General Takeshi was not in high-spirits. Truth be told, so were none of his fellow council members. It was plainly obvious by their distressed faces that they would much rather be discussing some other matter entirely than the one currently at hand.
And it didn't help their moods either that the emergency meeting they were partaking in had been dragging on forever. Takeshi himself had lost track of time quite awhile ago. He was sure though, that when he'd entered the stuffy council room, it had been the warm sunlight and not the bleak luminescence of the twin moons he now saw, that had bathed the large windows around him.
His back had begun to hurt again, clearly demanding a fresh dose of painkillers, but the general chose to ignore the discomfort. A little pain never did anyone any harm after all and considering the state some of his soldiers had been left in, due to Egzardia's deceitful attack, he could very well consider himself one of the lucky ones. If anything, he would probably be left with a couple of scars to add to his personal collection.
Pushing away the fatigue that nonetheless threatened to win him over, Takeshi shifted slightly on his over-sized chair just as Hideki Andou, one of the youngest (and most irritable) counsellors, started to quarrel with another one of his colleagues.
The general sighed. They were all tired… Tired from fighting, tired from arguing, tired from trying to come up with some miraculous plan that could save them from the dreaded outcome they knew was rapidly approaching… Well, they could be left bickering with each other until the world ended; Takeshi knew very well no viable solution could be reached. Only one man could save them from their predicament now and they weren't even sure if he was still alive.
He glanced sideways toward the only remaining unoccupied chair surrounding the round table; by far the biggest and most ornate of them all. It was dreary to see it empty; to imagine that just weeks ago their king had sat there in all his bravery announcing his plans to fight against the king of Egzardia's tyranny... Even worse though was the uncertainty that emptiness carried with it. The destiny of a whole country currently balanced on a stressful doubt. Did their brave king still walk among the living?
Takeshi wasn't the only one having such thoughts of course. Every so often he would catch a glimpse of one of the other council members looking at their king's vacant seat just as he did. Those were the times when their distress would show itself more clearly. For a fleeting moment, one could almost read their gloomy minds.
And although the forlorn looks on their faces wouldn't last long after they would resume their senseless bickering, one man's glum demeanour seemed to remain unaltered. Chief advisor Johan, famously known for his extravagant and over alarming antics had barely said a word all throughout the meeting. In fact, he'd barely said a word ever since the general had informed him of their king's strange disappearance.
Sitting on his appointed seat right next to the king's, slightly hunched and visibly pale, the counsellor looked remarkably aged and haggard. He hardly even lifted his head anymore to try to impose some much needed order in the room every time one of his colleagues would raise their voices beyond reasonable levels; which in normal circumstances would happen in a blink of an eye.
This left Takeshi very much intrigued. He was about to address the old advisor when the altercation between the two other council members suddenly became worse as everyone else around the table started to take sides… The noise became unbearable.
Quickly loosing whatever thin line of patience he still had left, the general jumped off of his chair. "Silence!" He yelled above them all. "Enough with this nonsensical bickering! Get a hold of yourselves, gentlemen."
His angry remark seemed to do the trick; not a sound could be heard around the room as a result, but the general wasn't done talking yet. "Now, we can all stay here and continue debating the statistical probabilities of our king returning to us safe and sound, but quite frankly, I don't think even his highness would feel very proud of us if we wasted our time doing so… What we need now is a defence strategy and by that, counsellors, I mean - we need to buy us some more time."
"And how does the esteemed general propose we do that?" Hideki inquired; an obvious hint of sarcasm in his voice. "When King Ulrich is on his way toward Fanelia, as we speak, with his entire army force with the sole intent of overthrowing us?... As hard as it is for me to say this, it is perhaps for the best that we should start discussing the terms of Fanelia's surrender."
The tumult of voices that immediately followed the young counsellor's statement was so violent that it was hard to perceive whether his words were received with more approval or contestation.
