The sun was just beginning to rise as they began their drive up the mountainside. The orange and purple rays peering over the tree-covered peaks slyly brought a breathtaking beauty to the wild landscape. Only those making their careful way up the road knew that lovely scene hid something deadly and horrifying.
Well before dawn, Cye had quietly assembled his team in the kitchen. All ronins confirmed that they too bore their marks once more. They could feel it in their guts, in their armors, that they were on the menu again and those monsters would be coming for them. In whispers around the kitchen table, they unanimously decided it was time to go back and bring the fight to the source of all of this. It had to end now.
Only Robyn wasn't present for the conversation. Mia and Regan joined the meeting when Cye and Rowen respectively left their beds. For a moment, they all considered letting Robyn sleep and leaving her at the mansion, but the risk was too great. They couldn't afford to leave her there unprotected, especially with her monster. It was a danger to her and everyone else still in the house. Regan snuck in to wake her up and Robyn obediently dressed in silence and met them downstairs.
They all left the mansion while it was still dark with only a brief and vague note left behind for Mia's family not to worry, that they would return soon. By dawn, the two-car convoy was nearly to their destination.
Mia led the way in her car, Cye in the passenger seat with Ryo and Kento in the back. The girls were driving in order to allow the boys to get some sleep. Though there would be little rest on the drive. The car was silent the entire way up. Cye sat listless in the front, eyes drooping up and down as he watched the road. In the back, Ryo leaned his head against the side window, eyes hooded, but never closed all the way. Kento's head had lolled back against the headrest. His eyes remained closed most of the time, but his body remained tight, his fists clenching now and then.
Regan followed behind, driving Sage's car with Halo in the passenger seat. It was dead silent there, too. Sage watched the dawn rise out the side window, chin resting on his propped up fist. In the back, Rowen seemed to have managed to drift off. He had slumped against Robyn, his head resting on her shoulder. Regan glanced back at them through the rear view mirror just in time to see Robyn brush her fingers through the hair at Strata's neck. He sighed in response. Regan felt not a single hint of jealousy. It warmed her to see her best friend caring for the man she loved. This was going to be a difficult day for all of them. They needed a little peace before the storm broke.
As the drive took both vehicles further up the mountain, the tension rose. Hearts beat faster; everyone was alert now. Mia gripped the steering wheel tight as she stared at the mountainside, trying to find that building Regan once spied by accident. It seemed almost like a lifetime ago when they were carefree and eager for a summer vacation. They didn't even realize what danger they were walking into.
Cye's gentle hand on her wrist reminded her how hard she was gripping the wheel and she forced herself to relax a little. "It's going to be okay," he whispered gently and she gave him a tired smile. If all of this hadn't happened, the two of them would be boarding a plane for their honeymoon in Paris right now. All of that was put on hold until they knew they were safe. Mia regretted the stress and the fear of this situation, but she did not regret her marriage to this man. Never.
The winding road seemed to go on forever. Each bend revealed more road with no destination in sight. Mia began to wonder if they missed the turn off or if there were greater powers hiding the place from them and they were never going to find it. Then, suddenly, the road turned inward and they were driving through the woods and up to an old, rotting building that used to be a hotel.
Mia's pace slowed to a near crawl when the building appeared ahead. Yet, it seemed all too soon when they entered the parking lot. The building was as they remembered it when they fled on the last morning of their stay. Old; crumbled and musty. It had been decades without care, at least. The damage from the first monster fight was still evident and hadn't been touched since.
The two cars parked next to each other, and it was several moments before Sage decided he would get out. The rest immediately followed and stared at the old building carefully. All was calm. The sun was out. Birds sang. If the group had just found this place by happy accident, they would have found the it quite innocuous.
But every single one of them was taken back to that morning when they all suddenly woke up in filth and terror.
"What was that word you used to describe this place, Kento?" Rowen asked. "Janky hotel, you said?"
"As janky as they come," Kento confirmed, hands on hips.
"You know..." Robyn ventured, "…my swimming suit is still in there..."
"No," Rowen said quickly. "Every single one of us will spank you if you go in there."
Her eyes widened at the threat and, comically, her face turned very red.
"Though it isn't the hotel that we're really worried about, is it?" Mia asked in a somber tone. Everyone went quiet for several moments.
Most were now gazing to the mountains behind the hotel's remains, where they knew a path would lead them to their true destination. Sage took a moment to inspect the two old cars still in the parking lot from the last time they were there. They each looked to be from some time in the 70's. Two other cars, another group of people visiting unaware of what horror awaited them. Unlike his group, this one didn't make it out of the hotel after the first attack.
"Though none of us wants to be here," Sage said in the silence, "it's good that we are. This thing, this entity, has preyed on people before and will again if we don't stop it. We were destined to find this place, to come back here and finish this. It's our job as Ronin Warriors to seek out that which attacks the innocent and get rid of it. We weren't given these marks to be victims; we were chosen to do our jobs."
"What do you want us to do?" Robyn asked.
It was here the discussion wavered. Some thought the girls would be safest if they remained in one of the cars with the doors locked. But with this thing, whatever it was, having the ability to send out its monsters to much further locations than this, they all realized they would never know for sure if the girls would be safe. It was decided that since they all started it together, they would finish it together.
It was also decided that the guys would put on their subarmors before they headed to the trail. They weren't going to wait for an attack to arm themselves this time. Then, cautiously, the group set out in the early morning chill. They picked their way over the rubble of what remained of the hot springs and then stepped out the other side onto the well-worn path. A path that suspiciously remained well-worn despite decades between visitors.
The group made their way up the mountainside with a Ronin in the front, a Ronin in the back, and one between each of the girls for maximum safety. The over hour-long trek was nearly silent with mostly just the guys talking to check with each other that the coast was still clear. It felt almost absurdly normal; just an early morning hike in the mountains, as if there was nothing to worry about at all.
Then, the steep slope that led to the hidden village appeared ahead.
"Guys, hold on," Rowen said from the rear of the party. "I hear something."
All dirt shuffling and twig snapping came to a halt. Even breaths were held as they listened. The forest had gone dead silent. Then, with the sound of the breeze through the leaves, came the hush of something long and heavy slithering through the underbrush of the forest below them. That sound alone caused everyone's hair to stand on end. Suddenly, the woods were too tall, too thick around them. It could be too easy for an enemy to pop out from anywhere.
"Alright, let's get up there, and out of these woods, pronto," Kento announced. He pulled Mia's hand and practically dragged her up to the stiff slope in his haste to get them out of there. "Okay, now we're going to do it just like when Mia fell in that pit. Cye, you're first."
Kento crouched and entwined his fingers together. Cye knew exactly what he was talking about and obediently stepped up. He was propelled into the air and landed neatly on top of the edge several yards above. Mia was next and Cye caught her just like last time. Though, unlike last time, Kento didn't propel her comically high and she appreciated it. She did, however, use the moment as an excuse to wrap her arms around Cye in a quick, tight hug before he let her down.
One by one, they were all hefted up to the ledge in little more than a minute. Kento then rebounded off the rocks to quickly rendezvous with the rest of them. There they all paused in careful defense, the Ronins forming a circle around their three female companions. But nothing came for them. Not from the woods, nor from the hidden world inside. All seemed still.
Like before, a thin fog swirled around their feet, coming from the valley within. Unlike before, despite the sun shining bright in the sky, it seemed far too dark in the cupped hand of the valley. It was as if the light were filtered, blocked somehow from fully reaching the valley floor. The group lingered on their small patch of light, loath to go into the shadows.
"Okay," Sage announced with a heavy exhale. "We should probably go in fully prepared."
"I was thinking the same thing," Ryo agreed. "We armor up here. This thing, or at least its monsters, know about our armors. They've attempted to prevent us from calling them before. Let's not give them that chance."
They took turns so there would always be someone standing watch while armors were summoned. Sage and Cye first. Then Kento, Ryo and Rowen. Regan watched with the most intrigue, though all the girls found the summoning of the armors quite a sight to see. This was the first time Regan really got a good look at any of them as the armors rushed in with their amazing powers and manifested themselves on their bearer's bodies.
Of course, Strata held Regan's attention the most. The sleek and sharp silhouette of Strata made Rowen look lean and even taller than he was, yet so much bigger at the same time. When the energy died down, she approached him, entranced. A delicate hand rose to touch the midnight blue armor, but hesitated in mid air. Regan started when he reached out to her and gently took her wrist. She stiffened when he pressed her hand to his chest plate, but relaxed at the coolness of the metal. Strata seemed to thrum with an energy that wasn't necessarily unpleasant to feel radiate through her. It was a little like when Halo's power brushed through her when Sage healed her arm, only with Strata it held a curious sort of intimacy.
"It's breathtaking," she whispered.
With a smile, Rowen leaned down, their noses almost brushing, and whispered, "You're breathtak—"
"Yes, we get it, the armors are very pretty," Robyn interrupted. "Can we kill us some monsters before you guys start distracting each other?"
