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By: Ghost of the Dawn
Chapter Twenty One: Game of the Gods
"Deaths?" Rowen demanded. "We're not dead! ...Are we?" He looked around to his friends to confirm.
"I feel okay," Kento replied, checking himself. "I still hurt like hell. That's a good sign, right?"
"It is your choice from here," Robyn, the other Robyn, spoke to them. "You stand suspended in time for now, but if you go back to Falnan, it will be gone and you will die. Or you will have to use what power you have left to try to get back to your world."
"We can't just leave!" Cye exclaimed. "Mia's still there! Not to mention we can't abandon all those people!"
"Stop playing games with us!" Ryo ordered. "Tell us what happened! What's going on? Who ARE you?"
Robyn was quiet for a moment. "You want to spend these last few minutes hearing my story?"
"You're the one who said we're stuck in time," Sage pointed out. "It seems like we've got the time for a story or two."
Robyn looked dubious, but the Ronins weren't going anywhere.
"Make it quick," Cye said sternly, folding his arms.
"Very well. If that is what you wish," Robyn relented. "Twenty five years before time stopped in Falnan, in the southern part of the kingdom, two girls were born; twins. They looked alike in every way, but their personalities were completely different. The eldest, Raven, was quiet and clumsy, and very sweet. The younger, Robin, was headstrong and athletic and excelled in martial arts. Despite their differences, the two were the best of friends and the closest of sisters.
"Around their seventeenth year, Raven, the older of the two, fell in love. Her father granted her permission to marry and she was very happy. As was her sister happy for her. However, around the same time, the mages from the castle came to the southern border, looking for the reincarnation of Minami, the priestess of Hardrock. They found Minami, in Raven."
Robyn paused for a moment to let out a breath, looking tired and regretful.
"I watched my sister cry for a night and a day when she had found out. For it meant that she could not marry her love. Nor could she marry any man. Finally, I couldn't take it any more. I left her a note, promising her that I would live my life as I wished as long as she did the same. And I left with them, posing as Minami's reincarnation. At the castle, they accepted me. I acted more like a priestess should than my older sister would have. I didn't know about the sealing ceremony. When it happened, I should have been exposed as the fraud I was, but I wasn't. The Hardrock armor accepted me; as well as its bearer. No one knew the wiser, ever. Even after all the tragedy that occured, they still blamed it on the original Minami.
"All my life I wondered how this all happened and why. If what the other priestesses believe is true and the reason all the tragedy in this kingdom happened was because I, a false priestess, was sworn in, then why was I allowed to take the title in the first place? It was because of me that my beloved was killed. During the chaos, Talpa took the mantles themselves and fled. Time stopped; so many people died. And for what? What was Hardrock thinking when it accepted me?"
"That's the thing," said a new voice. "The armors don't think, they listen."
All heads turned towards Hariel as he stepped out of the darkness.
"Hariel?" Ryo asked. "How did you find us here?"
The godly prince smiled. "How could I not? You're practically at my door. This," he jestured to the darkness. It suddenly was filled with a dim light that revealed ancient hallways and corridors in all directions and a large stone slab that sat upright in the middle. "Is the Temple of the Sun, the piece of the temple set hanging slightly out of the mortal world and slightly out of the realm of the gods. This is the place where the armors were formed; where their history and their secrets are recorded."
"This 'secret of the armor'," Cye put in. "You keep mentioning it, Hariel. What is it? Can you tell us now?"
Hariel looked towards the large, stone slab. It had words chiseled in it from long ago. "Of course, it says so right here. I wrote it myself, you know."
It was in an ancient language and the words had mostly eroded away. Hariel looked at it like he had just finished writing it and it was all brand new. He remembered every word.
"Those who possess the armors must remember this," Hariel recited. "Gods created the armor and gods created man. But the mind of man is fashioned by the will of man. It sticks to man's logic and the mantles will not listen. But heart of man does not conform to man's logic. Even if heart and mind collide, even if the bearers believe one thing and do another, the armor will only listen to one.
"Be wary, those who wear the armor and do not know themselves. They do not make men good or evil, they only bring forth what is already there. If there is evil, they will find it. If there is good, they will find it. For they listen only to the heart."
He turned and smiled to the five warriors. "A bit poetic, don't you think?"
"Wait," Rowen interjected. "You mean all those times the armors went wacky on us; those times we thought they were starting to do their own thing, they were still listening to us? Just not our logic, but what we truly wanted inside?"
Hariel nodded. "Exactly. It's why Hardrock did not come to you that time in the subway, Kento. It knew you feared it so it stayed away. It's why Sage had Halo taken from him and used by others. Because he does not hold tight to it and secretly wishes to get by without its powers.
"It is why the warlords failed to stay true to Talpa. It found the good inside them Talpa could not hide forever. It is why Robyn over there could hold and use any of your weapons. The same for Mia or Yulie. Because none of you wish any harm to come to them.
"And for you," he looked at Robin. "It was the reason you were never found out. From the moment he saw you, your Lord Hardrock fell in love with you. His deepest wish was for you to be with him always. So the Hardrock armor made it so.
"And in doing so, it altered two destinies. Your sister's soul was destined to be the priestess of Hardrock for all time and that was broken. You took her place and broke your destiny as well. Fate has nothing written for you now. It's all up in the air. So now, Robin of the South, you are more of the wild card than even these five here. What will you do?"
"My last task left," She replied simply. "I have to make it right. In this temple is another inscription, similar to this one." As she spoke, more light drew behind her and a second slab of yellow stone with writing appeared behind her.
"I saw so much when I passed," Robin continued. "I learned when the gods began their little experiment, they made a fail safe--a reset. It should have never happened in the first place, but the gods wanted to see what would happen if they took faith and religion away from man and not only let gods walk among them, but gave them the power of gods that they themselves could control.
"When the armors brought forth their own darkness in their hearts, a new level of the experiment was added. Priestesses who thought they were better than normal people ask for the power to choose for the armors. And again, power was granted to add to this sick little game played by god and man." She stepped back and ran her hand over the ancient, yellow stone. "So they created this if things got too far out of control and they could start over without ending the world before its time."
The Ronins listened to her blankly, not sure what to make of it all.
"Hariel, what does that mean exactly?" Sage asked.
"It's as she said," Hariel replied, his smile gone. It was obvious he wasn't really liking what he heard. "It will do a reset on all the meddling that has been done in this world. The priestess seal will be broken. The five ronin armors and the four season armors will be called back to their places of origin."
"Yeah, but will it fix anything that's happening now?" Rowen questioned. "If the world is ending, will it really make a difference?"
"The armor's power has always existed in this world in one form or another," Hariel explained. "Their presence kept darker powers locked away that would have otherwise escaped. Just as time stopped when the season armors were taken, when the other five were gone, any dark powers they kept at bay were released."
"Like that black glob that ate everything," Kento guessed.
"So if the armors were returned to their original place, it would seal that thing back up," Rowen concluded.
"But, we'd lose our armors, wouldn't we?" Ryo questioned. "They would be sent back where they came from. We would be leaving them here."
"Yeah but if we didn't need them any more, what would be the harm?" Cye put in. "Nothing like Talpa ever got into our world before the armors were taken from this world. It's very possible putting them back where they belong would keep both our worlds safe."
"So you would agree, right?" Robin asked, catching their attention. "If it put this world right, you would give up the armors?"
"We really don't have any choice," Ryo said quietly. "If it would save everyone. That's what the armors are really for, aren't they? For saving people."
Ryo looked to his friends. They seemed to agree. Ryo turned to the red haired girl. "If it will save this world, then we will do it."
"Good," Robyn nodded. She reached a bloodied hand to the tall slab of stone and pushed it over so it was laying flat on the ground, face up. Then, she stood on top of it and pulled out a dagger, bringing it to her throat.
Warning bells sounded in the warriors' heads.
"Wait! What are you doing?" Cye shrieked.
"Just as the blood was spilt to seal the priestesses, blood must also be spilt to unseal them," Robyn said cooly. "It will not take the blood of armor bearers this time. That leaves only this body."
"Stop it! You can't do that!" Ryo cried as he ran forward. "You ca--"
He hit something invisible and solid. Confused, Ryo raised up his armored hands to feel what was in front of him. It was solid and smooth and completely transparent; like glass. But it felt like magic and repelled him with as much force as he pushed into it.
"Break it!" he heard Rowen bark and Kento's fits hit the barrier close by. It didn't give. Kento hit it harder and harder. The barrier remained. Not even he could break through.
