After so many years, with only the tree spirit and mage for company, the glamour of it all wore thin so he could only wait and hope that somehow things would change. The magic, even the slightest of spells used to retrieve a lost item, still filled him with awe, but he didn’t wish to stay here in this glimmering pond. His soul ached for more, for what he’d once had and had lost on a fool’s venture. Though people had called it the adventure only a fool would attempt, it had turned out to be so much more and if only he’d known how true that old, vague tale had been.
“It’s said, that if you follow the lights, as far as the strongest horse can take you and then further than even the mightiest of knights can tread, you will find him. Through the forest and up into the hills lives a mage of legends and fairy tales and times long past.” His voice echoed through the empty halls of the castle.
“And why would I want to go to that trouble just for some mage that probably died centuries ago, when this story first started?”
The old man barked out a loud laugh. “So alike. Why else would a brave and revered Knight such as yourself leave off on this… fool’s venture? Glory, answers to the ultimate questions, or perhaps any wish buried deep within your heart granted, just like that. The very folly of men to always want more draws people to him, for if you make it all the way to him alive, he’ll grant you anything and supposedly remain a comrade for life. Or so they say. Many a brave, young knight have tried and failed miserably.”
“Then why should I bother? I have everything I could want right here without the assistance of some doddering mage.”
“That’s exactly what he said too. Aren’t you curious, just as he and every other knight before you?”
He froze, he couldn’t deny the truth. The marvel of these stories, the very essence that kept them alive, was that hope for the impossible.
“Who is it you’re talking about?” He hedged, after all whoever it was had started this all.
That bark of a laugh once again filled the chamber, barreling out and striking someone within the knight.
“Who else?” the old sage gestured to the side, to the wall lined with paintings. “You wanted to know of the greatest knights of the kingdom, this tale is how we lost our best so many years back now. I thought everyone knew the story, the rebellious prince turned knight who, shortly after gaining great recognition and acceptance, followed the lights and was never heard from again.”
“Prince Jin?” the knight frowned. “I thought that was just some story that was told to scare young children and knights from straying from the path.”
“He was real and he left in pursuit of this one mage to get answers. He’s the main reason knights still go off in search of this fabled man. Every other knight returned or popped back up at some point, often confused as to how he’d gotten home, but the dear prince never returned. Some people say his wishes took him far, far away never to be seen again. Others think he never made it and couldn’t bear the shame of failing. But me… I think he made it to that mage, and I think he’s still there, keeping quiet in the company of that mage and whatever odd things roam about those parts.”
The knight’s gaze swept back to the side. The sage’s arm still remained outstretched, bringing the large painting to his attention.
Looking at the painting, he had never seen something so distant before, especially not rendered upon canvas as such. The knight of legend stood in full armor, helm under his left arm and sword at his side, the only feature discerning him from the other knights lining the walls glinted from underneath rich hair; the imperial circlet rest, nearly concealed on his head. But it wasn’t the dressings of a highly ranked knight, nor the imperial sign that caught his attention. It was the faraway look in the young man’s eyes. It stretched far beyond the bounds of the painting and if he had to hazard a guess, that gaze rest always just beyond the horizon, always searching.
Every other portrait in the Hall of Knights stood grounded in the wake of accomplishes, looking proudly back at the viewer. And he now understood, that if one were to see this portrait and hear this story, why countless would go off in chase of the elusive man. In this instance, all he wanted was to know if the prince turned knight had found what had always been just out of sight before. Had he found what he was looking for and had this mage of olden days granted his wishes, fulfilling hopes and dreams beyond anything that he could imagine?
Without another word he turned and left the room, fleeing before he could be pulled in any deeper than he already had.
And so he did what any other curious knight would do; he did some research. But he quickly found that no text could give him much information, except the barest of details.
Prince Jin was the crown prince but was recognized as a knight and rose quickly through the military. Sometime after attaining the official title, The Blood Knight, he left on a journey and when he did not return the crown was passed to his younger brother, Prince Reio. The fate of The Blood Knight was never discerned as he was never heard from again.
Crown Prince Reio then…
He shut the book with a loud snap, disturbing the servant returning books to their rightful places. He’d gone through nearly every source he could think of and that was still all he could find. He’d considered, for the briefest of moments, going back to the old sage, but he wasn’t lowering himself to that, at least not yet.
“Sir Kamenashi, brushing up on the kingdom’s history?” An amused tone cut through his thoughts.
He looked up and a small smile broke out on his face. “Duke Takizawa, what brings you to the library…” he looked around to see the skies black beyond the windows. “This late at night?”
“I was simply taking a wander and imagine my surprise to find a young knight surrounded by history books,” the older man chuckled. “You look a bit troubled, what are you trying to find?”
“It’s nothing really,” Kame answered. “Just a story I was told and I wanted to verify some things.”
“Maybe I can help?” He offered. “No one knows the castle and its stories better than I.”
Kame glanced up and paused. “Duke Takizawa, I don’t mean to be rude but something just occurred to me, how old are you?” He could remember back when his father had been in his position, a freshly anointed knight of the Court, and the Duke seemed to be just as young as back then.
The duke burst out laughing, once again startling the servant within the library. “That, Sir Kamenashi, is for another time. Maybe I’ll tell you, if you tell me what you’ve been looking for.”
He debated it for a minute before deciding, what did he have to lose? “The Blood Knight, Prince Jin. I was told that it wasn’t simply a tale told to scare children and knights but I can’t seem to find much of anything about him, there aren’t even precise dates so I can’t tell when exactly it would have happened.”
He noticed how the duke froze for a moment before relaxing again. “Have you been talking to the oracle by chance, Sir Kamenashi?”
“I was in the Hall of Knights,” Kame explained. “Looking at the different portraits up and he found me there and told me a story.”
“About a mage who lives far, far away and will grant you any wish within his powers should you make it to him and that The Blood Knight left in search of this mage and was never heard from again?” The duke recited, looking through Kame, his mind off to places the knight couldn’t grasp.
“That’s exactly it,” Kame answered, “Except he adds that he believes the prince is still there with that mage.”
The duke chuckled. “He would say that, but he wouldn’t be wrong, necessarily.”
“So you believe he’s still alive as well?” Kame leapt on the chance to get the duke’s opinion and side of the story.
“Jin was… very kind and sometimes eccentric, I guess you could say. He could never seem to get the idea that he was missing something fundamental in life out of his mind. Instead of going through his basic military training as every good, young prince should, he latched on, wondering if maybe it would bring him somewhere so that he might find… whatever it was. The story of that mage first popped up maybe two hundred years ago and just as you have, Jin heard that story. He didn’t immediately leave but soon enough he thought, ‘this might be it’ and he left. But he’s still alive, different maybe, but alive.” The Duke smiled a bit and looked to his hands, as if willing them to show him something.
“You’re acting as if you knew him,” Kame stated quietly.
“I have a fair bit of magic, Sir Kamenashi,” the duke answered after a pause, “But it was about one hundred and thirty years ago that he left this castle. Afterwards, out of grief, many of his adventures and accomplishments are only spoken of as legends instead of true stories of a most honoured and amazing knight. It pained the king and queen too much to hear or read about their dear son’s life after he disappeared. But, hope that he hadn’t disappeared for good, that he was still thriving somewhere, was never lost and I was charged with a task to try and retrieve him. And many years ago I received some information that made me sure that Jin is still alive and still with that mage. Sadly, I could never truly convince the dear king and queen of this before they passed.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“A little fairy told me that the mage had a new companion, one that showed up out of the blue many years ago and now can’t leave. And after that? I received a very brief message from the boy himself.” Takki smirked.
“If he’s there, then why have so many failed?” Kame still wasn’t sure if the Duke was playing with him or telling the truth. He was known for a bit of an odd sense of humor, after all.
“Because, only those most worthy can make it through that forest and to the mage. He doesn’t particularly like visitors, and certainly not incompetent ones. He only allows the most spectacular of humans and magical beings alike to join him. I’d go myself but I’ve been deemed unfit and I can no longer venture into magic forests, or I might just lose some of my own.” He stated with an odd, faraway smile.
“You’ve magic in your blood? I mean, aside from the barest that any member of the royal line must have,” Kame asked.
Takki tilted his head. “And just how old do you think I am Sir Kamenashi? It wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t have a particularly tidy sum of magic at within my grasp. This mage though, while part of his, and the forest’s, criteria is how much magic you have, that isn’t the only condition. In order to even make it a step inside you have to be exceptionally endowed, for a human, with magic. I do not meet the other requirements but I do believe you, Sir Kamenashi, could meet all of them easily enough.”
“You want me to go? Are you insane?” He had the life countless dreamed about and even more were willing to die for, he had no reason to drop everything to chase after fairies and mages.
“Perhaps I am, but you’re curious aren’t you? You’ve probably shown the barest hints of magic throughout your short years, it probably even enhances your abilities on the battlefield, and it certainly gives you a bit of a glamour that only magic blood can provide. Maybe animals get spooked when you’re particularly angry and maybe you’ve made things happen that others can’t. But you know I’m right, and surely you want to test just how gifted your magic blood is. You haven’t had any training or exposure, so I doubt you’ll gain much control now, but don’t you want to know if it’s enough to get you past a hurdle so very few have bested?”
“But I don’t have any magic. No one in my family has, and sure some of those things have happened but it’s hardly suspect.” Kame feebly reasoned.
“Sir Kamenashi, have you forgotten the basics of magic already? Only the royal bloodlines, mages, and magical beings always have magic, generation to generation. Take our deceased King Saito, he only had the barest trace of magic accorded to the royal line. Mages and royals will always have at least some magic, but magic is finicky, even when blood rights are involved. Any human from any family, with no history of magic or odd occurrences, could be blessed with a great store of magic. It works in mysterious ways and even after all these years we are no closer to working out its reason. We only know that it happens. I repeat, Sir Kamenashi, don’t you want to know the extent to your limits? Physical and magic?”
A week later, he once again found himself in the Hall of Knights. Except this time, instead of wandering up and down the twisting, labyrinthine halls, he stood in front of the most honoured portrait. The prince looked just as distant as he had the last time Kame had been here. He had, of course, not expected any change or sudden revelations, but after keeping himself from returning for the long, oddly long feeling week, he hadn’t been able to stay away any longer.
Duke Takizawa had been correct. He had to know his limits, even if it was only for magic he would probably never fully understand or control. And aside from that, he still wanted to know if the prince had found what he’d been searching for. Somehow, he had to know or he knew he’d dwell on it for the rest of his time.
“YOU!” He started and spun to the source of the shout.
Down the hall, appearing more foreboding from a distance in the flickering torchlight, stood the oracle, fully adorned in robes and amulets as expected.
“I knew you’d be back,” the oracle chuckled and slowly made him way to the young knight. When he was just a few feet away he swept back his hood.
Kame was shocked, in front of him was simply an old man, completely unassuming in appearance. He was the sort you would pass without a second of notice and not at all of the air one would expect of the highly revered oracle.
The old man scrutinized him for a few minutes before turning, “Come along then. I can tell from your eyes that you’ve already decided to go.” He swept down the hall and Kame took a few seconds of shock before following.
“Where are we going?”
“To the Chamber of Divining of course,” the oracle didn’t pause for a second before sweeping into a circular, nearly pitch black room. In the centre was a table with a feeble candle set in the centre. “You can’t just leave any day you feel up to it. The proper spirits must be in place.”
“I don’t think I understand.”
“You must follow the lights, but they will only be at their brightest once a moon cycle, and this changes month to month. Every knight that has wished to go on this adventure has consulted me and every time I have given them the perfect timeframe to leave. Those that have ignored me return much sooner than the others. Sadly, I knew almost none of them would have even the scarcest of hope of making the journey, but there were a few I had high hopes for. But it seems, the mysterious Duke agrees that you have a chance, and so I must give you the best chance I can. It’s not often one gets a worthy candidate. Now sit.”
While the castle and the city of Keishi1 were large, as expected from the capital, it rarely took long for gossip to spread to the furthest reaches of the capital. Before night fell, at least every knight within the castle walls knew that Kame was setting out, soon, on a potentially impossible journey.
He was ribbed for falling for such a silly tale and he took it all in stride, knowing that in the end if he could manage this then no longer would many other knights talk about his privileged family getting him this far.
“Do not listen to them. They don’t know how true this legend is,” the Duke appeared suddenly at his side as he paced in the gardens. He would have been surprised at not noticing the man had he not seen the Duke in action once or twice during his life.
“So you really do believe it then?” Kame asked. He already knew that the Duke did believe but somehow he still couldn’t quite get it to sink in.
“I know that it is true. And I didn’t agree with the oracle in the past. I didn’t agree with who he thought would be worthy of making this journey. And as you can see he has failed numerous times but this time I believe you can do this.” Takki reassured him and then paused, looking out at the other entrance to the gardens.
“Please don’t worry about me backing out because of what they think. I’m hoping that this will prove something to not only them but to myself,” Kame whispered, his eyes cast far up into the sky.
Takki smiled faintly at the look that came across the young man’s face. “In some ways the Oracle is right, you can seem quite similar.”
“The Oracle repeated that a few times, what does that even mean?”
“You and our lost prince. There is something similar about you.” Takki murmured with a ghost of a smile.
While he allowed his horse to graze he couldn’t tear his gaze from the forest just a few metres away. If the duke and oracle were correct, even getting within the grounds of the forest would be proof of the magic supposedly within his blood.
When his horse nudged him a bit, he drew him forward, inching closer and closer to the silent forest. When his right foot was nestled between the large roots of the nearest tree he breathed a sigh of relief.
“At least this means I won’t wind up in the nearest town unsure of how I got there, right boy?” He asked the horse before shaking his head and taking his spot on its back.
He had been told that it would be best to travel at night, that his horse would not misstep in such a forest even in the dark. But, the duke said if he was lucky he might just be able to travel during daylight as well, but to keep a sharp eye out for the “lights”. He hadn’t wanted to waste any time beyond the necessary night in the nearby town so he’d immediately set off, amidst whispers questioning his reasons for going to the cursed forest.
Five minutes later he began grumbling.
“'You might need to go a bit into the forest before you find your guides, so be patient and try not to panic’, he said. He made it sound as if it’d be like a nice walk on a spring afternoon around the lake. Where are these damn lights?”
Ten minutes and many rude names for the duke and oracle later, he saw the barest of sparks in the dark depths of the forest. He thanked the dense canopy above because without it blocking all but some scattered beams of light, he’d never have caught the faint glow up ahead. The small pinpoint of light faded but he caught sight of a few more faint, blinking glows up ahead.
“What are those? Lightning bugs2?” He mused aloud. He directed his horse in that direction. “If they are… they aren’t any of the sort we get back home…” he watched as the tiny lights took on different colours and hues they fluttered about. As wary as he was, they were probably the only things he could connect with the vague guidance from the oracle, and so he set off, following the odd lights in a winding trail through the forest.
Hours later, once the beams of light faded, the forest was barely illuminated by the faintest, green glow that seemed to come from within the trees. Still in the distance, the balls of light had gained intensity and he could easily track the odd, fluttering movements of the lights. He could only guess he was following spirits, as that is term the oracle had used, through the forest.
He stopped at a stream to allow his horse a break and some time to reassess the situation and eat a hurried snack. When after dismounting, he saw that unlike when he had stopped earlier in the evening, the lights seemed to be resting among the boughs of the trees above.
He counted himself lucky that he hadn’t ended up dazed in that town, or whatever town was now the closest after a few days of travel, without any recollection of traveling there, as other knights had in the past. But he also knew that as soon as they left he would have to follow or risk losing his only guidance.
It had been a long week of travel already, but after fifteen minutes he carefully led his horse forward to try and inspect these spirits if he were allowed close enough.
He crept forward slowly and once he was only a few paces away he called up into the trees. “Hello?” from directly below, he could only see the outer glow of the spheres, leaves and branches obscuring the rest.
When he received no response he whispered, “Stay here,” to the horse before grabbing hold of a low branch and pulling himself up. With each branch and new level of the tree, the glows flittered about a bit more and became clearer, until he pulled himself up level with the majority of the odd lights. “Hello? Can you speak?” he whispered faintly.
The lights all shuddered before all but one fled to the neighboring tree. One of the spheres of light fluttered over to him and he hesitantly held out his hands, cupped. He was startled at the movement himself, he wasn’t sure what had drawn him to do it when the light touched down on his gloves and morphed.
Instead, before his eyes was a small creature, something he could almost call human if it weren’t for the size, colouring, glow, and translucent wings.
“Sorry about them, they’re not used to interacting with humans… not that I am either,” the small creature told him with a wary smile.
Kame’s mouth worked soundlessly for a few minutes before he managed, “You… you’re a—?”
“We’re forest fairies.” The fairy supplied with a small laugh.
“I thought humans couldn’t see fairies…”
“Only those with enough magic can… why are you in our forest? No humans ever come here, or they never really succeed at least.” The fairy stretched his arms up a bit and his wings beat a few times before he sat down in Kame’s hands.
“Why am I- I’m looking for the mage’s home, I was told to follow the lights… you all I guess…” he trailed off.
The fairy’s eyes widened before he smiled. “The last time a human made it into the forest I was just a tiny sprite. Why do you want to go there?”
“I-I’m not quite sure,” he answered honestly. “I wanted just to see if I’d be judged worthy enough to make it and there are stories… stories that one of our kingdom’s past princes may be there. I was curious.”
“I see,” the small creature was distracted, for a minute when another ball of light floated over slowly. “Ah? Really, alright, just give me a minute?” The light then sped back over to the others.
“They don’t like me much, do they?” Kame bit his lip. “I’ll still be able to follow you all, won’t I?”
“It’s not that they don’t like you, it’s like I said, they’re just afraid because it has been a very long time since we have seen a human,” the fairy shuffled a bit and glanced back to the other tree. “You’ll be needing rest soon won’t you? The trees say you’ve been in the forest all day and it is already beyond the darkest of the night…”
“I have to follow your group though, if I don’t I won’t be able to find my way. At least that’s what I was told,” Kame answered.
“Just a moment, I’ll be right back,” he smiled and floated to his brethren and seemed to converse quietly for a few minutes. Every once in a while Kame would notice many of the lights shaking oddly and wondered what it was about.
As he said, the fairy quickly returned to him and returned to his human-like appearance.
“My… I suppose you could call them my clan? I don’t know what you know about forest fairies…”
“Nothing at all really. No one comes in contact with fairies, or at least if they do no one talks about it, anymore and a lot of old texts concerning it can only be read by a handful of scholars…”
“I see… we’re not related, not in a sense you would recognize. We’re born when dew falls under the right circumstances from a tree. We were just all born from the same type of tree and as such are linked3. So my clan, they want to continue the journey now. We stopped only to rest for a bit before continuing.”
“Then I shall continue as well,” Kame immediately answered.
“You don’t have to. We are on our way there now, of course. Once a moon or so we make the journey. I will guide you to the mage’s home. They do not like it, at least the younger ones do not, but the elders agree that you seem to mean us no harm. You can rest now and we can continue in the morning? I know the way by heart so you need not worried about getting lost while you’re with me.”
“Thank you, but I can continue now. I don’t want to bother you more than I already am…”
“It isn’t a bother and I am curious after all. I want to see the human who managed to make it through this forest and I won’t be able to if you and your horse eventually can no longer keep up with my clan’s pace. So long as we were within this forest we do not need much rest and it is still a few days to the Lavender Field4.”
“I… thank you, it would be great if you would guide me.” Kame relented, knowing that the fairy was right. “I have no doubt that part of the challenge of getting there is keeping up with the fairies to guide you. What is your name, if you have one? I’m Kamenashi Kazuya, knight of the Shōryō5 Royal Court, Order of Kaku6. You can call me Kazuya though.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Kazuya. I’m Nakamaru Yuichi and Yuichi or Maru is fine. I don’t really have any titles but the whisperings have been that I might be appointed to status of the elders7 in the next few years.”
“That must be a good thing then, congratulations,” Kame smiled. “What is the Lavender Field?”
“Lavender Field is the name of the mage’s home. There, special lavender blooms and that is why we journey there.” Maru explained brightly.
“Lavender blooms all the way out here? But we’re so close to the mountains, surely the cold kills them…” Kame mumbled, remembering the winter when his mother’s favorite flowers had been killed during a harsh storm.
“This isn’t normal lavender, Kazuya. Junno tells us that a new lavender shoot grows whenever a star falls from favour and disappears from the sky8.” He answered. “Though I’m not sure if that’s true or if he was making a joke. They’re probably just magic plants…”
“Is Junno part of your clan?”
“Oh, no he’s not. He’s uh…” the fairy paused to think. “Hm, I think in your language he’s a tree spirit. He lives at Lavender Field too.”
“But I thought you were a tree spirit?”
“No, no!” Maru laughed. “I’m a tree fairy. I can exist because of the tree’s magic but Junno is a tree spirit. He is the tree.”
Kame looked around, “So can all these trees talk?”
“Yes, but I don’t think you can hear them. But you made it in! Maybe Jin can teach you, I mean he could do it when he was a human so maybe…” Kame tuned out the fairy for a moment as his breath caught. Jin, it was just the name he’d been hoping for but never thought he’d hear on this journey. “Kazuya… Kazuya? Are you alright? You look a little… well I’m not really sure how you look right now. Maybe we should get out of this tree, I don’t know what I’ll do if you fall. I’ve never had to try healing a human before but maybe…”
“I’m sorry Maru, I’m fine. But moving to the ground sounds like a good idea… I’ll meet you down there?” He offered and at the nod began to drop from branch to branch until he was close enough to risk the higher jump.
