The rotunda was filled with a sparkling, crème colored mist. It wrapped itself fluently around the carved stone pillars supporting the arched ceiling and thinned out over emptiness. Dots of bright light twinkled merrily in the foggy air, gifting the rotunda with a sparkling illumination. Nothing was visible in the mist – the throne carved out of marbles with sparkling rubies, the dining table made out of yellow gold, and the crystal floor were all concealed under the milky curtain. There was only one unconcealed item in the heavenly rotunda, and that was a small table made entirely out of a cumulus cloud. Puffs of angelic white floated from the table and off into the foggy atmosphere, gracefully floating above before invisibility of the fog claimed the miniature clouds greedily.

Positioned at the very center of the small cloud table was a sphere – a sparkling, glittering diamond sphere. Under the unique lighting of the arched room, the lustrous gemstones would color with a graceful streak of a rainbow or light up with a blindingly bright glow that would force human onlookers to shield the flesh of their tender eyes. Such a treasure lying innocently, unguarded, would undoubtedly spark a gigantic surge of desire from witnesses, but it stood there absentmindedly with the fear of theft absent.

A figure advanced cautiously out of the mist and stepped upon the clear air surrounding the cloud table. The figure was a man – a tall man with a straight spine and broad shoulders, and also a man marred by the passed years. White hair sprouted out of his head and fell down alongside his head in thick strands; his skin was leathery, darkened and wrinkled by an ancient age. His eyes, however, were like burning embers of coal, perusing every visible detail that his eyesight befell upon keenly – fluently. Standing gloriously tall and strong even in his elder years, it was purely evident that this man was not a member of the human race but a subject of another race that greatly outnumbered the mortals in superiority.

A few strands of white hair fell over the man's eyes as he lowered his head, directing his studying stare at the sphere below him. Two fingers reached out and stroked the diamonds fondly, the movement slightly jerky due to anticipated nerves.

"I have to admit – it is amusing to sit here and watch you do all the work for me, noting that the work is the very same job you were previously oh so apposed to. Your daughter is safe and sound in my care, but you do not know that, don't you? You think the humans got her." The man's stare honed into a sharp glare, and two agitated creases shot up from the points of his furrowed eyebrows. "But I cannot have you know that, now can I, Marisa? Your incorrect belief that your daughter is being a subject to torturous experiments somewhere in the Human World is the only motivation fueling you in unintentionally obeying my will."

Presently, a strange transformation came over the diamond sphere. A swirling jumble of hues filled in the transparent whiteness, replacing it with blues, oranges, reds, and brows running perfect circles, similar to a spinning galaxy brimming with fueled energy. The man's deft irises swam in the two sclera

seas with fueled energy of his own, the colors' swift twists and turns reflected in the glassy eyes.

Eventually, the colors settled to form a picture – a peculiar picture of a corridor with a dripping ceiling and a soil-infested floor, countless amount of lit torches lined the light gray stone walls, and the stench of decaying negligence wafted through the dusty air.

A humanoid shadow followed by a figure of a tall person dressed from head to toe in a dark cloak crossed the rocky floor. Heels stumped heavily against stone, and the end of the curtain swished briskly to a rhythm unbeknownst to the witness of the aged man.

It was impossible to define the possible identity of the cloaked figure, but the man merely smirked knowingly at the scene and added more pressure to his supporting palms as he leaned closer to the diamond sphere. The figure in the gemstone globe picked up her pace presently, hooded head lowered as if in sacred prayer and bits of violet heel sticking out to visibility before disappearing once again in the canopy of the cloak.

She was crazy. Marisa knew that this entire ordeal was stupidly crazy to begin with. On more than one occasion not only was her sanity question, but as well as if her choice was fueled truly by the passionate determination to get her missing child back or revenge. After all, was traveling from the Wales District of the Spirit Realm to the Japanese District, assembling an entire army of victimized spirits who lost their natural points in the Human World, lying to them about the entire plan, and marching like idiotic fanatics to the realm of mortals was all that she could really do for her daughter?

No sooner has that thought crossed Marisa's mind for the millionth time that she felt a tingling sensation blossom at the pit of her stomach. Butterflies fluttered restlessly beneath the purple skin of her abdomen as a jolt of apprehension electrocuted her bloodstream. Painful throbs vibrated from within her chest, causing her breath to hitch momentarily in her throat and the hairs in the neck of the end stood up. The feeling increased maliciously, and Marisa felt as if she was being smothered under the judging glare of countless of eyes.

After a few minutes passed and the accursed feeling flowered into dread instead of succumbing, the purple-skinned mother met the boiling point of her nerves. She broke off into a run. Fixing her eyes firmly on the floor before her so she wouldn't trip over any loose stones, she sprinted down the hallway. Her pace only quickened through the passing seconds, kicking up brown clouds of dust into the air and scattering loose debris. She did not slow down for anything, not even for the steep set of stone stairs, but flew down those as if she was racing across a football field and only came to a halt at her destination: A small, latched door at the bottom of the stairs, half hidden by dark shadows.

Marisa approached the door with wary, forced steps, almost as if she expected the said door to fly off its hinges and a dragon to rocket out of some abyss. Dark violet irises looked out of the brim of the hood and regarded the door coldly. As Marisa walked up to the door, a slender, purple hand surfaced from the black waterfall and pressed itself against the cold metal. The hood slipped off her head.

