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25 April 2007 @ 07:26 pm
Tears of the Sea, ch. 11 (MKR)  
Title: Tears of the Sea
Fandom: Magic Knight Rayearth
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama/Action/Adventure
Publish Date: 5/2/2004 through 12/24/2005
Disclaimer: I do not own Magic Knight Rayearth... *roasts Mokona to make s'mores*



Warm…

Warm…

Where was she?

Fuu winced slightly, vaguely aware that she was not where she had been. Her last memory was of diving forward, that sheer desperation, that sharp, searing pain in her shoulder, and then…darkness. Darkness and silence.

And utter, utter terror.

But at the tiny twitch of her eyebrow, she heard voices.

“She’s waking up!”

“She’s finally coming around!”

“Fuu? Open your eyes, sweetie.”

After a moment’s struggle, Fuu managed to obey that last voice, and willed her eyes to open the tiniest bit. Her eyelashes fluttered dangerously, threatening to weigh her eyes down again, but she forced herself to awaken. She found herself staring into the worried faces of her female friends.

“Fuu…” Umi, sitting on the bed beside her, heaved a sigh of relief and slid her arms around her friend’s neck in a light embrace. “God, don’t ever scare us like that again, you hear me?”

Hikaru clambered over to the other side of the bed and claimed Fuu’s arm. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she said softly, offering up the first genuine smile she’d displayed in the many days since Caliana’s proclamation and her confrontation with Ferio—she hadn’t told anyone of that passionate moment in the palace corridor, but it had brought her mood down noticeably.

Even Kagura—a girl who, at her most hyper, could make even the ever-energetic Hikaru blanch and back away—looked completely somber. She sank down onto the bed beside Umi and reached out to take Fuu’s unclaimed hand in her own. “You are,” she said slowly, “without a doubt, one of the most amazing person I have ever met in my entire life.”

The Wind Knight looked faintly uncomfortable. “No…not really…”

“You missed it, though,” Hikaru giggled in spite of the serious atmosphere. “Windam healed you, but you were unconscious. Lantis carried you back to your room, and Ferio tried to follow, but Umi stopped him—and she punched him. She punched him right in the face!”

“Umi! Why would you do something like that?” Fuu’s expression shifted to shock as she admonished her friend; still, she couldn’t quite keep the amused smile from peeking through. “Honestly, what am I going to do with you?”

“Fuu…why?” Kagura asked, her voice dropping even lower; the mood immediately great somber again. “Why would you do that for him? After what he did to you?” It was a question that the other two already knew the answer to, but they waited patiently for the answer to come.

Fuu’s smile faded slightly as she answered a question she knew Kagura had been desperate to ask since day one. “I love him, Kagura. I have for so long…I just can’t imagine not loving him. And if I stopped him from being hurt or being killed…then I have no regrets about what I did.” She leaned forward, looking each of them in the eye individually and holding that gaze with such sadness. “Kagura…Umi…Hikaru…please. Please understand. I—I can’t lie to myself.”

“But the wedding…” Hikaru murmured sadly. “And we’ll have to go back to our own world…”

“Maybe we can’t be together in the end. We’re from two different worlds…” Fuu’s voice was sad, but strong. “But I know what I feel. I understand my feelings. We both have our responsibilities. Mine are as a Magic Knight, his are as the Prince of Cephiro. And it’s for the greater good, this alliance. I can’t turn my back on the people who might suffer if I interfere.”

“Sacrificing your own happiness for everyone else…Fuu, that’s so like you,” Kagura sighed, her words colored by that same sadness and a hint of admiration. “You’re so giving.”

“Just like Princess Emeraude…” Umi whispered.

No one had an immediate answer for that…

-o-


It was some time later before Fuu was able to usher her well-meaning friends from her room. They wouldn’t let her get out of bed or anything—not that the sensible Wind Knight was really eager to go gallivanting around the palace or anything. She knew how close she had come to dying earlier that day, and although Windam’s magic had pulled her back from that horrible brink, she wasn’t in any hurry to strain herself. That would come in due time, with a battle looming over them in the near future.

Best to just rest now. Even with her mashin’s help, she was still exhausted. And there were some tired parts of her that no magic could heal right away. So she pleaded exhaustion and shooed Umi, Hikaru, and Fuu out of the room. Now she was simply sprawled on her back in bed, eyes drifting lazily over the ceiling, not really looking at anything in particular, but merely letting her thoughts go.

She had a lot of things to think about.

Umi was right. She was denying her own happiness for the world of Cephiro. Wasn’t that what Princess Emeraude had done? But in thinking about it, there were differences between their situations. Emeraude had been the Pillar of this world; had her heart strayed, the world would have been cast into darkness. When she had fallen in love with Zagato, monsters had overrun the land. And Fuu was fairly certain that no worlds were going to collapse in on themselves because she had given her heart to someone.

Still, the pain was one and the same. Loving someone that you knew you couldn’t be with.

She hadn’t given into it since their second expedition into Cephiro, when they had fought Debonair and halted the invasions. Knowing that she would probably never see Ferio again, she had simply buried her feelings and gone about her life. Umi and Hikaru knew—Hikaru understood it all too well.

