When its life begins, the snapdragon flower is brightly colored and beautiful...
It had been barely three minutes since Ren Gyokuen first felt the great surge of rukh from the east that she had long waited for, and just over two since she had given the order that the source of that surge was to be collected immediately. Though she was the very picture of calm decorum, taking delicate sips of black tea as she waited on one of her chambers’ best cushions, her heart was beating fast as a hummingbird’s wings as excitement buzzed in her blood. There was finally a new Magi born into this world, one that would be raised solely according to her will, one that would learn to obey without question and enjoy it. She had been so patient, for so long, and now -
And now her wait was over. As Ithnan and the half-dozen priests she’d sent with him returned, a white flash of light from their transportation magic filled the room, followed by the high, startled wailing of an infant. Gyokuen smiled, setting down her teacup and rising to greet her friend. “Everything went smoothly, then?”
“Yes. We left not a single trace of that village left, as instructed. It looks as if nothing ever lived there at all - not that anyone took notice of it before, anyway. It won’t be missed.”
“Lucky us.” She glanced at the blanket-wrapped child he held, and frowned. “Ithnan, you’re holding him all wrong.”
“You have to support his head or he could hurt himself, don’t you even know that much?”
“I don’t - “
“Oh, father above, give him to me, or you’ll end up breaking his neck before we’ve had him five minutes,” Gyokuen cut him off, reaching out and taking the baby into her arms.
Ithnan’s eyes narrowed in annoyance. “So you think I’m completely incompetent now, is that it?”
“I’ve had three children so far, and you’ve had none. I think that says very clearly which of us is more competent,” she pointed out, rolling her eyes. “Now, unless there was anything else you wanted to do here, would you mind leaving for a little while? I think he’ll calm down more easily if there aren’t so many people in here.”
“Good luck with that, then. You’ll let me know if there’s anything else you need me for. Oh, one thing you might like to know - I heard the mother call him ‘Judal.’”
With that, Ithnan and the rest of the priests disappeared again, leaving Gyokuen alone with the crying baby in her arms. Just as she’d done with the rest of her children, she started to rock him gently to quiet him, as she got her first good look at the world’s newest Magi. He appeared healthy enough, not much different than Hakuyuu, Hakuren, and Hakuei had looked at birth, though he did seem to have a lot more hair than the average newborn. More importantly, she could see the rukh gathering around him the same way it gathered around her - already, he was unconditionally loved by it.
“Hush, now, little one...my little Judal.” So his mother had given him a name already, then? Well, it saved her the trouble of thinking of one herself. She wondered how many members of his family they had slaughtered in order to obtain him: his mother and father, for certain, perhaps brothers, sisters, grandparents, cousins...Who knew? And after tonight, who cared?
“There, there...You don’t need your mother any more,” she cooed, lightly brushing the tears from his face with one slender finger. “I have you now.”
With all her duties as empress of Kou and leader of al-Thamen, Gyokuen never had too much time to do as she pleased, and so the time she could devote to her other duty of raising the world’s newest Magi was, at the moment, not nearly as much as she would have liked. That was what she had Ithnan and Falan for, she supposed, but it had to be her that Judal developed the strongest connection to.
However, one particular afternoon visit eased her concerns about that considerably.
It was the little smile on Ithnan’s unmasked face, that made him look like a fox that got into a chicken coop, that first made her suspect something was going on. “What’s that face for?”
“Arba, I’ve got a little surprise for you.”
“Oh?” She raised an eyebrow. “And what would that be?”
“Come back here and I’ll show you,” he replied, turning and leading her down the short hall to the spacious room they’d set aside in their domain for Judal. “That is, if our little one will do it again when you’re there and not make a fool out of me.”
“What, have you been teaching him tricks?”
“Not quite - he taught himself,” Ithnan said, his smile broadening as he opened the door.
The one-year-old Magi was entertaining himself fairly well in his crib, playing with the large stuffed dragon that Falan had had made for him. But when he heard the door open and looked up to see the two adults walking and and coming up to him, he immediately dropped it, reaching through the bars towards them and babbling excitedly.
“How are you doing today, little one?” Gyokuen said fondly. He had yet to speak his first word, so she wasn’t expecting any intelligible response, but she knew Judal liked the sound of her voice. “And what did you get Ithnan all excited about?”
“Mama!” he chirped in reply.
The look on Gyokuen’s face made Ithnan burst out laughing. “That’s what he’s started to call you,” he got out. “I first heard him say it when you left last time, but you didn’t hear. I just encouraged him a little. I thought that would help strengthen his connection to us. How did I do?”
