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Chapter 10

A twisted metallic butterfly. . . descending from the sky. . . descending upon them. . .
Its methods were swift and brutal. That, Rowen already knew. Kento, however, was caught completely off guard. He screamed as the demon's razor whip caught the side of his helmet and made a thin slice across his cheek. The surprising impact sent him falling backwards, reeling through the dancing waves of slender grass.
"Kento!" Rowen turned his head to watch Kento, but his instinctual concern for his friend was a mistake. He gasped as he felt his bow and arrow be forced abruptly and aggressively from his hands, landing with a clank and a thud several yards away from him.
His reflexes made him immediately lift his arms to defend against an attack from the demon, but none came. It took him several seconds to realize this and only then did he come out of his flinched, defensive position. . . The demon was gone. . . He couldn't see her, couldn't hear her, couldn't feel her. . . He could hear Kento's heavy panicked breathing coming from behind him. Rowen could only imagine how confused he must be right now.
He saw the golden glint of his bow and arrow laying in the grass and made an almost hesitant lunge to retrieve it.
"I don't think so."
Like the thundering voice of a god, it seemed to seep out of the dense atmosphere around him, entering him like a mild shockwave, making his bones vibrate. As soon as he closed his hand around his bow it seemed to implode in his grasp, crumpling in on itself like it was no more than a piece of paper. All he was left holding was a twisted lump of golden metal.
For several seconds all he could do was stare at it, mouth gaping in disbelief. His cheeks flushed hot red as anger overcame him then. He gritted his teeth and vehemently threw the crumpled piece of metal to the ground. "Show yourself!" he screamed to the ominous gray sky and the tense, frigid air around him. He knew he was behaving like a fool, but what else was there left to do?
He saw Kento getting up behind him, wiping the blood from his cheek. He looked prepared to fight. This was good. As long as Rowen was disarmed, he could provide no offence.
"You still want to play with me?" The mellifluous voice asked from nowhere. "I have weapons that can peel the armor from your bodies. . . and scrape the meat from your bones. . . If I were you, I would run away. Pick a direction. . . run as fast as you can. . . give yourself one last little taste of hope. . ."
He could see her now, above him, again appearing to be nothing but a hologram, descending as light as a feather.
"We are not cowards!" He yelled. "We will never give up. And if we must die, we will die with dignity! And that means you lose!"
As the demon touched the ground her bedazzling form became solid and opaque. "You won't die with dignity," she promised with a smile.
With confidence and deliberance she lifted one of her ineffably bizarre weapons high over her head as if preparing for what would surely be a devastating attack.
And then she exploded.
One split second and it happened. Not one of them had time to react to the suddenness and absolute unexpectedness of it. There was a sudden flash of light, bright and hot, and it burst through her body like rays of sunshine breaking through the cracks in the canopy of a forest. And equally as majestic as any of her displays of power, her tall, statuesque body shattered to a mess on the ground. Apparently, she had been taken by surprise.
The spectacle was as beautiful as it was grotesque. There was no blood. Of course not, thought Rowen. The idea of something as human as blood inside one of these creatures suddenly seemed a contradiction. The demon' s body had seemed to be nothing but a shell, and not made of flesh. . . but something harder. Something that breaks rather than tears. Inside of her body there had been nothing but darkness, and it spilled to the ground like thick, liquid shadows as her body broke. Her darkness covered the ground like an oil spill. Her weapons, and the shattered remains of her body, were scattered in the blackness like remnants of ancient artifacts of alien beauty.
The sight was so chillingly mesmerizing that Kento and Rowen only then noticed who it was that now stood were the demon had only moments before.
"Sage!" Rowen's heart filled with a forgotten hope and jubilation at the sight of his friend.
Sage's armored body was heaving with exhaustion and anger. Rowen could almost feel an animalistic rage radiating from him. From head to toe, he was splattered with the black goo, but he seemed to neither notice nor care.
"Sage. . ." Rowen approached him tentatively.
