They ran as they had never run before, ran with a storm on their heels and the wind as the wings on their backs. They carried them onward, forward, stumbling and panting, sweat on their brows and blood dripping, sliding, from their bodies in rivulets. Above them the sky was a dark tumult, beneath them the land a barren tableau where even the grass struggled to resist the fate that awaited them; it crunched and cracked with every step they took.
Thunder boomed overhead, tossing their shadows into high, white relief.
"Umi," Hikaru gasped. "Umi...Wait, Umi-"
"Shut up!" Umi hissed under her breath. "Just shut up!" She whipped her head back and forth, clenched her jaw and ground her teeth. She spotted the rocky outcropping up ahead, a dagger-point in the dark. "There," she breathed, and pulled at Hikaru, putting on a burst of speed.
Umi ignored her and all but threw the girl back up against the rock. She spun around, searching the sky, and found the meager pinpoint of hellfire hanging there. It was a bright red that seared into her eyes the longer she stared at it.
Lightning flashed, and thunder followed. The cold nipped at her skin, pebbled her arms and legs, her cheeks and neck under her hair. It brushed across her body and sank into her pores, replaced her blood with ice. The breath fled from her chest as she continued to stare at the star, neither growing larger nor redder. It winked at her, clear as the sun on a cloudless, sunny day.
AWAY! Selece boomed. Get thee behind me!
There came a pain in her head: hot and instant, like touching the surface of a stove. It carved its knife into her brain, flashed the white-ghost outline of the star behind her eyelids that became less amorphous and more shapely. More-
She couldn't take it anymore. Umi moved behind the rock and crouched down in front of Hikaru.
Her heart jolted, felt the world rock a little more off its hinges. Blood dribbled from various cuts on her body, her armor beaten in and missing chunks; three of the gold-plated crests that adorned her helm had snapped off when they had braced for landing. Even her hair, which had always been kitted together in a long, tightly braided tail, had come undone, spilling over her shoulders and down her back in a carpet of flames.
Umi brushed the strands falling in her face off to the side. Hikaru made a sound, blinking and stirring to a frugal wakefulness. "Umi," she said. Her voice was quiet and soft. Out of breath.
Umi shushed her. "Don't talk. Catch your breath, okay? Take a couple minutes. Please," she insisted at the look Hikaru gave her. "Do it for me."
Hikaru paused, considered, and then nodded. Umi saw the way her throat bobbed as she swallowed and licked dry, cracked lips.
"How could this have happened?" Umi asked aloud. "We had him! We had him, Hikaru! We were so close!"
"I know," said Hikaru.
"He waited for us. He had to have. He could've come after us himself if he wanted to."
"Except he didn't."
"No, he didn't," Umi hissed. "He sent the others to do what he could have done instead...and he knew they would fail! He knew they'd come crawling back to him for a second chance, and he still sent them out here."
Hikaru licked her lips again, pressed them, and released a breath. "He wanted them to die," she said. "If something happened to them, if we killed them, then they couldn't stop him." A gulp of air. "But no one's dead, Umi. And Fuu-"
This time the world tilted back, and Umi caught herself. Nausea welled in her stomach. Her chest heaved in quickening, shallow pants. "No one could have survived that," she said. "Y-You saw her."
"Windham won't let her die. Fuu's a fighter."
"So are we. Look where we are now."
"Fuu's out there somewhere. She'd want us to keep fighting."
"How, Hikaru?" Umi insisted, an edge and a whine in her voice. "How are we supposed to go up against Zagato like this?" She gestured at herself, armor similarly ruined and body also adorned in cuts and thin, drying blood.
"We have to try," Hikaru said, and on the last word grunted as she pushed up a little straighter. "Remember what Clef said."
"I know what he said...but how am I supposed to keep fighting when Princess Emeraud attacked us?" She pointed at the red star. "How are we supposed to believe we can save Cephiro when her and Zagato are working together?" Umi shook her head in disbelief. "This isn't how the stories go," she said quietly, more to herself than to Hikaru. Then, a little more loudly, "It's not supposed to be like this. We were told we were going to save the princess, stop the bad guy, and save the world." She had a hand on the rock that had dug into it as she spoke, and now she grit her teeth as the nails sheathed in their gloves broke and scattered a shower of granite and dust to the ground. "No one told us saving the world meant killing the very person we're supposed to protect!"
She made a pained sound and pulled her hand away, gawking at it. The cloth of the fingertips were beginning to stain.
Thunder passed by in a rumbling, earthen march. It rose in tempo as stamping feet and fell as they dragged against an invisible, impenetrable ground that would not break. A final crescendo, and when it faded into echoes the rain fell: one drop, two drops, three. More joined them in quick, pattering succession.
Blood and dirt washed away from their skin. It cooled them off and sent chills down their spines.
Umi didn't have to look to know the star still blazed.
"This isn't how it's supposed to end," Umi said. She gave Hikaru a searching look. "Did you ever think things were going to pan out this way? Just once?"
"No," Hikaru said, shaking her head. "I never thought that way, 'cause I always believed we could save Cephiro."
"What about now?"
