Morning comes too soon. He wakes up groggy, his body desperately desiring to make up for the lost hours the night prior yet fighting with spending too much time in dreamland and making his head sluggish. The covers cuddle close to him, snuggling warmly up against his chin and holding him within their embrace tightly. Fluttering his eyelids open, he sees the color of their soft material greeting him first thing this morning.
Looking beyond their form, his eyes lazily gaze around his bedroom. The sunbeams of dawn slip through the edges of the curtain, painting strips of the room in a brighter shade. Only the faint chirps of the birds outside welcoming the new day echo within the walls surrounding him – his internal clock telling him it is just after dawn.
Using the arm beneath him, he lifts his upper body and rubs an eye with his free hand. The covers slip off his shoulder, dragging down his loose nightshirt with it and exposing his shoulder to the chilled air. With his mind waking up a little more, he looks around again. The room is as it was left last night, nothing out of place and nothing missing. He wonders what his senses are telling him, waking him up despite the fatigue.
Pushing the thought aside, he forces his stiff muscles to move. When his bare feet touch the ground, a shiver wracks his body.
Speaking of the cold, he wonders if Izumi will be receptive of leaving the castle today. The demon was acting strange yesterday; Leo couldn’t quite put a finger on it, however. To cover his bases, Leo had teased Izumi for being tired and ended up staying within the castle grounds, but he knows his partner wasn’t all that tired. The demon’s expressions were neither of anxious worry nor scheming a nasty plot – rather, it was at peace with the situation at hand. Whatever the situation may be.
After cleaning the sleep from his face and body, he dresses himself languidly, the fabric slipping upon his skin akin to a gentle breeze. Judging by the height of the sun burning in the sky, he deduces that it’s just about time for breakfast to begin. He gazes upon his bedroom door that remains securely closed against its frame. Izumi hadn’t come to fetch him like usual.
Just as he thinks that, a knock comes from the solid wooden barrier.
Hurriedly shrugging on his jacket for the day – with adornments jingling at the motion – he calls out, “Come in!”
The knob turns slowly, the anticipation building within his frame. With barely any strength, the gentle push against the door opens it slowly.
“My Prince,” A maid bows her head, clasping her hands in front of her and closing her eyes.
Oh. Mentally shaking himself out of his surprise, he smiles at her. He’s sure this is the same maid he has seen Izumi talk to a couple of times. He knows the faces of their castle personnel like the back of his hand, after all. “Yes? Is breakfast already on the table?”
“That is correct.” Her lilt voice is pleasant with the crisp morning atmosphere. “You were not seated at the dining table, so My King had me seek you out.”
“I see. I apologize for the trouble.” He smiles sheepishly. He really is running a little late. “I’m dressed. I will go appease him at once.”
She bows her head again, readying herself to step out of the doorway. “Of course.”
With the maid waiting on him, he only has the small chance to look over his shoulder towards Izumi’s bedroom as he leaves. The solid door remains closed with not a sound coming from within.
Izumi will handle his own meals, there isn’t any need for Leo to worry, and yet… He truly questions when the last he has seen Izumi eat with his own eyes. Maybe Terrian food is not as tolerable to the Infernan native as he original thought. How much do demons really eat? Legends say they ravage villages and consume all humans in their path, leaving not even the bones behind like beasts of gluttony.
He can’t help but smirk at the thought, hiding it behind a forkful of cooked eggs at the dining table. Maybe an Izumi of times past might have been the monster from horror tales passed down through the generations, but the Izumi he knows now would not even dare put something less than immaculately crafted even near his mouth.
After their meal, his mother takes him aside and addresses her concern for him. The tender words he receives nearly brings tears spilling to the surface. Being the monarchical family of Terra, even between parent and child, their relationship is by the book. On the outside, they were the perfect family worthy of praise and admiration. All the while, the inside felt hollow and devoid of warmth. He never doubted his parents’ love for him, but there were plenty of times when he spent more hours of the day with nannies and tutors than blood relatives. After Ruka was born, he often was left with her under the care of the same staff.
She comes to him now, as the war outside their safe walls rage faster and stronger than the days prior. His mother must know more of the frontlines than he, the thoughts anxiously taking hold of her heart and driving her into a mental corner. As he stares into her eyes, he wishes he could ease her sorrows.
“I’m okay, mother. You have to take care of yourself, as well.” Leo squeezes her hand with the hand she has taken into her own. “The kingdom needs you now more than ever. We’ll keep our home standing together. I promise.”
Her eyes – those brilliant, glimmering eyes he has always sought comfort in as a child – widen fractionally for a moment, the façade of the queen disappearing from her face. She huffs an amused breath, lifting her free hand to smooth his hair away from his face. “When did you grow so much?”
“I’m an adult in age, you know, mother.” He reminds her jokingly. They used his birthday party as a moment of peace and a front of strength, after all. “I’ll do everything I can so you can do what you need to.”
“My son…” She trails off. Her hands fall from him, going back to being clasped as the poised queen he has always seen her as from afar. “Leo. What I speak of is not about the kingdom.” She gives him those words and a calm smile before turning away and going back to her sworn duties.
He tilts his head.
Not about the kingdom, huh…
“Heh… I love you, too, mother.” He turns away, himself, walking towards where he is needed.
