A mistake. Though it had been an honest one, it could not be denied that even now the power of the Champion rested in the hands of that part that had been excised from her beloved. Anthy stared down at the miniature rose bush sheltered beneath the canes of its larger brethren. Anger and outrage came to her through her connection to the Light of the World. Something had happened in the mortal realm while he had been here to claim what was rightfully his.
Her hands remaining clasped before her, the violet-haired Fey closed leaf green eyes. She would do what she could to undo her error. The whole of the Rose Arbor slipped away as Anthy abandoned her tenuous form; the regal gold-trimmed red gown fell empty to the ground.
She would go to where the Shadow lay and discover what she could.
“Let me go! What do you want with me anyway?” Twisting back as best she could, the Phoenix's arms still strong around her, Utena glanced at her captor.
A grin remained on Lord Akio's face. What a charming young woman the lowlander had become. It would almost be a shame, but Love's Honor would be only a sword to him until the prophecy could be fulfilled. “I wish merely to become better acquainted with the one chosen to find the new Champion as well as keep a leash on the Tyger,” he replied.
The rose-haired maiden gasped. “You know of the Champion?”
“Of course I do, my dear lady.” The grin remained. “And I've known of your quest. I also know that long ago, you saw the suffering of Love herself.”
Utena blinked in astonishment, her body going slack in her captor's grip. “But how...?” she asked while staring up at the darkly handsome face of the man holding her.
Emerald eyes turned from staring at the road to glance down at the woman. For the first time, the two actually locked gazes...
A shudder ran through Utena's slender form. Something deep within those gorgeous green eyes scared her, a something that was dark, shadowy, alien. Rumors abounded that the Ohtori prince was not a mortal but rather a Fey banished to the realms of man; in that instant, she knew that the rumors were truth.
While his captive shivered, Akio was overwhelmed by recognition. Though the skin was fair, the eyes a hue of the ocean and not of green growing things, the flesh imperfect clay, the light deep within the maiden's eyes was a familiar one. This, then, is what happened to the spark? Even as he asked his silent question, he knew it was true. It would be just like her. No wonder this one had found her way to the grave of the fallen Champion when she was a young child.
The young warrioress closed her eyes, willing the uncomfortable contact be broken. Even so she felt oddly drained and drowning in a sense of unease. She turned away and did her best to ignore the man holding her in his grasp.
“How?” Akio echoed, wondering how to react in light of his discovery. Loathing and longing both filled him; he was haunted by the very same emotions that had swept over him the moment he had first laid eyes upon Anthy's familiar visage. “My dear lady, I am what remains of the fallen Champion.”
Another shudder ran through her at the dusky-skinned lord's words. Could he really be? But even as she asked herself that, part of her recognized the truth of his statement. “What happened?”
“The world happened. Too much hated filled it; the burden was too much. The Champion grew ill, and though Love did what she could, even her most desperate attempt failed,” the Ebon Phoenix explained, his voice taking on a distant tone. “I am all that remains, cast out into the mortal realm, a fragment of my former self forever barred from the shining realms that were my home. And my beloved suffers eternally, the poisoned thorns of hatred tearing at her flesh.”
His words brought to mind a fleeting memory of a violet-haired woman caught in the thorny vines of cruel, deceptively beautiful roses. Utena gasped, struggling to bring forward the rest of the memory she knew was there. Urgency filled her and once again renewed her purpose to find the one who could wield Love's Honor. She turned and looked back up at him. “Why didn't you come to me, if you are what remains of the sword's owner?”
“There are those would do what they could to detain me from the power I used to wield,” Akio said. “I've had to wait until I was strong enough to meet the challenge.”
The lowlander nodded. His explanation made sense, especially in light of the knowledge that the former Champion had been weakened before his fall.
“And with your quest, you kept those who would oppose me busy.” Akio smiled down to her, once again meeting her innocent gaze. Desire won over anger; determined to win over this now-mortal maiden, he thought over how he could fulfill the prophesy and keep the lovely girl for himself. His weaker half was besotted with her, but Akio doubted if that other part was even aware of the reasons behind his attraction. What a lovely slap in the face it would be, the Phoenix thought. “But the time has come for me to claim what is rightfully mine.”
“But what of the tests of Virtue? Why was I told to seek the one that held those traits dear?” Utena asked in confusion. All along she had thought that it was her quest to find a man worthy to wield the sword, that man proving his worth by passing her tests. Was she so wrong? Was she instead supposed to be searching for the man that was what remained of Love's Honor's former owner?
“They were meant to give substance to your quest,” the lavender haired chieftain answered. “Your task was a diversion, giving me time to ready myself to reclaim my power. Now I am ready, and I need your help, my dear lady.”