The clear hint of stress and panic in the redhead's voice quelled any snide remarks. She was right. They needed to focus on the danger at hand before allowing their thoughts to drift off toward the possibility of more celebratory activities.
If there would be anything to celebrate when this was all over.
The couple remained quiet after being chastised, though Rowen held Regan's hand and she squeezed it back as they carefully began to pick their way through the group of foggy trees that was the precursor to their final destination.
It was but a brief interlude to walk among the silent trees, where both sound and light seemed dampened by the thick foliage all around them. With Ryo in the lead, they emerged from the small forest.
The open sprawl of the ancient village appeared before them. At the sight of the dilapidated houses in the distance, that ancient Shinto shrine, Ryo stretched out a hand to stay the group. His other hand reached up to the handle of a katana.
Everyone remained still and silent, glancing around them in all directions for any sign of danger. The village remained dormant, the fog low and lazy without any sign of movement within.
"So, what's the plan?" Kento whispered. "Do we have a plan?"
"The plan is to find the source and take it out," Sage responded with a similar hushed tone. "We'll have to get it to expose itself somehow. It's got to be hiding around here somewhere."
"Do you expect us to go wandering around the village looking for it?" Cye hissed. "It would be a perfect opportunity for every one of our monsters to attack at once."
"If they can," Robyn said quietly, though not as carefully quiet as the others had been. "There was only one instance where we saw more than one monster at a time. Maybe it can't stretch itself so thin like that."
"A good theory, but one we can't afford to bet on, especially when it comes to everyone's safety while we fight this thing." Rowen said, not looking at her. He kept his gaze to the rear to make sure nothing snuck up behind them.
"If you find the source, it's going to be more concerned with trying not to be killed by you guys than sending monsters after us," Regan reasoned. "And you know I can keep Robyn and Mia safe during the battle."
Rowen turned to give his girlfriend a smile, but there was no warmth in it—only worry. Regan's power was formidable, but not infinite. He had seen what overuse of her abilities could do to her. He never wanted to see her like that again, and he worried for her just as he worried for the other two women in their care.
"Whatever and wherever it is, it's waiting for us," Cye said gravely as he looked at the village. "Can't you feel it? It's out there and it's trying to will us to come into its trap." He glanced down only for a minute when Mia took his arm. Then his sharp gaze went right back into the eerie haze.
Ryo watched and listened silently until he couldn't take it anymore. "We're not playing its game. When it targeted us, it ended everything. That's what we're here for: to end everything."
The rest of the team watched on with wide eyes as Ryo expertly unsheathed both swords. Was he seriously going to...?
"We stay out in open land. No trees or anything else nearby to hide an attack. Rowen, clear the fog so we can see everything coming. Sage, Kento, you're with me," Ryo continued. "Rowen and Cye, you stay with the girls for now. We'll have to take the danger as it comes from here. Everyone stay alert, stay together, and look after each other."
Ryo looked to everyone in the group and they all nodded their agreement. Once they moved to an area where the warriors felt like nothing could sneak up on them, Strata went into action. Power hummed as a swirling gust of air scattered the fog on all sides. Even the ground at their feet was clear for several yards. That was the best they could do to prepare.
It was time to act.
Ryo approached the village, flanked on either side by Kento and Sage. The two remained a few paces to the rear for their own safety. They knew what was coming. Sage frowned slightly as he looked at the village one last time. It was a pity that this miraculous piece of history would be wiped off the face of the Earth. Too bad it was born of darker things when it would have otherwise been a fascinating find. He was sure Mia would agree, despite the fact that the place sent all his fine hairs on end. The village had to have been innocent at one time. And they would never really know exactly what happened here to have cursed it so.
If Ryo had any similar sentiments, it did not show in his actions. With a hard, determined look, he snapped the hilts of his swords together. The power of Wildfire grew around him, casting a near visible aura of energy, like the sun's corona during a total eclipse. But instead of jumping in the air, weapon over his head to smite his enemies, he let the power of the armor smolder deep and hot. He kept the energy low to the ground as fire burst from his weapon and sprayed far and angry against the cursed village, the dry and brittle grass eagerly passing the flames along.
The desiccated houses sucked in the fire with great whooshes of air and heat, and spread it far and wide. Soon, every structure was consumed by flame and burning fast. Burning as if it had been aching to burn for so long. The three warriors, Ryo still in the lead, watched the fire and waited.
Nothing happened. The inferno continued to burn, unattested and uncommented upon by anything supernatural.
Ryo grew impatient and glanced over to Kento.
"Level it. Turn everything upside down."
"Gladly," Hardrock responded with a crack of his knuckles.
The ground began to shudder.
"Huh? I didn't do anything yet!" Kento exclaimed.
The path winding down the middle of the village began to tear apart, fire roaring on either side as a crack opened up the earth. A gaping chasm soon split the town in half and began to swallow the very ground where the burning houses stood, and they disappeared into the opening maw. Ryo, Kento and Sage all backed away as the village was consumed from below into an ever-growing pit.
Then, from the mouth of the great hollow it rose. The legs came first; bony, jointed pillars that stuck out at all angles like deformed spider legs. Then the grotesque, clumped form, sickly as a massive tumor and as large as a building, slowly rose from the pit. Its body was covered in eyes and each eye beheld a different nightmare. The mouth was its own ragged maw of teeth spiraling deep, deep down the dark throat that seemed to lead down to Hell itself.
The Ronins all tensed, weapons at hand as the titanic creature loomed above them. They had fought monsters and giants before, and they would fight this, too. None of them, however, wanted to pay close attention to what eldritch nightmare each eye held in its pupil. The thing rose to its full height, and black tendrils waved around it, as if mimicking the rays of a cartoon sun.
The blackness rushed them and they readied themselves for the attack.
And then there was nothing.
No claws, no teeth. No massive creature to tear them asunder. The Ronins stood in the wide open field, the village still ruined, the ground still torn. But there was no danger to be found. The only odd thing they immediately noticed was that it was now night. The sun was gone and a full moon shone brightly over their surprised faces. Their armors were no longer there as they stood, dumbfounded, in their street clothes.
"Wh...what the hell just happened?" Rowen asked in a hollow voice.
"Took the words right out of my mouth," Kento said faintly.
"Have we... have we been here the entire day?" Cye asked. He felt exposed and wrong without Torrent on. "If it's this dark, we would have had to have been here about twelve hours."
Kento barked out a nervous laugh. "What? No. There's no way that we—"
Next to him, Ryo took a step forward and they both heard the wet, sticky squish of his foot in the mud. The second they heard that, the smell hit them.
Old blood and rotting meat. The smell of death.
Despite the only source of light being the pale moon, Ryo saw the blood so clearly. It was so red and there was so much of it. As red as Robyn's hair, which lay in a clump among the wild grass.
Her hair? Ryo thought numbly. Just her hair? All he could see were the bloodied tendrils, a wig tossed on the ground without the person attached…as if she had been scalped. Then his puzzled brain began to build the picture of what else was around. Other pieces of her; torn, scattered. Rotting. Covered with flies and putrefying as if it had been there baking in the sun all day.
"Oh, God," Kento blurted, panic rising in his throat. His wide eyes were dark, pupils the size of a pin, as he stared and stared. "OhGodohGodohGod!" He was gulping for air.
Ryo couldn't breathe. He felt like the ground beneath him was flipping over and the urge to throw up was so huge he could taste the bile in his throat.
Where was her face? Ryo wondered. He could feel his limbs begin to tremble. He wanted to gather his sweet, kind, giving, courageous friend to him, but he couldn't find Robyn because she was everywhere all over she was under him and all over the grass in blood and ripped limbs and there a hand—
A rough shove pushed him out of the way before he could vomit. Cye dropped to his knees in the blood-soaked grass, his face white as a sheet, his body trembling.
"What happened?" he whispered weakly, trying, too, to make sense of what he was looking at. That what he was looking at was his beloved friend, his childhood best friend, in bloody pieces. "Where have we been all day?" Then his voice took on a panicked scream. "WHERE HAVE WE BEEN ALL DAY?!"
"Rowen, don't!" Sage cried as Rowen surged further into the clearing to another form on the ground. Halo did his best to try to stop him but Strata already saw and dear God, God his feet kept slipping in all the blood and Sage was chilled to the bone, as if the sun went out permanently inside him, while he left the pieces of one friend he'd sworn to protect and approached the body of a friend he barely knew, and another he failed.
Regan's body, unlike Robyn's, was still in one piece. But her chest and torso had been split wide open. Internal organs were dragged out of the gutted, blood-soaked body. Her beautiful face remained flawless, with just a few tiny flecks of blood on her cheeks and forehead. Empty, lifeless eyes, grayed from drying out for so long, stared at nothing at all.
Rowen felt cold. A horror as frigid as the arctic sucked all the warmth from his body and left him shivering. A walking void of hopelessness and misery. Everything was gone, just…like…that. When he wasn't looking, she died. Where was he when the woman he loved was being torn apart? Why didn't he hear her when she was screaming for her life? He wanted to die. He couldn't stand being alive another moment, facing how utterly he had failed to protect her. To go on living while she was… A wordless, strangled scream tore from his throat that ended in a quaking sob.
