Lory wanted nothing more than to put his head into his hands and just… let go. The hope of the Kingdom, of redemption for Kuon and the destruction of Vaith lay dead before him, softly glowing purple crystal marring almost every inch of her body. Kyoko seemed almost peaceful as she lay next to the man who had given his life to defend her; Hikaru, one of her old bodyguards back when she was a concubine.
Despite his desire, Lory couldn't let himself be overcome. Not while others were in the tent at least. He was the commander of the small group and their main source of stability. After the horrors they had seen in the city and with the fig tree, that stability was in short supply. While he wouldn't be their main source, he was still a source.
The delicate hand on his shoulder served as a reminder of these facts. Jelly Woods looked healthy and vibrant, all traces of the coma she'd suffered from gone thanks to time and some medicines of his own making. Her deceptively young face, however, bore the marks of weary sorrow, hinting at the true age that it held. A fat tear swelled within each eye, slowly following the trail down her cheeks that the others had left. She didn't bother to wipe it away, her dark long sleeves already damp from previous attempts. For her, he would be as strong as the castle walls against a sandstorm, even if she didn't know it.
The others in the room also cried; Hiou, another champion like Jelly. The man called Murasame, though he looked to be doing a decent job of hiding it. And Sho, a man Lory was more than a little surprised to see here. His eyes were dark, fixed unblinkingly at Kyoko. Sho's gaze hadn't left her face even as he described what had happened in detail to Lory.
A relaywell sat beside Lory, the gem blinking softly. He had been trying to get a hold of Kuu the second the boy had finished his tale, but the king was likely busy moving his troops through the narrow passage between the hills to their encampment. It was unlikely Kuu would see the message before he arrived, but Lory had to try.
Jelly sniffed, a blink dislodging another tear.
"It seems to have slowed," he commented.
Jelly's fingers tightened on his shoulder, likely a reflexive habit. "Marginally," she said. "It's not endless like it was before."
"And the heartache?"
"Just as crushing," she said, voice low. "It felt so terrible after waking up from the coma and feeling her gone. But this… There's no mistaking it. This time she really is dead."
Rosa, really gone this time, and with no way of knowing if she could come back.
"We should cover them up," said Lory, meaning Kyoko and Hikaru. He wanted to give the dead their due respect and privacy. Hiou nodded, reaching for a sheet to do just that.
Jelly removed her hand from his shoulder. "Do you think—"
The tent flap flipped open, and a young woman in dirty clothing with long straight hair came through the entrance. He recognized her, even if it had been several years since he'd seen her last. It was Itsumi Momose, the daughter of the Duke Sozen Momose. She had taken over his place as the leader of the city after he had been caught instigating a revolt again Kuon. Her eyes locked on the two bodies on the floor as she froze.
A gasp fell from her lips. "No."
Her brother came in behind her, looking disturbed and unsure what to do. "Sis…"
Istumi ignored him, instead falling to her knees beside Hikaru. Her eyes flew widely across the man's face, flickering between him and Kyoko.
"No no no." She shook her head, slow at first, then faster. "This isn't… this isn't right. You found her. You said you'd protect her. You idiot. You can't protect her if you're—"
Her breath caught. Tears cascaded onto her collar bone as she pressed her hand to her mouth to stifle a sob.
Jelly left Lory's side and knelt beside Itsumi, carefully reaching a comforting arm around her. Itsumi didn't lean into the comfort, but she didn't push it away either. Her eyes were now angry as they turned to her brother.
"How did this happen anyway? Where were you all? Where were the champions as the Accursed attacked?
"I don't understand." She looked around wildly, gaze eventually falling onto Lory. She leaned forward, voice beseeching and accusatory all at once. "How could this happen?"
Lory took a slow breath. It did little to release the iron grip constricting his lungs and heart.
"They were attacked by Accursed," said Lory slowly. "Three of them. Kuon stayed behind to give Kyoko, Hikaru and Sho here time to flee. We don't know what happened to Kuon, but we know at least one Accursed survived. That one attacked and managed to kill Hikaru while Kyoko succumbed to her curse."
"But she was getting better." Itsumi pleaded. "She was actually resting. And the inhibitor. Surely it helped."
Sho interrupted him before Lory could answer.
"Would you just quit your yapping?" the boy said sullenly. "They're dead. What does it matter what happened before that?"
Itsumi stood up, her anger now hot and directed at Sho. "How about you shut up you half-baked composer. You didn't even care about Kyoko. Think I don't know how you stole her work from her? She hated you! You refused to work with us, saying we were evil. You were wrong!"
"Itsumi…" Tsuyoshi looked embarrassed as he tried to placate his sister. His attempts were rebutted.
"No!" she slapped his hand away. "He has no right to say any of that when he doesn't care. He has no right to even be here!"
"Think what you want, girl," sneered Sho. He pointed an accusatory finger at Lory. "But don't think I haven't been listening. You lot seem awful concerned about some palace physician, even if she was the prince's girl. It's too weird that all the champions are crying nonstop. It's not normal."
The champions gave each other furtive glances. They knew about Rosa being within Kyoko's essence. If they focused, they could each feel her spirit pulling them closer.
But that pull was gone now. Lory had confirmed that with Jelly, Hiou and Tsuyoshi. Rosa was truly dead.
"What do you mean?" Itsumi was looking between them all now as if they could throw her an explanation that would solve everything and bring Hikaru and Kyoko back to life.
