To see her lying bloody upon the ground broke his heart. If there was any chance she yet lived...
The Ebon Phoenix gave his rival a smirk. I shall see that you are the one consigned to oblivion, Light of the World, Akio vowed. With a shout that rang out over the din of the battle, the Ohtori prince spurred his stallion again into a full gallop. Pulling his sword from the scabbard slung from his belt, he raced toward the scarlet-haired prince, determined to cut the mortal down.
No time for anything but defense. Touga lunged forward and pulled Love's Honor from the ground. The heft and weight of the sword were perfect; the hilt felt in his hand as if it were made solely for him. Blizzard burst into a gallop at his master's signal; the silver blade gleamed with reflected light as the Red Tyger rushed to meet his foe.
What are these things? Juri asked herself while coming to a halt and scanning the battlefield. She had yet to truly connect with a blow against one of the enemy; every time she closed to attack, hound or churl swiftly retreated from her and turned their attention to another. Before her wondering eyes, she saw one of her men scream, then abruptly convulse and collapse. From the akimbo way his body landed, she knew the Arisugawa warrior was dead--yet there had been no obvious attack.
Tatsuya swallowed hard as he watched the flowing pool of shadow leave the body of the man it had engulfed. How could any of them fight against such an incorporeal enemy? Nearby, he heard the snarls of the spectral hounds, the feral growls of the ogres and the cries of the battling men. Though the highlanders were fighting valiantly, they were hardly a match for their Fey antagonists. One of the Kiryuu clansmen next to the lowlander man-at-arms was battered to the ground by a strike from a massive club. Shouting in fury, Tatsuya intercepted the trio of Fey hounds that raced to tear apart the fallen man while the ogre moved on to a more threatening target. Hack and slash, stab and tear, he fought off the canines while the sandy-haired warrior regained his senses.
Cursing under her breath, the Panther chased after another of the giant men. Her followers were being slaughtered around her, yet none of the massive warriors or the mangy wolfhounds would stay near her long enough for her to do more then slash at the air where they had once been. Discovering that her pursuit was again in vain and noting that the youth that traveled with Lady Utena was in trouble, Juri wheeled her mount around and came to the lad's assistance. She skewered one of the lanky canines on her sword just as it made an impressive leap for Tatsuya's throat.
Amazingly, the hound's body vaporized into a plume of black smoke. The Arisugawa prince stared at her blade, stunned. Maybe--just maybe--all the talk of Fey and magic and dark forces were more then mere tales to frighten the foolish and gullible?
Steel rang out against steel as the two male chieftains clashed weapons and wills. A cold grin fastened upon his face, Akio swung again and again at the man holding the Champion's sword. Each slash drove his rival just that much further back; the Light of the World was as weak as the flesh that housed it. This would be easy, just as the Phoenix had known it would be. Only he was strong enough to survive; he had come into being out of necessity and had been cut out, thrown away. He would claim all that he was entitled and he himself would cast aside the Light, forever.
The man's strength was astounding. Each blow fell hard and fast, beyond anything Touga had ever experienced. It was all the Red Tyger could do to parry or block the sword strokes threatening him; each counter sent vibrations down the length of the ruby-adorned weapon that made his arms and shoulders ache. Though years of training and conditioning had given Touga an endurance that easily saw him through most battles, the fight at hand was swiftly taking its toll. If there was power within Love's Honor, he had yet to tap into it. An exquisite blade on its own, it was merely a sword even in his own hand. The perfect balance only helped the Kiryuu prince conserve what endurance he had.
He parried another stunning blow; the scarlet-maned chieftain hissed in pain as the deflected blade of his opponent scored a superficial cut. Once again in the frantic contest, Touga pulled back on Blizzard's reins in an attempt to get some breathing space. Perhaps there was a key to fully awakening the sword that he was still missing. The Tyger glanced fleetingly at the circle of stones crowning the hilltop behind him. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain if he should try.
