A/N: Hey guys, MCN here, bringing you the long anticipated final chapter of the Land of Dragons Arc. So... funny story about this chapter, I actually finished writing it at the beginning of October, but my beta reader suddenly became very busy and wasn't able to take a look at it until now. I wasn't able to find anyone else to look at it, so... yeah, sorry for the long wait. Anyway, enough chit chat, onto the chapter!
Disclaimer: I don't own Kingdom Hearts or Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Beta Reader: Dragonexx
My Duty is to My Heart
"Grrrr… what's takin' 'em so long!?" Yao shouted as he paced back and forth with a grimace on his face.
"Patience, my friend." Chien Po advised.
"Yeah, you're freaking us all out!" Ling added.
As soon as Shang and the others lured the Heartless away, Yao and the guards took the Princesses back down the mountain and stood guard over them at a safe spot, just as ordered. The flashes of light that signaled the beast's power had long since passed, and so why had the others not yet returned? This question gnawed at the party's patience, each passing minute adding to their collective anxiety until it became unbearable.
"Are they… do you think they are…" Mei's voice shook, unable to utter the possibility that they all couldn't help but entertain.
"Of course not!" Su insisted, grabbing her sister by the hand. "This is Mulan, the hero of China we're talking about here! There's no way she'd lose to some overgrown Ox of all things!" She asserted with a confident smile, but the way she clasped her sister's hand just a little bit tighter betrayed her true feelings.
"Madoka and the General are powerful in their own rights as well." Ting-Ting added, wrapping an arm around each of her anxious sisters. "Between the three of them, I am sure they are…"
Her words died on her tongue as she caught a glimpse of an approaching figure. Her sisters turned their gaze up the mountain pass as well, and their spirits immediately fell.
"Alright, that's it! I'm goin' after them!" Yao declared, brandishing his sword and preparing for the fight of his life.
"Don't worry your Highness, I'll be back before you…" He paused once he set eyes on the figure approaching from the mountain pass.
The overcast obscured her to some extent, but he could clearly make out the petite frame of Kaname Madoka, her head of pink hair hanging low as she clenched her right arm and hobbled towards them.
"Well, took ya long enough!" Yao said, his teasing tone masking his genuine relief. "I was just about to go show that thunder spewin' bovine a thing or two myself, heh… hey, where's…"
It was then that Madoka got close enough that he could hear her soft whimpers. She lifted her head to face them, a flash of lightning from the clouds above illuminating her tearstained face for them all to see. Yao's jovial face fell into a look of horror, matching those of his comrades as a heavy downpour hid the pinkette's still falling tears.
In utter silence, Madoka led them up the mountain pass to the ravine where the Heartless was felled. She stopped the party a good five meters back from the edge, as kneeling there on the cold, wet ground was Mulan, her sobs so loud that they could be heard even over the heavy rainfall.
"The General…" Chien Po said in utter disbelief.
"This… this isn't happening… it can't…" Ling futilely denied.
"I don't… how… what happened?" Yao pleaded to Madoka for an explanation.
"*sniff* I'm sorry… we couldn't… I couldn't… *sniff* I'm sorry… I'm sorry..." Madoka sobbed, unable to lift her head to face the soldier.
Yao turned his gaze from Madoka to Mulan, the sight of the hero of China overcome with so much grief that she was reduced to a sobbing mess on her hands and knees painful enough to watch as it was.
A widow before she was ever even a bride.
It was a nightmare… and it was real.
The party all kept their distance from the grieving woman, huddling together under a crevice in the mountainside just big enough to be called a cave, mourning the loss of their valued friend and comrade. The guards tried their best to stay strong for the princesses, and vice versa, offering whatever comfort they could even if it was just a hand to hold or a shoulder to cry on.
Inevitably, without exception, each one of them found a way to blame themselves for the tragedy.
If only they had gone through with the mission…
If only they had not disobeyed orders…
If only they had been stronger and more reliable…
…then maybe Shang would still be alive.
They were pointless thoughts, born of grief and regret, but it was all they could think about as they helplessly watched Mulan mourn for the love of her life, whom she had parted with on such unfavorable terms.
Eventually, the rain stopped and the clouds parted, seemingly taking Mulan's mournful sobs with them. The sun was still high in the sky but hung more closely to the west, their time limit fast approaching. With a silent understanding between them, the party approached Mulan, now kneeling silently on the ground.
"Fa Mulan, we're ready to go through with the wedding." Ting-Ting spoke with solemn resolve, none of them willing to go against their duty now that a man had died for it.
"No…" Mulan replied with much stronger conviction that, quite frankly, the party was utterly shocked she could still muster. "Your orders are to take care of each other." She instructed as she stood, collected her discarded sword, and began preparing her horse.
"But… the alliance." Madoka said hesitantly.
Mulan paused, before turning to meet Madoka's uncertain gaze.
"Madoka, do me a favor and look out for them, ok. Make sure they get wherever it is they need to go." Mulan requested, somehow still able to muster the same soft, caring voice that she had always used with Madoka.
She was trying to stay strong… for them.
"Mulan-san… I… I'm…" Madoka tried to say something, anything, as she tried to hold back more tears from spilling from her eyes. What could she possibly say to Mulan now? A tearful apology and an admission of guilt were not going to bring Shang back, but it was all she had to offer, and she couldn't even get those words out.
As Madoka struggled to speak, Mulan stepped forward and wrapped her arms around the young girl in a gentle hug.
"Thank you, Madoka." Mulan said to her softly. "We couldn't have come this far without you… we couldn't possibly ask any more of you."
"Mulan-san…" The message was clear; Mulan didn't blame Madoka for what happened.
Perhaps she blamed herself just like the rest of them did, or maybe she was just mature enough not to pointlessly pass blame around in the face of tragedy, but whatever the case, the way Mulan's body subtly shook against Madoka's told her that she wasn't nearly as put together as she was presenting herself. And so, Madoka simply returned the embrace, offering the grieving woman comfort more sincerely than words ever could.
"What are you going to do now?" Madoka asked once they separated.
Mulan stood tall and looked beyond the mountain pass. In the distance, just barely visible, was the sight of a large, ornate palace sat atop a hill.
"I'm going to Qui Gong." Mulan stated. "Shang's sacrifice will not be meaningless. No matter what it takes, I'm finishing this mission."
"Come on you stupid horse, we gotta keep moving!" Ling said as he struggled to pull Shang's horse away from its grazing spot.
"Ling, you know there's no reason for us to rush anymore." Ting-Ting solemnly reminded him.
"Oh… right." Ling replied, immediately relaxing his grip and allowing the white stead to continue grazing in peace.
After Mulan had left them, the rest of the party was left to their own devices. Rather than return to the Middle Kingdom, where they would be faced with great dishonor for abandoning their mission, the party decided to continue forward into Qui Gong, where talk of elopement was tossed around between the couples. As requested, Madoka had accompanied them for protection, even with the hope for a new life with the person they loved, the looming specter of Shang and Mulan's absence kept their sprits from truly lifting, and so the Heartless were still a very real threat.
Madoka knelt down on the bank of the river they were resting near and cupped some of the water in her hands to splash on her face, cleaning it of grime and sweat. As Madoka stared blankly at her own reflection in the crystal clear water, she let out a gloomy sigh, and as if on cue, Mini-Scrooge appeared on her shoulder.
"Aw Madoka, I really wish ye didn't have to go through all that." The mechanical duck said with great sympathy.
"Yeah… me too." Madoka replied flatly, still just staring at her reflection.
"The lad was a good soldier, and a good soldier doesn't give his life fer the mission, but fer the lives of those he's tasked with protecting. So, if ye want to be honoring his memory, ye best just live yer life as best ye can, wouldn't ye agree, lass?"
