A/N - Kind of-sort of a sequel to my previous Hakuei-centric fic, Take Up My Sword, but not really. Arba and Hakuei do allude to things that happened in that fic, but it's not necessary to read it to understand what's going on in this one. This might end up an AU if canon developments go a different way, though.
WARNINGS for physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, gaslighting, victim blaming, torture, manipulative/possessive behavior, incest, mentions of suicide, descriptions of child murders, isolation, violence, gore, implied eye trauma, references to forced pregnancy through non-consensual sex, and loss of control/bodily autonomy. Dear God, I hope that's everything. (Feel free to message me if you need a more detailed description of what happens before you decide whether to dive in.)
"It feels so good, it feels so right, that you should be my sacrifice
Don't try to run, don't hide away; there is no hope, you can't be saved
Here, in the spiraling darkness, where my pleasure is your pain,
Fear wraps its arms around you."
Where I Reign, Kamelot
Ren Hakuei had assumed that she was dead.
At least, that was the impression she had gotten from the last things she could recall. Pain like lightning burning through her body, claws of ice digging into her mind, her vision spinning and going black. Her mother's voice in her head: Don't be frightened, precious. Be a good girl and don't struggle. This will all be over soon.
Her mother's voice...
"Well, now...This is troublesome."
What? What was? And for that matter, where was she? There had been a force like a riptide, sucking her down and down and down into darkness...The darkness remained, pressing against her from all sides, but she seemed to be still now. Intact and uninjured. She registered that her eyes were closed; confused, she tried to open them, but her eyelids felt so heavy.
"No, darling, it's all right...You can stay asleep, you're fine as you are."
Mother. Hearing that voice, especially hearing it try to be sweet and soothing even now, made her body burn with anger. It most certainly was not all right. She forced her eyes open, ready to yell, to fight, to face the monster that had taken her family from her -
Only to find herself face to face with a completely different person. Where her mother had been short, with blue hair and icy eyes, this woman was tall, with long brown braids and russet eyes, and was looking at Hakuei with a resigned expression. "Well, I suppose it can't be helped now."
"Who...Who are you?" Hakuei managed through her surprise.
The woman laughed, putting a hand to her chest in mock astonishment. "Why, I'm hurt! My precious girl doesn't recognize her own mother?"
Hakuei's breath caught in her throat. That overly sweet tone, that damned pet name, they were unmistakable. "But...But you're not - "
"Looking the way you're used to? My apologies. In this place, I can't take any form but my original one."
"What do you mean, this pla - Oh!"
For the first time, her surroundings struck her: a small, perfectly round room with no ceiling in sight, a floor flat and smooth as obsidian, and towering walls like black tar. She tried to lean forward, to get a better look, but found herself held fast - the thick, dark substance in the walls had wrapped around her limbs, torso, and waist, stronger than ropes or chains, strapping her down so tightly she couldn't move an inch. A chill ran over her skin, and it took her a moment to find her voice.
"Where are we...?"
She remembered the last moments before this: the burning, the pull, tearing her away from her world and herself. If that had not been death, then...
"What did you do to me?!"
"Well, to answer both questions at once...I've never been able to pin down exactly what this place is in a person. Your rukh? The deepest part of your mind? Your soul? Perhaps a little bit of all three. In any case, this is where my soul and my consciousness now reside. Since I've lost my former body, I need this one to survive." At the look of utter shock on her daughter's face, she laughed again. "Oh, come now, don't look so surprised that this is something I can do. Surely after everything you've learned, you can gather that nothing is beyond me?"
Hakuei felt as if she'd just been punched in the head. She had learned the hard way that her mother was a demon in human form, but...How could she have expected this?! "You possessed me?"
"That's right. It's been the plan since the day you were born. Though I have to say, I'm not accustomed to the process going quite this way. You weren't supposed to wake up again, you see. It makes things very inconvenient for me."
"Inconvenient...for you?! What about me?! I don't want you in my body! I don't want you anywhere near me!"
"No need to throw a tantrum about it," her mother said, rolling her eyes. "Like I said, you shouldn't be awake right now. Ideally, my vessels stay deep down inside themselves, aware of nothing and certainly not coming back up to make trouble for me. If you behaved, you wouldn't have anything to worry about. But, it would seem I underestimated your will."
"You were expecting me to lie down and die, is that it?" Hakuei hissed, giving an experimental tug on the restraints around her wrists. "So sorry to disappoint, but that's not going to happen. Get out of my body and leave us all alone!"
Her mother smiled indulgently. "Oh, precious, you're adorable when you're trying to be intimidating, just like your brothers. I can't leave you now, I would die if I did. Is that what you want?"
"At the moment? There are very few things in this world that I want more."
"Well, that's just too bad for you. I'm in control now, and nothing you do can reverse that. Not that it's much of a change from how it's always been between us." Her mother turned and walked back to the other side of the room, eyes focused on the wall. "This looks odd to you, but I can see the outside world from this place, as I walk through it in your skin. You will never do either again. So you might as well sink back into the dark and leave me to it. It's better than remaining awake as you are forever."
The silence hung in the air for a few moments, as Hakuei gathered her thoughts. This was...a lot to take in, to say the least. Finally, she broke it with the question she had decided was most confusing at the moment. "You said vessels. As in, others besides me. What did you mean by that? Who else have you done this to?"
Her mother turned back to her, eyes bright with amusement. "I said it to you before. Hakuryuu destroyed my last body. I need yours to survive. Can't you put the pieces together yourself?"
"Mother...You mean...?" Hakuei's insides went cold. "My mother...You possessed her before me? You stole her life, too?"
"Stole is a bit of a strong word. But yes, Ren Gyokuen was my previous host."
"So you...You've taken my entire family from me?! You're not even my real mother?!"
"Ah, ah, ah, ah," the older woman cut her off, striding across the room towards her. "Don't forget how long I've been at this. I took over from Gyokuen when she was younger than you. I am all you've ever known. Every sweet word, every embrace, every moment of your life...That was all me." She reached out and cupped her daughter's cheek in her hand, ignoring how she flinched at the touch. "Don't think that I'll let you have the relief of thinking that you weren't betrayed, that some outside force tore your loved ones away. You and Gyokuen are both my flesh and blood, and I am your mother in every sense of the word."
"When...When did you possess her?"
"Let's see," her mother mused, glancing away as she thought back. "Hakuyuu was...two or three, I believe? Yes, it had to be around then. I remember because it wasn't long after that that I sensed Sinbad's birth - if your brothers had lived, those three would be fairly close in age right now, you know. Gyokuen wouldn't have been able to feel anything different in the rukh, but I did."
It took Hakuei a moment to realize that she was now gaping openly at her mother, and quickly tried to pull herself together enough to ask more. "What do you mean...felt it? I thought only a Magi could sense what was going on in the rukh?" The only response was self-satisfied silence. "You mean...You're a Magi? But then...If you...Answer my question this time! Who are you?"
Her mother smiled. "I am Arba, Magi of Alma Torran. Always a pleasure to introduce myself properly."
"Alma Torran? That's...where all the Djinn came from, right? The world of King Solomon?"
A decidedly ugly look passed over Arba's face at the name, and her nails pressed into her daughter's face. "I was a part of the world that Solomon ruled, yes. Ruled, and then ruined. He grew arrogant and self-serving, destroyed our god before our eyes, sought to bind us to his will with chains of fate, with his rukh, so blindingly bright...I could not allow it. I had to do something. We sought to restore our god and Father, to return the world to its natural state, and when we did, I thought for a moment that we had won...But Solomon and his servants still tried to defy us, and created this world in place of Alma Torran."
"And now you and al-Thamen, you want to destroy it, just like you did back then. That's what you've been trying to do this whole time."
"It's the twisted and impure world of a false god. It doesn't deserve to exist. I've had to stomach living in it for a thousand years now, and it repulses me more every day."
Hakuei narrowed her eyes. "Well, if our world is so terrible, then why don't you just drop dead? You're free of this world and we're free of you, everybody will be happy."
"You'd like it to be that easy for you, wouldn't you?" Arba laughed. "I don't expect a child like you to fully comprehend the truth. You weren't there to see what happened, after all. You can't understand."
"...That's true. I wasn't there, I don't know what happened. But I do know you," Hakuei snarled. "I know how you lie and manipulate and kill to get your way, and I know how you feel nothing for anyone but yourself. So there's no chance that I'll believe that it was Solomon in the wrong and not y - !" The second she even indirectly praised the king, Arba pulled back and slapped her so hard that the world blurred for a second. It occurred to her that the fact that she could still feel pain in this state was a very bad sign, but she forced herself to smile anyway, if only to spite her mother. "Hit me all you like, I'm still right."
"Such a defiant little girl," Arba muttered, her lip curling in disgust as she stepped back. "Gyokuen was much better behaved than you."
"I'm sure. That's why you stole her body, lived her life for decades, and then abandoned her to be killed by Hakuryuu. It makes perfect sense."
"Don't pretend to care about someone you know nothing about. Making assumptions won't get you to the truth. As far as you know, anything could have happened between us. Maybe I had to cause her twice the pain I caused you during the possession, just to hold her still enough to take. Maybe she cried when I forced myself inside her. Maybe she just lay there and accepted her fate, using her last moments of consciousness to think of your brothers. Or maybe..." The smile crawled back onto Arba's face, and her voice was almost shaking with malicious delight. "Maybe she wanted to help her mother. Maybe she gave herself to me willingly, without a thought for anyone else, least of all the lot of you. Maybe we worked together. Maybe we laughed together as we burned our sons to ashes!"
"Shut up!" Through the red haze that had suddenly filled her mind, Hakuei remembered the last time the two of them had spoken, and how she hadn't been able to make herself ask whether or not Hakuryuu had been telling the truth about their family's murder. Now, fury overtook fear, and it was easy to look her mother in the face and accuse her. "My father. My brothers. It was you."
"Now you have the courage to say that to my face? Too little, too late, I'm afraid."
"I don't care. You killed them...all for the sake of winning the throne?"
"Oh, smart girl! Did you figure that out all by yourself?" Arba gushed, her manic grin widening.
"Don't you condescend to me!" Hakuei shouted, throwing herself against her chains.
"Of course that was why I did it," Arba continued, ignoring her. "Without them around to bother me, I could do whatever I wanted!"
No...That can't be the reason! If only she could just break free, just long enough to grab her mother by the neck and strangle the life from her, so she would never speak again! "You...They can't...My family can't have died for something so petty!"
"I did what I had to do," Arba said with a shrug. "They had the potential to be trouble for me and my organization, and so they had to go. Hakutoku couldn't be spared, of course, but Hakuyuu and Hakuren might still have proven themselves useful. When they uncovered the truth, I gave them the choice to side with me instead of turning on me. They chose poorly, and they paid for it. That's hardly my fault."
"Not your fau - You think you can justify what you did?!"
"I know that I can. I highly doubt that they could have actually stopped me, but they got in the way of my ultimate design, the revival of my god and Father. I couldn't have them around any more." Arba's smile faded, and she regarded her daughter's fiery glare with slight puzzlement. "Surely you can understand that, at least. If you had the chance to bring your father back into this world, to reunite with him after all this time, you wouldn't let anyone stand in your way. I know you wouldn't."
"No...No, you don't get to say that when you're the one who took him away from me in the first place!" Hakuei pointed out. "You were the one who expected me to be weak-willed enough to let you take me over...You don't know a damn thing about me!"
"Mm, yes, about that," Arba mused, coming up close to her daughter again. "As I said before, having you awake and active in here too is far from an ideal situation, for either of us. So I'll warn you one last time: take the easy way out. Let yourself fall into nothingness, and give total control over to me. You can sleep safely for the rest of your life, and I'll take good care of you."
Far from being comforting, the gentle words only enraged her more. "I told you no. I won't let you erase me. I'll get control back...I'll take my body back! And if I can get rid of you while I do it, then all the better!"
Her mother sighed theatrically. "Well, if that's how you're going to be, then I suppose you want to do this the hard way."
And before Hakuei could even begin to ask what she meant by that, Arba had lunged forward and thrust her hand as hard as she could up through her daughter's stomach.