A mane of charcoal black sprouted out of a purple colored scalp and flew down a straight back gracefully. The facial features of the woman were very feminine and soft with a pert nose, lips naturally colored with a strawberry red hue, wide purple colored eyes, and two thin eyebrows graced the section positioned directly above her orbs. For a spirit, Marisa was very much human looking (like a woman of European heritage), and she would have been mistaken for one if it wasn't for the bizarre color of her skin and eyes.

Marisa flicked back a strand of hair from her eyes and resumed to inhale and exhale deeply, apparently unperturbed by the clouds of dust she breathed into her respiratory organs. Her fingers shook slightly as she curled them around the half rusted latch.

"Never let your emotions get the better of you." A hand flew to the left section of her chest, like a wounded butterfly desperately fluttering off to shelter, and another sharp inhale raised the woman's posture an inch. The absence of loved ones always brought a gaping hole to the heart – an unforgivable, unsealable hole – and a spiritual mother of a kidnapped daughter was no exception.

Resuming her posture, Marisa deftly unlocked the latch and pushed the door open. The orange firelight flooding through the doorstep gave view to a room – a rather large, skanky room with a high ceiling and a dusty floor made out of wooden planks. Tattered curtains of crimson and purple hung along windowless walls; heaps of down cushions were piled at the corners; a single long table made out of imperfect wood ran down the middle of the room. A candelabra filled with burning candles was positioned at the very center of the table, and a sweet fragrance of midsummer flowers wafted delicately through the pungent air, resulting in a rather incomprehensible mix of horrid smells. The table was lined by two identical benches, upon which sat two dozen or so creatures of different origins. Some of them appeared to be a cross between a human and a plant or an animal, and others appeared to be some sort of mystical beast right from a fantasy novel.

"Welcome once again, my friends, to our assembly!" Marisa's warm choice of words were voiced in the iciest of tones as her equally icy eyes calculatingly swiped over the spirits. A few hushed murmurs of polite, halfheartedly spoken greetings rose into the air as a reply, and a polite smile forcefully stretched itself over the purple-skinned woman's lips as she gracefully sat down at the head of the table.

"Now, before we begin the reason of our assembly, I would like to ask you here to voice any concerns or questions you may have regarding our mission. As mentioned before, this is our last meeting before we meet at the entryway to the Human World, so mention anything that troubles you know, or those concerns will be treated with indifference in the future."

A ghostly silence followed. The quietness suddenly appeared to be very appealing to the spirits, who sulkily kept their eyes firmly attached to the table. The very air now seemed suffocating – not suffocating with dust and dirt but with a shrill ominous ring, causing a few icy chills to shoot down several spines. Marisa took this all in with hidden glee and opened her mouth to speak when a swift movement captivated her attention, and her eyes were drawn to see a brown, woody hand raised in the air.

The spirit who raised the brown hand, a wood sprite, was a perfect combination between a slender tree and a human maiden. Her large wooden eyes stared fearfully at her purple-skinned leader before they trailed up and down the imperfect skin of her wooden arm – tree bark, cracked and marred by some cruel disease. A few green leafs were attached to the end of the sprite's dark fingertips by thin stems. Larger leaves, possessing the departing color of bright orange and red, fluttered lifelessly from her biceps to meet the floor below.

"Yes?" Marisa's steely tone sliced through the air like a shooting spear, yanking an audible wince from the tree maiden.

"W-well, ma'am …" The wood sprite lowered her eyes shamefacedly. "I was thinking that … what if, that is … our plan is not enough to stop the humans from continuing to hurt us?" She raised her little head and directed her gaze shyly at Marisa, whose face looked like it was undergoing some stony transformation. "W-what will happen then?"

"Dire circumstances call for dire measures," came the reply.

The wood sprite blushed, her pale brown cheeks darkening into a deeper brown color. "But we won't … k-kill, won't we, ma'am? I believe it will be incorrect for us to do so. Our reason for existence is to guide the humans, especially for us bonded spirits. It will be going against mother nature if we -"

"I said, dire circumstances call for dire measures," Marisa snapped disgracefully, eyes flashing like menacing lightning. "As I mentioned multiple times in the past, our foremost mission is to stop this nonsense that has been happening for many decades, if not more! We bonded spirits deserve our physically bonded place that is rightfully ours, our gift bestowed to us upon the said venerable mother nature." Violet irises scanned the room searchingly, and the rage boiling within them eased into sly triumph when they saw the absent-minded look in the spirits' eyes.

The icy tone turned sweet with fake sympathy, like deathly poison underlying golden honey. "You all lost so much … it's unfair, brutally unfair, and all of it happened because of those humans. We spirits do not dare abuse mother nature; why shall the humans be permitted to do so?"

The spirits' absent-minded expressions deepened, their logic trapped in a trance like barrier. Images of green canopies of lush forests, soaring mountains jabbing at the azure skyline, screaming waters of roaring waterfalls, and the firmament's reflection mirrored gloriously at still lakes flashed through their minds.

"What would you not do to get your natural sites back? What is more dear to you than something of your own flesh and blood – or something of your mind? Trust me, I know what it is like to lose something so precious to you that you feel incomplete without it," she added truthfully. "It's incomprehensible, it's scathingly painful, but it's there and it's very, very real."