The old duck's wisdom didn't help as much as either of them hoped, but the fact that he was trying, that he cared enough to try, was enough to lift Madoka's spirits just a tad. And in the end, Scrooge was right; as much as it still hurt, she needed to keep moving forward, especially since she still had people that were relying on her.
"Right… thank you, Mr. Scrooge." Madoka replied, wiping away a few more tears that nearly spilled from her eyes.
"Where do you think you're goin'!?" Yao exclaimed, grabbing Madoka's attention. "What, the grass over here ain't good enough for you!?" He said as he, Ling, and Chien Po were holding the reigns of Shang's horse, the stead desperately trying to escape their grasp.
"What's going on?" Madoka asked as she approached the princesses.
"Your guess is as good as ours." Ting-Ting replied.
"The horse just went crazy all of a sudden!" Su explained.
"And after we let it graze as much as it wanted." Mei added with a sigh.
Curious, Madoka stood back and observed with the princesses. As she watched the horse struggle against the iron grip of the guards, she noticed that every once in a while it would bring its nose to the ground and sniff at the grass, redoubling its effort afterwards. Now, Madoka didn't have much experience with horses, but she had encountered a few dogs in her lifetime, and when a dog struggled against its owner's grip on its leash, it was usually because some sight, sound, or scent had caught its interest.
'But, what could it possibly be looking for?' Madoka pondered.
The horse was sniffing on the riverbank, and it desperately wanted to go down stream, down stream, where things up stream would eventually end up. Madoka followed the river up stream with her gaze, watching as it eventually led back up to the mountain pass… to the ravine.
"It can't be… can it?"
"Madoka?" Mei looked to her quizzically.
"Yao-san! Let it go!" Madoka shouted over the horse's whinnying.
"Huh? Why would we wanna do that!?" Yao inquired, maintaining his grip on the reigns.
"I… I think it might be looking for General Shang!" Madoka declared, shocking the whole party.
"The General!?" Ling said quizzically.
"The river does pass through the ravine he fell in." Chien Po realized.
"Yeah… but…" The rest of the party seemed to share Yao's clear apprehension, Ting-Ting being the first willing to voice it.
"Madoka… the chances that the General survived that fall are…"
"I know!" Madoka snapped, not needing to be reminded of the obvious, heart-wrenching fact. "I know, but… at the very least, he deserves a proper burial, right?"
That too was an obvious, heart-wrenching fact, one that the guards did not even spare a moment to debate. Trading understanding nods, the guards released their hold on the reigns, allowing Shang's horse to follow whatever scent it had caught down stream.
"Follow that horse!" Ling declared, the entire party chasing after the white stead.
"Lass, are ye sure ye want to do this. Ye might not like what ye find." Mini-Scrooge whispered as Madoka ran down stream.
"I know Mr. Scrooge, but weren't you the one who told me not to leave with any regrets?" Madoka countered, gaining an almost amused chuckle from the duck.
"Aye, that I did." With that, Scrooge retreated back into Madoka's hood, allowing the girl to focus on chasing after the horse.
It was hard, oh so very hard, not to have hope, to ignore the small part of her heart that still wanted to hope that they would find Shang alive and well, floating down the river on a log and waiting for rescue. But truth be told, despite what Madoka had said, she didn't want to ignore it, she just… refused to.
"It's slowin' down!" Yao exclaimed, bringing the whole party to a halt.
The horse had indeed stopped galloping, and was now furiously sniffing at the grass by the riverbank.
"Anybody see him?" Ling said as he and the rest turned their gaze all across the river.
"Not me." Chien Po replied.
"No." Madoka admitted.
"Well that's good, right? I mean he'd float if he were…" Yao was cut off by a swift elbow to the chest by Ling.
Madoka watched anxiously as Shang's horse continued sniffing at the grass, stepping closer and closer to the water's edge.
'Please… please…' Madoka begged in her mind, wringing her hands together as the horse had finally stepped into the water.
Suddenly, a hand burst through the surface of the river and grabbed the low hanging reigns of Shang's horse. Startled, the horse reared back, pulling the arm up to reveal the disheveled appearance of General Li Shang, worse for wear, but alive.
"General Shang!" The entire party exclaimed at once, the soldiers rushing into the river to help Shang out of the water.
"…Thank goodness…. Thank goodness…!" The sheer relief Madoka felt as she watched Shang be pulled out of the river was indescribable. The tension that had plagued the party was lifted in an instant, Madoka trying and failing to keep tears of joy from spilling from her eyes.
Yao and Ling wrapped one of Shang's arms around each of their shoulders, the waterlogged soldier coughing out river water as he greedily tried to fill his lungs with air again. Madoka and the princesses crowded around as the soldiers laid their commanding officer onto the driest patch of grass they could find on the riverbank, inspecting him as if to prove to themselves that he truly was still alive.
"Everyone step back, give him some air." Yao advised, taking a single step back himself and the rest of the party followed suit.
Shang didn't look too good, to put it lightly; the tunic he wore was nowhere to be seen, leaving him in a tattered under shirt and his trousers. His hair had also come undone, allowing his long, wet locks to lay in chaotic patterns on the grass of the riverbank. Eventually, his coughing ceased, the man finally able to take a deep, satisfying breath, color slowly returning to his cheeks. Once he was sure he wasn't in danger of drowning, his eyes fluttered open, bloodshot but still functional, as he quizzically looked over the party.
"Yao… everyone… what…?" Shang said softly as he struggled to sit up.
"Whoa, whoa, easy there." Ling urged with concern.
"Don't push yourself General Shang, you need to rest." Madoka pleaded, kneeling beside the injured, exhausted soldier.
"I'm fine…" Shang panted as he finally sat up, rubbing his face with a single hand as he tried to focus himself. "What happened, is everyone ok?"
"You're asking us if we're ok!?" Su said incredulously.
"We are fine, General Shang, thanks to you it would seem." Ting-Ting spoke up, folding her hands and bowing formally. "You have our humblest gratitude… as well as our sincerest apologies." Mei and Su bowed in the same manner, as it was all they could do to thank the man that was willing to give his life to ensure their safety.
Shang just shook his head.
"There's no need your highnesses, I was simply doing my…" Shang's train of thought was immediately derailed once he finally realized who was missing from the party. "…Mulan? Where's Mulan?" Shang demanded, frantically searching his surroundings for her.
"C-Calm down General Shang, she's fine, I promise!" Madoka assured him, Shang breathing a sigh of relief at the news.
"Good… where is she?"
"She went on ahead to Qui Gong." Madoka explained. "She said she was going to finish the mission by herself, though she never said how she was going to do it without the princesses."
It certainly was a riddle, one that unfortunately none of the party had an answer to. Shang, however, after but a moment of thought, of reflecting on the kind of person the woman he loved was, arrived at the answer almost instantly.
"…She's going to take their place."
"She's going to offer her own hand to Lord Qin's sons in place of the princesses'. As the hero of China, the honor she would bring to the Kingdom of Qui Gong would be more than enough to sway Lord Qin."
"Oh no!" Su exclaimed in shock.
"Would she really do that… for us?" Mei asked in disbelief.
"Of course she would!" Yao declared. "We're talkin' about the same woman who took her father's place in the army to save his life!"
"That's just the kind of person she is." Chien Po added solemnly.
"Mulan-san…" Madoka muttered under her breath.
She found it so hard to believe she would actually go through with such an idea, she had been so adamant about marrying for love after all, but the more she thought on it, the more it began to make sense. Mulan did believe in marrying for love, and with the man that she loved lost to her, wouldn't she want to save her charges from that same fate? The fate of being apart from the one you loved.
"…I'm going after her." Shang declared as he struggled to stand.
