Prince of Warlocks
Tezuka dared to venture into this new, larger town even more rarely than the village he had lived near previously. He'd been going every couple of weeks to stock up on supplies until he could get a good crop rotation going again, and once or twice to visit Kawamura's restaurant, but otherwise there was little call for it – his friends usually came to him, and Inui frequently brought him things from the bazaar as well, further reducing his need to go shopping. Today, he told himself that he was out of parchment and ink, and that was the only reason he was going. If perchance his quest for some nice new books and ink led him deep into Hunter territory that few witches and warlocks ever risked wandering near... well, that was just coincidence.
He dallied by the street stalls, keen ears used to the silence that generally accompanied a hermit's lifestyle easily picking out conversations from amongst the bustling crowd. There was one group of women that seemed especially abuzz.
"...A young man, had been hiding among them for years - no one had suspected..."
"My husband had been with their troupe for several months, he always said that the boy was antisocial."
"Cocky and arrogant, was what I heard."
"I guess now we know why. The gall, to hide among them! Probably helping his own kind out behind their backs, and laughing all the while!"
"After they spent all those years bringing him up, too."
"Darling, isn't your boyfriend at the station as well? Is it safe? I heard he escaped a couple of times."
"He did say there had been trouble – I was sick with worry when he came home with a horrible cut on his arm in the early hours! They're going to hurry and take care of things at sunup tomorrow morning. In the town square - by hanging, and then burning. It's the only way to be sure. They have to scatter the ashes."
"Oh, we must go. I don't think I'll feel safe again until I see it happen with my own eyes."
"I know. I was so scared when suddenly there were flames all along the street just two blocks down from my house! We were lucky it was snowing, so they couldn't spread. The whole place still smells of smoke."
"It was horrid. Are they absolutely sure he won't escape?"
"Of course they are. They have a dungeon and guards designed to handle such things. It's their job. That's why all the previous escapes failed, isn't it?"
Tezuka had heard enough. He walked away, slipping through the throngs of people quietly.
Could it just be a coincidence?
Unlikely. How many Hunters would fit that description? His suspicions were true after all.
Ryoma was to be executed at dawn.
By hanging and fire, they'd said. It was foolish of them to think that they could kill a warlock so easily. But then, Ryoma didn't know how to control his powers. And the Hunters were the ones doing it. If the fire failed, they'd follow it with steel, and then the young man would be doomed.
As a burning emotion started to spread through him, Tezuka realised that Fuji was right. He was possessive after all.
It didn't take long to reach the local headquarters where the Hunters gathered. Every witch and warlock in the area knew where it was, and knew to give it a wide berth – the Hunters there were a paranoid bunch, and likely to haul up and question people with even slightly suspicious characteristics. But unlike Fuji, Tezuka wore non-descript clothes, and could easily be confused for just a common scholar with his plain black cloak and glasses. So long as he kept his eyes on the ground and was careful to blend in, not even the most observant of hunters would notice him. He passed a group of four, standing and talking in the street – they were easily identifiable by the silver badges they wore, provided by the Church as proof of their occupation. Ryoma had kept his in his pocket, he vaguely recalled, presumably not to alert his prey that they were being hunted, or more likely due to a dislike of uniforms. Another man, with a sword slung over his shoulder and a badge hanging off his belt, jostled past him. For a second, Tezuka held his breath, preparing himself for action – would the stranger notice the scent of the unusual herbs he grew for Inui on his clothes? – but his concern was unfounded, as the man continued walking without a backward glance. Of course. Paranoid though some Hunters might be, nothing so simple as a scent would give him away. Coolly, he continued on, making a beeline for the headquarters. He passed another five idle Hunters on his way, but they were abruptly forgotten when he reached the building at last. Staring at the large, grey building, a sort of cold fire consumed him, driving out the last vestiges of caution.
Tezuka strode straight through the front door unchallenged, emitting an aura of almost visible power.
There was a group of three middle-aged men gathered around a table in the foyer, drinking and playing cards by the looks of things. They threw him a distracted glance, absorbed in their activity, until one of them paused and looked over at him again with his eyes squinted. "Hey, wait, you've got to show your-"
"Go to sleep."
They slumped down on the table, drinks spilling from their hands to drench the floor with alcohol. Tezuka swept past them and moved deeper into the building, heading for the basement. Most of the rooms were empty – he only came across two more Hunters, both of which were convinced to ignore everything that was happening around them with just a few words. Finally, he spied a trapdoor. It revealed a stone staircase leading deeper into the earth.
