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Chapter 25

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"Fear is pain arising from the anticipation of evil."
~ Aristotle

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Morgif was sheathed and strapped to Yuuri's hip now. He heard the sword moan considerably about being awakened far, far too early in the morning. Or was it the middle of the night? The demon sword had been stored in the Treasure Room—this time, contentedly sleeping next to a dusty oil portrait of Royal Mistress Jolenta frolicking in The Royal Bath.

The double black ignored the complaints and the portrait. He told himself he didn't care that the Eighteenth Maou had a taste for redheads even though he had a perfectly good wife standing dutifully by his side and that there were five children depending on him. But Yuuri had to admit one thing to himself as he turned his eyes away. Wolfram's fears of being tossed aside or being cheated on right in his own home, Blood Pledge Castle, were more than justified because they had happened before. Such things were commonplace here. In fact, cheating on the side was considered normal for aristocrats and royalty alike. Here was the evidence and even more could be found in the Royal Library. He'd even studied it thanks to Günter's insistence. And, even in Japan, some high profile politicians and business CEOs had two families as well—keeping one wife as a trophy and the other one for nighttime pleasure.

If he had done that, had chosen to live a double life, would Wolfram have responded in kind? To have made a choice of his own—to sacrifice everything he was or ever believed in so that he could stay by "his Yuuri's" side? Would he? It was impossible to tell. No… No, not impossible. Yuuri glanced down at his wedding ring. Wolfram had been taking small steps to let go—to simply accept and move away. It was not for his own sake, but for the both of them.

Wolfram knew I was pathetic and that I didn't want to hurt anyone.

Staying in a holding pattern was what Yuuri could deal with, live with, in the hopes that something or someone better would come along.

The double black fisted his left hand. "The lies stop here," he mumbled to himself only to hear his sword laugh at him in mockery and distain. How many maous had promised that to themselves? Apparently, Morgif knew.

"Shut up. I mean it."

He did mean it.

Another laugh—this one almost lecherous. Morgif was eyeing the portrait again. Vivacious nudes were so much fun.

Yuuri turned back to the door where Conrad was waiting. Yuuri was aware that Yozak, Gwendal, Günter, and several others were either packing or waiting for orders on what to do next. The good part, the part that made Yuuri more confident, was that they had a plan and that plan of action had to take place now. No more waiting. He only prayed that things would work out.

Everything had to. He would make it happen. Yuuri swore it despite his sword laughing at him again.

"Morgif, I told you to shut up."

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Tired eyes blinked open and Murata was thankful to see blue come to the forefront once more. The sage had tried so hard to reenergize the body he was holding and he wondered if, this time, he had failed.

"Bhanga…"

"Shinou?" Murata brushed away short pieces of hair from blue eyes staring up, fixed. With no response, he tried to focus his mind—searching to find his spiritual tie with Shinou once more. He had to make a much greater effort than usual, it seemed, using the Thread of Fate which bound them intimately. Then again, for the most part, it was The Original King who had always reached out to him. A mind: young at heart, arrogant, and familiar. The sage hated and loved it—that sweet tingle.

"Bandhan…"

"Wake up, Shinou." He patted the face lightly. "You really need to come back. Speak to me. Focus."

A shaky breath was taken in and released. The sage felt better about that. And, then the face turned to the side and blinked a few more times. The eyes searched the room vaguely as the head turned. "So…it's you again…"

"It's me," Murata confirmed, wiping the sweat from his brow. "It was 'touch and go' there for a minute."

A slight groan. "Foolish of you…"

"Yes, I suppose." He pushed his glasses up on his nose with a finger.

"You could have been dragged in with us… Died with us…"

Murata rolled his eyes at that—pretending not to care, trying to rebuild that secure wall between them once more.

Regardless, Shinou was not deceived at all and a small, wavering hand reached up to stroke Murata's weary face. The eternal bond between them. It was still there and Murata could feel it growing stronger now. There was a knot in his chest drawing him in, pulling him down to Shinou…for a kiss…

Murata really was powerless against him—against that. If he could just get angry again. If he could just hate again, it could create some safe distance. But letting go of his hate would be the same as letting go of Shinou. And some part of his soul simply could not do it no matter how hard he tried.

"There will be… too much death…on this day as it is."

This time, Murata blanched. Of his own accord, he leaned in with a growing, stern expression at those words. Shinou did not proclaim the coming of death lightly and it seemed that he had insight into who it was. This does not bode well, Murata told himself grimly. "Then, explain. Give me a name or some details. Tell me how to avoid what is to come. And, if that cannot be done, tell me how to help those left behind withstand the pain of loss."

Shinou rested himself for a moment. Really, his sage had the unpleasant habit of peppering him with questions when he was not exactly at his best. The Original King looked up into an insistent face. "Are you not the one… who once said… knowing too much of the future… is a curse?" Did that make him cursed? Yes, he was. They both were. Murata's pained, dark eyes said that much.

"You're not answering my questions, Shinou."

"I know. And the future is not written… It flows and changes like water…So…"

"Is it Shibuya?" he interrupted.

Shinou glanced away. "I have a request of you…"

The sage's breath hitched.

"I just asked, 'Is it Shibuya?' and I'd like an answer." Murata's arms shook slightly and Shinou wasn't sure if his sage was even aware of it happening. The Original King decided to take pity on him. Or, maybe, it was the simple fact that denying his sage anything was a monumental task.

Blue eyes closed briefly and opened again. "Pieces…"

Murata understood that answer. It meant that Shinou had, through his power, experienced jumbled pieces of what was to come. It happened every so often. Sometimes, he saw images. At other times, words or feelings floated to him. But, if Shinou saw the black aura of death in a future event, that was something he always tried to share with his sage. They were, like it or not, a 'team' of sorts and Murata, being of the "flesh time" (as Shinou often referred to it), could use his reason and think ahead—and react—much faster, without doing damage, than Shinou could in his spirit or chibi forms.