Sage was there to catch him as he lost all strength in his legs. He held his friend and made himself gaze at what they all failed to stop. I danced with her hours ago, he thought dully. I didn't get to dance with Robyn at all.
Kento fell to his hands and knees and wretched, great heaves seizing his stomach. He lacked the strength to even stand. It was too much to take. The moment he realized Robyn's blood lay just under his useless hands, the heel of his palms pressing into the muddy earth, his stomach heaved again. His great body shook, and distantly, he could hear Rowen's broken cries. He couldn't get up. He didn't want to get up.
There was no point.
For Cye, it was just beginning when he realized Mia was missing. Dear God, not her, too. This was bad enough. This was enough. He slipped, trying to stand, and screamed his wife's name. "Mia! Where are you!"
All five Ronins jumped to attention. Mia. She had to be alive somewhere. She had to be.
They found her body not too far away from the others, face down and still. Ryo reached out to her form, hand trembling, but stayed his touch when Cye approached. Already smeared in blood, he dropped slowly to his knees next to her lifeless form. For a moment, he dared to hope she was just unconscious. He gently rolled her over on his arms, and sucked in a horrified breath. Her front was completely mangled; flayed and broken. The death blow was the caving in of her skull. Sickly gray brain matter poked out between thin bits of shattered bone. Her eye socket had caved in, the eye ruptured and hanging by threads. The skin had been torn off from most of her face, exposing her skull.
It would haunt them all for the rest of their lives.
And then, much to their growing horror, the body sucked in a ragged, pained breath.
"The hell is this?" Regan demanded, pacing in agitation in front of a solid wall of blackness.
It reminded Mia of the "corridor of fog" she and the guys ran into all those years ago in Toyama while trying to find the gate to Talpa's castle. It was so thick and dark, it was impossible to see what lay inside more than a few inches. Mia still wasn't sure what had happened to bring them where they were now.
They all saw the monster rise from the ground. Rowen and Cye had rushed forward to both protect and back up their teammates. The absolutely terrifying monster surged forward and the next thing she knew, she, Regan, and Robyn were standing alone in front of a massive clump of black fog. It was as tall as a several-story building and could easily cover a few city blocks. What was inside was anyone's guess, but the girls all had a feeling the Ronins were in there somewhere.
Though everything was peaceful and calm outside the black fog, waiting for the guys to come out was proving to be a challenge.
Regan cupped her hands over her mouth as she screamed into the fog. "Rowen! Rowen, can you hear me?"
Only silence in return.
"We should go in," Regan announced.
"Regan, no," Robyn said, taking her arm. "We need to let the guys do their job. We can best help them by being safe out here."
"What if we're not safe out here?" Regan shot back. "We need to stay together. What if they need our help?"
"You mean your help?" Robyn retorted with a raise of her brow. She and Mia certainly wouldn't be of any assistance against that thing they saw moments before.
Regan let out an aggravated sigh. "Fine, yes. My help. I feel like they're in trouble. I need to do something."
Mia and Robyn looked at each other. The desire to help was great, but they weren't so gung ho about running blindly into the blackness. Not after seeing the thing shrouded inside it. Even Kento only ventured into the last barrier of black fog inside the safety of a large van, and any lesser person would have died from that. The two had no armor and no powers. If there was something in there just waiting to attack, they would have no hope.
Regan understood this, but it did not deter her. "Look, I'm just going to run in and take a quick look around. I promise I won't leave you guys alone for more than a minute, okay? I said I'd protect you. I'm not going to leave you guys alone."
"Regan!" Robyn called to stop her, but the brunette had already jogged into the blackness. Robyn stepped forward, wondering if she should follow, when Regan suddenly burst from the fog, nearly running the redhead over.
"What the—" the tan-skinned woman demanded. She immediately tried again. Slower this time.
"Regan," Robyn sighed as her friend disappeared again. Within a few moments, Regan appeared out of the fog once more.
"Argh! What is going on?!" she demanded as she spun around and yelled at the blackness. "Let me in, you asshole!"
"What if...we all went in together?" Mia ventured. She was starting to worry about the boys as well. "We all hold hands and see if we can make it through."
"Good idea," Regan nodded, taking her hand. "Come on, Rob, let's do this."
Robyn was more hesitant than the others, but eventually sighed and took Regan's other hand.
"Wait, what if we get lost or separated?" Mia wondered.
"Then we meet up by the cars?" Robyn suggested with humor.
Regan sighed and shook her head. The three stepped into the blackness together side by side, holding hands. After a few moments, Regan and Mia stepped back out, hands still clasped.
"Regan! Where did Robyn go?" Mia gasped.
Regan growled in irritation. How did she lose Robyn while holding her hand?
"She...she made it in," Mia marveled.
Regan ran an agitated hand through her hair, mad at herself for not seeing this coming. "Of course she did."
Robyn felt it when Regan's hand melted through hers as if it had turned to vapor. Soon, she was standing alone in the clearing and it was no longer daytime. The night swirled around her and felt thick and tangible like water as she walked through it.
Her sneakers squished in the blood-soaked mud and she saw the body parts—her body parts. Jesus! Rowen was crouched nearby, face bloodless as he stared in shock at the body in his arms. Regan's body. Robyn could smell the putrefying flesh and she quailed at the sight of her best friend's mutilated corpse.
Not her corpse. No. And not Robyn's…parts, either. But they didn't know that—hell, they could touch what wasn't even real!
"Rowen, it's not real." She reached for him and her hand went right through his shoulder. Were they the apparition here, or was she? She couldn't tell. But she couldn't stand the heartbreak on his face, hear his grief-stricken murmur as he spoke to what he thought was his dead lover.
The rest of the warriors were huddled around something else and Robyn followed when she heard Cye's hysterical voice.
"No! I can't!" he screamed.
His whole body was shaking, his throat so tight he could barely breathe as he saw the stilted rise and fall of the mangled chest. She was in pieces. His new bride was torn from her skin, her bones shattered. She was still living. But there was no saving her. Everything was falling apart so fast. They were married. He kissed her the night before, held her, vowed to spend their lives together. He just wanted to die. He couldn't live in this world if this is what it came down to. If she is what he had to sacrifice because of this godforsaken armor.
"Cye," Sage said softly, though his voice wasn't steady. He couldn't believe the words he was about to say. He hated himself for them, but he couldn't continue to look at his friend's broken body and watch her suffer, and watch Cye suffer along with her. "She's in pain. She needs you to end it. If you love her..."
He trailed off, jaw clenched, and Robyn felt sick from the show. The pure anguish on their faces. Oh hell no! This sick, demented son of a bitch was not putting Cye through this. She was beginning to get a sense of this place somehow the longer she stayed there. The guys didn't appear to be wearing their armors, but Robyn felt them. Their energy was slowly being sucked away as the Ronins remained in despair and horror, completely distracted over what was going on.
Robyn didn't know how she was going to reach them, but she had to try. Just as she had done on a few scattered occasions when she had encountered a dark energy, she pushed her own energy out against it. This time, she did it has hard and as wide as she could. She knew she wasn't very strong, especially compared to this thing. She felt its power push back. But, just like when she walked through the fog, darkness could not hinder her. Her power met resistance and easily slipped through the cracks, causing the surrounding power to wobble and loosen its grip.
Rowen's head shot up, his arms still clutching the body. That was Regan's voice, sounding in the distance. What?
"Rowen, if you can hear me, don't give up!
"Cye!" Mia's voice joined the other, calling them. "Ryo! Guys! If you're lost, follow our voices! We're right outside!"
Cye felt like he was losing his mind when he heard it. His brain, his heart, couldn't handle this.
Then, Robyn's voice spoke to them, very clear and very near: "It's not real. We're all fine. It wants you to give up. Don't let it drain you! Fight it!"
The abject grief and devastation that had been eating Cye alive suddenly turned and roiled inside him. It twisted into a sticky rage at having been forced to wallow in the gravity of his worst nightmare. He slowly rose, jaw clenched, as his previous grief turned into rage. Energy swirled around him and Torrent's full armor manifested on his body once more.
"I'm going to kill it!" he snarled.
The emotion ignited like a fire through them all, the rage catching and scorching as each armor glowed to life and returned to its bearer. They could feel the thing inside them like an IV, siphoning their energy from them. But now, with full awareness and their armors, that connection was sliced with a burst of bright power. And the globe around them shattered.
With the lie now banished, the Ronins found themselves in their true situation. All five lay on the ground, covered with a black substance that grew like roots around them and snuck into the cracks of their armor. The black vines had slithered to their exposed necks, pierced the flesh and tunneled into their veins. The root-like appendages were attached to the hulking monster looming above them all as it fattened itself on their fear and drained all their energy. Try as they might to break free, they were held too tight, too weakened. Every movement felt like their nerves were being tugged out of their skin.
"Rowen!" Regan screamed.
"Cye! Ryo! Guys!" Mia cried, lurching toward them.