She hesitated, uncertain. Had she been misguided then? Should she have somehow known that the Ohtori prince was the one she sought? Yet even as that thought crossed her mind, she somehow knew that her discovery of Lord Touga was correct, that he too had a claim to Love's Honor. She turned her gaze back to the game trail they were following. “Where are we going?”
“To a place where I can regain my lost power. Will you aid me?”
“Don't you need to return to the Rose Gate and ask for the sword?” Utena realized even as she queried her captor that she had no idea if the Red Tyger had been judged worthy. But if what Lord Akio was saying was correct, her quest had only been to lead others from the trail of discovering the weakened remains of the Champion. No matter how much her heart wished to see Lord Touga the Champion of Love, it was never meant to be. That thought alone saddened her as well as gave her a feeling of unease she couldn't explain.
Akio smiled again, sensing her slow acceptance of his words. How lovely she would be as the jewel among his possessions. He would be certain that she repaid him for all the suffering Love had caused her Champion. “I already have Love's Honor in my grasp, my beloved lady,” he softly purred, leaning close to her ear as he uttered the words.
“But I gave the key--”
“Do you think that I, what remains of the Champion himself, would not have my own way back to the place I called home?” Akio gently asked.
Utena shivered with the feel of his warm breath against the sensitive skin of her neck. She felt overwhelmed, drowning in sensations she could barely understand. An odd thought crossed her mind; Touga effected her in much the same way but only in a more pleasant manner. “N-no,” she stammered, “it makes sense that you would have a key.” Yet a voice within her reminded her that the Champion had only one symbol, and she had carried it for long years.
She was bending, but there was still a core of steel. Akio wanted her full cooperation; the totality of the conquest would make the irony all that sweeter. Love had taken the Champion's own power and had cut from her beloved the darkness she had believed was poisoning him. In doing so, she had created the three of them--Archetype, Light and Shadow--two of which had fallen into the cold realm of the mortals. And in her grief, she had shattered as well, the first part caught in her never-ending torment, a second part remaining among the roses while the third followed her love into the harsh world of the flesh.
For eons, Love had been the mistress, her Champion there to do her bidding. Now he would see to it that not only would his weaker half never again threaten his existence, he would be the master between himself and what remained of Love.
“Let me show you something, beloved lady,” the Phoenix murmured, breathing in the scent of her pink-hued hair. Faintly, she smelled of the roses that Love had so adored.
“Show me what?” the lowlander noble asked.
Akio straightened in the saddle, pulling to him strands of glamour from the very aether around them. After fleeing the chilling presence of the Arisugawa chieftain--and he wondered how she had managed to effect him so--he had used his magic to disperse his mercenaries back home knowing that he would be able to travel faster alone. When the black-clad men had emerged from the fog, they had found themselves on the edge of the woods bordering the Clan Ohtori fields. Now he would weave that same magic again and open a way through Faerie to reach another place in the physical world. But on the way there he would show her something he guessed would win her to his side. “Watch.”
She did as he commanded, her aquamarine gaze sweeping over the area around them. The very air seemed to tingle around her and she had the impression of her captor concentrating on something. The forest around them changed subtly, taking on visual textures and deep hues that seemed to be grander, more perfect. No longer did they ride through the woods; they now traveled through the archetype of all forests everywhere. The sky was the most perfect of skies, the clouds the very epitome of such objects, and even the earth beneath the white stallion's hooves was the essence of all soil. All others were merely imperfect reflections of this place.
They rode along a bend in the game trail, finding their surroundings suddenly open up into a flowered meadow. Roses grew everywhere, the same blood red as those within the Rose Arbor. The scent of them hung in the air, as much the archetype of rose perfume as the flowers were of their earthly cousins. Onward they traveled while the meadow shifted into something new with a fluidity that defied the physics of the mortal world. Utena glanced up for a moment at the highland chieftain's handsome face; Akio seemed undisturbed by the behavior of their surroundings.
Greyness closed in; what she could see of the area around them faded to an unearthly nothingness. No longer able to discern anything other then unending gloom, the young warrioress fought against an impulse to huddle up against the dark-skinned man holding her. She was still a captive despite his revelation that he was the one she had sought for so long.
Then came light, and with it a sense of an almost-forgotten memory. Sea-blue eyes blinked; this was just like that other time, Utena realized. As before, a beam of pure white brilliance acted as a beacon. When they grew closer she saw one of the images that had haunted her for most of her short life.