Another thought occurred to her then: how did Ferio feel? This wasn’t exactly a solo sport they were playing; he had to be feeling something over all that had happened. Granted, she hadn’t exactly given him a chance to tell her what he thought, what he felt. It wasn’t until that one angry, beautiful moment when he had finally cornered her and…gods, that all-too-brief second relived itself over and over again, in her fondest dreams and worst nightmares.

What would happen to them now?

Fuu sighed. There really were no easy answers in life, were there?

The knock on the door made her start. She frowned at her own jumpiness, then cleared her throat, put a smile on her face, and called pleasantly, “Come in!”

The door swung open a few inches, moving soundlessly on well-oiled hinges. And Fuu barely kept her jaw from dropping when Caliana’s face peered around the door. “Can you spare a moment?” Fuu nodded mutely, and the Aldarban Princess slipped silently into the room, pushing the door closed behind her. There was a soft click as they were momentarily shut off from the rest of the palace.

The girl’s face was paler than usual, and her usually-void expression was…repentant? She certainly looked more relaxed. Her dark hair was unbound from how it had been the few other times Fuu had seen the Princess, when it had been twisted and braided up into an ornate configuration held in place by several large, decorative ornaments. Now, it was simply falling in loose waves down her back. Even her clothing was different, calmer—not the elaborate robes of a Princess, but more of a men’s style clothing: white pants, white boots, a white long-sleeved shirt, and a loose, thigh-length blue tunic cinched with a wide white belt. No less regal, but definitely not what one would expect from royalty.

Caliana seemed hesitant, walking slowly across the room to stand beside Fuu’s bed. Her hands were intertwined in front of her, and kept wringing together nervously. “I am sorry to bother you. I know you need rest to recover from…what happened,” she looked distressed at the mere thought, “but I feel that you and I have something that we need to discuss.”

Fuu swallowed hard and gave voice to the unspoken implication. “Ferio…”

“May I sit?” At Fuu’s nod, Caliana carefully pulled up a chair and gingerly took a seat on it. She looked at her hands in her lap for a moment before raising her gray-brown eyes to meet Fuu’s. “How are you feeling? Are you recovering?”

“I’m fine,” Fuu said honestly, not letting it show that she was a bit wary.

But she couldn’t keep her amazement from showing when Caliana bluntly said, “I owe you an apology. A very big one, I’m afraid.” There was a pause before the Princess continued. “I wish I could change what has happened. All of it. But things do not work that way, so an apology is all I can offer you.” She held Fuu’s gaze without fear and without arrogance. “I’m so sorry…” The words trailed off, as Caliana finally broke the communion of their eyes and looked down at her hands.

Fuu sat mutely, swathed in blankets, mouth hanging wide open. She would have said something, but she sensed that there was more to what her guest wanted to say, and so she waited silently for Caliana to continue, unsure of where this would go from here.

When the Princess raised her head again, there was a smile on her face—calm, placid, and gentle. “I am breaking the arrangement that our governments formed between myself and the Prince,” she said lightly. “I will not be a party to breaking two hearts, and I know that the alliance-union is not necessary to maintain our peace.”

The Wind Knight’s heart jumped out of her chest, but with her typical practicality, she felt she had to protest. “But…but what about the alliance? Cephiro? Aldarba? How can…” She took a deep breath and tried again, fighting to stay calm when all she really wanted to do was throw her arms around Caliana’s neck and thank her. “What about all the politics? Your governments? I understand Ferio’s duty to Cephiro as well as I understand my own. What would this do to your peace?”

Caliana waved her arguments aside. “Do not worry yourself over it. I will handle my father, my government, and my people. Whether or not there is this union, the alliance and treaty will stand. I will not let it be any other way.” She drew herself up a little taller, a touch of pride coloring her very posture as well as her next words. “I am the Princess and Heir to Aldarba. My words carry much weight, Lady Fuu. And if you can find it in your heart to forgive me…I would be eternally grateful.”

The words sounded a bit melodramatic, but Fuu sensed that the Princess sincerely meant them. And she was not going to deny her the forgiveness she sought, especially not when Fuu herself blamed the Princess for nothing. “Of course I forgive you. There’s nothing to forgive.” Fuu sighed and leaned back into the expanse of pillows. “We all just got caught up in a bad situation that wasn’t any of our faults, and we’re working through it, that’s all.”

It was then that Fuu realized she was talking to Caliana as easily as she would talk to Hikaru—she was relaxed, and bore no worries that whatever she said would be passed along to inappropriate ears. It was like chatting with an old friend—there was so much they could say, so much to tell each other, yet being able to just fall right into the pattern of conversation, as though no time at all had been missed.

While Fuu was speaking, Caliana had been toying with her hands. As Fuu’s words trailed off, Caliana pulled something small from her hand and held it out to Fuu. “Here. I believe this belongs to you. Therefore, you should have it.” Questioningly, Fuu took the item and stared at it. It was a ring, a small golden band with what looked like tiny runes engraved onto the side.

