Hiroaki was frozen. His mouth opened uselessly, watching as his dad stepped over Kanae's unmoving body. Hirotaka robes were a mess of accursed armor that flaked off into smoke every other second and dirt and blood-encrusted cloth. An object that looked vaguely like a hilt of a dagger stuck out of one of his shoulders. All of this only added to the menace of Hirotaka's murderous expression.
The Accursed swung his black staff at him.
Hiroaki was thrown into the wall, knocking the air out of him. He fell in a heap, gasping.
"I've had enough," said Hirotaka. "I appreciate the handy stealth spell, but it's time for your meddling to stop."
Dimly, Hiroaki wondered how his father had acquired their spell. Not that it was surprising. His father was incredible like that. Always finding ways to overcome what was previously thought impossible and constantly changing the rules of the game. No wonder he had survived Kanae's attack.
It didn't make him happy.
"Dad...please," said Hiroaki. "You're going to kill everyone."
"I'm going to obtain perfect knowledge. Anyone who stand in the way of that will be dealt with. Even if they're my son."
Hiroaki scrambled up, back plastered to the wall. There was nowhere to run. He was going to die like a rat, trapped by his father for his perverse experiments.
The Accursed took a step, then paused.
Kanae had ahold of one of his feet, head down, blood pooling around her. Save for the hand wrapped tightly around the Accursed's ankle, she looked dead.
Hirotaka scoffed, kicking his leg to shake her off like he would a dog. She held firm. Annoyed, Hirotaka kicked Kanae onto her back. She gasped, eyes flying open. Hiroaki choked as his father placed the end of his staff on Kanae's throat.
"Annoying pest," said Hirotaka. "But, I guess I'm glad you haven't died yet. I'm still figuring out how to obtain your copy ability."
Kanae grimaced, blood trailing from her mouth. "I'm glad too... Killing you once wasn't satisfying enough."
The staff pressed harder against Kanae's throat. An overwhelming dread clawed at Hiroaki. He wanted to run. To shout and thrash in panic, but at the same time, his throat seemed to be swelling shut. This was too much violence for him. To horrible. So much blood and anger. Kanae choaked under the weight, more blood gushing from her lips. Her hands twitched, flicking toward Hiroaki in a dismissive manner.
Her hand did the movement again.
It took three solid seconds for his brain to understand.
Kanae hopped Hiroaki had gotten the hint. She had no way to know, her vision almost completely dark. The Accursed was doing something to her. She could feel his magic, probing and discovering, no doubt trying to detect exactly how her ability worked.
She coughed again, her blood splattering the staff.
A familiar cloaked figure swirled into existence beside her. Unlike the others, it remained clear. So, it was in her head then.
"Submit yourself to me," hissed the Dark Djinn. "I can heal your wounds. Give you the power to kill everyone. You could even call your friend back from the dead."
"N-no," she croaked.
The Djinn's figure flickered in anger.
"Then you will die. Everyone will fall and it will be your cowardice that caused it."
Hirotaka was almost done with her, she could feel it. He'd have no reason to keep her alive. She'd be killed, then even if Hiroaki got the inhibitor up, he'd die soon after.
So, her choices were to die and fail, or to become Accursed and save everyone.
She closed her eyes, the Djinn's voice echoing in her head. But his wasn't the only one. She heard Kyoko. The stupid prince. Chiori. All dead and dying idiots who didn't know what was good for them.
"Don't forget, you have someone to come back to."
Shin's grin was clear in her mind.
"I—" she choked. "—am not stupid, Djinn."
But she was still angry. Incredibly so.
Her hand rose. Slowly. Shaking. She grasped the staff.
Hirotaka's chuckle assaulted her.
"Good," he mused. "Make a contract. You will learn much."
Kanae's mouth opened.
Clarity hit Kanae like a punch. She gasped, energy and life flooding back into her, chasing away the dark and filling her lungs. She still couldn't see, but she didn't need her vision to know what had just happened.
Hiroaki had gotten her message. He'd gotten the inhibitor up.
The Accursed jerked his staff, but Kanae held firm. Her energy was fleeting. A tiny thing, but it was all she could manage. She just hoped it would be enough to break the relic.
