Harata walked into the library through its main entrance. The lighting within was dim, its only source being the small tabletop lamp beside one of the many comfortable armchairs. The curtains that adorned the enormous windows had been closed. He moved forward through the familiar room, calling tentatively,
As he approached the figure sitting in the armchair beside the lamp, he sucked in his breath, teeth clenched. It made the hissing noise of a trapped animal. As he realized he’d been tricked, the sound of the door closing behind him fell on his ears. He heard the lock click, followed by a sound he didn’t recognize. He did not turn to investigate, however, as his eyes were riveted on the one who sat before him.
The look on Harata’s face confounded Hironah. She’d expected him to be surprised, shocked even, perhaps angry or bewildered. Yet he stared at her with an expression of abject fear. It passed, to be replaced by a resignation that caused him to slump a bit. His arms dangled uselessly at his sides.
“What are you doing here?” His voice was a whisper, shaking with awe and disbelief.
“I wanted to talk to you, Uncle,” Hironah answered calmly, wondering at his strange reaction.
Harata’s first thought was of his wife.
“Where’s Kat?” It sounded like begging.
“She’s fine,” Hironah assured him. “She’s in your room. She called you to ask you to meet her here so that I could see you.”
Kat had called upstairs to lie to Harata a few minutes earlier. She’d told him that she’d had a terrible nightmare and longed to talk to him. Claiming that she couldn’t bear to remain in the bedroom, she asked that he meet her in the library. His heart filled with the hope of reconnecting with his estranged wife, Harata had hurried downstairs without a second thought.
The dead guards were dragged into the Imperial bedroom, where Kat remained locked in with them. Their corpses brought goose-pimples to her skin and caused shudders within her soul, but for the sake of her husband, she agreed to hide them. When the next set of guards came to take over their posts, she was to announce that the missing men had gone to investigate some noise. They were meant to call in such action, but if the new guards complained, she was to suggest that those not present be reprimanded and ask not to be burdened with the details of the Imperial Guard’s disorganization.
“I want to see her,” Harata said firmly.
“You will,” Hironah replied, “when we’re finished.”
“What do you want?” The tormented edge to his voice confused Hironah. Despite all his strange behavior of the past months, she was truly astounded by his reaction to her presence.
“I’m here to help you.” She smiled, attempting to reassure him.
“You can’t help me, Hironah. You have to get out of here. Go away. Please.” He was pleading with her, his eyes full of fear and sorrow.
“I’m afraid that’s out of the question, Your Highness,” Uneme spoke from where he stood beside the door he’d closed, locked, and jammed with a homemade device that would detonate as soon as anyone tried to force it open.
“Who are you?” Harata asked, turning from Hironah to stare at the other man.
“My name is Uneme. You’ve seen me before.”
Harata shook his head.
“I don’t remember you.”
“I’m not surprised,” the Angemal replied with a bitter smile.
Harata turned back to Hironah.
“Leave,” he begged. “Get away from here. I’ll tell the Guard to allow you to walk out of this place unharmed, regardless of whatever it is you did to get in. Go back to Nira and never come back here, never again. Whatever happens, just ignore it. Don’t come back.”
“But- but why?”
“I can’t tell you- or at least I won’t. Just go, please.”
Hironah crossed her arms and leaned away from Harata, regarding him coldly.
“You know, Uncle, I’m getting pretty tired of hearing that. I got it from Blue, from Quen, from Seiken… Even Kaiya tried to keep little secrets. I’m sick of this. Tell me the truth.”
Harata’s face screwed up with pain. His anguish made Hironah long to comfort him, but she remained glued in her seat, her expression unmoved.
“You have to go, Hironah,” the Emperor breathed out the words softly, “because I don’t want to be forced to have you killed.”
She stared at him in silence for what felt like a long time. Finally, she asked,
“Why? Why would you have to do that?”
It was Uneme, rather than Harata, who answered.
“Isn’t it obvious, Hironah? Can’t you see?” He was standing close to Harata now. Yellow eyes met deep, dark brown, locked on one another as the Angemal spoke. “This man is not Harata. Or perhaps he still is, but isn’t.”
“You’re insane,” the Emperor said dismissively.
“No,” Uneme replied in a calm voice. “I’m not the one who’s insane.”
