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I Need A Hero

Chapter Text

 

To say that Ichimatsu was surprised by a knock at his door would be an understatement.

He hadn’t had a single visitor in nearly a decade, having squirreled himself away to study massive arcane tomes long ago. In fact, to ensure he would not receive any visitors whatsoever, he had taken up residence in a cottage deep in a thick, wild forest, and had enchanted the place to be difficult to notice for good measure.

He himself only left his hidden cottage on rare occasion, needing to acquire some supply or another from a nearby human settlement. 

Another knock came, faster, louder, and more insistent this time. 

Ichimatsu already hated whoever was on the other side.

He cast a spell of clairvoyance in lieu of allowing the stranger access, taking in the figure shifting nervously, impatiently, on the other side. 

Armed, armored, but still anxious.

“What do you want.” Ichimatsu raised his voice enough to be heard from opposite the door. 

“Ah! Hello! I am on a royal mission from His Majesty, the King!” 

A royal mission, huh? “Not interested. Goodbye.”

Ichimatsu dispelled the clairvoyance and trudged deeper into his home. He heard a clatter and a shout. He let himself chuckle quietly. The idiot had tried the doorknob, and his enchantment on it hadn’t lost its juice. 

“Please!” The voice came again, a bit frantic. “They said you were the only one who’d know how to stop the… thing!” 

“The thing?”

“I don’t remember what it was called,” the voice admitted sheepishly.

“And why would I be able to stop… whatever it is?”

“They said you have the book about it!”

Ichimatsu tried to think of what tomes he had that were both one-of-a-kind and could possibly be whatever he was referencing. 

“The Arc of Night was activated?” 

“That was it! Yes!” 

Ichimatsu sighed heavily. He trudged reluctantly to his front door and finally cracked it open. “Okay. Now you have my attention.”

The young knight on the other side had looked triumphant for one moment, but his expression had fallen into something inscrutable in the next.

“What, do I have something on my face?”

He struggled to recover. “Ah, no, it’s just that… I was not informed that you were…tabaxi?” 

“It was a horrific magic accident.”

“Oh, I’m… I’m very sorry, I didn’t-”

“I’m screwing with you. Also, I’m Catfolk, not Tabaxi.”

“Is that so!”

“Is this the time for this? You said the Arc of Night was active, and you think we have time to be awkward about what I look like?”

The knight looked bashful. “I suppose not…” 

Ichimatsu turned around, pacing deeper into his home, leaving the door ajar. “Tell me the details while I get ready.”

“Of course! I can certainly do so.” The knight spoke confidently, but his posture was still uncertain as he stepped gingerly through the entryway. “A few nights ago, a sect of cultists broke through castle security. They made it to the artefact chamber and from there to the Arc. The Arcane Advisor to the King reported the Arc was glowing or something and that it was active.” 

“Wow. That’s a whole lot of specifics.” Ichimatsu frowned at the books in front of him. He couldn’t bring many on the journey; it would take two weeks, at least, to reach the castle, and he wasn’t in great shape. He settled on bringing the tome of the Arc and another to read for fun. He tucked them into his satchel and turned to the knight. “I’m ready.” 

He frowned. “That’s all you’re bringing?” 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“There’s no… magical artefacts or a magic staff or… anything like that?”

Ichimatsu gave him a flat look. “You have absolutely no idea how anything related to magic works, do you?” 

“It’s, uh, not my area of… expertise…”

“That’s a no. Alright.” Ichimatsu adjusted the satchel awkwardly. “You never told me your name.”

“Didn’t I?” The knight screwed up his face as though trying to search his memory. “Well, I’m Sir Karamatsu, of the Castle Guard.” He snapped his fingers, twirled in place, and posed. “But you can call me ‘My Hero’.” The painful statement was accompanied by an equally painful shine in his eyes. 

“That’s nice. I don’t think I’ll do that. Can we get going?” Ichimatsu passed the man, still frozen in his pose like a statue sculpted by an artist trying too hard to make a statement. The horse outside pranced a bit in place as he emerged. 

“Ah, wait!” The knight, Karamatsu, shouted after him, too loud for the short distance. “You didn’t tell me yours!”

“You don’t know it? You were sent to find me.” 

The man struggled for his words for a moment before Ichimatsu cut him off.

“You forgot.” The man looked appropriately apologetic. “It’s Ichimatsu.”

“Oh! We have similar names! How odd!” 

“Is it really?” Ichimatsu said, flatly. “Is this horse for us, or just for luggage?” 

As usual, the knight took a moment too long to react to the change in subject. “Feel free to hang your bag with the saddlebags! He cannot bear us both, but, as the guest, you will, of course, be the one borne by him.” 

Ichimatsu attached his bag, as instructed, and struggled to climb onto the tall beast. Karamatsu gave him a boost, showing him where to place his feet. 

“Thank you.”
“It’s no hardship! I suppose this is your first time astride a proud steed?”

“They’re not exactly cheap to come by.” 

Again, the knight looked bashful. “I suppose that’s accurate.” 

There was an awkward silence for a moment. Karamatsu clicked his tongue and the horse began a leisurely pace through the thick trees. 

“You certainly didn’t make it easy to find you, you know.”

Ichimatsu hummed noncommittally. 

“I was worried, for a time, that I had been sent on a purposeless mission again. The instructions on how to find you were very vague. However, with perseverance comes reward! The scholarly hermit of the forest does, indeed, exist!”

Ichimatsu considered the man’s vacant, optimistic smile. “What do you mean, being sent on a purposeless mission? They’ve done that to you?” 

“It’s a form of training the guard captain puts us through! I’m given a goal to achieve with no real way to do so, simply to teach me to hold steadfast and persevere! And such training paid off today, no? Were I weaker in spirit, I would have given up the search hours before!” 

I wish you would have. Ichimatsu held his tongue.

“So, why were you chosen for this incredibly important task? Finding the one man that could save the land and all.” 

“I was the natural and obvious choice, of course, being the most capable member of my comrades.” The man smirked. 

“You were the hole in the security, weren’t you.” Ichimatsu accused.

The knight scrambled for his words. “That’s- no, of course not, I’m- the guard is stretched thin, we do what we can, but- the castle’s really big, there are lovely women in lovely gowns around every corner-”

Ichimatsu couldn’t care less. “It doesn’t really matter. As long as I’m not being yanked around along with you.” 

“Not to worry! I was assured that this task is of the utmost importance and that we would all be in grave danger should I fall short of success. You, too, are critical to the safety of all men in the realm!” 

“Oh, joy.” 

---

Ichimatsu fell silent for a while after that. The knight carried on occasionally with some small talk, but he eventually became discouraged by his charge’s lack of interest. It was a huge relief for Ichimatsu, who had been worried the optimistic man was too stupid to realize he was trying to shut down any conversation.

The horse was a jumpy sort, needing to be calmed at every noise, coaxed at every turn. When they finally broke free of the trees, it was as though a great load had been lifted from all three members of the party. The horse walked far more steadily, its rider no longer feared being thrown from the beast, and the knight could simply lead the way without playing mother hen to his wimpy steed. 

Ichimatsu relaxed, enjoying the first clear sunlight he’d gotten in what felt like months. It may very well have been literal months, but he was never very good at telling time or counting days. His reverie was broken by the sound of the knight hissing through his teeth at every step.

“What’s wrong with you?” Ichimatsu grumbled.

“Ah, nothing at all! I’m perfectly fit, as you can clearly see!” 

What Ichimatsu could clearly see was that the knight was wincing every time his feet hit the ground. 

“Take the stupid horse.”
“No, no, I cannot do that! You have been invited by the King himself, and are, therefore, his royal guest! The steed is all yours!” 

“Listen, Sir Dumbass. If we have to stop and wait and baby your poor fucking feet for days because you were too stubborn to sit on a damn horse, I’m marching right back to my fucking house.”

The knight looked close to tears, but nodded. Ichimatsu rolled his eyes. 

“Now help me get off this stupid thing.” 

Karamatsu held his paws for support as he descended the side of the mountain of animal. His foot got stuck in the stirrup, intended for human feet and not catfolk paws, and he lost his balance, falling backwards into the knight’s armored chest. 

“Are you okay?” The man asked, worried.

“I’m fine. I just tripped. Let go of me.” Ichimatsu batted his arms away and regained his footing. “Let’s get going.”

“Of course! Right away!” Karamatsu swung his legs over the horse like he’d been born to do it. Then again, it was perfectly likely that he’d been taught to ride one from a very young age, trained into knighthood from birth. Some people really won the lottery right from the moment they entered this world, didn’t they? 

“Are you certain you’re quite alright walking?” The knight had a real problem with silence, apparently.

“I’m fine.” 

“Let me know the moment you begin to tire! I will relinquish my steed immediately upon request!” 

“Seriously, I’m fine. My paws are built tougher than human’s feet. Shouldn’t you be more worried about your own feet?” 

“Not to worry, not to worry! I believe I simply… underestimated the difficulty of the forested terrain, that’s all. I’ll be fit as a fiddle in no time!” 

“Of course you will.” Ichimatsu sighed. He prayed for a moment of silence, a reprieve from the knight’s inane chatter. If he’d been interested in hearing humans talk about whatever was on their minds, he’d live in a settlement, rather than on his own. 

No such luck.

“How did you come to be living out in these woodlands, Ichimatsu?”

Being called by his name was a bit jarring. He hadn’t expected such immediate familiarity from someone so hung up on formalities. Well, that all seemed to be for show, anyway.

“Found a cottage no one else was using, fixed it up, and moved in.”

The knight frowned. Clearly he’d meant to pull some idle chatter from Ichimatsu, as well. 

“Well, then, how did you come to be looking for a homestead? And one so far from the company of kinfolk, no less. Surely you must get lonely out there!”

Ichimatsu growled softly, regretting ever having borrowed that tome. 

“I live out here to avoid talking to anyone. It’s not my favorite activity.”

The dumb knight completely missed the hint.

“Then what is your favorite activity?”

“Reading, alone. Studying magic, alone. Pushing the limitations of the arcane arts, tapping into other planes of existence, reaching for secrets buried beneath what we believe to be true. Alone, alone, alone.”

“That sounds incredibly fascinating. You should tell me more about it!” 

Ichimatsu was ready to strangle this idiot.

“Can’t you take a fucking hint already?! I live alone because I like it! I don’t talk to people because I hate it! I don’t want to talk to you any more than I’ve wanted to talk to any other person on this planet, so shut your fucking mouth for half a damn second!”

Karamatsu looked ready to say something, but did, indeed, shut his fucking mouth. His eyes began to water and Ichimatsu had never wanted to watch someone cry less. 

“Don’t even start…” Ichimatsu grumbled. The knight began to sniffle.

“I’m… I’m sorry, I’ll try to… I’ll try to keep quiet. It was rude and invasive of me to probe.” He was sobbing now, and, true to his word, trying to do so quietly. 

Ichimatsu rolled his eyes. He gave in embarrassingly quickly. “Don’t… Don’t cry, alright? I’m sorry, that was… that was too harsh. I’m just, y’know, stressed about… all of this.” 

The knight brightened up, eyes still watery and red, nose running, but a big smile stretching his features. He looked dumber than ever. 

“Thank you for opening up, Ichimatsu. I apologize for adding to your stress. I will take care to consider your feelings as well in the future!” 

“Yeah, yeah, alright.” Ichimatsu felt the corners of his mouth tugging. The idiot was growing on him.

Chapter Text

True to his word, Karamatsu spoke very little for the rest of the day’s travel. He broke the silence when necessary:  when they needed to switch riders, for example, or needed to stop for food. He offered occasional pointers on riding for the inexperienced catfolk wizard, who appreciated the tips but grumbled about it anyway. Other than that, he kept his mouth shut. It was clear that it was uncomfortable for him and that he desperately wished to fill the silence. Seeing him struggle made Ichimatsu appreciate the silence all the more.
Finally, just as the sun had begun to dip below the horizon, the travelers reached a small copse of trees just off the main road. Karamatsu led the horse in their direction, informing Ichimatsu shortly that they would rest there for the night. 

“Wait with Steven while I ensure the safety of this locale.” He instructed. 

“Steven?” The horse made a… horse noise and his ears perked. “Ah, your name.” 

“A proud name, is it not?”

It’s a pretty generic name, actually. Ichimatsu thought, but kept that to himself. He just hummed noncommittally.

“Not to worry. I won’t be gone long, and dear Steven will keep you perfectly safe until my return!”

“I’m sure he will.” 

The knight looked pleased, beaming up at him, and took off into the small grove.

---

Ichimatsu waited until the sun had nearly vanished over the horizon before he decided the idiot knight had to be dead or, at the very least, in major trouble. He sighed heavily as he struggled to descend Steven’s giant body. Landing gracelessly on his ass, he grumbled about idiot knights and their stupid beasts and brushed himself off. 

“Stay here,” he instructed the horse, knowing full well it didn’t understand him and wouldn’t obey him if it did. 

He trudged into the copse, paws silent on the earth and ears twitching to pick up any break in the nightly music. He caught the soft sounds of careful movement and, turning toward them, the orange flash of the waning sunlight on metal. He dropped to all fours and scuttled into some underbrush. A sudden noise from behind him and he scuttled backwards, nearly bumping into a third presence. 

An involuntary, cat-like noise escaped him as he scrambled away from the grasp of the last. 

“Just grab him!” The first hissed. 

Hands grasped at his clothes from the direction of the second presence. The other two closed in. In a panic, he threw out an enchantment before his hands were restrained. 

“Shit, he cast something!” Presence 3 muttered. 

“Cast something? What-” Presence 2 was cut off by Ichimatsu’s magically amplified voice yowling into the dusk. His captors winced at the volume of it, the sound shaking the trees. 

“Shut him up!” One of them shouted to the others. A hand covered his mouth and he sunk his teeth into it. He resumed his shouts immediately.

“Fuck! He bit me!”

“Then knock him out or something!”

A sudden sharp pain was enough to stun Ichimatsu, and with a second, his vision faded into darkness. 

---

A young catfolk boy winced as he came to consciousness, a sharp pain in his temple spreading to a dull pain in his whole head. His surroundings were incredibly bright, and he squeezed his eyes shut against the painful light. Slowly, he realized it was unbearably hot, sweltering even, like he’d been thrown into a volcano.

Slowly, finally, panic started to set in.

The building was on fire.

He scrambled to his feet, tripped, stumbled, nearly fell back to the ground. The door seemed so far away, past a maze of fallen, blazing beams. How had he not been crushed already? How long had the fire been burning?

He got his paw on the door’s handle, yanking it away with a yelp not a moment later. 

“Stupid!” How could he forget the METAL HANDLE might be HOT?! 

Holding his injured paw, he kicked at the door near the frame. The weakened wood snapped, bringing a shower of wood and sparks down in front of him. He sprinted out of the opening, patting his burning fur to put it out. Once free of the wreckage, he took stock of his surroundings.

He stopped dead in his tracks. 

Every single building in the village was on fire. 

Everywhere he looked, injured catfolk rushed about, trying to salvage possessions, trying to rescue loved ones, some even trying to dampen the flames to no avail. The boy, panicked, looked around for his home, for his family. How far was this building from them? He couldn’t remember how he’d gotten here, what had led up to him awakening on the floor of a structure he didn’t recognize. 

Where was he? Where was his family? 

He shouted for them. 

He shouted again and again, until his throat was raw, until the fires had burned themselves out, until a woman approached him and he dissolved into loud sobs right in front of her.  

She grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him vigorously. 

Wait, that wasn’t how this memory went. 

“Wakey, wakey!” She shouted. “Time to wake up!” 

Her voice didn’t sound like that, either. What was happening?

“Come on, sleepyhead, you gotta get up!”

---

Ichimatsu startled awake, hands still grasping his shoulders, shaking him vigorously. “Wakey, wakey- Oh! You’re up!” 

Ichimatsu blinked a few times, gathering his thoughts. The memory-dream had been disorienting, especially with the killer headache he had in the waking world, as well. 

“Quit shouting. I have a headache.”

“Well, yeah! They bumped your noggin something good!” 

Whoever this was seemed to have only one volume setting and it was way too loud. Ichimatsu peeked one eye open to take in the stranger. He was mostly naked, save a tattered loincloth made of some kind of animal hide. Great. This guy was probably completely unhinged. What was that saying? Out of the frying pan and into the fire? Seemed fitting. 

“Who are you?” 

“I’m Jyushimatsu!”

That didn’t really tell Ichimatsu much of anything. 

“Okay… who are ‘they’? The ones that knocked me out?”

“I dunno! But they put you in that cage so they musta been bad guys!” 

Jyushimatsu gestured behind Ichimatsu and he turned to investigate. Sure enough, there was a large cage, taking up the majority of the space on a cart. The bars looked as though they had been torn through by an elephant. The lock still dangled from what once was the gate. 

“You did that?” 

“Yeah! I’m super strong!” Jyushimatsu showed off his muscles for good measure. Ichimatsu had a hard time believing a human could have done something like that, but it wasn’t his priority right now. 

“Did you see another guy? Probably taken captive like me.”

“Another guy?”

“Suit of armor, vacant expression?”

Jyushimatsu appeared to be thinking about it very hard. “Nope! No one like that! Just the bad guys that locked you up!”

“Damn.” Ichimatsu wondered where the guy could have gone. Not for the first time, he wondered if this had all been some elaborate prank. 

“They did have a big ol bag that coulda fit a person, though! It was wiggling a lot, too!” 

Ichimatsu stared at Jyushimatsu, who still sported a face-stretching smile. 

“Thank you. You’ve been a great help.”

“You’re welcome!”

“Did you also see a horse? Mostly white, with brown spots, lots of bags attached to the saddle?”

“I saw a horse like that run that way!” He pointed. “Really fast! Like he was scared of something! There was a really, REALLY loud sound, like a cat in a fight or something! But SUPER loud!!” 

Ichimatsu buried his face in his hands. In crying for help, he’d chased away his earthly belongings, including the book that was supposed to save all of their lives. 

“Great.” 

“Bye-bye, cat man! Don’t get put in any more cages, okay?” 

“What? Wait!” 

The strange man was already gone, sprinting so fast he may as well have teleported. 

“Great. Great! What else do you have to throw at me, world!” He shouted into the heavens. 

The heavens answered with a raindrop, then two, then an immediate torrential downpour. 

“Fuck!”

He escaped into the copse of trees. They weren’t close enough together to protect him from the water entirely, but it was drier than the alternative. He scrambled into the branches and huddled, staring up at the traitorous sky. 

He had no possessions, no means of transportation, and his companion and guide, useless as he’d been, had been kidnapped. And finally, to put the cherry on the icing on the fucking cake, he was trapped in a tree while the sky attempted to reclaim this area as sea. 

This was exactly why he never left his goddamn house.

Chapter Text

Ichimatsu got little rest, panicked awake by every minor noise in the foliage around him. The memory of his capture was too fresh for him to relax. The torrential rain was brief, fading to a light drizzle not long after it began. Ichimatsu was loathe to return to the still-wet world beneath him, but he couldn’t very well stay here forever. 

Especially with an active Arc of Night at the end of the journey. 

He descended the tree he’d used for cover. His paws sunk into the damp earth, mud squelching as he moved about. He could feel it almost instantly caking into his fur. He longed for the enchanted tub he’d left behind, the one that warmed water just enough to be cozy. He’d fiddled with the tub for ages, finding just the right balance of fire stones and conversion runes to get the temperature perfect. When would he see his home again? 

At this rate, it might not even be there for him to return to. 

With that gloomy thought, he trudged out of the trees and toward the road. The strange man that had rescued him hadn’t given him many details, but he hoped to pick up a trail of some kind. Unfortunately, the recent downpour meant he couldn’t determine the recency of any of the tracks, and there wouldn’t be any scent to follow, even if he were some kind of… Bloodhound-folk. 

Well, that left the old-fashioned way. 

He snapped a twig off of a fallen branch and held it flat in his hand. He murmured a few words, focussing on Sir Karamatsu and his ridiculously shiny armor. 

The twig spun half-heartedly. Not specific enough. The armor must have been standard castle guard issue. He concentrated on his limited memories of the man. Was he wearing anything distinctive? The armor and weapons had all been fairly generic, if unusually new-looking. 

Ichimatsu finally came up with something. A memory of Karamatsu relinquishing the horse, stubbornly, and ushering Ichimatsu back upon it. He’d adjusted his armor as he’d touched the ground, tightening a scarf he’d been using as a belt. The bright blue accessory was more worn than the rest of his gear. Likely, it wasn’t standard issue.

Ichimatsu concentrated on it this time. He brought up the memory of the scarf in his head as clearly as he could. It had white yarn stitched through occasionally, giving it the illusion of a sparkle, as though it had been gently dusted with snow. 

The twig spun vigorously before settling rigidly in his palm. He had his compass. 

---

It was hours later and Ichimatsu had begun to lose his footing, exhausted, having only gotten any sort of rest when he’d been briefly knocked unconscious, when he finally saw some signs of life in the direction his makeshift compass pointed. The glow of a fire broke through the gloom of the stormy pre-dawn darkness. Voiced engaged in heated yet hushed argument reached his sharp ears. Whoever it was, they were still far ahead, but Ichimatsu wasn’t fond of taking unnecessary chances. He dropped to all fours to make the most of his natural stealth and walked carefully nearer.

The voices grew louder and clearer as he approached. By the time he could see the firelight spilling from a cave entrance clearly, he could easily distinguish the individual voices. 

“This ain’t even the one we was s’posed to pick up!” An accented voice groused. 

“Boss won’t know the difference.” Another assured.

“And how d’you figure that? We was s’posed to nab a wizardly type! This one’s dumb as a bag of rocks, for sure!” The first snapped. 

“Well, that’s rude.” A familiar voice responded, insulted. 

He had the right place. He stalked closer.

The cave was clearly well-used, plenty of deep cart tracks pulling in to the entrance. Whoever these kidnappers were, they weren’t great at subtlety. Ichimatsu padded up until he could see inside the entrance, some short brush barely hiding his crouched form. 

“It’s shore as heck true, though! Shut yer dumb mouth, the grown-ups are talkin’!”

“The other boys’re supposed to be catchin’ up with the right one! We ain’t seen ‘em in hours! Real hours! What d’ya think happened to them? Boss’ll kill us if they’re dead, sure as he’ll kill us if we lost the bounty!”

There was a bounty for Ichimatsu? Why did their boss want him? 

He shook the disquieting information from his head. He needed to rescue his guide from his captors first, before he could worry about the context of his capture. 

He pulled a bit of sand from the pouch at his hip. It was soggy, sticking to itself, but it should still work. He sprinkled it before him, singing a soft lullaby. 

“You hear somethin’?” The accented voice asked. 

“I think you’re just hearing things.” The other responded, yawning loudly. 

“I’m sure it was” -a yawn- “just out front…” 

The voices trailed off and Ichimatsu emerged from his hiding place. The two kidnappers had crumpled into a heap near the fire. Karamatsu was tied to a post near the rear of the cave. 

“What on earth- Ichimatsu!” The knight, confused by the sudden collapse of his captors, brightened up at the sight of his charge. “You came for me!” 

“Weren’t you supposed to be my hero?” Ichimatsu responded, flatly, reaching to untie his bonds. 

“Not to worry, my dear Ichimatsu! My heroic nature will become quite obvious with time!”

Ichimatsu barely held back a snicker at that. 

“C’mon, let’s get going. That sleeping curse only lasts about ten minutes. We need to be gone before they wake up and come after us.” 

“Your wish is my command!” 

Ichimatsu led the way out of the cave, not bothering to be quiet as he raced past the magically sleeping captors. The knight was clearly putting more effort into silence, attempting to quickly tiptoe after him, but his armor clanked and clattered with every step. 

“Don’t worry about waking them up. Nothing short of blunt force trauma would rouse them from this.” Or the spell wearing off. He thought.

“That’s incredible! You really are as powerful a wielder of the arcane as I was led to believe!” 

Ichimatsu blushed, embarrassed. “It’s a pretty basic spell. Most anyone who learns even a little magic would be able to pull this kind of thing off.”

“But it was very quick thinking! You rescued me without any bloodshed from either side!”

“Just shut up and run.” 

The knight wasn’t very quick on his feet, heavy armor slowing him down a bit. Ichimatsu had to keep forcing himself to slow down, wanting to drop to all fours and get away more quickly. It was frustrating, not to mention nerve-wracking, to escape their captors at what felt like such a leisurely pace.

“Where’s Steven?” Karamatsu asked, out of breath already. 

“Escaped when we were captured.” Now that he thought about it, he could’ve used the same tracking spell to track down the horse. He shook the thought out of his head. It was either incredibly far away, or had already been killed and looted for their valuables. Either way, he considered his belongings lost for good. 

“That’s a shame. I had many things of value to me stored among the saddlebags. Not to mention I care for that horse like my own son!”

If he was ‘like your own son’, shouldn’t you have him higher in your priorities than some trinkets? “Save your breath for running faster. They’ll catch up to us easily.” 

“Yes!” And again there was sweet silence. 

They raced one another along the road, Ichimatsu insisting that their tracks would be harder to follow on a well-worn path. After Ichimatsu determined enough time had passed for his spell to have worn off, he led the two of them off the road and into some very tall wildflowers. They slowed their pace. 

“Take care not to break too many stems. We can’t leave an obvious trail.” 

Karamatsu simply nodded, walking carefully. 

Ichimatsu tried to remember the incantation for a spell he’d once learned, one to make them harder to follow. It had slipped his mind over time, more practical magic taking precedence. Had he known he’d be escaping bounty hunters (or, at least, petty thieves working for a bounty hunter), he’d have taken more care to keep it fresh in his mind. Well, they’d have to settle for escaping in a more mundane way. 

“How did you find me?” Karamatsu whispered. They’d been walking in silence for mere minutes before he could no longer hold his tongue. 

“Is this really the time? They could follow our voices right to us!” Ichimatsu hissed. 

“I was merely curious… my apologies.” 

Ichimatsu sighed. “Magic. I used a tracking spell on your scarf.”

Karamatsu touched the scarf tied around his waist. “How fantastic! Heh, my mother told me this would bring me good fortune when she knitted it for me.” 

“Wasn’t it bad luck that you got captured in the first place?” 

“Perhaps. But without this lucky charm, I would never have been rescued from those… whoever they were!”

“They were bounty hunters. Or working for one, at least.” 

Karamatsu looked shocked. “Bounty hunters? For what bounty? I’ve never done anything that would warrant-”

“Not for you. For me.” 

“Why-”

“I don’t know!” Ichimatsu hissed, quickly becoming impatient with his chatter when the two could very well be being pursued. “I overheard them talking before I put them to sleep. You were right there! Weren’t you listening to them?!” 

“Shhhh!” Karamatsu suddenly covered Ichimatsu’s mouth with his hand. He had a strong urge to bite it, hard. “Listen to that.” 

Ichimatsu’s pointed ears twitched. There was rustling and the muffled sound of voices from behind them. “Shit.”

“Can’t you put them to sleep again? Like before?”

Ichimatsu weighed their options. The voices were coming closer, and as they grew clearer, it became evident it was the same voices as back in the cave. 

“You have to be ready to carry me if I pass out.”

“What?”

“Promise me.”

“Yes, absolutely, I can do that.”

Ichimatsu took another pinch of sand from his pouch and sang the lullaby once more. They heard two thuds, the sounds of bodies hitting the ground limply. 

“Excellent! You’ve done it again- Ichimatsu?” 

As he’d expected, Ichimatsu became unsteady on his feet and began to slowly tip over. He hit solid metal before solid earth, Karamatsu catching him against his chest. 

“You promised…” Ichimatsu murmured before darkness overtook him.

---

He had no sense of how much time had passed, but he was in a cave with a large boulder blocking much of the entrance, sunlight streaming through what remained. Karamatsu sat near him, posed like he’d nodded off while keeping watch. 

Ichimatsu stretched. He’d slept in less comfortable positions, but not many. He felt something beneath his head, functioning as a pillow. He sat up and grabbed it to examine it. 

It was Karamatsu’s scarf, the one he’d claimed his mother had knitted for him. 

Ichimatsu cracked a small smile. He’d risked dirtying something so valuable so a wizard he barely knew could sleep slightly more comfortably. Honestly, the poor excuse for a pillow probably contributed to the ache in his neck, but it was the thought that counted. 

He threw the scarf at the knight’s face. 

“Wake up. We can’t linger for long.”

Karamatsu panicked awake, reaching for a sword he no longer wore. “What- How long was I- Oh! Ichimatsu! You’ve awoken! Splendid!” 

“We need to get going. Either our kidnappers will catch up to us or something will break bad because of that Arc. Whichever happens, it’ll be our fault for relaxing here.”

“You don’t need to thank me at all! It was simply my duty as a knight of the castle guard to deliver you to safety and rescue you from ruffians!”

“You did neither, which is why I’m not thanking you. Get up, let’s go. I assume you can move that boulder, unless there was a secret entrance I’m not noticing.” 

The knight pouted up at him, but followed his instructions anyway. “I can certainly shift that great rock! What I lack in magical acuity, you see, I make up for in manly toughness!” 

“I’ll believe it when I see it.” 

The knight adjusted his metal gauntlets and adjusted his stance. As he pushed at the huge rock, sure enough, it rolled to the side. When it had shifted far enough to allow an armored human torso through, Karamatsu stepped back, brushing his palms off dramatically. 

“There you have it! Impressive, no?” He held his chin in his hand and looked smug. 

“You’re my hero. I definitely couldn’t have gotten through without your help. You have heard that cats can fit their whole body through any space their head can fit, right?” 

It took until the end of the question for Karamatsu to realize he’d been sarcastic. His increasingly smug expression fell into one of irritation almost instantly. 

“Let’s just go…” The knight said, defeated. 

---

The road was long but, blessedly, empty. Just before nightfall, the light of lanterns cut through the darkness ahead. They’d have to push on into the night a ways, but they’d make it to a settlement, rather than camping exposed. 

Ichimatsu still hadn’t stopped flinching at every noise and checking over his shoulder at every turn. Whether someone was following them or not, they’d barely escaped by a hair’s breadth before, and he was loathe to risk a repeat performance. As night fell, his anxiety increased. He nearly jumped out of his fur when Karamatsu spoke directly beside him. 

“We should be able to get lodging at the inn here without trouble. I bear the seal of the castle guard, so the proprietor should consent to charging the castle directly.”

Ichimatsu nodded, relaxing. 

“You were worried about lodging, no? Not to worry, though our possessions may have… quite literally fled us, we may still acquire necessities through my position alone!” 

That hadn’t been what he’d been stressed about, but better to let the idiot comfort himself than to voice the anxiety about their captors or his bounty. 

---

True to his word, the knight’s standard-issue armor was sufficient to garner them room and board. The friendly innkeeper offered hot meals before either of them could request one, seeing their haggard faces and hearing their loud stomachs. Ichimatsu hadn’t eaten a human recipe in a while, and either he was hungrier than he thought or human cooking was more delicious than he recalled. 

“A luxurious meal to reward us for our trials!” Karamatsu asserted. Ichimatsu could only nod, eating as quickly as he could swallow. A voice in the back of his head tried to remind him that eating so fast would only make him sick, but his self-control was nowhere near sufficient. He’d cross that bridge if and when he came to it. 

“And a comfortable rest to follow, I presume.” 

“Anything would be more comfortable than earlier. Your dumb scarf nearly broke my neck. It still aches.” Ichimatsu grumbled, stretching his neck out gently. He peeked at Karamatsu while he did so, amused by his worried expression and how quickly it shifted into offended. “If you’re not going to finish that, I’ll eat it, too.” 

Karamatsu dragged his bowl closer to himself, eating more quickly in defense. He’d been nearly finished, anyhow, and the two rose to retire soon after.

Their room was up a staircase and down a hall. They found it with little trouble, sliding the key into the lock and swinging open the door. 

It was small, cozy, with a bed and a chest of drawers and not much else.

“Take the bed.” Ichimatsu said. Simultaneously, Karamatsu announced, “The bed is yours!” 

There was an awkward moment. 

“No, seriously, just take it. I’m comfortable on the floor.”

“No, no, I couldn’t do that! You’re a guest to his majesty the King! You must take the bed!”

“I’m not gonna watch to wince every time you move a sore muscle tomorrow and I’m definitely not sharing it. Just take the bed. Leave me a blanket and I’ll be fine.” 

Ichimatsu dragged a blanket from the bed to the floorboards, stemming any argument. He curled up comfortably on it, cracking one eye to watch Karamatsu doff his suit of armor. It took a ridiculously long time, and Ichimatsu wondered if it was even really worth it. 

Underneath, the night was visibly toned, even through his solid black turtleneck shirt, the garment keeping the armor from directly touching his skin. Ichimatsu supposed it was to be expected, with his martial training and all, but it looked surprisingly good on him. 

He shook that thought from his head and closed his eyes properly. “Good night.”

“Good night and sweet dreams, dear Ichimatsu. All going well, we’ll ride in the morning.”

Chapter Text

 

The sun had barely risen from its rest when the two travelers rose, themselves. Ichimatsu waited impatiently as the knight took his time strapping all of his pieces of armor to his body. Finally, he gave the scarf he wore as a belt a good tug, ensuring its security. 

“Let’s be off!”

There’d be no argument from Ichimatsu. He followed the knight out the door and down the hall. The tavern downstairs was abuzz with activity already, so early in the morning. He could hear food being ordered, plans being made, and a lot of yawning. One set of voices stood out to him, though, and he grabbed Karamatsu’s scarf to halt his advance. 

“I’m afraid I don’t have to tell you anything about my patrons, sir.” The innkeeper asserted. 

“You do if you don’t want any trouble.” A familiar voice threatened. 

“Just tell us if you’ve seen ‘im, no harm done. It’ll be our li’l secret.” 

Closer, louder, Karamatsu spoke, drowning out whatever was said next. “What’s wrong?”

“You humans and your useless fucking ears! It’s the guys from the other day, dumbass!” Ichimatsu hissed. “Come on, we can’t go out that way!” 

Ichimatsu ran back the way they came, paws silent on the wooden floors. The knight clanked and clattered after him, armor giving away his every move. 

The voices continued their heated conversation, but Ichimatsu could no longer make out the words so clearly. Suddenly, there were footsteps ascending the stairs and the innkeeper shouting after whoever was climbing them. 

Ichimatsu threw open the shutters sealing the window at the end of the hall and leaped out of the window. There was a small balcony on the building across the way, and from there he could reach the ground level. Already calculating an escape route, he was shocked back into the present by Karamatsu’s shouts. “Wait! We’re on the second floor! How do I get down?!” 

Humans and their useless legs! Two ruffians closed the gap between themselves and the knight while he hesitated at the window. 

“Just jump! I’ll catch you!” Ichimatsu shouted. 

Karamatsu took the leap. 

Ichimatsu threw his hands out, tossing a single feather at the falling knight. His speed slowed to a crawl and he touched the ground with little impact. 

“Oh! With magic! I thought you meant-”

Ichimatsu landed beside him. “No time to be amazed at my brilliance. They’re still coming.” He took off, not waiting to see if the knight would follow. The clanking of his armor was a dead giveaway, anyway. 

Their two pursuers scaled the wall behind them. They were much faster than the knight, weighed down by his armor, and were gaining ground. Ichimatsu pulled Karamatsu around a corner, dashing further into the backstreets of the small town. It wouldn’t be easy to lose them in the sparse cover available in this settlement. 

“We should head to a stables!” Karamatsu shouted. 

“Where?!” 

“Follow me!” 

Ichimatsu dropped back as Karamatsu picked up what little speed he could, dashing ahead and picking turns with confidence. He brought them out onto the main thoroughfare. A man, towering over an intimidated young woman, saw them sprinting and shouted after them, giving chase.

“That’s them!” He called over his shoulder. Three more humans heard his shout and joined him. 

“How are we gonna lose this many?!” Ichimatsu yelped, panicked. 

“Please, sir!” Karamatsu shouted, attracting the attention of a man ahead of them. “I’m a member of the castle guard! We need to borrow horses to flee these ruffians!” The knight withdrew the seal of the guard from wherever he stored it and flashed it to the man. 

Without waiting for a reply, Karamatsu ran into the stables and released a horse, flinging himself onto it. “We’ll have to ride bareback! Hold on well!” Ichimatsu struggled to climb aboard without any footholds. Karamatsu grabbed him by the arm and lifted him high enough to get his legs astride the beast. 

The sound of shouts and clashing of metal erupted from just outside. 

“The guards have provided for us a most fortuitous chance! Let us make the most of it!” 

“Just ride, already!” Ichimatsu gripped Karamatsu’s armored torso tightly in preparation for the abrupt takeoff of the horse as the knight’s heels dug in to its sides. It dashed out the door, shying away from the chaotic violence just outside. 

“Damnit, they’ve got a horse! Kill the guards and give chase!” 

They did not wait and see if the ruffians followed the shouted order. The horse was quick-footed and raced down the road faster than Ichimatsu had ever travelled in his life. Terrified, he clutched at Karamatsu’s armor, the only hand-hold available to him. 

“We have to lose them! Don’t take the obvious way!” Ichimatsu shouted over the thundering of hooves and his own heart. He didn’t see any pursuers yet, but they couldn’t be far behind. “How familiar are you with this area?” 

“It’s a bit outside of my usual radius of influence.” Karamatsu admitted. 

“Shit.” Ichimatsu didn’t know the area either, being reclusive. “I had some maps of the region back at my cottage. I can remember some of the major landmarks, but we’ll have to guess for the most part. Head for the Agnes River, to the East!” 

Karamatsu followed his instructions as he led them, to the best of his shaky memory, to a more natural, less man-made route to the castle town. Their pursuers almost certainly had more knowledge about the area than the pair, and it’d take a miracle to shake them off. Ichimatsu hoped they could at least increase the difficulty a bit. 

They crested a low hill and had begun to descend the other side when Ichimatsu just caught sight of several horses bearing riders departing the town. He caught just a glimpse before the land rose between them, and hoped they hadn’t been spotted, in turn. The river babbled just up ahead, surrounded by steep banks on either side. It seemed the water level was unusually low, for there was dry land hugging either side at the river’s level. 

They had their miracle. 

Karamatsu coaxed the horse slowly down the riverbank. Though reluctant, it followed his directions, and soon they had it at the water’s edge. 

“We’ll have to go slowly, since we cannot be sure of the safety of this earth. An injured steed would slow us down even further.” 

Ichimatsu reluctantly agreed. A slow horse was better than no horse. They walked along the river’s edge, the banks shielding them from view, as the sun crept ever higher above them. 

---

As the sun reached its peak, its heat growing distinctly uncomfortable, Ichimatsu’s stomach growled loudly. 

“Ah, unfortunately, our rations escaped with Steven…” Karamatsu remembered, apologetically. 

“Not a problem. Keep the horse going, I’ll catch up.” 

“What? Ichimatsu-” He’d already leapt from the horse and climbed up the bank to the wooded region above. 

Even if Ichimatsu was absolutely useless in any kind of settlement, he was intimately familiar with wilderness. He foraged for his vegetables and trapped his meat almost every day. It was child’s play to simply gather what he could along the way, keeping pace with the horse picking its way along the riverbank below. He used the skirt of his tunic as a satchel, keeping the various edible plants within, and returned to the banks of the river. He slid down neatly, stopping just in front of the horse.

“Take this stuff.” Ichimatsu instructed. 

“Eh? I don’t have anywhere to put it, though…” Karmatsu argued. 

“Make a little sling with the scarf. I’m going back up to catch some meat.” 

Karamatsu pouted but complied. The scarf barely held the cornucopia he’d retrieved. He scaled the riverbank once more. 

The forest was full of fauna rushing hither and yon. When they caught wind of Ichimatsu, they scattered. He dropped to all fours and padded silently through the underbrush. No longer concerned with keeping pace, Ichimatsu focussed on stalking easy prey until he had it in his claws.

Karamatsu was startled to see him sliding down the steep bank again roughly an hour later, a rabbit in each hand. 

“Let’s make camp. You at least know how to build a fire, right?”

---

Karamatsu was hesitant to eat, at first, having only rarely eaten rabbit and having never eaten many of the mushrooms and leaves Ichimatsu had gathered. He complimented Ichimatsu many times over at the end of the meal, apologizing heartily for having doubted him. Ichimatsu barely acknowledged his chatter, coaxing the flames to hold fast despite the strengthening wind with an incantation. 

“Would you teach me that?” Karamatsu requested. 

“What, making fire? You can do that with flint and patience just as easily.”

“Not necessarily the spell you’re doing now, specifically, just… I’d like to learn a bit of magic, if you’ll teach me.”

Ichimatsu shook his head. “You either have to have a natural aptitude for it or you have to wrap your head around arcane interactions and use brute force, the way I do. I’m sure there are other ways, like requesting help from a higher power or something, but I’d prefer to rely on my own paws than some fickle god.” 

Karamatsu’s face fell. “Oh.” 

There was an uncomfortable silence. Ichimatsu didn’t know how to break it. He felt as though he should say something , anything! But he couldn’t think of anything to say that would be both comforting and truthful. He settled on returning to his task, pretending coaxing the fire took far more concentration than it really did. 

“Would you care to wash up for the night? I can keep watch for our enemies in the meanwhile.” Karamatsu offered, finally breaking the silence. 

Ichimatsu considered the dried mud caked into the fur of his paws. “That would be nice. Thank you.” 

He led Karamatsu to the edge of the stream, where the knight politely turned around and looked the other way. Ichimatsu removed his tunic, his only garment, and stepped into the cool water. The bed was rocky, and the stones had gathered algae. His paws slipped on the slick stones, sending him tumbling in. 

“Ow, shit!” 

“Are you alright?” Karamatsu turned, concerned. 

“I’m fine, I’m fine. I just slipped.” That’s one way to wash up… he thought.

“Ah, uh, excellent! I’m glad you are unharmed- wait!” Karamatsu rushed into the river, grasping at one of Ichimatsu’s paws. “You have a cut here… let’s get it cleaned and bandaged.” 

“Oh… thank you. I didn’t notice.” 

Karamatsu looked up at his face from where he’d knelt to rinse the cut. A bit of algae had stuck inside, but it was otherwise fine. 

“Does it not hurt? It looks painful.”

Ichimatsu shook his head. “I had an accident when I was younger. I burned that paw. I haven’t been able to feel sensation right in that pad since then.” 

Karamatsu was considering his paw carefully, looking closely at the soft pink pads. “I see the discolored skin… How did it happen?”

“I don’t like to talk about it.”

“...I’m sorry I pried, in that case.” 

Ichimatsu hummed noncommittally. “It’s fine. Pull off a piece of my tunic, we can use that as a bandage.”

“Ah, but it isn’t clean…”

Ichimatsu sighed and waved his uninjured paw over the fabric. The color lightened and the stains lifted. “Now it is.”

“Excellent!” Karamatsu used his knife to start a strip, and then ripped it the rest of the way across. He tied it around Ichimatsu’s paw with practiced movements. Ichimatsu watched his face as he worked. His prominent brows furrowed in concentration, his hands moving dexterously despite the metal gauntlets encasing them. He tied the strip of cloth off in a neat little bow on the back of Ichimatsu’s paw. 

“All done! You’ll heal up in no time.” He assured confidently. 

“You’re a true hero.” Ichimatsu’s lips twitched into a slight smile. Karamatsu seemed triumphant. 

“Now let’s get the horse going. We have plenty of time before nightfall.” Ichimatsu patted the knight on his shoulder, bending to pick up his discarded tunic. It was a bit shorter now, approaching dangerous levels, and he’d need to pick up a new one in town. 

Well, in whatever town they could stop to shop in without bounty hunters descending like vultures. 

Karamatsu waited patiently near the horse for Ichimatsu, prepared to boost him onto the beast’s back. Ichimatsu hopped up with more grace than his previous attempt, having a better gauge of the animal’s height now. Karamatsu swung up with perfect ease, as always. He clicked his tongue and clicked his heels, and the horse proceeded with far less hesitation than before. Clutching onto Karamatsu’s armor, Ichimatsu almost felt safe, for the first time since he’d left his home just days before.

---

“What, exactly, does the Arc of Night do?” Karamatsu asked out of nowhere as they enjoyed their meal for the evening. 

Ichimatsu almost choked. “You don’t know?! You were sent all the way out here to get me and you don’t even know what it is we’re trying to stop?!” 

Karamatsu shook his head. “They didn’t tell me any details…”

Ichimatsu pounded on his chest, trying to dislodge the small piece of meat stuck in his throat. “Of all the idiots to be stuck with… The Arc of Night is a powerful artefact of dark magics, okay? It could cause the literal apocalypse!”

“But how does it work? It took me a week and a half to get to you, and it will surely take longer to return. It seems odd that something of such apocalyptic danger would wait so long for us to combat it.” 

Ichimatsu sighed heavily. At least he was aware of the stakes. It was just the particulars he was missing. 

“The Arc is sort of… a limited portal between planes. You’re familiar with the planes of existence, right? The planar system whose interactions determine the very laws of the universe and make up the fabric of reality?”

“Vaguely.”

Excellent. “So the universe is made up of different planes. They’re mostly elemental in nature, providing the raw energy for the forces that make up our world. We literally do not have time for that discussion, so I’ll make it pretty quick. 

“The Arc of Night taps into the Lower Planes, realms of existence made of pure evil. This is where demons and fiends and the like spring from. It doesn’t create a direct portal to them, but it makes their energies easier to access. Mages of various kinds with ill intent can draw upon those energies to power spells and enchantments and the like. 

“For the most part, this just means that magic borrowing these energies is easier, but the danger lies in the spells that are made possible just by it being active. Summonings of extremely powerful beings, for example, or powerful necromantic spells that draw the life out of the very planet itself. 

“We have to deactivate it before whatever group activated it achieves whatever purpose they activated it for. Does that all make sense?” Ichimatsu looked Karamatsu in the eyes. 

“I believe that speech contained more words than the sum of all the words I’d heard from you previously.”

Ichimatsu groaned. “Do you understand or not?! These are the stakes!”

“Why wasn’t it simply destroyed long ago, rather than being housed in the capital of this kingdom?”

Ichimatsu nearly pulled his hair from its roots. “If it’s destroyed outright, it’ll likely rip a rift in space leading directly to the Lower Planes! Do you want a dangerous artefact in the castle basement, or a wellspring of demons?!” 

“Hm. That would be much more dangerous.” 

“Exactly!” Ichimatsu sat heavily. “There are a lot of things in this world that are kept around not because they’re good or useful, but because destroying them would have far worse consequences.” 

Karamatsu seemed to struggle with the concept. “Let’s refrain from this subject for now. We simply need to escort you safely to the castle, as planned.” 

Ichimatsu nodded. “Exactly.”

“Ichimatsu?” 

“What?”
“Thank you for telling me. I apologize if my ignorance is frustrating.”

Ichimatsu blinked, surprised. “It’s… fine. I shouldn’t have assumed you already knew.” 

“Perhaps… rather than trying to teach me to perform magic, you could lecture me on its mechanics? I am completely ignorant, after all.”

“Why would I do that?” 

“You were very passionate when making your explanation. It was charming.”

Ichimatsu pushed him to the ground. “Good night!”

He huffed and curled up on the leaf pile he’d arranged for himself, ignoring Karamatsu’s teary expression and hiding the bright blush that had spread across his cheeks. 

 

Chapter Text

They continued onward in this way for several days, until the river veered sharply west, leading away from their destination to the south. 

“We’ll have to take our chances with the main road.” 

Ichimatsu agreed. They would soon approach an area Karamatsu was familiar with, but he couldn’t lead them just yet. 

“Maybe there’ll be a town we can stop by to stock up on some supplies. A blanket or a satchel would be nice.”

“Our pursuers may be searching each settlement for us, though. You attract eyes, my friend.” 

Ichimatsu couldn’t argue with that. “I can disguise myself for a short time. Long enough to do some shopping, but not enough to linger.”

“Alright. I have full confidence in your abilities!” 

“Let’s worry about finding a town before we worry about avoiding detection there.” 

There were few other travelers on the road with them, but each and every one that passed by the pair set Ichimatsu on edge. Without knowing what bounty had been placed on him and why, he had no idea how many people would be seeking to claim it. The hunters they’d encountered so far had been too tenacious for it to have been a small sum, anyhow, and Ichimatsu feared every horse bearing a rider would turn around and follow them, every cart held aboard it a cage large enough for a human. The constant tension made him nauseous. 

---

When they finally chanced upon a settlement, Karamatsu was triumphant. “Excellent!” 

Ichimatsu was far more reserved. Something about it felt ominous. They’d seen no other travelers for some time now, and there was no visible activity in the town, either. 

“Be careful.”

“Yes, I understand. It would do no good for us to draw attention so soon. Would you like to don your disguise now?” 

“No, dumbass, that’s not what I mean… look, something feels wrong here.” 

“No need to worry, my dear Ichimatsu! I’ll defend you no matter who or what crosses our path!” 

Ichimatsu held on tighter to Karamatsu’s armor, drawing in on himself. The feeling of wrongness only grew as they approached the town, Ichimatsu’s fur standing on end. The air felt charged somehow, as though lightning was about to strike. 

“The air’s full of magic here. I don’t trust it.” 

Karamatsu frowned, thick brows furrowing once more. 

They advanced more slowly now, Karamatsu finally bowing to Ichimatsu’s warnings. 

Their horse’s hooves sounded far too loud in the stillness of the town. The soft clip clop against the stone of the main thoroughfare may as well have been cannon fire for how far it seemed to reach. Ichimatsu’s ears swiveled wildly on his head, desperate to find the slightest disturbance, their first warning of imminent danger. 

Footsteps fell behind them. Stuttering steps, as though drunken or injured. Ichimatsu whipped around to face the sound. 

A lone figure ambled across the street. Its limbs moved as though it were a marionette, made to dance by strings holding them aloft. The figure seemed to pay them no mind, going about whatever business a puppet may have. 

The horse kicked a stone, the loud clattering as it skittered away echoing through the near-empty streets. 

The figure craned its head around to face them. 

Its eyes were solid black. 

Ichimatsu watched in terror as the figure stared at them, perfectly still. Karamatsu had not slowed the horse’s advance. “Karamatsu…” Ichimatsu whispered. 

The figure broke into a sprint.

“Karamatsu! Ride!” Ichimatsu shouted, digging his claws into his chestplate. 

“Hya!” Karamatsu kicked the horse into a gallop. Its loud hoofsteps pounding the cobblestones matched volume with the pounding of several pairs of feet sprinting after them, more black-eyed figures drawn forth like manic dolls. 

Ichimatsu shot darts of magic force at their pursuers. The creatures they connected with were knocked back, losing ground, but they were quickly righted by whatever power moved their limbs in that strange fashion and they regained speed. 

“What are they?!” Karamatsu’s voice was high-pitched with panic. 

“I don’t know! They look like they’re possessed!” Ichimatsu shot more darts of force, knocking back the nearest pursuers. 

“By what?”

“Does it matter?! Something that wants to kill us!” Ichimatsu could feel his stamina draining with every dart fired. He needed to find a more permanent solution. “Find someplace to hide! I’m about to do something stupid!” 

“What?!”
“Just do it!” 

Karamatsu led the horse down side streets and alleyways. For every corner they turned, the number of footsteps chasing after them decreased, as though their pursuers lost interest as soon as their line of sight was broken. Finally, with only a few of the figures still sprinting after them, Karamatsu led the horse into a building with a door large enough to clear them. Ichimatsu sent a wave of energy at the last of their pursuers. As the wave reached them, they crumpled to the ground instantly. The horse pulled to a stop, Karamatsu leaning in to the change in momentum. Ichimatsu tumbled off the beast, already unconscious. 

---

He came to with Karamatsu shaking him gently. 

“How long was I out?” 

The tension bled out of Karamatsu’s posture. “About an hour. I dragged the bodies of those creatures outside. What did you do to them?”

Ichimatsu tried to pull himself upright. His body felt like it was made of gelatin rather than flesh and bone. “I dispelled whatever was controlling them.”

“Why was it stupid?”

“What?”

“Before you cast that spell, you said you were about to do something stupid. Why?”

Ichimatsu breathed out a short laugh. This guy had way too much confidence in him. “That spell only works reliably on weaker enchantments. If they’d been bound by something more powerful than me, it might have done nothing, and I would have passed out regardless. I’m at the absolute end of my stamina.” 

“So you took a gamble.”

“Yeah. There was a possibility that I backed you into a corner and left you alone with a bunch of creepy demons or whatever. I gambled on both our lives.”

Karamatsu looked him in the eyes. Ichimatsu looked away, unable to meet his gaze. 

“Thank you. Your gamble paid off, and we both live.” 

What kind of godly patience does this guy have?! Ichimatsu stared back at him in surprise. 

“I, uh… I guess it did.” 

“You’ve saved my life once again. I am in your debt.” 

Didn’t you hear me?! What I just did was reckless! Stupid! You should be mad at me! Why are you thanking me?! Are you some kind of god?! A god of patience?! 

“Yeah, you are.” He said, instead. “You can make it up to me by getting us the hell out of here.” Ichimatsu turned his back on Karamatsu, in part to take in his surroundings, and in part to hide the growing redness of his face. The large room held a furnace, several anvils, an elaborate grinding machine, and piles of lumber and ore. “A blacksmithy?” 

“Yes!” Karamatsu confirmed from behind him. “We were fortunate to come across one. As they use sizable beasts to turn their grindstones, there was room to enter with one.”

That wasn’t the advantage Ichimatsu had considered. Instead, he was looking at the rows of weaponry and armor lining the walls, abandoned product unsold before the town was taken over by… whatever had possessed those people. He removed a sword and shield from their positions in the order, holding them out to the knight. 

“I don’t know what’s good for this sort of thing, but anything’s better than nothing. You should arm yourself.”

Karamatsu accepted the arms from Ichimatsu, sliding his arm into the shield's straps and testing the sword’s balance with the other hand. “These are good quality. They likely sold for a hefty sum.” He swung the sword through the air a couple times, grinning at its performance after. 

“That good, huh?” Ichimatsu smirked, amused. 

The knight remembered himself, embarrassed. “I can’t take these. It would be theft!” 

“The blacksmith is probably either dead or possessed. Your weapons were taken by those bounty hunters. You’ll get more use out of them than their current owner.” 

Karamatsu frowned. “Theft is theft, regardless. What if the spell binding the townsfolk is broken, and they need return to their lives? The poor man will be out the supplies and hours of his time spent crafting these pieces. I haven’t any money to leave. I can’t take them.”

Ichimatsu rolled his eyes and mimed removing something from his pouch. He unfolded his paw and revealed a small pile of gold pieces. They were illusory, but Ichimatsu was willing to bet the knight didn’t have much of a discerning eye. 

“There. That’s the last of my gold. Can you take them now?”

“It’s likely insufficient, but… you are right. We would be unable to escape the town without them.”

“Excellent. Then let’s get going. If we’re quiet, we should be able to just walk out of here.”

The knight took the time to find a fitting sheath for the sword to tie around his waist alongside the ever-present scarf before agreeing to leave. So much for feeling bad about stealing, huh? 

“Yes, let us proceed forth. After you.” The knight gestured Ichimatsu forward, and he readily obliged. Ichimatsu listened carefully at the door before slowly pushing it open. The street outside seemed clear. He moved to proceed, but Karamatsu’s hand at his shoulder halted him. “Hold a moment.”

“What?” Ichimatsu looked back and forth along the street, assuming Karamatsu spotted something he hadn’t. 

“Before we leave… would there be any way to help these people? Perhaps we could break the spell controlling them all. It doesn’t sit right with me to simply abandon this town.” 

Ichimatsu stared at Karamatsu. Is he serious?! “It’s not our problem. We have bigger fish to fry.”

“Please, Ichimatsu.” 

“This all is probably due to the Arc of Night, anyway. If we hurry to shut it down, we prevent more of this kind of thing happening. You’d prioritize the few over the many?”

“I can’t ignore tragedies unfolding before my eyes. How can we do good if we ignore what’s right in front of us?”

“The longer we take to get there, the more ‘tragedies’ we’ll have to fix after we shut the damn thing down!”

“I will not leave without trying. You may continue on your own.”
“Why do you choose now to be stubborn!” 

Ichimatsu could battled to keep his voice low, hissing in his anger. He sighed heavily, giving up. “You win. We’ll investigate. If it’s above our pay grade, we abandon ship and keep heading for the castle town, though, alright?” 

“Thank you, Ichimatsu! You will not come to regret this!” 

He doubted that.

---

After what felt like hours of tiptoeing their way around the town, holding their breath at the sight of each and every black-eyed figure, they finally spotted something suspicious. A flickering light, barely visible behind a thick curtain, cut through the gloom like a beacon from inside a building. It seemed to be the only active fire in town, the puppet-like figures having no need for warmth or light. Karamatsu led the horse carefully to a narrow alleyway, instructing it to stay put (as though that worked so terribly well in their favor last time). Ichimatsu crept forward on all fours toward the lit building, pointed ears swiveling on his head. A muffled chanting was audible as he neared the door, confirming the presence of someone within. Ichimatsu lifted his head to the curtained window, trying to peek through the gap between the two curtains into the building beyond. 

A clattering, clanging noise startled him out of his fur. The knight was approaching in what he clearly believed to be a stealthy manner.

Ichimatsu sped over, waving his hands for Karamatsu to stop. “You’re too loud! There’s someone inside! They’ll hear us!” He hissed, the sound louder than he had intended. The chanting inside stopped. “Shit…”

“Ichimatsu, what’s wrong?” 

Before he could answer, the door swung open and a blast of fire was traveling toward the pair. Ichimatsu leapt forward, taking Karamatsu down with him, the attack barely missing them both. 

“Who are you? How have you avoided my army?” 

The man who had emerged was clothed in dark robes, patterned with skulls, and was pointing a gnarled staff at them both. Talk about a cliche… Ichimatsu clicked his tongue, annoyed. 

“There you go, dumbass. There’s the source of the evil in this town. Can we go now?”

“If this villain has ensnared the people of this town, we must defeat him!”

“If this villain has the power to ensnare a whole town’s worth of people, he’s definitely out of our league!” 

Karamatsu ignored his warning, standing and leveling his sword at the evil mage, mirroring the other’s pose. “In the name of the King, I will strike down evil where it rises! Prepare to taste defeat, villain!” 

The mage responded with another attack. HIs gaudy robes swirled behind him as the fire spouted from his staff. 

Karamatsu ducked behind his shield, dashing forward to strike. With a wide swing, he pushed the gnarled staff from the mage’s hands. The mage grabbed at Karamatsu with his other hand, the armor immediately rusting. The knight cried out in pain. 

“You dumbass… I told you I was out of magic…!” Ichimatsu dashed forward, throwing himself at the mage. His claws dug in, blood spouting forth behind their trail. Karamatsu regained his footing, holding his now-bleeding arm close to his body, and slashed his sword at the mage beneath Ichimatsu. 

Desperate, the mage unleashed a third blast of fire at close range, burning himself along with his assailant. Ichimatsu rolled away, patting out the flames. The freed mage rose to his feet, but he appeared unsteady. 

“Finish him off!” Ichimatsu ordered.

Karamatsu complied. His sword took a wide arc, slashing across the mage’s chest. Blood gushed forth, and the mage’s final words were lost in a sanguine gurgle. 

The man collapsed in a heap. Karamatsu watched him for a moment, confirming his form had completely stilled, before grinning triumphantly at Ichimatsu. 

“We are successful!” He announced. 

A black-eyed figure across the street turned to stare. “Not quite yet,” Ichimatsu replied. 

Karamatsu looked panicked. “How do we break the spell? I thought it would fall when he did,” he whispered loudly. The figure began to take shuddering steps toward them.

Ichimatsu cast his gaze around the room. The majority of the floor was filled by a large runic circle, candles burning at five corners. The chalk used to draw it glowed a faint purple. Ichimatsu knocked one candle over.

The candle rolled in a wide arc, dripping burning wax as it went. The flames began to consume the wooden flooring, breaking the circle of chalk. The advancing figure halted suddenly. As the fire spread along the floor and climbed the walls, the black bled out of the figure’s eyes, revealing only whites. The body collapsed where it stood, limply. 

