Actions

Work Header

The Contract

Chapter Text

 

“Within the continent of Somnium, there exist three kingdoms. To the north, the Kingdom of Inferna – the land of the immortal demons. To the west, the Kingdom of Caelem – the land of the heavenly beings. And to the east, the Kingdom of Terra – the land of humanity. Each kingdom is ruled as a monarchy, the reigning bloodline having been kept in power since the dawn of time.

“The tripoint, where the borders of all three kingdoms meet, lies a city that has evolved into an immense trading ground. The City of Opscurus, once a peaceful area enriched with the combination of three cultures, is now consumed in the flames of war.

“Ruling families from each kingdom monitor the area in their own fashion. Starting with the north, the ruling family of… Are you listening, Prince?”

A sharp thwack resounds between tall bookshelves.

“Ow!”

“It wasn’t that hard of a hit, Prince.”

The prince grumbles a hum, rubbing his upper arm. “I thought I said that it was fine to call me by my name? It’s lonely being referred to by title. Aren’t we friends?”

“Don’t tell me you’re that secluded, Leo-san? Don’t you have any friends your age?”

Leo listens to his friend’s chuckle with a pout. “You are my age, Mikejimama…”

“I meant ones that live in your own country.” Madara laughs again, putting the book in his hand down. “Not someone who is only around when called upon by the royal family. With that said, I’m supposed to be teaching you about Inferna and Caelem.”

Looking down at the table and kicking his feet back and forth solemnly, Leo replies, “I don’t want to study…”

“Your parents are paying me good money to teach you, especially since I’ve been to both kingdoms many times.” Madara fiddles with the pages of the book before him and closes it. “I guess it is your-”

“Big brotheeeeer!” A shrill voice pierces through the thick, wooden doors of the library. Said doors are soon pushed open and a head peeks through the crack. “Happy b-! Oh!”

The young girl’s face turns a bright red as her eyes land on the two sitting at a table. She hastily comes inside and bows her head low.

“Ruka?” Leo questions with a tilt of his head.

“I’m sorry! I-I mean, I do apologize for the discourteous interruption!” She says frantically.

Madara chuckles, “Do not worry about it, Princess. I was about to free the prince for today. Call it a birthday present.”

“Thanks, Mikejimama!” Leo bounces up from his seat. “What did you need, Ruka? Need your big brother to get something down for you?”

“No, I can ask a maid to help me… I just wanted to be the first one to wish you a happy birthday.” Ruka replies, a little sheepish now. “So, happy birthday, brother.”

Leo’s smile softens. He walks up to her and brings her into a warm hug. “Thank you.”

Her smile is bright when Leo lets go and steps back. “Mother and father are preparing the celebration now.”

“So early?” Leo groans under his breath. It is still morning, the sun shining through the window having yet to reach its’ peak height in the sky. “Alright. I’ll go down and see if I can help.”

“Mikejima-san, will you be in attendance tonight?” Ruka asks, peering around Leo.

“I will be, Princess. Thus, I will see the two of you then.” Madara stands up and collects the books stacked on the table. “You two, run along and enjoy the day. Before you have to be in the same, stuffy hall as adults and need to act like the royalty you are.”

“You don’t want to join us?” Leo asks.

“While I’m in your kingdom, I have some stuff I want to do.” Madara says vaguely. “You don’t need to feel like you need to entertain me, Leo-san.”

Leo tilts his head again. “If you’re sure. Come on, Ruka.”

The siblings make their way down to the grand hall within their castle home. Leo wants to hum the melody swimming in his head, but the silence in the corridors is too oppressive. The usually bustling castle workers are nowhere to be seen. Also…

He shifts his eyes to look at his younger sister through the corner of his vision. Ruka will think he’s weird. No one knows about the tunes rushing through his veins. No one knows how the inspiration wells up in his heart, filling it to almost bursting nearly constantly. It is not a proper interest for the Prince of the Kingdom of Terra; the future King of the Kingdom of Terra. He’s supposed to be handsomely charismatic or a mastermind tactician.

Not a genius composer.

“Hey… Brother?”

Her voice breaks through his frenzied thoughts.

“Hm? Something wrong?”

“I’ve been meaning to ask, but,” Ruka trails off. “Who is Mikejima-san, anyways? Mother and father invite him to the castle fairly regularly, but I have yet to hear of any of his accomplishments or his status and position? Er… not to sound rude.”

Leo chuckles under his breath. “Madara Mikejima is a scholar. He’s a big guy who likes to be called Mama, and has travelled around so much that his knowledge is nearly infinite.”

“To all three kingdoms?”

“Yeah.”

“Is that safe?”

Leo hums and looks up towards the ceiling for answers. “Maybe not anymore… But he’s safe here.”

When the two of them make it to the grand hall, Leo notices the fancy tableware and the expensive pieces of art adorning the walls. Castle workers are walking from place to place with purpose, decorating with fresh flowers or bringing decorative banners representing the kingdom inside. Banners that have been stored in the treasury all of this time.

Leo looks around, feeling nerves crawl up his throat. This year is…

“There they are!” Ruka announces. She grabs his hand and drags him to where their parents are talking to the royal chefs. “Mother, father.”

“Leo, are you not supposed to be at your lesson?” Their father, the current King of Terra, asks.

Leo subtly clears his throat, “Mikejima-san dismissed me a little early. As a birthday present. However, we have thoroughly covered today’s topics, there is no need to inquire about his instructions.”

“Is that so.” Their mother says in a voice so smooth it virtually sounds like she is singing. She puts a hand to her cheek gracefully, a gesture all befitting of a queen. “If it has come to that, go on, son. You can spend the rest of the morning and afternoon at your leisure.”

“What can I do, mother?” Ruka asks eagerly.

“Go ask the maids if you can help with flower arranging.” She pats Ruka on the head once and smooths down the stray baby hairs.

Leo watches Ruka run off in excitement. She has always adored the art of flower arranging. She is much more princess-like than he is prince-like. “Are you certain I do not need to prepare anything?”

“Listen to your mother.” The king says gruffly, waving his hand in dismissal. “Go on.”

Leo slightly bows his head and turns to walk out of the bustling grand hall. He won’t question things further. Being left to his leisure means he finally has freedom again. Practically.

Going to his room, he changes into his archer gear. It’s a skin-tight outfit, perfect for sneaking out. Even with the freedom to do as he pleases, he still is not allowed outside of the castle walls without an assembly of guards encircling him. Instead of his bow and arrows, however, he opts for the long, thin sword that is currently propped up beside his bed. If something unexpected happens without anyone watching his back, he’s certain a sword will be more useful. And easier to carry without making too much noise.

Carefully, Leo looks out of his window and starts to climb over the ledge. His fingertips scratch at the stone walls as he grips at the spots where he has memorized lay small ledges. Little by little, he makes it down the castle wall and hops onto the solid ground.

Next is the perimeter wall.

Leo hides in the shadows, behind support beams and trees as he makes his way to the edge of the property. Along the way, he passes by the knights training in the courtyard.

Regally, beautifully, they stand proudly with swords swinging and clashing together. Sharp sounds echo in the air along with the squeak of shoes against the ground as they dance to and fro. Sweat drips down their jawlines and stretch out thinly along their chin before splashing onto crinkled grass beneath their feet. Though they are not in their official uniforms, the knights remain dashing – shining with the majestic pride in serving their kingdom.

Mesmerized, Leo peaks from behind a large column that is holding a canopy to an outdoor walkway in place. He wishes he can join the fray. He wants to join the frontlines, one day – not be protected behind formidable, stone walls until the day he dies a natural death. But the frontline is no place for a prince. Or so they say.

Shaking his head, he continues on his way carefully.

Leo makes a soft grunting noise as he climbs to the top of the perimeter wall and drops down on the other side. He swipes his legs clean and then looks up at the tall foliage that surrounds the castle. The forest is still vast – the castle town having settled a little further away from the actual castle.

Sunlight streams through the leaves as he walks along. Casually, he puts his arms behind his head and soaks up the warmth.

The silence allows his mind to wander aimlessly.

Today is his birthday.

Today is the day that he – under Terrian law – becomes of age to succeed the throne. Although, in case of emergency, the next in line must take the position no matter what their age or be accused of treason – even if there is a need for an acting regent, a person of age to aid. His life has been lucky, thus far. His mother and father, the current monarchs of the Kingdom of Terra, are healthy and ruling over the land with great success.

Or so they were before the war found its way onto their doorsteps.

But Leo is proud of his parents, even if things are now looking dire and their kingdom is forced into a corner. They tried everything in their power to avoid the battles; did everything to try and protect their people’s every day, peaceful lives. That is what a good monarch is supposed to do. No matter the cost.

They are nothing without their people.

The war has yet to reach their capital, the city just a couple kilometers away from the castle. The populations littering the outskirts, near the border, are the people Leo truly worries for.

He absently wonders if his trip is cancelled. Once the eldest child of the royal family comes of age, they are to tour the Kingdom of Terra. Visitations to every major city and town within their territory, meeting with every Lord and Lady helping the royal family rule over the land, and the flaunting of himself to curry their and the people’s favor. Leo is meant to sell himself to the people. Somehow prove to them that he is suitable to represent them ensuing the brilliant reign of his father.

Yet, even if Leo believes his father is doing everything in his power, the people might feel differently. The prices of goods are rising, foreign trade is impossible and has completely halted, and the list of shortages growing ever more alarming. The lives of their knights are at risk. The lives of their very own citizens are at risk.

Today’s birthday celebration is a desperate attempt at normality.

With the kingdom plunged into war after centuries of peace, it is no time to be drinking the night away with expensive wines and spirits; wearing extravagancies so grand, the cost can supply a whole army with weaponry to last months. Why isn’t the royal family helping them, the people ask. Why are they rejoicing in the death of the people?

But what king or queen would revel in that? Anyone who does can be sent straight to the Devil’s Gate, deep within the Kingdom of Inferna and thrown into Hell, in Leo’s opinion.

He suspects his father is using Leo’s birthday as an excuse to gather the Lords and Ladies of the land; of those who work closely with the royal family and the royal court. A gathering under ceremony is much less suspicious than a gathering on a day at random. Usually, even on special days such as today, Leo is often sent to lesson after lesson. There is no rest for the next heir to the throne. And yet, his father allowed him time to play as he pleases.

An apology, perhaps.

Though they are celebrating his birthday tonight, it is likely that his father and mother – the King and Queen of the Kingdom of Terra – will have very little time for him. He imagines that security will be tighter than ever. With so many of their leaders in one place, it will be easy to cut off multiple commanders’ heads. Without their leader, morale will sink, taking with it the last vestiges of harmony.

Perhaps that is why so many of their knights littered the castle grounds. They have been called home, if only temporarily, and preparing their bodies and minds. Getting ordered to warm up in the courtyard to keep their senses alert and their movements sharp for what may come.

The sunlight peeking through the leaves warms his skin, enticing him to lift his face upwards and close his eyes. He hums in pleasure at the dishonest peace.

Maybe he will write a song in the dirt. A masterpiece so beautifully fleeting that it will disappear with the next storm. He knows there’s a small body of water if he goes a little further from the safety of the castle grounds. It’s passive, full of vegetation with the occasional animal coming by for water.

With a goal in mind, Leo takes off with determination in his steps. Once the trees start to part, he knows he has made it. The sun is shining even brighter now that it has climbed higher in the sky.

He probably has to start going home sooner rather than later, so Leo gets to work. Eagerly, he tries to find a spot empty of grass. What he finds, instead, is smears of blood streaking the ground. The darkening stripes oxidizing with the air and painting a gruesome scenario within his mind. The longer his eyes stare fixatedly, the more violent his imagination becomes, the more his despair rises.

So close to the castle? To his home? Is it one of their own?

Carefully, he puts a hand on the sword strapped to the side of his hip, the weapon making a small click within its sheath. Silencing his breathing and making his footsteps as light as possible, Leo follows the trail. It leads him to a lump hidden away in the tall grass at the base of a tree.

“Hey… are you dead?”

Chapter Text

A door is haphazardly thrown open, the solid wood colliding with the wall behind it with a bang.

“Yuu-kun!”

A startled blonde boy jumps like a rabbit about to flee for its life. That is, before his face morphs into a glare towards his intruder. “Izumi-san, what are you doing here?”

“To stop you, what else?” Izumi says, stepping inside. “Why are you packing up?”

“I’m leaving, what else?” Makoto replies a bit sarcastically as he turns away to stuff more things into his bag.

“You have a perfectly good job and life here, what do you have to leave for? Hey, stop packing!” Izumi grabs Makoto’s wrist. “Is everything I gave you not enough?”

Yanking his hand away, the blonde continues to stuff random items inside the seemingly never-ending bag. “I can’t stand job you gave me! And I’m not interested in whatever it is you seem to be pulling me into!”

Izumi’s frown deepens. “…It’ll be better for you. You can be by my side at every event we need to attend, thereafter.”

“I don’t want it!”

“Why can’t you see that it’s safer for you?! Do you know how many strings I’ve had to pull to even get you considered?” Izumi yells back. “Don’t you remember how you got here in the first place?”

Makoto falls silent. He looks down, fisting his hands against the closure of his bag until his skin becomes white with restricted blood flow. “…You’re bringing that up?”

“That’s how it is here. You know better than anyone what it’s like. People like you, it’s just an unfortunate sight to see; trying to survive with no means.” Izumi explains, a hiss bubbling up in his throat at Makoto’s indignation. “All of this time, since we were young, I’ve been giving you everything you need, but it’s not enough. You still can’t leave my side yet.”

Izumi continues before the blonde can get another word in, “Besides, you can’t just let your beauty waste away.”

“Ugh, you’re always like this.” Makoto reaches for a thick book, anger fueling his movements now. “I’m tired of being on display! I’m not like you!”

“Are you using that?” Izumi panics, ignoring Makoto’s words in favor of eyeing the book. “You’re still a novice, and you’re too emotional for your magic to be stable. Let your big brother do it.”

Makoto gives another tsk, tears welling up in his eyes in frustration. “Sorry I’m not a natural beauty like you! Sorry I’m not as smart as you! Sorry I’m slow! Sorry I’m not the perfect little pet!”

Makoto starts to murmur the words written on the page.

Izumi grabs the blonde’s wrist again, “Idiot! That’s high leveled teleportation magic! You’re goin-!”

Izumi’s world blurs, his stomach flips nearly inside out and his vision splits into three. The colors of the world distort before his very eyes. Even the feeling of Makoto’s warm skin under his hand becomes a distant feeling – his whole-body numbing.

As soon as it happens, the sensations disappear. The two of them crash to the ground. A splitting headache overtake his senses instantly, the pain of sharp rocks stabbing into his skin is nothing in comparison.

Izumi closes an eye in agony while looking for his companion. He cannot even begin to identify where they ended up – whether it is close or far from their home city; whether it is safe or the middle of a warzone.

Makoto shakily sits up. The book is splayed out in front of him face down, the pages crinkling and staining with what lay on the dirty ground. He fumbles for it, shaky fingers wrapping around its spine. “Not here…”

“Then where, Yuu-kun? Where could you possibly go?” Izumi growls shakily, crawling over to try and stop the blonde again.

Makoto ignores the older boy and recites the spell. The magic escapes his body and uncontrollably takes everything within a two-meter radius, plunging them deep into a spiraling vortex once more.

This time, when they crash to the ground unceremoniously, Izumi rolls away and starts to dry heave. His throat is nearly raw. The air within his lungs feels as though there are sharp needles floating within it and stabbing at his soft insides as they are forced out. Though, having rushed to Makoto’s home once he woke up, he didn’t have the time to eat. And after a long day’s work, he didn’t eat much the day before, either. At least he has one thing to be thankful for.

In the back of his mind, he realizes that Makoto is in a similar position as he is. No thanks to his unstable, amateur magic being used on a difficult spell. No thanks to the consequences of such actions…

“Yuu-kun, stop.” Izumi breathes out harshly, not yet catching his breath. “…Please. You’re-”

“I don’t care!” Makoto begins to recite the spell again, for a third time.

The spell backfires, allowing a burst of hysterical magic to be freed as raw power. The two of them are thrown apart.

Izumi yells out as a tree trunk stops his momentum, leaving sharp pain all across his back in its wake. Breathing heavily, Izumi lifts his upper body up with his forearms. Looking around, his eyes find Makoto quite a distance away.

The sensitive skin of his hands and arms pressing against the earth alert Izumi to something troublesome. Slight vibrations are rumbling through the ground. He deduces that it’s a group of something humanoid-like – someone standing and walking on two feet. And they are coming towards them.

Swallowing thickly – tasting the coppery tang of blood as it sits on his tongue briefly – Izumi pushes himself up. Luckily, it’s routine for anyone living in the area they do to carry a weapon around on a daily basis. It is stranger to see someone without any sort of weapon or way to defend themselves, even within the supposed safety of their home. He puts his hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword cautiously, the weapon staying firmly attached to the side of his hip despite all of the rough and tumble.

His internal organs are in chaos. His blood is rushing far too quickly through his veins and making his body temperature rise too high. It is becoming too difficult to breath. His eyes are allowing too much sunlight in with how dilated they seem to be. His stomach is still plummeting, threatening to push something up his throat. He swallows everything down harshly and climbs to his feet.

Izumi stands resolutely between Makoto and their yet-to-arrive guests, digging his heels into the ground.

“Yuu-kun, please. Stop.” Izumi calls out. The sound of his own voice makes his head pound, his pulse beats against his eardrums. “You know what will happen!”

“I told you, I don’t care! Anywhere is better than with you!”

Izumi grinds his teeth together. His heart aches – the words cutting deeper than any physical wound upon his body and bleeding more than ever.

Beneath his feet, the vibrations get stronger. They’re coming closer. Izumi takes a careful note of their surroundings. Failed teleportation spells can land the user and anything or anyone close enough anywhere in the world as long as there is enough magic. Land, water, air – it doesn’t matter to magic, especially magic that is running wild.

They’re in some kind of forest, the lush foliage tells him that much. However, just over the tree line, Izumi spies a rather tall skyscraper that is half collapsed and charred black.

Most definitely, not a good sign.

And yet… Even if like this… Even if he is getting scorned and torn apart internally… He will save Makoto.

Izumi shifts his eyes to the dark forest briefly before focusing back on his dear friend – the friend he holds as close as a precious younger brother within his heart. Makoto is attempting to read the words on the page again. Summoning up his own magic, Izumi silently awakens and wills it to stabilize Makoto’s. He hopes his ailing body still holds enough magic to do more and send Makoto to a safe place.

Magic Sharing. A high-leveled technique that allows the user to support another. The concept sounds easy; however, one person’s magic is not always compatible with another’s – still, in its essence, all magic comes from the same roots. It is essential to revert magic to its most basic form before allowing it to intermingle and assist another’s. With the energy going towards reversion, the strength of the raw magic lessens.

If Izumi wants Makoto’s magic to both be steadied and hold enough power to get him far away from this abandoned, burning city, he will have to expend much more than he probably has. Teleportation magic is not a simple magic, after all.

“Goodbye.” Izumi whispers. Makoto won’t know, he won’t even feel it, but Izumi hopes the extra power sends him to a place that will keep him safe. Away from here.

Away from Opscurus.

Even at the cost of his very life.

Magic envelops the blonde in a stunning flash. Within seconds, Makoto is nowhere to be seen. Izumi’s eyes adjust sluggishly, the internal reaction still moving too slowly to be of any use. He stares at the empty ground ruefully. Will they ever see each other again?

Since childhood, was Izumi able to save him, in some way? Or has it only ever been painful staying by his side?

“Oh? Did you wander into the wrong neighborhood, pretty boy? Where’d your friend go?”

Izumi glares over his shoulder.

“Whatever you’ve got, hand it over.”

“Typical low lives.” Izumi hisses back, the hand gripping his sword hilt tightens as he turns to face them. Five, as expected.

One of them scoffs through his teeth. “We’ll just do this the hard way, then.”

“Fine by me.” Izumi slides out his thin sword, the blade gleaming against the morning sunlight.

He swallows another lump forming in his throat. Despite his confident words, his vision is unfocused and his body fatigued. The overuse of his magic takes its toll. The painful consequences of unstable magic wracking his entire being has already brought him to his knees once. His knuckles turn white with how tightly he is holding onto the weapon in his hands, trying to feign health.

Show any weakness and hungry animals will smell it a mile away and strike cruelly.

The clash of weapons starts without warning. Five against one is nothing Izumi hasn’t experienced before. He has trained in harsher environments. He specializes in this kind of combat – up close and personal to the enemy. He almost prefers the frontal attack to the silent assassins.

Nevertheless…

Izumi coughs, blood spilling from his mouth and splattering onto the ground as a jagged sword cuts deep into his chest. The needles within his lungs lunge back out. His rushing blood quickly flees from his body, pulsing out with each heartbeat. Izumi can’t decide if he feels hot or cold as he staggers back and the breeze brushes by. Gaining his footing back, he firmly holds his sword in front of him.

“Not so tough, are you?”

Izumi lets out a watery chuckle, his red dyed lips lifting into a smirk. “Heh…”

“What’s so funny?”

“A short, yet beautiful life.” Izumi says hoarsely. The consequences of overusing magic, even for someone like him, be damned. “I’ll take scum like you with me.”

They’re just useless crooks, anyways, looking for easy loot in the abandoned buildings or from fearful citizens stuck within such a dastardly place.

The breath that puffs out from between his lips is as though the season has changed to the midst of the harshest winter; a tiny cloud of cold-water vapor.

Within a second, the entire area is swiftly chilled to a frost; blue ice clings onto the ground and climb up tree trunks like claws leaving their marks. The sunbeams streaming through frozen leaves reflects against the ice, creating shining glitters within the afternoon atmosphere. Even with the sun nearing its highest peak of the day, a fine mist of chilled air runs along the ground unflinchingly.

Izumi falls to a knee, stabbing his sword into the ground to hold himself upright. His vision is starting to fade to onyx, the edges turning hazy.

Looking up, he surveys his work silently. The scenery would be a perfect ice kingdom fantasy, if not for the bodies skewered and lifted high above the ground. His attackers, the low live thieves, are held into place by large icicles sprouting from the ground and piercing into their bodies. The blood that had sprayed from their bodies was quickly entrapped within another layer of ice midair. Like red fireworks on the ground, the blocks of ice glimmers against the sunlight. A stunning piece of art displayed amongst the carnage.

They are not the first lives he has stolen away and reaped.

If he survives, he highly doubts it will be the last. Though his chances are greatly diminished with the abuse he has put his body through already.

…Death. He wants to go to a beautiful place. A much more peaceful place will be his grave.

Running his magic reserves deep into dangerous territories, Izumi teleports away.

Chapter Text

Leo looks on sadly, falling to his knees before the bloodied body in front of him.

“You were so pretty. I’ve never seen a pure white snake before.” He whispers, reaching out to caress the animal’s limp head. “How unfortunate…”

Unable to even curl into a defensive position, the snake lays stretched out within the tuft of tall grass. The roots of the tree raise and lower the body where the creature rested in its final moments. A lengthy slice runs deeply across the reptile’s bottom side; ruby red blood smears across the pure white scales in a stark contrast. Even the blades of grass are spotted with the liquid.

He looks around and suddenly his eyes light up. “Oh! I know! I’ll bury you and write a requiem on top. I’ll send you to heaven with a beautiful song marking your grave.”

Leo quickly gets to work on digging a hole near the base of the tree, away from the tall grass. He nods in satisfaction when he believes it is deep and wide enough. His hands are now dirtied with soil, so he quickly rubs and claps them together to get rid of it. No use using the pond and getting wet if he’s going to write in the dirt soon.

The vibrations the sounds make in the air pierce his ears sharply with how quiet the area is.

Leo kneels down once more before the reptile. Skin getting pricked by the blades of grass, he carefully starts to pick the animal up. He shifts on his knees slowly and steadily until he nears the makeshift grave. Leo lets out a sudden piercing yelp, the noise echoing within the empty clearing. He nearly drops the snake cradled in his hands as it digs its fangs into his wrist, the pinpricks registering instantly to his pain receptors.

“Whoa, you’re alive?!” Leo gasps. “Sorry! Sorry! This must be painful, huh? Shh, shh, I’m not going to hurt you. Please, calm down.”

The bite is rather strong for a creature on the brink of death, but Leo chocks it up to be the survival instincts of a cornered animal. He sits down on the ground and slowly sets the snake’s long, thin body on his lap. One hand holding the creature by its neck, Leo uses his newly free hand to grab the snake’s head and gently urges the fangs out of his wrist. “Come on, relax, little buddy.”

The appendage under is his fingers is rather pliable; almost as though he can completely asphyxiate the animal within his grasp if he is not careful enough. The snake, seemingly losing all strength, lets its head drop into Leo’s hand lifelessly.

“Blue eyes, huh?” Leo mutters, staring straight at the snake’s face this time. Before, he only focused on the severe injury. “You really are pretty.” He stands up, cradling the snake’s body to him and keeping the head in a firmer grip, just in case. “I’m going to get you help. Hang on, little buddy. Keep wiggling your tail so you focus and stay with us.”

He quickly jogs through the dense forest, careful not to jostle his injured patient too much. Blood is smearing onto his clothing, but he doesn’t care. They can be dealt with later. The life in his arms is much more precious. Leo absently wonders how much blood the snake in his arms has left within its body. Surely, they are like humans and can bleed to death? He assumes all creatures share that similarity.

By the time Leo makes it back to the castle grounds, he’s breathing heavily and his boots are heavily caked in mud and dry leaves. The muscles in his legs burn and ache, crying out for a rest, but he ignores the feeling. Looking up at the tall perimeter wall, Leo licks at his dry lips. He drops to a knee and sets the snake down carefully on his raised one, all the while holding its head – for support and for his own safety. Leo quickly takes off his cape and creates a makeshift carrying sack.

“Stay in there, okay?” Leo asks gently. He twists it closed and then ties the ends around his neck to keep the sack on his back.

Speedily, Leo climbs up the perimeter wall. The skin on his fingertips start to tear with the rough and hurried climbing – nails chipping and turning jagged with each hurried grab. His knees shoot piercing pain signals to his brain as they take the brunt of the fall when Leo jumps off unceremoniously.

Once back on the ground, he slowly swings the bag over his shoulder and supports it back in his arms. He makes quick work of speeding through the courtyard and into the castle’s interior. He has lived here his entire life; he knows nearly every nook and cranny there is to it – or so he believes he does. The memorized map in his mind helps him quickly maneuver his way through the winding castle hallways – ignoring all of the shouts that call out to him along the way.

Taking the shortest path possible, Leo throws the door to the room he is seeking open. “Sagami-sensei!”

“Prince?” A deep, sleepy voice replies. “This is an infirmary, you should be-” A yawn breaks the sentence apart. “Quiet.”

“Maybe later. Please help.” Leo pleads in huffing breaths. He sets the makeshift bag on an empty bed and begins to untwist it.

“You’re covered in dirt and blood. Are you injured?” Jin asks, getting up from his seat and walking over, promptly alert.

Leo opens the knot and lets the fabric splay open. “Not me. Him!”

Jin looks on blandly, his posture slouching. “You shouldn’t bring snakes inside the infirmary. Who knows if it’s venomous?”

“Come on, please?” Leo turns to face the castle doctor.

Jin sighs, inspecting the snake with only his eyes and stepping away. He puts a hand on Leo’s shoulder to make the young boy move away as well. “You don’t know when it will strike. An injured animal is the most unpredictable, Prince. They are defensive, especially at the cusp of their life.”

“If you open your heart to them, they’ll understand!” Leo insists, stepping back to where he was previously – within strike range of the snake if it stretched out to bite. Leo will put his trust in the creature so that someone else may do the same. “He’s still hanging in there. I want to save him.”

“That wound is pretty deep, and it lost a lot of blood by the looks of it. Even if it takes longer for a reptile to bleed to death in comparison to a human, it is not really looking good. How do you even know it’s a male?” Jin offhandedly comments. “Anyways, I very highly doubt it will live pass sundown, no matter what human medical procedures I preform on it. I am no veterinarian.”

Leo looks down to the ground. The mud on his shoes have left a small streak across the pristine, stone floor of the infirmary. He imagines that the hallways leading to the room are also marked with his hurried journey. Suddenly, he perks up with an idea as the glimmer of a glass filled with amber liquid sparkles against the sunlight shining in through the window catches his attention. “The magic crystal.”

Jin exhales again, this one deeper than the last and deflating his chest. “Prince, do you have any idea how rare and expensive those healing crystals are? Especially with the war going on, trade between nations is impossible. They are to be used only in an emergency. Moreover, even then, they are reserved for the royal family. In other words, they are only to be used to save you, your sister, the king, and the queen.”

“Then use the one meant for me.”

“We don’t live in a magic rich land, like our neighbors. Our people seldom know how to use magic. Even rarer are we able to produce these crystals ourselves.” Jin continues, unfazed. “If something were to happen to you, and I suddenly say ‘sorry, we used the prince’s crystal for something trivial, so no can do’ it would be my head, Future King.”

Leo snaps his mouth closed, his knuckles turning white as he fists them tightly against his sides.

“You can’t save everyone, Prince Tsukinaga.”

“You should at least try!” Leo retorts loudly. “I’ll get another. I’ll be careful. So, please, use mine! He’s dying…”

“Verbal promises of being careful or saying safe is as trustworthy as a hungry bear turning away from a meal laid out in front of it. Unless you are a prophet, there is no knowing the future.” Jin shakes his head. “And like I said, it’s not easy to get them, you know…”

Their eyes meet. The doctor’s brown eyes are stern as Leo’s gaze flicker between the orbs. Silently, he pleads. Leo can’t just turn away from anyone – be it animal, human, demonic, or holy of nature – when they are bleeding right before his eyes. When their very life is slipping between his fingers.

He can’t save everyone – but he will die trying.

Jin shakes his head once more and starts going towards his desk. There, he opens a drawer and reaches deep inside. With a flick of a wrist, the doctor pulls out a key and nudges the drawer closed with his hip. Leo watches him paw at the wall before a loud click startles him into a small hop.

A key to a secret room.

Once the door is slid open, Leo can see the faint glow of magic coming out of the dark space inside. Hope rises within him, filling his heart with such relief he almost wants to fall to his knees. He’s so tired. He has used so much effort and energy to get here in time.

Jin comes back out with a tiny, brightly glowing jewel and a thick book. “This small one will have to do. I can’t spare more than this or else I’ll be tried for treason, understood? And don’t mess me up, it’s not easy using magic, you know? If it backfires, the crystal will be used up without anything happening. One shot, got it?”

Leo nods profusely, stepping away to give the doctor space.

The snake, too weak to make any moves, lays silently on the bed. Its beady blue eyes are staring blankly at the humans surrounding it – giving up on a peaceful end and handing over its life to these creatures huge in size in comparison.

Jin opens the thick spell book. He flips through the pages until he finds the one to activate the healing properties sealed within the crystal. The doctor takes a deep, calming breath. The hand holding the stone moves slowly, inching ever closer to the unmoving reptile. Fear crosses his handsome, rugged features briefly, but it is quickly wiped away and replaced with a concentrated look.

With the healing magic crystal near enough to the snake’s large injury, Jin starts to recite the ancient words written on the page. The magic’s glow starts off softly before intensifying greatly. It spills out of the stone like a waterfall and sluggishly encompasses the animal in a luminescent blanket.

Leo finds himself holding his breath and staying as still as possible. Though, he doubts he can move. Awe has captured every nerve and sense within his body and sunk its claws in deep. He has never seen something so magnificently enchanted before. Magic is beautiful.

The procedure is done before he can blink again.

“Not fully healed, but it won’t die. Probably. Maybe?” Jin says, fiddling with the dead crystal in between his fingers. The stone no longer glows – instead it looks as though it is a glass orb filled with something dull and grey. “The magic didn’t react to it, so this probably isn’t some magical snake you picked up like an abandoned puppy. I’ll wrap some bandages over it if it doesn’t get snippy and get a vase or something to stick it in.”

“No way!” Leo cries out, jumping forward as if to protect the reptile from the scary doctor. He spreads his arms out in an attempt to become a bigger barrier. “I’ll find a fancy box, so don’t you dare.”

“…Is that really any better, Prince?” Jin asks in disbelief with a raised eyebrow. He turns his head away and peers at the sun shining outside of the window. “If you don’t start cleaning up and getting ready, you’ll be late to your own party.”

Leo whips his head towards the window as well. “Damn.”

Jin chuckles at the language, though he doesn’t comment on nor correct it. “I’ll fix him up and find something suitable for him to rest in for now. Come back to pick him up, later. I don’t want to get accused of putting a venomous snake in the prince’s room.”

Leo nods. He then kneels down and puts his face alarmingly near the edge of the bed and within striking range. “Be good, okay?” He reaches out to pet the snake’s head, but the animal jerks away, sticking its tongue out a few times.

“Hey.”

Not letting the reaction deter him, Leo bounces back up to his feet with enthusiasm. He twirls around on the balls of his feet. “Hm?”

“Happy birthday, Prince Leo.”

He couldn’t stop it even if he wanted to. His lips spread into a wide, happy grin. “Thanks, Sagami-sensei! I’ll be back once I sneak out!”

The last thing Leo hears is “That boy…” as he rushes out of the infirmary.

Sneaking around the staff so they can’t scold him for how dirty he got the hallways and gets suspicious of the blood staining his clothing; Leo quietly makes it to his room. Once there, he peels off the tight clothing, starting with the long gloves adorning his hands. He pauses as his eyes notice the two small holes in one of them. The leather is slowly eroding and discoloring. The longer he stares at the mark, the more it becomes deformed.

His snake friend is highly venomous.

Leo swallows nervously, thanking his past self for wearing the thick, fingerless gloves that extend all the way up to his elbow. The snake is rather docile now, not biting back when Leo had his face so near it. He only hopes it stays like that until he gets back. He hopes that by opening his own heart, it has reached the snake’s. They are friends, not enemies.

No matter what happens, the snake is his responsibility now. At least, until it makes a full recovery and can return to the outside world – to nature and its cruel circle of life and even more merciless food chain. The snake is in his care. Leo will take all of the good and bad within himself – accept everything that his new friend has to offer, regardless of what it may be. Whatever their future together holds, Leo will see it through until it is time for them to part.

Chapter Text

The air tastes heavily of loose magic. The humans he has come into unfortunate contact with have no awareness nor talent as to how to properly hone and control the live particles, allowing them to freely writhe within the atmosphere aimlessly after their job had been completed. The frenzied air is making his nerves stand on end, his body unable to settle down even if he is the perfect picture of calm.

Pathetic.

A waste.

The magic particles taste refreshingly on his tongue, however; leaving a minty tingling in its wake. He will use their carelessness to help replenish his own, dangerously weak, reserves – even if it will take quite a bit of time and patience. As long as they stay clueless, he’s safe here.

Not a magical creature, the doctor had said. Don’t make him laugh. However, he will let the comment slide. They did, at least, try to heal his injuries. The wound on his underbelly still itches, the skin being tugged taut in his body’s attempt to close the gaping cut. The magic crystal in the humans’ possession was not the strongest, nor purest, but he supposes it gets the job done. He’s alive, after all.

…That did not mean he could not complain about his current situation, of course.

Surely, this so-called physician fibbed his exams. Is it wise to leave a dangerous animal – a venomous snake, at that – within the confines of a bed, clearly meant for something more human-like? The only thing blocking his means of escape are stacks of books precariously balancing on the bouncy piece of furniture. Most humans with no education know better, or so he hopes. So why is the one he is stuck with lacking so much common sense?

Putting their trust in an injured, wild animal is truly foolish. Idiotic.

Vibrations travel up through the bed’s frame. His underbelly receives all of the tremors. Though the wound stings at every quake, his uninjured sensors give him a clear idea of what is happening within the castle walls. The exact scene playing out in a nearby location is envisioned in his mind’s eyes. A lot of people are on the lower floors. Many more seem to flood through the entrance. Even the air seems to tremble as music is joyously played and filter in through the open window. With a subtle breeze, scent particles make their way inside the infirmary. Flicking out his tongue, he tastes too many types of alcohol and food items to count.

A party, he supposes.

They all stink of humans. That is the majority, anyways – their species oversaturates the air, making it too difficult to distinguish much else from his current position.

To infiltrate into the Terrian castle like this, it is almost laughable at how easy it was. He is just a harmless, beautiful reptile, after all. While his identity remains thus, he will be able to reap within the shadows without notice. There are a number of atrocities he can commit as long as he is welcomed within their walls. His presence as something magical can be easily concealed – especially if no one seems to be looking for it.

His magic will recover, his wounds will heal, but these humans will know no better.

Their security is rather lax, for the kingdom’s largest stronghold, the very home of their royal family. Human soldiers are out and about, but he has yet to sense a sorcerer amongst their ranks, human or otherwise. It has always been known that the Kingdom of Terra significantly lacks in the area, but anyone can learn magic with the correct instructions. Do they lack proper tutors, as well? Or have the humans become too afraid of the unknown? Too afraid to push past their own, personally constructed barriers? Humans are born with innate magic, as well. Not to mention that the Kingdom of Terra also houses demonic citizens.

During his time here, perhaps he will discover the reasoning for it, himself. Amongst other things, he’s sure. Perchance he has already gained something of worth and poisoned the crown prince, who so carelessly handled him. Killing one heir is as good as winning a third of the whole war. Terrian morale will plummet and the people will be left in despair and confusion – using the days to mourn the loss of their beloved prince and running around like a chicken with its head cut off as they worry about their own lives and the war. Whether the desolate emotional state of the higher-ranking officials is for show or in sincerity is of no concern to him. Humans are a strange species to him.

Still, the Kingdom of Terra does have a backup little princess.

Looking though the crack between the stacks of books, he stares at the scruffy, unkempt doctor. Even like this, he can easily murder this human man. More so now that he realizes what the disappearance of the amber liquid in the glass cup on the desk means.

His loyalties are not to the house of Tsukinaga.

But then again, he has to be careful with his actions. If that overly hyper prince did actually get poisoned from his fangs, then he will grant just one small favor and provide the antidote – as repayment for going through the unnecessary trouble of making sure he survived his injuries. Though it will be seen as a spontaneous animal attack and not some form of internal treason or foreign assassination, he is not willing to be poked and prodded until their human scientists can create a cure in time.

Furthermore, owing someone from the Kingdom of Terra, especially the royal family, leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. Not a debt he is willing to bring back home and get laughed at for. Nor is he willing to let someone else take care of it. Plus, as long as the prince is not harmed yet, he will be able to masquerade around the royal castle for a little longer.

Peering between the book spines once more, he is proven correct in his assumption that this careless doctor is truly a sight for sore eyes. The man has fallen asleep, bent over his desk, spine curling like a cat’s – a venomous snake resting just yards away and the window left wide open. A piercing injection of venom with his fangs? A sniper from outside? Debris getting kicked in if there is an explosive? This man truly fears nothing in the continent’s time of conflict.

Inwardly, he sighs. He lowers his head and coils within himself. This disheveled man is obviously no threat to him. He can rest for a bit.

The key to the secret room is hidden in a compartment at the back of the drawer. The storage room, itself, is tucked away at the edge of the infirmary – inconspicuously camouflaged with a large house plant and a panel decorated with the same color of the walls. The edge of the door carefully lines up with the bricks lining, making it seem as though it has always been a part of the design.

That is all the information he needs within these temporary confines. Even with the injury, the magic crystal healed him enough to move with only minor pain. If he must, he will just stretch over the books and make his escape through the open window. A drop from a high levelled floor might injure him further, but it is nothing he has never done. Though the chances of these Terrian humans finding him out seem quite slim.

The night drags on, stars begin to show themselves and glitter against the pitch-black curtain of the sky. The moon breathtakingly bathes the inhabitants of the land in its beams of chilled light. Though the humans continue to stay awake, other daytime creatures retreat to their homes. The nocturnal begin their hunt anew tonight. As the sun withdraws below the horizon, taking with it its warmth, the temperature begins to drop, chilling their skin.

The quiet air of the infirmary is broken by the door getting jarred against its frame before properly being opened.

The unimpressive doctor sleeps on.

A head of orange hair bounces in and out of his vision. The sounds of heavy breathing and gritted teeth grunts filter into the space. The boy who the doctor called ‘Prince’ stumbles in, a moderate sized, rectangular glass case in his arms. He is dressed differently. Less muddied and up to the nines. A more regal cape adorns his shoulders now, fluttering erratically as the boy struggles to find a spot to set down the heavy object in his hands.

The bed bounces underneath him. The stacks of books shift dangerously off center. He eyes them dryly, knowing he has nowhere to run while confined as their prisoner.

“Phew…” The prince sighs out in relief. “Whoa!”

The orange head reaches out quickly, laying his hands atop of a couple stacks and his forearms on the rest.

He peers upwards, uncaringly – still laying perfectly wound up. It would be easy to strike and pierce through the prince’s clothing with his fangs at this moment. Aim straight at the prince’s jugular vein resting so vulnerably in his exposed neck.

For now, he will not, however.

Another relieved breath is exhaled from between the thin lips of the human boy. Slowly, the stacks are taken down a couple books at a time. “You’re looking a lot better. I’m glad.”

Flicking out his forked tongue, he tastes the nauseating multitudes of expensive perfumes and colognes clinging onto the prince’s skin and clothing.

Typical.

The prince actually snuck out, though, he ponders absently. The castle, presumably in the main ballroom, is still bustling with people enjoying themselves. Or so he assumes they are enjoying themselves. One never knows with these types of events. The humans in the Kingdom of Terra sure are odd, hosting such an extravagant ball during these times of war. To feign peace? Victory? Holding some kind of secret meeting amongst the ruse of esteemed guests?

“Please be good.” He hears the human boy mutter. His breath tastes of savory foods and something too sweet.

He is suddenly lifted into the air, his body drooping limp where the prince’s hands do not hold him. He opens his mouth and starts to let out a hiss, drawing out shushing noises from the human.

“Easy, easy, it’s okay. I’m your friend.”

He is laid within the glass case the prince had carried in previously. His scales caress against the soft fabric bunched up within like bedding.

Friend, huh?

The feeling is not mutual. They are not even acquaintances. The moment he gathers a little more strength and gains information on the royal family of Tsukinaga and their kingdom, he is leaving this castle without looking back. He has a place to return to.

The prince seals the top of his temporary housing with a heavy cloth, letting the fabric drape over the sides and conceal what is within. As though lugging around a moderately sized, heavy, glass container is not suspicious enough. He wonders how strong this thin boy is. He looks weak, but it is best to never judge a book by its cover. Where does his strength lie – brain or brawn? Perhaps both or perhaps neither. He will just have to observe and discover it for himself.

“I thought I heard the little guy hissing…” A sleepy voice cuts in. The sounds of a yawn follow the words. “You weren’t bit, were you?”

“No. Why? Is he venomous?”

The prince is a liar. The glove he was wearing was injected with enough poison to slay an adult demon. Surely, it would have deteriorated partially by now. His venom is quite corrosive, among other qualities, after all. Though, if the prince did not touch the article of clothing and had a castle worker do his job in undressing and putting on formal wear, that person is likely to lose a couple fingers by now, if not a whole hand.

“Like I would stick my hand near its mouth to find out.” The doctor exasperates. “It’s pretty docile for an injured thing, and it let me bandage it up, but you never know.”

“See? You just need to open your heart up to others and they will understand.” The prince says fondly. “He knows we’re only trying to help.”

The doctor harrumphs softly. “Well, just be careful, Prince? You don’t need to hide it from me.”

The prince hums in agreement, his voice much more solemn than before. “I’m… I won’t hide it if I get hurt. My position… It’s too important if we want to survive through this war. And I can’t let Ruka-tan handle it all on her own. I won’t allow it.”

The two humans fall silent.

The Kingdom of Terra has both a prince and a princess. Ruka Tsukinaga, a girl a few years younger than the brother. A delicate little thing, if his information is correct. Quite shy, the backup little heiress is.

An easy target, he is sure.

He waves the tip of his tail back and forth. Back and forth. The cage he sits in is dark, thanks to the heavy sheet over it. Not even his heat receptors are picking up anything due to it. Luckily, his enhanced auditory functions still work despite being an animal that is supposed to hear solely through vibrations in the air. Call it excellent genetics. Their voices are muffled, but still comprehensible.

“Still…” The doctor trails off. Feet shuffle against the floor. “Following your heart… That’s what you’re good at, isn’t it? This little guy appreciates it, I’m sure.”

The top rim of the cage is patted. The hits against the glass wall tickles his soft underbelly. He tenses at the sensation, disliking it.

The prince lets out an airy chuckle. “Thanks, Sagami-sensei.”

“Don’t hurt yourself, bringing this to your room. I don’t want more work.”

The prince agrees in a lighthearted hum. The cage is rattled before he feels it leave the solid surface of the bed. He’s jostled about within the lightless container while the prince adjusts his grip. He and the cloth he is resting on slide towards one edge, his back lightly thumps against the cold glass surface. “I’ll be going now! Good night!”

“Good night, Prince.”

The door is opened and closed. Sturdy shoes click against the stone flooring with each, heavy step. The turbulence of this make-shift ride makes his head bob up and down, and his whole body moves with every sweep the cloth inside takes. The infirmary seems quite a distance from wherever the prince is taking them. Down a couple hallways and up a flight of stairs – he wants this transportation method to be evaluated, he’s nearly dizzy with the amount of bouncing taking place and the number of times the prince tries to adjust his grip.

By the time another door is pushed open, the prince is slightly panting from the exertion.

“There.” The human lets out a relieved breath. The cage is nearly dropped from the scant centimeters it hovers above something made of solid wood. The impact vibrations tremble through his body harshly enough that he fears that the bottom encasing has splintered into spiderweb cracks – though no sharp sounds indicate so. If this scant place is to be his confinement chamber, as it is likely to be, he will have to inspect it himself later.

A rush of cold air assaults his senses next as the heavy cloth is lifted away. The flickering of candlelight dances across his vision.

“Snakes need something to stay warm… hold on.”

The prince walks away and towards his bed stand. He takes the decorative lantern sitting atop it and brings it over, placing it nearly against the side wall of the glass enclosure.

The flame waves at him from between the curved cutouts.

The prince then partially covers the open top with the heavy cloth again, neatly this time. He leaves just enough space uncovered to allow air to circulate inside.

“I hope you’re comfortable.” He says softly, voice dropping to a tone so sweet it has him seeking out more. The prince drops to his knees on the ground, elbows resting on the edge of the table the glass case rests on.

He eyes the prince cautiously when their gazes become level. His innocent green eyes are shining with child-like happiness. Is this boy, this man, truly the next king to the throne? Does he know what is happening beyond the walls of this castle or is he coddled and protected – sheltered within his own fantasy world where no blood is being spilled and no one is fighting for their very lives? Does he not realize the brutality of his bloodline?

Because even as royalty, with all the money in the kingdom and countless people willing to lay their lives down for his and his family, it is the most dangerous position in all the land. Assassins lurk in every shadow, enemies around every corner, the trustworthy becoming more and more rare. Once the head is cut off, the entire game ends. The king must remain standing, even as he sits on a throne with the bodies of all of his allies littered at his feet.

Can something as small as an animal coming into his life bring him so much unadulterated joy?

He can’t understand it.

As the air encompassed and baked within the bedroom comes into the glass enclosure, the taste of ink falls on his tongue.

The boy lays his arms across the remaining space on the table and puts his chin on top of them. His nose nearly presses up against the glass, breath briefly fogging up the glass and bringing their staring contest to an end.

The human-dominant kingdom has known peace for too long. Do they remember how to fight, or will they fall with the next gentle breeze?

A gentle smile is directed his way, a small canine peaks out from below the prince’s upper lip, pressing against his bottom one.

“My name is Leo Tsukinaga. It’s nice to meet you. Let’s get along from now on.”

Chapter Text

“You seem a little distracted.”

Leo jolts out of his musings and sits up straight in his seat. “Sorry. I’m paying attention, Mikejimama.”

Madara hums in amusement. He puts his elbows on the table, links his fingers, and lays his chin atop them. “Then the climate of the Kingdom of Inferna is usually like…?”

“…Cold?”

“All year?”

“Sure. Ow!”                                                                            

Madara takes his fingers away from Leo’s forehead, shaking away the after effects of the flick. “Incorrect, Prince. Much like your Kingdom of Terra, Inferna goes through seasonal shifts. Hot in the summer, cold in the winter. However, the days surrounding the solstice of each season, temperatures are likely to reach extreme levels. Humans, like yourself, would have a difficult time surviving the day unless you stayed cooped up inside.”

“But there are some humans living there, right?”

“Correct. There are humans who are citizens of Inferna. None of the three kingdoms in Somnium restrict residency based on species. Though you probably won’t see a demon living in God’s territory, nor an angel in the Devil’s. Even intermingling for vacation or work are occurrences that are frequently avoided.”

Leo hums, putting the non-ink tip of his writing implement between his lips. “Caelem is mild all year round?”

“Correct, again, Prince. The temperature remains steady, although there are a few dips occasionally that may produce a light flurry of snow or a suddenly too warm day. Moving on, then… How do humans from the Kingdom of Caelem differ from those in your kingdom, even though all humans originate from the land of the heavenly beings?”

“They’re blessed with the angels’ guidance and protection.” Leo answers readily, the information having been ingrained into his memory the moment he understood the spoken language. “Their guardian angel watches over their fate even before they are born, but never speaking of it to their charge – as per their heavenly laws.”

“Every human born with the blood of Caelem has a guardian angel?”

“They used to. History says that all inhabitants of old were blessed. But the more the population grew and generations advanced, the more the connection between land-dwelling humans and heavenly angels weakened.” Leo leans back in his seat and looks up at the ceiling. “And if their bloodline gets mixed with something else, like a demon or some human from a foreign land overseas, it depends on how strong the blessed blood and the angel’s spiritual connection turns out to be. I think it’s just luck, though. Sometimes, humans born of pure Terrian blood, a child born from parents who neither have guardian angels, ends up with one. Terrian blood, a bloodline that branched away from the parent bloodline, is no longer being blessed with the holy guidance, so it’s always assumed that one won’t show up here.”

Madara chuckles. “Right, you are. But I’ll correct you on something: rather than blood, angels are attached to certain souls. If a soul they are watching over goes to someone not originating from one of the old, blessed families, the angel will follow.”

“You’re saying souls don’t stay within bloodlines?”

Madara hums noncommittally. “The legend goes that these humans received God’s blessing when they pleaded for salvation and protection. Once the job was done, the humans helped His angels find their way when they remained in the land of the living and grew attached to them. As long as they continue to serve His angels, the angels will serve them, in turn. That was the exchange. At least, that is the pretty way of saying it. The heavens manage all souls that have not fallen to the Devil, and are picked out systematically. Blessed blood, bloodlines that stay faithful to God, gets first pick, if you will. A pick from a carefully selected pool of the available souls with a bias towards guardian angels.”

Leo looks towards his temporary tutor and tilts his head curiously. “Pretty way?”

“An angel will watch over a person’s fate. If it is not their time to pass on, then the angel will save their life. Produce a so-called miracle. Once the human lives out their fate to the moment of their death, whether it is tragic or peaceful, the angel will not interfere.”

“Fate…” Leo whispers. “But fate doesn’t control you…”

“A hidden blessing being a human born of Terrian blood.” Madara replies with a smirk. “You can defy fate. Or rather, you can believe as much as you would like and never lose hope. Charge into things recklessly and unapologetically.”

“You can’t if you’re a blessed human?”

“If you’ve been raised to follow certain teachings, I’m sure you’ll whole-heartedly believe and follow in those through no fault of your own. However, the guardian angel will stop you from straying from your set path. Failing to do so, the heavens will pass down severe judgement to the angel and the human. Both, more often than not, becomes souls dropped at the door of the Devil, abandoned by God.”

Leo grumbles in dissatisfaction. He looks down at the table and fiddles with his pen between his dexterous fingers.

Madara continues, slightly amused at his behavior, “Something that displeases you, Prince?”

“Mm… Just wondering if they have any freedom…” He trails off contemplatively. Leo then looks at the other man straight in the eye, their green orbs clashing. “And I thought I told you to stop calling me that when it’s just us.”

“Well,” Madara chuckles. “If we are friends, then you can trust me with what’s on your mind? Talking about it might help, Leo-san.”

Leo scratches his cheek sheepishly. He has been caught red handed. “No… it’s not really that serious. I got a new pet, but I’m not really sure how to take care of him?”

“Did you receive a puppy as a birthday gift or something?”

“Er… Not exactly. I found him injured when I went to explore the forest yesterday.”

Madara eyes him silently for a moment, making Leo fidget. “It wasn’t some magical little thing, was it?”

“Why do you say that?” Leo blinks. “We did use a crystal to heal the injury enough to be survivable, and it didn’t react or anything… Or so said Sagami-sensei.”

Madara presses his lips tightly into a thin line, but the expression quickly transforms into something cheerful before Leo can think on it more. “As expected of Leo-san. Always trying to save everyone and everything.”

Perhaps he imagined it?

“I couldn’t leave him like that…” Leo trails off uncertainly.

“Though not the Royal Library in town, this place still has more books than you can imagine. Even some rarer books that are only kept within the Royal Family.” Madara gestures around them. The tall bookshelves towering well over their heads cast thick shadows – sun shining through the lengthy, decorative window spanning across the back wall. “I’m sure you can find something about your new friend.”

“You’re probably right.” Leo also glances around the room from their table situated in the middle of the grand space. “Are lessons over?”

Madara snorts. “You’re not paying any attention, anyways. We’ll have to pick up the pace tomorrow or else we will both get a scolding from the King and Queen.”

“Promise!” Leo cheers excitedly, standing up and pushing his chair back. “Want to help me research?”

“Sorry, Leo-san.” Madara shakes his head, stacking the books they used together. “As long as I am in the Terra Kingdom, I have other business to take care of. There are lots of things I would love to learn about while I’m here.”

“Hmm… You’re a citizen of Terra, though, aren’t you?” Leo tilts his head. “What more do you need to learn? Being a scholar sure seems tough, though. How do you even earn money if all you do is study? Do you tutor other noble kids? I know you were hired to teach me because you have first-hand experience about the other kingdoms, but that’s not the only thing you do, right?”

“Best left unsaid, Prince.” Madara replies, a smile evident in his light hearted tone. He easily lifts the stack of books and walks to the bookshelf he took them off of.

Leo follows the taller man into the abyss of literature. “Isn’t it dangerous to travel around with the war between all of the kingdoms going on?”

“Are you worried about me, Leo-san?” Madara calls out from between the shelves in amusement. “Mama knows how to maneuver around safely, so there is no need.”

Their raised voices echo within the closed space.

“You’re still my friend.” Leo pouts as he begins to shuffle between the bookcases. His eyes move about swiftly, trying to catch the words or anything similar he is looking for. “You travel a lot for your advancement of knowledge and whatnot… But you’ll always be safe here, especially since you’re our resident. Just… Call on me if you run into trouble. I’ll see what I can do.”

Snakes. Snakes. Snakes. Surely, there is a book about them somewhere in here…

“Be careful of who you trust those words with, Leo-san.”

“Hm?” Leo hums, his friend’s voice flitting through his ears half-heartedly as his concentration is pulled elsewhere. He swears he remembers the animal section being around this general area. “Why is that?”

Madara chuckles again. A rambunctious sound that Leo is sure rumbles deep within his chest. “Are you aware you are the Crown Prince, Prince? I suppose it is one of your charming points, however.” He pauses. His footsteps get louder as he nears. “One more lesson, Prince.”

Leo looks away from the book spines, spotting his friend at the entrance of the aisle. Madara wears a somber frown on his face, making Leo’s defenses quickly rise on instinct. “Yeah?”

“Recite the pillar of each kingdom.”

Leo cocks his head in confusion, but does so, anyways, “The Kingdom of Terra defends Freedom. The Kingdom of Caelem is blessed with God’s Miracles. And the Kingdom of Inferna stands behind Loyalty.”

Madara nods. The small, reassuring upward lift of his lips eases Leo’s anxiety greatly. “Remember those, alright? Ingrain them into your mind and even deeper into your heart.”

“Hm…” Leo hums in thought. “I’ve never been to Inferna… but aren’t demons usually…?” He makes vague gestures with his hand.

His companion chuckles again. Perhaps Leo is an amusing peer? He isn’t sure how he feels about being laughed at, but it’s also not such a bad feeling. His friend is happy, and the sound is not in a contemptuous manner.

“It is not a lawless land, over there. Their everyday lives are tightly interwoven with blood and magic. Their world is full of wonders and endless possibilities. Trust is difficult to gain, but once it is… well, perhaps you will find out, one day, Future King.”

“We’ll be facing them on the battlefield. Probably soon.” Leo looks away, his fingers absently pick at the loose thread at the bottom of his shirt. “I’m sure we’ll see plenty of sides of both Inferna and Caelem… I’m not sure they’ll be good sides, though.”

“You can only hope that the end of the war is quickly drawing near, Prince.”

Leo doesn’t say so out loud, however they both knew… It has only just begun – just a few moons ago.

“I’ll study quickly.” He promises. The hem of his shirt becomes wrinkled in his fist. “I’ll help my father, the advisors, the Captain of the Knights. Anyone. I’ll…”

He can feel Madara’s eyes on him, the gaze full of warmth.

“I see.” The scholar says steadily. His voice is low and even. “You’re a good kid.”

“I’m an adult.” Leo replies blandly.

Madara laughs again, more heartedly this time. “I hope that innocence and pure-heartedness of yours can stay with you for a long while yet, Leo-san.”

With that, Madara leaves the library with a wave of his hand and disappears behind the heavy double doors before Leo can say anymore.

The area around him falls into a deafening silence. At least the tune playing in his mind is willing to keep him company. Although he is left jumbled with more questions than answers, Leo continues his hunt. He is determined to get answers for his animal patient, if nothing else. His green orbs begin dancing over the various texts, once more. His mind quickly processes the different styled fonts and reads the titles, though they start to blur in his vision the longer he stares and searches.

Eventually, he spots a book about reptiles on a high shelf. The book is nestled against others with a similar size and color, all bound in a dark brown leather doesn’t stand out against the wooden shelf. With a deep breath, Leo stretches onto his toes. He holds onto a lower shelf with his hand for support as he uses the other one to reach above his head. A closed lip groan escapes his throat when his fingers just brush against the book’s spine. Little by little, he scoots the book forward by hooking his nail into the spine’s binding on the bottom. His toes begin cramping the longer he stays in the position and stretching his body to its limits.

“Yes!” He lets out a breathless, victorious cheer when the book edges off of the shelf far enough for him to grab. With a small hop, he wraps his thin fingers around it and brings it down with him. With the book as large as it is, it slips from his thin fingers and Leo allows a strange voice to escape his throat as he fumbles with it. Once it is securely in his arms and leaning against his chest, he puts the index finger he jammed against the hard cover into his mouth gently, pouting.

Leo crouches on the ground where he stands, sliding the book onto the floor. It is a large piece of text, its height that of nearly two regular sized books. Opening the piece of literature nails in the point of it being a reference book. Snakes are but one species of reptiles found in Terra. He has to flip through too many pages to count until he reaches the snake section. Still, no matter how many times he scans each page individually, he cannot find his snake nor one that look similar.

A species brought in from Caelem? Inferna? Something overseas and the poor creature hitched a ride on one of the cargo ships?

Whether it is foreign or some kind of hybrid mutation, it is in Leo’s care at this very moment – injured and weak. He studies each snake species generally, imprinting what is similar between them into his memory. Snakes are carnivorous, and also requires water, like all of the other creatures of Somnium. They need to stay warm through external means, as they are cold-blooded creatures, however can overheat easily. In addition, snakes like to hide – whether that is underground, in an enclosed space, or high up in branches depends on the type.

He closes the book with a clap.

“Okay!”

He knows exactly what he needs to gather. Even if it is everything he has read and all of it most likely won’t fit into his snake’s enclosure. Since Leo is unsure what type of snake the little one is, it is better to get all of it and test them out, right? All he has to do is sneak around the staff and make sure he is not caught by his family. And once he has all of the things to make his new friend as comfortable as possible while he heals, Leo needs to stop by the infirmary. Sagami-sensei said to pick up new bandages every day and change them to prevent infection.

He lifts the heavy book back into his arms, staring warily at the empty slot it was taken out of. Though there are a few ladders littered around the library, he doesn’t have time for that. Standing back on his tip toes, Leo edges the book securely back in place. With a relieved breath, he flattens his feet back onto the ground and starts to dash towards the door.

Leo’s lips purse into a pleased grin while he skips down the hallway on light feet.

Soon. Soon, his new friend can be at ease.

He will do anything to make that absolutely certain.

The easiest materials to gather should be his first stop. Stepping down from the staircase, Leo makes his way to the castle’s eastern door. Opening it reveals an endless world of possibilities and the strong scent of sunlight and flowers. His eyes hurry to adjust, yet still leaves color spots in his vision. Ignoring the brief colors – though pretty – Leo steps onto the outdoor walkway, his shoes clicking against the smooth stone.

The sunbeams brighten his mood immediately, the joyful warmth a stark contrast to the dry, cool shadows of the library. Though the darkness isn’t so bad, Leo idly thinks as he looks around the castle gardens. The tune that has accompanied him the entire day wisps through his lips in a soft hum as he steps away from the canopy and onto the lush grass.

Trees and flowers and herbs grow healthily in the large space, cared for by hired professionals. However, those are not what he is looking for. Leo keeps his eyes towards the ground, slowly encroaching into the foliage’s territory. His green orbs sweep left and right, landing on something protruding from behind a thick tree. Kneeling by it, Leo picks up the decently sized twig. It has various, thinner branches shooting off of it. Right by it, he spies another similar piece of wood.

Leo happily scoops them up, brushing all of the dirt and debris off, before going off on his adventure once more. Perhaps he will just steal one of the rocks lining the pond. It is smooth, medium in size, and perfect for hiding behind if it were placed in a corner. Making up his mind, he hurries over to the manmade waterhole. On his way, he eyes the horses in the far corner of the castle’s immense property area.

He should pay a visit to his own.

Leo hopes the horse forgives him for his absence. With twigs and stone in hand, he goes to his second to last destination – the final being the infirmary. Luckily for him, the opportunity to visit the horses comes as soon as the thought does, his destination a scant couple meters away from the stables. Yet – killing two birds with one stone aside – the nearer he gets to the small, shed-like building, the more the hairs at the back of his neck rise. Visitations to this place is usually a joyful greeting – a welcomed get together. Today, however, his aim is to take one of their belongings.

For the better of his snake friend, Leo reassures himself.

His fingers caress against the cold, wooden door, the rough surface scratches as his soft skin. Taking a deep breath and keeping it in his lungs, Leo pushes it open.

Chapter Text

This is really his life now.

Staring into the dead, beady eyes of the small creature before him, just scant centimeters away. Body cold and blood smearing its fur. Shifting his focus away from the pitiful thing, his eyes lock with large emerald orbs through a pane of glass – a gaze so hopeful and innocent it almost makes him feel guilty. Almost.

The two of them stare at each other in silence.

The human boy blinks once. Twice. “You’re not hungry?” Standing back up to his full height, Leo looks down into the makeshift enclosure. “You’re pretty small, so you’re probably still young and growing… and you must’ve lost a lot of energy after being injured… Do you want a different one?”

Leo looks pensively at his bandaged hand. “…Taking that one from one of the castle’s rat-catching cats wasn’t… Well, I’ll do it for you!”

The prince fists his hands in determination.

He is unimpressed with the display from this hyperactive human.

Leo suddenly hums in thought. “Or maybe you’ll feel better eating in private? I got you this rock, you can hide behind it. And some branches I picked up outside. Stay right where you are, okay?”

Hands reach inside the cage, like a giant coming down to the land and not watching where it is going. He waves the tip of his tail back and forth, flicking out his forked tongue. The air tastes more like the forest with a hint of the dead now, rather than an ornately decorated sleeping quarter with too much ink stored away inside.

Honestly, if he were any regular snake, those hands would have gotten more than just a taste of poison by now. It is not as though all snakes are mean and aggressive. Humans are much larger and much more frightening than they realize upon first glance. If a snake strikes out with its fangs bared, it is out of defense – snakes do not risk injury or expel venom if they do not have the need to.

“Do you want me to cover you with the sheet for more privacy?” Leo asks, kneeling back on the ground to become eye level with him. “I have to go to an archery lesson soon, so make sure to eat it all, okay? And then we have to change your bandages when you’re done digesting.”

There is no way he is putting that in his mouth. He’d rather starve – even if his body will be able to digest it and taste nothing. The scent in the air incessantly tells his brain that the nasty, probably disease infested, soiled, deceased corpse of the rat is edible food. Yet, the very thought of unclean, matted fur coated in the saliva of some equally as filthy feline touching his tongue makes him want to shed his skin forcefully.

The world around him is suddenly pitched into darkness. The glass enclosure vibrates as a heavy cloth is draped and adjusted overtop it.

“I’ll be back, so behave until then!”

Does that mean he can misbehave when he comes back and pierce his fangs so deep into Leo’s flesh that his future children will feel the effects?

Tasting the air, he is hit with the taste of a lifeless rat once more. His stomach twists with a painful, empty kind of feeling. Without the thing creating any body heat, he can’t even see it, much to his displeasure. What if his beautifully smooth, perfectly hygienic scales brush against it? He would sigh if he could. Within the darkness, he slithers his way slightly underneath the silk sheet bundled to cover the bottom. The smooth texture of the glass leaves a cold sensation across his underbelly. He supposes he can rest a bit more, before Leo’s loud voice starts to echo between the stone walls of the room again.

Nudging his nose against his lengthy body, time begins to drift on without notice.

 

“…-ake?” a distant voice reverberates the air. “Buddy? Are you sleeping?”

The chilled glass beneath him vibrates as a cloth is lifted away further.

“Snake-y~”

Lifting his head out from under the silk sheet with a glare, he eyes the huge human with a head full of ruffled orange strands hovering above the enclosure.

“Guess I should give you a real name, huh?” Leo hums. “Spring? Since I found you near one…”

His tail flicks at the sudden suggestion, the movement creating a small tent in the sheet.

“Or something like Lucky Bastard?”

His tail flicks again.

Kneeling on the ground, Leo hooks the tips of his fingers on the edge of the table, bringing his face close to the glass pane. “Scales as white as moonlight and eyes the reflection of the coldest winter day…” He trails off breathily. “You really are pretty.”

…This boy… This human… Really sounds like he means it…

The sounds of metal clashing filter in through the window. The rhythmic sounds are muffled by the thick glass pane; however, they are sharp enough to still be discernable.

Leo lays his cheek on his fingers, peering curiously inside the enclosure. “As beautiful and dazzling as an enchanting dance on the battlefield…” He whispers. “Hey, how do you feel about… being my Knight?”

He cocks his head, but soon moves it again to follow Leo’s eyes as the human stands up.

“Would you like to watch? They’re training outside. Their movements are so gorgeous… I wish…”

He wishes?

“Come on, I’ll show you our kingdom’s pride and joy.” Leo smiles gently. He slowly reaches his hand inside, palm up in offering.

Well… He guesses it can’t hurt. Anything to get rid of that about-to-cry face Leo is making. He slowly glides out from the clustered silk sheet and rises up high enough to perch onto the human’s palm. He then curls his way up Leo’s forearm just enough to rest most of his weight on Leo. Leo carefully lifts him out of the enclosure and walks towards the window. He continues to slither, turning his body around so his head is in Leo’s palm and the rest of his body encircles his arm and wrist.

“Down there.” Leo whispers. “They’re training… Doesn’t it look fun, Knight?”

Fun…

Swords clash, the steel creating sparks that fly into the air – visible even in the afternoon sunlight.

“They’re not holding back, at all. They’re preparing with everything they have. To fight for themselves. To fight for us. To protect our freedom.”

Being able to observe Terrian’s fighting style this up close and personal is a treat he didn’t expect to be gifted with. If he can memorize it – or better yet, learn it – he will be able to counter it. Know thy self, know thy enemy; a thousand battles, a thousand victories, as they say. Leo is right, though. The battle dance is pretty, for humans. They still have a long way to evolve to be able to compete with the grace of aerial holy soldiers or the silently smooth deceptions of the demon militias.

War is more than perseverance. No matter how many times one falls and gets back up, they will continue to be weakened and chipped away until nothing is left. Until the very land beneath their feet is nothing but a scorched desert, a place where everything has been sacrificed and no living creature dares set foot in. War is nothing without conviction, but it cannot be won with sheer will power. All sides have something to fight for.

All sides believe that they are right, after all.

He looks up at the boy who has fallen silent. A strange sort of noiselessness that makes his heart beat anxiously.

Leo looks on with an odd yearning in his gaze.

He almost wants to ask what it is that Leo wishes for so badly. Would a prince not prefer to live safely behind the castle walls and command his army as he pleases? What type of person is the Prince of Terra? Of Leo Tsukinaga? Would he command his men recklessly? Or try to save as many soldiers as possible and be overly cautious?

Can the Kingdom of Terra stand up against the Heavenly Beings and the Immortal Demons?

But a snake does not speak in the Terrian tongue.

Before he leaves this place, he will find out what it is the Kingdom of Terra plans to do. What tricks the Kingdom of Terra has up their sleeves. And who, exactly, their future leader is – including the princess. Unless something is done, this war will likely last beyond the lifespans of the current King and Queen of Terra. As do most battles between Inferna and Caelem. One human life is naught but the beginning.

He absently wonders if Leo will live long enough to find a bride – a new queen to the kingdom and sire into the restless world a new prince or princess.

Or will Terra be set aflame in Hell first?

“Well…” Leo says, distractedly using his thumb to rub at the scales on the back of his neck gently. “If you don’t feel like eating, then let’s get those bandages changed.” With his free hand, he grabs the fresh bandages and some scissors before sitting down on his bed. Leo hovers the arm he is attached to just over his lap. “Knight, come on, now. Don’t be stubborn.”

He huffs, but reluctantly unwinds himself to lay across both of Leo’s thighs. The orange head is warm, most likely on the higher end of normal human body temperatures. Though his own body temperature consistently remains lower than that – even if it can safely exceed into dangerous territories – he finds that he doesn’t mind this heat. Perhaps being on the warmer side isn’t so bad.

“You really do understand me… I’m glad our hearts can connect like this; it’s almost like we’re on the same wavelength.” Leo chuckles softly, carefully undoing the little bow he tied the ends of the bandage into.

Leo’s fingers aren’t as callous as he thought they would be. They’re smooth, almost like a newborn’s despite all of the archery and swordsmanship instructions he frequently attends. Nonetheless, Leo is a prince. High class training and education as well as high end pampering and care are readily administered. He knows this very well.

“I hope you feel better soon.” The prince whispers.

He allows himself to get lifted and poked and prodded by Leo. Once the bow is undone, Leo holds up his upper body to unwind the bandage before moving onto the lower portion and repeating the motions. He is then gently rolled onto his back. A closed mouth hiss leaves his throat, drawing out calm murmurs from Leo and a gentle stroke under his jaw. The partially healed wound gets a tender swipe with a damp cloth to clean it – the cold patch of fabric nearly making him shiver and jerk away.

He’s still a bit weak, and his magic has yet to recover, but he doesn’t feel awful. This human boy needn’t worry so much, especially for something he sees as just a temporary pet. Besides, the poor-quality magic crystal did its job, no matter how amateurish the execution was.

“Are you tired, Knight?” Leo mutters once he is done applying new bandages; the old scraps lay haphazardly across the bed comforter. “Let me put you back in your enclosure and I’ll play something for you.”

Play something?

He did notice the various musical instruments laying around the room during his visual inspection of the area while Leo was away. Human royalty always put too much importance into things that do not truly matter, in the end. To make a prince learn this many instruments, only to make him govern an entire kingdom later in life.

For the appeal? It does not make sense.

He is laid on the silk sheet inside his temporary home, fingers leaving a lingering warmth across his scales.

Leo picks up some kind of string instrument and gets into position. “I just finished this. It started off as your funeral piece, but you’re alive, so I changed it to a slightly more powerful tune.”

Speaking of, what was the prince of a kingdom doing out in the middle of a dangerous forest, anyways? And slinking around and climbing the perimeter wall, at that? Leo seems to be the adventurous and reckless type, but are the king and queen so strict that he must sneak out? Does he not have a personal guard that will follow him without question?

The Kingdom of Terra is crawling with soldiers, yet, they cannot spare one each for the prince and princess? Who are they even protecting, then? The king and queen will die soon enough, most likely.

As he stares at the prince getting into a comfortable position on his desk chair, he gets a glimpse of himself in the glass’s translucent reflection. At the back of his neck is another bow, resting so cutely and innocently that it makes him fill up with the intense desire to rip it apart with his fangs, even if he is used to such fashions adorning his body. Luckily, the gentle sounds from the instrument in Leo’s hands draws his thoughts away and puts an end to the violent actions.

The music washes over him and fills the room in a different atmosphere entirely. Even the vibrations in the air sound like a joyous chorus against his sensors. Just as he is about to lull into a peaceful trance, Leo’s voice shocks him to attention once more. His humming voice is smooth, and a bit on the alto side, but he can’t say that it is terrible – rather, he wouldn’t mind listening to it more. He wouldn’t mind tailoring a whole performance for it.

As he stares at the human, he can’t help but observe the sparkle shining brightly in Leo’s emerald gaze. He looks happy and free, the happiest he has seen since they have come together. So, perhaps it wasn’t the king and queen’s decision for their son to study all of these instruments. It could very well have been Leo’s own choice.

Though the longer the song goes on, the more it makes him tilt his head. It is almost too perfect. No matter how much passion Leo might have put into his hobbies, he is still a prince of an entire kingdom. He cannot devote his entire life to music – the rightful duty of royalty is to devote their lives to their people. The people’s trust is within the royal house’s hands, they cannot, under any circumstances, lose that trust lest they crave a bloody civil war and lose a majority of their citizens’ loyalty along with their lives.

Unconsciously, he starts to sway alongside Leo. The melody washes over them as smooth as stream water gliding over stones.

Ah. So that is it. The answer suddenly strikes the forefront of his mind. He internally chuckles and lays his head down on the silk sheet, resting his weary, injured muscles. The Kingdom of Terra sure has an interesting little heir on their hands. A special being, separating him from others – even his own younger sibling. A distinctive little mark upon his person that others cannot easily understand.

Good luck to them.

Whether it turns into a boon or a bane for the kingdom will remain a mystery yet. Until that time comes when it rears its head and bares it fangs, even Leo will have to be patient – if it does so at all, that is. He wonders what might trigger it into action. He sniggers at the thought of the Prince of Terra putting down his title to instead become some kind of traveling musician.

And yet, he knows Leo would never do such a thing. No matter what may happen in the future, no matter how much the unknown frightens him, Leo would never abandon his kingdom for his own life and dreams. It hasn’t been that long since he has been in Leo’s care, however Leo has made it very apparent that his kingdom means the world to him. No matter who his people are, he will fight for them until his last, dying breath.

Perhaps Leo’s careless wish will come true sooner rather than later.

In their world where anything is possible – miracles, impossibilities, immorality – nothing and no one is as they seem at first glance. He almost feels a twinge in his heart at the thought that this human in front of him will face the cruel world with an innocent face and not be able to make it back as the same man.

Innocence has no place here.

If there was a way to protect it, he would have done so, long ago.

“Did you fall asleep, Knight?”

The murmur draws him back to their present reality. However, he doesn’t move, staying curled up with his head resting against the smooth silk.

“Hmm~” Leo hums happily in a low tone.

He can feel the mild vibrations of Leo’s quiet footsteps as he comes closer to the enclosure.

“I don’t really like my voice… but if it’s enough to put you to sleep, maybe it’s not as bad as I thought. I might even come to like it one day, with you by my side to listen. I can’t show this too much to… the others. As nice as it is that I can do all of this stuff, it’s better if I know government related things…”

As he thought, it is a useless skill for a prince. A hobby that may never come to fruition.

The rustle of the heavy cloth rings in his ears, the fabric scraping against the glass walls irritatingly loudly.

“Rest well, Knight. I hope you heal quickly.” The light is suddenly shut out from his eyes, the cover completely encompassing the cage now. “I love you.”

The longer he is allowed to stay, the deeper he will sink his fangs into the secret society within the castle walls of the Kingdom of Terra – seep his poison into the veins of the royal family. He has people he wants to protect, too. People he is willing to lay his life on the line for, even if he would never say it straight to their face.

Innocence has no place in their world.

Chapter Text

Leo hums as he walks down the castle corridors. He’s a little worried, but he read that snakes can go for a long while without food, unlike humans. Maybe Knight isn’t hungry, yet. Maybe the little guy ate just before getting injured… Or maybe his injury is making him lose his appetite?

He will have to ask Sagami-sensei about it later. Still, he isn’t sure how much a human physician would know about a reptile. For now, he has lessons to go to. Currently, he is making his way down to the library. However, his teacher for today is not Madara, much to his displeasure. It is his usual tutor – a strict, older woman that punishes him with sharp swats of a ruler to his arm or back with every incorrect answer.

Government. Policymaking. Law. Foreign languages.

The lessons drone on and on. Leo feels his brain becoming filled to the brim with fancy words and long explanations with even more complex vocabulary. The music notes that are floating around in his head are quickly crushed by the immense weight. Not even they can stand up to the immense pressure of every regional quirk existing in the kingdom.

However, there is no rest for the Prince of Terra.

Next is a lesson with one of the Kingdom’s retired, high ranking military officers who so kindly – got paid a large sum to – took it upon himself to teach Leo military strategy and structure. The man, with greying hair and a thick mustache, saunters into the library like he is of more importance than the power he actually holds. Though decorated, the man is retired. Though decorated, he led their forces during times of peace. Terra militia had yet to be sent out onto the field of combat. Nevertheless, keeping amity within their kingdom borders is something Leo is grateful towards the man for. Upholding the high laws of Terra is something to be proud of.

The war was a sudden occurrence, after all.

Happening just at the tail end of this man’s career, the angels and the demons scuttled their way into Terrian territory. Though he was requested to remain in his position, his father had to hastily – almost carelessly – appoint a new military commander due to being blindsided by the attacks. In the end, Leo’s own personal guard was put up to the task. Appointed into the prince-guard position by the retired military official before him, the older man must be proud to leave the work in his capable hands.

Presently, they do not have the time to find someone new for the empty spot at Leo’s side. Trust must be earned – slowly at that – but they are rallying everyone into combat. Even Ruka’s princess-guard has been called to lead troops to secure their borders. Simply put, too many soldiers were lost during their first encounter, and too many are still scattered and running around like chickens with their heads cut clean off.

The war started just between the two of them – between the Kingdom of Caelem and the Kingdom of Inferna. Fairly recently, within a year of each other, both monarchies held coronations to appoint the next generation onto the throne. The succession of the next ruler happens rarely, especially so when the notion of age is just a fleeting social concept to them, something only the human species truly care for. Countless Terrian Kings and Queens reign over the land and return to it before Caelem and Inferna even begin to settle under a new leadership.

The Demon King, the Messenger of Devil, succeeded first. He did not attempt to intermingle with the other kingdoms; feeling out the current societal situation before taking the necessary steps towards advancement. It was the new Emperor Archangel, the Messenger of God, that took the first strike. Taking aim at the Kingdom of Inferna, their new ruler rallied the holy militia into action. Scuffles between Heaven and Hell are common trials upon their shared continent, Somnium – however, the angels’ brutality knew no boundaries this time.

The initial battles left the earth scarred – stained in the black aftermath of fire and the deep crimson color of spilt blood. The atmosphere remained frenzied with unstable magic particles and airborne toxins drifting teasingly with the breeze. The air contained such a trivial percentage of oxygen that humans cannot begin to dream of entering the clearing. Mutually they fought tooth and nail, fang and claw, neither side giving in even as countless souls of their allies faded away right before their very eyes.

To Leo’s eyes, the new Emperor Archangel knew no mercy.

Inferna began to fall. They were thoroughly subdued – and yet, Caelem continued their assault.

In a desperate effort, the Demon King came out himself; appearing deep under the crimson tarnished sky, and cutting away the ties holding one of his most skilled soldiers to his side. A skilled soldier, and most likely a trusted and cherished friend, sacrificed so the others could live. Falling into the grasp of the angels, only a torturous death – a cruel cleansing – awaited the demon. With the momentary distraction of the angels gobbling up their spoils of war, the Demon King pushed them back and rebuilt his defenses.

All of that, for only a temporary solution. The Demon King chose the hundred over the one.

He wonders if it hurt. He wonders if demons care for such sentimentality. Leo wouldn’t be able to stand it. He would rather sacrifice himself than watch idly as one of his dear soldiers’ lives being used to save the rest of them. He will do so with his own hands; he promises his kingdom at least that much.

Leo stares blankly at the text before him, the words blurring together. He isn’t sure what happened to that demon soldier… The information his kingdom has been given is second-hand – at best. The Kingdom of Terra is largely left to their own devices. Seldom do the other kingdoms pay heed to their laughs and their cries. Thus, when the fighting entered their territory, they were caught unprepared. The possibility has always stood at the forefront of their minds, yet they had grown lax after centuries of peace. A fatal mistake. Inferna and Caelem possess many advantages over them, leaving the people frightened and shivering within their homes.

And yet, even as the formal declaration of war was delivered to their doorsteps, they all knew they had to fight. For freedom.

The Kingdom of Terra was established with only the goal of escaping the rule of God and Devil. To live life unhindered by strict, otherworldly law that could not be seen with the naked eye nor heard with their own ears. To live as the human species without being oppressed by those naturally enchanted with strength, beauty, and magic. To feel like they belonged somewhere and had a place to call home – to carve out a place of their own when no one gave them one.

With centuries passing since its founding, Terra is no longer solely inhabited by humans – just as Inferna is intermingled with humans, nowadays. Though all humans came from Caelem, at God’s will, not all benefitted from such stringent decree. Everyone living in the Kingdom of Terra holds the same wish.

Leo knows that they, the royal family, cannot – on no occasion – fail their citizens. The Kingdom of Caelem plans to absorb the Kingdom of Terra and rule over their people, like times past. He wonders if their ultimate goal is to rule over the entirety of Somnium and cleanse Hell in a holy light – imprisoning even the Devil and chaining him to God.

But why now?

A sharp hit to the back of his head draws Leo’s attention back to the problems at hand.

“Pay attention.”

“Yessir.” Leo grudgingly replies, sitting up straight and forcing his eyes to focus on the small text before him.

The lesson runs too long. Before Leo knows it, it is supper time. Just as he is about to heave a sigh, he spots one of the castle maids rounding a corner and catches the breath within his throat. He can’t act improper, even towards someone who likely cleans his filthy bedroom.

Though he has told them not to enter, as of late.

“Oh! Prince!”

Swallowing his caught breath, Leo chokes out, “Good evening.”

The young woman bows her head low before him. “Excuse the interruption. May I have a moment of your time?”

“Of course.” While she’s not looking, he softly coughs into his shoulder. “You may speak.”

“The Princess has been looking for you.” She raises her head only slightly, keeping her eyes towards his feet.

“Do you know where she is, currently?”

“I believe she went to visit your sleeping quarters, Prince.”

A cold chill runs down his spine and panic starts to settle within his heart. Leo hurriedly thanks the maid and – as gracefully as possible – speed walks his way down the hallway and up the stairs. Ruka going into his room is fine, there’s nothing in there he needs to hide…

…At least, there didn’t use to be.

Presently, Knight is sleeping inside with only an extremely easy-to-remove sheet covering his enclosure. A wild, untamed, venomous snake about to encounter an unfamiliar human – his precious little sister, at that. His heart pumps faster, his legs matching the internal beat the moment he is out of sight of any witnesses. The hallways are beginning to dim as the sun starts its journey below the horizon.

Finally, he reaches his destination.

The door to his room is ajar. Pushing it open quickly, his frantic eyes scan the interior. The sheet covering the snake’s enclosure is hanging on only partially, leaving a gaping hole at the top. Examining the interior, Leo lets out a relieved breath. The white scales of Knight gleam against the sharp rays of sunlight, his tail flickers in and out of the light streaming in from the window like a pillar. Occasionally, Leo’s eyes are drawn to the motion of Knight’s forked tongue tasting the air – gathering information of this new human.

Turning his head, he spies his adorable little sister. Face slightly pale, she has her back against the opposite wall of Knight’s enclosure. The animal and human have their eyes locked on each other. Ruka’s all too familiar emerald irises shine with caution as she turns to look at him.

“B-Big brother…”

Leo rushes in, not bothering to worry about how that might startle the snake. He quickly puts his arms around her and immediately feels the shiver of fear coursing through her muscles. “It’s okay. Shh, it’s okay. You don’t need to be afraid, I’m here.”

Ruka fists her hands into his shirt, but moves her head to continue to stare into Knight’s azure eyes.

“Um…”

He quickly moves her away from him and checks her over. “He didn’t bite you, did he?”

Leo’s own eyes flicker to the snake. He knows how venomous the little guy is. As he stares into Knight’s blue eyes with a sharp black slit pupil, he swears Knight is internally rolling his eyes as the creature relaxes from its upright, defensive position and curls into his body, growing disinterested in the humans just beyond the glass pane.

Leo knows that if Knight tries hard enough or recovers enough physical strength, the snake can easily slide over the glass walls and escape, especially with the props inside.

“No…” Ruka whispers.

He can finally feel his heart beginning to decelerate to a normal tempo with that reply echoing within his ears. Leo gives her one more squeezing hug before letting her go and stepping back. “What did you come in here for?”

“I haven’t seen you all day, so I came to get you for dinner.” She replies. “But it’s not… like I was scared, okay? Just…” Ruka trails off. “Startled. What is it doing in here?”

“Er…” It’s Leo’s turn to stutter. “Don’t tell mother and father, alright?” After waiting for her nod, he continues, “I found him injured, so I brought him back. I was going to release him when he’s completely healed, but…”

“But?”

“I don’t know.” Leo walks over to the cage and peers down as he fully removes the sheet. “I love him. I want to keep him, but I also want to do right by him. He might have a family somewhere, waiting.”

“Snakes do not stay with their families, big brother.” Ruka giggles softly.

“Hmm? You know about snakes, Ruka?”

“Only a bit.” Ruka takes a seat on his bed. “Animals are cute, so I asked to learn general information. It might be venomous… please be cautious. Most snakes with slit eyes like that carry poison.”

Knight looks up at him, tongue still flicking in and out. His blue eyes are fixated on Leo’s shoulder, though there is nothing there but a shining brooch.

As reluctant as he is to admit it, he reveals to his little sister that the snake is, indeed, venomous. “So, you don’t touch him when I’m not here, okay? He’s pretty docile unless you get him irritated, but he’s still injured and finicky.”

“You’re making me worried, big brother…” Ruka pouts. “I find a snake in your room and now you tell me it can kill you? Are you sure this isn’t some… weird scheme by someone?”

Leo stares into the eyes of Knight. The clear blue unflinchingly gazes back, gleaming dangerously under the dim lighting of the room.

Is it? Is his little sister correct? Was this young snake purposefully planted to get close to him? Was this young snake purposefully injured? Is Knight trained? What is the signal to attack? He thinks back to when they first met, when Knight was fighting for survival and had bitten his wrist.

Leo reaches down, keeping their eyes locked and putting his trust in the snake. He strokes the top of Knight’s head with a single finger pad.

“It could be…” He whispers. “But if we doubt everything, we’ll never be able to believe in anyone.”

“…I’m… scared.”

Leo doesn’t look over his shoulder, keeping his gaze on Knight. Not even as her voice quivers and his heart breaks. “I know.”

The war is much more intense than anyone could have ever imagined. It has crossed into their home. Their very livelihoods are being threatened and their people are dying. Their family is at the front and center – everyone looking to them for guidance, yet they cannot give the answer the people want. Because the war has just started. Because Terra has no advantageous.

Because Terra is losing.

Leo will have to leave, soon, too – if things continue on like an act of normalcy. He doesn’t understand what his parents are thinking, or what their haughty advisors are whispering in their ears. Will they send him away from the safety of the castle walls, with guards that they cannot spare? No longer does he have a personal knight, either. Or will they keep him here, and hope the people look up to him and depend on him without truly getting to meet him?

Knight moves from under his fingertip and starts to climb up his fingers.

“Please… be careful. And take care of yourself, big brother Leo.”

He turns his palm up, silently willing the snake to slither further into his grip. Luckily, Knight obeys the command and lets Leo pick him up. “Hey, want to pet him? He seems to like you. Wahaha of course he does! Who doesn’t love Ruka~?”

Their emerald eyes meet each other again, finally. Leo cannot promise anything. He is the next heir in line. He knows Ruka also understands that. He is the type to be reckless. He is the type to give up anything – no matter the cost – as long as the outcome is favorable and their people are happy.

Leo is the type lay his life on the line for the Kingdom of Terra; to protect their independence.

Because he loves his home. So very much.

He settles next to Ruka, sitting on the edge of the bed, and carefully rests Knight in his lap. Keeping a watchful eye on the animal, he introduces them, “Knight, this is Ruka, the cutest, most adorable little sister in the entire world. Ruka, this is Knight, he’s a snake I rescued from the clutches of death. Play nice, Knight.”

The snake flicks his tongue out at him.

Ruka laughs softly, slowly reaching a hand out, careful of the bandages wrapped around the snake’s body. “It is a pleasure to meet you, sir Knight. If I may ask a request of you?”

Knight curls up to get more comfortable. His tail waves in the air, as though signaling for the girl to go on.

Her soft fingers find the smooth scales upon the snake’s side before catching on the thin bandage and stopping. “If you are our friend… please protect my brother.”

Knight tilts his head. His tongue flicks out once again, dangerously near the young girl’s creamy skin. The snake begins to move, lowering his head and inching forward.

“Ruka…” Leo whispers in a soft gasp of surprise. He looks down as the snake begins to leave his lap. Snapping out of his shock, he commands, “Knight, stay.”

Azures meet emeralds. The creature, seemingly momentarily flabbergasted at the tone of voice, pauses. Knight opens his mouth marginally, letting out a hiss of displeasure. Leo narrows his eyes, not backing away from the threat. He grabs Ruka’s hand to lift it away and push her to a standing position all in one graceful move.

Taking another step back, Ruka worriedly says “Brother, be careful. He’s still a wild animal.”

Ignoring the girl for the moment – he will need to make it up to her later – Leo doesn’t take his eyes off of the animal. He carefully watches Knight’s near-mesmerizing movements. The snake sways gently back and forth as it stands in a defensive position. “Didn’t like that, huh?”

Knight hisses with a closed mouth in response. Although his mouth is closed, Leo knows that Knight has his fangs ready. Resting so close to his stomach, Leo swallows a nervous lump forming in his throat. Ruka is right, Knight is still a wild animal. He is not a tame pet – at least, that is Leo’s assumption. Knight isn’t used to being under someone’s command. As much as he would love to, he cannot trust this animal fully.

But, to communicate, one must open their heart to the other.

“Easy.” Leo undertones. He lifts a hand up in a peace offering, showing his palm; however, his other hand sneaks into his pocket. He can hear Ruka nervously shuffle about, ready to run out and find the castle physician, presumably. “I’m not going to hurt you. You know that.”

White scales blur across his vision.

Just as quickly, Leo raises his hand.

Knight’s closed jaw jams against the writing utensil in Leo’s hand. The snake veers away, a displeased hiss sounding from his throat as he quickly slithers out of Leo’s lap. Leo lets out the breath he’s holding. A warning lunge. That’s all. Or else Knight’s mouth would’ve been open with fangs bared. His eyes track the animal as it climbs its way onto his pillow, the bow tying the bandage together ruffles with the movements.

Leo breathily chuckles in relief, “Tired now, are you?”

“Snakes are smart, you know?”

He takes his eyes away from animal, only to be accosted with Ruka’s frowning face. “Don’t look like that…”

She sighs, shoulders sagging as she briefly flicks her gaze to the animal. “I’m sorry I messed with him.”

“Nah.” Leo shakes his head, standing up. “I don’t think you did anything. It was me. I shouldn’t put all of my trust in an animal that has only been with me for a few days.” He stares down fondly at Knight. “But I hope one day our hearts can truly connect.”

“If it’s you, I’m sure you can.” Ruka looks out the window, the remaining sunlight splashes across the porcelain like skin on her face. “We’ll miss supper…”

“Father and mother won’t be happy with us.” Leo cautiously hovers his hand above Knight before striking. The agitated snake lets out another closed mouth hiss but doesn’t try to wriggle free from the hold around his neck. “Good boy. I’m just going to put you, back, okay? If you like soft pillows so much, I’ll get you one that will fit in your cage.”

His other hand softly wraps the rest of Knight’s body around his fingers, the scales caressing his skin like pliable plastic. Leo notices that he is a bit cold to the touch – he will probably have to set up some kind of heat source near the cage soon lest Knight freeze to death. Putting the snake back in the enclosure, safe and sound, Leo drapes the heavy blanket over the top. The black cloth obscures all light, not allowing a single beam to enter. He hopes that Knight can rest now. There has been too much excitement for an injured animal for one day.

“Is that really enough for him not to get out?” Ruka asks. “I lifted it because it looked suspicious. I’m sure the maids will, as well.”

“I told them not to come in here.” Leo replies. “The blanket is pretty heavy; I doubt a snake as small as Knight can lift it. But I’ll put books on top if it’ll make you feel better.”

Textbooks about politics, about terrain, about history, books he has read from front to back and made to memorize are taken from the carefully stacked bookshelf standing innocently in the corner of his room. He balances them on the corners of the enclosure, steadying them enough so they won’t topple over even if Knight were to bump into them. He looks to Ruka for her nod of approval before the two of them head out of his bedroom. Closing the door tightly behind him, Leo eyes the hallway cautiously.

It’s quiet.

Ruka hums worriedly, “We’re really tardy.”

They are, and yet no one came looking for them. “Let’s hurry down, then.”

The two of them bounce their way down the stone steps. Leo runs the tip of his fingertips along the rough wall, skin pleasantly scratching against its surface. The lanterns lining the walls flicker across their vision, dancing shadows at their feet and tricking their eyes. The dusk chill in the air does nothing to comfort them, only leaving tiny goosebumps across their skin in its wake.

When they make it to their desired floor level, Leo soundlessly steps closer to his little sister before she can make it far out of the staircase corridor. Ahead of them, too many guards mill around, standing at attention and surveying the surroundings. Dutifully, a pair of them stand on either side of large double doors.

Upon seeing them, those who are walking around click their feet together and salute, weapons held tightly to their side. He urges Ruka to keep going, giving only a slight nod of acknowledgement to the knights; some of which are not theirs – knights not of the royal army. Leo eyes the crest adorned upon their chests. If he remembers correctly, these soldiers belong to a lord whose territory lied west of the capital, near the Caelem border.

Beyond the closed, thick wooden doors, the voice of his father filters out. A heated discussion if the volume is any telltale. Shuffling of what sounds like parchment echoes out next. As they walk pass the room, Leo side eyes it, carefully keeping out of sight of the guards as they stare directly forward from their post.

“Are you certain the Angels are making preparation to traverse through this valley here?”

Shifting his eyes back forward, Leo guides Ruka to the dining hall with steady, confident steps. The rest of the distance in between remains quiet; staff hiding away in their proper areas and guards encircling the conference room like bees guarding a hive. Opening the tall, decorated door to the dining hall reveals more dining ware set out than there are members of the royal family.

 “Prince, Princess, welcome. The King and Queen have insisted to eat before them, as the conference may consume quite of bit of their time.” A maid bows low, repeating the orders given to her. She holds a serving tray close to her chest, ready to assist the moment either of them utters a word.

“Very well, then.” Their guests are staying, Leo supposes. For a while yet.

Perhaps it is time to pay a visit to a certain friend of his within the next few weeks, if he can find them. Maybe they will have the answers he seeks.

Chapter Text

The whimper of a miserable puppy not given enough attention vibrates through the air. The high-pitched noise a sad cry of emotional pain. The surface he is sitting on bounces as the so-called-puppy shifts to lay on his back and tilts his head back to look up at him. He looks down at the human boy on his back. Those shining green eyes reflect his image back at him. The trust this human has put in him is astounding – allowing a creature that can assassinate him in a single bite onto his bed and relaxes in a vulnerable position. Even he wouldn’t be around other snakes in such a carefree position.

Another pitiful sound leaves Leo’s throat. “Why won’t you eat?”

Because deceased mice, fur matted in feline saliva and garbage, and blood riddled with disease is grotesque. He even cringes at the thought that Leo has handled such a nasty, dirty creature with his bare hands.

