Actors Wanted
Cross the Line of Fire
(Day 22)
By: Little Ucchan

He had been given an ultimatum. Plain and simple. Deliver Shiro's message to Tajhinn or Maki dies. Or Yume. Or a hoard of other people that had flashed by Kurumi's life; it didn't matter who. He'd kill someone.

A flicker of power pulsed within the glass beads around his wrist. Black eyes gave the glowing red surface a glance before the Chinese bracelet reverted back to its original color.

He interlaced his fingers together and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and, with a short sigh, continued to monitor Maki's breathing. After a few minutes of counting and thinking, Kurumi got up from his chair and opened his closet. He pushed aside a few boxes from the topmost shelf and, reaching back, pulled out a small, thin box. Undoing the cord around it, he lifted the lid and pulled out a circular disc the size of his palm. An intricate seal was carved into its iron surface. He frowned at the object in his hand as if it would burn him, then stuffed the box back in his closet and left the room.

The living room was dark, save for the light emanating from the kitchen. The shattered coffee mug still laid on the floor. The burnt piece of carpet would take longer to get rid of. And next to it, like a rattlesnake with its tail raised in warning, was Dario's chain weights.

Kurumi paused in front of it, his hand tightening around the disc. He had known Dario.

Kneeling by the weapon, he coiled the chains tighter and then looped his arm through it, shouldering the heavy metal. The links pinched through the fabric of his shirt to his skin, but he ignored it. He then walked to his front door, leaned down to put on his shoes, then placed the seal against the center of the door. It glowed once, then sunk itself into the wood.

His door disappeared, and in its place was a black void that seemed to stretch on without end.

Kurumi readjusted the load on his shoulder, then stepped through.

The world vanished. His sense of direction was momentarily shot and his feet held no contact with the ground. Then the world came to being again.

It was dark still, darker than the moonlight could have remedied. He was standing in the shadow of the castle's eastern wall. There was no guard at the side gate. With the type of demon hovering at watch around the castle, guards were never needed.

Sae lowered himself to the ground, his robes curling to a stop around him as his feet lightly touched the earth. A celestial being. That's what he reminded Kurumi of. An agent of the universe; a spy for a power greater than heaven and hell.

Fate.

He moved his left hand up against his thigh, pushing the beads down to his palm and slipping his ring and pinky fingers under the elastic band. Granted he was counting on Sae to be guarding the grounds, he'd rather fight any other BlackGuard member than this one. At least, with anyone else, he'd know when he was dead.

"I'm here to see the Demon Lord."

"Who is calling on him?"

Kurumi took in a small breath. "Kurumi," he answered and waited.

For a moment, the BlackGuard's 1st Rank Officer did not move. Then he blinked and turned around, walking through the eastern gate. "Follow me."


Lord Tajhinn was pacing at the front of his throne. No one else was in the room, so he had the faint luxury. He had cleared the audience hall, even of his general, for his next appointment. And, if all went well, it would stay that way.

A few moments ago, Sae had sent him a simple commute. Kurumi had come to see him. He flexed his fists behind his back in irritation.

It was a small comfort that, outside of the two of them, only Sae would know of this meeting. But still, seeing the former 6th Rank Officer did not put him at ease, not when he imagined their next meeting since he left three years ago to be in hell.

The double doors of the audience chamber swung open. In walked a lanky boy with short white hair followed by a red-haired man. Sae stopped two steps into the chamber and stood at attention at the entrance.

Tajhinn narrowed his eyes at the bundle around Kurumi's shoulder as he stepped further into the audience hall, stopping at the very center of the room, as was customary. His stance, however, was not. He did not stand at attention. In fact, disguised in his seemingly loose pose was a stance ready for battle at a moment's notice. The man, while his right arm gripped the chains around his shoulder, had the charm bracelet half way around his palm, two fingers underneath and holding the band taunt. The limiter at that position was still in effect, but with a flick of his fingers it would snap off his wrist.

He looked defiantly at the Demon Lord. 'Gloves on or off?' is what his eyes seemed to say. It was just like old times.

The Demon Lord kept his hands behind his back and stood casually in front of his throne, staring down at the young man. "Sae. No one is to come in here." He didn't remove his gaze from Kurumi's face. "Is that understood?"

Sae nodded once and left the hall. The double doors closed behind him.

Tajhinn raised his chin and frowned. "I hope you're here to tell me you picked that off the street."

"No. It was delivered to me. Can you guess by who?" Kurumi un-shouldered the weapon and dropped it at his feet. "I'm sure you know already. I can't imagine the many eyes and ears of the Demon Lord to possibly miss this man."

"Nor can I believe that your eyes in the Mortal Realm could either," Tajhinn retorted.

"I've made it a point not to associate myself with demons," Kurumi began nastily. "Surprise to find the one I hate the most to be standing in my living room."

"You've delivered your message. Now get out of here."

"Why is he alive?"

Tajhinn closed his eyes for a moment, both to calm the anger that Kurumi had so effortlessly managed to bring out, and to think over the mission's objective: confirmation. I hate being right. "For revenge, I assume," he answered with remarkable evenness.

Kurumi's eyes narrowed. "I can see that," he snapped. "Why isn't he dead, is what I mean. We killed him during the coup. There was no mistake."

"I am fully aware of what happened," Tajhinn reminded him testily. "I do not need you to personally come to my chambers and remind me of the failed attempts at my life." The Demon Lord huffed and shook his head. "Are you a fool? I can only give you so much refuge from the BlackGuard."

"I never asked you to protect me. Not that it matters now. Shiro's alive. And to be frank, I'm not going to stay around to be a pawn on you two's little chess board."

"Then leave," Tajhinn said. "No one's holding you here."

Kurumi growled. "It's not that easy."

"Yes it is. Stop pretending otherwise," Tajhinn snapped. "You could leave to any location in this world. Why you chose to stay here is still something I don't understand."

Kurumi remained silent.

"You can leave," Tajhinn repeated again. "And I suggest that you do, before this situation escalates any further. I thank you for coming here. I know how much it took for you to do it. But after this, get out of the city. You're right. You're not a part of this anymore, and you shouldn't be forced to play on either side."

"I'm not going to," Kurumi said. "And I will leave after some business is taken care of."

