Spring to Come
On their return to the Dynasty, there was change. Nothing they could describe, those first few moments, only difference, rippling on the surface of the dark golden rivers and breathing across their faces as they took off their helmets and shook free their hair.
They, of course, being just the three: Illusion, Venom, Darkness. The Ogre slept in its orb at Kayura's breast, banished at battle's end. Kayura alone was unarmored and untitled. Wearing only her layers of silk and damask, she could feel the ageless netherworld trembling as they passed. Nearly imperceptible, but unmistakable, that sensation of turning. Perhaps there would be seasons, soon. Not forever would Lord Arago's creation hold; winter would give way to spring. The armor she did not wear thrummed within its seal, yet dormant.
Their weapons still sheathed, the Three Warlords walked through the red city gates carrying their helmets like uneasy shields. Kayura did not bother to match their stride, but kept pace just the same. She lifted the staff of the Ancient One in her hands, more walking stick than weapon.
The castle stood empty. All of the Dynasty's lesser minions were gone. Human and spirit alike had fallen in that final battle. Those who did not perish succumbed to their long-denied age-- or, faced with the choice, remembered their humanity and returned to the mortal realm. There was no trace of the netherspirits, not even the taint of their inhuman breath, all of them boiled to nothing with Lord Arago's defeat. Rajura expressed no surprise, but Anubis swore under his breath, his gauntleted fists tightening. Bound for five hundred years by his own obedience, he struggled with it, even now.
Thus vacant, the castle was more than empty; it was as though it had been abandoned for a thousand years, as though the netherspirits' reign had never been.
Everything remained: their pristine paper-screened rooms, their lacquered armor stands, the proud unburning torches in Lord Arago's summoning chamber. But the heart of the place was silent, and still. It was unsettling, there, listening to the clamor of their own beating hearts.
Without warning, the staff grew warm against her bare palm, and she felt her blood respond. The four of them (the three, plus one), did not need to speak to know the danger. Kaos' shakujo was not meant for the netherrealm; such a weapon had been forged to un-make their world. Here in the center of what had been Lord Arago's stronghold, the staff drank thirstily of the netherworld's energy, glowing ever more brightly.
Soundlessly the Three Warlords flanked her: north, west, and south. She nodded. To seal the staff, for safe-keeping, for strength, would take the power of all four of them. But when she touched the ogre armor orb, they flinched as one, and their furious eyes said no.
"You are armed," she said, as Naaza took a slow step closer. "And so should I be."
"You are not our brother." This from Anubis, teeth bared in a jackal grin that was in no way a smile.
Kayura bridled, feeling the hair prickle at the nape of her neck. She had bested them, once, three against one still no match for her starlight swords. Being brother to the Masho would be no compliment. "I was chosen," she said, "just as you were. For my power and my blood."
"But you cannot be a Warlord," Naaza spoke.
"Can I not? Spring comes to my command, and the Ogre has worn my face."
Rajura, the only one who had not yet spoken, bowed his head. "You remind us that we are sundered." Though he did not raise his voice it carried like the tone of a bell, through that high and lonely place. White-haired and solemn, he did not look touched by the netherworld, he simply looked old. "We are three."
"It is not your companionship I want," she told them, cradling the warm sphere and hearing the hush of falling cherryblossoms. "Not your rivalry I seek. I do not measure myself by your loss--"
"But our loss is what we measure you by," Rajura interrupted, calling his weapon to his gauntleted hand. "That armor is not for you."
Three against one, again. Kayura wanted to smile, as they ringed around her, broadsword and snake-hilted blades, besides. Could they not remember that she had gotten the better of them? Were they so blinded by their own selfish lack that they could not see? Her knuckles whitened on the staff. "The armor calls for its bearer. It is not meant for decoration; the yoroi seeks blood and flesh to wear--"
Anubis, this time, speaking as though against a great weight. The no-datchi was steady in his hands, but his eyes were cold. "That yoroi belongs to Sh'ten."
She laughed. She should not have, their hackles rose and their hatred, too. But it was the simplest answer that they did not see; they never could. "Sh'ten gave it to me. See, Warlords, how it comes to my call!"
Call it she did, and it was the first time she summoned it alone. The very first time, donning the armor had been like war: a fearsome battle pitched in the shallow valley of her own skin. The oni yoroi clung to her like new sunburn, like the first blush of awkward love, and the grasp of it felt of a hundred tiny green seedlings, each one greedy to grow and sink its roots deep within. The passage of spring, indeed-- riotous, and vivid. Sh'ten bought her soul with his own, and Badamon burned free of her crucible heart.
This second time it was no easier. Hot and eager it came to her, damask cast aside in bolts of rolling silk, as the armor unfolded itself to her waiting skin. She arched her back, her hair caught up in the motionless wind of it. Springtime-- jealous, insistent, pulsing springtime-- energy enough to cover the whole of the nether world in blooming flowers.
The helmet she shunned; her mind was yet her own. The truth was already beginning to unravel, like the bolts of silk were being pulled to finest thread, to gather and to reweave. Lord Arago was gone from this place, and the nine no longer bore the stain of his ambition. Promises of time to come whispered along the edges of their armor.
Naaza found his tongue first. "You speak fine words, Lady Kayura." He made the title not an insult, but not an honorific, either. "But we have not yet tested your edge."
"Yes," Anubis says, with a movement of his wrist that turned his broadsword from a threat to a menace. "An untested blade is worthless."
"And dangerous." Rajura's good eye was oddly bright, but he neither blinked nor looked away.
The challenge, then; she was unsurprised-- and oddly grateful. This battle was the first thing they had ever agreed upon.
"Prove me, then."
They fought, the four of them, the three plus one; the pull and pulse of the four armors together was less a conflict and more a cooperation. Perhaps the armor, whole and unsundered, had never been designed to fight itself, but the four pieces moved together in synchronous harmony, remembering the proper pacing of things, each season following in sequence. Summer's heat, autumn's sorrow, winter's edge, all balanced with the inevitability of springtime.
With her star-swords, she had bested them once; in the oni yoroi she could not. They gave their all, and perhaps in spite of themselves, all were evenly-matched. Naaza blinked sweat from his eyes, and Rajura's illusions faltered at their edges, spent. With the stubbornness of both Darkness and obedience, Anubis was last to concede, but just as the tip of his blade kissed the hollow of Kayura's throat, he realized that her scythe and chain were wrapped around his sword-arm.
And so it was a draw, and so they stood at compass-points around the ancient shakujo: Kayura standing in the east. The staff subsided to their joined will, its power sealed away for safe-keeping... but not before it spoke to them, in words of fond farewell--
In a voice not of a monk, but of a brother.
The three, minus one, watched her hungrily as she laid the armor to its rest, their eyes too bright, to a man. She had thought them cowards afraid of an enemy, unwilling to face their past. Now, perhaps, she thought she might understand.
It was changeless yet, in the Dynasty, but the turning year was growing nearer. Each of them could feel the promise of spring to come.