Title: The Heralds of the White God
Rating: M
Warnings: Violence, sexual content.
Spoilers: AU.
Summary: In which Kurogane is relieved from his duty at last, and returns to Edo to perform some housecleaning.
Author's Note: Sequel to The Wizards of Ceres. The original Wizards story started out as a 2009 National Novel Writing Month project, although it extended long beyond that. The promised sequel, The Heralds of the White God, was likewise the NaNo project for 2010; although it, too, is going to run way beyond the original 50,000 words. Enjoy!

They were rebuilding the wall. Kurogane passed by the work crews on his way in, gangs of artisans and laborers working busily to shape and haul stone from the quarries to the work site, the battlefield of the last desperate stand against the invasion of demons. Pieces of the shattered wall had landed sometimes as much as half a mile away, when the brutal tide of inhuman monsters had crashed upon the barrier; some of the stone could be recovered and reused, but much of it was too shattered and damaged to be worth the effort, and simply left where it lay.

The sight of the shattered stone, the abandoned fields and roads growing over with weeds, reminded Kurogane painfully of his homeland; but the sight of the workers swarming busily around the broken wall, passing back and forth over the road, was reassuring. The destruction was only temporary, until the wall had been rebuilt sufficiently that they could turn their efforts to less important things. And once the protections were sufficiently in place, then the farmers and peasants, too, could return and clear the fallow fields, take up habitation once more. This land would heal, unlike shattered Suwa.

Although with the death of the Master of Demons, and the hope - someday - that they could be rid of the monsters once and for all… perhaps it was no longer necessary to leave Suwa abandoned. Could it be rebuilt someday, a new city paved over the ruins, new settlers brought in to take over the land from those who had died? The thought hurt, but maybe it was time.

Perhaps his gutted lands could provide new homes for the people who had been driven out of the conquered provinces of northern Nihon, displaced by the war and unable to ever return. As the last living member of the clan of Suwa, he had some say in how the land could be used, although the Empress' decision would be final. Perhaps he would mention it to Amaterasu when he got back. He was developing a very long list of chores to attend to after he got back.

For now he watched the building of the wall, stopping to rest his horse - and himself - in the shade of a poplar tree by the road. It felt good to relax for a moment, leaning his weary body and aching limbs against the tree trunk; more good to be back among people again. The scene before him was like a little slice of Nihon society, the tents of the building site arrayed according to status. There were the peasants - unskilled laborers hauling rocks under the direction of the overseers; the artisans - professional builders and stoneworkers hired from the cities to fulfill this contract; and the warriors - members of the samurai class clustered about the border of the work camp, keeping a nervous eye out for any oni attack.

And because the new walls had to be warded with spells of protection and strength, there were also miko on the site, doing the rituals as each stone was slotted into place to link it into a net of protection that encircled all Nihon. He only caught sight of one of them in their white kimono and red hakama, but he knew that others must be nearby, retired to the cool shade of the largest and most decorated of the tents. One of them must be the Kishuu miko, the one he'd heard about from the messenger from Arisugawa; the one who had stayed to face down the invasion of oni alone. He would have liked to meet her, but he had no inclination to interrupt or hinder their work in any way. The sooner they finished the wall, the sooner he could go home.

And he was more than ready to go home. Hunting oni was nothing new to him; in the years since Suwa's destruction he'd spent more time prowling the wilderness to seek out and dispatch the monsters than he had safely behind stone walls. But he'd been guarding the southern wall near the breach relentlessly, day and night, for more than eight weeks, and the strain was wearing down his reserves. He'd not been at his best even to start with. He'd come here immediately after his difficult journey through demon-infested territory to the far west, which had culminated in the ordeal of facing - and finally defeating - the Master of Demons.

His thoughts were diverted to brood on this, as it often had been over the past two months. His hand stole to the carefully wrapped package he kept with him at all times, feeling the sharp edge of that madman's amulet even through the thick leather. Father, he thought, as he he had thought many times before; I have finally avenged you. Is your spirit at peace now? He could only hope so. He made no such prayer to his mother's spirit, though. He knew he hadn't avenged her yet.

But the heart of his dragging depression, the feeling like a hole in his midsection that drained his energy and robbed his bittersweet victory of triumph, had nothing to do with his parents or Suwa or demons or even the death of the Master. It was the memory of the companion who had hunted demons together with him, the warrior who had fought side-by-side against unmentionable horrors, the lover he'd been forced to part with. As usual, the problem was Fai.