For a second, all Hakuei could do was stare, breathless and horrified, watching syrupy black fluid leak out from her and run down her mother's forearm. For that second, all she felt was a dull throb through her gut. And then the pain hit, hard and fierce as fire, and her screams ripped her throat and pierced the air. Arba's grin stretched wider as she pushed her arm in deeper, and Hakuei could feel long, sharp-nailed fingers clawing at her insides, she thrashed wildly against the chains but she was still held down so tight, she couldn't get away, she couldn't get away and she couldn't stop screaming -
Arba yanked her arm back out as abruptly as she had shoved it in, breaking Hakuei's shrieks off into a strangled gasp, and watched with mild satisfaction as the fist-sized hole she had made in her daughter pulled back together, leaving only a dark patch on the skin.
"You understand now, precious? I control everything in this space. There is nothing I cannot do to you. And as you clearly see, since this form is not your physical body, there is no way for you to die. You will never escape. Nothing can save you, unless you surrender yourself completely to me."
"I..." The pain was fading, but the shock still had her shaking uncontrollably, no matter how hard she tried to pull herself together. But she forced herself to lift her head up and look her mother in the eyes anyway, putting as much determination as she could muster into her voice. "I am a soldier of Kou. I am not afraid of pain. And I am not afraid of you."
"You say that," Arba murmured, reaching out to slide her stained fingers up her daughter's side, leaving a trail of sticky black lines from hip to chest. "But this trembling body of yours says otherwise."
"I don't care. If this is going to be a battle of my will against yours, then I'll definitely win. Maybe it's you who should just give up now."
"Oh, I think not." Arba reached up and pressed her palm to Hakuei's forehead. "You overestimate yourself. You will reach your limit far sooner than you think. And I will enjoy teaching you this final lesson."
Before Hakuei could retort, a force just like the one that had pulled her here burst from her mother's hand and pushed her through the wall. Heavy darkness, like the ocean in storm, dragged her down again, and a thrill of terror ran through her. Just like before, she couldn't see or hear, couldn't tell which way was up or down -
But no. This...This was different. Something pressed at her head, trying to wrest her back down into unconsciousness, but this time, she was aware of it. This time, she knew she could fight it.
Yes...At the very least, I have to keep my consciousness alive. If I just can keep from being overwritten by her, it'll be the first step to taking control of my body back. To getting back to everyone...
Her brother's face flashed in her mind, as confused and lost as the last time she had seen him. Their mother had hurt him enough, while she had been oblivious. No more. Never again. She had to return, if only to protect him.
Hakuryuu...No matter what she does, I swear my will won't break. Even if it takes me the rest of my life, I'm going to fight my way back to you.
And so it began, an endless cycle of being plunged into the depths and trying to find her way out again, all the while fighting to stay aware of herself.
She could never tell how long the dark water of her consciousness held her, somewhere between falling and floating, between sleep and wakefulness. Finding a way of keeping time in this place would be helpful, she noted again. Isolation and sensory deprivation were damaging in and of themselves, and letting herself be weakened by them would only make her more vulnerable to her mother. That was not a risk she was willing to take: even when she was able to break through the surface, she always ended up tied down to the wall or the floor, and no matter how hard or how much she struggled, she could never so much as move from that spot, let alone break free.
And Arba was always ready for her. The shadowy substance that the room was made of bent to the woman's every whim, became any restraint or gag or tool of torture she felt like using on her daughter. But if Hakuei was really being honest with herself, she thought that the pain would actually be bearable, if only she didn't have to listen to her mother's voice during every second of it.
"I remember Gyokuen was quite a proud girl," Arba was saying now. She raised her hand, and dozens of long, thin tendrils of shadow rose up from the wall around Hakuei, turning to aim themselves at her. "Proud and full of fire...But she would go down on her knees for me so easily, without a moment's hesitation. Would it really be so hard for you to be an obedient daughter like her?"
Hakuei tensed, willing herself not to shake as she eyed the sharp points at the shadows' ends. "You do make it fairly difficult, yes," she managed. She'd come to realize that this was what Arba considered fair: a reminder that Hakuei could end the torture here, by surrendering herself before it could begin. But she couldn't let herself be tempted. "I'm certainly not going to die for you."
"Very well, dear. If that's the way you want it," Arba said, sounding far too gleeful about what she now got to do to be truly disappointed. "Maybe this time I can change your mind."
With that, she extended her fingers, and like snakes, the tendrils reared back and plunged themselves into every part of Hakuei: her chest, her stomach, her limbs, her neck, her face. Immediately, she shut her eyes and bit down hard on her lip - no matter what, she would not scream, she would not scream, she would not scream, she would not give her mother that satisfaction again. The shadows were like violent serpents under her skin, winding and tearing through her flesh, and the black blood ran in thick rivulets over her. Despite her efforts, she couldn't make herself focus on anything but the pain.
Oh gods it hurts oh gods let it stop let it stop oh gods just let it stop!
"We both know that you're bringing this all on yourself," Arba remarked. "I keep telling you, there's a simple way to end this. But if you still insist on needlessly suffering..."
She flicked her wrist, and the tendrils twisted themselves into coils and spun wildly, ripping Hakuei's insides to shreds and sending blood flying everywhere, as she writhed under the shadows like a worm on a fishing hook. It took all her training as a soldier and every last scrap of self-control she had to make as little noise as possible, even as tears streaked her face and her body burned from the inside out.
I can end this myself...I can end it, end it!
Hakuei leaned forward for a moment and then threw her head back, slamming it against the wall as hard as she could, over and over, a thrill rushing through her at the way her vision lost focus and her body went numb at every hit. But her relief was short-lived.
"No, precious, none of that," Arba laughed. She curled her fingers in towards her palm, and more black ropes sprung from the wall, wrapping themselves around Hakuei's neck and face to hold her head completely immobile. "You don't get to escape on your own terms. You don't get a reprieve from this pain. Unless, as you know, you feel like letting me win. Just this once, of course."
The other tendrils in her face wove in and out, through the puncture wounds, her nose, her mouth, as if they were earthworms. As if she were already dead. "Go to hell," she snarled, with as much venom as she could pack into the words.
Arba just smirked. "Then we continue."
Her torn organs grew back as easily as they had been destroyed, and she felt the shadows spiraling around her lungs, her stomach, her heart. With no other option, she shut her eyes again and braced herself for the next wave of agony.
I won't scream, I won't scream, I won't scream, I won't -
It sometimes got difficult for Hakuei to determine Arba's actual feelings. The woman would change her temperament and behavior at any time and to any degree, in an attempt to confuse and blindside her daughter. It irritated her to admit it, but it was working: too much of the time Arba had her head spinning, and she felt like she was walking on eggshells around her mother - well, she would if she could still walk, she thought bitterly. Not only could anything make Arba decide that it was time to start the next torture session, but she would switch completely at random between trying to maul her daughter into submission and trying to sweet-talk her into it, to convince Hakuei that she was the unreasonable one here for defying her mother.
"Because I don't think you understand, precious," she was saying now, with exaggerated patience in her voice. "You are no different than the rest of my daughters, and no less appreciated, I assure you. You have all done me a truly great service."
"You act as if we had a choice," Hakuei snapped.
"And you act as if you're not the only one of my children who's been so terribly obstinate about the whole thing," Arba retorted. "I've told you before, haven't I, about how Gyokuen let me do anything I wanted with her? Why can't you learn from your mother's example?"
Hakuei raised an eyebrow. "I thought you were my mother," she said flatly, remembering how Arba had corrected her before.
"We both are. At least, she would refer to you four as 'our' children, since you were still hers by blood even if I was the one you all belonged to, and I just followed suit, but - "
"How would she have known there were four of us?" Hakuei cut her off. "You said you possessed her when onii-sama was little, so how would she have known about anyone but him and nii-sama?"
"Oh? You can't put this together, either? I did tell you before that she let me take her willingly, so in return I would let her wake up from time to time. I was still in control of the body, of course, but we could talk and she could have a look at how things were going at the moment. You see, it's just good parenting to let the child who behaves properly have more privileges than the one who does not."
"I hardly think that 'not being murdered by your own mother' counts as a privilege."
"And I hardly care what you think. Anyway. Gyokuen wasn't the sort of girl to go out of her way for anyone else unless she could be sure of getting something in return, but she would have done absolutely anything I wanted her to do. If I said just one word, she was ready to drop everything, if I told her to be somewhere, she was already gone, I needed only ask and I would receive. Love for me is commonplace among my children, as is the desire for my attention, which I suppose go hand in hand. But her level of respect and unwavering devotion was quite a pleasant surprise. So when I told her the truth about who I am and what I intend to do, and asked her if she would help out by giving me her body, she didn't scream or fight like you did. She smiled," Arba said, a nostalgic light coming into her eyes as a small smile of her own tugged at her lips. "She did so like to remind me that nobody could ever love me as much as she did, and she always relished her position as the only one of her siblings that I cared about. I'd never seen her as excited as she was when I decided to confide in her, to let her join al-Thamen and one day house my soul inside her."
"Forgive me if I don't exactly get excited over this. Do you really expect me to believe that someone would willingly let you possess them?"
"You're no mother; you couldn't understand. You have no idea of the lengths a child will go for you if you just convince her that she's special, a unique and all-important part of something greater than herself. I told her she was the only one who could understand me, the only one who ever had, and oh, she lapped it all up. I didn't even have to lie. It got to the point where I don't think she truly felt anything for anyone except me. But, you do have a point, I did find it odd that she would so happily submit to something that others might resist. So I decided that a little test was in order. I told you she had siblings, didn't I?"
"Yes. A younger brother and...two younger sisters?" Hakuei asked, trying to think back on what she knew of her genealogy.
"Oh, yes, the sisters, Ankoku and Kuroko. Bright little girls, very nice, practically joined at the hip. When Gyokuen was sixteen, about a year after our agreement, I told her that I'd changed my mind about having her become my next vessel, and that I was trying to decide which of her sisters I was going to use instead. She tried to smother her true feelings in front of me, but the rage in her eyes was beyond belief. I almost laughed at how forced it was when she told me she respected my decision, and then stormed out. I thought, if she didn't really want to become my vessel, then she would have no problem selling one of her siblings down the river to save herself. Now, precious, you seem to know a bit of family history. Do you remember what happened to the poor little princesses?"
"They..." Hakuei's eyes widened. "When they were thirteen and twelve years old, they went missing..."
"Correct. A few days later, Ankoku and Kuroko disappeared without a trace. Gyokuen and her brother were frantic, and she cried all day after we finally had to declare them dead. And I mean the ugliest, most heartbroken sobbing you've ever heard...I couldn't have staged it better!" Arba exclaimed, and the pride in her voice made Hakuei's skin crawl. "That night she was throwing their corpses at my feet and pointing her knife in my face. 'Can you favor these brats over me now?' she demanded to know. 'You will become one with me, whether I'm the one you want or not.'"
"So what did you do?"
"Gave her a kiss and told her she had passed my test with flying colors. That didn't make her feel any better, though. Apparently, the idea that her loyalty would have to be tested in the first place was quite insulting!" Arba laughed. "And it gets better!"
"I sincerely doubt that."
"Well, our perspectives differ somewhat. Her brother, Prince Enshan, was found dead not long after that, at the bottom of a river with a rock tied around his neck. It was ruled a suicide, and reasonably so: anyone could see that the poor boy wasn't all there after losing two of his beloved sisters at once. I did try to warn him that letting his world revolve around protecting his siblings wasn't healthy, but it seems that none of my children ever want to listen to reason. But I still wonder...Did he really kill himself, or did his big sister just want to get rid of all her competition for my heart? I asked, of course, but Gyokuen was always coy on the subject."
"So a petty sixteen-year-old murders her siblings - your children - in cold blood, and all you can do is revel in the fact that she did it in a jealous rage over you. If any of this is true, then you're both repulsive," Hakuei snapped.
"Now you're just being dramatic. And unnecessarily rude, too. Gyokuen liked you, you know."
Hakuei blinked, surprised. "What?"
