Remnants : Part Three
Yuli was sweeping up the glass when they came back into the kitchen, and Mia had made another pot of coffee.
"Sorry, Mia," Rowen said, falling into a chair with what he hoped looked like physical exhaustion, and not the numbing pain he felt in his heart. "I guess we're still ruining your insurance premiums even after all this time."
"I've given up on insurance," Mia said airily, and helped Yuli dump most of the back door windows into the trash can. "They just laughed when I went in the office, anyway. Now whenever something breaks, I just sell an artifact and put the extra in the fund."
"And then she buys herself a new pair of completely impractical shoes as compensation," Yuli added. His grin faded into a look of quiet wonder that he did not bother to hide, as Rowen's mystical armor dissipated and became jeans and t-shirt once more. "That was the last one, wasn't it?" he asked, sweeping harder to as though to brush away his own envy.
"I want some of that coffee," Ryou said, in answer, and Mia passed him a cup without meeting his eyes.
"What are you going to do now?" she asked.
"Suzunagi can't help us with this," Ryou said, draining his boiling-hot coffee at one go, without so much as a flinch at a scalded tongue. "The armors we have now aren't connected to the Netherworld. They're only shapes to channel the energy the original yoroi left in our bodies."
"And to keep us in one piece during our regularly scheduled clashes with the forces of darkness," Kento yawned, stretching.
"She's not the hands-on sort anyway," Sai added. "We haven't seen her since we took on this armor."
"Because she has faded from this world, as she should have long ago." Sage sat down heavily, as though the weight of his armor was still on him. "It's our old armor that's the problem now, and only the ancient one could have the answers we need."
"Too bad he never answers his email." Rowen's attempt to lighten the mood was a complete failure, and he stared instead at a fragment of glass next to the toe of his sneaker.
Mia twisted a dishcloth in her hands and said, "Kayura, then."
Ryou nodded. "She's the next best thing to Kaos, now. The gates to the Netherworld are closed, but there are still a couple of places that are thinner, places that were torn open and closed a lot. I think we can punch through if we try one of them."
"Fine, but for heaven's sake, do it in the morning." Mia looked them over and shook her head in dismay. "You look half-dead as it is. If you tried to go charging into the Netherworld now, you might just kill yourselves. Yuli and I can finish up down here. Go on up to bed and try to get some rest for now."
Sai paused long enough to murmur thank you to Mia and drop a kiss on her cheek, an utterly platonic gesture of affection that Ryou did not even attempt to mimic. Sai and the others could get away with things like that around Mia, complimenting her on her hairstyle, hugging her, asking after her favorite takarasinne. For a moment Ryou was envious of how easily they could touch her, their brotherly affection, but he let it go with the same resigned familiarity as Yuli's unashamed longing for armor.
The others departed in pairs for their shared bedrooms, and Ryou for his, with its one poignantly empty bed. He left the kitchen last, his murmured goodnight and Mia's answer lost as Yuli began to sweep the already-clean floor.
Ryou went to bed hoping for some dream of Kaos' wisdom, or even nightmares from his first days in armor: darkened cities, ruined buildings, the vibrations from the tread of giant armored feet. In the end his fitful sleep was plagued only with half-memory repeats of the not-fight he had with Mia two months after they came back from Tanzania, when he realized that without his armor he had no identity to call his own--and none that he could offer her.
It was not the end of a relationship, he told her--and himself--at the time. It was simply that the relationship had involved two different people than the ones that they had become, the ones that had grown up, and grown apart. Without the armor, everything they had in common and every reason they had to be together had become a thing of past tense. It was a bad idea anyway, Ryou had said, wondering why she wouldn't look up at him, why she could only sit there over her cold tea, nodding. Now that the fighting was over they had ordinary lives to pick up again. Mia had a degree to finish, and scholarly aspirations. Ryou was barely starting college. Her three years' seniority in age was nothing to her French sensibilities, but it was scandalous in Japan, and her university peers had always said it would look bad for her, applying for a doctorate while living with a younger man.
It wouldn't work anymore, Ryou said. It never had. It had just been convenient for both of them, while he was an armor-bearer, and she was their researcher. They just had to admit that, that was all. It was better this way.
Mia never said anything. Ryou left his spare key next to her teacup, touched her shoulder, and walked away.
