The Tale of the Last Virtuous Knight
In the beginning, they were eight. And the eight stood at the top of the hill and watched the starlight come in over the valley of the shadow of death, and saw that it was good. And the starlight ran right through them.
This is the most important story of all, because it is the one that is true.
The world was old, by this point. Old as the dirt, old nearly as the stars that burned so bright like torches in the far distance of the void, beacons that called them forward. The world was old, but they were young, the anointed eight of them, and their clade stood and watched and witnessed. Because this is the important thing about history: if it is not seen, if it is not witnessed, then it may as well never have happened at all.
Somewhere a tree fell in the forest, and life went on.
The Mage cleared his throat. "I believe that it is time for us to part ways," he said to the shade who stood beside him. Even in the pale grey-that-ran-to-silver of the Prince's spectral skin, there were places more faded than others. He had no more than the hint of horns, where once they had been spectacular, regal as a highblood's; the sword that had pierced his gullet had not gone, though, still spearing him in effigy.
"No more tomorrows," the Prince sighed back, weary. "Are we sure there is no chance for sleep?"
The Page laughed, from where he'd stood to the side, hand in hand with a young woman, their arms wreathed with diamonds. "We'll sleep when we're dead," he predicted, morose, and the Sylph gave his fingers a hard, reprimanding squeeze.
"It's not as bad as all that," she assured him, reaching for the Knight, but he had already gone, off and away through the mists, to the place where he would belong. "My heart aches for you all already, but we will meet again. Is it not so?"
"There are no Seers among us," said the Heir, staring after the Knight well since he'd gone, seeming lost. They'd been young, all of them, but he no older than seven sweeps, and a boy yet, with no thoughts of kingdoms or empires or revolution, no songs in his heart of hope or desolation or decay. The music had been in the heart of his moirail, and the music had gone, far over the dells and through the veils. "But my Brother always said we have only the time we make--"
"--And the time we steal," the Rogue cut in, finishing for him and placing her hand on his cheek, in the space where they fit.
"We'll come again," said the Maid, as she frayed around the edges and began to slip from the world. "The four of us, we'll come again. The world is different now than it once was, but the eight of us are for each other. Will you bring us back together, Prince?"
And she gave him a name, like the secret name of god: Yagami.
He nodded, and took her hand, and the Sylph took his other, and the Rogue took theirs, and they stood in a circle on the crest of the hill. "It was rude of him not to stay," the Prince of Light grumbled, horns gone now, just a memory. As the starlight shone through him, it turned him golden, made him glow ethereal. "Just to see us off. I'll bet he did it to spite me."
"You know he hates goodbyes," the Sylph said, her own eyes closed. When she opened them again, they'd gone the rich dark brown of living wood, and sparkled like the sun on the water. "And he knew we would come again, without having to be told."
"One day," the Prince whispered, his breath no more than a sigh on the wind, and then they were gone, with naught to show that they had ever been but a promise, and a splatter of blood like rainbows on the rocks and trees, and the blood that they had passed to their children, their distant vessels. And the Mage watched them as he too faded into air, and knew that it was right.
And in that way was a new universe born.
On a clear night, you could see for miles. The ledge was nearly a hundred feet up and sparse, a crumbling rock face with a scree of stones that seemed at all times likely to collapse at any moment, with any small movement too much. It was a sheer drop down from there, like a knife had sliced straight through and taken away a piece of the rock; from below it was a picture, each careful segment of history layered over the others to form a strata of marbled stone. They sat on the edge of it, mocking death, and kicked their legs over, swinging over the abyss with the industrial-grade invincibility of youth.
The valley was a cleft in the earth, and Yamato had once said that it looked as though some unnamed god had reached down and scooped away a great handful of mountain and soil, leaving a hole that was gradually filled with water and life. Of course, he'd noted, all the gods of Alternia were now long dead, their moldering bodies left to evaporate away to nothing, the cotton-ball clouds the wisps of their dreams. It is easy to invent a mythology, to spin beliefs out of nothing. Takeru had probably believed it down to the very depths of himself for at least half a sweep.
Now the moons were high and the wind was low and mournful and they were silent save for the crunch of bread rent and torn between rows of impossible teeth as they took their lunch. The mist and fog that sometimes spilled down from the mountain had been torn away by recent storms that made the gravel muddy and wet, and in the still, flat mirror of the lake Yamato saw the stars dance from the spaces of darkness in between. Takeru watched them too, though it was his preference to look up, head tilted back, his cheeks, still rounded with grubfat, tinted pale gold by the odd mutihued light of Eros and Thanatos. When Yamato glanced over, he saw the bright distant specks of them reflected too in his companion's eyes-- grey yet, but filling to rusted orange around the insides.
He took another bite, and turned away, deciding instead to observe Takeru's lusus as it curved around one moon and then another, filling in a grand celestial figure eight, wings spread out like a hawk. A noble beast, for one of low origin. Yamato had once wondered what had drawn its attention, and then realized that the same nebulous quality had also hooked his.