"I'm saying that I'm not an idiot," said Sho. "Something doesn't add up with what you've been saying between you two. And I want to know what it is."
Did they deserve to know? Did it even matter anymore? Rosa was gone, but maybe there was a way to bring her back. Even if Kyoko, her previous vessel was gone, maybe Rosa had found a new one. Maybe there was still hope. And if there was, that was classified information none of them were privy to.
From the corner of the room, the one person that had remained silent through all this stood up. His bow was awkward as if he wasn't used to being formal, but it did nothing to distract from the weary bite of anger in his words.
"I want to know as well," said Murasame. "The Lady… Princess Kyoko saved me right before the rot could take me. I'd be dead if it wasn't for her. She exhausted herself doing so and if that helped contribute…" He swallowed before continuing, voice rough. "Colonel Hikaru was one of the finest men I knew, and quite frankly, an inspiration. I know it is a selfish request and I already feel that I know more than someone like me should. But I can tell there's something more to this. I'd like to know, please."
The room's focus centered on Lory. He stood, taking their emotions and adding their weight to his already heavy heart as he measured their expectant faces.
Looks like you found another group of allies, Kyoko. She'd always had a knack for that.
"This cannot leave this room," said Lory.
"Sir," said Hiou sharply. "I don't think telling them is a good idea."
"You're probably right," said Lory, which earned him a raised eyebrow from Hiou. "But I also cared for Kyoko, and I can understand the need to know why this happened."
Hiou lowered his head in silent assent, the tears still glimmering on his cheeks. Jelly gave him a sad smile, showing her pride. She agreed with his decision in that gesture and it meant more to him than he had ever admitted to her, though she likely suspected.
The other three waited, Itsumi's hands gripping Hikaru's dirty cloak as it if could protect her.
"It's a little complicated," said Lory. "But the gist of it is this. When Rosa died at the palace, she did so in Kyoko's arms. A part of the demi-goddess's essence and soul then fused within Kyoko's own, residing there, dormant until she was able to be resurrected. The Accursed knew of this and were likely after Kyoko for this reason. We were hoping to find a way to resurrect Rosa, but we weren't fast enough with a solution."
Disbelief spread across Sho's face. Itsumi completely froze as Murasame's jaw dropped.
"You're lying," said Sho. "That's… why would that happen to her?"
"Did she know?" said Itsumi. "Did Cain?"
"Yes," said Lory. "As did Colonel Hikaru Ishibashi, Mage Hiroaki Ogata, and Kanae Kotonami."
Murasame sank to crouch on the balls of his feet, slamming a fist to his forehead as he repeatedly cursed under his breath.
"They're all dead," said Itsumi. "All of them, except maybe Cain. Hiroaki and Kanae never made it out of the caves and now…" Terror blossomed across her face. Her frozen state finally broke as another emotion ran its course through her, shaking her body anew.
Sho raised a fist and shook it at Lory.
"Then why the hell did you chase her away from the palace, hah?" he said. "Why'd you let that rotten prince take her away?"
"Watch your tongue, boy," spat Hiou. "Remember who you're speaking to."
"He was the one in charge of her, wasn't he?" Sho waved a wild hand at Lory. "She was his little project; the female physician. Why didn't he look after her?"
Lory's gaze sharpened, satisfied when the boy flinched under it.
"Because, Sho Fuwa," he said. "I did not own her. She was her own person, free to make her own decisions. A fact you never grasped if I've been told correctly."
The comment seemed to slam into Sho. He bit down on the words that obviously wanted to burst out, showing a great deal more control than Lory expected. A single tear rolled down Sho's cheek before he scrubbed it away with an angry "Dammnit!"
Itsumi bust into a new round of tears. Jelly abruptly left Itsumi's side, grabbing Tsuyoshi and all but throwing him on the ground beside Itsumi. A sharp glint from the small yet ferocious mage had Tsuyoshi properly comforting his sister.
"What happens now?" said Jelly, still eying the brother to make sure he was doing his job as a sibling.
It was a question Lory was still pondering when the tent flap opened again. This time a soldier arrived, saluting Lory.
"It's the prince," said the soldier. "He's alive. He's reached the camp and he's on his way here."
The relief at hearing of Kuon's safety was immediately dwarfed by his trepidation. How was he going go tell Kuon what had happened? And where?
The magic of the necklace had gone silent a while ago. A worrisome fact, as the necklace's locator spell should continue to work so long as it was whole. Maybe that explained why the signal had been so faint. It must have gotten damaged during Kyoko's escape.
It was hard not to worry. Cain knew there were other possibilities. Maybe she'd taken it off? No, that would be unlike her. She would know he would follow its signal to find her. Maybe the crystal marks were interfering with the magic? Maybe. But just as likely not. What kept him from panicking was the light he could still faintly see and sense ahead. Several lights, actually. How could that be?
His surroundings were a blur, shades of gray and black in the forms of humans. The camp was a sorry sight even without his magic assisted vision mucking up the details. He'd separated from the soldiers that had remained to defends those retreating from the city. Every one of them had sustained an injury and needed tending to, whereas Cain, thanks to his healing, was still perfectly whole. The kind of healing he required now was of the mental sort that only Kyoko could soothe.
He kept walking toward those lights, hoping to find her at the end.