"What? General, with all due respect, you're in no condition to…" Ling was cut off as Shang shoved passed him.
"I'm fine, I just… need my horse." Shang said as he hovelled over to his stead, which was ready and waiting to be mounted.
"But, what about the alliance?" Mei spoke up.
"I'll handle it."
"But you said…"
"I know what I said."
"Because it's different now!" Shang snapped, whirling his head around to shoot the startled princess an angry, irritated glare.
Shang immediately recognized his mistake, his face relaxing, surprised at himself for the sudden and violent outburst. He looked away from the party's concerned expressions, his face falling into a deeply troubled frown.
"…No, it's not different, I was just pretending it was." He admitted his low voice filled with regret and shame. "You know, despite what you all might have thought last night, ignoring your feelings and pressing on with the mission wasn't easy. It hurt, but I pushed through it because I thought it was for the best. I know I'm being selfish and unfair to you all, but now that it's Mulan, now that it's the person I love more than anything else in the world… I just can't let her go through with this. I can't."
I don't want to fight you Madoka…
I don't… I don't want to fight you either, Homura-chan…
Madoka understood how Shang was feeling all too well, it was exactly how she felt when she ran away from Mitakihara, from her home World. Her mind gave her every reason it could conjure to fight that devil girl, it was the right thing to do no matter how you sliced it, and yet… her Heart just wouldn't let her go through with it.
And now, it was happening again. Shang was being led by emotions rather than logic, about to go off and crash a wedding, steal a bride, and bring a Kingdom saving alliance crashing down, all in the name of love. It was crazy! It was selfish! It was foolhardy! The sensible part of Madoka practically begged for her to speak up, to remind everyone of what was truly at stake here, and that Mulan was doing the right thing. She was doing what was best for China.
Madoka told that sensible part of herself to put a sock in it.
"Then we won't." Madoka said as she applied a Potion to Shang, rejuvenating him, much to his surprise.
"General Shang, if you're going after Mulan-san, then I'm coming with you." Madoka declared, standing tall and firm before Shang.
"No, you have to stay here and protect the others." Shang argued. "The Heartless are still out there."
"And they'll all be after you!" Madoka rebuked, surprising Shang with her sudden assertiveness. "Or if not you, then they'll definitely be after the bride who's forcing herself to marry someone she doesn't even know, and believes that the love of her life is dead! You once told me to take pride in doing my duty, and, well… fighting the Heartless is a Keyblade Wielder's duty!"
Shang was stunned silent. The meekness and uncertainty that the pinkette had displayed since the moment they met was nowhere to be seen, replaced now with purpose and determination that could match any one of his trained soldiers on the battlefield. Madoka had finally gotten serious, and something told him that it had far less to do with doing her duty than she claimed.
Shang couldn't help but let out a light chuckle.
"Well, can't argue with that." He said as he mounted his horse, grabbing the reigns before offering a hand to Madoka. "Grab on."
Madoka did as instructed, Shang lifting her up onto the horse's saddle, ready to go.
"We're coming too." Yao declared, the rest of the party stepping up.
"No, you all stay here and protect each other, we'll be back with Mulan soon." And with that, Shang cracked the reigns and sent his horse galloping towards Qui Gong, leaving the rest of the party before they had a chance to argue.
"…Would you say that was an order?" Ling inquired.
"I would say it was a friendly suggestion." Chien Po said with a playful smile, the entire party all in agreement.
"Let's go!" Yao shouted as he led the charge after them.
"Looks like we're not going to be a team after all Mushu." Mulan lamented as she finished doing up her hair in a neat, regal bun.
When she had arrived in Qui Gong, there was certainly an uproar when she had told Lord Qin of the incident with the carriage on her journey over, with the added embellishment that the Princesses did not survive the fall. However, the monarch was quickly pacified when Mulan offered her own hand in their place, and just like that she was betrothed to Lord Qin's eldest son… who just so happened to be younger than the very girl she had made the journey to Qui Gong with.
Regardless, a marriage was promised, and a marriage there would be, and so here she was, dressed in a beautiful fuchsia silk robe, hair and makeup done up in a way she never thought she would have to bother with ever again, preparing herself to promise her life to a boy she had only met not but an hour or two ago. She thought she would be more upset about this horrid development, and of course she was, but compared to the pain she had to endure earlier that very day, everything else just seemed… trivial to her now.
"Oh Mulan," Mushu cooed sympathetically as he scurried up to her on the dresser he was sat on. "I would give up a thousand pedestals if I could stop this." He said, cradling Mulan's face in his small claws.
The sincere regret that she had refused to acknowledge before was now plain to see in the dragon's misty eyes, and Mulan could not deny that the anger she had held towards Mushu had long since faded. And yet, it didn't matter if Mushu apologized, if Mulan forgave him, or what the family guardian was willing to give up, nothing was going to change what she had to do. Before he could say anything more, the sound of a loud horn rang against her eardrums, signaling that it was time.
"I doubt even the Golden Dragon of Unity could stop this now." Mulan lamented, Mushu just staring up at her with a hopeless gaze. "Goodbye, Mushu."
With that farewell, Mulan removed Mushu's claws from her face and placed a regal headdress she was provided over her done up hair. Mushu watched as she stood before a transparent curtain that led onto a balcony that overlooked the palace courtyard, the curtain slowly rising and unveiling her to the hundreds, if not thousands of citizens as the bride of their kingdom's prince. They all gasped and chattered amongst themselves at her unveiling, whether it be from her beauty or her esteem it mattered little to Mulan. She pressed on, back straight and eyes shut, slowly walking out onto the balcony, down a set of stairs, and eventually to an altar where her future husband and father-in-law were awaiting her.
Lord Qin was a rotund man with long, sagging earlobes and dressed in fine yellow robes. He stood on the altar under a large statue depicting the Golden Dragon of Unity, a divine creature that oversaw the romantic unions of men and women. Her groom, Prince Jeeki stood on the altar as well. He seemed completely disinterested in this formal ceremony, as any boy thirteen years of age would be.
"My people! Today, the Golden Dragon of Unity, who guides us in all we do…" Lord Qin addressed the audience, officially beginning the ceremony.
Mulan cared not for what the man said, barely registering it when Lord Qin handed her and his son each an ornate cup of water. She looked over the crowd as they cheered upon Lord Qin's proclamation of the honor and blessing their union would bring to the kingdom. They all seemed so happy, excited, completely oblivious to the inner turmoil of their prince's "blushing bride". She turned her gaze to the cup she was given, seeing for the first time the face she was making on this, her wedding day. She shed a single tear, but quickly got a hold of herself as the ceremony continued.
"With the tying of this sash, we shall unite, not only two lives, but two kingdoms!"
This was it, no going back now. Mulan surprised even herself with how resigned she had become to her fate, but as she now experienced the myriad of emotions that came with a loveless marriage, she knew in her heart she did the right thing sparing the princesses this terrible burden.
Her only wish was that Shang, where he was now, would forgive her.
Suddenly, the sash tied around Mulan and Jeeki's cups, the symbol of their union, was violently severed, the culprit being a throwing star that went on to imbed itself into the statue on the altar.
The attention of the entire crowd shifted from the altar to the palace gate, and stood there, mounted on a pristine white stead, was none other than General Li Shang, returned from the dead.
At the sight of him, Mulan's heart soared.
Madoka was amazed by how readily the sea of citizens parted for them, or rather for General Shang, whom they looked upon with such awe and wonder that she was most likely invisible to them. She could only guess that they had heard of his supposed demise and were awestruck by his sudden, dramatic arrival, and they weren't the only ones.
