Remnants : Part Five
"You have contacted them?" Kayura asked, sliding the screen door closed with the tips of her fingers.
Rowen put his back to the snowy garden, pulled his helmet free, and shook a hand through his hair. "They're on their way. I can go and meet them to get the jewel. We don't all have to go and leave the castle unprotected."
"All the same, I shall accompany you," Kayura demurred. "You will need my assistance to open the gate."
Rowen studied her: small, serene, and almost insubstantial in her layered cloud of winter-colored robes, an entirely different creature than the blood-soaked warrior they had met by the roadside. In her low slippers, she barely came up to the bottom of Rowen's neck-plate.
"Something on your mind, Tenku?" Kayura prompted, and Rowen realized he'd been staring.
"Sorry, it's just... You haven't aged a day since then, have you?"
Kayura seemed startled by the question. Her painted eyes widened in shock and surprise, then she turned her face away, veiling her expression with the shining black curtain of her hair. "When Arago ruled," she said, hesitatingly, "this land was trapped in an eternal spring, the season of the samurai, the season of his favorite warrior. After Arago's defeat, summer came for the first time in centuries. It lasted a long time, and was followed by an equally lengthy and bountiful autumn. Our storehouses were full to overflowing, and it was well that they were. For winter followed fall, and it has reigned, unrelenting, for ten times as long as the other seasons. Our food supplies dwindle, but Spring does not come, and we do not age." She put her face in her hands, her slim shoulders bowed. "I am not Sh'ten, Tenku. His armor suffers me to wear it, but little more. I cannot bring spring back to the Netherworld. It is gone, and I fear it will not come again. Even should we prove victorious in this battle, we are doomed to a winter without end."
Rowen reached out a hesitant hand and placed it on her shoulder, his armored fingers gleaming through her hair. "We'll find an answer," he said, though he wasn't sure himself what it could be. "Spring'll come back, and it'll be just like Narnia, you know?"
"Like what?" Kayura asked, her grief changing to confusion.
"Ehh," Rowen said. "Nevermind."
Kayura gave him a soft, sad little smile. "How strange we must seem to you, as much as you to us. When last we met, you were little more than children."
Rowen would have said that Kayura had been little more than a child herself, a stolen doll pulled along by Arago's phantom fingertips. But before Rowen could speak, Kayura leaned up on her toes and kissed him on the cheek, like a little girl greeting a favorite older brother.
"Now, you seem so much older than we are, and still so much more alive."
"Only because you've been stuck in time so long," Rowen said, glad for the chilly air to excuse the flare of color across his face. "You guys feel old to us, just... in a different way. Historically, I guess."
"I don't know. You always seemed more alive to me. Brighter than us, your blood hotter. The five of you always fought with such relentless fury, but fighting beside you today, I saw you not as boys in the fire of youth, but as seasoned warriors, wise in your elements and sharp in your skills. Your blood is still hot, hotter than ours, but time has given you the will to temper it. You have grown in the time that has passed, and we here have been left behind, unchanged." She looked at the garden, at the spreading branches of the cherry trees, black against snow and refusing to bloom. "It made me feel strange, realizing just how much mortal time has passed the Netherworld by."
"I don't know about wise, but I feel pretty damn old when I look at the mirror in the every morning." Rowen flashed her a grin; her compliments had stung more blood into his face than her kiss had. "Don't worry about it. When things get back to normal here, and your seasons are in order, it won't feel that way."
"Maybe that's true," Kayura said, and put her fingertips to her lips, to hide her laugh. "Because you look much like that little boy I fought years ago when you're blushing."
"Who's blushing?" Rowen demanded, and put his helmet back on in a hurry. "Anyway. We should go and meet Yuli. The sooner we get the jewel, the sooner we can help you get things right again."
"Come over and drop off the Jewel, my ass," Yuli said, opening the door of the jeep and letting a slightly carsick tiger out of the back seat. "I'm surprised he didn't ask for us to deliver a pizza while we're at it."
"If Kento had been the one to call, he would have." Mia wrapped her arms around the haft of her naginata, and hugged herself through the thin leather of her jacket. It had stopped raining, though enough water still dribbled off the trees to spatter across the hood of the parked jeep, and it was deeply chilly. The air smelled of wet rock and wet road and wet trees, and of something musty and electrically smoky that Mia and Yuli knew all too well: the scent of stale souls imprisoned in armor.
"Like we wouldn't know that there was trouble brewing," Yuli continued, and there was a faint bitterness to his words. "Maybe we don't have mystic armor, but we're not stupid, and we've been doing this every bit as long as they have."