He will do his very best to stay alive and well. His mother is protecting him with all she’s got, after all. And not just for the sake of those nameless citizens they care for or the continuation of the monarchy. But because she is his mother.
Determination strengthening, he heads towards the training grounds. The archery field, to be exact. He has set aside some time in his schedule to keep his skills sharp – Izumi had actually, penning in his day-to-day appointments days in advance. He exits through the side entrance of the castle, the wind immediately greeting him with a harsh ruffle to his hair. As he walks along the veranda, he can’t help but stare straight ahead at the barracks in the back of the castle grounds.
How is his old friend, he wonders? His and Ruka’s previous guards, having been assigned different duties due to the necessities of war, have been worked to the bone since the beginning. His ex-Prince Guard taking over guarding the immediate surroundings of the castle – a last line of defense – and aiding where it is necessary. Ruka’s previous Princess Guard has gained a skilled subordinate who was already within their ranks and being promoted; the group now patrolling the border. Though the unit has assisted ruined towns and villages, they often were too late.
The positions directly next to them were meant to be left open, and he and Ruka were not supposed to leave the safety of the castle until war end. Ruka still has no Princess Guard to this day. Izumi has granted him freedom.
He stops just outside of the archery range, eyes still trained on the barracks. There is an air around the building that seems different than usual, yet familiar; something he should know but can’t put a name to the feeling. It bothers him, the words just on the tip of his tongue, but his mind refuses to dig up the answer swimming within his memories.
Taking a deep breath, he tucks the thought away and enters the archery range. The air is tinged with the scent of smoke, today.
No one is inside of the wooden structure that serves as a platform with a roof to ward away the sun’s rays. Or so he believes. Where the bows and arrows used for practice are stored, a clattering sound slips out from beneath the closed door. Once more, he stops in his tracks, head turning to stare at the thin door to the storage space. Out of all of the places where weaponry is stored, he supposes this is the most easily accessed – though the bows and arrows within are of low quality and dull.
Even so, he’s sure the blunted points of the arrows are still able to kill someone with enough force.
His thoughts flit back to Izumi. To that time he had discovered his partner’s demonic sword floating about in the weaponry storage within the main castle. Inching his magic forward and out of his veins, he wonders if Izumi is beyond these walls. He has yet to find the demon, but Izumi usually comes to find him first.
Encountering no magic with his own, Leo tilts his head as he pads forward, ready for anything. Izumi is much more skilled at hiding his magic signature than Leo is able to detect – he’s sure that sword of Izumi’s is the same as its master. Another clatter rings out as he puts his hand upon the sliding door. Fingers curling around the dip in the wood, he waits a moment longer.
Thrusting the door open, it slams against the end of its rail and nearly tips off. A startled movement clatters another bow to the ground as something darts into the shadows.
“A rat…” Leo breathes out in relief. He silently wills his magic to settle, gathering the uneasy particles back into his body. “How did it get in here…?”
He steps inside, leaving the door open behind him. Taking an arrow from a bundle resting inside a tall container, he flips it so the feathers are pointing downwards and the dull tipped blade is by his hand. Using it, he carefully shoos the rat out, being cautious enough not to corner it and have his goodwill be in vain when he is bitten.
When the deed is done and he is amidst practicing his archery, his mind wanders to the castle cats in the corner of the premises – the ones they let roam free to keep rodent infestation to a minimum. Perhaps he will pay them a visit, soon. See if they’re doing well. Or maybe he should find a snake. Those eat rodents as well, right?
White scales as pure as the moonlight comes to mind.
He grins, even as his arrow misses the mark.
Still… Where is Izumi? That guy would usually be making sure Leo sticks to schedule or is truly getting some work done by now. It’s a fact that he often only sees Izumi for a scant few minutes in the morning before they part ways to their own duties, but this is the first since signing the contract that he has not seen even a glimpse of the demon when he is in Terra.
The hand holding the bowstring taut clenches unconsciously. The string slips from between his fingers, sending the arrow flying. The bow, already shaky in his grip, is set off balance with the sudden snap of its string, its aim becoming unknown as it points in a direction he had not meant it to.
He drops his hands to his sides, the bow bumping against his legs. Although he hears the arrow thud dully into the ground somewhere far off, he doesn’t look for it, opting to stare down at the wooden paneling beneath his feet. He clenches his right fist tightly.
The contract. Their contract. Though he cannot feel it, he knows it’s in there, resting dormant within his palm – that half sphere made of crystal-clear magic.
It will expire soon.
There are six days left until he can choose to break it. Or Izumi can choose to, though the fact was not stated directly within the text, only implied. The contract is there to protect the worker, not the hirer.
It is to force Leo to keep Izumi by his side.
What Inferna is planning, he may never know. However… is this why? Is this the reason Izumi seemed to be in a world of his own?
What if Izumi is ill? Every time Leo, himself, fell to that mysterious illness, it is Izumi who had cured him, even if temporarily. What if whatever it may be is strong enough to transfer to a demon? It is said that when one goes to a different environment, one often becomes sick with the new dangers in the air and water the body is unused to.