“Fairly well,” she said, shaking off the surprise. “I’m just glad you didn’t end up accidentally teaching him to call you his mother instead.”
His laughter immediately caught in his throat. “Father forbid. Not so much that that would be ridiculous, but that you and Falan would never let me hear the end of it, would you?”
“Never.” She reached down and started petting Judal’s hair. “Who am I again, darling?”
“Mama!” he said happily, batting at her arm. “Mama!”
Gyokuen smiled. “That’s right. My good boy.”
The age most people can call up their earliest memories from is three years old. But Judal was not and had never been "most people," and so he had one exception.
He remembered once, as a toddler, being led by the hand into a small, sweet-smelling room he'd never been in before. Sunlight streamed in through the open window and turned the pale red walls pink. Gyokuen's smile seemed even brighter by comparison.
"You've been asking a lot of questions over the past few months," she began.
He nodded. It was true that a lot of things had been confusing him lately, like how Gyokuen had been gone so much lately, how she had looked so different when he did see her, how nothing Ithnan had said about it ever made any sense to him.
"I think this will be the explanation you finally understand, now that you can see for yourself.” She reached down to lift him onto her hip, so he’s able to look inside the large, thickly cushioned cradle in the corner. "This is my newest child. He’s Hakuyuu, Hakuren, and Hakuei’s baby brother.”
Judal peered curiously down at the newborn, who stared right back up at him. He had the biggest blue eyes he’d ever seen, set in a small round face that looked like a ball of the reddish clay that the priests sometimes let him play with. “Hi,” he greeted him brightly. “Whass your name?” But the baby just kept staring at him, tiny fingers curling and uncurling next to his head.
Gyokuen chuckled. "He doesn't know how to talk yet, dear. He won't be able to answer you for a while, so I will: his father named him Hakuryuu."
He considered that for a moment, then tried the unfamiliar word out. "Ak'ryuu," he said, at first tentatively, then cheerfully. "Ak’ryuu!"
"Well," Gyokuen said, giving the baby an almost apologetic look. "We'll give him another couple years or so, won't we?"
(His king is genuinely smiling as he listens to the story. “So I’m really, literally the first thing you can remember?”
Judal smirks and shrugs. “Don’t feel too special. It’s just a coincidence.”
“And you really couldn’t even say my name right? It’s not that hard.”
“Hey, give tiny me a break! I was like, two, I barely even knew what I was saying half the time!”
“I think the funniest part is that your first reaction to seeing me was to call me an evil dragon.”
“Yeah, well, you were the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Hakuryuu snickers. “Like hell I was. I bet I was cuter than you.”
“Yeah? Well...Well, you suck at gambling.”
“...That was terrible.”
“It was not!”
“Yes, it was.”
“It was n - Ah, never mind! Hey...Now that we’re talking about it, what’s your first memory, Hakuryuu?”
He opens his mouth to answer, and then freezes, the reality of the memory hitting him: warm, loving eyes, arms wrapped around him that will protect him from every harm, a sweet smile, “I love you, my adorable Hakuryuu.” All of it fake. All of it lies. All of it he’d fallen for so easily, so completely. Why, of all people, did it have to be her?
The smile drops from Judal’s face. “Hakuryuu?”
His king’s face darkens, and he looks away. “I don’t remember.”)
He learned what exactly the rukh was for on a starless summer evening, when Gyokuen took him with her away from the palace grounds for the first time in his life.
“This is something only we two can share,” she told him, and looking back later, he would reason that she was only half-lying. “These are powers that only our kind can possess.”
She let him help her spread a field blanket, borrowed from Hakuren, out on the thick grass. As he sat down beside her, she asked him, “You've always loved the rukh fluttering around you, haven't you, Judal?"
He nods. "Uh-huh."
“That’s good. Because did you know that they love you too?”
“Of course. You are a Magi, like me, an existence far above ordinary humans. The living rukh recognize how special you are, and that’s why they flock to you and stay close by you.”
“Wow...” With this new information in mind, he looked at the bright little things in front of his face much more intently. Carefully, he held out one of his hands, letting one of them land on his fingers. “Do they want to be my friends?”
“In a sense, I suppose,” Gyokuen allowed, though she looked as if she wanted to laugh at the idea. “You should consider them more important than anyone who calls themselves your friend, however. Humans that you think you can believe in are never as good or as trustworthy as they claim to be. The only ones besides me that you can truly rely on are the rukh that will always be there to protect you and serve you. Can you remember that for me, Judal?”