The warlock descended the staircase confidently, uncontested until he reached the bottom.
"Halt! Who goes there?" A single guard? He looked younger than the others so far, and had a nervous hand on the scabbard of a sword.
"Stand aside," Tezuka ordered, voice echoing ominously against the stone walls. The Hunter didn't even have a hope of resisting. Wordlessly, he moved out of the way. As an afterthought, Tezuka added, "Give me your keys. Then go home and forget you ever saw me here."
"Yes sir!" The guard almost robotically handed over his ring of keys, and then hurried back upstairs. Tezuka waited until he was gone before heading to the only locked door. It was made of heavy wood, inset with iron, and the key had trouble turning in the rusted lock.
The cell was dark – the only light came from that which spilled from the doorway. Regardless, the warlock swept his eyes over the cell and moved forward, though more tentatively now.
A bundle of rags in the corner shifted, and chains clinked together. A dirty mop of green-black hair emerged, and he was regarded with a pair of sallow, sunken hazel eyes. "...Tezuka?" The word was spoken in a raw whisper.
He rushed over to the youth's side, helping him sit up. He flinched at the sight of the bruising on the arms and legs, and the shallow cut just above his right eye - Ryoma had obviously put up quite a fight. His clothes were torn, his wrists and ankles were clasped in thick, heavy iron manacles, and around his neck there was, of all things, a collar with a bell on it.
"Are you okay?"
"I've been better." Tezuka clutched the Hunter to his chest tightly, causing the chains to rattle. "…They say I'm a warlock."
"…Didn't think I'd ever see you again. Why did you come?"
"I had to."
"It's dangerous for you here. They'll kill you in a heartbeat. Just because I couldn't, doesn't mean-"
"I was willing to take that risk."
Ryoma didn't seem to know what to make of that. He just allowed his head to drop to his chest again, eyes sliding closed.
"What's with the collar?" Tezuka asked quietly.
"…I turned into a cat."
"A cat?" Shape shifting was a common enough skill among their kind, but it was a surprise that Ryoma had figured out how to do so. Tezuka recalled Fuji's impromptu nickname for the Hunter, and wonder if he had already sensed the young man's talent.
"And there was some sort of whirlwind following me around town. And I think I might have caused a few fires, too. I'm not sure. It could have been coincidence." His head rolled listlessly to the side. "Locked me up in here. Called me a warlock. They didn't bind my hands last time, and suddenly, I was a cat. Got away. Then some irritating little girl picked me up and put a collar on me."
"How did you get caught again?" he asked curiously, even as he ran cautious fingers over the man's scalp, checking for wounds that might have been hidden by his hair.
A weak chuckle. "Took me straight to her home into the arms of her Hunter father. He knew something was odd straight away. Then they threw me back in here, and put these on. The metal seems to stop it."
At that, Tezuka traced a careful hand over the manacles. Ah. There was a thread of Orichalcum in the iron. It wouldn't stop a determined witch, but it was more than enough to stymie a novice.
"Did you do this to me? Was it because I... with you..." Ryoma whispered.
He ran a comforting hand over the dirty green hair. "I am afraid that magic isn't catching. But this whole affair may have had some hand in waking up what was already there." Generally witches and warlocks discovered their powers in times of strife or great emotional upset. The Hunter's general prowess at his job and lazy and uncaring attitude had probably shielded him from both circumstances until now.
"You mean... I always..."
"It may interest you to know that the name Echizen used to belong to quite a powerful warlock. He disappeared some fifteen years ago, and we think he was likely killed by a group of Hunters. When did the Hunters take you in and start training you, Ryoma?"
Wide, haunted hazel eyes met his. It seemed that he'd convinced the other man at last.
"I always have been…"
"Then all those witches and warlocks I killed…"
"It is regrettable, but you were used. Witches and warlocks have some measure of resistance against the powers of others of their kind, and it made you an effective Hunter. Rather than feel guilty over the past, you will be better off focusing on what you will do with the future now that you know the truth."
The other man barked out a harsh laugh. "The future? Haven't you heard? They're going to kill me at dawn."
"I will not allow that to happen."
"What are you going to do about it?"
"I'll get you out of here," he promised.