They'd been sitting for half an hour, quiet in contemplation as was Yamato's common custom, but Takeru broke the peace at last, when he'd rumpled his wrapper to a tiny ball and wiped the crumbs off his chin with his sleeve. "It's almost Spring," he said, in a tone that was hard to interpret, even for Yamato. The boy was cheerful to an extreme; it was unusual to hear him pensive, subdued. Indeed, with a sweep between them, the idea that the advent of Spring would have even registered to Takeru was a new one, and difficult to arrange neatly into Yamato's previous worldview.
"So it is," he said after a beat, with another bite of sandwich. It tasted heavily of scourgebeast, which did not surprise him; times were hard, you ate what you had to and didn't have the gall to complain over it. "How about that."
With the shrewd eye of any middling predator that knows it may soon itself be prey in the jaws of a superior, Yamato noted the slow rotation of Takeru's gaze toward him, where it stayed, unwavering. Endeavoring to appear unbothered, he crumpled his own ricepaper wrapper and tossed it over the edge, watching it glide down on the current of wind that caught it. "Have you made any progress?" Takeru asked, impervious to Yamato's feigned obliviousness.
"You'd be the first to know if I had," Yamato sighed, leaning back, braced against the rock by his wrists. "Nothing has changed."
Yamato did not need to look to know that Takeru would be frowning, the corners of his mouth pulled down into a pout that never failed to make his moirail feel bitter pangs of guilt. "So you're still going to fight them then?"
"It's not as though I have much choice. Someone will be after me, either way."
The veracity of this statement was not lost on younger ears, though hearing it spoken aloud did little to improve either of their demeanors. The world was great and wide but there was not enough depth to it for a hundred hundred souls to live and work and thrive, over each other like cockroaches swarming in a mistended pantry. Through the vast, nearly uninhabitable seas, the deserts strafed with dead and dying, the shuffling vagabonds of a poisoned world: there was no space enough even with the cullings, even with the wars. Yamato had watched as day by day, perigee by perigee, civilization crept up towards the treelines, tearing its way unheeding through the last of the unspoilt places, the last of the silent sacred spaces where he had roamed in his youth. He was seven sweeps old, and almost a man, and soon he would pay his debts to the society that had done its best to open his belly and offer him up to the beasts and the spectres in the dark of day.
"You'd be fine at war, you know," Takeru said after awhile, his voice acquiring a hopeful, encouraging lilt. "I've seen you fight. They'd never be able to touch you."
"And what life is that?" Yamato could not help but ask, bile in his words and his heart. "Even if I make it that far, somehow-- let's not hold our breath for that."
"I'm sure you could find someone to hate you, at least. It can't be too hard, with everyone who's out for your head."
"There's a difference between hatred and fear," Yamato told him, carefully standing up and brushing the dirt and stones off the back of his slacks. He'd dressed simply for the day, as he preferred to, with none of the pomp and circumstance of the court that, technically, he still deserved by bloodright. "You'd be surprised how often warfare has next to nothing to do with anger; personal gain is enough." He held out his hand, and Takeru clasped it through the thick utilitarian leather of Yamato's glove, dense and impersonal. He had never touched a troll's skin but his own, though their blood had spattered his forearms, warm with life that was retreating. He pulled his moirail up.
"Time to go already?" Takeru asked, playfully, concern seemingly forgotten now that he was vertical again, turned away from the sky. Those stars they had seen would one day be Yamato's territory, a trail of viscera and despair as heavy as his heart behind him, though he had lived and died a thousand times in the eternities between them, in his mind. The darkness became him. "Did I ask too many hard questions?"
"No, we just waited too long to start," Yamato told him, clapping his shoulder with one hand and squeezing a shade too tight. "You'll be alright getting home? Maybe me and Garou should come with you, at least just down the mountain."
Takeru shook his head, hard. "I'm nearly six, Yamato. I think I can manage not to die." A joke, but a poor one, and he realized it immediately. "I mean, I know I can. You don't have to worry so much about me."
Standing steadfast, having accepted this concept in theory but not in practice, Yamato watched Takeru go, on the back of his lusus, until there was only a memory of where he had been; no more than a hazy thought that they had ever come by here at all, knowledge held in trust by Yamato alone. The sky made him feel small, his mind racing with thoughts of guns and death and cruel, shining starships, and the neutron fire of their engines, and the whispered horror of the drones that would soon be demanding his service.
Alone, cut free from duty and what little sense of destiny he carried, Yamato wavered in the wind and watched, for hours, as darkness slipped to the half-light of the dawn of the last day.