“Sure I can,” he assured her. Something as simple as that couldn’t be too hard to remember. He turned to her then to take another look at her rukh, and he had to look hard to see them: the little black butterflies were nearly imperceptible against the night and its shadows. “Gyokuen, why isn’t my rukh dark like yours? Is there something wrong with it?”
“You could say that,” she replied, absently stroking the wing of one of her own rukh that had settled on her shoulder. “But it’s nothing you need to worry about. Your rukh won’t be weak and deceitful for much longer. Soon enough, I’ll be able to help you dye it a much more fitting color.”
“Oh.” Judal looked again at the white rukh around him, each of them glittering brighter than any star in the sky. Part of him wondered if he really wanted to stop them from looking that way. But when he did, the rest of him argued, he would get something he wanted much more. “Then I’ll be strong, right? Like you?”
“You want to be strong like I am?”
“Well, then you’re in luck. As soon as you’re old enough to bear it, then that’s what I’ll make you. We’ll both just have to be patient for a little longer.”
“What kind of magic are you going to teach me first, Falan?” Judal asked, practically bouncing on the cushion he was sitting on. He knew she would probably tell him to be still at some point, but he couldn’t help it. He was so excited for today that he’d barely been able to eat breakfast. Ever since he’d first seen Gyokuen cast a spell, he had been looking forward to learning to perform magic himself, and now after years of waiting and studying, it was finally time.
“I’ve been thinking about that same thing for a while,” Falan replied from the other side of the room, where she was looking through the closet for supplies. “And I believe that the best thing to start you with...” She took a large, closed jug from the back of a shelf, and he could hear the water sloshing inside as she brought it over and set it down on the wooden floor between them as she knelt on her own cushion. “Would be water magic.”
“Water magic?” he echoed, frowning.
“I know you were expecting something more exciting,” Falan said as she removed the pitcher’s lid. “But there will be plenty of time for you to make things explode later on, and we’ll focus on this for now. Once you master the basics of water, you’ll be able to move on to its sub-type: Ice Magic. Here, I’ll give you a demonstration...” She raised a hand, holding it out over the jug. “Thalg Hajar.”
Instantly, he heard the slow scraping of ice against the ceramic, and watched white frost coat the edges of the jug as the water froze completely into pure, unblemished ice. “One day, when you have mastered spells like this, you will be able to freeze over an entire lake in mere seconds. All the water around you will be your tool, to fashion into whatever weapon you desire. Now do you find it at least a little bit more interesting?”
An image of a giant silver dragon behind him, with a fearsome roar and sharp ice shards for teeth, flashed in his mind and made him grin. “Yeah, definitely!”
With the veil still over her face, he couldn’t be totally certain, but from the way the corners of her eyes crinkled, he was fairly sure Falan was smiling. “I’m glad to hear it. Now, let’s have you try a spell...”
The sun was beginning to set by the time Falan decided that they had practiced enough for the first day. At that point, Judal, though happy with what he had begun to learn, was so exhausted he could barely keep his eyes open. But he still had the energy to ask his teacher the question he had been wondering about since around midday. “Hey, Falan, why did you want to start me with Water Magic? Ithnan says you’re much better at Life Magic.”
“Ithnan was right about that. However, I thought that this would be best for you.”
“But why, though?”
“Well...A long time ago, there was a little boy I knew, that I was hoping to teach magic when he got older.” A strange, faraway look was coming into her eyes as she stared at him. “I loved him very, very much. If I could have, I would have given my life to save his. Sometimes it catches me off guard, how much you remind me of him...”
Judal stared back, caught off guard himself by the completely unexpected reaction. “Falan...?”
Falan knelt down in front of him then, and gathered him into her arms. “He was exactly the age you are now when I lost him,” she murmured, holding him tightly to her. “I won’t let the fire take you the way it took him. If he had been able to protect himself with water, with any magic at all, I might still have him with me. I should have been the one to teach him.” She moved her hands to his shoulders and pushed him back - not harshly, but just enough so that they were looking each other in the face again. “Promise me you’ll work hard at this, Judal. I’ll teach you everything I know about it. Just promise me you’ll master this magic!”
The raw, unguarded desperation in her voice startled him, and made him nod vigorously. He didn’t fully grasp what she was so upset about all of a sudden - he was a Magi, nothing was going to happen to him - but he understood that this was much more serious than he had first assumed. So it was easy for him to say what Falan wanted to hear. “I promise. I’ll work so hard at it, I’ll be a master before you know it!”