Maru clapped, but the noise barely reached him. “You’re good at that! Jin sometimes climbs trees like that. I think he says, ‘I want to see things from high up like you do!’. He’s kind of funny though. Ueda is always shaking his head.”
“There’s that name again. Who is Jin, Maru?” He wasn’t sure what sort of answer he wanted.
“Oh! Jin is a human, like you… or at least he was a human,” Maru tilted his head and smiled.
Kame tensed. “What do you mean… he was a human?”
“It’s complicated,” Maru frowned. “But we’re going there anyway so they can explain it to you!”
“Right… so Junno is a tree,” Kame mumbled.
“Except he’s different. If a tree is old enough sometimes it, well its spirit I guess, can move freely.” Maru sat on Kame’s raised knee.
Kame blanched, he couldn’t help but imagine trees moving about, using their roots like legs, and he wasn’t sure how he could handle such a thing. Perhaps things would have been safer if he’d stayed at home…
Though it took many days for Kame and Maru to reach the Lavender Field, gossip of their travels moved much faster, spreading through the forest. Kame may not have noticed the variety of creatures taking peeks at him through the deep foliage, but Maru certainly did. The trees they passed always sent whispers ghosting past his ears, speculation about the knight’s intentions and status as a human.
While Kame rest Maru had to answer questions in hushed tones. While making progress he asked the questions, anything from Kame’s daily life to the goings on of the royal court. It was surprisingly fun and as they came closer and closer to their destination, Maru felt the tugs of sadness, knowing that the knight would have his wish granted and leave. Not every human was like the last that had come here after all. They wouldn’t all surely end up staying and befriending the whole forest and the prince… the prince rarely told stories of the castle he’d grown up in.
The forest all knew they were in the presence of royalty this whole time, but his friend had confessed, on a lonely night when both Junno and Ueda were away and Maru was the only fairy still around, that sometimes it was simply too hard to think about.
So instead, Maru would make the most of his new friend, who was more than happy to both describe his life as a human but also listen to Maru’s own tales.
Kame had been expecting the worst should he stumble across the mage’s home. Once he’d been all guaranteed guidance to his goal, he’d had nearly a week to fill his mind with more and more scenarios. He’d expected a tall, foreboding tower or maybe a sinister home that stood only because of magic and concentrated evil. Something of that sort of thing but instead there was a large clearing atop a densely wooded hill filled with lavender blooms.
A charming, wooden house stood beside a clear pond, looking as innocuous as the flowers that surrounded it. A large, gangly tree stood tall over the house and pond. What struck him as odd though, were the golden leaves9 that adorned the tree in the middle of Spring. He could see the faint glints of Maru’s clan drifting about on the breeze around the lavender blooms.
Carefully he tied to his horse, allowing him to graze in the light wind. Hesitantly he made his way over to the front door of the home but froze when the water rippled suddenly behind him. He shook the odd feeling of being watched off and approached the front door of the house but it swung open before he could raise his fist to the wood.
Wide eyes watched as the knight was called into the house. The water rippled fiercely before a man appeared from its depths. His skin held the faintest hint of blue and something caught the light briefly from where it was nestled in his dark hair.
“Guch,” he whispered, turning to the bright tree.
“We haven’t had a human visitor since you arrived,” a head of bright, blond hair popped out from the trunk of the tree. He smiled brightly down at the water.
“Taguchi, he was from my kingdom!” the man in the pond beamed. “He must be a knight of the Court. Look at the crest on his horse’s gear!”
“Oh, do you recognize him?” Taguchi toppled out of the tree to sit next to the pond.
His friend rose a bit further to meet his excited gaze. “I think I’ve seen him before in the visions, but that’s it. What do you think he’s doing here?”
“I don’t know, probably here for the same reason you came, right Jin?” Taguchi smiled.
“I guess so. Maru was with him too…” Jin turned back to the house. He shared a quick look with Taguchi before tumbling out of the pond and making his way to the open window where they couldn’t resist looking in.
“You can come in, I won’t turn you into a frog or any other nonsense people might’ve filled your head with,” a voice called from inside the house.
Kame started but Maru fluttered forward and grinned. As odd as it was, he trusted the fairy and followed him into the house. Light streamed in through the windows, illuminating all sorts of odd knickknacks mixed in with the completely ordinary furniture.
“So what it is that you want?” Kame followed Maru closer to the voice.
“What do I want?” Kame frowned and turned a final corner. Maru rushed over to the man at the table and landed on his shoulder.
“Everyone wants something. Why else would a knight leave his kingdom to venture into magic forests and fields? You have some wish, no doubt,” the man never glanced up at him, instead keeping his gaze fixed on the dark crystal that hung on the delicate strand he held above the tabletop.
His fair features and beautiful face stopped Kame’s processes for a moment. All the mages in the storybooks and legends had been like the oracle from back home, elderly men with ridiculously strong magic or terrifying women set on revenge. He knew he shouldn’t put so much stock in old fairytales but too many things were proving true that he couldn’t help but make assumptions. Instead of odd robes the mage wore clothing perfectly in time with the newest trends among the noblemen and upper-class. Kame blinked a few times until the mage huffed and a lone, silver butterfly burst into existence from the dark stone.
“I may have all the time I could want on my hands and can do things at my own pace but I’m not wasting it by being stared down like a fascinating new creature,” the mage cut across Kame’s thoughts dryly. “We’re not all like those outdated stereotypes you read in those inaccurate things you mortals call fairytales.”
“Tatchan, be nice. Kame is my friend,” Maru chided quietly.
Kame shook his head, breaking out of his daze. “I’m Kamenashi Kazuya, Knight of the Shōryō Royal Court, Order of Kaku.”
The mage sighed, “It’s not as if your titles really count out here.” Maru narrowed his eyes and the mage rolled his own. “Fine, fine. Ueda Tatsuya, mage of that insipid legend that the Duke and Oracle like to tell sometimes. Now, what is your wish?”
Kame frowned but was distracted when Maru waved wildly towards the window. He whipped around to look but was only greeted by the swaying branches of that cheerful tree from outside. Maybe one of his fairy brethren floating by or something.
“I’m sorry but I think you’re mistaken, I’m not here to have a wish granted.”
“Oh not another one,” Ueda sighed and dropped the stone to the table.
“Another one?” Kame asked hesitantly.
“Last human that came through here ended up staying for over a hundred years.” Ueda rolled his eyes.
“The prince... I mean The Blood Knight10?” Kame asked. “He’s still here then?”
“Of course he’s been here, where else would he be?” Ueda huffed and then turned to the window. “Stop spying and just come in! I swear it’s sort of like having my own personal jesters. Personal jesters I didn’t ask for.”
“Aw, that’s mean Tatchan, you know you love us,” a voice called and Kame froze as a man popped up and rested his arms on the window’s frame.
But what really startled him was not his sudden appearance, but instead the almost translucent quality of the man, the man he’d come so accustomed to dissecting in his mind. The man looked almost exactly as The Blood Knight, the prince, had appeared in his honoured portrait. The only difference was his eyes. In this moment he merely seemed amused, and there were no traces of the longing or sorrow that he’d come to expect.
“You’d be so boring without us, you know it,” another voice chimed and Kame took a step back when a man’s torso appeared from the tree and grinned at them.
The man who looked like the prince, because surely he couldn’t be the actual prince after over one hundred years, moved his eyes from the mage to Kame and tilted his head. His form seemed to solidify and the only trace that he’d been nearly see-through was the faint silvery-blue hue to his skin.
“You’re a bit young to have been anointed to the Order of Kaku,” his voice was warm and Kame felt himself calm a bit. He may be in a mage’s home, in a magic forest, with a legendary mage, a tree fairy, a man who appeared from a tree, and someone who looked like a dead prince, but he couldn’t help but feel a bit more at ease. “But you did make it through the forest and here, so you must be pretty amazing. Akanishi Jin, The Blood Knight of Shōryō. I haven’t… you’re the first human to come here since I made the trip so you’re the first person from my home I’ve seen in person since then.”
“How do I know you’re actually Akanishi Jin, The Blood Knight, and not merely an imposter using an illusion? We are at a mage’s home, after all.” Kame asked, finally finding his voice in the chaos of his mind.
The man frowned, as did the… man from the tree, that must be Junno. It was silent for a moment before he reached to his head and drew the shining, silver hoop from his waves. Kame recognized it immediately from the etching that wrapped around the fairy silverand the slight pull he felt towards it. King Kimutaku wore a similar piece, set with a dragon diamond, there was another crafted of goblin’s gold and one exactly matching the one before him safely housed in the royal treasure room. The fourth of the set had been missing for much longer than Kame’s own life. Some of the men he had served in battle with had doubted the existence of the fourth circlet. They had been crafted hundreds of years before as a gift to the royal family by the legendary Tanaka Clan and could only be worn by the king and queen of Shōryō, as well as the royal heirs.
“That could very well be a fake,” Kame murmured. “Most people haven’t gotten close enough to the royal circlets to be able to identify them, myself included.”
Ueda sighed. “I will vouch that this is in fact the former crown prince of Shōryō.”
“But he doesn’t even seem to be human,” Kame narrowed his eyes but then froze. “But Maru said… said that the last human who came was no longer human.”
“I fell under a curse while I was staying here,” not-Jin explained lowly. “Even Tatchan can’t fix it and I am bound here.”
“And if I don’t believe you?”
The man—spirit?—closed his eyes, “what if I demonstrated the royal blood magic11? Will that be enough or have you never seen it done?”
It was Kame’s turn to tilt his head and assess the being before him. If, as he claimed, he could perform the royal blood magic it was simple enough. History had it, and was backed up by the Oracle, that no mage or magical being could replicate the affect the blood spilling had and Kame had witnessed it before.
“I have seen both the King and Duke do it and I remember it precisely.” Kame answered, standing tall and confidently. “If you’re this sure then show me.”
The man grinned, “Can I borrow a bowl and some water, Tatchan?”
Kame leaned against a tree and watched as Junno happily carried a large bowl of water out. The other man stood at the edge of the clearing, as far from the house and the pond as possible. It took him a few minutes to place it, but when he looked back over, the blue tint had left his skin and he easily could have passed as human.
He was distracted when the other man pulled out a gleaming dagger, the royal seal etched into the blade, and drew it across his palm. It was a slight comfort when the blood that flowed out looked just as his own would; he’d half been expecting it to be different, somehow. The hand flexed and blood dripped into the water and after a moment, he curled that hand into a fist and swept it over the water.
Kame felt the tell-tale spark that swept through the area, the prickle of electricity brought his gaze to his hands for just a moment before he remembered what came next and looked back up. A tree had already began to sprout straight from the bowl of water but after a moment it shot up quickly and the prince stepped back out of its path as the trunk expanded and the branches swept out and covered the clearing with it’s cool shadows.
“I’m sorry, I might’ve overdone it a bit,” Jin apologized to Ueda who was shaking his head and sighing. “So, Sir Kamenashi, is this proof enough?” He waved his hand again and the tree began to recede until the bowl was left untouched, the water gone.
There was no denying it any longer; this was the royal blood magic. The man who stood before him was no imposter because there was way to fake being a descendant of Seiryū.
“How are you still alive?” Kame asked quietly. He had never processed what he would do if he found the mage and the prince, but there could be no doubt, before him was Prince Jin, the Blood Knight still spoken of between knights.
“I’ve been cursed,” Jin answered quietly. “I’ve been bound by Seiryū’s12 magic to this water.”
Later, once night had fallen, Kame sat amongst the lavender blooms and stared up into the sky. Maru lay next to him, somehow curled up on a swaying lavender stalk. The stars twinkled down at him and he whispered.
“Whenever a star falls from grace and disappears from the sky…”
“Did Junno tell you that?” Jin’s voice startled him. He hadn’t even noticed him walking through the field.
“Maru, actually,” Kame answered. They sat silently for a bit longer until Kame turned to look at Jin and how the moonlight reflected off his eyes and even his skin, to an extent, and reminded him of the curse that had kept him here for this many years. “Duke Takizawa was so sure you were alive and here.”
“Yeah, I’m not surprised,” Jin smiled. “Takki… you can count on Takki.” He leaned back to lie on the ground, for a better view of the stars and tugged Kame down after a moment.
Normally, Kame wouldn’t pay too much attention to things like the stars or the sound of the wind weaving through the lavender stalks. Instead, he would be perfecting his sword-fighting technique or teacher the younger candidates. For now, though, he felt content to soak in just how different things were and how it wasn’t as silly as he’d once thought.
Kame watched as Jin reached for a sword set high on a shelf and Junno stumbled in with some light armor in his hands.
“It was in the closet,” the cheerful man answered. “I’ve never gotten to see knights battle before.”
Kame grinned. “You might be in for a treat then, if any of the stories are even close to being true.”
Kame hadn’t felt so alive when sparring in years. Maybe it was the thrill of going up against the renowned knight, especially now that he had heard the truth from Duke Takizawa previously. And hours later, he lay in the grass next to the pond, his heartbeat still slightly erratic and his gear scattered, where it had fallen as he shucked it off the lighter armor piece by piece. Next to him, Jin had his elbows propped on the edge of the pond, his body once again nearly translucent. Ueda lounged under Junno’s tree, where he had watched them trade skills that morning.
“Tell me, how exactly were you cursed? Especially if the mage didn’t do it to you?” Kame asked and turned onto his side.
Jin paused and tapped his lip for a minute. “It’s been so long I can’t even remember, it didn’t seem to matter after. Tat-chan, how exactly did this happen again?”
Ueda tilted his head. “You’re right, I don’t even remember anymore.” He flashed a brief frown as he thought.
Kame resisted the urge to turn and return to the capital, right this instant.
“Wasn’t it the Seiryū’s Vase?” Junno proclaimed cheerfully from his perch in his tree.
“Oh right,” Jin flushed lightly while Ueda glared at him.
“That’s right,” Ueda’s eyes remained narrow. “You destroyed my Seiryū’s Vase.”
“What’s a Seiryū’s Vase?” Kame asked, grinning at Jin’s still pink cheeks.
“A vase infused with a piece of Seiryū’s spirit,” Junno answered with a grave look. “When Jin broke the vase it released the spirit and it had to bind to something to stay whole, it… bound with Jin and the nearest body of water.”
“Alright, but what does that mean, exactly?”
“It means, that I’m no longer quite human and if I spend too much away from here… the spirit will split from my body,” Jin answered lowering his eyes to his arms and wouldn’t continue.
“Even with his magic… he wouldn’t survive that,” Ueda chimed in quietly.
Kame felt his stomach drop slightly and was reminded again of those eyes he’d first seen in the castle; the ones always off in the distance, in the clouds, and the prince who had wanted out.
He couldn’t remember quite how many days had passed since he’d come to Lavender Field. He spent his days watching Ueda working magic to his every whim and Junno and Jin playing while Maru tried to talk them out of climbing too high or straying too far. In the meantime he was content to sit by and watch, his horse grazing happily in the field and receiving treats from Junno from time to time.
It wasn’t until Ueda arched an eyebrow at Maru to ask a question that he realized just how caught up he’d become in this little magical oasis.
“Maru, your clan left last night, don’t you have to return home soon?” Maru paused in his flight and lowered to the spindly kitchen table and frowned.
“That’s right didn’t you say that you only made this trip once a month?” Kame asked.
“Maybe but,” Maru fidgeted. “You’re not going to stay forever. Not like Jin at least and I don’t want to miss the rest of your stay.”
Jin froze where he’d been tickling Junno in his sleep with a feather that had drifted into the field earlier. “Yeah, Kame can’t stay here forever,” he mumbled.
Jin spent the rest of the day and late into the night curled up on his side, in the very spot he’d performed the blood spilling.
Kame stepped carefully through the field and leant against a tree facing Jin. “Are you alright?”
Jin didn’t answer for a minute and instead looked out past the tree before slowly dragging his eyes over to Kame. “The courtyard at the castle is beautiful this time of year, isn’t it?”
Kame blinked, he hadn’t expected that. “Yes, it’s beautiful. Any time of year really. There’s this huge tree in the centre and I tried always tried to climb just a little bit higher when I was little.”
“Yeah, I loved that tree too. My mom told me it’s been there hundreds of years already,” Jin answered with a small smile. “I used to climb it too. And the kitchens, I was always sneaking down to the kitchens, with my best friend Pi. He was the son of one of my father’s advisors; he went on to become a knight too. But the head of the kitchen loved us. She would sneak us treats between meals whenever we came down to see her.” He explained in low tones, but in the quiet of the night his voice carried.
“I’ve never visited the kitchens before,” Kame admitted. “I never really had a reason to I guess.”
“I doubt it’s changed much. You should go if you have a chance. It can be fun to just watch them cooking and the chaos, it’s so different,” Jin smiled wistfully. “It is one of the most comforting places in the castle, or was, I guess.”
Kame moved carefully forward to sit closer to the prince. He couldn’t help but put what he hoped was a comforting hand on Jin’s arm. “I’m sorry.” Whether it was because Jin had missed out on the rest of his life amongst friends and family or because he was stuck here, the exact opposite of what he’d seemed to dream. But when he saw the stray tear Jin tried to hide, he decided it was both and much more.
“I want to see the castle again and not just scraps of images, but for myself. I want to… I want to...” he trailed off and all Kame could do was sit with him longer into the night.
“Is there a way to break the curse?” Kame questioned Ueda the next morning while Jin sat out in the sun with Junno and Maru.
Ueda closed his book carefully and pushed it aside. “There is a way, but Jin can’t go alone and Junno and I can’t leave here.”
“But there is a way,” Kame smiled. “Why can’t he go alone?”
“Someone who can set the wards has to go with him. They should suppress the curse enough that he can leave the pond for long periods of time but he can’t do the magic on himself,” Ueda explained simply. “It will only work for so long though and that’s only the beginning. His best bet would be locating the Sword of Oryu.”
“I’ve heard of it, it’s legendary, but I didn’t know it could break curses.” Kame frowned and tried to remember the story. “It was supposedly forged by the Tanaka Clan with one of Oryu’s scales.”
“That’s right. It can do a lot of things and with it I can safely split their spirits without harming either of them,” Ueda held out his hand and a book flew down to him. He flipped through for a moment and then pushed it across the table and tapped the diagram of the sword. “The only problem is it sometimes seems to disappear. Maybe you haven’t heard the story, but the last sign of it was in Zhuque, their inner circle of the greatest warriors used the sword to take down a… Gandaberunda, I think, that was terrorizing the capital. You don’t normally see them on the continent.”
“I see,” Kame sighed. “Well, I can’t use magic so I guess I can’t help.”
“Do you want to help?” Ueda smiled lightly.
“He’s miserable,” Kame mumbled, looking out the nearby window to avoid the mage’s piercing gaze. “Duke Takizawa asked me to find him but I can’t just go back and leave him here like this.”
“Well you’re in luck. You made it through the forest; you’ve enough magic abilities to set the wards. It’s a pretty simple process, Jin could probably talk you through it if need be.” Ueda popped over to one of the bookshelves himself and plucked a book. “Ready to learn this?”
Two hours later Ueda pat Kame’s shoulder after teaching him the basics.
“How about you give it a try on Jin? We’re going to have to tell him sometime,” Ueda suggested. “Besides, there’s only so much we can do without trying it on him.”
Kame looked down at the pages below his fingertips that sent sparks of electricity dancing through his fingertips whenever he concentrated enough. Fine brushstrokes spelled out complicated runes across each page that Ueda had assured him it would work.
Ueda leaned out the window with a grin, “Jin, stop splashing Junno and get in here. We have something to tell you.”
“’kay!” Jin called back. After a few minute he appeared in the window and pulled himself up onto the sill and crouched there with a smile. In the past two weeks, according to Junno’s memory, Kame had grown accustomed to the translucent and sometimes blue hint to the prince’s skin. “What’s up?”
Kame couldn’t suppress a grin as he imagined his reaction. “We’re going to break your curse, Jin.”
Jin jerked suddenly and flailed backwards for a second before Kame grabbed his arm and helped steady him. Wide, shocked eyes met his before Jin pulled himself into the room and gave Ueda a sharp look.
“What does he mean?” he asked. “You said it most likely wasn’t possible.”
“It wasn’t possible without outside help, of which we had none until now,” Ueda nodded towards Kame. “If we can get the sword of Oryu we can break your curse. He’s learned to activate the wards that will enable you to leave the forest.”
“We can’t ask him to do this,” Jin stated. “He has a life and a duty as a knight of the royal court to fulfill. This isn’t his dream.”
“I volunteered,” Kame interrupted and put a hand on Jin’s shoulder. “I asked Ueda what we could do to help you and I’m sure if we explain it to the King and Duke they’ll relieve me of my duties to do this. I mean, on Takizawa’s word they let me go off on this trip,”
“You are a rightful heir to the throne, Jin, no matter how you ran from it. I’m sure he can tell them that he’s assisting you and it’s basically like he’s fulfilling his duties to the crown and kingdom. This could mean your freedom.”Ueda tried.
They watched as Jin made a face before turning back to the window. “Only if you’re sure, Kame.”
