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The Prince of Beasts/獣の王子様

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The early morning fog sits low over the valley, a silver shroud obscuring the little village of Bartovek from view. The sun has yet to peer its head over the fringe of massive black trees that surround the place, or the mountains beyond. At this time of night, the air normally hisses with sound: the chirping of crickets and the bellowing of frogs, the rustling of wind in the leaves. Tonight, the air hangs thin and silent like a taut bowstring, like a breath held in anticipation of a great misfortune. In this unnatural stillness, one can hear the subtle clip-clop of cloven hooves over cobblestones: a lone traveler approaches the village gate, head bowed low and face obscured by a scarf and cap. Not a single soul has come to see him off on his journey. In fact, every window sits shuttered, every sash and curtain drawn. The traveler moves like a ghost, unnoticed and silent as the grave.

“Brother!” A soft whisper cuts through the dark. A young woman, barefoot and dressed in nothing but her shawl and petticoat, rushes toward the traveler and his mount -- a docile elk with doleful eyes. Her long black hair trails behind her as she runs, and  in the dim moonlight her eyes shine with tears. The traveler removes the scarf from his face, brows knotted with concern.

“Karla? You know you shouldn't be here, it's not allowed.” He scolds, but she pays him no mind, reaching up to place a hand on his arm.

“Hush! I couldn't let you leave without saying goodbye.” She answers, her voice quivering with emotion despite the firmness of her tone. “This isn't fair! They shouldn't have made you leave. Father could have--”

“Hush, Karla.” He replies solemnly, placing his hand over hers. “It's done.” Karla stares up at her brother for a long time, as if trying to memorize his face -- every sharp line of his cheeks and jaw, the warmth in his soft brown eyes, the delicate curve of his lips and the curl of hair peeking out from his cap.

“Hermann…” She finally speaks again, reaching into her thin shirt. “Take this. If I will truly never see you again…”

“Karla, no. Please keep it, I--”

“You gave it to me, I can give it back if I choose.” She interjects, gently pulling a necklace of braided leather from around her neck. Laced at the end, a brilliant crystal formation hangs, glinting in the light of the moon. “I remember you told me this looked like a star to you. Let this guide you to where you need to go.”

“Karla… Thank you.” Hermann takes the jewel reverently, easing it over his head and tucking it under his scarf. “Stay strong, little sister.” He forces himself to turn away and urge his mount forward. He does not dare to look back at his sister, who watches from the gate long after he has disappeared into the cold mist.


 

Hermann hadn't chosen to leave Bartovek, though he'd thought about it many times. As beautiful and serene as his home was, it also stifled him, held him fast to a life of predictability. He had read every book in town three times over, charted stars, memorized animal calls and the names of herbs and plants. He had an insatiable desire to know , but here in this village, it seemed he'd learned everything it had to offer. Of course, his father and the other council elders had forbidden anyone to leave -- for centuries, Bartovek had lived this way, secluded and safe from the outside world. That only made Hermann long for it more.

He'd never thought he'd get his wish, and never in such a horrid, gruesome way.

Hermann leg twitches and throbs with a pain so intense he nearly falls off his mount. He clenches his teeth and rights himself, grasping his thigh with one hand and holding tight to the reins with the other. The wound he'd suffered the day before has not improved, he realizes -- it has only festered further. A pang of fear throbs in his chest. Perhaps his father's predictions would indeed come to pass, after all.

He'd suffered the injury just outside the village, riding home from a hunt just as he did not lying every day. Out of the forest came a terrible creature, a bear mangled and contorted into something truly monstrous. Its eyes burned with a cold fire, and its body glowed a sickly blue. He'd never seen anything like it in all his days. As he approached, it shrugged off his arrows like blades of grass, and only when the thing had charged him, sinking its fangs into his thigh, did he manage to slay it with a dagger to the eye socket. By then, his fate had been sealed.

Hermann stops for the night, camping in a small, rocky outcropping beside a calm stream. The sun has already settled into its bed behind the mountains, and the air has already grown cold. He builds a fire, feeds his mount, then sets to work redressing his wound.

The thing looks almost as painful as it feels: a huge laceration, nearly six inches long and swollen. As Hermann unwraps it, he flinches; the cloth catches on the sticky flesh and tugs. Once fully uncovered, the worst of it comes into view -- a terrible sickly glow under the skin, the same pale blue that had overtaken the bear's body. This, not the wound itself, would eventually kill him if not treated. For this reason, and the fear of contamination, his father had set him forth on this journey. After all, their village had already suffered so much hardship: how could they survive an infection as cruel as this?

Hermann remembers the tears in his mother's eyes as his father had passed down the decree. He wishes more than anything he had said something, anything to comfort her… but the time for regrets had passed. All Hermann has now is the road ahead, and the memories behind him.

As he finishes redressing the wound, the skies open up, sending sheets of rain pounding away at the nearby landscape. Hermann thanks his lucky stars he'd found a dry place, slipping a hand into his shirt and clutching the jewel his sister had given to him. Despite the part of him that despised superstition, part of him still hopes deep down that this little charm, this talisman of hope, can guide him forward. After all, what god or spirit could save him now?

“Albrecht…” Hermann looks to the elk, who nudges his arm with his muzzle. As he pets the beast, he feels his eyelids grow heavy. “I’m sorry.” He manages to whisper before falling into a fitful sleep.

Another three days of traveling passed before Hermann comes across signs of civilization. Their food had run out the night before, and both he and Albrecht had struggled to keep moving in the face of their hunger. However, as they approach Hermann can quickly tell that something’s amiss. A scream pierces through the air as plumes of smoke rise in the distance, and he spurs Albrecht forward, ignoring the pain that shocks his body with each jolt of the road. Finally, a village comes into view, and much to his dismay he spots a pack of wolves have given chase to a crowd of young women. In their eyes, he can see the same wasting sickness that courses through his own body. He draws his bow, but before he can even nock an arrow, his leg throbs and his head screams in pain.

“Help! Please, help!” He hears the girls cry out, and as Hermann struggles to remain upright he watches a wolf tear into the slowest of the group, pulling her arm effortlessly from the socket and roaring as her body falls lifeless. The other animals crowd around the body and consume it, grunting and shouting in terrible, warped voices. The young women sob and huddle together, and Hermann finally nocks his arrow, letting it fly with a force he has never mustered before. In an instant, the leader of the pack dies, his head knocked from its body.

“What -- how did I--” Hermann has little time to ask questions, for the rest of the pack turn toward him, eyes burning with hate and hackles raised high. These creatures have not yet succumbed fully to the extent of their infection, and Hermann can see behind their rage the fog of pain.
The sound of hooves grows louder behind Hermann, and before he truly has time to react, a figure on horseback dashes past, wielding an incredibly long sword with one hand. With a swift swing of their arm, they cleave one of the beasts in two, their bright blue blood splattering the grass and dirt path. The rest of the beasts howl in anger, but thankfully retreat, bolting back into the woods from whence they came. The rider turns their mount and slowly moves toward Hermann, who still stands with his mouth agape.

