Shadows

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chapter 15

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sacrifice

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Kikyou looked at his image in the mirror. Out of deference to Manx, he’d decided to wear his Guard’s dress uniform one last time. Tomorrow he’d don his Captain’s garb, but for today, he would allow his former commander to retain her glory. It would also inform the Court that, even though the woman was turning aside her post in favor of marrying the king, the Guards would not forget about Manx so soon. Many in the organization were not happy with Manx’s choices, but they strove to show unity to outsiders. Kikyou understood that much, and his pride could wait another day to show off his new rank.

He straightened the white cord that dangled from his left shoulder, trying to get the cord to hang right. A large hand appeared and helped the decoration to lay properly

"Thank you, Tsubaki."

"You’re welcome, sir."

Turning away from the mirror, Kikyou looked up at his longtime friend and servant. The large man appeared tired, but was impeccably dressed. In his gloved hand he held a thin scroll.

"Well?" Kikyou asked the question with an arched brow and impatient air.

Bowing, Tsubaki handed over the scroll. "It’s as you suspected, sir. From what I’ve managed to discover, there is evidence to suggest that the younger Fujimiyas survived their parents’ demises. I spent a good few hours speaking with Johnston, who told me of some rather interesting rumors involving Reiji Takatori’s estate, Timbergrey. Among other things, he mentioned that after Ranmura and Arashi’s death, it was said that the Prince had taken in a young girl and boy, with the interest of keeping them as sex slaves. I’ve found documentation involving the young woman who fits Aya Fujimiya’s description, and one of the rumors that Johnston related to me late last night perfectly described your Aya and his servant. A description that also fits Ran Fujimiya."

Kikyou read the scroll, which detailed the various rumors associated with the children held prisoner at Timbergrey. There had been lack of any solid proof, which was why the stories were just written down and not checked out, and Kikyou was furious for a moment about how his fellow Guards had failed to make any connection between the rumors and the Fujimiya family. Granted, the talk hadn’t started for a year or two after word reached Court about the family’s death, but why hadn’t the archivist or former Spymaster and Captain noticed this? Something was wrong here, and he’d have to set Tsubaki on the trail once the wedding was over with.

But for right now… a picture of Aya formed in his mind, with his beautiful features, pale skin and rich, red hair. He truly did take after his mother. But why was the boy going by his sister’s name? And why hadn’t he approached the Court upon arriving in the capital? Granted, his father had left under disapproval from his peers, but the Court would have welcomed Ranmura’s child, if at the least to include him in their conspiracies and intricate plots against each other. Ran Fujimiya was the heir to a vast estate, after all. Even if he wasn’t marriage material, he still held great value.

"What happened to the girl?"

"The rumors about her ceased several years ago, around the same time of talk about one of the Takatoris’ servants committing suicide. It wasn’t much longer after that than the rumors focused on the prince taking a young man as a lover."

Closing the scroll, Kikyou thought that the more he discovered about Aya, the more secrets there were left to unearth. Not to mention more questions. Was Prince Reiji the man that Aya was hiding from? Was it his sister that had been killed? Why was he not stepping forward to claim his heritage, instead choosing to hide in an inn he could easily purchase several times over with his family’s riches? Was it because he’d been Reiji’s lover, and that he’d left the prince? It just didn’t make any sense.

But it would, one day. Kikyou promised himself that he would get to the bottom of all these mysteries one day soon. He would uncover all that Aya was hiding from him, and use that knowledge to make the man his. Aya belonged with him here at Court, not hiding in Kudoh’s inn.

"Keep up the investigation, Tsubaki. I want you to find out everything you can, and I want you to look into why no one ever made the connection before between the rumors and the Fujimiyas. Something is very odd there." Kikyou smiled at the large man. "And thank you, for working so hard on this for me. You found out much more than I could ever have hoped for you to in such short time."

Tsubaki bowed lowly. "It wasn’t as hard as it should have been, sir, thanks to Johnston being in a talkative mood. Also, I think that someone else was looking into the Fujimiyas besides me. The scrolls were rather easy to find, being grouped all together as they were. They showed signs of being handled recently."

That begged the question of who it could possibly be who had unearthed them, Kikyou thought. Was it done by Prince Reiji’s orders? Was he trying to discover if anyone was on to him? Kikyou would have to tread carefully in his search for answers, as it wasn’t wise to mess with a prince, even a disgraced one. No, he would have to proceed with caution. Then, when he had enough information, he could approach ‘Aya’, and have all of his questions answered.

Watching Tsubaki bow again and then quietly leave the room, Kikyou turned towards the mirror. Though it wasn’t his own image that he saw before him, at least not as it presently was. He saw himself in Court, dressed in the Captain’s uniform, with a lovely redhead wearing purple and silver on his arm. Desire and contentment flared inside him at the image.

*******

Aya sat in the window seat, breathing in deeply the scent of the garden below him. In a couple hours the royal wedding would start, and the elaborate ceremony would be followed by the reception. During that event his and many other’s fates would be decided, if they lived or died, were free or remained slaves. All it would take to gain their wishes would be blood and death. Shivering, Aya wrapped his arms about his chest.

"It’ll be okay, love. We’ll be fine." Yohji pressed a kiss to the top of his head and held onto Aya even tighter, pulling him against the blond’s chest. Aya melted against his lover, enjoying the feeling of Yohji holding him close like this. It gave him some hope that they would indeed be okay, and that their sacrifices would allow them the life they wanted. Peaceful and relatively pain-free, together forever.

"If you listen carefully, you can tell the partying has already started in this quarter of the city. No doubt the revelers are spilling out of all the bars and parks surrounding the palace if they’d made it this far south. We’re usually one of the last areas affected, since the temples are between us and the palace."

Aya entwined his fingers with Yohji’s and risked a brief glance at the bright sun, slowly rising in the blue sky. "Half of the revelers are probably from the temples. It is a major holiday."

"Well, on most summer solstices, the partying doesn’t start until midday, at least not here in the capital. No, these are all people celebrating the king’s wedding." Yohji bent his head to kiss Aya on the nose, making him wrinkle his face at the hated gesture of endearment.

"Now on winter solstice, that’s the all day party around here. Everyone’s drinking and exchanging gifts and making love, from sunrise to sunrise." Yohji leered at Aya. "I can’t wait to celebrate it with you."

About to tell Yohji not to jinx things by assuming they would have any future together, Aya couldn’t find the heart to open his mouth and say the words. He could go to battle, grimly doing what he had to do, or he could go forth with a spark of hope. Thanks to Yohji, he thought he might be able to manage the latter, for the first time in over a decade.

"I haven’t celebrated any solstices in over ten years. I’d need you to show me what to do."

He could feel Yohji’s sadness for a moment, but the emotion soon turned into amusement. "Aya, I will adore showing you what to do on winter’s solstice. First we’ll start the day by making love, and then we’ll get some breakfast." Yohji kissed Aya on the lips. "Then we’ll come back up here and make love again." Aya was kissed on his right cheek. "We’ll get a bath and go to a temple, light our red candles and gather our pine bows. Then we’ll come back here and make love again." The kiss was on his ear this time, making Aya shiver at the feel of Yohji’s breath against his skin.

"We’ll go to the kitchen and aggravate Jo a bit, steal a few snacks, and make love again." Aya felt Yohji’s lips press against his neck, and he immediately tilted his head back. "Then it will be gathering with the others to watch the sun go down, and then we’ll make love yet again…." Lips brushed softly against his collarbone.

"I think I’ve gotten the jist of the day, Yotan." Aya yanked Yohji’s head up for a brief kiss. "Even if it’s a fertility holiday, don’t you think that’s a bit much? Surely the gods will be pleased if we stick with our usual routine."

Yohji tugged on Aya’s eartail and then wound the long hair around his fingers. "I think we’ll owe them something a little special this year, and I think we can rise to the occasion." Aya groaned at the pun, but was silenced by a kiss. "Besides, that’s the promise I made this morning, cat. This solstice we’ll sacrifice blood to the gods, and if they let us live, then the next solstice we’ll sacrifice something a bit more… enjoyable. Jouyoku will be very pleased with our offering, and surely will plead on our behalf today to the other gods."

"He should, you’re one of his own, after all." Aya rose from the window seat to stand in front of Yohji, and wrapped his arms around the man’s waist. "All right then, next solstice we’ll pay homage to Jouyoku and Tokoyami. From dawn to dawn, we’ll honor them both, as best we’re able. You’ll be so stuffed you won’t be able to eat for a week. Which will be how long it’ll take me to recover."

"Well, it’s a sacrifice we’ll just have to make, Aya." Yohji just held him for a moment, purring the entire time. Over the gentle rasp and the beat of their hearts they could hear the sound of revelers in the streets, and the Koneko’s patrons starting to celebrate downstairs. It felt so good to hold each other and dream of a future together, even if the thought half scared Aya. It had been so long since he’d given the future any thought, other than despair.

Then Yohji slowly pulled away. "If we want to have something to eat and a bath, we need to get going. Botan will be here soon, and then we’ll have to leave."

"I know," Aya said as he pulled Yohji towards him. All he wanted was a few more seconds like this, to feel loved and safe, and then he could start preparing for the horror ahead of him. When he became Ran again, an assassin. Right now, all he wanted was to be Yohji’s Aya, who did have a future ahead of him, one filled with love and contentment. Hopefully he wasn’t being quite so foolish in wanting that.

*******

Schuldig looked at the costume his mother was holding out to him, and after shaking his head for a moment, gathered the silk and velvet into his arms.

"Thanks, Mom. I completely forgot about needing one for tonight."

"No doubt you would have gone in your work clothes and a cheap mask stolen from some hapless partier on your way to the palace. Shame on you. Now put it on, I want to see how well it fits." Cassandra spun around and held out another costume to Masato.

"Here, I made one for you, too. Now change so I can see how you two look."

The two of them stood there, the rich fabric hanging from their arms, shared a look and then glanced at Cassandra, their eyebrows raised.

Cassandra stamped her foot. "Oh, pa-shaw! It’s not like I haven’t seen what you have before! Schuldig, I bathed you every day until you were six, so nothing you have will surprise me. As for you, Masato." Cassandra spun around to face the older bound, a wicked smile on her face that had Schuldig moaning. Oh no, he wouldn’t want to hear whatever it was she was going to say….

"Precog, I am. I’ve _seen_ you with my son." Her lascivious grin clearly spelled out how exactly she’d seen Masato and Schuldig. Schuldig felt his face turn even redder than his hair, while Masato looked properly scandalized. He could feel his mate’s shock and his mother’s amusement.

"So, change your clothes now." Cassandra stamped her foot again.

Knowing he didn’t stand a chance against the woman, and wanting to get this over with, Schuldig started to pull off his shirt and pants. After a moment, Masato did the same.

<Not one comment, mother.> Schuldig sent when the woman was about to say something about the scratches down Masato’s back. <Another word from you, and I’ll be hoping to be smacked in the head during the fighting and have the memory of this morning completely wiped from my mind.> Gods, he so didn’t want to think about his mother having visions of him and Masato having sex. It was going to be hell all difficult getting it up the next time the two of them decided to fuck.

Glaring at him, Cassandra crossed her arms over her chest and pouted, her eyes demurely falling to the floor after a few seconds. They thankfully remained there while the two of them finished changing.

"Okay, we’re decent now."

"You’ll never be decent, Trouble."

Schuldig did some glaring of his own, directed towards his lover, when Masato chuckled and mentally agreed with that assessment. Cassandra smiled at the man and stepped forward to straighten out his outfit. She’d picked crinkled gold and russet velvet for Masato, the fabric cut into layers that fell jagged around his broad form. Yohji thought his lover looked wonderful, and that the costume fit the lion’s head mask that rested on the bed.

Once Masato was suitable, Cassandra turned her attention on him. His outfit was a mix of dark green and white, fitted close to his body except for the flared sleeves and coat bottom. His mask was that of a satyr, the carved image grinning widely yet with a hint of malevolence.

"Yohji and Aya are storm crows, Masato’s a lion and I’m Goodfellow. What are Jei, Nagi, and Crawford?"

"Jei is a gaki, all grey and red, and Nagi is a shadow. As for Crawford," Cassandra grinned mischievously. "He is the Ice King."

Rather fitting, all the choices she’d made for them. Schuldig snickered at the images his mother showed him. Oh yes, the Prick was going to look a proper mess once the fighting was all over, thanks to his white costume. Jei would be dressed in dark grey and blood red strips tied and sewn together, with the ends hanging in tatters around him. Nagi would be dressed in black and grey, showing off his slim form save for the cowl that would hang around his shoulders and head, helping to hide him from the Takatoris’ notice.

Crossing over to his mother, Schuldig kissed the petite woman on her cheek. "You did great, Mom. I can’t believe that you had enough time to make all those costumes. Especially with Botan to distract you."

"I’ve know about this day for some time, Schuldig," Cassandra reminded him sadly. She tucked back a strand of his hair and touched his cheek tenderly. "It’s funny, but standing here now and seeing you dressed so, it reminds me that come tomorrow, my only child will be gone. I’ve raised you your whole life with the knowledge that you would have to leave me, and now that time has finally come. I don’t want you to go."

He felt Cassandra’s sadness, and Schuldig’s heart constricted painfully. He didn’t want to go either, even if Masato would be by his side. He didn’t want to have to fight, or to leave his mother and friends. But he’d seen the visions Cassandra had had about what the future would be like if he didn’t take his place in it, and knew the hardships would have to be faced so he could have the time to live his life after his duties were completed.

<Tell me, Mom, what it is that you’ve seen for today. Please.>

<Sacrifice. That one word rings in my head. There will be death, blood and loss. But when one gives so much, something is always given in return. The gods are already asking so much from you, you should be safe. I see nothing that shatters my heart, though it will bear some unhappiness.>

That was Cass’s way of saying he’d survive, Schuldig thought. In a way, he never should have doubted that for a moment. Fate had a need of him, along with Jei, Crawford, Nagi, Yohji and Aya. And if he lived, Masato had to live as well.

Shaking his head, Schuldig hugged his mother. It was no time to tempt Fate by being cocky, or else it might decide he wasn’t so important after all. Stepping back from Cassandra, Schuldig felt Masato grab hold of his hand and pull him into his arms. His mate kissed him tenderly, and Schuldig could feel the man’s concern and fear for him. It was difficult to grasp, this need and anxiety that they felt for each other. Schuldig was yet again reminded that he had other bindings on him, and that more than just destiny was at stake here.

"We’ll get through this, Schu. You’re too much of a brat to give in to death, and I refuse to be parted from you." Masato had picked up on his anxieties with an acuity that stunned Schuldig. He wasn’t used to his emotions being so easily read.

Masato kissed him again and then looked at Cassandra. "I’ll bring him back safely tonight, and again when we’re done in Esset. That’s my promise to you, Cassandra."

"Hmph, I give you my son, and you give me your word?" Grey eyes narrowed and raked over Masato’s face. "You’d best honor it then, or I will reward your broken troth with more pain than you can ever imagine. Keep him safe, Masato."

"Hello, I’m here, you know. And I can take care of myself." Schuldig sighed as he was ignored by the older bounds, who continued to stare at each other. He had to resist hitting someone when they both nodded at the same time, apparently taking each other at their word. Gritting his teeth together, Schuldig wondered if he should borrow a page from Aya’s book and start biting people.

*******

Yohji stared at Aya, wondering if that was what he looked like. A tall, thin figure encased in darkness, from the sole of the black leather boots to the top of the hood that hung over the man’s head, yet in no way obscured the black feather mask. Each time Aya breathed, the glass beads on the costume shimmered, bringing to mind plumage blowing in the wind. Aya looked like a proper storm crow, heralding death and disaster. Yohji wished to the gods that the portents would be for their enemies, and not for themselves.

For a brief moment Yohji gave serious thought to warding the door with his wire, picking Aya up and tossing him on the bed, and draining the man until he didn’t have the energy to stand up and go fight. It wouldn’t take much to do that, either, as Aya was still a bit tired from last night. But a quick glance at the room’s desk, veiled with shadows, reminded him why he couldn’t do that. Aya could never be completely his until Aya-chan was free. And more than anything, even his desire to avoid the upcoming battle, Yohji wanted Aya to be completely his.

So instead he walked over to his mate and pushed back the hood and untied the mask. Aya looked up at him, his face solemn and eyes shadowed, and Yohji offered a reassuring smile right before kissing the man. He knew that Aya was sensing his emotions, just as he could feel Aya’s fear, anxiety and longing, and he wanted to give the both of them a break. So he kissed his mate until all the either of them felt was desire for each other, and the contentment that came whenever they touched.

They remained like that until there was a knock on the door. Both of them sighing as they pulled apart, Yohji walked over to the door and opened it. He found Teddy and Koyu standing in the hall, and had to smile at their stunned looks over his costume.

"Yes?"

"Gods, Yohji, you look like an acolyte for Tokoyami or Karasu. The enemy will be too scared at the sight of you to actually fight."

