The child without a name grew up to be the hand
To watch you, to shield you or kill on demand
The choice he’d made he could not comprehend
His blood a grim secret they had to command
The curse of his powers tormented his life
Obeying the crown was a sinister price
His soul was tortured by love and by pain
He surely would flee but the oath made him stay
-Hand of Sorrow, Within Temptation
Once upon a time, there was an ancient land, ruled by magical beings known as Kraang. As they faded into another realm over the passage of time and their land was settled by people, relics of the old world from whence they came remained.
Magical stones, engraved with runes, were scattered throughout the land. Just touching one of these objects was enough to curse a person, transforming them into a creature of legend, neither animal nor man, but something in between.
The land was ruled by House Hamato, when King Yoshi was usurped by his most trusted advisor, a man he’d thought of as a brother. This man, Saki of House Oroku had sought out one of the mystical stones and cursed the true king into the form of a rat, driving him from the kingdom and taking his place.
But Yoshi did not abandon his people. He hid himself in the forests on the kingdom’s edge and founded a resistance movement to free his citizens from Saki’s cruel dominion.
In doing so, he found four boys, left to the forest after being cursed, too human to kill but not human enough to keep. He took them in and raised them as his own sons, forming the core of his resistance movement around them. Together they drew many other freedom fighters to their banner to rise up and overthrow the usurper.
It looked to all that the true king would finally be restored to his throne. Until one tragic day…
Karai circled him warily, her short sword well-suited to her preference towards agility over power. She relied on her speed and ability to outthink her opponent. But against him that was not so easily done.
He had speed to match his strength and was one of the most brilliant tacticians she’d ever known. His long sword made him marginally slower than her, but gave him longer reach. Her only chance was to get in close. But he knew that, so any openings she saw were likely to be traps. There would be no true opportunity unless she created it herself.
With a loud battle cry, she darted forward, expecting him to block her blade. Like water, she didn’t meet force with force, but instead continued to flow ahead, allowing him to turn her sword aside with his.
Although her weapon was now behind her, tip facing in the wrong direction, she was inside his reach and thrust her sword at his throat, hoping to land a pommel strike. He brought his free hand up, deflecting her blow with his gauntlet, arching out of the way with more flexibility than one would think possible, given his shell.
With her arms following her sword upward, she was left open and he shoulder-checked her backwards, sending her staggering. By the time she regained her footing, the tip of his sword was pointed at her heart.
Leo had won again. She let out a sigh of frustration, exacerbated when he held his weapon, point to the ground, and knelt on one knee before her.
“Well fought milady.”
Instantly furious, she wanted to demand that he rise, but their spar was being observed by His Majesty, her father, and so all the formalities must be observed. The wrongness of it, never failed to hit home, when she witnessed such unnatural subservience, just as it always had from the first moment he’d done it.
She shouldn’t be in this part of the castle, but she had to see him. To know. To erase her last memory in his presence and replace it with something better, if only such a thing were possible. She paused in front of his door, worried that she might be intruding on what little solitude he’d been granted.
“Aarrgh!” At the sound of his cry, she shoved the door open in time to see him punch the hard stone wall.
“Leo…” Her voice had been quiet, but he’d still heard and spun to face her. Despite the black bandana covering his face and head, his eyes still shone clear and blue. They couldn’t take that from him.
He clutched his head for a moment. “Milady, I…my thoughts are…I apologize…”
He moved to kneel and she felt sick. This was wrong.
He halted the motion, looking up at her in confusion. “Highness?”
“And stop calling me Milady and Your Highness. I get enough of that as it is. I’d rather just be Karai. At least when it’s just us.”
He frowned, his eyes heavy with sadness. “The formality makes it easier.”
Not really. An illusion. Lady Kitsune needed to channel his affection, his heart, somewhere and her father, demanding respect and unquestioning loyalty was not an appropriate target. In truth he should despise her. This bond he thought he needed to fight was a lie.
Her eyes burned with unshed tears. Humiliating.
“Karai.” His arms encircled her and he rested his head on her shoulder.
Unbidden, her own arms found their way around his shell. The hurt he saw didn’t break his resolve. Not really. It was all an illusion.
“I would not dishonor you.”
After what she’d done, she had no honor to lose. Against her will, the tears spilled free.
Pushed over the edge, he leaned in and pressed his lips against hers, her fingers intertwining with the tassels of his mask as they climbed up behind his head. He tasted of the forest and freedom. It wasn’t hers, but she took it anyway. She wanted, needed this, even if it was wrong.