Madoka had to stifle a giggle as she watched how Mulan's face went from quiet anguish, to shock and disbelief, and eventually settled on overwhelming joy as she watched them approach. Once the crowd had completely parted for them, Shang dismounted, a big, uncharacteristic smile on his face as he rushed towards the altar. Mulan met him halfway, their hands outstretched towards each other the whole time, until they met in the middle, clasping each other's hands tightly, lovingly, with the intent of never letting go.
"You're alive!" Mulan exclaimed, still not quite able to believe it.
"I couldn't let you get married without me." Shang playfully replied.
Madoka was ecstatic to see the two soldiers together again, but alas, the moment didn't last.
"General! This is outrageous!" Lord Qin barked as he split Mulan and Shang apart. "You will leave at once!" He demanded, attempting to shove Shang off of the altar. Unfortunately for him, the General stood his ground.
"I'm not going anywhere." Shang said, shooting the monarch a defiant glare.
Surprisingly, Mulan seemed to be more surprised by his defiance than Lord Qin himself. Madoka couldn't exactly blame her, knowing how duty bound the man usually was. Seeing him talk back to the highest authority in the land was probably something akin to a miracle.
"How dare you trample upon this sacred ceremony!" Lord Qin berated him, completely unfazed.
"My Lord, I love Mulan, and I don't care what the rules say! If she'll have me, I intend to marry her right here. Right now." He declared, taking Mulan's hands back into his own.
'…Wait, was that really the plan?' Madoka inquired to herself.
It was now that Madoka realized just how little thought they had actually put into this little rescue mission, and as expected, it wouldn't go so smoothly.
"Insolent dog! Need I remind you that Qui Gong offers its troops in alliance with the Middle Kingdom only in exchange for a marriage, first to the princesses of the Middle Kingdom, and now to Fa Mulan! I shall make no further exceptions!"
As Shang and Mulan listened to Lord Qin's tirade, their spirits noticeably fell, their firm postures sagging just the slightest bit as their reignited hope began to die again at the mention of their duty. At that moment, Madoka noticed some dark clouds beginning to coalesce overhead, lightning of various colors flashing between them accompanied by the sound of crackling thunder.
"Oh no…" Madoka feared.
"Guards, seize him!" Lord Qin ordered, his royal centuries grabbing Shang by the shoulders and began dragging him away.
"Shang!" Mulan cried, held back from aiding her beloved by Lord Qin.
"Mulan!" Shang called back, struggling with all of his might against the two guards that held him.
Meanwhile, the clouds above grew darker, and darker, spewing lightning and thunder more violently until it reached an all too familiar fever pitch.
"Everyone, GET BACK!" Madoka shouted to the citizens, giving them just enough notice to part away from the space directly below the storm cloud.
Just as before, a powerful bolt of lightning struck between the crowds, the force of it still potent enough to send the closest to its striking spot tumbling to the ground. As everyone's sight readjusted from the blinding flash, they immediately fell into panic as they laid their eyes on the still sparking form of the Crackling Kuí.
"W-W-What is that? A Demon!?" Lord Qin panicked, stepping back onto the altar and hiding behind his son.
"Looks like I'm not the only one who survived that fall." Shang said to Madoka, as they both stepped forward in preparation for battle.
However, the Heartless paid them no mind, its monstrous gaze falling on the two cowering monarchs. Its horns charged with electrical energy before it sent a bolt of lightning into the sky, Mulan immediately deducing what was about to happen next.
Mulan acted with haste, pushing Lord Qin and Prince Jeeki out of the way just as the bolt of lightning struck back down on the altar. They tumbled off the side steps, a little shaken, but otherwise ok.
"Are you alright, your Highnesses?" Mulan inquired.
Lord Qin did not answer, still panicking over the sudden attack by the strange creature, but even in his hysteric state of mind, he managed to notice the singe marks on the lower half of Mulan's now ruined robes. He looked back up at the hero of China, realizing just how narrow of a rescue that truly was, and saw the genuine concern on Mulan's face.
However, the revelation was cut short as the Crackling Kuí let out a loud snort and charged at the prone monarchs. Mulan wasted no time standing up and shielding the Qui Gong royal family with her own body, bracing herself for the impact that could very well be the end of her. However, her demise never came, as Madoka and Shang intercepted the Heartless, holding it back as their weapons sparked against the creature's electrified horns.
Meanwhile, the citizens of Qui Gong began stampeding for the exit. Unfortunately, four lesser Heartless, two Nightwalkers and two Hook Bats, appeared to block the front gate. The crowd immediately halted as the Heartless encroached upon them, intent on devouring their Hearts filled with fear and anguish. A Nightwalker hopped forward, staring down a man that was unlucky enough to have been the fastest runner of the crowd, but just as the Heartless raised its clawed hand to strike, the silver blade of a sword pierced straight through its chest. The creature vanished in a puff of smoke, revealing the assailant to be none other than Yao, with Ling and Chien Po making quick work of the rest of the Heartless.
"Shang! Madoka! We'll take care of the citizens, you just focus on the big guy!" Yao called to his comrades before immediately engaging with some Heartless that appeared to replace those that were slain.
The princesses did their part to help as well, guiding the citizens away from the fight as their guards covered them.
"Understood!" Shang shouted his reply to his soldiers. "Lord Qin… please get to safety, we'll take care of this monster!" He requested as he struggled to hold the beast in place.
"Please hurry your highness… we can't hold it much longer!" Madoka pleaded as she and Shang began to give ground on the Heartless.
"V-Very well, come Jeeki!" Lord Qin complied, taking his son and having the guards guide him back into the palace.
"Mulan!" The bride looked to wear the voice came from and saw the amusing, but welcomed sight of Mushu, scurrying up to the altar as he dragged Mulan's sword with him. "Can't kick Heartless booty without this!"
"Mushu!" Mulan exclaimed before rushing to meet the little dragon. She kneeled down and gratefully took her sword, tying the scabbard to her sash and then offering her arm for Mushu to climb onto. "You ready?"
"Girl, I was born ready!" Mushu declared as he took his place on Mulan's shoulder, ready for a fight.
With a determined nod, Mulan threw away her headdress, allowing her hair to come undone and fall to the sides of her face again. She drew her sword as Mushu produced three balls of fire. Mulan concentrated for a moment before guiding the flames into the snout of the Crackling Kuí; the first fireball took the creature by surprise, allowing Madoka and Shang to win the deadlock, and with the Heartless put off balance the following two fireballs sent it tumbling to the ground.
With the courtyard now free of innocents, Madoka, Mulan, and Shang were free to deal with the Crackling Kuí. They all stepped down from the altar, Madoka looked to Mulan on her left and then Shang on her right, exchanging a determined nod with both of them before they all lowered into a fighting stance, ready to defeat the Heartless once and for all.
Meanwhile, Lord Qin and his son watched the battle from the balcony overlooking the courtyard, witnessing the warriors of the Middle Kingdom defending their home from that terrible demon.
"I do not understand. The alliance has not yet been sanctioned, so why do they risk their lives for Qui Gong?"
"Gee father, maybe because it's the right thing to do? Radical concept, isn't it?" Prince Jeeki replied sarcastically, perhaps a bit more invested in the politics of his home than even his own father believed him to be.
Unconcerned with the prying eyes, the Crackling Kuí stared down its prey, scraping its metallic hoof on the ground as it prepared to charge. However, Madoka beat it to the punch, charging forward with her Keyblade raised in a preemptive strike, Mulan and Shang close behind. Unfazed, the Heartless charged forward as well, meeting Madoka's first swing with the side of its jagged horn, effortlessly deflecting the blow. It then swung its head back around in an attempt to strike at her with the other horn, but Madoka quickly brought the Keyblade up in defense.
