Kotoku continued to play soothing
rhythms with the barest whisper of ki infused into the melody, when all of a
sudden Hotohori crumpled.
Everyone got up at once, hurrying to the side of the collapsed emperor. The flute fell from Kotoku’s lips and he stared in horror. No...he’d barely...
"D-daijoubu...Hotohori-sama...?" Kotoku stammered, afraid that Chichiri and Mitsukake – or worse yet, Tasuki – would turn accusing eyes on him, as they bent over the pale-faced emperor. "I—I didn’t mean—"
"He’s fine," Mitsukake assured him, peering into the emperor’s eyes, examining his face carefully, stretching a hand to feel his heartbeat at the joining of neck and ear. "It’s nothing you did, Kotoku."
Hotohori's eyes fluttered open and he looked up into several concerned faces.
"Heika, you’ve been stretching yourself too thin lately no da!" Chichiri told him, and Tama-neko mrewed emphatically.
Hotohori pushed aside long strands of spilled dark hair, and gave them all a faint smile. "I’m fine, really."
Mitsukake gave him a stern look. "Heika-sama, even you must take time out of your busy schedule to care for yourself. What good are you to Konan if you collapse?" The healer supported the emperor as he sat back in his chair.
"Or to yourself for that matter?" Tasuki added bluntly. He stretched an arm up over his head and let out an exaggerated sigh. "Ah~h, you emperors, such self-sacrificing people! I’m surely glad I’m not in your position!" He grinned widely.
"Oi, Tasuki, you’d better be glad Nuriko’s not here to knock you into a wall for saying that," Kotoku teased him, approaching the knot of seishi clustered around the emperor. "Emperor...honto ni daijoubu?"
"Aa," Hotohori responded, giving Kotoku an encouraging smile. "I just don’t seem to have enough time to relax, lately."
"You’re going to make time," Mitsukake informed him, his tone brooking no argument.
"And you should always listen to your healer," Chiriko piped up.
"Correct no da." Chichiri added. "And I know the perfect way. Heika, quite a number of merchants are back from their journeys and have plenty of new goods; we should take tomorrow as a holiday and go into town, na no da."
"Yeah, now that's my kind of fun," Tasuki cried gleefully. "I'll take y'all to the best taverns and urk--!!" Whatever else Tasuki had in mind went unheard as he was pelted with pillows from all directions.
Mitsukake rumbled his agreement to the monk. "Now that's a good idea, Chichiri. Going into town and just relaxing. Your ministers are perfectly capable of taking care of matters that may come up, heika."
Shunkaku watched with trepidation as the seishi ganged up on Hotohori, insisting that he relax. He held his breath as the emperor raised an eyebrow at the others, and expected a sudden explosion of imperial temper.
Then to his surprise, Hotohori just sighed and laughingly surrendered.
"Very well. Who am I to dispute my healer's orders." Hotohori smiled at the big seishi, who gave him a firm nod in return.
"Indeed. You should rest now; I'll prepare a sleeping draught that will ensure a peaceful rest, heika." Mitsukake then looked at the others. "In fact, we should all go to sleep. Tomorrow will be a busy day."
"But fun," Tasuki reminded him. He closed his mouth as more pillows were raised, then scowled at his fellow seishi.
Hotohori looked at the twins. "Both of you are welcome to join us," he invited and smiled at their enthusiastic nods of acceptance.
"Goodnight, everyone." The emperor added as his company wished him pleasant dreams and departed for their own beds.
The next morning, after gathering the dining room for their customary social breakfast, they made their foray into town. Hotohori was last in joining them. He was a bit bemused at his ministers' reactions; they were surprisingly in agreement, with the seishi, insisting that he was within his rights to take a holiday as he wished. Unbeknowst to him, Chichiri and Mitsukake had already approached the ministers and explained what had occurred last night.
Soon, they were off. Heading into town and towards the open market, they were bombarded with cacophony as merchants tried to outcry each other in an effort to hawk their wares.
"Mister! This robe will look great on you!"
"Bah! He cheats! My clothing is the best in Konan!"
"Toys! Buy the greatest toy in the world for your son!"
The twins looked wide-eyed at Mitsukake, who stood next to a giggling Chiriko. They grinned identical, boyish grins as they saw the merchant looking toward Mitsukake and Chiriko, trying to attract their attention. The big seishi, with a twinkle in his eyes, said, "Now, now, nephews. It's not nice laughing at your cousin."
Chiriko, with a mischievous smile on his little face, joined in the fun. "Hn...papa will buy me a new toy, ne, papa? And if you're not nice, I won't let you play with it!"
Tasuki went SD and fell over, shocked that the child genius could and would actually act silly. Hotohori and Chichiri smiled, amused at their playful antics and continued to wander through the market, the others following.
Gradually, they stopped in front of a very large house. They looked with interest at the sign proclaiming the owner was newly returned from Sailo and had new goods: scrolls, instruments, weapons, and more.
"Scrolls?" Chiriko said hopefully, blinking at them with wide, pleading eyes.
"Instruments?" Kotoku added, thinking of his worn old flute. He could at least look for a new one, maybe...
"Weapons!" Tasuki exclaimed enthusiastically. "&*^% yeah!"
They entered and the owner, a large, jovial fellow greeted them cheerfully. "Ah, good sirs. Welcome. Please...we have everything you'll ever need and plenty you've never seen. Feel free to wander around my humble home. I brought back so much goods that they've filled up every room in my house."
"You don't seem to have any customers," Hotohori observed, looking around the large front room they were in and hearing only silence in the house.
"Yes, you are the first ones." The merchant beamed. "I just opened for the day. Please look to your hearts' content. My boys are out in the market telling everyone I'm back, but will be home soon to help you." He bowed.
The group took the merchant up on his offer and begin to wander through the house. They found most of the goods interesting but found nothing they really wanted to buy, especially Hotohori. After all, when one is the emperor, one does not lack for well crafted and unique goods, even those from another country. They started back down the stairs, deciding to head back to the market.
However, as they walked, the stairs seemed to go on forever. The house seemed to resound with unearthly quiet, like they were the only living creatures in the entire place, or the entire city for that matter – no sounds reached from outside. After an endless amount of time, it seemed, they finally reached the ground floor and when they turned in the direction of the front room, they found themselves in the back.
"Ne…I thought this led to the front door." Tasuki scratched his head in puzzlement.
"So did I," Kotoku added, frowning.
"Well, this house is a bit large. Let's just go the other way...it should lead to the front door then." Hotohori was feeling a little uneasy though. Long accustomed to a palace with mazes for corridors, Hotohori was a bit suspicious that they could have gotten lost so easily.
They retraced their steps, and finally arrived in what should be the front entrance, but instead, looked like the library – but that room was upstairs! Again they retraced their steps and again found another impossibility – some kind of kitchen, where the back entrance had been.
More and more, they found rooms where they shouldn't be. Extremely worried and wary, Hotohori gripped the hilt of his sword and Tasuki warily pulled out his tessen; Chichiri raised his staff slightly and was on guard, bringing up the rear of the group. The others had no weapons aside from their eating daggers so the three armed seishi walked with Mitsukake, Chiriko, Kotoku and Shunkaku in the middle.
