The dining hall was unlike any other room in the palace; although the ceilings were high, the arches were smooth and clean; no beams cut across them, and no frescoes coloured them. The doors were rectangular, not peaked, and were of simple wood. Thus had Kaoru described the hall of her home; Kenshin had not managed to capture the longing her voice had given to detail, but was moderately pleased with the rest.
He looked up as Kaoru and Tetsuma entered. He smiled almost maliciously at her as his eyes flickered over the high priest, and she rolled her eyes in response. Tetsuma missed none of this, and his face grew somewhat more red, but he held his peace; it was one of the reasons he had become high priest, and he never forgot it.
"It pleases me to see that you could be spared from your duties in order to join me." Kenshin's voice indicated no such pleasure.
The high priest gave a low bow.
"Your pardon, Lord. I was detained."
Rising, Tetsuma shrugged and took a seat. "It is a minor problem, Lord, unworthy of your time or attention."
"Most problems with the Church are," the First agreed, "but few cause you to be late."
Tetsuma nodded again, ill at ease. "Yes, Lord. But it is not a problem with the Church precisely; rather, with the Swords. Gerdonel and Lampret are struggling for position, and the division between their associated units is causing . . . unrest."
"I see. But surely both are under the command of—let me think—"
"Karver and Morden, Lord." Tetsuma inserted the names, well aware that his Lord knew who they were.
"Perhaps I shall have to speak with them."
The black robes he wore highlighted the sudden white of Tetsuma's long face. "Lord, you have trusted me with the keeping of the Church; I have already spoken to both men, and at length. I assure you that they will cause you no trouble."
"I see." With those two words of dismissal, Kenshin turned to regard Kaoru. Tetsuma let himself relax slightly. Although he would never admit it, there were times when the presence of the Noranen was a boon, and this was one of the few. He remembered clearly the events that had occurred a year past—he had narrowly avoided being caught up in the uprising of the Church's upper hierarchy. The purge that had followed had left numbers sparse, and Tetsuma wished strongly to avoid any further pruning.
"Lady," Kenshin was saying, "you cannot tell me that after the events of the afternoon, you—"
"I was tired, Kenshin. I'm sorry I'm late, I just didn't hear—"
"So you have said." He waved an arm. "But please, do not let me keep you standing if you feel so. Take your place." He smiled softly, then clapped his hands twice.
Kaoru had time to find her seat before the serving slaves entered the dining room.
They began to serve her first, and she moved slightly to give them more room. The young boy who held the first tray smiled shyly at her. She returned his smile, but said nothing, knowing how intensely Kenshin disliked it.
They ate in silence. Kaoru was aware, as always, of her Lord's gaze and met it firmly, almost warmly—even though Tetsuma also watched.
Master, he thought, appetite lost, can you not see how she weakens you? His fork skidded across his plate, and he corrected his shaking hand with some chagrin. True the child looked pretty today with her silky raven hair loose and swept to one side and a crimson dress that hugged her slim figure deliciously. The First's fiery eyes scarcely left her but for Tetsuma those things did not matter.
Because he avoided girl's eyes, he missed the change in them. Not so Kenshin, who paused in midsentence when her head moved upward as if pulled. "Lady?"
Her eyes grew unfocused as they pondered something—perhaps some memory—beyond the table. For a moment he thought the clarity of her blue eyes grew opaque. Her lips clamped shut, and the fingers that held cutlery let them drop noisily to table and floor.
From somewhere, the smell of a familiar breeze touched Kaoru, and she knew that this was the moment. Her blood rushed outward to cheek and fingertip, called by the force of kinship. No. Not now! But it was now, more immediate than she could have foreseen.
She heard his voice as if by habit, but it was distant and distorted when it reached her ears. She swung around to gaze at him—slowly, so slowly twisting the white of her neck, as if the movement itself could break her.
And she saw him more clearly and more truly than normal sight permitted. Shrouded in shadow, the velvet folds of darkness wreathing around him, his golden eyes glowing, he sat at the head of the table. She could not see his expression clearly; but the concern had been clear in his voice. His mouth began to move, but the words his lips formed were lost to time—and to the sight of his teeth, the other gleaming light that remained within him. She saw them clearly and wondered, almost ludicrously, how it was that they had never drawn blood when she had kissed lips.
Turning again, this time quickly and effortlessly, she saw the glimmer in the air, the beauty that danced in little sparks through the hall. But this time it was larger, somehow complete in its pattern. She knew that Sagara would appear—but not alone, not this time.
She knew that God's power was dimmed and the Gifting invoked. Everything seemed to happen so slowly; she thought that Kenshin would notice, by now, the approach of his doom. But he did not; his face was still turned toward her among the shadows, although she could only catch it from the corner of her eye.
Blood-spell. She knew it for truth; even the priest –Tetsuma- moved slowly and sluggishly in her sight. Only Sagara and those of Noria would have the speed necessary to do what they had come to do.
And I, she thought bitterly, am of Noria. The blood chooses its course.
But as she thought it, she knew it to be wrong. The choice, damned and damnable, was still her own. The blood flowed faster through her veins. She stood, turning to her Lord, and caught the start of an expression of astonishment curve around his lips.
Nightwalker. She took a step forward, then another, knowing that he could not yet react to it. She read his face, harshly and honestly; reviewed her life in Darthia ruthlessly. All of the details crept back, all of the lost lives, the people she had not been permitted to save, and the screams that had kept her awake for her first few weeks in the palace—screams that no longer sounded here.
Servant of Yamidaria. The name held venom, a poison that was only now being flushed away by the touch, by the grace, of Sagara of Noria.
Breathing in once, deeply, she caught the taste of the orvas flowers along her tongue, washing away the stain of the city and the curse of the empire. She could almost see the her village, standing in storm and sunshine as it had always stood, weathering the passage of season and human kingdom alike.
She let the feeling overwhelm her, and a laugh broke through her clamped jaw; a laughter that told her, and any who would hear it, that she was truly alive and still very much Kaoru of her line.