The human prince blinks. He reaches one of his hands above his head and caresses the scales lining his back gently. “It has been three weeks, already… You healed pretty quick, which I’m grateful for, but I guess that wasn’t what was making you lose your appetite.”

Leo does know that snakes despise being petted, doesn’t he? His tail brushes across the soft fabric of the pillow case while he grudgingly allows the physical contact to happen.

“Do you want live prey?”

Hardly.

Leo falls silent. His eyes take on a melancholy gleam. “Hey… Do you want to be set free?”

He tilts his head.

Leo rolls back onto his stomach and rests his head on his raised palms. They are now eye level with each other, the weapons residing within his mouth dangerously close to Leo’s face and vital spots. “You look healthy. You’re not foaming in the mouth or dripping snot.”

Gross.

“I’m glad you didn’t get some kind of infection…” He trails off. “You can go back to your home, outside…”

Why does this boy look so sad?

Leo continues. “We were never allowed to have pets before. I was given my horse for educational purposes. I didn’t realize how easily someone could get attached to one. Sure, animals are always cute and should be protected, but… Well… I love you, Knight. Thank you for being my first partner, even if it’s only for a short time.”

…Leo shouldn’t throw words like love around so easily. He turns away from those earnest emerald eyes, suddenly feeling restless.

The human boy sits up, shaking the mattress with his movements. He is suddenly gathered up in Leo’s palm, the boy weaving his long body between his dexterous fingers. “Let’s go to the kitchen. Now that you’re healed, we can go places together.”

As they make their way down the hallways, he is cradled close to Leo’s warm chest. The steady beat of Leo’s heart within his body leaves a soothing impression upon his scales. Without encountering anyone, the two of them make it to their destination with no problems. Leo uses his shoulder and pushes the door open, cautiously peering inside.

“It’s well past breakfast, but not quite lunch…” He whispers, exhaling a relieved breath as he spots no one inside. “Will you rest around my shoulders? …You won’t squeeze my neck, will you? You’re too thin to be one of those constrictor snakes.”

Although he probably could, doing so in a constantly busy place such as the kitchen is unwise.

“I trust you… I hope you’ve come to trust me in our time together, too.” Leo whispers as he unwraps him from between his fingers and carefully drapes him across his neck.

Leo’s sun kissed orange strands tickle his underbelly scales.

After making sure he is balanced upon his shoulders, Leo opens their cold storage – which is a small room being kept cool by a magic crystal.

“Hm… snakes are carnivorous…” Leo trails off. He looks around and pokes at various containers before taking one off of the shelf. “Rabbit?”

Exiting the room, he absently wonders if they will set the whole palace on fire. Can the prince cook? It’s not like royalty ever need the skills, they will always be pampered and just as easily hire someone else to do it. Though, it is not like they cannot learn the skill if they choose to. Or so he has experienced.

Terra could be different.

Leo places the meat on a cutting board and slides a knife out of its holder smoothly, the clean steel shining against the light in the room. He slices the rabbit meat into a small cube. Carefully reaching out, Leo grabs a fork and stabs the meat with it, bringing it up to his shoulder.

The freezing cold flesh brushes against his scales. It has a strange moistness coating the exterior, making him feel like he is getting slathered in it as well. Leo continues to press it up against his closed mouth, insistently.

“Come on, Knight. It’s food.”

He jerks his head back before attempting a strike at Leo’s wrist with a loud, scratchy hiss. Fangs bared, the thin, hinged peaks gleam against the polished silverware.

Leo makes a startled noise, lurching his hand back. The piece of meat flies off of the utensil and slaps against the wall, falling onto the counter with a wet plop.

“Okay, sorry, sorry. Easy now, easy…”

Stupid prince should have been more cautious when he put a venomous snake around his neck in the first place. Leo’s artery pulses steadily just beneath the surface of his skin.

Leo reaches over and carefully grasps for the piece of meat. “Guess I’ll feed it to a cat…” He falls silent, staring at the cube of meat in his hand contemplatively. “What if I cook it? That’s a bit strange, though…”

His head bobs with Leo’s movements as the human walks over to grab a pan and settles it on the stove.

“I guess I shouldn’t season it?”

Well, he wouldn’t mind. Honestly, he’d prefer it, but he’ll take what he can get.

Leo moves back to the cutting board and chops up the rest of the meat he took out. “Here, Knight. Sit on the counter, I don’t want you too close to the fire or get startled.”

The whole place will be on fire if the prince has never cooked before in his life.

Leo grabs him with both hands and raises him over his head of fiery hair. The counter is cool and smooth against his underbelly, sending a shiver along his spine. He turns his head this way and that, flicking his tongue out as he goes. A lot of humans spend their time in here, as expected. The taste of the air aside, he spies a colorful bowl of fruit just on the other end of the long counter.

Leo lights up the stove and begins to look unsure. The prince fidgets from one foot to the other, staring into the empty pan as though it will run away the moment he takes his eyes off of it.

“Ah, Knight, don’t fall off.”

He’s offended. He is not that airheaded. Not like he has any feet to trip over, either.

Leo dumps the entirety of the contents on the cutting board into the pan, the corner of it banging against the pan’s edge and making a loud, metallic clatter. He catches the pan’s handle to steady it with one hand while the other sets down the board.

Shaking his head, he turns away and slithers his way across the sleek surface.

The bowl, made of a seemingly soft, medium colored wood, is stacked high with variously colored apples contrasting against it. He can nearly taste their sweetness and their tanginess simply through the air alone.

“Did they catch your attention?” Leo asks over the noisy sizzling of meat. “Grown right here in Terra and the sweetest you will ever be able to find! I’ll cut one open for you in a second, just sit tight, okay?”

Well… that would be nice. He lifts his body up and finds one that he determines is the most suitable. He wraps his tail around it and attempts to tug, but the ones at the top of the pile threaten to wobble off.

Glass is hastily set onto the counter. The vibrations travel all the way down the counter top and makes his sensors hum at the impact.

“Wait. Knight, don’t!”

A hand encroaches within his visual field. Pale appendages wrap around the apple, just brushing against his tail. Leo’s other hand goes to move the other apples before pulling the one he wants out. The human lets out a breath of relief.

“Come on, the rabbit is done. I’ll cut this up so you can smell it more.”

Just smelling it is not really a part of his plan…

Leo exchanges the cutting board and knife for fresh ones and chops the apple clean in half, placing one side in front of him. “Here. Smells sweet, yeah?”

He stares at it for a moment, contemplating what to do. A whole half of an apple is much too large to fit in his mouth…

“Whoa! Knight?!” Leo gasps, hastily grabbing the apple and tugs – consequently jerking the snake along with it. “Take your fangs out! You’re going to choke or explode or something!”

Grudgingly he listens, tilting his head up to stare into the prince’s shocked emerald eyes.

“…Don’t tell me you’re some weird vegetarian snake…?”

The weird one between the two of them is definitely Leo.

“Uhh…” Leo exhales out, keeping the apple safely away. He turns to grab the plate he set down before and slides it over. “Here’s the cooked rabbit…?”

It’s not like he won’t eat that, as well. Leo doesn’t have to look so off put. He is as much of an omnivore as the rest of them are.

Leo cautiously, as though something is about to burst through the walls, sets to cutting the apple into small, non-pointed, triangular portions. “I guess you want this?”

Another small plate is set in front of him.

He does have to admit, he is getting hungry – though it is nothing dire nor the worse deprivation he has ever felt. Flicking his tongue out again, he tastes the blandness of the cooked rabbit intermingling with the apple’s sweet flavor.

Not the most atrocious he has ever had; however, there is no way he can call this the best meal, even in comparison to getting stranded in the middle of nowhere. He snaps at one of the meat cubes and slowly swallows it down whole. His jaw unhinges, allowing the larger piece of meat to safely enter his throat.

“Oh!” Leo yells in excitement, standing up straight. His eyes are shining with earnest joy.

He ignores the overreaction and eats a piece of apple next.

“I don’t think I could have ever imagined I’d see a snake eat some fruit.” Leo chuckles, leaning his forearms on the counter while staring down at him fondly. “I’ll have to go study your species some more, but you sure are a strange one, Knight. I love you~”

His tail twitches at the words. He’s unsure how they make him feel – the sensation deep within his heart is neither good nor bad.

“You’re pretty small, so you probably can’t eat all of this on your own.” Leo says softly, taking a cube of meat in between his fingers. “Let’s snack together.”

Leo’s not wrong, he guesses. Though the human shouldn’t think about sharing with other snakes – or any animal, if he is honest. Especially one that is ravenous. Terra’s prince is much too carefree for such a soft and squishy species. He has had ample opportunities to strike at Leo’s vital points at any given moment.

The prince hums sadly, absently picking up a slice of apple. “Maybe you were someone’s pet? And it was your previous owner that taught you to eat like this.”

…Pet, huh?

Familiar voices play in his head from memories of old.

“Hmm… I wonder what happened between you two? Did you run away? Or were they the one to…?”

He ignores the human, deciding to indulge in another cube of meat instead. He doesn’t have to answer, nor can a snake speak Terrian tongue anyways.

In silence, the two of them polish off the plates.

“Whoa…” Leo whispers in fascination. His eyes trail across the lumps in his body where food travels downwards, slowly but surely digesting within his snake structure.

He hisses lowly. It’s rude to stare.

The human smiles down at him, probably about to rattle off some sort of back-handed apology, however, the door to the kitchen opening startles him into standing at attention. Leo turns his back to the counter, and eyes the door cautiously. He moves his arm back, nudging him to slither out of sight behind his larger body.

It’s really too late now, doesn’t he think?

“Is someone in here?” A voice calls out from the entranceway.

“Good afternoon!” Leo greets cheerfully, raising a hand. “Is it time to prepare lunch already?”

“Prince!” The chef gasps before bowing hastily. “If you were famished, I am always available at your call.”

He tilts his head, listening attentively to the conversation. Though the words sound fake and too formal, he cannot say that the chef dislikes Leo. In fact, despite the stiffness of the words, the chef sounds rather fond of the prince.

Leo chuckles nervously. “I just wanted to try my hand at cooking myself a small snack. You deserve rest, as well.”

Peering around Leo’s back, he watches as the chef bows deeper.

“Thank you, my Prince.”

Hm.

“I’ll clean this up so you can get to work.” Leo spins around swiftly, carefully keeping him out of sight. Gathering the plates into one pile and holding them, Leo bars him in with his arms.

“Nonsense, Prince! The others will arrive soon and we can easily clean it up. You do not need to dirty your hands.” The chef boldly walks over, standing a respectable distance away to the side, though it is just close enough that their eyes catch him resting on the countertop. “P-Prince… I implore you to not move a single muscle.”

Leo’s shoulders sag. The secret is out. “Hoping you wouldn’t move…” He clears his throat before turning to face the chef and clasping his hands together. He speaks in a louder voice than his previous mutter, “Please do not tell my parents!”

“Prince?”

Leo continues in his begging tone, “He’s mine. He was injured and I took him to my quarters to care for him. He’s not dangerous, I promise! So please do not say a word.”

A prince pleading to the staff. An interesting dynamic, Terra is.

The chef visibly gulps, unsure what to do. “But… Are you certain, Prince? A snake is still a snake. We do not wish anything dreadful to happen to you.”

“He is! See?” Leo leans down, lowering his voice into a beseeching whisper. “Please, Knight. Please.”

Leo lifts him up and presents him to the quickly paling chef. His body drapes loosely – also uncomfortably with the food slithering down inside – between Leo’s hands as the prince stretches his arms forward. If he retches all over Leo’s pretty skin and clothing, he is not liable for it. He flicks out his tongue. The chef has an air of cleansing products around them, likely the aftermath of cleaning up after the morning meal.

“I… see…”

“I will inform my parents at a later date.” Leo says calmly. “So… this is just a secret between the two of us, okay?”

“If that is your wish.” The chef replies slowly. “Shall I send fresh meat up to your room, then, Prince?”

Perking up at the verbal agreement, Leo’s smile reappears. “Actually, would it be too much trouble to ask for cooked, unseasoned meat?”

“…For a snake, my Prince?”

“Um… We bond over our meals, so it is nice to be able to eat together. He doesn’t mind it.”

The chef blinks in confusion. “Of course. If you wish to keep your surprises, I suggest you leave before the others arrive. We will clean up; you do not need to worry. It is our job, after all.”

“You have my deepest gratitude.” Leo tilts his head forward, carefully keeping his hands steady and close to his chest. He smiles at the chef one last time before making his way towards the door. “Oh! One last request, if I may?”

“Anything, Prince.”

“Please send some cut fruits to my sleeping quarters, as well. Ruka has been urging me to eat healthier.” Leo lies, his eyes sparkling unassumingly.

“Consider it done.”

“Thank you!” Leo yells, quickly making his way out of the kitchen and sneaking through the hallway.

With his body held in Leo’s palm and tail end wrapped around the boy’s wrist, he feels every heavy vibration racing through Leo’s bones as he makes swift steps atop the solid, stone flooring.

“That was close, Knight.” The boy huffs. “Lucky for us, it was someone who’s easy going.”

Easy going? Or genuinely fond of Leo?

Successfully making their way through the castle halls without getting spotted, Leo heavily sits on his bed and allows his hand to drop. He slides out of the boy’s grip and settles against the soft pillow.

“Let’s rest for a bit, Knight.” Leo mumbles, falling to his back. He turns his head, cheek squishing against the soft bed comforter. His clear eyes as green as the forest in the springtime shine with untainted happiness.

It almost makes his reflection staring back at him in them seem like the start of a dirty corruption. Just like his venom does once it enters the bloodstream of some pitiable creature. Just… like it has always been.

“Should we go out?”

The voice brings him out of his personal musings. Out?

“I don’t have any lessons scheduled today. It’s my day off, in fact. We can take out my horse and go into the capital.”

Bringing a snake into the thick of the populace doesn’t sound like such a good idea, let alone having the prince of the kingdom mill around like he’s one of them. One of the common folks. Is there no such thing as personal security in Terra?

“Don’t know if guards will follow, though.” Leo trails of, his whispered breath wafting across the bed.

Honestly, why wouldn’t they?!

“Most of them are patrolling the capital border and deep around the castle. It’s a pretty wide circumference, since we’re a distance away from the populace. Plus, the sentries are still in the city.”

Demonic royalty walking around by themselves is one thing, they have the means to defend themselves, even against the holy light of angels – the same applies to Holy royalty. Nevertheless, it isn’t wise to take the risk during times of war. What can a frail human like Leo do? From what he has observed, Terra lacks magic – including the defense against it. Sure, the prince is skilled in sword play and archery, but has he experienced true combat? There is only so much a pretty textbook can teach.

“Extra troops are constantly preparing to leave the capital, so it’s already filled with enough manpower. We probably don’t need any with how busy it already is. I don’t even think there are any to spare, everyone is still deep in discussion.”

That doesn’t answer anything. Where are the Terrian knights? Surely, they could not have lost that many soldiers already? Other than Opscurus and a few border towns, the war has barely brushed against Terra’s territory.

“So, it’ll be just the two of us. Sound good, Knight?”

Leo’s smile… For someone reason, he hopes this man in front of him doesn’t lose it – even if he knows better. Terra is living in a dreamland, their wake-up call only seconds away from ripping them from it and plunging them deep into the freezing water of reality.

The bed bounces beneath him as Leo swings his legs and uses the momentum to push himself up. The human keeps his back to him as he makes his way to his closet, all the while unbuttoning his shirt. The fabric slips from his shoulders, revealing creamy skin inch by inch. There isn’t a single blemish upon Leo’s back, only toned muscle rippling just beneath the surface.

Leo is stronger than his slight frame depicts.

He dons clothing fit for royalty yet casual enough for a day out in town, completing the ensemble with tall boots and a shoulder cape draping down to his hip. Leo checks himself in the mirror before turning to him with a wide smile. Does this prince have no shame, undressing in front of an audience? An audience of neither his court dressers nor his lover.

“Does it look bad on me?” Leo chuckles. He reaches his hand down, palm facing towards the ceiling. “Don’t look away, you’re making me self-conscious. You only have to deal with the outfit for a few hours. And when we get home, I’ll even let you bite at one of the jewels. Consume it in your venom and release your anger.”

Aren’t those gems real; he wants to ask as he slides into Leo’s hand. The prince lifts him to rest across his neck. The fabric used to make these pieces of clothing are quite soft and high quality, as expected of the royal family. He lays his head down on Leo’s shoulder, absently studying the crest imprinted upon the cape. He’s familiar with it, having memorized it long ago – he still can’t help but think it is an emblem that radiates power, despite the species behind it being so frail. Perhaps Leo will prove him wrong, one day, if they remain together for that long.

If the both of them survive until then.

The chill of the stone encased corridors sweeps across his scales as they make their way through the castle once more. Being a snake, he cannot regulate his own body temperature; nevertheless, Leo’s warm skin keeps him from shivering. Leo’s steady footsteps and cozy scent nearly lulls him to sleep. And yet, just as they descend to the ground floor, Leo picks him up and cuddles him in the arm underneath the one-shoulder cape.

“Prince Leo?” The guard at the front door calls out.

“Please inform my parents that I am visiting the capital.”

“At your command.”

He feels the moment the door is opened and Leo steps outside. The sun, high in the sky, instantly heats their chilled skin and the breeze brings along the scent of freshly bloomed flower buds. Even underneath the thin cape, he can feel his body beginning to match the temperature in the atmosphere – though the process speeds up as the human whips the cape back and revealing the sunlight to his eyes. Leo doesn’t say a word as he walks along a paved path, only a joyful hum leaves his throat and sends sound waves vibrating through the air accompanies their silence. The closer Leo gets to his destination, the more the air changes.

He flicks his tongue out. Horses.

“I’m going to introduce you to another animal friend of mine. He’s big, but don’t be scared, okay? He’s real gentle.”

He thinks it will be the opposite, actually… If experience has told him anything, it is the movements from snakes that often spook horses. Though, perhaps the curiosity from the large creature will win over the fear.

The stable air is humid and warm with the overpowering scent of barn animals. Leo’s boots crunch dried hay beneath his sole as he makes his way to a stall in the back. It’s clear that the animals have been recently fed.

“Symphonica~” Leo sings, stopping to stand in front of the stall door. He reaches a hand inside, between the metal bars. “Come here, boy. Want to go out?”

A horse with sleek, shining black fur and short black mane trots up, bumping his nose against Leo’s outstretched hand. A perfect diamond patch of white rests on the creature’s forehead, a stark contrast to the rest of its body. Leo laughs happily when the horse sticks its head out of its confinement and rubs into Leo’s cheek.

“Wait,” The human chuckles, using his free hand to run along the horse’s strong neck. “I have someone to introduce to you.” He steps back, carefully bringing up the arm holding him to Leo’s chest. “Symphonica, this is Knight. Knight, this is Symphonica.”

The horse’s eyes are wary, yet it bravely sticks its snout closer to him. He feels the pads of Leo’s warm fingers pressing around his neck, preventing him from lunging forward. Maybe Leo is learning – though maybe not. The horse’s breath is hot and unappealing. He wants to jerk back, but Leo’s hold is restricting.

“Easy, Knight.”

Easy for him to say.

Finally, Leo lets go, only to drape him around his neck again. “Be friends, okay?” Leo rubs at the diamond spot on Symphonica fondly. “Let’s get you ready and get some exercise in.”

He watches curiously as Leo grabs the saddle from the back wall. He’s not going to call the stable boy to do it?

The latch on the stall door is pulled open with a loud clatter. Symphonica excitedly lifts one hoof after the other. Leo only chuckles, huffing has he heaves the heavy saddle into place.

The movements Leo makes jerks his head around. With a low hiss, he winds around Leo’s neck, encircling it completely with his long, thin body.

“Sorry, Knight. Just a little bit more…” He kneels down and secures the saddle in place. Once that is finished, he stands back up and lets out a tired breath. “Alright… Head down, Syphonica. Let’s get this head bit on.”

The horse is well trained, he’ll give Leo that much credit. Dutifully, it listens to Leo’s command, even as it is led out of the stables and walked towards the castle’s elaborate entrance gate. The gateway stands imposingly within the thick perimeter wall, durable metal curved to create an extravagant design yet leaving it with very few gaps for trespassers to slip through.

The sentries standing by all salute towards the prince.

Leo nods towards them before climbing onto Symphonica’s back. With their distance, they haven’t noticed him, a snake, around Leo’s neck – perhaps just thinking him as a scarf. The gate is opened with dull clangs. He feels the moment Leo kicks the horse off and they set into a brisk trot.

“Knight, hold on tight. We’re kicking this up a notch to get some exercise in~” Leo happily sings the moment they are hundreds of feet away from the castle.

Is that permission to squeeze Leo’s neck and cut away his use of his airway? Before he can entertain the thought further, he is jerked alongside the horse’s speeding, galloping steps. The wind whips by their faces, the crispness entering their lungs in mouthfuls. With resignation, he winds the remainder of his long body around Leo’s neck once more, securing himself tightly lest he fly off.

With his entire body dedicated to holding on, his head ends up at Leo’s nape. Hovering just slightly over Leo’s shoulder, he watches the scenery pass them by. The Kingdom of Terra is beautiful. Full of foliage so lush and healthy that he can easily deduce that the forest fairies are the cause – even if it is not true. The road towards town is paved, yet grass grows between the rectangular stone bricks and acclimating it with the surroundings.

There is a lot to be discovered.

As they near the capital city, his eyes are drawn to the architecture and the culture. Modest structures standing on fully bricked roads with people milling around out front and horse drawn carriages rolling by unassumingly. The kingdom works with nature, so it seems. All of it seems to be built with rocks, stones, wood, clay – anything that can be gathered and molded into a useable shape. There is none of Inferna’s magic nor Caelem’s technology.

A simple place, with simple people, and a simple shared desire.

“I don’t know where you’re from but… Welcome to my beloved home, Knight.”

Chapter Text

He takes a breath, eyes slowly opening only to be greeted by darkness. He curls into himself just slightly more, unwilling to leave the warm depths of his comforter. Still, he has been meaning to find time to venture out for weeks, so he knows he must. It is now or never. A whimper leaves his throat as he pushes his body up with his arms. A shiver runs through his body the moment the bare skin on his feet rests upon the cold stone floor.

Languidly slipping out of his sleeping wear and into his archer gear, Leo eyes the curtain blanketing over his window. No sunbeams slip in between the thick material, meaning it is still the moon’s time to bathe the land in its cool light. He takes another deep breath, releasing it slowly from his thin lips. He has slept for only a few hours, four at most.

Four is enough. There will be worse times ahead, he is sure – times riddled with sleepless weeks.

Leo shuffles over to the corner of his room where he dropped his purchases from yesterday’s outing into the capital city. The paper bag crinkles as he digs into it, carefully making sure everything inside is still in one piece and all there. Out of instinct, he peaks over his shoulder and eyes the glass containment resting on his table. The heavy cloth draping over it moves with little bumps.

“Sorry, did I wake you, Knight?” Leo whispers into the darkness. Taking the paper bag into his arms, he stands in front of the enclosure and gently lifts the corner of the cover. Knight is climbing on the branch inside, eager to see what all of the noise in the dead of night is. “I’m taking all of this bread and going out. Be good in here, okay? I can’t take you with me this time.”

Knight seems to understand, the snake tilting his head in curiosity.

“I’m just going to go see if I can find a friend of mine. They were temporarily staying in a little cave out in the forest for… well, that’s not important.” Leo waves off. “Don’t be moody.”

Knight looks decidedly unimpressed.

It’s Leo’s turn to cock his head. “…Don’t tell me you eat bread, too?” After staring into the blue eyes of the reptile before him, Leo carefully balances the bag in one arm and reaches inside, tearing a small chunk out of one of the wheat rolls. “Here.”

He drops it into the enclosure, but Knight does not go after it. “I’ll be back just after sunrise, hopefully. Go back to sleep, okay?”

With his free hand, he carefully adjusts the cloth back into place, leaving just a small section of the corner uncovered. Knight is already awake, anyways. He might want some fresher air to circulate within his home. With his pet taken care of, Leo crouches back onto the ground and sets the bag of bread on top of a large square cloth he takes out. Tying the edges together, Leo creates himself a convenient carrying sack.

Securing the sack around his body, Leo does his final check before slipping past the curtain and opening his window wide. With weapons attached to his side, he puts one foot on the window sill and begins to sidle his way down the side of the castle once more. The last time he has ventured this path was when he brought Knight into his care. The thought brings a fond smile to his lips.

The flickering of the lanterns lining the stone bricks of the outer castle walls trick his eyes to attention. The fire chases away the darkness alongside the moonlight as he makes his way across the grounds. Unless he wants to try to sneak past the gate guards, he can’t take out Symphonica. It will take him a long time to reach the cave where he last saw his friend by foot, but he will do anything for the Kingdom of Terra. Even in secret. He only hopes they are still there.

The perimeter wall is as imposing as it always is. Careful not to crush any of his precious edibles, Leo quickly and quietly climbs over. He has since replaced the gloves that were destroyed with poison, but his fingers still remain exposed. The skin on the tips callous further with every trip he takes and every archery and swordplay lesson he puts his body through.

Though the forest is beautiful in the daytime with cheerful sunlight shining through the leaves rustling in the breeze, it is a deadly, ethereal force underneath the onyx sky. The foliage continues to whisper, however no other creature dares to make a peep. Shadows dance across his vision in anticipation driven nerves even when nothing has moved. The eyes he feels stabbing into his back are surely the nocturnal predators wondering what a daylight creature is doing encroaching on its territory.

With careful steps and keeping tightly to the tree line, Leo makes his way through the dark forest. If he remembers correctly, the cave is well beyond the water spring where he found Knight. It is by a different, bigger body of water. He hopes he can make it without incident in decent time. He will make his return trip as the sun begins to rise beyond the horizon. It would be easier to navigate and return home safely, he is sure. Plus, he has scheduled lessons from midmorning to evening. It would be suspicious if he does not show up – and lacking proper etiquette. One must always be punctual, or so he has been taught.

The moon remains amongst the stars by the time he reaches the concave cut out in the side of a small upraised portion of the earth, something not yet tall enough to be considered a mountain. He puts his hand on the edge, soft moss meets his skin in an inviting caress. Peaking inside, he sees no one, but he expects that.

Leo whispers into the silent darkness, “Nazu?”

Nothing stirs. But he can be patient. Blinking his emerald eyes, he continues to look around the cavern slowly. The moonbeams do not reach inside, anything could be lurking within its depths beyond his visual abilities. Even a terrible monster could have taken residence in its cool shadows, away from the harsh sunlight in the day and a protective shelter during the night. And yet he waits, with his back wide open for predators and assassins to sneak up upon and end his very existence. The cool breeze tickles the hairs on his neck.

Right before his eyes, the air distorts just a touch.

Only a couple of feet before him, stands a sleepy looking youth. Face all baby-like in its features and drowsy red eyes cutely crinkling at being awoken from deep sleep. His blonde hair, asymmetrical in style, is slightly tousled and flutters more so with the gust against the cave’s entrance. Though appearance disheveled adorably like a small child waking from an afternoon nap, the sumptuous, white feathered wings extending from his back tells a different story – one of holy faith and strength, purity in a sense that Leo will never be able to attain.

“Leo-chin?” Nazuna yawns into his hand. “What are you doing out here, in the middle of the night?”

“I wanted to ask you something…” Leo trails off uncertainly. “Ah, but I brought some gifts, too. If I remember correctly, your kids like bread products, right?” He slides the sack off of his back and sets it down.

The blonde looks into the paper bag’s opening. “Mm… They will be happy. We’ll have this for breakfast in the morning, thanks, Leo-chin. Let’s talk up there.”

Nazuna opens his wings and takes a small hop, like a tiny rabbit greeting the fresh bloom in the springtime. It has always fascinated Leo how easily angels can take flight and how strong those majestic wings truly are. Nazuna grabs Leo’s forearm with both of his hands and they take off in a leisurely glide. It’s a short trip, only until they make it onto the very top of the tiny hill the cave is carved into. So that they are not far from the little ones resting just inside, Leo suspects.

The air is crisp as it blows past his face. The chill in the night underneath the moonlight is almost like an ethereal feeling, something he can only imagine within his fantasies. Only with creatures from another world grant him these experiences, he is sure. Leo slides his hand against the rocky earth as he finds a comfortable position to sit, knees rising and feet planting flat.

“Cutting to the chase, it’s about the war…” Leo whispers, letting his voice drift off with the wind while Nazuna finds a comfortable spot, himself.

“Figured. But you know as well I do that I can’t say much of anything.” Nazuna replies. He ruffles his wings to settle against his back. “I’m an Angel from Caelem. From Heaven. I’m no Terrian citizen, even if we are somewhat friends.”

“I understand.” Leo nods. “Answer if you can, that’s all.” When the angel hums in agreement, Leo continues. “There was talk about the Caelem army traversing through a valley in the west.”

Nazuna raises an eyebrow. “Aren’t you just giving me information to take back to our Emperor Archangel? The Terrians know this or that?”

Leo chuckles lowly, bringing his knees up further and hugging them close. “Worth a shot. Nothing has happened after weeks, so I’m guessing it was a failed attempt or some farce. You don’t look surprised and you’re not fumbling over your words.”

Nazuna huffs, crossing his arms and looking away petulantly. “You’re the worse, Leo-chin. But if you think it’s some kind of farce, what are you having the Terrian army sit on their bottom for?”

“We won’t know until it’s too late.” Leo sighs. “That’s how things go… nowadays.”

“You sound like you’ve given up.”

“Terra will never give up.” His voice is strong. It cuts through the silent surroundings like a siren. “We’ll get back up. Again and again. You can tell your Emperor Archangel that.”

Even if they are somewhat friends, they both know their words with each other need to be spoken with the utmost of care. Leo wishes that a day will come where he can truly befriend this kindhearted angel – because even if they are on opposites sides of a war, Nazuna has been nothing but a charming being he wishes to know more of.

The angel hums, the sound so enchanting that Leo almost feels himself space out immediately. “You always give off the loneliest aura. It reminds me of your wish every time we meet…”

His wish… His truest desire nestled in the deepest part of his heart…

“Feels like ages ago.” Leo reminisces. “You guys doing alright out here, all by yourselves?”

“More or less.” The angel says. “We manage. And I can flash back to the angel’s city within the clouds if we really need anything.”

“You’re still training those fledgling angels, aren’t you? That’s why you’re out here?”

“Yeah. Far away from home so Caelem’s core magic doesn’t mess with them too much.” Nazuna explains. “Only you and our government know that we’re here. They’re good kids, it shouldn’t be long now until we can go back.”

Leo puts his chin on his knees and stares off into the endless sky. “The day we met… You were on your way to pick up these brats, weren’t you?”

Nazuna leans back on his hands and looks northward, the moonlight splashes on his pale skin. “Something like that.”

 “You don’t have to hide it. I know they died and you went to retrieve their souls. Do angels remember their lives before becoming angels?”

“Will they remember their traumas at the time of their deaths, you’re asking? No. Our memories are wiped clean.” Nazuna sighs. “Our experiences are that of a newborn, yet we’re recreated as functioning adults with new identities, stepping out of the gate on our own two feet.”

“But you know theirs.”

“Of course, I do. I’m a Collector Angel, in other words, I pick up the enlightened souls that return to heaven and are reborn as angels. I watch over their last moments of life until their soul disconnects with their earthly body.”

“Only the enlightened ones?”

“Regular angels do the real grim reaping.” Nazuna jokes. “As long as the soul isn’t abandoned to Hell, that is.”

Only the sounds of the blowing wind accompany their ears for a moment.

“Were they Terrians?”

“Do you really want to know?”

Leo continues to stare off into the distant sky, the stars shining brilliantly against the dark background. “You were coming through our land. I’ve been thinking about it since that day. What would an angel be doing here? What, if not the war, has an angel lying in enemy territory at the brink of death? Please, Nazu, tell me. Tell me, so that we can stop this war and save as many people as we can.”

Nazuna falls silent. “Terra’s fate… Since the moment we met… No, before that even… Your beloved kingdom has been dying.”

 

Pulsing. Pulsing. The constant pulsing.

The steady rush of life liquid trickling out of the wounds upon his body. The flashing heat of inflammation setting in. The stinging needles stabbing into the lacerations with every breeze. He felt it all, and yet his body refused to surrender to the darkness. He must stay. It was his duty to remain until it was truly his time to disappear into shards of light, much like diamond dust floating towards heaven.

His cheek pressed against sticky dirt; sharp pebbles dug into his sensitive skin – more than likely creating new lesions and coating the ground crimson. Every shallow breath sent another wave of agony coursing through his innards. He flinched with every inhale, fingers instinctively clenching and nails scraping against the cold ground.

The silent forest was interrupted with the beating of hooves against the earth. The vibrations rocking the loose rocks into a springing dance. His oversensitive nerves locked up tighter. Closer. And closer, they came. The presence stood out amongst the rest. The kind, wild animals skittered away from him, not wishing to be seen by the unknown predator approaching.

A normal horse and its mortal rider. Will they chance upon him?

Will they activate his Blessing or his Curse?

He waited within the darkness of his closed eyes.

The horse whinnied loudly, hoofs lifting and slamming into the ground as it skidded to a stop.

“Whoa! Whoa, Symphonica!” A shrill voice cried out. The horse struggled against its reigns before settling down at the command of its rider. “What… Oh…”

Light feet made contact with the earth next. They shuffled slowly over to him. The air rushed by as the human squatted down before him.

“Can you hear me?”

His breath was suddenly bounced back towards him as a hand was reached out and held in front of his nose and mouth.

“You’re breathing… I have some medical stuff with me, but…” The human turned about, the pebbles grinding under the balls of his feet. “…They will be looking for me, soon, probably.”

The air moved irregularly again as the human stood up. The blistering breeze simultaneously burning and freezing his broken body.

“There’s a lake nearby. You’re pretty small, so it won’t be a problem for me to carry you… Sorry, this might hurt.”

Fingers carefully dug their way under his form and turn him over, only to be rested on thin arms and lifted into the air. His bones creaked and cried, his skin boiling under the surface with each stretch. He felt the thick liquid of his blood slide teasingly over his limbs and drip off in tiny droplets.

The sound of metal clanging together rang in his ears.

“If you’re awake, hold on. It’s not far. Symphonica, follow. Come on.”

Each step was agonizing. Each step split the air and rhythmic sways wrought his limbs. Eventually, the smell of water reached his nose. The little human carefully lowered them down, setting him so close to the edge he could feel the splash of water with every waving ripple.

“Let’s get these out, first.”

He felt the moment the human put his hands on the grappling hook embedded into his wing. The broken feathers were frayed and easily lost as the metal piece was diligently pried out. A fresh rush of hot blood followed the human’s movements, likely coating his hand entirely. The other hook was next to go, the tightly coiled wire attached to it fell heavily as the human tossed them aside.

His Blessing, it was, then.

Pulsing. Pulsing. The pain never left, only increasing in fervor every second he remained upon this realm.

He was lifted into the human’s arms again. With clothes tugging against the rocky edge, the human slid down into the lake, landing in the shallow portion with a watery thud. His body was held tightly against the other’s with one arm. The free hand gently cupped the chilled water and trickled it all over.

“I wonder… Are you an angel or a demon with feathered wings?”

He was sure the water surrounding them was dyed in a thin film of crimson.

“Keep your eyes closed, I’ll clean that crusted blood off for you. Guess I’m talking to myself, though.”

The water was splashed onto his face, followed by gentle pads of fingers rubbing at the more difficult spots. His skin felt free, again – eyelids eager to reopen, yet he stilled the muscles. The human heaved them back onto shore, balancing him carefully into his arms once more.

“There’s a cave near here. Let’s get out of the hot sun and fix you up.”

And to the cave they went. Without even opening his eyes, he knew the moment they stepped inside; the drastically cooler air surrounded them instantly. The human gingerly laid him on the hard, frigid ground and began to wrap any and all of his wounds with the medical supplies stashed away against his horse’s saddle.

Slowly, as a bandage is wrapped around his head, he opened his eyes – silently staring at the human boy in front of him. Head of unruly, sunrise colored hair, emerald green eyes, and cheek skin as smooth as a polished rock resting in a steady stream.

Out of all of the humans whose fate it was to cross paths with him at that very moment…

Leo Tsukinaga let out a soft gasp when his eyes finally glimpsed into his. His fingers twitched with the surprise, catching against hair. “You’re awake...! Hold still, I’m almost done.”

He blinked languidly, waiting patiently. The medicinal gauze was calm against his wounds, chilling the painful inflammation.

A knot was carefully tied behind his head. “All done.” Leo sat back on his heels, clothes still dripping with water. “Do you feel better?”

He nodded against the ground he lay on, cheek rubbing against the smooth ground.

“I’m-”

“Leo Tsukinaga, Prince of Terra. I’m aware.” He interrupted. “There are some people that can’t escape our notice. Some people who we are told to keep an eye on.”

“…Is that so…?” Leo looked put off. He probably intended to conceal his identity. “Um… Are you- Wait, should you be getting up?”

He swallowed thickly, his muscles and bones aching within his body. “I was on a mission. I need to leave, soon.”

“A moment of delay for rest is better than collapsing again.”

He released a slow breath, leaning forward to fall into Leo’s warm body. “Just a moment, then.”

“Hey…” Leo lightly complained, falling to his bottom. He shifted them into a comfortable position, holding them both steady as he leaned against the cavern wall.

“For your service, I, Nazuna Nito, Angel under the Heavens of Caelem, will grant you one wish.” He whispered against Leo’s damp shoulder.

“A wish?”

“If you save an angel on the brink of death, you will be granted any miracle you desire. But if you pluck my feathers, you’ll be cursed to an eternity in Hell.”

Leo’s rumbling chuckle vibrated between them. “Good thing I’m a kind-hearted type of person, then. Is that why I can see you, too?”

Nazuna hummed in agreement. “Angels become visible to the mortal eye at the moment of their death. Except for some instances with special people, we usually control when we want to be seen.”

“So that’s how it is…”

“And? How may I serve you?”

Leo turned his head, looking out of the cave’s entrance. With an angel cradled in his lap, hair and clothes damp, the prince really made for an interesting view, in Nazuna’s opinion. Yet, he couldn’t help but cuddle closer to the mortal warmth. His wings shifted, feathers catching against the light breeze filtering into the cave.

“For Terra to remain safe. I wish for that.”

Nazuna trailed his hands down, sliding his fingers between Leo’s. He brought them up, pinning them to the stone wall of their temporary resting spot beside Leo’s head. Lifting his lips from Leo’s shoulder, he whispered, “Bold of you to lie to an angel.”

When Leo turned his head back towards him, he saw his own red eyes reflecting back at him through the emeralds. An unearthly glow shined in them; the crimson much more prominent than usual.

Though Leo swallowed nervously, he replied cockily. “If you can see into my heart, why bother asking?”

“You should know your own desire before making the request.” Leo remained quiet. “What a pity; that life of royalty only bears the fruit of seclusion.”

“…It’s fine.”

“Is it?”

The Prince of Terra turned his head away again. “An equal. Someone… anyone I can always trust.”

Nazuna released their hands. “An equal? In status? Perhaps another prince or king?”

“I don’t care. Titles and names are just words entrusted to us for no other reason than to tell us apart. I…” Leo trailed off solemnly. “Wish for someone to walk my path with me. Someone that I won’t have to constantly look over my shoulder with.”

The life of royalty… It was a pity, indeed.

“As you wish.”

“Is that… selfish of me?”

“Humans are pretty selfish, anyways.” Nazuna shrugged. He began to stand the moment he felt an ethereal warmth surround his body in a glimmering light. “I wouldn’t think too hard about it.”

The glow rebounded in Leo’s eyes. “Are you my friend, then?”

“When, where, and with who your wish will be granted is a mystery. Perhaps I am, perhaps I’m not. It is up to your new line of fate that God has laid out.”

“You’re cute and small. I wouldn’t mind carrying a friend like you around in my pocket, wahaha!”

“Dwon’t say reeird thwings! Pwesky Pwince! I wam not cwute!”

Leo did not stop laughing. “There is this side to you, too, huh?”

Nazuna harrumphed, crossing his arms. He took a glance outside. The sun was quite high in the sky already.

“Are you sure you’re okay? What’s that glow?” Leo asked next.

“I’m fine. Your faith is more than enough power to heal me.” Nazuna replied more calmly.

“Faith…” Leo tested the word on his tongue. “What got you out there, anyways? What… used hooks to bring down an angel from the sky?”

The scenes replayed in his head. Stone slabs rising and blocking his path. The erupting earth and shards of gravel raining down like a thunder storm. Metal screeching and slamming against the hard surfaces. A name he cannot recall being shouted by his attacker. “Someone who thought they knew me…”

Leo tilted his head, but Nazuna continued before the prince could say more. “It was far from here. You don’t need to worry. I flew away before collapsing.”

“…I see.”

“I need to continue my mission.” Nazuna announced, walking to the cave’s opening. “Thank you, Prince Leo of Terra. Your faith will not be in vain and shall be granted when you are ready.”

“Come back to this cave if you’re ever back in Terra. I’ll come find you anytime you need me.”

Nazuna nodded. He extended his wings out fully and took off.

If only he could grant Leo’s first wish… But not even God, himself, could reverse time and action that has already been set in motion and written in fate. His current mission was to retrieve the enlightened souls of the departed – from the first Terrian town that will soon fall victim to the ongoing war between Caelem and Inferna. Terra was finally being manipulated into joining.

From Leo’s dutybound wish, it was clear to Nazuna that word has yet to reach the ears of the royal family. That the angels have dragged the demons into their home.

In the rushing wind he flew through, the bloodstained bandages unraveled. They fluttered down with gravity like dancing snakes. As he traversed, Nazuna examined the beauty below. Terra was like a place where time has stopped compared to Caelem. Their buildings remained humble, life revolving around the use of simple fire. Horse drawn carriages were their main modes of transportation and nature’s territory still outnumbered the populace’s.

The closer he got to his destination, to the Village of Lavendria, the more frantic the air seemed. He started to see other angels milling around, ready to pick up the souls that will end their lives on the land here very soon. Nazuna has been tasked with a mere three souls; besides that, it looked like he was the only Collector Angel flying about.

A profit was a profit, he supposed. Though at what cost?

What were they thinking?

With his tardiness, his collecting schedule has also fallen behind. He was supposed to watch over the final couple hours of a life, but, alas, his first one has already passed. The soul patiently waiting to get taken away – either safely by an angel or preyed upon by a demon – is already detached from its home and floating near the body’s chest.

Nazuna flew over, invisible to humans once more. People surrounded a mound of overturned dirt, some weeping while others looked on solemnly. A grave, marked by a stack of stones at its head. A grave that will be destroyed very soon.

“If only you came home just an hour sooner.” A woman cried, clinging onto a young man with a face so pale it could rival snow on the highest mountain in Inferna. “He waited for as long as he could, but… but…!” She broke into a sob.

The young man, dressed in a soldier’s uniform, fell to his knees, bringing the older woman down with him. He whispered the name of the deceased man.

This place was one of many in Terra that was not receiving enough attention, now with the war making safe trade nearly impossible. The man who passed away had died of starvation, giving every last bite, crumb, and coin to his younger siblings and parents. Nazuna hovered above the thin body deep in the earth and held out his hand. “I’m not sure if this will be a comfort to you, but your friends will join you soon, and your family will be at peace. No one here has been renounced to the Devil. Come, I’ll protect you.”

The orb of light – a soul – danced its way to his palm. With a flap of his wings, Nazuna flew back into the sky, away from the terror that will soon befall the land. He cradled the soul to his chest. “Your new name is Hajime Shino. Though, you’ll get briefed on all of this before coming back out of the gate. I can send you to Heaven now, or would you like to watch?”

With a singular pulse from the life in his arms, Nazuna nodded.

Then watch they shall.

The ashen-blonde-haired boy, a childhood friend – so the soul explained – was brought back to high alert as explosions wracked the atmosphere nearby. He screamed, saying that it was no time for a funeral. He was sent back by their squad’s first lieutenant to evacuate everyone; no exceptions. He ran around, urging everyone to leave everything behind and head eastward, towards the capital city. He took one last glance at the grave, dirt still moist, before sprinting away once more.

A messenger, Nazuna silently thought. The rest of the group must be where that explosion happened. And even as he deduced their roles and positions, it doesn’t matter. Nazuna knew the fate of everyone in this vicinity ended by tonight.

The messenger’s frantic eyes were pulled towards a gasping yell.

The man who crawled in from between the trees, with matted brown hair and covered in blood was the second soul Nazuna came to pick up. The messenger, the last to perish, was his third and final task for this mission.

Embraced in the messenger’s arms, the dying soldier croaked, “It’s too late. The Angels… chased the Demons here…”

Terra was not ready. This town, situated near the outskirts, was the kingdom’s first casualty, and likely the reason they will accept the formal declaration of war from Caelem. Nazuna looked on emotionlessly. Angels cannot go against God nor the Emperor Archangel – the Messenger of God. He knew why this path must be taken, and he was loyal to the Heavens, yet…

Why did God kill more than the Devil ever did?

Above the tree line, Nazuna could make out the outlines of his people and of his enemies. He recognized this particular Holy Unit. Quite a powerhouse was sent to this place, chasing an equally as strong opposition. He and the other angels here solely to collect the departed souls flew out of the way. The town was quickly awash and drowned with crystal clear water, waves upon waves destroying a majority of the land and structures. The small stack of stones has fallen over.

By the end of it, the setting sun was died as red as the blood that has been spilt.

 

“Wait… When has a city or town not gotten enough supplies?” Leo asks, aghast.

Nazuna chuckles dryly. “Terra has been rotting slowly since before getting officially dragged into the war.”

Leo gnaws at his bottom lip. What else has been kept from him? “You going to keep your thoughts to yourself, too? That was a rotten story telling with too many holes.”

“I am an angel, Leo-chin. As much as I like you…”

Leo sighs, hugging his knees even tighter to his chest. The sun is just grazing the horizon, orange beams flirting with his eyes. “It has been a whole year now… If Terra was like that already, then…”

Nazuna hums, “Then it’s up to you, Prince Leo of Terra.”

Before Leo could reply, Nazuna’s attention gets pulled away.

“Hajime-chin, up here!” Nazuna yells out in reply, though Leo did not hear the initial call in the first place. “Take Tomo-chin and Mitsuru-chin to the lake up ahead and have the bread for breakfast!”

“Your kids are awake, are they?” Leo wonders. “I guess that’s my queue, too. I need to make it back before someone notices.”

“I could fly you there?” Nazuna offers, all the while taking Leo’s hands and bringing them down from the top of the hill.

“You know I could never say no to flying, wahaha!” Leo laughs. “Will they be alright?”

“It will only take a few minutes.” Nazuna reassures, grabbing Leo’s forearms more firmly. “They’re strong enough on their own, anyways. Who do you think taught them?”

“A splendid rabbit angel~”

“…Pesky Prince.” Nazuna grumbles. Soon, they are midair and Leo is looking around joyously. “Don’t kick so much!”

“Sorry~” He is not at all.

The remainder of the flight is silent. The flutter of the breeze blows against Nazuna’s feathers magnificently. The castle comes into view in just a few short minutes, the sun only just truly peaking over the horizon.

“Hey, Leo-chin?”

“Hm?”

“You… haven’t been around demons lately, have you?”

Leo tilts his head up to look at his friend. “Demons? Mm… No, not that I recall. Why? Are they infiltrating?”

“No, I don’t know information like that. I’m a collector not a soldier. Just that… you seemed clean. Too clean.”

“I bathe every day, you know?”

“No, not…” Nazuna laughs it off. “Never mind. If you weren’t near any, it would be the same thing, most likely.”

Leo finds himself tilting his head in confusion.

They land a short distance from the actual castle itself. The tall trees easily concealing both of them lest they get too close and the guards see their Crown Prince floating in the air like some strange apparition. The sun is still rising, which means Leo has plenty of time to climb over the perimeter wall and change clothing within his bedroom.

“Thanks for the lift, Nazu! I’ll bring some other goodies next time.”

“I don’t know if we’ll stay in that cave much longer. The kids can hold their own, now.” Nazuna admits.

He finds himself laughing lightly, concealing the ache within his chest. “Leaving already? Well, that’s a good thing, right? As expected of you~ Maybe one day we will meet again. Hopefully during peaceful days.”

“One day.” The angel agrees with a nod. Before he turns to return home, he says one more thing, “Beware of the Shadows, Leo-chin.”

However, Leo cannot question the statement further. Nazuna takes off into the sky with a final wave goodbye. Shadows? Perhaps he means assassins and traitors lurking about, right under their noses. Leo appreciates the reminder. In these days, finding someone trustworthy is becoming more and more difficult. Nevertheless, as many times as he is told and prompted of the fact, no matter how much he believes it himself, he cannot live his entire life doubting every person he meets.

No matter how many daggers are stabbed into his back, he will never lose faith.

Nearing the edge of the forest, his attention is pulled by a whistle. Startled out of his thoughts, Leo nearly jumps out of his skin, thinking he has been caught. Turning his head to the source of the sound, his green eyes land on a tall figure garbed in semiformal wear, half of their hair neatly tied back into a small ponytail.

“Mikejimama?”

The scholar waves him over to where he stands – by the exact spot on the perimeter wall Leo usually uses to climb in and out. “Leo-san~ Snuck out again, I see!”

“What are you doing out here?”

Standing face to face, he feels Madara’s eyes roam him over. “Collecting some plants for our last lesson, of course! The ones that could be used for all kinds of medicinal purposes found all throughout the continent.”

“Last lesson?”

Madara reaches out, moving his hand as though plucking or brushing something away from Leo’s shoulder. “After today’s lesson, your parents have decided my usefulness has expired. I will be returning to work elsewhere and leaving your humble abode. Anyways, come, we can walk through the entrance. Can’t have you looking like you rough and tumbled through the woods all by yourself, hahaha!”

He finds himself following along, even if his mind races to catch up. It has been weeks since his lessons started with Madara, he supposes it really is time for them to part. Madara is not his personal, private tutor, he is a scholar that travels around the continent, learning everything he can an expanding each idea and spreading the knowledge further. The sentries at the gate look confused at his presence beside Madara, but the scholar brushes them off saying it is just a bit of miscommunication – working only because the night sentries have been replaced by the morning workers.

“You came out before dawn?”

“Early bird gets the worm, Leo-san!” Madara laughs as they make their way into the library. “Well, I figured you left when I saw your window open while I was walking around the grounds. Made sure you didn’t get caught for real.”

“Were you looking for some of these plants in the garden? I’m sure I’ve seen them…” Leo trails off, eyeing the freshly picked bundles of greenery.

“I’m positive you have. This one, in particular, is hard to find out in the wild, but very resistant in all climates and soil.” Madara begins to explain. “It is almost like a cure-all, or a jack of all trades kind of plant. Good for the body in every way, and tastes great in every dish, yet the effects are mild.”

“Cure all?”

“Fever, inflammation, neutralizing minor poisons, anything your body can be afflicted with, this plant can help to regulate your body back to normal.”

The day goes on similarly. Books upon books are stacked on the table inside of the library. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner is brought up for the special, extended, final lesson. Leo eagerly sorts the information into his memory. The things that every kingdom has in common. The things that can help him, no matter where he finds himself in the continent. As long as he knows how to locate and use everything to his advantage, he can survive in their world.

Leo finds Madara smiling down at him. He complains with a loud exclamation as Madara’s large hand disrupts his hair in an aggressive rub.

“You’re a good student when you put your mind to it!”

Leo pouts, vainly trying to push his hair back into place. “Don’t pet me…”

Madara only laughs in reply. Their final moments together are spent with smiles and grateful farewells. Leo reiterates his promise – to be at Madara’s side whenever he needs any type of aid; the Kingdom of Terra is on his side. Madara does nothing more than grin his wide grin and shake Leo’s hand.

“Good luck, Prince Leo. May Terra stand tomorrow.”

“Of course, we will.” Leo replies confidently. “There are people who are counting on me. I know that, more so than ever, now.”

“Good.” Madara pets Leo’s head once more. “If anyone can do it, you can.”

Leo moves out of the way with a light-hearted tsk. “Come home when you can.”

“Sure.” Madara waves as they part ways in front of the library’s imposing double doors. “Trust in the people your heart trusts. There is nothing to fear.”

The Prince of Terra finds himself confused by the words said to him once again, today. Still, he will take the advice to heart. He will walk the path he wants to walk and believe in the people he wants to believe in. He cannot cower in the corner forever, hoping for the war to pass with no action.

The light of the moon shoots through the window in blinding beams. He finally leaves the library, as well, making his way back to his bedroom through the dim corridors crackling with the lanterns lined along the stone wall. He has not even changed out of his archery gear, as of yet. His body finally begins to succumb to the fatigue, his muscles and mind crying for rest.

“Knight, I’m back.” Leo is greeted with silence, as he always is. “Did you eat the bread, or-?” He pauses all of his movements after lifting the heavy cloth from the top of the glass enclosure. The small, pure white snake is nowhere to be found inside, nor is he underneath the silk sheet within. “Knight?”

Leo swallows nervously. He looks downwards, checking around his dirtied boots first. Slowly falling to his knees, Leo crawls around, face nearly pressing against the ground in his search. Not below the bed nor nightstand. Certainly not behind the bookcase, either. Some creature didn’t fly inside and snatch away the snake, did it? The window was open all day, but the curtain was closed-

His spiraling train of thought is quickly put to a stop as he sees an adorable snake head peak out from behind the long curtains. “Thank goodness…”

Leo rises to his knees and reaches out, picking up Knight slowly. “Were you out of your cage all day?”

He stands, carefully keeping his hands steady so the snake doesn’t fall. Wrapping Knight’s thin body around one of his hands, Leo uses the other to push aside the curtain, intending to close the window once and for all. He gets a glimpse at the sky outside. In the distance, lightning flashes across a sky full of dark grey nimbus clouds – the electricity running across the atmosphere and striking the ground almost as quickly as his heart beat in its moment of unease.

“Looks like a huge storm is rolling in, Knight.” Leo says absently. He examines the clouds for another moment before closing the window and curtains, turning his back to Mother Nature’s madness.

Chapter Text

The air is frantic and thick, vibrating hurriedly with the atmospheric unrest. Heavy raindrops pound against the glass pane of the window, dripping onto the stone ground in waterfalls. The flashes from lightning illuminate the dark curtains hiding away the outside world. Thunder shakes the air with every crash in the distance, drawing closer and closer as the minutes go by. Anticipation comes with every vibration that shakes the walls; objects clatter against their resting surfaces.

From the short distance, he hops down to the ground; feet landing with an inaudible thud. Slowly, he pads his way to the covered window, using just a single finger to peak through the curtain. The midnight black sky is further hauntingly beautiful with dark storm clouds hovering within sight. Only plant life dare stands below it, underneath the pelting rain with no moonlight to be found to light the way.

Raindrops hit the glass sharply. The thunderstorm grows harsher as it continues its journey across the land. A flash of lightning shines on his face as he continues to peer outside. The light is quickly followed by a crash of thunder – a sound seemingly screaming great sorrow and frantic heartache.

A mumbled groan draws his attention away.

The boy, sleeping so defenselessly all curled up in a plush bed, begins to stir awake. He draws his knees closer to his chest, fingers lightly gripping the heavy blanket draped over him. Another deep crash of thunder in the shortening distance seeps into his hazy mind, eyes fluttering open.

With a quick step, he is at the boy’s bedside. Grabbing the sword resting against the wall, he unsheathes it before curling his fingers around the boy’s neck, pushing him onto his back. The lightning cresting around the curtains reflect against the polished steel, the light shining directly onto the boy’s face – showing him exactly what the cold blade against his warm skin truly means.

The boy’s emerald eyes stare up at him, unflinchingly, as neither of them move a single muscle. Even as the sword pricks at his jugular vein, trickling a river of crimson blood down his smooth neck, the boy doesn’t move.

The air is tense. The thunder roars louder.

He flicks his eyes towards the window again, only to feel the boy beneath his hand shift. He turns his sharp gaze back. “Make a single move or noise and you’re done.”

“Then what do you want?” He whispers back.

“I said be quiet.”

“You could’ve killed me. You probably should have. But you’re just waiting for something. Are others in the castle?”

He harrumphs, squeezing his fingers a little harder around the soft neck in his grip. “A leading question.”

“Heh…” Though the boy tries to laugh it off, his breath catches in his throat, resulting in a struggling cough.

He watches him silently, keeping an ear to the thunder rolling nearer. Green orbs flicker to the other end of the room. He doubts help will come barging in through the door. The guards are none the wiser, especially when a storm conceals both visibility and audibility. He tightens his hold on the steel sword further as another lightning flash spills from behind the curtains – the tip pressing deeper into previously unblemished skin.

“Your grip is loosening…”

He finds himself rolling his eyes. “And why would you tell me that? Shouldn’t you use that chance to get free?”

“If you don’t kill me, I’ll kill you.”

“Oh?” He raises an eyebrow in amusement.

“There’s a venomous snake on the loose somewhere in here.”

He shifts his eyes to the glass box, settled innocently on a table at the far side of the room. The cloth draping over it is pushed aside, leaving a gaping hole at the top. His lips curl into a smirk subconsciously. “Is there, now? I wouldn’t count on it attacking to protect you.”

“Neither would I.”

The boy rolls to the side powerfully, the tip of the sword dragging along his neck and creating a long gash. He kicks his leg out.

A distraction. He sighs, easily dodging the foot aimed at his abdomen.

“So?” The boy asks, his body in a defensive position. “What do you want, if not to assassinate me?”

The pitter patter of rain hitting stone rings louder.

He twirls the sword still in his hand. “Be quiet and I won’t kill you.”

“You said that about moving, too.”

He watches as the boy’s green eyes dart around. “You’re more worried about your pet snake than yourself, at this moment?”

“He doesn’t have the best temper… Ow-! Tch.” He jerks his fingers back towards his body, the very tips encased in the same ice that now coats the arrows laying in its quiver.

Their gazes meet once more, neither backing away nor cowering. Only the sounds of the storm roaring overhead break their silent standstill. The flashes of lightning illuminate their faces and briefly blind their eyes.

Thunder vibrates the air just a tad more frantically.

He slides his eyes over to the window. Keeping tabs on the human boy, he makes his way over to it, grabbing the curtain to move it aside. The skin on his palm trembles with a chill as he places his hand flat on the glass pane. With a whispered word, a glow manifests outside, shooting high into the sky.

“What was that?”

“And when has your enemy ever answered a question like that?” He chuckles dryly. His voice drops to an undertone that is swallowed up by the thunder, “You’ve always been too careless...”

“You sure don’t have any killing intent radiating off of you. A spy? Meant to come in and get information? Did you get what you need? Steal our national treasure?” The boy stands from the bed, bare feet padding against the floor.

Cracks of thunder rumble through the atmosphere in quicker succession, the sound shaking the air more harshly than ever. Lightning dances across the storm clouds like fish swimming through the turbulent sea.

He turns to open the window wide, shifting the sword carefully in his grip. “And what if I did?”

The pounding rain becomes clearer to their ears.

The boy steps forward, closing the distances between them. “Then I command you to halt.”

“Hah… Command? At the cost of your life?” He asks incredulously. The sword in his hand swiftly becomes speckled with the bouncing raindrops falling inside as he holds it level to the boy’s neck. It sheens brightly alongside the outside world. “You are not my prince, Leo Tsukinaga.”

The earth nearly quakes with the next roll of thunder.

He turns the blade and tosses the hilt towards the human’s chest. Quickly, he hops onto the sill, hair and clothes becoming damp. Without looking back, he jumps high into the air, using a light amount of magic to propel higher and higher. Electric currents kiss his cheeks as he pushes through the storm clouds. Once through, he reaches a hand up high and recalls his magic. Gravity slowly forces his body downwards, back towards the soaking earth; yet he waits.

A near bruising, warm grip grasps around his wrist and forearm. His shoulder jerks with the sudden tug, but he pays it no mind – it is a feeling he has since become accustomed to, along with the uncomfortable pulsing within his heart. Gust after gust of wind blows against his face, mussing his hair further. The rustle of feathers taking flight echo in his ears. He wraps his fingers around the wrist of the one holding him afloat. With each strong flap of powerful wings, they glide higher, the flight becoming smoother as they steadily fall into a rhythm.

“Stupid…” The voice above him cracks with the wind brushing by them.

Tilting his head up, about to retort, he suddenly holds his tongue. Eyes draw away from the snow-white feathers beating against the air to the worried nibble of fangs against a bottom lip. He settles for a soft harrumph instead, allowing defeat.

The air is thin where they fly, his lungs prickling with shards of ice with every inhale. Though the high altitude above the clouds is seemingly lacking oxygen, the difficult breaths are nothing that would destroy their bodies. The rushing wind and stray water droplets tingle their skin like sharp needles in conjunction with the bitter temperature. Now that the storm follows their movements from below, the moonbeams light their way home like a spotlight revealing their destination in the far distance.

Using magic to teleport back would be the obvious choice, if one is not familiar with its dangers. Magic is something to be respected, a lifeform created from within one’s own body that should not be used solely for convenience. To spend magic for difficult, untuned spells will take more of a toll on the body than magic that one has trained in. Though he knows that the two of them have gone through harsh training to be able to perform such complex spells – like teleportation – it is not their specialties. To drain the magic reservoir within their bodies for a nonemergency when they can just as easily find their own way home is unthinkable. Recovering that magic will take far too long for something that they can do themselves.

Their journey home is taken in silence; the storm clouds covering their tracks and shadows as they make haste through the starlight. The distance to their territory is far, his muscles and joints dully ache as time slowly passes by without pause. Between the clouds, the lush forest slowly begins to turn into something more vibrant and alive. The trees brim with life, moving on their own – not due to the turbulent wind of the thunderstorm they carry along. Dark shadows are becoming a deeper shade of onyx as they pass, bringing visibility to null.

The city finally comes into view, after long last. Their flight through the air slows gradually as they descend; storm clouds dissipating into the calm, midnight atmosphere. Crystals and various foliage glow in and out of sight, lighting their way. Nocturnal animals flee their perches as they pass by too closely. Nearing a small house at the edge of the glowing city, they decline closer to the ground. Large wings flap powerfully, kicking up fallen leaves and loose dirt. Just a few feet above the ground, he is dropped.

With his training, he easily lands on his feet. He walks to the front door and unlocks it with a pass of his magic signature, his friend landing beside him. The interior nearly gives him a nostalgic feeling, deep within his heart. It has been too long since he stepped foot inside of this home away from home. The moment the both of them step into the foyer and the door is closed, within the darkness of the room, he is pulled into the other person’s body. Arms wrap around his back tightly, oxygen squeezing out of his lungs with every press.

“What are you doing, Naru-kun?”

“Hug. It’s called a hug. I’m hugging you, Izumi-chan.”

He exhales, hearing the whimper in her voice. He’s at fault, here, he knows. Izumi brings his own arms up, slipping them underneath the large wings. The feathers graze against his skin as his finger pads press into the middle of her back. “You didn’t need to worry.”

“What does that even mean?” Arashi hisses, pulling back briefly. Her amethyst eyes flash with anger. “I was there when he-!” She cuts herself off, choosing to bury her nose in his neck instead.

“…Sorry.” Izumi whispers in defeat. He rubs his hand up and down her spine comfortingly. His fingers run along every bump and curve within her back, creating a river of sensations to distract her from the what-ifs and worse case scenarios no doubt swimming through her mind. Only the sounds of the creatures of night and the gently blowing breeze fill their silence.

That is, until a voice echoes within the space of their minds, “Welcome home.”

The two of them turn their heads. The shadows crawling within the room are broken with the moon shining in through the window, also illuminating a black cat that is now perched on the sill inside. Previously closed, the glass pane is currently halfway open, letting in the chilly, midnight draft. The cat’s red eyes gleam hauntingly, even as it cutely lifts its front paw and rubs at a pointed ear.

“I’m home.” Izumi replies. He takes a step away from Arashi, moving out of the embrace slowly. The cat jumps from its perch and canters over. With a rumbling meow, it jumps high towards his body. Out of instinct, Izumi reaches his arms forward, catching the creature and holding it against his chest. “Lazy.”

“Spoil me. Payback.”

“For dying?” Izumi huffs as he begins to walk towards the cushioned sofa in the middle of the room.

“If you die, I’ll kill you.”

“Not how it works.” Arashi chips in sheepishly, following them to sit down as well. “We’ll have a problem if you do that for no reason.”

Izumi sets the cat down on his lap once he finds a comfortable position. Though they all are perfectly capable of enticing the magic crystals responsible for producing light within the room, none of them do, finding the calm of night more to their tastes. Paws pad at his chest, a wet nose poking in between the split fabric of his shirt to get a good sniff.

“Doesn’t seem like you’re still injured. I don’t smell any fresh blood.”

“Are you, Izumi-chan?” Arashi asks. “You didn’t complain on our ride back, but you’re…” Her eyes trail downwards.

Looking where they are looking, he gazes at his ruined shirt. A long rip runs across it, stained with the deep crimson of dried blood and the taupe of old mud, exposing the unblemished skin of his chest. He suddenly feels disgusting. Having been forced into his ancestral snake form to conserve the little life force his soul clung onto, he has been unable to change clothing nor bathe.

Though Leo made sure he was always clean and in a hygienic environment while in the castle…

Izumi shakes his head, hair flipping one way then the other. Focusing back to the here and now, his blue orbs meet the others. They stare at him in both confusion and concern. The emotions swimming in their usually cheerful and teasing gazes makes his heart beat painfully within his chest. To be the ones left waiting with no answers or signs – he probably couldn’t take it without going mad. His chest clenches tighter with just the thought of not knowing whether the two might disappear before his eyes one day. “I’m fine.”

Absently, his mind drifts to Makoto – whether he is doing well or found himself a new place to call home. The only thing he is certain of is that Makoto was sent to a place safe for humans. At least, it is safe for now. If Makoto is not here, there is no way Izumi can protect him. He only hopes Makoto can survive these times by himself.

The fur beneath his hands begin to change texture. The brief glow of magic draws their attentions and sting their eyes within the darkness. The weight settled on his lap is suddenly much heavier. He tilts his head slightly, making space as ebony strands of hair tickle his neck.

“Are you sure, Secchan?”

He does get a minor warning, but chooses to allow the next series of motions to happen. Izumi closes his lips tightly, the groan that spurs from within his chest gets caught in his throat. His body teeters dangerously between the blurred line of a deep-seated masochistic pleasure and pure agony. His breath catches, “I didn’t say you could bite, Kuma-kun…”

Ritsu draws out another mouthful before pulling away with a breathy chuckle that ghosts across Izumi’s moist skin. “You can have some of mine, even though your bite isn’t nearly as much fun.”

Izumi scoffs huffily. His and Ritsu’s fangs are nothing alike – Ritsu having short, thick fangs that are fixed, whereas he has long, thin fangs that are capable hinging if he wills them enough. However, Ritsu’s innate magic allowed for a mystifying experience that one can easily become addicted to. His own bite feels like a needle incessantly imbedded just beneath the skin; though less painful in nature, it is nothing but an annoyance.

Ritsu dances his fingers on Izumi’s lips, turning his index finger to catch the soft skin against his fang. Izumi tastes the small bead of blood instantly on his tongue. The usual coppery taste having since been replaced by a sweet candy, the buds on his tongue transformed fully by now. He only swallows a long trickle before Ritsu pulls his finger away. A stark disparity between how much both of them consumed, but that is of no importance to Izumi; he wasn’t born a blood drinker, anyways. Unlike Ritsu, Izumi doesn’t need the substance to live, even if it is possible for him to survive with just blood, that is.

Izumi feels the miniscule amount of lifeblood slither down his throat and settling within his body. The vampire blood warms his body with a magical pulse – rather, this vampire’s magic intermingles with his own innate core deep within himself. A warm impression, much like a warm cloth getting draped around his skin, throbs within his neck fleetingly.

Swallowing thickly – forcibly pushing the sensations from Ritsu’s bite to the back of his mind – he takes a subtly deep breath, filling his lungs. Izumi puts his hands on Ritsu’s chest and pushes lightly. “Off. You’re heavy.”

Annoyingly, Ritsu lands lightly on his feet on the hardwood floor. The vampire chuckles for just a second before his lips fall into a frown. “Your blood isn’t as sweet as before.”

“Why do you say that, Ritsu-chan?” Arashi asks lightly.

Ritsu tilts his head, red orbs observing Izumi’s physical appearance carefully. “Some weird magic was cast on you, wasn’t it, Secchan?”

“Ugh,” Izumi groans. He brings his hand up to comb his fingers through his hair. “You can still taste that?”

“Do you feel alright?” Arashi worriedly nibbles on her bottom lip again. “Was it when…”

When he almost died, Izumi completes the sentence within the safety of his own mind. He waves it off, trying to ease that anxious look on her face that makes his heart twinge with even more guilt. “No. Some humans with a fancy book they thought they could read and a subpar crystal tried healing me.”

Ritsu hums thoughtfully. “Terra, was it? I wouldn’t expect it to be done by an experienced wizard.”

“There can’t be many, if any, left in Terra.” Arashi comments abstractedly.

“Nope.” He confirms. “The human physician knew enough to activate the spell and crystal, but it was a poor job. Well… I suppose he did alright. But there are no wizards left, else they’d be taken to the castle, probably.”

Ritsu crinkles his nose. “A crude crystal. I can still taste it. It’s like chalk on my tongue, but my blood should be enough to eat the rest of the particles left alive.”

“Terra has never imported more than our low-quality leftovers and botched scraps.” Arashi reminds.

“They’re not getting anything better from Caelem.” Ritsu sniffs. “Ours are cheaper for more, too. Before we cut off the trade agreement, that is.”

Arashi giggles lightly. “Why don’t you go freshen up, Izumi-chan? You’re probably feeling gross and tired. I’ll make you a meal.”

“You were the one flying, aren’t you tired?” Izumi raises an eyebrow, though he can’t argue that a real meal would be nice.

“Make extra for me~” Ritsu whines, falling into the spot Izumi vacates on the couch.

“If the boy I love as much as family didn’t go off and disappear without so much of a sound, my skin wouldn’t be looking so dead with all of the all-nighters I had to pull and my wings wouldn’t ache from the constant searching.” Arashi replies with a huffy snipe. Her face relaxes into a soft expression. “Do as I say? As punishment. You shouldn’t make a lady beg.”

Izumi shifts his eyes away, his gaze falling onto the shadowed decorations lining the walls. He’s weak to that face and that kind of plea. He’s weak to them, and he despises that they know it. He has known them for a long time, now. Despite all of their peculiar circumstances, they came together – and have stayed together, since.

“Don’t be stubborn.” Ritsu snickers. “We’ll be waiting.”

“Do as you please.” Izumi exhales. He steps away from them, feeling their fretfully concerned eyes on his back as he makes his way towards the stairs leading to the upper floor. Once by the wall, he sways a hand by it before taking the first stair. The light crystals dotted around the interior flare up with a soft white glow, illuminating the entirety of the first floor.

They shouldn’t worry so much. However, he knows he’s a hypocrite. If either of them vanishes or if he is unable to do anything but watch, Izumi knows he will be sick with worry. He cannot deny that, even as his body was forced into his ancestral form, there was slim chances of survival. His own magic was overused and ill, to the point where magic’s true dangers triggered. Not to mention the gaping wound near his heart. Makoto shouldn’t have the same problems, despite being in the same magical situation. Izumi shared his own resources – by all means, that should have saved Makoto from using his own too much.

Making his way into his bedroom, Izumi inhales the familiar scent. It has been too long since he stepped foot in here. His own scent saturating every centimeter is nearly foreign to his nose. Izumi almost finds himself seeking the tang of ink that used to float in the air surrounding him. Yet, that’s impossible. He doesn’t store nearly as much ink in his second home, nor does he need to use such primitive methods to write on paper.

Izumi wills the light crystal to turn on once he steps foot into the bathroom fixture, tapping a finger against the wall. He hasn’t seen the man that stares back at him through the mirror’s reflection in a long while. It has been almost a whole month since he has seen his own face, a whole month since he started on the road to recovery. He drags his fingers along his neck, from his chin to his collar bone. The marks from fangs have already disappeared, leaving untarnished skin behind. Nevertheless, his complexion is paler than usual; even though his clear, glowing skin is often compared to that of an apparition’s, this goes well beyond that level. Izumi inhales deeply. He’s feeling a tad better, despite it, however; Ritsu’s blood doubling as a booster shot of vitamins, among other things.

His nimble fingers fumble with his shirt as he peels it off slowly. The dried blood coating the fabric scratches against the skin of his chest and belly as it brushes against his body. He drops the article of clothing tiredly, it and his pants pool at his feet in an unceremonious pile.

Izumi’s bare feet slap lightly against the cold ground as he makes his way into the shower. A blue orb hanging on the ceiling glows with the motion. It flickers for just a moment before cascading a gentle waterfall of warm water down. He sighs in relief as his muscles relax with the sensation. Izumi closes his eyes, resting his forehead on the tiled wall.

He wonders if Leo is doing alright. The cold, stormy air Izumi let into the room didn’t make him catch a cold, did it? The Terrian castle has poor insulation to begin with, after all.

Droplets of water drip from his lashes as he opens his eyelids. The recollection of a streak of crimson liquid spilling from creamy skin remains in front of his eyes despite it not truly being there. Why is he still thinking of Leo? The next they meet will likely be on the battlefield or in the dead of night with a blade between them, shimmering the moonlight back towards the starry sky. He has taken so many things from Leo’s beloved kingdom already, without anyone being the wiser. They are on different sides, destined enemies in both position and loyalty. Even so…

…The emerald eyes that stared at him with so much innocent joy and the voice that is, at times, irritatingly loud yet so melodiously beautiful doesn’t leave his mind.

The next he steps foot back on the ground level of his home, a delicious smell quickly encompasses his every sense. With a towel rubbing at the back of his head gently, Izumi pads his way over. Arashi is standing at the kitchen island, looking proudly over the various dishes laid out over it. Ritsu sits in one of the high stools on the other side, picking at bits and pieces to nibble on.

“You’re looking much better, Izumi-chan.” Arashi greets with a relieved smile. “Sit. I made your favorites.”

“We shouldn’t eat so much in the middle of the night.” Izumi shakes his head. His bare feet stick slightly against the hardwood floor as he makes his way to the seat beside Ritsu. “…Thanks.”

Arashi smugly replies, “Good boy. You’re welcome.”

Ritsu chuckles lowly to himself. “Secchan always gets to eat well~ You learned how to cook, yourself, and Nacchan feeds you. I’m jealous~”

“You make us cook for you all the time. Spoiled.” Izumi growls back.

“Fufu~ You give in too easily~”

“Now, now.” Arashi cuts in, setting three glasses of water down between them. “Izumi-chan, eat before it gets cold.”

“Don’t mother me.” Izumi deadpans, but nonetheless takes a shrimp and pops it into his mouth.

Arashi laments softly; Ritsu’s mood following suit soon after. The atmosphere quickly changes, making Izumi nearly fidget in his seat. He didn’t say anything so strange, nor did he truly mean it in a cruel sense. Perhaps it is that he has been away for too long; he is unintentionally pushing all of their buttons. He just can’t seem to understand what they’re so on edge for, when all of them are safely within each other’s presence. Izumi suddenly feels warm finger tips grazing his cheekbone. Looking up, his eyes meet amethyst orbs filled with a gentle fear.

“Rely on us. Please, Izumi-chan?”

His eyes shift over as his gaze catches Ritsu slumping down onto the counter, resting his cheek on his folded arms. “You don’t need to pretend with us, Secchan.”

Does he truly look that ill to them? Albeit, he cannot deny that using the tiny bit of magic he casted at the Terrian castle still made his stomach turn to some extent. Perhaps they can feel the tired air around him; the three of them have been together for long enough to know everything they’re thinking without words. Unfortunately. Izumi doesn’t turn his eyes away. “I’m fine… really.”

He’s out of the woods, now. Thanks to Leo.

Possibly, that is what makes it worse.

Arashi hums solemnly, putting a spoonful of food in her mouth to delay speaking. “Just… let us know, promise?”

“Yeah. Promise. You, too.” He gives her an easy grin, hoping to ease that anxious look. “You’ll get wrinkles worrying like that.”

Arashi scoffs, batting at the space in front of him with her long fingers.

“Recover quickly.” Ritsu whispers from his spot, his voice carrying airily. “I’m sure you have a lot to report back on. You were at Terrian Castle, right? That’s what Nacchan said.” His crimson irises slide beyond Izumi’s form. “Our situation has changed… We found them.” Ritsu pauses. “We need you at home, Secchan.”

Turning in his seat, Izumi gazes where the vampire is observing. The window is still left open, the trickle of the evening breeze steadily pours inside. The lights from within his home does not dull the nightly glow of the navy-blue sky filled with speckles of starlight in the slightest. Inferna’s imposing Royal Castle stands tall in the distance with luminescent vines crawling up the stone walls.

Home. A place that has made him who he is. A place that has set his high standard of rule. He knows the Terrian throne can barely compare now that he has experienced both for himself.

It is time to return, after long last.

Chapter Text

The tiny black text in front of his eyes do nothing but blur into an intangible mass of music notes dancing to a disjointed melody. They bounce and bound only to crash into each other and spill into a black sea whirling with a hurricane. Eventually the notes are spat out like unwanted children being left in the streets. Becoming rain pelting down onto the earth, the broken notes crash down with gravity; it fills the air with a blanket of hazardous onyx one is unable to see through.

A storm, much like that night nearly two weeks ago…

Flashing heat sweeps away the torrential destruction of his concentration like a wildfire being carried on the breeze. The back of his head pulses with the aftershocks of pain as he brings a hand up to try and soothe it. Looking up, his reflection shines back at him through the elder man’s glasses.

“You are not paying attention, Prince Leo.”

“Apologies.” Leo bows his head before sitting up straight in his seat. Terra’s former military officer glares back with sharp eyes.

“You must divide! Charge in! Infiltrate! Conquer!” From his standing position, he bends at the waist to Leo’s ear level. The brush of the man’s medium length, greying hair against his skin sends a shiver down Leo’s spine as much as his whisper does. “Terra will fall…” He pauses. “…Otherwise.”

Leo turns his head; they are too close. His eyes clash with the cold blue eyes of his tutor and ex-general. He finds himself frozen but swallows his courage. “Yes, sir.”

The older man stands back up, a smirk playing on his lips. “Very well. Let’s continue. Currently, Terra’s new Military General, the previous Prince Guard, has sent the previous Princess Guard away on an expedition along the border, accompanied by one other unit.”

Yes, that unit, Leo is aware of. A unit that is not meant for vanguard nor rearguard. Rather, a unit that is there to pick up the pieces left littered on the bloody battlefield after a massacre. A unit that is meant to provide back up, if possible, and relay information back to the castle. Terra has only been able to stay on the defense while being attacked from both sides. Border villages and cities have suffered too much – lost too much. The rich and the poor, the educated and the non-educated; they are all falling to the same fate.

The two of them continue to analyze military strategies for the next few hours. In conclusion, the ex-military general continues to believe that this remains Terra’s best course of action. Leo is unsure, but he will put his trust in the man. Leo has known him since he was young and in diapers – has seen the man work for the country with his whole heart and body. There is no reason to doubt him.

When the lessons are over, Leo tiredly makes his way down to the dining area. The sun is high in the sky, shining its rays through the windows in a harsh, afternoon heat. His mother is there to greet him first. The other members of his family trickle in only a few minutes after him. They sit in silence, the table before them is decorated lavishly, filled with fine china shining so cleanly Leo wonders how much time in a day is dedicated to polishing something that will quickly become dirty.

The door between this room and the kitchen opens up softly, the slight draft it creates wafts the scent of cooked meats and vegetables into the air. One after the other the chefs and maids bring out plates upon plates of their lunchtime meal. Inwardly, Leo sighs. There is always far too much food for just his little family of four. Without thought, he puts an elbow on the table and tiredly rests his chin in his hand. While eying all of the unnecessary food being brought in, his gaze falls on one of the chefs. The kind chef that Knight met once during their adventure into the kitchen. They are not new to the castle, they have known the royal family for years, and yet… Leo cannot help but fidget under this new nervous energy brushing against his soul.

A throat clearing in irritation brings Leo’s attention back to the present. At the head of the long table, his father glares at him directly. He yanks his arm down and stiffly sets both hands on his lap, making himself as small as possible. Beside him, Ruka stifles a grin and turns her head away slightly. Leo even realizes that a majority of the staff are also sporting amused expressions they are desperately trying to hide behind a professional, emotionless face as they set down the food.

Perfectly glazed meat is set before him, the steam rising off of the dish is visible in the sunny atmosphere of the dining hall. The protein is paired with an intensely colored salad, filled with greens and purples and oranges. Lastly, a basket of freshly baked bread is placed at the center. The scent overpowers the room like incasing all of its occupants in a warm and tender blanket.

With everything set down, the staff bow their heads before exiting. All but one maid, who stands in the corner of the room awaiting further orders. And even if everything is set, they wait. Leo peers at his father, waiting for the first move. The moment his father picks up his utensils and takes the first bite, the rest of them raise their hands to start eating as well. As usual, there is little talk between them. Only the ever bland ‘how is your day’ or ‘how were your lessons’ echo between the walls alongside the clinking of silverware.

Leo’s heart gives a sudden – familiar – wrenching pang. He wishes there is someone to talk to. His own voice is almost foreign to his ears during those rare times it escapes his throat. Even if no one answers him, having someone listen is more than enough. The cravings running deep in his veins is nearly overwhelming, boiling his life blood beneath the surface of his skin. The thoughts running around in his mind are screaming in his ears. He feels suffocated – completely alone in a room full of shadows.

Why… When?

When will his wish come true? His wish that seems like it was made a lifetime ago?

God loves him, doesn’t he? Why else is he a genius? However, by assuming his role as Terra’s next king, he will be abandoning God. Terra, who’s history begins by running away from God, cannot turn back and ask Him for help. Perhaps he has been cursed, instead. Being gifted a skill that is completely useless in his pursuits to properly govern a kingdom is as good as being gifted a dead horse. Good for a meal but useless for war.

The metal of his fork digs into his skin.

Why have all of his friends left?

He will be more than happy to have contact with his previous Prince Guard – though the man is stoic in his ways, staying silent through nearly every conversation and shared moment. Even when taking down their enemies, he has never once showed an ounce of care, sorrow, nor pleasure as his blade runs through the soft flesh of who is before him. They spent many years together, Leo and him. Even if less than a handful of true conversations were shared between them where Leo was not one-sidedly talking to himself, he still feels a camaraderie – an attachment to this other human being.

Lunch ends before Leo can fully finish his meal. However, he has lost his appetite, anyways. There is no reason to eat when it will do nothing but make him more uncomfortable. He expresses his gratitude for the meal softly and leaves the dining hall with his family. They soon part ways without so much as another glance. The usual empty farewells. He briefly catches Ruka’s concerned green gaze in his own. Leo only gives her a slight smile before leaving. He doesn’t want to worry her more.

As he makes his way outside towards the training grounds, he catches sight of the Terrian knights sparring under the shade of their designated outdoor area; covered with a roof but no walls and only thick, decorated pillars. The long hair of his previous Prince Guard flutters with every movement as he trains with the others.

Is that all who is left? Nazuna is gone, or leaving very soon. Madara is gone. Even… Even Knight has left his side.

Leo tilts his head upwards as he walks. The sky is as blue as Knights eyes are; a light azure so bright, clear, and ethereally beautiful, Leo almost finds himself jealous. Though there always was a coldness to them, alongside the burning perseverance. Yet, Knight slowly seemed to relax in his presence, the coldness gradually fading away. They were friends. They are friends.

At least, that is what Leo likes to think.

He steps foot into the archery area, the awning opening up to a vast field ahead with variously sized targets set at different distances. Changing his outfit and picking up his gear in the back room, Leo absently makes his way across the area. He stands at a spot in the center and draws his bow, nocking the arrow back. He stares at the target but is not truly seeing it.

The man that night…

…Was Knight, wasn’t he?

The arrow is released with a thwang, the bowstring snaps back to its original position and the arrow whizzes through the air in a sharp slice. Leo releases his held breath heavily, watching the arrowhead miss its mark by only a few centimeters. His concentration has been lost – rather, he has not had it since he woke up this morning in a lethargic daze.

Perhaps that man was Knight’s owner coming to retrieve him? Since then, the snake has disappeared. Surely the man is the cause of it; that is the only explanation. Knight has never been one to leave his enclosure on his own, with only a single known exception. Leo cannot stop thinking of that man. He cannot stop imagining their face before his eyes. With skin so pale it competes with the moonlight, and eyes the same azure color Leo has become so familiar with; he is certain his initial guess is correct.

He is Knight.

But then what does that mean?

Leo nocks another arrow. This one soars long and far, pinning itself strongly into the target with a piercing crack that shakes through the silent atmosphere. His grip on the bow tightens. Pain flashes through his body as his teeth dig into his bottom lip abusively. Grabbing another arrow, he aims for a different target, even further away than the last. The bowstring stretches taut.

Is Knight a wizard that used some kind of transformation magic? And then what?  Became too weak to transform back or too afraid to? To be a wizard in Terra, one must register with the Kingdom’s government. They will not do anything to any wizard, weak or strong, it is only a precaution; a careful mark to keep an eye on. Though wizards have disappeared from their land, perhaps there are those who are in hiding – for whatever reason. Perhaps they do not want to get dragged into the war.

Leo cannot blame them.

The air splits with a high-pitched noise, making his eardrums tingle. The arrow lands further and further away from his intended target. Clicking his tongue in annoyance, Leo grabs yet another arrow from the container set on the ground beside him. His fingers pale under the tension of his grip. The bowstring whines beside his ear.

Is Knight a demon? A hellish fiend that is the enemy of the state? Was everything a ruse? Or was everything an accidental coincidence? Friend or enemy? Has everything they have been through together during the entirety of last month been set aflame and made pointless? Is Leo the only one who feels the connection between them? Is he the only one who opened up his heart?

The bow screeches in his hands.

The arrow soars hazardously, shooting high into the sky in a crazed spiral before tipping back towards the earth with gravity and pinning itself into the grass. Like fire lapping across his body, his skin ruptures with a sharp, instant slice. Leo turns his head away and drops the equipment in his hands. The bow clatters against the wooden surface of the ground with a heavy impact, the vibrations travelling harshly enough to climb up his legs. He drops his hands to his sides.

Drips of liquid falling onto the wooden planks prickle against the eardrum that is not ringing in shock. His jaw twitches at the soft, ticklish sensation that skirts across his jawline, pausing at his chin to gather heavily before disappearing with a rip. The same impression presses against his fingers, sliding slowly against his scorching skin before falling away from his fingernails. Hanging his head, his eyes only briefly scan over the broken bowstring – frayed irreparably at the edges – before becoming mesmerized by the deep crimson splattering around his feet.

Is he truly alone in this world?

“Excuse me? Is someone in here? I heard- Prince!”

Heavy footsteps race towards him, the clanging of boots and the rough rustle of fabric in the wind does his ringing eardrum no favors. The man makes it to his side, stopping just short and afraid to physically touch Leo. Propriety.

He wouldn’t mind…

“I’m fine.” Leo mutters. He swallows thickly, the saliva lumping in his throat getting forced down with a dull pain. Leo lifts his head and smiles sheepishly, closing an eye playfully. “I messed up a bit.”

Why does it hurt so much, when he is already so used to it?

“You’re injured.” The patrol guard before him uneasily eyes the bright red undoubtedly smearing the side of his face. “Please, let me see you to the infirmary. I will get someone to attend to the archery hall thereafter.”

Keeping the smile on his face, Leo airily answers, “Thank you, you’ve helped me.”

The guard holds the door open, waiting for Leo to exit as well. He scuttles out, cheek burning with the smile still stretching his lips even as his mind drowns within the cold depths of the turbulent black ocean. Only the moment the guard has his eyes trained ahead of them does Leo drop the cheerful persona.

There is no use thinking about such things.

The throne has always been and will always be a lonely place; a place where there is only room for one. A place where there are countless people surrounding it but they cannot get close. God has cursed him; in more ways than one. Yet, he will gladly accept the darkness. For his kingdom. For his people. For his people who have abandoned both God and Devil, he will take all of their pain and echo in their ears a festive song of a happy future.

The guard makes sure to appease the strange, alert looks they get on the way to the infirmary. Leo is grateful, as he only has to grin a tiny amount and wave a hand. He is sure he is an interesting sight with the blood drying on his face and hand and crimson splatters against his clothing. He can feel the skin tug uncomfortably underneath its crustiness. The warm liquid continues to trickle out over top, adding another layer. Leo only hopes his sister doesn’t pass by. He doesn’t want to burden her unnecessarily; they are just flesh wounds, after all.

The lonely road ahead, he will push her away from it.

“Doctor!” The guard bursts the door open with a salute. “The prince is severely injured!”

Jin turns sharply in his chair at the words, his eyes carefully scanning the damage.

Leo chuckles awkwardly, “It’s really not that bad. My bowstring just snapped…”

“Thank you for bringing him. You are dismissed.” Jin says to the guard. He stands from his seat and begins to collect medical supplies from his cabinets. “Prince, sit on the bed.”

The guard bows his head and takes his leave silently. The door clicks closed.

The ringing in his ear has stopped, Leo realizes once the sounds of the sheets rustling beneath his weight flow into his senses. Though that is a good thing, his injured fingers almost feel numb. This is not the first injury he has gotten from archery, still, he should have been more careful. Undoubtedly, his thoughts were scattered and he was unfocused. Archery requires the utmost of concentration else something like this will happen.

“Hand?”

Leo looks up from the floor, eyes meeting Jin’s amber orbs. Quietly, Leo holds out his right hand, a bead of blood about to fall victim to gravity. The doctor quickly wipes it away with a wet cloth before covering the entire hand with it carefully. Leo doesn’t move despite the lacerations burning with every swipe. With the excess blood cleaned away, Jin coats the injuries with medicine. The jelly-like substance is cool against his skin, relieving the inflammation he feels pulsing within his flesh. Soon, his entire hand is wrapped in pure white bandages.

“Be careful when moving around.”

“Okay.” He finds himself replying softly.

“Turn your head.”

His cheek and the skin right by his ear are treated in the same manner. Just as a sticky bandage is plastered onto his face, the doctor pauses in his movements.

“Hm? Did you get injured here?”

Leo feels fingers graze against the column of his neck. When they catch against the high collar of his undershirt, he flinches back and hops off of the bed with a stumble. His hand automatically lays flat on his neck, covering the spot. The instinctual movements make him freeze and laugh loudly to cover any suspicion. “Wahaha, that tickles! What are you doing~?” His Adam’s apple bobs beneath his palm.

Jin tilts his head, staring at him with calculating eyes. “Prince… You don’t need to hide it from me.”

“It’s…” Leo trails off sluggishly. He drops his hand heavily. “Um… It’s hard to explain. It’s old and healed, now, so there isn’t a need to worry.”

Jin raises an eyebrow. “On your neck? You’re not hiding some assassin attempt, are you?”

“No!” Knight would never-

The word leaves his throat in a shout before his mind catches up to the scenario.

Ah. But what does he know? Even if Knight never had an ounce of killing intent radiating off of his soul, one can learn to mask it. Even if Knight kept stalling and stalling for time without making any true moves. Even if Knight left the verbal threats hanging in the air and never truly doing anything more than keep the blade between himself and Leo…

Jin doesn’t look convinced.

“It was an accident. It wasn’t that deep, so I didn’t bother come here. Sorry.” Leo bows his head. “It’s healed, so it’s fine, right?”

The doctor takes another moment to stare at him before releasing a breath through his nose. “Don’t die, Prince. Come back here, let’s check your ear a little more. Can you hear alright?”

Leo steps back to the bed and sits, turning his head. The cartilage of his ear and the lobe do sting with the slight rush of air, now that he truly focuses on it. “Yeah… It was ringing earlier, but it went away.”

Jin hums. He takes a magic crystal from the careful set up he set on the portable table beside him and holds it up close to Leo’s ear. He hears a foreign word muttered in the air just before the corner of his eye is assaulted with a bright shine. After another moment, Jin pulls it away and closes the spell, allowing the crystal to dim back to its original color of cloudy white.

“Doesn’t look like you injured the ear drum, so that’s good.”

“Mm…”

The only noise in the room becomes the sounds of medical supplies getting put away and water getting poured out. Leo falls into another haze; his feet absently kick back and forth in a metronome manner. What is wrong with him, today? Whatever it may be, he will have to get it together. He still has an evening lesson to attend.

“Why don’t you take the rest of the day off? Doctor’s orders.”

Snapping his head up, Leo finds the unruly hair of the Royal Healer. “What?”

“Clear your head with a walk or something. And don’t get those bandages dirty like you usually do.” Jin shrugs, sitting back at his desk chair. “I’ll tell the King and Queen.”

Well, maybe… he isn’t all that alone, after all. “Thanks.” He hops off of the bed. “I think I’ll just rest in my room.”

“Sure, whatever works for you.” Jin waves a hand. “Don’t forget to change. Don’t want anyone thinking the Prince needs to come back here. That’s too much work for me.”

“Yep~” Leo informally sings. He gives the doctor another bow of his head in gratitude before stepping out of the door.

The way towards his bedroom is the same as usual. He only passes by a few staff members, who look at him with concern shining in their eyes, though they do not dare approach him if he doesn’t stop, himself. Luckily enough, Ruka seems to be busy with her own lessons. She is nowhere to been seen while he roams the halls. His parents are surely busy, that is hardly a thought that needs to be questioned.

Grabbing the handle on the door to his room, Leo sighs. He hasn’t spoken in length to anyone in a long while – has not been able to speak freely without carefully calculating his every word. The door slides open slowly. The sunlight streams in strongly from the window, where the curtains are opened wide. Did he open that? Perhaps a maid did-

“Hey.”

Leo freezes, door only halfway open and body only halfway inside. Leaning with his back against the wall adjacent to the window is the man who has not left his thoughts since their first encounter. His arms and ankles are crossed, head turned to the side to stare towards the outside world without interest. “…Knight?”

“Tch. Do not call me that.” Sharp azure eyes finally meet his. Leo can’t see any true anger in them. What he can see are dark blue strips lining his perfectly sculpted cheekbones.

How pretty.

“If you don’t tell me your name, then what am I supposed to call you?” Leo replies softly, closing the door behind him securely. “Don’t be so offended, it’s just a name. You answered to it for a whole month.”

The man sniffs, “As you please, then. I only came for one reason: to repay a debt. I will be leaving, thereafter.”

Leo’s tongue reflexively begins to follow the formal speech pattern. “What debt do you speak of?”

Why is the pressure on his shoulders suddenly increasing?

“What debt-” He stutters out incredulously. He pushes off of the wall and uncrosses his ankles. “You are teasing, are you not? You only want me to say it out loud for your sick pleasure.”

Leo feels the corner of his lips tug into a grin. “No. That is not my intention. Do not get so riled up. If this is about taking you in and caring for you, I do not need a reward nor do you hold a debt towards me. It was fun. Having a friend around.”

The man hums in thought, tilting his head and locking gazes. He reaches into his jacket, pulling out a matte, smokey, pastel pink piece of stone. “I suppose you don’t want this then?”

“That’s-” The stone before him is suddenly hovering scant centimeters above the man’s palm and is consumed in a vicious flame. “Wait!” Leo reaches out. His fingers singe against the heat but the sensation quickly disappears when his appendages wrap around the cold stone. He tugs the stone away, holding it close to his chest with both of his hands. “This is precious. You shouldn’t destroy such valuable things.”

He crinkles his brows, lips tilting into a frown. “You are a fool.”

“So I have been told.” Leo sighs out tiredly. “Still, magic crystals are not easy to come by, and they are quite expensive. You should not just burn it.”

“Maybe where you are from.”

“Hm?”

“Tch. Acting like that irritates me.”

The air electrifies with a perturbed energy, making Leo’s skin prickle.

“Okay, demon.” Standing so close to the other man, Leo can see that the navy-blue stripes on his cheeks are almost as though they are alive; the swirl of color seeming to constantly swim with flecks of starlight. “Are these easy to access in Inferna?”

The man grins; long, thin fangs slip out over his bottom lip. “For the Prince, you sure know no self-preservation.”

“You would have assassinated me that night, otherwise. Besides, you’re here to repay a debt, or so you said. What reason for you to kill me now?”