“Are you alright, stranger?” They ask, and as Hermann tries to muster up an answer, they remove their helmet. A young woman with raven hair and warm brown eyes smiles down at him, helping him to his feet.

“Y-yes, I'm fine.” Hermann sighs in relief, but before he can straighten to full height his leg gives way. “D-dammit…”

“You're injured, here. Let me take you to my village, we'll get you help.” Hermann shakes his head, gritting his teeth.

“No, I should stay away.” He grunts, but the young woman lifts him up on the saddle nonetheless.

“Is that your deer?” She asks, motioning toward Albrecht, who had hidden behind a patch of trees near the road. Hermann nods, rubbing his sore leg, and the woman rides toward Albrecht, taking his reins and leading him along.

“For the record, Albrecht is an elk.” Hermann sniffs, without any real venom. “Really, I can make it on my own.”

“Make it where?” She asks with a good-natured chuckle. “You're a stranger to these lands. Do you even know where you're going?”

“No.” He replies, heaving a sigh. He feels as if exhaustion has seeped into his very bones; he hasn't the will to argue anymore. “I came because I wanted to find the source of this blight. I'm… cursed.”

“Cursed?” Her face grows solemn. “You mean, you've been bitten.”

“It won't be long until I'm overtaken by the infection, but I swore I'd search for the answer until my last breath. Besides…” Hermann touches the necklace around his neck once more. “I have nowhere else to go.”

“Well, you'll be safe with us for now. My father will want to speak with you. By the way, my name is Mako.” She smiles kindly, and he nods.

“Hermann.” He holds tight to the saddle as Mako guides them to her village, eventually succumbing to pain and sleep, his forehead resting against her back.


 

Hermann wakes the next morning, his body sore but rested and his wounded leg clean and redressed. A new set of clothes sit beside his cot and he takes them, slipping into them with a contented sigh. The fabric slides comfortably across his skin; he's never worn something so soft before. His leg only whimpers in pain when he stands, a welcome improvement from the near-blinding agony he’d experienced before.

After eating the breakfast left for him, he takes stock of his surroundings through the window and realizes quickly that this village does not resemble his in the slightest. Though most of the homes look the same -- thatched roofs and simple wood structures -- he can hear the sounds of clanking metal and the crackling of powerful flames. The streets are full of people hustling and bustling, yelling and conversing with one another in hurried tones. He doesn’t like it; the rush of it all makes him terribly uncomfortable, and he hopes that he can take Albrecht and move on soon.

“Good morning.” Hermann jumps in surprise as a tall, imposing man approaches him. His stern expression and regal air catch Hermann off guard.

“Yes? Ah… good morning.” He stumbles over his words as he approached, but to his great embarrassment, his leg gives out. The man catches him by the arm before he can hit the floor.

“You need a walking stick.” He smiles sympathetically, which burns Hermann to the core. His cheeks flush and he straightens his back.

“I'm fine.” He grumbles, but he knows the truth. The curse has spread too far; soon, he'll lose the use of that leg entirely.

“I've already had someone fetch you a serviceable stick. You won't be helping matters by needlessly overworking your leg.” Hermann let the man ease him into a chair. “My name is Pentecost. My daughter Mako told me you're on a quest?”

“Calling it a quest makes it sound so noble. No, I just… I had to do this. If I can find a way to cure this infection, I can save my life and perhaps others as well.”

Pentecost nods, a grave expression on his face. “Truthfully, I cannot believe you've survived this long. The poisonous blood of the beasts spreads quickly. Most of those who survive the initial attacks do not make it through the following night.” He eyes Hermann's equipment thoughtfully. “Are you an archer?”

“Heh, only inasmuch as I need to be. Everyone plays their part in my home. I would assist with hunting, as did my brothers. I'm not especially talented, though… I think this curse had made me stronger, somehow.” Hermann looks at his hand, clenching his fist tight.

“Yes. Mako told me you severed a beast's head with an arrow. Incredible.”

“Not incredible. Monstrous.” Hermann replied, crossing his arms.

“Well, we could use someone with such strength, monstrous or not. The beasts have been railing against us for weeks now, trying to destroy our homes.” Pentecost sighs and moves to the window, his hands folded behind his back. “They're relentless. They used to be peaceful, you know that? They dwell deep in the forests beyond here, sleeping beneath the water of the great lake hidden there. Now, they want us dead.”

“Perhaps they weren't peaceful at all.” Hermann frowns. “If your presence here disturbed them, that could have triggered their aggression.”

“Possible.” Pentecost concedes. “Yet we've lived here in some capacity for years. Why now?” He shakes his head and sighs. “Or it could be their thrall leading them forward.

“Thrall? What do you mean?” Hermann leans forward, brows knotted.

“The beasts run with a man, probably no older than yourself. He serves the beasts, fights alongside them, kills us with just as much hatred and ferocity in his heart. He must die.”

“A man? Impossible. Why don't they kill him?” Hermann asks, and Pentecost laughs wryly.

“No doubt they've taken control of him somehow, manipulated his mind.” Hermann nods, swiping a hand over his mouth. “Will you help us?” Pentecost asks, and Hermann has to hesitate.

“Are you sure you want the help of a cripple?”

“A cripple who can shoot an arrow with enough force to sever a head? Absolutely.” Pentecost looks to him and smiles. “You're a Bartov, aren't you?”

“How did you know?”

“You ride an elk. Nobody does that but the Bartovek mountain people.” Hermann shakes his head, his heart aching.

“Not anymore. I left. I can never go back.”

“I see. A cruel law.” Pentecost motions to the open window. Hermann wants to protest that it's a necessity, a protective barrier for their already crumbling society, but then he thinks that perhaps they're both right. “You're welcome to explore our village. Perhaps this can be your new home.” With that, Pentecost takes his leave. Hermann sits for a while in the stillness, enjoying it. He does not know when he will have a moment like this again.

He thinks then of the “beast man” that Pentecost described. Why on Earth would any human want to serve those monsters? How had he survived this long without falling victim to their infection, or their appetite? The more he ponders on it, the less it made sense. If anything, he hopes Pentecost fails to slay him; he needs to know more.

After one of Pentecost's men brings him a walking stick, Hermann does as Pentecost suggested and makes his way out to the village street. The hustle and bustle immediately catches him off guard, but soon he picks up on the flow of the city. He follows the villagers through the town, past a busy marketplace and town square, until he comes face to face with an enormous building. The chimneys billow with dark smoke, and he can hear the clanking of metal from inside. An aura of heat surrounds it, one hot enough to bring a sheen of sweat to his forehead.

“The forge.” A voice behind Hermann makes him jump, and he turns to see Mako standing behind him. “I’m sorry. I just caught up with you. Father said you might be exploring, and I wanted to help you navigate.”

“Oh… thank you.” Hermann looks back up at the massive building. “The forge, you say?”

“Yes. It’s where we smelt iron to create weapons and other materials. We trade that iron and those goods to keep our village alive and thriving. The mistress of the forge, Lady Shao, owns and controls the trade in and out of the village.” Hermann nods as she speaks.