Wheeling, arms outstretched, she caught the flicker of hope that danced across the face of Okita. And his face was all light, shining in the circle of Sagara's power; dear to her, more so than any other, because it was a light that grew with her since the death of her father. She could see, beneath his glow, the tattered rags that passed as slave garments and, letting her sight dance across the others—three—could see a similar garb.
Only Sagara, standing in their center, looked as he had always looked; clothed all in white, the youthful glint of skin and dark hair a song of his birth at the dawn of time. He stepped forward quickly, his brow creasing.
"Kaoru, well met."
She bowed to him then, sweeping the crimson of her skirt to one side.
He left the Noranen behind, covering the distance from the corner of the room to the table almost too quickly for Kaoru to perceive.
Okita and Shura also broke, running visibly toward the high priest. The others, Carla and Rein, turned their backs upon her, to face the doors of the room. They were nervous, she could see it—and feel it at the base of her tingling spine.
Hurry, she thought, turning again for sight of Sagara.
Sagara stood in front of Kenshin.
She could see his arms, moving slowly against the grip of time, and the golden flash of his eyes. His mouth struggled with something—some word, some spell of power—as the seat fell away from beneath him, resisting the pull of gravity and losing to it inch by inch.
His eyes unexpectedly found hers, and even though his movement was slowed in her vision, she saw the quick fan of shock spread and ripple outward across his face—knew that it would cost him time he didn't have as he evaluated the situation.
Sagara's arms crossed his chest on their tangled upward sweep and a beam of light broke forth from him. His brow creased slightly as the white of it pierced the red cleanly and absolutely.
Kaoru heard the beginning of a scream take shape from the throat of her captor, her lover..her husband. It was cut short before it could fully blossom, but that—that was his way. No pain in the face of the enemy, even if that pain gave no satisfaction. She understood it well.
Her hands curled into little fists as he fell—again slowly, agonizingly so—on one knee. The red around him still pulsed frantically, but it was weakening. Sagara was doing his work, and well.
She felt a sharp pain and looked down to her hands. Little drops of blood lingered on her fingernails. She looked away again, to see Okita, arms raised, begin his attack upon the Tetsuma.
I should leave.
She thought it, senselessly, as her legs locked her in place. So she waited, not knowing what it was that she waited for until it came, drawn out, covering more of her than either she or her Lord could have expected.
He called her name.
He called her name just once, into the odd silence of the battle zone. But once was enough.
And she turned to him again, caught his eyes, and held them as if to provide an anchor for him before she realized fully what she was doing. She saw him—as she had seen him daily, as she had seen him this afternoon—her chosen, her bond-mate, nightwalker, Servant, and darkling. She felt the coolness that lingered over cheek and brow in the morning, felt the concern that had been his first thought when Sagara and the warriors of Noria were launching their assault.
It hurt her, more than walking through red-fire, for it was a darker and deeper pain.
But she was already running the short distance between herself and Sagara—arms outstretched as if to embrace him. There was no time for tears, no leisure for anything but automatic action, as her hands gripped Sagara's tightly, wrenching them into a direction that would, for a second, free Kenshin.
Nor was she prepared for Sagara's reaction. His hands shuddered once, twice in her grip, but he made no move to pull free.
It was the first time he had spoken aloud to her, and she knew what it meant; he was tired, his power was failing. Yes, she thought uneasily, that's what it must be.
Then he gently, but firmly disengaged her hand. "It is over. Rest."
She turned then, wildly, to see Kenshin standing, glowing brightly with the ugliest of light haloing his body.
"This the Lady Kamiya saw." Bending, Sagara kissed her forehead. "And I am ready. Stand aside, little one."
"No." She turned and met Kenshin's eyes. "Please, please no."
"Kaoru." He bowed once, no hint of his torment marring the gesture. "Thank you, Lady. Now we will meet on equal ground."
Sagara bowed, also. "Not equal, First of Yamidaria. But come, I have done what I can to defy the Lady Kamiya's fate; I will defy it no longer." The saddest of smiles touched his lips, and he turned to look at Kaoru.
Tetsuma's loud cry filled the hall, robbing Sagara's last words of sound. But Kaoru saw his lips move, saw a tremor of something shudder through his eyes. And when he turned to face his enemy, he was Servant of Noria once more, with all the majesty, and all the power.
Kenshin laughed once. "You were a fool to come here; this is the seat of my strength."
"I was a fool, yes," Sagara replied, mildly. He raised his arms high, and the light that flooded the room blinded Kaoru.
She cried out, "Kenshin! Don't!" knowing that she would hear nothing in return. Nothing? She choked as the sound of wood striking wall rang through the room, followed by the scrape of metal against metal, and the loud, dissonant clang of armour. She heard the scuffling of feet and bodies as she tried to clear her eyes.
"Kaoru, why? why?" The agonized question was followed by a grunt and a silence punctuated by heaving breath.
When her eyes cleared, she was still in the hall.
She could not face him.
"Lady." His arm touched her shoulders, drawing her close. "Thank you."
Avoiding his eyes, she turned to see the still form of Sagara upon the floor. Dodging Kenshin, she darted toward it and knelt.
His hand, ivory and pale, was motionless in hers, limp, all of the life he had carried into the hall vanquished.
Sagara, please—understand me.
He had; she knew it. She drew the body closer, wondering why it still existed in the mortal realm.
Bright Lord, God, forgive me. I am Kaoru of Noria no longer. And she wept, salt tears warming the chill of her face. Beyond, the voice of her Lord broke through.
"Captain, take them to the north wing. Confine them until I—"
She stood, leaving Sagara on the floor. "Kenshin."
He turned to her as the guards began to carry out his orders, and beyond his back she could see that Rein was bleeding profusely. The other three were unscathed—physically. She tried to capture Okita's gaze and failed; he turned his face away without speaking another word.
"Please, Kenshin, please let them go."
He grew remote, his eyes golden in a striking contrast to his crimson hair. "They are my enemies, Lady. There is an understanding in this. They have failed; they know the price."
"They wouldn't have failed if I had not—not—" betrayed them. But the enormity of the words stuck in her throat, refusing her the relief of releasing them. "Please, Lord. I saved your life. Please grant me this one thing. I won't ask for anything else."
