When Frey Lombard died, the last thing he felt were the shaking arms that cradled him like a child. When he looked up, the last thing he saw was a tear-stained face staring back at him. When his vision failed, the last thing he heard was a familiar voice muttering the same words over and over again.
When Frey Lombard died, the last thing he remembered were the words his murderer whispered regretfully…sorrowfully…repeatedly.
"I'm so sorry."
And Frey didn’t understand, or did dying just slow down his brain? Why was he apologizing? ‘This is stupid,’ Frey decided. He almost opened his mouth to tell him so but then remembered that he shouldn't. Things had changed. They were enemies now.
Frey looked up straight into his murderer’s eyes, someone he’d tried so hard to kill in return. The man seemed devastated. Frey almost laughed, certain that had he succeeded and the other failed, he would have worn the exact expression. He wouldn’t have found pleasure in the man's death despite the things he’d done. Still, Frey was a bit touched. He hadn’t expected any display of emotion here at the end of things.
He closed his eyes. He couldn’t think. He was tired. He was going to die. Something wet trickled down his cheek, and somewhere in the muddle that was his brain, he realized he was crying too. He wanted to accept that this was the end, but a sense of failure and regret lingered, holding him back.
Not like this.
But it was too late.
‘I don’t want to die like this.’
The Soul Keeper cursed under his breath, forcing his body to move, straining his muscles to the breaking point in a futile attempt to escape. He half-ran, half-stumbled toward the entrance, unable to see clearly through the foul-smelling smoke that filled the air. The whole place was burning. He was going to burn.
He pressed onward, adrenaline pushing his unresponsive limbs to the limit. He was nearly there. The door was wide open. Just a few more steps—
"You there! Stop!"
The Keeper faltered, panic shooting through his limbs. The voice came from behind him, and in the second that it took him to glance back, a gigantic hand reached out through the haze and clamped tightly around his throat, hauling him up until his feet hovered inches above the ground. The Keeper caught his breath, eyes wide with terror.
His assailant was huge, muscled, and undeniably strong — someone he’d want fighting beside him, not struggling to get away from. The Keeper kicked and flailed for a moment, but he might as well have attacked a solid wall for all the good that it did. He went limp, surrendering, but to his surprise, the man put him down and shouted to somebody he couldn’t see:
“I found someone!”
A shape emerged from the fog. The Keeper caught a glimpse of a red-and-white cloak — their colors! — and for a stupid moment, he dared to hope. But then the figure came close enough to be seen, and the Keeper choked back a cry, shocked and repulsed at the same time.
Whatever was moving toward them looked like another Keeper alright — or more accurately, what remained of him. This Keeper’s head lolled from side to side, unsupported by a broken neck. There was practically a hole in his abdomen, making it impossible for him to have stood up and walked, much less be alive. But he — it — was sauntering casually toward them, heedless of the fact that its left arm was twisted at an awkward angle or that one of its thighs was nearly stripped to the bone.
"What about this one?" The brawny man lifted the Keeper up by the scruff of his collar, as though he weighed nothing, just an object being offered for scrutiny.
"Ah," the walking corpse said, head flopping uselessly. “An acolyte?” It looked more revolting up close, its movements jerky and erratic, like a marionette held up by unskilled hands. The Keeper retched — this and the stress of the past minutes turned his stomach over.
“Can’t blame him for that,” the brawny man snickered. “You look disgusting, Weisser.”
"And whose fault was it?” the corpse retorted. It was inconceivable that it even had a name. “This was the only viable body I could find."
“If you’d gotten here sooner—”
“You didn’t have to kill everyone, Tier.”
"Not my fault,” grunted the man called Tier. “These guys are just so damn fragile."
“Lucky this one isn’t,” said Weisser, scanning the Keeper from head to toe, his gaze calculating. “Let’s keep him that way. At least for the meantime.”
