Title: The Wizards of Ceres
Rating: T
Warnings: Violence and some gore in some chapters; romance between Kurogane and Fai.
Summary: The countries of Ceres and Nihon are on the brink of war again, but Kurogane Demon-Queller has more important things to think about; like protecting the borders of his country from the dark and hungry beasts that roam the wilderness. At least, he did, until his paths crossed with the King of Ceres' latest gamble to win this war...
Author's Notes: This is an AU fic, set where Ceres and Nihon are merely separate countries, not separate worlds. How might the companions' lives have been different, if they had met under other circumstances...?

Originally written for NaNoWriMo 2009.

They were ten days out of Ruval and had yet to meet another living soul. Under other circumstances, Fai might have been disturbed by the eerie unpeopled silence of the country they traveled through; up in the high icy reaches of the mountain passes such desolation was to be expected, but even the autumn of the gentler lowlands was like high summer to his senses. This was good arable land, Fai thought, with an abundance of water and vegetation for humans and animals alike; it ought to be supporting a thriving population.

On the other hand, he mused, since their entire mission out here depended on their not being seen, under the circumstances he was just as happy it was deserted.

Fai shaded his eyes with his hand as he looked up into the sky to the east. It shouldn't have been necessary -- evening was coming on, the light dimming even further in the clouded sky -- but to Fai's eyes, and his eyes only, there was a glow coming from the east that was like a second sun. The wards, build on top of and built into the great ramparts, which marked the end of the empire of Nihon and the beginning of the wilderness. Fai studied what he could see of them from here with narrowed eyes.

The wards of Nihon; a massive magical undertaking, which stretched for miles, a huge amount of power... could they really be as simple as all that? One single spell, repeated a thousand times by a thousand voices, building up each ward like the stones of the wall, built into the wall itself, lending it permanence? Elementary.... and yet alien; it was strange, very strange, and his eyes itched to move in and get a closer look. But that was out of the question, no matter how much the temptation presented itself.

Fai heaved a sigh, and brought his hand down from over his eyes. A step in the brittle undergrowth brought his attention back to the present, and he looked up and smiled as Yuuta approached him. The other man -- sandy hair around a smooth face, rangy and spare -- fetched up a pace away and gave a short bow, hand spread over his heart. "Milord Flowright. I hope I'm not interrupting."

The four soldiers had known each other in Ruval's castle guard before they'd been selected for this mission; Fai had seen some of them in passing, but never to speak to before. Yuuta was good company; quiet, but without the rigid disapproving silence of Dar, and Fai liked him. His smile grew slightly. "Not at all. And I thought we've been over this -- this isn't the palace, you know. Just 'Fai' will do."

"Fai," Yuuta allowed, with a quick return smile, which soon faded. "Seen anything?"

Slowly, regretfully, Fai shook his head. "Not here," he said. "So far it all looks uniform. Possibly further south -- there may be an irregularity in the barrier further on. From this distance it is difficult to tell."

"Will you be doing any -- scrying tonight?" Yuuta asked, tongue tripping only a little over the unfamiliar word. "It's been a long day, and some rough terrain." Implied, though unspoken, was that it was expected that Fai would not hold up so well under the hardship as the soldiers. Fai smiled a little, at the polite oversight.

"Perhaps. It will depend on when and," Fai glanced over to the side, where yet another argument was starting up, "where Kuro-chan eventually decides to let us camp."

Yuuta followed his glance, and shook his head, displeasure twisting his mouth. Such little spats had already become so routine that neither Fai nor the other two soldiers in his party paid it much mind -- and would ignore it if they could, were one of the combatants not the patrol leader. Captain Kurotsunagi; like Yuuta, an older man with years of experience... but unlike Yuuta, those years did not seem to have taught him patience.

"Damn right we'll post a watch," his voice snarled, always seeming to be just on the edge of losing his temper. "Just because we haven't seen any enemy action yet doesn't mean we won't see them soon. We're in the middle of hostile territory and we don't know what's out there, so we post a watch, two men for four hours, same as every night, now suck it up and stop whining."

"I didn't say we wouldn't," the younger, sharper voice replied, a normally cheerful and upbeat tone worn to aggravation. "All I said was that we hadn't seen any of the sorry bastards in the week and more we've been in their country. You'd think they'd post sentries, send out patrols, keep watch towers, anything that would give us a good run for our money. All we have to do is stay out of sight of the walls and we might as well be invisible. That's all I said. I didn't say anything that I wasn't willing to stand watch tonight, so keep your damn paranoid pants on."