The response from the five warriors was instantaneous. "No! Stop! Stay away!" They all cried. Each could still see their bodies, bloody and lifeless on the ground. It was still possible that those visions were a shadow of things to come. Not a single one of them was willing to be saved if that nightmare was any sort of possibility.
"Stay back! I mean it!" Ryo barked angrily above the pleas of the others.
"Regan, if you come over here, I swear I will never talk to you again," Rowen growled.
This stayed the girls in their tracks for a moment as they tried to figure out what to do next.
"Mia," Regan said lowly, "if I could free any one of them, which one would have the best chance of beating that thing?"
Mia wanted to say Cye. She wanted her husband out of there so bad. They had just started their new life together. She couldn't stand the thought of losing him now.
"Ryo," she choked out, tears clogging her throat. "If you can get anyone out, get Ryo."
With a swallow and a nod, Regan stilled to concentrate, focusing on Wildfire, trying desperately to block out her boyfriend's rigid, pained form. She was uncomfortable using her powers on a living thing. As rattled as she was, she feared she did not have the control to be able to tell when she was holding a human being too tight. It would be so easy to squeeze until bones broke this distracted. But they were running out of options. As carefully as she could, she wrapped her power around Ryo's form with the intent to pull him free and snap the tendrils' connections.
Ryo's eyes widened at the sudden sensation of being grabbed by an invisible force. It lifted him and then tugged, like trying to pluck a piece of fruit from a branch. He gave a high pitched cry of pain when the act of trying to pull him from the roots made him feel like someone was trying to pull out his entire network of veins through his skin.
Regan immediately let go of him as Mia gripped her arm. That wasn't going to work. The tendrils were in too deep, and if she snapped them off to try to free him, she would be leaving that vile stuff in his body. Maybe if she got closer she could figure out something else.
Practically forgotten, the creature turned its attention to the two nearby women. Their meddling would not go unpunished. The moment the monster moved toward them, the Ronins immediately began screaming for them to run. Suddenly they realized the nightmare they had lived had every possibility of becoming real. And to their horror, the girls were standing their ground. Mia had stepped behind Regan and the brunette looked like she had every intention of attempting to take on the behemoth herself. The warriors knew Regan's powers were impressive, but also had their limits. A burst of intense power in a very short amount of time and then she would be spent and completely helpless.
Regan felt Mia's fingers curl into the back of her shirt. Blindly, she reached behind her to hold on to Mia, to comfort and to keep her safely behind her.
"Be careful," Mia said, her voice trembling, but strong.
"I will. This will all be over soon." A wave of déjà vu came over Regan. This was not the first time she had adopted this stance, or spoke those words. And as terrified as she was, she was going to do as much damage to this son of a bitch as she possibly could before the end came. Before it could ever touch Mia or Robyn or the guys.
Be brave, her father once said to her, in the days before he died. It's time to be brave.
I can be brave for them, she thought, gathering her energy to her for one last defense. A tendril reached for them and she reached out with her power to smack it away.
As the others continued to scream for the girls to run, Cye was frozen, staring wide-eyed at his wife. Mia was going to die. No amount of pleas or threats was going to get her to leave them. As painful as it was, Cye thrashed weakly against his bindings. His body was drained, his armor was drained. He had no energy left. What was the point of being a Ronin Warrior if he couldn't save the people he cherished the most?
Torrent, he pleaded internally. Take the last of my energy, take my life if it will help, just save her. Please! I love her. We love her. Don't let her die!
Through the waves of panic and desperation, he felt it—emotion that wasn't his, but so much like his own. Torrent? A fierce, protective force surged to the forefront and Cye felt his kanji appear on his forehead. It burned like fire, like it was taking the last of his reserves, and he gave it all up to that feeling. Anything to protect those he vowed to keep safe until his last breath.
The armor of Torrent glowed bright in the shadows, and the others followed as a chain reaction of power coursed through the bond they all shared. Separately, none of them had enough power for a full attack, but together they were stronger.
The tiny tendrils that pierced Cye's body began to melt away as Torrent engulfed him with energy so bright it was blinding. Mia and Regan stood in awe as the light from the armors shone bright as day. All five bodies were swallowed by it, turning into orbs of colored light. Even the creature stepped back in confusion as the orbs lifted from the ground and swirled around it. Faster and faster they churned and dove, darting this way and that.
Halo grazed the monster first, cutting through its flesh like a laser beam and the thing screamed. It was such a shrill, painful sound, Mia and Regan had to cover their ears. Wildfire dove in next, slicing at the creature's other side. The others followed suit, buzzing in close, cutting through its body, rupturing the eyes. The creature screamed again and stumbled back, falling into the massive chasm from which it came. The armors followed it, racing into the creature's mouth and erupting into an explosion of light and power.
Mia and Regan hunkered down as their senses were bombarded with so much power, they were momentarily blind and deaf. The wind picked up, nearly knocking them off their feet and searing them with its wrath. They clasped each other like little girls in the face of a tornado. For several moments, the power beat against them. And then, all was quiet.
It was dark now, a full moon out. The girls hardly noticed as they ran to the edge of the crater. They half expected to see a bottomless pit leading down to the depths of Hell itself. Instead, it was merely a few dozen feet down with five very wiped out Ronins in subarmor at the bottom.
"Guys!" Mia called breathlessly. Her chest hurt so much it was hard to raise her voice. They were all still alive. Everything was going to be alright. "Everyone okay?"
Kento was the first to glance up her way. Everything hurt, like his nerve endings were frayed at the edges. The armors were spent, all his energy was gone. And he had just had the scare of his life. He wanted to throw up again.
"Yeah, we're fine," he called in a shaky voice.
To his side he heard Ryo give a soft sound of distress before he let out a shaky breath and fell back on his backside, still breathing hard.
"Just give us a minute."
"Rowen?" Regan called.
"Don't come down!" Strata shot back, a little harsher than he meant to. His insides were quaking. "We'll come up to you. Just... just wait a minute."
He looked around at his team. They needed several minutes. Sage was turned away slightly, one hand over his face as blood seeped through his shaking white armored fingers. His eyes were closed as he attempted to collect himself. It was like the creature had started sucking out their very bodies after it had finished with their energy. He felt thin as paper, like his molecules could barely hold his form together.
Halo brushed Strata off and wiped his bleeding nose with the back of his hand. "I'm fine."
"Are we fine?" Ryo rasped. His voice sounded like he had been screaming for hours. He hurt, he felt sick. They all did.
Cye plodded over and dropped heavily on the ground beside him. As he put one arm over Wildfire he said, "We will be fine," and smiled up at his wife, who looked very concerned but was alive and unhurt. He could suffer through a little pain and exhaustion in exchange for that. For one brief second, the image of her mutilated body ripped into his thoughts and he nearly sobbed at the sudden shock of it. Instead, he kept staring at his wife and eventually waved to her to help clear the worried look from her face.
Like a limb that had previously been asleep, the physical pain began to subside, the nausea grounding itself for now. The mental wounds, however, would still need more time. As the guys climbed out of the crater, Regan and Mia were there to greet them and help pull them to their feet.
Regan nearly knocked Rowen down in a massive hug as he appeared over the edge. She felt his whole body tremble as he tucked her into his embrace and held her back tightly.
"You okay, tough guy?" she asked softly.
"Better now," he whispered into her hair.
"Let's get you guys home," Mia said, an arm around her husband's waist. "Some food and sleep will do you good."
"How is it even night time right now?" Sage asked. His face was still smudged in dried blood and he had given up on trying to wipe it off with his armored hands.
Mia pulled out her cell. "I don't know how it happened, but my phone says it's nearly 10 p.m. Somehow we've jumped ahead in time about twelve hours. That's...impossible."
Ryo visibly shuddered as he hugged himself. Where have we been all day? Cye's panicked scream still rattled around in his head. That old terror threatened to roil his stomach when they thought they had just disappeared while the girls had all died brutal deaths. He couldn't take the memory anymore. "Can we just get out of here?"
"Hey, uh...where's Robyn?" Kento suddenly asked.
Everyone stopped. Stared. Mentally counted the members of the group.
"She...she's not with you?" Regan asked with a tight voice.
"Why would she be with us?" Kento shot back.
"Because she made it in to go after you guys. ….You didn't see her at all?"
"I heard her voice," Rowen recalled, arms still loosely at her waist. "She told us everything we saw wasn't real...she tried to get us to wake up. But we never saw her."
Regan pushed him away as her breathing became erratic. She was slowly starting to hyperventilate. No, no, no, this wasn't happening. "What do you mean you didn't... where is she? Robyn!" She immediately began calling her friend's name into the night, but there was nowhere to look. The village was gone. Everything was completely leveled and flat. It was easy to see that they were the only people around.
Cye looked like he was nearly going to faint from the news and Mia had to use two arms to keep him standing.
"Wait, remember what she said? If we get separated, she said to meet by the cars."
Regan stopped calling Robyn's name to look at Mia, eyes wide with disbelief at such a crazy idea, then she gazed around the landscape. Robyn was clearly not here. Though her powers didn't come with empathic abilities, Regan always believed if anything happened to Robyn, she'd know it. There would be a deep, empty hole in her nothing could fill. And right now, she still felt like she had her best friend. There was no way Robyn could be gone.
