Disclaimer: Blah blah blah blah-blah.

AN: ...So...as it turns out, I just can't let this fic go. I found some notes on this chapter while accidentally falling back into Fushigi Yuugi (and Hotohori/Miaka) fandom, and decided to give it another go. (This would have been done years ago, but the original draft was eaten by FFN when it first introduced timed documents. Sadly.)


The Universe of the Four Gods

Chapter Ten: Come Back Home

A headache. That's the first thing to come to Nuriko's mind. There's a pun in there somewhere, but the warrior had no sense of humor to spare at the moment. One moment they'd all been riding, and the next there'd been...darkness. Laughter, Nuriko recalled that laughter even more than the darkness, in fact. Now...a headache. The warrior groaned and stood, stumbling a few steps in the relative darkness (though it wasn't nearly as total as the darkness from earlier) of whatever cell Nuriko had woken up in. Still alive... Whatever else this creature or person wanted, it'd kept them all alive. That was something.

The soft sound of a silk clad foot tapped against stone, as a figure materialized from the gloom ahead, silhouette first, and then all at once revealed in dim light.

That's...!

"Liujuan." The figure, nearly an identical one to the warrior, smiled. Yet...not her smile. Not the smile that Nuriko remembered, the one the warrior so desperately clung to even now. This...this one was cold and cruel, a twisted reflection of the old smile, as if seen through a broken mirror. "I've been waiting for you."

o-o-o-o-o-o-o

"You're kidding me!" It wasn't that Yui didn't want to help Miaka, hardly that! It was just...her? Defeat something like this? She...didn't even have a weapon, what could she do to it?

The creature laughed. At least, that's what Yui assumed it did. The body language-such as a hulking golem like this could have-suggested laughter. The hissing rumble that came from it sounded nothing like any sort of laughter she'd heard before...but the way it lifted its head and shook its shoulders...it had to be laughing.

"Am I, friend of the Priestess? Will you test me? I hold the key to the life your friend in my hand. My conditions are my own to decide, and mine alone. Are you so willing to put that to the test?"

"I never said that!" Of course she wouldn't. After all...this person-these people-this thing, whatever it was that had her friend, had managed to kidnap Miaka right out from the middle of them...and she'd seen first-hand the sort of power it must possess. To be able to just...swipe people up from one place and drop them into nothingness elsewhere without warning? No...of course she couldn't risk Miaka's life on hoping they might not follow through on their threat. Especially if this was just a delaying tactic to keep them away from Miaka.

And yet...at the same time...what was she supposed to do? She wasn't one of Miaka's warriors, she didn't have special powers or even any weapons. She just...studied. Studying was the only thing she was really good at anyway. Miaka was the one creative (and a little bit crazy) enough to come up with an answer to a situation like this.

What would Miaka do now? ...Other than wait for her new personal body guards to come rescue her...

"Perhaps the situation isn't serious enough for you then?" It straightened, gaining almost a full terrifying foot in height. "Tell me, would you be more motivated to show your support for your dear friend should her fate be matched by that of the warrior called 'Tamahome'?"

"No!" She knew as soon as the outburst escaped her...that was the worst reaction she could have given.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o

"Your...your..."

His chestnut eyes, still hazy with the venom and blood loss widen slowly as he no doubt processes her words and gaze. Perhaps...perhaps it's best he doesn't look in the shape to try to look for himself. From where she is, now she can see the trail of hair that followed after the path he took to save her.

That carefully wound bun-what had mostly fallen out during the fight-it'd placed all of his hair in the right place. Or...or rather...in the worst. When he'd jumped for her, he must have...

What remained of the color in his cheeks faded, and for a few moments he simply stared down at her-well, not at her, really...in the shock, she didn't think he saw anything at all. Simply...felt the lack of weight of all of his long locks now that she'd pointed it out. In his rush to save her from falling-a dirty trick, when he'd succeeded in his mission!-he must have...must have missed one of those swinging blades just enough. His long, perfectly maintained hair...his beloved hair!