Or rather, it was not having Fai. He'd barely known the man six months, barely been in his presence for a total of a few weeks; how could the annoying mage have come to feel like a part of his body, that his absence was so keenly felt? In some ways he resented that - his association with Fai had drained him, both in body and soul, demanding that he give of himself in ways that he never had before. Required him to donate everything up to and including his blood, and left him feeling incomplete and empty when they parted. And yet, for all that he'd sacrificed for Fai, he felt like a greater man than when he started, and he knew he'd gladly do it again.

Fai had gone back to Ceres, and he'd come here; both their loyalties had demanded it. It had been the right decision for both of them, and Kurogane did not usually waste time second-guessing his actions. But it couldn't free him from the feelings of loneliness, of frustration and anger at the circumstances that had forced them apart. Of resentment at the duties that kept him bound here while he wondered how his lover fared. If he had gotten home safely, if he had been welcomed by his family and colleagues, if he was taking care of himself properly. If he had fed, like he'd promised he would.

Kurogane blew out a long, slow breath. The blustery spring day seemed to waver and dim in front of his eyes, gray ripples spreading through the image like a stone dropped in a pond. He was tired, dangerously tired, and he knew it. Normally he took better care of himself, carefully managing his strength and stamina to last as long as possible; but no matter how many rest breaks he took, it didn't seem to make a dent on this fatigue.

He'd rest now, and go back out into the woods later tonight. Decision made, Kurogane sank gratefully to the ground, relieving the weight from his aching feet. His horse grazed peacefully nearby, unconcerned by any demonic alarm, but Kurogane still could not trust in his surroundings enough to let his guard down. He settled into a seated position, one knee drawn up for balance - and a quick spring from the ground should it be necessary - with both his swords within easy reach. His head dropped forward to rest against his chest, and his eyes slid closed; he slept.

He never allowed himself more than a light doze when he was on patrol, and his sleep was even more fitful than usual. A deep, gluey exhaustion battled with overstrung, weary nerves. He kept sinking down towards a deeper sleep, body relaxing from its ready posture; then a tight spike of urgency would shoot through his dreaming mind, yanking him back up into place again. Formless, anxious images swam through his sleeping mind, images of mist-demons coming towards him like fish battling against an upstream current, only to vanish when he swiped at them and re-form elsewhere.

When the alarm first penetrated his consciousness and jerked him out of slumber, he was on his feet and had his sword drawn and ready before he even realized that he was truly awake this time, and not just a continuation of his half-waking nightmare. He squinted, and made out the blurry form of two human figures, standing frozen in mid-step a safe distance away from him.

"Erghr," he said eloquently, and rubbed his face against the cloth of his shoulder, trying to clear the fog from his mind. He squinted harder and lowered the tip of his sword slightly as the details began to fall into place.

He'd been wakened by the approach of two men, tall and sturdy but with open, blooming boy's faces that made him feel positively old. Gah. Nobody should have that much cheerful energy this early in the… afternoon. "What do you want?" he said, voice coming out as a tired growl.

"You're - ah - Kurogane Demon-Queller?" the darker one said, clearing his throat tentatively.

"What of it?" He took in the clothes of the two men. They both wore tabards in the colors of the Shukaido clan's district, far to the east of Nihon territory. Under that, they were dressed in armor made of heavy, dark iron, overlapping plates… and they wore the badges of Tomoyo's special guard. Demon-hunters. But not ones he recognized. "Who are you?"

The brown-haired boy grinned, apparently taking Kurogane's question as a gesture far more friendly than he'd intended. "We're the Shukaido Defenders! I'm Shukaido Takeshi, and he's Kunimaru Kentarou. We've been in training for years to learn to stalk and fight the evil oni, and bring peace to our fair land forever!"

"Ah." It was the boasting as much as the names that made the associations fall into place. The boys from East Kunimaru, right. "Eri's apprentices."

"That's right!" Kentarou chimed in, leaning in with a charming smile. "She told you about us?"

