Judal was gone in the morning, and Hakuryuu found himself surprised at how lonely the discovery made him feel. Over breakfast there were questions- Didn't you have a classmate over? How did studying go? -and Hakuryuu answered with lies, lies lies.
He had always thought himself an honest man, but nowadays lies seemed as natural as breath. His resurrected family life was like an elaborate play; why resist giving the lines that would make them happy? Hakuryuu excused himself from breakfast early, claiming that he was needed at school early today.
"Seems rough," Judal said, startling Hakuryuu as he left the grounds of his family estate. "Having 'em care about you so much. I bet you're exhausted before the day even begins!"
Hakuryuu whipped his head up to see Judal perched in a tree by the entryway, and he smiled in spite of his annoyance. The morning sunshine danced over Judal's face as the leaves shifted in the gentle breeze. Hakuryuu sighed. "Do you enjoy startling people from high places?"
Judal's face split into a grin, and he jumped down to walk beside Hakuryuu. "Ah, you got me! I've got a thing for dramatic entrances from above."
Hakuryuu shook his head. "You're like a cat."
"Meeeeow!" Judal said with a laugh, pantomiming a cat paw next to his face. "And you're like a guy that doesn't like answering personal questions."
Hakuryuu tsked. "I just- Well, you're the one that made this morning awkward, vanishing like that! They were all wondering where you'd gone."
"Still avoiding~" Judal sang, skipping ahead.
What was there to avoid? Of course it was exhausting to be cared for like his family did. There was no way to possibly not worry them, no way to meet their expectations. He wasn't as naturally studious as Hakuyuu nor as gregarious as Hakuren. He was simply the youngest, the baby, the one they all worried and fretted over, never knowing that he was the only reason they were still there.
"I think you know the answer just fine."
Hakuryuu quickened his pace and passed Judal. Perhaps the others had been right to see Judal as a worrisome annoyance. The witch fight and their talk on the hillside seemed a lifetime away now. Judal cocked his head to the side, watching Hakuryuu pass, and then followed quietly after him again. There were no more questions, no more intrusions about his personal suffering and pain. Judal simply followed Hakuryuu with quiet purpose.
As they drew close to Hakuryuu's school, Judal paused once more and waved. "Well, I'm gonna jet. You take care, okay Hakuryuu?"
Hakuryuu deliberated for a moment before turning back, but apparently that was all the time Judal needed to vanish from view. He bit his lip and sighed. What a strange man. Though no stranger than the rest of this world of witches and wishes. Hakuryuu went into school and pushed thoughts of Judal from his mind.
Study soothed Hakuryuu's mind. His awkward morning of questions went forgotten in the grind of lectures and the smug pride of graded tests with perfect scores. Above a puer magi, he was still Hakuryuu. He was still a star student. No matter how that life tried to take over, he was the one in control.
But, he thought with a bit of a smirk as he walked to the after-school meeting place, he was still a master in that realm as well. After all- he and Judal had taken down a witch just the two of them! And, as Alibaba had noted, he was starting to pull his usual team as well. They were lucky to have him.
He greeted the gang with a wave as he strode up. "While you all were goofing off last night, I took care of the witch we were chasing the other day," Hakuryuu said with only the tiniest bit of haughtiness in his tone. "Judal and I tracked it to the edge of town. He even let me keep the grief seed." Hakuryuu produced the seed with a flourish and waited for their awe.
Instead of the praise he had expected, the three looked on with some befuddlement.
"But we were chasing it all night!" Alibaba protested. "All over the city! Again!"
Morgiana frowned, thoughtful. "We must have been chasing the familiar Judal was after instead."
Hakuryuu's shoulders sagged. Of course there were bigger issues than his own pride. He tucked the grief seed away and shoved his own feelings down with it. "Well then, we should try to formulate a better plan to hunt it. At this rate it'll turn into a witch, and then people will really be in danger."
They all nodded nodded, and Hakuryuu sat down at the table to plan alongside his friends.
"So is Titus still feeling under the weather?" Aladdin asked as Hakuryuu pulled out his notebook and made himself comfortable.