Caliana waited a moment before enlightening her. “I do not know how familiar with Cephirean writing you are, but those characters mean Bound forever in Cephirean. It was given to me as a symbol of my intent, but if the arrangement has been dissolved, I should no longer keep this. It was the Prince’s.” A strange sparkle danced across Caliana’s eyes. “If you do not want it, would you please return it to the Prince for me?”

The Green Knight stared at it for a moment, then looked up at Caliana, and nodded once.

“Thank you,” the Aldarban Princess rose. “I apologize for making a haste exit, but I must make the arrangements to return to my own country and handle my father and the Council.” She sighed and—in a surprisingly Umi-like move that stunned Fuu—rolled her eyes. “I have a sense that my advisors will want to strangle me in my sleep for this…”

Fuu couldn’t help but laugh. Then her expression softened into a genuine smile. “Thank you…”

-o-


“No, no, no…”

Umi cringed and curled up into a little ball on her bed, huddled in the darkness of her room, but it wouldn’t stop. Images assailed her, playing like movies on repeat, over and over again on the backs of her eyelids, dancing in midair in front of her when her eyes were open, a never-ending barrage.

Memories.

Memories that were hers, but were not as she initially remembered them.

Pictures of moments past, but the pictures had been altered, doctored by unseen hands.

She cowered against the vicious assault. Even things she had forgotten were dredged up from the darkest pits of her memory and hurled at her with the force of hailstones.

Failures. Moments of weakness that had led to something happening to another person. The cruel words of others, both those whispered snidely behind her back or uttered boldly to her face. Shortcomings. Doubts, so many doubts, of all shapes and sizes, dragged up from every corner of her life. There was the harshness of helplessness, and the emptiness of hopelessness…

In her semi-hallucinatory state, Umi was glad that her ovum-gem was on the other side of the room. It held her sword, and she was very nearly in a state where she might actually try to use it. But no…she wouldn’t. She had to face their enemy.

It was so dark. Where was the light?

Her unknown protector had told her to hold on, to not them beat her. But this was her own mind—there was no way to struggle against the demons that came from within. She couldn’t fight her own thoughts and hope to win. And where was her shadow-guardian now?

A cry escaped her as one particularly harsh memory flashed across her mind—in seventh grade, someone she had considered to be a close friend had turned tail on her. She had nearly forgotten about it, but now the loathing of the past sent shivers running through her. The memories piled up on top of her like so many stones, in an attempt to press her to death. Tears screamed from her eyes, and sobs racked at her slender form, curled on the bed.

I have to find light… Umi decided through her haze, clambering off the bed. She fell to the floor instantly, and felt almost nauseous at her own weakness. But she crawled across the floor, leaving the tiniest of trails as tears fell from her face onto the rug, marking their contact points with small wet spots. She hurt. Her entire being—physical, mental, and emotional—was pain-wracked and terrified.

She needed to find the light. She knew from her dream that the light was safe.

The darkness would swallow everything.

Something slammed into her then, with all the force and pain of a baseball bat crashing into her back. A scream of pain and terror escaped her, but it barely made it beyond her lips before it was silenced, muted by something she couldn’t see.

“Umi!”

She heard a chorus of voices calling her name, and she could see hands, wearing white gloves, reaching towards her in the darkness. Those hands were glowing. They held the light. The light meant safety. But she could not reach the light. She could only claw desperately at the darkness as it closed around her and suffocated her.

“Umi!!”

That choir of voices coaxed her again, the Seraphim calling her spirit towards the heavens. She wanted to answer, more than anything. But her arms and legs gave out under the crushing blackness, and she felt the floor under her stomach and nose as her entire body went limp. Instantly, she felt something running over the full length of her body, icy right through her clothes. It seemed to weave itself around her limbs, rendering them numb.

“UMI!!”

The voices called again, this time more fearful than coaxing. But she could not reach them and the safety she somehow knew they could give her. She could only lie there on the floor, helpless and unmoving, completely lifeless as the darkness coiled around her, the serpent at last feasting on its prey. It was so cold; her eyes fell closed, it was just too much of a struggle to keep them open any longer. She was so scared. And so alone…she didn’t want to be alone like this…she couldn’t win.

She couldn’t face the darkness alone…

“Umi…”

The light faded, and Umi was left with nothing but the darkness of the room and her heart as something wrapped itself around her mind in a grasp that would never willingly let go…

-o-


"UMI!!

The mashin’s sudden rumble made Hikaru jump, and she looked up at the ceiling questioningly. “Selece? Is that you? What happened?” Realizing belatedly what he had said, she jumped up. “What happened to Umi? Is she okay?”

Before the Water Mashin could reply, a scream sliced through the otherwise-quiet palace.

Hikaru’s heart stopped cold in her chest. “Fuu!”

But there was one already on the move—Ferio sped past her, his sword in hand. Ascot and Caldina were not far behind, and she could hear the telltale clattering of armor that meant Lafarga was on his way as well. She knew that Lantis was on the move, too; his magical aura was speeding towards Fuu’s.