"Yeah, a few times." Normally in the context of excoriating their persistent incompetence and ridiculous posturing, but she had indeed mentioned them. Takeshi and Kentarou, or, as he'd heard them described for their clumsy antics, the Duck Defenders. He wondered now, as he'd wondered then, how on earth they'd settled on the idea of hunting demons as a career.

Still, he acknowledged, Eri was no fool. No matter how loud or frequent her criticisms, she would have kicked them to the curb long ago if they hadn't shown some promise. He'd reserve judgment until he actually saw them in action; but until then, he was willing to accept them, however provisionally, as his colleagues. "… all right," he said slowly, and as he lowered his aching arm the two boys breathed a sigh of relief. "What does Eri want?" Last he'd heard she was on a long patrol out in the East, traveling through the semi-civilized lands marginally claimed by Nihon, and hadn't been able to return in time to assist the war effort.

"Oh, Sensei didn't send us," Takeshi said seriously. "We came from Shirasagi Castle. We brought a message from the High Priestess for you. She specifically told us to find you and give it to you first thing."

"Yeah?" He tried for a nonchalant tone, but despite his best efforts, his heart began to beat faster and his mouth went dry. At least it woke him up. "What does Tomoyo want me to do now?"

Kentarou leaned around his taller companion, his tone and expression serious. "She said," he recited precisely, "that your duty here is done, and you are hereby relieved; and it's time for you to go home."

Kurogane straightened and stared at them in disbelieving shock. "But - the wall is still -"

"We rode a circuit to check it out first thing," Takeshi said, and Kentarou nodded emphatically. "All of the smaller breaks have been repaired already, and rewoven into the main net of wards. This is the only large breach remaining, so any attacks will be funneled into a chokepoint that is easily defended even by a small number of warriors."

Kurogane was impressed by the boy's strategic logic, at least until Kentarou added with a straightforward tone, "That's what the Empress said, anyway."

"And we're here to take over!" Takeshi said ebulliently. "You can leave everything to us. We'll guard the gates, and any oni who try to sneak past us will get a double surprise! One that's named the Shukaido Defenders!"

In a movement so practiced it almost seemed unconscious, the two of them struck a noble, dramatic back-to-back pose. Kurogane stared at them, and wondered whether he dared leave such an important operation in the hands of such green, posturing and untried warriors. "Look," he said. "Maybe I should stay on, if just for a day or two, to show you the lay of the land…"

"Oh no," Takeshi said in a steely voice. "The Tsukuyomi said you should go home, and that's exactly what you're going to do! We wouldn't dare disobey her orders!"

"Besides," Kentarou said with a straight face and sweet tone that was either incredibly disingenuous, or incredibly dumb. "You're getting pretty old you know, for a demon hunter, you're really showing the strain of your age. It's just about time for younger hands to take over the burden, don't you think?"

On the other hand, Kurogane decided, maybe he didn't give a damn if both these idiots got eaten before the night was out. He turned towards his horse, making swift work of reloading the few bags he'd unpacked and pulling the animal away from its peaceful grazing, ruthlessly ignoring its balky complaints. The horse was just as tired from the long patrols as he was, but that was just too bad.

He left the work site after a few words with the head overseer and the eldest miko, letting them know of the Tsukuyomi's new orders and the change of the guard. Then he was on his horde and urging it to a weary trot over the grass-covered roads, north towards Edo. Towards home.

But though his face swung north like a compass needle, it wasn't for his comfortable house in the noble's district in Edo that he kicked his horse a little bit too eagerly into motion. It wasn't for the prospect of hot baths and soft beds, real food and a chance to finally relax, nor even for the company of his student and the presence of his liege lord.

He'd come back when called, he'd done his duty and protected the southern border against oni in their most vulnerable hour. Now that was done, and they could spare his sword once again… he was free to move at will. Maybe even back to Ceres, and back to Fai.

But not yet. No. Not yet. Not while he had one duty left to discharge.

This time, Amaterasu summoned him to the grand receiving chamber inside the palace; just as well, as the streets and courtyards were drumming with heavy rain. He'd come directly to the palace, wanting to get this audience over with as soon as possible. He was a little - not nervous exactly, but wary of what her reaction to him would be, and he didn't like being on the defensive this way.

Never for a moment did Kurogane doubt his own duty, question whether he'd done the right thing as a slayer of demons and protector of his country. But there was bad blood between him and Amaterasu, and she'd been forced to swallow many humiliations of late.

