Chapter One: Fool's Gold
Note: If you are looking for romance, I can assure you there probably won't be time for it. If you are looking for suffering, fantasy shenanigans, gory battle scenes, FRIENDSHIP, armor porn, D&D references, delicious party tactics, and RPG nostalgia, you are in the correct place.
A woman was lying among the early fall leaves. Her pink hair was filthy with blood and ashes, a blackened lute still strapped to her back. Most of her right side was burned away, her right leg a mess of ash and burnt flesh. She was clearly dead.
Beside her was a small cleric, dressed in holy azure and gold, with pale, untouched skin and short blue hair. He was breathing shallowly, unaware of the body growing cold next to him, or the soot that clung to the hem of his robes.
There was a gold, circular emblem on both of their cloaks, and that was one of the first things the man noticed when he stepped into the clearing. The next thing was the smell.
"Hey," he said, nudging the cleric gently with his foot. "Hey. You'll get sick if you lay next to her too long. You hear me, cleric?"
With a small groan, the cleric stirred, shifting away from the offending boot and blinking his eyes open.
They met with a tall, built man, dressed in red armor of light plate over a maroon tunic with chainmail peeking out from underneath. A shield was strapped to his back, and he was leaning on a long, barb-tipped lance. He had dark red hair and eyes so intense the cleric automatically glanced away- and that was when his eyes fell on the woman next to him.
"Mo… moi…?" he said softly, sitting up and reaching for her. His hands shook; halfway through the motion, he let them drop, as though he knew it wouldn't matter. She'd been dead for a long time.
"Hey," the lancer said hesitantly. "I don't wanna to interrupt or anything, but you're from the Kiseki, right?" He stared again at the emblem on the cleric's cloak. "Where are the rest of you?"
"I don't know," said the cleric.
"What do you mean, you don't know?"
"This is Momoi," he said, in a slightly off-putting monotone. "She's our bard. I don't know how she got here, or why she's dead, or where everyone else is. I don't remember anything."
The lancer knelt down next to them, pursing his lips at the dead woman for a moment before moving his gaze to the living.
"Well, let's start by seeing if you can still stand."
He took hold of the cleric's arm and helped him up and away from the body, holding him steady until it looked like he'd gotten his balance. He felt so fragile, like a good wind would blow him over. The cleric blinked up at the lancer, who attempted a reassuring smile.
"My name's Kagami," he said. "Kagami Taiga."
"Hello, Kagami Taiga," replied the cleric, still a bit in a daze. Kagami waited expectantly, and in a moment the cleric blinked and realized he was supposed to introduce himself, too.
"I'm Kuroko Tetsuya. Cleric for the Kiseki no Sedai. Did you… did you see them anywhere?"
"Nope. Just saw you and the bard." He paused, fidgeted, and looked away as he said, "Do you need me to help you look for them?"
Kuroko stared up at the lancer for a long, uncomfortable minute. He looked capable, big and strong and used to fending for himself. He handled the lance at his side like it was part of him. He wore no identifying emblems, no badges on him that would signify that he was already part of an order of knights or a party of freelance adventurers.
The only thing he had was a ring around his neck.
"Why?" he said.
Kagami looked surprised.
"Wh- well. I just… thought you could use some help. Is all."
Kuroko started at him a moment more, and then looked away, down at Momoi.
"I can't carry her," he said. "She'll fall apart. Would you help me bury her?"
"Are you… okay?"
There was a pause. Kuroko stared at the body in the grave he'd helped dig. His face showed nothing, nothing but a vague expectation, and then an edge of disappointment.
"I don't know what I can feel anymore," he said quietly. Kuroko watched as Kagami started shoving dirt back into the hole, but he didn't cry. He just stood and watched as Momoi disappeared under the earth.
And then, after an awkward moment of silence, they left.
Without much of a verbal agreement, Kagami ended up leading the way through the woods, glancing over his shoulder periodically to make sure Kuroko was still following. Kuroko had raised no objection, so he assumed he was allowed to help the cleric find his party.
This was good, thought Kagami. This was exactly what he needed.
"Who are you, Kagami Taiga?"
Kagami tripped a little, startled by Kuroko's sudden question. He turned to look back at him, but Kuroko was somehow already right beside him, walking in time.
"What the- I thought you were a cleric!"
"I am a cleric," replied Kuroko in a monotone.
"Then how the hell do you teleport?"
"I don't, Kagami-kun."
Kagami blinked in surprise, but before he could comment on the 'kun', Kuroko repeated, "Who are you?"