"Silence!" The general yelled again. "I know very well Fanelia's situation is not the best at the moment counsellor, but I'll be dammed if I'm to discuss such matters while there is still hope for our country…" He took a short pause to catch his breath and continued in a calmer tone. "All we have to do is hold our ground until King Van-"
"King Van is dea-"
"King Van is missing! And as long as there is a chance that he is still alive and well, than I'll fight for the throne that is rightfully his." Takeshi placed his palms over the surface of the hard wooden table and faced each one of his fellow council members with a defying stare. "Be brave, men! We owe it to our king; to every sacrifice he's ever done for us, for his people. It is the least we can do for him, because I assure you… if he is indeed unharmed somewhere he'll do everything in his power to return to us and end this bloody conflict for good. He would never abandon Fanelia to its fate… so let us not abandon him…"
For a brief couple of seconds a heavy silence took over the room. Then, as if a small wave of hope had washed over the premises, some of the counsellors started to nod in agreement, some others started to clap their hands in enthusiasm, and soon enough the majority were cheering the general's words.
"Good, good." He said, quite relieved himself the mood appeared to had shifted considerably. "Now listen up. We need to act quickly and contact our allies."
"Oh, and what allies are those?" Hideki's pessimistic attitude hadn't ceased yet apparently. "Our northern borders have already been attacked this morning by Zaibach's troops. We are surrounded, general! Our allies are not our allies anymore… Why I'm surprised Asturia hasn't attacked us yet too."
This time the counterattack didn't come from the general. "Rest assured counsellor Hideki, there won't be any ill actions from Asturia toward Fanelia." Every one turned around too see a tall blond man enter the council room with a quick and steady pace. "Despite the regrettable circumstances in which my country was forced to switch sides in this war, our friendship shall not be tainted." Allen firmly stated. "And as proof of that, and having just received the blessings from my Queen and King, I come here to offer Fanelia my services and that of my men and airship… It'll be an honour for us to fight alongside your country once again."
"And your help shall be very much welcomed, knight Schezar. Thank you. Please join us, good friend." And as Allen made his way toward the table, Takeshi turned his attention back to the other men. "Now, as you might understand contacting our true, remaining allies" (he was especially careful to emphasise his words as he looked to where Hideki was seated) "will take us some time, so we'll need to stall King Ulrich as much as possible… It has come to my understanding that he'll send a delegation ahead of him to discuss the terms of the marriage treaty between King Van and Queen Isabella in an attempt for a peaceful surrender… That just might be our chance."
As a reply, numerous murmurs of agreement were heard from the other members. "Counsellor Johan," Takeshi called out, turning around to face the old man. "I believe you were the one who oversaw the signing of the treaty… By what grounds will King Ulrich try to claim the throne for himself?"
The poor counsellor seemed so oddly aloof when he was spoken to all of a sudden, that he had a hard time focusing back on his surroundings. He nervously fumbled with a pile of papers in front of him until he found a small parchment. It was easy to see his hands shaking as he unfolded it. "W-well…" He started, voice shaking too. "the… t-treaty clearly states that in case our monarch…passes away or goes missing in the course of duty leaving no… h-heirs to carry on the family name, the regency of the country is to be given to the… Queen immediately."
"But that's good news, is it not?" One of the most stressed out council members acknowledged. "King Ulrich won't be able to claim any rights on the throne that way… It's true our Queen is his daughter, but all links with her birth family were cut when she wed King Van. She is Fanelian now, not Egzardian."
Johan unfolded yet another parchment from the pile of documents; his hands were still trembling. "Y-Yes, you are quite correct, but… there's something else." He gulped; his throat suddenly felt very dry. "The treaty also states that if the Queen is considered unsuited for the position… or in the event of her highness's death, than the regency of the kingdom is to be delivered to her immediate family…birth family that is…which in this case would be the King of Egzardia…"
"But…but Queen Isabella is alive and healthy! And she is certainly most capable for the job, don't you all agree?" The distraught counsellor inquired.
Takeshi didn't join the choir of approving voices. A dark suspicion suddenly began to cloud his mind. In the 'event of her highness's death', was it?... Could Ulrich be truly capable of attempting against his own daughter's life? The mere thought of it made the experienced general want to shudder. No one could be that evil! And yet, the ominous suspicion wouldn't leave his thoughts.
