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The Contract

Chapter Text

Fluttering in the wind, taken by the cold breeze that even the dark night’s moonlight ignores, and escaping into the freedom granted under the endless atmosphere. Sky bright with shining stars sparkling and galaxies extending to world’s unknown, the winds flourish beneath their blinking gaze. Taken upwards towards the heavens, then plummeted towards the earth; only to be caught once more in its jovial embrace – cradled in its arms with a giggle of a whisper.

Taken into the grove of trees shadowed in darkness and whisked through their children of leaves, the curious hiders within look on inquisitively with nocturnal bright eyes. Dense in their cluster, the foliage stands tall despite the calamity felling their brethren just on the other side. Breeze slipping and sliding through each crack and open space, each crevice and nook and cranny explored – a hidden path amidst overgrown bushes layered with thorned vines and the homes of predators protecting their young within.

Breaking out of the forest’s secrets, colder air comes in with enthusiastic greetings, reinvigorating speed and strength to soar again into the unrestricted skies. Tumbling here and there, looking towards the cosmos then towards those imprisoned to the earth, the breeze is swept away in a frolicking whirlwind of play. And though nothing more than a wayward child skipping through in the moon’s gaze, her majesty does reluctantly light the path ahead.

Shimmering, glimmering, dazzling sprinkles of stardust – of her majesty’s tears; bathing in such beautiful grandeur, merciless in its blessings, dyes the winds with luminosity.

Taken with the journey, it continues onward without fail; rushing through space and time and singing to the world’s melodies. Fur and feathers are brushed through, waves of water rippled, scents kissing into the gales, and fallen leaves picked up as companions – the voyage ahead never ending and everlasting. And though the winds never cease, it does not mean they cannot be disrupted.

Soaring into a space with no way forward, the winds slam into the high walls of natural formation – splitting into multiple pieces to continue their folly separately like a family of birds leaving the nest. Veering off to the right brings the winds back to whence they came; around the curve of the deep crevice to meet again after complete revolution. Flying towards the sky eventually leads them to toppling over the clifftops and onto flat ground. And to the left, riding the wall like daredevil motorists, skims the winds along a new path.

A gradual incline like a spiral staircase decorated in rough and unpolished diamonds carved into the earth, the cliffside creates a ramp for all those who may seek higher refuge from the craterous bowl. Though a long and winding path it may be, it is relatively spacious in width and comparatively lacking in any dangers that may cause accidental tumbling. Though one may tire, the city above sea level calls one’s name with its equally breathtaking beauty. Though no guarantee that safe passage may be granted, the enticing journey beckons with the winds that, too, trek up the same path.

Gliding high towards the city above – now wrecked and ruined yet once beholding high rises and flurries of magic on duty – the smoke-tinged air mixes with the cold breeze of purity. Muddying and weighing, the voyage continues nonetheless. Jagged and broken, the breeze slips and slides through each crack and open space, each crevice and secret spot bringing more devastation. Of odors foul and dissonance sounds piercing, the winds pick up all of it like companions hoping to see the light at the end of the tunnel after a long period of darkness.

Pushed to low altitudes, skimming across serrated rocks and broken earth, comes a meeting with human life. Sweat and blood cake the atmosphere, heavy with tension and uncertainty. A gathering of mortals here, another there – all with the same, grim expression upon their faces as they rest with one eye open and their backs to the metaphoric wall.

Maneuvering through the clusters of bodies, sliding against their skin and combing through their strands of hair, the breeze inquisitively inspects all. Homes of stale air, putrid scents of rotting food and corpses, and recreational parks once jolly left with foliage returning to the soil to start the cycle anew.

And once more, down the rabbit hole and out the other side.

Without hesitation or pause, the winds rush straight off the edge of a cliff. The weightless gusts pay no mind to what is underfoot or what is not – gravity forgiving in its law over the land. It is not a fall that ensues the gales, but a gentle descent with the soft push of other breezes ignored by the moon and left to play and destruct as they please.

Upon contact with the ground, it is time to leave the wind’s embrace.

Grateful for its assistance, yet time for goodbyes.

Journeying alone through the dark shadows creeping with imagination of nightmares, trees are carefully avoided of collision and animals of disturbance. Eventually happening upon the cliffside of massive height and inching along its ridges, a crevice is found – broken and caved in. Even so, the gentle breezes that dare to be curious enough to kill the cat, lurk in the darkness with fun-loving grins and slip through the cracks between fallen chunks of rock.

