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“...And they named it after you. Seiryu’s Aegis, I believe he wanted to call it.” The warrior recounts Hien’s words as they continue up the worn mountain path.

“Oh? And what, pray tell, have I done to deserve such an honor from Doma’s prince?” Seiryu is a good yalm ahead of them, slithering effortlessly in spite of the climb.

“Well, I’d say it’s because of your renowned sorcery.” They reply, remembering the legend offered by that pesky minstrel in Kugane. “We watched the barrier stop a Garlean aircraft as if it were a moth flying into the glass of a lantern.”

“A fitting tribute, then. I shall take it in stride.” He says airily, but the warrior suspects he might be more pleased with the idea of protecting Doma than he lets on.

The warrior pauses from their hike, looking down upon the sea from their perch. The birds below look close to specks with how high up they are, and the afternoon sun seems closer than before, forming a smoldering halo on their crown. Their travels had taken them to this part of Ruby Sea only once before; the island is just off the shore of the mainland yet relatively secluded from the other fragments of the archipelago. It gives them the vague feeling of being alone, for there were no traces of men or beastmen landing on this particular shore.

They admire the view a moment longer, until they notice Seiryu waiting for them, his forked tongue flicking out of his mouth in impatience.

The two continue the on the path until dense wood surrounds them. Seiryu periodically tastes the air, as if searching for something while still slithering upright. The warrior follows him as he veers from the path, sifting through the long grass until he’s nearly obscured by the overgrown blades. Were the warrior less keen, they would have probably lost him with the way his verdant scales hide him.

“Though I yearn for the day we have our contest of arms again, these respites are welcome. Soroban seems to appreciate the rest as well; Genbu has been tirelessly training him, and Tataru’s visit was much needed.” The auspice chuckles, a thin and throaty noise accented by a hiss. “You have been keeping well, I hope? It would not do if you were to become infirm before our duel.”

He makes a point to remind them of their promise each time they descend to Reisen Temple, and the warrior has accepted it as one of the quirks of growing closer to the auspice. They found him to be strangely endearing company - outwardly, he seemed more sage than Byakko or Suzaku, always eager to impart ancient knowledge onto them or deliver the rare bout of wit. However, they soon realized he was easily more tempestuous than either of them beneath the surface, and the warrior thinks it may be due to a century’s worth of anguish when they quelled his aramitama. But he seems content as of late, seeming less aloof with each visit and willing to share more about himself. The warrior takes a small pride in that, moreso than besting him in a fight.

“As well as I can, I suppose.” They give a small smile, not wanting to worry him. “Remind me why we’re here, again?” The warrior recognizes parts of the island they were spirited away to when they first met.

“I merely wished to show you my home. Though you may labor to believe it, I have more to offer than just dueling grounds.” The forest grows denser and cooler, the trees above shielding them from the sun. They see unusual shapes between the grass as the auspice continues along - stone carvings of snakes, they realize, as they become clearer. The idols are all poised proudly amongst small stone shrines, as if guarding both them and the unseen path Seiryu is taking.

“Ahh, this brings back memories.” The serpent stretches, a shudder passing down the entirety of his spine. What rays of the sun peek through the canopy catch his scales, making them seem momentarily iridescent. “This is where I first learned to wield magicks and geomancy… with my first taste of divinity, I held only feeble dominion over spirit. What you see now is the cultivation of centuries of training.”

The warrior has half a mind to remark on that, what with all the bruises he gave them prior to sealing Koryu. His fervent desire to preserve his oath was evident in the fury he near-drowned them in. Seiryu’s pace picks up on instinct as he becomes lost in the memories, and they can only listen to his raspy voice so they know where he’s gone.

“When those children were sacrificed to me, they thought of me as a great dragon whisking them away from the forest… I hoped to be as they saw me, a savior when their people so cruelly decided their fate.” The warrior can see the vestiges of broken faith around them, the stone serpents reclaimed by nature or shattered by time. They can only imagine that growing fear of their once-revered kami led to their eventual abandoned state. “My shiki are the manifestations of their prayers; most offered me companions in the shape of mine own, thus a wreath of snakes did my humble home become.”

“I tried holding onto those children's belief for a time - that I was a merciful and benevolent kami despite the circumstances that delivered them unto me. It was when men came to strike me down did I truly live up to my title of demon…” He bows before one crumbling stone in his image, as if in meditation. The silence of the forest is only filled by rustling trees and the sound of water from a distant stream.

The auspice raises his head again, his keen gaze turned onto them once more. “Pray, forgive me. I did not guide you here to merely reminisce, but for those of us with timeless lives, the present and past tend to coalesce into a single moment.”