The eyes heightened to a brighter blue with pupils having snake-like slits, remembering. "Lord Conrad Weller…Lord Gwendal von Voltaire…Lord von Christ…Yuuri Heika… my descendant…soldiers…ambush… All together, but the return journey…will have a different fellowship…" Eyes sliced a look at Murata. "You cannot save anyone…my sage… Not your fate… Not your calling to be a savior…"

"There has to be a way," Murata told him, determined to use his wisdom from the ages to create a better outcome. What good was having lifetimes and lifetimes of memories? He was a walking library, if nothing else.

"Free will, fate, and fantasy… All are strong…in their own ways…but all must come to an end." A small hand threaded itself with Murata's. Whether or not it was for comfort, Murata could not tell.

"An existence will end… A cycle will end… Everything that has ever been…will, at some point, die."

He shook his head. "But!"

"With the exception of us…beings against the natural order…" Shinou sighed against Murata's warm chest. Hadn't they discussed this one hundred times? Apparently, they needed to again. "Yet, we are necessary…for now…for we have a reason for being…" The eyes narrowed as though peering into something. "But, in time, even we…"

"I…understand," Murata said halfheartedly, scooping the small body into his arms. This news was grim, but he had another issue to attend to first. "We should get going. Now that you're stable, I'm taking your host to the infirmary. I think Gissela can help this 'woman' if you know what I mean. I'll make up a story that she got too close to lightning or something… By now, everyone has heard of the tale of Shibuya falling from the window and the blast of light in the sky."

A cheeky grin. "Word travels fast…"

"Shall we go?"

A nod and there was no argument when the slender body was taken higher into the sage's arms. Murata half expected a perverted comment, but that was not the case and he felt concern creeping into the back of his mind again. A weakened Shinou was not something he as comfortable with. That was not how they were together.

"Oh, and another thing, Shinou."

"Yes?" was sighed.

"Forget words like 'bhanga' and 'bandhan.' Stick to a more modern language or the healers will guess that you're in there."

An almost bitter chuckle. "Of course…"

"After that, I think I should find Shibuya. He may need me."

Another nod and Shinou rested a head against the sage's shoulder. "Even now… they are…preparing to leave. So, you must hurry."

"I'll do my best…"

"Stay by the fire wielders," Shinou advised in a tired whisper. "You will be needed in the days to come and their company…will be the safest…on this journey…"

And, with that, the two of them made for the door only to discover it closed and, strangely, locked.

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With more of them on the road, the traveling was slower than expected with the armoire and, unfortunately, the nighttime cover that they'd banked on made vague promises of coming to an end. Worse yet, twice they had to stop.

The first time was because of a strange growling sound that they couldn't identify or even trace the direction of. Payne, posturing in his role as leader, tried to brush it off as nothing, but the others insisted on lowering the lamplight, taking swords from their "stash," and lying in wait near the wagons for a possible attack.

Lin observed the group with some disquiet. These men didn't seem as knowledgeable about swords as Payne had implied in that pub when he had first hired them. Just from the cowardly way they held their weapons, it was more than obvious that they were amateurs with muscular arms and little brains to speak of. But, even inept amateurs could be deadly under the right circumstances. And 'friendly fire' was always a possibility.

More and More, Lin was becoming dissatisfied with his current situation.

Idiots were a problem and problems needed solutions.

Badly.

This time, Lin was sitting on a rotting log along the edge of the dirt road with a lamp glowing next to him. The horse pulling the armoire had been spooked again and had thrown a shoe. Lin had insisted upon having a new horseshoe on the animal. Payne, trying to pull rank, wanted to let the horse take the load anyway, letting it become lame in the end. This was where Lin became stubborn, folded his arms against his chest, and refused to go further. It was all an act to appear obstinate, but a good one and he got some surprised reactions from the idiots around him.

But it made sense. After all, why did Payne call all of the shots? Such posturing from a dead common, uneducated dolt was getting tedious.

Lin's official story? He had a contact at Grey Crane. And he had plans on quickly selling the armoire, wagon, and horse when he no longer needed them. A lame horse was no good. He could only sell it for cheap meat and that was not what he wanted. He was losing enough profit out of this deal already.

"That's all well and good but I thought you said we had to be in a hurry. Who knows who…if anybody…is after us?" Payne tried in a slick tone. He placed one hand against the armoire and leaned heavily on it. The old wood groaned slightly.

"Then, you'd better make it fast," Lin quipped.

He leveled a stare. "With what, then?"

With a stubborn pout, Lin took out his burlap sack of tools and supplies from the right corner of the cart (Yes, he suspected that putting on a new shoe would be a possibility based on the quality of the horse he was getting.) and tossed it on the ground, insisting that the work be done. So, now, Mr. "Hair-in-Ears" was openly grumbling about doing work not in his job description while everyone else took a much deserved break and a piss.

The armoire rocked slightly on its own and Payne turned to Lin with a threatening glare that would have made lesser men jump out of their skins. He thumbed at their cargo with a long, yellowed nail protruding. "You sure you have that fire devil under control? He can light that armoire on fire and cause us some bother if you've done a bad job."

Feeling chilled to the bone not to mention drained and annoyed did not exactly put Lin in the best frame of mind. But he chose to bury his feelings down deep and to keep a placid expression on his face. "I am a professional. Don't be concerned in the slightest. He's tied up tight." And then a short laugh just to get his point across. "Rumor has it that he gets seasick on water voyages and stays huddled in one place…or vomits over the railing. Even if he got out, he couldn't get far on a ship." That "vomit" part, he noticed, seemed to help in the debate even if the rest of the facts didn't. Then, Lin added, "Once he's stepped foot on human lands, he won't be able to light even a birthday candle with his magic. And we'll just hand him over to the interested party. No worries."

Payne, satisfied but needing to appear skeptical, gave the armoire another dour look. "Hmmm… If you say so…"

"I do."

Payne lifted his face towards the sky and, almost on cue, his men did likewise. "Well, I hope it turns out as easy as you say…for your sake."