"Good, Teddy. Although if we really did want to end things without bloodshed, all we’d have to do is strip you and toss you at the enemy. That’ll have them retreating in a hurry." Yohji jumped as he was closing the door, dodging the kick that Teddy had aimed his way.

His adopted brother was dressed in a formal robe the shade of a very deep red, and he appeared almost as if Koyu’s shadow. Teddy has a simple mask dangling from his hand, as he was dressing mainly to be comfortable yet wanted to attend in the proper spirit. His robe looked loose enough for him to fight in, if needed.

Koyu was dressed in his formal Harper’s garb, with a ribbon-tied tunic and knee-high boots festooned with more scarlet ribbons. His journeyman badge was proudly displayed on his chest, and Yohji caught a few more glints of silver about his friend’s body. It seemed that Koyu was armed to the teeth under all that leather and linen. Smart man. Of course, he’d be even smarter if he’d just stay at home, sitting on his idiot boyfriend.

"We have to go now, but we wanted to wish you luck before we left." Koyu stepped forward and hugged Yohji, and then tentatively approached a quiet Aya. Who accepted the embrace, even though Yohji could feel his mate’s apprehension at allowing a human male so close to him. That reminded Yohji of the other reason he would be fighting today. Hirofumi Takatori was going to die by his hand before the sun set.

Yohji grabbed Teddy and hugged him tight before shaking him by his shoulders. "You two better be careful. As soon as the fighting breaks out, right after the wedding toast, I want you to get your asses out of there. We’ll fight better if we don’t have to worry about the two of you."

"Don’t worry, Yohji, I plan on having a long life ahead of me, tormenting the hell out of you. We’ll keep safe." Teddy smacked Yohji on the shoulder and smiled at him, then turned to face Aya. He didn’t attempt to hug the redhead, so everyone was a bit surprised when Aya stepped closer to him.

"Teddy… here." Aya grabbed Teddy’s left hand, and a look of concentration settled on his face. Yohji could feel Aya using his energy, and as he watched, shadows entwined around Teddy’s wrist. After a minute Aya let the longhaired man go, and repeated the same to Koyu.

Stroking his banded wrist, Koyu looked from it to Teddy, and then to Aya. "What is it? It feels so cold."

"Shadows." Aya shrugged his shoulders. "It was something that Katsumi did for her lover when they had to be apart. She bade some shadows to remain with him, and to protect him. They’re not much, but if anyone gets too close to you, the shadows should react and buy you a few seconds."

"Thank you." This time Teddy did hug Aya, who Yohji could tell did his best not to flinch from the touch. Then the men bade them goodbye and quietly left the room.

Watching the door close, Yohji snaked out an arm and snagged Aya’s wrist, then used the hold to drag his lover close to him. "What, Teddy rates a little extra protection but not me? Should I be worried about him stealing you from me?"

Aya made a snapping sound with his teeth and twisted his wrist free. "I could only send a few shadows with those two, and they won’t keep them safe for more than a few seconds. But you…." Aya stroked Yohji’s cheek. "The shadows already heed you, so there’s nothing more that I can do. And I don’t need to set them on you for them to keep watch over you. They won’t let you be harmed."

Because Aya wouldn’t allow him to be harmed. Yohji could feel that unspoken thought. He smiled and grabbed the hand that rested on his cheek and pressed a kiss against its palm. Aya purred slightly at the caress, and unable to resist, Yohji lightly bit into a pale finger. That earned him a slight bink to his nose.

"I’m the biter here, Yotan. Watch it or I’ll start tugging on your hair." Which, besides a few strands of bangs, had been safely pulled into a long ponytail and tucked down the back of his tunic. But Aya’s eartails…. Yohji smiled again as he tugged on one of them.

"No, I much prefer things as they are. Besides, you’re not as tasty as I am." Aya shocked him by sticking out his tongue the slightest bit.

Yohji again felt the urge to barricade the door and ravish Aya. He didn’t want to lose his mate, didn’t want to watch the man walk into danger, but he had to. If he wanted all these hints of an Aya able to move beyond his painful past to come true, he had to kill that past, once and for all. Yohji suddenly couldn’t care less that he was saving the king and Kritiker, only that he was fighting for his future with Aya. That mattered a hell of a lot more to him.

*******

Jo looked up when Cassandra entered the kitchen, a sad look on her face. The woman slowly made her way over to the table and sat down, not saying a word. Jo nodded her head in Cassandra’s direction and continued to baste the roasting pigs. When she was done with that she turned her attention to the ducks and chickens that needed to be greased and stuffed, and over twenty minutes passed in silence.

"It’s going to be a busy day. And the moment the sun goes down, everyone’s gonna want something to eat."

Cassandra stared down at the tabletop for a moment. "Yes, it will be a busy night for you. It will take some time for news of the attack to reach the Koneko, and after that everyone will want the food to sober them up."

"Ah. Have you seen anything else?"

The precog shook her head. "Snatches of this and that, obscured by darkness. But I don’t see the Koneko spending any time in mourning, so your family should come back safe to you."

Jo closed her eyes and offered a prayer to the gods. If her boys did return safely to her, she’d make an offering to Kannon tomorrow, and another to the shrine in the Koneko’s garden. The stupid fools, to go off facing danger like that. They better not be killed or seriously hurt, or she’d find a way to make them pay for the pain they caused her. Somehow.

Then Jo snapped open her eyes and started making the stuffing for the birds. "Not that I mind the company, but why are you here? Shouldn’t you be with the others? Would you like some tea?"

"Yes please, and a bit of Yotan’s whiskey as well." Cassandra leaned back in her chair and started to braid her hair. "I spoke to Botan this morning, and gave him my tears and best wishes then. I’ve talked to my son, and am assured that his mate will keep him safe. I even stopped by for a moment to speak to Yohji and Aya, right before coming down here. But that is it. I won’t see them off, and I won’t say goodbye. I will instead sit here and wait for their return."

The same thing that Jo would be doing. Waiting to see if she lost another child or not. Shaking the dark thought from her mind, Jo put the teakettle on her stove. "Well, if you wish to not dwell on the time, your help would be appreciated. I guarantee you’ll be kept too busy to worry."

"Thank you, Jo. I’ll gladly help in whatever manner you ask of me." Cassandra rose to her feet and crossed over to the table that Jo had her ingredients out for the stuffing. "Ah, I see you still use Miyuki’s recipe."

"Of course, it’s the only one I know, to be honest." For a moment Jo reflected upon her condition when she arrived at the Koneko. Grief stricken, abused and desperate, just wanting a place to hide from her husband. Miyuki had given her that place, and as soon as she’d physically healed had set her to work in the kitchen, since Jo couldn’t continue to pay for her room. It was amusing now to see how she’d been tricked into picking up the work, since there was no way Miyuki would have allowed her to leave, money or no money. But the work had calmed Jo, had given her something to do and kept her too preoccupied to worry, and she’d learned much from Miyuki and Amanda. She’d never been much of a cook before arriving at the Koneko. It was almost funny to think that one of the reasons her husband had beaten her was because of her ruining dinner so often, and here she’d found a new life as a cook at a popular inn. Almost.

Cassandra’s voice interrupted her thoughts. "Ah, I remember helping Miyuki with the cooking when Amanda was too sick to work. I’ll tend to the stuffing, if you don’t mind."

Jo shook her head and went to fetch boiling water. "You know, I wonder what she’d think of this situation, if she was here."

"Most likely she’d sharpen her sword and face them all by herself, to spare Yohji and Aya any danger. The odds would be for her, too." Cassandra chuckled softly. "There was a woman a wise person never antagonized. Especially not when she was protecting something she loved. No, the Takatoris and Eto wouldn’t stand a chance against her. I can almost see the look on their face as they’re defeated by a single, lame woman."

Chuckling herself, Jo poured the tea for her friend and some for herself too. "Yes, Miyuki would win, hands down. She’d do anything to keep Yohji safe, and she’d be so happy that he’d finally found someone to love." She thought of the lovely, small woman for a moment, and wished her peace, wherever she was. Jo just hoped that she wouldn’t be visiting the shrine out back and telling her friend that her son was never to return to the inn.

"He’ll be fine, Jo. They’ll return. I may not be able to see very clearly, but Fate has many plans for Yohji and Aya. They will not escape through death."

There was some comfort to be taken from those words, since a precog spoke them. Jo set a cup of tea down in front of Cassandra and nodded her head. The woman had never been wrong yet, so she’d have faith that her boys would return to her. Yohji and Koyu and Teddy, and Aya and Nagi too, now. Her family. Then Jo sent another prayer to the gods. She’d given them one son already, may that be all the sacrifice they required from her.

*******

Yuushi looked at the assembled Guards, and felt a quiver of fear. If he’d been wrong about what would happen to day, or if he and Reiichi had miscalculated in the slightest, a lot of his friends were going to die. Hell, even if they were right, a lot were going to die. But Yuushi saw no other alternative, and neither did the Guards before him, or they wouldn’t be here. Still, it was an awful burden to bear.

He felt Reiichi’s hand on his shoulder, and Yuushi suddenly cleared his throat. "All right, we’ll soon be expected to report to our stations, as people will be entering the ballroom shortly. Reiichi has detailed for you where the weapons are hidden, and you can look to Toshi, Miko, Gerald, and Li for them when the fighting starts. Which, according to my source, will be around the time of the wedding toast." Which made sense, since everyone’s attention would be focused on the king and his brother, and everyone would be gathered together for the speech. It would be harder to round the guests up after the speech, and that led to the possibility of people escaping or fighting back.

"Remember, those of you stationed there, stay near the doors until we’ve dealt with as many guests as we can, and then start fighting. That’s about it." Yuushi didn’t know what else he could say, if his friends didn’t know what they were supposed to do by now, repeating things again wouldn’t help at all.

Luckily, Reiichi came to his rescue. "Remember what you’re fighting for, and watch out for each other. You are all very brave and skilled, and today is your chance to prove yourselves. But this is not the time for bravado, so please, be careful."

The assembled Guards all nodded their head and spoke their assent, and within minutes vanished from the small library that Reiichi had picked for their last meeting place. Taking a deep breath, Yuushi tugged straight his formal uniform and double-checked that his kondorudarujan was secure about his waist. Unlike most of the other Guards, Yuushi was able to sneak his preferred weapon into his uniform, while most of them were stuck with their swords and whatever daggers they could hide. Because of that, Naru, Reiichi and he were among the chosen few who would be the first fighting, buying the others time to get to their weapons. It only seemed fair that since they were the main conspirators that they took the most risk.

"Well, are we going or what?" Naru asked as he bounced on his toes. It figured he was eager to fight, unlike people who had any common sense.

Reiichi smiled at their young friend and waved him on with a deep bow. "As they say, ‘we who are about to die…’"

"You know, Reiichi, I never liked that saying of yours before, and I like it even less now." Yuushi glared at his friend as he walked out of the library.

The man just smiled at him charmingly. "Well, you know what they say about the truth, Yuushi."

*******

Observing the men and one woman gathered in the Koneko’s office, Botan straightened his black robes and brushed back his hair. He was dressed for the wedding, since Omi and he would have to hurry there as soon as this meeting was finished. So it would be best if he did what he’d came here for and went on his way. Though a part of him wished he could leave Omi here, safe from harm. But he knew better than to deny the young prince his fight.

"So, is all set for today?" Birman posed her question to Crawford, who was impeccably dressed in white and silver.

"Yes. So far, minus one addition," Crawford glared ever so slightly at Masato, "things are just as I’ve foreseen them. Everyone who will be needed for the battle has been gathered, and we are ready.

"You all know that Lord Eto will have his mercenaries attack not long after the wedding toast. Prince Reiji and his sons will seek to take advantage of the situation, once they realize that Aya won’t assassinate the king for them." Crawford turned to look at Ken, who was standing quietly by Omi’s side.

"Be prepared for pain, Hidaka. I’m sorry to say that the vision I have of you involves you screaming in agony."

"I’m aware of the danger involved in this battle," Ken woodenly replied. Then he hugged himself. "I almost look forward to it, just to feel _something_."

Botan felt a flash of sympathy for the young Guard, but immediately squelched the emotion. It was more than likely that all of them were to be in for some pain today, and he couldn’t let himself start worrying about everyone.

"I’ve foreseen pitched fighting, and…." Crawford shook his head. "Aya’s presence blocks my and Cass’ vision beyond that. Something will happen, be it spell or an unexpected event, and blood will flow. That’s all I know, and I’ve already told you all this. I have nothing left to say other than to be on your guard."

"Good advice, in my opinion. I have a few things here that will hopefully ensure that the blood won’t be all ours." Botan reached into his pouch and pulled out two bands. "These are for you, Crawford and Schuldig."

The precog’s eyes lit up as he snatched at the bracelet. "Ah, another vision suddenly becomes clear. How do you come to possess two more gauntlets? I thought it rare enough you finding Omi his, let alone providing us the same." Crawford and Schuldig eagerly placed the gold bands on their wrists, and Botan figured that he didn’t have to explain how to use the weapons to the bounds. Omi winked at him and tapped his left bracelet while Schuldig’s thanks rang in Botan’s head.

"Those aren’t the only gifts I have. There is something else that I was lucky enough to produce, and they are many times more valuable and rarer than the gauntlets."

Botan reached again into the pouch on his belt and pulled out a square of white silk, folded neatly. Quickly unwrapping the package, he soon revealed a set of eight rings, wrought in silver and containing round black stones that seemed to shimmer and gleam. He held them up for everyone in the room to see.

"What are those, Botan? Charms?"

Handing one of the smaller rings over to the inquisitive prince, Botan watched Omi gingerly accept the offering. "These rings will ward all of you against magic."

Crawford immediately straightened from his slouch and approached Botan, his eyebrows raised over intent blue eyes. "Are those what I think they are?"

"Most likely, yes." Botan held up the precog’s ring, and everyone’s attention became riveted upon it. "A kage’s tear, imbibed with kage blood, and freshly made at that. No spells should be able to harm you as long as you wear these rings. Their magic should last for several years, since the blood was freely given." Crawford all but snatched the jewelry from his hands, and Birman was right behind him for hers.

"So that was why Cass took Aya’s tears."

Botan glanced aside at Yohji and nodded his head. He noticed that Aya was looking down at the floor while his mate watched as Botan distributed the rings to the rest of the assembled men. Aya was rubbing his gloved hand over the inside of his left wrist, where Botan knew there to be numerous long, thin scars. Yohji stopped glancing around the room to glare at Botan while he placed an arm around Aya’s waist and hugged his mate close.

"Is that why you bled Aya so much that night?" Yohji’s voice was quiet and slightly sibilant, causing Crawford, Schuldig and Jei to look up from their new rings to stare at the blond with concern.

Carefully choosing his words, Botan looked his younger friend in the eyes. "I bled Aya so much the other night because I wanted to be sure I had enough blood for Schuldig to use the next day. I did use most of the supply that day, and the only reason I had enough left over for the rings was because of the tears Cassandra supplied me. It was only then that it occurred to me that I could craft something that would help everyone fight the Princes Reiji and Masafumi, and Yoru too."

"Yohji, drop it. He’s right about the rings helping people during the fight." Aya reached for his mate’s hand and squeezed it gently.

Yohji jerked his free hand through his hair, pulling several strands out of the ponytail that he had tied it back in, and he let out a slow breath at the same time. "Sorry, Botan, but I just wanted to make sure that you hadn’t thought about storing some of Aya’s blood for spells like these. Aya didn’t give it to you for you to fool around with."

"I assure you, Yohji, that there is only a drop or two left. If anything, I took so much blood because I am unused to using it for casting spells." He wanted to make sure that Yohji understood him, and didn’t think that he’d been taking advantage of the situation. Botan had a feeling that it would be a bad thing to have Yohji pissed off at him during the fight today. But the younger man seemed to accept his answer and resumed looking around the room.

Everyone had tried on their new rings, and Botan thought his friends appeared less tense than they’d been a few minutes before. It was a weight off his mind that he wouldn’t have to worry about protecting himself from any of the enemy wizard’s spells, and he knew the team assembled before him had to feel the same. The rings really would increase everyone’s chance of survival.

Crawford smiled down at his hand and then nodded his head in thanks at Botan. "These will indeed help to ensure that not all the blood spilled is ours. Our chances have significantly increased, thanks to this gift. Even as bounds, we would have difficulty facing three wizards, two of them rather powerful."

"They’ll be the ones bleeding, yes oh yes. I’ll make them scream in pain. Oh, how sweet it’ll be, to see their faces when their magic fails them. Twisted creatures that they are." Jei chuckled lowly, a smile on his face that revealed his sharp teeth. There was an air of madness surrounding the man, and his eye glowed brilliantly in the shadowed room. Schuldig and Masato, who had been standing close to Jei, suddenly shifted away.

Jei looked up from his ring and bared his teeth at Botan. "Your kind are monsters, traitorous and cruel, but I’ll keep my blade from you in return for this gift. Oh yes, I’ll be able to kill many of your kind now. I can already taste all the blood." His lips pulled back until his teeth were completely exposed, and Botan found it very hard to swallow as a chill ran down his spine. He suddenly wondered if it had been wise to give the ring to Jei, but it was too late to take it back now. At least he had Jei’s word that the man wouldn’t turn his hate on him. But Botan pitied any wizard who crossed Jei’s path from this day on.

