**You’re fending her off better than anyone else she’s ever assumed,** a vaguely familiar female voice said, purely impressed.
^Ayame..^ Sage snarled, unsure of where the strength to speak had come from or whether it had even originated from his physical self. He forced his eyes open to the slightest slits, glaring as best he could in the darkness to find his hated companion. He gave up with a pained sigh, letting his eyes sink shut.
**Calm down. She didn’t do this, and neither did I. I’m her..... sister. Mother calls me Venefica. Call me V, since you’re our brother now.**
^Brother? What is she going to make me do?^
**I don’t know, but it’s not gonna be pleasant. Look what she’s made ‘Yame and me do. We don’t like this. She feels the human angle, and I have to watch Mother consume those poor souls. But I don’t know if I can..... disobey her. She’s as old as time.**
^But will she make me hurt someone I love?^
**Unless you can save your free will, yes. Look what I’ve been forced to do. You’ve seen the effects.**
^You’re Ayame’s twin, then?^
**No. I AM Ayame. She died last night.**
Ryo wandered along the edge of the lake, trying to find the sun behind its shield of smoky clouds. Weather like this made him feel as languid and sluggish as the day itself, and the circumstances of his life right now only compounded his dsthymic attitude. His bare feet sank into the moist sand, leaving a trail of footsteps marred by White Blaze’s as he obediently followed. All he wanted was solitude and distance from the house, from its problems; in his absence, they were Rowen’s problems, and he had to put up with them for now. Cye hadn’t left his room in four days, and any attempt to talk to him through the door met with silence; after the second day, Ryo couldn’t help but wonder if he was even in there. It didn’t help that Kento persisted in his attempts to talk to his former friend, so some of that silence could be a defense against this annoyance. Inevitably, Kento would slink down the stairs and complain to Ryo about his frustrations, but Rowen could experience that unique nuisance for the time being. His gaze stared vacantly towards the dock, falling on the solitary figure standing unmoving on the absolute edge. Maybe Cye had decided to come out of hiding. Ryo picked up his sluggish pace, eager to make amends with his angered friend; once he got close enough to recognize the figure, however, he stopped dead with a gaping look of undiluted shock on his face.
“..Mia?” Ryo whispered. He began running as best he could in the damp, yielding sand to reach the dock; he rose his voice to a shout. “Mia! Mia, it’s me!” Mia hardly moved from her stance, even as Ryo climbed up on the wooden planks and rested a hand on her shoulder, grinning in relief. “Mia, you don’t know how glad I a--”
“I’m not Mia,” she flatly responded, keeping her eyes out over the lake. “Sorry to disappoint.” She spun around sharply, staring him down. “And don’t you start yelling at me like you did the other night. I’m not in the mood for it now.” After enforcing her edict with a cruel glare, she turned back to the still lake. “Besides, I spared your lives. You should be grateful.”
“You want gratitude?” Ryo asked angrily, doing his best to restrain his temper.
“Your friends are alive, aren’t they? There’s no more man-eating chickens or lovesick teenyboppers, are there? ‘Cuz if you start raising your voice again, I will easily pick the more annoying of the two scenarios and make it a permanent fixture in your life.” Ryo clammed up, knowing anything he said would be angry and, in all likelihood, loud. “So behave yourself, or your comic relief will live in constant, crippling terror of the giant purple chickens.” She waited for a reply, receiving only silence. “I want you to know, I’m dead now.”
“Me. I died right after you berated me last week.” Before he could answer, she turned around again and cut him off. “YES, I’m ‘Ayame’. But that was my human name, so don’t use it. Ever. It’s just V now. Thanks for destroying my only hope for any humanity.”
“If it means you’ll go away and leave us alone, it’s worth it.”
“So you don’t mind that you’ve just destroyed the psyche of a beautiful human being.”
“You actually think you had a REAL human soul?!”
“NO, NOT ME.” She stared at him coldly, waiting for the moment of realization; it never came. “You don’t get it, do you? You’re so goddamn eager to be Mister Noble Leader Boy that you’re completely oblivious to the real problems around you.” She sighed angrily and turned her back to him. “He didn’t deserve the shit you and your disciples gave him.”
