Chapter 12

Tucked in the safety of his bed, a young Ryoutarou glanced at Minami seated on the rocking chair beside him. The only light source shone from the candle the older man had set on the bedside drawer.

In a soft voice, Minami asked the young boy: "Would you like me to continue or you want to hear another story instead?"

"You can continue with the story." A muffled voice replied back beneath the covers young Ryoutarou had burrowed under.

"Well, the last of the five ancient beasts was the one who guarded the dead. He is not the master of hell per se but more of a guardian, a guide. Dáinn was his name, which means simply as the Dead One. He roams the lands freely, unlike the rest who guarded their own realms."

"And he hides in dark corners of every room, waiting for us to slip into slumber," Ryoutarou mumbled as he lowered his blanket. Tousling the lad's bright emerald hair, Minami continued on.

"Yes. He watches us in our sleep, but only those whose time has come will he come and greet. You're still young, Ryou so there's no need to be scared of him."

"But… I don't want you or mama to be gone. You're both old, with grey hair and wrinkles." Ryoutarou pouted.

"Indeed. That your mama and I may be gone before you but we never know. Hence, remember to always love and cherish those around you." Minami cast a warm and gentle smile to the boy. Standing up and tucking Ryoutarou in once more, he placed a kiss on the lad's forehead before heading out.

As the door closed, Ryoutarou's small voice called out.

"I will protect you. Mama, big sis, and Kaho-chan too. I'm León's warrior, and I am not scared of Dáinn."

His meek declaration drew a laugh from Minami. Knowing how headstrong young Ryou was, he knew that he will see his promise till the end.

"You will, Ryou. Indeed, you will." Minami whispered back.

The door closed shut; the room was dark save for the moonlight streaming through his window. His saffron eyes slowly drifted shut as sleep lulled him.

A voice chuckled in mirth as darkness enveloped him completely.

Dáinn let go of his grip around Ryoutarou, dropping him like a sack of potatoes. Before the man could recover, a hoof struck him in the gut, sending him tumbling down the moss steps.

"Ryoutarou!" Saraphina cried out. The thornapples trapping her wrapped around tighter, making the fairy gasped in pain.

"Hush now, Guardian of Ergo. I wouldn't kill him. That's not my nature of things."

The stag beast trotted slowly down the steps, the roots slithering towards the warrior lying still on the ground. Before they could wrap themselves around him, a blue blaze surrounded Ryoutarou, singeing the thornapples.

Taken aback, Dáinn cursed silently. 'Dang it, that meddling bastard is here.'

The chamber shook steadily to the rhythm of a person's breath, akin to a man deprived of air. The wall behind the throne crumbled, revealing a dark pathway. Cold winds blew into the chamber. The glass of water around the throne frosted up immediately, snowflakes began to fall as the temperature plunged a few degrees.

Saraphina shivered uncontrollably even though her internal flame burnt ten times stronger than usual. She glanced over at Dáinn and Ryoutarou, who still laid motionless on the ground, the former's attention trained onto the dark path that had appeared.

A hiss echoed beyond the darkness.

Pair of gold emeralds with a dark slit in its centre stared blankly at them. As the hissing got louder, the blue flames around Ryoutarou grew brighter, towering over even Dáinn himself. Frowning, the stag beast called out arrogantly, though with a slight nervousness in his tone:

"Old friend, if I had known you would show yourself, I would have prepared some wolves as a greeting. Sadly," he gestured towards Mizue's body at the side of the throne, "that girl shall make do."

The beast emerged from the darkness. An iridescent grey scaled snake clad in a large woollen midnight blue poncho lined with dark feathers, its right hand held a wooden staff adorned with the same feathers and a silver cobra head. As it walked past, blue flames licked the weeds which eventually freed Saraphina. The fairy promptly blinked to her master's side to assess his condition.

"You are in my domain, Dáinn," Ormr hissed distastefully. Casting a sideways glance at Mizue's corpse, he tapped her with his staff, and her body disappeared.

"You barged into my sanctuary, paraded around in a mortal's body, and aroused me from my rest. That I cannot take lightly." Ormr tutted, sitting on the throne. Dáinn moved towards him, ignoring the pair within the flames.

