Kyoko's head thumped back onto the soft carpeted floor. Everything spun from her latest bout of memory transfer to Rosa. Even as she closed her eyes, equilibrium eluded her.
"You need a break," said Rosa.
If Kyoko could've focused, she'd seen the changes in the demi-goddess's appearance. Her face had lengthened, losing almost all of the youthful chubs in exchange for a more angled jawline. Her red curls now cascaded down to her mid-back, as bright as her fiery eyes. With each set of memories she looked more like her adult self.
"Just for a moment," mumbled Kyoko. Having a hundred years' worth of memories thrown into her mind and then suddenly taken away was making it hard to focus. To remember why "Kyoko" was trying so hard.
My name is Kyoko Mogami. I'm a physician at the royal palace. I need to help save my friends and family. Moko-san, Itsumi, Murasame, Maria. Everyone in Mosall. Ren. They all need my help.
As she focused on that, the room stopped spinning. She opened her eyes but didn't dare to try moving.
"They hurt you," said Kyoko instead. "That's why you started to forget things. Why you never mentioned any of your past to the family. This latest fight between the Accursed and the Djinn fractured you."
Rosa sat by Kyoko, pressing soothing fingertips to Kyoko's forehead as her gaze remained distant, no doubt sifting through the new set of memories.
"They did," said Rosa. "Then they took advantage of that damage, spreading misinformation about Ashuron's past and destroying records. If I had to guess, we'll find more of that in the next few century's worths of memories."
Kyoko hummed in understanding. "And that's when you needed that new tether to the world. The lamp that Ren and the other kings used to bind themselves to you. To stop yourself from decaying back to ashes and taking hundreds of years to be reborn."
Without it, Rosa would have been forced back to the divine realm with her sister. When the king's brother, Masato had destroyed the lamp in the process of trying to bind with her, she should have returned here to wait to be reborn. But, thanks to Kyoko's presence, Rosa had been able to create a new tether. She'd latched onto Kyoko's naturally occurring light magic.
This also meant that, despite being reborn whole and without damage, once they were reborn, Kyoko would still need to serve as her tether. Rosa's soul was desperate to return to the divine realm and to recover from a thousand years of having her divinity split.
"I was borrowing their strength as much as they were borrowing mine." Rosa's face scrunched in disgust. "I'm glad you no longer have these memories, Kyoko. That last conflict was...unpleasant, to put it lightly."
From the little Kyoko could remember, that was a major understatement. But Ashuron had pulled through, as they had always managed in the end. She sat up gingerly, every part of her soul aching from the strain of keeping their existence separate. Disapproval was easy to read in Rosa's expression. It was plain she wanted Kyoko to rest a little more.
"You know we don't have time to wait." Kyoko was starting to feel the world as Rosa did. As moments and opportunities, threads of possible fates and lives mingling together. And those threads of opportunity to save the kingdom were fading fast.
Rosa cast her gaze downward. "I know."
Unsteadily, Kyoko got to her feet, walked to the sixth torch, and reached for the flames.
Distant booms and monster cries foretold Hirotaka's approach. Kanae's traps had likely killed whatever entourage the Accursed had brought with him. She shifted her grip on the spear, struggling to hold it steady. The last time her hands shook this much was her first real battle. But this time, it wasn't nerves that moved her. It was anger. The magic in her veins hummed as the sounds grew louder. He was here.
Kanae had a split second to react to a spell. She batted it away, already moving as another shot followed the first. Then Hirotaka burst in through the entrance behind his magic.
Clad in his overlapping smooth armor, his face was hidden behind the black stone of his helmet. His one elongated claw curled around his staff, the purple gem glowing.
He swung the staff in a wide arc, a puffy purple flame rushing out. Kanae boosted her jump, rising above the deadly hot clouds, their heat searing her feet as she cleared them. Suspended mid-jump, Hirotaka had a clear shot with Kanae unable to dodge. She saw the magic condensing in his staff.