“Exert more caution.” He rolls his eyes and turns his back towards Leo. “That gem is a little expensive, and approximately a thousand times more powerful than the one you used on me. Be careful with it. Heh, if you can control it at all, that is. Farewell.”

Without thinking, his fingers grab onto the man’s sleeve. “I… Um…”

“Don’t touch me.” The growl in his throat is enough to remind Leo that this man has too many unknown tricks up his sleeve for Leo to counter comfortably.

He lets go. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”

The man’s jaw visibly tightens, his eyes suddenly showing more emotions than previously. “Whatever. I’m leaving.” He digs into his jacket once more.

“Won’t you tell me your name, at least?” Leo interrupts the movements.

“For what reason? It won’t be of use to you.”

“Because you’re my friend.”

The man turns in surprise. His jaw locks again. “Your friend was someone you didn’t even know could speak.”

“Then tell me about yourself.” Leo says softly. His fingers go back to caressing the – surprisingly softy – magic crystal in his hands; his bandages catch against the haphazard edges. “I want to be true friends with a man as kind as you. A man who came back into enemy territory just to repay a make-believe responsibility.”

He scoffs, “Kind? Hardly.”

“My name is Leo Tsukinaga.” To get others to open their hearts, one must be willing to open their own. “The Prince of the Kingdom of Terra.” The man clamps his lips shut, making Leo chuckle in amusement. “Come on~ It can’t get any more serious than my position.”

Though he says that, the man’s speech is comparable to aristocrats and royalty. It has been a long time since Terra has known the names of this neighboring kingdom’s ruling family members; the ancient script used to sign official documents having been lost to time within Terra’s domain. Since splitting apart from God’s land and the Devil’s realm, the Terrian people have evolved their own language – one that was, unfortunately, picked up far too quickly by their enemies. Though Caelem and Inferna, too, have evolved their language, the ancient script is still very present within their culture for vital specialties, unlike Terra.

Even their faces are a mystery to Terra – Inferna only using messengers to communicate internationally. As much as Terra fears communicating with them, they also show disinterest in the frail humans. It has been a long time since his people have run away, indeed. Caelem, on the other hand, are eagerly trying to reconcile their kingdom’s relationship. Though the ancient script is present, most documents have been translated into the Terrian tongue, furthermore, their Kings have met during prior engagements, face to face.

The man lets out a breath, leaning his bottom on the window sill and crossing his arms again. Turning his head away, his eyes scan the clear blue sky shining high above them beyond the glass pane. “Izumi Sena.”

Leo tests the name on his tongue. “Thank you.”

Izumi raises an eyebrow, sliding his eyes over. “What in all Hell are you saying?”

He chuckles. “This is much more repayment than what I gave you, is all. Now I believe I’m the one that owes you?”

“No thanks.” Izumi closes his eyes for a long second. “There is nothing more I want from you.”

Ah, but…

“What’s your profession?” Leo asks quickly. “I am sure I will have something for you.”

Izumi hums. Their eyes find each other only fleetingly before the demon slides his eyes away contemplatively. “Showcaseman.” He replies airily.

“Show…case… Man?” The words are foreign to his tongue.

“Hmph. You don’t know anything about Inferna, do you, Terrian?”

“Then teach me. Is it a common job?”

“As if.” Izumi sniffs, offended. “It’s a high-class occupation. One that takes a lot of skill, training, and beauty.”

“Beauty?”

“Unlike your run of the mill kingdom, Inferna values attractiveness. You are more likely to believe in someone gorgeous than someone who crawled out of a pile of garbage, aren’t you?” Izumi’s eyes roam his face. “Can’t say you’re that bad, though.”

“So, it’s a mind game, over there…” Leo trails off, willing his cheeks not to flush prettily. “And? Do you just stand around looking pretty?”

Izumi shrugs. “I could. Sometimes we’re even placed in glass casings and suspended from the ceiling. That’s usually for fancy balls, however.”

“Then, what else do you do?”

“Me, personally? I specialize in dance and security. A hidden killer amongst the crowd.”

That must be why Izumi seemed as though he is a skilled fighter. Nevertheless, Leo ignores the second portion of the explanation for now. “Dance?”

“An entertainer. Surely, you have performers here?”

“No. I mean, yes, we do, but that’s not it.” Leo clutches the stone harder. “How about I teach you to sing?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your value will rise if you’re able to sing and dance, right? I’ll teach you. In exchange, teach me magic.”

Izumi harrumphs, “I thought this was supposed to be repayment for your rare crystal?”

“Hm~ But you said you didn’t want that.” Leo counters playfully. “That is… If I’m even able to learn magic…”

“Tsk. Terra has really fallen. Anyone can learn, with the right mentality.”

“Great. Then, please, teach me.” Leo steps closer eagerly.

“I’m from Inferna, you know?” Izumi says incredulously, about to stand and take a step back. “What reason do I have to do this? Or to be here?”

“You gave me this crystal. Take responsibility.”

“If it explodes and eats up the whole kingdom, it’s not my fault, though? Rather, it will aid my allies.”

“There are demon citizens here, too. You’re going to risk them?”

“What they do with their lives is not really anyone’s problem but their own.”

Leo finds himself smiling, despite the callous words. “You really don’t hold back, huh? I need that, sometimes. But your world doesn’t need to be so dark, you know?”

“It’s just as dangerous to think everything is in the sunlight.” Izumi whispers.

The words hang between them.

“Then…” He trails off. “There’s a position open. You’re a trained guard, right? Be my Prince Guard. Stay with me. Show me your world and I’ll show you mine.”

Chapter Text

Hire him? Hire him?! Money is of no concern?!

That senseless, irresponsible, eccentric, annoying human! Is he the prince of a whole kingdom or not?! Does he want to die? Get assassinated in the middle of the night in cold blood?! With magic, it would be all too easy to evaporate such a frail species into nothing but dust particles floating in the breeze. And he had the gall to ask to be taught such a dangerous skill by the enemy?! Leo is insane!

What is Leo thinking; looking at the people who are devotedly his state’s enemy and unflinchingly asking for support? Doesn’t he know that they’re at war? Why should he – of all people – assist the Terrians? Not that Leo knows a thing. Humanity is frail. The Terrians have lost all of their history – the knowledge that their ancestors went to great lengths to flee from and ultimately took to their graves. The Terrians, who believe in neither Devil nor God have abandoned Inferna and Caelem without a doubt, yet their newest Prince is fraternizing with a demon.

All of those years of rebelling for segregation are getting unraveled, one way or another.

The door slams closed behind him with a shudder. Unfortunate, stray pebbles crunch underneath his angry footsteps as he hustles his way through the capital. The agency’s building, decorated in pale gray stones and colorful glass shards climbing up the exterior walls, is left staring at his back. Izumi clenches his hands, the clear, glass-like marble he had gotten from the head presses deeply into his palm. Like how all societies eventually become, for the right price, anything is possible. Disgusting greed.

And with that, he has been demoted to babysitting a human. Him. Izumi Sena.

Izumi sucks in a breath, the cool air slithering between his teeth in a chill. Keeping it within his lungs for a moment, he bottles up all of the tension worming its way into his body and releases it all in a huff. Fine. This is how it is going to be from now on; at least it makes his job easy. With the contract in his hands, he needs to check in with the castle. He will have to go his other home first if he wants to enter its halls, however. Looking around, he finally takes notice of the wary yet fascinated stares he is receiving. He pays them no mind, however, and continues on his way. Out from the business ward, he will have to traverse through the shopping district to get home. Mentally, Izumi prepares himself for the flood of people milling around or trying to get his attention.

Or perhaps not.

As he steps foot in the midst of stores varying from fashion to pet supplies, his eyes hyper focus on the scuffle happening at the edge of the city square. Though he can’t see inside the ring of perpetrators to their victim, he has lost interest – unlike most of the pedestrians stopping in their tracks to catch a show. Violence is an everyday occurrence in Inferna, no matter where one is in the country. Though it is not a lawless land and there is currency, things such as theft or even murder are not against any policies. There is not a real police force, anyhow; only the Infernan Militia and special investigative agencies. If one wants to protect their goods or their loved ones, then be strong enough to do so with any means necessary. Thus, one should always have a weapon on hand. That’s all there is to it. Help should never be expected.

“Those are more expensive than all of your clothes combined, ya’ know?! Oshi-san is going to bury your family under a mountain if ya get those dirty!”

Izumi stops in his tracks. The familiar voice and accent slips through the noise of the crowd and rings in his ears blaringly. His heart only has time to beat once more before he is clicking his tongue and pivoting on the balls of his feet. He huffily rakes his fingers through his hair and stuffs the marble into the inner pocket of his jacket while kicking alive his magic reserves. Feeling the particles become ready at his command, he wills them forward. Jagged ice runs across the ground, growing steadily larger as they penetrate straight into the thick of it. People gasp and jump out of the way before turning their heads and piercing him with their gazes.

How annoying, to be the helper.

“What’s the big idea, pretty boy?”

Izumi smirks as he takes poised strides alongside his path of ice. His eyes only briefly scan the victim in the center, hair and clothing slightly disheveled, but no worse for the wear. So, it really is this boy, he concludes. “Your ugly mug is no match for me. Drop what you stole and leave.”

The group laughs loudly. Izumi peers around, separating them from the lingering crowd. Six, huh? Why must they always travel in packs like wolves? Inferna is the land of Devil, there is no good nor justice here. No one gives a damn about what anyone else does. But even demons have things they need to protect.

“You and that pipsqueak? Yeah right.”

“Izumi-chan-san?”

“What are you doing, Kagehira?” Izumi scoffs, coming to stand beside the other boy. “You can fight.”

“Oshi-san only gave the order to deliver stuff to the castle and buy fabric. A doll can’t act without the master.”

He slides his eyes over, observing Mika with only the corner of his vision. Those constraining de facto rules... Bringing someone back from the dead really is too messy for his tastes. “Whatever. Naru-kun will kill me if I walked away, that’s all.”

“I appreciate ya’!”

Izumi feels a growl bubble up from his throat in irritation. This whole day is just a piece of Hell. He draws the sword attached to the side of his hip and twirls the hilt in his hands. “Well? Give it back. I’m not really in the mood to play with you.”

They chortle. “It’s your life, man.”

Though all six of them draw their weapons in retaliation, Izumi notices one blatantly staring at his face. “Or maybe you’re just what I need to blow off a little steam.”

Without waiting, Izumi makes the first move; jumping straight into their disorganized formation. Albeit murder is okay, he doesn’t feel like getting even more entangled with the aftermath of revenge for just these brutes. That will only end in a massacre, anyways. With the flat side of his blade, Izumi smacks the wrist of the first person in front of him before taking a quick pivot and doing the same to the next. The third person in his way of a peaceful day is just a step too far. Instead, after the weapons clatter to the ground with metallic shivers, he kicks them towards Mika for safeguarding and takes a decisive step back.

The air begins to vibrate. The noise of the crowd cheering them on becomes a distorted screech. If that is how they want to fight, then he is more than willing to match their fervor. The wind around them kicks up a notch as he pulses his own magic into the air. The tips of his bangs flutter across his forehead back and forth. Nevertheless, the one who was staring at him earlier runs up to their ring leader in front of him and frantically whispers into their ear.

“He’s who?”

The fun is over. Only his own magic whirlwinds through the atmosphere now, but he doesn’t bother to stop it just yet. The paling faces of the six troublemakers exasperates him more. “Running already?”

“Wh-who cares who this pretty boy is! It’s still six against one!”

The muscles in his cheeks tug into a grin, fangs slipping out from underneath his lip. “That’s more like it.”

The atmosphere stills as though time itself has stopped moving forward. Breaths become short, the air becomes frigid and dry, stinging lungs with every inhale. No one dares to move even a centimeter. The hustle and bustle of the shopping district is brought to an abrupt halt. He feels the excitement of his magic building up within his still form. Releasing them from his mental leash, he allows them near-free reign over the area. The only form of warning the public receives are the millisecond flashes of bright blue in the sky before icicles crash down towards the pavement.

The walkways are splattered in red as thugs and audience members alike are grazed with the sharp magic. The still atmosphere dissolves into one filled with groans and hurried footsteps. Birds come back to fly overhead, the flutter of their feathers ruffling the air above. Izumi finally takes a step away from his position, sheathing his sword back into its scabbard. Making his way to the ring leader, he bends down to retrieve the bundle fallen to the ground without a word before turning around.

“Here. It’s not damaged, right?” Izumi asks, handing it over to his friend’s friend.

Mika quickly unravels the bundle. With the exterior peeled away, extremely well-made, and likely expensive, bolts of fabric are revealed to their eyes. A quality and complexity that can only be found within the capital, a city filled to the brim with the best in any trade. Mika sighs in relief, seeing that their condition remains pristine.

“Oshi-san is particular, I can already see the fit he would’ve thrown, ya’ know?”

The crowd is slowly dispersing, yet Izumi keeps a careful ear out. “Itsuki is… Well, I’m sure you know better than anyone. Come on.” He pivots on his heels and begins to walk out of the city square. “Might as well accompany you home. This will just happen again if I don’t. I need to see Itsuki for something, anyways.”

“Thank ya’ kindly, Izumi-chan-san~” Mika trills. He hurriedly packs up the fabric again and trots after him.

Izumi huffs. What is with that nickname, anyways; mixing someone else’s nickname and trying to add a polite title to it. Arashi has influenced the boy too much. If he remembers correctly, even with his speech slightly awkward due to trying to mask the accent, Mika used to be impossibly polite; struggling to not to step on any toes. Now, though he does show proper respect, he is much more comfortable around all of them. He exhales a slow breath, making his way towards the transportation station. He supposes it’s fine. Ruling out of fear doesn’t make much sense, anyways; not with how things are run, nowadays. A strange feeling in Inferna, for sure, but they have to at least try.

Knowing that Mika is trailing behind him, Izumi steadily weaves his way through the crowd. Upon entering the station, he takes out his Inhabitant’s Card – a special card native to Inferna. It is a rectangular, pressed slab of a clear, shimmering magic crystal, no longer than two inches in length and a few millimeters in thickness. Every Infernan citizen acquires one upon the moment of their birth, spawn, or creation. The little glass-like ID getting imbued with a dollop of blood in the very first moment of life – making it impossible to counterfeit or steal, as it can only be used when the same blood is present during usage. The item doubles as both a citizen registry and currency, only needing the magic held within to be scanned. Once the system can recognize the magic signal and discover the correct person within Inferna’s archive, then can fees and transactions occur and be taken care of later.

“Mineralis.” Izumi says to the worker sitting pretty inside of a cylindrical room. He holds up his Inhabitant’s Card against the glowing orb attached to the curved glass walls.

“Ah! Me too!” Mika hurries along, repeating the same motions with some struggling to keep the bundle in his arms.

He steps a little closer, allowing the bolts of fabric to fall against his arm. When Mika turns his head back around, Izumi moves away quickly. The worker inside politely gestures and calls out Station Five. With a nod, Izumi makes his way to the another cylindrical, glass tube. Its circumference is wide enough to comfortably fit at least five people within its confines. The glass doors slide open when they approach, closing securely behind them. The translucent floor they stand on inside begins to spark a brilliant forest green. The glow engulfs their every sense within seconds.

Before they know it, the teleportation magic has safely relocated them to a different building, one decorated in well-formed metals. The glass doors slide open, much like the previous ones. Stepping out, Izumi’s feet hit the ground – the stone pavement much more tightly packed than anywhere he has encountered before. Mika stays close to him, hoping not to get separated in the crowd as they make their way back out into the world.

The sun shines brightly, reflecting against the sheets of metal and back into their eyes. The vast city is splashed in all kinds of shades of the earth. Browns gradually growing into deep reds, bronzes evolving into golds. It is part of the City of Mineralis’s unique culture, a city built entirely with earthly materials. Their shoes click against brick pavement beneath their feet as they wind their way through the streets towards the most impressive manor within the area.

Towards the Devil’s Home.

It is gaudy in every sense, towering well above the other structures on top of a sizeable hill and equipped with large gears slowly spinning on its outer wall. The stone and metal mixture of its exterior glitters against the afternoon sunlight, dancing stray beams into the populace. Izumi eyes the formidable building with interest. It looks to be in good condition – the fussy Devil of Land would not have it otherwise. The gears shine almost too brightly for his eyes. He has been here a number of times – for business, mostly, but pleasure, as well – there has not been a day when there is so much as a speck of dirt or dust that graces its surface. Izumi sniffs in amusement; the poor souls of the cleaning staff.

“Hey, Izumi-chan-san?”

That nickname again. “Hm?”

“Wanna fly?”

Izumi looks over his shoulder, his attention being stolen by the unnatural glow in Mika’s golden eye. He gives a single shoulder shrug in reply, stopping in his tracks. Mika grins widely, short fangs getting put on display for the world to see. The golden glow intensifies until it consumes the entirety of his right eye and bursts forward like a firecracker. The radiance flutters around midair before shooting into the sky and forming into a tangible creature. With another burst, a great golden crow is free to roam – stretching its wings lengthily and circling around the area. The bird slowly descends down to them, landing without any weight pressuring against the ground – it is made of magic, after all.

Mika happily goes over to it, hopping up easily and carefully balancing the fabrics still in his arms. He turns his head and looks expectantly at him. With a short exhale, Izumi walks closer. Careful of the feathers, he climbs on behind Mika, making sure his legs are not in the way of the bird’s wings.

“Alright.” Izumi says softly.

“Then we’re going!” Mika cheers. The moment his voice rings out, the bird takes a leaping flight. They are high in the blue sky within a single breath. The wind rushes by, kissing their cheeks in a smooth stroke. Though the atmospheric temperature drops the higher they fly, the sun’s rays seem to get closer, tingling their exposed skin.

In short order, they are upon the gated front lawn of the manor. The bird gently decreases its altitude, allowing them to jump off before shooting back into the sky. The higher it soars, the more its body breaks off like stardust splashing in the heavens. Izumi peers at Mika, watching as his golden eye illuminates like a pulsing heartbeat and then settle into its regular, dazzling shade.

“Kagehira, have I not told you that it is distasteful to make such a ruckus out front?”

The two of them turn their attention to the approaching form of a tall man cloaked in regal clothing, his coat fluttering against the back of his legs with every step and slow breeze. The intricate ruffles and sleeves paired with the perfect colors scheme of royalty giving off an air of superiority and pride. The impression nearly overpowers the atmosphere and suffocates them the closer he gets.

The Devil of Land approaches them with methodical steps. One of the five Devils in Inferna that are able to go toe to toe with Caelem’s powerhouses - the counterpart to Caelem’s Goddess of Earth, Gaia.

“Sorry, Oshi-san.”

Izumi sniffs, crossing his arms.

“And to what do I owe the pleasure of setting my eyes on your beauty today, Sena?”

“Itsuki.” Izumi greets snippily, Devil or not. “Take better care of what’s yours. Making me play bodyguard to someone else belonging to the Court.”

Shu hums aloud, impartial to the words. He opens the bundle in Mika’s arms, inspecting the pristine collection of fabrics. “A failed doll, indeed. Well, I suppose you do some things correctly.” He lifts his hand, placing it on top of Mika’s dark hair soothingly. “You don’t expect gratitude, do you, Sena?”

“Tch. Whatever.” Izumi scoffs, hating the fact that Shu can likely read him. “I needed to ask something of you, anyways.”

“Oh? How rare of you.” Shu turns on his heels. “Do come inside, then. The sun is dreadful. We can talk more comfortably over a warm drink.”

“I’ll make your favorite, Izumi-chan-san~” Mika sings. He happily skips behind the pink haired man, unfazed by any of his harsh words.

“Put those in the fabric room carefully, Kagehira.”

“Ya’ bet!”

Izumi is already tired from the two’s first, near disjointed, interaction. He sighs under his breath as he trails after the duo. The guards stationed around the perimeter have not made a single peep, though he is sure they have seen similar scenes and have grown accustomed. Even the sentries at the door do no more than salute and stare straight ahead stoically. Though he has known both Shu and Mika for a long time, mostly due to his position, he cannot say he has had too much personal interaction with them. Thus, these everyday exchanges are seemingly… strange to him. A balance of power that is not quite right; teetering between one-misstep-before-it-crumbles-into-dust and cracks-bound-so-tightly-that-nothing-can-break-their-current-bond.

Their shoes click and echo against the shining metal flooring, the taller heels on Shu’s footwear creating an even more foreboding resonance. Mika veers off into another corridor, leaving Shu to lead him into the sitting room, which is decorated lavishly from floor to ceiling. Izumi almost hesitates to take a step onto the pristine rug laid in front of the plush couches. The royal castle, too, has such ornamental pieces, and yet, this place is neither his home nor a home he frequently visits – he feels, not quite out of place, however, too on guard. Not that he will allow Shu to notice.

“Have a seat.”

Izumi peers at the loveseat lined in golden thread, declining slowly onto its plush cushion. “Thanks.”

Shu takes a less cautious seat in the couch across the way, crossing his long legs and bringing his extravagant footwear back into attention. “Kagehira won’t be long. What do you require of me? Court business?”

Izumi hums, also crossing his legs to feign relaxation. “I suppose you can say that.”

Shu raises an elegantly groomed eyebrow. However, before he can ask more questions, the door opens after a short knock. Dark green hair sheens against the sunlight shining in through the window, heavy curtains pushed to the side for the day, as it peaks around the entrance way. The floral aroma of the tea wafts into the room like a gentle breeze. It overtakes their senses and pulls their attention away from each other to the younger boy standing before them.

“Sorry fer the wait!” Mika exclaims. He carefully kneels onto the dense rug, setting the tray of tea on the low coffee table in between he and Shu. One by one, the tea cups are filled effortlessly – the smooth, copper liquid spilling into the fine glassware like the ambient sounds of a gently flowing stream. Once finished with two cups, he places the first in front of Shu.

Izumi absently wonders where the rest of the manor’s workers are; yet, he knows that this is how things are run here in Mineralis, in Shu’s territory. Though there are other personnel, Mika is the only one that stays right at Shu’s side and abides to his bidding. Without complaint. Izumi gives a nod to the boy in appreciation, accepting the tea and bringing it to press against his lip. The warmth wisps onto his skin like a lover’s touch.

“Make one for yourself and sit, Kagehira. It is distracting if you are only standing in the middle of the room.” Shu comments inattentively, closing his eyes to the heavenly taste of the pure tea on his tongue.

“M’kay, Oshi-san~”

The Devil of Land exhales an exasperated breath as Mika unceremoniously – by Shu’s standards, probably – plops himself into one of the cushioned armchairs of the same design as the rest of the furniture. “Back to the topic at hand, what is it that you need, Sena? What does the Court require of me?”

Izumi waves his hand dismissively. “Nothing so formal. Not really, anyways. A personal aid to me. I need you to make a music recorder.”

“Recorder?” That elegant eyebrow shaded in a cheerful light pink raises again. “That is not quite my…” Shu pauses. “Expertise… Never mind me. I understand.”

Izumi mumbles an agreement, shifting his eyes outside to stare into the endless blue sky for a brief moment. The expert on such odd, yet wildly useful, contraptions has since been lost to them. The rustle of clothing makes him turn his head back. Shu stands from the couch across from him after setting his teacup down. With measured steps he stands before Izumi.

“A personal aid, is it?” Shu whispers, leaning closer. His long fingers lay warmly on Izumi’s cheekbone, the other fingers slowly gliding across his jawline.

“You’ll get compensated.” Izumi says in a low, even tone, despite the proximity. “But monetary compensation isn’t what you’re interested in, am I right?” His breath bounces back against Shu’s wrist.

“You are truly a beautiful specimen.”

Izumi’s ears catch the quiet harrumph Mika lets out from between his lips.

“Acceptable. It’s an exchange, then.” He replies.

Shu stands to his full height and turns towards the door once more. “Come, then. Kagehira, bring the tea and follow along. We can discuss the details of your device as I work.”

Izumi sets his teacup on the tray and moves to follow. “It should to be easy to use. Easy enough that it won’t run wild with someone who has no magic experience.”

Shu looks at him with narrowed eyes. “A beginner? The only one I have seen you taken under your wing is that blonde one.”

“This one is infinitely more annoying than Yuu-kun.” Izumi says strongly, a growl hidden away in his throat.

“Is it a gift, Izum-chan-san?” Mika asks, trailing behind them.

He pauses. The words that nearly tumble out of his mouth are caught in his throat and returned to his thoughts. “A learning tool. Or an incentive. Whichever way you want to look at it. But the quicker he learns, the quicker I don’t have to babysit him.”

“I care not what you get involved in, though it sounds troublesome, indeed.” Shu shakes his head.

The echoes of their footsteps bounce between the solid walls of the manor once more. Izumi has an inkling as to which room Shu is leading them to this time; he has stood in between those four walls countless of times before. Quite possibly, that room is the only reason he visits this manor, in the first place. His skin unconsciously shivers, remember the ghost of gentle fingers sliding up and down his body – it takes only one slip-up to lead to pain.

As expected, the door now before them opens up to reveal those four familiar walls. The interior is decorated less lavishly and sparingly – a long work table pushed up against the side wall and organizational cubbies lining the opposing partition from floor to ceiling are its only piece of furniture. The large window allows a plentiful amount of sunlight to stream inside, lighting up the interior in its ethereal glow.

From past experience, Izumi begins to shed his clothing. His fingers go to the buttons on his jacket as he steps into the room. Izumi glides his fingers against the inner pocket of the piece of clothing as it leaves his arms, making sure the little marble remains safe within its confines. Mika sets down the tray, well away from most of the materials in the room, and comes back over to him. The boy’s surprisingly nimble fingers take the jacket away, waiting patiently at his side for more. The flashy accessories and ornaments leave his person one by one, fluttering into Mika’s steady grip. Once satisfied that his body is bare enough to work with, Izumi strides to the center of the room where a fitting platform awaits.

His eyes trail after Shu as he moves about. The Devil of Land goes from one mannequin to the next – all lined up neatly. His hand stops at an extravagant outfit, one nearly fit for a king. The chains tinkle in his swaying movements as Shu takes it off of the figurine.

“So?” Izumi asks, accepting the offered shirt that Shu hands over. “What do you expect me to do with this?”

“Wear it to your next event, proudly.” Shu says confidently. He trails a finger down Izumi’s jawline once more. “Your beauty is not to be wasted.”

The satisfaction of having one’s work be on display, Izumi understands. With his position, it probably will not be long before he is called to attend some kind of formal occasion, such as a ball or a ceremony. “Is that all you want?”

“Come grace me with your beauty more often.” Shu hands him the next piece of the outfit. “I have plenty more to showcase.”

“If you say so.” Izumi hums noncommittedly. Mika encroaches on his vision once more, ready with tools set on a small tray in his hands.

Shu shifts the outfit around on Izumi’s body, settling it into place. After a tug or two, Shu pinches the fabric and reaches his freehand towards Mika, grabbing a sewing pin.

“Now tell me about this music recorder.”

“He composes music. Just make something he can put all of that nonsense into instead of throwing his papers around and making a mess.”

“I presume you want it to be adjustable, then?” Shu asks.

“That sounds too complicated fer a newbie, though?” Mika pipes up.

Izumi looks away briefly. “Well, if it blows up, all the better for us.”

Shu scoffs irritably. “There is no work of mine that will get sullied by some wet behind the ears child.”

“Make it easy to use or make it so difficult that even an experienced magician will go mad; I don’t care.” Izumi rolls his eyes grumpily. “As long as he has it, he will mess with it until his last breath. God loves him, after all.”

Chapter Text

Izumi Sena. Izumi. Sena. Sena, Izumi.

I~zu~mi~

Se~na~

Izumi.

Sena.

A man with apparition-like beauty so enchanting one could instantly become hypnotized. Some type of demon from the Kingdom of Inferna. He who has the skills to wield both sword and magic. He who is kind, yet shelters that kindness behind piercing fangs and even sharper words. A man whose heart is locked away in a glacier of the same ice he commands at the tip of his fingertips. With eyes like the dazzling, clear, endless afternoon sky and hair like streaks of moonlight, he can draw eyes from far and wide, people only hoping to get just a glimpse of his ethereal beauty.

The mental visual, alone, makes his heart stutter within his chest.

A whispered breath leaves from between his lips, “Izumi Sena…”

“What?”

He yelps loudly, heartbeat pounding in his ears and body jerking to attention. His knee slams into the ground as he falls off of his bed. Jerking his head upwards, the glare of the setting sun blinds his eyes as his vision passes across the window. Squinting at the new person within his sleeping quarters, he whispers their name once more, “Sena.”

“What?” Izumi repeats, his tone quickly rising with irritation. “And what is with that weird inflection you gave my name? We’re not friends, Tsukinaga.”

“You scared me…” Leo exhales. “Oh! I guess you are a demon. Is it that thing where I say your true name out loud and invoke you?”

 “…I’m not that type of demon.” Izumi shifts his azure eyes away uneasily. His voice drops to something barely audible, “Not for you, anyways.”

Leo tilts his head, suspecting that the last portion is supposed to remain hidden away within Izumi’s breath. He doesn’t comment on it, instead letting the topic drop and moving onto the next one. “Do you like it?” Leo sits up properly and crosses his legs in front of him, putting his hands on his ankles. His lips spread into a smile before he can stop himself. “I’ve been thinking about nicknames lately.”

“No.”

The grin doesn’t leave his face; Izumi is back after an entire seven days, after all. “You can give me a nickname, too.”

“I told you, we are not friends.” The Infernan demon huffs. “At most, you are my superior and I your employee, at present. Purely a business relationship.”

“Business relationship?”

A deep hiss vibrates from the back of Izumi’s throat. “You were the one who wanted to hire me as a Showcaseman, were you not?”

Leo finds himself humming thoughtfully, his gleeful expression falling from his face. “That doesn’t need to make us only business partners, though? And you can drop that formal speech with me, I won’t tell a soul.”

He can see Izumi’s jaw clench tighter, the muscles lining Izumi’s chiseled face contracting with the rising ire building up inside. The demon man reaches inside his jacket. Leo eyes the movements carefully. Despite his words and the desire to start building true trust with Izumi, he cannot rule out the possibility of a weapon being pulled out. Slowly, Leo unfolds his legs and rises to his feet. Izumi takes his hand out, revealing nothing to Leo’s eyes. Whatever it may be, it is small enough to fit within the palm of his hand.

Striding forward, Izumi holds out his lightly clenched fist.

Leo blinks in confusion, however, nonetheless holds his hand, palm up, underneath Izumi’s. A slight weight is dropped onto his skin. When Izumi pulls back, Leo gets a glimpse of a crystal clear, glass marble – the little jewel-like object glittering with the auburn, dusk sky.

“What’s this?” He asks slowly, eyes losing focus as he continues to stare into the clear object refracting sunlight.

“Our contract.”

Once more, Leo tilts his head in befuddlement. “Contract…?”

“A binding agreement concerning one’s employment that specifically states the obligations both parties are to perform.” Izumi rattles off dryly.

Leo shakes his head, finally shuddering off his fixation with the marble. “No. Not the definition.”

“One would wonder.”

“How is this… What do I do with it? I don’t know how to use magic.”

Izumi’s gaze locks with his. “You don’t need magic. Will it.”

“Will?”

Leo looks down at his palm once more. He doesn’t understand what Izumi nor the little marble want from him. Does he ask for permission to view its contents? Is there is special word that activates all of its wonders? Like, Hocus Pocus or Open Sesame? The glass-like material warps his reflection on its surface, showing him the troubled expression on his face.

A contract lies within its depths? He would like to witness such a feat.

The marble suddenly bursts with color, the glow swirling within before getting expelled. Above his palm, letters of a foreign land are being written midair. Before long, an entire contract is floating between them.

“There, see? It was not that difficult.”

Leo grumbles a sound, nibbling on his bottom lip. “I… Hmm…”

Izumi chuckles, making Leo look away from the luminous words. “Can’t read the Infernan language, Prince of Terra? Do they teach you anything useful here?”

“I can read your modern script!” Leo huffs, flicking his eyes back. “It’s… just harder than Caelian. That’s all. You guys don’t normally network with us, so it’s not often I’m exposed to it.”

Izumi hums in amusement, almost mockingly. “But I am speaking with you in your Terrian tongue without issues. Surely, a prince can do that much?”

Leo puffs his cheeks in annoyance, his eyes never leaving the words before him. If he takes it slowly, he can read the contract; even if some of the symbols are those he has not encountered since opening the single textbook from his studies when first beginning to learn the language.

 

Agreement for Showcasemen – Security Services

This is a binding contract between Showcaseman (Izumi Sena) and Hirer (Leo Tsukinaga) to follow the following agreement.

 

By binding this contract, Showcaseman hereby agrees to perform his duties as Security Personnel, which include:

  1. Provide the security of Hirer and/or persons and/or objects that Hirer states with Showcaseman’s prior knowledge and consent
  2. Only operates with the Hirer in mind
  3. Use all available skills without restraint

Izumi Sena – Class S

Weapons: sword, dagger, scythe

Magic: ice, various

  1. Resort to complete annihilation if necessary

 

By binding this contract, Hirer hereby agrees to the terms, which include:

  1. Monetary compensation – Showcaseman – Class S
  2. May halt the actions of Showcaseman at any moment, however Showcaseman is not responsible for any injuries or death post command

 

Upon near death, Showcaseman has the right to flee, dismissing the terms of this contract and acquiring a failed mark on their record, demoting his/her/their rank.

The contract must be active for a minimum of 100 days. Post 100 days, if Hirer wills it, the contract may be terminated. The contract will be immediately terminated if it is in interference with the current war between all three Kingdoms in Somnium.

 

“By binding?” Leo asks, rereading the words carefully. “Not signing? Did I read that wrong?”

“You’re correct. Looks like you are not a lost cause, after all.” Izumi smirks. “If you agree to the terms, I’ll show you.”

At Leo’s nod, Izumi reaches towards his tall boots. Leo warily eyes the shining steel that refracts the sunlight towards his eyes, taking a cautious step back. The demon man chuckles lowly upon seeing his instinctive motions.

“Can you truly call yourself my friend?” Izumi ridicules in dry humor. “I’m not going to kill you; I’m supposed to be your bodyguard, so it would be pointless. Here, I’ll do it first. We don’t need much.”

With that, Izumi brings the thin dagger towards his free hand, extending a finger. The very tip of the weapon pierces into his creamy, pale skin like softened butter. Retracting it, blood quickly beads out of the wound. With the marble still safely in Leo’s palm, Izumi reaches out and holds his finger above it, flipping his hand over so the blood will eventually fall with gravity. Leo stares, transfixed at what may occur. The wait for enough blood to pool out is much too long, yet only seconds.

The crimson liquid grows larger and larger in amount, stretching thin as it clings to its source desperately. The moment it loses its battle, Leo’s eyes follow it downwards until it splashes against the top of the marble. Right before his eyes, the marble comes alive and consumes the substance eagerly, drawing the liquid into its crystal-clear core. The red drifts inside of the marble like oil mixing with water.

Leo swallows thickly. The fact that this otherworldly object even exists within their realm of reality settles into his mind. “You’re not my Prince Guard yet. I don’t even, truly, understand this contract.”

“If you want me to sign some flammable piece of parchment with, equally as unreliable, ink after you bind this contract, I don’t really care.” Izumi sticks the very tip of his finger between his thin lips. “Well? Give me your hand.”

The pink of Izumi’s tongue slips into view marginally. He feels a similar shade growing on his cheeks, making Leo turn his face away as he lifts his hand upwards. Luckily, Izumi doesn’t seem to notice and reaches his hand into his pocket. The demon pulls out a startlingly white handkerchief and wipes down the tip of the dagger before reaching forward and grabbing Leo’s hand.

Izumi’s fingers are strong and warm. The thought absently floats into his mind as those long appendages straighten out his index finger and holds it steady. To be held in those capable hands, Leo wonders what it would be like. When the dagger pierces his flesh, he doesn’t necessarily feel any pain. It is only afterwards, when the dagger is retracted, that the stinging sensation envelopes his fingertip. Izumi hurriedly pulls the appendage in a gentle manner, hovering it above the marble.

With both of their blood spilled into the marble, the words still midair change from the soft glow of white to a blazing red. The transparent color of the tiny sphere absorbs the blood fully, becoming solid crimson, as well. The words slowly disappear after another moment, blowing away with an imagined breeze. Leo watches the entire process meticulously; so carefully that he lets out a startled squeak as the marble ceases its glow and splits in half atop his palm.

Izumi, calmly, takes a portion of the marble, letting it tumble onto his own palm. Leo’s attention is pulled into two directions, warring between wanting to watch what Izumi does and the liquifying feeling spreading into his nerves. He instinctively tries to toss the marble out of his grasp and shake his hand, but to no avail. The marble is gradually being absorbed into the palm of his hand like a sinking ship.

Izumi lets out a breathy chuckle. “It won’t hurt you.”

“H-How do you get it out?”

“It will come out when the contract is terminated.” Izumi shrugs, wiping at the dagger’s tip again before placing it back in the sheath in his boot. “If you want to see the contract any time prior to that, just will it.”

Will it. “That phrase again.”

“Mhm.” Izumi reaches forward, grabbing Leo’s hand again. He takes the same handkerchief, using a different – clean – corner to press into the injured finger briefly. “You’ll figure it out. Even a toddler can do it.”

The handkerchief’s material is soft against his skin, almost as gentle as the motions Izumi applies onto his finger. The demon swipes once more and pulls it away to inspect the cut. Blood still wants to ooze out, but it only speckles the surface in a tiny dot. Leo’s eyes are drawn to Izumi’s lips as he puckers them. Izumi blows out a breath, targeting the injury sharply. The sting of subzero temperatures prickle at his senses only briefly before being replaced by a soothing balminess. Right before his eyes, the small cut is dazzled with a slight radiance – the light leaving behind perfectly smooth skin.

“You can use healing magic?” Leo says in a breathless voice, in awe of all of the otherworldly things Izumi has exposed him to and allowed him to experience firsthand.

“I’m not attuned to it, but I know how to use it. A few spells here and there won’t hurt me.” Izumi shrugs. He folds the handkerchief carefully with one hand and replaces it back in his pocket.

Does magic hurt?

Izumi continues, “It would be a pain if you got an infection from something that small.”

“I’m pretty healthy. A little cut won’t do anything.” Leo takes his hand back reluctantly – his curiosity overwhelming the pitter patter of his heart the longer the warmth of Izumi’s skin seeps into his own. He presses into his palm with his thumb, middle finger keeping the back of his hand steady. No matter how much he digs his appendage in, the solid marble is nowhere to be found.

“That is up for debate. Humans are…”

Silence trails in a wispy waft; the pregnant pause making Leo look up and dart his attention back to the man before him. There’s a wistful sheen in Izumi’s crystal, azure eyes. Somehow, it makes Leo’s heart cease racing and begin clenching in a painful grip. He wonders what – who – can put such a look on Izumi’s face. “…Humans are?”

“Frail.” Izumi completes in a hard voice. He shakes off the memories visibly and crosses his arms. “Did you complete your duties for today, Prince?”

“Why did you say it like that?” The words leave his mouth before he can catch them. He backs up, plopping down into his mattress unceremoniously. “Never mind. Yeah, I’m done.”

“Well?”

Leo looks up, tilting his head. “Well what?”

Izumi clicks his tongue. Seeing Leo relax, he eases his posture as well, leaning his shoulder onto the wall, body tilting slightly. “Isn’t my being your Prince Guard just an excuse for me to stay? You wanted to learn magic, didn’t you?”

His back straightens immediately, sudden energy surges through his veins – exactly like when inspiration hits and he forgoes everything to compose music. He leans forward in his excitement, nearly falling off of the bed once more. “Yes! Yes! Teach me! And I’ll teach you how to sing!”

“I’m not a kind teacher.”

Leo snickers. “That's okay. Neither am I.”

The demon takes a silent, deep breath, releasing it slowly. His shoulders visibly rise and fall with the motion. His smooth lips open, mouthing a word to himself – probably in self-encouragement. Izumi pushes his shoulder off of the wall, leaving his arms crossed. “First, what do you know of magic?”

Leo’s eyes follow Izumi’s with every step the demon takes closer. From his seated position, Izumi only becomes taller and taller, tilting Leo’s head back with every motion. “To be honest, not very much… Ah- Um…” He stutters inelegantly. The temperature quickly rises around him, his blood rushing quickly through his body and flushing his cheeks marginally.

The air in the room brushes gently through his hair as Izumi drops to a knee in front of him; the strands tickle his forehead and the nape of his neck. He feels his nerves rising in sensitivity, every sensation nearly making him shiver. Izumi is graceful in a way that even the short cape trailing behind him on his shoulders falls elegantly in place. Izumi is regal in a way that even kings and queens will turn green with envy. Izumi is like a real knight in shining armor in the way he poses before him.

“Magic is alive. Remember that, always.”

“Alive…” Leo whispers, still slightly dazed. Can anyone truly hold this much poise and charisma? Yet, the truth is right in front of his eyes. “Right. Got it.”

Izumi would make for a great king.

“Everyone is born with the ability to create magic. It doesn’t matter what species you are. What you do with it during life is what determines what it grows into.” Izumi sets an elbow on his raised knee, laying his palm upwards. Unhurriedly, a small sphere grows above Izumi’s hand. The bluish light it emanates is the same color as his eyes. “This is raw magic. There’s no spell or command attached to it. I’m only holding control over its movements.”

“What? It moves on its own?”

With his free hand, Izumi reaches forward and pinches Leo’s cheek sharply. “You forgot already.”

“Ow! Ow! It hurts!” Leo yelps, jerking his face away with a pout.

The demon huffs, his strong breath fanning against Leo’s knees. “Magic is alive.”

Izumi’s glaring eyes pierce into his own in a silent command. “Magic is alive.”

“Mhm~” His blue eyes drop to the small orb still floating in silence. “Go and play. No destruction.”

The azure glow increases in fervor. Almost like it takes on a life of its own, it begins to bounce around, flying into the air with happy little twirls. The ball of light is unexpectedly warm as it gets closer to him. The skin on Leo’s cheek tingles with the velvet-like caress as it skirts fleetingly onto his skin. He bites his lip to keep a ticklish yelp deep inside his throat when it pads at the side of his neck before settling onto his shoulder like a perching bird.

“It’s easier to start off by giving commands verbally, but skilled magicians don’t necessarily need to.” Izumi continues his lesson, not paying attention to the loose raw magic. “It’s kind of like a subordinate, if you need an example, yet not quite.”

“Not quite?” Leo reaches up, opening his palm up towards the orb. To his amusement, it floats willingly into his hand and settles happily. The emotions it seems to emit seeps into Leo’s very soul, an understanding stronger than any he has felt from another physical being. Bringing it before his eyes, Leo strokes the magic sphere with a finger softly and chuckles breathily. “It’s kind of like a pet~”

The texture of magic is a bizarre combination of solid and intangible vapor. He is almost able to keep his finger resting on it, however, adding just a slight amount of strength to his movements makes his appendage slip through its form with no resistance. Within, it almost feels like a gentle mist of liquid is falling onto his finger from all sides. Leo hurriedly corrects his inappropriate touch; nonetheless, the magic does not react negatively, only merrily accepting the cuddle.

For some reason, Izumi huffs with irritation. “Don’t just-” He stops himself short. “Never mind. If you want to be your own pet, that is not my problem.”

“Huh?” Leo tilts his head, taking his attention off of the loose magic for only a moment. The orb initially waits patiently for but a second before puffing and moodily bumps into his finger, zipping away. “Ah, hey-!”

His eyes trail after the azure sphere making its way around the room. It patters about his desk, brushing against the spines of books and fluttering over completed documents set to the side. As the room dims with the setting sun, the more visible the glow the magic orb emits becomes. The light spills across the desk’s wooden texture like dry ice, only reaching a short distance before disappearing into the air. Though it is nothing more than a bundle of particles of magic, Leo realizes that magic is not only alive, but that it has a will of its own – the importance of Izumi’s words settling into his heart. Just being able to practice the sorcery is already something that is highly praised and respected; for the user, that is. Now, however, Leo wonders if magic, itself, is the greater foe. The greater ally.

“If you’re not going to listen, then I’m leaving.”

Leo snaps his head back, tilting his vision downwards as Izumi remains kneeling before him. His cold blue eyes like ice in its blank state. “I’m sorry. It’s just… really amazing.”

“If that much is enough to impress you, I can’t imagine your sheltered life.”

Leo chuckles airily, despite Izumi’s words not being spoken in jest. “Terra isn’t the magical land Inferna is. Forgive my ignorance. It’s not like you guys welcome us, the royal family, with open arms, anyways.”

Izumi hums, a tone neither disagreeing or agreeing with the sentiment. “No matter what I say, I can’t make you believe me.”

“I don’t know about that~” Leo sings gently. “If it’s you, maybe I will.”

“You put much too much trust in someone you just met.” A sigh wisps between sharp fangs.

“I don’t want to doubt everyone I meet. It’s just a feeling, but I want to get closer to you. Call it intuition.”

“Your intuition is shit.”

Leo chortles, tilting his head back at the laugh bubbling in his body. The unexpected words run through his mind over and over. “You’re so funny, Sena.”

“I wasn’t joking.”

“I wonder~” Leo says happily, staring at the demon again. “Anyways, what did you mean? That I can’t call it a pet?”

Izumi, still leaning his elbow on his raised knee, points towards his own chest. “Magic is something anyone can create. Everything on the planet is born or created with a spark of magic; whether it becomes active or not depends on a few factors. Environment is the most universal activation key. A land becomes rich in magic when one triggers another, so on and so forth. Be it a stone to a tree, a demon to a human, or even the land beneath your feet. Just being surrounded by magic can disrupt your own energy, especially if you don’t have enough control over it.”

“Wouldn’t everyone activate their magic in some tragic explosion, then?”

“If it triggers from a dormant state, magic doesn’t burst forth, like what you’re thinking. It’s like a sleepy child that wants five more minutes underneath the warmth of the comforter. If it is already active and you are trying to learn control over it, then it is more likely to disengage from your hold and run amok with the spell cast on it. Though if it is just active within one’s own body, it won’t leave its vessel on its own.”

“How do you wake up that child?”

“Prod at it until it wakes. Nothing more.”

“And then?”

“Magic is alive.” Izumi repeats sternly. “You create the magic; the magic is also you. The little bundle you’re born with wakes up and begins to fill up your reserves, your vessel.”

“What does that look like? Do you make that too? Some new internal organ?”

“Your whole body is your vessel.”

“Oh…?”

“Magic… Has a little piece of your soul within its heart. Within its core. When you produce more magic particles to fill your body, you’re creating a copy of yourself. Another being, made entirely of magic and nestled deep within you, is born into the world. It’s someone else, but it’s you. It looks exactly like you and has the same personality, but it has a soul and a will to think on its own, even if it is a little weaker. In the end, you are the host; the person who the soul truly belongs to.

“It takes extra energy to produce magic.” Izumi continues his explanation in a smooth tone. His eyes keep Leo’s gaze locked forward. “Like shaking off the drowsiness from sleep, it will initially take time to fill. And probably will leave you lethargic for that period of time for the most part, but nothing more. Once activated, magic gains the instinct to survive. Just like you produce your own blood cells, magic particles are sent into production alongside them. They rush through your blood stream until your whole body has enough to function.

“Your immune system gets stronger the more you expose it. Magic works similarly to that, as well. Or even to that of muscle building. It will be painful and difficult, at first. It’s not going to be my fault if you start crying. But once you learn the spell and recover from the aftershocks, your torn magic will reform into something stronger. Eventually, the same spells that once took a majority of your reserves will only take a few particles at most. With some exceptions.

“But, what you use, you must replace. If you lose blood, you make more blood. Simple as that. It’s not an infinite supply, everyone has a limit they can reach. So, don’t be reckless with it.”

Leo takes a moment to let the information truly sink into his mind. Magic is… much more than he knew. Much more than what is taught in Terra. Yet, who can blame them for their unfamiliarity? The magic has all but disappeared from this land. Slowly – year by year – wizards vanish into thin air, natural sources supplied from the wilderness get used up and left empty. Terra is a land not of fantasy nor of holy worship, but a land of the basic need to survive with freedom. With happiness that is not dictated by anyone else.

“After hearing all of that, even though it is not nearly everything there is to know,” Izumi says slowly. Leo is drawn back to the present, Izumi’s voice more serious than he has ever heard it. “Do you still want to learn how to wield magic?”

“Not nearly everything…” Leo mutters back. A sudden shiver races down his spine. His heart picks up speed as anxiety tumbles in his stomach and nauseating his mind. His lips tremble as he opens and closes them.

There is nothing in Izumi’s explanation to be frightened of… Not really…

…Yet, magic is more much than he anticipated. Much more than he can, currently, wrap his mind around. The unknown is petrifying.

Izumi stares deeply into his eyes, waiting patiently with no scorn or impatience. Those beautiful azure eyes urge him to take his time, to make the decision he will not come to regret. They tell him of a story of hardship and pain, of prideful perseverance, and finally, of the strength of the man kneeling before him. Leo can see his own eyes reflecting in their depths; his emerald gaze somehow mingling with the blue. If Izumi is the one by his side through it all…

…Leo believes he can endure any pain.

His lips close and lift gently in a grin. “If you’re the one teaching me, I’ll be in good hands.”

The demon remains silent. His eyes flick back and forth between Leo’s eyes. Another tense moment passes between them before Izumi’s assessment ends in a heavy breath. “As you wish, then.”

“So?” Leo asks. “What should I do to wake it up?”

“Try on your own first. That is the… least invasive way.” Izumi trails off. “Use your inner voice and call for it. Bring it forward.”

“That’s it?” Leo asks worriedly. He swallows the rising nervousness crawling up his throat.

Inner voice? Does he call it like he’s calling for a friend?

Hey… Come out now, please.

Silence falls in the room. The apprehensive pounding of his heart echoes in his ear drums with a dull, echoing sound. What if he can’t do it? Will Izumi be disappointed? Leo nearly chokes on the thick anxiety suddenly lodged in his esophagus. Please. He begins to beg within his mind, adding promises to treat it with love and care for their entire lives.

“Relax.”

Leo snaps his eyes open at the calm voice. When did he close them?

Izumi continues, “Relax and try again. Like waking a stubborn child, remember?”

The unease rushes out of his veins like spilling water. He nods, absorbing in Izumi’s ever cool aura. Leo breaths deeply through his nose, closing his eyes more gently this time. All he needs to do is call it. That’s all. That’s what Izumi said. So, please. The darkness within his mind is still and hushed. No matter where he turns or where he runs, he encounters nothing but the depths of loneliness.

“Reach inside, like you’re holding out your hand.” Izumi instructs in a soft tenor; his breaths more audible than his actual voice.

Please, appear. He doesn’t like getting out of bed, either.

“What you’re looking for… Will shine green.”

Why green? Is everyone’s green when it’s dormant?

“Take is slow. A step at a time is fine.”

One step at a time. Leo nearly finds himself lost within his own thoughts. The darkness is not necessarily cold, though it isn’t warm, either. Neither welcoming nor threatening. Usually, his mind is full of music and erratic thoughts, bouncing from one tune to another. Sometimes the songbirds in his head sing mournful tunes, but even those are full of unimaginable colors. And yet, the place he delves into, the place that the magic he was born with may reside, is as still as the abyss. He can’t see anything, can’t feel anything; he is alone. The shiver that crawled out of his body returns, ascending back up his spine. He thinks – he knows – that is what he fears the most. To be alone in this dark and cruel world, with not even a single spark of light to guide his way or give him hope, Leo can’t take it.

He snaps his eyes open, frantic to find something – anything. Izumi is there for him, blue eyes looking at him questioningly. Those azures anchor Leo back into the present. They are in his bedroom. That’s all. There is nothing to fear. They are alive.

Izumi expression falls into a gentle smile. “If you find your monsters in there, that’s something only you can fight, you know?”

Leo darts his gaze away, suddenly sheepish. “It’s fine if I have to fight monsters or men. If you’re by my side, I’ll be okay.”

“You’re so weird.” Izumi sighs again. “Want to try again? Or we can do it the less pleasant way.”

“What’s the less pleasant way?”

Izumi hums for a moment, contemplating. “Do you want to try again?”

Leo turns his sights back to the demon still kneeling before him. Will Izumi think he is weak? “Not really.”

“Then…” Izumi elongates the word in a delicate breath. Using his free hand, not the one resting on his knee, Izumi slides his fingers under Leo’s and clasp them in a gentle grip. He brings the fingers forward, away from the bed and towards himself. Inclining forward, Izumi presses his lips to Leo’s knuckles. “For the moment, I am loyal to you. Do you trust me?”

His thoughts come to a halt. Leo looks down at Izumi’s bowed head, staring up at him through his lashes. Leo swallows thickly, heat rushing to his cheeks like lava erupting from a volcano. Every word spoken brushes Izumi’s soft lips against his skin, puffing warm breath against the nerves within and catching them on fire with sensitivity. “…Of course.”

Izumi continues to stare upwards, keeping his head bowed. Leo watches, transfixed, as Izumi’s pupils thin – reminding Leo, once more, that this man was once his beloved pet snake. His eyes continue to change. The azure in his irises increase in color and sheen, shining with a mild radiance only visible in the dim lighting of his darkening bedroom.

“Come.”

The whispered command shocks Leo, drawing him out of the fixation. A sharper glow encroaches on his vision, floating with small bobbing motions as it awaits its next order. Oh, right. The raw magic orb Izumi set free earlier.

It is only when Leo locks gazes with Izumi once more that Izumi speaks his next directive, lips still sweeping against the back of his fingers. “Find it.”

Within milliseconds, the blue orb shoots straight into Leo’s chest at lightning speed.

Leo’s breath catches in his throat, choking him momentarily. It’s a strange feeling, making him clench his fists tightly. Izumi’s fingers holding firmly to one hand keeps Leo from delving back into his mind and trying to stop the sensation. He wants to voice a protest, but he bites his tongue. Izumi’s sharp gaze staring right through him commands him not to.

It is not exactly painful, however… It is like something is intimately digging so deeply into him and leaving him exposed – leaving doors open and cracking the walls as it searches aimlessly. There is a tight feeling in his chest. Twinges of mild pangs course through his limbs, yet he can’t pinpoint them – they are not physical, after all. Leo tightens his fingers around Izumi’s, their gazes never leaving each other’s. He can’t breathe; esophagus feeling locked up no matter how much he opens and closes his mouth.

Izumi remains still, luminescent eyes holding Leo hostage.

Something… The orb… The orb crawls around inside his soul. He can feel it so sharply, even as his senses dull to nothing but a high-pitched ring. It’s invasive, crawling around like a spider on his arm. But it’s also warm, sending out soothing signals. Leo’s eyes begin to blur, coating his pupils in a watery shield. Everything is sending signals to his brain, but nothing is getting through. Nothing but the vulnerability of his sadness as it gets touched. He wants it to stay, to expose him more and free him of burdens. He wants it out to stop the agony. Nevertheless, he can’t vocalize it. He can’t do anything as azures keep him captive.

“Found it.”

Leo gasps a breath as his entire body is released from its invisible chains. He gulps in mouthfuls of air, but nothing seems to be enough. His chest heaves and his heart pounds; it is almost like the organ will crack through his ribcage at any moment. He can’t seem to calm down, setting his mind into an easy panic. His body leans dangerously to the side; he barely registers the fact that his hand instinctively races up to catch himself. His ears never ceased their ringing from before. Tightly closing his eyes, the tickle of tears run down the delicate skin of his cheeks. He can’t breathe-

There is a soft press of skin against his knuckles. “You’re alright.”

Just like that, a cool sensation like winter mint ascends through his body – starting from his fingers and sprinting up his arm to the rest of his body.

Everything stops.

Leo shakily releases a relieved exhalation. Everything has stopped. All of his doors and windows remain closed, all of the cracks in the walls are nonexistent. Everything is as it was…

…Except for this empty feeling in his chest.

“Sena…”

“You’re alright.” Izumi repeats sternly, yet gently. Encouragement, yet a forceful opinion that Leo is impelled to believe.

“It’s… empty.”

“I know.” Izumi finally releases his hand and straightens his back.

Leo follows Izumi’s eyes as they flicker to just slightly above their heads. Floating languidly is a green orb, no bigger than the golf ball sized azure sphere of magic. Izumi’s magic circles around the green one in all directions, while the green orb remains listless and illuminating much less than Izumi’s.

“Are…” Leo takes another moment to swallow, wetting his dry throat. “Are they all green when dormant?”

“No. Yours is just specifically green.” Izumi says, not taking his eyes off of the magic in the air.

“How come?”

“Ever heard of the saying ‘eyes are windows to the soul?’ Well, there you have it.”

“So, they really are?” Leo asks rhetorically. “I guess that also means soul color runs in a family.”

“For the most part.” Izumi shrugs.

Leo waits as Izumi waits, staring at the dancing azure orb and motionless green orb. Izumi suddenly narrows his eyes. The darkness in the room becomes hauntingly beautiful as more tiny blue spheres start bobbing midair. Waiting.

“I thought magic couldn’t be seen?” Leo pipes up softly, curiosity peaking.

“A few particles won’t be visible to our eyes. Only when they get clumped up like this or a spell is cast do they show any kind of color or shine. Not to say you can’t make them invisible, though.”

“I see.”

With silence befalling them once more, the blue orbs begin to move forward. They surround Leo’s green one menacingly. In a blink of an eye, all of the blue orbs rush forward, disappearing inside of the green orb before just as quickly escaping its clutches and returning to Izumi’s side. Leo’s orb remains listless, hardly glowing as it gently descends downwards. Leo hurriedly cups his hands, allowing it to fall into his palms.

The both of them watch it closely.

With the sun well below the horizon, even the faintest luminescent light is visible as it pulses weakly. The glow spreads onto Leo’s skin in intervals, growing stronger by the minute.

“That should do it.” Izumi announces with a relieved sigh. “Let’s put that little piece of your soul back in and call it a day.”

He must have looked lost, because Izumi reaches out and pushes his wrists towards his chest. The orb slips back inside instinctively; immediately relieving the hollow feeling. Leo lets out his own relieved breath. With finally a moment to focus, he realizes that the blue orbs still floating around are significantly less in number than when Izumi called upon them. “Did they return to your home, too?”

“Huh?” Izumi tilts his head. “Oh, the magic? They’re gone, if that’s what you’re saying.”

“Gone?”

“They were used, so they’re gone. These are the ones your core of magic didn’t need to absorb a shock of energy from to wake up.”

A tragic feeling starts to simmer within his chest once more. The little orb he had gotten to know and interact with is…

“Don’t look like that.” Izumi sniffs. The remaining blue orbs are silently recalled, falling onto Izumi’s body like pollen and sinking inside. The room is left to the attack of night, shadows shrouding every centimeter of existence. “That’s the nature of magic. They’re all the same, anyways. They’re mine, it’s my magic. Anything that gets used will replenish as long as I’m healthy.”

“I still miss it, already.” Leo dryly laughs. “But if it’s you, and you are it, then it’s okay.”

Belatedly, as he watches Izumi roll his eyes, Leo realizes those azure orbs have returned to normal.

“Go to bed, already. It will take, maybe, a week to fully fill your reserves for the first time. Maybe more. We can’t proceed with lessons until then, so just rest up.”

“Are you leaving? I can teach you how to sing tomorrow. It’s a fair exchange, after all.” Leo quickly interjects. He stands up from the bed when Izumi does from the ground; the desire to keep Izumi closer for just a little longer burns in his heart. Even if all of his doors are closed, it still feels- “I promised- Ah-!”

The cloak of night disorients his frazzled mind, making him trip over his own feet. Izumi grunts as Leo is flung into his chest, but luckily steadies their momentum.

With a heaving sigh, Izumi pushes Leo back to a steady, standing position. “Fine. I’ll stay for a little while. But I do need to make trips back home.”

“No problem!” Leo cheers. And then his mind focuses back to the present. “Er… Um… I guess I can’t get you a guest room until I tell my parents… It’s not like you came through the front gates anyways.” He looks over his shoulder, the slim strings of starlight slicing against the shadows of his bed. “…It’s pretty big. We can share?”

“That is inappropriate, Prince of Terra.” Izumi reminds him of his position firmly. With another heaving exhale, Izumi turns his attention to another side of the room and grudgingly grumbles. “I can’t believe you left it set up… Whatever, I guess.”

“Huh?” Leo stares after him as the demon pads to the table at the inner wall of his room. Izumi puts his hand on the glass enclosure and swiftly glows blue. “Oh.”

Gone is Izumi the humanoid demon. In his place is a thin snake coiled neatly on top of silk sheets behind a glass panel, pure white scales running across its body like spilling moonlight.

“Now, go to sleep.”

Leo rapidly looks around, spinning on his heels as a voice echoes in his mind. His eyes land back on Izumi the snake. “No way?”

“You exhaust me.” Izumi hisses. He slithers to the corner and begins to bury himself beneath the soft sheets. “Good night.”

“You could do this the whole time?” Leo gasps, taking large steps to the enclosure. “You traitor. You should have done it sooner!”

“And need to explain to the Prince of Terra, a prince that is hunting us, that I am one of the Infernan demons? No thanks. Pass.”

“I’m not hunting you. Are you not a regular civilian, anyways?”

Nonetheless, Izumi seems uninterested in answering further. Leo smiles gently, patting the rim of the glass. He takes soft steps away, settling into his own bed for the night.

His cheek presses into the material of his pillowcase, comforter gliding across his legs and arms. “We’re at war, so I guess I should have expected that. But you’re my friend now. You were my friend then. All I wanted was to help you.” He pauses, closing his eyes. The darkness behind them isn’t so bad this time. He’s not searching aimlessly alone, after all. “You’re not my enemy, Sena… I trust you. Good night.”

Chapter Text

Bookshelves extending from the floor to the ceiling tower over him from both sides, casting elongated shadows on the floorboards. Despite the fact that they are four times his height, the room is spacious enough to pay the multitude of books looming over head no mind; attention trained on the pages laying in front of him on the polished desk. The pen in his hand pauses every so often, his eyes triple checking over the words before moving on.

A book laying open turns its page, the paper briefly glowing a soft gray with the movement before fading away. The new words revealed draws his focus over to it, all other motions pausing. The pages flip a few more times, eyes eagerly scanning the text and mind memorizing the information. At the end of the next sentence, he turns away, waving his free hand towards a medium sized, black crystal orb sitting at the edge of the desk while getting to work with the pen. The book is encompassed by the gray light once more. The piece of literature closes with an airy clap, floating into the air until it is level with one of the high shelves. Quietly, it tilts and slides in, perfectly settling into the empty space between two other books.

He rests his elbow on the desk and crooks his finger in a come-hither motion, eyes never leaving the document before him. Another book quickly flies down, landing in the newly vacant spot. The gray glow remains until the books splays open wide. The low hum of magic’s white noise is his only companion in the otherwise silent room. Laws of new and old, currently implemented policies, local environments, national trade distribution, regional taxes; the material swims in his head as he draws them up from his memories. He has been taught all of this since his youth, after all.

Putting the knowledge to use today is no different than any other day.

A soft knock reverberates through the otherwise silent study. He peers up from his papers, eyes narrowing as he wills the loose magic within the orb to turn the knob and crack open the door. With the invitation, the person on the other side steps in with confidence, closing the door behind them. The eye masquerade mask that only covers one of the organs catches his attention first; decorative feathers flaring out to the side stylishly. The jewels adorning the mask glitter with the sunlight streaming in from the balcony windows behind him.

“Behind the desk today, Izumi-chan?”

The voice is foreign to his memories; same with the blonde hair and amethyst eyes that stare at him with happiness. Effects of the mask, no doubt. He more than likely knows this person in front of him. They address him as though the two of them are friends, after all. The Mask, an identity cloaking ornament, is equipped with a powerful magic spell that makes recognizing the wearer impossible. Anyone who sees the wearer of these masks will know that they have encountered such a person, however, will not remember any details about them when they’re out of sight.

It is an exclusive item that only circulates within the royal castle; and a spell that is passed down inside the imperial bloodline – the ancient words never leaking from their lips and into the public ear. It is a mask that is used primarily, yet not solely, for a certain occupation within the government; members of the profession are intended to be kept undisclosed for eternity. Though the job is on the lips of the general populace, wide-ranging specifics such as state assassin and state spy whispered between their ears; naught can ever be traced back to a single person nor reason. Furthermore, any instance said assassins or spies are not on duty nor reporting to the castle, their lives go on as usual; normal jobs, normal friends, normal livelihoods. Nothing is out of the ordinary – not to their close peers nor family.

The Shadows of Inferna roam within the general populace; intermingling within it without a shard of doubt shrouding their person. Hiding within plain sight, never to be picked out of the crowd.

His eyes narrow further, glaring towards the newcomer. His hand stills, no longer etching ink onto the pages waiting patiently to be fulfilled. A cordial smile is given back. They reach up, disengaging the spell and releasing the Mask from their skin. The feathers of the mask whisper across the skin of their finger, perfectly manicured nails contrasting against the black material.

Izumi sniffs. “Naru-kun.”

“I’m back~” She sings lightly. “Where’s Ritsu-chan?”

“Off to see that angel friend of his, probably. Didn’t really say.” He shrugs. Izumi pushes the current document in front of him aside and digs into the drawer of the desk. The lock on it clicks open with a swipe of his magic signature, allowing him to slide it out. “Anything to report?”

Arashi hums, taking steady strides closer to the desk. Her heels click against the hard floor rhythmically. She sits at the edge of the desk, opposite of him, one leg rising higher than the other and wings carefully kept off to the side. “Terrian border is getting decimated.”

Izumi nods. He places a new – special – sheet of parchment on the wooden surface, scribbling down the information. “Our side? Theirs?”

“Both.” Arashi looks down at the small mask in her hand with a frown. Her thumb runs across the sparkling gems gently. “Ours outwardly look bloodier.”

“Are they retreating at all?”

“They’re keeping a distance from us. Can’t say the same for the Terra-Caelem border, though.”

“Of course not…”

Arashi continues, “Their border is inching further inside by the minute. Whole villages are getting turned into graveyards and left abandoned. Though we scar their earth and make it into something like a brand-new environment, the other side isn’t left nearly as beautiful.”

“I’m sure that’s the least of their problems.”

She hums despondently. “Our last big battle ended with the town becoming a lake. At least it’s… inhabitable… Well, things can still continue to survive after our bouts, as long as the air didn’t get poisoned.”

Izumi flicks his eyes from the parchment to her, narrowing them. Arashi doesn’t seem to notice, so he looks back down. “Anything useful?”

“Rude.” She chuckles dryly, turning her gaze to him, finally. She places a palm flat on the desk and leans back, relaxing her posture easily within his presence. Her defenses that were raised during her mission finally fall, leaving the usual cheerful, easy-going disposition to take its place within the closed space of the office. Arashi flashes him a grin, a tiny fang poking from beneath her lip cheekily. “Caelem isn’t wasting their Holy Militia on Terra. They’re sending the mortal armed forces into Terra battleground, instead, with only an angel or two to lead.”

“Terra is at a disadvantage, anyways.” Izumi says, scribbling the information down in an elegant script. “A mortal killing an angel; that’s a sentence straight to Hell. If they can even find a way to see the angels, that is. Though I guess the same could be said for the other side. Angels killing humans for no reason will make them fall.”

“Mm.” He feels her eyes leave his form. “Anyways, do you really need all of these?”

Izumi looks up and follows her gaze towards the ceiling. Multiple books wrapped in a gray wisp float midair, bobbing to a timed interval. The titles range from agriculture to economics and anything in between. Perhaps he doesn’t need everything laid out before him; but if they are available, one should take advantage of the opportunity. “Why don’t you finish these, then?”

Arashi giggles, hopping off of the desk and shuffling to his side. Her eyes rake over the pile of completed paperwork waiting for further review, the signature box left bare for now. “Not my thing.”

The pure white feathers of her wings skitter across his cheek as she turns and sits on the arm rest of his chair; her back close enough that he can soak in her warmth. The scent of the sky and smoke tickles his nose, attesting to the long journey through warzones these wings have gone through. He closes his eyes, taking in the scent beneath the hell – Arashi’s natural scent. Familiarity rushes through his veins, easing the anxiety he keeps deep within his person and away from prying eyes.

Izumi leans his head back on the high backrest. “Kuma-kun better appreciate this. I have my own things to do, but I’m stuck here now that he left without telling anyone.”

Arashi reaches across him, the scent of smoke nearly overwhelming as she presses closer. Her lithe fingers take one of the unrevised documents and brings it to her eyes. “I’ll proofread these. You do the actual info fixing. Deal?”

“You’re so annoying.” He sighs. “Leave me alone, I’m fine doing this by myself. Besides, you just got back, right? Go get your check up and cleansing and rest in your room.”

“Don’t want to hang out with me?” Arashi asks in amusement, her amethyst eyes never leaving the document in her hand. “I’m hurt~”

“Yeah, yeah.”

She lets out a whispered giggle once more and hops off of the arm rest, handing back the document. “Ritsu-chan is going to hate this one, by the way. We’re going to need to send our people over to the place where we always get wet and remain wet until we leave.”

Izumi raises an eyebrow in confusion, taking the parchment and reading it over himself. “Why did this get sent here? Our people need to?”

She lays a hand on his shoulder, the slight weight a comforting pressure. “You’ve been away, so I don’t blame you for not knowing, but-”

A hesitant knock on the door brings their voices to a halt, eyes going towards the solid, wooden structure. Izumi waves his hand towards the black orb, making it pulse in a glow. He feels just a few more particles escape its glass-like confines. They swim through the air at his command, heading towards the door and twisting the handle. Barely even being seen by the naked eye, their energy is used up and they disappear from the world. The door clicks open, swinging inwards only far enough for a small crack to appear between it and the frame. A blue eye peeks in, dark hair pressing into the room through the free space.

“Ritsu-kun?”

“Bold familiarity for someone not directly related to us.” Izumi comments. Abruptly, he feels a sharp hit to his shoulder.

“Don’t be like that to Mika-chan.” Arashi scolds briefly before her face brightens into a toothy smile. “Come in, come in! Ritsu-chan isn’t here, but we’ll keep you company.”

“Oh, Naru-chan.” Mika visibly relaxes. He pushes the door open wider and silently slips in, packages weighing down his arms. “Izumi-chan-san. How are ya’?”

“I would hug you if I could.” Arashi groans sadly. She clasps her hands together, hoping to keep the urge from bursting forth.

He rolls his eyes. “I told you to go get cleansed. Don’t go rubbing your possible magic filth all over him.”

Arashi’s expression changes once more, bottom lip jutting out into a pout. “Fine. But what are you here for, Mika-chan? Anything we can help you with, or do you need Ritsu-chan?”

“Nah.” Mika shakes his head. “These are actually for Izumi-chan-san, but Oshi-san said you might be away so to bring it to Ritsu-chan.”

“What is it?” Arashi asks, walking around the desk and taking the medium and smaller sized box from Mika’s hands. “Oh, this is heavy.”

“It’s the stuff Izumi-chan-san ordered last time he visited.”

“Just put it on that spare chair in the corner.” Izumi replies, tilting his head towards the piece of furniture. “Thanks.”

With a nod, Mika carefully lays his precious bundle down on the cushioned seat and begins to peel open the cover. “Oshi-san will get mad if this gets wrinkled.”

Izumi finds himself sighing. “I got it. Who do you think I am?”

“Are you free after this, Mika-chan?” Arashi inquires, putting the boxes down as well. “If you can wait a bit, do you want to hang out? I’m off for the rest of the day.”

“Did Itsuki give you the correct command this time?” Izumi interrupts abruptly.

“I’ll follow Oshi-san’s orders, no matter what they are.” Mika replies sternly.

He rolls his eyes. “And that means you’re deadweight. Go with him, Naru-kun. To wherever you go and back home.”

“I don’t take orders from ya’, Izumi-chan-san.” Mika huffs. “But since it’s Naru-kun, I don’t mind. Thank ya’ kindly.”

“I’ll go get cleaned up and into some civilian clothes.” Arashi declares, pinching the high collar of her special military uniform. The black outfit is tight against her body, blood red accents standing out starkly against her creamy, pale skin. The silver buttons running down her jacket gleam against the sunlight coming in through the window, staying impeccably clean despite all of the war-torn dust in the air. “You two play nice.”

“I’ll eat him.” Izumi dryly replies, drawing a pitched yelp from the other boy in question.

“You would never put his type of flesh in your mouth~” Arashi sings casually, the words like glass cracking against the beautiful melody. “Don’t worry, Mika-chan. I’ll take you to eat something actually yummy as thanks for putting up with his moody ass.”

Izumi suddenly feels his throat contract as spit slips into the wrong pipe. He brings his arm up, coughing harshly into the crook of his elbow. Forcing his eyes to stay open, he sends mental daggers towards the woman giggling and stepping out of the door with a flippant wave.

“Are ya’ okay, Izumi-chan-san?”

“Fine.” He coughs out, throat feeling raw and scratchy.

Chest finally settling down, Izumi turns his attention to the heterochromatic being fiddling by the cushioned seat in the corner. The medium box is now set underneath what Mika is bringing out; the sounds of fabric rustling and falling onto the wooden container reaching his ears. The pieces are pure white with gold embellishment; metal buttons clicking together as the fabric is moved.

“Are ya’ done with work?”

Izumi trails his eyes across the desk, studying the untouched pile of documents tiredly. This is not truly his work, though it won’t bode well for it to remain unrevised. And yet, despite his head insisting on going through as much as possible, he knows that Ritsu will return and complete them in short order. As he has always done – as Izumi has come to trust him to do.

Well, he supposes that he has lightened Ritsu’s workload considerably already. “Sure. What do you need, Kagehira?”

“Willing ta’ put this on so I can make adjustments? Oshi-san finished that second outfit ya’ asked for.” Mika holds up the pure white outfit in front of his body. “Said not to come home until I make it perfect on ya’.”

Not that he really asked for the first one, but he can’t complain about the fair exchange.

“He didn’t come himself?” Izumi pushes his chair back, using the desk to push himself into a standing position.

The boy hums despondently, briefly peering outside to get away from the smoldering attention. “Oshi-san… doesn’t like coming out, lately… And he has to protect our territory, ya’ know?”

Izumi raises an eyebrow curiously as those amber and lapis colored eyes fill with a heated fury. Liquid fire nearly spills over the longer Mika stews in his thoughts. Subconsciously, his mind draws up a piece of past information – a memory of the time he was first informed of Mineralis’s complete lock down. It wasn’t that Mineralis was attacked for a second time, instead…

“Want to get started? I’ll finish ya’ quickly, Izumi-chan-san; before Naru-chan gets back.” The easy smile is back on Mika’s lips, the fiery haze disappearing like gas dispersing into the atmosphere with the wind.

Izumi subtly releases a breath. “Yeah, yeah.”

He peels his jacket and shirt off, allowing Mika to help redress him in the new outfit. The fabric is cool against his skin, the cotton leaving fleeting kisses as it slips over his body. Mika goes back over to the small box still on the cushioned seat and opens it up, revealing sewing tools. The shirt is first to get adjusted, followed by the flashy jacket. The intricate design of gold metal entirely over the left chest area and crawling over the shoulder pad and upper arm is something clearly made by Shu – a master of earthly materials; metals included. The complex detailing is stiff yet completely pliable and easy to move in.

Izumi closes his eyes and raises his chin as sunlight sinks into his skin though the tall balcony windows. Yes, Shu is the only one capable of such a feat when concerning metals. The Devil of Land can make anything with a little effort, and is fussy about perfection; much like himself. Hence the reason why Izumi went to him to make those magic contraptions.

Shu even makes some of their weapons, no matter what strange shape they ask for.

“Have they come back?” Izumi whispers the question, slowly opening his eyes to stare at the ceiling. He brings his head down and searches for Mika’s eyes.

Flicking his gaze upwards from fiddling with the hem of the jacket, Mika’s eyes swim with anxiety. “The angels? No, just… that one.

He scoffs lightly, dry amusement filling his veins and boiling beneath his skin. To think a soul, body living here, in Inferna, can become enlightened; it’s a ridiculous notion. And yet, it happened – humans are unpredictable like that. The Devil of Land irrationally locked down the entire city of Mineralis after returning from the bloody, one-sided battle. Inferna is a land fueled by Loyalty; though unintentional, the betrayal cut a deep wound within the man.

Seeing the emotions swimming in Mika’s eyes remind him that Shu is not the only one left bleeding.

 

He felt the ever present, kind eyes drill into the back of his head. He looked over his shoulder and gave the person a gentle smile, feeling his fang poke at his bottom lip. “Don’t look at me like that, big brother. I’m okay.”

The man following beside him, with a face full of youth, nibbled at his lip worriedly. His red eyes raked over his form, trying to get the message across without words. Their footsteps echoed with metallic clangs bouncing between the walls as they walked through the corridors of the manor. Faintly, from far above them, the sounds of creaking gears rotating continuously blended in with their steps – the sound became so familiar to their ears that it was often unheard in their minds.

“I know, I know. Ya’ want to say that my body might still be weak from my… revival. But I’m fine, really. This is nothing.” He shifted the large box in his hands, feeling its contents slide towards his body.

“…Mika-chin…” Voice so soft the name only faintly brushed against his ear drums.

Mika gave him another smile. “I’ll be careful. I promise ya’! Are ya’ okay? It’s not too heavy? Ya’ look like ya’ve been feeling sick, lately…”

The red eyes he became so fond of recently widened in surprise. Mika stopped in his tracks and turned his body to face the shorter human man. Blonde hair shined against the bouncing sunlight streaming in through the hallway’s windows. His thin lips wobbled in an effort to draw out his voice, but Mika was patient. Big brother was like that, sometimes – quiet, yet under a forced silence that has made him forget how to use his voice in the first place.

“No… I-”

Before he can continue, the pounding of footsteps reverberated in their ears as it shook the walls surrounding them. The echoing, high-pitched brass sounds turned their heads to the perpendicular corridor ahead. A demon garbed in Mineralis’s military uniform was looking around frantically, eyes finally landing on the two of them and lighting up.

“Sirs!”

Mika shrunk back, an uncomfortable sound leaving his throat. He wasn’t good with sudden loud voices. Big brother’s arm brushed against his as the man took a step in-front of him.

“…what…?”

“Sirs!” The demon ran to them and clapped their heels together, saluting stiffly. “Emergency! Angels are attempting to invade the city!”

“Oshi-san?” Mika choked out frantically. For everything that Shu has done for him, Mika couldn’t let him get hurt – no matter how much damage he took, himself. “Where is he?!”

“His Grace is already heading out to the battlefield, sir!”

Mika dropped the box he was carrying and turned on his heels. The clatter was drowned out by his rapidly beating heart. His body, however, was yanked back by big brother firmly gripping onto his shirt, the fabric stretching thinly.

“Which direction…?” Big brother’s airy voice floated in the air.

“Southwest.” The soldier replied. “He did not request your aid, however. And the Royal Army is on their way as support.”

“To Hell with that.” Mika growled. He shook off the small hand clenched within the fabric of his clothes and ran over to the large windows. Leaving behind the two fallen boxes of materials, light footsteps followed him towards the outside world. Outside of the safe haven Shu had created and maintained for them. Mika jerked the window open, the gentle breeze spilling in contrasted against the tight feeling within his chest.

“Mika-chin, wait.”

“Oshi-san might need us.” Mika argued back, hopping onto the sill.

A sigh left big brother’s lips just as Mika jumped down, plummeting towards the ground. He felt the air rush by him, drying the tears coating his eyes. The air was sliced through once more as big brother landed dangerously close to him, the sleeves of their clothing catching against each other.

“At least… change.”

“No time, big brother!” Mika repeated once more and took the first step away from the manor. From deep within himself, he called upon the power resting sleepily. The power that Shu so carefully cultivated. A pressure built behind his right eye, uncomfortably so; the technique still fairly new to him. It was painful, his instincts screamed at him to back down and recall the spell before his organ of sight truly did explode. Still, Mika gritted his teeth, the hard tissue gnashing together.

A tear slipped down his cheek, leaving a blazing trail of lava upon his skin. He yelled the Infernan words of the magic spell high into the sky in desperation. Immediately, the unstable magic reacted to the words and raced towards a now known goal. A gold light flashed before their eyes and twirled midair frantically until it formed into a large crow.

“You…” Big brother’s stunned voice broke into his hazed world.

“Ya’ can yell at me later fer practicin’ on my own without supervision. I know you and Oshi-san warned me of the danger.” Mika said quickly, hopping onto the bird and reaching his hand out. “But Oshi-san needs us.”

Big brother nodded and took his hand, climbing on behind him. Mika patted the bird’s neck, urging it into the air. As the wind ruffled his clothing, he felt bare for just a moment, the cool air pricking his skin like misguided sewing needles. Looking downwards, his eyes were greeted with the glimmering red after effects of big brother’s magic and his military jacket garbed upon his chest.

That was that, then.

The blistering speed he was pushing his magic to go at quickened his heart rate, reserves depleting at a furious rate. Mika swallowed thickly, pushing down the fatigue. He could do this. Shu trained him well up until now. Big brother was at his side. He could do this. Though he was directing the bird blindly, it didn’t take long to come upon the source of all of their disturbances.

Like darkness spreading from the epicenter, a cloud of black smoke hung in the atmosphere, covering the surroundings completely. Estranged, deranged magic particles desperately tried to claw their way free from the darkness only to lose against the malice coating the air in thick syrup and disappearing into naught. The closer they got, the heavier their bodies felt. Pushing through the pressure increasing inside his head, Mika urged the bird faster.

“We’re going in, big brother.”

“Mm. Let’s… get Oshi-san and go home.”

The bird they rode on squawks the moment it pierced through the shadows. It writhed beneath their bodies, wanting to turn back but being held firmly in place by the mental leash Mika still had a grip on. Mika closed an eye, trying with all of his might to not get overwhelmed by the suffocating darkness. With one last cry, the bird is defeated by the malevolence and disappears like shining, golden stars splashing the night sky.

The two of them tumbled towards the ground abruptly. Visibility was so poor that they couldn’t even see their hand before their faces; leaving the moment of inevitable impact with the earth a mystery. Mika let out a exclamation, his arm taking most of damage as his body rolled. Sharp tree branches and pebbles sliced into his skin, but he paid them no mind. Mika pushed himself up, getting on his hands and knees as quickly as he could. Catching his breath was difficult; the remaining oxygen particles rapidly disappearing.

He wasn’t a human, anyways, so it was fine, even if it was suffocating.

With another gulp of poisonous air, Mika got up to his feet. If he couldn’t rely on his eyes, he had to try and sense Shu’s magic signature and follow it. Closing his eyes, Mika expanded his mind’s search. His magic cried, crawling themselves into the corner of his heart and pleading not to be destroyed here. He paid them no mind; he would apologize later and treat them with care.

Finally, it was faint, but the violet signature appeared behind his eyes. Mika jogged forward slowly, hands out in front of him to feel for any obstacles. His elation at steadily becoming closer to that violet light after trekking blindly was short lived, however. The nearer he got, the clearer it became. The sight of Shu’s, of his precious mentor’s, pale and weak magic signature had Mika’s anxious heart beating faster.

“Oshi-san, run!” He yelled. He could sense it with his mind wide open. Greenish yellow magic was quickly piercing through the darkness and heading towards Shu’s direction. “Please!” Mika thrusted his hands out, recoiling as his own magic burst out of his body. The mixture of amber and lapis colored particles screeched a high-pitched tone, enclosing around the foreign magic and wiping them away with winds strong enough to topple over a nearby tree.

Even with debris racing across the air and slamming against his cheek, Mika never stopped running. He skidded to a stop a few feet before the catatonic violet haze, extending his arms out protectively.

His eyes darted to and fro, gathering what information a useless doll like him could. The tips of his fingers tingled, amber and lapis sprinkling the shadows in speckles of starlight. There was more than one; that much he could tell. However, with his lack of skills, there was no way an inexperienced doll like him could pinpoint each one specifically. Perhaps big brother-

Big brother… was lost to this void. But Mika had faith. Big brother would find his way to them. He had to. One way or another, even as nothing more than a human in a world of demons.

Deep within his musings, Mika had to jerk to attention as more of the greenish yellow magic poured upon them. It crashed against his hastily called upon shield, nearly pushing him to his knees physically. Protection magic was not his specialty; the spell leaving a deeper gauge within his reserves.

And yet, the greenish yellow cannon balls continued to rain down. Burnt orange magic joined their ranks – sharp arrows pointing downwards, preparing to be released from the heavens.

Time stopped. The wind ceased its whirling.

A tinkling bell rung in their ears.

Mika closed his eyes to the sudden brightness exploding upon the land. When he felt it safe to reopen them without turning blind, his vision was still speckled with shards of colored light dizzying his mind. The forest was finally visible. What was once full of lush greens and lively creatures was nothing more than char slicked foliage, jagged with broken trunks and the bare skeletons of those who couldn’t escape.

A spell of such caliber must have been practiced immeasurably…

A cry of big brother’s name brought Mika’s observation to a halt. He spun on the balls of his feet, nearly toppling over in nausea at the sight.

The slowly dissipating light blue magic shaped into the form of a spear spilled out of big brother’s back. His upper body was cradled in Shu’s arms, body lying face down on the ground.

“I’m… happy…” Big brother whispered into the clearing air. Red dusts of glitter continued to float around, eating away the last of the darkness piece by piece. “I… made it.”

“Don’t talk, fool!” Shu yelled, eyebrows furrowing. “You shouldn’t have-!”

“Oshi-san… Mika-chin…” A gentle smile graced the childlike features of big brother’s face.

Mika felt his lips quiver, body frozen as his vision blurred. The light purple shine just at the corner of his sights only a passing observation as he stared at his cherished family falling apart.

 

Shu yelled big brother’s name towards the white feathered being zipping across the clear blue sky. Mika hasn’t heard that name in months; the name almost becoming taboo within Shu’s presence. And yet, as his eyes trailed after the angel in the sky, the angel didn’t even flinch at the name. The man with the ever-familiar blonde hair and red eyes that stared at them with surprise and terror at being attacked out of nowhere did not even react after seeing their faces.

“Traitor…” Mika shifted his eyes to stare down at the trembling ground beneath his feet. Pebbles danced upon the dirt, smacking against each other like they were cheering on the madness.

Mountains raised from flat earth. The clanging of metal reverberated between stone slabs as they embedded into solid rock only to be yanked out clumsily. Though frightened and shaking like a cornered rabbit, the angel only fought back defensively. Magic roared through the air with the same frequency as Shu released his.

Mika clenched his fists tightly. A grappling hook whipped by his face, crashing at his side and shooting gravel high into the air.

Shu scoffed, an unhinged laugh bubbling out of his throat as the angel escaped his clutches and disappear within the clouds. “Kagehira!”

“Okay…” He replied in a whisper. He dragged his feet as Shu stomped off back towards Mineralis.

From that day forward, thick metal slabs were erected around the perimeter of the City of Land, barring it away from the outside world. From Caelem, Terra, and even Inferna. An isolation that kept their citizens behind jail bars and imported supplies quickly running dry, prompting the royal family to step in after some time.

If only big brother didn’t come back… Not like that…

Mika shifted nervously, standing a step behind Shu as masked figures stood behind the King of Inferna, himself.

“You have fallen too deep into your own Hell. I cannot have that, My Shadow.”

Chapter Text

He opens and closes his hand, the smooth skin on his palm wrinkling and stretching with the motions. The heat of sunlight streaming inside blazes across his cheek and warming up the ends of his unruly hair. The sky outside is clear, the blue of the atmosphere almost light enough to be considered white. Song birds fly freely through the air, chirping as they make their way across the heavens; clouds drifting by slowly with the warm breeze. Today is just another normal, peaceful day.

About as normal as he feels. Unfortunately. He purses his lips, the skin on his hand remaining unchanged no matter how long he stares into the middle of his palm. The feelings inside his chest not even twinging as the days pass by. Nothing is either full or empty. His blood continues to race through his veins with the same warmth and frequency as it has always done.

Though the inspiration doesn’t wane, the spark he expects also doesn’t appear.

It has been just about a week and a half since Izumi woke his magic up. A week and a half since he experienced that chilling, soulless feeling only to thrum with a heartfelt buzz mere seconds afterwards. Even though it has been awoken, the magic doesn’t seem to change his body. He worries a little that it has gone back to sleep, seeing as he can’t even seem to sense its presence within him.

Is one able to, in the first place?

Izumi would know. Izumi knows everything. He wonders if Izumi has been practicing his singing throughout the week? The demon went back home to attend to personal matters; which is perfectly fine. Or so he tells himself. But isn’t Izumi his personal Prince Guard now? They signed a contract! Izumi should be with him-

Oh, but only in Infernan terms. To be honest, even though he was given the contract to read, his Infernan language skills are… Lacking, at best. He isn’t confident in his translation of the terms, especially without some form of dictionary. There, very well, could be a condition that allows Izumi to wander where he pleases.

How is Izumi doing, lately, anyways? A letter hasn’t appeared magically out of thin air nor has a carrier pigeon flown to his bedroom window telling him of Izumi’s wellbeing or whereabouts. Demons are so secretive. He would do it himself if he knew where his friend has gone off to.

To Nazuna… And Madara, too.

Exhaling a sigh softly, he gets up from his seat by the window. He isn’t getting any studying done in the library, today, it seems. It would be better to place his energy into something more productive. Putting the piece of literature back high on the shelf, he idly scans the other aisles. He tilts his head curiously, staring off into one of the deep corners of the library. If he remembers correctly from his youth, there is a hidden room shrouded away in the shadows.

Though the room isn’t intentionally a secret, it hasn’t had a visitor in many years – the contents within the four walls having no significance in the Kingdom’s present time. At least, until now it seems. Taking another moment to stare in the room’s general direction, he checks around himself before venturing forward. It certainly won’t hurt to take a peek into that world; a world so different than the one he currently lives in.

His footsteps echo across the high ceilings of the library, reminding him, once more, that he is alone in this giant place. The further he traverses away from the heavy double doors that is the exit from this prison, the darker it seems to get. Even the sunlight piercing through the large windows shy away from the inner corners of the library – fearing what kinds of shadows may lurk within its depths and eat it away within a measly breath.

The single aisle of bookshelves that lead to the room sees no light, even the candles lining the very top of the piece of furniture is melted to their ends and pooling within their holders have been left for dead. Carefully, with his fingers sliding across the dusty shelves to steady his balance in the ever-increasing darkness, he makes his way to the furthest wall away from the main doors. The spines of books that watch him tread through their inhuman land with mere human eyes curse at him with foreign words.

Perhaps the darkness is a product of something lingering within the pages of the books beyond the door? One that gives its comrades an artificial and fleeting consciousness.

The bookshelf ends. The door wedged in the corner of the library is plain and unassuming, yet pulsing with a foreign life that shouldn’t exist within its wooden material. His eyes almost trick him into seeing a form of gas seep out from the crack between it and the floor.

Or maybe-

“Arm yourselves! He is only but one man!”

His body jerks, feet flying off of the floor and nearly bumping his body back into the shelf full of sneering texts he can barely read. Luckily, his reflexes are quick, catching his weight before he truly sends the bookshelf toppling over and having all of the books as eyewitnesses to his folly even as they tumble to the ground and crinkle their innards.

He pivots on his heels quickly, turning to face the direction he came. The shout came in from the window, the soldier’s voice loud enough to vibrate through the thick glass and travel deep into the depths of the castle. Rushing back towards the light, he moves towards the large window and scans the outside world.

For some reason, the castle guards are assembling, weapons at their sides and hands ready to draw. He stares for another moment, his reflection in the window not hindering his inspection of the commotion. What did the unit commander just say? He is only but one man?

Who is?

His shoes squeak against the smooth, marble-like flooring as he turns his back to the window and races out of the library. The double doors leading to freedom are heavy and glazed thickly in gloss, the skin on his fingertips catch against it as he pushes free.

“Oh! Prince Leo!” A guard gasps in surprise as the two of them meet in close proximity accidentally. The guard hurriedly claps their feet together and salutes. “Excuse my rudeness, sir!”

“Ah, no need. I was the one who came out of the door without warning.” Leo waves his hand dismissively.

“You are too kind, sir!” The guard nods, looking as though they want to hurry away.

Leo ignores their body language and persists in his quest, “Is there an uproar outside? I heard shouting.”

“Sir! There is an unidentified man claiming to have a meeting with you.”

Leo tilts his head. Did he have something scheduled that he forgot about?

The guard continues, “Clearly, this man is speaking nothing but rubbish! There is no need for you to even lay eyes on such a shady fellow. We, your loyal knights, will take care of him with haste.”

“I see…” Leo draws out slowly. “Did he say anything else?”

“Only that he is one of those bloody mercenaries, sir!”

Mercenary?

Before Leo can question the guard more, they add more detail of their own accord out of exasperation, “Just because he’s got fancy clothes or a fancy weapon and a pretty face, doesn’t mean he can waltz into the Royal Castle of Terra and expect to be given audience with the Royal family. Utter rubbish!”

He interrupts, “Does he have hair the color of light slate and eyes as blue as the midday sky?”

“Hm? Oh, well… yes, I suppose that is an accurate descript- Prince Leo?!”

“Thanks!” Leo calls over his shoulder, already running down the hall before the guard can finish speaking.

Yes. Finally.

He is back at his side.

Leo races down the hall, un-princely like with his clothes fluttering harshly behind him with his speed. Soon, the extremely large and extravagant front doors to the castle, created from the finest wood and decorated with the shiniest metals, comes into view. His palms slap against the gleaming, glossy finish of the doors and pushes against its heavy weight with his toes pressing against the ground. Even though plenty of sunlight streams inside through the clear glass windows, the raw beams hitting his face makes Leo squint, eyes protesting at the sudden exposure.

The wind smashes against his skin in a fury, loose speckles of dirt pricking against his cheeks as they collide into him. Opening his eyes wide, he is met with the sight of his knights, backs turned to him and eyes trained towards the front gates a short distance away. He tries to look around, but deems it impossible. There are much too many knights milling around; for only a single person trotting into their territory, at that. Leo clears his throat, standing up straight and raising his chin.

“Make way, if you please.”

Heads jerk to the sound of his strong voice. Nearly tripping over themselves, the knights part like a tidal wave, faces set in an expression that makes his heart twinge guiltily. Their weapons clanging against their bodies and sheaths in their shuffling from one foot to another is the only sound to accompany the blowing breeze. The stone paved path before him is illuminated by the sun about to reach its peak in the sky.

At the end of such a route, with all eyes locked on in one direction, is a man garbed in white and gold, left hand lazily – overconfidently – resting on the hilt of his sword and facial features being cut away from his view by the steel bars of the main gates. The man shifts a miniscule distance, just enough to peek an eye through the gates and meet his gaze directly.

Yards away from each other, and a physical barrier between them, he and the man fight for dominance of the atmosphere. The man’s expression is unamused, at best; baby smooth skin only amplifying the outcome. Being threatened by a beauty has an effect, after all. Even if the beauty lacks something that was there before.

“I won’t lose to you.” Leo chuckles lowly, finally taking the first steps into the spotlight of the walkway. His shoes connect heavily with the earth, the rhythm steady and setting pace to the melody playing in his mind.

The man sniffs, turning his head to show defiance. “Whatever. About time you showed up.”

“Hey! Do not speak so rudely to the Prince!” The knight standing tall on top of the defensive wall shouts down. “You cretin, you’re lucky to even be graced with his presence!”

Leo smiles sheepishly as the knight shrinks back after a narrowed side eye is sent their way. “Thank you for having me in your thoughts, but he is my precious guest. Won’t you treat our guests kindly?”

“Hah? This arrogant man?” The knight lets the phrase slip out of their mouth in their astonishment unfiltered. Their partner in guard duty at the gates roughly hits their shoulder, making the knight jerk forward and race to catch their weight as their body tips forward.

The other knights surrounding him bounce their weight back and forth between their feet more so than before, nervous about his reaction to the rogue comment. His chest gives a little pang at the distance that must be kept; a distance dictated by nothing more than a title – words that were created out of thin air and given a higher meaning than their physical bodies ever showed.

Leo holds in a despondent sigh, replacing the feeling with a gentle smile and waving a hand frivolously. “He’s my friend. Won’t you let him in for me?”

“Yes, sir!” The knights stationed on the ground salute to him and quickly get to work, releasing the complicated, heavy lock on the wheel and rotating it. The gate suspends high in the air, revealing the open doorway to their eyes at last.

“Finally.”