"For that, I do apologize. I know how serious you take your much-needed rest," the stag gave a curt bow, "especially with the endless task of passing judgement on these low lives. I don't know if you know of this." The serpent glanced warily at the stag. "Apparently, your dear friend, León, is intervening in these creatures' war."

Ormr remained silent. His expression and eyes were as still as the water in a frozen lake, betraying none of his thoughts to the Dead One before him.

While the beasts were conversing, Ryoutarou slowly stirred awake. Groaning at the stiffness of his limbs, the warrior's eyes were trying to adjust to the raging blue flames surrounding him. As he was about to speak, Saraphina quickly shushed him.

"Don't. They are busy conversing. We have to get out of here," the fairy whispered.

"Mizue…" Ryoutarou rasped, "We have to get her out of here too. Even if it's just her corpse."

"Ormr magicked her body away," Saraphina explained and silenced her chosen before he could protest. "I know where he put her body. It's at the entrance of the cave."

At that moment, the flames behind them edged away, revealing a hole big enough to fit the warrior in the cavern's floor. Without any hesitation, both fae and human disappeared down the dark abyss with silent thanks in their hearts for the serpent beast's mercy and kindness.

Kahoko groaned, stretching awake at the soft rays of first light streaming through the curtains of her room. Getting up and freshening herself up with the basin of water by her bedside, her mind began to wander.

"You are to accompany me around tomorrow then." Len's voice echoed.

'Can't believe I agreed to accompany that prince out. Ugh.'

'Yet, you want to know more bout him, don't you?' A thought sounding like Lili explained.

'Get out of my head, Lili!'

Her blond fairy appeared next to the annoyed Kahoko, violet eyes twinkling with mischief.

"There, there Kahoko Hino. There's no need to glare at me like that." Kahoko scowled harder. Lili sighed, "I didn't mean to read your thoughts, but you should know whatever Corda hears, I hear it too!"

"I know," tutted the young lady. "But still, it is an invasion of privacy, mind you!"

"Sorry, sorry!" Lili exclaimed as he flew further away, having no interest in being swatted by Kahoko's hand. "Have fun with the prince today, Kahoko Hino!" The fairy giggled and disappeared into thin air.

The assassin huffed in frustration, wrapping herself with the curtains. That was the state the grand duke found her in. Hiding his amusement at her antics behind a kind smile, the duke ushered her down to the dining hall.

"Make haste, young lady. The prince has never been a patient person." Shinobu remarked.

Sighing for the nth time that day, Kahoko nodded in response. Securing her wine-coloured cloak around her figure, ensuring the hood is in place, she came face-to-face with the mask clad prince.

His distaste for her tardiness was evident despite the mask hiding half of his face. If the downturn sides of his lips, the tapping of his boot against the wooden floors, the crossing of his arms weren't enough to warrant his displeasure, she would have been one failure of an assassin.

Giving a curt nod to the prince, Kahoko apologized, "I'm sorry for being late," she hesitated, "Tsuki."

Giving no reply in return, Len proceeded to exit the inn without waiting for his companions.

Kahoko suspired. The grand duke clasped her shoulder as a means to ease her mood.

"Calm down, Hino. He has been worried you had fallen ill due to last night's food. He was all too ready to barge into your room himself before I offered to check on you instead," soothed the grand duke. Reaching into his pocket and handing her a pouch heavy with coins, he gave her head a gentle pat.

Casting a warm smile at his junior, Shinobu continued, "I hope you both can get along well. Just be yourself," Kahoko quirked an eyebrow at him, "minus the killing intent, of course. It's been too long since you had time to wind down and be a woman of your age."

Before Kahoko could counter, Shinobu shushed her, "I know you are more than capable of defending yourself out there, but there're times when you should let others do it for you. Let loose and have fun. I miss that smile of yours."

Nodding her head in resignation, she offered the grand duke, the man who has been like an older brother to her, a small smile. Trudging outside, she was surprised to see the prince leaning against the wall of the inn.

Giving in to her newfound resolution to befriend the prince despite their circumstances, she leaned next to him and jiggled the pouch.

"So, anything, in particular, you would like to purchase or see per se?", she inquired.

