Alarms were raised in the midst of early morning. Husky was thrown from pleasant dreams by the screech, his eyes snapping open to knives piercing his ears.
"No…. No, they can't be here now…!"Thoughts began to swirl in his head like they were caught in the winds of a deadly tornado. If Zeke was at the castle, then that surely meant Cooro would be with him. What was Husky going to do…? He wanted to protect the castle, but that would invariably entail him fighting Cooro, and the fish +Anima wasn't sure if he could handle it. Especially with his recent revelation.
But the blaring alarm overwhelmed the boy's thinking. He hurriedly decided that those in the castle needed his help. If he came face-to-face with Cooro, well, he would make up his mind on what to do then. For the time being, he would avoid the crow +Anima with all his might.
Husky attempted to jump from the bed, but in his rush, his feet got tangled up in the sheets. With a cry somewhere between surprise and fear, he was whipped downward, his feet remaining in place while the rest of his body continued forward. Husky's head slammed into the floor with a resounding thud, and he was instantaneously knocked unconscious.
"This is great fun, isn't it?" Zeke's voice was one with a smooth updraft that carried it all over the field of battle. His army of +Anima was swelling in size like an awful tumor, slowly beginning to overwhelm the army that was so vehemently defending its castle. Already, piles of chainmail soaked a deep red were amassing around the drawbridge. And the revolution's leader had barely had to lift a hand – any soldier who dared get in his way was either taken on by a maddened +Anima, or defeated by the mastermind himself with elegance.
Everything was a painting for Zeke. Like some twisted pastoral, with its green grass stained and its trees being struck down. Truly, he thought, this is the work of an artist.
Each footstep of his brought him closer to the castle. A path was being erected before him by Tommy and Noïr, among others, who pushed soldiers out of the way – Noïr with a couple of short swords, Tommy with his enormous tail and rippling muscles. It was so satisfying for Zeke that he paid little, if any, attention to Greta, who was working right in front of him and repelling soldiers with all the might her little body had stored up. But each time she turned with a smile, ready to hear that one compliment she so longed for, Zeke was cooing at Noïr or complimenting Tommy. The little girl's face fell and her heart continuously shattered into a thousand tiny glass shards, all gleaming with a brilliant luminescence like fresh tears.
Greta wondered, at this moment in time, how many times a heart could break before it would reach the point where it couldn't be repaired again. Surely, she'd reached that point; she fathomed a guess that she'd far surpassed that point. Sighing, she closed her eyes and fixed herself yet again. One more time couldn't hurt, just like adding one more grain of rice would count for nothing in a heap of the stuff.
While she was busy trying to compose herself, a soldier saw his opening. But that girl, he thought, she was so tiny and fragile. He had a daughter, too, at home; a daughter who laughed and had heard her daddy promise that he would take her horseback riding. That's right; her daddy had promised to come home. And the soldier found himself unable to kill the girl he was faced with, even though she wasn't looking and the opportunity was pure perfection. Instead, because she was still an enemy after all, he rammed the butt of his sword into her frail chest, causing her to gag and collapse to the ground.
The soldier sighed and asked God for forgiveness; he didn't want to hurt the poor thing, but it had to be done. There was no answer from above, only the stillness of purple morning and the faint outline of white clouds against it.
And then the clouds were red and fuzzy. Glancing down, which proved to be a difficult task, the soldier saw the sheen of metal protruding from him. "Good night, sir." Looking up, the soldier stared into sickly green eyes that could've belonged to Satan himself; they bored into him, clawing and tearing at his soul, their evil gleam blinding him. With a gulp, the soldier fell apart at the seams and let loose a howl so unbefitting of a civilized person.
A civilized soldier… Zeke chuckled to himself as the thought raced across his mind. What an oxymoron. What civility is there to be found in bloodshed? Satisfied with not answering himself, Zeke yanked the sword out of his victim, letting little inkblots of blood fly onto his cheek, little notes in the revolutionary story he was writing.