"Where is the Queen now?" He asked urgently.
Allen was the one who answered him. "I believe she is still in her private study with Lady Merle. I paid her highness a short visit to communicate my decision to join your army just before I came here." His demeanour seemed to be quite calm and composed, but from the grave look on his eyes the general had the impression the blond knight was thinking exactly what he himself was.
"I'm afraid I'll have to impose on your friendship sooner than expected, knight Schezar. It is crucial that the Queen leaves Fanelia immediately." He ignored the gasps of surprise from his colleagues. "I wonder if you would be so kind as to take her highness back to the mountain shelters in the Crusade."
"Considerate it done. I'll go and inform the Queen." Allen stated and quickly left the room.
"As for you, gentlemen," Takeshi said gravely a moment later. "I want you to prepare immediately for the arrival of Egzardia's delegation. They mustn't suspect our actions. If they ask for an audience with the Queen, make up an excuse. I don't care which one! But they are in no circumstance allowed to find out Queen Isabella will not be in the castle at the time… Furthermore, any negotiations they'll feel entitled to start will be mediated by me and chief counsellor Johan alone." There was a low grunt coming from Hideki's side of the table, but the general dismissed it. He had no time for petty quarrels. "Go now, all of you. Make the preparations. This meeting has lasted far too long."
His command was so fierce that twenty seconds later there was no one left in the stuffy council room apart from him and the old advisor, who continued to search through his papers in a very distressed manner.
"Is something troubling you, counsellor Johan?" The general finally asked. "You seem a little down… Are you ill by any chance?"
"Who me? On no, general." The elder man seemed even paler now than he did before though. "It's just that this whole war situation is very stressful… And o-our king's disappearance…Not knowing if…" He started fidgeting nervously all of a sudden which surprised Takeshi.
"Now counsellor, I can understand some of the other member's distress, but you above all others should have faith in our king. As his chief advisor you know his capabilities better than anyone." He paused for a moment and sighed. "I won't lie…I'm a little apprehensive about the whole situation myself, but if what the knight Schezar has told us is true, the pillar of light appeared before Egzardia's bomb went off. If its purpose wasn't to save the king's life, as it has done so many times in the past, than I don't know what purpose it had this time… So let us not loose hope, shall we?"
This time Takeshi's optimistic words had little effect on his audience. Johan hadn't stopped fidgeting at all. "…But even if his highness is still alive, his disappearance will undoubtedly make King Ulrich want to try to take advantage of the marriage treaty somehow…"
"Yes, I suppose our king should have never signed that damn treaty in the first place." The younger man frowned for a moment. "When you think about it though, it seems so unlike him to have agreed to such conditions… And as much as I respect his decision I can't help but wonder what was behind his decision to ally with Egzardia in such a way. I always thought he would… well, never mind, but his highness's engagement sure surprised everyone, remember?"
It was fortunate that the general, being caught up in his own thoughts, didn't pay much attention to Johan at the moment, because the latter man's complexion turned into a shade of ghostly white all of a sudden. The chief advisor started to pace around the room nervously; his hands behind his back. "Y-You must understand general," He stammered. "our… k-king's decision to wed the Egzardian princess was made in Fanelia's best interest. The resulting alliance with King Ulrich's country was most beneficial for us at the time. I… that is, we could have never predicted this outcome…"
The anxious fidgeting increased, but Takeshi was too enwrapped in his musings to take proper notice of it. "Even so, this awful treaty…" He snickered. "At least now we know King Ulrich planned for our king's demise all along. Such cunning deceitfulness! He sure fooled us all."