That was all of the reality, but in the dream, she called back to him, in the dream, he turned around, in the dream, everything was different. He returned for her a year later, an armor-bearer once more, a whole man with a purpose, and swept her up into his arms. He asked her forgiveness. She promised to never let go. The dream was everything except the truth of them: Ryou's failure to carry on a relationship with anyone other than his fellow armor-bearers, and the cautious friendship they had so carefully rebuilt over the years. When the lies of his subconscious became too farfetched Ryou would rouse himself, then fall back into the dream again.
He woke up for the last time in the watery early light of an unrepentantly nasty morning, with cold rain thudding like bullets on the foggy window. White Blaze had just put a chilly, wet tiger-nose right into Ryou's ear, and when Ryou was done yelping he sighed and fisted his hands in the thick white ruff, scratching the tiger behind his jaw.
"You're a hell of an alarm clock, you know that."
White Blaze said nothing, but looking into those fathomless eyes, Ryou was somehow comforted. He scooted his feet into his slippers and padded down the stairs to the study.
"...was over fifteen damn years ago, dammit," Yuli was saying. Ryou thought he was bewailing the time that had passed since they had last contacted the Netherworld, but it was nothing so mystical. "They were just kids. Can't he see she still cares about him?"
Ryou hesitated, his back to the wall, to listen.
"This is Ryou we're talking about." Sai. "I'm sure he's not willing to risk making things worse--"
"Making things worse," Yuli interrupted, with a snort. "Right. Holding each other at arm's length all this time, rather than admitting it was a bad start and trying again. I don't see how it could be much worse."
Kento, this time. "Hey, you were pretty little back then, when that all went down. You probably don't even know how much of a mess that was. It made such a hole in everything, on top of the armor loss, when we couldn't even look at each other for a year. We all four had to be captured in Suzunagi's armor before Ryou broke down and called Mia. She was his last option. And when Mia couldn't help, that was it. Ryou didn't come to Suzunagi to save us, Yul. He came to join us. Because he'd realized he had nothing left, and he might as well leave his soul locked in a box with ours forever."
"I think part of it is still there," Sai murmured.
"Like I said. At least they're talking to each other," Kento added.
Yuli was unmoved. "They should be sleeping together."
Ryou, in spite of himself, felt the ghost of a smile. They were about to enter the Netherworld again, the fate of the old armor was still unknown, there was the possibility that the constant fighting could begin again, and his friends were mostly concerned with whether or not he was getting laid. He turned to enter the room and then froze. Directly across the open doorway, Mia was standing on the opposite side of the hall, listening in like he was. She looked like she had barely slept, her hair in a loose braid, papers clutched in a haphazard pile against her sweater. Her smile was as fragile as the dawn struggling to assert itself outside, and it brought Ryou's heart into his throat.
Ryou knew he should say something. He should smile, or say her name, or offer to take her books for her. But the moment spiraled out until it grew so thin that it could no longer stay together, and dissolved. With an apologetic noise Mia stepped into the study, brushing by him with her eyes lowered, and Ryou's clenched fist thumped uselessly into the wall behind him.
"Jun Ulysses Yamano!" Mia snapped, as if she had just walked by and heard them talking about her. Yuli cringed audibly. "I really don't think that has anything to do with what needs to get done today, does it?"
"No ma'am," Yuli muttered, and Kento coughed sheepishly while a wild staccato of Yuli's keystrokes filled in the awkward silence.
Ryou didn't know how long he stood there, his eyes closed as he listened to the too-loud busy noise in the study and the rain thumping grimly on the roof. When he opened his eyes, Sage was staring at him.
The startled noise Ryou made was less than dignified.
"It's all right, you know," Sage said, with one arched eyebrow for their leader's lack of grace. "It's safe to go in and everything."
"Someone ought to put a bell around your neck," Ryou grumbled, massaging his chest and trying to get his heart rate back to normal.
Rowen popped up out of nowhere behind Sage, grinning like a jack-in-the-box. "Only at Christmastime," he said.
Ryou made a gagging noise that was pretty much entirely feigned, and walked into the study at last. It could have been his imagination, but he thought everyone glanced up at him, and then went back to whatever they were doing with a kind of frenetic energy. Rowen sidestepped him and slung a length of heavy electronic cable off one arm. Ryou always wondered where he got all the stuff like that. He seemed to have an inexhaustible supply.
"Are we all set, or what?" Ryou asked.
"Almost," Yuli said, thumbing his return key with a kind of finality. "Rowen, are you sure this will work?"
