Author's Note: Whoa. I'm SUPER sorry this took SO long, but the time went by really fast, didn't it?

I apologize again. I had such a hard time coming up with the last 2-3 pages. I felt trapped. I knew for a long time where I wanted to go and how it would end, but after a while, I no longer knew how to get there. I wrote and rewrote and edited and omitted so many things that I cannot even remember how this chapter started out, but the end result is pretty good.

Anyway, with no more delay, here's the next installment, so, please. . .do enjoy :)

The end is near!

Part 23: Our Time is Now

"I've returned, your highnesses," came a small voice.

Meling jumped, startled by the sound. She gasped when she saw the sin. The girl was covered in blood and she dragged a body by the hair with ease. Her small, fragile frame made her look quite weak, but this little girl was strong; stronger than most, if not all, of the Royal Guard.

There was a dark glint in her eye as she looked to her masters, utterly happy and awaiting their praise like a puppy waiting for its treat after a trick. Her usual shyness was completely gone and her usual pale skin was replaced with a glow that looked sinfully divine.

"Oh," Persephone said with a sweet smile on her face, "darling."

"I brought you something," the girl said excitedly.

"What a sweetheart, you are, Avida," Persephone said. She beckoned the girl over who quickly let go of her captive's hair and rushed into the open arms of her queen.

Persephone ran her hand over the girl's hair and then patted her head.

"Show us your gift, child," Hades said as he silently stepped forward.

Avida nodded excitedly, looking up at him with a wide smile. "Yes, my lord," she said. She ran to her captive and knelt down. She grabbed a chunk of hair and then proceeded to drag the limp body towards her king and queen. She let the body fall at their feet and then she looked up at them, gleefully.

If she were a dog, her tail would be waging.

"Oh, my," Persephone said as she neared the body. She was pleasantly surprised by the face she saw.

"Oh, my indeed," Hades said as he walked carefully around their prisoner. He looked pleased as well, which further excited the child.

"What a splendid turn of events!" he exclaimed, clapping his hands in excitement.

"It looks as though you will not be needed, my dear!" Persephone exclaimed as she turned to Meling and smiled.

Meling, who had been removed from her cage, on Queen Nadeshiko's order, tried to peek at the face of the person who lay limp at the feet of the Underworld Lords.

"Don't be shy," came a deep, cold voice. Meling turned, startled by the voice she had come to know well. She looked at the hunched, hooded figure as he moved into the dim light. "Go on and see." He motioned his hand at the limp body.

A cold shiver crawled up Meiling's back. It made her cringe, but she found her feet moving closer and closer to the unconscious person. Were they still alive? She wondered who it was. Which one of her friends could it be? Which one of the royal guard had been caught? Or maybe it would be one of the castle workers.

Her heart pounded in her ears and at the same time she could hear the blood rushing through her veins. She inched closer and closer, her panic growing more and more with every hesitant step and then she saw it, she saw the face of the person who lay tattered and beaten. She took a quick breath in and held it. She was struck with a terror and shock and an agony so powerful that it consumed her entire being.

Her hand covered her open mouth as her eyes scanned the tattered body of Sakura. She fell to her knees and reached out to touch her, but hesitated. Her hands shook from her emotions.

She took in the sight of her: the blood all over her body, her swollen eye and her cut lips, the long, deep cuts on her arms and legs. The flesh on her neck was torn and looked as though something had broken through the skin with its teeth. Her clothes were bloodied and shredded.

What happened?

"S. . .Sakura. . ." Her tears rolled down her face as she held her shaking hands over Sakura's body. "W-what. . .?"

"She struggled a lot," the child said. She licked her lips and that glint appeared again. "But she was fun."

She paused for a moment and then turned her full attention to Meling and smiled wickedly. "And tasty." Her smiled widened and the girl showed off her teeth, sharp, lethal, and stained with Sakura's blood.

"It appears," Darco's voice drifted from the shadows, "that our time is now."

Meling looked up as the hooded man stepped into the dim light once again. Something in his hood glowed red, sending a panic through her heart. She froze with fear as the Lords of the Underworld inched towards her.

"Don't you fret, dear girl," Persephone said. The smirk on her face was mischievous and malicious.

From behind her a boney hand crept on Meling's shoulder and she screamed.