The force of the blow made Madoka take a reflexive step back, and the Crackling Kuí made to follow up on the strike by raising itself on its hind legs to crush the small girl with its front hooves. Fortunately, Mulan and Shang took full advantage of the opening, dashing up and slashing at the Heartless' hind legs, knocking it off balance and collapsing under its own weight. Madoka retaliated with a powerful spinning slash, sending the Crackling Kuí flying back and knocking it prone on the ground, giving her and her comrades the perfect chance to strike.
However, the Heartless was far from helpless. The three warriors surrounded the prone beast and closed in on it, but as soon as they came too close for comfort, the Crackling Kuí called down three continuous bolts of lighting, the trio just barely managing to evade. Unfortunately, the assault didn't end there, as the columns of electricity began to move, circling around the Heartless at high speed as their radius expanded, forcing the combatants to retreat. This gave the Crackling Kuí the chance to reorient itself, standing back up and letting out an angry snarl as it planted its still electrified horn into the ground.
"Scatter!" Shang exclaimed, he, Mulan, and Madoka all dashing in different directions.
So far, they had only observed the Crackling Kuí traveling relatively short distances with its extreme speed, and with the entirety of the now vacant courtyard at their disposal, they hoped that they could create enough distance between the creature and each other to leave it unable to hit all of them, or even none of them at all. Fortunately, their assumption was correct. Unfortunately, it was only partially correct.
The Crackling Kuí surged forward, first striking at Madoka, the Keyblade Wielder the most dangerous threat by far. Its second target, more arbitrarily, would be Shang, the Heartless making two sharp turns in order to traverse the distance between the girl and the soldier, leaving both paralyzed in its wake.
"Madoka! Shang!" Mulan exclaimed, seeing her comrades writhing in agony across the courtyard.
Her eyes fell on the Crackling Kuí as it pulled its horn out of the ground and turned its attention to the incapacitated Shang. She charged forward as the Heartless' horns began crackling with electricity, about to summon another bolt of lighting upon its helpless foe. Mulan would not allow it, summoning forth three of Mushu's flames and sending them careening towards the beast. The first two collided with the Crackling Kuí, disrupting its casting, and before it could search for the source of the assault, the third detonated on the ground by its feet, stunning the creature as it was forced back by the blast.
In addition, the force of the blast also knocked Shang back, freeing him from the paralyzing current left on the ground from the Heartless' assault.
"Shang, are you ok?" Mulan asked once she made it to Shang's side.
"I'm fine… it's easier to deal with when you know what to expect." He asserted as Mulan helped him to his feet. "Look out!" He suddenly exclaimed, giving Mulan just enough notice to leap out of the way of the columns of lightning bolts the Crackling Kuí had thrown at them. It then planted its still charged horn into the ground, but Mulan wasn't going to take another one of those surges lying down.
"Shang, stay close!" Mulan instructed, and the General complied in a moment of absolute trust of his partner.
Shang dashed to Mulan's side and she had Mushu summon forth four fireballs that she commanded to orbit around them. The Crackling Kuí took a step, then another, and then…
They couldn't see it happen, but they could only assume that the creature had tried to surge through them, as the moment it tried one of the fireballs detonated, sending the Heartless, and the two soldiers, flying back in a fiery explosion.
"Ugh… well, at least we're not paralyzed." Mulan asserted… before noticing that one of her robe sleeves had caught fire.
"Yeah… still not the best counter in my opinion." Shang lamented as he helped Mulan put out the small flame.
It was then that his ears picked up the distinctive sound of the Crackling Kuí's metallic steps. He looked up to see the Heartless charging forward before leaping into the air, intent on crushing them below its black, electrified mass.
"Mulan!" Shang cried as he shielded Mulan's body with is own. There was nothing else he could do except brace for the impact, but luckily it never came as four consecutive Blizzard spells collided with the airborne Heartless, freezing it in the air.
"Sorry… for the wait." Madoka said between pants, the Keyblade outstretched and the tip frosted over with a thin layer of ice. Sparks still arced off her body, the current on the ground that had trapped her having just dissipated.
"Better late then never, I always say." Mushu quipped as he popped up and blew a torrent of flame at the frozen Heartless.
The heat thawed it out and the force threw it back, the Crackling Kuí landing hard and skidding across the courtyard. However, the creature somehow managed to skid back onto its feet and immediately prepared to surge forward again to close the distance between it and its prey.
"Everyone back to back!" Shang shouted, Madoka and Mulan immediately getting into position. "Brace yourselves!"
The trio raised their weapons in defense, hoping that between the three of them they would be able to block the Crackling Kuí, regardless of which direction it would come at them from. It was the same basic idea as Mulan's failed "fire shield", and while it would cause no damage, it wouldn't damage them either.
The Crackling Kuí surged forward, the trio feeling the force and energy of the Heartless' electrified strikes against their weapons. They held fast however, and once it was over, the Crackling Kuí stopping on a dime a few meters away. It took them a moment to realize that they had been neither struck nor paralyzed.
"It worked!" Madoka cheered even as sparks were still arcing off the Keyblade.
"It did… but…" Mulan lamented as her gaze turned to the ground.
It didn't take long for Madoka to realize the problem. In its attempt to break through their guard, the Crackling Kuí had come at them from every angle it could manage during its surge, leaving behind a chaotic pattern of electric currents a few meters in every direction around them. The trio had huddled so close together that none of them had the room to make a proper leap over the charged ground, and even if they could, there was no guarantee they could clear it. They had avoided paralysis, but they were still trapped.
The Crackling Kuí, whether aware of its clever trap or not, took the opportunity for what it was and brought down a powerful bolt of lightning onto the party. The three wailed in pain as countless volts of electricity surged through them, forcing them to their knees and then flat on their faces, just barely holding onto consciousness. With the last bit of her strength, Madoka took out a Potion and used it on herself; healing her enough to force herself back on her feet and keep fighting.
Fortunately, the power from the last lightning strike seemed to have discharged the current on the ground, restoring her freedom of movement, but she knew it meant little if the Crackling Kuí decided to surge at them again. The best she could do at the moment was use the last bit of her magic to cast a Blizzard spell at the Heartless' feet, freezing it to the ground and giving her the chance to heal her comrades.
'After this, I'll be all out of potions. If we go down like this again, that'll be it!' Madoka dreaded in her mind as she took out her last two potions and used them on Mulan and Shang. The two soldiers forced themselves to their feet, shaking off their fatigue and ready to jump back into the fray.
'But if we do keep fighting, we'll just end up right back here again.' She helplessly watched as the Crackling Kuí managed to free one of its hooves, Mulan and Shang dashing forward to try and make the best of the creature's immobility while they still could.
'Blocking leaves us wide open, so evasion is the only way. But… it's just toofast!' The Crackling Kuí deflected Mulan and Shang's initial strikes with a swing of its horns, the force allowing him to free itself from the ice. However, the soldiers immediately reengaged, locking their swords against its sparking horns.
'If only… if only we had some way to slow it down.' Madoka pleaded to herself, gripping the Keyblade tightly as she wracked her brain for an answer.
Suddenly, a memory flashed in her mind, not one of Sora's, but her own. She recalled her battle against the Mad Watch, or more specifically, the way the possessed pocket watch was able to literally slow her down by the use of some kind of spell. The moment she recalled the event, how she felt as she desperately tried to save her friend the White Rabbit, she felt a warm sensation fill her chest, and her pendant began to glow.
"This is…" Realizing what was happening, Madoka grasped the glowing gemstone, closed her eyes, and concentrated; focusing on the time she had spent with the neurotic little rabbit.
She remembered their odd meeting where she was mistaken for his housekeeper, she remembered attended the strangest tea party she had ever seen with him, and she remembered taking a picture with him before they parted ways. With each memory, the gem grew brighter, turning the connection she had forged with the White Rabbit into tangible power.