"Oh, yes. You were her favorite. She used to enjoy it when I let her watch your sword training. She would always say that you were so beautiful, but I think she was just fascinated by how much you look like her. I made it clear that I favor her because she is the child who is most like me, and she was hoping that her children would grow up to be just like her, as well."
"But I'm nothing like her."
"Mm, you are complete opposites, aren't you? Like day and night, my white crystal and my jewel of many colors...I told her as much, but she didn't seem to care. She thought you would make a fine replacement for her."
Every last bit of curiosity she had about her mother evaporated at the word 'replacement.' "That was what she thought of me? Did she think anything at all of my brothers?"
Arba thought for a moment, then made an indecisive gesture with her hand. "She was fond of Hakuyuu and Hakuren, but turned quite disdainful of them when they refused to side with me like she had. With Hakuryuu, though...Oh, my, she wanted that boy's head on a pike."
"Simple: she didn't want a loose end like him still around, especially when he made it clear that he planned to make trouble for us. Every time she saw him, she would give me the most disapproving look, and she kept telling me that I needed to take her seriously, that it could ruin us to let him live. I told her I had my reasons, but she never seemed to believe me."
"Your reasons? You...Did you always intend to let Hakuryuu kill her?! Did she guess...?"
"I had prepared for the possibility that I would have to, yes. I don't think that's what Gyokuen had in mind, though, or she would never have sided with me in the first place. She was always fully willing to die for me, but she wouldn't take well to the thought of betrayal. In fact - !" Arba was overcome with laughter for a moment before she could continue. "I think that if I could talk to her now, she'd be less angry that I let her be killed, and more angry that I didn't tell her about it first! My most beloved child...Sometimes I genuinely miss her. I really didn't deserve her."
"You never deserved any of us. A person like you doesn't deserve love."
Arba's smile didn't falter. "Oh? You know, your big brothers said something like that to me once. What an awful way to treat your mother, especially when I've raised you all with so much love of my own."
Hakuei gritted her teeth, feeling the now-familiar heat building in her chest. "How can you say that with a straight face?"
"As expected. I've heard and seen enough to know that you can't love anything, least of all your own children."
"Of course I can. I always have. Seeing you share my pride and ambition, training you to grow up strong, holding you in my arms and knowing that you were mine...I was surprised myself, but you really have no idea how good it felt. While it lasted, at least."
For a moment, all Hakuei could do was stare. You have your fun with us, and then the second we stop doing what you want, you throw us away like trash? And you call that...
It wasn't that her mother's idea of love was entirely self-centered, or that for once, she wasn't lying, but that she honestly seemed to believe that that was the way everyone experienced it. Arba couldn't possibly understand the truth of it, not the way that Hakuei did. She remembered what she had felt in the past, outside her mother's darkness: in her father sitting her on his lap and earnestly sharing his dream for the future with her, in Hakuyuu's patience with her in training when she just couldn't get that one move right, in Hakuren holding her as tight as he could the day their father died, in Hakuryuu swearing to protect her and Seishun promising to always be by her side, in the cold rush of Paimon's power under her skin and the rumbling of countless hoofbeats as her Household rode behind her. Something in her chest clenched: anything could be happening to any of them while she was trapped here, powerless to help them the way they had always helped her...
Arba's cool hand on her face startled her out of her thoughts. "So that's why it's a little bit confusing to me, that such contempt and childish defiance is what I get in return for everything I've given you."
"Everything you've done to us? That's not love." Hakuei pulled her head out of her mother's grasp and looked away. "That's not love at all."
"Oh? Gyokuen always seemed to think -"
"Well, I'm not her. And that's not the way I see it."
"My, my...We never do see anything important the same way, do we? Well, then, I suppose we'll just have to teach you another lesson, for being so ungrateful," Arba cooed, reaching out again and slowly running her fingertips over her daughter's eyelids, pressing in just enough to hurt. Her smile broadened: now she had another excuse to have a little more fun. "Shall we take out these pretty eyes of yours, then? And see how many times they'll grow back..."
She won't scream, she won't scream, she won't scream, she won't scream, she won't scream, she won't scream, she won't scream, she won't scream -
Sometimes surfacing wasn't enough. Sometimes, though she knew she was awake, she felt as though she was in the darkness still, struggling to push a coherent thought through the fog that filled her mind, let alone remember clearly what she had to do and why. So to remind herself, keep herself grounded, she would end up spending hours upon hours (at least, that was what it felt like) murmuring the names of everybody she loved, everybody that she had to stay alive for, over and over again.
"Hakuryuu, Seishun, Paimon, Kouen..."
I have to get back to them...
"Koumei, Kouha, Kougyoku..."
I have to protect them...
"Doruji, Touya, Bator, Boyan..."
I have to live for them...
"Onii-sama, nii-sama, Father..."
I have to...
"Hakuei?" She jumped, not having realized the older woman was so close, and Arba smiled. She took Hakuei's chin in her hand and tilted her face up to look at her. "What are you talking about, precious girl?"
As if she were talking to a two-year-old, Hakuei thought, her stomach turning at her mother's tone. She opted to glare instead of respond, but that only made Arba laugh.
"Now, now, don't be like that. Your babbling has been such interesting background noise in my head, I want to know what you're so wrapped up in." When Hakuei stayed silent, she started guessing. "Did I hear you whining for your father and big brothers? Is that what I heard?"
"Yes, I think it was. I have to say, dear, I don't think that's going to help you very much."
"And I don't think it's any of your concern. Leave me alone."
"Oh? But you've never been shy before about letting me know how much you long for them. I still remember the day you found out your father was killed, when you broke down in Hakuren's arms." Feeling her daughter tense under her hand in spite of herself, her smile broadened, and her voice twisted into a high-pitched mockery of a child's. "'Nii-chama, they took my papa away! Nii-chama, I want my papa! Nii-chama!'" She tilted her head to the side, looking for a reaction. "And let's not forget what I had to put up with on the night of the fire. Honestly, I'd never seen you cry and carry on so much in your life. So grating on my ears."
Hakuei narrowed her eyes. The worst night of her life, and her pain and terror then were just a joke to this woman now. "I'll bet you wish you could just drug me again, to make me shut up and quit bothering you."
Arba shrugged. "If only it were that simple. But then, it's never taken much to make you weak and helpless."
"Oh, really? I'm still here, aren't I? I'm still alive, despite you." She pulled against her restraints to emphasize the point. "Explain how that makes me weak."
"Ah, my darling...You really haven't been aware of anything going on in the palace, have you?" Arba said, too lightly. "You see, that's the general opinion of you."
"Is that so?" Hakuei deadpanned. "I know you think little of me, and that's being generous, but - "
"You know nothing. Don't forget, I have eyes and ears all over the palace, I'm more aware of what's happening than anyone else. I hear what everyone says about you behind your back. 'Soft and weak-hearted.' 'She'll never belong on the battlefield.' 'Nothing like her father.' 'Useless excuse for a princess.' Sounding familiar?"
"You think this is the first I've heard of this? I'm not an idiot; since our branch of the family lost its status, I haven't been considered as important, I know. I've been thinking about it for a long time, and it doesn't bother me. What should I care about what people who don't know a thing about me or my life think of me, especially when it's not true, especially when I have friends and family who do know better there for me?"
"That's very cute. But first of all, you have exactly one friend, and poor, stupid little Seishun hasn't even been able to tell the difference between you and me. Nor has the rest of your Household, but it wouldn't be fair to hold that against them when they didn't stick around you for longer than it took them to realize you couldn't give them Paimon's power anymore. And second of all..." One corner of Arba's mouth jerked up into a smirk. "What makes you think that the family you have left cares about you at all?"
"What makes you think that they don't? I'm sorry you have no idea what familial love is supposed to look like, but - "
"For your information, I have a perfect idea of what it looks like. How else do you think I've been able to fake it for all these years? And one of the key facets of a loving family is trust between its members. Now, answer me honestly, precious: have your dear cousins and brothers placed the same trust in you that you always placed in them?"
"They have!" Hakuei shouted, immediately realizing that it was a bit too quick to be convincing. "I've shared so much with them, I've trained and fought beside them, I love them; I will not let you try to turn me against them!"
"Oh, my. How desperate you are already, to convince yourself that we're not thinking the same way. You're just as unimportant and untrustworthy to them as you are to everyone else. Otherwise, why would they have thought you unworthy of knowing the most important secret of your life?" Arba asked, gesturing smugly to herself. "Did you enjoy those long years of blissful ignorance, of thinking that your brothers' deaths were a freak accident and your father's a tragedy of war? I doubt you do now. Tell me, why do you think they all decided - independently of each other, I might add, given Hakuryuu's hatred for Kouen and Kouen's complete apathy towards him - to keep you in the dark about everything?"
"I don't know," Hakuei snapped. It was only half a lie: she had several theories, but no way of knowing for certain whether they were accurate. "When I get rid of you, I'll ask them."
"Come on, now, you must have some idea. You've been thinking about it ever since Hakuryuu finally deigned to tell you, haven't you? You don't have anyone else to talk to anymore, so why not share a little with me?"
"...I know Hakuryuu wasn't doing it to hurt me. So don't think you can try and convince me that he was. He's a good person, if a little misguided. Whatever his reason, he was trying to do the right thing. I won't hold a grudge."
If she was being honest with herself, she was fairly sure that Hakuryuu had already told her, albeit in his own indirect way. She remembered the desperation in his voice that day, right before he'd told her the truth: I've acquired power myself. I can protect you now, aneue!
She understood all too well the instinctive, overpowering desire to protect one's sibling. She remembered how she had felt all those years ago, looking down at her burned and comatose brother in the infirmary bed, wishing so badly it hurt that it were her lying there instead of him. Hakuryuu hadn't wanted to share his suffering with her, even if it meant putting them both at a disadvantage, so he had tried to take everything onto himself and keep her out of harm's way as best he could, as she would have done if their positions were reversed. Perhaps, on top of that, Arba had convinced him that she would kill his sister, or the both of them, in retaliation if he ever opened his mouth: three could keep a secret if two were dead, after all, and he wouldn't have known any better. So despite her feelings about Hakuryuu's deception of her, she knew she wouldn't be able to hold it against him forever. But even so...
"His reasoning gets more flawed the longer you think about it, though, doesn't it? Wouldn't it still have made more sense to tell you what was really going on, even if the motive was to protect you? There was nothing either of you could have done, either way; I would have seen to that. You say you won't let me turn you against your brother, but what you don't seem to understand is that he turned against you a long, long time ago."
"Liar. None of my brothers would ever do that. Hakuryuu wanted to work together with me and make sure I wouldn't get hurt, so how can you look at that and call it betrayal?"
"You think Hakuryuu's silence came of a desire to help you? Tell me, what good could it ever have done you? How could it have protected you? You know..." Arba reached out to run a finger gently down her daughter's neck. "It never took much to get a rise out of him. All I had to do was hint that I was going to change my mind about letting his precious sister live, remind him that I could kill you on a whim and that there was nothing at all he could do about it, and it would send him into a blind rage. It was all completely true, too...It would have been so easy, like crushing an insect. Of course, I would never have seriously harmed you, since I still wanted your body, but Hakuryuu couldn't have known that. To him, I was only ever an instant away from luring you off, getting you somewhere alone, and - "
"Guh-h!" All at once, the air was knocked from her lungs, and a searing pain flared up in her chest. Struggling for breath and feeling the black blood spreading on her skin, she didn't need to look down to see what had hit her: a shadow made solid in her mother's hand, curved into a blade and plunged into her heart.
"So, so easy," Arba murmured, slowly twisting the blade around as her wide-eyed daughter convulsed under her. "You would never have seen it coming. How were you to know that there was anything to fear from me? How, exactly, did Hakuryuu intend to protect your life by leaving you blind to the danger right beside you?"