To be blueblooded was to be a man of importance, Yamato had been given to understand practically from his hatching. There were standards among highbloods, and if you kept them up and walked in step with the sort of regal comport that was expected, if you could be relied upon to put your boot to the necks of the lower classes, the scum, the vermin in the walls, then you would be rewarded. Yamato had passed each of the trials with flying colors and teeth bared, and the older trolls who had been left to oversee the proceedings had all murmured amongst themselves appreciatively, a susurrus of approval and apprehension. Yamato had gone naked from the caves and been cloaked in howlbeast fur, curled warm to the breast of his lusus each night until they had made a home for themselves.
Yamato had always lived in the mountains, though he had been, too, to the low places, and found them wanting for altitude and security. The mountains were forest and fog and cold dew forming on sparse grasses only to freeze and melt back in the daylight. The places below were flat fields that rolled too far and marshes that screeched with unpleasant fauna and dense jungles that threatened to swallow a troll whole, no matter his fortitude. He preferred not to move around too much. He knew where he was at home.
The castle sprawled out from the rock like a natural formation, sharp angles and slanted tile roofs and high stucco-on-cobblestone walls that had once been white but faded to the color of dust over time. It had always been there, so far as Yamato could tell, a fixture of the landscape from a long-ago period when Alternia had been more than what it was just then. He had done little more at first than move in and sweep the cobwebs out of the corners and exist, storing his supplies there for the times between trips; he was always gone, somewhere else, perched on the back of his lusus, mindful of everything around him.
But things had changed, and he had settled. After a long and sleepless night, Yamato had crept to what was affectionately referred to as his den, a room he'd set aside for himself in the midst of the clamor his home now held host to, a mess of stones and swords and leather-bound books, curiosities he'd scavenged from the dead and hollowed out places he'd been, back when it was safe. There was a desk, one of few things he'd fashioned himself from found-wood and mismatched iron nails, and an aged chair that creaked ominously when he gingerly lowered himself into it.
Someone had deposited several sheets of accounting onto the desk, and he gave the first brief consideration before, with great ceremony, folding it into a haphazard paper wingbeast and tossing it out the open window. He knew what it would say: that they were short again, that people were hungry (but grateful! always grateful, and happy to emphasize it) and there wasn't enough. Time was as precious as resources were short, and sometimes Yamato had to steal a moment alone, some time to collect himself. He'd slept, or rather napped in fits and starts, and he knew there would be heavy bruises blooming like morning glories beneath his eyes where blood vessels had burst. A moment alone, just one, was all he needed. Then, he promised himself, he would see if he couldn't go and do something about the lack of food. His servants (as, unfortunately, they preferred to be called) were not the only ones who went hungry; when his shirt rode up high over his belly, Yamato could see the hard outlines of his own sunken ribs.
He did not realize he'd been dozing until a loud if vaguely apologetic knock came at the door and he nearly tipped out of the chair. "Sir?" a timid voice intimated by the other side, briefly preceding the soft slide of the door, footsteps on the tatami. At least they hadn't called him 'Lord' this time, he thought as he breathed deep and attempted to comport himself, shocked out of a distant dream. "Sir, I hate to disturb you, but there's someone at the gate asking to see you; one of the monks, maybe? I think he's looking for tithes."
"Bring him in," Yamato said immediately, in his sternest voice, and stood on uncertain legs to prepare for his guest, almost certainly one of the Mirthful Faithful, down off their own mountain for a visit to his sanctuary.. The troll skittered away dutifully, returning after a stretched moment with a tall man whose horns made him stoop through the delicate doorway, and Yamato was given to a short moment of startlement and pause, before nodding in wary recognition. "Leave us," he said, and sat down as the two were left more or less alone, save for the prying eyes of the walls.
Yamato pinched the bridge of his nose in annoyance, attempting to soothe away the burgeoning headache that was pressing like a tumor against his temples. The man was unrecognizable save for a set of horns he would have known anywhere, a familiar portent of doom or, at the very least, incoming irritance. He was swaddled head to toe in the concealing black vestments of a pilgrim of the Order of the Sufferer, eyes shaded, claws covered in silk, and when he unwrapped the lower half of his face beneath the rims of his spectacles, Yamato was relieved to confirm that he'd stripped away the layers of chalk-paint. Chalk, the bones of sea creatures long dead, a substance of tangible death crushed into soft rock.
The indigo eyes, though, were still fully visible behind smeared glass, and the pious uniform was fooling exactly no one.
"It's been awhile, hasn't it?" the man-- really a boy, no more than half a sweep Yamato's elder --asked, shifting nervously from foot to foot, fingers curling into themselves in front of him for want of a hat brim to worry. Yamato stared with the focus of a forest fire, having to make no wild guess to confirm that he was still the one who held power here, in his own fortress and surrounded by a score of loyal subjects who had lain claim to him and his banner. "When was the last time? It was before twelfth perigee's eve'n, wasn't it, I remember I brought 'round a pie--"
"It was three moon cycles ago when your legislacerators almost put me down," Yamato said sharply, cutting him off as he hiked back the already short shoulder of his shirt, revealing the white-blue knot of the top of a scar. "Do you remember that night? Because I do. Though I have noticed that you've got a pretty poor recall ability, when it helps you to."
