"This is too dangerous, Kiku. Let's turn back now, the ice is too unstable."
"And then what?" the young man managed between clenched teeth, his blue-tinged lips hardly quivering, slurring his words, "Watch us starve as we sit here waiting? Watch as we kill ourselves from hunger and fear? Watch as we die less than animals, losing our humanity?"
"Kiku . . . they-."
The phantom voice caught off suddenly as the young man stiffened, dark eyes narrowed against the blasting gale as he tried to see through the bombardment of frozen needles. At the farthest edge of his vision, dark shapes slowly took form, moving towards him. The air around kiku suddenly stilled, stiff with anticipation, the shards of ice and snow shattered against the wall. "They've returned."
Out of the haze, that woman appeared, garbed in a dress of a winter's night, the blue eye she still possessed was frozen as the ground she walked on; the cold seemed to have no affect on her as she held her head high, walking barefoot on the ice bridge. As their gaze met, her delicate features grew dark and ugly with rage. Just the sight of her disturbed him, Kiku's wall wavered as the waters below the ice heaved suddenly.
"Is this the one you spoke of?" The winds suddenly stopped, shards of frozen water hung suspended in the air around the three of them. Nothing but a freezing cold settling deeper. And suddenly, they dropped. A small army stood at ready behind the three figures he had seen before, garbed in elaborate robes, all having peculiar markings upon their hands, some on their faces, those hiding their eyes and bent low, lips moving and making an indecipherable hum in the air, replacing the howl of the winds. Then there was the icy woman with her ugly scowl and the crimson man with the scent of iron blood. Between them stood a giant, the figure that had spoken, halting the winds with his voice alone. His face hidden behind a mask, the only clear feature were the eyes of pale blue that glowed as two flames in a distance.
“Yes General, the curse should have disposed of him now," the woman snarled, digging in her foot as she glared, hatred consuming her soul as it burned around her.
Instead, the giant stepped in front of her, "Proceed with the others, Natalya. I shall deal with this shrine boy and his gods." The last word was almost spat out as purple flames appeared around the creature, dancing with an ominous power. "Continue onward."
The woman hesitated a moment. "You heard the General. Onward, for the Empire!"
"Kiku! They're going for the village!"
"There's nothing we can do about that Yao.” The young man stood motionless, making no move as they rushed past him. Perhaps he could have taken a few, dwindled some of their numbers before they reached land, but instead he reserved it, focusing on the soul before him. Never had he seen something so disgustingly distorted. It looked like a face that had been half-eaten with decay, staring at him through an empty socket with two glowing eyes, its jaws spread wide open as though to swallow him whole. Brown eyes narrowed dangerously, “You don’t belong in this world.”
“Interesting,” the creature spoke with a voice smooth as silk, “but a shameful waste that Gaia bestowed such sight to you.” He suddenly threw out his hand, the fire racing down his arm in the young man’s direction.
Kiku spun the naginata deflecting the attack. “Ah, damn! That hurt.”
The golden blade gleamed, the reflection of a young man visible in the light as though peering through a dark window, his face contorted in a grimace, “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me, just - Look out!” The Japanese man looked up just in time as a hailstorm of needles flew towards him. With too little time to move out of the way, he braced himself from within, reluctant to use his weapon to block. The attack scarred as though hitting a wall inches from his nose, pushing him backwards on the ice in the process.
"I said don't worry about me! Do what you have to do!"
In the darkness, Yao could only feel what was happening around him, as though he had gone blind. Kiku was unsure, his grip too tight as though unwilling to let go, and the energy humming around him was uneven. He felt the other wavering, agitating him. "Just do it."
"If you got hurt . . . Xiao Mei-"
"Wouldn't care. Not anymore." The words felt stale on his tongue as the temperature plummeted, the two of them in such perfect synchronisation, it was ironic. "But we should not die without giving her a chance for happiness."
The cloud of breath slipped past his narrow lips before being snatched away, carried back to the village somewhere behind him, his eyes focused solely on the man in front of him, the rest of the world devoured by the storm. Shoulders dropping, grip relaxed, Kiku lunged forward, twirling the naginata in one hand as he propelled himself forward above the ice. "Dragon's Heart; soul resonance." The blade began to glow, flames licking at the edges, growing brighter and hotter as it spun. Pushing weight to the balls of his feet, the Japanese man jumped, twirling the staff about his body with practiced precision, aiming to strike the creature's heart.
"Most impressive," the giant mused aloud. Kiku lurched as the blade pierced the broadside of a sword made of ice, "What sort of creature has she created to try and stop me this time?"
Pulling out, he jumped back, just missing the second stroke of another sword aiming for his neck, flipping backwards to stay just out of reach. He hadn't really stabilized before twirling Yao; to the side, overhead, across his torso, twirling as he danced around the giant, seeking an opening. Moving in close, he struck out at a rib, only to be blocked by the small rapier before having to spin away, the broadsword swinging in a heavy downward arc. Short strands of black hair were caught by the wind as he just managed another escape, twisting the naginata behind him as he twirled to sneak another strike. The giant thrust out his hand, a chilling gust of wind pushing him back as he crossed his forearms to brace.
