Rika walks confidently through the halls, armored boots clanking on the cold tile in gallant strides. She pauses to hear the sound of whispering and the frantic slapping of bare feet around the corner. She waits patiently for her attackers to strike and meets their wooden blades with a concealed training sword of her own. She grins down at her little twin siblings and they gleam back.
“You cannot stop us!” Ai cries.
“Together we are too powerful for you!” Mako adds to his sister’s words.
“Oh no! Whatever shall I do?” Rika throws an arm over her eyes, falling dramatically onto her back as if hit by a fatal blow. The twins see their opportunity and tackle their big sister, attempting to tickle her wherever her clothing is thin enough.
“My Queen,” Renae, her closest advisor, steps upon the scene to respectfully address her, “your council is waiting for you. It would be best not to keep them waiting.”
“This matter isn’t going to be resolved in an hour. They can wait a few minutes,” she grumbles bitterly, getting up from the floor much to the silent dismay of the young prince and princess. “Don’t worry you two, I’ll be able to play in a little while. Besides,” she ruffles their fluffy auburn hair, “Sir Beelze will be back soon.” She feels a warmth in her chest as their hickory eyes light up.
As she turns to face the hall of the meeting room she steals her gaze, hardening her expression to a strong, cool mask.
“And that’s precisely why we should strike first! Nerva’s armies are the strongest of all three kingdoms. We can easily push them back off our borders and then some! We need to teach those Tashi bastards a lesson!” one of the advisors barks, punching the table in rage.
“This is madness, we’re not trying to start a war,” Renae growls, low enough that only her queen could hear her.
“But if King Henry declares war first we might not have much choice,” Rika whispers back. “What of the search parties?” she turns her attention back to the bickering men before her, “Is there any news of Princess Suzie’s whereabouts?”
“Nothing. It’s a hopeless venture and we need the men fighting not search-”
“And the royals of Wendell? Any word from them?”
“They are on their way as we speak. Perhaps we could ask them to aid us in the wa-”
“That’s enough! We will wait for the search parties to return and for the Royals to arrive. Until then this meeting is adjourned!” Rika snaps, having got the only useful updates she can on their situation she seeks to end the meeting before her council reaches to undermine her power in the name of war. She rises from the table to take her leave.
“Queen Rika!!!” The doors slam open and Beelze stumbles forwards. He fixes his slanted mask with one hand, the other cradling something close to his chest. “We have located Princess Suzie of Tashi,” he gasps, clearly out of breath.
“What!?” she exclaims. “Where is she!?”
“Right in front of you silly~” Calu twirls into the room, floating lightly on his toes. The boy is young and belongs to no kingdom but holds extraordinary magic power. He wasn’t with the knights who set out to search for the princess and yet here he is, draping himself over her knight’s shoulder to lower the metal clad hand held carefully to his chest. Beelze kneels to the ground to allow her to see his palm despite their height difference. In his palm lay a small rabbit with fur the color of plums and mulberry eyes who looks up at her without fear.
“You’ve lost me.” Rika deflates.
“Well, we were searchn’ the woods ya see, an’ this lil bunny just came an’ hugged my leg. I thought, ‘Well that’s odd, almost reminds me of the princess when I had ta babysit Ai, Mako, an’ her.’ I had a funny gut feeln’ so I took her to Calu here an-”
“And it’s her yep yep!” Calu cheers, then his expression falls, “But I don’t think I can lift the curse.” his tone is mournful but nervous. He reaches down to pet the small bundle of fluff who sits so contently in the knight's palm, blissfully ignorant to the troubling situation.
The doors burst open again. The knights Ryou and Cydra stumbling in.
“Could you maybe slow down a little next time?” Ryou attempts to chuckle whilst gasping for air, hands on his knees as his mute companion offers his arm for support as he’s completely unphased. “By the way, the royals from Wendell are downstairs.” He adds so casually Rika has to do a mental double take.
The advisor slams his hands on the table as he stands, “This is all completely out of line! You should all be ashamed-”
“Put a sock in it Greg.” Rika deadpans, completely aware that her annoying councilman's name is in fact not Greg.
“Today has been crazy enough, why not this?” Renae offers with humor in her voice. Rika waves her off and Renae takes her leave for now to bring their visitors to the meeting room and explain these recent developments.
“I wonder how she ended up in the woods?” King Takato puzzles.
“Or how she got cursed in the first place.” Prince Kenta, Takato’s younger brother, adds.
“I don’t know if that’s our main concern right now…” Queen Jeri mutters, leaning closer to her husband. “I think we should just focus on getting her home for now.”