"Now?" There was a pause, a moment where her eyes were wide and strikingly childlike in its openness. It made Umi's chest stutter painfully. "No," Hikaru said again. "No I didn't. I knew our journey was going to be tough, that we could die at any moment...but no, I didn't think it'd be like this." She licked her lips again. "But...I'm still going to fight. For Presea, for Ferio, for Ascot and Caldina and Lafarga. For everyone that's ever believed in us. I'm gonna fight for Princess Emeraude, not because she wants me to but because I want to. Cephiro's a beautiful land full of magic and wonderful people in it."
"And look at it now," Umi said, despairingly, staring up at the sky. Away from the star. "It's like the end of the world as we know it."
"We can still save it," said Hikaru. "I would hate to see it fall apart...not after everything we've been through. It'd be a terrible way to die and a terrible way to remember all the days we spent together."
Umi couldn't help but laugh. "What would there be to remember if we're all dead?"
"That's why I'm still going to fight. I have to. I will save Cephiro...even if that means I have to die for it to happen."
"Don't say that!" Umi exclaimed, cheer replaced by horror. "Please, Hikaru! You don't mean that!"
"I wish I didn't."
"What about me? And Fuu? What happened to us going back to Tokyo together? What happened to us going to watch Fuu at the archery club or you and her coming to see my fencing tournament?" Umi clenched her fists. "How are Fuu and I supposed to go meet your family at the dojo if you're dead?"
Hikaru gave a small, sad smile. "I'm sorry, Umi. I'm just...the more I see it, the more my perspective changes. Just a little."
"Don't be stupid, Hikaru," Umi ground out. "Don't just throw your life away for my sake or anyone else's. At the end of the day, we're just kids. Kids with armor, swords, and magic."
"Don't forget the Rune Gods."
"And gods," Umi emphasized with airy disbelief. "Gods made of metal and clockwork and who knows what else in the universe that could unmake Cephiro if they felt like it. Can you still believe that, Hikaru? That the Pillar of the world and everyone in it puts their faith and their gods in a bunch of kids that have never fought before? All because of a prophecy?"
"I thought it would be so simple, like you said," said Hikaru. "I thought this would be just like the stories I read back home. It sounded like fun."
"It's both." At Umi's questioning glance, Hikaru elaborated, "It's better and worse than I ever imagined. Better, that I could meet the people that lived in this world full of magic and creatures...and worse, because it's all so very real. It's not a book, a movie, or a game. When people and things die, they stay dead; there's nothing to bring them back as good as new."
"But Cephiro is a land of will and possibility."
Hikaru frowned. "Not if the people lose hope. When hope is gone, they don't think straight. They think things they never would have considered." She looked up past Umi's shoulder, and Umi shuddered at the thought of the star that rose unbidden in her mind. A thought not even Selece could keep at bay; no force on Cephiro or in all the cosmos could stop its emergence from the foggy dark. "I want to give them back that hope, Umi. Otherwise, Cephiro really will crumble...and us with it."
"Neither am I. It's just...there's just us two. Fuu landed...somewhere, and Mokona…." Umi sagged forward, hands grasping the earth for soil that wasn't there. "Poor little guy. I wonder if he's alright? I wonder if he went to go find Fuu and…." She stopped, took a deep breath, and let it out. She looked anywhere but at Hikaru. "Sorry," she mumbled.
Hikaru didn't answer. Her head was tipped back, her face to the rain.
"Do you think Selece and Rayearth can sense Windham? I mean, even with the land falling apart, d'you think they can just, you know, block all that noise out and focus on him?"
Negative, Selece said, his voice echoing in both their heads. Windham is unresponsive. Status report on Fuu Hououji cannot be filed and archived for future reference. Spatial uplink has been disconnected due to mass critical failure of the Sphere's structural and moral integrity; the sky-made-full, the sea-made-round, and the land-made-flat subroutines are unable to send thy queries. Runtime has exceeded on ninety percent of applicable handling on semipredicate exceptions. Administrative control has been assumed until further notice.
"You can't reach them," said Umi, and that was the best she could hope to gather from his words. "Then-"
Standard operating procedures will have changed via emergency protocol. Having assumed administrative control and threat evaluation is minimal, thy brother will have retreated from the Sphere and merge unto Chaos to reconstitute his metaphysical integrity until further notice.
"But what about Fuu? She's bonded with him! What happens to a human if they go outside Cephiro?"
Umi's head pounded in tandem with her heart at the silence; she could see the same look of dawning horror on Hikaru's face, as well. Then, as somberly as a mechanical voice would allow, Selece said: Safety from information-theoretic death cannot be assured. Algorithms dictate a best-case scenario with which Fuu Hououji will be drawn and rendered immune and immobilized from any and all external factors written in platonia—neither time, disease, nor magic shall touch her. Genetic constitution and physiological integrity will be preserved within the circumference of time dilation. Neural integrity will be preserved but rendered unconscious; the dreamwalking subroutine will be inaccessible to all central bodily commands save the subtle body; therefore, Fuu Hououji will maintain empathetic uplink with Windham until the reconstitution of his germ is completed and Cephiro's structural integrity has been stabilized with the ascension of the Pillar or the mental constitution of the world has been reasserted and no longer in danger of decay.