The same wood sprite who spoke earlier absently wiped a sap tear from her cheek with a leafy finger. "My forest was so … glorious," she recalled sorrowfully. "The greenery was fresh and lush in the summertime, flourishing under the sun's light. My forest was full of life, too. There were deers, rabbits, squirrels, and bugs. It was … it was my home," the sprite murmured quietly, drawing both arms close to her chest as she firmly sealed her eyelids together. "It was my reason to live. It was my whole world, my everything. And then the humans came and then …"

"And they destroyed your forest." Marisa finished the sprite's sentence for her gently, who reciprocated with a mute nod. She sighed and pressed two fingers to the middle of her forehead, hiding the act of summoning a spell with a mask of weariness. "My ambition here is to prevent such disasters from happening again, but if you do not feel comfortable following me, then by all means you may depart."

A few spirits shuffled uneasily in their seats while others clenched their fingers together into tight fists, but no one rose to their feet.

"Well," smiled Marisa, "now that that is over with, if there are no further … concerns, then I'd like to get down to business here." A hand dove sharply into her cloak, fished out a corked bottle with a brown colored concoction, and set it on the table. There was a faint swish of the liquid inside the bottle before it stilled, glistening under the dim firelight.

"This is the virus I told all of you about," she explained matter-of-factually as she glanced briefly at the bottle. "Viruses originally came to the Human World when a rock from space hit Earth, carrying the said organisms with them. Viruses are surprising unicellular organisms – they match or outrank the intelligence of a human and many of them find shelter inside the human's body. Viruses can be programmed to perform special tasks in humans of certain ethnic groups or even of certain religion. This particular virus is programmed to physically show the innermost character(s) of particular humans we'll infect."

A mermaid looking creature, with a sparkling red mane of hair and thin, cat like eyes raised her hand. "You mean, ma'am, that if a human is a pig, they'll turn into a pig?"

Marisa arched her eyebrows. "If that is how you put it, yes."

"But wouldn't that alert humans of our existence?"

Marisa turned her nose up slightly in the air indignantly. "Hardly they'll start believing something that has been called 'folklore' for centuries so quickly! They can start coming up with theories, but unless they find solid proof of a spiritual world parallel to theirs, they won't believe in it. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, humans are more taken to the theory of existence of people from other planets than they are to us."

The mermaid bobbed her head briefly, and the end of her brown tail gave a swift twitch.

"Of course such a supernatural transformation will spark an outcry among humans and many of them will try to heal themselves of such a wretched curse, but all attempts will fail," Marisa continued. "Humans will then try to satisfy their desperation to various gods and some of them may try to change their behavior in hopes of regaining their original physical appearance. Only when they will start showing genuine concern for the environment around them will they be turned back into their humanoid form. However, if humans will change their behavior for the worse, their condition will worsen depending on the committed sin. After all of this, what do you think mankind will think?"

"That the gods are angry with them," someone said softly, and Marisa nodded.

"Yes, correct – that the gods are fiercely angry with them for their misdeeds, and they'll be more careful. Some of them may even try to repair damaged environments, and if that does happen to the point of success…"

"…Well get our homes back!" several voices cried loudly.

Marisa clapped her hands together. "Yes! You will get your homes back! In the days of the old, humans respected and feared us, and such behavior did good to both sides: Humans were pious, humble creatures and spirits weren't affected with ill will. Perhaps a spark of the old days will eventually return to the modern Human World; it is time for the boundaries to be set that has been breached centuries ago."

After a few in-detail discussions of the "mission" as well as their meeting time and place, the spirits departed the room one by one. Instead of somber frowns wrinkling their brows and sorrow marring their glowing eyes, they walked out with beaming hopefulness, Marisa noted keenly. When the last of the spirits left the room and the door slid shut upon the dreading suffocating atmosphere, the mother dropped her face into her palms despairingly.

Speaking falsehood was a sin the woman always despised greatly, and she went great lengths to teach her daughter never to lie. But now that her said child was in the hands of those dirty-minded pigs, what other option did she have?

"What else can I do?" she whimpered into the darkness.

The sun slowly climbed off the stage of the sky, leaving the firmament in a glorious setting of oranges, pinks, soft purples and departing blues. All of the colors seemed to whisk away with the ceasing ball of glowing yellowness, and a dark gray color skimmed the atmosphere. Just as the last bit of gray dusk turned into night, a car swiftly drove up to a tall building and parked at the corner.

Chihiro inhaled deeply and exhaled dramatically as she kinked her fingers even firmer into the steering wheel. Her eyes flickered briefly to look out the windshield, and her breath hitched at her throat with the familiar sight her vision presented her: Skyscrapers sprouting out of the city ground and towering into the heavens, air cloudy and dirty after the city's exhaling exhaust, lights blinking rapidly through the curtain of darkness.

"How I hate it here," Chihiro breathed bitterly, eyebrows drawn together into an exasperated scowl. Memories whisked through her mind which only served to fuel her anger. "I'm not supposed to be here!" she nearly yelled into the emptiness of the car, tears springing out of her narrowed eyes. "I am supposed to be with mom and dad at the nice blue house they bought – not at this stuffy, horrid place!"

Overcome by the desire to bang her fist against something, the woman angrily pushed the car's door open and swung both of her legs to meet the concreted ground. Another loud slam shattered the silence of the outdoor air, sending the door to click back into place with a disturbingly loud volume.

"You're being unreasonable again," Chihiro muttered dryly to herself, pressing a weary finger to her temple. "Stop being so foolish, Chihiro. You're a grown up woman, 28-years-old, for heaven's sake! This kind of behavior is unacceptable for a 13-year-old, and it is most definitely unacceptable for you."