Magic exploded from her fingers.
The air split with a crack. The staff was ripped from her grasp as she was knocked aside, the comfort of darkness finally surrounding her.
The fighting was close. Itsumi could hear individual screams and orders shouted by the men as they mingled with the cries of monsters. Smells drifted closer; the rust of blood mixed with some sort of slimy ichor. She kept her eyes squeezed shut, trying to block out the noise and scents.
Don't listen. Everything is going to be okay, just focus on the flow of magic within you.
The tent flap opened, and she flinched, only just managing to keep her focus.
"They moved the fight closer to the city," said Murasame. "It's time to leave. They can't guarantee our protection anymore."
Her heart hammered against her chest in relief and in shame. Damn it, I should be braver than this!
"No," she whispered. "Just a little longer. I can still help."
Murasame gave an annoyed scoff. "The inhibitor will continue to run, Duchess, but the fighting may be here any minute. The men will have a hard enough time protecting the inhibitor, let alone you as well."
She wanted to leave. She wanted to run. "No." She couldn't stop shaking. "M-my place is here."
A scream, then a blast of magic. It was so close, the shockwave of the spell rippled violently across the canvas of the tent. Itsumi's eyes snapped open, the blood draining from her face. They can't be here already.
The soldiers in the tent jumped into position around her, drawing up shields and swords. The screams and magic didn't stop, circling around them as flashes of magic threw shadows across the tarp. Panic made the shapes monstrous. Was it a wurm? A gashadokuro?
The screams stopped right at the entrance of the tent. Everyone watched the flapping door, waiting.
A blast from behind them sent Itsumi flying from her seat. She flailed, turning over in the air without any sense of where she was. Her shoulder bit into the ground as she skidded across pebbles, finally coming to a stop. Something heavy fell right behind her. There was so much dust. She coughed, the wet slick of fresh blood warming her arm.
A satisfied and too-carefree sigh snapped Itsumi's eyes wide.
"Found you at last."
Itsumi pushed herself to her hands and knees, almost falling over in the process. A willowy man stood by the inhibitor, dressed from chin to ankle in black and silver. From his neck dangled a dark pendant. Itsumi recognized the man and relic from Kanae's sketches.
Miroku. The Accursed who owned Reino's old relic.
Itsumi's mind stalled. What was he doing here? Miroku was supposed to be at the front lines, leading the monsters. Then she noticed his hand. It hovered above the inhibitor, a single finger pressing on the central gem.
The inhibitor shattered. Itsumi was blasted back again, her head colliding with the ground. Stars filled her vision. The warmth of light magic that had filled her so fully was snatched away, leaving her cold and clammy.
Miroku took a long deep breath, like one would when savoring the fresh morning air. "Much better," he said, rolling his neck and shoulders. "Now, to clean up the rest of the mess."
Warmth washed over Lory.
His eyes widened, disbelieving. They had done it. Kanae and Hiroaki had managed to not only take down the reverse inhibitor but changed its properties to light. The combined effects of two inhibitors over the battle was instantiations.
He had gotten on his horse, moving to the back to help oversee the battle as it developed. It gave him the perfect view to see the changes. Monsters started thrashing, the men moved in a sudden frenzy of strength. Light magic surged through those that had it and yellow light lit the sky. A break in the line reformed as the area gained the upper hand to push back against the waves of monsters.
He had worried about following the monsters to the city. The two forces had clashed right before the city walls, but far enough away that the monsters that occupied the city couldn't do anything without leaving the safety of the walls. The desperate surge had taken a lot of energy from the men, not to mention the residual miasma seeping from the city. It had severely reduced their stamina.
But all that miasma was being purified. The haze over the battlefield was clearing. Only then did Lory realize how dark the world had gotten in the past hour.
A sudden line of horses broke away from the rest of the fighting, heading straight for the city. Kuu rode at the head of the group, Dyrus, and his royal guard right behind him. The other two Champions, Hiou and Galyth followed with Shin right behind them. Just as planned. They'd find a way to join the prince.
Arrows and magic trailed after the group, issuing from the skeletal undead trying to catch up.