"It's no use, warriors," Robyn said softly. "You can't stop this from happening. I understand your feelings. I'll give you time to say good bye."
"NO!" Ryo cried frantically, slapping his armored palms on the barrier. "Stop it! STOP!"
He noticed movement out of the corner of his eye and turned his head to see Rowen with an arrow poised at the barrier. To his other side, Cye had raised his yari and both were intent on starting up their sure kills. Ryo, as well as Sage and Kento, ducked out of the way as both sure kills were let loose on the wall. Power slammed into it and licked at the invisible shield, but did otherwise no damage to it.
"Those won't work here," Robyn assured them. "The barrier doesn't respond to force and you don't have the power to get past it. I am giving you time to make your peace and you're wasting it."
Ryo pressed his palms on the barrier and looked at her with wide, desperate eyes. Next to him, a green clad palm pressed to the invisible shield as well. Sage's face was a mask of stone, but his hand was trembling. Everyone was beside themselves on what to do next.
"There has to be another way," Ryo whispered. "It can't be like this."
Robyn shook her head, rasing the dagger back to her throat. She was about to say something when Hariel came through the group of warriors. He walked purposefully as he passed Ryo, grabbing Wildfire's wrist in the process. Pulling him forward with him, Hariel easily stepped through the barrier. He pulled Ryo's arm through up to almost his shoulder before stopping in front of a startled Robyn. She took a step back from the stern faced deity, but Hariel already reached out to grab her with his free hand. Then he put Robyn's hand into Ryo's.
The second Wildfire had a hold of her, his first impulse was to tug her back towards him. As he did, Hariel grabbed Robyn's other hand and pulled the opposite way. The other four Ronins watched as Robyn was tugged in two different directions and she suddenly split into two different people. Ryo pulled so hard, he stumbled and fell backward, catching Robyn in his lap. The person left on the other side with Hariel looked completely different now. This must have been how the other Robin looked. She had black hair that hung over her large, dark eyes and fell like a river down her back. She was easily the most beautiful of all the priestesses.
"That's better, isn't it?" Hariel announced at all the surprised faces staring at him. "Even though I'm meddling again, aren't I?"
"But My Lord," Robin's ghost argued. "That was the only life blood we had to reset the stone. What shall be done now?"
Hariel raised his wounded hand with the blood drying down his arm. "Well, if it doesn't take this blood, it's pickier than I thought."
He looked over at Ryo who was still kneeling on the ground at the other side of the barrier. Wildfire was watching him with wide, worried eyes, still cradling Robyn's body close to him.
"What's going to happen to you?" Ryo asked.
Hariel gave a weak smile as he shrugged. "Who knows? We'll see."
Ryo's heart began to race again. He was going to loose someone else. This was White Blaze, his best friend since he was a child. Was this the only way? Did it have to be one life or another?
"Wait!" Ryo called. "Don't do it! We'll try something else! Hariel!"
But Hariel didn't give him as much time as Robin's spirit had. He threw one last smile to the five worried warriors and then his skin began to crack. Out of the cracks came a fierce, white light. Then the body exploded and the Ronins had to momentarily avert their eyes from the light released. There was a sickening wet sound as well. Ryo opened his eyes again to see blood splattered and dripping down the invisible wall. It was all over on the other side and drenching the stone on the ground. Robin's spirit had disappeared, but no one noticed. The stone itself began to glow and light raced through the darkened temple, lighting up every corridor.
All around them, the halls sparkled with a bright light as if they were new and a stronger light shot straight from the stone. The barrier shattered from the power released and the Ronins held back as they felt that same power radiating strongly towards them. The armors began to react. Glowing, radiating; pulsating in time with the pillar of energy in front of them. The power grew and grew around them until it felt like it would crush their bodies. Then, it slipped away from them, easy as dandelion puffs in a summer breeze.
The comforting weight of the metal was on their bodies and then it was gone. The ronins were left in their clothing as the balls of multicolored energy floated around and then were sucked up into the energy beam and sent hurling far away to their original state of rest.
Very far away, in a world that wasn't Falnan, or even the world the Ronin's called home; a world once run by demons and dark spirits. A world that existed outside life or death and was slowly decaying. In that world, four individuals were very surprised as they experienced the same sensation and their armors were suddenly spirited from them and whisked away to parts unknown.
Back in the darkness that used to be Falnan, the world played like a video tape on rewind. All the blackness that and once swallowed it up, now receded in on itself. Myune and Miniko gasped, Laelia's unconscious body still between them. They were free!
The black ooze retreated, sucked back into the body it came from, then seemed to disappear from the body altogether. Miniko and Myune turned their attention skyward as four lights seemed to tear through the very fabric of their world and rocket across the sky. Five other multicolored lights joined them and headed off to parts unknown. Miniko and Myune were surprised to feel a certain power leave their bodies as well and they then knew deep in their hearts that they were no longer what they used to be.
The Halo sword that had been holding up the dead prince's body also disintegrated into light and took off after the rest of them. Without the sword to hold it up, the body fell forward onto the ground, face down. Slowly, the body and clothes decayed right before the eyes of Miniko and Myune as if it had indeed died one hundred years ago. The two women were glad the young queen was still sleeping and did not have to witness that of her dead brother.
The power died down and the five young men all looked at each other, wondering what to do next. Despite the stone growing dormant, the halls of the temple remained white and well lit. They were still where they were, in the Temple of the Sun outside of existence and not back in Falnan.
"So, is that it?" Cye asked the stillness. "Is the world safe? Did we loose our armors for good or what?"
"I...don't know," Ryo replied. "She said it would reset the armors back to where they came from. I'm not really sure if that means we'll never get them back or not--if it means we're no longer Ronin Wa--"
He jumped as an ice cold hand touched his face.
"You sound familiar," Robyn rasped in a weak voice.
Ryo smiled down at her, he body still laying in his lap. "Hey Robyn, we were--"
Robyn suddenly heaved violently, coughing up a large amount of blood and spraying it all over Ryo's front. Then she fell back again, weak. Her breathing sounded like her lungs were full of liquid. Now that the other spirit was no longer possessing her, whatever powers that had been holding her wounded body together were no longer in affect. Ryo was gaping at the massive hole in her chest. It squirted out blood with every heartbeat; each pulse getting weaker. Not to mention she was now bleeding freely out of several more punctures all over her body. Cye's hand clamped over the wound on her chest as his other hand felt her clammy forehead.
"We have to stop this bleeding," Cye announced.
All eyes turned to Sage, but he could only stand there helplessly. He didn't have his Halo armor any more. He had no power to heal her.
Rowen reflexively reached for his sleeves to tear them off. However, he no longer hand any. He and the rest of them had spent so much time repairing Robyn's wounds when they could, they hardly had much extra cloth to spare.
Robyn shuttered in Ryo's arms. Her whole body was alarmingly cold. She coughed again, much weaker this time. A thin line of blood trickled down the side of her mouth. Ryo looked into her eyes, his face full of worry and urgency. Robyn's eyes were no longer her usual vibrant green. They had dulled to a smokey grey and stared back at him unfocused. She couldn't see him any more.
"Robyn, hang in there," Ryo urged. "We'll get you help. Just hang on!"
Robyn tipped her head slightly at being addressed, but her hazy eyes swept back and forth, unable to see who she was talking to. She gave a soft smile in Ryo's direction which tore him open inside out.
"My friends are out there somewhere. They're doing their best," Robyn rasped weakly. "If you find them, tell them it's all right."
"But, we're right here!" That exclamation came from Rowen. He was standing at Robyn's feet, eyes wide, face pale. "We're right here, Robyn!"
Robyn closed her eyes, heaving another painful breath and not hearing his words. "They're probably worried about me," she continued to whisper. "Please tell them its okay and not to worry. I don't want them to be sad."
Ryo continued to stare at her, tears stinging his eyes. He shook his head insistently at the request. But then a strong hand gripped his shoulder. Kento had knelt down next to him.
"Yeah," he said in a gruff, steady voice. "We'll tell them."
At the confirmation, Robyn smiled and closed her eyes. Seconds later, all life had left her body.
Ryo continued to stare at her in shock. This was the second time someone had died in his arms and it didn't make it any easier. In fact, it was harder the second time. Something painful ripped open inside of him in a place that could never heal. His body was losing its strength. He hardly had enough to keep Robyn's limp form in his arms. He didn't even have enough strength to cry.