“I’m glad to hear you say that.” Were those tears in her eyes? “I won’t make the same mistakes as I did before. I will do everything I can to protect you, Judal. I swear on that child’s memory, I won’t lose you too.”
Normally, Judal found the constant presence of the rukh around him comforting. Gyokuen and Ithnan said, over and over, that it would always be there to protect him and be used by him, and he knew that of course this was a good thing. But on the nights when the little white butterflies buzzed around his head so loudly and persistently that sleep was an impossibility, the thought crossed his mind that maybe he might be better off without them there all the time, if they were capable of being this inconsiderate.
He had lain in his bed wide awake for hours, before deciding that he wasn’t going to fall asleep anytime soon and that he ought to go and do what he always did at times like this: wander around the palace until he was tired enough that even the rukh’s noise couldn’t keep him up by the time he was finished. So he hopped out of bed, slipped out of his room, and started on his way. Usually, he never ran into anybody on his nighttime excursions. There were a few guards, on occasion, but he knew they wouldn’t give him any trouble. (“You are a Magi,” the priests would say. “They can refuse you nothing.”)
This place was at its most peaceful after the sun went down. There were the moon and the stars to look at, and from the right viewpoints they could be amazing. The feeling of comfortable solitude, as opposed to the loneliness he sometimes felt at night that made his stomach clench, was interesting. But best of all was the near-total silence. Aside from the rukh, the only sounds he would hear in the palace at rest were the wind in the trees and the soft chirping of the insects and nightbirds all around.
On this night, however, Judal had gone only a few halls down before he picked up on a sound he had never heard on any other: the shaky breathing and quiet sniffles of someone crying, and someone very young, too.
Curious and a little concerned, he followed the sound until he came upon the child who was making it, curled up tightly into himself behind one of the pillars of an empty hall. “Ryuu? Is that you?”
The three-year-old prince lifted his tearstained face. “Sh-Shinkan-dono?”
“Don’t say that, I’m just Judal. What happened to you?”
“I...I had this really scary dream, and I was still scared when I woke up so I went out to look for somebody but Papa and my brothers aren’t back home yet and I don’t know where aneue and Mama are and I can’t find anybody and - “
“Hey, hey, take it easy, okay? You don’t need to find anybody. I found you, didn’t I?” He wasn’t at all sure why, but as he looked into Hakuryuu’s wide blue eyes, the incessant buzzing of the rukh in his head quieted into a soft, distant murmur. This was the most peaceful he had felt in weeks. And in any case, he knew how awful nightmares could be, and he knew exactly what he had always wanted someone to do when he had one. “You can come sleep in my bed with me tonight if you want.”
“Yeah, really! My bed’s way too big, there’s lots of room for you.” He reached down, offering Hakuryuu his hand. “Come on, I’ll take you.”
“Okay,” he agreed, taking his hand and letting himself be pulled to his feet. “Thank you, Shinka - uh, Judal.”
It wasn’t a long way to lead Hakuryuu back to his bedroom; by now he knew his way in the dark just fine. The younger boy climbed eagerly after the elder into the bed, feeling not at all out of place in a room furnished just as comfortably as his own.
“Is this good?” Judal asked as they laid down (both were still small enough that they could easily share one of the large pillows).
“Okay, then.” He pulled the thick black blanket up, trying to tuck it around them both as best he could. “Night, Ryuu.”
That was the first night that the prince and the Magi slept side by side, but it was far from the last. While Judal more frequently sought out Hakuryuu (though always purposefully after this night) than Hakuryuu came to him, it didn’t matter. Either way, both of them would always be able to find warmth and comfort beside the other in the years to come.
“Mama! Look! Judal’s doing the fire spells again!”
“What?” Gyokuen glanced up to see her youngest child pointing excitedly over the courtyard walls, at the plumes of thick smoke rising up from the forest just off the palace grounds, and had to bite her lip to keep from snarling. “Not again...”
“Judal’s magic is really cool!” Hakuryuu went on excitedly. “He was telling me yesterday, he said he’s going to learn a spell where there’s a bunch of little fireballs all around you and you can make them shoot anywhere you want and - “ He paused, noticing that his mother had closed her eyes and gone very still. “Mama? What are you doing?”
“It’s called praying for infinite patience, darling,” Gyokuen answered evenly. Deep breaths, Arba...In and out...You still need Ithnan and Falan alive and intact, remember. “One day, I’m sure, you’ll be doing the same thing.” She opened her eyes, got to her feet, and started to make her way towards the source of the Heat Magic training gone awry. “Hakuryuu, you stay here and feed the ducklings, and I’ll be back soon. Maybe when I do, Judal can play with you for a while.”