Chaos reigned around the emerald hill. Ogres battered the mortals while the shades and dogs picked off those separated from defensive groups. Juri rode among them, forcing many of the enemy to retreat from her painfully cold presence and destroying those canines not fast enough to escape her righteous fury. Even the hulking forms of the wart-covered ogres felt the searing chill of her weapon, smoking at the sword's touch. The highlanders had begun to group together to better defend themselves, thus forcing the dark Fey into closing their ranks as well.
Among the whirlwind of frantic action that covered the battlefield, a single form stood placidly on the hillside. Her body clad in the royal gown, the sun-ray tiara crowning her loose locks of flowing violet hair, Anthy stood over the body of the fallen warrioress. With her hands clasped in front of the voluminous skirt, the rose tender looked demurely down at the wounded maiden.
A hand stirred and fingers clenched. A cough made the rose-haired girl's body shudder and more bright blood fell to stain the grass. Arm trembling, Utena fought against the pain and the sensation of drowning, willing herself to remain conscious. Touga... With a lurch, she managed to get her hand under herself though the effort forced up more of the sanguine liquid filling her lungs. The world blackened around her as her body spasmed in the throes of the fit.
It quickly passed. Raising herself up on a quivering arm, Utena lifted her head and searched for the man she had come to love.
Yes, love. It was an emotion from not only the here and now but from ages ago. The hold of her flesh on her spirit was weakening, and with that relaxation of her prison came an awareness of what she once was. She had dwelt within that timeless realm, her beloved roses scenting the air and making a bower of beauty fit for herself and her lover. They had always been together, matched in perfect partnership and bound to one another in the deepest mysteries of the Sacred Marriage. Just as all men were reflections of her Champion, all women were reflections of herself. And her Champion traveled among the world to bring it the Light of Amor.
But hatred had seeped into the world, and the Light was slowly dimmed. She had tried all within her power to cure her beloved of the illness that threatened to swallow up the Light. Nothing worked. At the last, she had taken from her lover--her partner, her equal--the focus of his own power and had turned the blade against him. Her own hand had slashed him apart in an attempt to excise the growing illness.
He had not survived. Though she had acted out of love and desperation, she had destroyed him.
Utena watched through tear-filled eyes as Akio and Touga fought near the ring of monoliths. Her heart and soul in almost as much agony as the body of mortal clay that was her prison, she understood the dusky-skinned prince's words. She had brought this about by cutting apart the Shadow of her Champion from the Light; now the two fought not only for the right to wield the Champion's power but for dominance within his existence.
The Shadow was stronger. She could see how easily he was directing the conflict against his other half, how he played with the mortal the Light of the World had become. “Together, beloved,” the rose-haired maiden whispered before collapsing upon the ground.
Touga pulled hard on the reins; Blizzard whirled to the right and cantered, putting some distance between his master and the Ebon Phoenix. Standing stones were often gateways into Faerie. Even if the Whispering Knights were ancient traitors, the ring itself may be what was needed to bring to life the latent power of Love's Champion. The Kiryuu prince encouraged his mount to accelerate into a full sprint with a shout and a tap of his heels; horse and rider headed straight for the megalithic structure.
While the remaining mortals were still locked in their desperate struggle against the minions of the Shadow, Akio growled and gave chase. All could be lost if his weaker half was able to find a way to make the dead Champion's energy stir to wakefulness.
Too late. The scarlet-haired human entered the embrace of the menhirs and Love's Honor reacted to the presence of the Light of the World.
Calm filled Touga's awareness, brushing aside the hurt and exhaustion. That brilliant whiteness he had touched once before flared through him, consuming him, giving him insight and skill born of the ages. Gone were the lines of weariness and pain; the prince's expression became one of infinite tranquility. As he pointed the weapon skyward, the silvery blade exploded into a fountain of brilliant white light.