*******

Hajime Eto watched from his position behind Shuuichi as Manx walked down the aisle, escorted by her successor, the disgraced lord Kikyou. He wondered if the woman was making an intentional statement, both letting the Court know that she still had strong ties to the Guards, and that she didn’t care about their politics in the slightest. Well, he knew that the latter wasn’t true, or she would have picked the Guard Honjyou instead to be at her side, and to assume her vacated position.

The woman was dressed in a white kimono decorated all over with pale pink sakura blossoms. Her red hair was wrapped with pearls and hidden behind a lace veil, and for a moment Hajime acknowledged her beauty. But she wasn’t anywhere near as lovely as his sister had been, and she could never hope to replace the woman. What had Shuuichi been thinking, to remarry so beneath his station? He dishonored Kikuno’s memory with this farce.

But soon his brother-in-law would be made to pay. Both of them would. He glanced over at where Reiji sat, and Hajime felt his jaw clench in anger at the smile the bastard had on his face. Oh, Reiji was happy about something. Was the bastard imaging raping this bride of his brother too, or was he thinking of his plot for tonight? Well, whatever spells he and his son cooked up, Reiji would never have the throne. Hajime, his mercenaries and his wizard would see to that. Come the dawn, he would be well on his way to wiping the name Takatori from the memory of this earth for all time. That clan would finally pay for what they had done to his sister. For seventeen years he’d bided his time and waited for his revenge, and tonight it would be given to him.

Kikuno’s attackers would be made to pay, and his family would have their honor restored after almost two decades of shame. The slight against the Etos would soon be repaid, tenfold. Everyone with a drop of Takatori blood in their veins or any loyalty to those butchers would die. His father would be proud of him, Hajime thought. If only the man hadn’t died of shame fifteen years ago. Well, his ghost and those of all Hajime’s ancestors would witness his victory. The Eto’s would finally have what should have been theirs centuries ago. No more would they sacrifice their sons and daughters to form an alliance with Kritiker’s most powerful lineage; after tonight, that would be them.

His sister had been the last one. And on this day when she was shamed again, Hajime would finally have his vengeance.

*******

Nagi trailed behind Aya and Yohji, turning his head this way and that to look at the palace wall’s and all the people walking around the, oblivious to their existence. The guests were all dressed in brilliant finery, and jewels glittered everywhere.

<Ah, you have the makings of a fine thief, Nagi-kins. A little training and you’d be almost as good as me. Imagine how easy it would be to steal those jewels with but a thought on your part.>

‘May I remind you that we’re here to fight and not steal, Schuldig?’

<Who says we can’t do both? You need to loosen up a bit, Nagi, and learn to snatch at opportunities when they come your way. You never know when a few gems will come in handy. Now stop gawking and pay attention before you step on Aya’s heels.>

Nagi snapped back to reality and noticed that he was getting a bit close to Aya, and slowed his step down. Behind him he heard Jei chuckle, but since the bound wasn’t entirely sane at the moment, Nagi didn’t glare at his friend or anything. He didn’t want to be the one to set Jei off since he had a feeling the man would be very hard to stop once the blood started flowing.

He looked at Aya’s back, noticing how stiff the man’s body was. Yohji was beside the kage, holding his hand tightly. For a moment Nagi was envious of the two, and the fact that they would be together during the long wait for the fighting to start. Omi was currently at the wedding, and he’d be close to his father when things started to happen. Nagi hoped that Jei kept his promise, since he would be staying close to Aya until things were over.

It was a few more minutes before they reached the ballroom, which was already filling up with people who hadn’t attended the wedding. They made their way to a small nook that Botan had warded for them, keeping anyone else from taking their spot. Here they would be out of the way, and could keep an eye on the raised platform where the king and his entourage would be sitting. Where Omi would be.

Aya came to a halt, his violet eyes shining silver behind his mask as he scanned the room. "There’s something here, something involving blood magic."

"Yes, that would be Yoru’s tampering with the wards so the mercenaries can cross them, I imagine."

"No, Crawford, this is something else." Aya shook his head and looked over the ballroom. "This isn’t something to do with wards, not exactly. I sense demons."

Schuldig shifted forward, a frown on his face. "He’s not imagining it, Oracle. I sensed something when I was here the other day, but I couldn’t figure it out. And it was Aya’s blood that allowed me to sense whatever it was."

Looking over the room himself, Crawford pushed up his glasses with a clenched fist. "I see…. I knew the second attack would have something to do with magic, and I assume whatever Aya’s feeling is related to that. Can you sense what demons they are, Aya?"

"…not exactly. They’re not gaki or shinigami, I’ve encountered them before. Whatever they are, they are hostile and powerful, and are held back by the wards. The magic involved feels familiar somehow." Aya took a step forward, but Yohji used the hold on his mate’s hand to pull him back.

"You may be invisible, love, but it’s getting crowded out there, and you might bump into someone. Stay here where it’s safe." Aya appeared ready to argue, but Crawford then backed Yohji up.

"He’s right. There’s no cause to raise any suspicions. Besides, I think I’ve figured out Yoru’s little surprise. He must have sealed oni in the room, and plans on releasing them if it looks as if he’ll lose."

Nagi gasped in surprise, along with Schuldig and Yohji. Jei growled while Masato quietly started to curse.

"The fool bastard. Stubborn fool bastard, at that, one who doesn’t know when to quit. I suspected that old Yoru was going senile, but to risk unleashing oni in a crowded area? It’ll be a mass slaughter."

"Yes, it will be. Aya, I want you to monitor the wards, and the moment they start to fall, warn us. Most likely Yoru has linked them to his life force, so Jei, I need you to hold back on killing the wizard until most of the mercenaries are dealt with. We don’t need to fight both them and oni at the same time. Schuldig, get in contact with Botan right now and warn him." Crawford barked out the orders, and everyone jumped to obey him, even Jei. The scarred bound snarled and spat in anger, but even he nodded his head with his partner fixed him with a stern look.

Oni. Nagi shivered as he thought about the powerful demons. He’d heard horror stories about their destructive capabilities, and now he’d see them first hand. He shivered again, and then Aya’s arm rested on his shoulders and his friend pulled him close.

"It will be all right, Nagi. Stay by me, and I won’t let you be harmed."

And here he was supposed to be watching Aya’s back. "I can take care of myself, Aya. Just watch out for Omi, if you possibly can." Aya nodded his head.

"Don’t worry about the chibi, Nagi. He’s clearly insane if he’s fallen in love with you, and the gods watch out for people like that. He probably won’t even get a scratch during all the fighting."

"Nagi…." Aya’s deep voice stopped Nagi before he could use his power to smack Kudoh’s head. Sighing, he leaned against his friend and looked out at all the people walking around the ballroom. For a moment he wondered how many of them would die this day. But he soon found that he didn’t really care, and he went back to worrying about his friends. Nagi didn’t care if everyone in the ballroom was killed, as long as his friends were spared.

"I can feel the mercenaries starting to arrive. There are enough of them that I can sense their magic." Aya’s words were greeted with silence, but even though it would be almost an hour before the ceremony would be completed and the king and his bride arrive here, Nagi noted that many his comrades’ hands started to stray towards their weapons. This was it, then. Very soon, people would be dying. Nagi shivered again, and wondered if it would worth his energy to start to pray.

*******

Reiji walked into the ballroom behind his brother, and amusedly noted all the Guards scattered about the large area. The fools would be dead soon, joining his brother in death. A shiver of anticipation ran through him, and he pretended to cough in order to hide his smile. While it was expected for him to be happy today, it wouldn’t do for Reiji to appear too happy. Not when his brother was going to die later that evening.

Glancing about again, Reiji looked about for the kage. Not that he expected the creature to be standing out in the open, but it did tend to be a bit on the obvious side, due to its coloring. The creature must be skulking in the shadows, or the Esset agents had provided it with a costume of sorts. Still, Reiji would feel better if the creature revealed itself to him.

But it should be present, somewhere. The kage had never disobeyed an order before, and it wouldn’t dare to do so tonight. Masafumi had instructions to torment the creature’s sister as soon as his speech came to an end, to make sure the kage had the proper impetus to follow through with its orders. And once it started killing, it wouldn’t stop until Reiji’s brother and his slut were dead. It was a shame that Mamoru had to be killed, since the boy might possibly be his, but Reiji knew that if the young prince lived, people would want him on the throne, and not himself. No, sometimes sacrifices had to be made. And for such a worthy cause, him finally achieving the throne, as he should have twelve years ago, when his father had died.

Well, that was an error that would soon be remedied.

*******

Aya stood in the shadows and watched Prince Reiji toast his brother. His eyes narrowed in anger as he watched the man smile at the brother he had ordered to be killed. The shadows writhed around him, eager to be unleashed to rip into that stocky, ornately robed body. When Aya finally managed to tear his eyes off his former master, they drifted to the young men sitting beside him. The sight of Hirofumi caused his mouth to flood with bitterness and for him to growl.

"Shh, love. We don’t want to draw any attention to ourselves." Yohji wrapped an arm around Aya’s upper chest, pulling him backwards until he was pressed against Yohji. Warm lips brushed over the back of his neck. Feeling Yohji’s touch and breathing in his scent helped to calm Aya.

"He won’t hurt you again, Aya. I promised you that. He’s going to die in a few more minutes, and the nightmare will finally be over for you."

"Hn." Aya lifted his hand and sought out the one resting on his shoulder, then his and Yohji’s fingers became entwined. His whole body was tense, waiting for the speech to end, and for his former masters to realize that their kage was no longer obeying their orders. Part of Aya wanted to see the expression on their faces when they realized they controlled him no longer, but mostly he just wanted this over with. When Reiji and his sons were dead, and the battle fought, then he could truly be free.

He could tell when Reiji was nearing the end of his speech, the man’s eyes started to flick about the ballroom as he shifted away from King Shuuichi and his bride. The shadows that Aya had stationed around the room started whispering to him, informing him of people moving about, people who carried the tang of anticipation and death. Yohji’s hold on him tightened, and Aya could feel his mate’s excitement and fear.

<Everyone, Eto’s mercenaries are moving into position. Be prepared.>

Aya was suddenly spun around, and Yohji’s mouth descended upon his, savage and desperate. They clung to each other for a few intense seconds, and then Aya reluctantly stepped back, a whimper breaking free from his throat when Yohji’s hands fell from his body. For a moment he stared at his mate, enveloped in black until all that showed was his brilliant green eyes, his kiss-swollen lips and his chin. Aya reached out and brushed his thumb over Yohji’s lips, one last touch before he called the shadows around him to form black armor. He had them do the same for his lover, and could feel Yohji’s startlement when the shadows coalesced around him, cool and hard.

Yohji stared down at his armor for a few heartbeats, and then looked at Aya. "Don’t worry about me, keep yourself safe."

"There’s not much point to that if you’re harmed, Yohji."

"No, I guess not." Yohji stroked a hand over his armor, but his eyes remained locked on Aya’s. "Same goes for you. Remember the promise you made me. I expect you to come back to me when this is over."

"Just be here to call me back, Yotan." Shadows caressed Yohji’s cheek, and Aya felt a burning desire to cloak the two of them in darkness and to hide away from the death and pain that lay in store for them. At the same time he felt himself start to slip away, and a new voice was added to that of his familiar shadows. Shinigamis were arriving, a few more each second, and he heard them whispering to him. He knew they were here to feed, and wondered how they knew to arrive in such large numbers. Then he returned his attention to watching his former master, waiting for the signal that would herald the bloodshed.

*******

Realizing that his father was nearing the end of his speech, Masafumi nodded to Hell as he reached into his robe’s pocket for the soul sphere. His ladies, enhanced by kage blood, shifted about him protectively as he concentrated on sending pain into the human soul residing inside the glass ball. For a moment he felt an odd barrier, and then he could feel the spell working. Poor little Aya was being tormented yet again, and her brother would feel her suffering.

Suddenly a scream burst forth, interrupting his father’s speech. Masafumi looked up to see the Guard that had shadowed Mamoru all through the wedding ceremony and here at the reception fall to the floor, his body convulsing. Unable to understand what was happening, he sent another pain spell into the sphere, waiting for the kage to take advantage of the distraction and attack. But all that happened was the Guard screamed again.

It suddenly dawned on Masafumi that the man only reacted when he attacked the soul within his sphere, so he tried another spell. When the Guard arched his back off the floor and screamed yet again, and the kage failed to appear, he realised that something was wrong. He poured his magic into the sphere, and felt… an odd echo. Something slightly out of tune, something alien. Masafumi cursed when he realised that this wasn’t the sphere that he’d created years ago.

"Masafumi, what’s wrong?"

"Dammit, someone stole the sphere and substituted a fake. I don’t have the kage’s sister!" He tried for a moment to concentrate on the real sphere, to send a spell through to it mentally, but he could no longer feel the object. It was as if the sphere was no more. But he would have felt his magic being destroyed, if that was the case.

Hell grabbed his arm as people rushed over to the falling Guard, his father’s speech all but forgotten. "That means you don’t control Ran anymore."

"Yes." They shared a look of horror for a moment, and then a hand on Masafumi’s shoulder spun him around. His father stared at him, his face red with anger.

"What the hell is happening? Where is the creature? Why aren’t you using the sphere?"

"Because I don’t have the sphere anymore. Someone tricked us!" How he hadn’t a clue. The sphere had been warded with his strongest magic, Masafumi would have felt it if it the wards had been touched, let alone someone removing the object from its case. Only a kage….

"It’s broken free of us. Somehow, it stole its sister back. The kage is no longer ours."

His father’s face flushed even redder, and Masafumi heard it when his brother gasped, along with Schoen, who had attended the wedding as Hirofumi’s escort. Somehow the kage had done the impossible and had broken free of them. Had found where his sister’s soul had been hidden, and snatched it away.

Reiji suddenly realised what that meant. There would be no assassination tonight, of the king at least. Not unless they recovered the sphere. The older man’s eyes suddenly shifted to Hell.

"Your ‘women’. If the kage can’t do the killing, have them do it. Now! While everyone is distracted. Then send a message to one of our spies, telling them to check that inn for the kage and the sphere."

The orders made sense. His ladies were stronger and faster than normal because of the kage blood, and immune to most magic. But so had been Neu, and he’d lost her. While Masafumi prepared himself to tell his father ‘no’, Tot, who was pretending to be his page, touched him on the arm.

"I’ll do it, Papa!"

"Tot, no!" But it was too late, she was already moving toward the king with blinding speed, and his father was holding him back, preventing him from chasing after the girl. Masafumi watched Tot approached the king, and saw the gleam of her stiletto knife.

Just a few feet short of the king, who was standing by the fallen Guard, inquiring about his condition, Tot let out a yell of exultation. But the noise soon became pain as Mamoru turned in her direction and lifted his right arm. Somehow Tot was projected backwards, several gold arrows clustered in the middle of her chest. As the girl stumbled to the floor, Masafumi, Hell and Schoen picked up her cry.

His remaining women immediately leapt at the young prince, and barely managed to avoid being shot, just like Tot had been. Masafumi could only stare as he noticed the gold bracelet on his cousin’s wrist. A gauntlet. Mamoru was wearing a gauntlet, two of them at that. He’d never seen the weapons on the boy before. How had his cousin known to come armed to the wedding, and to be bearing rare magical items?

The Guards around the king joined in the fray, and they positioned themselves between Mamoru and Shuuichi and his ladies. Masafumi knew that the fools stood no chance against Hell and Schoen and returned his gaze to his cousin. The boy who had hurt his sweet Tot. No longer caring about trying to appear as if he had nothing to do with the unraveling coup, Masafumi raised his hands to cast a death spell at his own blood.

*******

Omi instantly recognized Masafumi’s stance, and he yelled out to Botan as his cousin pointed at him. Realizing that the wizard wouldn’t be able to help him in time, Omi defensively raised his hands. He thought of the energy that was charging towards him, and wished he had Nagi’s power to form a shield of protection. Then there was the sensation of tension snapping inside his head, and he felt as if he was struck by lightning.

Colored sparks cascaded around him, striking a barrier he could feel more than see, and Omi felt a brush of something dark and malevolent struggle against the shield he’d somehow raised before him and then die. He looked at Masafumi and found a shocked expression on the man’s face. Omi was sure his face looked the same.

"Omi, how the hell did you create a ward?" Botan pulled him backwards as he lobbed a spell at the other wizard, causing Masafumi to dart to the side. The motion broke Omi’s concentration, and the ward disintegrated.

"I don’t know! All I did was think of a shield to protect me from Masafumi’s spell, and it formed!"

"Omi, you idiot, you have the ring! You didn’t need any protection!" Botan spared him a disgusted look as he shifted closer to King Shuuichi. "Somehow, you must have tapped into the latent magic in your veins and summoned it. Now stop it, since you might do more damage than good fooling around like that!"