Alibaba waved a hand. "He was running around with us all evening until all of a sudden he felt really crappy and ran off. Is he okay?"
Hakuryuu blinked. He had, in all honesty, not even paid that much attention to Titus' absence. "I, uh. He wasn't even in class today, so I assume so."
Aladdin nodded and smiled brightly. "Well, hopefully he feels better soon! It's always nice to have more people here with us!"
Hakuryuu shrugged but forced himself to return the smile. "Of course."
On a map of the city, they marked off the areas and patterns the familiar had gone before. It was seemingly random- the errant zig-zagging of a drunkard or a madman running with no direction but the desperate notion of away, as though it knew it was pursued with utmost vigilance. They drew up plans to split ways, to try to head it off into confrontation. Hakuryuu held comments that perhaps they should enlist Judal's assistance. It wasn't like they had any way to contact him anyway.
In the end, Hakuryuu paired off with Alibaba, and Aladdin with Morg. Hakuryuu walked quietly, leading the way so that they didn't have a repeat of the other day with Alibaba sending them on a wild goose chase. Not that Alibaba seemed to mind. He smiled at Hakuryuu as they walked along, humming a happy little tune.
"The familiar seems stationary today at least," Hakuryuu said.
Alibaba laughed. "Or you're just a better navigator than me! That's possible too." He elbowed Hakuryuu and leaned in close. "Just what's your secret, anyway?"
Hakuryuu felt his smile and his pride return somewhat. "Who knows? Maybe I'm just naturally gifted at hunting witches."
Alibaba sighed dramatically and laughed. "Well, I'll just have to work even harder to catch up! I'm the plucky underdog now."
"Can you really be the underdog if you've been at it for longer than I have?" Hakuryuu elbowed Alibaba back. Alibaba stuck his tongue out at at Hakuryuu and the two shoved and slapped at each other.
"Hey what?" Hakuryuu asked playfully.
Clouds swallowed up the warm sun on their backs as Alibaba sputtered and sulked. The soul gem guided their way, a single pulsing path through the city. Hakuryuu led them a bit north of the direct route, glancing between the stone and the sky as they walked.
"Worried about rain?" Alibaba guessed.
Hakuryuu shook his head. "More wondering why it's gotten so still."
Alibaba grew solemn, frowning and touching the earring with his own soul gem. "Maybe it finally turned into a witch."
Hakuryuu nodded. The answer seemed as certain as the grey sky above. They circled around a little further, back and forth to try and and get the best idea of its location they could.
"Aladdin texted," Alibaba said, glancing at his phone. "He and Morgiana are gonna head in. They think it's in a park."
Hakuryuuu tsked. A park could be a devastating place for a witch to prey on humans. "We should move in as well. We need to act quickly."
The two strode off at a brisk pace- not running, because it might arouse suspicion of passerby or spook the familiar if it hadn't quite turned into a witch yet- but enough that they hit the the park in good time. The air grew thick with malevolence as they drew close, the sickening, choking power of the familiar overpowering everything else as it spidered out and into all the hearts it could reach. Around them, people with no idea of the danger growing in the park snapped at each other and scowled at passerby. Hakuryuu and Alibaba pushed on, their urgency only furthered by the weight in the air.
Aladdin and Morgiana were already there when they arrived, and with them was Titus, sitting on the swingset.
Alibaba's face lit up. "Ah! Titus, you made it!"
Titus startled, looking up at them with eyes like bright blue dinner plates. Hakuryuu found himself reminded of the look in a rabbit's eyes right before it gets snatched up by a fox.
"You're-" Titus started, shaking his head. "You shouldn't be here. It's not…. I have to go."
Aladdin's brow furrowed and he stepped closer, holding his hands out to Titus. "Titus? What's wrong? If it's about the witch, we know it's close. Having you here should hel-"
"No!" Titus yelled, standing abruptly. The chain of the swing rattled violently, and the power in the air pulsed horribly. "I- I shouldn't be here. You shouldn't be here!" He whimpered a little, stepping back away from Aladdin. "Scheherazade said I wouldn't last long, and she was right! I was an idiot to come here, but I thought you all were the same as me…"
Hakuryuu hissed in a breath and slowly circled around to the other side of the swingset. "Titus…" he asked slowly. "Where did you come from?"