18 years. It has been 18 years since Chihiro's small family of herself and her parents moved from the town to the suburbs, leaving their familiar, cozy home behind them to come to live in the "middle of nowhere," as Mrs. Ogino rightfully commented. It has been 18 years since Chihiro, only as an ignorant child of ten years, and her parents stumbled upon a world that seemed to have come straight from a fantasy novel, evoking one of her grandest – if not the grandest – adventures she ever yet came across in her lifetime. It has been 18 years since she unconsciously bid goodbye to everything she ever came to know in the swift time-span of ten measly years and stepped into a new phase of her life – a complicated, dangerous phase, that showed no sign of wavering its vice like grip on her that imprisoned her in a sphere where every other organism was an enemy and her only ally was her brain given to her by God.

But … 18 years. Has it really been that long? Chihiro would find herself wondering on more than one occasion. No longer was she the care-free, simple child of ten years old; no longer was she a teenager with bright expectations for a bright future; no longer was she even an adolescent, barely abandoning the teenager years and entering adulthood physically, emotionally, and legally. What Chihiro would mark as the "major part of her life" due not to how much time has passed in the said span but due to how much actually changed and developed seemed to be a jumbled, incomprehensible blur of events that rushed past her, leaving her to stare dumbly into the darkness. It seemed only like yesterday when Haku demanded that Chihiro "went across the river" immediately when they met at the bridge leading to the Bathhouse; it seemed two blinks of an eyelid ago that her parents met their lives' end.

A drop of water splashed at the turned up tip of Chihiro's nose, effectively bringing the woman out of her depressing musings. Two deep creases rose from the tips of her furrowed eyebrows as she lifted her head to stare up inquiringly at the sky. The sky has darkened, she noted, but not darkened with the approaching hours of a pitch black night, but with angry black clouds that shielded the glistening celestial bodies from the citizens of Earth. A streak of light highlighted the glowering firmament, and rain began to pour in the distance.

Heaving an aggravated, Chihiro fumbled darkly within the inside creases of her purse for her keys as she approached the glass doors that marked the entryway of her apartment building – her permanent residence, if her new job did not put her into the obligation of moving anytime soon. As her fingers victoriously curled around the cold metal of what she recognized to be her house keys, a chill of fear shot down her spine as she recalled her idiotic actions. She could be musing about anything she wanted in the warm safety of her bed, but not while standing in a dark, empty parking lot!

A familiar beeping noise announced an opened door, and Chihiro gracefully stepped over the threshold and onto the brightly lit lobby of her apartment building. One look around her surroundings told the young woman that she (again) was alone for the flashing lights of fluorescent bulbs to shine upon at this late hour, and she steadily advanced towards the elevator. The day has been undeniably exhausting, and the image of her bed – a soft mattress clothed in a light blue sheet and completed with a warm comforter and a pair of down pillows – seemed unusually enticing on that particular evening.

The ride up to the elevator was (thankfully) a quiet and simple affair, consisting of pressing down upon a button she pressed nearly twice a day, everyday and was finished by the barely sensible tug of the elevator gaining eminence with the ground.

The elevator came to a smooth stop on the seventh floor, and Chihiro stepped onto the beige carpet of the corridor mutually shared by all residents of the said floor. A small, sad smile trembled at the corners of her lips as she wearily proceeded down – her door was the "blue one on the end," as her mother would have remarked if she was alive to see her daughter's current residence. The door was, indeed, coated in thin blue paint finished off by a silver colored doorknocker and a bronze doorbell hanging humbly at the white wall beside the door frame. Chihiro always saw the arrangement of a doorknocker and a door bell together rather peculiar, but it was this way when she bought her apartment, and at times she felt so dispirited and jaded by her new life that she couldn't find the energy in her to adjust the door to her style. It's not like the arrangement bothered her, anyway.

As soon as Chihiro came to her door, she inserted her key into the lock and opened the door to her apartment. She flicked on a light switch before shutting the door as a wave of white illuminated the previously dark hallway. What was concealed by the darkness now came into clear view – softly colored lavender walls and an arched ceiling with painted greenery intertwining gracefully against a white background. Most of the accessories – from the light switches to lanterns – had either a distinct golden or silver color, and nearly every furniture piece was made out of either redwood or leather.

Standing alone in her luxurious, big apartment brought another wave of loneliness to wash over her. Chihiro squeezed her eyes shut, refusing to let more tears spill; she did enough of that by now. An image of a brown-haired woman with a nervous frown popped into view as soon as she closed her eyes, and she remembered the last time she met with the said brown-haired woman – her practically next-door neighbor, Lin (a nosy but a kindhearted and caring person nonetheless).

"You should stop beating yourself so much, Sen. You know I care for you," Lin said affectionately as she put her glass of ice water back down. "You make me so worried. Admit it, Sen! You aren't the only one who lost their parents at a young age, but no one is acting as you are."

Chihiro never failed to see a stunning similarity between her neighbor Lin and the Bathhouse worker Lin she encountered at the Spirit Realm. Perhaps it was the pang of nostalgia that this neighbor Lin brought her that made Chihiro befriend her – or, rather, befriend her in the only way a depressed woman who was still grieving over her parents and now had a ton new responsibilities as the CEO of an organization could. "I'm sorry, Lin, it's just … I cannot help it. They're the only family I ever had."

Lin exhaled deeply in return, eyes closed momentarily before they opened to bore down at Chihiro's. "You keep pushing me away. But why do you do that, Sen? Can't you see that I am genuinely worried for you – that I love you?"

