Miaka stood before Taka, arms and legs stretched wide, energy strings waving in the air as they protruded from her body. Taka's eyes lowered to her midsection, where blood began to seep through her shirt. "No…Miaka…"
Miaka slowly turned her head, her eyes weighed down and her face pale. "Ta…ka…" Her voice was throaty, grainy, as if she had swallowed sand.
Before Taka could even attempt a response, she fell down before him, her body limp at his knees. Blood slowly began to pool around her. Taka felt the world spin around him for but a moment as he fell completely before her, his hands shaky as they reached for her. But he didn't touch her, lest she crumble into pieces.
Tamahome's arms lowered slowly in disbelief. "No. Miaka."
A fist slammed through a nearby door, shattering the wood effortlessly.
Nuriko chuckled, clasping his fist close to his body triumphantly. "Man, it feels so great to be in a real body again!"
Atsuna smiled, happy that Nyan-Nyan had granted Nuriko, Hotohori, Chiriko, and Mitsukake physical forms to fight Tenkou off. She turned her head, realizing that something far more important had to be dealt with, and when she did, her whole world crashed on top of her.
"No!" she shouted, stumbling backwards right into Chichiri. The monk wrapped his arm around her waist, steadying her, then turned his head to see what had Atsuna so distraught.
Miaka lie lifeless in Taka's lap, a puddle of dark red blood pooled around them both. Taka sat unmoving, eyes wide, arms to his sides. Tamahome, or Yousui as the Suzaku warriors knew him truthfully to be, stood as motionless and silent as Taka, not knowing how to react, not knowing what to say or do.
Atsuna clapped a hand over her mouth, muffling her sobs, her body trembling more with every passing second. "How…" She swallowed the dryness in her throat, shakily pulling her hand from her mouth. "How could I not have felt this?"
"Her life force is completely gone," Chichiri said softly, almost unbelieving as the rest of his comrades at seeing their priestess dead before them.
Hotohori unsheathed his sword, and Tasuki gripped tightly onto his tessen, channeling his anger into the weapon until flames burst from the tips. Both warriors rushed forward, prepared to accost the fake Tamahome for the death of their priestess, but as they did, they both ran into an electrical barrier, crackling against their skin until they jumped back from it.
A familiar chuckle reverberated throughout the room. "She destroyed herself, as well as the one she loves. In the crimson clothes your own lover's hands dressed you in and accompanied by his shattered heart, she now weds the darkness." Tenkou appeared before them, his long hair now tied up high in a ponytail and his former garb gone in favor of white robes. "It was so predictable that it almost bores me. I suppose that it must have been their destiny."
Chichiri's uninjured eye widened, scarlet blazing with an anger he rarely felt. "Your plan was always to destroy us this way, wasn't it, Tenkou?" he demanded. He pointed his staff incriminatingly toward the man who called himself a god.
"Now, Chichiri, even I cannot kill anyone. Gods merely lead people to the way they are. For ages, I have awaited this moment in the Universe of the Four Gods. In the last thousand years, human desires have grown while the power of love has weakened. The evil within man is what gives me power, and within the realm of the scroll, I became a god. I was worshipped by various people in this world. Nakago's tribe was among them. But my true ambition of existing in the real world required enormous negative energy. And that energy had to be directly focused at me. You were the most adequately qualified. I'm going back now to the land of my dreams, along with this ancient capital of Hei-Jou."
A bright white light filtered in behind him, and his body began to fade inside. "Miaka Yuki, Taka Sukunami, I thank you both. Once I smash the gate of Suzaku, I can leave this place for eternity."
"Over my dead body!" Tasuki shouted. He turned to his friends. "We need to get through the barrier to Tama and Miaka!"
"Hold on," Atsuna said, her voice firm with resolve. She snapped her fingers, a pole of light forming into her staff in her palm. "I will try to break the barrier myself."
"I'm coming as soon as I can!" Mitsukake shouted over the growing wind as Atsuna chanted her spell in hopes of getting through to Taka and Miaka. While she continued to chant, everyone shouted for Taka and Miaka, each telling them in their own words to hold on, that they would be there to help them as soon as they could, that they would not give up on them.
But Taka didn't hear any of them. All he heard was Miaka's calming voice echoing in his head.
He looked up and saw Miaka's shining face before him, smiling happily. "You are stronger than you realize. You can defeat Tenkou." Her body descended upon him, kneeling in front of him. He could feel her hands as they cupped his face gingerly in her palms, soft as he'd always remembered them. "Can you hear their voices, the voices of our friends calling out? It's the voices of the people who love us and give us strength. And that's why we can conquer anything. I will be here with you to laugh and cry with you. Always. We live as one."