This is called suspended animation. Therein Fuu Hououji shall be as a fly trapped in amber.
Survival rate is calculated to be fifty percent.
"Fifty percent," Umi breathed. "That's...That's gotta be a good thing...right?" She whirled on Hikaru. "Right?"
"She'll be okay then," Hikaru said. "And if something happens when she comes out, then...then Windham will protect her!" She grinned, wincing through the pain. "Fuu will come back to us!"
Void and Chaos are beyond even our jurisdiction. We are but architects for the creation of the Sphere. As their names dictate, they do not operate on the same metaphysical system Cephiro adheres to.
"So...there's a chance she'll die?" Umi croaked.
One outcome is that she will die and return to the cycle of the Wheel. The second outcome is that she will emerge from chaotic animation, whole and unperturbed. A tertiary result of the third will be that she will emerge, but in a permanent vegetative state.
"What does that mean?" Hikaru asked.
In their mind's eye, the sleek metal face of Selece's true raiment was a flat bulwark; only the dimming of his eyes and a downward shift of his head betrayed the emotion he was feeling. In shorthand, to be permanently vegetative is to be no different than a babe out of the womb. She would be there, lost in her own world, where it is grey and empty. All higher functions of thought and response to external stimuli will be rendered null by the time spent in chaotic animation. Chaos and Void are realms not meant for the mortal soul; even one preordained to become a Magic Knight is infallible to the ravages of illusory, temporal progression.
It is a fate worse than death. Only mercy can be shewn to those who are caught betwixt conscious planes.
Umi and Hikaru were silent, stared inwardly at him and past one another.
"N-No," Hikaru said in a small voice. "No, that can't be! That won't happen!"
It won't, but it may. Such is the way of probability outcomes equated from cause and effect.
"You told me once that you and your brothers can see all dooms," said Umi. "Those are just three—three possible outcomes that could happen."
Aye, that is the truth.
"Then there must be a doom where Windham goes into Chaos and Fuu stays behind for whatever reason she feels is best for both of them. Am I right?"
Aye, said Selece, and he looked inward at his host. That is the truth. It is not an optimal solution, for it shall go against all prerogatives and standard operating procedures even under emergency protocols. However, Fuu Hououji is neither greater nor lesser than thy brother. Based on the logic behind the reasoning she would espouse upon him, loopholes left untouched by algorithm transparency and compatible programming software will determine the most rational decision wherewith the results of the present outcome are positive for the foreseeable future.
"So, if I've got this right, that means Fuu could be out there right now—here, in Cephiro—alone, while Windham's retreated into Chaos to recover until he's ready to come back into the Sphere. But because the world's in so much upheaval, you can't make contact with either of them until the Pillar has been restored or"-and here Umi grew quiet-"or, in the case the Pillar dies, the hearts and minds of the people are at ease. That way, even without the Pillar, Cephiro could return to what it once was before Zagato...or Princess Emeraude…."
Aye. That is the truth.
"And the longer we sit here twiddling our the thumbs, the more of a chance they have at seeing it crumble." Umi clenched and unclenched her hands; so dead was the land that not even all the nitpicking could dredge up the dirt to soil her gloves. Only the blood remained.
She looked at Hikaru. Her face was pensive, thoughtful, a storm brewing underneath only she was privy to. It was not a look Umi ever wanted to see and become comfortable with. It looked better—or worse—on a person that was not Hikaru Shidou.
"We have to do something," Umi said.
"Mm," said Hikaru. It sounded neither agreeing or disagreeing.
"We can't stay here. We have to move."
"How's Rayearth doing?"
Umi thought she didn't hear her. She thought, for a moment, Hikaru ignored her. She was about to repeat herself when Hikaru said, "He's fine. Hurt, but...fine." Then, as if to emphasize her point, they heard Rayearth's voice chime back: Physical planar condition is positive at fifty-percent operating capacity. Auxiliary and tertiary emergency functions have been activated and administrative control has been assumed. Empathetic uplink is at seventy percent operating capacity.
She pursed her lips. "That's gonna stay like that if we don't do anything, right?"
Affirmative. Regeneration has commenced ETA ten minutes ago.
"And how long's that gonna take?"
Full completion of all primary functions without chaotic intervention is estimated to be twenty-four hours.
"Twenty-four hours which we don't have!"
Umi slammed her fists against the ground and winced at the pain lancing up her forearms, the ringing in her head. When they subsided and she could see more clearly and straighter, she stared at the ground. Stared at the blood coating her fingers and the way the rain washed it in thin, ruddy streamers that would sink into desolation fit to drink but not be quenched.
She thought of her friends at school, and the captain who had wished her luck in the fencing tournament that had almost surely come and gone in a whisper.
She thought of her mother and father, who must surely be wondering why she never came home from Tokyo Tower and were worried out of their minds.