“Don’t be like that, Sena.” Leo whispers. He nibbles on the inside of his cheek, the belied smile turning into something real and true, yet too emotional for the Prince of Terra to display to all of these watching eyes. “Let’s talk inside.”

As he walks back towards the castle’s main doors with Izumi just a step behind him, he knows he can’t blame his knights for getting so worked up and gathering like an angry village mob. The demon exudes much too much presence, something overwhelming and hypnotizing. Though Izumi doesn’t display any bloodlust, the pang of survival instincts that awakens deep in his heart shoots anxiety through his veins like dry ice eating him away from within. Even him, who has spent so many hours by this man’s side.

He can’t help but wonder if it is such a good idea to intimidate the others immediately upon meeting. To hold the position Leo is willingly giving him, superiority with the power to back it up would certainly avoid most troubles, however, ruling with fear has never sat well with him.

“You don’t have to pump out your presence so much.” Leo comments in amusement, keeping his voice low enough so the conversation remains purely between them.

“Your knights are annoying.” Izumi sniffs, turning his nose in the air as they walk.

He finds himself letting out a chuckle, unable to hold the emotions within his being. “If you told me you were coming, I would’ve sent them orders to let you in, you know? You’re so impatient~”

“Rather than impatient, I think they were just the incompetent ones? Why all gather and not even try to fight me? They let me stand there for an eternity, I could’ve done who knows what.”

“I’ll give them a scolding later then, if that is your wish.” Leo laughs freely now, head tilting back in his glee. “What did you come in through the front gate for, anyways? No flashing into my room this time?”

“Well, Prince,” Izumi pauses, making sure he has all of Leo’s attention. The two of them stop in the middle of the foyer, turning to face one another. “Isn’t it time you swear me in as a knight?”

Leo’s smile drops, the serious tone in the demon’s voice bringing him back to the matter that has loomed over his head for more than a week. His reflection shines back at him through Izumi’s crystal-clear azure gaze, showing him the frown on his face. This relationship is forbidden, a special something that is just between the two of them. Something that needs to be hidden within plain sight for it to never be discovered. Right underneath everyone’s noses, he, the Terrian human, will become allies with the enemy, Izumi, the Infernan demon.

He forces his head to nod, the motions stiff. “Right. Let’s go to my room first.”

The staff milling around in the halls and corridors – try as they might to hide it – discretely peek at the newcomer at the prince’s side, gazes piercing into the back of their heads like a swooping bird hunting for prey. The staff has always been inquisitive when someone visits the castle, Leo has noticed, but today feels different. His skin prickles at their observations and sweat beads at the back of his neck. Perhaps it is due to Izumi being a completely new face within these walls. Or perhaps it is the excitement of getting caught prior to any foundations being laid.

The moment Leo closes his bedroom door behind them, he begins to reach out towards Izumi’s face but stops himself, remembering the last time he touched Izumi so. Blue eyes watch his movements carefully, not missing a single muscle movement.

Leo drops his hand, swallowing the sudden lump in his throat before speaking, “Your markings are gone.”

“Hm? Is that what you’re so worried about?” Izumi asks casually, tilting his head. “It’s just a glamour spell.” A shimmer of glitter ghosts across his high cheek bones, briefly revealing the dark blue stripes before they fade away to the same color as the rest of his pale skin once more. “They’re still there. Why? Fascinated by something peculiar to you humans? Have the urge to fear and destroy the unknown?”

“Mm… They’re pretty.” Leo already mourns the loss of the sight of them. “A novelty, yeah, but they make you the Sena that I know.”

Izumi turns his head away embarrassedly, “What is with that? Well, whatever. Come here. Your magic is leaking all over the place.”

“Hm? Is it?” Leo lifts his arms, looking down at his body and trying to turn his head to see his back. “I don’t feel anything leaking?”

“Of course not.” Izumi sighs in disappointment. The demon grabs Leo’s wrist and tugs him closer. Stumbling into the hold, Leo eyes are assaulted with a bright blue glow right in front of his face for but a millisecond before he is staring into those icy azure orbs once more. “There. That will hold until you control it on your own.”

Inspecting his free hand, opening and closing his fist, Leo does feel mildly different. He can’t say he would have noticed if he wasn’t looking for it, however. The little, tiny bit of melody that slips away at the end of each verse now flows smoothly, a complete song in the making once more; like a flowing river that is no longer rushing like a tsunami and tossing out droplets at random. “Thanks.”

“Mhm,” Izumi hums. “Looks like it filled up well.”

“My reserves? I don’t really feel any different?”

“You just don’t understand anything, huh?” Izumi smirks.

“Then teach me~”

“Alright, alright.” Those clear blue eyes roll in annoyance, but Leo is close enough to see that the frown on Izumi’s face is nothing but a farce, cheek muscles twitching and tensing erratically.

Stepping a little closer, Leo tilts his head up towards Izumi’s just slightly taller frame and grins brightly. “I look forward to it~”

“Annoying.” Izumi grumbles.

A laugh bubbles out of his throat once more at the word. He is starting to get accustomed to such a harsh term of endearment. Just another part of Izumi that makes him unique and special. An interesting little soul walking upon the earth alongside him.

“What’s that?” Leo asks to continue the conversation, eyes moving to look over Izumi’s shoulder. He craves the sound of Izumi’s voice, a tune with a timbre so breathtaking that his fingers instantly itch to pick up a quill. “Overnight bag?”

The demon hums a small noise as he shrugs off the bag. “Something like that.”

Izumi’s warmth finally leaves Leo’s wrist, much to Leo’s displeasure. His skin suddenly feels chills colder than any of Izumi’s ice as the draft in the room circles around them. The demon kneels to the ground, putting the heavy bag in front of him and opening up the clasps. Leo leans forward, curiosity getting the better of him. He leans precariously forward, trying to peek beyond Izumi’s form.

There are clothes folded neatly on top, however, not much more is visible to Leo’s eyes as Izumi slips his thin arm through what lays within and searches for something at the bottom. The shirt on top bobs up and down as Izumi’s hand does, the metal buckles on the bag’s flap creating sharp notes as they get moved back and forth.

Leo crouches beside him, chin resting on his raised knees as his feet stay rooted to the ground. “What are you looking for?”

“Just wait a seco- oh, here it is.” Izumi pulls his arm out gently, making sure not to ruffle the contents inside too harshly. Everything within the bag dips downwards with clunks as the empty space fills once more with the help of gravity. In Izumi’s hand is long box coated in velvet. “For you.”

“Eh? For me?” Leo reaches out, grabbing the box and feeling the soft material beneath his fingers. “Can I open it?”

“Sure, as you please.” Izumi shrugs, closing the bag back up.

The gift opens like a jewelry box, taking strength to lift the lid apart from its other half yet remaining attached to it on one side. Sitting pretty on equally as plush insides are three golden spheres, all looking like a patchwork of metal slabs screwed into its center. Keeping his eyes locked on the items, Leo falls to his bottom on the floor, crossing his legs before him more comfortably. Gingerly, he strokes the pad of his thumb across one.

Upon contact, he jerks his appendage back. Sharp electricity shoots through his forearm, not dissipating even after he cuts contact with the golden sphere. Leo instinctively allows a whimper to leave his throat, an eye closing as a spark of green erupts from his skin and shoots out like lightning dancing in the clouds. The bones in his arm suddenly feel like jam, trying desperately to stick together but inevitably failing and separating with a sticky scream.

He closes his mouth with a snap, teeth clacking together and canines biting at his inner bottom lip harshly as he holds in yet another groan. The container falls from his hand, only to be wrapped neatly in a sheer sheet of ice and balanced on a glittering pedestal refracting the sunlight. Leo grips at his forearm tightly, the skin on both his fingers and arm fading to white as blood is stopped in its tracks. Though he can feel the bones perfectly intact within his forearm, the numbing, oozing pain never ceases.

“Don’t touch magical objects so freely from now on.”

Izumi’s voice is muffled, like his ears are stuff with cotton and the world is but a distant place. Thin fingers wrap around his free hand, squeezing it lightly in warning. Subzero temperatures race up his limb, a thick coating of ice holding it hostage like a cast. The skin encompassed within stings dangerously, on the very edges of tipping deep into frostbitten territory and rendering the limb useless for eternity.

Just as he is about to sound his agony, the ice cracks and breaks apart in a small explosion. Before the shards can cause any more damage, they puff into blue shimmers and disperse within the air like those fireworks that have become so popular nowadays. Warm blood swims with ease through his limb once more, the skin no worse for wear despite it all.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Leo peers his eyes upwards cautiously; scared to meet Izumi’s scolding expression. “Um… Sorry.”

Rather than admonishment, Izumi only shakes his head; the tension in his body visibly releasing. “Humans…”

“You’re the one who gave it to me.” Leo pouts, bottom lip jutting out. “How was I supposed to know what they were?”

“It wouldn’t have been a problem if you didn’t want to awaken your magic. But since you did, other magics will react to you now. Or rather, you will react to them. You’ll be able to read magic signatures like your own language before you know it – or else you’ll die earlier than I expected.”

“Jee, thanks,” Leo rolls his eyes. “So? What assassination tool did you give me?”

The demon’s lips tilt upwards, “I would have killed you long ago, Prince of Terra. This is too messy and I hate cleaning up blood and crazed magic.”

Leo hums a note, intrigued. “Done it before?”

Pearly white needles slowly edge over Izumi’s bottom lip. “Who do you think I am?”

“A kind demon. No matter how much you try to scare me, I want to be by your side.”

Blue eyes narrow at him, carefully scanning everything about his being – inside and out.

Izumi allows a sigh to leave his lungs, fangs retracting back into his gums. “You’re too trusting, Prince of Terra.”

“I can’t go around being suspicious of everyone. That’s no way to live. I’d rather try and be hurt than to never know it at all.” Leo shrugs. “I’ll show you. And if you’re scared to be hurt, I’ll protect you.”

“Hah, you’re so full of it.” The demon turns his head away, eyes landing on the golden orbs still nestled peacefully within velvet on the icy pedestal. “They’re recorders.”

“Recorders?”

“You write music, don’t you? You can record them in there; every note, every instrument, anything. It depends how complex or long a song is, but it should hold a good few, no problems.”

“That’s amazing.” Leo’s eyes widen, shifting, cautiously, closer to the box. “How do you get them to work?”

“Figured it would be a good tool to get you train your magic with.”

He recoils at the words. “Whatever pain you give me, I’ll take with no complaints but… is it always going to be like that?”

“You’re so weird, you know that?”

“So I’ve been told.”

“Well, to answer your question, no. Probably not.” Izumi wraps his fingertips around one of the objects and holds it between them. “The magic in here is Unbound, meaning no one has ownership over it. Like a magic crystal, even the specialty ones equipped with a certain spell. Anyone can will its power to do what they want with.”

“Then what were the sparks?”

“That was your own magic. It didn’t like that foreign magic was encroaching into their territory, even if it was just a passing brush. It acted up wildly, causing the Unbound particles to absorb in the craze and fight for its life to flee. Magic is alive; remember that, won’t you?”

“How are you touching it?”

“Controlling my magic. It’s another me, after all.” Izumi drops the orb back into its spot. “Against something that doesn’t even want to fight in the first place, my magic knows not to wastes its energy.”

“So, what did you encase my arm in ice for?”

“I destroyed the fighting particles, both yours and the Unbound ones.” Izumi explains smoothly. “If I didn’t, all of your magic will race to fight in a war it started without warning and you’ll run dry.”

“How long do you think it’ll take me to control it?” Leo’s eyes shift upwards as Izumi stands, taking the container with him and closing it with a clap.

“Hmph. Depends if you’re compatible.”

He finds himself cocking his head as he follows the other man to a stance. “But isn’t it another me?”

“Would you get along with yourself?” Izumi moves to set the box on the desk, ice pedestal disappearing with the contact. “Sometimes its stubborn, unwilling to relinquish its freedom; other times, things go smoothly. It’s still your personal magic, so it often works out in the end.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“Fight it until you win.” The demon says so nonchalantly that the words nearly fly over Leo’s head. “Anyways, we should talk about what really needs to get done today.”

Izumi sure does like to avoid the hard questions. However, he nods along, saving the issues at hand for a later date. “Right. I’ll swear you into the position with my parents’ permission. We just need to gain it.”

“For all intents and purposes, I’m human. Okay?”

“Mm. Though I hate lying, it wouldn’t… be good to bring in a foreign demon during these times. What is this about you being a mercenary, though? I heard a knight talking about that.”

“I’m a human, born in Inferna but a citizen to none. A high-end magician mercenary that is loyal as long as the money is good.” Izumi rakes his fingers through his hair. “We met in the capital city, nothing more, nothing less. You asked me to teach you magic in return for a job for a while.”

Leo chuckles, “Can’t just say we’re friends?”

“Hardly.”

The laugh bubbles up stronger from his chest. “I’ve taken a liking to you, though. Isn’t that why I invited you?”

“Isn’t it because the novelty of magic intrigues you? Curiosity killed the cat, you know?”

“And satisfaction brought it back.” Leo turns on his heels, holding out his hand. “I’m sure the King and Queen are in their office. Let’s go, Sena. You do go by Sena, don’t you?”

“With that peculiar inflection? No.” Izumi scoffs, ignoring the offered hand and edging around Leo’s frame. He walks out into the hallway with confidence, as though he knows exactly where to go.

“Don’t be like that~! Se~na~!”

Chapter Text

“Have you gone mad, my son?”

“We encourage you to make friends, but this is unacceptable!”

“Not only have you brought a probable assassin straight into our home, you wish to learn magic from him?!”

The voices that float into his sensitive ears make his lips tilt up in amusement. Leaning casually against the wall in the room the royal family told him to wait in, he crosses his arms and ankles. Humans are foolish – an opinion that will likely never change. Always fearing the unknown and seeking to destroy it; even when their daily lives are never hindered or threatened. If the humans do not have control over it, it must be eliminated or taken in for research so that humans may grow to be stronger than ever. Do humans feel so insecure in their spot within the food chain that they must assert their power against bystanders who have never bared their fangs?

And one wonders why mythical creatures have all but hidden themselves solely within Inferna.

To crave the power of magic, yet to fear it, and turn away from it until it loses all life and meaning. That is what humans have done to their land. To magic; a naturally occurring phenomenon of the earth that is meant to strive alongside the living.

“Father, mother! He’s a good man! He may be loyal to riches, but he would never go back on his word!”

Perhaps there are exceptions to his opinion. Or, well, maybe not. After all, Leo, the Prince of Terra, still trusts him far more than one should.

The room he is in, standing next to the entranceway, is just across the hall from the king and queen’s office. Visibly, within the compact space filled out by a large conference table and chairs surrounding it, it is void of life. Only the muffled voices screeching through the thick wooden frame of the door reverberating against his eardrums and the guards standing outside accompany him. However, the light scurrying vibrating the ground and travelling up his leg tells him a different tale. His eyes flicker to the eastern wall.

Even if it is unseen, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Pushing off of the wall with his back muscles, he steps up to the side of the ornate portrait hanging on the wall. The gold trimmed frame reflects a blurred image of himself as his shoulder bumps gently against it. Leaning his weight against the wall once more, he waits for the pitter patter vibrating beneath his feet to get stronger.

The reverberations stop and start with purpose. Even the wall behind his back hums into his skin.

“Little princesses shouldn’t seek out bad men out of their own volition.”

A squeak pierces through the portrait, followed by feet hitting the ground after leaving it.

He chuckles lowly, “What would you do, princess, if I took you away right now?”

“Well…” She trails off, her voice small even muted behind the thick barrier between them. “You’re big brother’s friend. He wouldn’t make acquaintances with people who would do us harm. He would never have allowed you into the castle proper otherwise, even if it were just himself who gets hurt.”

He harrumphs under his breath. “You’re so alike.”

“Hm? Did you say something, Sir… Sir Mercenary? I apologize, it is difficult to hear through the painting.”

He taps his finger on his arm, contemplating his next move. The princess is all by her lonesome, just beyond the stone lined wall. No princess-guard nor knight accompanying her. No spell or item to counter magic either. Yet, even while he nor Inferna hold any plans for the Princess of Terra, it would be a shame if she perishes in this war. The damage taken to Terra’s morale would, admittedly, be mediocre, at best. However, Leo would take more mental strain than his entire kingdom, who look only towards him for future guidance. As the oldest. As the next ruler in line for the throne.

As long as Leo lives, nothing else matters to the humans.

Before he could answer her, the exasperated voices from across the hall pound against the doors once more. “Is he using magic to control you? Slipping poison into the air?”

“If you say you encourage me to make friends, why must I discriminate who I associate with? Why must he or she or they be a member of a family of the court or noblemen?”

“You are the Prince of Terra, it is-”

“Peasants or royals, do we not all have the same life value?”

“Do not interrupt me, boy. You are unbecoming of a prince, lately, Leo.”

“Sir Mercenary?”

His attention snaps back to the young girl behind the wall. He supposes she can’t hear them; his senses are much sharper, after all. “If you truly believe in your brother, should you not go save him?”

“Save him?”

“Surely you know of the difficulties walking the path of kings and queens.” He replies nonchalantly, shrugging his shoulder slightly. “Or perhaps you do not, second born child.”

“If you are referring to my brother holding no true friendships, then I am aware of that.” The girl suddenly sounds defeated. “Rather, he remains stagnant here while the rest of the world moves on.”

He chuckles. “Is that so? You should learn to hold your tongue, Princess. You never know who will use such information against you, especially in these times.”

“Eh? Is that… not the problem at hand?”

“Can you become acquaintances with the common folk, Princess?”

“Um…” She trails off. “Yes, I suppose I can. I visit my friend quite often in the capital. Big brother likes to talk to the townspeople, as well.”

“But they are not truly his friends, are they?”

“…No, they are not.”

“Have you never thought of why he ‘holds no true friendships?’”

The princess remains silent.

“One last question, Princess.” He tilts his head, hair sliding against the stone as he sets his eyes on the thick edge of the portrait’s frame. “Are you afraid of magic?”

And still, she remains quiet. The seconds pass by like watching a pot of water boil. He closes his eyes and tilts his head back, leaning more of his weight onto the barrier between them. Even if she never finds the courage to speak the words in her heart, he knows the answer. All humans, though inexplicably attracted to the unknown and the novel, fear it more so. This young human is no exception. Some may overcome their fear and seek to absorb the mysteries within themselves, but they too shiver in fear each step of their journey.

“I do not understand it enough to make a clear decision.”

Foolish.

“Wrong answer, Princess.”

“Who are you to say what my feelings are?!”

A smirk stretches widely across his lips, aching his cheek muscles. “So, the quiet little princess has a temper. Amusing, if I say so, myself.”

“And you are rude, Sir Mercenary.”

“I am only stating the facts, Princess. I am conducting myself befit of royalty.”

He has lived in such an environment for as long as he can remember, after all. Proper conduct and fancy words have been engrained into his mind like hot metal onto skin. The smell of burning flesh ever present as he walks through the motions that have become more natural to him than being free. There are few who he will allow the role to drop with, one of who has run away from his side.

“If you know so well, what is the answer, then?”

“Wishy-washy answers like that will only get you killed in our world. If you’re scared, know that you’re scared. If you’re not, know your limits. Only then will you stand a chance.”

“I see…” She trails off in a whisper. “Thank you for your concern.”

“When did I ever state that this was over concern for you?” He sniffs. “You asked the question, I answered. Simple as that.”

“Then thank you for helping my kingdom. If you are our friend… please protect my brother. Above all else.”

He opens his eyes, flicking his vision back to the portrait hanging beside him. Those same words are dragged back up from the depths of his memories with a surprising jolt.

“We are doing this for your safety and the safety of an entire kingdom! Do not act so spoiled! You are an adult now, Leo. It is time to grow up.”

“I have grown! You are just letting fear rule your heart and refusing to see it from my eyes!”

“Is that my brother?”

They are screaming loud enough for even the princess to eavesdrop in on their conversation now. He cannot imagine what the guards just beyond the doors are thinking. Is it so proper to have a family spat right in front of the knights? Or loud enough for the whole castle to listen in? If the staff are as loyal as they claim to be, it should be no problem.

But humans have always been fickle and careless. One never knows who might lurk in the dark. He resides deep within their stronghold, after all.

“Yes. Discussions do not seem to be going smoothly.” He shakes his head. As expected. “Will you not try to save him, princess? Your dear older brother?”

“Do you solemnly swear to be by his side?”

“For as long as the contract holds.”

She is contemplatively silent for but a moment. “Please be good friends with my brother.”

Her footsteps are light, inaudible to the ears; even so, the vibrations running through the ground alert him to her retreating presence. Closing his eyes once more, he focuses on her path. The reverberations become weaker and weaker until she hits, what is presumably, a dead end. The wall slides apart, rumbling the very foundations of the castle.

This day has turned into such a pain. And it does not seem to be ending any time soon. Despite expecting as much since riling up their knights, it is still leaving him drained.

He sighs, relaxing his shoulders but not yet letting down his guard. He is still, very much, in the lair of their enemy. And will be for some time. The color gradually returns to his vision, eyelids lazily opening. The conference table before him, stained in a dark chocolate shade, gleams with the dazzling sunlight streaming in through the small window. This is a place where many councils have taken place, he is sure. Maps, documents, weapons, physical evidence, all, most likely, have laid across its surface, and the important have stood around it.

This table has seen nothing but scrutinizing eyes, no one appreciating its beauty, only what lay atop it. The walls have listened to countless conversations and discussions, carefully keeping Terra’s secrets safely within their confines. No matter how they may differ, many things remain the same. He has stood at the front of such assemblies countless times. The same large table, the same four walls and secret passage. He lets an arm drop, finger pads scraping against the gritty stone wall as he lowers it.

Almost the same.

The sword at his hip clinks with his movements. The blade is unhappy in its sheath after soaking up such animosity from the Terrian Knights. It yearns to go head to head with the hostility and set a true hierarchy. Even if it loses, it will accept its place. He puts his free hand on the hilt, settling the growing restlessness that begins to seep into his own veins. They won’t lose. Not to Terrian Knights nor to Terra. There is still much to do. Being defeated before then is not an option.

The guards just outside the door voice their reluctant commands.

A sweet, girlish voice quivers, “My family is clearly displeased with each other. Can you not just let me in to try to understand the situation?”

“Apologies, Princess. We are under orders to keep anyone from entering.”

“Then may I greet our guest?”

“That is also a negative, Princess Ruka.”

“If I, the Princess of Terra, cannot command you, and instead, the Knights of Terra control the Princess, what will you allow me to do?”

One of the guards clears their throat uneasily. “That is not the case, Princess. We would never dream of such traitorous acts. We are always in your servitude.”

“If that is the case, then won’t you, at least, allow me to ask for attendance to such a familial discussion?”

“Princess, truly, we cannot-”

“Ruka.”

Ah. Leo’s voice. Much clearer to his ears now that there is only one set of doors between them.

“Big brother.”

“Father and mother are saying your conversation is interrupting and to come in if you feel such a need.”

Perhaps the little princess is smarter than she lets on. His ears are still ringing with the louder than usual voice she was using.

Leo pauses only to continue on with a sterner voice, “Have you gotten my guest any refreshments?”

“No, sir.”

“Then one of you do so, please. We cannot be bad hosts, now can we?”

“Of course not, sir.”

“Thank you graciously. Come on, Ruka.”

The door clicks closed.

He releases a breath. Leo may believe in his knights, but he sure does not. Poison won’t be slipped into the drink and snack, that would be all too obvious. Unless they truly are that sloppy. Rather, they will come in, hackles raised and rearing for a fight. He appreciates Leo making sure he is comfortable in such a sparse room, void of secrets, but the sentiment is unneeded. Owing Leo anything leaves a bad taste in his mouth. No matter how big or small.

He is born of Infernan blood.

There is a knock on the door. Without waiting for his reply, it opens. One of the knights enter, a lithe maid standing behind them with a confused expression before the other one ushers her away. The door closes behind them, tray carefully balanced in their free hand.

“Courtesy of the Prince.”

His eyes sweep the knight’s form. “Much appreciated.”

The knight narrows their eyes, dropping the tray onto the conference table with a clatter. The glass of water tilts dangerously on its edge, splashing out precious droplets onto plain cookies before settling back on its base. The room becomes deathly silent, the pressure within the atmosphere thickening and clogging up their windpipes.

“You think you can waltz in here like a rich, entitled brat and claim our prince’s side?”

“Hardly.” He scoffs. “However, the position has been open for quite some time, has it not? It is not my fault that the rest of you knights have not the skills to be promoted, even in these trying times. One wonders if any of you truly attempted to inquire about such a role or were too weak willed, biding your time until opportunities are laid in your lap.”

The hiss of steel reaches his ears before the roar of the knight as they unsheathe their blade and posture it before them. “An outsider with no loyalties will never understand our devotion! You know nothing of what you speak of!”

“Hah.” He huffs under his breath in amusement. “Devotion, huh…”

“You say you can use magic, but I bet it is just a farce to lure our prince into your dirty hands. I won’t allow it!”

The sunlight blazes against the steel inching closer to his face, blinding his eyes as too much light enters his pupils. He leans back, the sword passing just centimeters in front of him and leaving him unharmed. The air slashes against his face like a physical blade, but does not cause the same damage. The swing, wild and uncontrolled, tips the knight off balance, teetering them dangerously on their feet.

He steps to the side, letting the knight’s ungraceful footwork fall into his previous spot in an attempt to regain their posture. “Who are you to tell the prince what he can or cannot do?”

“I-!” The knight stands up straight, putting their blade between them once more. “I am saving him before he has to make such decisions!”

“Is this not treason? Attempting to murder the prince’s friend?”

“It is not treason when I will defeat the villain before something dreadful happens.”

He tilts his head, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “You see yourself as the hero, then? Do heroes and villains exist in the first place? Or are we all just people fighting for our own sense of justice?” He takes a hop back, the blade slicing through the air once more. “Just as your justice is to defeat a stranger to protect your loyalties, it is my justice to be loyal to what I believe, no matter the cost.”

Humans are always afraid of the unknown. Always seeking to destroy it before it destroys them. Always hoping to prove their loyalties or risk going unrewarded and thrown away.

“You are nothing but a mercenary, loyal to riches! That is not the same!”

Humans hold such fickle values; trust and faith are never true. Allies are just betrayals waiting around the corner.

“In either case,” He digs the ball of his foot into the ground, shifting both his weight and momentum. “It is only my right to defeat you to save my own life, isn’t it?”

There are no exceptions.

“Sena.”

Not even him.

Izumi halts his movements but keeps his eyes trained on the furious knight. The knight, on the other hand, pivots on their heels and faces the open doorway with a paling face. The royal family stare inside, the queen shocked and the king concealing rage. The princess remains behind her mother, peeking in cautiously with fear glittering inside her emerald orbs.

“Your Majesties.” The knight clicks their heels together, saluting stiffly and holding their sword pointed downwards.

“What is the meaning of this?” The king asks, voice stern and not willing to take any nonsense or excuse.

“Your Majesty, he is no one! Nothing but an outsider!” The knight pleads their case. Their eyes are still full of fire, swirling with envy and contempt. “Surely, you will not allow such a man to roam our halls so freely! By the prince’s side, no less!”

The king solemnly replies, “And to what events occurred to lead to such a situation?”

“He was speaking nonsense, sir!”

“Sena would never go out of his way to pick a fight.” Leo states. He steps further inside, firmly placing himself between Izumi and the knight. “I requested that he remain in this room to wait patiently, thus, I am sure that is what he did.”

“You believe this unknown man over your own knight, Prince?!” The knight blurts out in surprise.

“He has not even spoken to defe-”

“You two are speaking disrespectfully.” The king declares. He turns to the other knight, fidgeting just outside the doorframe. “What can you tell me of the situation? I expect the truth out of you.”

Discernably, the knight’s throat bobs in nervousness. “The prince requested that refreshments be brought to his guest. Instead of allowing a maid to tread the possible dangers of this man, my partner offered to bring them inside.”

“Go on.” The queen insists as she strokes Ruka’s hair comfortingly.

“I am unsure, Your Majesty, as the door had been closed.”

The king turns his attention back inside the room, “And what about you, boy? Izumi Sena. What do you have to say for yourself?”

Izumi bites the retort on his tongue. “I only answered the questions asked to me honestly, Your Majesty.”

“Such as?”

“Such as… Would killing the Prince’s guest not be treason?” Izumi replies.

“Father, Izumi is not even wielding his weapons.” Leo adds in immediately.

The king pinches the bridge of his nose. “I do not have time for your silly squabbles.”

“Sir, please,” The knight sheaths his sword and stands straight at attention. “You cannot allow such a dangerous fellow, a stranger, into our Royal Castle! We do not know a single fact about him!”

“We have considered that detail very carefully,” The queen nods calmly. “And have come up with a reasonable solution.”

“Boy,” The king addresses him. Izumi stares into his eyes sharply, not backing down to the authority. Not to them. Never to them. “Prove to us that you have the skills you say you do. Only then will we ascertain how much trust to place upon you thereafter.”

Izumi raises an eyebrow. “Prove, Your Majesty?”

“Our toughest knights, trained directly under both the previous Prince and Princess Guard, are away, currently.” The king announces. “However, there are still plenty of well skilled knights on our grounds. Spar and defeat them. Whether with your sword or with magic, it matters not. Only prove to us you do not lie of such skills.”

A smirk slips across Izumi’s lips. “Is that all?”

“Since you are so keen on disproving Leo’s friend’s loyalty, why don’t you have the first bout, knight?” The king nods to the livid guard, turning his back and exiting the room. “We do not have much time to spare, so hurry along. You, alert the highest-ranking knights to this new predicament.”

“Yes, sir!” The knight outside the door salutes before scurrying away.

“Be thankful, Leo.” The king says as he walks away. “You and your friend have one chance.”

“Thank you, father!” Leo yells to his retreating form.

As Izumi looks at him, however, he sees the dissatisfied frown tugging down Leo’s lips.

Before long, he is standing one-on-one with the knight who so desperately wanted to put him in his place. Izumi squeezes and releases his grip on the wooden sword in his hand, getting accustomed to the practice sword the other knights handed him. A bit strange, considering the king said he is allowed to use magic. If he is allowed to harm Terrian Knights with magic, why not a sword? The kingdom’s knowledge of magic is truly lacking.

Terra will lay in the bed of their own making.

The heat of the afternoon washes across their bodies, bringing the poorly concealed animosity between them to a boil. Izumi stays in a relaxed stance, but readies himself for any sudden movements. One can never be sure with an opponent who’s only goal is to prove their own worth. So, he waits. He waits to see what song will be played before dancing his dance of swords.

The knight, blood still rushing through their veins with fury, comes at him with just as much fervor as before. The wild swings are easy to block; still, his bones protest as harsh vibrations travel from the dull weapon in his hand and throughout his body. Even when he diverts the pressure to cleanly sweep off of the wooden sword, the strikes are powerful enough to leave massive aftershocks.

This is not an opponent who is thinking clearly. As long as he bides his time, they will tire before long.

Still, he knows this dance and song; observed and studied it for many hours prior to today. Keeping pace and acting out muscle-memory movements will be no problem for him, no matter how long it may take. Izumi evens out his breathing, willing his body’s adrenaline rush to fade. Now is not the time, not when victory is already within reach.

“You don’t deserve the position!”

“Are you so angry because you were vying for it?” Izumi replies back calmly, side stepping yet another hysterical swing. “Waiting for your owners to feed you so patiently, hoping to be rewarded, but someone else came and gobbled up the treats?”

“Don’t speak down on me!”

Their shoes scrape across the dirt, leaving streaks and dust clouds in their wake. Pebbles crunch beneath their soles and bite into the bottom of their feet in a dull pressure from the other side of the barrier. If he is ordered to, Izumi can continue this dance forever. However, he was not, and is quickly losing interest in such a jealous human.

He twists the wooden sword in his hand just barely. The knight’s sword clangs against it and slides precariously off course. Leaving the weapons as they are, Izumi shifts his weight, just as he did in the conference room, and digs the ball of his foot in. He uses his other leg to kick forward, aiming for the knight’s sword wrist.

With a yelp from his opponent, the wooden sword is sent soaring through the air. The pitched noises it makes as it spins pierce their ears, only stopping when the tip imbeds into the ground. Without wasting a single movement, Izumi raises his own sword to his opponent’s throat, bringing the short match to an end.

“With skills like that, you would never be able to keep your prince safe. Not from traitors of your own land, and definitely not from Inferna nor Caelem.” Izumi narrows his eyes, gaining the same sentiment back from the defeated knight.

If they want a fight over hierarchy within their rankings, then that is what Izumi will provide. Since he is to remain at Leo’s side for the foreseeable future, then he has no problem with fighting his way to the top. No matter how annoying it may be. Even as ice races across the field, creating the reflection of a lake in the midst of the winter season, he will not stop until even the most stubborn knights willingly retract their fangs or have them broken.

Terra is already caught in a whirlwind of plots. He cannot be bothered to deal with them more than necessary.

 

“Father approved.”

Izumi peeks an eye open from his relaxed state, leaning his head back as he sits in a wooden chair. Leo is holding out a hand towel and a glass of water with a nervous smile on his lips. “Oh? What? You want me to jump for joy?”

“I’m sorry that this lasted all afternoon.” Leo takes a seat beside him at the dining room table – the staff dining room, the only open area they allowed him in without supervision while the king decides on his verdict. “You must be tired.”

Izumi scoffs, “Please. I could level this whole castle singlehandedly.”

Besides, the warfront is much worse and lasts much longer than any silly test of strength tournament. He isn’t human. Most of his allies aren’t either. There’s no need to retreat for the night to avoid friendly fire or low visibility. And if the enemy believes the shadows of the night will bring their temporary salvation, they will only receive bullets in their backs.

Leo’s voice drops to a hard whisper, “Then at least act human.”

Their eyes lock. Sharp gazes grating against each other like steel meeting solid rock. There is no denying it now. No matter how eccentric he is behind closed doors, Leo was raised to be a king. Voice commanding, the future king is highly unimpressed with Izumi’s words. Heat sears into the palm of his hand like hot coal and his heart thuds dangerously, a single beat away from bursting like a bloody bomb.

“As you wish.”

The sensations raging within his body fade away like frost melting in the spring sun.

Izumi flicks his eyes away from the hardened emerald gaze and busies himself with drinking from the glass of water. Perhaps it is poor to joke about destroying his home, but surely Leo must know. If he does not, he will soon – Izumi holds enough power at his fingertips to completely destroy the Royal Castle of Terra and lay to rest all of its inhabitants.

Terra has never stood a chance against magic, especially after letting it so carelessly disappear from right underneath their noses. Both in history and in their present time.

“A maid is preparing a room for you.” Leo changes the subject. He crosses his legs and leans back against his chair.

“In the barracks?”

“You’re my new Prince Guard.” Leo turns his head to look at him lazily. “You’ll need be near me at every moment, so you’re taking over my previous guard’s room next door to me.”

“Wonderful.”

A slow grin appears on the prince’s face. “Don’t say it like that. Besides, this way we can sneak in your singing lessons easily. Have you been practicing? Your voice is pretty, but what you do with it makes it sound like a dying rat.”

“I’m going to kill you.” Izumi lets a growl gurgle deep in his throat.

Leo only chuckles in response before hopping to his feet. “Well, since you’re not tired, let’s go gather your things from my room.”

Leaving the half empty glass on the dining table and draping the towel around his neck, Izumi follows after Leo as he goes through the door. Stepping out into the foyer, they are greeted with the blazing rays of the setting sun. Streaks of intense yellow paint the walls, only to be interrupted by their passing shadows. Lanterns are already being lit around the castle corridors, flickering against the darkest portions where the sunlight cannot breech.

Izumi peers at Leo’s languid movements from the corner of his eyes. Bandages need to be replaced after wounds continue to bleed, else the bandage meant to hold in the life liquid will only draw it out more. Leo must be the one truly tired.

“Done with your duties today, Prince? Or rather, have they all been cancelled?”

“Mm.” Leo hums. “Nothing left but dinner to attend.”

“Have it sent to your room.”

Leo tilts his head and slows his movements further to turn his full attention onto Izumi, “Hm? How come? You want to eat with me?”

“Tch, hardly. It’ll be a pain for you to pass out in your soup and they’ll have me go fetch you, is all.”

Leo drones an incoherent noise once more. “I guess today did take a lot out of me… I’ll have both of ours sent up. You’ll get the rundown later, but you can eat whenever I do. You’re expected to eat in the staff’s dining area, though no one really cares where as long as you clean up after yourself.”

“Noted.” Izumi shrugs. He stops his movements before Leo does. “You’re about to walk right pass your room, you know.”

“Ahaha guess I really am tired.”

On the contrary, standing next to Leo excites his blood far too much.

By the time dinner is brought up, eaten, and Izumi’s things are gathered, Leo is deliriously swaying in his stance. Izumi, with his new found power that comes with his position, waves away any staff and drags Leo into his new living quarters for the foreseeable months before anyone can question the prince’s state. Izumi closes the door, locking it for good measure.

“Don’t-” He drops his bag with a loud thud and grips onto Leo’s upper arm as the human dangerously tips to the side again. “Don’t fall asleep standing up, stupid.”

“Sorry, Sena. I’m going to go back to my own room to sleep it off…”

“That’s not going to help you. Rather, it’ll probably hurt you more.”

“What?”

“Come here.” Izumi tugs him closer. With one hand remaining on Leo’s arm and the other gripping at Leo’s opposite wrist, he stares into those too-green eyes in the darkness of the room. He doubts Leo can see him with detail, the moonlight still too far away to reach his window. The room remains pitch black as he pumps his magic through his fingers and sweeps it across Leo’s body like a tsunami. For such a simple spell, the magic particles won’t even bother to light up with activity. He wills it to patch up the leaks in Leo’s magic once more, binding it stronger than he did previously. “Better?”

“Lots…” Leo sighs as he falls forward. His forehead leans onto Izumi’s shoulder, chest pressing against chest. “Was it slipping out again?”

“Yeah. Faster, too.”

“Why?”

“Probably because it tasted my magic when I was using it against your knights earlier.”

“What does that mean?”

“Magic reacts to magic. If no one is controlling it, it’ll react to others. Yours probably wanted to go out and play, but got stuck in an energetic frenzy.” Izumi steps back until his calves hit the bed and falls into a seated position, bringing Leo with him.

Leo has other plans, however. The prince pushes Izumi down and lays curled up against his side. “Still sleepy.”

“What the hell was that for?”

“Sleep.”

“You are like a child. This is highly inappropriate, as well.”

“I’m too tired to walk back. Just for tonight. I’ll wake up and go back before anyone notices…”

Though the old particles nestled deep in every crease and crevice of the room makes his skin crawl and crinkle his nose, he can put up with it for one night. This way, he can keep an eye out on Leo.

Chapter Text

Supply shortage. Supply shortage. Supply shortage. Water shortage. Destroyed roads. Fields burned. Soil nutrient deficient. Supply shortage. Requesting medical aid. Requesting armed forces. Supply shortage. Grain shortage. Meat shortage. Produce shortage. Water shortage. Requesting aid. Supply shortage.

He looks up from the various documents littered across his large desk as the door slides open with a wispy, silent breeze. Garbed in one of Terra’s special military uniforms is his personal guard, stepping closer with light footsteps despite the heavy clad boots – narrow hips swaying with every motion. Blue eyes the shade of the light, summer ocean shimmer like refracting sunbeams against the water’s surface as he meets them.

“Here.”

A stack of wax sealed letters is set on his desk, only laying upon a couple corners of the spread documents and precariously hanging off the edge.

“What are these, Sena?” He asks. He grabs the letters so Izumi can let go with no worries about them falling to the ground.

“Missives. From both outside and inside of the castle,” Izumi shifts his weight to one leg and crosses his arms. “Your Highness.”

Leo chuckles lowly, deep in his throat; smile stretching his lips thin. “I told you that you can relax when it’s just the two of us. You never listen~”

“I listen just fine. I am under contract.”

Leo hums in teasing agreement as he looks down. He slides his finger underneath the first letter’s edge and slips it through the wax seal, emblem seared into its form going untouched. “What are they making you do, my dear Prince Guard? Are you my messenger now?”

“Like you don’t know.” Izumi rolls his eyes. “I’m supposed to assist you in your duties. But no one trusts me, so I’m not allowed into any of your documents unless you deem it so.”

“Demoted~”

The demon clicks his tongue irritably. “Terra needs to work on their security. Rather, your knowledge on magic, if you want to survive in this world. Putting me in charge of missives being passed about is just asking me to look.”

“Why is that?” He wonders absently without taking his eyes off of the handwritten cursive carefully lined across the page. His mother’s elegant handwriting.

“Putting a wax seal back on in perfect condition is child’s play.”

“Hm… Noted.”

Silence falls within the room. His eyes scan the letter back and forth, carefully deciphering each word and punctuation within its depths. He is to be in charge of the broken supply chain, to both their citizens and to the army. A critical role, one that tens of thousands of people are counting on. The problem? Even if he sends workers to fix the roads and pay them good money – enough to feed their whole villages – where will the supplies come from? Furthermore, the areas that are providing such nourishment are getting ransacked by the desperate.

“Not putting me on a different duty?” Izumi asks in a whisper.

“No. I trust you.”

Even the royal reserves will only last for so long if it gets spread thin to all of their wailing people. Albeit he can’t actually touch the extra food and supplies without the appraisal of the king. Importing goods, even at a higher price for less, is not an option he can use at the moment, either. The three kingdoms within Somnium have ceased communication amongst each other entirely, going so far as to burn bridges and erect walls.

To terrorize Terrian border and push it inwards.

“Your northeastern maritime border is left untouched. Inferna hasn’t bothered to attack you from the waters. If you send more farmers to cultivate the land around there and hurry the transport of fish to reach further inland before they spoil, you’ll save yourself a headache. Though I can’t say that for your southwestern water border. Caelem has decimated it thoroughly. That, with some help from what you royals and the dukedoms around the country have stocked up, should quell the famine for a while.”

Leo looks up. “Is Inferna planning to?”

A sardonic smirk lifts Izumi’s lips. “You don’t expect me to answer that truthfully, do you?”

Leo closes his eyes and take a steadying breath. He pinches the bride of his nose. “The truth is… Terra is on its last legs. I’m trying to save as many people as possible, Sena.”

Izumi remains quiet.

They both know the easy solution to the problem at hand. Still, neither dares to speak the words. The world is a never-ending struggle of ideals. Of principles and morals. Of one’s way of life versus another’s. To admit defeat after so much has already been lost would end in the bloodshed being in vain. Is that the right answer? To save the ones who were protected and left behind? Who is to say for sure?

To surrender is to abandon the epitomes they have always known.

Opening his eyes again, he stares into the demon’s sharp gaze and bares his heart on his sleeve. “Sena… Please.”

Is there no such harmony that differences can strive peacefully, side-by-side?

“This is an interference to the war. I’m not obligated to answer.”

“No, not that.” Leo shakes his head. He puts down his writing brush and unhurriedly raises his hand. He reaches forward, just far enough to press the pads of his fingertips to Izumi’s jaw. “Help me.”

Izumi scrunches up his perfectly groomed eyebrows, a frown and a crinkle on his forehead now marring his face. “Who do you think you’re asking?”

“I’m asking my friend for a second opinion.”

From the corner of his vision, he spies a spark of blue run across the walls like stray lightning. Something within Leo’s body begins to come alive at their arrival, urging him to join in even as his fingers begin to heat up uncomfortably against Izumi’s skin.

The demon lowers his voice to an undertone hiss. “You’re asking an Infernan citizen.”

“You’re supposed to assist me, on top of guarding me.”

“Then I’ll assist you by giving you advice: don’t trust anyone just because they’re under your rule.”

Leo clenches his jaw. He feels his teeth slide against each other, the grinding slip echoing within his cranium deafeningly. “I told you before, didn’t I? Even so, I believe in you.”

The two of them hold their gazes strong. He can see his emerald eyes reflect back at him, smeared in an azure tint that Leo finds himself getting lost in. The fingers still pressed to Izumi’s jaw pulse with increasing warmth, shooting down his arm like a scattering wildfire. He’s sure Izumi can feel it as well – Leo’s magic acting up and aching to join Izumi’s barricading the walls and coating the room in magic particles. Still, Izumi doesn’t remove the appendages.

The birds beyond the windows are no longer singing; no longer heard.

An icy trill glides across Leo’s forearm, stopping the blaze in its tracks.

“What even makes you think I can help you?”

“You just did.”

“It was a suggestion. What if I don’t know any of your political jumble or laws?”

A smile spreads across his face before he can stop it. Leo stands from his seat and skates his fingers across from Izumi’s face to the back of his neck, urging the demon forward across the desk gently. He presses their brows together. “Thank you.”

“…Excuse me?” Izumi’s warm breath fans across his skin at the close proximity.

“I don’t know your education level, but thank you for trying.”

“You are a strange prince.”

“So you’ve said.” Leo chuckles as he lifts his upper body away. His fingers fall from their perch to the table. “Can I leave it to you, then?”

He sees the wavering acceptance in Izumi’s eyes. The kindness that lurks deep within the shell of contrary anger. Izumi, too, demon or not, wishes to save as many innocent lives as possible.

“You know…” The demon trails off. His long fingers brush against Leo’s own as they skim across the letter’s surface; the black ink stained upon its page not budging. “With some earth magic, you’d probably be able to get most of the fields to start producing again.”

“Magic can do that?”

“With the right spell. It’s not like it can make food appear from thin air, but enriching the land isn’t too difficult.” Izumi’s eyes skitter away.

“Teach it to me.” Leo insists rapidly. In his hurry, his fingers jam against Izumi’s, but neither pay it any mind, even as bones clash and joints and nails curl achingly.

“I doubt your affinity is to that of earth or plants, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to learn such a spell in your current state. Maybe when you become more advanced.”

“Affinity?”

Izumi shifts his weight once more, turning to step around the desk to his side in strides as though he is walking across water. “Everyone is born with a magic affinity to something. Something they are naturally attuned to. Be it earth, plants, healing, or even to potion making. It’s like your soul’s harmony, something it feels a strong bond towards. With that relationship, spells similar to your element will be easier to learn and use, on top of casting away fewer magic particles on it.”

Leo scoots in his plush seat, allowing Izumi to sit on the arm rest and pressing in closer. “Yours must be ice then? What do you think mine is, if not earth or plants? How can you tell?”

The demon shrugs before reaching forward and assembling the muddled pile of documents spread across the dark wood desk. “It’s just a feeling. The only person that will know for sure is yourself. If you ask me to wager a guess, I’d probably say ink or wind. Maybe even sound.”

“Ink?”

“You’d be surprised. Any compound that can be made into ink is at your disposal. May you paint the world in frolicking rainbows.”

Leo chuckles, bumping his shoulder into the middle of Izumi’s back. “Is that how you see me?”

“Your room reeks of it. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“So it ties into who you are as a person.”

“Who you are as a person is what your soul desires.” Izumi replies nonchalantly, eyes going to scan the documents in his hand. “You will probably have to evacuate the villages that have had their water poisoned or dried up. For a high price, it would be possible to purify it or get an orb of free-flowing water, but well…” He trails off with another shrug of his shoulders.

“I see.” Leo rests his elbows on the desk, folding his fingers together and laying his chin on top. He closes his eyes, blanketing his world in a sea of cold black. Despite the chill of the knowing weight of thousands of lives on his shoulders, the warmth of Izumi’s back pressing upon his arm urgingly keeps him anchored to the present. There are things only he can do; and though that path may be lonely, it is not solitary. “If I pay you enough, is that something you’d be willing to aid me with? For both your services and the cost of the orb.”

“Just one won’t fix your problems.”

“Are you saying it will take the entire crown’s treasury?”

“If you’re trying to save all of them, maybe.”

His eyelids lift like curtains on a stage, slowly revealing to him the too brightly lit study still teeming with stray icy blue currents. The metallic titles of books lining high up the walls shine against the sunlight streaming inside, fighting to gain his attention and tempt him to the wonders hidden within their pages. Nonetheless, he already knows of their mysteries, of the stories carefully scripted with flowing text and fanciful words.

They tell of Terra’s laws, of its history, of agriculture and business. Of legendary heroes and their ancestors. Over his life, he has been made to read each and every piece of literature within these four walls; enriching his life as the next king and searing upon his person the love he is meant to keep deep within his heart for the Kingdom of Terra.

“I grant you access to our records. I leave it to you.” Leo replies in a breathy exhale.

“As you wish, Prince.”

He moves onto the next missive, slowly working his way through the paperwork all the while Izumi sits at his side on the armrest. Though Leo produces another writing brush from a well-designed container, they share an ink well, occasionally brushing hands as they prepare to mark up blank stationary with hopeful solutions.

The chirping of the mid-afternoon birds chitters against the panes of the glass window, sluggishly crawling inside and filling the silent space as the two of them work. The rustle of parchment and the clicking against the ink well accompany the sounds in a steady symphony. Leo’s inner thoughts drift astray like sound being carried away by the gentle breeze. A brand-new melody appears like a playful creature popping up from their burrow, greeting unknown visitors with cheer and acceptance.

“Prince.”

The melody lowers to a barely audible volume – estinto to everyone but himself. “Hm?”

“You have a lesson with your ex-military officer in fifteen minutes.”

Leo looks up and swivels his head to stare out into the world beyond the window. The light blue sky, streaked in wispy, formless clouds, shine brightly with the rays of the burning star above them. “I see. The sun is that high already.”

“Best you hurry.” Izumi slides off of his perch, carefully arranging the documents he was working on in a pile on top of the desk. “Go over these when you next get the chance.”

He tilts his head in surprise. “Done already?”

“Rerouting and rearranging what you do have is not much of an issue.”

Is that… so?

Leo stands from his seat. “Are you coming with me?”

“Apologies.” Izumi crosses his arms and gives a crooked smile, not in the least remorseful about not attending. “I’m not interested in your boorish military tactics. I prefer to stay away. That is to say, your royal highnesses have prohibited me from attending such lessons. Rather, they are having me play with your knights.”

“How would you know whether they are boorish or not?” Leo harrumphs, turning away petulantly.

The amused chuckled he receives from Izumi is not as grating as Leo thought it might be after the insult to his kingdom.

After making it down to the library, the lesson with the older gentleman drones on, as usual. Drilling into his head the need for a strong offense to begin their counterattack. Both the former Prince and Princess Guards are still away; however, both squads are on their return for a brief visit home. Whereas the former Princess Guard cleans up the confusion post battle, Terra’s new Military General – Leo’s old Prince Guard – is patrolling a wide area, keeping the people safe of stray demons and other mishaps.

The ex-military general is only satisfied with Leo’s level of knowledge absorption nearing supper time, hours later. The sun is just beginning to dip below the horizon and spraying the sky with parting, crimson goodbyes. Leo shakes his stiff muscles free as he trots down the corridor, hurrying along towards the courtyard. With each passing window, the descending star in the sky attempts to blind and halt him in his path – but he does not deter from his goal.

He wishes to see that dance, once more.

Hopping down the steps two at a time, he soon makes it to a heavy door and pushes it open. The skin of his fingers presses roughly against the polished wood, revealing to him the pure luminescence of the sun, raw to his eyes now. The unobstructed heat splashes across his face in a spray of summer warmth, humid and overly impassioned. The door closes behind him with a thud just before he hurries along. His fingers slide across the railing outlining the edges of the castle walls as he walks with purposeful speed.

After rounding the corner, he finally makes it to the area where the knights train outdoors. Surrounded by a sea of training uniform garbed knights, Izumi and one other trade blows with wooden swords held in between them. The demon, out of place dressed in his formal attire, moves with footsteps as light as air. Leo tilts his head curiously as he continues to watch. Leaning his elbows on the railing and putting his chin in the palm of his hand, his gaze blurs with a hypnotic spell. Hair the color of moonlight enraptures his attention absolutely; skin as clear as translucent water sheens against the sunlight keeps his eyes from trailing away.

He thought this prior, that Izumi is effortlessly predicting movements and dancing to their same rhythm. To Terra’s swordsmanship style. Leo wonders if Inferna’s fighting style is similar or if Izumi has been taught theirs – perhaps even picked it up himself. Inferna is too shrouded in the shadows, Leo knows not what information they may or may not hold. Though he is the one to invite a demon straight into the heart of Terra…

Who Izumi Sena truly is, he is not privy to such information.

Despite the lingering suspicion, Leo trusts in Izumi’s words. Far more than what the King and Queen wish for him to. But he cannot deny that his heart yearns – pleads – for the relationship with this mysterious demon that was once his pet. It longs to understand the complex man beneath all of the titles and magic. The symbiotic relationship between them is more than mutualism.

Friendship is blossoming from deep within his very soul. He only hopes Izumi feels it, too.

“Sena.” Leo calls out in an even tone, his face set in a somber expression. Izumi stops the swing coming towards him and turns his head in Leo’s direction. The knights around the sparring duo also swivel their gazes, a hush spreading over the crowd like a tsunami. Leo straightens his back and pivots on his heels to turn towards the route he came from. “Let’s go.”

Izumi nods, handing the wooden sword to his shell-shocked training partner and trots over to him. Leo starts to walk forward just as Izumi puts a hand on the railing and hops over to land by his side.

“Is there something you require, Prince?”

“Not particularly. I’ll be having dinner with my family, so you should get yourself your meal, as well.” Leo winks playfully.

Izumi harrumphs softly, “I didn’t need saving.”

The lingering amusement from their conversation stays with him throughout the meal. Although his family does not voice their questions, he feels Ruka’s curious gaze on him constantly – flicking back and forth discretely between him and the food in front of her. He ensured that Izumi took his own meal, however, where the demon disappeared to, Leo isn’t sure. After patting his precious younger sister on the head and bidding his family a good night, Leo retreats towards his bed chamber, carefully keeping an eye out for any signs of his wayward Prince Guard.

After seeing no sign of Izumi within his room, Leo canters to the room next door. He raps on the door, joints within two of his fingers absorbing the quick impacts. “Sena? Are you in there?”

The shuffling he hears beyond the barrier eases his hearts anxious squeeze.

“Something I can do for you, Prince?” Izumi questions the moment the door is swung open. “We don’t have to be within sight of each other all day, you know? I’ll know when you’re in danger.”

“In danger within the castle?” Leo wonders incredulously. “No, nothing of the sort. Not that I would mind being next to you all twenty-four hours of the day. Actually, I wanted to ask you if I can have a magic lesson?”

Azure orbs study his expression prudently; so calculatedly that Leo feels himself start to fidget under the gaze despite all of his training as the next king to inherit the throne.

What Izumi hopes to find is discovered. Satisfied with the answer he sought, the demon grabs Leo’s forearm in a gentle hold befitting for fine porcelain and is tugged inside. The door closes with a lax impact against the frame. Izumi lets go of his wrist and turns to dig within his bedside table. From it, the demon pulls out an unassuming orb, dull in color like dried blood.

Leo takes a surprised step back as Izumi gently tosses it between them. The glass-like orb descends to the ground quickly, only to bob in the air and reverse, ascending towards the ceiling instead. The cloudy crimson is wiped away, its center bursting with scarlet starlight. He feels something slither across his skin, sweeping over his entire body like the lapping waves of the ocean about to engulf him. It’s a strange feeling; something chilling and something warm all at once. He wants to run away, feeling his soul being shackled within its chains and yet the balminess of the blanket that coddles him safely urges him to remain.

“It’s time you learned to control it, at least. I won’t always be around to patch you up or calm it down.”

Leo’s flicks his gaze around the room, the walls now pulsing with an invisible energy. “What’s this?”

“A barrier.” Izumi replies calmly. “You’re bound to lose control. This way, the damage won’t leave these four walls. No one will sense it either.”

He swallows a nervous lump. “It won’t be bad, will it?”

“I don’t know. Everyone’s magic is different.” The demon sits on the edge of his bed and crosses one leg over the other in an elegant show of beauty. “It’s you.”

Him…

“Alright. I understand.” Leo inhales deeply. “What should I do?”

“Relax.”

His breath rushes out of his lungs at the command.

Izumi shakes his head and sighs himself. “Well, whatever. Magic is a part of you, so, naturally, it feels what you feel.”

“Magic is alive.”

“Finally remembered.” The demon rests his elbow on his knee, placing his chin in his palm and allowing his other arm to drape lazily across his lap. Long, thin fingers cup the porcelain-like skin of Izumi’s cheek. “You and it are incredibly disjointed. It’s best if you try to call it forward and just have a discussion.”

“A discussion?”

“If you treat it like a different entity, it will feel alienated.” Izumi closes his eyes. “Though that isn’t entirely incorrect. You share the same soul and are housed within the same body. You’re both alive, but you’re one.”

Leo takes a moment to let the information sink in. To open the hearts of others, one must first open their own heart. “How do I call it?”

“Just think it so. Though if that isn’t enough, hold out your hands and imagine it forming in your palms.”

He does so, stretching his arms straight out in front of him, palms open towards the ceiling. Nothing appears in front of his eyes; however, his mind’s eyes track the movements of glimmering emerald gems afloat within the air. They move slowly, like dandelion seeds dispersing with the spring breeze. The formless shape in his palms grows larger by the second, bigger than what fits in his hands.

Leo flinches, closing an eye as an edge of the bundle of energy explodes away, escaping from its friends.

“Apstergeo.”

When Leo looks forward again, Izumi’s eyes are open, a ring of glowing azure circling his pupil otherworldly. “Wh…” Leo clears his throat. “What was that?”

“A spell that dissolves others. Rather, my magic ate away yours before it did any real damage.” Izumi lowers his eye lids once more. “Keep going. Everything is fine.”

Izumi has been keeping track of the magic particles in the air this whole time, has he? That eases Leo’s anxious heart. Yes, Izumi is a magic-user, one with far more experience than he. Leo can trust him to keep both of them safe, and everyone in the castle – even without the barrier in place.

Even so, the problem at hand still remains. How does one go about communicating with something amorphous? If he speaks verbally, will it reply? If he caresses it with touches promising friendship and love, will it open its heart to him?

“You’ll feel it.”

Leo jolts his head upwards. Izumi still has his eyes closed, his breathing steady and slow. “I’ll feel what?”

“What it’s saying. You’ll feel it within. If you want to be romantic about it, you’ll feel it in your heart.”

Feel it within his heart.

The emerald gems floating in the air drift with the atmosphere.

If that is so, then…

Please.

Please hear his call.

Hear his plea.

His soul that houses two. His body that houses the both of them.

They can live in harmony with their differences. They can be one.

He promises to care for his other half with gentle hands and never-ending loyalty.

It isn’t safe for either of them to keep running amok recklessly, hoping to join in on the fun.

Please.

He wishes to be whole.

He wishes to be one.

When did he close his own eyes?

The dark world shining with fireflies gradually fades away. The peaceful gaze of those azure eyes he has gotten accustomed to greets him as the other world releases its grip on his mind. His chest feels warm. It pulses and spills out in sync with his heartbeat, a tolerable heat trickling all the way to his fingertips. He clasps his own hands together, gathering them up to his chest.

Before he can stop it, a relieved, panting chuckle bubbles out of his lungs. “Thank you.”

“Congratulations.” Izumi whispers. “Your magic accepts you.”

“Thank goodness.” Leo’s knees wobble, but he stubbornly remains standing. His muscles quiver with respite, the tension leaving him all at once within a blink of an eye. “Not to jinx it, but what happens to someone if it doesn’t?”

Izumi hums, turning his head away to stare out the window. The sky is dark, bathed in night’s blue blanket. “Worst case scenario is that the soul splits in two. But it’s rare, and really only happening to Mixed.”

“Mixed?”

“If you are born from parents of two different races. No, I suppose that is wrong.” Izumi closes his eyes again, but lifts them after a moment. The rising moon reflects in his eyes. “A human halfling will be just fine. It is when a being originating from Hell has a child with a being originating from Heaven.”

“So, a demon and an angel.”

“That’s right.”

“I… didn’t realize there were any.” Leo replies breathlessly in awe.

“Over the course of history, there have been one or two, maybe.” Izumi shrugs. He uncurls himself and stands unhurriedly. “Perhaps you humans have influenced us too much with your notions of love.”

“Can you not love?”

“We can. It’s an emotion we are capable of. Still, we are born with the desire to stay away from the angels. To overwrite that instinct…” Izumi trails off. “Never mind. To each their own. Let’s continue. Just because it accepts you, doesn’t mean it won’t run astray the next time it wants to frolic with other magics.”

To stay away? Not to have animosity nor violent intents?

Perhaps the demons have always been portrayed more cruelly than they truly are.

“Say…” Leo interrupts. “What happens to those kids? The half demon half angels?”

“Magic can remain dormant forever, your Terra is a prime example of that. Magic can also awaken naturally. In that state, it’s more than content to live side by side. It’s only when it is being sought out does it truly feel alive, like it’s another being. For kids like that, it’s best not to try using magic at all, even if it does awaken. They can live their entire lives as normal. If their soul is split…” Izumi explains. “It’s more humane to kill the both of them.”

Leo looks down. Saddened. From a love so pure as to cross the boundaries of instinctual enemies… Do star crossed lovers always end in tragedy?

“You have your answer.” Izumi says in a sharp voice, knocking Leo out of his musings. “Before you blow up the entire palace while I’m gone, learn how to control it. You sought it out, so take responsibility.”

“Yes. Of course.” He nods firmly. “What should I do first?”

The demon tilts his head, remaining silent. Leo raises an eyebrow in turn, confusion overtaking his visage. Only when sharp icicles are summoned from thin air around Izumi does his expression change to astonishment. The points glint against the moonlight beginning to stream inside. In its moist, glazed surface, Leo spies the reflection of the red orb still hanging above their heads and spilling red starlight.

He jumps back with a choked yelp, dodging the suddenly flying projectiles. “I don’t know any spells, you know!”

Izumi only smirks in response.

Leo steps to the side as more ice comes his way. He can’t keep dancing around the room forever.

“Apstergeo!” To his surprise, green sparks light up the area before him.

The demon chuckles. “Good try. But that’s too hard of a spell for you as you are now. A pitter patter of magic particles getting dried up before the spell is even complete won’t help you. Won’t you let me just kill you?”

“You’re such a demon.” Leo rolls his eyes, hopping back again and turning as he nears too closely to the corner of the room.

Didn’t Izumi once say it is easier to perform magic with verbal spells? What kind of beginner class is this?

The ice turns to water, threatening to downpour and flood them out. Despite soaking his clothes thoroughly, Leo can’t help but marvel at the control Izumi has over the element. Though it encircles him in a whirlpool befit a hurricane, the rest of the room’s interior remains dry. He gets guzzled up in the rush, feeling his throat contract harshly and his lungs filling with liquid. Green skitters across the waves uselessly, trying to push it back.

As suddenly as the water appeared, it releases him of its grip. Leo falls to the ground with a thud, barely having time to heave a cough before needing to roll away. Lightning strikes his previous position, scattering its electricity along the wet floor. His fingertips tingle uncomfortably, the current travelling up his arm and sparking his heart unnaturally. The electric blue light sparks overhead, ready to make landfall again. Leo scrambles away within their small space, knocking into a chair and clattering it against the wooden desk beyond it.

A stray flicker of electricity catches against parchment on the desk, alighting it in blue flames. It spreads quickly, covering the entire desk within seconds. Leo thrusts out his hands, pleading to his magic to spring forth.

It does.

And still, Izumi’s eats it away as though it is nothing but a midday snack meant to be guzzled down. Leo’s amorphous magic is no match against one equipped with a spell. One with a directive to follow. Even so, the raw magic creating a sacrificial barrier buys him time to get to his feet and side step away. He takes a chance to scrutinize Izumi’s expression from the corner of his eyes.

Izumi is expressionless.

Waiting.

Fire licks at the skin of his arm. Embers attempt to cling onto his soaked clothing only to get eliminated themselves. He has to put it out. He has to. Nonetheless, Izumi gives him no time to think. Lightning strikes the ground before his feet. Leo jumps back again, dodging the attack.

His legs bump against the edge of the bed; the cushiony material sinking in and tilting him off balance. He falls to his rump with a thud upon its surface. When he looks up, he is face-to-face with the jagged rocks having come apart from the stone lined flooring after the lightning strike.

“Sena!” Leo yells, closing his eyes in preparation for the pain.

The sounds of the room blur away, getting replaced with a high-pitched ring.

But even that fades to nothing.

Silence.

Like cotton is stuffed in his ears. Like a bag is hooded over his head.

The feeling is pressuring, digging deep into his ear drums.

Leo opens his eyes slowly. The light of the moon sprays inside through the window, bathing the room in an ethereal light so bright he nearly mistakes it for the rising dawn. But the night is but a silent assassin. The glittering moonbeams splay across Izumi’s unmoving form, illuminating hair of the same color and contrasting against the darkness of the shadows. Azure eyes as bright as the stars stare down at a raised hand impassively.

At fingers smeared in bright red.

He feels his mouth open to speak the demon’s name, panic beginning to course through his veins. But his voice does not reach his own ears. Leo feels the vibration of his vocal cords deep inside his throat; still, the usual note is absent. He tries again, to no avail. Eyes widening, he wraps one hand around his neck and the other over an ear. The stone paved floor before his sight hazes, the edges of his vision fading away to join the nocturnal.

What has he done?

Heavy boots encroach on his ever-dimming vision. Leo slowly looks up, eyes watery and ready to spill over.

He’s so sorry.

He’s sorry.

Izumi bends down, tilting his head inquisitively. The splotch of bright red draws Leo’s eyes immediately, mourning the strands of moonlight now stained in blood and the soft earlobe dripping with the copious liquid. Izumi doesn’t say a word – can he ever listen to Izumi’s beautiful voice ever again? Can Izumi listen to the sounds of the amazing world around them ever again?

What has he done?

With his clean hand, Izumi reaches forward. Strong fingers turn Leo’s head this way and that, sharp eyes examining every inch of skin.

The gentle care makes the tears spill over. The hot streaks run down his cheek to pool against Izumi’s cool finger. The demon looks up with surprise, meeting Leo’s shaky gaze. With Izumi’s form watery in his vision, he nearly misses the concern flashing across those azure blues he loves so much. He can’t hear the words flowing out of Izumi’s moving lips. Leo shakes his head frantically, covering his ears with his hands.

He’s so sorry.

Izumi strokes Leo’s head. The gesture immediately settles his heart, calming its frantic beating. Izumi moves his mouth again.

This time, he has enough concentration to read the demon’s lips. Apstergeo.

The usual white noise of the castle’s interior returns in a blast. The cotton is yanked out and the bag is taken from over his head. Like the chill of the night breeze, he feels free, the pressure releasing him to his own wiles. He breathes a little easier; tears retreating back into his ducts.

“How about now? Does anything hurt?”

Izumi gentle voice draws Leo in in an instant. “Sena…”

Though his tears have left, his voice comes out trembling.

“You look fine.” Izumi stands to his full height, uncurling his spine. “That’s good.”

“You’re bleeding though.”

Izumi clicks his tongue in irritation. “Popped an eardrum. It’s not a big deal.”

“That is!” Leo insists. He stands up from the bed. With the close proximity Izumi is already standing at, Leo ends up pressing their bodies together in his hurry – but he pays it little mind; all the better to get a clearer examination of Izumi’s ear. “You can become deaf!”

“I will if you keep shouting.” Izumi jerks his head away. “I’m fine. I’m a demon. I’ll use a healing spell on it if I need to, but I can take a lot more damage than you humans can.”

Leo juts out his bottom lip and nibbles on it. “Still… It probably hurt a lot. I’m sorry. I… I don’t even know what I did, but I’m the cause, aren’t I? I’m sorry.”

“What for?” Izumi shakes his head. “You’re such a strange prince.”

“Let’s clean it, at least.” Leo moves to walk around but is stopped by Izumi’s sudden grip on his arm. “Sena?”

“I’m fine. What is not fine is that your magic is leaking. Close it.”

He finds himself gulping heavily, nervously. Softly, he calls out in his mind to the stray green he now sees spreading in the air like dandelion pollen. Withdrawing as much of it as possible, Leo mentally tucks it away, deep in his chest.

“Is… Is that how?”

“Do you feel more stable?”

“Yeah.” He does. Immensely so.

“Then yes. It’ll come more naturally to you the more you work on it.” Izumi releases his grip. “Relatively, it should stop leaking on its own all together and will only leave your vessel when you cast it.”

The pressure in his chest is all gone. “I see. That’s good.” They fall silent; however, Leo can’t stop shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “Was… Was that… me?”

Izumi hums affirmatively.

“What… was it?” Leo asks slowly.

“Sound wave.” The demon steps to the side, going to the closet and pulling out a small towel. He uses magic to wet the cloth and gently pads at his injured ear. “Looks like your affinity is to sound.”

“Were you testing me?”

“I was trying to see if you could take over any of the elements I threw at you. Desperation is a common agent to awakening anything hidden.” Izumi shrugs as though none of it is a big deal. “There are kinder ways, carefully testing with each element, but this way is more effective.”

For the first time since he opened his eyes, Leo realizes that the room is no longer soaking nor burning in Hell’s blue flames. The crackle of fire and the whistling of artificial winds has disappeared. Though some papers are singed at the edges, most are no worse for wear. Even the ground is only missing a chunk or two, something that can easily be fixed without much cost or effort.

However, lying next to the hollows are small piles of powder. Leo kneels down to inspect them, pinching some of the substance between his fingers. It’s grainy and sharp against his skin. Like powered granite.

“The aftermath of your sound wave.” Izumi informs him. “You obliterated the rocks and cast a deafening spell.”

“Two spells at once?”

“It’s not uncommon.” Izumi walks to the mirror in the room, turning his head to make sure all of the blood is cleaned away. “When magic bursts forth, it takes whatever form it might think necessary at the moment. Cutting away someone’s ability to hear can be startling and advantageous to you.” He pauses. “Well, it also could’ve been pure luck of the draw.”

“Can I use those spells whenever I want now?” He suddenly feels weary, like he is about to collapse right where he kneels now that his heart has stopped racing.

“They’ll come easier to you, since it’s your affinity. But you’ll still have to get used to them in your own way.”

“You’ll help me, won’t you?”

“Of course. Although I’m not really that opposed to you blowing up your whole kingdom.”

Leo peers up sleepily, catching sight of Izumi’s teasing grin in the mirror’s reflection. “I’ll practice really hard in the coming week, then.”

The grin falls immediately, getting instantly replaced with an angered scowl. “No, you will not.”

Narrowed eyes as sharp as a snake’s turn to him. Leo wakes up a bit more, but his body is still sluggish. “I won’t?”

“I need to leave by morning. You will not use your magic. Repeat it.” Izumi marches to him and kneels down, grabbing Leo’s jaw strongly. Their gazes lock. “You. Will. Not.”

“Firstly…” Leo breathes out. He lays a hand on Izumi’s chest, hoping to calm the man down. The beating of Izumi’s heart thunders against his palm. “Why are you leaving in the morning?”

“You told me to handle your famine problems.” Izumi sniffs, more irritably than Leo has ever seen him; even during their first meetings. “I need to go to Inferna to get your orbs.”

“Okay.” Leo groggily leans forward. The tight grip Izumi has on his chin releases as he falls forward. The demon catches him. “Why can’t I practice while you’re gone, then?”

“Look at yourself right now and tell me why.” Izumi gathers Leo in his arms and lifts them both from the ground. “You’ll die.”

“Die?”

“Magic is alive. Right now, you’re just tired because you used a lot of the magic particles and now you need to wait until your body produces more. Like blood. But if you overuse it, running your reserves to empty, it will draw energy from your life to stay alive.” Izumi lowers Leo down onto his bed. “It will kill you to stay alive.”

Chapter Text

Leo’s magic is unhinged. Certainly, it takes after the master, however, there is just something about it that is unusually crazed and unstable, even for Leo’s erratic personality. He has never encountered someone’s magic resisting its vessel so, wanting to constantly leave and leak out like an unproperly patched up roof that constantly needs to be redone. Though the flow is in the opposite direction to that of a home where the rain desires to seek shelter.

Feasibly, it is rejecting his instructions. Albeit, since Terra has lost the ability to perform magic, perhaps there is no true Terrian method to wizardry. Rather, Terrians have never branched away and created their own rules and spells that are suited to them. Still, magic, in its base form, is moldable to any practice. Whether one partakes in the demonic spells of Inferna or the angelic language of Caelem, magic is controlled through enthralling incantations like a siren’s song beckoning towards one untimely death. Nevertheless, once one sets down a path, magic begins to take the form that is best suited for such spells; much like muscles tearing and reforming into what is needed.

Inferna and Caelem were never well suited together.

It’s true that demonic magic is susceptible against angelic spells; nevertheless, the same can be said for the opposite. Will Hell’s black smoke corrupt the angels and the blessed first, or will Heaven’s light chase away the demons and the shadows? All is in the strength and will of the wielder. The determination that courses through their veins and the power of their beliefs within their hearts.

Well, in the first place, maybe he shouldn’t be teaching demonic magic to one of God’s–

“Heeeeey~!! Izumi-saaaan!”

He opens his eyes and moves his gaze to the side. A tall man with windswept hair and garbed in regular, run of the mill civilian clothing makes his way across the courtyard with a wide grin, proudly displaying pearly white teeth and pointed incisors. His small pony tail bobs with each step and skip, peeking out from behind his head every so often.

“You’re back,” Izumi greets in almost a resigned grumble. “Mikejima.”

“Heard you’re the one who’s watching over Leo-san this time.” Madara leans against the wall beside him, briefly bumping shoulders at the close proximity. “How rare~”

“Do you have something to report or did you actually become that human prince’s friend and worry I’ll do something dastardly to him?” Izumi scoffs, leaning away a scant distance.

Madara only laughs boisterously, the noise echoing across the light-blue sky hovering above Inferna. “Not one to ever beat around the bush, are you?”

Izumi holds in a sigh. “Well? You’ve been away for months. If you don’t have something, I’d call your mission a failure.”

“I sent letters.” Madara smirks, crossing his arms to match Izumi’s posture.

He side-eyes the taller man, narrowing his eyes and allowing magic to flare up in controlled chaos.

Madara still continues to chuckle in amusement; confident in both his safety and his ability to retaliate swiftly in good nature. The both of them are well aware that they’re comrades and allies. It would be a betrayal of the highest consequence to truly injure each other, let alone kill. Without good reason, that is.

“Leo-san,” Madara finally starts informing. He reaches into his jacket, pulling out an ethereal glow from his inner pocket. “Has some interesting friends. Do watch for them, Izumi-san.”

His eyes trail after the object being twirled languidly between Madara’s fingers. The pure white color of it sparkles with the sunlight too blindingly, making him want to squint his eyes to obstruct its piercing rays. Sparkles like diamond dust float around it lazily, neither escaping nor dimming as it is exposed to the outside environment.

“Angel’s feather?”

“Yep. Plucked it off the little prince himself.”

Izumi nods in acknowledgement. “Where’d he get it from?”

“Went off into the forest one night and came back with it on his clothing. An accidental piece of evidence, I’m sure.” Madara raises the feather high above their heads, putting it directly within the sunbeam’s path. The ethereal glow around it shines even brighter, casting a shadow to the feather itself and hiding it away.

He hums contemplatively. “Did you see with your own eyes?”

“Little Collector Angel and a littler nest of fresh bunnies in training. Three, to be more precise.”

“Hmm.” Izumi drones once more. “Probably has nothing to do with us, but I’ll keep an eye out. See if they’ll become an interference.”

“I doubt such newly created angels will be trouble for you, but watch for their instructor.”

“A Collector?” He raises an eyebrow. “They’re not built for fighting, but I’ll keep it in mind. Thanks.”

Madara snickers. “The kingdom can’t lose you too soon, Izumi-san.”

Izumi rolls his eyes and waves a hand dismissively. “Got something else or can I leave?”

“So impatient!” The taller man chortles. He tucks the feather back into his jacket, keeping it safe until the kingdom can file it away within the evidence vault before turning dark, forest green eyes Izumi’s way. “You were just standing here, soaking up the sun like a snake, anyways. It’s been so long since I’ve been home, keep me company.”

A hiss leaves Izumi’s throat. “Then go visit your real friends.”

Madara’s clear amusement shines on his face, lighting up his features with a wide smile and eye crinkles. “You are my friend.”

“Whatever.” Izumi sighs. He looks away, staring deep into the courtyard at the rustling trees, branches and limbs moving on their own to hide away the birds settling in within the safety of the foliage more securely. “Speaking of… You sure you should’ve taken on these missions? You made it out better than he did, but you still should’ve stayed to recover.”

To his surprise, Madara falls silent. He didn’t even realize that was a possibility from the man. Peering at him from the corner of his eyes before flicking his gaze away again, Izumi continues, “We’re short on people, so even I’m getting some of the workload outside. We’re getting sent there later today to see how well he’s fairing.”

“I wasn’t on the frontlines.” Madara finally says, his voice soft and even. “I had a different mission to accomplish while following them from the shadows. I tried to tell the vanguard everything I discovered… but it was too late for them and for…”

Izumi closes his eyes, reliving the moment that news arrived to the castle. He remembers vividly being in the throne room having an emergency meeting when a messenger burst in through the heavy double doors with an impact that shook the walls. The war unit had created a huge mess, but ultimately fell to the angels. On top of that, Madara had also failed his mission and too many people lost their lives; in the end, settling in a watery grave.

One of only a small handful that Madara has ever let slip through his fingers.

And paid the consequences of despair and guilt.

“You could probably come with, if you wanted.” Izumi suggests, his voice quiet enough to be taken away by the breeze.

Madara chuckles dryly. “He’s probably still mad at me.” He kicks off the wall, standing to his full height again and blocking out the sunlight from Izumi’s eyes. “I’ll leave him in your care, Izumi-san. I still have things I need to look into, so I’m leaving soon.”

“You just got back though?” Izumi raises an eyebrow, also pushing off of the wall.

“No rest for the wicked.” Madara jokes before turning and taking long strides towards the side entrance of the castle. “Take care, Izumi-san.”

Madara passes through the entranceway before he can reply. Izumi stares at the frame for a long moment. No rest for the wicked, indeed. He turns back to the courtyard and tilts his head up to the sun once more, closing his eyes to the luminescent light and absorbing the heat of the day. After a couple more minutes spent in silence, he gathers his tired energy and strides through the same doorway.

The corridors are in stark contrast to the outside world, obscured away in dusty shadows and dark décor. The slivers of sunbeams slithering between the blinds fight for survival, chasing away the gloom and finding base within enemy territory. Izumi cuts into their forces as he passes through them with purposeful steps. He should head towards Ritsu’s office before anything else. There is something he needs from the vampire.

His footsteps echo in the quiet halls of the Infernan Royal Castle, not seeing even a single face of the servants. The castle has always been one or the other: bustling with activity with all hands on deck or as silent as abandoned ruins. The days in between are far too rare to even consider them occurrences within the castle proper.

He knocks lightly against the imposing doors of Ritsu’s study. Hearing the light titter saying to enter, Izumi turns the doorknob.

The room is no less dim as the rest of the castle. And much like the time he was in here doing Ritsu’s paperwork, books bob midair to a tune only the magic particles can hear. They dance to the melody, sparkling with a soft gray glow and splashing the color across the metallic coated letters of titles printed across the spines of the resting literature high on the shelves. The curtains hiding away the large balcony windows are only marginally separated at the edges, allowing small streams of sunlight to filter inside and play amongst the shadows.

“Secchan~ Here to relieve me of my work?”

“Hardly.” Izumi scoffs. He closes the door behind him and strides to the imposing desk. Paperwork is strewn about its surface, the written words on its pages growing dizzying in his vision even with just his brief inspection of them. “I need you to replenish the spell.”

“Heh~ You work me so hard~” Ritsu whines pitifully. However, his tone doesn’t nearly match the gesture of his tongue flicking out to lick across his lips, glistening his long, piercing canines against the magic’s glow. “Well, I get a meal out of it and you’re always so tasty, so I don’t mind.”

Izumi rolls his eyes. “Vampires.”

“I think it’s weird that you haven’t found someone’s flavor to your liking.” Ritsu chuckles. He lifts an arm, gesturing for Izumi to come around the desk to his side. “Not even your Yuu-kun~?”

His upper lip twitches, exposing a fang to the vampire. “As if I’d bite Yuu-kun. And don’t call him that.”

“Love bite, love bite.” Ritsu sing songs. He uses his other hand to free the space of paperwork as Izumi gets closer. “Don’t you want to feel that intimate little bond? You don’t necessarily have to be feeding off of him.” He chuckles. “Though taking a little nibble while you’re at it would do you some good.”

“I am not that depraved.” Izumi nearly shivers as Ritsu’s fingers run across his waist, curling around the dip and pulling him in. The vampire scoots back, making enough space in front of him to allow Izumi to stand in between him and the desk before pushing Izumi to sit on the piece of furniture. “And you may have bitten me, but you didn’t fully turn me. That wasn’t the deal. I don’t need blood for nourishment.”

“It’s still good for you now, though. A substitute for food.” Ritsu locks him in, inching into his space and pinning him where he sits. Ritsu sidles up between his legs, skirting his cool fingers across Izumi’s chest and towards his collar. “But don’t take just anyone’s. Your flavor will change~”

“You make everything sound so weird.” Izumi huffs, nearly breathless. Ritsu’s fingers undoes the buttons on his jacket and shirt halfway down, pushing the fabric to lay precariously across his shoulders. Ritsu’s magic has always been hypnotizing for him, especially as the vampire expels it in preparation of a complicated spell. “I’m supposed to go to Aquarum today, so don’t take too much.”

“You sure you don’t want to do this after you come back?” Ritsu’s breath ghosts across his collarbone, steadily inching his way down.

“I’m going straight back to Terra. You know that.” He peers downwards with lidded eyes, all of his attention going towards the head of black hair in his personal space. Ritsu’s arms snake around his naked waist, encircling across his back in an embrace and pulling him in even closer. The left side of his shirt and jacket teasingly slips off his shoulder completely, pooling at the crook of his elbow as Ritsu presses his lips over Izumi’s thumping heart.

A red glow in the form of Ritsu’s unique magic signature immediately illuminates from his skin, splashing them with its brilliance. A buzz hums in the air, inaudible if one is not looking for it. Izumi feels the steady pulsing of the especial spell thrumming within his body, coexisting with his own magic in harmony. Getting awakened from its passive state stirs up the remaining magic energy within the spell, the particles eagerly greeting their true owner and asking for praise.

“Then I’ll make sure it activates when you leave our borders.”

Ritsu opens his mouth widely and sinks his incisors into Izumi’s pectoral. Izumi clenches his jaw briefly as the aching sensation races across his senses. Even so, it fades away within seconds and is replaced with the odd mixture of masochistic pleasurable pain. In exchange for the blood spilling free, Ritsu pools his magic back into Izumi’s body, replenishing the spell that has been cast over Izumi’s body for some time now.

An illusionary spell that would fool anyone, even angels and other demons, into believing Izumi is a true-born human.

Ritsu’s spells are never easily seen nor broken through.

The symbol over his chest heats up like water over a stove, progressively rising higher and higher until it reaches boiling point and spilling over it. The warmth purrs from the epicenter, seeping into every cell of his limbs and every offshoot of his veins. Unconsciously, his knees clench into Ritsu’s form and his fingers grip at the edge of the desk. He’s not sure if the fog within his swimming vision is due to the dim lighting of the room or the mind numbing, spellbinding pleasure that overwhelms his senses.

“Nacchan will be with you, so don’t leave her side.”

The kitten lick Ritsu swipes over the twin puncture holes in his skin wakes Izumi up from his forced daze. Focusing his vision again with quick blinks, he watches as the wounds close up in quick order, leaving behind smooth skin and a pulsing, red symbol. Soon enough, even the crimson glow disappears, sinking deep into his skin and settling into a passive state. To do its job while remaining unseen.

“I told you not to take so much.” Izumi grumbles, shifting minutely so the other side of his clothing doesn’t fall from his body as well.

Ritsu replies with a throaty chuckle, “Couldn’t help it~”

“Where is Naru-kun, anyways? We’re supposed to leave soon.”

The vampire scoots back and leans lazily in his plush seat. “Probably the parlor? Drinking tea and eating something sweet.”

“She’s not you, who does that instead of working.” Izumi shakes his head with a sigh. Shrugging his shoulder, he adjusts his clothing back on properly, buttoning up and concealing his skin behind the fabric. After a second longer to get his bearings, Izumi hops off of the desk. “Oh, by the way, Terra’s famine near our border should clear up sooner rather than later. Send troops to watch them.”

“Over confident humans are their own worst enemy.” Ritsu crosses his arms with a smirk playing on his lips. “Got it.”

Izumi steps around the desk, putting his hand up in a wave. “See you, Kuma-kun.”

“Until next time. Make sure you do, Secchan.”

The door closes with a click behind him. The empty hallways greet him once more, showing him routes to various areas within the castle. Perhaps he will check the parlor. Turning in the direction he originally came from, Izumi sets down the same path. The sitting room in this area of the castle is near Ritsu’s office, thus it doesn’t take him long to come upon its door. Bright sunlight streams from beneath the heavy door, contrasting against the dark shadows of the rest of the castle.

Opening it, Izumi finds himself squinting.

The decorative pieces standing within the room and hanging on the walls sparkle with polish as strong sunbeams attack with all of their might with no resistances. Tall windows, nearly translucent in their cleanliness, are displayed proudly, heavy curtains pushed to the sides. The only blockade that the sunlight has from entering the room is the tall figure standing before the window, staring out into the open sky devoid of any clouds.

“There you are.” Izumi says.

Blonde hair sways with the breezy motions as a head turns to eye him with amethyst orbs glittering like gems. “Izumi-chan! Did you rest enough?”

“Ready, Naru-kun?” He asks instead, leaning his shoulder on the open doorway.

“Ah~” She stretches her arms up, spready her wings widely and allowing the heat seeping in through the window to blanket her for one final second. “I can’t believe even you were told to go check on things in Aquarum. It was weird enough that you got sent to Terra, but we take the opportunities that come our way, I guess.”

“We’re short on people, you know that.” Izumi sighs. “And it can’t be helped. It’s one of our major cities, let alone one of the Shadows.”

“Yes, yes~” Arashi sings. She finally turns her body away from the window, closing her wings and tucking them safely away against her back. “Let’s go, then. If things look bad, we need to fix it before it gets worse.”

“Have everything or do we need to teleport to your other home first?”

“I’m good to go.” Arashi gives him her heart stopping smile, one that is so radiant and full of joy that Izumi wonders if she truly belongs here.

He steps away from the doorway and leads them down the corridor. Arashi trails at his side quietly, allowing the two of them to blend into the Infernan castle’s atmosphere. The deeper they traverse, the darker it seems to become. The sunlight, with its limited offensive power against physical barriers, doesn’t manage to make it through to the depths of the imposing structure and is defeated by the wispy shadows that bask in the glory of eating away at their prey.

The only light that dares to exist within the chilling darkness are the floating orbs of concentrated magic particles – magic crystals especially created for light. They hover near the ceiling, keeping the area dim with only a soft glow of the palest yellow visible to a demon’s eye’s capability. If controlled, Izumi is well aware that the little crystals are capable of lighting up the whole castle as brightly as the sun and burn it as hot as Hell.

Hell is just beyond the gates, after all.

The two of them make it to a stairwell, far within the interior of the castle’s ground floor. The door is locked heavily with magic; however, running their palm over an inconspicuous stone paneling on the adjacent wall allows them entrance. Izumi feels a tug on his magic as some of them are hauled free from his vessel, only to get identified by the security system with a ruthless examination that ultimately ends their existence in this world. With the door now open, they make their way downwards to the first basement floor, eyeing the next set of stairs to the level just below it carefully. The shadows on the wall coming from below are deeper than the darkness, moving with eerie sways and ready to snap the moment either of them step close enough to the doorway underneath.

The room they step into instead is lit brightly only by the immense, scarlet crystals shooting out from the ground. The crimson glow spreads across the room like seeping gas – like dry ice spreading thin until it loses power and disappears into the air. Their shoes click against the glass flooring, heels treading across the various roots that are embedded within the glass. They turn their backs to the crystal, ignoring its overwhelming, yet comforting presence and stepping over the circular, metallic coated, etched spells at the ends of the root vines surrounding it.

Beside the display is another, larger circle within the flooring, though this one does not travel back to the crystal with veins. One that is not pulsing with activity.

Not yet.

Their eyes adjust to the strange lighting, allowing them to see the letters of Inferna’s ancient language clearly. Izumi waits until Arashi is settled strongly beside him, feet planted on the floor in the center of the large spell before calling upon only an ounce of his own magic. “Take us to Aquarum, the City of Water.”

The spell beneath their feet activates, suddenly bursting to life with pure white light that echoes across the ceiling.

Before they know it, their vision is shrouded in the illumination. The next they blink their eyes, the room they are in is completely different. This one, with aquariums making up the walls, is set in a soft blue radiance. A smaller room with only the teleportation spell etched into the ground with powdered magic. Walking out of the magic circle, they exit and head up the stairs; away from the teleportation room used by only the royals and the Shadows to move about without detection.

The lock concealing away the ground floor clicks open, allowing the door to be released and spread sunlight deep into the only basement floor.

“Ah~ I thought I felt guests arriving~” A slow voice greets them. “It’s the demon snake and the demon bird~”

“Is that really how you’re going to address us?” Izumi asks incredulously. He sighs. “Well, whatever.”

“Devil of Water, how are you,” Arashi asks pleasantly. “Shinkai-san?”

“If you are here to check on my injuries from my loss, there was no need.” Kanata says methodically yet melodiously. “They no longer fester with the angel’s blessing.”

“And how is the city you rule? Heard you picked up an aid or something.” Izumi discretely peeks over the blue haired man’s shoulders towards the middle of the large manor.

“Yes, we are doing well~” Kanata sways from side to side. “The fish are doing swimmingly~”

Izumi blinks. “By fish do you mean your citizens or… fish.”

Arashi giggles at his side. “Though the marine life here is amazing. I would be happy if they were thriving, as well.”

“Would you like to see? Come~” Kanata turns fluidly on his heels, a giddy grin lifting his lips. “We have plenty of new additions, too.”

“Hey, we’re not here for a vacation.” Izumi grumbles beneath his breath, but nevertheless, follows along.

“Let it go, Izumi-chan.” Arashi replies in amusement. “We can get a good look at the city from the overhead view and inspect it ourselves. Two birds with one stone.”

“Is that really an analogy you should be using?”

“Oh hush.”

It’s Izumi’s turn to snicker.

The foyer they make their way into is awe inspiring. Proudly being displayed in the center of the room and reaching from floor to ceiling is a massive, circular tank that glows brightly with coral grown within the oceans of Inferna. Coral that is not only alive, but glimmers with its own magic to create a unique ecosystem. Various fish of every size and color swim laps or squeeze into their homes within the column of coral spiraling up the length of the tank in the center.

Sounds of rushing water overtake their senses the longer they remain in place. Peering out the open windows, Izumi sets his eyes on the city spreading out below the manor that is situated high on a hill. The manor itself spills water from beneath its formidable walls, creating multiple waterfalls that head straight into the lake that is at city-level. The lake then spreads into various rivers and canals that run through the heart of the city, illuminating the City of Water in its gentle blue glow.

“Mr. Sea Snake is in a different aquarium. Would you like to go see your family?” Kanata asks. He puts a hand on the tubular tank, somehow enchanting most of the marine life to swim towards him in greeting.

Family.” Izumi hisses sharply, biting his tongue all the while to keep in the bubbling, boiling words just begging to be released.

Arashi snorts, all unladylike, and turns away to muffle the further sounds that come out of her mouth on her shoulder.

“Ah, but you came for business, yes? Let me show you my city.” Kanata drifts away like the retreating ocean waves from the shoreline.

The two of them are led to the higher floors of the manor, passing various staff members along the way. All of the cream-colored curtains are spready wide, allowing the sun to penetrate through and splash against the blue tinted walls lined with embedded seashells. Kanata moves slowly, with purpose but with ease. They are taken to a wide balcony, overlooking the entire city from end to end.

The breeze that drifts towards them has a salty tang, undoubtedly being carried over from the nearby ocean. Aquarum is a port city, after all; established against the vast ocean and living alongside the ever-flowing tides. From the clear view they have, the city looks no worse for wear. Despite its leader and protector becoming incapacitated for some time, the city, itself, has never been targeted.

Rather, a different city fell to the war between Devil and God.

With a minute gesture with his head, Izumi signals to Arashi beside him, never taking his eyes off of the bustling city full of water and magic particles floating around the liquid like ephemeral fireflies. Arashi hops up onto the white marble railing with light footwork, spreading her wings wide before tipping forward and freefalling. The gust she leaves behind ruffles their hair into their visions. She is gone by the time they reopen their eyes, set on her mission to thoroughly inspect the city and its livelihood in detail.

“Anything else I can do for you, Izumi?”

He flicks his eyes towards the Devil of Water, idly staring into those seafoam green eyes that shine hospitably if not in anticipation. Not that Izumi can blame him. This visit is much like getting tracked down by the government dogs, in any case – but with much more severity behind it given their true titles.

Sunlight abruptly refracts into his eyes, but he doesn’t flinch. The shock is just as sudden as the wall of rushing water forming from the ground and speeding high towards the clouds behind Kanata.

The reverse waterfall stops, sprinkling them in a mild rain shower as the stray droplets are forced back down to earth by gravity.

Izumi tilts his head when a spear made of pure ice lands dangerously near him, broken in half with jagged edges at each end.

“Does that satisfy your examination? You will report to all of the castle bureaucrats that I do not need help nor do I wish to be sent back out, yes? That is within your power, so you should do so.”

“Whether you are sent back to the battlefield or not is up to the tides of war.” Izumi informs in a stoic voice.

Kanata pouts at him in dissatisfaction, frown intensifying.

Feeling Kanata’s aura spread out harshly and grating against his own, Izumi turns away and crosses his arms. The spear at his feet disappears with a burst of blue light, flicking azure flecks into the air. “Tch. Devils. From the looks of it, we’re at a lull until the Angels make their next move. Rest until then.”

Kanata settles down, allowing Izumi and the nearby wildlife to breathe easier. “Fine, then~”

“If you’re well enough to argue, then you have enough healthy magic to make me a few things.”

“Is that an order, Demon-Snake-san?”

He sighs. They’re back to that, are they? No matter. If Kanata is swaying back and forth like the tides, then he is willing to listen, at least. “A request that is crucial to the success of a mission.”

“An order~”

“Call it as you will.” It is always an exhausting affair dealing with these offshoot Devils. Their eccentricities know no bounds, requiring careful handling and speech when interacting with them. “I’ll compensate you with Terrian treasures. Their currency is worthless here, so how about I give you some of their gold and gems?”

Kanata hums confusedly, tilting his head. “Ah~ That’s right. I did get word that even you were sent alone into enemy territory. Something about that human prince.”

“See? We all have jobs that are less than desirable.” Izumi sniffs. “Well, will you?”

“What do you need of my magic?”

“Water has been polluted, lakes and rivers have dried up, rain clouds are keeping away.” He lists off. “Terra is about to go into a famine.”

“Heh~” The blue haired man sings in understanding. “Did you check the soil? Shu can help you.”

Izumi shakes his head. “I already sent a message. Said I was asking too many favors even though I said I would pay him.”

Kanata snickers. “Sounds like Shu~ But don’t worry, Demon-Snake-san, the magic crystals will be in your possession before you know it.”

Finicky these Devils are, truly.

The Devil of Water turns to walk back through the balcony doors. “I, too, will assist you. Let us go make some.”

“And?” Izumi follows slowly. “What do you want out of Terra?”

“Hmm…” Kanata pauses for a long while; Izumi starts to wonder if his question will be ignored or saved for later. “I have done wrong to Terra. A terrible wrong.”

The guilt that trembles deep within Kanata’s voice makes Izumi’s heart stutter along with it.

Kanata continues before Izumi can come up with any reassurances, “I cannot take back what I stole. Consider this my apologies and regrets.”

“…All right.”

He is led through the manor once more. They steadily make their way down the manor’s levels, taking steps at quick intervals and bounces as they descend. Izumi eyes the various imposing doors decorated with seashells and blue toned gemstones, all of it outlined in gold; Kanata not stopping at any of them. Instead, they now stand in front of a plain door that opens easily in the center of the infrastructure. With no lock in place, the door swings open with a turn of the wrist to reveal a room filled to the brim with shelving units and boxes lining the storage space from floor to ceiling.

“What form would you like?”

“It doesn’t need to look pretty. A dead one works just fine.” Izumi replies as he scans the labels printed over each container.