Willing the memory, years old, away, she removed her steel helm, a matching piece to her black half-plate, spilling her dark hair free. With a slight bow of her head, she acknowledged him, allowing him to rise.
Being naturally armored, he required less gear than her, although their equipment needed to be custom made by master smiths. Well, she probably didn’t, but to have the mobility she required, wearing armor created exactly to fit her was essential.
He would never have fit into armor made for humans, so his was a necessity. The gauntlets, greaves, shoulder guards and chest plate, designed to reinforce his plastron had all been made specifically for him, at great expense. But he was worth it.
He sheathed his sword into the scabbard on his back, the motion flexing the band holding his throwing daggers to his bicep. Then he turned and bowed low before her father, King Saki of the House Oroku.
Her father released him with a careless wave of his hand and a familiar sadness pooled in her stomach as she watched him go. Although he was her military peer, both of them being the king’s most trusted generals, as heir apparent, he was socially beneath her and so she had to endure all these signs of subjugation. At least in public.
Given her father’s proclivity for solving disputes via conquest over diplomacy, she didn’t need to worry about being treated as currency in marital alliances, trained instead as a weapon of war. But in truth, she still wasn’t free. Neither of them were.
Her nightdress fluttered around her in her cold, empty room as she moved about lighting the candles. Her servants were long familiar with her refusal to have them in her room after dark.
The flickering candle flames were the only indication of his arrival and she turned to see him slipping in through the window, as silent and agile as he’d been in his life before. He came to her, sweeping her up in an embrace, a lie she welcomed every night.
And as always, amidst the many scars that littered his body, she found the one that mattered, a simple slash across his left bicep. Tracing her finger along it, she remembered how she’d put it there.
She walked alongside the rolling cage on their way to the courtyard. To add insult to injury, the guards around them, carried his weapons, a war hammer and a pair of morning star maces. Despite being disarmed, caged and on his way to hang in the castle courtyard, he was surprisingly defiant. It could be courage. Or stupidity. He was only a common thug after all. A common thug who habitually brought low droves of their trained soldiers.
As though he could sense her thoughts, her prisoner grinned smugly at her, his dark, shaggy hair, almost hiding his eyes.
“Made peace with your end, outlaw?”
He snorted. “As if this lot would be enough to end Casey Jones.”
As if peasants deserved to have surnames, she retorted silently, refusing to be baited into an argument with one so beneath her. It didn’t really matter if he hung or not. He was bait.
She scanned the gathered crowd as Casey was dragged out of the cage by the guards who didn’t dare risk undoing his wrist and ankle fetters before hauling him up to the scaffold. There were too many covered in heavy cloaks to be sure.
The looming storm, complicated her plans, aiding her enemies by providing them more cover as most spectators came heavily bundled. But her father was eager and not inclined to wait on indulging his new weapon. And so they proceeded. She’d just react to the situation when the action started. And it would. They would never leave a comrade.
The anticipated battle started just as her soldiers were lowering the noose around Casey’s neck. Several figures, positioned all around the courtyard, threw off their cloaks and attacked.
Raphael, in his red bandana, charged head on into the soldiers guarding the platform, using his twin hand axes to tear their swords from their hands before bowling them over. Purple-masked Dontello approached from one side, his glaive keeping the men stationed on that side far out of attack range. From the back, in orange, Michelangelo leapt into the fray, dual wielding spiked flails that scattered her soldiers like leaves on the wind.
Near the portcullis, April, their prophetess as Karai understood it, stood atop a wagon, aiming her recurve bow to sever the rope of Casey’s noose, just as the executioner pulled the lever on the trap door. The loud thump followed by a string of curses told her that April’s aim had been true. Not that it mattered. His death would have just been icing on the cake. The real prize should be somewhere close.
She spun and brought her sword up just in time to catch Leo’s blade as he swung down at her.
“What are you doing Karai?”
She smiled and broke from him, leaping back towards the door she’d come out of. “You say that as if there was any doubt that you’d save him.”
Leo frowned and followed after her, not calling for back up. They frequently sparred alone amidst the larger battles, confident that one would never actually harm the other. Life would be too boring alone. And so they played this game.
“It was too close, princess.”
She scowled. Usually only Raphael called her by her title, in the most derisive tone of voice possible.
“If I wanted him dead, he would be.”
Leo sighed, acknowledging the truth of that. Unlike her father, she wasn’t given to dramatic displays and overly complex plans. She was practical and efficient.
