"Where are we going?"

There was no answer as Kuon followed the specter along the empty street, the other monsters having long since disappeared from Kuon's view. They were probably still there somewhere. He hadn't felt any tugging on his sleeve for some time, which made him think that Kanae and Hiroaki had stayed behind to enter the caves. If they were successful in fixing the reverse inhibitor without him as a distraction, it would be a miracle.

His mood dropped. He was alive because of the whim of an Accursed. She wanted to talk to him, which meant he could live for a few minutes more. He really shouldn't have taken that bit of knowledge for granted.

The Djinn led him near the center of the city to one of the largest houses in a wealthier district. The house banner that would normally hang from the archway had been torn down with nothing to replace it. Apart from that, the rest of the grounds were in pristine condition. It had obviously been tended to. Even the dust that should have coated the smooth steps was swept away.

The Djinn stopped at the front door, nodding for Kuon to enter. He did so alone, the door closing behind him. He was left in an ostentatious entry room. Complex cotton tapestries with bright colors adorned the walls with a golden statue of a woman pointing toward a hallway lined with spelled lanterns. He followed the light with measured footsteps, his hand on his sword hilt. At the end of the hall, he gave the double doors a firm push.

The door slid open, revealing a banquet hall with a long table in the middle of it, and two chairs at either end. While one was bare and empty, the other was filled by Her; the woman who wore Setsuko's face and essence like a cloak.

The Accursed barely glanced at Kuon over her plate of food.

"It took you long enough," she said, her tone as calm and collected as always. He used to admire her nerves of stone. "I was wondering if I would have to eat all of this myself."

She gestured at the table bedecked with food before her. A sheer fabric connected to her middle fingers fluttered with her movement, the fine dress seemed a mockery of the destruction and death she'd wrought around her. As if to emphasize that fact, half her hair had been pulled back to clearly show the diadem encircling her head, a single gem suspended on her brow.

Her relic. It was the one piece of jewelry she had never changed besides her harem necklace at the palace.

I should have known.

Kuon drew his sword.

The Djinn materialized in front of him, its own black sword drawn, but Setsuko threw up a hand.

"None of that, now," she cooed, as if he were a misbehaving child. It made his skin crawl. "It can wait until I'm done eating."

"I'm done waiting," growled Kuon. He moved forward, spells already falling from his fingertips.

Setsuko slapped the table in annoyance. "I said stop!"

The Djinn's form shifted.

Kuon froze, eyes wide as every muscle in his body refused to cooperate. The Djinn no longer wore a cloak of darkness, but the appearance of his dead wife.

Kyoko blinked at him, her essence and whole demeanor completely wrong. Wrong. It's all wrong. But Kuon couldn't take another step. She was here but not, staring at him with empty black eyes.

A smile curved the painted lips of the Accursed.

"I did tell you to wait," she said. "But if you want to press forward, be my guest."

Kyoko — No! —The shadow Djinn continued to stare at Kuon, emotions blank and eyes dark. He couldn't rip his eyes away. His grip on the sword became painful.

"Why are you doing this?" he gritted out. "Who even are you?"

The Accursed sipped on her glass in slow, measured gulps.

"Take a seat," she said, gesturing to the empty chair. "I didn't prepare all this for just myself."

"You…made this food?" It shouldn't have shocked him, but the thought of Setsuko — or whoever this woman was — making her own food was so odd it kicked his already unstable center of gravity off a few more inches.

The woman nodded gracefully.

"I wasn't some rich noblewoman before all this," she said. "Just a common girl in a common family, lucky enough to get hired as a maid in your harem. That was how I did it, in case you were wondering. How I was able to imitate Setsuko so perfectly you never noticed the switch. Though, taking her essence did help a bit."

"I bet it did," he muttered, still watching the Djinn. The creature still hadn't moved, but it didn't need to. Kuon was frozen.