Even with Ferio’s lead, though, Hikaru overtook him. Without breaking her stride, there was a burst of red light as her sword leapt into her hand; without missing a beat, she summoned a small swirl of fire around her hand, prepared to attack whatever was threatening her friend. Fuu had been wounded too much already; nothing else would hurt her.

The doors nearly flew off their hinges as Ferio and Hikaru burst into Fuu’s room, weapons drawn and anger evident on their faces. But they both froze with the horror of realization as they took in the terrible scene before them.

Fuu was sprawled on the floor by the wall; she was wearing her own clothing again, rather than the nightgown they had put her to bed in, but she was barefoot, giving evidence to the idea that she had been caught rather off-guard. She was staring up at her attacker with wide green eyes, riddled with confusion and no little fear. And standing over her, with her back to the newcomers at the door, sword in hand raised and poised to deliver a killing blow…was Umi.

The blade began a downward arc towards Fuu, who was too stunned to move. She closed her eyes in terror. Oh God, she was really going to die this time…this was it…

She heard a grunt, and opened her eyes in time to see Ferio hit Umi with a full-on tackle. His sword clattered noisily to the ground just inside the door, where Hikaru was standing and staring, obviously trying to make some sense out of what she was seeing.

“Fuu! Run!” Ferio shouted the order, and she didn’t think twice about obeying it. She scrambled back to her feet and dove across the room to the vanity table, where her precious gem-glove was sitting. With one practiced motion she slid the glove onto her hand and drew her sword, completely ignoring the fact that she was still shoeless and her hair was one good shake away from a full-on afro.

There were more important matters at hand.

The room surged with movement as several things happened at once.

The other residents of the Cephirean palace burst in, armed and looking for the fight.

Fuu and Hikaru moved as one with swords in hand and magic swirling, dashing frantically towards the spot where Ferio was wrestling with Umi on the floor.

A cold breeze whipped through the room.

And Umi swung one foot up and caught Ferio square in the jaw with her heel, knocking the Cephirean Prince backwards onto the decorative rug. There was an audible clunk as his head made contact with the carpet and the heavy wooden floorboards that lay beneath the carpet. His expression turned dazed as stars pranced around before his eyes.

But it was enough of a break for Umi to flip over onto her back and spring back to her feet, Escudo sword still claimed in her hand. Her head was down, and her expression was further obscured by the several strands of long cerulean hair that draped loose from her headband and fell over her forehead.

Fuu and Hikaru didn’t even have to speak to each other; years of friendship and so much experience fighting together allowed them to synchronize their movements without a word. They each grabbed one of Ferio’s arms and hauled him to his feet, shoving him back towards the door where his sword was. He stumbled backwards, ears still ringing from the blow, right into Lafarga; the move was far less than graceful, but it ensured that, for the moment, Cephiro’s Prince was not going to be shish-kebobbed on the sword of Cephiro’s protector.

Everyone faced Umi, weapons drawn and expressions both hardened and nervous. They waited.

Finally, after indeterminate minutes, the Water Knight’s head moved. Slowly, it raised, her hair falling back, until she was standing completely upright, back perfectly straight. Her eyes were closed, her expression perfectly bland.

Again, everyone waited. And when Umi’s eyes slid open, they got the answer they had been waiting for. The one answer they had been desperately hoping they would not get.

Umi’s eyes were normally a vivid blue. That first night they had come back to Cephiro, something had happened, and her eyes had been glowing, a strange, ghostly azure light that had reflected the presence of someone else within her body. And now…

Black.

There were no irises, no pupils, and no whites to her eyes. There was no depth, no emotion, and no Umi within those eyes. It was just black, the purest shadow. Absolute darkness staring at them from that same bland expression, partially shaded by the fringe of blue bangs. And her magical aura was an absolute mess—it wasn’t even Umi’s. It was all that same cold, horrible darkness, swallowing up all that which was Umi and spitting out this lifeless shell.

The other two Magic Knights were closest. Hikaru moved first, risking a tiny step towards her friend. Her hand tightened nervously on the hilt of her sword. “Umi…?” she whispered, her voice quavering a tiny bit.

Perhaps that was the magic word, or perhaps she was just waiting for someone to acknowledge her—whatever the case, it got a reaction. Unfortunately, it was not the reaction anyone wanted.

Umi’s empty hand, the hand wearing the gem-glove, raised; water spiraled around her arm, and without a word, she let the water loose at Hikaru. They were too close for her to miss, and the Fire Knight didn’t have a chance to jump out of the way. She barely had the second she needed to shove Fuu a little further to the left to ensure that she wouldn’t get caught in the blast.

The torrent of water hit Hikaru square in the chest plate of her armor, and sent the lithe redhead tumbling backwards with a scream of surprise and pain. She slid across the floor, upending a chair in her wake. She stayed relatively motionless for a moment, gasping for air, before she struggled back to her feet, clutching her side in pain.

Fuu didn’t wait for Hikaru to make it all the way to her feet. She simply whirled and retaliated. “IMASHIME NO KAZE!” The binding winds swept from her hands and whirled around her friend, tightening in on the Blue Knight with the intent of holding her firmly in place.