“Who is this guy, Hironah? What’s he doing with you? What’s he been telling you?”
Hironah ignored her uncle.
“Uneme, what are you talking about?” she asked, somewhat impatiently.
“I’d been afraid for a while that Caiaphas would be nearer to the Imperial Family than we believed. I tried talking to Kaiya about it, but he never wanted to listen, not even after Akos-Hieran was murdered. You saw what his reaction was like. I thought maybe after the shock wore off, I’d try again, but Kaiya was dead before I had another chance. I decided to try to figure it out for myself.
“While we were at Kamitouki, I went into Blue’s library and read whatever I could find about avatars and Pandemonium and the return of souls to the Universal Plane. It wasn’t easy- many of the books were written in an old language and made little sense to me. But finally the pieces began to fall together.”
Both Hironah and Harata stared at the Angemal, speechless.
“There is no avatar.”
Uneme’s announcement took Hironah completely by surprise.
“What? Of course there is. Kaiya even said that Blue confirmed it.”
“It’s most likely that there was, for a time. Caiaphas would’ve used his avatar to create the Rift and throw us all off course. But I’m sure he’s returned to Pandemonium. He doesn’t need to be here. He can remain safe on his Plane, extending his influence through the Rift to ours.”
“How is that possible?”
“I read in one of Blue’s books about a time of great terror, thousands of years ago. In those years, there was a Rift on Qian Ra just as there is now. Through it, a powerful demigod of Pandemonium worked his spells on the people of our planet, enslaving them inside their minds. He was eventually defeated by those that went on to found the Night’s Herald Clan, and the Rift was closed. As a Night’s Herald, Caiaphas would be sure to know this story. I have little doubt he used the same plan.”
Hironah was now staring at Harata, unblinking and shaking her head.
“He’s being controlled by Caiaphas, Hironah.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“He killed Akos-Hieran.”
At this point, Harata, who’d been standing in a state of silent disbelief, exploded with rage.
“I didn’t kill my son! Who the hell are you? You come in here, spouting insanity, accusing me of-”
“I’m sure you don’t remember it,” Uneme interrupted in even tones, “just like you don’t remember me. Hironah, keep in mind- this is the same man who had you hunted down by the Imperial Guard, trying to blame your cousin’s death on you. As a result, Kaiya was killed. It’s his fault, Hironah. This isn’t your uncle. Not anymore.”
Both Hironah and Harata stared at one another, equally pleading.
“Is this true?” Hironah finally whispered.
“It’s not,” Harata replied vehemently.
“Then why– why did you do all this? Why did you lock yourself and your family away, even from me? Why did you have the Guard chase us? Why didn’t you care that Blue was dying? You say it’s not true, but I don’t know how I can believe you.”
“Hironah, try to understand. I only wanted to ask you about what you’d seen here on the day of Aki’s death. I was desperate to find answers, so I asked the Guard to bring you in so I could find out if you’d noticed anything that others hadn’t. Kat overheard and mistook my orders for wishing to place the blame on your shoulders… She overreacted. I’m sorry about what happened to Kaiya, and I feel responsible. Believe me. I never wanted any of this to happen.”
“You’re not the man I remember,” Hironah whispered, her voice dripping with regret. “You’ve grown so cold.”
The Emperor said nothing.
“Can we free you from this?” she asked.
“You believe him?” Harata asked incredulously.
“I want to help you.”
“I already told you, Hironah. He’s wrong, and there’s nothing you can do for me. Leave here, and we’ll never see each other again. Promise me, and you might see something change.”
“I don’t understand.”
Defeated, Hironah put her head in her hands.
“Maybe one day you will,” Harata said gently. “I’m sorry, Hironah.”
“Don’t be fooled by him, Hironah,” Uneme said harshly. “If you leave here, you’re taking away any chance of stopping Caiaphas with you. This man is destroying his own Empire, causing it to crumble into the chaos that Caiaphas wishes to achieve. Look at him, Hironah. Look at your enemy and mine for who he is.”
Harata turned slowly around, eyeing Uneme with cold stillness.
“I will allow Hironah to leave, but not you. You’re either a complete lunatic or admirably devoted to your mistaken cause. In either case, I can’t allow you to go free.”
“Try and stop me.”