Kanata reaches high and drags down a box. The objects inside clatter against each other dully, vibrating the air loudly with their impact against the edges. Izumi turns his ear away from the noise, wincing at the sharp reverberations knocking against his eardrum. With the box securely in his arms, Kanata motions to leave the tight space and asks Izumi to close the door behind them.

Finally, with the materials gathered, Izumi gets to peek behind one of the fancier doors. Kanata brings them to his personal office this time, equipped with a jacuzzi-like structure in the corner and a wall lined with towels neatly folded upon their resting places. Beyond the window is a clear view of the vast, endless ocean, stretching out farther than anyone can imagine.

“How many do you need?” Kanata asks as he sets the box down on the large desk at the side of the room – opposite of the waterworks.

Izumi’s gaze is captivated by the rolling waves filled with seafoam. He doesn’t turn his attention away even as he answers, “A lot of the towns are neighbors, or in close enough proximity if they’re willing to travel a little. If a large pond or lake can be created in between them, then we’d need less than the actual number of populations.”

His attention is only snapped back to the problem at hand when Kanata opens the box with a clack and peers inside.

“Lake, huh? That isn’t a difficult spell…” Kanata contemplates. He reaches inside to dig around and pulls out a jagged looking rock the size of a human child’s head. Its color is dim, shaded in matte grey that speaks of no life being held within the ore.

A dead magic crystal. One that previously held magic within its depths but has since been used up. If there is enough pressure from strong spells, crystals often break or turn to dust before they can turn back to stone. However, since that is not always the case, the salvageable vessels of natural occurring magic crystals is often collected and reused – the vessel that is better known as a common rock or ore. By reusing old crystals, more energy can be saved in the process of creation. If one makes a magic crystal from scratch, the wizard would be required to crystalize their own free flowing magic into a stable, solid form.

Not unheard of, but inefficient.

Kanata holds the unlively rock between his hands and stares deep into its form. His hands light up with a seafoam green glow, slowly inching its illumination around the vessel.

Besides the hum of magic buzzing in the air, the room falls silent. Izumi tilts his head restfully and closes his eyes. He will be here for a time, yet. Creating such concentrated magic crystals takes intricate handiwork and a slow journey towards the end. Not everyone can successfully crystalize their own magic, nor weave the spell enough to lay dormant until it is activated. In fact, nearly everyone without proper training and many hours of practicing fail.

It is much easier to take free roaming magic crystals that grow within their forests and place a spell on it.

Creating one themselves makes it a purer concentration and more powerful, however.

It is well past sundown by the time Kanata declares he is finished. The office is now shrouded in shadows being chased away by the pulsing seafoam green glows of the many awakened magic crystals. Izumi helps carry Kanata toward his bedroom, an arm heavily slung over his shoulder as they shuffle their way through the hallways lit up by fish tanks. The windows he passes by show him the high moon, signaling that it is already well past midnight. The brief stutter of the stream of moonbeams makes him turn his head to look outside, seeing a shadow streak across the sky.

Arashi is finally back. Her observations are always thorough, leaving no time of day a questionable variable within their calculations.

Izumi shoulders open the extravagant door leading into Kanata’s bedroom. The Devil of Water tiredly mumbles a form of gratuitous speech, too jumbled to be coherent, but the sentiment remains. Izumi stumbles as he lowers the taller man down into the large, plush bed. He helps pulls the covers down and adjust Kanata’s legs onto the bed – taking off his shoes all the while. After tucking the comforter high against Kanata’s chin, Izumi rotates his shoulders to get the kinks out and turns on his heels.

He carefully closes the door behind him, keeping the click of the door as silent as possible. When he faces the opposite wall, he is greeted by Arashi’s tall form waiting for him. Izumi nods his head in the direction of Kanata’s office, remaining hushed. The two of them walk in silence, their shoes thudding dully against the white marble flooring that shines as brightly as the roaring waves.

With the silence comes the sounds of the night. The nearby ocean drones into white noise – present but absent; a lullaby that puts the city to sleep alongside the pull of the moon. The night flyers jet across the empty sky and dance amongst the starlight guiding their way. Clouds that are pure white in the day are cloaked under the blanket of night, turning into a shadowy form that is beautiful in its own right despite its eerie glow with the moon behind its back.

Staring out the window one last time, he watches as the city glimmers. The speckles of blue dancing around the water paths remain glowing like fireflies in the summertime. With the darkness of midnight, the city takes on a different feeling – a place that was full of joy and cheer, rushing around like free-flowing rivers transforms into a calm water spring, perfect for stargazing and relaxation. The water luminates underneath the moonlight, keeping the city lit brightly enough to lead its people home as the sun turns its eyes away.

The door clicks closed behind them.

“How was it?” Izumi whispers.

“It looks good. Security remains tight, and the people seem like they’re prospering.” Arashi informs with a gentle smile. “There are the weak, but what city doesn’t? Still, they seem to be able to get at least a little bit of a meal on the table and a roof over their heads each night.”

“Good. That’s good.” He sighs out, relieved. “He said he sent his so-called ‘aid’ out on a mission or something when I asked as he was working. Well, whoever it is, seems to be working well with Shinkai, so who am I to complain.”

Loyalty should not be an issue.

Arashi looks around the room, eyeing the glowing magic crystals. “Looks like you got everything you needed, too.”

“Unn.” Izumi hums affirmatively. He reaches into jacket, slipping his fingers into the inner pocket and pinching at the object resting there, taking the warmth of his heart into its core. Laying it on the palm of his hand, he displays it to the entire world – a glass orb in the shape of a twenty-sided dice without the numbers. Izumi stretches his arm out straight, object resting on his open palm, and calls to his magic. The little object comes to life in a glimmer of azure blue and spreads out to Izumi’s will. Forming like the Milky Way does in the galaxy, clusters of tiny magic particles race out in multiple streams, each one ending at one of the newly made magic crystals Kanata created. “You should probably stay a while.” Izumi absently says as he watches the make-believe stars take away the magic crystals piece by piece and absorb it into its galaxy within the darkness of the room only lit by the moonbeams beyond the windows.

“Understood.” Arashi replies. “I’ll keep an eye on things while Shinkai-san recovers his magic, and see exactly who this aid is. If they return soon from their mission, that is.”

The two of them wait patiently, hypnotized by the glimmering magic particles pirouetting across their routes.

Soon enough, all of the water magic crystals are gone from their physical world, safely tucked away within the glass form in clusters of magic particles. Izumi closes his hand over it, closing the open connection and putting it back within his jacket.

A weight has been lifted off of his shoulders.

“We’ve been given guest rooms, haven’t we? Shall we go to bed, Izumi-chan?” Arashi asks, standing from her seat and stretching her arms high.

“Yeah, let’s-”

A pulse rings through his body, stopping him in his tracks. He swivels his head to stare out of the window once more, gazing deep into the darkness of the midnight sky. The pulse becomes insistent, forcing his heart to beat in the same erratic rhythm and making his mouth dry.

“Izumi-chan?”

“I have to go.” Izumi says, his tongue nearly stumbling over itself in his haste.

Before Arashi has time to question him, Izumi mumbles a spell while calling more of his magic forth. His magic reacts to the ancient words in an instant, following the command of their origins. Blue so bright it nearly looks white overtakes his vision.

The next he blinks his eyes to adjust, the breeze sweeps across them in a drying spell, carrying with it the scent of the forest. Leaves rustle amongst their branches, creating a melody to add to the wandering night crawlers. The chill in the air sinks into his skin like fangs, much like how the raw moonbeams spreading across the grassy land pierces deep into the shadows that are graciously providing the way for predators to hunt.

He takes a quick survey of the area, following the moonlight to the top of a standard cliff face towards his west.

Predators are no match for the moon.

He darts forward, eyes carefully tracking the projectile soaring through the air even against the darkness. The night’s atmosphere slices across his face as chillingly as ice shards with the momentum. He reaches forward. The instant he is close enough, he settles his fingers into position. The arrow is slow in comparison to his speed, allowing an easy interception as he wraps his appendages around its wooden shaft and plucks it from its path. With his goal accomplished, he lands lightly at the other side of where he previously started before pivoting once more and seeping into the shadows amongst the trees.

Track. Lay in wait. Ambush.

The person now before him looks left and right, their confusion clear even from the back of their head. The quiver of arrows on their back moves with them, the arrow heads clinking within. The person shivers. And yet, they still reach back courageously, fingering at another arrow while the other hand readies their bow once more. High on the cliff, the wind blows stronger. Fallen leaves crash against each other in a whirlwind, creating crinkling noises around them. The hiss of steel is masked within it, becoming unheard and remaining one of the mysteries underneath the cloak of night.

Just as the choked gasp that drifts away with the breeze does.

The person shakily looks over their shoulder; eyes clouded over in fear and damp with tears before they fall forward with a dull thud.

The heavy drops of liquid that slip down the tip of his sword rings louder in his ears than the howling of his heart. Even as the nighttime steals away the colors of the day and leaves behind monochrome shades, the crimson that slowly pools onto the ground remains bright. The gray hued clothing of tonight’s prey soaks in the scarlet like a blooming flower.

He tilts his head.

Human, huh? And with such a familiar face. Undoubtedly a family member of theirs; perhaps even immediate.

Is this what becomes of a corrupted fate? He idly wonders if he will see this lineage on his side or theirs come the time.

He looks away from the paling face of the deceased and stares deep into the dark, silent forest; trees only moving with the wind. The rough breeze ruffles his bangs, skittering them across the skin of his forehead. All of the animals have hidden away amidst the soundless unrest he has created within their peaceful world ruled by power and wit; leaving it as seemingly dead as the soul that has just disappeared from this plane of existence.

He flicks his wrist, clearing his sword of the thick crimson liquid and splattering it across the dry dirt ground like paint.

Come morning, when his magic replenishes, given if he has no more need for it, he will have to reset the spell into place.

Until then…

Chapter Text

His skin prickles as the crisp breeze wisps by. The air is so pure that his throat dries up with every inhale and his lungs slowly frost over. But he doesn’t mind. The serene chill has a sense of peace that is missing within the hours the earth is bathed in the sun’s light. A cold beauty that shines her starlight upon them like dreams coming true in an ethereal world. A cold beauty that cloaks away the vile and embraces them safely within her arms.

He slows his breathing as he walks through the moon splattered path, keeping his footsteps light and avoiding the dead leaves and twigs.

There is something – someone – ahead.

The grip he has on his bow tightens. He ducks behind a large tree trunk and attempts to peer through the thick foliage. Although his eyes cannot see the possible threat, his instincts are ringing loud alarm bells within his ears, churning his stomach and accelerating his heart. Under the blanket of twilight, with the supervision of the moon and the spectator of the stars, the competition for who becomes the hunter and the hunted initiates.

Even the other nocturnal predators remain hidden, watching from afar as the events unfold.

Will they be able to nip at the spoils of war? Get a taste of the defeated upon their tongue?

The rustling tree leaves in the breeze echo louder than they do when bathed in the light of the sun. Very nearly, he begs within his heart for them to cease their heavenly music. Yet, he cannot ask that of such beautiful sounds of nature that he takes for granted on a daily basis; even if his very existence teeters on the edge of a tall cliff, ready to fall into the unknown.

If one wishes to use a weapon, know what it feels like for it to be wielded against you. Respect one’s enemies as one respects one’s own tools of war.

He braves ahead, creeping in between both the safety and the obstacle of the foliage. With his free hand, he reaches back, caressing the fletching of one of the tightly secured arrows upon his back. The presence in the forest with him is lethal, yet passive. A vast power hidden deep and not in use – nor preparing to be used.

If that is so, he will become the hunter.

So that he may return to his loved ones within the embrace of night.

Like an arboreal snake coiled high within the branches, his prey sits peacefully, face tilted up and awaiting a kiss from the goddess of twilight hours and caresses from the stars. The moonlight outlines their form, the dark blanket of the sky shading away their features. The goddess, herself, keeping the surreal, psychedelic prize to herself. He tilts his head, mesmerized by the same presence that has enchanted this ephemeral dream upon them.

If all they wish is to moonbathe, perhaps, as two hunters, they can coexist within the same territory. Perhaps peace has come to the uncertain slaughter of twilight where blood streaking the ground remains unseen forevermore.

He creeps back, keeping his front to the unknown before him. He decides to go around, instead. A detour will only waste even more of the limited time he is allowed, but even so, that is preferable to the disturbance they may cause within the silent forest with a skirmish.

If they do not seek him out, he will not seek them.

“Should you be out in the forest in the middle of the night?”

He flinches, his body jerking and rattling the arrows on his back. The sound roars too loudly within the peace, alerting even the sleeping creatures hiding away in their homes.

The smooth voice continues from their perch, “You’ll be eaten away like this, you know?”

His ears ring with the melody beginning to strum within his mind, heart calming down to the speed of the everlasting midnight. “You’re back.”

They slip down from the tree branch, landing gracefully without even a sound. “Because a little human decided to wander the den of demons.”

“We’re in Terra.” He chuckles breathily. “I did not traverse so far.”

He watches as they step up to him, the shadows seeping away from their face and the moon illuminating the azure color of their eyes against the monochrome backdrop.

“I wonder.” They shrug. “And where is so important that you’d sneak out of the castle, Prince?”

“Don’t look so disappointed, Sena. Smile for me? I feel like I haven’t seen you in so long.” He reaches up, hesitantly hovering the pad of his thumb near Izumi’s cheek. He takes the small chance that Izumi may accept the caress and brushes his skin across Izumi’s as slowly and as softly as a trickling stream.

His heart nearly flies away when the demon presses a little closer.

“Only a week, Your Highness.”

“Can’t you call me by my name?” He asks in amusement. “It’s only the two of us, away from prying eyes and ears. Leo. L~e~o.”

Izumi looks at him blankly.

Leo laughs lightly again, dropping his hand and dragging his fingers down the demon’s arm until they fall off at the end and settles back against his side. “Fine~ But, you know? I hope our friendship lasts a long time. Forever, even. No matter your station, you can call me as you like.”

No matter the truth of Izumi’s place within society, Leo will forever call them equals.

Even if the secrets hidden away behind a shield end up confirming his suspicions.

“Hm.” Izumi hums shortly. He shifts around. “Well? Where are you going? You probably snuck out, so we’ll have to get back before you’re caught.”

The question gives him pause. His tongue refuses to work and he flips over his words, creating incoherent sounds that produces a questioning expression upon Izumi’s beautiful, moonlit face. “Uh-um… The thing is… No, it’s just that…”

Izumi crosses his arms. “Uh-huh. Take your time.”

Leo looks away, catching sight of the tufts of grass growing at the roots of a large tree. Can he reveal to Izumi his true destination? A number of thoughts cross his mind, unfolding rapidly to seek out the answer at the end of the journey.

Izumi won’t waste his energy.

Leo can stop him. Probably.

Demons pursue avoidance rather than be born with innate animosity and killing intent.

He says Izumi is his friend.

Friends trust each other.

He wishes to keep Izumi by his side; as equals.

“I want to visit friends of mine.”

“Well past midnight?” Izumi asks with a shake of his head. “And out in the middle of the forest, no less.”

“I’m too busy during the day.” Leo sighs disappointedly. “And they’re… Well… They’re not Terrian citizens, they don’t have a real home, here. Unless they want one.”

“You don’t want to tell me.” Izumi shrugs a shoulder, turning in the direction Leo was previously going and begins to walk. “Let’s just get this over with.”

“it’s not-” Leo cuts himself off. “They’re angels.”

The demon huffs a chuckle. “Scared I’ll kill them? Perhaps when you’re not looking?”

“No. I just don’t want you to fight. I don’t want to see any of you get hurt.”

“Tell that to them, then.”

Leo finds himself stopping in his tracks, watching solemnly as Izumi gets further and further away.

There are a thousand ways to interpret Izumi’s words, a million contextual clues, and a billion secrets yet to be uncovered. The answer eludes him still, hiding away in the shadows darker than the star speckled sky above them. Cowering where the moonbeams cannot reach; a place where even the goddess is powerless in such a space.

He races to catch up.

The forest is quiet. The night more so. The breeze and the rustle of leaves are the only accompanying sounds that pass between them as they make their way deeper. To a place just far enough away from the Terrian castle to remain undetected, yet close enough to…

Leo looks up at the stars. The brush of Izumi’s arm against his ensures him; wraps his heart in a warm blanket and says that he is not the only one under the vast atmosphere.

…Yes. The angels are close enough to keep surveillance on them if they wish.

However, Nazuna is there for training unfettered angels, brand new lifeforms upon the Heavens. Leo believes that above all of the nasty speculation. Nazuna promised, after all. So long ago. Promised that he would one day find peace within his heart; that the grip of solitude would let him free.

He believed that Nazuna would be his dear friend. Is his dear friend.

Leo leads them to the grassy hill where the angels’ cave-home is located. Izumi, who was only trailing just a hair’s width behind him before, stays within the tree line. The demon stops at one particular tree that stays hidden with the shadows yet has a clear view of the surroundings. He leans his weight against it, looking for all of the world disinterested in the happenings yet all the while shifting his eyes around.

Leo goes on without him, hesitantly peeking inside of the cave from the lip, poking his head in. “Hello?”

Only the cooler air inside of the natural formation greets him with a kiss on the cheek.

He rights his posture and steps inside. The chill grips at his entire body, holding his hands and entwining him in an embrace. “Nazu?”

The usual greeting of a splash of warmth from miracles unspoken doesn’t appear, nor does the ghost of fingers when Nazuna alerts him to his presence before materializing before his human eyes. The air is cold and remains so. Empty. Though it always looks as such, the cave seems untouched – unoccupied since its creation by the earth itself.

Perhaps that is the only clue. The only reminder that Nazuna and his baby angels – Tomoya, Hajime, and Mitsuru – do exists, and that he has met them. Talked with them and befriended them. For if they never inhabited this space, animals surely would have taken residence or, at least, temporary shelter.

Loneliness wells up in his heart, tightening his chest and squeezing at his throat. They said their goodbyes last meeting, not knowing if that would truly be the end. There is nothing to regret, nothing to be sad over. Their feelings – their camaraderie; perhaps even something more – remains true. Their past together is still safely tucked within their memories, preserved and revered as time moves forward.

They are both alive and under the same sky. One day, surely, they will meet again.

Leo takes a steadying breath, closing his eyes and absorbing in the atmosphere. Opening them once more, the darkness still greets him. Smiling wistfully, Leo turns and heads back outside to where Izumi awaits him patiently. This chapter may end, but the next is just beyond the page. His story still has a long way to go, or so he hopes.

One day, surely…

Izumi is still standing where Leo last saw him, though his azure gaze is now staring up into the gem studded sky and his nose is crinkled distastefully – if not cutely. Leo can’t help but wonder if something is the matter, if it is something that Leo can fix, even if it is against nature, itself.

“See something?”

The demon’s eyes flick to him before skittering away. “No. There’s nothing.”

Leo hums, not quite believing the words but letting them go. “Shall we go home?”

“Your angel?”

“He went home, too.” Leo smiles gently. He reaches his hand out, softly gripping Izumi’s and tugging. “Let’s do the same, okay?”

The journey back to the Terrian Royal Castle is quiet. The occasional predator rumbles the shadows and prey scurries to hide, but their otherwise silence is companionable. The warmth of their lightly pressed palms is soothing and securing despite traversing through the dark where anything may deem them as a decent meal. Leo hopes the gesture means that Izumi is allowing him to become closer, their trust and mutual friendship growing stronger.

Izumi didn’t used to like getting touched.

“Won’t you teleport us back? You know how to use that kind of spell, don’t you? You used to do so when we first met.”

Izumi scoffs lightly, no louder than the night, “Wasteful. You shouldn’t use magic just for convenience. Respect it as a lifeform and as your willing weapon.”

“I see. It is that kind of power.” Leo squeezes Izumi’s hand in a brief pulse. “I understand.”

“Besides,” Izumi whispers. Leo turns his head, giving the demon his full attention and seeing a smirk playing at the corner of Izumi’s lips. “This is a problem of your own making. Don’t go looking for an easy fix, Your Highness.”

Leo harrumphs and turns his head only to hear a throaty, deep chuckle from beside him. Despite the petulant display, Leo is quite happy. It may be so that Izumi does not have his guard completely down, however, at least he can be free to live and to laugh within Leo’s presence. Albeit be just small steps, he feels that an immense accomplishment has been achieved.

Just as the stray rays of the sun begin to edge closer to the horizon, the castle walls come into view. Leo shows Izumi the path he takes to sneak in and out without detection. Reluctantly letting go of the demon’s warm hand, Leo skirts his fingers against the stone lining, finding the familiar ledge and grips at it. He hoists his body upwards, toes digging in where they may and shoes gripping against the solid stones with bending rubber. When he makes it to the ledge, he twists his legs over, hanging on with his upper body and reaching a hand downwards.

“Come on, Sena.”

But the demon shakes his head. “Go to bed first.”

“How come?”

“I left through the front gates. It would be strange if no one saw me reenter.” Izumi smirks. “I’ll make enough of a ruckus for you to sneak back in without detection, even if you trip in the dark.”

“Just who do you take me for…” Leo grumbles. “See you at first light?”

“Yeah. See you, then.” Izumi turns around, waving a hand nonchalantly as he blends back into the shadows of the forest.

Leo hums absently, staring at the demon’s back. With another exhale, he looks down to judge his landing spot and releases his grip. The chilled air rushes by, rustling his clothes and slapping against his face like needles. The impact with the ground shakes his knees, shuddering through his ankles all the way up to his hips. Despite it, the landing is silent – a skill learned through much practice and trial and error.

He, too, begins to blend back into the shadows of night, into the unknown that the goddess has bestowed upon the land. Staying near the wall until the very last moment, he hides away from the moon that is allied with the sun – the moon in which only shines with the blazing star’s assistance. Muscle memory takes him through the winding garden paths to the exterior of his bedroom.

Safe.

He hops, slowly climbing his way up to the open window covered with blinds. His fingertips scratch at rough stone, arm muscles tensing with each miniscule movement. The glass pane of his window is open just wide enough for his body to slip through, back scraping at the edge as he shimmies inside. Ungracefully, he pulls his body through with his palms on the floor until his feet land inside.

With that finished, he hurries to his door, opening it quietly and taking just a peek around.

He eyes the door next to his. To the room that is given to his Prince Guard.

To the room that currently belongs to Izumi.

One day, he’d like for Izumi to meet his previous Prince Guard. He’s not sure how well they’d get along or even if they’d be friends, but he loves the both of them. Admires them. Respects and reveres them. The two are strong in both mind and body with ideals that hold fast within them and are never changing. His previous Prince Guard’s world also seemed much different than Leo’s, much like Izumi’s. One that speaks easily of God and Heaven and Hell; of the tubulations that fall upon the lifeforms that are casted to this realm of living.

Speaking of, his previous Prince Guard returned from his mission just after Izumi left for his. And now, as of yesterday, his previous Prince Guard is once again away to defend the border while Izumi has just returned. Strange, unfortunate coincidences.

He wakes only a scant couple of hours after he falls asleep within the plushness of his bed. The morning sunlight streaming in strongly through the still open window. The morning air is as biting as the night’s, having yet to be gifted the warmth of the sun. He brings the comforter up higher, tucking it directly against his ear and squeezing his eyes shut.

A knock on his door interrupts his return path to dreamland.

It opens without him saying a word.

“It was your decision to go out all night. Do get up, Prince.”

“Nmm… Five more minutes, Sena…”

“I am not your mother. Get up and bathe. You reek.”

Izumi’s footsteps get closer, the steady thud against the floor with his heavy boots ever increasingly becoming familiar to Leo’s ears. The backs of thin fingers skim at his cheek as they curl around the blanket and gently tug it away, exposing his body to the morning freeze.

“Sena~~!!” He whines, shivering in his spot. He wrenches a tired eye open. “You sure sound like my mother, by the way.”

Izumi harrumphs indignantly, snatching the blanket away more roughly and exposing Leo’s legs to the cold like a sudden ice bath. “Say that again, I dare you.”

“Cold.” Leo hisses. He curls in on himself.

“Your fault for leaving the window open last night.”

He can’t argue that. Instead, Leo narrows his eyes and looks up at the demon. “Meanie.”

“Don’t care. Go bathe.”

Leo raises and eyebrow and turns to sniff at his shoulder. “I don’t smell that bad? I took a bath last night before leaving. Even if I do smell a bit like foliage, it’s nothing strong enough to alert anyone.”

Izumi scrunches up his nose. Leo can’t help but smile fondly at the cute gesture. It’s the same expression Izumi had when they were out deep into the early morning. “Some scents just cling on. Go, go, come on. You have a lot to do, and I have to report to you, so hurry up. I can’t get anything done with such a lazy prince.”

Leo rolls onto his back, turning his head and staring upwards. Without much thought, he slowly comments, “You’d be a good prince, I think…”

Visibly, Izumi’s shoulders stiffen and all of his fluid movements come to a halt.

But only a for second.

“What nonsense are you saying so early in the morning? Go. Bathe.”

Hm?

Leo relents to the tug on his hand and sits up, bare feet coming into contact with the glacier cold floor. His mind races in confusion, the momentary laxness allowing Izumi to position him as he pleases – standing with a bundle of a towel in his arms. He is then getting pulled towards the door by the arm.

“W-wait a second, Sena-!”

“Off you go. I informed the staff, the maids or whatever will have your clothes ready.”

He wasn’t right, was he? He suspected as such, but…

“When did you- Nm?!”

Izumi’s hand is on the door handle but suddenly stops, making Leo bump into his side.

“Just for a second.” The demon turns to look at him as he grabs Leo’s wrist more securely and brings it up between them.

He stares into Izumi’s azure eyes questioningly, nearly flinching back at the bright blue they flash. A wave of a chill different than the morning breeze drifting in from the window glides across his arm all the way to his shoulder and spreading thinly. Before he knows it, those lovely azure eyes are back to normal, staring at him with a kind sternness.

“Ah… Was my magic leaking again?” Leo asks softly. The magic thrums in him, but he can only feel his own pulsing through his veins with potency – Izumi’s having seemingly becoming passive and disappearing.

The demon hums noncommittedly, letting go of Leo’s wrist and opening the door to shove him outside into the corridor. “I’ll be answering to the calls of the king and queen, receiving your missives for the day.”

With that, Izumi is gone down the other side of the corridor.

Leo tilts his head, wide awake now. Never a dull moment around here, anymore.

The baths aren’t far. In fact, there is one especially assigned to each of the royal family members residing within the castle, each on the floor in which their bedroom is located and nearby. That is how this old place was intended upon its construction all the way at the beginning of Terra’s history. The moment when they escaped from the Demons and the Angels and found a land for themselves to call home.

His hair is still a bit damp when he completely dresses for the day, heavy outfit resting on his shoulders with pride. His shoes thud against the ground lightly as he makes his way towards his study. Upon opening the door, he is greeted with Izumi’s form standing before the large bookshelf, a book splayed open in his hand.

“What are you reading?” Leo asks as he enters, closing the door behind him.

“Terrian terrain.” The demon replies, looking up. “Your missives are on the desk. Look them over, will you?”

“Sure.” He walks deep into the room. The chair skids gently as he takes his seat, dragging over the pile of letters closer. “Did you need to know about a certain region?”

“The ones you said were about to face a famine. Have you forgotten what you assigned me to, Prince?”

Leo doesn’t peer upwards as he chuckles, slipping his finger under the wax seal. “Of course not. I appreciate what you’re doing for Terra. For me. Which of those areas are you tackling first?”

“The ones more inland. There is no way you can save the ones near the Terra-Caelem border, so any survivors would have moved inland by now.”

Izumi doesn’t say it, however they both know what is more than likely to occur. The border will get pushed even further. Further and further until they surrender or find that one miracle that the Heavens are holding back from them. Leo wonders how long they will last. He has to hurry and learn magic – for what if that is the key?

“Inland is mainly flatland. You won’t have any trouble molding it.” Leo stretches an arm out, inviting Izumi to his side. The demon only briefly looks at him before his eyes turn back to the book in hand and walking without seeking his path.

“You’re giving me permission to reform your terrain?” Izumi scoffs disbelievingly. He sits down on the armrest, turned slightly to the side with more of his back facing Leo.

“If you made lakes, it would have to be so, anyways. Might as well make rivers to reach further. We can save more without overcrowding a single area this way.” Leo drops his inviting arm, forearm landing on the very back of the armrest and fingertips skimming against Izumi’s uniform clad thigh. “Oh, that’s right. You said you had something to report?”

Izumi doesn’t move nor fidget from the random caresses his fingers drag along his nerves.

“I have the water in my possession. I’m waiting for a delivery of soil nutrients.”

Leo tilts his head, unable to picture what the demon is talking about other than their true natural forms. A delivery of soil nutrients…? Will barrels upon barrels and sacks upon sacks, be delivered to the castle doorsteps? But that can’t be right. If the water is in the form of a magic crystal – like Izumi previously mentioned – then, surely, the soil will be as well, right? What would that even look like? Would they have to bury it deep into the ground?

Perhaps it is as small as their contract – the one that still rests within his palm.

“Oh, right.” Izumi suddenly exclaims softly. “I have a friend whose affinity is to anything relating to thunderstorms and lightning. Said she’d help out with the areas suffering from drought-like effects.”

“That’s a relief.” Leo feels the smile that forms on his lips as clearly as though he is looking in the mirror. “Give her my gratitude. You calculated the compensation out of our available funds, didn’t you?”

Izumi hums. “Something like that.”

The answer holds no weight, but Leo doesn’t question him further. He is the one who gave Izumi access, after all; no matter what Izumi will take as a fair trade for labor, Leo will gladly take responsibility. He will take all of the good and bad Izumi may display, happily absorbing in the joy and accepting the punishments with neither fuss nor struggle. He wishes to be by Izumi’s side, to support him as much as Izumi is supporting Leo.

Their days pass by similarly for the rest of the week. Even with lessons and training getting mixed within their schedules, the two of them always end up within the study and working closely together. The efficiency Leo has gained is so praiseworthy that even his parents no longer side eye Izumi as suspiciously as before. A change that lets Leo breathe a bit easier.

However, with that efficiency, their work for the day has been completed and Leo called it to an early end. Already, he misses Izumi’s warmth radiating nearby and occasionally coming in contact with the heat with his arm or shoulder. They parted ways to have their evening meals; Leo having yet to see the demon since.

He exhales in boredom, resting his chin in his hand as he looks out at the cresting moon. The little planet orbiting theirs is still quite far from his window, the dusk only just rescinding to allow the goddess of the night to blanket them in her dark shadows. The scarlet splashes slink away, dipping lower beyond the horizon – the darkest of blues chasing it away to reclaim its territory. Until the bloody cycle begins again come dawn; the crimson streaks regaining their strength and overpowering the navy.

 An energy scratches against his innards like the gentle claws of a kitten. Piercing and shocking, but thin and harmless.

Leo turns his head. His magic has been feeling alive for a while now. It no longer acts on his own, rather, it hums alongside him. His senses are already quite sharp, trained like a hunter since childhood years, but since he and the other part of his soul that he forcefully awakened reconciled and came to an understanding, it alerts him to things otherworldly.

Things such as other magic signatures encroaching within the area.

However, this one in particular, he has familiarized himself with within the past few days. It is one that belongs to an ally, not an enemy. A friend. Leo can’t find exactly where it comes from with his vantage point, so he opens his window wide and leans out dangerously. Scanning the area frantically, he begs to get just a glimpse of the owner to such a signature – one that slips seamlessly down the throat and inebriates like alcohol, giving an illusion of everlasting pleasure that eludes to the dangers of its aftermath.

Hips resting on the sill, he carefully balances his weight, keeping his fingers clenched tightly against the stone lined exterior. Just around the corner of the castle, right at the edge of his vision, he spies the color of the moonbeams that have yet to truly grace the earth and its inhabitants with its beautiful light. It lurks just beyond the castle walls, bobbing in and out of the heavy forest. Leo wonders what he’s doing all the way out there.

A marathon of suspicious things crosses his mind, but he pays them no attention.

Still, curiosity speeds across his veins like a drug. Leo creeps out of his window like he always does and lands within the yard. He sneaks his way around through the piercing rays of the setting sun, the guide of the night shadows not yet there to show him the way. He checks his surroundings thrice, ensuring that no guards nor castle workers spot him within the light of dusk.

He climbs the usual spot on the exterior wall and hops to the other side soundlessly. Though his intention is not to spy, the way he silently moves through the trees may suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, with his back turned to Leo, Izumi goes about his actions none the wiser. Leo stays behind a large tree trunk, the skin on his hands and fingers pricking at the feel of the rough bark beneath them as he balances to tilt his upper body around it.

Izumi looks up towards the bleeding sky for a long moment, not flinching away from the intense brightness. He raises his forearm high, nearly parallel with the ground and waits.

Leo doesn’t hear it, despite its powerful flapping. A strange wonderment upon seeing the creature that soars down and gracefully perches upon Izumi’s arm. It’s a sound he should have heard – the beating of a crow’s wings – but doesn’t. And yet, upon further inspection as Izumi silently stares into its eyes, Leo questions if it is truly a crow at all. It’s around the same size as one he would find within Terra, but the one seemingly communicating with Izumi, though as jet black as usual, seeps out a sort of mist. A shadowy edge that resembles an apparition.

Even more unsettling, its beady dark eyes seem to glow brighter than the setting sun.

With one hand, Izumi unties a soft looking cloth around its thin leg, revealing a small pouch within. The demon slips that within his jacket and takes out a pouch of his own. The crow-not-crow waits patiently as Izumi secures the cloth back on with the help of his teeth. It cocks its head from side to side as it bobs with the movement of Izumi’s body. At one point, Leo freezes, its glowing eyes meeting his own. Though, instead of alerting Izumi, it only tilts its head the other direction and looks away. Perhaps it didn’t see him, after all.

Once the tiny bundle is secure, Izumi nods and throws his arm up, launching the creature high into the air. Its black wings open wide, still soundless in the breeze despite the powerful display. Without any trouble, it raises its altitude with every flap of its wings, trailing wisps of disappearing shadows in its wake, and heading to its next location towards the north.

Leo watches, mesmerized by the hauntingly beautiful creature. Only the sound of a breathy harrumph jerks his head back down, eyes going towards the man with his back still facing him.

“Spying, are you? Unbefitting of royalty, don’t you think?” Izumi looks over his shoulder. A smirk plays on his lips, fangs slowly coming out to lay overtop his bottom lip. Even the dark blue stripes upon Izumi’s cheeks that mark his lineage and have remained hidden during his stay in Terra unhurriedly show themselves, twinkling against the darkening sky like the stars do at twilight. “Now that you’ve seen it, what ever shall I do with you, Prince Leo?”

Chapter Text

“Now that you’ve seen it, what ever shall I do with you, Prince Leo?”

Leo doesn’t even have time to widen his eyes before Izumi races the short distance between them and stand toe-to-toe with the prince. He grips Leo’s wrists together in one hand, grinding the boney joints together with a strength that both aches his fingers and gathers enough body heat in an instant that it feels like a lick of flames. Only when he raises Leo’s arms upwards to pin against the rough bark of the thick tree behind him does Leo’s racing thoughts catch up to the situation. His eyes widen, surprise skitters across his face like a cornered mouse.

With his free hand, he forcefully turns Leo’s head, exposing the smooth column of his neck – creamy, unblemished skin that radiates the same warm undertone as the sun currently dipping beyond the horizon; turning its eyes away from the unkind scene about to unfold under the end of its watch.

Horrors only reveal themselves under the midnight goddess’s uncaring supervision, after all.

Leo’s breath fans across the shell of his ear as he dips his head forward, willing his fangs to protrude out from his mouth with their truth length.

“You said my name…”

That makes him pause.

He harrumphs huffily, breath bouncing back towards him against Leo’s skin. “What pathetic last words.”

“You’ve always refused.” Leo whispers back. The tendons beneath the skin of Leo’s wrist shift under his hand as Leo moves his fingers. “I’m really… really happy. Hey, Sena, will you say it again?”

“You should think about your current situation before making demands.” Izumi presses forward, using his body to thoroughly lock Leo in place. He tastes the bead of blood as the tip of his razor-sharp fangs lay across the juncture of Leo’s neck. “Ask me again, in death.”

Leo breathes out, his head still forcefully turned away. The chest pressed against his deflates. “Are you going to bite me? Can you feed on blood?”

Why…?

“And if I can?”

“Can all demons?”

“…No.”

“Are you a vampire?”

“No.” Izumi slips his knee between Leo’s. Licking his lips, he tastes the drop of the copious scarlet liquid on the tip of his tongue; the sweet taste like fruit at its peak of ripeness just before descending towards foul.

Leo allows the silence to reign over them for only a moment, breaking its rule with a whispered consent. “You can bite me.”

The prince’s hands go limp in his own, a boneless feeling adding to the already relaxed muscles.

“Why don’t you struggle free? Idiot.” Izumi chuckles lowly.

Leo shivers in his arms. “Because I trust you.”

He shouldn’t.

Everything he ever told Leo could have been a lie. Everything about Inferna. Everything about magic. The support he is willing to lend to save the starving.

Izumi is not the only.

“You shouldn’t.”

The contract between them could be nothing but a show. An intricate farce weaved to keep the Prince of Terra under Inferna’s thumb.

“You’re far too trusting of a human. Be more cautious, as one of the royal family.” His teeth graze wetly across taut skin as he speaks, leaving behind thin scratches.

Saccharine… Leo said he could…

While they talk, his grip on Leo’s jaw loosens unconsciously, allowing the prince to turn and press their cheeks together affectionately. Like a completely domesticated, newborn kitten cuddling up to any warm creature nearby. Izumi feels Leo’s lips skim his cheek, much like the gentle pressure of his fangs remaining lightly pressed against the thick, pulsing blood vessel within Leo’s neck.

“I’ll say it as many times as it takes…” Leo murmurs. “I trust you.”

“Wild baby animals have more instincts than you.” Izumi replies. His fangs ache, a dull pulse scuttling across his gums. For a moment, the sounds of the forest preparing to go into slumber overtake them. “I warned you.”

Like sharp clangs of swords and flashes of lightning in the midst of a violent storm, icicles as large as building pillars and as sharp as jagged rocks at the bottom of a cliff form around them. The glow his eyes undoubtedly take – having not suppressed the natural reaction – war with the rays of the setting sun upon Leo’s skin.

Still, the pulse beating beneath his lips does not quicken. It remains strong and steady, even in the face of imminent death. The same, stable pulse travels down from his hand where he still holds Leo’s wrists captive high above their heads, at odds with the thundering in his own ears. The large amount of ice around them chills the air quickly, casting a frozen mist that doesn’t belong in this time of year. Not in this region of Somnium. An otherworldly occurrence at odds with nature itself that tips the balance and destroys the freshly bloomed flora in an instant, casting it in a layer of frost.

It’s hot. Too hot. His blood rushes around his body, cycling quickly in and out of his heart. Through his lungs. To the very tips of his fingers and toes. Izumi bites down.

Coppery blood immerses his tongue in a rinse that sears like acid. His peripherals are assaulted in the same moment by shimmers of blue covering the area like a cloud of stardust when a supernova occurs within the universe.

He takes a step back, keeping his head down and allowing Leo’s arms to fall. The prince’s hands slip into the edges of his vision, bathed in the very last rays of the sun and fall to his side limply, skin undoubtedly scraping against the rough bark of the tree.

Izumi hisses under his breath, his brow scrunching tightly, “I warned you.”

He looks up, gaze clashing with inquisitive emeralds that stare at him peacefully.

“I said I trust you.” Leo smiles gently, his head slightly cocking to the side. “Come here, you’re bleeding. Did you nick yourself with your own fangs while playing? Silly, Sena.”

The prince tugs his sleeve up his palm, securing it tightly with his fingers until the appendages turn white. He raises his arm, dabbing at the corner of Izumi’s mouth with the soft texture of his clothing, only retreating when he is satisfied that Izumi’s skin is clean of any scarlet splatters. Leo’s eyes linger on the spot well after his hand makes it back to his side and his stretched clothing heaves back in place. Only a moment longer does Leo remain fixated on the spot before flicking his eyes to Izumi’s and giving him a tender, dazzling grin.

Izumi shifts his eyes away uncomfortably, watching petals flutter around them as they break away from their homes within the trees. He turns back. “You’re not going to ask?”

“Hm? About?”

He raises an eyebrow, staying silent.

Leo chuckles softly, breaking their staring contest of wills. “I am interested, but you’ll tell me if you want to or keep it a secret forever, that is only your right. I was the one who followed you out here. If curiosity eats away at me like flesh eating invisible monsters and I nibble on my nails until the beds lay bleeding without rest, then so be it.”

The gentle breeze blows between them, kicking up the free petals into a new dance and races them across their sights in a flurry of vibrant color. The leaves within the trees hum together, providing a soothing melody that entrances both their listeners and their dancers to pay close attention. Even the sky dims away to monochrome, handing the spotlight over freely after already having its fill during the daylight hours.

“Won’t you regret it more if I use this to massacre the entire castle and burn the capital to the ground?” Izumi asks, his voice carrying over lightly with the gentle wind.

Leo stares at him with those piercing emerald eyes. They shine brightly even with the fading sunlight. “I trust you.”

“The allies that you think you’ve gained; everyone has a side to their story. Everyone, demon, human, angel, or anything in between, decides their own path that continues to split until you don’t even know the way back to the starting point.”

“And it’s impossible to know what another person is thinking, right? Because we will always be two separate beings? That’s what you want to tell me, isn’t it?” Leo asks rhetorically. “Then let me say this: it is my decision to trust you. With all of my heart. And with this heart of mine, I bare it open for you to see with your own eyes, so that you may come to understand me. I don’t want to live fearing every second when I could be enjoying it with the ones I love for the little time we have on earth. Because we’re alive now, in this moment.”

He warned him.

“Then only blame yourself, in the end.” Izumi sighs, turning away. “They’re for you.”

“Huh? The blame?”

“The package, idiot.”

Leo bats his eyes in confusion for a moment, his mind visibly turning at fully speed. “Oh…”

Izumi rolls his eyes. “You’re just making noise.” He looks down, reaching into his jacket and dangles the tiny package he received from Mika’s messenger between his fingers. “I thought you were spying, Prince? Surely, you did not do so poor of a job that you didn’t see what was delivered to me?”

“No, I saw.” Leo pouts. “I’m not that incompetent.”

He snorts disbelievingly, “I wonder for humans.”

“Demons are just prideful.” The prince retorts before sticking his tongue out. He then hurriedly retreats the muscle and yelps as Izumi tosses the little bundle towards him. “Hey!”

Izumi snickers behind the back of his hand. “This prideful demon will just let you figure it out on your own then.”

Leo raises an eyebrow at him prior to looking at the parcel now in his hands. It’s nothing but a cloth pouch – made of expensive, elaborate fabric – with a marble inside. Or so it seems like. Izumi watches Leo as he tips the marble out of its resting spot and holds it between his thumb and index finger, bringing it high towards the sky and magnifying the stars finally awakening from their daylight slumber.

“Inferna sure uses a lot of these little glass orbs…” Leo trails off absently, his eyes sparkling alongside the turning night sky.

“Magic has no edge. It’s something that may never find an end nor ever run into a blocked path. There are always different solutions to the same problem, you just have to find it. Naturally, its most comfortable form is a sphere, where it may never crash into walls.”

“Heh~ So there’s a real reason, huh?”

“It’s not as if they’re all like that.” Izumi sniffs, stepping just a bit closer. Leo doesn’t turn his eyes away from the magnificent sight the distorted starlight reflected inside the crystalized magic show him. “Well, never mind. It just has to be something you experience for yourself. You won’t understand.”

“You’re not even giving me a chance to understand, though?” Leo tilts his head back, exposing his neck to him once more – of his own accord this time. Their eyes meet. “Take me there one day. To your homeland.”

The whispered words float between them, lost to the darkening sky above.

Izumi flicks his eyes away, looking at the glittering starlight breaking through the last cast of sunshine that had Leo so enchanted. “…Only when one of us falls will that day arrive.”

“Peace may come.”

“And that we will both survive to see it? Wishful thinking.” He trails off.

He wonders if Leo will survive. There are consequences for his own death, so… Izumi can’t die so easily. His last stunt, despite arriving home alive, already proved of those costs. Still, though he is apologetic, he doesn’t regret a thing. Makoto survived; that is more than he can ask for. And…

“I’ll protect you.”

He supposes he got to meet this eccentric human prince. As annoying as Leo is, meeting someone without any clue to his background nor care for it is refreshing. He has almost come to enjoy his time here. In Terra. By Leo’s side.

“Hmph. You protect me?” A grin slips onto his lips. “Who do you think I am?”

Leo, too, absorbs in the suddenly lighthearted atmosphere that begins to surround them and chuckles gently like the twinkling gems in the sky. “I saved you once. I’ll do it again.”

“Don’t get full of yourself, Your Highness.”

“Give me more credit. You even bit me back then.” Leo’s shoulders shake as his chortle gets louder. Head still tilted back, Leo closes his eyes, the sunless sky bathing him in a glow that shines nearly blindingly. “Hey, Sena?”

“Hm?”

Leo’s eyes slip open slowly. “Thank you. For everything.”

“…What are you saying now?”

“Nothing.” Leo leans his head back down and turns a happy smile in his direction. “Hey, won’t you tell me what this is? You said it was for me, right?”

Izumi reaches forward, plucking the small marble from Leo’s fingers. “This is nothing more than a storage system. It’s what’s inside of it that now belongs to you.”

He allows the item to roll on his hand until it finds the most concave spot to rest. Spending only a few magic particles on it turn the key to its lock, Izumi wills it to open. The marble, once a clear color, starts to glow a clouded white. Leo’s eyes widen as phantom images begin circling above it, outlined in the same matte ivory.

“Whoa,” Leo exclaims as his fingers pass right through one of the images. “Are these what’s inside? They all look the same.”

“Of course, they do. They all have the same function. It’s what you ordered, after all.”

“What I ordered?”

“They may look like saplings, but they will never grow.” Izumi explains. He watches Leo’s expression of innocent wonderment turn to excitement. “Plant them, cast your spell to activate it, and your infertile soil will start to grow life again.”

“One, two, three…” Leo trails off. “Will ten be enough to feed everyone? What regions did you select and which did you leave out?”

“I thought you looked over my paperwork and revised it, you tell me. Will five hundred acres each be enough to feed your starving kingdo- ugh!?” He coughs as his breath is knocked out of his lungs by the wiry little human that now wraps his thin arms around him fiercely.

“Thank you, Sena! Thank you, thank you!”

Izumi swallows tensely, looking away and closing his hand so the marble doesn’t fall to the dirty ground. The images hanging in the air shudder and disappear, the storage system closing its inventory display and going dormant. “What for? I’m doing the job assigned to me.”

Leo moves his head away from Izumi’s chest. “It still means the world to me.”

“…Say that again when you know what’s missing from your treasure vault.”

The prince’s laughter is warm, both in feeling and in the breaths that fan across Izumi’s cheek. “Nothing material can be worth more than lives.”

Izumi can only hum in response, the proper words lost as he peers at Leo’s gleeful face. With the silence, Leo continues, “When can we put them in? Should we set out at dawn tomorrow? Oh, but we need to make preparations for travel, and I still need appraisal from the king to distribute food from our storehouse. Even if we have the soil, it won’t grow overnight, you know? Unless it can-”

“No,” Izumi interrupts abruptly, his words no longer remaining missing. “Food is not so easily acquired, even with magic. You can chase and trap schools of fish or provide plants with nutrients so they may survive their ailments or grow quicker, but never can magic create life without cost.”

“What kind of cost would it take?”

He tumbles the thought over in his head. “Usually another life.”

“I see… Can you not bring back the dead either, then? Are those legends and rumors truly only myths?”

“Returning a soul to its body is different. Well, you’d have to catch it in time before it gets cast away and tamper with the body to be inhabitable again.” Izumi shrugs. He steps out of Leo’s too-warm embrace – one that doesn’t allow his face to cool despite the air losing the sun’s heat. “Come on, let’s go back. People are bound to be looking for you by now.”

Leo catches his free hand, their fingers clumsily weaving together. “Wait, Sena.” The prince pauses, clashing his emerald orbs with Izumi’s eyes and mentally keeping him chained to his side. “I already announced that I was retiring for the night. No one will wonder where I am. Stay with me a little longer. Let’s watch the stars come out.”

Leo’s expression falters as the silence between them stretches on. Still, the human holds his ground against the uncertainty, against the looming pain his heart may need to endure.

Izumi releases a breath, not in exasperation nor of reluctance, but one of hard thought acceptance; finally, willing to fall into Leo’s pace instead of fighting against the current. “Alright. Let us watch the dusk turn to night, then.”

Izumi clasps their hands more securely, fitting the appendages together and gripping Leo’s tighter.

“Ah-!” The human prince chokes on his breath as Izumi jumps up strongly, dragging him along. Sparks of light blue flash before their eyes half way to Izumi’s destination, already a few yards off of the ground. A platform of solid ice greets their feet, Izumi landing with practiced ease while Leo skids and yanks on Izumi’s arm, using it as a crutch.

He can’t help but snigger to himself as he spies the sporadic movements from his peripheral. Though the scene is entertaining, he doesn’t linger long, opting to dispel the magic the second his feet leave to jump even higher mere moments later. Soft leaves, stiff leaves full of nutrients, the velvet touch of new sprouts coming alive all brush at their cheeks; even sharp twigs try to get a taste of their flesh. Izumi makes sure to brush most of it away on their journey higher with his free arm, so that Leo, who is getting pulled behind him, takes the least amount of possible damage. Human bodies heal so slowly.

Soon, Izumi firmly lands on a thick branch, high in the old and sturdy tree they have been standing underneath the entire time of dusk. His arm muscles clench tightly, pulling Leo up the rest of the way. Leo’s soft hand – unmarred by hard labor and kept pristine by the comforts of monarchical rule – rapidly cling onto the rough bark of the trunk, the fingers that clasp with Izumi’s clenching until they turn white. With shins precariously balanced, tipping back and forth until Leo finds his center, narrowed emerald eyes look up at him.

“You could have warned me.”

“Now, now,” Izumi mockingly soothes in jest. He moves around until he sits more comfortably with a foot arched around the bark near his other leg, purposefully rocking the thick branch beneath them more than necessary. “You wanted to watch the stars. A spot like this has the best view.”

“Demon.” Leo barks playfully, gripping their entangled hands even tighter. “It was kind of fun, though. I think inspiration is bubbling up! Ah, don’t let go, okay?”

“Don’t think you’ll let me even if I tried.”

Leo moves around, bringing the rest of his body onto the branch. Putting his butt down securely between the thick tree trunk and Izumi, Leo lets his legs dangle and swings them back and forth – cautiously at first before gaining confidence and swaying them to the melody that he begins humming spontaneously.

With Leo settled in, Izumi finally unclenches his other hand and tucks away the storage system back into his jacket.

“Let’s take care of that soon, okay?”

Izumi turns to look at his companion. Leo’s head is tilted back, eyes staring at the last receding scarlet of the sky and the few distant sparkles that try with all of their might to be in the spotlight. “Of the soil? At your command, Prince.”

“It’ll take a couple days to prepare everything, but the faster the better. I want to see the regions with my own eyes, too. Meet the people… and reassure them of hope.”

“You’re coming? You can send me alone.” Izumi, too, looks up at the darkening sky. The cool breeze dances around them, playing the leaves like instruments to accompany Leo’s tune. “I’m your only magic user, you’ll need me to activate them, anyways. Wouldn’t it be better for the crown prince of a human kingdom to sit pretty behind the formidable walls of the royal castle? Your extravagant display of supplies getting carted around by expensive horse carriages is bound to attract bandits and the sorts.”

And Leo said he trusted him, didn’t he?

“Bandits?”

“The desperate do what they need to survive.” Izumi whispers. “Whether they were once those who obeyed the high laws or those who’s sense of justice always differed from the masses, a convoy would be an easy target. And Terra is full of the desperate.”

“Mm.” Leo drones. His melody pauses for only a moment before starting where it left off. It’s a while longer until Leo responds again, “That’s how it is. Sena knows a lot about the world.”

“Common sense, Your Highness, common sense.”

The prince chuckles deep in his throat. “You should teach me about the life of a monarch, too, then.”

His shoulders twitch at the sudden words. “Don’t say strange things, you’re the prince.”

Leo only laughs more, his voice blending back into his song.

Clouds lazily pass by overhead, directed by the gentle wind. Birds make their final rounds collecting food and retreat back home with a flutter of wings; their bodies shadowed by the dying light. The bravest of the stars peek out from their hiding spots, sparkling like dirtied gems but still fighting a contest of beauty. Even the moon, as it ascends in the place of the largest, hottest star in the universe, only shines dully against the murky sky splashed in so many colors that it is dyed brown.

Time ticks by, only accompanied by Leo’s melody. The brown is chased away just as the scarlet hues have been and is overtaken by the deepest of blues that glows black.

Leo shifts his weight, leaning their arms together. “Tell me about your homeland.”

“Inferna? How come?”

“Curious, I suppose. The place you call home, I want to know about it. About the immortal demons that have stayed away from our humanity and kept themselves secret.”

Izumi hums, falling quiet for a moment to contemplate his response carefully. How much can he reveal? How much does Leo – does Terra – actually know about Inferna? It is true that they have kept their interactions with the human kingdom to a bare minimum for centuries; Izumi doubts Terra is even privy to the knowledge of the surname of the ruling family that has stayed the same since the beginning of time, let alone their current faces.

Why would they bother more than necessary with the humans who do nothing but scorn them?

Back in history. And as of the present day.

“First, I should correct you, Prince of Terra.” Izumi replies slowly. “We are the Land of Immortal Demons. Though all of us born from a place that is not Heaven are considered demons and all of us are immortal in a sense, there are sub categories. What you believe wholeheartedly to be our only residence are species like me, demons that share animal ancestors, and whatever devil spawns out from Hell.”

“There are other types of demons?”

“The mythical and mystical. The beings like fairies or harpies or sirens. Vengeful spirits or your regular, run of the mill ghosts. They are demons, but they’re not much like me. Just as I’m nothing like them. Even so, we’re united.”

“Because you share a land?”

“Because we are all considered monsters; rejected by Heaven and Humanity.”

Leo stops humming his tune.

Izumi goes on, paying the shocked hush no mind. “Monsters were eventually dubbed as collective Demons. Hell accepts everyone. It’s a place where no one will help you out of good will, you just have to survive on your own power. The selfless will get eaten away by the selfish within seconds. Sins are our laws. Hell is nothing but a constant power struggle. In the end, however, we all learned the same ancient language after being driven to the same ancient city, and evolved together. All ruled under Devil himself. We may fight and we may kill, but our roots are intertwined, no matter how many of us demons there are.”

The prince remains quiet. Izumi turns away from the sky a minuscule distance, shifting his eyes to watch the reflecting starlight shine in Leo’s near tearful, sorrowful gaze. He stares as Leo swallows painfully, his Adam’s Apple bobbing slowly.

“…Is it such a cruel place? Your Inferna?”

Izumi sniffs in amusement, retreating his observation back to the now visible stars speckling the night sky. “If you know how to survive, your Terra is the truly harsher of the two in the pursuit of a stable livelihood.”

“Really?”

“It’s not like we see people on the street and call an army to come battle.” He rolls his eyes. “We live how we want to live and protect what we need to protect. That’s all.”

Their pillar is of Loyalty, in any case.

“Do you have real laws? Like you can’t murder or steal?”

“In inferna, you’re allowed to do as you please. Murder if you want, assassinate, massacre. Steal someone’s entire life both materially, financially, and rob them of their soul. If you want to defend something, be stronger than your enemy.”

“What about money? Fair trade?”

“We have money and we can trade if we wish. You’re just believing we’re strange, savage creatures with no intelligence.”

“That’s not true, I’m just…” Leo trails off. “I don’t know… A place where you can watch someone be murdered in front of your eyes and no justice will be done about it is never a place I thought would exist.”

“What is justice to you is not justice to everyone.” Izumi says. “We don’t have police either, if that’s your next question about justice.”

“You’re on your own, huh?”

“And we live just fine like that.”

Loyalty is bred through a long process of trial and error between all parties. Something not taken lightly nor easily broken. That is more than enough for Inferna to function. It has held up to this day and Izumi will be damned if he doesn’t at least try to fight for their ideals.

Inferna will never be absorbed by Caelem.

“Okay.” Leo breathes out in acceptance. “Okay. I understand.”

“Congratulations.” The sarcastic tone in Izumi’s voice is lost to the prince as the orange-head smiles.

“And? What of the environment? What do your cities look like?”

Izumi shrugs. “Everything is alive, I suppose is how I would describe it to you. Everything feels alive with a heartbeat and a will of its own. Magic saturates the very earth and swims through the atmosphere, but there are also a lot more souls imbedded within Inferna that just can’t anchor here.”

Leo’s melodious tune picks back up. “I’d like to visit.”

“I thought you’d say it was scary and rescind your earlier statement.”

“It’s the place you come from, it’s probably not that bad.” The prince replies happily. “Besides, it sounds magical. I want to experience it firsthand. Think of all the inspiration that will come when I do! I need to learn how to use those recording devices you gave me soon so it can be neatly tucked into one place and you can stop nagging me about all of the parchment and spilled ink. Speaking of, can you teach me?”

“Because you’re like a child.” Izumi clicks his tongue. “Well, before I can teach you any spells, you’ll have to learn a bit of the language first. Your poor Infernan is one thing, but our ancient language that magic has long adhered to is nothing like it. You have to pronounce it at least a little correctly.”

“Then let’s start with that. And maybe I can even help you with the soil.” Leo excitedly bumps their shoulders together once more. “I promise to catch on quickly. I’m a genius, after all! Wahaha!”

“You’ll probably eat your words.” Izumi mutters under his breath. The light of the moon that bathes them in its presence is cold and lonely. Izumi releases Leo’s hand from his and slides his body forward, slipping off of the tree branch. The wind that whips by him prickles his skin like little needles with its chill. His feet land quietly upon the lush grass ground, knees bending to scatter the force of impact throughout his legs. “I’m retiring for the night, Your Highness. Do enjoy yourself up there.”

“Hey! Sena!”

“A prince that jumps off of the castle walls on a weekly basis surely won’t have any trouble with a little tree.” Izumi snickers, slowly walking away.

Audibly, Leo growls loud enough against the silence of nightfall for the sound to carry the great distance between them. The drop is about as high as Leo’s bedroom window, to be quite frank. Whatever accident may happen there, will be mirrored here.

Izumi runs the possibilities through his mind. Probably… for a human… a broken leg or two? Death?

The sounds of leaves rustling together draws his attention back to the branches. Leo is slowly climbing down, his feet barely and precariously making it onto the thinner branch below. Izumi sighs and shakes his head. Calling his magic to the surface, the tingling sensation suddenly racing through his blood stream quickly, he wills it towards Leo’s feet, imagining its form before it even appears. For Leo’s sake, he makes the icy platform non-slippery this time, though it takes more particles to do so.

“I don’t need your help!” Leo yells down from the tree top. “I used to climb up and down trees all the time in my childhood!”

“Just hold still or you’ll land on your head, knowing you.” Izumi says back. With Leo’s feet firmly on the platform, he gradually wills it to lower back down to the earth. “There. You don’t need to shiver in fear anymore~”

“I’m fine with heights.” Leo playfully hits his shoulder the moment he hops back onto the ground, icy platform disappearing in an instance in a burst of blue sparkles. “I could’ve made it down.”

“Sure, sure.”

“I thought you said not to use magic as a convenience, hm~?” Leo chuckles.

“It’s much more of a hassle if you break every bone in your body.” Izumi shakes his head. “Come on, let’s go back.”

“Okay.”

The two of them fall into an easy pace, their steps matching in rhythm. The noiselessness between them with nothing but the sounds crunching grass beneath their feet to accompany their walk doesn’t last long. Leo starts up his song again, continuing its tune to match their feet for only another half a minute before it comes to an end once more.

“Finished it?” Izumi asks in a murmur that matches the twilight. Soft and pleasantly chilled.

“Yeah. It was a good song, wasn’t it?”

“Mm… Yeah. It wasn’t terrible.”

The smile that Leo directs at him shines brighter than the moon hanging above them.

“Hey, can I ask one more question?”

“You’ll ask anyways later, so you might as well.”

Leo stops walking, making Izumi pause and turn back towards him. “Why didn’t you bite me?”

“Bite you?”

“I said you could.” Leo reminds him. “Aren’t you hungry?”

“These stereotypes you have on Inferna are all wrong, you know?” Izumi says dryly. “Not all demons need blood for nourishment.”

“I know, you said that already. But you also said you could drink blood, despite not being a vampire. And all I’ve been feeding you is the regular food we humans eat.” Leo cocks his head gently. “Don’t you need it?”

Izumi shifts his eyes away, his fingers coming up to mess with the tips of his hair uncomfortably for just a moment before falling away. “No. I don’t need it. Regular food is just fine for me.”

“Then what does blood do?”

“If I don’t have food, I can have blood. If I don’t have blood, I can have food. It’s either or for me.” Izumi explains.

“I see.” Leo begins walking again, catching up to where Izumi is stopped. “Are there a lot of demons like that?”

“No. Not at all. Demons are born with the need for one or the other, never both.”

“Then why are can you have both interchangeably?”

As they match their paces once more, Izumi looks at the inquisitive Leo from the corner of his eye. “I’m modified. That’s all.”

“Modified? Sounds like one of those r…ro…” Leo stumbles over the word. A word Izumi knows is not native to Terra. “Robots. Yeah, those robots from Caelem. They don’t work here, we don’t have the technology for it, so we’ve never tried to import them, really. But I know enough about them to know they also get modified.”

“As much as I loathe to be compared to Caelem, I suppose it’s similar.” Izumi huffs.

“What does it mean in Inferna? For you?”

“My body isn’t the same as it was when I was born. That’s what it means.”

Leo’s lips turn into a frown. “Why’d you do that to it? Or was it forced? Were you sick?”

Izumi bites his tongue, stopping himself from answering right away. He walks a little faster, the castle’s exterior border wall coming into view. “Call it a fair exchange. Hurry or I’ll leave you behind. I’m going to say I caught you sneaking out.”

“You’re going to tell on me like a toddler?” Leo jogs across the distance Izumi has put between them in short order. “Sena!”

Chapter Text

The clinks of their writing brushes tapping against the inkwell alongside the thrum of the wind against the windows serve as their only soundful guests. Occasionally, the crinkle of parchment and literature join the symphony as the two of them make quick work of the documents littering across the wide expanse of the dark wood desk. With their close proximity, their bodies brush each other constantly as their hands move to create the words that will stain blank documents.

His fingers absently stroke at the sharp, protruding hip bone they are curled languidly around, forearm resting warmly against his companion’s lower back. As easily as it would have been to request for a second desk, a second chair, another set of writing apparatuses, neither have uttered a word. The days go by just as days prior; with Izumi sitting closely by his side on the arm of his chair. The demon has never voiced complaints, and Leo enjoys the proximity, so who is he to argue.

Izumi has let him get away with so much lately, in sharp contrast to their first meeting.

The words on the page become nothing more than black ink staring back at him. He desires to push further. With the fingers wrapped around Izumi’s hip, he squeezes the flesh beneath them gently. With minute tugging motions, Leo urges the demon to follow his invitation. Keeping an eye on Izumi’s face from the corner of his vision does not reveal anything to his judgement. The demon only continues to stare forward, attention wholly on the work before him.

Slowly, however, Izumi slips off of the armrest, hand never ceasing its writing – elegant handwriting painting the pages in smooth strokes befit of one who has studied a foreign language thoroughly. Their legs fumble together as Izumi finds a new center of balance leisurely. The demon is weightier than Leo expected as he settles on his lap, but Izumi is not heavy. The muscles deep within the flesh of Izumi’s legs are strong and sculpted. He strokes at the dip on the outside of Izumi’s thigh enchantedly, admiring its form through touch alone.

The clinks resume, together with the breeze passing by the glass panes. With one hand occupied, Leo puts down his writing brush and picks up the document in front of him. His signature proudly decorates the bottom, signing off on the intricate words represented on its page. He breathes a sigh of relief, his chest feeling lighter than it has in days. With this last signature, the convoy is ready to start their journey through the land, aiding the unfortunate and the hungry. Ready to put in place the measures he asked Izumi to secure for him to ensure that the livelihood of his citizens may continue peacefully.

The fixated blur his vision takes on as he continues to stare at the words is interrupted by Izumi passing him the document he was working on. Leo takes the parchment in Izumi’s hand and turns his eyes to Izumi’s face. The demon still doesn’t look his way, opting to put the writing brush back in its proper place instead.

“Done?” Leo asks in a whisper.

Izumi hums in affirmation.

Leo puts the two documents in the pile that contains the rest of the completed tasks before dropping his arms to wind loosely around Izumi’s middle. He leans forward, lightly leaning his chin on the back of Izumi’s shoulder. “Hey, will you listen to a request of mine?”

“Hm?”

“We’re going to leave soon. Won’t you teach me the ancient language now?”

“You’re not tired?”

“Mm…” Leo closes his eyes, relishing in the warmth of his chest pressing into Izumi’s back. “I think I’m more excited than tired. I haven’t used any magic, so it should be fine, right?”

“Magic takes on the condition of the vessel.” Izumi says evenly. “If you’re sick, so is your magic.”

“Is that so?” He breathes out. “Then how about just studying?”

“I never said that learning the language needed your magic. You assumed that yourself.” The demon scoffs in amusement. Izumi shifts around, reaching inside of his jacket. “Just thought you could use a break from mental strain, Prince. Though I figured you’d say something like that, so I brought this.”

Leo chuckles. “My fault, then. But I’m fine. What’s that?”

On Izumi’s palm lays a glass orb with ridges, much like a twenty-sided dice. It glimmers purely with the sunlight streaming in through the window in its clear, transparent state.

“Like the storage device you saw before. This is one I made.” Izumi mumbles.

With his new senses still immature and heightened erratically, Leo can feel the small pulse of magic that activates with their close proximity to each other. Izumi sends a small bit of power into the glass-like object, making it glow brilliantly azure. Bursts of magic particles spill into the space above it, unhurriedly creating art as the outlines the objects held within are drawn in the air in the same shimmer of blue. The various jagged stones catch Leo’s attention as they hover in a circle around the small storage system.

“So, you can make these?”

“How else is anything created? I was just practicing, but it turned out well so I kept it instead of destroying it.” Izumi shrugs. With his free hand, the demon hovers his palm near the faded outline of a book; the only object amongst the group that is not something that looks like ore. With the selection made, the outline begins to fill out line by line starting from the bottom where it is closest to the glass-like item.

The color of burnt crimson sears onto the cover that turns solid midair. A symbol glazed in onyx is the next to appear, taking up the majority of the free space with its intricate design. The longer he stares, the further his heart falls into disarray. The symbol begins to haunt something deep within his body, calling fear and dread to rise to the surface of his heart. There is no skull or anything typically horrifying within its depths – only carefully placed lines and curves – yet it feels like it is staring deep into him and digging up the dark. It pulses azure blue once the true colors fill in to the very tips and edges. The glow fades away, but it remains hovering in space, awaiting its next command.

Izumi’s amused, husky chuckle forces him out of his daze and look towards him. The man on his lap turns his head and presses his lips close to Leo’s ear, breath hotly fanning across the cartilage. “Scary, huh? We demons are.”

“Yeah.” Leo admits under his breath. “Even just a symbol seems to drag up all of my fears. But it’s okay. You’re here with me.”

The demon harrumphs softly and closes his hand, burying the object within his fingers. The magic is cut away abruptly, the open connection slamming shut. The book falls to the mercy of gravity and descends, only for the spine to be caught in Izumi’s thin fingers with a dull slap. “Let’s start with the alphabet.”

Leo hooks his chin over Izumi’s shoulder more securely. When Izumi splays the book open upon the desk, Leo scans the pages carefully. “They’re nothing like the Infernan letters…”

“Hm? Really? The language we use now is an evolved version of this. Well, perhaps evolved isn’t the right word. Simplified. For convenience’s sake.” Izumi smirks. “Are the letters so foreign to you, Prince? I thought you were taught our language?”

“Your education level is just exceedingly high.” Leo pouts. “And no one here really knows the Infernan language well enough to explain it properly.”

Education like that of royalty obtain.

“That’s not really our fault.” Izumi jests. “We kept away from you, but you, too, kept away from us.”

“Well…” Leo can’t argue with that. “We’ll have to see how this war may end, but I’ll change our relationship with each other. Prince’s vow.”

The smile falls from Izumi’s lips. “Don’t promise things if it is not a certainty… Let’s just get started. This teaches you the ancient language in today’s Infernan tongue, but I’ll skip over it and explain it to you in Terrian terms.”

“Ah, wait.” Leo tightens his arms around Izumi’s middle, drawing the demon a little closer to his body. “Won’t you teach me Infernan too? So I can properly communicate with you. And for the future.”

Izumi sighs. He reaches for the writing brush he previously put away and grabs blank parchment from the corner of Leo’s desk. “Ambitious. You might regret it.”

“I’m a genius! Wahaha, don’t worry about a thing!”

After an annoyed click of Izumi’s tongue, the two of them begin their lessons. Each and every letter is complex, with more lines within a single character than there are in five of Terra’s. Even so, Leo diligently attempts to memorize them slowly. The order in which Izumi decides to write helpful notes in is to first start with the Ancient Infernan letter, then writing the equivalent Modern Infernan, and only after that does he write the Terrian letter that closest resembles them.

Leo’s hand aches badly. Writing will help the mind remember the information more, or so people say. They are not even near complete with the entire alphabet before Leo groans in defeat and lays his forehead on Izumi’s back.

“Let’s call today’s session to an end.”

“Okay…” Leo’s voice is muffled in Izumi’s uniform jacket.

“I can teach you spells without learning the language, you know? But since you insisted, don’t just go around reading grimoires as you please, okay? It’s dangerous, especially for young magic.”

He turns his head, laying his cheek flat against Izumi’s warm body instead. “Say, why does magic react to the words anyways? You can perform spells without them.”

“That’s right, it’s possible without the words. For advanced wizards and magicians, that is. Though, if a complicated, large spell is not one of your affinity, there’s a chance you’ll never be able to control it without the words. Regardless, it takes a lot of practice.” Izumi begins to explain. He closes the book with an airy clap. “Mm… Call it the Language of Devil.”

“Language of Devil?”

“We live on Devil’s land. He gave us our environment and with it, our power. We are one with our surroundings, we’re all part of nature. And everything within the land is ruled by Devil, whether He decides to destroy it or allow others to rule in His place, everyone must do as He commands. The words that start and stop everything are within the ancient language of Inferna; within the Language of Devil. We cannot disobey His command. The same can be said for God.”

“Is that why Terra lost the ability to use magic?”

“You’re aware that Terra is just territory that once belonged to Hell and Heaven, don’t you?” Izumi huffs. “Really, you could have tried to keep your roots, no matter where you humans were created and born, but you tossed them away. Magic, in its most basic form, is part of the land. A land that both Devil and God agreed to share and fight upon when one thinks the other is overstepping their boundaries.”

“What of the Language of Devil? Or of God?”

“Terra never existed in the first place.” The demon says bluntly. “You Terrian humans decided that on your own and both Devil and God let it be, allowing you to steal away their land. Humans are from one or the other, carrying over one of the languages. You could have created your own magic language. Could’ve tried to intermingle the two sorceries with care and trial and error, but you let it die. On top of that, you Terrians always actively seek out to destroy everything and anything just because there is a chance it may be stronger than you, even if it is innocent and peaceful.”

Leo’s breath catches as Izumi abruptly stands, forcing his arms away and shoving them aside. His body is suddenly cold, as cold as the atmosphere within the office as the temperature begins to drop alarmingly – at least, that is how his heart is taking the events unfolding before his eyes. The demon turns around, his usually cool eyes blazing with fiery heat.

His eyes bounce between Izumi’s two orbs. “Sena… I’m sorry. We’re sorry.”

Magic must be something very dear. Something valuable and cherished. A part of their being that makes them themselves. A part of the loyalty that they hold towards the true ruler of their land.

Leo never realized, even when he recklessly asked to be taught and given such a precious commodity.

“Don’t say words just to say them. Just because you think they’re enough for repentance.” Izumi allows a deep throated growl to slip out of his lips. A higher pitch of air proceeds the sound; a hiss that is all so familiar to Leo’s ears. “How many times must I tell you to respect those who mean you no harm? To respect magic? As something alive. As a part of yourself and as a weapon.”

Leo swallows thickly. He sits still, laying his arms where they have been pushed to the side; unwilling to provoke his friend any further. “I understand, Sena. It isn’t something I should take for granted. I’ll cherish this gift you have given me. I will not forget it nor will I allow it to fade away even an ounce once I have completed my duties as the Crown Prince of Terra.” Leo pauses, making sure to meet Izumi’s eyes straight on. “The magic that has been born from my body will remain a part of myself. For the rest of my life.”

“That’s not…” Izumi clenches his jaw. “I hope it kills you.”

“…I’ll bare any punishment it wishes to impose upon me with no protests.”

The demon stares at him for another long moment, their eyes never unlocking from each other’s.

Izumi pivots on his heels, heading towards the door in quick strides. “I’m leaving.”

Leo also stands from his seat, balancing his hands on the desk in front of him as the momentum shifts him off his center of gravity. “Sena…! Hah…” His sigh is drowned out by the sound of the door hitting against its frame a little too harshly. “How did it end up like this?”

He sits back down with a heavy fall, body sliding across the seat in a slouch.

Perhaps Izumi’s actual aim is truly to kill him with his own magic. Leave it immature and unstable and have it do as it will, ultimately crippling Leo’s body into failure and stopping his heart or splitting his soul. Izumi is loyal to Inferna. Leo even suspects Izumi to be hiding his true title and connection to the kingdom. It would not be so bizarre for Izumi to betray him now. All that they have spoken to each other could be lies; falsehoods to weave an intricate story just truthful enough to be believable.

Leo closes his eyes and inhales deeply, filling his lungs to full and expanding his chest cavity.

Even with all of the mysteries stacked together in a pile that threatens to topple over and suffocate him within its rubble, Leo believes in Izumi. Believes that his words are truths and not lies. His harsh words were only that of warning. That magic can and will kill him in a moment’s notice. That magic cannot be taken lightly nor be played with like a doll that can just be tossed away when the novelty isn’t as fascinating anymore.

Izumi is angry because of Leo’s ignorance.

Terra, the kingdom he loves, adores, and will lay his life down for, is a land that has abandoned something held precious to the rest of the world. Terra turned away from the rulers the others hold dear and thrown their gift back at their faces in a scornful manner.

Leo opens his eyes slowly, the dark shades of wood decorating his office meeting his gaze gravely. His chin nearly rests on his chest with the improper slump in his posture. Izumi was right, he shouldn’t have irresponsibly said words just to say them. Though he does apologize for treating magic wrongfully and poorly and allowing it to go extinct within a land that once held it, he does not apologize for his people turning away from God and Devil.

There are things that must be fought for, even at the sacrifice of something grand. To be free to live their lives – free of fate and free of fear – is what Terra was established for; all of those years ago. What his ancestors dreamed to accomplish and defend at the cost of their lives.

He and Izumi, ultimately, are from different lands. Different places with different ideals.

Different things they will forever remain loyal to.

Leo stands from his seat, sights set in determination. Although they hail from different backgrounds and raised with different beliefs, it never means they cannot hold a meaningful relationship between each other. As long as they listen and not once react with disdain to things each of them holds dear nor force the subject upon each other, but instead try to understand even if they do not agree in the end. That is enough. Respect the cultures and the ideas that exist with the many unique minds that walk the earth, and hold each other with love.

Because they are all living beings sharing the same realm of existence. He and Izumi, too.

Half way across the room, Leo stops and turns back. He quickly gathers the sheets they used to practice writing and lays them on top of the book Izumi brought from his last visit home. With the pile neatly together, Leo gingerly gathers them in his arms as though he holds something that may break to pieces with the slightest of pressures. Though he has yet to hold such affections towards magic and Inferna, he knows they will slowly grow in his heart and become something precious to him. Until then, he must treat it with care, with respect as another lifeform on this plane of existence. He cannot allow anyone to walk into the office, unattended, and lay their hands on this precious gift.

Leo opens the door and walks down the corridor. Though he wishes to find the demon he calls his close friend, Leo isn’t sure where he would be. If he wanted to, Izumi could teleport anywhere in the world. Izumi could go home just as easily as he could march to his room within Terra’s castle. Staring out of the windows lining the corridor, the sun midway through its descent across the sky greets him. Late afternoon rolls around, spilling into early evening. His reflection looks back at him.

He passes right by Izumi’s bedroom door, opting to go into his own. For the time being, Leo will leave the demon be; leave Izumi to settle down his thoughts and ease his bruised heart. They can talk things out together after they’ve had time to gather themselves up as individuals. Carefully, Leo hides away the papers within the desk in his room and blends in the textbook with the others on the bookshelf.

Perhaps he will make dinner for the two of them, and offer it in hopes of gaining some of Izumi’s time. A way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, after all. How true the saying is relies on each person’s character, but it’s a start. He leaves his room, shutting the door securely. Only the maids and Ruka venture into his room, so all should be secured.

It is not as though he does not trust the castle staff. He lives with everyone and spends his days with the people here, displaying all of his vulnerabilities and his bad traits for all to see behind the castle walls. Even so, this – magic – is a secret little gem between just him and Izumi. A special tiny something that connects the two of them.

He wishes to possess it and keep it from prying eyes. To keep Izumi all to himself.

Leo peeks into the kitchen, poking his head in through the small gap of the doorway and spies the broad back of someone familiar, alone within the large space filled with shining metals polished to perfection. Someone who has worked for the royal family for years upon years.

“Hello.” Leo calls out cautiously.

Their shoulders stiffen instantly and they whip their head around to look over their shoulder, eyes going wide. “Prince!”

The hitch in their voice makes Leo confused, but he steps into the kitchen fully and gives them an easy grin, hoping to ease their heart. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“I-It’s alright.” The chef clears their throat, shifting their weight from foot to foot. “Is there something I can get for you? Are you famished?”

They have never been this fidgety with him before, Leo wonders what has them so anxious. “I was actually hoping to make dinner for myself and for my Prince Guard. I want to have dinner together while we discuss something in our rooms.”

“I see.” The chef nervously rubs at one of their arms. “I can make you anything you wish.”

Leo hums sheepishly, still keeping a smile on his face. “Can you help me, instead? I just feel like doing this with my own two hands for a bit.”

“If that is your command.” The chef bows their head. “Um… What is it that you are thinking of making?”

“Something healthy, with lots of vegetables!”

Now that he thinks about it, he isn’t all too sure what Izumi’s favorite foods and drinks are. But the demon always has meals that are on the lighter side, full of things that children usually detest – things that are good for the body but bad for the taste buds.

“I see…” The chef trails off, looking to the side in thought. “How about celery soup and roasted cauliflower pasta with toasted walnuts?”

“Sounds good!” Leo sings, hopping over with light footsteps. “What first~?”

The chef smiles moderately and begins to gather the ingredients. Although it is strained, Leo is happy that they are feeling more at ease now. The two of them work upon the counter tops, the chef noticeably giving Leo the easier tasks and praising him whenever possible in lighthearted gestures. Nothing so over the top that Leo would begin suspecting he is being treated like a child – or so he guesses.

“Um… Prince, if I may speak my mind?”

“Hm? Sure, go ahead. You don’t need to be nervous about your words.” Leo looks at the chef from the corner of his eyes, carefully cutting the vegetable in front of him still. The knife in his hand clicks against the cutting board sharply with each downward motion.

“That snake you kept as your pet… You requested I stop sending cooked meat cubes and prepared fruits to your quarters. Has something happened to it? Perhaps… the King and Queen found out?”

Are they nervous that Leo tattled on them for knowing of the – dangerous – animal?

Ah, he needs to come up with a believable lie. “No, do not worry, The King and Queen are still left in the dark. Thank you for doing me such a tedious and stressful favor.” Leo stops using the knife in his hand to give them his full attention, jovial smile and all. “Truth is, I set the little guy free. Back to his home somewhere out there in the world. But sometimes he comes back to visit, isn’t that cool? Must be a crack in our exterior wall that only a snake can fit through, or maybe he’s something special and can just jump right over!”

The chef laughs along with him, with less boisterousness and energy, however. “I see. That… that is good, then. It seems you have enchanted the heart of another, my prince.”

The soup finishes simmering and the pasta boils to the perfect range between softness and chewiness when the sun begins to dip beyond the horizon; closing another day in their lives. The chef remains quiet for the rest of the time the two of them cook together, much to Leo’s disappointment. He had hoped he could ease his companion’s worries, but perhaps titles and ranks are truly too difficult to overlook within this society of theirs.

Though they ask if Leo requires any assistance in bringing over the heavy tray – it is not a duty for a member of the royal family to be doing, after all – Leo turns them down, seeing the anxious look cross their face once more. Supper time approaches for the rest of his family, there is probably much to be done yet.

“Apologies for taking up your time. I’m aware you’re busy.” Leo says to them. “Thank you for helping me.”

For some reason, they hesitate. A light that glimmered in their eyes previously disappearing. “My… Pleasure. Have a good evening. I hope… we may have such a time together again.”

“Of course! We will spend many more years together here, I’m sure. I look forward to it.”

They bow to him before turning away, joining in with the other castle staff that have begun to trickle into the kitchen and blending in seamlessly amongst them.

Leo’s arm muscles clench tightly as he lifts the large silver tray laden with four bowls and two glasses of water into the air. The soup dangerously sloshes from side to side, the water creating condensation around its holding receptacles mimicking the same teetering dance. He takes each step out towards the corridor slowly, the milling staff hurriedly opening the door for him. With a shout of gratitude over his shoulder, Leo makes his way down the dimming hallways.

He is nearly out of breath by the time he makes it up to the level his and Izumi’s bedrooms lay.

Standing before the heavy, wooden door of the room next to his own shortens his breath further. With his hands occupied with precariously taunting meals, he opts to make his presence known through his voice instead of a knock. “Sena? Are you in there?”

Silence is his answer.

Leo purses his lips. He releases his fingers’ grip on the tray slowly, laying it on his arm and adjusting the weight distribution. Shifting his arm forward gradually, Leo grabs the doorknob, turning it with cautious movements. He calls out to the demon again, in a quieter, more regretful tone.

This time, though silence remains his answer, the breeze in the room also replies. He opens the door wider with a light shove of his foot against the bottom edge. The room is empty, no candles are lit as it begins to grow dim; but the setting sun spilling in from the open window gives it more than enough glow. Leo steps foot inside, looking around and deciding to settle the tray on Izumi’s empty desk, clear of any clutter. He turns back around to close the door properly before heading towards the open window and leaning his body outside. The air outside is thin and chilled, splashing across his face like a spray of ocean mist.

“If you lose your balance and tip out, I’m not saving you.”

The voice comes from high above him. Leo twists his body around, keeping the palms of his hands and the curl of his fingers gripping tightly against the sill. On the castle’s rooftop with legs dangling over the edge in an elegant cross of limbs is the demon – his friend – who he has been searching for. Izumi leans back casually, resting his weight on one of his hands as he stares downwards unamused.

Leo releases the tension he holds within his body with an exhale, “There you are.”

“Looking for me?”

He chuckles deeply. “Something like that. Won’t you come down? I got us dinner.”

Izumi ignores the request, keeping their eyes locked for but another moment before turning away towards the dusking sky. Leo lets out a real sigh this time, smiling sadly. Izumi is still angry, and rightfully so. Leo was inconsiderate of the land he calls home and fights for. He continues to look on, at the demon sitting prettily and dangerously on the edge of the high castle structure and at the ledges leading up to it.

Leo chooses to trust in his physical abilities. He lifts his foot onto the ledge and pushes the rest of his body upwards, grabbing onto the edge of the exterior window frame strongly. He cautiously moves his body about, slipping out of the window fully and grabbing onto the next stone block that makes up the castle exterior. He uses the window frame to prop himself up further, his toes within his shoes curling tightly as he climbs upwards.

His fingers ache, but he pays the sensation no care. His toes cramp, but he wills them to keep gripping at the tiny ledges.

The breeze brushes by, slipping into his clothing and slithering up the skin of his back.

He has never tried this before, only ever memorizing his way down from his room towards the ground. Leo is not even sure it is possible; if there are enough protruding stone bricks at manageable intervals or even if his strength can hold out until the destination is within his reach. Leo holds his breath, eyes scanning each and every bump and ridge in the castle’s gray exterior.

His right foot slips off with a rubbery scrape. His breath crashes within his throat, leaving a sharp pang in its wake.

A freezing chill wraps around him solidly and an unnatural sweep of rushing air passes by.

“You’re really stupid, you know that?”

Leo releases the tension in his body with an airy breath, laying his hands on the ice that encircles his waist like a lover sneaking up on him. He turns his head, looking at Izumi standing behind him with a blank expression on his fine facial features. Peering downwards, Leo eyes the ice platform that extends all the way from the windowsill of Izumi’s bedroom.

“Thanks.”

The demon sighs, closing his eyes and walking forward. Nimbly, Izumi hops back into the room. The ice around Leo’s body shatters in a mist of star shards. He lands onto the platform, bracing himself for the icy slip that never takes hold of his feet. Following Izumi’s footsteps, Leo makes his way across and shimmies himself back into the safety of the castle.

Izumi, with his arms crossed, is eyeing the green soup – the celery soup – with skepticism.

“It’s good, I promise.” Leo ensures, his voice almost being drowned out by the sounds of the platform of ice disappearing from their world.

“Did you make it?”

“Yeah! I put a lot of love into it, so I hope you’ll like it.”

“Love does not substitute for a prince’s lack of culinary skill, I assure you.” Izumi sniffs.

Leo pouts, pursing his lips and crinkling his brows. “You’re so mean. It’s fine. I tasted it myself and got one of the chefs to help me. Why won’t you accept my loving gesture?”

“Loving gesture.” Izumi repeats dryly. He pulls out the desk chair, spinning it around and kicking towards him before moving away. Leo catches the back rest of the piece of furniture with his hand as it slides towards him, all the while watching Izumi sit on the edge of his bed. “Saying things like that without a care, again.”

“I mean it.” He replies. “I mean this. I apologize for being inconsiderate of my words about Inferna. I’m sorry. But this, I mean. Truly.”

Izumi crosses his legs once more, closing himself off. His dangling ankle unrhythmically rolls to a beat the Leo cannot hear nor recognize. “You say you love everything. Does the notion even mean anything to you anymore?”

“I do love everything, because everything is unique and fascinating in its own way. I love people, the animals, the environment.” Sliding the chair along with him – legs scraping against the floor – Leo moves towards the desk and sets the chair back in its place. He reaches forward and sinks a spoon into both of the soups, gathering the hot bowls in hands. “It doesn’t mean that I love one thing less than another or it loses meaning. You can make an infinite amount of love in your heart.”

“How romantic.” Izumi rolls his eyes.

Though the demon is as uncooperative and moody as ever, Izumi not protesting Leo sitting next to him and accepting the meal into his hand is already a victory in Leo’s perspective. The warmth of the ceramic bowl finally registers to his hand, filling his body with the lighthearted ease of the shining spring sun that gives gentle life to the earth.

“You’re dear to me, Sena.” The bed dips with his weight. “I’m sorry that I insulted your home and made light of the gift you’re giving me.” He pauses. “Still, Terra is my home, too. We did what we did because that’s what we believed to be right and will continue to believe. Magic… Magic may have just been an unfortunate collateral damage.”

“Don’t know your own history, Prince?”

“Who’s to say what lays on the pages of literature is the truth or just the story of victors?” Leo picks up his spoon and twirls the soup. The creamy, green broth parts away like the ocean waves and settling back into the surface without too much fuss. “We humans only live about a century. It’s not as though anyone can tell the people who are alive today first-hand what drove magic to extinction. Even so, this land, Terra, my kingdom, is not a villain. We’re not the antagonists. Our only desire is to live freely.”

“Look at you.” Izumi mockingly says in amusement. “You know what kind of image you’re portraying now, then, don’t you? Not the antagonists? And to lose your magic, tossing it away as unwanted waste, only to crawl back to it and utilize it when things are desperate.”

“We lost our claws but now we’re growing them back.” Leo twists his body, giving the demon his entire attention. Izumi turns his head, doing the same and mirroring the sentiment. “Please continue to be by my side and help me. Reawaken inside of me the instincts that have been laid to rest.”

Izumi takes another moment to stare into Leo’s eyes. Their food remains untouched, the warmth in the palms of their hands growing slighter as the minutes tick by.

“I don’t particular like your kingdom.” The demon informs slowly. Izumi shifts his eyes away. “I suppose I do see the merit in it, though.”

Leo smiles a gentle, closed lip grin. He leans closer to his companion, the dip in the bed deepening and inching Izumi closer as a result. He lays their foreheads together. “That means you don’t hate it, right? That’s enough. More than enough. Thank you. Even if we may find ourselves on opposite sides one day, you’ll always be my dear Sena.”

Chapter Text

He stands upright, back straight and head held high. This human before him is not nearly as intimidating as he tries to make himself appear to be, but he will play along. If he doesn’t, the other humans will start snarling like weak animals feeling the need to yap away until their ears bleed. All pointless displays, in his opinion; and an annoyance on top of it all. It is not a show of strength. Rather, it is a show of weakness, a sign that they are much more bark than bite.

The human man strides towards him, his shoulders broad and thick cape fluttering with his every step.

The anxious look that pierces the back of his head is incessant.

Withholding an audible sigh, he kneels onto one knee, resting an arm over his raised one and lowering his head.

“Prince Guard, Izumi Sena.”

“Your Highness.” He replies evenly.

“Swear an oath to me, as a knight to their king.”

King, huh?

As if.

Izumi looks up. His gaze lands on the familiar emerald shade he has gotten used to, yet these carry within them a hardness that mark their difference. “I swear an oath to you that the Crown Prince will return to the castle, safe and sound.”

The words burn on his tongue, like a fire sweeping through a drought ravaged land. His heart squeezes painfully and his stomach turns in on itself, but he pushes every sensation to the back of his mind, not allowing an ounce of it to show on his face.

The King of Terra stares directly at him, gaze sharp and unrelenting. The frown marring his aged face displays the stress lines carved into his skin all the more. Terrian humans are so frail, their lifespan not even a fraction of what he is used to. Even the humans living in Inferna and Caelem – though their days also numbered – seem to watch the world grow for longer. Has the Terrian species never advanced since the olden days?

Lives easily stolen away by slight changes in the environment and even curable, preventable diseases.

“Very well, then. That is an oath you must keep with your very life.”

No. He doesn’t. He owes them no loyalty.

And he will not. Helping Terra, in the first place, already irritates him to a degree. But opportunities are opportunities.

Personal feelings and positions aside, not even the contract he and Leo share state that he must lay his life down for Leo’s survival. Instead, it states the opposite and signed in agreement with the seal of their blood.

He bows his head again. “You Highness.”

“Are you positive, Leo, that this man is capable of what you speak? I will have him executed-”

“We can travel much more quickly this way, father.” Leo interrupts hastily. “Izumi is stronger than any of our knights.”

“That is not the issue, Leo.”

“We will only draw more attention if we were to travel in a large group.” Leo says. “And this can be the start of my touring the country. We had to postpone the trip as I came of age due to the war, but wouldn’t I win more favor if I came to them with aid instead of going empty handed and be expected to be treated and lavished like royalty? We cannot take any more resources from our people just because our family inherits the throne; a throne that the people gave to us.”

“Watch your tongue, dear.” Leo’s mother’s voice is like a melodious flute gliding across the breeze. Her tone is much less reprimanding than her arguments, finding truth within Leo’s words but unable to fully disagree that this is a dangerous trip.

“Apologies, mother.” Leo concedes, mentally taking a submissive step back. “However, I stand firm in my resolve. Izumi and I will be alright without any more guards. It has been decided that we will only be visiting one area before returning, so it will not take long.”

Leo continues on when neither the king nor queen speak, “Please allow us to depart. So that we may make good time while the sun graces us with its presence.”

The king stares at his son one last, prolonged moment. The older man takes prideful steps forward, his heavy regal cape swirling behind him. Izumi holds still as the king sidesteps his knelt form, thick calves just within arm’s reach as they pass by with a swish of air that is filled with the king’s personal scent – one somehow so unlike Leo’s and nearly makes him turn away.

“Prepare the horses.” The king states firmly as he walks out of the heavy double doors to the throne room. The guards stationed at the entranceway salute, clapping their heels together before scurrying away with their orders.

Izumi stays kneeling, keeping his back towards the door and tracking the queen silently with his eyes. With the gentleness of a sorrowful mother, she brings Leo to her bosom and hugs him tightly. They whisper words of endearment to each other, ones that – despite the low decibel – Izumi can hear clearly. Even so, he turns his attention away, closing his ears and given them their private goodbyes.

The queen releases the prince from her embrace, patting his upper arms once more reassuringly. She nods, looking deep into Leo’s eyes a final time. Her heels click against the smooth stone flooring as she exits the room as well.

At last, Izumi is able to stand, his head turned to gaze at the closing doors of the throne room.

“Sorry, they’re overprotective sometimes.” Leo says softly, cutting into the silence.

“Humans are frail. Who’s to say this won’t be the last they see of you, just as you are?” Izumi shrugs.

“You’re so dramatic. I’m thoroughly trained in both swordsmanship and archery. Besides, you’ll protect me. As my friend, and as our contract states.” Leo walks up to him with a grin. “I told you to pack yesterday, are you ready?”

“Of course.”

The two of them leave to tie up any loose ends and meet back up outside at the castle gates. The late morning sun shines brightly, rays refracting off of the ground to blind their eyes. The air is warm and the breeze is gentle. The perfect kind of day that brings about peace to one’s soul. The king and queen, even the Terrian Princess, Ruka, stand at their sides, waiting to see them off. To see Leo off.

He stands by the two horses that are prepared to accompany them on their journey. They’re already attached to the carriage – a carriage much less fanciful than the royal family uses on a daily. They’re supposed to be as inconspicuous as possible, after all. Though he is sure the king, who is insistent on formalities, is fuming. The horse he is closest to suddenly pushes its snout against his cheek, hot breath fanning against his neck in a wild gust.

Izumi furrows his brow and jerks away before turning his eyes to it, giving the animal a glare. Black fur with a diamond patch on its forehead greets him in close proximity.

Oh. It’s Leo’s horse. He wasn’t aware that the horse had any training in carriage skills. His gaze flicks downwards as the creature lifts and lowers its feet. It probably doesn’t, he concludes. Whether Terra is scarce on horses now that they’ve sent all of the war horses out only to be decimated or if someone ordered for this horse to be present, it doesn’t really matter to him. Their journey might be choppy, however.

The horse – Symphonica, if he remembers the name correctly – urges him with another lift of its head. He relaxes his expression and reaches forward, stroking its snout. Horses have always been one of those creatures that are too attuned to their surroundings and other living creatures. He has only met this horse in his snake form, nevertheless. Maybe it remembers his scent, or even the feeling of his soul. As he stares into its dark eyes, it suddenly pushes forward again, rubbing its snout on his cheek.

“Hey,” Izumi whispers his complaint. “Wouldn’t think you’d miss me. But it’s a secret, alright?”

He is so engrossed in petting the horse and making sure it doesn’t jostle the entire carriage nor make the other horse nervous that he misses the footsteps that approach him.

“You’re getting along well.” Leo says cheerfully. He, too, reaches out to pet the horse. “You’re such a good boy, Symphonica.”

“You do know how to guide the horses, correct, young Prince Guard?”

Izumi turns. He stands up straight and – almost reluctantly – slightly bows at the waist as he addresses the king, “Of course, Your Highness.”

The king scrutinizes him for just a moment before speaking powerfully towards the other knights milling around their group. “Lift the gates! Our Crown Prince is departing!”

“Sir!” The knights answer in chorus.

Izumi reaches out, opening the latch to the side door of the carriage. The inside is filled to the brim with supplies meant to be distributed, occupying every centimeter of space except for the corner closest to the head of the carriage. There, the bench is left bare and draped in a soft cloth. “Prince,”

“Ah, thanks.” Leo stutters a bit. Just as he steps onto the attached foot step, he turns and smiles at his family. “Father, mother, Ruka, I’ll be back soon.”

“Stay safe, my dear.” The queen replies gently.