There was a not so subtle threat there, but Lin chose to pay no heed to it. "I know, Payne" Lin sighed impatiently. "A storm is coming…"

"Yeah…that, too. Just how bad, I dunno."

Lin put his elbow on his thigh and his cheek in his palm. "Sure, we'll just go with that."

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During his brief periods of wakefulness, Wolfram could sense his body being moved—pulled in a singular direction. There were rambling 'starts' and 'stops,' too, that seemed to nudge his mind into a kind of short-lived, almost alert state.

It was happening again and Wolfram debated, briefly, whether to fight it or not. Slowly, he was coming back to himself. The pain never left him, though. The burning sensation at the throat was torturous, but having only a feeble connection to his element was the worst.

I want…out…

But it was more than that. The blond was struggling with himself. He didn't want to remember, but he did. He had to hold on to something. Recollections…disjointed. A sudden flash of Yuuri's face gone before he could capture it properly in his heart.

A desire for home…but at what price?

No…can't…

A new, growing temptation was there. If he tried, he might be able to resign himself to his fate and escape everything through sleep—a rough, poor sleep that would probably drain him even more than the jeweled hemp rope.

A huge bump rattled him. Maybe, they'd hit a pothole.

Green eyes opened half-lidded.

Darkness.

He was in darkness.

Wolfram could feel himself breathe. So, I'm still alive…for the moment…

He could smell the sweet wood and, vaguely, sense the walls around him. He was trapped. Had he been more alert, he might have panicked at that. Wolfram's arms and legs were crammed in tightly. Moving was uncomfortable. Not moving was even more so. The blond tried shifting his weight by rolling. Surprisingly, the armoire seemed to rock, but nothing came of it.

He collapsed again, feeling raw—taking more agonizing breaths than before. Pain, cold and numbing pain, was his reward for trying this, for trying…something. Frustrated, Wolfram bit his lower lip until he tasted something metallic.

Blood.

Maybe, a drop of it fell from his lips. He couldn't tell.

Muffled voices were outside—rough, unfamiliar. From the accents all around, Wolfram was certain that these people were not from Blood Pledge Castle. Strangely, they were not from the same geographic areas, either.

"…Can light that armoire on fire…"

I wish I could, Wolfram thought dryly. Burning his way out would be highly dangerous, but it would also, possibly, draw attention to where he was and what was going on. Wolfram knew that his brothers, by now, would have sent out a search party for him. And, if his mother was with them, heaven help the kidnappers. They didn't stand a chance.

"A storm is coming…"

Oh, that was Lin's voice. So, he was still traveling with him.

Good to know, the blond thought to himself making a fist. Good to know.

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The sky was no longer an inky black, but a brightening navy blue which still had stars embedded in the firmament. Murata allowed his attention to waver for a moment as he rode along next to Yuuri with Conrad on the opposite side acting as bodyguard. Behind them was Yozak, digging into his ear with a pinky finger. Gwendal was there, too, with a serious-looking Günter, who had insisted he come along to 'aid the cause' using his sword in the 'great and honorable matter of retrieving a kidnapped consort'." There were six of Wolfram's elite guard fire wielders riding on the periphery, casting light, as well as six of Gwendal's own hand-picked soldiers who specialized in everything from swordsmanship to archery. Gwendal's men were armed to the teeth, making Yuuri gawk at them upon first seeing them—having, for a moment, a flashback to history and the shogunate era of the Edo period. While the clothing style wasn't the same, the attitude certainly was.

One of Wolfram's elite guard members, Victor Woodward, was swiftly leading the way for their group with a fireball rotating threateningly in his right palm. Any attack from the shadows on either side of the road would, most likely, be aimed at him first. So, he had to keep his wits about him. At the opposite end, following their group, was a fire wielder named Zane Hammond with a much more subdued light peeking through his fingers, keeping an eye on what was ahead of him. He could give out a warning cry if necessary. He was also an excellent wielder in his craft—able to accurately launch fireballs from great distances even though they were not very big. But, what he lacked in size, he made up for in heat.

The men often teased him about that over cards and ale.

All of Wolfram's men were nervous to some extent but made great efforts not to show it. They had to rescue their respected and beloved commander while, at the same time, provide more than adequate protection for Yuuri Heika—someone well known for acting impulsively—and, in doing so, please Lord von Voltaire who was not exactly in a reasonable mood. And, most likely, he'd be taking notes over their performance on this important mission.

Also, Wolfram's men didn't always get along with von Voltaire's men.

"I hope this is the right way," Yuuri fretted and one of Wolfram's fire wielders glanced across at his partner with the look of, "Oh, now he chooses to think of him."

Yozak saw the exchange and understood it.

A white cape flared in the breeze. "If I were using a ship as a means of escape, this would be the route I would travel because it stretches to the southeast, is very rural, and I would reach my destination in a hurry," Günter said knowledgably. He felt a little surprised that his comrades were putting on polite, sometimes gritted, smiles at this. Possibly, they were humoring him for some reason.

"When this is all over," Yuuri whispered to Conrad, "we really need to tell Günter how Lin had been using him."

That got a thin smile of approval.

"I should think," Günter went on with the impression that more information would, somehow, smooth things over again, "the logical destination would be Grey Crane Boardwalk. Many…" and he coughed into his fist, "connections…can be made there." He flipped his hair over his right shoulder at that. Surely, Yuuri Heika would respect him now.

"A…grey crane?" Yuuri babbled, trying to keep the conversation light and not going into any unfortunate directions. "That sounds pretty nice."

All heads turned. Everyone gawked at Yuuri. Even Gwendal's men, supposedly prepared for anything, stared uncomfortably. What was their king saying?

Gwendal palmed his face.

Morgif laughed deviously.

"You actually like…cranes?" Günter asked with a sweatdrop forming and extra stress in his voice.

"Ummmm…well…" The double black tossed a desperate look to Murata who only grinned back with a devilish look in his eyes.

"Is there a problem with…umm…cranes?" Yuuri asked, wondering what he'd stepped into this time.