Kanae snapped her fingers. A trap she'd set earlier exploded a foot from where he stood—so close—but Hirotaka's spell still rushed toward her. Thankfully, her distraction had altered its course just enough. She managed to twist out of the way, the spell brushing her shoulder and bursting through her shield.
Kanae landed, spells already spinning around her to replace the lost shield and volley the Accursed with more magic. With a rush, she closed the distance between them.
Hirotaka was not well versed in close combat. He barely managed to get his staff up in time to block her blade. Her spear spun seamlessly, and with any other opponent, her next swing would have taken off their head.
But this was Archmage Hirotaka Ogata. His knowledge of magic and spells was unmatched.
Thin blades appeared in the air around him, made of silvery magic and trailing yellow flame. They descended and she switched from the offensive to the defensive. Her staff spun non-stop in her hands, knocking aside not only the knives but spinning pulses of magic and sending off some shots of her own. A kaleidoscope of light lit the room, sparks bouncing off the floor and walls as fires spurted into life then died almost instantly for the lack of fuel. One blade cut into her collarbone. She cursed, feeling the flash of hot pain despite her adrenaline.
The battle had barely started and her body already was at its limit. She'd have normally never gotten hit by that blade. But her side ached, and a wetness from her hip spoke of torn stitches. Every breath was a stab into her lungs. Frustration kept her legs pumping and her arms moving, but not for much longer. It was time to enact her plan.
Kanae drew away from Hirotaka, kicked up a cloud of dust. Hidden from Hirotaka's view, she threw on the dryad's cloaking spell.
Hirotaka blew the dust away with a wave of his staff, pausing when he noticed her absence.
"Clever," mused the Accursed, his eyes sweeping the empty area. "So that's how you got here undetected. Such a powerful spell you have there. Though, I'm not surprised that you would be the one to have it."
Kanae crept slowly around the outer edge, careful not to disturb any of the rubble as she did so. A rock at the other end shifted, and Hirotaka swung his staff toward it. His spell obliterated the area around it.
"I'd been wanting to meet you for a while." Hirotaka started turning on the spot, dozens of pulse shots both arcane and dark magic swirling around him. "An ability to remember anything, anything, no matter how complex with a single look? Oh, I can't tell you how many hours in my study that would have saved."
He blasted another portion of the room at random, a good distance away. Kanae kept silent, settling with rolling her eyes instead of a gag at the nonsense the Accursed was saying. Once she was in position, she pushed forward to attack.
A moment before her spear landed, one of the circling pulse shots swerved toward her. The shot cracked against her shield and Hirotaka reacted instantly. His spells swung around, forcing Kanae to dodge lest she get pounded by the barrage. She retreated back to reclaim her position in the shadows, circling around the perimeter again.
Hirotaka's eyes scanned the general area, his pulse shots now swerving around at random around him. She wouldn't be able to try a sneak attack again. Not like that anyway.
"I really wanted you to join us," He continued. "We could swap. I could teach you what I know and I- well, I find out how you do it. Think about it. I can learn any spell that I'm exposed to. Any of them! Even the supposedly exclusive ones that the Djinn gifted us. It's not as good as the original, which is too bad, but I'm sure you'd be interested in many of those spells. And maybe if I could study you. Learn how you do what you do, we could copy them perfectly."
Anger coursed through her, hot and suffocating as a sandstorm. This was what these people wanted. This was what drove them. It was their own selfish greed that killed Kyoko and then they still had the audacity to ask her to join them? Her hand actually left her spear for a moment with the intention to reach over and wring his filthy neck.
In her distraction, her foot collided with a rock.
Kanae hurtled herself to the side immediately, but even then, she was almost too late. The spell Hirotaka sent engulfed her trailing leg. Tears sprung to her eyes as she bit her lip so hard it bled to stop her from crying out. She landed awkwardly, the muscles on her hurt leg giving out.