For a moment, it looked as though it would work.

The darkness that radiated from Umi actually seemed to grow, and there was a flare of shadow as the chains of wind visibly shattered around her, leaving her completely free. She didn’t waste a breath, but charged with her sword, her velocity spurned on by something that could not have been human.

Umi’s blade crashed into Fuu’s with a loud clanging sound, and the Water Knight immediately began driving her friend back with harsh, expert attacks. Her background as a fencer shone through, aided by whatever it was that held her this time, and Fuu, whose primary skill lay within archery and for whom swordsmanship was a secondary ability, proved barely able to even defend herself, let alone match her.

It was a rout after that—the entire Cephirean palace seemed to have stirred to try and subdue Umi, though everyone was pulling their hits and watching the level of their attacks lest they hurt their possessed friend, for they were certain that was what had befallen their Knight: possession. Neither Lantis nor Lafarga dared used the magic that lay within their swords, for fear of hurting Umi. Fuu’s binding winds would hold her for only scant seconds, and Hikaru (who was back on her feet, if a bit wobbly) wouldn’t use her magic at all, save to try and counteract Umi’s magic, which was being thrown around like confetti at a New Year’s party.

Even when they attacked in pairs, trios, and groups, Umi’s blade and magic intercepted them and pushed them back. Metal clashed noisily against metal; magic erupted in retaliation against magic. They couldn’t land a single good blow; they couldn’t even put a scratch on her. It was as though whatever controlled her also protected her, keeping her from their attacks lest even a drop of her blood be spilled.

After innumerable minutes of attacking and being attacked, of desperate blocking and more attacks, there seemed to be a ceasefire. Hikaru and Fuu stood at the helm of the Cephirean team, who were on one side of the room; most were panting, and Caldina looked downright frightened. Mokona was puu-ing softly from the door, watching the scene with a sort of fearful interest.

On the other side of the room was Umi, standing alone. She didn’t seem even the slightest bit out of breath, and no emotion registered itself on her face. She simply stared through eyes that seemed incapable of blinking, and did not move. Even her breathing was barely visible.

And as they watched and tried to figure out where to go from there, something began to happen.

The shadow that had swallowed Umi’s aura and mind seemed to swell around her, like pitch-black smoke. It started on the ground by her feet, moving up to her knees, and then up to her waist, a narrow column of pure darkness that moved around her, rustling her hair and clothes with a breeze that touched no one else. When it reached her waist, it stopped climbing over her form; instead, an arm of it continued the upward trek, spiraling around her until it seemed to be peering over her shoulder at them. And then that arm of it shifted and changed until it took on a vaguely human form—a head, two arms, and two gray slits where eyes should have been in the void of a face.

And then it spoke, sliding one shadowy arm around Umi’s shoulders in a decidedly possessive gesture. “Well, well, what do we have here?” it hissed; the voice was neuter, neither male nor female, and there was nothing friendly about it. Only the chilling iciness of it. “I suppose you want to help your friend. But I suppose you’ve also realized that you can’t help her anymore. She’s ours now.” The head moved closer to Umi’s, and there was the strange sensation that the shadow-being was kissing her pale cheek.

“Get away from her!” Clef snarled angrily, raising his staff.

“I think not, Master Mage,” the being whispered.

“How could you do this to Umi?” Lantis growled, standing behind Hikaru’s left shoulder.

To their amazement, the shadow-being laughed, a cruel, bitter sound. “Oh, how little you know, cail.” It snaked tighter around Umi, pulling closer to her. “I did nothing to Umi. She did all of this to herself.” It chucked again, as though it found the whole thing very funny. “Isn’t it wonderful what a weapon the mind itself can be when turned on itself? Doubts are so very delicious, yes?”

Doubts? Fuu’s mental alerts went off like crazy.

The mind? Clef jolted.

To herself? Hikaru gaped.

There was a flare, and the shadow seemed to melt into Umi, disappearing into her. Throughout this whole exchange, Umi had not moved or blinked. But now, she raised her sword and attacked, and the fight began anew. At some point, it spilled out into the hallway, sending servants screaming and running for safety. But the intensity did not decrease.

Swords continued to cross and clash as friend challenged friend. But no one gave an inch; in spite of their superior numbers and probably superior magic and skill, none of the Cephireans wanted to risk harming their Knight, and so they did not go after her with their full force.

Fuu was silently taking notes on every aspect of the fight, filing everything away in her memory with that quick logic that was her trademark and pride. She would go over this in detail later. Nothing about this battle seemed right, and she felt like she was missing something crucial that was dancing right in front of her. It was not a pleasant feeling.

But even with her watchful eye, if Fuu thought about it for the next hundred years, she could never have figured out how what happened next exactly happened. It was too fast, and it should not have happened the way it did.

Umi ducked under Presea’s sword and drove her knee into the pharle’s stomach, sending the artisan to her knees in pain. Fortunately, Caldina was right behind her, and she managed to draw Umi away from the injured Presea. It was then that things got hairy: Lafarga joined in Caldina’s attack, but somehow Umi slipped between them, and floored Hikaru before wheeling on the nearest available target.