“I see. And...where does this iron come from?”

“The hill there.” Mako points out into the distance, across a vast lake to a barren mountainside. The sight of it makes Hermann’s stomach churn. The remains of burned trees poke up from the soil like grave markers, and the grass grows only in patches, and then they appear brown and dead. Sections of the rock have been carved out, gaping holes like lacerations into the flesh of the earth.

“That’s horrible.” He finally manages to speak.

“Horrible?” Mako sighs and bows her head. “Yes, it looks terrible, but then how could we have survived without it?” Hermann narrows his eyes.

“Our village survives just fine without this kind of… destruction.” He spits the word out like a poison. Mako does not answer, simply guides him away to another part of the street. “I want to meet this Lady Shao. Perhaps she knows more about the beasts that attacked me and my people.”

“No doubt. She creates the weapons we use to fight them off, and only she has managed to wound the Prince of the Kaiju.” Hermann frowns in confusion.

“Prince? You mean the man that fights alongside them?”

“That’s right. He always comes right back, as if he’d never been injured, which makes me think he has some sort of healing magic. Regardless, these weapons have come between us and total destruction many times. Without them, we would have had no chance.” Mako assures Hermann, but he merely shakes his head.

“At what cost?”


 

That evening, after Hermann has eaten dinner with Pentecost and Mako, after the lamps of the village have dimmed and the shutters have closed, Hermann goes out onto the street. As he looks up at the night sky, he notices it concealed by smoke. Even now, he realizes, Lady Shao’s forge burns on. He grips his walking stick and makes his way toward the enormous building, and as he approaches hears the sounds of laughter inside. Odd, he thinks to himself. What could be so funny in there?

As he opens the doors, his eyes widen in disbelief. The room roars with sound: the clanking of gears, the whoosh of air from an enormous bellows, and the chatter of women, all of whom are operating a huge mechanism clearly meant to stoke the fires of this forge. Beyond that, several others stand at anvils and beat glowing metal into shapes that Hermann can only begin to guess their purpose. Before he can get any closer to investigate, he hears the sound of giggling and whispering behind him, and turns to find a number of women watching him. One finally approaches, a very tall and powerful-looking one with shocking blonde hair.

“What are you doing here?” She asks in a strong accent, different from the others he’d met today.

“Forgive me. I wanted to speak to Lady Shao.” Hermann answers, and the woman laughs out loud.

“Really? Well, she doesn’t just take visitors at all hours… Aren’t you the elk rider?” She asks, squinting her eyes at him.

“Sasha, isn’t that obvious? We’ve never seen him here before, have we?” One of the younger women cuts in. “Don’t give him the bully routine! He’s not like the other men here, he hasn’t even made a pass at us yet!” The girls laugh again, and Hermann shifts his weight onto his other leg.

“Please, all I want is to speak to--” Sasha holds her hand up and smirks.

“Well, here’s your chance.” As Hermann turned around, he saw her: a beautiful woman with skin like the moon and eyes black as the shadow behind it. She had emerged from a curtain that Hermann had not even noticed, revealing a small enclave with a desk and numerous leather bound books stacked around it. Dressed in a resplendent robe and gown, Hermann thought she looked like a butterfly taking flight.

“So, you're the outsider.” Lady Shao smiled, her lips shining red. “Welcome to our village.”

“Thank you.” Hermann nodded, and she came closer, her dark eyes scanning him closely. He wondered what she looked for, and cautiously moved his wounded leg back.

“I'm told you have quite an arm with the bow. Is that true? Indeed, an unnatural skill.” Hermann does not answer her, and she continues. “You've been tainted by the Kaiju.”

“...Yes.” He concedes, his fierce gaze meeting hers, and she chuckles.

“Never fear. I find it remarkable you've managed to survive this long. Most die on contact with the vile beasts.” Lady Shao looks behind him at Sasha. “You may leave us. I want to talk to him alone. Care to join me?” She motions to her curtained chamber, and Hermann follows her in. He finds on the other side a whole separate series of chambers: her living quarters, surprisingly simple despite her fine clothing. “How have you found the village?”

“Kind, and… loud.” Hermann replies, and she laughs again.

“Yes. We're a busy people. Between trade with the other lords and fighting off the Kaiju, we don't have much time for quiet.” She leads him outside onto a balcony looking over the vast hills and mountains behind. Now, Hermann can see a deep stretch of forest that, as of yet, had not been stripped of life. “That's where they live: the Kaiju and their prince.”

“Is it really true that a human lives with them?” He asks, and she nods, a wry smile on her face.

“Yes. He's ferocious, a beast just like them.” She sighs and closes her eyes. “He's bent on killing me. We're… shall we say, rivals.” She laughs. “He threatens my people, and I threaten his.”

“Can't you find anyway to live with them? Peacefully?” Hermann asks, and she laughs again, louder.

“How? They're monsters, and their little prince will not speak to us. They resent us. They want us exterminated. You want us to simply stand by and let them kill us?” Hermann did not answer her. Instead, he looked back out at the forest and spotted a faint blue glow moving through the distant trees. “You see them?”

“Yes, I -- aagh!” Hermann gripped his leg and clenched his teeth, the veins glowing through the fabric of his trousers. Lady Shao simply smirked.

“They hurt you badly, didn't they?” Hermann sighs and tries to fight back the tears of pain stinging his eyes.

“Yes.”

Lady Shao nods, placing her hand on the balcony. “Don't worry. When we're through, those monsters will never harm another again.” Before she can say another word, Sasha bursts through the curtain and stomps toward them.

“My lady. They're coming.” Lady Shao's crimson lips curl across her face like blood filling a fresh wound. She moves past Hermann and Sasha like a breeze.

“Good. Let me demonstrate what we've accomplished here.” Shao approaches a bell hanging from the ceiling and rings it. Immediately, the men and women working the forge drop everything and fetch weapons stacked on racks. Hermann has never seen anything like them before: long and cylindrical, with strange knobs and wooden handles. They take their weapons and run outside, Hermann following as quickly as he can.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees him for the first time.

The Kaiju Prince climbs up the wall of Lady Shao's forge and stands straight-laced above them, his eyes glowing the same bright, sickly blue as the blood running through Hermann's veins. The rest of his face lies concealed behind a ferocious mask, and his shoulders beneath a cloak of dark fur. He looks like one of them, if not in size and stature, then in ferocity. Pentecost rushes forward and calls to him.

“Kaiju Prince! Come down and surrender!” Without allowing them another word, the Prince throws a knife down at Lady Shao, cutting her cheek so close as to remain invisible until the blood wells there. Her eyes narrow and she smirks, waving to hand in the Prince's direction.

“Kill him.” Immediately, the air explodes with sound and fills with the smell of sulfur and smoke. Hermann ducks and winces, his ears ringing from the blast.

“No!” He cried. “Don't do it! I have to speak to him!” He rushes forward, waving his arm to fan the smoke out of his eyes as he tried to make his way. Another blast of sound sends Hermann’s heart beating faster. Before he can gather his bearings, an enormous claw pierces the side of the log wall dividing the village from the land beyond, knocking him to his feet. He pulls a small knife from his belt, but before he can even move to throw it, another blow throws him out and down the hill, into the river below. As he falls unconscious, he hears the cry of something truly monstrous, then the world dissolves into silence and darkness.