The bow clatters to the ground sharply, his footsteps echoing in the small space as he dives out of the archery structure. He will apologize to whoever cleans up after his mess at another time.
Izumi could be suffering all by himself.
He startles the people in charge of cleaning around the castle and earns – concealed – disapproving glares from diplomatic aides. Apologizing where he should and ignoring what won’t hurt him tomorrow, he nearly flies to his wing of the castle and launches himself up the stairs. By the time he arrives into their hallway, his lungs are heaving in the same manner as when he falls ill. The organs burn from the inside, fire festering slowly and burning hotter by the second as it gains more territory.
He gulps in both air and saliva as he attempts to slow his heartbeat that echoes in his ears much too loudly. Taking steady steps past his own bedroom and to Izumi’s, he stands before the solid wood with fidgeting feet. Another long inhale passes through his smoldering lungs before he raises a hand and knocks on the door.
He gets no response. Pressing his ear to the wood, he tries to listen to what may lay beyond its structure. Without his conscious doing, his magic slips free and aids in his quest.
Not a peep.
He was scolded just yesterday for going in without permission, but he is willing to take the risk of a lecture. “Sorry, Sena, I’m coming in.”
The door creaks eerily as he opens it cautiously – he will have to have someone look at it soon. His eyes fall to the bed first and foremost. Finding it empty with its sheets pristinely tucked in, his gaze sweeps across the floor and scarce pieces of furniture within. Stepping inside fully and closing the door behind him, he blinks in confusion as it sets in that no one is present within the room. Unless…
He is compelled to look upwards.
Nothing; the ceiling is as it should be.
He strides to the window that faces the same scenery the one in his own room does. Opening it wide, he leans out and twists his body to be able to look towards the edges of the roof. “Sena?”
Only the birds singing their songs of love answer his call.
Humming in dissatisfaction, he retreats back inside and closes the window.
Just where has Izumi gone? The demon said nothing about returning to Inferna yesterday; and after adamantly staying within the Terrian castle, too.
Pondering the answer while he heads towards his office, he doesn’t pay attention to the strange looks he is receiving from the staff and advisors he passes by within the corridors. Though he does notice that the castle is running without stutter or confusion. Everything is as it should be, as though the world outside of their walls isn’t burning down and erupting into more chaos as they speak.
When he arrives and enters, he is disappointed to find the office empty as well. Whatever the case may be, he only hopes Izumi is alright.
Or that Inferna is alright.
As their enemy and opponent in war, it’s odd to wish for the opposing side to be well. Still, waging war was never about felling their enemies and utterly crushing them underfoot. It was about protecting what they believe in and their way of life from those who threaten to force their own rules upon them.
Is that why Inferna is fighting?
Is that why Caelem is?
Or are demons and angels just destined to fight for time without end? Then what about them; what about the humans who wish to live apart from the creatures beyond their imaginations?
Why has Terra gone to war when there was peace for so long? What decisions have they made that led them to this point?
What if the end goal is complete destruction?
He shakes the thoughts from his head, forcing himself to refocus on the missives in front of him. Nothing is going to happen; everything will be fine. They will be fine. He grips the writing brush in his hand tightly, the words getting written out looking unnatural and disastrous. Terra will be fine. Inferna will be fine. Caelem will be fine. Everyone will live as they have been. Everyone will…
The brush falls to the page, inking a dark splotch upon the pure white material.
How will they ever conclude this war in peace? How will they end it at all? So much has already been lost, so much has been taken. Can demons and angel ever know harmony with one another?
He lays his forehead down on the desk.
He doesn’t want this. He doesn’t want any more devastation. The lives all sides have already lost is too great; lives they will never be able to return to their original forms. Lives cut short because the monarchs of the kingdoms cannot see eye-to-eye. Innocent citizens… who had nothing to do with it.
Most lives lost in war are those of civilians, Izumi had once said.
It’s not fair. Not even losing the lives of knights and soldiers is just.
What are they doing? He and his family have sent countless people to their graves… A single word from them washed away fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, friends, families, and lovers…
They are forever gone.
“Damn it…” His fist hitting the desk vibrates the wood underneath his forehead, earning him a mild headache.
They can’t surrender, they would only fall victim to the battle of dominance between the others – the spoils of Terra going to the victor. He can only hope that the lives that have disappeared from the world do not go in vain.
Ignorant to his internal struggles, he and his family consume lunch in tranquility; the meal light and full of fresh ingredients filling their stomachs satisfactorily, just enough to hold them until suppertime.
Startled out of his thoughts, he tries not to let it show as he turns his attention to his father across the long table. “Yes, father?”
“The missives that were given to you for inspection, have you looked over them?”
“Yes, they’re completed.” Leo answers plainly. “The southern regions are doing well.”
“Send them to my office after our meal.”
The family falls silent after only that short conversation. His father is as strict and imposing as ever; still, Leo understands what is upon his father’s shoulders. Though it really is a relief the southern regions are managing on their own with little assistance, the northern regions never seem to have a break. And… They are losing the lives of the innocent every single day.
Is it because the northern regions are directly against the Infernan border? Is there more to it? The western border that lines along Caelem have barely made any complaints or given alarming information. Rather, the western towns very rarely contact the castle at all; he has only just realized the fact amidst the emergency SOS signals slamming into their backs from the north.