Titus yelped and turned around to face Hakuryuu, his eyes darting between Hakuryuu and Aladdin. "I… I'm sorry. I never meant to. I didn't want to hurt anyone, I was never meant to last this long. She made me to…"
Hakuryuu tried to shout and warn his friends, but it was a moment too late. The ground shifted and gave way, and they were all falling apart as the playground faded away. Magic crystallized in the air, and Titus gave a horrible, gut wrenching sob as the magic that made up his human disguise ripped apart and his witch self broke free like a horrible butterfly.
Hakuryuu and the others hit solid ground hard, everything around them still a dizzy cacophony of half-formed thoughts- a grassy plain, archways of a far off place, and then, finally, the labyrinth took on the solid shape of a massive colosseum, and above them in the grandstand was the witch. Hakuryuu didn't dare call it Titus. Not any more. Now was not the time to let sentimentality blind himself to what was in front of him.
He drew his weapon from his soul gem, calling on all his magic to take on the vestments of a puer, and he moved into position to strike.
"No!" Aladdin shouted. "Don't attack him yet! There must be something else going on!"
Hakuryuu looked back at Aladdin like he was mad. "We can't give him time to strike. Now's our chance before he can summon up any big attacks!"
Aladdin shook his head again, but before he could argue, a bolt of thunderous magical force blasted up from the ground below. They jumped apart, scattering over the loose dirt floor of the battlefield. Another attack, and then another, all of them twisted masses of many magics stitched together with madman's grace, all forcing the party to scramble and dodge with no room to get closer to the golden witch that wailed and cried fat tears like crystal grapes.
The four of them were herded together against one of the colosseum's tunnels, and at their backs they could feel the distortion of the labyrinth's exit. Hakuryuu glanced at the others, stepping slightly in front. "Get out," he whispered. "I'll hold him back while you escape and try to find a way to fix this. If you really think this is something you can stop, then find a way."
Morgiana shook her head. "I'm not leaving you." She stepped forward, her own soul gem at the ready. "Either we fight or we run, I'm not leaving this up to just you."
Aladdin just stared at the witch readied another attack- this one greater and and more terrible than the ones before.
Morgiana grunted and deepened her stance. "Looks like we won't have a choice."
The witch let out a terrible noise, and the magic surged forth like a storm made weapon, the world cartwheeling stars around tears around a horrible urge to destroy that hurtled towards them at a speed they couldn't brace for, couldn't dodge-
"So this is where you've been hiding."
The attack crashed against a ringing of black birds like silence, and Judal stepped into the Colosseum like a champion entering the ring. He sauntered past, shoving Aladdin aside and parting Hakuryuu and Morgiana like a curtain to size himself up against the witch Titus had become. His dark hair whipped in the currents of magic as the witch wailed and tore at its hair, rage and melancholy consuming its beauty with a terrible force. In his dark puer's garb, he looked every inch the avenging star.
"Heh," he said with a little smirk, pointing his spear at the witch. "That was a pretty slick little trick. Taking on human form, pretending like you were one of us… To think she'd have enough juice left to make somethin' like you after the number I did on her. Gotta hand it to you, Familiar, you had us all pretty convinced!"
"Judal-" Aladdin tried, reaching for his hand. "Don't- Titus-"
"Can it, shorty!" Judal jerked his hand away from Aladdin's touch. "Don't you get it? There wasn't ever a 'Titus.' he's just some thing a witch made to keep eatin' people. And this thing's given me the run around long enough." Judal bolted off before Aladdin could argue further.
What happened next for Hakuryuu seemed to have very little to do with Titus, because he saw a different danger that was about to happen. Morgiana sprang after Judal, faster, her eyes hard, and time seemed to slow as Hakuryuu realized what could happen in the next few moments. His teammates were blinded by misplaced empathy, the witch was ruthless, and Judal was here, hunting, ready to strike at the only foe he saw. Hakuryuu turned, calling plants from the ground to snatch Morgiana before she could strike at the soul gem embedded in Judal's throat to try and buy them more time. He swivelled around and called a wall of earth and vines between himself and his other two teammates. He wasn't watching when the witch gave its death cry under Judal's strike. It was easier that way.