He caught her trembling chin in his fingers. "Kaoru, I—"
"You'd be dead if I hadn't interfered!"
"I am not alive now."
Dropping to her knees, she caught the hand beneath her chin and grasped it so tightly that the blood ran out of her fingers. Bowing her head, she said, "First Servant of—of Yamidaria. I ask you, beg you if I must, for their lives. Please."
He studied her for a while as the hall emptied, saw the tears upon her cheeks, etching themselves into her countenance as if they were acid. At length he knelt in front of her, pulling her into his arms.
"Kaoru, Kaoru, I understand." He kissed the top of her head. "You ask me to lessen the price you have paid tonight." His hands ran through her hair, changing shape and colour as they did so, until he stood before her, once again Lord of Darhtia—as close to human as a Servant could become. "Lady, why did you choose as you did?"
She shook her head, wordless, and he let the question fade, knowing the answer, marvelling at it.
"I will not earn your hatred this night, Kaoru. Rise. Return to your rooms. The Noranen are free to go; they have lost the strongest of their number; they have lost the Second of Noria."
She trembled, but this time brought her face up. Tears still fell, and her face was no less troubled, but he could see a glimmer of light in her eyes.
Weakly, her arms came up and around him.
"Thank you. Thank you, Kenshin."
She tried to stand, and he caught her as her knees gave.
"It is I who should thank you, Kaoru. Come." He lifted her. "I will take you to your rooms; you may rest there. In the morning, all shall be as it was."
He carried her out of the hall, cradling her gently as she curled against his chest. Together they made their way to the north wing of the palace and from there to Kaoru's rooms.
Kaoru hugged him tightly; her breath came shallowly and evenly as the First Servant traversed the final hallway that she'd covered so carefully with her tapestries. He had seen them many times and had no need to pause to re-examine detail; it was all in his memory, and with a thought he could summon it up. Given a night he could sit in his chambers, counting each individual thread and each careless flaw.
Nonetheless he stopped at the end, to gaze fully at the loom-drawn Lady Kamiya.
Lady. He did not bow, but would have had he not carried Kaoru. You hid her from me eighteen years ago, at the cost of your life. Why? Had you not, I would have killed her...and I would have died today.
I do not know if you had foreseen this and sent the Noranen, or the Second of Noria, but I am grateful for both. I shall use them well. He tightened his grip on Kaoru, a wordless statement.
I shall remember your gift to me.
He nodded once, crisply, and then carried Kaoru to her bedroom. She stirred once, and he cradled her until she was again still. Then he pushed her covers back and laid her carefully in her bed, arranging the pillows beneath the spread of her raven hair.
His lips brushed her forehead once.
Then he raised his arms, passing them three times over her still form. His eyes glinted red in the darkened room.
Sleep, Kaoru. Sleep until dawn. He spoke a few words, each one carefully chosen to reverberate across her. It is done.
Bending down, he kissed her again, lightly on either eyelid. Then he stood and walked briskly out of the room, closing and locking her door behind him.
He walked quickly down to Kadrin's quarters and rapped on the door. Kadrin emerged, paling slightly at the sight of his Lord; it was rare for him to make a personal appearance.
"Lord." He bowed, dropping to his knees.
"The lady sleeps. She has had a troubled evening. Post two of the slaves near her quarters and make sure that she is not disturbed under any circumstance.
"And send someone for the high priest. Tell him he is to meet me in my chambers immediately."
Kenshin held the man's eyes for a minute, then nodded curtly. Kadrin rose from the floor and scrambled awkwardly—but quickly—down the long hall. The First Servant was already gone.
Saito's words echoed in his memory. "You might choose to bind her to you."
Tetsuma opened the door to his master's chambers and walked quickly in.
"You are here."
"Master." Tetsuma gave a low bow.
"I require your assistance for the evening." He rose, almost impatiently. "We must move quickly; the work will be long and it cannot, under any circumstance, outlast the darkness."
Tetsuma nodded, rising.
Kenshin was already at the door. "Quickly, High Priest." He had no need to make a threat; Tetsuma understood his position too well.
"Where do we go, master?"
"To my temple."
A look of surprise, followed by satisfaction, swept across the high priest's face. "Will we need a congregation?"
Tetsuma shrugged. Not a full ceremony then—but it didn't matter. The First Servant, for the first time in over three years, was willing to perform blood rites.
"Is there anything that you require?"
"And the Noranen. Bring also the body of the Second of Noria. Both are necessary."
A slow smile spread across Tetsuma's face.
"Immediately, master." He bowed again, genuinely. "I shall meet you at the temple with the things you have requested."
Kenshin nodded absently.
You trusted me, Kaoru. And why should you not? In the past four years I have never broken my word to you.
He felt uneasy, and buried the feeling beneath a sharp and sweet elation.
Just this once, Kaoru, I must do so. Then you, too, will be free of the dictates of time. As I am.
I will never lose you to so impersonal an enemy.
You will be an immortal.
He opened the door and began his journey to the temple. And his eyes were deep and golden, a dark amber that showed no light, nor allowed any to pass.
Kenshin looked about his small personal temple, noting the marks that the passage of time had left upon it. Here, a cobweb, hiding perhaps a spider or two, there, dust in an even, undisturbed blanket upon the unused altar. He felt momentarily annoyed at the sight; he would have to find the time to make sure that the temple was clean. Not that it would take long, but the darkness of evening was a precious commodity.
With a wide, deliberate gesture and a few curt words, he let his displeasure take form. A strong wind swept through the room, tearing away cobweb and dust alike. Small spiders scurried away from the ruins of their daily labour, and he let them pass.
He walked to the altar, tracing a familiar path easily and cleanly. The stone was cool to the touch, even to his, and black with the faintest threads of gray running through it. It was an elaborate monument, the more so for its plain, unadorned elegance. He had always liked it, although the labour had not been his; Saito had constructed it almost whimsically during one of his few visits to the mortal plane.
His arms swung across the length of the stone, inches above the surface. His eyes and the altar glowed red at the same time, and then the colour faded into natural black.