Some business? Tajhinn gave him a firm glare. "You misunderstand. You're not taking part in this, period. Leo is dead. And he will remain that way."

"I'm sure Leo would love to stay in his grave." Kurumi smiled harshly. "But ghosts don't like to be abandoned. And karma just rolls over into the next life."

"Are you saying that you won't leave your past?"

"I'm saying that it won't leave me," Kurumi responded, then added darkly, "Just like yours."

"You've said that to me a thousand times since I've met you, and I still don't understand what you mean. True, I feel remorse for what I've done, but I've accepted my past deeds and am living with them," Tajhinn said sharply. "Which is more than I can say for you."

The corner of Kurumi's lips twitched into a brief smirk. "You're right. I guess I'm the bigger hypocrite among us."

"You are still calling me a hypocrite."

"I call you a lot of things, Tajhinn. Hypocrite's not the worse of them."

Tajhinn's level gaze stayed in place. "State your business."

"There are two hybrids that have been frequenting the Mortal realm."

So that's his reason. Tajhinn gave a small nod. "You want them off my roster."

"And given asylum," Kurumi added. "Until this matter is resolved."

"I cannot do that," Tajhinn said.

"It is within your power."

"It is the same as placing them in prison."

"Even if it is to save their lives?" Kurumi demanded, then said, more quietly, "Maki would have died if I had not been there."

"Every soldier runs that risk," Tajhinn answered firmly. "Maki knows this. I will not remove him from my services just to put your mind at ease. He is under my command and under my protection."

"That's not enough."

Tajhinn's face went carefully blank. "You'd be wise not to insult me in my own house."

"In your own house?" Kurumi laughed ruthlessly, then narrowed his eyes into an intense glare. "If only you'd remember exactly who's house this is."

"We are not having this discussion again," Tajhinn barked and his words resounded off the walls. He took a deep breath and straightened, but it did not diminish the fact that for that moment, he had lost it.

"You're right," Kurumi apologized after a moment. "I keep bringing it up, but that part of our history is over. I guess I'm the only one nostalgic of it."

"Leo—"

"We are no longer comrades," Kurumi went on, cutting him off. "So I feel no guilt in demanding you remove him and Yume from your services. If you cannot guarantee their safety then—"

"Then what?"

Kurumi tightened his fists, forcing down the urge to shout. Every word that came out of his mouth then was short and clip, like the snap of a belt. "Then I will do what I must."

Tajhinn took in a deep breath and let it out through his nostrils. It did not calm him. "Do not get involved," he warned.

"Then step in," Kurumi answered in turn. When the Demon Lord did not respond, his scowl deepened and the beads of his bracelet glowed a dark red with the effort it took for its wearer to keep his fingers steady. For a moment, his eyes seemed to change in color and his hair shone a brighter red than what humanly possible. Then he closed his fist, and the part of the Chinese bracelet he was holding up slid off the roof of his fingers, snapping back into place around his wrist. His eyes returned to black, and his hair lost its luminosity.

"Fine then," Kurumi said and turned to walk away.

"It's hard to subdue, isn't it?" Tajhinn frowned at the man's back. "If you unleash that power I will no longer be able to shield you from the BlackGuard. Is that what you want?"

Kurumi stopped halfway to the door. "You misunderstand. I had not wanted your protection in the first place." The double doors of the audience hall swung open, and Kurumi disappeared beyond its gates.

Tajhinn stared straight ahead for a moment, replaying the conversation; the bouts that he always had with Kurumi, even when they were speaking on friendly terms.

"If only you'd remember exactly who's house this is."

He turned back around to get a good look at the audience hall. The tapestries on the walls were tattered remains of their former glory, and rubble from the fortress' last siege still clung to the corner walls. Light streamed in from the open arced windows, formerly stain glass, that ran parallel to the hall's faded red carpet, and though it brought a dreary quality to the throne room, Tajhinn was rather fond of it. He was fond of a lot of things in this castle.

A twang of pain crossed his usually level face and his heart rate escalated to a state of panic. His vision swam, pitching to the left. His surroundings were no longer comforting, but haunting, alien with its familiarity.

Then the moment passed and the world returned to order, like it always did. Tajhinn didn't move till he was certain of his own sanity, then, with an anger contradictory to the Demon Lord's calm demeanor, he spun on his heels and glared at the open doors with heated, piercing eyes. The heavy, oak doors slammed shut under the Demon Lord's gaze, a thunderous bang echoing down the stairs to Kurumi's ears.

The redhead closed his eyes, but did not look back or do anything else but continue walking, sizzling with his own barely controlled temper. Their encounters always left them with too many things unsaid and no one around to vent to.


There were many things Nino saw in his years as a demon. He was present during his race's Golden Age and during the start of the rebellion before falling into an endless sleep for three centuries. Though he wasn't there to witness his brethren's worst years, he still had his fair share of blood and war. And he had been awake for the last decade, bore witness to Shiro's last bloody years as Demon Lord and saw the BlackGuard's Flame Champion in his prime. He was there when the monarch changed hands and the massacre that occurred soon after. He remembered it as clearly as the Dynasty Warlord who crippled his legs with his morning star; the night when dying orange flames and a looming castle front served as the backdrop behind their old leader's severed head.

He stared up at the long row of tall, metal pikes that lined the front entrance's bridge, flags waving in the stale breeze. One flag hung limp against its post, heavy with blood. Above it, two eyes stared back at him.

Beneath him, Hiseiko gave a little nervous shake. He patted his mount reassuringly, but he did not feel confident at all. Nino had seen many things. But this…

He's back. He's alive.

"Well." Yazu came up behind him, staring up in the same manner and giving a low whistle. "I guess we know how the mission went."

"How many people have seen this?"

Yazu gave the boy an odd look, and sneered humorlessly. "The pike is fifty feet up. Guess."

"Find out who's seen it," Nino commanded. His eyes never left the ghastly head of the former bethshima patriarch. "And wipe their memory."

Yazu smirked, casting a glance behind him before asking, "Should I start with Baldestar then?"

Nino stiffened. Hiseiko turned around to give his master a full view of the demon who stood staring fixated at the display above before storming up the path towards them. The boy's mount involuntarily hovered back upon the livid look in the bethshima's eyes, and Nino did not reprimand him. Like a rushing black plague of fury, Baldestar's approach was one step short of that of a mad man's.