“Of course I am, now stand still so I can try to do this magic. I’ve never done anything with magic consciously so bear with me.” Kame grinned nervously and placed his hand flat on the thick page of the written seals.
He concentrated on images of chains and on forcing the crackling in his fingertips through himself and back out through the hand he held in front of Jin. When the spark swept out and he was left feeling slightly light-headed he opened his eyes to find Jin holding him carefully, keeping him upright. He hadn’t even noticed his own stumbling or Jin’s tight grip. He blinked for a moment before something odd about the prince struck him, but that wasn’t important at the moment.
“Kame, are you ok?” Jin asked with wide, alarmed eyes.
“He didn’t grow up using his magic, not much at least,” Ueda murmured and pushed Kame gently into a chair. “This’ll probably happen a few times before you get used to it so just rest afterward.”
“Did it work?” Kame looked into Jin’s eyes, trying to see if the other felt any different. Slowly, he noticed how fully human Jin looked. His form had completely solidified even with their proximity to the pond, and the blue hues had completely left his skin. It reminded Kame of when Jin would wander to the furthest reaches of the clearing, how his air felt more familiar to Kame then but more so.
“It worked,” Ueda confirmed. “He’s not completely human during this, but close enough to travel freely. We’ll let it wear off until you’re prepared to leave but after that it has to be recast every twenty-four hours, you can’t forget or… well I’m sure you can guess.” He trailed off meaningfully and Kame bit his lip.
“What are you up to Tatchan? That magic felt weird…” Maru called from his seat on Junno’s head as the spirit walked into the room.
“They’ve made it so I can leave, to try and break my curse,” Jin answered quietly. He was staring at his hands and arms in wonder, twisting them this way and that way as if he couldn’t believe it had worked.
Just three days later, Jin was sheathing his sword back at his hip and looking around in case he’d forgotten anything until Ueda gathered them all outside.
“Now take these,” He pushed a satchel into Jin’s hands and smiled worriedly. “The purple one is a communication stone. You can talk to me whenever you need to; just think of me while holding it. The two yellow ones you need to keep with both of you at all times during this. They’ll enable you to understand and speak to anyone you come across, regardless of their language. The green will help ward off any stray creatures. I’m sure your King will be willing to write any introductions to aid your search when you stop back home first.”
Jin smiled softly and tied the bag around his wrist before tugging Ueda into a tight hug. He held the slight mage for a few minutes. “Tatchan, thank you for everything.”
“Don’t get too sentimental on me yet, we haven’t cured you. Wards will only hold a spirit that powerful for three or four weeks. Kame, as soon as the strokes on the seals start to unravel, come back or you might not have enough time to make it back.” Ueda reminded them, for the tenth time.
Jin grinned at Ueda before Junno caught him up in an even tighter hug. “Don’t do anything stupid and make sure to check in with us.”
“I promise we will, Guch,” Jin assured him and Junno beamed in response.
“Maru, come on say goodbye,” Ueda pushed him forward a bit towards the two knights.
“Actually,” Maru started nervously. “I was wondering if I could go with you? The trees will tell my clan where I’ve gone and I don’t need to stay in the forest.”
Kame looked at Jin who smiled hopefully. “Of course you can come with us, Maru,” he held out his hand for the fairy to land on.
“Yeah,” Jin agreed eagerly. “You’ve always wanted to know more about humans and this is a perfect chance.”
“Thank you!” Maru cried and hugged Kame’s arm tightly.
“Let’s get going then,” Jin took the reins of the horse and began to lead it into the forest.
“Kame,” Ueda called as they reached the tree line. “Come back once this is all over and I’ll grant you any wish in my power.”
Jin froze for a second and his shoulders stiffened when he remembered why Kame was agreeing to all this.
On their way through the forest, Jin would occasionally stop to consult one of the trees. He’d convinced Maru to take a break from playing guide and assured both of them that traversing the forest was easy. Kame, if asked, wouldn’t be able to give any hints as to where they were at any given time. Without the fairies to follow many of the trees and views looked exceedingly similar but when Maru awakened from his nap, he seemed pleased with their overall progress and could be prodded back to sleep.
The next day they broke free of the forest, not far from the village Kame had stayed that night weeks before, and he knew it could only be a day or so back to the capital.
“So why is your title the Blood Knight? Or were they just poking fun at the royal colour?” Kame asked, breaking the silence in the afternoon.
Jin blinked, “Huh?”
“The Blood Knight, why was that your title?” Kame repeated with a faint smile. He always wondered where Jin’s mind was when he spaced out like that. Was he in Baihu, lounging on their famed beaches or battling their mysterious and dangerous foxes, the Kumiho? Or possibly chasing storms and fighting Bashe snakes in Xuanwu?
“Sorry, it’s just been so long since I’ve been asked to tell the story.” Jin laughed and ran a hand through his tangled hair. “I defeated the last known Great Dragon, the Black Dragon of Shin.”
“So that old story is true then?” Kame asked. He’d heard it many times when he was a child and even when he was training to gain his title. “Everyone knows about it and it is linked with the Blood Knight but I always thought it was an old story about why there are no more Great Dragons and only those small one left around. But that doesn’t explain the title.”
“There were a few reasons…” Jin paused. “How well do you know the story of the Black Dragon of Shin?”
“Only that they apparently sent the best knights and few came back with their lives, let alone anything to show for it but then you went and triumphed over the dangerous dragon.” Kame recited briefly. When he had been a very small child, he hadn’t realized that the Great Dragons were real and had simply thought they were fantastic tales his mother used to keep him occupied.
“Well, I suppose it’s not too long of a story… so back when I was human, the Black Dragon had come out of its long sleep. Apparently some ancient royal mage had sealed the thing into a deep slumber for hundreds of years, but the magic finally wore too thin to hold. As the magic weakened the whole area it had slept near began to change. The land grew drier and dark clouds never left the Shin Plains but they never brought any rain. The rivers and streams started to dry up and more and more crops began to fail… and then The Black Dragon fully awoke and began to terrorize the villages and nearby cities. Plenty of people and knights tried and failed to kill the beast…” he trailed off for a few moments, lost in thought.
“I never understood why the Great Dragons were so dangerous.” Kame murmured. He backpedaled at Jin’s frown and continued. “Obviously, the Black Dragon was dangerous because it was destroying land and fields but are they all like that?”
“Right, legends say, that when a dragon dies it will be born again, into a new, similar life. But if a lesser dragon can collect enough stray sparks of magic and strength before it dies, it may be reborn into a greater dragon… and if it can continue as such for many new lives, and if it manages to capture even the smallest bit of Seiryū’s ’s magic from the air… it may just be reborn as a new Great Dragon. But it’s supposed to be nearly impossible to happen and as you know there hasn’t been one since I killed the Black Dragon and even before that it had been the last remaining alive for many, many years.” Jin explained quietly. He swept his hands around, animating his words with his hands.
“And why would Seiryū’s ’s magic turn them into bloodthirsty beasts?” Kame frowned. Seiryū’s was said to be brutal when necessary but it simply didn’t fit, at least not fully.
“The legend continues that if a Great Dragon can collect enough of an offering to Seiryū, it can leave the pains of this world and become a deity in its own right. Dragons, even the small ones, are attracted to nesting around shiny objects, and it would make sense that a similar offering could be made to Seiryū. So they collect the best jewels and gold that they can in order to please Seiryū. Of course, that often brought them into contact with humans, who also wanted such jewelry and goblets and whatever for other reasons. Of course humans would not just hand over these items, so to collect them in such huge amounts the Great Dragons would take them by force. But it would take many hundreds of years to amass the huge collections of jewels the Great Dragons had and during those years they lived much longer than any other dragon to complete such a task. As such, they absorbed more and more stray magic, often magic tainted from the fear and hate villagers felt towards the dragons as they ravaged towns in search of more and more gold and jewels to add to their collection. The Black Dragon eventually absorbed so much tainted magic that he carried it around with him everywhere, causing droughts, fires, and an overall gloom in his wake. Other Great Dragons utilized the magic to cause other kinds of damage.”
Kame watched the other knight as he relayed the tale. He wasn’t normally well-spoken or a particularly great speaker, but whenever he spoke of the legends of old or the past something about him changed. It was in these instances that he was able to see that look that had been captured so expertly in that portrait hanging in the Hall of Knights. Every time he saw that look, he knew Jin might slip further and further from his grasp. As if the past may somehow open up and swallow him whole.
“No one tells these stories anymore,” Kame mumbled, almost afraid to break the far-off silence Jin had lapsed into.
“People forget far too easily. They don’t have to worry about Great Dragons now, so to children and knights alike, they only exist is tales that really… are far too recent to be seen as fun, old tales as they are. It’s a shame too, that so many people don’t know the old legends. When I was just a child my favorite thing was to listen to my mom tell me all the legends and stories of past knights. Of quests beyond the seas and of times when mages and magic were far more common.” Jin scowled slightly and Kame suddenly remembered that Jin’s mother had been famous for her knowledge of the past and using it to support decisions for the kingdom.
“I’d like to hear some of them, one day… but that still doesn’t answer my original question.” Kame grinned and poked Jin’s side to distract him.
“Right right. I won’t go into particulars but I ended up getting splattered by a fair amount of the dragon’s blood, which was not pleasant, but…” He grabbed his sword and pulled it from its sheath.
Kame looked at the sword, the once obviously pristine and shining steel bled red in the direct sunlight.
“It resulted in this. Dragon’s blood is an odd thing, or at least powerful dragon’s blood is. Like the rest of the dragon, it holds that collected magic. No amount of cleaning or toils by blacksmiths could return it to its original form, not that I minded it horribly. I even asked Tat-chan once, out of curiosity, if he could fix it and he said that even he wouldn’t be able to change it back because killing creatures of such vast magic leaves permanent marks and it was one of my marks from killing such a creature. I was lucky it’s the only permanent mark I have left.” Jin replaced the sword quickly and rubbed at his left arm, something he seemed to do when nervous.
“That’s one obvious reason… the others?”
“Well, it disappeared once I was cursed but,” he gestured along his forearm, the one he’d just rubbed. “I used to have a couple blood red scars that rain straight up my arm along here. Spines from the tail of the damn thing caught my arm. Like I said though, once I was cursed they faded, probably a result of Seiryū’s magic. People used to always ask me to show the scars though and what is a knight without a few battle scars? They were seen as a sign of my bravery and triumph…” he sighed and shook his head. “I guess part of it also was, like you said, a play off my family’s name. There might have been some other reasons, I don’t really remember all of them. But finally there were the blood red jewels. Of course, all the riches the Black Dragon had collected were brought back to be sorted through, and used to fund the repairs of all the cities affected and support the towns until things were stable again… I bet…” Jin trailed off again, eyes far away and Kame once again caught sight of the man from the portrait and found, oddly, that he really hated it. “When I was a little boy, I once was able to go to the Shin Plains and see them myself. It was trees, green fields, and scattered flowers as far as you could see, other than the farmland and other things of course. Because of the affects of the dragon’s magic, much of those forests and plains withered and died. I bet they’ve already grown back to the way they once were.”
Kame smiled, “I went once too. It’s like that now.”
“I thought so,” Jin grinned. “Anyway, as more and more of this treasure was brought back to the kingdom we discovered the Black Dragon had been a bit odd. Most of its hoard was gold and red jewels. Garnets, rubies, fire crystals, and any other red gem you could imagine and more. There were fire amulets and all sorts of things like that. That’s why I was called, The Blood Knight. People liked to spread stories, though, like me returning drenched in the dragon’s blood or being a bloodthirsty knight. I think there was even a rumor at one point, that I was a vampire… or something of that sort and I was called that because of the blood of my victims, or something.” Jin laughed and Kame joined him for a bit. “Obviously that last one never quite stuck, considering I loved garlic on my food too much and spent plenty of time out in the sun or because I was perfectly capable of walking instead of hopping.”
“Of course,” Kame laughed. “Do you have any idea why that dragon seemed to prefer that colour?”
“Hm…” Jin murmured and thought for a few minutes. “No one could say for sure… but I remember my mom telling us that maybe the Black Dragon, instead of encountering Seiryū’s magic to become stronger, caught a wisp of Suzaku’s fire magic. After that, he was drawn, without realizing it, to Suzaku’s colour.”
They continued in silence for quite some time. Kame imagined what it would have been like to fight a Great Dragon, one that could scorch the earth just from its presence. And Jin looked back on the past, on the jokes from other knights and the teasing words of his brother following his title.
They received no odd looks until they approached the castle in the centre of the sprawling city. All the residents of the city were accustomed to the comings and goings of knights, so the sight of two knights, one on horseback and the other on foot, really wasn’t that uncommon.
Kame, however, was well known among the knights of the capital and after having disappeared for just over three weeks, he wasn’t surprised when one of the guards immediately went to alert Duke Takizawa, no doubt.
“Sir Kamenashi, Chinen just went to alert the Duke that you’re back, per your requests.” The remaining guard greeted him. “We were starting to get worried. Who is our guest? A knight from one of the estates I presume?”
“I’m perfectly fine, Yamada. I just lingered a bit. This is Knight Jin, my friend. May we go in now?” Kame dismounted and smiled. “We’re in a bit of a hurry.”
“So long as you can vouch for-” Yamada trailed off and Jin stepped back a bit. “That’s the Royal Court’s Seal… I thought I could recognize all of the Knights of the Royal Court.”
“I vouch for him, Yamada, and I believe Duke Takizawa and the Oracle, not to mention probably the King, will be quite pleased to do it as well. We’re a bit rushed.” Kame pressed again before more questions could arise.
“Of course, leave your horse I’ll call one of the stable-hands to come collect him and we’ll get your packs taken up,” Yamada stepped aside and took the horse’s reins.
“Thank you,” Kame dragged Jin inside. “I didn’t even think about how all your weapons have that seal.”
“Me too, thanks for back there, I don’t know if I want everyone finding out just yet,” Jin admitted and followed Kame further into the castle. He still remembered exactly where they were and from Kame’s turns he guessed they were going to the throne room.
“I figured. I’m surprised you’re not hugging the very ground we’re walking on after being gone so long,” Kame joked and paused in front of the doors to the throne room. “Damn, I wish we had time to clean up but we should probably move as quickly as we can.”
“You look fine, come on. I bet Takki is already in there,” Jin grinned and swept some dirt off of Kame’s sleeve. “And I’ll reacquaint myself with the castle if I get my freedom back.”
Before either of them could open the doors Takki threw them open with a grin. “One of the guards came to tell me you were back and you had company. I knew you’d come here first.” He bit his lip for a moment and the excited gleam in his eyes softened as he turned his gaze to Jin. He pulled Jin into a tight hug that was quickly returned. “I was beginning to think you would never make it home.”
“I missed you Takki,” Jin whispered and held on even tighter. “I thought I was never coming home too.”
“You’re still cursed though,” Takki finally stepped back from the hug and put a hand on Jin’s shoulder. “Why are you still cursed? I can feel something different. It’s faint but it’s there.”
“I’m still cursed. Kame is activating wards Ueda drew up that allow me to leave. It only lasts a few weeks though and that’s why we still need your help, and possibly the king’s help.” Jin answered.
“Takuya is ill and resting today, but I’ll give you any help I can. What do you need from me?” Takki ushered them into a side chamber and beckoned for them to take a seat. He tilted his head lightly and smiled. “Who is a new guest here?”
Maru fluttered, his wings tousling some of Jin’s curls and reminding both knights that the fairy had awoken shortly after they had made it to the city.
“This is Nakamaru Yuichi. He’s a tree fairy from Bō Forest.” Jin introduced. “He guided Kame through the forest so he wouldn’t have to strain himself or his horse and he’s helped keep me company since my curse. He’s accompanying us for the journey.”
“Welcome to Shōryō, Nakamaru. Any friend of Jin or Kamenashi’s is certainly welcome,” Takki smiled.
“We need some sort of introduction to gain access to Zhuque Royal Guard. We need to find the Sword of Ōryū so he can break the curse and they were the last known group to have it.” Kame explained. “But we have to do it quickly.”
“Or he’ll die before you can return. I know some of the advisors of their court as well as members of the elite circle. I’ll write up introductions and ask them to give you any help they can. Jin, you may have to reveal your identity though, while my word will help, if they don’t know the reason you want the sword they may assume you want it to gain more power.” Takki explained quickly. He was already moving around the room, collecting parchment and ink to begin drafting his letters. “This journey won’t take you too long, I can even send a convoy with you if you wish? Four days, if you move quickly, perhaps five.”
“We’ll be able to move faster if it’s just the three of us. We don’t need an escort or anything,” Jin smiled faintly. “You’re being too protective Takki, I did take down quite a few dragons in my time, not to mention the Black Dragon.”
Takki rose from his seat and put a hand on Jin’s head affectionately. “I know, just let me at least offer. If I find out you perished because of a dragon or a damned griffin I will be so angry with you. I promised your parents and brother that I would make sure you came home alive and would do everything I can to make sure you’re happy. So take care of each other, both of you,” he shot a smile to Kame before clapping him lightly on the shoulder. “Give me a day or two to procure fresh horses for both of you as well as supplies. We can map out the best route together as well.”
“Do you think the sword is there?” Jin asked quietly, hope visible in his eyes.
“I certainly hope so. The problem with artifacts like the sword is that they can’t always be traced, not even by a mage like Ueda. All I can say is it hasn’t been destroyed, because the Oracle has been able to feel its presence, just not where. It’s a notorious sword though, it’s a good bet that anywhere it went rumors would follow.” Takki assured them both before leveling a look at Jin. “I’m not giving up, no matter what and you had better not either.”
As night began to fall, Kame quickly made his way to the castle gardens with the book of wards tucked securely under his arm. He needed to replenish the magic of the wards and he knew exactly where to find Jin. He nodded to a guard patrolling the area before ducking under a low branch just beginning to gain new, green leaves.
Sure enough, when he made his way through the maze of bushes, trees, and many newly blooming flowers, he caught sight of Jin sitting high in the boughs of the tree. The stars and moon were bright but illuminating the tree were a few stationary orbs of lights. From the distance Kame couldn’t tell exactly what they were, they didn’t move like the fairies he’d seen, but he was distracted by Maru’s green glow on Jin’s shoulder.
As he came closer he could vaguely hear Jin murmuring and it took him another moment to realize it was not to Maru but to the tree that he spoke.
“You aren’t lonely, are you?” Jin whispered and seemed to get an appropriate answer because he nodded. “What? Someone-” he turned quickly, Maru holding tightly to keep a hold of his shirt, and grinned at Kame. “We do have another guest. I was thinking about leaving to come find you so we can do the wards now. We have another hour though, don’t we?”
“You can’t see it but your skin is barely starting to turn a bit blue,” Kame tossed the tome up to Jin before grabbing a branch to start climbing up there himself. “The days are starting to get a bit brighter later in the day. We need to remember that later but I should do it now.” He pulled himself up onto Jin’s branch and settled himself.
“Right, of course,” Jin grinned. “I would be lost without you, I bet.”
“Maybe,” Kame smiled fondly but then bit his lip. It had only been a few weeks and he was already treating Jin like a close friend and he wondered if he should be worried. To distract himself he grabbed the book and began flipping through the pages to find the one he needed. “Maru could probably keep you on track.”
“I told him we needed to look for you,” Maru huffed. “But he wouldn’t listen to me. You get distracted so quickly Jin. Akemi will be here, even if you leave to take care of this.”
“Sorry Maru,” Jin mumbled. “I’ll listen next time, promise.”
“He probably won’t,” Kame quipped and then waved his hand to silence any response. He put his hand on the page and began the process that was quickly becoming second-nature. After he felt the rush fade he opened his eyes and reached out to tilt Jin’s chin further up to ensure the blue had left his skin. He squinted slightly in the light and nearly jumped when suddenly the light from behind him grew brighter and he could easy see the other knight and fairy. He turned carefully, wary of their height from the ground, and found one of the floating orbs had shifted closer. “What are these?”
“I made them,” Jin flushed slightly when Kame gave him a surprised look. He averted his eyes to where Maru was not examining some flowers he’d never seen before “I wanted some light so I could read.” He lifted an old book Kame had somehow missed.
“Why don’t you use the lights that are in place?” Kame asked. He knew if you asked one of the guards on duty, or knew how to do it yourself, you could get similar, but weaker, magic lights to take around.
“It’s easier to do it myself. Besides, we agreed I should try to stay quiet while here. News has already spread that an honor Blood Knight has arrived. The guards haven’t even seemed surprised by my presence. The guard I passed on my way into the garden knew my rank. None of them seem to know my name yet, at least, because you only told them my given name.” Jin sighed and leaned back against the trunk of the tree. He waved a hand to dispel two of the magic lights, leaving just one left.
“Makes sense,” Kame answered and looked at the book in Jin’s lap. “What were you planning on reading?”
“It’s a book of old legends. I used to love reading the stories when I was a kid,” he began thumbing carefully through the pages.
“I’ve never seen this one before and I’ve spent some time in the library,” Kame suddenly remembered something. “Who is Akemi?”
“Hm? Oh the tree,” Jin smiled and raised his arm to plant his hand on the tree’s trunk. “Her name is Akemi or at least that’s the only name she’s given.”
“Well, it’s nice to know her name then,” Kame slowly stood up so he could switch to another branch and rest his back against the trunk of the tree as well. “So what sort of legends are in this book?”