"There might be a way to counter the treaty, general." Johan quickly added. "Even if our king is…" He let the silence speak for him. He couldn't bring himself to say the missing word anyway. It was only when he noticed Takeshi's confused expression that he resumed his speech. "Well… Egzardia can only claim Fanelia's regency in the absence of heirs… If Queen Isabella is by any chance with child…"
Takeshi puffed. For a moment there he actually thought he was going to hear the solution to their problems. "Hopeful that your little harassing 'heir-speeches' proved themselves fruitful, are you?... I really don't know how the king puts up with the lot of you most of the time!" He sighed tiredly and even though they were alone in the room, he lowered his voice considerably. "You know as well as I do that that is most unlikely, counsellor… And even if some 'heir' magically appears out of nowhere now, which I almost wish it did, it will not have our king's blood running through its veins."
"…I suppose so." Johan meekly agreed.
"Well then, enough with this conjectures. There's work to be done now." The general announced; the tone of his voice back to normal. "If you could please arrange the necessary documents for the upcoming negotiations, counsellor…" He requested, pointing to the pile of scattered papers over the wooden table.
Johan nodded in agreement and soon enough the general left the room. All alone with his demons, it didn't take to long for the old counsellor's distress to take complete hold of him. Fearing the little strength he had left on his legs would fail him, he let himself fall on the plush seat in front of one of the largest windows.
He slowly took a hand to one of his pockets and pulled out a small envelope. As a result, his hand immediately began to tremble again. Carefully, he unfolded the long piece of paper the envelope contained and stared at his own neat calligraphy for what felt like the hundredth time that day. The meticulously drawn lines of his beautiful handwriting were strangely appalling to him now, as he beheld that dreadful letter… the one that had started it all…but not before having ended it all as well.
There were more letters, of course. Such situations are not ended or created with little correspondence after all, but most of them had been burned or destroyed long ago; it had been important not to leave any evidences at the time. That particular one though, the first one, had escaped unharmed. For years it had been apparently left forgotten among unimportant charts and other documents in some obscure corner of Johan's private office, only to magically re-appear at the beginning of the current war. At first he'd thought little of the odd find, although he was very much surprised by it, but now he knew its purpose. The infamous letter had survived with the sole intention to plague him… and rightfully so; to plague his ill decision and his attempt to meddle with faith.
He read the first few lines although there was hardly any need for it as by now he knew them by heart. His words carried such concern and yet such malice at the same time, he found it hard to believe he'd been the one to write them… How naïve he had been! How gullible and credulous of him to believe in that awful monarch; to believe he was filled with enough good intentions to justify betraying his own.
The current war and his king's disappearance were more than enough proof of how wrong he had been though … But was it already too late to make amends?
Ever so slowly Johan raised his eyes to the Mystic Moon, shining brightly among the star filled sky. He couldn't suppress his guilt any longer. "Forgive me, your highness... Forgive me, young lady." He muttered quietly; his voice shaking. "This is all my fault… Oh, what have I done? What have I done?"
His confession went unheard.
The woman in front of him didn't reply. Actually, she didn't even seem to acknowledge she'd been spoken to.
"Hitomi, is something wrong?" He tried again.
"W-what?... No, of course not." She finally answered, albeit a little aloof. "What makes you think something's wrong, Ryo?"
"Well, you're… crying." He spoke softly and she gasped in surprise realizing he was right. She could taste the salty tears in her mouth… How strange! She hadn't even noticed them.
"Are you in any pain?" Ryo asked as Hitomi quickly wiped them away with the back of her hand. "If it's the flu you have, you should be resting… or are you sick due to something else?"
Hitomi was about to deny his worries, but her lively son beat her to it.
"Mommy isn't sick… Van is!"
"Takeru!" She scowled under her breath.
"Huh?... Van?" Ryo repeated, slightly confused. "I don't think I know who… Who's Van?"
She quickly opened her mouth to try to save the situation, but once again Takeru was faster.
"He's mommy's friend. He got hurt in a big, big accident, but mommy fixed him up and he's a lot better now." The little boy said, clearly beaming with pride. "He's staying in mommy's bedroom… Van's a pilot, you know? He's really nice and his eyes have a funny colour and-"
"…Oh!" Was the only thing Ryo managed to say; the red tint on his cheeks suddenly making yet another appearance.