Stronger arms wrapped around his shoulders; Kento's. Cye still hadn't said a word as he knelt across from them. Tears slowly began to slide down his cheeks as he leaned forward and rested his forehead on Robyn's stomach, his shoulders beginning to shake.
Rowen remained standing. His body was trembling and his face held a mixture of confusion and betrayal. He looked as though he felt he should be angry, but unsure of who or what his anger should be directed at. Sage walked over to put a hand on his shoulder. Rowen moodily shrugged it off. So Sage shoved him into a rough embrace instead, to which Rowen fought for a moment, but then gave up and drenched Sage's shoulder in his tears.
Ryo was still struggling to react. He had stared at that lifeless face until the tears came so heavily he could no longer see. Even then, he still couldn't force himself to make any sound. He badly wanted to scream out or sob, but his throat was too constricted to emit any verbal sound of the anguish he was feeling inside. And it hurt not to be able to voice his sorrow.
Ryo blinked frantically to release the tears from his vision. He wanted to see her face again. Even if it was as still and lifeless as before, he still wanted to see it. He ached to see it. As he tried to clear his vision, the white around him grew brighter. It seemed to detach itself from the surroundings and swirl around him like snow flakes. Despite the pain, other thoughts forced themselves into his head and he momentarily was swept away from the here and now to a place and time that seemed impossibly long ago.
"I don't see how you're okay with just letting that boy go out into the wild woods to do whatever he wants. It's dangerous out there and he's still so young!"
Ryo was used to hearing this argument. It came, as usual, from the nanny his father had hired to look over him while he was away filming wild life all over the world. As Ryo tip toed down the stairs, he heard his father's voice half heartedly arguing back, saying that was his son's way and it wasn't going to change.
Too true were the words his father said. No matter what the outcome of the argument, Ryo had already grabbed his coat and mittens and was out the door and into the snow. He wasted no time running out of his wild back yard and disappearing into the trees. He laughed at his own freedom as he ran. This forest was as much a part of his home as that house was and he knew every inch of it.
When he was far enough away from the house, Ryo stopped and panted in the snow. He saw his breath come out as white clouds before him and then he paused as he thought he saw motion among the brush. What had originally looked like a patch of snow started to move. It blended so well with the white of the background and the black of the trees one would never have noticed it was there. But as it moved towards him, Ryo smiled as it formed a familiar shape.
"White Blaze!" Ryo cheered as the tiger nuzzled him in greeting. Ryo laughed and hugged the tiger back. "What do ya wanna do today, White Blaze?"
In response, the tiger crouched in a motion for Ryo to climb on his back. The young boy's face lit right up and he quickly set about trying to pull himself onto the broad back of the large animal. Once on, White Blaze took off at a trot and Ryo eagerly held on.
"Where are we going, White Blaze?" Ryo asked.
As usual, the tiger didn't answer. Ryo knew he wouldn't, but had always talked to the animal like he could anyway.
White Blaze's pace sped into a gallop and Ryo looked around in wide eyes. It wasn't long until they were further into the woods than they had ever gone before and Ryo drank up the surroundings with large, curious eyes. The tiger hit a patch of particularly thick trees and had to slow to a walk to get through them. Ryo was silent as a wave of anticipation crept up his spine. He didn't know how or why, but he knew there was something up ahead, something important.
The tiger pushed his way through some thick branches and then stepped out into a clearing. Ryo's eyes were huge with wonder at what he saw. It stood out a bold, sharp contrast; fire engine red against the white background. Ryo slowly slid of White Blaze's back, as he watched the armored figure stand there, its face turned from him.
Ryo took a few cautious steps forward. White Blaze did not follow, but Ryo hardly noticed. His eyes were glued to the massive frame standing in the clearing. Slowly he approached it in the soundless forest. He was a mere foot away and the figure still had not moved to look at him. Ryo reached out to touch the armored hand. It was warm despite the cold morning.
"Are you lost?" Ryo asked innocently.
The armor turned and looked down at him. The face mask on the helmet was down, but Ryo could clearly see there was no face behind it. Yet, he was not afraid.
No, came a deep voice from the armor. Not lost. I have found what I was searching for. I have found you.
"Really?" the young boy squealed with delight. "Are we going to be friends?"
If that is your wish.
"Yay! We're friends!" Ryo sing-songed. "And I'll come find you again if you ever get lost, okay? And if I get lost, you can find me, too."
If you wish it, then this I promise you, my wearer.
The light around them was absolute now. All the walls, ceilings and even floors of the temple had disappeared under the blanket of white. But none of the warriors noticed. Each was too drawn up in their own personal anguish to care.
Heavy foot steps grew louder as figures approached. One by one they drew out of the whiteness like a traveler coming in from a snow storm. There were five and they approached from five different directions. One by one the warriors slowly noticed them and looked around in wonder. As the new arrivals stood in a circle around them, only Ryo remained with head bowed, still lost in his own emotions.
Ryo's head shot up at the familiar voice from long ago. He blinked back the heavy river of tears, barely making out the red armor of Wildfire standing before him. It looked down at him with an empty helmet like it had on the day they had found each other. It spoke with a deep, calming voice.
Are you lost?
Ryo just stared at it, tears still running strong down his face; eyes wide like a child's. The others stared at him, at Wildfire, at the other four armors gathered at all sides around then. Without words, Ryo and Wildfire seemed to communicate. There were no words, no thoughts. Just pure emotion coming from deep inside him and the armor listened.
For a moment, Ryo felt confusion from the Wildfire armor as it tried to understand what his heart truly desired. This, in turn, confused Ryo. It was as if Wildfire had no idea why Ryo wanted what he wanted. As if it expected a different decision from him than that. But Ryo was insistent and the armor relented to his wishes.
Very well. Before our physical forms are sealed, we will do this one thing. If this is what you truly want.
The armors began to light up as if to form Inferno. The power rose as the entire group was swept up in the multicolored, swirling lights. There was a rush of energy and then the five of them found themselves back on top of the castle terrace. The place was still a mess, but the darkness that had swallowed the kingdom was gone and light was starting to spread over the countryside as the sun slowly rose over the mountains.
This was about the time Queen Laelia decided to come back into consciousness. She woke with a start and sat up, eyes wide. Miniko and Myune were there to comfort her and let her know that she was no longer in any danger. Laelia instantly noticed the five young men standing a few paces away. She was about to ask what was going on when something light and cold landed on her face. Then another one, and another.
She reached her hand out to catch the falling flakes.
"Snow?" Laelia asked. "Is this really snow?"
"Incredible," Myune marveled as she caught some on her own palm.
It had been the first snow Falnan had seen in over a hundred years.
Across from them, the five young men were still looking around, wondering what had happened. They soon recognized they were back on top of the castle. But what had happened? Where was Robyn?
A bright, white light drew over them and grew in size and intensity. Everyone had to shield their eyes from the intense glare. Slowly, the ball of energy took on form. It molded itself into the familiar silhouette of the Inferno armor. The form grew transparent and beneath it, as if she were wearing it, was Robyn. Then the Inferno armor crumbled, leaving Robyn floating above them alone. Though still blood covered and dirty, the visible wounds on her body were gone and color had returned to her face. As she floated down towards them, her eye lids fluttered open and for a moment she saw them and they saw her
There were smiles and cries of elation. Robyn reached out to what was most precious to her, but was suddenly cut off from them as a bubble formed around her and pulled her away, back into the sky.
"I'm afraid you're not done yet, warriors," came a voice before any one could ask what was going on. Yanushi appeared next to Robyn, hovering far above the castle, standing as if he were on solid ground. Laelia saw him and shrunk away next to Miniko and Myune. The five young men, however, held strong at the sight of him.
"True, you did manage to avert one natural disaster," Yanushi continued. "What the people of this kingdom didn't realize was that the real demon that inhabited your prince's body, while laying dormant inside him since his birth, was not released until the armors were taken from this world. The armors had been his seal since their beginning. He was a strong demon, almost as strong as I. And he did have the power to destroy this world. But by resetting the armors and returning them to their rightful places, he was sealed up again by their power.
"However," Yanushi continued with a grin. "This world is still mine and I still have plans to destroy it. The last of my experiment has been done and I have my final results." He looked pointedly at Robyn. "You see, you carry the last bit of information I have been waiting so long for. And if you would just answer this one-"
"Put me down."
Yanushi paused at Robyn's interruption. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me," Robyn insisted, her face stern. "I said put me down."