Gritting his teeth, Omi was about to reply that he wasn’t fooling around, and that he had no idea he had any latent magic in his veins, when there was a loud metallic hiss.

<Get ready, chibi. Eto’s men are making their move. The fun’s about to start.>

*******

Yuushi looked on in wonder as Hidaka fell screaming to the floor, and he saw Liss leave her position to check on her partner. Tapping on his copper bracelet, Yuushi had Reiichi take the woman’s place, and then carefully watched the events unfolding on the platform. Was this part of Eto’s attack? Was it a diversion of sorts? It was certainly working to the lord’s benefit, as the crowd pushed toward the platform, eager to see what was happening, and even the king was checking on the fallen Guard.

{Yuushi. Princes. Watch.} The message came from Reiichi, and Yuushi followed his friend’s advice. He looked over at the princes Reiji, Masafumi and Hirofumi, and found them congregated together with worried expressions on their faces. Two women stood by them, busy scanning the room while Prince Reiji started to yell at his oldest son. Then a young girl with blue hair was running towards the king.

"Fuck!" He saw Reiichi rush towards the stage, and at the same time Yuushi yanked off his sword belt to free his kondorudarujan. The whipsword whistled through the air, becoming straight and stiff as he ran towards his king. He could feel Reiichi tapping out a warning to watch out for an attack from Reiji and his sons, and knew that the other Guards were probably just as off balanced by this development as him. Was Reiji involved with Eto?

The next thing Yuushi knew was the two women by the princes were screaming and trying to attack Prince Mamoru, who had somehow shot the young girl. The boy was saved by other Guards, and people started to scream and panic. There was the sizzle of magic in the air, and the crowd tried to flee from the platform. It was then that Yuushi heard the sound of dozens of swords being unsheathed at the same time.

{The attack.}

Yuushi didn’t need the warning, as he saw several mercenaries start to hack their way towards the king. He swung his blade at one of them, ducked under the other one’s sword, and killed the both of them within seconds of each other. Then he started to be jostled by the crowd.

"Everyone! Calm down! We need you to leave the ballroom!" Yuushi tried to calm the guests down before they became a mob, but there was too much panic. He was having a hard time making out any more mercenaries due to the costumes, and knew that his people were at the disadvantage because their uniforms made them stand out. Over his copper bracelet various commands and questions were sent back and forth as the Guards tried to remain organized. But there were just too many people, and mercenaries were attacking the Guards at the door, preventing them from being opened so reinforcements could enter or the guests leave.

*******

Yoru watched as chaos broke out and couldn’t help but smile. Not even the defection of Honjyou, the man and his Guards working against the mercenaries and for the king caused him any worries. There were too many of the hired soldiers, and his spells were helping to frighten the crowd even more. The Guards didn’t have a chance. Soon, Eto would kill the king and his brother, and Yoru needed to be there to make sure that Masafumi was spared. He stared again at the prince’s women, who were killing Guards and mercenaries alike with ease. Yoru recognized humans enhanced by bound blood, and judging from the way his spells had no effect against the two, it was kage blood at that. And soon, that blood would be his.

*******

"Now!"

Crawford’s voice sent all of them leaping forward, and Yohji stared in wonder as shadows raced out ahead of them, shoving guests and mercenaries away from the platform where the king and Omi were standing. The shadows did what the Guards had failed to do, and herded the screaming people towards the exits. Yohji knew that Aya was trying to clear the room of as many guests as he could so they could fight easier, and sent a wave of approval to his mate. Who was busy attacking several mercenaries at once, a shadow katana in his hand.

For a moment Yohji stood still, watching Aya dance around the soldiers. Moving at an impossible speed, he dodged under their sword thrusts and sliced into them, sending soldier after soldier to fall to the floor, dead. When one tried to run away, Nagi, who had been at Aya’s back, used his power to snap the man’s neck.

<Yotan! Get your head out of your ass and fight!>

Schuldig’s voice snapped Yohji out of his reverie, and he managed to duck under a merc’s sword just in time. Pulling on his wire, Yohji sent several threads in the woman’s direction, willing them to be as sharp as possible. There was a spray of blood, and he left a mess on the floor as he tried to reach the platform. Ken was up there, struggling to regain his feet, and Hirofumi was there as well. Nagi had Aya’s back, so Yohji was going to take care of the man who’d raped his lover now, before any mercenary or demon got to him first. The anger and need for blood that he’d kept in check the past two weeks clamored for him to finally have his revenge. Snarling, Yohji raced towards his victim.

*******

A rare smile on his face, Crawford slashed at a mercenary in gilded armor. When the man jumped back he tossed the knife he held in his right hand at his opponent, catching him in the throat. Mentally calling back the weapon, Crawford knew he’d have a few seconds before a woman with a pike decorated with ribbons attacked him. He used the time to watch the scene unfolding before him.

Jei was lost in the blood-madness, killing mercenaries with ease. His partner should be full for a couple weeks after this feast. Aya and Nagi were also taking care of Eto’s hired soldiers, the two young men a frightening sight to behold. Between Aya’s shadow katana and unnatural speed and grace, and Nagi killing with just a wave of his hand, people had to realize that they were not even remotely human.

As he gazed after the pair, Crawford caught sight of a Guard leveling a crossbow at the two bounds. Intending to stop the man, Crawford sent his knife flying at one of the men that were attacking Schuldig instead. One Guard, a little older than the rest, with brown hair and glasses, had knocked his associate’s weapon aside. Ah, it was nice to know that some of the Guard were realizing that the bounds were on their side. Crawford nodded his head and prepared himself for the woman to attack him.

His power was helping him to fight, even if it didn’t reveal to him much of the battle beyond that. But looking around the room, Crawford knew that this was how this battle had been meant to play out. Already he could feel the strands of Fate twist and knot in new patterns, and he knew that if he lived through this day, he’d see the future he so desperately wanted start to unfurl before him. The others might be fighting for love, family or honor, but Crawford was here because of hope.

Stepping aside as the woman charged at him with his weapon, Crawford smiled again as that emotion grew stronger in his heart with each passing second.

*******

Thwarted by his efforts to kill Mamoru, Masafumi cursed and turned his attention back to the false soul sphere. After releasing a familiar to carry a message to the spy stationed at the Koneko, he tried to unravel the spells that had created the glass ball. But the magicks eluded him, as if quicksilver. The more he tried to pin them down, the more elusive they became. He was left to surmise that the kage had somehow been involved in the spell’s creation. That was the only possible conclusion when all Masafumi could sense was the soul and gaki inside the sphere.

But he had an idea of who had created the object, considering the wizard who had prevented him from attacking the king with magic. Botan stood before King Shuuichi and the new queen, busy weaving a ward that would keep them safe. Masafumi tried sending a death spell at the man, but it had no effect on Botan. It must be due to more of the kage’s treachery.

"Botan, release your ward!"

The older wizard stared at him coldly and shook his head. "So you can kill them, Masafumi? No."

Knowing that as soon as the ward was completed that Botan would try to strike at him, and suddenly doubtful of his amulet that would normally protect him from most magicks, Masafumi spared a dark thought for the kage and held up the sphere in his hand.

"Stop with the ward, or whoever’s soul is inside this sphere will suffer. It’s the Guard’s, isn’t it? Masafumi punctuated the question by sending another pain spell inside the sphere, causing the Guard to scream in agony. He kept the spell going, causing the young man to convulse on the floor.

Botan paled and put more effort into his ward. Angry that his tactic was failing to do anything but give the Royal Wizard the incentive to finish his spell all the quicker, Masafumi poured as much magic into the sphere as he could. The Guard continued to scream, the sounds he produced horrible to hear, and Masafumi grew more desperate as the ward neared completion.

"Stop it!" Mamoru, who had been shooting at any mercenaries that neared the platform, shrieked at Masafumi and raised his wrist. Knowing his charm wouldn’t protect him from the magical projectile, Masafumi raised his arms in front of him protectively as he called out for his ladies. At the same time he felt the ward around the king be completed, and the sizzle of magic was in the air.

Readying a spell to send back at his cousin, Masafumi started to move his hands. There was a shattering sound, and he yelled as glass shards bit into his hands. A strong wind blew, and there was a cloud of darkness and light all around him. Knowing that a gaki had just been released with the ball’s destruction, Masafumi hurriedly converted his offensive spell into a ward. He tried to contain the demon, trapping it along with the Guard’s spell, and had barely just managed to do that when Botan’s spell struck the ward.

Magic coalesced and shimmered, multiple probabilities forming and reforming again and again. The magic was driven by Masafumi’s desire to contain the gaki before it devoured him, and Botan’s wish to protect the Guard. Possibilities shifted about, and then the two desires merged into one.

The cloud of darkness and light fragmented briefly, and then swirled through the air, reforming by the fallen Guard. It entered his body through his gaping mouth, being sucked in as a breath of air. Then the young man screamed again, only this time in as much fury as pain, and started to shudder. Magic flowed over and around him, causing all the people around him save for a young woman in a yellow dress to shift away.

Suddenly the Guard sat up, revealing a mouth full of sharp teeth and fangs. Claws grew out of his fingers, long and sharp, and he slashed at the young woman’s hand when she tried to hold onto him. Crying out as her hand was cut, the woman fell backwards as the Guard leapt to his feet.

He stilled for a moment, shaking his head as if in confusion, and seemed to finally notice the young woman. Masafumi, stunned by what had just happened, watched the man hold out a clawed hand to her, but the girl trembled and scrambled backwards in fear. A look of pain crossed the Guard’s face, and he then started to snarl. Whirling around, he leapt on a mercenary that had managed to approach the platform and attacked him with teeth and claws.

Masafumi turned his head away, his disgust finally overcoming his awe at the magical creation of a bound for the first time in almost a millennia.

*******

Schoen let out a yell of fury when she caught sight of the kage fighting his way through the mercenaries, and realized that the man was using his shadows to herd the guests out of the ballroom. The filthy traitor. She’d known something was wrong with the kage when she’d spoken to him last night, but hadn’t believed that he’d dare to break from Masafumi. Well, she would make him pay for his betrayal.

Preparing to leap at the demon, she came to a sudden halt when a knife flew past her, right in front of her face. Spinning to kill whoever had dared to try and hit her, she found one of the agents from Esset smiling at her, revealing his mouthful of sharp teeth. A cold chill washed through her when she realized that the two foreign bounds must also be involved in the betrayal, and that she was now facing a flesh gaki-bound. But she had kage blood in her veins, and she should be more than a match for the beast.

Striking out with her whip, Schoen aimed for the man’s remaining eye. The bound laughed and jumped back, moving impossibly fast. He tossed another knife, and this time the blade managed to strike her, driving deep into her right shoulder. Screaming in pain, she pulled out the blade with her left hand, and after dropping it to the floor transferred her whip to the shaky hand. She wasn’t as good left-handed, but she had no choice. She couldn’t properly move her right arm now, and wouldn’t be able to until the wound started to heal. Which should be soon, considering the kage blood she’d imbibed.

Schoen darted to the right and tried to loose herself in the crowd to give her shoulder time to heal. As soon as she could use her right hand again, she’d kill the bastard. But at the moment, she had enough trouble avoiding the various weapons mercenaries and Guards thrust her way, and was busy striking out at people to clear a path for her.

Almost at the platform, where she should be able to rest for a minute under the protection of Masafumi and Hell, Schoen started up the steps when she felt something sharp and hard slice deeply into her back. She let out a whimper of pain, and as hands tangled in her long hair she was pulled backwards.

She could faintly hear Hell screaming in the background over the bound’s chuckle. He smiled at her, the expression exposing his sharp teeth. His amber eye glowed brightly, as if the sun, and Schoen dazedly heard her mother’s voice, warning her not to stare at the bright object.

"How…?" She should have been safe.

"Sweet prey, how could I lose you after a taste of your blood?" The bound’s lips spread wider, showing more and more teeth. "Now I want more."

Schoen’s world blossomed in sharp pain as teeth tore into her throat.

*******

Reiichi sighed in relief as he watched most of the crowd manage to leave the ballroom, and started to anticipate when the rest of the Guards should rush in to help them. His friends were finally starting to overcome the mercenaries, aided by now having some space to hide in and being able to better distinguish the soldiers, and by the other fighters who had joined into the mix. Fighters who seemed to be wielding magic of some sort. He had a shaking suspicion that they weren’t wizards. Not upon seeing the one in grey and red chew into one of Prince Masafumi’s woman’s throat. Nor upon seeing a tall man garbed in black slicing into mercenaries with a black katana. A weapon that would melt and reform into a staff or spear from time to time, but would quickly revert back into sword shape after a deathblow had been struck.

Part of him knew that he should be shocked to see a kage fighting, and on the side of the king at that. But Reiichi had too many other concerns at the moment. If the kage and his friends were helping to keep his fellow Guards and the innocent people around him alive, he could care less what they were. He’d lost several comrades in the battle’s opening melee, and he didn’t want to lose any more. So Reiichi focused on tossing one of his knives at the mercenary that was about to stab Miko in the back while she fought another, and then rushed forward, stooping to retrieve the blade. He stood back up, his eyes immediately searching for another target. Outright battle such as this wasn’t his forte; he was much better at slinking through the shadows.

*******

Yohji neared the platform, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. He’d been distracted from his quest for a short while as he trailed after Ken, making sure his former partner was all right. It had been such a shock to see his friend go all ‘crazy Jei’ like that. But after watching Ken rip into the mercenaries with gusto, Yohji had been assured that the man was perfectly able to take care of himself, and that he wasn’t going to go all gaki on innocent people. Ken seemed more than a bit out of it at the moment, but he knew who the enemy was, and was taking out his confusion and anger on them.

Jumping onto the platform, Yohji tossed his wire around the neck of one of the Takatoris’ personal guard, who had belatedly joined in on the fun when they realized that their lords were trying to stage a coup and would need their help if they were to be successful. There weren’t too many of the personal guard, but enough to cause some panic on the platform. As if the mercenaries and the spells Yoru was tossing about weren’t enough. Yohji hoped that Jei could kill the old bastard soon.

Removing the head from the guard, he slid behind another and grasped the man’s head between his hands. Yohji felt it when the man tried to stab him with his sword, but the weapon was reflected by the shadow armor Aya had given him. With a quick twist, he effortlessly snapped the guard’s neck. Shadows raced before him as he ran across the platform, causing people to dart out of his way.

He found Hirofumi sneaking up on Omi, who was busy at the time trying to get a clear shot at a mercenary. Anger washing through him at the sight, Yohji snarled as he tossed out his wire, willing it to not to cut too deeply. Hirofumi was immediately snared, stumbling to the floor as his dagger was sent skittering away from him. Looking above him for a moment, Yohji tossed some of his wire into the air, willing it to wrap around one of the beams that the chandeliers hanged from. He pulled until Hirofumi was lifted several feet into the air.

"Let me go! You fucking prick, let me go!" Hirofumi’s face twisted with anger as he spun around in the air, trapped and helpless. His eyes went wide as shadows formed around him and Yohji, blocking anyone from preventing Yohji from gaining his revenge.

"Ran? Is that you?" When Yohji didn’t answer Hirofumi started to plead with him. "Ran, let me down, please! I won’t hurt you; I never wanted to hurt you. I had no part with your sister. Let me down, please."

Snarling again, Yohji ripped off his mask. He glared at the prince, wanting nothing more than to see the man writhe in agony.

"You… you’re not Ran. You’re that one Guard!"

"Correct."

"Let me go! I order you to let me go this right now! I’m not the one you’re after, you want my father. This was all his plan."

Yohji stepped closer to the trapped man. "Oh, I know that, and he’ll pay for his crimes. But right now, you’re the one who’s going to suffer." Yohji willed the wire to start cutting into Hirofumi’s flesh, just the littlest bit, and smiled when the man moaned in pain.

"How many times? How many times did you hurt him? Once a week? Every other day? Were you the one who caused the scars on his back?" Light of understanding was beginning to dawn in Hirofumi’s eyes. "How many times did you touch him?"

"You mean Ran, don’t you?" Hirofumi laughed madly. "You’re doing this because of him, aren’t you? What is it with you falling for our assassins? Well, I have news for you; you’re nothing but a means of escape for him. He’s using you."

Yohji growled low in his throat and caused the wires to become tighter. Hirofumi gasped as blood started to trickle down onto the floor.

"No, he’s not."

"Yes, he is," Hirofumi gasped. "You’re just a jealous fool. He’ll never care for you, he’s mine."

"He never was!" Yohji lunged forward and struck the net, punching Hirofumi in the stomach. The golden threads allowed his hand to pass through them and reformed around the man, wrapping so tight around Hirofumi’s chest that he could barely breathe.

"You touched him, you _raped_ him you fucking bastard! All that pain and humiliation, and you think he’s yours. Well, he’s not. He’s _mine_. My mate, my lover, forever. And you were the one to hurt him. You’re dead for that."