The war with Ceres had been an unqualified disaster for Nihon. What everyone had assumed would be a quick, easy victory and absorption of a new territory into the empire's administrative morass had unexpectedly turned into the most stunning and costly defeat Nihon had experienced in centuries. Not only had they lost thousands of soldiers and officers out of the army, but the Ceres army - spearheaded by the brigade of wizards wielding deadly elemental power - had swept south like an unstoppable tide, crushing defenses and littering the landscape with both soldier and civilian dead. Even after the cease-fire, Ceres still occupied a large chunk of Nihon's northernmost lands and showed no willingness to relinquish them. If they held them, it would be the largest loss of territory the empire had known in generations.

Kurogane knew that half of the Nihon nobles and generals must be enraged with the Empress for starting the war in the first place - even if the conflict had been inevitable, it was Amaterasu's offensive that had been the starting signal. And the other half, consumed with outrage and hatred for their northern enemies, were equally furious that Amaterasu had allowed a cease-fire at all. Despite how obvious it had been that they could not stand against Ceres' unearthly offensive, many noble families of the samurai class considered death to be better than such a defeat.

None of Kurogane's actions in the months leading up to the war had directly affected the outcome - even if he had killed the wizard Flowright on their first meeting, the course of the war would have been the same. But he knew that he was too closely involved with events that had started the war for comfort, and too intimately involved with Ceres not to be tainted by association.

So it was with some trepidation that he handed his swords over to the guards outside the chamber, entered, and abased himself on the wooden boards of the platform. As proper ceremony dictated, he bowed until his forehead touched the floor for several long seconds, then straightened and sat back on his heels, raising his eyes to meet Kendappa's.

She looked tired, was his first observation; the past year seemed to have aged her by five. She was dressed in layers of robes that, while as fine and beautiful as everything the empress must wear, were simple and undecorated, as what might be worn under armor when going into battle. Her hair was tightly braided and pulled around her head in a crown, to provide padding and protection under a helmet. As usual, her younger sister Tomoyo held a platform on her right hand, and she smiled fondly at Kurogane as his eyes passed over hers. The third royal sibling, Touya, was conspicuously missing today.

"Your Imperial Highness, Divine Amaterasu, Highest General, Descendant of the Sun Goddess, this warrior is honored to be permitted into your divine presence." Kurogane recited the standard formalities in as neutral a tone of voice as he could manage, keeping out any trace of either fear or challenge. "I have returned from the southern border, where I was set to guard against the vicious oni, and now humbly await your further commands for me."

"Kurogane, Lord of Suwa, Demon-Queller," Amaterasu greeted him formally in turn. Her own voice seemed as neutral and proper as his own, and he relaxed a little bit; maybe she wouldn't take this audience as an invitation to re-open hostilities. "I greet you on your return from the borderlands of Our empire, and thank you for your efforts on Our behalf."

He looked quickly up to meet her eyes, a little startled. It was a rare thing for the Empress to give thanks to anyone in the samurai class; service was expected, obligated, and not something to be thanked. Nevertheless, it seemed his fears had been groundless, and perhaps he should have known; Amaterasu too was a warrior of the samurai, and she would not forget about obligations and honors owed because of any personal resentment or grudge. His tension eased, and he blew out a long-held fraction of a breath as he sat up straighter. "It was only my duty, Divine Empress," he said.

"A duty well held and carried out is not to be scorned or taken lightly in these dark days," Amaterasu said. "We have heard reports - scattered and confused, true, but nevertheless the veracity seems to be beyond question - that you have met with and destroyed the enemy to the west, who controlled and created the oni of the wilderness and set them to devour our people. Is this not so?"

"Yes, Divine One," he said without hesitation - no doubt she had all the details from Tomoyo. "Sakurazakumori Seishirou, self-styled the Master of Demons, is dead. I myself witnessed his lair go up in flames, and all his evil experiments perished with him. Although some of his creations do seem to have outlived him, and continue to roam the wildlands of the East without his guidance, the Master of Demons is no more."

Amaterasu nodded, seeming unsurprised, and Kurogane shifted into a more comfortable position. His eyes flicked over to the court scribe, Kyle Rondart, and then away; the man seemed not to have even noticed the attention, his head bent over his paper, scribbling industriously away.