Kotoku and Shunkaku both froze suddenly.
"Nani!?" Tasuki demanded irritably as he almost trod on Shunkaku.
"I'm not sure," Kotoku was troubled.
"It almost felt—it was!" Shunkaku exclaimed.
Kotoku's eyes opened wide as he realized what he and his twin sensed. "It – it’s the ki of a Seiryuu seishi!"
"Very well then...everyone, be ready for anything." Hotohori warned them grimly.
This time, Hotohori took the lead, walking unerringly in one direction.
"Er…Hotohori? Do you know where you’re going?" Tasuki queried doubtfully.
"Hai," Hotohori responded shortly, a frown of concentration centered between his brows. The Sea Snake character on the side of his neck began to gleam. "This way."
No one else objected since they were all turned around, anyway. They followed the emperor as he led them a winding path through the bewildering store. He finally approached a wall, frowning severely, and held up his deity sword – and to their astonishment, the sword began to glow fiercely red, as the wall rippled.
"Tomo!" Shunkaku gasped, but Kotoku merely looked confused.
The wall continued to melt and shift in front of their eyes, as Hotohori focused his concentration, and the main door abruptly snapped into view. Before they could reach it, however, the air rippled again and to unbelieving eyes, numerous daggers shot through the air, straight at them.
"Heika!" Chichiri cried out helplessly, at the back of the group. With his view partially blocked, he couldn't use his magic to shield those in front, especially the emperor.
Hotohori, right in the path of the daggers, moved so quickly that his sword flashed like lightning. Before Chichiri could move to the front to add his strength, even before Tasuki could rekka shinen, the deity sword flared an intense red, and the hurtling deadly daggers all bounced off the ki barrier the sword produced.
The air flickered once more, and a soft menacing laughter was heard throughout the entire store – which blurred and melted to reveal it was, in fact, a large empty warehouse.
The strange laughter continued, a deep-throated, insane-sounding cackle, curling around the seishi, who tightened their hands on their weapons, closing in even more protectively around their unarmed companions.
"An illusion master," Chiriko called out.
"It’s Tomo," Shunkaku shuddered convulsively. Kotoku touched his arm reassuringly.
In swift cutting leaps, several black clad assassins appeared in a blur.
"All right! Finally some $#^*& action!" Tasuki grinned enthusiastically, stepping forward.
Hotohori and Chichiri stepped forward with determined expressions.
The black-clothed assassins, even though they exceeded the small group in numbers, were still no match for the seishi. In short order, they were dispatched by sword, tessen and magic. Hotohori led the others past the bodies and opened the door. To their relief, it was the correct one.
"Yokatta," Chiriko said with relief, clinging unobtrusively to Tasuki’s hand, who regarded the youngest seishi with a peculiarly softened expression, and didn’t shake him free.
Shaken, they returned to the palace, subdued and no longer in the mood for casual shopping. Hotohori summoned his ministers and the captain of the guards as soon as they arrived, warning them that a Seiryuu seishi and possibly other assassins had infiltrated the capital.
"This is all our fault," Kotoku said miserably, as soon as the emperor had dismissed his retainers. "If we weren’t here...if we hadn’t gone into town with you, even...you wouldn’t have been attacked!"
"Nonsense," Hotohori said briskly. "We’ve been at risk from assassins ever since Kutou discovered Seiryuu no Miko, pitting us against them in this race to see who can summon their animal god first."
"And they’re after us because of that," Kotoku continued stubbornly.
Mitsukake clapped a hand to his shoulder, reassuringly. "Kotoku, there is nothing to guarantee we wouldn’t have been attacked, even if you weren’t with us."
"That’s right!" Chiriko added brightly. "If they manage to kill one of us, they know it would deeply affect Miaka’s performance in her duties as Miko."
Kotoku sighed, not completely convinced. Shunkaku put a protective arm around his brother, but he was troubled for another reason. He couldn’t shake the feeling that the Seiryuu seishi was here specifically for them...and he knew that their opponent would not simply stop with one failed attempt.
It was late afternoon and the day was waning rapidly by the time the Sou family and their companions reached the capital. As they rode over the last hill, the Sou family was astonished at the view that greeted them. The capital of Konan was spread across the landscape, a huge panoramic view of houses, shops and temples, gardens and parks...all very decorative and surrounded by a very functional, protective wall. And in the center of the city, the palace sprawled like an ornamental jewel, elegant and imposing.
"Wow! It's so big!" Chuei's eyes were huge in surprise.
Yuiren’s eyes widened to the fullest extent, and she opened her mouth, then blinked up at Tamahome, tugging on his tunic, pointing wordlessly at the capital.
Tamahome laughed, a happy sound, and scooped Yuiren up into his arms.
Miaka smiled happily where she walked with Gyokuran’s little hand clutched in hers. Tamahome had been in such bright spirits since the reunion with his family, and knowing that steps were being taken to ensure their safety.
"Niisan! Don’t they get lost in there? It’s HUGE!" Yuiren finally piped up, feeling a bit more assured in Tamahome’s arms.
Tamahome chuckled. "It looks huge from out here and when you're on the inside, it's just as immense and very overwhelming. Oyaji – you’ll enjoy the apartment that Hotohori-sama has set aside for the family. They’re all very nice, but I’m sure he picked something special."
"Heika-sama is very generous, Tamahome," Sou senior replied from where he sat in the wagon. "I don't know how we'll ever repay him."
Nuriko waved aside his concern, "Oi, oi, now don't worry, Sou-san. Tamahome is a seishi and as such, is a member of our little family. His family is our family, ne?" Nuriko gave Sou senior a charming grin to which the man couldn’t help but respond. "Of course the emperor would want to make sure everyone is taken care of! This way, Tamahome won't worry so much when we leave for Hokkan. Ne, Tamahome?"
Soon, they approached the gates and rode their way through the winding streets toward the palace. After being checked by the guards and waved through, Tamahome led everyone toward the courtyard closest to the family's new apartment. Hotohori had told him two days ago which one he would prepare for their arrival. Servants came out and helped the Sou family bring in their belongings.
Nuriko was a bit troubled. It may have been his imagination but there seemed to be more guards around the palace than normal. Glancing at Tamahome, he saw his fellow seishi frown. Their eyes met and then both looked toward Miaka. Tamahome shook his head
imperceptibly. Nuriko decided to hold back voicing his thoughts as well.
After everyone washed and changed clothing, the three led the Sou family toward the seishi's dining room to meet with the rest of their group for supper. Entering the room, the party found all of the others already gathered. Sou senior approached Hotohori with his son.
Tamahome and Sou senior knelt and bowed their head to the emperor. "Heika, my deepest gratitude for your generosity."
Hotohori smiled, "No thanks are needed, Sou-san. I'm honored to be able to help my fellow shichiseishi. Please, get up. You must be hungry after your long journey."
"I know I am!" Miaka exclaimed enthusiastically, as everyone sat around the table. "Itadekimasu!"