"No," Rowen said, stripping rubber wire casing away with his pocketknife and twisting naked copper filaments together. "But hopefully if we do wind up in the Netherworld, an open line of communication back here would help. Hand me that electrical tape, Sage. No, that's duct tape. The little black-- yes. Thanks."
Sage gave the twisted mass of electronics a look that contained a touch of personal vehemence. Rowen had first had the idea of hardwiring mystic gear back in Los Angeles, when Sage and his armor had been technologically chained into a computer. The transmitters were useful, even Sage would admit, but he found the visceral knots of wire distasteful in memory, if nothing else.
Yuli was dubious as he eyed the patchwork tangle of cables and transmitter box that had been jimmied into the back of his laptop via the USB port. "All right, but there's only a few shots of juice in here, so don't do it for anything short of dire, all right? Mia and I will be here in turns all the time, so if you need us, call."
"That's it, then," Sai said, hugging himself a little. "We're ready."
"As we're ever gonna be." Kento had a wolfish grin of anticipation, itching for a fight, as always. "Where are we going through, Ryou?"
"At the road cutting, down by the spring where we ran into Saranbou." Ryou's eyes flickered with memory. "Shinjuku is probably an easier place to get through, it's been opened up so much, but it's too crowded."
"Right," Rowen agreed. "We don't want Mia to have more explaining to do to the UN security council, right?"
Mia's smile was wan. "You're just lucky they allowed me to keep your identities secret."
"Ruining all our chances for a tabloid career," Kento laughed. "Well, keep an eye on the place, Yul."
"Tell everyone..." Mia made a face. "Tell everyone hello, I guess? How ridiculous that sounds! And be careful." She said it to all of them, but her eyes were on Ryou.
"I'm sure they'll be hanging out and drinking sake with nothing to do," Sage said. "You haven't got a thing to worry about."
"You really don't believe that, do you?" Rowen asked Sage, when they were safely out on the porch.
"Of course I don't." Sage stepped out from under the porch overhang and into his armor, transitioning into white and black and green with only a ripple of energy. The need for shouted armor calls was long past. "It's been almost twenty years in our world, who knows how much time has passed there? The Netherworld is hardly a place of peace and serenity. Kayura and the Warlords said they would build a new world there, but they'd have plenty of enemies to go around. They might have won by now, or they might be still fighting. Or they might be dead. It's better to assume it won't be safe."
"Don't be such a misery, Sage." Sai lifted his hands to the sky, the rain running in happy little streams along all the flutes and metal canyons of his armor, plinking joyfully down the crest of his helmet. "I have full confidence that they have achieved the dream of a peaceful world."
"Sorry Sai." Ryou spread his arms and for a moment flame licked over his arms and legs with a sound like a gas fireplace igniting, leaving him wrapped in white metal and crimson silk. "I'm with Sage on this one."
Sai shrugged, unperturbed. "Shall we go, then?"
"I dunno," Kento said, even as they were enveloped in light and shot towards their destination a few miles down the road, "What kind of hostess present do you get for a former dark warlord?"
It was raining harder at the roadside spring. Sai seemed to relish it while the others endured the annoyance drumming onto their helmets and shoulder-plates, but Ryou's armor evaporated the droplets just before they could land, making him smoke like a restless volcano. Damp surcoats swished around their knees in an uneasy wind.
"Good choice, Ryou," Rowen said, as all the leaves flipped up to show their undersides to the wind. A day before, the leaf cover had been thicker, now the wind had shredded most of the gold and red glory, leaving bare branches behind. A normal mortal would have found the bend in the road a little forbidding. For armor-bearers, it rippled with otherworldly potential.
"I never felt like it healed up quite right, here." Ryou put his hand to a place on the road cutting, covered now by vines, where the scored marks of hot wildfire blades were still faintly visible. "I guess that's a good thing."
"So, what do we do?" Kento wondered. "...Knock? Send them a text message? 'R0n1ns hr, u opn gat3 4us plz'?"
"I don't think it's anything that complicated," Sai said, and Ryou nodded.
"We just ask." Ryou's armor pulsed a dull red, liming the edges of his body, illuminating the shadows under his eyelashes. As one, the others followed his example, gleaming faintly through the rain in a dim rainbow, the combined energy like the vibration of a taiko drum whose actual sound was just out of hearing.
Calling out for each other was second nature. Calling out for the brethren of their lost armor, with only the lingering virtues to guide them, was somewhat more difficult. Cold rain mingled with beads of sweat on their faces as they concentrated, straining, for voices they had once dreaded to hear.