"Then for this great service you have done Our empire, which generations of warriors had tried and failed to do before you," Amaterasu went on, "you have Our thanks. You have gone above and beyond the call of duty to our country. Your retainer will be increased, so that you will no longer need to bring trophies from kills to fund your household. You will be remember in our histories as the greatest of demon-slayers, attaining a rank which no one hunter has ever achieved before."

Kurogane appreciated the sentiment - but the rank was largely empty to him, he had little occasion to use money, and there were more important considerations. "I am honored, Divine Empress, and humbled by your graciousness," he said, then took a breath. "But the credit is not mine alone. I was not alone when I confronted and defeated the Master of Demons, and alone I could never have overcome him. I was aided by a Wizard of Ceres - Fai Flowright, the First Senior Wizard to King Ashura. Whatever you put in your histories, make sure you have that part right - that without his bravery and heroic self-sacrifice along with mine, Nihon would never have been freed of this threat."

There was a stirring and muttering among the audience at this, resentment flowing in a dark current at the mention of those names; Kurogane did not turn his head, keeping his gaze steadily on Amaterasu's. They could not dance around the subject forever; however hateful or humiliating a reminder of the war with Ceres would be for her, she could not ignore Kurogane's lingering connection with Fai.

She frowned, the expression deepening the lines of weariness etched around her eyes, and for a moment he feared she would strike out in anger. But then abruptly she leaned back against her throne, the tension going out of her shoulders. "Understood," she said. "His name will not be excluded from our records, either. But this… Flowright wizard is not a warrior of Nihon, and you are. So what honors We can bestow must fall upon your head, and not his."

Kurogane broke the gaze, shrugging a little bit; the honors weren't the main object, after all. "What are your orders for me now, Empress?" Kurogane asked her, getting right to the point.

"For the moment, we have none," Amaterasu replied, sharing a glance with her sister, who nodded confirmation. "Tomorrow, return to the castle to report to the High Priestess your eyewitness account of all that has transpired since last fall. But you have travelled far, so rest for tonight before anything else. Go home, Demon-Queller. Rest for a while, recover from your ordeal on Our behalf. We will call upon you again if We have need for you."

He nodded, then bowed once more, the motion more fluid and reverent than it had been in years; stood, and retraced his steps. His movements became more purposeful as he passed into the outer corridors. In spite of Amaterasu's words, he still had one duty to discharge - one duty self-assigned.

He'd not yet told anyone what he'd learned in Seishirou's dungeon - about the identity of the mole, the traitor who'd sold out Nihon to the demons. At first there had been no chance; Fai's mental contact with Tomoyo had been too brief to pass on details, and he hadn't been able to re-establish it. Afterwards, it had been something that he dared not entrust to a messenger. He didn't know any of the couriers that came and went from the southern battleground personally; who knew whether the traitor was working alone, or how far the corruption had spread into the court government?

But even now that he was returning to Shirasaki, even when he came face-to-face with Tomoyo herself, he kept silent. He didn't like it - the thought of an enemy of Nihon sitting so close to Tomoyo every day, a snake in the heart of the most sacred garden… but that was exactly why he dare not move too soon. After all, he was only a minor landless noble, not well connected in the Imperial Court and frequently out of favor with the Empress. Kyle Rondart was not himself of a noble family, but as a high-ranked official of the Nihon government, he had considerable power. Taking him out would require more than suspicion; it would require proof, and Kurogane had none.

Right now, he had only Seishirou's word - indeed, only his insinuation - that the traitor was Kyle Rondart. He thought it must be true, it made sense if it were true, and yet Seishirou had been a consummate twister of words. He'd warned Fai blindly believing in his words; now he had to take his own advice to heart. The last thing he wanted was to make a premature move. Right now, there was no way for Kyle Rondart to know that he knew. If he moved too fast, accused him out of hand, then all he had to do was deny it; and it would be difficult if not impossible for Kurogane to force the issue. Then that would leave Rondart, still in power, spooked and potentially making a desperate move on the Tsukuyomi, or even the Empress herself.

As it was, Rondart himself was not an immediate danger; now that the Master of Demons was dead, he was a sleeper with no one to report to, a feed to a dead end. So Kurogane went home; he washed his clothes and bathed and ate a good meal, and slept on clean sheets with clean skin for the first time in months.