A blush of shame reddened Chihiro's cheeks, painting them a dark crimson hue. Her downcast eyes have had not taken noticed the streak of guilt darkening the other woman's features, and a few harsh words of self-blame squeezed through Lin's tightly pursued lips.

"I apologize. I am very sorry, Lin – I really am," Chihiro finally said, eyes still firmly attached to her lap. "It's just that I find myself so worked up about everything …" She threw her arms exasperatedly into the air. "Taxes, investors, conference calls, you name it! It just keeps on reminding me of what I've lost because it all has to do …"

"...With your father's dream." Lin reached her arm across the table and patted her friend's hand lovingly, her eyes shining with sympathy. The woman's eyes always held so much emotion that Chihiro was never quite able to decipher the silent meaning they held, as she was either frequently drawn to the voiced concerns of her friend or something else. "I understand you here, Sen, I really do. But you must not neglect the life fate has given you. Your parents …" Here, Lin halted in her words, drawing a shaky breath as her eyes fluttered closed. "...wouldn't want this."

Chihiro had about a thousand and one different things to say in reply to this – how she wasn't neglecting her life but doing the exact opposite by busying herself, how she simply had to get this entire business over with and promise her that she would settle down and have a family of her own once this entire ordeal was behind her, and how her parents wouldn't have wanted to leave her in the first place – but she simply offered a genuine happy smile. "I appreciate the time you give me. You always make me feel better," she thanked heartily, and here she did not miss a flash of an emotion streak through the woman's eyes before they settled back to their normal glow. "I just need to get this over with, and it'll be much better afterward. I know it will!"

Lin pointed a finger to the air haughtily as a disapproving scowl crinkled her forehead in determination. "Uh-uh! You're actually living a life here and that's final, or my name is not Lin!"

"I need to get this over with, Lin."

"Yes, but you're going overboard."

"But what do you mean by 'living a life'? Getting over the death of my parents?" Lin opened her mouth to respond, but Chihiro cut her off with a lie, "Actually, I am … much better about that than I was two months ago. Yes, I'm improving, so to speak, and once again I promise I will start a real life very soon. I just have to get this over with. Now … more dessert?"

That, Chihiro recalled grimly, was the last time they met like that. She played off another lie on her neighbor, saying that with the official opening of her organization (and her greenhouse) approaching, she was extra busy and felt much too worn-down to "live a life here". It was partially true, though, and the brunette woman was more than thankful for the actual tsunami of duties washing over the coast of her brain to hide her increasing depression from Lin. The woman wouldn't have taken it lightly, that much was sure – Chihiro could almost see her friend standing there, hands on hips, short shiny brown hair grazing the skin of her ears, eyes flashing threateningly as she poured out her worries into words that held a genuine concern beneath their rough surface.

The familiar ring of her cellphone sliced through the quiet air, and Chihiro's eyes flickered restlessly to the blue glow emitting from the outer pocket of her purse. She snatched the mobile device, eyes absently recognizing her secretary's number before pressing upon the green bottom and bringing it to her ear. "Hello?"

"Miss Ogino!" Makoto's voice was shrill and loud with alarm, and after giving an audible wince at the jab of pain from the high voice nearly yelling into her ear, Chihiro felt her heart quicken its pace with fueled anxiety. What would prompt her organized and collected secretary to suddenly make such an alarming call at such a late hour?

"Miss Ogino, how could – what happened, Miss Ogino -"

"Makoto, Makoto!" Chihiro hastily brought another hand to the cellphone so her words wouldn't get perturbed by some unknown source of distraction. "I cannot understand a word you're saying, Makoto. Calm down, take a few deep breaths, and tell me calmly: What is the matter that made you call me at ten in the evening? Is it an emergency?"

"Of course it is an emergency!" gasped Makoto breathlessly. Chihiro's heart leaped into her throat.

"Makoto. For the second time, what is it?"

Chihiro heard Makoto take a few deep breaths on the other side of the phone before exhaling irritably. "The conference call, Miss Ogino," the secretary offered in a crisp, yet understandable, tone. "Mr. James and Mr. Nakamura have called me five minutes ago, reporting that you haven't been at Skype at the time of the conference call. Is everything all right, Miss Ogino?"

Chihiro's eyes widened painfully, her irises giving a heavenward bounce before returning to stare fearfully at the corridor before her. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out save for a strangled noise from the bottom of her throat that sounded like someone choking off a human's wind pipe. It was only when Makoto repeated – anxiously, nor irritably, this time – "Miss Ogino?" that the brunette recalled her state of dismay. Calling a haste, "Tell them I'll be right there!", she practically threw the cellphone to the dimmed end of the hallway before nearly shoving at the red button and took off into a wild sprint down another corridor. Her childhood clumsiness always returned to her in moments of haste, and she tripped over thin air nearly three feet and jabbed her toe at the redwood entryway of her bedroom, successfully ripping out a loud gasp of pain from the woman. Some of her (learned) gracefulness seeped back into the 28-year-old as she approached the laptop at the desk quietly before bringing down a swift hand to start it. There was a droning sound as the computer screen flickered back to life.

How could I have forgotten about the conference call? Chihiro thought angrily, the sharp edges of her fingernails cutting into the palm of her clenched fist. How could I be so reckless? James and Nakamura said there were some things very important things they needed to talk to me about when I'll have the time. It was so horribly remiss of me to forget such an important thing! I'm 28, for lord's sake. I'm too old to make such stupid mistakes!