“This one… is all about water related legends.” Jin flipped another few pages before pausing. Kame turned slightly and found him running a slow hand down the page, any emotion in his eyes shut too tightly for Kame to see.
“Are there any… like your curse?” Kame asked quietly. He thought Jin hadn’t heard him for a moment and was about to retract it when Jin opened his mouth.
“There’s one,” he chuckled hollowly. “It was actually one of my favorite stories as a kid. They weren’t bound to the water but it was similar. It’s a legend from the north about one of the origins of magic amongst humans… do you want to hear it?”
The sound of Jin flipping through the book and the flutter of Maru’s wings as he settled on Kame’s shoulder were the only things he heard for a moment.
“Many years ago, when the gods still traversed this land, humans were just beginning to settle into communities to work together. The world was still quite young but the spirits of its inhabitants were enduring.”
Jin’s voice remained steady and sure throughout the entirety of the story. Kame fought sleep, though far later in the night Jin’s voice continuously lulled him closer and closer to dreams, so he could hear the complete story of the courageous woman who took on a treacherous sea serpent, when few others would, to protect her hometown and the blessing she received from the gods for her strength of spirit.
“So, Genbu offered her immortality as reward for her bravery but she refused?” Kame asked sleepily, his eyes fluttering shut every few moments.
“The legend implies that she didn’t wish to watch as her family and friends died while she stayed young forever,” Jin answered. He smiled when Kame’s eyes once again closed. “She wished to live her life beside them so instead Genbu bestowed her with a bit of his spirit so she could use magic. She had similar traits to how I am when I touch the water under the curse.”
“Would immortality be so bad?” Kame breathed. “You could have so much time to accomplish your goals.”
Jin leaned his head back against the tree and closed his eyes. “Leaving those you love behind while you continue to live long after them is too painful to properly imagine if you haven’t experienced it. I don’t think I could handle immortality, sometimes I think I can’t even handle this long life. Ueda lives in seclusion for a reason as well.”
Kame woke himself up ever so slightly. “I thought he didn’t like people or something… Jin, if we don’t break your curse will you live forever?”
“Is it living if I’m bound to that pond for eternity?” Jin whispered back and Kame couldn’t answer.
He thought of the days he spent doing little but spending time with his new friends, of unhurried chess games with Ueda and of lying amongst the lavender stalks just talking for hours on end. But he also thought of the many nights Jin would lie as far from his pond as he could just to feel solid again and the night he spent pretending, alongside Jin, that the cursed man wasn’t crying for what he had left behind and of how he hadn’t been able to offer any comfort that could ease such a pain.
“You must be our long lost Prince Jin.”
Takki smirked when Jin jolted in his seat across the breakfast table. “Jin, this is Kimura Takuya, King of Shōryō.”
Jin quickly stood and bowed slightly to Kimura. “It’s great to finally meet you. I’ve seen scraps of scenes while I’ve been gone and you were in some of them.”
“Please don’t be so formal, you are after all my elder,” Kimura smiled and joined them at the table.
“That may be but you are higher ranked than I am, you are the king,” Jin mumbled and bit his lip.
“I somehow think we’ll argue about this later on, but at the moment I am too tired to attempt it,” Kimura shook his head lightly at Takki’s worried eyes. “The main concern, either way, is breaking your curse so you may return to your rightful place. Takki assures me that the planning is already nearly complete and you will be departing with Sir Kamenashi and your fairy companion early tomorrow morning.”
“That is true,” Takki answered and gestured to the map on the wall. “We’ve already chosen the quickest route to the capital, Xīng. It should take them four days to arrive and I’ve drafted introductions for them, though I will need your official seal on their travel papers.”
“Of course, we can’t have them being turned away at the city gates. I assume you’ve left the papers on my desk? I’ll go take care of it and the other paperwork now. Sorry to leave so quickly. Jin, it was a pleasure to finally meet the man I’ve heard so much about. If I do not see you again before you depart, please travel safely and may your journey be successful.” He gave one last bright smile before rising.
“Perhaps you should eat something first?” Takki suggested with narrowed eyes.
“I’ll have something delivered when I feel up to it,” Kimura answered simply before leaving the chamber.
Jin watched the thin man go and frowned. “Is he ill?”
“Takuya has been ill for very long, even his magic is no longer saving him from the worst. We have kept the people from finding out so far but he may only live a few more years yet, maybe less,” Takki sighed and pushed his food away. “His dear wife also preceded him some years ago and he is without an heir.”
“I can’t imagine the advisors are pleased with that,” Jin ran a hand roughly through his hair. “Who would be next in line?”
“An awful man, we all hope he doesn’t somehow gain the crown and I hope that you never have to meet him,” Takki answered and wrinkled his nose. “Takuya is going to have to name an heir soon or I’m not sure what will be done.”
Takki rose early with them on the morning of their departure. He fussed over both knights until they had mounted their horses. He sighed and untied two satchels from his belt and tossed one up to each.
“More than enough gold to get you through this trip, but it’s always good to think ahead.” Takki explained quickly and once again began double checking their supplies.
“Takki, you’ve already checked everything. We have everything and I have the map right here,” Jin tapped a pocket.
“Alright, stay safe and make sure to stay together. Is Maru ok for long distance traveling?” Takki double-checked.
“So long as he sleeps enough to make up for being away from the forest,” Kame reached out and barely tapped a luminescent wing. Maru stirred a bit from his nap on Jin’s shoulder.
“Travel quickly then, I shouldn’t keep you any longer.” Takki moved to step forward but Jin held out a hand and pointed down.
Both other men follow his gaze to the swirls of silver that were beginning to glow from beneath Takki’s feet. Takki sighed and took a step back and they faded.
“A story for another time, Jin,” Takki grimaced at Jin’s narrowed eyes. “I agreed to your mother’s final wish and was bound here, so that someone you know would surely remain for when you came home. Now get going. And Kamenashi, thank you.”
“Of course,” Kame nodded before leading the way through the city. “I’ve never seen or heard of the Duke leaving the castle. Did that magic mean he can’t?”
“Apparently Takki agreed to be tethered to the castle. I assume once I return as a human he’ll be freed.” Jin sighed and tilted his head to look at Kame. “We have even more of a reason to try and break my curse.
“Well the Duke does seem very fond of you,” Kame answered. He’d watched the Duke fret over Jin whenever he could in the past two days.
“Yeah, I grew up with him around. He was always like a cool older brother,” Jin chuckled. “My mom was in charge of making sure he could control his magic. He helped watch me and my brother since he spent most of his time here when I was little.”
That evening they set up camp in the middle of a forest they planned on cutting through to shave off travel time. Jin built a small fire to ward off the chill of the early Spring night while Kame double checked the area. He came back and retrieved the book and quickly replenished the wards.
It had been a few days since it had taken much out of him but he was surprised when he realized Jin was holding him against him chest.
“Kame, are you alright?” Jin questioned as he helped him sit back up.
“Are you always that cold?” Kame croaked.
“I’ll get you your water,” Jin scrambled over to their packs and then pushed the canteen into Kame’s shaking hands. “And uh yeah, I guess? I guess it’s something that carries over from the curse. Takki commented on it yesterday after breakfast. Are you feeling any better? It must be because of all the traveling we did today.”
“Better,” Kame smiled and took the map from where he had stashed it.
“I feel like…” Jin started but went quiet and blushed faintly.
“Yes?” Kame raised his eyebrows. He smiled at Jin’s red cheeks. “You can’t just stop there, Jin.”
“I just feel like I’ve always done so much talking but I don’t know that much about you, really. What’s your life like?” Jin traced patterns and pictures in the dirt.
“Well… what do you want to know?” Kame looked up from the map.
“Well, I mean you’re fairly high ranked and you’re… you’re only twenty-three so you must have some stories.” Jin mumbled. “You’ve gotten to hear some of mine.”
“Well you were only, what? Twenty-two when you were inducted into the Order of Kō, much more impressive,” Kame sighed.
“Did you want to become a knight?” Jin prompted.
“Always did,” Kame grinned down at his hands. “My dad’s a pretty famous knight, even when I was little I wanted to be just like him. I don’t know Jin. My life wasn’t horribly interesting. I live to be a knight and help protect the country whether it be from dragons or one day invaders.”
“But it’s still pretty impressive, most people never get titled or anything like that,” Jin grinned. “So what did you do that got you such recognition?”
Kame shook his head. “It was nothing major. I was sent out on a routine assignment in a group to deal with some dragons attacking a village and some things went wrong, due to our leader, and I took over the operation and got everyone injured out of the way and took care of the dragons on time.”
“That isn’t nothing,” Jin answered and scooted closer. “A lot of people wouldn’t have been able to manage that. Well what about tournaments? I always loved taking part in the horsemanship and archery tournaments they would hold for knights to compete.”
“Well, just before I went to Ueda’s we had the annual Spring Tournament to bring in the new season. I actually took first place in the archery portion.” Kame admitted with a slight grin.
“Was it a tough competition?” Jin asked eagerly. He leaned back against one of the packs and Kame fidgeted a bit under Jin’s attention.
“Well there was this knight who came in from territory to the north. He had the craziest helmet,” Kame began to explain and soon he was moving his hands to help explain.
And later that night, after a couple hours of Kame describing the tournaments he’d been in and the assignments he’d gone on, Jin pushed Kame towards sleep and volunteered to keep watch first. He walked around a decent perimeter, placing a hand on the trees as he went. He spoke in low tones, requesting the trees and spirits warn him if anything worrisome came near their small camp.
He returned to Kame’s side and looked at his peaceful face for a few moments and wondered if he was just latching on because it had been so long since he had had any other humans to talk to.
Hours later, when the whispers of the trees alerted him, he unsheathed his sword silently and walked out of the light from their fire. Kame needn’t know that he disposed of two smaller dragons that night. So he let the young man sleep throughout the night because the one time he thought about waking Kame to trade places he’d remembered the way he had slumped forward, the old tome slipping from his fingers, when he had performed the magic necessary to bite back the curse.
He was scolded in the morning for not waking his companion but he reminded them that not necessarily being human had its perks and the topic was dropped.
They arrived in Xīng just as the sun was beginning to set. Vibrant colours spread out across the horizon and the ocean light up under the sun’s dying rays. Xīng was a thriving city at the very southern tip of the continent. With travel papers signed by the king of Shōryō himself they gained access easily and were helpfully pointed in the direction of a nice inn where they could stay and have their horses tended to.
True to his word, Ueda’s yellow stones stopped any anxieties they had held about communicating. While Jin was proficient in the language he hadn’t had practice in over one hundred years and Kame only spoke enough to find a few necessary things.
“How long will you be staying?” the charming woman at the inn questioned as her son took their horses around to the stables. So far no one in the city, bar one old woman they had received directions from, seemed to be able to see Maru as he fluttered about everywhere.
“Two, maybe three days,” Jin answered and untied the bag of gold coins.
“That’s fine. So breakfast is included but lunch and dinner aren’t so that will be extra should you partake.” The woman explained as Jin passed across the gold for their first night. She handed him back a key. “Now you boys are in room fifteen, that’s up the stairs there and to your left. There’s a door that leads to the toilet and wash-up across from each room and the bath is down here. Do you need any help with your bags?”
“No we traveled fairly lightly because it’s a short trip. Thank you so much,” Kame smiled and nudged Jin towards the stairs.
“If you need anything just come down and ask,” she called after them.
“Thank you,” Jin called back before leading the way up the stairs. “I never asked Kame, but have you been to Xīng before?”
“No I’ve- you’re about to pass the room,” he laughed and tugged Jin back by the collar.
“Spirits! Kame, next time you do that try to be a bit less rough,” Jin choked out but stepped back and opened up the room to reveal a neat and clean room. Two beds sat to the right with a desk and a dressing table to the left. “So which bed do you want?”
“I’ll take the one further from the window,” Kame offered and stepped inside after Jin. “That way you and Maru can converse with any passing spirits or creatures without having to go over me.”
“You can’t blame Maru, he’s never been out of Shōryō,” Jin laughed. “He’s bound to be curious. And you never quite answered my question Kame.”
“What question?” Kame tilted his head but then remembered what he’d been saying before he tugged on Jin’s shirt. “Ah. I’ve never been to Zhuque before. I’ve only been out of the country once before and that was to Huánglóng. Just after I gained Order of Kaku I was one of the selected knights to accompany a diplomatic envoy to Luò. What about you?”
“I’ve been here and to Luò before and a few places north in Hyeonmu,” Jin answered and strode over to the window.
“This journey is my first time leaving the forest,” Maru went to inspect a door which turned out to lead to a small closet.
“I wish we had the time to give you proper tours of the city,” Jin held out his hand for Maru to land. “How about this? If my curse is broken, when I travel you can come with me and we’ll do it properly.”
“I guess it’s too late to go to the Guards?” Maru looked over to Kame. “You have to do the spell soon, right?”
“Yes, but we have time for a proper bath first.” Kame shook out his coat and cringed when some dirt flew off. “I love traveling to new places but not the actual getting there part. A hot bath sounds amazing.”
“Good morning,” the proprietress greeted them in the morning. “I forgot to ask you both last night, do you need any extra services like laundry taken care of?”
“Laundry would be great. We’ll bring it down when we get back. We need to head out early so no breakfast today.” Kame answered.
“Alright then. Do you need directions or anything? Most foreign knights we get through here have escorts buts…” She trailed off.
“Actually, could you direct us to military headquarters? We need to speak with someone there?” Jin asked. He pulled a map from his pocket. “We have a map but we nearly got turned around finding our way here.”
“Oh! That’s simple enough. Just go to the castle, the large tower you can see from pretty much the whole city, so just head towards the ocean and then take a left a good ways down. ”
“Perfect, thank you,” as soon as Kame opened the door Maru shot out, closely followed by Jin into the already busy street.
Jin wasn’t exactly sure if they had thought through how they were going to do this well enough. It wasn’t a normal occurrence for foreign knights to just walk straight into a castle and ask to speak with their highest ranked officers.
“What is your business?” the guard asked them as they approached one of the entry gates.
“We need to speak with the Zhuque Royal Guard. Business of the Shōryō Royal Family.” Kame announced, making sure the markings of the Shōryō Royal Knight were clear to the guard.
“I can pass on word but I can’t just grant you access. The Guard will have to decide that.”
Jin pulled the letter Takki had written and held it out. “Then please ensure that the knight Sakurai reads this letter. It’s a time sensitive matter.”
“I will,” the guard took it and flagged another guard to bring it inside.
It wasn’t long before another knight came to the gate to retrieve them.
“Sakurai and some other members of the Royal Guard are willing to speak with you, but we have a short timeframe before they’re needed elsewhere so come with me, quickly.” He opened the gate and led them into the grand castle.
Jin and Kame vaguely remembered a few things from their past trips to Xīng but they were moving too quickly to really take any of the paintings or screens in.
“I’m sorry for the pace but they’re to go to leave for a meeting with our King in an hour,” the knight apologized. “Sir Sakurai says he wishes they could be more hospitable, especially to such honor Blood Knights, but as it is very last minute…”
“Please do not worry about such things. We were the ones who came on such short notice. There wasn’t time to send word ahead,” Kame mollified the slightly worried knight.
“Thank you. Here is the room, if you need anything just tell the Guard and they will have someone retrieve it.” He opened the door. “Sir Kamenashi and Sir Akanishi of Shōryō.” He bowed once and then left.
“Come in,” a sweet man ushered them inside. He smiled brightly and gestured for them to set at the long table at which the other men sat.
“Thank you for seeing us like this,” Jin bowed. “Akanishi Jin, the Blood Knight of the Royal Court, Order of Kō.”
“Kamenashi Kazuya, Knight of the Royal Court, Order of Kaku.” Kame followed Jin’s example before taking a seat.
“And who is our fairy guest?” the smiling man asked brightly. The rest of the men didn’t seem surprised at this declaration.
Kame blinked before turning his head to look at Maru, who hovered between them.
“Nakamaru Yuichi,” Jin answered. “I’m not sure which of you can see or hear him though…”
“Just Sir Matsumoto, who is not here with us at the moment, Sir Sakurai, and myself,” the man smiled. “Ah. I’m Aiba Masaki, here is Sakurai Sho, Ninomiya Kazunari, and Ohno Satoshi.” Aiba introduced. “We’re all Royal Guards.”
“We don’t normally receive visits of this sort what brings you here?” Sakurai asked politely. Before him he still had the letter Takki had sent along. “I always thought the Blood Knight was dead but Takki assures me you really are him.”
Jin put a hand on the hilt of his sword. “May I draw my sword?”
“By all means,” Sakurai murmured and watched carefully as Jin withdraw the blood-stained sword and set it on the table in front of the Guards before them.
“Takki said he explained that I was cursed so I’m afraid I can’t show you the other marks I bore from that battle.” Jin explained as Aiba examined the sword with an almost worrying gleam in his eyes.
Aiba ran his fingers along the steel and smiled faintly. “This is the sword that killed the Black Dragon of the East and he is definitely cursed. I believe it’s safe to say we have a very honoured guest today.”
“Now, what Takki didn’t explain was what you needed from us,” Ninomiya finally spoke as the sword was handed to him to look at.
Kame faintly saw the twitch of Jin’s hand whenever one of the men in front of them handled the sword and discreetly put a hand on Jin’s left arm to give him support. “We need the Sword of Ōryū in order to break his curse and its last known location was with your Royal Guard.”
The Guards all exchanged hurried looks before Sakurai sighed. “I’m afraid we can’t help you then. I would very much like to but the sword is no longer in our possession.”
“He’s not lying,” Maru whispered into Jin’s ear. After the past century Jin had learned to trust Maru’s instincts and felt his stomach drop.
“We believe you,” Jin murmured and rubbed at his eyes for a moment. “Do you know where it went next? We have limited time for me to be on this journey and I don’t want to keep Kame from his duties longer than necessary.”
“It was returned to its origin, so to Luò. I can’t say who has it because we don’t know but you can try asking the Tanaka Clan. They usually manage to keep track of their creations, even centuries later, and might be able to help you.” Ohno explained as he stared off into the distance.
“Is there anything else we can help you with?” Sho bit his lip. “I’m sorry we can’t be of more help with the sword.”
“It’s not your fault please don’t apologize. That was all we needed to discuss actually.” Kame glanced worriedly at Jin who had shrunk into himself a bit. “We’ll depart the city in the morning in that case. It will give us time to restock and plan our route to Luò.”
“I’ll write an introduction for you to a high-ranked night there. Higashiyama will help you if you need it.” Aiba offered and began pulling out supplies from a cabinet on the back wall.
“Thank you,” Jin bowed his head.
“Of course,” Aiba quipped.
“Not only are you a dear friend of Takki but you’re an esteemed knight, Sir Kamenashi as well.” Nino explained with a bright smile.
“How do you know Takki, if you don’t mind?” Jin asked quietly. “I can’t imagine it was from when I was still… normal.”
“Exhibition tournament after our countries reached our current Treaty. Fifty years ago actually,” Sakurai answered. “Some of us here weren’t alive back then, so thankfully they haven’t been able to tease me about it much. I was surprised when he volunteered to fight in one of the matches because as far as I knew he wasn’t a knight but there were no objections from your King… your brother actually. He managed to knock me flat on my back faster than anyone else has ever managed.” He grimaced at the no doubt embarrassing memory.
“Takki actually helped teach me to wield a sword,” Jin grinned. “It’s a well-kept secret that he’s one of the best swordsmen in all of Shōryō so I’ve no doubt he managed such a feat. Perhaps we should get going and not keep you from your duties any longer. We also have more shopping to do now.”
“Here is the letter,” Aiba quickly sealed it with wax and waved his hand over it to instantly dry the seal in place. “Just ask for Higashiyama should you go to the palace. You might not even need to go if the Tanaka family can help you, so don’t worry about making a polite social call.” Aiba grinned. “Also, please update us on your situation, if you can. I want to know if you break your curse and end up with what you want most.”
Jin frowned but nodded. “I will.” Aiba beamed.
“Thank you,” Kame took the letter and Sakurai walked them to the entrance.
“I really am sorry we couldn’t help more. We will include a prayer for your success with our prayers to Suzaku today.” He told them with a serious glance. “And please give my greetings to Takki when you return to Keishi.”
“We will, thank you so much,” Jin bowed one last time before ducking out of the castle.
Once outside, Jin curled a hand around Maru to keep him from being batted around by the ocean winds.
“It could have been worse, they might not have known anything,” Kame murmured and placed his arm around Jin’s shoulder and ignored the cold that began to seep from Jin to his own body.
“Thanks Kame,” Jin whispered.
“Let’s go buy supplies, then we can get you guys some food and plan the route,” Maru suggested. “We passed some streets filled with stores on our way here that we can try.”
When they returned to the Inn Jin pulled out the purple stone from a pack and wound his fingers around it.
“Ueda Tatsuya,” he murmured before opening his fist to let the stone sit on his palm. A few moments passed and then a Ueda about Maru’s size appeared just above the stone.
“I was wondering when you were going to contact me, where are you?” He peered around curiously.
“Xīng,” Jin sighed and collapsed onto his bed. “Sakurai says ‘Hello’ and they don’t have the sword here anymore. It’s gone back to Luò, as far as they know.”
“We’ve already stocked and we’re leaving tomorrow. Our plan is to go straight to the Tanaka Blacksmiths and hope they can tell us where it is or even give it to us.” Kame continued for him.