"I'm going to the cars," she announced as she started off.
"Wait, wait," Rowen called, grabbing her elbow. "Slow down. We're all coming."
"And if we don't find her there?" Sage asked from the back of the group. They were all exhausted. If they managed to climb down the mountain, there would be no going back up.
Regan gave them all a stern look. "She's there."
Rowen moved closer and brushed the wind-swept hair from her face. "Okay, baby. I trust you."
The group didn't move nearly as fast as they wanted to. In top form, the Ronins would have just grabbed the girls and rebounded down the mountainside, getting them back to the parking lot in a matter of minutes. But as much as they refused to admit it out loud, the Ronins were in bad shape. The battle had left them weak, unwell, and in pain. They pushed forward as much as they could, but it took nearly another hour before the old dilapidated hotel came into view.
Regan broke from the pack before Rowen could stop her. She stumbled and raced down the trail, through the old gate, and scrambled over the broken wall. She stopped on the other side, panting hard when she saw the side view silhouette of the cars. Everything looked the same. The place appeared to be deserted and her heart dropped.
Pulse racing, she walked quickly to the cars, praying fervently over and over in her head. God, please let her be here. Please don't do this. She nearly lost hope until she noticed a form on the ground in the shadows between the two vehicles. A female sat cross-legged on the ground, back leaning against Sage's car. The person was so still, they seemed more like an inanimate object.
"Oh my God, Robyn!" Regan rushed to her, nearly falling on top of the redhead. Only on physical contact did Robyn come to life and respond to her friend's presence.
"Oh, hey Regan," she laughed at the very enthusiastic hug.
"You scared the hell out of me, you brat!" Regan laughed back. "How did you get all the way back here?"
Robyn looked genuinely confused. "What do you mean back here?"
By then, the others had caught up and there was a flurry of surprised cries of happiness at seeing the redhead alive and well. She got to her feet as Cye stumbled for her and caught him with a grunt. He squeezed the breath out of her. A few of the others all got in on the group hug. Just being near them, Robyn could see and feel that they were not well.
"Oh no, are you guys okay?" she asked, cradling Cye's face.
He gave a tired smile. "We'll be okay."
"Why did you go all the way back here by yourself?" Ryo asked.
Robyn blinked at him. "I don't know what you mean."
Sage retrieved something that fell on the ground when Robyn stood up. "What's this?"
Robyn glanced over and brightened. "My swimming suit!"
Robyn had no recollection of what happened between the fight and being found in the parking lot. She didn't remember how or when she came down off the mountain and certainly didn't recall going back into the hotel to retrieve her long lost bathing suit. It was very eerie, but nothing that dwelling on it would change.
Right then, the main order of business was to get the Ronins in the cars and get them off this godforsaken mountain. Mia drove her car with Cye in the passenger seat, Ryo and Sage in the back. Robyn insisted that she was completely fine and drove Sage's car. Kento sat in the passenger seat so Rowen and Regan could snuggle in the back.
Both vehicles were dead silent as they made their way carefully down the mountain roads. It was as if the drivers and everyone on board still expected to see some sort of creature jump out of the dark woods at anytime.
When they reached the town in the foothills of the mountain, Mia suggested stopping for food. None of the Ronins wanted anything, but Mia grabbed some fast food anyway. The smell quickly kick started their appetites and the Ronins ate ravenously. A few more miles down the road, however, they suddenly had to stop as Ryo stumbled out of the car and threw up by the side of the road. As everyone waited for him to feel well enough to get back in the car, Robyn and Mia stood together to converse and decided they needed to get the guys to bed, and soon. Driving them several more hours before they could rest at the mansion wasn't doing them any favors.
Finding a motel with enough open vacancies for their group this late was a bit of a challenge, and required a few different stops on their way back to Toyama before they happened upon one with three rooms available. It was basic and cheap, but it had an online presence and plenty of cars in the parking lot. That alone gave them all a great measure of comfort.
It still chilled them, however, to cross such an empty lobby to retrieve their room keys. The young, smiling Japanese girl with her iPad lying face down on the counter next to her helped. It was blessedly normal. They were only able to get one room with two beds. The rooms were small and efficient, but clean and quiet. When it came to separating for the night, everyone paired off naturally.
Regan was practically steering Rowen into their room. At the door right next to theirs, Robyn stood as she watched Ryo, Sage and Kento shuffling in, as if she were counting them off and making sure they got in okay.
"Look at you, piling hot guys into your room," Regan said with a weak attempt at humor.
"You could always trade me," she bantered back.
Regan hugged Rowen from behind, pressing her cheek into his back. "Tempting, but I'm more for some one-on-one time tonight." The two girls smiled before Regan shut the door behind herself and Rowen.
Robyn was about to turn in, too, when Cye approached and wrapped her in a hug that she gladly returned. He held her for a moment as Mia waited in the doorway of the room directly across the hall from them. Robyn let him take his time. He seemed to need it.
"I'm so sorry about your wedding, about everything," Robyn whispered into his shoulder.
"Don't be," he murmured back. "The best wedding gift I could ever get is all of you alive and well."
Robyn pulled back and cupped his face. "Everything will be better in the morning. Go let your lovely new wife take care of you and get some rest."
As soon as the door shut behind them, Mia turned to her husband and brushed his freshly cut, sweat-damped hair away from his face. "Let's get you cleaned up, honey," she said, her voice so kind that it brought tears to his eyes. All he could do was nod.
She ran a bath for them and helped him undress, because suddenly his fingers were trembling just a little too much and refused to work right. His body still ached and twinged from those vines piercing his skin and draining him. He was a few shaky steps from having his strings cut and collapsing like a marionette. Cye didn't protest when Mia helped him maneuver into the tub and then, in a role reversal from earlier that summer, Mia held him in the water. They didn't move, and she didn't say anything, and Cye was relieved not to voice the hell he witnessed. The broken, mangled, still-living body of his wife, her skin torn from—
No. Cye closed his eyes and shuddered. Mia's arms tightened around him and he found her hands and squeezed. He let his head fall back to her shoulder as he took deep breaths. "I love you," he murmured. She kissed his temple and echoed it back to him.
Once the water began to cool they bathed, then retreated to bed, wrapped up in each other. Cye soothed himself as he ran his fingers through her long hair and up and down her back. He drifted off too easy from his fatigue while Mia remained wide awake. Her body was still trying to decide whether those lost hours meant that she was ready to sleep. Had they jumped through time? Or had everything slowed to such a crawl that in a blink, the Ronins had had their energy drained from them for hours? The latter seemed more likely. They were all so exhausted and threadbare. It was hard to imagine this was the result of being under the creature's influence for only a handful of minutes.
As Mia mulled it over, she felt Cye's body tense and saw his brow furrow as a nightmare settled over him like a pall. Mia whispered softly in his ear, hoping to stave it off, but she could see it growing in intensity; he moaned with distress, and his fingers gripped her waist tightly. When his moans became coherent—"No, no, god, please, I can't—" Mia called his name loudly, then louder.
Cye gradually woke, but not before his shoulders shook and tears leaked from his squeezed shut eyes. By the time he was fully conscious, deep sobs wracked him; a boy wrestling with a night terror. Heartbroken, Mia stroked his hair and rocked him as he squeezed her tight and cried into her neck.
"I'm sorry," he choked out.
"Cye, honey, you don't have to be sorry." Mia swallowed hard against her own tears. God, what had happened to him while he was in there? "Shh, it's over. It's just a nightmare." She rubbed his chest gently, ran her fingers through his hair. "It's just bad dreams. Everyone's fine and nothing can hurt us, okay? I won't let it."
Cye sucked in a deep breath and then let it out slowly, taking in the reality of the room and his wife. It was so hard not to go back to those dark thoughts. It was as if the scene of her body was tattooed on the back of his eyelids.
"Don't go back there," Mia said, as if reading his thoughts. She stroked her fingers down the side of his face. "Stay with me. Think of going to Paris. Think of last summer when you took me boating on the ocean. Think of how we would swim naked together in the lake. Think of how fun it's going to be, our first Christmas together, married, this winter. Don't go back to that dark place. I'm not there, I was never there. Stay with me."
Cye took her hand in his and pressed it to his lips. The dark tendrils of nightmares were slowly losing their hold as long as Mia was there to keep them at bay. "With you, always."
Rowen and Regan showered together to both save time and just be near each other. They did nothing but get clean, although Rowen kept running his hands over her stomach for reasons she couldn't fathom. It seemed to comfort him. Regan washed his hair, and he relished the sensation of her fingernails lightly scratching his scalp as she worked the shampoo in and rinsed it out.
Halfway through, the heat became too much for him, and a wave of nausea and lightheadedness rolled through him. He lunged for the toilet and weakly threw up what little he ate while he shivered and dripped water onto the bath mat.
Regan got out and stayed with him, murmuring soothing nonsense, pressed against his back as he shook and dry heaved. She draped a towel over him and fetched him some water. When he was able to stand, he sat heavily on the toilet lid and gently stayed her hand from drying his hair.