Ascot.

Ascot, who had been staying to the back, watching the battle with the same fearful apprehension as the others, and who hadn’t really joined in the fight as much, not sure if his particular talent would be of any use in this fight.

Ascot, who now found himself pinned to the wall with the point of a sword at his chin, a sword wielded by a Magic Knight would didn’t seem to know her own friends at that moment. A Magic Knight who seemed fully prepared to kill him.

The sword drew back for the death blow. Ascot realized he couldn’t move, and there was no way any of the others with weapons would be able to block this. His eyes squeezed closed behind his bangs. It wasn’t Umi’s fault, she didn’t know what she was doing…he didn’t blame her…

Strange…death didn’t seem to hurt…

He opened his eyes, and surprise clearly wrote itself on his face.

She was still holding the sword, poised and ready; she simply had to drive the blade forward, and it would pierce his throat and end his life. Why wasn’t she just doing it? And why was she shaking?

The shadows in her eyes flared, and the blade moved. Ascot gasped—

—but it didn’t make it. For the second time in the course of this fight, someone struck Umi hard from the side just before she could send a friend to an early grave, sending both her and her assailant somersaulting to the floor. But the Cephireans were all accounted for, with Hikaru and Fuu among their number. So who…?

The newcomer was moving too fast to be easily recognizable, but one feature stood out quite plainly, even as Ascot’s savior spun back to a standing position and whirled to face Umi: the shock of long, brown curls that spun around her with every movement.

Kagura.

Who had easily flipped from the floor right back onto her feet. It was then that Fuu nearly smacked herself in the forehead—Kagura was a fencer, and just as light on her feet as their Knight of Water. But more importantly, Umi and Kagura went back far, far further than she and Umi did, back before the days of the Magic Knights. Maybe—just maybe—if somebody could get through the possession and shadows to the real Umi…

That notion was squashed completely flat as Umi rounded on Kagura, and the brunette found herself in a position remarkably similar to the one she had saved Ascot from: a sword-point just barely touched the tender skin at her throat. There was a surge of panic as everyone simultaneously tried to move forward and stop what they were certain would be a horrible tragedy, committed in front of them.

-o-


Lovely.

So very lovely.

Twin smirks drifted lazily onto two handsome faces.

“I knew she would do it for us,” Xander remarked casually.

At his shoulder, Aeric was silent. But the general’s eyes drifted lazily over the shadow-wrapped form of the Knight of Selece. It was beautiful, indeed. And to think that he had sparked the downward spiral that had led to this. She had caved faster than he had anticipated.

How perfectly delightful.

And no matter what the outcome, it was a perfect distraction as they made their move.

Cephiro was the ripe fruit dangling from the tree, the prime peach just waiting to be plucked from the branch by opportune harvesters such as themselves. But first, there were other tasty morsels to snatch up and devour first. The prospect was most appealing: watch the prized land cower as the beautiful darkness closed in around it, choking the world into submission.

After all, why not save the best for last?

-o-


The watchers dove forward, determined to stop Umi from slaughtering a friend right in front of them. They would never make it in time…no…

But Kagura’s voice stopped them dead in their tracks. “Are you really going to do it, Umi?”

Everyone froze.

Kagura didn’t seem to notice anyone else in the room; her eyes, warm and dark with concern, were fixated solely on her sword-wielding friend. Her expression was grim, but not unkind. “Are you really going to kill me? Then do it. For some reason, you really seem to want to kill me. So do it. If it’ll make you happy, do it.” There was a tense silence that seemed to stretch on for eons and eons in the space of several breaths. No one moved—Umi included.

Kagura’s face shifted then, into a smile that held all the collective sadness in the room. “You don’t want to do this, do you? I know you better than that, Umi.” She inched back the tiniest step; the sword didn’t follow her. “You told me about Princess Emeraude. I know how much that crushed you, and you didn’t even know her. You’re not a killer. You don’t want to do this.” Another inch back, putting a little more distance between herself and the instrument that could mean her death.

Umi did not move, per se. But the tip of the sword was starting to quiver the slightest bit.

“I don’t know what happened to you,” Kagura went on, her tone level and calm. “But if you let us help you…whatever’s wrong…we’re your friends, right? And that’s what friends do.” To her chagrin, tears sprang into eyes the color of dark chocolate. A few escaped her eyes and made their way down her face. “Remember the accident? The night my brother…you were there for me. Please, Umi…just put down the sword. We’ll figure this out. Whatever happened, I…please…” Words seem to fail her at this point as more tears fell and her breathing became a bit more irregular.

No one moved. No one spoke. No one even dared to breathe loudly. There was something being passed between two friends here, but it was a something that was solely between them, leaving no room at the moment for anyone else to intrude.

But the blade was shaking harder, more visibly now.

“Umi…put the sword down,” Kagura said softly, her voice evening out now. “Just drop it.”

By this time, everyone could see Umi’s hand visibly starting to move, as though she was fighting to unwrap her fingers from around that hilt. One by one, the trembling digits unwound themselves from the sword; slowly, the blade began to dip lower and lower, until it was barely sitting in her hand.