In following so, it lands upon an awaiting palm, face up and splayed for its comfortable landing.

A single snowflake melting into skin, another time for farewells has come. A sole azure blue glimmers brightly in the night before fizzing away like will-o’-wisps disappearing from sight to trick the snooping and the frightened.

Topography that will put long researched souls to shame, information on the vast landscape is absorbed at rapid speeds, playing within the mind like a fast-forwarding movie reel.

His hand fisting gently, he lets it drop to his side as he turns his gaze to look through the crack allowing in the cold breeze that even the dark night’s moonlight ignores within. Sky bright with shining stars sparkling and galaxies extending to world’s unknown, the leaves of trees ruffle against the eerie midnight winds.

 

The cresting of the sun over the edge of the world chases away the moon and her shadowy cape with the ignition of the horizon. Illuminating halos of light purify the inhabitants of the land with increasing fervor as time and space steadily move to their designated rhythms. The corrupting darkness is thwarted, releasing their prisoners in hues of black gas evaporating into the air and returning to the side of Her Majesty the Moon to live and fight again another night.

Light filtering through every sliver and gap, valiantly rebellious against the deep shadows, shine an outline around the crumbles of earth piled upon each other. Piercing, blinding, exhilarating in their brilliance, it may awaken even those who have fallen into eternal sleep. Its subtle warmth drifts in like dandelion seeds on the breeze, powerless against the surrounding cold darkness alone, but a sea of dazzling balminess when together.

A stream of the holy sun’s ray streaks a line across his cheek like a bullet, leaving behind a trifling sting upon his skin. And brushing against the same patch of tenderness is the chill morning draft, the last remnants of night seeking escape into dark space he dwells within. Traversing deeper, the breeze brushes through strands of hair the color of the same sunrise waging war just outside, following the path lit by the beam of warmth.

Long eyelashes flutter as eyelids open, whispering against baby soft skin, pale and smooth. Greeting the world are eyes the color of emerald gems glittering under the bright and beaming sun – sleep hazed as they may be. Resting fingers clench cutely by his head upon the stone hard floor, temple pressed into the unforgiving bitterness of it. Parted lips press together briefly then separate once more, gratefully intaking the runaway breeze sacrificing itself to sustain life rather than be one with the rising temperature.

One arm shifting beneath his body, he gently raises his head and chest; a stained jacket falling from its cradled place upon his shoulder.

“Awake?”

Those emerald orbs turn in his direction in quick order – at last; drowsiness forgotten. “Sena.”

The relief in the king’s voice makes his heart thump strangely. A snowflake takes that very moment to flutter in with the warming breeze and kiss at his cheek coolly. He tilts his head in the direction of the makeshift wall behind his back. “Well? Should we get out of here?”

The warm affection that lights up Leo’s eyes fill him more cozily than the warmth of the sun ever could. The king nods confidently. Without another thought, he pushes himself to a sitting position, the dirty jacket falling into the folded legs of his lap. As Leo picks it up, Izumi reaches out to take it from his grasp – it is his jacket, after all. Leo rises to his feet. “How do you think we should get out?”

He slings the tattered clothing over his shoulder. When secure, only then does he grasp the hilt of the sword at the side of his hip, sliding out the sleek steel with a hiss and briefly reflecting the simmering sunbeams astray. “Contrary to what you humans usually believe, it would probably be better to wait until nightfall, but…” He trails off, eyes skirting up and down Leo’s form. The king’s complexion, even under this dim lighting, is still too pale for his liking. Izumi exhales a breath. “Well, we’ll make do, somehow.”

Leo cocks his head, absently rubbing up and down his own arms for a warmth the dark cave does not provide; sunlight unable to completely penetrate through the landslide of haphazard chunks of earth. “With you, we’ll always come out alright, but if you want to wait until nightfall, then how come we can’t? Being stuck in here, as long as it’s with you, doesn’t seem like such a bad kind of day to have.”

Gaze flicking back and forth between the king and the blocked entrance, he hesitates, tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth. “…You should probably get some food in you, before too long.”