Without another word, Harata walked away. Thinking he was heading for the side door, which was also equipped with a detonator, Hironah half-rose, but he changed course. He stood before a glass display case, staring down into it.
“I wish I’d never given up the life I knew,” she heard him whisper, “but I suppose that it’s true that our intentions are nothing but the paths of arrows hindered by the wind.”
The words sounded familiar to Hironah, but she couldn’t place them.
His back still turned to the two who had broken into his home, Harata opened the case slowly. He took from it a sword, the one he’d carried in the days when he’d led the Champions to victory, a gift from the Queen of Anrakshi as his old one had been lost at sea. He felt its familiar heft, savoring the feeling of its hilt in his hand as he did on so many recent lonely nights. Still facing the glass case, he spoke, his voice clear and steady.
“We’re going to settle this in the way it should be settled, one warrior against another. I have the honor of the truth behind me. I don’t know what you’ve got, but pray it helps you.”
Abruptly, Harata turned and stalked halfway back across the library, but found his way blocked by Hironah, who stood with her own swords drawn.
“To reach him you’ll have to pass me first, Uncle. I promised to protect him, no matter what the cost.”
“Don’t do this, Hironah. Let us settle this between ourselves.”
“I can’t defeat you,” Harata spoke the words emotionlessly, without sorrow, fear or bitterness. “I can best him, but not you.”
“Then let us both go.”
“I can’t do that either. I suppose it’s time I faced the fate I’ve spent all this time running from. I knew that as soon as I laid eyes on you tonight. If that’s what you want, so be it, Hironah.”
“I don’t want this! I don’t understand. I just want somebody to tell me the truth.”
“The truth is, you’re going to kill me because I couldn’t find it within my heart to do the same to you. You walked free, at the cost of my life.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Hironah yelled, fury and frustration vying for control of her voice.
“He’s insane!” Uneme shouted, pushing past her. “Aren’t you, you filthy, murderous dog?”
His nerves shot and patience drained, Harata clubbed Uneme hard against the side of his head with the hilt of the sword. The Angemal crumpled to the floor.
Her veins ignited with bloodlust, on the very brink of insanity herself, Hironah fell on Harata in a rage. The library filled with the sounds of screeching steel as they battled. As once, many years before, Harata had fought against her father for the control of his destiny, he now struggled against Hironah. As at that time, the combatants forgot everything but each other’s bodies and blades and the ground underfoot.
Harata, though he’d spent years without the need for the sword in his hand, fought with the violent urges of one who wishes only to survive. His muscles called up long-forgotten patterns, like the sudden recollections of a lapsed musician who finds himself seated at his instrument once more. All of the sorrows he could not vent, all of the anguish he was no longer free to express surged through him, feeding his desire to fight.
They moved all over the library, swinging and parrying. They did not speak. Both felt the weight of their sadness at this outcome, and it slowed them like a mediating soul attempting to break up the fight. Yet Harata felt the heaviness of fate on his back and Hironah’s mind screamed out a litany of wrongs that ached for compensation. Hearts aching, they continued. For a long time, neither landed anything other than slight blows.
Harata grew weary. It was not from an unfit body, but in his soul. Hironah’s movements, graceful and calculated, were the motions made by Keyu, who had spawned her, by Takae, who had trained her, and by Blue, who had tried to tame the inferno of her soul. They were not the gestures of enemies, but of long-lost friends who’d turned against him.
Still they fought; still they whirled about the room, the sound of clashing steel echoing in the high ceilings. Hironah began to doubt the victory Harata had assured her, and it was with mixed feelings. Until she remembered that Uneme would die if she failed, she wasn’t even sure she wanted to win. He was all she had to live for. Everything else in her reality lay shattered, but he remained, right or wrong in his theories. If she was to forfeit her life, she forfeit that of the man who’d enchanted her so when her heart was heavy with woe, who shared and understood her values, and who hadn’t abandoned her to darkness. With renewed determination, she fought on, forcing herself to forget her love and confusion, forcing herself to no longer see the man against whom she struggled.