"Fine," Tier huffed, disgruntled, slinging the Keeper over one shoulder. The man’s spiky hair felt like brambles where it touched the Keeper’s skin. "You’d think someone out here would’ve put up a good fight, but no. They just waved those swords around like they didn’t even know what they were doing.”
The corpse snorted. "What's there to know? You aim, stick it in, then pull it out."
"That sounds so wrong."
"Everything sounds wrong to you."
They were moving, the Keeper realized, toward the center of the room. The smoke cleared a little, revealing the carnage that had taken place while the Keeper had been trying to get away. The usually spotless floor was littered with broken tiles, shards of glass, and — the Keeper nearly gagged again at the sight — several mangled bodies. The dust obscured the faces, but he recognized the uniforms: red-and-white cloaks trimmed with silver, just like his own. His mentors. His fellow acolytes. His friends. The fools who fought back when it had been more prudent to retreat. Dead. All dead. And he was a “meantime” away from joining their ranks.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, the Keeper thought numbly. This was supposed to be the safest place in the Crypt, heavily defended by a battalion of guards and fortified by a wall of magic. How did the intruders even get in?
“Reminiscing?” he heard Tier ask, grinning slyly at the corpse.
“I didn’t think I’d ever come back here,” Weisser said, his tone almost wistful.
“Bet they didn’t think they’d see you again either.”
The Keeper’s mind reeled at this exchange, and he ogled the corpse with renewed disgust. Its appearance suddenly made sense to him. What was it the corpse said earlier? ‘This was the only viable body I could find.’ The Keeper had heard about Anomalies, lost souls with no bodies of their own. He’d never seen one before, least of all one strong enough to hijack a body that wasn’t its own. Whoever the corpse had been in life, it must have been powerful. And if the Keeper had to stake his remaining lifespan on a guess, he’d bet the corpse was just like him once — a Soul Keeper, a guardian of souls. That would explain how they breached the Crypt's defenses so easily. And if so, the Keeper also thought he knew what they were after.
They broke in to steal a soul.
He must have made some sort of noise, for the corpse's lifeless eyes suddenly locked onto his. “Don’t worry,” it said, lips widening into a ghastly parody of a smile. “It will be over soon.”
They had reached the stone dais that stood at the very heart of the room. This, the Keeper was now sure, must be the object of the intrusion. The brawny man set him down but kept a firm grip on his collar, keeping him close like some animal on a leash.
“Ryuu—” Tier started, then cursed and drew back in surprise. Something stirred within the dais. With a blinding flash, a small circular object flew out into the open ceiling. It catapulted out into the skies and disappeared, leaving a bluish trail in its wake.
“What the hell was that?” the man sputtered.
"Souls," a voice answered.
A third figure stood before the dais, a young man clad in white that made him almost disappear amidst the surrounding smoke. He was slender, a striking contrast to Tier’s massive built, and pale as the other man was dark. The Keeper noted a sharp face framed by a mane of long white hair. The eyes that regarded him were cold, the irises, silvery-white. Something flashed around the man's neck, a large green stone set into a metal pendant.
“Saw anything you like, Ryuu?” said Weisser, his tone light, almost teasing.
The pale man’s eyes narrowed and the air around him seemed to darken.
“Bad mood?” Tier whispered to the corpse.
“Bad joke,” the corpse admitted. In a more somber voice, he added, “We found someone. He might be useful.”
The Keeper shuddered as the pale man fixed an eerie eye on him. "Then use him," he said, turning back to the dais, his fingers twisting and turning around the pendant’s chain. “There are so many…”
‘Many’ was an understatement. They were beyond count — orbs of various colors, sizes, and luminosity — all floating idly, shimmering faintly, within the confines of the dais, like a tiny universe of stars. The pale man seemed to be taking everything in, mesmerized, and the Keeper was suddenly reminded of the first time he’d seen this too. He’d thought then that it was a privilege to stand guard over such a place, the origin of everything, the Crypt of Souls. He hadn’t yet decided if it was a privilege to die for it too.