Gasping, the soldier felt his knees give out beneath him as darkness crept into his vision. His brethren lay in tatters before him, and in that moment, he lost all hope. The radical +Anima were going to win; society was lost. We persecuted them…for having animal features… his choked mind forced out. …But in the end…we're all animals… His eyes drowned in black as his body gave out, and he collapsed face first onto the grass, his life essence forming a lake around its shell.
Sorry, but…daddy's not coming home…
Zeke giggled merrily. Yet another worthless human he didn't have to bother with. He turned his sights towards the drawbridge and advanced towards it with an almost obsessive stalk.
Down on the ground, Greta looked up and extended a trembling hand. "M-Master…! Pl-Please, help me up…!" she cried out weakly, her stomach still doing flips from the attack. Her entire body quaked and she stretched her hand up as much as she could. But Zeke stepped right over, not even taking notice of the little girl. For the thousandth time that night, Greta's heart was smashed into pieces. How they could continue to reassemble was anyone's guess; someone who wasn't in love would've given up a long time ago.
Zeke's eyes flashed. Soldiers parting for me, making me a path to my goal… I'm Moses, and I'm parting the Red Sea…! I'm Moses…! No, I'm God! A shrill laugh pierced the dawn sky and it seemed like, for an instant, all eyes were on the leader of the revolution in all his insane glory, as if the deities of the night were robing him in the blood he'd spilt.
And that was the instant when Igneous knew what he had to do. He gave the order with a roar not of fear or desperation or defeat, but of hope – hope that something could be done to stop the advance of evil. "RETREAT!" And that call repeated over and over again, an alarm and siren; at the same time, a beacon for escape. The soldiers that could hear him and still move wound their way through the bloody pile of corpses to the drawbridge, escaping into the confines of the castle. Those who weren't as lucky as them, or were already in heated conflict, could only watch as the drawbridge began its path up until it closed. They knew then that there was one choice – fight and die with the highest honor so that their allies could prepare to fend off the invaders.
One soldier looked to his friend, and each nodded. They knew the end was near. "It's a fine morning, isn't it?" one asked his friend, a strange calmness to his voice.
"…Yes," the other replied, gripping his sword in his sweating hands. "It's a good morning, and there's going to be a beautiful sunrise."
"It's a gorgeous morning to die, isn't it?"
Cooro was waiting with the battalion of +Anima he was a part of. They were on the south end of the castle, where no troops anticipated an attack. Zeke had conjectured that a frontal assault would draw the castle's soldiers to the drawbridge, leaving the back vulnerable. From the blueprints Rose had stolen, Zeke had found two ways into the interior of the castle – it was going to be a bottleneck getting in, but after that, it was smooth sailing.
A tingling sensation, much like how one feels when their leg falls asleep and wakes up, wound its way up Cooro's spine. This was it… They were ready.
All at once, it began. The +Anima began piling into the entrance, and in no time, there was a sprawling force inside the castle walls, doing exactly what Zeke had intended – the actual invasion. It was a large black mass, as if a dam had been let loose and water was spilling in; as if it were a swarm of locusts that buzzed and laid waste to whatever was in its path.
Anything that got in the way of this mass, even as it broke apart and went down different paths, was destroyed. Tapestries that had hung in the palace for countless centuries were torn off the walls and trampled; busts were smashed to dusty bits, and the littering of blank porcelain faces gave innumerable hallways the eerie semblance of murder. It was as if a thunderstorm was happening within the castle's walls, and it rattled the foundations to the very mortar that columns bled as they seized and listed, half-toppling.
Igneous thought he was just hearing things as he herded his remaining troops through the halls, hoping to set up a resistance for when Zeke's forces came through the drawbridge. But as the sound got louder and louder, closer and closer, he realized what was happening.
It was a realization that came far too late.