The spells were still coming. She batted some away with her spear, others shattering her shield while the rest she just barely dodged. It didn't matter she was still invisible to him. He had a good idea of where she was at this point.
Then her bad leg gave out.
Kanae threw out her hands wildly to catch herself. A loud snap ripped through the air. She stumbled forward to her feet, looking back as her heart sank.
There, wedged between two rocks sat the blade of her spear, its tassel flying wildly through the air. The other end of the shaft was splintered and broken, smoking slightly from the spells that had slowly been weakening its wood.
The world came to a screeching stop. The air left her lungs. Everything became still and silent.
That spear, the weapon she had carried for so many years was the very last thing she had of her dead master. She still held the other end, now nothing but a piece of splintered wood.
Everything came rushing back. Spells continued to rain around her. Kanae roared, her cloaking spell slipping from her grasp. It didn't matter. Hirotaka was looking right at her, his helmet pulled back to show his wide mad eyes.
The Accursed shot a huge ball of flame at her, but Kanae didn't dodge. She crossed her arms, pulling up every bit of magic she had to protect herself. She burst through the other end of the fireball, trailing smoke, arms throbbing where an angry burn already showed beneath her vambraces. But she didn't acknowledge it. Didn't do anything but move.
Hirotaka hadn't expected that. He pulled up his staff to form another spell, but Kanae was already on him. Her knives snapped into her hands and then out. The first one embedded itself Hirotaka in the shoulder between the cracks of his dark armor. The second one she kept in her hands, sweeping it out with a burst of cutting magic.
Hirotaka met her with his own spell. The two slices of light met inches away from their owners.
The spells exploded on contact. Kanae was hurtled backward, but more importantly, Hirotaka was sent flying to the center of the room.
Still mid-air, Kanae activated all the traps she'd set in the room before Hirotaka arrived.
Explosions reverberated throughout the entire cave. From floor to ceiling, almost every inch was blown to pieces by hundreds of spells small enough to be hidden to a distracted eye. They combined into one large burst of rock and fire that rained down on the two of them below. Kanae switched her shields to cover her back, but even prepared, they were hammered and destroyed in an instant. She was going one direction, and the rocks the other.
Something slammed into her shoulder, knocking her slightly in a different direction. She gritted her teeth, head spinning, making it hard to focus on the one spell that is going to save her life from this self-made cave in. As her back collided with the cave wall, she managed to activate the spell.
The rock behind her melted away into sand and she tumbled into the small cavity.
Then there was nothing but noise. Crashes and booms that make pebbles patter on her head as her whole body shook. She kept her head down, hand covering her mouth and nose to try and reduce the amount of dust blasting into them.
Slowly, everything became still.
Kanae opened her eyes.
Everything was dark. It took her a moment to realize why. Her spelled lights. They went out in the blast. She casted them again, keeping the brightness low.
It showed her little. The small opening she'd created was covered with rocks and soil, a particularly large sharp piece sitting not inches from where it might have punctured her head. But it had worked. Her insane, stupid, idea had worked. She'd buried the Accursed.
She waited for the thrill of success. The rush of triumph that always came with beating a difficult foe.
It didn't come. Her heart felt as empty as her hands.
Kanae swore. Then swore again. She beat her busted fists into the ground, throat bobbing as she blustered and blubbered. This was not what she had wanted to feel, this raw acute sense of loss. That was not why she'd come.
She scrubbed her face in irritation, swallowing back the rest of her tears. They didn't stop completely, but it was enough to let her see. She still had to get out of here and she had completely forgotten to plan that part.
A small, distinctly Kyoko-sounding voice scolded her. Not for failing to plan, but that not needing one had been the most likely outcome.
Shut up, Kyoko. Like I'd listen to you and your chronically self-destructive plans. You or Kuon.
She shifted in the small space, grunting as injuries flared back into existence. No matter how she moved, pain shot through her leg, taking her breath with each throb. moving to what she hoped was a more manageable injury, she looked at her arms. Her vambraces had been reduced to leathery straps. She tugged at them, then stopped with a hiss when the skin came with it. Alright, she wasn't trying that soon. And if she could get some damn room, that would be nice!