"Well…there's nothing particularly…wrong…I suppose…" the white caped advisor backtracked, realizing that everyone was now listening in to the conversation. He took out a lace hankie and fanned himself briskly. "You see…" Okay, he was at a loss now as to how to finish the thought with an audience.

"Shibuya," Murata explained in an undertone, "cranes in Shin Makoku are a kind of grayish color with white plumage on their heads shaped like…" He cupped his hand and leaned in the double black's direction. "Phallic symbols…"

Yuuri's eyes bulged and a blush fell across his cheeks.

"Not to mention," the sage went on in a half-whisper, "they pair bond for life but take several seasons of being together for a successful mating. So, symbolically, they're seen as horribly…horny."

Yuuri swallowed thickly at that and struggled to keep his face from getting any redder. Then, something caught his eye. It glinted at the edge of the road, half hidden by brush. Silver…a dull brightness…

"What's that?" he asked, pointing.

"A crane?" Murata joked. Then, he saw it, too.

Gwendal raised a hand, motioning for everyone to slow to a stop. He, then, pointed to the green clad soldier closest to him and the man got off his horse.

"It appears to be…" He studied the dirt and, then, the metallic object. "It's a horseshoe, sir. Based on the track it made sliding on the soil, it hasn't been here very long, either."

Gwendal almost smiled. "That will slow them down."

"This may actually confirm that we are going the right way," Murata mused aloud, pointing out tracks made from a cart near the very edge of the road. "It is doubtful that anyone would be joyriding out this way…with nothing else around…this late at night. Not to mention, the nearest village is Grey Crane itself."

"I know we are going the right way," Yuuri said, keeping his hopes up. "We have to be. I just feel it."

He really could. In his heart, it was almost as though he could sense a faint trace of him.

Conrad gave a smile at that to Yozak. A boyish smirk was returned.

"But, over here." Gwendal's man ran a few steps along the dark road and one of Wolfram's men, getting the go-ahead from Conrad, followed at his side, spreading light from a fireball. "Yes… All these footprints…and here, too…" Gwendal's man noted, studying them expertly.

"Without doubt … different sizes…different shapes," Murata agreed. "So, it is more than just Lin we are dealing with."

Yozak got off of his horse and approached the scene, scratching his chin in thought as he went. "Eight men…" His eyes darted to a rotting log resting by the side of the road. "No, there are nine of them total… I'm sure of it."

"Surprise, surprise," Yuuri almost growled. If it was just Lin, like it was back in the art studio, that would have been one thing. But, somewhere along the line, more joined in. Now, having additional people to deal with was quite another task entirely. But, Yuuri was mad at himself, too. He should have expected it. Lin liked having people to help—at least, in the short term. He should have anticipated that from the beginning. "Connections" —dangerous ones. That was the way Lin operated.

"Then, everyone," Gwendal ordered to their group, "ride on! Faster! Faster!" And, riding at top speed, they continued on the road which stretched over a hill and snaked away into blackness.

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Wolfram wrinkled his nose.

Rising damp.

It was there. It was everywhere, making salt stains on the walls from the floor upwards. There was the grit of it as his body was carelessly flung against a rough, stone wall. And, once the throbbing pain subsided, the blond wondered, vaguely, if he was bleeding from anywhere.

Wolfram could feel damp air touching his face, but he was far too weak to open his eyes. He could hear, though, the conversations around him and he wished by all the gods that he had the strength to strike blindly at all of them.

"It's a 'no go' like I told ya."

"I can't believe this," Lin said, totally losing the pleasant tone he usually carried no matter who he was dealing with.

"My contact at Horn Island, the man with the ship that is supposed to take us on, sent a messenger pigeon. Says that a storm is comin'…just like I told ya." He laughed haughtily at that. "And even the large fishing vessels won't venture out in weather like they've got."

"And it's coming here? Some huge storm?" The tone was disbelieving "I thought you said with the extra money I'm paying you that a little rain was no trouble at all. So, now, it is…a bother…?"

A schemer's chuckle followed by, "Afraid so…"

"And you still expect me to hand over the extra money…?"

"Well, with us both being honorable gents and all… A man's word is a man's contract in this world." It was said next to the blond bishonen's ear. Wolfram could feel his body being straightened up and positioned like a doll. The hemp rope from around his wrists disappeared. Before relief could flood into him, his right arm suddenly stretched high and his wrist was being cuffed to something cold, burning him like frostbite. He inhaled sharply.

"So," Payne continued, "we'll just have to keep him here at Fort Krebs for the moment."

"What are you saying?" Lin almost hissed in disapproval. "The sky is cloudy…missing some stars…nothing much…"

"Be reasonable. I don't see what you're complaining about," Payne almost teased. "Fort Krebs? Burns Castle? What does it matter? They were made by the same builders around the same time anyway." Another laugh. "Besides, Fort Krebs hasn't been occupied in nearly four hundred years. And, even then, it was only used occasionally, there, at the very end, to process prisoners back and forth…humans and Mazoku…traitors and heroes alike…depending on which side you were on. Thus, these special cuffs…"

Wolfram could feel his chin being lifted by a rough hand.

"And this is the perfect prisoner for these cuffs."

There was another low "What?" followed by "Seriously…You've got to be kidding me… There's a world of difference in terms of where we are and who may be following us." Lin made great efforts to emphasize those particular points.

The blond fire Mazoku could sense Lin's footsteps walking, pacing uncomfortably back and forth. He was exceedingly unhappy and not in control of the situation.

Good, Wolfram thought bitterly.

"Well, it can't be helped for another twelve hours…"

"Twelve?!"

If Wolfram had possessed the strength, he would have laughed. He could just imagine the look on Lin's face.

" And, then, there's the tide to think about. So, we'll just hide out here." A course chortle was followed by, "That should give ya more than enough time to sell off that damn horse and crap that ya wanted to part with so badly…right?"