Watching Hirofumi’s lips form the words ‘mates’, Yohji struggled for some control. With but a thought he could order the wires to slice Hirofumi into tiny bits, or he could vanish them and strangle him with his own hands. Hell, he was half tempted to shove a sword up the man’s ass. But that would be the tiniest fraction of the suffering that Aya had undergone this past decade, and Yohji wanted more pain. So he stepped back and started to hoist Hirofumi into the air.

"Let… me…."

"Down? Not yet. Oh, you’ll come down eventually, but not as you’d like. Do you feel the wire biting deeper into your flesh?" Yohji bared his teeth at the prince. "I’ve decided to let gravity help me out here. You’ll remain suspended in the air, above it all and helpless to do a thing, just like he was helpless while you hurt and abused him. But eventually, the wire will bite deeper, and you’ll fall down. In pieces. Enjoy."

Hirofumi struggled and screamed, the anger turning into pain as the golden threads bit into his flesh. A couple fingers and blood started to rain down to the floor, and Yohji knew that more body parts would follow. He just hoped that the prince didn’t die of blood loss too soon. Responding to his thought, shadows skittered around Hirofumi, settling on his wounds and preventing the flow of blood. Yohji smiled when he saw that. Now, Hirofumi was going to live as his body was slowly sliced into pieces.

One man taken care of, Yohji set out for Reiji Takatori. While searching for the man, he saw Aya fighting more mercenaries, a creature of beauty and death. Nagi was at his back, and the soldier near them let out a scream as her body was crushed, as if by an invisible hand. Jei was fighting the one woman, Hell, and Omi was trying to protect the people left on the platform. Schuldig, Masato and Crawford were trying to help the Guards, and Botan was busy flushing Yoru from his hiding place. His lover and friends were holding their own, and he felt relief wash through him over that observation.

Then his eyes caught Reiji’s form, the light reflecting off one of his many jewels. Intending to do the same to the father as he’d done to the son, Yohji stepped forward.

*******

Cassandra watched the revelers sing and dance in the Koneko’s main room, and her mouth tightened into a grim line. While these people drank and acted like proper fools, her loved ones were busy fighting for their lives. Summer solstice was a time of the light beating back the darkness, of things coming to fruition and sweet life to sustain one when the darkness reigned supreme. But today, it was a time for death and sacrifice. She just hoped that none of her loved ones paid too high a price.

Feeling a hand rest on hers, Cassandra looked up at Mickey, who was standing beside her and trying to press a cup of wine in her hand.

"Drink up, Cass. It’s going to be a long night, and you’ll need something to sustain you. Jo said to let you know that the ducks will be done soon, and that she’ll be saving a couple breasts for you. You’ll eat them, if you know what’s good for you." Mickey tried to smile at her over Jo’s protective bossiness, but he was too tense to successfully pull off the expression.

Taking the cup of wine, Cassandra quickly drained it in a matter of seconds. Then she handed back the empty cup and patted Mickey’s hand.

"They’ll be fine. I saw nothing that would lead me to believe that your brother and his lover wouldn’t return home." She honestly hadn’t, but Cassandra quickly shoved aside the thought that there was a lot that she hadn’t seen involving the battle tonight. As much as she cared for Aya, the man’s effect on her talent was seriously exasperating her.

Mickey sighed and hugged an arm around her shoulders. "I know, Cass, but I’ll worry until they’re safely home. It’s so hard to let Teddy and Koyu go off alone into something…."

The young man’s voice faded away, as a vision overtook Cassandra. Just when it started to make sense she heard a chiming sound that had a few people in the Koneko looking around curiously, and Mickey suddenly standing up straight.

"Botan’s wards, that was his wards being set off…."

"Upstairs!" Cassandra grabbed Mickey’s arm and started for the stairs. "Someone is trying to break into Aya and Yohji’s room! Their magic is what set off Botan’s wards!"

Shrugging his arm free, Mickey stepped in front of Cassandra and used his bulk to quickly clear a path for the two of them. Still, it took precious seconds for them to make their way to the hallway, and Cassandra was beside herself when they started up the stairs. It was Touya’s turn to guard Aya and Yohji’s room, and she feared that her promises that no sorrow would befall the Koneko had been false. Racing behind Mickey, she used her bound speed to keep up with the man’s long legs.

Spilling into the hallway, they turned the bend and then came to a halt. Standing before the doorway to the bounds room was a man dressed in faded brown, holding a knife to Touya’s throat. Cassandra’s heart seized painfully at the sight, especially when she could see blood start to trickle down Touya’s neck and stain his red tunic.

"Stop right there! Come any closer and I’ll kill him!" The man pressed against the door, trying to keep Mickey and Cassandra in his sight, and Jo too. Cassandra finally realized that the other woman must have run up the back stairs when she’d heard the chimes, and she noticed the gleam of the knife that Jo held in her hand.

"Kill him and we’ll kill you, you moron," Jo snarled. While the woman had a point, Cassandra didn’t think it was a good idea to antagonize the stranger. Emanating calm and innocence, she stepped closer to the man.

"We don’t want anyone to be hurt. Please, but the knife away and let the boy go."

The stranger looked back between her and Jo. "I’ll kill him if you step any closer. Now where is he? Where’s the kage?"

Coming to a halt, Cassandra held her hands out at her sides. "He’s not here, he’s at the wedding reception."

"You better not be lying to me, you old bitch." The man jerked Touya closer to him as he glared at Cassandra.

Biting back on a snarl, Cassandra kept her voice calm. "I’m not. He’s at the wedding reception, or you’d be dead right now."

Her words appeared to make sense, as the man’s body slowly relaxed. However, the knife remained at Touya’s throat.

"At the wedding reception, eh? The damn freak’s turning against his masters, isn’t he? Thought he could escape? He can’t, and he’ll regret what he did." Brown eyes narrowed on Cassandra. "You know what he is, you must be helping him. You’ll regret it too, if you helped him. Now I want you to go inside this room and fetch me back the ball he’s hidden away." Touya let out a squeak as more blood started to flow down his neck.

"There’s no telling what surprises he has in there, but I bet he trusts you. You’ve been here often enough, and out there with him in the garden. Fetch me the damn ball, and don’t even think to tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about. The boy will die if you play stupid with me."

Mickey stepped closer to her, but Cassandra waved at him to stop. She could sense the intruder’s panic and haste, and knew that he was too on edge for Mickey to try and rush the man. No, Jo was closer, and she’d need to give the other woman a shot at taking the Takatori agent down.

"Then follow me, the… kage’s room is up another flight."

The man laughed and cruelly dug his fingers into Touya’s arm, causing the boy to cry out in pain. "Don’t play game with me you old hag. You wouldn’t be guarding this room if the kage hadn’t hidden something in here. Not to mention I saw him looking out this window, earlier. Now go in there and fetch the damn ball." He was growing more and more frantic by the moment, as the realization that if the kage was indeed at the palace, his employers might not be alive for long.

Knowing that if she stepped into the room it would be her death, due to the wards that Aya was sure to have left before his departure, Cassandra nevertheless walked towards the door. She needed to make the man expose his back. As she approached he started to slink away from the doorway, giving her the opening she needed.

When her hand was scant centimeters from the doorknob, Cassandra cast an illusion of Aya walking down the hallway. The agent let out a cry of fear, one that quickly turned to pain. Spinning around with enhances speed, she quickly grabbed the hand that held the knife and yanked it away from Touya’s throat. The boy instantly went limp, falling to the floor and out of the stranger’s grasp.

The man took a step to the side, his arm twisted around awkwardly as he tried to pull out the knife stuck in his back. He managed another step before Mickey was on him, grabbing his chin and spinning his head back with brute force. There was a sickening ‘crack’, and then the man’s body fell to the floor.

Jo instantly stepped over the body and gathered Touya in her arms, kissing the teenage on his face and holding him tightly. When he started to squeak for air she released him, snatching at her apron to use to staunch the shallow cuts in his throat.

Looking up from the body, Mickey stared grimly at Cassandra. "What are the chances that someone else will try and retrieve the sphere?"

"I don’t know. It depends on how desperate the Takatoris become, and how much longer they live." But at least this agent hadn’t been given kage blood, which might have fooled Aya’s wards. No, judging from how easy he’d been to kill, Aya’s former masters had sent a spy or another underling here to fetch the kage’s sister.

"We better remain vigilant, then." Mickey stooped down to pick up the body and haul it onto his shoulder. "Cass, I need you to help me sneak this down to the compost heap. Jo, take care of the blood and Touya, and watch the room until I come back. I’ll be on watch for the next couple hours, just to be on the safe side."

Still hugging Touya, Jo nodded her head. "I think that’s for the best. Now hurry up, because I need to pull those ducks off the spits or they’ll be charcoal soon. And try not to leave any blood on the stairs, I just washed them!"

Sharing a quick grin with Mickey, Cassandra headed for the stairs, using her empathic abilities to make sure that there would be no witnesses to them disposing of the body. Attempted coups, break-ins and death-threats were nothing to worry about. Jo furious at you for soiling her clean floors, now that was.

*******

Birman kept her post in front of her warded king and queen, and along with a handful of Guards managed to keep any mercenaries from trying to breach the magical shield. Around her was chaos: the screams of the wounded and dying, cries of panic from the people trapped in the room, occasional explosions and the sizzling, crackling sound that accompanied magic. But despite the dread she’d felt when she’d seen over two hundred mercenaries unsheathe their weapons and start attacking, Birman felt sure that things would end well. She had the bounds to thank for that.

It was amazing to see the amount of destruction they could manage, and that seven men, eight including Ken, which she still found impossible to believe, could defeat so many. Granted, the Guards were now able to hold their own, but they were still outnumbered at least three to one. But the bounds were turning the odds into their favor.

If she somehow managed to live through this, and to retain her post when the king found out just how much she’d known beforehand, Birman resolved to seriously look into hiring bounds to work for her. She’d probably lose her position for bringing up that suggestion alone, but after witnessing the fighting today, she should have enough evidence to support her wild idea. After all, bounds had been created to spy and fight, why not give them employment that put those skills to use. Not to mention that having seen what they were truly capable of, Birman strongly believed in having bounds on the king’s side. Should the bounds decide to rally together and pay back all the abuse they’d suffered over the years… considering the scene before her, she knew it would be a bloodbath.

*******

Koyu, a firm grip on Teddy’s arm, tried to keep his lover close to him as they fought with the crowd of panicked people desperate to flee the violence and death behind them. Koyu’s other arm was around his Guildmaster, who had almost been crushed by the mob. His harp was slung across his back, although no longer in one piece. During their attempt at escape, a soldier had slashed at Koyu’s back. His harp had saved him, and Teddy had leapt on the man, preventing him from striking another blow. The shadows on Teddy’s wrist had wrapped around the soldier’s throat, and they’d left him choking on the floor behind them as they escaped.

"I’m beginning to think that maybe Yohji had a smart idea after all, honey."

Feeling a tired grin spread across his face, Koyu couldn’t help but shake his head. Things had to be bad of Teddy was, albeit rather reluctantly, admitted that Yohji had been right. But as much as he agreed with his boyfriend, Koyu wouldn’t regret attending the wedding reception. At least, not if Teddy and he made it out alive. His head was already filled with lyrics describing the battle, of the magicks, sacrifices and astounding feats he’d witnessed this day. Looking over his shoulder, Koyu found himself reluctantly wishing he could remain here and watch the battle to its conclusion.

Teddy muttered a truly obscene curse and yanked on Koyu’s arm. "I know that look, dammit. It’s the one that had us staying on Mount Syllia so you could see what an avalanche looked like for a damn song. Move your ass, Koyu." Teddy yanked again. "Dammit, why aren’t these people moving?"

"Because fear had robbed them of their senses, Kudoh," Guildmaster Daithi wearily replied. "And don’t be angry at your boyfriend. I half wish you two hadn’t decided to drag me along with you, this battle will be sung about for centuries to come! It’s not often that a Harper has a front row seat to such an event."

"Well, it’s hard to sing if you’ve been skewered by a sword or trampled to death," Teddy snapped. "For fuck’s sake, move it!"

Trying to soothe his lover, Koyu used his greater height to his advantage and tried to crane his head over the crowd of people before him. He was trying to see what was causing the people to stop when they were so near the door.

After a few more steps he was able to identify the problem. It seemed that some mercenaries had decided that the best way to prevent people from escaping, and eventually reinforcements from arriving, was to kill them and leave a pile of bodies blocking the door. Already over a dozen innocent guests had been killed, and a couple Guards were trying valiantly to prevent any more deaths. Trapped as they were between the people pressing behind them and the ones pushing back on them, Koyu let out a curse and tried to pull Teddy closer.

A mercenary, perhaps seeing his and the Guildmaster’s red outfits, cut a path toward the three of them. Pulling out one of his few remaining knives, Koyu tried tossing it at the man, but he was much better at slashing and stabbing than tossing. The knife reflected off the soldier’s armor, failing to penetrate the seam in the lacquered wood, and was lost in the crowd. Koyu immediately fumbled for the knife in his boot while the crowd parted before the soldier, fleeing from him.

Just when his hand brushed the hilt, the mercenary closed the last of the distance between them. Koyu was trying to straighten up when the sword came swinging at him. With a yell, Teddy pushed him backwards. Crying out to see the blade swipe across his lover’s face, Koyu lifted a hand, as if to stop the blade in its tracks.

Something black flew from his wrist, Aya’s shadows leaping at the mercenary’s face. The man let out a scream and dropped his sword, clawing at his eyes as blood and viscous fluid dribbled down his face. Taking advantage of the situation, Koyu slashed his knife along the man’s throat. Holding Teddy close, he pushed past the dead man, the older Harper clinging to his arm all the while. He used his knife to force the people in front of him to move out of his way, desperate to reach the doors and the medical attention that had to be waiting on the other side. Beside him, Teddy held his hands up to his face and moaned in pain.

*******

Seeing most of the guests leave through the doors, and knowing that the rest of the Guards and the Royal Army were waiting to rush inside the ballroom, Yoru spat out a curse and caused wards to spring up over the entrances. Several people were killed as the magic passed through their bodies, and the survivors huddled by the doors and screamed. That taken care of, Yoru returned to focusing on the ward that barely kept Botan’s spells from harming him.

He surveyed the carnage before him for a moment. Eto’s troops were dying left and right, not able to withstand both Guards and bounds. The sight of a kage slaying the hired soldiers with a shadow blade made Yoru curse Fate. There was the creature he’d desperately sought, and to get him he had to defeat the other bounds and all the Guards, not to mention two wizards. While his spells had killed several of the Guards already, they were having no luck against any of the bounds. They were protected by the same charm that kept Botan from being harmed by Yoru’s spells.

Yoru thought about unleashing the oni, but he knew he’d never be able to control them once that happened. They wouldn’t harm him, Eto or Masafumi, but they’d try their best to kill the kage. If he loosed then, he could be depriving himself of the very prize he sought.

A particularly strong spell cast by Botan caused him pain, and Yoru knew that his shield wouldn’t last much longer. His only hope rested in Eto and the lord’s troops somehow managing to rally and fight back the enemy. Yoru spat another curse at Fate for that, knowing just how futile that was.

*******

"They’ve what?"

The Guard, somewhat taken back by Kikyou’s loud tone, tried again. "Sir, the doors have been sealed, by magic this time. No more people will be escaping, and we can’t enter the ballroom and save the king."

Biting back on a curse, Kikyou tugged on his hair for a moment. Dammit, he should have just ordered the Guards to force their way through the fleeing mob and save King Shuuichi. Lives would have been lost that way, but lives were being lost now, due to the wards preventing his Guards and the Army from entering the room. The hope of the king now lay with the Guards that were already inside, and Botan. But Kikyou didn’t know how much good they would be, having been caught unaware as they had been. All the Guards inside were only equipped with their dress swords, which while the weapons were functional, was not much of an armory.

Stalking past a lady who was babbling something about monsters, Kikyou started to snap orders. "Brennan, I want you to gather ever healer in the palace, and every available one in the capital." The Guard went scurrying off.

"Moira, find me a wizard. We need someone to try and break those wards so we can get inside that room. Tsubaki, we need to figure out if there is another way inside." Kikyou ordered his people about, leaving it to General Matsu to try and control the hysterical crowd that filled the palace hallways. His job was to protect the king, and he wouldn’t rest until he did just that. Cursing his decision to double-check the duty roster for the night before attending the reception, Kikyou wished he was inside fighting.

He walked through the crowd, calling out orders and trying to project an image that he knew what the hell he was doing. The sooner the people calmed down, the sooner they could find out what was happening inside. Besides, it gave him something to do while Tsubaki returned with hopefully some good news.

"Sir, Guard Talia has reported that the windows have also been warded."

"Captain, I’ve managed to track down some of Botan’s apprentices. They’re looking into the wards as we speak."

A woman dressed in a military uniform of dark green bowed to Kikyou. "Sir, the General would like a word with you. It seems that cooperation will be needed if there is any hope to resolving this situation."

Damn right it was needed. Matsu might have the greater numbers, but the Guards knew the palace best, and were trained to fight indoors. Following the woman, Kikyou gazed through the people huddled on the floor and grouped together in the great hall. Most of their finery was torn, and many looked wounded. Most likely by each other as they’d fled the fighting.