Ichimatsu dragged Karamatsu away by his good arm, the knight staring stunned at the collapsed figure. “We need to get out of here before the fire spreads to all the buildings. Let’s get the horse and go!”

“What… what about the townsfolk…?” 

Ichimatsu saw several more bodies collapsed further down the road. He clenched his jaw in frustration. “Looks like they were all already dead. We risked our lives to save a bunch of corpses.” 

“No… there has to be something we can do…!”

“That guy was a necromancer! He was using necromantic magic! You can’t necromancy the living, dumbass! Freeing these corpses from his control was already as good as it was gonna get! Let’s go!” 

Despite his hesitation, Karamatsu assumed his usual role guiding the horse. The beast picked up speed and carried its two riders out of the soon-to-be burning town. 

They traveled in silence until the buildings of the town disappeared, the bright orange of the flames consuming them still marking their location. Ichimatsu gripped Karamatsu’s armor tightly. 

“I’m sorry.” He said simply. 

“It’s not your fault. You tried to warn me. I was foolish and stubborn.”

“Yeah, you were.” Karamatsu tensed. Ichimatsu swallowed. “Your heart was in the right place, though. It was unfortunate that it turned out like it did… let’s hurry and stop the Arc. We can prevent the same thing happening to anyone else.”

Karamatsu nodded silently, focussed on the road ahead. Ichimatsu didn’t comment on the tears he could see cascading down his stony expression. 

Chapter Text

Ichimatsu traced his paw gently around Karamatsu’s wounded arm. Dark blood had congealed around the rusted aperture in his armor. 

“We should get this looked at. Magical necrosis can get really nasty if left alone.” 

“Do not worry for me, my dear Ichimatsu. I will heal just fine with time. It would be best if we avoided settlements for now, judging by our recent luck with them.” 

Ichimatsu frowned and jammed a finger into the wound. 

“Ouch! What was that for?!” Karamatsu looked like a kicked puppy, pouting over his shoulder at Ichimatsu. 

“If we run into any enemies, they won’t be as gentle as I was. If that hurt, imagine getting hit by a weapon in that arm. We can just pop into some chapel for whatever god and get them to patch you up.”

“You make a compelling argument, my friend. We may even be able to garner some provisions for our travels from them if we explain our situation.”

Ichimatsu nodded. “Sure, that too.”

“Then it’s decided!” Karamatsu announced, despite being the one adamantly opposed moments before. 

“Alright, lead the way.” 

---

Unfortunately, after hours of traveling, the sky grew dark before any type of settlement revealed itself. Karamatsu winced every time he used his injured left arm when setting up camp for the night. Ichimatsu grew nervous. If the necromancer had had the power to turn a whole town into an undead army, what kind of spells would he have been able to cast in battle? Ichimatsu hoped the inflicted wound wouldn’t grow worse or develop any strange side effects. He had no training as a physician, magical or otherwise. 

The knight arranged a neat circle of stones for a fire pit despite his evident pain, and Ichimatsu set a small fire crackling within. Again, foliage would have to serve as bedding. 

“Hey, Karamatsu.” Ichimatsu called. The knight hummed in response. “Just how much stuff can your little badge pay for?” 

“Heh. My guard’s seal is a symbol of the trust between the crown and the people! The people give freely of their possessions to the guard, in return for their protection and safety!” 

“So could we get, say, a bedroll? Maybe a saddle?” 

“Certainly! Should any of the townsfolk be feeling generous, that is.” 

Ichimatsu hummed. “Good.” The spartan travel was wearing him down. He felt a bone-deep soreness that he felt would never truly abate. 

“Get what rest you can for now. I believe I recognize some landmarks near here. Soon, we’ll be in land I’m familiar with.” 

Ichimatsu hoped the knight was displaying earned confidence, for once. He could really use a hot shower and a soft bed.

---

It was days’ worth of travel before they came across another settlement. The town was large and bustling. As they grew nearer the castle town, the settlements would get even larger and more crowded. Ichimatsu dreaded the thought.

The skin around Karamatsu’s wound had sealed itself. It was certainly not smooth or pretty, and the skin had a mottled gray color to it that was worrisome. His left hand had lost some of its strength, as well. The knight had done his best to hide his discomfort, but his emotions displayed far too clearly on his face. 

“I hope we are able to find a place of worship quickly. It won’t do to have you visible on the streets for long.” 

“It’ll be fine. I’ll keep an eye out for holy symbols. You watch the road.” 

There were enough people on the thoroughfare that it was necessary for Karamatsu to lead their horse with extra care. Regardless, Ichimatsu’s lifetime of study would better prepare him to recognize the symbols they sought. 

After a short time, and several near misses with citizens not watching the road carefully, Ichimatsu pointed out a building bearing the holy symbol of Sune, the goddess’s beautiful face surrounded by brilliant red hair. “Let’s try here.” 

Karamatsu obliged, guiding their horse to the side of the road, out of the way of foot traffic. He descended first, assisisting Ichimatsu on the way down, as usual. 

“Quickly.” Ichimatsu reminded him. 

They entered the narrow building, the doors open for petitioners. The chapel’s interior was beautifully decorated, live flowers on every table, dyed glass filling the windows. A lovely elven girl, auburn hair pulled into short twintails, approached them. 

“What divine grace to you seek from our Lady Sune, travelers?” She asked, her cute voice cheerful. 

“My dear lady, you grace your patron with such a lovely visage! From the Lady, I humbly request a gift of mending, if you could generously give such a gift to us.”

“He got wounded by a necromancer. It looks nasty. Can you heal him?” 

“That’s what I said!” 

The pleasant smile on the lovely elf’s face had become strained. “Certainly! Our Lady would happily oblige! Would you also care for a bath, dirty travelers? Perhaps some of our lovely perfumes, smelly travelers?” 

“Just the healing, please.” 

“It would be my pleasure!” She began to sing, her lovely voice beckoning forth a soothing light. She placed her hands on the knight’s left arm, and the color slowly returned to normal, the skin smoothing out. 

“I am indebted to you, my lady. I am grateful beyond measure.”

“That’ll be 6,000 gold pieces, please!” She stated cheerfully. 

“Oh, I don’t- our belongings were lost, you see, and I-”

“Totoko! You little shit! You can’t charge the petitioners!” Another lovely woman, with long pink hair streaming behind her, held back by green ribbons, came storming out of a side room, expression furious. Her pointed, cat-like ears lay flat against her head, the black fur stark against her bright hair. A long tail swished behind her.

“Don’t be a killjoy, Nyaa. These gross, smelly travelers owe me for polluting my presence.”

“Don’t insult the petitioners to their faces, either! Oh-” The fury drained from the second girl’s face, leaving behind clear surprise. She stared directly at Ichimatsu, who stared back at her. 

“You’re catfolk, aren’t you?” She finally asked.

He nodded. 

“Just like me! I don’t see many of our people around human towns like this! Is your clan passing through nearby?” 

Ichimatsu shook his head. “I.. I no longer have a clan,” he explained.

A deep sorrow flashed across her face. “I’m sorry… I lost my clan when I was young, so I don’t have one, either. It was rude of me to assume.” 

Karamatsu looked at Ichimatsu curiously. Ichimatsu turned his face away, hiding whatever expression he was making. 

“Could we use those baths Miss Totoko mentioned? We’ve been traveling for a long time without being able to.” Ichimatsu said to the wall, trying to change the subject.

“Of course! Follow me!”

The two girls led the two travelers to a large chamber at the back of the narrow chapel. It held an enormous bathtub, the size of a lake. Runes etched around the sides glowed gently, warming the water. Every few feet around the rim sat various soaps and oils. 

“Please, undress!” Nyaa requested.

“You can’t get in the bath in your dirty clothes!” Totoko explained. Ichimatsu nervously removed his tunic, unused to bathing in front of anyone, let alone a pair of beautiful women. 

Karamatsu held no such reservations. He doffed his armor quickly, then posed confidently, displaying his naked form for the assembled group. The girls both looked utterly disgusted with him. Ichimatsu had to turn away a cherry-red face. 

“Let us soak away our troubles with the dirt from our forms, easing the tension, the stress, of our travels with this warm embrace. Yes, the bath beckons!” The man was unashamed, posing with every phrase of his speech, like he was giving some kind of personal performance to the small audience. 

“Shouldn’t you leave the prayers to the priestesses? Just get in the bath already.” Ichimatsu snapped.

Said priestesses giggled. Karamatsu followed the order, sinking into the water, the weirdly smug expression never leaving his face. Ichimatsu lowered himself into the bath beside him, glaring daggers. Did he have to act so weird? It was like he was a totally different person suddenly. 

Behind them, the girls had a silent argument over who had to help Karamatsu with a bath, and who had to bathe the catfolk. After a brief scuffle, ending in one of Totoko’s twintails being pulled loose and Nyaa losing her green ribbons, the matter was settled. Nyaa settled behind Karamatsu, and Totoko behind Ichimatsu. 

“Don’t worry, you’re in good hands!” The catfolk girl assured. “Totoko helps me wash my hair all the time, and she doesn’t ever get soap in my ears or anything!” 

The elven girl stuck her tongue out childishly. Ichimatsu thought that the specificity of the assurance pointed to the likelihood that Totoko had, indeed, gotten soap in Nyaa’s pointed ears, and possibly on more than one occasion. 

The girls worked methodically, with practiced movements. It seemed this was a common service the chapel provided. Ichimatsu found himself purring despite himself at Totoko’s gentle fingers massaging soaps into his fur and hair. 

“That good, huh?” Nyaa teased. 

“I know I’m great, but you’re making it weird.” Totoko huffed. 

“You know he can’t help it, bitch!” Nyaa defended. Karamatsu yelped, her fingers pulling on his hair too sharply to be comfortable. 

“It’s still weird, freak!” Totoko snapped back. 

Ichimatsu scooted away from the edge of the bath, sensing another scuffle brewing between the two priestesses. Karamatsu wasn’t quite so lucky so as to escape, and was caught in the middle as the two launched at one another once more.

---

After the luxurious, yet dangerous, soak, the pair of travelers donned their freshly-cleaned garments and thanked the priestesses. The two had fixed themselves up, healing their own minor scratches and brushing their hair back into place. The speed at which they returned to looking just as lovely and professional as when the two had first appeared made Ichimatsu question how often scuffles like this broke out between them. 

“Come back anytime! We’ll help you look presentable!” 

Ichimatsu had to grab Karamatsu’s arm and bodily drag him away from a full-length mirror, where the knight was fussing with his hair and eyebrows. The man had begun making flirtatious expressions at himself by the time Ichimatsu successfully moved him. 

“Oh, yeah. Do you two know anywhere we can purchase traveling supplies? We lost all our stuff when our horse ran off.” Ichimatsu had nearly forgotten the second part of their task here. 

“Oh, no! What bad fortune! We have supplies here for traveling petitioners, if you have need.”

“It’ll still cost you gold, though.”

“They just said they lost everything! They don’t have any money, you bimbo!” 

“We can’t just give stuff out, though. This isn’t a charity!”

“It literally is a charity! This is a place of worship!” 

“It’s fine, we don’t-”

“I’m a knight of the castle guard. If need be, you can charge the crown directly. Please, we’re on a deadly serious mission of the highest importance.” Karamatsu flashed his seal to the priestesses.

Totoko took it from him, examining it closely. “This looks legit.” She sang a short hymn and the seal glowed. She considered it for a long minute. 

“We can just give stuff to them! Helping people down on their luck is the whole point of the chapel!” 

“Yep, this looks real to me! I accept your offer!” 

“Totoko, you miser!” 

Despite their continued bickering, the girls led the pair to an alcove, up a staircase, and into a chamber full of goods on shelves and in piles. 

“What all do you need?” Nyaa asked. 

“Some blankets and a saddle, to start with. Some kind of satchel to store things in.”

“A saddle? I thought you said you lost your horse?” Totoko said suspiciously. 

“We obtained another! A generous citizen offered to me a steed, and I graciously accepted!”

That wasn’t quite how Ichimatsu remembered it, but he wasn’t going to quibble over details. 

“We seriously just have the clothes on our backs right now. Whatever you can spare will help a bunch.” 

Nyaa looked sympathetic. Totoko retained her suspicious glare. 

The two walked in a circuit around the room, Nyaa grabbing nearly one of everything in the storeroom, Totoko putting back most of what she pulled down. When they completed their tour, the two priestesses were bearing and armful each of supplies. Bedrolls, preserved food, and a satchel for each man were piled in their arms. 

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a saddle. There’s a shop somewhere in town that sells supplies for horses, I’m sure. I just don’t remember where…”

“North side of town, probably passed it on the way in.”

“That was it! Thank you!”

“Now please leave!” Totoko had a pleasant smile, but she was nearly pushing the pair back down the staircase. Ichimatsu began to stuff things into his satchel, worried she would upset his balance and he’d lose all the stuff they’d gathered for them. 

The chapel doors slammed shut behind them, despite the building’s open-door policy.

“Geez. Talk about pushy.” 

“I thought it was charming.” Karamatsu argued. 

Ichimatsu hummed. He couldn’t quite argue. The elven woman was as pretty as she was haughty, and it was hard to hold it against her. Still, the way Karamatsu had puffed up like a peacock on full display for the girls had really rubbed him the wrong way. He didn’t want to examine the ‘why’s of that all too closely. 

“Let’s find that saddlemaker the priestess mentioned.”

“Yes, let’s!” 

He led the way to their horse, still where they had left it. A few children gathered around, stroking its fur curiously. 

“Pardon me, little ones, but that steed belongs to me. We must make haste with him now.” 

A chorus of ‘aww’s erupted from the small crowd. 

“You first.” Karamatsu offered, kneeling to offer himself as a stool for Ichimatsu to climb up. Ichimatsu stubbornly hopped up on his own, struggling obviously, but knocking Karamatsu’s hands away when he tried to help. The knight looked confused, but didn’t comment, sliding his own legs over the horse.

“They referenced the northern side of the town, didn’t they?” Karamatsu asked. Ichimatsu nodded in confirmation. “Then that’s where we ride!”

---

The saddlemaker was a bit difficult to find, not positioned near the main road, but the townsfolk gave its location readily when questioned. Karamatsu flashed his badge, as expected, and had little trouble obtaining a saddle. The proprietor of the shop even buckled the saddle around their horse’s barrel for them and checked its shoes. The saddle was cheap, not designed for two riders, but it would be a more comfortable ride for the horse, at the very least. Karamatsu affixed his stachel to the saddle, but Ichimatsu refused to make the same mistake twice, tightening the strap to sit comfortably across his body. 

“Let’s go.”
They returned to the road, more well-equipped for whatever may come, looking forward to their journey’s end. 

Chapter Text

The road out of town took them back the way they came. As they passed by the chapel of Sune, Karamatsu got an unreadable look on his face. “Would you, perhaps, agree to spending one night here in the city? We can stay at an inn for the night, rest up properly before beginning again.”

Ichimatsu frowned. “We’re kind of on a time crunch, in case you forgot. Big evil artefact powering up evil magic across the land and all that? Besides, in case you forgot in just the few hours that we’ve spent here in town, there’s a bounty on my head and armed idiots looking to collect.”

“You can disguise yourself for a short time, no? Long enough to check in to an inn, at least. I can bring food up to the room with us. We’ll set out immediately at dawn.”

“You’re weirdly insistent, considering you were the one harping on us needing to be quick about it when we entered town in the first place.”

“I just… I simply want us to be as prepared as possible for what lies ahead. The journey thus far has not been easy on us.”

Ichimatsu sighed. He could definitely use the break. The bath had been refreshing, but the soreness hadn’t completely left his body, and scavenged meals were wearing him down. “Fine. One night.”

He raised his hood up, covering his features, then dropped it again, revealing the striped face of a tabaxi, rather than his own. He could only hope the bounty hunters didn’t have anyone skilled at seeing through illusion among their number. 

Karamatsu glanced at his guise over his shoulder. “Are you certain this disguise will be sufficient? Would it not be safer to disguise yourself as a human, instead?”

Ichimatsu shook his head. “The disguise is only visual. It would be more dangerous for me to cast the illusion over my entire body. If someone were to bump into me and notice that they’d felt fur, rather than just skin, they’d see through the illusion instantly.” 

Karamatsu turned his head back to the road. “I see. I would never have considered that. You have quite the intellect, my dear Ichimatsu!”

“Also humans are butt ugly.” Ichimatsu winced. Why did I say that? “No offense.” 

“None taken, I assure you. I imagine we look quite strange compared to your people.” 

I just insulted you! Be a little more angry with me! Ichimatsu turned his attention away from Karamatsu and the conflicting emotions swirling in his gut. He scanned the signs along the side of the road, looking for something that sounded inn-ey. 

“Look, there. ‘The Dreaming Dragon.’” 

“Good eye, Ichimatsu! It appears they even have a stable! Lady Luck continues to smile upon us!” 

I’d hope so. She fucking owes us for the past week…

Karamatsu led the horse to the stable, retrieving his satchel and allowing the stablehand to lead the horse back. He turned to grin at Ichimatsu. “After you!” 

Ichimatsu led the way into the inn, drawing a few glances from the patrons milling about within. A small group of armored humans whispered to one another as he walked in. One shook their head emphatically, and the others glanced over just once more before returning to their drinks. 

The innkeeper waved him over with a pleasant smile. “What can I do for you, dear?” 

“My companion and I need a place of respite for the evening, madame.” Karamatsu answered for him, taking long strides to catch up. “Although we lack coin, I am a proud member of the castle guard, coming through this town on a very important mission.” 

He showed her his seal, as usual, and she nodded, though her pleasant smile dropped. “I can do a room for you. It’ll have to be one of our smaller rooms, though, as I do give paying patrons priority.”

“Yes, of course, madame! That is only natural. We don’t mean to impose on your generosity more than completely necessary.” 

She hummed. “Alright then. Here’s your key-” she retrieved it from beneath the counter- “And one meal is included. On the house.” 

Karamatsu took the key, bowing deeply. “Your generosity is greatly appreciated.” 

He led the way down the hall, seeking out the number matching that which was etched onto the key they were granted. As he opened the correct door, it became apparent that the room was used primarily for storage, and not for renting to guests. 

“Perhaps I should ask if there’s been some mistake…” 

Ichimatsu almost laughed at that. “No, I think this is exactly what she intended. She didn’t seem to buy into the kind of bullshit you spew. Not everyone can be a huge fan of the government.” 

“That is a fair point… I suppose we must simply make the most of it, then!” 

Ichimatsu rolled his eyes as the idiot, predictably, changed his mind with the slightest amount of prompting. His gaze slid across the piles of boxes and sacks, landing on a bed situated beneath it all. “Looks like this actually is a guest room, sort of. Can you move all this stuff?” 

“Of course! Leave it to me!” Karamatsu strode confidently over and began to lift a box. It creaked, and he seemed to struggle quite a bit. As it left the bed, it released a large cloud of dust. Karamatsu, launched into a coughing fit, let go of the box. It dropped to the floor and he yelped, hopping and clutching his toes. 

“It’s a good thing your boots are armored, huh?” 

“Ichimatsuuuu!” The knight whined, eyes full of tears. He looked absolutely pitiful. Ichimatsu sighed.

“I can’t help with any of the heavy lifting, but maybe I can give you a hand with that dust.” 

He waved a paw through the air over the piles of goods. In a flash, the dust vanished. 

“There, no more dust. Now it’s just up to you and your muscles, big guy.” 

As they usually did when Ichimatsu cast any spell whatsoever, no matter how trivial, Karamatsu’s eyes seemed to sparkle. 

“It was just a simple cleaning spell. Any child could do it.” 

“You sell yourself far too short! It would have taken me hours of toil to do what took you mere moments! Your magic is fantastic! Magnificent! Incredible!”

“Shut up!” Ichimatsu threw a small sack of flour directly at Karamatsu’s face. He was sure that, beneath the illusion, his face burned a bright red. The sack made contact, throwing Karamastu off of his feet and onto his ass. 

“Ow….” The knight whined. 

“You don’t have to patronize me. I’m a grown adult.” 

“I wasn’t-” he began to argue.

“Just move that junk off the bed so we have somewhere to sleep tonight.” Ichimatsu snapped. “Great idea, by the way.” 

The knight rubbed his nose, where the sack had evidently made contact. “I’m sorry.” 

Ichimatsu crossed his arms, glaring at the wall, pointedly not watching as the knight toiled away at his task, freeing the small bed. The mattress was sunken, flattened by the weight of the supplies that had been piled atop it and time. 

Ichimatsu climbed into the bed, the mattress as uncomfortable as it appeared, and settled in. He could hear Karamatsu hesitating for a long moment, making small humming noises as he considered his options, before the man finally moved to settle his bedroll on the small patch of clear floor in the room. He was nearly surrounded by boxes and uncomfortably close to the bed where Ichimatsu lay fuming, but he settled in, adjusting his bedding to make himself more comfortable. 

When the sounds stilled, Ichimatsu glanced over his shoulder. In the rapidly dimming light of the room, he could see Karamatsu meet his gaze. He quickly glanced away. 

Why is he watching me?! That’s weird, right?! 

Ichimatsu tried to ignore the gaze he could feel piercing into his back. With the night encroaching, the pitiful rest he’d managed to get over the last week caught up with him, and he felt himself falling asleep, despite everything.

---

He awoke to the early morning sun shining into his eyes and Karamatsu’s space on the floor empty. He looked around in a panic, assuming he’d see the knight busying himself somewhere nearby. When he saw no trace of the other man, he dashed out of their room, heading for the innkeeper’s counter. Just as the first patrons came into view, he remembered himself, turning around and swiftly casting the illusion on his face once more. He walked to the counter at a more reasonable pace, unwilling to draw attention so early in the morning. 

“Excuse me, ma’am?” 

She looked up from the ledger she was examining. “Yes?”

“I’m looking for my… traveling companion. He wasn’t in the room when I woke up. Did you see him come by here, by any chance?” 

She took a long look at him. “You were with that guard, weren’t you?” 

Ichimatsu nodded. 

“Last I saw, he went out late last night.”

“Last night… did you see where he went?” 

She leaned back in her chair, considering him. “He turned right when he left here. That’s all I know.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I have to go find him.”

“Good luck.” 

Ichimatsu walked out of the front door, trying very hard not to break into a sprint. Had he been kidnapped? Had he gone to sell Ichimatsu out to whoever was hunting him? Was this entire mission a ruse to get whatever bounty was on his head?

Ichimatsu shook his head to get those thoughts out. It was more likely he’d gone for a walk or something and the innkeeper had merely missed him returning… and then missed him leaving again this morning….

Ichimatsu felt the fear creeping back into his heart. He desperately hoped to find Karamatsu again soon. 

He’d been walking for several minutes, panic setting in, his natural walking pace becoming hurried, then rushed. Where would he have gone?  

Just as he was about to grab the nearest person and frantically grill them for information, he saw the chapel of Sune they’d visited the previous day. That bastard wouldn’t have… Ichimatsu rushed over to the chapel doors. As he reached out his paw to the huge door’s handle, it swung open to meet him, revealing the very man he was desperately seeking. The knight looked exhausted, as though he hadn’t gotten even a moment of sleep that night. Ichimatsu was dumbfounded for a moment, then enraged. He grabbed the knight by his breastplate and shook him roughly. 

“This is where you were?! I looked everywhere for you! I thought you’d been kidnapped again! Or worse! But no, you were just getting cozy with those- those floozies !” 

“Ichimatsu, you don’t understand! I wasn’t-”

“Oh, I understand! You made us hang back, despite danger setting in from every side, despite the literal apocalypse potentially descending on us, just to get fucking laid !” 

“I wasn’t!” 

“You think I believe you?!” 

“I can prove it!”

Ichimatsu stopped shaking him, staring. “Prove it? How?”

Karamatsu drew his sword, then, as Ichimatsu watched in horror, he drew it across his palm. Blood seeped out, a large pool of it quickly collecting. The knight began to sing a hymn, one the priestesses had sang the day before, and his palm filled with glowing light. 

As the light faded, so did the wound. 

“I wasn’t here for… companionship , or whatever you want to accuse me of. I came to ask the priestesses to teach me a bit of healing magic.” 

Ichimatsu let go of his breastplate, taken aback. “You wanted to stay the night… to learn magic?”

He nodded. “I didn’t want us to be endangered without hope of recovery. Our wounds previously were, miraculously, quite minor, but even such a little wound caused me such trouble. What if we were ambushed and injured, and could not fulfill our mission? What if… what if I had to watch you bleed out in front of me, unable to protect you?” Karamatsu’s eyes brimmed with tears that threatened to fall. Ichimatsu swallowed hard. 

“I’m… I’m sorry I accused you of… Thank you. For worrying about me, I mean.” 

“Of course. It is my job to defend you.”

Ichimatsu breathed out a short laugh. “Such dedication. Just make sure your lack of sleep doesn’t get us killed.”

“I will press on through the-” he yawned loudly- “through the exhaustion.” He looked embarrassed. 

“Come on, we need to check out of the-” 

A loud roar cut Ichimatsu off. The panicked screams of the townsfolk were drowned out by a loud rushing of wind, then a small earthquake. A huge, crimson dragon had landed just outside the city. 

“Really?! We can’t catch a break for a single goddamn minute?!” 

“Let’s go! We must defend the townsfolk!”

“Absolutely not! We’re no match for a fucking dragon, you lunatic!” Ichimatsu grabbed Karamatsu by the arm and attempted to drag him away. The knight was reluctant, watching the dragon spit columns of fire through the air with horror. 

“I can’t just sit by and-” 

“We will die if we try to fight that thing! These people are dead regardless! Remember the last town?!” 

Karamatsu finally gave in, the memory clearly weighing heavily on him. “You’re correct, of course. Let’s be off.” 

They raced one another back to the inn, the sounds of destruction ringing out all around them. The buildings on the right side of the road all caught fire in unison, a plume of flame shooting past them. Karamatsu turned sharply, racing into the stables and retrieving their horse. 

“Get on!” Karamatsu shouted, leaning a hand down to help Ichimatsu up. With the saddle as a handhold, he was able to do so with surprising ease. The knight kicked the horse into a gallop, tearing past the fleeing townsfolk. Ichimatsu looked over his shoulder at the rampaging dragon, buildings falling beneath its body, flames consuming the rest. 

A bright pink light sparked through the air, tracing out a huge rune in the sky. A huge blast of force knocked the dragon back. Some unseen force traded blows with the beast, pink magic arcing through the air as often as the flames. 

“Looks like someone else is taking care of it for us!” Ichimatsu informed the knight in front of him. 

Karamatsu craned his neck around to catch a glimpse. “What is that?!”

“Some incredibly powerful magic! I’ve never seen anything like it! Let’s just take the chance and escape!” 

The horse sped through the town, quickly outpacing the fires spreading through the buildings and soon breaking free of the town entirely. They did not slow their pace as they returned to the empty road, only pasture and farmland spreading out on either side. Desperate to put as much distance between themselves and the fight with the dragon as possible, they pushed their horse to its limits, its breathing becoming ragged, its pace becoming slowed. 

“I think we’re safe now.”

“A little further,” Ichimatsu disagreed. “It could still catch up to us. We should try to find some kind of shelter, somewhere it won’t see us when it flies overhead.” 

“I’ll trust your judgement. Hya!” He kicked the horse faster. Already at a dead sprint, it could do nothing to respond to the order. Ichimatsu desperately searched for a gathering of trees or a rocky outcropping of any kind they could shelter themselves beneath. The land near the road was severely lacking in cover, though, the farmers having stripped the land flat long ago. Ichimatsu swore he could hear the dragon’s cries becoming louder. 

“I don’t see anywhere to seek shelter! Do you have some kind of spell that could create something for us?” 

Ichimatsu shook his head, forgetting Karamatsu wouldn’t be able to see it. “Dragons can see through any illusion. If I were to create some sort of magical shelter, the beast would be able to see us as easily as if I had done nothing.” 

“Shit!” 

It was the first time he’d heard the knight curse. He couldn’t disagree, though, that the situation called for it. 

Shit, indeed. 

The sound of rushing wind preceded the deep shadow that covered the area. The dragon flew overhead at impossible speed, its huge body creating shockwaves in its wake. It continued in a straight line past them, not sparing them even a moment. 

As its silhouette disappeared over the horizon, Ichimatsu let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. 

“I guess we’re safe.” 

“For the time being, anyway.” Karamatsu slowed the horse. It seemed grateful for the reprieve. At least, Ichimatsu was, and was, perhaps, simply projecting those feelings onto the beast. 

“That was… strange behavior. I expected the beast to be unrelenting in its rampage.”

“Maybe it just didn’t see us as worth it. Let’s just be thankful for our luck.” 

Ichimatsu didn’t mention that, in his experience, good luck would always be met with bad. They were just waiting for the other shoe to drop, now. 

 

Chapter Text

They made camp that night beneath a strangely shaped rock. It jutted out overhead enough to block the light rain from soaking them both through. The small fire they built between them crackled gently. 

In Ichimatsu’s dreams, that crackle was a roar. 

He dreamed of the flaming wreckage wrought by the dragon, of the burning bastion of the undead, and of the inferno that devoured his childhood home. He slept fitfully, recalling the screams of his fellow townsfolk, the cries of the kittens torn from their parents. He felt the sharp pain in his paw as though fresh. The memories always resurfaced all too easily.

A familiar voice whispered his name softly, cutting through the noises of destruction, the fresh memory adding its terror to the old. A hand stroked through his hair, calming him even through the terror the memory always evoked. His eyes fluttered open to see Karamatsu, crouched over him, speaking softly and petting his hair. 

“Do you often have nightmares?” The knight asked. 

Ichimatsu shook his head. “Not usually. It’s just-” He paused to consider his words. He sat upright, gently brushing off Karamatsu’s hand from his head. “The fires triggered an old memory that I thought I’d gotten over.” 

Karamatsu’s expression was soft, sympathetic. “Would you tell me about it?” 

Ichimatsu wanted to say no, instinctively defensive. Instead, he told Karamatsu a part of the truth. “The village where I grew up was destroyed in a fire. I told you the burn on my paw was an old injury… that’s what it was from. When I tried to escape the burning building I was trapped in.” He clenched his paw, the sensation of the healing cut across the pad distorted. “As far as I know, I was the only survivor.” 

“I’m so sorry… Thank you for telling me.” 

Ichimatsu couldn’t meet Karamatsu’s intense gaze. He swallowed. “Thank you… for listening, I guess. And for… helping make the nightmare less bad.”

The knight smiled. “That’s what heroes are for.” 

Ichimatsu laughed. “All of your martial training, just to prepare for petting a grown man’s hair while he cries about something that happened a decade ago.”

“True strength is knowing when one must be gentle!”

“I really don’t think that’s how it goes.”

The knight held his chin in his hand, smirking proudly. “One must be fully prepared for both love and war! What is life without love? What is peace without war? Ah, fate!” 

The sharp change in mood between his nightmarish memories and Karamatsu’s antics seemed outright silly. Ichimatsu was nearly wheezing with laughter now. “Stop, stop, you’re killing me!” 

“Alas, a sinful man such as myself cannot avoid causing bloodshed, even in times of peace! Live, my dear Ichimatsu, and ease my guilty conscience!”

“Seriously, stop! My sides hurt!” He wiped a tear away from his eye, peering over at Karamatsu. The knight’s expression was soft, gentle, and full of something that Ichimatsu couldn’t quite place, but made him blush from his ears down to his chest. His giggles subsided, replaced by debilitating embarrassment as the knight’s gaze remained unbroken. 

“Wha- what are you staring at?!” 

“I believe this is the first time I’ve seen you laugh so openly. It suits you.”

Ichimatsu felt like he’d been punched directly in the heart. “What the hell does that mean! Shut up!” 

“You asked me a question, and I simply answered honestly.” 

“You’re too goddamn much! I can’t take it!” Ichimatsu pulled the hood of his tunic up, shielding his red face from Karamatsu’s intense gaze. 

“Ichimatsu…”

“No! Shut up! I’m done with you!” 

He felt a hand on his shoulder and moved to throw it off, but Karamatsu’s low, serious tone stilled him. “Ichimatsu, we’re about to be ambushed. There is someone in the brush behind you.”

“How many?”

“I can’t see any others, but I doubt they’re alone.”

“Directly behind me?”

“About 30 feet.”

Ichimatsu spun and fired a ball of flame from his outstretched paw. The attack crashed into the bush Karamatsu had indicated, and a panicked shout came from within. Someone scrambled deeper into the underbrush.

Movement came from behind, now. Ichimatsu swung around, fire already crackling in his palms. On all sides, their ambushers readied their weapons. 

“What do you want with us?” Karamatsu demanded. 

“All you need to know is that we’ll be getting rich off of you and your furry little friend there.” A woman sneered. 

“We’ll see about that.” Ichimatsu growled. He pushed in front of Karamatsu, despite the knight’s protests, and sent a wave of crackling electricity bursting forth. The surrounding enemies flew back several feet and lay, convulsing. “We have to go! Grab the horse!”

“We can’t abandon our things! It’ll take time to pack it all up!” 

“Screw the things! I’d way rather get the fuck out of here!” The scattered ambushers were beginning to regain their footing. Ichimatsu scrambled to get on the horse, struggling without the saddle or Karamatsu’s aid. The knight still stood, sword and shield at the ready. “Hurry!”

“These were gifts! We cannot waste them like this!”

“Get the fuck on the horse, you idiot!” 

“No.” The knight looked him in the eye, expression dead serious. “I can defend you if you stay. You will be on your own if you go. Make your choice.”

The choice was made for him as the party of bounty hunters rushed back in to the camp. Two arrows flew, one narrowly missing Ichimatsu and one making contact with Karamatsu’s raised shield. A man with a mace came sprinting, the weapon swinging wildly overhead, before he brought it down on the knight. Karamatsu seemed shaken for a moment, the force reverberating down the arm holding the shield aloft, but he answered with a wide swing of his sword, making solid contact with his assailant. 

The fourth, the one that Ichimatsu had first attacked, was sprinting away from the camp, trying to escape. Ichimatsu sent another blast of fire spiraling toward his exposed back. He let out a loud, pained cry as he crumpled to the ground. 

Karamatsu was rapidly overwhelmed as the two archers switched their bows for swords, as well. Assailed on all sides, it was all he could do to defend himself. Block, block, parry, block- he was too slow for the last, a blade slicing through his arm where his armor was compromised. He cried out, too slow to react to the mace swinging in from the other side. Ichimatsu shook as he aimed, terrified of what may happen if he missed his target. He shot three darts of force out, one for each assailant. One between the shoulderblades, one in the gut, and the last glancing off the mace-wielding man’s arm. The two archers crumpled to the ground like their companion before them, leaving only one of the bounty hunters still standing. 

He and Karamatsu leveled off, gauging each others’ movement, waiting for an opening. They were both bleeding and breathing heavily. 

Karamatsu took a wide swing. The man barely dodged, answering with a swing of his own. Karamatsu took the blow with his shield, then attempted to bring the shield down on his assailant’s skull. The sickening crack advertised his success. The man swayed on his feet, blinking quickly, gaze unfocused. Karamatsu readied his blade for a heavy finishing strike.

“Don’t kill him!” Ichimatsu shouted. 

“What?! Why not?! He wishes us dead, or worse!”

“I want to question him!” 

Karamatsu stared for a moment, then dropped his weapon. “As you wish.” 

The man shakily raised his mace, trying to aim an attack despite the injury to his head. Karamatsu easily disarmed him, grabbing the mace and bringing an elbow down on the same spot with which his shield had made contact. The man collapsed. 

Ichimatsu hopped off of the horse, checking his pulse. “He’s alive. Tie him up and make sure he stays stable.”

Karamatsu seemed to hesitate for just a moment before following the order. Ichimatsu moved on, checking the vital signs of the other two he’d felled in the camp area. One had stopped breathing already, and the other had only a weak pulse, blood quickly seeping from a wound. 

He raced off to check the last. He followed the path of singed leaves to the spot the blast landed. A bloody trail led through broken brush to the stilled corpse of the bounty hunter. 

He jogged back to the camp. 

“They’re all dead.” 

Karamatsu looked up from where he was tying the last living ambusher’s hands behind his back. His expression was heavy with emotion. 

“I suppose that’s for the best…” 

“Better them than us. Wake this guy up.”

Karamatsu nodded. He sang that hymn once more, invoking the aid of Sune. A golden light glowed gently, then brighter, then faded along with the wound, as before. The man’s eyebrows furrowed. He tried to move his arms, then struggled upon realizing they were bound. “What’s-”

“Tell us everything and we’ll let you live,” said Ichimatsu. 

“You and your ilk have harassed us for far too long. We demand to know why.” 

The man looked between his two captors. “I guess the tables have turned… what do you want to know?”

“What were you planning to do with us?”

He chuckled. “Planning to cash in that huge bounty, what else?”

“Bounty for what?” 

“For your capture, dead or alive. Alive paying quite a bit more, of course, but the promised sum was still hefty enough for your corpse. A couple days ago they tacked on a bonus if we got this guy, too.” He nodded at Karamatsu, who looked surprised. 

“For me? Why?”

“I dunno. The fliers say you’re a danger to the kingdom or some shit. I don’t ask questions, don’t really care about the specifics.” 

Karamatsu looked insulted. “I’m a defender of the kingdom! I’m a proud member of the castle guard, and I’ve never done anything-”

“I don’t think this is about what we have or haven’t done.” Ichimatsu sighed. Karamatsu looked at him quizzically. “Tell us more about those fliers.” 

“They were posted about a week ago. Lots of them in the cities near the castle, but messengers brought word pretty far out. We ran into another party of hunters that said they’d been chasing you since way out at Landrean. Claimed they had some kind of dibs on your bounty since they’d worked so hard.” He laughed at that. “Only dibs in hunting bounties is whoever gets them to the one who’s paying.” 

“Who’s paying, then?”

“The fliers say to bring you to the city guard headquarters in the castle town, so I guess the guard captain of the city.” 

Karamatsu shook his head. “That doesn’t make any sense!” 

Ichimatsu ignored the knight’s turmoil. “One last question. How detailed was the description of us on those fliers? How did you know we were the ones you were looking for?”

He grinned up at Ichimatsu, unsettling him. “There weren’t no description. There was pictures.”

“Like paintings? But I’ve never sat for one before… and didn’t you live alone in the forest?”

“They weren’t no paintings. Think it must’ve been magic or something. They looked just like you do now, looking at you.”

“No wonder these people were able to spot us so easily… what does this mean?”

Ichimatsu rubbed his temples. “It means whoever’s after us is powerful, well-connected, and dead serious. We’re in deep shit.” 

“Was that enough for you? You’ll let me go?” 

“Of course, thank you for being so cooperative.” Karamatsu said as he began to untie the man’s bonds. 

Ichimatsu disagreed. Electricity crackled in his paws. “It would be stupid of us to let you go now. You’ll just come after us again, probably with even more friends. I think I’ll just finish you off here.”

“Ichimatsu, no-!”

“Bad decision, kitty.” 

As Ichimatsu released the energy of the blast, he was grabbed from behind. The streak of lightning went wide, tearing a path through the trees and leaving the man mostly unscathed. Whoever had grabbed him from behind pulled his paws behind his back, tying them there. 

More hunters swarmed out of the woods. Without Ichimatsu to back him up, Karamatsu was overwhelmed instantly. Nearly a dozen bounty hunters had joined their former captive. 

“You’re right, that would have been stupid. Too bad I’d already brought friends.”

Ichimatsu and Karamatsu were dragged off to a hidden cart and locked into separate cages. Two of their captors had scooped up their satchels, checking out the contents enthusiastically. “Hell yeah, jerky!” 

“Hey! That was a gift from a priestess!” Karamatsu whined. 

“Man, stolen stuff just tastes better, you know?”

“Dude, don’t eat that! If you stole a gift from a priestess, their god will probably be pissed off!” 

“Do I look like I care? It’s yummy jerky and it’s mine now.”

The man with the mace that had so thoroughly duped them hopped up on the cart to grin through the bars of their cages at them. 

“Don’t worry, it’s just a quick ride to the castle town and then you’ll be rid of these annoying assholes forever! Ah, too bad, though, about whatever the guards will do to you when we get there.” 

The large group of hunters worked in tandem to throw a huge tarp over the cages to disguise their contents. The cart rolled off at a gentle pace, picking up speed when they reached the main road again. Several of the hunters rode horses around the cart, keeping a perimeter. One, Ichimatsu noted, was riding their horse. He growled. 

“Ichimatsu.” Karamatsu whispered. He was seated as near Ichimatsu as he could with the bars in the way. 

“What.” Ichimatsu grumbled. 

“Is there nothing you can do to free us?”

“And what, fight off nearly a dozen armed assholes? That would be an idiot’s gambit.” He sighed, sitting down near the bars of his own cage. There was still half a foot distance between them. “Besides, that last stupid attack almost tapped me out. If I tried anything now, I’d pass out again. As usual.” 

“Oh.” Karamatsu looked away. Ichimatsu swallowed.
He felt like he’d let the knight down, more than himself. Serves the idiot right for thinking I’m fucking omnipotent or some shit. I’ve got my limits, just like anyone else. He buried his face in his knees. This is all my fault….

Chapter Text

The cell they were thrown into was dank, dreary, and cold. They’d descended what felt like an entire mile’s worth of stairs to make it down here, the lowermost hold of the city’s dungeons. Their captors had been squabbling over who got how much of the large sum they were presented. The pile of gold was almost comically large, and even split ten or eleven ways it would be a small fortune for someone making their living raiding. 

The guards had taken over from there, dragging the pair down into the depths, three guards for each of them. They were told the cells they were brought to were reserved for the most dangerous criminals in the land. They all remained empty because the majority of those brought down here were sentenced to execution.

The empty, echoing halls certainly felt like a crypt. 

It had felt like a lifetime since the door had been locked and the guards had ascended the stairs once more. Ichimatsu had chosen a corner to sit in, thinking about every mistake they’d made that had brought them here. Maybe if they’d just run and left their stuff behind, like he’d wanted to do, maybe if they’d left the previous town a day earlier, like they’d planned on. Maybe if they’d never stopped to check out that copse of trees and been separated, costing them precious time. 

Karamatsu hadn’t paused a moment since they’d been locked in. He was examining every crack, testing for weakness in the bars, feeling for drafts along every inch of the walls. 

It was so goddamn irritating. 

“Give it up.” Ichimatsu grumbled. “There’s not gonna be any way out. We’re underground, these cells are reinforced for dangerous, hardened criminals, and, even if we somehow managed to break out, there’s guards waiting for us every ten feet upstairs.”

“But maybe-”

“It’s hopeless.” Ichimatsu stated emphatically, his tone squashing any argument. 

Karamatsu looked back at him, tears welling up, before collapsing to the ground dramatically. 

“It really is hopeless, isn’t it?!” He wailed, sobs reverberating around the empty halls. 

“Oh, god…” Ichimatsu rolled his eyes. The knight had curled up into a ball and was wailing and blubbering.

“Please don’t…” Ichimatsu pleaded. Karamatsu’s sobs grew louder. 

“Shut up!” Ichimatsu stormed over and kicked the crying knight in his side. 

“Ouch! What was that for?!”

“Shut the fuck up! You’re being annoying! Pull yourself together!” 

Tears still streamed down Karamatsu’s face, his eyes already red and swollen. A bit of snot had begun to leak from his nose. 

“Don’t give me that fucking look!” 

“We’re gonna die down here and it’s all my fault!” Karamatsu whined.

“It’s just as much my fault as yours, dumbass. Besides, we probably won’t die. If they wanted us dead, they wouldn’t have doubled the reward to keep us alive.”

His eyes widened in realization. “I hadn’t thought of it like that…”

“So pull yourself together. As long as we’re not dead, we can figure something out.” 

The knight brightened instantly. “You’re completely correct! We haven’t failed yet!” 

Ichimatsu almost laughed. This guy was way too easy to tug around. Too bad Ichimatsu himself didn’t believe his own words. 

---

They were left alone in their gloomy cage for a long time. Karamatsu had finally worn himself out, between the searching and the crying. He now sat near Ichimatsu in the corner, where the wizard was dozing off in an attempt to conserve his own limited energy. 

He could feel the knight’s gaze boring into him, though, making it impossible to relax. He tried, for a long while, to ignore it, but the damn idiot was unrelenting. 

Finally, he cracked an eye open to glance over at Karamatsu. 

As expected, the knight was fully turned toward him, watching him curiously. 

“What, is there something on my face?” 

The knight turned away, blushing. “I thought you’d fallen asleep.”

Ichimatsu sighed. “I would have, if I couldn’t feel you staring. It’s pretty creepy, you know.” 

“I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, it’s just… I haven’t seen someone quite like you before. I find you very… fascinating.” 

He scoffed. “Yeah, yeah, I get it, I’m a weird cat man, you’ve lived your whole life in human cities. It’s still rude to stare, you know.” 

“My apologies.” The knight had turned fully away, staring at the wall opposite of where Ichimatsu sat. His face was still cherry red, embarrassed to have been caught. Ichimatsu watched him for a long moment, before turning away and returning to dozing off. 

“It’s fine. Just don’t make a habit of it.” 

“Hey, Ichimatsu?”

He sighed again, heavily, turning to look at Karamatsu again. He was startled to see the knight leaned in close. 

“Wh- what?” 

“You’d better have a good explanation for this!” A screeching voice echoed down the hallway. Karamatsu leapt back, away from Ichimatsu, whatever strange tension had been building broken. 

“Sir, you can’t go down there! Those prisoners-”

“You’ve made a very, very stupid mistake! Those prisoners are the only thing standing between us and complete annihilation!” 

“We were ordered to have them apprehended! They’re dangerous-”

“What’s dangerous is that artefact lighting up the castle dungeons like a yuletide celebration! Now stop arguing with me and free them!”

“Y- yes, sir!” 

A guard came into view, anxiously searching his key ring for the proper key. A very vexed man in flowing, green robes and a tall, pointed hat stood impatiently behind him, hand on his hips. 

The door swung open and the robed man swept into the cell. “Sir Karamatsu! I’m relieved to see you safe! This must be the enchanter we need?” 

“Ah, Choromatsu! So wonderful to see you!” The knight leapt to his feet, rushing over to shake the man’s hand enthusiastically. “Ichimatsu, this is the Arcane Advisor, Choromatsu! He’s the one who sent me on my mission!” 

“Nice to meet you…” 

“And you, as well. Do you have the book with you?” 

“Unfortunately, the tome was lost when we were ambushed.” 

“Ah, so those bounty hunters must still have it… you, go chase after them and retrieve these men’s items.”

“Yes, sir.” 

The guard started to run off, up the stairs.

“No! Um…” Ichimatsu trailed off as attention was turned onto him. “That is… they don’t have it, so it would be a waste…”

“They have other objects of ours I would like returned, though.” Karamatsu cut in. “But Ichimatsu is right, the ambush I refer to happened shortly after I first met him. This was not the first time we were harrassed by these bounty hunters and their ilk.” 

“So it’s lost… that’s not good, not good at all.”

The robed man began muttering to himself, trying to weigh his options. Ichimatsu raised his paw.

“If I may?”

“Ah, yes?”

“I have the requisite incantation memorized.” Choromatsu looked shocked. He flushed. “I was using the tome to study the Celestial language… I memorized the incantation as I was attempting to translate it.”

“Well! That’s… that’s excellent news! We’ll head straight to the chamber housing the Arc. Lady Luck smiles upon us at last!” 

The man practically ran up the stairs. Hungry and exhausted, the other two trailed further behind him. After the first landing, he realized they were not keeping up, and slowed his advance. 

“I’m sorry, I’m just very anxious to bring this disaster to a close.”

“I understand.” Ichimatsu huffed. “I am, as well.” 

“Save your breath, it’s still a long way up.” Choromatsu advised. 

---

As far as the descent felt, the ascent felt twice as far. With about a third of the way left, Karamatsu had instructed Ichimatsu, who’d tripped several times, to climb up on his back. The knight carried him the rest of the way, despite his own exhaustion. Choromatsu, lost in his thoughts, put quite a bit of distance between himself and the pair. Near the end of their journey, he rushed back down, rattling off apologies, and helped steady Karamatsu for the last flight of steps. 

“You have my gratitude. Now, before we head to the castle-”

“No time for detours, I’m afraid. We must make haste.”

“Please. I only request a bit of water. The journey has been very arduous-”

“Oh! Oh, goodness, I didn’t even think… yes, of course, of course. Guards?” Choromatsu flagged down the nearest guard, pulling him from his post. “Is your canteen full? These two need some water.” 

“It’s, ah, it’s got beer in it, actually…” The guard admitted. 

“Pour it out, I’ll rectify that.” 

The guard obeyed. Choromatsu waved a hand over the canteen, and suddenly it was brimming with fresh water. 

“Drink up! No time to lose.”

Karamatsu readily obeyed. In his greed, he nearly emptied the canteen, but Choromatsu was ready with his magic to refill it. Ichimatsu drank more slowly, afraid to upset his stomach after the scarcity. Choromatsu had begun to shift his weight, impatient. As Ichimatsu capped the canteen, he was already reaching over to take it from him. 

“Thank you for your generosity.” He said to the guard, returning the canteen to him. “Now, let’s go!” 

---

Choromatsu rushed as quickly from the guard headquarters to the castle as he had up the dungeon stairs. He had completely lost them in the crowd before long. Luckily, Karamatsu was more than familiar with the area, leading them to the nearest guard entrance without hesitation. The arcane advisor was casting his gaze about frantically, searching for his missing charges. The relief was evident on his face as he spotted them, rushing over. 

“Good, you made it. I was afraid you’d been ambushed again when I lost sight of you.”

“You merely walk too fast for our tired bodies to keep up.” 

Ichimatsu felt guilty, having weighed Karamatsu down for too long. “Let me down, I can walk from here…” 

“It’s no burden. I know you’re exhausted from fighting those hunters.”

“It’s fine… please.” 

“Alright.” 

The knight lowered him to the ground, holding him by the elbows to ensure his stability. Ichimatsu batted his hands away. 

“Seriously, I’m fine. Let’s get going.”

Choromatsu led the way, checking behind himself more frequently than necessary, not wanting to misplace the wizard he desperately needed to save the kingdom. 

“He’s a bit of a scatterbrain, huh?” Ichimatsu whispered to Karamatsu. 

“That’s not entirely inaccurate… but he’s the most influential mage in the kingdom. Eccentricities are expected to follow genius, after all.” 

Despite seeming to be absent-minded, Choromatsu successfully led them to their destination without any impromptu detours. “Through these doors lies the artefact chamber. Give me just a moment to unlock… that’s odd.” The handle had turned in his hand quite easily. He pushed the door open carefully.

Everything within the chamber was awash in brilliant violet light. The Arc of Night glowed with fury, energy swirling beneath like a stained glass pane. 

“Oh, no…” Ichimatsu’s heart nearly stopped. 

In front of the Arc, chanting and gesturing broadly, was the King himself.

“Your Majesty! What are you doing?!” Choromatsu shouted.

The King turned, grinning. “What my predecessors never had the guts to do! I’ll use any resource available to make my kingdom prosper! By any means necessary!”

“This is foolish, my King!” Karamatsu shouted. “Please, see reason!”

“Is this why he asked so many questions about the Arc…?” Choromatsu asked himself.

“I’ve already seen reason, my foolish little knight! My people toil in poverty, the harvest lost, while our neighboring enemies prosper! What reason have I to not simply take that prospering land for my kingdom! I have the power, right here in my own home, to conquer whatever lands I wish! I have seen reason, my boy, and its name is Bahamut!” 

Behind him, through the swirling purple magic, stepped an enormous, horned demon. It advanced slowly, the giant portal nearly too small to allow its passage. It let out an unearthly howl, shaking Ichimatsu’s very bones. 

“Since when can it act as a portal?!” Ichimatsu’s voice betrayed his panic.

“Just shut it down! Bahamut shouldn’t be able to remain on this plane without its power!” Choromatsu shouted back, equally panicked.
The demon raised a huge fist, slamming it down towards the gathered trio. A blast of fire spread from the point of impact. Ichimatsu barely managed to dive out of the way, and was unable to see the others through the demon’s massive hand. 

He scrambled across the room, finding a relatively safe place to perch. The demon’s attention was on Karamatsu and his swinging blade. Ichimatsu let out a breath. So he’d dodged after all.

Wait, didn’t those hunters take his sword? Upon second glance, the sword Karamatsu held was made of shimmering magical energy. Choromatsu sat several feet away, holding his bleeding side with one hand, the other raised toward the knight.

Ichimatsu had his chance. He began to recite the incantation requisite to disable the artefact. He hoped his pronunciation was passable; he’d only ever read Celestial, never heard it aloud. The light of the Arc began to flicker, but not dim. 

He repeated the incantation.

Over and over, he said the words, trying different vowel sounds and emphasis every time, while the demon Bahamut rained hell down on his companions. The king laughed maniacally, the unhinged laughter of a madman. 

The Arc remained illuminated. 

Karamatsu crumpled under a blow from the demon, blood spilling around his form. Ichimatsu panicked, rushing toward his body, still shouting the words as best he could. 

Behind them, the wall caved in. 

The gigantic red dragon that had destroyed a city while they watched burst through the wall. From his great, spiny back leapt a nearly-naked, widely-smiling man. Jyushimatsu, if he remembered. 

The man began to chant alongside Ichimatsu, his pronunciation flowing naturally. The whites of his eyes swallowed his irises, leaving them a solid, brilliant white. From his naked back, two swan-like wings unfolded with sickening cracking noises. He repeated the incantation with a surety Ichimatsu did not possess, and the Arc obeyed. 

The violet light faded, dimming until it was gone entirely. The swirling vortex began to still. The dragon charged forward with a roar, slamming its body into the demon’s, knocking it back. It fell through the portal, fading along with it. 

They’d succeeded in their quest. 

Ichimatsu couldn’t believe it. Despite the harrowing danger, it had all passed so quickly. Choromatsu had run to point his staff, gemstone glowing brilliant emerald, at the king’s kneeling form. Jyushimatsu had gone to wake Karamatsu up, the gentle light of healing magic at odds with the man’s loud voice. The huge dragon took up half the chamber with his body as he lay down, huffing out a small cloud of smoke. 

“We’ve won, King Tobias. You’ll be tried for treason against your own people for what you’ve done.”

“Very well, take me to the guards in chains. I haven’t lost yet, though, mark my words. Not by a long shot.” 

Choromatsu seemed rattled, but muttered and incantation that produced shackles around the kings wrists and ankles nonetheless. 

“I’ll take care of this. You three… what are we going to do about the dragon?!” 

Jyushimatsu laughed. “He’ll listen to me, don’t mind!” He ran over to the dragon’s head, patting its nose. “Come on, big guy! Time to go back to Totty!” 

The dragon growled. “I dun wanna.” It whined. 

“It talks?!” Karamatsu exclaimed. 

“Most dragons can talk, dumbass. Shut up before he roasts you alive.” 

“You gotta! You can’t live here forever!”

“Why not? The king’s an ass, it can be my castle now!” 

“Okay! You don’t have to go!” 

“What? He can’t stay-”

“I can just drag you out, instead!” Jyushimatsu hopped across the dragon’s enormous back, all the way to his tail. He grabbed on and, against all odds, the great reptile slid along behind him.

“Wait, wait, ouch! Let go! I’ll get up, I’ll get up!” 

Jyushimatsu laughed again. “Too late!” 

The dragon attempted to stop himself being dragged, claws digging into the stone floor, but Jyushimatsu wasn’t even slowed. 

“He won’t fit through the door…” Karamatsu warned. 

“Oh!” Jyushimatsu exclaimed like he hadn’t thought of that. “You heard him, big guy! Gotta make yourself small!” 

The gathered crowd watched as the dragon’s enormous body shrank down, down, down, until a mostly-human man lay, tail still clasped beneath Jyushimatsu’s arm. 

“Can I walk now?” He whined.

“Aww, but it’d be funnier to drag you!” 

“As amusing as your antics are, we have a traitorous king to get to a cell!” Choromatsu scolded. 

Jyushimatsu reluctantly allowed the now-human dragon to stand on his own. He brushed the dirt and debris from his torso with clawed hands dusted with red scales. 

“Do any of you know a pants spell?” The dragon man asked, gesturing to his nude form. 

Choromatsu huffed and stalked off, dragging the traitor king behind him.

Chapter Text

“So you’re a dragon.”

“Yep!”

“Not, like, a dragonborn or something?”

“Nope! Full-blooded dragon!”

“So this form is an illusion or disguise or whatever.”

“Yeah, something like that.”

“So you get to choose what it looks like.”

“More or less, yeah.”

Ichimatsu sighed, rubbing his temples. “So why didn’t you give your illusion clothes!”

After Choromatsu had left with his prisoner, Karamatsu had sacrificed his scarf to make do as a loincloth. Ichimatsu had had to assure him that his cleaning spell would be able to whisk away anything that the dumb beast got on it before he was willing to give it up. It had taken no small amount of maneuvering to get the scarf tied around him in a way that covered his junk securely, the added obstacle of the thick, scaled tail making it a hassle.

“And why not make it look more human? Surely this form stands out quite a bit.” Karamatsu added. 

The dragon shrugged. “Looks cooler. Humans look dumb and boring.” 

Karamatsu’s face fell into a look of contempt, clearly unamused. He opened his mouth to reply, but Ichimatsu cut off whatever he was about to say.

“He’s right. It’s not much of a disguise if you don’t blend in. Like, at all.” 

“To each their own, I guess. And my own is I don’t like to look like some loser human.” 

Karamatsu looked ready to murder. The dragon stuck out a forked tongue mischievously. 

“You two can argue about this later. Let’s catch up to Choromatsu. We don’t know what the asshole king has planned.” Ichimatsu snapped.

“Yes, of course. Lead the way.” 

Ichimatsu gave Karamatsu a flat look. “You’re the one who knows your way around the castle. You lead.” 

“Oh- yes, yes, of course. I will lead!”

“I can lead!” Jyushimatsu volunteered. 

“You’re familiar with this castle?” Karamatsu asked curiously.

“Nope! But I can find the magic guy, no problem!” He boasted. 

The man dropped to all fours and began to sniff along the floor like a bloodhound. “There!” He sprinted down the hall, following whatever scent he’d picked up. 

“Woah, hey, wait!” The dragon called after him. 

“I guess we just have to catch up…” Ichimatsu grumbled, already jogging after the strange man. 

The other two caught up to him quickly, both much stronger runners than an exhausted hermit. He lagged far behind as the others raced after Jyushimatsu. Soon, he lost sight of them down the long hallways and many corners of the castle interior. 

He began to slow his pace, unsure which direction to take, until he heard shouts ahead. 

He picked up speed, sprinting as fast as his tired legs would take him, to the source of the noise. 

Around a corner, several people stood, arguing loudly. Ichimatsu hung back, unwilling to show himself until he’d ascertained the situation. 

On one side, holding up swords, spears, and crossbows, stood the castle guard, armor matching that which Karamatsu wore. The traitor king stood behind them. 

On the other side, his comrades, recounting the scene that had just taken place below with fury in their voices. 

“My men are loyal to me. They know I will steer this kingdom true. For your treason, in attempting to foil my great plans for conquest, you will be executed. Farewell, Choromatsu, you were an excellent aide. And Karamatsu, a most useful pawn. You’ll both be missed terribly. Kill them.”

The line of guards swung and fired their weapons. Ichimatsu, not a moment later, threw out his arms, sending a wave of crackling electricity at the entire crowd. Bodies flew back, crossbow bolts shooting wide, swords clattering to the ground. In the chaos, the dragon threw himself between the two parties, his form expanding rapidly. 

“Get on my back!” He ordered. 

Jyushimatsu hopped up easily, practiced. Karamatsu swung himself up with little trouble, as well, and leaned a hand down to help Choromatsu up. 

“Cat boy! Come on!” The dragon shouted as he charged in Ichimatsu’s direction. The wizard panicked, knowing how bad he was at scaling even a horse. How would he make it up a dragon?! He failed to catch Karamatsu’s hand reaching down for him, and the dragon didn’t slow as he passed. In a desperate move, Ichimatsu threw himself onto the thick, scaled tail, and gripped on, claws catching between the scales. The dragon burst through one wall, then another, then took off into the open sky. 