Yanushi raised an eye brow at her, looking slightly annoyed. "Young lady, I don't think you're quite grasping the situation you are in. You are on the brink of the fate of this world and it is all determined by your answer to this-"
"I'm not telling you a damn thing until YOU listen to what I'm saying!" Robyn barked angrily. "Now put me the hell down! Over there. She pointed to the top of the castle where the five warriors stood.
Still looking a bit perturbed, Yanushi glared at Robyn who glared right back with a growing hatred in her eyes at denying her request. Finally, Yanushi waved his hand and Robyn was sent floating back to the castle roof top.
The five of them were waiting for her. Ryo swept her up in a tight embrace the second her foot touched stone. Right away he could tell she still didn't have much strength. He kept an arm around her waist and pressed her tightly to him to help her stand. Robyn hugged him as hard as she could and then pulled back to cup his face in both her hands.
"There you guys are, I found you," she cooed as she brushed the cut on Ryo's cheek with her thumb. "Are you okay?"
Ryo gave a loud, embarrassed laugh, hastily scrubbing the tear streaks from his face. After all the things that had happened to her and she was asking HIM if he was okay.
"Yeah, I'm okay," he replied, his voice catching with emotion.
"Kento! Cye!" Robyn called out, reaching over Ryo's shoulder as the two came up.
Cye took her hand, squeezing it while Kento, despite his wounds, extended an arm to take Robyn next. Ryo reluctantly let her go and Kento flinched slightly when he found out he had to do like Ryo did and exert a little effort into help holding her up.
The motion did not go unnoticed to Robyn. "Oh my poor baby! What did they do to you!" she fussed as she brushed sweat matted hair from his eyes.
"Aww, Robyn, I'm fine. Don't worry about it," he insisted, trying to stave off her worried coddling. "I just need a few bandaids and I'll be good to go again."
"If you say so," Robyn laughed. She then saw the person standing a few feet away from him and pulled from Kento's embrace to meet him.
Robyn seemed to have forgotten she hardly had any strength to stand in her excitement. She only made it a few steps before she stumbled. Sage quickly reached to catch her before she fell. In his haste, he pulled her closer to him than he meant to. But Robyn already had him in a tight embrace and he wasn't getting out of it until she let go.
"You were there with me a lot," she grinned into his ear. "Thank you Sage."
He didn't reply, but held her back, if a bit awkward. Rowen was still standing in the background quietly. He had made no move to talk to or approach her. There was, however, a meaningful clearing of a throat that caught their attention.
"Satisfied?" Yanushi asked as he floated down to their level. "Now that you've taken all the thunder out of my entrance, could you spare me a moment to answer my question?" His voice was dripping with sarcasm.
Robyn turned to him, still held up in Sage's arms. "If I must," she sighed. "What is it you want?"
Yanushi folded his arms and looked at her. His fanfare was gone, so he decided to get right to the point. "Should I destroy Falnan or not? Do you think this world is worth keeping?"
Sage stared at him while Robyn raised an eyebrow.
"You can't be serious," Robyn insisted. She looked around to see who was listening. She spotted Laelia with Myune and so leaned in close to Yanushi to whisper. "I hate this place."
"I know," Yanushi grinned back.
"But I don't even live here! Why are you having ME decide?"
"Why not?" the deity shrugged. "I think an outsider's opinion is very valid in this case. You are not an inhabitant of this world, hence you have no personal interest in it. This makes you a prime candidate to give me an unbiased opinion. So, what do you think? After all that you have witnessed, is this world worth it? Is it worth keeping around or should I scrap it and try again?"
Robyn turned back to Sage and sighed heavily, resting her forehead on his shoulder. Sage could easily see she was not feeling well. After the initial excitement of being back with her friends wore off, the color was draining from her face again. She felt cold and Sage instinctively pulled her closer. Robyn looked up at him; possibly mistaking the gesture as a squeeze of reassurance.
She took another deep breath and looked around her. Her friends were watching her, their faces confused or hopeful. The castle around her was in shambles. There was blood everywhere splattered on the stone. In the background was Myune and Miniko, they were holding Queen Laelia between them. Robyn and the queen locked eyes and Robyn saw fear there. She saw regret, not for how she was treated, but for not knowing she would ultimately decide the fate of the kingdom and for that reason, was allowed to be treated badly. Myune's eyes reflected much of the same, but less remorse. More than likely, she was probably wishing Robyn had died so she wouldn't be alive to make this decision when she obviously disliked this world.
Robyn's gaze drifted out to the countryside. It was slowly being dusted in white. Something that hadn't happened in over a hundred years. She could just imagine all the surprised faces. The first change the people had seen in over a century. Robyn then thought about the other Robin. Her other self--which was almost what she seemed like to her. Traces of that sprit were still in her, she could feel it. She could recall all the hurt and suffering. All the horrible things that had been done to her. All the things she had done back. Not to mention all other countless injustices this world had suffered. It was a mess. Something did indeed need to happen to it. And yet...
Robyn finally looked back at Yanushi. "Why now?" she asked. "Why are you thinking about ending the world now? If I understand correctly this world is an experiment, right? You wanted results and yet, you've left this world to stagnate for a hundred years without change. Why?"
Yanushi regarded her in confusion. "Am I to suppose you are in favor of keeping this world? After all you have experienced? Young lady, I don't think you've even begun to understand how much this world has affected your existence. And how much even the armors themselves have discredited you for all time. And yet you still want it to stay? You want all this to go unpunished?"
Robyn shook her head. "It doesn't matter what I want. The way I see it, you owe this world a hundred years of progress. Yes, a lot of mistakes were made, but no one was given a chance to fix any of it." She shot a small, meaningful smile in Rowen's direction. "People have to be given a chance to learn from their mistakes before they are judged. It's how they deal with it afterwards that shows the type of person they really are and the consideration they really deserve."
Yanushi folded his arms as if disappointed. But then his mouth ticked up into a half smile. "This is your decision?"
"One hundred years," Robyn repeated. "Then you should decide for yourself what's worth keeping and not try to pass on the responsibility to someone else."
Yanushi opened his mouth to argue with her, but she had already turned her attention back to the blonde.
"Sage, it's cold outside and I don't feel well."
That was all he needed. Sage bent down and picked her up in his arms. She felt so light, it worried him. But now he could at least get her in bed and have a doctor look at her.
Robyn hugged him tighter around the neck when he picked her up. He was warm and she was freezing. She looked over his shoulder to see Ryo standing there, watching her, looking a bit like he wish he had Sage's job. Robyn reached out to lightly ruffle his hair before she was carried off. He smiled back and followed after Sage. As well as Cye and Kento. Robyn saw a quick glance of Myune and Laelia's expressions, but quickly looked away. Then she noticed Rowen held back. The two of them caught each other's eyes for a moment and Robyn saw an expression on his face she wasn't used to seeing. She didn't get much time to analyze it before she was carried down the tower steps and Rowen was out of her sight.
Far to the south, at the edge of the kingdom, Robin worked in the kitchen, preparing dinner for her family. It wasn't her real name; it was Raven. But ever since her sister had gone in her place, she had to switch her name. And she didn't mind. Trading her name for the man she loved and the life she wanted as a fair deal in her opinion. But she wondered if it was the right choice ever since time stopped in her world.
That was a hundred years ago. Raven remembered exactly what she was doing the day she heard the news. The news about her twin, posing as the Hardrock Priestess, and how she had doomed her partner, then her world before being killed herself. It was heartbreaking news and Raven was bedridden, consumed with self blame for days.
But then she had remembered her promise she made to her sister. She had promised to live her life as she wanted. Her twin had promised the same. Robin was smart and there was no doubt in Raven's mind that Robin did not regret her choice to go in her twin's place and that she should not either.
So Raven continued to live as "Robin" and despite the lack of progress, enjoyed each day to the fullest. Even after a hundred years, she still enjoyed her family even though they were stuck in time, she didn't mind, for that time was a happy one.
"Momma! Look outside!" her son yelled urgently as he ran into the house. "Something's falling from the sky! Everyone's coming out of their houses to see it! What is it Momma? Come see!"
Raven allowed the boy to take her hand and pull her out the door. She wasn't sure what to expect at first. But her eyes opened wide when she saw the white flakes falling from the sky. They drifted all over the country side and dusted her ebony hair, melting on her eye lashes. Raven held out her hand in wonder, catching a few white particles before they melted as well.