 

Consciousness returns to Hermann slowly, a trickle of sensation that forces his eyes open. He recognizes the gurgling of water, the smell of trees. Where did he end up? Before he can begin to guess, he notices something else: a sharp pain in his arms, and another in his ankles. He realizes that someone has bound him here with rope, tied in large, ungainly knots.

“Dammit…” Hermann hisses to himself, trying to rise, but the lack of limbs compounded by what's almost certainly a concussion make that impossible. Besides that, his wounded thigh throbs again with a blinding pain, and he soon collapses back to the ground. He turns and twists his arms, trying desperately to get free, until a shadow falls over him. He looks up and his eyes widen in surprise, his skin crawling with fear.

Standing over him, knife in hand, the Kaiju Prince glowered with a hateful expression. In his other hand, he holds the corpses of several rabbits, necks bloody. Now that Hermann can see him more clearly, he sees that far from looking monstrous, the Kaiju Prince has a soft face with large eyes of a sparkling green. His mind, delirious with pain, thinks he's almost beautiful.

“Please… release me. I mean you no harm.” Hermann entreats the Prince, who ignores him completely as he sits down on the cave floor, plunges his knife into the rabbit, and bites in to the meat facefirst. Hermann's stomach turns and he looks away. He supposes one raised by monsters would find this normal. “Why did you bring me here?” Again, no answer but the sound of squishing blood and flesh. “Can you even speak?” The Prince looks at him as if he'd grown a second head.

“Yes.” He answers incredulously, then returns to his meal. Once he finishes, he throws some wood into the center of the cave, grabs a stone and strikes it against a piece of metal: fire. He strips the skin from one of the rabbits, stabs it through with a stick, then places it over the growing flame.

“...thank you.” Hermann says, but the Prince merely grunts in reply. “I don't understand. Why did you bring me here?” The Prince stokes the fire, and Hermann sighs. “Stubborn.”

“Hmph! Stupid.” The Prince spits back. For a long time, Hermann sits against the cave wall, listening to the crackling fire and the beginnings of rain outside the cave. The Prince continues to eat for a while, then discards the remains outside, tossing them out the cave entrance.

“Why did you tie me up?” Hermann finally asks. “I don’t want to run away. I’m not afraid of you. I just want to ask you some things.” No answer. “Am I your prisoner?”

“No. I don’t care about that.”

“Then why?”

“So you won't kill me.” He snaps, and Hermann laughs. “What's so funny?!”

“I don't want to kill you.” Hermann replies softly, shifting his weight to ease the pain in his leg. “I want to learn more about these… these monsters. The Kaiju.”

“So you can kill them. No. They're not monsters. They owned this land before those disgusting humans moved in. They declared war on us. ” Hermann heaves a sigh. He should have expected this, he thinks.

“I think I can sympathize. My people lost their land, too, years ago. The lords of other kingdoms pushed us further and further into the forest until we disappeared.”

“Hah! Should have stayed there.” The Prince laughs, but stops when Hermann does not respond. “What?”

“I would if I could. I didn't want to leave, but…” Hermann motions with his head to his leg. “I will die soon anyway. I wanted to learn more about the beast that attacked my village, so that I could protect them, even for just a little while.”

“Hmph.” The Prince scoffs as he pulls the bindings off of Hermann's wrists. With one hand, he offers Hermann the cooked meat; with the other, he points a knife to his throat. “Eat.” Hermann obliges, quickly cleaning the skewer of the meat. Hunger had snuck up on him.

“Thank you.” The Prince merely scowls.

“Get out. Leave, and don't come back. Take your precious humans with you.” Hermann does not move, and the Prince growls. “Go!”

“Can I at least ask your name?” Hermann asks, and the Prince blinks, clearly taken aback. “Do you… have a name?”

“Of course I do.” He replies gruffly. “... it's Newt.”

“Newt?” Hermann repeats with a smile. “I feel as if I should thank you.” With a pang of sadness, he pulls his sister's necklace from his neck, handing it over to Newt. “Here. Take this.” Newt hesitates for a moment, then reaches out and snatches the jewel, holding it up to catch the light of the fire.

“Why?” He asks, and Hermann simply smiles.

“It's what we do when someone does a kindness.”

“We?” Newt replies.

“Yes. Humans.” With that, Hermann tries to pull himself up to his feet, finding strangely that his leg holds him up better than before. Perhaps his body has grown accustomed to the infection. “Well, goodbye, Newt. Thank you.” He turns to leave, not seeing the small smile on Newt's face as he fastens the jewel around his neck.

What he does see are the forms of several of the Kaiju beasts approach from the trees, their eyes glowing with a menacing light, bodies undulating with a monstrous power.

“Begone, human.” A voice speaks to him, and he knows without knowing that the beasts own it.

“I won't. I want to talk to you, please. I need to--”

We shall not speak. Begone!” The voice thunders in his mind, and he flinches as if they had struck him in the face.

“No. I must know how to cure this infection. One of your kind attacked my village, wounded me. I'm going to die if I can't find a way to cure it!” Hermann entreats the creatures, whose reptilian eyes betray no feeling. One looks behind him, to Newt, who approaches cautiously.

“I didn't kill him because he -- yes. I know he's our enemy. But --” The strange markings on Newt's arms glow, and he clenches his fists. “Yes. I'm sorry.” He turns to Hermann, gently shoving him toward the tree line. “Go! Get out of here, human!”

“Newt--”

Go!” Newt picks up a stone and throws it in Hermann’s direction, his eyes ablaze with anger. Hermann nods numbly, terribly confused and a little hurt, as he makes his way back toward Lady Shao's city. He hears the Kaiju clicking and groaning as he walks away, and understands that he has learned something crucial, despite his failure to secure what he desires to know: that Kaiju can communicate. But would Lady Shao listen? Would she care?


 

“You spoke to him? He saved you?” Lady Shao exclaims. Hermann had only just returned to the village after a long hike back up the river. Strangely, the further he had gotten from Newt, the worse his leg throbbed and ached. He could barely stand by the time he made it, and the guards had to practically carry him to Lady Shao's residence.

“Yes, he did. He…wasn't friendly by any means, but he fed me and helped keep me alive while I slept. That wasn't the strangest part, though. After he released me, those beasts approached and they….spoke to me.” Lady Shao and her men look at each other incredulously, and she lets out a laugh that almost sounds nervous.

Spoke? Impossible.” She scoffs, and Hermann frowns.

“Impossible as it was, it did happen. If we can communicate with these creatures, then perhaps we can end this without any more death!” He pleads, his chest aching with anxiety. Pentecost and his lieutenant exchange skeptical glances, and the former leans close to Lady Shao.

“My lady, we cannot risk letting down our guard.” He murmurs, crossing his arms, and Shao taps her chin with a long, glossy fingernail.