"They weren't mine!" he cried, voice going high and reedy with strain. Jiyouu Kiidou, the one subjugglator-in-training Yamato had ever met who wore his soul on his sleeve in glorious Technicolor. "They weren't," he continued, calming himself, addressing Yamato's glare. "I promise you, I had no idea-- they were his. Keneth's. It wasn't my place to interfere with the capture of a renegade."
Yamato drummed his fingers against the desk, unimpressed. "But you could have."
With a nod, Jiyouu acquiesced, shamefaced and sickly. "Yes, I could have. And it would have been a moral death, for both of us."
"What are you here for, Kiidou?" Yamato asked, force not diminished by his position. He would be looking up at Jiyouu either way, the boy all long, gangly limbs and ill-fitting clothing under the robes. "I've told you not to come onto my property, and I thought you got the hint? A truce doesn't make us friends."
"No," Jiyouu agreed, rummaging through his deep pockets, "but this will." From the space inside his garments he recovered a simple package, something slim wrapped in brown butcher's paper and tied with string. What signified its importance was the nearly illegible name scrawled on the front of it in purple ink and the wine-colored wax seal that held the twine tight, inlaid with the crest of the only royal that Yamato had ever liked, even in passing. There was a world of difference between Jiyouu and the boy he served, so Yamato held out his hand and allowed him to place the package in his palm, where Yamato tested its weight, finding it exactly as light as it looked.
The seal came off first, with no particular respect for imperial things, and Yamato tore the top of it open without looking back. There was a roll of kelp parchment inside, undoubtedly with a brief, jargon-filled message that would be packed with information but nearly impossible to understand, and he looked to Jiyouu for the crib notes. "From His Highness the Imperial Smartaleck, huh? To what do we owe this honor?"
With a huff, Jiyouu pushed his glasses further up the steep bridge of his nose, frowning. "For your information, my lord--"
"--the guy you pledged your hammer to, Kiidou, don't hide behind formalities, he doesn't care enough to want you to anyway."
"--my lord Kosiro has offered you and your moirail a way out, should you wish it."
Yamato stopped dead, every small movement stilled, though his gaze grew hard and his lips drew back from his teeth instinctively, ears pricked. "Out of what?" he asked, with a deathly quiet no louder than his breath.
Jiyouu stood stiff, ramrod straight as though his spine were made of steel spires, coping with intimidation through tradition and protocol. Unfortunately, he was a messenger here, and there was a long and hallowed tradition of slitting the throats of those unfortunates and leaving them to bloat in the river. "Your service. Your duties. No drones, no space academy, no campaigns. You won't have to leave him here. That's the price our highblood is willing to pay."
Heart in his throat, Yamato would not allow himself to hope. "For what? What would he want me to do? I can't move mountains, I can barely leave this one with the way the legislacerators would be on my ass."
"Open it the rest of the way," Jiyouu instructed, gesturing towards the half-forgotten package, and Yamato unceremoniously dumped the contents out on his desk. Inside were four CD sleeves in red and green, a pair of each, though the discs themselves were unmarked. "This is a game," he said, daring to step closer, and Yamato let him, mired in his confusion. "Kosiro says it has no name, though it's been called a lot of things. He wouldn't tell me how he got it, but I think he probably ripped it himself from somewhere."
Yamato gave a slight inclination of his head in recognition. "Sounds about right. He's a smart kid. What does it have to do with me, though? If he wants someone to play with, there are way better choices. You know, people who aren't actively wanted for treason against the state."
"It's not that kind of game," Jiyouu sighed, seeming nervous again. "He didn't-- look, I can only tell you what I got told, right? But-- and this is going to sound really crazy and/or stupid so bear with me a second --I think he found a way to hack the universe."
Yamato raised an eyebrow. "Hack the universe. The whole universe. The thing we're standing in, that universe?"
"I told you it was going to sound stupid, but that was what he made it sound like, okay? Like it was going to change everything. Like after this, it wasn't going to matter who was highblooded and who was supposed to be serving time and who was a traitor. It wouldn't matter because there wouldn't be anyone left. Just us."
Standing, Yamato found the shuttered window and threw it wide, leaning out over the edge with hands braced hard against the wooden sill. The room he'd taken overlooked the courtyard, busy now with lowblooded trolls of every stripe who lounged in the moonlight, chatting and laughing. Between the lot of them, there couldn't have been more than three full sets of eyes; everyone had lost something, everyone had worked hard, and Yamato had made a vow. "The job of a leader is to do the right thing," he'd heard the Empress say once facetiously, over the antiquated radio they'd dug out of the attic, its photovoltaic cells humming merrily. "Even when it is also the hardest thing. Suffering," she'd said, "is life."