"I...I won't...d-doubt him," Hakuei managed, thin streams of blood starting to run from her mouth. "H-He was just a child...He w-was trying to - "
"Perhaps he was expecting you to realize what was going on yourself and then take care of things for him? Your brothers figured it out, Kouen figured it out, you were the only one who was too ignorant or too stupid to figure anything out on your own. I wonder exactly when Hakuryuu realized he had overestimated you, that no one could ensure his safety and only he could ensure yours. You'll deny it until you're blue in the face, but I know why he decided to keep his mouth shut. You've failed at every conceivable aspect of being his older sister, and so he thinks of you not as a capable warrior who will protect him, but as an oblivious little fool who can't even take care of herself," Arba said with an air of finality, yanking the blade out of her daughter's chest and throwing it over her shoulder, where it melted back into the rest of the room. "At best, you're a tool to be ordered around and used in his revenge, and at worst, you're just a useless burden who needs looking after. And one who so cruelly rejected his plea for help, besides. He can't rely on you, he can't use you...At this point, I doubt he cares anymore whether you live or die."
"Y-You...are...lying," Hakuei insisted, between groans of pain as her flesh twisted back together. "He...He is my brother. He would never..."
("Aneue. You and I are going to need even more power. For now, just do as I say."
When had her brother turned so cold? And why hadn't she realized it sooner? What had she allowed to happen, what had she done by not seeing what was wrong until it was too late? What had she done?!
Was this really all her fault? Was she really not needed anymore? Would Hakuryuu really not feel a thing if she never came home?
No...No, that wasn't right, it wasn't - !)
"Revenge is all that Hakuryuu cares about now. Your life is a mere afterthought. If he finds out that I'm surviving inside of you now, if he even finds out that you still disagree with his mindset, then he'll cut you down without a second thought. Assuming he's even still alive, it really doesn't matter whether you return to him or not, does it? He isn't coming for you, and he isn't going to wait for you."
"You...You don't know that. You don't know either of us at all."
"I don't need to know you. I just need to observe. So that's one member of the family that couldn't care less about you...Now, what about your cousins? You thought they respected you as a fellow soldier, and, I suppose, as something close to their sibling. But they decided to leave you out of the loop, too. Why, I wonder? Kouen never knew everything for certain, but he was smart enough to guess, and guess quite accurately each time. He banded together with his brothers, and shared all his information with them, but he never even tried to reach out to you or Hakuryuu. Hakuryuu, at least, met him with hostility and coldness that would merit such hesitation, but you...Did you ever do anything to suggest that you couldn't be trusted? Anything to make him suspect that you were no friend to him?"
"I'm not playing this game with you. I already said: when I get out of here, I'll go to all of them, I won't walk away again, we'll get everything out in the open and - "
"Don't you get it? It's too late now. Nothing will get those two to make amends, and no one can fix our family or our country, least of all you and your useless idealism. Kouen and Koumei pretended to encourage you, let you think that you could change the world just like your father wanted, but they knew just as well as anyone else that you were inconsequential at best. In everyone's eyes but mine, you pale in comparison to your father and big brothers, and if your cousins could trade your life for theirs, they would do it in a heartbeat."
"So would I. What's your point?"
Arba paused, brought up short for a second, and then thought better of it and kept talking. "My point is, at worst, it's as I said, and they didn't think they could trust you the way you trusted them. They probably feared that you would turn on them if given too much information. No," she added, pressing two fingers to Hakuei's lips when she started to protest. "I know what you're going to say, and don't. 'Oh, no, Mother, I would never do such an awful thing to my own cousins!' Except, you did. Or, at least, you were going to. Remember? Right before I came along to take you over, what were you saying to yourself, about the part you intended to play in our civil war?" She lowered her hand, waiting for a response. "Come on, what was it? We both know, so don't be stubborn."
"...I said that no matter what happened, I had to protect Hakuryuu," Hakuei murmured reluctantly, looking down at the floor.
"Yes, that was it. And with such conviction in your voice, too! I almost had to laugh, knowing that in just a moment you would lose the freedom to make any kind of decision about what you did. But you couldn't have made the choice to side with your brother without knowing exactly what the consequences would be, could you?"
"Of course not!" she shouted, her head snapping back up. "I didn't have any other choice, I did what I had to do; do you think I was happy about it?!"
"It doesn't matter whether you liked it or not. What matters is that you were going to do it, knowing full well that your cousins would be killed because you decided to protect your brother instead of them. They were right to hold you at arm's length. You never anticipated that you would one day turn full-blown traitor, but they did. They knew where your true loyalties lay, even if you yourself didn't realize it until that moment."
"I am not a traitor! I'm not like you! Anyone can see that!"
"My sweet little girl, the only one who still thinks that there's any difference between us now is you. Think about it for a moment. It's been so long, hasn't it? And no one has made any effort to help you. Do you really still think that anybody cares that much about you?"
"It's not like that! If they don't help me, it isn't because they don't care, it's because they don't know I need help! They don't know I'm not me any more!"
"And just how do you know that? You are much more difficult to mimic than Gyokuen was; there is quite a stark difference between us, with far more room for error and suspicion."
"Didn't you just say that there was no difference between us?" Hakuei said dryly.
But to her surprise, Arba looked puzzled. "No, I didn't. When did I say that?"
"J-Just now! When I said - "
"I never said anything like that. You see, this is exactly what I'm talking about. You can't even keep what I'm saying to you right now straight, so how can you be as certain as you think you are about what everyone else feels outside?"
"But I - "
"Oh, my precious girl," Arba sighed, shaking her head as if in disappointment. "You're losing your grip on what's happening here. You have no idea what's happening outside of this place. You just don't want to face reality and accept that you've been wasting your time and effort in trying to regain control, and that giving yourself over to me is the only option you have left. Reclaiming a life as meaningless as yours will be an empty victory, I promise you. Your family has forsaken you. Your Household has thrown you away. Even your beloved Djinn has broken your bond in disgust."
"What? What are you talking about?"
"I would have thought it was obvious, dear. All of Solomon's servants know and despise me, as the one who rose up against him. This also goes for anyone associated with me. Paimon sensed it the moment I took over, and when she realized who I was and what was happening...Well. You should have heard her screaming in rage. With the power her king gave her, she could have tried to reach us by now, but she hasn't. Perhaps she thinks you knew about me, that you tricked her in some way, that this is what you deserve. No, you're not a traitor, but you are a traitor's daughter, and to many that makes you just as guilty."
"No..." Hakuei whispered, wishing shock hadn't weakened her voice, wishing she could kill the seeds of doubt that were again trying to take root in her heart.
(If she thinks back hard enough, lets herself sink down just far enough, she can still feel them. Paimon's warm hands on her shoulders, the gentle kiss on her forehead the day they met: "I think we'll get along just perfectly, my queen." Seishun, in their first moments back in the open air outside of the dungeon, briefly abandoning all restraint and throwing his arms around her in congratulations. Hakuryuu staring at her in open amazement when he saw her start to explore her Metal Vessel's power. Their love, their care, their pride...It couldn't have all been fake. It couldn't have.)
"No, you're lying! She wouldn't do that to me; no one I love would ever do that to me! I am not going to let you manipulate me like this!"
"It's not manipulation if it's true, my darling. It's as I said before: you know nothing. You can't deny that, can you? Your life means nothing, not to anyone but me. You have no one to return to, no one who wants or needs you back. The only ones who truly loved you are long dead now. I'm the last one left who cares, and deep down I'm sure you know that. It's only a matter of how soon you can come to terms with it, and let me do what I need to do with you."
But only a few words of Arba's speech caught and held her attention. The only ones who loved me are...
"You're not going to try and convince me that my father and big brothers didn't care about me, either? That's a little surprising. I thought there was no low you wouldn't sink to."
Arba shrugged. "I don't expend effort on fruitless ventures, dear. That's just common sense. You were their little darling, too, weren't you? They never had anything but love in their hearts for you, right up until the day they died; it was undeniable. And you were always so adorably determined to be just like all three of them. I certainly thought it was sweet."
Hakuei tensed, knowing better than to think that it would be left there. "But?"
"Oh, my...You already didn't believe that that was the truth?"
"Of course I believe it. However, you want to twist the truth, don't you? The sooner you get it over with, the sooner I won't have to listen to you anymore."
"You don't really think that will make either my words or your wavering faith go away, do you? While those three lived, you were even more precious to them than you are to me. After they've died, though..." The familiar smirk returned. "I doubt they'd be half as pleased with you now. Really, you should count yourself lucky that I killed them when I did."
"There it is. How long are you going to lie to me before you get it through your head that it's not working?"
"I will admit that in your life, I've had to deceive you more often than I would have liked, but here and now, I never said anything that I didn't know to be true. For instance, it's true that you never let go of that childish dream of emulating your father and big brothers, isn't it?" When all she got in response was a glare, she kept talking, unperturbed. "So simplistic, and yet you couldn't even manage to do that correctly. Do you think that just because you got lucky in a dungeon, it makes you a worthy warrior, makes you the woman who can unite the world?"
"I would think that it's more than enough proof of my worth, yes."
"Always the naïve one. What you and Hakutoku dreamed of is impossible. Yes, I used to encourage you, too, but only because it was easier to let you think you were born to be a soldier for your father, instead of a pretty little puppet for me," Arba said sweetly, stroking her daughter's cheek.
"I am not your puppet," Hakuei growled, trying to move her head away from the unwanted touch, but not getting far.
"Look around, darling, that's all you are. That's all you've ever been good for. Even with the power of a Metal Vessel, you couldn't do anything right, could you? You wanted to finish what your father started, but you were too softhearted to see it through completely. Unrealistic as their goal was, Hakutoku and his sons were willing to do anything, destroy anyone, kill as relentlessly as they had to in order to achieve it. You, however...You hold back. You get squeamish. You don't like the idea of putting blood on your hands. Where does a coward like you get off thinking you have any place on the battlefield?"
"And where do you get off thinking that killing without a care in the world makes you strong?" Hakuei countered. "My entire life, I thought my father was killed because his methods were too harsh; so why would I want to repeat his mistakes? And even if that isn't the real reason, why in the world would I want to put anybody else through what you put me and my brothers through? Why wouldn't I want to keep others from suffering the way you made us suffer? Creating a peaceful world, so I can make sure that nobody ever has to die like my father did, that's not a coward's goal!"
Arba had the gall to laugh, lifting a hand to her mouth. "My cute little girl. Are you so lost in that obsession that you don't realize that nobody else agrees with you?"
"Of course they do! That's why my Household follows me, and I know that Father would - !"
"Your father would be disgusted by you," Arba said, lingering on each syllable of the word, and smiled at the way her daughter's breath caught in her throat. "Gyokuen and I were far closer to Hakutoku than you ever were, so it stands to reason that I know best what he would think. He told us over and over how much he wanted children who shared his ambition and hunger for power, and he had such high hopes for you. I can only imagine how disappointed he would be to find out that his only daughter turned out to be such a spineless little weakling." Arba let the silence after her last word hang in the air for a moment, and when she heard no retort from her daughter, she pounced on it immediately. "You're not protesting, why is that? Were you afraid before that your father would disapprove of you, and I'm just telling you what you already know?"
"No. You can let me have a second to breathe without reading so much into it, can't you? Now you're the one who seems desperate."
"Watch your mouth, girl. You can't tell me that what I'm saying isn't true. You know full well that your father wanted to make strong, capable warriors of his children, who could carry on with his war and protect his empire when he was gone. And on all accounts, you've failed at that too."
"I haven't - "
"Oh, no? You're such a worthless soldier your own troops tried to kill you!" Arba jeered. "I can't recall that ever happening to anyone else in the family, can you? You were the only one who was stupid enough to trick and weak enough to take down, and then had to be saved by a ten-year-old child. But don't feel bad, I should really be thanking you; I hadn't had such a good laugh in years!"
"Yes, it makes me feel so much better that you were able to find some entertainment in me nearly being murdered," Hakuei snapped, bristling as another mocking voice entered her head, along with the memories of rough fingers in her hair, hard kicks slammed into her ribs, and a sword above her neck.
("What kind of an imperial princess are you? Yours is a small and useless existence!")
"But that doesn't matter. I'm still alive now, aren't I? And I was in the right. That's what matters, that's what Father would care about."