Their swords danced in a familiar display of skill, designed more to impress than win. He seemed only vaguely aware that she was leading him deeper and deeper into the castle. Only Donatello took note of his brother’s distance, but trusted enough in his skill not to abandon the rescue to fly to his aid. All things she had counted on.
“So what is all this for then, Karai?”
She smiled wickedly. “If I didn’t stage these little events, I’d never see you.”
He faltered and blushed as always, still thrown by her banter after all this time. Except now she was using it to her advantage. Rushing in, she waited for him to parry her blade, discretely slipping the dagger from her belt.
Still flustered, he barely brought his sword up in time to redirect the blow. She thrust the dagger towards his chest and, mid-stagger as he backed away, he yanked his long sword back across to knock the weapon aside, as planned.
In perfect position, she sliced the blade across his bicep, counting on him not to skewer her as she did so. He paused, reaching out his free hand to touch the wound in shock. It was shallow, a mere scratch, but they’d never actually harmed each other before.
Glaring at her, his eyes became serious. No more games. No more quarter. In a fighting stance, he prepared to rush her, when his eyes widened and he gasped. “Karai?”
She flinched a bit at the betrayal she saw there as he began to feel it, the numbness from her tainted dagger, spreading across his limbs. His sword clattered from his hand and he sagged against the stone wall, fighting for consciousness.
“Sorry Leo. Father’s orders.”
His eyes rolled back in his head and he dropped like a stone. Looking down at him, she felt a niggle of worry in her belly. Was she really doing the right thing? It didn’t matter. Her father ordered it and so it would be.
With a sigh, she signaled her hidden guards to come bind him and take him away before his family could come looking for him.
He never seemed to notice her attention to that scar, running his fingers through her hair as he pulled her towards the bed. Losing herself in him, she followed willingly. These moments with him were all that kept her sane, even if they were never meant to be hers. She’d take them anyway. Even in this state, he was her only solace.
His whimpers awoke her and she could feel his body, beneath hers, jerking in his sleep. He had the same nightmare every time. And why not? It was her nightmare too after all.
Karai shifted uneasily as Lady Kitsune prepared the ritual. She stood beside her father, watching, unable to pull her eyes off Leo, bound and struggling in the center of the mystic symbol, painted in livestock blood on the stone floor. He’d eventually be able to free himself, but she doubted he’d have the time.
Lady Kitsune was lighting the last candle. Karai didn’t know what the candles were made of, but by the smell, it was something far viler than beeswax.
The sorceress had approached them weeks ago, offering her father the loyalty of his enemy’s most trusted general. Although wary of the witch he couldn’t resist. All they’d needed was the body. It was Lady Kitsune who’d given her the poisoned dagger to use on him.
Her father glanced over at the sorceress. “How can you be so sure the enchantment will hold? This thing’s will is strong.”
Kitsune smiled. “I’ll alter his memories to make him less inclined to fight the influence. He’ll believe that it is you who rescued him and raised him as your ward when others would have killed him on sight.”
Her father’s lip curled in disgust. “You expect me to treat this abomination like a son?”
Kitsune shook her head, her impossibly long black hair, shimmering around her face like a waterfall. “Of course not. You are his liege. The one to whom he owes everything. But he is an emotional creature. I will redirect the affection he holds towards his family to the princess. He’s already fond of her, so establishing the emotional bond should be a simple thing.”
Karai’s heart clenched. Whatever spark of light that tried to ignite at the confirmation of Leo’s partiality towards her snuffed out as she realized what was going to happen to him and what role she would play in it.
Her father raised a questioning brow. “Emotional bond?”
Kitsune nodded. “He’ll believe that he grew up alongside of her and will love her in place of his true family. Having a place for those feelings will make the memories of them mercilessly hunting him easier for his mind to accept.”
Leo thrashed and tried, futilely, to protest through his gag. Karai wished she could do something to stop this from happening, but her body remained frozen, as though encased in ice. She slowly went numb from the inside out.
Then Kitsune began the ritual and Leo’s screams had haunted her ever since.
She closed her eyes against her own nightmare to focus on his as his true self battled his altered one every night in his dreams. Gently, she ran her hands along his chest and shoulders, peppering his neck and face with little kisses. His body stilled as the nightmare faded and he came awake in her arms.
She cupped his face, kissing him more deeply drawing a rumbling churr from his chest. He spared a quick glance at her window, checking that it was still early enough. The sun wouldn’t rise for an hour yet and as long as he was gone before the first touches of dawn lit the sky, they wouldn’t be caught. Then he rolled over atop her and chased their nightmares away.
