Rasetsunyo was jerked awake by shouting coming from the area of the main gate. Metal clanged against metal, the barest hint of that same metal catching in a dulled moon that barely illuminated the night. It took her a moment longer to realize that the army had returned, months ahead of when they were expected. While it wasn't uncommon for her husband to return early from a campaigne, it was very unsual for him to return in the dead of night. Gyumaoh enjoyed nothing more than coming back to Houtu Castle in all the glory and triumph of victory. He thrived on creating a terrifying spectacle to his subjects just as much as the bloody slaughter that inevitably occurred before such a defeat. So why would he decide to return now, when no one could admire and fear his strength?
Her hope that perhaps it was because the cruel King had finally met his match and died on the field was quickly crushed when she heard his thunderous bellow ring out across the open landscaping. This disppointment was closely followed by a fear that came close to choking her. What if they returned like this because the prince was hurt? Rasetsunyo was immediately out of bed and racing for the door, images of her only son bleeding and near death pounding away in her head. She kept repeating his name over and over like a prayer to the gods, and so desperate was this prayer that she hadn't noticed her guards rushing just behind her. Together, they sprinted through the halls that were just beginning to crowd with nobles and servants alike, all of whom were wondering what all the commotion was.
"SEAL THAT GATE SHUT! NO ONE GETS IN OR OUT!"
What... seal the gate? Rasetsunyo rounded the final turn leading to the main entry, shoving her way to the front of the gaping crowd to face her husband as soon as he came bursting through the doors. Her fear was turning to searing ire, her fingers curled into tight fists that shook at her sides. If her son was dead because of that vile man she called 'husband', then Gyumaoh had better kill her and kill her quickly. She was the only person who didn't flinch back as the heavy steel doors were slammed open hard enough to shake the stonework of the ceiling. Bits of dust particles and rock chippings sprinkled down on those who cowarded before Gyumaoh's dark, bulking presence.
The cloud of fear that circled him immediately took the entire room and even sent a shiver down Rasetsunyo's spine. Unlike those who backed still further away from her husband, she took one step closer, her breath catching in her throat as more of that incredibly thick power wrapped around her skin. "My lord, is there anything the matter?" she questioned coldly, her pride returning stronger than before when her voice didn't show her unease.
"We were attacked by that piss-sucking Dragon from the West, that's what," the Demon King roared in her face. His black eyes stood out against the angry red blood rush to his face as he glowered down at her from above.
Rasetsunyo felt her eyes widen as she touched shaking fingertips to her lips. The Dragon King... Lord Gojun. She'd grown up hearing stories of him. Stories that had once fascinated and amazed, but now terrified her far more than her husband ever had or could. "My lord, is-,"
"Of course he couldn't face us man-to-man! That pasty bastard amushed us in the mountains," Gyumaoh continued to rant. He glared around the hall, eyes burning like dark coals in a fire pit. "I want every man in this castle armed and ready for the approach of the Heavenly Army NOW!"
Horrified murmurs began to ripple back through those gathered as soldiers moved through the people and grabbed any man or able bodied boy they could find. Rasetsunyo knew very well why they were all cold with dread. If the Heavenly Army had been dispatched, then the War Prince Nataku had to be with them. So... the gods had finally noticed Gyumaoh's activities, had they? And it had only taken, what, eighteen years for them to finally open their eyes? She blinked herself out of her shock, scanning the faces of the army that began to file in from the outer courtyard, looking for one face in particular amongst the masses. Her heart began to sink heavily as the ranks thinned out, and nearly stopped when the steel doors were shut and locked firmly in place.
It took her several shallow breaths before she returned her gaze to her husband's back. Gyumaoh was still shouting orders at those around him, completely oblivious to her deadly glare. She continued to force controled breaths into her lungs as she stepped around his hulking form and got his attention once again. "My lord, where is my son?" she demanded.
"My son," he corrected her with a contemptuous sneer. "Has been taken prisoner by that damned Dragon. He pathetically ordered his forces to surrender instead of fighting to the very last man!" He made a scoffing noise, his dark eyes glaring maliciously at the barricaded gates. "I ask for a son, and you give me a daughter."
The sharp crack of her hand meeting his face caused all activity in the hall to come to a screeching hault. Rasetsunyo felt her own heated glare meet his slightly shocked one head on. She knew the consequences of striking at him in public were going to be painful, but she was to the point now of no longer caring. He'd lost the one thing he could hold over her. Without Kougaiji to ensure she behave accordingly, she could now vent the pent up rage of eighteen years if his abuse. Eighteen years of being forced into his bed, beaten and treated with less regard than a dog. Eighteen long years of watching her entire world shatter around her, of everything she'd ever loved being taken from her and replaced with his blood soaked images. What was simply a matter of convenience between two powerful youkai bloodlines had become a nightmare she was now waking herself from.
Gyumaoh took a menacing step closer to her, his black eyes flaring angrily as his entire frame shook with that same rage. Black tendrils of his power began to creep through the room, casting its chillness over all those it touched and making the cower away. Rasetsunyo stood her ground, uneffected by it. She'd felt it before. It was an illusion at best, one designed to create fear to subdue the masses with little to no fight needed. The great Gyumaoh, self proclaimed King fo the Youkai, was nothing more than a cheap magician. She smiled into his rage, relishing in the confused flash that shot through his eyes. Slowly, she stepped back, showing the living flame she held contained in her hands. His eyes widened as he saw those flames start to shift into faces. The faces of true demons, ones locked in the spirit world. She'd had eighteen years of him disappearing for months at a time to read through the old spells hidden in the dusty cellars of Houtu Castle. And, in those many years, she'd perfected the craft of summoning fiends with her fire.