The Crimson Knight felt the sweat on his brow. How was it that this creature was not as tired as he? The thing barely looked worn and its eyes were hidden by a single long rag yet he was able to move and strike with remarkable precision. It floored the knight, but he was not going to let this distract him.

Ira struck and at that very moment something in the Crimson Knight screamed that something was wrong. Something had to have happened. A picture of the Silver Knight flashed in his mind and without thinking he turned around to see the youngest of the Royal Knights laying, unmoving on the floor, about twenty feet away.

A flash of white blinded him and then he felt the pain in the back of his head. He had left a clear opening for his attacker. Foolish, would be an understatement.

It was suicide.

He turned, but the movement was too quick. His world spun and then with no warning he took another hit. This time it was to the face. The blow was so hard that it almost knocked his helmet off.

The Crimson Knight staggered back, willing himself to see straight. He lifted his sword in time to block the sin from striking him a third time, but there was not enough strength behind his block and the force of the blow knocked him to the floor. His head spun and he barely had enough time to think of Ritsumei at the moment. He had to keep fighting.

He had to. . .

He struggled to his feet and looked up at the wrathful sin. He removed his helmet and threw it to the side. "Not many of my opponents get to see my face in battle and live to tell about it." He paused for a moment as he stood, his knees ached, but he forced himself to stand up straight through the pain. "You should feel honored."

"Oh, please."

"You will die at my sword, beast," Crimson said, his voice strong in its conviction. He raised his sword just as Ira raced toward him. The Crimson Knight was quicker than even he himself had anticipated. He rammed the sword through Ira's abdomen and when he heard the sin's body connect with the hilt of his sword, he turned it as hard and fast as he could. Black blood spilled from the sin's mouth onto the crimson plated armor.

"It's. . .its not o…ver. . .knight. . ." he said as blood fell in globs from his mouth.

"Yes, it is," Crimson said as he slowly lifted his sword up. The sin tried to hold in his screams, but to no avail.

The Crimson Knight leaned in close and whispered in the sin's ear. "Your friend murdered my brother." He paused and leaned back to look into the face of his kill. "You shall suffer the same fate as he and your fallen brethren."

He lifted his sword a little more and the sin screamed out. He grabbed onto the Crimson's shoulder and leaned his head forward, motionless.

The Crimson Knight paused for a few seconds and then suddenly the hand on his shoulder crushed the armor and he could feel the searing hot flesh on his own and he wailed. The sin lifted his head and opened its mouth and unhinged its jaw, his bloody teeth jutted out of his mouth, sharp and deadly, but the Crimson Knight was fast. He raised his sword and made a clean cut from Ira's abdomen to his head. For a moment the sin stood there, mouth open, in an unmoving state and then the blood appeared making a line from head to abdomen and slowly the sin's upper body broke in two and the lifeless body fell limp.

Its arm was still attached to the Crimson Knight's shoulder, so he cut it and the creature fell to the ground. A pool a blood quickly formed at the Crimson Knight's feet. He watched for a moment before he remembered the hand on his shoulder. He grabbed the decaying hand and tore the nails out of his flesh, grunting and wincing from the pain. He threw the hand away and went to his brother, pushing aside or slashing at anything in his way. He looked around for a moment. Beasts and creatures as well as his comrades lay on the floor. Some withering or thrashing in pain, others already dead and among them he saw him. The Silver Knight lay motionless, trying to make his way to the prince. The Crimson Knight knelt at his side. He touched the young knight's head.

"I'm proud of you," he began, "little brother." He breathed in deep, holding back his tears. "You did well." He leaned forward and kissed the young knight's head. "Now you rest."

As the war waged around him, it was then that he recalled the memory of his teacher, the previous Crimson Knight.

"You'll know in your heart that this is the right thing, when and if that time comes."

The chest, he remembered. He needed to open it now. He knew that within that chest lay a weapon that would change everything. This is what his mentor had told him about long ago. He felt it in his bones and the key around his neck seemed to burn into his chest. This was it.

He stood and looked to his brother. "When I return," he promised, "this war will shift in our favor. Nothing will be in vain." He paused. "Your death will not be in vain."

Ignoring his pain and the growing fatigue, the Crimson Knight sped past enemy after enemy after friend after friend, slaying all creatures that crossed his path. Nothing was going to delay him as he recalled the words of his teacher as he took the key into his hand: "Keep it with you at all times and use it only unless you know."