The next day he returned to the palace, but this time, instead of requesting to gain audience to the Court, he stole off into the side buildings; the attached dormitories which housed some of the employees whose status did not rate a house to themselves in the castle district. His presence attracted curious looks by some of the sentries, but no challenges; he had the right to visit whomever he wished.

When he approached the chamber he was seeking, however, he began to move more cautiously, keeping to the shadows and holding himself absolutely still as the sentries made their rounds. Stealth in the crowded, artificial environment of the city was not the same as hunting monsters in the wild, but sneaking was sneaking, and he would have been disappointed in his hunting skills if he couldn't hide from a few routine-lazied guards.

At last he reached the apartment he'd been looking for - Kyle Rondart's living quarters. He let himself in cautiously, quietly; he didn't think the court scribe lived with anyone else, but he wasn't up on castle gossip. The small chamber was empty and quiet, neat and cool; the rushes swept, the futons folded and put away. The clutter of ink and papers on the small wooden writing desk was the only immediate evidence of habitation.

Kurogane didn't know what he'd come here expecting to find, but almost as soon as he stepped inside the chamber door he felt it; the sensation of dark magic, the appalling stench of demons. Fai had told him, during their brief magic lessons, that what he perceived as the rotting smell of demons was only partly a physical odor - much of it was just his mind's way of interpreting the corrupt demon magic that he sensed, the psychic stink that clung to all things distorted by Seishirou's magic.

He felt the hair begin to stand up on the back of his neck, felt his lips draw back from his teeth in a grimace of disgust, and wondered how in the hell he had never smelled it on the man before. He must have some way of preventing the tell-tale traces from being visible outside of this room; or else the Tsukuyomi, if no one else, would have spotted him long before.

More sure than ever now of his prey, Kurogane prowled the room, pacing uncertainly from corner to corner and poking among the furnishings. If he had to, he could go to Tomoyo with nothing but this; if she came and felt what he felt, perhaps that would be enough to condemn him. But he wanted more than ambivalent feelings and elusive sensations; he wanted proof.

The demon smell seemed to be thickest in the corner, centering on a wooden box dark with lacquer and inlaid decorations. There was a lock on it; he forced it off with sheer strength and raised the lid. He moved aside a dark silk kimono that covered the top layer, then sat back on his heels, staring at the interior of the chest.

It took him a few moments for his eyes to understand what he was seeing; and though his skin crawled at the loathsome feel of dark magic on his hands, he reached into the trunk and touched it, just to be sure.


So much for doubt.

He strode back towards the formal receiving chambers with one hand hidden within the wide sleeve of his kimono and the other clenched around his sword hilt. The guards on the door looked up at his approach, and tried to stop him; "Lord Kurogane, the council is in session, you may not enter the chamber armed - wait!"

He shrugged past them and blew through the doors. Commotion rose up behind him, and he saw from the corner of his vision as people rose to their feet or started forward from their posts near the wall. None of that mattered to him; his field of vision had narrowed down to just one dark figure poised at the corner of the dais, pen and tablet in hand.

Kyle Rondart raised his head to look at him as if in slow motion, eyes widening as a litany of emotions chased themselves across his face; shock, disbelief, outrage, chagrin, and then fear. The pen fell out of his hand, splattering black ink everywhere over the white page, wooden desk and the boards of the floor. He reached into his sleeve slowly - oh so slowly to Kurogane's battle-heightened senses, and he was still too close to Tomoyo.

Kurogane's sword left his sheath as he sprang forward across the last distance, and the shouts of alarm and recrimination rose to a crescendo as he crossed the forbidden distance, lunging towards the royal siblings with bared steel. But he did not turn aside from his resolve, and as the court scribe finally came to his feet - his hand clenched around a black hilt just beginning to emerge from its sleeve - the bright steel blade of Kurogane's sword flew up and whipped around at face level.

A burst of soundless light, every color and yet no color, momentarily blinded everyone in the chamber; several people cried out, but only Kyle Rondart screamed in agony, knocking the wooden desk from its perch as he stumbled forward and fell to his knees. A black blade, black-handled, clattered to the floorboards as he brought both hands up to clutch at his eyes; blood began to leak from between his fingers.