“I think I understand what you mean. This isn't my first brush with those who have lived for centuries.” Except the Dravanians demonstrated a notable lack of self-awareness when it came to recounting events a millennia past with each parley.

“Of course it would not be.” His fangs are bared in the semblance of a toothy grin on his serpentine visage. “This should be secluded enough. I doubt any other child of man would dare come close to these... ‘cursed’ grounds.”

The warrior spares a glance around the clearing in which they've stopped. At the center rests a shrine - an ornate offering of stone previously made in his honor, left to decay and bloom again with wildlife. They wait for Seiryu to speak, breathing in the fresh forest air with the underlying scent of the sea.

In a brilliant flash of aether, Seiryu unveils his true appearance. His delicate face is framed by a cascade of dark hair and slender features, none of it betraying the immense power he wields. His talons dig into the long grass with his tail sweeping through the greenery. The serpent’s form is different than when they first fought one another - this time it is smaller, closer to the size of a man and lacking companions sewn into his scales. When the wind settles, he opens his eyes to reveal pure azure, piercing and true.

The warrior curiously examines the length of his body. “Where are your…?”

“As I said before, the shiki are gifts to me. They are only bound to my flesh if I will it. And this will afford us some measure of privacy; I would prefer not to have prying eyes when I tell you this, even if they are my dear children.” He threads one scaled hand through his hair, and if the warrior didn't know better, they'd say it was out of nerves.

“Listen well, for I would be loathe to repeat myself because of a stray breeze.” Seiryu sits on his haunches with his tail primly curled around himself. He's still taller than the warrior, to the point where they have to crane their neck up slightly to see his face.

“I’m listening.” They assure him, feeling a slight sense of awe while being graced by his majestic presence. The scene is terribly ethereal, like a carefully scripted verse from Hingan folklore.

“I must confess to you, champion of this star, I am… enamored with you.” His countenance is unflinching when the words pass his lips. “The life of an auspice has shown me how deeply regret can linger, even with the healing of time. I hoped to not have any ere you are released from this mortal coil.”

Though the warrior knew he was candid in that haughty way of his, they did not think he would make such a bold overture. Words have never been their forte, but their throat closes on any reply they might have had. Seiryu seems quickly uncomfortable with the beat of silence that envelops the space between them.

“Suzaku impressed upon me the depth of her sorrow with Tenzen’s passing, and encouraged me to speak with you.” He says by way of explanation, giving a light cough into one sleeve. “She is overly romantic, caught in the throes of fiery passion long after her beloved's flame has been smothered… but there is truth to what she says.”

They must betray their surprise in their expression, because his lips quirk upwards wryly. “Come now, I am not so proud after centuries to spurn wisdom at face value. And she is the one who approached me.” Seiryu’s serpentine body shifts as he meets their eyes, expression fond. “You are a remarkable mortal. Where I thought I was only fit to bear the mantle of demon to keep my oath, you showed me otherwise. Mayhap it is selfish of me to desire what fleeting time you have left, but if you would relinquish it to me, I would take care not to squander it.” He bows slightly with a hand over his chest, awaiting judgement.

The air stills, the warrior once again finding themselves breathtaken by how graceful he is, laying himself bare  - and then he rights himself, watching over them from above once more. It is the distance between mortal and kami imposed by the auspice, even if the warrior is in the habit of laying gods low.

Seiryu closes his eyes and sighs, as if keeping the words within his breast was an arduous feat. “I do not expect you to reciprocate, of course. Mortals are wont to seek out each other for company, and your attentions are ever required elsewhere. Nay, I simply wanted to give voice to what lay in my heart while you still draw breath.”

The sunlight reflects off his gold ornaments, his sleeves swaying in the wind with his hair following suit. His visage is serene, not waiting for an answer of any kind. Perhaps it’s because he’s always tempered his hope; they suppose a life of centuries would instill a degree of resignation within him when it came to mortal affairs. But the thought sets something within them alight - they want to prove him wrong if he thinks he is not worthy of such admiration.

A stubborn fool, he called them. He was right about that much. “And what if I do? Reciprocate, that is.”

That draws a dry laugh from him. “Clearly you know not of the danger your proposal. Take your leave and find another mortal to fill your heart - if you know of timeless beings, then surely you know the tragedy that comes with reckless declarations.”

“You and I both know that I’ve a penchant for courting danger, whether I intend to or not.” They counter. “Can we at least try? Can you at least grant me that?”