He turned his attention to the manacles. It took longer than he would have liked, but after concentrating his power, his left arm began to glow with an unearthly aura. Tezuka grasped bindings around Ryoma's wrists with his left hand, and snapped them off cleanly.
The younger man was staring with wide-eyed disbelief at him, even as he turned his attention to the cuffs encasing the ankles. A moment later, the budding warlock was freed.
"What was that?"
"It is one of my talents. I focus all of my magic and power into my left arm, making it many times stronger. It took quite a long time to master."
"Could I learn to do that?"
"If you work hard enough." Ryoma had a glint in his eyes as he helped him to his feet, but that shine abruptly vanished when he stumbled, letting out a hiss between his teeth.
Tezuka located the source of the problem immediately: a sprained ankle. The restraints had hidden that particular injury. Ryoma grunted in surprise as he swept a hand under his knees and picked the slight man up. He was lighter than he expected – back in the cottage near that desolate little valley he'd seen the layers of fine wiry muscle the younger man sported, and he'd certainly felt heavy those times he'd used the warlock as a living pillow in that cramped bed. Tezuka found himself wondering whether it was the long journey searching for him that had robbed Ryoma of his weight, or if it was just the effects of his magic still lingering on his left arm causing the illusion.
"I can walk myself," came a furious hiss.
"Perhaps, but this will be faster. Bear with it," was the mild reply. The pride at work he would normally indulge – after all, Ryoma had been robbed of so much of his pride that week already – but his impulsiveness had only carried him this far, and now Tezuka had to turn his attention to what to do next. His mind raced furiously, even as he carried his charge up the stone staircase. Everyone in the building was still sleeping, thankfully.
It was simple enough to steal Ryoma from the Hunters – but could they outrun them? There were bound to be others in town, all of whom would be on the lookout for them almost immediately, and the ones he had passed on the streets before he had entered the building would not let him pass unopposed again with their prisoner in his arms. He was already tired, having expended the most energy he had for a long while, and his vision kept blurring in and out of focus. If a mob of Hunters came after him now, did he still have the strength to keep them at bay? He cursed his rashness. Striding into the lion's den without a plan… If they got out of this alive, Fuji would never let him live it down.
There was nothing else to do. He'd have to take the chance, and hope that his voice alone would be enough to keep them at bay long enough to make their escape. So long as they avoided drawing a crowd, they could probably make it.
Taking a deep breath, he clutched Ryoma tighter to his chest, and stepped out of the building.
The scene that greeted him could be best described as pure chaos.
The numerous Hunters he had passed quietly by on his way in were now quite busy. Townspeople of all ages were milling about in the streets – some in panic, others in confusion. There were fires everywhere.
Cautiously, he weaved through the panicking throng. He briefly set his charge down, picking up a discarded cloak from the ground and wrapping it around shivering shoulders. It was still winter, after all, and Ryoma's torn clothes were damp and he was barefoot. He took care to ensure that the hood was brought securely around the distinctive green-black hair, and picked up the quiet Hunter – no, a warlock now, he corrected himself – again, trying to find a way to safely escape the disorder without running into any of the Hunters darting through the streets.
Suddenly, a familiar figure appeared by his side. He tensed automatically before recognising them. "Fuji."
"Tezuka. My, the kitten isn't looking very well, is he?"
"Did you do this?" He nodded towards the general chaos surrounding the burning buildings, all curiously confined to dwellings where Hunters normally resided.
"What do you mean? Someone just carelessly left a staff in the street that Taka happened to pick up."
Tezuka's lips quirked. Kawamura was normally meek and perfectly happy running his restaurant, but the instant someone gave him a staff or a wand… it was the result of an esoteric family curse, apparently. Fuji was good at countering curses, but for some reason didn't appear to want to touch that one. For once, he found himself glad. It was a rather useful curse in instances such as these. Even so… "You should not endanger yourself so recklessly on my behalf."
"I don't know what you're talking about. I haven't done a thing. All I've done all day is walk around town."
"There's a bear in the square! A wild bear!" A woman shrieked as she ran past.
"Yes, Tezuka?" the warlock asked innocently.
His friend just gave him a serene smile. "Go take care of him, Tezuka. I'll look after things here."
"Don't be careless."
The Hunters had all gone running for the town square, so Tezuka hurried in the opposite direction. They were wasting their time – he knew for a fact that the bear was no longer there, but planned to take the utmost advantage of that distraction.
"You have weird friends," Ryoma mumbled in his arms.