"Lend me your strength… Mr. Rabbit!" Madoka cried, releasing the pendant's power in a blinding flash of light.
The warm light caught the attention of her comrades, as well as the Heartless they were struggling against, and when the light faded Madoka's form had changed. She now wore a red shirt with short, puff sleeves, a piece of white cloth with a red heart emblazoned on it hanging from a large white collar around her neck. She also sported a pair of white gloves and white tights under a red and black checkered skirt, and on her head was a pair of snow-white rabbit ears.
Madoka had donned the White Rabbit Cosplay.
"Mulan-san, General Shang, please step back!" Madoka requested, holding the Keyblade up and prepared to cast a spell.
Mulan and Shang traded a pensive look before nodding in agreement, disengaging from the Crackling Kuí and retreating to Madoka's side. The Heartless let out an angry roar, electrical sparks arcing furiously off of its horns before it was plunged into the ground, ready to surge. This was the moment that Madoka was waiting for.
"Slow!" Madoka shouted as she waved the Keyblade and cast the spell.
The Crackling Kuí began to glow as the magic took effect, a transparent clock face appearing over the creature's head, the hands of which began to slow to a crawl.
The Crackling Kuí galloped once… then twice… three times, four times! They could see it; they could finally see the Heartless' movements as it surged towards them. It was still rather quick, but not quick enough as the trio all rolled in opposite directions, avoiding the initial strike. As usual, the Crackling Kuí made a sharp turn as it made to charge at Madoka, but with the Slow Spell in effect she was easily able to dodge, as was Shang and Mulan when the Heartless turned to surge towards them.
Back and forth it went, crisscrossing between one target to the next until it came to Mulan, but the hero of China easily dodged the attack with a back handspring. Once she landed, she immediately countered with one of Mushu's fireballs, the detonation knocking the Heartless' horn out of the ground and sending it skidding forward, but the beast managed to catch itself and stand back upright. However, with the Slow Spell still in effect, its movements outside of its surging attack became sluggish, leaving it open for attack.
"Yes! It worked!" Madoka cheered joyously at her handiwork.
"Good work, but be careful, the ground is still a hazard!" Shang warned.
Despite avoiding the initial strike of the surge, it still left behind an electrical current, limiting the combatants' movement to a degree. The Crackling Kuí seemed somewhat aware of this, as it made no effort to move out of the pattern of charged ground that it had left, discouraging the group from capitalizing on its moment of vulnerability. The Heartless then opted to summon forth columns of lighting from the sky to strike the warriors from a distance, and while it telegraphed enough that they could be avoided, it still prevented them from getting close.
"Mulan-san, please cover me, I'm going in!" Madoka requested.
"Are you sure, Madoka?" Mulan replied. "One wrong step and…"
"Don't worry, I can do it, just hold its attention!" Madoka assured, exuberating more confidence then Mulan had ever seen from the girl. Mulan gave Madoka a compliant nod and bombarded the Heartless with fireballs, the Crackling Kuí shifting all of its focus on her.
With a running start, Madoka leaped into the fray, literally, hopping like the rabbit she was mimicking between the uncharged portions of the web of electrified ground towards the Heartless.
The Crackling Kuí noticed her approach, but it couldn't react fast enough as Madoka jumped over it and brought the Keyblade down in a downward slash, landing perfectly in a small pocket of uncharged ground right next to the Heartless. Madoka immediately followed up with a vertical spinning slash that made the Crackling Kuí stagger back, but just as Madoka hopped over to continue the onslaught, the Heartless managed to charge its horns and was about to call down a bolt of lightning on her.
However, just as it was about to release the energy, a couple of throwing stars imbedded themselves into the creature's shadowy flesh, interrupting the casting of the spell. The Crackling Kuí turned its eye in the direction the projectile came from and saw Shang, his hand outstretched and three more throwing stars ready to be thrown. It was at this moment of distraction that Madoka struck, landing a vertical slash on the Heartless' face and following up with an upward slash that dazed it, Shang taking full advantage of the opportunity.
"Mulan!" Shang shouted as he threw all three of his remaining throwing stars straight up in the air over the Crackling Kuí.
Mulan understood exactly what he wanted and guided three of Mushu's fireballs up to the three metal projectiles. The flames shaped themselves around the throwing stars, creating three spinning blades of fire that fell upon the Heartless. The flaming projectiles tore and burned at the creature's flesh, letting out a cry of agonizing pain as it slumped over.
"Now, finish it!" Mulan cried to Madoka, the young pinkette immediately complying.
As Madoka charged forward, the Keyblade raised to deliver the finishing blow, Madoka failed to notice the clock face over the Crackling Kuí's head begin to flicker… and then fade from existence.
Madoka brought down the Keyblade only to hit the ground where the Heartless once stood.
"What!?" She exclaimed, looking around frantically to find that the Crackling Kuí was now suddenly a good six meters to her right across the courtyard. The spell, it seemed, had worn off, and the Heartless had regained its speed. "No no no no… Slow!"
Madoka pointed the Keyblade at the Crackling Kuí and casted the spell again, only for the Heartless to flash across the courtyard, completely avoiding the magic.
"Slow! Slow! Slow!" Madoka casted over and over, but the Heartless just kept dodging.
Madoka lost track of it for a moment, only to realize it had flashed behind her as she was hit with a swing of its jagged horn, sending her flying and tumbling to the ground.
"Madoka!" Shang said as he attempted to come to her aid.
In a moment, the Crackling Kuí barred his path, swinging one of its horns at Shang who was quick enough to block it. He then went to counter with a strike of his own, but in another flash the Heartless was far out of range, summoning a bolt of lightning that Shang was just barely able to evade.
Mulan made her own attempt to give aid, throwing a slew of fireballs at the Heartless, but none were able to hit their mark as the Crackling Kuí flashed away at the last second. It then flashed behind her but Mulan saw it coming and blocked the subsequent strike, but just as before the Crackling Kuí flashed out of range for the counter and threw a bolt of lightning at them from afar.
"Oh dear, this is bad, this is very, very bad! It's rapid, it should be torpid!" Madoka rambled involuntarily in the moment of crisis.
The Crackling Kuí clearly had no intention of letting Madoka get the Slow Spell off again, adopting a hit and run tactic that left the three of them unable to do much of anything besides stay on the defensive. Fortunately, that spell wasn't the only trick Madoka had up her sleeve.
"Mulan-san, General Shang, gather around!" Madoka requested, the two soldiers retreating to her side.
"Can you slow it down again?" Mulan asked.
"I don't think so, but I can do the next best thing." Madoka replied.
"Well, whatever you're going to do, do it fast!" Shang said as he blocked another one of the Crackling Kuí's attacks, only to once again whiff the counter as the Heartless flashed away.
With both Mulan and Shang at her side, Madoka raised the Keyblade over her head and released the second spell that the White Rabbit Cosplay gave her access to.
"Haste!" Madoka shouted as she casted the spell. The magic from the Keyblade flowed into Madoka, Mulan, and Shang, three clock faces appearing above their heads. However, unlike the Slow Spell, the hands on the clocks began to spin faster, the trio's perception of time slowing at an inverse rate.
The Crackling Kuí took their moment of stillness to attack, flashing into their range and swinging its horn at the seemingly exposed Keyblade Wielder. However, Madoka saw the attack coming, and was able to bring the Keyblade up in defense in nearly an instant. The moment the electrified horn bounced off the side of the blade, Shang and Mulan dashed forward at incredible speed, slashing at the Crackling Kuí's sides and causing it to flinch. This gave Madoka the chance to land an upward swing that sent the Heartless staggering back, all within the moment it was preparing to flash away.