“Hm. Perhaps. And yet, if it's true that he can communicate with the monsters, surely that puts us at an advantage. Don't you agree?” Hermann's heart dropped into his stomach. She didn't want peace; she wanted to use him as a tool of war!

“No!” Hermann exclaimed, his whole body thrumming with power. His eyes -- his entire body -- glowed with a pale blue aura that made Shao's men take a step back and draw their swords. Shao, however, did not flinch.

“My word.” She whispers.

“I will not help you continue this pointless fighting! If you'd only just try to come to a compromise--”

“Hush. Very well. Go, and try to reason with them. Perhaps you're right: if we can save the village from further injury, we should... explore our options.” Shao flashes her crimson smile, her eyes gleaming with an expression Hermann cannot quite read.

“Thank you, my lady. I will.” Hermann leaves then, whistling for Albrecht and climbing on carefully once he gallops to his side. As he leaves the village and heads down the river toward the forest, he realizes quickly he's not even sure where to find Newt, or the Kaiju. He travels for the better part of the morning, scanning the dense woods for any sign of them. The forest barely makes a sound; Hermann can hear the gurgling of the river and the rustle of trees, but no more. Perhaps the Kaiju scared the animals away, or perhaps the humans. Either way, the quiet of it all chills him to the bone. Homesickness suddenly cuts him deep, and he breathes a heavy sigh.

“We told you to stay away. ” After several hours, Newt's voice cuts through the stillness of the forest. Hermann turns Albrecht to face him, and suddenly finds himself knocked from his back, a knife held to his throat.

“No, please -- I'm not here to cause you trouble.” Hermann tries to assure him. Now that he's closer to Newt, closer than ever with eyes unclouded by the pain of his injury, he can see into Newt's clear green eyes and outline the angles and soft curves of his lips, his jaw, his cheek. Hermann feels a strange sensation of longing. When he sees his sister's jewel dangling from his neck, the feeling only intensifies, swelling warm in his chest.

“Your presence causes trouble! ...What are you smirking at?!” Newt hisses, and Hermann gives him a soft, tender smile.

“You're… beautiful.” Newt's eyes widen and he presses the knife closer to his neck.

Stop it! Shut up! ” He growls.

“Why?”

“Because I said so! Get out of our forest!” Hermann simply looks up at Newt, and sees a flicker of hesitation in his face.

“Why won't you kill me?” He asks.

“You're not worth killing! You're… weak and feeble! Not worth the effort. The curse will kill you anyway.” Newt replies, but does not flee.

“Please, Newt. You care about the Kaiju, don't you? Wouldn't you rather see them live? If they continue to fight with humans, both will continue to suffer. Surely, there must be some way to reconcile.” Hermann pleads, but Newt does not respond. “Newt… why are you so attached to them? Why do you hate humans so much? Don't you know that you are a human too?” Newt clenches his fists, his shoulders shaking with rage.

“I'm not! I'm not human!” The strange markings on Newt's arms begin to glow. From here, Hermann can see that they extend beneath his shirt.

“Newt--” Before Hermann can say another word, he collapses in pain, falling from Albrecht's saddle onto the forest floor. His leg burns with pain; his muscles shudder and his veins seethe with a white-hot agony. For the first time since his injury, Hermann wonders if it might finally do him in.

Out of the corner of his eye he sees Newt approach, his knife raised. “I could kill you. End your pain.”

“Y-you could-- aagh!! But y-you already saved me o-once.” Hermann gasps through the waves of agony coursing through him. Newt crouches and carefully cuts into Hermann's leg with the knife instead. Hermann can barely feel it, so great is the pain of the curse. Once he draws blood, Newt leans down and sucks the wound, and Hermann shivers at the coolness of Newt's mouth on his hot skin. “What… are you…” after a moment, Newt spat out a mouthful of blood and something else, something bright blue and shiny, iridescent like a beetle's shell.

“Helping.” Newt continues to suck the Kaiju blood from the wound, and though the pain does not completely subside, he does manage to calm himself. Once he finishes, Newt wraps the new injury with a strip of cloth from Hermann's cloak.

“Why?” Hermann asks, genuinely confused. One moment, Newt hates him, the next he rescues him?

“I want you to convince me. Convince me to help the humans. I wanna see you try.” Newt grins, and Hermann can't help but laugh too.

“Very well. Challenge accepted.”


 

Hermann spends the next few days with Newt, watching him come and go from the small alcove he'd found for them. He'd vanish for hours at a time, then return with dead rabbits to skin and clean, or handfuls of berries and nuts. Newt's effort touched Hermann, despite the gruff silence that accompanied every interaction. As thankful as Hermann was for his life, he wondered just how he'd manage to convince this wild man that humanity had value.

On the fourth day, Hermann finds himself able to stand up again, and with great effort he follows Newt outside as he leaves the cave. Newt doesn't seem to notice at first, but eventually he turns on him with a fierce glare.

“Do you want to die?” Newt snaps, but Hermann simply smiles, which only incenses Newt further. “Idiot.”

“How can I expect to help you understand humans if I don't speak to you?” He asks, and Newt barks a laugh.

“Humans don't bother talking to us. They just shoot us down with cannons and burn our forests down.” Herman doesn't immediately respond; truth be told, he's unsure how. After all… what Newt said was true. “The Kaiju can't speak. They can't tell your people to stop murdering them.”

“You could.” Hermann says.

“Right. They'll just kill me too. You're awfully naive for a human.” Newt scoffs as he scans the forest, searching.

“You're...you're right. I grew up in a village far from here, one that respects and cares for the forests and the creatures that live there. I don't understand what drives Lady Shao forward with this destruction, but… I do know that not everyone in that village has hate in their heart.”

“Hah. Shows how much you know.” Leaning heavily on his stick, Hermann follows Newt into a quiet alcove, framed by trees taller and stronger than any he'd ever seen. The air around him seemed to thrum with a strange energy that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
“Where are we going?” He asks Newt, but he does not respond. At any rate, he does not need to. Ahead, an impossibly large body of water stands between them and the rest of the forest. While Hermann knows without a doubt that such a massive lake could never exist inside this place, his eyes tell him otherwise. Despite its size, the forest still surrounds the water effortlessly, blocking out the sky and filtering the sun into strands of light as thin as spider silk. Even with its size, though, Hermann can see that once, it covered an even greater area -- beneath his feet he sees what used to be lake floor has become damp shoreline.

“They live here.” Newt says, pointing into the water. “Look down there.” Hermann obeys, gasping as he sees them below the water, still and clear as glass. The creatures swirl and coil around each other in the darkness like snakes, their bodies glowing with the same sickly blue that now flowed through Hermann’s veins, poisoning his body. Hermann can see their cruel, sharp teeth and bulging eyes. Some of them look familiar, while others had an appearance totally foreign to him. He imagines as he stands there, slack-jawed, one would reach up out of the water and seize him in its massive jaws.

“What… How can this be real?”

“They’ve been here longer than we have, longer than anything. That’s what they told me.” Newt crinkles up his nose in a frown. “The more you humans take and take, the smaller this place becomes.”