"Do you really wish to test me now, my lord husband?" she taunted.
"Tough words for a bitch who'll take it anyway I stick it," he snarled back, slowly moving to circle her.
Rasetsunyo followed him, turning to keep her eyes on him. The fiends continued to pulse and flare against her tight control on them, beating hard against her power to be free and bring the man before her crumbling to his knees. For now, she held them closely, using them more as a threat of destruction rather than for the actual act of it. In the little time she'd seen her son between campaignes, she'd taught him as much as she could of the craft of summoning. Kougaiji knew the basics of it, and had shown a great ability for this type of conjuring. Now, though... She'd never be able to enjoy their lessons again. She'd never see the little quirk of his smile that very rarely ever came out any more, and usually only for her. They'd never have their conversations or their walks through her gardens again. And all of that taken from her by this pathetic piece of flesh trying to cow her with simple little illusions.
"When the Heavenly Army arrives, you had better pray that they kill you. If they don't, and my son is dead... Hell will be a paradise compared to what I will do to you," she said coldly, her voice no more than a whisper but containing so much hatred in it she was surprised the words didn't burn her own throat. She turned her back on him, signaling that their conversation was done and that he was nothing to her.
The growl of rage behind her was expected, as well as the heavy footsteps rushing toward her. Rasetsunyo was prepared for this, knowing she'd goaded him into action. She spune around again, releasing one of the fiends to act as a terrifying shield against his blade whistling toward her. Gyumaoh came to a hault, fuming and staring with unrestrained hatred at her. The fiend let out a screaching sound that made those around them cover their ears at it. Its duty was to the one who summoned it, and it would do its job to protect her. She could feel its own rage as well as assurance that it would obey her like they were her own thoughts. Unlike so much in her life at that moment, she trusted that this summoned creature would be true to its word.
"Hiding like always, Rasetsunyo?" a voice purred from her left. Pale blue robes came into view, framing creamy white skin and exotic turquois eyes perfectly.
Rasetsunyo smiled cruelly at her husband's whore. "So, you finally decided to get off of your back, Koushu? This is not the time or place for a concubine. I suggest you leave now before I give you a twin to the burn you already received."
Gyokumen Koushu smiled at her, full red lips curving sensuously across her carefully made up face. "My dearest lord, I have someone I want you to meet."
Both Rasetsunyo and Gyumaoh frowned as a small girl came from behind Koushu's back. Big green eyes darted from either of them back up to the whore, red hair hung in unruly waves around her tanned skin. And that marking... Rasetsunyo's eyes widened as she realized who this child was.
"Behold, your daughter, my lord," Koushu declared triumphantly. "Princess Lirin. When you return victorious from battle, you will no longer need her, my lord."
Gyumaoh was staring at the small, frightened girl with the type of softened shock he'd never shown to his own son. "Koushu... You devious wench," he shouted, laughing heartily. "After all these years of fucking you, I thought you couldn't conceive!"
Koushu's purred laughter filled the air as she cast a malicious glare at Rasetsunyo. "If I can have a daughter, then I can surely produce a son for my lord as well," she stated confidently.
Rasetsunyo felt her own lips twist cruelly at the jibe. "If you could have, you would have done so the first time around," she fired back. "How old is your whelp?"
"She's thirteen, and every bit his daughter I can assure you."
"I haven't raised the questioning of her sire yet, Koushu, but thank you for doing so in my place. So, for thirteen years you kept this girl hidden from the court?"
Koushu's back stiffened angrily and the girl next to her cringed and tried to step away from the bruising grip the paler woman had on her arm. "How dare you imply I slept with anyone but my beloved lord," she screamed. "Lord Gyumaoh is the ONLY man allowed into my bed!"
Rasetsunyo laugh cruelly, still keeping the fiend controled between herself and her husband. "Yes, and I'm certain you've said the exact same thing to his brothers, the captains of the army and even a few of the prettier serving men as well."
The concubine's enraged snarl and lunge for the queen was quickly cut off by the sound of multiple horns blowing just outside the main gates.
"They're here! The Heavenly Army is here, my lord!" one of the window look outs shouted fearfully.
Gyumaoh growled low in his throat before spinning his hardened glare back around on Rasetsunyo. "When I return, I'll personally execute your sorry ass myself! And to hell with your weakling son! Now that Koushu can give me what I need, I have no use for that pathetic little girl you dared to call my son and heir!"
Rasetsunyo let the slurring of Kougaiji go by without remark. She fed a little more power into the fiend and it snapped toward Gyumaooh, forcing the enormous warlord back a step. The beginning edges of fear curled through his gave as he realized he hadn't even begun to taste the amount of power she now possessed. "You would do well not to come back alive from battle at all, Gyumaoh," she warned again. She slowly withdrew the fiend, which gave one last piercing scream of rage before returning to the darkness she'd called it from. She walked away quickly from the main entry, her guards once again falling into place behind her.
Once they were out of ear shot and well on their way to her rooms, one of the guards whispered, "My queen, we must get you away from here, before the Heavenly Army attacks. Even if you aren't responsible for his actions, you are still his wife and will be punished for it. There's a secret way out of the castle, one that only a few know about. We can take you there and escort you back to your brothers."
"I won't leave, Kaedji," she stated firmly. "I still have a very good reason for remaining in this hell. He said Kougaiji was captured, not that he was dead yet. Thank you for your concern, but I can't."
"My queen... Please. None of us want to see you suffer any longer because of him," the other guard pleaded. "No one in Houtu Castle will miss him should he die. But you... My queen, we'll need you alive after the defeat, to help pull us back together."
