“Your enemies can kill you, but only your friends can hurt you.”
Ren Kouen does not know where he is.
He has no idea how he came to this place, this seemingly endless expanse of emptiness and chilling mist and deep black shadows, nor does he know why he is here or what he is supposed to be doing, if anything. It’s a very puzzling situation, but for some reason Kouen is unperturbed. Somehow he is certain that if he simply keeps walking, through the cold and darkness, he will come across something worthwhile.
It’s only a few more minutes (at least, that’s how it seems to him) before he detects a sign of life in this desolation: hushed voices whispering, unintelligible, from the shadows. Kouen stops short, listening carefully. “Hello? Is anyone out there?” And though they do not answer him directly, the voices come again. He still cannot understand what they say, but they do sound vaguely familiar. He calls out again: “Who is that out there? There’s no need to hide, I mean you no harm.”
He hears the voices laugh, and then speak, and if Kouen strains to listen, he can discern their words this time:
“Means us no harm, he says, when he’s done so much already...”
“It’s an insult, honestly, how quickly he forgets his sins...”
Normally, threats and accusations would not faze Kouen in the slightest, but when he hears that a chill runs down his spine as he realizes who those voices belong to, and that it is entirely impossible for him to be hearing them now. “C-Cousins? Hakuyuu and Hakuren?! If that’s really you, then please, come out and talk to me instead of hiding!”
The voices - his cousins - merely laugh at him again.
“He comes in here, bold as anything, thinking we actually want to see his face!”
“Do you suppose he actually has forgotten what he’s done to us? We are nothing to him, after all.”
“Then, aniue, shall we give him a reminder? Teach him a lesson?”
“Yes, we will...”
Kouen’s body tenses, and his hand goes to the sword sheathed at his left hip. He knows exactly what they’re talking about and it will only make things worse to pretend that he does not. “My cousins, it was not I who killed you. I would never have wished harm on you; when we lived, were we not close friends?”
“That’s what I thought,” Hakuyuu snarls. One of the shadows detaches itself from the mass of darkness, taking on a vaguely human form, and rushes him. Reflexively, he draws his sword and tries to cut it down, but to his astonishment the blade passes harmlessly through it, as if it were made of the mist, and then it passes straight through him before fading. A strangled cry escapes him, as the being’s brief presence inside his body seems to freeze his innards and make everything seize up within him. He has to struggle not to fall to his knees.
“What did I do to you, Hakuyuu?!” he demands to know, forcing himself to stand up straight and hold his sword (which he thankfully hadn’t dropped) at the ready again. “What happened back then was not my fault! Your deaths were al-Thamen’s doing, not mine!”
He hears Hakuren snicker. “Oh, we’re well aware of that. Our problem is that you were.”
“We were close friends, Kouen. We were family,” hisses Hakuyuu. “Mother even made a point of waiting until you were too far away to do anything before she let her dogs loose on us. That’s why we’re somewhat confused. You feign innocence and ignorance, but you’re anything but stupid. There is no way you didn’t figure out almost as soon as you returned to the palace who murdered us.”
Kouen says nothing, wishing he could honestly tell him no, he had had no idea. His silence tells Hakuyuu all he needs to know. “That’s what I thought. You knew, the whole time, for thirteen years, and you said nothing. You did nothing. You let our mother and that world-ruining cult of hers get away with murdering us!”
As pain and betrayal are palpable in Hakuyuu’s voice, so is hatred in his brother’s. “And not only that. Massacre, brainwashing, corruption - so long as they don’t do it to you, al-Thamen can do just anything they please and you won’t lift a finger to stop them! In fact, you’ll harbor and protect them! Isn’t that right, Kouen? No wonder Hakuryuu’s lost his mind!”
Kouen grits his teeth. “I had no choice. Allowing them free reign over the rest of the world has proven crucial to my and Koumei's plan to unify the world. Their influence over a nation makes it easier for Kou to come in and conquer it. That’s what the three of us fought for together, what you and Emperor Hakutoku wanted: a world united in peace, under the Kou Empire!”
“No, that’s not what we wanted and you know it,” Hakuyuu shoots back icily. “Our father’s severe methods of conquest and subjugation are one thing. That organization’s evil is another matter entirely. We objected to their presence in Kou and tried to keep them from gaining power, and they killed us for it. Don’t put words in a dead man’s mouth to justify yourself, little cousin. We acted, but you were and still are entirely complacent.”
“I am not complacent! I’ve fought al-Thamen as well, you know! I was the one who led our family’s Dungeon Capturers, Prince Alibaba, and Alma Torran’s Magi against the Medium; did you two not notice that?”
“Too little, too late!” snaps Hakuren.