Kanae pressed a hand to the ceiling, casting the dissolving spell again. Sand cascaded down on her head and pooled around her feet, but now she had a taller ceiling. As she stood stepping on the small pile of sand she'd created, it gave her an idea. Hardening the sand beneath her, she repeated the spell on the ceiling. The sand came down again, but she collected it beneath her feet, stepping higher to reach the ceiling again.
And so she continued. Eventually the small opening she had tumbled through disappeared behind the hardened sand and she was completely enclosed in rock. The silence was complete, her small light keeping her company as she slowly crept upward on step at a time. Occasionally she checked her location, removing the rock in front of her to see her position in location to the rest of the chamber. Every time she was met with the same scene of fallen rock and rubble, still shifting as everything settled into place.
Progress was painfully slow, but mercifully, she eventually made it to the top.
Kanae hobbled across the rocks, landing on the ledge that led to the rest of the cave tunnels. Her breathing was shallow, every inch of her caked in dirt and sweat, but she had made it out.
The relief took her strength and she stumbled, just catching herself on a wall. No, she couldn't rest yet. She still had to get to Hiroaki. Find a way to kill the Djinn and find the reverse inhibitor.
Stumbling along, she made her way through the corridors, already mapping a new route in her head to the center chamber.
Hiroaki let out a quiet, but not unenthusiastic cry of jubilee. He had finally found the pack of coding that would allow him to reverse the flow of dark magic into light magic. It had been well hidden behind walls of circles and runes, but desperation and maybe a bit of little mercy from the gods had helped him unearth it.
Blowing out a slow breath to help calm his heart, he maximized the schematics, studying where he should start on the new coding.
The door to the room opened.
Hiroaki's heart jumped out of his skin and hit the ceiling. He threw a desperate mess of magic that was more sparks than actual substance at the intruder. The motion knocked him off balance and he landed hard on the floor, heart still pumping. He had to get up. What if that was-
"It's just me," came Kanae's annoyed voice.
Hiroaki relaxed, heart still pounding. "Kanae. Thank the gods. You're okay. I was worried something had happened."
Then he stood up and saw just how not okay Kanae was. Her entire body was caked in sand, her hair a ragged mess of tangled braid. A still oozing gash on her collarbone disappeared behind her back, extending who knew how much further. Her vambraces were nothing more than tatters, held on by angry raw burns that had bubbled and oozed. There were other scratches, other spatterings of blood. But most alarming was her stance. There was no fire, no spark of annoyance that he had come to associate with Kanae. Her spear was also missing, like its absence had taken with it all her spirit.
"Kanae—" gasped Hiroaki. "You're—no, sit. I need to treat you."
She didn't resist as he ushered her to a chair, which just made his worry that much worse. Since when did Kane meekly listen to anyone besides Kyoko? But when he started assessing the damage, she pushed his hand away.
"Where's the Djinn?" she said, some of that usual clip in her voice returning.
"Not here." Thank the gods, or else his protective charms would probably have broken by now. "But the reverse inhibitor is here. Look, let me treat the worst ones at least."
She batted his hand away again. "Have you figured out a way to fix it?"
"—Then get it fixed. The longer it takes, the more people die and the less time we have to find the Djinn."
He stared at her for half a second before deciding that it would take more time convincing her than it would to fix the inhibitor. Returning to the device, he pulled up the schematics again, raising a hand to start the recoding. As he did so, his sleeve slid down a little, revealing black angry marks.
Hiroaki pushed the sleeve back up, jerking his head toward Kanae to see if she had noticed. The warrior's head was down, eyes closed, sweat beading her forehead. She hadn't seen.
"What?" said Kanae, as if she could feel his stare. "Why haven't you started?"
"Ah, just double checking my place. Don't want to accidentally blow us up."