Ahead, a man walked toward him. His aura was bright compared to the others, but not a pure light like Kyoko's. Cain squinted through the haze, finally identifying the man. He nearly gasped in shock, exhaustion lessening as he nearly smiled.
The Duke looked much as Cain remembered him, lean and commanding, with perhaps a few more flecks of gray in his wavy hair. He wore the attire of a captain general, a braided knot and insignia adorning his shoulder. The sword he always wore sat comfortably beside his hip. A twitch of his hands showed a readiness to use it.
Cain couldn't help remembering the last time he had seen Lory. It had been in the middle of the palace throne room; Cain having just completed his contract with the Djinn and Lory trying to stop him from rampaging. Perhaps Lory still felt uneasy around him. It would explain the tight expression as he approached. But a moment later he clapped Cain on the shoulder, his smile warm and glad.
"Kuon, we were afraid you hadn't made it," he said. "I heard you took on three Accursed yourself."
Cain grimaced. "Tried to. It only worked out because I was lucky." His good humor faded as he remembered why. "One of them broke off to pursue Kyoko. Did she make it out alright?"
Lory's face remained perfectly unreadable. "Let's talk somewhere else. We're gathering attention."
The twisting in Cain's stomach grew worse again. If she'd been okay, Lory would not have hesitated to say so. Lory took him by the arm, forcefully leading him straight toward those pricks of light. Only then did Cain notice that Lory was right. They were gathering attention. He wondered how this looked to them; Duke Takarada leading Cain, the Accursed, by the arm toward the center camp.
"Is she okay?" said Cain, resisting the urge to shrug him off. Something wasn't right, he could tell. "Tell me she's okay, Lory."
Lory didn't answer. He kept his arm on Cain, leading him to the center of the camp where a large tent stood. Cain could now make out several different points of light inside. This close, he could tell they weren't Kyoko's.
Dread filled him. Lory let go of Cain as if burned. The relic on Cain's arm trailed tendrils of dark magic. The presence of two inhibitors helped to keep the magic down, otherwise with how much panic Cain was feeling, half his armor might have formed. As it was, he doubted his arm would remain uncovered for long.
Cain grabbed the vambrace with his other hand, clenching his teeth as he willed it to calm down. Kyoko was okay. She had to be. Dimly, he was aware of Lory watching the vambrace, a few steps away from where he had been before.
"The first time you were lost," said Lory "I took you away from the site of your trauma. It was the only thing we could think to do, your parents were so unsure of how else to help. It worked for a time, but as soon as that specter— the Djinn, showed up again, it all came rushing back. I wasn't able to help you." His gray eyes were steel as they locked with Cain. "There was only one person that could, and that was Kyoko. I want you to remember that. Remember her presence and what that did to change you. What she did to help you."
"I don't understand." Cain's arm shook. People skirted the edge of the camp, watching the two of them. As if waiting for something to happen. "Just let me see her."
She's probably hurt. Maybe asleep from the strain. It doesn't matter so long as she will be okay and I can see her.
"I want you to be prepared," said Lory. "I don't want to have to do the hard thing."
The hard thing?
Magic fluctuated around his relic. Lory's sword arm twitched, as if he meant to use it.
Cain used that moment to brush past and into the tent.
The sound of the heavy fabric slapping close echoed in a seemingly endless silence. His eyes immediately focused on the source of his light and love laying in the center of the tent. But despite the many sources of light that occupied the room, Kyoko was not one of them. The bubbling endless source of pure life she effused was gone, leaving only the pale gray of her skin.
In a dream he walked to her side, lifting a finger to caress her face. Those once vibrant eyes were now closed, hiding the door to her soul. It was all that really identified her. Her whole body was covered in those abhorrent crystal marks, the ones that Cain's own magic had created.
"Kyoko." His voice was a rasping choke. Droplets of water splashed on Kyoko's cheeks, his tears sliding down her face as if they were her own.
Dimly he was aware of others in the room. Others speaking to him, holding his shoulder and shaking it. But he couldn't hear them. All he could hear was the roar of his own blood pumping in his ears. Her face blurred and faded, as if vanishing away.
"Kuon. Kuon!" Lory shook the man's shoulder, but there was no response. Kuon's eyes had gone blank, lifeless save for the trail of tears falling from his cheeks. This was bad. The boy was completely unresponsive. Armor started sliding in place around his relic, formed out of the black mist it issued.
"Tsuyoshi, get your sister out of here!" The champion obeyed, hauling Itsumi out of the tent, Sho and Murasame following suit. Lory wished the precaution would be unnecessary, but he knew the difference between hope and foolishness.
"Kuon. Get a hold of yourself. Damn it, Kuon! Not again. I don't want to do this again."
Dark magic engulfed the prince.
Lory stumbled back, drawing his sword and calling for the others to be prepared. It was for this exact reason he had called for so many champions to remain close. Hiou drew his sword as well, a shadow following over his dark scowl he focused on Cain. Jelly held out her hands as the ready, each wrist clad in an enchanted bangle littered with gems.
The darkness cleared around Kuon, now fully clad in dark armor. He stood slowly, a cape unfurling to hide most of his back. His armor hissed and cracked with power as a grated helmet turned to face Lory.
"I don't want to hurt you, Kuon," said Lory. "But I will if you don't stand down."
Kuon flicked his hand.
Lory just had enough time to get up his sword. He was thrown back, crashing through the tarp and out the other end. He rolled over with a groan, clutching at side. It felt bruised.