"Who did this?" he demanded, his voice so loud that it was hard to tell if he spoke actual words or just screamed. "Who would dishonor him in this way?"

Yazu's eyes shifted eastward, his smirk as languid as before. "Look who came back from the dead."

Balderstar turned his head in that direction, as did Nino, who recognized the aura exiting the eastern gate. Leo? The boy blinked back his disbelief. Leo would do this?

Something wasn't right. Dario was one of the few demons Leo respected. Even if they somehow wound up fighting and Leo killed Dario, he would never desecrate his body this way.

Nino looked back up the pike, squinting at the dark spot at the top. Fifty feet…

He gave a start when a guttural growl so low rumbled in Baldestar's throat, and his face grew even darker than the blackness of his own skin. "I knew he was a traitor from the start! His death will be brought on by my hands!"

"Wait! Baldestar!" Nino cried, but the bethsima was beyond reason, already moving across the grounds to intercept his prey. The boy cursed under his breath, then turned to Yazu, who tilted his head to the side quizzically. Nino ignored it. "Get his head down before you go."

"Two orders?" he laughed, his smile broadening to display large, crooked teeth. "To a higher ranking officer?"

"I am within my right as Chief Military Tactician of the BlackGuard. That title takes precedent over rank, and you know that," Nino snapped, already on the move. He did not want Baldestar to get too far.

"Ah, so this is an emergency situation?" Yazu baited, but Nino was no longer standing in front of him. Yazu shrugged. "Just double-checking," he called, then looked up the pike, raising a deformed eyebrow. "But how do you suppose, kaicho, that I take it down. I can't fly, like you."

"Neither can Leo," Nino murmured.


Some of Kurumi's anger was still running through him by the time he reached the eastern gate. Seeing the Demon Lord always had this effect on him, and though he had expected Tajhinn to deny his request, having it actually happen still got a good rile out of him.

Immersed in his anger, he passed underneath the gate, and whatever unseen magic the castle possessed to conceal Kurumi's presence from the BlackGuard was abruptly lifted.

He froze. Three different auras honed in on his position at the same time. Kurumi cursed and hurried the short distance that remained between him and the dimensional portal he had left opened. Except it wasn't there. Sae had closed it.

His eyes darted back in the direction of the cluster of auras. Baldestar was heading his way. Kurumi gritted his teeth and sprinted into the forest.

Already he could feel the weight of Baldestar's aura chasing him, and when he glanced back, the bethshima was five yards behind, each thundering step decreasing the redhead's lead. Kurumi pushed forward, increasing his speed, but it wouldn't be long before he fell within Baldestar's fighting range.

He could feel the change in his eyes and the power that rose to his head in lazy waves of heat. Beneath the skin of his left hand, the edges of a faint design started to glow, battling against the constraining powers of the bracelet around his wrist, and for a moment, the urge to engage Baldestar in a glorious bloody battle to the death was all that filled his mind.

No! He clenched his fist and the markings vanished, the urge gone as if it never existed. The bracelet, however, was still pulsing with red light, brimming with unreleased power. Feeling in control now, he tapped his hands together as he jumped over a fallen log, dragging his hands across the brush and setting the dry leaves on fire. He continued to run, touching everything he passed, so now, what stood between him and Baldestar was a maze of burning foliage.

That should slow him down, he thought, but then almost stopped mid run when he did not hear his pursuer behind him. He knew Baldestar was not the type to shy away from plowing through a wall of fire. The lack of noise tipped him off that something was wrong.

His body went rigid a second later, and it was already too late to get out of harms way.

The attack struck his shoulder from more than twenty yards away, like a swinging log on ropes, picking up speed from its descent until it struck its target with enough force to splinter wood. Kurumi hit the ground, winded for a second before he regained his breath and coughed into the dirt. He hadn't expected the attack. When he left the BlackGuard, Baldestar was only a close range fighter.

He heard snapping and heavyset footsteps from behind, pushing its way through the fire. Baldestar was heading his way.

Kurumi gritted his teeth and breathed into the ground, clenching his fists around dry leaves and dirt as the forest fire cackled around him. His shoulder ached with the weight of a thousand sores while his mind raced, frantic, and on the brink of losing control. He fought against it, but his irises had already turned from black to a deep red and his bracelet no longer pulsed, but glowed steadily and trembled with power. The god of fire was asking for blood. And with Baldestar now just a foot away, it demanded a sacrifice.

Jumping to his feet and turning, Kurumi flung the dirt in his hands forward and then snapped his fingers. Fire jumped from the friction and ignited the crushed leaves and dry dirt, sending a line of burning embers straight into Baldestar's face.

The bethshima raised his arm to protect himself, but some of the embers already reached his eyes, blinding him.

Kurumi drew his left arm back against his side, the beads rolling down his hand. And with practiced ease, his fingers slid under the elastic band as it rolled over his palm.

A pale hand grabbed Kurumi's fist before he could snap the bracelet off. "Don't," Sae said from behind.

In front, Baldestar had just regained enough of his vision to recognize who it was who stood at Kurumi's back. The bethshima blinked at the white and black figure that was the BlackGuard's 1st Rank Officer, and when he realized that the boy was not going to kill Kurumi, he growled. "Sae, what is the meaning of this?"

"He didn't kill Dario." Nino had just arrived on the scene, riding on top of Hiseiko, who looked at the still raging fire with trepidation. His master, however, was unphased. "Whoever placed his head there had the ability to fly," Nino said. "Gammon's most likely our culprit. He possibly chose this moment so the blame could be placed on Leo."

"If Leo wasn't in on it then why else would he be here!" Baldestar shouted.

"At my bidding," Sae said. The omission startled everyone. Baldestar's anger had abruptly been snuffed, and Nino looked at the white-haired officer with confused surprise. Kurumi, who had been trying to calm his power since Sae's arrival, turned to stare at his unexpected helper with an arched eyebrow. Sae ignored all of this. "I had asked this man to come."

"For what business?" Baldestar demanded.

"My business," Sae answered in turn.

Baldestar face darkened. "We have orders—"

"To kill Leo," Sae finished. "This man is not Leo."

"Technicality," Baldestar growled.

"Which we will obey." Sae glanced at Kurumi. "For now."