What have I done...?

"H-Hotohori..." Her vision began to blur with tears all over again, and she lifted a shaky hand to the remnants of his hair. Less than shoulder-length, and hopelessly crooked, now, if they made it even, he'd have about as much as Yui. And...all because...because she couldn't rescue herself? "I'm so-"

His hand clasped gently over her cheek, and he shook his head, offering a faint, sad smile. "A small price to pay. I would...pay any price...to see..." His voice weakened and broke, and with a sickening suddenness, his arms fell away from her, devoid of their usual strength.

"Ho-Hotohori!"

o-o-o-o-o-o-o

"Tch. You'll have to do better than this if you think you're going to stand a chance of surviving the day." The first 'trial' that stood before him...was nothing. Another empty room like the one he'd started in, except this one had golden ryos scattered all across the ground. Clearly, this was meant to be some sort of play on his 'greed'...but if this monster thought it would distract him with something so stupid and pointless after murdering Yui, going from room to room would be as simple as walking from one end of them to another.

Which was just fine with him: his goal wasn't the end of this course, his goal was getting his hands on the person at the end and tearing them apart.

As he began to take his first step, determination and fury burning brightly through his 'ogre' sign, the kidnapper had the audacity to laugh. "Oh, I don't think so. As thick as you are, I don't think you'll make it through the first room."

He growled in irritation and was about to respond-tempted to try attacking the walls again just to see if it might be hidden in one of those-when something caught his eye. Just the barest flicker, but...he gasped and froze, foot hovering barely an inch over where he'd meant to place it.

Directly on gold. All of the gold had been painted and scattered with dirt. The dirt, in the mean time, had been sprayed with some sort of golden paint. In his haste and anger, he'd almost missed it and walked right into the trap! Quickly, before he could lose his balance or be tripped, he shifted his stance and hopped to the nearest patch of golden-dirt instead. Of course...of course that was much more difficult than stepping on the 'dirt'. The patches were only the size of single ryo, after all. It took supreme balance to stay put without wavering into the clutter on the ground, and would take even greater calculations to ensure he could safely jump ahead to the next spot.

Damn! I almost...

"Ah, well...too soon spoke." The voice tutted. "No matter. You'll be given no more free tips. How do you suppose you'll make it through the next without an angel on your shoulder?" The voice cackled, and then faded once more to silence. Which was fine. He was in no mood to speak to it, and he had no doubt it was still watching him all the same, ensuring he played by its rules.

Trick foiled, of course, and with its hand shown, it would be no difficulty at all for him now. Nimble as he was, it wasn't as difficult as the voice obviously would have liked for him to cross the room now, hopping from tiny island of dirt to tiny island until he reached the door. Now that he knew the sort of tricks and tactics to look out for, he wouldn't be so easily tricked again.

I'm coming...please...if you're still there, Yui, please just hold out a little longer...

o-o-o-o-o-o-o

"No!"

The figure laughed, a wonderful, musical laugh of a child...completely wrong and out of place in the adult body it originated from, and reached out to touch their identical hair. "Oh, my dearest Liujuan, isn't this what it was all for? Everything you've ever done? The penance you serve, isn't it for me? Aren't you ready to finally be forgiven?"

Nuriko recoiled away from the touch, and slapped away the phantom hand. "You...you're not her. Whatever spirit you are, you're not her. Get away from me!"

The woman's expression melted to something grieved and compassionate, as she reached up to place cold hands over Nuriko's cheeks. "Do you really not recognize me...? After so long...have you truly forgotten?" Tears welled in her eyes, shining even in the darkness, and a thin trail of blood tracked down from painted lips to sculpted chin. Her voice softened to barely more than an echo as she spoke. "...Have I...become...not even a memory any longer? After what you did to me...how could you replace me and forget?"

No...no...that isn't it! Everything...it's to remember her, not to forget her. And-the real her would know that!