The assembled seishi, and the twins, shared a very large sweatdrop.
Yuiren tumbled into a seat next to Tamahome, chattering happily about the *wonderful* rooms that heika-sama had given them, and the pretty birds in the courtyard outside.
"And the gardens!" Gyokuran added enthusiastically, brushing bangs out of her eyes as she lifted up her chopsticks. "Oh, they’re so pretty! It looks like a hundred little men take care of it, every bush is shaped just perfect!"
Hotohori chuckled. "I’m sure my gardeners would be happy to hear that."
"Was it a safe trip no da?" Chichiri asked Nuriko, seated behind him and making wide googly eyes at Hotohori, across the table from him.
"H-hai..." Nuriko said dreamily, his eyes starry. "Oh, Hotohori-sama, I’ve been away from you for too long! Your beauty stuns me once more with its brilliance!"
"As it should," Hotohori sighed, brushing back his long tresses and smiling very slightly at the compliment.
Everyone assembled fell over, sweatbeads clustered at their foreheads.
"Still—as vain—as ever," Tamahome managed, as he sat up.
"But so justified," Nuriko swooned.
Chuei tugged at Nuriko’s sleeve. "Oi. Aren’t you a boy like me?"
Yuiren and Gyokuran went into peals of silvery laughter. "Nuriko loves heika-sama! Nuriko loves heika-sama!" they chanted gleefully.
The twins watched all of this, sharing a wistful pang between them. Kotoku grasped his brother’s arm reassuringly, as if to remind him that they would always have each other for family. But both of them nonetheless missed the closeness and sheer innocent joy that had once been theirs, a long time ago before Kutou civil swords had rent their lives apart. Seeing Tamahome’s family made them long for a life that had never existed for them, growing up in the happiness and warmth of a true family.
Silently, Shunkaku slipped an arm around Kotoku’s waist and hugged him in return.
After dinner, the children began to yawn. The three youngest had gradually subsided, wide-eyed, during the rest of the meal as the seishi bantered back and forth and Tasuki started yet another fight with Tamahome. At that point all four children had leapt up and thrown themselves at the fiery-haired bandit, scared but nonetheless determined to protect niisan. Tasuki, buried hip-high in wide-eyed children, had subsided back into his seat wordlessly with a strange look on his face.
"Arigato gozeimasu once more, heika-sama," Sou senior repeated, for the fifth time that evening, as Chuei ushered his siblings down the hall, then he turned to follow his family.
Hotohori smiled after the departing Sou family, and the twins watched them go with identical expressions of barely-concealed longing.
"Hey, Tama. Ya missed a good fight today," Tasuki smirked. "We kicked ^$#$% butt today!"
"Stop calling me Tama!" Tamahome yelled, his face turning red. Then he paused. "What are you talking about, Tasuki?"
"What!?" Nuriko burst out. "Is that why there are more guards around, Hotohori-sama? What's going on around here?"
The emperor frowned. "There are Seiryuu seishi in Eiyo. During a trip into town today, we were unexpectedly attacked by assassins – after being assaulted by some kind of illusion. Both Kotoku and Shunkaku felt the ki of a Seiryuu seishi."
"Is everyone all right?" Miaka exclaimed, her face worried. "Did all of you go into town?"
"Daijoubu, Miaka-san," Chichiri assured her. "We all went, even the twins no da. Heika-sama was supposed to have a day of rest after his collapse—" here he eyed Hotohori sternly, "—but it didn’t turn out that way, na no da!"
"Hotohori!" Nuriko exclaimed, rushing to his side. "Daijoubu!?"
"You collapsed?" Miaka added her concern. "Hotohori, are you all right?"
"Daijoubu, daijoubu," Hotohori waved aside their alarm with some embarrassment. "I’m fine. I got a day free of the court, after all...and some fresh air and exercise." He smiled disarmingly.
"What’s this about the Seiryuu seishi?" Tamahome demanded, intent on the heart of the matter.
"Hai, we were trapped in some kind of illusion no da," Chichiri explained. "Fortunately heika-sama was able to lead us to the correct door, or we would have been lost in the maze of rooms. They changed without warning no da!"
Shunkaku explained, "Seiryuu seishi Tomo is a master illusionist. He has a shin which can trap the unwary in the most believable illusion. Nakago must have sent him after us." He shuddered a little, and Kotoku put a comforting arm around his otouto.
"Kotoku," Chiriko said thoughtfully, "You didn't seem to recognize this Tomo."
"No," Kotoku frowned. "I knew Nagako had gathered most of the seishi but he never introduced the others before I left for Konan."
Shunkaku added, "And no one, except maybe Nakago, knows what he looks like. He usually wears an elaborate costume with feathers and paints his face...it's supposed to symbolize something." He shrugged.
"What should we do?" Miaka exclaimed, looking nervous. Tamahome put a comforting arm around her.
Hotohori sighed. "There’s not much we can do, other than stay alert until your departure tomorrow. I spoke with the captain of the guards, and there is increased security around the seishi quarters, and your room, Miaka."
"And I will keep watch for part of the night no da," Chichiri added with a nod.
"Count me in!" Tasuki added fiercely.
"I’ll do it too," Tamahome added resolutely.
Hours later, most of the occupants of the palace had all settled down for the night. The only noises heard were the pacing of the guards down corridors and the chirping of crickets outside.
As the fading echoes of the guards' pacing died off, several shadows slipped from where they were hugging the walls and flitted along the hallways, intent on reaching their destination.
Just as they reached the apartments, a pair of guards came across the shadows. Their cries of alarm choked off as they collapsed, knives buried in their bodies.
"What the #%#$@ was that," Tasuki yelled, streaking out of his room. He was tensely alert, and had slept in that light state of almost-awareness that preceded true sleep. His exclamation roused the others, who soon joined him in the hall.
"Nani, no da?"
"What’s going on?" Mitsukake added, rubbing at his eyes. He’d grabbed a large staff from somewhere, determined to be prepared after the unexpected attack earlier.
"Where's Hotohori-sama?" Nuriko was alarmed. He looked around, "And Chiriko?"
"He still may be in the library," Mitsukake rumbled knowingly.
"Hmm...I don't feel that either one is in danger no da," Chichiri concentrated. "The cries came from--"
"No!" Tamahome realized in a flash where the direction of the cries came from. He took off at a dead run, "oni" flaring on his forehead, leaving the other seishi puzzled until they realized that the direction was where the Sou family had been given quarters. Quickly, they all ran after Tamahome.
Hotohori closed the door to his study and sighed as he walked toward his rooms. His fellow seishi meant well but he couldn't just leave matters as they were. He had so many urgent responsibilities requiring his review and approval. His ministers helped him as much as they could to a certain point, but the final decisions were up to him.
Hotohori was pensive; Kotou was encroaching more and more every day. As much as he knew he should take care of his health, what good would it do if he had no country to govern over? His people came first.
Rounding a corner, Hotohori nearly walked into a small figure. "Nani?"
