Remnants : Part Seven
The Kikoutei-dragon swept Kayura's army aside like gnats, and as Kento flew through the air to crash down on a heap of rubble for the umpteenth time that day, he considered the prospect of just not getting up again. Everything hurt. Each breath was full of pain and the taste of blood, he could feel the burning stickiness of his injuries inside the shell of his armor. For that moment their adversary's attention was elsewhere, and he could lie still in the eddies of quiet at the edges of the battle's turbulence. It was weak, it was cowardly. Kento wanted to meet death on his feet. But surely he had fought enough, had enough last stands, enough last-minute victories. It couldn't go on forever. There had to be an end of some sort, and this was surely as good a day as any.
A pair of hands slipped under his armpits, pulling him up into a sitting position against a sturdy breastplate. "You're not thinking of leaving me, are you, Xiu?"
Sai only used Kento's Chinese name in the most intimate of moments, and it was like a shock of cold water. Kento shook off the worst of the inertia and pain, and felt the pulse of armor-spirit and adrenaline moving in his veins again. "Nah," Kento said. "I was just taking a breather, that's all."
"That's good." Sai's smiling face was streaked with sweat, and dirt, and blood. His surcoat had been slit to ribbons, plastered to his armor with the mud that was all that was holding it together. "Because if you get killed out here, I'm telling everyone that you keep a trading card of Aerith by your bedside, and you always cry at the end of Advent Children."
Kento looked up at Sai in goggle-eyed horror. "You wouldn't."
Sai nodded, grave. "It would be my only consolation if you went and broke my heart by dying."
"You know I'd never do that to you, baby." Kento slid his fingers inside the face-guard of Sai's helmet, against his lover's bare cheek. "We go out together, or not at all."
Sai smiled down at him, and kissed the bloody palm of Kento's gauntlet.
"Besides," Kento continued, "you wouldn't want me to tell anyone about your Finding Nemo plushie collection that you actually still sleep with every night--"
Sai pulled away, yanking Kento the rest of the way to his feet in the same motion. "Now would be a good time to shut up and fight, love."
Ryou shouted his attack cry in a voice that was going hoarse, but it, like all the others' attacks, bounced harmlessly from the dragon's flank. They were fighting the combined power of their own armors, and they did not even have the full complement of nine on their side. Ryou staggered back to give Nazaa better clearance for his poison-whip. Only the warlords, still in command of their original armors, had any effect on the dragon. But they were only two men, and their strength was fading.
Looking around the battlefield, Ryou's heart sank. Most of Kayura's foot soldiers had been killed in the first sally, the remainder had fled with the appearance of Kikoutei. Now nothing but their twisted bodies remained, their souls rushing to fortify the ranks of the enemy. On the near side of the castle wall, Kento and Sai struggled to hold off the endless tide of ghost soldiers. Further off, Sage was on his knees with only his sword to hold him up, blood running freely down his face. Rowen stood over him, flinging bolt after bolt into the black mass of soldiers. He had long since given up trying to strike at Kikoutei; even the arrows that sank into the beast's gleaming eyes had been blinked away. The five of them were only echoes of what Kikoutei was, and they could not defeat it alone.
If only Rajura could fight with us, if only Kayura could use the Oni's total strength, we might stand a chance. Ryou shook his head as though such distractions could be physically cast off. As it was, he hoped that the others were still alive. While they had been holding off the dragon, any number of soldiers had slipped by them and headed for the castle. Don't let me down, Yuli, Ryou thought, and rushed across the battlefield to lend Rowen and Sage his support.
Ryou had cleared most of the rubble and was only a few yards from Rowen when the archer suddenly began waving his arms at Ryou in warning. Over the sounds of battle, his words were indistinct, but their meaning became clear as a giant, clawed foot crashed down to the ground, scant inches from Ryou's face. Armored bodies went flying in all directions, and Ryou landed badly, on his back.
The Kikoutei dragon had flung off the weakening attacks of the two Warlords, and turned its attention once more to its former master. Ryou struggled to rise, but the spirit of his old armor was faster. Talons sank deep into the rock beneath him, and Ryou was pinned under the dragon's crushing weight. He flailed in an effort to bring his swords into play, but it was useless. He could not so much as scratch the beast's armor.
The others tried to come to Ryou's rescue, but the dragon swept them away with a condescending twitch of its tail. Ryou was the one it wanted. The massive head swiveled lower on the sinuous neck, the lantern eyes burned like a pair of twin suns. The breath from its maw had all the heat of a volcano's rage, and for the first time in many years, Ryou feared the fire. As the fanged jaws stretched wide to crush him, Ryou braced for death.
"Kou Rai Sen!"
Over the sound of his own certain demise, the cry seemed to come from a great distance. It caught the dragon's attention just long enough for Ryou to wonder where he had heard that attack before, and then thick streamers of scarlet light tore through the space between Ryou and the dragon's head. With a clatter of iron the light became chains, stretching in every direction, securing the great beast to the ground. As Kikoutei tried to rise, it was hampered by the chains and fell, unable to fly free. It screamed in frustration, clawing vast trenches into the earth.