Rasetsunyo heard their words, and was touched by their concern, but didn't they understand? She still had every reason to keep fighting, and to remain in this place. One very good reason, which was now in the hands of those who came to kill them all. She sighed heavily before reaching back to take both their hands and squeeze them. "Thank you both, for everything. But I can't abandon my son, not for anything in the world. I want you both to escort as many of our people as possible out through this hidden exit and take them to my brother's land to live peacefully. Tell my brother that my final wish is for him to protect those people and ensure they live happily in his service."
She smiled and released their hands, pushing the door to her room open. "You've been loyal to me for so long. Don't disobey or fail me now."
Both of the guards bowed and quickly turned away before she could see the tears in their eyes. Rasetsunyo felt her own tears surface at their concerns. The last eighteen years hadn't all been dark, she realized as she looked around her empty, lavishly furnished room. There were those little joys taken in between, little moments that broke through the heavy darkness like sunlight after a fierce storm. There were people she'd come to care about and regarded more as friends than servants. They did everything they possibly could to ensure she was kept as safe as possible from Gyumaoh and Koushu. They would engage his wrath whenever they could so that it didn't fall on her. They tasted food sent from the kitchen for poisoning. They stayed by her side day and night to ensure no one would attack her with her guard down. And, in return, she'd done everything she could to protect them in the same manner, and to provide them some measure of happiness in return during all the blood and war they were going through.
Rasetsunyo sank to her knees, arms wrapping around her waist as burning tears streaked down her cheeks. She glanced out her window, the one that looked down over the deep valley of the long dried up river. It was now littered over with the banners of Heaven's Army and the red glinting of metal catching the rising sun. She stood again, slowly walking toward that window, her thoughts now on the one she loved most in this world, imprisoned and possibly aware that his father was not going to do a thing about it.
Very well then. If Gyumaoh wouldn't, then she would go personally to the War Prince and see if she could possibly save her son. Once she had Kougaiji, she could leave this place to the destruction it so richly deserved.
It was full night when Rasetsunyo left her room, wearing a heavy, dark cloak to better hide her presence. Kaedji, despite her orders, had seen to it that the evacuation of the servants had begun, and was continuing on as discretely as possible. The halls were already noticeably emptier, the few servants remaining being the older ones who had quietly insisted on dying in their home. Kaedji was casting her worried glances as they moved silently through the castle, their shadows only a sligth shade darker than their own garments.
"My queen, are you certain of this?" he asked in a hissing whisper, leading her further down through the lower storage caverns.
Rasetsunyo nodded once, firmly, as she followed him through the darkness. "I have to try, and I have to keep trying until one of us dies, Kaedji. It's what any mother would do for her child."
The guard sighed but nodded. "I understand, my queen."
They continued walking until they came to the cavern that stored all the grain in the castle. Kaedji quickly glanced around to see if anyone was watching, then opened the door and allowed her to enter first. He moved toward the back wall, which was bare of any sacks of wheat being stacked against it. He mumbled to himself as he felt along the bricks, all of them looking nearly the same to her. A soft click and his triumphant little hum told her the secret way was now opened. Slowly, the entire wall pushed outward, revealing a damp, narrow tunnel that was lit dimly by moonlight. "This will take us directly to the beast pens, my queen. From there, it's only a short walk before we come to the army's camp."
Rasetsunyo took the hand he offered, not bothering to argue with the young guard about him remaining behind. He'd already insisted quite plainly that he was going with her, regardless of what she ordered. In a way, she was a little grateful to the young man for his stubborness on the matter. The shaking in her hand had nothing to do with the chillness of the passage way, and she was certain he knew that when he squeezed her hand warmly and tossed a reassuring smile over his shoulders. She managed to answer it back with a weaker smile of her own, lifting her skirts with her free hand to walk easier through the tunnel. The ground was a tangled mess of roots, chunks of brick and dirt and uneven cracks all about. More than once durning the walk was she glad that Kaedji had her hand or she would have tripped on herself.
They finally emerged into a moonlit night on the other side of the now empty beast pens. Apparently members of the Heavenly Army had come through and freed all the flying dragons that her brother had given to them for her wedding present. No one was about at the moment, but that didn't mean she expected to make it all the way to Prince Nataku's tent without detection. Kaedji released her hand as she took the lead, striding purposefully toward the torch lights completely exposed. Unlike Gyumaoh's army, which delighted in the spoils of war, these were professional soldiers she would be dealing with. Trying to sneak by their guard would be impossible. But then, she wasn't bothering to hide her intent anyway.
She saw the guards at the same moment they saw her. "This is your last chance for safety, Kaedji," she murmured, calling the fire of her power to her hands easily. The night air around her retreated in the flaming glow, her cloak sliding off her shoulders as she held her arms out, palms toward the darkened sky. "If you remain now, you'll be executed."
A sword rasped behind her as the man solidly stood his ground. "Queen Rasetsunyo, it's been my honor to serve you for these past eighteen years. I'd rather die here than live knowing I let you face an army alone," he replied.
Rasetsunyo smiled, but it was a cold one. "If that's how you feel, Kaedji, then I look forward to traveling with you to the afterlife."
The guards moved forward, spears lowered and pointed in their direction. Rasetsunyo swallowed back the fear uncurling in her stomach. This was perhaps the most foolish thing she'd ever done, standing with only her power and one swordsman at her back before an entire army of gods, but she would endure much worse than this in order to free her son.
"Halt right there! Declare yourself!"