War has yet to reach the southeastern portion of Terra. All is as normal as it always has been.
He wonders what sets them apart? Angels and demons.
Because demons can do what they wish whenever they wish? Because they are evil incarnate, do they wish to see death over and over again, and feel the warm beating of a heart directly beneath their fingertips? Aren’t angels, doing the same? Despite their targets differing, does purifying demon after demon truly accomplish anything?
Then why Terra?
He’s sure there are some demonic residents. They are open to any species living upon their land, after all. He doesn’t know of any, however. But surely…
Is that enough reason to wage war against a whole kingdom?
Ruka gives him a worried look as they leave the dining room.
“I’m fine.” He whispers to her, squeezing one of her shoulders reassuringly. “You’re pretty busy, too, right? Be careful not to overwork.”
“You’re one to talk.” Ruka pouts, giving him a stern look.
“Yes, yes, big brother will take a rest if you do.” He makes the deal as he steps away, making sure she can’t retort and being left with no choice but to accept.
On his way towards the office, he still sees no hide nor hair of Izumi. If he doesn’t want to be found, Izumi will undoubtedly stay hidden. But even so, Leo doesn’t believe the demon is within the castle premises any longer. That subtle prodding in the back of his mind urging him to realize the air feels different today, once more. The castle is working as it should, and there are no alarm bells ringing – neither here nor in the distance.
Maybe the atmosphere feels different because Izumi is missing from his side.
Gathering up his papers, he leaves his office yet again to go to his father.
Familiar faces pass him by – advisors to the royal court. A former army general, retired and given the position to tutor him and sit in on military strategies. Leo hasn’t had a study session in a long while now; everyone too busy with the ongoings to pay trivial matters any mind.
“You came yourself? Where is that Prince Guard of yours? Is he not properly doing his duty?” His father asks the moment Leo walks through the doorframe.
“My Prince Guard is… uh… I… sent him on an errand.” He quickly comes up with an excuse; just vague enough to be reasonable.
“An errand?” His father – rightfully – raises a doubtful eyebrow. “Something an errand boy could not handle?”
Leo chuckles awkwardly. “Something like that. I…mm… had Sena go far. You know how quick he can be.”
Perhaps even all the way to the Infernan Castle.
Thankfully, Leo is dismissed afterwards without further questioning. If someone gets to Izumi first upon the demon’s return, it is still vague enough to work around, no matter what Izumi replies with. On that subject, he can’t help but consider the relationship between Izumi and his father. It is oddly tense in a way he can’t comprehend, something that probably only the two in question can answer. He had hoped they would get along. However, from the beginning, it doesn’t seem as though his father was willing to try for an outsider. After that…
…Izumi is hard to get along with up front, but he really is a kind demon at heart. For the effort he put in, Leo was rewarded more lavishly than anything he has received as the Prince of Terra.
The rest of the daylight hours goes by normally. Nothing out of the ordinary popping up or breaking routine.
Evening falls. Izumi has yet to return.
And normalcy is finally broken.
A meal like any other. With the same people as they do every day. Prepared by the same team of chefs and served by the same wait staff they have had for years now. Slow cooked beef stew that warms both their bellies and the air saturating the room in its savory scent intermingling with the tang of a butter for the freshly baked bread on the side.
“Father?” Leo looks up questioningly. On the other side of the long table, his father holds his head with a shaky hand. Beside him, his mother begins to pale alarmingly. “Mother!” He calls out as she sways in her seat and tips off towards the floor.
He stands quickly, the chair beneath his rump sliding back with a loud screech.
“Ruka.” He instantly turns to her, going to her side and catching her shoulders as she, too, holds her head. “What’s wrong?”
“…dizzy… I might…” Ruka’s body lurches as though her stomach is ready to expel what is within. Nothing comes out in time before her eyes flutter closed and she falls limp.
Leo barely steadies himself in time as her weight fully falls into him, hearing a thud coming from the other side of the room as he does so. “Father! Someone!”
Why weren’t there servants in the room to attend to them tonight? Only now does he realize the abnormality.
From beyond the dining room door, he hears a group marching forth towards them.
Cradling Ruka’s unconscious body to his own, he tightens his hold. What is happening? Why? His head is in shambles, even the easiest answers seem to elude him. He has to calm down. Ruka’s temperature begins to rise beneath the skin of his fingers, so much so that he can feel it radiating through her clothing. Fever. Losing consciousness. Dizzying effects. What could have done this, and so quickly? Did they all belatedly get infected with what had afflicted him previously? So long after he has recovered? Nausea. Ruka was definitely about to—
The door slams open, banging against the wall like a cannon has gone off.
“Knights!” A familiar, deep voice resounds in the suddenly tiny room.
Everything is closing in. The walls are shrinking. The edges of his vision are blurring to black.
“S-Sir,” Leo chokes out. “Mother and father! Ruka—”
“Take the prince!” Terra’s previous army general commands with a stern voice. The ice coldness in the older man’s eyes land on him. “He is the only one standing, he cannot be trusted!”
“Wa—Wait, are you serious?” Leo gasps. Before his thoughts can catch up, his arms are seized; Ruka taken away from him and into the arms of a knight who now looks upon him with contempt. A knight who he has watched get sworn in, once upon a time. “What are you saying? Release me! I need to help them!”