"No, it isn't," Arba said flatly. "Your father loved and respected strength and strength alone; he wouldn't waste his love on something like you, so easily broken, unimportant, and useless in his war."
"I won't believe that."
Maybe we wouldn't have seen eye-to-eye on our methods, I understand. And I will never be as important to Kou as he and my brothers were, or as my cousins still are, but that's all right. I've done everything I can, in the best way I know how. Father always lived life on his own terms; he surely wouldn't have begrudged me the freedom to do the same. He would never have stopped loving me. I know it. I know him.
"I will never believe that."
"Oh, I'm not so sure of that. I can tell when you're afraid, you know."
"Is that so?"
"Of course. A mother knows her child," Arba said simply. "You can't fool the woman who raised you. You and your brother, you're both so easy to read. And both so pathetic. Hakuryuu's life revolves around me, as the center of his quest for vengeance, and your life revolved around obeying the will of your father and older brothers. Your actions, your desires, were never your own, and neither of you seem to realize it. You say you're not a puppet? You're lying to yourself and you always have been. All that's changed is that you've moved from being held on your father's strings to being held on mine - "
"Are you any different?!" Hakuei burst out, her patience completely gone.
Arba froze, blinking in surprise. "What did you say?"
"I've had enough. Don't you say another word about my family. Don't think that you can use my love or my loyalty against me," she hissed. "I don't care what you say. My family loves me. They would never abandon me. And the only one here being controlled by her father is you."
For once, Arba was completely silent, tilting her head to the side again as she stared at her daughter, trying to figure out how to retort. Then, much to Hakuei's surprise, she burst out laughing. "Very well, precious," she managed to get out, reaching up and patting her daughter's head. "This round is yours. Don't expect it to happen again."
With that, she turned and went back over to the opposite side of the room, leaving Hakuei staring at her back in confusion. Did I just...win an argument? With her?
Far from what she had expected, she was disappointed to find that the realization brought no relief or satisfaction. Here, her little victories didn't change a thing. She had won nothing at all.
A heavy sigh escaped her: waging a war had been much simpler than this. She lowered her head, letting her hair obscure her mouth as much as possible, and started her mantra over again, praying that the names would remind her of the truth (of what had to be the truth) and wash away any stain of uncertainty that Arba's words had left on her heart.
Hakuryuu, Seishun, Paimon, Kouen, Koumei...
When she was able to speak, she asked as many questions as she could.
What is going on outside? What happened to the empire?
Who is still alive? Where are Hakuryuu and Kouen? Is everyone all right?
What did you do with Paimon? Is she okay, is Seishun okay, is my Household okay? What are you doing with my body?
At no point did she expect a straightforward answer to any of them. Depending on Arba's mood, she would either sigh in exasperation and refuse to respond, or take the opportunity to taunt her daughter further and never give the same answer twice to any question.
(At least, that was what she was fairly sure was happening. Arba kept insisting - in that slow, overly-patient tone that made Hakuei want to punch her - that she had been giving the same answers every time, and that Hakuei had just forgotten and was asking the questions over and over again expecting something different to happen, trying to avoid facing the truth for as long as she could. "I think that's the perfect definition of insanity, precious girl. I keep telling you that fighting me for control will only hurt you in the long run, but of course you don't want to listen, do you?")
Too many nightmarish scenarios played out in her head every time she asked. The Ren family had slaughtered each other until there was no one left; they were alive but scattered across the world. Seishun and her Household had abandoned her; all of them had been slaughtered to keep their mouths shut about her possession; they were in Arba's thrall now, no better than slaves. Arba had destroyed her Metal Vessel and Paimon with it; she had bent the Djinn to her will and was using it herself. Hakuryuu had gotten himself killed trying to finish his mother off; he was being kept alive to be her puppet emperor; he and Kouen were still locked in civil war; Kouen had murdered him; he was being locked up and tortured in the dark, doomed to spend the rest of his life as Arba's prisoner, just like his sister.
"From your perspective, your brother must have met a hundred different fates by now," Arba pointed out this time, rolling her eyes. "And the same with everyone else. You know you'll never be able to pick out the truth from your mess of a mind now, so why do you keep asking? Do you enjoy making things more difficult than they need to be?"
"Maybe. It's not as if you give me much else to do," Hakuei snapped. While she was loath to admit it, her mother had a point, but it couldn't be helped. If she just kept at this, she thought, at some point she would be able to pick up on at least one clue to what was real and what was not.
"I don't recall it being my job to entertain you."
"You think this is fun for me?"
"No, I understand that you think you have no other choice. And I also understand what you think you stand to gain by all this nonsense. But what I don't understand is why you ask so persistently after your brother more than anyone else, especially when you're only doing it out of a guilty conscience."
Hakuei waited for Arba to elaborate, but when all she did was look at her daughter expectantly, she sighed. "All right, Mother, I'll take the bait. What are you talking about now?"
"I'm surprised you don't see it too. Think for a moment. You'll say that you love Hakuryuu more than anything or anyone else in the world, and you'll think yourself such a good big sister for it, but - "
"But what? You of all people have no right to criticize me. I haven't been perfect by any means, but I was the only one in the palace who was actually taking care of Hakuryuu. Ever since the fire, you were never there, not for either of us! You couldn't have cared less!"
"Oh? I was never there? Tell me, ever since you cleared Paimon's dungeon, where have you been?"
"I've - " Hakuei broke off when she realized where Arba wanted to take this conversation. "No, that's different! It's different and you know it!"
"Mm, I don't think you quite believe that. You couldn't wait to get away from the palace. Running off with the army, you thought yourself so honorable, so heroic, so like your beloved father and big brothers...And yet you abandoned your only little brother to do it."
"I didn't! I have responsibilities towards my family and my country, that unlike you, I couldn't just ignore. I came home as often as possible, I spent as much time with Hakuryuu as I could. Yes, he was home alone when I couldn't be there, but that doesn't mean I abandoned him!"
Arba smirked. "Oh, you poor thing. You're completely missing the point. You didn't just leave Hakuryuu alone in the palace, you left him there alone with me."
Hakuei's stomach dropped. She had made that connection before, after Hakuryuu had told her the truth. But she hadn't been able to find and talk to him any more before she'd been sent away from the palace on another mission, and then another, and another...In any case, this was the one aspect of the situation that she'd tried to think about as little as possible.
"You see it now?" Arba said. "We both know Hakuryuu never trusted you with anything important, so he never told you a thing. He really does think so little of you. But if it's this good for me to remember, then it must be even better for you to imagine, isn't it, precious? You were preoccupied, your cousins never cared, I controlled everything that happened in the palace, and your brother was mine, to do with as I pleased. You don't have much else to think about; can you imagine the fun I've been having with him for all these years?"
"No...No, I - !"
"Oh, no, of course you don't have to imagine! You've been here with me long enough, you know exactly how I like to play with my darling children. The fact that I had to exercise some restraint with him, the way I'll never have to with you, didn't matter. Hakuryuu talks like he's the strongest in the family, and fancies himself this great avenging hero, but he's really just a helpless little boy. And no matter what he tries to do, that's all he'll ever be. I took such pleasure in reminding him of that."
Calm down - just calm down! Breathe. Breathe. Breathe, Hakuei had to remind herself as her heart pounded, heavy and erratic as a war drum. It took more effort than it should have to push away images of her brother bleeding, sobbing, begging, writhing under their mother's hands, to resist the impulse to scream and thrash and tear this woman limb from limb. "You're lying. I would have noticed something like that. I would have. You're lying to toy with me, you just want to get a reaction."
"Darling, it's not my fault if the truth hurts. You're the most oblivious person I've ever known, of course you didn't notice. And even if you did, Hakuryuu would have just brushed your concerns off with his usual, 'No, aneue, it's okay, don't you worry your empty little head about it.' Like you said, you were the only one in the whole palace who would have lifted a finger to help him, but he already thinks you're incapable of protecting yourself, so why would he trust you to protect him?"
When she got out of this, Hakuei promised herself, she and Hakuryuu were going to have a very, very long sibling-to-sibling talk, about all of this. For now, she couldn't let herself think that Arba was telling the truth - at least, not the whole truth. "I will protect him. I'm his sister, when I'm in control of myself I won't let anything happen to him."
"It's a little late for that, precious. You've let more happen to him than you know. I think it's actually funny, in a way: you've been thinking for all this time that you're closer to Hakuryuu than anyone else, but I would say that I know your brother more...intimately than you ever will."
She was going to regret asking, she knew. But she couldn't ignore the implication behind the deliberate pause and dip in her mother's voice. "And just what, exactly, do you mean by that?" she said, using every bit of self-control she had to keep her voice level.
"Oh? Nothing at all," Arba lilted, lacing her fingers behind her back and glancing away in a show of false innocence. "It's just that, ever since your father's been gone, my nights have been so very lonely. You understand?"
For a second, deafening silence rang in her ears.
(Her brother, in the dark, stripped bare, trying to struggle away as he wailed for help that wasn't coming, that never came. Her mother, eyes bright, effortlessly holding him down as she hushed his cries, as she ran her lips and her hands all over him all over him all over him get away from him - !)
"You fucking monster!" Hakuei howled, thrashing against the black tendrils like an animal in a trap. They tightened around her the harder she fought, but she barely noticed. All she could see was Arba's smile, stretching wide in the burning scarlet that filled her vision, all she could think was kill her kill her kill her kill her.
"Of course, he was nowhere near as satisfying as your father," Arba said as she strode up to her daughter, the lightness of her voice at odds with her vicious smile. "But he would do to entertain me when I needed it."
How young was he? Oh, gods, how young?! "You will never touch him again, I'll rip you apart before I even let you near him, I swear I'll - !"
"Shall I show you how?" Arba continued as if Hakuei hadn't spoken, curling her fingers inward. In response, a broad, flat shadow wrapped itself tight around Hakuei's neck like a collar, and a strip of it wound out and into Arba's hand. "Come here, my little girl..."
Arba yanked hard on her makeshift leash, tearing Hakuei out of the wall and sending her crashing to the floor. She tried to scramble to her feet so she could charge at her mother, but immediately dozens of dark, sticky tendrils burst from the ground to wind around every part of her and tie her down. They adjusted themselves accordingly when Arba kicked her onto her back, straddling her stomach and reaching down to stroke her hair.
"Don't touch me! Get away!"
"Hakuryuu used to say things like that, too. Soon those words won't have any meaning for you, either," Arba assured her, playing with a lock of her hair. "He used to cry out for you, you know. He'd scream at the top of his lungs for his big sister to come save him, but of course, you never heard. As if he didn't have enough reason to resent you. And you were the only one he ever called to..."
Arba lowered herself down and leaned in closer, until she was lying nearly flat on top of her daughter, their faces only inches apart. She whispered as if sharing a secret, "So what do you think he'll do, when I take him in your body?"
White-hot rage surged through Hakuei, making her stomach churn violently and bile rise to burn her throat. Don't you touch him don't you touch him don't you ever put your filthy hands on him again!
"Oh, my precious child...That's a beautiful fire in your eyes. Finally, you're just like your brothers," Arba cooed, taking Hakuei's face in her hands. "I've waited a long time to see you like this. You truly hate me now, don't you? But just in case you don't..."
And she closed the distance between them and pressed her lips to Hakuei's.
For a second, Hakuei froze, wide-eyed, so completely shocked that she only half registered what was happening. Then she felt Arba smile against her mouth, felt her push harder and try to deepen the kiss, and all her fury rushed back with a vengeance. Instead of pulling away, she thrust her face forward and sank her teeth into her mother's lower lip so hard that blood gushed into her mouth, warm and coppery on her tongue.
Arba recoiled, with a cry of pain that sent a stab of vicious satisfaction through Hakuei's chest, and immediately gave her daughter a sharp slap across the face. But her smile hadn't faltered in the slightest. "My, my," she said, licking away the blood still running from her lip. "Is that how my little darling kisses back? Not even Gyokuen and Hakuryuu did that!"
"I'll kill you," Hakuei heard herself snarl. "I'll kill you for all of this."
"You'd like that even more now, I suppose. What a hero you'd be, finally getting rid of the very worst threat to our family, succeeding where all your dear brothers failed...It's a nice little fantasy, isn't it?" Arba laughed.