Someone screamed. The tent shook as it collapsed and another body shot out the other end. Lory ran toward the fallen body, recognizing the feminine form.
Jelly sat up with a gasp, gripping her shoulder and sending him a wink. It turned into a grimace a moment later. "Of 'course, you don't 'Duchess Woods' me on the battlefield. Makes me wonder why I left."
He nearly barked a laugh in relief, his thoughts fond for a moment.
Another body shot out of the collapsed tent. Hiou fared a little better than them, managing to gain his footing before he came to a stop. The remains of a light shield faded away before his crossed arms.
"Are the inhibitors just ineffective against him?" spat out Hiou. "Duke Takarada, this doesn't look good."
The tent suddenly lit up and dissolved in ash. Cain walked slowly from the wreckage of fabric and wood, a dark blade in hand. The armor twisted and grew, looking more like an insect's carapace than human armor. He raised his helmeted head toward the sky and roared.
Fear rose like a mist around them. Lory saw it shake the hearts of his companions and the spectators that watched on. It lodged its own claws in Lory's chest, making his palms sweat and his mind race.
I can't let him kill anyone. Not this time. I'll do what I have to.
The Accursed dashed forward, Lory running out to meet him, heart racing in fear.
Kanae winced as Hiroaki finished tying the bandage around her hip. They'd offered some of the little pain medicine they had, but she'd declined. She lay on her back behind a makeshift sheet, the thing erected to give her some semblance of privacy while Hiroaki took a proper amount of time dealing with her injuries.
They'd made it to the army's encampment at some point during the night. Kanae had dozed in the saddle so she wasn't really sure how long it had taken them. Once there, Shin had immediately directed them to one of the medical tents, securing a bed for Kanae despite the crowding. The bed was little more than a cloak laid on rocky ground inside a crowded medical tent, but it was at least something.
She heard Shin shifting on the other side of the sheet, no doubt trying to get more comfortable. He'd been sitting behind it for the last hour as they talked. The conversation had helped distract her from the pain and keep her mind sharp, despite her fatigue.
"I can't believe it," he said, voice low so the other occupants wouldn't hear them. "The Djinn. His body, below our feet inside Mosall."
She'd told him everything. Her journey through the tunnels, finding Twig, then Hiroaki. She'd even told him about the two light users trapped in their cells.
The memory made her shiver. She'd remembered their names, blessedly enough, and Shin had immediately recognized them. Apparently, he'd been in charge of keeping track of those that had gone missing mysteriously back at the palace. At least they knew now what had happened to them, little comfort though it was.
"I'm more worried about Setsuko," grumbled Kanae. "That bitch. I can't believe she'd been parading right under our noses this whole time."
Shin gave a faint chuckle. "I never did like her that much."
Kanae grunted in agreement. "Have they found Kyoko yet?"
"You'd have heard if they had," said Shin. "I've been sitting here, same as you with no update."
"Then go find out."
He gave a hum, as if toying with the idea.
"No thanks," he said. "I'll hang out with you a little longer."
Kanae might have picked Shin up and thrown him out of the tent she wasn't so tired. It was getting hard to keep her eyes open. But she had to. Her mission wasn't done yet. Twig lay on her knee, still small and turned away so that she could "Keep her strange human concept of privacy" but he refused to sit on the other side of the sheet with Shin. She'd been too tired to argue with him.
She jostled him with her knee. He gave an indignant squawk, turning blazing eyes at her.
"Wha! How dare you—!"
"Go find Kyoko for me," she said. "You'll probably recognize her by her strange aura. You can probably sense what's sleeping in her essence." She meant the phoenix, of course.
He huffed, repositioning himself comfortably on her knee and retorted. "No thanks," he said, mimicking Shin. "I'll 'hang out' with you a little longer."
Kanae grabbed him by her thumb and forefinger, lifting him easily despite his immediate struggling. Hiroaki paused with a roll of bandage in his hands, staring at her as if she were crazy. Kanae ignored him.
"She's probably near the inhibitors," said Kanae. "Use your stealth magic if you want to avoid the humans so much, then come back after you locate her and assess her condition."
Twig started beating against her thumb with his little hands, aura quivering with indignant rage. "How dare you handle me like this!"
"Oh? Would you prefer if I hold you upside down?"
The incredulity on Twig's face turned to horror when he realized she would. He waved his hands frantically in front of him. "No, no no! Please. I don't want to go over there. There's so much dark magic and I'm already struggling."
Dark magic? Struggling?
Kanae moved him closer, causing Twig to let out a loud "eep!".
She noticed immediately what she'd missed before. Twig's aura had dimmed, the markings that twisted around his body dulled to a murky brown. The once vibrant green of his hair was now hanging limp around his inhumanly sharp cheeks. He was losing strength, and a lot faster than Kanae had expected. With the Tree's seed or whatever it was in him, she thought he'd have access to a major supply of raw energy. Apparently, she'd been wrong.
Shin gave a loud sigh. "Are you decent? Because I'm really curious about what you're doing to that poor dryad."
"No." She'd been decent for the past half hour.
Hiroaki opened his mouth, but soon closed it when he noticed Kanae's glare.
"You know," said Shin, without missing a beat. "You should be more polite to the dryad. They're a great and noble race of creatures tied to the light and deserve our respect. You could consider them cousins to Rosa in a way."