She continued walking towards the pointed spears, whispering the chant under her breath to summon one of the hell demons from the spirit world. She felt it flare to life, and saw the looks of surprised horror on the faces of those immortal guards. A booming, searing roar of sounde rushed by her, blowing her hair free from its long braid to stream around her like darker flames made solid. The fiend rushed at the screaming soldiers, and when it touched them, they vaporized into its essence, feeding its already enormous aura with their own. People were coming from tents now, strapping armor and weapons in their haste to see what was going on. Eyes were wide as the fiend circled high up above, taking the shape of a fierce red face with flaming eyes. It opened its mouth and let out another blast of sound that vibrated the few standing trees and toppled the tents nearest to it.
"I am Queen Rasetsunyo," she declared loudly. She could feel the beast she'd called pulling at the thin leash of control she held over it. This was the most powerful one she had ever conjured, and it was straining to maintain her hold over the beast. It wanted more of their deaths, more immortal blood to soak into its essence. It obeyed her if only because she could promise it all that it wanted, but it would break free if given the chance. She had only a limited amount of time to work before she would have to return it to where it came from. "I am here for my son. Surrender Prince Kougaiji to me, and I will withdraw without further action."
"And what do you hope to do once he's free, Queen?" a low, cultured voice called over the nervous jittering of metal on metal. A tall figure broke free from the group, pale white in all the darkness surrounding him. Soft, scaled hide made gleaming ruby eyes stand out starkly in contrast. Pure white down was his hair and he wore the uniform of a top ranking official in the Heavenly Army.
"Lord Gojun, I presume?" she asked. The fiend snaked through the air around her, trailing flaming tails in its wake as it leisurely surveyed this new threat. There was something about the Dragon King that made the fiend cautious to attack openly, its slitted eyes narrowed even further as it hissed at the pale man.
"You presume correctly, Queen Rasetsunyo. And again, I repeat my question; what do you intend to do once the prince is free? Do you intend to run and hide? Or perhaps raise another army elsewhere to avenge his lordly father? If you run, we will follow. We cannot let of Gyumaoh's line remain unchained."
"He is not his father," she shouted back, her fury igniting the fiend into another enraged roar. The flames fanned around her brighter and made the front line of soldiers take one step back, leaving their lord and commanding officer more exposed.
"No, he's not," Gojun agreed, his ruby eyes flashing in the fire's glow but remaining as hard and cold as the jewels they resembled. "But he is still his son. He still carries that blood in his veins. There is no guarantee that he won't one day become like his father."
"Your assurance means nothing, Queen Rasetsunyo. While I understand your plite, and sympathize with a woman who comes from a such an honorable bloodline such as yourself, I cannot in good conscious free Prince Kougaiji. He stood at Gyumaoh's side through many slaughters, and he will therefore share the same fate as his father."
"You understand nothing, Dragon King," Rasetsunyo screamed, her entire body now shaking with the rage she felt. How could this stranger, this distantly removed god, possibly understand any of what she felt? How dare him presume to know anything about what she and her son had gone through! "Do you think my son willingly slaughtered those innocent people? Do you think it doesn't haunt him to know what he's done and how many countless lives were ruined because of what his father forced him to do? You speak of blood as if that's all there is to a person! If so, then Kougaiji is just as much of my blood as he is of his murdering sire's!"
"And yet, he did nothing to stop it either, Queen," the Dragon returned sharply, his own voice rising to cut through the raging fiend waiting to attack. "You've taught him the art of conjuring. You taught him to control the awesome power that is linked with your family. He is stronger than his father, and yet he remained quiet and watched those lives be destroyed. Inaction is just as guilty as the act itself. I will only warn you this once, Queen Rasetsunyo. Withdraw, and you will be spared. Continue, and I won't hold my army back, not even for a grieving mother."
"How could anyone consumed with fear be expected to stand before that which causes them to fear?" she sneered bitterly. "You speak of things you know nothing about, and I will NOT be leaving here without my son!" Her screamed words carried through the ranks of the Heavenly Army, earning her a mixture of awed and pitying looks from those assembled. Some were gripping their weapons more tightly, anticipating the battle she had all but thrown at their feet. Rasetsunyo held onto that little thread of control still, the fiend pulsing with anxious energy to be freed completely.
"My queen...," Kaedji whispered from her side, his sword shaking a little and his eyes all for the dragon in human form.
The cold, stone like eyes blinked. That was the only indication she had that he was in any moved by her words. Slowly, steel rasped free from its sheath, the very action and sound drawn out dramatically before her. Cold metal flared brightly, casting her flames back in a razor sharp mirror image. Gojun, the Dragon King of the West, saluted her with his sword briefly. "Understand, Queen Rasetsunyo, that it has been more years than memory can recall since anyone has spoken to me as boldly as you have. For that, you have earned my respect, but not swayed me decision."
"Then, Dragon King, you better pray to those gods you serve that you are fire proof." And with that, Rasetsunyo released the fiend, who roared toward the army in greedy delight. Gojun dove to the side, rolling across the smoking ground and looking mildly surprised as the demon tore through his army, devouring dozens with each mouthful. She stood her ground and continued to chant under her breath, fueling the flames that circled her to a feverish pitch before allowing them to explode outward from her in a great whirlwind. Kaedji quickly pressed his back to hers, keeping as close as possible to the eye of that flaming hurricane. The Heavenly Army was in chaos, shouts coming to find all the water they could and douse the burning camp, others ordering an attack while still more called for a retreat.
"My queen... I had no idea..." Kaedji gasped, has back warm and damp with sweat as he still pressed close to her.
"Stay with me, Kaedji. If you don't move when I move, you'll be burned alive, do you understand?" she cautioned as she prepared to take a step toward the breaking line of soldiers.
"Yes, my queen!"