Fai turned away from the glowing bank to the east, inserting himself into the growing fray. "All the better for us that they don't," he said cheerfully. "But perhaps they don't see the need. The wards do all the work for them, eh, Kuro-chan?"

"Would you stop calling me that!" the captain yelled, temper going over the line into the boiling point. "I have a name, damn it, and 'chan' is not a part of it! Don't make me sound like some kind of cutesy pet!"

Behind him, Ryuo shook his head and moved away from his ill-tempered senior, glad to escape the captain's foul company for that of the unit's two older men. That left the two of them facing off; Fai's height leant him a few inches over the other man, but he was not nearly as bulky. Bright blue eyes met furious reddish-brown ones, and Fai smiled cheerfully.

"But I can't help it," Fai protested, "if Kuro-chan has such a long name that is so hard to remember. All the others have nice, sensible names -- Dar, Yuuta, Ryuo. See? Easy to say. You're the only one who insists on making things difficult."

"I'M the one who makes things difficult?!" he roared, a vein throbbing in his temple. "You're the dumbest, most annoying little beast I've ever had the bad fortune to be stuck babysitting! If we weren't along with you, I bet you'd be waltzing right up to the gates of Edo, asking to borrow a cup of sugar or something!"

He smiled and clapped his hands together, favoring the other man with a deliberately vapid grin. "Then I guess I'm lucky I have big strong Kuro-chan to protect me, aren't I?"

Dar coughed loudly into his hand and Ryuo actually snickered, which of course just infuriated the Kurotsunagi. He glared around at the party indiscriminately, his red-brown eyes making his gaze ferocious.

"We keep moving!" he yelled, settling on an outlet for his foul temper. "We've got two more hours of light before we have to make camp, so let's make to most of it. Ryuo, Dar, get off your asses. We're going south. I don't want to hear any pansy-livered complaints from any of you!"

Although the words were directed at the other three soldiers of the unit, Fai knew that the real target of the revenge was himself. Insults aside, he was more of a scholar by trade, and had never been on an extended march before he'd been assigned to this mission. Yuuta caught up with him as the five men loaded up their various packs and gave him an apologetic smile, reaching to take Fai's paper-heavy pack from him, but Fai just shrugged and grinned back at him, without relinquishing his notes. He would reap what he'd sown.

Besides, if not for the admittedly unchallenging distraction of riling up Kuro-chan, this trip would have no entertainment at all.

The forest and the mists rose up about them as they traveled further south; the whole party was restless and uneasy, starting at small noises. When a bird flew right in front of Ryuo's face without warning, he had his sword out in an attack position before he even recognized what it was, and grunted somewhat disconsolately before he put it away. Fai rather thought all of the soldiers, Kurotsunagi especially, preferred open battle to stealth; but there was no helping it in this case.

The clinging fog dampened the evening light and obscured the landscape more than a hundred tree-lengths away, but Fai traveled under the banking light of the wards more than by the fading daylight. It was a break in that steady glow, not any change in the landscape, that fetched his head up.

"What is it?" Ryuo, who was keeping pace near to him, asked curiously. Fai shrugged one shoulder slightly, acknowledging the query without yet having an answer for it. Further ahead, less than a mile down the line.... yes, there was a break, without question.

"We turn east here," he said, voice carrying clearly over the silence. Heads turned to stare at him, incredulously.

"East? Into the wall?" Ryuo repeated with disbelief. "Um, Fai-san... I'm pretty sure that thing about knocking on the door of Edo asking for eggs was meant to be a joke."

"Well, it would be the neighborly thing to do --" Fai said as threw a smirk at the joke's originator " -- don't you think, Kuro-chan?"

"Shut up," was the growled response.

"Our orders are to stay out of sight," Dar spoke up, the first words he'd said all day. "This is as close to the wall as we dare get."

Fai shook his head. "The wall turns back to the east, here," he said, "and then continues on south. But there's something in that gap that I need to take a closer look at."

"Why would there be a gap here?" Ryuo said doubtfully. "This is all Nihon territory -- the wall goes straight south through here on the map."

"It's an old map," Yuuta said, frowning. "Over fifty years old. Things can change, in that time."

"What, you think something in the last fifty years could have brought down the walls?" Ryuo scoffed. "Couldn't be."

"Yes," Fai said.

There was a moment's silence. The captain glowered at the nothingness in the east, then turned that glare on Fai. "How do you know it's safe?" he said peevishly.