"A—ayah! Pardon, heika." Chiriko blinked at the emperor, flushing a little. "I wasn't watching where I was walking."
"You're up late." Hotohori smiled at the youngest seishi. "Lost track of time in the library again?"
The two continued down the hall, talking softly as to not disturb the sleeping occupants of the rooms they were passing. To their surprise, they soon ran into a group of guards.
"Heika-sama!!" The guards halted and bowed. "Sir! You shouldn't be wandering the hallways alone. May we escort you to your quarters?"
"Nani? What's going on?" Hotohori demanded.
One guard stepped forward, "We don't know, heika. It was reported that two guards were killed...their bodies were found in the hallway near the family quarters. Several guards have been sent there and the shichiseishi were also seen running in that direction. We're patrolling this section but it's all quiet here."
"Family quarters?" Chiriko looked up at the emperor.
"The Sou family!" Both Hotohori and Chiriko realized that the same time why the seishi must have gone.
The two rushed down the hallway, leaving the guards behind.
Suboshi woke slowing, body aching and head throbbing. He cracked open an eye and saw his twin lying beside him. With a cry, he jerked upright and nearly passed out from the nausea and pain that slammed into him at the sudden injudicious movement. He ignored his own body and gathered Amiboshi into his arms.
His twin was unconscious; body broken and bleeding...Amiboshi had been beaten badly. Frightened at barely feeling his brother through their link, he shook Amiboshi as gently as he could. "Aniki...wake up. Aniki!" He was beginning to panic.
"So, you're awake," a smooth, but sinister voice said bluntly.
At the familiarity of the voice, Suboshi looked up and saw Nakago before him. To the side, Tomo and Soi were just beginning to pick themselves off the ground; both brushing themselves off and straightening their clothes...Tomo making a moue of distaste at the dust on his hands. They were in the palace in Kotou!
"Wha- what happened? How did we get here?" Suboshi looked around wildly.
"Your attempt at rescuing Amiboshi nearly failed," Tomo sneered. "The Suzaku seishi were too much for you."
". . . . ."
Soi stared down at the uncomprehending Suboshi and raised an eyebrow. "Did that knock on the head make you forget?" she sighed. "Amiboshi infiltrated the Suzaku seishi but was captured and tortured. You went to rescue him but fell into a trap instead."
Nakago was impassive, "Had I not sent Tomo and Soi after you, both of you would have been dead. What good would that have done, Suboshi? You would have failed Seiryuu no Miko."
"I- I can't remember..." Suboshi tried to focus his mind but all he could see was his brother. He desperately tried to reach out to feel his brother's ki...it was there but oh, so faint.
The shogun sighed in annoyance. "Suboshi!"
The young seishi jumped. "H-hai, Nakago-sama."
"Fine. Go settle your brother in his room and have the healers take a look at him. Then report to me. I want to know what happened." Nakago's eyes narrowed, spearing through Suboshi, making him shudder in sudden fear.
"Hai." Suboshi gently lifted his brother in his arms and left the room.
In short order, a healer was summoned and Amiboshi taken care of. Suboshi paced the entire time, worried about his brother and confused at what had happened. He ground his teeth in frustration...what'd happened? Why couldn't he remember?
"Well?" Suboshi demanded. "Will aniki be alright?"
"No." The healer spoke reluctantly. Suboshi's eyed narrowed in anger and he swallowed in fear. "Amiboshi-san is in a coma. His body could not stand such trauma. There's nothing further I can do for him," he whined.
"Trauma? What trauma? What caused his injuries?" Suboshi practically snarled at the hapless healer. "When will he wake up?"
The physician gulped, quaking in his shoes, "H-he was beaten and tortured. And he was probably chained as well...his wrists bore the marks of cuffs. A-and only Kami-sama knows when he'll wake...h-he may never wake."
Hotohori and Chiriko walked swiftly, their soft soled shoes not making any noise. Chiriko panted as he was nearly running to keep up with the long strides the emperor was taking. He barely avoided bumping into Hotohori as the latter stopped abruptly.
Hotohori whispered, "Hush. Something is wrong...there is an evil presence nearby."
Chiriko looked around in fear and moved closer to the emperor. Hotohori placed a reassuring hand on Chiriko's shoulder as he concentrated. He looked toward the room on his left and realized it was the Bo twins' sleeping chamber. He frowned.
"Chiriko. I want you to go back and find those guards; bring them back here. There are Seiryuu seishi in the palace. I think the twins are in danger."
"But heika, what are you going to do?" Chiriko protested in a soft voice.
Hotohori considered the question for a second then smiled a bit crookedly. "...Provide a distraction. Go, Chiriko. Hayaku."
"Hai." Chiriko was still a bit scared but quickly set out to find the guards. He couldn't stop the emperor from what appeared to be a rash decision but he could hurry and bring back help. Chiriko rushed back the way the two had come.
Hotohori walked toward the door and jerked it open. He was angered to see one of the twins on the ground, bleeding from a gash on his forehead. The other twin--Shunkaku--was standing frozen, staring blankly. In front of him was a shadowy figure, hand holding... something.
The shadow whirled around as the sudden light spilled into the dark room. It hissed. "Impossible. No one should have sensed anything!"
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" Hotohori demanded. "Release Shunakaku from your spell."
The shadow stared at the intruder, then stepped forward into the light. Hotohori then saw before him a strange figure, who had an elaborately painted face. Tomo...the illusion master...he realized who stood before him.
Tomo glared back at the slender person in front of him. Then, his eyes narrowed as he took in the elegant robes...only royalty wore such clothing. Tomo realized with some surprise that the person he confronted was the Suzaku seishi Hotohori...Emperor Saihetei no less!
He laughed cruelly.
Suboshi was numb. His brother couldn't be dying...he couldn't! Aniki had to wake soon. Amiboshi...he’d always been the strong one, aniki had always protected him. This couldn’t be happening...
Unseeing, he walked toward Nakago's strategy room. He came to a halt as he entered; looking up, he saw the shogun glaring at him.
"Tomo and Soi have informed me of what happened in Konan. What have you to say for yourself?"
Suboshi stuttered, "I don't know what happened, Nakago-sama. I don't even know what's going on!"
He jumped and spun around. Suboshi blinked in startlement and confusion. What...where was he? Where was the palace? Why was he in an open field?
"Stop standing there like an idiot, Suboshi!" Soi demanded. "The enemy is approaching. Get into position like Nakago-sama ordered!"
Suboshi wanted to clutch his head and scream in frustration. What was going on?!
Hotohori wanted to wince at the insane laughter. He started to move toward Tomo when he realized that he was unarmed. Damn! He'd left his sword in his rooms.
The emperor ducked as a slew of feathers from Tomo's headress shot out at him. Shimatta! Chiriko had better arrive with reinforcements soon, Hotohori thought grimly. As for his idea of a distraction, it was indeed a rash decision.
He threw himself to the side but it was too late. The feathers snaked around arms, legs, torso and neck, holding him immobilized. Hotohori struggled but could find no slack in his bonds. Trapped – his efforts useless – and Tomo uttered his sinister chuckle once more, eyes alight with an evil gleam of anticipation.
