“Don’t be scared, Yume.” Seiken looked up from her wounded side and took her hand. She gripped back, hard, and for a moment they just stared at one another. “I’ll take care of you.”

     No… no, I won’t. I can’t fix this. You’re going to die.

     He’d carried her back to her room and laid her on the bed. One look at the wound in her side was all he needed. Grief struck him like a sudden weight. Yume was going to die. The stitched gash in her side had grown black, necrotic, and veins of darkness ran from it, stark against pale skin. She was poisoned.

     Seiken, not knowing what manner of poison coursed through her veins, could do nothing to help her. He would try, of course, but anything he did had but a small chance of working. And here he’d been thinking he couldn’t feel any worse. The night before, as he’d been desperately trying to salvage what remained of Kaiya’s life, he’d silently prayed over and over to his goddess to lend him the strength to help the only person in the world he could consider a friend. And now this. Why did it have to be the two people who’d shown him the most kindness? If you’re testing me, Trista, you must surely want me to fail.

     Seiken forced himself to focus, to look over Yume with cold precision and try to identify which of her organs were being affected by the poison. Once he did that, he could try to treat the effects at least, buying time while he tried to discover the makeup of the toxin in the bullet that struck her.

     “I know you’ll take care of me,” Yume whispered. “I wouldn’t want anyone else in the world here but you. Because I’ve seen what you can do. You can do anything.”

     The faith in her eyes made Seiken’s heart break.

 

     “And that’s the situation. Mirai’s safe at least. I’m trying to keep her isolated from the others. She’s gotten a bit attached to the Decameron.” Quen spoke into the phone.

     Meena laughed.

     “She’s a girl, Quen. She’s a girl being a girl. It’s kind of cute that our Mirai has her first crush.”

     “If you say so, Mother.”

     “You mentioned that there was some trouble getting out. Is everyone alright there?”
“The Night’s Herald, Kaiya, was shot. I don’t believe he’ll recover, but then again I was fairly sure he would’ve died last night.”

     “I see…” Meena’s voice was soft. She was silent for a few seconds before continuing. “And the others?”

     “They seem alright.”

     Meena listened to her son, more than just his words.

     “You’re not making yourself any friends, are you?” she asked.

     “No. They’re all so- so emotional. They can’t think about anything clearly.”

     “That’s the way people work, Quen. They think with their hearts, not their heads.”

     “You’re not like that.”

     “Not most of the time, no, but I’m an exception, not the rule.” With a sigh, she added, “Quen, we’ve been over this.”

     “I’m attempting to follow what you said, but it’s very difficult. I think perhaps this was a mistake. I should be at home. I don’t understand these people, and they don’t understand me.”

     “You know I need you out there. Everything we’ve done is pointless if you just end up sitting at home all the time. All that work for nothing- and not just my work- yours, too.”

     Quen nodded, though Meena couldn’t see him.

     “I’ll just do my best.”

     “Quen,” Meena’s voice was gravely serious. “There’s two things I want you to do for me.”

     “Yes?”

     “The first is very easy. I want you to tell the others that Chiesara, Kieran and Takae are safe. They’re here at home with me. Chie and Kieran will leave as soon as this hullabaloo has died down, and they’ll take Takae with them and look after him until Hironah can take him back to Kamitouki. Okay? I want you to make sure they know that. They’re probably going crazy not knowing.”

     “I’ll tell them.”

     “The second may be a bit more difficult.”

     “What is it?” Quen asked hollowly.

     “Remember how I taught you about what ‘compassion’ means? I want you to do something compassionate. Even if you have to make it work logically, I want you to do something out of care for others and their welfare. Consider it another of our lessons, but in the field.”

     Quen was silent for a long time.

     “Quen?”

     “There may be a problem, I think…”

     “A problem?”

     “Some of the men last night were carrying weapons of your design. Hironah, Yume, and Kaiya all were injured. Hironah and Yume only have surface wounds. I don’t know which, if any of them, was hit by one of your guns.”

     It was Meena’s turn to fall silent. After a pause, she said,

     “Go find the Decameron boy. What was his name, Seiran?”

     “Seiken.”

     “Put Seiken on the phone. If poor Kaiya was hit with anything I designed, he’s already lost… but the girls… maybe we can help them.”

     “Okay, I’ll find him. Hang on.” After a moment, Quen asked, “Was that compassion, Mother?”

     “Sort of.”