"Yukito!" It was too late by the time Touya saw him. The lacerations on his neck did not even seem to faze him anymore. The blood bathed his chest and right shoulder, but he fought on despite the fact that his loss of blood was taking its toll on his body. He stepped towards Yukito's body, but paused for a moment when his vision fogged. He staggered and stopped to take a breath.

He felt the rumbling beneath his feet and whirled around in time to save himself from the gluttonous sin. Touya's sword caught between the sin's teeth. Blood that looked almost black trickled from the cuts in his mouth, but the taste of his own blood sent him into frenzy. The sin's eyes grew wild as his stomach rumbled. Touya fought him, but his world was spinning and he found it harder and harder to stay strong.

He pictured Yukito and he struggled for more strength. He had to get to him. He had to make sure he was still . . . still breathing.

Edacitas moved his tongue over the blade. Blood trickled down the sword within seconds. The hungry sin pushed, but Touya was not ready to give up. He staggered. It was only for a second, but it was enough. Edacitus was on Touya, pinning the young prince to the floor. Touya held him off as best he could, but the sin was stronger. Touya's strength was weakening and pretty soon the sin's long tongue was lapping up the blood from Touya's neck.

Touya winced. He needed to get to Yukito. He had to.

Fight, he told himself. Fight. Fight!

And then suddenly there was explosion in the middle of the room, men and creatures alike were blown away and screams erupted. Touya's ears buzzed he looked around at the rubble and the bodies that lay around him. In the haze of debris and smoke, everything seemed to move in slow motion.

Touya struggled to sit up. He looked about for Yukito, but he could not find him. In a panic now, Touya did not notice that Edacitas looked up and waited with anticipation as the smoke began to clear. Touya made it to his feet and almost collapsed from the wave of dizziness that took a hold on him. He looked around for Yukito again, but could not see him.

"You better be alive, Yukito," he said through gritted teeth. "Or so help me, I'll. . ." His voice faded when he realized the smoke was clearing. He could see the people still left standing: the sins, his men, and those of the Northern Kingdom.

"How rude!"

Touya turned to the middle of the room where the woman's voice had come. The smoke settled slowly, but he could make out four figures in the haze.

"No greeting?" a man asked. "Tsk, tsk, tsk." He shook his head.

"And I always thought humans were quite hospitable," the woman said.

A little girl peeked out from behind the woman's leg and then a man in a hood stepped forward. There was something in his hand and Touya could hear the light scrapping on the floor as the man dragged whatever it was along. He tossed it then, but Touya could hardly tell what it was through the smoke. One person whimpered and as the smoke settled a little more, Touya could make out a face, one that he recognized.

It was Meling.

Touya was unaware of her capture.

As though sensing Touya's eyes on Meling, the small child among them quickly moved and clung possessively to her. There was a glow about her, the girl, that Touya found unsettling.

He turned his attention to the lump the man had tossed then and with curious and impatient eyes he waited for the debris and smoke to clear just a little more. Could it be another person who had been captured in all the chaos?

"Who. . .?"

"Sakura!" Touya turned to the young Northern Prince. He moved quickly to the body on the floor, but was stopped by Decus, the leader of the sins. Syaoran tried desperately to escape, but the sin was much stronger.

Touya shook his head. No, he thought. He's wrong.

His head spun. That can't be her, he said to himself. It just cannot be her.

He could feel his head lilting. He tried to shake it off, but it only made it worse. He groaned."No," he repeated, unaware that he had spoken the word.

This was not happening. It was a horrible dream. He closed his eyes, dizzy from blood loss, but convinced that when he opened his eyes Yukito would still be fighting and Sakura would be safe. He prayed for it, but in his heart he felt the sickening dread take hold.

The Crimson Knight made his way into the room. It was not the greatest of hiding places, but often times the best hiding place is in plain sight. No one would think suspiciously of a golden chest in a woman's room.

He inched closer and closer, reaching for the key around his neck. He did not want to make his presence known to any enemies that could be lying in wait. He had already come across a few in the halls on his way to Lady Tomoyo's room. He could still taste the blood of the last creature he took down.

He removed the chain from around his neck and carefully put the key into the chest and twisted it slowly until he heard the small click.