Taka blinked out of his stupor, her words of wisdom ringing in his ears. He eased himself away from Miaka's lifeless body and stood, taking small steps towards Tamahome, who, in turn, took a cautious step backwards.
"I might be weak, and I might not be special, but I wanted to live my life for the sake of another human being," Taka said, his gaze far-off as he continued his advance towards Tamahome. "I don't need to be a great person, not anymore."
"Get back! Stay away from me!" Tamahome shouted. He charged a quick energy blast and launched it at Taka as a bullet of concentrated energy. It grazed the top of Taka's shoulder, but the man didn't stop, didn't flinch.
"I don't have to be afraid anymore. I can believe in myself now," Taka continued. "As long as a single person cares for me, I can be proud of the life I live." He stopped dead in front of a cowering Tamahome and wrapped his arms around his shoulders, pulling him tight into an embrace.
"Don't be afraid. Everything you are I will take into me. We will become one again. You are me."
The ogre symbol on his forehead flickered, and he called out Miaka's name in sadness, staring down at her immobile form on the floor.
A red beam of light reeled from the sky, surrounding the embracing men and Miaka's still body on the floor. When the light disappeared, Taka stood with Miaka in his arms, the ogre symbol now present on his forehead and glowing to life.
Looking down, the water played about like a mirror, and Taka was able to see the effect Tenkou's power had on their world. It spread like an infection with dark clouds rolling in and pillars sprouting from the ground in all directions.
"Tenkou! Can you hear me?" Taka shouted into the emptiness around him. "I finally understand. I was 'me' all along. To meet Miaka and love her, to be loved by her, and to absorb Tamahome into my being was the reason I was born in this world. So much time has been wasted because of you."
Taka looked up, and standing before him was a grand red gate with Tenkou standing under it, his signature purple haze surrounding him. "Tamahome, you refuse the body I granted you? Is this your decision? Is that what you want?"
"Don't ever forget - with each step forward that one person is able to take, they evolve and grow that much stronger."
The ogre symbol that had always tied him to Miaka glowed brightly until a large sphere of crimson energy spread around him, spread throughout the water around him, reaching Tenkou's feet.
Tenkou closed his eyes and looked down, a small, amused smirk playing about his lips. "Indeed. Your life force has grown considerably. Taka and Tamahome could not compete. In this energy, I sense neither rage nor grief." He opened his eyes, his smile fading behind a stern scowl. "However, it's not enough."
From Tenkou's body branched off many violet energy strings, not unlike the ones Tamahome had used to suspend Miaka in midair. Only this time, these energy strings balled together into small spheres of concentrated energy and launched straight for Taka and Miaka like seeking missiles.
But as each one neared the pair, a large blast of red energy stopped every single one of them, preventing any harm from befalling the servants of Suzaku. And as each one thwarted Tenkou's attacks, they crashed into the gate, causing it to crash and crumble around him.
Tenkou opened his eyes as the dust cleared around his now-destroyed gate. And as if his rage could not be fueled further, as he peered out towards Taka and Miaka, not only did he find them unscathed, but he found the cause behind each energy sphere that stopped his barrage of attacks.
The Suzaku warriors, as well as Atsuna, all stood in front of Taka and Miaka, poised and at the ready for battle.
Tasuki was the first to speak up, releasing a boisterous laugh and pointing his tessen in Tenkou's direction. "Did ya forget about us, dumbass?"
Nuriko took a step forward, hands rested on his waist. "You didn't even realize we'd broken down your barrier."
"Yeah, and it wasn't that hard, either," Chiriko added.
"We will not permit you to execute your maniacal plan," Hotohori said with resolve, his hand rested on the hilt of his sheathed sword.
Chichiri frowned, the slightest movement causing the rings on his staff to jingle. "And you will never lay a finger on these two ever again."
Tenkou shook his head, trying to act as unimpressed and neutral as possible, even though his anger was seething. "You are all still easy prey for me."
"The four palaces of the heavens, the four corners of the earth..."
With eyes widened, everyone, including Tenkou, turned their head up to the sky.
"Miaka," Nuriko whispered.
"It's the spell," Tasuki said, his voice quiet in awe.
Atsuna turned around to gaze upon Taka and Miaka, only to find that both of them were no longer there. "What's going on?"
"I summon thee, Suzaku, guardian of the south."
"It...can't be..." Tenkou said to himself.
"In the name of sacred law, faith, and virtue..."
Atsuna's eyes widened. "It's both of them now! Both Miaka and Tamahome!"