The sight of white and teal caught his eye, and Kikyou glared when he recognized the young Lord Cheung, the heir of the highborn family. The man looked dazed, the side of his face bruised, and he was lacking his usual bodyguards.

Kikyou’s step faltered. In all this confusion and death, would anyone notice if he slipped up behind the lord and killed one of the men responsible for his sister’s rape and murder? His hand itched and crept toward his dagger. No one would know if he walked past Cheung and slid the blade into the man’s spine. Or better yet, between his ribs, causing a wound that would take a few minutes to kill. The murder could be blamed on the mercenaries….

He actually stopped for a moment, about to turn and loose himself in the crowd. But the sound of someone calling out his title made Kikyou sigh and shake his head in regret. He could gain his revenge, but valuable time would be wasted. No matter what the reason for his joining the Guards, he had an oath to honor, and a crisis to attend to. Cheung would survive this day, much to Kikyou’s regret. When his revenge wouldn’t interfere with saving lives, then the young lord would die by his hands. Besides, he wanted the bastard to see his face and know why he was dying. Kikyou would wait for a better time.

Running to catch up to the soldier, Kikyou let his hand fall from his weapon as he pushed his revenge out of his thoughts.

*******

His soldiers being killed before his eyes, Hajime felt a growing fear in his chest. This wasn’t how things were supposed to turn out. His mercenaries were supposed to be successful, to kill the Guards and the king. Then they’d flee the palace, aided by Yoru, and he’d be able to lay the blame for the carnage at Prince Reiji’s feet. But that wasn’t what was happening now. He appeared very close to losing. All it took was one captured mercenary revealing who had hired him, and Hajime would fall.

If only it wasn’t for the Royal Wizard and the costumed men who he suspected were bounds, Hajime would have been king by nightfall. But those creatures were the ones responsible for many of the hired soldiers’ deaths, and Botan was preventing Yoru from doing little more than defend himself. Unsheathing his dress sword, Hajime started to stalk closer to the wizard. Botan was suitably distracted by preventing Yoru’s spells from harming innocents, and wouldn’t notice him until too late.

When he was little more than a few feet away from the Royal Wizard, Mamoru slid in front of Hajime, his right wrist raised and something gold glinting on it.

"Lord Eto, stop."

"Get out of my way, Mamoru." For a moment Hajime thought about how much the boy looked like his sister, but it didn’t make him lower his sword. Takatori blood flowed through Mamoru’s veins, and if it hadn’t been for the boy, maybe Kikuno would have recovered from what had happened to her. It hadn’t been until after the boy had been born that she’d killed herself.

Raising his sword so he could strike the prince, Hajime suddenly found himself flying backwards. A sharp pain blossomed in his chest, and as he looked down, he saw something gold sticking out of it. Falling to the floor, Hajime failed to realize what had happened before he died.

*******

Hunger. Everything was hunger, and heat. Ken still felt empty, but he was so hot that sweat poured off him in rivulets, leaving trails in the blood that liberally covered him. Howling, he slashed at another mercenary and reveled in his claws sinking into flesh as if it was paper. Sweet flesh, and even sweeter blood that helped to quench the hunger that filled him and drove him on.

He saw a man dressed in dark blue, and though his hunger cried out for more, Ken turned away and looked for an appropriate victim. Everything was so confused in his head, it was as if there was this new voice screaming at him to be fed, and it was so hard to think. But the sight of the blue coats stirred something inside of him, and instinctively he knew it was bad if he harmed them. Just as it was bad to harm those who carried a smell similar to his own, not human and not demon. He was part of their pack, and he could never hurt a pack mate. But those who sought to hurt his friends….

Ken chased after a soldier, desperate to sink his teeth into the woman’s throat and drink deeply. His prey tried to hide among the throng of people who smelled of fear and flowers, who he also knew it would be bad to hurt. But the one who carried the taint of blood and metal was fair game, and he wanted her. Chasing after the soldier, Ken knocked people left and right until he tracked her down.

Her sword was sent flying with a single blow from his right hand, and his prey screamed in pain as her wrist snapped. Darting forward, Ken grabbed her by her shoulders and bit deep into her neck, his eyes closing in pleasure as the salty, hot fluid flowed into him. From far away he heard someone crying at him to stop, but his hunger was too great for him to listen to that voice. He drank until the blood stopped flowing.

Dropping the body, Ken looked to see a woman in a yellow gown standing before him, crying. He could smell blood on her, and at first he only recognized that coppery scent. Then something deep inside him stirred, something buried beneath the hunger, shock and pain.

"Yuriko…." He held out a clawed hand to her. Yuriko sobbed and took a step away from him, almost tripping on the hem of her long gown. When Ken stepped after her she spun around and ran.

Giving chase, Ken stumbled after his lover, shoving aside the people who got in his way. He cried out Yuriko’s name, the hunger suddenly not so important anymore, but despite his best attempts Yuriko remained just ahead of him. Her smaller form slid through the crowd much easier than he could.

Yuriko continued to run, not seeming to care where she went. Ken cried out her name again when he saw her headed towards some people fighting, and he increased his speed. Yet he could do little more than watch as a mercenary grabbed Yuriko and used her as a shield. The Guard, a look of horror on her face, couldn’t stop her sword from carrying forward. Yuriko let out a cry of pain and crumpled to the floor.

The mercenary never got a chance to strike back against the dumbstruck Guard, as Ken was on him in an instant. He slashed through the man’s back, through the disguised armor and into the flesh beneath. Shoving the body out of his way, he continued to attack the remaining mercenaries, not caring in the slightest about the blows that landed on his body. His hunger had been overwhelmed by the fury inside him, calling for him to kill those who had hurt his loved one.

Eventually he ran out of bodies to tear apart, and Ken sank to the ground beside Yuriko. His lover was unconscious, blood flowing from her side with each breath. He hunched over her and pressed his hands against the wound, trying carefully to keep his claws from harming her any more. Ken shuddered as his body was wracked with pain, and his hunger cried out again, wanting more blood and flesh to help heal his wounds. He ignored it and remained where he was, determined to protect Yuriko for as long as his strength held out.

*******

Omi turned his back on his uncle and tried to find a new target. He had to start watching how many more arrows he shot, as he was starting to feel weak from blood loss. But he’d already managed to shoot more than Botan had told him he could, and most likely would continue to do so until the fighting ended. Which hopefully would be soon, as not many of the enemy were left standing.

Taking a step closer to the edge of the platform, Omi hoped to see how his friends were faring. He was near the edge when someone tackled him, sending him crashing to the floor. Landing painfully on his back, he could only stare in shock as the girl with blue hair, who he had thought to have killed earlier, smiled at him. Her hands wrapped around his neck.

"Bad boy. Papa said you were to die." Blood trickled from the wounds in her chest, staining her page’s uniform, but the girl had more than enough strength to prevent Omi from tossing her off him. He desperately tried to form another ward, but the pain and the lack of air was starting to get to him. Another knife formed in his hand, and he weakly sliced at the girl’s arms. All she did was giggle and squeeze his throat even tighter.

Then he was able to gasp in huge lungfuls of air as the girl was lifted screaming into the air. At first thinking that Nagi had saved him, Omi slowly realized that Jei was holding the girl by her neck a couple feet off the floor. The bound bared his bloody teeth at the girl, and as Omi watched Jei punched his hand through the girl’s abdomen and up under her ribcage. She screamed in pain, thrashing about as blood and other bodily fluids fell to the floor.

Smiling all the while, Jei ripped his hand out of the girl’s chest cavity, tearing out organs and tossing them aside. He did the same with the girl a moment later, sending her flying through the air as if she was a rag doll. Jei turned around and smiled down at Omi as he offered him a hand, thankfully not the gore covered one. Trembling slightly, Omi accepted the help back onto his feet.

"There, Nagi won’t be mad at me now." Jei sounded pretty sane, so despite the gruesome display, Omi smiled back. He could see the various cuts and wounds that covered Jei’s body.

"Are you all right?"

"Right as rain, boyo." Jei’s teeth flashed again, and his eye glowed like a piece of amber held up to the sun. The pupil was so tiny that Omi could barely see it. "That’s the last whore." Jei lifted his hand and licked it. "She wasn’t as sweet as the other two. But now I can eat their master’s heart." He wandered away from Omi, still licking his hand.

*******

Turning away from the boy, Jei decided that now was the time to face Masafumi. He stroked a finger over the black ring on his right hand and smiled. The wizard didn’t stand a chance, just like his whores hadn’t. His hunger crying out for blood, Jei sniffed the air and followed the scent of magic.

Masafumi was trying to break through the wards that protected the king, and bodies lay scattered about him. Off to the side was the Spymaster, trying to gain to her feet as she glared at the wizard. For a moment Jei chuckled at the sight, amused by the woman’s spunk. Such a frail thing, so easily broken and torn, and she thought to take a wizard on by herself.

The chuckle turned into a snarl. Masafumi was _his_ prey. The wizard would die by his hands alone. He would be made to hurt, and to regret every having been born. Foul, traitorous bastard. Magic wielders were foul things, enjoying the pain they inflicted on innocents. Jei would make sure Masafumi never did that again, and he would enjoy doing so.

The wizard caught sight of him out of the corner of his eye and spun around, trying to cast a spell on Jei. All he felt was a tingle over his skin as the scent of magic enveloped him. Baring his teeth, Jei sauntered towards his prey.

Masafumi tried another spell before he called out for one of his women. "Hell!"

"Hee, the whore won’t come. The whores are no more, wizard." Jei smiled and reached into his vest. He pulled out the souvenir he’d removed from the whore who had reeked the most of the magician, and tossed the eyeball at Masafumi. He’d eaten the other one.

Catching the object, Masafumi let out a yell of horror as he recognized what it was and dropped it. He then cast another spell at Jei, which only made him laugh. As did the sight of Masafumi pulling a dagger from the sheath on his belt and charging towards him, the weapon held high.

"You filthy bastard, how could you! I’ll kill you myself."

Laughing gleefully, Jei held his arms out to the side, an open target for the wizard to strike. When the man was within a meter of him he spun around fluidly, sliding behind him. He wrapped his arms around Masafumi’s shoulders and neck, preventing the wizard from being able to move.

"Filthy wizard. Your kind live to hurt, to lie and kill all that’s good. I won’t let you walk the same earth I do, I won’t let your kind live any longer than it takes me to track you down. I’ll hurt you as much as you’ve hurt me and mine. I’ll make you scream in pain." Jei bent his head, and in a parody of a kiss he bit a chunk out of Masafumi’s throat, just missing the major veins.

Masafumi screamed and struggled in his arms, but it did the filthy wizard no good. Jei took another bite, this time the man’s right ear, and he used his claws to rip out his prey’s tongue. He hated it when they screamed like that, hurting his sensitive ears. Next was a chunk of the wizard’s shoulder, the same time as he disemboweled Masafumi. Grabbing a length of intestine, Jei pulled on it and shoved it in the wizard’s mouth.

Taking his time with a few more bites, Jei eventually slid his claws along the wizard’s chest, and with a forceful blow broke through Masafumi’s ribcage. Yanking out the still beating heart, he allowed the wizard to fall to the floor. Eyes that were slowly losing their light stared up at him as he bit into the organ, tasting the bitterness of fresh blood. Jei relished his treat until it was all gone, even licking his fingers clean.

There was one less filthy wizard left to cause pain, and one more for him to play with. He’d honored Crawford’s order, and had waited as long as he could. Stalking his new prey, Jei smiled some more as he thought of what lay in store for the foul thing.

*******

Looking away in horror when Jei started to eat his cousin, Omi ran over to Birman and helped her onto her feet. After making sure the Spymaster wasn’t seriously hurt, he left her to find out what was happening with the rest of his friends.

Schuldig, and Masato were fighting back to back, and Yohji was by their side. The mercenaries seemed to have figured out that they stood no chance while the bounds were alive, and the few that were left were taking them on in number. Not that it was doing them any good.

Crawford was managing rather well, considering he was by himself. His moves were smooth and economical, and though he was covered in blood, Omi noted that very little of it looked like his. Of Ken there was no sign.

Trying to find Nagi and Aya, Omi looked about for the most concentration of shadows. He finally spotted his lover across the ballroom, and was making his way to him. Bodies littered the floor, some of them moving but most not. Watching where he stepped in between checking for any approaching enemy, Omi caught sight of a familiar shade of blue. At first thinking it was just a fallen Guard, Omi’s eyes went wide when he recognized whom it was.

Running over to Ken’s side, he shot an arrow at a mercenary between him and his friend. A wave of nausea washed through him as the bolt struck the man in the throat, and Omi stumbled the last of the distance to Ken. He fell down beside the Guard and wearily called the bolt back to him. Not that it would do him much good, as Omi realized that he’d finally reached his limit. Now all he had to rely on was his human forged knives.

Filled with dread, he lifted Ken’s head. His friend growled at him, but when the brown eyes slowly opened they seemed to recognize him. Omi sobbed in relief and patted Ken’s cheek. Beneath the injured man was Yuriko, who was still breathing. Omi surmised that Ken had been so badly injured trying to protect his wounded lover.

There was still fighting going on, and Omi knew that the worst was yet to come. He couldn’t just abandon Ken and Yuriko to the mercenaries or oni, but he didn’t know how he’d protect him. Looking at the warded doors, Omi realized he’d have to try and cast another ward. His magic scared him, and made him doubt whom he really was, but it had proved effective before. Closing his eyes, Omi tried to recreate the magical shield.

*******

Yoru cursed as he readied another spell to level at Botan, and when the power was released he quickly glanced around him. Eto’s army was largely defeated, and the precious kage that he needed so desperately appeared completely unfettered by any bindings whatsoever. The creature wasn’t aiding the Takatoris, had seemed to broken from the royals in some manner, and if they had no hope of controlling it that meant neither did he. Perhaps one of the bounds fighting beside it was the key to its heart, but they were just as immune to magic as the kage and the damn Royal Wizard was.

It was over, the runes had told Yoru the truth. All there was for him was death and darkness, just as the stones had predicted. Masafumi was dead, and gone was the knowledge the man held about kage blood and any possible means to control the creature. He couldn’t keep Botan at bay any longer, not when all his magic did was slow him down. The death he had sought to avoid all these years had finally caught up with him. But if he couldn’t have the immortality that he wanted, then he would have another.

Letting out a mad laugh, Yoru unleashed the bound oni.

*******

Using his shadow blade to slice through a mercenary’s neck, Aya shuddered as a wave of magic coursed through the room. He cursed as he felt the trapped oni let out a howl of exultation. Shoving Nagi in Omi’s direction, Aya tried to warn the others before it was too late.

‘Schuldig, the oni are being loosed. Tell Botan to throw up a ward of some sort around the remaining people and the doors in case my shadows fail, and the others to prepare themselves.’

<What the hell? Oh shit….>

The oni broke free, and Aya felt his heart grow chilled at the sight of the demons, eyes aflame and fangs bared. They loomed above everything else in the room, their claws unsheathed and hatred and hunger radiating from them. Knowing that Botan hadn’t been warned in time, Aya called on all the shadows he could and had them cloak as many of the bystanders as he could. The ballroom was about to become a deathtrap, and each person killed would only make the oni stronger. He also warded the doors, not trusting Yoru to keep his up. The oni couldn’t be allowed to escape into the city.

The demons let out another cry, and then the pack started to disperse. Seeing one of the demons head for Yohji, and hearing Botan’s desperate voice as he tried to create new wards to hold the creatures back from those helpless to fight against them, Aya let out a cry of his own. It reverberated around the room, and the few remaining shinigami that hadn’t left as the fighting had died down flocked towards him. The sound also caused the oni to come to a halt. As the flaming eyes turned in his direction Aya shed his armor and then shaped his katana into a dagger. He then sliced himself across his chest, hissing in pain at the sting.

The scent of his blood seemed to rivet the oni, buying Botan the precious seconds that he needed to finish the wards. But the burst of magic as the wards went up snapped the oni out of their reverie, and they howled and gnashed their fangs. Several headed for Aya, but the rest of the pack scattered through the room. While the weaponless bystanders were for the most part safe, there were still the few remaining mercenaries, the Guards, and Aya’s friends for the creatures to attack.

They were on Aya in a second. He reformed his katana and armor, and was barely ready before he was attacked. Surprisingly, the shinigami around him leapt to Aya’s defense, engaging the oni in battle, but that still left a couple for him to deal with. Calling on the shadows, Aya tried to rip the demons apart.

The shadows formed around the oni, wringing cries of pain from them at their touch… and did little else. The oni weren’t solid enough for his power to affect, and a blow to his right side taught Aya that his shadow armor wasn’t as effective as usual against this foe. He could feel the blood from the narrow slashes trickling down his ribs.

Desperately parrying the creatures’ claws, Aya listened to what the shadows were whispering to him. The shinigami had killed a couple oni, but they were the only things that were successfully defeating the demons. His friends struggled against the creatures, and the humans were quickly falling. Some of the oni were trying to breach Botan’s wards, while the rest of them were fighting Yohji and the others.