Sage cast his sultry eyes up at Rowen, emotionlessly it seemed. And then he was looking over his shoulder at something behind him, eyes suddenly wide with astonishment. He was looking at Kento.
"Oh boy, Sage, are we glad to see you!" Kento remarked, grinning like a fool as he came to stand by Rowen's side.
Sage was shaking his head slowly, still looking slightly bewildered, a grin slowly working into his features. He found himself laughing. "Kento?!" He asked, as if to be absolutely certain that the man in orange armor in front of him was actually real.
"Did you miss me?" Kento asked, still grinning, and a little confused.
A few pieces of the puzzle clicked together in Sage's mind when he saw Kento, alive and well. He suddenly understood now. Or at least was beginning to. He lowered his sword and made a small leap over the decimated corpse of the demon, fearful of stepping into such absolute darkness. "I think I just brought you back from the dead, my friend." Sage said, his angelic countenance beaming with the knowledge of something at which Rowen and Kento could only wonder.
"What?" They said, almost in unison.
"I have a lot to tell you," Sage said, suddenly turning serious. "And I am assuming, and hoping, that you have a lot to tell me."
"Maybe. . ." Rowen said dubiously. From the look in Sage's eyes, he had the feeling that his unexplainable ventures would only lend themselves to the importance of what Sage had to say.
"But right now we have to try to get to the Dynasty," said Sage. There was a sober urgency in his voice that put Rowen on edge. ". . .And I think you know that too. You feel it, don't you?"
Rowen knew exactly what Sage was talking about. There was an odd pull that seemed to be emanating from the distant Dynasty cityscape. It felt like a center to the chaos. The eye of the hurricane. If there was going to be an end to the game, it would be there. "Feel it? You mean the energy coming from the Dynasty? Yeah, I feel it. Makes me feel like I need to be there. . . but I don't know if we can. I've been walking in the direction for an eternity it seems. I haven't gotten any closer. I don't know if it is even real. . ." He sighed, shaking his head.
"It's real." Sage assured him. He sounded dead certain, and Rowen had no trouble taking his word. He was fully aware that Sage possessed a clearer perception of reality than any of the others, so he rarely questioned his judgement. "We have to try."
"Can't we just teleport?" Kento interrupted.
"I don't think we can right now," Sage answered. "And even if we could, I don't think I would want to. The fluctuations of power in this place have been strange. . . unpredictable. We don't have control. . . I don't think anyone does."
"Tell me about it. . ." Rowen said, partly to himself, remembering all that he had been through.
"Hey. . . you guys. . ." It was Kento who spoke, his voice suddenly on edge and trembling, drawing the attention of both Sage and Rowen.
"What is it?" inquired Sage. His voice was worried and tentative, as if almost fearful of the answer. The tension continued to gnaw at him, so deep inside that it seemed inescapable. He was growing increasingly restless to leave this place.
"It's. . .gone." Kento said, feebly motioning to the spot where the remains of the demon had once been.
For a moment, Sage's heart froze, just as it had so many times before. He heard Rowen's sharp, surpressed intake of breath as he to noticed. Kento was right. The demon, or what had been left of her, had vanished. All that there was was the endless field, rolling languidly to an untold rhythm. None of them had seen it happen. It was as if she had never been there.
For a moment, all three of them were frozen in their hesitation and dread. Rowen turned, without a sound, to look at Sage, a concerned pleading look suspended in his large worried eyes. Would they be able to defeat the demon so easily when she knew perfectly well where every one of them was? Doubtful.
They waited, anticipating the forthcoming attack. . . but never did it arrive. Infact, Rowen realized, the demon's presence seemed to have faded away. He could no longer feel her disturbing ripples of energy through the atmosphere, but still, this failed to fully pacify his nerves.
"Come on then. Lets go." Rowen demanded, breaking the silence. The urgency in his voice was more than apparent. He quickly retrieved his bow, which now appeared to be perfectly fine, from the ground.
The others hurriedly agreed, needing not a bit of persuasion.