"I beseech you to appear on earth for the sake of all here who adore you and who await your presence. Come to us! And with your mighty power, destroy all that is evil which threatens us. Save us and grant us our wishes. Descend to us now from the heavens above!"
The earth beneath them rumbled, and a grand red light materialized into Suzaku Seikun himself. He appeared as a tall, pale-skinned man with wild red hair. Behind him rose the grand phoenix, his animal self.
Seiryu rose from the water behind them, roaring a grand song. From a nearby forest woke Genbu, groaning long and loudly for all to hear. And in the middle of a forest clearing, Byakko stomped forward, causing the ground to quake under his thunderous howl.
Tenkou swallowed and turned his head back to Suzaku Seikun, who floated before him in all the grace a god was known for. The phoenix trilled behind him. "My holy power has been returned to me. And now it's time for your legacy to be destroyed."
"But...how did this happen?" Tenkou stammered. "How were Tamahome and the priestess able to revive you by sacrificing their own lives? I am a god."
"You are no god," Suzaku's voice echoed, causing Tenkou to gasp under his breath. "Think back, Tenkou, to your time as a human being. You are a man born long ago here in this land of the rising sun. You are the vengeful ghost of a greed-filled man, a prince who found the Universe of the Four Gods and wished to use its power to rule the world and become a god. You were executed for sorcery and erased from history.
"You became a god within your own insanity, a phantom who forgot that he was once a man. Furthermore, we four gods appear once more to banish you into darkness forever. Begone!"
No sooner did the final word leave the god's mouth, all four beasts opened their mouths, releasing red, blue, green, and white rays of energy, completely destroying Tenkou and the remnants of the gate he was once standing under. Everything Tenkou had brought to this world explodes, leaving nothingness behind in its wake.
Tasuki's eyes opened slowly. Without moving his body, his eyes travel to gaze upon his surroundings. He sighs at the familiarity. "So, I guess I bought it back there. I always figured the afterlife would be prettier than this. This just looks like Mt. Taikyoku."
Chichiri leaned over the bandit, smiling knowingly. "That's because it is Mt. Taikyoku, you know."
"Oh. Chichiri." Tasuki turned his eyes, eyes boring up into his comrade's. "Are you dead, too?"
Chichiri's smile faded. "We're not dead, you know."
"How come ya still have yer mask on when we're dead?"
Another shadow appeared on the other side of him, and before Tasuki could turn his head to see who else had joined him in the afterlife, a finger flicked him hard in the nose, quickly gathering his attention.
"We're not dead, Tasuki," Atsuna's voice spoke up. She rolled her eyes. "Perhaps you should turn your ears on when we speak to you. For once. Everything turned out all right."
Taiitsukun floated over to them with her usual grin. "Congratulations. A job well done to all of you. You've defeated the demon. I'm glad to see that you all made it back here in one piece."
Tasuki lifted himself up, eyes widening when Taiitsukun came over to join them at their side. "Oh, no! I must be in Hell!"
Rolling her eyes at Tasuki's not-so-shocking behavior, she flicked a finger, sending out a bullet of energy. It slammed into the top of Tasuki's head, knocking him backwards. He cried out in a usual curse, rubbing his head.
"Perhaps you ought to pay a little more attention to the important things," Atsuna said, pointing her thumb over her shoulder. Tasuki followed it, and with widened eyes, and noticed that floating above them in red spheres created by Nyan-Nyans were Miaka and Taka.
Everyone rushed around Taiitsukun, quick to ask questions about Miaka and Taka, hoping that they are all right, wondering if Tenkou was truly gone. She raised her palm up, silencing them. "Raise your hands for questions," Taiitsukun said.
Tasuki thrust his hand into the air first. "Me! Me!"
"Any questions about my face, and you will be sorry." Hearing Tasuki groan, Taiitsukun turned to Nuriko. "Nuriko, smack him."
Immediately, Tasuki raised his arms in defense, but he wasn't quick enough. Nuriko's palm slammed across his face, leaving a bright red mark on his cheek.
"Are Miaka and Taka all right?" Chichiri asked, taking advantage of the quick silence as his comrades watched Tasuki nurse his burning face.
"Do not worry. Their bodies couldn't take that much energy, but their life forces, on the other hand, could, so they separated from their bodies to summon all four beast gods."
"Hi, guys," Miaka's voice echoed around them. They could almost hear the smile in her voice.
"Can you hear us?" Taka's voice came after, sounding jovial and quite healthy.
"In order to destroy Tenkou and summon Suzaku, they separated from their bodies in the other world," Taiitsukun explained.
Nuriko smiled, peering up at the motionless bodies suspended in the air above them. "You two beat the demon. I knew you two could do it."