“Call the physician!” Leo is ignored. “The royal family has been poisoned by none other than the wayward prince tempted towards the path of Devil by that mercenary!”
His head goes blank, white noise replacing the chaos around him. He can barely feel the way the knights yank and push him, his feet stumbling to keep balance and tripping on the smooth, stone flooring. The words being shouted at him sound foreign and far away. He can’t feel the pain upon his skin as they treat him like less than a bug underfoot.
“Send him to the dungeons!”
He looks up, abruptly coming back to his senses. He tries to yank his arms free, yet to no avail – not with two knights on each limb. “Did you do something to him?! What did you do to Sena?!”
He gets a haughty harrumph in return and nothing more from Terra’s former army general – the well decorated man turning to order around the distraught castle personnel without issue.
Instead of getting taken down to the dungeons beneath the castle, it is decided that he would be taken up to one of the holding towers; he is still royalty, after all. What becomes of him will have to be concluded at another time.
“Wait!” Leo cries. “Let me help them!”
The bars are slammed in his face with scoffs from the knights beyond the barrier. “As if we would let you go for the final kill, Your Highness.” The title is spoken with sarcasm.
The cold night wind blows in from the cut out in the wall, nothing protecting the opening but steel bars. Autumn is fast approaching.
“You’re not serious?!” His fist connects with the metal in between him and the people he has known for years. “Why would I ever?!”
“The evidence is stacked against you.”
“What evidence?” Leo demands. He can reach out in between the bars and grab for either of the two knights’ clothing – they are still close enough – but he cannot agitate them further. He has to be released. Peacefully. Willingly.
“You are the only one standing now.”
…Why is he?
“And what if I never took a bite?” He counters. Though he had. Vaguely, he remembers sipping the broth of their stew and encountering a startling bitterness on his tongue.
“Sorry, we cannot take that risk. For Terra.”
Both knights look at him with betrayal in their eyes. He wonders if he looks the same.
Leo tries again, “This is treason! If I were the culprit, what would I gain from this?! What is worth enough to do this ploy?!”
Will his steel cage being torn apart with magic help his cause or hurt it?
And even if he does become free of this cell, what can he do?
Like a snake has bitten down sharply and envenomated its unfortunate victim before slithering away, wanting nothing more to do with the consequences.
“You tell us.” A knight replies. “We have always known you didn’t agree with how the King keeps you inside of the castle. Even after you were granted freedom, you still greedily wanted more.”
The two of them seem to have had enough. Taking steps back, a considerable distance from the bars that Leo can no longer reach them physically, they take their posts and start their guard duty. No matter how much noise he makes, they no longer turn back to look at him.
With a startling loud growl, one he wasn’t aware he could even make, Leo pushes against the bars holding him captive once more. The metal rattles within their place embedded in the stone, the vibrations travelling through the flooring and tickling his feet.
He has to cool down. Just for a moment.
Drawing away from the locked door, he leans his back against the curved wall of the tower. Turning his head just slightly, he stares out the window. Terra, bathed with moonlight, looks beautiful from up high. Closing his eyes to the sight, he leans his head back, bumping his skull into the stone.
He has to think calmly. Father, mother, Ruka… What will befall them? Jin has supposedly been called, surely Leo can put his faith in the doctor. Always, always, Jin has done all he can. Even at the risk of his own health, the doctor puts his patients, puts them, first. Grueling have been the days past, but Jin has been with them – with him – through all of it without falter. The imagery of texts stacked upon each other, nearly tumbling over the desk flits across his mind’s eyes.
Does he have time to stand around as he is? He isn’t the wrongdoer. The real criminal is still among them. That person could hurt more people! He has to do something—
He snaps his eyes open. Whipping his head to the side towards the voice, he stares wide eyed at the person now sitting on the small ledge of the hole in the wall, a single leg propped up on the sill as the other lazily dangles. Leo turns his head the other way quickly, staring at the knights guarding his prison cell that do nothing more than silently stand at their posts.
“They can’t see or hear.” The person says with a shrug.
Granted, he was lost in his racing thoughts, but he had not heard this person enter one bit. “Who…?”
They smirk at him, something gleaming within the light of the flickering sconce. His eyes are drawn towards it, that peek of white with a point so sharp he wonders how it does not pierce into its owner’s own, smooth lip.
Gaze roving back higher, he takes in the person’s appearance. Eyes the color of the blood moon stare back at him with amusement playing within those clear orbs. They are adorned in what appears to be high quality fabrics in a foreign design he has never seen with his own eyes before. With short obsidian hair that matches the night sky, the outfit is completed with what Leo can only describe as a masquerade mask sitting prettily atop their head. Though it rests off of this person’s face now, he is curious what the mask that would cover the top portion of one’s face would look like on them – a pretty adornment on a pretty person.
Much like Izumi.
A demon has come to visit him, it seems.
Their grin widens, putting out for display the other fang that matches the first. “Heh~ So, that’s how it is. Secchan likes you a lot, doesn’t he? He didn’t mention a thing about this to us.”
Just as he was inspecting them, they were eyeing him.