A dry, callused hand had him. Wolfram felt his left arm stretch up high and a burning cuff clamped onto him. His head jerked and he bit his lip again. The pain was bad.

Apparently, Payne liked the reaction that he saw and laughed at it in a jovial way. "We'll just watch your little boy-toy here, Lin," Payne promised with the hand moving to the blond's shoulder. "I guarantee that he's not going nowhere. But…" And a threatening silence then hung in the air. "Should you not return to join us on this little venture, or you give us away to Yuuri Heika, we're going to 'handle things' with or without your say so."

"Payne, now you see here! I want him in pristine condition while I'm away. So, hands off. That goes for you and your knuckle draggers." The tone was openly hostile now. Wolfram could feel the hand batted away from his shoulder, too.

"Not my type," he countered smugly.

"And, for the record, you're an idiot if you think I won't be back," Lin promised darkly, storming out of the room.

A shuffle of footsteps following the same direction. "See that ya do, Lin. See that ya do."

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It was an hour later or maybe more. Wolfram still sat in place, legs spread apart and his upper body strung up by his arms. He was trying to sense the room around him without opening his eyes. His soldier's training, particularly the part about being held captive, was coming into play now. The first rule was "Know who you are and find your center" and the second one was "Panic will never help."

The blond didn't react when he heard two voices enter the room from where he guessed a doorway was located. They had to be tall men based on how high up the voices were projected and the deepness told him a rough approximation of age.

The tones, the accents… Without a doubt…

Humans…

Wolfram tried not to fall into the same patterns as before—the same ways he felt about humans before Yuuri and Greta had come into his life. Not all humans were bad, but not all of them were good, either.

"Hmmm…Pretty boy, here, seems to still be sleepin'," one observed, now kneeling down next to Wolfram. He tweaked his nose hard, but exhausted Wolfram simply tucked the annoyance into another part of his mind and tried to forget about it.

"Yeah," the second joined in.

Touches. The blond could feel wide hands roaming his body, stroking him through his clothing. Ordinarily, Wolfram would have kicked such perverts in the groin and then set them on fire, but he was in no position to do so. Instead, Wolfram simply hung there, limply, handcuffed to the wall feeling dry to the bone and, at the same time, glad he didn't need to use the privy. It was doubtful they'd let him out to do that anyway. Forcing a prisoner to urinate on himself was, in itself, a form of torture.

One hand got particularly "friendly" with an intimate part of his body and Wolfram made himself think of burnt artichokes—the smell, the look, the taste. Yes, his mother's favorite vegetable. How many times had she threatened to feed him that if he didn't dress up in the frilly clothes she'd bought on a recent vacation? She never actually made him eat the wretched veg, though. Having the kitchen servant put the steaming platter before him at dinner was enough to send him screaming into the seamstress' workshop for a final fitting with a few ruffles added on for good measure. Later, he actually learned to like ruffles and expensive lace if he picked out the pattern.

Then again, there was that see-through nightgown that one time... Yuuri would have really hated that. Wolfram almost smirked.

"Nothin," the first voice said. "I thought fire wielders were supposed to be the really 'randy' type. And I've got a very good 'hand' technique, too. I thought I'd get a rise out of him at least, but he must be really out cold."

A cruel snicker in a pig-ish sort of way. "You could 'go for it' anyway."

He seemed to be considering it but then said, "Nah, Payne ordered me to go easy on our toy here. The new owner wants him in 'perfect' condition if ya know what I mean and that Lin character is vile, I tell ya. People who cross him…die."

"No shit? That little weasel?"

"Seriously."

Wolfram could sense both faces coming close to him again, inspecting him.

"Well…Has he got anything on him?"

"Such as…?"

Wolfram wondered that, too. What more could they want?

"Ya know? Black Sprites, nudie cards, or dice?"

Revolting! Wolfram thought and fought to keep his mouth from turning downwards in disgust. I don't snort Black Sprite dust. I don't need nudie cards. And I'm unlucky with dice.

"Nah, don't think so. I didn't feel nothin' from before."

A tug. "What about this?" the second asked and lifted up the hemp rope. The moment the houseki lost contact with his skin, Wolfram lost control of his body and slumped down against the wall. The feeling of the pain being lifted from his throat was like a godsend. His whole body seemed to float.

"Dunno. It's got some kind of jewels on it, huh?"

A huffed laugh and the sound of the rope being tossed back and forth between the pair.

"More stuff for us, huh?"

"Take it all."

"Never admit to it."

"Unless we're caught…"

Wolfram thought, fading off into a dream, You can have it. It's yoursassholes.

.


.

Murata rode along and noted the coming of sunrise in the distance. The sky was slowly blooming into a blazing red with clouds that looked like textured cloth. Intentionally, he smoothed out his features and tried to read the expressions of the people around him. With the exception of Yuuri, almost everyone had noted the color with some disquiet.

In this world, almost everyone, soldier and farmer alike, but especially those who lived around large bodies of water, did not particularly like a red sky at morning. It meant a storm and a potentially bad one at that. Murata crossed his fingers and hoped that if bad weather was approaching that it would rain itself out long before reaching land again. If not, the rescue would certainly be more taxing—slick or muddy roads to travel on, searching in the pouring rain, the fire wielders around him being much less effective fighting outdoors, etc.

The road they were traveling on curved once more and a stone sign gradually came into view saying "Grey Crane Boardwalk" flanked by two small marble "traveling gods" shaped like rabbits in religious smocks standing on their tiptoes.

"First cranes and now rabbits," Yuuri noted as they slowed to see where exactly they were.

Murata, whose backside was aching from riding for so long, decided not to waste his breath by bringing up the cute traveling gods and their second meaning: "rabbits" in this context meant that the area was "fertile" (in many senses of the word), had a party culture, and was abundant in alcohol as well as other inebriants. It wasn't the kind of "family place" you'd want to go to but, he suspected, many "families" got started here—especially during the festivals.

A kind of middle class Las Vegas without the flashing lights and glitter and dancing tigers wearing tutus.