Wouldn't she?

The phantom dropped its head then, and began to softly weep. "...To be forgotten...is that...my fate after all, my dear Liujuan? To be replaced so easily and so quickly?"

It's a lie. It's all a lie. This isn't Kang-Lin!

A teardrop fell through the image of Kang-Lin, and the warrior pulled the image into as fierce an embrace as a phantom could ever allow.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o

It's pointless...

She gave a yelp of pain as she bounced across the invisible floor, knocked back by the force of the creature's counter-attack. No matter what I do...I can't even hurt it. I'm not strong enough, and I'm never going to be, no matter how hard I try.

The great hulking creature lashed out and struck her in her abdomen, kicking her further across the nothingness. Pain lanced across her arm as she rolled at an odd angle, and she screamed, frustration and helplessness mingling with the sharp ache of her torn muscle. How can I be so useless? I can't...even save the people I love. I can't even help. Maybe...maybe that's why Miaka has her Emperor and I...

Miaka always...

An abnormally thick hand gathered up a fistful of her dress, tearing the hem of her collar as it lifted her from the floor, and she felt herself lifted up off of the 'ground'...and brought up to the creature close enough finally to see the misshapen and twisted face of...of...

"N-Nuriko?"

o-o-o-o-o-o-o

For a few moments, he thought the challenge of the second room might actually be the darkness. Expecting him to traverse and avoid obstacles without any light to see those and a strict rule not to touch them? Yeah, that sounded like the same sort of dirty trick a person-a thing-like this would use.

He scoffed. With the rage and fighting spirit burning in him like this, though...the light emanating from him would be more than enough to light his path. He snarled in irritation and shook his head as he took a step forward and noted nothing in his path. Did it expect him to give up at the sight of darkness? To panic and do something stupid that would set off the trap itself? Then it seriously underestimated just how pissed off he was.

"That's two rooms! How many more of these are you going to waste my time with?" He felt sick with all of his bottled up rage and impatience. He shouldn't be doing tests and puzzles when Yui's life...when she might be...

A whimper broke the silence of the room behind him as he touched the far door, and light flooded the room.

"B-big...big brother..."

He froze, horror slowly filtering through the heady rush of fury and self-righteousness that flooded his mind up until that voice spoke. No...

Another, feminine voice spoke then, weak and soft. "Y-you...you came..."

It can't...

His hand dropped from the door, and he stared straight ahead, transfixed, terrified to turn around and see what this...monster prepared for him.

It can't be real...

Blood splashed across the walls and floor. His...his brothers...and his sisters...Jie-Lian held one tiny hand up to him, eyes pleading, and Chung-Jing attempted to crawl across the broken dirt of the floor...but...with so much blood lost, he'd never have that sort of strength.

He was halfway across the room toward the closest-Jie-Lian-before the words of the entity caught up with him.

Touch only the walls, floor, and doors

No...

"No...no! Not this!" He couldn't! He wouldn't be expected to turn and walk away! What if...what if they weren't...

If they were really...

A hissing laugh drowned out the soft pleading of his conscious siblings. "Oh, yes. They are so very real. And you can save them, if you choose. Take them...and you will be released with them. In exchange for the priestess and the emperor, go free!"

His hand shook, outstretched...just out of reach still of his youngest sister.

My family...my family...or...

He glanced over his shoulder toward the door, sitting just ajar now, promising the room ahead...to save Miaka, Hotohori, Nuriko, and...Yui...to revenge for everything this creature of a person had done, or...just one touch, and the door would close forever. He could never save them, and it all would have been in vain.

The kingdom's leader and it's hope...and...Yui...he'd be betraying it all. Or-or he'd betray his family. The reason he did all of this in the first place, the people he cared for, the people who mattered most to him.

"Of course..." The voice laughed. "Of course, I might be lying. They may simply be illusions! Take little Jie-Lian's hand, and you may damn your empire for nothing. Or, perhaps...her last memory will be of her dear older brother turning away from her for a person she's never met."