“What do you call him~?” They hum carefreely. “Se-Na?” The name on their tongue is broken up and given an inflection different from standard.
Even still, the name makes his heart stutter. “You know Sena?”
“Of course. A good kid, that one is.” They joke, not in a hurry at all despite arriving within this prison cell without any warning.
Their words make him less anxious, but he can never truly be sure. “What are you doing here?” Leo looks over his shoulder again. The knights still don’t turn to peer into the room.
“Followed a poison.”
Poison. Leo swallows. “…Why?”
“That high level of substance isn’t allowed outside of our borders, even if you can buy it straight out of the marketplace. The fire wall wasn’t in time to stop them, but, well, it wasn’t for that, anyways. Just a perk if we could kill two birds with one stone. We did wonder how’d they’d use it, though.” They lean their head back lazily, staring up at the cold ceiling dancing with the warm flickering hue of candlelight.
“In the market? If it’s that dangerous, don’t you mean the black market?”
Their crimson eyes land on him innocently. “Why would we have a black market?” Their smirk returns full force, teasing yet threatening. “You can sell anything you want. Buy it if you have enough money or the will to pilfer. Food. Clothing. Trinkets. Poisons. Organs…” Leo gasps as the person suddenly appears directly in front of him, close enough that their lips brush together softly like the touch of a fanning feather and nothing more. “Humans.”
In a blink, they’re gone – like a ghost. When Leo flicks his gaze back towards the window, it looks as though they hadn’t moved a single centimeter, the subtle radiance in their eyes piercing the dimness in the room the only difference from before.
The demon continues before Leo can catch his breath, chuckling airily, “I guess, in your terms, it would be considered a black market meant to elude the government underground. But, to us, that’s our backyard.”
“Your backyard…but you came after it?” Leo narrows his eyes. “How’d you even know?”
“We still have some rules, you know?” They scoff, though Leo can’t say they look all that offended. “There’s a barrier that stretches across our border. Anything that comes in and goes out, if it’s dangerous enough, we’ll get a warning.”
“Is that your only reason for this visit?”
“Hmm~” They hum in thought again, shifting their position to be able to swing both legs in the air lazily. How they are actually staying steady on that tiny ledge, Leo doesn’t know. “My primary mission is to come and capture someone. Whether there was enough influence to get the poisoned to be unleashed or not, his fate ends today and it’s his first day in Hell. The secondary is to see if I have time to possibly save you guys while I’m at it. Since I found you on the way to get my guy, guess my job is done.”
“It’s not!” He nearly propels himself forward as he screams. Suddenly conscious of where he is, he turns to the knights.
Leo locks eyes with one. Or perhaps not, as the knight seems to be looking straight through him, instead. It’s especially clear that the knight doesn’t notice anything unusual as they turn back to chat with the other guard who had brought him up here alongside them.
“I told you they can’t see or hear anything.” His guest reminds him. “Rather, they’re seeing what I want them to see and hearing what I want them to hear.”
Looking closely at the bars that separate them, there is a waver in the air – a distortion in the space between them. Squinting his eyes in the dim lighting, Leo swears he sees a faint image of himself, doing nothing but standing against the wall and hanging his head. An illusion.
Leo stands straight, heart hammering in his ears. “Your mission isn’t done. They’re still—They might—” He can’t bring himself to finish the thought.
“Why do I have to do more than I have to for humans?” Their thin, pale lips turn down into a pout. “It would’ve been nice if Secchan told us you’re like this now. Could’ve saved me the trouble of even coming in here.” They sigh dramatically.
“Like…this?” Leo parrots slowly.
Even they look confused for a moment. But only for that second. Soon, they burst into a melodic laugh fit for a gentle ballad. Absently, Leo thinks that they have a nice voice, however, now is not the time.
“You consumed poison, and you’re saying you don’t wonder why you’re not dead? I can still smell it in your blood. Maybe I see why Secchan likes you. He can take care of you, coddle you as much as he wants, and you’d have no choice but to rely on him. You’re kind of reckless, aren’t you? And worry about all the wrong things, right? Innocently positive, at that.”
So, he really did taste poison at that time… that bitterness that still soaks his tongue.
“If you’re done mocking me, then will you tell me why I’m not dead?”
They wave a flippant hand in the air. “Not mocking you. Hm~ Guess I’d call it cute.”
“Can we get on with it? Or you can go save my family.” They’re running out of time. If Jin can’t come up with something… He’ll have to put his trust in this demon. Izumi seems to know him.
Don’t trust anyone.
The words Izumi has repeatedly instilled into his head emerges from his memories.
“Impatient.” They huff, their previous pout coming back to play upon their lips. “But if you’re asking, guess Secchan didn’t tell you that either.”
“Tell me what?”
“Hey,” They say instead of answering, cocking their head like a curious cat. “Haven’t you been sick lately? Excessively so?”
Leo swallows nervously, inching back just a bit. “How did you know… that?”
They cross their legs, leaning an elbow on their raised knee and resting their chin in their hand. The demon’s subsequent grin is full of mirth. “Have you ever been bitten by Secchan? Teeth ever go into your skin?”
“…No.” He answers slowly. Leo clamps his lips shut afterwards, weighing his options. How much can he really trust this person? He can, right? He trusts Izumi’s kept company.