The redhead said nothing.

Baldestar took a step forward, then one back, before he scratched his head irritably and threw his hand down to his side. He took one deep breath and let it out as a growl as he stared down at Kurumi. "You're lucky," he said, giving the man a stiff nod, "that some people still find you valuable alive." Baldestar turned around and left, storming pass the burning trees and underbrush till the smoke and fire concealed him from view.

Sae gave the burning forest one glance, and the flames died, leaving whiffs of smoke and the occasional pop of a cooling ember. He released Kurumi's fist and the bracelet fell back around the man's wrist. "Let's go."

Kurumi watched the demon's retreating back, rubbing the tops of his fingers where the beads had left a mark, pressed there by Sae's grip on his hand. The power had subsided, the urgency with which it wanted to be used now gone. He took a slow breath, his eyes reverting back to black, before he turned to follow Sae.

"Leo."

He turned around. Nino was still there, sitting atop Hiseiko, where he'd always be. The boy met the former BlackGuard officer's eyes, his own beseeching. "What are you doing here?" Nino knitted his eyebrows together. "Why would you come back to us like this?"

Kurumi looked back in the direction Sae had disappeared, then turned back to Nino. For a moment, he didn't answer his question. Then he said in a quiet tone, "Shiro is alive."

Nino closed his eyes. Beneath him, Hiseiko quivered. "I knew it." The boy opened his eyes, and the look in them was empty and professional. "He's called you."

"I haven't answered," he snapped. "And I won't. I'm not his dog."

"But you're here—"

Kurumi snorted.

"—and Dario's head is on the same pike Shiro's used to be." Nino's eyes remained empty, even as Kurumi's own narrowed. "A declaration of war by the slaying of a legend. And the appearance of his general at the scene of the crime. …Sounds like you answered, doesn't it?"

Nino's face remained neutral, even as Kurumi's hand clenched and a ring of suppressed energy pulsed around his bracelet. Then the skin on the corners of the boy's eyes creased, and he smiled. "And if I had known you any less than I do, I would have believed that." Nino laughed, and the sound was young and joyous, albeit a little sad. "But you know nothing of what's going on. You only came to yell at Tajhinn, like you used to. Right?"

Kurumi cast his gaze to the floor and clenched his fist even harder, now feeling guilty for ever suspecting him.

"You should let it go."

Kurumi relaxed his fist with a start. Nino's eyes were empty again, but a hint of sadness remained. "Nino…"

"You should let go of all of us. Of everything that's ever happened here and start over, like we thought you did. Minerva would be better off if she didn't know you were here. If she thought you were far away, at least she can believe that you're alive and well and not about to be dragged into another war."

"Nino—"

"Even if you govern all your actions against his will he'll still find a way to use you," Nino said. "So long as you're here, he'll find a way. Even people who've never met Shiro get used by him."

Kurumi paused. Nino was right. He'd seen it happen; hated enemies falling into traps of devilish proportions, almost as if they were following a stage play Shiro had written himself. Even gods and their agents were players in his games.

Right now, reality had been twisted so it appeared that Kurumi had slain Dario and had placed his head symbolically in the very spot his old master's had been. To the world, it seemed that he had once again succumb to madness and servitude as Shiro's right-hand man.

None of it was true. He was being used. And if he was cleared now and ran away and never saw any of them again, he was still probably being used by him.

I can never escape.

"Leo!"

Kurumi fell out of his musings and forced a smile when he saw Nino glaring at him in irritation. "Sorry," he said. "But I can't leave. I have some business to attend to. I've been putting it off for too long."

"I don't want to fight you," Nino said after a moment.

Kurumi smirked. "I don't want to fight you either."

Nino frowned. "You can't stay undeclared. He'll make you join him."

"And what would you rather have me do?" Kurumi asked sarcastically. "Join your side?"

The boy bristled at his mocking tone. "Yes," he answered resolutely. "I'd rather have you with us than with him."

Kurumi scoffed. "You don't have the authority—"

"I do," Nino declared, and when the redhead looked into his bright green eyes, he saw the determination to make it happen. "I can have you reinstated, and the edict removed. The only reason it was there was because you left. If you came back—"

"No."

Nino scowled. "Why won't you?"

Kurumi didn't answer.

"Because you're human?"

The red head's eyes widened in that brief moment of surprise. Then he placed his hands in his pocket, gave a little laugh, and turned away from their conversation. "Human, huh?" he repeated, amused. "I haven't been called that in a long time."

"I'm trying to spare you, Leo!" Nino yelled after him in a fleeting attempt to change the man's mind. "He'll make you choose! You'll have to decide!"

"Fine then," Kurumi said to the air as he walked away. "The side I choose is my own."


In a clearing about a hundred yards down from where he and Nino had talked, Sae was waiting for him.

The white-haired demon was hovering beside an open dimensional gate. He did not announce where it went, but Kurumi didn't worry if the portal would lead to Tokyo. For all the years he had known him, Sae had seemingly acted without being asked, based on a line of reasoning that no one could understand, but was reliable to a fault. If he needed to get back to Tokyo, Sae would see him there. If he was needed alive, Sae would make sure that he was impossible to kill.

Which was what was bothering him now: Sae's intervention.

Kurumi stepped within a few feet of the gate and stopped. Neither one bothered to look at the other, but the redhead's anger didn't need eye contact in order to be perceived.

"You let me talk to Nino," Kurumi said.

"I found no reason not to."

"And helping me with Baldestar?"

"His Lordship does not wish to see you dead."

"Are you sure that's His Lordship's wish?"

"Yes, it is," Sae replied smoothly.

Kurumi growled. "I don't like being used."

"I'll make sure to tell His Lordship of that."

"I meant by you!" Kurumi snapped, rounding on the boy. "Don't play games with me, Sae."

"I don't play games," Sae said. "I simply follow orders."

"Whose?"

"Fate's, of course."

Kurumi took in a deep breath. Now he was getting somewhere. "Does Fate tell you to obey Tajhinn?"

"Fate tells me a lot of things," Sae conceded.

"Like keeping the BlackGuard from killing me?"

"In keeping with Baldestar's words, we 'find you valuable alive'."

"Who's 'we'?"