Karai dressed, her room feeling so empty without his presence in it. While each night was her salvation, the mornings came heavier and heavier until she knew that she could no longer bear it. He deserved better than this.
Clasping her fingers around one of his daggers, a gift given to remember him by when they were apart, far more precious to her than jewelry. He was skilled enough to wield any weapon, but these had been custom-made for his unique hands, to make the most use of his abilities. So, this dagger was uniquely his. After running her fingers across it, she tucked it back into her belt.
Something must be done, although she wasn’t sure what. If her father didn’t fear them finding away to break the enchantment, he would have sent Leo back to his family to infiltrate and destroy them long ago. But he wasn’t willing to risk such a valuable weapon to loss and so he limited himself to baiting Leo’s family with ever increasing cruelty against the citizenry, forcing them to battle their leader. Their brother.
They’d balked at first, barely able to fight him. But over the past three years, their faith in Leo’s ability to overcome what was done to him had waned and the altercations had become increasingly dangerous.
Leo, as ordered, never held back and after a series of significant injuries his brothers learned that they couldn’t either. As the violence and willingness to fight escalated, she knew that it wouldn’t be long before someone ended up dead. And that was something none of them could come back from. If she was going to do this, she had to do it now. Before she lost her nerve.
Taking a deep breath, she sought out Lady Kitsune’s chambers, the entire north tower at this point, lavishly decorated in all the wealth their kingdom had to offer. Kitsune lived like a queen in reward for her service. Her father’s skepticism had faded over the years and Karai couldn’t help but wonder if the witch was using some of her mind-bending spells to subtly influence him as well.
Kitsune looked up as she entered without knocking, which should technically have been her right, no matter how favored the sorceress was by her father. Annoyance flashed across the woman’s face as she barged in but was quickly covered with a mask of professionalism.
“What can I do for you this fine morning, princess?”
At this range, she could smell a whiff of her father on the witch and shuddered, wondering just how much influence Kitsune now wielded.
“I’m concerned about Leo and the enchantment.”
Kitsune huffed. “It’s been years. I think my spell has proven reliable. He won’t break free.”
Karai frowned. “Sometimes…he seems conflicted. There are moments when he seems to almost break through. What if he ever does? Especially around father. He would kill him in an instant.”
Kitsune laughed. “The spell is tied to me. I assure you that as long as I live, he cannot possibly free himself. And here, in the very heart of your kingdom, I am as safe as can be. You need not worry for your father. I’ll see that he is cared for.”
Karai chose to ignore the snide hint, hidden in Kitsune’s words. She had what she needed.
Kitsune turned away, focusing back on her potions. “If that’s all, then…”
Her words were abruptly cut off as Karai buried Leo’s dagger into Kitsune’s back, piercing her heart. With a bloody gasp, the sorceress dropped.
Karai took a moment to ensure the witch was dead. Then, stepping carefully around the rapidly expanding pool of blood, she exited the room, feeling lighter than she had in years.
Karai followed the sounds of battle to their source, but by the time she arrived, Leo had already taken down all the unsuspecting guards at the gate. Still in battle mode, he spun to face her as she approached.
She was pleased to see that he’d torn off the black mask that suited him so ill. Not that she ever tired of seeing his uncovered face, but knowing that it would soon be clad in blue again, comforted her.
He faltered at the sight of her. “Karai…”
Her heart warmed at the longing in his eyes and voice. No lies. No illusions. He truly was torn between her and returning home, despite all she’d done to him.
But they needed him. And he needed to be free. Chains of honor and obligation bound her here with her father, so that she couldn’t follow. Besides, from here she could work to protect him. To ensure he never fell into another of her father’s snares. That he would not lose his free will ever again. From here she could keep him safe. But for that to work, everyone needed to believe it.
Steeling herself, she raised her sword. “If you’ve broken the spells hold, then we are enemies again.”
His eyes widened as she charged him. Years of battle instinct forced him into a reflexive dodge, catching her wrist and throwing her as her emotion-blinded strike lacked its usual finesse.
She landed hard, the breath forced from her lungs. Momentarily immobilized, he could have finished her then. Instead, he gave her a single heartbreaking look before fleeing the castle.
She closed her eyes and relaxed, knowing that this was the best she could do for him. Unseen to all, she would protect for as long as she lived.
Please forgive me for the sorrow, for leaving you in fear
For the dreams we had to silence, that’s all they’ll ever be
Still I’ll be the hand that serves you
Though you’ll not see that it is me
-Hand of Sorrow, Within Temptation