Aya knew that if his armor failed to withstand the oni’s claws, that Yohji’s would too. He caught a quick glimpse of his mate, and found him bleeding from several slashes and attempting to entangle the oni in his wire. From the pain he was sensing the cuts weren’t deep, and Schuldig and Masato were fighting beside Yohji, helping to protect him, but it wouldn’t be much longer before the enraged and ravenous oni prevailed.

Slashing one oni across its face, Aya snarled and drank in as much energy from the death around him as possible. The Guards were being killed at an alarming rate, and the beasts quickly slaughtered the remaining mercenaries. With each death the oni grew stronger and could devote their attention towards Aya and his friends. They would keep attacking until every person in the room was dead.

/Let it go, let it go, let it go, young one./

/Horror, horror, trapped as you are. Break free, young one./

/Weak, too weak. Release your soul or perish./

The shinigami were all around him, whispering as they drank in all the death and fought the oni. Aya had never heard their voices so clearly before, and never felt them so strongly. The more he gave in to his true nature, snarling and hacking at the oni attacking him, the louder their voices became. The more sense their words made.

/One of us, to fall to the oni. Shame. Shame and horror, what they’ve done to you./

/Fight, young one. Let it go, stop holding back and fight./

Not sure how he was still holding back considering how far into the darkness he already was, Aya let out a cry of pain as an oni slashed him across his back. It seemed the more he bled the more demons he attracted to him, determined to make him bleed even more. They were mostly congregated around him and his friends, most likely attracted to his magic that they all bore. Aya wanted to call out and tell them to throw away their rings, but that would leave them to focus on just him and Yohji. He couldn’t allow that to happen, Yohji was already having difficulty facing the oni around him.

There was another flash of pain, and this time it wasn’t his. Aya knew that Yohji had been hurt somehow, but the oni snapping at his throat prevented him from seeing Yohji and finding out just how much.

/Let it go. Give in to your darkness./

There was another cry, this time from Nagi. The boy had been fighting to protect Omi and hadn’t taken refuge behind Botan’s wards as he’d hoped. Aya gritted his teeth and drove his dagger down the oni’s throat, scraping his arm along its fangs as he pulled it back. The demon fell gurgling to his feet, but another immediately took its place.

/Let go./

There had been no guarantee of their survival, only faint promises from Crawford and Cassandra, teasing hints about the future. Aya found that he didn’t want to die, and he most certainly didn’t want to lose Yohji or Nagi.

/Let it go, and fall. Be yourself, young one./

Choking on a sob, Aya gave a brief thought to the promise he had made Yohji, and then willfully reached deep into the darkness within himself, farther than he’d ever gone before. He gave in to the shinigami’s pleadings and released the weak hold he had on his human emotions and thoughts. The world grew dark, then washed out into black, grey and white, a landscape possessing unimaginable texture and depth. The only sparks of colour emanated from Yohji, the shinigami, the oni and the few dying people scattered about.

The world took on new texture, but Aya felt him lose something tangible about himself. He felt… out of phase with reality, and when he looked down at his chest, he found that he’d become slightly transparent. Yet when he parried an oni’s arm, he was finally able to get a good grasp on the demon. Barring his teeth at the sense of surprise he felt from the creature, Aya called the shadows to him. They formed a jagged armor all over his body, and when the oni tried to hit him and make him let go, it howled in pain as the armor tore into its flesh. Smiling, Aya lifted his hand, the shadows forming wicked claws on his fingers, and he tore into the oni. He drank in its death, feeling rejuvenated from the energy that was sweeter than anything he’d ever tasted before. Aya eagerly turned to the other oni by him, wanting more of that taste.

*******

Nagi crouched in front of Omi, using his power to protect his lover. Omi had formed another ward, this time around Ken and Yuriko, but had little energy left for fighting. So Nagi used the knife Jei had given him and his power to keep at bay the oni as best he could. They attacked him on several fronts, occasionally breaking through his barrier, and then he would have to parry their teeth or fangs with the knife.

"Omi, join them behind the ward!"

"Nagi, I don’t know if I can create another one. If I lower it, you might have to protect four of us, not two. And I won’t hide behind a ward while you fight!"

The stupid fool. Nagi didn’t know how much longer his power would hold out, he already felt so weak, but he’d fight for as long as he could. He wasn’t about to end up as supper for an oni. All he could do was hope that Omi recovered soon enough to be able to ward himself as well, and then Nagi would return to Aya’s side. That way he’d know that the two people he cared most for were as safe as they possibly could be.

"I can’t believe you wanted to be one of these things when you were a kid," Nagi muttered as he forced back yet another oni.

*******

"Yoru, reseal the oni! You did it once, you can do it again. Yoru!" Botan called out to the other wizard, desperate to make him see reason. Too many people were dying, and his wards were barely keeping back the creatures. He had no magic to spare for his friends, and when his strength ran out the wards would fall. Only Yoru held the hope of stopping this slaughter.

"Yoru!" He could see the old man, huddled over himself behind a ward. "Do it, and I’ll let you walk out of here alive!" Botan would, too, if only to keep more people from dying.

Yoru lifted his head and laughed, a broken sound that caused Botan to grate his teeth together. Tears streamed down the man’s face, and he held out a shaky hand to Botan.

"You promise me safe passage? You? Death is all through this room, I can feel them. They’re waiting for me, you know. Your words mean nothing to them. Let everyone die alongside me. I won’t go alone!"

"I’ll see you from this room myself, Yoru. Just reseal the oni!"

"No." That was it, only one word, and Yoru hunched over again, muttering and cackling as screams were heard in the background. The floor shook as the one Guard let off more of his bombs, and Botan felt his stance waver for a second. Deciding that there had been enough destruction, he set out to breach Yoru’s ward and shake the man until he saw sense.

He was almost there when a blur of grey and red darted ahead of them. Catching the scent of blood, Botan stumbled forward when he recognized who had passed him. Calling out Jei’s name, all he could do was watch as the bound strode effortlessly through Yoru’s ward.

Jei snatched the elderly wizard and jerked his head back, exposing Yoru’s neck. The old man continued laughing, and Botan heard him say that he would always be remembered. Yoru started to say something else when razor sharp claws tore out his throat. Jei’s mouth fastened to the gaping hole, sucking down the blood as it pumped out the wound. Botan watched the best chance they had of containing the oni die before his eyes.

"You bastard! We’re all dead now!" He hurled a small spell at Jei, one that would normally knock a person back several feet, but all it did was sparkle around the bound. Who looked up at him, his face a bloody mask, and snarled viciously. Jei took a step towards him, and Botan wondered if he was going to be killed by his own ally, when the flesh gaki-bound suddenly clutched the hand that bore the kage ring. Snarling, Jei spun around and charged after a cluster of oni.

As before, with the mercenaries and the Takatoris, Jei was an unstoppable force of destruction. He slashed at the oni, driving them off the Guards and even pulling one off Crawford, and Botan sank down to the floor, desperate to maintain his wards as long as he could. Jei seemed to have some effect on the demons, mainly because he was attacking them so forcefully. Aya had the most oni gathered around himself, and Botan could see him fighting back and managing to hurt his attackers. A spark of hope, however foolish, filled his chest. Perhaps he would live through this and be able to see Kaede one day….

*******

Yuushi stood in front of Reiichi, determined that the demons weren’t going to get another friend of his. Reiichi lay gasping on the ground behind him, clutching the leg that an oni had slashed to the bone. He wove his whipsword through the air, determined not to leave an opening for the demons to slide past. All over the room, the remaining Guards were huddled over their fallen comrades, protecting them the best they could. The occasional explosion could be heard when Naru released one of his few remaining bombs, which would cause the oni to scatter for a few valuable moments. But they would always come back. Though by now, it was the weaker, wounded oni that were attacking the Guards.

The stronger oni were focused on the bounds, and Yuushi knew that if he survived this, it would because of them. They kept fighting on, showing remarkable strength and fortitude. Three of them were clustered together in the middle of the room, one protected the crown prince and Hidaka, and another fought near the warded king and queen. The one that Yuushi suspected was a kage was over in a corner, facing more oni than the rest of them, and the last bound tore through the room, slashing at any demon he came across.

Choking back a cry when an oni managed to slash his arm, Yuushi stumbled backwards, his shoulders hitting the wall behind him. Reiichi braced his knees, and he barely managed to remain upright. Cursing, Yuushi slashed at the demon, wishing his sword was doing as much damage as the bounds’ weapons were. Across the room he heard a shrill cry, and he looked in that direction, desperate to see if another of his Guards had fallen.

"Who was it, Yuushi?"

Yuushi swallowed, his throat tight with grief. "They just got Liss." He watched as some of the oni left the body of the woman and prepared to attack Miko and Toshi. Not wanting to see more of his friends die but unable to look away, Yuushi let a cry slip past his lips when he saw the bound costumed in grey rags force the oni away from his friends. If the bound had appeared possessed before, he showed a renewed vigor as he beat the oni away from Liss’s body. The sight distracted Yuushi and almost allowed a demon to slip past his guard. Cursing, he barely got his weapon up in time to repel the attack.

He wasn’t going to let another friend fall to the monsters, nor himself. Forcing his tired body to move, Yuushi bared his teeth at the oni milling around him and refused to go down beneath them.

*******

Yohji panted as he tossed out more wire, forcing his tired body to pull forcefully on the thin threads. His weapon, like the other enchanted ones used by his friends, managed to do some damage to the demons, but all he could really do was drive them back and not kill them.

Using his wire as a lariat to pull an oni away from Schuldig, Yohji cursed and formed a net of wire around his friend. Schuldig had been slashed along his abdomen, and was now hunched on the floor. Masato was behind him, ferociously driving off an oni with his staff, his arms in such constant motion that the demon could not get past the golden staff. Then sharp blades suddenly appeared from one end, and Masato used them to slash the oni, making it cry in pain.

"Schu, are you all right?"

"Fine… Masato." Shuldig glanced up at Yohji. "Thanks."

He was prevented from answering by another oni trying to rip out his throat. The armor deflected the worst of the injury, but Yohji still felt some blood start to trickle down his chest. Cursing, Yohji cast out another net, making the wire as sharp as he could to inflict as much damage as possible. For once in his life he wished he had a sword.

With the shadows by him trying to protect him from the remaining oni, Yohji took in a deep breath. Then he noticed a cold sensation start to creep into his bones, causing him to shiver. Realizing that the sensation was coming from Aya, he looked about for his mate, and found him across the room, surrounded by shadows. Nagi wasn’t by his side, a fact that had Yohji cursing and about to run to Aya when he saw the man rip into an oni, causing the creature to dissipate as if smoke. A tingle of heat joined the coldness, a brief flame of strength that Yohji’s tired body immediately soaked up.

The cry of the destroyed oni had the rest of its pack pausing in their attack and turning towards the sound. Yohji watched along with them as Aya tore into the oni surrounding him, killing them with an ease that frightened Yohji. All of them had been fighting frantically against the demons: mage, human and bound alike, and had been barely able to remain alive. But now Aya was destroying them with ease, ripping through them as if the demons were nothing more than a chill fog. With each ‘death’ Yohji felt another trickle of energy, but it became fainter and fainter each time. Along with the sensation of Aya.

*******

Aya felt the shadows surround him, stroking his body until he shivered in pleasure. The shinigami joined in, touching him gently and soothing him, helping to center him in this new world. He’d killed all the oni around him, and now the creatures were backing away from him, trying to retreat from the room. But they were warded in, by both Botan’s magic and his shadows, and Aya wasn’t about to let them go. He felt a deep hate for the demons, and a passion for their energy.

/Foul, foul things. Jealous they are, of us, our power. Attack you they did, thinking you were weak. Now they see you are truly one of us./

/Kill them, drink in their essence. Demons are much sweeter than humans. With them we drink just the spare energy, and send the souls on to the next realm. But demons… all the energy is ours. Join us in the feast, young one./

/Feed us, young one. Feed us and yourself./

/Yes, revel in your strength./

There were answers there, Aya thought dimly, knowledge interspersed with the pleas. He found himself wanting more of that energy, needing it after his wounds and all the fighting. He wanted the oni gone, to never harm Yohji or Nagi again.

Commanding the shadows about him, he had them tear through the room, ensnaring all of the oni present. Aya called more shadows, out of the castle’s foundation and walls, lending strength to the net of darkness he was weaving. The oni gave up their desperate attacks on the wards and his friends, trying to escape the shadows but soon becoming trapped.

/Yes, do it, do it./

/Kill them./

The shinigami whirled around him, dark dervishes crying out their joy and hunger. For a moment Aya felt the pull to join the shinigami, but the shadows loosened as he turned his thoughts from them, and the oni struggled to break free. He couldn’t let them… Yohji would be hurt if he did. That thought caused Aya to shake his head and to focus back on his net. He tried to ignore the shinigami as he called as many shadows to him as he could.

/Tear them apart, young one. Do it./

/Can’t. We can’t. Incorporeal we are, but you… horror, young one, what they did to you, but powers, yes, powers you’ve gained. Do it./

/Do it. Feed us./

/Help you we did. Feed us now./

/Do it./

The sibilant voices whispered in his head, crept along his skin, and Aya found himself shivering at their sound. Unable to resist them, he sent a command to the shadows to tear and destroy. They willingly did his bidding, ripping the oni into shreds that vanished as smoke.

The wave of energy that was released crashed into Aya, flooding his body with arcane energies. He felt his hold on the world fade ever so slightly, felt that less real and solid as the energy thrummed through him, healing his wounds instantly. It was too much, sending him falling farther and farther into the darkness, until everything faded away but the sibilant voices.

/Yes, young one, you did it. Powerful, yes, very powerful you are./

/So sweet! So delicious! Thank you, young one./

Aya couldn’t feel his body anymore, and wasn’t sure if his eyes were open or not. Darkness was all there was, and the light, the warmth that he’d discovered these past few weeks was nowhere to be found. That caused him to panic, to try and scramble out of the darkness.

/Shh, young one, don’t struggle so./

/Stay here, young one. Stay here and be free. Powerful you are, but vulnerable as well. Stay here and be yourself. Join us, and you’ll never be alone./

/Stay./

/Be yourself, young one. Shinigami you are, the concerns of the other world are not for you. Remain here./

/Yes./

Fighting the voices, Aya tried to claw his way out of the darkness, but it completely surrounded him. His link with Yohji had faded away, and he had no beacon to follow back to his mate. As Aya scrambled about, he feared that he had no choice but listen to the shinigami.

*******

Letting out a sob of relief, Omi wiped at the sweat trickling down his face and ran after Nagi. His lover, along with several other people, was headed straight for Aya, who lay crumbled on the floor, amid the dead and the wounded. Yohji was the first to reach the kage, and he called out Aya’s name while he cradled the man against his chest.

Nagi fell onto his knees next to the couple, and as Omi watched the teenager held out a hand to his friend, as if to touch him and make sure he was all right. But Nagi’s fingers appeared to sink into Aya’s body, causing Nagi to gasp and jerk his hand back. Yohji stared in horror at his lover, who rested in his arms, perfectly still.

"What happened to him?"

"I don’t know, I just felt him grow so cold, and then our link faded out." Yohji started to shake Aya, letting out a curse when his fingers, clenched tightly around Aya’s shoulders, disappeared the slightest bit into Aya’s body.

"Oh fuck, this is bad. Aya, wake up and stop this!"

Pressing his hand to his mouth, Omi sank down next to his boyfriend and stared at the kage. "I don’t understand, how is he doing that? It’s as if… he’s becoming a shadow."

"The Captain was said to be able to melt into any shadows around her, to become intangible at will. No blade could harm her as long as she willed it not to. But I haven’t heard of any kage being able to repeat that feat, even if just partially."

Omi looked up to see Crawford walking towards him, his white costume covered in blood. However, the man didn’t appear to be wounded other than a slice down his left arm, from his shoulder to his wrist. Crawford’s eyes were focused on Aya, and an odd smile tugged at his lips, out of place in a scene filled with so much bloodshed and death.

Behind him were Schuldig and Masato, the younger man held in his mate’s arms. Schuldig was covered with blood too, and had an arm wrapped around his chest and an expression of pain on his face. Masato’s face bore claw marks down the left side, and he was limping slightly with each step he took. Checking for the rest of his comrades, Omi found Botan and Birman near his father, and Jei was bent over Liss’ body, tears streaming down his face as he stroked the dead Guard’s hair. Ken and Yuriko were still lying where Omi had left them, behind the ward he’d created.

Crawford reached out a hand and touched Aya’s forehead, ignoring the warning snarl that Yohji produced at his audacity. His smile growing wider, Crawford stepped back from Aya and looked up at Yohji.

"He’s becoming a shinigami, somehow overcoming the limits set upon him by his physical body. The fight with the oni must have forced him to rely on his true nature to such an extent that it’s affecting his body. The Captain could become incorporeal for a short time only, and ultimately her wish to become a shinigami unencumbered by a human body was what drove her to allow her king to kill her."