"Everyone." For a moment, Sae shifted his gaze to stare at Kurumi. He met the man's dark eyes with a look of perfected indifferent curiosity. "I have a question for you," he said. "The man you are to become to protect your friends. Is it the madman who helped subjugate over ten thousand demons, or the man you left behind in Trent twelve years ago?"

"You know the answer to that," Kurumi replied.

"Yes, but do you?" When Kurumi didn't say anything, Sae continued. "I advise you not to go against us with your limiter off," he said, and it was hard to tell if 'us' meant the BlackGuard, the regime, or the universe itself. "There is no need to make more enemies than you already have."

"I thought you needed me alive," Kurumi said offhandedly.

"That does not mean I will keep you from death." Sae's feet lighting touched the ground. He started to walk forward, leaving Kurumi standing at the open gate. "I do not like to get involved. And since I have already warned you, I trust I will not have to."

Kurumi shook his head and made a sound between a laugh and a sigh. "You're betting a lot on a madman."

Sae stopped. "You will not become that man," he said quietly. "You would rather slit your own throat."

Kurumi stared back the way he had came for a few minutes after Sae had left. Then he dug his hands into his pockets and wandered to the gate. As he stepped through, he replayed Sae's last words, and smiled bitterly. In a heartbeat.


In a dark, empty hall decorated only by a single throne, Shiro sat with his legs crossed, an elbow on one of the metal arm rests and the side of his face leaning against the back of his loosely closed fist.

"The package has been delivered," he said. It had not been phrased as a question. He did not leave much room for doubt in his minions.

The cowl on Gammon's head dipped slightly to signal an affirmative. "They did not attribute it to Leo, however," the phantom added afterwards. "I fear they already know that you are involved."

"Who found Dario's head?" Shiro asked after a moment's pause.

"5th Rank Officer Nino, Master."

Shiro smiled. "Good."

"Master?"

"It's quite alright, Gammon." The man's smile grew with amusement. "In fact, it's working out better than I had first hoped."

"But I thought you did not wish the BlackGuard to know you are alive, Master."

"They won't. Only Tajhinn will be aware of it. Nino will make sure of that." Shiro shook his head and chuckled. "That boy had always been so predictable."


An emergency meeting had been called without one single announcement being made.

Dario was dead. The BlackGuard had gotten whiff of the morbid news in the still air and drifted to the audience hall of their own accord. The normal bustle that surrounded the demon elite whenever they met was subdued in the late evening air. The silence permeated the hall and wrapped everyone in a blanket of personal reverie.

Lord Tajhinn, seated on his throne, watched the faces of his council, many of which were perfect masks of emptiness. If any had deep rooted feeling for the loss, no one showed it. After all, the BlackGuard was a war council. Weakness was not allowed.

Instead, after a unanimous moment of silence had passed, business pressed forward.

"Do we know who did this?" Kayeda asked the gathered demons, voice low and slowly even.

"It's suspected that the messenger was Gammon," Nino answered.

"And the killer?" Kayeda asked.

"We are still trying to determine," Nino said. "Maki Mihokita has yet to return, and if he too is dead, then it will take longer for a confirmation."

"We should mobilize." Baldestar growled, sparing a glance at Nino. "Forget the confirmation. This is a slight that cannot go unanswered."

"We should not rush ahead," Nino said quietly. At the throne, Tajhinn watched the boy demon in silence.

"Then what plan of action do you suggest, kaicho?" Yazu asked from his position on the other side of the red carpet. His voice was unusually level, but his eyes still glinted with a mischievous smile.

"Go ahead, Nino," Tajhinn said when Nino did not speak. "I wish to hear what you have to say."

Nino looked at his liege for a moment before nodding. He turned to face Yazu. "I do not believe," he began after a moment, "that we should publicly declare Dario's death."

The long hairs at the back of Baldestar's neck rose alongside his aura. "He deserves a proper burial," the bethshima bit out. "The people should bear witness!"

"The people will be worked into a panicked frenzy if we announce Dario's death," Nino countered evenly. "That was the intention of displaying his head at our front gates. This is a rebel faction. They are trying to uproot our numbers and weaken us within our own walls. We must not play into it."

"There is a small funeral rite in the bethshima custom that we may perform," Sanjo spoke and everyone's attention was suddenly drawn to the light skinned Guardsman. "Private, and just for the gathered body present." A fleeting smile played across the usually impassive lips. "The Reverend never liked big processions."

Tajhinn nodded. "Preparations will be made." He turned back to Nino. "As for our current course of action…"

Nino picked up from there. "We should start conditioning our main offensive units. And step up our advances on the rune bearer."

"You said you did not want to alarm the people," Minerva said, turning slightly to her right to gaze down at the boy with a puzzled expression.

"Conditioning is not the same as full mobilization," Nino said. "Besides, the rebel faction is determined to kill her. Getting her to our side, and if not possible, at least well protected, is paramount."

Minerva pouted sensuously. "This girl is really starting to be a nuisance. One of us should go after her."

"No."

Minerva blinked and turned towards the throne. The rest of the BlackGuard stood silent.

Lord Tajhinn closed his eyes for a brief moment and collected his breath before opening them again and regarding his council with grey-gold eyes. "This rebel leader has made very clear that whomever we set forth, he will match. We raise the stakes and he will call. I think, for this round, we will wait to see what he sets on the playing field."

"My Lord," Baldestar began to protest.

"I do not feel like losing another Guardsman today," the Demon Lord cut in. "He's been matching our forces from the outset. If we send an officer to retrieve the rune bearer, I can only imagine what kind of battle that will result in. No. We will take it slow around the rune bearer while our forces gather strength."

Baldestar growled but squashed down all further complaints.

Yazu chuckled. "My Lord. Isn't our present course of action going to be viewed as a weak and rather cautious response for so open a threat?" Yazu shrugged. "They kill one of our finest and we retreat to lick our wounds."

"Impulsive actions and grandiose battles are how you acquire bodies, not win wars," Tajhinn said. "We're cutting our losses here. If this rebel leader wishes to bait us again, he can try."

And with those final words, the meeting was dismissed. Just as quietly as they had entered, the BlackGuard left without a word. Even Kayeda took his leave, nodding to His Lordship for a moment before stepping down as Tajhinn's right hand demon and walking with his brethren. It wasn't long before the hall way empty aside from the Demon Lord himself and one final officer.