I am ready.
As if hearing his thoughts, two men walked through the door. By their uniforms, it was clear they were Swords of the Church, but not strong enough in blood to aspire to the priesthood. Between them they carried a limp, pale body—Sagara's.
"Put it on the altar. The left side."
The man who had spoken nodded sharply, with only a slight trace of fear—it was not, after all, his blood that would grace the altar this night. Still, it always paid to be careful when dealing with the First Servant of God.
They deposited the body clumsily on the stone altar, but before they could straighten it out, their Lord waved them away.
"That will be all. You may go now."
Nodding, the Swords left.
Kenshin went to the body and began to unfurl it almost gently.
Second of the Enemy, know that your essence will be used to aid one of Noria.
I know it.
Ah. He was aware; in some way still attached to the plane. If there is pain—
First of Yamidaria, do what you must. The Lady Kamiya herself has foreseen what has come to pass. If she had seen more clearly, you would not triumph in so bitter a fashion for either of us.
Kenshin stood back for a moment, unsettled by the vague hint of pity that underlay his enemy's thoughts. For a moment he feared a trap, but he shunted that fear aside; trap or no, this opportunity itself could not be wasted.
The noise of approaching guards came down the halls again, and with them a familiar footstep.
Tetsuma. Good. We must begin soon.
The doors swung open, and Tetsuma walked into the room, step crisp and formal, followed by seven Swords—each wearing the high priest's insignia—and their four captives. Three of them walked with a quiet, desperate dignity; the fourth was dragged, half-conscious, along the floor.
Tetsuma gave a low bow and, kneeling, handed the First Servant a long, thin, ebony box.
Kenshin accepted the offering and quickly set the box down, passing hands over it before flipping the hinged lid open. He clasped the dagger firmly in his left hand and lifted it out of the box.
"The injured one."
Two of the Swords separated from the main group, dragging the half-conscious man to the altar.
"Release him." He nodded as the men did so, and the Noranen –one of Kaoru's year-mates- slumped to the floor. "Stand aside."
He began to chant, his form outlined by a pulsating red that all in the room could clearly see. The body began to rise awkwardly, a tangled mess of arms and legs. It floated higher and higher until it hung, suspended by the ankles, over the still form of Sagara.
Kenshin walked forward, dagger ready, his voice never ceasing its odd litany. With a quick, precise movement, he drew the dagger shallowly across the captive Servant's chest. Then, without halting the knife's motion, he brought it up in an arc that ended Rein's life. It was quick, clean—and every instinct within the First Servant cried out against the fact that it was painless. But he had not come this far by being slave to instinct.
As the blood drained from Rein's throat, he turned again, and the chanting ceased. Almost as an afterthought, the corpse drifted away from the altar, coming to rest in a heap before it.
Kenshin raised one hand, levelling it at one of the Noranen, the youngest by human reckoning.
She hesitated, and the Swords fell behind her immediately, cutting her off from her companions. She turned once, caught a pair of friendly, resigned eyes, and nodded, all wordless.
As she approached the altar, her feet rose until she was gliding on air. Then slowly, delicately, she was rotated until her hair brushed across the blood on Sagara's chest, becoming matted and dark at the ends.
The First Servant reiterated his guttural chant, gripping the knife firmly as he again approached Sagara. Another shallow cut, and the knife swung upward—and hesitated for just an instant at the look in the girl's eyes. Blue eyes, like Kaoru's, shone cold and clear with hatred and fear. He brought the knife back almost defensively and sighed. Reaching out, he touched the tip of her chin, and she moved her face away.
"Do not be afraid. You have met your enemy on the field, bravely and strongly. There will be no pain." He saw the tears begin to form in her eyes and her lips begin to tremble. But she was a Noranen, he was Servant to the Dark Lord. He lifted the knife, knowing his hands trembled, and began to chant anew.
Her blood flowed downward, masking her face in a red, ugly sheen. He waited, hearing the sound of it as it struck Sagara's chest. And when it was over, her body, too, came to rest before the altar, but it was deposited almost gently.
Kenshin passed his hands before his face, trying to erase the image that remained; the ghost of blue eyes in the air. He tried to judge the time, not knowing how much of the darkness had elapsed. He felt unaccountably weary.
It is the magic, he thought, knowing it to be a lie. He turned once again.
Tetsuma nodded to the Swords, and they selected the second woman. She was older; a scar seamed her face, and the light in her eyes was firm and solid. They brought her forward. Unlike the girl, this Noranen attempted her warding spells. They failed; she had known they would, but it was not her way to walk resigned into death. She was brought to the altar, and held the same way that her two comrades had been held.
"I do not know," she said, through gritted teeth, "what game you play, First of the Enemy. But know this: The blood of Noria can never be used against the circle."
"I know it, Noranen. I know it well." And then he cursed; the response had broken the chant.
He spun, the irritation showing plainly on his features, and Tetsuma took a step back. Only a step; in the temple he was still high priest, and that counted for something even when facing the First of God.
"My Lord." He bowed deeply, more to avoid the smouldering amber in the Servant's eyes than to show subservience. "I, too, do not understand what transpires here. If you cannot consign the Noranen to God, you can at least attempt to draw out their pain on His altar."
"Fool!" Kenshin almost spat the word out.
"Lord." Tetsuma bowed again, torn between anger and fear. Before he could rise from the bow, the Servant spoke again, this time more smoothly, but no less angrily for it.
"High Priest, I do what I do here for my own reasons. If you cannot refrain from questioning them, you may leave the temple."
Leave the temple? Anger won. A feeling of betrayal stirred in Tetsuma. You've opened your temple for the first time in three years—and blooded the altar in the bargain. But her influence holds you regardless. She weakens you, and through you she weakens the Church and our God.
Yes, Lord, I will leave the temple. But I will return, and we will see an end to this sacrilege.
He did not bother to salute or otherwise pay the price that courtesies to a superior demanded. Wheeling, he left the chamber and stalked down the long, empty hall.
At the farthest edge of his earshot, he caught the low dissonance of the First Servant's chant. He quickened his pace; he would have to time his re-entrance with care.