“Hmm? In the air would be too risky for Secchan’s tastes, so then… Eat or drink something he gave you? Drink from the same glass?”
The countless meals they’ve shared flit across his mind, along with the multiple times they’ve shared a glass.
His guest’s smile widens, finding the answer they want upon Leo’s face. “I’ll take your expression as a yes. He’s been feeding you venom, you know? Izumi Sena has.”
Leo’s breath catches in his throat, choking him and sending his head into a dizzying spin of flashing white. He feels his heart hammer against his ribcage, nearly breaking out of its protective barrier. “W…W-why…?”
“Because he likes you?” They shrug. “Won’t do it for just anyone, consider yourself lucky. Though I’m sure you suffered a lot from that affection of his. Consuming venom over and over again, enduring it until you’re on the very brink of death before Secchan draws it back out, only to do it all again later. Cruel is his love~ Since you’re a human, your first dose was probably less than half of a drop.” Their foot moves to a tune Leo can’t hear. “Well, Secchan has gotten pretty good at it. You were in good hands, don’t worry.”
His stomach feels like a hurricane has formed within, swirling and twisting his insides and threatening to spit them out like water from the ocean. “That… That didn’t answer why…” Leo’s voice is quivering, so weak that even he can barely hear it.
Their foot stops its dance, only to restart with a different beat. “How much do you know about him?”
“I guess compared to you, nothing at all.” As much as he hates to admit it.
The sconce crackles, dancing the orange hue on the wall like a monster awakening from slumber. The moon behind the demon’s back outlines their form like an otherworldly being with a beauty beyond the stars.
Their airy chuckle echoes in the space again. “Then I’ll tell you about snakes first. The reptile is capable of carrying three different types of venom: cytotoxins, neurotoxins, and hemotoxins. Of course, not all snakes are venomous, but the ones that are usually carry one of these, maybe even a deadly concoction of two. Some things they can do is melt your skin, muscles, and organs, even target your heart directly, one type will cause muscle paralysis and respiratory failure, and the last is specifically called a blood poison, bursting your blood cells like little bombs and making your life source run like water, maybe even enough to seep out of your pores. Or it could do the opposite and congeal all your blood into a solid lump, though Secchan’s does the first.”
They’re explaining horrendous things with a pleasant expression, like talking about what they will eat come tomorrow. Leo can’t understand them, he’s not sure if the two of them may ever truly see eye-to-eye. Still, one day, he believes he’d like to try.
“Being a snake demon, you’re saying Sena has one of these? The hemotoxin?”
“Inferna is all about power.” The topic of conversation is abruptly thrust into another direction. “Get stronger, create stronger, or die trying.”
Leo waits for them to continue. His fists clench at his sides, though he tries to keep his expression more neutral than what is raging within his thoughts.
“Let’s say Secchan’s parents were particularly greedy.” That spiritedly amused smirk is back. “His mother carries two types, his father carries the one she’s missing. Secchan was their successful experiment. After failures, I assume, though I don’t know for sure. An unnatural occurrence in nature. Just how can a snake with all three types be born, stabilize and survive?” They huff another chuckle. Everything is just so comical to them; like people dying is just another day. “Secchan is probably the most toxic being and substance in all of Inferna. Get even a nick from a fang and you’ll be dead.”
“And Sena fed me that deadly, venomous concoction? That’s what you’re saying?” Leo narrows his eyes to glare at his demonic guest. Izumi… He still has faith in his partner.
“Heard of Mithridatism?”
Leo cocks his head at the word. Now that he has the time to straighten his thoughts, he realizes they’ve been communicating in Terrian. “No.”
“Funny. A human was the one who came up with it. Out of fear.” They stick the tip of their tongue out teasingly. “Acquired Poison Immunity, in other words. The process of ingesting non-lethal amounts of poison, slowly increasing the strength over time to develop an immunity. Venom is a bit different from poison, the technique is usually for poison, but if venom rots away at your organs before your stomach acid can get to it or goes into a cut in your mouth, it’ll do the same. Would’ve been easier to just inject it into you, though. For Secchan, there isn’t really a non-lethal dose, so he will have to manually take it out for you or give you the anti-venom. Oh, by the way, Secchan can produce the anti-venom within his own body, too. Eventually, with the right technique and a bit of magical help, you’ll gain an immunity to the strongest toxin on the continent. Even the high-level poison you ate at dinner isn’t much issue for your body now.”
He doesn’t know how to feel. Thankful. Concerned. Betrayed. Loved.
“Have you seen Secchan perform? For someone so deadly, he’s really pretty on stage, don’t you think?”
“I… haven’t…” Leo’s head is jumbled. Keeping up the conversation is pushed to the back of his mind, other concerns taking forefront.
“Hmm~ I’ll send you something to show you. He performed in front of the Infernan Castle, you know? He’s pretty important. Well known.”
“Um…” He finds himself mumbling. He’s been being poisoned for months; sick to the brink of death and causing the people he loved and who loved him back inconceivable amounts of dread. What is he supposed to think about all of this?
But he survived today.
“I’ve played with you long enough for them to probably come out and kick up a fuss by now. Guess I should get my guy and go help.”