An awkward air settled between them, making Kahoko fidget even more. She couldn't understand why the prince was behaving as such, since he was the one to propose the idea of being "friends". Just as she was about to ask him again, the prince's fairy appeared in front of her. Blinking rapidly in surprise and before she could collect herself, the tiny creature with long azure hair began flying around her, probing her sides and face with her wand whilst firing out endless questions at her.

"Hey! Hey! You're Corda's chosen right? How's it going? How's Lili? How's your life back in Seisou? What's your name? What do you do? Why are -"

"Maurelle!" Len whispered indignantly, trying to snatch his fairy who was busy fluttering around Kahoko. As he was trying to catch his fairy, Kahoko started giggling at the sight of the prince who completely lost all his cool.

Maurelle started laughing too, finally perching herself on Kahoko's right shoulder. Noticing where she landed at, Len let out a sigh in defeat. He settled next to Kahoko once more, his fairy chattering the assassin's ear off while she tried her best to answer.

"Neh, neh. You're too pretty for an assassin. Why didn't you become a courtesan instead?" Maurelle piqued.

"Well, that's a long story. I -"

"What do you do when you aren't killing people?"

Slightly taken aback with the fairy's brashness, Kahoko tried to maintain her smile while answering, "Well, I would be shopping or training and many other things. I -"

"You seem very close to Duke Yunoki. You're his mistress or something?"

Len looked at the duo with wide eyes, though they were hidden under the mask, his interest oddly piqued at the question.

"What? No!" Kahoko exclaimed out loud, flustered. Maurelle was jostled off her shoulder, and before she could continue asking away, Len quickly grabbed her.

"Maurelle, I think that's enough."

Looking at Len with puppy eyes, which worked most of the time but Len was firm on resisting it and told her again, "You have asked enough for now. You will have plenty of time to converse with her as we make our journey towards Gellert."

Sighing resolutely, Maurelle disappeared as suddenly as she came. Looking at the still embarrassed assassin beside him, he gave her an apologetic nod. "Sorry about her. She can be on the overbearing side at times."

Shaking her head, Kahoko coughed then smiled, "It's alright. Some of the fairies are like children." Len chuckled, the sound catching her off guard. Smiling wider, she excitedly grasped the prince's arm and tugged him along into the direction of the town square where the market was. "No time to waste, Tsuki! Let's get going."

The prince was surprised at her action, yet he didn't shake her off, taking little sips of her warmth through the fabrics of their clothes.

'Pervert.' Maurelle whispered in his mind.

'Shut it.'

A cavern in Salji Mountains (Past, circa Mizue's death)

Sniffing the air, Dáinn let out a roar as the human and fairy's scent disappeared. Snarling at an impassive Ormr, the stag beast grabbed the snake's garb, hauling him up from the throne.

"What are you playing at here, Ormr?"

Hissing, Ormr replied, "Put me down, Dáinn."

"Not until you tell me what are you all planning."

"Put. Me. Down." The serpent's cold command echoed throughout the cave, its wall shook, threatening a cave-in.

Pissed yet knowing that even he wouldn't stand against Ormr if they were to battle, Dáinn shoved the serpent beast back. Settling back into his seat, Ormr tapped his staff onto the ground.

Blue flames of the shapes of shackles wound themselves onto the stag's limbs. Caught by surprise, Dáinn did not manage to escape from its grasp. The fire brought him to his knees on the stone-cold floor. As the heat wrapped around him, he cursed:

"ORMR! What in the world are you doing!?"

Stepping down from the throne and squatting to his captive's eye level, Ormr looked at the Dead One with an inscrutable gaze.

"What we have set in motion does not concern you now, Dáinn. You shall play your part when the time comes."

Just as Dáinn was about to retort, the flames burnt even brighter, melting away his parts bounded by them and slowly spreading up his body. Sucking in a breath as the smell of charred meat flooded the space, the Dead One managed to choke out before the flame extinguished his body completely:

"You all will be the dead… of us."

Ormr watched the physical body of Dáinn turned to ash. When the flame subsided, the serpent beast turned to whence it came, returning to its slumber till the time comes.

A/N: Apologies cuz I am such a horrible person for not going through with what I had set to do in 2020. No excuses besides my own laziness and poor time management. School is sort of paused for me now, idk. No one knows what's going on anymore now.

Thank you to those who still read this fic and those who left reviews. ❤ loads of love. Stay safe everyone.