“Yup. Get her back to Tashi so maybe her big bro will chill out with the whole war craze thing he’s got against Nerva,” Sir Kazu leans lightly against the prince.
“Yeah but the problem is that there’s no way for us to tell him, King Henry has cut all communication with Wendell as well,” Kenta grumbles, leaning back against his knight.
“No need to communicate if we deliver her directly to the king,” Ryou states looking dramatically out the window and leaning cooly against the wall.
“Are you suggesting we sneak in?” Rika scoffs and punches him in the shoulder, just a little too hard to be playful.
‘Greg’ the advisor opens his mouth with a great gasp of air to add his two cents on the matter but is quickly silenced as he meets Beelze’s death glare. The man’s masked face, piercing emerald eyes, and large figure greatly intimidating him despite the two children playing with his hands and scarf.
“Sounds like adventure!” Takato’s knight Guil cheers, bouncing up and down on his toes.
“We’ll likely need to distract the castle guards for you to get in there. A risky move to be sure,” Jeri’s knight Leo notes.
“Worry bad!” Kenta’s magic teacher Ange exclaims, throwing his arms around the two knights.
“Ange’s right. If we don’t try things will just get worse anyways.” Kenta speaks on behalf of his friend of few words.
“The mission is clear; distract, infiltrate, and reunite!” Kazu summarizes.
“We’d get there well before sunset if we left for Tashi now my queen,” Ryou awaits Rika’s confirmation.
After a pause Rika states, “Then assemble what supplies we need, we won’t be needing any extra soldiers since we’re not looking to start a fight. Only those of us in this room will be going,”
“Your majesty I must object-!”
“ Shut up Greg ,” Kazu and Kenta shut the man not named Greg down in unison.
“I’m gonna grab my crossbow. Better safe than sorry.” Beelze waddles out of the room, stance widened to accommodate the two children clinging to his ankles.
“But you just got back!” Mako wines.
“Yeah, please stay just a little longer?” Ai cries into his leg.
“Ghhaaa, I can’t!” he growls loudly in frustration. The twins reluctantly let go of his legs and hold each others hands. Feeling bad about his outburst, Beelze kneels down and bends over to be at eye level with the small children. “I’m sorry, but I have a job to do, and that job is protectin’ you kids. Right now that means leavn’ for a bit, but I’ll be back before ya know it.”
“ Promise? ” They ask together, sticking out their pinkies.
“Promise.” he repeats, locking his pinkie finger around their much smaller ones. He spares them a warm smile and ruffles their hair before standing to attend to the task at hand.
“That’s a lot of guys,” Kazu whistles quietly, peering out at the perimeter of Tashi castle.
“Rika, Jeri, Calu, and I will infiltrate the castle with the princess via the underground waterways. Meanwhile we need the rest of you to buy us time- think you can handle it?” Takato jests at his brother and Kazu.
“Of course! Who do you think we are?” Kazu snarks back. He wraps an arm around his prince and leans in close to whisper, “We should do ‘get help’,” with a mischievous grin.
“You know what,” Kenta pauses momentarily for consideration, “why not?”
Takato shoots the group a thumbs up and jogs lightly to catch up with Rika who began walking as soon as the plan was laid out.
Rika presses her back to a large tree just outside the castle walls and watches over her shoulder for the guards in that area to be lured away by whatever distraction the knights came up with. She watches as Kazu carries Kenta’s body frantically to the guards at the gate and screams unintelligibly. She puts a hand over her eyes and rubs her temples to soothe her oncoming headache at the sheer stupidity of their antics.
“Hey look, it worked!” Jeri whisper cheers, one hand on the young queen’s shoulder and the other cradling the cursed princess close to her chest. Rika glances back to see that the guards have indeed left their posts to help handle the situation at the gates.
“In we goooo~” Calu somersaults down the hill and waves cheerily at them from the tunnel entrance. Takato shrugs and rolls down the hill after him.
“Are you gonna roll too or can we just walk like normal people?” Rika side-eyes Jeri. The shorter queen giggles softly and links their arms together, the pair walking quickly to get by before the guards come back.
They make their way through the dark tunnels in silence, save for the echoing sludge of sewer water risen up to their knees. Calu hovers above them, humming softly to the sleeping rabbit girl he now holds. Rika cringes at the scraping sound her steel toed boots make against the stone and makes an effort to adjust her stride for less sound. Darkness surrounds the small group save for the occasional drain in the floors of the castle, allowing for the warm and fading light of the setting sun to glitter across the rippling surface of the water.