* * * * *

In yet another unforeseen, yet certainly welcomed twist of logic, the distant Dynasty peaks that Rowen had so eagerly pursued for so long to no avail gradually began to grow nearer as the threesome traveled quick and steady through the fields, towards the city of pagodas. They didn't know why or how they had suddenly gotten so lucky, and none of them questioned it. By now they knew better than to question the magic of wherever here was.
They now found themselves so close to the Dynasty that their hearts swelled with apprehension and forgotten hope. The palaces were still a long walk away, but even now towered over them, the sight of them inspiring a mingling sensation of excitement and dread. The cold, desolate, emerald fields that Rowen had met the demon in had gradually given way to the uniform fields of the Youja-Kai, dotted with small, ethereal flowers and overlooked by the vast, clear sky that shifted through a spectrum of blues, and upon which the ever present abundance of stars and moons scattered like jewels displayed on velvet. If ever it was a welcome sight, it was now. The frigid wind had also died away, and they soon began to feel the customary warmth upon their skin. The chaotic, feuding energies that had created the tension of the old atmosphere had been replaced by one solitary, concentrated energy, dense and powerful. This, unlike the other changes, had failed to comfort them.
During their small quest, Rowen told Sage of finding Kento's body in the strange graveyard, and about how his bow had turned into a shovel and back again. He told him about the demon and her capabilities, about the unsettling energies that had seemed to be mingling or battling in the air around him, and of how stunningly powerful this place and these creatures seemed to be. And both Rowen and Kento listened intently as Sage told them of all that had happened to him. He told them of the empty neighborhood, and how Azrael had impersonated Mia. They listened, fascinated and hopeful, as he told them of the dolls, and how the Kento doll had broke, unleashing the strange but familiar flit of energy that they all now understood could only have been Kento's soul. He related to them all that Azrael had told him. About how this game was all a result of Talpa's vengeance, and that he used this so-called 'Shadow World' to channel his power and cruelty at its utmost potential. He told them of the demons' plans for the Youja-Kai, and after that, the human world, and of all the other realms that had surely been destroyed by theirs. Almost reluctantly he told them how Azrael had assured him that she and the others would be victorious. The human world would be destroyed. All those who wore the Ronin armor would become soldiers of the Shadow World, and Talpa would at long last revel in absolute power and victory. All he ever wanted.
When all had been said and done, they felt they had a better understanding of exactly what it was that they had to contend with. Kento still seemed a bit confused, still trying to recover from the shock of being so immediately propelled into such a dire adventure, but he did seem to be suitably comfortable with the information that he had, although it hadn't reassured him one bit. They were all beginning to see the bigger picture, and it wasn't exactly pleasant. I guess that's why they say ignorance is bliss. The thought came suddenly to Rowen and he found himself smiling delicately with wistful amusement.
". . . So how can all of this chaos, all of this power, possibly be so meticulously controlled?" Sage continued. It seemed like he had been talking for hours in an endless, unanswered monologue. Maybe he had. "That fiend even told me! Like she was teasing me with answers and clues hidden in her cryptic speeches! Maybe she was just leading me on. . . but I don't think so. . . there has to be some way. . . something that can be manipulated. . ." They were approaching even closer to the Dynasty now. Sparkling streams were now appearing, winding through the fields around them.
Sage suddenly sensed that Rowen was distracted, and he turned to look at him. He didn't seem like he had been listening to Sage. He was looking ahead of them, his eyes slightly squinted, as if concentrating on something in the distance.
"What. . . what is it?" Sage asked.
"Look. . ." Rowen said distantly, pointing in front of them.
At first, Sage didn't see what it was that Rowen was referring to, but after a few seconds he noticed the moving figure coming towards them in the distance. All three of them slowed their pace as they cautiously watched the distant moving object, their hands fidgeting on their weapons.
As the figure moved closer, they began to decipher its shape. It was human, and it appeared to be wearing armor. . . yes, they recognized the two long horns of its helmet, and the cape billowing gently behind it. They breathed a mutual sigh of relief as they realized who it must be.
"It looks like Cale." Rowen said, motioning for the others to lower their weapons.