It was a tense several minutes as Tezuka weaved his way through the town with his prize, pausing at crossroads to wait while Hunters passed, Ryoma occasionally tugging on his collar in warning and pointing out safe places to hide - the training his very captors had provided him with helping to ease their passage. Neither of them even started to relax until they'd reached the very outskirts, and even then, Tezuka's nerves remained on alert until his house was in sight. He cast a glance down at the increasingly heavy bundle on his arms. Ryoma had fallen asleep once they were out of the immediate danger zone; his head nestled against his shoulder.
It was with a sigh of relief when he finally deposited his sleeping quarry in his bed again, at which point he slumped against it, energy thoroughly spent. It was too early for rest, though. There was too much to do. There were injuries to treat. Tracks to cover. Was his house still safe? Most of the Hunters had either missed a good look at his face or had been ordered to forget, but if some of them had magic in their blood like Ryoma did, perhaps his commands wouldn't hold? Would they be able to track them down? Ryoma chased him across two mountain ranges – surely tracing them from the centre of town would be enormously easier.
He ran his fingers through the tangled green-black hair, freeing the knots – more to keep his own nerves steady than anything else. Even knowing their faces, though, it wasn't like anyone would find them so soon. And even if they did, it didn't matter. He would protect that which was his.
It was with a wry smile that he went to fetch some bandages to wrap the ankle. That was being optimistic, of course, but at least Ryoma was back. He was safe. He was alive. That was all that really counted.
Tezuka wondered when exactly curiosity had turned to desire, had turned to need, had turned to love.
After wrapping the ankle and peeling off wet clothes, replacing them with a set of his own – much too large, but they'd do the job – Tezuka tucked his guest into his bed and set up a silent vigil. Inevitably, though, his own exhaustion started to set in. He found himself slumping forward, and eyes fluttering shut.
When he opened them next, it was morning, and he was lying in bed.
The warlock sat up so fast it left him momentarily dizzy. If he was in the bed, then where was Ryoma?
For one panic-stricken second, he thought it had all been a dream. But his left arm still ached faintly, a reminder of its exertions of the day before. He'd been out of practice.
Had the Hunters come while he'd been asleep? But then why would he still even be alive? Concern growing, he threw back the covers and hurried into the dining room.
The scene that greeted him was surreal. Ryoma was sitting at the table, still clad in clothes far too large for him, and Inui and Fuji were both seated across from him. He could spy Kawamura in the kitchen, apparently at work over the stove. They all turned when he entered the room. Fuji smiled – or rather, smiled wider. "Tezuka. How nice to see you up. Taka is making us breakfast!"
"Fuji, what is-"
"Your weird friends came over this morning. They've been explaining all this magic stuff." Ryoma slanted a glance at him and smirked. He was looking much better, though Tezuka's eyes still lingered on the healing cut just above the eye and the dark bruise visible where the shirt had slipped, exposing some of the collarbone. Perhaps it was fortunate they'd not directly encountered any Hunters on their way out. He might have been tempted to do some injury himself.
"You've been taking it rather well," he observed.
The former Hunter just shrugged slightly, then shifted in his seat a little, clearly uncomfortable. A blush was forming on his face, though why was anyone's guess.
Kawamura came to the rescue with five plates of a rather appetising breakfast. "Good morning Tezuka," he greeted cheerfully.
"Thank you," he said formally, accepting the offered food. "I am surprised to see you out of restaurant at this time."
His timid colleague just grinned, a little bashfully. "Well, when I heard that there was another fire-starter…"
"I've also been attempting to explain potions and divination to him all morning, but he does not seem even remotely interested." Inui appeared disappointed by this – Tezuka didn't know why, the man already had quite a capable apprentice.
"And he claims to have already figured out shape-shifting too. Such a shame," Fuji remarked. "Though the collar was cute." Ryoma choked on his food, and glared at the cheerful warlock. "Though not nearly as cute as finding Tezuka slumped next to the bed this morning." It was Tezuka's turn to glare. Fuji held up his hands disarmingly. "Saa, don't be like that. Since the kitten was awake, we figured you could use some proper sleep. I don't think you even realised how much magic you were using yesterday. You were subduing Hunters with magical blood with only your voice, Tezuka. That's how much power you were putting out."
That reminded him. "What happened in town?"