“Cye?” Ryo meekly offered.
“Ya think?” she sarcastically replied. “He’s alone in the world now ‘cuz of you. He still has some bad blood with his sister and all, you guys have completely convinced him you all HATE him, and I can’t approach him without putting him at risk ‘cuz you guys didn’t like having me in this world. Congratulations. You’ve ruined a single life faster and better than I could ruin HUNDREDS in my three thousand years.”
“W-we did--....... ah, I didn’t mean to......”
“Oh, and thanks for the pronounced disgust over our evening together. Thanks for prying that out of him. And NO, it wasn’t to bind him to me. It was to bind ME to HIM. He was my humanity.” Her harsh tone began to soften. “I don’t think you can even fathom what it’s like to be in love like we were. It.... it makes you feel ALIVE. It was the first time in all my existence I was alive, and it was because of Cye. When you drove me away from him, what was the point? I lost my link to humanity. He knocked the demon out of me, and yeah, I lived a dual life, but it was worth it to have such a caring, sweet person in one of ‘em........ You wouldn’t understand.”
“I still think you had no right sleeping with him. We don’t know where you’ve been, and after that RAMBLING,...... you gotta be nuts.”
“Well,” she started with an air of false cheeriness, “after that little comment, you’re never seeing this girl again.”
“What?! You can’t take Mia!”
“Why not? She’s a sweet, gentle, patient, smart, underappreciated person, and I could let her start over in a nice new life where a pod of leeches like you louses won’t take advantage of her kindness. I’ve done it before.”
“You can’t take her... you can’t!” Ryo grabbed her arm and whirled her around, receiving a low, feral growl for his efforts. “Look, all those things you said about Mia, that’s why I...... why.......... why I love her.”
“Could’ve fooled me. All I ever saw were token signs of affection to save your ass. ‘You’re mad, so I’ll give you a hug and avoid your anger,’ or ‘You seem grumpy, so I’ll give you a kiss on the cheek to get you cheery enough to be bearable.’ She loves you, but...... WHY? You’re a selfish little prick. You’d need to prove your love to me before you hear from her again.” Ryo winced his eyes shut and bit down hard on the rage her cold words stirred in him; a pair of stray tears caressed his face. “Nice show. How hard was it to muster those?”
“SHUT UP!” Ryo snapped, tears inundating his face. “I... I’m sorry I hurt you, okay?! I didn’t want to hurt anyone like this! I just want Mia back!” He caught his breath and stared into her eyes, their anger burning out. “Please, just let me talk to her one more time....”
“I can’t. I need to use her body just a little longer, if you want your friend back. I don’t want him to end up as my brother.... he doesn’t deserve that.”
“You mean Sage, right?”
“No, I mean Chicken Boy. Who do you think?! Mother picked him to replace the others, and I can’t let that happen. He’s in such pain, and he can only keep up his fight so long before he loses. And you’ll be the first fodder he goes after. He won’t have any choice but to hurt his loved ones, and he knows that--it’s killing him. If I’m gonna get him back to humanity even a little, I need a body, and since my old one spent a night on the train tracks and no longer has a left side, I need Mia’s.”
“I’ll help you. But promise me, please, that you’ll let me have Mia back.”
She stared into him. A mutual sense of loss surrounded the two, and her grief was augmented by his. As much as she had come to hate him and his ilk, she did share a bond with them. Maybe it was through Cye, since he was bound to them; maybe her attempts to win them over as friends had paid off in a tiny way; maybe it was Mia’s bond she was using. Whatever it was, she couldn’t deny their ties. And she couldn’t turn away his help, even if it was just him and just to retrieve Mia. She smiled slightly. “Okay.”
Sage could feel the darkness penetrating his deepest self, surpassing his body’s pain and reaching a new apex of agony. He knew he had to fight his rebirth, retain his will and his soul, but the strength to fight hardly equaled the determination; even if he couldn’t see his body, he could feel how emaciated and atrophied his flesh was, clinging to his brittle bones. It could claim victory over his body, he knew that. He was willing to give the darkness that hollow victory, but he’d never give up his soul, no matter how much it was violated and tainted. Even if it meant an eternity of unrest, his soul--his essence, his purest self--would remain free. Despite his conviction, Sage knew he couldn’t last; he hadn’t counted on the pain. He was being torn apart from the inside out, and that was just a method of breaking his will; once he was broken, it would only get worse. Still, he would succumb to this ungodly fate fighting--he could do no less.