But he had to move. He needed to kill the Accursed, right there, before any other backup came. He just had to fight the creature in front of him; the one that wore Kyoko's face.

Move, damn, you, Kuon. Move!

The Accused's eyes sparkled.

"Beautiful," she breathed. "Your struggle. Your pain. This is what I've missed. Ah! You used to look like that so often back at the palace before she arrived. But it's still not enough."

"Then what will be enough?" he said. "How much do you want to take before you're satisfied?"

Anger finally cracked through her mask, eyes widening. "It will never be enough!" she yelled. "Not until you watch your country burn and your family die. Not until I take everything from you! Then, I will be satisfied."

"I won't let you," And now he was the calm one. "We will stop you. No matter what you throw at us."

The Accursed breathed hard through her nose, still staring at Kuon with those wild eyes. Then she scoffed, throwing her napkin to the floor.

"You've spoiled dinner," she said. "Come, I'll show you just how hopeless your situation really is."

She pushed back her chair, exiting the room through a side door. The Djinn, still wearing Kyoko's face, nodded its head for Kuon to follow. Unable to help himself, he trudged after Setsuko's impersonator, sword still in hand.

The darkness seemed endless. Twice Kanae almost turned back, convinced they weren't actually moving, but the bottom did eventually reveal itself. Debris littered the floor along with pieces of wall, strange tubes and even more scraps of torn paper. A large hole punched through the center of the floor, reaching past Kanae's limited gaze into another endless pit. That was where the tree's main root had been. They kept clear of it as they touched down, quickly undoing their harnesses.

Hell, she had completely forgotten that the Djinn's body had been embedded in the center of the tree's main root. Did that mean the body was now at the bottom of this even deeper hole? She moved to get closer—only for Hiroaki to tug her back.

"Just looking," she wrote on his hand.

He tugged at her again, and she leaned closer to him.

"Can you sense anyone here?" he whispered. They really should have thought of a way to communicate other than writing on each other's hands because obviously Hiroaki had no desire to continue that method.

She pursed her lips but kept the irritation from her voice. Hiroaki was probably terrified enough without her annoyance adding to it.

"No. I think we're—"

A clattering, like the jittery clanging of teeth ripped through the silent air. She jumped at the sound, then jumped again when Hiroaki grabbed her sleeve in his own fright. She resisted the urge to shake him off. Where was that sound coming from?

She spotted the source on the opposite side of the cave; A twisted skull mounted on the wall.

They saw us. Stupid cloaking spell. It didn't work.

She grabbed Hiroaki's wrist, preparing to run.

The wall beside the skull slid away, freezing them where they stood. Only now did she notice the masterful enchantment that had concealed the hidden door. From the door spilled half a dozen skeletal monsters with a necromancer on their heels.

Still holding onto Hiroaki with one hand, she pulled the spear from her back with the other. It would be impossible to use in those tight corridors—she really should have brought more daggers—which meant she'd have to take them down now.

Despite the disadvantages, excitement increased the pounding of her heart. She could fight. To unleash some of her fury. The Monsters here were unlucky indeed.

Before she could launch her surprise attack, light erupted around them. Kanae blinked away her vision spell, blinded by the sudden onslaught. She managed to clear it enough to notice another figure stepping out from the hidden doorway.

Hirotaka wasn't armored in his black chest plate. He wore a loose robe that hung off one shoulder, a sleeve dangling partially empty at his side. He leaned on his relic, the staff digging into the ground as he searched the area before him.

Search? Why was he searching? Could he not see them?

His gaze landed on something and she realized what had happened.

The rope! They hadn't used a spell to conceal it. The alarm system must have just picked it up.

Disappointment clawed at her briefly before she shoved it aside. Not yet. She could be patient. Her revenge could wait.

Holding both her breath and Hiroaki, she pulled them to one side as the Accursed approached the rope.

The man let out a scoff, returning to the skull and tapping it with his staff.

"What?" came a muffled voice.