The bier of the fallen Champion stood there unchanged. The angelically beautiful man dressed as the most regal of princes remained lying there, the inside corner of his short cape a splash of vibrant red against the glowing white. Staring first at the unmoving Champion and then looking back at the Ohtori chieftain, she could see the resemblance. The same brown skin, the same pale hair with lavender highlights, the same stunning visage, though the Ebon Phoenix appeared older and less ethereal and sported longer locks. There could be no doubt that Lord Akio had somehow once been the very same man lying there dead on the bier. “But how...?”
“How is it that I am here and the fallen Champion remains?” Akio responded, staring down at the form clad in white, gold and scarlet. “All that is here is an empty shell, that part that is always and forever. The soul within has fled, too weakened by hatred to survive here in this realm.”
“W-would he live again were you to die?”
“That is an answer I do not know. Perhaps. Perhaps I will merely go on to that fate that awaits all mortals in their end.”
Utena frowned as his words invoked a feeling within her. No, she wouldn't let that happen. How could she let that happen? The Champion had promised to always be there for his beloved spirit of Love. He couldn't just fade to nothing. “If you had your power back, what then?”
“Then, my beloved lady, I would be more certain to once again inhabit the empty shell of the Champion left behind when this mortal coil has lost its hold upon me,” Akio answered. He inwardly smiled as he sensed the beautiful maiden's will bending just that much more. To possess her would be quite the feat, though he lusted far more for the power he had once wielded.
Utena glanced back down to the unmoving figure on the bier. Twice now he had mentioned needing her help in order to regain his might. Only Love's Honor can free her... The voice echoing in her head, she lifted her gaze to the distance. A glow of red caught her attention and held it. “What of Love?” she asked, her voice a whisper.
The stately Phoenix noted where his captive was staring. A flick of the reins and they were moving again, this time toward that ruddy glow. “So long as her beloved Champion remains an empty shell, she will be lost in torment.”
“But the sword is supposed to be the thing able to free her,” the lowlander noble said in protest. She knew the voice she had heard as a child had been correct.
“When wielded by the Champion of Love,” Akio clarified.
Pulling back on the reins, he gazed for a long moment at the image of the spirit of Love writhing among the gold and silver roses of hatred. Like her eternal lover, the essence of Amor had been broken into three. Here before them was the immortal Archetype, guilt and grief tormenting her while the enemy of all she stood for held her in its grasp. A second piece was Anthy, an empty shell used as an animate sheath to house the Champion's sword and to watch over that place that had been the home of Amor and her lover. And the third...
The Ohtori prince shifted his gaze to look at the maiden in his arms, a smile lingering on his handsome face. So she had withered from grief, becoming weak enough that she too had fallen to the realm of men. Had she foolishly thought that she would be able to find the Light of the World merely by allowing a prison of flesh and blood to entomb her? How perfect it would be to keep her from ever reaching his weaker half, especially since she had already tried to destroy Akio before the fall.
The sight brought tears to Lady Utena's eyes. Pity and pain washed over her, as did that same fierce desire to see the tortured woman freed that had so moved the lowlander as a child. The memory of that night came back to her fully from the realization that even the angels could die to the heartfelt vow to find the one that could release Love from her thorny prison. A sanguine tear rolled down Utena's cheek, stained by the luminescence bathing the dreadful scene, as she turned her gaze back to the one holding her. “W-what must be done to return your power? You will free her, won't you?”
“She'll no longer suffer so when Love's Honor is truly mine,” the Ebon Phoenix replied.
“I refuse to believe that man and his entire party could just vanish into thin air,” growled the Golden Panther as she leaned back against the Tsuchiya throne. In the absence of the clan's lord, she was occupying his seat as was her right as overlord. Juri glared at the door through which her latest retainer had disappeared, then frowned and looked at her guest.
Seated next to the lady prince, Shiori glanced at her longtime friend's proud form. She felt much safer being near her liege lady; the Kiryuu chieftain and his remaining men as well as Lady Utena's two servants had all given her threatening stares during the ride back from the Rose Gate. For four agonizing days, the younger noblewoman had felt like she was the scum of the earth each time someone had looked at her in that manner.
“You may refuse to believe it, yet that is apparently what has happened,” Touga responded from where he was seated on the other side of the room. Strangely enough, ever since he had returned from the Rose Arbor he had discovered the Panther's presence to be painful. The closer in proximity he got, the more his entire body ached and his thinking grew cloudy. He had managed to perch upon a chair near the door, and since he eagerly looked up any time one of the Arisugawa or Tsuchiya entered the chamber, he suspected Juri thought him to be near the door to rush out were there news of the Ebon Phoenix's whereabouts. At least at this distance he felt nothing unusual; were he forced to sit closer, he knew he would be quite ill at ease. “Like it or not, Ohtori is using magic. And I'm certain that it's dark as well.”