It was all so fast.
It all seemed to go on for so long.
The magic broke apart, leaving them in twilight in the park. Hakuryuu let his own magic drop and fall apart, because the real world was no place for such foolishness. Morgiana fell to the ground gasping, and Aladdin sunk to his knees as what had just happened sunk in. Hakuryuu felt a spike of pity for him. What was it like to be someone who fell into friendship and trust so easily that you'd mourn a betrayal this swift? Hakuryuu couldn't imagine.
Judal stode over to the swingset and picked up the grief seed, turning it over in his fingers. And then he laughed, breaking the somber silence. He doubled over, crouching down to the ground, wiping tears from his eyes. Everyone stared- Aladdin and Alibaba with a mix of horror and disgust, Morgiana with unreadable grimness, and Hakuryuu… Hakuryuu couldn't place what he felt in that moment.
"How could you be laughing at a time like this?" Alibaba croaked. "How could you laugh about someone, no not just someone, Titus becoming a monster like that?" Judal laughed even louder at Alibaba's words, throwing his head back. Alibaba's face went red, and his tears welled harder. "Stop that! You're disgusting!"
"Well it's obvious, isn't it?" Judal gasped through laughs, wiping a tear from his eye. "It's because of the stupid looks on all your faces! It's your own faults for not being able to see what he was!"
Alibaba bristled, ready to yell again, but Judal clambering to his feet made him jump and stop in his tracks.
"Haaaa…" Judal shook his head, giving a sigh and a final little chuckle. "Where did you all think witches came from? Mars? The Negaverse? Your little buddy Titus was a witch's familiar, broken free of his labyrinth and playing at being a real boy. It was a pretty smart trick; no wonder I couldn't track him down." Hakuryuu watched as Judal raked a hand through his dark bangs. No one else dared interrupt or say a word. "I wonder how many people he killed before-"
Morgiana was on him in a flash, kicking Judal so hard he was sent flying across the empty playground and into the metal jungle gym. He made a horrible cracking noise when he struck it, and his body slid down in a red smear. Morgiana's face was hard, her eyes and nose ruddy with tears.
"Don't speak about him like that," she growled. "Don't you dare speak of him at all. You didn't know him. He was a kind person. He just wanted to know the world!" She glared at Judal's slowly stirring form. "Don't you dare talk like you know him!"
Judal laughed again, slowly lifting his head. "Haah… well. Usually takes about four or five cursed humans to turn a familiar into a full blown witch…" He braced his hand against the bent play structure, pulling his body up like a clumsy marionette. He staggered slightly once to his feet, but regained his balance.
"Give us his grief seed," Morgiana demanded.
Judal laughed at her. "Why?"
"Because if you don't, I'll beat it out of you."
Aladdin stood, going to her side. "Morg, don't."
Judal's grin fell away as he stared at the two of them. "You really shouldn't waste a perfectly good grief seed on sentimentality. But whatever. You brats are young, you're grieving, just coming to terms with your own foolish, impotent place in the world as your feeble little minds piece together where you fall in the greater life cycle of witches." He chucked the grief seed at them. "Whatever. I don't really give a shit." He made a rude gesture and turned away, starting off towards the edge of the lot. "You won't see me again, probably. I was here to hunt that familiar, nothing more, nothing less."
They watched as Judal strode away and jumped up onto the top of the fence separating the park from the rest of the surrounding area. He barely made a sound.
Hakuryuu's heart hammered in his chest as he watched the darkness of Judal's form perched on that fence, like a psychopomp about to pass from one world to the next. Like he was about to disappear from his life forever. This foolish, cruel man who said they were alike. Judal lept from the fence, and Hakuryuu tore after him.
"Where do witches come from," Hakuryuu said, cutting off Judal's path.