“Newt…” Hermann sighs, tearing his gaze away from the swirling maelstrom of creatures below his feet. “There must be some way to coexist with them.” Newt’s eyes narrowed, their vivid green growing dark.

“Maybe we don’t want to.” They stand together in silence for a while, listening to the gentle lapping of the water against the growing shore. Hermann still could hardly believe what he’d seen, but now he understood more than ever Newt’s struggle. How could he turn on the creatures who had, against all logic, taken him in? How could he betray them? “Let’s go.” Newt finally snaps, yanking at Hermann’s sleeve. Hermann follows without protest; his leg had begun once again to throb uncontrollably, as if the mere proximity to the creatures had aggravated the wound.

As they travel, question after question bubbles up in Hermann’s mind. How did Newt communicate with these creatures? How had they formed affection for him, when for all intents and purposes, they seemed little more than mindless reptiles? Most importantly, how had he avoided their infection? Newt glances over at Hermann and raises an eyebrow.

“What? Are you sick?” He asks gruffly, and Hermann laughs.

“No… just thinking about all this. How remarkable it is.” Newt merely sniffs in reply. After a moment, he speaks again.

“Why did you say that?”
“What?” Hermann asks, trying not to wince as he steps on a particularly painful tree root.
“That I’m beautiful.” Newt replies, and Hermann’s face flushes a bright red.

“I--well, I suppose because…” Hermann sighs, unable to come up with an answer. “Did that upset you?”

“Hmph. No. I just… don’t understand it.” Newt says. Hermann laughs softly.

“Neither do I.” They walk back to their alcove in silence, occasionally stealing a look at one another, each wondering and perhaps hoping for something they could not quite grasp.

The next morning, Hermann woke in a cold sweat and knew time for him had run out. His eyes swam with pain, and his head throbbed as he struggled to rise. Against the adjacent wall, Newt slept curled up in a patchwork of furs and skins, his face more gentle and serene than he’d ever seen it. It would have brought a smile to Hermann’s lips, had they not curled into a grimace from the agony coursing through his veins. He gingerly lifted the leg of his pants and gasped as he caught a glimpse of his pulsating skin, his veins glowing a brighter blue than before. AT this sight, he finally came to terms with the reality of his situation: he may not ever make it back to the village alive. He may not even make it back dead.

Newt stirs, but does not wake as Hermann carefully makes his way to his feet, grasping his walking stick for purchase. He had to find a way to make peace; if he died before he reached his goal, who knew what would happen to the village?
Or Newt, his mind quickly reminds him, and he feels a pang of fear in his heart.

Hermann had come to understand this conflict now. At the core of both parties’ anger was the threat of annihilation, and yet neither could see the clear solution. How simple it would be if they could just cooperate! Hermann bites his lip to stifle a sudden shock of pain along his leg and back, looking over his shoulder to ensure that Newt had not heard. Satisfied that he’d remained asleep, Hermann continues down the path, back to the pool where Newt had shown him the Kaiju. Perhaps they could communicate, somehow. He hopes;  if not, he didn’t know what else he could do.

He remembers the path and arrives, although in his pain it takes well over an hour to make it to the wooded alcove and the impossible lake. Part of him feels sure that something was watching, rustling in the forest around him, but when he looks he could see nothing but the foliage and strangled sunlight beaming through it. As he approached, he peers down and saw that the creatures had vanished entirely, and only an occasional bolt of blue light shoots across the expanse of black. Hermann sighed and closed his eyes. Had he already failed?

Human.

A voice speaks to the deepest part of his mind, and he feels a shiver crawl down his spine.

HUMAN. Begone.

“No, I have to speak to you.” Hermann forces himself to speak, though his entire body quakes with fear and agony. “Please, all this fighting… It must stop!”

Take your humans and go. This land belongs to us.

Hermann closes his eyes and curses silently to himself. He can feel frustration welling up inside him.

“That's not right! None of this is right! You can live together, just… let us show you! I can--” Before he can finish his sentence, another creature appears from nowhere, as if emerging formlessly from the air around them. This creature only vaguely resembles the monsters writhing beneath the water: its thin limbs fold like a beetle's around its body, its multiple eyes unblinking and glassy. Its skin glimmers with an almost sickly shine, like a salamander’s back.

This place has always belonged to us. It will belong to us again.

The voice speaks inside Hermann’s mind, louder and sharper, sending another wave of pain through his body. Before he can respond, he hears the patter of feet and the shuffling of brush behind him.

“What are you doing?! You idiot!” Newt cries out to him, then looks up at the creature as he skidded to a stop on the shore. “Don’t hurt him, he’s stupid. Just let me take him back to his village.” The creature  does not respond audibly, but Hermann sees Newt’s face grow more distressed. “Yes, there is a point! He can tell them to leave, to get out of here!” The creature looks back at Hermann, disregarding Newt.

You will die now. Then, we will destroy your people.

Hermann didn’t understand. He thought that the conflict had spawned between the Kaiju and the humans. Who was this ? Clearly, the thing showed no distress, only a cold, calculating cruelty that has Hermann suddenly wondering… has he gotten this all wrong?

“Please!” Newt screams, and Hermann thinks he sees tears in his eyes. “Just let him go!” After a pause, Newt reaches down and grabs a stone, hurling it toward the thing floating above the water and missing by a mile. No, Hermann realizes. That thing blocked it. Suddenly, Newt screams as the markings on his arms and chest glow brightly, his eyes wide with fright and pain. This time, Hermann hears the thing speak too.

Then you do it.

Almost without hesitation, Newt looks up at Hermann slowly, his eyes menacing and feral. Like the markings on his body, they glow a bright blue. With his teeth bared and his hand gripping his bone dagger, he looks bloodthirsty, inhuman. Hermann felt his chest ache, and he reaches slowly for his own dagger. He briefly wishes he’d brought his bow and arrows, but what use would they be here?

“Please… Don’t make him do this.” He pleads uselessly to the floating creature, but it has already vanished, and Hermann frowns. “Very well.” Newt dashes forward, swinging violently with his blade, and Hermann catches each as best as he can, deflecting only some of the blows. He feels tiny cuts welling with blood on his arm, his side, his chest. His reflexes are dulled with pain and the sluggishness of the poison inside him, but as Newt gets closer and closer to landing a deadly blow, he feels his body grow stronger. Biting through his lip, he swings his injured leg around and trips Newt, putting him flat on his back.

“Raaagh!!!” Newt screams as Hermann pins him to the forest floor, a knife leveled over him.

You see? You are brutal. Primitive. Savage. Kill him.

“You’d have me kill him?” Hermann grinds out through his teeth as Newt struggles against the inhuman strength in his arm. “You raised him!”

We raised him for this purpose. He has failed in his purpose.

Hermann growls, turning his dagger away from Newt and throwing it in the direction of the lake. Instead of striking the creature, as he’d hoped, it clinks against what sounds like stone. There, towering above him, stands the dripping form of one of the Kaiju, larger than any he’d seen before. Its massive horns gleamed as water cascaded down its craggy body, and its jaws clicked hungrily together. Beneath it, the water glows, pale blue lightning dancing over its flesh. Without any warning, an enormous claw slammed down between Hermann and Newt, flinging Newt into a tree and knocking him senseless.