“Alright, just keep an eye on those wards. How is Maru doing?” Ueda asked and tried to find the fairy. “He’s been away from the forest for nearly two weeks, he might start getting weaker.”
“He’s already sleeping a lot more than before,” Jin gestured to Kame’s pillow so Ueda could look over and see him curled up asleep. “He’ll regain some energy when we get back to the wilderness, I imagine.”
“Right, well keep an eye on each other. You’ll most likely be heading straight through a forest like with my home. You’re more likely to encounter something dangerous and the trees may not trust you.” He told them in a low voice.
“We understand Ueda. I haven’t encountered anything too dangerous yet,” Jin grinned but Kame narrowed his eyes.
“I didn’t realize we had encountered anything,” Kame glared at Jin.
“Ah, haha,” Jin scrambled back a bit. “It was just a few fledgling dragons, nothing that needed both of us and you were resting.”
“On that note, I’m going to leave you to your little lover’s spat. Junno says ‘hi’ by the way,” Ueda muttered before disappearing.
“Jin, you have to tell me when things like this happen. What if you had gotten hurt or something else happened?” Kame demanded.
“But I didn’t get hurt Kame and I didn’t want to wake you, you’re exhausted after using magic,” Jin explained earnestly.
Kame’s anger died. “Just wake me next time.”
Late, every night, when the moon shone brightly through the dark, Takki would sit amongst Akemi’s branches. With the trunk steady at his back, he absentmindedly traced runes and patterns across the rough surface of the bark and murmured accompanying prayers under his breath. Now, all his could do was ask Seiryū to watch over his cousin on his journey to find any comfort.
If anything should happen on the road, out in a forest, anywhere on the planned route, he would have to wait long, agonizing days to hear any news, if any were to ever come. The boys and the mage had those stones for communication, but Takki, well he knew he had no comfort but the distant hopes that the gods would shine down upon them.
There had been many days where he had begged the air, late into the night, for any stray beam of hope. When even after the first, stray communication had long been shaded by decades of silence, he began to find hope in a single thought.
“Seiryū, you owe this to me by now, surely?” He murmured into the chilled air. He clenched his hands and pushed back thoughts that after over one hundred years of the same prayer and hope day after day, that Seiryū might not be listening. But that was what emboldened his hopes even more. “All these long, long years, all I have asked you for is one thing; to bring Jin back, safe, so we can both be free and that our loved ones might rest peacefully in their death as they are owed. I have never strayed from this or from you. Seiryū, you blessed Kamenashi with his magic when there was no precedent, no drop of magic or link in his family, and I don’t know if any of us can take a disappointment now. This venture has been over one hundred years in the making and I can only hope this meeting was blessed by you, but you owe this to me, to us, Seiryū. I hope you know this. Just give me a sign that this hasn’t all been in vain.”
He huffed and closed his eyes when nothing happened.
“Somehow, I don’t think gods appreciate being spoken to like that.” An amused voice floaed up to him from the roots of the tree.
Takki smiled tiredly and looked down to his king. “Seiryū owes me.”
“Yes, Seiryū does,” Kimutaku murmured, sincerity filling the simple response. “Now come down, you need to rest. I doubt the prince will be pleased to return only to find you half dead from exhaustion.”
Takki nimbly descended from his perch and felt guilt spread through his conscience. “Perhaps these years I have not been the best of advisors or friends to you.”
Kimura merely began walking out of the garden and Takki followed. As they reached the archway and stone the king stopped and Takki followed suit. “You have never failed me Takki, do not worry for that. Your distraction has not been a detriment nor have I taken it to mean you cared less, as you seem convinced. Now, before you go to sleep, you may want to look back to the garden, because this was not my doing.” Kimura flashed Takki a warm smile, the corners of his eyes crinkling, before he descended down a dark hall, maneuvering even without light as a guide.
Takki frowned and turned slowly, almost worried at what sort of destruction he had managed to wreak while his mind had been so far off. But instead of any worrying changes, what he saw had him staggering to a pillar for support but even then he slumped slowly to the ground, legs failing to hold.
A trail of new blooms had grown in the few minutes it had taken them to reach the outskirts of the garden. Surprised laughter bubbled up from his chest, bouncing through the air and growing as tears slipped through the fingers now covering his face in relief.
It was times like these, that he wondered if Kimura held more magic than any of them knew because while they were far and few in between, a scattering of incidents pointed to their king being more connected to Seiryū’s magic than perhaps any of them could imagine. He could only imagine it to be the truth, as his friend had felt Seiryū’s blessing being formed while he had not. The mystery remained whether it was normally illness that stifled such a connection or choice.
Later, when he retraced the path, he would realize the breathtaking irises15, of all colours, had grown up from the very spots he had tread, spread apart like his footsteps. In the many years that remained of his long life and possibly even forever after, the flowers never faded or wilted and instead remained as a constant reminder. And until Takki’s passing, far along in the future, he would take to weaving around the blooms in times of worry or depression for comfort.
Their route to Luò, in central Huánglóng, wound around a series of perilous mountain ranges and through a narrow valley. With each day on their journey that had passed the scenery had grown greener and greener and here it was no different. With the greener landscapes came warmer and warmer temperatures.
On warm nights after long days of travel Kame became accustomed to being supported by Jin for brief moments. The magic took more out of him as the days wore on and he began to look forward to Jin’s cool touch.
It was after such a moment that Jin went to remove their horses saddles that Kame began to think as he watched him tenderly care for the horses and murmur comfortingly to them.
“Jin, why do you have no heartbeat?” He asked before he could help himself and wished he could take it back when Jin stiffened and didn’t turn back.
“It just stopped one day,” Jin mumbled. “I thought you hadn’t noticed.”
“It’s kind of hard not to,” Kame joked but Jin did turn around then sighed. “I didn’t mean it like that Jin, it’s just… not everyone ends up pressed to your chest on a regular basis so I doubt anyone else notices.”
Jin came back to the fire and sat next to Kame. “When I was first cursed it was still beating and my heart was the only warm thing left in my body. The cold isn’t uncomfortable, at least not now, but it took a while to adjust to it. But as the years swept by my heart started to beat slower and slower and began to lose its warmth. And then… one day it just stopped all together. Near the end I would do nothing all day and night but lie down and count how many times my heart beat in a day. I thought that as long as my heart was beating, even if just once in a day, it meant some part of me was still human and the curse may wear off.” He dragged in a shaky breath and fell into silence for a few moments.
And Kame, he almost felt his own heart was breaking at the way Jin clutched at his chest, where his heart should have been beating steadily, and the cracks in his voice. He quickly pushed aside his worries of upsetting Jin and wrapped his arms gently around him. Jin leaned into the touch and Kame felt his warmth being sapped but didn’t care.
“We’re going to turn you back even if I have to find the sword by myself, because it takes too long. Even if I have to search every country and follow every lead,” Kame whispered into his shoulder.
“On the day my heart stopped beating I thought maybe it had just slowed even further, that maybe it would beat the next day. I wouldn’t sleep, eat, or even move because it had to be there. Ueda eventually had to make me sleep and eat. When I woke up the next time it had stopped completely and was sitting like a block of ice in my chest. That’s when I gave up but then you wanted to help and I thought this could be it.” Kame just held on tighter.
“We’re going to find the sword. I’m sure the Tanaka Clan knows where it is, they would want to keep tabs on something like that,” Kame assured him. They had to find at least a lead in Luò otherwise Kame didn’t want to think of Jin’s reaction. He knew he should start distancing himself, because it was just as he promised Maru, once he was free he wouldn’t be staying in Keishi. But when they sat like this long into the night, even when Maru awoke and joined the hug, he couldn’t force himself to move.
The magic forest they encountered seemed like a black abyss from the outside, almost no natural light penetrated the thick canopy. Jin created some magic lights to supplement the faint green glow of the trees.
“Something… dangerous is up ahead,” Maru whispered and tangled himself into Jin’s curls to hide.
“The plants are uneasy,” Jin confirmed and Kame stopped.
“What do you mean uneasy?” Kame asked warily. Now that Maru had stopped murmuring to the trees he noticed the silence flooding the forest. He tugged on his reins to keep his horse from bolting when a shrill screech of a bird filled the air. An orange glow began to permeate the darkness ahead of them.
“I wouldn’t say uneasy anymore, I would say freaking out,” Jin mumbled and drew a bow from its hook on his saddle. “Kame, get your shield and sword. Maru, make sure to hang on.”
“What are Fire Birds doing this far into Huánglóng? They usually hate it in forests like these,” Maru asked.
Neither knight could give an answer before they had to jerk their horses out of the way of a stream of fire. “They’re going to burn the forest down!” Kame shouted.
The large birds swept over head, dispelling long streaks of flames from their beaks. When they turned back around Jin hit one’s wing with an arrow but his eyes began to water from the smoke filling the forest before he could take a second shot.
“Maru, hold on,” he choked out and held his left hand out and closed his eyes. “Come on you stupid dragon.” He began to whisper to the spirit holding his soul and heart captive.
“Jin!” Kame shouted as he knocked one bird away with his shield. The other sunk its talons into Jin’s arm.
Kame felt his heart clench for a moment before wind howled so strongly he couldn’t keep his eyes open. As quickly as it came the maelstrom subsided and he opened his eyes just in time to cut down the dazed bird. The fires had all gone out and the second bird was caught, branches of a tree curling around its form.
“How did the tree?” Kame breathed out.
Jin smiled faintly and reached out a hand to pluck Maru from a low branch of a tree. “Let it go.” He murmured and the branch untwined from the bird.
Kame looked at the two birds lying, motionless, on the group and breathed out a long sigh.
“Always saving the day,” Jin carefully tucked the now drowsy Maru into a pocket on his chest. “Maru used his magic to manipulate the tree into wrenching that bird off my arm so I could summon the wind. You’re not hurt are you?”
“Am I hurt? I’m fine but… Spirits, your arm,” Kame nudged his horse over to Jin’s side and began tending to the deep wounds. “This might need to be treated professionally. I’m not sure what I can do for it here.”
“Just help me wrap it; it’ll heal up by the time we get out of this forest. If I could control the wind then the spirit should heal that up,” Jin groaned as Kame began to dab a salve onto the tears.
“Would’ve been nice to know you could pull out tricks like that,” Kame grinned and began to pull out bandages. His grin widened when Jin blushed bright red.
“I-I didn’t think I could with the wards in place,” Jin mumbled, his voice a bit higher in pitch than usual. “I haven’t really been able to do any of the stronger things since you put them in place I had to… I had to ask the spirit for help.”
Maru grinned sleepily from Jin’s pocket. “Had to beg it to save Kame’s life is more like it.”
“Maru!” Jin whined. “If you hadn’t just saved my arm from that stupid bird, I’d thump you on the head.”
“It’s true,” Maru grumbled before curling up to sleep.
Kame felt his own cheeks heat a bit and smiled down at Jin’s, now bandaged, arm. “Thank you. Do you have enough energy to make it out of the forest tonight or should we set up camp?”
“It should only be a few more hours and the horses are fine, let’s keep going,” Jin cracked a small smile Kame. “You’re sure they didn’t knick you anywhere?”
“Didn’t even land a shot because of a legendary knight I happen to know,” Kame quipped and nudged his horse to continue north.
The next morning Kame woke Jin up as the sun was rising with a quick shake and a grave look. Jin immediately sat up and reached for his sword but Kame shook his head.
“It’s nothing like that just…” Kame held out the book he always kept safely tucked under his arm when he slept.
“But it’s not time for-” Jin stopped abruptly and reached for the book with shaking hands. Kame had it open to the page he always used and Jin ran his shaking fingers over it. The characters on the page were wrong. It resembled a scarf started coming undone. The very strokes of ink were beginning to unravel and fall apart though the characters at the centre stayed true and bold. The final difference he noted was the furthest of what was once writing, the ink looked as if it were being washed away.
“It wasn’t like that last night,” Kame whispered. His fists were clenched and his knuckles white. “We have to turn back, now.”
“But we’ll make it to Luò by nightfall,” Jin countered desperately. “I’m sure we can spare another two or three days. It’ll only take two days of travel back to Lavender Field from Luò. That has to be enough time.”
“Jin, we can’t risk you dying,” Maru begged. “We have to turn back.”
“We can’t turn back, we’re so close. Look, Ueda said we had to turn back immediately thinking we would be farther from his mountains.”
Kame unclenched one fist and revealed the communication stone. “Ueda Tatsuya.” After a few moments Ueda’s form flickered into life.
“What are you doing waking me so early? I was-” Ueda grumbled but stopped when he saw Jin’s head hanging low. “What’s happened?”
Kame gently took the book from Jin’s grasp and showed Ueda. “The wards are starting to unravel. Jin wants to keep going to Luò because we’ll be there by nightfall. Ueda, it’s only been sixteen days. You said we would have three weeks.”
“The spirit must be harder to bind than I anticipated,” Ueda bit his lip. “And… have you been doing any magic?”
“The spirit and I called on the winds when we were fighting two Fire Birds in the forest,” Jin mumbled. He looked up with distant eyes. “It took a lot more out of me than it should have and it must’ve weakened the wards because I wasn’t able to do it before. I have to ask the spirit to work with me to summon them.”
“That must be it,” Ueda sighed. “I warned you to not use magic if you could help it.”
“We would have suffocated if it had gone on any longer,” Jin ground out. “I might’ve been able to make it longer because of the spirit but there was too much smoke to risk Kame and Maru’s lives.”
“I know,” Ueda’s eyes softened. “If you’re only a day from Luò you should be fine. It’ll take you two days to get back here and so long as Jin doesn’t use anymore magic the wards should hold for another five days but you have to be back here by nightfall on the fifth night so if you can’t find any leads after a day come back. We will have other chances so long as you don’t die Jin.”
“Alright, we’ll keep going. We have to leave now,” Kame ordered and began putting their supplies away.
“Please be careful. Maru keep an eye on Jin,” Ueda reminded before disappearing.
Ueda knew Junno wouldn’t admit that he had hovered nearby all day under the pretense of boredom to keep an eye on him, but he knew anyway. His affection for the cursed knight may not have been obvious these long years but somehow he knew that Jin had seen it and appreciated the comfort. He also knew that Junno would have to be far more oblivious than he acted to miss it through the long years.
So connecting the dots wasn’t hard at all. Also, maybe he hadn’t hidden the way he always either hovered near or carried around the communication stone. That, in its simplest form, could be easily explained that, because they may need his advice and his help and he simply might not be able to hear or sense them if he were far enough away. But ever since that morning and he had seen the writing as if it was slowly being swept away by water, he had been clinging to the stone as an anchor.
So Junno had hovered and been underfoot, always trying to cheer the mage up even when his own smile didn’t reach his eyes because Junno, well Junno had never hid his affections for either knight. Junno could openly grieve, knowing that even if they found the sword it may be too late because Jin simply couldn’t handle one more failed attempt, not this time. And they could not lose Jin, not now.
But he had already lived far too long. Perhaps he was still a young man compared to the oldest of mages that had once traveled these lands, but it had already been longer than either knight could imagine or ever want to live. He had left behind civilization and come here simply because he could never fully escape contact because he would always be able to hear and see the spirits. What he could do was limit his contact to those who couldn’t leave him, at least hopefully not in his lifetime.
The trees, especially the magic ones he lived amongst, would probably live far longer than he ever could and the fairies would outlive him as well, by far shorter than the trees but they would remain after he finally passed.
When he looked back on the past hundred years or so, he could say he didn’t regret their decidedly odd friendship and that if given the chance he wouldn’t change that fateful date. He knew though, that if he had been given that chance in the beginning, he would have taken it because of this. Failing to find the sword would bring Jin back to them, indefinitely, and guilt at his selfishness coiled around his heart whenever he let such thoughts dominate but it wouldn’t be the same.
When Jin’s heart had stopped beating they had barely kept Jin going and if Jin came back now, he knew it was impossible. Even if Jin still lived, in whatever sense of the term made sense for his predicament, he wouldn’t be with them and the worst case scenario made Ueda’s gut churn because he knew it was the more likely of options.
In the past he had wished, many times, that he could accompany Jin and cast the wards himself. Now more than ever he wished he could have gone with them to keep an eye on him. Somehow, even after such a short time, he trusted Kame to hold things together and keep his promise to bring Jin back to them, but that didn’t change how he felt he should be there with them but he couldn’t. He would have done so years before if he weren’t bound here. Nothing forced him to stay, not like the spirit had tethered Jin, but the forest depended on his continued presence to draw enough magic to sustain the spirits here. A few weeks could very well be too long to chance being away and so he had to remain.
After Junno returned to his tree to sleep through the night, and probably long into the morning if they were to be honest, Ueda crept out of his home, careful not to wake anything that may be sleeping. Instead, he curled up on his side between the fragrant blooms. He dug his fingernails into his palms and willed his mind to stop racing but even the peace of the slumbering souls around him didn’t work this time.
Long after the centre of the night had passed, he felt the odd flickering at the edge of his mind that meant someone was awakening.
“Have we news on our young knight?” a wearied voice asked, voice pitched low and quiet for the time.
Ueda opened his eyes again, knowing that before him would stand the translucent image of a warrior from thousands of years past but to nearly anyone else all that would be seen or heard was him talking to flowers. He had to close his eyes again at that thought, brow furrowing as he forced tears back down. Jin had been the only other one to hear and see the lost souls trapped in the lavender.
The spirit shifted to sit and a surprisingly warm hand came to rest against Ueda’s forehead. “It is not weak or wrong to mourn a comrade, especially not one as bright as that boy is… was.”
“He’s not gone yet,” Ueda whispered, curling up further but moving carefully so as not to dislodge the hand. “But the spells we placed are breaking and he doesn’t have much longer. He will most likely have to return here and that means…” He broke off as the first tears began to break free against his will.
“I see,” the soldier murmured and from his tone Ueda realized that he really did understand. “But young one, he is strong in both mind and body and I believe that even if they return unsuccessful he will persevere. He has spent many a night in this very spot keeping me company and he will not leave those he loves so easily.”
Ueda opened his eyes again and looked up into steady eyes.
A rough chuckle and smile followed. “Do not look so surprised, he loves you and the spirits here like his family. He will not leave you behind unless forced and definitely not by his own hand. Youth these days, so unobservant.” He huffed before sweeping some of Ueda’s hair from his eyes. “Now, where did we leave off last night?”
Ueda smiled faintly, at least he still held a few secrets. As far as he could tell, Junno still had yet to discover that instead of sleeping he spent most nights here, letting Yoshimitsu lull him into sleep with tales of his human life. Though they were millennia apart, when Jin had first arrived, something had reminded Ueda of Yoshimitsu.
There was always some spark in a warrior’s spirit that could be found in nearly every soldier but it wasn’t just that. Maybe it was the tales the young knight told, of fighting for his kingdom in wars, against dragons, and even when things seemed nearly hopeless, or the faint trace of royal blood magic he could still feel from Yoshimitsu, even this long after his death. But it was definitely in the way that their souls seem to resonate on the same frequency, prickling the edge of his consciousness in a way nothing else ever had.
In the beginning, Jin had reminded Ueda of Yoshimitsu, even though their personalities and appearance had little in common, but now, Yoshimitsu instead reminded him of Jin and during this absence, and the many to come in the future, he clung to this reminder. He let the feeling of Yoshimitsu’s soul and presence envelop him, so he could at least feel similarly to how he did when he friend was here and lighting up the forest.
Luò was situated on a mountainside in central Huánglóng. The Emperor’s palace, worked out of shimmering white material, rose at the highest point of the city. Its central pagoda tower climbed even high into the air, blocking the peak of the mountain from view from most points within the city.
But the clock was moving too quickly for their comfort so they took no time to admire the breathtaking views from the mountain. Instead they immediately located an inn and the gruff man behind the counter sketched out directions to the home of the Tanaka Blacksmiths for them on a spare scrap of parchment.
Early the next morning, they wasted no time in grabbing their map and making their way through the winding streets. A narrow side street brought them out onto a wide avenue of large storefronts. The sign they wanted boldly boasted the long history of the Tanaka family’s craft, supposedly dating back over five hundred years.
“Welcome, how can I assist you today!” greeted a slightly intimidating young man from behind the counter.
“We’re here to speak to one of the Tanaka blacksmiths,” Jin answered while Kame examined a jeweled sword.
“Well, I might be able to help you. Tanaka Koki at you services. I’m still learning the trade but unless you need a custom piece finished quickly I can help.” He smiled kindly and most hints of his rough exterior melted away.
“Akanishi Jin, Knight of Shōryō, Order of Kō,” Jin introduced himself.
“Kamenashi Kazuya, also Knight of Shōryō, Order of Kaku. I didn’t know you were of the Order of Kō,” Kame accused, narrowing his eyes at the cursed prince.
“I didn’t think it was important? It’s just a rank I held years ago,” Jin grumbled with flushed cheeks.
“Well then, Sir Akanishi, Sir Kamenashi, what brings you all the way to Huánglóng? It’s not that often we have visitors from Shōryō and almost never of such ranks.” Koki leaned against the counter and tried to get a closer look at the gilded hilt of Jin’s sword.
“We’re looking for a specific… artifact and legend says that it was created by your family. We thought your family might be able to tell us where it is.” Kame started delicately.
“I see, and which artifact would this be exactly?” Koki arched an eyebrow.