“Wait!!” Leo jumps, grabbing their wrist without thinking. “Please, save them! Please…” The person who did this is still at large. His family is still dying. “Help me. You’re Sena’s friend, right? I…”
Crimson eyes stare at him unflinchingly, their wrist still seized in Leo’s grip. The two of them are so close, he can nearly feel their breaths intermingling between them. The demon’s knees press into Leo’s abdomen at their proximity; one wrong move, one annoyance that rubs the wrong way is enough to leave Leo with no way out of possible demise.
“Trusting your friend’s friend? Your lover’s friend in the human world? Bold assumption.” The demon replies blandly, voice hushed and revealing nothing. “I’m not like Secchan. I haven’t really grown all that fond of your kingdom.”
Leo has no response to that. He can’t offer up any excuses nor arguments. They’re at war, after all.
“One of you alive is enough to call my secondary mission a success.” They say their words with finality.
“Do anything I want? Give me anything I want? Do you really think that’s enough?” There’s suddenly a smoldering flame behind their scarlet eyes. After a moment, they exhale harshly and close their eyes. “Forget it.”
“Do… Do you know where Sena is?”
“Secchan? Do you think he’s going to help you convince me? Run to your rescue like he’s the prince saving the princess?” Their laugh is humorless this time, incredulous and sarcastic.
“No, nothing of the sort. If he’s safe, and if he’ll still be at my side after today ends, you can whisper in his ear what you wish of me, at any time. Anything but surrender or taking over the rule of this kingdom. My life and servitude, even.”
“Anything but… Hah, you really…know nothing…” They look away, stare directing towards the moon in the sky behind them, gaze becoming conflicted. “…Secchan, you know? He gave you power.”
“You being alive on your own is a success for me.” They turn their head back, locking their eyes together with no escape. The red in their irises is so potent, he can barely make out his own reflection in their depths. “Because you can save the rest of them. I’d get an earful back home if those other humans actually died without my interfering with anything.”
“How?” Leo subconsciously tightens his hold on the demon’s wrist, letting the grip loosen immediately upon feeling the bones shift beneath his fingers but not releasing the limb entirely. The demon doesn’t complain, however.
“Don’t go trying this with actual antivenom or antidotes. The wrong one with the wrong venom or poison would probably kill you faster. Though I doubt Terrian’s have this type of medicine, anyways. It only works with Secchan’s because his is constituted with magic. It might not be enough to heal what’s already damaged, but your blood can be a substitute antidote now. It’ll fight the poison for them.”
“Really?!” Their bodies bump together once more in his eager plea. “How much? They just have to drink it? Is that going to be alright? It’s said that humans shouldn’t drink each other’s blood.”
“Probably a cup to two each, maybe more, if you can survive that.” His guest leans away in the tiny space within the window cut out. They hum another gorgeous tone, looking away in thought. “I remember Secchan taking a pretty powerful magic crystal with him once. If you still haven’t used it, that’ll do you some good. Its power should be a match. For damages, anyways.”
“We have it, we have it!”
He’s given an uncertain grin, the demon furrowing their brows at his eagerness. They tug their wrist out of Leo’s grip and pushes at his shoulder with their free hand ever so gently. “Well, good luck, then.”
“Hold on, sneak me out—”
Their scarlet eyes light up, the vivid illuminations quickly followed by two thuds behind him. Leo turns around quickly, his shoes scraping against the stone flooring.
Their voice suddenly sounds distant. “Secchan’s your teacher. You have magic.”
Pivoting again, Leo is greeted with a view of the starry night sky, only the steel bars obstructing the scenic beauty.
Gone. His guest has left just as swiftly as their arrival.
Turning around once more, he eyes the knights now lying flat on the ground.
“Magic, huh…” He mumbles under his breath. “Then… Sonitus Bovinari!”
A green glow overtakes the hue of orange cast upon the tower interior. His ears feel clogged up as the air is rendered apart by invisible sound. The shrill of steel shattering with sonic booms and clattering to the floor nearly pierce his eardrums violently enough to bleed. Sparks fly as though this were a blacksmith’s shop, making Leo blink at the intense flashes in the muted darkness.
When the noise pitters out, he carefully steps through the portion he had blown away, fingers trailing against the jagged edges. Kneeling next to the two knights, he checks for their pulses.
Breathing a sigh of relief, he silently apologizes before running to the long, circular stairwell and taking three steps at a time – the only way up to this prison tower.
He has no way to prove himself innocent. No evidence that he has survived the poison not because he had not put it in his own meal or that he holds the original antidote. Who he may encounter beyond these captive walls may try to stop him; but he has to try. Even if that means turning his magic on his own knights and castle.
He has to save his family. Not for the sake of Terra – not because they are the king, queen, and princess of the kingdom – but because he loves them and they love him, despite it being hard to see at times and despite the times when it is only formality.
They’re the family he chooses to stay with, not because he must. He loves them.
First, he has to run to the infirmary. To where he had stored away that preciously gifted magic crystal so long ago. For emergencies.
As he grabs for a dagger from a defeated knight, green static skittering across their unconscious form, he begs within his sprinting heart.
Let his trust in the demons ring true.
Please. Please work!