"At least this human understands," grumbled Twig. "I feel that you should—"
Twig's face suddenly turned white. He shifted into a long vine, twisting out of Kanae's grip and curling down her arm like a snake. He was so quick about it she couldn't react before he had curled up in her lap. He partially shifted back to a human form, skin hard like tree bark with small overlapping leaves forming his hair. She might have mistaken him for a bizarre stature were he not trembling.
"Twig," she started. "What's—"
Then she felt it. Gosh, it would be impossible not to feel it, no matter your individual abilities. It made the hairs on her arms stand on end, her heart immediately thundering in her chest. Hiroaki dropped what he'd been holding while Shin stood up.
"No," whispered Shin. "Damn him!"
"Stay here!" Shin was already almost out of the room. "I'll be back." The other occupants were stirring as well, the room now buzzing with fear.
She might have listened. She knew her injuries were more than enough to make her more of a liability than anything else, but then she heard him. Heard the loud roar and recognized it immediately.
Kanae sat up, shoving Twig into Hiroaki's hands with a quick "Watch him," before grabbing her spear and daggers. She slipped them into place, limping out of the tent as she shoved on her boots and wrapped the new shirt tighter around her body.
The camp stirred like a kicked ant pile. She pushed through the confused bodies and frantic crowd toward the source of dark magic that raged so intently around her essence. She couldn't see Shin, the man probably well ahead of her by now.
"Out of the way!" she grumbled, trying to force her way through the panicked people.
Everyone around her ducked. People screamed. She now fought against the flow of people as they ran away from the center of the camp. Magic sparked ahead of her, briefly lighting the dark sky with its flashes of gold and red. She spotted something flying through the air in their general direction. A tent pole.
Kanae swiped her hands in the air, magic humming on her fingertips. The pole redirected its course from where it had been heading toward a group of refugees, turning now toward Kanae. She slowed its descent, moving just before it ran into her. The metal embedded itself into the ground, quivering where she had been standing just a moment before. Shoot, this was dangerous.
Kanae kept running, following the sounds of fighting. It didn't take her long to find the source.
The ring of upright tents around her suddenly stopped. Past it lay a battlefield of decimated tarp and rubble littered with broken supplies and wood. She spotted no bodies in the mess but that was the least of her worries. In the center of the ring, Cain fought three other people, his body completely covered in armor. Purple light trailed him as he moved with the easy grace of a veteran fighter, the sword in his hands a viper's fang darting in and out with an animal's intent to kill.
This idiot! What had happened to make him lose control like this? Where was Kyoko? Judging by the magic coming from the three men that fought Cain, they had to be champions. One got a shot of Cain, their magic cutting into his arm. The Accursed didn't even notice it. He reacted immediately, returning the attack with one of his own. If it wasn't for the other champion blocking the attack, the man would have died.
Kanae realized with a jolt that she recognized him. Hiou. That's right, he was a champion.
Cain made a sweeping motion with his sword. A whirlwind formed immediately, like a dust devil of dark magic. It pushed the other two back, leaving Hiou alone. No, not alone. Shin was there now, as was Lory Takarada. Hiou still got tossed aside, crashing near Kanae. She raced over to him.
Not her master's grandson!
The boy looked up, shock blooming on her face.
"You're alive?" he sputtered, relief obvious. Then his face grew hard. "Get out of here Kanae, he's completely lost it. Even with our light magic, we're losing ground."
She didn't listen, instead helping him sit up. Guessing by his wince and subsequent curse, he'd been hurt. Kanae put a hand to his bleeding side, pressing hard to help stem the flow. It wasn't life-threatening, but obviously painful. Hiou channeled some light magic, easing his pain and helping it heal faster.
"What happened?" she said. "Why is he going nuts? Where's Kyoko? She's the only one that can stop him."
Hiou let out another curse, and only now did Kanae see something else besides dirt and blood smattered on his cheeks. Tear tracks stained them with new tears chasing the paths the old ones had left behind. His face screwed up in an expression of pain that had nothing to do with his physical injuries.
"She's gone," he said. "The light help us, we could feel it the second it happened. Kyoko's dead."
"You're lying." Kanae's eyes burned, but not with tears. "She's not. She can't be."
A loud crash brought her attention back to the fighting. Dirt sprayed the air, pattering like raindrops around her and Hiou. She saw with widening eyes as Cain rampaged and suddenly understood why.
Everything felt cold, slow and dim as if the world had come to a stop. The people fighting moved as if submerged in water, a sluggish dance that couldn't have possible. Because Kyoko was dead.
It all surged back into life. The ice in her heart vanished as something else coursed through her. Something hot.
"Kanae?" said Hiou. "You need to leave. Kanae! Stop. You can't fight him."
She didn't hear him. Her vision was red, her ears full of nothing but the roar of Cain's voice. Kuon. The prince. The man who was supposed to protect Kyoko. The man who was now losing and destroying everything they'd built because he couldn't keep his shit together. Couldn't take his own failure. Her heart burned with a searing blaze of anger. She stood, taking the spear from her back as the shaft extended into her hands.
Cain was locked sword to sword with Lory, the Duke trying to say something to him. It was futile, as Cain pushed him back with as much ferocity as before.
In that space of vulnerability, Kanae surged forward, magic dancing around her blade.
Her spear met true. It dug into Cain's outstretched hand, tearing between the armor plates and exciting the other side. Blood flew as Cain twisted, attempting to push her aside.