"You..." He grit his teeth, outstretched hand balling into a fist. "Don't you dare use her name!"

o-o-o-o-o-o-o

"Hotohori!"

He looked...he looked so frail...he looked so pale like this, so small and weak, and it was all her fault! This isn't-no, this isn't how it's supposed to be! It can't be like this!

She gripped his shoulder and shook him violently, desperately. "No! No, no, no! Please, Hotohori, please, you can't! You can't do this to me! You promised!"

Her final word erupted into a sob, and she fell over him, draping herself around him, willing her heat, her life, to somehow seep into him instead. It...it isn't right! It can't be! He's not supposed to sacrifice himself for me like this! I'm-I'm supposed to be the one saving him! "You can't die...you can't die, Hotohori..." She shook her head, words broken up between desperate sobs. "I'm supposed to...I'm supposed to summon Suzaku for you and-and-I can't choose the wishes! You have to help me! Please!"

A cool hand pressed to her cheek so lightly she almost didn't notice it. A surge of hope so strong her chest hurt rushed through her as she lifted her head-could he...could it have worked? Her willing and her hoping? His brown eyes were distant, almost unseeing now, but...still he smiled, so faint...so tender. "Mi...aka..."

She gasped and leaned forward, cutting off whatever else he had to say in a sudden kiss. There! There! He couldn't die! Not now, not like this! Not...not if she...kissed him. It didn't...fantasy stories...didn't work that way...

He tasted of blood and something acidic and tangy. It wasn't like him at all. It wasn't how she imagined the kiss was supposed to be. The hand on her cheek slipped gently to her hair, fingers simply...settling amongst the strands there, too weak to do any semblance of anything else. Through that horrible haze, she could see the warmth she thought...the warmth she thought he might reserve only for her still in those brown eyes of his.

When she spoke, it was only a whisper. "Hotohori...you can't...you have to...hold on...okay? I need you to hold on. I can't...you can't...t-try to make me your empress if you're not here."

His smile is so faint she might just be imagining it. "No...I suppose...I must be sure...to live to win your heart first..."

The smile she attempted to answer with broke down into another sob, but she nodded all the same. "R-right! B-because Yui's gonna have words with you if you think you can just...sweep me off and keep me without a fight. So you have to...you have to keep going."

He sighed softly in what she thought might be relief. "Then I...yes...must..."

He closed his eyes a moment, sighing once more, and...and...trailed off.

"H-Hotohori...?"

Her warrior did not stir.

"No! Hotohori, please!" She shook his shoulders once more, vision blurred with tears, voice crackling with her raw, painful sobs. "Please! Please, we'll find a Doctor, just stay with me! Please! Don't leave me!"

Nothing...nothing at all.

"Hotohori!"

o-o-o-o-o-o-o

"...You understand now?" Kang-Lin smiled, somehow an even further gulf from her usual smile now, even in her gentle hopefulness. "That is why this must happen. Because of that, I...I need you to help me with them. Please, my dearest Liujuan, help me now." She took a step backward then, and held up one perfectly shaped hand. "Take my hand, and we will set right the Priestess and those presumptuous enough to travel with her. It's justice, Liujuan. You know it in your heart."

Nuriko stared down at that slim hand, flickering just slightly in the gloom, warm as her hands ought to have been, naturally delicate and soft in a way so many tried their hardest simply to mimic. An invitation...an invitation to make things right, to atone for mistakes and honor Kang-Lin's memories.

...But not by betraying comrades and loved ones.

"...No. If you were my sister...Kang-Lin would never wish harm on anyone!"

Her smile vanished in an instant to a look of irritation. "How...irritating. Very well then, if you've made your choice..."

That outstretched hand lanced forward then, sharpening with its speed and shape, piercing flesh and bone with an ease that was so terribly foreign to the gentle hands of the true Kang-Lin. Gripping...

My...heart...!