Ryou scrambled out from beneath the dragon's claw, and into a veritable blizzard of cherry petals.
Kayura's learned to use the Oni! Ryou thought, recognizing the shape of the armored body approaching him. He had her name in his mouth before he realized that the figure in the Oni armor was much too tall to be Kayura, that his hair was short and shaggy, and he wore in it a single tiny braid that glinted with the colored light of five seed beads.
Ryou's erstwhile sidekick skidded to a halt beside him, and reached down with one blue-gauntleted hand to pull Ryou to his feet. Sh'ten's virtue of loyalty burned so fiercely on his brow that it was hard to make out the strokes of the kanji, and the snow seemed to melt at the touch of his footsteps. Ryou's strength surged inside of him, and his breath no longer plumed in the cold.
Spring had come to the Netherworld, at last.
"Sorry we're late," Yuli said, and an army emerged from the swirl of cherry petals at his back. Half of them were illusion and at their lead was Rajura riding astride White Blaze, neither of them looking too pleased at the arrangement. The others were the remains of Kayura's army. She ran unmounted before them, dressed in simple o-yoroi and a lacquered helmet that shielded her eyes. In one hand she bore a golden sword with the shakujo's rings on the hilt, and the jewel of life gleamed at her throat. The fresh forces, both real and conjured, fell upon the remaining soldiers with a fervor that was all too real.
Ryou started to ask what the hell had just happened, but he was startled by a shrill cry behind him.
"Don't you dare touch him!"
A soldier had crept up behind Ryou while he was distracted, sword raised to strike Ryou's head from his shoulders. The tassled point of a naginata had pierced through the soldier's breastplate, and as the empty armor crumbled, Ryou looked past it and into Mia's face.
She was dirty, bloodied, spattered with canal-mud. Her hair had come undone in a tangled red cloud, and her eyes flashed as she yanked the point of her weapon out of the armor shell. She was easily the most beautiful thing Ryou had ever seen. For a moment the battle, Yuli's new armor, and all of the Netherworld faded around him as he reached out to Mia and told her so, long and passionately, with an eloquence he could never manage in words.
"Excuse me, Wildfire," Kayura said, with a wry tone at having to interrupt a warrior mid-kiss. "We are not quite done here."
"Right, Sorry!" Ryou said, stepping back from Mia, who had gone pink, and not from the heat of the fight. "What--um--what're we doing?"
"Fighting your old armors," Yuli reminded him, dryly.
Mia coughed a little and said, relieved in more ways than one, "Here come the others!"
Rajura had left his illusory army to gather up a battered Anubisu and Naaza, and brought them to stand with Kayura.
"You're awake!" Rowen exclaimed, clambering over the rubble to reach them, with Kento and Sai and Sage close behind. "What do we need to--holy mother of god." He had just sorted out that it was Yuli, and not Kayura, in the Oni armor.
"Hi, guys!" Yuli said, as though he was not in armor, as though they were not standing in the middle of a battle still to be won.
Kayura rattled her sword before the shocked gurgles could turn into questions. A keening roar from the Kikoutei dragon emphasized her point. "I have spoken to Kaos," she announced.
Everyone went quiet, their attention on her complete.
"At his counsel, and knowing that there was a warrior ready to take up the Oni's chain and the virtue of Loyalty, I have laid it aside forever. In exchange, Kaos bestowed upon me the full inheritance of his power." Kayura reached up and unlatched her helmet. Her hair cascaded down around her shoulders, as white as the first snow of winter. "Warriors, it is time to end this." She lifted her head, and as the warming breeze caught her gleaming hair and spread it out like a pennant, they all went to their knees before her.
"We are yours to command, Lady Kayura," Ryou said.
"Then know that you have put aside your destiny for long enough," Kayura said. "You must shoulder it again. Wildfire. Strata. Halo. Torrent. Hardrock." She walked between them as she spoke, and without a word, they rose and followed her. Down the ragged landscape they went, with the others following at a distance, to where the dragon lay, defeated and straining beneath the Oni's chains. It rolled one eye towards Kayura, and at the warriors behind her, and let out a single, plaintive cry.
"I know," Kayura said, running a small hand over the cruel antlers of the beast. "I will end your suffering." The rings on her sword clanged wildly as she held up the blade. "Brace yourselves!" she cried, and the golden blade thrust down into the dragon's tear-bright eye.
Ryou's heart burst into flames within his breast. The fire licked over him from head to foot, consuming, engulfing. In the wake of the flames there were other sensations, a rush of air, a shiver of lightning, the crushing force of the tide and the slow omnipotence of stone.
Ryou opened his eyes, unaware that he had closed them. The dragon was gone. The soldiers were gone. The netherworld castle stood whole and unblemished against a gilded sky, and all the sakura were blooming. Ryou's armor, like Kayura's hair, was as white and shining as the mirror of the heavens.
As quickly as it had come, it was gone from him; the four elements scattered home until only the fire was left. But as his friends' faces were illuminated in the otherworldly light of their long-lost armor, Ryou knew that, like theirs, it would come again when needed, when called for.
Kikoutei was his once more.