"You think he's in there?" Tier asked.
"He must be," Ryuu answered quietly. An odd expression crossed his face, a hungry sort of longing, but it was quickly gone that the Keeper thought he must have imagined it.
"How do we find him?"
Ryuu caught the Keeper’s eye. "You should know," he said. "Tell me: which among them is Frey Lombard?"
The Keeper stared back. The name meant nothing to him. Did the intruder expect him to know? "I–I can’t tell," he managed to stammer in response.
"You could find out, couldn't you?"
The Keeper wanted to lie, but some remaining instinct of self-preservation urged him to speak the truth. The pale man didn’t look as intimidating as the muscular Tier or as grotesquely frightening as the corpse, but he had a strange feeling that this was the most dangerous of the three. The glint in the man’s eyes clearly said he expected an honest and swift reply — or else.
"I can,” the Keeper said, semi-truthfully. He’d never done it himself, but he’d seen the older Keepers at work before. “But I need—"
“—a Stone,” Weisser finished for him. “There should be one around here.”
The Keeper glanced at the corpse, his suspicions confirmed. He barely noticed when Tier finally released him and left the group to look for a Stone. The Keeper fidgeted with his hands, but for once, escape was no longer at the front of his mind. He was itching to ask, and before he could stop himself, he blurted out, “You’re a Soul Keeper.”
Weisser’s head moved but it was difficult to tell if he was nodding. “Was,” he said after a moment. “I quit.”
‘A lie,’ the Keeper thought — beings like them are bound by their oaths until the end of their days — but he deemed it wise not to disagree. “Why did you leave?”
“Difference of ideas,” said the corpse casually. “For reference, this isn’t the first soul I’m stealing.”
The Keeper had more questions, but Tier had returned, setting a black spherical object in front of him. A Soul Stone. That mystical device that Keepers use to identify souls and pinpoint their exact locations.
Ryuu pinned the Keeper with another commanding stare. "Find him."
The Keeper gritted his teeth and placed a clammy hand atop the Stone. It flickered immediately upon contact, as though it was coming alive at its master’s touch. Then it turned dark. Small blotches of light appeared throughout its black surface so that it now looked like a replica of a starlit sky.
The Keeper swallowed hard, fixing his eyes on the Stone, not exactly knowing what to do. He thought of the name — Frey Lombard — and concentrated with all his might. Maybe if he willed the Stone to show him where the soul was, just maybe…
The surface of the orb shimmered, showing one dot after another, one soul after another, with astonishing speed. Then it stopped, focusing on a single speck of light surrounded by several others. The Keeper felt his legs weakening with relief. He did it. It worked.
"I think…that's it." He glanced at the pale man. There it was again. That hungry look.
The Keeper’s eyes flicked back to the Stone. He squinted at the dot, trying to decipher the grids and symbols which he knew were visible only to his eyes. "He is…no longer here," he said, and he could tell from the intruders' reactions that this was unwelcome news. "He was reborn…"
The Keeper focused on the blinking symbols below the dot's location. "About…eighty years ago."
There was a low whistle. The brawny man asked, "Is he still alive?"
"He must be," Weisser said. "Otherwise, his soul should have returned here."
"Find out where he was taken," Ryuu ordered.
The Keeper peered at the Stone once more. "In a place called…" He paused, then slowly sounded out the name, "Shin…Ma…koku…"
Silence reigned once more, but this time, the Keeper thought the stillness was more out of disbelief rather than anything else. This was yet another thing the men hadn’t expected.
"That was clever," Weisser said, sounding torn between contempt and grudging respect. "He’s with the Mazoku all along.”
"That bastard makes me sick," Tier said with feeling. “All this way for nothing.”
“Not nothing,” said Ryuu. "We know where he is. Let’s go get him."