“Just drop it. Just put it down. It’ll be okay,” Kagura kept repeating. “We’ll get you back.”

Clatter.

The sword slid from shaky fingers to the ground, where it landed noisily. Umi’s arm didn’t drop; it was still poised as though to spear Kagura on now-invisible steel. But her expression was actually wavering, as though she was fighting through something. Kagura took a cautious step forward…

Darkness…

The shadows in her eyes flared, and a black aura flashed around her. In a movement so swift everyone barely had a chance to react, she lunged towards the floor, reaching for her fallen blade—

—her wrist was caught mere inches from the sword’s hilt, and in one quick movement, Ascot managed to spin her around, catching her other wrist in the process and pinning her arms tightly behind her in an attempt to restrain her. Her back pressed against his chest, a position that at any other time would have sent him straight to the verge of spontaneous combustion, but now only reminded him how desperate he was to keep her from hurting herself or anyone else.

He wasn’t quite prepared, though, for her retaliation. He felt one of her hands move…

Water.

A column of water swept up around the two of them, but there was nothing kind about it. It lashed against him, whips made of the sea. It lashed against the both of them without mercy. Ascot felt it cutting into him, tearing at his summoner’s robes. But more horrible than that, he could see it doing the same to Umi, ripping her clothes and slicing into her flesh. She was hurting herself with her own magic.

Ascot could faintly hear a racket, punctuated by Caldina’s screaming, over the roar of the water around him. But he just winced, squeezing his eyes closed against the pain, and held on as tightly as he could. For his life and Umi’s.

“STOP IT!” With a hiss, the shadow erupted around her again, breaking the spell woven by her water-magic and throwing him backwards, away from her. He landed hard on his back, and felt a sharp spasm of pain through his leg. His ankle…had something happened to his ankle?

Umi stood alone in the middle of the hallway now. She was drenched, bleeding from numerous cuts inflicted on her by her own magic. Her sword lay a good enough distance away that she wouldn’t be able to retrieve it easily. But she was dangerous enough with just her magic and her hands.

“Umi…” the shadow-voice slithered around her, from within her, “…you must not harm yourself. Eliminate them instead. Those who call themselves your friends…they know nothing about you…”

“Umi!” Kagura called plaintively. She had been thrown aside when the magic had started flying, and was leaning against the wall, watching in horror and worry. But as everyone else started to panic, Fuu frowned. Whatever was holding her friend seemed pretty damned determined that Umi should not be hurt.

Interesting…

The Water Knight turned and looked at those assembled. They were starting to look worn, and were growing more and more alarmed with each passing second. She, on the other hand, didn’t look like she’d been doing much of anything. No gasping, no perspiration.

And as everyone watched, Umi’s shadow-drowned eyes suddenly flickered to blue.

-o-


She was suspended somewhere, though she didn’t know where. She was immobile, unable to move at all. All she could do was stare into the inky blackness that was the void around her.

Umi wondered what was happening at first. Then, slowly, she began to realize what her body was doing without her permission, and she had been horrified beyond description. But she couldn’t fight herself; the tendrils that held her arms, legs, and body were of the darkness that surrounded her, and they would not let her go.

Her eyes stung as tears prickled around the corners of them. She was weeping, producing tears in a place where such things were superficial—what a world. What a world, indeed…

I don’t want this to happen… she thought desperately as her body moved. Her hand was holding a sword to Ascot’s throat, pinning the young summoner to the wall with intent to kill. Ice wrapped itself around her insides, and something shuddered within her at the very thought. NO! ASCOT!

And her body froze. Just for a minute, but just long enough.

And Kagura’s intervention. No, no, no…

Umi, in sheer panic, found that she was struggling against that which bound her. Even her thoughts echoed hollowly in her mind as harsh sobs. I won’t hurt them…stop it! Leave them alone! What do you want from me…what do you want?

“Umi?”


Those voices again, the chorus of whispers that seemed almost heaven-sent. She saw those hands again, the holders of the light and safety. Her voice failed her and her arms were still held immobile at her sides, but her desperate, frightened heart reached for them. “Please…help me…I can’t…” Again, the tears sprang loose, and she hated herself for them and for her own weakness.

A form appeared over her, bathed in the glowing light. “Come to us, bright one…” The hands were still extended to her, offering solace, but theirs was a sanctuary she could not move to accept.

“I can’t…”

“You can’t as long as you doubt,”
the voice said softly, as the form above her shaped into a familiar sight by now; she recognized her faceless guardian, hovering above her. “Accept yourself, and take your freedom. They cannot hold that which will not accept their chains.”

The being floated closer. “You are the only one who can break your bindings. Then and only then can you regain control of yourself. Don’t let them beat you, bright one. Fight against them, and come to us. We can return you to yourself. Please, Umi…” The angelic voices took on a pleading note. Time was running far too short.

Umi watched as she attacked Ascot again. “No…”

I am not worthless. I am not weak.

I will not be their toy, their instrument of death.

I am a Magic Knight.

Let…

Me…

GO!


There was a loud sound as the chains of darkness shattered around her, and she fell.