He and the others were facing an army...from the colors and banners, it was an army from Konan-koku. He looked behind him and saw Kotou's army...to his side was Tomo and Soi and beyond them was Nakago, dressed in his spiky-shouldered battle armor. A horn sounded and the army charged.
Suboshi blinked again.
He stood in the middle of a bloody battlefield. Hundreds of bodies littered the ground as carrion birds circled lazily above.
...How!?... Had he been consumed by some berserker rage? The battle was over now, but he didn’t remember any of it!
Soldiers held a struggling figure. He was without a helmet, his bejeweled armor broken in places and blood streaked.
Nakago strode up and stopped beside Suboshi. "So," he gloated quietly. "We have captured no less than Konan's emperor."
The shogun glanced at the younger seishi. "Well, Suboshi. Now is your chance to avenge your brother. Here is Emperor Saihetei, also known as the Suzaku shichiseishi Hotohori. He is responsible for the torture of Amiboshi."
He then bowed mockingly to his captive. "Welcome, heika. I am--"
"Kotou's shogun," his captive spat out, "or the Seiryuu seishi Nakago. Damn you for all eternity."
Nakago smiled, impervious to his prisoner's anger. "And I would like to introduce you to Suboshi. His twin, Amiboshi, was your guest. Suboshi is not at all happy with the hospitality you showed his brother...ne, Suboshi?"
Hotohori glared at the Seiryuu seishi. "He deserved the punishment. For the murder of our Suzaku no Miko, his sentence was death."
Suboshi felt like he was losing his mind. His aniki was badly injured and in a coma. He had gaps in his own memory. Now everything was blurring by so fast, he couldn't comprehend what was going on or what was happening to him. But at Hotohori's words, his head snapped up. Suboshi's confusion turned into rage. This was the man responsible for his aniki's injuries. His beloved aniki, who would never wake up...
With a thought, Suboshi summoned his ryuseisui. The deadly weapon whirled about his shoulders, coiling in seemingly innocent loops, as he began to stalk forward.
"Yes." Nakago crooned hypnotically. "Kill Hotohori. Avenge your brother."
Hotohori choked briefly as his struggles just tightened the bonds around his neck. His eyes were drawn to Shunkaku as the young man began to move; to his horror, the ryuseisui appeared.
"Shunkaku," he called out desperately. "You're in an illusion...Tomo is controlling you! What you're seeing is just in your mind; it's not real. Shunkaku--"
Whatever else he planned to say choked off as Tomo jerked the feathers tight around his captive's throat. "Kakakaka!! You're too late. He's so far deep in the maboroshi that he'll never escape. His mind will fragment first before I let him out. The traitor,"
Tomo sneered, "will suffer too before we bring him back to Kotou."
Sharp as a striking snake, Shunkaku snapped his weapon forward. As the ryuseisui darted at him, Hotohori concentrated his will, lips forming a silent prayer to Suzaku for strength. With a flare, his deity sword appeared, the ki forming a barrier that the
ryuseisui bounced off of. Quickly, the emperor summoned the sword to him; grasping the hilt awkwardly, he twisted his hand and started to strike off the bands that imprisoned him.
Again, both the whirling ryuseisui and striking feathers were thrown at him. He backed up and parried desperately. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Kotoku stirring on the floor. Hotohori hoped that the elder Bo twin wasn't in the maboroshi as well; he needed some backup.
Head spinning, Kotoku brought up a hand shakily to his forehead, his hand coming away red. What happened? he wondered fuzzily. He looked up blearily at the figures moving in his room. With a sharp frisson that charged down his spine, his head cleared as he realized to his shock that his otouto and a stranger were attacking the emperor!
Kotoku forced himself to focus on the stranger. The man wore long flowing robes...an antique general’s headdress, and some strangely-colored theatre makeup. From his twin's description and the ki he felt, Kotoku identified the stranger as Tomo. He groaned internally, wondering what illusion his brother was trapped in. Well, it didn't matter now...his main concern was to free his twin and aid the emperor. Through the pounding in his head, he concentrated on his link and called to his twin.
Suboshi was furious. Somehow, Hotohori had freed himself and had grabbed a sword from one of his captors. He jumped forward again, striking out with his ryuseisui. He snarled as his attack was blocked once again.
Abruptly, he stopped and blinked. Something was tickling the back of his mind.
. . .!?. . .
Suddenly, his link to his twin flared to life. *Shun-chan. Otouto. Wake up!!*
Wake up? Suboshi was confused. *Nani? Aniki?* Wasn’t aniki the one who had to wake up? Sudden tears stung his eyes. Aniki wasn’t going to wake up...
*Shunkaku! Tomo has you in his maboroshi!* The voice was weak but the message, and the urgency, came through clearly.
Suboshi was alarmed. *Illusion?* he faltered...
Tomo whirled around to face the traitor as he felt his illusion losing power. He created clones and sent those plus more feathered barbs at the emperor to occupy him; he then concentrated on his shin...Suboshi would not escape.
Shunkaku dropped to his knees and clutched his head. The ryuseisui disappeared as he lost his concentration. His head was whirling as fast as his weapons did...he was so confused. He squeezed his eyes shut. "No..." he moaned. "Stop..."
His brother's voice in his mind's ear warred with what he saw. Then reality blinked in and out. He saw the battlefield and Hotohori fighting against Tomo...then he saw a darkened room, the only light spilling in from the hallway. The emperor was a short distance away, fighting against--
Shunkaku blinked in disbelief. The emperor was faced with six Tomos!
At the mental shout, he froze. Then the shifting scenes melted away but he was still in his room. He looked around wildly and saw his brother on the floor beside the bed.
"Aniki!" To his horror, Kotoku was bleeding badly from a head wound. He started toward his twin.
"No...Shun-chan." Kotoku gasped in pain. "Help Hotohori-sama..."
Now Tomo faced Hotohori alone. The emperor, with his shinken, had destroyed all the clones; the deity sword glowed molten red, reflecting Hotohori's fury.
Tomo figured that the traitor would be too occupied with his twin; he would be able to concentrate on killing the Suzaku seishi then take care of the twins. However, he was wrong...very wrong.
Shunkaku charged Tomo with a cry of anger. "K'so! Tomo, you bastard!!"
However, that very cry warned the illusionist and Tomo was able to duck Shunkaku's blow. Tomo's jump placed him near the door he regained his balance and whirled to face his foes, to see both Hotohori and the traitor advancing. Deciding that discretion was the
better part of valor, Tomo ran out of the twin's room. He jumped over the railing into the courtyard below.
Hotohori and Shunkaku raced out only to throw themselves aside as a blast of lightening struck the spot the two had just stood. They ducked for cover as continuous bolts rained down and destroyed railings and roof. Finally there was silence and as the debris and
dust settled, they saw two figures jumping over the palace walls, then disappear. As they stood and dusted themselves off, Hotohori and Shunkaku could hear the shouts of the guards and the pounding of feet, running toward them.
Shunkaku paled and gasped, running back into the room. "Aniki!"