Ichimatsu felt more certain of his own death than he ever had before. Whatever strength remained in his limbs was devoted entirely to squeezing tightly to the writhing appendage he’d latched onto. The wind whipped past, doing its best to pull him down to his doom. Arrows shot past uselessly, missing by several yards. 

A hand suddenly appeared in his line of sight.

Jyushimatsu was holding on to the dragon’s tail with only his legs, but seemed perfectly stable. “Grab on! I’ll help you to the front!” 

Ichimatsu shook his head, too afraid to let go. 

“I won’t let you fall! It’s fine!” 

Ichimatsu looked up to him, considering for a long moment, fear locking his arms in place. Finally, he slowly, carefully, let go. 

He reached the paw out to grasp Jyushimatsu’s arm. The man gripped his forearm tightly in turn, pulling his body toward him. 

“Hold on to me like a baby monkey!” 

Ichimatsu stared, confused, and Jyushimatsu guided his limbs where he wanted them. Arms around his neck, legs around his waist. 

“Okay, we’re going now!”
He began to crawl back up the dragon’s back, holding on with his legs and using his arms to stabilize. It took no time at all to reach the base of the dragon’s neck, where the other two still sat, but Ichimatsu swore he didn’t take a single breath the entire time. 

“Okay, you can sit down now!” Jyushimatsu said. Ichimatsu shook his head. “Haha, I guess I can keep holding you!” 

“Scaredy cat!” The dragon called out over his shoulder. 

Head buried in Jyushimatsu’s chest, Ichimatsu failed to see the sharp look Karamatsu shot at Jyushimatsu behind him. 

---

It took several minutes after they landed and dismounted for Ichimatsu to stop shaking. 

“That was… the worst thing… that’s ever happened to me…” he complained, barely holding back from being sick all over the grass. Karamatsu rubbed his back sympathetically. 

“We should be safe now.” Choromatsu announced. 

“Yeah, I dunno about that.” The dragon refuted, pointing back the way they came.

A dark cloud had begun to settle unnaturally over the castle, lighting crackling. “Looks like all we did was piss him off.” 

“Oh, no…” 

“What’s happening?” Karamatsu asked. 

“I’m not sure, but it takes a powerful magic to do something like that. He must have reactivated the Arc-”

“Nope! Not possible!” Jyushimatsu responded. 

“Wh- How are you so sure?!” Choromatsu balked. 

“The spell the cat guy did! It went like ‘By divine power, I banish ye. Ye, who would tarnish this plane with evil’s blight, I banish ye. Holy power fill this place, restore the divine balance. Darkness, be forbade forevermore.’” The strange man laughed. “Eh, or something like that! Anyway, he said ‘forevermore’, so it can’t be an evil portal again!” 

Ichimatsu studied him. He looked perfectly human once more, but the image of those brilliant white eyes and huge, feathered wings was hard to shake. 

“What, exactly, are you?”

“Eh? I’m Jyushimatsu!” 

“Yes, I got that. You understand Celestial.”

“Do I?”

“That’s the language that spell was in.”
“Oh! I guess so, then!” 

Choromatsu rubbed his temples. “My head hurts. If the Arc of Night can’t be reactivated, what’s making that big ominous cloud?”

Ichimatsu frowned. “This feels familiar… I think I read something like this. If only I had that stupid book…”

“You said it was lost, yes? And on the other side of the kingdom, no less…” Choromatsu mused.

“Would you not be able to track it down? Like you found me previously?” Karamatsu suggested.

Ichimatsu shook his head. “That spell really only tells me direction… and it doesn’t work at all past a certain distance.” 

“Well, perhaps it’s worth a try!” 

Ichimatsu sighed. “FIne. I’ll humor you. Give me a little time. Does anyone have something I can use as a compass?” 

“Will this do?” Choromatsu had produced a short but elaborately carved wand from inside his robes. 

“That’s perfect. Thank you.” He sat, legs folded beneath him, and began to concentrate. He tried to recall the book’s cover in as much detail as possible. There were some stains due to age and disuse, the book having sat gathering dust for a long while. A few small gems were embedded into the leather binding, all amethysts. The cover, in the tongue of the Celestials, read ‘Demon’s Arc’, the true name of the artefact. 

He felt the wand begin to swivel in his hand. 

Curiously, it froze insistently directly behind him. He stood and turned, slowly, to see a young man, dressed in rancher’s garb, leading a horse, heavily burdened with supplies, approaching. 

“Is that… Steven?” Karamatsu whispered in wonder. 

“Totty!” Jyushimatsu yelled. “Hey! Totty! Over here!” 

“I see you, I see you. Hard to miss the gigantic dragon parked over there.” The man made his way over to the group, then offered Steven’s reigns to Karamatsu. “Did you happen to lose a horse? He’s been asking after you.” 

“Ah, yes. You have my gratitude.” 

“This is Totty!” Jyushimatsu announced. “He’s Osomatsu’s owner!” 

The dragon, apparently Osomatsu, growled in response. “I’m not some pet!” 

“Osomatsu?” The man, apparently Totty, called. Osomatsu turned to face him. 

Totty’s eyes glowed a bright pink. “Be a good boy and sit.”

The dragon’s butt plopped down on the ground, like a dog awaiting a treat. 

“Now lay down.” 

He did.

“Now roll over.” 

The surrounding crowd dodged as the huge beast rolled over, wings tucked tight. 

“Very good!” 

“This proves nothing!” Osomatsu insisted. 

Totty was smug. “Of course not.”

Karamatsu, ignoring the spectacle, brought the subject back to the matter at hand. “How did you even find my dear Steven?” 

“Oh, you mean this horse? Let’s just say that, recently, my magic has gotten quite the boost. I’m able to do a lot of things very suddenly that were out of my reach before.”

“The Arc.” Ichimatsu surmised. 

“Eh?!” Karamatsu shouted, backing away from Totty. “That means he’s evil, right? He cannot be trusted!”

Totty pouted, hands on his hips. “Don’t jump to conclusions! It just means my magic is granted by a being from the Lower Planes.”

“So you have a demonic patron. Isn’t that splitting hairs?” Choromatsu snapped. 

Ichimatsu sighed. “It doesn’t matter. Either way, we owe him our lives. Also…” Ichimatsu trailed off, glancing at Jyushimatsu.

“Also?” Karamatsu prompted.

“If a literal angel trusts him, he can’t be all that bad.” 

Totty said, “That’s right!” at the same time as Jyushimatsu said, “Eh? Me?” 

Totty huffed. “You do trust me, right?”

“Of course, of course!” Jyushimatsu replied. 

“Then it’s settled! What’s important is that you have someone super strong and super cute on your side! You should be thanking me for letting Jyushimatsu borrow my dragon!” 

“Thank you.” Ichimatsu said earnestly. 

Karamatsu bowed deeply. “Yes, we are certainly in your debt, as our dear Ichimatsu said.” 

Ichimatsu paced over to the horse and dug in his satchel attached there. He produced the tome he’d stored away there weeks ago. “Now can we stop bickering and find someplace safe to stay for a while? I have a book to read.”

Chapter Text

They found an abandoned, dilapidated shack on the outskirts of the castle town. Totty had ordered Osomatsu to don his ‘human’ guise, so as to attract less attention. The three magic users had spun a few spells to make the interior comfortable, without affecting the outer appearance of the place. With the very king himself against them, they had to take every precaution. 

Ichimatsu sat in an (extremely comfortable) armchair that Totty had summoned. It was a soft pink and very plush. He sank in, cracking open the tome, and began to peruse its contents. 

He’d read the whole thing at speed before, but had only concentrated on the passages detailing the ritual to activate and deactivate the thing. The activation spell was written in Infernal, of course, and Ichimatsu had only passing familiarity with the symbols used in the written form of the language. It was too advanced for him to dive straight into trying to translate. 

The deactivation spell, on the other hand, had indeed been in Celestial. His translation loosely matched up with what Jyushimatsu had offered. Reading it again, the couple of words he’d struggled with the first time seemed obvious. ‘Forevermore’, for example, was one he’d been entirely stumped on finding a translation for. 

He shook his head. No use getting hung up on linguistics. He needed to familiarize himself with the powers and effects of the Arc, and quickly. 

The others milled about as he lost himself in the words of the tome. Hours passed as he turned page after page, any activity around him blocked out by impenetrable walls of focus.  

A meal was prepared, and Ichimatsu’s portion grew cold. 

The sky outside grew dark, thunder rumbling. Choromatsu kindly sent up orbs of soft light to hover nearby. 

On and on, Ichimatsu read.

---

He was roused sometime later by the scents of something cooking. He rubbed his bleary eyes, stretching his aching neck, and reoriented himself. 

On his lap, someone had placed a blanket. The tome had been removed, a bookmark placed between the pages where it had remained open as he had fallen asleep. Karamatsu sat on the floor next to him, using the armrest of the chair as a pillow. As Ichimatsu shifted, the knight’s eyes blinked open. He yawned, stretched, and said, “Oh, good! You’ve awoken! The others are preparing breakfast. I imagine you must be feeling quite famished.” 

Ichimatsu’s stomach grumbled as if in response. 

“Yeah, I guess so. What time is it?”

The knight looked troubled. “I’m uncertain. The sun never rose. It seems whatever black cloud originated at the castle has expanded to enshroud this area, as well.” 

“Shit…” Ichimatsu rubbed his temples. “Let me get some food, and then I’ll let the others know what I’ve learned.”

Despite Ichimatsu’s insistence that he didn’t need it, Karamatsu stubbornly helped him to stand from the chair. Nearly every joint in his body popped as he unfolded from his seated position, a deep, painful ache spreading throughout his body. The knight’s hands steadied him. 

He batted away the hands, making his own way over to the kitchen area. Choromatsu and Totty stood over a stove, powered entirely by their magic. Jyushimatsu and Osomatsu were nowhere to be seen. 

“Oh, good, you’re awake!” The former arcane advisor looked relieved at his appearance. “You read for a good ten hours, and then slept nearly that long again. We were beginning to worry.”

“That long?” 

“Ah, well, I’m mostly just estimating… the sun hasn’t risen, you see.”

“Karamatsu told me. Is food almost ready? I’m starving.”

“Just about. Go sit in the dining room, and tell the idiots it’ll be just a few more minutes.”

Ichimatsu followed Choromatsu’s instructions, Karamatsu trailing along behind him. In the next room, around a large table set for six, Jyushimatsu and Osomatsu sat, banging their silverware rhythmically and chanting for food. Sometime between when Ichimatsu had begun reading and now, Osomatsu had been given clothes, and Karamatsu’s scarf had been returned to him, none the worse for wear. Jyushimatsu, though, still sported only a loincloth.

“They said it’ll be a few more minutes. Calm down.” 

They stopped their chanting in unison. 

“Oh! Kitty’s awake! Good morning!” Jyushimatsu greeted enthusiastically.

“My name is Ichimatsu. Please don’t call me that.”
“Okay! Sorry, Ichimatsu!” 

“Eh? You’re a ‘-matsu’, too?” Osomatsu looked shocked.

“Is it really that weird?”

“Well, now there’s six of us! That’s pretty weird!” 

Ichimatsu counted on his fingers. “Six?”

“Totty is a ‘-matsu’, too!” Jyushimatsu offered by way of explanation.

“Totty’s a nickname. His real name’s Todomatsu.”

“Oh.”

“Heh.” Karamatsu held his chin in his hand. “It must be destiny. Yes, I feel it now. The winds of fate, pushing us together, six leaves in a storm… ah! The wheel of fortune turns!” 

Ichimatsu slapped the back of the knight’s head. “Seriously, shut the fuck up.”

Jyushimatsu looked contemplative. “Don’t pine trees have needles, not leaves?”

Osomatsu snickered. “Geez, talk about painful. Where’d you even find this guy?”

“Unfortunately, he found me.” Ichimatsu grumbled. “And it’s a long story. We have bigger fish to fry, first.”

Totty and Choromatsu bustled into the room behind them, arms laden with plates. “Eat up! After lunch, we’ve got a lot to talk about.” 

Ichimatsu piled his plate high and dug in. After demolishing several links of sausage, three apples, and nearly a full loaf of bread, he paused.

“Does… does the food taste weird to anyone else?”

Choromatsu looked apologetic. “We had to conjure most of it. It should still be just as filling and nutritious as the real thing, though!” 

“Eh?! If you had to conjure it, why did cooking take so long?!” Osomatsu complained, mouth full of conjured sausage. 

“Hey! Don’t complain! If you want real meat, go hunt for it yourself! Be thankful for what you have, you lazy asshole!” Totty pouted.

“You’re the one who told me not to! ‘We can’t risk being caught’, that’s what you said!” 

“Enough!” Ichimatsu slammed his paws down on the table. “Your bickering’s spoiling the food! Shut up and eat!” 

Both men meekly sat and returned to their plates. The meal concluded in silence. 

“Thanks for the food.” Ichimatsu said as the last plate was cleared. Everyone who didn’t prepare the food parrotted him. 

“It was no trouble.” Choromatsu insisted. “Now, tell us what you learned.” 

Ichimatsu sighed heavily. “Where to start…

“The Arc of Night is a tool used to weaken the barrier between our plane, the Prime Material Plane, and the Lower Planes. With it active, energy from those planes can be more easily siphoned, more easily accessed, and magics relying on them are easier to use or are strengthened by it.”

Totty nodded. “With it open, Asmodeus said he was able to give me more power with less trouble, so I was granted far more abilities. You said you guys shut it though, didn’t you?”

Ichimatsu nodded. “We did. However, if the Arc is left active for prolonged periods of time, say, five fucking weeks, while an incompetent knight searches for the planet’s unluckiest wizard-”

“Hey!” Karamatsu pouted.
“-it could, theoretically, power up other arcane devices which draw their power from those planes.”

“Is that what you think is happening? Some other evil artefact was activated just by the Arc being open?” Choromatsu asked. 

Ichimatsu shook his head. “I’m not sure. The Arc wasn’t supposed to be able to be used as a portal, either, so maybe there were other complications from it being open for so long. The book also theorized that rampant, flagrant abuse of dark magics, coupled with prolonged activation, could permanently weaken the barrier between the Lower Planes and ours.”

“Permanently?” Choromatsu looked worried.

“Was that supposed to make us feel better?!” Totty shrieked. “Some evil artefacts being activated, oh, whatever, we can just go around and turn those off. The planes being permanently changed?! That’s bad! Apocalypse bad! What the hell?!” 

Ichimatsu shrunk into himself. 

“You said this was all theory, yes?” Karamatsu piped up. “So we don’t know for sure whether all hope is lost! We can continue to forge onward, and do what we can to fix this!” 

“Where do you propose we start, then?” Choromatsu prompted. 

“Well…” Ichimatsu took a moment to consider. “If we could find places where the barrier is especially weak right now, and rectify whatever’s causing it, we could strengthen the divide between the realms. I think.” 

“I could ask for Asmodeus’ help in finding those places. He’d be able to feel out where the planes are closest way easier than any of us could.” Totty offered.

“That’d be really helpful. Please do.” 

“Osomatsu?” Totty called. “Would you be up to help me with the usual sacrifice?” His smile bled into a coy grin. 

The dragon stumbled over himself getting across the room as fast as possible. “Yes!” He followed closely at Totty’s heel as he left the room. 

“Eh?! Sacrifice?!” Jyushimatsu looked worried. 

“I don’t think you need to concern yourself over it.” Ichimatsu snickered.

“Why not?! Sacrifice sounds bad!” 

“It’s been a while since I studied demonology, but from what I remember, Asmodeus is the demonic personification of lust. I’ll let you connect the dots for what kind of ‘sacrifices’ he likely prefers.” 

Jyushimatsu turned bright red. Choromatsu cleared his throat uncomfortably. 

“Well, while those two are busy with that, why don’t the rest of us discuss other options? I know of several powerful artefacts in the castle that may have been affected by the Arc. If we could somehow return there and deactivate those, the king’s power could weaken.” 

“It’s a long shot.” Ichimatsu argued. “The way things are now, it’d be tough to even get close to the castle. We’d have a better chance striking elsewhere first, weakening the king and whatever he’s using in there.” 

Choromatsu frowned. “If you’re wrong about the planar divide weakening, and all of his power stems from artefacts awakened by the Arc, then all we’re doing is wasting time.”

“If I may?” Karamatsu cut in. “I don’t really understand any of this, but… if we were to defeat evil as it springs up throughout the world, as Ichimatsu here suggests, then our time is well spent saving innocent lives along the way. It would not be wasted at all.”

“And if doing that only allows the king to grow in power? If he manages to unlock or harness even more artefacts, allowing him to strike down those same ‘innocent lives’ himself?”

“It could all be a waste, regardless, because we could die trying to do either plan.” Ichimatsu grumbled. “We may as well try something. If it ends up being a stupid mistake, well, add it to the fucking list, I guess. But if I’m going to die because some lunatic tried to make a power grab, I’m gonna go down fighting.” 

“Well put.” Karamatsu grinned proudly.

“Just tell me what to hit and I’ll hit it good!” Jyushimatsu flexed his arms excitedly.

Choromatsu rubbed his temples. “I suppose we’re at a bit of an impasse without more information. Regardless, I won’t just run off without everyone if you all decide to ignore the castle and the evil pouring from it for now. If we have little chance as a group, I have even less as an individual.”

“That’s right, just join the herd. Geez, grow a backbone, wizard boy!” Osomatsu slapped Choromatsu hard between the shoulderblades. His clothes were disheveled and his hair stuck up like some kind of idiotic rooster in the back. Totty walked in after, clicking the straps of his overalls back into place. 

“It’s not about following the herd, it’s about using my brain! You could learn a lesson or two in that, you dumb beast!” Choromatsu snapped at the dragon. Osomatsu just grinned back, unfazed. 

“Did you learn anything useful?” Ichimatsu directed at Totty. 

“Oh, yes, just give me a moment… do we have a map or something anywhere?” 

Karamatsu rifled through the saddlebags, retrieved along with Steven, and found his map of the region. “Will this suffice?” 

“Excellent, thank you!” Totty rolled the map open on the table, weighing down the corners with some of the dishes from lunch. He held an open hand above the map and whispered, “Show me.” 

His eyes glowed with bright pink energy. His hand moved over the map as though an invisible force was guiding it. Gently, a finger dropped to the map and began to trace shapes and routes. 

“Here, and here… there are cults using the power of my plane to further their own ends. I can nearly touch your plane from here.” The cadence, but not the tone, of Totty’s voice was entirely different. His finger continued to trace. Behind it, pink markers and writing were left, populating the map with the details he spoke of. “Here, here, and here, there are weaknesses in the barrier, portals of some sort. This one is a mirror, this one an archway, and this one has no structure that I can see. Here-” his finger moved to where the castle stood- “the barrier was torn completely just yesterday. Though the rip itself has been repaired, the barrier nearby is still very weak. Someone is using that weakness to great effect. Many of my brethren are already able to come and go from there as they please.” 

“Anything else?” Ichimatsu prompted. Totty’s glowing, pink eyes turned toward him, the finger hesitating. 

“There’s one more weakness in the barrier, but it’s difficult to pinpoint. Somewhere in this area-” the finger traced around a thickly forested area, leaving a pink circle in its wake- “something is weakening the barrier in the region. That’s all I can say.” Then, in his usual chipper tone, Totty continued. “Thank you very much! This has been very helpful!” The glow of his eyes faded, leaving them dull brown once more. 

“Woah! That was spooky!” Jyushimatsu laughed. 

“While disconcerting, that certainly was very helpful…” Karamatsu acknowledged. 

“Can we trust this information? How reliable is a demon in a quest to drive out demonic influence in our world?” Choromatsu folded his arms, frowning. 

“Don’t worry! Asmodeus is very reliable, I can assure you!” Totty beamed. 

“In any case, the information about the castle lines up with what we already know, so that lends some amount of credibility.” Ichimatsu mused. “We don’t have any other leads, so why not follow these?”

“Because following these may destroy the balance altogether and bring the Lesser Planes right to our doorstep? Because the demon may have ulterior motives?” 

“Oh, he definitely has ulterior motives, don’t get me wrong!” Totty interjected. “It’s just that his great plan doesn’t involve crashing the planes together. As it stands right now, the weaker demons have free reign in this plane, but the stronger demons are still stuck on the other side. Even with the barrier weakened, they’re too powerful to cross over. So, as a demon prince, Asmodeus would love to restore the balance and have all of his slaves and underlings under his control again.” 

Choromatsu looked horrified. Ichimatsu snickered.

“Well, I guess that settles it. We help the demon king live a life of luxury by snuffing out some evil-doers on this side. Problem solved. Where to first?” 

Chapter Text

After a heated debate, a route was sketched onto the map, connecting the locations marked in pink and ending at the castle. The ragtag group packed up their things, loaded down both Steven and Jyushimatsu, and dispelled the enchantments making the dilapidated shack homey, returning it to its previous state of disrepair. On foot, the party set off along the decided path. It would be days before they reached the marked spot, even longer if they were to avoid major roads and settlements. In the interest of time, they had agreed to follow the roads, despite Ichimatsu’s protests. 

“I still think this is a dumb idea.” He grumbled as the first village came into view. 

“Like I said before,” Choromatsu said with an exasperated sigh, “we can’t afford to lose any time slicing through underbrush or climbing hills or fjording rivers or what have you! The faster we reach each area, the faster we can reach the castle, and the faster we can sort all this out!” 

“We can’t afford to lose any time being chased by bounty hunters, either…” Ichimatsu argued.

“If anyone is tracking us, we’ll deal with them as they come!”

“We lost an entire extra week being chased and nearly lost our lives when we were caught. It’s worth the lost time detouring.” 

“Enough! We’ve already argued this point! The majority is for taking major roads, and that’s final!” Choromatsu snapped.

“I’m just saying, I think it’s stupid.” Ichimatsu groused. 

“Your complaint is noted. If we get ambushed by bounty hunters, you get to say ‘I told you so’.” Totty offered.

Ichimatsu huffed. “Fine.” 

“Great!” Totty clapped his hands. “Now, assuming there are no hunters waiting to attack us when we get to this village, let’s take the opportunity to stock up! We could use some traveling supplies, considering the road trip we’re planning.” 

“That would be ideal. I’m hoping to find an apothecary here that can supply us with some healing potions or salves or whatnot.” Choromatsu agreed. The two chatted about shopping lists, counting out their coin purses, as they advanced on the village. 

Ichimatsu slowed his pace. 

Karamatsu, noting him falling behind, slowed as well to match step with him. “Troubled, my friend?”

Ichimatsu glanced at the knight’s concerned look, then turned to watch the two mages in their carefree conversation. “Frustrated, more than anything.” He replied. 

“Why is that?” Karamatsu’s expression was open, curious. Ichimatsu wondered how anyone could keep eye contact with that intense gaze. 

“I guess… It’s like they weren’t even listening to me. We’re the ones that have been through hell and back already, trying to put things right, but they don’t seem to think that there’s even a real possibility that we could be being followed, or that the town could be full of zombies, or that a fucking dragon could show up and fuck things up again.”

Karamatsu hummed. “To be fair, the dragon showing up did turn out well for us previously.” He smiled playfully. Ichimatsu punched him in the shoulder.

“Yeah, yeah. Point is, most of the bullshit we went through happened in towns. It’s harder to track us if we go through the wilderness, it’s less likely that a whole horde of zombies will be wandering through open fields, and if a dragon or a giant demon or, I don’t know, an enormous evil squid shows up, we’re less likely to be crushed to death if we’re not around a bunch of buildings!” 

“You said all of that before.” 

“I know! It’s still true! But they fucking laughed at me when I said all that stuff!” Ichimatsu growled. “Humans always look at me and they think that I’m small and fluffy and that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. It’s just…” He sighed. “It’s frustrating.”

Karamatsu watched him for a long moment, his intense gaze boring into Ichimatsu like a sunbeam, refracted through glass, burning holes in the grass. 

“I’m sorry, Ichimatsu. For not backing your argument more ardently.”

“It’s not- you don’t have to-”

“Also, for what it’s worth, Choromatsu talks like that to everyone. I think he took his position as advisor a bit too seriously… he’s kind of a know-it-all.” 

Ichimatsu laughed suddenly, too-loud with nervousness. “Yeah, I can see that.” He cleared his throat, trying again to look Karamatsu in the eye, before turning away again. “Thanks. I appreciate you trying to cheer me up or whatever.” 

“Of course! Anytime, my dear friend!” He was silent for a long moment. Ichimatsu could feel the nervousness peeling off of him in waves. “Um, Ichimatsu?” 

“Yeah?” 

“Hey! Karamatsu! Come in the shop with me, I need your upper body strength!” Totty called. They had reached the first buildings of the village, and the warlock stood in the doorway of a general store. 

Karamatsu muttered an expletive under his breath before shouting, “I’m coming! Not to worry!” He turned back to Ichimatsu, an apologetic look on his face. “I have to go. I’m sorry.” 

Ichimatsu waved a paw, trying to look disinterested despite his burning curiosity regarding what Karamatsu was trying to tell him. “Just go. I’ll be going with Choromatsu to the apothecary anyway.” 

The knight smiled brightly at him before trotting off to Totty’s side. Jyushimatsu and Osomatsu had already joined him there, evidently also conscripted to carry shopping bags, as well. 

Choromatsu waited patiently for Ichimatsu to catch up, watching the loud group crowd into the small store. “I hope he spends our money wisely…” 

Ichimatsu shrugged. “I’m sure it’s fine. Let’s start hunting for those health potions.”

“Oh! You’re coming with me!” Choromatsu seemed pleasantly surprised. 

“Well, sure. Buddy system and all that. Besides, I’ve studied potion-making. I’ve got a good eye for what’s worth our money.” 

“Then I’m glad to have you as a companion! Let’s be off.” 

In a swish of robes, the former advisor was off down the road. As before, Ichimatsu had difficulty keeping up. He jogged after the other man, who was walking briskly as he examined shop fronts on either side of the road. Not many people milled about in the streets, so he was, at the very least, not in any danger of losing sight of him. Still, the danger of being ambushed and captured would be far increased if they were to be separated, and Ichimatsu had had plenty of encounters to keep him paranoid. 

Choromatsu suddenly turned and entered a shop. Ichimatsu hurried to catch up. As he entered the doorway, he ran face-first into Choromatsu, who was just exiting the same way. 

“Ouch… There you are! I thought I’d lost you, I was just about to go looking for you!”

Ichimatsu rubbed his forehead. “You’re just too fast for me. I’m not used to all this running about.”

Choromatsu looked embarrassed as he helped Ichimatsu to his feet. “Ah, I’m very sorry about that. I tend to lose track of what’s around me when I’m focussed…” 

“I’d noticed.”

“Oh…”

Ichimatsu waved a paw dismissively. “You’re fine. It wasn’t too much trouble to keep an eye on you this time.” 

“Still, I’ll have to remember in the future to mind my pace. Anyway! We’re here!”

“Welcome to my shop, boys.” A friendly-looking, older half-elf woman smiled from behind the counter. “What can I help you find today?” 

Ichimatsu scanned the shelves, lined mostly with various dried herbs. Glass vials full of various liquids sat near the back, where the shopkeep could keep a better eye on them. 

Choromatsu made his way to the counter to greet her. “Ah, hello! My companion and I are here looking to purchase some remedies for healing wounds.”

“What kind of wounds? Got some kind of injury, dear?” 

“No, not right now. For future injuries.”

“We’re planning to be heading into some dangerous situations, and we’d like to be prepared.” Ichimatsu explained further. 

“Getting into trouble, are we?” Her eyes seemed to twinkle as she smiled mischievously at the pair. “Well, I’ve got just the thing.” She bustled past a curtain leading to a back room and returned with a small chest. She opened it to reveal several vials and pouches. 

“This here is what I call my ‘adventuring pack’. It comes with potions for healing wounds, potions that make you move a bit quicker, several herbs that help protect against various types of magics, and, my favorite, a powder that makes it easier to get around unnoticed. For whatever adventuring you might be getting up to, dragon-slaying, tomb-raiding, light mercenary work, whatever! This box here has what you need.”

“That certainly seems very helpful.” Ichimatsu pawed through, looking at the vials and pouches. The potions had a brilliant color, clearly very potent, and the herbs in the pouches had good, strong scents. 

“Indeed! I put these together from what supplies were most often purchased for heading into danger. And I’ve had enough repeat customers to know that they serve pretty well!” She laughed at her own joke. 

“How much?” Choromatsu asked, already pulling out his coin purse. 

“This pack sells for 200 gold, but I can drop the price a bit if you can pay in platinum.” 

Ichimatsu rolled his eyes as Choromatsu started to pull out several platinum pieces. He’d have gotten a better deal without the other man basically flaunting his money, what with his layers of fine robes with their detailed embroidery and that heavy silk coin purse. The shopkeep happily accepted 19 platinum pieces from the purse and wished them a good day. She hummed an upbeat song as she added to her till. 

Choromatsu seemed quite pleased with himself, holding the box and sweeping out the front door. “That went incredibly well! We ended up with more than we were looking for!” 

“Yeah, and you spent way more money than you were planning on, while you were at it.” 

“Money well spent! ...I hope?” Choromatsu suddenly seemed uncertain of himself, probably remembering what Ichimatsu had told him just before heading to the shop.

“The stuff’s all good. No diluted potions or pouches of flour, from what I can tell.”

“Good!” 

“Next time, though? Don’t show off your gold before you’ve haggled the price.” 

Deciding Choromatsu looked properly admonished, Ichimatsu led the way back to the general store where they’d left their other companions. 

He found them more easily than expected, catching sight of Totty leading a parade of boxes and bags with legs out of a nearby shop. He waved a paw, catching the attention of the rest of the party. 

“Oh, hey! Did your shopping go well?” Totty asked, approaching the pair. 

Choromatsu lifted the box in his hands. “We got a good variety. What, ah, what all did you purchase…?” He looked at the huge amount of supplies warily. 

“Some preserved food for the road, a tent, some bedrolls, a tinderbox, parchment and magician’s ink, several crystals, a bunch of incense, extra water canteens… Oh! And a special something for Ichimatsu!” 

“Eh? Me?”

Choromatsu was fuming. “This is way too much! How are we supposed to carry all of this with us!” 

Totty put his (totally empty) hands on his hips. “We have a dragon! He can carry all this stuff!” 

“A dragon will attract way too much attention! He attracts attention enough as-is!” 

“Hey!” Osomatsu shouted from behind the boxes he carried, tail lashing in annoyance. Only his tall, curling horns were visible from behind the pile, proving Choromatsu’s point. 

Totty crossed his arms and pouted. “Doesn’t matter how much attention we attract, no one’s gonna try anything if we’ve got a dragon anyway…” He grumbled. 

“Just… make a pocket dimension or something to stow everything in. Just to stop him complaining.” Ichimatsu suggested. 

Totty sighed. “Fiiiiine.” He took a satchel from the top of Karamatsu’s stack and said a few words, eyes glowing pink again. “There. Anything that can fit through the opening can fit in the bag.”

Choromatsu placed the box he bore carefully inside. His arm continued in far past the apparent bottom of the bag. “Stow everything away and let’s get going.” 

“Okay!” Jyushimatsu dumped his whole pile onto the bag, nearly crushing Choromatsu as he dived out of the way. 

The pile sat on the ground, the satchel underneath. 

“Eh?”

Totty sighed heavily. “You have to put it in the bag for it to work!” 

Karamatsu set his pile down and retrieved the enchanted satchel from beneath Jyushimatsu’s pile. “Here, allow me to assist.” He started to put objects in. Item after item was swallowed by the bag. The large canvas fabric making up the tent was a bit awkward to fit through the opening, but it successfully went through. The piles of purchases disappeared slowly until, finally, only the satchel remained. 

“There, happy?” Totty asked, draping the bag’s strap over his shoulder. Evidently, the enchantment also made it so the bag had no weight within.

“We’ll have to talk about your use of group funds later, but this is fine for now.” 

“Then let’s go!” Totty led the group onward. Ichimatsu waited behind as Karamatsu untied Steven from the post where they’d left him, and the two followed the rest of the group at a distance. 

“What was it you were going to say? Before we made it to the village?” 

Karamatsu blushed a bright crimson. “Ah, it was nothing. Nothing important, anyway. Just… just forget about it!” 

Ichimatsu hummed, watching the knight’s face. Now it was Karamatsu who couldn’t meet Ichimatsu’s gaze. 

Well, whatever. If he said it wasn’t important, Ichimatsu was willing to leave it at that. 

They had a long road ahead of them, still. 

Chapter Text

The village was long out of sight when the group decided to make camp for what they assumed was the night. The eerie, unnatural darkness persisted, and they were all beginning to become greatly disoriented. Ichimatsu, who was already out of his natural rhythm on a diurnal clock, was the worst of them all, finding himself exhausted as they walked and energetic as they settled in to sleep. He volunteered to keep watch for the first shift, feeling he’d be unable to get any rest now that he’d gotten some strange second wind. 

The others all settled into their bedrolls beneath the tent, loud snores filling the air soon after. Ichimatsu found a comfortable position to sit in, preparing for a long, sleepless ‘night’. 

He became lost in thought, mulling over the past several weeks and all of the life-threatening scenarios constantly tossed his way, with no time for a breather in between. 

He thought of the bandits that had followed their every move, stalking them even when they thought they were safe. Could he trust the tenuous safety they’d found in this strange group? 

He thought of giant beasts, toppling sturdy stone structures as though made of paper, and how many more would they see before this was all over? 

He thought of fires, fire after fire swallowing the settlements they passed through. Was he cursed after all? 

Mostly, though, he thought of Karamatsu, snoring softly now at the end of the row inside the tent, thick eyebrows furrowed even in sleep. The knight had been the nuisance to kick this all off, dragging Ichimatsu into trouble he should never have been part of. Since then, though, the man had saved Ichimatsu’s life again and again, and Ichimatsu had done his best to save his in turn. He was stupid and reckless, but full of righteous determination and endlessly kind. It was admirable, in a way, even if he was frequently frustrating. And, in the end, he was the only thing in this world Ichimatsu could still trust, a steady rock to lean on when the whole world seemed to be crumbling down around him. 

Ichimatsu stared down at his paw, clenching it, feeling the odd sensation of the dead nerves in the discolored pad. 

He couldn’t keep leaning on Karamatsu forever, lest the knight fall victim to his curse, too. 

---

Time stretched on and, eventually, the first members of the party stirred. Totty, likely an early riser already due to whatever farm or ranch he’d originated from, was the first up, followed closely by Choromatsu, who was simply a very light sleeper. 

“Ichimatsu? You never went to bed?” Totty asked, yawning, voice high-pitched with drowsiness. 

Ichimatsu shook his head. “Never got tired.”

“Ah, are catfolk nocturnal?” Choromatsu asked curiously.

Ichimatsu shrugged. “More or less.” He stood up, brushing his short tunic off. “I was pretty much adapted to a human sleep cycle, but this eternal night is screwing that up.” 

“Oh! I almost forgot!” Totty suddenly disappeared back into the tent. 

“What… Well, anyway. We’re all pretty disoriented by this unnatural darkness. I’ve been feeling fairly exhausted no matter how much rest I manage to get. All the more reason for us to hurry along as much as we can.” 

“Got it!” Totty was rushing back toward them with his enchanted satchel. “I never gave you the thing I bought for you!” 

“Oh, right, you did mention something about that… you didn’t have to get me anything.”
“It’s no trouble! Just let me find it…” His arm disappeared and his face screwed up in concentration as he fished around in the bottomless depths of the satchel. “There!” 

He retrieved his arm and, with it, a parcel tied neatly in brown paper with twine. “Here you go!” 

Ichimatsu took the parcel with a soft “Thank you…” and gently untied it. The paper fell away to reveal neatly-folded fabric. It was a deep purple, extremely soft, with small gold embroidery around the seams. He unfolded the garment to reveal its shape. 

“Oh…” It was a long robe, similar to what Choromatsu wore. It wasn’t nearly so ostentatious, but it couldn’t have been cheap. “You really didn’t have to-”

“Karamatsu told me you had to rip your tunic for bandages a while back. I figured you could use something a little bit… longer. Besides, this fabric is made to help you harness magical energies! It attracts ambient magic to you!” 

Now that Totty pointed it out, Ichimatsu could feel the slight charge in the air near the robe. “It’s very nice, thank you… Is my tunic really that short?” 

Choromatsu coughed into his hand. “It’s not necessarily indecent but… your tail does lift the hem on occasion…” 

Ichimatsu blushed a bright red, suddenly extremely conscious of where his tunic hit his thighs. If it was really so short, why had no one mentioned anything before now?! Karamatsu had been traveling with him long enough… Maybe the knight was just too polite to mention it. 

He slipped the new robe over his head, maneuvering out of the old one underneath it. The dark purple robe reached nearly to the ground, his tail barely peeking out the bottom end. His paws got lost in the huge bell sleeves. He pulled the hood up over his head, the wide face billowing out, and felt it sat oddly on top. “What’s…” He touched the hood, feeling it was oddly shaped around his ears. 

“It was marketed to tabaxi mages. It’s got room for your ears to sit comfortably underneath. At least, that’s what the salesman told me.” Totty explained. 

Sure enough, Ichimatsu could move his ears somewhat under the hood, where normally they would be flattened against his head anytime he wore a hood. 

“It’s very comfortable… it must have been expensive, I can try to pay you back…?”

“No need! Consider it a thank-you gift! You’re the one that came all that way to shut down the Arc of Night, after all!” 

“I didn’t do much… Jyushimatsu’s the one who actually shut it down, and things got worse after we did, anyway…” 

“Just accept the damn robe already!” Totty pouted, hands on his hips. 

“Ah… Th-thank you…!” Ichimatsu stuttered, startled. 

“You’re very welcome.” 

“What’s all the shouting about?” Osomatsu crawled out of the tent, yawning and rubbing his eyes. 

“It’s time to get up, we’re heading out!” Totty replied.

“Oh, you gave him the robe… does it fit right?”

“It fits fine…” Ichimatsu mumbled.

“Damn, I guess Karamatsu really did know his measurements.” A lopsided grin spread across Osomatsu’s face. 

“Eh?!” 

“Hey, Karamatsu! You did good on the dress!” 

“Did I?” Karamatsu’s voice drifted from the tent, followed by a loud yawn. “Heh, you should never have doubted my skill in fashion!” The knight followed the dragon out of the tent, a smug, confident smile on his face. The smile turned more nervous as he saw Ichimatsu standing uncertainly in the new robe. “Do you like it?” He asked. 

Ichimatsu nodded. “It’s… comfortable. Thank you.” 

Karamatsu’s eyes shone, his smile relieved. “Good! I’m glad!”

“Did you guys wake Jyushimatsu up? We should get going soon.” Totty interrupted. 

An exuberant shout came from within the tent and, moments later, the whole thing came crashing down. 

“Shit! Jyushimatsu!” Totty shouted as he ran towards the collapsing tent. A distinctly human-shaped lump underneath was wriggling around. 

“Totty!” Jyushimatsu’s head popped out from under the pile of fabric, grinning widely. “Get the bag ready!” 

“What?!” 

“The magic bag! Open it up!” 

“Okay?!” Totty complied, confused. Jyushimatsu disappeared back under the collapsed tent and, faster than Ichimatsu could track, the tent folded up and disappeared into the satchel, bedrolls and all. “Woah!” 

Totty nearly dropped the satchel in shock, holding it precariously. Jyushimatsu just grinned, as usual. 

“Packed up! Let’s go!” 

“Y-yeah… let’s go…” Still looking terrified, Totty slung the satchel over his shoulder and started to lead the way to the main road, looking back over his shoulder at Jyushimatsu occasionally. The others fell into line, Karamatsu leading Steven at the back of the group. 

The angel’s power’s never ceased to startle, huh?

---

The road led on and on for hours yet. With no sun to track the hours, everyone seemed to tire more quickly than usual. They stopped to rest around what Choromatsu guessed to be midday, though there was no way to really tell, and ate some of the preserved foodstuffs Totty had purchased in the village.

Ichimatsu felt his eyes drifting closed, even as he lifted a piece of sausage to his mouth, barely shaking himself back awake to finish his lunch. 

He felt a hand shake his shoulder. The group had gathered their things without him realizing. 

“You fell asleep.” Karamatsu was telling him. “Here, get on my back. You didn’t sleep at all last night, right?” 

Ichimatsu nodded, slowly, eyes already drifting shut again. He climbed slowly, drowsily, onto Karamatsu’s offered back. The knight hefted him up, locking his arms under his bottom. Ichimatsu wrapped his arms around Karamatsu’s neck, locked his feet around his waist, and allowed his head to drop onto the knight’s armored shoulder. He was asleep before the group started walking.

---

Ichimatsu woke with a start from dreams of fire and pain, and nearly toppled off of Steven. He instinctively dug in his claws to avoid crashing to the ground, and the horse whinnied in pain, picking up speed. Ichimatsu steadied himself, sitting up on the horse’s back as he’d been taught, and scrambled for the reigns. 

Suddenly, Karamatsu was there, jogging to keep pace, soothing the horse with gentle words and long strokes down his neck. Steven slowed his pace back to the relaxed walk the group had been keeping before, and everyone caught up to the escaped horse and his disoriented rider. 

“Ichimatsu! It’s good to see you awake!” Karamatsu greeted cheerfully. 

Ichimatsu yawned, rubbing his eyes with a paw. “Why am I on the horse?” 

“Well, you see…” Karamatsu started, looking embarrassed. 

“After carrying you for several hours, Karamatsu started to fall behind. We made him put you on the horse and take a damn break.” Totty explained, instead. 

“Alas, it seems the spirit is still too weak!” Karamatsu lamented, throwing a hand over his eyes. 

“You must’ve been really tired! You didn’t wake up at all when we were yelling about it, or when you got put on Steven’s back!” Jyushimatsu added. 

“I’m sorry I caused so much trouble…” Ichimatsu apologized, shrinking into the huge hood of his new robe.

“No, no! It’s no trouble at all! Really, I should be apologizing to you. This is all because we relied on you to keep watch all night, instead of sharing the burden!” Karamatsu insisted. 

“It’s good you awoke now.” Choromatsu cut in. “We’re nearing another town. According to Todomatsu’s… source, the portal mirror should be somewhere within.”

“Unfortunately, he wasn’t very specific about it… I don’t know what the mirror looks like or where in town it is.” Totty gave the group an apologetic look. 

“We also don’t know what sort of effect the portal is having on the town or it’s residents. Keep your guard up, everyone.” Ichimatsu warned. He slid off of the horse. He felt Karamatsu’s hands at his elbows, ready to steady him as he dismounted. “I can get off the horse by myself just fine, quit being such a mother hen.” 

“As you wish.” Karamatsu conceded, stepping away. Ichimatsu doubted the knight had any intention of actually laying off anytime soon. 

“Well, let’s poke around, see what we turn up.”

“Should we split up? We could cover more ground that way.” Totty asked.

Ichimatsu shook his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. We don’t know what’s waiting for us. Safety in numbers and all that.”

“Then how about we split into pairs?” Choromatsu suggested. 

“That’s still risky.” Ichimatsu rebutted, at the same time as Jyushimatsu shouted, “I call the dragon!” 

“Hey, he’s my dragon!” Totty argued. 

“Hell yeah! Team Wings is totally gonna find that whatever thing way before you assholes!” Osomatsu cheered. Totty pouted. 

“Shall we team up, then?” Choromatsu offered, placing a placating hand on Totty’s shoulder. 

“Fiiiiiine.” Totty waved to Karamatsu and Ichimatsu. “See you guys later. Good luck!” 

The two pairs went separate directions, leaving Ichimatsu with Karamatsu and the horse. The knight was tying off Steven’s reigns to a relatively thin tree. Satisfied with his knot work, he turned to Ichimatsu, hands on hips. “Well! Shall we be off? The others have a head start, now!”

Ichimatsu rolled his eyes. “I’m not too keen on rushing in to some place we know nothing about, especially when what we know is that there’s a demonic portal somewhere inside. You still remember zombie town, right?” 

Karamatsu shuddered. “You make a fair point… There’s something I could, perhaps, attempt? For reconnaissance purposes.” He offered. 

“Like what?” Ichimatsu asked, confused. 

Karamatsu sat on the ground, legs crossed, and gestured for Ichimatsu to join him. He did, sitting with his legs beneath him, looking more like a cat than ever. 

The knight pulled, from beneath his breastplate, an amulet. Etched into the bronze surface, the lovely face of the goddess Sune smiled back at him. Bright red paint filled the grooves in the etching where her hair swirled in waves around her face. 

“The priestesses in town gave me this. They told me I could use it to call upon her for aid when needed.” He explained. 

“Like when you healed that wound?” 

“Exactly!” Karamatsu grinned. “For now, though, I thought I could request some aid in tracking down that evil mirror which we seek.” 

Ichimatsu hummed. “That’s not a half-bad idea. Show me what you’ve got, hero.”

Karamatsu closed his eyes, brow furrowed, and held the amulet before him. Long minutes passed, the knight steadying his breathing into a slow, even rhythm. Ichimatsu watched him curiously, waiting to see if he would succeed at all. This kind of faith-based magic was far beyond Ichimatsu himself, who had a habit of doubting anything and everything until he had undeniable proof. If anyone would be able to summon up power just by believing in himself, though, it was the overconfident knight. 

Sure enough, after several more long, anxious minutes, the amulet glowed gently, a warm, orange light bathing Karamatsu’s fingers. The knight’s eyes fluttered open, looking somewhat surprised at the amulet he held, before his features relaxed into a pleased smile. 

“Follow me, my dear Ichimatsu! I can feel evil nearby!” 

Ichimatsu allowed Karamatsu to help him to his feet. The knight led the way with confidence. His assured gait contrasted starkly with Ichimatsu’s nervous and cautious one. He instinctively placed his feet where Karamatsu tread, leaving only one set of footprints, and took care to make no noise as he padded along behind the knight, whose clanking armor made more than enough noise for two people already. 

The knight suddenly froze at the mouth of an alleyway. Ichimatsu stilled almost in unison. 

“What’s wrong?” He whispered, softly as he could. 

“I feel a second evil presence. Moving toward us.” The knight explained shortly. 

“Shit.” Ichimatsu padded closer, pressing himself to Karamatsu’s back. “From where?” 

Karamatsu glanced at the nervous Ichimatsu, then down the street to his right. Two women walked, chatting and laughing. 

“It would behoove us to retreat at this moment, before we are spotted.” Karamatsu advised, stepping backwards slowly. Ichimatsu mirrored his movements, retreating into the alleyway. One of the women looked away from her companion, eyes locking on to Karamatsu for a moment, then returned her attention to the conversation. 

In that moment, Ichimatsu saw her eyes swallowed by darkness. 

“Shit, she saw us…” 

“It doesn’t seem as though she intends to follow us, though… let us make haste to our goal.” Karamatsu took Ichimatsu’s paw, leading him back into the alleyway. He struck a new route through the town, avoiding the large streets where he could. He walked with more caution, but no less confidence in his bearings. He gripped Ichimatsu’s paw anxiously, anchoring the other man to his side. 

“We’re nearing the portal now, I can feel it.” Karamatsu informed his companion, standing with their backs pressed against a wall in a narrow alleyway. 

“Good. Let’s go break that piece of junk.” 

Karamatsu didn’t move. He chewed his lip nervously.

“What’s wrong?”

“I can also feel several other evil presences nearby. Moving around, like before… I think the portal is guarded. Heavily.” 

 

Chapter Text

Ichimatsu padded softly across the ceramic shingles of a rooftop. He picked his paw placement carefully, ensuring he didn’t put his weight on any loose shingles. He reached the edge of the roof, glanced about for watchful eyes, then leapt across the short divide between this building and the next. He winced at the slight clatter of the shingles as he landed, crouching low, watching, waiting. His tail flicked nervously. 

When he was certain he hadn’t drawn any gazes, he continued across the second roof. Again, the pattern of watching, waiting, leaping, waiting again. Each rooftop brought him closer to the targeted building. 

He glanced across the street. There, Karamatsu waited impatiently, still in the alleyway. In his arms, he held a bundle of deep purple fabric, Ichimatsu’s new robe. The old tunic may have been a bit too breezy, but Ichimatsu couldn’t afford losing any mobility. 

The knight glanced his way, meeting his gaze. Ichimatsu pointed at the building before him. Karamatsu nodded. 

He’d reached the correct one. 

Ichimatsu padded across the current rooftop, carefully eyeing the neighboring building over. Windows were boarded up, the walls were stained, the ceramic roofing tiles seemed loose. Despite it’s clear state of disrepair, it was a bustle of activity. Many people came and went, too many to count. Ichimatsu sat perfectly still, watching carefully. 

A woman, bidding a farewell to someone still inside, exited the building and went on her way. Ichimatsu recognized her from not an hour before, when she had gazed at the two of them with those frightening, pitch-black eyes. 

Ichimatsu, becoming more anxious by the second, continued to circle the building, searching for some other entrance. Not a single window lacked those sturdy boards which forbade entry. There was only one other door, besides the entrance, at the back of the building. Beside it stood a bored-looking guard, clearly not invested in his duties. Judging by the other occupants, coupled with the impression Karamatsu had received, Ichimatsu wasn’t willing to bet their lives on his inattention- it could very well be a ruse.

He continued. 

Finally, on the opposite wall from where he had started, he saw a small wooden door, clearly the entrance to a cellar. It was around a corner from both the entrance and the back door guard, and they would be able to access the building from here. 

Ichimatsu whispered an incantation, quietly as he was able, and opened an eye on the other side of the cellar door. 

Within, he saw the short staircase expected, leading to a storeroom of various goods. Dust lined every surface, including the steps to the door on the other side, leading into the building proper. No one, demonic or otherwise, had entered this storeroom in quite some time. 

Ending the spell, Ichimatsu returned his attention to Karamatsu, across the street. The knight was staring right at him, watching his every move. 

Ichimatsu cursed. That idiot was going to lead them right to him! 

Sure enough, a man leaning against the wall out front followed the knight’s gaze, angling his head up to gaze at the neighboring roof. Ichimatsu scrambled back, claws making the quietest of scraping noises as he went. Just as he reached the edge of the roof, turning to leap across the alley to yet another building, a shingle gave way beneath his paw. His leg went with it, unbalancing him. He dangled from the roof, claws catching on other tiles, but he’d fallen too suddenly, with too much force, and those tiles gave way, as well. 

He tumbled toward the ground with a clatter. 

Although he landed on his feet, as usual, the ceramic shingles falling along with him, shattering as they landed, made more than enough noise to draw attention. He heard shouts, followed by the pattering of several sets of feet, sprinting in his direction. 

He turned and sprinted off. 

This way and that, through the unfamiliar town, he ran. The footsteps fell further and further behind. Relief washed over him, but only for a brief moment. From down the small street stretching before him, he heard footsteps approach. 

Shit! His pursuers, more familiar with the town than he, had circled around and cut him off. He glanced around. He had only moments to hide before they would find him. To his left, a short ways away, several garments hung on a long line, stretching from one side of the street to the other. 

Hopping up, his vertical leap taking him some five feet into the air, he caught his claws in the hem of a long dress, dangling nearest the street. He pulled himself up, tail swinging wildly to keep his balance, and scaled the dress. 

Three people turned a corner ahead, sprinting down the street. 

He dashed across the line, balance and speed bolstered by adrenaline, and reached the opposite side.
The pursuers raced past the laundry and continued. 

Finally, that sigh of relief was warranted.

Ichimatsu looked around, getting his bearings, and returned to where Karamatsu waited.

By way of the rooftops, of course. 

---

“We’ve got our way in.”

Karamatsu shrieked. Ichimatsu covered his mouth quickly. The knight relaxed. 

“Ichimatsu! You were pursued! I was becoming extremely anxious! I would have followed, of course, but, ah, what with the- the circumstances, and, uh…”

“Don’t worry about it. The point is that I lost them. Plus, before I got spotted, I found a way in.” 

“Excellent work! Shall we proceed?” 

Ichimatsu nodded, retrieving his robe from Karamatsu. “We should have an easier time, now that they’re running around looking for me on the other side of town.” 

He slipped the robe on, smoothing it down to look presentable. “There. Now I have a disguise.”

Karamatsu’s eyebrows drew together. “I believe you’re a bit too distinctive for them to be thrown off just by a change of clothes…”

“It was a joke. Let’s get going.”

“Oh! Of course! My mistake!” Karamatsu flushed, embarrassed. “Yes, let’s be off.” 

Ichimatsu led the way, acting as though they were going to a shop further down the street, then cutting back in the relative security of the alleyways. The building, with its boarded windows and crumbling roof, wasn’t too difficult to find again. Luckily, it seemed the bored guard from the back entrance was one of those to have given chase. Ichimatsu led Karamatsu around the corner and to the cellar door, no surprises, and rapped his knuckles on the wood. The padlock sprung free, clattering as it fell. The hinges squeaked as the door swung open. 

“Impressive, as always!” Karamatsu whispered excitedly. 

“Keep it down. Just because there’s no guards nearby doesn’t mean we can make a whole bunch of noise.” Ichimatsu whispered back sharply. 

Karamatsu nodded. “Understood.” He whispered. 

Ichimatsu rolled his eyes. He led the way into the cellar, down the dusty stairs. Several steps creaked under his weight. Karamatsu coughed in the stale, dusty air. Still, no footsteps or voices approached. 

“Close the door behind you.” Ichimatsu instructed. 

Karamatsu obeyed. The hinges squeaked again, protesting movement, but the door swung shut.

Continuing into the cellar, Ichimatsu listened hard for any noises. The sounds of friendly conversation continued, muffled through the floorboards. 

“Sounds like we’re clear. Do you have a clear idea of where the mirror is?” 

“Just a moment…” Karamatsu grasped his amulet, concentrating. Ichimatsu waited a long moment, watching his focussed expression twist into frustration, then exasperation. “It seems nearly everyone in this building is some sort of fiend. I cannot distinguish our goal from the hurdles.” 

“Damn.” Ichimatsu chewed his lip. “Nothing for it, then. We just have to look around.” 

He began to circle the cellar, hoping in vain to find the object of their pursuit conveniently nearby. Unfortunately, it seemed only rotting sacks of grain and stagnant barrels of water filled the room. Nothing even remotely shiny caught his eye. 

“I felt nothing down here. We must ascend into the building proper.” Karamatsu informed him. 

Ichimatsu sighed. “I figured that was the case. I was really fucking hoping we could avoid a conflict…” 

“Well, perhaps we’ll be lucky! We’ll proceed with caution!” 

The two crossed the room to the staircase leading into the structure. Ichimatsu winced at the sounds of the knight’s armor clanking about. 

“I’ll go ahead. Only follow if I give you the clear.”

Karamatsu frowned. “But what if you’re ambushed? I need to be near enough to protect you!” 

“Your damn armor makes so much noise, there’s no way I can sneak around with you nearby.”

The knight looked ready to argue, but nodded. “I suppose you’re right… I don’t have skill in stealth. I suppose I’ll trust you, then.” 

“Good.” Ichimatsu ascended the stairs, again casting the unlocking spell to unbar the way. The door squealed open, as expected, but the hallway it opened to was empty. Choosing the direction leading away from the now loud sounds of activity, Ichimatsu advanced further into the building. 

Doors lined either side of the hallway, and, at the end, branched off both left and right. Ichimatsu strained his ears, listening for noises at each door. Behind him, he heard Karamatsu shifting his weight impatiently, his clanking armor signaling his movements. Ichimatsu shot a glare over his shoulder. Chagrined, Karamatsu ceased his movements. 

Ichimatsu continued his way down the hallway. At one door, he heard soft conversation. At another, a loud snoring. Two more were silent. 

He tried the first quiet door. Inching it open, he peered inside. A woman sat at a writing desk, sketching something on a large pad of paper. “Just give me a moment! I’ll be out for supper soon!” She called, without looking. Ichimatsu shut the door, heart hammering. That was too close. 

Down the hall, he heard a voice calling out, closer than the rest of the conversation. “I’ll be only a moment! Not to worry! Continue without me!” Someone called. Ichimatsu panicked, throwing open the other quiet door and escaping inside. 

Footsteps passed. 

Ichimatsu breathed a sigh of relief, leaning against the door. The room he’d escaped into was a bathroom. The huge tub filled most of the space, etched in familiar warming runes. On a side table nearby, a hefty tome sat. Curious, Ichimatsu investigated. The title was written in the Infernal tongue, unfortunately, and Ichimatsu could only parse the word “night”. Unhelpful.

He returned to the door, inching it open and peeking outside. The hallway was empty once more. He noticed the cellar door had been closed. Presumably, Karamatsu had had the foresight to close it before the person had made it down the hallway. Ichimatsu watched as the door inched open again, Karamatsu peeking out. Ichimatsu waved him over. 

The knight walked softly, attempting to keep the noises of his armor to a minimum. He slipped into the bathroom with Ichimatsu. 

“Have you found anything?”

Ichimatsu shook his head. “Not yet. There’s someone in every room but this one. I’m not sure how we’ll even search without making a ruckus.” 

Karamatsu’s brow furrowed. “That is concerning. I wonder what kind of place this is…”

Ichimatsu shrugged. “I guess we’ll find out as we keep going.”

“Fair enough. Where to next?” 

Ichimatsu poked his head out of the bathroom door. “There should be a staircase somewhere. This building has a second floor.” He felt Karamatsu draw close, trying to also see out the door. “I’m gonna hope that that staircase isn’t in the front hall. It seems like most everyone is gathered there.”

“If the people here are all demons protecting the mirror, though, there’s a good chance that they’re keeping it in that room.”

“I really don’t want to think about that.”

“Fair enough. Let us exhaust all other possibilities first. It would be pointless to endanger ourselves without cause.” 

“Right.” 

Ichimatsu crept from the bathroom doorway, continuing down the hallway towards the fork at the end. Down the right side, he saw an open door leading to a kitchen. A single voice traveled from inside, singing. To the left, a staircase. Perfect.

He waved Karamatsu to follow him and both ascended the stairs. Voices grew louder as they ascended, muffled. At the top of the stairs, two large doors enclosed one large room, and the hall led directly to a balcony, presumably overlooking the front hall. 

“Only one place to go up here… and there are people inside.” Ichimatsu mused. 

“It seems we must risk detection, after all.” 

Ichimatsu pressed an ear to the large doors, listening to the voices within. The conversation had ended and the voices had begun to chant rhythmically. 

“They’re performing some sort of ritual incantation… maybe they’ll be distracted?”

Karamatsu shrugged. 

Ichimatsu reached for the handles slowly, uncertain. He clenched and unclenched a paw. Finally, he grasped the ornate handle and tugged, pulling the heavy doors ajar. 

Inside the huge room, clearly once a master bedroom, several robed figures stood around a sigil, candles forming a circle, and chanting in unison. Tied to a table nearby, under a velvet cloth, was a terrified-looking girl, no older than 16. She tugged at her bonds and cast a wild gaze about the room. Seeing the two men standing in the doorway, framed in the bright torchlight flooding the rest of the building, she began to scream, muffled, into the cloth tied around her mouth. 

“Shit…” 

The chanting ceased and the gathered figures cast their gazes on the intruders. A tense moment passed, Ichimatsu certain their deaths were upon them. 

One of the figures dropped his hood. Despite the pitch black of his eyes, his expression was friendly. “Judging by your robe and your royal escort, I presume you must be the necromancer! The king’s messenger didn’t think you would be here until tomorrow, you must have traveled quickly!” 

Ichimatsu shot a panicked glance at Karamatsu. The knight looked equally unsettled. 

“Uhhh… yes! I, ah, hurried as best I could when I heard what you were planning here…”

“Wasn’t the necromancer supposed to be a drow?” A woman’s voice asked from inside her voluminous hood. 

“The king surrounds himself with many powerful wielders of dark magics. Perhaps he simply changed his mind about which necromancer to send.” The man who greeted him suggested. 

“Yes… the drow was, um, busy with another matter this week. I was free, and, uh, like I said, excited to see what it was you all were up to, so…” 

“No matter, no matter! Come, come, surely you would like to join us for this ritual? It’s not quite your specialty, but we were just getting started… Jervis! Leave the circle so he may join us!” 

A robed figure stepped away from the sigil. Ichimatsu could feel a burning glare coming from within the hood. He stepped forward to take the other’s place in the circle.