"Go dry your hair, I'll be fine," he said, his voice strained. "I just need a few minutes."
She caressed the side of his face, then kissed his forehead. "Okay, baby."
After the door closed and the growl of the hair dryer sounded from the room, Strata dropped his head in his hands and shook, his body reacting to whatever the fuck that creature did to them, both physically and mentally. She's fine, he told himself, scrubbing his hands over his face. She's right in the other room, and that very solid body you held that looked like her was not her. The creature is dead, the monsters are never coming back, and you can go on with your life.
He said it to himself like a mantra until the shaking stopped, and then slowly rose, brushed his teeth with one of the emergency kits they bought from their quick store run. He came out and found Regan seated on the bed, wrapped in a towel, and texting someone; presumably her brother. When she saw him, she indicated for him to sit down on the floor. The simple act of his girlfriend running her fingers through his hair as she dried it brought a lump to his throat.
When they went to bed, neither bothered with clothes. After the day they just had, both preferred to sleep skin-to-skin, craving each other's touch. Rowen lay there wide awake in the dark, listening to the sound of her breathing, the beat of her heart. He was so brutally tired, but every time his eyes slid shut, flashes of that goddamn bloody field, her sightless, dull eyes, imprinted on his brain like the aftermath of a camera flash. Every time he tensed from it, Regan stroked his chest soothingly, or gently rubbed her foot against his calf.
His hands idly wandered her back until his fingers found the raised edges of the scars on her lower back. He traced them, painfully aware that he still only had a vague idea of what caused them. Something had tried to kill her before, and she had survived. He was overcome with the need to know what it was, and how she lived through it. And he wanted to hear her low, contralto voice speaking to him. Her voice centered him.
"What did this to you?" he asked quietly, tracing the scars again.
Regan didn't say anything for a long moment. "Baby, I don't think now is a good time—"
"I haven't asked," he said roughly, voice raw and pleading. "I've left it alone. But I want to hear all of it. I should have told you before today, I should have told you weeks ago, but I love you so much. There's nothing you could say that would scare me off. Just talk to me."
Regan's heart tumbled off a cliff of immeasurable heights at hearing those words again. She kissed his throat. "I know," she said, her voice hitching. "You told me at the wedding."
Rowen blinked up at the ceiling, then down at her. "I did?"
She laughed a little, eyes misty. "Yeah, you goof. Right before you went off to go be a hero. I'm the one who was an idiot today and didn't tell you that I love you, too." Tears blurred her vision. "I love you," she whispered again, then kissed him. His arms tightened around her like steel bands.
He basked in those words for long minutes. He felt like he already knew it, but hearing it was something entirely different. And then: "That doesn't get you out of telling me."
She laughed again, wiped her eyes, and then dropped her head on his chest. A deep sigh escaped her. "It's not a happy story. I'm just worried it'll make you feel worse."
Rowen stroked her hair as he said, "I have it on good authority that it has a happy ending."
"…corny," she whispered, then squirmed when he tickled her side. He let her gather her thoughts, then listened. "Robyn and I didn't meet in school. I've never even been to high school. I had a…tutor, of sorts."
"Where were you?"
"Upstate New York. When my powers manifested…people came. We lived in Chicago at the time. I couldn't control some of the energy outbursts that happened in public, and it didn't escape notice. They came to my mother. Said that they could help me. I was too dangerous to be in school, and they could help me learn to control it. She didn't know what to do with me, so she agreed to let them take me. And I believed them. They made it sound like a temporary thing. Like a summer camp for mutants." She laughed softly at herself. "Visions of Xavier's School for Gifted Children danced in my head. This was before…I don't think I've mentioned it, but my brother is gifted, too. His actually manifested around the same time as mine, but he wasn't aware of it until after I went away. He's an empath. They didn't know about him."
Rowen could already see where this was going, and he could feel the anger and heartbreak stirring in his gut. "They didn't let you go home, did they?"
"No," she whispered. "They had other plans. And I…couldn't go home. I had been declared "unfit" and officially institutionalized. My brother wasn't allowed to come see me, and he didn't know where I was. It was a fully functioning research hospital, but I was kept away from the regular patients. My mother told everyone I was off at boarding school."
"How old were you?"
"I'd just turned thirteen. I was there for…four years, five months."
He could hear it in her voice as she told him, haltingly, some of the horrors of her captive stay. The shame of being put away, the dehumanizing experiments and treatment. They isolated her; feared her; threatened the life of her twin if she fled. He could hear, too, that she had believed them when they told her she was too dangerous to be around normal people. He wanted to hurt every one of them for the pain he heard in her voice. No; he wanted to kill because of it. He ached for that young, scared Regan, didn't have the adequate words to express how sorry and furious he was that this happened to her. He remembered when Sage was taken in New York, and imagined those weeks stretched out for four and a half years. Strata held her tighter and kissed the crown of her head.
The teenager she described did not resemble the happy, open, and funny woman he knew now. "I would have never known," he said unsteadily.
"Good," she said lightly. "I wasn't like this then. When Robyn and I met, I was a shell of a person. I didn't even talk to her. I didn't want friends. Everything hurt too much. But she was so kind, and she treated me like a person. That meant so much to me."
"How did she get there?"
"Jason and his buddies." Regan's voice changed, deepened with bad feelings. "You know about that, right?"
"After she escaped from them, the foster system picked her back up, but she was traumatized and injured from the assault. I guess she was a little too honest about what happened, and with her mother's history of schizophrenia—"
"Yeah. They thought she was exhibiting early onset. So they sent her to the children's ward of my hospital. I was amazed they let someone visit me, but my psychologist—they actually gave me one of those, to make sure I wouldn't flip out and kill everyone—put her foot down on my constant seclusion. It wasn't healthy."
"No shit," Rowen said angrily.
Regan smiled a little. "So they let her visit me. When she finally told me what happened, I didn't know what to believe at first. I didn't think she was lying, but demons were a whole other realm, you know? I thought, maybe her mind switched the script to help her cope with what really happened. But then they came."
Rowen held his breath, waited for her to continue. She was holding him tighter now, her head buried in his chest.
"It was a Tuesday. Late. I woke up because I felt some kind of energy press against me. It felt like touching an oil slick. They had done something to everyone there, put them to sleep like something out of Sleeping Beauty, when the whole castle fell under the spell…except Robyn, and except me, because of my own defenses. They came for her, and I would not let them have her."
"You fought them?" Rowen recalled the hellish night where Cye almost died and Nago and his cult rained terror down on the Ronins. She took them on by herself?
"I wasn't going to let them take Robyn or hurt anyone in the hospital, not when I could do something about it. I was terrified, naturally, so I used all that anger and hatred I'd built up over the years to get through the night. The scars…Jason came for her. He changed into this hellhound type creature. I was taking Robyn to another part of the hospital that had closed for the night, so no one would be around, and I felt him rush up from another hall—too late. I had enough time to push Robyn out of the way, but when he crashed through the glass, he clipped me, sent me flying."
Rowen hissed in sympathy.
"Jesus, Rowen, I had never been so scared in all my life. My back was on fire, I was exhausted, and all I wanted to do was protect my new friend. I would sooner die than live knowing I failed her."
He heard his own thoughts echoed back to him as he had held her dead body hours ago. He knew that feeling all too well.
"At first, he just wiped the floor with me. I was still so bad at using my powers. I didn't know what I was doing. And they were going to take her away from me and do God knows what." Regan closed her eyes as she remembered Robyn being dragged down the hall. Her horrified screams. "Somehow, from some reserve I didn't know I had—it happened so fast—I managed to bury him under three floors of concrete." She paused for a beat. "I couldn't really finish it; I couldn't kill them. I couldn't make everyone right, that I was this dangerous killer, but I was willing to make an exception for this guy. But the police came, and we fled. Stole a car to get into town. I was barely conscious. I gave Robyn the address of a doctor we could trust—my doctor, the one who created the medication I take. I can't even believe I remembered his address, I'd only been there once. He's a good man; he snuck me out so I could have dinner with him and his wife the year before, like a normal kid. They ended up firing him over that. I don't remember arriving at the house; I had a few seizures, slept for days. He helped us find my brother and stay off the grid while they looked for us. And then we hid for a long while, even after Robyn left for Japan. I don't think her shitty boyfriend ever found her. I took great pleasure in kicking Jason's ass."
Rowen took in a careful breath. "They did find her. And I think Robyn didn't tell you because she didn't want to give away our own secrets."
Regan lifted her head to stare at her boyfriend, face pale in the wan moonlight, eyes wide. "They came for her again? In Japan?"
"It took them almost a year. But we finished it. And don't." He could see the guilt and self-loathing fill her eyes, for not finishing it herself. "Regan, you did not fail her. You were seventeen, and no one could ever ask you to kill human beings. We didn't, either; Nago killed them. There were five of us, and you took them on all by yourself. That is the bravest thing I have ever heard. I'm so fucking proud of you."