“Regardless, I fear I must now consider Lord Ruka a loss,” Juri responded, feeling a stab of deep regret when the brunette noblewoman seated next to her drew in a shuddering gasp and then sobbed. Ignoring Shiori's silent weeping-- which certainly broke her heart, but she refused to let it show--the woman prince continued, “The Phoenix has all he wanted. I see no tactical reason for him to continue to hold my vassal. Were it me, I would execute the man.”
“I fear you're correct, my lady prince,” the Red Tyger said. “All that remains is to avenge Lord Ruka if he no longer lives, as well as wrest Love's Honor and Lady Utena from Ohtori's grasp.” How he hoped and prayed that the pink-haired warrioress was safe. It had taken four days to return to the fortress on the outskirts of the Arisugawa-ruled lands, and still no word on where the Phoenix had gone or what he had done with his latest captive. Still, worrying about it was going to achieve nothing.
“Aye, but first we need to find Ohtori before we can do even that,” Juri said.
Touga nodded, brushing aside a stray lock of his long, scarlet hair from his face. What he would give to be able to locate the Phoenix as easily as Ohtori seemed to be able to locate the Kiryuu clansmen. He started to respond to the other chieftain when something came upon him. His vision darkened, the whole of the physical world fading away down a tunnel. When he could see again, he found himself standing in a place devoid of all landmarks, the surrounding area a featureless gray. He glanced about himself in confusion. “Where am I?”
“You are in a place beyond all places where there is no time,” answered a voice behind him.
The Kiryuu prince turned around and discovered the figure of the regally gowned rose tender standing there. “Why am I here?”
Anthy walked forward, her expression as wooden as he recalled. “Through my mistake, Shadow has its hands on the power of the Champion. I mean to rectify that before all is lost.”
When the violet-haired woman strode past him, Touga followed after her in silence, willingly waiting to see what the dark-skinned Fey would do. Their surroundings shifted around them; two sources of light appeared--one purest white, the other blood-red. Within the center of each was a figure. The brighter radiance surrounded the figure of a princely man of unearthly beauty lying in state upon a white marble bier. Touga immediately noticed the resemblance between the short-haired dead man and the long-haired Ohtori prince, though he was far more puzzled by the sense of recognition and sorrow that filled him at the sight. Glancing away from the fallen Champion--for that man could be no other, he knew--the Red Tyger stared at the horrible sight of the spirit of Love.
She was beautiful, a more perfect image of the rose tender at Touga's side. In fact, the Kiryuu chieftain had the strong impression that Anthy was merely the distorted reflection of Amor. Bathed in crimson light, her nude form surrounded by clawing vines of deceptively gorgeous roses, the one who was the epitome of the Virtues of Love stood helpless in the grasp of the cruel thorns that tore at her dusky-skinned flesh. To see her so reduced made his heart ache. He had to do something to free her from her torment.
As if she had read her companion's mind, Anthy said, “Only when Love's Honor is again wielded by her Champion will she be released. She took the Champion's power from him and used it against him to cut away that which she thought was poisoning him. She didn't understand that what she sensed was an integral part of her love and that he could not survive without that part of him. In trying to save him, she destroyed him instead. Guilt tore her to pieces, the thorns poisoned by hatred--both of herself and her lack of trust in her beloved. But grief overwhelmed her, and her soul has fled, leaving behind an empty shell and what you see here, that part of her that is eternal.”
Mouth slack in awe, Touga remained speechless, his gaze remaining fixed on the sight of Amor. This, then, was what the little girl Utena once was had seen? This was the memory that drove her to risk everything to find the one to wield Love's Honor? He certainly understood now why the lowlander was so driven, but he somehow knew that there was something more to her motivation then just this sight.
Voices interrupted his thoughts, pulling his attention away. He stifled a gasp as he recognized the two mounted on the white charger--Akio sat astride in the saddle, Utena held in his arms and sitting awkwardly sidesaddle--certain that they weren't there before in that position between the fallen Champion and the tormented Love. A look of determination crossed his face as he started to run toward them.
A slender, dusky-skinned arm barred Touga's way. “Patience. They are not aware of us here, for I am keeping us shielded. Listen and you will learn where he intends to go.”
“How do you know what he plans?” the redheaded chieftain softly asked, surprised.
“There is still a connection between him and me. I know what's in his mind,” Anthy replied.