Presently, the anxious brunette found herself messaging a quick message to the contacts of her two business partners, and she received a reply basically immediately. "Just thankful to hear that you are all right, Miss Ogino," the one from Mr. Nakamura read.

There was a pause and another text message popped into view. It was from James. "If you are ready to discuss it now, Miss Ogino, we're right here."

Chihiro messaged back a quick "yes" in reply and hit the option to call with the video camera. She found herself smiling apologetically into her glowing web came, knowing full well that James and Nakamura could see her.

"Once again, I apologize for my delay, gentlemen. I have been … stuck in traffic." Once again, she found the perfect excuse to reduce her mortification, albeit it was childishly irresponsible.

"It is all right, Miss Ogino," Mr. Nakamura's voice came through the computer. Just then, two live images flickered to life at the screen of her Skype account, and two masculine faces stared back at her. Chihiro suppressed a shudder as she saw the angry glare behind their forcefully polite smiles: These men were wolves, just like Yubaba was back at the Bathhouse. The thought that the two men were scheming something behind her back crossed the brunette's mind more than once by now.

Chihiro carefully schooled her expression into a neutrally polite one. "Mr. James, Mr. Nakamura. If there is nothing else that needs to be mentioned beforehand, may we know begin?"

James held up a stack of papers in his hands. "Yes, Miss Ogino. Mr. Nakamura and I want to voice our questions concerning the greenhouse."

The greenhouse? Chihiro resisted the urge to frown. What in the name of Yubaba's Bathhouse are they thinking of now? "What are your concerns, gentlemen?"

Mr. Nakamura straightened his tie proudly. "We calculated the advantages and disadvantages of a greenhouse, and unfortunately the disadvantages outweigh the advantages."

I bet you did not consider "setting an example and providing the public with nutritious food" as an advantage. "Please explain."

Mr. James was quick to detect the unsettling in the Japanese woman's voice, much to Chihiro's carefully concealed dismay. "Well," he began slowly, eyes jumping back and forth before focusing on something ahead of him, "we do not have a guaranteed market for the greenhouse. We are coming here as an organization practicing green politics with the ambition to prevent pollution and potentially restore polluted areas, such as the Kohaku River. The greenhouse will simply add to the existing expenses and, as I already mentioned, we do not have a guaranteed market for it. We will be competing among other companies by selling organic foods – which may receive more rejection than acceptation."

Taking deep breaths did not prove to be such a good stress reliever as it was said to be, Chihiro soon discovered. Her fingers kinked together into firm fists, clutching at the fabric of her white jeans, before another exhale would soften her vice like grip on the fabric and another wave of furry would force her to dig her fingernails painfully into her palms.

"Yes, and to add to Mr. James' words," added Mr. Nakamura, "the entire point of a greenhouse seems rather … unessential."

The words rang a clear, shrill bell in the woman's mind, and Chihiro straightened her smile that dropped by a few degrees. The lights of her computer screen flickered restlessly to form a picture from her past.

"A greenhouse?" Mrs. Ogino raised an eyebrow at her husband inquiringly. "What does a greenhouse have to do with cleaning the environment, honey?"

Mr. Ogino took one peek at his wife sitting across from him at the breakfast table and hid his nose back behind the newspaper. "Think about it carefully," he stated slowly, flipping over a page. "People nowadays cannot imagine life without electricity, power, oil – all of those stuff that are bad for the environment."

Mrs. Ogino huffed irritably. "Something has to give, honey," she reminded him matter-of-factually, straightening out the few loose strands of black hair. "And how is electricity bad to nature?"

"Practically everything nowadays is." Mr. Ogino risked another peek at his wife before hastily averting his eyes from the intense stare, finding a photograph of an arrested thief particularly interesting."Oil, coal – all of those things aren't Eco-friendly."

"Point taken. Next?"

"No, you don't get it." Mr. Ogino slapped the newspaper against the table harshly and, ignoring the familiar sharp glare shot warningly in his direction, he leaned closer towards the table. "Yuuko, we have to show an example that it is possible to live in a modern society normally without affecting the environment so much. The greenhouse will grow food as food as grown in nature: No pesticides, no chemicals, no nonsense, but good ol' nature way. We will show them that it is possible to do major things differently, commerce our products nationwide, and then perhaps farmers will start viewing the situation differently!"

Mrs. Ogino arched her eyebrows disbelievingly at the word "nationwide," but she soon found herself nodding wholeheartedly in agreement by the time her husband ceased speaking. "But why a greenhouse?" she queried. "Can't it be something like an open field? Besides, I do not think one greenhouse will be able to commerce products … nationwide."

Mr. Ogino grinned. "Start, Yuuko, start. Besides, I yet have to think of a way to shoo away from the bugs from the field without using chemicals and pesticides. Don't you think so, Chihiro?" he suddenly asked, turning to his fifteen-year-old daughter who was observing the entire situation quietly. "Don't you just adore your brilliant father?"

Chihiro twitched her lips humorously, eyes shining with mirth. "Yes, father, I absolutely adore you," she replied. Inside, though, she felt exasperated. How could anything so impossible be considered … brilliant? And where did her father's abrupt obsession with the environment come from, anyway?

A year later, Mr. and Mrs. Ogino were killed in a car accident.