"They're here," said Hirotaka. "Three people based on the ropes. I reckon the prince is down here with the female warrior."

"The prince is on the surface," said the voice.

Hirotaka frowned. "Then someone is down here with the warrior. I don't know who."

"Just keep them busy. Everything will be done soon."

Hirotaka waved the spell away with a scoff, returning to his door. The hidden entrance swallowed Hirotaka and his minions, once again leaving Kanae and Hiroaki in total darkness.

Well, at least they knew the stealth spell worked perfectly. She tugged the still terrified Hiroaki into a random hallway, away from the watching skull.

"Wh-wh-what are we going to do?" whispered Hiroaki once a privacy spell was cast. "The Djinn is not here, and Dad is watching for us."

She put a thumb to her lips, considering. They weren't sure where the Dark Djinn or reverse inhibitor were, but they now knew where Hirotaka was. And they knew that their stealth spells worked. It also sounded like the Accursed anticipated their presence.

More than anything though, what bothered her was that room.

"He's hiding in there," she said. "Why isn't he on the front lines? His magic would be catastrophic against the king's men."

Hiroaki let out a weak laugh. "Ah, well, you know how he gets. Once Dad's busy with a project, he won't leave his room for days. He never really liked fighting, even if he could."


"I'll bet the Djinn is in that room," said Kanae. She couldn't see Hirotaka abandoning his quest to revive the Djinn until it was done. Which meant they had to go in there. Hiroaki seemed to reach the same conclusion, his breathing suddenly spiking. She made a snap decision.

"I'll lead Hirotaka and the monsters away."

Hiroaki gripped her wrist. "No!"

She ripped his hand away. "It's what has to be done. With the room empty, you can find a way to destroy the Djinn and end this conflict before it even starts."

"But what if I can't figure out a way to destroy him?" Hiroaki's voice was shrill. "What if there are still monsters in there?"

"Use the charms I gave you." They'd made sure to outfit Hiroaki in as many defense spells and amulets as they could manage. He had enough magic to kill half a dozen sand wurms. Also, this way she could face Hirotaka without worrying about Hiroaki's safety. Her magic thrummed beneath her skin, eager to be used.

"That still doesn't answer my question about the Djinn." Hiroaki sounded weaker than usual, like speaking itself would driving his voice away. "My dad is sure to have several dozen protection spells and enchantments around it. What if I can't find a way past them?"

"You will." They didn't have a choice in the matter. He was literally their only chance with this. "You're his son. No one should know his spells better than you."

"…You give his parenting too much credit."

Kanae scoffed. "It's your tenacity I'm betting on."

He didn't answer and, unable to see his reaction, she took it as assent. She pulled away one last time, untying the rope that kept their hands together.

"If you need to escape, take the ropes back up the chamber. I'll find a different way back."

She left him, passing the hole in the center of the room and picking a certain hallway, a plan already forming in her head.

Kuon followed Setsuko up a set of stairs that eventually shot them out onto a tall balcony several stories high. She opened the doors then stood back, beckoning for him to exit.

"Look," she said with impatience.

Kuon eyed her and the Kyoko-Djinn, reluctant to play her game. But curiosity won out, and he stepped out onto the balcony.

Kuon's breath caught.

The platform shot out high over Mosall, the view perfect for viewing the center of the city, right where the tree had once stood. Nothing of the fig tree remained, save an enormous indentation of homes leading to a large hole in the center of the bare ground. Perhaps whatever had been left had shriveled to dust like the rest of the residents. His main concern was not that, however; it was the large mass skirting the edge of the chasm.

The Djinn.

Goosebumps ran across his entire body. There it was. The monstrous ball of flesh and dark magic bound behind a slimy transparent membrane. He could just see the outline of some limb —Maybe a leg?—flexing and twitching inside its cocoon.

The Djinn was here. Here! Not under the city. How could they have not thought of its location moving?

Setsuko came to stand against the railing, gazing at the Djinn like a parent over a proud child.