The radiance burst through the ring of ancient stones and washed over the battlefield. Everywhere the whiteness touched one of the dark Fey, that creature disappeared in a howl of unearthly agony. Those few who escaped the pure brilliance of the Light fled for the sheltering shade of the forest. To a man, the remaining mortals shielded their eyes from the beautiful but almost unbearable sight. Tatsuya stood in awe as he saw what he swore was a nebulous, ghostly figure overlapping Lord Touga's form. As the Kiryuu chieftain lowered the sword first to the side then lifted it to a defensive position across his chest--the blade cut the air in arcs of light--the young man-at-arms saw the radiant spirit mimic the movements.
Akio narrowed his eyes against the blinding sight. So the Light was fully awakened... No matter. He would still conquer and be all that remained of the fallen Champion. The world has beaten that weakling once before, and I am far stronger than that!
Cobalt blue eyes sprang open, the light of ages shining in their depths. The infinitely patient being that wore the look of the Kiryuu prince waited with Love's Honor held in a ready pose while the Shadow of the Champion raced toward him. The moment Lord Akio crossed the boundary of the megalithic ring, the white illumination strengthened into a blaze that rivaled the sun.
The remaining mortals shouted in awe and terror as the brilliance forced them to look away or be blinded. Even the normally skeptical Panther could not deny that something beyond the ordinary was taking place. When the light suddenly disappeared, it took the span of a few heartbeats for those remaining on the battlefield to realize that it had gone.
So too were the Phoenix and the Tyger; their horses galloped out of the stone circle devoid of their riders. Gone also was the fallen form of the lowlander noblewoman--and the mysterious queen-like figure standing watch over Utena's body.
Juri shook her head, uncertain what to think. The Arisugawa prince quickly dismissed it and turned her attention to picking up the pieces. If this was merely a lull in the battle, she and those still alive and able needed to be prepared for the next onslaught.
Light and Shadow opposed each other as day and night amid a sanguine sea of roses. Flanking them to either side were the bier of the dead Champion from which they had fallen, and the thorn-torn figure of Love herself to the other. Huddled among the flowers at Love's feet lay the bloodstained form of Lady Utena, chest heaving as she fought for breath.
Akio lunged at his nemesis, determined to maintain the momentum he had gained. Touga easily parried the blade seeking his abdomen, knocking it swiftly to his right. The Light brought his blade back to the left in a slash at the Shadow's exposed chest. Akio leapt back a pace. Love's Honor scored the air where the Shadow had been, the weapon making a breeze that stirred the Phoenix's lavender mane.
Unwilling to allow himself to be put on the defensive, Akio pressed forward once more, seeking to bind his blade against the Champion's own steel. Touga met his charge and the air resonated with the collision of metal. Eyes full of seething hate met a gaze of serenity as the men strove each to press the other back. Without warning Akio lifted his forward foot and shoved it into his foe's gut, sending the Kiryuu chieftain reeling.
As Touga fell back he knew Akio would seek to immediately capitalize on his advantage. When the Shadow rushed forward once more Touga twisted aside, letting Akio's momentum carry him past. The dark Fey prince stumbled as he failed to meet the expected resistance. Quickly regaining his balance, the Phoenix turned to face his opponent.
Again their eyes met, and wills clashed as steel had a moment before. I will kill him, Akio swore, allowing his mounting infuriation with Touga's passive expression to add fuel to the fire that drove him.
But as the heat in the Ohtori prince's eyes rose, the glacial calm of his opponent transformed into the utter immovability of a mountain. More certain than ever before that he would not be defeated, Touga felt no fear. Light would defeat Shadow and Love would be renewed.
Tension mounted between the opposing forces over a stretching eternity before, howling like some primordial beast, Akio surged forward to meet his opposite number. Again and again the Fey's steel and Love's Honor met and recoiled, slashed and stabbed. Every blow was parried; every riposte knocked aside. Back and forth, side to side they moved, day and night dancing amid that flowery sea.
Akio drove a fearsome stab at Touga's eyes in a sudden desperate gamble. The Kiryuu prince retreated. Neither man could overcome the other. Something had to give. Worry began to trickle across the edges of Touga's calm certainty; frustration was writ large across the dusky face of the Shadow. Just as the battle was about to be enjoined once more, the Light of the World heard a single word.