“The Sword of Ōryū,” Jin blurt out.
Koki furrowed his brow and sighed. “Why do you want the Sword of Ōryū? You had to have known that I couldn’t just give out information like that, even if our kingdoms are bound by a treaty.”
“We aren’t doing this for our kingdom or king,” Kame explained. “Jin he… you’re never going to believe us.” He sighed.
“Maybe we should just go…” Jin mumbled.
“Wait. At least tell me the story first.” Koki laughed. “If you’re not here by orders of King Kimura, why are you here?”
“It sounds really out there,” Jin started hesitantly. “But over a hundred years ago, I was Crown Prince Jin of the Akanishi family of Shōryō. I was also… the Blood Knight and I left on an adventure to find one of the last remaining mages to have a wish granted. But before my wish could be granted I had an accident with one of Seiryū’s Vases, and was cursed for the damage I did. I was trapped with that mage all this time but then Kazuya came and found me and Tatchan sent us on this crazy journey to try and locate the Sword of Ōryū because it may be the only way left to free my soul from the curse. King Kimura told us that he heard the sword had been lost, for good, but that someone who had had it might still be able to help. We’ve traveled south to Zhuque because that’s what it was last known to be but then the warriors didn’t have the sword and told us we should come here, because it was constructed by your ancestors so you guys might be the only ones who would know what happened to it.” His eyes practically pleaded with Koki to believe the story.
“You want me to believe you’re the crown prince of Shōryō from over a hundred years ago? And that you’ve been cursed?” Koki slowly asked. “How am I meant to know that this isn’t a lie? Only the rulers of the five kingdoms are allowed to know the true location of the Sword of Thieves. I’m sorry, even if you are cursed, I can’t tell you.”
“Then what about this. Surely you’d recognize your own family’s work,” Jin carefully extracted the circlet from where it was nestled and hidden in his hair. He held it out to the young blacksmith and Koki closely examined it and then pulled out a stone, which he placed against the piece.
The stone gained a steady glow once it came close to the circlet and Koki’s eyes widened. “This is surely the work of my family. No other blacksmith has this signature and it cannot be copied. And I know that only four of these were created and three of them are known to be with King Kimura and the Shōryō Royal Collection.”
“If you want further proof I’ll spill some of my blood, if necessary,” Jin offered quietly.
Koki looked down upon the circlet for another minute, “This may be impertinent, especially considering the differences in our status… I believe you because there is no other way you could come into possession of this circlet. The magic causes the fairy silver to tarnish immediately if anyone other than the appointed successor wears it… but I’ve always wanted to see an example of the blood magic…”
Kame blinked. “Surely you don’t want him to do that just for fulfill your curiosity?”
“It’s fine,” Jin interjected with a small smile. “Is there somewhere more private and outside we can do this? The reaction shouldn’t be as strong because Huánglóng has Oryū’s magic binds instead of Seiryū’s magic, but I don’t know how contained it will be. And I’ll need a basin of water…”
“We can go out back, we have a plot of generally unused land there,” Koki gestured them to follow him back. “Pop! Pop! We have royalty visiting us!” They followed him down a spindly hall further into the depths of the large building.
“What are you yelling about now, Koki?” an older man came into the thin hall with a sigh.
“Pop,” Koki held up the silver circlet for his father to examine.
The man turned sharply to the two knights. “This circlet has been missing for over one hundred years… I take it the lost prince has returned to civilization,” he smiled and then returned the circlet to Jin.
“How did you know?” Koki asked.
“Once you’re ready to be a full-fledged blacksmith, I’ll tell you the stories of our family’s most important creations and once I have you’ll never have to check again.” Koki’s father answered. “Tanaka Ken, at your service. What can we do for The Blood Knight, then?”
“They’re looking for the Sword of Ōryū, pop,” Koki explained. “The prince has been cursed and according to a mage the sword is the only thing that can free him.”
“I see, and have you told them why that’s simply not possible?” Ken asked. “If it’s the crown prince then we can tell him, of course.”
“First, he said he’d show me the royal family’s blood magic,” Koki exclaimed. “We’re going out back and we need a bowl of water!”
“Koki, I hope you didn’t request this,” Ken groaned.
“It’s alright. You’re helping us so I don’t mind,” Jin smiled lightly.
Koki collected a large bowl of water and directed them out into the clear area behind the store.
“Any type of tree requests?” Jin asked quietly as he withdrew the same dagger he’d wielded before.
“How about a cherry blossom tree?” Kame requested quietly. A few moments later he experienced the electric sensation for the fifth time personally. Even now that’d he’d had to stabilize the wards it hadn’t even come close to this sensation. The tree spread out across the yard in a flurry of pink, delicate blossoms and the Tanaka father and son gasped at the sight. Maru fluttered up to explore the tree and the blossoms he hadn’t encountered before. As Kame looked at the beautiful scene he couldn’t help but think of home and closed his eyes against the grip that always clasped his chest when he did. He knew that once Jin’s curse was broken he wouldn’t be content to stay in the capital, where he could see him.
“That’s beautiful,” Koki whispered in awe. “Will it stay? It won’t die or anything like that?”
“No, no it shouldn’t,” Jin chuckled. “I can leave it if you want, but if I do you can’t get the bowl back.”
“Leave it,” Koki requested immediately. “Please.”
“Of course, but could you please tell us about the sword now?” Jin asked.
“Come back into the building,” Ken suggested and herded them all into a backroom and offered them tea. “I’m afraid you’re too late, about the sword that is.”
“What do you mean too late?” Kame chewed on his lip. He glanced worriedly to Jin who had paled slightly.
“You see, the sword was too powerful and nearly fell into the wrong hands many years ago. Our king and my father spoke and agreed that it was too dangerous to allow something like that to ever happen. Reluctantly, my father agreed that more desperate measures had to be taken and so… the sword was taken far out to sea into deep waters and then thrown overboard.” Ken explained gravely. “I wish we could help you, I really do but nothing will bring that sword back anytime soon.”
“Are you completely certain?” Kame demanded. They’d already come so far and now all color had left Jin’s face and the excited glint had faded from his eyes. He wasn’t sure he could bear such an ending to their journey. He wasn’t sure Jin could survive such an end after he’d finally regained hope.
“Thank you for your help, really,” Jin gave the apprentice and blacksmith the slightest of smiles. “We should get going, we’ve already bothered you enough.”
“No problem. Are you ok? You don’t look too well,” Koki asked concernedly.
“He’s right,” Maru hovered by his head, checking his temperature before settling back on his shoulder. “We’ll figure something out, Jin. Don’t worry.”
“I think he’s just a bit tired, probably needs to rest after such a long trip and all. Thank you again,” Kame cut in and began pushing the other knight out the door. He paused and mumbled. “I might be back for that sword before we head back to Shōryō.”
“We should head back to our kingdom… back to Tatchan’s soon… immediately,” Jin mumbled briefly once the door shut behind them.
“Right, let’s rest first,” Kame suggested carefully.
As they walked back to the inn, the cursed knight didn’t utter a single word and let Kame lead him there.
“Jin, we can find something else,” Kame suggested quietly. “There must be some way to retrieve it.”
“Like what Kazuya?” Jin’s voice was hollow
“I don’t know, but it doesn’t end here! It can’t,” Kame shook his shoulders, trying to get Jin to look at him.
“What do you expect to do? Search the entire ocean floor? How would we do that? I doubt even an army of mages like Tatsuya could do it and it’s just us. What else can we do?” Jin turned back to the window and rest his head on the cool glass. “If there were any other solution he would have told us. He would have told us there were more options before we went off on this… this…”
“But Jin,” Kame started but was quickly cut off.
“Please, Kazuya please. Can we just leave it alone for now, please?” he whispered so Kame did just that. Kame grabbed the communication stone and left the room to tell Ueda that were coming back, unsuccessful.
When they had already packed up their things and left the city, Kame couldn’t hold back any longer. “We’ll find another way. Surely Ueda could manage some research for us or…”
“Why does it even matter? I’m ok, I’ll live even if I have to spend the rest of eternity in that pond. I may not be able to experience the world as I wanted but at least I can catch scraps of it from the water’s visions. I’m okay, Kazuya, you don’t have to push for me anymore. You can go home and return to your life, like you’re meant to.” Jin smiled sadly and knew that his journey with Kame was nearly over. Soon he wouldn’t be waking up to Kame’s morning greetings or fighting by his side. Instead he would maybe catch a hint of Kame’s life in a vision. He may have to pull forth visions constantly day and night to even see a bit of Kame but he could do that. He could do that if it was the only way to see the other man now.
“So what if you’re okay with just giving up? What about me? What if I’m not okay with this?” Kame demanded, tugging his horse to a stop.
Maru quickly dived into Jin’s hair, peeking at the incensed Kame from between curls.
“But Kame,” Jin started slowly. “I know that you wanted to free me from the curse and finally get your wish granted-“
“Is that what you honestly think this is about?” the younger man jumped from the horse. “You idiot! It was never really about that. I could’ve just asked Ueda to grant my wish and left you to fester in that stupid pond forever!”
Jin froze, “Then why? You should just let it go.”
“How am I supposed to let it go when it means someone I care about suffering?” Kame shouted, his arms swiping violently through the air. “What do you expect me to do Jin? Just stand by while you condemn yourself… to this stupid fate you don’t deserve? Well maybe you deserve it for being clumsy but it’s a bit of an extreme punishment for something like that. Don’t tell me to stay out of it!”
Jin clenched his fist and willed himself not to take that the wrong way. He wasn’t sure he could keep their friendship, as Kame no doubt wished, if he kept hearing such things. He may be in love, but he wasn’t completely oblivious. Kame had had his future planned out to a T and that future didn’t involve a cursed prince.
Kame froze when he heard a strangled noise and Jin crashed to the ground. He scrambled from his own horse to find Jin curled up on the ground, face pinched with pain, and clutching at his chest. Maru hovered around him worriedly.
“Jin!” Kame called out. He shook the older man but as quickly as it had come on it had gone. Jin opened one eye and looked at Kame warily. Kame placed a hand on his forehead as if to check his temperature but he froze. He felt heat. “Jin?”
The smallest of smiles cracked on the older man’s face as he slowly reached up, pulling Kame’s right hand into his own and bringing it to rest his chest.
“I can feel it,” Jin’s voice was small and hoarse but that was the least of their concerns.
It was barely there at first but as the seconds swept by Kame felt it, growing in strength and rhythm. Soon, Kame could feel the steady and sure beating of Jin’s heart against his ribcage. Heat radiated off of the older knight, just as Kame had thought he would as a human again and the greatest proof of all was working below his fingertips, now a constant reminder of what the other had regained.
“Kame,” Jin whispered his eyes still wide and unsure but he couldn’t continue as the communication stone began to glow faintly, building in strength until Ueda appeared.
“What the hell happened? Jin didn’t die did he?” He looked around before spotting the two. “What are you doing?”
“His heartbeat,” Kame whispered, staring at the image of the mage with wonder.
“Oh,” Ueda paused. “Right then, come back home you idiots, we’re done here.” He was about to close the connection when Jin stopped him.
“Why did you think I had died?” Jin croaked.
“Hm? Oh, I was outside when the wind suddenly picked up. The next thing I knew, all the water in the pond was gone. I thought it was a sign. Come back.” He commanded before disappearing.
“I guess this means we’re going back?” Maru cried and hugged Jin’s neck. “You’re back to normal!”
Jin could only grin while Kame stared at him in shock.
When they finally arrived back in the magical clearing, they found very little had changed in their absence. Taguchi’s tree still stood as vibrant as ever, Ueda’s home still looked as cozy as before, and the lavender blossoms were still as full of wonder as always.
Jin dropped his horse’s bridle and slowly crept his way over to the pond to which he’d spent over one hundred years bound. True to Ueda’s words, the pond looked as if it had simply dried up. Junno’s tree shook and suddenly Junno stuck his head out of the trunk.
“Welcome back!” He cried before fully extracting himself from his tree. He stopped suddenly, staring at Jin who smiled back. “So Ueda wasn’t lying… you’ve turned back then?”
Jin nodded. “We don’t know how but… one moment I was cursed and then the next… my heart was back.”
“That didn’t take you as long as I thought it would,” Ueda commented. He nodded to Kame and held a hand out for Maru to land on. He finally joined Jin at the side of the pond. “I was always rather fond of that pond… it’s a shame.”
“Can’t you refill it?” Kame suggested.
“I’ve tried, it just dries up too quickly,” Ueda frowned.
Jin reached under his shirt and unclasped a necklace from around his neck and held it above the pond. “You can go back now, thank you.” He pulled his hand back when the pendant cracked and a wisp of water turned into a small torrent until the pond was once again filled.
“Wait, what just happened?” Kame tapped Jin’s shoulder. The older man turned slightly and smiled brilliantly up at him.
“The spirit that had, when he suddenly lost his hold on my body, had to go somewhere. I could feel him in the pendant, he had taken refuge there.” Jin explained quietly and smiled when what might’ve been a pair of reptilian eyes looked up at him from the water.
“I see.” Kame murmured.
“And he no longer has the Seiryū Vase to return to, as he normally would. The pond will have been its last home, other than Jin’s body…” Maru continued.
“Ueda, why did I turn back?” Jin gestured between himself and the water. Ueda remained quiet for a minute or two, only the rustling of leaves cut across the quiet.
“So when did you two start fucking?” Ueda cut across the silence bluntly.
Jin’s jaw worked soundlessly for a minute before he sputtered, “Tatsuya, what are you talking about? We haven’t- we wouldn’t…”
“Oh. So that's how it is then,” Ueda stood back up, dusted off his pants and made his way back to the front door of his home, “I wish you both the best in your futures. Try not to knock over anymore magical vases, Jin.”
“But that doesn’t answer anything!” Kame called before Ueda could get inside.
Ueda paused, “with things how they are at present, I don’t think I can tell you.” Ueda sighed. “It’s a shame the Sword of Ōryū is gone but I can see why they did it. Now, don’t you boys have a kingdom to save or some dragons to slay? I’m sure you’d be best off returning to your capital.”
Maru floated back over and landed on Kame’s shoulder. “I guess you’re both going home then?”
“Right,” Jin mumbled watching as Ueda quickly tended to some lavender blossoms before locking himself inside.
“What the hell just happened?” Kame asked, looking between the two spirits and Jin.
“I think he’s avoiding us asking more questions,” Jin mumbled. “I guess… are you up to heading back now? We don’t have much of a reason to stay and… I suppose we can always return and see Tatsuya Junno, and Maru…”
“Do you promise to come back? It will be so lonely with just Ueda and the Forest Fairies visiting only once a month, without you to keep me company.” Junno bit his lip. “You’ll have to come back because I want to hear all about your journey these past weeks.”
“Of course I’ll come back, you can be sure of that. This was my home for most of my life, I won’t leave permanently.” Jin grinned. “Well, how about it Kazuya?”
“I guess we can head back now. King Kimura and Duke Takizawa are no doubt waiting to hear about the results… but how are we going to get back through the forest without Maru?” Kame asked quietly.
“I know the way,” Jin mumbled. “Back when I first came here, I didn’t need the fairies to find my way.”
“What do you mean you didn’t need the fairies?” Kame frowned.
“The ‘lights’ can mean a few things I guess. If you’re strong enough and have the bare minimum of magic to make it into the forest you probably won’t see the fairies still, even if you can make it in without being tossed out. You have more magic than that by far, so you were able to see the fairies even during the day. I… can see magic in the air, if I try to. It’s like silver glinting lights in the air. In most places the patterns are random because there isn’t much using it because most humans, even those with the gift, can’t use it anyway. But it’s not always like that. When I was a kid I found that magic is drawn to people who can use it. I don’t really know, I’ve not been around enough humans with strong magic to really find out. Takki… it’s not huge amounts but a decent amount of magic is drawn to him. I was always able to find him in the castle because I just had to follow the currents of magic that led to him. Even you draw enough magic to make a very distinct flow.” Jin explained while turning red. “Sorry, I feel like I’m always explaining things badly to you.”
“And Ueda is probably the strongest user of magic in this whole kingdom,” Kame said, catching on with a faint smile. “So you followed the trail of magic to him?”
“Yeah, it’s a magic forest so there were a lot of different things drawing magic in. Like with Maru, he pulls a certain amount of magic, so fairies and even the trees themselves, they glow for a reason, draw magic. But with Ueda, Junno, and even the lavender here, huge amounts of magic lead here. I did catch up to the fairies halfway through the forest though. Maru was just a little newborn fairy back then,” he grinned and gently poked Maru who smiled at the memory.
“Is that how the fairies come here?” Kame asked Maru.
“No. We know that magic is attracted to strong magical blood and spirits but only some fairies can actually see it. In my clan, we make the trip so often that most of us can make it without any guidance but if we need to we ask the trees to direct us,” Maru explained.
“So that’s it, Maru can finally return to his clan. I bet they’ve been worried. I can lead us home,” Jin smiled at Maru.
“But you won’t have a strong current to follow,” Junno interrupted.
“Like Maru’s clan does, I can ask the trees if I need to and once we get out of the forest it shouldn’t be too hard to find a town if need be and even then the castle is built upon a large collection of Seiryū’s shards, I can follow those trails.” Jin explained.
“I thought you could only talk to trees and things because of the spirit,” Kame mumbled. “You mean this is something you’ve always been able to do.”
“A lot of the trees back at the capital are actually magic, they just don’t glow for some reason. When I was five I was climbing that huge tree, Akemi, even though my tutors begged me all the time not to do stupid things.” He grinned at the memory of his tutors shouting at him from the ground. “I was about to climb up onto a higher branch when I heard someone say, ‘that branch is too damaged.’ I nearly fell out of the tree when I realized it had come from the tree itself! Most won’t talk to you unless you prompt them or unless they have to. The tree’s spirit always knew I would hear if she decided to talk to me but she’d kept quiet because there hadn’t been any reason to talk before. She really liked the quiet and solitude because she was the only tree in that plot. I talked to her all the time after that, or well as often as I could. When I got older she kept me up on all the gossip going around the castle because no one thought it necessary to keep quiet about things when the only witness is a tree.”
“You really must have been the weirdest child. Your parents must not have known what to do with you,” Kame shook his head.
Jin blinked, “that’s kind of true I guess. We should get going now. I promise to come and visit Junno, Maru…”
“Actually, I wanted… to go with you,” Maru whispered. “I want to explore the capital and spend more time outside of this forest. But only if it’s ok with you both.”
“Of course you can come with us!” Kame laughed. “You needn’t have even asked.”
“I guess this is it,” Junno mumbled forlornly. “All three of you are leaving…”
“We’ll visit,” Kame promised and grinned at Junno. “Besides, I’m sure we can find some way to send messages. We still have the communication stone after all.”
“And besides, I think I can still see things and probably send messages through water,” Jin winked and Junno frowned. “Seiryū’s shard may be gone but he’s left some things behind.”
Junno jumped forward and hugged Jin. “That will do then. Take care of yourself you idiot. Don’t do anything too stupid. You’re human again so you’ll be able to get sick and all those other things.”
“Don’t worry,” Jin smiled and clutched Junno tighter. “If my magic manifests like Takki’s then I will be around for many more years to come and bother you. Thank you, for everything Junno.” Junno made a particularly wretched noise.
“Don’t cry Junno,” Maru flew over and pat Junno, ineffectually, on the head to comfort him.
“I’m not crying,” Junno denied even though his voice had taken on a new pitch. “Kame, take care of yourself too and don’t let this idiot talk you into anything stupid. I listened to his ideas for over a hundred years, I know how they tend to go.”
“Of course, Junno,” Kame smiled but was shocked when the sprite swept him up in a hug.
Soon the trio set off, yelling goodbyes at Ueda through the window before disappearing into the forest. All three were silent until many hours later Kame broke it.
“So, are you going to take the throne?” He asked suddenly. The thought had been bothering him for a few weeks now.
“What?” Jin sputtered and nearly hit a branch he hadn’t watched carefully enough.
“It seemed that King Kimura was planning on naming you as his successor if you were able to break your curse. And well… being King must be pretty appealing.”
“I… no. You must realize by now that I’m not suited to being King,” Jin laughed. “I don’t think I ever really wanted to be the king it’s too… stifling. My younger brother was always better suited for it and I always imagined he would become king somehow because I just wouldn’t be able to manage it. I hope Kimura won’t be too disappointed when I refuse but I have an idea of who he should appoint.”
This time when they approached their home castle, Takki stood between the guards, rocking back and forth anxiously. He spotted them almost instantly and Kame nodded with a grin. The Duke froze before breaking into a run. He crossed the barrier he’d been stopped at before with no problems. Jin dropped off from his horse and had to grab the saddle again to keep from collapsing when Takki threw himself forward.
“You’re home,” Takki choked out. “We’re both free.”
Kame never considered himself the sort to eavesdrop and if asked to recall such a moment in his life he probably wouldn’t be able to supply one but when he stumbled upon a conversation between Jin and the Duke he didn’t knock as he had planned.
“I see… then are you going to stay long? You know that I would like you to but if it’s too much then you know we won’t be offended,” Takizawa asked.
“I don’t know, maybe two days, maybe a week, or maybe months. I haven’t decided yet and I don’t feel that urge yet,” Jin sighed. “But you know it’ll happen sooner or later. I think I’m just so happy to finally be back again, without any strings attached, that it hasn’t yet set in.”