"I don't!" Fai replied with a bright smile.

His flippancy provoked the expected explosion. "What the hell? King Ashura will have our hides if we let you go off and get yourself killed! Keeping your dumb butt alive is our responsibility, dammit!"

"And this is mine," Fai said, with unusual seriousness, eyes fixed on the distant glowing bank. "If something brought down the wall, then the wards must have gone down as well, Whatever did that must have left traces itself behind. I need to study those traces, to find out what happened. After all," he said, and turned to face the four soldiers in the gathering gloom. "That's why we're here, aren't we? To find out a way to bring down these walls, so that when King Ashura rides out, at the head of his army, no barrier in the world can prevent him from carving his way straight to the gates of Edo."

Two hours march had turned into three, as the reconnaissance team turned off their southward route and passed over the invisible boundary that the wards had once drawn. This close in, the lingering echoes of power -- to say nothing of the tumbled piles of smashed stone -- explicitly confirmed Fai's guess; something had happened here, which had torn down the wards, and the walls had fallen along with them.

The fog was thicker in the gap, dark and heavy around their tiny campfire. Fai's lips quirked in a smile, regarding that light. For all that Kuro-chan had roared and carried on about blowing their secrecy, Fai simply had to have that fire in order to prepare the scrying spells, and as hours passed without any sentry raising an alarm -- or, in fact, any sign of living humans within miles -- he'd eventually quit complaining about it.

The fire had at least given the others a chance to break out their dried rations, boil some water to soften them up with; not court fare by any means, but at least better than chewing strips of dried leather on the move. The hour was getting closer to midnight now, with Ryuo and Dar sitting the watch after all, while the other two got some sleep. Fai was still working, setting up the tripod and inscribing the runes that he would need; not only long-sight, which he'd been using so far in this trip to observe the wards, but also echo-reading to try and figure out what had happened here in the past. Fifty years ago? It was possible. There was at least a good chance that whatever had happened here had done so before Fai was even born.

The Nihon Empire was huge, and this was the far side of it, from his neck of the mountains. News of events from here was unlikely to have reached as far as... Fai shook his head, as if clearing cobwebs from it. No news of it had reached Ceres, at least, which kept a much closer watch of events happening in their sprawling, hostile neighbor to the south.

No point in speculating when he could just look. Fai finished the last stroke and straightened up with a sigh, rolling his neck and shoulders. It had been a long day, more miles and more hours than he was used to, but he wasn't about to stop now.

Not light now but sound, a world full of rushing murmurs and the shimmering oscillation of bells. Sight was the human's preferred way to take in the world, to focus the attention where it was needed and pick apart the relevant details, but sound lingered, echoes chattering to themselves and building a picture long after the thing itself was gone. He'd been right; unquestionably this had been part of the barricade, once, and the land now ruined around them had once been part of Nihon. He could hear still the faint echoes of human voices, talking and laughing and singing, the buzzing hum of a human community alive. Before the walls had come down.

The shattered, crumbling stones around them were a thousand muted, dying notes; still remembering the shape they'd once held, not yet returned to the flat dull hum of earth. What were you, once? Fai murmured to them, sorting through them, trying to weave together a coherent whole out of the frayed and disparate pieces. A thousand notes, yes, but all different. Spells of protection had been built into them, to be sure, but Fai could see no way that they could have held together.

Unless... Reaching further, Fai thought he heard another sound; a song, this time, one human voice among a thousand. There had been a wizard behind these, after all. Not the one who had built the wall, nor the one who had carved the notes into each stone; but the one who had sung them together, kept them in harmony for day after day, year after year. Behind his -- no, her song, Fai thought he could hear the distant undertones of others like her, singing down the line on either side.

Now Fai understood, how the wards were created, and maintained. Not the great production of one wizard, however powerful; no single human being could pour much power into a spell, let alone maintain it for hundreds of year. But a network of lesser magic users, each given the task of maintaining their own section of the walls, keeping the harmony of the stones precisely in tune. Ingenious. And beautiful, he thought with admiration.

And in understanding, he thought he could piece together what had happened, here. Two blows at once, ah. One had come from the outside, unquestionably; some massive assault against the walls themselves. But the wards could have held, would have held, if something had not happened to disrupt the spells maintaining them at precisely the wrong time. Precisely enough, Fai suspected, that it could not have been coincidence.