Touga nodded. He was alone and in a realm he little understood, drawn here by something beyond his control. The scarlet-maned chieftain recognized the wisdom in Anthy's words, and he trusted the Fey despite having only truly met her earlier that same week. He would be foolish to start a conflict alone in what could possibly be the Phoenix's home ground. It would be better to wait and take on the Ohtori prince in a realm Touga better knew. Concentrating, he strained his ears to catch the sounds of the distant conversation.
“What must be done, then, to make Love's Honor truly yours?” Utena asked, her attention still on the man holding her in his embrace.
“In the realm of man, there is a certain place where Faerie and the mortal lands meet. Northwest of the Rose Gate, on a hill bare of trees, there stands a circle of stones upon the crown of the rise. Down below at the foot of the same hill is a single stone facing west. To the mundane, this place is known as the Circle of Whispering Knights, and it has within it the magic needed to unlock the Champion's power to me,” Akio replied while he and Utena rode away from the tragic scene of Love and her Champion.
The faintest look of dismay fleetingly crossed Anthy's placid face. What remained of Love within her cringed at the realization of what the shadowed half of her beloved had planned. Turning to the man standing there at her side, the rose tender spoke. “I must return you to your mortal self. Once there, I urge you to hurry to this place the Champion's Shadow has named. There is a prophesy about Love's Honor that must not be fulfilled. If ever the sword, while within a circle of traitors, tastes the blood of one who is without hatred, its power for caring shall wither and a new power of unyielding hatred shall grow in its place. The blade shall become a tool that may only be mastered by the most jaded of hearts.”
Touga stared at her, uncertain what to think. All he could concentrate on were the words he'd heard Lady Utena spoke. No, he refused to believe that the maiden's search for a new Champion was a farce and that he never had a chance to claim the magic sword in defense of clan and home.
Reading the emotions within the mortal whose flesh now housed the Light of the World, the violet-haired Fey hastened to reassure the highland chieftain. “No, Lord Touga, you have not been mislead. You hold the right to bear the power of the Champion. Your lady is in grave danger. The Shadow of the Champion seeks to turn her faith against her. Remember, should Love's Honor taste the blood of one without hatred while in a circle of traitors, it will forever be a tool of hatred, not Love.”
Before the young lord could respond, the world seemed to swirl around him. There was a moment of darkness and then he discovered himself once more sitting in the chair near the door to the Tsuchiya throne room. Pressing a hand to his forehead, Touga willed away the lingering dizziness.
“My lord, have you heard a single word I've said over the course of the last few moments?” Juri asked in frustration. For a good while, the other chieftain had sat there as if stunned, neither moving, speaking nor even blinking. Such behavior wasn't normal and it put the Golden Panther on edge.
“No, I haven't, my lady prince, and I apologize for the lack of consideration,” Touga readily admitted. Fixing the other chieftain with his dark azure gaze, he asked, “Do you know the location of a place called the Circle of the Whispering Knights?” The name was one vaguely familiar to him. However, he had no precise idea where the hill with the standing stones was located, given that these lands were an entire week's journey to the north from his own holdings.
The sunset-maned warrioress frowned slightly at receiving no explanation from her guest. Watching him rise from his chair, her expression shifted to a questioning one. “Aye. Due south from here, rather close by in fact, is the hill upon which rests that circle. What are you doing?”
“I must go there. Lady Utena is in danger and that is where Ohtori's taking her even as we speak,” Touga responded.
The Golden Panther stared at the other highlander. Such an abrupt and firm declaration coming so soon on the heels of the Tyger being unresponsive. What had just happened? “Just how do you know this?” she asked.
“I just know. Excuse me, my lady prince. I must be going now.”
Noting that the other chieftain was determined, Juri stood as well. She was going to make the Phoenix pay for everything he had done so far. “Allow me to accompany you with some of my men. The more facing the Phoenix, the better. And I can guide you to the exact location of the Whispering Knights.”
Pausing at the door, Touga glanced back at the angelic woman. He smiled. “I'll appreciate any assistance you give me, my lady prince.”
Akio rode onward through the dreamlike realm of Faerie. Emerald eyes narrowed in annoyance as the charmed ring upon Lady Shiori's person warned him of the highland chieftains' plans. He would need troops to counter the mortals, ones that could hold up to the frost of Prince Juri's presence. There wouldn't be enough time to reach the circle alone and do what needed to be done without risking the humans interfering. The landscape shifted around them again, resolving into arid plains of parched and cracked earth shrouded in perpetual shadow.
Glancing about herself, Utena shuddered at the forbidding air of their new surroundings. “What is this place?”
“Fear not, dear lady,” Akio murmured. “You are safe as long as you are with me. I've come to gather warriors to protect us against those who would stop me from regaining my power.” Calling for his stallion to halt, the Ebon Phoenix lifted a hand. “Arise, minions of the Shadow. Heed my call and come forth!”