With sure steps he traced the path to the north wing of the castle. He brought a torch with him out of habit, although in the north wing, at any time of day or night, light was not necessary.
His anger grew again as he passed the tapestries along the Kaoru's walls. He hated them; the more so because their expense had come out of Church coffers.
Never mind, Soon enough they'll be gone.
Her door, gilded and wide, loomed in the torchlight. He hated this as well; these had been the high priest's quarters before she had come to Darthia. He doubted that she was aware of this fact, and pride had never allowed him the expense of informing her.
He raised one hand, hesitated, then knocked, firmly and loudly.
A slave came cringing out of the shadows nearest the door.
Tetsuma turned slowly, his irritation at the interruption plain across his features. "I am here to speak with the lady. Leave. Now."
The slave took a step back, but it was clear that he had no intention of leaving. "I'm sorry, High Priest. But it's the Lord's orders."
"The lady's not to be disturbed by anyone—not even the Lord himself."
"The Lord himself sent me."
The slave shook his head. "I'm sorry, master. The lady cannot be disturbed."
"I see." He did, and it didn't please him. "Very well; the business is urgent, but it will have to wait until the morning." He turned away from the door as the slave breathed an audible sigh of relief.
As the slave turned to go, Tetsuma's hand slipped into his left sleeve. A silver sliver flashed in the torchlight, connecting with the slave's spinal column.
All in all, too easy a death. Tetsuma set the torch aside, quickly drew the body to one side, and placed it in an alcove. Then, glancing quickly around, he knocked loudly on the door.
He tried again, and then tried the door.
Cursing, he began to draw upon his own power.
He twisted the door, and this time, although it resisted him, he managed to open it enough to squeeze through. But it cost him. Bitterly he acknowledged the fact that it was a lesser ward; had the First Servant wished to spare the power, he could not have entered the room unless he brought a crew of men to break down one of the walls—the stone walls.
He hurried through the darkened rooms to the bed. Lady Kaoru slept, but not a natural sleep. This his Yamidarian eyes could discern easily.
He knew the spell; it was a strong one—one of the strongest that Tetsuma himself would have been able to cast.
Damn the door.
He drew out his dagger, edged with the blood of the dead slave.
If I'd known, he thought, gritting his teeth as he brought the blade sharply down into his palm, I would have killed the slave more slowly, damn him.
But he hadn't; he only hoped that the man's lifeblood, weakened by the easy passage into death, would still grant him enough power to wake the sleeping Noranen. Blood welled into his palm and he began his silent litany.
Everything moved slowly. Kaoru turned in one direction and then in another, and in each she felt and saw billowing clouds of darkness. They clung to her like webs, and she began to kick out—short, sharp thrusts—in an attempt to weaken them. She could feel a heavy stickiness in her mouth, and began to spit and choke as she realized that the web of darkness clung to her insides. Her hands came up, knives of flesh, and she began to make the motions of the Greater Ward—hoping they would have some effect against this unknown danger.
The going was slow; twice the clouds caught her wrists, breaking her gestures—and twice she began them again, determined. It was hard to make the sweeping pass across her heart; harder perhaps because it had been so long since she'd used the ward itself, but blood remembered, and she was of Noria. She pulled her arms up, her fingers making the last, subtle arcs, and then—
She leaped out of her bed and rolled to one side on the floor. Her eyes snapped open, and she could see one black outline, slightly bent, leaning over her.
But she could move, and her hands already fell into a familiar cadence.
The shadow backed away, offering her open palms.
She called upon light, and it came, flooding the room. Tetsuma flinched and pulled away, withdrawing his hands, but not before Kaoru caught sight of the crimson liquid cupped in them. She stood, slowly, her ward unrelenting.
Tetsuma was very tired. Fatigue bent his back, and he struggled against it just to stand straight. "Lady."
"Believe me, Lady, I mean you no harm."
She looked sceptically at the hands that he'd curled into fists.
"This?" He lifted the offending hand. "This is why I have come." He took a deep breath, allowing the very real anger he felt to show. "Lady, this blood is the blood of the Noranen captives."
The words took some time to penetrate her sleepy mind.
Tetsuma took a step forward.
"I do not lie to you, Lady. The Lord has opened his temple again—and I cannot say that this displeases me."
"He opened a temple?" She put one hand to her forehead.
"Yes. And if you've any chance of stopping him from killing the rest of your companions, you must come, and quickly."
She was almost out of the door. Her gown, red as the blood that covered his hands, swirled in the blue light around her body. For the first time, Tetsuma could truly appreciate that this one had been Kaoru of Noria, not just a minor priestess. He turned to follow her, keeping a careful distance; contact with her when his power was so low could be very painful.
He stopped an inch short of running into her.
"Tetsuma, why are you telling me this? What reason have I to trust your word over Ken—over the First Servant's?"
Again he allowed his anger to show, but this time he could also be truthful.
"Let us be honest, Lady. I want your death. Nothing would please me more. You weaken our Lord, and through him, my Church."
"If you try to stop the Lord, as I believe you must, there is a very real chance he will finally kill you."
"And think on this: If you choose not to believe me, your companions will almost certainly perish. Even now they may be dying on the altar. Can you take the chance? You know me well enough to understand my position; regardless of how I feel, or how my priests or Swords feel, I will not be able to take any action against you; it was tried once, and the cost was far too high. I lead you into no trap."
She was uncertain; he could see her face mirror her attempt to disbelieve him. For the most part, it succeeded, and Tetsuma was satisfied. The more she believed the good of her Lord, the more unpredictable she would be.
He thought she might attack the First Servant when she was forced to face fully the truth of his words. And the First Servant, while severely weakened in the act of casting the spell, would still be more than a match for her fury. But the full extent of his aim was more subtle.
I want you to hate him, Lady. I want you to remember that he is your enemy, as he will not remember that you are his. "Come."
She followed as he began to jog down the tapestried hallway.
For the most part, Kaoru was angry.
I don't know what game you're playing at, Tetsuma, but I warn you—if this is just another of your cruel schemes, I'll see you pay.