"You think I don't mean it?! If I kill you - for good this time! - you'll never hurt him again, you'll never hurt anyone else ever again, do you think I won't - ?!"
But that only made Arba laugh harder. "No, no, I know you would. It's just, you're such fun to play with, precious. All this fuss over your poor put-upon brother, and it hasn't even occurred to you that maybe I'm making all of this up and I never laid a finger on him. You gullible little fool."
"Yes, that's probably what's happening. He did seem very surprised when I kissed him during our fight in Rakushou, after all."
"My adorable Hakuryuu has always been so very fun to tease, but unfortunately he was never worth much to me outside of that. But you, precious girl...I think I'll have a much better time with you," Arba murmured, bearing down and leaning in close once more.
"What are you - No! Get off of me, you twisted b - !" But before she could get anything else out, Arba clamped both hands over her mouth, holding her jaw shut so she couldn't bite again.
"Shh, shh...Do you really think that anything you say is going to stop me?" She held one hand tighter on her daughter's mouth and slid the other slowly down her side, lingering on her chest. "You're not the fast learner I thought you were, but I'll get it through your head one way or another: Nothing you do or say, nothing you have ever done or said, can change anything. You have no power, no control, and you never will. Like I said before, I can do whatever I want with you. And there's nothing you can do to stop me. Nobody can stop me."
As Arba spoke, new tendrils of shadow crawled up from the floor to wrap around Hakuei's legs and force them apart, and a muffled shout escaped her as she realized what her mother intended to do now. Frantic, she tried to struggle away, but she couldn't move -
"Hush, now," Arba whispered, running her fingertips in slow circles on her daughter's inner thigh, smirking again as she felt her start to shake. "Oh, my...Trembling with desire for me already? Just like your mother. You're not the pure and innocent thing everyone thinks you are, are you?"
No, no, no, no, no...
"At least, not anymore. Not when I'm through with you."
To Hakuei's further humiliation, she felt tears starting to well up, and she shut her eyes tight against them. She was not going to let Arba see her cry now, and at least she wouldn't have to watch what was happening. Even if her mouth wasn't covered, she wouldn't have begged, but she couldn't stop her mind from racing.
Not this...Not this, Mother, please don't do this, please don't!
Arba's lips were on her again, laying a line of gentle kisses up her throat, and Hakuei wondered fleetingly if she could feel her pulse pounding.
Don't kiss me, stop kissing me, don't you dare act like this is all right!
"You're afraid now, aren't you? My sweet little girl," Arba was whispering into her ear, as her fingers wandered low. "But, I'll be kind to you. Have you forgotten that you can escape this now? All you need to do, is give yourself over to me. Let me have control, and let yourself fall away. Forget your helplessness, forget your failures. End your pain, your fear, your shame before I give you true reason to feel them."
When the only response was another muffled yell and an attempted shake of the head, Arba sighed and moved her hand off of her daughter's mouth. "Open your eyes, precious. Look at me."
After a moment's hesitation, Hakuei did, only to see her mother smiling as if assured of her victory. "It's your choice, and whatever happens if you make the wrong choice is your fault. But I don't have to do this to you, not at all. It will be so much easier if you can rest without anything more to burden you, right?"
For a moment, some traitorous part of her mind shrieked, YES, fine, you win, get me away from you, get me away from all of this, let me die instead! It took everything she had in her to remind herself that that was not an option, and a little more to say so out loud.
"I am not taking the easy way out. Not...Not for you," she said, a small part of her relieved that her soldier's voice still came out through her terror.
"Oh?" Arba's mouth twisted with displeasure, and she grabbed her daughter hard between the legs, digging her nails in enough to make the younger woman hiss in pain. "Then I suppose I'll have to make this hurt, won't I?"
"You...You do whatever you want to me," Hakuei forced herself to say. "You can't change anything either. I won't give in to you, and that's one thing that you will never be able to take from me."
Every trace of the smugness on Arba's face was gone, and now she just looked affronted. "Well. It's no fun if you put it like that, now, is it?" She pulled back and got to her feet, and started to stalk away. But a second later, thinking that that wasn't enough, she wheeled around, threw back her leg, and kicked Hakuei full force in the face. "Be as arrogant as you like now, I'll find your breaking point sooner or later. And by the way," she added, glaring down at her daughter. "What I don't do to you, I'll do to your brother instead. I want you to know that."
"And I can't stop you now. But whatever pain you cause him, I will give back to you a thousand times worse, I promise you that."
"You will? I wouldn't bet on that," Arba said with a sneer, before turning away again.
Fine. Fine, go and sulk. Just...Just leave me alone, Hakuei thought, wishing she could rub her throbbing jaw. She closed her eyes again and tried to relax, to take deep breaths. It's okay. It's okay. I'm okay. She was just trying to scare me into doing what she wants. She'd...She'd still do it, but not if she thinks it won't work for her. And I can't for one second let myself think that she's telling the truth, about anything. She lies, she always lies, she just wants to get in my head. If I want to get out of here, on my own terms, I can't fall for it anymore. Hakuryuu...I'll get the truth from him when we meet again. For once, I'll get the truth from him. I won't be helpless to protect him anymore.
Against her better judgment, she glanced over at Arba, and though the woman wasn't paying her daughter any more attention, Hakuei's heart still skipped a beat at the barely constrained fury in her eyes. It wasn't hard to see that after so long, her mother was starting to lose her patience.
I just have to hurry up and figure out how to do it before she thinks up something that will work.
It would be impossible to decide what the most painful aspect of her imprisonment was. But undoubtedly one of the worst was that this godforsaken place never changed. Cold as winter, unnaturally silent, no scent save for the lingering odor of blood, shimmering black everywhere she looked, with shadows gripping her form and stretching her limbs out just to the point of pain...Even without her mother here, being stuck in this place was torture enough. She could not forget the world outside, she could never forget, but the isolation, the almost total lack of anything to stimulate her senses, was wearing on her mind. And after so long, she was beginning to feel it in this form, too. She was tired; so, so tired...
But paradoxically, it also made her sharper: she spent as much time as she could trying to focus, to figure out how she could break whatever mental barriers kept her trapped here. The idea of being stuck in this state forever if she couldn't was more than enough motivation, after all.
And then, right in the middle of one of those moments, it happened.
Color. Noise. The sensation of escape.
It had only started a short time ago. It didn't happen often, and when it did, it was more confusing than anything else. But on occasion, she could see things outside this place, through her own eyes.
The half of her that wasn't trying to decipher just what in the world she was seeing in the first place was trying to figure out what this meant. Were her mother's defenses cracking? Was Arba weakening or growing lax, was her own resistance finally starting to pay off, or both? She was still trapped here, yes, but if she could at least know what was going on in the world without relying on her mother's manipulation to figure it out, it would be a huge leap in the right direction. She just had to figure out how to do it consciously...Then she could move forward from there.
Arba, however, laughed at the idea. "Oh, my darling, even I hadn't realized you could fall this far. I didn't know you'd be hallucinating by now!"
"Don't lie to me. I know what I saw, what I felt."
"As we've established by now, you know nothing. But, if you're so convinced that your delusions are true, then why don't you share some with me?" Arba suggested, with the tone of a mother asking about her child's imaginary friends. "Come on, precious, tell me what you see."
She sighed deeply, but answered anyway. What harm could it do? And depending on her mother's reaction, it could even help. "It's not much. The sky. Light, something shining. A city, I think. People talking, but not enough to understand."
Arba rolled her eyes. "Scintillating."
"You asked. I see other people sometimes, but I don't always recognize them."
"Don't always recognize them?"
"...I don't know why. But the one I see most often is King Sinbad. And from the looks of it, he seems to be getting quite friendly with you." She fixed her mother with an unimpressed glare. "I knew he wasn't to be trusted. But I never expected him to sink this low."
"Sinbad?" Arba snickered. "Darling, you really have lost something. You know I can't stand that man any more than you can, so why would I ever want to partner up with him? Although, speaking of partners...You may be onto something."
"Well, without giving away too much, I've decided that the Kou Empire isn't going to be of much use to me any more, so I'm going to need to either find or start another line that will keep me in a position of power," Arba explained, putting on a thoughtful expression. "A king like Sinbad...Repulsive as he is, he could do nicely."
A chill ran over Hakuei's skin as she realized that she might have just thrown the conversation somewhere she had definitely not intended it to go. "What do you mean...start another line?"
Arba smirked. "Come now, dear, it's only the next logical step. This is why you're my most precious child: you are the only one who can both serve as a vessel for me now, and provide me with my next vessel for when you've outlived your usefulness." At the look of utter horror on her daughter's face, Arba stepped closer and reached out to caress her stomach (her smirk curving wider when Hakuei froze at her touch instead of trying to resist it). "How would you like me to let him fill you up with his seed? To feel yourself swell round with our children?"
If this were her actual body, Hakuei thought as a wave of nausea rolled over her, she would be retching all over the floor right now. "You can't do that to me."
"Oh, no? Who's going to stop me? You?" Arba taunted. "You want to see what I'm doing with your body? Perhaps I'll let you watch us. If you're very good, I'll let you feel everything, too."
"Me? This was your idea, precious. I really must thank you, it sometimes gets so difficult to find a worthwhile sire for my future vessels. I had thought that I would be able to take just one more from the Ren family, but unfortunately, things didn't work out that way."
"What are you talking abou - " Hakuei's eyebrows shot up as the realization hit her. "Wait. After Father died...Is that why you were always all over Kouen?!"
Arba laughed again. "Gyokuen made me swear on my life that if I had to kill her darling Hakutoku, I at least wouldn't let her brother-in-law touch her body. I kept my word exactly, but I highly doubt that she would have objected to me going for the younger, stronger model instead."
"And here I thought you were just an insatiable whore."
"Well, one does what one must to survive. That boy would have bred such fine heirs, especially with you...A pity he's no longer available."
Hakuei narrowed her eyes at the implication. "I'll ask once more - What did you do to my family?"
"I've already told you, darling. If you can't remember the truth, then that's your fault. But even if you've forgotten that, maybe you can keep this in mind: Though what you're seeing now is just a hallucination born of desperate desire, there's still some truth to it. Even if you do manage to regain control of yourself, the world you wake to will not be the one you expected, and it will not be one you have a place in anymore. You don't seem to understand that it's been years upon years since I took you. I've done so much in your form that you can never take back. Everyone has either forgotten about you or left you behind. They've moved on without you. You're the only one who still holds onto false hope. And you need to let that go, and accept that this is just the way things are going to be. More than anything else, it's for your own good."
"You don't really believe that," Hakuei snapped, her lip curling in disgust. "You've never done anything for anyone's good but your own."
"Haven't you learned by now that being unnecessarily difficult isn't going to help you? Believe whatever you want to believe, but the fact is that sometimes a parent has to do things that might seem distasteful for their child's sake, no matter how much that child screams and cries and tries to resist it because they don't understand. Right now, my precious little girl is suffering, to the point that her mind is breaking down completely," Arba crooned, moving her hand up from Hakuei's torso to her face, gently tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "Isn't it only right of me, as your mother, to want to make it stop? To end your pain forever?"
"I don't need false pity from you," Hakuei said, shaking her hair loose again.
"Pity's got nothing to do with it. It's just sense, darling. You think seeing what's going on around you is the first step to reclaiming your body? It's not. You can never break free of the hold I have on you. And even if you did manage to take back control, what do you think you'll be able to do? It isn't as if that will be enough to get rid of me, you know."
"I have a few ideas."
She had steeled herself for it some time ago, though it wasn't something she enjoyed thinking about. What she wanted more than anything was to get out of this alive and safe, to be with her family again, but if that was no longer an option...
Gravity Magic could ruin an attempt at a jump, if she was too slow about it or couldn't hang on to control long enough. But it shouldn't be hard to get her hands on something sufficiently sharp, if only for the few seconds she would need. She was nothing if not a soldier, after all. To make one last kill, quick and clean and merciful, would be simple compared to everything else she'd endured up until now. Really, it would be worse for Arba than it would be for her; Arba had said so herself, a long time ago. Her mother would die, with nowhere left to go, but she and her family would finally be free.