"Marvelous, isn't it?" she mused. "Just a little longer, and the creature's body will be properly revived."

Kuon pointed his sword at her.

"No," he said. "We will destroy the Djinn and rid Ashuron of it before it can revive."

The Shadow-Djinn was between them in a flash. Kyoko's face stared back at him, black eyes accusing him of everything he had ever did wrong and how much of this was his fault. The sword felt leaden in his hand.

Setsuko's eyes narrowed, contempt dripping from her words. "You're such a hypocrite, Kuon. Throwing the blame on me and everyone else when you're the one that brought destruction into your own house. You brought the Dark Djinn down on us. You let childish slights and anger bring those men into the palace."

"I—" he choaked. "What?"

"What, you think I didn't know? That most of the palace wasn't aware that their 'rebellious prince' was the reason so many people died that night? Your father went through a lot of trouble to cover for you. Many wanted your head, but he insisted that you had repented of your wrongs. That you had learned from your mistakes. But he was wrong. It doesn't matter how 'sorry' you are."

The attack on the palace in his youth. The one that had forced him to kill his friend Rick with his own hands. The one that was all his fault.

Darkness swirled in him, amplified by his fatigue and the miasma. His grip on the sword slackened.

"You can't be forgiven for the things you've done, Kuon," she continued. "Their blood is on your hands. And you know what the best part is?" Glee lit her eyes as she pressed delicate fingers over her manic grin. "I was right. You did it again. You killed another person you loved."

Setsuko came to stand by Kyoko—no, the Djinn—resting a casual hand on the thing's shoulder. She nuzzled into the fake-Kyoko, the thing expressionless.

"I just wish you could have watched the light leave her eyes," she moaned. "It was beautiful."

The sword dropped.

He didn't hear the clatter of the blade hitting the ground. His vision swam, and he fumbled for the railing of the balcony, somehow finding it. He slumped to the ground, sweat beading his forehead that he didn't have the strength to wipe away.

"What?" mocked Setsuko. "Is the weight of your guilt so crushing you couldn't stand it?"

"Who are you?" he gasped.

She perked up from the Djinn's shoulder. "Me? You still haven't guessed? Well, maybe a hint would be appropriate."

With the grace she always maintained, she glided to him and bent down. He flinched as her pointed fingernail dug into the soft skin below his jaw, forcing him to lock with her icy gaze. He may as well have been a maggot below her boot

Her volume was soft but charged with fury as she spat her words.

"You killed him. You murderer."

Something about the inflection clicked.

You murderer!

His breath caught as panic flared through him, an old, trained response that shriveled his soul with crushing shame. He could never forget those words paired alongside a scream that still haunted his dreams. His heart thudded as he connected the dots. Her hatred toward him. The twisted obsession with killing those he loved. It all made sense.

"Tina," he breathed.

She was Rick's fiancée.

The walls blurred past her as Kanae ran, pausing for short moments to install a spell here and there. She'd need to give Hiraoki as much as time as possible in that room, which meant leading Hirotaka on as long a chase. Her plan was to cause cave-ins at specific points, forcing the Accursed to wind his way through the labyrinth of tunnels. Once he was through, well… that was when the fighting would begin.

She couldn't help a tight smile as she paused at another wall, her ribs aching from the straining wounds. She felt the pain less than she should.

One last push.

Her path eventually led her to the large drop off where Hiroaki's research team had been killed. This would be a good room to use her spear. Plenty of space.

She quickly set up her spells, pulling the spear from her back and lowered her camouflage spell. Then she waited, anticipation buzzing like bees beneath her skin.

Hiroaki was just starting to worry when the hidden door slid open. Hirotaka came tearing out of the room, armor in place and wings out as an entourage of monsters followed right on his tail. Hiroaki waited until he was sure his dad was gone before creeping up to the wall.