Takato references their hastily sketched map one last time before gesturing to the grate above them, he hoists his wife up and she pushes the tile up, sliding it to the side as quietly as she can. The three of them wince at the scraping noise. She pokes her head out and looks around and, after determining that the coast is clear, she pulls herself through and turns around, extending one arm back down for her husband to grasp. He wiggles his way up, having to partially use the wall and Rika’s assistance to get all the way out. The couple then reach back down one last time, the two of them together easily being able to lift Rika up to ground level. Calu is the last to properly enter the castle, floating effortlessly where the three royals had struggled.
Rika looks down the next hall through which they must venture, nothing but empty space and polished tile. She looks down at her clunky armored boots and sighs, pulling them off to ditch in favor of stealth. They move swiftly from the washroom, the hall before them empty and grand without much in terms of objects to hide behind so speed is their only option. Fortunately, the commotion at the gates seems to have escalated enough to even pull the guards from inside. Rika reaches the door of the throne room first and pushes it open softly, swallowing the anxiety of confronting her friend who framed her for the disappearance of his sister.
King Henry stands bent over a table covered in crumpled reports, maps covered in marks and tears, and neat stacks of unsigned declarations of war. With his head in his hands, palms pressing into his eyes as he grips his navy hair and trembles with the force of restrained sobs. The young queen looks behind her as Takato and Jeri gently click the doors shut behind them, she then takes a deep breath and clears her throat to make their presence known. Henry whirls around, glossy silver eyes wide in alarm.
“Wh- How- The gu- What are you all-!?”
“We’re here to help,” Takato raises his hands to show they mean no harm.
“We found Suzie and we just want to bring her home,” Rika explains, raising her hands as well.
“What!?” Henry quickly dries his eyes and squares his shoulders to look stronger, out of the millions of racing thoughts in his mind he latches onto the most important one, “Where is she?”
“Right here silly~” Calu giggles, floating over, princess in hand. Henry stares at the rabbit with wide eyes. His heart races in recognition, though the creature is asleep he somehow knows it is his sister. He hesitantly accepts hold of his cursed sibling from Calu’s insistent hands. The king opens and closes his mouth multiple times, floundering for the next words that may calm his restless mind.
“It seems she was cursed and somehow ended up in the woods, we don’t really know the details but as soon as she was found we figured it’d be best to bring her home first,” Takato explains.
“Thank you,” Henry whispers, tears dripping off his chin as his eyes gleam with relief. His expression falls one more however as he locks eyes with Rika, eyes sinking to the floor with the dawning weight of his actions. “Rika I- I’m so sorry, I-”
“Don’t worry about it,” she sighs. “I don’t know what I’d do if my siblings went missing,” she absently grasps the locket around her neck, thinking of the matching pair that hang around Ai and Mako’s.
“I do have to ask though, what made you think Rika did it?” Jeri questions carefully.
“I’m... not sure. My councilman brought it up and… I let it get to my head.” They all fall into a rather awkward silence, unsure how to proceed.
“Henry there’s a prob-!” the doors of the throne room are thrown open to reveal the king’s knight, Teri, who draws his sword at the sight of the intruding foreign royals. “Woah, I don’t know whatcha think you’re doin’ here but I ain’t about to letcha-”
“Teri it’s alright!” Henry rushes between them, still cradling his sister. “They’re here to help, what’s going on?”
“Uhhh, well can you explain what the prince of Wendell and a buncha knights are doin’ making a scene out front?”
Henry turns to the others with a raised eyebrow to express his asking for an explanation. Rika sighs and slaps a hand over her eyes.
“We needed a distraction to get in here,” Takato laughs nervously.
“Well seems like they did a great job of that, but we might wanna get down there before a fight breaks out.” Teri sheaths his sword and switches easily to a jovial tone. Henry and Takato share an amused look, the latter linking his arm through the former’s free arm to travel merrily downstairs to end Kazu and Kenta’s shenanigans.
“Well isn’t this just swell .” a new voice echoes through the room, tone dark and dripping with malice and sarcasm as he steps out of the shadows.
“Zhuqiao?” Henry calls his advisor’s name at the recognition of the man’s voice.
“Greg???” Rika squeeks, even more confused as to how she is seeing her annoying councilman whose name is not Greg right now.
“You all just had to get all friendly.”
“What are you talking about?” Henry steps towards the man.
“I was hoping you humans would simply destroy yourselves so that I may reclaim this land without dirtying my claws ,” the man opens his eyes to reveal bright, reptilian irises and his sharp, toothy grin spreads from ear to ear as his skin melds to glossy scales, “but I suppose I have no choice.” Wings split through the spine of Zhuqiao’s previous form, rapidly growing in size as the beast tears his way out of the flesh suit he had previously disguised himself with. They all watch in horror as a fully formed red dragon fills the room before them, elegantly stretching out his limbs of scales and feathers.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Rika mutters.
