There are four of them, filling the sky like they have always been there, endlessly huge and coiling and filled with light, so bright the very sun seems dark. Yellow, Blue, White, Green. The mob around Shuten explodes into panic, falling to the ground in terror or bolting in a wild flight away from the platform where the King is bound, but how can you flee from the sky? Shuten is left forgotten, as the crowd falls apart around him. He stands transfixed, face lifted towards the sky in what feels like, for the first time in his life, something like prayer.
It was true. Everything, the entire time. Even when he had started forcing his way through the crowd towards the king, even when he had realized he could not let this king die, he had not really believed in the gods. But here they all are, his hair wild in the wind of their breathing, his ears ringing with the screaming around him. He should be afraid, he knows in a distant sort of way, but he isn't. That horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach, that vise in his ribcage when he watched the king be dragged out on the platform—that was fear. This is something else.
The gods do not look at him, neither to smite him for his role in taking Hiryuu prisoner, nor to praise him for his tiny attempt at saving him. He is not surprised by this; he is, after all, only one man in a sea of men, insignificant as an insect against the splendor and might of heaven broken open above him. He has lived all his life as a tiny cog in a vast machine of war and power, kicking and clawing for his place in the world, needed by no one, wanted by no one except the army in the way the army wants all bodies—to chew them up and use them until all that's left is to spit them out. Now that he can see the gods with his own eyes, they do not notice him either. It should be a relief, but instead he just feels hollow.
It also makes Hiryuu an even stranger puzzle. It would be easier to explain away the king's kindness and interest in the welfare of humans if it was just a manifestation of his divine nature, but these dragons have eyes only for Hiryuu. It is obvious to Shuten that they do not care about humans at all.
"Hiryuu," says one of the dragons. The voice is deep, resonating in Shuten's very bones, buzzing in his teeth. He cannot tell which of the dragons is speaking. All of the gods have lowered their heads towards Hiryuu, and all of their jaws are unmoving, fixed in unnervingly long-toothed grins.
"Hiryuu! We have come for you. Return to the heavens and destroy the humans who have forgotten to cherish and heed the gods."
The wrath in that resonant voice is terrible, and four long tails lash across the sky, even as the dragons undulate lower, lower, stooping over the king in a manner that is oddly both predatory and protective, poised to snatch him free as though his chains were nothing more than spiderweb, the spears naught but stalks of grass. Hiryuu has struggled up to his knees in the commotion, but he looks disheveled and small before the gods, almost pitiable, were it not for the quiet authority he still wears, as he stares up unblinkingly into their railing windstorm-radiance. His long red hair is whipped to riotous glory in the rush of heaven's air, streaming back like a cloak.
And Shuten watches in disbelief as, even at this distance, he can clearly see the king shake his head: No.
The dragons rear back a little, clearly at just as much of a loss as Shuten is.
"Then let us save you, if you will not save yourself. Let us destroy the humans who have wronged you, and set you free! We shall teach these mortals what it means, to lay hands upon a god."
Again, unbelievably, the king shakes his head: No. This time, Shuten can see a tiny smile on the king's lips, as though the gods' insistence upon helping him amuses him. And for Shuten, this is the final straw.
"Idiot!" Shuten screams, nearly weeping in his frustration. All around him the men that have not fled have fallen to their knees, to their faces, groveling. He runs, trampling he knows not how many beneath his feet, vaulting forward. The king is still chained, still forced to his knees on the execution platform, but his head is lifted to the heavens and he speaks to the dragon gods just as he spoke to Shuten in his chamber the night before: calmly, without anger, without fear. All Shuten can see is a red-haired man, barely older than a boy, chained and surrounded by enemies and holding in the palm of his hand all the power in heaven, and refusing to use it. He barely knows anymore if he is running to free the king or to hit him over the head himself. How can someone so good be so stupid?
The dragons flow upwards, peeling away and across the sky like silken kites, away and away—north, south, east. They are leaving, Shuten realizes in disbelief. The king told his soldiers not to kill, and now he's told the gods to leave in peace, and for some reason both man and god listen to his commands even when they make no sense, and why is Shuten the only one willing to disappoint the king if it means the king will remain alive? He surges forward.
"Idiot!" He howls again, "what are you doing? Save yourself! Fight back!"
The king does not flinch, does not even look towards Shuten. He is still too far away to have heard anything over the din of panic and confusion. But suddenly Shuten feels as though he has been struck a massive blow to his right side, and he staggers nearly to his knees, stumbling badly.
When he wheels about, teeth bared, to meet whoever just attacked him, he finds himself face-to-face with a dragon.