The two of them stood atop a tall building at the edge of town. The sun was just beginning to set in the west, and the last of its warm light did nothing to warm the cold dread in Hakuryuu's bones. Judal's long braid swayed in the breeze, and he laughed a little.
"You really are following me, aren't you? Didn't know I'd ever get a fan."
"Where do witches come from, Judal," Hakuryuu repeated. "I have a guess, but I know that you know the answer for certain. Answer me. I don't like playing games when I don't know all the rules."
"Well then you picked the wrong game to play, my man."
Hakuryuu didn't let the bitter sharpness of Judal's voice stop him. He stared at Judal with as much levelness as he could, waiting. Judal didn't meet his gaze. Even when he looked towards him, it was never at his face- always just over his shoulder or down at his shoes or at the tip of the spear pointed at his personage. Finally, Hakuryuu realized Judal wasn't going to talk.
"I think…" he started slowly, "I think that witches are somehow related to Magi. That there's something that happens that turns Magi into witches. Maybe when they're slain in bat-"
"It's the soul gems," Judal interrupted. He flourished a hand to reveal his own soul gem- already dirtied once more. "The soul gem is the seed from which witches grow. Once your heart and your soul gem are all nice and blackened from battle and sorrow and, hell, from just plain old living- it bursts free as a grief seed, and the Puer or Puella it belongs to turns into a witch. The whole game is rigged. Kyuubey makes humans into Magi to fight witches and make him more grief seeds, and eventually the Magi become witches themselves. And that is the beautiful butterfly water cycle you and all your little buddies are now part of."
Judal turned and walked to the opposite edge of building to stare into the sunrise.
"It doesn't matter if you try to run away from the life either- that little rat Kyuubey will find you, or you'll draw witches to you, or your gem will just slowly blacken because this whole world is rotten to its fucking core and there's no escaping the hatred and grief of a human life! The only way to live is to fight, and to keep fighting, until there's nothing left of you to fight anymore."
Hakuryuu found himself astounded at how tight and small Judal's shoulders could draw themselves. How long had he been at this? How old had he been when he had contracted with Kyuubey? He found himself thinking of mythology, of boy gods eternally young and foolish and terrible and cruel and lonely, and he saw the distance between Judal and the rest of the world
Hakuryuu embraced him. He didn't know what else to do. Judal did not shrink in his arms, or collapse into the embrace, or even fight against it. He just stood there, stock still. It fell on Hakuryuu to lean forward, to bury his face in Judal's hair, to breathe in his scent and feel his realness as he tightened the hug. This strange world always seemed to fractalize when he was with Judal, the pieces of his wish splintering into sections, and all of what was true and real focusing down to just them, just this moment of the warmth of Judal's body or the sound of their voices or the prickle of their power in the silence between them.
"That's what you meant when you said we were the same, and that most people are throwing their lives away for nothing." It felt like a stupidly simple response, but maybe simple was what Judal needed. "We're people who had nothing. We were already alone and adrift. Maybe we still are."
Hakuryuu dropped one hand from the hug and slipped Judal's soul gem from his clenched fist. He still had the grief seed from the other night- the grief seed from the witch he and Judal had conquered together. Hakuryuu slipped Judal's soul gem into his pocket to tap the two together, and when he pulled it out again it was bright and clean. Judal glanced down as Hakuryuu nudged the soul gem back into his hand, and Judal gave a surprised little laugh.
"You're too good to me," he said. "Too, too good."
"Someone has to be," Hakuryuu replied. "You'd tear yourself apart at the seams, otherwise."
Judal turned back to face the horizon again, mirth draining all too swiftly from his face. "I wonder how much longer I have before I become a witch," He murmured to the dawn. "It seems my soul gem turns black faster and faster each time."
"That was my last grief seed," Hakuryuu whispered.
Judal shrugged. "We'll find some. Though that familiar… he got me thinking. If a familiar can have human thoughts, what's to say a witch couldn't keep some? Are they still watching from the inside? Could they learn to control their actions?" He glanced over his shoulder at Hakuryuu, his smile back to guard his lips and heart from pain. "Just imagine- a witch that eats other witches! Cutting a swathe of destruction across the land, unmaking any Magi or witch in their wake!"