Fai let the soundscape dissolve around him, and took his hands off the tripod with a sigh. It was a loss, but the day of hard travel had taken its toll on him; he could do no more tonight. The night had gotten colder around them, and the fog thicker; dark and gray tendrils of it wound around their campsite, making it impossible to see much further than the other side of the camp, where Dar was keeping guard outside the circle of firelight.

Ryuo, sitting by the fire, looked up at the sound and the movement. "All finished?" he asked.

"For now. There's not much else I can learn from here," Fai replied. "Tomorrow, we'll go east again. I want to get closer to the wards which have been built up around this gap. They must be newer than the rest, and they may be weaker for that -- I'll have to see."

"Get some sleep then," Ryuo advised. He offered one of the camp dishes. "Want some food? I didn't see you eat anything all day."

Fai shook his head. "It's late, and we'll have an early start tomorrow," he said, standing up and brushing charcoal from his hands. "I'm sure Kuro-chan will insist on it."

"Probably," Ryuo agreed with a grin. "But we'll all need to be on our toes. If you say we go east, then we go east, but if this was really part of Nihon once, they might have patrols out. If any of them find us, it will mean a fight." He didn't sound too worried about the prospect; if anything, he sounded like he relished the idea.

Fai shrugged. "We'll have to be careful. But even if there are patrols, the fog should help hide us. I'd be surprised if they could even find each other in this fog, let alone us."

Ryuo blinked, and then his brow wrinkled in puzzlement. "Fog?"

Fai chuckled. "I know. Soup is a better description. I've never seen mist this thick, not even during the spring melt, but the lowlands are a different world, I suppose."

"What are you talking about, Fai?" Ryuo asked earnestly. "There's no fog. It's as clear a night as we ever had up in the passes."

Fai started to reply, then stopped, staring at Ryuo. There wasn't an ingenuous bone in his body; he wasn't joking. But why could he not see what everyone else so plainly could?

Or -- was it that only Fai could see this fog?

Fai's eyes widened, and he sat bolt upright as his roving gaze searched the surrounding mist. A freezing dread gripped his throat, and his heart plummeted into his stomach. All these hours heading south, as the fog grew thicker and thicker and never once realizing -- "I've been a fool," he breathed.

"What? Fai, what's going on?" Ryuo demanded, but Fai spun away, seizing hold of his scrying spell once more. It wasn't easy to wrench it away from its tightly held focus, to widen the direction into an outwards seeking spiral, but he had no time to rework it. Not east but west, not from the walls and the human habitations but from the dark wilderness behind him.

The fog resisted him now, as no normal weather could have done; he couldn't see anything, but no obscuring spell in the world could hide the shape, the movement, the sheer size of what was coming towards them. Movement sensed in the dark, far away still but approaching as rapidly as a cloud moved to blot out the moon. And big. Very big.

"Fai? My lord? What's happening?" Ryuo's voice penetrated his paralyzed fascination; he shook his head stupidly and looked up to see Dar just now turning towards them from his sentry post. Far too late to run.

Fai threw himself into work, grabbing his staff and beginning to incise the runes on the ground in quick, sizzling strokes. Whispering the words under his breath, he barely had a moment's pause or wind to explain. "Something's coming," he said. "Not from the walls. The other way. We aren't safe here."

The runes were finished and he drew the end of his staff in a broad circle around him, delimiting the effective edge of the shield. "Get within the circle. All of you!"

"What's coming?" Ryuo was bewildered, scrambling to his feet and gripping the hilt of his sword tightly, peering into the still-quiet darkness. On the other side of the fire, the other two were just starting to rouse from their bedrooms. "If it's warriors from Nihon, shouldn't we...."

"It's not that," Fai said, anxiety building to a frenzy within him to make them listen, obey. "It's nothing human. I very much doubt your swords will be any use against it. You must get within the shield, now!"

Three of them obeyed, Dar and Ryuo and Yuuta scrambling over the piles of gear to his side, utterly bewildered and perhaps disbelieving but at least obeying. But the fourth rolled the other way, shedding the last of the blankets with a shrug and reaching among the piled goods for his gear. "Kuro-chan, leave it alone! Come here!" Fai said sharply, but was ignored. "Captain Kurotsunagi, please!"

The eerie silence of the night was no more; it had been replaced by a distant rumble that was building to a roar, a darkness that finally even the soldiers could see rushing towards them like a stormfront. Fai looked at the captain, still yards away, and made his agonized decision. He held up his hand and said the final word, and the shield snapped into place, a glowing blue sphere held a meter from his face.