"Wolfram's here. I just know it," Yuuri told him. "Now, all we have to do is find him."

"Yeah, simple," Murata could hear himself say with a smile, humoring him. Of course, it wasn't going to be that easy and he could feel the eyes of Gwendal and Conrad upon him. He glanced to the right and could almost read Yozak's face. The spy wasn't sure if he was joking or not. That amused him greatly. If they got out of this mess in one piece, Murata considered the option of yanking Yozak's chain more often in the future.

It could be amusing.

"Then, shall we try the area around the marina first? If memory serves, the boardwalk itself is not much to look at." Günter suggested politely.

"You've been here before?" Yozak asked curiously. It seemed strange.

"Well, ummm…" the white caped advisor shifted uncomfortably, "…in my youth…with friends…" He looked away. "It was a long time ago and really not worth mentioning."

Conrad smiled knowingly. Hadn't they all lived wild lives at some point in their youth? He wondered vaguely what it was, exactly, that got Günter back on the straight and narrow. Still, that was then and this was now. "We'll attract attention, but I think we should do as Günter suggests anyway," he agreed. "And, while we're there, I'll check to see which vessels have arrived and which have left…or are planning to leave very soon."

"What will I do?" the double black asked, starting to feel left out.

"Keep an eye open for a horse, cart, and armoire being driven by someone you've seen before?" Murata suggested with an eyebrow raised. And, from the hardness and determination in Yuuri's eyes, it was clear that his best friend liked that idea greatly.

"You," Gwendal pointed to another one of his soldiers, the man with the swiftest horse, "scout up ahead. See if there's anything worthy of interest."

A quick smile and a salute as the man rode off quickly, his horse kicking up dust from the road.

"Good idea," Günter complemented as he always did back in the old days. He adjusted his white cape and sword to be more presentable.

"I try," Gwendal returned, his eyes asking, "Are you still mad at me and Gissela?"

Maybe a little, but he was getting over it.

.


.

Breathing in…and out…

Listening for footsteps and hearing nothing…

Nothing… Finally…

Something small scuttled across his hand and Wolfram struggled with himself not to react. Far off, he could make out the echoes of men's voices. It was the usual mixture of banter found in a barracks—talk of bad food, piss warm ale, and back talking strangers on the street. It was bragging mostly with others in the room either whooping it up or calling "What a load of" with the explicative of the day filled in.

He'd heard it all before. Though, he was sure that Gwendal would be extremely unhappy to learn that he'd been exposed to that kind of talk since childhood thanks to their mother's drunken lovers.

Green eyes opened as thin slits. He dared to peek around without much movement of the head, just in case someone was patrolling or simply standing quietly in the doorway.

Apparently, where he was being held was wide, dark, and full of shadows. He had been right about one doorway. There was a sconce and candle in the other chamber, casting just enough light so that there was a bit of visibility where he was being held.

He opened his eyes wider and, feeling reasonably sure that the party in one of the other rooms would keep the men occupied, he took a closer look at his surroundings—this time, it included his arms, the chains, and the cuffs.

With effort, he moved his right arm and wrist. The cuff's surface sparkled like an expensive bracelet. "Oh, that explains it," the blond whispered to himself, his throat still feeling raw from where the hemp rope had been touching it. "Houseki crystals are in the shackles. Good luck getting these off," he sulked.

He told himself that he had to be patient. He told himself that he needed to wait for an opening. If he tried hard enough, something would happen. It always did and he knew that he was not forgotten. Gwendal and Conrad would come for him. Yuuri would probably do something or, at least, try to do something—stupid. But, hopefully, he'd be convinced to stay back at the castle with Günter and The Great Sage as babysitters. In his heart, he hoped for that outcome. If, by chance, no one from Blood Pledge Castle came for him, Wolfram knew that he would still find a way out on his own. He'd find a way back from whatever human land they were planning on taking him to.

Nobody owned him. That, in itself, was a certainty. No matter how many people denied that truth, it was still the truth. Know who you are and find your center. That was the first rule of captivity. And he repeated it in his head as many times as he had to.

Even if it made him mad.

Thump.

Wolfram, finding some minuscule amount of strength, thudded his arm into the stone wall once more in frustration. This time, something like rock salt fell on him and he turned and squinted. "Salt?" It burned against his skin and tumbled away.

He looked at it more carefully and thudded his arm against the wall again. And again. Again. "No, not salt…" Once more. A metallic thudding not too loud or too hard. Just enough to get the job done even though his arms were so tired. "Crystals…falling out…houseki crystals…"

There was something he could do.

Something small.

Taking a break, letting himself hang from the wall, the blond smiled briefly to himself.

An opportunity.

.


.

It was early morning in the village square and Lin was standing next to a weather-beaten sign which said, "Grey Crane Boardwalk" with an arrow pointing. The paint was peeling and it reeked of brine. Briefly, he leaned next to the post on which the swinging sign hung and then pulled his wool hood over his head a little more. He pretended to feel much cooler than he really did by huddling into his cape, rubbing his hands together and then blowing on them. In reality, he was just surveying his surroundings without appearing suspicious.

The sleepy village of Grey Crane was starting to wake up and the baker's shop on the corner was filling the air with the sweet scent of cinnamon bread. The landlord of the Fisherman's Haven, a pub with a large glass window out front, tossed out a drunken bum onto the street, shouting something impossible to make out clearly, while the "mom and pop" merchants further down the road were setting up baskets of colorful vegetables to sell. And a boat, The Vixen, had just lurched in carrying freshly caught tuna. An apple-shaped, middle aged Mazoku woman wearing a stained apron and a hairnet toted two large baskets as she waddled out of the Burt's Fish Fry restaurant to meet the ship. Her face pruned up like a pug's, looking over at the sunrise, and she muttered to herself, "It's wicked, this."

Lin scoffed at her.

The same things done the same way. No matter where he went, life seemed to carry on easily enough if you knew how to blend in.