"If you won't cooperate, then I will find you a better use, my dear Liujuan."

N-No!

o-o-o-o-o-o-o

This...this wasn't a choice. What sort of a monster would he be to turn his back on his family? To give in to the demands of something so vile as to do this? Damn his obligation to Suzaku, his country, his...he wouldn't turn away from his family. There'd be another way. He'd save them, and he'd find another way to help his friends. He'd never made any vows except to his family, anyway.

Decision made, he took another step toward his sister, growling in frustration and fury. When he found the person responsible for this...he'd kill them.

A moment before his hand touched the outstretched one of Jie-Lian, the memory of the creature's earlier words surged up to him. You must face your fears and travel through these rooms without touching anything.

He froze once more.

My...fears...that means...

Why go through this trouble to stop him, when anyone who did this much research would know they should be trying to stop the emperor, not him? But...maybe...

If this is an illusion...

He stumbled backward, closing his eyes and gripping his hands into fists. "You..."

"I think you should make your choice soon, warrior...I've almost grown bored, and that means time is running out. Decide, or I'll be forced to find entertainment with your friends..." The voice laughed again. "Although...I suppose you won't mind, will you? Given how easily you'll abandon them! very well then, I suppose I'll have to-"

He kicked through the wall the voice seemed to be emanating from. Or...into it, at least. The force of the blow only left an impact crater in the wall, rather than breaking through to the room beyond...or wherever that voice had to be coming from. He expected as much, really, though he had hoped it might get through...but at least the crash brought an end to the voice.

"Next time," he growled, as he turned toward the door once more, steeling himself with an internal mantra of they're not real, none of it is real, "I promise that'll be you."

o-o-o-o-o-o-o

"Nuriko?" It...couldn't be, could it? It's not...

...possible wasn't a word she should have been using while trapped in a magical book version of China. If she accepted the existence of magic and gods and fantastic worlds (she had to now, didn't she?) she didn't know what rules applied at all. Magical hulking transformations of incredibly strong and unpleasant allies were just as likely as suddenly getting dragged into a plane of darkness with a sense of gravity and a ground, weren't they?

For a few moments, she expected something from 'Nuriko', some sort of a boast or a sneer or...something. Instead, the 'Nuriko' simply stared up at her blankly, although...with the gloom of wherever they were, any subtlety of expression would have been lost to Yui anyway. When it-she-did speak, it was as if Yui had never spoken at all. "If you won't even try, then I don't have a reason to drag this on any longer. What a useless friend you are."

Useless...

She grit her teeth and closed her eyes, readying herself for...whatever would come next. Maybe...'Nuriko' was right. After all, why would it come down to her to defend Miaka, when her friend already had three (well, two now) super-powerful warriors to do it for her? And...one was an emperor of an entire country, who wanted to sweep her off and make her his empress. What could she provide, except that her need to go home had gotten Miaka captured in the first place?

Maybe...it would be best if...

Despite the strangeness of this place and her eyes being shut, she could still feel when the hulking Nuriko flung her, rather than do anything else. When she collided with the 'ground', she could almost feel tiles, and her impact echoed faintly. She groaned, and pressed a hand to her head to soothe the sudden ringing in it. Could this place...could I be in a room of some sort?

She reached out hesitantly with her other hand across the floor, wincing at the surge of pain when she twisted slightly and aggravated something bruised. If this is a room...then...there must be things in here. Walls...an exit...something!

The figure of Nuriko laughed once again, although...Yui thought it might have been to itself, rather than her. "So easy! All that fuss about 'other worlds', but you're nothing without Tamahome and His Majesty to protect you, are you? Neither of you are anything special at all." She was distracted attempting to be subtle about her searching, so she couldn't really look up at the figure of Nuriko, but she could hear the woman's voice getting louder, and just barely, she thought she could hear the scuffle of footsteps on stone. "Well...all the better for me. When the both of you are gone, I'll be the only one left to comfort Tama-baby and His Majesty!"