Harata, growing ever more exhausted, stumbled and fell back against the steps leading up to the second floor of the library. Without vision, moving by reflex alone, Hironah thrust the point of Dawn directly through his heart, as she would’ve done to any ordinary enemy. Once she realized what she’d done, she let go of the blade and stood, staring in vacant horror at the damage she had caused. Dusk fell to the floor with a clatter as her left hand went limp. Aghast, she gazed at Harata’s shocked expression. A scream burned in her throat, fighting for release, but she swallowed it at the sound of the unfamiliar voice that pulsed through her veins, buried in her blood.
This I swear…
“This I swear,” she repeated in a whisper.
…by the blood of my House.
“By the blood of my House,” she wept the words that were forced from her.
She might’ve been frozen there until she finally collapsed from exhaustion, but for the rustling sound in the middle of the library. Turning, she ran toward it, falling to her knees beside its source.
“Uneme,” she called softly.
He put his hand to his head and groaned.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“I’ll be fine,” he answered groggily. “Just a headache.”
She helped him to stand. They clung to each other for a moment, before he seemed to recollect what had led up to his lying on the floor. He looked around hastily.
“I killed him,” Hironah sobbed. “It’s over.”
“No it isn’t. Not yet.”
Thinking that he meant the guards that were surely coming, Hironah turned her head toward the side door. Her body buckled reflexively before she actually felt the pain in her abdomen where the long dagger lodged, her face pressed against Uneme’s shoulder. He stroked her hair in the way he so usually did and whispered,
“There. Now it’s over.”
She lifted her head weakly to look at his face. He smiled down at her gently and recited, as if by rote,
“You will die-if not now, if not tomorrow, even if not by my own hand, then by the bloodline of the House of Blackriver. I am your death, and my heirs will carry that Oath as well. You will die by these blades. This I swear by the Great Cat and by the blood of my House.” His smile widened. “Those were the words of the Angemal Champion who was your father to Harata, many years ago.”
Hironah tried to speak, but the blood welling in her gut spilled out of her mouth rather than her words.
“You were such a fool, Hironah,” Uneme said sadly.
She struggled to move away from him, but he twisted the knife in her stomach and she fell against him once more, gagging on pain, blood, and bile. He held up an object with his left hand, that which was not holding the knife, next to her face. Her eyes moved to focus on it- the strange cylinder through which he’d launched the darts that killed the guards.
“Curious weapon, this,” he said casually. “It comes from the Otherlands, as does the poison on the darts. You probably don’t know anything much about the Otherlands. So little one can learn in just a single lifetime!” He laughed hollowly and pocketed the blowgun, careful not to jar Hironah, who was still prone upon the blade. “Right about now, those men should be waking up, intent only on avenging their own deaths. Mindless, they will stalk the warmth of the living to rend them from this Plane. They won’t remain alive long, but it will be more than enough time for them to devour the Empress, which is their purpose, of course.”
“Caiaphas.” The name was wetted with tears and blood.
“Congratulations,” he answered sarcastically. “You found me.”
Hironah tried to jerk herself off of the dagger, but he held her fast.
“Careful, now. You don’t want to make it hurt any worse than it has to,” he chided. “Blue never learned that lesson. He realized what I was going to do- to be honest, I told him part myself- and he just couldn’t let it go. When I realized I’d never get him to join me, that his convictions were just too strong, I realized I’d have to make good on my promise to do to him what I did to Qa Haran all those years ago. I’m not surprised the gods intervened for Blue, and I’m not disappointed. He was a worthy soul, and I’ve always had a great affection for him, despite all the ill spoken of me on this Plane.”
“He hated you,” Hironah sputtered.
“I don’t expect you to understand the nature of our relationship. That’s not what I’m keeping you alive for. I want you to understand your mistakes, so that you do not repeat them in your next life- if you’re granted one.”
“I don’t care.”
“Listen anyway,” he commanded. “You see, Hironah, you all made mistakes. Yours are probably some of the most blameless. I realized I could use you from the moment Harata was crowned Emperor. I didn’t have to, of course, but you and the Oath that Keyu made to stain your blood were so convenient that the idea couldn’t be ignored. You were bound by destiny to long for Harata’s death, cursed by the urges of an Oath you’d never heard. It slept in your subconscious, waiting to be ignited. Before I came to this Plane, I sent the Emperor horrifying nightmares of his fate, helping him to remember the words of your father. He began to fear you. He stopped visiting, didn’t he?”
“Three years ago.”