Getting into the driver's seat, Lin took the horse and drove slowly through the village. This whole time, he'd been sitting on the hooded cape that he was wearing now to act as a padded seat. Without it, the wood was a bit too hard to sit on with each unpleasant bump in the uneven road.

The empty armoire rattled in the back. Now that Wolfram and his collection of herbs and potions had been removed, the thing was almost too light. Or, so it seemed.

Lin continued on and stopped at an intersection to let an old man ramble along, carrying a load of hay. He turned and was now driving his cart directly in front of Lin.

"Best to let there be some distance between us," he said to himself.

Still at the intersection, Lin looked to his right, toward the sound of seabirds. He pretended to take notice of the rickety wooden boardwalk—for which the area was named after. Then, he turned his head in the opposite direction and tried to look interested in the display of meats hanging at the butcher's on the street corner.

He passed three more pubs, a "Naughty Nick's Bookstore," and a closed sweets shop. Nothing. No one. The smug expression returned.

Lin's contact was near the edge of this village. The horse trader's was at the seedier side of town next to a grouping of poorly constructed metal shacks that were said to be gambling dens and a makeshift brothel with a "Black Sprites Burrow."

The drug called "Black Sprites" got that nickname because it was dark, had a tendency to clump, and sparkled in sunlight. It was also a favorite among the "ladies and lords" of the evening and could be traded for services like the local currency. Lin, being an herbalist himself, knew to stay away from Black Sprites and the local prozzies. Combined, the two could lead you down a road to nowhere. And a road to lifetime addiction was never a road to profit.

He patted himself on the back. He was so smart. Everything was going his way.

Whistling a happy tune to himself, he could feel his cart lurch forward and ramble along the dirt road with ease. He wouldn't bargain very hard for what he wanted, money. He'd play the fool to the horse trader, mention in passing that he needed to part with the cart, too, and then ask if he knew of someone who'd like an old armoire because the one in the back of the cart now was his ex-wife's.

Ah, a good story.

Lin glanced to the side again. There was a break in between the buildings where he could make out the water. It was a slate and the waves seemed to be growing bolder. There were only a few vessels out there including a hand-full of fishing boats returning from their heavy work and a magnificent yacht.

A drop of rain fell on his hood with a plunk and he squinted up at the sky. "Rain?"

No, it couldn't be. This was not the right time for it and would be a huge inconvenience. As the seconds ticked on, more drops fell from the sky at random until Lin found himself driving in a fine, almost misty, light rain mixed with gusts of wind. Every once in awhile, a huge drop would hit the bridge of his nose or the back of his hand.

This was getting annoying.

More gusts and the temperature seemed to drop. Lin brushed his wet cheek with his fingertips. This couldn't go on. He'd pull his horse and cart to the side for awhile. He noticed an old oak tree to his right, big enough to act as shelter from the rain. As long as there was no lightning, he would be safe enough.

He pulled the cart over with the horse giving an appreciative shake of the head to fling water off. Lin did likewise as he left his seat with a plan in mind to lean against the tree. Stepping around the cart, he could see that his cargo, the armoire, was damp but still intact and he pushed the doors to make sure they were still closed.

A few more footsteps and then he was against the dry bark of the tree, arms folded. With a forced, seemingly bored expression, he kicked the dirt with his heel. There was still nothing worth watching and no one on the streets—which was good, but killing time wasn't. He started to worry that the horse trader would decide to stay home in bed instead of work today. People were just like that. Lazy bums. Lin decided that if the man was lazing about at home, he'd just find out where he lived and would pay a quick, lucrative, visit.

A twig snapped and he looked up.

Surprisingly well dressed men in dark clothing approached him, circling both sides of the tree—appearing out of nowhere and, immediately, cutting off any chance of escape. Lin, thinking quickly, considered jumping directly into the cart and making his escape that way, but it seemed like there were too many of them around to even attempt it.

"What, the hell?" he whispered to himself nervously. They were all wearing practically the same cut men's clothing and the same hairstyle.

His next thought was that this must be some kind of powerful horse trader that he was working with. Maybe, it was the front for a gangster mob. There were still many in the demon lands. But, for the most part, their "official" attitude was "live and let live" unless they were owed money or drugs.

"Ummm…sorry?" Lin said quietly, curving his spine into something appearing more submissive under the cape and his eyes grew dull.

"That's him! Without a doubt, that's the one!" a voice accused. He'd rounded the tree with two other figures following. "That's the bastard you're looking for. I worked with him on the castle grounds and I never forget a face. Not so good with names, mind you, but this face I do recall," the master gardener declared with a finger pointed at Lin.

"You," Lin gasped.

"And don't forget me," Dom Dom said, with teeth looking sharp and bright. He was dressed in an expensive, devilishly handsome outfit of browns and creams with a dark russet belt at the waist. "But, I'm really not the one you should be worrying about right now…even though I am bigger, stronger, and better looking than you are."

Lin's eyes widened at the sight of him and then turned when she slinked forward. Waiting in the carriage parked near the pier had been a trifle dull. Getting out felt good.

"So, you're the one." An amused, tinkling laugh followed. "Now that I recall, I do remember seeing you, too, only the clothing was a little bit different…and the hair..." Lady Cheri's voice was charming and so was her outfit. It was blood red, cut seductively down to the middle of her ample bosom, and she carried in her right hand a well-made leather whip. "Do you know me? I assume that you do."

On impulse, Lin took a step backwards. He bumped into someone behind him, but it didn't matter. He couldn't take his eyes off of her. "You're one of the Three Great Witches of the Demon Kingdom," he stated, voice strained. Then, he thought the better of it. He'd try a new tactic. "But…you're also called 'Golden Celi.'" Maybe, flattering her a little in an appreciative tone would help. Maybe. Her reputation said that she lapped that kind of attention up and she was a total ditz.

"Oh, so…" Lady Cheri practically purred, "You have heard of me. That's good. That's very, very good…Lin…"

She spoke his name and he froze instinctively.