“Sage!” a very human, very familiar voice called out loudly. “Sage, it’s V! Gimme your hand! I’ll get you free!”
Sage strained his memory; that was not V’s voice. ^Mia..... You can’t......^
“I’m not just here as Mia!” V shouted again. “I’m here to help you, as your sister and friend! Please, just give me your hand!”
^... I can’t...... She’s killing me...... I can’t move...^ A gentle caress of vital warmth broke through the cocoon of darkness, touching his moribund body. It carefully gripped his hand, folding his numb fingers in its soothing embrace. He felt renewed and began tearing himself free from the dark womb; sensation came back into his frail form, the first indication coming with the comforting acknowledgment of his heartbeat. The pain in every aspect of his being began to fade, and a serene smile formed on his face as the first slivers of dimming daylight met his flooded eyes. He had beaten the darkness; he was free.
*Ungrateful little BASTARD!!!* the shadows around him hissed. A new wave of agony swallowed him, tearing through him with more focus and efficiency than any before it. Sage screamed, unable to tolerate the sheer magnitude of this new assault. The daylight dissipated as the darkness engulfed him anew; the soothing rhythm of his heart vanished in the crushing pain. *Never will my own child defy me! Stop this fight.........* He felt the warmth of his rescuer slipping away, and the darkness cradled him anew. Why bother fighting? If his fate was to destroy everything he had once loved, he may as well embrace it and end his distress.
She stepped back; he may have been withdrawing back into the darkness, but she still had his hand--she could salvage his body, at least. He was useless to her without his body. She pulled hard, able to feel his delicate frame straining in the struggle. The darkness expanded, warping out of its limbo to form a glaring black vertical shaft; the dried weeds in the dead valley around it were smoking, and it was only a matter of time before this figure was immolated. She had to get him free, had to prove to Mother that she couldn’t control her anymore. A surge of strength overtook this rather feeble vessel, and the unconscious young man fell out in front of her. He was nude, his flesh blanched out to an ivory pallor; his silver eyes stared open without light, taking on the pearly blankness of a lifeless toy’s gaze. He was alive, but was he truly able to live anymore? Before she could find out, the darkness erupted, swallowing the field and staring down at her with an inhuman stare devoid of an ocular source.
*You’ve killed our line, witch-child,* the darkness hissed. *I won’t let this one escape me at your tainted hands....*
“I’m not scared of you, Mother!” she said as she cradled Sage’s chill body, mustering the most nerve this vessel’s gentle voice could produce. “I’m sick of being your pawn and being blamed for YOUR cruelty!”
*..... We all make mistakes, witch-child...... I’m fixing one of mine........*
An unearthly gold light started to glow in the ripples of darkness, its brightest light glaring down on her. She froze; this body was neither fast enough nor hearty enough to survive this. She turned away and winced, protecting Sage as best she could with her embrace and waiting for the most painful agony in possibility to tear through them. Instead, a vaguely familiar voice shrieked in excruciation as the light supernova’d around his figure. She opened her eyes in time to see Ryo fall to his knees, still alive and awake but in severe agony; perspiration drenched him as he gasped for air, his eyes wide in physical shock. She placed a hand on his shoulder, receiving no reaction. He had taken that harsh an assault unguarded, even though he could’ve protected himself--he had to have that pointy stuff, too. He knew that she might not be able to give him Mia back, and even then, he was willing to protect her vessel, maybe to die for it. If she had truly been Mia, what difference in his actions would he have made? None. He may be short-tempered, a little judgmental, and immature, but Mia’s heart was in the right place with her affections. She deserved him back. She deserved her vessel back.
V resigned herself with an inward sigh as she returned to the darkness, ignoring the pain. It was what she deserved, a demon witch trying to kill such an innocent affection. For all her alterations made in the name of love, she knew she just didn’t understand it; she wasn’t human enough.
