting with every fibre of my being. To keep battling on regardless, one requires strength and determination. Happiness breeds contentment and contentment can quickly turn to idleness and then, the fighting stops and people suffer and die around you while you nestle down in your happy, comfortable, ignorant life.
I have loved. I have, I can and I do. But all that I love is taken from me in the end. Retribution for the deeds of my past. For you see, I am not the saint I am made out to be. I am a monster. A monster chained by a curse. A curse I must carry at all times. I cannot run from it. How can you run from that which you hold in your hand? How can you hide from that which is a part of you? A part so big you fear it could be most of you?
I hide it well. It is one of the first principles taught to a manji warrior -to wear the mask of humour. I am not talking about the physical mask of the manjitou. We learn to play the fool, to never appear to take ourselves seriously. You would be surprised what a deadly weapon that can be. Like the fox that pretends to be mad, pouncing only when his prey are no longer afraid. But manji humour has another use too, it masks our true feelings, it masks who we really are. Thank goodness.
My head is hurting, -I am relieved about that. My good friend Doctor Broskonovitch is always messing around with me, trying to improve me, to make me 'better'. He just wants to do what he can to help, but sometimes I feel that I am just a project to him, just another one of his crazy experiments.
Some time ago for reasons I shall never fully grasp, the doc completely eradicated my body's hormone production. Instead, my biological feedback system is now controlled by a chip in my head via waves. Everything from fight or flight to simply breathing in and out. Dr. B said it would make me more efficient, 'practically invincible', arguing that his system was less wasteful than a system reliant on protein production. Reflexes, he promised, would be instantaneous. However, I am sure I feel exactly as I did before but for one difference. This chip in my head causes me constant discomfort. Of course, the doc knows nothing about that and he would rectify it at once if he knew. But I have chosen to keep the pain as a reminder of the battle I am here to fight. This way, I can never be too comfortable that I am tempted to slip into the contentment of happiness. Am I a martyr? Perhaps.
I suppose I ought to sleep now. The sun has fully set and the only light in the room is coming from my sword; its cursed blade glowing with the memories and skill of every Manji leader before me... and my own, gorged upon the deeds of the past, both terrible and great. But I shall not think about that now for I doubt sleep shall find me if I do. I fear that tomorrow could be a very long, if not interesting day. I have never before, in all my long years, felt less prepared for what is coming.
He sat upon his great bay horse, Chikara, contemplating the space between the two red pillars; the space that led to the Shinto Middle-Worlds. It took him a moment to gather his nerves and then he nudged Chikara onwards with his heels. The horse took a few tentative steps but then, tossing his head and slashing his tail against his flanks he sidestepped away. Mitsurugi gave his mount a reassuring stroke down his main and soothed him with gentle words. Chikara's eyes rolled in their sockets, flashing the whites, and his nostrils flared wide with each inflating breath.
With one determined and fluid motion Mitsurugi steered his horse around in a wide circle. Turning the animal to face the gateway again, he shortened his grip upon the reins and with a barking voice he shouted the horse onwards, giving him a firm squeeze with his legs. Chikara reared onto his hind legs and then with an anxious neigh, he burst into a gallop that took master through the gates and into the Shinto Dreamworlds.