Tentatively, he pulled down the sleeve a bit. There it was. The mark of the Sheuman's rot. Guess I wasn't as immune to the miasma as we thought. If he watched closely, he could see the mark expanding.
Yeah, it was time to get his inhibitor up. Now.
He jabbed his stylus into the first sequences, beginning the tedious process of rerouting the magic and trying hard not to think about what Kanae's return meant about his father.
Kanae was trying very hard not to pass out. Or scream. Or groan. Or vomit. Or make any other sort of noise that would distract Hiroaki and alert him just how close she was to fading. She barely had the strength to use the few healing spells she knew to keep her side from bleeding out all over the floor. Even then, he had probably noticed. Just like she'd noticed the miasma seeping into him. The sooner that inhibitor was fixed, the better they both would be.
But despite the pain. Despite every inch of her that throbbed, stung, and bled, the part that hurt the most was the aching hollowness that tried to eat away in insides.
Her hands itched for a spear that was no longer there. She felt jittery with feelings that had no clear outlet. She needed a distraction. Anything to prevent her from walking out that door to hunt every straggling monster she could find in this labyrinth. Maybe another Accursed if she was lucky.
"I buried him," she blurted out. "Your dad."
She felt his magic pause, alerting her to the fact she'd closed her eyes at some point. Not a good sign. His spellcasting resumed a second later, a touch slower than is had been before.
"I'm sorry I had to." Sort of. She was sorry for Hiroaki's pain at least. "He was a real pain to take down."
"Not surprising," came Hiroaki's mumbled reply. "He loved researching all sorts of spells. Combat ones included, despite not being a real fighter himself."
Thank goodness for that, or else she would have never stood a chance.
Kanae's head jerked back up, eyes wide before slowly closing again. Not good. She'd nodded off. The world was starting to fade. She focused on Hiroaki's magic, pushing aside the shadows that threatened to overtake her. It even sounded like the door had opened for a moment.
Hiroaki's sudden "Ha!" jerked her back to the full wakefulness.
"What is it?"
"I've done it." His eyes were rimmed with exhaustion and she could see some of the rot poking out of the collar of his robes. But he looked ecstatic. "I'm rerouting the whole system as we speak. In just a few minutes, I'll be able to finalize the switch and start the whole thing back up, but with light magic instead."
Thank the gods.
She stood up to go check the spell.
Pain, piercing, and hot sliced through her. Stunned, Kanae looked down at her stomach.
Why is my spearhead poking out of my side? How odd.
That was her last thought as she crumpled, Hiroaki crying out as a figure appeared from nowhere.
Shin cut into the sand wurm's flesh, jumping back as the creature finally died. Other men jumped into place around him, giving him a much-needed second to wipe the ichor off his face.
He glanced around, grimacing at all the skirmishes that needed help. Much of the army was battling the enormous collection of undead and necromancers. Other battalions were taking down hordes of wurms and clusters of giant spiders, bats, and scorpions. The most elite, including champions and generals, were fighting gashadokuro, the invisible giants of bone creating the most despair and chaos.
Speaking of those unholy monstrosities, another one had just appeared not too far from him. The men were in chaos.
Pushing aside his fatigue, Shin tugged his horse toward the battle, shouting at the men to follow him for a coordinated attack.
Where ever you are Kanae, I hope you're faring better than us, because we could really use your help with that second inhibitor.
Thanks for reading!
I did not get back the lost 10,000 words. (Some of which was for Crimson Threads). Sad day. But! I've managed to just grit through it and rewrite about half of it already. Yay. Except boo because I know I'm leaving out things that were in the original. Oh well.
Hope you all are well. Thanks for still reading this even with the huge breaks between chapters. You all continue to inspire and push me to finish it. Not too many chapters left! I deserve a celebration dinner once this is done.
I deffo think you deserve a celebratory dinner after this multi-year project finishes Blushy. You started what? 6 years ago? I wonder how many readers you've enthralled for all these years.