 

     “Have you guys seen Yume anywhere?” Yoshiki asked Hironah and Uneme as he walked into the room where they sat.

     “Last I saw her, she went to talk to Kaiya. She’s probably still with him.” Hironah answered.

     “I thought that and figured I’d look for her there, but she left already. And Kaiya’s passed out so I couldn’t ask him.”

     “Why don’t you check her room?” Hironah offered. “She might’ve decided to go back to bed.”

     “Maybe… I hope she’s not off being miserable all by herself. She can get as mopey as Kaiya sometimes.”

     Hironah was quiet for a moment before she said,

     “If she tells you that she wants to be left alone, let her be. She has to deal with this her own way.”

     “Yeah, yeah,” Yoshiki replied impatiently. “Well, I’m going to go look for her upstairs.”

     He turned and walked away, leaving Hironah and Uneme to continue their discussion. He bounded up the stairs, uncomfortable with the nagging instinct that told him something was amiss. I’m just worried about too many things at once, he reassured himself. As he approached the door to the room Yume had been given, his anxiety swelled. I’m being dumb. Why am I afraid of a door? He opened it slowly, peering inside.

     The scene spread out before Yoshiki made his jaw drop, and then slam shut again, clenching.

     “Yume.” He somehow forced out his sister’s name. Seiken looked up at him, flickers of grim truth cracking his mask of impassivity. He shook his head and looked down again.

     Yoshiki bounded across the room and stared down at his sister, numb with shock and disbelief. He watched as her hands clutched at the sheets beneath her, which were soaked through with sweat. Yume’s teeth were clenched, her eyes screwed tight shut. White froth dirtied her mouth and her nose was running.

     “Yume.” This time her name came out as a whine.

     Her fluttering eyelids flicked open, her glassy eyes searching for him.

     “I’m here,” he said quietly, crouching down beside her. She looked pleadingly at him until her eyes slammed shut again, her face contorted. Yoshiki reached out and stroked her flushed, burning skin. He rose.

     “What happened?” His voice stumbled over the words, far too many emotions fighting for dominance.

     “The bullet was poisoned.” Seiken didn’t look up at him.

     “She… is she…” Yoshiki broke off, unable to voice hope or fear. “Not Yume, Seiken. Not Yume. You have to- just… just not Yume.”

     “Did you notice anything about the weapons those guys had last night? Could you name one, or tell me anything about what might’ve been either on or in the bullets?” Seiken asked calmly and clearly, his eyes still on his work.

     “I- I… No, I don’t know.” Yoshiki covered his eyes with one hand. This isn’t happening.

     “Go ask all the others, even Mirai if you have to. Anything I know will help me to help Yume.”

     “What if nobody knows anything?”

     “Let’s just see if they do first, okay? Will you go check? I can’t leave her.”
“I… Okay.”

     Yoshiki spun around and fled from the room. He nearly knocked Quen over in the corridor as he barreled along, bellowing,

     “Hironah!”

     Quen ignored him and entered the room.

     “Seiken.”

     The Decameron looked up.

     “My mother’s on the phone,” he announced, offering the appliance. “She needs to talk to you.”

     “Whatever it is, it can wait. I can’t talk to her now.” For a fraction of a second, hatred burned in Seiken’s scarlet eyes. Didn’t Quen notice what was going on?

     “No, it can’t. It’s about… this.” Quen gestured to Yume. “She can help you. Talk to her.”

     Reluctantly, Seiken took the phone. If Quen was lying, he could just as easily hang up.

     “Hello?”

     “Hello, Seiken? It’s Meena. Quen told me one of you might’ve been hit with a weapon I designed.” Meena spoke urgently, hurrying to explain and get it over with.

     “I think Yume did.”

     “Yume? Chiesara’s girl?”

     “Yes,” Seiken answered through gritted teeth.

     “Alright. I need you to describe for me, as exactly as you can, her condition. Don’t leave any detail out, even if it seems insignificant. Can you do that?”

     As Seiken launched into an account of Yume’s symptoms, Quen moved to stand beside the door. He’d make sure that they were not disturbed.

 

     “What happened to Yume, Hironah?”

     “Nothing.”

     “Don’t tell me ‘nothing’. I heard Yoshiki raising hell out in the hall. Don’t lie to me.”

     “Kaiya…”

     “What happened? She was here earlier today and I was worried so I asked her to go see Seiken. Tell me what happened, or I’ll get up and find out for myself.”