Seeing him discover in such an embarrassing manner that he'd just been fooled by her little lie brought Hitomi to a brand new low for the evening. "…I'm really, really sorry Ryo!" She started, now embarrassed herself. "If I'd known you'd be this concerned I would have never-"
"It's ok Hitomi, honestly!" He assured her; his unbelievably handsome trademark smile suddenly framing his lips. "I'm… just glad everything's fine with you."
She didn't hear his last few words though. They were muffled by the sound of a heavy thunder exploding right above her front porch; the resulting sound-wave so powerful it made the windows tremble on their frames.
"Wow, that was a big one!" Ryo remarked startled as Hitomi tried to get her frightened son to let go of her jeans. Takeru didn't like thunderstorms at all; one of the few things he actually had in common with his father.
"Was it me or was that lightning just now pink?" Ryo added, confused. It was only when Hitomi turned back to face him that, oddly enough, she noticed for the first time the state he was in.
"Ryo, you're soaked!" And he sure was! His dark brown hair was plastered to his face and the blue polo shirt he wore beneath his light jacket had acquired an array of darker spots courtesy of the raindrops pouring outside.
"Oh, it's nothing. I just caught a little rain on my way here from the car, that's all." His eyes lingered for a moment on the bouquet of flowers Hitomi still held in her hands; his expression incredibly soft. "Huh…I guess I should be going then." He said, looking back at her. "I better get home before the storm gets any worse… It was…It was really nice seeing you." He added, with a look that could easily melt a brick wall. "I hope you're…friend gets better!"
He already had one foot on the front porch's step when Hitomi, although a little reluctantly, stopped him. "Wait! At least let me lent you an umbrella… You'll end up catching a cold because of me."
"I know were they are. I'll take him there." Takeru immediately offered. Poor Ryo had no time to protest against it. The little boy started pulling him inside the house quite insistently by the sleeve of his jacket.
Hitomi let out a little sigh of relief as she saw both her son's and Ryo's back disappear behind the nearest doorway. Takeru would no doubt keep him busy for awhile.
In all honesty, (and as much as she felt awful admitting it) the last thing Hitomi wanted was for Ryo to hang around her house any longer with Van so close by, but she figured she'd already far exceeded her quota of deceitfulness for one night, so she ended up wielding to her good Samaritan side, even though something told her she was probably going to end up regretting it.
But she had more than enough time to worry about that, she was positive. Right now she was a lot more concerned with finding out what was the sudden racket coming from what appeared to be her bedroom. What was Van doing in there?!
So as soon as she assessed that the coast was clear, she carefully placed the bouquet of lilies on top of the little entrance table and practically ran to the farthest door in the hallway.
Taking a deep breath, she opened her bedroom door and peaked inside. What she saw made her frown. Van was standing right next to her bed, finishing strapping the buckle of his sword belt on his shorts; the long blade now securely strapped to his side.
"Hey, how did you find that?" Hitomi asked in a guarded voice, more than a little apprehensive of how he'd act after what he'd just witnessed in the hallway.
Her fears proved themselves unfounded however.
"Your definition of a 'safe place' is still under the bed?" He remarked mockingly and then shook his head in disapproval. "You haven't changed one bit, Hitomi Kanzaki."
His words stunned her. Or maybe it was more his unexpected light mood that caused her amazement. Why was he acting so cool and collected when he'd just seen her standing beside another man? Whom, by the way, he most likely thought was the one responsible for destroying their relationship? Didn't he say he'd be upset?... Well, why wasn't he?... And more importantly, why was she upset all of a sudden?
Of course only her subconscious was busy with such confusing musings. At the surface, she was a lot more preoccupied with coming up with some witty retort to his mock remark. Thankfully for her, Nature lend her a hand. The deafening sound of yet another powerful thunder echoed through the air making Van cringe a lot more than what be considered reasonable.
Sporting a wide grin, she leaned against the closed door and crossed her arms in front of her chest.
"It appears you haven't changed either, Van Fanel!"
He grimaced at her words, clearly not enjoying her amusement at his expense, when another thunder, this one even louder than its precedent, blew up in the sky, causing him to cower involuntarily yet again.