For a moment, the receiving chamber was silent. Kurogane straightened slowly up, surveying the room. The nobles and officials, Tomoyo and Kendappa; they all sat stunned, frozen in place by the sudden burst of action; and the guards hovered, momentarily unsure who they were supposed to be attacking. In that moment of silence, before anyone could quite recover, Kurogane pulled the object out of his sleeve and tossed it to the floor among the scattered shards of glass.

It looked like a doll, a small porcelain replica like a girl of six would play with, dressed in a tiny kimono and crowned with smooth black hair. But this was no child's plaything; the reek of foul magic that poured from it was nauseating, overwhelming. Kurogane had barely been able to stand taking it from its place and stashing it in his sleeve, and he still shuddered at the feel of the thing on his skin.

It was interesting to see who in the chamber blanched and recoiled from the foul presence that poured out from the accursed item. Tomoyo did, of course; Souma and several of Tomoyo's other bodyguards did also. Amaterasu did, surprisingly enough; and a scattered handful of other minor nobles or chamber guards. The majority of people, however, just looked confused.

"We always knew that the Tsukuyomi could not clearly see the evil that resided to the west," Kurogane said, his voice carrying strongly across the chamber. "But we never knew why. It would take a powerful magic to block sight as strong as hers, a tremendous effort to maintain it over time. Or else - not a strong magic from far away, but an intimate one, much closer to home. That's Tomoyo's hair on that doll over there, I'd know it anywhere, and the cloth is cut from Tomoyo's robes. How did you get that lock of hair, traitor? How long have you been stalking her, lurking and waiting for a chance to strike out?"

A noise halfway between a gasp and a sob came from behind Rondart's clutching hands. Kurogane kept his eyes trained on the traitor, alert to the slightest warning of motion; out of the corner of his eyes he saw Amaterasu rise from her throne and step forward. "Kurogane, what is the meaning of this?" she said, and despite her attempts to sound stern, he heard a quaver of uncertainty in his voice.

"This piece of scum -" Kurogane did not take his eyes off Kyle, but he moved his toe to scrape through the magical paraphernalia on the floor. " - sold himself to the Master of Demons years ago, Your Majesty. It has been through his eyes that the evil of the West spied on our court, watched our every move, and knew when to strike us in our most vulnerable moment.

"I found that charm in a trunk in his chambers, along with enough gold to buy a manor house; all of it wrapped in filthy demon magic strong enough to choke a horse. This knife -" he flicked it away with his sword, sent it spinning across the wood with a scrape. He did not care to touch it with any part of his body, not having seen the oil-black sheen of its blade; not remembering what he'd seen a very similar blade do in Seishirou's hands. "I've seen its like before, in the hands of the Master of Demons. I don't know magic like you do, Tsukuyomi -" he thought it was best to keep that statement vague, " - but I think you'll find, if you examine the broken pieces of glass, the enchantment through which he spied on us."

He rocked forward on his toes, boring his gaze ever more intently on the former court scribe of Nihon. Slowly, the man lifted his head from his hands, blood dropping down his cheeks from where the broken glass shards had cut into the skin of his face and eyelids; his black eyes were fixed on Kurogane, shining with outrage and terror. "How did you -" he croaked out.

"At first I thought I would walk in here and cut off your miserable head," Kurogane snarled, pitching his voice low enough to be heard only by him. "Then I thought that I would cut out your traitorous eyes, instead. Your master was fond of eyes, wasn't he? Quite the voyeur. The only reason I didn't was because I know you'll be crucified like the miserable spy you are, and I wanted you to see it coming."

Rondart moaned again, and dropped his head forward, trying vainly to staunch the bleeding with his bare fingers. Now the guards were coming forward, at last looking at the real culprit; only once Rondart was surrounded and apprehended did Kurogane dare to relax. That duty was discharged, at last.

As the guards took Rondart out, Tomoyo called Kurogane to speak with her privately in a side chamber. He went willingly, and when in the past he might have paced or gestured energetically as he made his report, now he was content to sit on the edge of the platform with his elbows resting on his knees and his head hanging down. Tomoyo's hand rested lightly on the back of his shoulder; one of the only people he would allow to approach him in such a vulnerable position.

"This is the first time we have spoken face to face in some time," Tomoyo's voice said softly in his head. "Not since you departed alone, to seek the danger in the west. I had not had a chance to say so before, but I am so glad that you survived and returned to me, Kurogane. So very glad."