The blond seductress strode forward, swinging the leather whip casually at her side. And, then, she snapped her fingers, creating a blazingly hot fireball in her left hand. Small sprays of rain sizzled against it threateningly when the wind gusted the right way.

From everywhere, it seemed, hands were gripping onto Lin—holding him tightly. There was no point in struggling. He would just have to bargain his way out and accept a loss at the cost of saving his own skin.

"Look…I…know what you want and I…"

The blond woman's smile turned positively sinful, a cruel gleam in her green eyes. "No… No, I don't think you do…"

Lin tried to keep himself composed. She stood close to him, close enough that he could smell her sweet perfume. It was perfume made from flowers he'd grown as a gardener back at the castle, "Beautiful Wolframs." Lin almost spoke the flowers' name aloud.

The red whip was held up and then brushed against his cheek slowly, sensuously. Under his chin, it was done in the same manner. She seemed to be staring deeply into his eyes when she was doing it.

Watching, waiting…for a single move.

Hunting prey was like that.

And she was, unlike her son, a very patient person when need be.

A wooden clattering in the background and "Blood," Dom called over to her as he inspected the open armoire. "From the look of things, I can tell it probably came from the head." He picked up a blond hair and examined it.

"That's not possible," Lin countered only to see Dom wet his forefinger in the rain, brush it against a dark spot inside the armoire, and raise it again. He rubbed his fingers together and they stained red.

"Let me explain something to you," Lady Cheri said with a fire now burning in her emerald eyes. "Wolfram is my son…mine." The fireball came very close to Lin and he could feel the heat from it. "Do you know how long I was in labor with him? Try…a day and a night. That's a long time to be in agony." She rubbed the whip against Lin's inner thigh in small circles, making him sweat. "When you are in that kind of agony, nothing else exists but four walls and pain." She neared him and whispered in his ear, the tone being a dominant one, "You understand what agony is…right?"

Lin simply stood there and breathed—afraid to move and, with all certainty, unable to do so thanks to the hands of her men holding him.

Lady Cheri leaned away, but her eyes were cutting into him viciously. "As a mother, you spend your time…years…getting the absolute best for your son. And then you teach him how to walk and how to talk..." She smiled at the memories. There were so many. "A mother's work is never done and you make a thousand sacrifices for him that he will never know about." She smiled again, bravely, eyes full of angry tears. "And, then, before you know it…he grows up." The whip snaked seductively up. "You go from 'Mommy knows everything' to 'Mommy knows nothing' and he shuns you…and your advice."

Lin watched her face and waited to see what she'd do next. Was she weak? Did she leave an opening? Could he chance it? Would he?

"Well, why" Lin asked evenly, "didn't you try harder? Why didn't you and your other sons try to get Wolf to agree to drop his ridiculous engagement? Better yet, the marriage entirely?"

At the "Wolf" name, she almost struck him, a deep huff as the fireball blazed hotter and her delicate hand poised to do so. The glow was casting a light against Lin's face. But, she caught herself and her Dom Dom raised an eyebrow in surprise. By his code and authority, she had every right to act.

"'Wolf' is not a name someone like you can call my son." She extinguished the fireball by closing her fist and took the end of the whip, draping the whole length over Lin's shoulders like a rough, leather scarf. "And don't you ever imply that it was my fault that Wolfram was unhappy in his engagement and marriage." She tightened the leather around his throat. "That would be…a mistake."

Lin's eyes bulged at the possibility and he pulled away from her—his head bashing into the chest of someone, but it didn't matter. "You…" He stared at Dom, too. "Both of you…" Yes, he'd take this tactic. "There's no way that you can torture me and get away with it. I know your 'Yuuri Heika' and he's a total pacifist. An antiwar, kiss the ass of the enemy pacifist! And you know it." He tried to pull his arms free, but to no avail. Still… "If he hears that you've mistreated me, has gone against his rulings on how to run the country and how to treat the people who are there… What will happen to you both, huh?"

Lady Cheri looked unimpressed and her Dom Dom even less so.

"Now, here's what I suggest," Lin babbled on without taking much of a break in speaking. He had to talk fast. "You want to know the whereabouts of your son and I can provide you with that information…at a price…say five hundred gold pieces." He twitched a slight grin. "You help me out with the money and I promise that you'll never see the likes of me ever again." He smirked as he spoke. "In fact, I'll even throw in the horse, cart, and armoire for free…"

There. That was the bargain and he thought he'd done a masterful job of it under the circumstances.

"If I have parchment and something to write with, I can give you not only the name of the place but the directions as well…"

He looked at Lady Cheri expectantly to see if the deal was sealed.

She simply blinked back at him.

"Okay, fine," Lin gritted out. "Names… I'll give you the names of just about everyone involved."

"Just like I said earlier…you don't understand what I want…" Her green eyes flicked to the men holding Lin. "Oh, and boys…thank you so much for coming over from the yacht and doing me this little favor. Please take our guest to the place we have arranged."

"W-Wait, what are you talking about?" Lin said with growing anxiety. "I told you that I was willing to strike a deal" He looked left and right. "I'm…I'm even willing to negotiate on the sum."

"Take him this way," Lady Cheri ordered, stepping lightly around the horse and a puddle in the road.

"Wait! I just said that you can't set me on fire or rip my skin off or something! You can't! Someone will see! Someone will talk! Yuuri Heika will hear of this!" he called after her, bloody angry now.

Lady Cheri, taking her sweet Dom Dom's arm, turned back one final time to look at Lin. Her eyes were blazing hot. "Do you know that pleasure can be a form of torture all its own, too? And, before I'm through with you…you'll be begging me for release in the most delicious ways." She turned to her companion, "Right, Dom Dom?"

"Oh, yes!" he agreed as they walked on together with Lin being dragged behind them, his shouts getting louder.

She cracked the whip with her free hand and took a jaunty little step. "Shall we break out the turkey feathers, cottage cheese, and candle wax for starters?"

A devious, male laugh. "Most definitely."

"Good taste always shows."

"It certainly does…"

.