She thought of Fuu and Windham. She remembered the way Zagato, donned in the raiment of the dark, gallant knight that was the germ of his thought, pierced them with his long spear. Pierced them, and redirected the blast of Windham's armor rupturing beneath the strain of magic and circuitry overload onto the Magic Knight therein with a swing of his shield. She remembered the sparkling of white gunmental fragments that had been Windham's wings shining brighter than the stars, remembered the fire and smoke spilling from the gaping hole in his chassis, and remembered the frantic mantra Fuu uttered as she fell away from them and disappeared through the clouds.
We won't lose! We won't lose. We won't lose. We cannot and will not lose!
Then she was gone, lost to the darkness.
Umi balled her hands again until her nails pierced the soft meat of her flesh and the blood welled around them. She thought of Clef, of Presea, of Mokona, of Ferio, of Ascot and Caldina and Lafarga and everyone that resided within Cephiro, magic-touched and magic-bound to the sky-made-full, the sea-made-round, and the land-made-flat. She thought of everyone and everything that would be wiped away from the Sphere, be consumed by Chaos and rendered unto Void, sundered forever from the Wheel that was held together by the Hub and the Axle of the world.
She thought of Zagato, who had railed against the system configurations ingrained into Cephiro that had seen the love of his life damned to an existence of futile sainthood.
She thought of Princess Emeraude, who had realized the depths of his feelings for her and put him before the rest of the world.
She thought about Hikaru, and she thought of that dark, cold, unending place that awaited her beyond the Void, removed from the Veil.
I don't want that, Umi thought. I don't want that for her at all...or for me! Not for anyone! So how...how do we go about this? How...How do we take Zagato and Princess Emeraude out in one blow? How do we stop Cephiro from falling into ruin? What do we do then? Can we even do this without Fuu?
No. No, we can't. If we start moving, then they'll start moving. We probably won't get very far, either, and that'll be the end of that.
Umi chewed the inside of her cheek, then bit her lip. A distraction, then. One of us is going to have to distract them. The other will run as far away as she can and hope Zagato and Princess Emeraude are kept busy long enough to stay out of their radar. Then, when she's out of sight, she'll search for Fuu and Windham, find them, and get them back up to speed...before the other is struck down and Zagato and Princess Emeraude press the advantage.
They will move soon, Selece said. They grow tired of waiting. You must decide.
What about you? Are you going to be okay with all this?
I shall follow henceforth, to whatever doom lies before us.
That doesn't help in the slightest! But it was, Umi recalled, as he said: it was the truth, and nothing but. Life or death awaited them. Restoration or total destruction.
I'm not leaving without Fuu! Umi told him. Or Hikaru! It's all of us or none of us at all, and I won't take no for an answer!
Indeed. That is the only answer you and I shall suffice with. So, a distraction must be done. Who shall go?
Who will go? Umi's mind drew a blank. I-
"I'll do it."
Her head shot up to see Hikaru pushing herself to her feet. "What?"
"I said, I'll do it. I'll keep Zagato and Princess Emeraude off you while you run."
For a moment, Umi didn't understand what she was saying. Then it slammed home, the way it must feel to fall off a bike and scrape yourself all over the ground. "Are you insane?! Look at you! You can barely stand!"
"That's why I want to do this," Hikaru said, clinging to the manifested sword as she finished climbing the rest of the way up. "All this blood and magic coming out of me...Zagato and Princess Emeraude won't be able to help themselves. I read it in a book once, you know. For class. How sharks go crazy when they smell blood in the water. We're so far away from them right now that I'll bet it's taking every ounce of willpower to not come after us."
"You can't be serious. I practically dragged you all the way out here!"
Hikaru shrugged, smiling humorlessly. "Where else am I gonna go?"
"Anywhere but here!"
"I want to be here. I have to be."
"You don't have to!" Umi yelled. "You-" She paused, an idea forming. "Listen. Let me do this, okay?"
"I don't want you to-"
"I don't care if you don't want me to. I said, let me do this. I can still move. I can still fight."
"So can I-"
"You can still run. You can regenerate! I'll hold them off for however long it takes!"
"But you just said we don't have time."
"I'll make time then!" Umi snarled. Her face must have been ugly and terrible to behold, because Hikaru startled and backed up against the outcrop. She stared at her with large, frightened eyes, and the red hot anger cooled to a cold, wet smoke that choked the life from the embers. "Please don't do this," she pleaded. "I lost one friend. I don't want to lose another."
Hikaru's features softened. "Umi…."
"I'm the weakest of the three. You know it, Fuu knows, and I know it. I didn't care about Cephiro back then; I just wanted to go back home. I didn't want to fight someone else's battles. I'd have given anything to be back in Tokyo if it meant I could get away from it all. What would I know about magic and fantasy monsters and talking robots with the power of comic book superheroes? None of that mattered to me. None of that was real. They were games. And yet, here I am, dressed like someone out of freaking Langrisser who's wearing said robot like a second skin and staring death right in the eye."
Now it was Umi's turn to smile, and it was full of a peaceful, teary bitterness. "Here I am," she said again, trembling. "Fighting for a world that I just started to call my home away from home. Fighting to save a princess from a guy who wanted her love...and he got it, Hikaru. He totally got it. Any minute now they're going to kill one of us, and when that's done they'll do away with all the rest and...and…." Her body drooped so that it seemed she was doing dogeza before Hikaru. Before the rest of Cephiro; only the earth could see the dull smile for what it was. "I wonder...what'll come after."