The audience hall's double doors closed with Sae standing watch on the outside. On the inside, Lord Tajhinn waited on his throne. 6th Rank Officer Nino sat on top of Hiseiko in the middle of the expansive hall, his mount hovering over the diluted red carpet, his head hung low in reverie for his liege.

"You knew it was Shiro," Tajhinn said.

Nino kept his head low. "Yes."

"And you kept it from your fellow Guardsmen. And your liege."

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Like I had said, it will cause a panic."

"We are not talking about the common people."

"And that was not who I was referring to."

Tajhinn paused. Nino raised his head to look at his lord, and the even glint in the boy's eyes showed that he was not playing. "Tell me, Your Lordship, your honest opinion of the BlackGuard, and I will tell you mine."

The demon-dragon's face remained neutral, even as Nino continued. "We are your elite soldiers. But most of us are members of the Old Regime. Most of us call the Nether realm our home." The boy paused, choosing his next words carefully. "If the Guard were to learn that Shiro is alive and had killed Dario, you'd gain steadfast loyalty from some, and you'd lose others to your predecessor."

"Better to draw the line between allies and dissenters early, then," Tajhinn huffed with a bitter smile.

"We are not ready to have a split in the BlackGuard," Nino said softly. "Especially since some, I truly do not know who they will side with, if forced now."

Tajhinn neglected to answer. He knew which members Nino was referring to, and he knew of the possibility of a split in loyalty within the BlackGuard. It had only been four years ago that they all served Shiro, after all. Dario, he had heard, was the blonde-haired demon's teacher, and Sanjo and Kayeda had close ties with Katsu, Shiro's father and leader of the original demon insurrection. He knew it wouldn't be easy to shake century old ties.

"If you are worried," Nino began, bringing the Demon Lord out of his reverie. "I will take the blame for withholding this information."

"So I'll appear ignorant of the own inner workings of my court?"

"Better to be labeled ignorant than a conspirator," Nino said.

Tajhinn shook his head ruefully. "Very well," he said with a heavy sigh. "I wash my hands clean of this. This is all on you, Nino."

"Thank you, My Lord," Nino bowed his head and Hiseiko hovered lower in time. "We never had this conversation."


It was fairly late when Kurumi returned. The kettle was on the stove, barely beginning to cool. When he opened his front door, his apartment smelled of vanilla hazelnut tea.

Kurumi closed the door behind him. The mess on the floor had been picked up; some of the coffee stain cleaned out of the carpet. Maki was seated on one kitchen stool, wearing only his shorts and sipping tea from a fresh mug. His denim vest was lying over the countertop, dried blood and a hole through the left breast pocket where he had been shot.

"You're doing well," Kurumi said as he slipped his shoes off and set them to the side of the door.

Maki took a sip of his cup. He lifted a metallic disc from where it laid on the counter. It was the one Kurumi had used on his door to get to Sohte.

The brunette set his mug down, waving the disc between his index and middle fingers. "Went somewhere without me?" He tossed the disc back onto the counter. It clattered noisily against the tiles.

Kurumi leaned back against the door, quietly assessing the brooding figure at his kitchen counter. "You were unconscious," he finally said.

"Cut the bullshit. You wouldn't have brought me, even if I wasn't injured."

"Then why are you complaining?"

Maki paused and gripped his mug with both hands. "Do you know how many times I've been asked to do a hit on you?"

"You don't take outside jobs unless Tajhinn approves of it," Kurumi said.

"But do you know how many times I've been asked?" Maki repeated. He shook his head. "They want you dead."

"They think I'm a threat, even limited as I am now. They're trying to protect their backs."

"And knowing that, you go there willingly?"

Kurumi's lips tightened. "I know my way around the BlackGuard better than you. And I know their abilities better than you. So if I got into a fight, I would have came out of it alive. If you want to talk about unnecessary risk, let's talk about how you ended up fighting the BlackGuard's 7th Rank and the previous Demon Lord."

"I didn't know it was Shiro," Maki said quietly.

"But you knew it was Gammon."

"I could handle Gammon."

"Handle him, but not kill him."

"I had him!" Maki shouted, swerving around on his stool and getting to his feet. "I would have nailed that son of a bitch if only—!"

"Do you really believe that?" Kurumi shook his head from side to side before gritting his teeth and slamming his fist into the wall behind him. "Shit, Maki! Shiro had the whole thing staged! Gammon was just following orders!"

"What orders!" he demanded, then stopped. His anger held for a second longer before dread shoved it ruthlessly aside. "Where's Jiisan?"

Kurumi didn't show anything on his expression, and it was because his face was so blank that Maki knew what it translated to.

"No…" He took a step back and his foot caught on the leg of his stool. Maki grabbed the edge of the counter for purchase. "No," he shook his head, holding onto the counter as if it would steady more than just his own imbalanced body. "You're lying. You have to be!"

"This is no lie, Maki."

"But it was Jiisan!"

Kurumi closed his eyes and sighed. "I know."

After a moment, Maki sank back into his seat, his hand still on the counter, but no longer holding the edge in a rigid grip. He had lost his strength to do so.

Kurumi shook his head, shifted his weight, and opened his eyes. "Maybe now you'll understand what kind of power we're dealing with," he said tiredly. He placed his hands on his hips and took a few slow, pacing steps around the entranceway. "Tajhinn won't do it because I asked. But I'm sure if you're the one, he'll grant you asylum for the time being. I've already sent Yume over."

"I'm not running."

Kurumi stopped his pacing. He turned to Maki. The brunette's hands were now folded between his legs, his gaze trained on a spot on the carpet. Kurumi's lips remained in a set line. Maki did not look up at him, despite knowing that his friend's glare was boring straight through his skull.

"This isn't about pride," Kurumi began.

"It has everything to do with that."

"It's not about honor, either."

"I have to defend it."

"What about your life?"

"What about it!"

Maki stood up, his fists shaking with the tension that governed his entire body. His eyes burned with anger and pain, but his voice was level, low, with a growl that could have been primitive, but with words forged by fine, edged steel. "If I go on living while compromising my beliefs, I might as well be dead. A short life means more to me than a long one filled with the lies of a man I no longer recognize as myself! After all, I saw what it did to you!"