Come on...

The laughter of the woman loomed right over her now, she must have been preparing to strike, to use that monstrous strength of hers to end everything at once-or worse-but...there was something cool just brushing her finger tips...

If I can just reach...!

Her hand clasped around what felt like a fallen candle-stand of some sort just as another hand grabbed the hem of her dress and hauled her up off the ground. She didn't think-didn't really have time to-all that really mattered was that she had to stop this woman. Whatever happened to twist Nuriko's form-if in fact this wasn't just...some sort of natural thing Nuriko had been hiding all along-she couldn't just give up and let Miaka be hurt...or Tamahome...

Now! She swung her new-found weapon at the form of Nuriko, helped by the momentum of suddenly being lifted from the floor, and felt the impact reverberate through her own arm shortly before the woman cried out and let her fall to the ground. "I'll never let you!"

o-o-o-o-o-o-o

"Please...please...you can't-"

He hadn't answered her at all. He wouldn't. Nothing she did would get any sort of reaction out of him at all, no matter how hard she tried...and...his breathing was so shallow. He'd even stopped entirely once or twice now for a few moments. How much longer did he have? What could they do? In the middle of the wilderness, far away from any kind of doctors at all...and they couldn't even help Yui, could they do anything for Hotohori even if he were there?

Maybe...maybe...her world! Her world could save him, it had to, because someone had to save him!

She fisted her hands in his shirt and hunched over him, as if she could protect him or just...keep him by holding on. "Someone...someone please...he can't die!"

"Is this the extent of your power, Lady of Legends? To look to others for help?" The voice that materialized behind her...was that same voice who'd held her captive! No! But he should be dead!

She straightened quickly and turned toward it, holding out her arms in a feeble attempt to shield Hotohori from any future attacks by this...monster. "Y-you! Why are you doing this?"

The voice was silent, before a dark figure stepped into view, golden eyes looking down at her with an expression of...disappointment? "A priestess that does nothing but let the ones devoted to her protect her at any cost is unworthy to call herself the priestess."

Who was this? Some...some sort of...zealot? Could that be it? Had...had Hotohori...because...? She frowned, and stood to her feet, legs shaking from the emotions rampaging through her. "I...don't know what you heard, b-but...I never asked to be called 'priestess'!"

The figure scoffed and shook its head. "Yet you eagerly took the title when it was offered, you allowed others to bow and to look up to you as a savior, and you happily allow others to die-"

"NO!" She'd screamed without even realizing it as soon as she'd realized what the other was saying-he's not going to die! He can't! Her hands dropped to her sides as she shook her head violently, fighting the urge to step forward and shake this person until they realized, until...until they undid all of this and let Hotohori go-until they fixed him. "You're wrong! I never want anyone hurt for me. I don't...I never wanted this! I-If I could, I'd trade places with him, I'd be the one suffering to protect him!"

The figure laughed. "You would give up your wishes and your promise to protect this country for something so pointless?"

He lip trembled, and she bit it hard to keep herself from breaking down. No...no, maybe...this kidnapper was the only one around. He was the only one who might be able to help, and she had to try. "W-what...what kind of a priestess would I be...if I let the country lose its emperor? There's...there's no point in the three wishes if he's not there to choose them, if he's dead...th-then I'd rather never have come here!"

The man was silent for a few moments, before he held up a hand. Beneath it, three images shimmered into view. In one, Tamahome limped through a room, beaten and bloody, stumbling with an intense determination she'd never seen on him before. In another, Nuriko stood transfixed and horrified, as a mirror image seemed to be...curling around her and melding into her-almost as if her reflection were slowly absorbing her into itself, and Yui...Yui skidded across a dark floor, almost as beaten looking as Tamahome, clinging to a dented and bloody candle-stand.

All of my friends...they're all...are they all...doing this for me?