"Snow..." she marveled, hardly believing her eyes. Then she suddenly laughed and twirled around. "It's snow! Snow!" She picked up her son and laughed and danced with him as the other village people shouted and celebrated as well.
The seasons and time had returned to their world. Whatever had been undone in the past was now corrected. Life could continue as normal once again.
Raven let her son go as he ran to play with his friends in their new, white world. She smiled as she watched him. Then, something impressed her to turn her head to the side. There she saw an apparition standing a few feet away from her. A female form, transparent against the landscape, smiled at her.
Raven stared as her heart lurched. She recognized that person and smiled back, tears coming to her eyes. She was the only regret about never becoming a priestess. In doing so, she never saw her best friend again and though she never would. And now, there she was in spirit, smiling at her to let her know that she understood and everything was going to be okay.
Then, before Raven's eyes, Diana's spirit disappeared, never to be reborn in that world again, and glad for it. Raven brushed the tears from her eyes and smiled. She stood there reflectively for several moments before turning back to her people and moving to join in on the celebration.
Even though they just barely got her back, the Ronins had to let Robyn go so she could get cleaned up and looked at by the doctor. As such, they took the chance to clean up themselves. Their clothes were matted with blood and grime and some had wounds that needed some attention as well. Kento most of all. He was the last one out as he walked stiffly with new bandages over his leg and his shoulder. He was wearing looser clothes than the others, but it didn't seem to help much with his discomfort.
Kento slowly made his way to the other four, rotating his shoulder to try and get out some of the stiffness. When he got closer, he noticed there were actually five waiting there, all talking to the doctor. Natalia had somehow found out what was going on and was listening just as intently as everyone else.
"So what's the news?" Kento asked, still rubbing his shoulder.
"Doctor says she's fine," Cye replied. "She's just starving and dehydrated. They said they'll make her whatever she wants in the kitchen until she gets her strength back."
"Bet she'll love that," Kento chuckled. "Lucky."
One of the servant girls poked her head out of Robyn's room. "My Lords, you can go in and see her if you would like."
The Ronins slowly shuffled in, but Natalia pushed past all of them.
"Oh Robyn! My poor baby!" she cried as she flung herself on the bed and hugged the redhead. "What happened to you? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Nattie," Robyn replied back through the embrace. "It's good to see you, too. You have no idea how long we've been trying to figure out what happened to you."
"Oh really?" Natalia fussed. "I'm so sorry to worry you. I was just fine. Your friend here came and picked me up." She jerked a thumb in Kento's direction.
"Thanks for doing that," Robyn smiled at him.
Kento looked a bit embarrassed and stopped rubbing his sores for a while. "No problem, Rob. Anything I could do to help, ya know?"
Robyn turned her gaze from him to the rest of them. "I'm just glad its over and I'm glad everyone's okay."
Ryo smiled back as he sat down at the foot of her bed and placed a hand on her ankle. "We're glad you're okay, too."
Robyn laughed. "Me too!" She then turned her head to the side and looked at the one that was lurking in the shadows. "So what's your deal, Rowen? Why won't you talk to me?"
Everyone turned and looked at him and Rowen glowered at the unwanted attention suddenly thrust upon him. He mumbled something under his breath in an embarrassed manner.
"What was that?" Robyn challenged. "Something you want to say to my face?"
"Yeah, there's something I want to say to you!" Rowen suddenly barked. He raced forward, pushing Sage out of the way, so he could learn down and stare at Robyn nose to nose. "How can you sit here and just grin like that? Do you have any idea what happened to you? What we were going through? You scared the hell out of us, I don't know how many times! Do you know how often we thought that you were dead?! That we wouldn't be able to get you back? And now you just sit like everything's okay and it's not a big deal!"
Robyn didn't reply, instead she grabbed Rowen's arm. "Come here."
Rowen's eyes widened and he jerked back.
Robyn clung stubbornly to his sleeve despite her lack of strength. "Come here, you big dummy!"
Sage seemed to purposefully move to block Rowen's escape and he glared at his former best friend. In response, Sage actually nudged him when his balance was off and Rowen teetered towards Robyn's bed. That was all she needed to pull him down the rest of the way. Embarrassed, Rowen tried to get away as Robyn put both arms around him and pulled his back up to her chest. His attempts to struggle grew feeble and half hearted as Robyn hugged him tighter.
"You dork," she mumbled into the back of his head. "I'm sorry I made you worry."
Rowen heaved a heavy sigh and surrendered his fight, now placated in her arms.
"I'm sorry I made all of you worry," Robyn said, turning to Cye as he climbed up on the bed and sat himself next to her.
"It's okay, it all came out alright," Cye said as he rested his head on her shoulder.
Robyn reached up and patted his cheek. Then she reached back farther to run her fingers through his hair. She could feel him heave a heavy breath and Robyn knew he was tired. He felt tired. Like he was strong once, but it had all left his body now that he no longer needed it.
Rowen frowned when Cye took away some of the attention that was on him and made no move to hide his disapproval. Sage shook his head. Rowen was so comical and probably didn't even realize it. Across the room, Natalia had moved over to Kento who was still rotating his hurt shoulder.
"What's this here?" she asked, pulling down the back of his robe to look at the bandages. She pressed the heel of her palm into the sore back muscles and Kento jumped.
"Hey, watch it woman! I got stabbed all the way through up there." Kento complained.
"Then you should stop messing with it and let it heal!" And she pushed him into a chair.
Robyn laughed. "Man, this is going to be interesting when we swap stories about this."
"Oh! I have a story!" Natalia piped up. "I saw these two," she pointed alternately to Kento and Sage. "Totally making out!"
Several pairs of eyes went wide.
"WHAT?" Kento screeched. "No we didn't!"
"It was kind of hot," Natalia confirmed.
"We did not make out!" Kento barked. "Tell them, Sage!"
The blonde cleared his throat. "I have no comment on this."
"Woo Kento, I wish you two the best of luck," Rowen grinned.
"Shut up, Rowen! These lips have never touched another man's. I don't care what Sage said! He wishes!"
Rowen could feel Robyn shudder behind him as she buried her face in the back of his neck and tried to stifle her laughter. Rowen's cheeks grew a little warm from the contact and he hoped no one noticed. Ryo was the only one really looking in his direction, but Rowen really wasn't surprised to see that Ryo wasn't looking at him.
It was late at night, but Mia had yet to retire to bed; despite the fact that it had been a very long day.
Mia never planned to tell another living soul what transpired in that small room after Hariel, first made Anubis solid, and then left them alone. The things Anubis had said to her in that room; the things she said to him-those were their secrets, no one else's. The way he felt in her arms was something she would keep locked in her heart for all times. That time in there belonged to them and no one else.
But the way Anubis had spoken to her, like he was trying to say good bye when Mia was thinking that he would be staying now that he had a physical body. Not paying attention to that was her mistake.
She had felt a surge of energy similar to what she felt when the Ronins were using their armors. When she looked about, she noticed that a door had materialized in the room. Elated, Mia ran to it, calling for Anubis to follow. That was the last she saw of him.
Her first impulse was to find her way back to the top of the castle. When she finally did, she found it was all over. Everyone had left it and there was now a clean up crew assembling to fix the damage and clean off the blood. From there, Mia was at a loss of where to go or what to do. She ran around the castle, asking anyone she could find to tell her what happened. Was the kingdom safe? Were her boys safe? Where were they?
It was a large castle after all and it took her a while to find someone with the information she needed. Once sent in the right direction, it didn't take long for Mia to start locating the scattered warriors who had divided up, trying to find her, too. After that, she was fully filled in on what happened and informed that it was all over and they would be going home soon.
It was then Mia fully realized Anubis was missing. She had been so used to his spirit just showing up here and there, she didn't think it odd that he wasn't around until she hadn't seen him for almost an hour. Once she realized this, Mia set out to try to find him next. However, she wasn't sure what she was looking for. Did Anubis still have a body and she just lost him? So was he running around in plain view of everyone else? Or had he turned back into a spirit again? And, in that case, she couldn't really ask anyone if they had seen him.
One thing Mia did know, she had to find that room again. Something told her it may be the answer. As such, her entire evening was spent alone, searching the halls and doors for that room. She retraced her steps the best she could remember, but she could not find it. Even when she tried to describe the place to the servants, no one knew what she was talking about. It was as if it did not exist in the castle. And maybe it didn't.
Hariel had put them in that room with his powers. While in that room, Mia never experienced the "black ooze" her friends told her about that had swallowed up the world. And maybe, Anubis could be the way he had been only because of that room. He may still even be in there, but now the room was gone.