As Hotohori began to follow, Chichiri and the rest of the seishi ran around the corner just as Chiriko and guards came around the other. The emperor sighed...if they'd only arrived earlier. The runners all came to a skidding halt, staring in disbelief at the destruction and the emperor, who still held the deity sword.
"Hotohori-sama, what happened?"
"#@&$...I missed another fight!"
"Minna, daijoubu, no da!?"
Hotohori motioned for silence. He ordered the guards to check the palace and walls for any sign of the Seiryuu seishi and begin clearing the debris. He then faced his fellow seishi.
"It was Tomo and another Seiryuu seishi. They were after the twins," he informed them tersely, walking back into the room. "What happened, Tamahome? Is your family all right?"
"Hai, Hotohori-sama." Tamahome said with relief. "The attackers were just toying with my family...damn them to hell," he added bitterly. "They frightened the children badly."
"They were waiting for us, I'd say." Nuriko put in. Then he grinned, dusting off his hands. "We took care of them!"
Chichiri agreed. "From the looks of things here, I believe they were only a distraction no da. The twin seemed to be the main objective na no da."
Inside, they saw Shunkaku kneeling on the ground, cradling his brother against his chest and trying to staunch the bleeding.
Hotohori gestured to Mitsukake and the healer nodded, moving at once toward the twins.
"Here," he rumbled. "Allow me, please." Shunkaku was trembling as he gently passed Kotoku to the seishi healer.
Mitsukake healed with gash then lifted Kotoku, placing him back on the bed and covering him up. "You'll be alright. Head wounds like this look worse than they actually are...it's just messy. But you need to rest, Kotoku-kun." This last was said quite firmly.
"Hai...arigatou, Mitsukake-san..." he yawned sleepily. "Heika, is everyone alright?"
"Daijoubu. Everyone is fine. Rest." Hotohori reassured him.
Shunkaku watched his brother fall asleep. He then faced the others, his heart was hammering so hard, he thought it'd burst.
"Gomen," he faltered. "Gomen nasai."
Hotohori smiled wearily at him. "It's alright, Shunkaku. No one blames you. The illusion was very strong. I have never faced anything like that before. What did you see in the illusion?"
Shunkaku was too ashamed to look at the Suzaku seishi in the eyes. How could he have been so weak as to fall so easily into Tomo's trap? He was disgusted with himself. Taking a deep breath, Shunkaku hesitantly told his story, taking care to keep his voice low as to not disturb his aniki's slumber.
"I’m sorry," he repeated miserably when he was finished with his tale. "I’m truly, truly sorry, heika-sama...I could have killed you! In the mabaroshi...I wanted to kill you. Gomen nasai..."
"Shunkaku-kun..." Chiriko approached him, his young face troubled. "You’re being too hard on yourself; this is what Tomo intended you to feel. He saw an opportunity once Hotohori showed up to eliminate a Suzaku obstacle, and not-so-incidentally the most powerful person in Konan. It’s not your fault you were swept up in his illusion!"
"I—I should have suspected," he said stubbornly.
Tamahome was regarding him thoughtfully, arms folded. "Shunkaku, Tomo used the bond closest to your heart – your love for your brother, and fear for his safety – he twisted it to manipulate you. I might’ve done the same thing, if it were Chuei, or Yuiren-chan, or Gyokuran..." He stopped, looking tremendously relieved. "But they weren’t hurt tonight. No one was hurt permanently. You broke free of his illusion."
"I’m still indebted to you," Shunkaku murmured, casting a last glance at Hotohori.
"And you will discharge the debt by taking my place on this journey to Hokkan," Hotohori replied, giving him a nod.
"Which we are leaving for tomorrow, no da!" Chichiri added, holding up a finger. "So everyone should go to bed!"
Tasuki yawned widely. "Sounds good to me."
They said their goodnights to Shunkaku, and filed out one by one. Hotohori gave the abashed young man one last encouraging smile.
"And where is Miaka, anyway?" he heard Tasuki rumbling as the seishi wandered back down the hallway.
"Oh you know her..." Nuriko sighed. "Wrapped up fast in sleep; divine Suzaku himself descending from the skies in a pillar of red light couldn’t wake her right now..."
Shunkaku chuckled as he settled back on the bed, to sleep and prepare for their departure.
The Suzaku seishi left the twins’ chamber, discussing the night's events.
As they approached his apartments, Hotohori stumbled; he was exhausted. The fight, especially summoning the deity sword, had drained his small reserves. Nuriko, who had been walking beside him, shot out an arm and steadied the emperor until he regained his balance.
"Hotohori-sama?" the purple-haired seishi said with great concern.
"I'm fine...just tired, thank you, Nuriko." He smiled at them. "Minna, please get some rest. You're all leaving tomorrow with the noon tide so you should sleep well tonight." As he closed his door, he nodded to the seishi. "Goodnight. Sweet dreams."
The rest of the seishi echoed his goodnights as they scattered, each going back to his bed. Tomorrow would indeed be a busy day. Tomorrow, they would be off to find the shinzaho.
"Kotoku-kun...Kotoku, wake up!" Someone was shaking him.
Kotoku stirred and blinked sleepily. Mitsukake was squatting beside him, smiling slightly as the blond boy aimed blurry eyes at him. "Whuzzat?"
"We’re breaking camp in fifteen minutes. You may want to eat first," he informed him indulgently.
"Oh..." Kotoku stretched widely, jaw snapping shut after he’d finished his yawn. Reluctantly he got up out of the warm cocoon of his sleeping roll.
It had been a harrowing two weeks, but finally they’d made it to Hokkan-koku. Soi had tried to sink their ship with her uncanny control over lightning and storms, but the deity sword Hotohori had lent to Miaka had manifested the most incredible protective powers, and even after Nuriko, Miaka, and Tamahome had fallen overboard they had managed to rescue them, while Kotoku drove Soi away with his flute.
Now they were approaching Hokkan’s capital, and all the Suzaku seishi were excited or cheerful over the prospect of finally acquiring the Shinzaho, their journey’s end.
Kotoku was getting uneasy, the more time increased between the last attempt on their lives. He just knew Nakago was plotting something up his sleeve. He could feel it. He wasn’t going to let them go, especially not after they and the Suzaku seishi had humiliated the name of Seiryuu in foiling their recapture attempt.
He sighed as he rolled up his bedding and headed for his horse, and Shunkaku glanced over at him, catching the twinge of uneasiness. Kotoku smiled at him reassuringly, but otouto’s eyes were still troubled – he was worried, too.
Once they reached the capital, they split into groups to search for clues as to the whereabouts of the Shinzaho, and Kotoku and Shunkaku, inseparable as always, elected to go with Miaka, Tamahome, and Nuriko. They wandered from the tavern gradually towards the center of town. It was snowing outside, and Kotoku and Shunkaku chased each other up the street, lobbing snowballs at each other like children again.
A particularly large one hit Tamahome in the face with a splat and they looked around, eyes rounded. Nuriko grinned, and broke into a run when he saw the look on Tamahome’s face.