"Yeah. . . looks like." He heard Kento say quietly behind him.
"Come on," Rowen said, ignoring Kento. He sprinted ahead, followed by the others, quickly closing the distance between themselves and Cale, who was walking at a slow, disinterested pace. As the three approached him, the former warlord slowed and stopped directly in front of them. They found themselves in Cale's sprawling shadow. His arms were crossed over his chest and he glared down upon them. He was quite a bit taller than the three young ronins, and even now, after he had been released from Talpa's darkness, he remained an intimidating sight towering over them.
"Well well well, if it isn't three little Ronin brats!" The reformed warlord proclaimed haughtily, a smug smile curling on his lips.
"Hold your tongue, Dynasty scum!" Kento retorted angrily, pushing his way past Sage and Rowen. It was almost a reflex action. The old feelings still so hard to forget.
"Hey!" Sage shouted, attempting to hinder any further hostility. "We're all fighting for the same cause now. We're not enemies anymore. . . at least I hope not," he said commandingly, turning to glare accusingly at the man he had battled so brutally with so many times before, trying to push the memories of those battles out of his mind.
Cale only regarded him with a cool disinterest before looking away. The old hatred was still evident in his eyes.
"Yes, Talpa wants us all dead now." Cale said, almost to himself. There was a harsh edge in his voice. It sounded to Sage like anger, hate. . . betrayal? It suddenly occurred to him how the warlords must feel. Five hundred years of fighting for one purpose, and then so suddenly being forced to fight against it, wished dead by the master they once so loyally served. Of course they would feel betrayed. Ironic, Sage realized.
"So where are the others?" Cale asked after a moment of silence. "Where are Dais and Sekhmet? I know Kayura is dead. . ." He said dryly, just then glancing back at Kento with a strange and somewhat puzzled expression, as if only now realizing that he should not be standing in front of him, alive and well.
Rowen sighed inwardly at Cale's complete lack of concern for the other ronins. His fellow warlords were the only ones he seemed to think were worth inquiring about. Some day, Rowen thought, if they didn't all die first, things would change. The nine armors were destined to work together in harmony, and not to serve the treacherous desires of the Shadow World. Talpa should have realized that.
"No one is dead," Rowen answered curtly. "And we don't know where the others are. We were hoping you would know. . . Where have you been anyway?" He asked after a pause.
"In a nightmare. Where else?" Cale answered bluntly. From the tone of his voice, it was apparent he had no intention of elaborating further.
"I think there are some things we need to tell you. . ." said Sage.
"Fine. Tell me on the way." Cale interrupted. He sounded impatient as he turned his back on them and started to walk in the direction of the Dynasty. He was obviously just as intent on reaching the Dynasty as they were.
When Cale realized that the others hadn't moved he stopped and glanced back over his shoulder at them. "Well?" he asked expectantly. ". . .You're coming, I presume."
The three ronins exchanged quick glances before silently and promptly following suite and joining their former enemy. Continuing their journey towards their inevitable destination. The heart of darkness.

* * * * *

They now wandered the stone streets of the city, surrounded by the desolate and eerie pagodas of the forsaken Dynasty Empire. It made Kento think of the horrible, dreamlike place he had been before awakening with Rowen. In this place he remembered seeing pieces of the Youja-Kai, all mixed together with countless other things, like a massive collage. It was kind of like how it was when the Youja-Kai began to merge with the human world. . . .but this was much worse. He couldn't help but think about how all of this around them might soon be a permanent part of the Shadow World. A twisted reflection of the world they once knew. He didn't want to think about it happening to earth. Their world. But of course he did, and he soon found himself fighting back tears.
Cale had walked ahead of them the whole time, leaving them to watch the rhythmic movement of his gently rippling cape. He listened patiently to all they had to say, and he rarely spoke, nodding his head every so often.
Their walk was endless it seemed, as they winded closer and closer to the central palace, the stillness of their surroundings an eerie contrast with the density of the energy in the atmosphere around them. Their rhythm was broken however, when Cale abruptly stopped in front of them, halting them all.