With that voice came a spectral embrace; love, acceptance, passion, a perfect togetherness without end wrapped themselves around him, adding to his strength. Before his wondering gaze, the blade of Love's Honor was enveloped in a glimmering, rose-pink light.
Emerald eyes widened in shock. Akio took a step back as he realized the significance. For the first time since being cast aside, the Shadow feared for his own existence. “No...”
Utena was with him; the Light's beloved--his inspiration -- wielded Love's Honor in equal measure. Together they could undo the tragic mistake that had torn apart that balance between Love and her Champion.
Now it was the Light of the World in control, his powerful strokes and swift lunges forcing Akio back. Struggling to merely defend himself, the Ebon Phoenix kept retreating from the combined force attempting to bend him to its will. Each slash of that glowing pink blade before his eyes made his terror increase; his arms ached from the resounding power behind each blow he parried. Steel rang out loudly as Touga forced his opponent to give way with every sweeping step forward taken. Akio barely countered a forceful lunge; losing his balance, the dark Fey fell to the rose-strewn ground.
The Light of the World pounced upon the fallen Shadow, pinning Akio to the ground. Meeting the Phoenix's terrified gaze with his own peaceful, compassionate one, Touga lifted the glowing sword high above them both. “I claim you as my own once more, my Shadow, my passion, my strength.”
Akio wanted to cry out in denial, to plead for his continued existence as a separate entity, but the mesmerizing gaze of his other half froze him in place. Those deep azure eyes filled with all he was missing, all he ever longed for, were the last thing he ever saw.
Touga reversed his hold on the sword. Love's Honor plunged down, severing the ties between the Champion's Shadow and the shell of flesh and blood. As darkness swirled around him, reintegrating itself to the fragment of the Champion within, the Kiryuu prince closed his eyes and lifted his head. The rose light surrounding the blade faded as Utena's presence around him withdrew. In a matter of moments, he was alone again--but more whole then he had ever felt before.
In the distance, cruel vines and hatred-tipped thorns fell away from the form of the spirit of Love. The sundering had been undone, her mistake rectified. Once more her partner was whole.
Sighing deeply, the Champion of Love opened his eyes, then glanced momentarily at the shell that had once housed his darker aspects. A twinge filled him as that part of him brought to mind Kanae's agony at learning of her husband's fate. The least that could be done would be to return to the Ohtori heiress what remained of the man she had known; there would be closure for her then.
Next his eyes fastened upon the white marble bier there in the middle of the field of roses. Walking the few paces distance, the Champion gazed down at the sight. How odd, to be staring at my own body and to be aware that were I to look in the mirror, I would see a face not my own. No, this visage is mine as well, but...
Clad only in her gorgeous violet hair, Love watched with tears of joy in her eyes as her beloved gazed down on the incorruptible shell to which he would return in the fullness of time. The flesh still held him in its grasp, but what was once a prison could be an opportunity to experience so much. To be one of the dreamers instead of merely the dream...
Leaf-green eyes then stared down at the body lying among the roses. Obligations remained, agreements needed to be fulfilled. The flesh called to her, drawing her back to its embrace. Love closed her eyes, accepting the familiar garb once more. Of all the virtues of Amor, trust was the most important. Lady Utena was trustworthy; she would not let those relying upon her down.
He could not stay. Even in these few short moments after being made spiritually whole, that part of him known as the prince of the Kiryuu was reasserting itself. Honor and duty called; there were people in the mortal realm counting on him. Clad in flesh as he was, he would be better able to bring the Light of the World to all those in need--he was now a part of that realm rather than an outsider seeking to influence it.
And he needed to know if Lady Utena yet lived.
Just as he was about to turn, a familiar presence made itself known. The same endless love surrounded the Champion as a pair of slender arms embraced him from behind. A smile on her face, Utena pressed a cheek against Touga's back.