Karamatsu stopped him with a hand to his chest.

“What…?” 

The knight leaned in to whisper softly into his ear. “Did you notice?” He asked. 

Ichimatsu shot him a confused look. “Notice what?” He whispered back. 

“The noises from the other room…” Karamatsu prompted. 

Ichimatsu listened. 

“I don’t hear- oh!” 

Sure enough, the front room, which had been so lively before, was now completely silent. 

“Just play along… I think something’s about to happen.”

“Ah, is something wrong, sir knight?” The man with his hood down asked. 

“Nothing! He was just, uhhh…”

“I was just telling the necromancer to make haste! We have another matter to attend to before the day is done.” 

“Ah, of course! This shouldn’t take long at all, not to worry. Come, take your place!” 

Finally, Ichimatsu stepped forward. He felt a sickly kind of energy connecting him to the others. The sigil, an old Infernal sigil reading ‘berserk’, infused the area with a dark charge. Joining the circle of other mages completed the magical circuit, and energy began to build once more. 

“We will begin the chant again. Join in when you catch on!” Ichimatsu was instructed. The chanting started up again. 

Ichimatsu listened carefully, trying to parse what the spell’s intended effect was. He could feel the others drawing on his magic just by him standing there with them. Unfortunately, his Infernal was shoddy at best, and the spoken version of the language was quite distinct from the written. He feared he would be immediately found out by his bad pronunciation, if nothing else, if he joined in at all, and he certainly didn’t want to find out what the poor teenager had to do with any of this. 

Her skin began to take on a sickly, purple hue, and her eyes began to ooze blood. Ichimatsu chanced a look back at Karamatsu. The knight’s hand was on his blade, but he seemed hesitant to act. Time was running out, for the two intruders and for the sacrificial girl. 

Suddenly, chaos broke out, muffled through the huge double doors. Two of the mages ceased chanting. Screams were coming from the front hall. 

“Continue the ritual! We don’t want to disappoint the king’s emissary!” 

“Screw that! Something’s happening downstairs!” The woman argued. 

She, along with the one named Jervis who had been kicked out of the ritual, rushed out of the room. 

“I’m terribly sorry-”

“We can continue some other time.” Ichimatsu assured the man. “Go see what the noise is about.” 

“Very well. Again, my sincerest apologies, though.” 

The rest of the mages hurried out. As the doors opened, the chaos downstairs became louder, clearer. Most concerning, there was a crackling of flames, and it was increasing in intensity.

Ichimatsu turned to Karamatsu when the others had all disappeared down the staircase. "We need to get her out of here."

"Agreed. Let's make haste." 

The two rushed to the back of the room. Karamatsu, using his sword, cut the girl free. Ichimatsu untied her gag. 

"What are you doing to me?!" She screamed the moment she was free.

"We're trying to rescue you. We're not who those guys thought we were."

"You're not?! Then why were you helping them?!"

"We seek an evil mirror, one connected to the Lower Planes. Have you seen anything like that?" Karamatsu interrogated. 

"I don't know… I don't think so? Last thing I remember, I was out at market, shopping for supper… next thing I know, I woke up tied to a table!"

"That is unfortunate…"

"Does that matter right now? We need to get her out of here! And… hopefully to a really, really good healer…" 

The girl's extremities were still darkened to that sickly purple hue. Karamatsu wiped the tears of blood from her cheeks. 

"Would you allow me to carry you?" Karamatsu asked.

"As long as you're getting me out of here, I don't care!" The girl replied.

"Very well. One, two, three!" 

The knight lifted the girl easily, cradling her carefully. 

"Let's get moving." Ichimatsu suggested. 

"After you." Karamatsu replied.

The sounds of screams had abated, but the crackling of fire was louder than ever. Ichimatsu could feel the heat of the flames as he exited the large room. 

The front room now contained more fire than people. A loud, cheerful whoop sounded from within the pyre. 

"Did that sound… familiar to you?" 

Karamatsu nodded. "I believe our friends found this place, as well."

"Osomatsu!" Totty's voice shouted from outside. "You fucking idiot!"

"What did I do wrong?! Jyushimatsu said they were all bad guys!"

"Yeah!" Jyushimatsu's voice agreed. 

"You still shouldn't set buildings on fire! We need to make sure the mirror is taken care of!"

"Then put it out, Oh Strong and Powerful One." Osomatsu taunted. 

Ichimatsu hurried down the stairs. The fire had consumed the front door, and was beginning to reach down the hallway. The back door had to lead somewhere on this side of the building… 

"There, in the kitchen!" Karamatsu shouted. 

Sure enough, the kitchen led directly outside.

"Good call."

Finally exiting the burning building, the two circled around to the front to meet up with the others.

"Ichimatsu, Karamatsu! You were here?" Choromatsu asked. "And… who is that?"

"She was being used in some kind of ritual." Ichimatsu informed him. "Do either of you know any kind of… I don't know, a healing spell or counter curse or something?"

Jyushimatsu ducked his head out of the doorway, seemingly unaffected by the fire within. "Someone was hurt?!"

"Yes. The devils within cast some kind of spell on her." 

"I'll help!" The angel, wings already unfurled and eyes white, rushed over to Karamatsu and the girl in his arms. She flinched when he grabbed her hands, but nervously allowed him to continue. 

His eyes shone with a soft golden glow. Starting at her fingertips, the glow transferred to her hands, chasing the sickly purple away until she was left with her original skin tone.

"Holy shit…" She whispered.

"Feet next!" Jyushimatsu called cheerfully. As before, as he held her feet, the soft golden glow chased up her skin, healing her from whatever affliction had been set. "All done!"

"Wow… thank you…?"

"Yeah! You're all good to go! Go home now! We'll fix this!"

The girl looked between the angel and the collapsing building, swallowed by flames.

"Uh… okay then." 

Karamatsu set her down and she ran off down the street. 

"A good deed done!" The knight proudly proclaimed. 

"No but seriously, how do we stop the fire from spreading?"

The gathered party stared up at the building. 

"Hey guys! I found the mirror!" Osomatsu called from inside the wreckage. 

A section of the roof caved in with a resounding crash.

"Nevermind! It's all broken now!" 

Chapter Text

The flames consuming the remains of the building danced in Ichimatsu’s eyes as he watched the fire slowly burn itself out. Todomatsu and Choromatsu had exhausted themselves conjuring water to douse the neighboring buildings, preventing the fire from spreading, and had been unable to put out the blazing bonfire in the middle. 

A gloved hand rested on his shoulder. “Are you doing alright?” 

Ichimatsu glanced up to see Karamatsu, face tense with concern, looking back at him. 

“I’m fine.” He claimed. 

Karamatsu nodded, sitting beside him. “I’m glad.” The knight’s hand squeezed his shoulder before dropping to the ground beside him. “It’s a good thing they were able to contain the blaze. It seems our draconic friend has trouble containing his enthusiasm.”

Ichimatsu barely held back laughter. “You can say that again. Maybe next time we don’t send him along with the equally enthusiastic and destructive angel.” 

“I believe that’s sound advice, my friend.” The knight flashed him a mischievous smile. Ichimatsu covered his face with a paw, feeling a blush spreading across it, unable to keep an answering smile off his own face. 

“What are you two lovebirds giggling about?” Osomatsu was suddenly behind the two of them, grinning widely. 

“Fuck off.” Ichimatsu grumbled. 

“We were just discussing how rash and destructive you are, and how you have no regard for the safety of others.” Karamatsu responded tersely. 

“Well, no, duh, I’m gonna be destructive! Dragons aren’t exactly known for our care and kindness!” Osomatsu stuck out his forked tongue. Then, a cheeky grin spreading across his face again, he leaned in to whisper softly into Karamatsu’s ear. Unbeknownst to the dragon (or, perhaps, he was completely aware and intended for this), Ichimatsu’s ears were quite suited for picking up quiet noises that humans couldn’t perceive. 

“I notice only one of you objected to the ‘lovebirds’ comment… I wonder why that might be?” The dragon whispered. 

The knight stiffened, face turning red. He shoved Osomatsu away, the dragon cackling with laughter. “You’re such an ass!” Karamatsu fumed. 

“No need to be so sensitive!” Osomatsu laughed. “Just making an observation!” 

“Stop making a scene, you guys.” Totty huffed. He stood some distance away, watching the fire closely. It had nearly burned down to embers now. “We already did enough damage without adding ‘public disturbance’ to the tally.” 

Osomatsu held his hands up. “I’m not doin’ nothin’!” He claimed. “Just having a bit of fun! No need to be a tightass, Totty!” 

Totty answered the dragon’s cheeky grin with a sharp glare. “Why don’t you go into the wreckage for me and go see if you can find the remains of the mirror?” 

“Aww, man! Do I have to?” Osomatsu whined. 

Totty’s eyes flashed that brilliant pink. “Do I really need to answer that?” 

Osomatsu pouted. “No… Alright, I’m going, I’m going!” He stalked off, grumbling under his breath. 

Granted a moment of privacy again, Karamatsu turned back to Ichimatsu, an apologetic expression on his face. “I apologize for making a scene…”

Ichimatsu waved a paw. “Don’t worry about it.”

“You didn’t, uh, hear what he said, did you?” The knight looked nervous. 

“No, I didn’t.” Ichimatsu lied. “What did he say?” 

Karamatsu covered his face with a hand, flushed. “Don’t worry about it. I… I overreacted.” 

Ichimatsu’s lips twitched, a smile trying to skirt across his features. “Y’know, I think that’s the first time I’ve heard you curse. I wasn’t sure you knew what ‘ass’ even meant.”

The knight chuckled, some of the tension leaving his shoulders. “Spending most of my time around various soldiers and mercenaries really expanded my vocabulary. I simply prefer not to besmirch my honor so freely.” 

“Osomatsu must have really pissed you off then.”

The knight glared in the dragon’s direction. “He has a talent for that.” 

“Well.” Ichimatsu stood up, brushing dust off his robe. “Don’t let him get under your skin. He’s definitely an ass, but I don’t think he necessarily means any harm.” 

“I’ll keep that in mind…” Karamatsu murmured. He accepted Ichimatsu’s offered paw, allowing him to help him get to his feet, as well. 

“Guys? There’s something weird about this mirror…” Osomatsu called from within the wreckage. 

“Like what?” Totty called back. 

“Well, first of all, it’s not melted at all, which is pretty weird already. Second of all… maybe you guys should come take a look.”

The rest of the party all shared a look. Confusion, apprehension, and a bit of fear. 

“Let me make a path to him.” Choromatsu offered. Somehow, he found a reserve of energy and was able to conjure enough water to douse the embers before them. He slowly stepped through rubble towards the dragon, making sure there were no buried pockets of embers beneath the larger debris. 

Slowly, the entire group met up safely in what used to be one of the rooms of the lower floor. Around the area, large shards of glass were scattered, broken, but still perfectly flat. Osomatsu held a particularly large shard in one hand, gazing at his reflection with concern. 

“What is it?” Totty prompted him. 

“Look.” Osomatsu turned the shard so the others’ reflections were also caught in its surface. Ichimatsu stiffened. Instead of seeing his own face gazing back at him, his apprehensive expression reflected in its surface, he saw a grinning imp, mimicking his movements. Where Osomatsu should have been reflected still, at the edge of the shard’s surface, there was, instead, a gangly, toadlike demon gazing out. 

Osomatsu continued to slowly turn the mirror, catching more of them in its surface. Mirroring Karamatsu’s movements perfectly, a tall, thin, horned creature gazed curiously back. 

“It seems the portal is still intact, despite having been shattered…”

“Idiots! Don’t look into it for so long!” Totty snatched the mirror shard away. “Mirror portals work by letting the demons on the other side possess you! The longer you look into it, the more of them is able to cross over!”

“So what do we do about it?” Choromatsu asked nervously. 

Totty grinned slyly. “Just watch.” He held the shard up to his face, gazing into it. Behind him, the others were still mirrored in its surface by the demons mimicking them. Where Totty was reflected, though… Yes, Totty was actually reflected, his own face looking back at them all. From his skull sprouted two large, curling, pink ram’s horns, and a pair of pink, leathery wings stretched from his shoulder blades, but it was still Totty’s face smirking back at them. 

The demons surrounding his reflection suddenly ceased mirroring the party’s movements and began to panic. Totty’s reflection turned away from him, facing the gathered demons. From his outstretched hands, brilliant pink flames erupted, then swallowed the small crowd. In the real world Totty’s hands, the mirror shard burst into those same pink flames, consuming it. Suddenly, his hands were empty, pink embers drifting lazily toward the ground.

“There. No more danger.”

“That’s it?” Ichimatsu asked, skeptically. 

“That’s it!” Totty clapped his hands. “Easy, huh?” 

Osomatsu lifted another large piece of mirror from the ground. His own face, long red horns twisting from his scalp, gazed in wonder back at him. “Wow. Neat trick, Totty!” 

Totty smirked, pleased with himself. “Not many low-level demons are stupid enough to challenge a demon prince. The ones that are learn their lesson fast.” 

“On to the next, then?” Choromatsu asked, hopefully. 

“Yep! It was one of the cults next, wasn’t it? This should be a breeze!” 

---

Not for the first time, Ichimatsu cursed Totty mentally for cursing them. 

First, on the way into the town supposedly housing this cult, the party fell prey to a number of traps: bear traps, pit traps, spike traps, even a hidden rune that spat a giant fireball at them. By the time they even made it to the town, they were already injured and exhausted. 

Then, while investigating the buildings in town (and discovering there wasn’t a single resident that wasn’t part of the cult), they were ambushed by masked fanatics brandishing spears. 

Now Ichimatsu lay, tied to an extravagant altar, while the rest of his party was wrapped in chains and locked in separate cells. 

Seriously, Totty just had to jinx them. 

“Rise, congregation!” A man shouted, throwing open the doors to the huge, underground chapel. The gathered cultists, kneeling in pews, rose to their feet. 

“By the divine providence of our Lord, it was foretold that these intruders would come! They wish to destroy us, to tear apart our way of life!” The man called out, sweeping through the aisle toward the dias where Ichimatsu was bound. 

The gathered crowd booed, shouted, screamed their displeasure. 

“However! We were also given another prophecy! With the blood of this creature, a new prophecy will be bestowed unto us!” 

The man ascended the short staircase leading to the dias, standing before the altar. The cultists cheered. 

“Lord Caacrinolaas! See this sacrifice! Grant us your promised wisdom!”

From the side of the altar, the man drew a long, ornate dagger. It glinted in the flickering light of the torches, adorning each corner of the dias. The gathered cultists began chanting. The man lifted the dagger slowly, the chanting of the crowd increasing in volume as he did so, reaching a peak as his arm reached straight up. 

Simultaneously, the chanting stopped and the dagger swung down. 

Ichimatsu screwed his eyes shut. 

The expected blow never came. 

Tentatively, he peeked an eye open. Not an inch from his chest, the man’s blade hovered. The room was perfectly silent, not even the crackling of the torches breaking the stillness. Behind the man’s arm, his robes appeared to billow as though he was still mid-motion, but he was perfectly still. 

A deep, rasping chuckle filled the room. 

“If it isn’t my old friend. You cannot run from me now, small one.” A familiar voice taunted.  

“Caacrinolaas.” Ichimatsu acknowledged. 

The deep voice chuckled once more. Stepping out of nowhere, an enormous dog-like creature stalked forward, wings like those of an owl shifting against its back. It padded down the aisle, the cultists dwarfed by its immense form. “You should have known we’d meet again, little one. I showed you this future when you rejected my gifts.”

“I remember.” 

“And yet, you still spurned me. You were a foolish child.”

“The most foolish thing about it was trying to summon you in the first place. Saying ‘no’ was the smartest decision I made that day.” 

“You truly believe that to be true? It was your thirst for knowledge that led you to seek me out. My gifts would have satisfied your curiosity, and more.”

“I’ve seen enough of the price your ‘gifts’ come with, thanks.” Ichimatsu spat. He glared up at the great beast, making unwavering eye contact. Caacrinolaas lay down near the dias, one gargantuan paw resting next to the altar, and stared down his huge nose at Ichimatsu’s splayed form. 

“I only ask a fair price. All the knowledge you could possibly desire, all the answers you could possibly seek, right at your beckon. All I asked was a few lives cut short in return.”

“I can seek that knowledge myself, thanks. Without bloodshed.”

“I recall you saying the same thing when we last spoke. Have you learned nothing since that day? Do you not see how your friend revels in Asmodeus’s power? You could rival even him with ease, should you simply accept my offer.” 

“And what, exactly, is that offer?” Ichimatsu scoffed. “I presume it’s changed since last time. Considering you already took what you wanted then.”

“It was not I who took the lives of your townsfolk. As I recall, you cast the spell that began the blaze. Just a taste of my power. And, in return, I gave you a glimpse of your fortune, as promised. I am nothing if not a beast of my word.” The demon chuckled at his own little joke. 

“You didn’t answer my question.” Ichimatsu growled, teeth gritted. “What’s the new offer?”

Caacrinolaas hummed in consideration, turning his great head to survey the chapel, the gathered cultists still frozen in place. “I will give you the power to free yourself from your bonds, to escape from this place. In return, I will stay with you, guiding you along a prosperous path. I will ask from you only what is necessary to achieve greatness.”

Ichimatsu looked at the blade, nearly touching his bare chest, and at the crowd, dozens of fanatics cheering for his demise. What chance did he have if he refused now? 

Then again, Ichimatsu thought, better to die here than to give the dog a foothold, to give him permission to do whatever he pleased with Ichimatsu and this plane. 

“Take your time to consider. I will resume time only when you have made your decision. I trust you will make it wisely this time.” 

Ichimatsu took a deep breath, steeling himself. 

“When I first summoned you, I was desperate to learn more than I could access in my quiet little village. I was fascinated by the mysteries of the arcane, and frustrated by them in turn. When I discovered rumors of a deity of knowledge in that tome, I thought it was my destiny unfolding in front of me.”

“It was, little one. Everything you sought, I could deliver to you.”

Ichimatsu glared, jaw set. “And then the ‘deity’ I summoned requested the lives of every. Single. Villager. You dangled my frustration at my sheltered upbringing in front of me. You knew the one thing holding me back was my village, my people, and you expected me to eradicate them.”

“Your one hurdle. One way or another, you had to cast them aside to achieve anything. This was too much to ask?” 

“Of course it was too much to ask!” Ichimatsu screamed, pulling at his bonds, the blade scratching at his chest as he struggled. “If I’d been willing to cast them aside, I’d have abandoned my home long before! You’re a demented, twisted creature, and I will never, NEVER, let you have what you want!” Ichimatsu huffed, small bouts of flame licking from his mouth, summoned unconsciously. Caacrinolaas seemed taken aback. 

“That is unfortunate. I had hoped you would have made the right choice. Alas, I foresaw this outcome all along.” The great beast stood, turned tail, and began to slowly walk back down the aisle. “You could have achieved great things. What a waste.” 

The beast disappeared, stepping out of existence, and time resumed. 

Several things happened all at once. 

The ornate dagger pierced into Ichimatsu’s chest, striking through bone down to his heart. A feral scream ripped from his throat, stymied by the gurgle of blood bubbling up behind it.

The far wall exploded inward, a huge, crimson-scaled body crashing through, followed by a stream of flame as Osomatsu roared. 

The dagger, coated in blood, illuminated, casting a brilliant red glow around the room, meeting the light of the flames from the other side. The deep voice of Caacrinolaas echoed around the room, drowned out by Osomatsu’s loud roaring. In Ichimatsu’s own head, his blood roared, pain quickly followed by a bone-deep chill. 

The last thing he saw, as the edges of his vision drew dark, was Karamatsu, tearing down the aisle, beating cultists aside with his blade, and shouting Ichimatsu’s name. 

Chapter Text

Karamatsu struggled against his chains, the metal scraping against his armor. His breastplate dug into his skin uncomfortably where the chains squeezed it against him. 

“It’s no use!” Totty wailed. “We’re screwed!”

“Who was it that said, ‘Oh, this’ll be a breeze! It’s just a cult! We’ll solve this one in no time at all!’” Osomatsu grumbled. “‘Cause I seem to remember that person being you.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it! I shouldn’t have said that! I totally underestimated them!” Totty pouted. 

“You totally jinxed us, is what you did.” Osomatsu shot back, tail lashing on the ground. 

“Yeah! Yeah! Totally jinxed us!” Jyushimatsu agreed. 

“I have a quick question.” Choromatsu piped up. “How, exactly, are these chains holding either of you?”

“They’re evil!” Jyushimatsu chirped cheerfully. When he’d been bound, they’d blindfolded him and put extra chains around his wings, which had been out for the battle. The chains binding him had runes etched into each link, and they glowed a soft purple every time he so much as flexed his muscles. “I can’t break ‘em!” 

“And what about Osomatsu? Can’t you transform and break them?”

Osomatsu pouted. “I’m tiiiired. And it’ll hurt, probably.” 

“You’re tired ?! We’re all tired , Osomatsu! We all got hit by the same traps! We all had to fight off the same fucking crazy people! And we’re all going to die here, together, unless you fucking do something , you lazy lizard!” Totty screeched. 

“Not all together.”
“What do you mean, Karamatsu?” Choromatsu asked.

“I mean, we won’t all die together. They took Ichimatsu separately. They’re probably torturing him, or worse, as we speak.” The knight swallowed hard, barely holding together, panic bubbling in his chest. “Osomatsu, if you could think about one person other than yourself for just a moment, think about him. Think about Ichimatsu, suffering at the hands of these fanatics, right now, as we speak.”

The dragon faltered, concern flashing across his face. “Well… we don’t know that. Maybe they took him separately for… some other reason.” 

“Like what, Osomatsu? What other reason?”

“I dunno, maybe they thought he was a girl because of that stupid dress you bought him, so they put him in a different place.”

“If that were the case, what would you imagine they would plan to do with him? What do you believe fanatics usually do with female prisoners?”

“It was a fucking joke! Don’t take it all serious!” Osomatsu looked frustrated, tail lashing behind him, shoulders tense.

“How can you joke right now? We have no idea whether our friend is in mortal peril, and you plan to just make snappy remarks and waste time?!” Karamatsu sighed, anger subsiding into despair. “I was wrong to ever trust you.” He mourned. 

“Screw you! Okay? Just- fuck you!” Osomatsu staggered to his feet, arms bound to his sides. “I’ll fucking show you- I’m not doing this for any of you! I’m doing this for Ichimatsu!” 

Scales rippled across his skin as he grew twice, three times, ten times his previous size. He yelled with the strain and pain as the chains dug into his skin, then burst as his skin hardened into natural draconic armor. His huge tail lashed behind him, destroying the metal bars keeping everyone apart. He grabbed Karamatsu’s chains with a great claw, the metal screeching as the links strained against each other and the knight’s armor, until the links burst apart, freeing him. The dragon gave a great roar, bellowing in frustration, and he charged at the nearest wall. Once, the stones did not give way. Twice, the stones shook, cracks tearing up the seams. Thrice, the stones burst outward, Osomatsu careening along with them. He roared out a burst of flame, igniting the room beyond. Pew after pew, each full of terrified cultists fleeing from them, burst into flame. On the opposite side of the room, a red light shone from an altar atop a raised dias. Illuminated, Karamatsu saw a familiar face, contorted in pain. 

“Ichimatsu!” He screamed. Ignoring the destruction the dragon continued to rain down, he sprinted down the aisle between pews, shoving away escaping fanatics as he went, sword in hand. Ichimatsu lay, bound to the altar, screaming. His alabaster skin and midnight fur alike glistened with far, far too much thick, crimson blood. An ornate dagger, lifting from the horrific wound in his chest, glistened with the same. A deep, rasping voice emanated from the dagger, though Osomatsu’s roars were too loud to make out the beginning. As he approached, Karamatsu heard the voice say, “-and none will escape. Thus marks the end of my followers in this place, their promised servitude unfulfilled.” Karamatsu watched as Ichimatsu’s long eyelashes fluttered closed, a murmur of his own name on his blue lips. “Ichimatsu…” 

“You idiots! You’ve ruined the ritual!” The man bearing the dagger brandished it at the knight. Karamatsu felt his shoulders tense. He turned slowly toward the man. 

“You heard what the blade said. You will fall here today. By my hand.” 

The man swung the dagger toward the knight. He easily knocked it aside, glancing it off of one bracer. With the other hand, he plunged the sword into the man’s chest. “And so, you meet the same fate as you placed on my comrade.” 

The man’s final words were lost behind a gurgle of blood, streaming from his lips as well as his chest. He went pale, then collapsed, Karamatsu freeing his sword from his body. 

Behind them, Osomatsu crushed cultists beneath his claws and chased down those fleeing with bouts of flame. Their screams slowly faded as more and more of them fell. Osomatsu huffed once, then turned to return through the hold he’d put in the wall to free their other friends. 

The room grew quiet. 

The blade dropped from Karamatsu’s hand. It clattered across the stones, sliding down the steps to the dias to rest before the pews. 

The knight, tears already streaming down his face, though he couldn’t remember having begun to cry, turned his gaze to the pale body of Ichimatsu. “Please, Ichimatsu, don’t leave just yet.” He sobbed. 

He dug behind his breastplate to retrieve the amulet of Sune from beneath it. He brushed the fingers of his other hand across Ichimatsu’s cooling cheek. 

“My lady Sune, I ask of you this gift. Please, spare my friend. You, glorified by all things beautiful in this world, surely you cannot allow him, the loveliest of all, to perish here, left to such a grisly fate.” 

The amulet glowed, a soft, golden light bathing his fingers. As he released the amulet, his fingers continued to share that same light. He brought a tentative hand down to where Ichimatsu’s heart was bared, the ugly wound illuminated by the glow. The edges of the injury began to seal, pink skin encroaching inward. 

The glow faded from his fingers before the wound finished closing.

“Please! Please, my lady Sune, I beg of you!” 

The amulet gave only a weak glow. 

Karamatsu felt the tears streaking down his face, barely able to plead through his own sobs interrupting him. 

“I can’t lose him here, lady Sune! Please!” He collapsed to his knees, head buried into Ichimatsu’s shoulder, tears dripping onto the altar. “I can’t bear to lose him.” 

Karamatsu felt the weight of a hand grip his shoulder. He turned swiftly, nearly expecting to see the goddess standing behind him, but seeing only Totty, instead. 

“Come on. We have to get out of here.”

“I couldn’t save him!” Karamatsu choked out between sobs. “I tried to heal him, but it wasn’t enough!” 

“I know, I know… we can’t stay here, though. We can’t know how many more of them will come after us. It won’t honor Ichimatsu’s memory at all if we were to die here uselessly.” 

Karamatsu took several deep breaths, attempting to steady his breathing. Slowly, the sobs subsided. “Yes… you’re right, of course you’re right. I will pull myself together.” He turned to look back at Ichimatsu’s face. His expression was peaceful, despite the grisly horror just below. “Go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”

“If you’re sure…” Totty withdrew his hand hesitantly. He took his time retreating, steps slow, as though reluctant to leave the knight like this. 

Karamatsu stroked Ichimatsu’s cheek, brushing a bit of his hair out of his eyes. He took a deep breath, holding back the sobs threatening to begin anew, As gently as he could, taking care not to jostle his body, he scooped Ichimatsu into his arms. Curled there, Karamatsu could almost believe his catfolk friend was merely resting, were it not for the coolness of his skin. 

“Let’s be off, my friend. This is no place to sleep,” he whispered. 

He took care as he ascended the stairs leading away from the underground chapel to move as smoothly as he was able. With the smallest bounce, Ichimatsu’s neck and limbs swung freely, making Karamatsu nauseous. What would they do when they escaped this place? Could Karamatsu bear to lay his friend to rest, to give him up to the soft earth? How would he ever shake the gnawing at his heart that he hadn’t yet done enough, that he could still, somehow, restore his life? 

With his anxieties beating loudly in his ears, the sound of the chaos outside was muffled. It was not until he saw the wanton destruction that he was shaken from his thoughts. 

In the town above the chapel, Osomatsu, still in his true, draconic form, rampaged. Few buildings still stood, corpses littered the streets, and ferocious roaring drowned out the few screams of the remaining villagers. 

No, not villagers.

Cultists. Murderers. 

Karamatsu could not fault Osomatsu for taking his vengeance on every living creature in sight. Had he the power, Karamatsu was certain he would be doing the same, even now. He clenched his jaw, feeling fury bubbling up. 

This was not the ending his friend deserved. 

He watched in sick satisfaction as the dragon snatched a fleeing, robed woman into his jaws, a powerful snap cleaving her instantly in two. 

The other members of their group were shouting, waving their arms, desperately trying to attract Osomatsu’s attention, trying to stop his rampage. 

“They fucking deserve it! They killed him!” He growled. 

“Karamatsu!” Totty called over to him. “You have to help us calm him down!”

Karamatsu stared back at him, stone-faced. “Why should I? He’s right. They deserve the worst fate can throw at them.” 

“Seriously?!” 

“I’m dead serious.” The knight insisted. “Why should we show them quarter when they showed us none? When this is what has become of our dear friend?” His voice began to raise, tears pricking at his eyes once more. “Why shouldn’t they suffer?!” 

Totty opened his mouth to retort, but couldn’t find the words. Tears welled up in his eyes, as well. He hiccuped on an escaping sob, then could no longer hold back as he broke down. 

“I just want all of this to be over! I can’t stand it! I just want to cry my heart out and forget any of this ever happened! I can’t even think about revenge right now! I just-” He was interrupted by his own loud sobs, voice cracking. “I just want this to be over!”

“Totty…?” The dragon’s voice echoed from high above. 

“Don’t you start with me! I can’t handle this right now!” The sobbing Totty screamed back up at him. 

All of the anger had quickly bled out of the dragon’s stance. He stepped back, wings adjusting nervously, looking all the world like a puppy who’d been harshly chastised. “I’m- I’m sorry… I just-” 

“Look what you did! Did you think he wanted this?! Did you think this would bring him back?!”

“No, I-”

“Because nothing, nothing is going to bring him back! He’s gone! Forever!” Tears streamed down Totty’s face. His knees buckled and he collapsed, wailing. Osomatsu hesitantly leaned his huge head down, nudging Totty’s comparatively tiny form with his great snout. The warlock flung his arms around his dragon’s snout, squeezing it like it was his last lifeline, as he wailed his grief into the silence of the endless night around them. 

Karamatsu gripped Ichimatsu’s body close, sobs beginning anew, joining Totty in mourning. Jyushimatsu stroked Totty’s shoulders in a comforting gesture. Choromatsu stood nearby, gripping his own arm, with a distant expression. 

A blast of fire struck Osomatsu’s broad, scaled side, startling them all out of their grieving. 

“You!” A feminine voice screamed out. “You’re the bastard that destroyed Eluria! You’re going down, you fucking lizard!” 

Several more blasts of fire slammed into the dragon’s side, illuminating their caster. The gorgeous priestess’s snarling face struck Karamatsu with its familiarity. 

“I’m gonna rip you limb from limb!” She screamed. 

“Priestess Totoko! Please, stop, I implore you!” 

“Eh?” The elven woman stopped, a fireball poised in her hand. “Aren’t you that knight…?”

“Totoko, you dumbass! Fire won’t hurt a red dragon! You’re wasting your energy!” The catfolk priestess was jogging over to join her companion, then also halted. “That body…” 

“Did the damn lizard do this, too?! You’ll pay for this!”

“No! This was not the dragon’s doing! Please, you have to help him!” Karamatsu approached the priestesses. Behind him, Osomatsu shrunk down to human form to cower behind Totty’s frame. 

The flame sputtered out, leaving Totoko’s hand empty. 

“What happened to him?” Nyaa asked, tears in her lovely seafoam eyes. She reached out a delicate hand towards the gaping wound in Ichimatsu’s chest, then pulled it back anxiously. 

“This village was settled by an evil cult which worshipped a duke of demons. We were captured, and my dear Ichimatsu was sacrificed in a horrific, twisted ritual. I tried to heal him, as you both taught me, but I didn’t have the strength, and he was lost to us.” 

“Tough break.” Totoko murmured, inspecting the wound. “There’s a heavy air of evil here. We thought, when we saw him, that it was the damn dragon’s doing-”

“Please, forgive him. Though he did, indeed, destroy this place, he had good reason. He means well, I believe.”

Totoko gave him a flat look. “He literally fucking destroyed our home. Our chapel is a pile of rubble now.” 

Karamatsu flushed, embarrassed. “He’s, ah, better controlled now. He’s on a shorter leash, at the very least…” He explained, thinking of Todomatsu’s glowing eyes and Osomatsu’s obedience. 

“Anyway, as I was saying, there’s a, like, blanket of evil here. Holy energy is probably having a hard time in general reaching here, especially with as new as you are to calling on it.”

Karamatsu swallowed hard. “So, you’re saying there’s nothing you can do for him…”

“Maybe not nothing… do you have any especially valuable gemstones laying around, by any chance?” 

“Totoko! This isn’t the time to swindle them!” Nyaa rebuked. 

“I’m not! I think we can use them as an offering to the Lady!” Totoko snapped.

“O-oh… that’s actually a good idea. I’m sorry for yelling at you…” Nyaa apologized.

“Besides, if I save his life, they’ll be grateful enough to shower me in gifts and praise!” 

“I knew it! You scoundrel!” 

“My friends may have what you need. I’m willing to do whatever it takes. I don’t care if you’re motivated by greed, all that matters to me is getting Ichimatsu back.” Karamatsu pleaded. The priestesses stopped glaring at each other and nodded, their expressions suddenly solemn. 

The three returned to where the others gathered, Osomatsu still using Totty as a human shield. 

“Are they still gonna try to kill me?” The dragon whined. 

“If that’s what they ask in return for Ichimatsu’s life, I will not stop them.” Karamatsu snapped. Osomatsu shrank back, looking penitent. Karamatsu cast his gaze over the remaining three. 

“The priestesses request finely crafted precious gemstones, for the purpose of making an offering to their goddess. Although I have no valuables to speak of, I wish to implore the rest of you to empty your pockets and purses, and to lavish upon these priestesses whatever treasures you can produce, that they may restore the breath of life unto our comrade.”

“Um, in common, please?” Totty requested. 

“We need some fancy gems to raise him from the dead.” Totoko translated. 

“Oh. Well, in that case…” Totty knelt to the ground, picking up a large stone. His eyes glowed pink as he dusted it off, revealing an enormous sapphire beneath. “How’s this?” 

“How generous! Thank you!” Totoko accepted the large gem from him, but dropped it as soon as she touched it. “Ew, gross! It’s got your demon funk all over it!” 

“That’s troubling… Lady Sune would never accept fakes, especially created with demonic magic.” 

Totty pouted, taking the sapphire back and stowing it away in a pocket. Osomatsu peeked from around his shoulder. 

“I’ve got a big ol’ hoard of junk in a cave. It’d take a while to get there, though, since it’s not even in this kingdom.” 

Nyaa shook her head. “Unfortunately, we can’t risk waiting so long. If he were to begin to rot, we wouldn’t be able to restore his soul to him. Or, at least, not without some very unpleasant side effects.” 

“Then it’s hopeless…” Karamatsu mourned. 

“If I may?” Choromatsu offered. All eyes turned to him as he reached beneath his robes to retrieve his necklace. On it hung a modestly sized gem with a soft, rosy hue. “I don’t know if it will suffice, but this gem is a pink diamond, once offered as a diplomatic gift to the king from a neighboring monarchy. The gem itself is high quality, but small… however, it’s the most valuable of its kind, due to its history.” 

Totoko accepted the offered necklace, examining the diamond closely. “It’s worth a try. Lady Sune has prized items with history over items of intrinsic quality before.” She closed her fingers around it, a soft, golden glow rising from within her palm. “We’ll give it a shot.”

---

The priestesses led the way back to their caravan, just outside the city. There, a few guards waited, protecting their supplies. The more physically powerful members of the party joined the guards in setting up a medical tent as the priestesses instructed. The canopy was made of a light, flowing fabric, decorated with detailed laces and embroidery. Inside, they placed a heavy altar, painted with wildflowers, and draped with fine silks. Over the earth, they laid several plush blankets and ornate tapestries. 

By the time they were done, it seemed to be more a sultan’s palace than a tent. Everything was luxurious, expensive, and, most importantly, beautiful. 

“Lady Sune smiles upon those that treasure the arts and the beauty of the world.” Nyaa explained. “It may not be a traditional medical tent, but the goddess’s power will be strong here.” 

“Lay the body near the altar, over here.” Totoko ordered. Karamatsu retrieved Ichimatsu’s body, lying in the covered wagon and watched by one of the guards, and brought him to the designated location. Nauseatingly, Karamatsu realized his body was far more stiff than when he’d set him down. He was feeling further and further away as time went on. 

He’d have to trust in the goddess.

The two priestesses shooed the loitering party out of the tent. Karamatsu hesitated to comply. 

“Actually…” Nyaa considered. “I think you can stay. It’d do you good to see the Lady at work.” 

Karamatsu sighed in relief. “Thank you.” 

He followed the priestesses back into the lavish tent. He kept a bit of distance, giving them room to work. 

The pair began to sing hymns, harmonizing with one another. They placed the diamond, pulled from the necklace, onto Ichimatsu’s chest, just below the wound. Motes of golden light began to hover around them, and Totoko guided them, one by one, towards the deep wound. With fascination, Karamatsu watched the flesh stitch itself back together. As his heart became whole once more, it stuttered into an off-rhythm beat, slowly steadying out into a natural tempo, before his sternum formed over it again and Karamatsu could no longer count the beats. 

Skin stretched over, meeting in the middle, warming from a sickly white into a soft pink hue. Around the area, sticky, congealed blood still clung, but the spot where the wound was moments before was perfectly clean. The priestesses’ hymn changed time and again, the somber tune replaced by one of longing, then an upbeat one ringing with joy. At this last change, the golden motes of light faded to a pale blue, and as Totoko guided them to Ichimatsu’s body, they illuminated the blood, and it faded along with them as the hymn came to an end. 

The priestesses sat back, letting out shaky breaths. Nyaa turned to Karamatsu, watching with rapt attention a few feet away. 

“Call for him.” She instructed. 

“Wh- what? Call…?” 

She nodded. “His body is ready for his soul to return to it. Call out to him, and remind him where his home is.” 

Karamatsu swallowed, preparing himself. Nervously, he wondered if he could really do it, if it was wise to give him this responsibility. Would Ichimatsu even answer his call?

A warmth in his heart steadied him. Yes, he’d just seen his goddess perform a miracle. Certainly, he could trust her to perform one more.

“Ichimatsu.” He called.

The pink diamond, for just a brief moment, illuminated with a soft purple light from its place on Ichimatsu’s chest. 

Karamatsu let out a shaky breath. Anxiety that it did not immediately work warred with wonderment at even that small reaction.

“Ichimatsu.” He repeated. The purple light flashed again, stronger this time. 

He swallowed, took a deep breath, and tried once more. 

“Ichimatsu. Follow my voice. Your home is here. Come back home, Ichimatsu, come back to me.” 

The purple light grew, illuminating Ichimatsu’s chest, and held steady. All three followers of the goddess Sune watched with bated breath, eyes fixed on that glowing gemstone. 

Ichimatsu’s long eyelashes fluttered. His short, thin brows furrowed. His chest rose suddenly, air rushing into his lungs, and he rolled to his side to cough violently. He took several shaky breaths, then lifted his gaze to meet Karamatsu’s eyes. 

“I’m home.” 

Chapter Text

Ichimatsu quickly grew exhausted of all the hovering and worrying the others were doing. His every movement took great effort, as though his muscles had been replaced with wet sandbags, and responding to their satisfaction took a lot out of him. He shivered violently, his core still very chilled, the cool air of the eternal night doing nothing to warm his bones. Another swarm of interrogations followed.
Karamatsu took pity on him, seeing Ichimatsu’s sluggish movements and heavy eyelids. That, or the knight simply wanted some time alone with the man whose life he just saved, whose soul he called back from the Astral plane. Regardless of his motivation, the knight brusquely shepherded the crowd out of the ornate tent, leaving only himself and Ichimatsu inside. 

“I apologize for their… overbearing demeanors.”

Ichimatsu coughed out a short laugh. “I mean, I did just die, so I can’t really hold it against them.” 

A smile twitched at the corners of Karamatsu’s mouth. “Still, you must be exhausted.”

“I am.” He yawned. “And my muscles all feel heavy…”

“You were dead for some time… perhaps we didn’t alleviate all of the symptoms of that.”

Ichimatsu hummed as he stretched, joints slowly giving way. 

“Could I, perhaps…” In lieu of actually explaining what he was offering, the knight held his hands toward Ichimatsu. The catfolk nodded, not understanding, but trusting Karamatsu to have his best interests at heart. 

The knight removed his armored gloves and nervously shifted to sit behind Ichimatsu. Hesitantly, he placed his bare hands onto his shoulders and began to knead, slowly increasing pressure. “Tell me if it gets to be too much.” He instructed. 

Ichimatsu melted into the rhythmic motions of the knight’s strong hands. He could feel his muscles loosen up, slowly but surely. Finished with his shoulders, Karamatsu began to move his kneading hands down Ichimatsu’s back, loosening the muscles there, as well. Ichimatsu felt himself begin to purr. 

“I suppose that’s a good sign, then?” Karamatsu chuckled. 

Ichimatsu hummed. “Shut up and keep going.”

“Yes, sir.” The smile was still evident in his voice. Nevertheless, he complied, moving from Ichimatsu’s back to massage each of his arms in turn. The knight spent extra time at his paws, kneading the soft paw pads gently at first, then more firmly at Ichimatsu’s request. He seemed fascinated by the sharp claws which protruded as he pressed into each finger. 

Ichimatsu cracked an eye open. “I think that paws all good. It’s nice and loose now.”

“Ah! Good! Are you certain?” Karamatsu’s face flushed a bright red. What a weirdo… Ichimatsu thought, amused. In response, he simply wiggled his fingers around, proving the joints were plenty loose. 

“Yep, it’s been sufficiently massaged. Now get the other one.” Ichimatsu wiggled the other paw at him stiffly. 

The knight spent a significantly shorter time on this one. 

Ichimatsu wiggled his fingers, testing their dexterity, as Karamatsu moved on to his legs. 

“Is this… okay?” The knight asked, hesitant. 

Ichimatsu hummed. “I’m a bit ticklish.”

“That’s not really what I- okay. Allow me to continue, then.” Ichimatsu nodded, and Karamatsu began to knead the toes of one foot with decent pressure, having learned from massaging his hands the correct amount of force to use around the sharp claws and delicate bones. He made his way up Ichimatsu’s leg, reaching the point where the fur ended on his upper thighs and hesitating once more. Instead of working his way the rest of the way up, he switched to the other leg. 

Ichimatsu considered the knight’s crimson blush. What, exactly, did the knight think of him, to react like this? Did Ichimatsu want to find out? Was he ready for that kind of confrontation? 

Well, it seemed like Karamatsu was too timid to pursue whatever his feelings were, so Ichimatsu supposed he had time. Time to work out his own feelings, to gather his courage, whatever needed to be done. 

A cool breeze swept into the lavish tent as the entrance was lifted open. “I’m just here to check on our patient- oh! Excuse me!” As quickly as it opened, the entrance closed again. 

Karamatsu was frozen, hands on Ichimatsu’s thigh. Ichimatsu cleared his throat. The knight removed his hands as though he suddenly realized they were burning, and chuckled nervously. 

“I believe we are all done here! You seem to be sufficiently loose now- ah…” He covered his face, regretting his word choice. “Y-you, uh, you’re not stiff! Anymore! Th-that’s not… really better… um…” 

“Yep, I’m all good. You’ve been a big help.” Ichimatsu grinned back at him, amused. 

“And! You seem to have warmed up!” 

Ichimatsu hadn’t even realized. “Oh, hey, you’re right. Killed two birds there, didn’t we?” He stood up, stretching out. “Although, I’d be even warmer if I had my robe back… did you guys find it? Those cultists took it from me while preparing for their damn ritual.” 

Karamatsu was looking at a tapestry on the wall, suddenly very interested in its design. “Eh, ah, I’m not sure… perhaps we can ask the others? Oh, uh, I’ll go!” 

He rushed out, face still red, leaving Ichimatsu alone. 

He sat down, prepared to wait for the knight to return, but his exhaustion caught up with him the moment he touched the soft bedding lining the floors, and he lost consciousness. 

---

For the first time in a long time, he did not dream of fire. Instead, he recalled, in this dream, the comfort of the sea of souls. He’d accepted his fate, then, succumbing to the gentle embrace of oblivion. 

The comfort was disturbed as he slowly found himself becoming distinct once more from the souls around him, like a barrier had been put in place. He gazed around himself, seeing that he once more had form, and that a beautiful woman hovered above the sea nearby. Her brilliant red hair cascaded in waves around her, billowed gently by the soft breeze of the Astral plane. 

Now, in his dreaming state, he cannot recall what her face looked like, though, at the time, she had distinct features. His recollection of her, however, is simply ‘a lovely woman’. 

In this dream, just as in his memory, she says, “Hello, child. My ambassadors in the material plane have requested my guidance today. Without your consent, however, I cannot answer their pleas. Do you wish to return, child?”

At the time, Ichimatsu had been confused. Return where? He couldn’t remember. And why would he want to leave here. 

He’d shaken his head. 

“A pity.” The goddess replied. “They long so for your return.” 

“Ichimatsu!” A familiar voice had rung out. Ichimatsu, as a formless soul, couldn’t quite remember the voice, but his heart strained oddly. 

“You see? They call for you, child.” 

“Ichimatsu!” The voice had called again. He could almost place it. He longed to go to where the voice was. 

The voice pleaded with him, pleaded for him to come home. His heart ached to hear it. 

“Do you wish to return to him?” The goddess had asked. 

Ichimatsu nodded. “This is when you took me home.” He said. 

She smiled. “Yes. You are there now, safe and whole once more. Do you regret your choice?” 

Ichimatsu shook his head. “No. It’s where I should be.”

“Here, in the sea of souls, the demon would not be able to come for you again. He would not be able to lay waste in your wake any longer.”

Ichimatsu swallowed. “I know. Still, I had to go back. I couldn’t just leave him- couldn’t leave them , all of them, behind like that.” 

“I understand, child.” The goddess sat beside him, floating above the sea still, looking out into the flat grayness of the sky. “I will give you one piece of advice, then, if you’re certain.”

“What is it?” 

“Stay near my ambassador. I will not be able to protect you as I did today again, should you leave him behind.” 

Ichimatsu almost laughed at that. “I wasn’t planning on it.”

The goddess’s expression was serious as she locked gazes with him. “It will not do you well to take my warning so lightly.”

Ichimatsu flushed. “Yes, ma’am. Your… majesty?” 

“‘My Lady’ will suffice, child.” She replied with a small smile. “I must depart, now. Return to your dreams in peace. The road ahead will be harsh, but full of joy, as well.” 

She faded out of view, leaving Ichimatsu alone atop the sea of souls, disquiet in his heart. 

---

“Ichimatsu!” 

He was startled awake by someone shaking him gently by the shoulders and calling his name. “Hey- what- stop that!” 

“Ichimatsu! You’re alive! Thank the gods!” Karamatsu released him, sighing in relief. 

“I just fell asleep, no need to be dramatic…” 

“I have good reason to worry.” The knight said, expression serious.

“Well, I’m still in one piece. You can calm down.” Ichimatsu insisted, waving Karamatsu’s hovering hands away. Then, remembering what had happened before he fell asleep, he asked, “Did you find my robe?” 

“Oh! Yes!” The knight produced it from the satchel at his hip, borrowed from Totty. “The chest they’d put our belongings in was untouched when the building collapsed. It must be built with very sturdy materials.” 

Ichimatsu took the garment from him and slid it on. Finally clothed, he headed out the opening of the tent, throwing a, “Thanks,” over his shoulder. 

Before he could reach the tent’s opening, a hand grasped his wrist, pulling him back. “Wait just a moment.” 

“Eh? What is it?” Ichimatsu turned around to face Karamatsu again. The knight seemed hesitant, face flushed, but was pushing on regardless. He pulled Ichimatsu toward himself, holding him by the shoulders. He paused, seemingly debating with himself over something, then moved one hand to hold Ichimatsu by the chin. 

Ichimatsu froze, watching, allowing Karamatsu to slowly lean in, face screwed up, eyes shut. 

“Everything okay in here?” Totty called, peeking in through the tent flap. 

In an instant, Karamatsu was at the other end of the tent, face red, and striking some weird pose. 

“Uh, yeah, everything’s fine.” 

“Sorry for interrupting… whatever was happening! I just wanted to make sure you were still alive, and to let you know we were planning to load up the wagon and head out!” 

Ichimatsu let out a short, self-deprecating laugh. “I’m not so sure you actually did interrupt much of anything.” 

“A- ah! The priestesses require our assistance once more? I will have this extravagant abode and the luxurious fabrics within returned to their place upon the ladies’ caravan in naught more than the time between one heartbeat and the next!” The knight called, striding over, making broad gestures as he went. 

“Well, if you’ve got it all handled, then! Let’s go, Ichimatsu!” Totty pulled Ichimatsu along behind him, who spared a glance back at the knight. He appeared to be sweating nervously still, despite his pompous speech and statue-esque pose he struck. 

“What a weird guy.” Totty commented when he and Ichimatsu had left the tent, the flap concealing Karamatsu within. 

Ichimatsu hummed in agreement. 

“Let’s just leave him to it, I guess. The priestesses want to talk to us.” 

“What about?” 

“Travel plans, I think? They’re waiting over by their wagon.” 

Sure enough, as Totty led him that way, Ichimatsu saw the priestesses and their guards chatting with the other half of the party. Jyushimatsu was gesturing wildly, kicking up little tornadoes of dust as he did, and Choromatsu was engrossed in discussion with the catfolk priestess, holding one of her hands in both of his. Osomatsu had some kind of collar around his neck, a chain leading away from it and around the trunk of a thick tree, securing him in place. 

“What’s with the leash?” Ichimatsu asked as they approached. 

“Ichimatsu! I’m glad you’re okay!” Nyaa called over, attempting to free her hand from an oblivious Choromatsu. 

“The leash is to keep that damn brute in check. I don’t trust him.” Totoko crossed her arms in front of her chest, glaring in the dragon’s direction. 

“The priestesses were just telling us how they were on a quest to defeat evil in the land, as well! They said that they were led to this place, just as we were, in order to rid it of evil! Isn’t that right, Miss Nyaa?” Choromatsu smiled at her. 

“R-right…” She agreed hesitantly. 

“Is he bothering you?” Totty asked her. “He can be overbearing and empty-headed.” 

“N-not really… my hand is starting to get sweaty, though…” The priestess admitted.

Choromatsu whipped his hands back, freeing her from his grip. “Oh! My apologies, Miss Nyaa! I didn’t realize what I was doing! You’re very pretty!” His voice was high pitched with nerves. 

“Oh, uh… thank you, I guess?”

“You’re catfolk, right? Just like Ichimatsu?” 

“That’s right.” 

“I didn’t know your people could be so cute!”

“Gee, thanks.” Ichimatsu said sarcastically. 

“Oh, um, that was insensitive of me, I mean… you’re one of the prettiest people I’ve ever seen! You do your people a great justice!” Choromatsu was waving his hands around, stuttering his way through his words. 

“Seriously, quit while you’re ahead.” Ichimatsu interrupted. Nyaa seemed very uncomfortable, not sure how to take the double-edged compliment. “You said you’re tracking down evil forces?” 

“That’s right.” Nyaa replied, relieved to have the topic shifted. “We had just come from the north, where evil spirits and fiends and the like were crawling through an archway. We destroyed it and restored some life to the area.” 

“She means we planted so many flowers.” Totoko added. 

“Yeah, but that sounds so trivial. We were beautifying the area in order to draw Lady Sune’s divine grace, so she could purify the area.”

“It was really dirty and gross and I still have mud under my nails.” Totoko complained. 

“Well, I guess we can check that one off the list, then!” Totty said cheerfully, unrolling their map of the region and erasing the archway from it with a flash of pink magic. 

“You have a list?” Totoko asked. “Sounds way more useful than just wandering around watching amulets change colors. Let me see it.” She bumped Totty out of the way and examined the map. “Where’d you get this info? It’s so detailed.” 

“I requested help from… a close friend of mine.” Totty dodged. 

“Ew, gross, it’s got demon stink all over it. I’m not gonna follow some demon map into demon traps, no thank you!”

“I guess that means you won’t be joining us on our journey?” Choromatsu asked, disappointed. 

“No way. You guys can have fun playing stupid demon games. We’re following a goddess.” Totoko huffed and stormed off haughtily. 

“Sorry, everyone, but she’s right. It’s… ill-advised to follow a demon’s orders blindly.” Nyaa explained apologetically, before following Totoko. 

The guards bustled around, loading up the wagon and all their horses with supplies. Karamatsu had dropped whatever weird act he was putting on and actually made himself useful. The girls bade the party farewell (Nyaa reminding Ichimatsu to take it easy, Totoko telling Totty he was a stupid idiot and they were all going to die) and disappeared down the road. 

Chapter Text

Next on the route was the very vague ‘weakness’ Asmodeus had mentioned. There was a bustling settlement nearby, somewhere in size between a large town and a small city, and Totty suggested they request aid from the townsfolk. 

“Surely, if there’s some kind of demonic activity, the people at least have rumors about it.” He had explained. 

And, so, the party had split into twos once more. 

This time, Totty had dragged Osomatsu along with him, promising to keep him out of trouble. Choromatsu made no such promises as he departed with Jyushimatsu, the angel being far too much of a handful for one man. Lastly, as before, Ichimatsu and Karamatsu were left alone with one another. 

“I don’t pity either of them the arduous task before them.” Karamatsu mused.

“We have the same task, dumbass.” Ichimatsu grumbled. 

“Ah, but we need not carry out the task while babysitting powerful entities from other realms who like to cause mischief, now do we?” 

Ichimatsu hummed. “You have a point, there.” He sighed, looking around the town. “Where do we even start, though?” 

Karamatsu considered, hand on his chin. “I suppose we simply ask around… perhaps we can find some citizens who appear to be more ‘in the know’...?” The knight offered. 

Ichimatsu rolled his eyes. “What does someone who’s ‘in the know’ even look like? That’s no more plan than ‘just ask around’.” 

The knight looked a bit embarrassed. “I haven’t had to gather intel often. Generally, I would be given all the intel in a briefing, gathered by someone more suited to the task.” 

Ichimatsu sighed. “Well, it’s not like I’m in a better position. Everything I know about, I read in a book. I barely held a conversation unless it was absolutely necessary before you dragged me away from home.” 

“And look at you now!” Karamatsu exclaimed. “You’re a right wordsmith by now, my dear Ichimatsu! Some socialization has done you plenty of good!” 

Hasn’t done much good for the people living in the places we’ve been, though… Ichimatsu thought. He held his tongue. “I guess we start asking around then.”

“Yes, let’s!” Karamatsu agreed. 

---

The two wandered around, asking aimlessly about rumors or strange phenomena. Ichimatsu became increasingly disquieted by the many stares they were attracting. He was used to garnering attention, being of a lesser-known people, but the gazes usually lacked the utter vitriol of these stares. People along the street were outright, openly glaring at the two of them. A man spit at their feet while a woman held her baby close. Ichimatsu allowed Karamatsu to do all of the talking, but the people they approached were guarded at best, and confrontational at worst. 

One woman, as they approached, threw her whole pint of ale at them. 

“Get the hell out of our city, you dog! We don’t want you here!” She shouted. 

“Please, madam.” Karamatsu attempted. “We just need to know what’s happening around your lovely city here-” 

“Don’t ‘madam’ me, you wretch! Lapdog of the accursed king! We don’t need anyone like you sowing evil in your wake!” 

Karamatsu was taken aback. “What do you mean?” 

“Don’t play dumb with me, boy! You’re wearing the armor of His fuckin’ Majesty’s royal fuckin’ guard! Same armor that those brutes were wearing when they stole from the blacksmiths, the butchers, the bakers! You and your lot took everything, and I won’t let it happen again!” She began to charge forward, holding her long skirt up with one hand and shaking the other in a fist. Karamatsu backed up slowly, keeping Ichimatsu behind him, then bolted as the woman advanced. 

Ignoring Ichimatsu entirely, she chased after the knight, screaming accusations and obscenities after him. Karamatsu easily put plenty of distance between himself and the irate woman, being in far better shape than most. Ichimatsu jogged after, far more slowly, and lost sight of the knight before long. The woman gave up the chase, huffing, and turned to return to the pub she’d originated from. Eyes landing on Ichimatsu, slowly jogging her way, the fire was rekindled. 

“You! You friends with that dog?” She accused. 

Ichimatsu swallowed and shook his head. “N- no, uh… he was, um, accosting me?” 

“Oh, I see. Poor dear. Let me buy you a drink to calm your nerves.” 

“Th- that’s fine, I was, um… running some errands, and I, uh, need to get back to that?” 

The woman smiled kindly at him, patting him on the arm. “You run on your way, child. No one in this here town will let those dogs get away with their evil schemes.”

“Th- thank you, ma’am…” Ichimatsu took the opportunity to run off, leaving the woman behind. 

Karamatsu could have gone anywhere, and covered quite a bit of ground, by now. Ichimatsu slowed to a walk, looking around at the shops and alleyways. Which way would he have chosen? If he was smart, he would have ducked between buildings, winding his way down alleys and backstreets. 

However, the knight was most certainly not smart, so it was more likely that he simply tried to outpace her. Ichimatsu continued forward, along the wide thoroughfare, casting his gaze around as he went. 

Finally, after jogging for some minutes, he saw an armored figure gasping for breath, hands on his knees, in front of a produce shop. The shopkeep had his arms crossed in front of him, shooting Karamatsu a familiar glare. 

“Buy something or move along, knight.” The shopkeep groused. 

“Ah, hah, my mistake, my good sir! I, hah, simply need to catch my breath before moving on!” 

“Well, make it snappy. I won’t tolerate any funny business.” 

“Yes, hah, yes sir!” Karamatsu snapped into a salute, hand on his chest, still heaving. 

“Come on, leave the man alone.” Ichimatsu grabbed Karamatsu by the elbow, dragging him off. 

“Oh! Ichimatsu! There you are!” 

Ichimatsu was acutely aware of the shopkeep’s glare following them as he led the knight away. 

“Let’s go. We need to get out of here. And get you out of that fucking armor, apparently.” 

Karamatsu pouted. “But it’s my only set…” 

“We’ll have to buy you a new one, I guess, but you can’t wear King Tobias’s symbol any longer. Not if he’s sending your guard buddies to do his dirty work.” 

“That’s… that’s a fair point.” Karamatsu allowed. He frowned at the ornate lion on his chestplate. The armor had taken its share of damage, no longer holding the pristine shine it began the adventure with, but it was by no means due for retirement. It was a necessary sacrifice, though, and Karamatsu obediently doffed it once they were sufficiently tucked away and out of sight of the street. In his black turtleneck shirt and padded pants, he looked a bit overdressed for the weather, but at least he didn’t broadcast his allegiance to the tyrant king any longer. 

“Could we, perhaps, find a blacksmith from which I may purchase a replacement?” 

Ichimatsu shrugged. “It’s not like we’re going to make any progress either way. We may as well.” 

Karamatsu brightened up. “Excellent! I’m feeling very vulnerable without all that metal already.” 

---

As the woman had told them (or, rather, screamed in their direction), the blacksmith had been pretty thoroughly raided. There were few full sets of armor remaining. 

“No plate mail? Chain mail? Scale mail?” 

The blacksmith shook his head. “I’ve got gauntlets and greaves here and there, but you won’t get a full suit anywhere in town. If you’re interested in dialing down to something a little lighter, some of our studded leather pieces would be decent protection.” 

Ichimatsu lost interest in the exchange quickly, not understanding much in the way of melee combat, and wandered off to waste time staring at the sparse inventory on display while Karamatsu discussed his purchase. There wasn’t a single sword left in the smithy, only large and unwieldy weapons still available. Someone was hard at work at the forge renewing the stock, the rhythmic ringing of a hammer striking steel sounding steady as a clock. Ichimatsu examined a long polearm, with a heavy, double-bladed axe at one end and a dagger at the other. Who would even use something like that? It seemed particularly cumbersome. 