This time though Hitomi didn't resume her witty remarks. She'd just spotted a very familiar chain hanging from his neck.
"The pendant!" She exclaimed and for a second there she could have sworn she saw Van grin triumphantly. "When…? How…?" Was the only thing she came up with. One fleeting glance across her bedroom however, was all it took for her to take notice of the havoc it was in.
Every piece of furniture in the room had its drawer's wide open and its contents searched through, including the smallest drawer in her vanity; the one where she had hidden the pink stone.
Hitomi felt like cursing her stupidity! Of course he'd turn her bedroom upside down looking for the damn pendant! He'd probably just assumed that if she'd been dumb enough to stash his sword so conspicuously, the pendant couldn't be that hard to find too. "Stupid, stupid Hitomi!" She muttered to herself.
And she figured he would gladly tell her that himself if he wasn't already pretty much occupied with fumbling with the lock on the window.
"What are you doing?" She asked, frowning again.
"Trying to open the window… What does it look like I'm doing?"
"So I can leave!"
Hitomi huffed. Talk about a stubborn, pigheaded man! He really hadn't changed at all.
"If you want to leave because of what you just saw… It's not what you think!"
Van ignored her and continued his attack on the lock a lot more forcefully, causing the windowpanes to shake violently.
"Could you please stop with the racket already?"
"What racket?! I've been quiet as a mouse this whole time."
No sooner did he finished speaking than the sound of something shattering to pieces on the ground of the adjacent room reached their ears.
Hitomi froze; an ominous feeling suddenly took over her. "That racket!"
She paused to listen more intently to the unexpected turmoil in her guestroom, at the same time her brain fought hard to come up with some logical explanation for it, when the distinct murmur of human voices was heard.
Before her mind could even begin to process the new information though, she heard the adjacent room's door being carefully opened, followed by numerous heavy steps in the hallway.
As an immediate result, her heart began to beat abnormally fast. She was sure that wasn't the only way her new found panic attack was presenting itself however, because as soon as Van locked eyes with her again he also became instantly alert; his hand griping the hilt of his sword.
He was making his way quietly toward her, when someone on the other side of the door spoke up.
"I thought I heard voices nearby…" A man said in a low murmur. "Where to now, captain?"
"We'll split up in two groups and search the premises… But don't get too carried away if you find anyone. King Ulrich wants them alive!"
King Ulrich?! King Ulrich… But that could only mean those men were… How could that be possible? Hitomi only realized she had gasped when Van covered her mouth with his hand. "Egzardian soldiers…" He confirmed in a whisper. "Don't move."
"Captain…" Another voice, this time coming from the other side of the hallway, was heard as well. "There's someone on this side."
Hitomi felt like the air was being sucked out of her lungs. "Takeru!" She exclaimed, terrified. It had to be her son and Ryo the other man was referring to.
Van immediately loosened the hold he had on her trembling form; still a little apprehensive she'd collapse on the floor. But as soon as he heard the steps grow further away from their door, he griped the doorknob; a fierce determination plainly visible in his burgundy eyes as he faced Hitomi.
"Stay in here." He told her firmly. "Whatever you do, don't leave this room."
She could almost see his crazy plan written his eyes. "No!... Are you insane? They're at least three or four of them. You won't be able to fight them all off in your condition." Hitomi pleaded desperately, and yet she knew perfectly well that if she didn't let Van go out there, she'd be definitely putting her son's life in danger. Her heart was in a knot.
"I'll try to get them away from here." He continued; the same determination audible in his words. "I won't let anything bad happen to you or your family, Hitomi. I swear…"
"Just don't leave the room until I get them out of your house."
Hitomi felt like her heart was about to explode. She wasn't sure if she could control herself anymore. "Van," She said without thinking straight. "Takeru is-"
There was a sudden movement at the end of the hallway and Van pulled open the door just an inch so he could look outside. "It's empty." He informed, opening it wide enough so he'd be able to slide through. "Wait at least five minutes and then run to get your son and your…" How strange! He couldn't seem to bring himself to say the rest.