"No, Nuriko," Miaka spoke up. "That's not quite right. You all gave us the power to do it."
"You all gave us the strength through your love. It helped us to win. Thank you," Taka added.
Feeling tears beading up in his eyes, Chiriko lifted his arms and buried his face in his sleeves. Atsuna looked down on the young boy and smiled, resting her hand atop his shoulder.
"The principles of conflict - Know yourself, believe in yourself, and then overcome yourself," Taiitsukun began. "Which you did, and Tenkou has been vanquished. Celestial warriors, the spell has been broken. That unfortunate brother and sister and the souls of all those turned into monsters have now been saved."
Taiitsukun turned around to look at the sky, facing a giant glowing ball of light. "And now all that remains is the two of you. You currently exist only as spirits. You can live anywhere. You have a choice. You can materialize in either world. You can live here if you wish."
"Here?" Miaka asked, her voice filled with happy disbelief. "We have a choice to stay here with our friends and live with them?"
After a moment of silence for Miaka and Taka to ponder their decision, Hotohori was the first to speak up. "Go home, you two."
"Yeah," Tasuki agreed. "There's nothin' better than going back to the place where you were born. Ya have friends an' family waitin' fer ya there."
"That is true," Hotohori added. "And weren't you born in that world, Taka, to be with Miaka?"
Nuriko winked, flashing his trademark smile. "There are still many people you have in that world left to meet and get to know.
"And we will be reborn soon," Mitsukake reminded them.
"We will carry you within our hearts forever. We will always remember," Chiriko said with a smile. "We'll be together for always."
Chichiri flashed his trademark grin. "Taka, make sure Miaka is as happy as she can be. And you, too, you know."
Atsuna clasped her hands together in front of her, smiling up at the sphere of light floating above them. "I'm glad that I was able to see you both again. You need to take care of one another. I'll always be closer than you think. Be happy."
"Thank you, all of you. I love you all," Miaka replied to her friends. "You have always helped me with your strength and love. I know we don't have to say goodbye, because we will definitely meet again."
The priestess's comrades smiled, watching closely with eyes unblinking as their bodies, as well as their spirits, faded away into the sky.
After a moment of silence, Taiitsukun turned to the celestial warriors. "And now it is time for Nuriko, Hotohori, Chiriko, and Mitsukake to rest and prepare to be reborn. Now that Tenkou has been vanquished, his spell has been erased from your souls. You may now be reborn."
"And it's about time, too," Nuriko said with a grin. He spun around, strolling over to Chichiri, Tasuki, and Atsuna. "We're all going to meet again someday soon. I can't wait for that day." He looked to Tasuki and Atsuna, offering them a knowing wink. "But in the meantime, that'll give you the time to make do on your promise."
Atsuna smiled while Tasuki felt his cheeks heat up in a blush. Atsuna grasped her friend's hands, giving them a friendly squeeze. "We will not let you down, Nuriko."
Nuriko gave a single nod in response.
"Take care of yourselves," Hotohori said with a smile. "And please look in with Houki and my son."
"Of course, Your Highness," Chichiri assured. "They are in good hands, you know."
"We hope that you'll be happy," Chiriko said, rubbing his sleeve against his cheek to wipe away a stray tear.
"Hey, don't ya worry about anything, Chiriko," Tasuki said, leaning down to pat him on the shoulder. "We're gonna be as happy as can be. Just make sure ya get reborn. That's all ya need to be worryin' about fer now."
"We wish you well," Mitsukake spoke up. "Be safe."
Taiitsukun suddenly cleared her throat. "It's time."
The three surviving celestial warriors gazed upon their friends somberly, each silently wishing that they could somehow stay with them. But the comfort in knowing they would be reborn warmed them. And they knew deep down that they would indeed meet again. Suzaku would make it so.
And while those thoughts swam through their minds, their friends' spirits disappeared much like Miaka and Taka's, leaving Chichiri, Tasuki, and Atsuna alone on Mt. Taikyoku with Taiitsukun.
Tasuki released a long, heavy sigh. "Well, I guess that's that. It's time to go back to the real world." He groaned. "The real world is borin'."
Atsuna slid her hand over the top of his shoulder, flashing him a smile. "Don't you remember that you're the leader of a whole group of bandits that seem to enjoy rowdiness? Since when do you live a life of boredom?"
The tangerine-haired bandit shot her a toothy grin, his eyebrows wriggling suggestively. "It's not the gang that keeps me entertained, babe," he growled, snaking an arm around her waist.
Atsuna opened her mouth to scold him for such careless speaking in front of Taiitsukun, but before she could so much as breathe, Taiitsukun floated up to the threesome, interrupting the pending conversation.