Knowing that the Haste Spell wouldn't last forever, Mulan and Shang made sure to keep up the pressure. When the Crackling Kuí managed to flash away, Mulan was able to track its trajectory, allowing her to send a fireball right where the creature stopped, the detonation stunning it long enough for Shang to rush up and land a powerful underhand swing with his sword. The strike sent the beast airborne, where Madoka had leaped to meet it and slammed it back onto the ground with a downward slash.
Once Madoka landed, the Haste Spell dissipated, but luckily it was no longer needed, that last assault having put the Crackling Kuí firmly on the ropes. Madoka put her feet together, stood up straight and closed her eyes, focusing all of her magical power into the Keyblade as the Crackling Kuí struggled to stand. The horns on the Heartless began to charge with electric power, preparing to summon one last bolt of lighting in a last ditch effort to turn the tide back in its favor.
"…Mulan-san, General Shang, let's finish this!" Madoka cried as she and the Heartless unleashed their spells at the same time.
The electrical energy the Crackling Kuí had sent into the sky froze in place, along with the rest of the Heartless as it was engulfed by Madoka's magic, a clock face appearing superimposed on its form with the hands completely static. A moment later, Madoka, Mulan, and Shang suddenly surrounded the beast, slashing it at high speed from various angles before landing one last powerful slash all together. A moment passed before the hands on the Crackling Kuí's clock face began moving again, the Heartless suddenly feeling the damage of the trio's onslaught all at once before falling to the delayed damage of the final hit.
The Crackling Kuí discharged the last of its electricity as its life faded, its body fading away into darkness and its Heart rising into the sky before vanishing in a flash of light.
With the battle won, Madoka dismissed the Keyblade and the White Rabbit Cosplay along with it, suddenly feeling the casting fatigue hit her as she struggled to stay standing. Fortunately, her footing was stabilized by two hands grabbing a shoulder each, the girl looking up to see Mulan and Shang at either side, each offering her a satisfied smile, which Madoka gladly returned.
Slowly, the palace courtyard began to fill with applause, the crowd of citizens being led back in the front gate by Yao, Ling, and Chien Po, who along with the Princesses nearly tackled the trio to the ground in a big, joyous embrace.
"SILENCE!" The commanding voice echoed throughout the courtyard, instantly silencing the entire crowd.
Up on the balcony overlooking the courtyard, Lord Qin stood with his son and two guards by his side, his arms crossed and looking down on the soldiers of the Middle Kingdom with much scrutiny. The group hug immediately disbanded and they all stood formally at attention, including Madoka, who simply copied what the others were doing. Lord Qin's gaze then moved to the three princesses, who had taken a knee in front of their escorts, their heads lowered in respect for the ruler of this Kingdom.
"Greetings, Princesses of the Middle Kingdom. I am pleased to see you alive and well, rather than perished at the bottom of a river as I was led to believe." Lord Qin spoke, an underlying bitterness in his voice.
"My lord, I can explain…!" Lord Qin silenced Mulan with a raised hand and a gaze, the soldier shying away in regret and shame. Shang took her hand in support, allowing Mulan to retain her respectful posture in the face of the accusation.
"Please rise, princesses." Lord Qin commanded, to which Mei, Su, and Ting-Ting silently obliged. "When the Middle Kingdom first requested our aid, I had little reason to comply." He addressed not only the soldiers, but his people as well. "With a mountain between us, relations between our two kingdoms have been… distant at best. And yet you ask us to send our soldiers to your boarders, to rip them away from their homes and families, to fight and die in defense of a kingdom that has done little to earn our favor in the past? Needless to say, it was a decision I was not to take lightly."
"And so, after much deliberation, the Emperor of the Middle Kingdom and I had reached an agreement. He offered the hands of your fair princesses, for the lives of my kingdom's soldiers, a gesture of good faith, so to speak. And yet, here you stand, having gone back on your word not once, but twice, and in doing so have made a mockery or me, my son, and all who have come to witness this most sacred union!"
Madoka flinched at nearly every word of Lord Qin's tirade. Now faced with the reality of the damage their rash decisions had caused, Madoka wouldn't be surprised if the party submitted themselves to the monarch right then and there, begging for forgiveness and offering the princesses' hands as was originally promised. However, when Madoka glanced over at the rest of the party, she was surprised to find none of them cowering as she was, but rather standing tall and firm, even at Lord Qin's accusations. The only tell of their concern for the situation that any of them showed was how tightly Mulan and Shang held each other's hand; it was clear, they would accept whatever consequences that were to befall them, but they would not apologize for doing what they thought was right.
They would not apologize for following their Hearts.
"After suffering such humiliation, I would think that I would be justified in banishing you all from my kingdom and denying you your alliance!" Lord Qin threatened, but everyone continued to stand firm, Madoka now included. "However… despite our alliance remaining unsanctioned, despite the fact that I demanded of you that which you were unwilling to give, you all took up arms against a most terrible foe in the defense of not only myself, but my family and my people."
At this point, Lord Qin's voice became much less stern. While retaining the firmness befitting a ruler, he no longer seemed accusatory of the foreign soldiers, who relaxed their own postures in response.
"On this day, the greatest soldiers the Middle Kingdom has to offer have shown that they were willing to lay down their lives for the sake our Kingdom's safety. There is much to be said of such a grand and honorable deed, but at the very least, I can call it… a gesture of good faith."
"Then, does that mean…?" Madoka blurted, their faces lighting up as she and her comrades realized what Lord Qin was getting at.
"A gesture was promised, and a gesture was given. And so, I, Lord Qin, Ruler of Qui Gong, do hereby sanction our alliance with the Middle Kingdom!" He declared with head held high and arms outstretched.
The courtyard erupted with thunderous applause; the once stoic visitors from the Middle Kingdom were now overcome with glee as they cheered and embraced one another in celebration.
It was all too good to be true, or so Madoka thought as she waited with the princesses and their guards outside of Lord Qin's throne room. After his surprise declaration, the lord had summoned Mulan and Shang to the palace, in order to discuss the specifics of the alliance that he had just formally sanctioned. In all honestly, part of Madoka expected Lord Qin to suddenly retract his support for the alliance, to claim his declaration to have been in the heat of the moment and that upon further consideration he still required more adequate compensation, if he was even still willing to renegotiate at all.
It was clear that the rest of her companions shared her worries, the princesses fidgeting in their seats as their respective paramours either comforted them or paced back in forth down the long hallway between the front gate and the throne room.
Eventually, after what felt like an eternity, the doors to the throne room swung open, revealing Mulan and Shang being escorted out by Lord Qin and his son. The entire party turned their attention to the door, their superiors bowing respectfully to the royal family and offering a few last words that they just couldn't quite make out. The party waited with baited breath as Mulan and Shang finally left the throne room, marching down the hall as the double doors closed behind them.
"Well, what did he say? What's the verdict?" Su immediately inquired as soon as they were within earshot, the rest gathering around eagerly awaiting their answer. The two soldiers shared a look, remaining as stoic as they most likely had to have been when conversing with Lord Qin.
"We have been offered rooms in the palace for the night. In the morning, we march back to the Middle Kingdom… with the soldiers Lord Qin is sending to our boarders." Shang informed, he and Mulan's neutral expressions giving way to content smiles as everyone's faces lit up at the news.
"And… and us?" Mei asked hopefully.
"Free to marry whomever it is you please." Mulan replied with a bright smile.
The princesses, and their guards for that matter, practically squealed with delight, immediately embracing each other as the despair that had plagued them from the moment they had fallen for each other had finally lifted.
"Congratulations, Mei-san, everyone!" Madoka said, overjoyed for her friends. "I'm so relieved everything worked out in the end."