“Interested in making a purchase yourself, lad?” The blacksmith called out, leaving Karamatsu to ponder over his decision at the other side of the room as he swept over. 

“Not particularly… I was just curious about this weapon. It doesn’t seem very…” 

“Useful?” 

Ichimatsu flushed. “That’s not-”

“No, no, it’s a right piece of junk! I bought it off a traveler once, looking to trade out for a less cumbersome weapon. Figured I could melt it down, use it for the raw materials. Damn thing must be enchanted in some way, though, since it refused to melt no matter how hot we got the forge.” The blacksmith laughed uproariously at his own tale. 

“Huh.” Ichimatsu didn’t see any runes or jewels that might indicate an enchantment of that nature. Perhaps it was just made of an unusual material. “Uh, thanks for telling me about it.” 

“Of course, of course! Let me know if there are any other pieces you want to know about! You, lad!” He turned back to Karamatsu. “Have you made a decision?” 

“Yes, I believe so!” 

“Excellent, excellent. Let’s get you suited up!”

Ichimatsu stood awkwardly by the strange weapon, watching the blacksmith return to his exchange with Karamatsu. “I’ll, uh, I’ll just wait for you out front, then…” 

He shuffled out, hovering near the doorway, catching curious glances from passerby. A lone, robed catfolk hovering anxiously near a smithy wasn’t a standard sight, to be sure. 

He hoped Karamatsu didn’t take long.

---

Ichimatsu had taken a seat against the smithy wall and was beginning to nod off when Karamatsu swept out of the building with a flourish. 

“What do you think?” The knight asked, boldly. 

Instead of wearing what Ichimatsu would consider a reasonable amount of armor (or even clothing, for that matter), Karamatsu wore bits and pieces of studded leather armor scattered about his body. A shoulder pad here, a bracer there, a skirt made of loosely-connected strips, boots ending above the knee… and, worst of all, he was twirling that abomination of a polearm that the blacksmith had criticized so decisively. 

“What, could you not afford the rest of it?” 

“Eh? No, no, my dear Ichimatsu, you misunderstand! This armor allows me to have far more dexterity and range of movement! I can be more agile a combatant than ever before! Observe!” The knight swung around his new long axe weapon, dancing about as he did so, and frightening several passers by. 

“Quit that, you idiot! You’re gonna hurt someone!” Ichimatsu held Karamatsu’s arms still, halting his strange dance. “If you wanna show off, do it outside of populated areas!” 

“Ah, excellent! I shall perform for you later, then, when the conditions are favorable!” 

“Fine, fine, just not now!” 

“Ichimatsu! Karamatsu!” A familiar voice called out. Choromatsu was approaching them, Jyushimatsu in tow. “I presume you two were successful, considering you’ve given yourselves time to go shopping after?” 

“Not quite.” Ichimatsu admitted. “We actually had to give up the investigation. It seems like the castle guard caused some trouble here, and everyone thought this dumbass was part of that.” 

“That’s more information than the two of us found… Jyushimatsu wanted to stop and eat at every place selling food. We didn’t cover much ground.” 

“Ah, that is unfortunate. Not to worry, my little Jyushimatsu, we will sup together once we are able to gather once more.” Karamatsu assured him. 

“Well, I’m all full now! Choromatsu bought me all kinds of foods! There’s really yummy stuff here!” 

Choromatsu looked embarrassed. “He’s very good at giving sad puppy eyes. I couldn’t say no to him.” 

“Mr. Choromatsu is very nice! I want to go with him all the time!” 

“I hope our last group had better luck…” Ichimatsu mused. 

Right on cue, Totty appeared, lugging an unconscious Osomatsu on his back. His expression was stormy, and he was grumbling about ‘big, useless lizards’. As he saw the four gathered, his face instantly transformed, a carefree smile masking his fury. 

“Hey, everyone! Did any of you find anything out?” 

All four of them shook their heads. 

“Karamatsu and I were almost chased out of town by an angry mob, and Choromatsu bought Jyushimatsu all the food in town.” Ichimatsu explained.

“Hey!” Choromatsu objected. 

“Was it because of that awful, ugly armor?” Totty grimaced. 

“Actually, it was because of the awful, ugly armor he had on before. This is what he bought to replace it.” 

“Joy.” Totty grumbled. He snapped his face back to its more jovial expression. “The two of us were the most productive, then! We found out a whole lot of good information, and I think I know the source of the weakness in the barrier!” 

“Oh, excellent! Go on, tell us!” Choromatsu prompted. 

“Let me put this sack of dead weight somewhere and I will. He’s crushing my lungs.” Totty wheezed out dramatically, despite not seeming to be straining. 

---

The party rented a few rooms at a nearby inn, Choromatsu supplying the requisite silver from his seemingly-bottomless pouch. They huddled up in the largest room, Osomatsu dumped unceremoniously onto the bed, and Totty began to relay what he’d learned. 

“We asked around at the bars in town, naturally.” 

“Naturally?” Ichimatsu asked. 

“Well, yeah! Everyone’s drinking, everyone’s gossiping. Where else would you go to acquire information, especially on rumors?” 

Ichimatsu and Choromatsu glanced at each other, shrugging. 

“No wonder you guys didn’t find anything out… you’re totally useless at this kind of thing, huh?”

“That’s-!” Choromatsu began.

“No, no, that’s a fair judgement.” Ichimatsu interrupted. “What did you find out.”

“I was getting to that! So, we went to various taverns, naturally, and I asked around among the patrons to get some juicy gossip. For everyone that was a bit reluctant to talk to me, I had them compete against Osomatsu in a drinking contest. He wins, they tell me. They win, I pay them, like, a few silvers or something. Whatever. Of course, he’s not gonna lose, you know. Even in his human form, he has his draconic tolerance.”

“How did you get people to drink against a dragon?!” Choromatsu asked, incredulous. 

“Easy. It’s not like most people assume everyone around them is a dragon. They thought he was a weird tiefling or dragonborn or something.” Totty explained. “Anyway, he beat them soundly, they drunkenly tell me tales of the paranormal. Mostly just ghost and poltergeist sightings, not unusual for a settlement that’s been around for a century or more. However.” Totty paused dramatically. 

“However?” Karamatsu prompted obediently. 

“There were several rumors of a bog inside the forest. In the center of the bog lies an old straw hut. Inside the old straw hut lives… a banshee.” Totty revealed in a theatrical whisper. 

“A… banshee? That’s it?” Choromatsu asked, confused. 

“Yes, a banshee!” Totty pouted. “Don’t you know about banshees?!” 

“Well, sure… aren’t they just another kind of malevolent spirit?” 

“Well, sure , if you want to be reductive! But banshees are powerful and deadly and, most importantly, they attract malicious energy and the undead to wherever they are! If she’s been there for long enough, her whole bog is the weakness!” 

"Oh." 

"Yeah, 'oh'! This is a really big deal! We just have to banish the banshee and this place is taken care of!"

"Nice work, Totty," said Ichimatsu. "Now we just have to figure out how to sneak up on a powerful undead creature that can kill us with her voice and can sense us coming. Easy peasy."

Totty glared at him. "Don't be such a downer! It'll be a cinch!"

"Ah…" Karamatsu cut it. "Please don't make such claims. The last time you did, Ichimatsu did not make it out alive, as you will recall."

Totty rolled his eyes. "Well, he's fine now, isn't he?"

"Regardless," Choromatsu cut in, "we cannot tackle this just yet. Let's rest for the night, and go after her in the morning. Agreed?"

A chorus of agreement swept the gathered party.

It's too bad we're just guessing at what's 'morning' and the sun won't actually rise. Ichimatsu mused. Banshees don't do great in the light. Ah, well. 

"C'est la vie…" He murmured aloud. 

Chapter Text

The six split into pairs for the night, taking only three rooms altogether. Choromatsu and Jyushimatsu played rock-paper-scissors to see who would get the bed in their room, Jyushimatsu whooping in victory, before Osomatsu and Totty simply offered the bed in the second room. One ruckus later, and a quick pacification of an irate innkeeper, and two beds filled the limited space in the first room. Ichimatsu caught sight of Osomatsu enlarging to his full draconic form- or, perhaps, a smaller version of it, since he was still able to fit in the room comfortably. Totty threw a blanket over him and flopped down, cuddling into his warm, scaly bed with a contented expression. The dragon whipped his tail over to slam the still ajar door shut, giving the pair their privacy. 

That left Ichimatsu with Karamatsu, as usual. He wondered if the other four planned these things, or if they maybe held some assumptions about the two that may or may not be factual. 

The knight offered him the bed out of courtesy, knowing Ichimatsu would decline, before climbing in, still fully armored in his stupid new suit. The only garment he removed was that ever-present blue scarf, hanging it around the bedpost for safekeeping. 

Ichimatsu draped his bedroll across the wood floor, curling up comfortably. He glanced back at Karamatsu to see the knight staring back at him, chewing his lip in contemplation. Noticing Ichimatsu looking back at him, he averted his gaze, rolling over to face the wall. “Good night, Ichimatsu! Sleep well!” He squeaked out nervously. 

Ichimatsu sighed, steeling himself for a bold move. “Karamatsu.” He called over. 

The knight flinched. “Yes!” 

“You’re probably cold in that dumb armor, right? It doesn’t cover much.” 

“N- no, I’m just fine! Really!” 

Ichimatsu rubbed his temples, regretting his decision already. “Scoot over.” He ordered, abandoning his bedroll and lifting the comforter. 

“Eh?!” Karamatsu scrambled toward the wall in a panic, giving Ichimatsu plenty of room to climb in, but still radiating waves of nerves. Ichimatsu pushed onward, sliding under the blanket next to him, facing the opposite wall. 

“Good night.” He called. He heard Karamatsu shifting behind him, moving to a more comfortable position. 

“Good night.” The knight responded. By the sound of his voice, he must have been facing the near wall, away from Ichimatsu, as well. Ichimatsu found himself frustrated by Karamatsu’s hesitation, and endeared by it, in equal parts. 

He fell asleep with a small smile tugging at his lips.

---

When he was startled awake by a knock at the door, the first thing he realized was that he’d had a dreamless sleep for the first time in recent memory. He was nearly relieved by the absence of his nightmares, until he realized the second thing. 

Karamatsu’s arm was draped around his middle, holding him close. 

Clearly, despite the knight’s waking hesitation, he had no such self-control in his sleep. His breath tickled softly at the back of Ichimatsu’s neck, and the catfolk man felt his heart flutter. 

“Karamatsu? Ichimatsu? It’s time to get up! We’re getting ready for our mission!” Choromatsu’s voice called through the closed door. 

“Mmh?” Karamatsu mumbled, squeezing Ichimatsu tighter as he woke up.
Ichimatsu shoved at his face, pushing the knight bodily off of himself. “Get off of me! It’s time to wake up!”

“Mmm… okay.” The knight yawned. “You were right, Ichimatsu, you’re very pleasantly warm.” 

Ichimatsu smacked him in the face with a pillow. 

“Yowch! What was that for?!” 

“Shut up. Don’t talk about it. Just get up already.” 

Ichimatsu gathered his scattered things, rolling up his bedroll, retrieving his spellbook from where he’d left it, and left the room, Karamatsu still rubbing his nose pitifully in the bed. 

“Oh, Ichimatsu! Is Karamatsu up?” Choromatsu interrogated him as he emerged. 

“Yeah, he’ll be out soon. Do we have a plan?”

Choromatsu shook his head. “Not any more than we had last night. I suppose we’ll discuss while we travel, though Totty still insists it’ll be, and I quote, ‘a breeze’.” 

“Hmm.” Ichimatsu didn’t really know how well-planned their assault on a largely unknown entity with an unknown number of other unknown entities at its command could even be, but he held his tongue. No use worrying about it. If they died, they died. What else was new?

“Hey, can one of you help me wake this dumbass up?” Totty called. “I’ve been trying to shake him awake for, like, half an hour.” 

“I’ll help!” Jyushimatsu offered, emerging from the third room. “Wakey wakey time, big guy!” He yelled cheerfully as he entered. 

Ichimatsu stood with Choromatsu in the hall, watching from a safe distance. The angel first tried shaking the dragon by the shoulder firmly, as Totty had been doing before. No response. 

Next, he slapped Osomatsu in the face several times, the noise ringing through the halls. No response. 

Then, he began to move around Osomatsu’s limbs, scooting them around, pushing the dragon around on the floor. Still no response.
“Huh. This is a tough one!” Jyushimatsu laughed. 

Totty chewed his lip, concerned. 

“Do you think it might be magically induced?” Ichimatsu offered. 

Totty looked distressed. “I don’t know how it could be. None of the rest of us were affected, and if someone had broken in to do something to him, I would’ve woken up.”

“Well, let’s try more mundane solutions first, before we panic.” Choromatsu produced a small jar from his pouch. As he uncorked the top, a powerful, sharp scent permeated the room. He held it to Osomatsu’s snout, waving it about. 

Finally, the dragon twitched, face scrunching up, then rolled over, away from the jar of smelling salts. 

“Gross! What the hell was that?!” 

“You weren’t waking up! We had to try something!” Totty pouted, rushing over to inspect Osomatsu’s condition. 

“I’m awake now.” Osomatsu said with a yawn, exposing rows of sharp teeth. “Geez, no need to get your panties in a twist about it. I’m fine, I’m fine!” 

Totty was holding open his eyelids, inspecting both the outer, scaly ones, and the membranous one within. The second set of eyelids weren’t fully pulling back. “Looks like your still half-asleep to me. We need to make sure this isn’t some kind of magical ailment.” Totty pried his jaws open, checking out his teeth, tongue, and whatever other parts of dragon anatomy Ichimatsu wasn’t familiar with. The dragon yawned again, Totty’s face still up close and personal. The warlock drew back hastily, coughing. 

“Ugh, dragon morning breath. You can’t complain about the smelling salts if that’s what’s coming out of your own face!” 

Osomatsu grinned, yawned again, and shook his head roughly. 

“Change back. If you can’t keep your eyes open, we can at least carry you around if you’re human sized. Or, rather, Jyushimatsu can.”

“Aye, aye!” The angel shouted in confirmation. 

“Alright, alright…” Osomatsu shifted back slowly, head drooping. His now-human legs wavered beneath him, sending him stumbling into Jyushimatsu, who set him back on his feet properly. 

“Haha, whoops! Watch your feet!” The angel warned. Osomatsu just hummed drowsily in response. 

“I’m fine, it’s-” Another yawn cut through. “It’s all good.” 

With that, Osomatsu collapsed, snoring loudly. 

“This can’t be good…” Totty murmured, checking Osomatsu over again now that he’d transformed. “This definitely looks like a magical sleep. Wait, what’s- Oh, shit!” Totty had caught glimpse of something strange on Osomatsu’s skin and, pulling his shirt away, revealed it to the rest of the group. 

“What is it?” Choromatsu asked. 

Ichimatsu squatted down to inspect it. It appeared to be a brand, in the shape of a face with a beard of tentacles. “I don’t recognize it…” 

“You should! We’ve seen it before!” Totty snapped. 

“Eh? Where?” Jyushimatsu cocked his head to the side inquisitively. 

“On the map!” Totty explained with a huff. “It’s marked where Asmodeus said the second cult was! It must be their symbol!” 

“Looks like they came to us instead of waiting around.” Ichimatsu mused. 

“What, exactly, did they do to him, though? Weren’t you with him all night?” Choromatsu asked. 

“I was! I used him as a bed! I would have noticed if anything happened to him!” 

“They were together all of yesterday, as well.” Ichimatsu pointed out. “There wasn’t any chance before, either.” 

“Unless… You said you two won your information through drinking contests, right?” Choromatsu asked, brows wrinkled in concern. 

“Yeah… we went to several pubs and taverns in town.”

“He could have been drugged or poisoned, then. Perhaps by someone who didn’t want you poking around.” 

Totty gasped, covering his mouth. “I hadn’t thought of that! We weren’t exactly being subtle about our intentions. If someone wanted to keep people from investigating too closely, they would’ve had plenty of opportunity…” He looked a bit sick. “I sent him right into a trap.” 

Choromatsu patted Totty on the shoulder hesitantly. “It’s not your fault. You were doing the best you could to complete our mission.”

“Ichimatsu?” Jyushimatsu raised his hand, calling attention to himself. “Where’s Karamatsu?”

“He was gathering his things, he should’ve been out right behind me…” Ichimatsu felt a little queasy. 

“We should check on him.” Choromatsu suggested. Ichimatsu and Jyushimatsu nodded. 

“I’ll stay here, make sure nothing happens to Osomatsu while he’s out.” Totty offered, still kneeling by his collapsed form. 

“We’ll be right back.” Choromatsu assured. “Let’s go.” 

The three returned to the hall, throwing open the door to the room Ichimatsu had shared with Karamatsu. It was completely empty, the knight nowhere to be found. 

“He would’ve had to come into the hall to leave, we would have seen him… where could he have gone?” Ichimatsu said, anxiously, mostly to himself. The small room didn’t even have any windows. In a panic, Ichimatsu began to poke around the room, checking under the bed, inside the dresser, behind the nightstand, looking for any trace Karamatsu may have left behind. 

“They may have taken him magically, somehow.” Choromatsu produced his wand from within his robes, slowly waving it around the room. “A group with enough power to completely knock out a dragon likely has the power to cast teleportation magic.” As he drew near the far wall, it took on a gentle glow, washing over his face with an eerie green light. “I’m getting a response here. It looks like some sort of conjuration magic was worked here, possibly teleportation, quite recently.” 

“Choromatsu…” Jyushimatsu whispered loudly, drawing his attention. 

“Eh? Jyushimatsu? What is it?” 

The angel pointed the arcane advisor’s gaze over toward Ichimatsu. He was crouched near the nightstand, holding his knees to his chest and shaking. His breath came quickly, shallow. 

“He was right behind me… I should’ve been paying attention… I shouldn’t have let this happen again…!” Ichimatsu muttered to himself, working himself into a complete, mindless panic. He saw the tears soak into the floorboards before he noticed himself crying. 

Suddenly, Jyushimatsu was in front of his face, smiling gently and wiping the tears off his cheeks. “Hey, cheer up! It’ll be fine! We’ll figure it out!” 

“What if it’s not fine?! What if we can’t find him?!” Ichimatsu batted Jyushimatsu’s hands off of his face, covering his head in both paws. 

“You found him before, right? When those bad guys put you in that cage I busted you out of? You can find him again!”

Ichimatsu stared at Jyushimatsu for a long moment, remembering the occasion. His quick breaths started to slow down, his head clearing a bit. “Yes, yes… I tracked him down using his scarf! He was- he was putting it on last time I saw him, he must still be wearing it!” 

“Woohoo! Home run!” Jyushimatsu said, miming swinging some kind of weapon around. Ichimatsu scrambled, paws still shaking, to find something to use as a dowsing rod. Choromatsu tapped him on the shoulder lightly, holding out his own wand. 

“Oh, thank you…” Ichimatsu nearly dropped it in his haste, the wand tumbling between his shaky paws, before he was able to get a solid grasp on it. “Okay, okay… I just need to- to concentrate…” He closed his eyes, trying to recall the scarf in detail. His mind kept slipping, thinking of shady figures appearing from midair, grabbing Karamatsu from behind and dragging him off. He thought of Karamatsu, tied to some altar somewhere to be used as fodder for some ritual. He thought of the scarf again, forcing himself to think of the scarf, and imagined it tied around Karamatsu’s neck, choking the life out of him. 

His breathing hastened again, shaking so hard the wand tumbled from his open paw onto the floor. “Damn it- Sorry, sorry.” He tried to pick it up again, dropping it once more, and then dissolved into panicked sobs. 

Gentle hands rubbed soothing circles into his back. Jyushimatsu’s deep voice hummed out a lullaby. 

“You can do it, Ichimatsu.” Choromatsu assured him. “We can find him before anything bad can happen. You just need to do this one thing, and we’ll be able to get him back.” 

Choking down his sobs, Ichimatsu nodded. He tried to steady his breath. Focussing on the gentle pressure of Jyushimatsu’s hand on his back, he pushed the dark thoughts from his head. 

“Okay… okay.” 

Again, he held the wand out flat on his palm. He concentrated on the scarf, remembering Karamatsu just the day before, rushing back to the alleyway where he’d discarded his castle guard’s armor to retrieve it. He’d draped it around his neck, the heavy knit clashing with the scant leather armor, and breathed a sigh of relief. Ichimatsu remembered the scarf, and Karamatsu’s bashful smile above it. 

The wand began to spin. 

It chose a direction firmly, pointing their way. Ichimatsu breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn’t been teleported too terribly far away, then. Jyushimatsu and Choromatsu joined him as he left the room, entering the hallway. Choromatsu poked his head into the room where Totty kept vigil over Osomatsu. 

“Karamatsu was teleported out of the room. We’re tracking him now. Would you like to come with us, or…?”

“He was what?! Yes, I’m coming!” Totty rushed out of the room. Osomatsu was sitting, blinking groggily. “Jyushimatsu can carry the dumbass. We need to hurry.” 

“Aye, aye!” Jyushimatsu bounded across the room, hefting Osomatsu onto his back. “Hup!” Osomatsu gave a half-hearted attempt to hold on, his weak grip doing nothing compared to Jyushimatsu’s solid grasp on his rump. “Ready!” 

Ichimatsu led the way, exiting the inn and making a beeline in the direction the wand pointed. He skirted buildings, cutting back and forth between alleys and roads, keeping as close to course as he could. Finally, the wand pointed them into a small lot, surrounded on all sides by buildings, with only a small alleyway leading in. There, lying on the pavement, was the scarf, it’s owner nowhere to be found. 

“Shit!” Ichimatsu gripped the wand, nearly snapping it in half. Choromatsu gently pried it from his paw. 

“A dead end, unfortunately.” He murmured, tucking the wand away into his robes. 

“It’s hopeless, of course it’s fucking hopeless…” Ichimatsu sank to his knees, mind drifting back to those dark thoughts once more. 

“Not necessarily.” Totty negated optimistically. “If his scarf is here, it’s likely he actually was here, at some point. Maybe we can pick up a trail.” 

“Aye!” Jyushimatsu readily accepted the task. He lifted the scarf from where it lay, taking a deep sniff of it. “Hmm… it smells like Karamatsu, but also like other people!” He set Osomatsu down on the ground and dropped to all fours. He began to sniff along the ground like a hound. “This way!” He declared confidently. 

He raced off, directly at a wall. Choromatsu shouted after him in warning, but it was too late. 

Jyushimatsu had disappeared, running right through that wall. 

 

Chapter Text

Totty ran his hand along the wall Jyushimatsu had disappeared into. At a certain point, his hand disappeared. 

“There’s a door here… I can feel the frame of it.” He leaned in hesitantly. His entire torso was swallowed up. With his still-visible hand, he gestured the others over. Ichimatsu and Choromatsu crept closer, peeking in alongside him. 

Past the illusory wall, there was a spacious room with walls made of concrete, with a large staircase spiraling upward. Jyushimatsu was halfway up the stairs, holding the scarf between his teeth and sitting like a dog. 

“This must be a hideout of some kind.” Totty whispered to the other two. “Grab Osomatsu and let’s go.” 

Ichimatsu and Choromatsu glanced at each other. 

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Totty huffed. He shot a glare over at them, then realized the situation. 

Compared with the two bookish wizards, he was, by far, the strongest one left. 

“Great.” Totty sighed heavily, turning back to the lot dramatically, He stomped over to the drowsy dragon, who was blinking in confusion at having been dropped still, and stood over him, hands on his hips. “Okay, Osomatsu. I have to be the one to carry you. Don’t be an ass or I will drop you. Understood?” 

Osomatsu slowly craned his head up to look back at Totty, then gave a weak salute, hand to his chest. “Yes, sir, Totty. Can do.” 

“Alright then.” Totty crouched in front of him. Osomatsu weakly wrapped his arms around his neck. “On three. One, two, three, hup!” Totty stood, hefting Osomatsu with him, all in one go. He adjusted his grip, forearms forming a seat beneath the dragon’s rump. “Okay, here we go!” 

Totty returned to the false wall, passing through to join the rest of the party. Ichimatsu noted he had little trouble walking while carrying Osomatsu, despite his dramatics. 

Jyushimatsu was impatiently scaling the staircase, climbing up a few steps before descending them again, waiting for the others to follow him. Ichimatsu began to climb next, followed by Totty with his draconic burden, and Choromatsu took the rear. Jyushimatsu ran off ahead as soon as he deemed Ichimatsu had grown close enough, darting through the large, ornate doorway at the top. The torches flanking it flickered blue as he dashed through, and the door slammed shut as he passed through. 

Ichimatsu hesitantly creaked the heavy door open again, glancing into the hallway beyond. Jyushimatsu was nowhere to be seen. He slid his body the rest of the way through, holding the door behind him for Totty to follow. 

As soon as he stepped through, though, the door pulled from his grip and slammed shut. Just before he lost sight of his companions and the staircase behind it, he saw them washed in red light. 

He tore open the door behind him, trying to get back to his friends, but it no longer led to that spiraling stairway. Instead, he saw a huge hall, lined with long tables. A dining hall, presumably. It was empty, but voices could be heard in what must have been the kitchen, on the opposite end. Ichimatsu shut the door once more. 

Curious, he tried opening it again. If it was a traveling door, would it lead to a new place each time? 

Beyond it, the dining hall still stood. 

So, the door at the top of the stairs led to various areas, but none of those doors possessed the same quality. Interesting. 

At the very least, Ichimatsu thought, I won’t get quite so lost. He didn’t quite believe himself.

Leaving the ornate door to the dining hall behind, he began to poke around further down the hallway. Several doors lined each wall, and the hallway ended at a balcony. Hearing voices in some of the rooms, Ichimatsu decided not to chance opening any doors just yet, and investigated the balcony. 

It was long, stretching around the cavernous room below, but shallow, only jutting out from the wall a few feet. The banister was made of gold and glass, as ornate as the door from before. These cultists clearly had some extravagant tastes. Peering hesitantly over the balcony, Ichimatsu spied what was happening below. 

It appeared to be a cathedral of sorts. The sight turned Ichimatsu’s stomach sour, recent associations still heavy on his mind. This one was empty, however, except for a familiar figure crossing through it. 

“Jyushimatsu!” Ichimatsu called down in a loud whisper, hoping the angel would hear him, but no cultists. 

“Aye!” Jyushimatsu shouted back, voice echoing around the cavernous cathedral. 

Ichimatsu waved him over, frantically. The angel unfurled his wings, sickening cracks echoing off the chamber walls and luminous eyes washing the pews in a pale glow, and launched upward, easily soaring the dozens of feet to reach Ichimatsu. “What, what?”

“Did you find anything?” Ichimatsu asked. 

“Not yet! Still looking! How’d you get up here?” Jyushimatsu’s voice, loud as ever, bounced around the long hallway Ichimatsu had come from. A few doors began to creak open. 

“I’ll explain later. Get me down where you were, we’ll search for Karamatsu together.” 

“Aye!” The angel scooped him up easily, diving back down at heart-stopping speed. He slowed his descent at the last moment, gliding on his huge wings across to the altar. Ichimatsu found he’d extended all of his claws, digging into Jyushimatsu’s skin in terror. The angel didn’t seem to notice, setting him down gently on the ground nearby. “There!” 

“Th-thanks, I guess… Let’s get going.” Ichimatsu shakily adjusted his robe, trying to calm his rapid heartbeat. Jyushimatsu saluted and took off running, folding his wings into nothingness again as he went. Ichimatsu jogged as fast as he could, unable to keep up, but keeping Jyushimatsu in his sight. The angel turned this way and that, diving into hallways and skidding around corners, forging ahead at full speed. 

Ichimatsu dropped down to all fours to follow, gaining a bit of speed and a lot of maneuverability, and cut around corners alongside him. No matter how far and fast they went, they saw no one, the halls somehow completely empty. Was there really no one here, or was Jyushimatsu avoiding them by scent? 

Lost in thought, he reacted too slowly when Jyushimatsu stopped abruptly, tumbling over his back as he crouched, perfectly still. The angel grabbed him, pulling him back behind himself. Ichimatsu stilled, holding position behind Jyushimatsu, taking shallow, quiet breaths. The angel seemed to have stopped breathing entirely. 

Footsteps approached, soft, as though their owner wore slippers or only stockings. The sound of rustling fabric, loose-fitting garments. Jyushimatsu took slow movements backwards, still crouched down, pushing Ichimatsu along behind him, drawing away from the corner. A shadow passed, flickering along the wall, and then the sounds of movement drew quieter and quieter still, until they faded completely. Jyushimatsu waited a long moment, then sprinted forward at the same break-neck speed as before. 

Ichimatsu pushed himself to keep up, knowing he would entirely lose his way if Jyushimatsu got too far ahead. He felt himself tiring, falling further and further behind. The angel took a corner, then another, and Ichimatsu did not see where he went after that. He took a guess, running on ahead, listening for rapid footsteps, and then a hand was on his mouth. 

“Hush, little kitty. Be good, and we won’t have to hurt you.” 

Ichimatsu wriggled, biting the hand holding him, then scratched at whatever body part he could get his claws into. Instead of digging deeply into soft skin, he felt his claws skip across hard scales. Armor? 

He managed to put distance between himself and his attacker, the other one holding a bleeding arm with the opposite hand. The reptilian face contorted into a grimace. A dragonborn. 

Ichimatsu turned tail to sprint off, intending to throw off his adversary, but the dragonborn cultist threw out his hands, dripping with his own blood. A wave of electricity knocked Ichimatsu back, rippling across his body in waves. With horror, he felt his freshly-repaired heart stop beating, followed by a wave of darkness as he lost consciousness. 

---

His eyes fluttered open to see a now-familiar red-headed woman watching him. 

“I warned you, my child.” Sune said, voice nearly a whisper. “Your life is now inextricably bound to him. You’re so fragile on your own. Ah, but this wasn’t your choice. I cannot fault you for that.” She leaned down to press a gentle kiss to his forehead. “I suppose catfolk have nine lives, as well. Use this next one wisely.” 

--- 

Ichimatsu awoke with a gasp. His heart pounded anew, hammering away like it was trying to escape his ribcage. He’d been locked away in a cell, scenery that was becoming increasingly familiar to him. He could see through the bars into the adjoining cells and, several cages away, he saw Karamatsu, bound and gagged with several yards of thick rope. The knight was struggling against them, glaring at the guard keeping watch over him. 

Ichimatsu glanced around. No guards were watching him, and none of their other friends were locked in cells. Clearly, he’d been the only one caught, and they likely presumed him dead. Keeping an eye on the one guard he could see, he quickly devised a plan. 

First, he whispered an incantation to reduce his size to that of a large housecat. He easily padded his way through the bars of the cell, making his way around behind the guard. There, he returned to his normal size, drawing the attention of the guard, who was instantly frozen in place, halfway turned around. 

Karamatsu shouted in joy, muffled through his rope gag. Ichimatsu stepped around the guard, tapping his knuckles on the door’s lock. The lock fell away and the door swung open. Blinking away exhaustion, Ichimatsu performed one more trick. A jagged shard of ice formed in his paw, glinting in the low light. He sawed through the ropes binding his friend swiftly, the frayed remains falling away. As he worked, the ice melted in his hand, losing its edge. He tossed it aside, using his claws to tear away the last of the restraints. 

Karamatsu, hands finally free, held Ichimatsu’s face. Ichimatsu stared back, as frozen as the guard. 

“Thank you, Ichimatsu. For freeing me.” The knight said, seriously. Ichimatsu swallowed hard, shakily taking hold of Karamatsu’s hands. 

“We don’t have time. We have to find the others.”

Reluctantly, Karamatsu took his hands back. “You’re right. Let’s get going.”

“Um…” Ichimatsu hesitated, a bit embarrassed to admit what he needed to say. “I used up most of my energy doing that. I don’t know if I can… walk right now.” 

Karamatsu scooped him up easily, cradling him in his arms. Ichimatsu hooked his arms around his shoulders, burying his head in his neck to hide his face. Karamatsu crossed the room with him, retrieving his ridiculous polearm from a rack it had been placed on. He held Ichimatsu in one arm while looping the polearm into place on his back with the other. Weapon secure, he shared Ichimatsu’s weight between both arms once more. 

“Alright, where should we go?”

Ichimatsu glanced about. “This place is a maze. Not only do the hallways connect to each other in crazy ways, there are teleporting doors. We all got separated right at the very beginning. Jyushimatsu was tracking you by your scent, so he might be on his way here right now-” 

As though summoned, Jyushimatsu barrelled through the doors at that very moment, holding a guard by the throat in each hand. His eyes glowed white, expression furious. Evidence of damage streaked across his skin; scorch marks discolored him in patches, spears and arrows jutted out from his body at various angles, wounds seeped a strange, pearly liquid. He tossed the two guards, their bodies soaring past Karamatsu and sliding a good distance away.
Your souls shall be cursed to wander the nether realms for eternity, pigs, for what you have wrought on my comrades- Oh! Ichimatsu! You found Karamatsu! Hey, guys!” 

If the deep, resonating voice with which he uttered the Celestial tongue was disconcerting, the easy switch back to his usual happy and carefree voice in common was doubly so. The angel bounded over to them, hopping across the chains, manacles, and weapons that littered the room, He waved exuberantly as he reached Karamatsu. “You’re all right! That’s good! Eh? Is Ichimatsu okay?” 

“He’s just tired, Jyushimatsu.” Karamatsu explained. 

“EH?! Tired?! That’s not good, not good!” Jyushimatsu hovered over Ichimatsu in worry. The catfolk waved him off lazily. 

“It’s not the same thing they did to Osomatsu, don’t worry. I just used up a lot of magic breaking us out of here.” He held his tongue regarding his near-death experience, not wanting to worry the others. 

“Oh! Okay, then! That’s okay!” 

“What happened to Osomatsu?” Karamatsu asked. 

“We couldn’t wake him up this morning. Seems like he was drugged or something. Maybe cursed.” 

“Oh, no, that really isn’t good. Is he all right?” 

“He’s alive, and occasionally even conscious. By that metric, yeah, he’s fine.” He yawned. “Let’s find the others. I want to get out of here before I pass out, preferably.” 

“Right.” “Roger!” Jyushimatsu took off, Karamatsu jogging behind, Ichimatsu still securely in his hold. The angel seemed to know where he was going, as usual, turning corners quickly and confidently. Karamatsu kept pace far more easily than Ichimatsu had, and with a great deal less noise than he used to. The new armor was good for something, after all. Holding on to his mostly-bare shoulders, the warmth of his skin seeping into the pads of Ichimatsu’s paws, the catfolk had trouble deciding if it was an upgrade or a downgrade. He chanced a glance up at Karamatsu’s face, the knight’s expression full of determination. Unfortunately, he noticed him looking, and turned a warm smile down to the man in his arms. Ichimatsu averted his gaze, heat flushing his cheeks. 

“Totty!” Jyushimatsu was shouting down the hall. “Totty, where are you?” 

“Jyushimatsu? Is that you?” Totty’s voice came, muffled, from further ahead. 

“Totty!” Jyushimatsu charged forward, throwing open the door from which the voice emanated. Inside was a barracks of sorts, several bunks lining both walls. A chest of drawers sat the foot of each bed, presumably full of personal effects. Totty sat on one of the bunks, next to a dozing Osomatsu. 

“Jyushimatsu! It’s good to see you! We were wandering around for the longest time, totally lost.” Totty informed them. “Are you all okay? Is Ichimatsu injured?” 

Totty arose from the bed, crossing over to where Karamatsu hovered in the doorway, Ichimatsu in hand. 

“He looks flushed… did something happen?” Totty attempted to lay a hand on his forehead to feel his temperature, but Ichimatsu swatted him away, burning hotter. 

“I’m fine.” 

“Ohhh, I see how it is.” Totty said with a mischevous smile. “Alright then.” 

“He was knocked unconscious and thrown in the dungeon, where I was also being kept. He may still be recovering from whatever his assailant did.” Karamatsu explained. 

Ichimatsu nodded. “Yeah, that. I was hit by some kind of lightning spell. Nothing else.” He glared at the warlock, who just giggled. 

“Right, right, nothing. Got it.” Totty turned, hands on his hips. “I still haven’t been able to find a way to wake this idiot. He’s still just dead weight. I’m lucky I found this room when I did, I don’t know that I could have carried him for much longer.” 

“Even this room was empty when you found it? That’s odd.” Karamatsu remarked. 

“It’s pretty weird… I’ve only seen one person here the whole time, a cook working in the storerooms behind the kitchen, where we first entered. Other than that… no one.” 

“This is starting to feel suspicious… This is some kind of trap, I just don’t know for what.” Ichimatsu warned. “We should try to get back to the entrance as quickly as we can. Where’s Choromatsu?” 

“He could be anywhere… that door led us all to different places.” Totty lamented. 

“Could Jyushimatsu seek him out, the way he sought the rest of us?” Karamatsu suggested.

“Aye!” The angel hopped excitedly. “I’ll find him! Easy peasy!” 

Again, Jyushimatsu got on all fours and began to sniff around like a bloodhound. Unlike before, though, he did not take off running in any direction. Instead, he began to look very distressed. 

“I can’t smell him anywhere…” He announced. 

“Ichimatsu, then! Can you not track him down magically?” Karamatsu turned his attention to Ichimatsu, who shook his head. 

“I’m pretty much at my limit. If I tried that, I’d lose consciousness before we found him.” 

“Guess we’re all out of tricks, then.” Totty chewed his lip. “Let’s wander around and hope we get lucky?” 

“That’s not much of a plan.” Ichimatsu criticised. 

“Do you have a better one?!” 

“You don’t have anything helpful here? You’ve been talking a big game so far about how powerful your demonic patron is and how amazing your magic is. You can’t tell me you’re totally useless.” Ichimatsu taunted. 

Totty pouted. “Fine. Get comfortable, it’ll take some time.” 

Karamatsu claimed a nearby bunk, laying Ichimatsu down on it and perching at the foot of the bed. Almost immediately, Ichimatsu felt himself falling asleep. Jyushimatsu paced the room impatiently, sitting on various bunks for only moments at a time before standing to pace once more. Totty sat, legs crossed, in the middle of the floor, eyes closed, concentrating. In his hands he clasped one of Choromatsu’s tomes, retrieved from his enchanted satchel. Long minutes passed as Ichimatsu watched, struggling to stay awake. Totty’s breaths came evenly. 

Suddenly, Totty’s eyes opened, glowing pink, as they often did when he worked his magic. He looked around the room slowly, as though seeing through the objects within. 

“I see… a workshop of sorts. He’s reading some notebooks. The door looks like the elaborate one we came in through. He must have stayed put once he realized we’d all been separated.” Totty blinked several times, the light fading from his eyes. 

“Is that all?” Ichimatsu yawned. 

“Is that all?!! I saw into the very room where he’s standing right now ! ‘Is that all? ’ Jerk.” Totty grumbled. 

“It doesn’t help much if we don’t know where in the labyrinth that room is. We need more to go on.” Karamatsu pressed. 

Totty groaned. “Fine! Leave it all to me! I’ll wear myself out doing favors for you people! No need to worry!” He returned to his position, a deep pout on his face as he resumed concentration.

This time, when he moved again, three orbs of light appeared. Slowly, they took shape, then physical form. The light dissipated, revealing three rambunctious imps. They hipped and hopped every which way, shouting and cackling. Totty stood, drawing himself up to his full height, which, while not very impressive, was enough to tower over the imps, each two feet tall at most. 

“You three will follow my orders to the letter. You will spread out throughout this mansion, seeking my friend. He is a wizard, wearing green robes. He will be found in a magic workshop. The room has an ornately decorated gold and white door. You will find him, and you will lead us to him. Is this understood?” 

The imps stared at him blankly. He gritted his teeth. 

“Go! You little shits! Do what I say! Or I’ll slaughter all of you!” He roared. 

The trio tripped over themselves and each other in their haste to follow orders, wishing to keep their heads attached to their necks. They each split off in different directions, covering ground quickly. 

“There. Now we can just wait here. Anyone up for a game of cards while we wait?” 

Chapter Text

Ichimatsu awoke some time later to Karamatsu gently shaking him by the shoulder and calling his name softly. He yawned and stretched, feeling not so much energized as less drained. On the floor, in the middle of the room, cards were scattered about between Totty and Jyushimatsu, and Totty was berating an imp that had returned and, presumably, ruined their game. 

“You idiot creature! Watch where you’re going!” He was shouting.

“Don’t hurt me! Found friend! Follow!” The imp shouted back, trying to protect his head from Totty’s punishing slaps.

“Oh! Lead the way, then!” Totty gathered up the cards into their satchel, instructing Jyushimatsu to grab Osomatsu, still asleep. The angel hefted the dragon onto his back easily, following Totty out the door. 

“Can you walk?” Karamatsu asked softly. Ichimatsu almost instinctively replied that yes, he could, but then took a moment to weigh the options. He was still pretty tired, liable to be a bit shaky on his feet, but if he said that no, he could not walk, Karamatsu would carry him around again. Was that a pro or a con? Finally, screwing his face up, he attempted to just stand up. His choice was made for him, his knees buckling under him almost immediately. Karamatsu rushed to steady him, then swept him back into his hold without hesitation. Ichimatsu flailed his arms for a moment, surprised by the sudden movement, before grasping Karamatsu by the shoulders, as before. 

“Not to worry, I shall bear you wherever you need, my dear Ichimatsu. Even to the ends of the earth, if need be, without complaint or hesitation, nay, I shall be your-” 

Ichimatsu covered his mouth with a paw. “Either shut up or leave me here.”

Karamatsu nodded silently, contrite. He started off in the direction the imp had led their friends, and Ichimatsu withdrew the paw once more. 

As before, they went through twists and turns for an eternity, the labyrinth leading this way and that, the tiny imp at the forefront. Where could a building of this magnitude even exist? Surely a mansion the size of a city would stand out, and a secretive cult would have trouble staying secret? Ichimatsu briefly considered that they may not be in a physical building at all, that perhaps this was a magical construct, but that was the sort of panic-inducing train of thought he wanted to stay away from. If it were a magical distortion of some sort, the powerful entity that created it would have full control over the fates of those within, and that didn’t bear considering. 

Ichimatsu told himself that perhaps it was just well-cloaked, or underground, or some such, and forced himself to think of something, anything, else. 

A long while of chasing the imp later, long enough to have taken them clear across the city they came from, and the small demon stopped in front of an ornate door, identical to the others. Totty took the lead, pushing the door open, revealing Choromatsu absorbed in reading within. 

“Excellent work. You’re all dismissed.” Totty said, and with a wave of his hand, the imp disappeared, only a wisp of pink smoke remaining in his place. “Choromatsu! We found you! It’s time to go!” 

Choromatsu seemed deaf to his calls. Totty pouted and marched across the room, slamming a hand on the notebook he was pouring through. 

“Hey! I’m talking to you! What’s so important you’re ignoring me?” 

Choromatsu looked up, blinking. “Oh! Totty! And all the rest, too, excellent! I was worried we wouldn’t find one another when we got separated!” 

“Worried?! You’ve been sitting in here the whole time! What were you doing?!” 

“Oh, me? I’ve been studying the materials they have here… for one, I’ve made a potion which should counteract the effects of what Osomatsu was given! The recipe for the original elixir was in here, so I reverse-engineered something to pep him back up again!” Choromatsu sifted through several bottles on a shelf, muttering to himself. “Um, I don’t remember which of these was the finished one… Jyushimatsu, smell these and give me the one that has cinnamon in it.” 

Totty had his arms crossed, tapping a toe on the ground, watching Choromatsu flit about. Jyushimatsu followed his instructions, uncorking each bottle on the shelf, reacting to each one with a fresh, exaggerated expression. Finally, he handed one over to Choromatsu, presumably the one requested. The arcane advisor spun around, offering the bottle to Totty, then looking contrite. 

“Ah, I see you are upset?” 

“Of course I’m upset! The five of us have been running around, trying to meet back up and escape from here, and you’re just in here dicking around!” 

“Totty, please…” Karamatsu started. “He may not have been looking for us, but he did find a way to revive our companion. There’s no need to be so harsh with him.” 

Totty turned an angry look at the knight, then his face fell, shoulders slumped. “You’re right. Let’s give Osomatsu that potion, then. If it doesn’t work, I can go back to being mad at you.” 

“It’ll work, definitely! You have my word!” 

Totty took the offered bottle, instructing Jyushimatsu to set the dragon on the ground. Tilting his head back and opening his mouth, Totty slowly poured the concoction into Osomatsu’s mouth, taking care not to drown him in it. After the first few drops, Osomatsu roused enough to drink it properly, making a face at the taste. 

“Bleh, tastes like you tried to cover up rotten frogs with cinnamon. Gross.” 

Choromatsu looked sheepish. 

“Oh, gross! There’s frog in this?!” 

“Well, looks like it worked just fine. Welcome back to being awake.” 

Osomatsu grinned at Totty, finishing off the bottle despite the taste. “Good morning! Guess you guys got to have adventures without me, huh?” 

“You were just about as much dead weight as normal, so no loss, really.” Totty smirked mischievously. Osomatsu stuck his forked tongue out at him. 

“That potion isn’t the only thing I was doing in here, by the way.” Choromatsu announced. “I also found a way back!” 

“Eh?! Really?!” Jyushimatsu exclaimed. 

“What is it?” Ichimatsu asked, yawning. 

“Just beyond that curtain there is a teleportation circle! According to this notebook here, one of the places it leads to is the back alley lot where we all entered this place! I just have to make sure I say the incantation correctly and we should all be back where we belong in no time!” 

“Well, now, isn’t that convenient.” Ichimatsu remarked. “This is smelling more and more like a trap every second.” 

“Does it seem fishy at all?” Totty asked. Choromatsu frowned. 

“The incantation seems to be pretty standard for teleportation circles. I haven’t used many, but it is definitely an incantation to activate it. Now, if you’re asking if these books here have been planted and the location we’ll be spat out is changed… we won’t know until we try, unfortunately.” 

Everyone in the party glanced at one another, gauging each others’ reactions. 

Ichimatsu sighed. “We’ll have to just go for it. We can’t stay here forever, and we’ve been around this place enough to know that there’s no other way out.”

“I agree.” Karamatsu stated. “The labyrinthine halls are too expansive to allow for a thorough search, regardless.” 

“That’s true.” Totty agreed. “I feel like we ran around for hours just getting to here. Even if it spits us out somewhere awful, at least it won’t be here.” 

“Sounds like we’re all in agreement, then!” Choromatsu clapped his hands, then waved everyone over. “Let’s go. We need to all be standing within the circle to be transported together. Make sure all of your belongings are with you, don’t let your toes cross the lines. Standard stuff.” 

The party nervously crowded in the relatively small space, six bodies too many for the circle to comfortably hold. Ichimatsu wrapped his tail tightly to his body, terrified that it might be slightly outside the confines of the teleportation. Choromatsu stood in the center, pressed on all sides by other bodies. He cleared his throat and began to utter the short incantation which activated the runic circle below. A blue light shot around the lines of the circle, filling it in with an ethereal glow, and suddenly, their surroundings changed. 

As expected, or feared, they did not find themselves in that back alley lot. They did not find themselves in the town from which they came, at all. Where they found themselves was a humid, dark bog, inches deep in swampy mud, and surrounded on all sides by thick forest. 

“Well, shit.” Totty cursed. He made a face at the squelching of his galoshes as he moved his feet around. 

Ichimatsu was startled by a low growling noise starting nearby, until he traced its origin back to Jyushimatsu. The angel’s eyes were glowing white, and a growl was building in his chest, teeth exposed in a snarl. 

“What’s wrong?” Karamatsu asked, concerned. 

“Smells evil!” Jyushimatsu explained simply. 

“Evil?” Karamatsu, adjusting his grip so he held Ichimatsu in one arm, reached for his amulet bearing Sune’s visage. Since the armor change, it no longer hung, hidden, beneath plate mail. Instead, it hung in full view around his neck. 

His fingers brushed against Ichimatsu’s chest as he grasped the amulet. Ichimatsu let out a squeaking noise, to his embarrassment. 

“Oh, my mistake. I’m sorry, Ichimatsu.”

“It’s fine!” Ichimatsu replied in a high-pitched, strained tone that contradicted his words. He could feel Totty and Osomatsu grinning at him. Jerks. 

Karamatsu sang a hymn to the amulet, filling it with a golden glow. His face contorted in fear.

“Undead. Hundreds of them.” 

“Fuck!” Totty cast his gaze around, seeing nothing in the darkness. “That circle must have put us right into the banshee’s bog!”

“Calm down. We prepared for this.” Karamatsu released his amulet, steadying Ichimatsu in both arms once more. “Are you okay to stand?” 

Ichimatsu nodded, allowing Karamatsu to deposit him into the muck. It seeped between his toes, coating his fur in thick mud. The edges of his robe soaked, water creeping up higher into the fabric. 

“We just escaped a cultist labyrinth! We’re not ready to take this on now, we need to rest first!” Totty ran his hands through his hair, tugging at the strands, stressed. 

“What’s done is done. Get ready for combat.” Karamatsu pulled his idiotic polearm from its place on his back. 

Several hands, grey, peeling skin revealing the bones beneath, thrust out from the bog. A number of undead pulled themselves from the muck, a nauseating sucking noise accompanying them. Several more staggered from the trees, sloshing through the mud towards the gathered party. 

“Let’s go! We’ll show these guys who’s boss!” Osomatsu called out, size quickly expanding. Bursts of flame from his maw illuminated the bog, revealing just how many undead roamed it. 

Totty summoned up flashes of pink energy, shooting waves of electricity and meteors and even blades at the advancing foes. 

Choromatsu spun in a circle, a line of fire following his call, surrounding them in a ring of flames. Undead incinerated on contact, leaving the magic wielders plenty of distance from the horde to work their spells. 

Karamatsu charged forward, leaping past the circle of flame, and swung his polearm about. It cut through undead as though they were made of water, easily dropping them back into the bog from which they came. As it sliced through them, it left a glowing stream of gold light behind. 

“It’s fucking enchanted…?” Ichimatsu murmured in disbelief. 

Karamatsu turned back to look at the others, lifting his weapon high in the air. “It’s a holy weapon! Look! It strikes with divine light!” 

The idiot had purchased a holy weapon without even realizing it. Ichimatsu stared at him, agog, struggling to comprehend the sheer luck of a dumbass. 

Behind him, several undead lurched from the shadows, arms outstretched. 

“Shit! Look out!” Ichimatsu sent several bolts of force toward them, zipping past Karamatsu’s face and pelting the zombies. Karamatsu turned back, shocked and fearful. 

“Thank you, Ichimatsu!” He said, swinging his weapon through his foes, giving himself distance once again. 

“Yeah, don’t… don’t mention it…” Ichimatsu swayed a bit on his feet. One more attack like that and he’d be dead weight. 

Jyushimatsu’s wings burst outward, Choromatsu’s flame ring flickering with the burst of wind, and he screamed. 

Leave! Now!” He shouted in the Celestial tongue. The undead hesitated. Several simply dissolved into muck, others began to retreat. “ Begone!” He insisted. Several of the retreating zombies likewise dissolved, several more turning tail.

The growling in the angel’s chest had peaked in volume. Ichimatsu could feel it vibrating his ribcage. 

Get! OUT!” Jyushimatsu howled, shaking the very trees with the sound. All of the fleeing zombies melted into goo. Only a handful remained, quaking in fear. A burst of flame from Osomatsu sent them scurrying off, towards Karamatsu and his holy polearm. With a wide sweep of the axe end, the last of the zombies collapsed. 

The party stood, panting, for a moment, prepared to see more undead rising from the mire, but none came. Jyushimatsu whooped, wings folding away and color returning to his eyes. Choromatsu allowed the ring of flames to die down, then fade completely. Totty looked nearly as exhausted as Ichimatsu felt, lids heavy over his eyes. Osomatsu, returning to human form, barrelled into the rest of the group, still hale and hearty. 

“We did it, you guys! Knocked all those zombies right out of the park!” 

“Woohoo!” Jyushimatsu joined Osomatsu in cheering, celebrating the defeat of their enemies. Karamatsu strode over, strapping his weapon into its place on his back and grinning. 

Ichimatsu, too anxious to be relieved, felt it first. 

The bog grew cold, so cold, supernaturally cold. The humid warmth from before sapped away almost instantaneously, the wet marsh feeling more like ice water by the moment. 

“Guys, I think we’re forgetting something…” Ichimatsu warned. The cheering idiot duo paid him no heed, nor did Totty, chastising them. 

“Forgetting what, Ichimatsu?” Choromatsu asked. 

A chilling scream cut through the thick marsh air. The entire party clapped their hands to their ears, trying to shut it out. Ichimatsu felt his heartbeat stutter. 

“The banshee!” Totty wailed. 

“Oh.” Choromatsu said flatly. 

“Yeah, ‘oh’. That horde of undead was her doing, of course she’d be nearby.” Ichimatsu turned his gaze this way and that, trying to catch a glimpse of where the apparition could be. 

“There!” Osomatsu pointed to a spot near the trees, across the clearing from them.

“What? Where?” Totty squinted in that direction. 

“Here, some light may be in order.” Choromatsu suggested, throwing up several glowing orbs of light. Despite their illumination, and Ichimatsu’s impeccable night vision, the banshee was still invisible. 

“What are you talking about? Where do you see it?” 

Osomatsu groaned, taking off running in the direction he indicated on his own. He expanded again, regaining his draconic form before he reached the other side, and began to attack the air over there. 

“Oh, duh! Dragons have true sight! She must be cloaking herself!” Totty exclaimed. “Karamatsu, come here, I’ve got something for you.” The knight acquiesced, approaching the warlock, who placed a hand over his eyes. “ See.” He whispered in the Infernal tongue. 

When Totty removed his hand from Karamatsu’s eyes, they glowed with a familiar pink light. The knight cast his gaze around the bog, alighting where Osomatsu battled nothing.  

“Can you see her?” Totty asked. 

“Yes! You have my gratitude!” Karamatsu thanked him as he ran off to join the strange battle. 

Osomatsu was taking on heavy damage, large patches of scales turning black, several sloughing off entirely. Somehow, he seemed to be at a major disadvantage. 

Karamatsu whipped his blade around, golden light trailing behind it, illuminating, for just a moment, the banshee’s silhouette. He reeled backwards, a deep black patch spilling across his stomach. Again he swung his weapon around, the banshee like a shadow in its wake, then was forced to dodge, rolling far out of the way, getting covered head-to-toe in muck. Osomatsu let forth a burst of flame, then staggered back. 

Taking the chance, the invisible foe presumably focussed on the dragon, Karamatsu jabbed forward with the spiked end of the polearm, thrusting through the air. 

Around the weapon, the banshee materialized. 

Ichimatsu stared in horror, the creature’s nightmarish face shaking him to his very core. Her grey skin, mottled with sickly purple patches, sloughed away from green, rotted flesh beneath. She appeared like a corpse exhumed at the worst possible moment, the flesh entirely rotten but not yet sloughed off from the bones beneath. The teeth in her gaping, stretching maw were long, jagged, and terribly sharp. Her arms stretched, spindly, into long, thin hands tipped with curling, yellowed claws. 

She grasped the polearm jutting through her middle, pulling it further through her. Karamatsu, holding the other end, was tugged close. She reached around, over her own shoulder, and grabbed for his face. Where her rotting flesh met his bare skin, that sickly necrosis spread. 

“No!” Ichimatsu shouted, taking off at a dead sprint. As though in slow motion, he saw the black rot envelop Karamatsu’s face. The knight abandoned his weapon, pushing away from the banshee. She swung around, Karamatsu barely missing being skewered by his own polearm, and lunged at him. Ichimatsu threw his arms forward, shouting the requisite incantation, and sent a wave of water hurtling at the banshee. 

She was battered backwards, stumbling away from Karamatsu. Taking the opportunity to regain his footing, the knight grasped his weapon, dragging it out of her. The axe, pulled through her stomach, left a gaping hole, her rotting flesh dripping down into it, her vertebrae visible through it. Ichimatsu held a paw to his mouth, feeling sick. Karamatsu swung the axe down hard, digging it several inches deep into her shoulder. She scrabbled at him, unable to reach him with the added length of the polearm keeping them apart. Likewise, Karamatsu was unable to dislodge the axe from her body. Panicked, he dodged her flailing hands, and shot a fearful look back towards the remaining members of the party. 

Jyushimatsu raised his arms high into the air, and summoned the very sun itself. 

Blinding light flooded the bog. Ichimatsu covered his face with a paw, shielding himself. Even through the barrier, the bright burst was still visible. Searing heat sizzled at his fur. 

Then, as suddenly as it began, it was gone. 

Ichimatsu blinked rapidly, the spots in his vision fading out and the scene before him slowly returning. At the other end of Karamatsu’s polearm, the banshee was no more, leaving only a charred skeleton in her place. The knight was staring in disbelief, as though still processing the events that had just occurred. 

“Woohoo…!” Osomatsu cheered, wearily. “We did it…!” 

He slumped into the muck. 

Totty rushed over, inspecting the damage. “Shit… we need to heal them quickly. Magical necrosis just gets worse over time!” He dug into his bottomless satchel. “Here, we still have a couple of healing potions. Take one, Karamatsu, and Osomatsu…” 

Totty looked between the heavily injured dragon and the tiny bottle in his hand, chewing his lip. 

“I’ll help! I’ll help!” Jyushimatsu called, jogging over. Light again filled the bog, but it wasn’t painful this time. It illuminated the black, rotting wounds, erasing them as it went. Before long, Osomatsu looked completely healthy, except for the naked pink patches where his scales fell off during the battle. 

Jyushimatsu swayed on his feet for a moment, then flexed his arms. “All done! Good as new!” 

“Are you… okay?” Choromatsu asked, hesitantly. “Can angels get tired?” 

“I’m fine, I’m fine! All good, see?” He mimed swinging about a weapon, but overbalanced and had to catch himself from falling. “I’m not tired at all!” 

“We need to get back to town as quickly as we can. We may have dispatched the undead, and repaired the weakness in the barrier, but we’re still in danger of running into the more natural denizens of the forest.” Karamatsu advised. 

“You’ve got a point. Let’s get going, then!” Totty agreed. He helped Jyushimatsu climb onto Osomatsu’s back, insisting the angel get some rest. Choromatsu resumed casting his illuminating orbs, lighting the way for the assembled party. 

Ichimatsu attempted to take a step forward, then saw the bog rushing up to meet him. 

---

He came to to see Karamatsu’s face above him, being carried in the knight’s arms once again. They’d reached the edge of the forest, coming near the outskirts of the town once again. Osomatsu had reduced his size at some point, Jyushimatsu now riding piggyback. 

“Guess I passed out again.” Ichimatsu grumbled, yawning. 

“Ah, you’re awake! Yes, it seems the battle took its toll on you. I presume you are unhurt?” Karamatsu examined him with concern. Ichimatsu waved a paw dismissively, hiding his surely-red face with the other. 

“I’m fine, don’t worry. I just run out of stamina easily.” 

“I’m glad!” Karamatsu beamed at him for a moment, before a more somber expression overtook his features. “Ichimatsu… I didn’t get a chance to thank you. You saved my life back there. Despite knowing you were nearly out of stamina, you used the last of it to keep me safe.” 

“Don’t mention it… I didn’t really think it through, I just kind of… did it.” Ichimatsu refused to meet Karamatsu’s intense gaze. 

The knight stopped walking, the others gaining distance on them, leaving them a semblance of privacy. “Still, you made yourself very vulnerable, and I truly believe that would have been my end had you not. I just… I want you to know, I’m sincerely grateful.” 

“Y-you’re… welcome, I guess…” 

“And Ichimatsu?” 

“Yeah?” 

Karamatsu swallowed, jaw clenched, as though struggling with something within himself. 

“Ichimatsu…” He tried, losing his nerve before finishing the thought. 

“Just get out with it, already.” Ichimatsu grumbled. 

“Ichimatsu, I-” 

Whatever Karamatsu was going to say was cut off by the sound of a mighty explosion. The screaming of the townsfolk filled the air, clouds of dust and debris billowed up, buildings toppled every which way and, in the center of it all, a giant octopus flailed its enormous tentacles. 