Hikaru didn't say anything. Umi didn't want to pick herself up to see how she was looking at her, but she heard a soft sigh and a murmur of shifting armor. "I don't know," Hikaru said. "Maybe there's a heaven. Maybe there's a hell. Maybe there's only Void waiting for us. But, really, I don't care if there are or aren't any. Because to be honest, I have no intention of finding out."
Umi gasped laughter. "You're reckless, you know that? Reckless and crazy. Always putting others before yourself...why do you have to be that way?"
"Because if I wasn't, I wouldn't be me," Hikaru said with slight, sleepy cheer. "Right, Rayearth?"
Hikaru is Hikaru, said the Machine, matter-of-factly. There can be no other way.
"And you're not weak, Umi," Hikaru went on. "You're far from it. If anything, I'd say you're the smartest out of all three of us!"
"Give me a break. Fire beats water and wind empowers fire...and you're wearing red, Hikaru. That makes you the leader."
"So? Just because I wear red doesn't mean I have to be the leader! You and Fuu have seen the way I fight. I have to be the first to get in there. I have to be the one to take the most damage so neither of you have to get hurt as badly. I have to always help because that's just who I am. I make a very poor leader if you think about it!"
"Hikaru, if it wasn't for you and Fuu, I'd have run off into the wilderness, get lost, go mad, and die all on the same day trying to find a way home. You are the strongest, smartest person I've ever come to know." Umi raised her head, but still she did not look Hikaru in the eye. "I wish I could be like that."
"But you are, Umi." She felt a gentle weight press down on her shoulder, of a hand that had lost all warmth from the rain. "You are strong, and smart. You are more than you realize." A pause, and in a voice so quiet Umi could scarcely hear, "You'll have to be. I'm sorry."
Umi raised her head. "What-"
There was a keen of magic, a red light, and the kiss of metal on silk.
Umi whirled around. "What-?!"
"ZAGATO!" Hikaru yelled, and the word echoed with the crash of thunder that followed. "PRINCESS EMERAUDE!"
"Hikaru-!" The blood in her head drummed so hard and so fast it dropped Umi to her knees. She looked up and gazed upon the red star. Her eyes burned at the sight of it, at the sense of wrongness that accompanied it; but Selece did not rise to steer her away. Instead, the star appeared to be turning its attention on Hikaru. It was growing brighter.
"I BELIEVE THIS WORLD IS STILL WORTH SAVING!" Hikaru went on. "NO MATTER WHAT GETS THROWN AT ME, NO MATTER WHAT KNOCKS ME DOWN, I'M STILL GOING TO GET BACK UP! WHATEVER IS IN MY WAY, I WILL PUSH IT TO THE SIDE, EVEN IF THAT HAS TO BE THE PILLAR OF CEPHIRO ITSELF! SO SHOW ME! PROVE ME WRONG! PROVE TO ME THAT LIFE ISN'T STILL WORTH LIVING!" Her chest heaved with each precious, rain-soaked breath she took. Then she threw her head back. "RAYEARTH!"
LAUNCH PROTOCOL ENGAGED, came the Rune God's declaration. It sounded like the hammer's first knell on an anvil.
"Hikaru!" said Umi. She got up only to stumble back, crying out at the sudden blast of wind and heat rising from the spot Hikaru stood. She raised her arms, shielding her face, but the steam that billowed from the column of fire that ignited into existence blew quick across her skin like sandpaper that sucked the moisture out of the air and left her feeling raw and exposed.
Umi gritted her teeth. The wind roared as a lion on the hunt, a loud, deeply cavernous sound that made her teeth vibrate and the earth under her feet rock and roll. It fell away, becoming lower and quieter, until it subsided into the steady thrum of idle engines; the heat cooled with the rain, became warm and humid-slick.
She lowered her arms and stared, jaw going slack. "Oh my God," she murmured. In Hikaru's place was Rayearth, white feathers unfolded in its entirety; some pieces were missing, but most were scratched, dented, and gouged with black, smelted metal. In his right hand was a massive, double-edged broadsword that blazed with simmering fire magic which licked all along its length. She could see his head move up, up, until it was craned back and directed up at the sky. At the star that drew closer.
Rayearth gripped the sword. He raised the plated shield covering his left arm, calling up a gout of firm that spouted even more steam and a sizzling crackle of magic and burnt circuitry. PROTECT THY HOST, BROTHER. I SHALL SEE THEE SOON.
FARE THEE WELL, BROTHER, said Selece, devoid of emotion but a heavy, mechanical solemnity. I SHALL SEE THEE SOON.
Goodbye, Umi, said Hikaru's voice, small and barely there. Not quite a whisper, but not quite loud enough to be spoken normally. It was shaky, but it held itself together, if only barely. I'll see you soon.
ENGAGING HOSTILES, said Rayearth, and then the engines flared. He beat his wings once, twice. He beat his wings a third time, and then both he and his Knight were careening heavenward, hell-bound, toward the shattered castle in the sky.