Van opened his mouth to add something fast, but no sound came out for awhile. Instead he stared right at her; a burning intensity in his eyes as he seemed to be committing to memory every detail of her face. "…Goodbye Hitomi." Were his last words to her. She got the feeling that wasn't exactly what he wanted to say though.
And before she herself could even retain the memory of that moment, he'd already disappeared out of the room. Hitomi couldn't quite tell how long she stood staring at that closed door. It seemed to her that time itself had stopped. Only the constant tic-tac sound of her wall clock appeared to disagree with her. How long had it been since Van had left? One minute? Two? An hour?... Outside everything was deadly quiet and that lack of life signs was driving her insane. She wasn't sure she could take much more.
Only a couple of minutes had gone by when her nerves got the best of her. She had to get to her son. And fast. Listening one last time across her bedroom door for any signs of movement, she slowly opened the door and stepped out into the dim lit corridor.
Hitomi had only taken a few cautious steps when she thought she'd heard Takeru's crying whimper echoing through the hallway. For a fraction of a second she stood perfectly still hoping against hope her mind was playing evil tricks on her, but then she distinctly heard his little voice cry out for her and her legs immediately sprung to action as she ran all the way to the living-room; where his voice had come from.
"Takeru!" She cried out as soon as she reached the doorway, but before she even had the chance to look around the room for any signs of him, a large hand caught her by the throat and slammed her hard against the nearest wall.
"Leave my mommy alone!" She heard her son say and opened her eyes just in time to see Takeru bite the leg of her captor. The bulky man immediately lifted his free hand to slap him. "Why you little brat…"
"No!" Hitomi yelled. But she wasn't the only one. Her plea was joined by a stern command coming from the other side of the room. "Don't touch them." Someone added.
Her captor immediately released her from his deadly grip, albeit cursing in pain. Taking hold of the opportunity, Hitomi quickly took Takeru in her arms and backed away from him until her back hit another wall.
She frightfully looked to where the commanding voice had come from and suppressed the urge to scream.
Three large men dressed in heavy armour stood above the body of an unconscious man; Ryo was lying on his back on the floor, eyelids closed; a small trickle of blood oozing out of his mouth.
The tallest of the man from the trio took several steps forward, eyeing Hitomi in a satisfied manner. "Nice of you to join us, lady." He said with mock politeness. Hitomi immediately recognized his voice as the 'captain's', she'd heard before in the hallway. "We've been most eagerly waiting for you." He added with a smirk.
"F-For me?" She asked apprehensively. "W-What do you want?" She hopelessly wondered where Van was at that moment. Had they gotten to him already? Was he lying on the floor unconscious, just like Ryo was, somewhere in her house? The thought of it made her knees tremble with fear.
Her distress was probably pretty obvious to the others, because the blue-haired captain suddenly stopped approaching her; his voice acquiring a more serene tone. "Relax, young lady! We just want to have a little chat with you, that's all." It wouldn't take a lie detector to prove the deceitfulness of his words. His speech reeked of knavery.
Propped by a fresh new wave of anxiety and fear, Hitomi slowly started to make her way toward the nearest exit door, when the soldier closest to her, still complaining over his leg, marched in her direction, clearly intent on ignoring his superior's order.
She was about to scream when a loud, angry voice froze everyone inside the room. "Get away from her!"
To Hitomi it was like a wave of hope had flooded the room all of a sudden; calming her nerves; bringing relief to her awful situation. His voice, although stern and authoritative, to her sounded like the most crystalline of angel voices. She couldn't help but smile in relief as she turned to watch Van enter the room, sword in hand.
He wasn't alone however. With the blade dangerously close to his neck, a lanky Egzardian soldier trembled against the strong hold Van had him in. "I-I'm terribly sorry, captain." He stammered nervously. "He caught us by surprise."
"You idiot!" Was his superior's remark. "Where are the others?" He asked, nonetheless eyeing their unexpected guest with interest.
"Dead." Van answered flatly. "Which is what you'll be as well, if you don't go back to where you came from." He threatened.