“Oh, come on!” Karamatsu shouted. 

“Put me down, we need to-” 

Ichimatsu was unable to finish, as Karamatsu cut him off with a forceful kiss. Ichimatsu stiffened, shocked, and pushed his face away with both paws. 

“What was that?!”

Karamatsu was grinning. “I’ve been wanting to do that for so long, and I wasn’t about to let yet another absurd catastrophe get in my way!” 

Ichimatsu swallowed, staring, stammering. Karamatsu gently set him down on his feet. 

“Now, let’s go take care of the absurd catastrophe, shall we?” 

Ichimatsu grabbed the knight by his upper arm before he could take off running. Turning back toward him, he could see that his face was bright, cherry red, and that he was barely holding it together. 

Mustering up his courage, Ichimatsu held Karamatsu’s face in his paws, and returned the kiss. 

“Now we can go.” 

The knight stared after him as he ran off, a dopey smile spreading across his face. 

Chapter Text

The enormous octopus was making good headway in razing the entire city to the ground by the time Karamatsu and Ichimatsu caught up to the others. Totty and Jyushimatsu were hanging back, both exhausted by their displays of power, while Choromatsu had gone on ahead with Osomatsu. Totty waved them over to his hiding place, behind a solid concrete structure, and they hurried over. 

“What took you two so long?” He huffed. 

Karamatsu blushed, stuttering out the beginning of several sentences. Ichimatsu, likewise turning red, said, “He wanted to make sure I could walk on my own before we made it to town. You know how tired I get when I use my magic too much.” 

Totty looked unamused. “This really isn’t the time for you two to run off to go make out, or whatever. We have a situation on our hands, in case you forgot.” 

“Yes, Totty.” The two said in unison.

“Now, we split into two groups, as you can see. The foreward group is distracting the monster while the rear group finds some way to banish it. It had to have been summoned here somehow, and we should be able to send it back. Karamatsu, if you’re feeling up to it, you should join the foreward group. Since Ichimatsu is clearly still exhausted, he’ll stay with us in the rear group. Understood?” 

“Yes, sir!” Karamatsu said with a sharp salute. 

“Got it.” Ichimatsu acknowledged. 

“I’ll see you soon, Ichimatsu. Stay safe.” Karamatsu said with a serious look. 

“Yeah, yeah, get out of here.” Ichimatsu waved him off, face still red. Karamatsu nodded, jogging off in the direction of the chaos. 

Totty rolled his eyes. “Seriously, you two.” He sighed. “Well, let’s get moving. The longer this takes, the less town there is to save.” 

Ichimatsu and Jyushimatsu kept close behind as Totty led the way through the town, ducking behind walls and around corners as they went. Slowly, carefully, they made their way around behind the octopus’s onslaught, moving closer as they went. Overhead, Osomatsu swung wide circles in the air around the waving tentacles, Choromatsu blasting small bolts of flame as they went. The tentacles recoiled as they were hit, the fire singeing toasty black streaks across the rubbery flesh. 

Directly behind the great body of the beast now, Totty motioned for the trio to advance. It was well and distracted by the duo flying around above it, leaving an easy opening for them to approach. Closer, closer, closer they drew, ducking and rolling to avoid crashing debris, until at last they were able to get an unobstructed view of the creature. 

Beneath its squirming body, a circle of light glowed. Surrounding it, several robed figures chanted, arms upheld. Their robes were familiar, the dark robes of the cultists prowling the halls of the labyrinthine mansion, the symbol of the tentacle-bearded man emblazoned on each of them. 

“Well there’s our source… how do we get rid of them?” 

Ichimatsu shrugged. “I’m all out of tricks. If I try anything else now, I’ll just collapse again.” 

Totty frowned. “I don’t have much left, either. Asmodeus is grumbling about sacrifices. He’s not going to give me much of anything until I can satisfy him.”
Jyushimatsu hopped up, flexing his arms. “I can do it! I’m all good!” 

“Oh, get back down, you idiot.” Totty scolded. “We saw you earlier. You’re just as much on your last legs as we are.”

Jyushimatsu crouched back down, looking all the world like a kicked puppy. 

“What we need is some way to distract them without using any real power.” Ichimatsu crossed his arms, brows furrowing in concentration. “Ideally something that doesn’t also put us directly in harm’s way.” 

Totty dug through his bottomless satchel. “If only we had some kind of explosives in here…”

Ichimatsu had an idea. “Maybe the cultists will have something more useful. I’ll go check.” 

“What?” Totty stared at him in surprise. Ichimatsu had already started padding over, on all fours. “Wait!” He hissed, too late.

Silently, Ichimatsu approached the ring of cultists. Focussed on their casting, he may as well have been invisible to them. He crept up behind one, a small pouch hanging off their belt, and swiftly cut the rope holding the sack, dropping it quietly into his waiting paw.
He scrambled off, ducking around a corner, and investigated his loot. 

The small pouch contained several odd objects, clearly used for spellwork, similar to Ichimatsu’s own. A few feathers, some sand, a ruby, some licorice root… nothing useful. Ichimatsu tucked the pouch away into a pocket and returned to the scene, peeking around the corner. 

He eyed over the cultists, looking for another light pouch that wouldn’t be missed. Several bore backpacks and satchels, likely containing some helpful items, but something so large wouldn’t go unnoticed. He had to work small. 

One robed figure, on the opposite end of the circle, had several pouches and vials hooked onto their belt. Ideally, he could snatch the whole thing in one go, but that wouldn’t be wise. 

He circled silently around and approached this figure. A long, red tail swished behind them. A tiefling, then. Ichimatsu carefully timed his swipe, memorizing the tail’s rhythm, and managed to swipe a pouch and two vials from the belt before it shifted, alerting the tiefling to his presence.

He darted away, disappearing before the cultist could catch a glimpse, and ducked behind a pile of rubble to investigate his claims. 

The pouch was full of a grey powder Ichimatsu recognized as explosive. One vial contained a healing elixir, the other contained acid. 

Excellent. 

Ichimatsu tucked his claims carefully into his pockets, placing the acid vial into a pocket of its own, and peeked out of his hiding place. 

The tiefling was pointing his way, attracting the attention of several of his fellow cultists to the thief. Two of them, a human and a dragonborn, stopped chanting and began to stalk his way. Ichimatsu shrunk back, evaluating his escape plan. 

Suddenly, a familiar voice shouted out, distracting the approaching cultists. Karamatsu had made it to the scene, ducking and weaving past gargantuan tentacles to reach the assembled cultists. He brandished his holy polearm high above his head, taunting their foes. 

Ichimatsu breathed a sigh of relief. He scampered back across the open area, returning to where his allies awaited him, taking the chance Karamatsu had given him. 

“There you are! You’re so lucky that idiot showed up when he did! That was so stupid of you!” Totty scolded. “Did you manage to get anything?” 

Ichimatsu grinned darkly, producing the gunpowder sack and acid vial. 

“Well, that’s something, at least. Let’s get in there and help out Sir Reckless Idiot. He’s gotta be in over his empty head out there.” 

The trio leapt into action, jumping out from their hiding place and into the fray. A few cultists continued the chant, but half a dozen surrounded Karamatsu, barely held at bay by wide sweeps of his polearm. One of the chanting cultists turned to fling several bolts of magical energy towards the advancing three, but Jyushimatsu tackled him just in time, the spell veering wildly away. 

Totty continued toward the attacking cultists, lobbing the sack of gunpowder toward them and following up with a small lick of fire. The sack exploded, knocking a few of their foes to the ground and staggering the others. Taking the opportunity, Karamatsu swept the long pole of his weapon under the feet of the staggered enemies, knocking them to the ground. He leapt over the scattered bodies, the cultists all dazed, and rushed over to the three still chanting. 

Jyushimatsu pummeled the cultist he had tackled, handily knocking them unconscious. The remaining three all dropped their chant and attacked each of the remaining party. The tiefling Ichimatsu had handily robbed pulled a long dagger on Totty, causing the warlock to hesitate. A human cultist lobbed several fireballs Karamatsu’s way, but the knight was able to deftly roll out of the way, dodging the majority of the damage. And third, the dragonborn cultist, advanced on Ichimatsu. His robes were torn in a conspicuous way, reminding Ichimatsu of his encounter earlier. The cultist must have left their mansion to join the ground crew here in town. Fear crept into Ichimatsu’s heart, remembering how easily the dragonborn had dispatched him earlier. 

Clearly, the cultist remembered Ichimatsu as well, a smirk pulling at his mouth. 

“Well, aren’t you the little kitty that was lost in our hideout earlier? Didn’t I kill you already?” 

Mouth dry, Ichimatsu swallowed hard before responding. “I think you’ll find that killing me is a bit tricky. Sorry about that.” 

The advancing dragonborn had malice burning in his eyes. “I’ll make extra sure to finish the job this time, then.” Electricity crackled between his claws. 

Ichimatsu’s heart lodged in his throat. Panicked, he took a step back for every step forward his foe took. 

“Say goodnight, little kitty.” 

As Ichimatsu’s back hit a wall, the sound of glass hitting stone rang out. Of course! The acid! 

He fumbled for the small vial, hurling it directly at the dragonborn. It splashed across his torso, searing through his robe and into his chest. The claw wounds between his scales sizzled, foaming up as the acid went to work. 

The cultist screamed. 

The acid also ate through the straps of his pack, dropping it to the ground behind him. Ichimatsu darted past, scooping up the bag and rushing to put distance between them. The dragonborn stood slowly, fury on his features, holding his injured side. Electricity crackled between his claws once more. Ichimatsu watched, time slowing, as he threw up his hands, the electricity coming towards him in a wave. 

Suddenly, a hefty weight hit him in the side, knocking him far out of the way of the wave. Jyushimatsu landed partially on top of him, taking some of the blow himself, but shielding Ichimatsu from any damage. 

At the same time, Karamatsu’s axe-ended polearm swung into the dragonborn, lodging deep into his shoulder, and disrupting the attack. The cultist tried to pull away, but the knight quickly swung again, getting the bladed end deep into the dragonborn’s scaly neck, blood gushing forth. 

Ichimatsu stared at the knight, bare skin coated in blood, as he panted, furious. Around them, the human cultist lay, a deep wound in his chest, and the tiefling, face down with a suspicious hole through his abdomen. Totty was sitting some way away, terrified and bleeding from several dagger wounds. The cultists that had been knocked down on the other side of the open area were scrambling to flee. 

The enormous octopus was beginning to slow, several of its thick tentacles severed or badly burned. Without the cultists bolstering its power, it quickly fell to Osomatsu and Choromatsu’s combined onslaught. 

With a wide sweep, Osomatsu flew lower and lower, circling towards the ground slowly, belting fire at the beast as he went. It finally collapsed almost simultaneously with the dragon’s great claws striking the ground. 

“We did it!” Osomatsu cheered. “Did you see? I got that thing good!” 

“You didn’t do it all alone! Give me some credit!” Choromatsu scolded. 

“Guys, focus up! There are some cultists getting away!” Totty yelled, gesturing toward the fleeing group, tripping over each other in their haste. 

“Allow me.” Choromatsu snapped his fingers, and a cage of light surrounded the half-dozen cultists scrambling to escape. They struggled to escape, banging on the ethereal walls and casting teleportation spells, but to no avail. 

Choromatsu hopped down from Osomatsu’s back, finally looking fatigued. “There, that should hold them. We can question them while they’re in there, or just kill them outright.” 

Karamatsu gripped his weapon, still furious. “Let’s finish them off, here and now.” 

“No, no, hold on.” Totty rose to his feet, wiping his overalls clear of dust. “There could be many more of them. We need to squeeze what info out of them we can.” 

Karamatsu opened his mouth to argue, but closed it again, jaw clenched. 

Ichimatsu rose to his feet shakily, Jyushimatsu sitting back to let him up. He paced over nervously to Karamatsu, placing a paw on one of his clenched hands. 

“Calm down. We’ve got a mission to do, and they’re on the list. Why are you so worked up?” 

Karamatsu took a deep breath, frustration still evident on his features. “They tried to kill you. I heard what the dragonborn said, that it wasn’t the first time, either.” 

Ichimatsu grimaced. “Yeah. He’s the one that attacked me in the mansion.” 

“What did he mean, that he killed you once already? I saw you when they brought you in to the cell, I was terrified. You looked just like you had when… but you were fine, yes?” 

Ichimatsu swallowed, picking his words carefully. “That lightning spell he did… I think, even after the healing, my heart’s still… the electricity was enough to stop it. I did die, just… not for long, I guess.” 

The knight’s jaw clenched. “He deserved worse than what he got. All of them do.” 

“I’m fine now, see? My heart’s still beating. Feel it, if you want.” Ichimatsu pulled one of Karamatsu’s hands off of his weapon and held it to his chest. His heart beat beneath their hands, still racing from the terror of the battle before. “I’m still alive.”

“Ichimatsu…” The knight buried his head into Ichimatsu’s shoulder. “I was so scared… nothing frightens me more than the thought of losing you. Not again.” 

Ichimatsu flushed, stroking the knight’s soft hair with one paw. He struggled to find the right thing to say. It was quite a lot, a more earnest confession than any the knight had made before. To know that his death would well and truly break Karamatsu’s spirit… it was a lot of pressure, to say the least. Though, if he turned the tables, considered how he might react if it was the knight who was in danger… he tried not to consider it. Karamatsu had an idiot’s luck, after all. He was sure to be safe, no matter what. 

From where the cultists were imprisoned, several terrified screams erupted, breaking the emotional moment. Choromatsu was tightening the cage, shrinking it down with six bodies inside. Finally one shouted out, “Enough! We’ll tell you what you want to know!” and Choromatsu allowed it to expand once more. 

Totty began to pelt them with questions, demanding to know every detail of their plans and goals, as well as the structure of their base. Any hesitation was met with the threat of being crushed alive, courtesy of Choromatsu and his fine control of the magical cage. 

They learned that the cult prayed to a pantheon of elder gods, exemplified by the visage of Cthulhu. Their goals were to wreak havoc and destruction, with the goal of summoning one of their gods to this plane of existence. The weakening of the barrier between the material plane and the Lower Planes allowed them to advance their goals significantly. They had intended to weaken it further, allowing for the planes to meet one another entirely. 

As for their base, the structure of it was sprawling and labyrinthine not to deter intruders, though that was an added benefit. It had been designed as a physical summoning circle, and actually existed on one of the Lower Planes. The place where it was now accessible from the Material Plane was a weakness in the barrier, a portal of sorts linking the two planes. With the summoning circle that was the base, they planned to summon one of their gods to the Lower Planes and, through that weakness in the barrier, to the Material Plane, as well. 

“So, in summary,” Totty tapped a finger to his chin in consideration, “if we destroy your base, we destroy your plans? That sounds straightforward enough.” 

“You’ll never succeed! It’s been built with powerful metal alloys and reinforced with magic! It won’t be as simple as setting off some gunpowder!” One of the cultists warned. 

“You’d be surprised how good we are at wrecking things.” Totty argued, gesturing behind him at the great crimson dragon. Osomatsu grinned, terrifying on his huge, toothy maw. 

"I believe that's all we need from the lot of you. Shall I?" Choromatsu asked.

"Yeah, go ahead." Totty waved a hand dismissively. 

Choromatsu began to shrink the cage again.

"No, wait! We did what you asked of us! Let us go!" One of the cultists screamed.

The cage continued to shrink, the horrific sounds of bones cracking ringing out from within nearly drowned out by the screams. Slowly, terribly slowly, far too slowly, Choromatsu shrunk the cage into nothing. As it disappeared, a bloody mass of crushed corpses slid across the rubble.

"That takes care of that. Let's go bring down the house!"

Chapter Text

It took some searching to find the entry point to the cultists labyrinth once again. The layout of the city was altered significantly due to their beast’s efforts, after all, and they’d been following a magical trail previously. As they searched, they saw townsfolk already starting to pick up the pieces of their lives, rescuing people from the rubble, uncovering goods buried within collapsed stores, clearing the roadways of large debris. 

Ichimatsu’s gut churned, remembering the fire that had consumed his home village, the part he played in it, and how few people escaped to start over again, like these folks were doing now. How many places had been destroyed now because of him? Because of the curse that followed him like a dog stalking game? Because of his idiotic attempt to grasp at powers beyond his reach, and Caacrinolaas’ wrath? 

He was relieved when, from the front of the party, Jyushimatsu announced their success, darting on ahead into the false wall. At least now, the destruction they were about to wreak would do some good. 

They piled into the staircase, moving as a unit, hoping staying near enough to each other would grant them entering at the same location. In their first stroke of good luck in a long while, all six members of the group were still together when the door slammed shut behind them. Osomatsu and Jyushimatsu let out a loud whoop of triumph. 

“Let’s get wrecking!” Osomatsu shouted, a grin showing off his rows and rows of long, dagger-like fangs. “Everyone climb on, unless you want to be left behind!” 

He fidgeted impatiently as he waited for everyone to scramble up. Most of the party made it up quickly and easily, with Totty, as expected, seated at the front, just at the base of Osomatsu’s long neck. 

Ichimatsu struggled, as usual, especially with the dragon prancing around as though the floor were covered in hot coals. Karamatsu extended a hand, patiently, and Ichimatsu reached to grab it, before Jyushimatsu simply snatched him by the hood of his robe and hauled him up. He ended up seated between Karamatsu and Jyushimatsu in the order, clinging onto Karamatsu for security as the dragon began to complete his destructive mission. 

The high-vaulted ceilings only barely allowed the dragon to stand at his full height, the passengers seated between his spines able to reach up and brush the murals painted there with their fingertips. With a vigorous shake of his massive body, Osomatsu was already able to damage the nearby walls. 

He lashed his tail out, bringing it straight through the wall to their left. The hole exposed one of the barracks rooms, with two figures tucked away inside, screaming and clutching each other in fear. Osomatsu ducked his head in, snout nearly filling the space, and grinned at them. 

“Don’t let me interrupt! I’m just here to bring the place down, just carry on! No big deal!” 

The two scrambled away, dashing out another door and fleeing down the hall. Osomatsu raised his head, bringing his neck through the wall and smashing through the ceiling. 

The sky above was dark, a deep purple mist swirling about in place of clouds. The sensation was eerie, as though the breath was being crushed out of Ichimatsu’s lungs. He worried that they may get stuck here, in the Lower Planes, should they successfully destroy this place and the portal it was creating. 

Osomatsu charged forward, smashing through the wall. Metal plates bent back as he passed through, folding like paper. “Ow… I guess they weren’t kidding about the reinforcement, huh?” 

“Just keep going. We’ll heal you if you hurt yourself.” Totty said, unsympathetically. 

“Yeah, yeah.” 

As the wall broke, tarnishing the sigil the elaborate building created, the sky above flickered, revealing the dark blue, cloudy sky of the endless night back on the Material Plane. 

“Looks like that did something.” Ichimatsu pointed out. 

“Guess this won’t take long, then!” Osomatsu said cheerfully. He charged forward, barging through another wall, leading into a courtyard. 

The plants were odd, wrong. Iridescent blue flowers shaped like skulls, purple flowers that almost looked like roses, but seeped a brilliant green fluid, soft turquoise ferns that stiffened into spiky bramble as they drew near. Ichimatsu wanted simultaneously to investigate the flora, curious what dwelled in this plane, and to return home as swiftly as possible. 

Osomatsu made the decision for him, melting another wall with a burst of flame, then bringing down yet another with a swing of his tail. 

With each section of the labyrinth that was taken out, the sky changed colors for longer periods of time. Osomatsu flew up, landing bodily on a rooftop, and the sky stayed that dark blue for several seconds. 

The party held tightly, praying, as Osomatsu plummeted further than expected. Below the roof that caved beneath his weight, the deep chamber housing the cathedral opened beneath him. Without enough room to spread his wings to slow them down, he tucked them tightly to himself, shielding his companions beneath them, and rolling to a stop before the altar. 

“Owww…” He groaned, pulling himself back onto his feet. With all of the movement, Ichimatsu was starting to feel pretty seasick. Dragon-sick? He supposed the distinction didn’t much matter if the end result was the same. 

With another jolt to his passengers, Osomatsu jumped up to the next landing, clambering over the balcony. The glass banister shattered under his weight, shards cascading all the way down to clatter among the pews. His claws gouged deep grooves into the flooring, dragging himself into the hallway. Once steady, he shook himself off, glass dislodging from his belly to shatter against the floor. 

“Maybe that wasn’t… the best plan.” 

“You can keep going, right? We haven’t disrupted the portal enough yet.” Totty reminded him. 

“Yeah, yeah, I can keep going. Slave driver.” With that, Osomatsu ripped through a wall with his claws, then shot an extended plume of fire through the opening, melting several more. He charged through the new tunnel, periodically running out into the open where the now more blue than purple sky was visible, and barrelled further into the complex. There was more rubble now than corridors, and the dragon took a moment to glance around for more building to smash. 

“Wait!” Karamatsu called out, quite suddenly. 

Osomatsu craned his long neck around to look at the knight. “What is it? Can’t it wait?” 

Karamatsu pointed into the nearby wreckage. A blue, knitted piece of fabric peeked out. “My scarf!” 

“Oh! That’s where I dropped it!” Jyushimatsu laughed loudly, unashamed. Osomatsu turned around, gently extracting the garment from its debris prison in his deadly jaws, and offered it to the knight. It was covered in dust and torn in several places, but Karamatsu wrapped it around his neck regardless.

“Now you may continue.” 

Osomatsu whooped, darting over to an undestroyed area, one long breezeway arranged in a large spiral. Ichimatsu wondered if the cultists actually walked in circles to get from one section to the other, or if they just cut through. 

With one quick leap, it was a moot point, since there was no longer any breezeway for the cultists to cut through, regardless. 

Osomatsu hopped several times, crashing down on rooftops, just as recklessly as before, until he finally landed on one that did not give way. “Eh? Eh?” 

The dragon circled in place, stomping down on the roof where he stood. “That’s weird.” 

“Just shoot fire at it or something! Stop fucking around, you’re almost done!” Totty reprimanded. 

“It’s… not a roof?” Osomatsu clawed at the roof for a moment, trying to scratch it. “It feels like dirt?” 

“Dirt?” Totty slid off of his dragon’s back, inspecting the roof where they stood. He scratched at the shingles with his hands, mimicking what Osomatsu had just done, and came up with a handful of earth. “What the hell?” 

Ichimatsu looked around them. The scenery had begun to change. 

The odd plants had been replaced by normal, green grass. The sky was now steadily that dark, cloudy blue. Most of the rubble was gone, patches of wildflowers, grass, and bare earth in their place. 

“Guys? I think we’re on our own plane again. Mostly.” 

“Hell yeah! We did it!” Osomatsu cheered. Totty smacked him on the snout. 

“Don’t get excited yet, idiot. We’re stuck halfway between. Come on, some of these buildings have to be tangible still.” 

Totty hefted himself back up, sliding into place at the base of Osomatsu’s neck. 

“Yes, sir.” The dragon responded, a pout audible in his voice. He began to meander about, scratching at the still-visible remains of the labyrinth. Sometimes he would scrape loose some earth, sometimes he just pawed at the air, but he wasn’t coming in contact with the same buildings that they could see. 

“I wonder…” Choromatsu piped up. 

“What is it?” Ichimatsu prompted. 

“Well, the building was created to interact with an already-present portal, yes? Perhaps we need to extinguish that in order to set this place right once more.” He explained. 

“Extinguish it? How so?” Karamatsu asked. 

“There may be a physical artifact somewhere that’s molding the planes to this shape. Search for that.” 

“Roger!” Osomatsu said. “Where should I look?” 

“Well, it should be near the center of the distortion. Look around at what has yet to revert, and find the strongest part of the distortion.” 

The party looked around, assessing the area. A good amount of it looked pretty normal, with only patches of the ruins remaining visible. The gears in Ichimatsu’s head churned, looking for some sort of pattern. 

“There.” He pointed. 

One patch of wildflowers contained a small section of odd plants, those acid-seeping roses.
“See how they’re totally distinct from the plants around them? All the parts where we can see the building sort of fade into the surrounding area, but those look like they’re right next to the other flowers.” Ichimatsu explained. 

“I see what you mean. Let’s check it out!” Totty kicked his heels into Osomatsu’s sides, as though he were a great, scaly horse, and the dragon obediently ambled over to the flower patch. As they drew nearer, it was obvious that they were, indeed, growing from the same earth as the other wildflowers. A drop of brilliant green acid fell onto the leaves of a nearby daisy and sizzled through, leaving a perfectly circular hole. 

“Well, here goes nothing!” Osomatsu stomped down on the flowers hard. Something cracked under the weight of his claw. As he lifted the foot, it dripped and sizzled with acid, and he winced, but beneath it lay a cracked runestone. The flowers had disappeared and, with them, so had the remains of the labyrinth. The surrounding landscape was all strictly of the Material Plane. 

“We’re home?” Osomatsu asked, hesitantly, shaking drops of acid from his claw. 

“We’re home!” Totty announced. “We made it!” 

---

The party set up camp to rest for a while, no longer at all certain how near they were to what was really ‘night’. What mattered was they were all exhausted from completing several arduous trials in a row, and they would never have made it to a settlement before one or more of them collapsed. Again. 

Totty patiently picked shards of glass and metal from between Osomatsu’s scales, warning him not to transform into his much more vulnerable human guise until they’d all been removed. 

“They’ll still be this big when you change back, and they’ll do a lot more damage than they’re doing now. Let me get it all out.” 

“Can I fall asleep while you do it, or do I need to be awake?” The dragon asked, yawning mid-sentence. 

Totty smiled fondly. “You can go ahead and rest. I think you good and well earned it, this time.” 

“Fuck yes.” Osomatsu grinned sleepily, eyes already drifting closed. 

“That truly was quite the performance.” Karamatsu complimented, once he had gauged that the dragon was totally asleep. “Having such a powerful creature as an ally can be quite the asset, at times. Although, he was indisposed for the first leg of this ordeal. Oh, and at a severe disadvantage for the second leg. His skillset is quite limited, wouldn’t you say?” 

The knight sent a mischievous sort of smile towards Ichimatsu. The catfolk sent a sort of nervous smile back, unsure of how to interact with the knight now that they’d… well, now that he’d made such a bold confession. And then followed by that display of protectiveness that Ichimatsu had to admit was equal parts terrifying and horribly attractive. 

It seemed the knight had no such reservations, though, speaking to Ichimatsu quite normally, ribbing Osomatsu like this as he normally did. Apparently, only Ichimatsu was a bundle of nerves about all this. 

“We should decide on how we’re going to handle the watch.” Choromatsu suggested, pulling Ichimatsu out of his thoughts. Karamatsu jolted beside him, putting a bit of distance between the two. Huh, maybe the knight was nervous, after all. 

“Ichimatsu won’t be able to pull the full watch tonight, as he usually does. We should decide between those of us who are the least exhausted to take on the task.” He explained.  

“Ah! I am still quite energetic! I will gladly take on the task!” Karamatsu volunteered. 

“Now, we don’t expect you to stay up all night. Although it’s fine for a nocturnal race, such as Ichimatsu’s, you’re still quite human. I’ll relieve you after a time, come wake me up when you begin to tire.” 

“Ah, yes, of course.” Karamatsu looked a bit embarrassed. 

“Todomatsu.” Choromatsu continued. 

“Yes?” Totty responded. The pile of debris near him had grown, and we was beginning to slather poultices of healing herbs into the worst of the dragon’s wounds. 

“If you don’t mind, I’ll call upon you to finish out the watch when I grow tired, as well. You’re used to rising quite early, yes?”

Totty nodded. “I am. That’s fine with me. After all, I’m not all that tired, since I don’t draw on my own strength for my abilities.” 

“Yeah, yeah. Show off.” Ichimatsu grumbled. He wasn’t pleased with this setup, used to savoring his quiet time alone during his watches. Being around so many people, especially this rambunctious lot, was draining. 

“Well, with that settled, I’m going to retire to the tent. Remember, Karamatsu, wake me up if you feel like you’re going to fall asleep.” The knight saluted, and Choromatsu disappeared into the tent. 

Jyushimatsu yawned widely. “Me too! Good night!” 

Karamatsu glanced over to Ichimatsu, hunched into himself nervously beside him. “Don’t let me keep you up, Ichimatsu. Feel free to retire, if you desire.” 

Ichimatsu took the offered out. “Yeah, I think I will. ‘Night.” He hurried to stand up, heading for the tent. “Totty, are you ready?”

“Not yet! I want to make sure this idiot doesn’t bleed to death because of his own recklessness.” The warlock called back. 

“Alright, then I’m going-” Ichimatsu was tugged back by a hand on his wrist. Karamatsu had caught him before he could take more than a couple steps away. 

“Ichimatsu…”

The catfolk could feel his face flushing. “What?” He spat with more vehemence than intended, desperate to escape his own nervousness. 

The knight pulled him by the wrist back towards himself. Cupping his cheek gently, Karamatsu pulled him in for a quick kiss. 

“Good night.” The knight said with a warm smile. 

Ichimatsu, tensed and flushed, murmured, “‘Night…” before rushing off into the tent. 

“Eh? What happened? You’re all red!” Jyushimatsu exclaimed, waving his hands around in worry. 

“Nothing! Shut up!” Ichimatsu snapped. He flopped face-first into a bedroll, hiding his face in the pillow. “Good night!” His voice was muffled into the pillow. 

Choromatsu and Jyushimatsu looked at one another in confusion, then evil smiles stretched across both of their faces. 

“Oh~? Nothing at all? Are you sure~?” Choromatsu asked, taunting. “Certainly nothing to do with a certain member of our party, perhaps the gallant royal knight?” 

“Ichi and Kara, sitting in a tree! K-I-S-S-I-N-G!” Jyushimatsu sang, laughing. 

“Shut up! It’s nothing like that! I’ll kill you both!” The threat fell weakly, with Ichimatsu’s face cherry red and his ears pinned flat against his head. 

“Sure, sure. We’ll stop talking about you and your lovey-dovey relationship with Karamatsu. Just as soon as you stop making it so much fun!” 

Jyushimatsu cackled laughing at that. He and Choromatsu began to make exaggerated kissy noises at each other, making each other laugh even harder. 

Ichimatsu flung his pillow at them, slamming it squarely into Choromatsu’s face and diving under the blanket. “I’m going to sleep! Good night!” 

The other two continued to snicker. 

“Come on, guys, leave him alone.” Came Totty’s voice from the tent’s flap. “There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of lip-to-lip action between allies! Nothing to be ashamed of!” 

Ichimatsu groaned. “Not you, too!” 

“Eh? Who’s Ichimatsu kissing?” Osomatsu’s voice came next. Ichimatsu felt he was going to die of mortification. 

“I’ll give you one guess. Dumbass.” Totty replied, flatly. 

“Oh?” A long pause, clearly Osomatsu thinking it through. “Oh! Aww, is the little kitty getting cuddly with his knight in shining armor?” 

Ichimatsu peeked his face out from under the blanket, blush not at all abated. “Shut up. Seriously.” 

Osomatsu, back in his human form, looked shocked. “Oh, shit, is it serious?”

Ichimatsu just glared back at him. 

Osomatsu sat down near Ichimatsu’s bedroll, his previously mocking grin now a soft, sympathetic smile. “Oh, man, you really like him, huh? I’m sorry we all got on you about it.”

There was a murmured apology from the other three, agreeing with Osomatsu. 

“We’re really rooting for you, y’know? He’s a great guy, underneath all the… that.” The dragon stuck out his tongue in distaste. “Oh, uh, sorry. You probably find it, like, endearing or something.” 

Ichimatsu chuckled, mood lifted. “Nah. His whole thing is physically painful, even to me.” 

“Ah, you’re a masochist, huh?” Osomatsu grinned playfully. Ichimatsu punched him in the shoulder. “Ow! I’m still injured, remember?” 

“I was going to say ‘takes one to know one’, but I guess you’re more of a baby, huh?” Ichimatsu grinned, mischievous. 

“Hey!” Osomatsu looked around the tent as the others started to laugh at his expense, now. He held a hand to his chest, looking betrayed. “I can’t believe, after everything I’ve done, you would all turn on me like this!” 

“Yeah, yeah.” Totty waved a hand. “You’re a big hero. Now shut up and sleep, we’re not done with the bigger mission yet.” 

He complied, tucking himself in to his bedroll. Everyone else followed suit, Totty scooting his bedroll closer to the dragon so he could snuggle up, enjoying his furnace-like body heat. 

Ichimatsu finally relaxed, the attention drawn away from him, and curled up comfortably beneath his own blanket. Exhausted from overexerting himself several times, as well as his close brush with the afterlife, sleep overtook him quickly. 

Chapter Text

Ichimatsu was awoken by a commotion some time later. He was exhausted, disoriented, and far too warm, Karamatsu’s body pressed close behind him. The knight had an arm around his waist and his nose buried in the nape of his neck. Ichimatsu pushed Karamatsu away from him, shaking him awake by the shoulders. 

The others were rushing out of the tent to investigate the source of the ruckus. Choromatsu’s voice sounded from outside, cursing loudly, and several small explosions were being set off. 

Karamatsu finally roused, blinking in confusion around the tent. 

“Where is everyone?” 

“Something’s happening. Let’s go.” 

Ichimatsu didn’t wait to see if Karamatsu would follow and exited the tent. 

Outside, Choromatsu was surrounded by several figures clad in a familiar silver armor. He was keeping them at bay with some weak magical effects, but it was clear they’d surprised him. As a group, the rest of the party rushed forward, drawing the attention of Choromatsu’s attackers away from him. 

“Oh, shit, there’s more of them!” One of the guards cursed. “Spread out!” 

The group shifted formation, giving themselves room to strike defensive positions. Choromatsu took the chance to give himself more space, blasting the few guards still near him away and dashing off. 

“What are you doing here?” Totty interrogated the assailants. Pink energy swirled around him menacingly. 

“You lot are interfering with the King’s plans. We’re just here to make sure everything goes smoothly back at the castle.” The guard who spoke had a little cape on one shoulder, presumably the leader of the squad. 

“Let’s just squash them, already!” Osomatsu growled. “They attacked Choromatsu, they’re clearly not here to pick daisies with us!” The dragon began to transform, red scales rippling across his body. Totty gave him a sharp look. 

“Don’t you dare change back now. You’ll rip open all those wounds I worked so hard to close up.” 

Osomatsu growled, pausing mid-transformation. Totty’s eyes glowed pink, still staring him down. 

“Alright, fine.” He finally backed down, stance relaxing and skin returning to a more human texture. 

“That’s right, don’t cause us any trouble. Back down willingly, and you might even get to live.” 

“Sir Otto?” Karamatsu’s voice came from the tent, sounding confused. He crossed over to the group, staring around at the guards, all donning the same armor he himself discarded not long ago. 

“Well, if it isn’t Karamatsu. Still alive, eh? Shocking, really.” The captain smirked. 

“What are you doing here? How are you still following that man’s orders, after everything he’s done?” Karamatsu asked, genuinely confused. 

“Thick as ever, aren’t you?” The captain flipped his sword deftly in his hand, spinning it around before leveling it at his former comrade. “I’ve known what his plans were all along. I find his bold approach refreshing, actually. No dithering about hemming and hawing about how there’s nothing to be done about the state of the world. He’s taking action!” 

“You’ve known all along? What do you mean? You yourself sent me on the mission to stop him in the first place, to deactivate the Arc!” 

“You say that like I ever expected that mission to succeed. Did you really think I would entrust such an important task to an incompetent idiot?”

“What… what do you mean?” Karamatsu looked uncertain, fearful. 

“It was a dummy mission! You were meant to die trying! If you did succeed in finding the mythical hermit who had the tome necessary to interrupt the plans, we of the castle guard put out a sizable bounty to ensure neither of you would ever make it to the castle! And, with your record in combat, it was an absolute certainty that you would be easily killed or captured. If you had managed to both find the hermit and avoid dying, you were supposed to be locked in that cell for the rest of your short, miserable life. It was completely foolproof! Unfortunately…” The guard sneered over at Choromatsu. “We underestimated both your idiocy and that of the arcane advisor. This idiot never got it through his thick head what His Majesty was trying to do! Surely, had he been as intelligent man as he believes himself to be, he would have either agreed with the King or tried to escape with you two. It was our greatest misfortune that he managed to be so incredibly stupid that he never even considered that the Arc was activated intentionally!” 

Choromatsu and Karamatsu both looked utterly humiliated. With every word the captain spoke, Karamatsu looked nearer to tears. 

“Yeah, unlucky for you, dumb luck is a powerful thing!” Osomatsu grinned widely, pointing at the guard captain. “With a whole band of idiots, like this, we’ve already screwed you guys over! Check it out!” 

“What the hell are you going on about?” The guard captain sneered. 

One of his squad tapped him on the shoulder and pointed behind them, drawing his attention to where Osomatsu was really pointing. 

The first rays of sunrise had begun peeking over the horizon.

The dark clouds billowing from the castle no longer blocked the sun’s light, slowly receding into the distance. Ichimatsu felt tears stinging at the corners of his eyes, the long night having taken a toll and the relief at seeing the sunrise again, finally, filled him with overwhelming emotion. 

Osomatsu looked triumphant. The gathered castle guard looked furious. 

“We let you all elude us for too long. You must fall here, now, so that we may yet undo the damage you’ve caused.” Sir Otto gripped his blade, teeth clenched. “Kill them!” 

In unison, the guard squadron charged forward, each bearing a blade at a member of the party. Sir Otto himself swung his sword at Karamatsu, who, reeling from shock, only barely managed to evade, taking a glancing blow to the chest. 

Ichimatsu ducked the sword swinging at him, crouching onto all fours, then pouncing at the guard captain. He impacted heavily, driving the man to the ground, and giving Karamatsu a chance to right himself. 

“Fucking cat! You’ll pay for that!” 

Sir Otto flung him off, throwing him several feet, where he rolled to a stop. He got his feet under him, readying for another pounce, when a blade swung down at him and he had to dodge. A second swing, then a third, had Ichimatsu losing ground, forced to leap backward towards the battle between Totty and Osomatsu and three more guards challenging them. Ichimatsu dodged a wide swing of a blade, only to throw himself into the arc of another. 

Osomatsu rammed himself into the guard, who’s blade swung inches away from Ichimatsu’s face. The guard hit the ground hard, and Osomatsu came down on top of him, swinging clawed hands at whatever soft flesh was exposed between plates of silver armor. 

Another guard tried to take the chance to swing at Osomatsu’s open back, but Ichimatsu leapt onto his back, digging his own claws into the man’s face and joints. 

The battle was over fairly quickly, the guards having not been ready for six opponents, even exhausted as they were and without their magic. Several guards lay dead, several more severely injured, and Sir Otto was restrained by Karamatsu, polearm held against his neck and shoulder. 

“Dear gods, you all fight like demons! I can’t believe he really ripped that guy’s arm clean off!” 

Ichimatsu was glad he hadn’t seen it happen (having been otherwise occupied), since the sight of Jyushimatsu bearing the appendage like a trophy was gruesome enough. Sir Otto seemed plenty disturbed by it, his face pale and looking moments away from retching. 

“Remember the sight well. You see what occurs when you underestimate your opponents?” Karamatsu tutted.

“Yes, gods, yes! What do you want from me? I’ll give it all! Just don’t kill me! Or rip my fucking arm off!” 

Totty hummed. “What do we want with him?”

“Yeah, we usually don’t take prisoners. Do we wanna grill him for info?” Osomatsu suggested.

“Nah, I think we’ve got a pretty good idea of his crew’s whole deal. How about you go back to your boss and tell him what a good job you did? Tell him we’re good and dead, and that your men fought bravely. You know, all lies.” 

“Ooh, I like that! Can’t really be sure he does it, though. How about just a ‘leave and never come back’?” 

“You make a good point. Leave, never come back, if you do you’ll end up like your friend. Good enough?” 

“And leave your pants!” 

Totty stared back at Osomatsu. “His pants? Why?” 

The dragon grinned. “‘Cause it’d be funny.”

“Very well. Leave, never come back, give us your pants. Sound good to you?” 

Sir Otto was already struggling out of his lower garments, releasing the straps of his armor pieces hastily. “Got it, got it! I’ll go! Here are my fucking pants, you lunatics!” 

Karamatsu withdrew his polearm as soon as the guard captain’s pants hit the ground, and the man sprinted off. Several more guards, clutching their wounds, limped or crawled away. 

“I’d say that was a good morning so far, all in all.” Osomatsu claimed, cheerfully. 

“What even happened, Choromatsu? Where did they come from?” 

The former arcane advisor looked sheepish. “I may have kept a very poor vigil. You see, I was reading one of my books by the firelight, and the next thing I know a bunch of goons have their swords at my throat!”

Totty looked unamused. “You were reading. You let a bunch of enemies sneak up on us because… you were reading.” 

“Well, in my defense, it was a very captivating story.” 

“Oh? What’s it called?” Osomatsu asked, curious. 

Choromatsu retrieved the book from where it had fallen into the dirt and revealed its cover. The title was written in a sprawling elvish script, and the image emblazoned into the front depicted a pair of elves holding one another passionately. The female elf was dressed in some imitation of clerical robes, bearing what seemed to be the made-up symbol of a made-up deity. 

Ichimatsu translated the title aloud. “‘In service to God, in temptation to passion.’” 

“Gross.” Totty criticized. 

“Ohhh? Someone was swept away by our priestess friends, eh?” Osomatsu grinned suggestively. 

“It’s nothing like that!” Choromatsu shrieked defensively. “I had this novel long before we ever met them!”

“Oh, so it’s like your fetish or something? I get it, I get it!” Osomatsu teased. 

Choromatsu hit him with the book. “Shut up! It’s got a very well-written plotline and engaging characters! Besides, you’re the one who’s a sex pet to a warlock! Who are you to judge what other people are into?!” 

“He’s got a point.” Karamatsu agreed. 

“Says the guy who’s fondling the cat! Isn’t that practically bestiality?” Osomatsu accused. 

Karamatsu blushed bright red, stunned speechless. Ichimatsu, also flushed, stammered out a defensive, “It’s not like that!” 

Totty smacked Osomatsu on the back of the head. “He’s more human than you are, dumbass.”

“Oh, yeah.” Osomatsu said, rubbing the sore spot on his skull.

“Now apologize for starting a fight.” 

“What? Why?!” Osomatsu argued. 

Totty glared at him, pink energy sparking at his fingertips. Osomatsu shrank back. 

“Sorry, everyone.”

“Good start. Go on.” 

The dragon glared at the warlock, but complied. “Sorry, Choromatsu, for making fun of your book and your crush on the priestesses.” Choromatsu turned red, in fury or embarrassment, it was hard to say. “Sorry, Ichimatsu, for calling you an animal.” Ichimatsu simply levelled a glare at him. “Sorry, Karamatsu, for bringing you into this, even though you totally walked into it and are definitely fondling Ichimatsu.” 

“Osomatsu!” Totty and Karamatsu shrieked at the same time, both looking ready to deck the dragon. 

“Sorry, sorry! Couldn’t resist! It was a joke, a joke!” 

“It wasn’t a very funny one.” Karamatsu growled. 

“Everyone, get some sleep. I’ll take the last watch, as planned. Osomatsu, you’d better hold your fucking tongue or I’ll rip it out, got me?” Totty had his hands on his hips. 

“Yes, sir.” Osomatsu said, reluctantly. 

“Go on, then.” Totty ushered the rest of the group into the tent, giving Osomatsu one last stern look, before leaving them to their rest. 

Osomatsu obediently crawled into bed without any further snide remarks. Choromatsu lit a small candle to read by, challenging Osomatsu with a glare to say anything about it. Jyushimatsu was asleep the moment his head hit the pillow. 

Karamatsu tucked himself into the bedroll next to Ichimatsu, turned away from the annoying dragon, leaving him face to face with his budding romantic interest. 

“I’m… sorry you got dragged into that.” The knight said, voice nearly a whisper. 

“He’s an ass. Not your fault.” Ichimatsu sighed, waving a paw dismissively. 

“Still, I feel like I take some of the blame, for being so… obvious about my affections for you, after all.” 

Ichimatsu flushed, glancing away. “Well, it’s not like I’m any better. Somehow they always know when the two of us are having a moment.” 

“Are you… okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Why?” 

“It was quite the barbed insult. I just want to make sure that you…”

Ichimatsu almost laughed. “Nah, it’s fine. I’m really not human. It’s not a big blow to be called what I am.” 

“That’s good, then! I’m glad.” 

Ichimatsu watched Karamatsu struggle nervously for a change of subject for a long moment, then breached the subject himself. 

“What about you? Are you okay, after the whole thing with your old squad?” 

Karamatsu deflated. Clearly he’d been avoiding this line of conversation. “I’m… I’ll be alright.”

“Okay.” Ichimatsu said, watching Karamatsu’s expression shift, openly displaying his pain and regret. “You can talk to me about it, if you need to, you know.” 

“Thank you. I…” Karamatsu struggled to find the words. “I never knew that he thought so little of me. Certainly, I needed more focussed training than many of my cohorts, but…” He swallowed, tears beginning to sparkle in his eyes. “I always thought that he knew I was trying my hardest. That he was giving me extra missions and training and such to help me achieve my potential! But, no… all along, he was just using those things as an excuse to keep me out of the way.”

The tears had begun to fall, now, Karamatsu trying to keep his voice down. Ichimatsu hesitated for just a moment, before giving in to his impulse to wipe the knight’s cheeks dry. The heavy tears soaked into the fine fur of his paws, tickling across Karamatsu’s face. 

“Do you know what I think?” Ichimatsu asked him seriously. 

“What?” Karamatsu met his eyes, looking a bit apprehensive, like he thought the catfolk was about to confirm his darkest suspicions. 

“I think Captain Doucheface missed out on the best guy he ever had under his command. You’ve proven yourself better than any of those chucklefucks a thousand times over, just since I met you. How many times have you saved my life now? How many people have you saved by fighting against injustice and evil and whatever? All just by trying to do the right thing, everywhere we go. Maybe your old boss thought you were a useless idiot, but he was only right about part of that. You’re not useless, not by a long shot. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.” Ichimatsu flushed, running out of steam. He hated giving speeches. “You’re definitely an idiot, though.” 

“Hey!” Karamatsu looked wounded. 

“Listen, I won’t lie to you, not when we’re having a serious moment here. You’re dumb as a bag of rocks.” 

Karamatsu cracked a smile at that. Ichimatsu let out a shaky sigh, relieved that he hadn’t made everything worse. 

“Good night, Karamatsu.” Ichimatsu said suddenly, releasing Karamatsu’s face from between his paws and rolling over.
“Ichimatsu… good night.” Karamatsu said, hesitating a moment during the farewell. 

Ichimatsu fidgeted nervously, steeling himself. Without warning, he suddenly rolled back over to face Karamatsu, giving him a quick kiss, then rolling over again before he could see the knight’s reaction. 

“Gods, finally!” Osomatsu groaned. “Your whispering was keeping me awake! I thought you two would never shut up- ouch!” 

The sound of a pillow smacking into Osomatsu’s face was immensely satisfying. Ichimatsu didn’t turn around to see who threw it, but mentally thanked them. He fell asleep with a slight smile dancing on his face. 

Chapter Text

Ichimatsu awoke, much later, the sun high in the sky, but in the same position as earlier this morning. It seemed Karamatsu was a cuddler, instinctively drawing him in in his sleep. Without any immediate, obvious danger this time, Ichimatsu allowed himself to relax into the hold. Karamatsu was very warm, after all, and he still had several cat-like instincts, including a gravitation towards warmth. At least, if asked, he’d claim that’s all it was. 

Karamatsu’s heartbeat was strong and slow, steady as a ritual drum. Ichimatsu felt his own rapid heartbeat slowing to match. It was nice, soothing. 

Karamatsu stirred, humming and squeezing Ichimatsu tighter towards himself. Just like that, Ichimatsu’s heart was racing again. He cursed how easy he was, how little it took to affect him. Face red, he gently pried Karamatsu off of himself. “Wake up, dumbass. You’re smothering me.” 

Karamatsu hummed, frowning a bit. “‘M sorry.” He mumbled the apology, not quite awake yet. Ichimatsu scooted just a bit away, giving himself space to calm back down. 

On the other end of the tent, Jyushimatsu and Choromatsu still snored, the latter with his book still open on his chest. Osomatsu was conspicuously missing. 

“Where…?” Ichimatsu wondered aloud. Stretching his sleep-stiff limbs out, he made his way to the flap of the tent. 

Totty was nowhere to be seen outside, either. 

He briefly wondered if he should be concerned, then shook the thought from his mind. If either of them were attacked, it would be their opponent who was in danger. It was far more likely that the two of them had slipped off for some private time. 

Back inside the tent, Karamatsu was yawning, stretching. Ichimatsu flushed, but attempted to keep a neutral expression. 

“Ah, good morning, Ichimatsu. Did you sleep well?” 

“It’s past noon by now.” 

“Oh, that’s right… the sun’s back. Good, good.” 

The knight rubbed his eyes, groggy. Slowly, he pulled his boots on, and was standing before he looked around the tent. “Where’s Osomatsu?” 

“Not sure. He and Totty are both gone. Presumably together.” 

“Yes, yes, good… wait.” Karamatsu suddenly looked serious. “Are they okay? Could they be in danger?” 

“Are you really gonna worry about those two? Worry about the rest of us being down two of our heavy hitters.” Ichimatsu cracked an amused smile. Karamatsu relaxed, relieved. 

“You make an excellent point. Let’s the two of us begin preparing something to eat, shall we? You can cook, yes?” 

Ichimatsu hesitated, watching Karamatsu depart the tent. Sure, he could cook. He was pretty good at it, too, having prepared nearly all of his own meals for the better part of his life. However, the prospect of performing such a… domestic activity with Karamatsu gave him pause. He’d almost certainly make an idiot of himself. 

“Ichimatsu? Are you coming?” 

He dismissed his chaotic thoughts, hurrying after the knight. 

“Yes, yes, I’m coming.” 

Karamatsu was digging through Totty’s bottomless satchel, removing cooking implements from within. He’d pulled out nearly a whole kitchen already, in the moments Ichimatsu lagged behind. 

“I wasn’t sure what we’ll need, so I pulled out everything that seems like cookware.” 

Ichimatsu covered his mouth to hide his giggles. “What were you planning to make?” He asked, interrupted midway by his own laughter. 

Karamatsu looked a little embarrassed. “I’m not sure. I’m… not particularly adept in the kitchen, after all. I suppose I was just planning on following orders.” He scratched the back of his neck nervously. 

“Oh? You’ll follow my every order, then?” Ichimatsu purred. 

Karamatsu looked shocked, blushing bright red. Suddenly embarrassed at his own words, Ichimatsu also flushed, looking anywhere but Karamatsu’s face. 

“Um, ah, that’s- let’s go get some ingredients! You- you can hunt, right? You can just go- any meat, it’s fine, whatever you can catch, I’ll be able to work with it, meat’s meat after all-” Ichimatsu babbled awkwardly. 

“Yes! Yes, I can hunt! I’ll go do that! Yes!” Karamatsu agreed in a rush, saluting, then scampering off. 

Ichimatsu took several deep breaths, trying to calm his fluttering heart, tension very slowly leaving his body.
“Ingredients, right. Let’s go… do that. Alright!” He said to himself, trying to shake the horrifically awkward conversation out of his head. 

He took off into the forest, away from where Karamatsu entered, and began to forage for edible flora. 

---

Hours later, the awkwardness of the morning nearly forgotten, Ichimatsu returned with a variety of wild vegetables, mushrooms, and herbs. Karamatsu wasn’t back yet, but hunting could take quite a while in the best of conditions. Ichimatsu got to work preparing what he had, assembling the body of a stew and awaiting the return of the knight with their meat. 

The water had begun to simmer by the time he showed up, red-faced and walking stiffly. Ichimatsu mimicked his posture, immediately assuming it was a relic of their conversation earlier.

The knight held up three rabbits, hanging from the remnants, of snare traps. He cleared his throat. 

“Osomatsu and Todomatsu are just fine, don’t worry about them. You weren’t, really, but I found… I can confirm that they’re perfectly safe!” He managed to state.

Ichimatsu hesitated a moment, startled, then relaxed, laughing. “You have unfortunate luck, huh? Get those rabbits over here and I’ll get them into this stew. Would you help cut some vegetables?” 

The knight jumped to follow instructions, eager to forget about his encounter in the woods. Ichimatsu almost wished he could have seen it. The knight could be quite fragile about these things, and his expression would’ve undoubtedly been hilarious to see. Then again, Ichimatsu pretty much never wanted to stumble upon Totty making his quote-unquote ‘sacrifices’ if he had any say in it. 

Ichimatsu handed off the vegetables he had yet to finish chopping, those that would boil too quickly and needed to be put in later, and got to work prepping the meat for the stew. After several silent minutes of carefully skinning and gutting the small game, his attention was suddenly grabbed by Karamatsu’s sharp gasp of pain. 

Looking over, he saw that the knight had managed to cut his finger fairly deeply, blood dripping onto the vegetables he was cutting. Ichimatsu set aside the rabbits carefully, moving over to Karamatsu. 

“Let me see.” He motioned for Karamatsu to give him the injured hand, and the knight complied. 

He inspected the cut. It was pretty deep, slicing nearly to the bone of his index finger. Ichimatsu winced. 

“That looks pretty bad. We have no option but to cauterize it. Stick your hand in the fire.” He said, expression serious. 

“What?!” Karamatsu yelped, tearing his hand away from the catfolk. 

“Well, there is one other option, you know.” 

“What? What is it?” Karamatsu asked nervously. 

Ichimatsu flicked him in the forehead. “You know healing magic, dumbass. You can get your goddess to patch you right up.” 

“Oh, yeah.” 

The knight sang the hymn, golden light flashing across the wound and erasing it. 

“All better?” Ichimatsu asked, taking Karamatsu’s hand again. “Well, look at that. You didn’t have to bleed all over the vegetables, after all.” 

Ichimatsu snapped two fingers, the sound muffled with his soft paw pads, and the blood covering Karamatsu’s hands and the poorly-cut vegetables vanished. 

“Thank you, Ichimatsu.” 

“This feels nostalgic, doesn’t it?” Ichimatsu played with Karamatsu’s hand a bit, splaying out his fingers. 

“How so?” 

Ichimatsu glanced up to see Karamatsu gazing back at him, curious. “It wasn’t long after we met. I hurt my paw in the stream that one time. You patched me up, then.” 

“Yes… you hadn’t noticed the injury. I’m glad I can be more help with things like that, now.” 

“For all the skills you’ve picked up, looks like you never learned to cut vegetables, though.”

“Ah.” Karamatsu looked at them guiltily. “It seems I underestimated the difficulty of this task.” 

“Here, let me show you how.” 

Ichimatsu guided Karamatsu’s hands as he explained. “Here, hold the knife more like this. You’re not trying to stab them apart. And your other hand, curl the fingers back like this, so you won’t cut your fingertips off.” He tucked Karamatsu’s left hand into a loose fist, showing him how to keep his fingers out of the way, then lined the hand up on the partially-cut stalks. 

“Now, put the pressure from the tip of the knife down towards the handle. This way you control where the blade goes better. See?” 

Holding the hand that held the knife, Ichimatsu cut through the vegetables in a smooth, slow motion, letting Karamatsu feel what he was doing. 

“Make sense?” 

He looked over to the knight’s face. Karamatsu was beet red, shoulders tense. Ichimatsu drew his paws away, covering his grin with both of them. 

“Did you hear any of what I said?” He accused. 

“Yes!” Karamatsu said, too quickly and too loudly. “I can take it from here, no need to worry!” 

“Let me see you, then.” Ichimatsu drew away, giving Karamatsu space to work and keeping a close eye on his motions. 

The knight relaxed a bit as he did so, concentrating hard on following all of Ichimatsu’s instructions. Unskillfully, unpracticed, he began to chop the vegetables. His technique was better, though, and he quickly grew confidence, seeing the stalks become even cubes. 

“Good work. You’ll be a master chef in no time.” 

Karamatsu beamed proudly. Ichimatsu watched him for just a moment longer, heart feeling warm just from watching the knight gain confidence, before returning to his own task. He made quick work of the rabbits, adding cubes of their meat to the stew and burying the remains. He cleaned his paws with a quick spell, and returned his attention to Karamatsu.

The knight made slow but steady progress on the rest of the ingredients, chopping them to size as Ichimatsu instructed. His cuts become more and more even, though his pace didn’t quicken much, and soon all of the ingredients were cut. 

Ichimatsu checked the state of those already simmering in the stew, and added those that would cook the slowest first, making his way towards the very quick-cooking ingredients last. 

As the last ingredients made their way into the pot, Jyushimatsu and Choromatsu wandered from the tent. 

“Oh, making breakfast, huh?”

Ichimatsu glanced over, returning to stirring the pot. “More of a late lunch, or an early dinner. You can check the sun yourself.” 

“Oh, so it is… incredible. I had no idea how far my sense of time had shifted while the sun was gone.” 

“Don’t worry about it. We all got screwed up by it. Food is food, anyhow. Sit tight, it’ll be ready soon.” 

“Where are the others? Totty and Osomatsu… have they been gone long?”

Ichimatsu chuckled. Karamatsu flushed. 

“I’ll give you three guesses where they are and what they’re doing. First two don’t count.” 

“Oh, I… I see. Nevermind, then, I suppose they’ll be back soon enough.” 

“Watcha cooking? I’m starving!” Osomatsu’s voice cut through the quiet air, startling the gathered party. 

Choromatsu held a hand to his heart, displaying his shock dramatically. “Well, call a demon by name, as they say… Took you long enough to return! We nearly left you for dead!” 

“Aww, worried about me? Don’t worry, I’m a big boy! I can handle myself!” 

Totty followed close behind, walking at a steady pace back to the campsite. “I’ve got some bad news, everyone. My powers have waned considerably.” 

Osomatsu snickered. “That’s just his way of saying I topped this time.” 

“You don’t normally?” Karamatsu asked, one eyebrow raised. 

“That’s-! Shut up!” 

“It’s my way of saying, Osomatsu, that our efforts to repair the divide between planes is working, and that I can’t rely on Asmodeus to give quite so freely anymore. I won’t be able to work as powerful of magics, and I’ll have to do more for him to grant what little he even will.” 

“That’s… troubling. We still have the mysterious weak area to confront, and the tyrant King himself after all of it.” Choromatsu worried. 

Ichimatsu shook his head. “We knew it would happen. If Totty was still at full power when we confronted the king, it would mean that our efforts were totally useless. With him weakening and the sun returning, we can pretty safely say that we’ve made quite a bit of progress.”

“Exactly.” Totty said. “You’ll all have to pick up my slack from here on out, got it?” 

“Geez, you have such a big head, Totty!” Osomatsu joked. “You really think you’ve been single-handedly carrying this party, huh? Well, we’re all big boys. We can take it, don’t you worry, Princess. ” 

“Don’t you ‘princess’ me, you dumb lizard!” Totty slapped Osomatsu on the shoulder, but the dragon didn’t stop grinning. 

“If you guys are done flirting, do you want to eat some lunch? Food’s ready.” Ichimatsu interrupted. Totty, fuming, accepted a bowl from him, ladled full of stew. 

“Hell yeah! This is fresh shit, huh? Not those dried rations slave master Totty’s been making us eat?” 

Totty shot Osomatsu a glare for that. If Osomatsu was getting away with this much teasing, he really was much weaker. Ichimatsu wondered if he had any real control over the dragon at all anymore, and if Osomatsu even realized it. 

“Yep, all fresh stuff. Karamatsu and I foraged for it this morning. Appreciate it while you can, we likely won’t have another quiet day like this to do it again.” Ichimatsu handed over another bowl to Osomatsu’s impatiently waiting hands. The dragon dug in greedily, picking out the meaty bits first. 

“We should get moving again when we’ve finished our meal. We can’t be entirely sure where we ended up when we came back from the Lower Planes. We may not even be on the correct continent anymore.” Choromatsu reminded everyone pessimistically. 

“Not entirely true.” Totty argued. “We can pretty much assume that the third portal Asmodeus marked for us, the one we hadn’t found yet, is the same one the cultists were using to power the plane shift. If that’s the case, we’re still right on course, and we saved ourselves several days of travel.” 