The darkness rushed over them like a tidal wave, the throbbing roar pierced by a teeth-grinding whine. Objects hit the shield and bounced, rushing and tumbling over the far side as they were shoved onwards by their fellows. Blurring darkness against darker sky, it was impossible to make out their forms, or anything other than a welter of scraping legs and thousands of pinpoint, glowing yellow eyes.

Outside the shield, Kurotsunagi stumbled onto his knees as first one, then dozens of the creatures latched onto him, swarming over him. Once the creatures were still Fai and his companions could finally make out their forms, black writing bodies no larger than a man's fist. They looked like rats but they moved like insects, skittering and unearthly, and Kurotsunagi's surprised grunt as he was forced to his knees turned quickly to thin, agonized screams as the creatures burrowed into clothing and skin, piercing his flesh. They swelled like balloons -- one of them actually burst with the frenzy of its feeding, bright blood and black gore spraying through the air as their victim fell sprawled onto the ground.

"Captain!" Ryuo wailed, actually taking a lurching step forward as though he could go to Kurotsunagi's aid, but it was far too late; already the screams were fading into strangled, animal sounds, and the whining hum of the creatures feeding drowned it out. Not that he could have gotten through the barrier anyway, now. Fai held his hands up and steady, although already he was numb from the constant battering against his magic.

Dar whirled on Fai. "Where the hell did these things come from?" he demanded, shock and panic overcoming his usual reticence. "What are they?"

"This is what the wards of Nihon are for," Fai said through gritted teeth, mind working overtime as the pieces -- at last -- fell into place. "Not for us. Not for any human army. These are what the wards are built to keep out."

"And we're on the wrong side of the wards," Yuuta completed the thought for them, his face bleak and bleached. "We've got to get out of here."

"No!" Ryuo shouted, reason lost to grief and rage. "Those things killed Captain Kurotsunagi! We can't just run away!"

"Something else is coming," Fai said, voice distant, barely attending to this debate, if debate it was. This swarm of -- of parasites, horrific as it was, could not have accounted for the power and the danger that he had glimpsed behind the fog. "This is just the first wave. The real monster hasn't arrived yet."

"If it's something we can hit, then we can kill it!" Ryuo insisted, sword still drawn, futilely seeking a target.

"How do you plan to do that when the moment you step outside the shield, you'll be reduced to bones?" Dar snarled. The place that Kurotsunagi had fallen was marked only by the dark cluster of carrion creatures still crawling over and around him, but there were hundreds -- thousands more to join the assault on the blue barrier, battering with teeth or claws or half-seen wings.

"Milord Fai, what can we do?" Yuuta appealed him directly. "Do we... do we stay and fight?"

"We can't fight this," Fai said, still in that faraway tone. Just maintaining the shield took all of his strength; his hands were already shaking as he brought one of them down and began to write a new spell on the air, inscribing a second circle within the boundary of the first. "We've got to get out of here, now."

What he was about to try was risky, even dangerous; portal magic was unstable and not well studied, but when it interacted with other spells it tended to do so violently. But Fai could see no other way out of this trap; they were besieged, taking all of his strength just to shield the four of them from the horrific assault battering them. And when the new threat arrived --

And the new threat arrived now, with the glittering line of the portal only half-formed. It was impossible to see it clearly, through the rushing, beating limbs of the black creatures that still swarmed over and around the barrier. But the glowing yellow eyes, round as coins in a head that must have been a yard across, loomed over the shield, crouching from a height of twenty feet to bring its face closer to the shield. To either side of them, dimly glimpsed through the rush of bodies, thin spindly legs like tent poles seemed to unfold onto the ground.

The monster lifted its head, shifting the point of the featureless yellow gaze a little beyond them, and a hole opened in the middle of the body like a mouth gaping. A foul stench and a stiff breeze ran through all four of them, and the creatures that had brought down Kurotsunagi suddenly swarmed up in an agitated flurry, until they were sucked backwards into the gap, which closed around them.

Fai had not stopped for one second casting their escape spell, although his voice was shaking almost as badly as his hands, now. He was almost at the limit of his strength, he could feel the shield beginning to crash, but in just one moment more it would no longer matter --

One moment too soon, a limb like the trunk of a tree reared into the dimness and slammed down on top of them. The shield buckled, the white and blue glow spilling into the just-completed lines of the portal spell, the two magics broken and intermingled.

The shield collapsed into him, like a net made of blue fire that froze from his skin clear through to his heart. A moment later, the world around him exploded back out into flames, but by that time Fai was too far gone to care.

~to be continued.