Kanae let go of her spear, dodging his swing and pulling out a dagger. She kept low and grounded, feet pivoting on the firm soil as she activated another spell. It caused the footing beneath Cain to swirl and sink, making him stumble.
"You selfish asshole!" she yelled. "What the hell gives you the right to act like this?"
Everything in Kanae burned. Pain, anger and fear were all one blaze of fire that propelled her forward as she jammed her dagger into his shoulder. It found the space between the armor plates, digging into the glowing purple veins of magic.
"Is this what you think she wanted, Cain? To see you lose control the moment she disappeared? You think this will help her? Making everyone else pick up your mess?" She dug her knife in deeper. "Again?"
She ripped the dagger out as Cain spun toward her. She briefly saw her spear flying through the air and out of range. He thought he could lose himself like this? He'd become nothing more than an animal, acting on instincts and throwing around huge blasts of magic. Even as she moved, he was already tossing a large fireball at her. She deflected the flow of magic, letting it soar past her and explode on whatever it was that was behind her. The others would take care of it.
"You think you're the only one that cared!?" she yelled, voice breaking. "That you're the only one that loved her?"
She jabbed the dagger at his chest. It bounced off the thick armor, knocking her off balance. She saw him descending on her and knew that in her own anger, she had messed up.
Someone collided with her and she was skidding across the ground. She gasped as pain blossomed everywhere.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Her vision blurred, but it was still easy to make out Shin's face. He hovered over her, a mixture of worry and anger twisting his brow.
"Get out of here," he said. "You'll get yourself killed."
"Shut up." She shoved him off, nursing her arm as she stood. She'd lost her other dagger, leaving her with just one. "I'm going to punch this moron until I'm satisfied."
Shin grabbed her bicep, making her wince. "You can't punch anyone with this arm."
"Watch me!" She tried to wrench herself out his grip, but he held fast. "Let go!"
Their conversation stopped as a spell blew up near them. They both flinched back, and in that space, Shin let go of her. She sprinted away, using magic to assist her escape. She spotted her spear on the ground and circled around the snatch it up. As she reached down and grabbed the shaft, something caught her eye.
She came to a screeching stop.
Two bodies lay near the side of the wreckage. Kanae recognized the glimmering stone-like marks that snaked up Kyoko's whole body. She saw the boy, Hikaru, lying beside her, as equally still. Five soldiers stood in front of them, shielding the two bodies from the fight. It was barely enough. A spell collided with their defenses, making cracks spiderweb along the transparent shield.
Kanae's anger flared again. She turned and charged blindly at Cain, her spear crashing down on his vambrace. He was so out of control he didn't even recognize he had almost destroyed her!
"This is your fault!" she yelled. "You were supposed to protect her. You were supposed to lay down your life for her. So why is Hikaru lying there instead of you?"
She didn't register the other's yelling. She didn't see them fighting just as hard beside her. All she saw was Cain as he turned to her, his face unseen behind the grates of his helmet. He grabbed at her spear and then her shoulder.
Kanae gasped as he shoved her into the ground. Her arm burned with previous injuries and the magic that she'd forced through her limbs. Dark magic spilled from Cain's armor to surround her in a thick mist, its aura disgusting and evil. She resisted its filthy magic easily, having been exposed to its true source not long ago.
She sneered at the mask that hid the man behind it, unafraid though she knew she should be. The others were rushing to help, but they would be too late. They were too far way.
"You're weak, Cain," she said. "Just as weak as I am, and we'll both die as idiots who couldn't keep their temper in check."
His sword slammed down in the ground beside her head. She didn't flinch as the blade nicked her cheeks and ear, blood running down the side of her face. A dome of magic pushed outward around them, shoving the others away. Her gaze remained fixed on him, on the monster before her. The magic she tried to summon was pitiful and bounced off his chest easily. Weak. That was what she had told him, and that was what she was.
Cain raised his hand, a ball of torrent magic forming in it and Kanae knew what was coming. He was going to kill her. She would die. She braced herself for the pain.
It didn't come.
Cain's hand descended not on her heart, but on his arm.
Light exploded around her. Shards of his vambrace went flying in every direction, vanishing in a puff of dark smoke. The armor around Cain's body sizzled like the sand on a hot day, melting away like a desert mirage. He stumbled to his feet, taking a few steps back before sinking to the ground. The helmet faded into nothing, revealing his face beneath.
Kanae sat up, eyes wide in shock at the man she saw. It wasn't Cain, the Accursed who had terrorized the streets of Mosall and taken over their city. It was Prince Kuon, albeit with dark hair and eyes, but undoubtedly him. The evil aura that had been ever present around him was gone, revealing an almost unrecognizable person behind. Fatigue rimmed his eyes. His shoulder's hunched with the weight of his sins and grief, but it was undoubtedly him. Not a speck of dark armor or aura remained. Only his dark clothes indicated that he had indeed been Cain.
The corner of his lips twitched as he gazed at Kanae, and she was struck by how different he was now.
"Thank you," he said in a whisper. "You helped knock some sense into me. I'll forever be grateful."
Kanae's shock disappeared as she surged to her feet in anger. "You suicidal idiot!" she roared. "This isn't what I meant. Do you know what you just did? You destroyed your own relic. How does this help anyone? How?"
Vaguely she was aware of people creeping closer, the crowd they were drawing now that the fighting was over. Shin and Lory were approaching, the quickest out of the group.