"What is it?" Rowen asked nervously.
For a moment, Cale said nothing. And then he stepped aside, letting them see for themselves.
Rowen drew in his breath sharply at what he saw. A vivid streak of crimson on the pale stone path. Blood! The smeared trail of deep red started a few yards ahead of them and disappeared around the next corner. After all they had seen, none of them were quite sure they wanted to know exactly what it was that awaited them around that next turn.
"Why don't you go ahead, Cale," Sage offered, his voice involuntarily lowering to a whisper. "It will be safer if just one of us checks it out first. . ."
Cale took a few steps before stopping and glancing back over his shoulder, raising an eyebrow haughtily. "What's the matter?" He sneered. "Afraid of a little blood?"
Sage sighed and met the eyes of the former warlord. How obviously Cale used their fear to build his own courage. "Fine. . . .we'll put all our lives at risk," he mumbled as he walked past Cale, making a point to bump into him on the way.
The others followed, keeping a cautious eye on the corner where the thick, vivid smear of blood turned and vanished behind the nearest pagoda. Cale looked down and experimentally dipped the tip of his sword into the blood, finding that he could easily smear it across the ground. It was still wet.
"It's still fresh. . ." Cale observed distantly.
They braced themselves and followed the trail of blood around the corner, their weapons drawn in vigilance. They had no idea what to expect, and didn't even stop to think that whatever it was, it was most likely not even of any threat to them. . . But importance? Oh yes.
"Oh my god!" Sage said suddenly, sharply cutting the silence. They all saw it. Another shade of red, garish against all that blood. The smeary trail of sanguine disappeared into a larger puddle, where the armored figure lay, sprawled lifelessly in the lucid vision of death.
They approached the inert figure, their guards down this time. "Dais. . ." Cale said, without reason, to his fellow warlord on the ground.
They noticed there were several large puncture wounds in his chest, and if that had not immediately killed him, he had certainly bled to death. He was covered in his own blood, and it formed a large pool underneath him. His white hair mingled in intense contrast with the red. Kento noticed his face. Pale as death, but still so calm. Still so serene. An odd feeling washed over him as he looked down at the corpse of his former enemy. It was so strange to see him like this . . . In such a state of damage and vulnerability.
"We take him with us." Cale said, not ostensibly fazed by the sight. "If what you say is true, we will need his body . . . and he is not really dead. . ."
None of them argued. Infact, none of them even uttered a word. They silently stepped aside as Cale bent to carefully retrieve the broken body, severing it from the grim surrealism of the vision. Death and serenity.

* * * * *

They finally approached the enormous gates of the central palace, looming tall and dark and ominous over them. Beckoning them, daring them, to tread the darkness beyond.
Sage couldn't stop glancing back and forth between those who flanked him. On his right, Cale walked beside him, his pace beginning to be labored now. Understandable, since all this time he had carried the corpse of Dais over his shoulder. And on Sage's left, Rowen walked. He, too, carried a body without life . . . the body of Kayura.
They had found her just as they had found Dais. She had been wearing the armor of cruelty that she had inherited from Anubis when he died. And her delicate throat had been cut open, marked by a long, deep, curving slice. Both Cale and Sage remembered the ballroom, and what had happened. They knew how she had died, and they did not know why they had found her here.
Rowen held her arms, keeping her in place draped over his back. Her body was limp. Completely lifeless. As was Dais'. So strange, Sage kept thinking. He was poignantly aware of the scent of their blood, redolent in the air around them. It was awful. He was secretly thankful that he had not had to carry one of them. They had found them like discarded dolls that nobody wanted to play with anymore, Sage thought . . . and in a sense, he realized, that could be true . . .