They stood there for an eternity with no need for words, only touch. They were together--whole--as they were always meant to be. She adored all of him, even the Shadow, and hoped she could be forgiven. He forgave her and returned that love. Around them, a warm breeze blew over the roses and sent a cloud of scarlet petals swirling about. Where that zephyr touched, the fragrant blooms changed to purest white.
“We should return, beloved,” Touga finally said, breaking the silence.
“Aye,” the pink-haired maiden replied. She gave him a momentary hug. “When we return, Love and her Champion will slumber once more.”
“I know,” the Kiryuu chieftain answered while he turned to face her. He smiled down at her, overjoyed to see her there and apparently unharmed. “I look forward to the challenge of discovering this aspect of you, my love. Your quest is over. It's time to let Lady Utena just enjoy life.”
“And I look forward to discovering more about you,” she responded, sea-blue eyes meeting his dark azure. “Though I have been impressed with what I've seen so far,” the slender warrioress admitted.
“I'm honored,” Touga said, taking one of her hands in his and raising it to his lips to kiss the back. Once he released her, he slid Love's Honor into the scabbard at his side. His usual weapon had been dropped to the ground in favor of pulling the Champion's blade from the earth into which it had been stabbed.
When he held out his hands to either side and offered her a warm hug, Utena willingly stepped forward into his embrace.
“Prince Juri! Prince Juri, come quickly!”
Coming awake, the Arisugawa chieftain growled at the annoyance. Against her better judgment, she had ordered the survivors to make camp at the foot of the megalith-adorned hill. Her sunset-hued locks falling loose like a tousled waterfall to her waist, the Panther took a moment to brush aside the strands tickling her face while she pulled herself from the bedroll and stood. “So what is it?” she asked of the man standing there.
“You need to come up to the ring, my prince,” the Arisugawa warrior insisted.
Juri stifled a sigh and pulled her nearby cloak on over her battle-stained clothing. Of those that had rode out from Grove, only a third were not casualties of some sort. Half of the ones lost were dead, the other half suffering wounds that would probably cripple them for the rest of their lives. All were to be commended for facing--and besting--a foe beyond anything she had ever experienced before.
Her clan had the greatest losses, but that had to be expected since the Arisugawa had been the largest of the group in numbers. Of the men from Clan Kiryuu, two were dead and one severely wounded, while the lowlander noblewoman's man was hurt but not seriously.
Night had fallen hours after the argent blaze had engulfed the standing stones and driven off the uncanny foe the highlanders had faced. While waiting to see which of the battling princes would return, Juri had seen to it that the wounded were tended as best could be done out in the field and the dead buried. A glance to the campfire showed her that some of her men were on watch; a look to the sky gave her the impression that the hour was deep in the night. “Well, lead on, then,” she ordered.
The dark-haired warrior turned and strode off. Trailing behind him, the Golden Panther climbed the grassy rise, wondering darkly what it was she was being awakened to see. The moment she stepped between two of the massive, ancient granite stones, a voice greeted her.
“Good morning, my lady prince.”
Juri blinked in surprise. Standing there in the very center of the circle was Lord Touga--looking as proud and handsome as always--his arms around the slender figure of Lady Utena. At their feet lay the obviously dead body of the aggressor, Lord Akio. So the Tyger had conquered after all.
The Arisugawa chieftain coolly smiled. “I would never have forgiven you had you made me camp out here an entire year.”
The day was a glorious one, the springtime sunshine dancing among the boughs of the evergreen forest. The small procession made their way along the dirt trail, the warriors acting as guards chatting amiably amongst themselves. After all, home was only a short distance away.
The center of the group was dominated by an ox-drawn wagon, the pair of massive wooden wheels rolling smoothly over the packed earth. Within the conveyance rode the one seriously injured Kiryuu, his condition remaining stable despite the travel. Arranged about the wagon were the remaining warriors while ahead of the lumbering animal pulling it rode Wakaba and Tatsuya. Once again the pair of lowlanders were holding a rather animated conversation.