Killing the two absolute idiots she had the misfortune of calling comrades was out of the question, but slapping them until they pled for mercy - yes, that should teach them a lesson. And it would probably be for the best if she took over Judal’s magic training from now on.
Thus far, it had been a good day for the empress of Kou. Hakuryuu had started his spear training and, though it hadn’t been much, he had been eager to show her what he had learned so far. Hakuei had happily told her that all she wanted was to grow up to be just like her mother. She was already on the point of writing off her two oldest children as being of any use to her, but perhaps there was some hope for the younger two yet. Even better, Hakutoku had just returned from a particularly long campaign, and, his status as an enemy of al-Thamen notwithstanding, the emperor always made sure to pay very special attention to his wife on his first night home, and had been so pleased to reunite with her that they’d gone another round that morning. The recollection was enough to make her shiver with delight - it was almost enough to make her rethink her plans to do away with him. Almost.
The afternoon sunlight was warm on her skin as she stepped outside the royal family’s quarters, thinking that nothing could spoil her good mood, when the sound of snickering from above her caught her attention. She looked up to see Hakuyuu and Hakuren sitting side by side on the roof, munching daifuku and watching some distant spectacle with amusement. “Boys, what are you doing up there?” she asked.
When they saw their mother, both of their mouths curved into identical smirks. “We’re watching Judal-kun’s little fireworks show,” Hakuren told her, pointing in the direction of the training courts.
Oh, father above, no. She didn’t even have time to ask what they were talking about before a bolt of lightning ripped through the air above the court, edged with blue fire. How did he even manage to do that?! I didn’t even want to teach him lightning magic yet...The faces of her closest companions flashed in her mind, as did the snatch of their conversation she’d caught yesterday about bragging rights, and with a flare of anger in her chest, she understood. If those two idiots have been trying to show each other up behind my back again, I will end them.
Another bolt of lightning flew, followed immediately by the sound of something large crumbling. “I must say, the little Magi is not quite the master of magic the empire’s been promised just yet, is he?” Hakuyuu remarked, his amusement clear in his voice.
“Yeah! Whoever’s teaching him magic must really suck at it, right, Ma?” Hakuren called down, with a huge grin and a knowing glint in his eyes.
It took a ridiculous amount of self-control not to bristle at that. Not now. Not yet. Even if they’re being brats, it’s not the time. Kill them later, when there’s no witnesses. Gyokuen forced her features into a mask of perfect geniality and answered lightly, “I suppose so. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take care of this.”
“Well, well, for an old hag, she can really move, eh, Hakuren?” Hakuyuu muttered, watching his mother practically sprint for the training courts.
“Looks that way,” replied Hakuren through a mouthful of daifuku. “We’re going to pay for this later, aren’t we?”
“But it’s still worth it, right?” Hakuren said, holding out a fist expectantly.
Hakuyuu turned to him and smiled, bumping his brother’s fist with his own. “Definitely worth it.”
“Hey, Judal,” Hakuryuu asked, standing beside the older boy proudly overlooking his handiwork. “Do you ever think that maybe you should work on controlling your magic more?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“Well...This is the second time in two weeks that you froze Ka Koubun into a block of ice that’s so big it’s going to take all these people to get him out,” he said, gesturing to the dozen servants working with hammers and chisels to free the preteen official whose face was stuck in a wide-eyed expression of terror. “And this time you just did it because you overheard him complaining about the last time you did it.”
“I don’t see your point. He complains about everything. Someone should give him something to do to make him actually useful. Besides, don’t you remember why I did it the first time?”
“You didn’t tell me. Why?”
“I heard Prince Koumei tell Prince Kouen that he was talking bad about Ei-nee-san behind her back, because he thinks the other princesses are better.”
The indignant look on Hakuryuu’s face almost made Judal burst out laughing. The stable kitten hissing at him had been more threatening. “You still shouldn’t have frozen him, then. If he was talking bad about aneue, you should have hit him with your lightning! You can do that, right?”
At that, Judal really did burst out laughing. “Thanks for reminding me why you’re my best friend, Ryuu.”
A/N - Consider this chapter a fun little breather before the angst and pain of the next three start. :)
Looking back, Judal will wonder whether he would have preferred to be told what was about to happen to him.