“I ain’t gonna be sacred by some big chicken!” Teri shouts, leaping in front of the others, sword drawn.
“Well isn’t that adorable. However I find this room to be a bit cramped. Let’s take this outside shall we?” with that Zhuqiao swipes his massive arm across the room, scooping up Teri and smashing him through the window, taking down the wall with him. He then exits through the missing wall himself, whirling heavy wind through the room as he does so.
“Teri!!” Henry cries out his knight’s name, running to the opening as fast as he can. He lurches forward, catching himself with one arm on the remaining rubble and stumbling over the force of having not slowed down. The commotion at the gates has ceased as everyone takes in the sight of a creature long thought to be extinct. Henry scans the rubble, almost collapsing in relief when he spots Teri’s green armor as the man pulls himself back to his feet, battered but miraculously alright. “Attention my loyal guard,” Henry raises his voice in as commanding of a voice as he can muster, “That beast is the one behind my sister’s disappearance!” The announcement carries the unspoken command that turns the cluster of guards against the dragon.
“I’ve got to get down there.” Rika states, already trying to climb down the rubble in her bare feet.
“Hold up,” Takato hastily unlaces his boots and takes them off to shove into her arms, “they should be close enough in size, you get down there and I’ll join you once I get yours.” He smiles and, without waiting for a response, takes off down the hall they entered from. Rika smirks for a moment, shoving the boots on and proceeding to leap down the mound of hazardous rubble in large bounds with Calu skittering nervously behind her.
The knights do their best but are thrown left and right like ragdolls, powerless to stop him even with the magic that Kenta and Ange have to lend them.
Takato finally makes it to the battlefield, Henry and Jeri following behind him as they chose to take the less treacherous path down. Takato unsheathes the sword at his belt and adjusts its weight in his hand as he charges at the monster, only to be suddenly lifted back by a strong armored hand.
“I’ll stall for time, you kids come up with a real plan.” Beelze orders and Takato notices that Rika is being held in a similar manner in the knight’s other hand. He clusters the royals all in one spot before returning to the fight.
“My lord, I’m afraid I don’t quite understand?” Antyla, Princess Suzie’s knight, softly approaches Henry.
“It’s a little much to explain right now but,” he holds out Suzie’s now alert and distressed form, “this is Suzie. She was cursed and right now I don’t know if I can protect her. May I entrust her care to you?”
“I will guard the princess with my life,” Antyla kneels to accept the princess into her arms. She has been the girl’s guardian for many years and that’s not about to change.
“Well, does anyone have any ideas?” Takato asks awkwardly, shooting concerned glances to his knights, clearly anxious of his current inability to help.
Call remains with their group but his eyes are distant as he squirms indecisively, making twitchy motions with his hands every time someone is struck in battle.
“We need to find something that we have and he doesn’t.” Henry muses, also distracted by the ongoing battle.
“Friendship?” Jeri offers, hand clutching the hilt of her blade tightly as she strains to keep her eyes locked onto their current circle.
“I’m sorry but I don’t think the power of love and friendship can save us this time Jeri.” Rika grumbles, trying to analyze Zhuqiao’s attacks for openings.
“What if it can.” Kenta whispers, similarly analyzing the battle.
“How?!” Rika exclaims, exasperated.
“Uuuh, quantity over quality?” he offers weakly.
“He’s right! Right now we're all attacking separately. If we all work together then at the very least we can trap and restrain him,” Takato exclaims.
“Sounds crazy.” Rika deadpans.
“But crazy’s all we got.” Henry states. “Oi! Over here ya freaky bird lizard!” he shouts suddenly, provoking the dragon as he starts moving towards a specific road. As soon as the dragon’s attention is on hims, he takes off running.
“I hope you know what you’re doing!” Teri shouts nervously, moving to run alongside his king as the dragon chases after them.
“I hope so too!” Henry laughs through his adrenaline.
“Ah, I see you guys have a plan in action?” Ryou grins at his queen.
“Nope. But I guess we better make sure he doesn’t die.” Rika turns to Antyla, the only Tashi knight still standing, “Is there a smith’s shop nearby?”
Henry and Teri dash through the winding streets, at moments Henry wonders if the only reason Zhuqiao has allowed this chase to last so long is because he enjoys the destruction of buildings as he crashes through the narrow alleys, but he supposes it’s good that he does- structures can be rebuilt and most all of his people seem to have gotten the idea and evacuated much earlier, he just needs to buy the others time for a trap. Speaking of which….