Mia opened her eyes, adjusting them to the sunrise’s first lavender rays as they streamed through the windows of the van. A blanket had been tossed over her, and she had been stretched out over the middle seats. She sat up slowly to find Ryo in the front seat, sound asleep; his jacket was wrapped around his backwards, serving as his own blanket as he rested. She smiled. He always looked so childlike when he slept, so peaceful and happy. Rowen was driving, his eyes focused on the empty roads; he was unusually stern, almost putting on a poker face for public show. She looked to the rear seats, where Sage was propped up with a catatonic stare on his pallid face, covered only in the second spare blanket. She reached forward and touched Ryo’s shoulder, waking him up with a weary moan.
“Ryo, are you okay?” Mia whispered, staring into his opening eyes.
Ryo smiled slightly. Mia’s eyes had their light back, that kind-hearted glow that had been missing for so long. Despite her scratches and bruises, she was beautiful again, as any loving human woman was. The demon, for all her torture and bitterness, had kept her word. He reached up, tenderly caressing her face with his fingertips. She took his hand in hers, sharing each other’s warmth. He’d never let anyone take her away from him like that as long as he lived, he silently vowed.
“I-... I’m fine now,” Ryo wearily replied before he summoned all his strength and placed his first, frightened, gentle kiss on her lips.
Rowen strolled through the woods, trying to get his thoughts in order. First, the good things: Sage was alive, Mia was back, and he was in full possession of his facilities. Then, the bad: Sage wasn’t really alive; he just sort of sat there. Sure, he was breathing and could eat simple foods, but he wasn’t alive. He couldn’t talk or feel or move anymore; he was wasting away. Rowen needed to put it out of his head, or he’d be of no help with this suffering. His eyes fell on the leaf-speckled ground, enchanted by a very foreign object with an equally odd color. He knelt down and pinched it up from the dirt; it was a feather of the brightest royal purple with an exceptionally soft texture. He stroked it, enjoying this solitary token from some lost bird of paradise. Such a comforting distraction...
“Rowen!” Kento called as he approached. His head was turned away from Rowen, spun in the proper direction by a stumble over the uneven ground. “Ggaah! W--.... Rowen!” He smiled broadly. “It’s supp--....” Kento noticed Rowen’s gentle hand motions over some tiny object and let his smile drop faintly. “Whatja got?” Rowen calmly pulled his hands away from the feather, and Kento’s eyes went wide. “oh... my....... GOD............” he muttered. He forced a quick, nervous smile as he began a retreat. “I’m... gonna go.... backtothehouse--bye.” Kento sprinted off in the general direction of the mansion, leaving Rowen to shrug in benign bewilderment and resume petting his new prize.
The dim light in the room matched the grotesque scene within. Sage reclined in bed, still trapped in his catatonic state; he had been carefully dressed in his favorite silk pajamas and had his hair combed, but he hardly looked alive. Ryo sat next to him, sleeping in a chair with a quilt draped over his resting body. Cye quietly shut the door, careful not to disturb the unexpected attendant as he knelt by Sage’s bedside. He cradled his stiff hand in his own trembling ones and carefully pried the fingers back enough to rest his armor crystal safely in his palm.
“I know you can hear me,” Cye whispered as he lowered Sage’s hand back on the bed. “You’re the last one I can trust, and I am truly sorry for disturbing you. I’m going away to start over. Maybe if I leave now I can make something of my life, and you guys won’t have to worry about me anymore. I won’t be able to help you if trouble should arise again, so here--” He patted the cold hand with a sad smile. “--find someone suitable for this responsibility. I’ll miss all of you, even if you won’t miss me any. Good-bye.”
Cye carefully stood up and slipped out of the room. He shouldered his worn black duffel bag, its heavy weight dragging him down further under his burden of living. He crept out of the back door and started down the driveway, his steps over gravel disturbing the stillness of the night. For a moment, he froze and looked back at the resting manor; not a light had come on, and not a single shadow stirred by the windows. The growing tides in his gaze receded, replaced with a cold determination. His choice was right; he would not be missed in this life. Cye turned away with a resigned sigh and continued down the drive. It was time to begin anew, now, with no disturbances. Just solitude, lonely solitude.
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