Magicking up some water is no trouble in the least, yet to create true sustenance from thin air is like dabbling in the forbidden arts; wracked with unimaginable sacrifices and the unattainable – an impossibility blocked by the laws of the very world with consequences greater than life itself. Perhaps it is a safeguard agreed upon by both Devil and God from the beginning of time, even before freeing their cursed blessings upon the land to bloom and wither – to sustain the balance of the world order.

No matter. There is no time or reason to lament aspects of the world no living can control; no spawn nor progeny, and certainly not the people.

Probably not even Devil or God, Themselves.

For a moment, the king looks at him with a surprised expression, as though it were strange for him to care or to be cared about. Izumi thinks that’s much more ludicrous. Then, that expression melts into a gentle smile, a small uplift of his lips more powerful than any toothy grin. “I’m alright. I can hold out for a while longer.”

The subtle shiver Leo tries to hide says otherwise.

He steps to keep the king behind his back.

“Let’s just go before the sun rises much higher.” Izumi flicks his wrist, snapping the sword in his hand to attention. Internally, he feels the side eyed flicker of an exasperated gaze turn to him. Even so, under its own strength and will, his demonic sword awakens and claws out of its opened cage as though it were locked – it never is. Black hues mixed with azure coat the polished steel, gaseous vapors wavering in and out of reality. With a lazy swing of his arm and slicing at thin air, unfiltered and unpolished raw power bursts forth.

Three scratches like claw marks appear atop the stone blocking their path, burning in the same mixture of color as the weapon glows. For a moment, it gleams like radioactive ooze, like oil upon the water’s surface shining brighter than the whitest pearl. And all at once, the clumps of rock and earth explode like soapy bubbles and nothing more. Sprays of chunked earth and pebbles blow at them, making Izumi close an eye and turn his head away – still keeping Leo safely behind his back.

When it is all over, he hears Leo’s whispered awe. “Was that your magic or…?” The unspoken is left to flutter like a loud silence.

There are a lot of things Leo has yet to learn about his neighbors – things that Terra have purposefully neglected for centuries with their noses turned up towards the heavens.

“Not all weapons need a master to shoot.” He replies with a shrug, carefully pointing the tip of the sword down and away from accidental friendly fire and begins stepping over the leftover rubble. “Come on. If we don’t get going, they’ll corner us in here again.”

He listens to Leo’s hurrying footsteps catching up to his own. “They?”

“The androids.”

“Andr… the what?”

Izumi stops in his tracks, turning to look at Leo over his shoulder. “I thought you’ve been to Caelem?”

“On… occasion. I can’t say that often, or that I can remember too much.”

He continues onward. “Never saw a walking robot? An artificial humanoid? Maybe serving you some tea in the castle? Well, whatever. Just stay close.”

“Tell me more, won’t you?”

The forest is quietly bustling, animals awakening and greeting the sun cautiously, keeping an eye and ear out for any straggling predators.

“What’s there really to say? They mixed technology and magic to create an artificial worker. Magic technology; MagiTech, TechnoMagic, whatever the hell you want to call it. Self-repairing, self-thinking for the most part, and self-sustained with a little maintenance every once in a while. I supposed they don’t have to be humanoid androids either, Caelem has plenty of other machinery running the place like clockwork.” Reaching his hand back, he urges Leo more directly behind his back as he peers around a thick tree trunk. “Not that too many of the general populace can afford the personal butler and bodyguard models, but it is how it is. The prominent, the old families, the wealthy.”

“So, they’re alive? Like you and I?” Leo’s whispered breath fans across the back of his neck.

“More or less.” Izumi signals with a silent nod forward to keep moving.

“What’s the ‘less’?”

One of their footsteps lands on a dried and dead leaf, sending a crinkled crumple into the air. “Do they have the same rights as the living?” He asks rhetorically. “Do they object to being killed? In other words, do they allow their masters to shut down their systems or strip them of their magic ores without complaint or protest because they are artificially manufactured, subservient creatures? What makes one life form more special than the other?”

Izumi stops in his tracks, feeling the tingling brush of magic come across his own. As he adjusts his stance, tightening his grip on his sword, he adds one final thought. “What makes you ‘alive’?”

Giving Leo no time to reply, he darts forward and through a bush, sliding his sword in swiftly between mock shoulder blades and firing circuit boards. Like a monster taking a big bite, miasmic black and blue erupt and chomp down. Metal bends stubbornly, hardiness truly being tested to their limits.

Corrupting the holy technology, the automaton slumps over, lifeless.