They burst into a wide, open market square.
"Hey! Come look at this!" Nuriko yelled, newly-shorn purple hair bobbing as he ran towards a large monument.
They hurried to join Nuriko by the monument.
"Funny-looking writing," Shunkaku observed, and Kotoku smacked his arm playfully.
"We can see that, baka," he teased. Shunkaku made a face at him.
"Oi. If we can’t read it, you know it has to be a clue," Nuriko suggested, with a perfectly straight face.
"Waaah, Nuriko—" Miaka began, then spotted an old woman near the monument. "Ne, ’baasan, can you tell us what this monument says?"
"Iiie. That writing was discontinued two hundred years ago!" the old woman responded, eyeing them strangely. "Only scholars can read it."
They slumped a little, out of ideas.
"Maybe we should let off one of the flares, and have Chiriko see what he can do..." Kotoku suggested doubtfully.
"Well, I guess—" Tamahome began, when they were interrupted.
"Oi. My father is a scholar," said a sly-looking young man, approaching them. He smiled. "I can take you to him..."
Miaka cheerfully began to follow. "Oh, that would be great--!"
Shunkaku grasped her arm, and she halted, frowning at him. "Eh?" He shook his head.
Nuriko offered to follow the questionable young man, but Tamahome intervened. "You and Shunkaku protect Miaka, and I’ll follow him...Kotoku, would you come with, too?"
Kotoku nodded simply.
As they walked off, he had a tremendously uneasy feeling. He thought he’d felt a flicker of Seiryuu ki, on the very edges of his consciousness...
Shunkaku’s head snapped up.
Was that...it was! Ashitare’s ki!
"I’ve found you now, Suzaku no Miko—" he heard the deep, inhuman growl.
But Shunkaku was already lunging into action, even as Nuriko turned to see the immense muscled bulk of Ashitare hurtling for his miko. "MIAKA!!"
He reached her barely in time, shoving the brown-haired girl out of the way, and they tumbled to the ground together. Ashitare let loose another of his hair-prickling growls as he landed in the snow among a crowd who’d gathered to watch this strange spectacle, and Miaka screamed as they saw the half-beast, half-man rip an innocent man’s arm off, worrying the bloody, gory trophy.
With the arm still dangling from his mouth, the inhuman creature growled in a gutteral voice, "I don't like the taste of old men. I'll eat you, Suzaku No Miko, and then your friend! And then…" his eyes dwelled over Shunkaku and he grinned, the arm dropping to the bloodstained snow. "I’ll take care of you, traitor! But first—" He roared and leapt for Miaka.
Shunkaku summoned up his ryuseisui desperately, but Nuriko was even quicker. He tore their signal flare out of Miaka’s hand and set it off, jamming it into Ashitare’s face. The beast howled as the bright exploding brilliance seared into his face and eye. And then he bolted, setting up a fearful-sounding caterwaul.
Miaka was shuddering, and Nuriko gave her a soothing hug, stroking her hair to comfort her. "Daijoubu...daijoubu, Miaka..." He gave Shunkaku a small smile over her shoulder, and a tiny nod.
Shunkaku was overwhelmed by the strange, wistful look in Nuriko’s eyes. As if he would do anything to ensure this cheerful girl’s happiness and safety. And thinking on his own love for Kotoku, he understood.
"Shunkaku, thanks again for saving Miaka from Ashitare," Nuriko tossed over the space between them, as they trotted up the road to Mt. Black. Tamahome and Kotoku had returned not long after Ashitare’s abortive attack, and excitedly revealed that the Shinzaho was only two hundred li away -- ! Yet they waited overnight because darkness had been approaching quickly, and now Nuriko and Shunkaku were off to retrieve it while Miaka, Tamahome, and Kotoku went to find the other seishi.
Shunkaku inclined his head, a smile lighting up his features. "I was glad I could help," he replied. "Emperor Hotohori did, after all, entrust us to protect the Miko in his place...and I could sense Ashitare’s ki, while you didn’t even know who he was. I’m just glad you thought to use the flare! Ashitare is afraid of fire."
Nuriko nodded, satisfied. "Most animals are..." The episode yesterday had only convinced him even more firmly that Shunkaku, formerly Suboshi, had completely abandoned Nakago’s ways to help them. He truly had the same heart as his brother.
They sensed the malevolent outpouring of ki only a fraction of an instant before it struck, both their eyes snapping open wide and Nuriko cried out uselessly, his horse rearing up to dump him on his backside as the afternoon was pierced with earth-shattering bolts. The splitting shards of ki wrapped around Shunkaku and squeezed, and a hoarse shout was muffled as a rough hand clamped his mouth shut. Fear streaked through him like fire from head to toe. Who...who was doing this to him!?
He struggled fiercely against the arm clamped around his chest like a band of iron then recognized through his fear-riddled daze the pitch of the man’s ki.
His eyes widened.
I’m dead... the hopeless thought trailed through his mind.
An indefinable amount of time later – seeming like hours, but likely only a few moments – he was thrown roughly to the ground.
"So," Nakago smirked down at him. "You think you can desert the Seiryuu seishi just like that, Suboshi?"
"Shunkaku!" he corrected fiercely, unable to contain the defiance that burned in his chest.
Nakago’s eyes went flat and he raised his arm. In his fingers was the whip he used regularly to beat Ashitare, the same whip he’d used on Tamahome. Shunkaku’s pride forced him not to flinch as the first blow lashed out to hit him.
After ten strikes Nakago bent and grasped his chin, stared into his tear-filled eyes. The blue orbs boring into him were coldly merciless. "What must your brother be feeling, I wonder?" he smirked. "Imagine how you will feel when I flay the skin from his bones for disobedience...Suboshi."
"Shunkaku," he gritted out, refusing to let the hot tears escape his eyes. He would have no part of a Seiryuu name under Nakago’s direction.
Nakago raised the whip again, that smirk filling Shunkaku’s vision.
He beat him steadily and systematically until Shunkaku’s blood stained the fallen leaves and dirt. The boy held back shuddering cries of pain that his pride refused to let escape, contained tightly behind blood-bitten lips.
"Don’t worry about screaming," Nakago smirked. "This clearing is far enough away from the Suzaku seishi or the town that it won’t matter. No one can hear you...except perhaps your twin. Perhaps I should bring him here to join us."
"You leave him alone!"
Fury broke through the haze of pain clouding his senses and it blazed forth incandescently, the blue brilliance that marked him as Seiryuu’s, the kaku symbol on his left shoulder bursting forth as he tried to summon his ryuseisui.
Nakago’s eyes kindled with a cold triumph as he seized the boy’s shoulder where the symbol glowed forth. "You are Seiryuu’s, Suboshi," he hissed. "Never forget it."
The boy wrenched away, the ryuseisui twining about his shoulders, one weight spinning into motion, feather flying. "I am Shunkaku!" he denied, fighting for a self he barely believed in anymore, even as he committed an act that negated that self – he hurled the weapon at the blond shogun.