"No problems. The old woman was rather interested when she heard that the Echizen line had some survivors. She pulled some strings, and sent some people to clean up. Both of you shall be safe. Oishi and Kikumaru are in town taking care of it. Oishi will be dropping by later to take care of any injuries," Inui reported between mouthfuls.
"It will be good to see him again," Tezuka sighed, relieved that things would work out. He'd forgotten about the conveniences of their loose brotherhood under the old woman's mantle. He'd become so used to evading Hunters on his own that he'd forgotten that there were in fact others he could rely on as well.
"So then, that only leaves the matter of the kitten's training," Fuji quipped once everyone had finished eating. Tezuka locked glances with Ryoma again. What are you going to do?
"I think we'd best make ourselves scarce for a while. We'll be back with Oishi in a couple of hours," Fuji announced cheerfully. His friends all quietly got up and left the table. Tezuka saw them to the door. Ryoma stood as well, but didn't move away from the support of the chair, ankle obviously still sore.
Once they were gone, silence settled over the small house once again. He came back and stood a couple of steps away from his guest, feeling strangely awkward in his own house. Finally, Tezuka broke the silence. "You're really fine with it? You really want to learn how to become a warlock?"
"Yeah. My father was a really great warlock, right? I'm going to become even greater than him." He was relieved to hear the familiar cocky and arrogant tone of voice. It meant that the other man really was going to be okay.
"I see. In that case I… would be willing to teach you," he offered, hoping that his nerves weren't showing through his speech. "You could stay here. The house is bigger this time."
Silence. He couldn't read the other man's expression.
He cleared his throat. "Of course, if you want to go learn with someone else… I understand. I did take advantage of you. I do not deserve your forgiveness."
More silence. For a second, his heart sank. Truly, Ryoma was going to leave – probably get taken under the wing of the old woman and trained up, then disappear into the wilderness. He couldn't blame him. He'd played with the man's emotions, careless of the consequences all because he'd been a Hunter. Perhaps Ryoma was not the arrogant one after all. It was he who had been selfish, unwilling to give the source of his happiness up, even knowing the danger it would bring, and the pain it would inflict when the truth was outed.
Then a hand fisted itself in his shirt, and he was being jerked down and impaled on a warm golden stare.
"Idiot," he muttered. "You rescued me. Take responsibility."
There was a blush on the younger man's face as he averted his eyes. "You know… even before I drank the tea… I… you know… so I'm not mad. Since I liked you anyway. I'm not mad."
Tezuka's fingers caught his chin, and tilted his face back towards him. "I never did formally confess my intentions, did I?"
Ryoma smirked. "Is there any point now?"
"No… I suppose not." He bent his head, but instead of meeting soft lips as he expected, suddenly found himself with a face full of fur.
A fluffy white Himalayan cat meowed in his arms. Tezuka adjusted his grip to better fit the feline form. Odd. He'd been expected something a bit more sleek and dangerous looking for Ryoma's cat form, not this terribly cute bundle of fluff.
"I thought you told Fuji you'd already mastered shape-shifting."
The peeved expression on the cat's face suggested that perhaps while the young warlock had figured out the basics of shape shifting from his impromptu stint the day before, the transformation happened mostly instinctively. He meowed again. Tezuka took that to mean to put him down so that he could change back. As he set the cat on the ground, though, Tezuka still had enough time to summon an object from the next room, and the instant Ryoma appeared before him in human form again, deft hands slid the collar with the bell back around his neck.
"So that if you go wandering around town as a cat, people will know that you belong to someone," he explained in a mildly amused voice.
Ryoma scowled, tugging at the collar a little, but didn't move to take it off. "You're surprisingly possessive, you know that?"
"So I've been told."
An arm slid around his neck. "It's been over two months, you know." The words sounded terribly close to a purr.
Tezuka swallowed, and admitted, "It feels like it has been longer."
"Then we have a lot of time to make up for."
"You're injured. And we should really start on your training."
"You're getting all responsible on me again now?" Ryoma took a step forward – though it was a bit jerky, due to his still sprained ankle - and pressed his weight against him. Tezuka didn't dare move.
"Oishi is supposed to be coming by soon…."
"Not for a couple of a hours."
"But-" Ryoma easily silenced his next half-hearted protest by pressing their lips together. There wasn't much hope for resistance after that.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Tezuka idly noted that they'd have to check to see if Ryoma didn't happen to have some powers of persuasion as well. It certainly bordered on magic.