"No!" Umi cried. Then, more loudly, "NO! HIKARU! HIKARU!"
There was one star in the sky, red and white mingled together, and they were Zagato and Princess Emeraude joined as though they were one. Another star rose to meet them, dark red against their bright, and this was Rayearth and also Hikaru who mantled him, and as one they raced through the lightning and the thunder with sword risen and fire burning.
They clashed, and there again was that dull, clamorous clanging of the blacksmith's hammer on the anvil. They retreated, circled around, and struck again, louder and heavier than before. Retreated, circled, struck. Retreated, circled, and struck, over and over and over again, picking up in speed as their attacks turned more powerful, explosive, ear-shattering.
"HIKARU!" she screamed, but she could barely hear herself over the din. The word was there, formed by her mouth, but it resounded only in her head. Overhead the stars clashed, drowning out the clap of thunder riding that preceded lightning's epileptic dance in the clouds. The ground bucked at her feet, groaned, and then splintered inward, causing her to stumble. She gasped and put her arms out to stop her fall.
We must go at once, said Selece.
"No! I won't leave Hikaru behind!"
There is nothing more you can do here. We must leave. Now, while she has their attention.
"I said I'm not leaving!" Umi pushed up onto her feet. "I'm not leaving Hikaru behind!"
But thou must. Thou must find Fuu Hououji. Thou must heal. Thou must wait until the time is right.
"No! I won't leave! I won't let her die alone!" She sucked in a breath of wet air and ozone sulfuric as spent fireworks and smoldering nicotine. "You can't make me!"
Sometimes we must do what we would not. These are the decisions that chronicle the continuation of the world and the perpetuation of the Wheel. We take no joy in them, and yet we must commit to them.
"Then let me be with Hikaru! I WANT TO FIGHT!" She yelled again as the land heaved and buckled all around her, in tandem with another meeting of blade and magic in the sky that went off so abruptly her ears rang. "Selece!"
I cannot, he said, and I will not. The Quest must continue.
"Goddammit, Selece! Don't do this to me!"
"It does not matter what you do," said a strong, masculine voice, echoing throughout the valley.
Umi's breath hitched at the same time her heart lurched to a sudden, painful stop. Her eyes flew up to the sky, where Rayearth's light retreated; and it was there, hanging high above him, above Hikaru, red as the fire-licked coals in the hearth, entwined with the chill blue-white of a glacial mountain. It made her think of the pictures of binary stars she'd see in her science textbooks at school, of their seeming closeness even though they were forever far apart, revolving around the body of mass (the barycenter, her inner voice blared, the center of Cephiro, the Pillar) in the cold, dark depths of outer space. Their light was bright and warm, warding off the chill of rain and death.
It set her skin alight with fresh goosebumps.
It plucked her lungs like a harpsichord with quick, deft fingers.
It gazed back at her and seared her eyes with dry, raw agony.
Umi Ryuuzaki! Selece called, but Umi did not hear him. She could only hear the blood pounding in her head, see only the light of soul magic permeate through the rain.
For a brief moment, she could imagine Zagato's arms wrapped around Princess Emeraude in a loving embrace, and vice versa.
Her stomach lurched.
Umi Ryuuzaki! Selece called again. She did not hear him; he may as well not even have been there.
"So long as you exist, Magic Knights, Cephiro will never be free of its torment! You come crawling through the Veil, writhing like the blind worms you are, and for what? For justice? For glory? There is none of that in what you do! This hope you call 'freedom' is nothing more than a chain that which you use to bind the Pillar and bleed her dry!"
"It will be better this way," said another voice, and this one Umi knew just as intimately as she did Hikaru's and Fuu's. It was soft and sweet like a summer breeze...and there was an edge underlying it, like steel sharpened on a whetstone with a slow, gentle carefulness that was almost motherly. Yet she sounded deeper, older, filled with a wisdom as a lady born of the courts should be when she is fully grown into her station; and Umi had seen Princess Emeraude as she was now—as she would have been, in some other lifetime: tall, elegant, and beautiful, radiant in the finery of the Pillars who had come before her shaping the foundation of Cephiro with their prayers of peace and celerity amid the shadows of the sun and in the dark corners of the world. "It's almost time. Just close your eyes, my dears, and you will be free. Freedom from pain, freedom from worry, freedom from torture and all the heart holds dear. Release yourselves from these bindings. Come with us...to paradise."
"No," Umi breathed in a small, quiet voice, shaking her head. "No no no no no."
"You want paradise?" said Hikaru's voice, amplified by Rayearth's auditory systems. "Try then! Take it from me!" Then her star, Rayearth's star, blazed with crimson brilliance that soothed the blistering stove-top agony searing a wildfire in Umi's eyes and in her mind.
It took off toward the barycenter, faster than it had before.
Zagato laughed, and Princess Emeraude laughed along with him. "Fool," he said, as though the word was a solemn mantra. "You still do not see. You are not Knights of Prophecy." A flash of light, a retreat from Hikaru, and then she charged again. "You are Knights of Doom!" Flash! And he and Emeraude struck against Hikaru. "Heralds of Judge, Jury, and Executioner!" Flash! "You were not, and never will be, meant to be the saviors!" Flash! "This farce ends here!"