Pulling his sword free, it crumples to the ground in sparks of haywire electricity.

“What about your injury?” Leo’s panicked voice sudden sounds out, his body hurriedly clambering through the foliage Izumi had left him behind at.

“What about yours?” He counters with an amused huff, turning away without waiting for an answer once again. He urges Leo to continue moving through the surprisingly intact forest steadily.

Emerald eyes swept in blind panic for but a brief millisecond gaze downwards. It seems as though Leo had forgotten entirely about the devastating injury. No matter. Better to forget bodily trauma than have it haunt the future.

“Is that why you aren’t teleporting us back?”

“Hmph.” He hates how easily Leo can read him, sometimes. “Even if I did, the bots would still be crawling around. It’d be annoying to leave them all just for them to come after us later.”

Leo’s gentle fingers curling around his elbow makes him pause in step. They’re still cold to the touch. “Are you sure you’re feeling alright? You wanted to wait until the moon was out. Is that so your magic could come back quicker?”

Izumi shakes his head. “That’s not how magic works, exactly. We’re on magic-rich land, so I’ll regenerate in time. Recovering has nothing to do with the cycle of Hell and Heaven in the sky.”

Leo follows along obediently when his hand is grasped.

“Then is it stronger at night? Demonic magic.”

“A bit. I was more so thinking that the androids would be weaker. It’s not all that noticeable in people who use their own magic, but to creatures like them, to anyone who utilizes magic from an outside source like a crystal or ore for offensive attacks that require a lot more skill and finesse, it might as well be cut in half. What time of day it might coincide with depends on the spell’s origins, of course.”

The king hums in understanding. “Then what does God think of this living, not breathing lifeform?”

“I think you and I both know the answer to that.” He huffs, moving a low branch out of the way with his forearm, sword absently slicing through healthy leaves with the motion. He tugs Leo’s hand for the human to go through first. “If under God’s eyes, the artificial are ingenuine and are not in need of His guidance or protection; nothing more than creations His children have painstakingly developed with His blessings.”

On the other side of Leo’s moving form, he stares at an inconspicuous bush – hiding behind it a series of thorny vines and predators protecting their young. Best not to risk the path despite it being a rather convenient shortcut.

“Then what of Devil? Do you guys have these androids and machinery too?”

“If you feel like making it or finding someone selling one, sure, I guess. Probably wouldn’t find one made of technology though.” Izumi shrugs a single shoulder, allowing the branch to drop and rattle back into place after ducking under it, himself. “And, well, not a single lifeform in Inferna truly has any special rights or laws. If you can’t protect yourself or get someone willing to watch your back for you out of true loyalty, you’re probably already dead.”

“…probably already…”

Survival of the fittest; of the most cunning and clever. Survive. No matter how bloody and dirty.

A resonating clang.

Steel meets steel, clawing and cleaving in attempt to best the other. A bladed arm locks against his sword, the two weapons grinding together. The ruffled foliage from the surprise attack settles back into place, glimmering magic vanishing midair.

His singular arm holding the sword in place at an odd angle begins to shake. Even so, he is all too bored with these tricks already; his uninterested expression reflecting in the shining coating of his opponent. Loosening his grip on the hilt, his sword slackens; the curvature is pushed towards his neck, over his shoulder and the curved tip dips with gravity down his back.

Leo’s sharp gasp cuts through the area.

The prettily designed grip flutters off of the tip of his fingers.

He shifts his full weight to his inner leg, securing his toes of the outer foot into the ground – then pushes off with a ground shuddering momentum. Inner leg swinging back then around, his body twists with the motion; opposite hand coming to curl around the hilt of the falling sword effortlessly. With the roundhouse kick, his steadying foot not moving from its place even a millimeter, the android is thrusted away into the trunk of a tree.

With not a beat missed, he is already propelling off of his pivoting foot and shoving the sword through the core within the artificial intelligence unit’s chest. Yanking it out, he lightly tosses the sword back into his dominant hand’s control, the robot falling to the ground with a metallic clatter.

He turns away. “Let’s go.”

“Are you alright?” Leo’s worry is welcome, though unnecessary.

“If you thought that was harrowing, you’re not going to make it past midnight.”

“Haha.” The king retorts with a playful roll of his eyes. “You’ll keep me alive past midnight.”

“Haha.” Izumi mimics much more dryly.