He took in a deep breath and slowly, cautiously opened the chest. Something shimmered and then he pulled the lid back and peered into the chest.

A knife.

To say that he was disappointed would have been an understatement. He was confused and perplexed and angry. This was the thing that could possibly turn the war in their favor? A mere knife?

"I do not appreciate this joke, Sensei," he said softly as he shook his head.

The knife seemed to shimmer in response and with a sigh the Crimson Knight bent slightly to look at it. He could see something on the knife. He lifted it out of the chest and upon a closer examination, he could see that there were metal words etched into the metal.

His forehead creased, confused by the words he read: "To use the sword, is to be the sword."

He thought for a moment. "Hmm," he said after a short pause as he turned the knife in his hand. He examined the other side of the work, admiring the handiwork. For a knife, it was well made. The maker was a careful and detailed man.

The blade and its handle were unscathed. This knife had never seen battle or even any of the day-to-day chores.

Something on the blade caught his eye and he brought it closer to examine it. This side had more words on it. He read them aloud: "Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Fortitude, Charity, Hope, Faith."

He tried to recall anything the previous Crimson Knight had said. Had he ever said any of these words in passing that could have held any meaning for this?

He could not remember, but he was sure this was important, He had to believe that these words were important, that they served some purpose. Otherwise, what did all his training and the protection of the key amount to?

This knife was also their last hope.

Hades stepped forward. He frowned when he caught sight of Fujitaka.

"Fujitaka, my dear man," he said as he took another step forward. "You've looked better." He eyes the Southern King's bloodied clothes.

Fujitaka did not skip a beat. He stayed calm and spoke with clarity. "Yes, well," he began, "in times of war sometimes a king must also fight."

He gave Hades a once over, taking in the man's clean royal garb and his long golden cloak. "Well, not all kings," he said. "Some do not have the stomach for it."

Hades' eyes narrowed. Before he could retort, Persephone put a gentle hand on his arm. When he turned to look at her, she smiled and the man turned to look at the others in front of him again, his face still angry, but calm.

"We're returning your daughter," the woman said, motioning to Sakura on the floor. Her face was sorrowful. "One of our sin's was overzealous." She turned to the girl and wagged a chiding finger at her. The girl moved behind Meling, her eyes peaked over Meling's arm at her queen and she caught the wink before Persephone turned her attention to the humans once more. The girl smiled, delighted.

"Returning her," Fujitaka repeated. He kept his eyes on Persephone and Hades. He could not look at his daughter. He knew that whatever defiance he felt would dissipate as soon as his eyes fell on his daughter.

The Underworld queen nodded.

He knew there was more. They could not possibly want to return Sakura to him, but would he be able to take her in his arms before they tried anything?

"We could hold on to her, if you'd prefer," Persephone said.

There was a panic in Fujitaka that showed in his eyes and Hades relished it. "She was a delight, really," he said. "So quiet." He stared into Fujitaka's eyes, daring him to make a move.

"No!" Syaoran shouted.

Everyone turned to the boy, who seemed to be buzzing. Decus held on to him, but the confusion in his eyes began to register. He looked to Hades for answers, but his king said nothing. He simply smiled.

"And so it begins," Darco said as he stepped forward.

Fujitaka looked at the hooded man and though he could not see a face, he was sure that behind that hood there lay a sinister smile and it made the hairs on his arm stand on end.

There was a rumbling underneath his feet and Touya was certain that he would collapse, but then he realized that he was not the only one who felt it and it continued.

What was happening? He saw his father and Underworld Lords and he knew they were speaking, but he could not fully hear or comprehend what they were saying. When he heard Sakura's name, he looked up. He wanted to move forward, to take his sister back and fight off these demons.

Why was his father just standing there? Why was he not reaching for Sakura? Why did he not acknowledge her?

His anger rose more and more with each passing thought, but before he could make a move, Syaoran had shouted and then shortly thereafter the ground beneath him began to quake.

He remembered something then, something Shiehu said before she passed: ". . .help him awaken his powers. With his awakened it will trigger Sakura's and then with their powers combined, this war may come to an end."

But there was something unsettling about this whole thing. He did not feel right about it. And did she not say that not even her seer saw any of this coming? So then how sure was she that this could have a positive outcome?

If Syaoran were to awaken and then trigger Sakura to awaken and the war ended, would anyone still be alive to claim victory?