Mia gave him a smile he did not see, thinking to herself how he still struggled for equality in the eyes of the others, and especially Ryou. She could empathize with that, at least. Ryou was not an easy man to love, and he would be the first to admit it. "Well," she said, "we're not going to toddle off home like good sidekicks this time, are we?"
Yuli grinned at her over his shoulder, one hand on the hilt of the katana shoved through the belt of his jeans. "When have we ever?"
White Blaze made a low whurf of agreement, and butted his broad head against Yuli's thighs. Still, Mia could not help the flutter of nerves low in her belly when the vast, red torii gate appeared out of the mist, ominous and familiar, the sharp horns of its top beam lost in the clouds. Two figures emerged from the widening crack in its maw, and a moment later Rowen and Kayura lighted on the pavement. Mia glanced beyond them for a flash of crimson armor, but no one else was coming.
Coward. she thought to herself, uncharitably. Are you afraid you'll lose your nerve to go off and die if you see me?
"Thanks for coming so fast," Rowen said, clanking across the road to Yuli. "We'll just get the jewel and get outta your hair--"
"Rowen Hashiba," Mia said, more steely than the point of her spear, "Do you honestly think we're going to let you go back in there alone?"
"I ain't alone," Rowen said, with an impatient gesture at Kayura, in the oni armor, with her staff at the ready. "In case you hadn't noticed."
"Of course I noticed," Mia said, and turned to Kayura with a warm smile and an outstretched hand. "It's so nice to see you again."
"I hope you've been well," Kayura returned, equally polite.
"All the same," Mia said, whirling on Rowen again once the pleasantries were done, "The five of you haven't ever managed to accomplish anything without us, and I don't see what point there is in leaving us here. You need us, and you always have."
"Mia, please," Rowen said, his eyes flicking to Kayura. "Not in front of--"
"You don't get the jewel unless you bring us with you," Yuli said, evenly. "Not to be difficult, Lady Kayura," he said, with an apologetic shrug in her direction, "but we're coming with you."
Kayura blinked at him in sudden recognition, replacing the grown man before her with the boy in her memories. "Yuli! Time has passed in the mortal world, hasn't it?" She shook her head. "Still, I must agree with Tenku. The Netherworld is at war, and bringing civilians into it is out of the question."
Mia tightened her grip on her spear, meaningfully. "I haven't been a civilian since before I was twenty."
"Mia," Rowen said, squinting with frustration, "can I talk to you over here, just a sec?" He took her elbow in his gauntleted hand, and led her a little ways behind the jeep, next to the mountain spring in the cliffside.
"Rowen," Mia said, before he could start, "you're not talking me out of this."
"There's no talking about it," Rowen answered. "Listen, Mia. I'm second-in-command, and I've got my orders from Ryou. If I bring you back with me, he'll kill me."
"So he wants to leave me here while all of you go off and die, then," Mia retorted.
"Yes," Rowen answered, with emphasis. "Mia, it doesn't look good over there. We've got crap odds and it's a losing battle. I promised Ryou I would make sure you stayed here where it's safe."
"And if you lose?" Mia said, catching the side of Rowen's helmet and making him look her in the eye. "If you lose, and the Netherworld gates come open, and all hell breaks loose in the mortal world? Where's going to be 'safe' then, Rowen?"
"He loves you more than anything in the world, Mia," Rowen said softly, startling tears into Mia's wide green eyes. "It would tear him apart if you were there. He would want to protect you, and he knows he can't."
Mia spent a moment to compose herself, swallowing. "I'm not a little girl anymore, Rowen," she said, when she trusted herself to speak. "I can defend myself, now. And I'll have Yuli with me, if you have to insist on me having a big strong boy to look after me." White Blaze appeared around the corner of the Jeep, and butted Rowen hard in his armored backside. "And a tiger," Mia concluded. "Seriously, an all-Japan kendo champ and an immortal tiger, I mean, what else would I need?"
Rowen took her by both shoulders. "I know you can fight, but it's not a matter of you being strong enough. We might all die."
"And you think only armor-bearers deserve to die beside the ones they love?"
Rowen flinched; Mia had struck home.
"It's not just Ryou's choice, Rowen," Mia said.
"I've got orders--"
"Ryou," Mia interrupted, "cannot order me to do anything." Her eyes narrowed. "I'm not one of you, remember?"