“It’s such a pity you were raised by Blue. He questioned Harata on his long absence and began to suspect I had a hand in it somehow. He was never able to calm the Emperor enough to return to Kamitouki. He confronted me, knowing already that I wished to end the Empire. I know he loved you. He’d never have condoned the use of you in my plans, and so I killed him. It wasn’t easy for me to do- emotionally or physically- but I managed.
“A few days later, I set my plans in motion. I returned to Qian Ra as an avatar- the man you see here.” He gestured to himself.
“But- but Quen… Meena…”
“Knew Uneme for over a year. Or so they thought, or used to, whichever you prefer. You see, Tamaki had it all wrong. She wrote in the note to you that Seiken had told her the avatar would be a lonely, wandering soul, without family or friends. This much is true- to a degree. Loved ones or close friends would’ve noticed the difference, but casual, work related acquaintances are another story. Seiken was trying, of course, to remind Tamaki that she knew someone other than himself who had no living relatives and was friendless when you all met him. However, Tamaki misinterpreted his meaning. Yes, an avatar can come into the world as a fully-grown, disconnected individual… but we don’t have to. I became Uneme, adopting his name and likeness. Imagine his surprise when he woke one night to find a mirror of himself hovering over his bed, ready to end his life! I took his place, and with no one close to his lonely soul to notice the changes, went on with his daily life.
“Before I did this, Mirai had been to visit the Imperial Palace. Since the gears of my plot were already in motion, she naturally prophesied the outcome to Harata- he would die by your hand, just like in his dreams. While she was still lucid, she tried to comfort him, but it was to no avail. I sent him two dreams within the following week. In the first, he had you killed by some assassins and went on to live in peace. In the second, he tried to bar you from the Palace, but you came in, disguised as someone else.
“Harata could not have you assassinated. Aware as he was of Keyu’s Oath, he loved you. He tried twice to give the order and failed. I pressed him with more dreams of your disguises until he finally closed off the Palace to everyone a few weeks before Blue died, in the hopes of keeping you from coming in under a disguise.
“Everything was going according to plan. When I heard from Meena that you were headed to Mianuus with Quen, I paid some thugs to kidnap Mirai and dump her in the harbor. It was mere coincidence that you happened to be on the beach when I came to pick her up. I’d planned to take her to the station in the morning, where I’d ‘run into’ you and Quen… but our meeting was far more fortuitous the way it went.
“However, I had a problem- a rather large problem, in fact. My minions had long been telling me of a soul that traveled with Blue in Pandemonium. This soul had a tremendous power, far greater even than the Champion himself. It frightened them, though I realized it must be a flawed soul, for only the Champions were the height of the ideals of their Clans. I longed to see this soul for myself, and though I could see his living form on the Universal Plane, Blue kept him hidden from me in Pandemonium.”
“Kaiya,” Hironah breathed his name with loving regret.
“Yes, Kaiya. I had been watching him for years. In the beginning, I wasn’t much worried about him on this Plane. I knew of his illness and the toll it had taken on his spirit. But by the time I arrived here, Erishkegal was working against me, angered that I had helped to rob her of Blue’s soul. She blessed and guided Seiken. With his help, Kaiya gained some of the strength in life that he had sleeping in his soul. He was already a man of astounding fortitude- that I was aware of- but I didn’t know until we were in the Rift that his soul had such power and that his body now had strength enough to withstand it.
“I hadn’t wanted you to enter the Rift. Though you should have been trapped there, I was afraid that some of you might remain to wonder when I returned and no one else did. However, I was blessed by circumstance. All of you entered but Quen, who- being a machine- could not. However, it was then that I learned of Kaiya’s power, and it was far worse than what my minions had described. You felt it yourself, that terrible, raw force he had within. I realized that he could defeat me. And suddenly, he wanted to.
“It was easy enough to throw him for a time. I had my minions cut me and pretended to be trapped by Pandemonium like the rest of you. He was distracted by Quen’s absence, and he accepted the lack of struggle in my soul for defeat, rather than belonging. However, I realized I had to make sure that he was killed.