"It it also time for the three of you to return to your own lives," Taiitsukun said, as if Tasuki's evocative statement had never been spoken. "I will teleport you back." She lifted her hand, not giving any of them a chance to respond, and snapped her fingers once. And in a bright flash of light, they were gone.
Tasuki cracked open one of his eyes, cautiously darting it back and forth to see where the old bat had landed him. He hated when she did that.
He shook his fist toward the ceiling. "Ya old crone! I'm gonna get ya fer that!" he shouted. He folded his arms across his chest in a huff. "Well, Atsuna, at least now we can get back to doin' what we do best, an' that's... Hey. Wait a sec. Where are ya, anyway?"
Looking around the room, Tasuki finally realized that Atsuna was nowhere to be found.
Atsuna felt her palms clam up as Taiitsukun finished explaining her news. "You must be prepared, Atsuna. It is your decision whether Tasuki be informed, but know that when the final battle comes for you, the battle must be fought and won by your hand."
The celestial warrior of light nodded slowly, taking in the information. "Thank you for the warning, Taiitsukun. I will double my efforts before the threat rears its head," she replied.
"See that you do," Taiitsukun said. "That is all the aid I may offer you for now. The rest is up to you. But know that your time of rest is short. Also be aware, Atsuna, that while the battle must come to a close by your hand, accepting aid where it is offered to you is not blasphemous. Remember the teachings Hikari has bestowed upon you."
Atsuna bowed her head in thanks, but before she could verbalize it, she felt warmth sweep over her, saw streams of light wash around her body in a waltz. As she lifted to straighten her body, she found herself staring into the tawny eyes of the bandit leader.
"What the hell? I thought the old broad left ya floatin' in limbo somewhere!" Tasuki exclaimed, stomping over to her. He jerked her into his chest, his arms tight like a vise around her back. "Are ya all right? I ought to march right back to Mt. Taikyoku an' have words with that old witch."
"I'm fine, Tasuki," Atsuna assured calmly. But it was a sense of worry and distraction that had her voice sounding so calm. "Taiitsukun just had something she wanted to tell me before sending me back here."
Tasuki pulled away, his eyes burrowed down into a definitive scowl. "Well, what the hell did she have to say that she couldn't say to ya in front of Chichiri an' me? Was it a damn secret or somethin'?" he demanded.
Atsuna forced on a smile, trying to relax him as she fished for an explanation. "She just wanted to assure me that my brother would be all right in the other world with Miaka. She sensed that I would miss him terribly."
Tasuki's features softened at the mention of Tamahome. He rubbed his hands over her arms. "Well, yeah. It sucks that he ain't here, but ya know Miaka's got him taken care of. They're gonna be happy in her world." He tilted his hand, brushing the backs of his knuckles gingerly against her cheek. "And ya know we're gonna be happy, too. I'm gonna make sure of it, especially after all that crap we just went through with Tenkou messin' with our heads."
"I know." Atsuna retreated into his chest, letting his arms wrap around her again, this time softly and lacking the anger and distress from before. "Everything is going to be all right. Everything is going to work out the way it's supposed to." She swallowed hard and closed her eyes, adding in a whisper, "as long as you're with me when my destiny reaches me, I will be all right."
But Tasuki had heard her, and instead of questioning her, he opted instead to go against his gut and hold her tightly, deciding after everything they'd gone through, everything he'd done, everything he watched Miaka and Tamahome go through that the most important thing was holding her while he had the chance and not letting her go for anyone or anything.
Atsuna opened her eyes and sighed slowly, deeply, as Taiitsukun's words continued to echo in her ears.
"The very reason for Hikari's presence in your life is upon you. You became Atsuna for a specific reason, a prophecy that is destined to come to pass. Your training and experiences have culminated, and fate has decided you are ready. You knew this day would be upon you, and you also realize the dire circumstances if you are to fail. You must be prepared, Atsuna. It is your decision whether Tasuki be informed, but know that when the final battle comes for you, the battle must be fought and won by your hand."
Atsuna knew what those words meant, and as Tasuki held her close, for one of the first times in her life since she was a child, she felt fear course through her veins.
Fate decided she had been ready, but something told her deep down that fate was mistaken. Nothing could prepare her fully for what was to meet her down the path as Hikari's champion - or what Tasuki would say when he found out the truth.
A/N: Thank you so much for reading Illumination! The third and final story in the trilogy is Step Into the Light, which you can find on my profile. If you can do direct links, I have no clue how to do them. Haha. But anyway, hop on over to my profile for some more Atsuna/Tasuki love! And again, thank you so much for being invested in these two! ~Halo