Nakago smirked and brushed it aside as one razor-edged weight struck at his face. The boy had no time to dodge as his own weapon was hurled back at him.
Gods...aniki...I’m sorry! Suboshi had time for that one despairing thought as the keen double edge of the ryuseisui impacted.
He fell to his knees before Nakago, and the blond shogun smiled.
"Shunkaku! Otouto!" Kotoku gasped out, jerking with the shock. Tamahome and Miaka stared at him, surprised.
"Nani, Kotoku...is something wrong?" Miaka asked.
Tamahome put a hand on his shoulder, brow creasing as Kotoku clutched at his chest, dull waves of pain rippling through him. An echo of the agony he could sense from his brother. Then he could feel the rising pitch of his ki, sliding into feverish battle-keyed readiness.
"No. NO!" he cried. Whoever had Shun-chan, they were forcing him into a position where he was reaching once more for the power of Seiryuu, but not for defense. For the darker side of the war god’s powers, the source that only begat hatred and misery. "Don’t do it..." he begged, as Tamahome and Miaka could only stare at him in surprise. But he couldn’t feel Shun-kun anymore, only the hard anger of Suboshi rising up to eclipse his twin like a mask.
"Kotoku, wait!" Miaka cried as he broke away from Tamahome’s loose grip, dashing off blindly towards the fractured sense of his twin. He pounded desperately through the town, only hoping he could reach Shunkaku in time before...before...
"You can’t evade your destiny, Suboshi," Nakago said coldly, prodding the fallen body with his boot-tip.
The boy clenched his teeth around a pain-filled whimper as Nakago’s boot connected with an already sore, tender spot beneath his ribs. The blond shogun had unknowingly paraphrased just what he’d said to Chichiri—
I can’t avoid my destiny! I was born to be a Seiryuu seishi!
"You will complete your duties to Seiryuu, to Yui-sama, and to me," Nakago continued smoothly, a silken thread of menace underlying his tone. "Thus fulfilling your destiny as a Seiryuu shichiseishi."
Chichiri’s face floated into his mind’s eye, the earnest monk’s true face solemn, one eye sealed forever shut by that jagged scar.
Just as no person is predetermined good or evil, neither is the fate of a shichiseishi bound up in good or bad.
It is the path you take with it. Not the position you fill.
"You and your brother are in a perfect position to destroy Suzaku’s chances," Nakago informed him, his voice steely. "And you WILL do it, or I will crush your brother before your eyes, and let you feel his dying breath through your link before I do the same to you."
His tone was coldly matter-of-fact and the boy did not doubt for an instant that he meant the threat.
He forced himself to hands and knees.
"The miko’s protector Tamahome will not suspect you," the shogun continued, his voice now purring, almost persuasively.
He forced himself upright, swaying drunkenly on bloody shaking knees.
Nakago raised an eyebrow at his feeble efforts. "Return to Suzaku’s people. But remember who you are."
With a wrench, he stood on trembling legs.
"I. Am. Shunkaku!"
The Seiryuu part of him whispered, shouted urgently to strike now, to strike in the heat of battle in that split instant before Nakago unleashed his power, that one second where he might be vulnerable. The boy smiled. And threw the ryuseisui that had been tangled around his neck high into the air, as Nakago’s eyes widened at this defiance. Then narrowed in rage, as he struck out with brutal retaliatory force.
Shunkaku closed his eyes as the ryuseisui vanished at his bidding. He would not strike in anger.
"I choose my own path!" he shouted into the teeth of Nakago’s ki-blast. It thundered over him, a blue wave of thunder, thrumming with pain.
"Shun-chan! NO!" Kotoku screamed as he felt the wrench in his chest and...the sudden, startling wave of realization...acceptance...DEFIANCE! and the abrupt rupturing blankness that followed.
He pushed his numbed limbs to their limits, racing the wind, his pounding head full of shocking blankness...otouto...otouto...I failed you...I’ve always protected, always looked out for...
Ko-chan, Shun-chan...it's dinner time.
Hai, kaasan! two little voices piped...
Ne, Shun-chan...let's go!
Hai! Ko-niichan...race you!
the racing scrabble of feet, hitching breath from the distance, the jostle of elbows as they pushed each other, teasingly struggling one to outdo the other...
I won! I won! a voice piped.
Aa, good race, Shun-chan! You’re just too fast for me...
That was fun, Ko-niichan! Shunkaku puffed.
He raced with the ghost of the memory beside him and prayed it would not be Shunkaku’s spirit who won this race.
Kotoku skidded to a halt in the clearing and cried out as the sight wracked against his eyes grown wide and glassy. Shunkaku was sprawled at Nakago’s feet, a bloody ruin. The shogun turned in a swirl of billowing cloak, met Kotoku’s horrified stare with indifference.
"Why?" he demanded, a raw thread of sound, even though he knew the answer.
Nakago shrugged, cloak rippling elegantly with the movement. "I cannot allow it – all Seiryuu seishi must follow my path or be destroyed. The boy was of no further use to me – not Shunkaku."
Tears spilled over Kotoku’s cheeks.
"You – you..."
Nakago’s lip twitched and he raised a hand.
Kotoku bowed his head, prepared to join his brother. Perhaps Nakago was right. Perhaps they had no use, no path apart from a Seiryuu identity Nakago defined.
A red bolt ricocheted through the clearing, hitting Nakago high in the shoulder, burning through part of his armor. A look of pure astonishment crossed his face. Kotoku scraped tears from his face, turning quickly to see Tamahome poised to attack, hands still smoldering with the red residue of his power.
Miaka was running up to join them, and a shrill cry escaped her lips as she saw Shunkaku lying bloody on the ground.
"Damn you!" another voice added, and Nakago whirled, the bulk of an immense boulder impacting against the reflexive, intense blue kekkai of the shogun’s. It shattered, but Nakago’s eyes widened.
Nuriko dusted his hands off, Taiitsu-kun’s bracelets glowing fiercely, but eclipsed by the anger in his eyes.
Nakago took stock of the situation quickly, both of the infuriated Suzaku seishi poised to attack, and smirked. "Another time perhaps."
He sprang from the clearing, leaving Shunkaku’s fallen body behind.
Kotoku hurried forward to gather up Shun’s body in his arms. His eyelids fluttered and Kotoku gasped. "He’s alive!"
"I’ll go get Mitsukake!" Tamahome replied, pivoting to break into a full-tilt run.
Kotoku smiled hopelessly. He could feel the fluttering, fading sensation of his otouto’s ki, the shattering pain rippling through him that was only a pale reflection of Shunkaku’s, and knew that Shun might not last that long but...
"A...ni...ki..." bubbled past Shunkaku’s lips, bitten through and trailing thin streams of crimson. Nakago had beaten him severely.
"Sh..." Kotoku admonished him, biting his own lip as he held his brother closely, pouring his ki into the wavering link that bonded them. "Save it...your strength, Shun-chan, you have to save your..."
"I did, though," his twin replied softly. "I saved...my strength, I saved...Shunkaku...I’m still here..."
As his voice faded, Shunkaku’s
sudden smile was radiant.