A signal horn came from the edge of the army. A barrage of magic crashed in waves against the attacking undead. The distraction gave Kuu's group just the time they needed to get out of range of the monsters.
That was all the cover the army could give Kuu. They'd have to fight their own way through the monsters inside the city, but at least they'd have the inhibitor's light to aid them.
The plan was working. Their insane, desperate last stand was actually working!
Jelly sat astride a horse beside him, hair and cloak whipping through the hot air as she beamed.
"They did it," she said. "Thank the—"
Her smile froze.
Lory felt it too. The warmth in his chest lessened. The cover of a second inhibitor was gone.
Horses whinnied, men cried out, but Lory's mind had gone blank. Gods, he wasn't the only one. Others were caught off guard.
Jelly looked back to their camp.
"That was our—"
"—Inhibitor, I know. And I can feel Accursed black magic in the camp as well."
Jelly slammed a fist into her knee. "They got us. I thought it was weird we hadn't seen Miroku at the front lines despite searching for him. He attacked us from behind."
And they didn't have enough troops stationed to protect their rear. Guilt clawed at him as he thought of the Duchess Momose. If the inhibitor was down, it was likely she and all of her men were dead.
Jelly's gaze suddenly met his, fury blazing under the honey bangs.
"I'm going back to the camp," she said.
Lory's heart raced in alarm. "I'll—"
"—The men need you here," she cut off his predictable retort. "We have to destroy all the relics and now we know where he is. We can't afford to pull more people from the front lines. We're getting slaughtered as it is."
And she was right. Stars, but he knew it. That loss had reduced their momentary advantage to nothing. He was loathed to let her leave his side though he knew she was more than capable on her own.
Her face softened at something she saw in his. She gave him a quick peck on the cheek, sitting tall as she pulled the hood of her cloak back up. Despite the blood and pain, she looked beautiful at that moment, all determination and strength wrapped in a small kind figure. Her eyes lingered on him for just a moment as her fingers traced the edges of her hood.
"Don't die out here, Dear," she whispered. "I'll be back in no time."
A blast of magic interrupted Lory's response. They both glanced back at the battle before locking eyes once more. There was too much to say and not enough time.
"Go," he settled on. "And come back safely."
With a cheeky smile, she pushed her horseback to the camp, trailing pink and purple magic as she started storing spells for battle.
Lory forced himself to look away. She would be okay. He needed to get back to the front lines. With half their champions gone with Kuu, it would be up to Lory to keep them all together.
Setsuko—no. Tina circled Kuon slowly, her voice light and airy.
"You see now?" she said. "How everything is your fault. None of this would have happened if you hadn't let those rebels into the palace. If you hadn't been so damn proud you couldn't take a little heat from the peers around you. Your kingdom wouldn't be falling to ashes and your Kyoko wouldn't be dead."
Kuon closed his eyes, reliving the memories of his past as if it were happening. He could feel the sword in his hand, the warmth of the blood soaking his skin. The print of Rick's hand on his forearm stained his vision with red.
Tina's voice continued to stab into his consciousness.
"Were you sick of him? Was that what it was? He spent so much time steering you away from the edge that this was his reward? Betrayal, the moment the opportunity presented itself to you?"
Rick's face was clear, clearer than it had been in any of his previous recollections. Pain rimmed the edge of his eyes, but they were proud. Why would they be proud?
Kuon stumbled to his feet, grabbing the railing as everything swayed.
"You don't know everything, Tina."
She hummed her disbelief. "I know more than you do."
"No, you don't." He opened his eyes. Everything blurred together. "If you did, you'd be mad at the Accursed that forced the Djinn to possess your fiancé. They controlled his body then let that control slip. It gave Rick the split second he needed to...to let me win. I couldn't understand why he did it for the longest time, or if I had made it up to ease my conscience."
She reentered his line of sight, his vision so burry he could barely make out her silhouette. His arms shook from the strain of holding himself upright. Sweat poured from his forehead as every breath counted down to his last. He was running out of time.
"I didn't want to kill Rick, but I did," he said. "Just like I killed those men the day I completed my contract with the Djinn."