“That’s a pretty big assumption. If you’re wrong, and we dawdle on that assumption, we could lose valuable time, time that the tyrant King could use to rally troops and cause more destruction and chaos!” Choromatsu argued. 

“Guys, guys, seriously, chill out!” Osomatsu groaned. “We can fly, remember? The castle guard that was tracking us already found us, and we whooped their asses! We can get an aerial view of the place, and shave off good time getting back on track!” 

“What if there are other squads following us? You think the king sent only one group after us?” Totty pointed his spoon at Osomatsu emphatically. “Now you’re the one making big assumptions!”

“If I may?” Karamatsu cut in. The others all quit their bickering and turned their attention toward him. “The guard clearly assumed we were incompetent. They believed they had a clear idea of our capabilities, and that we were lacking. If King Tobias were to be rationing his forces, preparing to march upon enemy territory as planned, he would be unlikely to waste more than that small group chasing us down.” 

“Oh. That’s… a really good point. Very astute, Karamatsu.” Choromatsu acknowledged. 

“Also…” Karamatsu began. “Could we go back to the city we just left first? Dear Steven is still at the stables by the inn we stayed at. I would very much like to retrieve him.” 

“Oh… um…” Totty looked around at the group. “I don’t know how to tell you this, Karamatsu, but…”

“The place was totally wrecked. We went past the inn when we were traveling back to the cultist hideout. It was mostly just rubble. I don’t think there’s a good chance Steven’s still there.” Osomatsu pointed out tactlessly. 

“Oh… you… you make a fair point… I suppose… I suppose I just hoped…” Karamatsu’s eyes welled up with tears. Ichimatsu hesitantly patted him on the shoulder. The knight took this as an invitation, throwing himself onto Ichimatsu and bawling into his robe. 

Ichimatsu looked around at the group desperately, hoping to be rescued. He patted Karamatsu’s back gently, awkwardly. 

‘What do I do?’ He mouthed at Totty. The warlock just shrugged, unhelpfully. 

Jyushimatsu jumped to the rescue, instead. “Hey, hey! Don’t worry, don’t worry! We can go check up on him! It’s bad to think of bad things! Think of good things! We can check, see if he’s okay!” 

Ichimatsu made slicing motions on his neck, trying to communicate to Jyushimatsu to ‘cut it out!’ Too late. 

Karamatsu looked up from Ichimatsu’s robe, hopefully. “You really think there’s a chance?” 

“Yeah, yeah! Lots of people were still alive when we finished kicking octopus butt! Steven could be, too!” 

“Well, I guess that settles it.” Totty said, glaring at Jyushimatsu. “We’ll go back to the town. Clean up and get ready to march.” 

---

Ichimatsu would never get used to flying. It was disorienting, seeing the world so tiny below, and nauseating, seeing how far he could fall. Coupled with the rushing wind from Osomatsu’s huge wings beating, making Ichimatsu lose faith in his own grip, it was a hellish experience. The dragon rose high in the sky, getting as wide a view as possible, and following Totty’s instructions, assuming their previous location was the portal marked on the map and returning due East to where the razed city should be. 

Ichimatsu glanced at Karamatsu in front of him. He couldn’t see the knight’s face, the cautiously hopeful expression still on it, and for that he was glad. It would be crushing to see the knight’s face when they landed, seeing the destroyed stables for himself. 

On the horizon before them, the ruined city rose slowly. The residents still mulled about, clearing the streets of rubble, making good progress. A few caravans were arriving from the roads leading to and from the settlement, bearing goods and people, ready to help rebuild. 

As Osomatsu flew them closer, many of the residents screamed, running panicked. 

“Aw, shit.” He cursed. He circled around, losing altitude and landing some ways away from the city. “Everyone down. I don’t wanna make everyone piss their pants anymore than I already have.” 

He transformed as soon as they’d dismounted. Ichimatsu glanced over his prominent horns and thick, scaled tail. 

“Do you think they’ll believe us if we say he’s a dragonborn, or should we try for tiefling?” 

“As long as he’s not huge and breathing fire, I think they’ll forgive him. Let’s get this over with.” 

Totty led the way, marching at a quick pace. Ichimatsu struggled to keep up, having to break into a jog to keep pace with the determined warlock. 

They made it to the city limits in roughly an hour, Ichimatsu thought, not really knowing how to judge the sun. Totty seemed to know where he was going, somehow remembering the route to the inn despite several of the roads no longer existing. 

In front of the pile of rubble, bearing the door sign of the inn they’d spent the night, Totty stopped, hands on hips, looking around. The rest of the party nearly ran into him, his pace having drawn to a halt so suddenly. 

“Excuse me!” He called out, attracting the attention of a nearby teenager, sifting through what used to be the kitchen, judging by the sacks of flour he was pulling from beneath the ruins. 

“Eh? What? Who are you?” The boy called out, nervous. “The innkeeper will be mighty upset if you lot are here to loot her place! I’ll call the… I dunno, the blacksmith? He’s got big weapons laying about!” 

“We’re not here to loot.” Totty snapped. 

“Please, lad, do you work here? For the innkeeper?” Karamatsu called, a bit of desperation in his voice. 

“I do.” The boy replied. “Why?” He asked suspiciously.

“We stayed here but a day ago. Our horse was resting in the stables. Please, do you know what happened to Steven?” 

The boy looked nervous. “I’m sorry, sir, but… the stables are over there. What’s left of them, at least.” 

Karamatsu looked heartbroken, ready to begin sobbing anew. “Thank you… for your honesty… I’m sorry, I-”

“You lot! Back off! I don’t have no patience for looters!” A familiar woman charged forward, brandishing a small hammer. 

“Wait, we’re not-!” Choromatsu began. 

The woman halted before reaching them. “Wait a moment, I recognize you lot. Had the nervous horse, didn’t you?” 

“Y-yes, dear Steven…” Karamatsu replied, weepy. 

“I’m sorry to say, but that beast bolted the moment the chaos started. I don’t know where he is now, but he’s long gone.” 

Karamatsu’s eyes grew wide. “So he… so he wasn’t in the stable when it…!” 

“Oh, no, dear, he’d already run far off by the time that great writhing monster took this place down! I ran off after him, that’s the only reason I’m still standing now! Didn’t nowhere near catch him, though, sorry to say.” 

“No, madame, don’t apologize!” Karamatsu looked elated. “He may yet live, then! Oh, that’s wonderful news!” 

The knight swept the innkeeper into a crushing hug. She looked around at the gathered group in fear. 

“Come on, Sir Crybaby.” Ichimatsu grabbed him by the leather pauldron and dragged him off of her. 

“Yes, thank you for your assistance, but we really must be going.” Totty bowed a little. 

“No problem, none at all… good luck finding that horse, I suppose?” She replied, bewildered. 

“Yes, thank you, again. Farewell!” 

“Thank you… so much… you beautiful soul…” Karamatsu continued to weep. Ichimatsu rolled his eyes. 

“Now that we’ve finished this detour, can we get back to the mission? Is that okay with you?” 

Karamatsu nodded, eyes wet. 

“Great. Osomatsu, bring us up! Next stop… whatever the hell the next stop is.”  

Chapter Text

Osomatsu took them, to the absolute terror of the townsfolk, back high up into the air. 

“We can save a bit of time going straight to… whatever forest that is! This road leads almost all the way there!” Totty shouted instructions to Osomatsu, who angled his great wings in the direction indicated. 

To their South, Ichimatsu saw the great black clouds still hovering, blanketing great swaths of countryside in darkness. They had receded nearer the castle, but they were still clearly present. Hopefully, whatever they needed to do in the forest would drive back the clouds entirely, showing that the king had been stripped of all his powers. 

The sky grew naturally dark as they flew long hours. Since it would have taken days on foot to reach the forest from the city, it was still a long flight, even if they were making much better time. The moon rose up high, bathing the land in its pale white light, by the time Totty indicated Osomatsu should land. 

“We should make camp for the evening. There’s no telling what awaits us in there. According to the map,” Totty reached into his satchel to indicate the wide, pink circle surrounding the entire forested area, “we’re just at the edge of the weakness in the barrier. Likely, due to whatever force is working in this region, the entire forest is connected directly to the Lower Planes.”

“It’ll be plenty dangerous, for sure. We should take care that no one ventures off alone.” Choromatsu warned. 

“Let’s start with a good night’s sleep.” Ichimatsu suggested. “Who’s on watch?” 

“Not Choromatsu!” Totty stated emphatically. “You are officially out of the rotation forever!” 

Choromatsu looked sheepish. 

“I shall take the first watch!” Karamatsu declared. 

“I’ll relieve you.” Ichimatsu offered. “I’m usually awake in the middle of the night, after all.” 

“And I’ll take the last watch. Make sure you wake me up, Ichimatsu! We can’t have you falling asleep in the weird demon forest, got it?” Totty warned. 

“Yeah, yeah. Will do.”

“Glad that’s settled. Let’s get our grub on!” Osomatsu cheered. 

“It’s just the old, dry rations, you know. No fresh rabbit meat or anything.” Totty reminded him. 

“Yeah, whatever, who cares? Food’s food!” Osomatsu dug into his jerky with fervor, despite his complaints from earlier in the day. 

Totty rolled his eyes. “What am I gonna do with you?” 

---

Karamatsu sat patiently, studiously sharpening the axe end of his polearm with his whetstone. The magical blade rarely needed it, but he didn’t want to leave anything in that forest up to chance. The stone sang across the blade, ringing out into the still night air. It was eerily silent. Despite being mere feet away from a forest, there were no hoots of owls, buzzing of insects, or rustling of creatures wandering through the brush. He kept the bulk of his attention on the nearby trees, keeping a sharp eye out for any movement. Occasionally, he’d glance towards the road to his left, but there was little activity. He felt secure that, whatever happened, he’d be able to see threats from that direction a far ways off. The forest on the other hand…

A flash of something white between the leaves caught his eye. Some creature moved within the cover of the forest, mostly obscured by the foliage. He paused the movements of the whetstone, gripping his weapon tightly in his hands. 

The creature continued moving, approaching the treeline. As it grew nearer, it became more visible, less obscured. Karamatsu could make out the shape of its body, its long snout, its pointed ears. A horse? 

Finally the creature, the horse, departed the cover of the forest, peeking about outside of its cover. 

“Steven…?” Karamatsu whispered, disbelieving. 

The white horse looked up at the sound, then turned quickly to scamper off. Oh, dear Steven, so timid… Karamatsu rushed off after him. 

Not far into the trees, the knight lost sight of his steed. He cast his gaze about, hoping desperately to catch a glimpse of the white fur of his companion, but to no avail. The forest was as still as ever. 

Slowly, it dawned on him that the horse had never made a noise. His hooves broke no branches, his large body shook no leaves, even his breath was eerily absent. For a horse running into a thick forest to be completely silent… it must have been a trick of the mind. Or perhaps, more concerning, a trick of the forest itself. 

He cast his gaze about, searching back the way he came. Surely, the firelight would guide him. He hadn’t entered so far into the forest that its light would fade. 

Unfortunately, his optimism outpaced the reality. He could not see the fire through the trees, nor could he see a path where his body had shifted the foliage, or his steps had pressed into the soft earth. It was as though he had suddenly appeared here, in the middle of the forest, without ever taking a step. 

“Fuck.” 

---

Back at the campsite, Ichimatsu roused. His heart began to stutter oddly, leaving him a bit dizzy, and he sat up to catch his breath. It was a curious sensation, even concerning, but nothing he hadn’t felt before. Since being brought back from the dead, the organ was touchy, doing a poor job of keeping an even pace. 

Slowly, he rose to his feet, meaning to exit the tent to find Karamatsu. Perhaps the knight would be able to call on Lady Sune’s help to restore Ichimatsu’s heart to its proper rhythm. 

The fireside was conspicuously empty. 

Near the ring of rocks making up the fire pit was a strange stone, a different color and pattern than the others. It had deep grooves in it, as though a blade had cut into it several times. A whetstone, perhaps? Likely Karamatsu’s. The knight himself, though, was still nowhere to be seen. 

“Karamatsu? Hello?” Ichimatsu called out. There was no response. Not simply hiding among the trees for a bathroom break, then. 

Strange. Why would only Karamatsu have been kidnapped, if that was the case? The tent was completely undisturbed. In fact, the fire site itself was also spotless, save for heavy footprints leading towards the trees. If he had to hazard a guess, he assumed they likely matched Karamatsu’s leather boots. 

“Damn it.” Ichimatsu chewed anxiously at a claw. What if he’d wandered off into the forest to relieve himself and been ambushed by demons? Or simply gotten lost? 

Ichimatsu had trouble focussing, his heart’s rhythm still sputtering. He held a hand to his chest, taking deep, slow breaths. 

The others. He had to wake them. He couldn’t rush off after Karamatsu alone, not into this forest, and not in his condition. He needed backup, extra muscle to help push through whatever awaited them within. 

“Osomatsu! Totty! Wake up!” He called, walking slowly back to the tent. “Choromatsu? Jyushimatsu? There’s a problem!” 

“What? What is it?” Choromatsu yawned from inside. 

“Are we being ambushed again?” Totty grumbled. 

“Karamatsu’s missing. I called out for him, but he’s not answering.” 

“Ugh. Really? Maybe he’s just taking a piss or something, chill out.” Osomatsu rolled over in his bedroll, shoving his face into a pillow. 

“No, Osomatsu, don’t go back to sleep. If he took a piss in the evil demon forest, he could’ve gotten eaten or something.” Totty shook Osomatsu’s shoulder, but the dragon batted away his hand. 

“Even he’s not that stupid.” Ichimatsu insisted. “He knows how dangerous it would be to go alone. There’s no way he’s not in danger right now. Besides…” 

“What?” Choromatsu asked, brow furrowed. 

“It’s probably not related but… my heart’s…” 

“Your heart?” Totty frowned. He stood up, making his way to the opening of the tent, where Ichimatsu stood shakily. He held a hand to his chest, listening quietly. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound good. Why do you think it means Karamatsu’s in danger, though?” 

Ichimatsu looked away, embarrassed. “It’s just that… the goddess told me-” 

“The goddess? You talked to a goddess?” Choromatsu shrieked in disbelief. 

“Yeah, after I died. She’s the one who brought me back, after all. I dunno, it didn’t seem weird to me.” 

“Didn’t seem- Ichimatsu! Tell us these things!” Choromatsu scolded. 

Ichimatsu ignored him. “The goddess told me to stay close to him. She said, if we were to part, he couldn’t protect me… maybe she was being literal, like maybe my life force is directly connected to him.” Ichimatsu explained. 

Totty looked worried. “Maybe so… Regardless, you’re in no state to be traipsing through the woods. We’ll have Jyushimatsu carry you… Jyushimatsu?” 

The angel was still snoring, a big smile on his face, sleeping soundly. 

“Ugh. Get him awake! This better not be a repeat…” Totty crossed his arms impatiently. 

Choromatsu gently shook the angel by the shoulder. “Jyushimatsu? It’s time to wake up.” He said, gently. The angel didn’t stir. 

“Jyushimatsu! Wake up! Now!” Totty shouted at him. 

Osomatsu crawled across the bedrolls to where Jyushimatsu slept. He slapped him across the face, gently, several times. “Rise and shine, Jyushimatsu! Time to kick some demon butt!” 

“Eh? Where? I’ll get ‘em good!” Jyushimatsu declared, suddenly leaping to his feet, looking around for something to hit. 

“Oh, good, you got him awake. Jyushimatsu?” 

“Aye!” 

“Carry Ichimatsu.” Totty instructed. 

“Aye!” Jyushimatsu complied, pulling the catfolk into his arms easily. Ichimatsu held on tightly, startled by the sudden movement. 

“Karamatsu is missing, and we’re going in after him! Make sure no one else gets split up! Let’s get moving, people!” Totty ordered, leading the way out of the tent confidently. 

---

Karamatsu made his way slowly through the forest, aiming to return the way he came. He wasn’t entirely certain it was the right way, since he’d been walking nearly an hour already without seeing signs of the forest’s edge, but he couldn’t simply stay in one place and hope for a miracle! He needed to make his own way out, hopefully back to his friends, but at least out of the forest, if possible. 

The silent forest became more noisy the longer he walked. None of the noises sounded normal, though. Oddly echoing bird calls, snarling growls muffled by distance, the snapping of twigs behind him without any presence there to have caused them. 

He gripped his weapon tightly. At least he now had a holy blade with which to strike down whatever monsters may come. 

He stumbled out of the trees and into a clearing. It was small, perfectly circular, with mushrooms creating another circle in the center of it. He remembered tales of fairies, and glanced about nervously. 

In the center of the mushroom circle, tiny hands dug out of the earth. A sharp little face with sharp little ears emerged after, looking at him curiously, with large, watery eyes. The little creature pulled itself fully out of the earth, shaking dirt from its silvery wings, and stood fully upright. 

“Hello, what’s your name?” The little creature asked, blinking its large eyes in curiosity. 

“I’m Sir Kar-” He interrupted himself. Wasn’t it bad to tell fairies your name? He wished he could remember. “Sir Karl.” 

“Sir Karl?” It repeated, cocking its head. “Thank you! Now we can be friends! Come dance with me, Sir Karl!” It invited, gesturing him over to the circle of mushrooms.

He hesitated. 

“Sir Karl? Don’t you want to be friends? You should dance with me, over here!” 

Karamatsu laughed nervously. “Ah, my friend, I must apologize. You see, I do not know how to dance!” 

“You don’t know how? Well, that’s easy! I’ll just teach you! All you have to do is listen to me! Come on, Sir Karl!” The creature waved enthusiastically. 

Karamatsu held his ground, casting about for a good lie to tell the creature. He scrawled his memory for facts about fairies, their customs, what to watch out for… 

He hesitated too long, and the creature became irate. “You lied to me! That’s not your name!” It shrieked, stomping its little foot on the ground. “You don’t want to be friends at all!” It accused. 

“No, no, I simply-”

“If you’re not my friend, you’re my enemy! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you dead!” 

“Shit!”

The little creature rose into the air, purple electricity crackling around him. Just as he geared up to dive towards Karamatsu, a furry hand caught his wrist. 

“This way.” Ichimatsu called. 

Karamatsu followed him quickly, the catfolk leading him away from the clearing and the angry creature, further into the dark forest. 

---

“Come on, guys, stick together! Choromatsu, that means you!” Totty ordered. 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” The former arcane advisor demanded, several feet behind the others and examining a strange leaf. 

“Just keep up. We need to just find the idiot and get back out.” Ichimatsu reminded him. From his vantage point in the tall angel’s arms, he could see above the low brush, but still not very far into the thick forest. His catlike pupils blew wide, absorbing every speck of light possible, and Choromatsu nearly blinded him as he sent forward several wisps of light to illuminate the path. 

“Fuck, warn a guy!” He grumbled. 

“Sorry.” Choromatsu apologized absently. “It’s strange, though, isn’t it? Light doesn’t travel very far at all here. It looks like it’s getting swallowed up just a few feet out.” 

“Should I try breathing some fire? That’d light it up real nice!” The dragon offered.

“You idiot! Don’t you dare! You’ll burn it all down, and with all of us inside!” 

“Geez, just trying to be helpful. No need to chew my ass, Totty.” 

Osomatsu pouted, hanging towards the back of the group. Ichimatsu turned to keep an eye on him, checking to see he didn’t fall too far behind. 

He noticed something strange, though. Something missing. 

“Hey, guys? Where’s Choromatsu?” 

“He was right behind us- shit! Where’d he go?” Totty searched around in a panic, but the wizard was just… gone. Soon after, his orbs of light also vanished, the spell running its course. 

“Maybe you should try that fire, after all…” Totty admitted. 

“Aye, aye, sir!” Osomatsu agreed eagerly, taking a deep breath. 

“Wait, not that much-” Totty tried to stop him, but no fire came out on the exhale. Totty sighed in relief. “Okay, good. Cool it, you dumb lizard, just a little flame!” 

“Uh, Totty? I can’t breathe fire.” Osomatsu admitted. 

“What?!” 

“It’s just… not coming out. I dunno.” 

“Well, shit… can you transform?”

Osomatsu screwed up his face for a moment, then looked disappointed. He shook his head. “I can’t do it… I dunno what’s wrong.” 

“That’s certainly strange. Jyushimatsu, can you… what is he doing?”

Ichimatsu shrugged, sitting on the forest floor. Jyushimatsu was sniffing around, like a bloodhound. 

“Gonna find the others! I should be able to smell them! But, umm...” 

“Let me guess, your powers aren’t working, either.”

Jyushimatsu nodded. Totty crossed his arms, frowning. 

“If we’re all powerless, this is worse than I thought… we should retreat.” 

“That’d be all well and good, sure. If we knew where we were going. And if Osomatsu hadn’t just also disappeared.” Ichimatsu pointed out. 

“Gods DAMN it!” Totty swore. “Why can’t any of you sit still for one moment! Fine, we’ll all just stare at each other, and no one goes anywhere, how’s that?!” He shrieked. 

A loud crashing noise drew their attention away from one another. 

“What was that?” Totty asked, nervously. 

“It sounded big… we aren’t alone here.” Ichimatsu mused. 

“We can kill it! No problem!” Jyushimatsu boasted. 

“There’s only the three of us left. We can’t fight anything like this.”

“Well, what do you suggest we do?! Die here?!” Totty pulled at his hair, panicked and frustrated. “Let’s take stock of what powers we still have. Can you access any of your magic?” Ichimatsu asked. 

Totty sparked some pink magic between his fingers. “Looks like it. I can’t feel Asmodeus there, but also it feels like I still have the power he already granted me earlier.” 

Ichimatsu nodded. “I can feel my magic, as well. It seems like it’s just the magical creatures that were affected by this. Jyushimatsu, how are you feeling?” 

When Ichimatsu turned to look, the space where the angel had stood moments prior was empty.

“Damn! Fuck! Shit! I’m running out of curses! What the hell just happened? Did he wander off, or is the forest taking people?!” 

Ichimatsu stood carefully, stepping closer to Totty. “There’s something weird happening here. We knew there would be. Try to stay calm, and we’ll get through this.” 

“Okay, okay. You’re right.” Totty took a deep breath. “We don’t know where anyone is, we don’t know what else is here with us, and we don’t know where we are, but we can’t panic! We have to keep level-headed about it! We know what we can’t do, so we just have to think about what we can ! Think about what spells we know, what can we do with-” 

Totty stopped talking suddenly, staring behind Ichimatsu. The catfolk glanced over his own shoulder, seeing what the warlock was looking at, and found the area empty. 

“Totty, what- oh, for the love of-!” 

Totty was nowhere to be seen. 

---

“How did you find me? I got lost as soon as I entered the forest!” Karamatsu asked, elated to see Ichimatsu, but very confused. 

“I guess you were just walking in circles. I got up for my watch, and went looking for you. Found you pretty easy.” Ichimatsu sent an amused look over his shoulder. “You can be pretty dense, you know.” 

“Hey!” Karamatsu pouted. “That’s a bit rude.” 

Ichimatsu giggled. The sound was like bells to Karamatsu’s besotted ears. “We’re nearly there.” Ichimatsu informed him. The catfolk glanced back at him, expression a bit coy. Karamatsu gulped. What could that face mean? 

The pair emerged into a small clearing, a clear stream bubbling past and large, vibrant, exotic flowers lining both sides. 

“The campsite’s just a little past here, but… I found this place on the way. Lovely, isn’t it?” 

The moonlight shone through the trees a bit here, illuminating Ichimatsu’s face. His long eyelashes left shadows on his round cheeks, the apples flushed with just a dusting of a blush. Karamatsu felt himself smiling, clumsily, lopsided. 

“It really is. Thank you, Ichimatsu, for showing me.” 

Ichimatsu smiled, blushing and looking away. He gently held Karamatsu’s other hand, drawing closer to him. 

“It’s not just lovely, though. It’s interesting, too. You see…” The catfolk looked up, beneath heavy lids fanned with long, dark lashes, directly into Karamatsu’s eyes. The knight felt his heartbeat quicken. “These flowers are special, magical plants. I’ve studied them before. They only grow in places where magical energy is dense. By soaking up the ambient magic into their roots, their natural properties are… enhanced.” 

Ichimatsu slowly released Karamatsu’s hands, touch lingering for an extra moment. He backed away a few steps before turning around, keeping eye contact with the knight. He knelt gently near the spring, taking the bulbous, blue fruit from a vibrant bush, thick and verdant. He tossed it gently in his paw, the soft sound of impact as it landed in the plush pads almost mesmerizing. The catfolk held the knight’s gaze. 

“This one, in particular, for example, is a very, very potent aphrodisiac.” Ichimatsu explained, taking a large bite from the fruit. The thick, brilliant blue juices dripped down his chin, thick droplets slowly inching down his neck. “Care to try a taste?” 

Ichimatsu offered the half-eaten fruit with a paw messy with juices. He licked a bit of the blue juice away from the corners of his mouth, deft tongue flicking in an enchanting manner. Almost as though he’d become a marinette, pulled irresistibly by his strings, Karamatsu drew closer, accepting the fruit from the catfolk. He swallowed, hard, then took a large bite, mimicking Ichimatsu. If the catfolk was ready for this, he wasn’t going to let the moment pass him by.

---

Ichimatsu trudged through the forest alone, aimlessly. He had no clue where to even begin searching for his friends. According to his tracking spell, Karamatsu wasn't anywhere near him. Somehow, the knight had managed to get out of the considerable range of the spell in a matter of, what, an hour? Maybe? Then again, he had no idea what time Karamatsu had actually wandered away from the campsite. Besides, time might work strangely here, for all he knew. 

He padded onward, slipping into his old foresting instincts. He moved as quickly and quietly as he could, despite feeling shaky and needing to rest frequently. 

A shiver cascaded down his body. It wasn't getting any colder in the eerie forest, but his body temperature was plummeting. He felt an odd urgency, like he was running out of time. For what? 

He continued onward desperately, searching for anything new to break up the monotony. For all he knew, he was going in circles, even though he'd been following his internal compass vaguely northward all along.

His knees buckled for a moment, and he tripped, tumbling into the brush. Sharp thorns pricked at his robe and his face. He stumbled out, shakily regaining his footing. He checked his skin for cuts. He felt one or two, but came away with no blood. He continued on.

A deep chuckle sounded from the woods around him. It had no defined source, but echoed in the entire area. He cursed under his breath. In his condition, he wasn't up for any one-on-who-knows-how-many fights. 

He broke into a jog, attempting to gain ground on… whatever was out there. Before long, his body gave out on him again. He tumbled and slid to a stop at the base of a thick tree, its roots halting his momentum. He winced, feeling sharp pain from his left arm. Checking it for wounds, he discovered something that made his stomach churn. 

The skin was ripped open, but blood didn't flow freely. Rather, it oozed thickly, congealed. 

"Foolish boy. Can't you see?" The deep, chuckling voice mocked. Heavy footsteps approached. Just as the face of the beast emerged from the trees, Ichimatsu realized he recognized the voice.  "You're already dead."

"Caacrinolaas."

---

Karamatsu squeezed Ichimatsu to himself, kissing him deeply, passionately, as he'd always longed to, ever since he'd first seen him. Ichimatsu, in his turn, held Karamatsu's face firmly in both paws, practically whimpering into the kiss. 

The catfolk broke the kiss first. "Please, Karamatsu." He pleaded. "This isn't nearly enough… touch me properly," the catfolk whined. 

"Yes, yes…" Karamatsu nodded, lips still hovering near Ichimatsu's. "Whatever your request, I'll fulfill it." 

Ichimatsu moaned softly, a sound Karamatsu felt etched instantly into his memory eternally, and guided the knight's hand down between them. Karamatsu swallowed heavily, feeling Ichimatsu's… special place all ready and excited. For him! He could hardly believe it.

Despite his bold declaration, he had absolutely no experience in this sort of thing. He had no idea what he should do, what was expected of him, what would please the man he loved so much. Clearly he wanted, even demanded, that they go further, and Karamatsu was terrified to disappoint.

"Please, Karamatsu… just touch me. I've been waiting for you for so long… please, don't make me wait any longer."

Karamatsu kissed away the tears welling up in Ichimatsu's eyes, taking his free paw in his hand and leaving gentle kisses there, as well. 

"Not to worry, love. I won't make you wait any longer than necessary. Simply say the word, and I obey. Touch? Certainly, I can touch. I'll leave no inch of you untouched, my beloved."

"Karamatsu…"

The knight, still stalling, took the paw he gripped and left soft, lingering kisses to the plush pink pads. Ichimatsu giggled. 

"That tickles!" He tried to draw the paw away, playfully. 

Something struck Karamatsu as odd. He continued to leave gentle kisses on Ichimatsu's paw, watching him squirm. 

The paw he held was Ichimatsu's right, his dominant hand. The pad there was solidly colored, smooth, healthy skin. The catfolk before him reacted to even the slightest sensation. 

There was something terribly wrong here. 

He released the catfolk, putting distance between the two of them.

"Karamatsu? What's wrong?"

"You're not Ichimatsu."

"What?" The… creature laughed at the accusation. "Don't be ridiculous. How many catfolk do you think there are that look exactly like me?"

"You've made a grave mistake, whatever you are. You're not a perfect mimic. You may be showing me exactly what I want to see, but you are not Ichimatsu."

The creature growled at him. "Don't be stupid. Of course I am!"

"Where is he? What have you done?" Karamatsu reached for his weapon, pulling it from the straps at his back. The creature regained its footing, crouching in a threatening pose. 

As it launched itself at him, his polearm swung neatly through its body, wisps of white smoke drifting off of it. It dissolved into mist, never making contact. Gradually, so did the vibrant clearing around him, giving way to dark forest once more. 

"Ichimatsu?! Where are you?!"

" Truly, you were a greater fool than I could have ever known. For you to try to cling to life, despite knowing that I had taken your life force personally… truly reckless of you, foolish boy." 

Karamatsu paused, listening to the conversation. The voice was altogether unfamiliar to him, but it strangely felt as though some small part of him recognized it.

" Now, I will take what is my due. You could not escape from me forever. It's time to collect, Ichimatsu."

Ichimatsu! He must be in danger!

Karamatsu rushed towards the source of the deep voice echoing ahead of him. He pushed aside branches and vines, charging forward until he could see the scene.

Lying, at the base of a thick tree, was Ichimatsu's motionless body. Past it, a huge dog with sphinx-like wings dragged a silvery, translucent Ichimatsu through a dark rift in the air.

"Ichimatsu, no!" He screamed. 

It was now or never. The beast disappeared, Ichimatsu in tow, through the rip in the sky. 

Karamatsu, unthinking, instinctual, followed it.

Chapter Text

The world Karamatsu stepped into was disorienting, foreign, and yet all too familiar. The deep, dark sky, swirling with eerie, purple mist… he’d seen it from Osomatsu’s back as the dragon tore through the cultist hideout, and through the haunted mirror where demons mimicked their every move. Here, standing fully in the other plane, he was haunted by its endlessness. 

The winged beast had taken Ichimatsu in its jaws and took to those skies, purple mist swirling out of the way as his huge wings beat through it. Karamatsu watched, helpless, as he was taken further, further, until they were out of sight. 

Before him, now, stretched a twisted forest, a simulacrum of the forest he’d just come from. The foliage was all wrong, here. Giant, twisting trees bled from broken branches. Twisting, thorned vines writhed beneath strange creatures, ensnaring them and dragging them back into their mass. A vivid green vine slid from a high branch, pouring onto the forest floor before standing up in the shape of a large beast, vaguely like a tiger, but with long, wooden tusks dripping with some viscous, yellow liquid. 

Beyond that forest, the demon that had stolen Ichimatsu awaited. Of that, Karamatsu was certain. He began to trek forward, holy polearm in hand. 

---

Ichimatsu writhed and struggled, clawing at Caacrinolaas’s snout. “Let me go, you dumb mutt!” He growled. 

“We have yet to arrive, foolish boy. You would simply fall to your demise. Your ethereal form is quite solid here, after all.” 

Despite his mouth being full of catfolk, the demon’s words were quite clear. The curious part of Ichimatsu wondered how that worked. Some sort of magic, or something inherent to the demon himself? 

The rest of Ichimatsu, the scared, angry part, didn’t care at all. He simply cared that he was being taunted, belittled, and carried further and further from home. 

“Better to die here than go along with whatever plans you have for me! You’re fucking twisted!” 

“Silly little boy… be reasonable. Your soul belongs to me. I can do whatever I like with it. You think I’ll let it simply perish?” 

“It does not belong to you! Nothing about me is yours! I refused you before, and I refuse you now!” 

“Unfortunately, little fool, you had no choice in the matter. When you were sacrificed to me, by my devoted following on your plane, you were given to me. While you were under that goddess’s protection, I could not collect on my due. However, her protection abandoned you, and you entered that place without it. From that forest, I can cross between our worlds oh so easily, you see. It was mere child’s play to finally snatch up what had been mine all along.” 

Ichimatsu deflated. No wonder Caacrinolaas had orchestrated that ritual just so. The cultists had, indeed, been given a prophecy, using his life as payment. The damn mutt may not play fair, but he always saw to it that his deals were honored. 

“That’s a good boy. Just calm down. It’ll all be easier if you just obey.” 

---

Karamatsu found himself exhausted far more quickly than he could have ever expected. His blade cut through any foe here easily enough, but he was so unfamiliar with all of this plane’s denizens that even landing a blow was a monumental task. In addition, the very air of this place was oppressive, crushing down on his chest like a blacksmith’s anvil. 

He stood, breaths heaving, over a pile of vines. The tiger-like beast they had formed put up the toughest fight so far, dodging easily by shifting its form around. How many more battles like this one could he take? And all alone? How large was this forest, anyway, and how far had the demon taken his dear Ichimatsu? 

He took several deep, steadying breaths. His amulet glowed dully, reassuring. He held a hand to it, determination returning. 

He could do it. He had to. He just needed to be smarter about it. 

He couldn’t fight every single creature he came across, and he couldn’t wander without a goal. He needed to find a way to cross through more stealthily, and find some creature with enough intelligence to answer questions. It wouldn’t be easy, but was anything worth doing ever easy?

He crouched low, letting the underbrush obscure him, and kept his eyes and ears sharp. Unlike in the haunted forest on their own plane, creatures here had definite mass, and all of them made some sort of sounds as they moved about. He heard a rustle here, saw a flash of color there, and crept ahead, keeping his distance from the demonic fauna. 

I’m coming for you. Just hold tight. He thought. 

---

The room he was left in was mostly empty, except for the manacles lining the walls. As a show of trust, as Caacrinolaas claimed, he was left unchained. 

Ichimatsu paced the room impatiently. If the damn beast was going to do something, he’d rather him do it quickly. Waiting around, knowing something horrific was coming, not knowing what that something was… this was torture. 

He could hear footsteps outside the heavy iron door. Something was guarding him, clearly. He wondered if it was intelligent enough to be bribed. Not that he had anything much on him to bribe with. 

“Hey! You out there!” Ichimatsu shouted, pounding on the door with both paws. “Come on, open up! Let’s chat!” 

A small window in the iron door slid open. A large, yellow eye, with slender, dark pupils peeked through. 

“What’sss all the ruckusss about?” The guard hissed. It narrowed its slit-pupil eyes in suspicion. 

“Just wondering how long I’m going to be kept in here. I haven’t eaten at all today, you know. The boss can’t just let me starve, can he?” 

The guard chuckled, an eerie, rasping noise. “You won’t need food, no need to worry. You’ve left behind your sssolid form. Your ethereal sssoul will be jussst fine without nutrientsss. Sssurely you know thisss?” 

Ichimatsu frowned. “I suppose that means you won’t believe me if I say I need to go to the bathroom, either?” 

“Not a chanccce.” 

“Well, damn.” 

“If thisss inane prattle is all you had in mind…” The guard began to slowly slide the tiny window shut. 

“No, no! I had a point, definitely! It was, um…” Ichimatsu panicked, trying to find some way to trick this guard. He hadn’t really thought this through, and if he let the guard close the window now, he might end up with some sort of ‘boy who cried wolf’ reaction. Or, ‘cat who cried guard’? 

Wait, didn’t he still have his pouch of spell materials on him? He dug into the small sack, finding a bit of honeycomb he’d stashed in there for just this sort of occasion. He placed it beneath his tongue, wincing at the taste. It seemed several other of his materials had gotten on it. Gross.

“Oh, yes, I remember now. I was going to ask you… won’t you open this door?” 

The guard squinted at him a moment, then seemed to consider. His slit-pupiled eyes seemed to glaze over just a bit. “I don’t sssee why not. Sssure, I’ll do that.” 

The heavy iron door swung open, releasing Ichimatsu from the prison. The guard seemed confused for a moment, watching him exit. 

“Now, won’t you show me where Caacrinolaas is? I’d like to have a word with him.” 

“Cccertainly. That ssseems… reasonable?” 

The guard, a tall, slender demon in sturdy leather armor, with scales speckling his exposed skin, shut the cell door and began to lead the way down the hall. 

“Excellent. Thank you so much.” 

---

Karamatsu felt he was making significant progress forward. He’d had a couple run-ins with unusually quiet and well-disguised denizens of the forest, but he wasn’t too worse for wear. There was a small burn on his left side that wouldn’t go away with a prayer, though, so he was carefully defending that side. 

Concentrating on keeping track of where a nearby creature stalked, a six-legged boar of some sort, with several spiky tusks, he was surprised when he suddenly stumbled out into an open area. Taking quick stock of his surroundings, he realized he recognized the clearing. More specifically, he recognized the ring of mushrooms growing in the center of it. 

They glowed dully here, a lovely blue color, but were of the same size and pattern as those in the haunted forest of the Material Plane. He considered for a moment, remembering the wrath of the creature that had crawled from it, but steeled himself anyway. 

The fairies might be whimsical and wrathful, but at least they spoke Common. If he could somehow convince them to help him, he’d at least have an idea of where he was going. 

Carefully, he made his way across the clearing, and sat gingerly in front of the ring of fungi. 

“Excuse me? Fair folk?” He called. 

The mushrooms glowed more brightly. 

“Hello! I’m here to ask for your assistance! Would you assist me, friends?” 

Tiny, clawed hands dug their way through the earth in the center of the ring. The dirt, pushed aside, revealed a familiar tiny creature. 

“Hello! What’s your name?” It asked. 

Another creature dug its way out of the ground next to it. “You! Not-Sir-Karl! You aren’t our friend!”

“Eh? Dizzy? You know this one?” The first fairy asked. 

“Yes! He tricked me! On the other side! He’s mean! Big mean!” The second fairy growled. 

“Oh, no! We don’t like to be friends with mean people!” 

“If I tell you my true name,” Karamatsu offered, “will you be my friend?” 

“Yes!” The friendly fairy replied. 

“No!” Dizzy responded. “He’s a liar, Blackberry! We can’t trust him!”

“Come on, Dizzy.” Blackberry pouted. “Our new friend needs our help! What’s your name, friend?” 

Karamatsu smiled in what he hoped came across as a friendly manner. “My name is Steven.” He claimed. “No tricks this time.”

“Nice to meet you, Steven!” Blackberry chirped gleefully. 

“Prove it! Steven, stand up and twirl in a circle!” 

Karamatsu complied with the order, twirling in a whimsical manner around the clearing. 

Dizzy laughed. “Okay, Steven! Now bleat like a goat!” 

Karamatsu did his best to obey. Mimicking animal noises wasn’t a particular skill of his. 

Dizzy seemed satisfied. “Good, good! Now, won’t you dance with me?” 

“First,” Karamatsu said, noting the failure to use his ‘name’, “I need you to tell me where I can find my friend.” 

“Come on, Steven! Have fun with us!” Blackberry whined. 

“Dance, dance! Steven, you have to dance!” 

Karamatsu began to dance, alone, outside of the fairy ring. Dizzy seemed frustrated, but didn’t stop him. 

“Please, my dear friends. A large, winged dog took my friend far away from here. I believe he is in trouble. You understand, yes? What it is to miss a friend?”

“No!” Dizzy laughed. 

“I don’t really get it, but you need to find this person? To play with him?” Blackberry cocked her head curiously. 

“Yes, exactly! I need him with me, or I won’t have any fun at all!” 

Blackberry gasped. “You’re not having fun?! Even though we’re friends?!” 

Karamatsu made his face a caricature of sadness, even though he continued to dance, as instructed. “Even though we’re friends, without my most important person, I can’t have any fun at all.”

“That’s horrible! Dizzy, we have to help him!” 

Dizzy folded his little arms, a deep frown wrinkling his features. “Steven, you can stop dancing.” 

Karamatsu gratefully stopped his movements, panting with exertion. 

“The one you’re looking for is in the big palace on the mountain. The boss up there is big and mean. He knows everything, so he’ll already know you’re coming. Go fast, go get your friend, and if you’re alive, come right back here so we can play. Okay? Don’t forget to come back, Steven!” 

Karamatsu nodded quickly. “Thank you very much. You’ve been extremely helpful. I will be back as quickly as I am able, friends.” 

“Bye, bye, Steven!” Blackberry giggled. 

Karamatsu waved at the tiny fairies, who waved back with their little hands before diving back into the earth in the center of the ring of mushrooms. 

He took a deep breath, finding the tip of the mountain cutting through the skyline, and marched onward. 

---

The snake-like guard led Ichimatsu from the deep basement of the palace, where the halls were lined with cells, to the upper part of the building, where the halls were lined with ornate tapestries. Ichimatsu swore he saw some of them move out of the corner of his eye, but they stayed perfectly still when he looked at them straight on. Each of the tapestries depicted a different scene, but each of them included the form of Caacrinolaas somewhere upon them. 

The guard swung open a small door, beside an enormous set, and gestured Ichimatsu within. 

“Thisss is the audienccce chamber. The massster is within. Be on your bessst behavior.” 

Ichimatsu nodded. “Thank you. I am grateful. Now, why don’t you return to your post? I can take it from here.”

“Yesss, I will do that. Farewell.” The guard turned and walked off, back the way they came. Despite his confusion, he didn’t stop to question his orders a single time. Ichimatsu sighed in relief. 

“Enter, foolish boy. I know you wait outside.” 

Ichimatsu cursed. Of course Caacrinolaas would know he was coming. The damn beast foresaw everything. 

He entered the open door, presenting himself to the demon within. Caacrinolaas sat upon a huge dias, before an ornate tapestry, which depicted himself (naturally) fighting a five-headed dragon. Ichimatsu doubted it was a depiction of real events, for surely Caacrinolaas wasn’t powerful enough to fight the mother of dragons herself, but he took it as the warning it was meant to be. Here, in the demon’s domain, he’d need to watch himself carefully. 

“What have you come for, little one?” The enormous, doglike demon asked him, amusement evident in his voice. 

“I mean, I was trying to escape. Should’ve known you would know exactly where I was and exactly what I was doing.” 

“Naturally. Did you forget that I am all-seeing, all-knowing, that knowledge itself is my domain? Truly foolish, to believe you could outwit me, when I can foresee every move you will make, before you’ve even decided upon it yourself.” 

“You’ve got me there.” Ichimatsu sighed. “But, you knew I would get out of that cell easily. You didn’t manacle me, didn’t take away my spell materials, put an easily-influenced guard on duty… you wanted me to come here.”

“Yes.” 

“And you wanted me to think it was my idea.” 

“Yes.”
“What game are you playing?” 

Caacrinolaas’s deep, echoing laughter filled the chamber. “You put so many pieces together, yet you cannot see the end result? My foolish little Ichimatsu, you truly are short-sighted.” 

Ichimatsu clicked his tongue. “Well, sorry we can’t all be omnipotent. Your life must be truly miserable, constantly dealing with idiots like me.” 

“You’ll see the game soon enough, my boy. For now, I will simply tell you that bringing you here, to my chamber, of your own volition, was a necessary step in the events to come. Consider, for a moment, what actions you would have taken if I’d brought you here directly? You would have still tried to escape, certainly?” 

“Yes.” Ichimatsu admitted.

“And I would have either had to display my authority, or let you go. Either way, you would not be here, in this chamber, at full capacity, no less, for the events to come.” 

Ichimatsu had to admit, it made sense. Now that he’d been lured here, he was far more hesitant to try to leave again. Knowing Caacrinolaas wanted him here, though, certainly gave him an incentive to do something idiotic in order to thwart him. He didn’t know what the damn mutt had planned, but he knew he didn’t want to be a pawn in it. 

“For another thing, this series of events has been a metaphor, you see.”

“A metaphor? For what?” Ichimatsu had no patience for this demon’s riddles. They were always infuriating. 

“For all your efforts to refute me, to reject my offer of power, you will always find yourself coming back. Again, and again, of your own volition, through your own choices, your natural instincts will always bring you back here, to me. You need me, little one. You may have spurned me before, but I am patient. I still offer you all the power you desire, as before.”

Ichimatsu growled, an instinctive reaction, from deep within his chest. “I will never accept your terms! You know this! You can see the damn future, you know exactly how stubborn I can be, how stubborn I will be! You can burn down a hundred cities, chase me back into hiding. You can sap me of my stamina until breathing itself exhausts me. You can even fucking kill me, you already have! But I’ll always, always , turn you down.” 

Caacrinolaas smiled. “Foolish, foolish boy. So shortsighted… you don’t know what kind of torture you resign yourself to. Though I am patient, I cannot allow such slights to stand. I will take my due, as offered, and more, until you and I are both satisfied.” 

---

Karamatsu struggled with the thorny vines tearing at his limbs, wrapped around his throat, dragging him back into the twisted forest. He was so close… he’d nearly made it out of the forest entirely. His polearm lay, just out of reach, and he stretched to grab it. Slowly, slowly, he was dragged further away from his last hope, thorns tearing into his bare skin. He saw his feet swallowed by darkness, and despaired. 

He went limp, exhausted by the struggle, and watched his body slowly devoured by the tangled mass of thorned vines. Finally, his head followed, swallowed into the darkness. 

He felt the sensation of his body suddenly free-falling, wind rushing past, his heart sticking in his throat. Without any light to see by, he couldn’t tell how far or how fast he fell, just that he most certainly did. The vines still held his limbs firmly, twisting around and slicing them deeply. 

He made impact, unexpectedly, with what felt like… an arm? 

“Woah there… a human? How’d you get in here?” A deep voice sounded from the darkness.

“Um… hello there… I’m afraid I cannot see anything at all, so I cannot greet you properly, but…” 

“Gotta watch where you’re going, here, you know! Lots of things that want to eat you!” 

“Um, yes, so I’ve discovered… do you, perhaps, know of a way out?” 

“Well, sure! I live around these parts, so I know how to deal with these kinds of beasties. Get tripped up by them often enough!” The deep voice chuckled, finding something very amusing in the carnivorous foliage. “These guys just hide in old worm holes, trying to drag down some unsuspecting prey. You just barely missed getting swallowed up by its mouth there, see it?” 

“Um, no. I’m afraid I cannot see it. You see, humans need some sort of light in order to see things, and in here…” 

“Oh! Right! I forget how useless you humans are! Well, just trust me, it looks like a big ugly mouth waiting to swallow you up. You’re lucky I was down here! Now, let’s just scoot on out of here and get away from this guy. He’s just looking for an easy snack.” 

Karamatsu was shifted easily to lay across the shoulder of… whatever it was held him. He felt the arms of his savior working hard, dragging them upward. 

On an on it climbed, reaching the top of the hole more quickly than Karamatsu would have assumed. Blinking in the eerie, purple light of the world above, Karamatsu finally got a good look at the creature who rescued him. 

Heavily muscled, skin a bright red, with long, terribly sharp horns protruding from its forehead, stood a jovial ogre. It grinned at him, huge tusks stretching its lips around the smile. 

“There we go! All safe now! Don’t go getting snatched by any more hungry creatures, yeah?” 

“Oh, um, thank you. I’ll be on my way, now, I suppose?” 

“Oh, no, not so fast! Come one, I haven’t fought a human before! Spar with me, first!” 

Karamatsu hesitated. “Really, I need to be on my way. I have a friend, taken captive up in that palace on the mountain, presumably, and I really should-” 

“Come on, grab your weapon! Are you really in a hurry for Caacrinolaas to kill you? Let’s get a good sparring match in, first!” 

“Caacrinolaas?” Karamatsu repeated, confused. The syllables were odd, foreign. 

“Yeah, he’s the boss of that castle! What, you’re going there and you don’t know?” The ogre laughed heartily at that. “How’s this, then? You beat me, I let you go up there, and I tell you what I know about the big guy while I’m at it.” 

“That sounds good… what if you win?” 

The ogre grinned. “I get to eat you. Sound fair?” 

“What?! No, it doesn’t-” 

“Grab your weapon! Let’s tussle!” 

Karamatsu dove for his polearm, laying several feet away, as the ogre brought down a huge, heavy kanabo mace directly where he stood moments before. 

Out of the frying pan, as they say… Karamatsu thought, disgruntled. How had his luck turned so sour? 

He rolled away from another strike of the mace, swinging his polearm in a wide sweep to unbalance the ogre. The beast deftly swung his heavy kanabo around as though it were feather-light, avoiding the swing of Karamatsu’s blade while also striking dangerously close, over and over again. Karamatsu had no room for mistakes, but he was tired and wounded already. He felt the adrenaline run through him, dulling the pain of his scratches, and swung back, launching a counterattack. 

With a flurry of swings, he finally knocked the ogre off-balance. The beast stumbled backward, giving himself space. 

Karamatsu’s polearm lodged, for just a moment, in the trunk of a tree. 

The ogre grinned. 

With a flurry of his own, he regained momentum, forcing Karamatsu to dodge and roll out of the way. The quick movements pressed loose earth into his lacerations. Sweat beaded on his skin, stinging the open cuts. The oppressive air of the Lower Planes pressed on his lungs. With a desperate swing, he lunged back at the ogre. It was only a glancing blow, but he managed to break skin. 

Where the axe cut, golden light followed, as usual.

“Oh, fuck!” The ogre cursed, holding his wound and backing off. “I give, I give! Shit, that’s a dirty trick! You can’t just use holy magic in a friendly spar! Fuck!” 

Karamatsu caught his breath, holding his polearm at the ready. “It’s not very friendly to threaten to eat me, you know.” 

“Yeah, yeah, okay, just put that thing down! Go, go, get lost!” 

“Thank you very much.” 

Karamatsu circled around, pointing his weapon at the ogre, then sprinted off towards the mountain. As promised, he was not chased, and had a free shot to the castle. 

Soon, he told himself, he’d be there soon.

---

“Ah, but our guest has nearly arrived!” Caacrinolaas announced. “We must be prepared for him!”

The enormous demon stood, pacing over to where Ichimatsu stood, defiantly, in the doorway. 

“You are his goal here, let’s make sure you are prominently displayed.” 

With a wave of his huge paw, Caacrinolaas sent Ichimatsu up into the air, encased in some sort of bubble. Ichimatsu pounded against the sides of the orb, feeling his paws bounce back off of it. The bubble floated back to hover above the dias. 

“There. A silly display case for a silly boy. Now, let’s make sure our guest can find where he’s going.” 

The demon flapped his huge wings, the pulse of air throwing open the huge doors to the audience chamber. Several more opened beyond that one, leading all the way to the front gate. 

Charging up the mountain, wounded but determined, was Karamatsu. 

Ichimatsu’s eyes widened. The idiot had chased after him?! Did he have a death wish?! How did this play into Caacrinolaas’s great plan?! 

He pounded his paws against the edge of the bubble, shouting Karamatsu’s name. The noise was muffled. 

“Welcome, courageous knight.” Caacrinolaas called. 

Karamatsu hesitated at the front gate, seeing the huge demon waiting for him inside. 

“Come in, come in. We’ve been expecting you.”

“No! Get out of here! Don’t listen to him, whatever he says!” Ichimatsu tried to scream, but the noise didn’t make it through his prison. 

---

Karamatsu slowly walked forward, glancing around himself at the ornate castle, and the monster lurking just inside. His sturdy leather boots tapped against the tiled floor, echoing through the empty halls. He knew he was being baited, but he had no choice. Ichimatsu was somewhere inside. He thought he could almost hear his voice, from somewhere far away. 

“Where is he, demon?” The knight called, approaching the open doors of the audience chamber. 

“See for yourself.” A huge paw gestured to the iridescent bubble hovering high above the chamber floor. Within, Ichimatsu was desperately pounding against the walls, shouting indistinctly. 

“Ichimatsu!” He cried. 

“Yes, I have the boy. He’s so very impudent, you know. Had you taken much longer, well, I may have had to take more drastic measures to ensure he stayed in line.” 

“Don’t you dare touch him!” Karamatsu shouted. “Ichimatsu! Don’t worry, I’ll get you out of here!” 

The demon chuckled, his voice deep, rasping. “And how will you do that? He belongs to me, you know. And you, child, you’re like an insect to me. Tiny, weak, and begging to be crushed.” 

Karamatsu gripped his polearm tightly. This thing was big, sure, but it was still a demon. Like all demons, his blade would strike it down. 

---

“Ugh, that idiot…” Ichimatsu watched, resigned, as Karamatsu launched himself at Caacrinolaas. The foolhardy knight swung his long weapon around, keeping the demon at a distance, but he was no match for him. Ichimatsu could already see where this was going. 

Karamatsu would fight hard, and Caacrinolaas would toy with him, but eventually, the knight would fall. He had no chance in hell, which was, coincidentally, where they were. 

Seriously, what was the plan? Did Caacrinolaas want Ichimatsu to watch someone he loved die in a fruitless battle? Was that the game? It seemed too simple. Why would he want Ichimatsu to be uninjured, at full strength, if he was just going to taunt him like this? It made no sense. 

Karamatsu landed a few glancing blows, drawing blood. In turn, Caacrinolaas landed several heavy blows, dazing the knight and worsening his already prolific injuries. 

The demon seemed to be engaging fairly, not using any magic or unnatural abilities. Just a simple, physical contest. Still, Karamatsu buckled, unable to return to his feet after a particularly heavy blow sent him flying back into the far wall. 

“Come, now, little knight. You’re holding back on me. Why do you hesitate to call upon your patron?” 

His patron? Did Caacrinolaas’s plan have something to do with Sune? 

Karamatsu weakly grabbed for his amulet, singing a quick hymn to stitch up his wounds. The amulet glowed just faintly, and the bleeding slowed, but he was not healed. 

“Oh, dear. That’s no good. Her power is weak here, you see. You’ll have to try a bit harder than that to summon her.” The demon stalked over to Karamatsu. The knight was too weak to get away, barely able to scoot along the wall. “Do you want to die here, little knight? Your patron can save you. You need only ask.” 

---

Karamatsu was in a panic, dazed from taking so many hits and the demon looming high over him now. Damn, but it was a big one. He really hadn’t known what he was getting into. 

Still gripping his amulet, Karamatsu abandoned the hymns he’d been taught, and started babbling, begging Lady Sune for aid. 

“Please, do something! I don’t want to die!” He nearly sobbed into the amulet. “Don’t let him kill me here, please!” 

The amulet glowed more brightly, responding to his pleas. The demon lifted one of his enormous paws, holding it directly above Karamatsu’s head, threatening to land the final blow. 

“Please, please, please! I’ll do anything! Just name it! Just don’t let him kill me, please!”

The giant paw began to drop with crushing force. 

“Save me!” 

The attack was halted by the sudden appearance of a brilliant, glowing, golden barrier surrounding the sobbing knight. 

“That’s more like it! Now we’re getting somewhere!” The demon laughed, scratching with both paws at the holy barrier. It dented a bit under the force, but his claws grew bloody in return. 

Karamatsu stared up at the barrier in wonder. Had he had this kind of power all along? Or was it another property of this place, magic traveling more freely here? 

He was relieved, anyhow, to be spared. “My gratitude, Lady Sune. Please, grant me one more gift… allow me to strike back against the beast!” 

Karamatsu’s holy polearm glowed with that golden light. Simultaneously, an indistinct figure, made of the same light and wielding an ethereal greatsword, mimicked his motion. He drew back his blade, readying a heavy swing, and cut forward, the ethereal figure following suit. The greatsword of golden light dug deeply into the demon’s flesh, letting buckets of blood pour forth. 

The demon stumbled backwards, groaning. 

The golden figure floated down until she touched the ground. As the demon stumbled, she became more solid, her features beginning to materialize. She and Karamatsu rushed forward as one, taking another blow against the demon, then another. It was barely able to struggle to its feet, now, and the glowing figure was completely opaque. 

She turned to Karamatsu, smiling. “My child. You are never alone, so long as you trust in me.” 

The knight stared, mouth agape, then rushed to bow in deference. “My Lady Sune!” He shouted. “Never would I have dreamed you would arrive here personally! You have my sincere gratitude!” 

“Now, now, child. No need for speeches. We have an enemy to face, yet.” 

The demon, bleeding prolifically, was now laughing, maliciously, triumphantly. 

“He’s still moving?!” Karamatsu exclaimed, shocked. 

“Foolish little knight. You think I would be struck down so easily in my own domain? On the contrary, you’ve finally brought my machinations forward!”

“Caacrinolaas. Your hubris will be your downfall.” Lady Sune warned the demon. 

It grinned. “My dear goddess. The only one brought down today will be you. I have foreseen it. Your compassion is your weakness, silly little goddess, and I will triumph here today.” 

Chapter Text

Lady Sune lifted her ethereal greatsword. “With me, child. Do not allow his taunts to shake you.” 

“Yes, my Lady!” Karamatsu eagerly responded, readying his polearm. It still glowed with matching golden light, and he felt it thrum with power. 

Caacrinolaas opened his broad wings, roaring. From within his iridescent bubble prison, Ichimatsu shouted. Though the sound was muffled, it was evident he was in pain. 

“Ichimatsu!” Karamatsu called. 

He had no time to worry for his beloved, however. The bubble glowed with a purple light, and Caacrinolaas drew upon it. His great wings swung down, forcing a gale to sweep the length of the audience chamber. With it, long needles of ice rocketed towards Karamatsu and his goddess. Most of them shattered harmlessly against the floor and walls, but the knight had to dodge several close calls. 

Lady Sune faded from view as each needle drew near her, materializing again some feet away. Finally, after a long, terrifying minute, the ice and the wind both halted. 

“Now!” Lady Sune called. She and Karamatsu rushed forward as one, striking at Caacrinolaas in sync. The demon dodged their blows with an impossible deftness. Karamatsu saw the purple light, drawn from Ichimatsu’s bubble prison, glowing on the pads of his paws. 

Above them, floating in the bubble, Ichimatsu panted, sinking to his knees. 

“Don’t get cocky, brats!” The demon roared. 

The ceiling crackled with energy. Thick ropes of lightning struck the floor, destroying patches of tile. Karamatsu rolled out of the way of several, watching Lady Sune simply teleport to safety once more. Again, Ichimatsu cried out in pain. 

“We have to get Ichimatsu out of there!” Karamatsu called, panicked. 

Lady Sune looked toward him, face steeled with determination, and nodded once. “Rescue him. I will engage the beast.” 

Karamatsu nodded, eyeing their opponent. He would have to be crafty, craftier even than an a demon that could see the future. 

As the waves of lightning died out, he and Lady Sune rushed forth again, swinging their weapons at Caacrinolaas. Karamatsu missed every blow, the demon dodging as before, but Lady Sune had calculated the patterns of his movement and managed to shear off several long flight feathers from his enormous wings. 

“Go, now.” She ordered him. He nodded. 

Caacrinolaas stomped his paws on the ground, sending out shockwaves that knocked Karamatsu off his feet. From the cracked tiles, thick, black tentacles surged forth, swaying and grasping at the combatants. Karamatsu fought them off in a panic, but was unable to avoid being grabbed and dragged across the floor. A tentacle lifted him into the air, then slammed him into the tile several times. Dazed, he went limp, blinking hard as darkness filled the corners of his vision. The tentacle, apparently deeming him dead, slinked off, leaving him to gather his wits.

At the same time, Lady Sune attempted to evade the attack by teleporting, as before, but the tentacles burst forth each time she materialized anew. She stumbled back, evading a tentacle that swept at her feet, and her back hit the wall. From it, more tentacles writhed out, trapping her there. She screamed, golden light shining from her form, obliterating the squirming tentacles. Several more wriggled forward, encircling her ankles and dragging her to the ground. Karamatsu winced at the sharp crack as her head hit the ground. She sent out another wave of light, blasting away the tentacles binding her, and held her wounded head. Seeping out from the wound was a strange, pearlescent liquid, presumably her blood. 