The rose-haired maiden stifled a gasp as the ground around them began to tremble. From the cracks seeped up formless globs of darkness, hanging over the arid land like ever-shifting shade. Clods of parched soil lurched drunkenly as umbral forms erupted from its cold embrace. Aquamarine eyes wide in fright, Utena watched as a pack of enormous, lean-legged hounds of an unearthly black-green hue shook off the dirt and let loose a mournful howl. Larger lumps in the infertile land exploded outward as a handful of tall, flabby, obese ogres with wart-covered black skin and massive tusks protruding from their lower jaws rose from the earth. “I don't understand. Why beings such as these?” Utena questioned, alarmed. Something was dreadfully wrong. The Champion of Love shouldn't have dealings with Fey of this ilk.
“They are fierce warriors. They will see to it that nothing disturbs us,” the Ohtori prince replied. Sensing the girl's resolve to assist him fading, he turned his attention to her. “You have worked for this moment nearly all your life. Will you lose your courage now that it's almost at hand?”
“No, but I don't understand,” Utena replied, shaking her head slightly. This wasn't right. The Champion fought against the denizens of the shadows...
“Those who oppose me will stop at nothing. So I have called forth fighters I know will be able to deal with whatever my enemies try,” the lavender-haired chieftain answered. “I am still too weak to face their full might alone. This is the most desperate hour, and we must do all we can to ensure we succeed.”
Glancing at the gathering dark Fey, the lowlander noblewoman swallowed hard. He had a point, but she could not stop thinking that things were terribly wrong.
“Hold true to your faith in Love and its Virtues,” Akio said, leaning forward so that his lips were a scant distance from his captive's ear. “And hold to your courage. What must be done will test us all, but Love will no longer suffer when it is over. You do want to continue to help free her from her pain, do you not?”
“Of course,” Utena replied, her voice taking on an angry tone. Did he believe her capable of going back on her word?
“Good. Listen close, my dear lady.” While the ogres, vicious hounds and shades circled around them, grunting and snarling in impatience, Akio murmured, “These Fey will merely encircle the hill upon which the stones stand. They will do nothing unless someone attempts to pass them. Once you and I are within the circle, all that remains to be done is to draw some of your blood with the blade of Love's Honor.”
Startled, Utena blinked then pulled back in order to stare at the gorgeous man. “What do you mean?” she demanded.
“The spirit of Love took the Champion's power from him and turned it against him. In order to free the sword from the curse of being its master's destruction, it must taste the blood of one without hatred. You, my dear lady, have striven to uphold the Virtues of Amor; you are one without the taint of hatred. All it would take would be one small cut.”
His words reminded her of the sacrifice of that life-giving fluid she had asked of Lord Touga. He too had been given the demand to let a magic item taste his blood. Was she less courageous then the redheaded prince she had come to know and adore?
No, she was not. She knew this with all her heart. “Very well,” she said, determined to do what it would take to save Amor from her agony.
Akio merely grinned.
Still galloping forward at full speed, Prince Juri and Lord Touga broke from the trees, the thirty-odd Arisugawa and the remaining half-dozen of the Kiryuu warriors riding in their wake. With a shout, the woman prince ordered her clansmen to spread out and search for any sign of Lord Akio; tugging on the reins, Juri scanned over the site with her turquoise gaze.
Shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun, Touga looked up toward the crest of the hill. At the moment, he had stopped near the massive, faintly purple-blue menhir thrusting upward toward the sky from the ground at the western base of the hill. Though near his fellow chieftain, he felt the effects of her presence less being there in the lee of the standing stone.
The other megaliths reached skyward as well, their enormous, roughly rectangular shapes shadows against the cloud-filled azure backdrop. Nothing was up there on the crest of the hill save the monolithic circle. “So this is the place?”
“Aye. There's a legend attached to this circle,” the Panther responded. “The one next to you is Prince Akira, a distant forefather of Lord Ruka. At a time when the Arisugawa and Tsuchiya were locked in a feud, Prince Akira and a group of his most trusted retainers traveled to this hill. Knowing that his horse was thirsty, the Tsuchiya chieftain went in search of water, leaving his retainers behind. What he didn't know was that his retainers had been bribed by the Arisugawa to turn on their lord. They gathered together in a circle on the top of the hill to discuss how to betray the prince.
“But the prince had caught the eye of a Fey, and she fell madly in love with him. Curious about who this mortal could be, she slipped away from her hiding place and became invisible, walking among the handsome man's followers. Discovering that they were plotting to kill him, the Fey became visible and damned them all, turning them to stone where they stood. Prince Akira returned, stopping in fright where that stone next to you now stands. The Fey wanted him so badly that she carried him away to the Shining Realms, leaving that marker behind.”