There had been no buildup to it, not a bit of warning as to what was coming. Perhaps there had been some faint anticipation in the air in the organization’s domain, a glint of excitement in Gyokuen’s eyes (or worry in Falan’s)...But if there had been, he hadn’t caught on. One uneventful evening after training, the priests who usually escorted him back to his bedroom had suddenly started guiding him down completely different corridors and stairways instead, down into the lowest levels of their domain.
“Hey...” Judal looked to the veiled figures on either side of him, looking for some small clue as to what was going on and finding none. “What are we doing? Aren’t I supposed to be going to bed now?”
“You’ll be taking part in one extra thing tonight,” the one on his right said. “Don’t worry, it won’t keep you up for much longer.”
“It is time for you to advance to your next state of being as a Magi,” the one on his left explained. “Gyokuen-sama has decided that you must become much stronger than you are at your current state.”
“She...Does she think I’m too weak?!” he burst out, affronted. “After all my training? Come on! What does she want me to do?”
“Calm yourself, Magi. Gyokuen-sama does not doubt your strength. She merely wishes to open you up to your full potential, and that is something you would never be able to do on your own.”
“Hmph.” He jutted his chin out and crossed his arms behind his head, still bristling with indignation. “Just wait until I get bigger. There’s nothing I won’t be able to do.”
“Of course. We expect nothing less of you. But for now, simply allow us to help you in your ascension.”
They reached the very bottom of the last set of stairs, and one of the priests pushed open a door to reveal a large, dark room, in which the only light was on an ornate golden circle in the very center of the flat stone floor. In the shadows surrounding that circle, Judal could see line after line of al-Thamen’s priests, all of whom slowly turned their heads towards their Magi the moment he stepped into the room, and did not look away. His brashness abruptly washed away by sudden apprehension (why wouldn’t any of them stop staring? What were they expecting him to do?), he lowered his arms and tentatively called out into the darkness. “G-Gyokuen? Are you here?”
“Yes, darling, I’m right here,” he heard her answer from somewhere in the darkness. “Don’t be nervous; this is very simple. Just lie on your back in the center of the circle and let us perform our magic. Can you do that?”
“O-Of course I can do that!” Willing his legs not to shake, Judal walked into the middle of the room (painfully aware of the eyes of every other person in the room trained on him as he did so) and laid down. The raised curves of metal ground into his spine, and he hoped this wouldn’t take too long.
“Now, just close your eyes and let yourself relax,” came Gyokuen’s voice again. “Trust us. We know exactly what we’re doing.”
“...I trust you,” he murmured, squeezing his eyes shut and going as limp as he could. For a moment that seemed to stretch out impossibly long, he lay there with his pulse pounding in his ears and the back of his neck tingling, trying to take deep breaths and tell himself that it would be okay.
And then the pain hit, sharp and fierce and like nothing he had ever felt before in his life.
Instantly, his eyes flew open, stretching wide, and his back arched up off the floor only to be slammed back onto the metal again by some force he couldn’t see. Shrieking, he tried to writhe away from what felt like wildfire burning his veins, shards of glass ripping through his skin, a great weight hammering at his skull from the inside, but was held motionless on the floor as if nailed there. Someone help me, get me out of this! Please please please, I’ll do anything, anything, just make it stop, get me out of here!
No one heard, no one listened - was anyone even still there to help him?! The room, the priests, everything, had abruptly vanished, as his vision was filled by a swirling mass of gold and white and black...the rukh, the tiny part of his mind that could still reason realized, noticing the little flapping wings.
But why are some of them dark?
Who cares?! It still hurts it hurts so much please someone’s got to make it stop please please someone help!
Through the frantic, howling whirlwind the agony had made of his thoughts, a face flickered at the front of his mind, of the one person that he could hope would come to make this end.
“Mama! MAMA!” he wailed without thinking, trying again to pull his body up from the floor and run, as fast and as far as he possibly could, but not moving an inch. His heart pounded violently in his chest, he couldn’t remember how to breathe, and he couldn’t take it any more, he couldn’t, he would die if he had to endure this for one more second!
Somewhere inside him, something snapped, and all at once he was falling into darkness, falling apart -
Judal’s eyes abruptly flashed open, and he wrenched his body up with a startled shout, ready to run or fight or whatever he had to do, but froze when he realized that wasn’t necessary. I’m...I’m in my bedroom? He sank back slowly, trying to think, the coolness of the sheets welcome against his sweat-soaked body. A nightmare...? He looked at the rukh fluttering around him, and at first glance, he thought that they were all as white and docile as always. A dream, then. Just a dream. Gyokuen wouldn’t do that to me. That can’t be how the rukh changes.