Every word of such a speech was a lie, of course, or at least a pleasant euphemism; it didn't take a genius wordsmith to understand the subtext there, that the advancement of society would be placed on the backs of the poor and the weak. That much was basic history. But the principle of the thing was sound, and recalling it, Yamato let out a long and hissing breath through clenched teeth, gloved claws digging into the window frame nearly hard enough to splinter. "I'll consider it," he said at last, cornered. In reality, there would be few repercussions for refusing-- Jiyouu's leige lord commanded no army but one fretful and morally conflicted subjugglator --but he could not bring himself to do so outright. "I have his handle. If it pleases the court, I'll tell him when I've decided."
"There's no need to be nasty about it," Jiyouu said with the hint of a rebuke, inching one step closer. "But yes, fine, by all means contact him yourself, as long as you do it quickly. There's not a lot of time."
"Time before what?"
The highblood hesitated, just a beat too long. "I'm not sure that I exactly know. Something bad, and global."
Yamato allowed a short burst of incredulous laughter to escape. "And then there's us, delivered by the grace of the Mirthful Messiahs into a paradise of golden faygo libations?"
Jiyouu spat, looking as hard as he ever did and glaring almost sullenly towards the window. "They're a myth and you know it, and you know I know it too. Violence breeds more violence, and I’m sick of it, all of it."
"But you'll take the communion, because it's traditional," commented Yamato, who in no way bought into the theory of the subjugglator pacifist. "And you'll wear the paint, if only out in public."
When he turned back, Yamato could see that Jiyouu was still frowning, perpetually pushed off-center. "I'm not today. It's hard to travel when your face is instantly recognizable."
"And reviled," Yamato added, slightly regretting Jiyouu's unsubtle flinch. "That reminds me, how did you even get here? It's not like I posted road signs. 'Valley of the Infidels, twenty miles ahead!' "
"It took some doing," he admitted, shrugging off Yamato's paltry attempts at a joke. "The whole place was choked with fog, even a mile down the mountain from here. To be honest, it was more dumb luck than anything. And I'm sure I wasn't followed," he appended preemptively, apparently hopeful to be let off the hook. "I mostly travelled during the day, when nobody would see me."
In recognition, Yamato waved him off, satisfied with this and ready to be rid of his visitor. "Fine," he declared, pensively taking up one of the CD cases again, refusing to look at Jiyouu but attuned with every inch of his awareness to the boy's movements. "I'll decide by the end of the night, and you'll stay here until it's light again. Ask someone for a room; there're plenty of extras."
They watched each other like the hawks that spiralled high over the peaks at twilight, sharp eyes searching for a last meal, though Jiyouu still looked a bit queasy. "Until tomorrow, then," he agreed at last, punctuating the statement with a respectful nod. "I've been instructed to tell you to give Takeru his copies no matter what you decide, though; moirail or not, it should be his choice." And then, taking the stunned silence as an invitation to leave, Jiyouu hastily backed out of the room and down the hallway, his footsteps a steady, retreating shuffle against buckling wood. Yamato stared into the space where he had been, and then collapsed slowly back into his seat.
There were many variables to consider, as well as expert testimony from a primary source, and Yamato let all his warring thoughts go with a deep exhale, emptying his heart and his mind before unrolling the letter. Dear Mr. Ishida, it began, and things were all downhill from there. The writing was slanted and cramped, with the formal hand of someone who had spent more time scrawling calculations on a chalkboard than practicing his signature, but the general gist of it was obvious and urgent. When he was finished, Yamato leaned back in his chair with his feet on the desk, and stared into empty space, watching dust motes float through a shaft of light with an uncertain feeling settling in his stomach. The tenor of the evening was familiar to him, a significance that was not lost amidst heavy portents. It was the sort of tone he'd noticed the night he'd met Takeru, as though he were about to find his place in the world, like something big and important and Destined-with-a-capital-"d" was about to happen.
Careful of the delicate parchment, Yamato folded the letter into a small paper crane and launched it out the open window, watching it too fly away.
"I'm going to tell him we won't do it," Yamato explained to Takeru three hours later, scuffing his shoes in the gravel nervously without knowing why. He felt, to the core of himself, vaguely ashamed-- as though he were hiding something, obscuring his guilt or some precious truth --but there was no call for this, of course. He knew that the path he had picked was the right one: not what was easy, not what he wanted, but best for everyone in the end. He could keep Takeru safest in a place of known variables, identified threats and elements, and even the warning of a nebulously-defined apocalypse paled in comparison to peril that was obvious, and easily parsed. "But I thought you should be allowed to have it anyway, in the interest of being fair."
Takeru had accepted the re-wrapped package cautiously, as though expecting it to vomit black flame at any moment, but had relaxed visibly after an explanation and was now holding it tight, his claws nearly tearing the paper. A boy who had yet to be seriously introduced to the concept of sarcasm, he took it in dutifully without commenting on what his body language showed him to be feeling, the tension and the displeasure. He'd grown quieter in the last sweep-- less prone to fits of gaiety and unbridled laughter, and while one part of Yamato pragmatically thought that this increased awareness of the deathtrap they called a society was a good thing, he couldn't shake off the melancholy at the thought that Takeru, too, would soon be an adult with his own life and loves and dangers to brave.