"Well, forget about them. When we get right down to it, letting your consciousness sleep is the best option you have left, and all I'm trying to do is help you. You're just too stubborn to acknowledge that. Unless letting what's left of your mind shatter under the strain of trying to keep yourself awake in spite of me is what you want now. Is that what you want? To go completely mad?"
"I'm not going to go mad in here. I've kept this up for so long -"
"And now you're swaying on the edge of defeat. You think far too highly of yourself - I have been doing this for centuries, little girl, so get the thought out of your head that your resilience comes anywhere close to matching mine."
"Do you ever stop?" Hakuei shouted, half tempted to try and bite at Arba's hand again. "You're the one who's overestimating herself. You aren't special: if I can stay alive this long, I can stay alive forever. Nothing you do can break me."
"Oh? Nothing? You still think you've seen everything I can do to you, don't you?"
The too-familiar lightness of her voice made Hakuei's blood run cold, and she didn't dare respond.
"Yes, that's right, precious," Arba simpered, a cruel smile crawling onto her face. "You don't know the worst I can do yet. I've learned well over my lifetime how to break in an obstinate little vessel. But, if my work is done already and you'd like to bow out now, before you push me to do some things I would rather not have to do, I'll let you. It will be perfectly okay if you do."
Hakuei forced herself to look her mother in the eyes, with as much defiance as she could muster. "No. It won't."
"Well, then...When we begin, don't say I didn't warn you."
She can't scream she can't scream she can't scream she can't scream she can't scream she can't scream she can't scream she can't scream she can't scream she can't scream she can't scream she can't scream she can't
I've run out of patience with you.
Thick, rough shadows twist around her limbs, tight enough to burn her under their grip. They stretch her arms too far up above her head, and her legs too far out, so that she's strapped spread-eagle to the wall, painfully aware that if she's pulled even a little more it will take her limbs right off, like a fly's wings. Sweat is already beading up on her forehead, and she can't quite make herself match the ice-cold glare on her mother's face.
You will come to heel and you will do what I brought you into this world to do.
The shadows wind around her limbs, slow but hard as a vice, until her skin rips and her bones splinter like sticks under the strain. With her head restrained, she bites her lip bloody to stifle any noise, but a low, drawn-out moan works its way out from the back of her throat anyway. Arba raises a hand, and darkness gathers in her palm, until she's holding a long, gleaming black knife. It looks simple, but she knows by now that it will only get far, far worse the longer this goes on. But she can take it. She must. Arba likes to say that they have all the time in the world for this, but it always ends, and she can always hold out until then. It always has to end, at some point...
Somehow, the look in her mother's eyes says something different. Arba lunges then, takes the knife and goes straight for her daughter's bare chest.
And the first bite of the blade through her skin is her first push over the edge, into the storm of pain that rips away all her thoughts and all her defenses.
What you feel doesn't matter and it never has. The choice has never been yours.
they pull her down and hold her on the ground the shadows are only extensions of her mother's hands and blades while Arba slices through the rest of her with cruel precision half of them tear her limbs apart wildly cut her face down to the bone and half of them pierce her press pointed ends into every soft part of her and push and slither like snakes under her skin in and out in and out in out in out harsher and harder every time and she tries to struggle thrashes frantically underneath them all but her mother kneels on top of her and the shadows bind her from beneath and they hold her down tight
You belong to me. Every last part of you is mine.
she has no idea how long it's been no idea which way is up or down no idea how she is still alive no thought of anything at all except the pain her body is torn to bloody shreds but it doesn't stay long her insides spill out pull back spill out pull back spill out pull back endlessly endlessly endlessly she's a piece of meat in a pack of starving dogs she opens her mouth to curse her mother but the second she does the woman curves her hand inward and scalding black blood hurtles up her throat gushes out her mouth and nose like hot tar hardens instantly over her face into a suffocating muzzle and she can't breathe can't move can't fight can't see anything but dizzying flashes of her mother in the burning white of her vision
You look just like her. She wanted you to be like her, but you're not. You're a pathetic excuse for a daughter, not even fit to be her replacement, but even so -
her mother's weight on top of her again the heat of bare skin on bare skin nails ripping her skin like paper teeth biting and sucking on her lips her neck her chest leaving stinging red marks in their wake hands running over every inch of her so soft and smooth but they run so roughly and they burn they burn they burn even when they lift from her she still feels them she feels sharp fingers pushing into her wounds into her mouth into her the taste is sickening all of this is disgusting and it hurts it hurts it hurts oh gods it hurts but it never lets up her they just keep going and going and going and going her mother hissing and murmuring through every second of it with her poison voice while she can do nothing but squirm and mewl pitifully underneath her
Oh, you good girl. Ohhh, my good little girl. You'll make those pretty noises for me again, won't you?
she's crying like a child she's sobbing so hard she can't stop so hard she's going to throw up if she doesn't stop spew the black blood all over herself but it doesn't matter she's soaked to the bone in the stuff she can't even try to move can't figure out what's still part of her can't think about anything but how much she wants this to stop and she is worthless she is nothing she is
Such a disgrace. I wish your father could see you like this. I wish your brothers could see you like this, you little whore - !
another vicious slap to the face petty and vindictive and demeaning but the sting is lost under the agony like a spark in a fire it's too much it's all too much it builds and builds and builds until everything of her is crushed and torn to shreds and leaves only the pain and all she wants is to make it stop but it won't stop it goes for days on end days on end days on end daysonenddaysonenddaysonenddaysonend and it won't stop it will never stop never never never and she can't scream she can't scream she can't scream but she is screaming now -
She lay sprawled on the floor, discarded like trash. She had lost track of how long she had been there, dazed and hurt and used, too spent to move and every part of her spattered and sticky with black blood. All she could think about was how completely filthy she felt, and how ready she was for all of this to just end.
Forget how long she had been lying there. She still couldn't even begin to figure out how long she had been trapped here, a prisoner in her own mind and body. And if she was being honest with herself, she no longer cared. What did it matter, in this place where nothing changed? Where she felt nothing, heard nothing, saw nothing, knew nothing of the real world. Where the only ways she could exist were burning in pain or drowning in a sick half-sleep.
Where the only other presence was -
"Hakuei? Are you still awake, precious girl?"
Her mother's footsteps were soft but close, and she shut her eyes tight and curled up into herself as much as the shadows tying her to the ground would allow. No...No, please, just leave me alone. I've had enough, just please...
But Arba's skin was brushing against hers again as she sat down next to her, her arms slipping under Hakuei's shoulders and legs to pull her close as the shadows retracted. She tried to move away, but Arba just tightened her grip to keep her still. (And it was laughable, really, how little effort she had to expend to do so.)
"Shhh...Let me hold you. I haven't held you like this in a long time." She cradled her daughter to her chest, laying her head against her shoulder and tilting her chin up. A frown darkened her face as she appraised the long streaks of blood drying on Hakuei's paling skin, heard how her breath came staggered and shallow. "You poor thing. Look what you've made me do to you."
Some part of her still had the strength to bristle at that. I didn't make you do anything; you decided all of this! But before she could even begin to say so, Arba spoke over her.
"No, precious, don't try to talk. You're exhausted. Sooner rather than later, you're going to give out completely."
Hakuei tried to deny it, but only a weak rasp came out. "I...I-I'm..."
"You see? Even your voice is a death rattle," Arba sighed. "My poor darling. You've been trying so hard, I know. Papa's little soldier girl. But that's all over now. You don't have to fight any more; Mother will take care of you. Everything will be all right, I promise."
"You...You promise?" She forced out a short, bitter laugh to show exactly what she thought of that. Your word is worthless. Everything you say is a lie, everything...
"Yes, of course. Just relax and let it happen. It won't hurt one bit. You'll never be in any pain at all, not ever again. It will be the greatest comfort of your life, no worse than falling asleep after a long day. That's what I've been trying to tell you this whole time."
No, Hakuei tried to tell herself. That's wrong, that's not true. But the worst part was, it was the truth, and there was no way around it. She couldn't take any more, she just couldn't...But she had to. "I won't...Not for you, I - "
"Hush. This is for your sake, precious. Do you think this pointless effort is heroic? Do you think there is anything in this for you?"
"Everyone...Everyone's waiting...Th-They wouldn't want..."
"Oh? Oh, darling, is that what you're afraid of?" Arba laughed. "It's all right. No one has realized what's going on, even after all this time. No one knows you're still conscious in here. So if you give up now, no one will ever know that you did. Don't worry, I won't tell," she added playfully.
That's true, isn't it? Nothing I do matters. But even so...
"That doesn't...m-matter, either. I h-have to go back...N-No matter what, I'm..."
"You don't even know why you're fighting any more, do you? You'll keep destroying yourself even if there's no purpose to it now. You don't know any better." For a moment, she almost believed the look of pity that twisted Arba's face. "You poor girl, hasn't anybody ever told you that it's okay to let go?"
She couldn't help the whimper that escaped her at that. I want to...I don't want to...I want, I can't...
Without warning, Arba leaned in towards her, and she flinched, badly, at the other woman's face so close to hers again. But Arba only pressed a light, chaste kiss to her forehead. "Shh, I know, I know you're scared. But it's okay. No one will be angry with you. No one will care enough for that. This is what's best for everyone."
No...I don't want to die, I don't want to die! I can't take living like this any more, but I don't want to die! Not like this!
"And you know, there's no better way to go. Calmly, painlessly, safe in your mother's arms." Arba ran her fingers gently through her daughter's hair as she talked, her voice soft and sweet as a lullaby. "You're all right, precious. Everything's going to be all right. Just close your eyes and drift off to sleep."
I can't...I won't...
Arba's face and voice were starting to come through blurred and distorted, as if through a fog. She felt the same as she had at the first moment of possession, as she did in the dark water, that something was peeling her consciousness away and trying to break everything that was her apart until nothing was left.
In that moment, she knew with absolute certainty that if she closed her eyes, if she sank back down now, it would be for the last time. She didn't have the strength to keep herself together there any more, let alone to resurface. She would fade into oblivion, her consciousness melting into her mother's like sugar into water. Already she could feel herself slipping away...
No! I don't want this! I can't die like this...Please, don't let me die like this, help me...Someone...Anyone...
Her brother's face floated into her mind, but his eyes were bitter and cold. So cold...And it was all her fault.
Hadn't Arba been trying to tell her? No one would come to help her. No one wanted to help her. Not her family, not her Household, not her Djinn. Her love for them didn't mean a thing. They were better off without her, if they weren't already dead.
But this isn't right. It can't be...
Her thoughts were becoming hazy and distant, harder to put together. She tried to focus, to will herself to stay (not even to fight for control, anymore, just to stay alive). But even that was quickly turning into more of a struggle than she could handle. Every part of her felt numb, as if it were separate from her, and she could barely see.
No, this isn't happening!
Panicked and frustrated, she let out a dry, hitching sob, and the arms around her pulled her closer.
"Shh, shh, shh, shh...There we go. That's my good girl," Arba cooed, sounding every bit the comforting mother that Hakuei remembered, and the thought made her want to burst into tears. "Not so bad, now, is it? Nice and easy. Just let yourself fade away from everything that hurts you, everything that scares you. You won't feel a thing; now, just go to sleep. Go to sleep. Shhh..."
Her vision was a cloudy, confusing mess, and her mind wasn't much better. But she wasn't gone yet. Her desire to survive was still there, wasn't it? She could still feel that.
No...No, I won't let this happen. This is my body. This is my life! Even if it's for nothing...I can't let myself die here. If nothing else...I can't allow someone like her to win.
"What was that, precious?" Arba said, and she realized she'd been murmuring the words out loud. She moved her head to get a better look at her mother, straining to see her clearly again.
Focus. Focus. Eyes on her. Yes, that's it. Keep myself together. Will myself to live. I have that left. I have to live. I have to live.
"Stop...acting." Every syllable had to be forced from her throat, but she could still make herself heard if she tried hard enough. "You...have not...won."