“Newt!” Hermann limps as fast as he can toward him, heaving him up over his shoulder. “We need to go, we need to go…” He chants to himself under his breath, forcing his body forward. Remarkably, it did; he runs faster than he’d ever done before, in sickness or health. Nevertheless, the creature follows them, its thunderous footfalls shaking the earth beneath them. Hermann’s heart feels as if it will beat out of his chest, but he runs. The weight of Newt on his back barely registers in his mind; he feels as if he’s taken flight. Finally, he makes it to the edge of the village. By then, he knows the village must have heard the cacophonous rumbling, but then the beast lets out a terrible roar. He can see the village come to life with activity, watches as the soldiers load ballistae and aim their weapons, eyes full of fear.

“Let us in! Please!” He yells up at the gate, and the watchman gives them an unsure look.

“But that's--” The fierce expression on Hermann's face must have shocked him into obedience. Without another word, he opens the gate and allows Hermann inside. He hurries to Pentecost's home, which sat empty in the commotion, and laid Newt down on one of the beds.

“Stay here now. I'll come back for you soon.” Hermann takes a moment to look down on Newt's sleeping body, then presses a soft kiss to his forehead before fetching his bow and quiver.

It was time to finish this.


 

The beast continues to lurch forward as Hermann watched from the walls of the village. He held his bow tightly, uncertain if his arrows could even pierce the Kaiju’s hide, unsure if anything could stop it. Secretly, he curses himself for causing this. Perhaps he should have minded his own business. Perhaps…

“Well, well. It seems you did bring this to a conclusion, after all.” The familiar silky voice of Lady Shao reaches his ears, and he turns to see her dressed in a breastplate and helmet, a musket in her hands. “To be honest, this is what I wanted, though. Thank you.”

“What you… what you wanted?” Hermann looks at Lady Shao with a mixture of disbelief and disgust. “That creature will destroy this village! Your people are going to die!” Lady Shao merely laughs, her crimson lips curled into a triumphant smirk.

“You underestimate us.” She replies. “I’ve spent years creating weapons made to destroy these creatures. Perhaps once we’ve chastened them, they’ll understand we don’t plan on leaving.” Hermann’s heart beats fast in his chest as he watches the men below roll what looked like massive cannons out of the village and into the grass. With the expediency of ants in their hill, they load the machines with heavy balls of iron, aim them, and simultaneously fire them at the Kaiju. Remarkably, they stagger it, and it lets out a terrible scream. “There. You see?”

“You don’t understand.” Hermann grows pale. “There’s more to this than you think.” Lady Shao does not respond as she raises her arm and signals another volley. “They’re not acting independently. They’re controlled by… something. Some one. ” This catches her attention, and she turns to face Hermann again.
“By what? Did you see them?” Hermann nods, his face grave and pale.

“I don’t know what they are, but… they have no mercy. We cannot bargain with them, like I thought.” Lady Shao grimaces and watches as the Kaiju straightens, carving a path through the trees.
“Then we kill it. We kill them all.” Another thunderous boom, and the cannons fire again. This time, the Kaiju flinches, but continues onward.

“There’s too many, Lady Shao. You may kill this one, but there are more. Many more. In order to end this… we have to destroy the pool they’re spawning from.”

“You found it?” Lady Shao’s eyes widen. “We’ve searched that forest for months, and found nothing at all. How did you know where they hid it?” Hermann smiles wryly and looks behind him at Pentecost’s home.

“Newt showed me.”

“The Kaiju Prince?” She asks, and Hermann merely nods.

“He’s not so feral and vicious as you might think,” he replies. Now, the Kaiju has almost reached the edge of the forest. Now, he thinks, he might just make the shot. Nocking an arrow, he raises his bow high. The power in his drawing arm thrums as he pulls the string back.“Can you kill it?” She asks in a quiet voice.

“I can try.” With that, Hermann releases one, two, and three arrows in succession, each of them flying at a speed he can hardly believe toward the beast, lodging itself into its cold, bulging eye. Bright blue blood pours from the wound and it claws at its own face. “That won’t kill it… but it’s hurting.” Lady Shao takes the hint, signalling for another volley. Hermann can see that the men have run out of ammunition now; their last round must turn the creature back.

“If this doesn’t work…” Liwen turns to him. “We have to find that pool. You have to show me where it is.” Her eyes narrow dangerously as the cannons boom one last time. The Kaiju now sports several oozing wounds and a noticeable limp. Hermann feels his breath catch in his throat as the creature pauses, groans, then falls to the ground. The cracking of trees beneath its body echoes in the evening air, and cheers erupt throughout the village. Lady Shao, however, does not smile, and Hermann thinks that she has finally understood the reality of their situation.

“Newt won’t want me to lead you out there.”

“Then have him take you. We’ll do the rest.” She snaps. “This has to end. I will not let these beasts ruin us.” With that, she makes her way down from the wall and back into the city, where already the soldiers had begun to celebrate their victory. Hermann, on the other hand, heads straight for Pentecost’s house. Once he arrives, he finds Newt gone, and cannot say he’s terribly surprised. He sighs and closes his eyes, slumping to the floor in pure exhaustion. How he had not already died, he could not understand, yet he still lived and fought. Carefully, he examined his wound and found it frighteningly worsened. How much time could he possibly have?

“Hey.” Newt called from the doorway, and Hermann greeted him with a wan smile.

“Newt... The fighting is over.” Newt nods and moves toward Hermann, looking over his festering wound with a look of genuine concern.

“I can tell. You know there’s more, right?” He asks, and Hermann merely nods. Newt points at the injury. “This has to go. It’s going to kill you.”

“Yes. I know.” Herman sighs and closes his eyes, leaning his head back against the cool wall. “We have to seal that portal beneath the lake, Newt. Do you… have any idea how?” Newt frowns, crossing his arms with an expression of deep thought.

“I’m not sure. They only came after the humans uncovered the lake. They bore into the rock and took the metal inside.” Newt chews on the inside of his mouth, clearly distressed. “They took over my mind. They made me try to hurt you.”

“Yes.” Hermann replies sadly. “I’m sorry. I think they’ve betrayed you.” Newt clenches his fists, his green eyes hard as jade.

“I know.” He looks up at Hermann. “Will you help me? Help me get rid of them?”

“Of course.” Hermann replies, reaching out a hand to him. Newt hesitates for a moment, then slowly takes it. Newt’s hand is cool in Hermann’s, and as his fingers close around his own, he feels his cheeks warm.

“If humans uncovered them, they can seal them up again. That woman, she can do it.” Newt says, pulling his hand away almost as quickly as he’d placed it there.

“Yes, you’re right.” He answers, ignoring his disappointment. “Her explosives should easily break away the rest of the mountain. If aimed correctly… We may be able to close off the portal and destroy the lake.”