Touga glanced over to his side, smiling at the maiden riding next to him. They had spent much of the journey talking about all sorts of things, taking the time to get to know one another better. So far, he was quite impressed though there was one thing that bothered him.
Utena felt her companion's eyes upon her once more. She returned his smile even as she thought back on all that had transpired since they had awakened to find themselves holding one another in the center of the Whispering Knights.
Lord Ruka was dead, and had been since the day he had disappeared in the middle of winter. Touga carried within him memories from the part of the Champion that had been Lord Akio, and he had been able to relate to Prince Juri her vassal's fate. In scouting the lands around the Rose Gate, the Phoenix had come upon a stranger. The azure-haired man had challenged Akio's right to be there; in the ensuing battle, the Tsuchiya prince had been killed. Later recognizing who the man had been, the Phoenix had decided to use the situation to his advantage. Learning of Lady Shiori's almost obsessive devotion, he had talked the noblewoman into being his spy within the Tenjou entourage, pointing her to where she could meet up with the holder of the Champion's brooch. As had been discussed with Prince Juri, Shiori had disguised herself as a servant and had shown up at the Tenjou estate, begging to be given shelter.
Touga had lead Prince Juri to the shallow grave out in the woods where the Ohtori prince had buried his victim. At the very least, Ruka was able to be interred with his ancestors and the Tsuchiya would go on to declare another prince.
The news had broken Lady Shiori's heart. Though Touga was able to remove the ring from the brunette lady's finger and thus free Shiori from any lingering obligation to the Fey prince, nothing anyone could do had been able to lift the young noble's spirits. When they had left Grove, Lady Shiori was still shut away in her room wallowing in grief.
Prince Juri had seen to it that Touga and Utena were well-provisioned for the journey ahead, though she was obviously affected by her childhood friend's grief. Pledging to them the Arisugawa's thanks and friendship, the Panther had stood on the battlements of the fortress and seen them off. The sunset-haired chieftain had also seen to it that the mortal remains of Lord Akio were taken back to the custody of his wife, Lady Kanae. Both Utena and Touga knew, deep within, that the Ohtori heiress deserved that much.
Hopefully, the Phoenix's death would avert the upcoming conflict and the summer would be a peaceful one. The planting would be well underway by now, and it looked to be a good growing season so far. His mind on that, the Red Tyger asked, “My lady, how long has it been since you've been on your lands?”
Utena blinked, startled by the question. “I've been away for a year and a half.”
“Now that all's said and done, it's probably time for you to oversee them for a while.”
“But you asked me to stay on as your guest...”
The Kiryuu chieftain nodded. “Aye, I did, but I've been thinking. War's been averted, and you have no way of knowing how well your stewards are managing your lands. As the lady of the holdings, you have an obligation.”
“As do you,” Utena pointed out.
“True, but I have a sister to whom I can hand the chieftainship. Do you have any family that can oversee your people?”
“No, but... Hand the chieftainship? Why would you?” the slender lowlander asked in astonishment.
Touga gestured to the surrounding world. “I am the Champion of Love, the Light of the World. I have obligations that go beyond one clan, but I must see to the others or be untrustworthy. By divesting myself of the chieftainship, I can fulfill them all.”
The rose-haired maiden frowned in thought. He had a point. She too had promises to keep now that the one made so long ago had been discharged.
Noting her expression, the scarlet-maned highlander smiled.
“Fear not. One of the first things I shall do is help you see to it that your lands are well organized. From there, we can take it moment by moment. Besides, if I'm to be your husband in time, your people really need the courtesy of having me introduced.”
“Husband?” Utena asked, staring at him.
Touga laughed. True, they were still coming to learn about one another, but the emotion they felt was one that transcended all of time. Neither one would be truly happy without the other.
But that was a matter for another time, when negotiations could be made and contracts forged. For now, it was a time to just be grateful to be alive and in a world of such rich experience.
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