And as horrifying as it was that she had to fight for her life against such evil in the past, it relieved him to know that she held her own, and she could do it again. It would take him a while to unpack all of his feelings regarding what she went through, but tonight wasn't the night to interrogate her. But now he knew what she had been so afraid to tell him.
"I love you," he repeated, and kissed her soundly. "You're brave, and kind, and you wanted to save people even after they hurt you. You didn't let what they did break you or turn you into what you never wanted to be."
"Almost," she said, her voice wavering.
"You didn't," he said gently. "Rae, are they after you now?"
"No. But I never really know if that will change. I just…try to stay vigilant and one step ahead."
He would never let it happen. No one was taking her away from him. Oddly enough, he felt a nudge from Strata, too; a gentle surge of energy that seemed to indicate agreement.
"Can we…can we stop now?"
Rowen agreed, glad that he could forget about his shit show of a day to soothe Regan, rolling them over so they were on their sides facing each other, legs intertwined. They comforted each other with soft, languid kisses.
Don't leave me, he thought desperately as he drifted off, holding her tight. He knew nightmares would come for him and there was nothing he could do to stop it, but at least she would be here when he woke. I don't know how to keep you from leaving me.
Robyn sat on the edge of the bed, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible as she blindly watched the flickering screen of the TV, the sound set on low. The three warriors rooming with her shuffled around the room in states of agitation, fatigue, and restlessness. They were all in and out of the bathroom constantly, trying to find some physical comfort and peace before settling to bed.
As usual, Sage tried to mother Ryo into making sure he took care of himself. This of course stemmed from Ryo using Inferno and leaving him far more drained and weaker than the others when the battle was done. This time was not the case. None of them had enough energy left to form Inferno and they all suffered equally from the fight. That still didn't stop Sage from landing in his familiar role.
He made Ryo shower first and then put him directly to bed before taking care of himself. Robyn left during the showers to wander down to the snack machines to buy some ginger ale and bottled water for them. She dawdled about on her errand, in no hurry to get back to give them some privacy to take care of personal business. Besides, the hotel was peaceful and quiet here in the middle of the night. She looked out at the city from the third story walkway and thought of all the people who had no idea what just happened tonight. What would it be like to be one of them?
She glanced over to see Sage coming up after her. Dressed in the same clothes he came in, his hair was damp from his shower. He looked a little green around the gills and Robyn wondered why the hell he thought he needed to go wander the halls in this condition.
"We were wondering why you hadn't come back."
"Oh, I was just trying to give you guys some time to wind down and shower and stuff without a girl making things awkward. I was going to come back soon."
"I think we would all be doing better if you were with us," Sage gently told her.
Robyn blinked at him, her face feeling a little warm.
"Ryo was threatening to get out of bed to come after you. We were all getting agitated when you didn't return quickly."
Robyn then smiled at him. She got it, she understood. "Right. Sorry I took too long. I should have come right back."
Sage swayed a little, one hand at his temple. Robyn shifted all her drinks to one arm and with the other, hugged his waist to steady him. "Come on. You should be in bed, too."
Kento was just stepping out of the shower when they returned. Hardrock snagged a water from her and drank most of the bottle in big gulps. When Ryo sat up in bed to greet them, Robyn made him take a few sips of ginger ale before lying back down. Sage and Kento were soon ordered to bed as well.
Without speaking to decide sleeping arrangements, Sage wandered to the other side of Ryo's bed and slowly, painfully pulled his long limbs under the covers with a heavy sigh. Ryo looked a little disappointed when Robyn sat on the other bed with Kento, but didn't say anything about it.
"Let's hit the hay, babe. I'm beat," Kento said as he slid into bed.
Robyn sat down on the opposite side of the bed and turned off the lamp. In the darkness she sat there, her feet still dangling off the edge. She didn't want to sleep in her jeans and bra, but she wasn't comfortable going to bed in just a shirt and panties, either.
"You getting in bed?" Kento asked.
"I'm not tired," she replied, and she wasn't. She wasn't sick and exhausted like the guys were. She didn't feel like she had actually been awake the entire day. So instead, she propped up her pillow against the headboard and leaned against it. "I'm going to stay up for a little bit and keep an eye on you guys. Maybe I'll get drowsy later."
There was a brief span of silence until Kento spoke again. "Hey Rob? Do you remember anything about how you got back to the parking lot? Or going back into that old hotel?"
She thought about it and then shrugged. "Not really. I just remember Rae pouncing me by the cars."
"That doesn't scare you?"
"I don't know. I guess if I didn't get hurt. Though I don't know why I wasn't hurt. I mean, I was right in there with you guys and that monster. I also remember trying to get you guys to wake up; let you know it was all fake."
"So you saw." That came from Ryo.
"I did. It was gross. I can't even imagine what that would feel like to think it was real. I'm sorry it happened to you guys. I wish I could make it better somehow."
There was another span of silence.
"You are the nicest girl I have ever met," Kento said, a lull of fatigue in his voice.
Robyn blinked his direction in the darkness. "Me?"
"Mmhm. You've seen all the women in my family: brash and loud. So are usually the girls I date."
"And we've seen how that turned out," Sage mumbled from his side of the room.
Robyn made a quiet laughing sound out of her nose. "Well, when we get back home you can work on dating nicer girls," she joked. "For now, just sleep. Everyone's safe and you guys need to rest now."
Kento sighed heavily and rolled over on his side so he faced her. It made him oddly feel safer to have his friend close by, where he could also easily check on her.
Ryo was the first to fall asleep, although it didn't look restful; a touch of a frown marred his brow as he slept. Sage lay on his side, facing the window so he could see everyone else in the room. He managed a hazy limbo-like state, one foot in a dream quickly turning dark, the other grounding him in the blue light of the moon shining through a crack in the curtain.
Kento shifted more than once in his attempt to sleep, and eventually ended up on his back facing the ceiling.
"Bed's a little uncomfortable, huh," Robyn said softly, wrinkling her nose cutely.
He couldn't help but smile back. God damn, it was still so good to see her alive and whole and untouched by the horror show he lived in for a few hours. "I've slept in worse places," he answered. And added silently, we all have. But what went down today…it felt worse than anything they had lived through.
She reached over and brushed some hair from his forehead. "Try to sleep."
Kento draped a heavy arm over his eyes and let out a heavy, slow breath. Then he was still.
Robyn had barely drifted off in her own quiet thoughts before the first noise of discomfort jarred her awake. She looked up; Kento had fallen asleep. Glancing over, she saw Ryo clutching the sheets in a death grip, his hands shaking. The redhead slipped over and crouched down by him, closing her hands over his to loosen his grip.
"Shhh," she whispered. "Ryo, it's okay." Wildfire's breathing grew more erratic; he was beginning to squirm. Robyn laid a hand on his brow and spoke in his ear until his eyes shot open and his arms reached out, instantly gripping her sides almost painfully.
"Easy, easy," Robyn said. Her heart hurt when a gasp that ended on a sob escaped him as he sat up. She sat in the extra bed space and held his shaking body.
"It wasn't real," he rasped out.
"No," she agreed. "It lied."
"It felt so real." A hard shudder worked through him. "I never…Robyn, I…"
"I know. It sucked," Robyn shushed, rubbing his back as she felt tears leak onto her shoulder, his still-damp hair brushing coolly against her skin. His loud, unsteady breathing quieted after a time, his grip loosened. She helped ease him back down, and before his head even hit the pillow he was nodding off. She pulled the sheet up over him, and then looked to check on Sage. He wasn't there. He must have gotten up while she was occupied.
But the bathroom light was on underneath the door. The toilet flushed, and then the blond Ronin emerged, deathly pale and sporting the air of a stomach flu patient. Robyn fetched him water, and he nodded his thanks as he sat down heavily, unwilling to lie back down.
"Dawn will come before you know it," she said, both as a reminder of the light his soul craved and a warning that opportunities for sleep were dwindling.
"I welcome it," he replied. In a rare gesture of vulnerability, Halo dropped his head in his hands and rubbed his face. Robyn rubbed his back, and he let her, grateful for the comforting touch of a friend. Before she coaxed him into lying down again, Sage kissed her forehead in wordless thanks, then quietly reminded her to sleep, too.
That time, Robyn did lie down on top of the covers. She dozed maybe twenty minutes before Kento left the bed in a tangle of sheets in a dash for the bathroom. He dry heaved in the toilet, little left to actually throw up, and tried to wave Robyn off to go back to bed, but she stayed. His big frame trembled as she led him back to bed after brushing his teeth again. Needing the comfort, Hardrock curled around Robyn and held her close, and prayed her scent and presence would drive off the hideous memory of her in bloody pieces, of that whole fucking nightmare.
It didn't work. Off and on all night, each Ronin plunged into night terrors filled with the torn flesh, blood, and mutilation of the women they cared about. Through each cry of pain, Robyn was there to calm them down, humming or singing softly and rocking them gently back to sleep. Her own exhaustion paled in comparison to what they went through all night; she could easily put that aside if it meant her boys snatching a precious thirty minutes of uninterrupted sleep.