“Go talk to her.” Newt orders, rising to his feet. “I’ll make sure you get there safely.” For a moment, Newt pauses, studying Hermann’s face. Then, to Hermann’s great surprise, Newt leans down and kisses his forehead, just as Hermann had done to him before. He darts away before Hermann can react, leaving him stunned on the floor, speechless.

x

Before sunset, Shao and Hermann have a plan. By morning, she has loaded a series of wagons full of explosives, the most powerful she could find. Before long, they had assembled their caravan, with Hermann at the head on Albrecht's back. It grieved him that it took nearly everything he had to stay upright on his back, but with Newt behind him holding on, he knows he will not fall.

“Ready to lead the way?” Lady Shao asked, casting a disapproving glance at Newt.

“Yes, we are. You'll have to plant your explosives as quickly as you can. If they realize what we're trying to do, they'll send more monsters to kill you.” Hermann explains, and Lady Shao raises her head high, her expression resolute.

“They can try to stop us. They'll fail.” With that, she spurs her horse back to where her men waited at the ready. Hermann looks back at Newt with a reassuring smile.

“Go on. Let's do this.” Newt smirks, a determined look in his eye. Hermann obliges him, and they begin their journey to the lair of the Kaiju. For a while they ride in silence, Hermann feeling something poking and prodding at the middle of his back. He feels a rush of joy when he realizes it's the necklace he'd given Newt.

“You kept it. The necklace.” He says, and Newt shrugs.

“You want it back?”

“No, no. Of course not. I just didn't think… you'd want it.” Newt huffs and holds Hermann just a little tighter around the waist.

“It's pretty.” Hermann smiles and nudges Albrecht on.

The devastation from the Kaiju's rampage surrounds them as they continue up the forest path leading to the mountains. Trees litter the ground like scattered kindling; the broken bodies of wildlife lay beneath. It serves as merely another reminder of how desperately they needed to succeed. Eventually, Newt gives his shoulder a gentle shake.

“Stop here.” He commands, and Hermann signals for the caravan to stop. “They can't come at it from the front. It'll be too obvious.”

“Then let’s split off,” Shao answers. “You draw them out, we’ll blow up the mountainside.” With that, they caravan parts ways with Newt and Hermann, leaving them alone in the forest. Albrecht paws at the ground nervously, and Hermann urges him forward. His mind buzzes with the inevitable thought of failure. On the one hand, failure would simplify a lot of things; after all, failure simply meant the end of humankind in this region. On the other hand… he thought back to his home, his family. Though he’d never see them again, he could not let them succumb to these beasts and their masters. He could not fail.

“Just ahead.” Newt points at the familiar break in the trees. The once still surface of the water churns and bubbles, beams of light filtering up from the deep crevice beneath. “They’re angry.”

“So am I.” Hermann answers shortly, and Newt barks a laugh before jumping off of the deer. “Wait, Newt…”

“What?”

“Those things, the masters. They took control of you before. We can’t let that… I don’t want that to happen again.” Hermann eases himself off Albrecht’s back and gently takes his hand. “I don’t know if I can help you, but I want to try.” Newt blinks, his cheeks slightly flushed.

“What can we do to stop them?” Hermann thinks for a moment.

“They can enter our minds. Perhaps if we focus together, we can block them out.” Newt nods with a toothy grin.

“Right. Let’s do it.” The pair of them step toward the pool. As if sensing their approach, another Kaiju begins its ascent into their world, stretching its enormous jaws as it breaks the surface of the water. Hermann feels his body seize with terror, but he and Newt do not budge. As the beast rises, Hermann feels the fingers of their masters groping at his mind, just as they had before. Beside him, Newt grips his head with his other hand, a thin line of blood trailing from his left nostril. They’re going to kill him...

“F-focus on something, anything! Block them out!” Hermann closes his eyes and fixates on his home: the clean air, the sound of leaves rustling through the trees. Their verdant leaves become a pair of bright green eyes, behind which he sees… himself. Suddenly, his thoughts are not his own any longer -- he sees Newt as a young child, shivering with cold against a tree trunk; he sees him running through the forest from a group of hunters; he sees all of him. What is going on? He can barely hear his own thoughts beneath the rushing of sound and the chittering voices of the things invading his mind. He grips Newt’s hand tighter and feels himself grow faint.

“Hermann! --rmann…” The sounds around him face into a distant hum, punctuated by the sound of thunder and crumbling rock, and deafening screams of pain. “...got you…”  His body thrums with agony so intense he can barely feel it anymore, then finally, the world fades to black.

x

Hermann does not know how long he had been asleep when he finally wakes to the sound of Newt’s voice. An incredible warmth surrounds him, and the sound of water dripping into water. A cool cloth brushes against his face, and he slowly opens his eyes, his lids fluttering against his cheeks. Above him sits Mako, smiling gently down at him as she continues to wipe his face. He realizes then that he has not died, after all, and can’t help but feel immensely surprised.

“Newt…”

“Hush, now. No need to speak just yet. Rest.” Mako puts the damp cloth away, wiping her hands and his forehead with a dry one. “You’ve been asleep for almost two days. The infection inside you nearly killed you, but… it’s gone.”

“Gone?” Hermann repeats incredulously. “How?” He instinctively reaches for his wounded leg, and sure enough the abnormal swelling and bulging of his flesh has ceased.

“I don’t know. Perhaps when they closed off the lake, their influence over you was shut off as well.” She pushes her hair behind her ear. “We may never know.” Hermann slowly rises, silently thankful that he cannot see the wreckage of his leg beneath his blanket.

“Where is Newt?” He asks, looking around the room.

“I don’t know. We found you in the forest, alone. We assumed you crawled to safety, but--”

“No.” Hermann interrupts. “He helped me. I’m sure of it.” He tries to stand, but his leg refuses to carry his weight, and he slides back down to the mattress again. “How long do you expect I’ll have to live in this bed?”

“Not too long.” Mako replies with a kind laugh. “The injuries have already healed remarkably fast. You just need to regain your strength, although I doubt you’ll walk without aid again.”

“I can’t say that’s a surprise.” Hermann sighs. “I take it since you and I aren’t dead that our plan succeeded?”

“Yes,” Mako smiles. “The portal beneath the lake has been closed. However, Lady Shao expects they’ll almost certainly return.”

“Isn’t that how all misfortunes tend to be?” Hermann asks wryly, looking out the window beside his bed. Outside, the village bustles with movement as they work together, moving rubble and rebuilding homes and shops. The sun beams down brightly on it all, and Hermann feels at home for the first time since he’d started this journey. “I suppose I’ll be staying here, then. I can’t rightly go traveling like this, eh?”

“I wouldn’t advise it.” Mako chuckles and rises to her feet, carrying the bowl of water with her. “You rest, now. I don’t want to come back and see you out of bed, Hermann.”

“No, of course not. I’ll behave.” He rests his head against the windowsill and closes his eyes, his mind preoccupied with Newt. A small part of him still fears that he did not make it through their ordeal alive, and yet… an even deeper part knows better. He reaches up and touches the spot on his forehead where Newt had kissed him. Yes. I’ll see him again.