The +Anima were upon the soldiers in a blood-soaked moment. No word could describe the horror but "massacre." Soldiers were thrown against the walls, their armor ripped off and their bodies mangled, adding to the terror of the surprise attack. Soldiers that weren't automatically killed screamed as they watched their allies ripped apart before their very eyes. Sheer, pure horror swept through the troops and it was enough to almost instantly demoralize them. It dismantled them. Many stood there, frozen, wishing they might erase the foul and hellish images from their minds. But nothing would work.
"Get a grip on yourselves!" Igneous shouted in a last ditch attempt to rally his fighters, the people he loved and trusted and was so very proud of. But nothing worked, and he got to watch as more and more of his soldiers vanished under the wide blanket of death. Finally, he had no choice but to retreat once again, a man alone in the house he was charged with protecting. As he ran, he wondered how it could've come to this.
Each of Igneous' breaths burned in his lungs. He was tired, he was defeated…his arms were sore from the clanking of his sword. Even if he'd felled some of the revolting +Anima, he wasn't an army, and he knew he had no hopes of defeating the mall. But, be damned, he wouldn't go down without a fight, and he would take a cartful of the monsters along for the ride.
They were racing from behind him… Igneous' speed picked up as he wended his way, unsure of where he was headed. The hallways started to blend together in a mix that should've only been able to be conjured by hallucinogens. The captain stumbled along, his legs lagging behind the fear his head was trapped in; his stomach twisted itself in knots, ready to purge at any moment.
A cold, early morning chill swept through the hallway and tickled the captain's exposed skin. What…? It's so cool… But that means… Igneous felt his legs give out and he had to prop himself against the wall to stay up. The drawbridge had been opened. It was all over…
A few minutes later, the captain was surrounded on all sides. Hungry, vengeful +Anima looked upon the captain, and they chomped at the bit, saliva running from their mouths, ready to feast on more human blood. But the sword that Igneous wildly swung kept them at bay, none wanting to be hurt too much for little reason. The army was gone – one puny soldier wasn't worth potential death.
"Move, all of you, move." Zeke appeared from the semi-circle of murderous +Anima, looking quite proud. "Let him alone, my friends, he is nothing. I daresay, I want this one kept alive." He laughed maniacally, a laugh which was shortly in the company of many others.
"Shut up!" Igneous yelled, still waving his sword. "You! Zeke!" Zeke stopped, quieting those around him. "Who the hell do you think you are? Look at you, thinking you're some kind of great liberator! I doubt you're even a +Anima!"
A deep hush fell over the crowd. Their eyes focused on Igneous, and in the next instant Zeke, then back to Igneous, and then back to Zeke. No one had dared to question their leader in such a way.
Zeke giggled in a sickly-sweet voice. "Oh, so that's what you think." The giggle performed a brilliant crescendo, growing in size and volume and intensity until it was a full-blown cackle that threatened to rock the columns off their foundations. "Let me enlighten you."And then he was gone.
Igneous looked around, certain the boy had performed a vanishing trick like the great magician – no, the great faker – he was.
"You dare to challenge me?" Igneous craned his neck upwards, where he saw Zeke falling down towards him. So the boy had jumped…but so high…! Igneous studied Zeke. His skin color had gone a slight, lighter variation of his eyes, and his hands were replaced by two slender, curved, scythe-like appendages that gleamed silver. And Igneous took a second only to determine what Zeke was.
When the boy landed, he put one arm behind Igneous' neck, while the other one held its sharp blade to the captain. If he so wished, he could slice into Igneous with the speed of a jaguar and create a red waterfall. "No one challenges me and wins, Captain. I thought you'd have learned by now."
Husky was just coming to. His sapphire eyes glanced around to find his room the same way he'd left it before his unfortunate bump on the head. One thing was different, though, he thought as he got to his feet, brushing tiny fragments of the floor off his clothes. The room was…quiet, silent as the still of night. The silence was eerie and unsettling; something about it made Husky's bones shiver, as though they were once again underwater and struggling for life against crushing pressure.