There was a long pause and Kame considered making his presence known but then Takizawa spoke up again.
“Maybe… maybe you’ve found it already. Haven’t you considered that?” Takki murmured.
“I did and maybe I have but do I really, Takki? It won’t last and I’ll never really have what I want. If I stay it’ll just be torture, I think. It would be cruel, to have it in my grasp but instead watch it slip through my fingers for much longer. But, if it makes you feel better I’ll stay for at least a while, besides I have to tell you about all the things I saw and that we did. I really wish you could make it through the forest, I think seeing it alone would satisfy anyone’s wanderlust for a while.” Jin answered. Kame wondered how his voice could sound the way his eyes looked in that portrait.
“Don’t stay because you feel obligated. You know I would never ask you to torture yourself just for me, besides I’m finally free again,” Takki chuckled. “Do you have any questions? We didn’t really have much time to talk last time before you left to find a cure.”
There was another short silence before Jin finally answered. “I could… I could see things sometimes when I was cursed. Maybe the spirit pitied me or something because sometimes if I looked into that little pond I could see what was going on back here or in other lands. Ueda thought that it was worried about the safety of its vessel and acted so that I at least wouldn’t stay too depressed. But, it wasn’t much, I couldn’t really see if people were happy or if they were ok… my parents, my brother, were they ok afterwards? I know they would have been fine but mom, she. You know she didn’t want me to go on that trip to begin with, she practically begged me not to leave like that, again.”
“They missed you, of course they did, but they were happy Jin, they really were. It got better over time,” Takizawa comforted.
Jin chuckled, “Thank you for lying, you always did try to protect me but Takki, I need to know.”
Takizawa sighed, “Still too stubborn for your own good. Your dad always put up a decent front, at least in front of other people and Reio always managed it too. Your mom… she was never quite the same. When you didn’t come back after a month everyone figured that we’d have at least gotten news if something had happened to you. You left wearing the royal insignia after all and aren’t that hard to identify. So when you didn’t come back she was sure you had made it to Ueda’s home and that you were at least safe. So that was a comfort to her, she was sure you were alive and safe. But, that also meant that if we hadn’t heard from you or seen you that maybe you hadn’t wanted to come back ever again. She was happy that maybe you’d finally gotten your greatest wish granted but it crushed her all the same. I received that message from you but the oracle and I were the only ones who were able to receive it and I think they thought we were just trying to comfort them.”
“But, surely my mom could have gotten the message, her magic was always so strong. Takki, what do you mean only you two could receive it? I was sure she would be able to feel it too,” Jin whispered. “Takki….”
“Her magic was too weak by that point. Jin, she couldn’t talk to the spirits in the trees or… we think her state of mind smothered her connection. By the time you were able to send word she was already too weak to receive it, I’m sorry.”
“So that’s… that’s why she’s not still alive then?” Jin whispered. “I always figured she would be like you and live so long but if she started losing her magic she…”
“I’m sorry,” the duke repeated quietly.
Jin heaved a long sigh before continuing. “Was Reio a good king? I always knew he would be but…”
“Reio was a great king; he was fair and benevolent…” Takki answered. “He missed his brother dearly though and it often showed. He managed to get a treaty with Hyeonmu but he never had any children so Takuya became king later. He’s still fairly young but so ill Jin…” Kame stopped listening and returned to his room. Jin no longer had much tying him to this city, to this country.
Kame walked into the dining hall to join Jin, Takki, and Kimura for breakfast. He was running a bit late because another knight had flagged him down to catch up. Jin smiled at him and gestured to the chair to his left.
“I’m so sorry I’m late,” Kame apologized and was about to continue.
“Please don’t apologize, Sir Kamenashi,” Kimura spoke kindly. “And let me stop you before you start bringing out the titles and appropriate terms. I imagine everyone at this table considers you a friend or at the very least a very important knight.”
Kame felt his cheeks heating up and looked down at his empty plate. “Please, I really didn’t do much.”
“That’s not true. I never would have my freedom back if it weren’t for you,” Jin spoke warmly and Kame curled his hand into a fist.
“He is right,” Takki chimed in.
“Let’s get off this topic?” Kame suggested with a sigh.
“Certainly,” Kimura gestured for the food to be brought out and once everything was on the table he turned to Jin. “So Jin, are you prepared to take your rightful throne one of these days?”
Jin choked on a piece of fruit and Kame reached over to hit him on the back. After a moment he downed a glass of water. “I see we’re not going to be subtle about this.” He murmured.
“Subtlety loses its appeal when you’re dying,” Kimura arched an eyebrow.
“I’m sorry,” Jin mumbled.
“It’s not your fault, don’t apologize.” Kimura answered and looked piercingly at Jin. “But you can agree to take the throne after I am gone.”
“I’m afraid I wouldn’t be a very good King, but there is another possibility,” Jin looked at Takki and smirked. “Takki here is overdue for his shot at the crown.”
“Jin…” Takki started.
“You would be a great king,” Kimura push his plate away. “I’ve always said it but you always refused. I assumed it was because your dear cousin and friend, Jin, didn’t get the choice. He’s made his choice. He doesn’t want to be king, there should be nothing stopping you.”
“Takki, you always knew I didn’t want to be king,” Jim smiled brightly. “You were always the one who understood that I didn’t want that and knew I wouldn’t be very good at it. You helped fulfill my mom’s dying wish and I’ve had my chance.”
“What do you think, Kame?” Takki turned to the quiet knight.
“I think that if you want to be king you should accept the author. You would be a good king and you are technically second in line, after Jin, for the throne.” Kame answered simply. He did not want to get in the middle of this discussion if he could help it. Takki would be a great king, he had no doubt about that, but it wasn’t his choice.
Jin stayed in Keishi for two months. After word had spread that the Blood Knight had returned and the tale behind his disappearance, Jin fielded questions from other knights and was asked time and again to tell the stories of his more well-known exploits.
Even with that, he and Kame spent most of their time together. They would train or even more often, sitt late into the night in the gardens talking. Maru spent his time at the castle exploring the garden and seeing trees he had never realized existed. They never had a dull day because even when all they did was sit around and talk, neither ever felt bored.
It was on one of these nights that Jin broke the news Kame had been waiting on. The nights were getting warmer as summer quickly approached so they sat at the base of the tree in relative silence, just looking up at the stars and moon.
“I think I’m going to go travel soon,” Jin murmured.
Kame thought for a minute he’d imagined it, the tone was so low it barely carried through the air but he turned to look at Jin. The older man was looking at him so worriedly, as if expecting to be scolded. Kame dug his short nails into his skin and closed his eyes. He’d been dreading this. “How long?”
“Until I leave or until I come back?” Jin asked and wished Kame would open his eyes.
“I don’t know, on either part. It depends I guess,” Jin trailed off. “I was thinking about traveling to Baihu first. I’ve never been and the last and the only time I saw Hyeonmu was when I was fighting in the war so… not exactly pleasant memories. I want to see it during peace.”
Kame cracked his eyes open again and met Jin’s gaze. He was hopeful, but Kame wasn’t sure why. He’d expected to see that look of longing for new things, for something far in the distance, but instead Jin’s gaze was focused instead on the knight before him.
“I’ve heard Baihu is beautiful during the summer,” Kame whispered and saw pain flash across Jin’s eyes before it disappeared.
“Yeah, everyone who has been says that. You know, if you wanted... I wouldn't mind having some company?" Jin offered hesitantly. He wasn't expecting a positive answer but it didn't quell the tightening in his chest any when he received an answer.
"It might be fun but I can’t..."
"I know... I just thought that maybe... you seemed to like the last adventure enough that... why?" Jin fidgeted under Kame’s sharp gaze.
"Why? Jin, I'm not you, don't you understand that? I know that Takki and the oracle both seem to think that we're similar but other than a few small things I just don't see it. I’ve never been like you. I’ve never been unsatisfied with my life... I'm exactly where I’ve always wanted to be, don't you see?” He wasn’t lying, not exactly. This had been what he’d always wanted, at least until the past few months. “I don't want to be anywhere but here. I’ve worked my whole life to get to this rank and I can’t just leave." He froze. "I don't mean to say... you have to understand I don't mean that you shouldn't leave, especially if you're unhappy it’s just that that isn't for me. You're restless and maybe you're still looking for whatever it is you first left for. Jin… what was it you wished from Ueda?"
"I didn’t wish for anything from Ueda." Jin answered quietly, his chest constricting even more tightly.
"What do you mean you didn't wish for anything? That's why you left and you were there for so long." Kame’s eyes widened. It hadn’t even crossed his mind that the other might not have ever gotten a wish granted. He’d simply never asked and assumed what the wish was; to see the world and go on new adventures.
"I had no idea what to wish for. I thought that maybe by going I'd find the answer or figure it out on the way but I didn't and then I broke that vase... and at that point all I wanted was to see the world and break the curse. But Ueda is bound to that place and it wasn't the sort of thing he could cure with his magic alone and I was bound to the water. And I certainly didn't get any closer to figuring things out when I was trapped there.” Jin sighed and brought his knees up to his chest. “I never made a wish, just like you I never made a wish. But, did you have a wish? I don't understand why you even came if you didn't have a wish or something you wanted to change. Why did you go to Ueda if you didn't want anything?"
“All I wanted was to prove myself and see if I could make it somewhere that so few others could do. Sure, part of it has to do with something you were just born with but even if you had enough access to magic you probably couldn’t made it without skill and stamina… No one else made it to Ueda after you and if I could make it then it would be enough proof to myself that I deserved my accomplishments and rewards. It would be proof that I was on the right track and hadn’t gone astray." Kame answered confidently. He had already been asked so many times why he had left and come back without riches beyond anyone’s imaginations.
"Everyone wants something Kazuya." Jin whispered. “Ueda and Junno love where they are but even they have desires. Even they want to leave sometimes.”
"Well what I want? The things I want can’t be given with a spell or a simple wish. So I suppose in that way I don't want anything that can simply be given to me or acquired by making it through a magical forest to Ueda’s home. Go see the world Jin. Go grant your wish and satisfy that wanderlust of yours, but I don't think that will ever be solved. You won’t be happy unless you’re seeing and experiencing new things so I imagine you’ll always be off on a new adventure one after the other. So just go." Kame answered coldly. He had been pushing back the inevitable for a month now and he finally realized that it was making it worse, for both of them.
Jin crumpled under the harsh tone. "You're not even going to ask me to stay, like Takki and Kimura?"
"Of course not Jin. Just take care of yourself and try not to get cursed again." Kame sighed. After a moment he heard Jin stand and take a few steps away.
“Kazuya, I just want to say I’m glad you came. I’m glad you came to the forest and I’m glad to possibly be counted as one of your friends even though I don’t deserve it. I’m not just saying this because you helped me break my curse. I-” he stopped and looked at Kame desperately. “Never mind. Good night, Kazuya. Take care of yourself.”
Kame stared at Jin’s retreating figure and tried to recall a time he had ever called him Kazuya before. Somehow, Jin’s parting phrase didn’t process until it was too late.
That next morning when Kame awoke, he discovered Jin had left the castle at dawn with no indication of when he would return.
After many months, and pointed looks from the new successor, Kame found himself constantly looking back on that day. He was often found, sitting high among Akemi’s branches, lost in thought.
After all this time he couldn’t help but wonder if he should’ve said more, or even been as bold as to ask the elusive knight to stay. On his more hopeful days he could almost believe that Jin had been practically begging, in his own roundabout way, to be asked to stay. But, most days he couldn’t be nearly so optimistic, not when Jin’s messages were so scarce and his visits even more rare.
He’d seen the ex-knight in person twice in the past year, once when he arrived with a huge grin to bid Takizawa a happy birthday. He did finally learn the odd man’s age, one-hundred and seventy this year and the Duke was still going strong. The other time had been when he’d been asked to accompany a small group of court members to Baihu’s capital. Jin, having heard about the visit, no doubt from Takizawa, had looked them up while he was still in the city.
He had been convinced to hold his tongue as soon as he’d seen the joy flowing off Jin in waves when he met up with them. It seems all the traveling, on his own time, was doing Jin a lot of good. He couldn’t bring himself to disrupt it.
But for the most part he only received updates on where Jin was from Ueda, Junno, and Maru. The pair had quickly found that he could receive long-distance messages via magic, just as Takki could. The first week Jin had been visiting Ueda and Junno before he had set off for Hyeonmu, far to the north. After that he’d been in Baihu and then after that he’d traveled back to Zhuque to visit the friends they had made during their journey and had finally told Aiba how the story of the cursed-prince had ended. He’d received an excited, if confused, letter shortly after that from Nino, asking why he hadn’t been with Jin and if it was safe to let the man wander off so far. He hadn’t been sure how to respond to that, and had told the other man exactly that. Perhaps he hadn’t hidden his growing affections as well as he had thought.
But, just over a year after Jin’s travels began, certain whispers began to make their way back to the capital from the northern cities and villages of Shōryō. An even he, who now rarely partook in the gossip and too much of the news beyond the necessary bits, had heard the rumors that another Great Dragon was awakening from its long slumber. What couldn’t be identified was if it was an ancient Great Dragon or a newborn but either way news of violent storms, far worse those normally attributed to the season, were building.
Many captains were wary of sailing to the north, where shipwrecks were a larger threat than even before and similarly, many caravans were becoming hesitant. Three parties had been sent to investigate in the last few months alone and only the third had managed to come back, close to fully intact.
This third group confirmed the fears that had steadily grown in the capital; a Great Dragon was once again endangering lives. The entirety of the Court immediately available was brought together.
“But were you able to find out if it’s an ancient or newborn Great Dragon?” Kimura demanded. The King had rallied his health a bit in the past month and seemed almost normal that day.
“Not enough people know of the old legends and how true they can be. No one knows, your majesty,” the knight who had led the expedition explained.
“It has to be a newborn,” Takki spoke up. “The Scarlet Dragon was the last Great Dragon known to inhabit that region and the library’s texts state that it ascended well over three hundred years ago.”
Kame tuned out the discussion for a bit, realizing faintly that he’d never actually asked Jin about his encounter with the Black Dragon. He’d only asked if it really had turned anything it touched to ash and made the air nearly impossible to breathe. He had no idea how his friend had defeated such a fearsome creature. He was snapped out of his thoughts when one of the advisors spoke up.
“Perhaps the Spectral Knight can be of assistance?” The advisor questioned. “You are, after all, friends with the Blood Knight so perhaps you know how to deal with a Great Dragon?”
Kame barely forced down the flinch when he heard his title. Apparently, that last night Jin had remained in the castle he had gone to Takki and Kimura to recommend Kame to be inducted into the Order of Kō. The decision had been supported by field commanders as well as the royal trio. He imagined that under any other circumstances he would have been overjoyed by the honor and the title.
He had already begun his reclusive ways by the time the ceremony. In battles and practice he had been known for seeming to appear and disappear at just the right tactical moments that for some time his fellow knights had joked about him actually being a ghost because these days he never interacted with his fellow knights. Now his outward personality matched his fighting style and every time he heard his title he thought of Jin.
“I’m afraid I never thought to ask exactly how he went about it,” Kame answered quietly. He thought about the dragon ravaging parts of the north and the people no doubt affected. He wondered how Jin had felt upon first hearing of the Black Dragon, if his chest had tightened the same way when he thought of crops and family homes being destroyed so easily and without remorse.
“We have to do something,” Kame’s own father spoke. He had been so proud after Kame had returned from the journey and at the following ceremony and Kame wished he would be more excited about it all, at least for his family’s sake.
He thought about Jin, which darkened his mood just a bit more, and how he had faced the Black Dragon alone and when he was just twenty-two and suddenly he opened his mouth. He wasn’t sure if he was being courageous, idiotic, or suicidal but he was sure this was what he had to do. “I’ll go.”
Silence fell over the room and his father spun around to look at him with wide, terrified eyes.
“I have enough magic that it should protect me in ways the other knights who have gone didn’t have,” he explained. “And like my father said. We have to do something.”
Maybe he wasn’t being any of those things, maybe he was just chasing after a phantom
His father had tried to talk him out of it. Then Kimura himself made an attempt. Takki just looked at him as if he could read Kame’s every thought and always had been able to. When he thought about it, he wouldn’t be surprised if Takki’s magic had manifested in mind-reading abilities. It would explain a lot after all.
“Getting yourself killed will definitely bring him back. But it certainly won’t do him any good and because you’ll be dead, it won’t do you any good either,” Takki once again caught him in the library. He’d been going over old texts to make sure he hadn’t missed anything before he left.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Kame flipped to the next page and frowned at the description of some salve that guarded against dragon fire. That did him little good when the dragon was creating storms and apparently caused monsoon speed winds when it simply breathed. “Takki, you don’t know of any legends that would help, would you?”
Takki shook his head gravely. “I’m afraid I can’t give you any help. In the past mages weren’t as reclusive and the powerful ones more common. Except for a few rare cases, like the Black Dragon, they were all defeated by powerful magic.”
“Has this Great Dragon been named yet?” Kame flipped to another page, though he was sure he’d find nothing of use.
“The Cerulean Dragon actually.” Takki tugged the book away and placed it on a discarded pile. “You know exactly what I was talking about but I know I can’t talk you out of this. Please do your best not to get killed. I’ll miss you sorely and I don’t want to have to break the news to Jin. Now get out of the library and get some rest. You have a new adventure starting tomorrow and you’re going to need every bit of strength you can manage.”
Kame nodded and walked back to his newer quarters with Takki. As he put his hand on the doorknob he mumbled. “I wish he would have stayed. This wouldn’t be nearly as suicidal if he were going too.”
“You should have asked him to stay then,” Takki smiled faintly and leaned against the wall. “If you had asked, he would have stayed.”
“Sometimes I like to think that’s true, but only when I’m feeling particularly low, Takki. I should have asked, it’s true, but he wouldn’t have stayed for me. Good night.” Kame opened his door.
“Maybe… maybe you have the right idea after all. I don’t approve, but chase his legacy if you want. Just don’t get yourself killed in the process. Good night, Kame. I’ll see you off in the morning,” Takki turned and left Kame to his rest.
Surprisingly, Kame fell asleep easily. His dreams were filled with lavender stalks, faintly glowing trees, a familiar presence always by his side, and a slightly crooked but brilliant smile.
Junno was taking a nap when the whispers of the trees around him began to grow in strength. He didn’t want to do anything on this beautifully sunny day, the sort where the beams of light hit his leaves just so and the temperature was perfect, but then he heard a more curious murmur.
“The western trees say that young Maru has returned from his adventures with the humans and was seen flying as fast as he could through the forest. Junno, what do you think?”
That caught his attention, not just his name but Maru, who as far as he knew, was on his way back into the country with Jin.
“Is Jin with him?” Junno opened his eyes just in time to see the trees all about sway a bit and go silent for a few moments. He waited patiently for his question to spread and an answer to return but after a few moments he couldn’t help but grow impatient. If their friends were returning to visit he wanted to help Ueda prepare to greet them.
Finally, many trees began to speak at once, trying to get their comments in first to impress the oldest and most-liked tree in the forest.
“The western trees haven’t seen the knight-“
“No that’s not quite true!”
“Jin isn’t with Maru, it seems.”
“No one can seem to get Maru to stop long enough to ask what’s wrong.”
“Maru is quite frantic, according to the trees further out.”
“He’s not too far off now! Apparently he should be here soon.”
“Jin dropped Maru off at the edge of the forest…”
“Enough! One at a time. What was that you were saying Yuya?” Junno wished, sometimes, that trees weren’t so excitable about news from outside the forest. He couldn’t blame them, having roots set here and not being able to move about like he could, but it hurt his ears.
“My friends to the north say that Jin is cutting through the northern forest to get through faster. He dropped Maru off at the western edge of the forest before leaving.”
“Alright, that seems to cover everything. So Maru will be here soon right? Something must have happened. Try not to get too excited,” Junno laughed and dropped to the ground in a tangle of long limbs. He stumbled in through the window and crept into Ueda’s room. “Tat-chan, you need to wake up. Something’s wrong and Maru is going to be here soon.”
Ueda sighed and opened his eyes. “I know, the trees weren’t exactly being quiet now were they?” He rolled onto his side. “I wonder if this has anything to do with the new Great Dragon.”
When the clamor from the trees began to grow again, just a few hours later when the sun had just begun to sink beyond the horizon, Ueda moved outside to wait for their friend. Junno soon joined his vigil and within the hour they both felt the tremoring bursts of magic that came in quick succession one after another. That had been what alerted the whole forest to Maru’s sudden return.
They didn’t need to wait much longer before Maru burst into the field, a flurry of drops of green-stained magic flying off his wings with every flap. He collapsed into Ueda’s outstretched hands and let his aching wings rest.
“What’s happened?” Junno asked, collecting water in a hurriedly collected bowl for Maru.
“Kame’s gone after the Cerulean Dragon alone,” Maru answered. He looked up to Ueda. “What should we do?”
“Jin has gone after him?” Ueda asked instead.
“Yes, of course. As soon as we received word from the Oracle and Takki we came this way. Jin shouldn’t be too far behind Kame but he might not make it in time.” Maru threw himself face first into the bowl of water, sighing when it immediately cooled his skin.