But that didn't stop Mia. Her stubbornness refused to admit it. No way he was gone for good just like that. If not solid, his spirit still had to be around there somewhere. Even more determined, she searched the castle twice over; even the long, dark tunnels beneath it. Wandering alone by herself in the dark made her anxiety worse. In the back of her mind she knew even if he was a spirit again, she wouldn't be able to see him. A priestess had given her that ability to see the dead. And now that priestess no longer had those powers.
Hours and hours she prowled the halls, searching, hoping. Yet, she found nothing and the heaviness on her heart grew worse. Finally, she took the turn down the hall that held the Ronins' bedrooms. She knew it was late, but she was hoping maybe she would see a light under one of their doors. She hoped to maybe talk to Ryo or Cye. But Rowen was such a night owl, she would settle for him if he was the only one awake. Kento's was the first door and not only was there a light peeking out from under it, but there were several male voices coming from it as well.
Mia didn't blame them. The group never could sleep after a big fight. She hesitated for a moment, hating to interrupt them, but then knocked on the door. The talking quieted down and then the door opened. Cye was the one standing in the doorway and he could immediately see by the torch light the heaviness in Mia's eyes.
"Mia?" he asked quietly. "What's wrong?"
That question did it. Mia had originally intended to have a nice, civil talk about what was going on. But the look in Cye's eyes and how he asked her; Mia couldn't hold back. The flood gates opened and Mia burst into tears, throwing herself at him, clutching him and shaking as she sobbed.
Robyn wasn't sleeping either that night. She had napped all day, only waking to eat or go to the bathroom. She had been exhausted and weak, but when she did sleep, she found she got little rest from it. She was still trying to sort out all the thoughts and memories left over in her head from the ordeal. When she was awake, it was more manageable. It seemed more like it all happened on a movie screen and she had just watched it. When she was sleeping, however, bits of that other personality came to her, thinking thoughts for her. Her hurt was Robyn's hurt and her hate was Robyn's hate. The images stirred her dreams and made sleep unbearable; rest impossible.
Even after the dream when her eyes were open, her heart would still ache as if it were broken. It made her restless and sad and lonely, laying in bed in the pitch dark and the stillness.
Unable to stand it any more, Robyn got up and pulled on a heavy robe. She poked her head out of her room to see if anyone was around and then set out down the halls towards the Ronin's sleeping quarters, hoping one of them was still awake. When she rounded the corner, she heard a knocking and then a door opening. She peeked around the bend just in time to see Mia throw herself at the person standing in the doorway. She cried loudly and sobbed Cye's name as he held her back and whispered soothing words to her.
Robyn had no idea what Mia's problem was, but the sound of pain in her voice made Robyn's heart go out to her. Mia needed her friends right now and Robyn was not going to interfere with that. As the door closed and the halls went dark once again, Robyn turned around to wander the halls some more. Maybe that would get the restlessness out of her and she could go back to bed.
Her wanderings took her past a large, open balcony and Robyn stopped to catch her breath She panted a bit, leaning against the wall, spent. It would still be a few more days before she got her full strength back.
Outside, despite it being the dead of night, it was so bright outside. White was everywhere and the snow was still falling. It was surprisingly warm for a winter night. The thick robe and shoes Robyn was wearing was enough to keep her warm for now. There was an awning stretched over the balcony to keep the snow off it so Robyn stepped out to gaze at the countryside. It was so quiet and beautiful. But she still hated it.
She flinched as a familiar pain came back to her side. Though it was healed, there was still an ugly scar where she had been stabbed and it ached insistently like an old wound when the weather was bad. A mixture of confusing emotions welled up in her again and Robyn felt a bit overwhelmed by it all. She stepped back to lean against the threshold of the balcony and slowly slid her back down it until she was sitting. There, she pulled up her legs, wrapping them in her robe and tucked her head into her arms.
Robyn sat there for a while, trying to pretend she was in a smaller space. Big spaces were less comforting, but if she drew in on herself, she could make a smaller, personal space and everything would be all right. Robyn shut her eyes tight, rocking a little. She tried to close out the castle, all the big space around her. She tried to block out the stillness and the darkness and the loneliness. Just like she used to do when she was young.
After a while, Robyn thought she heard a person's foot steps coming up the corridor. They stopped next to her and she was sure she felt a hand rest lightly on her head. Looking up, Robyn expected to see someone standing before her. At least a human someone. But there was only a white tiger sitting in front of her, his long tail swaying softly from side to side.
"Oh, White Blaze!" Robyn sighed as she crawled over to him. "It's so good to see you, beautiful boy."
She hugged the tiger around the neck and then set about scratching him in all his favorite places. "Where have you been, huh? Did you get through all this okay?" She cooed as she rubbed his face and ears. White Blaze rumbled a happy purr in reply. "This place isn't like home, is it? You homesick yet, White Blaze?"
The tiger gave a catish whine and butted his head against her shoulder.
"Yeah, me, too," Robyn agreed sadly. She snuggled under White Blaze's chin and pressed against his furry chest. "I want to go home."
White Blaze continued to purr comfortingly and allowed Robyn to stay where she was until she became drowsy again. Robyn fought against the fatigue, but the warm fur and then gentle rumble of the tiger's purring was too enticing. As she drifted off to sleep, Robyn thought, in the haze of her dream-like state, that she was lifted up into a man's arms. Though she didn't know his face, he felt familiar as he carried her back to her room and placed her in bed. Then, she could have sworn that person climbed onto the bed next to her, but the last thing she was aware of was White Blaze's warm, furry body and his gentle purring as she snuggled up against him and fell asleep.
This time, Robyn slept peacefully and the extra voices and emotions plagued her no more that night.
Ryo awoke to the sound of a rooster crowing somewhere out in the courtyard. He sat up and stretched, feeling the kinks in his back. He was still in Kento's room. As were the rest of them. Bodies were laying all about the place, draped and buried over various pillows and blankets. They had spent the whole night talking until everyone had fallen asleep. Sometime during the night, Rowen had wandered back to the bed and was now sprawled across it in luxury. Mia was slumbering between Kento and Cye on the floor amongst a group of pillows. Everyone was asleep.
At least, that was what Ryo thought until he looked to his other side and saw Sage. The blonde had been laying still the entire time, but his eyes were open, looking at Ryo. Apparently, Sage was even being a bit lazier that morning. Even though he was awake, wasn't about to get up until he absolutely had to. Ryo smiled at him. Sage returned it with a tighter smile and got up, straightening his clothes. Their movement aroused Kento, Mia, and Cye from their sleep.
"Morning everyone!" Mia greeted as she stretched. "I can't believe we stayed here all night."
"I think we earned it," Cye replied, popping his back. "Everything's been so crazy. It was nice just to sit and talk after it was all over."
Mia grinned and hugged him around the shoulders. Cye was such a great friend. She loved him for that.
"Hey, where's my good morning hug?" Kento whined in jealousy.
Mia was about to comply when Cye jumped in. "I don't think that's a good idea," he grinned. "You're still injured. Mia wouldn't want to hurt you."
"Oh, that's right," Mia added with a sly smile. "I definitely wouldn't want to hurt you, Kento. I'll just give Cye your hug, too."
"Aww.." Kento whined as Cye grinned triumphantly.
"So who's getting him up?" Sage asked as he eyed the sprawled, slumbering Rowen.
"Oh me! ME!" Kento volunteered. Injured or not, he happily launched himself at the bed, thus making himself the target of Rowen's anger when he was torn from his beloved sleep.
After everyone was awake, they got dressed and headed to the dinning area for breakfast. They were all a bit hesitant about going there. They didn't know who would show up or how awkward it would be. The only other person there at first was Miniko. She greeted them politely and it was obvious from her face that she was glad the whole ordeal was over and she was happy about how it turned out. Everyone sat down to eat in silence. Mia noticed with a bit of amusement how eagerly her boys dug into the food. They must have been starving.
A bit later, breakfast was paused as Queen Laelia came into the room. Her face was a little bruised from her attack, but she still held herself with confidence. The group stopped to show their respect to her and then resumed eating after she sat down. It was quiet again for a moment longer until Miniko spoke.
"Um, your Highness?" she asked shyly. "Have you heard from the troops? When will they return?"
"I heard they're about two days march from here, Lady Strata," Laelia nodded. "When they return, we'll throw a big feast for all our weary soldiers."
Miniko nodded happily, but then her smile faded as she thought of something. "I"m not really Lady Strata any more, am I?"