There was an anxious stretch of silence where Maki's anger abated and Kurumi's own rose. He realized what he had just said, but didn't take his words back, too agitated to do so.

"You want to talk about compromising beliefs?" Kurumi asked quietly. Maki said nothing.

Kurumi took a few steps towards Maki and only stopped when his face was a short, nerve-racking distance away from the boy's own. "Why don't you have a nice chat with your boss?" he suggested in the same, quiet tone. "And then come back and see if you can say that to me again."

He brushed past Maki into the living room, and a moment later the door to the bedroom slammed shut.

Kurumi leaned heavily against the door and craned his neck back. His head made a muffled 'thud' against the woodwork. A man I no longer recognize as myself. He closed his eyes and stood there, letting all of his thoughts run through his mind, allowing his anger to wash over him till it tired and left. Yes, there were moments in his history where he had fit that description. Memories he wish he could erase, but were the most vivid he had during a time when he truly believed himself to be a demon. Nine years, he remembered. Nine years he was in the BlackGuard, and for five of those years he sold his soul to madness. For what?

An image of Tajhinn in the arena from years before, still young but already hardened from the battles he'd won to contend in the tournaments, came to Kurumi's mind. Back then, he didn't use his demon-dragon form as often as he did now. Back then he looked painfully human.

Kurumi shut out the memory. He didn't want to remember his face. It only reminded him of the mission he failed.

The anger was long gone, replaced by remorse for the deeds he had done and for the ones he couldn't do. Ironic how the promises he really wanted to keep were the ones he ended up breaking. He hadn't been strong enough to keep his word back then.

But what about now?

There was movement in the living room, followed by the near silent opening and closing of a door. Kurumi opened his eyes. Maki had left.

A moment later, he pushed himself away from the door, his mind running through several trains of thought as he pulled out an empty duffel bag from his closet and threw in some clothes.

Tajhinn's still in power. If Shiro's vying for is another succession war, then he's only playing games till his side is strong enough to challenge Tajhinn.

He opened his bedroom door, crossed the living room, and entered the bathroom to gather his toothbrush and a few other items. He stopped when he caught sight of himself in the mirror.

And if he's not after the throne?

Kurumi frowned, then stripped off his shirt, tossing it on the floor. He turned on the faucet and soaked a hand towel in the water, wringing it out before placing it to his neck and cleaning the dried blood around the wound he'd received from Shiro's sword.

Then he's just out to hurt everyone who's crossed him. That placed both Kurumi and the Demon Lord on the top of that list.

The man tossed the towel in the sink, cupped the running water in his palms and splashed it against his face before turning the faucet head off and exhaling. But why is he here, in this realm? To be frank, the fact that the battle he had interrupted had taken place in Tokyo, on mortal grounds, unnerved him. He didn't know I was here till I showed up to get Maki. Kurumi wiped his hand over his face to clear the excess water, then pulled a new band from the cabinet and started to braid his hair. Why did Maki end up fighting Gammon here? What business would he have?

He twisted the elastic band around the end of the braid and, grabbing the rest of his stuff, left the bathroom. Kurumi re-entered his bedroom, dumped the load in his arms into the waiting bag, opened his dresser drawer, and packed away a few socks and some boxers. He looked down at the duffel bag when he was done. I'm missing something.

The thought kept running circles in his head, even as he zipped the bag close and dropped down on his knees by his bedside. Kurumi pulled the edge of the covers up and reached under his bed to drag out a black, laptop carrying case and a huge, heavy duffel bag of the same color and material. He set the carrying case on his bed, pulled the strap of his clothes bag over his shoulder and, holding the short straps of the other duffel bag in his left hand, exited his room. He paused for a moment to pull his car keys off of the wall hook by the front door, then descended the short flight of steps from his apartment to the parking lot in front of the complex.

The stars were out, the wind already chilling as the clock slowly approached ten. Kurumi huffed and his breath condensed into a short, stream of visible air. He unlocked the Porsche and carefully laid out both bags in the trunk before he ran back into his apartment, pulled out a long rectangular tool box from the bottom of his closet, and set that in the trunk as well.

He closed the trunk, breathed in a heavy drink of cold air into his lungs, and exhaled, white steam born in a moment and dead the next. Kurumi pocketed his keys, took the steps two at a time, and sat down on his bed and fished out the laptop.

The brand was engraved on the back of the flat screen in a language that looked more symbolic than actually legible, and the keyboard was of an odd design itself. There was a divider off from the middle of the board and the larger left half was seven rows of keys with ten to a row. The right side was a touch sensitive, blackish blue flat board that seemed to ripple with the turn of the light. Kurumi placed his palm on the pad, and it glowed a light purple, then red around his palm and fingertips before the monitor itself flickered to life.

Strange words, simpler than the insignia on the front of the laptop, but similar in design, scrolled left and right across the screen. Kurumi left it to its start up procedures and rolled off the bed to his night stand. He pulled out the bottom drawer. Inside was a thin, silver case ten by eight inches long.

He lifted the case and set it on top of the night stand, unclipping the lock on either side of the case before opening it. Inside was a compact hand gun that looked like a Mauser M2 if it weren't for the thin engravings that ran along the body of the gun weaving together spells of power before ending along either side of the grip in the same embossed insignia that was stamped across the laptop.

Carefully, Kurumi lifted the gun out of its foam bed and ejected the empty magazine. With even more caution, he pulled out one of the eight bullets that were sitting snug in their own foam beds within the silver case. Except for the tip, which was made of a thick clear glass whose depths swirled sluggishly with alternating colors of the spectrum, the bullet looked perfectly normal. Kurumi loaded it into the magazine with the care and precision of a man dealing with a very volatile substance, and then popped the clip back into the gun. He paused for a moment, debating whether or not he should load the rest of the bullets in as well, but thought, if he needed to fire more than one of these suckers within the same hour, he was as good as dead anyway. He closed the case, set the gun on top of it, and returned to his laptop.

The system had been busy while the redhead was away, pulling at the invisible wires of energy that ran in the room and throughout the entire apartment, to the security system located by the front door. What was on screen now was an aerial map of his section of Tokyo covering a mile diameter with his apartment at the epicenter.

The map was faded in the background, and what overlaid it was a tie-dye splash of subdued colors, subtly moving in lazy waves across the map.