Kuon rubbed his wrist absently at the spot where the relic had one been. There was nothing different about his skin there. It was as unblemished as it had been before he'd made the contract, but she knew it couldn't feel that way to him.
"You were right," he said. "Kyoko wouldn't want me to lose myself. I can't let other people suffer for my choices any longer."
"And you think this is any better?" Kanae's hands bawled into fists, fingernails digging painfully into her palm. "Giving up and letting yourself die? Because that's what's going to happen. Without the contract of the relic. You're going to die!"
"There was no other choice," he said, and she hated the resignation in his voice. The calm sadness that she couldn't understand. "I'm weak, just as you said Kanae. I would have killed everyone in my anger. It was either my people, or myself, and I chose what I thought was best."
Shin and Lory finally reached them. Shin put a hand on her shoulder in what he probably thought was comfort. It just made her even angrier.
She slapped off his hand, turning and stomping away, marching from the one man that had been able to take the brunt of her anger. Without him, she had no other outlet. No other person but herself to blame for Kyoko's death. She didn't have to fight to stop the tears from coming. Her anger burned too hot for tears.
The night air felt crisp and chilly on Kuon's skin. His vision was no longer hazy and muted, the world bathed in the cool glow of the moon. The colors seemed to pop in comparison. He kept focusing on his breathing, the last of the dark magic slipping away from his soul. It would have felt incredible was it not for the gaping hole in his heart.
Kuon's expression screwed up in self-disgust, listening to Kanae as she stomped away from him. He'd lost control completely. Had it not been for her, Kuon might not have been able to break through his anger. Her words had helped pierce through his thick head and given him that moment of sanity he needed to destroy his own relic. He'd never be able to repay her properly for it.
He opened his eyes.
Lory knelt in front of him, eyes tight with anxiety. The champions stood in a ring behind him, standing sentry with varying degrees of distress on their expressions. Beyond them, he could see others, watching, curious about what was happening now that the disaster was over.
He clambered awkwardly to his feet, still shaken from his shift within himself. He bent his head to Lory and the champions trying desperately not to tip over in the process.
"Forgive me," he said. "I lost myself and put you all in a dangerous situation. Nothing I say can excuse me for what I did."
He didn't see their reaction, head bowed as it was. Lory grabbed him by the shoulder and Kuon expected the man to shake him, maybe yell at him for his idiocy. What he didn't expect was for Lory to pull him into a fierce hug.
"I'm sorry, Kuon," said Lory, his voice choked. "I couldn't find a way to help you."
Kuon shook his head, throat tight and overwhelmed by the rush of feelings threatening to burst out of him. "This was always my fault. It's the result of my own actions catching up to me. Maybe now, I'll be able to atone for what I've done and the lives I've taken."
Lory pulled away, his gray eyes wet but intense. "Dying does no one any good, Kuon. But… I understand why you did it. I just wish I could have found a different path for you."
"Thank you," said Kuon. "Your support means everything to me, Lory."
The other champions approached. He saw no anger or accusation in their eyes. Hiou and Tsuyoshi nodded to him, speaking words of sympathy and gratitude for his return. He started when he noticed Jelly, the unusually petite woman giving him a tight hug.
"Duchess Woods, you're hurt," he said.
She stuck out her bottom lip, ignoring the reddish-brown blood staining her curls.
"Just a scratch," she said. "You know head wounds they always bleed excessively. It has already stopped."
"I'm sorry," he said, noticing the wounds on the other two as well. Hiou walked especially carefully as if he had some bruised ribs "I lost control completely. I—"
He'd been completely overtaken by grief, the darkness inside of him using that opportunity to rage completely unfettered. It had been worse than at the palace where he had completed the contract. Had it not been for Kanae's words, her grief and anger equal to his own piercing through his head, he would have continued to rage. Thanks to her, he'd recognized what he needed to do.
"I'm sorry," he said again, the words feeling inadequate.
Jelly squeezed him arm in a soothing gesture, her sympathetic eyes gazing at him in sorrow.
"No one died," she said. "I secured the perimeter during the fight. Just a few bumps here and there, but that's it. No one died this time, Kuon."
Relief swelled within him. He bowed his head again, this time in gratitude.
He didn't deserve their ready forgiveness. Despite that, he craved it. He took it greedily as he did their love. Their support meant the world to him.
Which was why he had destroyed his own relic. He couldn't keep doing this to their kindness. He couldn't keep betraying them with his rage and anger, even if they continued to forgive and love him. The cycle would have destroyed him. So he'd done what he should have done the moment the contract had formed. He'd set himself aside and put their safety first.
"Can I see her?" he said.
Lory nodded, guiding Kuon to the side of the wreckage. There, he finally saw her, protected by a ring of soldiers and onlookers. Vaguely, he was aware of Lory and the other champions trying to give him some room and privacy, shooing people out of the way.
He didn't register any of it. He knelt beside her as he gazed at her still face. Even with the warmth gone from her cheeks, he couldn't help thinking her beautiful. He took her hand, the crystalline marks and rigor mortis making it stiff to move. He held it gently as if she were made of glass.
"You'd probably yell at me," he said quietly. "Call me a fool or an idiot for destroying my relic. You'd remind me how many people care for and love me and that this was a terrible way to pay them back. Then you'd probably cry. Or maybe you wouldn't, I don't know. You've always been remarkably strong."