She gave an impatient sigh. "See? So, anything you say after that would be an excuse. Which means this is all your fault."
It had felt like that for a long time. He'd dragged that weight around for most of his adult life. He probably still would be, had it not been for Kyoko.
"Whatever my sins, your path is wrong." Kuon's vision was clearing. His blade still lay on the ground, so he reached for his belt knife instead. "You're doing what you want in the name of revenge or justice, only to place that blame on others. Everything that's happened is my fault? Are you not proud of the destruction you've caused here, Accursed?"
Her lip curled into a sneer. "I don't make excuses, Prince," she spat. "And I don't pretend that others should pity me. I want destruction. I want suffering. You're the one that is too self-righteous to admit that you're—"
A cooling sensation swept through Kuon, filling him from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. With it came the rush of life and energy. He gave a quick inhale, everything sharpening into focus.
Kanae and Hiroaki must have done the impossible. They'd gotten an inhibitor up. It helped him realize just how much time he'd been wasting talking with Tina and how exhausted he had been, fighting against his own decay as well as the dark energy of this place.
The Djinn—still in Kyoko's image—hissed in pain. Its skin shifted from blotchy black patches and back, undulating and boiling. Tina, tethered to it as she was, curled in on herself as she swore.
"Which incompetent fool let them get an inhibitor up?"
With her attention broken, Kuon attacked.
The Djinn just managed to get a dark blade up. It shifted from black smoke back into human form, snarling at him from across the collided blades.
"I don't deny the dark inside of me, Tina." He yelled, pushing back against the Djinn still wearing his beloved's face. "But I'll be damned if I let my self-pity cause any more suffering."
He pushed the Djinn back with a blast of magic, the monster colliding with the wall. Kuon scooped his sword from the floor as he drew back to strike.
The Djinn looked up at the last moment.
Its form was suddenly a perfect replica of his wife. From her beautiful golden eyes to the soft gaze she wore only for him. It was Kyoko before those awful marks had marred her body, slumped against the wall, hair tousled, and body crumpled from his attack.
Kuon drove his sword home, closing his eyes the moment before it pierced flesh. The gasp that came from the monster wasn't really Kyoko's. He knew that, but it still cut his heart. Kuon hung his head, eyes burning.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, not to the Djinn, but to wherever Kyoko was. I'm sorry for hurting you.
His arms were heavy as he pulled away. The Djinn disappeared in a mist around his feet.
Tina cried out, clawing at her chest as tears streamed down her cheeks. Kuon, so absorbed by the creature it took a second to realize what was happening. She's tied to the thing. She feels its pain. Fury contorted her sweating face, her once perfect hair plastered to her shaking body.
"You—!" Her anger was so encompassing she couldn't get out anything more than a scream. She flew out her hands wildly. Another column of smoke started to condense, and panic shot through him. She was summoning the Djinn again. Kuon couldn't fight another Kyoko clone.
Adrenaline pushed him forward as she swung his sword through the half-formed mist. Tina grunted, waving her hand for another form to appear. Then another. Kuon continued to swing, cutting down the shadows before they could condense. Each cut was a blow to Tina, stumbling back, but it wasn't enough to stop her completely. Kuon wasn't sure how long he could last. His body lagged. His lungs burned as everything shook.
Tina suddenly hit the balcony edge. The split second of surprise gave Kuon the moment he needed.
With the last of his strength, he rushed forward. He saw her eyes widen. Saw that there was no way she could call the Djinn up in time to stop him from getting to her.
With a shriek, Tina threw her hands out. Magic shot out like lightning, erratic and powerful, the booms upheaving the world. It split the stone beneath them as it did the air. Any other day, Kuon could easily brush off this sort of desperate display. But not today.
He stumbled, letting go of his sword as the ground began to fall. It took his will with him, his sight blurring as strength fled his limbs.
For a split second, his vision cleared. Through the rock and magic, he saw the triumph on Tina's face. The pride and cruelty. Kuon had one mission when he set out; to stop this Accursed. He would not fail.
Kuon held up the dagger still in his hand. Every second felt like he was swimming through sand. His body screamed he couldn't do it. But he had to. For his kingdom. For Kyoko. With one last desperate push of magic, he sent the dagger flying toward Tina.