Satisfied the man knew his peril, Rasetsunyo began to move, using the surrounding fires as a shield and weapon at the same time. A ten foot radius around her prevented anyone from breaking through, and those unfortunate enough to get too close quickly caught fire. The fiend continued to swoop and soar around her, tearing the compact earth up as it dove for still more victims. Gojun was shiedling his eyes against the inferno, his sword still in hand as he stood confidently in her path. A simple thought from her had the fiend redirecting itself for the Dragon King instead, roaring in triumph as it came sparking through the night sky toward its intended victim.
Gojun saw his danger... and smiled before dropping to the ground to reveal a smaller figure she'd not seen before. All Rasetsunyo saw was a silver flash strike twice toward her beast before it broke into three pieces, howling in agony. It reformed itself, but whatever had happened made it feel fear for the first time ever in its existance. The pain wouldn't leave it and instead kept growing until it was near mindless with trying to get away from what was hurting it. Rasetsunyo let out a sharp cry, falling to her knees as that pain radiated through her, scorching through her brain and down her nerves until she doubted there was a squre inch of her body that couldn't feel it. It was like ten thousand little shocks of lightening striking her all over, turning her will the mush in its wake. She was losing her beast, her main offensive, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
She blinked, suddenly aware of how dark it was and that Kaedji was fighting above her kneeling form. Gods dove at them from all sides, and yet her swordsman fought them off. Blood trickled from his lips and he had more blood seeping through the heavy metal armor he wore. She couldn't remember dropping the flames, nor could she remember returning the fiend to its depths, but neither were there any longer. It was as if she'd lost precious important seconds while struggling with her internal battle. Slowly, she began to push to her feet, a small bit of fire coming to her hand as she summoned it.
Metal touched her neck, the edge of it sharp enough to leave a thin trickle of blood that slid down its edge. Rasetsunyo froze, her eyes traveling up the near-endless length of steel to see... a boy. A boy in rich silk robes and with the most brilliant shade of gold for eyes. Those eyes were hard and empty, as if their owner had disappeared and left a puppet behind to do the work. She knew without asking that this was the War Prince Nataku. She didn't bother to hide the surprise on her face from him. A boy was the weapon of the Heavenly Army? But... he was so young! Images of her own son being strapped into armor at thirteen came to mind and made her take a step closer to the boy before her, ignoring how the blade slid along her skin, extending the small gash from before.
The sounds of battle had stopped with her first step, Kaedji on one knee by her side and more dead gods than she could count scattered around him. Red splotches decorated his armor, and she didn't need to ask if it was his or others. Kaedji watched her closely, his breathing labored as he struggled to regain his own feet under the threat of swords and spears surrounding him. "Queen Rasetsunyo..."
"My lord prince, all I want is my son," she said to the boy, ignoring her swordsman and the shocked whispers running through the army as she continued to move down the length of blade and closer to the immobile prince. Her blood tickled against her skin as it slid down the curve her breasts and became soaked in her silk dress. The sword never waivered in its steadiness, and neither did his posture, but there was something in Nataku's dead eyes that sparked briefly. Confusion? Sadness? Whatever was there had to do with her request, which had caused him to remember something that didn't make him happy.
"Why? He surrendered to us," the boy prince said, his voice low and quiet, just as devoid of emotion as his eyes were again. "He failed in battle, why would you want him back?"
"Because, he's my son."
"I don't understand your answer."
Rasetsunyo knelt before Nataku, keeping their eye contact as she tried desperately to get him to see. Kougaiji was her only child, the only thing Gyumaoh had ever given her that she truly loved more than her own life. She would gladly die a thousand times a day for the next ten thousand years just for his freedom for one night. Nataku's golden eyes didn't bother to conceal his confusion, his dark brows furrowing tightly over the gleaming orbs. He lowered his sword completely, uncaring that it dragged on the ground beside him. How could he not understand a mother's love for her child? Surely, his own mother...
She understood then, why he was equally sad and confused. The War Prince was a weapon, used only when needed and locked away again when not. He'd never experienced the tenderness a parent could give. He'd never laughed with his parents, or cried on their shoulders. Nataku didn't understand her desperation because he'd never experienced the kind of love only a mother could have for her son. Rasetsunyo closed her eyes, bowing her head as tears burned their way free from her lashes. "I'm sorry, Prince Nataku, I have no way of explaining it that could make you understand. Kougaiji is my son, and I would kill more people than this army has to protect him from harm. It's what a mother should do for her child."
Nataku took a step back from her, his breath sucking into his lungs with a sharp hiss. "You're right. You can't explain it to me," he said bitterly. "I've heard people talk like this though, and I thought it was just a bunch of lies they tell to make themselves look like they really care. But... you would do it, wouldn't you? You're not lying when you said you'd kill more than our army to protect him."
Rasetsunyo returned her gaze to the pain filled golden ones, offering a sad smile through her tears. "I don't lie, my lord prince, especially when it concerns my son."
The boy nodded once and looked away, half closing his eyes so she couldn't see what he was thinking. "I do understand one thing," Nataku said softly and as if the words were being pulled from his throat slowly. None of the others around them could hear the words, spoken only for her ears alone. "I know what it's like to have a duty to others, and what it's like to be afraid of disobeying."
Any hope that had surfaced as they spoke was now crushed to the ground and broken so completely she doubted it would rise again. Rasetsunyo hung her head, her claws digging into the compact ground hard. She knew without a doubt that this boy could, and would, kill her should she continue to fight. It wasn't because of the powerful aura he cast about himself, or even the coldness to those metalic eyes. It was the fact that the War Prince was in the same position as her son; unhappy about the actions being taken, but too afraid to fight for a change. That was the knowledge that knocked the fight directly out of her. If she faced this boy, she would be dead and therefore be unable to help her son at all. Nataku took a step back, the sword rising again from the ground. Rasetsunyo waited for the words that would seal everything eternally in place.