"You're telling me." Shang sighed, finally allowing himself to look as exhausted as he probably felt. "I swear, I am never "winging it" ever again." He vowed, much to Mulan's amusement.
"Don't worry Shang, that's what I'm here for." She quipped while placing a comforting hand on Shang's shoulder.
However, when she noticed the Yin pendent still hanging from Shang's neck, her playful smile faded into a more solemn expression, as she grasped her own Yang pendant around her neck.
"Shang, I owe you an apology." Mulan said, much to Shang's surprise. "I shouldn't have gone behind your back the way I did. You were in charge of the mission and had every right to know what was going on. I'm sorry."
"…No, I'm the one who should apologize." Shang humbly rebuked. "I completely understand why you didn't come to me with the problem from the start, and I can't say it would have ended any differently if you had. If I wasn't so stubborn and actually listened to what you all had to say, then maybe I could have helped you come up with a solution that didn't end up putting all of Qui Gong in danger." He quipped, lifting some of the tension from the exchange.
"But, most of all, I'm sorry for the things I said about you." He continued, taking Mulan's hands into his. "Your ideals, your spirit, even your insubordination, they're all what make you the woman I love, and I wouldn't change any of it. Can you ever forgive me?"
"There's nothing to forgive." Mulan said as she stepped in closer and matched his loving gaze.
They remained there, gazing into each other's eyes and basking in their moment of reconciliation, until Yao comically cleared his throat, reminding them that they had an audience. They immediately tried to separate, only to be held together by their tangled Yin and Yang pendants, earning the embarrassed couple an amused laugh from their friends. Meanwhile, Madoka took out her camera and snapped a photo of the awkwardly linked couple, a perfect symbol of their official reengagement.
"Well then, shall we retire for the night?" Shang suggested, the entire party voicing their approval, all except for one.
"Actually, I think I need to get back on the road." Madoka said, gaining everyone's attention.
"What!? So soon?" Su sadly protested.
"Yeah, can't you at least stick around for a wedding… or four?" Ling proposed, earning a lighthearted giggle from the pinkette.
"I'd love too, but… I have my own mission to take care of, and I think it's about time I get back to it." She explained, much to their disappointment.
"Right, we understand. But, before you go, I'd like to give you something." Mulan said as she stepped forward and stood before Madoka.
She held out her hand and Mushu's head briefly popped out over her shoulder, blowing a small stream of fire out over the palm of her hand. Madoka watched in amazement as the fire danced for a moment in her hand, before crystalizing into a bright red symbol of a small flame.
"This is the Power of Fire, with this you'll be able to cast Fire magic." Mulan explained, offering the crystalized flame to Madoka.
"Wow! You're giving this to me?" Madoka said, recalling how powerful Mulan's own Fire magic had been.
"Of course, consider it thanks for all of your help." Mulan assured.
With permission formally granted, Madoka took the Power of Fire into her own hand, and much like when she received the Power of Ice, the crystal faded into a bright red light that flowed into her Heart, granting her its magical power.
"Thank you, Mulan-san, everyone." Madoka placed her fist in her palm in a Chinese salute and gave the group a respectful bow. "I promise I'll come back and visit, once you're all happily married."
"We'll look forward to it." Shang said as he took his place at Mulan's side, the two soldiers leading the rest of the party in returning the formal bow.
Madoka appeared within the Gummi Ship cockpit in a flash of light, Scrooge sitting in the pilot's seat to greet her.
"Well, made it out of that one by the skin of yer teeth, eh lass?"
"Yeah, but I'm glad everything worked out in the end." Madoka admitted, looking out at the Land of Dragons from the cockpit window. "They were able to follow their hearts, and fulfill their duty; it's almost too good to be true."
"Aye, some might even call it a miracle; that the lads and lasses got unbelievably lucky. But, in this old duck's experience, the people who tend to succeed in life are those who try the hardest. And the ones who try the hardest are the ones who follow their hearts." Scrooge declared.
"Right, because you're more likely to try your best for something you want to do, rather than something you're forcing yourself to do." Madoka reiterated the sage wisdom in her own words, bringing her hand up to her heart.
"Aye, that tends to be the case. Now then, shall we set course fer yer home World, lass?" Scrooge replied, already fiddling around with the controls.
Madoka remained silent as she recalled the decision she had made the night they had left the village. She clenched her chest at the thought of standing before Homura again, this time with the intent of slaying her and saving her friends and family from ruin. Was this how Mulan had felt when she decided to take the princesses' place in the wedding? It must have been, even she could see just how miserable Mulan was standing on the altar the moment before they made their presence known.
However, a halfhearted bride could still fulfill her duty, but a halfhearted warrior?
"I… I don't think I should go back just yet." Madoka finally replied.
"Oh? And what about yer duty?" Scrooge inquired.
"I know it was wrong to run away instead of fighting, that hasn't changed." Madoka asserted. "But, if I go back now, even if I could match Homura-chan's power, I don't think I could win, because… my heart wouldn't be in it." Madoka raised her head with a determined expression that brought a smile to the old duck's beak.
"I don't know if following my heart will lead to the right answer, but halfheartedly trying to fix my mistake isn't going to help anyone. So, the best thing I can do right now…" Madoka raised her hand and summoned the Keyblade. "Is keep looking for Sora." She declared with a firm hold on the power that the boy had lent to her.
"Well then what are ye waiting fer, give us a pathway!" Scrooge said with great enthusiasm as he returned to prepping the ship's controls.
'Alright, this time for sure! Take me to Sora!' Madoka chanted in her mind as she summoned yet another new pathway for them to traverse.
With her new resolve not to regret her decision anymore, Madoka strapped into her seat and held on tight as Scrooge flew the Gummi Ship into the glowing portal, sending them off to the next world.
A/N: And with that, the Land of Dragons Arc finally comes to a close. So... you guys didn't really think I was actually going to subvert the "follow your heart" troupe did you? I mean, come on, it's Kingdom Hearts, following your Heart is always going to be the right answer. Still, I hope I managed to wrap up the conflict in a believable and satisfying way, and most of all, I hope you guys enjoyed it.
Now, on to less pleasant business. As some of you may know, there is an Anonymous Reviewer by the username of Captain Imaginat that has reviewed my previous chapter. Now, I'm always glad when my story speaks to someone enough for them to want to write a review and give their opinion of it so far, but this particular reviewer has crossed somewhat of a line by directly addressing other reviewers and making arguments against the claims they made in their reviews. Now, debating online is nothing new or discouraged, but I feel like an anonymous review on a Fan Fiction where the other party cannot properly defend their opinion is not the place for such things. If you disagree with a point another reviewer has made please do not overtly counter the point in your own review, if you feel like you must, please take it to a forum or a PM thread.
On a related note, please refrain from making suggestions to things I can add to this story in your reviews. I'm flattered that some of you enjoy my writing so much that you want to entrust me with the task of bringing to life a scene or location you have longed to see, but for the most part I have already decided on which worlds Madoka will be visiting. You can certainly express your anticipation for which worlds could possibly be included, but don't plead with me to include a world and include a whole outline of what you think the contents of that world will be. Reviews are meant to offer positive feedback and constructive criticism for the already released chapter, so please keep your suggestions for future updates to a minimum, ok.
So, with these two transgressions, I have decided to delete the reviews made by Captain Imaginat. I'm really sorry that I have to do this, but I think it's for the best for the story, and the readers as a whole. So, Imaginat, if you are reading this, please don't let this discourage you from reading this story and voicing your opinions on it, just keep in mind the criticisms I have laid out and keep the debating out of the review section, thank you.
Well, now that I've gotten that of my chest, I'll see you all in the next chapter. Bye!