His aim could not have been truer.
The blade sliced across her forehead, skimming it perfectly to shatter the gem sitting on her brow.
Tina's screams were swallowed by the rubble as they finally plummeted to the ground.
Hiroaki gasped as his father's staff splintered. Great rivers of miasma seeped from the cracks running the entire length of the relic. Hiroaki put a sleeve to his mouth on instinct, backing away. How incredible. Even with her final breath, Kanae had fought to the end, using her last moments to use magic to crack the staff.
"No!" Hirotaka stumbled back, the last of his armor falling away. "No. No. No—" The Accursed poured magic in the dying relic, trying to keep it together.
"D-dad… let it break."
He had to. Then maybe, he would come back. Regain his mind enough to not destroy the inhibitor.
The Accursed didn't seem to hear him. His hand grasped and pressed against the rod, magic swirling around him. The wind ruffled his robes, swirling the miasma into a small storm even as it was purified. Hiroaki knew that desperation on his father's face. He wouldn't stop. Not without help.
Hiroaki entered the growing vortex of wind. He stumbled, fumbling blindly for the relic. He managed to grasp it. He ignored the jolt of wrongness, the growing marks of the Shueman's rot spreading from his hands and up his arms. He didn't let go. His actions had earned his father's attention.
The Accursed's eyes were fixed on Hiroaki. The helmet was gone, other pieces of armor disappearing before reforming again.
"It's me, Dad," said Hiroaki. "It's your son."
Hirotaka's eyes were a blue so light they were almost transparent.
Hiroaki gave a self-deprecating laugh. "You know, I've always looked up to you, even when you never had time for me. I wanted to be like you. To make you proud."
The storm continued. Kanae lay bleeding, probably already dead, and the inhibitor was on the verge of being knocked over. Still, Hiroaki didn't move away from his father.
"I never resented you for it," he continued. "I understood your fascination for magic. But, now I'm getting a little upset."
His hands tightened, magic building in his fingertips. That caught Hirotaka's attention. The Accursed tried to jerk the relic away, but Hiroaki held fast.
"Not this time, Dad," he said. "This time, I'm not letting you ignore me."
He released the spell in his hands.
The relic exploded.
The wind died immediately, the sudden quiet jarring. Hiroaki cried out as he fell to his knees. His hands shook, palms blackened and stained. Gods, it hurt so much. His hands. His heart. His sobs filled the new silence.
I wanted to find a way to save you, not be the one to destroy you.
A thump made him look up. His dad knelt on the ground, free of the relic and the darkness that had raged around him. His lined face looked worn, but relieved.
Hiroaki stumbled to his father's side.
His father's eyes focused on him. The knife in his shoulder spilled blood afresh, face pale and skin clammy. But he smiled through the pain.
"Damn..." muttered Hirotaka. "I'm sorry, son. I… made a mistake."
Hiroaki's vision swam. He pushed the tears away, but they wouldn't stop. He fumbled to stem the flow of blood from the knife in his dad's shoulder. The red flowed over his blackened hands.
"It's okay, Dad. We'll figure something out."
Hirotaka placed a hand over Hiroaki's, forcing him to stop.
"It's no use," he said. "This was my own fault. I was... I had a heart attack in the office. I should already be dead but...I was weak. I saw the relics and made a wish. To live a little longer to study magic. To study with you." Hirotaka took a shuddering gasp. "Blasted Djinn twisted that wish. I... seem to have caused a lot of trouble."
Hiroaki couldn't talk, his throat closing from emotions that were already spilling down his cheeks. He could see it now. The paleness of his father, the weak and shaky hands that had nothing to do with his recent severance with the relic. His father didn't have much time.
Hirotaka held out a hand. "Here, help me."
Hiroaki scrambled to help his father stand, limping over to where Kanae lay. The ex-archmage hovered a hand over Kanae's form, face tight in concentration.
"I don't have much time," said Hirotaka. "But maybe… If we're swift about it, we may be able to save her." His eyes glimmered as he looked at Hiroaki. "You were always more of the medic than I was. I'll be following your lead."