The tall captain grinned mischievously. He liked the nerve of the young man. He had quite some guts… and skill as well, if it was true that he had indeed just finished off some of his best soldiers. He was about to inquire about his identity, when one of his comrades suddenly gasped behind him.
"By the gods! That's Fanelia's king!" His subordinate exclaimed.
The captain stared baffled from the soldier to the dark-haired man in front of him. Fanelia's king?! Only when he eyed Van more closely did he recognize the royal seal on his sword. "Well, well, what a surprise!... It is an honour to meet you at last, your highness!" He said, bowing exaggeratedly.
"Cut the act already." Van retorted, matter-of-factly. "It's me you want. Let these people go. They have nothing to do with this."
The Egzardian captain let out a despicable laugh. "Ah, but they do! You see, your highness, it is not you we're after… although you will be a very much appreciated bonus to our mission." He stated. "But no, we're actually after those two." He pointed to where Hitomi and Takeru stood frightened, causing the little boy to hold tighter to his mother.
The panicked look Van saw in Hitomi's eyes caused his anger to boil further. He griped his sword tighter against his hostage's neck; a thin line of blood already tinting its blade. The poor man in front of him could only tremble in terror. "Don't you dare lay a hand on them!" Van forewarned.
"Oh, please! Go ahead and kill that idiot. You'd be doing my battalion a favour." The tall man grinned, despite the silent whines of the captive soldier. "As for the seeress and her child, you need not to worry. We have explicit orders from King Ulrich not to harm them… for now at least. But as for you, your highness,… I don't think our king will mind too much if we just take back with us your head." He said, pulling his sword out.
His gesture was quickly followed by that of his comrades and soon they where sauntering toward Van like predators ambushing prey. The whining of the soldier in Van's hands got louder.
Hitomi couldn't move. She couldn't think properly either. With no where to escape to, and holding her increasingly terrified son, she was left staring as the soldiers in front of her circled Van, leaving him no room to escape himself.
Knowing he had no way out of the situation but to enter in such an unfair fight, Van kicked the whimpering soldier on the head with the back of his sword, letting him fall unconscious at his feet and then quickly turned his blade to the grinning captain's. "He's mine." The blue-haired man warned.
"I said he's mine!... He's my kill."
And so it began.
In the eerie silence of the room, nothing could be heard but the clashing of metal against metal. The two opponents circled each other in a deadly dance; their steps cautious and light. The attacks themselves were swift and cunning; the blocks too. Several minutes had gone by already and neither Van nor the Egzardian captain could be declared to have the upper hand on the fight.
And although Hitomi knew very well Van's former injuries were no doubt causing him a great deal of pain, to the untrained eye the young king seemed to be completely unperturbed and focused on his opponent alone.
One more attack from the Egzardian captain; one more successful block from Van. The fight seemed to have no end in sight, when suddenly the taller man thrust his sword with all his might toward Van's chest, causing the latter to drop down, roll on the floor and quickly swing his blade bellow his adversary's knees.
As a result, the captain fell to the floor with a heavy thud, shouting in pain; his subordinate's shocked and surprised. Taking advantage of their reaction, Van quickly knocked out the soldier who stood closest to him with his fist, turning his sword immediately to face the two remaining ones.
He was panting heavily as he spoke to them. "If you don't want me to give you the same treatment I just gave your friends here, I suggest you gather the ones who are still breathing and go back to your traitorous king." He hissed.
The two soldiers didn't seem to know what to do. It was clear on their faces that none of them felt too incline to battle with him, that was certain.
Hitomi felt her nerves slowly begin to subside. For the first time she genuinely felt they could actually make it out safe and sound of that predicament. She was so strangely relieved that she only noticed the bloodied Egzardian captain's action a little too late.
Behind Van's back and gritting his teeth in pain, he took out a small sharp dagger from his combat boot and swung it his opponent's way just before falling unconscious from loss of blood.
Hitomi didn't know who screamed first - her or her son. Only that the screaming filled the room and her mind until she could hear nothing else… until she felt a strange unexplainable warmth around her and saw a blinding light in front of her eyes.