Rowen's shoulders slumped, but he laughed in his defeat. "You've always been one of us," he said. "But you're right, none of us could ever make you do anything you don't want to do." He changed his grip on her shoulders into a hug, and she wrapped one arm around his backplate. Hugging men in mystic armor was a tricky prospect, but she was a pro at it by now, and could manage even with her naginata.
"Just do us all a favor," Rowen continued, pulling away, "and if Ryou lives through this, just marry the son of a bitch, will ya?"
Mia's lower lip twitched, but she held firm. "He has to ask me first."
"Babe," Rowen said, turning around, "You know the man's as dumb as a bag of bricks. If you want him, you're gonna hafta club him over the head, or something." He glanced back at the Netherworld gate, and sighed. "But at this rate, you might need to take a number."
"You've grown," Kayura said, studying Yuli appraisingly.
"It's been sixteen years," Yuli said. "I'm twenty-eight." He was giving her a wary look, and she could not blame him. She must seem to Yuli as she had to the others, a ghost from another time, unchanged from their last parting.
"I see." She tilted her head at him, looking him up and down. "And what armor is it that you bear?"
Yuli flinched as though she had struck him across the face. "I don't have any armor."
Kayura blinked her surprise. "No? But surely..." She took a step closer to him. There was no question, the staff of the Ancients chimed softly as it drew near him, and she did not think it was not the Jewel that caused it. But perhaps it was only his long years in close proximity to other armors. If Yuli had the virtue of an armor-bearer, it had not yet blossomed on his brow. There was only a dull light there that Kayura, with her bloodline, could barely perceive. One thing was certain: there was something very curious indeed about this man that the boy Yuli had become.
"We're ready," Mia announced, returning triumphant with a submissive Rowen behind her. "We'll be coming along, Kayura, if that's all right with you."
"I will not refuse any able warriors," Kayura said, but she was looking at Yuli. "If you are willing to fight, you are welcome. Let us make haste, then."
The gates opened again with a tap of the golden staff, and the four of them vanished into the cloudy light of the Netherworld.
Ryou was waiting with the others in Kayura's main hall, and his face lit up as Rowen came through the sliding screen with Kayura. But once he took stock of the number of arrivals, his expression switched to fury with the speed of a brush-fire changing direction. He stood up, striding towards them with his kimono sleeves flapping.
"Sorry, Rowen," Ryou said, tersely, "But I thought I said to leave Mia and Yuli behind?"
"Eh--" Rowen began, and got no further as Mia shoved past him, the butt of her naginata thudding down on the tatami for emphasis.
"And since when do I have to do what you tell me to, Ryou Sanada?"
"Since maybe always if you like staying alive," Ryou shot back, rising to her bait. "Yuli! Why did you let her come?"
"Hey man, I don't let her do anything!" Yuli held up his hands in defense. "Leave me outta this."
"Yes, Ryou," Mia said, jabbing a forefinger into the front of Ryou's crimson kimono, "Leave Yuli out of this. I'm here because I'm not some princess pining away in a tower, and because the fate of the world--astounding as it may be--is just as important to me as it is to you. I'm here, and I'm going to fight, and there's nothing you or anyone else can say to change my mind."
Ryou opened his mouth, Mia brought her spear down hard on his foot, and Ryou was done. "Do whatever the hell you want," he grumbled at last, and limped over to sit with the others.
"Thank you," Mia answered curtly, marching over to the cushion next to Yuli, "I will."
Anubisu, watching the exchange with unrestrained mirth, let out a short bark of laughter at Ryou's defeat. "Ha! Wildfire, I cannot believe a warrior like you would let his woman order him around in such a manner! It is most amusing!"
"Be quiet, Anubisu," Kayura said.
The warlord of Darkness subsided at once. "Yes'm."
Rowen let out a low whistle as he sat down on the cushion next to Sage. "Man, somebody got told."
"Yeah," Kento agreed. "See, man," he said to Anubisu, "that's why we don't come visit you more often. Stuff like that's just embarrasin'."
Anubisu glared at them, but was unwilling to retort with Kayura watching him so closely.
"Where is Naaza?" she asked.
Air stirred in the corner of the room, and the serpentine warlord appeared in his venom-green kimono. "Here, my lady." He settled into the place beside Anubisu, and it was obvious that there was room for two more people to sit in the council by their side. The empty places on either side of the warlords were somehow tragic.
"How is Rajura?" Kayura's armor shifted back into layered robes of silk as she took her place at the head of the group.
"Mending slowly," Naaza grunted. "He will not be fit to fight for some time."