She was mostly convinced that she would find nothing in the temple but cobwebs and dust. Still, a thin thread of uneasiness ran through her—enough to bring her chasing after Tetsuma down a mostly disused hall, rumpled and bleary-eyed from sleep.
She wondered what type of apparition she would appear should the wandering eye of a slave catch her running past; the image made her smile almost whimsically.
Then the smile froze and shattered.
From out of the small side door to the temple—the castle entrance—she could see cracks of flickering light. She stopped dead in her tracks.
"Come, Lady. There is more yet."
The darkness hid the edge of his grim, satisfied smile. He walked at a more leisurely pace to the door, and then stood to one side of it.
Kaoru came up to the door. For a moment her hand rested nerveless against the handle.
"What are you afraid of, Kaoru?"
Had she the time—or the power—to spare, she might have lashed out at the high priest. Instead she gathered her anger and shock, and pushed the door open as forcefully as she might.
Okita hung, like a dimming candle, over the altar of the Dark Lord. His feet touched air, and his head brushed against the blood-spattered body of Sagara.
Kaoru stood, white against the open door, as words swirled away in a rush, then returned to her open mouth in a single syllable.
The First Servant of the Dark Lord turned at the sound, but slowly, as if he were exhausted—or casting.
Kaoru didn't see him clearly, for Okita's eyes flickered open as well, catching sight of her. He didn't speak—but he couldn't; he had no throat left for it, and very little life.
Too little. Even as Kaoru began to run, heedless of Swords, across the temple, she could see his light dim and fade.
She turned then, knowing she could do nothing else, to see Kenshin, robed in black, start toward her. His hands were open and red.
She took a step backward. All in the room could see her begin to glow. Her hands swept upward and out, in a large, wide circle.
Two of the Swords ran forward, weapons drawn.
The First Servant began to call them back, but Kaoru's white-fire raced outward in one deadly, brilliant arc. The Yamidarian fell screaming beneath it, and the remaining Swords retreated.
Kaoru made no sound as her arms came up again and fanned outward. Her eyes, when they could be seen at all, were blue and gleaming.
"You lied to me!"
The fire raged outward, and the First Servant fell back, gesturing his own red circle into existence. White-fire beat ineffectually against it and then guttered abruptly as Kaoru drew it in again.
He could not look at her. His hands danced complicated arcs in the air, a quick, smooth counterpart to Kaoru's rage.
Delicate fingers of red wreathed the corner of the room that Kaoru occupied, seeking purchase. They fell away, and Kenshin cursed, but silently.
Lady, Kaoru, Kaoru.
The red grew in strength and began to curl around the circle that Kaoru had drawn.
I have no time to spare. I have come this far; I will not lose all now.
He was unprepared for the bolt that she shot across the room, and his defence staggered inward, only barely holding. He was mildly surprised; Kaoru had never once thrown the full weight of her blood-power in his presence. The red net died as he enforced his own shielding.
"They were right!" she cried back, as the white-fire grew impossibly more powerful, "They were right about you!"
He heard the hysteria in her voice; that he expected and accepted—for now. But when it was over—
Tetsuma. It could only be you. You will pay for this.
"No! I've listened and I've trusted you—and I'll not make the same mistake again!"
Yes, hysteria was there, but beneath it, something darker and more implacable. He felt cold fingers trace themselves along his throat, and words deserted him. Keeping his shield up, he began to advance toward the Kaoru of Noria. "Lady, you cannot hold this fire forever."
He could feel it weakening, but gradually. And time was against him in this. If the dawn came before his work was complete, everything that had passed this eve, even Kaoru's anger—especially Kaoru's anger—would be for nothing. And that he could not accept.
Turning only his head, he barked an order at the guards, and they complied. The red lace of power in the room grew marginally stronger.
Someone snarled, low and guttural, and Kenshin stopped his progress. Kaoru.
Her power swept outward with such force that his shield once again pushed into him. The sound of screams and choking surrounded him briefly, and the red net faded.
"Five. Most impressive, Kaoru. They were defending against you."
He watched her, but her light still shone too brightly for close inspection. I have no choice, then.
He felt a shadowy anger come upon him and began to pull power from the lifeblood of his unfortunate sacrifices. Only a little; that was all he needed—but even the little jeopardized his chance of completing the spell of immortality he'd so laboriously begun. He used the power thus pulled to strengthen his defence and diverted his own power outward.
Red-fire flared in the room as he gestured. Each movement was concise and economical. The light surrounding Kaoru drew inward as she frantically brought her own hands up. Red-fire ate away at the white in her, and it ebbed into the gray of stone and the orange of torchlight.
Kenshin could see her face clearly for the first time since she'd entered the room. With a curt, downward motion, he killed the red-fire.
Kaoru looked around the room, her gaze measured and hard.
"What will you do now, Lord? What will you do to one who has tried to kill you and failed?"
Her voice was tight, cold, and focused in ways that it had never been. Her hands were furled into small, white fists.
"No. I'm not your Lady."
"I choose to be Kaoru, warrior of Noria, your enemy."
He met her eyes, then, and took a step back. He almost did not recognise her. He felt a sudden lurch, a pain of a sort that had only touched him through the dim shadow of fear. It was strong, as the fear had promised it would be. The light was gone.
In its place stirred something too close to hatred and darkness for a creature of the dark to mistake. Coming from her, it was so wrong. He stood back, raising one hand as if to stop what was in her eyes.
The light was dead.
He faced her, not knowing how to. She didn't flinch, didn't move a finger, just stood, cold, smooth alabaster—the corpse of what he'd come to desire.
The blood that remained on his hands burned. He looked down as if seeing it for the first time. Confusion blurred his thoughts.
She could not, would not respond. Even the tears that often accompanied her darkest moods were absent; absurdly enough, he had accomplished at least that goal. Looking down, he noticed that small patches of red marred the fabric—whose blood, exactly, he could not say.
He took a step forward, then another, almost stumbling toward her. She remained where she was, and he saw in her face her precious lines, and the type of defeat that the lines could acknowledge—all hard, all cold, a bitter, noble pride—but nothing, not one hint, of warmth or light.