“Tell me of your adventures later, brother.”

“Of course!” Leo gives one last wave with his promise before disappearing inside. Izumi closes the door, latching it securely.

He’ll mess with this whole set up once they’re well on their way, away from the watchful eyes of the castle.

He nods towards the family and hops into the seat outside of the carriage’s interior structure. Taking the reins, he conducts the two horses forward. The formidable gates are opened, revealing to him the vast world beyond the castle walls. Gravel crunches beneath the wheels of the wooden carriage, the noise grinding against his eardrums like the unpleasant sounds of rock smashing together without rest. The sky is cloudless and the sun is blindingly bright, showering him in rays of heat without restraint. Paired with the warmth, the clopping of horse hooves rhythmically making landfall against the cobblestone path nearly lulls him into half consciousness. Still, he has to stay alert. Threats can be lurking around every corner.

Like the noise that accosts his ears next.

He looks behind him, eyeing the small window that slides open sideways. Leo peaks his head out from the carriage, hair instantly getting picked up by the breeze and sweeping across his forehead. “Sena~!”

“Can’t you just sit quietly?” Izumi sighs.

“Scooch over.” Leo ignores him. He retreats for a second before his entire upper body is shoved out of the small window that is wider than it is tall. “Here, hold this for me?”

Leo drops a book into his lap and begins to try to wriggle himself free in earnest. Before he gets crushed, Izumi scoots to the edge of the bench with a frown, dodging when a wayward flap of clothing flies towards him. With a lot of maneuvering, the carriage shaking in ways it shouldn’t be, and the horses becoming restless as they trot, Leo finally gets himself free.

Izumi waits, unamused, as Leo claps his hands to rid of any dirt that gathered on them when he balanced himself on the footrest. Gripping the edges of the book, he hands it back. “You’re really going to read this?”

“I have to keep studying so that I don’t disappoint you.” Leo replies as he takes the book back. “Thanks.”

Izumi hums. He crosses his legs and leans forward to place his elbow on his knee, resting his head in his hand as he stares at Leo blankly. The prince gets comfortable on the plain wooden bench with seats that are as comfortable as tightly packed dirt and opens the book in his lap. The corners of the pages rustle as they pierce through the wind, their world swaying with the motions of the horses and the spinning of wheels. The white pages refract the sunbeams, splashing the illumination onto Leo’s soft cheeks. The beauty of the ancient Infernan language darkly lined across the pages cannot even dare to compete for Izumi’s attention.

There is something that has been bothering him. About Leo. About the castle. About the whole Kingdom of Terra. “Hey,”

“Hm? Did you finally learn that if you want my attention, all you have to do is ask? I’ll give it all to you.” Leo teases, grinning as he turns his bright emerald eyes towards him. “You’re not being contrary anymore~? You’re so cute, you know?”

“Just shut your mouth, Prince.” Izumi scoffs blandly. “I have a question.”

“What is it?”

“That crooked physician of yours, why didn’t you ask him to teach you?”

Leo blinks in surprise, sitting up far straighter than he was previously. “Physician? You mean Sagami-sensei?”

“Mm. He activated a magic crystal by casting a spell.”

The same magic crystal Leo begged to be used to save Izumi’s life, even at the cost of losing something precious to the entire country.

Briefly, the prince looks up towards the sky, getting lost in his memories. “I did ask him to teach it to me once. But he said an old friend of his only taught him a few spells from the book. He can’t read the whole thing, and a lot of it was guess work taking the information that he did know, but he doesn’t dare try them, nor will he allow me, a kid at the time, to get hurt by doing so.” Leo shrugs. “Already tired of teaching me? I’m trying my best.”

“No. Nothing like that.” Izumi waves him off with his free hand as he turns his face forward again. The reins of the horses that loop on his wrist swing with the motions.

An old friend, huh? A demon, perhaps? A human who was a citizen of Inferna? Though he eyes the rhythmic motions of the horses’ ebb and sway, he loses focus to reminisce about his first encounters with the humans in this kingdom. It’s true that magic often acts up when encountering other magics – much like how Leo’s newly awaked magic would begin to leak out or try to combat so-called invaders – however, the real reason the healing spell didn’t react to Izumi, a demon who has had years of magical training, is because the spell was demonic in nature.

Angelic spells would have poisoned him in his weakened state, already posturing at death’s door.

He wonders… If this all started from even back then, back to this old friend; or if it is all just a bizarre coincidence. In this world they live in, how many coincidences are truly that? If not a coincidence, then, surely, one day he will encounter this so-called friend. Without a doubt.

Magic crystals with a purpose already imbued within their core can be activated without a spell. Free-magic crystals, however, cannot. For the fact that free-magic crystals – a stone that contains magic to be molded however the user would like – is what the Terrian castle carries speaks of their negligence. In many ways.

“Hey…” Leo’s voice is timid, prompting Izumi to flick his gaze back towards the Prince of Terra. “Will you give me all of your attention, too?”

“What’s with that…?” Izumi mumbles under his breath. The sound of his voice is nearly drowned out by the sounds of crunching gravel. “If you want to ask a question, you don’t need permission. What is it…?”

The soft grin that spreads across Leo’s lips eases Izumi’s clenching chest. “Won’t you teach me a spell, too?”

“A spell?”

“Sagami-sensei could learn one without fully learning the language. You said I could, too. If I can just memorize the way you pronounce it, won’t I be able to practice it?”

Izumi takes a moment to contemplate all of the things that could go wrong, but ultimately shrugs. “Sure. We’re out in the open, anyways. If it explodes, no big deal.”

“Then can I learn something that will help us with this mission?” Leo quickly closes the book on his lap and leans closer. “Maybe even something with my affinity?”

“It’s better to learn your affinity before anything else.” Izumi informs absently. He turns to look off into the sky, wracking his mind of all of the spells he has ever come in contact with. What were the words again, in that book he picked up recently? Izumi slowly raises his hand up high above his head, pointing his palm towards the cloudless sky. “Sonitus Bovinari…”

His ears instantly feel like cotton gets stuffed inside, the pressure of the air within his lungs increasing instantaneously and nearly makes him choke. Faster than the eyes can see, a spot in the atmosphere blurs into an intangible shape much like a crescent moon and shoots into the sky. The disturbance startles both of the horses and the local wildlife so much so that the horses halt and stand on their rear legs while the birds take to the sky in flocks that nearly block out the sun.

“Whoa…”

Izumi looks to his side, staring as Leo gazes towards the sky in awe and wonderment. “You didn’t get hurt, did you? Ears alright? Heart?”

Slowly, the world returns to normal.

“What was that?”

Leo seems alright. That’s good.

“A sonic boom. Something that travels through the air faster than the speed of sound and generating sound energy.” Izumi pauses, watching as Leo still stares up into the empty sky. “If you aim it at the ground, I’m sure you can make river paths. For now, stop looking up like that, you’ll go blind from the sun, Prince.”

He reaches forward to pat the rumps of the horses soothingly before taking the reins and urging them to begin trotting again. Settling back in his seat just as the carriage jolts into motion once more pushes his back further into the wooden structure and knocking the air out of his body slightly.

“It looks fairly destructive, but I’ll do my best to be careful.” Leo scoots even closer. “Please, teach it to me.”

“Yes, yes.” Izumi replies flippantly, looking away from those excited green eyes. “First, try to call your magic to the surface.”

The prince opens his hand, palm facing upwards, and narrows his eyes in concentration. The slip of pink that peeks from between his lips catches Izumi’s attention for just a moment before a spark of green steals it away.

Izumi continues to instruct Leo, “Be careful, once you utter the spell, the magic particles will become hypnotized. With time, you can control it in that state, but that’s for later.” He waits for Leo to nod. “Point it at the sky. Say it.”

“Sonitus Bovinari.”

In the same instant, Izumi urges his magic to make a barrier around the horses. He’s not quite as skilled in barrier making as others he knows, but he has had enough practice with protection magic to make it work well enough. Whether it is necessary or not relies on how willing Leo’s magic is to obey. For all of his experiences, Leo’s magic may do no more than cast a spark of magic particles uncontrollably shooting into the air, only to pitter out. A desperate attempt that goes unrewarded.

The sonic boom that comes out shakes the atmosphere; still, it is nothing more than a soft clap of hands and a bitter winter breeze in the middle of summer that blows by.

“…You actually managed to cast it. I’d say that’s pretty good for a first try.”

The prince open and closes his hand. “It almost feels like a chunk went missing from me.”

“It probably used a lot of magic for a beginner. It’ll get easier with time.” Izumi sets the reins down on the hook at their feet meant to hold them. “Keep going, if you’re so inclined.”

A complete novice managing to even form the spell into something tangible is impressive. Really impressive. The feat bothers him. The long hours – the days, the weeks – he spent in his youth burn to nothing but ashes, blowing away in even the weakest of winds in the presence of this human who knew unequivocally nothing. This human who knew not even the barest of minimums. The simplest of things that he struggled on bleed onto his tongue like the most bitter of defeats. Nothing is ever difficult for the geniuses of the world, for the gifted.

Before his frustration manifests itself into harsh words that leave his lips unprompted, Izumi settles his hand on the edge, his fingers curling into the side with a strong grip that aches his bones. He doesn’t look back, leaning dangerously over the edge of the speeding carriage before leaping off.

“Sena!”

He hears Leo scramble over to his side and look around the edge frantically. Izumi calls upon his magic to create for him a stepping stone; which allows him to then jump onto the foot step that leads up to the carriage’s door.

“Don’t scare me like that!” Leo complains loudly over the blowing wind.

Izumi grips the handle tightly with one hand and undoing the latch with the other. “Just practice, will you?”

Leo retreats, opting to open the little window that he crawled out of prior. “What are you doing?”

“I’m making our load lighter so we can get there quicker.” He reaches into his jacket and retrieves his personal item storage orb, the ridges like a twenty-sided dice pressing into his fingers. Awakening the magic that lies dormant within, a tiny magic particle is sacrificed from within his body as the lock unlocks. The interior of the carriage begins to glow with the light of his soul. “Be careful that you don’t aim at any birds flying by. Unless you want it for dinner.”

The bitterness leaks into his words, anyways. Practicing a spell over and over again will eventually teach Leo how to control the one spell, but that will never help him in the long run. One has to learn control of magic in its most base form, first; only then will every spell – no matter what they may be – be done with precision. But maybe the gifted are different.

“Um… Do you have to use magic to use those?”

Izumi flicks his eyes away from the sparkling star paths that extend out towards every object crammed within carriage. His gaze meets Leo’s tentative eyes just peeking in from the small window, his fingers gripped onto the edge.

Inwardly, he sighs. It’s not Leo’s fault. It’s his own incompetence. “Some do, some don’t. It depends how it was made and what intentions the maker had.”

“So non-magic wielders can own one?”

“Yeah. They’ll activate just by asking them to activate. They’re not all orbs, either. Some can be in the form of bottomless bags or limitless trunks.”

“Then what are the intentions of one that needs magic to activate?” Leo leans his chin more comfortably on top of his fingers, relaxing his posture.

“It’s like a lock. Once you make it recognize a magic signature, it will only open with that certain person. It can store more than one key, but only if the primary key commands it as such.”

“Heh~” The prince sings, his fascination clear.

Izumi turns his eyes away again. He wills a small orb of clustered magic particles to materialize and float over to Leo. The little orb dances its way through the air, fluttering closely to Leo’s cheek as though greeting the prince with a chaste peck. He doesn’t bother to tame the little orb any more than necessary, allowing it to frolic as it pleases. “Instead of casting spells into oblivion, practice making one of those. Control is the base to any spell. You won’t get anywhere mindlessly repeating a task.”

“Okay. And how do you make this?” Leo suddenly giggles. “Hey, that tickles, little one~”

“Just concentrate on clustering magic together. The more control you have, the easier it’ll be. Even if you mess up, it won’t explode or anything, so you’re safe.”

“So, practice makes perfect? I can do that.” Leo retreats back into his seat, leaving the window open. “Hey, Sena?”

Leo’s voice sounds softer now that he is facing away.

“Hm? What is it?”

“Thank you for teaching me.”

Night falls before they can make their way to the town in question. According to the map he was given, Izumi could have made a detour and find themselves within a well-off populace, but Leo insisted that it would be alright to camp out underneath the stars tonight. Eagerly asserted, even. A Crown Prince of an entire kingdom, Izumi wonders if he has truly ever had the need to rough it out in the wilderness or even allowed to.

Will the ground full of lush, damp grass, loose dirt, and the homes of insects and bugs be a suitable substitute for a plush bed with pillows filled with so many feathers one must think they are on a cloud? It won’t be his fault when Leo wakes up the next morning with a sore back or a kink in his neck.

Discreetly, Izumi checks around the area with his magic as he unloads the camping gear stashed away in the corner – those and the food for themselves are the only objects he didn’t send into his item storage. It isn’t much, just sub-par tents – by his standards – and some blankets. He gathers everything in his arms and carefully backing away from the carriage’s door.

Before he can turn around, he quickly feels warm fingers gliding against his own.

“Let me help?”

“A prince doing manual labor? I can already hear the scolding come out of the king’s mouth.” Izumi retorts with a sniff. “It’s nothing. Go water the horses if you’re bored.”

“I’m not helpless. You can do it, so why can’t I?” Leo pouts.

Izumi exhales in exasperation. “If you’re so curious and want to break your precious, polished nail, be my guest.”

The prince happily takes the bundle out of his arms and hurries away, presumably leaving before Izumi can change his mind. He only shakes his heads and walks towards the horses, instead. Though he releases them from the hold of the carriage, he keeps their leads on. Unlike the horses in Inferna, he doubts these guys will obediently stay by their handler’s side. Already, they differ from each other in speed; Infernan horses would have reached their destination long ago.

Izumi imagines water in his mind, sweeping his hand through the air in front of the animals calmly. Spheres of crystal-clear water float near the ground, keeping their form despite there being no container. The horses hesitate, fidgeting by lifting their hooves up one by one. Since Symphonica might trust him, Izumi urges the horse forward, dipping his own fingertips into the sphere in a show of safety.

“It’s just water, I promise. You’re probably thirsty.” He makes sure to meet the horse’s large eyes as he lifts his now wet finger to his lips and gives it a tiny, kitten lick. “See?”

As slowly as a lazy stream flows, the horse lowers its long, strong neck and dips its lips into the bubble. Izumi turns his attention to the other horse, urging it with a gentle gaze to follow the example. He feels a relieved smile stretch across his lips when it does. Izumi turns away, leaving the horses be to go check on Leo. The tent laid out in the clearing they found is rustic, if not a bit wobbly – if a strong enough breeze blew by, he really thinks it would topple right over. Concealing his magic, an easy enough achievement with Leo’s magic still yet to be fully trained, Izumi urges the stakes deeper into the ground.

Leo pokes his head out from the inside, eyes lighting up when he spots him. “Sena, Sena!”

“You’re like an excited kid.” He comments.

The prince only laughs more jovially. “I’m not looking for praise, you know~ But let’s sleep together!”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s our first camping trip together! Let’s lay side by side, and talk until dawn.”

Izumi exhales. “What you’re saying is, you didn’t set up the other one.”

Leo’s expression falls to emotionless. “I didn’t. But I honestly just want to be next to you, not because I couldn’t do it. Idiot Sena.”

He kneels by the entrance of the tent, lowering himself to Leo’s level. “You are such a spoiled prince.”

“I bet you can’t do it either.” Leo sticks his tongue out at him and quickly retreats inside.

Izumi can’t help but huff out a laugh. Guess there is never a dull moment with Leo; a human, no less.

They have dinner outside, sitting next to the heat of a fire Izumi conjured up for them. Now, with the fire safely put out and the things that may hurt nature safely tucked away inside of the carriage, they lay on their backs upon the lush grass and stare up at the peerless sky. The stars glimmer like they’re dancing to a symphony; the midnight wind brushes across their skin like winter’s kiss. And bathing them in its cool light is the moon that takes center stage high above, the spotlight directly shining on it to show the true star of the show.

He closes his eyes, his bangs tickling the skin on his forehead as they are swept away by the gentle breeze. Though the air is chilled, the battle between the sun and the moon coming to an end with the burning star retreating, Leo’s warmth next to him almost makes him believe it is still dusk beyond his eyelids. Not only is Leo’s body warm, but the warmth of his soul that radiates within his magic casts a glow upon him, washing over him like the waves of the summer ocean.

“…I love you.” Leo’s voice is carried away by the starlit wind, tender words shining like the sole light guiding him through the dark shadows. The sounds of clothes rustling tickles Izumi’s ears next, Leo’s lax fingers brushing against his side. “Guess you fell asleep. You had a hard day, so I hope you sleep well. Goodnight, Sena.”

No, he’s not asleep…

However, the slowing of Leo’s heartbeat vibrating against his senses tell him that Leo has fallen into the land of dreams soon after his last words drift underneath the midnight sky.

Love, is it? Just what do those starry-eyed words even mean? What loyalty does his heart hold towards Leo, anyways? They may play day in and day out and act like they’re friends, but can he, a demon, and Leo, a human, really, truly, to their very cores, understand each other? What is love and what does it mean to them as individuals?

Leo is a strange human. Izumi doesn’t think there is any understanding him.

He slides his eyes open languidly. The silhouettes of the towering trees pierce the night sky like swords, the dancing stars just beyond their reach twinkling mockingly. The gradient of blues smearing across the expansive atmosphere never pauses; transforming, swirling, intermingling constantly like watercolors blending effortlessly and changing as the colors come into contact.

Turning his head, he nearly draws back as the tip of his nose feathers across Leo’s with the barest of touches. The prince is close, curled up on his side with his hands fisted by his chest cutely. Leo’s lashes flutters atop his smooth cheekbones, the skin illuminated under the starlight and the beams of the moon watching over them. Izumi continues gazing at him, every soft breath making Leo’s shoulders rise and fall in a slow, melodious ballad.

Though they aren’t asleep inside of the tent, they are still together, just as Leo desired. Until morning, Izumi will keep this silent promise of theirs. His magic fans out like a frosty mist, warding away any that may dare to disturb their little world within the trees and under the stars.

Chapter Text

“Crateris.”

The ground beneath his feet shakes uncontrollably, the tremors racing up his legs like electricity. The trees nearby shake like passionate dancers auditioning for the biggest stage of their lives, leaves forcibly breaking away from their homes and fluttering to their grave upon the ground. His vision is suddenly shrouded in the deep green, bright sunbeams breaking in between their forms at every opportunity to blind his eyes. Another tremor rocks the very earth. The trees crash as their roots deep within the ground are torn to shreds, crumbling into splinters as their limbs break away and trunks are fragmented apart.

If he wasn’t prepared for it, he would have stumbled straight into the deep crater that now forms before him like an opening to Hell. The trees that once inhabited the land tumble downwards, crashing together all the way towards the bottom and sending slices of wood and leaves high into the air in a furious rush. The ground rocks again, nearly buckling his knees. Layer by layer, the crater deepens. Magic whirls through the air like a tornado, saturating the air in power that licks at his skin enticingly and commands respect.

He swallows thickly, pressing down all of the instinctual drive to flee.

The next quake occurs even deeper, the vibrations shooting up and tickling the soles of his feet. The trees at the bottom move over each other like clamoring undead. They can probably be salvaged, chopped into useable wood for cooking or warmth. He will have to propose the idea when they’re done. It is only the beginning of their project, after all. There is still a lot that needs to be completed.

He looks upwards, beyond the shaking tree line. The sun is already past its peak and beginning its descent towards the horizon, preparing for its defeat against the moon. Birds flock to the skies with the disturbance, tiny bodies blocking out the rays of the bright sun as they shoot across the atmosphere. The sharp flaps of their wings war against the piercing destruction of the trees – the air vibrating excitedly in its madness. Silently, he apologizes. He’s sure that some of their homes have been destroyed, lost to the bitter survival of the human race.

The earthquake stops.

The last few stray pieces of hard earth, weak after their fight, break away from the edges and joins the graveyard at the bottom. The leaves stop their screaming and the branches calm their desperate reach for help. Dust speckles the air, the dirt drier than fire ravaged lands showing its true nature right before their eyes. Even the coercing magic begins to dissipate, making way for the cloudy particles to rule over the area.

Gazing at the deep hollow, he is, once again, awestruck. Without even breaking a sweat, this enormous feat was created within a couple blinks of the eyes. The power his partner has at the very tips of his fingers astounds him as much as it makes him pause. But there is nothing to fear, not from Izumi.

“What should we do next?” He asks in a whisper, voice refusing to come out as it remains shellshocked in admiration.

“Depends how much you wish to alter your land, Prince.” Izumi gives him a sideways glance, neither urging nor admonishing.

He tumbles the thought over for a moment longer. “This one is only close enough to one large town, and we agreed to that. So, it’s probably fine to just leave it…”

“But?”

“But…” Leo trails off. “It’s still a little far. If we make an offshoot stream so they can connect an irrigation system, it might be better.”

Izumi shrug. “At your command.”

“What do you think?”

“Humans are frail.” The demon sighs. “If they have to dig it up themselves anyways, might as well do it for them. Who knows what wild beast will come?”

“Humans can fight back.”

“And selfishly blame the animal for attacking them when, really, the humans were the ones who stepped too close to their young or into their territory threateningly.” Izumi scoffs. “I’m doing it for the beast.”

Leo chuckles softly. “I see. Whatever can I do for you to favor us humans?”

The easy smile that slips across Izumi’s lips as they jest back and forth is enough to make his heart skip a beat. At the same time, however, he knows Izumi isn’t joking about his words. Seeing the same tale from a different point of view really opens his eyes, one of the reasons he loves Izumi so dearly. His world that he once thought was already so vast is spreading wider right before his eyes.

The demon turns, brushing by him with a breeze filled with the scent of a natural spring on a beautiful winter’s day with just a tinge of something dangerous lurking underneath all of its elegance. Leo closes his eyes briefly, relishing in Izumi’s natural scent as it washes over him. Lifting his eyelids again, the sunlight tries to stop him as he tracks Izumi wandering about. Anxiety starts to build in his body, his blood picking up speed as it rushes through his veins. Izumi walks near the edge of the crater – at times, more earth breaks away to tumble downwards. Even knowing that Izumi will be fine, it doesn’t make him worry any less.

“Do you know where the fields are?”

“I haven’t been here before.” Leo admits with a shake of his head. “Should we check?”

“Don’t bother. That will waste too much time, going all the way there and coming back.” Izumi turns his head towards the village and stares deep into the distance.

The silence drags on for longer than what is comfortable, making Leo tilt his head. Just what can Izumi see? What is he looking for? Leo expands his senses to their limits. He remains quiet, attempting to pick up any kind of sound, big or small. His eyes gaze into the shadows of the surrounding forest, checking every edge of the trees and every branch shrouded by leaves. Still, he doesn’t discover anything out of the ordinary. Izumi looks as though he is seeing something far beyond what is in front of them, anyways.

“Sena…?”

“Nothing.” Izumi’s clipped tone doesn’t ease Leo’s uncertainties. “Let’s just make two, about a kilometer long. Start on that side, will you?”

“Me?”

Izumi looks at him with a raised eyebrow. “You wanted to learn a spell to help, right? It’s time to use it. If we make one on both sides of the town, people can access water easier. All the better, isn’t it?”

As the prince of this kingdom, he has to put his people before himself; always. Still, that doesn’t stop the joyful feelings from bubbling to the surface. The all-encompassing emotions his heart beats to as he realizes that Izumi relying on him. Making use of him. It’s a feeling that trumps over the relief that his people will have clean water to drink and will survive to the next day without hardship.

A dangerous sentiment that he isn’t fighting against.

The longer he willingly stays by Izumi side, the more his world changes. The more he changes. The demon, foreign to these lands, is filling a gap in his heart no one else in the kingdom could. He wonders, if push comes to shove, just how much he will bend to Izumi’s favor. Even if this is a curse cast by Izumi meant to enrapture him so wholly that he loses himself and becomes nothing but a puppet, he can’t bring himself to complain.

The revelation from nights past reminds him of his resolve. He loves everyone. Every human and every animal. Every demon and every angel. However, the love he feels when he stares at those icy azure eyes and hair as bright as the moonlight has transformed into something eccentric – something that sets his body ablaze from within with no conclusion in sight.

“Yeah! I’ll do it.” He replies. His voice is filled with so much excitement the Izumi furrows his eyebrows in confusion, but ultimately leaves Leo be.

“Right… Well, you know your spell. At least make it look like a naturally occurring river.” Izumi turns away, his voice becoming fainter as he walks to the other side of the crater. Leo’s attention is drawn away from Izumi’s retreating back to his fingertips as they glow blue. “Rima.”

A fissure that extends out from the crater splits the ground and goes into the trees, disappearing within them. The rumbling trees amongst their still comrades tells Leo of its direction. Izumi lazily follows alongside it, walking at a languid pace and dancing his fingers in the air as they conduct the new river’s path. Leo fists his hands and pivots on the balls of his feet. He’s not as skilled as Izumi, nor will he be able to complete the task as quickly, but he refuses to hold Izumi back.

“Sonitus Bovinari.” Leo chants, holding his hand out, fingers spread wide. His tongue is slow and he still has trouble with the foreign words that seem to come out of Izumi’s lips so effortlessly and enchantingly – like a seductive melody whispered directly into his ear.

His magic sparks like green static electricity into the air. As though taking a pause to warm up, his magic disappears before exploding forward. During their carriage ride, Leo managed to practice the spell enough for it to form correctly, at least. The repetition from then pays off as the atmosphere right before his eyes blur and the background noise of the trees dancing in the wind fades away. The ground suddenly crumbles, throwing stray clumps of dirt and rocks high into the air.

When the dust settles and the forcibly loosened earth falls back to the ground, Leo purses his lips into a pout. The crevice isn’t nearly as deep as a river needs to be. His magic is still in its beginning stages; just doing this much makes him happy, and yet, he’s afraid he will disappoint Izumi. Buckling down his resolve, Leo sends the same spell into the same spot, hoping it will be enough. Sharp shards of gravel fling into his body, but he doesn’t even flinch.

The second attempt is more successful. Still, as Leo looks up and gazes deep into the shadows of the towering trees, he begins to worry. There is still a long way to go and he can already feel the chunks taken out of his internal power. Before long, he will run out of magical energy.

Gritting his teeth, Leo chants the spell again. Another piece of him goes missing.

If anything, this strengthens his determination. He’s weak as he is now. The new world that has opened before his eyes will not be kind if he stays as he is. He will make Izumi proud, if nothing else. This weakness of his, he will embrace it and move forward to overcome it. Perhaps he will never be able to match Izumi toe-to-toe, but he will do his best to follow along. Anything Izumi asks, he will make Izumi’s wishes come true with his own two hands.

The sun sears into the very earth that he is breaking apart. Every passing minute, the burning star goes down its chosen path like destiny. The sharp pebbles that shoot his way are as warm as a lover’s kiss, rising his blood to the surface and heating his skin to a flush. The sun’s only willing opponent at the moment, the trees, fight back desperately – standing strong in their position. The territory they steal away is shaded, the temperature so clearly dropping each time he passes under their awning of victory.

The more he casts a sonic boom into the world, the less he feels the effects, himself. A little over a quarter of the way through his journey, it no longer stuffs cotton into his own ears, nor does he feel the pressuring presence as the air in his lungs compresses achingly. He breathes easy even as the atmosphere is compromised and wrenched violently. Within the palm of his hands, he holds more control than he has ever felt as the Crown Prince.

Leo’s attention is pulled away from his task as the sounds of footsteps – amplified by his will – slip into his eardrums. From ahead, a figure dances through the shadows of the trees with graceful steps as though they’re walking atop water instead of the rumbling, hardened earth. Piercing through the dim colors of the shade are bright azure orbs that gaze at him peacefully.

“Did you finish your end already, Sena?” Leo asks, a defeated smile lifting his lips slightly.

“Made something big enough to be a pond just a bit away.” Izumi ignores his words, but no matter how the demon may try to save his feelings, Leo knows the answer. “You shouldn’t push your magic so much. You know what will happen if your body runs empty. I’ll do the rest, so head back first. Towards the lake.”

Izumi is truly kind, no matter how much he tries to hide it under biting words that sink in like the fangs he hides away from the world.

“Sorry, Sena. I am a little tired.” Leo admits softly, grin turning relieved as the pressure releases from his shoulders and the exhaustion he held back overcomes his resolve. “And thanks.” He only makes it a step before he turns back. “Aren’t you tired?”

“I’m fine.” Izumi shrugs. “Little spells like this are child’s play if you’ve been made to practice magic since before you even fully realize you’re alive.”

Leo cocks his head at that. However, Izumi turns away to continue the task at hand, ending the conversation there. Suddenly, Leo is uneasy about leaving Izumi’s side. Even old wounds that have scarred over can still ache as though they are fresh lacerations. A ghost pain that never leaves and waits for the moment to haunt once again; remind them of the terrors and the trauma they lived through in that moment and every day after.

“You know… I’m kind of lonely.” Leo sheepishly says. “Would you mind if we chatted while you work?”

Izumi looks over his shoulder with a raised eyebrow. “You were just walking away.”

“I changed my mind.”

The demon exhales huffily. “Alright.” The sounds of cracking earth fill their ears, echoing across the atmosphere surrounding them. “Talk, then.”

Leo hums, wracking his mind for a topic to approach. “Aren’t you missing some performances as a Showcaseman by being here with me?”

Izumi takes a moment to contemplate his answer – strangely enough – and settles for a disbelieving scoff. “Of course, I am. I’m missing a ton of opportunities. But a contract is a contract. We double as bodyguards, so I’ll work for my pay if that’s the position you need.”

He received an answer, though Leo can’t say it doesn’t make him press his lips together in dissatisfaction. Nevertheless, he, himself, doesn’t know the true reply he wishes to hear come from Izumi’s lips. He knows that Izumi’s only obligation by his side is to follow the terms of the contract they share between them and signed with the crimson blood flowing within their veins. He knows very well that Izumi is taking as much as he is giving – a fair trade.

Izumi’s singing voice has gotten better, lately; like a soothing lullaby that lulls even the insomniacs to slumber.

Leo fists the hand that secretly holds within it one half of an orb of compact magic – one that binds a demon to his person. The contract between the Hirer and the Showcaseman for security services. He knows that all of this is some sort of convoluted business relationship, and yet…

“Quiet already?” Izumi asks before sending off another bout of magic that overtakes their hearing abilities.

And yet, he will continue to believe that every memory they’ve made by each other’s side is real. Stubbornly, he doesn’t want to even entertain the thought that everything is a careful act – an intricate lie a long time in the making. All of the trust Leo has gained and given towards this beautiful, kind man standing before him is true. He doesn’t want to live his life suspecting even those closest to him. With Terra’s ex-military general, with his previous Prince Guard, with Nazuna, with Madara; he will start with all of them in his fight for this ideal life he aims towards for the entire kingdom. For the remainder of his existence within this enigmatic world of theirs, no matter where they all may end up.

And he will continue to hold these sentiments deep within his heart with Izumi as they go forward. “Just thinking about how grateful I am to have you here.”

Izumi doesn’t turn away quickly enough before Leo catches the flush that spreads across Izumi’s smooth cheeks. Leo smiles to himself, his heart singing in his chest and nearly fluttering away in happiness as it becomes lighter than air. Step by step, he follows alongside the demon who has come to mean so much to him. A river that will save hundreds is formed right before their eyes just like magic – no, it is magic. A magical miracle that Leo has a hard time wrapping his mind around even now.

Why are demons feared so when the one just scant yards away is so kind?

He wonders if he will ever be able to properly convey to Izumi what his heart sings; the melodies that continue neverendingly with every beat and wrap him in a warm embrace he never realized he craved like the despairing. Even if the day comes that they need to separate, the music will never turn into bitter resentment. No matter what happens, he can never despise the person who he loves so much in this very moment. To forget the comforting feelings filling his chest to overflowing because of this person, even if the images fade from his mind in the distant future, would be a sin he can never atone for.

Natural enemies discovering the starlit path and crossing over it against the odds.

Izumi is the first. Izumi is the only. To embrace him so. To toss aside made up titles and treat him as himself. To see Leo Tsukinaga.

“I wonder if we’re loud enough to alert the townspeople.” He trails off as he tilts his head towards the light blue sky, fluffy white clouds blindingly drifting by like the sweetest of dreams.

“A tree that falls when no one is around to hear it still makes noise.” Izumi replies. The demon takes an extended pause, making Leo look over in concern once more. Izumi has been doing that a lot since they’ve arrived.

Whatever it may be, Leo wants to take away the anxiety; to put it upon his own shoulders and carry the burden. “What is it, Sena?”

Izumi purses his lips tightly together. He looks back towards the ground and holds out his hand. “Crateris.”

The earth shakes and the trees rattle. A circle carved into the land falls into Hell, or so it seems. The bottom disappearing into the darkness as though it were never there to begin with. The soil desperately clinging onto the sides lose their fight and tumble into the abyss that is only visible when the trees sway with the wind just right and allows the rays of the sun to chase away the evil shadows.

He calls again, “Sena.”

“You shouldn’t tell them we used magic.”

“Huh? Why not?”

“Humans fear what they don’t know. They’ll attack first, annihilate it, and think later.”

“…We’re not wild beasts.”

“Wild beasts are much more logical.”

The hiss in Izumi’s suddenly harsh tone nearly makes him flinch, but he holds his ground. “Sena.”

Just what is it?

The demon lets out a stressed breath. “Humans are emotional creatures. The unique thing that defines your humanity isn’t always kind to others. Sometimes, not even to yourselves. You let fear overtake your souls much more than any other species. I’m telling you time and again because where you’ve chosen to step is the very place Terra has fought against for as long as it has been established.” Izumi – again – flicks his eyes towards the direction of the town. “It’s best if everyone there thinks that we created this over time with the power of regular humans.”

Leo, too, stares into the direction of the town; even knowing he can see nothing more than the cluster of trees surrounding the populace. Something is there. Something Izumi fears. Something only Izumi can see and won’t share out of compassion, but would definitely help Leo come to understand the situation if he did.

Even so, he hates pressuring for an answer that is locked behind the cage of one’s heart.

He trusts Izumi, after all. “Alright. If you think that’s best. But one day, surely, I’ll make Terra a place that will accept the unknown. You’ve taught me that magic is as fearful as it is meant to be respected. That it is a harmless, natural occurrence struggling to live while alive just like you and I. I promise you, an oath of the future King of Terra.” Leo waits until Izumi fully turns towards him before continuing. “Today, I will lie to my people. But one day, I hope you can think of Terra as a second home.”

Izumi walks closer, his steps as quiet as a stalking predator’s. He whispers as he passes by, the demon’s breath is warm as it slips across the shell of Leo’s ear, “…I wonder.”

His heart clenches tightly, nearly making him double over, but Leo chooses to endure the pain and move on from the topic. “Are we going back?” He totters right behind the demon, keeping pace at a gentle distance.

“We have to start the water, don’t we? Else these are just holes in the ground.”

Leo lets out a short, airy chuckle, almost disbelieving how the atmosphere around them changes so quickly and so naturally. “Ah. Right, can we take the trees that fell to the bottom out and make firewood out of it?”

“Hah? Can’t we just leave it in as driftwood or something?”

“I know it’s more work, but please?” Leo raises the pitch of his voice to plead. “It’s wasteful just to leave it. The people can make use of it.”

“Homes for the fish.”

“What fish?”

Izumi groans under his breath. “Fine. Let’s get it over with.”

He laughs for real this time. “Thank you.”

They make it back to the clearing in comfortable silence, the previously dense area now devoid of any lengthy trees that block out the sun. The dark brown earth Izumi has dug out is now pale and dry, breaking apart more and more the longer the sunbeam’s assault continues on without pause. Izumi suddenly stops at just the line of the trees, nearly making Leo bump into his back. Warm hands curl around his shoulders and urge him to stand behind the thick tree they stand next to.

“Stay behind here and turn away. Close your eyes.” Izumi instructs, giving him a pointed look.

Only when Leo nods in agreement does Izumi turn away. As curious as he is, he doesn’t want to anger his companion, so he does as told. His back presses into the trunk of the tree intimately, the rough bark undoubtedly leaving impressions upon his skin even through his clothing. He makes himself as thin as possible, curling his arms across his frame and pressing his hands to his sides tightly while clicking his heels together. Closing his eyes, the bright world turns dark.

The soft-spoken word Izumi utters from his lips is Leo’s only warning before a blast of warm air and the sounds of quick, dull impacts overtake his senses. “Diminuo.”

Even the tree behind his back shudders at the power, vibrations spreading out within the wood and slipping into his body. The rushing air eventually ceases, leaving his hair to fall back into their disarrayed places. The silence doesn’t last long as the sharp clattering and the mild shaking of the earth beneath his feet as things are dropped rumble through the area.

Leo peeks an eye open, his other struggling to stay closed with twitching motions. The blurred world in front of him looks no worse for wear; however, as his eye begins to focus, his heart starts beating anxiously. The trees in front of him are imbedded with multiple shards of fresh wood, the smooth surface of a tree’s interior being displayed to the outside environment and reflecting the sunlight.

He longingly desires to check on Izumi, his innards urging him to do so before they churn with enough unease that he upheaves all of his meals. Still, he refuses, swallowing down the feelings forming physically with the saliva building on his tongue. Izumi trusts him to stay in place. The signal has yet to be given. In any case, this is Izumi’s spell, surely nothing could go wrong. Izumi is perfect at everything he does, and performs them with grace that befits royal society. More so, even.

He holds his breath.

The gentle buzz of magic sings into the atmosphere, tickling his own tired magic. “You can come out. Be careful where you step though. I’m not taking splinters out of your foot for you if they go through your boots, Your Highness.”

Leo exhales a long breath. He cautiously peeks around the tree he hides behind, nearly scraping his cheek against the large spear of wood that embeds the trunk on the other side. Beyond that is Izumi casually holding one of his item storages, perusing its holographic inventory and looking as put together as always. He glances even further, eyes roving over the large pile of haphazardly broken wood.

He sheepishly smiles. They’re not perfect, but no matter how it may look, useable wood is always welcomed. “Can people even come into this forest anymore? If they trip or fall into a tree, they’ll get stabbed to death.”

“You’re so demanding.” Izumi huffs, giving him a side glance as he selects one of the items that looks like a jagged stone.

Is that a pout Leo spies?

He can’t help but laugh jovially. Stepping around the tree carefully, not daring to get near it again, he walks up to Izumi’s side. “You remind me every day that we humans are frail~ Oh great demon, help our poor souls~”

The demon waves a hand in the air in the direction of where the wood splinters have flown. Looking over his shoulder, Leo watches in fascination as flames flicker, sparking up flashes of light in his gaze. The sharp wood pieces burn away in an instant – all of the ones embedded within other tree trunks and those pinned into the hard ground. Conveniently enough, the fire stops once it reaches the end of its victims, puttering out in a lazy wave of smoke, which, too, dissipates into nothing.

“Happy?”

“Very.” Leo smiles brightly. With only the slightest bit of hesitation, he wraps his arm around Izumi’s waist and squeezes the demon’s side with tender fingers. “Is that the water magic crystal?”

“Yeah.” Izumi puts away the item storage orb back into his jacket’s inner pocket and holds a rather large, jagged stone that is dyed seafoam green and pulses in a glow of the same color in his hand. With a gentle and fluid underhand toss, Izumi throws it into the bottomless crater. It falls, deeper and deeper. “Magia diaboli aqua. Ego tenere clavem. Ego praecipio tibi. Excitare.

The seafoam green glow intensifies, filling the hole completely with its light. From the depths, it rises back up at a languid speed. Its core begins to spill something akin to heavy gas, the particles dripping downwards and dissipating into the atmosphere like a waterfall. Leo can’t take his eyes off of the impressive display; not even blinking when the gas turns into a real waterfall that rushes out like the last dash towards freedom.

“Wow…”

“This won’t take long.” Izumi slips out of Leo’s light hold and walks up to the pile of wood. “I’m assuming you want to bring this? We’ll load it on top of the carriage.”

“This is such a huge crater; it really won’t take long?” Leo has to ask, still hypnotized by the brilliant display and the sparkling water glittering in the sunlight.

“Less than an hour, more than a minute.” Izumi replies vaguely. “You’re not even listening…”

The next he hears from Izumi’s direction is the clacking of wood hitting against each other. Forcing his attention away, he is just in time to see Izumi suspend the entire pile of wood in the air with magic. “Wow…”

“Did your vocabulary reduce to one word, Prince?” The demon rolls his eyes. “I’m leaving you behind.”

“Wait! We don’t have to supervise it?” Leo asks, his tongue nearly flipping over itself as he hurries to catch up to Izumi. “What if it malfunctions or floods the whole region?”

Izumi scoffs. “That’s insulting.”

“Sorry…”

“It’s a powerful spell, created by a special person in our kingdom. It’ll be fine. It’s alive, so it knows to stop when it reaches the end of its container. Then, it will sink deep into this new lake and remain there, filling it up whenever needed and keeping the water pure.”

“Amazing… Magic is…” His voice is awestruck and breathless. Repeatedly, he looks over his shoulder towards the large magic crystal pouring out an endless amount of life saving liquid as the two of them make their way back to the carriage and horses hidden away within the trees. “Oof-!”

His breath is knocked out of him as his chest slams directly into Izumi’s back. Leo’s hands lay on either side of the demon’s spinal cord as he steadies himself, his chin scraping against Izumi’s clothing as he looks forward.

“Go.”

“What?” Leo’s vision blurs with the close proximity, azure blue orbs filling his gaze.

“Go back and watch if it fascinates you so much.” Izumi restarts his gait before Leo can even answer. “Come back when you’re satisfied.”

A wide grin breaks onto his face, nearly aching his cheek muscles at its intensity. “Thanks, Sena!”

Eagerly, he turns back and rushes to the edge. He crouches down, thighs pressing into his chest and chin leaning on his knees. The water rises rapidly but steadily, the reflection of his sparkling eyes drawing closer by the second. His eyes are nearly dry by the time the water spills into the two streams, not daring to blink and miss even a second of the spectacle. It is a short while more before the rushing water lulls to a gentle lapping, splashing droplets onto the skin of his face as it bumps into the edges.

The glowing seafoam green magic crystal trickles its last drops of water, staying suspended above water level for but a moment longer. The instant the last drop drips into the settling waterscape, it makes a slow descent. Slipping through the water like the sharpest of swords, the magic crystal dips underneath the surface and disappears. The gentle ripples pirouetting across the top blend into the natural dance of flowing water; nothing out of the ordinary at this magical lake.

He stands to his full height, stretching out his cramped leg muscles. He has to return to Izumi. Even so, Leo takes one last glance at the scenery, burning the imagery into his mind. Though his people may never know of the kindness of demons, he will forever hold the sentiment deep within his heart. One day, he will reveal to them of the truth. He is prepared for the backlash that Izumi fears so.

Weaving through the trees, Leo soon makes it back to the spot they had hidden the carriage and allowed the horses to graze. On top of the carriage, as promised, the large pile of wood is neatly stacked and secured to it with rope. Eyes sweeping the perimeter, his gaze lands on the demon – his dear companion who has his eyes closed and is leaning against a tree, basking in the heat with his face tilted towards the sun. A sight so ethereal that Leo could easily be convinced that all of this is nothing but a dream.

“Satisfied?”

Leo hums affirmatively. “I’m more enchanted than ever before.”

“Love spells aren’t my thing.” Izumi sniffs. He pushes off of the tree and goes to gather the scattered horses.

“So, there are real love spells?”

“More or less, I guess.”

His smile gentles, just a slight upturn in his lips as he peers affectionately towards the other man. He wonders if Izumi is so sure he never casted one, for Leo is completely under this beautiful demon’s spell. “And what does that mean?”

“Nothing but a liar’s obsession.”

“So, they’re no good?”

“Forcing an emotion never works well.” Izumi shrugs nonchalantly as he reattaches the horses to the carriage. He then moves to the door, opening it and motioning towards him. “Ready, Prince? We should at least put on the same kind of a deceitful show, too.”

When Leo puts his foot on the stepping bar, he feels something similar to that of fangs completely composed of subzero temperature ice slip into the skin at the back of his neck chillingly. The world decelerates, his consciousness suddenly seemingly suspended within time. Invisible, heavy chains wrap around his body, coiling tightly – tighter and tighter until the lock at his neck pinches at his soft skin when it clicks closed. Cold fingers slide away as he takes the final step up into the carriage, the world regaining its steady time. The contact lasts no more than those precious few milliseconds.

He no longer feels the need to question Izumi. There’s nothing to worry about.

The low hum of his awakened soul gliding within his veins cease.

The moment the carriage rolls into the yard of the largest manor in town – owned by the head – they are stopped by two armed guards brandishing spears. Izumi looks on passively as the shining tips aim at his pretty face. From his obstructed view from within the carriage, Leo can almost believe that Izumi is bored and unimpressed with the display of violence-before-words from the expression on his face.

“State your business!”

“The Crown Prince has come to visit. He would like to speak to the head of this town.” Izumi replies in a voice that nearly makes Leo’s heart accelerate, something elegant and full of command.

“We were never given notification of such a meeting.” The guards look doubtfully at each other.

“A last-minute decision. Courtesy of the Prince desiring to help his ailing people as quickly as possible.” The demon replies. “We sent a hurried carrier pigeon, though I suppose gate guards were not privy to such information?”

“You-”

Leo opens the latch to the door, loudly swinging it open. Genial smile playing on his lips, he feigns as though he has heard none of the conversation. “Is there a problem?”

The two guards still aiming their spears directly at Izumi’s unimpressed form turn to look at him. They narrow their eyes as they gaze at his face and his heavy, high-quality clothing – which he has changed into during their ride towards town. It’s not so strange for the people not to know his face. There are many people in Terra, many who do not give a damn about politics or the royal family. As long as they can live their lives in peace with security, most do not care about any higher ups that do not affect them directly.

The guards look at each other, suddenly unconfident and confused.

“If you wish it, I can show you proof. A moment, please,” Leo puts one hand up in surrender, in a show of peace, while the other reaches into his jacket. Fingers skimming against the sharp edges of paper, he grasps it and plucks it out. “A letter from the king, sealed with the insignia of the Royal Family of Tsukinaga.”

He holds it out with a gentle expression on his face as though he is facing frightened baby animals.

The braver of the two guards takes a step forward, reaching out their own hand.

“Let them through!” A voice calls out from the top of the manor’s steps. Leo recognizes this person – who is rushing towards them with a pale face – as the head of the town. Their clothes are ruffled as they make it to their group, bowing their head low. “Apologies for the rude welcoming, Prince! I cannot make up for such atrocities with excuses, but if I may, we only got word of your visit this morning.”

They’re almost shaking. Leo cannot fathom what kind of person he is viewed as towards this person, or how they see his family. Is he so terrifying? All he has ever wanted was to be one amongst the people; to be able to bask in the same joys and happiness together and play in the sunlight.

“No, need. Please lift your head.” Leo reaches forward, hesitantly skimming his fingers across their cheek. “I understand. The fault is mine, I skipped formalities to abruptly make the trip.”

They stand, revealing to him the slight flush on their cheeks. “I… Nonsense, Your Highness, you hold no fault. Receiving word this morning should have given us ample time. We were… Ill prepared.” Their eyes try to meet his own, but they shift away nervously only to flick back and repeat the cycle. “Er-! Welcome to the Malachite Town, Your Highness! It is nearly supper time. Allow me to… gather what we have and hold a large feast. I will also call the entertainment to come to the manor and request a lush room to be made up.”

“The Town of Malachite… You have been desperately trying to save your people. Really, you do not need to try to save my feelings.” Leo replies somberly. “Rather, you have probably been asking yourself why haven’t your despairing requests been answered by the king and queen when you are suffering so. Cursing us with your words as we live so lavishly.”

“Your Highne-!”

“Isn’t that why I’m here? I come baring gifts.” Leo smiles as he interrupts. He snaps his gaze towards Izumi briefly, silently asking what they will do. The back of the carriage remains empty. Luckily, Izumi understands the message, quietly tossing the blocky storage orb through the open window that separates passengers from the driver. “I do not need you to waste your scarce resources on me. Take mine instead.”

“Your Highness?” They tilt their head questioningly. The guards that flank their side, however, seem to perk up.

Izumi hops off of his seat elegantly, not wasting a single movement as he pivots towards the carriage’s door with the fluidity of water. He grasps the slightly ajar door and pulls it completely open, revealing to all of their eyes stacks upon stacks of various supplies ranging from dried food to seeds for farming.

“It… was a long process, but we also created a lake nearby. I will hand to you a map where you can find it in due time. That is also where all of this fire wood has come from.” Leo continues to explain.

“Do visit it only after a long rain shower, however.” Izumi suddenly adds.

Rain shower? He supposes that makes the most sense…

“…Yes, that’s right. I know my words aren’t much condolence, but please hold out just a little longer. Your own water supply has been causing illness, so I would like you to cease using it until we find a more permanent solution to it.” Leo says slowly. His hesitancy, however, is blown away by the town’s head eagerly going up to the carriage door and peering in with animated, relieved eyes.

“Your Highness!” They turn back around, the stress lines on their face suddenly diminishing as a large grin overtakes their features. “I cannot thank you enough!”

“No need.” He waves his hand dismissively. “This is the least I can do for my people.”

“Oh, but…” They suddenly look crestfallen as they inspect the goods. “These seeds will go to waste, however. Our fields have not been able to produce any sustenance since the war ravaged our neighbors.”

“Have they fled here?”

“The survivors…? Yes.” Their expressive face transforms from sheer joy to desolation. “Our saved supplements were not nearly enough for the ailing…”

Leo puts a strong hand on their shoulder, squeezing reassuringly. “You did your best. Thank you. I have one more gift for you. If you can point us towards your fields, I will gladly hand it over to you.”

“We cannot possibly take more!”

“No need to look a gift horse in the mouth.” Leo chastises lightly. “We just need to know where your fields are.”

“What will you do to them, if I may ask?”

Izumi takes the explanation before Leo can even ponder the lie. “The prince has obtained a rare plant from a foreign country. Once planted, it will not grow past infancy, however it will release nutrients into the soil. Post implantation, the fields should be able to yield the most delicious produces.”

“If you can point us in the direction, we will be on our way. Meanwhile, you can sort out these supplies without my interference.” Leo says in a voice that leaves no room for question. He then winks at the group playfully. “Afterwards, I would like to inspect the town without the people knowing I am who I am. So, please hold off on the distribution until I return.”

With wary confusion, they are pointed in a direction. Wandering through the town on foot is much different than looking at the view from inside of a speeding carriage. Still, they skim only the edges as the two of them make their way to the fields bare of any plants and, instead, filled with dead leaves and the remains of withered attempts. Leo looks to the demon beside him, watching as Izumi reaches into his pocket and takes out the smoother orb that functions as a storage system.

“I’m not cleaning this place up.” Izumi says dryly as he selects one of the transparent sprouts that displays from the magical device. It forms into something solid, dropping into his free hand when he closes the connection.

He laughs. “Didn’t expect you to, Sena.”

Izumi makes his way to the center of the large field, placing the, somewhat odd looking, sprout on the ground. It shines with the sunlight, glittering like an ethereal being sent from heaven. Rather, a being sent from hell.

Magia diaboli terre. Ego tenere clavem. Ego praecipio tibi. Excitare.

Each time the words leave Izumi’s lips, Leo can’t help but find it attractive. A tongue speaking foreign words in an alluring accent novel to his ears. In a voice so sensual, he wonders if it is not a spell of cunning mania.

An obsession created upon lies.

A liar’s obsession with the falsehoods.

The farming fields shine faithfully, the soil overturning on its own and deepening in color. The scent in the air changes, making Leo close his eyes to truly take in its new richness. This deep musk that only the earth, itself, can create and exude. The atmosphere even becomes damp, sinking deep into his skin and filling his cells. A humid kind of air that leaves his body feeling sticky.

“Thank you, Sena.” He whispers into the breeze that brushes by his lips asking for a kiss.

The strong beams of the setting sun light their path back towards the center of the town – the utmost bustling area within a wailing populace. Izumi is following a step behind him, a proper distance away that makes him feel more restless than respected. Yet, when he takes a peek over his shoulder towards the demon, the edgy feelings do not wane. Izumi’s eyes are side glanced towards the businesses that line the strip of dirt street filled with loose pebbles.

Looking over, Leo’s heart jumps in surprise.

Terrian military soldiers mill about, peering into a restaurant.

More specifically, the leader of the clean up and assessment team and his right-hand man. Ruka’s previous Princess Guard and a well-accomplished knight. He didn’t realize this unit was in the area, let alone within the same town. Just how bad – how close – was the last war skirmish?

“I’m going to check something.” Izumi abruptly announces, veering away from him.

“Wh-what?” Leo chokes on his breath. “Wait, Sena?”

“I’ll know if you’re in danger.” Izumi flippantly waves.

Leo isn’t allowed another word into the conversation. The demon sinks into the shadows in between the wooden structures of the buildings, disappearing like an apparition of the moon scuttling away from the sun. He stands in place, stunned and in the way of the flow of pedestrians.

The loud, cheerful voice that calls out to him nearly makes him jump.

“Well, well! If it isn’t the prince! What are you doing here~?”

“Hey, you shouldn’t be so casual in the way you address him. I apologize in his stead, Prince.”

“Oh please, I’ve played with him and his sister for years.” The ex-Princess Guard sniffs petulantly. “Come, Prince Leo. Let’s have dinner together like old times. The restaurant over there has the best pastries in town.”

“Ah, just helping out.” Leo stutters to answer. His hand is grabbed by the leader of the two and he is jerked along before he can agree to such a proposition.

The skepticism in the subordinate’s voice is clear, “Alone, Prince?”

“Whatever, whatever,” The cheery man breaks in. “Who cares. It’s a good day! Let’s enjoy the coincidence!”

By the time Leo wraps his mind around the turn of events, he is sitting in a dimly lit restaurant with a kind of baked pastry in front of him for dinner and two men in Terra’s service across the table. Two men who he has known for some time and spent countless casual conversations with.

Nevertheless, he feels empty and alone.

Chapter Text

He doesn’t return to Leo’s side that night.

Not when the information he has sought after was right in front of his eyes. Madara discovered their first useful tidbits. And last night, finally – after long last; after staying in Terra all of this time – he found the next piece to their puzzle. It was a shame, however. He chose this particular town because it was the most desperate. The most likely to fall, not to war, but to its side effects, sooner rather than later. He just didn’t believe that it was already too late. He thought they had time. Time to turn back from the road they set out on. In the end, the magic will go to waste.

Though the powerful spells will not collapse, even if the fields are burned or the water is poisoned. To rid of them would take equally as powerful magic or an angelic spell of similar caliber. But Devils cannot be so easily defeated. Perhaps one day, with these magics still running their course, the land will be inhabited once more. Mayhap he was wrong in his assumption. The perseverance of humans was ever an enigma to him. Something he may never come to understand.

Even so, all sides of the town were war torn; their backs getting pushed against the capital was no different. The chance to strive once more may not come during this generation’s time.

To the north lay Inferna. Though he didn’t need it to know for certain, he activated a small magic spell that illuminated in the air like a circle in front of his right eye and acted like a lens – zooming into the scene so closely and clearly that he could understand the situation at just a glance. It remained as it has been since the declaration of war. Stagnate. A face off of soldiers in burned and broken villages lining both sides of the border. Sneers and the baring of teeth being tossed towards Inferna while the Infernans turned their noses up in the air, ignoring the display that had much more bark than bite. They were never one to hold either affection nor disdain towards the Terrians, but times are changing.

To the west, Opscurus. The city where the tripoint of all three kingdoms resided. The city in which the borders between their lands had become hazy and turned into one large population; intermingling languages and cultures, people and species, even lives and deaths. It was the first area to become ravaged by the violence and turned into a sleepless warzone, brightly blazing even under the malevolent gaze of the moon. Only militia occupied the area stained crimson red now; borders suddenly reappearing like iron walls taller than any sky scraper and higher than any floating homes that used to stand proudly within the city.

Beyond the city, just southwest of this position, was Caelem. As expected, the Terrian border remained empty. Scattered villages uninhabited and empty. Caelem soldiers – human and angel alike – kept their eyes opened, searching through both the land and air for any they could save. Abandoned villages left intact for nature and time to take away its once lively visage; to seal its story within history and put an end to its chapter.

With a final glance farewell, he concluded that neither side was acting up.

Not yet.

For that night, the unassuming town had a demon guardian scrutinizing the perimeter, keeping its sleeping people and visitors safe for just that single chance encounter. His magic laid asleep, both tired and locked away within the deepest part of his soul. After needing to cover up its signature when activating Shu’s spell as extra precaution and working well into the night with a small-scale incantation, it retreated to slumber, tuckered out after a long day. Though the enchantment carved into his chest dissuades anyone from thinking he was anything but a bona fide human, his magic will still send out demonic signals. As will Leo’s. Lest they get discovered, better safe than sorry.

There were still things left unanswered. Puzzle pieces still missing and leaving holes in the image.

For that night, it was only him, the sword at his side, and the light of the stars and moon above. The outskirts of the town held the clues. Its interior held the source. The paths leading towards other areas told him of the destination of this long-awaited moment. So perilously close to the borders of dangerous places, a human settlement that will meet its end unless something was done. He wondered if the species will surprise him again, persevere by the skin of their teeth and survive on their power of will even as they lay bleeding and broken.

But waiting to see the outcome wasn’t something he had spare moments for. It was time to set out on the path he chose.

The trickling scent of angels crinkled his nose. The ethereal breeze slipped into his clothing like snakes hiding away from the sun chilled his skin. The slow, taunting caresses of his enemies as he lay paralyzed, mobility bound tight. His nerves prickled, hair on his body stood, and fangs threatened to peek out. The town named Malachite, which was nestled closely to both enemy kingdom borders, was far nearer to Infernan land – quite near Mineralis. An old town that could be swept away at the whims of the immortal demons has the winds blowing over the scent of God. The town that kept its name of origin, will see the same power struggle as its history once entailed.

The irony in such things. He almost didn’t care if it burned completely to ash, charring the earth as black as the sky on moonless nights. But the unsettling moon’s gaze lingered on him as he stood watch. The night belonged to the demons. It was they who ruled over the cruelty hidden away by the shadows. And within that night, he refused to allow the angels so close to home.

He chose this particular town because it was most desperate. The most likely to fall, not to war, but to its side effects, sooner rather than later. He chose it for his loyalties.

In the end, will the town survive through the battle or fall?

All for the sake of Inferna’s objective.

The morning sun peeks over the horizon, dawn quickly approaching and splashing his face in warmth. The sunbeams slip through the swaying leaves of the tree he lays upon while observing the town waking up house by house. The side of his head intimately presses against the bark of the tree as he awaits; body wrapped around the thin branch and tail swaying to a soundless tune within the empty air.

The night sky is chased away by bright auburn streaks. Still, he does not return to Leo.

The sleep deprived stumble out of the inn in haphazard order. People uniformed in the same outfit stand together, squinting their eyes at the light of dawn piercing into their sights. Some gather themselves quicker than others, going towards the inn’s stable and asking for the stable hand to retrieve their horses. Others stand at attention as two people, decorated more heavily than the rest, come out of the door.

The cheery one greets them with unsympathetic words full of energy. The more serious one does not make a sound, scowl set on his face as he looks over the group. The former Princess Guard turned military leader and his right-hand man. Certainly, a unique pair here in Terra. The wind blows against his face, carrying their scents on the breeze. He flicks his tongue out, gathering the particles and slipping it back inside his mouth to process. The tingle mixed with the blood, sweat, and tears of soldiers that shoots down his long spine makes him curl around the branch tighter.

As they make their way out of the town, he remembers his night of patrolling. Remembers Terrian knights frolicking around; wearing down the short supplies of an ailing populace, drinking until the moon descends, and flirting for bed warmers for the evening. Infernan soldiers are no different – though the military are strictly ordered to never take more than the land can sustain. Punishment for such acts is an escorted journey directly to Hell without trial or plea. Still, his curiosity peaks as he observes them. Leo seems to view them, his Knights of Terra, in a different light. A light that even angels will have a hard time living up to.

The horses rumble the earth as they trot, the vibrations racing up to the high tree branches. He tracks them with his eyes as the group traverses directly underneath. Last night, the knights spoke of excitement, jovial in their relief that they can finally return home to their loved ones and a bed that they call their own. This morning, they are somber in front of their superiors who wield so much more power than they, instincts likely declaring that they keep their head down. He assumes they are returning to the capital, back to the castle just beyond the city limits.

Soon, he and Leo, too, will return. He will have to be careful how they traverse, it would be much too suspicious if the two of them arrive first while the knights started their journey prior.

The sun ascends high enough to begin beckoning the afternoon to arrive by the time the group is completely out of his sights. He is satisfied with his thorough inspection by then; using the cover of the thick forest to fall from the high branches and transform midair. In a burst of light, he lands lightly on his feet, barely disrupting the atmosphere of calmly living nature. Reaching up, he adjusts his shirt collar as he begins his trek back into town.

The people are gathering in the square like a buzzing beehive with far less organization, running and bumping into each other as they try make their way to the queen bee. However, instead of specially feeding the queen, the little worker bees mill around, waiting to take away the queen’s resources for themselves with salivating mouths and wild, desperate eyes.

He doesn’t say a word as he gestures for them to move to his will. At first glance, they give him sneers and troubled expressions. At a second glance, with their gazes trailing down his body, their eyes widen with recognition and a spark of fear fill their faces. He, too, dons the military uniform of Terra, one specifically designed for his position that still matches the rest of them. The people are suddenly nervous, but he doesn’t want to touch nor mess with them as much as they do not want it done, either. With silent, urging gestures with his arms and hands, he gathers the humans to form into organized lines, slowly making his way towards the center of all of this chaos.

The pushing and shoving will undoubtedly get one of this frail species injured. Having to deal with that is too troublesome for his tastes. As he weaves through the crown, stopping the line cutters and the over eager, his sensitive ears catch the hiccups of gasping breaths. Gently making people stand in the spots he wants them to stand, he weaves his way towards the source.

A lot of times, he just can’t seem to understand humans. Infernans, by nature, are individualists. The migra-mos, the mythical creatures, the immortal demons; no matter what species one is, Inferna teaches everyone – without discrimination – the power struggle of their land. The food chain where it is survival of the fittest or of the most cunning. But Terrian humans are different. Terrian humans are communal creatures. They’re like the beings at the bottom of the pecking order that stand strong in packs, holding love for only each other with no room for anyone else.

And yet, they turn on their own kind without hesitation within seconds.

He crouches down, relaxing his expression as much as possible.

In Inferna, if their young were ever separated from their parents, then so be it. Their offspring are expected to be able to keep up or to be eaten; to be protected by their guardians as long as they do so or be left abandoned forever. In Terra, in these seemingly desperate times, the children are also left for death to take them by the hand the moment they stumble and lose sight of their protectors. A communal species tossing aside their next generation to save themselves first. The brief glances sent towards this young child’s way, the situation becoming known yet, ultimately, being ignored. The false hope of being loved and cradled in cherished warmth that ends in the cold hands of selfish desire squeezing until the last breath leaves this plane of existence.

Terrian humans are far crueler than they.

Loud, wet sniffles echoes in his ears, followed by sharp intakes of breaths not enough to fill their lungs. He smiles sympathetically. “Did you lose your guardians?”

The young human child before him – no more than only a few years old at most – looks up at him with wide, damp eyes. They first fill with nervousness, but the child nods bravely. Their lips tremble, signaling another bout of wails.

He offers his hand, palm facing upwards in a non-threatening manner. “Why don’t you come with me? We’ll search for them together.”

With childlike innocence, the young human hesitates, apprehension and distrust shivering their body.

It may not always be true, but he will use the stereotype thrust upon his current image to his advantage. “I’m a knight. You can trust me. There is nothing to fear. We can even go meet a real prince, wouldn’t that be nice?”

“…Promise?” Their voice is high pitched and hoarse, yet filled with wonderment.

“Sure.” He waits until the child puts their hand in his before standing back up. Keeping his grip firm on the small hand in his, he begins weaving through the crowd and directing them around once more, making way for his temporary charge to walk with ease.

Leo is probably better with kids than he is. Perhaps he will be able to soothe this child’s anxious heart more so. Leo is like a child himself, in any case.

The fingers in his grip feel so small. It emphasizes the frailty of this life at the palm of his hand; the vulnerability and hesitant trust that will shape their thoughts and their faith in others until the very end of their days. The childhood experiences that may stick with them like unrelenting nightmares chaining their minds to a single memory, and consuming them whole within the slithering darkness.

He is nearly to the center of the chaos, the people getting rowdier with every meter of distance. Eyes as green as the purest emerald, though paired with a smile, aren’t smiling themselves. They continuously flick over the crowd, sweeping over the short distance they can see. Searching. Worried. Lonely. Eventually, those eyes catch sight of him, locking their gazes together.

Leo’s eyes, even with the slight dark circles lining them, lose their cloudiness and his smile becomes truer.

“Sena!” Leo’s voice is as bright as the shining sunlight.

Izumi almost wants to scold him for such a display in front of so many people, so unfit of a prince, but he holds his tongue. If the kid can see that the Prince of Terra is no one to fear, that will help both the child themself and Leo in the future.

The people turn to look his way, in the direction Leo’s eyes are gazing into. With the attention of the people’s current savior on him, it makes the milling townspeople less reluctant to step to the side, parting like a carpet being spun out to grace his honorable steps and allow him a path. The child in his care fidgets at the attention, however, so he drags the kid closer to his side and tightens the grip of his fingers.

Leo’s eyes drag down his form, following the length of his arm until it blends into another being, unsure where he ends and the child starts. His head cocks to the side in confusion, but nonetheless, Leo still plasters a gentle smile on his lips. He crouches down nonthreateningly, becoming as small as the child when the two of them get close enough. “And who is this young one?”

The child whispers their name in reply, still timid and unsure.

“What a nice name~” Leo praises happily. “You can call me Leo if you’d like. Why don’t you hang out with us, hm? Sena, can you grab a piece of fruit? You’re hungry, aren’t you, little one? But shh, keep this between just the two of us. I’m not supposed to mess with the supplies, but you’re my special guest today~”

“…Even though you’re a prince?”

“Even though I’m a prince.” Leo chuckles softly. He reaches out and pats the kid’s head with comforting gestures before twisting his wrist and wiping away the tears that still stain their cheeks. “I can’t do everything I like, and there are lots of times I don’t get my way, but let’s endure through the hard times together, okay? You can cry now if you want to, as long as you keep walking later. Because the moment you make it to the end of such hardships, you’ll be stronger than anyone else in the world.”

“Really? You promise?”

“Of course!” Leo stands, smiling down at the small child brightly. “Sit on that box there and fill up your tummy. I’d be grateful to have you around for a while.”

With the child’s nod, Izumi lets go of their hand and walks to the open carriage still packed full of the supplies they brought. He’s glad Leo could understand the situation without words, it’s better not to remind the kid that they’re separated from their guardians lest they start bawling again. Izumi steps into the carriage, eyeing all of the carefully packed baskets for each family accounted for in the town. In the corner, however, is a haphazard selection of products. From there, he grabs a shiny red apple.

A fruit that Leo was once so proud of to show him.

Hopping out, he hands the young human child – who swings their legs back and forth atop of the wooden crate – the food and pats their head. “Prince, anything else I may assist you with?”

Leo looks over his shoulder, expression joyful as he greets each and every person coming to him for aid alongside the town’s head who stands next to him with, what Izumi assumes, the census of the population. “Make sure everyone stays orderly and safe for me?”

“Of course, Your Highness.” Izumi slightly bows his consent.

Leo looks genuinely happy being able to help his people face-to-face and see those smiling, relieved expressions with his own eyes. Izumi hopes he doesn’t lose sight of this memory forming right in front of him, no matter what may happen in the near or distant future.

It is well past dusk by the time every family able is accounted for and given temporary supplies until permanent measures can see fruition. In that time, the frantic state of parents searching high and low have bowed their heads low to the ground as their child is finally found. Leo gracefully accepts their gratitude, all the while redirecting the sentiments towards Izumi, saying that his loyal knight helps all in need without judgement and without question.

They spend another night in the town head’s manor, Leo eating dinner with the important while he takes it with the staff. Leo anxiously looks as though he desires to say something the entire time they are swept away by propriety and order, but is never able to open his mouth freely. That is how Izumi finds himself ambushed within the guest room he did not use the previous night.

“Is it so proper for you to come to this side of the manor, Prince?”

Leo growls low in his throat, a stuttering sort of sound for a species not adapted to make such noises. The arms he holds Izumi hostage with tighten their embrace. “You left so abruptly!”

“You were safe, there was nothing really to worry about. And I would’ve been at your side the moment you weren’t.”

“I’m not worried about that! I was worried about you, Stupid Sena.” Leo’s face is set in a grimace; a sharp contrast to how he looked in the afternoon. “If something’s wrong… I want you to count on me, too.”

Izumi skitters his eyes away briefly, the dim lighting obscuring the fine details that lay within. “We’re near a warzone, you know? You can’t be too careful around here, even if the town seems welcoming.”

“Were you scouting around?” Leo tilts his head like a curious kitten. They’re pressed so close together, Izumi can feel Leo’s heart thrum within his chest. “Still… If that’s all, you could’ve told me beforehand. You were out all night, too. I was afraid something happened to you. Thank you, though. Did you find anything?”

“Not particularly.”

Leo hums. “Good. That’s good.” The tension seems to release from the prince’s shoulders. Leo relaxes his muscles, curling his spine and ending up leaning his forehead on Izumi’s shoulder in their single-sided embrace. “The people looked so relieved. I’m glad.”

Leo’s whisper in the dark room flits away like words of love spoken to a secret lover.

“We should depart by morning.” Izumi suggests strongly, leaving no room for arguments. “There’s no more reason to stay.”

The hug tightens just a fraction more. “…Okay.”

Leo’s body is warm against his. It nearly scorches him more than Hell ever has. The scent of sunlight that has baked Leo’s hair in its luminous glory curls around him like smoke, filling his lungs and swelling his throat. The night’s crisp atmosphere is lost to the background. His vision is filled with bright auburn hair instead of the dim room only lit by the thin moonshine slipping in through the window.

Morning comes eventually, dying the earth in its red-hued light.

Izumi orders for their horses to be gathered and prepared, and for their carriage to be readied. Leo bids the town head farewell with gratitude and promises to come to their aid again if they call for it. As they leave with the sounds of hooves clacking against the ground in a swift trot, Leo precariously opens the door to the carriage and waves enthusiastically at the grateful people hollering their way.

The child who they temporarily took into their care, with sleep still clinging to their eyes, sees the two of them off, as well. They wave with one hand while rubbing their eye with the other, their parents standing right behind them this time.

Izumi lifts a hand in a motionless goodbye.

As they travel onwards, back towards the capital, Leo ends up sitting right beside him again. The book of Infernan’s old language is splayed on his lap, his neck craned downwards and lively eyes staring fixedly on the black inked letters. With Leo pressing into his side, Izumi wordlessly releases one of the spells he has on Leo; the prince visibly breathing easier after it breaks away from his body. A few magic particles escape him in the process, disappearing back into the earth. Izumi closes his eyes for a spare few moments, the fatigue catching up to him rapidly.

Their journey is spent in silence, only the clop of hooves and the spinning of wheels crunching the gravel underneath keep them company. The distant sound of birds cawing high in the clouds is far and few in between.

The sun falls, dusking the sky in another fiery dance. Leo’s even breaths fan across the top of Izumi’s chest as the prince leans his weight on Izumi’s shoulder, fast asleep. Izumi takes the reigns and urge the horses into the forested scenery lining alongside the gravel road home. He maneuvers them through carefully, keeping the gentle sway of the carriage steady and seeking a place to settle down safely for the night. A place that provides them cover yet just open enough for the sky to see them.

Leo is so, utterly defenseless like this. Izumi trails his fingers up Leo’s skin, slipping them underneath the collar and curling them around his neck. It would be too easy out here in the wilderness; he has had many opportunities at the castle, too, after all. Izumi removes his body bit by bit, holding Leo’s head in place as to not wake him. When he is freed, he lays Leo’s tilting body down on the bench of the carriage carefully. The position looks uncomfortable – it would undoubtedly give humans a kink in their neck if they stay like this for too long – but it is only for a short while.

Izumi goes about setting up their rustic tent for the night. Leo continuously insisted upon using only one on their journey, as annoying as it is, so Izumi only prepares the one. Leo will just crawl into the other tent in the middle of the night, anyways. Once it is standing, Izumi gathers the little human prince into his arms and deposits him inside, draping a blanket over him before going back out to tend to the horses.

Interestingly enough, the horses no longer fear the sphere of water he manifests in front of them. Now, they readily drink from the magic like Infernan horses would. He tucks away their reigns, releasing them to graze or rest as they please. Unlike Infernan horses, however, these two would run from their handlers; but even so, catching Terrian horses is an easy feat.

Night falls and the dark clouds roll in. Carefully, he gauges just how far away the Terrian capital is before he calls to the stars, sending magic high into the sky.

Leo is still deep in his slumber inside of their tent. He must have had a restless couple of nights. Remembering Leo’s crumbling expression the moment they had time alone, Izumi’s chest pangs sharply. It’s not his fault. Leo’s feelings are Leo’s own. Izumi did what he had to. He is going down the path he chose long ago.

He can’t start looking over his shoulder now.

The fire is put out safely, the billowing smoke drifting towards the heavens from the charred wood burning with its last embers. Izumi sets Leo’s dinner in the corner of the tent, covering it with a lid. Sitting in the tent beside Leo for the few moments he has remaining, Izumi marvels at the prince’s smooth cheeks and the innocent way he rests – curled on his side and hand underneath his head. At one point, Leo subconsciously seeks warmth; those free, fisted fingers coming to coil around Izumi’s own.

The wind picks up intensity outside.

With his free hand, Izumi strokes Leo’s cheek with a finger, gently untangling his other hand. Leo curls a little tighter into himself, brows creasing, but remains in his world of dreams nonetheless. Izumi lingers in his position for a second longer, taking in the messy hair and the smooth skin shadowed by the darkness. He drags his eyes away, slipping out of the tent with no more noise than a ghost in the night.

Dark clouds rule the sky, hiding away the starlight and the gaze of the moon. The gust picks up his hair in a flurry as the atmosphere becomes saturated in the scent of water, filling his nose with a familiar, comfortable fragrance and hydrating his exposed skin. The air rushes by his cheeks like caresses as he walks deeper into the forested area. The darkness of night underneath the canopy of leaves coupled with the missing moonlight is no real issue to his eyes, walking around tree trunks and avoiding missteps like it is as bright as the afternoon hours. He doesn’t make a sound as he traverses.

Making it to a certain tree, he only waits for a minute before a voice greets him. “Long time no see, Izumi-chan.”

A gust of wind whips across his body. But before he flies away with the intensity, he is swept up in strong arms.

“Ugh, too tight.” Izumi complains, though he, too, lightly rests his arm around the person, feathers brushing across the tops of his fingers.

“As dishonest as ever.”

He is released from the embrace. “You’re as annoying as ever, Naru-kun.”

Arashi giggles lightly. “I can’t believe I missed that, too.” Her amethyst eyes rake over him. “You look more or less healthy. Good. I’m glad.”

“And what about you? You’ve probably been sent all around by now, haven’t you?”

“My wings ache~ Give me a message when you get home?”

Izumi rolls his eyes. “Go get Shu’s kid to do it.”

“So mean~” She sniffs playfully.

“Speaking of, I found something,” Izumi hardens his voice, prompting Arashi to pay rapt attention. “In the Town of Malachite.”

She cocks her head. “Malachite… That’s a name we haven’t heard in a while. Not since our school days, anyways. Sure, I’ll bring the information back with me. But is that such a strange town?”

“The warfront has crept up to it already. With it so close to us and Opscurus, we don’t know which side will flinch first.”

“Mmm~ I flew in from the other direction, so I’ll have a look when you send me on my mission. Though I guess that mission is nothing but for show now, huh.”

“Still,” Izumi trails off, his breath puttering out and getting taken away from by the crisp breeze.

“I understand.” Arashi nods. He’s glad that she does. Their goal doesn’t change, no matter how the playing field does. “When are you coming back, by the way?”

“Hm? Did something happen?”

“Nothing out of the ordinary in times of war.” She waves off. “Inferna will remain standing, even if you’re not there for a while. We’ll handle it. That wasn’t what I was saying. We miss you, is all. You’re so dense. We love you so much, and yet…!”

“As dramatic as ever.” Izumi copies her words from before once again, his tone much drier than hers ever could be.

Arashi’s tinkling laughter replaces the stars that are out of sight with her storm clouds hovering above. “Oh, that’s right. Here.”

She reaches into her jacket’s breast pocket, taking out a small, white cone that is no bigger than a marble. It rolls on its side atop her palm as she displays it to him. In an instant, the shadows of the forest are pierced by lilac light, phantom images of bottles in the shape of spheres with textured waves spinning around the surface float in midair.

“You’re a life saver. I owe you one.” Izumi breathes a little easier after seeing her gifts. He, too, takes out his personal item storage from his pocket and holds it steady on his palm. With the guidance of their owners and the acceptance of trade, both magical devices pulse steadily. The images of the bottles begin to deconstruct particle by particle, slipping into a star filled stream towards Izumi’s.

“You owe me plenty, but I’ll let you get away with just one.”

“You’re so annoying.”

Arashi jokingly cries out, her voice, nonetheless, kept soft enough to not wake the sleeping wilderness, “And after I came all the way here, too! Can’t you just say you love me?”

His eyebrow twitches in irritation. “I’ll thank you. Thanks.”

She laughs. “That’s pretty much the same thing, coming from you. I’m happy~” Arashi then grabs one of the holographic bottles that has yet to transfer over and calls it forward. “Really, though, Izumi-chan. You should take one now. You look fine, but your inner condition doesn’t seem so good. Did you use too much magic?”

She hands it over. The glass bottle is clear, a bright, luminous aqua colored liquid swirling inside. It glows brighter than their storage systems, blinding the dark area like a fresh lantern dying the shadows. As he gently takes it from her hand, he notices her flick her eyes to the side briefly.

“I did use a lot of magic, but that’s not it. Not really, anyways. It’s just suffocating here.”

“You really thought about the area that was to be your final resting place. Someone like you would be eaten away by this land within seconds, without leaving a single trace.”

“…You’re never going to let that go, are you?” Izumi huffs. He wiggles the diamond shaped bottle stopper free with his thumb. “I said I was sorry.”

Arashi ends up assisting him since they both have a hand occupied. After taking off the stopper, she reaches forward to stroke his cheek with the lightest of touches – a caress filled with warm adoration that makes Izumi close his eyes in bliss.

“Try not to be so reckless when Ritsu-chan and I are waiting for you back home.” She smiles at him softly. Her eyes flick back to that spot in trees. He knows, too. She raises her voice to a more audible volume, “Waiting just as anxiously as the peeping little mouse who sure is being nosey watching our rendezvous like this~”

That gentle smile of hers turns threateningly salacious.

Inwardly he sighs. It doesn’t really suit her – her cute smile is much prettier – but it suits the image that demons hold within this land. He brings the drink to his lips and takes a hearty swig, turning his eyes towards the darkness as well. In a rush like a catastrophic tsunami, his body is suddenly filled with static electricity. The cells in his body hum with energy, reserves being restored to overflowing.

Taking the bottle away from his lips with a panting breath, he says, “Stop that. And, Prince, you’re not fooling anyone. You’ll get eaten staying there.”

The shadows move like shoulders are flinching. “Er… Sorry.”

Stepping into the light of their magic, Leo looks thoroughly caught. His sheepish, boyish face glows in the intermingling colors, emerald orbs that reflect those colors trying to remain focused on the ground but ultimately getting his attention caught by the new demon before his eyes.

“Have something to say to me, Prince of Terra?” Arashi asks more pleasantly. Her guard is up, but not nearly as much as it would be if they were out on the battlefield. Rather, she’s relaxed in comparison to meeting even a stranger in their own homeland.

How strange. Maybe because he said Leo’s title and she realizes who he is?

“I thought you were sleeping.” Izumi adds in.

“I woke up and you weren’t nearby, so I went searching. It looks like it’s going to rain.” Leo continuously flicks his eyes towards Arashi. “If I am interrupting, I can leave…”

“You don’t have to be so scared of me.” Arashi says in amusement. “Izumi-chan, here, is quite fond of you, so I won’t eat you~”

“No, it’s not…” Leo trails off, shaking his head and suddenly blushing. “I just wondered if all Infernan residents were beautiful… Is all…”

Arashi happily laughs. “My, my~ What a good boy you are~ You’re so sweet. Izumi-chan, you should’ve said he was this charming!” She closes her hand and puts her item storage away.

Izumi harrumphs while doing the same, his hand catching against the seams of his clothing as he shoves it into his pocket. “Whatever. Prince of Terra, meet Arashi. Arashi, this is the prince.”

“Jealous~?” Arashi teases under her breath so just the two of them would hear. Absently, she hands him the bottle stopper. “Nice to meet you.” She steps back with a foot and does a motion as though she is curtseying.

“Leo Tsukinaga.” Leo expands on the introduction. He, too, bows his head in greeting. “The pleasure is mine.”

Izumi watches the scene with rising irritation boiling his blood as Leo’s eyes sweep over the white-feathered wings on Arashi’s back. Arashi, as she feels the discreet gaze, however, pulls them closer to her body. He knows she doesn’t like them being touched by anyone who she is not close to. To any winged-creature, they’re a special, vulnerable part of their body that is cherished beyond anything else.

“Don’t stare, that’s impolite, Prince.” Izumi frowns.

“I’m sorry.” Leo rushes out. “Just one more question?”

“Of course.” Arashi replies.

“I assumed you were Infernan, since Sena is talking to you so casually. But… Are you a demon? An angel?”

“An Infernan demon, Human Prince.” Arashi puts a hand to her chest. “We have no angels in our kingdom.”

“White feathers are not exclusive to angels, then. I see.” Leo thinks out loud in awe. “They’re magnificently pure ivory…”

“He’s not like you at all, Izumi-chan.” Arashi jests, still carefully keeping her wings away from Leo’s grasp. Not that Leo is reaching forward.

Izumi opts to ignore them both and takes another harsh drink from the bottle. Another wave rushes through his body unrelentingly, the taste assaulting his tongue all the more.

“What’s that, Sena?”

“Why don’t you try it and find out?”

Leo blinks; probably at the bland hostility leaking into Izumi’s voice. “Well… Sure.”

Izumi lowers it from his lips slowly. With trepidation, he eyes the hand that Leo holds out. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah.” The prince wiggles his fingers imploringly.

Izumi hands over the bottle with caution. Leo wouldn’t, he’s bluffing.

Right?

The glow of the aqua liquid splashes upon Leo’s features like a blossoming flower kissing his cheek.

Leo puts the bottle’s opening to his lips.

Arashi stares astonishment, suddenly frozen in place. Izumi, too, can’t help but widen his eyes, unable to stop Leo in time. The prince tilts his head back and squeezes his eyes shut; the smooth, incandescent liquid slipping between his thin lips and down his throat. Izumi watches Leo gulp down the liquid, his throat bobbing with the motions.

Abruptly, Leo jerks the bottle from his lips, closing them tightly together and mutely coughing until all of the liquid in his throat slips downwards. Only then does he open his mouth and cough heartily into his free hand.

“Are you stupid?!” Izumi yelps. “Why’d you drink that?!”

“You’re pretty brave for a Terrian human.” Arashi says in wonderment. “Drinking something brought from Inferna and given to you by a demon without a second thought.”

Izumi steps closer to Leo’s side, putting a hand on the prince’s back.

“If it was really that dangerous,” Leo chokes out between coughs. “Sena wouldn’t even joke about giving it to me. Besides, Sena is the first demon I’ve met. He’s kind, so if you’re friends, then you must be the same.”

“Fufu I’m glad Izumi-chan didn’t give you a nasty first impression. He really is nice deep down, isn’t he?”

“Would you two shut up?” He hisses at them. “Hey, do you feel fine?”

“What?” Leo turns his head sharply. “Why do you ask? It wasn’t actually dangerous, was it?”

Izumi huffs a breath in relief. “No. It’s nothing but a supplement.”

“What kind?” Leo asks. “It’s pretty weird for a vitamin. It’s kind of sour but it feels like electricity is running through my body.”

“No, it’s nothing like that.” Arashi giggles with a shake of her head. “It’s a potion of concentrated magic. Mm~ Let’s see… You used to have trade talks with Caelem, right? It’s like those energy drinks Caelem created for humans, the ones filled to the brim with that chemical compound, caffeine. But this one is more for wizards and magicians and made from magic, not their science.”

“I see.” Leo whispers slowly. “We’ve imported a few of those once before, though I can’t say they’re very sustainable here. They’re quite pricey in trade, too. Mm… It feels like my body is humming…”

“Maybe it was too potent for you.” Arashi absently wonders, though she doesn’t look worried in the least. “Infernan humans take this same thing, so you’re probably fine. Ah, but you’re still new to magic and this place… Well, whatever~”

“Your magic is excited, that’s all.” Izumi takes one more look over Leo. “It’s just free magic that you consumed, there shouldn’t be too much of a side effect. I’ll patch you up if you start leaking again.”

Leo sings, “Okay~”

Izumi turns as Arashi starts giggling. “What?”

“Oh nothing~” She croons.

“By the way,” Leo draws their attention back. He hands the bottle back to Izumi, the remaining liquid swirling at the bottom. “Is this delivery the only reason you have flown into Terra? Is there anything I can help you with?”

“You really are a good boy~ So much more welcoming than other Terrians.” Arashi croons sweetly. “I’m here on a favor. Isn’t that right, Izumi-chan?”

“She’s here to make it rain.” Izumi answers.

“Rain?”

“Those rain clouds you were worried about before?” Arashi says rhetorically while pointing upwards with a well-manicured nail. “Those are mine. Something about faking filling up a lake and soaking the land for crops.”

Leo perks up at her words, hastily bowing his head low again. “I see. Then you have my utmost of gratitude.”

“You’re very welcome.” Arashi grins widely, little fangs peeking out from her upper lip. “I have a lot to do and still need to fly home. So, I will take my leave here, boys.” She reaches out, stroking her hand down Izumi’s upper arm. “Stay safe, Izumi-chan.”

He catches her hand briefly as she slips it away, squeezing her fingers. “You too.”

“Thanks for taking care of our Izumi-chan, Human Prince.” Arashi lifts her hand in a wave, spreading her wings widely. “Do your best out there.”

“Sena has been good to me, I couldn’t ask for more.” Leo says somberly. “All the best for your side, as well. May the next we meet not be the battlefield.”

Arashi smiles at him, hiding the sadness behind her amethyst eyes. “Yes, until that time comes.”

In a flurry of gusting winds, Arashi takes off into the night sky and disappears beyond the storm clouds. The thunder that begins to crackle the atmosphere rumbles the earth as loudly as cannon fire.

Chapter Text

Their ten-day journey across the land is shortened to just eight with Izumi’s expert handling and quick guidance. Even as their expedition comes to an end and the Terrian castle comes into view, magnificently standing proudly against the backdrop of the late afternoon sky, Leo feels more energized than ever. The happy buzz from the Infernan potion still courses through his veins as quickly as it did when he first drank it. And rather than his magic acting up from the foreign invader, it dances alongside the effects of the strange, aqua colored liquid; absorbing it as one of its own at the end of their dance.

The two of them are welcomed home with surprised faces yet relieved smiles. The castle begins to bustle about the moment the iron gates are opened and they step onto familiar ground. Before he knows it, he is taken away from Izumi’s side, the king and queen wishing to see him for themselves. The personal assistances urge him to wash himself of the road’s dust and bathe, giving him fresh clothing and warm slippers.

That evening, his family decides upon an early dinner where he is accosted by a tight hug around his waist by his dearest younger sister. At the dining table, the pleasantries begin with asking how he is faring and how the journey had gone. Eventually, the conversation moves onto the more political aspect of the expedition, giving him a sense of detachment from a joyful family gathering to just another day as the Prince of Terra. He answers them precisely and evenly, leaving out the details of meeting Izumi’s friend along the way and the rainstorm she brought with her.

Arashi. He wonders if she made it home safely.

He wonders if they will ever meet again peacefully.

For if he has a chance meet her again, he can remain at Izumi’s side.

He has to work hard. For Terra. He has to fight for peace, even if it all seems so backwards. Their adversaries hold weapons his people may never be able to counter; they hold secrets that are beyond anyone’s imaginations. Reality is often more unrealistic than fantasy, but they can no do more than to accept things as they are. They do not have a choice; not if they want to survive in a world like theirs. In a world where angels and demons walk amongst them, and God and Devil are at their fingertips, only just beyond their reach but undoubtedly there.

He has to fight for himself. So that the friends he has made can truly be his allies. So that the bitterness of being enemies wane. And so that the love he has formed within his heart and shared openly doesn’t turn into aching, endless pain – into betrayal he never wishes to inflict upon anyone.

Leo wonders, now, how his enemies have become his closest allies.

This broken path doomed from the very beginning continues to progress forward, becoming stronger in foundation yet darker with each passing hour. The shadows eat away at their sights, all the while their feet firmly planting on the ground. The things he knows become questions. The novelties enticing him into worlds unknown with a firm grasp upon his hand.

But he can’t.

He can’t throw everything he has known away. He can’t abandon his old love for his new love. He loves everything just the same; just as much. He will never abandon his home for the dark mysteries of something that will bring about its very downfall. He belongs to Terra, after all.

Thus, he has to fight this temptation, too. He has to fight this war for himself so that he may be able to be poisoned one day, get dragged into their hell, and still be able to return to his rightful place unscathed.

The breeze that slips through his open bedroom window kisses his cheeks, bringing with it the scent of the gardens. He breathes in the familiar fragrance deeply, closing his eyes to truly take it in. It is an aroma he has known all his life. One that he will never forget and will always surface to his mind memories of his childhood within the castle walls that is his home. This home of his that he will never, ever let fall. Still…

…Does this newfound love have to be sacrificed for his home’s sake as well?

Leo sits up straight as he hears a knock on his door, tearing his cheek away from its resting position on his fist. “Yes?”

“It’s me.”

“Oh. Come in, Sena.” Leo spins in his chair, facing the door fully as it slides open to reveal the face of the man that circles his thoughts. “Did you rest? Eat dinner? What’s that?”

“One question at a time, Prince.” Izumi sighs as he closes the door behind him. In his hands is a silver tray, holding nothing but a tall glass of water. “Chef said you ask for water before bed often, so a maid brought it, but saw me on my way here and asked me to bring it instead. Or some strange chain of events like that.”

Does he? Well, no matter; he’s grateful to all of them for paying such mind to his wellbeing. “Thanks for bringing it.” Leo takes the tray and sets it on the desk he sits at. “You were on your way here?”

“I’m going to leave for Inferna.”

Leo’s heart stutters and his shoulders flinch. Absently, blonde hair comes to mind. “I see. Other than giving you those potions, is that why your friend was here? To give you a message that Inferna is in trouble?”

“I told you, she was here to do your bidding.” Izumi sniffs and turns his head away. “But I’m going back.”

Whether Leo approves or not, it seems. Inferna must have its own struggles. Izumi being here has to have put a toll on the kingdom, if Leo’s guess is correct. “I understand. I will make an excuse to mother and father. Maybe that you will scout out the next area we’re supposed to send aid to?”

“As you please.”

“Then that is what we will go with.” Leo says slowly. “…Are you sure you’re not tired?”

“I’m fine. You should worry about yourself sometimes.”

Leo brings the glass of water to his lips, covering up the unease he feels at Izumi’s suddenly stand-offish words. The liquid passes between his lips, wetting his tongue and suddenly parched throat. “I see… I’ll go tell them now so you can leave at first light.”

 

That first light arrives more hastily than the hours that pass by suggests. Leo attempts to make a pained noise from his throat but can’t manage it. His head is heavy and foggy, he barely feels the pillow beneath him pressing into his cheek. His mouth is dry and needles seem to slide down his throat. Underneath the heavy comforter is nothing but the feeling of basking in the noon sun amidst the sands of the desert.

His muscles ache as he inches out. His skin cries with each brush of the fabric, desperate touch receptors wailing as though his body is rubbed raw. The soles of his feet coming into contact with the cold floor is both a numbed sensation he hardly registers in his dizzying head and the stabs of multiple icicles that overstimulate his nerves. Still, he fights through the sensations, his knees aching and barely holding his weight as he stands. His joints creak, bones grinding with a stuttered slip.

The sun shines too brightly even through the closed curtains, making him squint as he opens his eyes sluggishly. The world before him is hazed, spinning so quickly that every stagnate object is moving at the speed of light. The white fog that encroaches on his sights blind his eyes brightly, making him stagger. The harsh footfalls shake his being, nausea creeping up quickly as a result.

It’s painful, more so than any wound he has ever sustained. His limbs feel like they’re weighed down by blocks of lead and he is getting pulled underneath the tides of the bottomless ocean. Shakily – at least, he thinks he’s shaking – he lifts his hand to his neck. Barely, he feels his own skin beneath his trembling fingertips. Nothing. Nothing is there. But his airway closes, regardless. Something tightens its hold on him. His mouth gapes open, lungs desperately crying out for oxygen. The choked, pitying cry that is no louder than butterfly wings flapping in the breeze filter into his ears that are covered by phantom hands.

He can’t breathe. His chest burns like hellfire; heart thundering in his ears and throbbing behind his eyes. The world is a blur of colors that blend and transform into the brightest of whites. No matter how rapidly he blinks, the surroundings keep changing; keep fading and reappearing, keep blending into one and then multiplying into thousands.

What is he doing, again? Where is he? Where is he going?

He doesn’t feel himself falling, but he feels the numb impact of his shoulder landing on the freezing stone floor. His head throbs harder. His ears feel like they’re going to explode with the pressure pressing down upon them. The coldness squishing his cheek into its unrelenting presence makes his seemingly raw skin scream once more.

Who is he?

He guesses it doesn’t really matter.

The too illuminating world dims to the darkest of shadows. The overstimulating sensations of his body’s ailing responses shut off, leaving him bleary and lost as he is thrown off the edge of the end of the world.

 

His eyelids scraping against his eyes feel like sandpaper as he lifts them. Immediately, however, he closes them once more. The room is too blinding; the details outlining each and every single object inside still obscure and blurred. His body refuses his commands to move, yet, only just, he manages to tilt his head to the side as the shouts of muffled voices slam into his ears.

His body is laid flat, set ablaze in an infernal hellfire. He is back in his bed, underneath the covers.

Did he leave it in the first place or was that a fever dream?

His head pounds dully, reverberating throughout his entire cranium like an earthquake of the highest magnitude. The voices come through his eardrums as though he is submerged underwater – a murky kind of clarity where the sound is carried away by the current before it can be explained by his mind.

“Your Highness, you shouldn’t be here.”

“Nonsense! He is still my son!”

Those voices… They sound familiar…

“We don’t know what he has. He may have picked it up while travelling. We cannot have you contracting it, as well! I will take care of him. Alone.”

The first person lets out a frustrated sigh harshly enough that he can hear it even through his jumbled thoughts. His eyelids are as heavy as his paralyzed body. Truly, he feels as though he is getting dragged underwater. He can imagine it the moment his eyelids cast away the light, and in the way his lungs burn with every labored breath, unable to receive enough oxygen.

Something else fills his organs.

His heart misses a beat. A blaze hotter than anything he has ever felt spreads across his chest.

He wonders if he is in Hell.

“You, knight! Call the Prince Guard back!”

“Sir!” But no footsteps leave. “Sir… Where should we send the messenger?”

They click their tongue. “This son of mine… Ask the queen for the name of village. Tell the messenger I won’t punish them for failing at the delivery. The prince said he had other places he is sending his Prince Guard as well.”

“I understand.” One slaps their heavy shoes together and runs off.

“No specifics from the prince prior, Your Highness?”

“None.”

“That’s unfortunate... Perhaps more advanced magic has a cure.”

“Is it bad?”

The other person pauses for a long moment. “It doesn’t look good. But I won’t give up, and neither should you.”

“…I’m counting on you, Doctor Jin.”

“You should leave. Please do not allow anyone into this corridor, we cannot risk spreading this unknown ailment all throughout the castle. If I contract it, then so be it. Anything I may ask for, please have the maids leave it by the stairwell.”

“Send a report at every change. Every day if otherwise. And none of this is to be made public.”