The request gives him pause, and he seems torn for a moment that feels akin to an eternity. A faint flicker of yearning passes through his eyes, a veritable deluge that could swallow them whole like a vicious sea. “...If that is what you wish.” His lowers body to the ground like a resting coeurl, so that his face is able to meet theirs. “Heavens know you are the most bullheaded creature I’ve had the misfortune to meet.”

Seiryu leans over them, tucking a dark lock of hair behind one long ear. When they’re this close, the warrior can sense the aether comprising his being. At their first dance, it was a maelstrom of emotion, but now, it feels closer to the calm at the center of a storm. He slowly presses his lips against their own, his entire body shuddering down to his tufted tail. He tastes like sea salt carried by the ocean breeze and warmed from the sun, and it fades all too quickly when he withdraws. The warrior can see his spine writhing the out of the corner of their eyes, coiling around them as if to keep them close and safe. They experimentally run a hand over one segment of azure scales when it's within reach, and they’re surprised to find it feels like dipping their fingers into a cool stream before he slithers out of their grasp. He reaches for their hand and laces their fingers together, drawing their attention back to the endless blue watching them with an intensity that makes them shiver.

“Do you remember the vow Tenzen imparted unto me? I promised to become strong enough to be worthy of this divinity, and to protect my chosen with an unwavering will. If you would have me as your guardian, then I would cherish you.” The auspice whispers mere ilms away, a slight hiss tinging the breath that follows.

The sincerity of his words causes heat to creep into their cheeks. They turn their gaze elsewhere, for fear they might ignite if he says anything more.

“You needn't hesitate so.” Seiryu’s normally placid features shows the barest hint of mirth, his lips forming a smile. “I am not venomous, despite what others may say about my temperament.”

“I was just… thinking.” They say.

“Have you second thoughts of this?” He asks, carefully reading their face.

They shake their head. “I was merely reminded of something else. I came across a tale in the west of another mortal consorting with an immortal dragon - Saint Shiva, and her love, the great wyrm Hraesvelgr. He, too, knew her life would be a fleeting existence and partook of her aether so he might cherish her for eras to come. Shiva’s soothing embrace has stayed his hand more than once, when he thirsted for bloodshed.” They wonder if they would stay in Seiryu’s memory like the Saint, even without such a permanent union.

“An unorthodox solution.” Seiryu hums. “One that would bless you with the entirety of my life and prevent the festering of aramitama. But let us not speak of mortality any longer. I would take care to keep this moment close to my soul regardless, and have it grant me strength rather than madness.”

They meet him again, this time in earnest, quietly moaning when his fangs skillfully graze their lip. It becomes readily apparent, then, that he’s longed for this more than his composed demeanor had shown. His tail flicks in unabashed interest, the sun catching the shimmering gold of his mane. One scaled finger lightly traces their jawline and they sigh, leaning into him. They feel close to heavens-touched, indulging in the auspice’s gentle attentions. Maybe it’s because they’re able to feel the profound wellspring of power he possesses, or maybe it’s because they haven’t realized how much they had come to admire him with each rendezvous.

“Would that I could mark you as mine and drink deep of your essence, like Hraesvelgr did for his beloved...” He murmurs against their lips. Claws loosely hold their jaw to keep them still as Seiryu delivers a kiss to their cheek, to the corner of their mouth, then to their racing pulse. His hair tickles their neck as he breathes near the sensitive skin. There’s a sharp hiss near their ear, one that holds the promise of fangs in its wake. The aether coils about them tighter and tighter, making them gasp in anticipation. They think this is how Shiva must have felt, offering herself to her love.

Piercing ivory never comes, the warrior stiffly bracing themselves for nothing but a low chuckle. “Worry not. I merely jest - I am not so base as to mar you for my own pleasure.”

He pulls away, taking with him the sudden spike in adrenaline. It leaves the warrior dizzy on their feet and Seiryu gives a genuine laugh as they struggle to stay upright. They think this must be part of his intent, to constantly throw them off-balance. “We should return lest the others wonder where we have gone.” He says, perfectly collected save for the upwards curve of his lips. The warrior can only nod weakly, at his mercy.

They wonder if this is all a dream, when he shifts back into his serpent form and starts winding his way down the mountain. They match his pace, and he stays by their side this time, leaning in to momentarily nuzzle the back of their hand. “Allow me this indulgence, being close to you until you are required to save the realm once more.”

The warrior tentatively runs their hand down his scaled nape, feeling him tremble in delight. “Of course.”

Privately, they’re amused by how open Seiryu has become with his affection. But the warrior enjoys the newfound sense of being held dear with the sound of the ocean amidst a setting sun - a different sort of aegis, one they will take care to keep close to their heart as well.