"There!" Sage gasped at last, his face pale above his throat guard.
Wavering like a mirage beyond the opposite guard rail, the red pilings of a netherworld gate appeared and flickered, then grew solid once more. A thin thread of golden light sliced down the massive doors and all of them shifted stance, hands tightening on sword hilt and spear haft and arrow, braced for battle. A flash of armor glinted in the aperture, and with the jangle of a ringed staff and her hair like a pennant behind her, Lady Kayura stepped down onto the asphalt of the highway. The Oni armor glinted faintly in the rain, and Ryou's greeting died in his throat as he saw the bright smears of blood on the breastplate, the fine surcoat muddied and torn. She wore no helmet, and a thin cut was fresh on one cheek. She leaned heavily on the staff of the ancients, as though glad for the support.
"You've heard us!" Kayura said, catching Ryou's wrist in her hand, her eyes shining with exhausted gratitude. "Quickly, while there is still time!"
"Wha--" Ryou began, but Sage overrode his bewildered protest.
"You are injured, Lady Kayura."
"I have no time for such things," Kayura said, tossing her head with something like her old pride. "Not while I still stand. Please, warriors. Your haste may yet save lives."
Ryou nodded. "Our swords are yours."
"This way." Kayura brought the staff down, splintering the ground, and the gates yawned wide to let them in. The pull of the staff's power banished gravity, wrapping them up in baubles of colored light and carrying them from one world to the next. The ponderous gate swung closed behind them, and vanished.
Of the five of them, only Kento had entered the Netherworld this way, through the gate and fully conscious. One massive gate led to another, and another, with no walls or any sort of barrier between them. Far beyond their staggered beams, the beauty of the Netherworld rolled away below them like delicate ink lines painted on a gold screen, a floating, timeless world made miniature with distance. The dominating shadow of Arago's castle had lost none of its awe, but in its shadow the tangled labyrinth had become a warren of houses and streets and gardens. So caught up in the view, the warriors almost failed to notice the raw, black shadow gnawing on the edges of the gilt serenity.
"It's an army," Sai breathed, his eyes going wide at the overwhelming number of bodies.
"Not all have been pleased with the demise of the Lord of the Netherworld," Kayura explained. "Before Arago's might forced them into an empire, the Netherworld was a collection of small territories, much like the warring states of your own past. Now, every petty warlord and greedy demon in the Netherworld seeks dominion over the others." Her grip tightened on the staff, her dark brows drawn together. "And for that, they seek to fell my generals. I pray we are not too late. The hour was grim already when I came to fetch you."
"Kayura," Rowen said, shifting as though he would like to come up alongside her, but under the power of the staff such fidgets were impossible. He could only turn in his dark blue bubble to peer into her golden one. "We came to ask your help. We didn't know you were in trouble."
"If you sent out a call to our old armors," Sage said, gesturing to his breastplate, "we wouldn't have heard it."
"Then it is true, that the old armors have been destroyed." Kayura tightened her grasp on the staff, as through worried it might be wrested from her. "We thought you dead, you know, when the ghosts of your armors came here years ago, shattered fragments of your spirit and seeking the staff. In our latest desperation we called anyway and prayed you would hear us." She glanced back to study them, her dark eyes appraising their armor, their older faces. "Regardless, I see that fate has brought you back here, and you have managed to find yourselves some new armor, soulless though it may be."
"It's kind of a long story," Ryou explained, trying not to flinch at their new armor being so callously dismissed. It stung enough that Kayura had been desperately calling for their aid, and they had not heard so much as a whisper.
They were gathering speed, arching down towards the battle below. The dark blur of clashing forces became more focused; they could pick out armored individuals among the mass. "Then pray you have a chance to tell it to me," Kayura said, and with the final instruction, "all in black armor are the enemy," they were in the thick of it.
It was utter chaos. Allies, if they had any, were not to be found. The sweep of Kayura's staff scattered armor and foul smoke in every direction, but there were always more soldiers to fill the gaps, like blood from a wound that refused to clot. Ryou found himself hard pressed almost at once, thrust into a kind of melee combat he had not known since he was fifteen years old. The army was comprised of empty suits of armor, as Arago's foot soldiers had been, and only dismemberment would bring them down.
"Show no mercy!" Kayura shouted over the din, laying waste with the staff. "They will give you none! If you fall, your soul will swell their ranks!"
Somewhere off to Ryou's left, there was a tremor of the ground and a wave of armored bodies flew high in the air; Kento's triumphant whoop echoing off the rooftops.