     The idea of Kaiya getting up was laughable. His face had turned an ashen grey and every breath he drew rasped in his chest. His bluish lips were flecked with blood. Looking at him, Hironah could hear Quen’s voice echo in her ears. One of you will be dead by nightfall. The macabre portion of her mind kept singing out, Yume or Kaiya? Which will it be? And yet she knew she couldn’t lie to him, if only because he probably would somehow manage to claw his way out of the room.

     “She’s poisoned,” Hironah sighed.

     “Poisoned?”

     “The bullet that hit her last night had poison on it.”

     Kaiya looked intently at Hironah. He read her expression carefully, gauging the depths of the situation.

     “Can Seiken do anything to help her?”

     “He’s trying. He’s got Meena on the phone. The gun was Meena’s design, so they’ve been working together trying to come up with an antidote.”

     Kaiya continued his observation of Hironah.

     “It doesn’t look good, does it?” he finally asked.

     Hironah, her eyes glued to the carpet, said,

     “She’s really sick.”

     Kaiya watched Hironah for a moment more, then nodded to himself with as much strength as he could muster. He’d been silent for a while before Hironah looked at him. His eyes were closed, his pained breathing as deep as possible.

     “Kaiya?”

     He didn’t answer. She moved closer to him.

     “Are you okay?”

     No reply. She looked over him frantically.

     “What are you-” Her eyes fell on the shape of his hands on the blankets. “Kaiya, don’t! No, stop!”

     He didn’t move. Hironah shook him as violently as she dared to. Finally, his eyes opened and he looked at her.

     “Stop! You’ll die!”

     “Maybe I won’t,” he said defiantly.

     “You can’t. You can’t send your soul like this. If you do, you know you’ll die.”

     It had been attempted before, they both knew. Ill or wounded Night’s Herald had tried Soul Walking in their weakened states. None of them had survived… and not one of them had been wounded as seriously as Kaiya was now. If he sent his soul, his body on the Universal Plane would most assuredly die.

     “I’m going. I’ll beg the gods in person to spare Yume.” And if it ends up a sacrifice, they’ll be more likely to listen.

     “And how will you being dead make the rest of us feel any better?” Hironah demanded.

     “Look, Hironah,” Kaiya’s voice grew soft. “I hate to say this, but look at me. I’m kinda wrecked anyway.” He was looking at the ceiling and wouldn’t meet her searching eyes. “If I’ve gotta die anyways, why shouldn’t I try to help Yume in the bargain?”

     “Kaiya…”

     “I can’t just lie here and do nothing.”

     “Don’t, Kaiya, please.

     Kaiya finally looked at Hironah, his eyes filled with longing and sorrow.

     “I’m sorry, Hironah, but I have to. As bad as it’ll be if I can’t come back, it’ll be worse if it’s the both of us gone. If I can spare you that… I have to try. I love you and Yume and Yoshiki more than anything. If you can go on living, it would be worth battling my way through Pandemonium. I have to do this, Hironah. And when Yume is well and whole and happy, you can look on her and know it wasn’t in vain.”

     Hironah wanted more than anything to wipe away the tears that burned her eyes, but found she could do no more than stand stock-still, her hands balled at her sides, staring at Kaiya.

     “You really think you’re going to die.” Her words came out as a shaking statement.

     Kaiya looked away from her.

     “Let me use my strength to help Yume, Hironah. You’ll be happier in the end. Trust me.”

     Hironah felt no sensation but the coolness of her tears as they finally dropped down her cheeks. She searched in vain for some argument, but there was nothing left to her. She realized, with a pain that left her chest empty and hollow, that Kaiya was right. He wouldn’t go on living. She’d known that already… but perhaps Yume could.

     “I’ll miss you,” she whispered.

     “Who knows?” he said with a smile. “I might come back. Stranger things have happened. But of course, if I do you’ll just yell at me.”

     “I promise I won’t. This time I won’t.”

     “All the more reason for me to do my best to do this right and come back to you. We can make a bet on it. I’ll bet you two weeks of doing the dishes that you do so yell at me.”

     “Kaiya…”

     “Is it a bet?”

     With a sob, Hironah said,

     “It’s a bet.”

     “I’d better go. It’ll take a lot to get there, and I’m feeling kinda tired already.”

     “Go,” Hironah whispered through her tears.

     “I’ll be back before you know it. And remember, no yelling.” He closed his eyes.

     “Kaiya!” Mirai burst into the room and flung herself down at the side of Kaiya’s bed. “Kaiya, don’t go!”