A flash, and the earth groaned and shattered underneath Umi's feet in tune to the roar of thunder that made her hear only the long, drawn note of ringing in her ears. She did not feel her knees hit the ground, did not feel the rain—heated from the fire of magic and ozone—beat upon her face as she looked upon the battle raging in the sky. Again and again they clashed, and again and again they drew away; and then they would meet again, and the dance continued unabated, more fiercely, more strongly than the last.
Then, suddenly, a plume of fire and smoke. There was not a sound that indicated the damage, nothing that could drown out the rain and Cephiro's misery; Hikaru was flung away from Zagato and Princess Emeraude. She dipped below them, stopped, and teetered between rising back up to meet them and falling once more.
"HIKARU!" cried Umi, and made to stand. Her body locked up the instant she rose to her full height, and the pain behind her eyes returned tenfold, forcing her to wrench her gaze away from the fight. "S-Selece…!"
We have wasted too much time! We must leave!
"I said 'no!'" She tried to turn her head back toward the sky in spite of the voice inside-the voice that was the part of her that got her moving when there was trouble, pushed common sense to the forefront, and kept her alive—screaming for her to look away and be rid of the compulsion the Rune God was enforcing upon her. It was like trying to force open a door that just would not budge, and the more she pushed the more Selece pushed back. Her eyes burned. "N-No!"
Please, Magic Knight!
Umi froze, and Selece turned her sight from the battle. Yet still her eyes continued to burn, making her blink furiously. "P-Princess Emeraude?"
Run, the Princess pleaded; and it was not the voice of the woman wrapped around Zagato but the girl imprisoned in a Sphere beyond the Sphere of Cephiro, the girl who had summoned Umi and Fuu and Hikaru from Tokyo Tower through the spatial, kaleidoscopic fabric of the Void—the Pillar, the Axle, of the world. Please...run! Run, and gather your strength! Reclaim the Machines from their respite, find your sister, and ease this broken land of its scars! For when next we meet, I will have already been consumed by hatred and vengeance; this person as you know will be no more.
"I can't! Hikaru's-"
You must have faith in her! Believe, young woman from another world!
"She's going to die!"
Please! You must believe!
"Then let me believe I can be with her! Let me believe...I have a fighting chance!"
You do not, said the Princess, and Umi's heart skipped several beats at the severity in the tone of her voice. You cannot...not with your heart the way it is. So please—please, Magic Knight—have faith in the woman that is your bonded sister! Have faith that the day when Cephiro will be saved will come! But most of all, have faith in yourself so that you may grant our selfish wish.
"Princess Emeraude!" Umi said, and a second explosion from above drew her eyes up. Up, and she beheld the staggering, diminishing radiance that was Rayearth. Smoke bled profusely from his body.
She did not notice Selece's grip receding. Everything around her seemed to fall away: the earth, the rain, the lightning and thunder, the breath in her lungs and the beating of her heart. All the world was white noise and all the world was Rayearth, mantled by
Hikaru, falling from the heavens.
Run, said the Princess. Run!
Umi stared at the sky. She stared long, longingly, at Hikaru, committed the sight of Rayearth's battered body, who had stopped falling and now dangled motionless and dreamily in midair, to memory.
She took one shaking step back. She took another to join the first, one that made her leg spasm and nearly give out. Then she took a third, a fourth, and a fifth. A pause, and then a sixth.
And then Umi turned around and ran, ran, and she did not bother to keep track at all. It was one foot after the other, one by one by one, splashing through the water and the hardpan she slipped and stumbled on. Yet still she kept on going, breathing heavily, head down, wounds screaming as she pumped arms and legs back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
She did not stop, even when the explosions got louder and the clouds threw her shadow everywhere in lights that flickered in a chaotic, epileptic dance.
Then there was a clap, soundless and fast like a bolt, and a shift in the air that was cold and robbed both the breath from her lungs, the fire in her veins, and the moisture from the air. Umi planted her feet on the ground and, nearly doubled over from the inertia, whirled around.
All three stars were a system now, close and braced for impact.
In those dark clouds, Rayearth outshone them all. She knew it to be so, in her heart of hearts, when the first of the halos expanded outward like a blooming flower. She knew it then, when a second, smaller halo joined it, how beautiful Hikaru was.
ACTIVATING IN SITU PLATONIC RESTORATION PROGRAM, EFFECTIVE 3...2...1...
It was a cold command: dry and automatic, and in a tone that was final.
It was the last thing Umi remembered, and the image of that wondrous, terrible, starburst of light remained seared her mind as a brand, even as Selece enclosed her in the dark, esoteric pocket of his raiment.