And Yamato would not be around for any of it, either culled with his skin stretched over someone's floor and horns mounted on the wall, or away in distant lands cutting a bitter swath through the local population with scythe and laser. He forced himself to grin and bear it, his smile a thing that next to no one now living had ever seen.
"What if I want to?" Takeru asked, turning the bundle over in his hands. "It sounds fun. We haven't played a game together in ages."
"Games are for grubs," Yamato explained patiently, his voice gentle, devoid of the bite it could carry, "and neither of us has time for fantasies. You were right, Takeru, my time here is almost up. And what will you do without me, when I'm gone? We both need to learn how to live in the real world."
"We do!" Takeru whined, looking up at his moirail. There was only a difference of a foot and a half between them, now; he was shooting up like a weed, taller and stronger and slightly more belligerent each day. More difficult to uproot or transplant. "Or, I guess, I do. Who goes into the city by himself? Not you! You're always up in your stuffy old castle, and you barely make time for me anymore anyway."
"Because I'm keeping you safe," Yamato snapped, without thinking. "If they're all out looking for me, who's left to hunt for you? Anyway, you're never really alone. Your lusus goes with you."
"I can take care of myself!" Takeru countered, with more force than Yamato could recall him being capable of. "I know you want to protect me, but you're always busy with everyone else."
Yamato grew quiet, the fire in his stomach doused down to embers. "I didn't ask for that, Takeru. I never wanted that responsibility, but-- it's not right! It's not right for me to stand by while trolls are slaughtered just for being born a certain way. I never asked to be blueblooded, goddamn it, so I know for a fact that they didn't want that for themselves either. That you wouldn't--"
Takeru's pout had grown as vicious as he ever got, which was admittedly still not much, but impressive in a relationship that had never been contested. "That I wouldn't what? That I'd choose to be someone else?"
"That you would choose a color that was safe," Yamato murmured, deflated, and reached out to place a hand on Takeru's shoulder, holding tighter when the petulant boy attempted to pull away. "Takeru, you know I love you the way you are, but it's dangerous, and you know that too. There's no security in being a lowblood. And that's why I can't let us get bogged down with these distractions. You're not a grub anymore, and I know it, but Spring is coming, and I won't be able to save you soon. You need to learn how to get along on your own."
"By letting you tell me what I can't do?" Takeru attempted to jerk away again, and Yamato drew him in close, pulled chest to chest until he imagined he could feel the boy's heartbeat against his own, sharp nose digging into his ribs and short arms wrapped around his waist and small hands balled in the fabric of his shirt, twined together as something in both of them broke, and Takeru began to sob. "Don't go away," he managed to cough, tears sloughing wetness down Yamato's chest. "Please, I don't have anybody else. You can keep hiding, you don't have to go when they call you!"
"That's not the way it works," Yamato said, though his voice was tremorous and wavering, and he was unable to tell which one of them was shivering harder. His mind had been half-elsewhere throughout the conversation, focusing on the bit of mountain path they'd met on, the thick foliage surrounding, the possible points of attack if they were challenged. Now there was nothing in his heart but Takeru, his precious platonically pitiable moirail who wanted him here, who legitimately enjoyed his company, who wasn't afraid of him, who wanted him...
In the middle distance, from his watchful vantage point beneath a pine tree, Garou bolted up off his haunches and growled, the low rumbling the only warning Yamato was afforded before someone drove the butt of a rifle into the small of his back, knocking the wind out of him and sending them both sprawling to the ground. As he fell, Yamato found the pained presence of mind to twist himself, reaching out and scrabbling for his attacker’s ankle; against the odds, from years of living off of raw instinct he found his mark and dragged the boy down with him, rolling them over in the dust and away from Takeru, away as far as they could get from his beloved moirail.
It was a struggle as much to catch his breath as it was to keep the troll down and he heard himself coughing, lungs empty, painfully withered and hollow. But he was practiced in survival and had been in worse scrapes before, and deaf to his adversary’s screeches with blood pounding in his ears and rage bright behind his eyes, he flipped the troll to his back and held him, arranging his fist to the least personally painful configuration and smashing it into the side of the boy’s nose hard enough to make him resemble an impressionist painting. Warm teal blood ran out, a lake of it already, and Yamato growled at the sight, fangs bared. There was no time to speak, and nothing to say. While the troll lay stunned and whimpering he lunged, fixing his teeth in the meat of the troll’s neck, hoping with the last bit of his logic that Takeru was safe, and not looking this way.