Leo’s snicker rings over their quiet steps over the lush grass. “But I can always count on you. I didn’t even sense it, let alone see it.”

“They turn invisible, I wouldn’t beat yourself up about it.” Not to mention the cloaking spell, but he will leave it at that.

Finally, Leo asks the question Izumi has been expecting since setting out. “Where are we going, anyways?”

He tilts his head towards the sky, gaze falling upon the edge of a cliff. “Up.”

“Up?” The mortal king, too, looks where he does, emerald eyes scanning across the landscape languidly. The sun shines upon them like true sparkling gems, rippling like light upon the water’s surface. “Are we climbing?”

“More like hiking.” He sighs tiredly. Slipping between even more trees, shifting to find a spot just sparse enough of leaves to allow Leo’s view to be of the cliff wall they approach.

His partner presses his lips together grimly, nodding resolutely as his sights set on the long – nearly endless – pathway. “Hiking it is.” The human raises his arms, stretching the muscles affected to taut and letting out adorably weird noises. Lowering the limbs to rest his hands behind his head, Leo takes a causal look around. “What is this place, anyways? It’s basically untouched by the war, thank goodness, but nothing really seems to be down here, either.”

Izumi hums. “Nature reserve. A little safe haven for all the creatures that lived here before we started to industrialize it.” He peaks over. “Do they teach you nothing over at the castle, Your Royal Highness? Not very privy to international affairs, are you? Even when they’re happening right on your own doorstep.”

Leo side steps all of the ominous comments with a brilliant smile that crinkles his eyes. “Then will you teach me?”

He scoffs, closing his eyes and letting the chill breeze and warmth of the sun to flutter over his face unrestricted. “Heads stuck up your own asses, the lot of you.”

As expected, he supposes. For the rebellious humans.

“Rare of you to use any profanity.”

Turning to look at the human at his side, he is met with Leo’s innocently blinking gaze. “It’s not like I’m cursing you out.”

Around them, nature awakens steadily – the early bird getting the worm and the late risers left to forage the day away.

The king looks up towards the swaying canopy of leaves, sunlight dancing with the wind as it filters through the foliage. “That would be an interesting day.”

“Don’t entertain the thought.” Izumi quickly cuts in.

Leo chuckles heartily. “Just saying~ And it’s not really on our land.”

“That’s an excuse.”

“Yeah, maybe.” It is Leo’s turn to shrug something off. “Opscurus, neutral territory owned by none yet all responsible. Honestly, though, the city governs itself. That is…”

“Until war breaks out every few decades.”

And though this is a first Terra has been dragged into the mix, that does not mean they are absolved from prior responsibilities. Responsibilities they have neglected and done nothing more than accept refugees into their mix.

Biasedly.

Inwardly, he shakes the thoughts away. All is fine. It is not as though anyone truly cared for what Terra did or did not do in the past. Not until this war. Not until, in the eyes of others, Terra had suddenly done wrong by both inactivity and action.

He absentmindedly rubs the hilt of his sword with the pads of his fingers, fidgeting.

“If this is a nature reserve of sorts, off-limits to war and survival of the fittest at our level of intelligence, why are the androids here?”

“Obviously they followed us down here. To kill us, if that’s your next question.”

“Is that allowed?”

“Just because it’s safe for the animals, doesn’t mean it’s a safe place for anyone to run to.”

“Heh~” Leo sing-songs out the tune. “To come down here, wouldn’t that mean they’re going to use that ramp too? It looks like the only path down safely, unless they want to follow in our footsteps.”

“Oh, they’re not walking.” Izumi finds himself sarcastically laughing. “They’ve got an easy ride with a bullet. Just put their main chip inside and let it bloom when the bullets explode.”

“When you say it like that, it doesn’t sound nearly as scary as it does beautiful.”

“And that beauty will stab you through the back first chance it gets.”

The king sings another curious note, amused smile tinged with solemn acceptance aimed at Izumi as Leo’s eyes seem to send him a silent message he cannot quite decipher.

The rest of the way is filled with idle chit chat, quiet voices no more than a low murmur within the shades. Does a tree that falls when no one is around make sound? With the same idea in mind, he makes all of those who may hear and report back disappear. The two of them eventually make their way to the opposite side of the large crevice they have fallen into. Taking their first steps upon the ascending ramp spiraling up the cliffside, the sunbeams beat down onto them mercilessly – bathing them in the light of life and holy nutrition.