"I will not let your son go, Queen Rasetsunyo," he said loud enough for the army to hear. "You can continue your attack if you want, but like Lord Gojun I won't hold back for a woman. Or, you can surrender to us and suffer the same fate as your son and husband."
Rasetsunyo slowly returned her gaze to the empty golden eyes that waited for her reply. A bitter twist of her lips came across her face as she stood slowly again. "If I surrender, my swordsman goes free. He was only defending me, after all."
"Are you surrendering then?"
"I am under that one condition. He's free to go and live his life peacefully."
Nataku nodded and said, "Fine. Let him go, and nobody's allowed to hurt him or hunt him down."
"Prince Nataku, you can't be serious!" someone shouted from the crowd.
"He is, and my sword will back his words," Gojun growled, glaring at the army as he took a step closer to the boy prince. "Let the man go, he's not as true a threat as this woman is."
Kaedji gaped at Rasetsunyo, eyes wide and filled with sorrow. "I'm sorry, my queen, but I swore an oathe-"
"-And I'm releasing you of it, Kaedji. Thank you for everything you've done for me, but I want you to live for yourself now."
The swordsman stared for a few moments longer before he turned glittering eyes away, clearing his throat harshly. "I'll... I'll go to your brother's then, my queen. I'll tell him what has happened. Perhaps he might be able to save you."
Rasetsunyo smiled for him because he was trying to give her hope again. Deep down, she knew there was nothing her brother could do to save her now. She'd made her choice long ago by accepting the marriage contract with Gyumaoh. She'd known then that the man would destroy anything and everything she held dear to her. All he knew how to do was destroy. It was the only thing Gyumaoh had ever been good at, really. If it hadn't been for Kougaiji... She most likely would have killed herself long ago. As soon as Kaedji slowly backed away, spears and swords were pointed around her in a bristling circle of steel. Rough hands shoved her forward to the ground before grabbing her wrists and twisting them up sharply behind her back.
"Don't do that," Nataku commanded sharply. The man who had been straddling her was shoved off of her back hard. She felt him topple over her outstretched legs before settling in the ground with an 'oof'.
"If she's a prisoner, Prince Nataku, she should be bound as one," a quiet voice said from directly behind the boy. A tall, thin man stepped forward, hair bound back tightly and eyes seemingly closed. And yet, for all his relaxed pose, Rasetsunyo felt shrewd eyes boring holes into her back as she pushed herself to her hands and knees, wincing a little at the little ache that flared from her lungs. The man had shoved her hard enough to knock the wind out of her.
"I said no!" Nataku shouted, whipping around angrily on the taller man. "She doesn't deserve to be bound up. Let her walk to where Prince Kougaiji is."
"And when there, what would you have us do?" the same man pressed.
Nataku turned again and met her gaze. His eyes were softer, that sadness from earlier creeping back in. "She won't run away. She knows there isn't a place in this world she could hide from the Heavenly Army. Let her remain free, but with her son."
"But... But she's a youkai!" another complained from the crowd. "They're nothing but animals, and they-,"
Gojun's sword whistled shrilly through the air, stopping just barely by the man's throat. The man gulped as a thin line of blood tinted the razor edge against his skin. "And she has acted more nobly than many who reside in Heaven. She's a queen. Treat her as such."
The man simply gulped again, relief flooding his features as that blade was slowly pulled away.
The Dragon King cast one final glare at the offensive soldier before sheathing his sword and holding a hand out for Rasetsunyo. She took it, shivering a little at the cool, soft scales that comprised his skin. Dirt covered the entire front of her dark dress, and she was certain it smudged her face as well, but she refused to lower her gaze from the white man staring at her. Defeated or not, he was right in saying that she was still royalty. She would meet her fate with her head held proudly. With Nataku leading the way, and Gojun walking alongside her, she was taken into the camp of the Heavenly Army and directly to the tent where Kougaiji was being held.
The flaps to the small tent were drawn back, and Kougaiji blinked in the sudden spill of torchlight across his face. It took him a moment of squinting before his eyes widened in horror and surprise. "Mother! What... How did you..."
Rasetsunyo went to him, kneeling in front of where he was chained to the ground by several metal wrings. A metal collar was fastened around his throat, a specially made gauntlet kept his arms all the way up to his elbows locked together, and chains bound his legs to the ground so that he could either kneel or lay down at his will. One side of his face was swollen and bruised an ugly shade of black, and she could tell there was more that disappeared beneath his shirt. Small patches of red stained the pale fabric of his shirt, but the garment itself didn't bear any cuts so the blood belonged to others. She smiled softly at him, pushing his long hair behind one of his tapered ears as she stared into eyes that were neither blue nor purple, the eyes of her family. He was completely bewildered and horrified she was there, his lips still working for words that couldn't ask the question for him.
She leaned in, wrapping her arms carefully around her son, and felt him lean into the embrace as best he could. In that one moment, everything was perfect in her world. Despite being the prisoner of the Heavenly Army and doomed to suffer whatever fate Gyumaoh had brought upon them. Her son was alive and with her again, even if it was for only a small amount of time. Slowly, she felt Kougaiji twisting free of her, and she drew back enough for him to cast a dark glare at Gojun and Nataku. "My mother is innocent of any crime. I demand she be escorted from here and to the safety of my uncle's house."
"Your mother," Gojun drawled with a tracery of respect and admiration in his voice, "Summoned a fiend so powerful it killed over a thousand of our soldiers to try and free you. She's commited a crime against Heaven and will therefore be punished for it."
Kougaiji turned to her, his eyes wide again. "Mother..."
Rasetsunyo pushed a few more pieces of hair gently from his face, still smiling softly at her horrified son. "If I thought killing a thousand more would have earned your freedom, I would have," she replied firmly.