“Of course we noticed that, Kouen.” He can’t see it but he can hear the exaggerated eye-roll in Hakuyuu’s voice. “We also noticed that you only started fighting when their actions began directly affecting you.”
“So I suppose he wasn’t affected at all by our deaths, then, right, aniue?” scoffs Hakuren before Kouen can get a word in. “And he condemns the brother we died protecting, for doing what he should have been doing this entire time: trying to get revenge for us, and destroying the evil our mother brought into Kou! But I suppose you don’t have much time to worry about such trivial things, do you, Kouen, while you’re basking in your stolen status of crown prince? Hakuryuu lost everything that night, while you gained everything. I find all that very interesting.”
“Hakuren...You...I’m not happy that you died!” splutters Kouen, feeling as if he’s been slapped. “And I’m not happy about what happened to Hakuryuu, or what we have to do to stop him now! Don’t you understand that I’d rather none of this ever happened?!”
“Maybe you do,” Hakuren concedes bitterly. “But even so, if you really cared as much as you claim to, you wouldn’t have spent the past thirteen years being so apathetic! You have the intelligence, you have the resources, you could have easily brought our murderers to justice! But you didn’t care enough to do a damn thing, not to avenge us or to help Hakuryuu, even though if it were your siblings that were murdered and tortured you would be moving heaven and earth to take vengeance for them! But we’re just your worthless cousins, so you can’t be bothered with us, can you?”
“That’s not - You can’t think that of me! That’s not true!”
“Oh, no?” Hakuyuu challenges. “What if it were different? What if it were your family that was destroyed while all you could do was watch helplessly?”
And before Kouen can respond, the darkness rushes away and he is standing in the sun, and on the ground in front of him is -
His little brother is writing desperately in the dirt, howling in pain. The unearthly glow of Phenex’s Ring of Admonition surrounds him, ensnaring him in its hold, as the Djinn herself floats serenely nearby watching her magic do its work. “This is for your own good, Ren Kouha,” she says. “Your bloodlust must be contained.”
With considerable effort, Kouha wrenches his torso up and around to face her, teeth bared and eyes wild, turning the scream of agony the motion causes him into a curse. “F-Fuck you, bitch...I...I - !”
Another convulsion rips his defiance away and forces him back down into the dirt. True to form, Kouha still refuses to lie down and submit, but every movement he makes to resist the sealing of his nerves plunges the youth into a world of pain. He lets out throat-rending screams, tears red gashes through his face with his nails, and thrashes uncontrollably until his wide, bloodshot eyes land on his stunned older brother.
“En-nii!” he shrieks. “St-Stop her!”
He’s right: Phenex is his Djinn, and should not be acting without his permission in the first place. Kouen reaches for his Metal Vessel to put an end to this, but his hand has barely moved when the scene shifts again -
And he is squinting in now-dim light and breathing in warm, musty air. A broadsword is clutched in his hands, streaked and dripping red, and all around him are dozens of fallen bodies: the priests of al-Thamen, he realizes, their white robes torn across the chest or stomach and stained with blood. He should feel proud and satisfied at their deaths, but before he can process any of those emotions, a low and ragged moan comes from something on the floor beside him. He looks down, and a strangled cry escapes him when he sees Koumei, slit open from groin to sternum, sprawled on the floor in a rapidly expanding puddle of his own blood.
Koumei strains to lift his head to look at Kouen - he tries to pull his body up as well but cannot; it seems as if it’s agony to him to even breathe - and he smiles weakly in an attempt to be reassuring. “S’pose this is it for me...” His voice is faint and hoarse. “But you’ll survive...my brother...a-and...”
The final “king” dies unspoken on his lips, and his thin body slumps to the floor, his red eyes going dull and lightless. “No!” Kouen cries out, drops the sword and moves to help his brother, but again he feels the world begin to pull away from him. “No, wait! I have to - !”
Once more the world shifts, and all of a sudden blinding light and searing heat overwhelm him. He realizes with a jolt that he is standing in the middle of a roaring inferno that’s consuming the palace throne room, sparing no part of it. Kouen looks frantically around for a way out, but his wide eyes land not on an exit but on another pile of bodies. Even though they are burned almost beyond recognition, half-melted gold crowns and scraps of magenta robes still cling to the remaining skin and bones. My sisters. His stomach lurches, and he feels as if he’s going to be sick. All seven of my sisters.
No, he corrects himself, catching movement nearby. Not all seven.
Kougyoku is staggering through the flames towards him, looking barely more alive than their other sisters. The scorched remains of her robes hang off of her like rags, revealing that most of her once-fair skin has been charred black, and Kouen doesn’t have to look hard to see bone poking through the ruined flesh. He can’t take his eyes off of her face...Her round, sweet face that is now almost unrecognizable, as if someone had grabbed her head and shoved it straight into the fire. How could anyone...? He can’t even finish the thought.