And then for a split second, darkness glinted on the edge of one’s wing, and his stomach dropped.
A/N - This can be considered a companion to my oneshot Peaches, so it would probably be better if you went and read that first.
He knew, instinctively, that he couldn’t let Gyokuen see. But Judal was still reeling from the news of the Great Fire, an hour after she’d given it to him. In less than a day, everything had changed. Koutoku would take the throne he’d always coveted, the pig, but it was Gyokuen and the rest of al-Thamen who would hold the real power in the empire. And from now on, there would be no one left in the palace to oppose them the way the previous emperor and his eldest sons had. The thought of the two crown princes made something clench in the young Magi’s chest. He had only Hakuryuu’s word to go on when it came to Hakuren’s goodness, but he had experienced Hakuyuu’s firsthand just a couple short weeks ago.
Not once in their whole conversation had Hakuyuu ever talked down to him or treated him callously, the way the priests tended to do. He had seemed to genuinely like Judal, in a way that only Hakuryuu had done before. His eyes had been bright and sincere as he’d said goodbye, and that he hoped that they would get the chance to talk again soon. Had he known, even as he’d said that, that they were never going to get that chance?
We were going to be friends, he thought despondently. And now my only friend is...
Much as he loved the younger boy and as worried as he was, he hadn’t yet worked up the courage to ask Gyokuen if he could see Hakuryuu, so all he could do was remember what she had told him (“Oh, he’s still alive, surprisingly. But only just; he’s clinging to life by a thread. Poor thing...With the state he’s in, he might have been luckier to have died.”) and let his imagination run away with it. His stomach churned with each new thought. What did somebody as badly wounded as Hakuryuu look like? Was his face burned off? Did he still have all his hair? Could he still talk, or still use all his limbs? How much of his body was charred and twisted like so much overcooked meat? Why had his mother made him pay the price for his brothers’ defiance? Would she want to kill him now anyway, just to make a clean job of it? Why did someone like Hakuryuu have to get caught up in something that had nothing to do with him?!
Judal’s eyes started to sting, and he rubbed furiously at them. No! No tears. That wouldn’t help anything, would probably make it even worse.
He couldn’t let Gyokuen know how upset he really was. He wasn’t supposed to care so much about something outside the goals of al-Thamen, let alone care so much about the people that they had marked for death. But the longer he sat in his room being uninformed and useless, the more he felt like he was going to lose his mind any minute now. Just one or two questions couldn’t hurt, could they? As long as he made them sound like he didn’t feel anything about what had happened.
Slowly, he got up from his bed and went into the room down the hall, where the empress sat at her desk reading a report letter from some member currently stationed abroad - Ithnan, probably. It took him a moment to make his voice work enough to say, “G-Gyokuen? Can I ask you something?”
“Anything at all,” she answered, but she did not look up from the scroll.
“Well, I...I was wondering...I just wanted to know...Why did we have to set that fire and kill the princes?”
She stopped, turned, and looked down at him then, looked him right in the face. She wore a kind expression, but the soft smile didn’t reach her eyes. “Not getting sentimental, now, are we, Judal?” she asked lightly, and a shiver ran down his spine.
“I’m not!” he said quickly, trying to sound affronted at the idea. “I-I just thought, did we really have to? Yuu-ni - I mean, Hakuyuu and Hakuren were supposed to be really strong, weren’t they? Why couldn’t we have tried to get them on our side, or you could have done some spell to make them do what you want, or something, instead of killing them? Wouldn’t that have been better for everybody?”
The laugh that this elicited from Gyokuen made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. “That’s an interesting idea, of course,” she said once she was done, and he couldn’t tell whether or not she knew he hadn’t meant it. “But unfortunately, not a very plausible one. Those boys were too much their father’s sons, their minds and hearts too strong to be swayed by me. Though, even if I hadn’t needed to kill them, I probably would have anyway.”
“What? Why?” Judal blurted out, shocked.
But she was only half talking to him now; there was a faraway look in her eyes that he didn’t understand. “Hakuyuu...That boy...You have no idea how absolutely galling it was, to look into the face of my child and see Solomon staring back.”
Solomon? Judal wanted to cry out, even more hurt and bewildered than he’d been before. Who is Solomon?!
The dark rukh were dancing around him.
There were still spots of white among them, but he barely noticed those few anymore. As far as their rukh went, he was looking more and more like Gyokuen every day.