"But... you shouldn't have to... And all because I was too weak..."
She jerked none too gently on his hair, earning her a wince as well as his attention. "I shouldn't have to? Kougaiji, I'm your mother, and there's nothing I wouldn't do for you. You know this. Yes, I regret that those lives were destroyed by my hand, but what was I to do? You are all that I have, and I am not going to let go of you so easily."
Hope flared in his eyes, a tentative little smile brushing across his lips. "Then you..."
Rasetsunyo shook her head, quick to kill that gleam to his eyes before it fully surfaced. "No, I didn't win your freedom. I lost in a fair battle against Prince Nataku. I'm to share the same fate as you, my son."
Fear rode across his features before fury took over. Kougaiji pulled hard on his confines, sending the metal groaning and creaking as it struggled to pin him in place. "NO! You can't kill my mother! I won't let you!" Burning anger smoldered in his glare as he struggled to free himself to face the two gods standing by the entrance.
"Who said anything about killing either of you?" Gojun asked. "It was decreed that the both of you would share in Gyumaoh's fate. War Prince Nataku will be facing the Demon King tomorrow in a one-on-one battle for total victory. Should Gyumaoh win, then you are both to be released to be free. I would suggest running far from here, as quickly as you can, should this happen. However, should Prince Nataku win..." He didn't need to finish the rest of the statement. Should Nataku kill Gyumaoh, then they would die as well.
For once, Rasetsunyo was praying that her husband remain alive. She glanced over her shoulder at the tall, white man and nodded once gravely. "We understand, Lord Gojun. May we have a moment to speak alone, as a mother and son?"
Gojun smiled coldly at her and shook his head, the long silk of his hair wisping with the movement. "Queen Rasetsunyo, I am not some new hatchling to be so easily fooled. There will always be a guard in this tent, so long as you remain unbound. I trust a woman's tongue as much as a man's sword."
She nodded again, not terribly surprised that her plan had failed. It was a flimsy excuse ate best, but it was still worth a try. She would keep trying until there was absolutely no hope left for either of them. "Am I allowed to clean his wounds at least?" she questioned.
The Dragon King nodded in the direction of a small bag and an empty silver bowl placed ona section of material on the ground. "It was already being seen to, shortly before you declared war on an army full of gods."
Rasetsunyo laughed softly at his words and the combination of irritation and admiration in his tone. It seemed the great Dragon couldn't decide if he was angry with her for the destruction of his troops or impressed that she had done it almost entirely alone. She leaned over enough to drag the items closer to her position and searched through the bag until she found the antiseptic and a rag. She soaked the rag in the cool liquid, holding it a moment in her hands to warm it before applying it to his bruised and cut cheek.
Kougaiji blushed a little and mumbled, "You don't have to do that, you know."
"I know. Is it alright if I want to?"
A pale ghost of his usual smile came and went as he closed his eyes and relaxed into her care. "I can't argue with you, mother."
"No," she agreed with a gentle laugh. "You certainly tried on a few occassions though. Do you remember when I caught you sneaking honey cakes from the kitchen?"
Kougaiji's blush spread even wider across his cheeks, showing faintly through the dark bruises marring his skin. "How can I forget? You told me I'd be sick if I ate too many of them..."
"... And to prove me wrong, you ate every last one in the kitchen."
"You were right. I don't recall ever being as sick as I was that night. I've never touched another one since."
Rasetsunyo gave him a playful little slap to his good cheek, her eyes shining with more than just amusement. So many, many happy memories together. So many personal jokes and stories. It was heartbreaking to know she wouldn't have a chance to create more with him.
Indigo eyes opened, containing a hint of their usual mischief despite the sadness that nearly swallowed his entire gaze. "And how about the time I thought it would be fun to skip stones across the river with your jewels."
"I remember that quite well," she replied with mock anger as she dabbed at a deep slash that ran along his collar bone. "I also remember how angry you were with me when I sent you to bed without supper or seeing the fireworks."
"I still snuck out and saw them," he admitted, the devilment coming out in a crooked twist of his lips. The one side of his face didn't seem inclined to support a full smile.
"You little brat!" she exclaimed. "No wonder you didn't seem too upset over breakfast."
"The fireflies in summer..."
"...And when you squished them to try and make your hands glow."
"It seemed like a good idea at the time!"
"Mmm... Yes, it's always a wonderful idea to rub mutilated insects over one's body."
"I was eight!"
"And old enough to know better."
Both of them shared smiles before silence fell. Rasetsunyo continued to care for him as best she could with him being bound. It was amazing how easily they could talk about the past joys with strangers present, but that was always how it was with her son. He was always a little shy at first, but once he started talking it was easy. She finished tending to him, sitting back on her knees with a sigh as she took in his battered appearance again. She sighed, running her hands down her dirt covered thighs, spreading her clawed fingers apart as she cast her eyes downward. "I should have fled this place the moment I realized I was pregnant," she murmured.
"If you'd done that, we both would have been dead a lot sooner," Kougaiji replied. "We wouldn't have had the honey cakes or the fireflies, or any of our conversations. I wouldn't sacrifice any of that, not for anything. As much as it's killing me to know why you're here... I'm glad it's you, mother."
She smiled, blinking through the tears that pulled to the surface at his words. It made her chest ache for the man (yes, he was a man now) before her. She moved forward again, hugging him as close to her as she could get before placing a quick, gentle kiss to his cheek. "Never in all my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would have a son who could bring me this much joy. Truly, Kougaiji, you are the most wonderful blessing a mother could ever wish for."