"Thank you, Tomoyo-hime," Kurogane said quietly. "Although what I told your sister was true. I wouldn't have been able to do it without that wizard."

"Yes. I was glad to get to speak with him as well, however briefly," Tomoyo said. "Although I wish that he could have returned with you."

Kurogane did not speak, but he knew Tomoyo could not help but sense the silent agreement, the yearning and stinging regret that came with those words.

"We came very close to destruction; without his timely warning, all would have been lost," Tomoyo continued after a minute. "And he also warned me that we were being watched from within, that the Master of Demons was observing our every move. I felt your spirit there as well, Kurogane. Did you know… even then? That Rondart was the traitor?"

Kurogane shifted uncomfortably. "I thought he might be," he said. "It was something Seishirou said - something I saw in his eyes."

"And yet you did not think to say anything to me?" Her 'voice' began to take on a stern quality.

"I had no proof," Kurogane protested. "That man was a twister of words - it would have been just as likely for him to try to trick me into accusing an innocent man. And there was no chance to take a message to you. I didn't know how many allies Rondart had in the court - might still have. I had to get close enough to find evidence - to confront him straight out. What if he'd panicked, and gone after you or Kendappa with that knife?"

Tomoyo glared in annoyance. "You should have told me before," she admonished him. "Do you think that I am a child still, naïve to the ways of court politics and without resources? I could have sought evidence, searched for corruption or conspiracy in my own ways. You should have told me this much earlier."

Kurogane grunted, accepting the rebuke. "My apologies, Hime," he said. It was a formality; she knew her stubborn servant well, and knew that he could not truly regret actions which he thought were right. Tomoyo sighed.

"You have been on your own for too long, Kurogane, taking all responsibilities for everything unto yourself and acting without regard for the will of others."

"I've only found one other that could keep up with me," Kurogane said bitterly, "and he had his own responsibilities to discharge. Tomoyo… I came home because you needed me, because I had duties here. Now you say those duties are done. Is there… have you heard… has there been any word from Ceres?"

The question came out tinged with more anguish and desperation than he would have liked, and for a long moment it hung in the air. Tomoyo sighed again, but she did not remove her hand from his shoulder, so he waited in desperate hope.

"The situation has been… difficult," she said slowly. "Since the last of their wizards returned to their own country, there has been little communication. The cease-fire which Touya and I signed with the wizard Yukito has held, so far; we know that King Ashura also confirmed his signature on it. They refuse to communicate over magical channels; all news has come and gone through horse courier, so the negotiations go slowly. My sister suspects, as do I, that they are deliberately using the slowness of the communications as a delaying tactic while the internal factions fight it out among themselves.

"From unofficial sources… we hear little more. Yukito, with whom I did speak at length, has apparently been demoted. There is some conflict, some schism within the court itself. The northern border is sealed; no one of our country is allowed in, and few of their people come out. Ceres refuses to relinquish any of the conquered provinces, and with that as the sticking point, we have not yet been able to settle on any more permanent peace treaty."

Kurogane let his breath out slowly. He was not going to ask, he was not.

But he didn't need to. Tomoyo's soft 'voice' took on an even more gentle quality. "There has been no word from - or of - the wizard Flowright."

Kurogane's shoulders hunched. That wasn't the news he wanted to hear. He could think of no good reason why Fai would not even send word to Kurogane that he was still alive and doing well - but he could think of several bad ones. All of which were equally unknown, frustrating possibilities, because there was nothing he could do about it either way.

Tomoyo continued. "All the same, I will send notice to Ruval that you have returned to the castle. And if there is any word, I will tell you immediately. This I promise."

He was here, he was ready. He had to wait for Fai to call for him, and he had to rely on Tomoyo to let him go. "Thank you, Tomoyo," he said quietly, and placed his large hand over hers on his shoulder; marveling, as he always did, at the power that was held in such soft, tiny hands.

"And now," Tomoyo continued, her manner becoming brisker as she straightened up in her throne; "This is the first chance we've had to talk face-to-face in far too long. I know some things, but there are many others I have yet to hear. I promise that your words need go no further than this room. Tell me of your journey, and your battle with the Master of Demons. Tell me everything that happened since you last left home. Tell me of… this Wizard of Ceres."

~to be continued...