Energy. Auras. His own was at the center of the map, a rounded speck of bright maroon color that, on occasion, would fade out, then burn bright again.

Kurumi touched the motion board and glided his fingers left. The colors sped up, going back in recorded time from the memory of his apartment's alien security system. He saw Maki's aura come and go, his own appearing in the system's range after a few hours absence, and then a harsh clash of colors when he had fought Shiro in his living room. Kurumi paused his fingers over the sensors, letting the fight replay itself for a moment before he cursed and rewound the tape farther back. Shiro had just waltz into his apartment, into his guarded section of Tokyo, without preamble, without raising even a system's warning. How long has he been able to pass into this world so easily?

He was about to stop the playback at Yume's aura and move on from there when a peculiar spot of color towards the bottom of the map caught his eye. Kurumi stopped the tape, stared at the two dots, then rewound some more. He watched as the two unidentified auras backtracked their way to his apartment, stopped just outside, mingled with Yume's aura, and then the trio moved back away from his apartment together. Kurumi stopped the playback, fast forward, stopped, then rewound again. It didn't change what he saw, or what it implied.

Two people with considerably outstanding auras came with Yume to his apartment and dropped the demon-girl off. Two auras he'd never seen before.

The redhead clicked on a key with his left hand and the screen changed to hone in on the auras in question. He focused in on the red one, which pulsed with a flame-like intensity close to his own, but brighter, more zealous with youth. Then he switched to examine the other one, which did not have a predominant color, but swirled with subdued versions of every color in the rainbow so it looked like a glossy surface of white with occasional reflections of color.

Kurumi almost visibly pulled back from the screen. The aura was old. Severely old, and played down to such a low key that it was unnerving how much was being hidden. He stared at the duo again, then bit on his bottom lip, an idea slowly churning in his mind.

He had the recording saved to his hard drive, then with a few clicks and a touch of his fingers, the security system by his door beeped and displayed the number eight across the liquid green screen. Slowly, the markers that he had set up around Tokyo to serve as the boundaries for his one mile shield started to disintegrate.

Kurumi quickly packed up the laptop, and shouldered the carrying case. Then he grabbed a spare shirt and his winter coat from his closet, stuffed the silver case on his nightstand in the coat's inside pocket, and then, double checking that the safety was on, tucked the loaded hand gun in his waistband.

He flicked a glance at the security pad before walking out of his front door. The screen flashed six.

Kurumi set his coat and shirt over the passenger side backrest of the Porsche, dropping the laptop in the seat before leaning over, opening the glove compartment, and placing the gun carefully inside. He took out the silver case from the coat and placed it beside the gun, then closed the compartment. He placed the laptop in the trunk along with his coat, and then pulled on the dark red shirt over his naked torso, fastening the buttons and rolling up the sleeves while staring at the half lit window to his apartment. He frowned a bit, rolled up the last portion of his sleeve with a tad more force, and then climbed in his car and drove out of the lot only to stop and park his car a block away.

He walked back to his apartment.

The air was dry and difficult to breathe when he reentered the living room. No normal person would know why. Kurumi closed the door behind him and looked at the security pad. Words were scrolling slowly across the green screen:

WITHDRAWAL COMPLETE … PARAMETER: REDUCED TO APT CONFINEMENTS … SHIELD: 100 PERCENT

Kurumi pressed a button and the words changed to a steady question that did not scroll or blink.

SELF CONTAINMENT? Y/N

Kurumi pressed another button.

ARE YOU SURE? Y/N

The redhead paused and looked around his apartment, memories of a quiet, unbroken three years of living resurfacing. Then Shiro's self satisfied smirk came to mind and Kurumi's mouth twisted into a determined frown.

He pressed 'Y' and walked to the center of the living room.

The security pad beeped for a moment, then shut itself off. The energy level in the apartment rose, and slowly, ancient script and symbols appeared on the walls, the ceiling, and the floor.

Kurumi kept his eyes closed, standing loose in the center of the room while the energy rose and rose. Then with a quiet breath, he brought his arms together and removed the Chinese bracelet from his left wrist.

His aura spilled around him, like the spilling of unbound hair around the shoulders, and pressed against the energy already present in the apartment; a blazing heat of power against cool, dry air. Little spark started to ignite just where one energy type ended and the other began, playing out mini scuffles of dominance, but both knew who would win.

Kurumi lifted his left hand out, palm held down, his thumb and middle finger pressed together in waiting. The stylized flame tattoo on the back of his hand glimmered happily, and the red of the man's hair reached an impossible brightness, rivaling the intensity of a burning, ever changing fire.

A moment passed, then Kurumi opened his too red eyes and snapped his fingers upwards.

The world around him ignited in flames.


AUTHOR'S NOTE:
Will you look at that? I got a new chapter out.

Kay. Did a few things in my months of absence. Did Nanowrimo in November with Phoenix Cubed. Both of us finished our 50k word count on our novels, so that was a horribly exciting month. Both of us are still working on said novels, so that's where a lot of my writing time has been devoted to, since PC is a slave driver and we're trading word counts to get each of us writing more.

I've been house shopping which was an interesting adventure to juggle with finals. So in later January I'll be moving my whole freaking house, so another thing to juggle and look forward to. Drama, drama, drama, seems to puncture my life once again, but I'm inclined to ignore it this time around and let stupid people suffer from their own goddamned stupidity.

So sorry if the chapter came out late. It took a while to get back into fanfiction mode after Nanowrimo.

I hope you liked the chapter. Sorry that there's a lack of Ronin-ness in the latest installment, but what's happening with Leo sets up a lot of things for later that everyone gets involved in. And sheesh, he's such a difficult ass! Lol.

Until next time!

Ucchan


PREVIEW: CHAPTER 55 - The Seer's Eye

She set the bokken back in the bag—it wouldn't do for what she had planned—and rummaged around till a set of short sticks caught her eye. She took one in either hand, looking from her right hand to her left till she nodded to herself, stood up, and walked to the center of the dojo floor. She turned to face Sage.

The blonde's gaze shifted to the weapons in her hands, then back to Laura's face. He raised an eyebrow.

Laura shrugged and twirled the sticks. "Person to score gets to ask the other a question." She lowered her stance and raised both weapons. "Ready?"

Sage paused. "I don't think I like this game," he said.

Laura charged.