If the sword ever tastes the blood of one without hatred within a circle of traitors... So that was why Ohtori was coming here. The stone circle on the top of the rise was a circle of traitors. Touga pointed to the ancient monuments. “Up there. Within the group of those who would betray their prince is where he means to make the sword his,” the Kiryuu chieftain said.
“There's no one up there,” Juri remarked.
“Perhaps we've arrived before he has,” Touga suggested.
“It's been almost five days since we last saw him. He had a large lead on us. Maybe he's been and gone?”
“No, I don't think so. I'm certain he retreated to Faerie,” the Red Tyger said in reply. “Time has no meaning there. What could seem to be an hour may turn out to be only an hour, or a day or even a year in the mortal realm.”
“If you think I'm going to camp at this place for a year--” Juri began, only to break off as one of her men rode up to report. She listened for a moment, then sent the Arisugawa warrior on his way to relay an order back to the others. Turning her attention to the redheaded highlander, the woman prince faintly smiled. “No sign of him at the moment. I've given the order to surround the circle. If he needs to do whatever it is he thinks he must do within the stones, he'll have to go through us.”
“A sound plan,” Touga agreed.
The tangerine-haired chieftain gave her peer a curt nod, then tapped her heels to the flanks of her charger. The exquisite animal cantered up the hillside while the clan warriors spread out to encircle the rise at the crest of the grassy slope just outside of the area of the menhirs. Touga followed, signaling to both his men and Tatsuya to take up positions within the Arisugawa formation.
Only moments later an unearthly howl broke the silence, making the highlanders shudder in dread. Scanning over the edge of the forest, Touga felt the rush of adrenaline as massive canines--Fey hounds--broke from the trees, lips bared in snarls and jaws dripping foam. A shout of dismay came from some of the men guarding the megalith-crowned hill. Blinking, Touga watched as a handful of enormous, ugly ogres followed the vicious dogs into the open; a rumbled command and the pack halted at the foot of the hill.
From the forest next rode out the Ebon Phoenix himself, Lady Utena's slender form perched astride the white stallion's back in front of him. Glancing up, he noted the force arrayed in defense against him. So the flow of time in Faerie has given the mortals long enough to regroup and oppose.
Juri glared down at the dark-skinned chieftain. “You've lost, Phoenix! We'll not allow you to reach the stones alive!”
This wasn't how it was meant to be. Her eyes focused on the gallant redhead sitting astride his horse, Utena felt a nameless dread at the thought of the Tyger and the Phoenix warring with one another. Only utter devastation could come of such an event. Though her mind told her that Love's Honor should go to Lord Akio since he was what remained of the sword's owner, her heart insisted on something else. Love's Honor belonged rightfully to the Kiryuu prince.
“If you ever want to see your precious Lord Ruka again, I suggest you stand down and allow me to fulfill the prophesy!” Akio shouted back, taking the measure of the force opposing him. The dark Fey accompanying him should easily handle the humans, and he would enjoy dealing with the weaker half of himself.
“Don't trust him,” Touga responded, his words low and meant for the woman prince nearby.
“I'm not about to,” Juri cooly assured the other noble. Raising her voice, she called down, “You'll have to go through us to reach your goals, Ohtori!”
“If you value the lives of the men who follow you, Chieftain, I suggest you let me pass!” Akio responded. “Otherwise what happens to them will be entirely upon your head! How well will you sleep at night knowing you allowed your clansmen, the ones that look to you for protection, to be torn asunder by the fangs of hounds and to be battered to oblivion by the power of my warriors? Defy me and find out!”
In front of him, Utena stiffened. This was not how the Champion of Love should be, no matter how desperate things had become. Her sea-blue eyes were still focused upon the Kiryuu prince; he would not do this, but would rather negotiate. Force would be a last resort. Lord Akio seemed to be eager for a violent confrontation.
The Arisugawa ruler hesitated, glancing to the men near her. Would she continue this and order her men to their deaths against the huge warriors and their slavering wolfhounds? How many would never return home alive?
Touga noted the woman prince's uncertainty. Though a sign of a good ruler was to weigh the risks of a decision's consequences, hard choices still needed to be made. “How many more will you lose should he gain the power he seeks, my lady prince?” the Red Tyger asked. “The ones here are warriors all, dedicated to the protection of land and family. They know the risks and take pride in their courage. If Ohtori isn't stopped here, you will also lose women, children, the defenseless of your clan.” He knew that the half-dozen of his own warriors would take the risk willingly in the knowledge that they created a chance to keep the other Kiryuu safe from such danger.