     Confused by the alien voice, he opened his eyes.

     “Thank the gods I found you before I forgot!” Mirai cried. “Don’t go. Don’t walk this path. You can make this sacrifice, but it’ll do no good. They laughed at you, Kaiya. They laughed.”

     “Who laughed?”

     “The gods. They laughed. But not Trista… She wept. She wept at your lack of faith in both her and her child. She wept because you gave up your life. The other way is better. Harder but better.”

     “The other way?”
“The other future. The other path. The other destiny. What you decide to do will change things for all of us.”

     “What about Yume?” Kaiya asked fiercely.

     “Let Seiken take care of it. He’s capable of saving her with Meena’s help. He might’ve failed, but he won’t now. That course of action has already been chosen. Your death will be in vain, and it will become a joke.”

     Kaiya looked into Mirai’s colorless eyes and saw there a passion, a spark of intelligence he hadn’t seen before. Even as he watched, that spark grew dim, rapidly being replaced by the emptiness he was accustomed to.

     “What difference does it make, Mirai, if I die this way or let that asshole’s bullet take me?”

     “All the difference in the world. Our destinations are defined by our choices. The future is not laid out in a path ahead of us. We may meander; we may even hesitate. We may find ourselves moving with the best of intentions, yet like an arrow we are hindered by the winds, missing our mark. You know yourself the value of how our choices affect others. You’ve already tried so hard, Kaiya. Live for now, and perhaps you may live on. Don’t assign your death to this moment. That’s the last of my advice. I cannot give you any more, for already I forget.”

     “Forget what?”

     “Everything.”

 

     “I’m not sure yet when it’ll be,” Yoshiki spoke in code, huddled against the wind. “Soon though. But I have to stay with Yume, and I want Kaiya with us, if possible.”

     “What’s the outlook?”

     “We’ll follow the plan as we laid it out. It’s solid. It’ll work.”

     “No, I meant Yume and Kaiya.”

     Yoshiki let the autumn wind push against him. For a moment, he lost himself in its chill dominance, feeling his soul make a choice. He needed release. He was silent for a time, letting all his emotions gather, try to coalesce while fighting one another. Not one of them would arise as victor. He realized there would be no homogenization of feeling. They would not combine- he would have no such relief. It was his fate to be torn. If he wanted relief from any of them- hope, terror, rage, disbelief, sorrow- he’d have to express them all. This was Renta. Renta would understand.

     “Yoshiki?”

     “I… I don’t know. Seiken’s doing his best but… Dammit! Those bastards poisoned my sister! I swear, I wish I could be anywhere but here right now- somewhere where I could be tearing apart every last one of those assholes. I want to leave, but I can’t. What am I supposed to do? I’m just sitting around, useless, while she dies.”

     “Wait. Hold up. Yume?” Renta’s voice took on a hint of panic.

     “She’s gonna die. I just know it. I keep telling myself that it won’t happen, but… I can’t make myself believe that.”

     “Can’t Seiken do anything?”

     “He’s trying. He’s got Meena on the phone. They think the gun was one of hers. Maybe they can figure it out. Maybe.”

     “Where are you? I want to be there.”

     “I already told you, I can’t tell you where I am. Besides, I need you to get Sirrah ready. Whatever the outcome, I am going to make sure that we are personally responsible for wiping the god-forsaken Ghost Clan off the face of the planet.”

     Renta was silent for a bit before saying,

     “Yume’s a tough kid. Any little thing that Seiken and Meena can manage will probably work like a charm. And remember, Seiken helped you when I was positive there was nothing even the gods could do. Yume’s in good hands. Don’t go doing anything crazy. I’ll get the crew ready so we can do this thing right when the time comes.”

     “Thanks, Renta,” Yoshiki’s voice was despondent. “I may need you guys as soon as tomorrow, depending.”

     “Depending on what?”

     “If Kaiya dies, I’m leaving. We’ll take it from there.”

     “He won’t die. It’s Kaiya.”

     “I wish I could say that.” Yoshiki felt the wind bite him again. The romance of the payphone. “I’ve never seen Kaiya like this before. He looks… screwed. And Seiken’s busy with Yume, so…”

     “I get it,” Renta said quietly.

     “Look, you just get the guys ready, okay?”

     “You got it, boss,” Renta replied, knowing there was nothing else he could say.

     “Good. Get ready. Those bastards are going down.” 

 

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