What happened thereafter would be difficult for her to describe. What little time she spent inside the Rune God who was mantled upon her would not be enough to go in-depth to how it felt, save that it was akin to being in the chair of a fighter jet. She had had control then, flying through the air with Hikaru and Fuu; but Selece's eyes were her eyes, and she could see farther than she could atop the highest hill that overlooked Tokyo's wards; his body was her body, and she had never felt more free and adult and omnipotent than she ever would have in her entire life; his sword was her sword, his magic was her magic—water at her fingertips to purge, in her breath to wash away, and in her forethought to cleanse and bring about Cephiro an age of renewal, her golden dawn.
But now...now, she would be unable to say what it was like. His embrace was cold and black as the sea, and she had been blind. She did not know where she was or where he was taking them. Trapped as the newborn chick still in its egg, she did not struggle for release. She hung there, in the integral Void that was not Void, drifting, listless, weightless.
Yet when memory finally came to clarity, the first thing she did was emerge from Selece. He had called for her, by name, but she ignored him. She had come to, suddenly and with a startling wakefulness, and pushed. Pushed, until the hole in his shimmering, starry arraignment, and then she was out. Hit the ground, barren and red and so very flat, and ran. Ran, panting loudly and harshly as a locomotive, sounds tearing from her throat.
Horrible, wretched sounds, choked in tears.
She ran, ran even as her feet dragged and she was almost bowed low to the ground. And when she finally stopped running Umi staggered, not picking them up at all. Then at last, at long last, she stopped. Her legs locked, buckled, and she dropped to her knees.
Fell forward, and would have stayed there had she not put her hands out.
She breathed in the air, sweet and damp and cool. She breathed, swallowed, and coughed at the harshness of each large lungful. Then she coughed again, and wretched, and shook when the adrenaline wore off and pain—heavy and leaden—settled deep upon her bones.
Umi wept. Her tears flowed freely and without end. Her cries were soft, her moans pitiful and loud in the stillness. She balled her hands into fists and beat them feebly on the ground.
She looked up above her, and then behind her, where the stars wheeled high in an endless, lonely cycle. Not a cloud was in the sky. The shadows of the buttes (where very little scrub grew around its bases) reached long and black across the topsoil in the white-blue illumination of the night.
They were gone.
She glanced around. Selece towered over her, in his mechanical form, on one knee. Circuitry and magic bled from panels that had once been covered by enigmatic armor. If she peered closely, she would have seen stars in the spaces between his plates that comprised his exoskeletal frame and what might have been the vague outline of a wire-framed model shaping the physical integrity of his humanoid endoskeleton.
They were the only two, living souls in the badlands.
They may very well be the only two souls left alive in all of Cephiro, and with no way back to Earth.
The thought made her freeze in a shock of realization that left her breathless, lightheaded, and sick. This is it. This is the end. I am never going to see Tokyo again. I am never going to see my friends and family again.
I am going to die, and there won't be a Wheel for me to return to. A fresh wave of tears spilled down her cheeks. I am the last of the Magic Knights.
All because of them.
Umi blinked, and a gentle, quiet calm fell over her.
No. Not the last, and not alone. Fuu was out there somewhere, with Windham, dead or alive, on Cephiro or in Chaos where she teetered between life and death. And Hikaru, bright and warm as a tiny flame on a summer night….
She ground her teeth and gripped her hands into fists, ignoring the way her fingernails scraped over the hardpan and the blood flowed from their tattered wicks.
This is far from over, Umi Ryuuzaki, said Selece, though his words were garbled with fluctuating pitch and volume. He inclined his head toward her. But your heart-
Yes. Her heart.
Umi breathed in slowly, breathed out, and breathed in again. She closed her ears to him and listened to it. Her heart rate was quieting, beating steadily against her breath and the shell of the earth. They were the only sounds she could hear. It was peaceful. Serene, like the surface of an ocean far removed civilization. But underneath it, in the dark below, the waters seethed. It boiled hot, it boiled cold, it wanted to rush up to the surface at a speed that could not be matched.
She latched onto it, embraced it with both arms, and did not let go.
"I'm going to kill them."
Umi pushed up onto her feet, swaying. She stood firm even as the world spun and weakness clapped its iron hands on her shoulders. She raised her left hand, the one topped with the blue crystal, and kept it steady as it trembled. With the other, she placed the palm of her right above the glove and directed the last reserves of magic into her open hand.
Selece's rapier emerged, shapeless and roaring as a waterfall, and when it was formed she snatched it out of the air.
"I'm going to kill them both," she growled, and brought the edge of the blade down on her palm. Blood splashed across the ground in an inky jet, and it dripped through the tear in the cloth and ran down her arm in rivulets.
She raised her head to the sky. "Do you hear me?!" she yelled at the top of her lungs. "No matter where you run, no matter where you hide, I am going to find you! I will scour every corner of Cephiro and tear down every foundation, slay every dissident, if it means getting one step closer to you! BY MY BLOOD, THIS I SWEAR! I'LL KILL YOU!"
Umi pitched the last word in a howl that quickly descended into an inarticulate, wordless cry of rage, and it raced through the valleys and the hills and the dying rivers and the stars in their seat in heaven and the churning mass that was Chaos and the total, utter enlightenment that was Void. It echoed long into the night and deep within her heart, and went deeper yet until it nestled comfortably, achingly, therein.
And so it stayed.