His mind stopped wandering as they slowed, stopping steps away from the foreboding entrance of the towering palace. The stature of the place seemed incredible to them now. It seemed larger and darker than ever it had before. They had to strain their necks backward to gaze up at the very top of the place, and the sensation was overwhelming, inspiring vertigo and dread. The tension, the presence, in the atmosphere had only grown more intense as they drew nearer. And it had seemed to develop a gravitational pull that could actually be felt. Its siren song seducing them ever closer to the utterly ineffable concentration of energy. All the darkness and all the evil that had ever inhabited this place during Talpa's reign was felt once more. But worse this time. And now, standing before the great doors of the palace, the feeling weighed down upon them with the suffocating pressure of a thousand worlds.
"Just like the old days. . ." Cale said distantly, as if reading the thoughts of the others. There was something in his voice. It shook slightly, as if channeled through fear? Nostalgia? Yearning? Or a combination of it all? Who knows.
Cale sighed and shifted Dais' body to a less laboring position. He stepped forward and with his free hand brushed his armored fingertips across the smooth, unyielding surface of the palace doors, which now seemed much larger than they had any right to be. "So what do we do now?" Asked Cale.
Sage stepped forward and tried pressing his weight against the doors, exerting as much force as he could. But it was a futile effort. They all knew that it was virtually impossible to open them with only mere physical force.
He stepped back and sighed, looking up and down the length of the great palace doors, their countenance adorned with the ethereal designs of the Youja-Kai. And, as if higher forces had just then read their desperate thoughts - and perhaps that was so, the doors gave a horrid, rumbling creek, and parted ever so slightly, revealing absolute darkness beyond.
The sliver of black grew larger as the doors slowly and steadily opened before them. As the doors opened and the empty darkness presented itself to them, a vile presence issued forth, unleashed like a blast of mist from the black void. It slithered and curled around them, wrapping them in its icy, almost tangible tendrils of wickedness. In the presence of this strange and chilling miasma they fancied they heard a vague, whispery sound, but one that sent shivers of terror up their spines. It was the screaming and wailing of the undead. Suffering souls trapped in a place far worse than death. Anguish and evil. It surrounded them then. They shuddered as the feeling passed, attempting to shake off the remaining residue of the unsettling presence they had stirred from the depths of the dark void.
Hesitant, they looked ahead into the darkness. The depth of its blackness was incredible. Its sheer quality of nothingness made their eyes ache. Like a black hole, it was easy to imagine that once they entered, there would be no returning.
"I don't think I trust this," Sage said.
"Would you like to suggest an alternate course of action?" Cale said back to him, noticeably sardonic.
Cale turned back to the gaping black void and experimentally stepped his foot into the darkness. He glanced over his shoulder to look at the others with those eyes that seemed to be in a perpetual glare. "Come on. Lets go." It was more of a demand than a request. But there was a certain confidence in his voice, which was somewhat reassuring.
Their hearts were frozen. And their stomachs had tied themselves into anxious knots. Before they had time to let their fear get the better of them, they stepped across the palace threshold, into the black abyss.
Once inside, it was not as bad as they had expected, whatever it was that they had expected. Of course there was the initial panic, but once they had time to collect themselves they found that there was no immediate danger, and the darkness inside was not nearly as absolute as it had appeared from the outside. Their eyes actually began to adjust to the darkness, but unfortunately, not well enough to effectively navigate through their surroundings. The atmosphere inside the palace also seemed to be denser, as if the darkness had substance. It was a disturbing thought. It made Sage's skin crawl. He suddenly felt suffocated, knowing that he could not shake off this tenebrous black that surrounded him. Sage had never liked the darkness anyway, and this only made it worse.
"If the palace is still like it used to be, we should keep walking straight ahead," Cale's disembodied voice said, rising ghostlike from the darkness.
Sage realized he was actually quite grateful to have a former warlord accompanying them. Cale was very familiar with the Youja-Kai. Very familiar with the Dynasty. And at times like this it worked to their advantage. They began to walk, as Cale told the, but slow and hesitant, still not trusting the darkness.
No more than a few steps before Kento complained, "I can't see a damn thing in here . . . Sage? Can you make any light?" He asked hopefully.
A few moments passed without a sound, except for their nervous breathing. There then came an exasperated, and somewhat exhausted sigh. It came from Sage. "No . . ." he said, the disappointment clear in his voice. "This darkness . . . it's different. My power doesn't work here."