“I’m afraid there’s not much we can do,” Ueda moved to lean against the side of his home. He remembered, one hundred and thirty-five years previously, how his magic had done nothing against the Black Dragon and how that one week absence from the forest had drained the inhabitants far too much. He may be one of the most powerful mages left in Shōryō, but he didn’t have the same knowledge those who had battled the Great Dragons once had. His magic tended further towards fire and electricity, instead of the sweeping winds and waters that Jin’s blood had given him. “All we can do is ask Seiryū to watch over them while we can’t.”
He looked over and saw Junno conversing quietly with the trees on the northern side of the field.
“Just try to get as much information as you can. Ueda will use his magic too but you might be able to get some info from the trees and plants to the north. They’re worried enough about the Cerulean Dragon that they will probably tell us what’s happening.”
“Of course! We don’t want anything to happen to Jin or Kame either. Leave it to us Junno.”
“Thank you,” Junno murmured before returning to Ueda and Maru. “Everyone is going to try and find out what’s going on from their friends and the northern trees have been helping Jin get through the forest faster.”
“Well then…” Ueda sighed and summoned a book of tales to try and keep them all occupied while they waited for news and perhaps tonight he would have company during Yoshimitsu’s tales.
He had been to the north on assignments before but never before had the cold bitten so viciously at his skin. It seems the Cerulean Dragon was affecting the whole climate because even in the north it shouldn’t have been anywhere near this cold.
One of the villagers met him at the village closest to the dragon’s home. Apparently it had taken over a mountain as its territory.
“Sir Kamenashi!” the man called him over to the cover of one of the buildings. “They sent word that you were coming.”
“Yes,” Kame pulled his scarf down a bit so he could speak.
“We have a room for you at this inn so you can rest until you’re ready to head up the mountain.” The man explained and opened the door. “I’ll take your horse for now and here is a map of the mountain, we’ve marked approximately where the dragon stays.”
“Will you be leading me there or will it be one of the knights who remained?” Kame began to unwind all his layers inside the heat of the inn.
“I- no. No one will even go near the mountain, I’m sorry.” He explained.
“I understand. It’s fine. I’ll map out a route tonight and head up in the morning. Is there advice you can give me about the mountain?”
“It’s not normally particularly dangerous. All I can say is be careful in those winds and watch out for the plants. ”
“Alright, thank you for everything.” Kame smiled reassuringly and went to the desk while the man disappeared back outside.
“You are in room six, Sir Kamenashi. Thank you for coming,” the old woman patted his hand when he reached out for the key.
“Of course, it’s my duty after all and I volunteered to come.” Kame told her before escaping to his room.
He sat and listened to the howling of the wind that rattled the window. He knew he was doing something stupid on very little research but somehow he couldn’t push away the idea this was a good idea. He spotted the stack of parchment and immediately went to the desk.
“Excuse me!” Jin called through the snow to the woman leaving her home.
“Oh, another knight!” she scurried over. “Are you here to help Sir Kamenashi? Grandma said he came alone.”
“Do you know where he’s staying?” Jin dismounted and led his horse forward through the deepening snow.
“At my family’s Inn. What’s your name?” She asked excitedly.
Jin wondered if it was his royal seals that made her smile that brightly. “Akanishi Jin, the Blood Knight of the Royal Court.
Her eyes widened and she swept into a hasty bow. “Y-your royal Highness, even this far north we have heard of your story.”
“You don’t need to do that, I abdicated the throne,” Jin waved his hands hastily. “I need to find Kamenashi.”
“He already left, before we were even awake this morning. He must have left so quietly too.” She bit her lip.
Jin frowned, the sun had barely started to rise and Kame was already on his way up that mountain.
“Oh! But that means this is for you. It’s a bit early but he left a note asking that we had these sent back to the capital,” she held up a small stack of folded and sealed parchments with names written clearly on the fronts. His own name sat on the top. “I was bringing them to the merchant who is leaving at the end of the week. It would give Sir Kamenashi enough time to come back and retrieve them if need be…”
Jin snatched the letter and slit it open. After a minute his grip on the page tightened. “Where on the mountain does this dragon live?”
“Um… well on the eastern side, pretty high up I think.” She answered and stepped forward when he pulled himself back up into the saddle. “Please be careful. The first convoy that went up the mountain… three of them froze straight through halfway up the mountain and the rest of the convoys had similar things happen.”
“Thank you and wish us luck. We have a dragon to slay.” Jin smiled at her before nudging his horse to speed through the small town. He could only hope that Kame’s magic had stayed off the freezing wind and snow.
Kame wished that clothing would be better against magic winds that somehow work their way to your skin. The further he got up the mountain, the more he began to question if he should have waited for more information. Jin had somehow managed, when he was human, to defeat one and he couldn’t help but wonder if Jin’s mother had known some information that he didn’t have now.
The further up the mountain he went, the stronger the winds became and he barely kept his footing a few times. He was expecting to be thrown down the mountain by the wind, not a tree. He wasn’t prepared when he felt something snake around his ankle and pulled his foot out from under him.
He yanked his foot to shake whatever it was off but the hold didn’t budge. When he got a good look at what was dragging him his eyes widened. Watch out for the plants. He pulled a dagger from his boot and slashed at the roots wrapped around his foot. They curled back in on their wounds and Kame dragged himself to his feet.
“Shit,” He stumbled back a bit. “How are they even growing in this cold? I’m starting to hate magic.” He grumbled and kept moving before the cold sunk even further into his body. He checked the map again and knew he couldn’t be far from the cave the dragon had taken over. He kept a wary eye on the foliage around him now.
It was almost like the stories of going through the more dense forests in Zhuque. He now had to keep his sword in hand to chop away when roots and branches reached out to snare him. He was almost relieved when he stepped onto the plateau just before the mouth of the cave.
He peeked around the side and felt air being forced out of the cave. The dreary weather gave him next to no light to go by in the cave so he thought back to every time he had seen Jin conjure light. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the tips of his fingers. After a minute he felt some of his energy drain and he opened his eyes to a faintly glowing orb.
“It’ll do,” he held it out in front of himself and slowly began to creep forward. He would have been worried about the noise of his armor alerting the dragon but he figured if the plants were attacking him and the dragon didn’t know then that burst of magic must have given him away. The cave widened and Kame stepped hesitantly forward. Before him was the carcass of a northern dragon. He held the orb up a bit higher but found nothing else in the chamber so he followed the slithering path further into the mountain.
He could feel something up ahead. Something changed in the air and so he once again held up the light. The chamber ahead of him was huge but his eyes stayed trained on the large eyes staring straight back at him.
The Cerulean Dragon was not the sort of dragon he was accustomed to. Many of the smaller species of dragon he had encountered had strong hind legs and wide wings. They were the kind that breathed fire or could cause rock collapses. This Great Dragon had an impossibly long, serpentine body covered in reflective, cerulean scales.
Kame unfroze when the dragon began to uncoil its long body. A sudden burst of wind nearly tore his sword from his grasp and he flattened himself against the wall to get out of the way. The temperature slowly began to drop until he could see his breath in the air. So far the dragon was just watching him carefully so he weighed his chances of surviving if he stayed in the cave.
He stepped out into the chamber and saw a spark of something and threw himself out of the way of a blast of freezing air. The wall where he had been was covered in a thick layer of ice so he kept moving while he assessed the dragon’s weaknesses. The air began to feel thick with both moisture and a crackle of magic.
The dragon whipped the end of its tail towards him and he just managed to drop his light and pull up his shield. He was pushed back but ice started wrapping around his shield. He looked down and saw the faintest layer of ice covering creeping up his boots.
“Shit!” He shouted. He pulled back his shield and ducked under the tail. He saw another opening leading out of the cavern and raced towards it. He finally noticed how nearly all surfaces in the cavern were covered in ice and cursed louder. He pulled the dagger out again and threw it precisely. The roar that followed confirmed his hit so he raced down the narrow passage and prayed it opened on the side of the mountain.
He could hear the rumbling of rocks over his pounding steps and could only assume the dragon was blasting its way through the smaller passage. The faint trace of light ahead, and a bone-chilling noise from the dragon, gave him an extra burst to sprint faster.
When he finally reached the entrance to the tunnel he found another plateau and turned back to look into the cave but without his light he couldn’t see much further than the mouth of the passage.
“Kame, move!” he recognized the voice and looked to his right. The next thing he knew he had the wind knocked out of him as he was tackled past the mouth of the passage. Seconds later a shower of debris was blasted out of the cave and the dragon immediately followed. Before he could gain his bearings he was dragging behind around an outcrop of rocks, away from the dragon.
Jin was still half-lying on him as he peeked around the rock to check on the dragon.
“Jin? What are you doing here?” Kame asked. He sucked in air deeply and tried to calm his nerves.
“I was on my way back to Keishi from Luò. A messenger intersected me two days after I crossed the border back into Shōryō. I’d been keeping Takki updated on my cities and so he sent the messenger to tell me that you had run off after a Great Dragon. I changed routes and came straight here. What were you thinking?” Jin hissed and pulled his head back down just before another burst of wind passed overhead.
“I was thinking we didn’t have a certain knight available who could take down a Great Dragon,” Kame snapped and felt Jin stiffen before finally moving off of him and letting him sit up.
“You know why I left and I was on my way back so I could help with the situation,” Jin’s voice cracked slightly.
“Can we argue about this when we don’t have a dragon breathing down our necks?” Kame demanded. “What tricks did you use to kill the Black Dragon?”
“My magic to resist the burning atmosphere, the skill I used in training, and luck. I take it you took out its left eye with that dagger?” Jin asked and pulled another dagger from his waist.
“Yeah, I needed it to keep chasing me out here or I’d be back at square one,” Kame peeked over the rocks to see the dragon constantly moving agitatedly but it always kept its remaining eye on the rock formation.
“Maru’s given me an idea though,” Jin threw off his left gauntlet and then peeled off his leather glove.
“Maru’s here?” Kame’s eyes widened. “How could you bring him here?”
“Of course not! I left him at the edge of his forest on my way up here.” Kame watched as Jin slit his left palm and let the blood pool in his cupped hand.
“What are you doing? You won’t be as useful if you can’t use your left hand you idiot,” Kame moved to cut a strip off from the tunic under his armor but Jin stopped him.
“I’m going to try and immobilize it; you go for the kill shot once I do. Even if it works it won’t last forever so move quickly, please.” Jin dropped the dagger and propelled himself from behind their shelter.
Kame stood and watched the dragon begin to uncoil again. He moved from behind the rocks so he’d have a clearer shot. He began to concentrate all his energy towards his right hand and hoped the technique he’d seen Jin use in training would work for him.
Just as the dragon began to lunge towards Jin the other knight scattered his blood out on the ground and dropped to his knees to place his hands on the grounds. Immediately trees and vines shot up out of the ground and twisted tightly around the dragon. Kame sprinted forward as soon as a separated branch twined around the dragon’s snout repeatedly to keep it closed.
He brought his left hand to grasp the hilt of his sword as well and concentrated all his energy out through his fingertips and forced his sword up and through the more sensitive, scale-less flesh just past the dragon’s head. He heard a loud cracking and Jin crying out and for a moment he thought the other’s leg had been snapped, but he blocked it out and forced the blade cleanly through the dragon’s neck.
He propped himself up with his sword against the sudden wave of lightheadedness and looked around. His eyes landed on Jin who, even with the pained yell, seemed to be fine. He was still on his knees on the ground and the severed tip of the dragon’s tail lay next to him.
He realized he really hadn’t had much longer; the cracking hadn’t come from Jin, as he had thought, but had been the plants that had frozen through on contact.
Kame stumbled over to Jin and sat down next to him. He was still trying to catch his breath from the sudden use of magic when he realized what Jin was doing. He had stripped off the left arm of his light armor and was applying scraps of fabric to a long cut up the outside of his arm.
“It got its tail free and sliced up my arm with it,” Jin explained when he caught Kame’s worried gaze.
“Let me see,” Kame gingerly took the proffered arm and removed the scraps. He left the fabric clutched in Jin’s left hand be to stem the blood flow from his hand. “Did it get you anywhere else?” He asked and took over the job of applying pressure to the wound. He examined the rest of Jin’s armor for any marks belying more injuries but found none. There were a few minor cuts along Jin’s exposed skin, no doubt from the wind the dragon had summoned, but he could only guess he had similar wounds.
“No I’m fine, it’s just the arm,” Jin unclenched his fist and gingerly turned his arm over. What caught his attention weren’t the already clotted cuts on his palm but the two parallel scars that ran, blood red, down the length of his arm.
“I thought these disappeared…” he whispered and traced gentle fingers down the two jagged lines.
“They started coming back a few months after the curse broke,” Jin explained and stared at Kame in wonder.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Kame narrowed his eyes.
Jin used his good hand and drew out a slightly crumpled piece of parchment with his own name and a few blood spots on it. “We’re going to have to discuss this.”
Kame’s face flushed bright red and he snapped his head to the side so he wouldn’t have to see Jin’s reaction. “Let’s get you back to the village so they can treat this.”
“Later then,” Jin agreed and forced himself up to stand and Kame followed. “You can let go of my arm, Kame. I’ll take care of it.” He grinned and took the scraps of bloodstained fabric back.
“Is it safe to leave the body here like this?” Kame whispered.
Jin looked back to the dragon still held up by the plants he’d created. “For now at least. We’re going to have to ask that merchant to leave a few days early but I think considering we just saved that village from freezing over he won’t mind.”
They began their trek back down the mountain and for the first time in months the sky cleared and the sun began to shine from the slowly clearing clouds.
Ueda had continued reading stories aloud in the field as a distraction, even after news of Jin’s arrival in the wind besieged town had reached them. There was nothing else for them to do to distract themselves and so even though his voice was nearly hoarse from constant use, he didn’t stop until a burst of energy and sound caught his attention.
He spun at the sudden spark of magic and then heard his own name.
“Ueda! Ueda are you around?” A familiar and dearly missed voice cried from inside small home.
Ueda tried to get his legs to work but he couldn’t seem to lever himself up and out of the position he had been in for nearly a full day. Junno instead sprang to his feet and disappeared inside for a few minutes.
“Ueda!” The call came again and Ueda’s head spun. In the worry that followed Maru’s return they had completely forgotten that Jin still had the second communication stone.
Junno reappeared with the stone and Jin’s image cradled in his hands.
“There you guys are!” Jin grinned widely and then winced when he tweaked a larger gash on his cheek.
“You suicidal idiot!” Ueda snatched the stone from Junno’s hands. “Are you alright? That damn dragon didn’t take a chunk out of you did it because if it did I’ll come and skin it myself! It’ll make great boots.”
“Nice to know you care Tat-chan,” Jin’s grin softened a bit but his eyes crinkled a bit and Ueda smiled back faintly. “No, we’re both fine. A few minor injuries and bruises but somehow we made it out of there alright. Though, if you really want those boots I think the Court might let me snag a bit of the dragon’s skin for you. I do have connections after all.” Jin winked and all three burst into relieved giggles.
“You defeated it then?” Junno asked with bright eyes.
“Of course we defeated it,” Kame, it seemed, had grabbed a hold of the stone on their end as well and now showed up next to Jin. “I chopped off its head while Jin held it down. We made a perfect team. For a while there I didn’t think I’d make it out of there though.”
“That’s because you’re an idiot,” Ueda glared. “You’re such an idiot I can’t even think of anything else to call you. What were you thinking going after the Cerulean Dragon like that? Without telling any of us or asking for any advice?”
“I’m sorry,” Kame murmured and Maru sighed.
“Just don’t make things like this a habit,” Maru pouted.
“I don’t know, Kame seems to be idiotically noble and take his duty as a knight far more seriously than was intended,” Jin drawled and poked Kame’s cheek. “I know you should be ready to die for your country at any time but not without doing everything you could to prevent it. Anyway, we just wanted to tell you that we weren’t dead and that we’d be headed back now but we have to guard the village and mountain to make sure nothing else is wrong.”
“Make sure to guard the dragon’s body.” Ueda warned, voice suddenly taking on a serious tilt. “A lot of dangerous things could be done with its blood, scales, or hairs so you need to watch out.”
“We’ll do that. Now take care!” Kame answered.
“Of course, but come visit us as soon as things calm down and take care of yourselves,” Junno grinned. “No more dragon hunting for a while alright?”
“I think I could do with a break from excitement,” Jin grumbled before waving. The two knights flickered out of view and all three that remained huddled together sighed as one and collapsed fully to the ground.
The merchant was dispatched to the capital but on arriving he’d find a convoy had already set off for the small village, sent by Duke Takizawa. Jin had sent a message to Takki, just as he had when cursed, to alert him ahead of time. Instead, the merchant brought with the proof the Court would need to make the announcement the Cerulean Dragon had been slain by the Spectral and Blood Knights. Now, displayed at the entrance to the castle hung both of the Cerulean Dragon’s horns, proof to the city that their knights had succeeded and would be home soon.
Ueda’s warnings had them both up on the mountain every day to guard the dragon’s body and hoard. On the first day they found the dragon’s substantial stash. By the second they had explored the depths of the caverns as much as possible and instead took to sitting by the outcrop they’d used for shelter. By midday they had exhausted the tales they had from Jin’s absence.
“So…” Kame trailed off and then unsheathed his sword to stare at the now bright silver blade. The dragon had bled silver blood and now the dull grey blade had lightened and took on a shimmering hue in the light. “I guess my blade will be like this forever, like yours.”
Jin grinned and took the sword into his own hands to look at it. “Yeah, there won’t be any removing it.” He returned the blade and ran a hand through his hair.
“Why didn’t you ask me to stay?” Jin finally asked after they had sat in silence for some time. “In the letter, you said you regretted not asking and that you loved me.”
“I didn’t have any right to ask you to stay. You were unhappy and you needed to travel to stay sane.” Kame mumbled. “You aren’t surprised I didn’t tell you that I loved you? I had a feeling I did before you left but once you left I knew for sure.”
“If you had asked, I would have stayed.” Jin answered with a faint smile. “I’m not surprised because I didn’t tell you either. I can’t blame you when I couldn’t work up the nerve myself.”
“Repeat that,” Kame turned.
“Which part?” Jin asked.
“You didn’t tell me what, Jin?” Kame prompted. He wanted to shake the other for teasing him but then realized Jin seemed genuinely confused.
“That I loved you but Takki and a few others always teased me about how obvious I made it,” Jin smiled faintly. “So I assumed you knew and didn’t stop me anyway.”
“I didn’t know. I really didn’t know,” Kame whispered. He watched Jin with a grin, which set the other off babbling.
“So I guess this means that’s we’re together? I mean you only wrote that letter the other day and I hope your feelings haven’t changed since then because I know that mine definitely haven’t and-” he cut off with Kame placed a hand on his shoulder and slowly moved it to the back of his neck.
“Stop talking. It’s cute but stop talking,” Kame chuckled and then pulled Jin into a kiss.
Two months later, the pair rode through the forest where everything had started. Kame watched fondly as Jin called out comments to trees, which seemed to be greeting him. They didn’t have much longer to Lavender Field so he tugged on Jin’s sleeve to pull him, and his horse, closer.
“Hm?” Jin shot him a bright smile and almost pulled back when Kame leaned in for a kiss. After a moment he did pull back, bright red. “Kame, the trees are watching.”
Kame laughed. “Just wanted to get that in before we arrived. I somehow think Ueda might be freaked out if we kiss around him.”
“But the trees!” Jin whined and nudged his horse to move faster. “You’re lucky you can’t hear their teasing right now.”
Kame chuckled the rest of the way to Lavender Field. It seems there were some perks to not having as much magic.
“Tatchan! Tatchan, they’re here!” Junno tumbled from his tree and began yelling as soon as they came into sight. He raced over and tackled Jin as he dismounted.
“Stop yelling, I could feel them coming ages ago,” Ueda stepped out of his house and cracked a smile at the trio. “Your swords alone light up very brightly in my vision. Maru said he’d be arriving later.”
Kame accepted the enthusiastic hug from the tree spirit. “It’ll be good to see him after so long.”
Ueda looked between them with narrowed eyes and smirked. “So have you figured out what freed Jin yet? You are together, now.”
“Well no I haven’t really thought about it but how did you know about us?” Jin hopped over to Ueda and hugged him.
“You have a love bite,” Ueda pointed at Jin’s neck. “You probably can’t see it yourself because you didn’t even try to hide it.”
Jin turned bright red and glared at Kame. “How could you not mention this?”
Kame just grinned at the love bite and shrugged. “Are you going to tell us now Ueda?”
Ueda sighed and rolled his eyes. “How are these things usually solved in those silly fairy tales of yours?”
Jin laughed. “True love but that’s ridiculous I mean we didn’t even…” he frowned. “It can’t be that.”
“Well of course it- oh spirits, no. No! I don’t mean like a kiss from your true love. Love is an interesting thing. It’s been known to boost natural magic abilities in desperate situations. Probably, the combined boost of your magic managed to break it.” Ueda explained with a sigh… “Jin, wishing to break the curse so he could remain with Kame and Kame wishing to break the curse to save Jin might have been strong enough.”
“But even you couldn’t break the curse,” Kame whispered. Ueda was the strongest magic user in the country, there was no way their boosted magic could come close.
“Even I find that a bit of a stretch,” Jin mumbled.
“Maybe Seiryū responded to your love and magic. You were a vessel for part of his spirit,” Ueda suggested lightly.
The pond, where a pair of reptilian eyes watched them, stirred for just a moment. Somewhere on another plane of existence, a god smiled.