Dawn did arrive, as it always does. All three were blessedly asleep. Robyn lay awake, watching the sun lazily rise, idly running her fingers through Kento's hair and hoping the constant, soothing motion registered to his sleeping mind. Tears he didn't know he'd shed dried on his cheeks.
A passing thought drifted through Robyn's tired mind; she could sleep on the plane. Three more days. She looked down at Kento, then over at Sage, one arm flung over his eyes, and Ryo, his head buried in the pillow, the curve of his shoulders and back elegant and beautiful in the growing light.
Three more days and they would have to leave her friends. She didn't want to sleep and lose those precious few hours left with them.
"You didn't have to wait to leave for your honeymoon."
Cye paused to look over at his oldest friend, before he tucked bedding into the backseat of his car. Robyn stood on the curb, hands in her pockets, an early autumn breeze teasing her fine red hair into a dance.
"I wanted to," he said easily as he shut the car door. "Paris will still be there. Besides; Mia's family could use a little more time with her. They've been a great help. So have you and Regan. Thank you."
Robyn shrugged. Of course they were going to do what they could to smooth over and recover from the abrupt and violent end of the wedding, and the twenty-four hours that ensued after. The last three days had been a blur of tying up loose ends at work, packing, helping Mia, and checking on the guys. Neither she nor Rae had slept much, although the guys had rotated crashing at their place since then. They didn't explain themselves, but Robyn knew it wasn't just to help pack; they were still rattled from what they saw, and she couldn't begrudge them wanting to stay close. It was really nice, at any rate.
She opened her mouth to speak, then an "Oomph!" came out when Cye gathered her in a tight embrace. "You know you always have a place to stay here," he said, voice wavering.
"I know," she replied, smiling. "Maybe in a few more years we'll save up some money to go. Or you guys can visit us next time."
"Maybe we will. I'm sure Rowen would like that."
Robyn just continued smiling. No one was really sure how Strata's relationship with Regan was going to end up. As of yet, they hadn't broken up—and Regan was a mess about it—but most were dubious as to how well a long distance relationship would go.
"I'm kind of surprised Regan—both of you—are going back just like that," Cye then ventured.
Robyn looked towards the house, mainly to keep Cye from seeing her lips twitch. "For now, she has to. Indefinitely?" Robyn shrugged.
"You could help her decide by staying."
She smirked and bumped Cye's shoulder playfully.
"You have a home here," he reminded her gently. "You both could. No, we may not always see each other as often as we would like, but I would rather know that all I have to do to come see you is drive into town."
He was too sweet for his own good. And it was a very pleasant thought. Robyn looped her arm around him and squeezed.
The sudden, harsh sound of mover's tape ripped from its home startled Rowen, and then it went silent. He remained crouched in front of the box, staring at its surface, donate sprawled in black marker on the cardboard. It held all the bric-a-brac they had accumulated that wouldn't make the journey back with them.
"That's it," Regan said carefully. She crouched down on the other side, then tucked her hair behind her ears. She didn't look at him. "Thank you for dropping this off for us."
"You're welcome. What time does your flight leave?" The words felt foreign in Rowen's mouth, like he was a ventriloquist dummy and someone else moved his mouth to force out the words.
"Eight a.m. Early day for us."
He nodded rapidly. So this was it. These were his last hours with his girlfriend.
His heart had morphed into a snare drum, ra-ta-tatting an urgent rhythm. He couldn't believe this was happening, that there had been no time to really talk about this. She could not get on that plane before he knew if she'd come back to him. If Rae walked out of his life…she couldn't. He would go after her. But there had to be a way to either keep her here or make damn sure she came back. Rowen didn't want a future without her in it—he already saw what that looked like. He already lost her, and it nearly killed him, and he could never tell her that. God knew the universe brought enough misery to their lives; why couldn't they find solace from that in each other? Just like they'd been doing? Why did things always have to fucking change?
Why did everyone leave?
Rowen barely caught her saying that she was going to move the box to the living room, so he mechanically helped her lift it. His cheeks felt warm; God it was hot in here, a heat that burrowed in his veins. Some distant part of him was screaming, but it'd been doing that all day, so he'd shoved it in a closet to shut it up, but it was pounding on the door and threatening to break it. He dared to look up at her as they walked the box out of the bedroom, and her beautiful, calming green eyes were at their feet and he loved her so much, if she would just crack a joke or tell him she was kidding, haha she wasn't actually leaving, she was moving in with him and was that okay? Fuck yes, it was okay, they could sleep in his futon together and laugh at bad movies and make horrible meals from that ridiculous cookbook and he could take her to his favorite archery practice range—
Jolted from his manic thoughts, Rowen suddenly focused on her concerned eyes.
She opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, and then took a deep breath. "I'm going to talk to my work about—"
"Marry me," he blurted.
Regan's eyes widened. Her hands slipped from underneath the box, but he caught it and held it. "What?" she gasped.
"Please, God, marry me," he repeated, his voice shaking. "I know you have to leave right now, but you have to come back if we're getting married. I want you in my life, permanently, and we should just get married." Now that the words were out of him, a hideous pressure released from his chest. Suddenly he could breathe.
"You don't believe in marriage," she said faintly.
"I don't believe in marriage with anyone but you." Rowen hastily set down the box, then took her limp hands in his, squeezed them hard.
"Rowen, I…" Regan blinked a few times, bewildered and caught completely off guard. "I want to be with you, but…marriage?"
"I know you think this is too fast," he rushed out. "I know it's only been four months."
"Yeah, and I can't just…" Regan pulled her hands away from him and dragged them through her hair, let out a little laugh of disbelief and, did he dare think breathlessness? Excitement? She hadn't told him no yet. "I have a life I have to get in order, and my brother would shit, literally shit a brick if I told him I was getting married in Japan. I'd have to move away from him." Tears suddenly welled in her eyes.
"Baby, baby," Rowen pulled her closer and rubbed her arms. "I know it would be hard, but we could work something out. You can move in with me, or you can stay with Mia, whatever you're comfortable doing until you get settled in again. Robyn will stay, too, you could find a place together again. But I am one hundred percent in my right mind when I ask if you'll marry me."
"Are you sure that's what you want?" He blinked at her, startled, and she shook her head at herself in frustration. "This has all happened so fast, and some really intense stuff has gone down. Rowen, before I change my entire life and move to a different country where I don't even speak the language yet, I have to know this isn't just some knee jerk reactionary thing that you'll regret in six months. This is my life. And it'll break my heart. I love you and I don't want to ruin this."
Rowen's expression softened. He framed her face with his hands. "I'm asking you to marry me because I'm desperately in love with you and I can't bear being without you." His voice was low and intense and it held her captive. "I know this is the right thing for us. I can feel it. Marriage didn't work for my parents, and it didn't work for yours, but it will work for us if we say so. If we're willing to try. I want to try. I want to know what it's like to be married to you."
Breathless laughter burst out of Regan as the tears fell. He wiped them away with thumbs.
"Could you want that, too?" he asked, his throat closing with emotion.
"Yes," she rushed out, then covered her mouth. "Yes, I do. But Rowen…I don't know if I'm safe. I can't tell you whether the people who took me won't ever find me again. They can't find out about you. I know it's already happened once, but…"
"And I bring even more danger to your life," he countered. "But you haven't left. And I'm too much of a selfish bastard to keep you safe by telling you to go. I'm not leaving, either."
A laughing sob escaped her, and Regan was suddenly in his arms, hugging him around the neck and holding him close. "I'm scared," she whispered. "Loving you is terrifying."
"Me, too," he said roughly as he squeezed her. "We'll take care of each other."
She nodded into his neck. "Okay," she finally said, her voice high and trembling, happy and giddy. "Okay. I'll marry you, Rowen Hashiba. You and that mystical armor of yours."
Some part of Rowen sighed with great relief and settled into a contentment he'd never known. "That's my girl."
Willowsandgables: This story has been in the works since early 2015, but it really began almost exactly two years ago, one hot summer week in July where I trekked across the states and spent a few days with Ghost. We watched Kikoutei and Message, geeked out over the boys, talked about fanfic, and then thought…let's do this. Let's write a monster tale. We had a great time building the outline and choosing the monsters, and the last year and a half of watching it form and find fans has been so awesome. Collaborating with Ghost and feeding off each other to create this has brought me such joy, and has been an amazing creative challenge that's made me a better writer. I'm thrilled that it's entertained and spooked all of you! Thanks for the Rae love, as well; I'm glad she went over well with y'all. You'll be seeing her around.
Ghost/Ty-Chou: This has been a super fun ride. Willows and I both love us some scary stories, monsters, and our Ronin boys. So it made sense that we would do a project together. It has been a treat to share this story with Willows. She always picked up the ball when I was running out of steam and I feel we compliment each other quite well with our varying strengths and weaknesses.
As usual, this is the part where I actively ask for reviews. We would love to hear thoughts from our readers now that the story is complete. And, if you have enjoyed this new fanfic universe, there IS going to be a sequel that Willows and I will be collabing on as well. So look out for that and thank you all for reading.