"Then let us hope the Jewel offers some insight." Kayura folded her hands in her robes. "Ryou, I owe you and your comrades an explanation. You must be wondering why I have not made full use of the staff or the Oni armor."
"The thought had crossed my mind," Sage admitted.
"The staff and the armor are opposing forces," Kayura said, looking up at the shakujo, its rings gleaming in the lamplight. "Using them both means I cannot use the full strength of either of them. I suspect this duality, this divide, is somehow symbolic of the divide in my world. We cannot be both, so we are neither. I fear that in order to survive, a great choice must be made." She leveled her gaze at Ryou. "You understand this, do you not?"
"Yes," Ryou admitted, his empty fists closing as though they longed for their swords. "This armor we have is like that. We..." He looked up at the others, and saw the agreement in their faces. "We're incomplete, Kayura."
"Then we all understand the gravity of the situation," Kayura said. "Yuli, the Jewel, if you please."
Yuli had been sitting in uncomfortable silence the whole time, and he jumped as Kayura spoke to him. The whole air of the council room made him nervous, especially the stares from the two warlords across the tatami from him. "Of course," he said, and fumbled to get the comma-shaped ruby off his phone strap. "Here it is."
Kayura cupped the gem in her hands, staring down into its flickering depths. The moment it had passed into her keeping, a light began to stir within the stone. "Yes," Kayura said softly, as though to herself. "Perhaps this will have the answer we have been searching for." The stone trembled in her palm, and then it began to spin. It floated an inch above Kayura's fingers, whirling furiously, and a red light pulsed outward in a blinding flash. Everyone but Kayura turned away from the intensifying glare, and then, all at once, it was over. The jewel went dark and tumbled down the hem of Kayura's robe, while the last of the ancients fell backwards into a pool of white silk and black hair, her sightless eyes fixed on the empty air above her.
"Lady Kayura!" Naaza and Anubisu shouted together, and made to move towards her lifeless form, but a sharp cry from Yuli made them stop.
"Don't!" Yuli, sitting closest to Kayura, bent down beside her without touching her or the seemingly-inert jewel. "Don't disturb her. She's in some kind of trance. The Jewel has her."
"And now we have lost one more of our number," Anubisu grumbled. "We do not have time for this mystical nonsense! We must crush our enemies before we are crushed in turn."
"Oh?" Sai shot back at him. "And how do you propose to do that? Outnumbered, with weakened human forces?"
"You, Ronin," Anubisu spat, "are not one to tell us how to fight our own battles!"
"Torrent is right," Naaza said, laying his hand heavily on Anubisu's shoulder, to restrain him. "This is not about your feelings for Kayura, Anubisu," he added, in a low voice.
The warrior of darkness pulled away from Naaza with a snarled oath on his lips, and the others tensed for a brawl. But Anubisu had not yet finished his insult before their virtues all sang out in sudden warning, and an explosion rattled the castle down to its very foundations.
"The gates!" Naaza was fully armored by the time he was on his feet. "They're under attack!"
"The enemy has sensed our weakness," Anubisu said, his cape unfurling behind his spiked shoulderplates as he rose.
"We'll help," Ryou offered, and in a moment the quarrel was forgotten and the warriors were all armored, all before Yuli and Mia even had a chance to stand. "Yuli," Ryou said, loosening his katana in their scabbards, "I want you to stay here with Mia and White Blaze, and watch over Kayura and Rajura."
"What?" Yuli shouted, as the others rushed by him in a blur of bright colors, towards the rising sounds of battle. Yuli gripped the hilt of his katana as though it was proof of his competence. "Ryou! I can fight!"
"And so can I--" Mia began.
"Look, this is not about you two!" Ryou shouted back, and then struggled to get his voice under control. "Listen, Yuli. We've got to buy us some time. Kayura has to come out of this with answers for us, Rajura can't protect himself, and if you and Mia aren't safe there's no reason for me to go on fighting, do you understand? You're the only one I can trust with this."
Yuli's face fell. Even now, after all this time, he was left behind. "...All right, Ryou."
Ryou gave him a bracing pat on the arm. "Countin' on you, buddy." His eyes flicked to Mia, but there was nothing he could say in words, and she was the first to look away.
"Be careful," she murmured.
Ryou swallowed. "Blaze," he said, to the white tiger, "take care of them. And you two, get Rajura in here with you and barricade the doors, got it?"
And in a swirl of silk and armor he was gone, leaving only the distant scent of smoke behind him.