Not even when he brought his hands up to cup her face.
He caught her chin roughly, knowing that he would hurt her, but unable to stop.
"No. The light cannot be dead. I will not allow it."
Her mouth opened and closed again.
He bent his power outward, more subtly this time, probing her, searching for things that eyes alone could never touch. He pulled at her, at the thoughts she kept hidden, at the sense of personality that slid like water away from his grip. Nothing.
He caught her arms and shook her hard enough to make her neck snap backward without breaking it.
"Lady, I do this for you—I do it because—"
"You did not do this for me."
He saw a hint of fear in her, but could not bring himself to exploit it. Pain, he knew well, would not bring back what was lost. Power would not. Death would not.
And thus he learned the first lesson of his Enemy: that only the thing truly given is precious; that this thing that is precious can never be forced.
He bowed his head, brushing convulsively against her chest. Almost of their own accord her arms went out, trembled against the air, and fell to her sides.
"First Servant, you have already killed me."
He looked up. She looked away. And in the motion, everything. His confusion dissipated; his pain did not. But now the way was clear.
"Finish it. Or I will finish it. There are things even I cannot live with." Her voice was empty.
His fingers brushed her cheek, gently, and she knew she should not have spoken. He stood, straight and tall, the lapse in his control a thing already of the past.
Quietly, she followed him to the altar.
There he turned, again catching her face. "Lady."
She was trembling.
He was Kenshin, First Servant of Darthia, ruler of half the world. Twice challenged, he had left the dead behind, with a determination and strength that marked him as First still.
To lose was not his way.
He bent down and kissed her forehead, so she would not see the amber of his eyes as they blazed with the strength of the dead. His arms shot out to catch her as she crumpled, to hold her as she would not now allow him if she were conscious. He carried her quickly to the altar, and there kissed her sleeping mouth. The approaching dawn did not allow for more.
Quickly he picked up the dagger that lay exposed on the stained altar. He cut his hand neatly and smoothly, and repeated the operation upon hers. Trembling, he brought her hand to his and pressed them firmly together.
And then he sought her memory; the core of what she'd seen; the thing that had killed the light. He found it easily and began to blanket it in his shadow, dimming it and then carefully cutting it away from the rest of her life. When it was done, he pulled away, nearly exhausted.
She would not remember.
Almost, he woke her then; the temptation was strong.
And if you wake, what then, Lady? The world is still the world; and it is still mine. Will you not suffer the more to continue to see what I must do?
He pulled away, still clutching the dagger.
Let me finish my task, let concur the whole world. Let me take what is mine by right of power. And then, perhaps, I can return it to you—a gift for my lady.
He approached her again, uncertainly.
Then the uncertainty vanished. For in the future, a human decade away, maybe more, the rest of the Light Servants must be dealt with and her village will be swallowed. And he would have to face again the loss that had almost overwhelmed him this evening.
No. I will not lose her—not that way. Nor any other.
He stepped away from her, and leaned over the body of Sagara.
First of Darthia. The voice of Sagara was no more than a whisper.
The dagger tossed torchlight against the ceiling.
You are indeed the One. Your time is short; I feel the dawn, and it is close. Will you truly do this thing?
In reply, the dagger came down, point first, wearing an aurora of pure red.
Sagara's body jerked violently as the point hit his breast and slammed down. The knife went up twice more, and the voice of the Second of Noria was lost to the mortal plane.
Kenshin lifted Kaoru's hand and cupped the Servant's blood in it, letting it trickle into the wound in her palm. Blood ran through her fingers into the nest of his own cut hand. It hurt, but he let it in.
Now, Kaoru. He began to chant. Your life and mine.
He raised his free hand and chased a pattern of fire through the air. The pattern fell around the three of them, drawing them closer and closer together.
I free you from mortal time.
I release you from death.
For as long as I exist, you shall rule beside me.
He held her thus until the blood ceased to flow. Then, without pause to exult in his night's work, he carried her out of the temple to the north wing of the castle. There he did what he could to clean her, washing and bandaging her hand and carefully brushing her hair.
When he was finished, he tucked her gently into bed.
Sleep, little one. I shall waken you.
He made it to the door by effort of will and then stopped dead.
"May I stay, Kaoru? It will be dawn; I can see the sky change. I shall not hurt you."
He walked back into the room, turned the covers down, and after removing—with great care—the robes he wore, he slid in beside her.
She was warm as she lay in his arms. Her face smooth and child like. Her breath fanned his chest, as it had done many evenings while she slept. But something was missing.
Am I not to have the comfort of your company before the campaign starts? Kaoru, Lady, forgive me. He woke her, eyes glinting weakly.
She stirred against his chest.
"Hmmmm? Is it morning already?"
He was silent for a few minutes, aware that if he did not cast his spell soon, he would not be able to—the black of sky had given way to transparent navy blue.
"Kaoru?" His arms tightened.
"What is it, darkling?"
Warmth shot through him.
"I wish you to know, Lady, that I am what I am: First Servant of your Enemy."
"I know." Her voice was still heavy with sleep.
"But I—" He kissed her, fully, and she responded. He told her what he must; for he finally understood it as true. "I love you as much as I am able."
"Darkling." She said it in sleepy wonder, her hands brushing against his shoulders, his face.
"Will you remember this?"
"Will you love me?"
She was silent a moment, and then he felt it: The bands of her light were glowing with life and strength. They touched him, pierced him, and passed through him with such sweet clarity that her words were lost.
And then his eyes flickered red one last time, and Kaoru's smile was surrendered to sleep.
He lay holding her, a feeling of peace upon him.
"Sleep, Lady. Sleep. I will watch you; I will plan for the time when the world can be as you desire."
And he waited.
Twenty years later...
It was almost time.
Hiko, Third of Noria stared at length into the placid waters of the fountain that had been stilled for a century. Caught there, his reflection stared back at him, already flat and lifeless. Even his time in exile could not lessen the impact.
So many had died.
He was a Servant, the Third of the Bright Lord. Memory hung about him in sharp crystal shards that could not be avoided.