The Keeper felt a stirring of hope. The intruders were leaving…and he was still alive. He’d helped them. Surely, that should count for something? But then the pale man nodded to the Keeper and said, “Take him.”
The Keeper shuddered. What more did they need from him? Where were they taking him? But Ryuu wasn’t talking to the brawny man; the order had been directed to the corpse.
“He’s still alive,” Weisser observed.
“Tier,” said Ryuu. The name must have been enough of a command, for the brawny man bent down and gripped the Keeper’s head between his giant palms. ‘He’s going to crush my head,’ thought the Keeper foolishly, and the man might have if the corpse hadn’t intervened. The Keeper couldn’t make sense of what it was saying. Something about not breaking anything…about wanting a functioning body…
The Keeper’s vision faded as the man covered his nose and mouth, choosing to smother him instead. ‘Not like this,’ he pleaded to his gods as the life ebbed away from his body. He heard the pale man ordering his companions to move faster, felt the hands over his face tightening in response. He saw the corpse fall to the ground. Then something icy cold, like a gust of air, seeped through his mouth, his nose, his ears, the pores of his skin—
The Keeper had the strangest sensation of being…dislodged. The pain was gone, and so was, he realized with disinterest, his body. He thought he could see it still, as though he was looking at it from the sidelines, his body sprawled on the floor like some discarded piece of clothing.
He was dead, the Keeper knew. But as he watched, his body started to shift, minuscule movements rippling from the head to the toes, muscles and bones slowly but surely coming alive. The eyes opened. Then it propped itself up. Stretched its legs. Shook its arms. Finally, it grinned.
“This will do,” it said with what used to be the Keeper’s voice.
“Less disgusting,” agreed the brawny man.
The pale man said nothing. He turned to leave, flanked on both sides by the brutish man who towered over him like some giant sentinel and the smaller body cloaked in red and white that used to belong to the Keeper.
The intruders left as the Keeper thought they must have arrived — determined, filled with purpose, and hungry for something that they still didn’t get.
'I don’t want to die like this.’
Shibuya Yuuri wasn’t a stranger to near-death experiences. He’d survived all sorts of danger before: kidnappers, armies, feral beasts, a fire-wielding demon with a serious jealous streak…he’d faced all that and lived. But dying during a mock swordplay scene by accidentally tripping over his own feet and hitting himself in the head with his own prop of a sword? Now, that was just about the height of pathetic lameness.
Bizarrely, his thoughts turned to Wolfram, fiery and insufferable Wolfram, who’d definitely scold him for his lack of practice and then drag him to the courtyard for additional training. Yuuri could just hear the impending sermon: ‘What kind of king are you if you can’t even use a sword?’
But Yuuri wasn’t a king now. Not Shibuya Yuuri, Demon King of an ancient race in another world, but just Yuuri, a high school student trying to survive this hectic week leading to the Cultural Festival. Yuuri honestly couldn’t see the entire point of this, but he’d rashly promised his mother that he’d put in more of an effort at school. In Yuuri’s book, that meant helping make banners and flyers to promote the play their class would be doing. He couldn’t remember how he’d ended up being one of the actors instead — and the lead one at that.
“Are you okay, Shibuya?” Murata Ken’s face swam in front of his eyes.
‘Right,’ Yuuri thought, sense returning to him. This smiling bastard was the one that got him into this mess in the first place.
“I,” Yuuri said deliberately, “still want to kill you.”
Murata had the nerve to laugh. “That’s the spirit. Are you dizzy? Can you stand?”
Yuuri sat up, still a bit dazed from his…accident. “I’m fine.”
“He’s alive, everyone,” Murata announced to the collective relief of the entire room. Nearly every student in Yuuri’s class had stayed behind to work on the play, which meant nearly everyone had witnessed Yuuri’s stupid mishap. “Come on, Shibuya,” Murata added. “I think you deserve a short break.”