“Understood, Your Highness.”

Pain wracks his body. He feels his face scrunching up but the despairing noise that rises refuses to release as it gets caught in his tightening throat. His stomach churns, yet his body remains immobile, unable to heave or hurl or curl into itself.

His clogged ears absently register the sound of the door opening before his murky mind gets pulled back underneath the foreboding currents of the turbulent ocean.

 

His vision is still fuzzy – indistinct in ways that he firmly believes he is losing his vision for good. Is he so strange? All of the musical geniuses before him lose their ears; yet he loses his eyes. Even so, maybe he is not so bizarre. After all, he doesn’t notice the shuffling of the moving blur in his room until they are right before him, eardrums thrumming like a strong bass reverberating inside a small room.

What looks like the rays of the sun reflect off of the person, speckling dots of light behind his eyelids, barely open as they are. The shadowy figure passes like a picture book made to portray movement; pages flipping rapidly and increments of actions missing and stuttered. One moment, they are to the left, then, before he knows it, they are towards his right. Did they perhaps use magic?

Is it possibly…?

The flow of chaotically dripping water reaches his ears in sharp notes, the liquid colliding into more of its comrades in arms and screaming in joy as they are reunited. The sounds of splashing triggers his lungs to nearly collapse, desperately seeking fresh oxygen as he feels liquid fill the cavities. His chest tightens further, the phantom hand squeezing his heart to lull its beating constricts unyieldingly, the fleshy organ squishing out between its invisible grip.

The miniscule amount of air left inside is forced out of him; a choked, wet noise following along the cough. Fluid as hot as a volcano’s freshly spewed lava dribbles from the corner of his lips, searing his skin and making him shut his eyes to endure the agony.

“Hm? Excuse me, Prince Leo.” The voice comes from directly in front of him, footsteps accompanying the deep resonance. Fingers with the temperature of dry ice burn his skin next as they gently grasp his chin and cheek to turn his head further to the side. His shoulders are the next to be turned sideways. “…Are you, by chance, finally awake?”

He wants to reply to their earnest query, but his chest only heaves more. When the coughs subside, he does try again, but to no avail. His tongue feels swollen and slow, stuck in place like it has been replaced with hard rubber.

“You must be. That’s good, but… I almost wish you’d stay in your realm of dreams, blissfully unaware of the pain. Hold still for a second… Though I suppose you don’t have the energy to move anyways.”

Their voice is gloomy, stabbing fresh wounds into his already injured heart. It prompts him to squint his eyes open again, just in time to see something white approaching him. The freezing temperature makes contact with his hot skin again, rupturing more of his nerves asunder. The area around his mouth is thoroughly wiped clean. When the person retreats, he can just barely identify the object as a cloth in their hand. The image of the hazy person walks back towards the basin at the desk, laying the used cloth on its rim and exchanging it for a clean one.

They come back to him, laying the new cold cloth on his forehead.

But he doesn’t pay them any more attention. Rather, his eyes are blearily transfixed on the basin. With the blazing orange light of the setting sun beaming in between the curtains, the crimson stains upon the white cloth seem to burst into flames.

It crackles apart like flicking embers, dancing in his vision even as the shadows creep upon the edges.

 

He feels sick.

Like his insides have liquified and his muscles have turned to stone. His senses have slowed just as much as his mind has; the sluggish way he comes back to himself and assesses his surroundings makes him realize just how far from reality he feels. He can’t pinpoint where his limbs start and end, can’t determine where he is or what position he is in. Is he alive? Is he dead? Who is he?

Who was he?

Is this Heaven or Hell?

He forces his heavy eyelids open, the task using up all of his energy both mentally and physically. The expanse of the smooth ceiling greets him instead of fluffy white clouds or the crumbling of charred earth as he stands underground. Regardless, whether it is day or night where he is, he can’t tell.

Suddenly, the taste on his tongue slips into his fogged mind. It’s bitter and medicinal, saturating the entirety of his oral cavity in its flavor. His tongue, numb and unresponsive, soaks in the essence, unable to escape. With every passing second as his eyes remain transfixed on the ceiling, a coppery taste becomes clearer, rising up from beneath the bitterness. It invades stronger and stronger until even the grainy texture of herbs and medicines shoved down his throat are overtaken.

It nearly makes him nauseous.

The twinge in his heart distracts him. A painful little beat that spreads like boiling water splashing across his chest. It’s different from before. Instead of his organ being forced into a halt by his own body, it’s like an entity is being set free from the cage of his heart. A relieving feeling as much as it is a feeling that aches from the deepest part of his soul – like goodbyes that are too abrupt and cannot be stopped.

Tear blurred eyes remain on the ceiling, images spreading out like reflections upon the flowing surface of water. Green starlight speckles the expanse of the smooth stone, turning the solid color into flamboyant galaxies like the ones residing in space. The jade star fragments explode one by one, bursts of sound accompanying their death and ringing his ears. The buzz remains constant as the emerald gems dusting the sky turns into bombs of foggy gas and booms. Green electricity skirts across the opaque mist, dancing across the six panels that hold him hostage in this so-called room.

The air shifts. Tiny sonic booms filling the atmosphere as more stars explode. The ringing in his ears is abruptly cut short just to be replaced by nothingness. Everything is quiet, even as his unfocused attention remains on the bursts surrounding him. Sound waves gust through the enclosed space, sending papers flying and rattling the furniture.

Sparks bouncing about set ablaze an unlit candle. The green flame that flickers dances ecstatically, angrily waving as it snaps its jaws, wick holding it hostage. The desk the candlestand rests upon jovially dances alongside it as the thunderous rumbles continue. Even if he can’t hear them, he knows they’re having the time of their lives right before his eyes. Inching slowly, the candlestand parties to the edge, tipping over like a dancer being dipped by their partner. It tumbles and rolls with metallic clangs, the caged green blaze being set free.

The edge of his bookcase becomes covered in emerald flames, ever so enticingly wrapping its warm embrace to each and every piece of literature lining the shelves indiscriminately.

Cheek pressed against his pillow, his eyes stare at the chaos, unbothered. He trails his gaze upwards; attention being caught by the foreign text hiding in plain sight amongst the Terrian language.

His heart aches, but can’t bring himself to move as the dark galaxy above him collapses, blanketing him in its starless sky.

 

The flipping of paper draws his consciousness to the surface; an urgency in the sound that wakes him from his deep slumber and worms concern into his weakening heart. The tips of his toes and fingers are frigid, even as the blaze that wraps him up thickly makes his body sweat. The pages flip again. With the miniscule ounces of energy within him, he turns his body, feeling a strange, subtle sloshing coming from within.

A person with a man’s body frame, their hair dark, and dressed in a white garb, sits at the only desk in the room; fingers pressing into their forehead in frustration and expression set in a worried crinkle. Their other hand holds a writing brush, the tool swinging as their fingers fidget with it.

“Curis? No, it can’t be that simple of a spell. It needs to be stronger.” They turn the page in the thick book before them. “Medeor… Mm… Maybe that letter is… So, that would make it Mederi. Tch, that won’t do.” The person scoffs under their breath, desperation lacing their voice like an unrelenting curse that has already taken root. “This word that I was taught, Sanesco, if that’s that… Then this letter must be…” They sharply inhale a breath between their teeth.

He watches the person with absent interest. The words they mumble are foreign to his ears, yet just slightly familiar.

What is this person doing? But he knows this person, doesn’t he? Their features are blurred slightly, but he definitely recognizes them. Their name, however, eludes him. It lays asleep in the back of his mind, locked away by the haze the world has been overshadowed with.

“Damn it.” The person hisses. “If I mess up the spell, it’ll only make his condition worse. I should’ve learned the whole language when I had the chance.”

His next inhale bubbles within him intense heat. He coughs harshly, the powerful jerks moving his body into a curled position more so than his limbs would on their own. The sound is wet, even to his fading hearing abilities. A moist substance claws out of his throat like escaping monsters finally tasting freedom. It splatters right before him, staining his vision in scarlet.

“Prince Leo!” The chair is pushed back with a squeak, hurried footsteps coming to his side. Their hand is on his back, steadying him as the coughs ravage his body. “Stay on your side, just like this. I’ll hold you.”

The sounds of splashing water are nothing but background noise to the rattling of his lungs echoing in his head.

When the coughs subside, a cold cloth is pressed to his lips, wiping away what came out of his body with a gentleness that rivals the softest kitten.

“…You won’t last much longer like this… You keep coughing up so much blood.”

He desires to reach out, to soothe this person who is so tender with him. They shouldn’t sound so despondent.

It will be okay.

But his muscles refuse to listen to his command, his eyes slipping closed again of their own accord as his energy is run dry.

“Leo. I have to try using magic on you.”

By the sounds of their muffled footsteps to his ears, he presumes they walk back to the desk, only to come back. His tongue, too, refuses his commands; uselessly licking at the back of his teeth.

They let out a frightened breath, the sound shuddering in the quiet space. “I used what I knew to translate this spell, though there is no guarantee it’s correct. However, the spells I do know haven’t been effective up to now. I need you to trust me.”

He is pushed onto his back slowly. With the movement, he manages to slide his eyelids open just a crack. First, white rules his sights. A cold feeling pressing into his forehead is his only clue as to what it may be. Next, the glow of a bright magic crystal greets his eyes, pulsing in one of the person’s hands as a book occupies the other.

“It’s a panacea kind of spell. At least, that’s what I gathered from the text. Please… Believe in me.” The person swallows so harshly that he can hear it echo against the humming magic. “Opapanacis.”

Bright light encompasses the room. Instead of making him blind with white, it closes his connection to the world and drifts him out to sea peacefully; drowning him to the depths where the sunlight doesn’t penetrate.

 

People are shouting.

Beyond the world he resides in, people are angry.

Fighting through the shadows, he takes it step by step. His hands out in front of him carefully search for anything in his way, anything that may halt his hesitant journey. Looking in all directions, he sees nothing but the darkness – curling in ways that are beyond his imagination and laughing gleefully with wicked teeth flashing in the bizarre shade.

The noise draws his attention back.

“What do you mean you cannot identify his illness?! You are the doctor!”

“I’ve never seen something like this before, nor do any of the medical books in the library have any clear clues.”

Is he supposed to listen? Lost in this lonely world, it is the only source of companionship he has found for what feels like a lifetime. Even if it is an unhappy moment, maybe it will give him solace.

He runs towards it, his feet feeling like they’re stomping against clouds.

“What do you suggest we do?!”

“Your Highness, please lower your voice. Prince Leo still needs rest.”

“What of his condition then?”

“It’s…”

Hm? The person sounds reluctant to answer. He wonders what’s wrong. If he gets out of here, can he help this person? He would try with all of his might! People should be happy and smile, after all. Live every day to the fullest! Hardships only last for a moment, they just have to get through it together.

Maybe he can even sing his song; the melody that plays spontaneously in this strange place full of laughing shadows and dead silence. In this outlandish, contradictory place. Perhaps it is the laughter that is in his head, or mayhap it is the silence that tricks his mind, but it doesn’t matter. Music is music, no matter what it may sound like. His only friend. To him, this place that he feels he has resided in for so long, is a cage that teases him with paths towards salvation only to have him run forever and yank them away.

This is probably no different; but just a glimpse of a world not his own is all he desires.

Perhaps this door, finally, will have a key to turn its lock.

“Answer me, Jin.”

“He still breathes.”

“What will you have me do?”

“…Terra doesn’t have the means to identify this. You have leant me your power and I have done everything at our disposal.”

“You are telling me to seek aid from our enemies?!”

“There is nothing else-!”

“We cannot rely on the other kingdoms! We will never rely on them! That would be the end of us. The end of Terra! Our long, valiant history would be put to shame. Our ancestors would roll in their graves and cry tears of despair as we drag their name through the mud!”

“Sometimes you have to bow your head-”

“In these times of war?! Have you gone mad?!”

“Sirs…!”

“Hey, I told you no one is to come up here.”

“Quiet, Jin. Under my orders, this knight comes to me. What is your report?”

“The messenger returns with news that any persons of the description given has not been seen at the village.”

“That useless Prince Guard. Where did that man go? I will mark him a traitor to the state if he does not appear before me soon. I will have his head.”

He doesn’t know why, but the words make him scrunch up his brow and press his lips into a deep frown. This conversation – what was a light towards salvation – has made him want to turn away and slip back into the snickering shadows that mock him in the same moments it embraces him warmly with cold, slithering fingers.

Turning his back to the door outlined in shiny sunlight, he runs back home.

 

The infernal blaze is lifted off of him. His body suddenly being awash with cool air nearly makes him shiver, but his body’s response doesn’t trigger.

His arm is grasped gently by another, getting lifted into the air and even more carefully stroked with something much colder. The soft cloth glides up and down his arm, rounding over his shoulder and under his arm. His shirt is peeled open, both sides laying splayed against him with the buttons resting upon his heated skin.

“Just what have you caught…?”

The musings of a tired soul catch his ears.

The cold cloth runs down his body methodically.

“With a new environment, comes new forms of illnesses. The populace may have already become immune, but perhaps you were weak to it.” They pause, the sounds of water sloshing taking the place of their voice. “Still, the soldiers that returned from the same region are all healthy. They are even preparing for their next assignment and recovery effort already.”

The next to be worked on is his other arm. It gets the same treatment as the first; swipes carefully running up and down the length and in between his fingers. The wetness it leaves behind chills his body; damp skin taking in the air too much so.

“I haven’t caught it yet… Counting the days you travelled back and when you fell ill, I should have shown symptoms by now if I have. You even looked pretty energetic when you returned.”

The submerging noises and the proceeding harsh dripping resounds again.

Gentle hands move onto his legs.

“Not contagious? But then how did you come to get it…? Maybe it has a different method of infection than through the air. I’ve been careful to keep everything and myself clean…” The person’s voice is but a whisper ghosting across his damp skin. “Just what did you do in that place?”

His other leg now, along with his toes.

“That Prince Guard of yours was with you the whole time. Perhaps the reason no one can find him is because he, too, collapsed somewhere and no one is the wiser.”

His fingers twitch, but do no more than that. A wave of sour aching spreads from within his chest cavity.

“…No, it can’t be.” The cloth that makes passes across his body halts. The person’s voice drops a decibel lower, baritone nearly inaudible to his ears. “If it was poison… A slow acting poison would no doubt pinpoint the fault on the townspeople. Even if the Prince Guard tasted it himself first, he wouldn’t have known. You went there specifically to fix the water problem, and we gave you water to take with you. There’s no way you drank any from the town. If it was a lethal dose of fast acting poison, that would put the blame on someone within the castle walls.”

What were the two of them talking about, again?

“The chefs, themselves, are the poison testers for each other, so that… can’t be. Someone else would have fallen terribly ill.”

He is turned onto his side, his back getting the same treatment as the rest of his body. The hands that tend to him so carefully send a cool trill down his sluggish nerves.

“Nothing Terra has can identify poison. Only the knowledge collected in textbooks and careful observation. I have never seen a slow acting poison cause so much sudden damage, though.”

He is settled back into a flat, supine position upon the plush bed he lays on. His shirt is replaced with an even softer article of clothing.

“Prince Leo…” Their voice trails off. The rustling of the comforter pierces his ears next. “How are you still fighting? We aren’t supposed to believe in things like this, but maybe it really is some kind of miracle or a blessing.”

Is he fighting something? His head is so hazy; the music notes that usually dance as lightly as a feather blowing in the breeze in his mind have all been driven to the ground and cemented down.

“Or perhaps it’s a curse from Devil himself. Well, with that thought, maybe it really is some kind of magical spell. We live in that kind of world, after all. Hey, Prince, did you run into a demon on your journey? You didn’t get tempted by their sweet, seductive words, did you? Accept something weird?”

Devil? He knows one… he thinks. Someone who is similar, yet not quite. A spawn, probably. Subordinate?

A cold patch is laid on his forehead, staying there even as the person retreats. The cool sensation spreads like a lake icing over as winter arrives.

Inwardly, he whines a languid noise. He’s sleepy again. This person is asking too many questions that require answers too far out of reach. Though his eyes have remained closed for the entirety of the exchange with this person, he feels his consciousness slip back into the dark recesses of his mind.

The affectionate hold on his hand pauses his voyage into the realm of transient dreams, but only fleetingly so. “Please live, Leo.”

 

Clattering and the sounds of people running at full speed. Shouts – indiscernible to his ears – come from a faraway place, muffled directly by the thick walls separating their two worlds. Metallic clangs accompany the inharmonious melody with sharp spikes, a dissonance in what could be a beautiful story of unknown origins. The orchestra crescendos, drawing louder and louder as it continues on.

A foreign instrument joins the fray, the loudest musician of them all. A chair scrapes against the hard floor, skittering and squealing, before another pair of footsteps overpowers its tune. The click of a lock. The gust of air as a door is swung open and closed once more.

The lock snaps back into place, chaining him where he remains.

Vibrations shake the very foundations of his prison cell, the tremors slipping into his body through the pads of his fingers. It stabs needles into his numb, melting skin, shaking his heart awake and swirling the liquid in his lungs into a hurricane. The wheezing breath he takes piercing into the melody like a miscued instrument, unexpected and out of tune.

The song of multiple pairs of sprinting footsteps reaches its climax; badges, chains, weapons, and the like clanging together with the flaps of clothing rustling with the forced penetration against the stagnant air. More than a single pair of heavy shoes and one pair of lighter footwork pound upon solid stone.

“Princess! Halt! You cannot come up here!”

“We do not wish to restrain you, Princess!”

“Be quiet!” A broken voice cries out. “Oof!”

“Ow, you ran with full speed, didn’t you?” The familiar baritone of the person who was in here with him resounds from beyond his hazed dream. “Now, now, Princess Ruka. You are not usually one to break the rules.”

“Let me see him!”

“I’m afraid I cannot allow you to do that.”

“He’s my one and only brother!”

The light, feminine voice makes his heart clench more tightly than it has the entire time he has remained within the dark world he is chained to and cannot escape from. It is more painful than when his heart stops for just a few moments and restarting like it is gasping for air after being nearly drowned.

“…I understand. But we still don’t know what has afflicted him. You have to stay safe.”

“Ruka!” Another feminine voice calls out from a distance.

“I don’t care!” the first one wails their agony tearfully. “I don’t care! Why do I have to be princess?! I don’t want to be!”

“Ruka, this is not proper behavior for you, young lady! Think of your people!”

“You, mother, are so cold! How can you say that?”

“Princess, the prince is resting. Please lower your voice.”

“Why can’t I see him?” The sobs make his heart sink into his stomach, as though it isn’t already partially liquified and pooling within. “Preparations are already being made for me to possibly rule after you and father, don’t think I haven’t noticed! Big brother is…!”

“Ruka, watch your tongue, dear. I do not wish to see my very own son in such a state, either.”

“I want to see him. If… If this… I want to see him! Please, mother!”

“…I too, wish to see him.” The less hysterical of the two feminine voices replies solemnly. “However, we cannot risk that. Neither for you or for me. Knights, please restrain my daughter.”

“Wha- Mother! Hey, release me!”

They’re crying again. Wailing so harshly their voice trembles and cracks.

He wants to reach out and wipe their tears; to tell them that everything will be okay.

“I apologize for the commotion, Doctor Jin.”

“No need, I understand. I will do all I can.”

“We are in your debt.”

“Nonsense, My Queen. The prince is the type who people easily love and he returns the sentiments freely. I am no different.”

He can’t get the cries out of his mind, the shadows mimicking the noise and burying him in it like a tumbling avalanche.

 

Once upon a time, he finds himself within his own skin. It prickles like pins and needles are stabbing their sharp tips into him. A piercing kind of pain that washes over him like a wave of water from underneath a thick layer of ice. And yet, underneath the heavy fabric that blankets him, his fever bakes his body within it. He’s hot and he’s cold; he’s both and he’s neither.

His limbs refuse his commands to move. Even his tongue doesn’t want listen and lick his dry lips. His bones feel like they have been reconstructed out of a jelly dessert, while his tongue becomes overgrown with cotton. Only just does he realize his fingers and toes remain attached to his body, the numbing swell giving him the barest of sensations.

Or perhaps those sensations are just the ghosts of former glory – like the riant shadows that mock him without fail, yet embrace him safely.

The wheezing in his lungs reaches his ears, rattling echoing within his mindscape with each and every sharp inhale. It’s hard to breathe and his chest burns like hellfire. His heart pumps against his ribcage, about to break the bones and burst free with its despairing beats. The winded whistles coming out of his throat as it tightens with every pained breath he takes disperses within the oppressing, stagnant atmosphere. As though it was never there.

He’s imprisoned here.

He cannot escape, limbs chained in place and voice stolen away. As have his eyes, his ears, his sense of touch and taste. Even the smells surrounding him give him no clues to the answers he is seeking.

He’s immobilized to this reality that has stopped all functions. A world that will sooner decay than evolve and grow old. How long does he truly have to endure this cruel plane of existence? He desires to be set free, albeit he doesn’t quite know where he will go next.

Who is he?

Where is he now, other than within the moving darkness that shelters him and tortures him?

He wants to find out, discover the vast world that has been shrouded from him. Even if it means parting with what holds him here.

Was he fighting for something? Someone?

He doesn’t recall. It niggles at the back of his thoughts, in the deepest corner covered in forgotten memories and abandoned melodies.

A cold sensation upon his forehead shocks him out of his musings. The blaze ravaging across his body pitters out in smoke, embers dying away after one final goodbye. The skin on his forehead relishes in the vapor of cool air that brushes across it, like the sensation of condensation misting from the solid surface of a cup.

His spirit is lighter than he has ever felt it. Perchance the key to his prison has finally turned.

Chapter Text

The castle, outlined in the sun’s backdrop like a shining angel’s halo, inches closer with every step. The detailed stonework is hidden away by the shadows, making it seem like nothing more than an imposing fortress, alone amidst the surrounding forest. A place hidden away that holds either something precious or something wicked – to keep it protected or to keep it out of sight for eternity. Out of sight from the watchful eyes of the people, it may one day turn into nothing but a forlorn myth spoken only in hushed tones like gossip.

A legend that holds more clandestine truths than anyone will ever come to believe anymore.

A dirty little secret.

The tall towers placed on each corner of the castle loom over the army of trees marching at their front door. Watchtowers, sniper units, family heirlooms, a locked away princess; he can only guess what lays within their secretive depths, sealed behind steep stairwells and heavy locks. The towers pierce into the heavens, as though brandishing their swords and challenging the angels themselves.

The atmosphere is subdued, an oppressive air even greater than the all-stone structure towering above. The closer he gets, the harder it seems to act freely. It urges him to hold his breath and to walk with caution – the moment he isn’t wary will be the moment he is stabbed from behind. The castle is quiet. Even the trees do not dance as lively as when he left; instead, stilling despite the gentle breeze and hiding away their loved ones within their branches and leaves.

His shoes crunch the soft gravel beneath him as he walks down the path proudly, shoulders squared and head held high. His eyes scan the perimeter, noticing the restless calamity that shakes the very earth. Soldiers march on their assigned paths, patrolling with distrustful, anxious faces – some even confused as to what their comrades know that they do not. As he gets even closer to the gates, those apprehensive expressions morph slowly into anger, soldiers scowling with their brows furrowed, lips pressing tightly together.

What an annoying bunch the humans are. Emotional beyond control.

One of the soldiers stationed at the gates notices him first. Their eyes widen and their back straightens, pivoting swiftly on their heels and yelling over their shoulder. “Sound the alarm!”

…Alarm?

He puts a hand to his chest, absently stroking the magic carved into it. The incantation remains strong, pulsing just beneath his skin and concealing away his true features.

“The Prince Guard returns!” The phrase echoes like a tidal wave, rushing into the interior with haste from person to person.

He stops, feet a narrow width apart. The gentle breeze that brushes by is in sharp contrast to the clunky way the soldiers surround him, tranquility instantly transforming into a hostile air. He stands just beneath the arch of the front gates as they brandish their weapons, sharp points aimed at his neck reflecting the bursting sunshine.

“A delightful welcome back.” He says with the utmost of sarcasm poisoned into his voice. “To what do I owe such a pleasure?”

“The king is to have a word with you.” The leader of the group, standing directly in front of the gates, answers. “You are suspected of treason!”

Treason? To this kingdom?

Impossible.

Instead of voicing his thoughts, however, he raises an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

A sudden, booming voice commands the disorderly soldiers from the castle doors. “Knights! Bring him to the throne room!”

“Yes, My King!”

And with a blade threateningly pricking at his clothing and tearing a hole into the back, he is forced to step into the fortress and through the heavy double doors leading into Terrian Castle’s throne room. The king is the only member of the royal family present; more guards than even those being sent out on campaigns flanking his sides. Without needing to look directly, he can feel the hostility radiating off of their persons.

If worse comes to worse, he can just as easily kill everyone in this room and escape. However, with his status and Inferna’s precarious position, perhaps he can’t. He’d have to teleport away and save the bloodshed for later.

Still, he wonders what atrocious felony he has committed to warrant this response. There is always a chance he has been discovered and ratted out, but he feels that if these humans have found out that he is a demon, they would not even entertain the thought of bringing him into their castle. Rather, they would have chased him out the moment they spotted him just beyond their gates, flinging fire arrows his way and loading cannons.

“Izumi Sena.” The king says his name in a deep voice filled with anguish.

“It is pretty unjust of you to accuse an innocent man of treason.” Izumi replies blandly. “Do I not even get to have my say? That only makes you a tyrant.”

“Watch your tongue, you crooked mercenary!” A knight blurts out loudly from the sidelines. “I knew we shouldn’t have trusted you!”

He almost chuckles at the title but holds his smirk.

“Silence!” The king booms, anger coming out in a rush. “Prince Guard Izumi Sena! You are being suspected of neglecting your post and allowing the prince to fall at the hands of traitors!”

Fall?

His expression becomes flat, suddenly not as amused by the situation as he was previously. Leo is fine. He would know. “If you have forgotten, Your Highness, I was ordered to check multiple areas of interest that have sent out missives of distress on the prince’s commands. I did as I was told.”

He speaks the truth, funnily enough; even if Leo had only said it in farce to cover up his identity and true objective. On his way back from Inferna, nevertheless, he truly did check around the next village they are to visit and its surrounding area.

“Prior to that order, you allowed the prince to consume something that ravaged his body during your journey to the Town of Malachite. Perhaps even poisoned him yourself.” The king informs.

Humans are so annoying.

“Are you saying he has fallen ill?” Izumi asks, a growl building deep in his throat. “Then I ask you, if I was the one to slip poison into his meals or into his drink, why would I return? I was released outside of these castle walls without fuss on orders that I did not need to heed. I was free to run away and accept the high bounty on the prince’s head. But, instead, I stand before you now, having returned from my mission as promised by our contract.”

His personal matters aside, humans are far too emotional when in distress. To readily confide and trust in a person one moment, only to turn their backs and bare their dulled fangs in the next without a second of consideration. How does this communal species survive when they brandish their weapons on each other so eagerly? Any form of trust is difficult to come by, yet is more easily broken than glass artwork falling to the ground from the top of trees.

There is no loyalty to them, nor is there order. They do not belong to, nor wish to belong to, Inferna or Caelem.

Though they crave companionship, perhaps the only way this species can subsist is through solitude. Even from themselves.

The king grinds his teeth together, weighing the words heavily in his mind. “You may be here to serve a second dose. Even if I were to ask, I would not trust your words. Not at this time.”

Izumi sniffs, “And how else would you have me prove myself?”

After being so unfairly treated, however, he isn’t really all that interested in doing so. He’d much rather raze this kingdom to the ground in his irritation.

…But Leo is another matter.

“…If you lend us your knowledge of magic and cure the prince of his poison, then I will pardon you entirely.”

“How are you so sure it is a poison? Can it not be some terrible, internal disease?” Izumi stares at the man with hard eyes. “Furthermore, sir, magic is no cure all. There are things that do not ever become reality, even if you wish for it with all of your soul and waste it away.”

The only true panacea in their world is vampire’s blood, after all. Of which is not easily obtainable and not freely given out. Furthermore, God does not allow such things to exist, only their Devil plays with greed and lust readily; sending it out into their world with glee and excitedly waiting for the show to begin.

“You are to use your powers for the good of the kingdom.” The king replies just as sternly. “And are under strict supervision until otherwise proven.”

What a joke.

If this injustice is how humans treat their allies, they must not have any in the first place.

“Supervise me? Who do you have in mind, Your Highness?” Izumi asks challengingly. He has thoroughly had enough of this game. Doesn’t Leo need help? Every second the Terrian King runs his mouth and wastes his breath is another second that Leo’s life slips away.

“Take away his weapons!” The king orders, face still set in an unsightly scowl.

The knights surround him again, overconfident in front of their ruler and the so-called power that they believe they hold over him. With a blade nicking at the skin of his neck, Izumi holds still as the sword at his side is yanked away unceremoniously. A soldier still holds the spear to his exposed skin as another takes the sword away. His eyes trail after it absently.

The sword certainly won’t like it. Izumi can already hear it hissing within its scabbard. Unfortunately, it truly will be his problem if it suddenly decides to cut off the heads of anyone within its vicinity in its hissy fit. With that responsibility looming overhead, he silently sends a soothing trill of magic, urging it to sleep and promising to come retrieve it soon.

“Do you have anything else?” The soldier holding the spear to Izumi’s neck asks loudly.

“Check and find out.” Izumi taunts. “If you dare.”

The soldier looks ready to retort with a loud bark, however, the king interrupts, “Enough. Bring the doctor in!”

The heavy double doors open with a slow swing, allowing the sunlight streaming in through the corridor windows to penetrate into the low-lit throne room. A lengthy man with shaggy black hair and dressed in a doctor’s white garb slips in languidly, face awash with a tired complexion. His footsteps are as heavy as the bags under his eyes as he comes to stand by Izumi’s side, shooing away the soldier holding the spear menacingly as though he is unconcerned about hierarchy even in front of the king.

Perhaps the man is too tired to truly care.

“Let’s get this over with. I have a patient that needs my full attention.” Jin says, almost accusingly.

“You are being disrespectful, Doctor Jin.” The king huffs resentfully. “I do this for the good of the kingdom and for the prince! You should be honored that I have placed such faith in you.”

Jin sighs, relenting. “Your Highness.”

“And you, Izumi Sena. Keep in mind that you will be marked a traitor at the slightest of moves that I do not approve of.” The king continues on to say. “Lock them up.”

Another knight comes forward from behind the king, a metallic clang ringing from the chain in their hands.

Acting irrationally and then trying to save face by issuing commands that give the audience power. What a complete absurdity this all is. Puffing out one’s chest and pretending to be high and mighty is nothing more than a vulnerable and cornered animal crying out in hopes of scaring away its killer. If the Terrian King has the confidence to display such behavior in front of allies, he will undoubtedly do so in front of his enemies, as well; flaunting power as though it is a rare treasure that only he is in possession of. But intangible power is nothing more than words if one cannot protect their position with their own strength.

As such, there may be nothing that can ever save this place now. It is already tumbling down, without any outside interference.

After Inferna tried so hard to do it themselves, too.

Terra will be its own ruin. As is the path the humans seem to choose over and over again; repeating history as though it has never happened.

As the two of them walk towards Leo’s bedroom, escorted by a band of knights trailing after them, the chain between them brushes against his hand coldly. Izumi silently sucks in a sharp breath, holding in the harsh words just aching to be spit out. The pinching he feels in his wrist does nothing but irk him further.

“I, undoubtedly, could kill you, even without my weapon.” Izumi remarks under his breath just low enough so that only the man walking beside him will hear the threat. “Being a doctor won’t help you.”

Jin chuckles deeply. “I am well aware. You can use magic at any moment to break these handcuffs, as well, I assume. However,” He pauses, taking a peek over his shoulder. “I also know that you are quite fond of the prince, just as I am.”

Izumi turns the opposite way defiantly. “On who’s words?”

“Just personal observation.” The doctor laughs again.

He doesn’t feel the need to answer the quip, letting the lull in their conversation remain in the air. Their group walks down the corridors, void of any castle workers; the silence only being broken by their footsteps and the jingling of decorations upon their uniforms. Eventually, they come upon the stairwell that leads up to Leo’s bedroom.

Jin, with his unshackled hand, waves the knights to a stop. “The order remains, no one is to go beyond this point. I’ll be fine.”

“Sir!” The knights answer with a swift salute. Two of the group take up their posts on either side of the stairwell’s arching entrance while the rest retreat back the way they came.

Is all of this really necessary if he is to be left alone with the doctor in the end, anyways? Just what kind of display is the Terrian King trying to show? For all of his power and authority, Izumi sees nothing but a frightened mouse running away as it is being chased by a snake. A useless charade that ends in the same outcome. For the ruler of an entire kingdom, the king is making irrational decisions – no matter how much it may give his soldiers a dangerous false sense of authority and raise overconfidence levels.

“Don’t blame the king too much.” The doctor’s baritone voice slips into his ears like a whispered serenade as they climb the stone stairs within the dark and damp passageway.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“I’m sure you’re thinking it. Hell, I would be angry if he accused me so blatantly in front of an audience without notice or proof.”

Izumi flicks his eyes towards his fellow prisoner, the chain attaching them together clanging as they climb. “Aren’t you going to be the one getting accused of treason for saying such words?”

“If even free speech is taken away and is a cause for being sent to the guillotine, then there isn’t much hope left.” Jin shrugs. “But the king is just a worried father. It has been… Touch and go, at best. There were plenty of times when I thought we lost him. Almost like his heart stopped completely. Honestly, I don’t know how he is still alive.”

He presses his lips together, humming a soft sound. “I see. His symptoms?”

Though he guesses it doesn’t really matter, he is just asking for propriety’s sake.

“Are there specific spells for specific symptoms?”

“Of course, there are.” Izumi sniffs. Finally, they reach the end of their journey through the stairwell, stepping back onto a vast, horizontal floor filled with sunlight. “You can’t treat a summer cold with a spell meant for the drowned.”

“A high enough fever that rivals a furnace, dangerous to the human body, yet the tips of his fingers and toes are as frigid as ice at the top of the highest mountain. He’s coughing blood and almost looks like he’s paralyzed, though I can’t say for sure. He has been unconscious for a majority of the time. A lot of trouble breathing, and when I check, his heart also seems to stop at times, giving me a heart attack, as well.” Jin lists off. “So, do you think you can cure him?”

He hears the hope lacing every breath and word that comes from the doctor’s lips.

Izumi inhales deeply, unintentionally getting a whiff of the scent of blood even out in the corridor. “I’m no healer, but… It’s not like I don’t know how.”

“Instead of my king, I’ll say my thanks to you.” Jin breathes sincerely, his soft tone making Izumi clench his teeth. “He’s grateful, as well, I’m sure. He just has a lot on his shoulders. Even if things don’t go well… I believe in you.”

“A bold statement for you to say.” He replies slowly.

Izumi is doing this for himself, nothing more. He doesn’t… need the gratitude. He’s a selfish demon ruled by pride; there is not a single thing in this world that he would do and somehow not benefit from.

Leo’s bedchamber is in front of them. The odor of coppery blood permeates the air strongly, slipping out from the small crack between the door and the floor. In the aroma, there is a tinge of something that nearly pierces his tongue with its scent alone. Izumi swallows thickly as Jin puts his hand to the doorknob. Undoubtedly, Leo’s organs are deteriorating – even his heart smells as though the constant absent of oxygenated blood as it halts its beating is decaying it from within.

When the door is pushed open, Izumi nearly closes an eye as the saturated air slams into his face. The mixture of the scent of the dying is nearly overpowering. The frontlines of war – battlefields filled with gore – are similar. The only odor that seems to be missing is the scent of gunpowder. Even the bitterness of medicinal plants and antiseptics mimic the backlines.

Jin takes familiar steps inside, pulling Izumi along. Looking at the motionless boy, who is usually so energetic and loud, laying upon his plush bed surrounded by medical supplies clenches Izumi’s heart. Leo’s face is pale and slick with sweat, stray strands of limp hair sticking to his forehead. Though his chest rises and falls underneath the covers unevenly but there nonetheless, Leo’s ragged breathing scratches at Izumi’s ears like the sharpest of claws grinding against solid rock.

“I’ve done all I can.” Jin says solemnly, his voice dipping low to match the heavy atmosphere. “I leave him to you, now.”

The two of them carefully maneuver around each other as the handcuffs continually chain them together. The metallic clinks echo in the room louder than it should. Izumi steps close to Leo’s bedside, staring down at the man who holds the other half of their blood signed contract. The man who constantly – constantly – drags Izumi into his own pace without remorse and always smiles brilliantly while doing so.

Izumi reaches out with his free hand, hovering his palm directly above Leo’s blazing forehead.

Leo doesn’t have to worry. Izumi will take it all within himself.

As he allows his magic to target what ails Leo and draws it out, he simultaneously sends out an icy mist to pacify Leo’s body – soothing Leo’s mind in the process as the fever wanes away. Though the old scent of sweat and blood drenches the room, Izumi can pinpoint the moment Leo’s lungs drain of the crimson liquid. Leo’s organs have gotten a taste of this sickness, decaying them from within as it attacks the fleshy cells; now it is time for them to begin healing. Izumi even releases Leo’s muscles from the grip of paralysis, taking away the command to stop responding.

Within moments, the prince’s pale face flushes with warm color, and the rise and fall of his chest becomes steady without the sound of wheezing air whistling through the room.

Izumi allows the cool mist to encompass Leo’s mind a little longer before pulling away. He tastes Leo’s ailment on his tongue, but it doesn’t bother him so much as it is like a sour candy he has eaten since childhood.

“That should be all of it.” Izumi trails off in a whisper. He licks his lips, welcoming the tangy flavor that runs freely through his veins within the magic particles that have absorbed it wholly.

Jin hurriedly checks Leo over – pushing Izumi a step back – comparing Leo’s temperature with his own and feeling Leo’s fingertips. The doctor even goes so far as to both press his fingers into Leo’s pulse point in the neck and lean his ear close to Leo’s chest.

“All of it? Really?” Jin asks, excitement lacing his voice. “This is amazing.”

Izumi looks off to the side, feeling uncomfortable under the sudden attention. It’s not really that out of the ordinary or spectacular. It is something he has learned since his childhood. An innate knowledge that allowed such a task to come easy to him. But to the Terrian humans who covet magic as much as they despise it and slay it, who pretend that other species are welcomed with open arms only to stab them in the back within their embrace, perhaps it really is something remarkable.

The doctor continues on, “Do you think you can teach me?”

Izumi turns his eyes back to the human man, feeling his eyebrows lower in a slight scowl. The mess on Leo’s desk draws his eyes briefly. “I doubt you have strong enough magic crystals to perform it, let alone have the skills to control it even if you did.”

Now that he truly gazes at the dead magic crystals littered upon Leo’s desk, he wonders where Leo stashed away the one Izumi gave him when they first met face to face. Even so, though that one is particularly strong in comparison to the others and equipped with healing magic specifically, it still wouldn’t be able to achieve the technique he casted. If it had been used, it would likely lay as useless as the rest – a plain stone with its life used up and no results to show for it.

After all, what he did was more of an instinct than that of a learned spell. Something only he is capable of because of who he is; though it doesn’t make him special in any way within Inferna.

“That’s how it is, huh?” Jin releases a loud sigh. He raises his arms high, stretching his aching muscles and taking Izumi’s arm along with him. “The prince seems to be sleeping more peacefully now, thanks to you. We should change his clothing so he is more comfortable and get some rest ourselves.”

Izumi looks away again, suddenly feeling like he is intruding – in another sense, he is, however. “A prince is still a prince… I’ll turn away.”

“At least grab that pile of clothes next to the desk.” Jin says, extending one arm behind him as his other hand begins unbuttoning Leo’s shirt. “You know…”

“What is it?” He asks softly, also suspending one arm while the other grabs the fresh clothing.

“The news has been spreading like wildfire amongst the knights, even the kiddos out in the frontlines.” Jin accepts the pile from him. “Rumors of Terra’s new, unshakable Magic Soldier.”

Izumi steps backwards to stand beside the doctor, one of his arms crossing over his own abdomen as he keeps his back to the prince. “What’s your point?”

“They’re as curious as they are scared. Wanting to see with their own eyes this singular person that could help them turn the tides, yet not wanting to accept an outsider into their ranks.” Jin explains. The rustling of clothing fills their ears. “He feels a lot cooler, that’s good. Anyways, the former Prince and Princess Guards really seem intrigued. It’s too bad you all seem to keep missing each other. I swear they left just early this morning.”

“That so?”

“Although, thinking about it, weren’t you in the same town as the ex-Princess Guard and that group?”

“I left the prince in capable hands while I scouted around. It is still near a warzone, if you remember.”

“I remember.” The doctor replies, his voice deepening in his gravity. “…Maybe this illness was originally from a foreign land getting carried in by the war? The townspeople may have developed an immunity to it being so close all of their lives in the first place.”

Izumi shrugs. “Maybe. But there are a lot of disastrous diseases that pop out of nowhere without anything external entering your body.”

“Perhaps you’re right.” Jin trails off solemnly. “If only we had an answer…”

He doesn’t reply, allowing the doctor to drift away in his thoughts.

It is only after replacing Leo’s sweat soaked clothing with mild difficulty does Izumi truly see the worse in this situation he has found himself in.

“No.” He says sharply and quickly.

“I’m overworked and fatigued.” Jin, who lays on the cot spread out on the floor, whines dramatically. “Lay down with me. It’s bad for circulation if my arm stays raised like this.”

Izumi feels a hiss leave his throat as he remains standing, slightly hunched over. “I’m going to shatter this chain.”

“That will make our king lose his trust in you.”

“I’ll just melt it back together before he notices, whatever.” Izumi clusters his magic onto the tips of his fingers. “Don’t you want to do other stuff now that the prince is fine, too? Clean yourself up. Go get food. Sleep in your own bed.”

“Now, now.” Jin fearlessly folds his hand over Izumi’s that swirls with magic. Izumi retreats the particles back into himself. Leo would be troubled if this man gets hurt. “As much as all of that sounds like paradise, I’m supposed to keep my eye on you. Even if one of us needs to use the toilet. Now lay down so we’re both comfortable. Or at least sit down here. I’ll even put my one and only pillow in between us so we don’t get too close.”

Izumi groans aloud, sarcastically speaking his mind, “Please just tie me up to a chair and bolt it to the ground. You all are disregarding magic anyways, so, by your standards, there’s no way I could do something while like that.”

The doctor takes a moment to consider Izumi’s words. “Sure.”

“…Hah?”

It takes a while for them to call a knight to them and relay the message to the king. It takes even longer for a group of the more muscular soldiers to climb the stairs with a chair being weighed down by heavy, jagged rocks. The ruckus they cause should have woken the entire castle; if not for Leo’s weak state, the prince, too, would have startled into consciousness. The chair is dropped directly beside Leo’s bed, pressing up against the side table with a clack. With that done, one of the more important knights who has supervised the entire transport of the heavy chair from behind, fiddles with the ring of keys in their possession. Izumi recognizes them as one who is always by the king’s side, sometimes afar and sometimes nearby.

Jin thrusts out their adjoined wrists, waiting patiently as the lock is released.

Though it’s no problem for his demonic body to rapidly heal from, Izumi clicks his tongue at the pink marks lining his wrist where the handcuff was tightly pinched onto his limb. The power given behind a mere title is getting to the heads of these humans as they scramble to seem far more superior than they actually are.

And with that false sense of power, they unceremoniously shove him into the seat; his body slamming into its surface hard enough that, even with the weight of stones holding it down, the chair tilts off balance.

Is this justice and righteousness or just violence?

When the time comes, he really has a bone to pick with these humans. His hands may be tied – literally – but they won’t be forever.

Soon enough, the knights have one of Izumi’s calves chained heavily to a leg of the chair – the heavy metal crawling up from his ankle all the way to his knee, and not leaving a single centimeter of space visible. Next, they wrap a thicker chain around his abdomen, the clanging piercing his ears like the incessant beat of a drum just inches away. The knights make each wrap of his imprisonment tight, digging it into his skin even through his clothing.

“Don’t you think that’s too tight? He’s not going anywhere, and he has already proven himself.” Jin says. The doctor still hasn’t left the room though his is free now.

“Perhaps you do not understand, being a doctor,” The temporary leader of this ragtag group of knights informs in a haughty voice. “But people like him have all sorts of tricks up his sleeve. I’m sure of it. This may all be tomfoolery for all we know. The moment we take our eyes off him, the moment we let down our guard, he will surely assassinate the prince!”

“He could have killed the prince at any moment prior.” Jin sighs.

“It would be in the kingdom’s best interest to have a guard stationed directly-”

Jin interrupts, “You do not have the authority to command the Knights of Terra. You are of their same rank, even if the king allows you by his side at times. Leave the Prince Guard be. I will personally come check on them, so there is no need for you to. You have other duties, whereas it is mine to care for the sick and injured.”

The knight clenches their jaw, brow crinkling harshly. “Bind his hands with the handcuffs. Do not allow him even a moment to fiddle with the lock behind his back.”

Izumi stays quiet as the handcuffs that were just tossed aside are now back on him, this time chaining him to himself. These humans sure are volatile when things do not go exactly their way. Demons are the same, however, the situation would have already ended with one side bleeding and broken. A much preferable chain of events than needing to hold his tongue for the sake of delusional hierarchy.

Jin’s frown deepens. “Well, you did your job. So, out with you lot. This is still the room of my ill patient. I will not have you disturb him more. Furthermore, the order to not come up here still stands. If any of you are caught, the king will undoubtedly have a fitting punishment ready.”

With scowls thrown his way, Jin waits until the knights are already descending the stairs to speak again. “Sorry about that. Looks like I made things worse. I’ll go speak to the king and have this excessive use of force removed.”

Izumi waves his hand, making the chain sing a song with the motion. “It’s not a big deal. Just go eat and sleep.”

He can slip out any time he wants to, anyways, and no one would be the wiser.

“I’ll bring food up for you later, along with the key. Yell if you need anything or if the prince has some complications.” The doctor promises before leaving. The door clicks securely behind him, pressing firmly into its frame.

Save for Leo’s even breathing, the tightly sealed room becomes silent. Stagnant air hums like the oppressive chants of brainwashed followers, seeping into his skin and digging in its claws deeply. He will have to open a window later to let out the scent of the dying beckoning the ones left behind to follow them deep into the afterlife. Izumi slides his eyes over to Leo, briefly watching the human prince sleep easy; eyes moving rapidly behind his lids.

Izumi wonders what Leo dreams about.

The Kingdom of Terra? The war? His family? Him? Maybe even music notes floating in the breeze.

He reaches out slowly, fingers brushing away Leo’s unruly bangs from his forehead with a gentle sweep. For once, Leo’s hair is down, the length stopping just at his shoulders and fanning out thinly. The limp auburn is slowly regaining life, the softness that strokes his skin and the way the color brightens in his vision is testament to Leo’s recovering health. Or maybe he’s just seeing things, humans recuperate too sluggishly for any of it to be true.

The chain clinks, swinging into Leo’s shoulder. Izumi retracts his opposite hand, inadvertently stroking his knuckle down Leo’s warm cheek. Izumi pauses all of his movements, keeping his bent fingers against Leo. The prince turns slightly, pressing closer to Izumi’s fingers and sighing softly. The beating of Leo’s heart that thrums within Izumi’s sensitive ears calms; a languid pace of harmony lulling the oppressive room into slumber.

Leo moves with miniscule shifts, eventually coming to lay upon the bitter metal cuff squeezing tightly onto Izumi’s wrist. The prince crinkles his peaceful expression momentarily, but, nonetheless, continues to nuzzle into the back of Izumi’s hand. He stares at the prince inquisitively, patiently allowing Leo to soak in Izumi’s warmth and scent for another second longer. The metal cuff digs into Leo’s soft cheek, undoubtedly about to leave an impression if Izumi allows this cat-like cuddling to continue.

With a final stroke of his thumb passing across Leo’s cheekbone, Izumi retreats his hands, careful to keep the chain taut and away from the sleeping prince.

Izumi inhales deeply, leaning his head back to stare at the ceiling. The back of his head rests against the chair’s backrest, stiff wood digging into his skull. He closes his eyes; the stuffy, dim room setting its somber mood heavily upon his mind once more, pressing deeply into his soul.

“Save me, Leo-kun.” He groans half-heartedly into the silent room, voice soft and strained as it leaves his stretched neck.

There are only two Terrian humans in the whole world that he has come to tolerate and care for. And while he can’t make moves, himself, within Terra just yet, Leo is the only one he is willing to be under the command of.

Chapter Text

Whether he is being pulled up from the bottom of the ocean or he is falling from the tops of the clouds, he doesn’t know. Still, the land bathed in sunshine is drawing closer and closer as the seconds tick by; an insistent tug on something deep within him that he cannot possibly ignore. The sensations of heart sinking weightlessness wanes away, slipping off of his consciousness like silken water. It drops him back into his body, heavy with reality and the warmth that blankets him like the embrace of a mother to her newborn babe.

The curtains of his eyelids are no match for the bright light that penetrates them. His mind insists on this wakefulness, though his body is slow in accepting the transmission. He inhales deeply as he slides his eyes open lazily, like the first breath of real air he has had in a while. The haze in his vision mixes in with the streaming sunlight, flecks of dust shining like dancing diamond shards in his blurred delirium. Far off in the distance, movement catches his attention.

Fabric billows, flipping like a curtseying princess. It moves back and forth like she is dancing a waltz, the melody of her soul rising and falling to the notes she shows to the world. The spotlight of the sun smiles with her as they keep him enraptured to their performance; thanking him for his interest with a kiss of a chilled breeze on his cheeks.

He blinks, clearing away the fog just a little more to get a better view. Bright blue enters his gaze, tempting his eyes towards them next. It steals him away before anything can be done, unremorsefully capturing him and bringing him under their hypnotizing currents. Azure spheres illuminate midair, bobbing up and down and out of sync with each other. A dissonance that somehow resonates even more beautifully than the singing song birds. Its light competes with the sunbeams, twirling around each other like a battle dance.

His eyes sweep over each and every instance of the blue light floating like lost souls. Eventually he comes across the brightest pair of azures. They flicker and swim like the tropical ocean in the summer, swirling with gentle currents that lap against the shore. The blue that looks just as solid as it does transparent steadily intermingles between the two consistencies; never allowing him to catch up to their pirouettes across the stage.

The curtains are drawn, eyelids slipping closed for a moment. The vibration in the air hums in his ears, lulling him into the same weightless stupor he initially came from. It’s soothing and familiar, yet distinct from the one he intones from his own heart. It flows over him like seeping vapor, tickling his skin as much as it does his inner senses. His heart skips a beat as it recognizes the frequency.

He opens his eyes once more, landing his gaze on those twin azure orbs that glow like the saltwater ocean filled with vibrant coral and colorful creatures. The brilliance splashes across bangs the colored of the midnight moon, splashing into the strands of hair as vibrantly as ink painting the surface of pure white parchment. He wants to reach out, to touch the softness with his own hands and not only with his eyes.

The whispered name of his love exhales from between his lips in a breath so soft that his voice doesn’t even seem to appear with it.

Nonetheless, those azure orbs turn to him, the glow receding like the ocean tides. The colorful radiance dissipates and leaves behind clear eyes, a muter – but no less dazzling – azure staring right back at him. “You’re awake, Prince.”

Leo hums affirmatively, his body feeling weak and sluggish like it remains trapped within the realm of dreams. Still, he gives a tired smile. “Good morning, Sena.”

“It is midafternoon.” Izumi informs in a quiet voice.

“Mm… No one woke me?” He turns his head into his pillow, snuggling into it deeper and muffling his voice. “Did you send away the castle workers? You’re home early, by the way. Did you teleport?”

When Izumi remains silent, however, Leo peeks back upwards. The demon has his head slightly tilted; an inquiring look upon his sharp features. Despite the look, Leo can’t see any surprise lingering in his expression’s depths.

“It has been fourteen days since you laid your own eyes on me. Two since I’ve returned to this castle.” Izumi informs nonchalantly. “If that is early by your standards, then I suppose so.”

“Eh?!” Leo gasps, his voice raspy and disappearing even before the sound can completely take form. He pushes himself up on an elbow, but collapses back onto his pillow as his arm quivers. “Ow…”

“Hm. Perhaps it was too traumatic for a human.” Izumi says his thoughts out loud. A rare look of sympathy crosses his face like the lightest dusting of sugar on cake. “Do you think you can drink something?”

A glass of water floats into his sights as he weakly pushes himself back up. Luckily, Izumi seems to understand without words. As Leo reaches out to grab the glass with trembling fingers, the magic holding it steady midair doesn’t wane. Water soaks his tongue; he suddenly feels how parched his throat is, guzzling the liquid down like it will be his last. It races down his esophagus like a tidal wave, choking him as drops nearly slip away and reach his heaving lungs.

“Do you-” He coughs, turning his head back into his pillow. “Do you know what happened to me?”

“Ran a high fever, among other things.” Izumi replies. His eyes briefly speckle with bright blue illuminations like starlight as he places the glass back on the end table with magic. “You’re fine now.”

“I see…” Leo trails off in less than a whisper.

He presses the side of his face back into his pliable pillow, body sinking even deeper into his bedding as he is suddenly overwhelmed with weariness. With one half of his vision obscured by the silk covering of his resting place, his other eye roams over the man by his side. His gaze starts at Izumi’s questioning eyes and sinks lower. The demon’s creamy cheeks are still splashed with the azure glow, despite his eyes having gone back to their usual appearance.

Leo trails his eyes further downwards, landing on the floating jagged rock the size of one’s hand. It glows the same color as Izumi’s magic and bobbing to the same, gentle tune as the glass of water did. Looking beyond the ore, he spies many little rocks floating about, all shining brightly with the same ethereal light.

“What are you doing…?” He asks in a murmured whisper so faint it gets eaten away by the barrier of his cushion pressed against the side of his lips.

Still, Izumi hears it as though Leo is screaming from the bottom of his lungs, replying readily, “I’m refilling the magic crystals the doctor used up. I’m no healer, so it’s just free bound magic, but it’s still stronger than the scrapped mishaps they were.”

Leo hums delicately in response, signaling that he hears and understands the implications. “Thanks…”

His heart suddenly squeezes, like a lingering aftershock that his body remembers despite his mind not being able to. Vaguely, Leo recalls pain coursing through his veins and the unrelenting feeling of his lungs filling as though he were drowning despite standing on solid ground. He closes his eyes, inhaling deeply and feeling the ease in the action; allowing the phantom memories to fade back into his mind. There’s nothing to worry about.

Izumi is here with him.

“Are you hungry?” The demon’s voice is as low as Leo’s, a sound that gets taken away by the draft swirling in the room. A metallic tinkling rings in Leo’s ears just before he feels fingers press into his forehead. “You should be feeling better by now. Humans need to eat, don’t they?”

Leo huffs an amused sound. Absently, he wonders if Izumi has taken care of another human prior; it sure does sound like he learned the hard way that humans probably need more sustenance than demons. Despite the thought being humorous, however, Leo questions who it may be and where they are now.

This mysterious human who he envies.

Even as his stomach churns with sinful sentiments, it, nonetheless, remains empty. Leo blinks his eyes open slowly; his vision is filled with worn silver tints as the lethargy clears away. Jewelry?

His ears remind him of the tune that just played – the metallic clinks that seem to echo in the small space of his bedroom. As Izumi moves away, Leo hears its melody again. He keeps his attention on Izumi’s hands, noticing the thick bracelet on one, first, and then the other. The chain that is singing joylessly, however, makes his breath catch.

“Sena, what…” He can’t speak quickly enough as he pushes himself up again, ignoring the way his muscles – even his bones – protest. Leo can’t take his eyes off of the chain that is melted and secured into the cuffs that are tightly clamped onto Izumi’s wrists. “Why…?”

“Hm?” Izumi cocks his head again, confused.

The next thing that catches Leo’s attention is the empty rock Izumi was working on. The newly reborn magic crystal that patiently waited, hovering over Izumi’s lap, now rises higher into the air, joining the others in their swaying frolic. With the view clear of obstacles, Leo has a direct sight of the thicker metal chains that wind around the demon’s middle, attaching him securely to the piece of furniture he sits upon.

“You’re… You can’t move.” Leo swallows the thick saliva rising to the surface of his tongue.

“Ah,” Izumi makes a noise of understanding, yet shrugs. “You’re not going to ask me what I did?”

“This isn’t a time to joke around.” He hisses at the demon. His anger begins to boil just beneath the surface of his skin, heating up his chilled body hurriedly. “Who ordered this?”

Izumi stares at him for a moment, falling into a contemplative silence. “The king, who else?”

Leo forces his body to move to his command, no matter how many invisible hands seem to desperately cling onto his limbs. The cold air flitting about the room chills his bare legs and slips into his loose shirt like drifting icicles. With all of his strength, Leo hauls the heavy comforter over his shoulder, feeling his hair get tucked under its weight against the base of his neck.

“Where are you going?” Izumi asks, surprise slipping into his tone as he watches helplessly.

Leo feels a heaving cough climb up his throat like clawing cats, the thin wheezes piercing into his ears sharply. Just this much already makes his world spin on a tilting axis, but he has something he needs to do. Someone he has to fight for. “To my father.”

“Hey- ugh.”

Leo glances over his shoulder as he shuffles to the door. Izumi, with a pained face, has a hand on one of the many chains winding around him. Leo feels himself grimace deeper, tears nearly building upon his eyes. Even one of Izumi’s legs is bound tightly to the stone weighed legs of the chair, the fabric of his pants crinkling and pinched against the metal rings.

He turns back around, more determined than ever. His blanket swirls against the floor and drags behind him like the billowing curtains hanging beside his open bedroom window.

His bare feet slap against the solid, stone paved hallway. The skin on his soles scream with terror and agony as the cells are shocked from the cold temperature. Leo pulls the blankets around him tighter, warding away the surrounding atmosphere drenched with the same, unbearable bite, ready to clamp down. Yet, with every step, pins and needles seem to stab deep into his shins. They drill holes into his bones, threatening to crumble them to nothing but shards like the cremated.

The vibrations with every step race up his body, rattling against his suffering heartbeat and his heaving lungs as the organs desperately try to follow their own rhythm of survival. The further his journey continues down the dim corridors, the more his vision fades in and out, matching the wavering shadows running along the edges. No one stops him; no one is here. The scenery changes in a blink of an eye – in the moments he regains focus in his mind. Leo slaps a hand to the freezing wall, his body tilting dangerously off center. He blinks again to clear his vision.

Before him, the heavy doors to the office of the King of Terra.

He throws pleasantries and propriety to those who care; to those who would give him scandalized looks and cut him with words as sharp as swords. Leo pitches his weight into the heavy door, the joints and thin bones in his fingers aching as they bend unnaturally against the handle. With a loud clatter, it bounces against the frame before he manages to turn its doorknob fully. He falls inside of the room with unsteady momentum, his feet racing to catch his weight even as his legs are ready to give out.

“Leo!” A feminine voice yells in disbelief. Thin heels of tall shoes click quickly across the flooring, coming closer to him by the second.

“So, it was you, my son.” The relieved exhale of a deeper toned person gives is short lived as their voice gains strength. “What in the world are you doing out of bed?”

Leo staggers to stand steady, straightening his posture even as his voice cracks within his dry throat, “What is the meaning of this?!”

“Dear, you should lay down. Here, come sit, at least.” His mother gently puts her hands around his blanket wrapped shoulders, trying to urge him from his spot. “Where is the doctor?”

But Leo refuses to move, staring straight into his father’s green eyes. He stubbornly keeps their gazes locked; locked with the four – no, six – eyes that now swim in his vision as his father multiplies.

“What nonsense are you spouting now? Has your fever not yet broken?”

“To my Prince Guard!” Leo emphasizes. His voice is as unsteady as his head. “Why did you submit him to such cruelty? For no reason, at that.”

As his temper rises, so does the bile that threatens to heave its way up from his empty stomach. The lavishly decorated room adorned with trimmings like shining gold spin fiercely before his eyes. His knees wobble, rocking against each other in pressuring grinds. Desperately, he closes an eye to hold his psyche together, blocking away the swirling world full of nauseating concoctions of light and sensations.

“Is that what he has swayed you to believe?” His father asks somberly.

“Leo,” His mother calls out in concern right by his ear as he loses strength in his limbs. Carefully, she brings them to kneel upon the ground, a place unfit for a queen.

“He didn’t say a word to me. I saw it with my own eyes.” Leo insists, even in his weakened position. A growl rises from the last reserves of strength left within his body. “Release him.”

“Brother?”

The three of them turn to the new voice at the open doorway. Ruka stands just outside of the doorframe, petite hand covering her lips that are open in shock.

His father sighs, sweeping his eyes to address the guards who had accompanied Ruka. “Knights! Bring the prince to the infirmary.”

“Father!” Leo yells out. His unruly hair sweeps into his face, tickling his sensitive skin.

“I will release your Prince Guard personally.” The king digs into a locked drawer built into his desk, procuring a key from within its depths. “Ruka, we will discuss your duties as the princess at another time.”

Leo is swept away before he can gather enough strength to protest once more. The knights nearly carry all of his weight as they escort him to the infirmary managed by the castle doctor, Jin Sagami. His bare toes fearfully step forward with floundering steps directly beside the heavy boots of the soldiers, heavy comforter still dragging behind him and hiding away his naked legs. Unceremoniously, his body shivers with the walking breeze.

Upon reaching the sterile room, he is dumped onto a plush bed full of white sheets, the doctor’s murky amber gaze staring at him with exasperation.

“Really, that Prince Guard of yours…” Jin sighs good naturedly. He brings a tray full of medical knickknacks to Leo’s side, setting it down upon the spare space on the bed. “I told him to ring the bell if you woke up. We didn’t go to all of that trouble wiring a rope through the entire castle for nothing.”

Leo feels his head tilt, the weight of confusion pushing it down alongside gravity. Absently, his eyes rove behind Jin’s form and towards the wall, spying a bell tied to a sturdy rope next to the door that hasn’t been there before. So consumed with the thought of dissolving Izumi’s imprisonment, he had missed all of the strange signs and signals around the castle. He will have to follow the rope carefully on his way back to his bedroom to see where exactly they attach upon the walls and ceilings.

A temperature measuring device, imported from Caelem that doesn’t require magic, is thrust in front of his face expectantly. Obediently, Leo opens his mouth, allowing the chill metal to slide underneath his tongue. Closing his lips again, the two of them fall into silence as they wait.

Jin goes about creating a concoction with what else is on the tray. The short, but wide glass of water sits patiently as he tears open a packet. Its contents are poured into the glass like a crystal waterfall, dissolving within the transparent liquid and disappearing. As a small spoon clinks against the sides while Jin swirls it around, the device in Leo’s mouth beeps.

“How do you feel?” Jin asks, taking the thermometer and checking it.

“Fine… I guess.” Leo grumbles. Hidden within his large shield made from his blanket, he clenches his fists, willing them to stop shaking.

“Uh-huh.” The doctor nods. He shakes the thermometer free of heat and tosses it back onto the tray, now using his free hand to hold the cup of liquid. “Here, drink.”

Leo crinkles his nose, knowing exactly what it is. A bitter remedial mixture full of nutrients meant to give his body a jumpstart. Whenever they would get ill as children, he and Ruka would be given the curative with bribery in the form of sweets ready just beyond the doors. However, as an adult, he doubts he would receive such a tradeoff; nor be able to completely get out of drinking it so easily.

Can he take Izumi’s translucent potion, instead? The one that very nearly made his veins illuminate in the dark under the starlight as it spread throughout his body like a rushing river.

“Do I have to…?” Leo finds himself grimacing.

Jin snorts. “The same as always, Prince. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess. Drink it, doctor’s orders.”

Leo slips a hand out of his blanket, stubbornly willing his fingers not to tremble. When the glass of liquid is in his hand, however, it nearly slips free from his grip – only just saving the accident from occurring by the very edges. He takes a cautious peek upwards, meeting Jin’s raised eyebrow and knowing gaze. Still, the doctor doesn’t say anything more. Luckily. Jin turns his back to him, deciding to clean up rather than watch Leo.

There is no sink nor houseplant nearby to pour it into, anyways.

Grudgingly, Leo lifts the glass to his mouth, his bottom lip quivering as it presses against the cool surface. With a shaky hand, Leo tips it forward, allowing the chilled liquid to pass between his lips. The moment it hits his tongue, his tastebuds explode with displeasure. The bitterness of the drink rivals that of the poorest quality vegetables persevering and sprouting from soil that lacks all vital nutrients, and have since been left out in the hot sun; unwanted by both humans and animals despite its desperate efforts of survival.

The taste stabs at his tongue relentlessly, nearly making his eyes tear up from the flavor alone. It slides down his throat like any other, yet his stomach churns uneasily, ready to upchuck it back the way it came. Leo squeezes his eyes shut tightly, the tears bubbling out between his lashes. He guzzles it down quickly, hearing the swallows loud and clear within himself. When he finally finishes the drink with a loud exhale, he brings it and his tilted head down so quickly that he becomes dizzier.

“Easy there.” Jin chuckles, taking the glass away. “I’ll be putting you on strict bedrest for a while. That means no work, no sparring or archery, no nothing. Got it, Prince?”

“But what about our ailing people?”

Jin shrugs. He reaches out to pat Leo on the head like a child. “Let your Prince Guard handle it. He’s the strict, perfectionist type. I’m sure he’ll get it done swimmingly.”

Leo hums under his breath, a sudden thought crossing his mind. “Seems like you got close to him while I wasn’t looking.”

“It happens when you’re forced to live in the same space for a time, doing the same duty.”

“Same duty?”

“Taking care of you, of course.” The doctor shakes his head and crosses his arms in a relaxed pose. “Did you thank him? He saved your life, you know?”

“Sena did?” Leo perks up, sitting up straight no matter how his body desires to slouch unseemly.

“Don’t really understand what kind of magic he used, but it worked. You’re alive right now, aren’t you?”

Was his sickness truly that bad? The days that have passed by are hazed in his memories, only faint recollections of paralysis, darkness, and the feeling of drowning seem to rise to his current conscious state of mind.

“I will thank him when I return.” He replies slowly. “I should thank you, as well. Thank you for saving me.”

Jin gives him a slow smile. “Try not to do it again, alright? I’ve felt that pain only once, but it was more than enough for my lifetime. Shall I lend you a shoulder to walk you back to your quarters, Prince, or would you rather I carry you? Not sure if I have the muscle strength to, though. As a word of caution before you make your final decision.”

Leo opts to walk on his own two feet, leaning heavily on Jin’s arm as they slowly trudge through the cold, castle interior. Along the way, he has Jin show him the lengthy rope that stretches from the infirmary to his bedroom – although, pointing it out only highlighted the obvious embellishment that did not match the rest even further. The rope races alongside the top of the walls, and crosses corridors upon the ceiling, all attached with a half ring of metal and something, Leo assumes, sticky.

“He was supposed to tug at his end of the rope if you or he needed anything, but I guess he’s the stubborn type.” Jin sighs dramatically. “Always insisting he could do it by himself, even while chained up.”

Now that Leo thinks about it, Izumi could have freed himself at any point, couldn’t he? What was he waiting for?

“That’s Sena for you.” He chuckles instead. “He has a hard shell, but I promise he has good intentions.”

“If I may speak my mind, Prince, sometimes I think you’re too trusting.” The doctor comments.

“…Not that I was going to stop you, but you didn’t even give me a chance to answer…”

“It might get you in big trouble one day, so do try to be careful. Though I don’t hate your pure and honest zeal, it reminds me of someone I used to know.” Jin squeezes Leo’s arm where he grips it. “Always seeing the good in people, huh. Maybe they will just change their minds.”

Leo turns his sights onto the taller man with shaggy hair walking beside him, listening carefully while methodically placing one foot in front of the other. The shivers shooting up his legs are no match for the warmth that suddenly fills his heart.

Jin also turns to give him a smile. “Well, Prince, I’ll trust your judgement and stay on your side. So, do your best when you take the throne.”

“Mm!” Leo nods gaily, his smile spreading wide across his face. “With the war, I think my father will keep it for a while longer, though. It would cause too much of a fuss and confusion if I succeeded now. Besides, he’s still healthy, thank goodness.”

“Agreed.” Jin exhales.

“Does something displease you about my father’s rule?”

“…I wonder.” The doctor looks out the passing windows in the corridor. From this position, the glass pane faces north, towards a kingdom full of the unknown that lurk in the shadows. A kingdom that does not bother with Terra as much as Terra does not bother with them.

Yet they are at war with each other.

When they climb up the stairs at a sloth’s pace and enter Leo’s corridor, he immediately feels the emptiness of the entire area. An emptiness devoid of any life. An eerie aura even begins to take hold of the very walls, sweeping over them like a tsunami as they step within its territory. The chill in the stones underneath his feet is colder than he remembers, like they emit a frost that mists over a frozen lake during the season of snow. Despite the thick comforter cocooning his body, Leo feels like he has been covered in an avalanche.

Jin opens the door to Leo’s bedroom.

The wind rushes by their faces, escaping towards the interior of the castle. The curtains dance upon its rod, brushing against the walls like teasing caresses. The window has been left open, but there is no one inside. Sunlight illuminates the room in its late afternoon shine, highlighting the uncanny hollowness that lurks within. His bed sheets are as crinkled as he has left them; the glass of water empty and still upon the end table.

The chair weighed down with large stones remains in the room, too; metal chains spilling around it haphazardly. The gleaming metal refracts the sunbeams onto the walls, splotching them with orbs of white as though they are the splattering of blood at a murder scene.

Vibrations suddenly tickle the bottom of his feet. If he weren’t barefoot, he might not have noticed. Jin doesn’t seem to take notice of the rumbling castle foundations, however, the doctor does turn his head as the faint bellowing of soldiers slips into the quiet room through the open window. The two of them look towards each other questioningly.

“Should we go inspect what is happening?” Leo asks slowly.

“You should be in bed resting.” Jin replies strictly. “It probably doesn’t have anything to do with us, so it might be fine to just leave it.”

“Isn’t that just avoiding responsibility? Aren’t you curious?”

The doctor sighs. “Prince, you are speaking of yourself. As your physician, I strongly recommend you remain here. If you are so concerned, I will ask one of the knights.”

“What if it’s a raid? I’m here alone and can barely lift a weapon.” Leo protests knowingly. “Bring me with you.”

“You…” Jin’s eyebrow ticks in irritation, even as an amused smirk lifts his lips. “Where is that guy, anyways? But fine. I’ll take you there. Would you at least change into something warmer? Doctor’s orders.”

Jin moves before Leo can answer. The doctor goes to the closet and digs through the lavish clothing to find comfortable pants that require little effort. A thicker sweater is also grabbed from within the depths of the tiny storage space, being handed to Leo with an imploring look. Leo gives him a grateful look, taking the clothing and shimmying into them underneath his blanket cover. When he finishes, Leo drops the blanket onto the bed surface without care – as messily as the chains that have been left on the floor, abandoned.

“Here, shoes, too, Prince.” Jin continues his gentle admonishment, kneeling on the ground with the footwear ready. “You really are a reckless kid, you know?”

Leo exhales a breath, his energy fully leaving him. “I’m sorry, and thank you.”

Normally, he would insist on putting on his own socks and shoes, but right now, as his insides are bitten away by an inflaming fire and his lungs struggle to keep his breaths steady, he doesn’t have the will.

Jin looks up at him, lacing the short boots loosely. “You’re a good kid, too, so that makes up for it. Now come on.”

Leo tilts his head in confusion as Jin presents his back to him. “What…?”

“You’re fading pretty quickly.” The doctor replies. “I’m not letting my patient relapse, so up you go, Prince. Excuse me for laying my commoner hands on you.”

“You know that doesn’t matter to me.” Leo chuckles weakly. He falls forward, feeling his knees buckle, and drapes his arms over Jin’s shoulders. Jin is warm; a familiar person he has known for years that puts his off-beat heart at ease.

The doctor wraps his fingers directly underneath Leo’s knees and stands with a grunt of exertion. “Jeez, I’m too old for this.” Leo is bounced a miniscule amount to get shifted into a more secure position. “This will be a bumpy ride, so don’t go upchucking on me.”

Leo smiles tiredly. He fits his head to one side and leans his cheek onto his own arm. The chill of the castle pierces through to his bones. The silence stabs into the atmosphere just as sharply, the dull rumbling of echoing commotion amongst the lower levels fills his nerves to the brim with anxious energy. Every draft that passes them by brings along the slivers of a snake tongue flicking across his skin in tiny, investigative licks.

It seeks enticingly.

For that perfectly fatal fragility.

Jin searches for the area of interest, peeking into every corridor and around every corner until they find themselves on the ground floor. Now, Jin stands on the edge of the main foyer that is directly in front of the heavy double doors leading straight towards the castle gates. The open area with high ceilings is filled to spilling with bright sunshine, the glass artifacts and gold-plated ornaments sparkling like the high heavens with its light.

People have been called to summon. Guards adorned in armor and weapons at their sides stand with their backs straight, hackles raised and poised to leap the moment a command is issued.

Leo’s eyes roam over the large group. The knights, the castle staff, his mother, and even his younger sister, stand amidst the contradicting sunbeams. Dread slithers through the air like miasma slowly taking hold. The airy light of joy is becoming further corrupted as the seconds tick by, as Leo continues gazing at the scene; pressured into immobility and silence by the suffocating hands of the temptress of omens flitting about the atmosphere.

A face, ashen with terror and incredulity, stares ahead with wide eyes that are quickly losing the light of hope.

“Who… has been found dead?”

Leo clenches his fingers into Jin’s shirt at the doctor’s shoulders. His eyes flick about; across the restless group, towards the intersecting hallways, beyond the shadows.

Yet still, two whom he seeks remain missing.

Chapter Text

Shadows clear away in a flurry of dancing winds. He stands upon illuminating, crystal clear water as solid as glass. It ripples gently, shaking the image reflected across its surface. The breeze is chilling, highlighting the fact that he is currently alone in this world. Though a castle mirrors below him with shining light, only the silent darkness surrounds him further beyond. A castle that only exists within his memories and portrayed in this ephemeral world through the looking glass.

With a clear edge between the two undulating images, just a scant meter from him, is another place. Another castle, but this one adorned with glowing fragments of crystals and luminous foliage crawling up its stone walls. It stands taller, sturdier, more enchanted than the side he resides on. The shadows of demonic birds fly deeper within the glass lake’s depths, soaring across the endless sky underneath his feet.

Another person stands before him, only the obscured bottom of their soles presented to him.

He stands underneath their ground, just as they do his. Both of them on their respective sides, mismatched edges of the faint scenery cutting in between them. The shadows, chased away by the reflections’ eerie glow, dance at the edge of his vision, waiting; watching as the scene unfold. He stands perfectly still upon the glass, yet the images waver in tiny currents coming out one after another.

He’s smart, he will know when…

He doesn’t have his position for nothing… huh…?

The scene beneath his side is devoid of life. Not even the trees move to their own will and play. The stones making up the castle exterior are dull in comparison to its counterpart. Large, uneven in both shape and color. Sturdy, but haphazard. Existing, but lifeless. Even the birds do not gain favor with the surrounding trees; the foliage remaining motionless and uninterested in the face of their plight. Only the drifting breeze ruffles their leaves.

A crack appears in the dark shadows overhead, appearing as quickly as a flash of lighting shooting towards the sky.

The distant sounds of footsteps become ever closer.

Every beat brings about another shatter, inching towards the mirror of their memories in quick bursts. The echoing slaps upon solid stone thumps louder than his heartbeat. The cracks in the air spread widely, encompassing him in a dome full of sharp edges. Tiny piece by tiny piece, this transient world begins to fall into the mirror’s rippling water; shadowed shards descending down like nightmares encapsulated. The gassy, ethereal trail it leaves behind bleeds black; sinking into the reflections and spreading its poison, shrouding the images increasingly more.

The gleaming light casting its auroral glow dies away. Shadows creep up upon the edges of his vision, staying away just long enough for him to see the spiderweb shatters running below his feet and overlapping with the soles of his spectral visitor.

“Ensnare them.”

The fantastical space turns dark. Black glass shards larger than his own stature and trailing shadows slip into the mirages beneath his feet, dyeing the entire world in onyx. Everything turns silent…

...Apart from the footsteps that are right before him.

He slides his eyelids open, the burning star outside shining in and blinding him in its purity. His pupils adjust quickly; just in time to hear the door unlatch and swing open. It reveals to him a man with a regal air, standing tall and with a heavy cape swirling behind him. The man’s face is set in a tight scowl, though not entirely irked. The worry lines etched into his face have left crevices that may never go away.

The King of Terra sure is a fickle one. So hard to please.

A fact that annoys him greatly.

“Prince Guard Izumi Sena, you are to be released.”

Izumi stares into the green orbs of the human adult man. His haughty voice is irritating; saying high and mighty words and looking down on anyone else just to keep face. The king steps into the room with a heavy stride, a slight metallic jingle accompanying his movement from his hand. Izumi narrows his eyes. This one Terrian human, alone, is the cause of all of his strife. All of his grief, his sorrow, his anger. The reason he swallows mouthfuls of blood as he has to bite his tongue; grit his teeth and bear both the cruelty and the wicked satire.

Bright blue light flashes before their eyes, the air suddenly sent into a freezing flurry.

The king’s deep gasp satisfies him, quelling his desire to end it all then and there, if only temporarily. Hefty metal falls to the hard ground, flipping and turning until gravity releases its pressuring shove.

Rising from his seat, he allows the last of his confinement to fall away. Metal cuffs plummet to the stone, jingling piercingly in the otherwise soundless room. Izumi doesn’t take his eyes off of the king, tone unamused as he drones, “I never had to adhere to your rules.”

The king stands firmly in his place. His fists clench at his side, the key digging into the soft, human flesh of his palm and turning it pale. The two of them do not take their eyes off of each other; the indiscernible power exuding from their gazes filling the space suffocatingly. Only the gentle wind streaming in through the open window playing with their hair dares to interrupt them.

A nervous swallow bobs within the king’s throat before he speaks, “You admit to playing us for fools, then?”

“Isn’t that no one’s fault but your own?” A tiny smirk plays on Izumi’s lips. “Shall we play a different game then, King of Terra?”

Mist fills the room, obscuring their sights in a slight fog.

“This is treason.”

Izumi chuckles low in his throat. “Even your most trusted allies will turn against you once faced with injustice by your own hands. And what are you going to do? Exile me? A mercenary that doesn’t belong to anyone. Besides, the prince would never let you. He might come running after me, and then what will you do?”

“What spell have you cast on him?!”

Humans cast spells of love upon themselves all on their own. Then they cast it upon others like awry pheromones. The parameter that was raised to limitless upon their creation marking the differences between human and demon. He has nothing to do with it.

The amusement leaves Izumi’s voice. “I have done nothing. Perhaps if Terra didn’t turn its back on magic, you would know what you’re up against. But as things are, you are nothing but pretty prey sitting patiently on a silver platter, and ready to be feasted upon by the other kingdoms.”

The king chokes on his next works, taking a moment to gather himself. “What do you know of this war? To where have you travelled? Where do you hail?”

“A lot of questions to someone you just imprisoned without the slightest of hesitations. You should watch who you make an enemy out of so lightly.” Izumi sniffs. “In any case, the prince’s bed chamber is no place for such discussion.”

“My office.” The king snorts just as belligerently as he pivots on his heels. The thick cape upon his shoulders swirl through the icy mist as the vapor begins to retreat out through the open window. An outfit adornment that embodies the pressuring weight a ruler must face without flinching.

Izumi steps over the metal chains, following the human to a place where no one may see them. To a place where no one will be the wiser if something were to happen within its solitary depths. May their eyes and ears, and the walls that hide them away, be the only to bear witness to what may to occur. Leo’s bedroom door gently clicks into place behind him.

The two of them walk their journey in silence. The castle just as inactive as they, with not a single knight nor maid crossing their path. Soon enough, the heavy door leading into the King of Terra’s personal office is directly before them. Izumi, who stands behind the king, narrows his eyes. He breathes in steadily; the feeling of energy rising to the surface trembles his being; buzzing his blood into a frenzy.

One shot. A single chance is all he has.

The doorknob is turned; space cracking open to slowly reveal the other side to their eyes.

The whistle of air being torn sharply asunder within an instant pierce their eardrums.

The king’s breath is trapped within a choked gasp.

The door, with leftover momentum, swings on its hinges lazily before coming to a complete halt.

“So, King of Terra… Did you choose your enemies wisely? Are you satisfied with your choices?”

Izumi steps around the king’s body, gliding into the silent room splattered with magic. Its already cold stone walls freeze even more chillingly as pure blue ice graces its surface. The glittering refractions of stray beams of sunlight coming in through the open doorway bounce like dancing fairies. He walks through the fray, footsteps echoing louder than they should. Coming upon the back wall, he stares at his own reflection in the spray of ice; a long, thin icicle coming out of it like an arrow that has hit its mark powerfully and gone through its target.

Stray currents of electricity skip across the ice’s surface, spreading thinly and fanning out into the air.

“What…” The king’s voice is shaken. His attempts to clear his throat and remedy it does little. “What is that contraption?”

“A fly on the wall.” Izumi replies coolly. Extending a finger, he reaches out to caress the piece of technology; a small, white orb equipped with a lens that is now shattered. “Invisible, yet listening in on all of your deepest secrets. Invisible, yet watching your every move and reading every document over your shoulder.” The broken glass slices into his fingertip, drawing crimson blood to the surface swiftly.

The wound stings as though the acidic juices of citruses have been squeezed into it with the utmost of delight.

“Where does it come from?”

Izumi chuckles under his breath. Terrians really have no idea. “Equipped with angel wings to fly about, where do you think?”

The little spying device has been in the king’s office for a long while. Madara had discovered it first; however, let it remain so that they do not get found out too early. Before they could truly sink Inferna’s desire into this land. Their goal was still only just being set into motion then; unprepared and still gathering information. Now, they can’t afford to let this eavesdropping linger, even if they continue to remain in the dark and only acting when it may already be too late. A desperate backpedal with all of their perseverance.

Their enemy of old with new tricks up their sleeve.

“A Caelian device, then?” The king swallows audibly, the sound ringing in Izumi’s ears.

“Should I congratulate you on your correct answer of the obvious?” He peers over his shoulder towards the man.

“You are mocking me. Know who you are talking to.”

“I am talking to a person who knows nothing of magic.” Izumi turns around. He crosses his arms as he leans his back on the clinging ice upon the wall. “The face of a kingdom that covets its convenience, yet turns it to ash in an instant. I am talking to a Terrian human who fights against sorcery without any knowledge nor religion to pray to, allowing his people to die in vain.”

Finally, the king steps into the room, closing the door behind him. “What are you suggesting with that silver tongue?”

“The little magic you have will run out.” Izumi shrugs. “Healing crystals, that cold storage in the kitchen that preserves your vital food stock, even the ones you keep in your weaponry for power. No knowledge, no supplies, Terra will be laying in the bed of its own making; a ditch so deep you cannot possibly climb back out.”

The king stares at him with narrowed eyes colder than the ice that starts to appear in splotches around the room. His fists clenched at his side shake with the pressure.

Izumi smirks, indifferent to the hostility as he says his last piece of advice, “There is no way this kingdom can defeat Caelem as it is. Terra will fall. Without a doubt, before too long.”

He doesn’t really care for this man. Izumi would not even bat an eye if he were to turn up dead out of the blue. This man, who continually chooses the wrong adversaries to contest.

“What do you suggest, mercenary?”

Still, this brazen Terrian human remains the monarch of this kingdom. Izumi needs him to stay on the throne. To be the face of Terra; and the cover of what lurks beneath. To rule in the daylight, while the immortal demons rule in the shadows. Besides, he doesn’t really mind Terra as a land, as hollow and besieged as it is.

This irrational Terrian human is still Leo’s father. And Leo would never forgive him.

Until the moment comes when they can no longer walk the same path, and Leo’s anger sears blisters into his skin, Izumi will continue this sappy tolerance of the Terrian King.

The patches of ice littering the walls and ceiling steadily swell. Izumi drives raw energy into their expanding forms as they slowly eat away at the angelic particles that saturate the room. His silent spell – apstergeo – plunders their battlefield. Demonic magic is weak, yet strong, against angelic magic; the vice versa also holds true. As long as one is more powerful, the other can be conquered.

Izumi just has to be stronger.

“Keep me in your service, and I’ll help you. Perhaps Terra can be saved.”

The king hisses his words between clenched teeth. “Are you threatening the king? Holding the entire kingdom hostage?!”

“How am I able to do that when you are the ones running and hiding behind me, already, of your own accord?” Izumi asks calmly. The ice makes steady progress around the room, covering it in a layer of clear blue. “You are not aware of the capabilities of magic. And that is no one’s fault but your own. Here, I am offering you a way to save your beloved kingdom. You won’t take it? Terra has no other viable options; I am sure you are well aware. You need me. Or this tiny kingdom will not exist tomorrow.”

Sorry, Leo.

His silent apology reverberates in his heart.

The injustices this king has made him endure bubbles up to the forefront of his mind. Izumi continues on, his own anger beginning to rise but he keeps his tongue in check, “You don’t know anything. You don’t even know that I played your game for far too long. The moment I stepped into this kingdom, I could have razed it to the ground with my power alone.” The angelic magic particles scream in their death as they fill the bellies of the demons running amok in the same form; they scream, yet it can only be heard by Izumi’s ears. “So, make your choice, King of Terra. Will Terra live or die?”

He’s sorry. Nonetheless, things have to go his way, else everything will have been in vain.

The cries of the dying drown out his thoughts.

The two of them fall silent. Their hard gazes pierce each other more sharply than the finest swords. The frozen world around them sparkles, glittering shards of stars midair like midsummer fireflies. They float about idly, peacefully cutting into their contest of wills and settling their edged aggression with gentle hypnotism.

The king will have to accept – he has no other option. Izumi has laid out the hard to swallow truths and left only one way to escape, closing all other exits.

But should Izumi be unsuccessful here, he will be forgiven back home. Though his pride may become wounded and his track record be tarnished, this infiltration into Terra was never among their initial strategies. It has been, and always will be, an opportunity that arose and they seized. He, who’s duty was to remain within Inferna, was sent behind enemy lines for the off chance it may hasten their objectives.

However, he has no intention of failing here.

The king takes a calming breath deeply through his nose. “Do you swear to use your powers and your knowledge to aid us?”

Something like that. “Sure.”

“What a flippant answer.”

“I will allow you to use me, but I make no such binding promises to employers.”

“You are certainly no easy man to make acquaintances with.”

“Likewise, Your Majesty.” Izumi replies with sarcasm nearly physically dripping from his tone.

“How Leo finds pleasure in your companionship, I do not deign to comprehend.” The king sighs, a furrow in his brow. “To allow such a dangerous man to stay right beside my son, I must be a fool.”

Izumi could not agree more.

The king continues on, “Izumi Sena, I hereby declare you an asset to Terra. I grant you citizenship and I grant you position within the Knights of Terra.”

“Honored, Your Majesty.”

The king releases a defeated breath. His kingdom has just been handed over to a rogue mercenary.

Now at the inclinations of a demon loyal to Inferna, their enemy of choice.

Vibrations trickle up beneath his feet, drawing his attention away from the growing emptiness within himself. His gaze moves away from the man with dull green eyes, scanning past the sheet of ice spread thinly about and towards the closed entranceway of the room. The pounding below becomes stronger, more joining the fray and congregating together into one.

The king raises an eyebrow, briefly looking over his shoulder towards the empty space. “Is there something you are able to see? Another trick of your bizarre sorcery?”

Izumi contains his scoff tightly within his throat. The desire to turn his magic away from its task and plunder blades into the king’s chest trembles within his muscles. Not today, not in this moment, but perhaps one day, he will show this ignorant, deceitfully haughty king just how bizarre magic can truly be. Nevertheless, that day may never come; and his irritation will remain at a simmer. “The people of the castle are in a fuss down below.”

The king looks doubtfully at him. Nonetheless, the human slowly backs away, keeping his eyes on Izumi the entire time as he reaches for the door behind him. The barrier that locks the two of them away from the rest of the world swings open. The warm air of summer’s daylight rushes in with vigor, while the cool air of fulfilled magic slices through the happiness and slips out, fading away within the streams of soft sunlight raining in through the windows.

Faint shouts drift in with the draft.

Izumi strains his ears to decipher the words. If Leo were here, he would be able to amplify the sounds with ease – Izumi can probably perform the spell, as well, but he will make do. His magic is already pouring out in droves, after all.

“Do not move!”

“Call all of the chefs to the foyer! We do not know which one, so save the guess work!”

The echo of steel shakes the air.

Izumi presses his lips together tightly. What strange occurrence is happening down below? Regardless of what it might be, the knights are always so quick to draw their weapons. Whoever may be their discovered traitor, trespasser, or innocent soul, Izumi understands their probable plight and sigh; he has stared down the sharp edges of their armaments more times than he wishes to remember. Exasperation wells up within him, even as he is not the target of their ire and pride.

He is not all too curious; humans always lose their way when unexpected events unfold and they have no leader to follow. But if the clamor and the tremors continue so, even in his weakened state, Leo will eventually take notice. And the prince, without a doubt, will seek peace.

The azure ice clinging to the walls, the ceiling, the floor, climbing up furniture like the blazes of Hell, explode in a minute puff of air and scattering glittered stars into the empty space around them. The pressure is so miniscule that even his hair does not sway with the gentle breeze. One by one, the tiny lights go out; the night sky retreating, and allowing the dust speckled sunbeams to continue their reign during the last few hours of the angels’ govern.

“Shall we inspect the castle proper or will you allow your home to go into an uproar?” Izumi asks plainly. He steps away from the back wall, the soles of his shoes impacting against the ground in light footsteps.

The king strides through the open entranceway first, cape smacking against the edge of the doorframe as he pivots. “Do not believe that you can command me.”

The feeling is mutual.

The closer they get to ground level, the louder the chatter becomes. The air shudders, tickling Izumi’s skin alongside the overshadowing feeling of dread spilling into the atmosphere and sinking his heart. The corridors gradually gain more luminance. His body warms as he increasingly steps through the scattered heat of the blazing sun.

Following the sounds of the commotion, the two of them end up at the main foyer. Though the area is bright and immersed in the sun’s holy light to overflowing, the grim, broken face that contrasts with the brilliant setting immediately catches his attention. The face of the chef Leo seems so fond of is ashen with terror and incredulity, staring ahead with wide eyes that are quickly losing the light of hope. They stare at an unfamiliar individual being tightly surrounded by knights and gleaming swords. Izumi is sure he has never seen this person within the castle personnel before.

This outsider speaks with a trembling, breaking voice, “Y-your younger sibling. I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry. We discovered their remains during one of our hunting trips. I’m not sure if this was fortunate or unfortunate, but we had traversed too far within the forest, getting rather close to this castle, in fact, and… Their… Their flesh was ravished and bones picked cleaned. I-It must have been a long while since-”

“They were supposed to have travelled to another city to find work! We may be from the same village and have known each other for a long time, but how do you even know this person is my family when there is nothing left?” The chef bursts out, their anger – their terror – rising to the surface.

The person they speak to flinches at the loud tone, nearly making the knights recoil and swing dangerous weapons in their start. However, the stranger to their ranks bravely continues to explain, reaching into their jacket with one hand and keeping the other up in an attempt of peace. “Though their clothes withered away from animals and weather, in their pocket was…”

Their hand comes out of their clothing, revealing to all who are watching, a crinkled, water stained piece of parchment. One corner, patterned like a beagle dog’s ear, is dyed in an oxidized, deep crimson.

More than likely, the pigment is that of blood.

“A letter?” The chef asks. They reach out, grasping it with weak fingers. “To my dearest elder sibling…” Their voice trails off in an anguished whisper, their own name disappearing into the air as their throat closes tightly and chokes them with the breath from their very own lungs.

They all watch as the chef sinks to their knees on the solid, freezing ground, a shaking hand covering their mouth as torment threatens to leap out of their heart.

Izumi trails his eyes over the group. The queen and Ruka are standing nearby, the queen holding her daughter closely as she hesitates to interrupt the affair. The needlessly gathered chefs look upon one of their own with sympathy and unsurety, fidgeting on their toes and warring with themselves whether to offer a shoulder or to leave their comrade be. Even the knights who are so quick to assert power, lower their weapons now that the threat of the outsider only brings grave news to one.

Finally, within the shadowed edges of a deeper corridor in the foyer, Izumi spots the doctor with a head of orange peeking over his shoulder.

“Will you not say something? Or will you allow us to remain stagnant and frozen in this confusion?” Izumi whispers to the human at his side.

The king inhales deeply, his shoulders and chest rising with the dreadful air filling his lungs. He doesn’t reply, only stepping forward and drawing the eyes of everyone loitering underneath the suddenly baleful sunlight. The king’s footsteps are heavy, the sound echoing with thunderous claps amid the high ceilings of the entrance hall.

Izumi follows a couple of steps behind him, revealing himself, too, to the gathered mismatch of personnel.

“Who is this young lad?” The king asks, nodding his chin towards the face only one seems to recognize.

“Sir!” A knight hastily greets. An angled salute is lifted to the side of their head, their feet clapping together in a jingle of buttons and chains upon their uniform. “They appeared at the castle gates, requesting to meet a hometown friend of theirs, who is now employed as a royal chef, to relay important news. They were quite insistent, sir.”

Izumi looks over the knights with a curious gaze. Though it is true that Inferna is different in many ways, he can’t help but question why an outsider would be allowed inside of the castle. The Infernan Castle allows no such visitors to step into its interior; unfamiliar guests are required to remain outside until otherwise granted, else it is their life that will be forfeited to the demons and the devils that lurk within. Perhaps even to Devil himself.

Humans are strange creatures. Overly wary and foolishly brave.

The king glances at the knights one last time before setting his eyes upon the chef who so desperately tries to choke back the tears. The chef hastily picks themselves up from the floor, wiping their face with their sleeve and giving the king their respectful greetings and bows.

“My condolences.” The king says, his deep baritone filled with understanding and sorrow. “You are free from duties to attend to your familial needs until necessary.”

“But sir-!” The chef attempts a disagreement, however is halted by the king lifting up a hand.

“Do not worry. Your position and your earned pay will remain steady. Knights, back to your stations. Prince Guard, you are dismissed, as well.”

Izumi choruses with the other soldiers, bowing his head slightly. “Your Highness.”

If the king is taking responsibility, then Izumi will gladly leave and tend to Leo. He won’t linger and get involved in something that does not need him. Izumi silently makes his way over to the pair still hiding amongst the shadows. The doctor’s form is slightly slouched – as usual – however, his exhaustion from days of unrest is more so palpable the longer he remains upright with another soul depending on him for survival. To remain unshakeable no matter how enervation creeps up like a starved and depraved vengeful spirit ready to dastardly feast upon both soul and body.

“Sena.” Leo calls out to him weakly. The sad smile tinged with weary fatigue that just barely uplifts his lips causes Izumi’s chest to pang achingly.

“Your curiosity will be the end of you, Prince.” Izumi says softly.

Leo breathily chuckles, the sound nearly dying before it can completely leave from between his pale lips. “I wondered if I could help quell the commotion, but, in the end, there’s nothing I can do…”

The three of them fall into somber silence. Even if he doesn’t feel it himself, Izumi recognizes the guilt that simmers beneath Leo’s words. The prince is that kind of person – too sympathetic, too compassionate. Too loving. And if Izumi allows these trains of thoughts to continue their path in Leo’s head, there is no taking him out of that darkness. The sun rising the next day may not even chase these shadows away.

Jin clears his throat. “Your turn, now.”

The doctor turns his back and gently kneels down, dropping Leo’s legs once the prince’s feet are steadily on the ground. Leo blinks in confusion obediently releasing Jin’s form from his arms and staggering into a standing position.

“Tired of babysitting already?” Izumi quips softly, reaching out to hold onto Leo’s upper arm.

“I’m too old for this~” Jin drones dryly. The tone is soon replaced by a smile that stretches his lips as he faces Leo. “You seem healthy, but have your Prince Guard call for me if you feel even a little bit ill, got it, Prince Leo?”

Leo closes an eye as Jin’s large hand pats him on the head. “Hey…”

“I’ll take care of it.” Izumi says before the doctor can make even one step back towards the infirmary. “You should rest. You don’t even need to ever wake up.”

“Oh ha-ha.” Jin rolls his eyes before putting up a hand in a wave. “I’ll check on you another day, Prince.”