And then, just as he finished speaking those words, the walls that flanked them burst to life, startling them all. It only seemed to their on-edge minds that the walls had actually come to life at that moment, treacherous monsters abruptly emerging from the darkness to ambush them. But to their relief, it was nothing quite so dramatic. Torches lining the walls were what had so suddenly burst to life. Once erupting magically into existence, the flames burnt silently. They would have appeared to be ordinary torch fires, if not for their quality of ethereal viridescence. It was eerie . . . Ominous in a way. The hard illumination from the soundlessly flickering flames cut the features of the samurai warriors into starkly contrasting patches of light and dark. Although the light, however eerie, was received with much relief, it did not seem to allay any of the tension, or the chill, in the atmosphere inside the palace.
"Ah! The fires sensed our presence." Cale said knowingly, now visible standing in front of them, his back turned to them. "They do that here . . . here in the Youja-Kai." He clarified.
"Whatever you say," Kento sighed shakily. He still seemed a bit jumpy from the sudden surprise.
The light from the torches had fully revealed to them their surroundings. They were in a long, wide corridor with a very high ceiling. The floor was covered in a long stretch of Oriental rug. Its incredibly intricate designs were richly and vibrantly colored, and its edges were woven in dazzling gold. They looked up but found that the ceiling was obscured by shadows, the light of the fires not able to penetrate the darkness there. The walls were made of wood, and along them were many identical doors, and occasionally an offshoot to a smaller, narrower corridor, these so dreadfully dark that venturing in to them was unthinkable. The spacious corridor was still quite drenched in darkness, for the flickering spheres of illumination from the torches only filled so much space, and the shadows adamantly claimed everything beyond the lights reach, leaving the corridor in a dim miasma.
"The place looks vaguely familiar," Sage remarked, taking in the lavish carpeting and doors.
"Perhaps your memories are from when I dragged your half conscious body through this very corridor," Cale said back to him, a little too matter-of-factly for Sage's liking.
Sage glared heatedly at the back of Cale's head, remembering the pain and the shame of being taken captive as a Dynasty prisoner. "I do seem to remember everything upside down . . ." he muttered bitterly.
"Hey!" Rowen snapped, getting the others attention. He was beginning to look exhausted from carrying the weight of Kayura's body. "We're all on the same side, aren't we?" He asked, a hint of desperation in his voice. Here and now, the question seemed oddly out of place.
"Of course." Cale snapped back. He then turned to look at them and said, "Come on. The doors to the throne room are just ahead." He pointed ahead of them to where the corridor was eventually swallowed by the shadows. Cale's pale features looked eerie, and even more intimidating than before in the glow of the fires. The deep scar over his left eye was especially vivid in this light.
They continued down the corridor for quite some time. It was longer than they imagined it would be. The torches, and the doors, continued to line the walls until the very end. The ronins couldn't imagine what places and things could be behind so many doors.
When they reached the end of the corridor, and the darkness that hid the doors to the throne room had ebbed away, the found themselves face to face with a large door almost identical to the ones at the entrance of the palace, but these were a bit smaller.
With only a moment of hesitation, Cale stepped forward, lowered Dais' body to the ground, and pressed his weight against the large, heavy doors. This time they yielded to touch. With a barely audible creek, they eased open, creating a space just big enough for them to go through. No light streamed through the space. The throne room appeared to be completely dark.
"After you," Cale said as he bent to retrieve Dais' body from the ground.
Sage set his hand on the door and peered into the blackness, he then slipped through the crack in the door, disappearing behind an ebony veil. The other ronins followed Sage and entered the room as well, followed by Cale.