The Ronins all looked blankly at her. Even Rowen shrugged. "According to what Hariel told us, everything was reset. The armors went back to where ever they came from and the priestess seal was broken. But we don't have any idea what that means for us."
Miniko accepted that as a well enough answer and went back to her breakfast.
No one really noticed, but Queen Laelia hadn't touched her food. She just sat there quietly, chewing her lip as her brain chewed on something else.
"Lady Hardro--er, Robyn. Is she...she's doing okay, right?"
A few of the Ronins stopped eating to look at her.
"She was fine last I saw her," said Kento who had not stopped eating.
"She could have ended this world if she wanted to," the queen continued quietly. "But she didn't. Even how she was treated and what happened to her. Will she be able to come out to join us for breakfast?"
"I don't see why not?" Cye said thoughtfully. "She's usually up by now."
"Maybe she's hanging out with that hot friend of hers," Rowen suggested. "What? She IS!" He insisted after getting a couple of glares his way.
A servant girl was sent to answer their questions. She came back a few moments later and bowed to the young queen. "Your Highness, the other guess is still sleeping. However, Lady Robyn left the castle early this morning, saying she would be back later."
There was clattering of a few utensils as a couple bodies jumped from their chairs.
"She left?" Kento exclaimed. "Where does she think she's going? It's snowing blankets outside!"
Cye and Sage both shook their heads. They hadn't a clue where Robyn thought she needed to be so early in the morning.
"Hm, I might know," Ryo offered. "It's the only place I can think of."
The others looked at him expectantly.
A while later, the five young men and Mia had all dressed in winter gear and were tromping out into the village just outside the castle grounds. Ryo was leading the way, making a bee line to a certain destination that the others could only guess at.
"How do you know about this place, Ryo?" Rowen wondered. He paused to look behind him, his breath steaming in the cold air. They had already walked clear through the village, how much further were they going to go?
"That's our secret," Ryo grinned smugly and Rowen narrowed his eyes at him in mock annoyance.
Up ahead, the cottages dispersed and nothing but pure, white fields were splayed before them. Most of the countryside was flat, but Ryo led them over to a section with hills and then trees scattered behind it. There was one particular hill all by itself with a large tree growing on top. Also on that hill was a figure. Her mahogany coat stood out starkly from the white background. As they neared, Ryo started to notice she was not alone. There was another figure much harder to see amongst all the white. Ryo's face brightened as he saw it.
"White Blaze!" Ryo broke into a run, practically tackling the tiger as he threw his arms around the animal. "Oh! It's so good to see you, buddy! I thought we might have lost you."
White Blaze in turn butted his head against Ryo's shoulder and purred that he was glad to be back, too.
The others all slowly approached and Robyn still had made no motion to acknowledge them. Her attention was focused on the tree. She had a dagger in hand was slowly chipping away at the bark, working her way over an etching that had been there previously. Her breath was heavy despite the small task. Her strength still wasn't back yet and she was favoring her side where she had been wounded, using her left arm to cradle it as she stabbed at the tree.
The group all gathered around her and watched silently as she finished her chore. Then Robyn stepped back to admire her work, still panting a bit. A new heart was etched into the tree over the old one. Inside it, it read "Robin +" and the rest was blank.
"I don't know his name," Robyn admitted. "The guy she loved. The other Hardrock. She never told me his name."
"Oh no!" Kento exclaimed, slapping his palm to his forehead. "I didn't ask that guy his name either!"
"You MET him?" Rowen asked. "When was this?"
Kento gave a weak smile. "Heh, a little after I got back to the castle. It's a long story. One to save for those "catch up" times."
"I'd be interested in hearing that," Sage put in. "I've been wondering what you were up to while we were gone."
"Like why you decided to kiss Sage," Cye snickered.
Kento dove on his friend and they both tumbled down the hill, covered in snow. There were shouts and protests from both of them, but Kento didn't let Cye up until he was properly white washed all around.
"I'm sure it's fine," Rowen said, standing at the other side of the tree, scrutinizing the words etched on the bark.
Robyn looked at the tree dubiously, reaching out a hand to touch the new cuts she had made. "I don't really understand it all. Is it really something so powerful that it could affect an entire world this much?"
As he stood next to her, Ryo was unsure for a moment, wondering what "it" was. But then he looked at her face and saw a familiar look of confusion there. She always gave him and his friends a mild version of that look whenever they went out of their way for her; whenever they were trying to protect her. She also had that look on her face after she had stopped the Sealing Ceremony.
"I don't have a lot of experience with any kind of love. I don't think I really understand it," she had said.
Ryo watched her and the uncertainty he read on her face as she gazed at the tree. Robyn grew up in a world where love and affection were scarce and it left her unfamiliar with how to react to it and what it felt like to love and be loved in return. Ryo took this into consideration. He now understood that if he were to get Robyn to understand his feelings, he might have to try a bit harder than most to do it.
"Hey, don't worry about it. Cheer up okay," Ryo then offered, putting a hand on her thin shoulder. "We're going to have a banquet in a few days when the army gets back. That will be fun, right?"
Robyn's shoulders shuddered before she spun around, pressing herself to a surprised Ryo and hiding her face in the base of his neck. "Get me out of here, please," she choked. "I can't stand this place, I want to leave. Please take me home."
Ryo's arms instantly went around her, pulling her closer. He rested his check against her temple as he stroked her hair. He had been waiting a while to hold her like this and he didn't care who saw it.
"Yeah," Ryo said gently. "Don't worry. I'll get you out of here. I'll get you home."
He gentle began to lead her back towards the village and the castle, calling for his friends to follow. Slowly, they all moved to join them. One lingered behind, taking a moment to touch the freshly carved heart. He looked over the "Robin +" etched into the bark and then brushed his fingers over the place where the other name should be before moving to follow after his friends.
While Ryo went off to see to his promise about getting them back home as soon as possible, Robyn went off to the stables. If she was going to be leaving, she wanted to say good-bye to Seiji before she did. Kento went with her to also say his last words to his traveling buddy. Rowen was there, too, to "keep it even" he said, as Cye and Sage went with Ryo.
As soon as the three entered the stables, Seiji perked up and snorted excitedly. Robyn squealed and ran over to the white dragon, hugging him around the neck and kissing his cold nose.
"Wow, look how big you've grown, Seiji!" she exclaimed. "You're almost a full grown dragon, aren't you?"
"Yup," Kento agreed. "He even learned to fly a bit when I was with him. Your friend got to ride him. I think she enjoyed that."
"Oh yay, Seiji! Flying!" Robyn continued to baby talk the dragon that was now larger than a hippo. "Soon you'll be big enough that you can fly wild with the other dragons."
"I don't think he will," Myune said as she walked in. "He likes people too much."
All eyes turned to look at her. Kento stiffened a bit in her presence, but made no other move. Rowen, however, hardly gave Robyn a chance to realize who was standing there before he stepped in between them.
"You have nothing to fear from me," Myune continued calmly. "The priestess seal was broken. I don't have any of those powers any more."
"I'm willing to bet all your bitch powers are still in tact," Rowen snapped.
"Rowen!" Kento responded, surprised at the bitterness his friend displayed. Sure, he didn't like Myune much either, but still. It was a bit uncalled for.
"No!" Rowen shot back. "She was wrong! All this time she tried to kill Robyn and undermine the rest of us. Yet it was what we did and what Robyn did that saved this place. She didn't do a damn thing! I don't care if she came here to start a fight or apologize or what. She lost the privilege to say anything to Robyn directly. If she's got something to say, she can say it to me."
Behind his large frame, Robyn had to smile. Rowen was always like that. No matter what came at her, this was always his way. While the others ran to stop the danger head on, he, instead, would step in front of her to shield her. And she appreciated it. She felt safer when one of them was next to her rather than all of them off fighting far away to protect her. However, she still walked around him, sliding her arm in Rowen's. At first, it looked like she was hugging his arm for support. But it may have been she was doing it to keep Rowen in place.
"What do you want to say?" Robyn asked frankly.
"I just wanted to tell you this," Myune said evenly. "I did what I thought was best for this world and its people. I apologize for none of it."
Rowen stiffened and was about to retort, but Robyn tightened her hold on his arm and held him back.