Thinking of Takeru, a new flood of anger washing over him as blood bubbled over his tongue, Yamato clenched his jaw--and pulled. He would protect his moirail, and everyone he had sworn to save. He would keep them safe from trash like this. He would destroy anyone who got in his way. And there was no room in his worldview for anything but that. He tore away a chunk of muscle that bled the color of the law when he spat it out, his whole body jerking back and up, the tang of copper still staining his teeth. Warmth spilled out out over his hands, soaking the troll’s shirt, and he stood again, panic abating, wild-eyed and bloodied and half sunk into a crouch, surveying the party of highbloods that had so helpfully waited for him to finish off their fellow, now staring impassively at his thrashing body.
They had come up the path through the mist, he thought, all twenty or so of them and all in the sharp regalia of an official hunting party, one with a serpentine centipede lusus in tow that he recognized from illicit television broadcasts ripped off GrubTube. Falling back on training, Takeru had run at earliest convenience and was now hidden behind a wall of white fur, Garou and his own Pegasus forming a makeshift wall between his small body and the battalion. Neither seemed inclined to give quarter, teeth bared and hooves digging deep troughs in the ground.
An ambush, Yamato thought, but a diplomatic one. It just about figured.
"Yamato Ishida, I presume?" the tallest of them asked, while the tealblood Yamato had attacked continued to spill his blood on the ground, giving one last violent twitch and then falling still. No one in the company seemed particularly bothered; if anything, they appeared impressed. "You are every bit as ruthless as I was told. Nevertheless, you are under arrest for crimes against the Empire. Would you like to hear the list? It's quite long. I think they made a television series about some of these; 'To Catch a Predator'."
"I know who you are," Yamato rasped, breathing heavily. His throat felt as though he'd swallowed half a gallon of hydrochloric acid, and his lungs ached in angry protest. "You're Keneth Ichijo, aren't you? Her majesty's newest woofbeast." He grinned, despite himself, a feral thing, and even some of the assembled legislacerators tittered, spectators to a private kabuki improv. A bureaucrat through and through for all the field campaigns he'd spearheaded, this subjugglator wore a suit to work and his symbol above his heart and the skullpaint of his profession on his face, and was definitely not kindly inclined towards fugitives. Or anyone else, for that matter. Yamato noticed that his lusus was missing a feeler, and recalled the stories he'd heard through the grapevine, of whips and chains and cruelty. If it came to blows, he would match the boy strike for strike. "Aiming to be Emperor, are you? Careful, I bet she'd make a good meal out of you."
As the crowd offered a nervous, sparse chuckle, Yamato could feel the situation sliding straight off a cliff and out of his tenuous control. He’d come unarmed and undefended save for claws and teeth and horns, foolishly supposing that he was safe so close to his home, and here now he faced a procession of killers of all stripes and specibi, too many to take alone and at once. “You will be shown justice,” Ichijo growled, advancing, and Yamato hopped back a pace as Garou strained forward, towards him, concerned for his charge but knowing to hold his place. At the highblood’s first motion, the company moved forward as well, surging slowly but as surely as the tide, a relentless march. “You will be brought to trial. The death warrant is, after all, not for you. But as for your illicit pack of vermin, my orders are clear.” He sneered, the expression poisonous. “Extermination is too good for the likes of them.”
At the snap of his fingers, the centipede skittered around, flowing fast over rocks and roots, a white ribbon that circled and struck, colliding with Takeru’s lusus; the Pegaus reared to meet it and bellowed a trumpeting call of war, and Yamato broke out into a wheezing run. The trolls gave chase, no longer waiting for an opportunity. They were predators, after all, and their quarry had broken, shown them his back, the worst mistake he could have made. Yamato sprinted to Takeru’s side, hoisting him bodily with one arm and throwing him onto Garou’s broad back, clambering easily up after.
"Go!" he shouted, and Garou went, and Takeru hung onto his mane for dear life and Yamato hung onto his partner, head pounding and back aching and heart beating so hard he thought he would rupture. The wind whipped at his face, his hair, his clothes, and still he urged the wolf on faster, harder, gaining speed over the ridges and rills. Takeru turned his head, tried to look back for his guardian, but it was too late and they were around the first bend, thundering up over the wild road-- barely more than a deer trail through the trees, but sufficient. Garou’s paws were silent in the night, but Yamato’s breathing was not, and he could feel his moirail shake in his arms.
"How did they find us?" Takeru shouted, voice ripped away by the wind as they sped onward. "The mist--"
"It was that damned highblood. Kiidou. They must have followed him here, right to us! I'm going to kill him. I'm--" Yamato swore beneath his breath, keeping his expletives from Takeru's ears. They were almost there, they were covering good ground, there were men behind them but that was inconsequential. "Open the gate!" he screamed, panic filling him. "Raise the alarm, they're coming!"
The wooden gate screeched open slowly, only a fraction enough for Garou to pass, and slammed shut again when the wolf had skidded to a stop. Yamato hopped off and smacked his flank, nodding up towards the keep. "Take him," he said, and the lusus ran off again, amid Takeru’s flailing protests and demands to be let off. Yamato turned back towards the portal, watching and listening as numerous feet thundered towards them. He found himself alone before the storm, save for the two gatekeepers, bewildered souls who had not seen battle since he’d met them, bleeding out on a beach with their lusii butchered.