For one associated with death, he could do without.

“We’re pretty exposed here.” Leo notes cautiously as they trek upwards.

“Mm. So keep an eye out.”

And when the mortal king does hear a dissonance in the air – a low buzzing unassociated with any of the wildlife who had come out to investigate their intrusion upon their home – Leo takes initiative and blasts away the tinkle of machinery hanging in the sky with a burst of a soundwave. The attack disrupts the visuals of the world, distorting them within their invisible form like a broken fun house mirror.

Their backs against the cliffside one direction, open aerial space the other with an ever lengthening fall the more they advance forward, he makes sure to keep Leo close to his side. If all else fails, he has probably recovered enough magical energy by now to send at least one of them back home. Yet, when he steps too close for comfort and the edge of the ramped walkway crumbles away as he parries an airborne attack away from them however, Leo desperately grabs onto the back of his ripped and bloodstained jacket, pulling the fabric taut and breaking away the dried blood from its surface.

Leo’s hands are trembling; the shudder of movement skirting across the stretched fabric to lay upon Izumi’s skin. Perhaps he should send Leo home first, anyways – and deal with the consequences of such on his own thereafter.

Another crashlanding of metal and glass falls down to the forest floor below, igniting in sparks of leftover electricity and escaping magic. He releases a slow breath, lowering his sword hand to his side as he scans the area. For now, they are left alone once more. He takes the first steps, expecting Leo to follow suit.

The mortal king’s gait is slow – unsteady; his face pale despite the luminous day with not a cloud in the sky. A hand goes to touch the sturdy rocky surface of the cliff, stopping a sudden imbalance as though the world has rocked.

Furthermore, Leo has gone quiet for a while now.

But they cannot afford a break out in the open. “Want a drink?”

The response he gets is delayed, “…Huh?”

“Water.” He clarifies, one foot stepping in front of the other unceasingly. Without waiting for an answer this time, he splays out the palm of his free hand, crystal blue magic fluttering from the skin to transform. A bubble of clear water hovers midair; glimmers of azure glitter swimming within.

Leo’s shuffling footsteps stop.

He follows along.

Emerald gaze longingly lock on the offered liquid purity, throat visibly eager and bobbing at just the sight. Moving away from the safety of the cliffside, a trembling hand reaches out. Closer, Leo steps to his side; lured in by the temptation. Instincts of survival glaze over his already unfocused eyes, a trickle of sweat beading out from his temple and sliding down to his chin.

Close enough to touch, close enough to grab – close enough to protect.

Pale lips nearly graze across the water’s sphere.

“Liar.” The whispered accusation is a dagger piercing straight through his heart. A closed lip smile blooms across the king’s face as gradually and as gently as a true flower bud does.

“…Become adept, have you?” He quietly wonders since when.

When Leo flicks his eyes upwards to lock with his own eyes, he realizes how clear that emerald gaze has become. Even if the stunt did not work, it was still enough to knock Leo into focus. “Had a good teacher.” Lips still near the water – liquid still tempting his parched throat – Leo’s afterthought shrug nearly brushes his skin against the water. “Or maybe you’ve gotten sloppy.”

He feels an involuntary, annoyed tick raise his eyebrow briefly. “I’ll force feed you.”

The human chuckles. “I’m only kidding, of course. Anything you do is always to perfection.” He leans back, but only a bit. “So? What’s the extra spell you hid in there?”

“Hmph.” He closes his hand, dissipating the magic. Stray droplets spray unto their skin, evaporating just as quickly with its fellow spell buddies. “You should go back first. There’s still a long way.”

“And leave you by yourself?”

Izumi faces the way they were trekking, turning his back to Leo and walking away. “You’re slowing me down.”

“Sorry.” Leo’s voice is sincere. “You can leave me behind. But even so, I’ll follow you. I want to make sure you stay safe.”

He bites his tongue inside his mouth, feeling blood pool within the orifice immediately. He gulps it down, bitter copper searing his tender insides and uncomfortably bubbling deep.

“That’s…” But the words have a hard time coming out; halted by the imaginary chains of his own making and sealed away by a lock with no easily accessible key. He tosses a new bubble of water behind his back in Leo’s direction, clean and dispelled.