There's no way I'm letting them take the greenhouse out of this plan, Chihiro thought sourly, her stare honing into a sharp glare that she bitterly directed at the annoyingly bright screen. Only now, 13 years later, did she understand the true wisdom of her father's words – what would be the sense of continuously supporting nature, cleansing it and nursing it back to a flourishing, glorious life when it would be trashed all over immediately afterward? The general public had to get the same idea by being introduced to new possibilities, or the efforts of the organization would be completely wasted. Chihiro had to agree – looking over her father's computer files and printed documents, she did come across some … rather bizarre things, but the greenhouse was not one of them.

"I acknowledge your financial concerns, gentlemen, but I feel obliged to disagree with you." The woman brought her hands to rest on the desk's surface from her lap, momentarily cherishing the cool smooth texture beneath her clammy palms before focusing her attention at the faces of her colleagues. "The greenhouse was originally planned to exist not to bring in money, but to set a standard example to the public that it is possible to live harmoniously with nature. Now, if both of you do not mind, I would appreciate if we continued our talk tomorrow afternoon, when our minds will be well-rested and fresh.

It has been a rather tiring day for all of us, no?"

There was a moment of silence as the men stared incredulously, jaws slacking in their rigid postures and brows slightly risen in disbelief. Finally, Mr. Nakamura coughed politely into his fist, shattering the silence that was beginning to unnerve Chihiro all too much.

"Yes, ma'am, I do believe that will be excellent," he said, and there was a note of sarcasm to his voice that made the corner of Chihiro's mouth rise involuntarily. "Good night, Miss Ogino."

"Good night, gentlemen," the brunette echoed warily, and the call was off in a click of a button. Her brown eyes reflected the screen's bright stare lifelessly, like two dark glassy marbles before a bright lantern. Finally, she heaved a sigh and unclenched her fists, her stare traveling down to land at her lap as she did so. A loud clicking sound snapped the silence momentarily, and all light from the room vanished save for the flooding fluorescent one from the doorway.

Chihiro's hands again rested into a white knuckled grip at the edge of her desk as she shakily rose from her stool. Her brows were knitted into a firm frown as she stared beseechingly into the darkness, almost as if she hoped for something – or, rather, someone – to spring out of the black curtain and aid her.

"How – how dare they," she hissed exasperatingly, cheeks reddening with flowering anger. "How dare they want to take the greenhouse away merely out of greed!" Her eyes hardened to the point that her irises appeared like brown diamonds inserted into a carved face of a statue. "If I had the opportunity to do this without them, I'd choose that in a heartbeat! But ..." Her voice momentarily stilled as she sadly looked around her. "But I can't. All of this … never belonged to my family. My parents left me with a few possessions, including the house, just to get by." She drew her arms close, eyes again moistened with tears she refused to shed. "I would never have been able to do all of this with the money I inherited, even if I sold every last thing that I had. I have no choice but to abide to their wishes, or strike a compromise with them."

It was then that the full realization of her consequences hit the woman, ripping a loud moan from her. As if she did not have enough things to do tomorrow, she would also be hearing an ungodly lecture from her two business partners which was sure to earn her a headache tomorrow. Thinking of the throbbing she had yet to receive made Chihiro out-thrust her hand to her desk, fingers fumbling in the dark clumsily for her small bottle of aspirin tablets. A small bit of relief touched her already aching heart when her fingers did enclose upon the desired bottle, though it vanished as she presently laughed feebly at herself.

"I'm probably going mad already," Chihiro muttered under her breath, withdrawing her hand from the bottle and bringing it to rest by her side. "I'm talking to my parents' photographs and now to myself … what's next? Hallucinations?"

At that very moment, a flash of white by the bedside attracted Chihiro's eyes to her nightstand. It wasn't a flash, she corrected her overworked brain, but the lighting up of her (another) cellphone screen. "And there I almost thought I did start hallucinating," she muttered to herself as she walked towards the nightstand and snatched the phone. She deftly tapped her finger against the screen and a text message appeared.

"'Where are you? You haven't messaged me all day! You know I'm worried'..." Chihiro chuckled halfheartedly at her friend's nervousness and took another swipe of the screen so more of the message was displayed. "'Message me back ASAP – it's already nine. And come over to me tomorrow; don't tell me you don't have time for it because I live only several doors down from you!'"

"Lin is worrying the health out of her." Chihiro took another tap at her screen to reply to the text message. Her tomorrow's schedule rushed through her mind, and a frown sagged the red lips of the downhearted brunette. As nice as Lin's jasmine tea and dessert was, for the sake of the organization she could not afford to go over to her friend's. There was a lot of paperwork to be done as well as a serious conference call to attend tomorrow – and no doubt Makoto would arrive with something that required her immediate attention. There simply wouldn't be the time.

Chihiro felt a sharp twitch of guilt at the thought. Comfort was something she sought since the day she discovered herself an orphan at the tender sixteen years of age, and now when she received it genuinely from a true friend, she pushed herself away from it. Lin would be the one to seriously vex out over the refusal, the brunette thought regretfully, but she would clarify some time to seriously relax for once with the help of Lin's company – and her absolutely delicious blend of fabulous teas.

She finished her text message with the said promise and sent it back with a tap of her finger.

"For the last time, Haku, your plan is not working! I still will never be able to comprehend what you're trying to achieve by this entire thing!" Brown eyes bore menacingly into green ones, and the said green eyes reflected the glare like a mirror.

"What do you propose?" Haku inquired simply.