He glanced behind him, saw the sword and the satchel as they rested by the fountain. All was ready.
Just as you wished, Lady Kamiya.
It is almost time.
The Dark Lord of the Empire waited without; his army of Swords, priests, and mortals arrayed on the new field. People of Noria, Lady Kamiya's descendants, were dead or scattered, the first of the lines to fall.
Only the first. It would continue, and the people of Noria would pay all the price that Lady Kamiya had once seen. But she would not be present for those losses; the burden would no longer be hers.
He rose, looking at the fragile beauty of Lady Kamiya's garden. It glowed with an enchantment and life that had taken much of her power to cast. And here it would wait until the return of the last of the children of Noria.
He had no regrets, he was the last of the Bright Servants. He had distance himself from the people of Noria for many decades, remorse was there, but suppressed. Lady Kamiya had set events in motion, cast the net of Noria's Hope as widely as possible. Sagara had fulfilled his role.
It was his turn.
It was time to discharge the last of the responsibilities that she had assigned to him—the last, and the easiest. The only farewell he made to the Woodhall and the life it had once contained was a quiet backward glance.
Hiko's power entered the field; it caused pain, it brought death. For a moment his blood stirred at the combat; the Light against the Dark. But only for a moment. Arrows flew, swords were raised, the tiny gnat of fire the priests could send came forward, but these he could disregard. Even the field, spotted by shrubs and trees over the rolling hills, seemed withered and gray; life was already beyond him.
Then he came, First of the Darkness.
All around him, his troops grew quiet. The arrows ceased their gentle storm, the traces of red were withdrawn.
He faced him, and he saw some of what he felt inside mirrored in his dark face. They were Light and Dark, as in the primordial beginning.
All around them the twisted bodies of lesser mortals lay in grotesque tribute to the roots of their heritage.
Hiko held his power, waiting. So, too, did Kenshin hold his.
No song came to them to fill the empty victory, the empty defeat. No true enmity took fire, no true hatred.
"We have both been changed by the mortal world." Hiko said.
For a moment Kenshin's power flickered sharply, his eyes danced. He saw in him only an echo of the past, no more.
They stood above their power, then.
The Third smiled, no exultance in it. "Do you remember the first time we met?"
Kenshin nodded, his smile a match for his, devoid of the wrath and the pull that had driven him to destroy him. "Well."
They were silent again, the army forgotten. "It was before the gray of the world." Kenshin shook himself and stood taller. "But we had heard, that Lady Kamiya had dared the veils of time. And it has availed her nothing, in the end, but death—a true death, not a sojourn with your God."
Hiko's eyes gazed beyond him, seeing too much, seeing too little. "No," Hiko answered. "Lady Kamiya had died for the sake of Noria's hope."
Hiko continued. "She went where the two Gods could not go, at the behest of the Bright Lord. This she foresaw; this and your victory." His face suddenly grew very still. "Do you remember, Kenshin, the time when we each walked the void? I wanted, not long ago, to be cleansed by fire. And in some wise I have been granted that. You know what you must do. I know it, and I have accepted it. Come, let us have an end."
"Hiko." The First said his name and met his eyes. "Know this: We have nurtured common blood. You were a worthy foe; when the empire is the world, your blood will always be remembered by it."
Hiko smiled. "And is the empire still so important?"
The question stung Kenshin; for a moment he same a familiar innocent and vulnerable face.
"It is mine."
"That is all the answer I need." Hiko's smiled disturbed Kenshin "And you will pay a price for it, in the end, that is as heavy to you as the one I have paid. The two," Kenshin understood Hiko's words perfectly. Kaoru. "you cannot have; and you will be torn between them."
Kenshin's fire lashed out then; Hiko's shields went up. Both flickered and dwindled.
"You do not know pity yet, First of Darthia." He was weary. "Come, end this."
Still the red head Servant stayed his hand, troubled. This was not the Third of the Bright Lord, not as he remembered him.
He had changed.
"Brother," Hiko said softly.
Kenshin stiffened. This fight, this battle, this war—for the moment all were hollow. How dared he make a mockery of his power by his acquiescence?
But he, too, was suddenly weary.
"Is this the death you deserve, Seijuro? Is this the death Lady Kamiya foresaw for yourself?" There and then he swore he would never do as he had done.
"It is . . . peace." And his shields fell.
Bitterness sang all around him as his fire flared out for the last time. True power that God alone might match.
As he wished, he was cleansed. He had lived many years in exile, he had no regrets. No pain seemed to escape him before even the form he had shown was blown away in a red, red wind.
Kenshin turned when it was finished and walked away into the darkness, ignoring the rustle of mindless chatter at his back.
Kaoru. He yearned for her; beside this the desire to feed was as nothing. Kaoru . . .
Hiko was the last Servant of the Bright Lord. Their legacy has ended. But this was only the beginning. Many kingdoms must be destroyed before seeking, once again, the comfort of her light.
Two decades of darkness was longer than Kenshin, First of the Sundered, had ever thought possible.
How much longer?
He shook himself, whispered three words, and passed through the darkness to Darthia. Let the army do as it would without him; he would return to them soon enough. He walked into the shadows of his rooms; walked into the darkness that no light penetrated.
And there, under a halo of gentle red, she waited for him. In silence he stood, while the time drifted by. Days passed thus, stretching out. What of it? He had time. They had time.
He touched her hand; it did not move.
Very gently he lifted her body, cradling it in his dark arms. He touched her hair and kissed her silent lips.
Is this what you feel, Kaoru?
Is this what you feel when you cry?
Soooooo sad I know. I cried while writing this chapter. Kenshin truly loves her but his way is different. Read the beginning of the very first chapter now. It would make sense.
Sorry for the long chapter, I planned to divide them but I am so busy and I thought I would post it all at once.
Now I am not sure where to go next. I have a plan, but I am unsure. Many years would pass maybe a century or two. Kaoru of course will not grow now. She would be forever as she is, tied to Kenshin. I plan to introduce Sano, Misao and Yahiko, I am undecided yet. Also in the next part Tomoe and Enishi will be the main villains.
Any suggestions would be welcomed.