“Make that a week,” Yuuri grumbled, but he took the hand Murata offered and stood up. “I need to get out of here.”
“Ten minutes is the only offer on the table, my friend,” said Murata. “And don’t you dare think about running away. There’s no time to look for a replacement.”
“I told you I can’t act,” Yuuri whispered furiously, a tired refrain of the past two weeks, when Murata had first shoved the damned script into Yuuri’s hands and asked Yuuri to read it. It wasn’t Yuuri’s thing, but the words 'Kyou Kara Maou – A Play' did catch his eye. It was, Yuuri soon realized, a loose retelling of the past three years of his life, starring a high school student who was accidentally transported to another world and who unwittingly became the ruler of a strange kingdom.
There was one major difference though, and Yuuri could understand why Murata chose to write it that way: Although based on everyone they’d both met in Shin Makoku and beyond, apart from the king, the characters were all females. Murata had even given them alternate feminine names. The one that made Yuuri chuckle was ‘Elizabeth’ for ‘Wolfram.’ Yuuri thought the real Elizabeth would probably hang herself before she’d marry the king.
All in all, Yuuri had been impressed with Murata’s work — and he would’ve remained impressed, had Murata not offered him the lead role right then and there. Scratch ‘offered.’ ‘Tricked’ was more like it.
“I can’t act,” Yuuri had laughed when the topic was first broached. Honestly, he’d thought it was just a silly joke.
“You won’t have to act,” Murata had said with that maddening smile of his. “You’re a real Demon King, Shibuya.”
Yuuri had said no but Murata had been persistent. The next day, he’d introduced Yuuri to a blonde, green-eyed girl who marched into the classroom fully clad in a blue outfit that looked eerily familiar. The girl had stopped before Yuuri, and the expression on her face made him draw back cautiously.
“What are you staring at, wimp?”
Yuuri’s jaw had dropped comically. That face, that speech, and the way she held herself…was she seriously channeling the Wolfram von Bielefeld? “Who…?” Yuuri began, but the girl crossed her arms together in a very Wolframish manner and snarled, “Spit it out, wimp!"
Yuuri’s mind went blank for a moment — it was all so confusing. Then the girl smiled brightly, breaking out of character, and turned to Murata. "So? What do you think?"
"Accurate," said Murata, beaming. “The role fits you. You remember Saiga Amane, Shibuya?” he said to Yuuri. “She’s the best actress in our year. She’ll be playing the part of Elizabeth."
Yuuri had seen Saiga Amane around, and he could swear she didn’t look like…that.
“Saiga is very dedicated,” said Murata, seeming to read Yuuri’s thoughts. “She bleached her hair for this.”
“Don’t forget the contacts,” said Saiga, batting her eyelashes at Murata. “When’s practice going to start? Ready when you guys are.”
“That really depends on Shibuya.”
“You haven’t read the script?” Saiga frowned at Yuuri. “Get to it, wimp.”
Yuuri felt himself going red. He had an inkling where Murata was going with this.
"Shibuya’s having second thoughts," said Murata, a little too innocently. “I was hoping you could talk him into it.”
“Why?” said Saiga. “What’s the problem, Shibuya?”
That annoying smile again. Murata’s glasses flashed ominously. “Actually, Saiga, would you mind doing it in character?”
Saiga was dedicated to her craft, Yuuri realized with horror. She looked almost possessed — a change in her posture, a petulant frown, an arrogant lift of her eyebrows — and she was, once again, the Elizabeth of Murata’s play. But Murata had made a mistake. If this was supposed to be a version of Wolfram, no amount of whining, scolding, or shouting would get Yuuri to budge. He’d gotten far too used to Wolfram’s tantrums — those Yuuri could handle. Besides, the girl could never channel the real Wolfram’s source of convincing power: fire. There was nothing like the threat of being burned alive to get Yuuri agreeing to Wolfram’s whims.