She heard shifting by the entrance and turned to look over her shoulder. Lord Gojun had left, but Prince Nataku remained fixed in place, that same expression of sad confusion twisting his dark brows. She felt pity for the boy prince who had never been shown the kind of love she gave so readily to her own son. How could any parent not give something so simple and so precious to their child? The very thought sickened her. Even Gyumaoh, for all his twisted cruelty, had shown something beyond cold hatred toward Kougaiji. Hadn't he been the one to boast the loudest of their son's first kill on the battlefield? Granted, it wasn't exactly the type of thing she wanted him to brag about, but it didn't change the fact that the self-proclaimed God of Death was more humane than War Prince Nataku's heavenly parents.
Nataku shifted again, his eyebrows creasing even further over liquid gold eyes. "What's it like?" he asked softly, still watching her stroke deep auburn hair back and beyond Kougaiji's pointed ears.
"What, my lord?" Rasetsunyo asked, half guessing what the question was and who it was directed at.
"To feel like that. What's it like to know someone loves you?" the young prince expanded, all eyes for her own young prince.
Kougaiji met that empty golden gaze steadily and replied, "Like nothing this world could offer, but everything at the same time. It's something you try to live for, but you'd die to protect it. That's the only way I can describe it."
The boy shifted again from foot to foot, casting his gaze down briefly before turning his back and making to leave the tent. "I wish I could lose tomorrow," he said quietly over his shoulder before disappearing through the flapping entrance of the tent.
Rasetsunyo stared after Nataku and knew that he'd meant the words... but that he also wouldn't lose the battle. She forced a fairly cheerful smile through the cold agony ripping at her heart as Kougaiji shifted as close to her as the chains would allow. The only consolation she had was that she could at least spend her last night in this world with.
Kougaiji stared up, the aching in his neck unnoticed as he gazed upon the sad, frozen face of his beloved mother. She'd committed one last sacrifice for him, much to his grief and horror. When they'd first learned that the War Prince had been unable to defeat Gyumaoh, they'd been ecstatic. That bit of joy was quickly crushed to powder when they were brought to the throne room to discover that, though Nataku hadn't been able to defeat the brutal war lord he had been able to seal him away, though it had cost him a great deal of power to do so. That was when his beautiful mother had quietly insisted that she be sealed next. It had taken Kougaiji a few precious seconds to realize why she'd insisted on it before he started pleading with her not to. The more energy Prince Nataku used to seal them away, the weaker that seal would be. She was going to take the second largest dosage of magic for him, so that perhaps one day he might be freed.
A part of him had died that day, destroyed as he'd watched the cold stone creep up her gown, freeze her hair to the rock pillar she'd been bound to. He'd refused to turn away, his eyes locked with hers for this final moment between them. He wanted her to know that everything she'd suffered and sacrificed for him did not go unnoticed or unappreciated. He had a father, but he'd never needed any parent but her. Not even the shock of discovering he had a sister who was to be sealed with them had made him look away from her. Even now, in the cold, hard stone that comprised her skin, he could trace the lingering trail of tears as she'd whispered a final good bye to him before the sealing spell took total effect. The last thing he remembered clearly was that her eyes had been afraid and sad, yet carrying an edge of triumph. Even in defeat, his mother had won the battle and gotten her way.
The hesitant scuffing of boots behind him, finally made him tip his head enough to gaze over his shoulder. Lirin came up beside him, chewing on her lower lip nervously as she, too, stared upward to where his mother was suspended, draped over with talismans and warding spells. "She looks way more pretty than my mom," his sister stated softly, green eyes wide and filled with a quiet awe that wasn't typical for her.
"She is the most beautiful woman in the world," he replied just as softly, squeezing the hand that curled almost nervously around his.
"Kougaiji... what'll happen later on?"
"What do you mean?"
"When she wakes up. I mean... will you wanna still play with me and all?"
Kougaiji cast his gaze down to big, green eyes now filled with a mixture of resignation and fear. Lirin was afraid of being tossed aside, but at the same time she expected it. He offered her a crooked little smile before squeezing her hand again. "Not a chance of that."
Relief swept over her features as she grinned back before returning to her somber, pensive expression. "Yaone says she'd like me, but Yaone's never met her."
"I think... mother would adore you."
"Really?" Lirin's grin and near adoring gaze was directed at the frozen woman staring down at them. "Even when I'm not so good?"
"Most especially then. Mother always did have a weak spot for mischief." He sighed, rubbing his thumb across the deceptively delicate knuckles on her hand as they stood together staring his mother's statue. After a few minutes of silence, Kougaiji tugged Lirin's hand and motioned with his head toward the door. "Come on. I think we need to pay a visit to a certain blonde monk."
"YAY! Let's go play with Baldy!"
Kougaiji watched Lirin sprint from the room, chanting all the while about the different ways she would kick Genjyo Sanzo's ass. He smiled tolerantly at her and shook his head before turning to look over his shoulder one final time. His beautiful, loving mother stared down from above, and he could almost swear some of the sadness had left her face. Or maybe he was just imagining things. He sighed and shut the door firmly after himself, all his focus shifting to defeating the monk and freeing her from that pillar of rock. Everyday, she'd fought for him, bled for him and suffered for him... And she did it with a smile and gentle look. Just as she said he was her reason for surviving, she was his reason for fighting. He would fight just as hard, bleed just as much and continue to suffer just to bring Rasetsunyo back. That was something the gods hadn't understood, hadn't anticipated from either of them. The bond between a good mother and her son was something that transcended time or reason. It was what gave them both strength and the will to keep battling on despite impossible odds.
Sighing again, Kougaiji tightened his hand into a fist and walked quickly to catch up with his sister. Soon enough, he would have everything that was taken from him back. All he needed to get was a scrap of paper off a human's shoulders.