The redheaded chieftain was right. Juri pulled her sword, the sound ringing over the area and light glinting from the well-tended blade. “I will not bargain with you! Return Lord Ruka and Lady Utena and lay down Love's Honor, and be gone with you!”
“So be it,” the lavender-haired prince murmured to himself. Grasping his captive tight in the hold of a single arm, he turned his attention to the Fey under his command. Coldly, he ordered, “Destroy them all. Rip them to pieces. But save the Kiryuu prince for me. Now, go!”
Snarls and howls filled the air as the dark-green-furred dogs were turned loose, their gangly legs covering ground far faster then any mortal hound. The amorphous umbras slithered along the ground, racing toward the small force of mortals at the top of the hill. Behind them came the lumbering hulks that were the black-skinned ogres, massive wooden clubs ready to smash to pieces the foolish humans that stood in their way.
More swords were drawn as the Arisugawa and Kiryuu warriors readied for the imminent clash. Though many were terrified of the unearthly force racing their way, they knew they must make a stand here and now. To do otherwise would risk seeing these same creatures menacing wives, children, and all the others they held dear.
Akio spurred his stallion into a full gallop with a shout. With the dark Fey leading the way, he should easily punch through the mortals' line and reach the ring of petrified traitors. Then it would only be a quick matter to corrupt the Champion's sword into a force of hatred; his power would be reachable then.
Utena stifled a scream as the horse under her exploded into action. As they dashed up the rise, the furious sounds of battle washed over them. Horrified, the lowlander watched as one of the ogres swept a highlander from his horse with a powerful blow of a massive club; the doomed man was torn apart by the pack of Fey dogs before he had a moment to scramble to his feet.
This can't be! This was not a defense of the virtues of Amor; this was wholesale slaughter by a force that overpowered its rivals. This was not the Champion of Love. Utena turned her gaze to the man holding her--and she suddenly knew from deep within.
This was Shadow. This was that part cut away from the Light and cast aside in the belief that the Shadow was the source of the illness.
And the Light...
The rose-haired maiden glanced to the side, her eyes instantly meeting those cobalt depths of the man known as Touga, Prince of the Kiryuu. And in that instant, she knew she had to act. Feeling Lord Akio's hold on her merely a steadying one, the slender warrioress twisted around and lurched forward. Strapped to the sheath attached to the Ohtori chieftain's saddle--Lord Akio's usual sword occupying the scabbard at his hip--the glittering hilt of Love's Honor beckoned like a ray of sunlight. Utena had noticed it there on their way through Faerie to this place after they had been joined by the dark Fey forces.
Her hand connected with the ruby-adorned gold. Tugging back, Utena pulled the sword from its sheath; the blade reflected the ambient light as she sat upright. Spotting the scarlet-maned nobleman one more--they were swiftly closing the distance--the young noblewoman shouted, “Touga!”
Akio hissed, thunderstruck, as the maiden within his grasp moved and was abruptly brandishing the Champion's sword. He made a grab for her upraised arm, but was a moment too late. With a desperate toss, Utena flung the magic sword in the Tyger's general direction.
His attention caught by the lady's call, Touga watched in amazement as the glittering blade whirled lazily end over end through the air. Through fate, magic, luck, or all three, Love's Honor buried itself point first into the ground a scant arms length from where he sat astride Blizzard.
How dare she! Akio growled in pure fury. Once again she had made her choice, favoring that weakling of the Light. Was she truly that blind to the fact that he, Shadow, was the only thing strong enough to survive in this world? From time immemorial, she had claimed to love all of him yet rejected the Shadow. Once again he was being cast aside. Well then. He would have his revenge. She was now mortal, after all.
If she could not love him, he would not love her.
A brilliant smile crossed Utena's face as she saw the Champion's weapon stab into the ground as if it were offering itself to its true master. The gold and ruby brooch glowed with the Light from where it sat fastened to Touga's shoulder. In that moment, she knew her tests were correct and that her quest had been successful.
That smile disappeared, becoming one of purest shock. Burning pain filled the pink-haired maiden's awareness, a bloom of agony that swallowed the entire world. “Why?” she managed to choke out, though every breath was renewed torture.
Akio dispassionately pulled the blade of his long dagger out of the slender maiden's back. “You tried to destroy me once. You've betrayed me yet again. Wallow in your hatred and guilt. It's a fitting destiny for you.” His harsh words spoken, he shoved the girl from her perch.
Touga looked on in horror as Utena fell to the ground at Akio's stallion's hooves. She lay there, unmoving, a spreading pool of dark red staining the cloth covering her back.