Her vision blurred with tears all over again, and she shook her head. "S-stop...stop it!" Her hands balled into fists again, and she charged the man, reaching out to grab his cloak as if she could just...force him to listen. "Let them go! Take me and let them go!"

"Why would I do that, when I have all of you already?"

He was...of course he was right, but she couldn't just give up! She had to try. "Please! Y-you don't need them if you have me, right? I could be a hostage! I wouldn't even fight or try to escape, a-and then you could ask for anything at all you wanted from Hotohori or Hong-Nan, right? Please, you have to let them go!"

For a few moments, the figure was silent. When it finally spoke, it sounded almost contemplative. "If you'll really do anything...there is one thing that I will trade for their lives. But you must agree to it first."

She tensed as hope and dread warred inside of her. One thing...? Could-could he mean...? I have to say yes, no matter what it is. I have to! But...wh-what if he makes me his maid, or slave? What if I have to be his cook, or...a farmhand, or...could he-he couldn't want...

Her thoughts were interrupted by someone-him-bopping her unkindly over the head. "Hey, listen to my demand!"

"Ow! But you didn't even say what it was!"

"I did! You just weren't listening!"

She glared up at him and shook her head. My head hurts, but...I'm not gonna let go! Not until he promises to let them go first!

After a moment, he gave a disgusted sigh and shook his head. "I said-I will let them go, but only if you take their place and their pain."

"Their...pain...?"

She could almost make out a smile under the dark cowl of the cloak. "I will heal them and let them go...but only if you agree to take their injuries yourself."

o-o-o-o-o-o-o

He'd be grateful for the allowance to lean against a wall without being 'disqualified' if he weren't definitely going to kill that sadistic voice as soon as he made it through this room. The last room...he'd been flung violently from platform to platform across an unsettling void like some sort of...falling rock down a sheer cliff, knocked back and forth by the abruptly shifting walls.

He'd twisted his ankle on one landing, and broken something in his shoulder in a different impact...but if that creature thought the trap had somehow weakened him...it could just keep on thinking that right up until he ripped its heart out of its body. Possibly with his injured hand.

I'm not giving up now. If I did...it would make that choice pointless. It'd be letting this guy...get away with it.

He grit his teeth and glared ahead as he pushed off from the wall and reached for the door.

"Last one."

o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Take their injuries yourself.

"I...can do that?"

The figure gave a small nod. "Oh, of course. It would be a simple matter. And in exchange, I will release them, healthy and safe. I'll even give your emperor the antidote."

Hotohori... She glanced back at him, still just barely breathing...still not responding. If he could, she knew he'd be shouting at her, jumping between them and demanding she say no. Well-actually she didn't know, but...she thought he would. That's the sort of person he was.

And she...

She'd make the same decision even then. I'm sorry, Hotohori...but you...I'm not any good for Hong-Nan without you, anyway. I wouldn't even know how to gather all the warriors and summon Suzaku to get the wishes.

She bit her lip and held out her arms again, bracing herself. "Okay! I'll do it! Leave them alone and I'll do it! Zap me!"

He was silent a few moments. "You would give up your quest? You would give up your destiny and your wishes for this?"

"Of course I would! Wishes...all the wishes in the world don't matter if you don't have the people you love to share them with! So...stop waiting and do it!"

"...Very well."

She closed her eyes, trying to brace herself again, but...no amount of bracing could prepare herself for the sensation of a dozen blades suddenly striking her wherever they'd sliced through Hotohori all at once. Nor the burning weakness of the poison surging through her, or the excruciating impacts on her shoulder and ribs as bones shattered by invisible forces, and something horrible and frozen dug painfully into her heart.

All the suffering of her friends...all of the things they went through for her, it hurt so much.

An inhuman scream tore from her throat as the burning raged higher, filtering through every part of her, sizzling like fire in her veins, and...

She jerked awake with a powerful shriek, and stared at the clearing around her-surrounded by the camp and the (until just now) sleeping forms of her friends.

A...n-night...mare?

CH END