He could see her anger and sorrow clear as day in his mind's eye, her scolding words softened by the brokenness in her own expression. Then he saw that anger turned inward.
He pressed his forehead to her hand, pleading with the Kyoko that he saw in his mind.
"Don't blame yourself for my actions," he said. "You would, wouldn't you? I know you were frustrated with how little you thought you could do for me. But that's not right. You did so much. I can't begin to explain how much your words, your actions… your entire existence meant to me."
He took a shaky breath, tears splashing on the back of her still hand. She had been his light, his wife, his better half and his strength.
"I love you, Kyoko."
He didn't leave her side for a long time, allowing himself to grieve the loss of her warmth in his life.
Kanae continued to stomp away from the battle site, relishing the spike of pain every step jarred into her system. Her shoulder ached with a fire that told her the wound had reopened but it was all nothing compared to the pain that currently made her teeth grind in frustration.
Kyoko, why did you have to go and get yourself killed!
She'd told her. She'd told that idiot to rest how many times? She had never listened! She had pushed and pushed herself and likely gotten killed as a result, knowing her.
Someone called after Kanae, interrupting her thoughts. She recognized the voice as Shin's and kept walking, not wanting to talk to him. He was obstinate, however, running in an attempt to catch up.
She pushed past a group of frightened citizens, hoping to lose him by weaving through the tents and out of his sight. It didn't work. He found her in an empty space between the tarp, catching her by the arm.
She allowed herself to be caught. He was the only one besides Kyoko that could make her stop, if only for a moment. She gazed back, her anger so strong she almost felt indifferent to him and everything around her.
"What?" she said.
He flinched at the harshness in her voice, licking his lips as if he had no idea what to say now that he had caught her.
"Are you okay?" he said.
Her eyes hardened. "What kind of idiotic question is that?"
He didn't flinch this time, measuring her with open concern. "You don't have to go through this alone. You're not the only one who lost someone they love. Or will... once Kuon's time is up."
He was looking to soothe her. To share their sorrow and console one another in their loss. Or maybe it was his own comfort he was looking for.
It didn't matter which it was. She abhorred the idea.
"I don't have time for that," she said. "I'm going to find the bastards responsible for this and kill them." She had very specific plans on what she wanted to do to Setsuko in particular.
"Kanae," he said, expression unrelenting. "You shouldn't shut me out. Don't let yourself go through this alone."
"I'm not shutting you out."
"Then you should—"
"I'm doing what I have to!" she yelled. "Don't try to stop me, Shin."
His expression worsened, and she saw in him the same stubbornness she had. Why did she have to surround herself with such thick-headed people?
"You can't fight them," he said, the words reigniting her irritation anew. "Not like this. You're hurt and—"
Kanae yanked her arm out of his grip, walking away again.
"Kanae!" he called, "Where are you going?"
She rounded on him, catching him off guard as he stumbled to a stop.
"I'm going to sleep," she said. "I haven't had a good night sleep in—" Shoot, how many days had it been? It had felt like she was in that cave forever. She put a hand to her head, suddenly dizzy.
Shin appeared beside her again, but this time he didn't reach out a steadying hand. She was grateful to him for that. It was already mortifying how weak she felt. His help would make her feel weaker still.
"I'm going to rest," she said, her voice calmer. "I'm going to sew up my wounds and regain my strength so I can slaughter the Dark Djinn and his followers when the time comes."
Then she could stop. Then she could take the time to let the grief come freely and break her anew. But not now. Not when there was still a hard battle to win. She fought to keep Kyoko's face from her mind, the memories threatening to come in a flood that would most certainly undo her.
She lowered her hand, glaring at Shin to dare him to argue. He met her gaze, the worry softened to pity with a touch of acceptance.
"Don't try and stop me," she said again.
"Didn't say I would."
She eyed him warily. "You're not going to try and talk me down? Offer me useless platitudes about the importance of letting myself feel?"
That seemed more like him. She was being fairly hypocritical right now, considering their conversation when they had parted at the palace.
He seemed to understand her unspoken comparison.
"Your problem has never been feigning indifference, Kanae," he said wearily.
"You're not the only one that's angry."
That almost broke her. She saw it now, the emotions he was so good at keeping hidden burning fiercely deep in his dark eyes. It mirrored her own anger perfectly. but as always, he was better at keeping those emotions hidden from casual view.
She set her jaw against the flood of emotions, pushing them down deep within herself. Not now. Later, she would stop.
"Tell the king what I told you," she said. "Catch me up with the plan after I wake up."
"I will," he said, some of that fire dimming to sadness.
She left him to return to her cot, imagining her revenge once she got her hands on Setsuko. On all of them. The Accursed would pay for taking Kyoko away from her.
It took me a lot longer to post than it usually does. I hope the extra long chapter more than makes up for it.
Also, some of your reviews make me a little concerned. Like, please don't sink into sadness or depression or anything! The sadness won't last forever. Look, here is a chunk of fluffy of goodness you can enjoy while you wait for this to get better. Waves frantically at Crimson Threads. I'll update it eventually. Ha….
Thanks for reading! I almost feel like I can't comment on my own chapter because there's just… so much I could say but don't want to spoil anything. So I'll just continue to thank you for reading and wish you all the best!
Well, leave it to Kanae to skip the first stage of grieving and go straight to anger. I have beta read this as quickly as possible since you guys have waited (quite patiently I might add) for this moment. Hope you're not falling into despair.