The hands appeared above her again. “Come to us!”

Two in particular stood out for some reason, and she realized that they belonged to her protector. She reached for those, and warmth flickered through her as their fingers touched. The shadow that was her guardian pulled on her hands, pulling Umi to her in a tight embrace.

I want the light.

“It is almost time,” the gentle voice whispered into her ear as the words began to blur into one another. The next statement was so fuzzy that she could barely make out most of the words—it was the same phrase that haunted her recurring dream. “Open…arms to…”

And she felt herself moving upwards, away from the void of shadow.

I want the light.

Take me to the light…

-o-


“Impossible!” the shadow-voice hissed angrily, and the darkness swarmed to its intended victim.

Umi’s eyes were flickering back and forth, between the depths of shadows, and the ghostly glowing blue that had marked their first night back in Cephiro. And the Magic Knight was recoiling violently, trembling and staggering around in a little circle. Her hands flew to the side of her head and pressed over her ears, trying to shut out voices and sounds that came solely from within.

It was a war being waged within the girl’s very being, and no one seemed to know what to do. Even Clef, with eons of magical knowledge behind him, stared blankly, wide-eyed, at a total loss.

Tears slipped from under closed eyelids and rolled down her face. Whether they were tears of pain, anger, or something else entirely, no one knew. But Umi’s face was contorted, as though she was trapped in the throes of mortal agony. Tiny whimpering noises escaped her, steadily growing louder and louder until she screamed.

Suddenly her head snapped back in a shriek. “GET OUT OF MY HEAD!” In Umi’s voice. No hissing, no strange echo. A normal voice that was twisted in pain.

Blue light exploded around Umi, and a column of shadow shot upwards from her feet, towards the ceiling. They heard the angry hissed squeal as whatever demon had taken their friend was purged. Her hair whipped up around her from the force of it, and she hunched over a little, huddling against the onslaught. Her arms were wrapped around her torso, as though trying to protect herself from it.

The dark cloud vanished; the shadow was gone.

But Umi’s hair continued to hover, floating around her like a cloud of blue silk. A gentle blue glow enveloped her. It was not harsh as the darkness had been, but rather was comforting, a sign that the threat was momentarily gone. They had seen this glow before; to their knowledge, it was safe.

Suspicions were confirmed when Umi’s head lifted and her eyes opened, revealing that same glow. The voice that spoke through Umi’s mouth was identical to the one they had heard their first night back in Cephiro, when whoever was in there had simply used the girl’s body to announce their presence. This time, Umi’s face was desperately sad, in spite of the smile that the spirit had put there.

“Hello again, everyone,” the voice whispered.

“What’s going on?” Hikaru half-shrieked, brandishing her sword angrily.

“It’s all right now,” ‘Umi’ said quietly. “The danger has passed for the moment. But…” A second of hesitation. “I think you should talk to Umi—make her tell you what’s wrong. She’s been putting herself through a lot, and that’s why this happened.” Quickly, the blue-spirit explained to the stunned assembly about Aeric’s harsh words and the spiral of doubt that had sprung from them, leaving Umi especially vulnerable to Xander’s dark magic.

When he had sprung the darkness upon her, she had been so far gone within her own feelings of inadequacy and loneliness that she hadn’t a chance of defending herself from the surprise attack. And she had isolated herself both physically and emotionally, letting no one else know of her worries. That had been a near-fatal mistake, and her friends had nearly paid that terrible price.

“Please, help her,” the blue-voice entreated, clasping Umi’s hands together in a pleading gesture. “I know you can. Help her recover that which was lost. She must not fall to them—there is still far too much at stake, for all of you.”

“What’s at stake? What’s going on?” Fuu demanded.

“I cannot tell you, or it will all be for nothing…” the voice mused; it then seemed to realize that it had said too much. “I must leave now. But for your sake and Umi’s…help her. We will be watching.” The glow around Umi flared and vanished; whatever forces had permitted her hair to defy gravity released it to swing down behind her, and her feet once again planted themselves firmly on the ground.

There was dead silence in the room. One could have heard a pin dropped on the pillow.

Umi’s head snapped back as a loud gasp escaped her, and she stared at them. Then, without further ado, her eyes, blessedly normal blue eyes, rolled back into her head, and she crumpled, falling forward in a dead faint, right into the waiting arms of Hikaru and Fuu.

“Oh…my…God…” Kagura breathed. Her energy seemed to leave her then as she slumped against the wall. “I can’t believe that almost happened…I almost thought she was going to kill me!”

Slowly, the room stirred itself back to motion. Everyone busied themselves in some way; Fuu started by sparing a bit of magic to put everyone’s injuries right again. Caldina took charge of the shaken Kagura and Ascot (and for once, she didn’t even think of teasing the poor summoner), while Lantis and Lafarga swept out to hold their own council with an equally-shaken Clef.

Hikaru and Fuu, with a little help from Ferio and Presea, herded the unconscious Umi into bed and settled in to wait for their friend to wake up. At Xander’s palace, Fuu had promised her a long talk.

Now, it was time to pay the piper.