“Rest well.” Leo wishes sincerely.

“Come, Prince. Up.” Izumi gently glides his fingers down from Leo’s arm to his forearm and grasps it to bring over his own shoulder as Izumi turns on the balls of his feet. “Unless you want to walk?”

“I think I’ll just slow you down more.” Leo falls forward. He drapes his other arm over Izumi’s opposite shoulder. “Besides… I like being close to you.”

He’s glad Leo can’t completely look at his face right now, Izumi is sure his cheeks are becoming flushed. “You say such strange things.”

With Leo leaning his weight on Izumi’s back, Izumi slowly leans down and scoops up Leo’s knees. The prince has definitely lost some weight. He feels it as he stands back up to his full height, Leo’s legs securely attached to his sides. It could become concerning quickly if it continues, especially for a human. Izumi will have to see to it that Leo eats supper, even if it just some soup broth.

While they make their way down the somber corridors, Leo gradually wraps his arms more securely around Izumi’s neck. The prince lays his cheek on Izumi’s shoulder, their bodies’ warmth pressing together tightly and intermingling. Izumi feels Leo’s breath pitter across his neck, slipping through his clothing and gliding atop his skin. It nearly makes him shiver; however, he forces himself to focus on moving with natural grace through the empty hallway.

Leo’s voice is as gentle as the languid draft that passes between the stone walls, getting carried away with it, as well. “You were with my father the whole time?”

He responds with an affirmative hum that is just as fleeting.

“Did you two discuss something?”

“Not particularly anything you should concern yourself over yet.”

The prince buries his face further into Izumi’s neck, tightening both his arms and his legs around him. After a momentary pause, he breathes out relief, “I’m glad.”

“Glad?”

“I’m glad that nothing happened to you…”

Izumi flicks his eyes to the side in an attempt to look at Leo’s expression. Though he only manages to spy the sunburst colored strands of hair filling the corner of his vision, Izumi is sure Leo’s appearance is just as sorrowful as his voice that is accompanied by the miniscule trembles in his fingers. “Why would something happen to me?”

The arms around his neck tighten even further; Leo’s body intimately flushed against his back.

“…You’re right. You’re Sena, nothing will happen.”

His footfalls bounce against the walls, resounding loudly in the empty space before them. “Are you afraid of something?”

Leo grumbles a sound, the vibrations rumbling deep within Leo’s throat and trickling into Izumi’s skin. “Useless…”

“There’s nothing else you can do. Death happens. Cry out your pain, mourn their loss, celebrate their life, and move forward. That’s the best the ones left behind can do for the deceased.”

Within Inferna, too, there is very little one can do to compete against death. Though there are some who truly cannot pass, they, as immortals only in lifespan, can still be killed – ravished by foe or disease until their body can no longer sustain a soul and casts it aside. Perhaps if caught in time, the soul may be put back into its body. Perhaps through boundless sacrifice can one discover the soul of their loved one lost to Hell or Heaven or drifting away upon the breeze. But even so, nothing is ever certain. Not even with great effort and skill.

“Yeah… They said it happened rather close to the castle, too…”

He ponders the thought. “I’m sure it’s nothing more than the hunter becoming the hunted. There are things all creatures in this world must protect.”

This was not a life that has directly touched Leo’s, yet, the prince feels this disheartened. Just how strong is Leo’s heart? How much – how little – would it take to shatter it completely? This human who wears his heart on his sleeve for all to see and all to steal away. Love is infinite, one can make more and more no matter how many one desires to share it with. Love is infinite, but so is the pain of having that affection be vanished and wrecked.

Just how much is Leo willing to risk?

How much backlash can he take before he loses the will to create more?

“Sena…”

“Hm?”

“I…” The prince trails off. Izumi makes it to the final stairwell leading up towards the hallway in which their bedchambers lies. “…Mnn, never mind.”

Feeling sentimental? Has the prospect of death frightened Leo so?

Say the things that need to be said before it is too late, is it?

“We’re here.” Izumi announces. He squeezes just under one of Leo’s thighs as a warning before letting go in favor of opening the door.

The room is as he left it earlier – the chains scattered about and the window remaining open to fill the room with the tender radiance of the descending sun. He scoots Leo’s form a little higher as the prince slips downwards. Izumi toes the door closed and makes his way to the bed. He turns his back to it and steadily kneels, depositing Leo down on its plush comfort. The prince’s fingers trail away in a stream of lava-like heat, the sensation wistfully slipping into lost memories as does the exhausted sigh that escapes from between Leo’s lips.

The toll of illness upon a human body is more than Izumi initially supposed.

“Thanks.”

“Get some rest, Prince.” He whispers. Izumi turns on his heels, reaching out to gently push upon Leo’s shoulders until the prince lays down. He stands to drape the bunched comforter over Leo’s prone form, tucking away every inch of exposed skin.

As Izumi turns to go close the window he opened earlier in the day, Leo – as quick as a cat and completely unlike a recovering patient – snakes out of his blankets and latches onto Izumi’s fingers. “Wait, Sena… Can’t you stay with me?”

The quiet plea lacing Leo’s voice nearly envenomates Izumi’s heart and brings it to a stop. With its painfully sweet toxin, his feet, too, come to a halt; the breeze beckoning him ever closer increases its efforts with a genial touch upon his bangs that only briefly obscures his gaze upon glittering emeralds. Nonetheless, the short interruption is not nearly enough to tear his attention away.

Leo’s thin, dexterous fingers clasp upon his more securely; holding but never tugging. Urging but never forcing.

Izumi wills his magic outwards, controlling the particles to envelope the window pane and slide it closed. Slowly, he slumps onto the edge of the chair responsible for his permitted imprisonment. “I’m not going anywhere.”

The close-lipped smile Leo presents him with is worth the embarrassment of the words. However, as those innocent green orbs stray towards where their skin touch, that dose of happiness in Leo’s expression quickly evaporates into a worried frown. “You’re hurt.”

Now, the tugs upon his hand are insistent. Izumi lets his limb be taken away to Leo’s examination, the prince’s breath warm upon his nerves. “I’m fine.”

Leo slips his other hand out of the warmth of the blankets and scrunches the sleeves of Izumi’s jacket downwards. “The marks from the cuffs are still there, too… They’re fading, though, I think.”

“I’m fine.”

The prince stares at the marks for a moment longer in silence. “If you insist…”

Leo brings Izumi’s hand ever closer, until his fingertips brush against Leo’s soft face. The prince closes his eyes, pressing his lips onto the open wound upon the pad of Izumi’s finger in a gentle apology and wishful recovery. Warmth surges into him directly from the appendage, filling his entire body with the embrace of the setting sun that no demon should have ever known. Izumi’s heart beats in his chest like the war cry of a leader propelling their forces into their first battle with their strengths at full and losses yet to be taken.

Leo flutters his eyes open, his lashes kissing his pale cheeks as fleetingly as petals dancing atop the breeze. Pulling Izumi’s hand away from himself, he settles their adjoined appendages onto the bed right beside his silk covered pillow and closes his eyes once more. A drawn out, relaxed breath leaves the prince, luring Izumi’s eyes to the tantalizing spot. A thin, transparent smear of scarlet red paints the middle of Leo’s bottom lip as they remain slightly parted.

Humans should be careful with such things.

Izumi reaches out with his free hand, about to wipe away the blood, but decides against it at the last second. Instead, he skirts the back of his fingers across Leo’s cheeks, sweeping away the loose strands of fiery hair and tucking it behind Leo’s ear. “Sleep. I’ll be here when you wake.”

Consuming a little from him is fine. In fact, it will probably help Leo in the long run.

A groggy grumble is his answer, signaling Leo’s final moments within their conscious realm before he is taken away towards the ephemeral world of lustrous dreams.

He allows the prince to keep the hand that has been taken hostage throughout his slumber, relaxing the appendage as Leo cuddles it close to his cheek and basks in the warm familiarity. Izumi only takes it away once the sun slips beyond the horizon, casting the land in the same brilliance that graces Leo’s hair. Making sure Leo’s hands go back beneath the covers, Izumi slips out of the room to prepare an easy meal for Leo’s weak stomach to handle.

It’s a brief reunion when Izumi wakes the sleeping prince from his dreams. Leo accepts anything given to him, slowly sipping both broth and water and munching lazily at plain crackers. After the light meal, the prince falls straight back asleep, his eyelids heavy throughout the entirety of their quiet time together and finally conceding to their power.

Rather, Leo surrenders to the sweet scent Izumi softly whistles into the room without Leo’s knowledge. The spreading magic particles take hold of the atmosphere in glittering galaxies, releasing their sweet-tempered spell in tiny puffs. The aromatic fragrance captures the living in their saccharine serenade, cursing their minds to the illusory comforting embrace of the shadows where there is everything one could desire, yet nothing at all.

The real stars overrun the velvet night sky the next he leaves Leo’s side.

Izumi walks through the dark and empty hallways of the Terrian castle, filled with chilled stones and unloved framework. The corridor he walks is unlit by the candles lining the walls; not even the light of the moon nor its merciless gaze can reach him through the thick curtains blanketing its only entranceway. He slips through the moving shadows as silently as the cruelest demons living amongst nightmares; not making a peep to wake the slumbering humans from their dramatic terrors.

He comes upon large double doors, adorned with polished metals. The door does not creak as he slides just enough open to squeeze through; nor does it cry its alarm as it is set back into place.

The high ceilings tower over him alongside the bookshelves. The floor to ceiling window, left unmasked, finally gives the ruler of the night the ability to spy him. The lunar’s gaze, along with the eyes of the multitudes of literature, observe his every move under the supernatural fog of moonbeams slithering within. His own eyes scan the spines of text, taking out one-by-one as they catch his attention. Soon enough, the Royal Library is filled with illuminations of blue as books float midair, their covers open and pages turning disjointedly.

He memorizes each word his magic recites to him, even as he reads the heavy pages in his hand. Their tales and their legends of old unfold within his mind, creating a beautiful masterpiece full of color and cheer. Lives lay bare for all to witness within stunningly carved words upon what was once a blank slate full of white. An emptiness that gives no direction and only the waxed poetic freedom of choice.

The truth or just the story of victors…

He’s being watched.

Flicking his eyes towards the culprit, the shadows instantly moving to creep behind the thick bookshelves. He takes another moment to gaze silently into the darkness, making out the details within the monochrome world that even chases away the moonlight. He lightly urges the piece of literature in his hand into the air, the book instantly becoming enveloped in a blue haze and floating away to join its comrades as his arm drops away. He turns to face the slithering shadows, taking assured steps deeper inside the library.

He has been in this large room a couple of times prior; when he was under the involuntary guise of Leo’s pet. It’s easy to escape from a cage only held closed by cloth and squeeze through the gap in between the door and the stone flooring. On a few occasions, he very nearly did not make it back into the room before Leo returned and ended up needing to pretend to be amongst the furniture within the enclosed and locked bedchamber.

Leo never questioned his escapes. Leo was never, truly, cautious enough.

But all the better for him. For with that freedom, among other things within the castle, he stumbled upon this demon that lurks deep within the Royal Library – trailed after its aura as closely as he could and encountered its aggression. Back then, forced into his ancestral form as he was, he wasn’t able to do any more than visual observations. With his weakened state, it would devour him like he was nothing but a defenseless infant abandoned to mother nature’s cruel cycle.

The candles lining the tops of the bookshelves along the aisle are left molten in their holders – left uncared for by any within the castle. The dust that puddles upon the shelves also mark this area’s forbidding abandonment. Though, perhaps human instincts screech for survival and halt all passage into the stolen depths of their home. For even under the night sky where the burning star only shines with the help of the cool hearted moon, the shadows grow darker than the nocturnal blanket itself as he strides deeper.

Spines of books begin to glare at him maliciously. He only looks at them with a pitiful gaze; their once beautiful text now viciously churned into a mismatch of languages – ungrammatical and unsightly in their new transformation. What was once Terrian text, the works have been influenced by the leaking power to take within them the ancient Infernan language with not a single buffer to lessen its vexatious seduction.

The scheme has truly been long winded – years, decades, perhaps even centuries in the making – but the conclusion is finally in sight.

The demon has escaped its prison. Wedged within the corner of the library is a plain and unassuming door. What was probably once a bland room used to house foreign literature now pulses with life alongside the strings of shadows slipping out beneath the door. He glides up to the barrier of the room, feet stepping onto the swaying and laughing shadows and scattering them away after a short contest of supremacy.

With Terra the land it is, this new life bore from enchanting words with nothing to suppress its spawning is unlikely to become any stronger than it is currently. It has already consumed all of the power within its reach and remains bound to its birth text – an Infernan grimoire, no doubt.

The shadows snap at him with a mouth full of fangs.

He easily wards it away with a warning. Even if it does not become stronger, it will grow increasingly aggressive. To this little territory it has stolen for its own, the demon has become attached to it. Greed will rule its thoughts, and so will pride. To plunder more and more until its powers wear thin, yet to fight a losing battle as it cannot gain more energy to sustain such a far reach beyond its imprisonment. Perhaps he should send it to Hell – steal back the piece of territory and put it out of its miserable life. Consume it, himself.

Or perhaps, he will save it for a rainy day to come.

Chapter Text

A beep resounds within the quiet room.

“Hm~ You seem to be in good health, temperature is normal. Nothing paining you? How’s your appetite?”

“Good! Great! I ate three meals yesterday and had my breakfast this morning!”

“No matter how enthusiastic you sound, it won’t change a doctor’s diagnosis, Prince Leo.” Jin chuckles.

Leo lets out a huff and a whine, “Come on, please? I’m so bored being stuck in my room!!”

The doctor snorts. He lifts his hand and places it heavily on Leo’s head, ruffling the orange strands astray. “Do you act this petulant to anyone else or am I special?”

“Hey.” Leo growls deep in his throat, backing up and hunching his shoulders away as he remains seated on the infirmary bed. He looks up with narrowed eyes and puffed out cheeks, but a sudden pang in his heart makes him retreat his display. “Um… Is it…a problem?”

Jin only laughs more, turning away to put back the medical supplies. “Not at all, Prince Leo. I’m glad you can be yourself around me. I’m sure your Prince Guard feels the same way.”

“You think so?” He looks down, kicking his feet back and forth quietly. A smile slips onto his lips as he watches the hypnotic motions, blurring his focus and easing him into memories of times spent in each other’s company. “That would make me happy… Hey, actually, have you seen Sena around?”

The doctor looks over his shoulder with a raised eyebrow. “Doesn’t he wake you in the morning? Shouldn’t you know more than I would?”

Leo purses his lips as he looks up. “He does, but then disappears and a maid tends to my every need.”

Jin hums in thought, turning to lean his shoulder on the cabinet he closes and crosses his arms. “If I were to wager a guess, he’s been made to go train with the knights. The number that come in here with injuries has increased lately. Tell him to go easy on them, will you? He’s giving me more work.”

He gives the doctor a sympathetic look. “Sena only does what he thinks will help us. It’ll make our knights stronger, I’m sure.”

“If you say so.” Jin sighs. “Oh, and on their lips, they keep whispering about how your Prince Guard has taken over your duties instead of Princess Ruka. If you can’t find him on the training grounds, I’ll bet he’s in your office.”

“Heh~ Sena has? He didn’t tell me a thing.”

“Maybe ignorance is bliss, Prince.” Jin shrugs. “All the better if you are less stressed.”

“I guess.” Leo trails off wistfully. However, the words that had passed between them suddenly spring back to the forefront of his mind, making him perk up like a cat alerted by a sudden sound. “Wait! You said ‘if I don’t find him’! Does that mean you’re letting me go? Freeing me from strict bedrest?!”

The doctor laughs, shoulders trembling up and down. “You’re perfectly healthy, Prince Leo. Remarkable after only a few days. I don’t think I can stop you even if I wanted to.”

“Yes! Thank you!” Leo jumps off of the bed, light on his feet as he makes his way to the entranceway. “See you later, Sagami-sensei!”

He barely catches the amused reply as he races out into the hallway. “Not too soon, I hope.”

The sounds of his feet airily pattering against the ground echo between the stones, rocking the vibrations in the air and into his eardrums. The reflection upon the gleaming windows pans his image across the bright, baby blue sky full of delicate clouds as soft as rabbit’s fur. With the sun shining high in the afternoon atmosphere, people and foliage, alike, underneath its rays soak in the warmth with gentle expressions; intimate breeze ruffling them in a dance full of jolly.

The grin on his face beams back at him through the reflection. Facing forward once more, Leo hurries down the hall with proper strides. He will check outside first, where the knights train. It’s as good a day as any to practice under the sheen of the sun; to perspire under the blanket of heat and really feel the intensity of such a work out. His heart pumps hastily – healthily – in his excitement, as though he is the one exercising. It beats against his chest so powerfully with each step he takes down to the ground floor that it nearly vibrates his entire body.

Eventually rounding the corner towards the side door leading outside, Leo stops behind a wall with a sudden break, sending his own body propelling forward and needing to brace himself against the stones.

Peaking around the edge, he sees with his eyes what his ears hear. A small group of three knights coming inside with sweat drenched towels around their necks. The sun takes the opportunity to pierce into the shadows and dye the floor as the door opens, only to be beaten back by the obstacle once it closes.

“Did you hear that rumor going around the castle lately?”

“Which one?”

“If it’s about that butler getting a crush on the queen, I don’t want to hear it.”

“No, not that one! The… ghost.

“The ghost?” Two of them chorus together.

“Recently, some of the night guards have been seeing the shadows move. Gliding without a sound like a floating specter creeping along the walls.”

“C-Cut that out. This is an old castle, a castle since our ancestors’ times, but th-there’s nothing like that here.”

“So, the night guards are afraid of their own shadows flickering with the candle light, what’s the big deal?”

“They’re saying locks are getting sliced apart, doors are being left open when everyone swears they were closed before, and some of the decorations are rattling in the halls when there is no one there.”

“A lot of the locks around here are rusted and probably fell apart on their own. They put themselves into retirement. Good for them, good for them.”

“Yeah!! And maybe they mistook the wind picking up something outside as the sound!”

“Even though they say there’s always a sudden cold chill in the area whenever it appears? As though something crawled out from underground and left its escape route open?”

“Night chills. Those guys always forget how cold the nights can get, then are surprised.”

“Mhm, mhm!”

“Heh~ Alright, don’t believe me. But I’m going to say ‘I told you so’ when you walk into the armory and swear there is someone rummaging through it, but find no one inside.”

“D-Did… that happen?”

“Hmm… Just last night, the knight who saw it said they held up a candle to the area the noises were coming from and the shadows moved like it was running away. They couldn’t run out fast enough, skin pricked up with goosebumps and the cold clinging to their clothes.”

“Cut t-that out. You don’t have to be so dramatic about it!”

“Armory, huh… Well, good thing we’re not in charge of that area.”

“Huh? I thought you weren’t scared? Fufu maybe we should go and check. It’ll look bad on us, too, if we let a thief continue to plunder.”

“Stop! C-Come on, guys, we’re supposed to get water from the kitchen. Let’s just go before they send someone to scold us, or worse.”

Leo watches them round the corner at the opposite end of the corridor, the wall eventually obscuring the group of three from his sights. He blinks curiously, not moving from his spot with fingers gripping at the corner of the stone.

The armory? The room is nearer to the barracks than where he is at the moment. Maybe he’ll go have a look himself to see if any of these rumors hold true. And if so…

Well, he’s not defenseless, even without a physical weapon on hand. Leo doubts a sword could do much damage, in the first place, if it is a supernatural being – an incorporeal ghost, at that. Though he hasn’t dared tried to use his magic since recovering, he feels it lazily surging underneath his skin, humming alongside his life blood and thrumming within his heart. Besides, if all else fails, he will run to Izumi. Izumi will help him, without a doubt.

Leo just has to find his demon companion first.

Eagerly, he makes his way to the side entrance the knights had used. He pushes his hands onto the solid door, sliding it open and allowing the bright sun to assault his visage. Leo squints, crinkling his brows as his eyes sting with the natural illuminations of the world. The door closes with a mild slam behind him by the time his pupils adjust to the brighter environment. And with the lush gardens now right before his clear sights, his heart starts beating impatiently once more.

He can’t wait to see even more of the world outside of his bedroom; a world he has taken for granted all of this time. A world that never stops changing, full of mysteries waiting to be discovered. He trails along the veranda, admiring the jade foliage and vibrant flora as he nearly skips along the edge of the castle walls. The gentle wind ruffles his bangs in the same moments as the sun splashes him with warmth, heating up his chilled body and embracing him snuggly. His fingers skim atop the railing, picking up splattered dust and cleaning residue; but he pays no mind to the grit chafing upon his fingertips.

Leo’s eyes sweep over the quickly approaching training grounds, knights upon knights in their less formal exercise attire gathered together, listening carefully to an instructor and exchanging blows. He gazes upon the determined faces, slick with perspiration dotting their foreheads and clinging onto loose strands of hair. The faces of people who risk their lives for the sake of their kingdom – a place they all, him included, call home.

Izumi once told him that most lives that are lost during war are civilians, not soldiers.

He stops to watch the people who have sworn their existences to protect those who wish for nothing but to live their lives in peace – those who do not desire to take up arms and witness the violence with their pure eyes. Wooden practice swords clang together in sharp thwacks as they are swung with the intensity of real combat. The innocent breeze is ruptured, whistling in their pained wails. He leans on a pillar, watching with rapt attention as their paired dances continue on.

For he and his family are the ones who commanded them onto the battlefield, he cannot close his eyes and turn away; no matter how much he may desperately beg to one day. Even if tears drown his eyes as his guiltless civilians are rushed into Heaven or Hell, he will not close his ears to their anguished screams that are far greater than his own. When the day comes where they are at peace and his heart lays in shattered rubies at his feet, he will mourn their innocent lives until his own death is just beyond the horizon.

Until then, he will fight to save as many as he can – so both his knights and his citizens can continue to happily smile in their homes.

Eyes darting from head to head, Leo doesn’t spy hair with the same gleam as the midnight moonbeams. He hums under his breath in dissatisfaction, chest panging achingly. Guess he will have to look elsewhere. First, however, he thinks he will go into the armory.

Without anyone’s notice, he sneaks his way through the shadows of the veranda, scuttling his way towards the barracks at the back of the castle grounds. It isn’t far, the structure standing sturdily against the backdrop of the tall stone walls and the towering forest trees beyond. There is a smaller weapon storage within the barracks itself, but the one that is usually assigned a night guard directly nearby is the armory within the royal castle.

Leo slides into the back door, eyes fighting to readjust to the dimmer lighting as the hallway before him becomes nothing but moving obscurities. Though the partially blinded windows allow subtle streams of blazing light to pass through their transparent bodies, the shadows remain dancing upon the walls. The chill of the stone walls instantly ward away the blanket of heat the sun had draped over his shoulders, nearly making him shiver. With no one else in sight and none of the sconces lining the walls lit, he feels a different kind of nip race up his spine.

Making his footsteps silent despite the air of solitude, he makes his way down the corridor. Midway through the long passageway lays the door to the armory. As he puts his hand on the handle as cold as ice, his muscles freeze up.

Within, there is a quiet, clunky rattling. He absently questions if his magic – biased towards sounds – can amplify the noise to his ears.

As though answering his wandering wonderments, his blood starts to buzz through his veins. Like something within the copious crimson liquid separates from inside of him and spills into his fingertips, the skin pressing against the cold doorknob warms steadily. A gentle stream of emerald powder dusts into the air, spreading lazily like drifting pollen. In a steady crescendo, the volume of the world increases; his ears nearly aching as even the air within his lungs tornadoes in his head and his heartbeat drums like warfare.

He sucks in a pained breath, the melody of magic creating a symphony that ricochets within the concert hall that is his mind. The world is too loud; his thoughts get drowned out and sunken to the bottomless depths, never standing a chance.

Metal. Metal moves inside of the armory, clinking away against more of the same material. Then, clanging like someone accidentally bumps into a stack as they move. A steady trail of mishaps – or perhaps a meticulous search through the armaments – bounces from one end of the room to the other. For a moment, all resonances from within the room disappears, only to reappear with a sharp, metallic hiss. A sword has been drawn, screeching in his ears as terribly as tortured birds of prey. The whizzing of air follows the sound.

Leo nearly cries out as heavy metal does the same, spilling to the floor with sharp notes. Something opens, like a secret little box hidden away among the relics. However, nothing seems to be taken out. Only the air moves as the castle’s invader draws closer to the door he stands behind.

There are no footsteps. There never was.

He swallows thickly, the sound beating heavily within his head. His thoughts race just as blaringly; to run or to face this intruder directly. Something sharp scrapes against the edge of the door, glinting metal peeking out from the tiny space in between the doorframe. Leo tightens his grip on the doorknob, his knuckles turning white as he turns it sharply and throws the door open. A roar of air slams into his face, blowing back his bangs.

His breath catches, shrill inhale chilling his teeth and slamming to a stop hazardously within his throat. He stares at his own green eyes in his reflection upon polished steel, sharp tip just millimeters from one of his quivering organs of sight. If he blinks, his eyelashes would be severed free from his body.

“You’re…” The word spills from him like a disappearing waterfall on its last drop of water, wispy and barely there, even in a world that continues to scream.

The steel draws away. Leo releases the lungful of air he unintentionally held in a trembling exhale, his tense shoulders finally lowering. He recognizes this blade, something he has seen countless times in conjunction with someone dear. His mind races to catch up to what his eyes see; this inexplicable event that has unfolded before him with no possibility of denying. The further he traverses into this world that he has never known, the more the outlandishly impossible become mundane, everyday incidences.

The beautiful blade minutely sways back and forth in front of him, its polished black sheath with a slash of light blue dyed upon its surface floating just beside it without a sound. Its flat side is displayed to him, sharp edge pointing towards the ground and presenting to him his own appearance like a swinging mirror.

“…Sena’s sword.”

As though it cocks its head at him, the blade tilts. The other side of his chest is shown to him, alongside the sudden refraction of the sunlight coming in from behind. Leo gasps as it abruptly flies higher, twisting and turning in an elegant dance before striking like a bird towards prey.

The steel shrills, sliding into its thin sheath. It nearly makes Leo block his ears with his hands with the all-consuming intensity of it as his magic continues to thrum. Once safely within its home, the sword glides over to him leisurely. He is the curious one now, waiting with bated breath as he stares at the sleek design upon its grip.

His voice, once again, gets trapped as he inhales in shock. As though the blade has suddenly lost all life, its rhythmic sway ceases and begins to descend to the ground with abandon. Leo reaches out hurriedly, wrapping his fingers around it; the guard slamming against the side of his finger in his near miss.

He sighs in relief, bringing it towards his body in a gentle hug. He whispers, “What are you doing here?”

But he gets no reply.

Leo exhales again, his rapidly beating heart finally slowing down. Looking around the armory, he finds nothing too dearly out of miss, only a heavy chest in the corner left without a lock. He nibbles on the inside of his lip, debating between collecting the broken lock laying on the ground and claiming there was none in the first place or leaving it and blaming the rumored ghost.

He looks down at the sword in his hands.

He supposes the castle’s ghost is the cause in the first place. Keeping the sword close to his chest, Leo backs up from the doorway and securely closes its depths from view. The impact the solid wooden door makes with the frame rattles his eardrums deafeningly, making him wince. He doesn’t know how to stop it. He doesn’t even truly understand how it began.

He has to find Izumi.

His footsteps echo louder than usual within the empty corridors, making him flinch with each impact. Every step he takes up the stairs, the sword’s grip jolts with his fidgety body, brushing against his face softly. The cool metal calms the panicked flush that he hadn’t realized has surfaced to his cheeks until then. The birds outside, chirping their love songs, sound like they’re shrieking for death to take them away from this unbearable realm of existence. Idle chatter passes through the walls as though they are talking directly beside him.

Leo hurries up the stairs, his pounding footsteps drowning out the other noises from far and wide. Pain starts to stab agonizingly between his eyes and nearly through his skull. He closes an eye in a desperate attempt to ward it away, pleading that he makes it to his destination. Praying that the person he seeks is within its depths.

Clunkily, he takes the last step up to the higher floor, balancing his quickly dizzying body on the wall with his shoulder. He still clutches the sword tightly to his chest, thanking it silently for remaining docile the entire trip. Swallowing thickly, his body wavers as he pushes off the stone. Just beyond where he stands, he can hear the rustling of paper from within the room he pursues. Someone is inside. No one else should be within its walls. Even the rest of his family rarely visits, dealing with matters in their own, private, places of work.

The woeful whine crawling up his throat is like a piercing stab to his eardrums. His grip tightens on the weapon in his hands as he shakes his head, attempting to rid the sounds from his mind and right his eyesight. Only a bit more. Though the flooring beneath his feet swirls, Leo takes it one step at a time. He can make it. This is nothing in comparison to what he had prior.

Nearly falling through the door upon his arrival to his office, he stumbles inside unceremoniously. His faltering footwork slams into his ears like an entire musical performance where he has the honor of getting a front row seat. He shuts his eyes tightly closed, waiting until the echoing ring recedes before looking up.

His gaze meets curious – if not confused – azure blues. Both elation and relief fill his heart, making his shoulders become lax and his form slumping against the swinging wooden door. “Sena.”

“What do you think you’re doing, Prince?”

“Ow, ow,” Leo hisses in a whisper. He wraps his arm around the sword, holding it against him with the crook of his elbow as he brings his hand up to cover his ear. “Not so loud!”

Izumi blinks at him blandly. Leo watches as the demon’s stare travels down his body. Izumi lowers his voice to barely anything but a breathy exhale, “Then close the spell. I’m surprised you didn’t attract any attention staggering here. You’re glittering like a fairy.”

Leo puts on his best pout, nearly tearing up in a panicked discomfort. “Help me.”

His companion only smirks sadistically, shaking his head in reply. Leo whimpers dramatically within his throat. No matter how many times he clenches and unclenches his fists physically, he can’t seem to close the connection. Leo squeezes his eyes shut again, blanketing the world in a dark curtain. With the endless visual stimulations locked away while in the safety of Izumi’s presence, he can mentally see the green magic particles dancing in the obsidian space, floating around languorously.

He loses focus, becoming hypnotized by their melodic bob and sway. The shining lights that spiritedly ask him to come play with them and sing songs loud enough to reach every corner of the earth show him a path full of freedom and endless creation. Inspiration that is limitless beyond anyone’s imagination lies within them as long as he desires to be one; take their hands and fly together into a world full of promises. They can become unstoppable for as long as he desires.

“I can’t.” Leo huffs pathetically, opening his eyes and searching Izumi’s patient gaze.

“You asked it to perform a spell. Just ask it to close in the same way.”

Izumi’s footsteps coming closer pound in Leo’s head.

He hopes his gratitude can be felt from within, the whole-hearted sincerity of it filling his being to overflowing. Now, however, it is time to put it to an end and allow everyone to rest. Please close. Please close. Please close.

The whipping wind from slicing movements dwindles to a whispered draft as Leo feels Izumi’s fingers lay along his jaw, pressing gently into the bone beneath his skin. He moves his head to one side and then the other with the demon’s tender urging, allowing Izumi to examine him as he pleases. The lazy heat trickling from Izumi’s skin to his own hums his senses into pleasure, lulling him into a peaceful, almost limp, state.

“See? Not so hard.” Izumi says in a soft tone. “Doesn’t look like you damaged your own ears from it all. Lucky you.”

“You’re such a sadistic teacher. Pay back for your vocal lessons?” Leo teases. He leans into Izumi’s touch, desiring more of it the longer their skin remains pressed together.

“Hmph.” The demon turns away, taking his hand back and closing the book he carries with an airy clap. “You figured it out, didn’t you?”

A text of Terra’s history?

“Yes, yes, I’m learning from experience.” He quips back. “Anyways, here.” Leo holds out the sword in his possession with both hands.

“Oh, thanks.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t have it with you.”

“Your father demanded it be taken away when I first returned.” Izumi shrugs while gliding over to the bookshelf lining the side wall and placing the book back in its vacant spot.

“Um…” He finds himself trailing off hesitantly. “Did you know that it… Uh…”

The way Izumi looks at him and tilts his head in the same, innocently curious way the sword had down in the armory makes Leo pause. “Hm?”

“N-No, it’s nothing. Never mind.” Leo holds his tongue and swallows his words. “What were you up to? Anything I can help with?”

Izumi hums in thought, tucking the sword into the loop at his hip where it usually belongs. He turns towards the heavy, dark wood desk laden with piles upon piles of paperwork. “How about a trip?”

Leo perks up, eyes and ears trained directly on Izumi. “A trip?”

It turns out, Izumi anticipated both Leo’s speedy recovery and antsy nature eager to leave the confines of the castle walls. The demon prepared for them an easy trip towards the coast; even getting the king’s approval prior by declaring that they are going for political reasons, for the citizens of Terra. They are to negotiate with the port town’s head leader, quickening the transport of seafood and an increase of such goods inlands in exchange for monetary funds and the enticement of more workers. If the port town grows, then the entire region will flourish more rapidly, drawing both business and a higher quality of life towards its lands.

Izumi has already written the words of his debating discussion down for him, even if things go awry. With the pressure taken off of his shoulders, perhaps this is just a small vacation for the two of them to take. To bask under the summer sun and allow the sea breeze to slam into their bodies like the ocean waves and take away the unpleasant memories from the last few days. But even if the feelings that stick to their skin and creep unrelentingly through their minds are unkind, he doesn’t wish to forget them as though they were dust in the wind. Every experience, no matter what it may be, is part of one’s precious life – a life that continues forward mercilessly and unrelenting. Because of such experiences, today, he knows that he is truly alive.

Symphonica rubs its snout into his cheek happily, the horse’s hair tickling his skin as he cuddles back. His hands pet up and down the horse’s strong neck, feeling the hard muscle underneath his palms. When Leo puckers his lips, Symphonica eagerly presses its face to his once more. A smile unwittingly spreads across his face brightly, closing his eyes to the joyful bliss he feels within his heart at this casual exchange.

They stand at the front gates with Izumi and another horse in tow, preparing to depart on a journey across the land. By the time Leo finished packing what little he needed from his bedchamber, Izumi had the horses out and ready with everything they require for a trek out into the wilderness attached to the horses’ saddles. Just like a seer, Izumi knew exactly what would occur prior to the actual event.

Still, whether Izumi is a prophet, using magic, or just had a feeling within his gut, Leo is eternally grateful. His heart beats thunderously within his chest, filling to the brim with affection and saccharine emotions that drip as thickly as honey.

Though his family look at him with varying looks of concern and trepidation, Leo hops onto Symphonica and gives them the brightest smile he can muster. “Don’t worry! Sena is with me!”

“As true as that may be…” His mother trails off.

It is his dear younger sister that saves him with an understanding grin, “Terra is in good hands, don’t you think, mother, father? Come home soon, big brother. Okay?”

The king exhales harshly. “Return within the timeframe we discussed, or there will be no more trips such as these.”

Even if their people are ailing and no one else seems to be doing anything about it?

“Of course, Your Highness.” Izumi answers for him. He, too, sets a foot on the stirrup and hoists himself onto the horse with a motion so graceful that Leo finds himself staring; transfixed with just the short motion. “He is under my careful watch.”

Is it just him or is there an underlying hostility between Izumi and his father? Leo tilts his head, but doesn’t question it more. His father seems to relent to the demon’s words, allowing them to depart with a stiff nod – and Leo won’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Maybe he will ask Izumi later. As much as he truly wishes for Izumi to get along with his family, Leo is well aware that Izumi is still an Infernan native and remains its inhabitant.

They’re at war, so… Perhaps there may never be harmony between them.

His hands grip the reigns tightly, holding the aching feelings within his palms and crushing them beneath his fingers. When they are at peace, Leo swears it, he will hold friendly relations with the other kingdoms, no matter what else he has to sacrifice from himself. Until then, he, alone, will traverse through the thorny paths; inching ever closer to understanding their demon neighbors and their angel watchers.

He will do it.

If for nothing else but this love that has taken root and blossomed within his chest.

With a wide grin plastered on his face, Leo urges Symphonica forward. “I will see you, mother, father, sister! Take care!”

“Bye, brother.” Ruka waves. The tinge of sadness in her eyes nearly makes him stop, but she will be okay. They will see each other again, without question.

“I’ll make you proud. Wait just a little longer.” Leo promises his family sincerely. “Come on, Sena. I’ll race you!”

He is already taking off in a swift gallop, hearing only the annoyed click of a tongue from Izumi before the demon is left in the dust kicked up behind him and Symphonica. Piercing through the calm air like a vicious whirlwind, Leo feels like he is flying freely to wherever his heart desires. The high, afternoon sun that bathes his face in warmth lights up every path available before him – all he has to do is decide, without restrictions or second guesses, the path of his chosen destiny.

He looks behind him as another set of careering hooves join him.

Izumi’s bangs flutter against his forehead, the moonlit strands teasingly beckoning Leo to run his fingers through them. Izumi has made short work of the distance Leo put between them with the spontaneous start. The demon’s azure eyes are set in determination, the strong gaze heart fluttering the closer those eyes get. The two of them fall into the same, breakneck speed; Izumi allowing Leo to continue taking the lead as his horse dashes at the side of Symphonica’s rump. Izumi rides a horse as elegantly as he does everything else, like a dancer upon ice and acting the part of a royal more than Leo ever has.

Nevertheless, Izumi’s secret is safe with him. Always.

He will choose his fated path with this kind demon at his side. No matter where they may end up, no matter how difficult it may be, he will pick the road that keeps them together. Leo can’t imagine a future with anything less or anyone else.

“You’re going to crash if you keep staring at me.” Izumi’s voice, no matter how intensely the rushing airstream tries to overshadow it, is as clear as though his magic is still activated. It is a voice that he will hear no matter the circumstances.

“Wahaha! Stop and smell the flowers sometimes, Sena~!”

Looking forward as commanded, more bubbling laughter comes out of Leo’s chest happily. The sound leaves his lips as brightly as the sun as it gets carried away like a symphony on the wind.

Until the imposing, stone castle behind them disappears in the distance, the two of them keep up the swift pace. And even when it does completely, beyond the horizon, Leo urges them onwards without worry; Symphonica easily handling his requests and Izumi steadily by his side without complaint. Horses can’t run at full speed forever; rather, it is only a short distance before the robust creatures tire in comparison to the distance they can cover at a steady trot. But he only desires the one moment of freedom – just a little longer will give both him and Symphonica another burst of gleeful adrenaline, unrestricted from royal confines.

With only the sounds of passing nature and the clopping of hooves falling upon the dirt path in a rhythmic song, Leo notices right away when one set disappears. He relaxes his legs, releasing the pressure upon Symphonica’s sides, and pulls at the reigns gently, getting his horse to come to a slow stop. As he urges them to turn back around, he spies Izumi atop his own horse at a complete standstill, the animal shaking off the exertion and nickering airily.

Bringing Symphonica to a trot, Leo goes back to Izumi’s side and waits patiently for an answer. “Sena?”

The grin he gets in return is the softest Leo has ever seen; his thrumming heart, once beating with exhilaration, now beats eagerly with shy awe. Is his face warm from the sunbeams, the whipping wind, and the exercise, or from Izumi’s beauty, complete with an unexpectedly fond smile that Leo will keep tightly locked within his memories?

“Give me your hand?” Izumi reaches out, his fingers, free of callouses that probably should be there, are positioned in lax request, palm facing upwards towards the brilliant sky that holds no contest against Izumi’s own brilliant eyes.

Upon his lips, Leo forms a smile of his own, nearly needing to nip at his lips so it doesn’t spread too widely. He brings Symphonica right beside the demon, his arm stretching out even before he can consciously command his limb to do so. The skin of their fingers feather across each other, Leo grasping Izumi’s hand firmly. “Of course.”

A blast of ivory light takes over his vision, encompassing the two of them so thoroughly that the azure blue Leo stares into is shrouded away, despite being only a small distance apart. Something pours over from Izumi, sliding up Leo’s arm and tingling his skin in tiny static shocks all the way down to his toes. Everything ceases. Within a moment’s notice, his senses stop responding to any kind of stimulus and his mind seems to float away to the middle of nowhere.

The very world, itself, stops.

Chapter Text

The world regains its time, pacing steadily ahead towards the future as the ivory illuminations disappear like it was never there to begin with.

Veridian shades splash upon the background and new sounds rock his ears; even the strong wind that blows by carrying the scent of the salty sea tastes different than before. The sunbeams scatter amidst the drifting leaves, dotting his sights in their random glow.

Panicked neighing pierces his eardrums like alarm bells.

The horse beneath him rears up to its hind legs, uselessly kicking its front legs in the air. Normally, he might be able to stay on and calm the horse down with gentle gestures and reign handling, however, he has more than himself to worry about. A human falling from atop a horse may lead to much more injury than him falling to the ground. He slides off, using every bit of demonic dexterity his body is naturally imbued with, and hops slightly away, tugging the hand still holding his own with him.

He hears Leo’s breath catch sharply as he is pulled off. The prince can, no doubt, calm the animal, as well, but better not risk that slim chance of error. With his balance precariously altered, Leo falls into his direction without protest. The two of them collide, but keep their stance upon the soft dirt and forest moss beneath their feet.

The mild exasperation for this kingdom slips off the tip of his tongue, “Hmph. Terrian horses.” Infernan horses are much more accustomed to magic.

He reaches out, making sure not to get kicked by the horse’s rear legs, and grasps the reigns. Leo does so, too, with Symphonica, who is in no better state of calm.

“Easy, it’s okay.” Leo coos. “Shh, shh, Symphonica. It’s okay, I’m here.”

He lets his magic free. A gust of icy frost cyclones around them, putting an end to the panicked atmosphere and sealing it in ice. A floral scent rises up from the glimmering particles, spellbinding the horses into a relaxed disposition. The forest around them whistles with the breeze slipping between the tree trunks, leaves rustling and chattering away as the horses cease their nickering and clopping.

“Good boy~” Leo sings happily. He slips the reigns onto his wrist, raising his, now free, hand to rub at the horse’s neck. “You, too, buddy. It’s all alright, you did good~” The prince chuckles, hopping the short distance he is from the other horse and starts to pat its broad back.

“Well, Prince, should we head into town?” Izumi asks.

“Did you teleport us that close?” Leo turns his head sharply. “I hear the ocean.”

“Just beyond the tree line.” He points straight ahead.

A smile brighter than the sun lifts Leo’s lips. “Let’s go, Sena!”

The prince tugs on their adjoined hands, linking them together even tighter by fitting his fingers in between Izumi’s. He allows Leo to tug them forward at a brisk pace, eagerness saturating the prince’s every movement. Woodchips crunch beneath their shoes and twigs are splintered apart underneath horse hooves with sharp cracks. The more steps they take, the more the air is soaked in a savory salt that makes him crinkle his nose.

Izumi has to wonder, “Have you ever been to the ocean?”

“Mm~ Only once or twice when Ruka and I were real young.” Leo replies, turning his head to look over at him. “That’s new, isn’t it? That cuff on the middle of your ear. It was glowing like ivory marble before, but now it’s a pretty silver design.”

“Compressed magic, Prince.”

It is less new and more like he has gone back home and retrieved it from his quarters within the Infernan castle.

“For teleporting?” Orange hair falls smoothly with gravity as Leo cocks his head inquisitively. “So, magic can be in that kind of form too, huh?” His lips lift into another grin. “It suits you. Everything suits Sena~”

He’s glad that Leo turns back around to gaze at their path; the heat that flows up to his cheeks can remain a secret between him and the passing trees forever.

Leo’s excited tugging on his hand increases as they finally spy the deep blue of the ocean water and the pale sandy beach that spreads out widely. Flecks of sand progressively splatter across the moist dirt as Leo hurries them along, eventually dipping off into the sand’s squishy territory completely. Their horses, unused to the coastal environment, test the powdered gravel with hesitant footsteps as they walk deeper. Leo stops his jovial strides at just the edge of the white waves, seafoam clinging onto the shore, desperately greeting them before departing once more.

“What are you doing?” Izumi asks while he watches Leo with a dry sort of look.

The prince lets go of both Symphonica’s reigns and Izumi’s hand and hurriedly chucks off his boots and socks. “What do you think?” He laughs. The garments are discarded in the sand and Leo takes off in a dash. He runs straight into the rushing waves, forcibly parting them with a solid impact and scattering salty liquid into the air. “Sena, come play!”

“Shouldn’t we finish work before we play?” Izumi asks as he crosses his arms. Nonetheless, he takes a couple steps closer. Just a couple. “Besides, you’re just going to pull me in without my consent.”

“You’re so boring~” Leo pouts dramatically as he wades in deeper backwards, fingers slipping underneath the waves as smoothly as a warm knife does to butter.

He huffs out a breath. “We have responsi-!” Izumi quickly raises an arm to shield his face as Leo splashes water towards him.

“Wahaha! Relax, Sena~ You made sure we made good time travelling here, so it’s fine to take a day off. Besides, isn’t this our little trip? A small vaca- wah!”

Leo plunges into the dancing liquid with a watery yelp as the rolling waves knock him off balance. Izumi sighs again, exasperated. Still, he can’t help the sting of worry that spreads from his chest and creeps through his veins. He swiftly removes his shoes and socks, leaving them in the sand more neatly than Leo had, and steps even closer to the precarious water’s edge. The sand sinks beneath his weight, sticking to his toes and getting washed away in an instant with a lap of the teasing ocean.

“Prince?” He calls out, now mid-calf deep into the bitter water that bites at his skin as he intrudes. “Hey…”

Thigh deep.

The ocean parts, spouting up like a geyser as orange hair emerges from its dark depths. Leo shakes his head, soaked bangs flying to and fro before sticking to his forehead. The pressure building in Izumi’s chest releases in seconds as his withheld breath is set free through his lips. Leo’s eyelashes drip with liquid tantalizingly, illuminated by the bright gaze his emerald orbs shine along with the reflection of the sunbeams from above.

“Sena! There are a ton of fish down there!”

“Of course, there are…” Izumi’s voice is small, his confidence flying away with the anxious patter of his heart gliding along the wind stream.

The prince bobs up and down with the flowing ocean currents as he floats just a couple yards away from him. Expectant green eyes stare at him, beckoning him silently to tread closer to a world he doesn’t know, an unknown place that is as dangerous as it is safe as long as Leo keeps his eyes on him. Surrendering to the call, he pushes his legs through the strength of the embracing waters, stirring them from their tight bonds and parting them momentarily.

When Izumi is close, Leo smiles and raises a hand out from the shrouded depths. “Help me out?”

“Really, you…” He trails off, voice nearly getting drowned out by the sounds of the very ocean they frolic within. With unsuspecting, innocent intents, Izumi grasps onto Leo’s hand.

Only to get pulled forward with merciless strength.

He slips into the cold water’s grip, the splash he creates first rushing into his ears sharply before the sound is shrouded away like he is listening to his own blood pumping through his veins with his hands cupped over his ears. The icy water slides between his parted lips before he could press them tightly together, bathing his tongue in liquid salt. He tightens his jaw enough for his teeth to grind against each other dully. With a kick of his legs, he propels himself back towards the surface; chilled water kissing his cheeks all along the way.

The first thing his waterlogged ears hear is Leo’s lighthearted laughter that rivals the clear sky. It both warms Izumi’s heart and boils his blood in frustration. He coughs out the bit of water that has invaded his windpipe and narrows his eyes at the childish Prince of Terra, water dripping from his bangs and sliding down his skin.

“It’s going to be autumn soon. We should enjoy the ocean while we can.” Leo chuckles breathily as he squeezes Izumi’s hand – which he has held onto during this entire fiasco. “Can you swim? Want to go deeper?”

“Isn’t that something you should ask before sending someone to their watery grave?” Izumi feels himself hiss physically, the sound getting washed out by the beachy breeze.

Leo laughs more. “I was holding onto your hand the whole time. I would never let anything happen to you.”

Izumi shifts his eyes away, gaze landing on the waves below him that rise up and fade to white before crashing down and dyeing the ocean in its new color. “Why do you say things like that so easily…?”

“Hm? Did you say something?”

“We only have a couple changes of clothes.” Izumi scoffs instead, going along with Leo’s drifting as even the tip of their toes begin to float and they can’t easily bounce back to the surface if the waves push them under.

“Mm~ It’s fine, isn’t it? We can get a room at an inn and pretend we’re just commonfolk visiting for a couple days.”

He feels Leo start kicking through the water beside him, keeping his body afloat. The water rushes by, embracing the both of them up to their necks and splattering teardrops into their eyes. “You’re so carefree.”

The prince smiles at him. “I think I just like being with you.”

Leo dives under the current, insistently tugging on Izumi’s hand as he goes. He shows Izumi the wonderful marine life swimming around and avoiding their touch – the way that the creatures swim by aimlessly and get near, only to scurry away in a rush. The sun penetrates through the surface, waving in their hazed sights like aurora beams spreading across the night sky. Izumi marvels at the animals that are so different from what he has seen at Kanata’s residence. The wildlife that, despite being so close to Inferna, evolved into a version of themselves that no longer soak in magic.

Later, as the two of them walk languidly across the damp sand with the gentle waves at their farthest reach licking at their toes, he stares straight ahead. The two horses have been tied together, Symphonica’s reigns in Leo’s hand leading both in the direction they are headed.

“If we keep going north, we’ll reach Terra’s pocket of peace.”

“Pocket of peace…?” Leo repeats under his breath, trying to jog his memory. His voice turns solemn. “Ah… Right… The only place within the war’s range that survived.”

“Like a peninsula escaping the tides of a tsunami while the mainland is devastated.” Izumi shrugs. Pressed up directly against the ocean on one side and ravished by war towards the west, he is sure the populace has prepared for the worse.

“The Town of Limonium.” Leo whispers. “I’m glad.”

They both know that Inferna’s border lies just north, beyond a line of trees from the forest and stacked rocks on the beach, boxing in this little town to its chosen fate completely.

“…Limonium Latifolium…”

Leo turns to look at him with confused eyes, the relaxed swing of their adjoined hands between them pausing.

Hm? Did he say that out loud? “I didn’t say anything.” Izumi opts to reply with to Leo’s silent question.

It doesn’t matter anyways, whether Leo heard the Infernan words or not.

It’s a title from the distant past; one that has disappeared and marked as nothing more than times gone by.

They get two rooms – at Izumi’s quiet insistence when he pinched at the skin on Leo’s back while Leo was talking to the owner behind the counter – at an inn and make use of their warm baths. Luckily, no one bats an eye as they entered the town limits soaked to the bone and barefoot; and also, that no one seems to recognize the Prince of Terra. It probably helps that they are wearing lighter clothing more fit for travel rather than high-end garments decorated lavishly. Besides, the prince, himself, looks like a drowned cat with his unruly hair pooling at his neck.

Somehow, after their individual baths, Leo ends up in Izumi’s room; the prince sitting patiently on the edge of the bed while Izumi kneels behind him, brushing through the damp auburn strands with a comb. With a thin ribbon clamped between his teeth, Izumi dexterously sets Leo’s usual pony tail a little higher to dissuade anyone further from questioning his identity. Tying it off, Izumi pats Leo’s shoulder in signal.

“We missed lunch.” Leo absently says, tilting his head to look up.

“Whose fault is that?” He rolls his eyes as he shuffles off of the bed and sets the comb on the end table. “You’re treating me, for pulling me into the ocean.”

Leo’s shoulders tremble with his laughter. “I always treat you though? But okay, on me, then~” He hops off of the bed with a swing of his legs and stands straight. “Let’s go! Ah. You probably shouldn’t bring your sword.”

Izumi groans breathily. “Look, just because you think Terra is a safe place, doesn’t mean it is.”

“We’re parading around as normal folk. No one’s carrying a weapon. Just keep that dagger hidden in your clothes, like always.”

Terra is really so different…

Leo goes on, “We still have our magic, if anything.”

“I think we’d get chased out if they saw that.” He mumbles under his breath. “Fine, fine, let’s just go before your stomach makes an outcry.”

The prince skips out of the inn, flashing everyone he crosses with a happy smile as the two of them make their way towards the main area of town. The ocean crashes in the background, filling the air with constant, mesmerizing rumbles. With the salty breeze brushing across their cheeks, Leo chooses a cozy eatery snuggled closely to the sandy beach. It’s brightly lit with the early evening sun filtering inside, patrons lighting up the atmosphere further with their jovial chatter.

From the menu, they choose a few local specialties that catch their attention, intending to share it amongst themselves. And with the dishes laid out upon the round wooden table they sit at after it comes out of the kitchen, the unique scent of seafood fills their noses even more. A lightly savory, salty kind of smell that instantly makes one think of the rippling sea.

“Mmm~! I’ve never had a fish that tasted this yummy.” Leo mumbles happily around a mouthful of food. “Getting it fresh really does make a different.”

“Either eat or talk, not both.” Izumi scolds softly, easily picking apart the fish on his plate. It flakes off and melts in his mouth like butter, the seasoning pairing just right to give it a rich flavor.

Leo makes a surprised noise, prompting Izumi to look up with his eyes. The prince has his mouth clamped shut, desperately flapping one hand in the air as he painfully chews. With a difficult swallow, Leo opens his mouth again and pants. “Ahh that was hot and kind of spicy, but sooo good. You have to try the prawns in this creamy broth.”

The prince scoops another spoonful of the swirling vermillion broth and a steaming, orange hued prawn. He extends his arm across the table, careful to keep from bumping into any of the other food dishes.

“I can eat it myself.” Izumi protests, about to use his own spoon. However, Leo purses his lips and bobs the spoon. With an exasperated breath – he can’t really seem to deny Leo – Izumi reaches for Leo’s utensil and takes it in his own hand. The moment the hot liquid brushes his tongue, it bursts into what seems like hundreds of spices that mix and meld seamlessly and burn a subtle fire within his oral cavity.

“Good right?” Leo’s smile is even brighter as he takes back the spoon.

The heat paired with the prawn really is good.

They finish their early dinner in good time, with Leo ending up complaining that he has eaten too much. With the sun starting its descent below the horizon and streaking the bright blue sky in auburn ribbons, Izumi suggest they walk around to digest. Simply constructed street stalls line the sand splattered paths as they explore with languid steps.

“There’s food out here, too, huh?” Leo awes as the wind shifts direction and splashes the prince’s face with the smoke that rises up from the cooking.

“Eat tomorrow. You’ll give yourself a stomachache.” He warns, keeping them walking down the bustling street.

As they continue on, a glimmer of refracting sunlight catches their attention. Another stand has various trinkets and glass-like goods out on display, sending the sun scattering in all directions. Izumi follows Leo as the prince is pulled away by curiosity. Leo leans down closely, his eyes staring back at him through the clear surface of a vase.

“I’ve never seen flowers like these.” Leo whispers. Tiny, five-petal flowers and what look like floral, purple stars are encased within the glass, sprinkling up and down the entire piece.

The vendor chuckles heartily, “Never been here, lad? Welcome, welcome to the Town of Limonium, surrounded by sea lavender anywhere you look!”

Leo looks up from his fascinated inspection, “Sea lavender?”

The vendor turns their head and points a finger down the beach. Just before the forest turns to beach, bushes of large green leaves sprout out clusters of purple flowers dotted spontaneously with white.

“We saw those coming in.” Izumi nods.

“As the symbol for our beloved town, we’ve crafted a vary of things. Have a look! I’m sure something will catch your eye!”

For a town snuggled up to Inferna, it sure is happy-go-lucky.

“Look at these earrings, Sena.” Leo pipes up, hovering a finger over the jewelry but not touching them. “Do you think Ru-my sister will like them? Or maybe mother?”

“An excellent choice, lad! Any lady would be thrilled with these teardrop earrings with petals in the glass.”

Izumi, in contrast to the eager salesperson, shrugs blandly. “They’d probably be happy with anything you get them. There are lots of other stalls, too, so you don’t really need to rush.”

Leo ends up with a bracelet for Ruka and earrings for his mother from the first shop of the evening. While they continue exploring, Leo purchases a small glass figurine of some sea creature that is rather cute and plump with tiny ear-like appendages – a dumbo octopus, according to the vendor – a souvenir for himself as a reminder of the memory they have created together; this, too, has the sea lavender petals scattered within like pollen dancing in the wind.

As the sun copiously dyes the sky in crimson smears when they decide to start heading back towards the inn, Izumi looks off towards the ocean. Near the burning horizon, the ocean stirs restlessly; his nose picking up a familiar scent dripping off of the distant clouds. The breeze ruffling his hair that comes from the endless ocean stutters in its graceful rhythm.

“Is something out there?” Leo queries quietly, stepping closer and brushing their arms together.

At first, Izumi only hums. In the end, he chooses to answer plainly. “A storm is coming in. Make sure to stay inside, tonight.”

“Mm, okay.”

Though he makes Leo promise to keep his word, Izumi makes no such vow, himself.

They part ways to go to their own rooms, leaving each other’s side for the night. Under the flicking candlelight, Izumi stares out the window, his eyes trained towards the north. The light crackles against the walls, forcing the shadows into an unwilling ballet upon the wooden planks. The orange glow casts a wave of warm hues to fight against the cool shades of the dimming world seeping in from the outside. When the waning moon reaches its peak in the midnight sky amongst the glimmering stars, he blows a short breath.

The candle fizzles out.

The gust carries with it a biting freeze and the scent of crisp hell. He physically feels the moment he steps across the border hidden within the fearfully forlorn forest; what was a dead land becomes alive in an instantaneous magic spell. The trees greet him with impish waves of their bodies and limbs, and the earth beneath his feet pumps raw energy into his body. Even the lapping ocean just meters away has a different eb and flow, rolling onto the shore with sprinkles of vigor. He doesn’t need a mirror to know that the enchantment cast upon him has faded into slumber, chest and cheeks tingling in their rediscovered freedom.

Sharp bark like dull thorns digs into his back with a wiggle as though the tree is getting comfortable upon him. The branches above shield him from the gaze of the squinting moon with a rustle of well-fed leaves, moonbeams slipping into the dark forest elsewhere and streaming in like a spotlight on an empty stage. He closes his eyes, allowing the atmosphere to bathe him in its lifeforce. His blood hums tantalizingly within his veins, rising to the very edges of his layers of skin and snatching the lazily drifting invisibilities in the air before running away with its captured prey to eat in private.

The trees welcoming another visitor to the area alerts him to their presence.

He slides his eyelids open lazily, moving his gaze towards the shifting shadows as the spotlight shines on a new area upon the stage. Sharp clops of a heavy horse’s hooves press into the soft, moss speckled ground; the sound scurrying the nocturnal creatures away and becoming the only echoing reverberations that dare compete with the singing waves and whistling winds. Two pairs of red eyes pierce through the darkness, coming closer with each second.

“Long time no see, Secchan.”

He raises an eyebrow. “What are you saying? It has only been a few days since I was home.”

Ritsu, atop an obsidian coated horse, comes to his side with a breathy chuckle. “It’s weird not seeing you every day.”

The vampire lightly descends the long distance from the ground with ease, patting the demonic horse’s side in gentle gratitude. Izumi idly eyes the horse. Infernan horses are much bigger than Terrian ones; he has almost forgotten how much stronger they are, as well.

Ritsu tilts his head, a smirk on his lips as he says, “Want her? Heard you’ve had to rough it with the babies.”

“They’re fully grown adults. Surprisingly enough.” Izumi sniffs. Besides, Terrian horses are not that much shorter, only by a foot or two. Maybe two and a half. “But no. That would only cause a ruckus I’m not dealing with.”

His friend laughs again, the sounds blending seamlessly with the shadowed air. “Terrian humans are so skittish.” Ritsu reaches inside of his jacket, pulling out a crimson glow. “Here, this is finished. Keep it safe, Secchan.”

Pale fingers hold out to him a transparent grey, jagged stone, a scarlet energy flickering like lightning strikes within its prison. The red light dashes across the darkness of the night, reaching as far as it can before retreating to start anew. Izumi wraps his fingers around it, faded black fog that rises from the magic crystal licks at his skin as he takes it from Ritsu’s grasp.

“I will.”

While he sends the stone into his magical inventory, Ritsu speaks in a more thoughtful tone, losing his playful nature. “You doing alright over there?”

“In Terra? More or less.”

The vampire gives him a calculative look with a tilt of his head, onyx bangs fluttering across his lashes. “Mnn… I’ll believe you. But run home when things look bad. Promise me, Secchan.”

The wind rushes by harsher, whistling between the tree trunks like the cry of the imprisoned within a crumbling castle.

“I’ll be fine.”

The battlefields are increasing their territory. Terra’s already small kingdom is decreasing in size as the warfront steadily creeps inside. History once told the stories of heroes and adversaries carving out the land for peace, spilling blood in the name of a better future. But Inferna isn’t looking to repeat history – an action the Terrians seem so fond of. Caelem, too, look to be aiming at a different goal.

Inferna and Caelem, both, with Terra as their battlegrounds, will not let up until one objective is fulfilled and the other is pulverized; even as fangs and claws are ripped out and wings are plucked clean.

“I don’t want those empty words. You’re Secchan. I know you’ll fight for us with all you’ve got. What I want is to see you tomorrow, alive.” Ritsu steps closer, deep red eyes glimmering like a hunting predator in the nocturnal sky. His orbs glow compellingly, shining like the rare blood moon that bathes the land in its haunting, crimson radiance.

Izumi’s throat tightens, burning sharply like a dagger has been stabbed straight through without falter and something is holding the wound closed.

“Alright. If I don’t think I’ll survive, I’ll abandon Terra.”

Ritsu’s lips curve into a satisfied, victorious smirk. “That’s a promise, then. You have to keep your word; I hate it when people break their promises. I’ll drink you dry.”

Izumi harrumphs softly, accepting the danger that now looms over his head like a patient hunter. Ritsu never makes empty threats. But his life isn’t on the line, there isn’t anything to worry about. Izumi won’t turn on his words. “Go get Naru-kun to be your snack.”

The vampire ignores him, “You’ve said you haven’t been able to get much practice in and are feeling rusty, right?”

“The largest bear can be taken down in seconds, and the Terrian knights are really…” Izumi trails off. He doesn’t understand how they think they will survive entering a war between Hell and Heaven. Even if the angels cannot harm the mortals, Caelem still has devout followers – human troops that march upon the land like Terrian humans do.

“Then let’s have a training session, Secchan. A little test.” Ritsu takes a small step back, putting his hand on the awaiting horse’s side.

Next to the vampire, a swirling whirlpool of shadows appears upon the ground. From it, emerges curled horns slipping into the realm of the living.

“You’re not serious.” Izumi dryly splutters out. Without waiting for a response, his hand goes to the sword at his hip; Ritsu is always serious with his mischiefs.

From the minor rift in the ground, a small dragon that towers alongside the oldest trees stands before him. Ritsu’s echoing laughter slowly disappears, him and the horse already physically gone from Izumi’s sights. When Ritsu’s voice does completely fade away within the ominous atmosphere taking hold, the dragon roars sharply, neck extended tautly and mouth raised to the sky.

Jet black scales drip with shadows darker than the cast of night, misting out like portentous smoke spilling free from the deepest pit residing in Hell. Tattered wings filled with gaping holes flap, ruining tree branches and scattering leaves to the gusting winds. It lifts its body straight with the movements, displaying its torso and belly covered in nothing but curved bone – giving Izumi an eyeful of the luminous scarlet magic swirling within its onyx dyed ribcage. Though the top of the dragon is covered in living scales, the bottom is nothing but its decaying death, all saturated with vengeful shadows scattering freely and poisoning the air.

It roars again, the crimson gas inside its belly and chest cavity rushes up its gauged-out throat and towards the flickering stars above. Once the magic leaves the dragon’s fanged mouth, it turns into blazing fire brighter than the weak moon hanging nearby, staining even the pitch-black sky in a red haze. The oxygen is quickly consumed, leaving the area thin and dry. The earth shakes beneath his feet as the dragon steps forward. Izumi braces himself, eyes flicking up the dragon’s boney forelegs to the tip of its scaled tail trailing obscurities.

A summon or an illusion?

He jumps away within an instant, a three toed foot pounding where he once stood. The ground sinks deeply, leaving the trees tilted oddly. The foliage, despite getting decimated, despite being ripped apart limb from limb, gleefully laugh and sway, encouraging the disaster – cheering on the destruction occurring to its home and the death of their comrades. The leaves sing their provocation in the same moments the wood screams in masochistic pleasurable pain.

Izumi lands lightly on one of the chuckling branches, balance shifting with each second as the ground continues to be shaken up. He exhales a long breath, keeping careful attention on the dragon. It may still be in its infancy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t put up a good fight. With an opponent like that, the sword in his hand hums, buzzing anew with eager energy. He nearly rolls his eyes. Well, neither Ritsu nor the sword is wrong.

It has been a long time since he has had a challenge.

The thin tail covered in armored scales comes rushing through. He jumps straight upwards, feeling the created gust propel him higher. He watches without flinching as trees are cleaved in half, tumbling towards the ground in an explosion of leaves. Softly landing a foot on a newly exposed tree trunk – angled and misaligned – he pushes off with his toes.

His nature allows him this one chance. Only one, else he will have to reset his stance. His body slices through the air like a bullet, sword held horizontal to his body. The polished steel reflects the dragons deathly red glare, flickering crimson light into his eyes. But the hindrance doesn’t last long, he is already skidding to a stop on the ground. Pirouetting cleanly, he turns back to face the looming dragon, watching it roar and thrash.

The air vibrates violently and the sky is decorated in flames.

At the dragon’s neck, a gash upon its decaying skin spills liquid shadows, dripping and oozing as though it is chunks of flesh and copious blood. The blaze engulfing the tree tops shudder above him, their bright light creating a ballroom atop the forest floor where the darkness spins and twirls. Izumi ducks down as claws as long as his legs whizz by, gutting out the trees behind him and leaving them standing on less than a quarter of their original widths. The wound on the dragon’s neck is eaten away by the living shadows, the aura gnawing at it insistently before running away after they’ve had their fill.

The dragon’s neck is as immaculate as when they first started this battle dance; bare, onyx bones sodden with shadows keeping the dancing red magic within. It’s no adult. It’s not one of the healer dragons, either. Izumi sweeps his unoccupied hand in front of him, going across his body. Forming like an ocean’s wave, ice grows tall. The blue luminosities race forward, intermingling with the flames and embedding into the darkness deeper than night. Rising his sword high, a ring of icicles forms in the burning sky, appearing from a dimensional rift of azure.

The dragon roars, shaking off the attacks with violent movements. The sharp frost is thrown away, leaving behind grotesque decay; only for the wounds to close up within a blink of an eye.

An illusion, then.

Izumi harrumphs under his breath, taking a side step when a blast of fire is shot his way. The heat tickles the edges of his hair, nearly kissing his cheek and singeing his ear. If it is nothing but a make-believe creature, then he has no reason to render the area uninhabitable for near millennia, just for the sake of his life. Summoning creatures is one trick. Creating illusions is another. For an illusion to create real damage, one must fuel it with one’s own magic, past fashioning its body. And though trickeries such as these can harm an opponent physically, the opponent is left with no way to break free. It is like fighting a ghost; apparitions can cause harm in the realm of the living, but the living cannot do harm to the realm of the dead.

He just has to hold out until Ritsu is done playing – until Ritsu is satisfied with this sparring session.

The wind flurries harder than the flap of dragon wings. A drop of liquid lands on his cheek, leaving a cold streak upon his skin. He dashes forward, positioning himself right underneath the dragon’s chest. Their dance continues on; craters being forced into the ground while goops of shadows falling from the dragon’s body fill it to full. He gains height advantage at one point and swivels downwards. The dragon thwarts his swift movements with a flap of wings and a swing of a tail. Fire and ice saturate the area in their glow, poisoning the air to thin, and drowning the increasingly tumultuous ocean.

Izumi squeaks out a pained noise as his elbows get crushed into his lungs. The dragon’s grip around his body tightens, keeping him midair as shadowy flames surround him – licking at his skin and closing the air pipe in his throat. In a flash of brilliant white, he breathes easy, steadying himself on a broken tree trunk with a hand as he crouches on a half-shattered branch, empty of singing leaves.

The storm rages on within the atmosphere overhead. The tides slam against the shore, echoing alongside the downpour of rainfall soaking his being. Tidal waves collapse within themselves as they grow too tall, spraying salty liquid into the sky and causing more breakers to form. Thunder booms with the dragon’s roar. The air, knowing no peace, continuously is shattered apart to nothing. Lighting joins their dance; biting at the ice and the fire that intermingle with a fierce and unkind competition of hierarchy. Heavy raindrops drip from his chin in a stream, his eyes constantly getting washed and hazed.

Even as he plunges his sword in between the keratin scales and deep into the back of the dragon’s neck, it barely acknowledges the injury and shoos him away by flying into the air and spinning. He lands on the sodden ground, splashing muddy water onto himself and covering his shoes in the muck. With the rain obscuring the flying dragon from his view and misting over the crimson glow in its belly, he misses how close the dragon has gotten to him.

Izumi yelps again, body getting forced flat onto the ground as a weighty foot lays heavily over his neck and chest. Its long claws screech in his ears as it pierces into the ground directly beside his head.

The rumble of thunder is joined by something else. Something so high pitched it makes his ears ring a sharp tone within milliseconds. The dragon roars, the sound nearly making his suddenly sensitive hearing rupture. It takes its weight off of him and flies a short distance away, turning its attention away from him momentarily. With a clearer view of the sky above, he spies sprinkles of emerald scuttle like baby static shocks within the tainted atmosphere, thick with the smoke of magic.

An arrow slices through the shower of rain, its tip – glimmering with the chaos of illuminations – aimed straight at the dragon’s vermillion eyes.

A normal arrow? Its shaft is already darkened with moisture.

His eyes widen and his breath catches sharply. He rolls onto his side, scrambling to his feet to use his speed to intercept what he knows will come next.

The dragon opens its mouth, a ball of crimson forming directly before it. The sphere of magic shoots out like a flamethrower, turning the rain into steam as it heads towards him. He raises sword in front of him, widening his stance to keep steady.

The rush of flames assaults his weapon, the swords exuding the glimmerings of light blue magic as it keeps the entirety of it at bay. The small particles go up against the blaze without fear, disappearing as quickly as they are pouring out from the steel. He closes an eye and grits his teeth as he is pushed back, feet sliding along the muddy ground and leaving a streaking trail. He yelps loudly as the flame’s final burst knocks him into the air.

Another voice joins his in a grunt of pain; fingers wrapping around his boney shoulders from behind as the remains of a stump stops their momentum.

“Ow… Are you okay?” The frantically worried tone of the person behind him makes his already accelerated heartbeat speed faster. “Sena.”

He pulls himself forward, getting to his own feet, crouching on the damp ground full of puddles. With a panting exhale from exhaustion, he looks over his shoulder, eyes meeting that of emerald orbs sparkling with stray raindrops. “Prince, what are you doing here?!”

“I-” Leo looks up suddenly, prompting Izumi to do the same.

He gets up, knees creaking, and grabs Leo’s hand. A column of mud engulfs their resting spot as a tail slams down with a crack. He pulls the prince along into a run, weaving through the scattered branches and jumping over fallen trees – slippery leaves and refreshed moss aiming to hinder their escape underneath their feet. With his sword in hand, he cuts through the air, pointing the edge of it towards somewhere behind the dragon. The tip of a large, but thin, icicle appears from nowhere. It shoots forward faster than the eye can see, the entirety of its long length visible now that it is embedded straight through the dragon’s neck.

With the illusionary creature occupied – with Ritsu occupied – for at least a moment, Izumi hides them behind one of the fortunate trees still standing and still cheering on the destruction. He pushes Leo’s back into its sharp bark, caging the prince in with an angry hand slapping beside damp orange hair. “You shouldn’t be here!”

With Leo here…

“Two is better than one!” Leo shouts back, eyes narrowing.

Terra shouldn’t have even been able to see the spectacle occurring beyond the border. “I told you to stay inside!”

With Leo here…!

“Why don’t you ever tell me anything?! You don’t have to fight alone!”

Their time runs out.

Thunder roars as lighting cracks down, quaking the earth alongside the trampling dragon. The remaining trees lose their leaves, blanketing the sky in a competition with the crying clouds spilling raindrops.

The dragon screeches, nearly bringing them both to their knees with the volume alone. Looking over, he watches as the icicle is engulfed in the red aura of magic that directly shoots up from the visible belly. The flames engulf the ice, creating a supernova with azure flakes scattering into the air at tremendous speed. The crimson spreads in joy from its victory, blazing across the soaked ground in a raging glory. The rain chilling his skin is nothing compared to the heat melting it away.

He takes a quick glance at Leo, darting his gaze back to their opponent in the next moment. Izumi tightens his grip on the sword in his hand, gritting his teeth as he prepares to dash forward. “Stay!”

“Stupid…” The whispered word is the last Izumi hears before he is running through the fire. It takes hold onto his clothing and sears into his cheek the kiss of death. Leo’s voice resounds over the thundering atmosphere, “Sonitus Bovinari!”

Leo… Don’t…

An emerald glittering whirlwind cyclones above him. The dragon eyes the attack for only a second; standing its ground and shifting its long neck away to allow the sonic boom to pass by with only a skim to its curled horn. Izumi’s own ears ring but he ignores it. He forces his legs to move faster, feet slapping into increasingly deep puddles as he nears; ditches in the shape of the dragon’s feet growing bottomless. The dragon aims its sights towards the prince, ignoring Izumi.

Izumi adjusts his grip one last time, feeling a grunt of effort escape his lips as he swings powerfully. The blade trembles with the momentum, singing out a snicker of amusement at how suddenly desperate he seems. The sharp edge reflects the glow of lightning into his eyes as it cleanly slices into the dragon’s bare bone foreleg. The creature cries out, tipping forward jerkily. Izumi makes himself smaller, hunching as he dashes under its belly and carving out what should have been its intestines.

Nothing but onyx goop spills free from the broken bones, shadows dancing in the night air tauntingly. As he slides to a stop on the other side, the dragon’s back to his person, the illusionary monster is already recovering and ready to start another round of their battle dance.

There’s nothing they can do. They can’t win; no matter what strategy they come up with or how much magic they expend. And he can’t just go and hurt Ritsu like any old illusionist.

Another bland arrow races against the wind, harmlessly bouncing off the dragon’s jet-black scales upon its cheeks.

Just how long does that vampire intend to watch them? They will have to keep playing for as long as Ritsu feels like treating them as though they are a sadistic cat’s captured prey; free to torture and torment – exposing all of its will of survival – before sashaying away in boredom in search of another amusing toy as the prey lays half lifeless, awaiting death.

For this is no longer Izumi’s training session – where they do not hold back and seriously spar as though they are ready to kill each other, yet never do.

With Leo here, it has become Leo’s test of skill. A trial with no take backs or do overs. One must survive to pass, or die and fail; as all Infernan examinations demand, be it soldier or scholar. Or even ascension to the throne.

Kill or be killed.

Chapter Text

The rain falls upon his head in thick drops, pooling together and sliding across his blinking eyes and lacerated skin. The wind is fierce, debris and embers flying across the midnight atmosphere in a violent whirlwind. Azure blue and crimson red dance in the sky along with the scattering lightning flickering amongst the storm clouds. The flashing illuminations need no help from the stars or the waning moon hidden beyond the chaos; they irradiate the crumbling earth below in bursts as strong as the morning sun.

The body of his dear demon careens across his vision, momentum flipping erratically until he shakes off the attack midair. With a hand clawing at the ground to come to a stop, Izumi slides meters into the destroyed forest around them. Diluted red shimmies down the demon’s silk-like skin, dripping in a rivulet off of his chin. Faster than Leo can even blink, Izumi adjusts his grip on his sword and darts back into the fray.

Izumi has been protecting him this whole time.

But he can’t just do nothing and watch. He won’t allow Izumi to risk any more.

Which is why he prays. He prays to his soul. He prays to his magic.

Which is why the world around them is completely silent. Even as lightning cracks down and a shaking tree bursts into flames, crumbling towards the ground, none of it is any more noticeable than the fire that spins in the air or the ice that meets it half way.

He stands at the edge of their immense battlefield, shooting off arrows as a distraction when Izumi gets himself into trouble. The soundless world doesn’t seem to hinder Izumi in any way, though it puts Leo on edge – making him look left and right constantly until his neck aches. The dragon, too, doesn’t flinch an inch when its crushing claws no longer pull out a satisfying screech from the trees. Demons are truly a different species from him. Something powerful. Something to be respected.

Inhuman.

Vibrations shoot up his legs, making his muscles clench as his balance is precariously tipped asway. The wind rushes by his face, chilling the tip of his nose to freezing alongside the sub-zero raindrops. He swallows thickly as a shadow looms over him, blocking away mother nature and furious magic. A splintered tree trunk comes his way, zipping through the air silently. Leo takes hurried steps back, legs getting more soaked in the rainwater as his feet slosh into puddles soundlessly. Quickly, he sprints through the shower with slipping steps, blinding his eyes beyond what the darkness has already taken away.

The tree trunk lands just behind him, nipping at his heels and cascading a tidal wave of water over his head. He loses his balance on the shaking ground, sliding with the momentum upon the slick moss and the clinging flames that lick at his cheeks. As he is turned and twisted unceremoniously, he spies the tree trunk – with a portion of its sturdy wood now carved out and slathered in ice – bouncing and spinning, rolling until it crashes and demolishes its remaining family members. His back, too, slides harshly into the stump of what was once a thriving tree, roots protruding from the ground and digging into his ribs as though they are seeking a new home to clutch onto.

His ragged breathing is empty in the air, even as his lungs burn and heave tightly within. The pressure of his heart thundering in his chest and pulsing behind his ears is the only sound he perceives as he uses the stump to get back onto his feet. Something crawls underneath the palm of his hand upon the jagged bark, but he has no time to ponder the strange sensation.

The sky beckons his attention.

Graphite clouds looming over them flash with pure silver.

He clenches his fists tightly, his wooden bow digging into his skin in one hand. He feels the buildup of power as he draws it to the surface. Specks of green scuttle into the air before him, steadily increasing in fervor and quantity. They wait eagerly for his command, for him to release the leash he holds in the palm of his hands. Internally, he continues to reign them in, keeping a close eye on the storm clouds overhead.

Another flash of electricity makes its appearance known.

Leo releases all of the magic he called upon to heed his orders. Streaks of green like the swirling galaxies in space shoot out in all directions, standing out sharply against the pitch-black background of the night. They crackle as they travel across the disturbed atmosphere filled with stray flecks of summer embers and the frosty mist of winter.

Now.

The world explodes. Thunder roars as though their heads are shoved in the clouds. The ocean waves squeal as they build power, racing across the surface and screeching in fear as they collide with the land. The trees sound like they’re laughing gleefully, shattering apart with pleasure and splintering in sharp cackles. The dragon’s roar blends with the cascading noises. A yelp of pain. A wordless beg to make the clamors pounding in their heads to stop. Ice cracks like glaciers falling apart. The fire rages, expanding its territory amidst the rain-soaked ground. Steel hisses so sharply that it pierces straight into their craniums without resistance.

Leo only listens to the distant echoes of the tumultuous pain he has caused; feeling it deep within his soul, all the while his own ears escape the onslaught.

He watches with worried eyes as Izumi falls to his knees, sword tumbling from his hand to press his palms so harshly into his ears, Leo is afraid the demon will crush his own head. The lightning striking the ground makes Izumi flinch again, shoulders hunching further towards the ground. The brief illumination allows Leo’s eyes to see the crimson that seeps out between Izumi’s fingers and getting washed away by the pounding rain.

Leo bites his lip harshly, feeling his teeth break skin. He never wanted to hurt Izumi. Never! But…

Looking up, the dragon is wiggling and backing away like a cat that has gotten its head stuck in a jar. Its wings are curled closely to its back, claws clutching deeply into the mucky ground. The red glow in its belly seems subdued, spinning in an unsteady sphere within its gut and no longer shooting free from a dangerously fanged mouth. The shadows, however, still drip off of the dragon’s bare bones and broken wings like it is decaying. The wispy ebony trail it leaves behind in its awkward retreat stains the ground. With the forest cleared away in devastation, Leo has a perfect view of the tip of the dragon’s lowered tail eventually slipping into the raging ocean.

…He will never allow that creature to take Izumi’s life from his side.

He asked. He asked his magic so many times to spare their love. Maybe he isn’t skilled enough. Maybe he isn’t strong enough. Even he, himself, can’t fully dodge the damaging effects of his own magic – drowning in the fathomless silence that just cannot be, and listening to the ricochets as the world screams. Izumi is so much more talented, doing anything and everything with ease. Izumi is stronger. Izumi is smarter. Leo can only hope to, one day, be able to be half as amazing. If nothing else, Leo wants to be able to protect him.

Turning his attention back to the demon, Leo realizes that Izumi’s own attention is no longer on their opponent. The demon has his head turned, staring deep into the darkness of the untouched forest; unmoving, even as the sounds of their current world continues to rage forth. Izumi is transfixed, as though Leo’s magic isn’t swirling the atmosphere into an even greater frenzy. As though the damage Izumi has taken from it no longer exists. Leo wonders what has caught Izumi’s notice so – to have the demon’s bright azure gaze wholly on it without blinking.

A pulse like a heartbeat drums into his ears, forcing Leo’s attention towards it, instead. Magic is beginning to roar.

The dragon has recovered enough of its bearings to become unfathomably angry. Even as its hind legs sink into the ocean and waves crash into its backside and underbelly, the fire it spews out is hotter than the core of the earth. Leo’s breath catches in his throat as it speeds towards him without fail, the immensity of the attack so wide that there is no possibility of escaping for him – even if his legs didn’t feel sunken into the mud and cemented in. His eyes burn with the bright heat, drying into a desert even as rain water constantly soaks it. He takes a final glance towards Izumi; gazing with longing as the demon continues to stare towards the untouched forest as though…

As though anything else around him no longer matters and is forgotten.

Leo closes his eyes tightly, awaiting the moment he is seared and taken into Hell’s grip.

Behind his eyelids, the bright flash of light steadily penetrates into his obscured sights.

Instead of Hell gripping him, cool fingers wrap around his shoulders. Leo snaps his eyes open, only to be assaulted by an intense ivory flash of light. Within milliseconds, the thundering world seems to halt. And milliseconds after that, life restarts with vigor. The sounds of sizzling reach his ears first, enhanced by his magic’s continued efforts. His gaze catches sight of a thin trail of smoke right before his eyes, grey smolder twirling amongst the shadows and heading towards the sobbing sky.

“Sena…” Leo’s voice trembles as much as his body does. The way Izumi’s teeth grind together stab more daggers into his heart than the dragon glaring at them ever could. He looks at the pained face the demon makes in efforts to try to hide his true grimace. Izumi took the risk to teleport to him and out, paying the price, in the end. They may be safe from the brunt of the flames, but how much more can Izumi take? Leo isn’t so sure he is willing to continue this gamble. “…Let’s run, Sena. Send us far away.”

The Terrian people just meters away weigh on Leo’s mind. What can he do? What should he do? He isn’t enough. And Izumi…

Blood dribbles from between the demon’s parted lips, breaths getting panted out and splashing onto Leo’s cheeks like the rain does.

Izumi swallows, squeezing where he still holds Leo’s upper arms. “This is nothing.”

“It’s obviously not!” He finds himself pleading – begging with all of the anxiety that has strengthened within him until his voice cracks with the onslaught. Izumi flinches, turning his bloodied ears away.

The demon steps back, Leo’s chest instantly panging at the new distance. “I’ve been through worse; you don’t need to worry about it. Just shut the world up and bring it back to normal. Save your magic. On my signal, bring it back alive.”

Izumi puts a hand to his burning shoulder where a portion of his clothing has seared right off of his body. Leo’s gaze trails down from the wound, his vision glazing over – with tears or raindrops, he doesn’t know – as he watches Izumi’s right arm sway limply, sword just barely kept within loose fingers. “…What’s the sig-”

Before he can fully get his question spoken, Izumi pivots on the balls of his feet and dashes into the mess of broken trees. The shadows instantly eat away his image, the demon seamlessly hiding within its cloak of mystery. Leo takes a calming breath and closes his eyes.

The song of the roaring thunder stops its crescendo mid melody, reversing into a diminuendo.

He reopens his eyes, watching the pitter patter of rain pound into the ground, the speedy tune accompanying its dance no longer reverberating like drums in an enclosed room. But flicking his gaze as he might, he can’t seem to spot Izumi – and neither can the dragon. Leo desires with all of his being to continue looking, but he opts to stay behind the toppled tree Izumi placed him at, the bark still desperately clinging together at an unseemly angle even as the wood inside is splintered apart. The dragon can’t see Leo either; without a doubt.

He peeks over the soaked tree trunk, popping up only just enough to await Izumi’s signal.

Finally, the demon rushes out of the wreckage. Leo notices that Izumi’s sword is put away in favor of the glow of azure blue accumulating in his left hand. With dashes as quick as a striking animal, Izumi gets up close to the dragon – too close, in Leo’s opinion. Ice appears midair, humming with an intense illuminating power to break through the darkness of night; it vibrates the air incessantly, even at the distance Leo stands from them.

Izumi dances around the dragon’s feet, pushing the creature back with the icicles that swim midair. Ice smears across the sandy beach in unorganized splotches. Geysers of damp sand shoots upwards as the dragon stomps furiously, showering the land in both rainwater and sharp grains of gravel. The both of them are moving further away from Leo steadily.

Further into the raging ocean churning to the tune of the storm clouds hanging just below the heavens.

Thunder cracks and lightning paints the starless sky. The rain comes down harder, droplets growing in size and refilling the ocean to overflowing. The tide creeps higher, dangerously licking at the protruding tree roots at the forest’s edge. A wave larger than Leo has ever seen makes its way inland. It spans farther than his peripherals, desperately reaching towards the dark clouds for more sustenance. The crimson magic in the dragon’s exposed belly burns hotly enough to turn the rolling ocean into steam, the gas shooting out in droves as though they are eager to finally be set free. The tsunami-like wave draws ever closer, looming over the dragon and Izumi both.

Leo’s heart stops. It is like the fire that surrounds him has caught onto the skin of his chest and burns a hole to reach deep inside. He can’t take his eyes away as the wave crashes into them, a loud smack echoing against the sky even without the presence of Leo’s own magic. With its large, strong form, the dragon stands firmly, the water slides down armor-like scales only to be met with the fire in the dragon’s stomach where it evaporates the liquid into a salty steam and is swept away by the blitzing wind. Leo darts his eyes back and forth, the rushing water unrelentingly going forth and trapping everything in its path within a swirling whirlpool.

Once again, Izumi has disappeared into the darkness. Whether it is within the murky depths of the ocean or into the pirouetting shadows laughing at all of them, Leo isn’t sure. The uncertainties make him clench his fist.

The single moment feels like a lifetime as, at last, Izumi’s silhouette greets Leo’s gaze once more. The demon stands before the dragon, soaked to the bone but free from the water’s ferocious grip. Izumi crouches to the ground, placing both of his hands flat on the edge of the sandy beach. An ethereal glow of azure erupts from the ground, growing larger and larger as what lays beyond its illumination takes form. The colored light fans out like a blooming flower, towering as tall as the former trees that called this area home. Once its entire form slithers out of what Izumi has fashioned with his very soul, the radiance shatters like glass, a high-pitched hiss piercing Leo’s ears.

A snake, with a cobra’s hood expanding thinly from just behind its head, takes a striking pose. The icy scales that are twisted all throughout its body reflects the light of lightning. Within the next rumble of thunder, the snake loses its patience and ducks its head down to swim through the turbulent ocean. Despite the harsh waves, the snake easily surrounds the dragon – both creatures screeching and roaring with the clouds. With its body wrapping around one of the dragon’s legs and its midsection, the snake opens its mouth wide, showing off long, thin, needle-like fangs protruding from within.

“Take aim.”

Leo whips his head around, looking over his shoulder. Izumi stands behind him, hair messily matted down yet elegantly styled with a sweep of Izumi’s fingers. But they don’t have time for Leo to gawk. He reaches over his shoulder, skittering his fingers over a damp feather and pinching it to pull out. He stands to his full height, raising his bow high and nocking the arrow into the taut string.

“Head or heart?”

Not that there is a heart.

“Doesn’t matter. Not even if you miss.”

…What?

“…And your ice friend?”

“It’s not alive, don’t worry about it.” Izumi steps closer to him, his feet sinking into the puddles that pool upon the burned moss. “Call your magic. Draw it here.” The demon’s voice is a whispered seduction brushing hotly against Leo’s ear as Izumi gets closer. Ice cold fingers trail down Leo’s arm, leaving burning trails of lava behind. Izumi’s fingers lithely wrap around the hand that holds the fletching of the arrow. “Pour your magic into the arrow…”

Izumi’s breathy instructions fan across Leo’s skin, nearly making Leo tremble. The splatter of the rainfall can’t interrupt with how close the demon is, pressing nearly right up against Leo’s back. Izumi’s other hand splays on Leo’s back, imprinting a spot of warmth between his shoulder blades.

Leo takes a deep, steadying breath. The natural flow of his magic following along his bloodstream stops, a sudden traffic jam occurring within him. The magical liquid within his veins reverses its flow, going up towards his arm at his silent plea. In a congested puddle, the magic particles slowly slip free one by one through his fingers, settling into the arrow and coating the tip with a greenish glow. Like a firefly in the summer night.

A breath is briefly caught in his throat as something chilling enters his skin. The sudden freeze burns his arm and frosts over his veins the same moment it soothes the brief pain and fill him with extra energy that fulfills his heart. Magic flows faster into the arrow, now so saturated with particles that the glowing specks happily dance around in anticipation, hovering just above the weapon. The extra magic feels cold, like ice, but there is something else about it that sours Leo’s tongue before it can fully transform and disappear within the masses. It’s familiar and welcomed, but something sinister and deadly lurks just beneath the surface. Something that makes his instincts scream in his head.

But whatever Izumi is doing, Leo trusts him. Without fail or falter. Leo doesn’t quite understand, but it feels as though Izumi is lending him magic – sharing with him a precious commodity.

The demon’s breath hiccups, a panting exhaustion ringing loudly in Leo’s ears.

“Sena…?”

At Izumi’s signal… Leo hopes it comes soon.

“It has to be you…” Izumi hisses under his breath, almost deliriously. His weight suddenly falls into Leo’s back, but only slightly before the demon is already steadying his feet. Leo adjusts his aim. “It can only be you.”

Leo grits his teeth as he feels his body nearly empty into nothing. The icy particles begin to freeze into a burn just beneath his skin, no longer soothing and only chafing as the extra passageway continues to be in use. Keeping his eyes aimed at the targeted area, Leo watches the dragon struggle with the binding snake decorated in ice. Its reflective scales mirror back the laughing shadows and the punishing crimson magic pouring from the dragon. Thunder continues to roar alongside the fearsome creatures, lightning striking to shine upon their scene like a spotlight.

His magic stops instinctively, too afraid to continue onwards and run his body completely void of such life. The stinging path from Izumi continues for a few, long moments after; Leo’s arm beginning to ache in its prolonged pose with the bow string pulled taut and the weapon curling. He swallows the rising nervousness, blinking away the rain that tries to interfere with his visual aim.

He doesn’t understand Izumi’s words. He doesn’t understand Izumi’s actions. But he will put his faith in this dear love of his.

The chilled trickle ceases, leaving behind nothing but the steady flicks of rain.

“The spell you’ve practiced all of this time. Use it.”

“Sonitus Bovinari…”

The magic, already sparkling wonderfully, transforms into a whipping tornado around the arrow; sparking up tiny noises like static.

“Shoot.” Izumi’s exhausted signal nearly gets drowned out by the thunder.

Leo releases his fingers.

The sonic boom is louder than any Leo has ever created, pushing back the disordered airflow and whipping their hair into their faces. The arrow, itself, is not anywhere near the earth, yet a crevice is left in its wake – uprooting broken stumps and sending flocks of flames flying into the sky. The sand on the beach scatter apart and the ocean fragments. Tidal waves form unnaturally, rising and surfing parallel to the land rather than towards it.

With the snake pinning the dragon in place, neither creature fight their inevitable deaths. The arrow swiftly speeds through the air, cleanly piercing through the dragon’s head and heading off towards the endless horizon speckled with striking lightning.

Neither the snake nor the dragon makes any noise as they are torn apart, sound waves passing through their battle with vigorous assaults. In a burst of crimson and azure illuminations, both of the gigantic beasts explode into millions of particles. Their remaining glow glitter the obscured sky, replacing the stars that are beyond anyone’s reach above the storm clouds.

Is that how demons die?

A splash abruptly takes Leo’s attention hostage. He spins on his heels, nearly biting his tongue as he cries out Izumi’s name. The demon, fallen to his knees, leans dangerously sideways. Dropping his bow with a muddy clatter, Leo reaches out to grab Izumi’s shoulders, also getting on his knees and soaking in the freezing rainwater that floods beneath them. He quickly settles himself down, cradling Izumi close and allowing the demon to use his stomach as a pillow as he lays on his frontside.

“Sena… Let’s rest a bit…” Leo pleads. One hand cards through Izumi’s hair while the other rubs up and down Izumi’s spine. Are demons’ hearts supposed to beat this quickly? It is far too fast for any human to survive. Izumi’s pulse jumps against Leo’s thighs where his chest lays; almost as though it is ready to break out of its boney prison at any minute.

With Izumi’s back on full display to him now, Leo gazes fretfully at the burned skin, blisters already forming and inflammation setting in. Izumi’s clothing is singed on the edges, a gaping hole from his shoulder to midback on his right side allowing the rain to pelt at the wound raw. Blood dribbles out, only to be diluted and swept away.

Only the sounds of the thunderstorm and the raging ocean behind him echo in his ears now.

With his adrenaline dying out, Leo feels his body’s cry for rest. However, even so, he has to stay on guard. He can’t let anything happen to Izumi, not after Izumi tried so hard to save them. As his senses focus on something other than the towering dragon, a shiver runs up his spine.

Something within the shadows of the night is moving. No, perhaps, even the shadows, themselves, are inching around like revived undead. Leaves crinkle in their wake, puddles sloshing around like something is crawling through them with broken limbs. Wood is being twisted around, cracking sharply. The wind blows in a whistling howl. Thunder claps and lightning sears. The ocean waves crash onto the shore.

All around him, the grasses move. The tree trunks glide around on their own. The fallen tree he hides behind breaks free from its last connection with its base still rooted to the forest ground all on its own. Leo holds his breath. He can’t tell if the laughter that filters into his ears are the trees, the returning night creatures, or his imagination. A ghost that has come to haunt him, perhaps? A fallen sea maiden getting washed ashore to find her once-upon-a-time home?

The noises snicker and chatter at him. Beckoning. Spooking. Enticing. Biting.

The broken tree limbs are closing in on him, getting moved about by who-knows-what. The shadows threaten to drown him more than the rain or the rising ocean tides do. Tree stumps sway back and forth with the blurring shadows. Roots are coming out of the ground one by one and shoving away like legs do towards somewhere Leo cannot bare to look.

Fingers walk down his back as the tree trunk he has previously hid behind thumps to the ground, sending a fresh wave of muddy water towards his body. Leo holds in his yelp, closing his eyes tightly and gritting his teeth. The unpleasant sensation continues, followed by a silky-smooth caress of something soft hidden in the gassy shadows. It strokes his cheek intimately, brushing against the shell of his ear in an eerie whisper of death begotten.

His eyes ache as they press into his skull deeply with how tightly he closes his lids. His stomach churns, threatening to rise bile up his throat. Don’t look. Don’t listen. Nothing is fine. Nothing at all. Everything is hunting him. Things that he can never even fathom wish for his demise with gleeful grins full of sharp fangs and even sharper hunger. He is going to get devoured if he stays.

Instincts scream at him to flee.

Something slinks inside of him, filling his veins with the intensity of the rushing waves. It’s glittering and magnetic, yet forebodingly mysterious. It’s warm, yet cold, churning his insides with conflicting sensations. Does he want it? Should he accept it? Will it turn him into a beast unknown? Will it chain him to their curse or gift him with their blessings? What if his mind goes mad? Things he has never seen, never heard, never felt, presented to him like they’re the only thing he will ever know from then forward. Has everything he has ever known been a lie? Did he even exist before this very moment?

The food in his belly will do him no good. It’s going to get expelled.

A shrieking howl resonates from far away. Is it a screech of death? Is he next? What kind of creature could make such an anguished sound, and yet, sound so delightfully willing? He doesn’t understand. He can’t understand. He doesn’t want to und-

“Let’s go.”

Leo gasps, the inhale full of raindrops and smokey air