"Sir?" said one, a maroonblood, the lowest of the low, as the deep tidal sound of the warning bell boomed out over the grounds; the other had gone to raise the alarm. "What's happening?"
"We’re all under arrest," Yamato announced, "for treason against the high court. Prepare to fight or evacuate, it makes no difference to me." He looked down at his hands, empty, without recourse. It had been a grave and uncharacteristic folly to go without his blades, but it had been worth it, for now the strategic advantage was his. “Either way, bring me my claws.” And the order was obeyed, flawlessly, as he knew it would be. Moments later, when he had strapped the steel strips to the backs of his gloves and taken up his normal stance, Yamato could feel the fear rushing out of his heart and into the ground, the lot of it running away like rain water. He voiced no word of protest when, one by one, his company filtered into the courtyard, armed with pikes and knives and the odd axe; offered no stirring speech to rouse his troops, but rather stood with the grim calm of a man who had stared into the eyes of death and stood his ground for honor and duty, who had held the hearts of the dying in his hands and felt his own blood pour until he’d been certain he’d seen his last sunset.
In the gloaming of morning, Yamato Ishida and his rogues, those ghosts who had been beaten and burned and left to die, stood before the gate as it buckled against the weight of their assailants, each prepared with all their heart to die.
When it happened, it happened fast, iron bands snapping under strain, shards of splintered wood flying out in all directions, and seven different kinds of hell crashed up against the breakwater he’d formed, steel and bark and bone. And Yamato roared, a senseless noise of rage and horror, and the madness roared back, and the void reached out from within him and swallowed him whole, leaving him blind and deaf to all but the bloodlust and the anger and the dirt beneath his feet.
He remembered falling, several times, and springing up again. He remembered knife blades, and a rainbow of blood, and the regretful shrieks of friend and foe alike. He remembered laughing, to himself, when it was over and he had sunk to his knees inside the charnel house his grounds had become, and that was, to the extent of it, that.
They recovered him later, Takeru leading Jiyouu forward insistently by the hand, too distraught to be nervous of him, with Yamato’s lusus padding behind, bleeding blue from the shoulder but not subdued. It was the wolf who found him first, skinny tail tucked between bowed legs, and the wolf who bumped a cold, wet nose against Yamato’s back, nearly knocking him clean over. He was like a puppet whose strings had been cut, at first: limp and motionless, at the behest of a master he did not know. But blinking in the thin sunlight he pulled himself up and taught himself to move again, contemplative and surrounded by carrion.
“There’s nothing left,” he told them, Jiyouu more than his brother, as both remaining trolls beat a hasty approach. With the sun, the eternal fog had begun to lift, replaced by blinding warmth and impossible radiance, the way clear. “I failed to protect the people I swore to keep safe. They died for me, and I’ve done nothing to save them, in the end.”
"Yes," Jiyouu acknowledged, bowing his head and shifting again, restless. He did not appear to know what to do with the situation; there were not many words for condolences in Alternian, not even among the lowbloods. "They did. It seems to me, if you are interested in hearing what I think, that the thing to do now would be to honor them. Keep Takeru safe."
"I plan to," Yamato said, his voice flat and nearly dead. While he faced forward, towards the wreckage of his walls, his sight was elsewhere, flying between the blackness and the stars. "And there appears only one way to do that, now."
Jiyouu nodded, gravely. "I'm glad. We don't really have time to find anyone else. Kosiro was very specific, there need to be four, and--"
"We all need to go into it alone," Yamato finished for him, sounding resigned. Somewhere in the near distance, he heard Takeru bite back a sudden sob, the shock of the carnage that surrounded him not registering until he had come to face the body of his guardian, now cool, lain out like a broken bird and delicate in death. "In our own spaces."
"Right." Neither of them watched Takeru; his grief was his own, raw and new, a boy who had never been privy to loss despite the odds. "If you want to keep him safe, I would suggest leaving him here. They'll be coming back, you know, but they'll ransack his hive first, and if he starts the chain, he'll be... secure from the threat of government, at least."
"This is your fault, you know," Yamato pointed out in lieu of answering, stalling out the time just a little longer, a little more. When he'd woken up that evening, everything had been normal-- how swiftly thing changed. "If you hadn't come, I'd be finishing up dinner and going to bed right now."
"And if I hadn't come, you'd be dead by midweek either way," Jiyouu said, his voice a little brighter. "Funny how the world works, isn't it?"
It was only when Jiyouu had departed, saying that he would make swiftly for the nearest abandoned hive, that Yamato went to his moirail, and held him while he sobbed, both clinging to each other and wet with blood and tears. We will survive, Yamato told himself harshly, until he had nearly convinced himself it was true. And more than survive, we will live.
And from the space beyond the stars, something called out to him, making his heart glad.