Once inside, they were startled by what they found. The throne room had gone through yet another inexplicable change. Its latest manifestation was quietly breathtaking. It still appeared relatively normal, but the changes were significant, and very strange. The room was mostly shrouded in darkness, with five separate sources of illumination. In each corner of the large, rectangular room there burned a fire. But these were not ordinary fires. Not even the eerie, greenish fires of the Youja-Kai. These were celestial fires of phantom delicacy. Hot white flames burning silently with pale sapphire centers. The fifth source of light was natural. A single beam of light shone down from above, cutting through the darkness, placing a distorted, square patch of light upon the ground. And upon the ground, the light fell upon a large pentagram carved into the floor of the room, bathing it in glorious illumination, almost managing to make the edges of the design glow gold. As they walked forward and looked up they saw where the stream of light came from. Far above them, so far it was dizzying, there was an entrance, like a skylight, in the ceiling. From so far below, it appeared as merely a distant point of light in the ascending tunnel of blackness. Even stranger, from the darkness above, drifting down through the golden ray of light, sakura petals fell. Almost mesmerized by the peaceful tranquility of the sight, they watched the delicate, pink blossoms rain gently down, as if falling from unseen trees above, hidden in the darkness.
It was beautiful. There was no denying that. And amidst all that they had experienced, the sudden tranquil repose of the place seemed utterly alien. The intense, foreboding energy was still present in the atmosphere, yes, but they now felt like they stood at its very center. The energy becoming so intense that it ceased to exist, leaving only serenity. The eye of the hurricane.
The stream of light partially illuminated the throne where Talpa once sat, and illuminated the area around the throne well enough for them to see another pentagram, like the one on the floor, etched directly above the throne. However, this one was inverted. And then they also noticed something, something small, sitting on the grand throne. . .
They approached, eyes wide with fascination. Cale and Rowen lowered to the ground the bodies they carried, carefully laying them by the outer rim of the circle enclosing the pentagram. They could clearly see the objects that sat inert on the throne. They shone as if illuminated by an unseen source meant solely for them. They were four little dolls in samurai armor. Their number diminished by the rebirth of Kento, there were now only Ryo, Kayura, Dais and Cye. Their souls still trapped in that horrible place. Kento shuddered when he saw the dolls. He had been one of those?
"Ryo, Cye, and Sekhmet. . ." Cale said thoughtfully. "They're the only ones not with us right now. . .but I see Sekhmet must still be alive."
That's right! Sage realized. Sekhmet was the only one still 'together' who wasn't with them. But then he suddenly remembered something he had seen back in that peculiar room with Azrael. It was the statue, or whatever it had been, of a snake. It had been coiled right beside the then five ronin dolls, and had appeared somehow menacing. For some reason it had stayed vivid in his mind, almost as if it held some sort of meaning. "Yeah. . . I suppose." He said in reply to Cale.
"So what do we do now?" Asked Rowen, studying the eerie little dolls with fascination.
"We destroy them." Answered Sage.
"Are you sure that's such a great idea?" Asked Kento, his eyes darting anxiously about the darkness of the room. "I mean, we're in their territory now. I feel like we're pretty vulnerable. Maybe we should just lay low."
"No." Sage said immediately. "We have to destroy them. If not now, we may not get a second chance."
They knew what had to be done, but none of them moved. There was something foreboding and very not right about the idea of ascending the small steps to approach the throne. Cale remembered being here before, after they had first been set free from the chains that bound them. The room had been different then, but he remembered the dolls, sitting dejectedly on the throne just as they did now. He remembered how he had had the compulsion to pick them up, break them, but he just couldn't. He had felt riveted to the spot, as if some invisible forcefield held him captive. They all must have felt it then.
"I know what to do. Step back." Rowen said, stepping back and waving the others away from the throne. They saw him lift his bow and realized that he intended to use one of his arrows on the dolls. Well, that should make quick work of them anyway!
The others hastily got out of the way, keeping their anticipating eyes on Kayura and Dais, whose damaged bodies lay, rather unceremoniously, on the ground. Excitement and anticipation welled inside them as the energy welled inside Rowens arrow. Once he had enough energy built up, not enough to be devastating, but just enough to be effective, he let loose the arrow, aiming it at the center of the throne.
And they watched the golden flash of light as it jetted through the air, striking its mark and exploding like fireworks in a chaos of color and noise.