"This isn't working, Kiku. We can't keep this up."
Each breath dried his throat, seemingly to take more than it gave as he felt the sweat freezing to his temples, lips turning blue as the winds began to pick up once more. With a frustrated cry, he lunged again for another attack, his technique sloppy as he lost feeling in his fingers and toes, throwing off his balance and speed. The giant sidestepped the swing before lunging forward, stabbing through Kiku's shoulder. His body stiffened involuntarily, all the heat being sucked out of him and drawn to the frozen blade. He could barely force his fingers loose from around the staff of his blade, let alone choke down air into his lungs between clenched teeth.
"Damn it! Kiku!"
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Kiku stood at the edge of a vast river, or perhaps it was an ocean, if he strained he thought he could see the other shore, or perhaps that was the horizon, or even oblivion. Everything was bathed in a translucent blue, it took him a moment to realize it was coming from the water as it flowed by at an amazing speed. At first it seemed to be made up of bubbles, extending as far down and wide across as he could see. Then they slowly began to shift, faces, then features. "This is what you're life means, to the living and the dead. You are the only one who can keep these souls safe."
Mesmerized by the sight, faces he had never known peaceful in sleep as they seemed to cradle each other, Kiku didn't look for the source of the woman's voice. As it was, the very ground under his feet seemed to vibrate with her words; he doubted she was even truly there. "Who are you?"
"I am the water you gaze into, the ground beneath your feet, the breath you draw. I am the Mother. I chose you to save me."
"Save you how? Why me?"
A gentle, motherly sigh engulfed him, warming his frozen soul and relaxing the stiffness in his joints. "You know the answers. Kiku. . . Kiku. . . Kiku. . ." Something caught his eye as his gaze shot upward, above him an endless black, not a shred of light to be seen. The abyss was calling to him.
“It isn’t your time yet.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
A searing pain in his shoulder shocked him awake as brown eyes flew open from the pain. Air suddenly rushed into his lungs as Kiku skid across the ice, shivering, due to the cold as it shocked him from the dream. "Kiku!? Are you alright!?"
Bleary eyes met Yao's face as he stared down with concern, the other’s arms wrapped protectively around him. "I am. What just happened?"
"Not quite sure myself," the older man muttered, his red and gold hanfu billowing in the gale as his focus returned to the giant who seemed lost in his own stupor before regaining focus on the two young men.
His heavy shoes came down upon the ice, spider-like cracks racing towards them. "So it is true, the hag sent you. Unfortunately, you'll be dead before you have the chance to fulfil her dying wish."
Light erupted from the cracks, so cold it burned as Yao snatched up a still-stunned Kiku, lunging out of the way of the attack, just barely. "What more can we do? He's too powerful for our abilities."
". . . Such an evil soul," Kiku mumbled to himself, "it belongs in the abyss."
"Yao," the smaller man suddenly spoke up, an unusual calmness to his eyes, "I need your trust." The Japanese man held up his hand, still trembling despite the steadiness of his gaze.
Something was off, and it bothered Yao as he stared intently at the blue-tinged fingers. Swallowing his uncertainty, he took Kiku’s hand, energy rushing through him as a wave of energy passed between them, his body becoming unstable, engulfed in an ethereal light. “You should know by now,” the long-haired man smiled tightly, pulling the other to his feet before disappearing, the light showering around them as snowflakes as the naginata with the golden blade appeared in his stead. “That is something you don’t need to ask for.”
“A human weapon,” the giant seemed amused, despite the mask, Kiku knew there was a smile, “She has created something fun for me.”
The uncertainty was gone from the young man’s eyes, replaced with a stoic stare that revealed nothing. He spun the weapon partner at his side like he had done earlier, building momentum, preparing for another attack perhaps? The General lifted the heavy sword, the blade still resting on the ground to support some of the weight as he pulled the narrow rapier back, as an archer preparing to send an arrow. “Despite this amusing turn of events, there is no victory for you, boy.”
“I understand that. It is impossible to defeat an enemy as unusual and strong as you.”
A sharp twinge of suspicion pierced his spine, at the base of his neck, though he showed no outward sign of distress. The General felt his body react, trying to reject him. He couldn’t leave though, unable to exist in this realm without a host. Then anger, paranoia, disgust. Irrational as it was, he felt himself becoming afraid of a mere child, but in the depths of his eyes there was her.
Kiku lunged, sealing off his mind of thoughts and emotions, Yao’s blade slicing through the ice behind him. “Lotus Blossom, soul resonance.” Digging in the teeth of his geta, etching a notch into the ice which he used to stop his momentum dead, mere feet from his opponent. The blade broke through the ice, the blue light glowing through the cracks as they raced towards the giant.