“Keep your disgusting tendrils off of me!” Lady Sune shouted. She blasted away several tentacles near her with holy light, then turned her fury towards the beast summoning them. In her hands, a golden bow materialized, and she aimed it directly at Caacrinolaas. “Prepare to perish, demon.” She threatened. 

She loosed an arrow directly at the beast, striking him in the leg as he tried to dodge. He stumbled, knee buckling, and she shot another. This one struck his shoulder, searing through the flesh and sticking deep. 

Seeing him occupied, Karamatsu shakily returned to his feet. He had trouble focussing, but he knew Ichimatsu would not survive this fight if he did nothing, so forward he went. Caacrinolaas did not stop him, sending his tentacles instead against the goddess. 

Lady Sune switched her aim easily to strike tentacles as they approached, then leveled her bow on the demon. He was riddled with wounds, now, and appeared to be losing badly. 

Karamatsu was able to circle behind him, scrambling onto the dais. Ichimatsu floated a good ten feet above him, nearly unconscious in his bubble. Karamatsu hefted his polearm, feeling out its weight, then aimed the spear end at the bubble. It flew poorly, but struck a glancing blow against the iridescent prison. It was enough to disturb the bubble, releasing Ichimatsu to the ground below. Karamatsu steadied himself directly below, allowing Ichimatsu to fall harmlessly into his arms. 

“What? Karamatsu?” His voice was weak, confused. 

“You’re safe now. Don’t worry.” 

The catfolk smiled weakly at him. “You really came for me...” 

"Of course. I'm your hero, after all."

Ichimatsu chuckled, the sound barely more than a huff of air, before the smile slid from his face and his eyes fluttered shut, drifting fully into unconsciousness. 

“Truly, truly foolish of you to challenge me in my own domain, wench! Behold!” 

Caacrinolaas opened his torn wings to their full extent. Ichimatsu, unconscious in Karamatsu’s arms, glowed dully, but the light was not drawn off of him, as before.

“What?! What’s going- you!” Caacrinolaas turned to see the bubble dissipated and his captive held in the knight’s arms. Furious, he roared, summoning more ice spears, smaller and fewer than before. 

Karamatsu attempted to dodge them, but was slowed down by the body in his grasp, and was forced to use his own form as a shield. The ice spear shattered against his shoulder, leaving him numb and riddled with small cuts. 

“Do not forget your true foe, demon. Leave the boy, or you’ll fall here today!” Sune levelled her golden bow at the beast once more, taking steady aim. The demon snarled back at her, reminiscent of a cornered animal, blood seeping from myriad wounds. 

“Don’t lecture me, wench! You and the boy will both die here!” 

He stomped a great paw on the floor, shattering more tile. Through the floor, several more purple bubbles came into view, each containing a struggling creature. Karamatsu recognized one as the cultist who drove a knife through Ichimatsu’s heart, and who he personally killed. He gripped his polearm more tightly, fury wrinkling his features. 

“That little fool is not the only soul I have under my command! You’ve taken nothing from me! Nothing! I am still the god of this place!”

“God? You’re nothing like us. You’ll bleed and perish, like any other beast. You insult us by claiming such.” Lady Sune glanced away from Caacrinolaas for a moment, catching Karamatsu’s gaze. She lowered her voice to a murmur. “My child, flee this place. Once you and the other are clear, I will finish the beast. You must return home, both of you.” 

“Yes, my Lady.” Karamatsu replied. 

“Foolish! To turn your attention from me, your hubris is unbounded!” Caacrinolaas stomped, reminiscent of a small child throwing a tantrum, and the black tentacles burst forth once more. Brilliant sparks of electricity darted between them as they drew near one another. Each of the purple bubbles glowed, filling the demon with their power. Even his wounds stitched shut, slowly. 

Lady Sune drew her greatsword once more, the bow disappearing. She severed several of the tentacles, electricity arcing up her blade as she did so. Jagged welts, like lightning, crisscrossed up the exposed skin of her arm. 

Karamatsu panicked, holding Ichimatsu to himself. How would he escape now?! As he threw his gaze about, trying to find an escape route, he realized Lady Sune was not defending herself, as he assumed, but rather killing tentacles blocking his exit. A winding path through the tentacles to the huge doors of the audience chamber slowly formed as the goddess spun her blade around, teleporting to various areas of the chamber. 

He began to race along the path, dodging the tentacles as best he could. With the twisting path the goddess had laid out for him, he appeared to Caacrinolaas to be running without purpose, keeping his attention on the goddess. 

The demon laughed, feeling as though he’d finally gained the upper hand. 

“You see, silly goddess? This is the extent of your power! What else is a creature that can challenge a god, but a god himself?!”

Karamatsu reached the great doors of the hall at last. As he darted forward, several tentacles burst forth from the frame, blocking his path. In desperation, he surged forward, allowing the tentacles to slam into him, streaking lightning across his skin. He cradled the unconscious Ichimatsu to himself, shielding him from the attacks. Hurtling past the door frame, Karamatsu broke free of Caacrinolaas’s brutal attack. His limbs twitched, waves of electricity still coursing through them, but he was beyond the demon’s grasp. 

Within the chamber, Lady Sune began to slow, the electricity flowing into her through her greatsword sapping her strength. She breathed a sigh of relief as she saw Karamatsu escape the room, nodding to him to continue. Reluctantly, he sped away, as fast as his shaky legs could take him, out of the castle and down the slope of the mountain. 

He turned to glance behind himself only once he was completely clear of the castle grounds. A dull, golden light peered through the windows of the palace, breaking through the deep purple of the sky. Suddenly, the light grew in intensity, until the castle itself was no longer visible. The deep, raspy voice of the demon screamed out in pain, and then the light vanished, leaving the palace completely silent. 

Karamatsu caught his breath, knees buckling. He sank to the earth, gasping for breath. Turning his attention to Ichimatsu, he checked the catfolk over for injuries. Despite his best efforts, Ichimatsu had a few patches of those lightning-pattern welts decorating his skin. He ran a thumb along a welt streaking across Ichimatsu's cheek, feeling guilty. 

"I'm sorry I couldn't protect you. I don't even know if I can get you home…" 

Karamatsu looked around, hoping for the answer to fall out of thin air before him. They were still trapped on the wrong plane of existence, and he could no longer feel his connection to his goddess. How would he get back? 

He decided to start with what he knew. He knew where he arrived on this plane, and doors often lead both ways. 

"No matter what it takes, I'll get you home again. I promise."

Chapter Text

After a long, slow trek around and through the woods, burdened by Ichimatsu's unconscious form but bolstered by advance knowledge of the forest's denizens, Karamatsu arrived at the entry point. He recognized the view of the mountain beyond the forest from here, and perhaps that boulder was familiar, but no rift in space existed at this point. He continued walking, desperately searching for something, anything, that could indicate some sort of rift or portal. Surely, he wasn't trapped here?!

Just as he was ready to give up, a flash of something white caught his eye. He felt a sense of déjà vu as he turned to see a stark white horse timidly prancing near the edge of the forest. 

He hesitated, remembering the trouble he’d gotten into last time he’d followed an apparition he’d assumed was his dear Steven into a forest, but decided he’d gotten about as lost as he could possibly get at this point. The silent image of the horse danced deeper into the forest, the eerie trees beginning to obscure his view, and Karamatsu dashed after it. 

Unlike before, the horse did not disappear, but rather seemed to lead him through the forest, even pausing when he got too far behind or had to quickly maneuver to avoid some denizen of the fiendish forest. He caught glimpses of its panicked expression, the nervous prancing of its steps, and felt more and more certain that the vision before him really was of his beloved steed. But how did he come to be here? And why did his hooves make no sound? 

Karamatsu finally caught up, close enough to touch the horse, and reached out his hand. Inches from the short, white fur, the apparition balked at something, racing away. The knight investigated what it was that frightened his horse so, and saw the by-now familiar clearing with the ring of mushrooms. Sitting near the ring, speaking with a small gaggle of tiny fairies, was that hulking, horned ogre from before. 

Karamatsu hesitated for a moment. Should he follow the spectral horse, which looked all the world like his Steven, but had led him astray before? Or should he risk asking help of the fiendish denizens of the forest once more, though their help seemed to always come with a risk or a price? 

He shook his head. If Steven had been so frightened of these creatures, he surely had good reason. Though the horse was timid, his instincts had kept him alive and safe all this time, regardless of what danger Karamatsu threw himself into. 

He turned sharply and raced off in the direction the horse had fled. 

Footsteps pounding against the uneven earth of the strange forest, bloodthirsty creatures nipping at his heels all along, Ichimatsu bouncing limply in his hold, still unconscious, Karamatsu sped off, keeping his course as straight and true as possible, desperate to find that elusive white horse once again.

---

His legs burned, his chest heaved, his heart raced, and still the horse did not reappear. He slowed, panting. Looking around to gather his bearings, he was shocked to discover that the scenery was… well, not familiar, per se, but less wrong than the scenery moments before. The trees all bore brown trunks and green leaves, the plants stayed still, attached to their stalks, and no small creatures roamed around, bloodthirsty or otherwise. 

This was where he’d come from, their home plane. 

“Good work, Steven.” Karamatsu muttered to himself. It seemed, somehow, the horse had led him home, whether intentional or not. 

In his arms, Ichimatsu still did not stir. Karamatsu noted his body was less of a burden before, almost completely weightless, and his form seemed a bit ethereal, translucent. 

“Ichimatsu?” Karamatsu called, nervously. He’d noticed something a bit off before, but he’d chalked it up to the other plane, or demon magic, or something. To see the effect bolstered here, rather than diminished… 

“Karamatsu? Is that you?” A voice called from behind him. He spun around to see Totty standing there, looking confused. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you, and suddenly you just show up! Where have you been?”

“Ah, you see, Ichimatsu and I were-”

“Ichimatsu?! Wait, I just saw him a second ago… how is he here…?” 

Karamatsu frowned, brows furrowed. “You saw him? Where?” 

Totty chewed his lip nervously. “I don’t know if I should tell you… it wasn’t pretty. Karamatsu, you have to understand-”

“Totty, where did you see him.” Karamatsu repeated emphatically. 

Totty pointed behind himself. “Just that way. Don’t get mad at me when… just, be prepared for what you find there, okay?” 

“Thank you.” Karamatsu ignored Totty’s cryptic warnings and followed his finger. Over tangled roots and between tightly-grown trees, he clambered over to where Ichimatsu was spotted. 

Ducking under a broken trunk, Karamatsu reached a familiar area. The tree on the opposite side of the small clearing was enormous. This was where the demon grabbed Ichimatsu and disappeared. The roots, thick and tangled, nestled something dark in their caress. Karamatsu approached, guarded. 

There lay Ichimatsu, skin shredded by shallow lacerations. He was pale, perfectly still, and the vision curdled Karamatsu's stomach. He glanced at the ethereal Ichimatsu in his arms, the slight movement of his chest as he breathed softly, still unconscious. 

He hesitated, uncertain. What could he do to help? Despite everything, he was still only a knight, trained for melee combat, not for… this. 

Suddenly, he was filled with a certainty. Without knowing exactly why, he knew what he needed to do. 

He approached the injured, corporeal Ichimatsu laying among the roots. Kneeling delicately alongside him, he gently laid the ethereal Ichimatsu onto the other. Despite being solid in Karamatsu's grasp, the translucent form faded into the opaque one, settling in to take the same space.

Karamatsu sat back, waiting for… whatever was supposed to happen. He nervously picked at his fingernails, watching the still form for any movement. 

Slowly, he realized the ethereal Ichimatsu didn't quite fit into his solid form. One of his paws sat outside of the other, glowing gently. As Karamatsu watched, Ichimatsu's glowing face tilted out of alignment with the other, giving him two sets of features. 

He can't settle back in. I need something to guide him back. The thought sprung into Karamatsu's mind, unbidden, accompanied by that same strange certainty. 

He unwrapped the scarf from around his neck, reaching over to the two Ichimatsus and winding it around their necks. As the fabric settled around the corporeal Ichimatsu's neck, the ethereal Ichimatsu shifted, moving his limbs into place and disappearing. 

Ichimatsu's eyebrows furrowed, his facial expression screwing up. Karamatsu let out a shaky breath, hesitantly relieved. The catfolk began to push himself up into a sitting position, and the knight rushed to assist him. 

"Ichimatsu! How are you feeling? Are you hurt?" Karamatsu worried. 

"Karamatsu? Where… oh. We're back."

"Yes!" Karamatsu kept a close eye on Ichimatsu as the catfolk examined his wounds. "It was a close call, but we were able to defeat that awful fiend and rescue you!" 

"Caacrinolaas?" Ichimatsu asked, sounding a bit distant. He was examining his paw pads closely. "You really did it… huh." 

"Yes! Well, I didn't, personally. The Lady Sune, you see, she gave me the opportunity and then-"

Karamatsu was cut off by Ichimatsu's mouth impacting his. The catfolk had launched himself at the knight, wrapping his arms around his neck. 

Ichimatsu kissed him slowly, deeply. Karamatsu got a sense of the relief and joy Ichimatsu felt.

The catfolk pulled away, holding Karamatsu's face in his paws and pressing their foreheads together, laughing breathlessly. 

"What would I have done without you. You really are my hero, you know?"

Karamatsu felt a lopsided smile cross his face. "Well, of course." He attempted to muster his usual flair, but was mesmerized by Ichimatsu's free laughter. "I told you so already, didn't I? I'm your dashing knight in shining armor." 

"You got rid of the shining armor, though." Ichimatsu pointed out.

"Ah, that's right… well-"

Ichimatsu kissed him once more. Karamatsu felt the smile still stretching his lips. "If I'm being honest… I think this is an upgrade." 

Karamatsu's eyes widened. Ichimatsu's paws had wandered down to his bare stomach, and the grin on his face had turned mischievous. 

"Oh? Is that so?"

"Mmhmm." Ichimatsu laughed again. Karamatsu thought he could get addicted to the sound. "I think I need to thank you properly for saving my life. Again." 

Karamatsu swallowed hard. His nervousness warred with his desire, muddled by flashes of the imposter Ichimatsu from before. Was this real this time? Was the forest playing tricks on him?

"We don't… we don't have to… I'm sorry, I kind of assumed… I'm just amped up from the whole thing with Caacrinolaas, I guess. I don't mean to push you-"

"No!" Karamatsu replied hastily. He grabbed Ichimatsu's paws, preventing the catfolk from pulling away. "No, I want to- I want this. I'm just… it's my… first time." He admitted, face red. 

"Really? That's… I don't know why that's unexpected. I'd think someone that looks like… nevermind."

"Oh?" Karamatsu felt his confidence bolstered. "You like what you see? Yes, this armor, putting my best qualities on display and all… Ah, of course you'd believe I'm surrounded with lovers!"

"Nevermind. I'm not doing this." Ichimatsu stood up, pulling his paws out of Karamatsu's grasp. 

"Ichimatsu! Wait!" Karamatsu wailed. "Don't leave me like this!" He grabbed onto one of Ichimatsu's ankles, trying to stop him from walking away.

"Too late. You ruined any attraction I had towards you." The catfolk replied flatly, shaking the knight's grip off his paw.

"The real shocker is that you were attracted to him to begin with. Gross." 

"Totty! That's mean!" Karamatsu sniffled. 

"You have a point there."

"So, I see you're alive again. I assume he did something or other goddess-related to bring you back again? Man, I think I really sold out making a deal with a demon instead of following a god. I sure can't bring people back from the dead." 

"Yeah, probably. I wasn't conscious at the time, so I can't say for sure." 

Karamatsu pulled himself up to his feet while Ichimatsu and Totty caught each other up on recent events. Apparently, Totty had gotten trapped in some sort of hedge maze made of underbrush after being separated from everyone. 

"I can't believe this idiot ran off and got us all trapped in this hell forest! What were you even thinking?! We had a plan!" Karamatsu tuned back in just in time to hear Totty berating him. He looked irate, hands on hips. Karamatsu shrunk into himself. 

"I thought I saw Steven…" He tried to explain. 

"Ugh, that stupid fucking horse again! Well, whatever. It looks like the curse or whatever is weakening if we were able to find each other again. Let's find the others and destroy this place once and for all." 

"Eh? How will we do that? We don't know where to look." Karamatsu argued. 

"Ichimatsu should be able to use his magical locator thing now, if I'm right." Totty explained. 

Karamatsu frowned. "You can't ask him to do that! That demon used him as some sort of… power siphon. You know how little stamina he has!" 

Behind him, Ichimatsu wandered a few steps away and snapped a branch off a nearby tree. He muttered a short phrase under his breath and screwed his eyes up. The branch spun in a familiar fashion, pointing squarely to their left. 

"Ichimatsu, you don't have to push yourself!"

"Relax." The catfolk looked up from his branch, grinning. "I've got plenty of juice, now." 

---

Ichimatsu led the other two behind him through the forest along the path his spell instructed. He was focussed on one of the trinkets Choromatsu carried, deciding to find the scatterbrained arcanist first. The other two could handle themselves in most situations. 

He explained, as they went, that the source of his short stamina wasn't his natural constitution, but rather the curse of Caacrinolaas. The demon had been surreptitiously sapping his life force over the years, leaving him with only a small pool to pull from. 

Indeed, it had been years since he'd felt so much vigor. He'd immediately embarrassed himself by throwing himself onto Karamatsu, but it barely dented his good mood. He felt electricity humming at his fingertips. He felt as if he could summon enough pyrotechnics to burn down the whole forest if he needed to. 

He could feel the spell tugging him forward, his sense of direction clearer than it'd ever been. Before Choromatsu came into view, he knew the wizard would be just beyond the next cluster of trees. 

"Oh! You all found me! Excellent, excellent." Choromatsu greeted, as though nothing was wrong. 

"Uh, Choromatsu? Are you quite alright?" Karamatsu asked hesitantly. 

"What? You mean this?" He gestured to the thick vines holding him in place. They writhed slowly, but unnaturally, like more of a creature than a plant. "It's not hurting me, if that's what you mean. I think it just mistook me for some sort of small game. I am trapped, though, so if you three could help me out, I'd appreciate that."

Ichimatsu joined Karamatsu and Totty in leveling flat looks at the arcanist. Simultaneously, all three sighed, reaching for weaponry and firing up spells. Karamatsu's polearm sliced through one thick vine, Totty severed another with a nasty necrosis attack, and Ichimatsu cut a third with a sharp gale. Choromatsu was now held aloft by only one strong vine. The three glanced at one another, deciding who would take the finishing blow, when Choromatsu fell from the plant's grasp quite suddenly, the writhing vine stilled. 

At the other end of the vine, Jyushimatsu stood, the plant's roots held tightly in his grasp. 

"I got it!" He announced triumphantly.

"That you did! Thank you, Jyushimatsu." Choromatsu dusted his robes off and righted himself. "Well, we're certainly all coming together nice and quick! Now, where's that dragon?" 

As though summoned, a blast of fire preceded Osomatsu barrelling through the trees, draconic form tearing down foliage with his sheer girth. 

"Guys, this forest's all kinds of fucked up! I can finally turn back into me, but I still can't wreck it! It's like these stupid plants are fireproof!" He whined, comical in conjunction with his true form.

Sure enough, Ichimatsu noted the forest from which he came showed no signs of damage. Neither broken broken branches nor burnt boughs followed his wake. It appeared utterly undisturbed.

"I guess we can't just tear the place down to fix this. Maybe there's a source somewhere, like at that cultist mansion." Choromatsu suggested. 

"That could be the case. How would we even go about figuring out what that source is, though?" Ichimatsu asked pessimistically.

"We all had strange experiences, right? Maybe we can discover some common thread between them and follow that." Totty suggested. 

"Strange experiences? Like what?" Osomatsu asked.

"Like I spent hours wandering through a maze with no end. Something that big should take up the whole forest, but I haven't seen any plants that look like the ones there."

Choromatsu rubbed his chin in contemplation. "I also saw some odd plants. I was following them down the stream when that plant, or creature, or whatever it was grabbed ahold of me."

"Ah!" Karamatsu interjected. "I also saw strange plants along a river! There was a fake Ichimatsu and he…" He glanced at the real Ichimatsu and flushed. "Well, he ended up attacking me when I realized he was an imposter."

Well, that was suspicious. Ichimatsu made a mental note to grill him about the fake later.

"So common threads are weird plants and a stream?" Ichimatsu summarized. "You think we need to wander around looking for this particular stream?"

Choromatsu hummed. "Actually, perhaps it's easier than that. All water sprouts from or goes to a larger body of water. Maybe we simply find any running water and follow it to the source. Our stream should also lead to or from that same source." He explained.

"Uuugh, that still involves wandering around, though!" Osomatsu complained. 

"Quit whining, you big baby." Totty snapped. "Let's get moving. I'm tired of this stupid place already." 

Chapter Text

The group was unwilling to allow one another out of their sights as they explored the thick forest, slowing their search. Osomatsu whined the entire time, complaining about this and that, on and on. Totty griped at him for whining, and he started complaining about Totty’s griping. 

Ichimatsu clenched his teeth and attempted to ignore them. He almost missed the bubble prison- at least sound was muffled in there. 

He fell back, putting distance between himself and the bickering duo, and kept pace with Karamatsu. The knight had fallen to the back of the group, studiously investigating between trees and into the brush as they passed for any sign of the strange plants they’d described.

“Hey, Karamatsu.” 

The knight turned away from the log he’d overturned, finding only the usual sort of insects and fungus beneath. “Yes, Ichimatsu? Are you getting tired?” He worried. 

Ichimatsu shook his head. “No, I’m fine. Seriously.”

“Excellent! That’s good to hear!” 

“I actually wanted to ask you some questions.” 

“Oh? What hidden secrets do I possess, that I could aid you such? Hmm?” Karamatsu posed dramatically, hand on his chin, one eye closed. 

Ichimatsu grimaced. “Please don’t.” 

The knight continued to hold the pose. Ichimatsu sighed. 

“I wanted to ask you about what you all saw. I didn’t have the same kind of experience, after all. You mentioned a stream, strange plants, and a doppelganger?” 

Karamatsu flushed again at the mention of the double. “Ah, yes! Yes, I did! What, ah, what all did you want to know?” 

“Were those plants, by any chance, the same kind you saw in the Lower Plane? There was a complementary forest there, wasn’t there?” 

Karamatsu shook his head. “I traveled quite extensively through that place, and saw no such vegetation.” 

“I see… then they must be from here, after all. Did you recognize any of them?” 

“I did not. Although…” Karamatsu furrowed his brows, considering. “The doppelganger did mention something about… no, whatever it said probably can’t be trusted. I shouldn’t have even mentioned it.” 

The doppelganger again. Karamatsu seemed hesitant to go into any detail about it. “Even if it was deceiving you, there may have been some truth to its words. At the very least, there may be some sort of clue.” 

Karamatsu cleared his throat, face flushed. “I see… in that case, I shall relate its words. When it showed me the clearing with the stream, it explained that the unusual plants there were magical sorts, that they grew only in places with strong ambient magic.”

That rang a bell. “Those sorts of plants do exist. They can grow elsewhere, but they really thrive on magical energy. Most of them have some sort of special properties, enhanced by the magic.” 

“I see… you- I mean, your double- it pointed out one in particular… this plant was a short bush, brilliant green, with blue fruit. Roughly, ah…” Karamatsu held out his hand, miming grasping the fruit. “Roughly this size.”

Blue fruit… and the size Karamatsu indicated was that of an apple… “What sort of effect did the doppelganger claim it had?” 

Karamatsu covered his red face in his hands, unable to meet Ichimatsu’s gaze. Ichimatsu had already guessed which plant he’d seen, a variety common to the sorts of magical areas he’d mentioned. When grown in normal soil, the fruits resembled sad, shriveled blueberries. In magical soil, however, they grew large, fat, and juicy. The juice of these fruit was a useful catalyst for potions, drawing out the power of other ingredients, and making them taste better all in one go. On its own, though, the fruits held no special qualities. He’d asked only for curiosity’s sake, but Karamatsu’s reaction…

“Please answer honestly. There are a few varieties of plant it could be, and knowing what effect it had could narrow it down for me.” He lied. 

Karamatsu muttered something inaudible. With his hand over his mouth further muffling the sound, Ichimatsu couldn’t parse the words. 

“Sorry, I didn’t catch that. What was it?” 

Karamatsu spoke only a bit louder, stuttering through his response and still muffling it with his hands. Ichimatsu’s pointed ears twitched. 

“One more time, please.” 

“It was an aphrodisiac, okay?!” The knight blurted. Choromatsu and Jyushimatsu, in front of them, turned around. 

“What in the world are you two talking about back there?” Choromatsu frowned. 

“Things are getting R-rated, huh…” Jyushimatsu mused. 

“We’re talking about the mission, don’t worry. Nothing weird happening back here.” Ichimatsu assured them. Neither looked convinced, but they turned back around, continuing their search. Ichimatsu glanced at Karamatsu, who was nearly purple by now, hiding in his hands again.

“An aphrodisiac, huh? Just what did you get up to with my doppelganger?” 

“Nothing! Nothing at all! Like I said, I discovered its true nature and it came to blows!” 

“And how could you tell? What gave it away?” Ichimatsu felt a bit bad, pressing the distressed knight further, but his curiosity easily overpowered the guilt. 

“Your paw.” Karamatsu answered. 

“My paw? What about it?” Ichimatsu stared at the pads of his paws. 

“You said you couldn’t feel anything with the right one, where you have the scar.” 

Ichimatsu clenched his right paw. He had mentioned that at some point, hadn’t he? 

“The doppelganger said it tickled when I… when I kissed it.” 

Ichimatsu flushed. The littlest things got to this guy, huh? Couldn’t even say the word ‘kiss’ without stuttering. 

“I see.” 

An awkward silence settled between the two of them, Karamatsu too embarrassed for theatrics and Ichimatsu a bit mortified to consider what all his doppelganger had done, or tried to do. 

“Well, thank you for telling me, that was very helpful.” Ichimatsu said quickly, all in one breath. He quickened his pace to catch up with the others. 

“Hey, Choromatsu.” He tapped the wizard on his shoulder, getting his attention. Choromatsu gave him a cold look. 

“Are you two done flirting already? You’re ready to return to helping out the mission now?” He snapped. 

Ichimatsu sighed. “Like I said, we were discussing the mission. I never saw the things you all described, so I was talking to him about his experience with the stream and the plants you all saw.” 

Choromatsu deflated. “Oh. I suppose I was too harsh on you, then. My apologies.” 

Ichimatsu waved a paw. “It’s no big deal. Listen, I need you to help me feel out pockets of magical energy. The kinds of plants you all saw seek out dense magical areas.” 

“Oh! You recognized them?” 

“I used to use those sorts of things for making potions. I had an herb garden of sorts near my hut. Focus, please.”

“Right. Sorry.”

“Like I said, we need to feel out for strong magic. If we can find the densest magic in the forest, we won’t have to wander blindly for water.”

“That’s brilliant, Ichimatsu! Listen, everyone!” 

Totty pouted as he turned back. “I heard him. We’re gonna blindly wander around looking for magic instead of blindly wandering around looking for water. Like there’s a big difference.” 

“Yes, there is a big difference! You see, because… Ichimatsu, tell him why it’s different!” 

“Eh? Me?” 

“Yes, I wouldn’t want to steal your spotlight!” 

He just doesn’t have an answer… whatever. “One of the skills wizards tend to pick up is the ability to literally see sources of magic. To us, it looks like it’s glowing with an aura or something. We don’t have the same skill with water.” 

“Oh! That’s right!” Choromatsu exclaimed. “Excellent point!” 

“We can all just use our eyes to see water!” Totty huffed. “You guys are just wasting time and making things more complicated!” 

“That way!” Choromatsu proclaimed. 

“Wait! Listen to me, you dumb bookworm!” 

He didn’t listen to Totty’s whining as he took off in the direction he’d pointed. The rest of the party followed after the scatterbrained arcanist, jogging to keep up with his suddenly quick pace. 

“I can see something big over here! This must certainly be the correct way!” 

Choromatsu continued to bound down his own path, tripping over roots and ducking between trees, but still somehow outpacing the rest through his sheer confidence. 

“Seriously, wait up! How do you know what you’re seeing is the right… place…” 

Totty trailed off, staring in amazement along with the rest of the party as they breached the trees and entered an expansive clearing. Taking up the majority of the space was a wide lake, waters dark and still. Along the shores were magic-loving plants, like those Karamatsu had described. Ichimatsu saw several bushes with the blue catalyst fruits. A quickly-flowing tributary flowed into the lake at the opposite end, the same plants lining its banks. Although the stream rushed into it, the lake’s waters were not disturbed. 

It was eerily still, like a great mirror. 

Indeed, reflected in its surface, Ichimatsu saw not the trees overhead and surrounding them, but rather saw images of the warped woods from the Lower Plane. 

“This is it…” He murmured. 

“Well, crap. I guess he was right.” 

Choromatsu frowned at Totty, hands on his hips. “Yes, I was! I believe you owe me an apology.”

Totty folded his arms, pouting. “You still shouldn’t have run off like that. What would you have done if we all got separated again?” 

“Guys, this isn’t the time to argue.” Ichimatsu interrupted. “This is way bigger than the others were. How are we gonna fix it?” 

“Sorry…” Totty and Choromatsu said in unison, twin expressions of concentration overtaking their faces. 

“Ooh, ooh, let me try!” Jyushimatsu offered. 

The angel bounced forward, spreading his broad, white wings, that stomach-churning cracking noise echoing around the surrounding trees. Slowly, radiating from his body, the clearing began to fill with light. It grew steadily in brilliance, until the rest of the party were unable to keep their eyes open. 

Finally, the light faded, and darkness swallowed the clearing again. Ichimatsu blinked the spots out of his vision, slitted pupils swelling to fill his irises once again. 

The still, black lake was unaltered, still reflecting twisted visions of the wrong forest. 

Jyushimatsu was panting, leaning his weight on his knees. “One more time!” He shouted. 

Light filled the area again, faster this time. As quickly as it began, it faded again, Jyushimatsu wheezing with the effort. 

Still no change. 

“Again!” He shouted. 

“Stop, you’re just hurting yourself-” Ichimatsu began, but the angel continued to flood the clearing in holy light. 

The light was notably weaker this time, Ichimatsu’s eyes able to adjust to it enough to see the angel swaying on his feet just before the light faded again. 

He rushed to Jyushimatsu’s side as the angel collapsed in a heap. 

“One more… time…” Jyushimatsu insisted. 

“Stop, please, stop. We’ll figure something else out.” Ichimatsu pushed the fist he’d raised back down, holding him still. 

“Here, let me try something.” Choromatsu offered. “Last time, there was a stone that was creating the distortion. Perhaps, if it’s at the bottom of the lake…” 

The arcanist stepped forward, a green glow surrounding his hands. He moved them in careful, flowing movements. Slowly, a bit of the water near the edge of the lake began to follow his motions. He gritted his teeth in frustration, making larger, more forceful motions. Reluctantly, the water obeyed, swirling along with him. Finally, screaming with effort, he forced the lake to part, a path opening right down the center. 

Squirming creatures were revealed, monstrous leeches and eels and grindylows. The lakebed appeared to be comprised of dense, purplish clay. However, it contained no stones or runes or ruins of any sort which may have indicated the source of the distortion. 

Choromatsu allowed the water to splash back into place. Quickly, it settled back into its unnaturally still, reflective state. He slumped to the ground, defeated. 

“What’s our next plan?” He wheezed. 

“Give me a second,” said Totty, eyes glazing over with that familiar pink glow. “Okay, no. We are not doing that. Try again.” He snapped, presumably at his demonic patron. 

“We don’t have many other options. What did he suggest?” Choromatsu pressed. 

“It’s not an option. Not even a last resort.” Totty insisted. 

“I guess that means it’s my turn!” Osomatsu announced, cocky. He stretched out his shoulders, popping his neck, and shifted into his full dragon form. 

The clearing filled with light again, this time from the hot glow of Osomatsu’s fiery breath. The lake rippled with the force of it, weak plumes of steam rising up from the surface. The dragon relented, catching his breath, and the water resumed its placid appearance. 

“Oh, come on!” He groaned. 

“It seems none of our actions have had any effect at all.” Karamatsu observed, unhelpfully.

“Hey, can’t you summon that goddess? She helped you out pretty directly back at the mutt’s palace. She’d probably be a big help here, too.” Ichimatsu suggested. 

Karamatsu looked melancholic. “I don’t know how she fared after the battle. I haven’t felt her with me as strongly as usual… I fear she was injured, or worse, in the skirmish.” 

“Ah.” Seeing the look in the knight’s eyes, Ichimatsu felt like a jerk for even suggesting it. “I’m sorry. Guess that was kind of a silly suggestion, anyway.” 

“Not at all. It’s true that she came to our aid before. Had the circumstances been different-”

“Come on! Do you guys have a useful suggestion or not!” Totty interrupted. He looked distressed. What had Asmodeus said to him? 

“There’s nothing I can do, sorry.” Ichimatsu shrugged. 

“And I’m afraid I’m little more than a well-built man with a sharp stick at the moment.” Karamatsu added apologetically. 

“The rest of us are working our asses off over here! There has to be something you can try!” Totty snapped. 

“What’s got you so desperate?” Ichimatsu prodded. “Are you afraid Asmodeus won’t actually be helpful?” 

“It’s not what he wants to do! It’s the sacrifice he wants in return!” Totty shouted. He caught himself, chewing his lip, choosing his words carefully. “This place is intimately connected with the Lower Planes. The amount of power it’ll take to tear the two of them apart is immense, and we’ve already cut so many of the places binding them together. Asmodeus will have a lot of trouble channelling enough power to this plane to force them apart as it stands now. So, he wants something pretty big in return for his trouble.” 

Totty paused, still hesitant about revealing what the price was. 

“Something big, huh?” Choromatsu scratched his chin. 

“Big like an orgy?” Osomatsu asked. 

“No, not like an orgy! Do you really think I’d be this worked up about it if it was just a stupid orgy?!” Totty snapped back. 

“Maybe he means big like-” Ichimatsu formed a loose ring with one paw and mimed shoving his fist through it. Totty screamed, shoving his paws apart from one another. 

“No, not like that either! Don’t be gross!” 

Ichimatsu snickered. “Hey, you’re the one employed to a sex demon.” 

“Big…” Karamatsu held a hand to his chin, considering. Suddenly, his face turned white, his expression horrified. He turned to look at Osomatsu. “Surely not… while he’s in his draconic form…” 

“No, no, no! This is serious, guys! I don’t mean physically big, I mean, like, important!” 

The gathered party put on exaggerated expressions of seriousness. Totty folded his arms, huffing, then wilted a big, expression becoming distressed once more. “The sacrifice he requested… was Jyushimatsu.” 

“Eh? Me?” The angel cocked his head. 

“Why him?” Osomatsu demanded, a bit offended. 

“If I sleep with him while Asmodeus is possessing me, he’ll fall.” 

Everyone, including Jyushimatsu, looked shocked. 

“Why are you shocked, Jyushimatsu?! Shouldn’t you know that kind of thing?!” Totty pointed an accusing finger at the shocked angel. 

Jyushimatsu shook his head frantically. “Nope, nope! I had no idea! That sounds bad!” 

“It is bad! That’s why I said we can’t do it! End of discussion!” 

“But, Totty…” Jyushimatsu picked at his fingernails. “I wasn’t strong enough to do it myself. We need help. If he can help us, we should let him.” 

“No, Jyushimatsu! I won’t do that to you! I just won’t!” 

“I can decide, too, right? Since it’s about me? Well, I wanna fix this. All of this. Whatever it takes.” 

The angel’s expression was more serious than Ichimatsu had ever seen him. He was considering his options carefully, his usual levity completely absent. It was unsettling. 

Totty looked to be near tears. “I don’t want to! I don’t want to do that to you! Even if the world ends because of it! I won’t do it!” 

“Totty…” Jyushimatsu approached the now-sobbing warlock. He gently grabbed his hands, squeezing them softly. “You don’t mean that, yeah? You want to save everyone, just like the rest of us! Well, sometimes you have to do a less bad thing so the really bad guys can’t do a more bad thing, right?” 

Totty giggled through his tears. “That doesn’t even make any sense, Jyushimatsu.” 

“Eh?! It doesn’t?!” 

“But thank you. You’re right. I think.” 

“Of course I am! Besides, I won’t die or anything! At least, not right away! I’ll just be human! And even if you humans don’t live very long, I can spend my life being friends with you guys!” 

Totty began sobbing again, throwing his arms around the angel’s neck. “Jyushimatsuuu!!!!” He wailed. 

“Okay, Totty? You’re ready?” 

Totty nodded. 

“Ugh, we’re not. Get a fuckin’ room before you make any sacrifices, okay?” Osomatsu grumbled. 

Totty stuck his tongue out at him. “It’s a forest. Why don’t you guys get a room?”

“Come on, leave them be.” Ichimatsu placated, grabbing Osomatsu by the shirt and dragging him off. “He probably needs to be near the source for this to be effective, anyway.” 

The dragon clicked his tongue in irritation. “Yeah, okay.”

“Ah, wait for me!” Karamatsu scrambled after them, attempting to disappear into the trees before any rituals started. Choromatsu jogged quickly after them. 

“I guess now we wait.” Knowing a demon is about to forcibly rip the divinity out of our friend. Yeah, real comforting. Ichimatsu’s heart felt heavy. He regretted leaving them behind already, regretted settling for this solution. If there were any other way… But of course there wasn’t. This whole damn journey was one shitty experience after another, charging headfirst into stupid, suicidal situations. 

He missed his hut. 

Chapter Text

The four waited restlessly. Karamatsu attempted to fill the time with idle chatter, but, as the minutes ticked on, Osomatsu grew more and more irritable. 

“Will you shut the fuck up already?!” The dragon snapped, quite suddenly. 

The knight shrank back into himself, whatever idle comment he was making about mushrooms dying in his throat. 

“That was uncalled for! You should apologize, right now!” Choromatsu scolded. Karamatsu waved a hand, trying to shut him up, but the wizard ignored him. 

Osomatsu rose to his feet in a rush, a growl burbling in his throat. “Why should I?! His stupid chattering was getting on my nerves! He should be apologizing to me for being fucking annoying!” 

Karamatsu looked smaller than Ichimatsu had ever seen him. Worried about accidentally riling him up more, the catfolk simply watched the confrontational dragon approach the indignant wizard. 

“You’re acting very immature right now! Our friend was simply trying to lighten the mood! There’s no reason to attack him for that!” 

“Well, clearly he fucking sucks at ‘lightening the mood’ because my mood still fucking sucks!”

“That’s your problem, now isn’t it?” 

“I’ll show you a fucking problem!” Osomatsu dove at Choromatsu, bowling him to the ground and scratching at his face. The wizard batted the clawed hands away, kneeing the dragon in the stomach, winding him. As Osomatsu stumbled back, Choromatsu tackled him, wrestling him to the ground again. 

Ichimatsu knocked a knee into Karamatsu’s, distracting the knight from the heated tussle. The knight cocked his head in question. Ichimatsu nodded at the canopy of trees above. Karamatsu followed his gaze, peering into the leafy dome. 

“What is it?” He asked. 

“Did you notice?” Ichimatsu dropped his chin, looking back at Karamatsu. “We can see the stars again.” 

Karamatsu’s eyes widened, his gaze returning to the sky. 

Sure enough, through the limited spaces between the leaves, a splash of starlight twinkled. Before, the cursed forest ended only in shadow, distance obscured by thick darkness. Now, it was possible to see past the trees, into the clear night sky above. 

“Wow… I hadn’t noticed, no.” 

“I guess it’s working.” Ichimatsu sighed, strained, still uncertain about the cost. 

“That certainly seems to be the case. I suppose this whole venture hasn’t been a complete waste, then.” He glanced over to where Choromatsu had Osomatsu pinned to the ground several yards away, a knee pressed into the dragon’s stomach. Osomatsu had a hand in Choromatsu’s face, trying to push him off, but it seemed the wizard was stronger than he looked, or, at least, better at the concept of leverage. “Should we inform those two? A bit of good news to relieve the tension?” 

Ichimatsu sighed, watched them tussle. Osomatsu’s scaled tail lashed against the forest floor, doing little more than stirring up fallen leaves. “Nah, let’s leave them. Looks like they need to burn off some energy.” 

Karamatsu picked at his nails anxiously. “I didn’t mean to upset him. I know that this is especially tense for him, since he cares so for Todomatsu, but…” 

Ichimatsu shook his head. “You didn’t do anything wrong. He’s an immature shithead. Totty, and Jyushimatsu, for that matter, are adults. They can make their own decisions. It’s on him to respect that.” 

Karamatsu continued to pick at his nails, worrying them nearly to the point of bleeding. “Thank you, Ichimatsu. I appreciate your words.” 

---

Eventually, Osomatsu and Choromatsu did tire themselves out, sulking on opposite sides of the small clearing nursing their wounds. Choromatsu frowned at the several small rips in the fabric of his layered robes, poking his fingers through them to gauge their severity. Osomatsu held a hand up to an eye, the socket beginning to fade into an angry red, and glared over his shoulder at the wizard behind him. 

Ichimatsu rested his head on his knees, drawn up to his chin, hiding his amusement behind his usual bored expression. Karamatsu had relaxed slightly over time, seeing the wrestling match wasn’t turning ugly, the dragon keeping his talons in check. It seemed Osomatsu was fully aware he needed to blow off some steam, and had enough presence of mind to keep the damage to a minimum. 

“Choromatsu really held his own there, didn’t he?” Ichimatsu commented idly. Karamatsu simply nodded silently. “Who knew he had it in him?” 

Both wounded parties glared in his direction. Oops, hadn’t been as quiet as he’d planned. He held his hands up in half-hearted apology. 

Around them, the woods had slowly become brighter. Colors became more saturated, moonlight poured through a broken section of canopy, and a few small creatures had begun to roam around. Ichimatsu watched as a tiny, vivid green lizard darted past, skirting around a fallen branch and skittering into the woods behind them. As he followed its path, a familiar pair of sturdy galoshes cut into his line of sight. Slowly, he raised his gaze to see Totty slowly approaching, looking solemn. Behind him, Jyushimatsu lay, unconscious, upon the soft, white fur of a familiar nervous horse. 

“Steven!” Karamatsu shouted, disbelieving. He rose to his feet and embraced the horse around his neck. 

“Jyushimatsu…” Choromatsu nearly whispered, standing slowly before rushing across the small clearing to inspect their no-longer-angelic friend. 

“He lost consciousness right after Asmodeus… took what he wanted.” Totty explained, looking guilty. 

“Is he alright? He looks fairly peaceful, but…” Choromatsu’s fingers gently traced some small wounds, like burn scars, in Jyushimatsu’s shoulder blades. Totty’s face pinched. 

“When it happened… it was awful. I should never have let that damn demon-” He cut himself off, jaw clenched, tears prickling at the corners of his eyes. 

“Hey, it’s not all bad. Look around. Looks like your demon came through on his end of the bargain, at least.” Ichimatsu gestured around them, at the forest coming back to life as they spoke. 

Totty nodded, tears beginning to fall despite his best effort. 

“Let’s get out of here.” He suggested, taking Totty’s hands and pulling him forward. Karamatsu clicked his tongue, urging Steven to follow them. He walked with one hand on the horse’s strong neck, stroking it gently the whole time. 

“Are you gonna follow us, or are you just going to sulk here forever?” Choromatsu jabbed. The dragon rustled his wings sharply. Sulking, then. 

Totty’s sobs grew louder. “I-I’m sorry…” He choked out. “It’s- it’s all my f-fault! I’m sorry!” 

Ichimatsu, panicked, tried to quiet him down again, but the warlock just wailed, all of the emotion he’d been trying to power through breaking the dam. 

Osomatsu tensed, glanced over his shoulder with a distressed expression, and hesitantly rose to his feet, making his way across the small clearing to the rest of the party. 

He reached out, uncertainty evident in the clenching and relaxing of his hands, towards Totty, who very suddenly threw his arms around the dragon’s neck. 

“I’m sorry, I know it was stupid, I said I didn’t want to do it! You don’t have to forgive me if you don’t want to, I’ll understand! I won’t forgive me either! It was stupid and terrible and now Jyushimatsu’s hurt and I knew it would happen and I did it anyway!” 

Osomatsu looked panicked, unsure of how to comfort the man drenching his shirt in tears. He allowed his arms to wrap around the warlock’s slender shoulders, rubbing gentle circles around his hunched back. 

“Hey, now, don’t cry… you’re not… you didn’t…. Y’know? I was just being… kind of a brat, actually.” Totty giggled wetly into Osomatsu’s chest. “You didn’t do anything- well, you did your best, you know? Better than what the rest of us could do. I guess what I’m saying is… I’m sorry we had to rely on you again. And I’m sorry for making a big stink about it, too… it was what needed to be done. We always make you do what needs doing, don’t we?” 

Totty nodded, sniffling. A watery smile spread across his features. “You guys would be useless without me, it’s true.” 

“That’s right! We’re just a pack of big dummies, and you’re our all-important, powerful leader!” Osomatsu grinned widely. 

Totty shoved him playfully. “You’ve got that right.” He sniffled, wiping the tears from his face on his shirt sleeves. “No more time feeling sorry for ourselves!” He announced. “We’ve got one more mission left on the agenda! Are we ready?” 

“Yeah!” 

“Of course.” 

“Absolutely!” 

“Heh… it will be child’s play for us as we are now…” 

“Let’s go guys! It’s time to commit regicide!” 

With that rousing speech by the red-eyed, tear-stained, self-appointed ‘leader’, the party started off again, spirits somewhat refreshed. 

It was incredibly simple to find their way out of the wood, now that it was no longer cursed. They were able to retrieve their belongings from their campsite, packing up Totty’s bottomless satchel and Steven’s flanks, and made their way down the road on foot. With the skies clear, and the King expecting them, it was far too dangerous to use Osomatsu’s speedy flight. Luckily, as they’d planned a vaguely circular route initially, the forest was relatively near the castle town, only a few days’ journey away. 

---

They didn’t get far before resting that first night. They were exhausted from their latest ordeal, unable to push themselves further or faster. It was a bit discouraging, everyone’s expressions belaying their frustration. 

They set up camp in relative silence, Ichimatsu setting about preparing a meal for everyone, with Karamatsu’s unpracticed yet eager assistance.

Jyushimatsu, having still not roused, had been moved gently to his bedroll. Totty anxiously applied a salve from their stash onto the burn wounds on his shoulders, being perhaps too gentle and using perhaps too much salve. Ichimatsu certainly couldn’t blame him, in any case, knowing the guilt he must be feeling very well. Osomatsu sat nearby, speaking to Totty more gently than he ever had before, attempting to relax him. 

Choromatsu was making hasty notes into a well-worn, leather-bound book, taking out his own guilt and frustration on the pages within. Several times, Ichimatsu heard him curse softly following the telltale sound of a quill tearing through parchment. 

“It seems tensions are running quite high…” Karamatsu murmured, glancing up from his appointed task dicing vegetables at Choromatsu, cursing particularly loudly as he accidentally snapped his quill in two. The wizard pulled another, identical quill from somewhere in his layered robes, returning to his furious scribbling. 

Ichimatsu hummed. 

“It’s only natural, I suppose. We went through quite the ordeal in there, after all…” 

Ichimatsu continued skewering neatly-cubed chunks of meats between less-neatly cubed chunks of vegetable. Karamatsu fell quiet for a short while, finishing up his own task. Ichimatsu jammed the completed skewers into the earth near the blazing campfire, allowing them to roast. They sat back, watching the flames lick at the foodstuffs in silence for a bit. 

“Do you… want to talk about it?” Karamatsu finally tried. 

Ichimatsu huffed. “What is there to talk about?” 

Karamatsu picked at his nails nervously. “I don’t know. I simply suggested it because… If there’s something you want to get off your chest, or some burden it would help to talk through…” 

Ichimatsu hummed, considering. “You know what, you already helped me get a pretty big burden off of my chest. Kind of literally.” He placed a paw over his sternum, thinking of the scar that had faded along with Caacrinolaas’ control. “I’m not really the one to worry about right now. And Totty… I don’t know that he’ll be alright until he knows Jyushimatsu is.” 

Karamatsu scratched his head. “I suppose that’s true… I feel a bit silly for asking, now…” 

Ichimatsu allowed a small smile to tweak the edge of his mouth. “Don’t. Feel silly, I mean. I appreciate the thought.” He leaned over, pressing a gentle kiss to the knight’s flushed cheekbone. “Thank you. For being considerate. And for, you know, saving my ethereal soul from the clutches of a demon who wanted to use me as a battery. That too.” 

Karamatsu caught him before he leaned back away, holding the back of his head with a gentle grip. He pulled Ichimatsu back in for another kiss, this one aligned properly, lips to lips. “Anytime, my love. I’ll never be idle as long as dangers befall you.” 

Ichimatsu huffed a short laugh, endeared. “Sappy.” 

“It’s simply my honest truth.” The knight insisted. 

“Still sappy.” Ichimatsu grinned. 

A voice cut through the tender moment, muffled, from the interior of the tent. “Eh?! Where are we?!” 

“Jyushimatsu!” Totty’s voice followed, wailing. 

“Oh, hell yeah! You’re all good!” Came Osomatsu’s voice. “Hey, guys! Jyushimatsu’s awake!” 

The dragon flung open the entrance of the tent, beckoning the three outside enthusiastically. Sure enough, Ichimatsu could see Jyushimatsu just inside, sitting up in his bedroll and looking groggily confused. 

“Ah, excellent! What fantastic news!” Karamatsu rejoiced, drawing his hand away from Ichimatsu (who instinctively leaned into the touch as it left, before catching himself), rushing toward the jovial scene inside.  

“He’s already recovered?” Choromatsu abandoned his ripped notebook, dropping it in the dirt in his haste. 

“Good timing, dinner will be ready soon.” Ichimatsu remarked. 

“Oh, that’s good… I’m really hungry!” Jyushimatsu yawned widely, a semblance of his usual bright grin returning. “What are we having?” 

“Skewers.” Ichimatsu informed him, sitting at the end of the bedroll. “Rabbit meat and wild mushrooms, mostly.” 

“Mmm! Sounds suuuper good!!” He stretched his arms high over his head, trying to release the soreness from sleeping on a horse for a long while, but his arms barely made it over his shoulders before he winced. “Ouch!” 

“Oh, be careful! You’re still healing!” Totty warned, panicked. He gently returned Jyushimatsu’s arms to the blanket. 

“Eh? Healing? Did I get hurt?” Jyushimatsu seemed genuinely confused. 

Totty chewed his lip. “I’m sorry… your wings, they… they burned off. Your shoulders are really burned up. I’ve been trying to help you heal faster, with the healing herbs I always use, but…” Totty touched the burns gently, tears pricking his eyes once more. 

“Don’t worry, don’t worry! I heal fast! Really fast! You’ll see! ...Eh, wait, maybe I don’t anymore…?”

The waterfall of tears burst forth. Totty threw his arms around Jyushimatsu’s neck, sobbing into his shoulder. Jyushimatsu patiently rubbed gentle circles into his thin shoulders. 

“I’m sorry…” Totty’s apology was muffled, face pressed into the powerfully-muscled shoulder. 

“Did it work, though?” Jyushimatsu asked. 

Totty nodded, not lifting his head. 

“It worked. The forest is… just a forest now.” Choromatsu explained for him. Jyushimatsu beamed. 

“That’s good, then! That’s good, huh, Totty?!” 

A muffled giggle sounded from Jyushimatsu’s shoulder.

“Then it was all worth it!” Then, in a softer voice, he murmured, “I’ll be alright, Totty. Dry your tears.” 

Totty nodded, sniffling, and lifted his head. He furiously wiped at his damp cheeks, leaving them dry but very red. 

“Come on, guys. Food’s ready.” Ichimatsu announced, bringing the emotional display to a close. “Let’s eat up, regain our strength. There’s still one dickbag who needs his ass kicked.” 

“Well said! Let us dine!” Karamatsu replied enthusiastically. The gathered party all rose to their feet, guiding Jyushimatsu outside with far more care than necessary, and headed for the campfire. 

“Ah, Jyushimatsu?” Karamatsu called.

“Eh? What is it?” The Fallen angel cocked his head curiously. 

“When you’ve regained your strength, perhaps you would like to train with me? I’m sure you will need to adjust your fighting style to acclimate to… this change.” 

“Eh? Sure!” Jyushimatsu replied brightly. Karamatsu visibly relaxed. 

“Excellent, excellent! We shall have to acquire you a weapon!” 

“Quit it, you two. Think about fighting stuff after you’ve eaten. We’ve got a few days of travel left before we get there, anyway. Plenty of time to worry about how he’s going to punch things later.” Ichimatsu scolded. 

“Yes, sir…” Karamatsu and Jyushimatsu replied in unison. 

---

Dinner was quiet, everyone watching their words carefully. The tension slowly lifted as Jyushimatsu proved to be just as energetic and excitable as ever, loudly praising the meal and charging off to begin training as soon as he finished. Totty softened, watching him stretch and warm up enthusiastically, allowing himself to join in with the jovial atmosphere. Later, watching Karamatsu run him through some stances with his old sword, Totty even managed a few biting quips, criticising Karamatsu for his unique flair. 

Ichimatsu breathed a sigh of relief. Life goes on.

They set off for the very last leg of their journey in the morning, just as the sun crested the horizon. The trek was nerve-wracking in its own right, and for entirely different reasons. 

At the sight of every passerby, every caravan encroaching, at the breaching of any settlements, Choromatsu cast an illusion over the party to make them seem as a simple band of merchants, traveling to the city for trade. He took care in the details, making them blend in as well as he could. Perhaps no one would be hunting for them at all, but he’d make damned sure they didn’t recognize them if they were. 

Urgency pushed them to travel late into the night, to arise early in the mornings. They took turns traveling astride Steven, taking brief rests or naps as needed. Ichimatsu was surprised to find that the leg up that Karamatsu provided out of habit was largely unnecessary, swinging his legs over the horse’s broad back with relative ease. He could ride confidently now, able to predict the ways the body beneath him would shift and rock with each step. 

He was also surprised to find he wasn’t the one who needed a ride most often, the amount of energy he had still foreign to him. Instead, Jyushimatsu rested most of the day, spending his nights getting used to swordplay. He picked it up quickly, as expected, despite trying to swing the sword as though it were some sort of heavy mace at first. Still, his energy wasn’t as limitless as it had been, and he actually needed sleep now. 

It was during one of Jyushimatsu’s naps that they came into view of the castle town. Choromatsu refreshed their illusion, looking a bit woozy after. It was a powerful spell, and this was already his second time casting it today, as there was quite a bit of traffic exiting the city. 

“Should we rest in the city? It’d be nice to sleep on a real bed before the big battle.” Totty posited. 

“I dunno about that… historically, staying in inns has been incredibly bad luck for us.” Ichimatsu would prefer not to endure another ambush or kidnapping, which seemed to occur every time the group rested indoors. 

“Staying outside the city would mean a longer journey to get to the castle itself in the morning, though. That’d leave more chances to be spotted and stopped on the way.” Choromatsu argued. 

“We’re getting close to the city gates, now. It’ll be suspicious to suddenly veer away.” Karamatsu pointed out. 

“Ah… I suppose it’s a moot point, then. Let’s continue onward.” 

No one ever listens to my warnings… Ichimatsu grumbled internally. 

Choromatsu cast his gaze across the party, nervously checking that his illusion was solid. Detecting no obvious holes in their disguise, he returned his focus ahead of them. 

The guards eyed them curiously as they passed, but didn’t make a move to stop them. One gave a brief wave of greeting, letting them know they were free to go. 

The townsfolk also gave them curious glances as they passed by, Steven’s hoofsteps echoing through quiet streets. Citizens rushed back and forth, not speaking a word, aiming to do business quickly and quietly, not remaining on the streets. 

“I think, perhaps, we’ve made a terrible mistake…” Karamatsu muttered. Ichimatsu sighed. He hated being right. 

The inn they stepped into was empty, save for the innkeeper. She was a stout dwarven woman, busying herself with cleaning the common area. She clearly wasn’t expecting any visitors. 

Choromatsu cleared his throat to attract her gaze. 

“Eh? Oh! Oh, I’m terribly sorry, dears, terribly sorry… Ah, what are you here for?” 

“We were looking for a place to rest for the evening. You see, we’ve come a long way, looking for trade, and we need lodging before getting to business on the morrow.” Choromatsu explained. 

“Traders…?” The innkeep questioned, looking over them with careful eyes. “I suppose you haven’t heard news, then.” 

“I’m afraid not. What news?” 

She sighed heavily, wiping her hands nervously with her washrag. “Here lately, the guards have been on high alert. They’ll shake down anybody for anything. Random searches, they say. They’re not stopping anybody coming or going, but they seem a bit on edge, all the same. Most folks are leaving town when they get the chance.” She looked around, as though searching for eavesdroppers, and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Folks say the king’s gone mad. Say he’s plumb paranoid. That all these searches are for finding some imaginary assassins.” She leaned back, clearing her voice. “Didn’t hear that from me, though. As for me, I’ll be leaving this place soon as I’m able. Trying to sell what I can, trying to buy my way into a caravan. Still have a couple rooms fully furnished, though, if you’re still looking to stay.” 

“Yes, please… despite the circumstances, we really can’t leave just yet. As I explained, we’re very tired from our very long journey.”

She nodded. “Rooms are unlocked, feel free to use them as you please. I’ll bring you keys up when I’ve put up your horse. Lad?” She patted Jyushimatsu’s leg gently, stirring him awake. 

“Eh? Are we there already?” He yawned. 

“You are, lad. Get you down from there, you can sleep in a real bed now.” 

She smiled gently at him, helping him descend the horse, still unsteady with sleep. She grasped Steven’s reigns and led him off. 

“Shall we investigate our lodging? I’m quite looking forward to this, now!” Karamatsu led the way up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Ichimatsu couldn’t help the fond grin from spreading across his face. 

As she’d said, only some rooms still had all of their amenities. The others were stripped of their bedspreads, nightstands, or bedframes. Todomatsu and Osomatsu claimed a fully furnished room for themselves quickly, Totty proclaiming something about ‘make-up sex’. Jyushimatsu was given another full bed without fuss, Choromatsu volunteering to stay with him. This left Karamatsu and Ichimatsu to stack a couple of mattresses without bedframes directly onto the floor, and using the one free set of sheets to cover them with. 

“I hope this is up to your expectations.” Ichimatsu smirked, referring to the excitement Karamatsu had just expressed. 

The knight’s grin didn’t subside. “Compared to a thin sheet on the forest floor, it’s still paradise.” He flopped onto the mattresses, then turned what he clearly thought to be a suave look toward Ichimatsu. “Besides, everywhere is paradise if I’m there with you.” 

“Uuuugh, shut uuup!” Ichimatsu groaned, melodramatically. He flopped onto the mattresses next to Karamatsu, sinking into their soft padding with a muffled thud. A pointed ear flicked as he considered something. Making a snap decision, he rolled over, straddling Karamatsu next to him. The knight looked up at him with apprehension, seeming nervous about what he might do. 

“You know… not having the bedframe does have one advantage…” He purred. 

“Oh? What… uh, what would that be?” The knight asked, swallowing hard. 

“No squeaky screws.” Ichimatsu replied, bouncing the mattress hard near Karamatsu’s head. It was entirely silent. 

“Oh! Uhhhh, that’s, uh, interesting!”

“We can be as active as we could want, and no one will overhear.” Ichimatsu gently scratched a claw down Karamatsu’s chest, leaving a slight pink welt rising in its wake. 

“That’s, uh, that’s totally true! What, um, exactly did you have in mind…?” 

He couldn’t really be this stupid, right? 

Ichimatsu leaned down, whispering the next part directly into Karamatsu’s ear. “I mean we should fuck. Right here, right now, on these mattresses. What do you say?” 

---

As it turned out, though the bed was quiet, Ichimatsu was most certainly not.