"I don't think I heard that quite right, either," Arba said, but the way her smile froze on her face and her grip on her daughter tightened uncomfortably said otherwise. "Do you want to say that again, little girl?"
A shudder ran over her at the thought of what could happen if she pushed Arba over the edge again. But what more could her mother do to her that she hadn't already survived? "I'm n-not...dying...for you. I...t-told you that...before. Didn't I?"
Arba narrowed her eyes. "Your useless optimism can only carry you so far. Don't you realize that? Your life ended a long time ago. As it is, you're hanging on by a thread."
"May...Maybe. But I...I am still here. I am...I'm n-not your tool."
"Like I said before, that is all you are. Your only purpose in life, the only purpose your life has ever had, is to submit to me. You don't have any other choice."
Hakuei looked her mother directly in the eyes. "Yes. I. Do."
Arba glared down at her for a moment more, clearly trying to think of a retort and coming up dry. "Fine, then. If that's the way you want it," she snapped. "I was trying to help you, but if you're too ungrateful to get that, then I won't bother. Die alone for all I care."
With that, she shoved her daughter off of her lap onto the floor, and made a point of stepping hard on her ribs as she got up and stormed away, the shadows crawling back up to tie Hakuei down again.
'Mother will take care of you,' hm? Don't make me laugh. You couldn't wait to stop pretending.
Hakuei lay as still as she could, putting her mother out of her mind and thinking only of keeping her breath steady and her heart beating.
That's it...For now, I don't have to defeat her. I just have to hold out, for as long as it takes. That's all I have to do. Just hold out, stay strong...And wait for an opportunity.
Arba was right about one thing: she would keep going even if no one was counting on her to. Even stripped of her pride and her freedom, she was still a soldier, still a princess, still her father's daughter. She would destroy herself, make herself suffer, if only to keep the enemy from claiming total victory over her. That much, at least, she would not fail to do.
Her resistance was weak, but it was all she had left.
It was the low hiss of excitement from her mother that first tipped her off.
After her last failed attempt at asserting dominance, Arba had left her alone, for the most part. And although she still spent all her time strapped tightly to the wall, she had managed to keep herself in this space and not fall back down into the depths. She was thankful: the reprieve, however brief it would turn out to be, had given her the time she needed to gain her strength back. She stayed that way, still and patient, the only noise in the room her quiet mantra of names, until the day her mother's voice made her head snap up.
"What is it?" she asked without thinking. When her reason caught up with her a second later, she cringed: attracting her mother's attention was the absolute last thing she wanted to do. But unusually, Arba didn't turn around, didn't even seem to notice her. Despite the vicious grin on her face, she wasn't jumping on the opportunity to torment her helpless prisoner some more. Her sadism appeared to be focused elsewhere.
Somewhere outside? Hakuei wondered, a chill running down her spine. What is she doing?
She still didn't know whether she could find out on her own. But, she reasoned, it was worth a try. Her force of will was the reason she was still alive, maybe it could help her out one more time. So she tried to focus, to concentrate as hard as she could on that task. Come on...Come on...How did it happen last time? Just give me one look, let me have that, that's all I ask! Just for a second...
And though she wasn't sure exactly how long it took her, that was exactly what she got: one confusing flash of the outside world, that hit her understimulated senses like a bomb.
Wind in her face. Salt on the air. Weightlessness. Blue, so much blue, endless water but something else, too. Something familiar...No, someone, who was that - Oh, gods, blood, so much blood - !
The connection broke like the snap of a rope. She was wide-eyed and panting, trying to work through the pieces of what she had just seen. The ocean. All right, they were over the ocean, but what was happening? And who had that been, gushing blood in front of them?
Who is she hurting? Who am I hurting?!
"Mother, who was that? What is going on?!"
Arba turned and looked at her as if she'd said something truly stupid. "All that's going on is that you're annoying me. I have no idea what you're shouting about."
"Don't lie to me, I saw - "
"Yet another hallucination. Just because you're still around doesn't mean I didn't break you. You don't even realize how far gone you are."
"Fine, then. Don't tell me. It doesn't matter, anyway."
I'll find my own answers. This is what I wanted, wasn't it? The truth, without relying on her word.
The thought never crossed her mind that seeing the truth, with her own eyes, would be even worse than being trapped here unable to see. After all, even if she knew what was happening outside, there was still nothing she could do about any of it.
The next time she noticed Arba's demeanor shift like that, with unusually rapt attention paid to whatever she was doing on the outside and that smile on her face, Hakuei was ready. Making sure Arba was too distracted to interrupt her, she took a deep breath and tried again to focus, to recapture that feeling. More, this time...Give me more, I can do it!
And, hard and sudden as a sucker punch, it came again:
Water, wind, and salt - the ocean again. Her blood runs hot and she can feel her heart pounding, hear the clang of metal on metal, this is battle, but who is she fighting, who -
Eyes burning bright as fire, with insatiable hatred, from a face marked with a Djinn's deep black. Unmistakable. No. No! It can't be, she can't be doing this, not to
Back in the dark, and she couldn't breathe. Was that her shouting his name, or Arba? Their voices were the same now. She couldn't tell. It didn't matter! This couldn't be happening, she couldn't hurt him - !
"Mother, get away from him!" She knew it wouldn't make Arba stop, but maybe she could manage to divert her attention away from Hakuryuu. "What are you doing?! You can't make me hurt my brother!"
Arba tilted her head back to look at her with an innocent smile. "I'm not doing a thing to him, precious. We're nowhere near him. What are you yelling at me for?"
"You know what! Stop lying to me! I - !"
Her brother's voice - was it deeper than before? It sounded that way - made her jump. The barrier between this place and the outside was...growing thinner? Then Hakuryuu's words fully registered with her.
Before she could do anything else, an overwhelming wet heat enveloped her, though she still couldn't see a thing. Then a shriek tore from her as the pain hit, as if something had dumped a vat of acid over her, searing her blood and eating away at her skin.
Arba watched her thrash and yell, looking mildly amused. To Hakuei's shock, she wasn't reacting at all to the pain her body felt. "Oh? What's all this about? Nothing's happening to you."
"Zagan...Zagan's powers..." They always were terrifying.
"Zagan? You think Hakuryuu is hurting us?" Arba laughed, putting a hand to her mouth. "Then don't look so surprised! I tried to warn you, didn't I? What a heartless brother you have, who would slaughter his last living sibling just to be rid of me."
"To be rid of you...?" The sick, spiteful thing that pulled itself onto Hakuei's face could barely be called a smile. This was exactly what she'd been thinking of, wasn't it? "Good. Then let him kill us. If I can take you with me, then death will be my pleasure!"
"You say that as if the little weakling has a chance of besting me. I would kill him before he could even lay a scratch on me."
And as soon as it had come onto them, the pain stopped. Hakuei looked around for a moment, confused, and then she was seeing through her own eyes again - seeing her fingers clenched tightly around her little brother's neck, his eyes squeezed shut with pain. "No!" she cried out, and Arba laughed again.
"Yes, I would. Are you imagining it now, my darling?"
"I'm not imagining anything!" Dark blood soaked Hakuryuu's front and streamed from his mouth, and she could feel its warm stain on her skin, falling on her hand and arm in thick drops, oh, gods, she could feel it. "You hurt him, you're choking him, let - !"
The words let him go almost spilled from her mouth but she pulled them back just in time; if she'd said that then Arba would just let him fall to the waves below and make her watch him drown, wouldn't she?
"Leave him alone!"
"I told you, I'm not doing anything. This is all in your head," Arba insisted, her grin broadening. "If you want Hakuryuu to live, then you let go of him."
"I - !" She could see her brother, she could feel her own hand gripping him, but no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn't move to free him, not even to loosen a finger. "I can't!"
"Well, I suppose you'll kill him, then, won't you?"
"No!" she shrieked again.
"You know, Gyokuen told me once how she enjoyed the feeling of her little brother's throat in her hands. Perhaps you and she think more alike than I thought."
"Stop it! You're the one who's hurting him, not me!"
Was her panic affecting her focus? She could still feel her own hand, tight and immovable as rock, and her brother's frantic pulse beating under it. But her vision of the outside was blurring and flickering, worse with every second, until she couldn't see a thing, and even the sensation of touch was quickly fading.
"Wasn't it you who was screaming about how you would never let me touch him again?" Arba reminded her lightly. "This is just too fitting. You've spent his entire life letting him down, and now he'll die because you couldn't pull yourself together. There's nothing actually out there, of course, but you really do think up the most awful things, precious. I have to admit, you don't leave much for me to do n - "
Suddenly (and to Hakuei's immense surprise), Arba broke off, her eyes bulging wide, and she whirled around so fast her braids flew out behind her. Whatever she was staring at outside, it had her frozen in shock.
"Mother, what's - ?"
"Shut up!" Arba snarled, waving her hand back at her daughter without turning around. "I'm trying to hear - "
Realizing she was ruining her own deception, she broke off again, but it was too late. "You can't lie to me; this is really happening!" Hakuei shouted. "What's going on?! I can't feel Hakuryuu anymore, where is - "
"I said shut up! Listen to me for once in your life!"
All right, I'll find out myself. She closed her eyes, and took in and let out a shaky breath. Concentrate, one more time...I don't even need to see, just let me hear what she's hearing...
A moment later, she heard Hakuryuu's voice. It came from what seemed like a great distance away, and cut in and out so she could only catch a few words, but they were enough.
"Her weak point...If she's separated from my sister's body...My sister doesn't..."
Though she still couldn't see, she could hear her brother's voice dripping with self-satisfaction as he went on -
"Arba-dono...Thanks for the valuable information."
- and a mix of pride, love, and relief like nothing she had ever felt before surged through her. He knows, she thought, her heart pounding and tears welling up in her eyes. He knows, oh, gods, he knows what happened to me! He was trying to fight her...Was he trying to save me?! And I doubted him...I'm sorry, Hakuryuu, I should never have thought that of you! I knew you wouldn't give up on me!
"HAKURYUU!" her mother bellowed, looking apoplectic with rage by this point. "That little...That worthless...I don't...How could he have - ?!"
You can't even speak, now, Mother? That's a welcome change, Hakuei thought, her first genuine smile in gods knew how long tugging at her her lips. Hakuryuu outsmarted you, and you can't get away from that. Are you finally starting to realize that you're not as superior to our family as you thought?
Arba jerked back as if stung, her hand flying to her mouth, and she whipped around to glare murder at her daughter. "What the hell are you doing?! Why am I smiling?!"
For a second, she had no idea what her mother was screaming about. Then she realized: this was her own physical body she was feeling. She was moving her lips, not Arba. And it was a such an insignificant thing, but it was more than she'd been able to do in so long, and it sent a thrill of excitement through her veins. More importantly, Arba seemed to be driven to the brink of a breakdown by even this tiniest slip in her control over her children. So, naturally, Hakuei smiled wider, putting on the sweetest voice and expression she could muster.
"Why, Mother, what's wrong? Are you so unhappy? I thought you had everything under your control."
Oh, she was going to pay for this later; the wildfire in Arba's eyes promised her that. But she could take it. After today, she would never come close to that breaking point again. Hakuryuu was alive. He was safe, he had grown strong enough to match their mother, his life and his love could not be held over her head anymore, and they would be reunited. They would fix everything then, together.
"Your brother tries my patience," Arba growled, her voice shaking with fury. "You can get out of my sight, too, little brat."
"Your perfect plans are beginning to crumble under your hands, it appears. How long do you think you have left?"
"Out of my sight!" Arba roared. She charged at her daughter, slamming her palm into Hakuei's stomach and shoving her through the wall again.
The dark water pulled her hungrily down into the depths once again, and she did not resist. She kept her eyes open and her breath steady; she would not let her mind turn dull and sluggish down here. Soon enough, she would resurface. And one day, by her own power or not, she would be free again.
Can you hear me in the back of your mind, Mother? I know you can. I'm going to get my body back, one way or another, and you can't stop it. I'll be with my brother again, I'll protect him and stay by his side, and if you've still managed to stay alive, then we will come for you. Finally, you will die...And we will both be free.