"Fuck." Yohji paled and rested his head against Aya’s. "What does that mean for Aya?"

"It’s hard to tell, since he’s a kage, and somewhat different from the Captain. It’s possible that he’ll completely return to normal, or keep becoming more incorporeal until not even you can touch him any longer. It’s also possible that even if he returns to normal he’ll be too much of a shinigami to be able to handle being trapped in flesh any more."

"Crawford, shut the fuck up. You don’t know what you’re talking about." Schuldig snapped at his father while Yohji let out a low moan and held onto Aya tighter. "Don’t listen to him, Yohji. Aya has something that the Captain never had: a reason to be as human as he can. He has you."

Yohji buried his face in Aya’s hair for a moment, then lifted his head and frowned at his comatose lover. "Listen to me, Aya. You promised me to always come back, as long as I wanted you. Well, I still do, so stop this shit and wake up. Return to normal, cat, and open your eyes. This is not the best time to be pulling this shit. Come back to me."

Yohji kept repeating the last few words as he shifted Aya about in his arms. Nagi scooted closer to Omi and leaned against him, so he wrapped an arm around his boyfriend’s shoulders. Looking up from Yohji and Aya, Omi saw his father, flanked by Manx, Birman, Botan and several Guards, approaching them. Omi kissed Nagi on the cheek and scrambled to his feet, not liking the look on the king’s face, nor how the Guard had their weapons held at the ready. He took position in front of his friends.

King Shuuichi came to a stop a few feet away from him, concerned look on his face. When the Guards shifted around his father and tried to encircle Omi’s friends, he concentrated on the spark of power that had kept him from being killed during the fight, and Ken and Yuriko safe from the oni. Omi felt a draining sensation, but slowly a ward formed to protect his friends once again. The Guards came to a sudden halt as they encountered the wall of magic.

"Mamoru…." Omi’s father stared at him in wonder. "Son, please lower the ward."

"No."

The king seemed taken back by his flat denial, and Omi called on all his strength so he could straighten his stance and look the man in the eye. "I’m not lowering the ward until I’m sure that you won’t hurt any of them."

Birman and Botan approached Omi, able to breach the ward due to their rings and took positions on either side of him, while at the same time Omi felt Nagi pressing against his back, the smaller boy’s chin resting on his shoulder and his arms coming about Omi’s waist. Feeling strengthened by his friend’s and lover’s support, Omi continued to stare at his father.

Who was starting to look uncomfortable, and Omi could tell when his gaze slid to rest on Nagi, as the man’s eyes immediately jerked back to his face, and his father grimaced slightly. Resting his hands on Nagi’s arms, Omi turned his gaze on the assembled Guards.

"No one will harm them, not as long as I live."

"Mamoru, think of who you’re protecting, please. I can allow the other bounds to go, except for the flesh gaki, but…." King Shuuichi shifted about uncomfortably, his eyes not meeting Omi’s. "That’s a kage behind you. We can’t… I can’t allow him to leave this room alive."

Hearing Nagi start to growl, Omi lifted a hand to touch the boy’s face, stroking his cheek tenderly. In contrast to his actions, his eyes and voice took on a edge of pure ice. "Each and every one of the men behind me, including the flesh gaki-bound and the kage, risked their lives to save you and everyone in this room. They prevented two coups against the throne. If they hadn’t put their lives at risk and sacrificed so much, you would be dead, and in all probability a pack of oni would be loose in the city, killing everyone they come across. You owe them your lives, and yet you want to kill them."

Omi continued on, his voice dripping with disdain. "As for you Guards, you’d be killing one of your own, too. Ken gave up a piece of his soul so Reiji wouldn’t be able to control Aya any longer, and wouldn’t have to obey the order to assassinate you. Now he’s become a bound himself, a flesh gaki one at that. Will you order him killed too? A loyal Guard?"

Yuushi looked over his shoulder at where Ken lay, and then back at Omi. He noticed that the weapons of both the blond Guard and that of his friend, Naru, started to lower to the floor. The Guards behind them started to mutter, their tight formation breaking apart. Omi continued, looking back at his father.

"I don’t think they can kill one of their own, not after the man made such a sacrifice for duty and king. What about you? Can you kill the son of your best friend?" The king appeared startled by that question, and Omi gave him no time to speak or think. "Can you kill Ranmura Fujimiya’s only surviving child, after the man gave up his place here in Court to keep an eye on your own brother? Can you kill his son, when the man has just saved your life and kingdom? If you can…" Omi let out a breath and shook his head. "If you can, I won’t be your son any longer. I’d rather stand by my friends and pay the same price they have for daring to save your life than stand by your side ever again."

King Shuuichi’s face blanched with shock, and he tried to look over Omi’s shoulder to where Aya lay. "But… Ranmura’s child? Little Ran? How can that be possible?"

"I don’t know, but every word Omi said is true." Birman quickly jumped into the discussion, giving her king no time to collect his thoughts. Omi gratefully yielded the floor to her.

"He’s Lord Fujimiya’s child, I’ve had men investigating his past and found out that instead of dying with their parents as we were told, Ran and his sister were taken in by your brother. Prince Reiji knew that the boy was a kage, and he planned on using him to kill you. Which Ran didn’t do, but instead he saved your life."

"You knew about this, Birman?" Manx spoke for the first time, stepping to King Shuuichi’s side as she did. Omi noted that her wedding finery was now stained with blood along the hem, from walking across the ballroom floor.

Birman nodded her head, and looked away from Manx to stare at the king. "Your highness, I have Kudoh and… Ran’s promise to serve the Crown. Both men come from families that have been in the Takatoris’ service for centuries, and both have risked their lives for you. They knew the dangers they faced by fighting today, and not just against demons, mercenaries and wizards. They knew they would be in danger after the battle was over, but they still fought. If you can’t recognize their sacrifice…." Birman took a deep breath and reached for the ring on her right hand, the one that was the symbol of her office as Spymaster, and pulled it off. She held it out to her king.

"If you intend to harm them, then I can’t be yours any longer."

The king’s face tightened, and he patted Manx’s arm when she made to speak. As his bride fell silent, King Shuuichi looked at Botan.

"Well, I’ve heard from my son and my Spymaster, what about my Royal Wizard?"

"I stand by the Crown Prince, your Highness." Botan rested his hand on Omi’s shoulder. "He at least understands loyalty and sacrifice, and how to look beyond prejudice and fear. Harm any of the bounds present in this room, and you will face me. May I remind you at this moment that this room is warded, by me, and no one, other than the bounds behind me and the three of us will be able to leave as long as those wards remain."

As threats went, it was a subtle and inspired one. Botan had just told the king that there needn’t even be a fight over the bounds, all they had to do was retreat behind Omi’s ward and depart, while the king and his Guards were left here, unable to leave themselves. Omi wanted to hug Botan, but remained as he was. He could hug Botan later, if they managed to pull this off.

"Guards." His father’s voice had become as cold as Omi’s, and his face perfectly impassive, save for a glitter of anger in his eyes. Inwardly sighing, Omi concentrated even more on his wards, hoping that they would hold long enough for Aya, Schuldig and Ken to be taken to safety, since they were unable to escape by themselves.

Yuushi stepped forward, to the front of the king, and bowed. "Sire… all of us present risked our lives and our positions to fight against an evil that plotted against you, one that we had no idea of how extensive it was, hence our secrecy. How can we kill people who did the same as we did, with no oath to bind them to you? How can we kill two of our own?"

Manx was the next to speak, which surprised Omi. Especially when he heard what she had to say.

"Shuuichi, he’s right. They risked their lives for you, and you would repay them with death?"

The king shook his head. "I’ll allow Kudoh to live, and Hidaka as well. I can even turn a blind eye to the others, but the kage…. I’m sorry. I don’t want to kill Ranmura’s son, but if word gets out about a kage, there will be a panic. I’m sorry." He looked at Omi when he said the words a second time.

Manx squeezed his hand to regain his attention. "Listen to me, Shuuichi. No one outside of this room needs to know about there being a kage involved with what happened here. Tell them it was only wizard’s magic, what they saw. And if anyone does suspect the truth, it will be to your benefit." Manx glanced about the carnage that surrounded them. "There can be no doubt that the kage is yours, not after you walk out of here unscathed. If anyone believes that a kage exists, they will know that he is yours."

Omi wanted to yell at Manx that Aya was nobody’s, except maybe Yohji’s, but Botan’s hand on his shoulder caused him to snap his mouth shut as the wizard stepped forward.

"She speaks the truth, your Highness. You have enemies that you don’t know about, that the bounds can tell you more of than I can. Enemies that are very powerful. There may be others as well, and if anything will give them pause in attacking you, it will be the thought that you have a kage to protect you."

Birman stepped forward also. "Please, your Highness, listen to us. We had no idea of Lord Eto until the bounds informed us of his plot. They knew about your brother’s plans, too. We can use their help in the future, and will be well served by their loyalty. But if you kill these men, we’ll never be able to count on their kind in the future. Which will hurt Kritiker greatly, in my opinion."

Everyone in the room fell silent as the king made his decision. Omi heard Yohji muttering behind him, but he couldn’t make out the words. Nagi hugged him and whispered in his ear.

"Aya’s awake now, but weak. However, he said that if need be, he can cloak all of us long enough to escape."

<Also, Jei is taking advantage of no one paying any attention to him, and he’s almost at Ken’s side. We might be keeping quiet during this discussion, but we’ve been busy. And while I appreciate your concern for us, we’re not in as bad a shape as you think. We’ll be able to escape with no problem if your dad decides to be an asshole.>

Omi smiled bitterly at Schuldig’s words, but he tilted his head back to nuzzle Nagi’s cheek. Things were so confusing right now, and changing too fast for him to keep track of. He had the ability to cast magic, something he’d denied to himself for years. Botan, Birman and Yuushi Honjyou were prepared to disobey their king, and in the case of his two friends do much worse than that, and Manx was arguing with his father to allow a kage to live, something he would have never suspected from the woman. But he still had Nagi, and knew he always would, even with him being a wizard.

Nagi kissed him on the temple, and when Omi pulled away and looked over at his father, he found a look of tenderness on the bearded man’s face. His father stared at him for a few moments, and then lowered his head.

"Mamoru, I would like to see him. Ranmura’s son, I mean."

Staring at his father, Omi tried to figure out if this was a trick of sorts, and if he should honor the odd request.

<Do it, chibi. I think your old man’s coming around, and I don’t sense any trickery from him. Plus, Crawford said it’s okay.>

Doing as he’d been asked, Omi reluctantly lowered the ward. He turned around, and Nagi removed his arms from Omi’s waist but caught one of his hands. They walked over to where Yohji and Aya were sitting on the floor, both of them looking completely exhausted. Aya was in Yohji’s lap, his arms hugging Yohji’s tightly to his chest, and shadows skittered around the two of them. Their costumes were torn, and their lovely masks nowhere to be seen.

Yohji tensed when King Shuuichi approached them, and Omi heard a low growl. Aya lifted his head and stared his father’s best friend in the eye. The king’s step slowed the closer he got to the couple, and he let out a gasp as he came to a halt just feet away from them.

"Arashi. You look so much like your mother, Arashi. But… you have your father’s mouth, and his build, Ran."

Aya closed his eyes and shook his head. "It’s Aya, not Ran."

"But that was your sister’s name. Little Aya, with hair just like your father’s, who took after his mother. Where is the girl? Birman, didn’t you say that my brother took them both in?"

Omi watched as pain flickered over Aya’s face as Birman quietly informed the king that the girl was dead. When the king started to ask what had happened to her, Aya interrupted him.

"My name is Aya."

His father gazed in confusion at the kage, and then Crawford cleared his throat. When Omi looked over that the man, he noticed that somehow Crawford had managed to straighten up his rumpled appearance, and had even roughly combed back his hair.

"The young man is right. He is now Aya. There are a few people who know of Ran Fujimiya’s existence, and it would be best if they believed that he is no longer in this world. Let Aya…."

"Kudoh," Yohji supplied in a husky voice as he tugged on one of Aya’s eartails. He smiled when his lover made a small spitting sound and snapped his teeth.

"Let Aya Kudoh take his place, which is much safer for all involved." Crawford tugged on the blood soaked cuffs of his jacket and gazed evenly at King Shuuichi.

"Why do I have a feeling that there is much I need to know about, and that I won’t like what I hear?" No one answered the king’s rhetorical question. "Very well, all of you, including Aya Kudoh, as of now are guests of mine. I will treat you with every courtesy, in thanks of your heroic sacrifices here tonight, and in hopes of hearing things that I really don’t want to, but need to."

Crawford nodded his head, showing his approval. "A wise choice, your Highness. If I may suggest, we are all a bit… battered and tired. If the explanations can wait til tomorrow, that would be for the best. I think that maybe you have more pressing issues to deal with at the present." The precog looked around the ballroom, at the dead bodies and the few wounded people scattered about. Over in the corner Aya’s shadows and Botan’s wards still remained, protecting the partiers that hadn’t managed to escape through the doors when Eto’s mercenaries had attacked.

King Shuuichi let out a sharp breath, one that was almost a laugh. "Yes, it’s not the typical wedding night that I have to look forward to. Botan, we need healers in here right away for the survivors, but can you manage to keep your friends out of sight when you bring down the wards? I imagine that the rest of the Guards and half the Royal Army is stationed just outside of the ballroom, waiting to charge in here the moment you drop them."

"I can’t, but Aya should be able to manage that. I take it you would like me to remain here?"

King Shuuichi nodded his head and turned towards Birman. "Can you take them somewhere safe and quiet? The royal wing should be suitable."

"I’ll do that, your Highness." Birman looked at Yuushi. "I’ll need some Guards on duty there, and I’d rather not inform any others about our guests. Can you manage that?"

Yuushi tucked back his hair with a grime covered hand and focused his attention on the Guards behind him. He was quiet for a moment, then nodded his head.

"We should be able to manage guard duty, albeit in short shifts. I’ll take the first one, along with Miko and Toshi. Naru, I want you to remain here and look after our wounded. Make sure that they understand that they are to keep their mouths shut about what happened tonight, no matter who asks them. Understood?"

Naru puffed out his chest. "I can do that, Yuushi. I think half of them have heard what’s going on, and I’ll make sure they remain near the unconscious ones. You can trust me on this."

"I know, Naru." Yuushi briefly ruffled the smaller Guard’s hair. "Look after Reiichi while you’re at it, please." He then returned his attention to Birman.

"I’m very glad to see you handling things this well, Honjyou. Now I want you, Chen and Amuro to stand over there," Birman motioned to the corner just left of the main doors, "with our guests and me. As soon as everyone is done rushing in, we’ll slip on out."

"Yes ma’am. The rest of you remain here, and let the Spymaster do the talking for you. I feel she’ll be able to explain your presence here better than we ever could. Glen, Ana, and Declan, I want you to report to the royal wing in three hours time. You’ll take the next shift. Get washed off and a little rest, do you hear me?" The people in question nodded their heads.

Stepping closer to his father, Omi nervously twisted the hem of his deep blue tunic with his right hand. It was one thing to stand up to the man and threaten to disown him, now Omi was unsure how his father would act towards him.

"Sir, do you want me to remain here, or…."

His father smiled at Omi and patted him on the shoulder. "Go with your friends, Mamoru. I appreciate your offer, but I think it will be easier to tell people that the Guard Hidaka managed to ferret you away safely when the fighting started than explain what the two of you were doing during the battle. Get some rest, and I’ll speak more to you in the morning." The king paused for a moment, and then he pulled Omi into a rough hug. "Just so you know, I’m proud of you, of the way you fought and how you stood by your friends. You’re a good son, Mamoru, and you’ve never given me cause to think otherwise." A kiss was pressed to his forehead and then Omi was released.

Blinking back tears, Omi walked backwards, to the appointed corner, Nagi holding his hand and helping to navigate him around the various pieces of broken furniture and dead bodies. He joined his friends: Yohji holding a muttering Aya, who complained about being able to walk, a passionately kissing Masato and Schuldig, who didn’t seem to mind being carried in the least, Crawford, Jei and Ken, who was being carried by the one-eyed man. As soon as they, Birman and the Guards were cluttered close together, Aya called the shadows to them, pulling them away from the protected bystanders, and Omi shivered with cold.

They were surrounded by darkness, but Omi could still see when the rest of the Guards and a good bit of the Royal Army rushed into the ballroom, crying out at the sight of so much destruction and cheering when their found their king unharmed. Moments later the cries of the warded partiers joined theirs as the wards were lowered, and the room was filled with mass confusion as people ran about, checking the wounded and trying to calm down those having hysterics. Omi saw Kikyou rush over to his father and Manx, and wondered what story the man would be told. He guessed that he would find out in the morning.

<Come on, chibi, we’re leaving now. A hot bath and a soft bed are awaiting you. Right now that sounds like heaven to me.>

Omi heartily agreed. He was alive and not disowned, his friends were mostly unharmed, and Nagi was by his side. No doubt tomorrow wouldn’t be the best of days, but it would be better than tonight, and the people he cared most about were safe. He was ready to call it a day.

*******

 

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