This is way better than bowling!
"Don't get too far ahead, Kento!" Ryou shouted, but Kayura was pressing the advantage Kento left in his wake.
"This way!" She called, and they left their battles to follow her.
For Sage, the landscape of the Netherworld was a conglomeration of all his dreams, a place he never expected to find himself in again. It was seasonless on the outskirts of the city, but colder than Sage remembered it, the unrelenting kind that sank deep into the bone. Half-familiar doorways and streets flickered by as they ran, like whispered words he could almost understand. Their progress was much faster than Kayura's could have been alone, as one of them would let loose a burst of energy when the way became blocked, allowing her to plunge ahead. Sage could not help noticing that while the staff of the ancients never missed its mark, it did not have the same raw power as their own weapons. He wondered why Kayura did not make use of the Oni Yoroi's chain and claw, or in lieu of that, transform the staff into the sword, the fighting half of its dual nature.
Before he drew any conclusive answers, they had burst through a ring of the toughest soldiers yet and into the company of a few embattled humans, clearly at the end of their strength and dressed in armor that was nothing but metal. Out of the corner of his eye, Sage glimpsed one of them falling to his foe, blood spattering across the trampled grass. Before the dead man's eyes had even begun to dull, the fragmented armor on the ground quivered and formed itself into a new phantom soldier, burning eyes devoid of emotion as he turned to slaughter his former friends.
"There are humans in the Netherworld?" Rowen gasped, horrified even as he kept loosing arrows into the black wall of foot soldiers.
"I told you that once long ago, Tenku," Kayura said. "Most of them joined our side after Arago's defeat, but those that are slain are lost to us." She lifted her voice, raising her staff above her head so that the gold rings could be clearly seen. "Fall back to the castle, all of you!" she shouted. "Do not give the enemy your lives!"
The human soldiers did as they were told, carrying their wounded back through the path Kayura had made.
"Quickly, now," Kayura said, waving them forward. "We press on."
"If I knew I was going to do this much jogging," Kento grunted, "I would have eaten less breakfast."
They left a swath of destruction all around them, shouting their sure-kills more times in that one hour than they had in the entire past year. Sage electrified a hail of Rowen's arrows into a vast explosive net, while Kento and Sai gave their foes a new and profound respect for mud. Ryou's bursts of flame left nothing, not even armor, behind. Slowly, it seemed that the gaps they made were not as quickly filled as they had been.
"I think it's getting a little better!" Sai said, half a second before a soldier's pike caught him right across his middle, sending him flying. His blood scattered in a fine mist across the white shoulders of Kento's surcoat. He landed some distance away in a small defeated heap, and did not move.
"Sai!" Kento screamed, his shock and fear jolting through all the others. "Sai!"
Sai's mental response was weak and wordless, but alive.
It did not grant mercy for the remaining soldiers, left to face the wrath of Kento of Hardrock. His will flattened the entire area, the ground rippling and buckling like a shaken blanket, slapping trees, buildings, and the unfortunate soldiers away in an earthen tide until only his friends remained standing. Souls dispersed from the armor in a vast cloud.
Sage was already running to Sai before the last of the dust dissipated. In the haze, he could just see Sai's limp form in the shadow of a ruined wall, an armored figure leaning ominously over him. Sage made a flying leap and found his path blocked by a lone warrior, steel ringing on steel as their swords collided.
"Out of my way!" Sage bellowed, sword hilts grinding together, his arms straining against the strongest foe he had clashed with yet that day.
Slowly, the smoke of stagnant souls began to clear. Sage's opponent wore dun-colored armor with no helmet, one eye deeply scarred, crimson cloak snapping behind him in the bitter wind.
Shajuko rings jangled behind Sage as Kayura caught up; the warlord of darkness immediately stepped back and lowered his sword, bowing to her. "My lady. It is a worthless general who needs such a rescue. You would be right to cut off my head right here."
"Be quiet, Anubis," Kayura snapped, but there was relief in her eyes. "I trust the other two have not died simply to spare me the trouble of scolding them?"
"Naaza is tending to Torrent," the jackal said, gesturing to Sai, and the other warrior whose outline was now familiar. "Rajura... I cannot say, save that he lives. His wounds were many."
"Take me to them at once," Kayura said. "The demon army is in retreat; we must get back to the castle."
Anubis bowed again with a short bark of obedience, and left a baffled Sage of Halo standing, sword still drawn, behind him.