The rest of the way to the top is made in silence – the heat of the sun just as painful as the pressure in Izumi’s chest. At last, they take their first steps back onto level ground. Spread out below them is the top of the trees they had weaved through only hours before, the forest snuggly resting in their protective crevice within the earth – away from the destruction created by the higher intelligence hellbent on ruining the world they all live within.

The line of the horizon moves with them, smears of blue connecting to the land of higher altitude now instead of only peaking above the cliffs. Half standing buildings obstruct their view of it, however; smoke dyeing the immediate air and flames rising from the ground.

They continue to stand at the edge, admiring the view of destruction and beauty.

“Must be nice…”

He turns his head at Leo’s absent mutter, the king’s eyes reflecting the distant flickering of flames trained across the landscape to the other side of the crevice housing nature. “What is?”

“To have the means to send in troops who… aren’t alive. When all is said and done, they wouldn’t count as casualties… not really. Not like sending in flesh and blood.”

Izumi looks where he does, taking a moment to caress the words intimately – understanding them fully. “Do you really think that? Or are you just sad?”

From his peripherals, he notices Leo bite into the edge of his bottom lip.

Seeing as the king will not continue, Izumi does, instead. “You would make friends with these androids. Get to know them. Their quirks. Personalities. Processing systems. You’ll see them as human as you are.” He takes a breath of the tainted air. “I’ll ask again: If your friend died, a friend who was not gifted with a soul from Devil or God, would it be meaningless to you?”

Leo huffs a defeated laugh. “When did you start to understand me so well?”

“You leave yourself as open as a book.” He scoffs back. “The only people too blind to read your text are the people who want something from you.”

At that, the mortal king turns his head towards him and tilts it inquisitively. “Hm? What does that mean?”

“Nothing. Let’s go.” Izumi begins walking quickly enough that Leo has to jog a couple feet to catch up. And muttering under his breath, words he never intends for Leo to hear, “Even if you’re sad, now that you’ve stepped onto this battlefield with us, you’ll have to stay until the bitter end. I told you to surrender…”

Circling around the crevice and towards the other side takes the rest of the daylight hours, Opscurus unpleasantly large without its usual transportation system in order. Although, he wonders if he can find and hijack a car or hovercraft or something – though he doubts there is any power left in them to function even if he did.

Skirting around the conflict, he carefully keeps track of the activity. The Caelian androids have stopped their pursuit of them for now; however, their ground troops of human units are still raring to advance. He keeps the two of them to the edges and shadows, desperately keeping out of sensing range – visually, auditorily, and magically. While he senses that these troops are no more than converted Terrians, it does not mean they were not equipped with power they do not know how to use prior to arriving in Opscurus. Getting Leo caught and captured here is not an option.

It never is.

Urging Leo to stay behind his back, Izumi moves only when eyes are nowhere near nor looking in their direction.

Will God bless those who kill in the name of goodness? The world is not a dichotomy of right and wrong; at least, not in reality. And right and wrong does not answer every question in this world. Yet, if things are so black and white as Caelem will have all so believe, then what are the living doing willingly coming onto a battlefield and sinning their souls – cursing them to Heaven’s rejection and into Hell’s inevitable embrace?

Leo’s quiet voice startles him out of his thoughts and overly cautious observing. “The free. The loyal. And the blessed.”

“Shh.” He scolds in a hiss.

“I’m just thinking… Are any one of us right?”

Who knows, honestly?

“Think later. We’re moving now.” Izumi shuffles through the broken and burnt trees, hunched over as much as possible to stay below the height of obstacles. He expects Leo to follow. He expects the king to place blind faith in him, if only for this moment. He expects the mortal to put his own life above all else.

In the direction they trek around the circular crevice, they will not come upon the Terrian army first. Rather, they will need to go through the same neighborhood they had fallen from in the first place before they will see any allies. That is, if their side did not lose ground nor get annihilated.

He never keeps his gaze in one spot for too long.

He knows on the other side of the Terrian army – towards the north – is where the Caelians had attempted a bombing upon the Infernan forces. The southeastern direction they come from now is full of unknowns – too uncharted to let down any walls. Mistakes will be costly.

If the kingdoms’ main military bases are situated where their land initially meets Opscurus, the south, where they are currently, belongs to Caelem.

There are no allies here.

“Sena.”

Looking over his shoulder, a flash of light blinds him.