Hiroaki swallowed back a desperate laugh. There he was, at the end of the world, and he was finally getting his moment to work with his father. He squared his jaw, gingerly helping his father down and pushing back his sleeves. His hands were black and stinging, but the pain was inconsequential compared to the last chance for a dream come true.
"We'll start here."
Itsumi couldn't move. Her limbs were frozen, terror keeping her rooted to the spot. Then the Accursed eyes snapped to her and life flooded hot back into them.
No, no, no, no!
She scrambled back, scraping already raw hands and knees.
Hands hauled her up and she clung to them, barely upright before being dragged away. She recognized Murasame's voice as he yelled to the other men.
Magic shot out. She turned her face away just as the spells collided with the Accursed, knowing they wouldn't do more than piss him off. She didn't need the push from Murasame as he turned their retreat into a proper run. They made it about ten paces before another blast swept them off their feet.
"Keep going," Murasame yelled, and she felt him scramble up and away.
"Wait!" She coughed, blood sharp on her tongue as she raised a weak hand. "Don't leave…me…"
But he was gone. Hikaru. Dad. Her brother. Kyoko. They'd all left her. She hung her head.
We lost, she thought. The inhibitor has fallen. We can't win this.
She blinked, wondering if she was hallucinating. That had sounded like her brother. Sure enough, when she raised her head, her brother was there, astride a horse and galloping toward her.
"Brother?" she croaked. "Tsuyoshi!"
He'd come back for her!
Tsuyoshi sped past, shouting for Itsumi to get away. She didn't listen, watching awestruck as he joined Murasame and the other men assaulting the Accursed with spells. But the Accursed wasn't alone anymore. He had brought monsters with him, undead and echidnas.
She ducked when a piece of debris crashed beside her, thrown by the fray in front of her. It was time to leave.
She hiked up her skirts and ran, stumbling and weaving through the wreckage and into the maze of tents still standing. Her brother would be fine. He was a good fighter. She just needed to get out of the way.
She burst through the edge of the tents, skidding to a stop. Oh hell, she'd gone completely the wrong way. The only thing in front of her was the battlefield. Her breath caught at the smell. The sight. Ugh. Someone was dead at her feet. She tore her eyes away from the unmoving body, hands covering her mouth. Where should she go?
A figure on a horse galloped toward the camp. She recognized the embroidered cloak from this distance.
"Duchess!" Itsumi waved her hands, relief flooding her. "Duchess Woods. Over here."
The battlemage altered her course, coming to a stop in front of Itsumi. Spells circled her, blood and dirt splattered across her cheek as she swept Itsumi with her critical gaze.
"You're alive. What happened?"
"It was Miroku." She pointed back to the camp. "He destroyed the inhibitor, but the others are fighting. My brother came back. Please, help him. There are other monsters as well."
Duchess Woods opened her mouth, then closed it.
Why had she—?
Goosebumps erupted along Itsumi's arms. Her eyes widened as she focused not on the battlefield, but on the city.
By some miracle, Kuon hadn't been crushed by a single piece of debris.
He lay on his back, eyes closed and focusing on his breathing. The momentary surge of energy was long gone, used in his last effort to destroy the relic.
Tina. Was she crushed? He had to know.
He didn't move. Instead, he lay there, letting moments pass as he tried to pull his thoughts together.
Eventually, he shifted to a sitting position.
Tina wasn't far from him. She hadn't been as lucky as Kuon. Her lower body was trapped under a white column, blood seeping into the ground around her. She struggled against the death trap, pushing and tugging, her magic sporadic and useless.
Kuon rose to his knees.
The world tilted as he fell.
He lay there, hearing nothing but the thumping of his heart and Tina's struggles. Then her gasps turned into desperate laughs, breathy and hysterical.
"This wasn't supposed to happen. No... I was... supposed to..."
Was that... remorse?
It took everything in him, but he managed to prop himself onto his elbows. He dragged himself closer to Tina. Her eyes snapped to him, desperate, angry, and bloodshot.
"Stay away from me," she snapped. "I don't want your help."