“I knew of his love for you. Unbreakable, it was the only passion that had lasted in his life. Already, I had begun to seduce you that I might use you toward my ends. He saw this, but only through honest eyes that see love as love. When we were chased by the Imperial Guard I saw my chance. Quen had spoken of the dragon. If we could just meet it… I was sure Kaiya would die in defense of you. And so I forced him to. I played his faults and won. You’d have done anything I asked- even stayed in the cave- but I let him believe I’d actually allow you to join me on a mission that would likely end in death. I turned his love for you against him, and he died in agony, wishing he could only speak your name.”
“Fuck you,” came Hironah’s bloody whisper.
“It was his own fault. I’m sure Blue warned him, asked him to set aside his feelings, but he didn’t. By then, Mirai was taken care of. I made sure of that, as she- like Seiken- was nothing more than a walking bomb. Kaiya’s death rendered the Decameron useless, so I figured it’d be smooth sailing. But then Yoshiki decided to get involved. At first, I wasn’t too worried about him- he had neither the means nor the knowledge to find me- but then he had Tamaki digging into Seiken’s brains, so… I bided my time and waited. He told me over the phone about his aunt, so naturally I looked her up and gave her a call. I used you to get rid of Seiken and scare the shit out of Yume in the process and here we are. I left out some parts, but I’m sure you can put the pieces together yourself.”
“Let go of me,” Hironah demanded.
“Sure,” he answered with a smile. Pulling the dagger from her belly, he watched her fall to the floor.
She groped for her swords, which were still across the room.
“I’m going to kill you,” she choked.
“No, you’re not,” the avatar answered, still smiling. “You’re going to die.”
He plunged the dagger into her chest. Turning on his heel, he ran upstairs past the dead Emperor. There was no time left. As he reached the top of the steps, the Imperial Guard began to force the main door. The bomb-blast rocked the building as he escaped unnoticed in the commotion, leaving exactly the same way they’d come in. As he’d surmised, the Guard eventually came to the conclusion that Hironah and Harata had killed each other, just as they were never able to figure out that a lone man had entered the Palace once through the basement and called the Crown Prince to come to the cellar, where his father needed his help locating some lost item. Uneme, the avatar of Caiaphas, had taken Aki in that way when he was meant to be waiting for the others at the temple in the Parks. No one had thought to question his absence when they arrived, for neither Quen nor Meena were around to say that he’d been released from the hearing with the Musubiki hours earlier.
Feeling the heat of the fires against her skin, Hironah closed her eyes. She struggled to breathe, but it was an exhausting feat after bleeding both inside and out while Uneme spoke words that caused her soul to shrivel. She fought to survive, clung to her life out of fear. She knew now what Pandemonium meant, and she was terrified by the thought of its hellions coming to claim her- for what else could be the outcome of this life she’d led and what it came to in the end? Though she made a valiant effort, she soon became aware of the presence in the room. Terrified, she turned to look on it.
It was not, as she feared, a dark and fearsome creature, but a soul, shining and serene- unfamiliar. It knelt beside her and looked down, head cocked as though in curiosity.
“Come with me?” it invited in a clear voice, one hand extended.
With trepidation, Hironah nodded. She took its hand.
“I am your Guide,” the soul explained, “but only as far as the edge of Elysium. I cannot go any further, for I am on a journey into Life. I asked to be allowed to take you to the Gates, where you will find another waiting on the other side, and many more who are waiting to see you. You’ll meet those who will teach you until you are ready for rebirth.”
Hironah remained silent for the length of the strange journey, troubled by the longing that she felt deep within, a wish to remain beside the being who guided her always. When they reached their destination, the soul kissed her lightly on the forehead.
“I promise,” her Guide said softly, “no matter how many lives we have to live, my soul will find yours one day, maybe generations from now, and we’ll live in the love that was forfeit in this life.”
“Kaiya,” she said with a rush of sudden recognition.
He smiled at her. They embraced, and when he released her, he said,
“I have to leave now. Good luck to you here. We’ll meet again- I’m sure of it. Until then, know that I’ll be looking everywhere, even if it’s only in my soul.”
He left her then, and she turned to face the Gates of Elysium. The peace that flooded from them engulfed her, and she made her way inside to where Blue waited to meet her. There she would remain in the light and the tranquility of those that loved her-Blue, her parents, and the gentle teachers that would coach her soul- until she was ready to continue her journey in the living world. And what a journey it would be.