That was when he realized the alarm wasn't screaming anymore. His hopes lifting that Igneous had fended off Zeke, he ran to the window with a smile sneaking onto his face. But it fell as soon as he saw the carnage on the front lawn of the castle - +Anima and soldiers were lying all over in a haunting mosaic of broken bones, swords, and a sickening red. The number of castle troops far outnumbered those of the +Anima, and a lump formed in the boy's throat.
How could Zeke be winning? Wasn't the villain supposed to be vanquished?
His train of thought was interrupted as the door to his chamber swung open. Husky flew around but stood there, riveted in spot, as his eyes fell upon the person who was in the doorway. "C-Co…"
Cooro was there, and this time he wasn't an illusion. Flesh and blood, reality Cooro was in the castle, and not just in one of Husky's dreams. He felt like running towards his crow friend, embracing him, and never letting him go. But that's when other +Anima came in behind Cooro, the locust swarm oozing into the chamber with a strangling presence.
In moments, it had overwhelmed poor Husky, as he was next to powerless against this many of +Anima. Not to mention his heart had been frozen by the mere image of Cooro standing there, doing nothing to help the boy who had once been his best friend. Cooro was almost like a statue, unmoving, his eyes fixated on the silver-haired boy who was being wrestled down amidst screams and pleas. Only when there was no chance for the boy to escape did the crow +Anima move, lightly, as though he were gliding over ice.
It took all of Husky's strength to crane his neck up and stare at Cooro. "W-Why…?" he asked with a grunt. His muscles were beginning to give out, and it wouldn't be much longer before his body wouldn't be able to handle anymore. "I-I thought you were…my friend…"
Cooro's mouth curled into a slight frown. "You tried to stop Master Zeke from liberating +Anima. You're not only a traitor to us; you're a traitor to your own kind. I hate traitors." He foot flew forward and struck Husky's cheek.
Husky had no time to do all the things he wanted – no time to cry, or scream, or struggle. No time to plead or be in shock or feel his heart teetering upon the edge, falling into a chasm and breaking apart all the way down, so that when it hit the bottom, it was unrecognizable. He didn't have any time at all, because the hit made his body and mind crumple, and he was left unconscious, drowning yet again.
"Let us go!" Nana cried as she was drug along by a rather strong bear +Anima. All her struggles were in vain, as she was getting no further from the large, grizzly man. A pair of irons kept her hands close together behind her back, as they did for Senri and Alice. Neither of them were struggling – it appeared that they'd given in already.
But Nana finally got her wish when she was thrown to the cold stone floor of the throne room. Looking up, she beheld the bloody bodies of the King and Queen hanging from a spear that had once held the proud banner of Astaria; now it was only shreds.
Her eyes darted back to the visage of Zeke, who towered over her like a giant. "It appears as if all the opponents are here." His eyes scanned over Nana, Senri, Alice, and Igneous. The newcomer to the defeated quartet was Husky, a purple bruise forming on his cheek. Cooro had tossed his unconscious body to the ground.
"Cooro!" Nana screamed. "Wh yare you doing this? Aren't we your friends?"
"Don't listen to them, Cooro. You did a fantastic job." Everyone could almost see the pride welling up in Cooro's cheeks as he was praised by Zeke. "Now, send them all to the dungeon. I don't want to see another one of their faces up here."
Greta watched with a pang of sympathy as the prisoners were carted off, not a one of them fighting anymore. They looked truly pathetic, like bugs; like something that wasn't fit to exist.
Chuckling, Zeke sat down on the throne and picked up a glass filled with a deep scarlet wine. Putting the glass to his lips, he let the flavor surge through his system like a flood, lighting up every sensor and giving a feeling of pleasure much like lovemaking. Even Zeke could hardly believe it now that it was done – he'd won. He was King now, and he would make the rules. Power, absolute power, was his and his alone. The taste of victory was almost as sweet and succulent as the wine he took another dainty sip of and set back down.
"I could get used to this."