So, no. Not remorse for what she did. Remorse for failing. Breaking the relic hadn't rid her of her anger. Not that doing so would have absolved her of sins, but it would have been something.
Whatever she saw in his face only enraged her further. She cursed at him, renewing her struggles against the death trap, ranting about the ways she would kill him. It reminded him of a butterfly, wings pinned by a rock, struggling in vain to get free even if it knew it would never fly again.
It reminded him of his previous self.
"I should have sought you out," he said. "We were both overcome with our grief. I should have been thinking of your pain, not just mine. I'm sorry for that, Tina."
Tina's eyes widened. She grabbed a handful of sand, throwing it at his face.
"Don't you dare," she hissed. "Don't pity me! You haven't even realized it. You've lost. The Dark Djinn will be revived, and all your people will die. You are responsible for that. So don't you dare pity me!"
He tried to look for the Djinn but the world darkened again. He ended back on the ground, all energy gone. Tina's voice chased him into the darkness.
"Breaking my relic returned my power to him. He now has enough strength to be reborn. You lost, Kuon. No matter what you did, you could never win."
It was strange, but he didn't want to die. Even if it meant he would see Kyoko sooner. He wanted to stay. To help fight and protect his country. He wanted to live. Felt like he should.
The thought made him smile. Kyoko would be glad to hear it.
He fell unconscious to the rumble of thunder above him.
Kuu's horse sped through the city streets, jumping over broken barriers and swerving around larger obstacles. A few monsters attempted to get in his way, but spells and arrows from his guard kept the way clear. His focus was entirely on the charms they'd given each of Kuon's party before entering the city. Two of the three pointed to somewhere far below him, no doubt underground as planned. Now, Kuon's—for whatever reason—pointed to the center of the city. It was this charm Kuu galloped toward.
Don't be dead. Please. Not yet.
A cluster of sand colossus stepped out in the streets. Kuu pulled back on his horse, cursing. They didn't have time for this!
It only took a few minutes to dispose of the monsters, but they soon ran into another group. Then another. Undead. Echidna. Sand colossus. With each group his frustration mounted.
"Should we send a group after the two below?" said Dyrus as they approached the entrance to the roots.
Kuu opened his mouth to answer.
A shiver ran up Kuu's spine. A wrongness squirmed its way into every vein, every bone. His heart turned to ice as every bit of warmth was stolen from him, pulled away in a vacuum toward the center of the city.
The horses started bucking in fright. Kuu struggled to control his own, but it was useless. The horse wouldn't calm.
With a curse, he jumped off, rolling out of the way as the stallion took off down the street away from the city's heart. His companions had all done the same. In seconds the horses were out of sight and the men were alone, white-faced and clammy.
"What…" Hiou swallowed, opening his mouth to continue but no words came.
"Sir." Even Dyrus, a seasoned warrior, looked shaken. His eyes had a wild look to them. "Is that…"
Kuu knew what he meant.
He swallowed, focusing on the spell that led to his son.
"If it is," said Kuu. "Then we will rise to meet it."
The ground rumbled. The sky darkened. Kuu turned and sped toward the heart of the city, the clattering of armor following him.
The roads, once swarming with monsters, now stood eerily calm. Every fiber of his being seemed on edge as they moved closer to Kuon's charm. With each step, the air grew chilly, and the world quiet. Even as the wind whipped around him and formed a dark funnel cloud, even as black streaks of lightning struck, and the earth shook beneath him, there was no noise to it.
In the distance, something rose from the city's heart.
The Dark Djinn was rising.
Shin jogged in place, watching his uncle lead the men away. They hadn't noticed him hanging back, too focused on getting to Kuon. But what about the other two? Like hell, he was going to abandon Kanae.
He ducked down an alleyway, speeding toward the underground entrance. The others would play hero and take care of the Djinn. He had another priority.
Dust and bits of rock fell from the cave ceiling as everything shook. Hiroaki's eyes snapped up, blanching when he felt the darkness above him.
He knew the answer, but he didn't want it. They had failed. By the gods, they'd been too late in taking down the reverse inhibitor. The Djinn had been revived.
A soft sigh snapped his attention back. His dad's eyes were skyward as well, but they were glossed over, like a man lost in a daydream.