"Kagami Taiga. I told you."
"Yes, but why are you following me?"
"You're following me," he pointed out.
"Not anymore." Kuroko skipped a few steps ahead. "So why are you helping me?"
"… Do you really want to know?" asked Kagami reluctantly.
"Is it a secret?" Kuroko cocked his head to the side curiously.
"Well, no. Not really. I would have told you up front, but your friend had just died…"
"I would like to know," said Kuroko, stopping with his back to him, "why you've suddenly shown up just after my entire party went missing and I've lost all my memories of the event."
He turned to face Kagami, expressionless. The tautness in his poise signified a readiness to flee or fight. For a moment, Kagami froze, staring at him with wide, surprised eyes.
The woods were silent. Kagami wasn't sure if he was breathing at that moment.
And then, quiet audibly, a twig snapped to their right.
They both turned to look.
Through a gap in the trees, there was a clearing. Inside the clearing was a member of the Kiseki no Sedai. Even before Kuroko called out his name, Kagami knew who he was.
The blond man was the Kiseki's ranger, wearing all gold cloth and brown leather armor with a short sword at his hip, a small white wooden shield at his back, and a fine ash bow in one hand. He was uninjured as far as they could see, and he stood watching them without replying or stepping forward.
The blond did not react. He stood at the opposite end of the clearing expectantly, as though he were waiting for something. Kagami moved to step forward into the clearing, but Kuroko reached out quickly and stopped him. He shook his head.
"Something's not right."
"Well, obviously, but we're not going to find out from all the way over here."
"No, look." Kuroko knelt, pointing to something at ankle level. At the same moment Kagami realized it was a carefully placed tripwire, he heard the creaking sound of a bow being drawn. Kagami tensed and looked up, unslinging the shield from his back in one smooth motion.
Kise was down on one knee and aiming at him, eyes narrowed in concentration. The lancer immediately raised his shield and made to step over the trip wire- when Kuroko yanked him back by his shirt again.
"Wha-! He's obviously not right in the head, Kuroko, he's going to shoot-"
"He's baiting you. I've seen it before. He never just sets one trap."
Kagami looked up, across the long stretch of leaf-covered clearing between them and Kise, who hadn't loosed his arrow yet. The leaf litter could hide anything.
Why waste a shot when your target would soon be helpless anyway?
"… Is that so?" Kagami said slowly, an eager relish in his voice. Kuroko looked up, catching a smirk on his face. Kagami shifted, stepping back several paces and gripping his lance. He eyed a single clear spot of ground in the middle of the clearing.
A few seconds before Kuroko realized what he was going to do, he was already doing it.
With a roar, Kagami charged forward and leapt over the tripwire, soaring higher into the air than a full set of armor would permit, raw power and strength hurtling him several yards forward. He wouldn't make it, though; the clearing was far too-
His lance stabbed forward, caught the earth of that one clear space of ground, and with a satisfied grunt and an agility unbecoming of his form, Kagami vaulted the last couple yards feet first.
Kise had a split second to look absolutely shocked before the lancer crashed straight into him, landing in the one spot guaranteed not to be trapped- the space where Kise had been standing.
They toppled backwards violently in a heap and rolled a couple times before Kise's back hit a tree, knocking the wind out of both him and the lancer. Thinking he was down for the count, Kagami started to clamber off of him, but a blade swiping haphazardly at his face proved him wrong. Kise was a Kiseki, after all. He wouldn't go down that easily.
Kagami was forced back a few steps, barely managing to guard with his lance against the far more versatile dagger. Kise drove him back viciously and relentlessly, stabbing for his vitals with every strike.
"What the hell is wrong with you?!" yelled Kagami, bracing his feet at the edge of the leaf litter. Kise didn't answer, but Kagami hadn't expected him to, he was only using the dialog as a distraction for his charge.
He roared and lunged forward, sweeping his lance in front of him, hoping to knock Kise off balance again or force him to retreat. Kise leapt back away from the blade and then dived forward in the wake of it, expecting Kagami to be open- but Kagami's fist hit him hard in the stomach.
He made a small choked sound, lifted off his feet by the strength of the blow, and slammed back to the ground, hard.
Kagami took a step back and laughed suddenly, the adrenaline burning through his blood like a drug. This was the feeling he lived for, the reason he still wore this armor and carried this lance. He loved fights like these, knock-down, drag-out fights. The real danger involved only gave it a spice. Grinning, he stepped forward to disarm Kise and help him up.
For some reason, though, his legs weren't working properly. He only wobbled forward unsteadily.