Lin regarded the 12-year-old boy sitting calmly at her bed and found herself torn between the urge to throw a jackhammer at him or strangle some sense into him. "Look at me!" she shrieked indignantly, gesturing to her short brown hair and her rather uncomfortable suit of human clothes. "I've did everything that you expected me to do. I've come into this polluted world, changed into a human, behaved like a human, found where Sen lives, bought an apartment here so I could be her neighbor, befriended her, and tried numerous times for the past three months to get something into that head of hers! I show my concern genuinely, as you instructed me to do. I try to talk some sense into her, to show her that there's always white in black. There's nothing else left for me to do, and all of this still has no influence on Sen!"

Haku arched both of his eyebrows at the weasel spirit's direction. "Again, what do you propose for me to do?"

"For the sake of everything holy left in this godforsaken world, talk to her!" Lin practically howled. "I do not have the patience to simply stand here and message her and await her and receive the same, 'I'm fine, Lin, I simply need to get this over with and then I'll settle down,' thing over and over again. First of all, Sen's not fine, or we wouldn't be doing this entire affair in the first place. And secondly, I do not believe for a split second that that girl will get her head out of the clouds when the organization is finally up and running! She'll be more busy than ever, and her work will only fuel to her stress because it will remind her of her father and mother."

"How do you think that me talking to her will help her anymore? It will only unnerve her even more."

"Forget the entire Marisa thing!" the brunette weasel almost snapped. "You aren't here to get her involved into whatever that purple woman is planning to do."

The river spirit drew an exasperated sigh of his own. "Remember when the rumor about Marisa spread? It practically left the skies stained red and the clouds boiling in their own furry." The image of the sour heavens on a war day stretched over land flashed into his mind, and he blinked several times to shoo the memory away. "Very little is known about her, that much is for sure. It's rumors, but I was able to detect one truthful thing: Whatever it is, it is incredibly powerful, and there's much more to it than what it seems."

Lin looked serenely at Haku. "So you've come here to make sure Sen would be okay," she added quietly.

"Yes, and then …" Haku drew another sigh, eyes shut closed to conceal stinging tears. "I never actually approached her, but I knew enough to know that something horrible was there, troubling her."

And that's when I came in, Lin thought to herself and bit down on her lip. "There's also the case with the prophecy."

Haku added another inch to his posture. "I do not want to talk about it."

"You … you must consider it all, Haku. Or we'll be unprepared when danger really strikes," murmured Lin quietly. "It's all too much to be a coincidence, really. Her parents die when Sen is 16 – now, doesn't that number ring a bell? At the sixteenth year, danger nears. Then, she suddenly becomes this environmental fanatic – her interest is shared by Marisa's! Twins of opposite origin emerge, lost in their darkest verge -"

"Enough!" Haku snapped as his eyes flew open angrily. "I said, I do not want to talk about it! What is there that you do not comprehend?"

Lin placed her hands haughtily on her hips and lifted her chin. "You may do whatever you want to do, dragon boy, and hear whatever you want to hear, but that's not going to be the case when you face the consequences," she warned dourly. "So think it over. Apparently, bringing Sen out of her depression by the means you came up with aren't working, and they aren't going to work if the prophecy, heaven forbid, rings true." A beeping noise halted any forthcoming words, and Lin sent the boy another scowl before reaching into the pocket of her pants to retrieve something humans call "cellphone." There was a moment of silence as Lin tapped her finger against a button delicately, and a differen lighting emitted from the electronic screen.

"Okay, I officially give up. Sen is more than stubborn for her own good."

"What is it?"

"I should have foreseen this!" she huffed. "Listen to this: 'Just came home and got off a conference call. Sorry about the late message. Anyway, I have too much work to do (including continuing the conference call) tomorrow so I won't be coming over, but I promise I will make some time when you and I can chat. Love, Chihiro.'"

Haku blinked thrice at the seething brunette before the latter statement of the "text message," as those little communication messages sent via the mobile devices were called, registered in his brain. "You said that she promised?"

"Yes – don't take it seriously, either. I already received a hundred of such promises and each and every time she had some excellent excuse to get her out of the situation! Either Mr. Nakamura or whatever the man's name has proposed something new or her secretary – or was it receptionist? – had an urgent message … you name it."

Haku wordlessly climbed off the bed. "It's already late. We'll continue talking about this tomorrow," he said, glancing at the clock.

Lin marched up to the door of her bedroom and swung it open. "I don't see what there is to talk about," she retorted snappishly, giving a dejected shake of her head. "You just have to change your tactics if you are willing to pull Sen out of her depression and save her from potential danger."

"You're right," Haku said quietly, and the distracted tone of his voice immediately made Lin alert. "We do need to change something, and there's also Marisa to worry about. Her plans may be sinister, she may be sent by someone else, but discerning this is a duty as a Council member I won't dare neglect."

A gentle emotion softened Lin's hard features as she looked pityingly at the boy in front of her. She felt sorry for him, more than she'd ever care to admit. "All right," she nodded slowly. "But for now, off to bed. It's an early rise for all of us tomorrow."

"Good night, Lin."

"Good night," the weasel spirit echoed back simply. That night, both spirits retired to their beds worryingly as foreboding wariness loomed over them, like an ominous shadow.

I apologize for the long wait. I have been busy with my other story as well as other things. Well, how did you all like the "first official" chapter of my story? By the way, the next couple of chapters will clarify things much better! :)

A shout out to my reviewers

NarutoSwag99: Glad you like the prologue! :)

afraidofspiders: I am so very glad that you liked it, and the next couple of chapters will clarify things better. Thanks for reviewing! :)

the real deal: Glad you liked the start, and I hope you will like the rest, too. :)