“Now!” Rika’s voice booms. A long pole of hastily welded scrap metal with chords of chain and rope is thrown from one roof by Beelze to the other where Kazu catches the opposite end of it and the duo leap down. Zhuqiao looks up at the falling knights with mouth agape, just in time to have the rod shoved in his jaw. The knights slide down the chords on their respective sides and use the momentum of their fall to swing and entangle the dragon. The creature releases a mighty roar, a curdling sound in the back of his throat.
“Wait can this thing breathe fire!?” Kazu exclaims just a bit too late.
Zhuqiao releases a mighty blast of flame, melting the rod and chains, successfully throwing the knights off. Beelze slams heavily into a building while Kazu manages to tumble into the rubble of a nearby collapsed shop. Kenta cries out his knight’s name, darting out from his hiding place to aid him. Rika clenches her jaw. She fights the urge to run to her own knight and instead runs to catch Kenta, grabbing the shorter boy by his cape and trying to pull him back to cover. The action is all to late though as the creature makes easy work of his bindings and whirls around to face the two royals struggling in the open. He charges up another blast, throwing back his head to gurgle the fire in his throat as if it were a liquid. Rocks tumble and metal scrapes across the pavement as Kazu heaves himself from the rubble and sprints with every ounce of his power to strike the beast and protect his prince.
In the blink of an eye the world goes dark.
Rika groans, peeling her heavy limbs from the hot pavement. She blinks away the haze from her eyes, only to realize that the haze is in the ashen smog around her. The aftereffect of the force that had thrown her several feet back and momentarily knocked her out. She stands shakily and squints through contaminated air to get her bearings, head throbbing as coughing racks her body. The dust slowly settles to reveal the world around her.
The first thing she picks up is the stench of iron assaulting her senses. Rika gags at the sight of Zhuqiao’s remains. Blood trickling to the ground from where Kazu’s mangled sword is embedded in his chest following a large slit that started at the beast’s jaw. The ringing in her ears slowly subdues and gives way to a new sound far more spine chilling than the dripping of blood. Crying. Violent, agonizing sobs ring through the air. Rika stumbles her way to the source, Kenta.
The young prince sits heavily on his knees, hands covered in crimson and he pushes them to his knight’s scorched and battered chest, the remains of his armor melted to his skin or shattered in the dust. Kenta attempts every healing spell he knows on Kazu’s motionless body but his magic has long since been expelled. Nevertheless he continues to try, only succeeding in diminishing his own energy. Some part of him is aware that the others are gathering around him- he can only assume the pain in his throat is from screams that he cannot hear nor control.
He bends down and presses their foreheads together. He thinks back to just yesterday. Yesterday, the day before and the past three years. When Kazu and him would sneak away to the back hallways of the castle together to exchange loving words or soft kisses. He has to wonder, how much more time could they have shared had they been forward about their relationship? How many kisses could they have shared if they hadn't hidden them behind sealed doors?
Kenta closes the space between their lips and mourns that this should be a kiss goodbye. Their final one. He attempts one last desperate time at a healing spell. Just as he does so, two hands rest gently upon his shoulders and magic surges through his body. He distantly recognizes the small hand and baggy sleeve of Ange oh one shoulder and puts everything he remembers from his friend’s many magic lessons into one spell and the world is blinded by light.
Calu and Ange back away from Kazu and Kenta as the young knight sits up, passionately returning his lover’s kiss. After a moment Kenta opens his eyes and grabs Kazu’s shoulders to shove him back.
“Don’t you dare pull that shit again.” he chokes through a sob.
“Wasn’t really planning on doing it the first time,” Kazu laughs awkwardly.
“Big brother!” everyone turns their attention to the young girl with messy plum-colored hair running towards Henry.
“Suzie!” he cries, scooping her up into his arms. He holds her close and rejoices in seeing his little sister human again.
“Do ya think ya used enough magic?” Beelze asks sarcastically, stumbling upon the scene without a scratch on his body despite his dark armor being in shambles.
“Yeah, hey, quick question?” Takato waves his hand in front of his brother’s face, “How long have you two been a thing?!?”
“Screw the relationship. How the hell did you three pull of this whole magical...” Rika waves her hands about. Unable to find the words to properly complete her sentence she settles for gesturing to everything.
“The magical powers of friendship!~” Calu cheers, a slight anxious tinge to his tone. His teeth looking oddly sharp and his pale skin gleaming a glossier texture at the edges of his robes.
“Hooray for the powers of love and friendship!” Jeri concludes, throwing her arms around Takato and Rika.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m going home. I need a nap.” Rika grumbles.