Kagami slowly stopped laughing. Frowning, he looked down at Kise, who held up his dagger wordlessly, and smiled. The blade was coated in a slimy, dull green liquid. Kagami finally felt the tiny sting- he lifted a gloved hand and touched his neck, which came away red with a little bit of blood. Kise must have nicked him during his reckless charge.
The poison rushed through his bloodstream; his heart had been pumping it fast. He felt himself grow weak and dizzy before he could even grip his lance for support. Kagami fell to his knees as Kise stood up.
"Fucking… rangers," he hissed, shield slipping out of his limp hands. Kise watched him for a moment, chest heaving in fading panic, before he drew the sword at his side. Kagami didn't see Kise raise it over his head like an executioner. He had fallen to the ground, the simple act of breathing starting to become difficult.
The lancer rolled over with the last of his strength. If he was going to die here, before he'd accomplished anything he'd set out to do, he wanted to face it like a man.
"Kise-kun," Kuroko's voice came suddenly from somewhere near him. Kagami had almost forgotten about him. How had the cleric gotten so close?
"Kise-kun," he said more firmly, and suddenly Kagami's fading vision was blocked by a set of robes. He could barely see, but he felt the hesitation in the air.
A moment later, warm blood dripped down onto his face.
He focused desperately, and with an effort he saw… Kuroko holding on to the blade of Kise's sword, forcing it away from its path to Kagami's neck.
"K…" an unfamiliar voice, "Kuro… kocchi…?"
"Yes, Kise. It's me. I'm here, and so are you."
Kagami felt more than saw Kise step away, falling back against a tree. He closed his eyes, but a moment later felt cool, smooth hands on his neck, sending out a searing, healing warmth that burned the poison from his veins. Kagami took a gasping breath- when had he stopped breathing? He opened his eyes.
Kuroko stared down at him, eyes expressionless, as pure light poured forth into Kagami's skin. The tiny cut on his neck drew closed, and energy flooded into him from Kuroko's hands.
Kagami's gaze turned to Kise, who was blinking in confusion at both of them and holding his head like he had a headache.
"What was… gold… what…?" he mumbled, his sword point down at his side. As Kagami grabbed his lance and used it to pull himself up, Kise said, "Why do I feel like I've just been run over by a cart horse?"
Kise lifted his sword again, focusing on the blood along its blade.
"Kurokocchi- did I… hurt you?"
"Yes, Kise. You did. You hurt Kagami-kun more, though."
"Where am I?" said Kise. "How did I get here?! I… I just remember… vague orders from someone…"
"Orders for what?" pressed Kuroko.
"To capture you alive, at all costs." Kise looked guilty. "I don't know why. Oh, gods, I'm so sorry, Kurokocchi. I didn't mean to hurt you- I don't know what's going on, I'm so sorry-"
He dropped his sword and sprang forward to hug Kuroko, nuzzling his face into Kuroko's hair. Kuroko bore this expressionlessly, as though he were used to it. After a moment he patted Kise's back awkwardly.
"It's fine, Kise. You weren't yourself. Please let go of me."
Kise pretended not to hear him, clinging and sobbing.
"How the hell did you get past all those traps?" asked Kagami, slinging his shield across his back.
"I walked around the edge of the clearing." He paused. "Like I was going to suggest you do."
Kagami had the grace to look slightly embarrassed. He changed the subject.
"I think there's still something wrong with him," he said, making a face at Kise, who was now wiping tears from the corners of his eyes as he pulled out a bandage for Kuroko's hand. "Is he your lover or something?"
"No," said Kuroko, in his usual monotone, "he's always like this. We try to discourage him."
"You're so mean, Kurokocchi!"
Kagami stabbed the butt of his lance in the ground, looking at the sky through the trees.
"It'll be dark soon. We should make camp here before we look for the others."
Kuroko folded himself to the ground immediately, like he was exhausted. Kise gave him a sympathetic look, and Kagami wondered curiously just what price clerics paid to do their healing. As a whole, they were all very secretive about it, but it always seemed to make them tired. Kuroko took the cup of tea leaves that Kise handed him as the ranger set about making a fire, and Kagami sat next to him. Kuroko stared at the lancer for a moment, and Kagami stared back. Their interrupted conversation still hung in the air, but, for now, Kuroko only poured his tea and looked away.
"Kise," said Kuroko, "do you remember anything about the others? Are they the same as you?"
"I don't remember much, but… I think Midorimacchi left with me."
He gave Kuroko a worried look, and then turned to Kagami and said, "Tomorrow, watch the skies."