"However," Myune continued. "I believe what you have done for this world was better than anything I could offer. My pride is hurt for losing my title, yes. But pride and title are a small price to pay for the lives of all these people." She paused before another thought came to her. "You know, Diana told me something once. She said she had wished she had not agreed to be a priestess because mortal souls were not meant to do what we have done. As humans, we do not live forever and our spirits were fashioned accordingly. We were not meant to toil through existence after existence. We were meant for one life and then to a peaceful rest.
"Diana told me she was tired and I know she is happy now where she is. I, too, look forward to the day of final sleep where I will never have to come back to this kind of life. And for that, I thank you."
She bowed her head a bit and an uncomfortable silence filled the room.
"So, you owe me, then," Robyn surmised.
Myune blinked at her.
"You owe me a favor, so you need to take care of Seiji for me," Robyn announced.
Myune gaped, working her pretty mouth up and down, but not finding the words. Robyn was already leading Rowen off with Kento following behind.
"You're giving him to me?" Myune finally managed.
"An ice dragon for the ice queen," was all Robyn said as she left.
Myune wordlessly watched her go and then turned her attention to Seiji. The white dragon seemed to glare at her and snorted disapprovingly. Myune glared back. This was not going to be an easy partnership.
"Robyn!" Ryo cried enthusiastically as he ran up to her. "Shinsetsu said he'll open the portal for us. And I've got everyone together already assembled so we're ready to go."
Kento look at Ryo's eager face dubiously. He looked not unlike a puppy seeking approval from its master. Robyn had already let her face brighten at the news and that was all Ryo needed.
"Come on," he urged as he grabbed her hand in his and pulled her off.
Rowen looked down, not too pleased as Robyn was pulled away from him. Her hand lingered on his arm and then was gone as Ryo led her off. Once contact was severed, Rowen's shoulders visibly slumped and he trudged after them with a grinning Kento at his heels.
True to Ryo's word, Sage and Cye, along with Mia, Natalia and Miniko were gathered and waiting. They were outside on an extremely large balcony lightly dusted in snow.
Shinsetsu was waiting for them, too, White Blaze at his side. There was a portal already open. Robyn stepped out into the winter air, her breath coming out in small puffs.
"Ready to go home?" Cye smiled.
"So ready," Robyn grinned. She rubbed her arms. The material of her sleeves was thin and didn't do too much to protect her from the chill.
Something heavy fell on her shoulders as Ryo took of his winter robe and put it on her. Then put his arms around her, hugging her shoulders from behind. Robyn seemed a bit surprised at the action as well as a few others, but ultimately was happy at being warmer and let it go.
"Are you sure you won't reconsider waiting a few days?" Shinsetsu pleaded. "You have done so much for us and we have yet to do anything to fully show our gratitude to you. The army will be back in a day or two and we'll be throwing a great party and a feast. Wouldn't you like to stay? You would be our guests of honor."
Robyn held her tongue. She was the one wanted to leave immediately. But if her friends wanted to stay for the party...
"No," Ryo insisted over Robyn's head. "We need to be home. It's been too long. We need to go back."
"Very well," Shinsetsu relented. He motioned towards the portal.
"Wait!" Queen Laelia called as she ran onto the balcony, panting and out of breath. "You can't go yet! My people want to thank you."
Confused, the warriors were going to ask her what she was talking about as she pointed to the edge of the balcony. It was so large, it took several good paces to get to the other side. Once they peeked their heads over, a roar erupted from the crowd below. All five warriors just stared for a while, unsure of what to do.
"We will never forget what happened here," Queen Laelia told them. "We will always remember how you saved out world and we will fix our mistakes and make Falnan a better place with better people. I promise it."
"Wow, listen to that," Rowen marveled, looking over the crowd.
Sage stood quiet and reflective next to him.
"It's about time we got some praise for the work we do," Kento added as he waved, getting even more cheers. "Feels kind of nice, right Cye?"
"Yeah," Cye grinned. "It's not too bad. Though I think we did more than you."
"Them's fighting words," Kento shot back. "Maybe we need to settle this in my back yard when we get back," he ginned.
Cye laughed. "Anytime."
"Hey Robyn," Ryo called. "Come look at this. You did a lot, t-"
He trailed off when he looked behind him and all he saw was the back of Robyn's head and the tip of a white tiger tail disappear into the portal. Ryo's questioning eyes wandered over to Mia who shrugged at him.
"Well I guess the rest of us should get going," Cye announced. He gave one last wave to the crowd and then wandered over to Mia to escort her.
"I'm all for that," Kento agreed. "Come on," he called to Natalia. She happily grabbed his arm to join him.
"Are you coming, Min?" Mia called to Miniko.
Miniko shook her head with a smile. "No." She looked fondly towards the hills where the army would be returning. "There's nothing for me back in that world. I think my place is here."
Mia smiled knowingly and gave Miniko a hug, wishing her luck. Everyone began to say their good byes before shuffling for the portal.
As Ryo took his turn to go through, he turned to Shinsetsu.
"This means we will be leaving our armors here in this world, doesn't it?" he questioned.
"I believe it does," Shinsetsu nodded.
"Does this mean we are no longer Ronin Warriors?"
The blind old man smiled as he shook his head. "My dear boy, until the day you die, you will always be ronin for you allow no master to tell you who or how to fight. And you will always be warriors, for you never let evil go unchallenged."
Ryo nodded, satisfied with the answer and walked into the portal.
Rowen, was one of the last ones through. He paused in front of Shinsetsu and grinned. "You know, everyone's supposed to bow to you, but you'd never really be able to tell if they were or not, would you?"
Shinsetsu actually frowned at him.
Laelia ran over to him, her face sad. "I wish you didn't have to go," she admitted to Rowen's slight discomfort. "Promise you won't forget me?"
To this, the smile returned to Rowen's face and he placed a hand on her head. "I don't think I could forget this place if I tried."
The little queen looked happy for a moment, then her face turned to one of shock as she caught the meaning in his statement. "HEY!" she demanded, not looking pleased at all.
Rowen laughed and looked as though he was going to say something else, but Sage, who was the last in line, grabbed his shoulders and shoved him into the portal. He then turned to the awe struck queen.
"Don't mind him, he's an idiot," Sage informed her. And with his last words he informed her "You can do better." And then he was gone.
With the blonde warrior in, the portal closed in on itself, locking the fantasy world from their saviors.
"It's so good to be back!" Kento exclaimed as he ran out of the portal into Mia's living room. "Yes! Modern transportation! Electricity! Plumbing!"
"Oh, I second that," Natalia agreed. "Man, I want a real shower. And a razor. I need to shave my legs in a bad way." She paused. "Wait. Where is this place, anyway?"
"This is Mia's house," Cye offered. "I don't know how they did it, but they sent us back to Toyama."
Natalia balked. "Toyama JAPAN?! Robyn, did you know about this? Robyn?"
They all looked around for the redhead.
"What'd she do? Keep running out the door?" Kento joked.
"I don't see White Blaze either," Rowen said.
"She didn't end up back where I live, did she?" Natalia demanded. "Because that just isn't fair."
"Your friend isn't here right now," said a new, female voice.
It was hitting evening now in Toyama and everyone looked about the room in the fading light.
"There," Sage said, pointing out a figure sitting in a chair in the shadows.
Mia instantly chose Cye to hide behind from the stranger in her house.
"Who are you and why are you in Mia's house?" Kento demanded, jumping in front of everyone and pointing a finger at the intruder.
"And where is my tiger?" Ryo joined in. "And Robyn?"
The figure shook her head at the group. Slowly, like a cat, the stranger stood and they could see the intruder was female. She was lithe, not too tall and walked forward with a certain grace about her.
"Such hostility." Her voice was smooth with an underlaying tone of danger. Like a dagger wrapped in silk.
There was something about her that made the whole group step back as she approached. As she stepped into the last remaining rays of sunlight, her face was illuminated. Short, dark hair combed forward over the side of her face, leaving only one eye in plain view. Her lips curled into an unsettling smile.
"Don't tell me you've forgotten me." Her gaze turned specifically to Rowen. "...Strata..."
Rowen backed up right into the couch, his eyes wide. That voice saying his name. He knew that voice. He heard it in his dreams, still. He knew exactly who it was.
Author's Notes: That is it kids! That's all she wrote! I hope you enjoyed "Guardian Souls" and a big thank you to everyone who stuck with me to the end. Now that it's finally finished, I would really love to hear what my readers thought of this story as a whole. I would love to hear any and all opinions and I hope you will all join me in the second fic of this trilogy coming up in 2007. The link to my author's notes and thoughts on this story as a whole can be found on my profile page.