The youngest princess is clearly terrified out of her wits, trying to find her way through the burning room, crying out in pain when a lick of flame burns her further, and coughing hard on the smoke that grows thicker and thicker every second. She spots her brother, and her eyes, already stretched wide with fear, bulge even further.
“Onii-sama!” she screams, reaching out and throwing herself desperately at him. “Help me! Please, help me!”
Instantly, Kouen tries to lunge forward, to take his little sister safely into his arms and run her as far away from here as he can, but he can’t. His body is frozen, powerless, and he can only watch as a scrap of silk hanging off of her waist catches fire, it spreads, and in a second the girl’s entire body is engulfed in hungry flames. Her pleas for help escalate into a dying shriek, and what little is left of her collapses in a heap at his feet.
As he stares down at it, Kouen’s pulse is pounding in his ears, and he very suddenly doesn’t remember how to breathe correctly. He knows that this isn’t real (because this can’t be real, it can’t, there is no way he could let his siblings die), but still grief is crashing over him like the waves of a storm and he has no idea what he is supposed to do. All he knows for certain is that he can’t endure another second of this torment.
“Hakuyuu! Hakuren!” he yells. “Enough! You’ve made your point, now stop this! Just stop it!”
“As you wish, little cousin.”
The next second, he finds himself back in the dark, misty place he had begun in, sweating and panting. He wants to say something, but he has no idea what. He doesn’t have the faintest idea how he can possibly satisfy his vengeful cousins.
“Well, that was enjoyable, aniue, but I don’t think it accomplished much of anything.”
“I agree. We are still dead, after all, and he still gets to return to his family and keep trying to steal the throne from our brother, as his father stole it from ours.”
“Why won’t either of you listen to me?!” Kouen shouts. “I did what I had to do for the Kou Empire! All I want to do is protect it, and end the world’s wars! Hakuryuu will break not only the empire but the whole world apart; he cannot have the throne and he must be stopped!”
Hakuyuu laughs mirthlessly. “Haven’t you been listening? If it hadn’t been for you, your selfishness and your apathy, Hakuryuu never would have turned out like this in the first place. What did you expect to happen to him?”
“Maybe this is what he wanted,” suggests Hakuren. “Like I said before, our deaths were his ticket straight to the top. And now he has the excuse he needs to get rid of Hakuryuu too.”
“That’s not true!” Kouen insists, desperate now. “I never - “
“Stop trying to defend yourself!” Hakuren cuts him off. Again, a shadowy, sword-wielding figure shoots out of nowhere at him. “You let them kill us!”
No sooner has Kouen raised his sword to deflect the blow than another, taller figure rushes forward to attack. “You let us die, and for what?”
Another clash of metal on metal, as Kouen struggles to defend himself. “To get us out of your way to the throne?”
Clash. “To supplant our father as emperor?”
Clash. “To bed our little sister? Keeping her ignorant of what you’ve done?”
Clash. “To put our little brother through hell, locked up with his family’s killers?”
Clash. “To kill him like a mad dog, when after thirteen years he finally loses his mind?”
“To take this whole world for yourself?” they accuse as one, raising their swords and bringing them down on him together. This crushing strike he cannot parry, and it knocks his own sword from his hands and drops him to his knees.
Before he can grab for his weapon again, Hakuren’s huge dao sword is held at his neck, and the older man has both his wrists in a death grip. As he is held immobile, he watches the shadows before him solidify and brighten, taking on the full form of Ren Hakuyuu, decked out in gleaming white battle armor. He glares down at Kouen, his narrowed blue eyes as cold and hard as diamond, promising vengeance.
“Cousin, I am begging you,” Kouen says, his mouth going dry when he gets a good look at the broadsword in the crown prince’s hand - the one he himself had inherited, he realizes, and would soon be taking up against Hakuryuu. “Please listen to me, I never intended - “
“Silence.” Hakuyuu raises the sword high, his unforgiving eyes locked with Kouen’s horrified ones. “I do not listen to the words of traitors and murderers. Nor do I listen to the accomplices of traitors and murderers. Goodbye, Kouen.”
“Hakuyuu, no! I - !”
The sword comes down.
When Kouen wakes suddenly, to a much calmer, warmer darkness, he doesn’t realize that he is free of the dream at first. And even when he does, for a minute or two he is frozen under the blankets, terror still gripping him while reality catches up with him. He can still feel the crown prince’s hate-filled glare on his face. Slowly, he opens his eyes, taking in his surroundings.