Despite the urgency beating in his chest, he couldn't help but admire the spellmanship. Dad really had deserved the title of Archmage. The spell was beautiful. No one else in the Arcane Syndicate would have been able to produce something so simple yet effective.

He reached out a hand, placing it against the wall. A short spell activated the switch, and the door was sliding open. He breathed in relief—then choked.

There were still monsters inside.

Two skeletal undead, taller and bulkier than normal undead flanked either side of a platform stationed in the center of the room—the reverse inhibitor. He could have identified it on site, the layout almost identical to a typical one, but the extra wave of miasma that hit him was more than enough evidence.

He coughed, sinking to his hands and knees. The world spun. He couldn't think. He couldn't breathe.

Something hit him and he tumbled sideways, flailing as he tried to react. Nothing else came for him, so he was able to smack a charmed necklace just below his collar bone.

Light magic flooded into him, and he gasped, his mind snapping back into focus. He stumbled to his feet just in time to watch the two undead crumbling under the defensive spells that had been installed into his bracelets. Panic hit him. What if they hadn't installed those spells? What if more monsters came in? Those spells were gone and used, and a glance at the necklace showed that the spell wouldn't last forever. Already its light was waning.

Get it together, Hiroaki.

He clenched fists tight, then slowly released them.

He flicked a finger, the internal schematics for the reverse inhibitor flaring into life as small white lines. His forehead beaded with sweat. This...was a lot more complicated than the scraps Kanae had provided. The internal circle was completely different and angled at almost a parallel with the outer ones. There were also a lot more gems bonded to the center. It took a few minutes figuring that out, sifting through the insane and brilliant assembly of runes and circle.

Then, finally, he found it. The dark runes. They were there, just as Kanae had written. Bless that woman's perfect memory.

He swiveled through the layout, doing his best to not count the seconds since Kanae had left.

"Dear…do you see what I'm seeing?"

Jelly's voice shook, which was better than what Lory would have been able to muster. They stood at the front lines, watching as the monsters that had gotten close enough to see without enhancements change course. They were now turned toward the city.

Loud hoofbeats sounded closer. They revealed Kuu on his mare, trailing Shin, Dyrus, and his entourage of guards.

"We're going on the offensive," said Kuu, his words a statement, not a suggestion. "Lory, can you two lead the charge?"

"Your majesty," said Lory. "We shouldn't—"

"—we can't let the monsters take the city walls," said the king. He was already moving back along the line of men, everyone watching the exchange with wide eyes. "If they swarm the city, Kuon and his group are going to be overrun. We'll be at an even bigger disadvantage fighting against the monsters when they have protection and numbers on their side. We can't let them take the city."

"There are already monsters in the city!" Lory had to talk sense into him. "If we follow, we will be at a bigger disadvantage. No traps. No support. The army will be in disarray. Some might not even follow your orders!"

But the king didn't listen. Of course the bleeding heart of a man wouldn't. He fixed Lory with a hard stare. The horses danced in place, mirroring the anxiety that clogged the air.

"That is an order." The was no arguing with him. He spoke to the king, not his friend.

"Yes, my king," said Lory, bowing his head. He couldn't watch as Kuu sped away, barking encouraging words to the men and spreading the word. A soft hand slid into his and he looked up to see Jelly giving him a sad smile.

"They're waiting for you."

They were. Every eye was on him, each man unwilling to be the first to make a move. Well, looked like Lory would be that first man.

He gave one last sigh, then raised a fist.

The general in the back barked orders. A horn sounded and this time, the whole army moved, Jelly and Lory leading the charge.

Thanks for reading!

I did the thing. Let's hope that I can recover the next two chapters that I already had written (10,000+ words). Otherwise, it will be a hot minute before the next chapter again. Sad day. Mr. Blushweaver says "Hi" and (rolls eyes.) "Get ready, you have no idea what's in store." I have my own personal hype man. XD


I did the lesser, but still, a thing is a thing so Blushy could post.