But Yuuri should’ve known that Murata was always a step ahead. “And try to do it in a…persuasive…way,” the sage had added with a wink. “Think about how this character might try to seduce her fiancé.”
That was the first time Yuuri had threatened Murata’s life.
Murata obviously didn’t care. He’d gotten what he wanted because Yuuri finally said yes before Saiga could do her own interpretation of a temptress. Later, Yuuri told himself that the entire situation was just too embarrassing, and he’d relented to avoid any awkward moments with Saiga. (And if thoughts of how a certain hot-tempered fire demon might “try to seduce” his fiancé popped into Yuuri’s head, he wasn’t going to think about it.)
The next two weeks seemed to pass in a blur. Plans for the stage design, costume, and props had been settled, and Yuuri found all his free hours occupied by rehearsals. Before he knew it, two weekends had passed without any of his usual excursions to Shin Makoku. He’d tried to compute the number of days he’d been gone, but the math was beyond him. Murata himself said that cross-dimensional travel wasn't an exact science anyway. Still, Yuuri worried he’d been away for too long. Greta would miss him. Wolfram would be furious.
“Seriously,” Yuuri said as soon as they were out of the other students’ earshot, “I need to get out of here.”
“The play’s that bad, huh?” Murata looked dejected. If he wanted Yuuri to feel guilty, it was working.
“No. That’s not what I meant.” Yuuri cast his mind around for something else to say. “I just wanted to check on the castle. Something could’ve happened while I’m gone.”
“Shibuya,” said Murata patiently, “don’t you think I’d tell you if something bad were happening over there?”
Yuuri winced. Murata got him there.
“Of course, something’s always going to happen,” Murata continued. “But Lord von Christ is more than capable of running the castle. In the off chance that he’d mess up, there’s always Lord von Voltaire to keep him in line. The kingdom’s in good hands.”
“I know that,” said Yuuri, “but—”
“You don’t trust them?”
“Don’t be stupid,” Yuuri muttered.
“Then why the rush to go back?” Murata grinned at him. “Unless…you’re missing someone? I’m sure Lord von Bielefeld misses you too.”
Yuuri felt his cheeks heating up. “It’s not anything like that! It’s just…” Yuuri didn’t know how to finish that. Just because he liked Shin Makoku better? He felt more at home at Blood Pledge Castle? He was happier with Greta, Conrad, Gwendal, Gunter, and yes, even Wolfram, who somehow always got on his nerves?
“They’re worried they’re losing you, you know,” said Murata quietly, his expression shifting. “Your parents. Your brother.”
“What?” Yuuri said, distracted.
“Your mother’s very concerned.”
And at last, Yuuri understood. There’d been a talk with his parents several weeks before, something about Yuuri missing out a lot of the “normal” high school experience. Yuuri hadn’t thought much about it, but now, that ridiculous smile on his mom’s face when she’d heard how Yuuri took a role in a school play made a little more sense.
“Oh,” he said. Then he narrowed his eyes at Murata. “That’s why you wanted me for the part. To make sure I stay here.” That annoying smile again. Yuuri scowled. “And you just happened to have a script like this lying around?”
Murata looked smug. “It took an hour to write, give or take.”
Yuuri didn’t know whether to laugh or throw something at Murata’s stupid face. “They could’ve just asked. Or you could’ve just told me.”
“Would you have stayed if they did?”
Yuuri honestly didn’t know. Again, Murata got him there.
“Fine, fine,” he said. “I’ll stay until this thing is over. Unless I’m needed at the castle.”
“Reasonable,” agreed Murata. “That shouldn’t be for a while, I hope.”
But Yuuri found himself sort of hoping for the opposite. A trip to the other world at this time would mean that something had gone wrong, and Yuuri felt guilty for wanting it regardless. Yet why not admit it? He did feel more at home at Blood Pledge Castle, and he did miss his friends. (And if he was missing a certain green-eyed blond more than any other, Yuuri wasn’t going to think about it.)