Hakuryuu bit his lip as he stared into the wideness of Judal's eyes. They were filled with a terror and exhilaration not unlike the thrill of death or battle, and Hakuryuu felt their fervor deep within his own gut. Judal twisted in the embracing, pulling away enough so he could face Hakuryuu enough to clasp his hands tight on Hakuryuu's shoulders.
"Just imagine," Judal's lips said, but Hakuryuu didn't need their missive. His mind was already full of the whirl of destruction, of a witch as potent as Judal's own maddened battle lust- nay, of a witch strong enough to surpass him. What horrors and hurts would his labyrinth contain? What fragments of this strange boy who danced in the moonlight and lived nowhere would be left when his grief truly consumed all kindness within him? Hakuryuu swallowed tightly and shut his eyes, and he saw a world wrought by a madman's hand. Somewhere full of heroes and storybook heights and the sad, broken feeling of lonesomeness, of roving, of never knowing a place where you belonged because you were a stranger in your own skin. In your own life. "Imagine it, Hakuryuu."
Hakuryuu put a gentle hand over Judal's heart and opened his eyes, staring up at him. "I can. I did." He forced on a wry smirk, and he could see where Judal found protection in it. "You'd be awfully lonely if you were a witch, Judal. And I couldn't just let you rampage across the world unchecked."
Judal's face did a strange thing that Hakuryuu couldn't quite place. "Oh? So you'd stop me?"
Hakuryuu shook his head a little. "If you're so intent on being a benevolent witch, why would I do that? Maybe I'd just follow along. Keep you in balance. Or failing that… I could at least be the bait you chased that would lead you to your next prey."
Judal was smiling now. "Oh, so you think I'd chase you to the ends of the earth?"
Judal examined Hakuryuu through sharp, narrowed eyes. Hakuryuu stared back with equal confidence, unwilling to back down or see himself beaten. And then Judal broke their gaze, looking away with a laugh and running a hand through his hair.
"Well, I don't intend on turning witch before I have to. Seems boring. Then how would I eat peaches? Or bother other Magi?" He laughed. "Well, maybe I'd still be able to do that last one." Hakuryuu watched Judal adjust the ring with his soul gem as he paced away once more. "Anyway this has been a fun 'educate the new kid' time, but I'm leaving now. Like I said before, I won't bother you again."
Hakuryuu watched Judal step off the edge of the building and swoosh off on a burst of magical energy with a sigh. He turned away from the sunset, to the town where he'd grown. He watched as the last light of day bathed those familiar streets in warmth and life, knowing that for everyone there that this had been just another day.
"I can take that grief seed off your hands now," came an eerie, childlike voice.
Hakuryuu looked down to see Kyuubey sitting beside him. He frowned. "You've been scarce lately." Kyuubey didn't respond, instead electing to clean himself. "Have you been avoiding Judal?"
"I'm sure when he finally becomes a witch, he'll be one of the strongest we've had in awhile," Kyuubey said, not pausing in grooming his paw. "A witch like that would probably do much to fight the entropy of the world once it was broken down into a grief seed."
Hakuryuu scowled, feeling his heart harden with resolve. He pulled the spent grief seed from his pocket and chucked it at Kyuubey, and Kyuubey caught it with ease. "Don't talk about Judal like that."
Kyuubey shrugged. "Very well. Shall I leave you be?"
Hakuryuu glared at Kyuubey, and the bright white creature bounced off to leave Hakuryuu to his thoughts. So it was true. Not surprising. Hakuryuu sighed, looking over the town one last time.
"Alibaba… Aladdin… Morgiana…" He shook his head. "No. To my brothers and sister as well. I have chosen another path. This…" he gripped his fists tight, invoking the power of his soul gem. "This is goodbye. Forgive me." Hakuryuu turned on his heel, feet pounding against the concrete before he leapt from the edge of the building in the pursuit of the tainted Puer Magi who was rapidly vanishing into the setting sun.