"So much power," murmured Hirotaka. "Incredible."
That, more than anything snapped Hiroaki from his shock. As well as the ground lurching so hard he nearly fell.
"Dad, snap out of it!" He touched his dad's shoulder. The contact seemed to do the trick. Hirotaka's eyes refocused. "We need to get above ground."
"Yes… yes!" With renewed focus, Hirotaka scrambled up. "Can you carry her?"
He couldn't. Not without help. Together, they managed to awkwardly carry her between them, kicking their way through the door and out into the large chamber. Hiroaki winced as his feet slipped on blood. This was so not the correct way to hold someone as injured as Kanae. But what choice did they have?
His dad pressed a hand to the cave wall. A spell activated, and a platform with handrails slid out of the rock from nowhere. Likely how the Accursed had traveled to the above entrance.
They clambered on, carefully lying Kanae on the cold steel and working blood flow back into their tired limbs as the platform moving alongside the wall and up toward the entrance.
Another rumble shook the cave.
Rocks fell from above. Hiroaki fell next to Kanae as a portion hit their platform, jerking it wildly and taking out a large section. Hiroaki screamed, his dad already forming spells to protect them.
It wasn't enough. The walls of the cave started to crumble. Hiroaki was flung to the side, his midsection slamming into the handrail. Everything was shaking. He was falling. Then rolling. Then hitting the ground as it threw him into the air again.
Kyoko couldn't move. It took every effort just to lay there. To keep herself separated from the roaring rapids that was Rosa's soul. The two of them were so closely tied now. Even when their time as host and tether ended, there would always be a connection.
"You can't continue," said Rosa. "If you take that last memory, you'll disappear."
Kyoko's lips twitched into a smile. "Doesn't matter. I don't need to."
She felt when Rosa understood.
Kyoko managed to tilt her head enough to watch as Rosa took a step to the side. The circle of torches didn't follow her. They remained fixed on Kyoko's position, leaving her in the center instead.
Rosa could now touch the memories herself, taking out the need for Kyoko to do so.
Worry immediately creased the demi-goddess's brow.
"We went too far," she said. "Your individuality won't last long once we return."
"I know," said Kyoko. "Just get your other half of your divinity back, and then we can sever the bond."
The demi-goddess flexed her hands, measuring their strength and power. She had regained her adult appearance now, hair like fire and clothed in warm colors. A long train of detailed starbursts flanked her sides. Garnets and pearls glinted from head to toe with a crown of the rising sun resting on her head.
"I don't know if we can defeat him in time." Rosa set her jaw, hands clenching shut. "I won't let you get swallowed by me. I'll return to the divine realm before that can happen."
Panic hit Kyoko. "No. Don't." The kingdom needed Rosa. "Goddess, promise me you won't do that."
"We're out of time. I need to take back the last memory."
Kyoko struggled, but her body wouldn't respond. The goddess walked to the last flame. Kyoko was helpless, barely able to breathe, let alone stand.
"If you disappear back to the divine realm before reclaiming your divinity, then Ashuron is doomed. Your children are doomed."
Rosa halted, her hand inches from the flame. She looked regal, eyes lifted to the light, fabric trailing her. She appeared to weigh everything in that moment. Kyoko's words. The fate of the kingdom. Her own desires.
She met Kyoko's eyes. Her expression shifted to a hardness that made Kyoko's stomach plummet.
"I'm sorry," Rosa whispered. "But I don't want you to disappear."
The goddess took the last set of memories, swallowing Kyoko's cries as the world ignited into a bust of light and warmth. They were finally returning.
Thanks for reading!
Not much to say. Things are crazy. I'm pregnant again, btw. Due in Feb. Yay for crazy kids! I've been doing a lot of writing during work, so just don't tell my boss. Otherwise, this whole chapter would not have been written. True story.
Did anyone else here ever watch between the lions on PBS? (That's our American education channel) because all I could think of this chapter was "Cliff hanger hanging from a cliff! And that's why he's called cliffhanger." In other news, I purpose this chapter be called, father son bonding time. Because clearly, that was the point of this chapter.