His bed, his possessions (Hakuyuu’s, now his, sword safely in its sheath, with its rightful owner), in his room in the palace of Balbadd. Once it had been the domain of the nation’s kings, and now it belongs to a general of the country that had conquered it. He is here, perfectly all right, as are Koumei and Kougyoku, presumably sound asleep in the next rooms. His other sisters are, though spread across countries in the web of alliances it had been their duty to help their father and older brothers weave, secure in their various marriages. Kouha is guarding the Tenzan Plateau with Hakuei, and he knows that she won’t let anything happen to him. His siblings are alive. They are safe.
But Hakuyuu and Hakuren...And Hakuryuu...
Kouen gives a low groan, throws the covers off of him, and drags himself out of bed. There’s no way he’s going to get back to sleep at the moment, he reasons as he pulls on a nondescript red robe and cloak. He might as well go out for a minute of fresh air and deep thought, to get his head on straight again. So he makes his way to a small, private back courtyard (which, despite it being somewhat out of the way, has a good view of the city) and sits cross-legged on the flat stone. He thinks of the memorials to the First Emperor and his eldest sons back in Rakushou, and he wishes he’d thought to bring out candles to light for them here, the way he would at home.
(He wonders how much time Hakuryuu has spent at those three graves. The two of them have never been there together.)
This is not the first time a nightmare of this kind has plagued his sleep, and he knows better than to think it will be the last. Even so, it has been years since one of them has been quite so intense, he thinks, suppressing a shudder. He knows that his reasons are sound and that his actions are just, but still his subconscious seems to love dredging up what doubt and regret remain and torturing him with them. Perhaps placing a death sentence on his youngest cousin has caused thirteen years of constrained guilt to rear up and smack him in the face.
It’s guilt that is irrational to feel, he has been told again and again, by Hakuei and his brothers and his soldiers and his father (though in Koutoku’s case the reassurance was not quite so benevolent). Those deaths were not his fault, they insisted, there was nothing he could have done to foresee or prevent them. But somehow it is that that makes him feel guiltiest of all.
His inaction in the years afterward, however, he believes should not weigh quite as heavily on his mind as it tends to do. True, with all he had at his disposal, and Hakuryuu as a witness, it had not been difficult to deduce who was responsible for the murders. It had been fairly obvious to anyone who could put the pieces together, actually; what with the enigmatic priests that Emperor Hakutoku and the crown princes had opposed now positively swarming around the palace, that self-satisfied little smile that played on Ren Gyokuen’s lips for weeks afterward, and young Hakuryuu’s sudden fierce animosity towards his mother, and later his country.
It was an accusation he could not hide from: he had known. And he had chosen to turn a blind eye to it all.
Kouen maintains his belief that al-Thamen was (had been, perhaps, would be more accurate now) a necessary evil, at least for the Kou Empire. Their actions had brought no real harm to his people, and their gradual corruption of any given nation did make it easier for Kou’s forces to take control of it and assimilate it into the empire, Balbadd being a fine example. For the sake of their ultimate design, he had had to let Gyokuen and her organization do as they pleased. Perhaps bringing his uncle and cousins’ murderers to justice would have been the truly righteous course of action. But as the new crown prince and future emperor, it was his duty to make the decision that was best for his country, whether it allowed him to take the moral high road or not.
And if that decision cost Hakuryuu’s sanity, and now his life, then so be it. What was one boy’s life worth compared to the entire world? Hakuryuu could not be allowed to interfere with his plans for peace, nor could he be allowed to rule and subsequently shatter the empire. However much Kouen does not want to kill his cousin, it has to be done.
He sighs deeply, gazing up at the stars. If Hakuyuu and Hakuren were looking down on him from the Great Flow of rukh, what would they think of him? Or would they forego their cousin in favor of watching over their younger siblings, especially their wayward brother? All things considered, would they even want to be close to Hakuryuu at all now? No - surely if they lived now, they would not let Hakuryuu go through with his plans. They would be on Kouen’s side -
Don’t put words in a dead man’s mouth to justify yourself, little cousin.
He stops that train of thought, sighing again. If Hakuyuu and Hakuren were here now, this wouldn’t be happening in the first place. How would it be different, he wonders, if you had lived as you deserved to?
Well, in any case, there is no good in imagining how their lives could be better if this thing or that had happened or not happened. It’s too late to change any of that. All that matters is what is happening now, and what needs to happen in the future.
Just as Hakuryuu has committed himself to his beliefs like his brothers before him, so too must Kouen commit himself to his own, and fight to protect them. No matter what, he must continue towards his ultimate goal - and let the phantoms of the past rest in silence behind him.