The power was everything that she had promised him it would be, all those years ago under the starless sky. Ascension, the priests loved to tell him, over and over and over. You are ascending through the ritual, you will soon reach your highest form of existence. He told himself just as often that it was all true, every word of it, from the priests and Ithnan and Falan and Gyokuen. He was only gaining from all of this, he was losing nothing, absolutely
(Hakuryuu never smiled at him any more. His glares at Judal had neither the depth nor the fire of the ones he reserved for his mother, but they still cut like a hot knife. Even so, they were comparatively weak: after some nights in that dark room, his body burned down to the bone and the pain shot through him every time he tried to take a step; he couldn’t learn Gravity Magic soon enough.)
Power, power, his new power was everything. He could feel it always building inside him, like boiling water, and he knew that he would burst if he didn’t find a way to set it free. It was in his blood, pushing against his skin, and as it heightened and heightened the buzzing of the rukh grew louder and louder -
“Eh?” He glanced up at the priest whose voice had momentarily broken the rukh’s whine. There were three of them at the other end of the sparring arena (what was he doing here?) and the one who had shouted at him was leaning over the other two, who were on the ground moaning as blood pooled underneath them, streaked the large ice shards that had sliced through their limbs. “Huh,” he muttered, quirking an eyebrow. “Did I do that?”
Well, what did it matter if he had? Gyokuen told him that weak people weren’t worth worrying about, and this was a boring place anyway. So without another thought about it, he turned and strode out of the arena, ignoring the priest still shouting after him. It was a full two minutes of walking before it finally hit him what he had been doing there in the first place. Oh...Training. Right.
That night found him again forced down to the floor of the dark room, and the edges of gold digging into his spine were the least of his worries. No matter whether they warned him first or not, no matter how much he tried to steel himself, he was never prepared. The conversion ritual had only intensified over these past two years: the screaming, the burning, the tearing, None of this is so bad, darling; you’re growing stronger every day...what we need is more control.
Every day...He still had no idea how often the ritual was actually happening. Sometimes he could keep himself from passing out before the end, but most times the pain overwhelmed him, and he never knew when or where he would wake up next. (A few times in the beginning, he used to come back to himself being held in Falan’s protective arms. That never happened anymore, and he wondered if the fearful look that lingered in her eyes lately had anything to do with it.) No, he could never be sure. Whenever he dreamed now, he dreamed of being torn apart in that room with the priests looming over him, and the line between dreams and reality was quickly blurring.
More and more, he felt himself detaching from the world. (Or was it that the world was detaching from him, rejecting the newly dark Magi?) He glided through each day like a wisp of shadow, floating without Gravity Magic, his head as light as if he were about to faint. His memories would fall away like water through his fingers, through his sieve of a brain. But the part that frustrated and frightened him most was that he could understand none of it.
Am I losing my mind? What’s going wrong with me?! Wait...Is it really only me, or is this how everyone else feels, too? I should ask - but what if it is only me? I can’t! I can’t...I don’t understand it. I don’t understand anything! Is this a dream? Is this a memory? Is this, any of this, even real? Am I real?! What am I?!
The thoughts built and built like the fire under his skin, like a hurricane that was going to rip him apart; and through it all the dark rukh spun and flickered around him in their frenzied dance, and they screeched and they shrieked louder than any creature ever could, and they never stopped and they never would stop, and any second now their cacophony was going to break his skull in two -
Everything was hushed. Everything was still.
There was a hand on his arm, but he barely felt it; it was as if his whole body was asleep instead of just the limb. He looked up and saw two blue eyes, wider than usual with concern, locked onto his. “Hakuryuu...?”
“You...You broke off. What were you going to say just now?”
Huh? “What do you mean? We weren’t talking.”
“Yes, we were! You came up to me and you were going on and on about how you want to take me to a dungeon - which I’m still not going to do, by the way! - and then you just stopped and - ” Hakuryuu stopped, realization dawning on his face. “Don’t you...Don’t you remember any of that?”
“Yeah! Sure! Of course I do!” Judal exclaimed, quickly looking away to hide his reaction from the prince. I don’t remember any of that stuff...I was just in my room, wasn’t I? Or was I in the orchard...? But how did I get here?
“N-No, you don’t!” Hakuryuu insisted, grabbing the older boy’s shoulder and spinning him around to face him. His expression had gone from concerned to outright scared. “Judal, did something happen to you?! What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, Hakuryuu,” he said after a moment of hesitation, pulling a smile onto his face. “Nothing’s wrong. I’m fine.”