Lance shook his head and shrugged.
They heard a small cough and turned toward the window. Joshua stood on the other side, averting his eyes away from the blonde priestess. “I beg your pardon, Pandora,” he coughed once more, “The general has ordered that we stop for the night.”
Renee turned to Lance quickly, then back to Joshua and the endless icy dark. She nodded, “That sounds reasonable.”
Joshua set his hand within Renee’s reach as an offer to help her from the paladin. Renee took hold of his hand, which he set upon his shoulder. Joshua then lifted Renee from the paladin and set her on the ground. Her first step was shaky, as she had sat within the paladin for what seemed to her to be ages. Lance followed her exit and jumped from the paladin, landing on the ground as though he had cat-like reflexes. Joshua motioned the two of them to follow him down a path through the nearby rice paddies.
Renee looked around the area surrounding the rice paddies. Even outside of the paladin, there was nothing but darkness. “Where are Justin and Christopher?”
Joshua let out another cough, “Yes, the general and the thief went ahead of us, Pandora. They left you in the care of myself and the ki user.”
Lance turned his head from Joshua quickly as he scowled.
Joshua helped Renee toward the rice patties.
“How far do we have to go?” she questioned.
“The camp where we will be resting is about a mile from here, but there is no other path to it, so we must go by foot. Your paladin could not make it through the rice paddies.”
Renee frowned. The rice paddies had the consistency of a warm, thick soup with stalks growing up through the shallow water. Walking through the sloshing water makes me feel nauseous. I don’t even like rice...The smell is overpowering. I can’t even see where I’m going… Just the demons and the paddies directly in front of us… Everything else is dark. I can’t see the mountains Rubiihoppou is supposedly famous for, the billowing blades of yellowed grass that should surround these paddies, the extensive rivers, or any other characteristic landmarks that Rubiihoppou is supposed to hold. They’re all a mystery to my almost sightless eyes. Even if I could see the world surrounding me, the stench of the paddies is too much for me to concentrate on much else. She turned to Lance quickly. “Lance…”
He turned back with a smile, “Yes, Your Eminence?”
“Didn’t you used to live near a place like this?”
Lance’s eyes fell to the murky ground, “Near a rice field…”
“We lived and worked in the rice paddies,” Lance smiled, “It was the happiest place in the world.”
Renee looked down, disgusted by the water at her feet. “Then… How are you doing now?”
Lance turned his head away from her and looked ahead, “Mikagi would be kneeling just in front of us, the sleeves of his blue tunic rolled up above his elbows, his straw hat pulled down over his eyes…” Lance smiled, “I could call his name… And he would give me the grandest smile… Just like that day…”
The sky was a serene blue, a welcome calm even in the land where the trees and water glowed emerald. A calm breeze rushed past the rice paddies. Four men worked calmly in the field, pulling each stalk from the glistening water below them, their feet would grow wet with the passing hours. Among these four men, one wore a blue tunic with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows.
“Mikagi!” a male voice called.
The man in the blue tunic tilted his straw hat up, so that his green eyes could be seen beneath its brim. He smiled for a moment as the sloshing of feet across the paddy grew louder.
The blonde man in the pale green tunic who had called his name stopped for a moment, resting his hands on his knees to catch his breath. He lifted his head and smiled, “Good morning, Mikagi.”
Mikagi only shook his head, “You overslept again, didn’t you Lance?”
Lance turned his head quickly, “It doesn’t happen that often.”
“Only every other day.”
“It wasn’t that long!”
“There’s always tomorrow.”
The two men laughed. They pulled the stalks from the water together, their pile growing larger with each passing hour. As the midday sun rose over their heads, Mikagi removed his straw hat from his head and wiped his brow with his arm. As he let out a breath, attempting to combat the heat, a cold wind began blowing.
“That was nice timing,” Mikagi smiled.
Lance smiled for a moment, but his smile turned into a grimace as he felt a strike against his back and his knees buckled.
“Lance!” Mikagi kneeled and caught him before he collapsed.
“Mikagi…” Lance winced.
Mikagi pulled the offending object from Lance’s back. “Ice?”
Lance held on to Mikagi’s arm as the two stood up from the rice paddy that continued to freeze around their feet with each passing second.
“Where are you?!” Mikagi demanded, “Show yourself!”
The low sound of laughter filled the air.
“Show yourself now!”
A barrage of ice poured from the sky like a hailstorm of arrows aimed straight toward the two men.
“Mikagi!” Lance grabbed on to him tightly.
“Get down!” Mikagi thrust Lance to the ground quickly, burying him beneath the water.
The water that should have been tranquilly warm was frigid. I’m falling asleep... Beneath the water, his vision was clouded by the stalks and rice seeds littering the vast expanse of murky frozen water. His breath slowed and he began to choke. He opened his eyes briefly and saw that he was surrounded by a red cloud. Lance used the last of his strength to pull himself to the surface of the water. “Mikagi!!!” He exclaimed. He felt a tight grip on his hand and scanned from his hand to the hand gripping it, “Mikagi!!!”
“Lance…” Mikagi struggled to breathe as blood continued to pool in the water. In his attempt to rescue Lance, he had been shot in the back with several ice shards.
Lance’s eyes began to glow emerald as the wings shot from his back. Lance’s breathing grew heavy as he pulled Mikagi from the water and tripped on the frozen pond the paddy had become. He trudged across the frozen and icy water, eventually managing to make his way to solid ground, then he began running toward the nearest house.
“Lance… Don’t… Don’t become… that…” Mikagi struggled to breathe, “Lance…” His breath gave out and his body grew limp in Lance’s arms.
Lance let out a ferocious cry as the life in his eyes was consumed by the emerald glow. He lay the lifeless body of his friend on the ground and ran down the path in search of the fiend that had attacked their small village, their small paddy, and his best friend. A mix of his own blood and Mikagi’s blood fell down his front and back, mixing with his tears streaming down his cheeks. After the ice vanished, a heavy rainstorm lit up the sky like bright lights glinting in the distance. It washed the blood down his cheeks. He let out another ferocious cry as he searched for the life force of the murderer. But at that same moment, a sharp pain consumed his heart and he collapsed to his knees. The true emerald power is calling for me and her heart is crying. I have to… He fell to the ground.
Lance looked to the murky ground on which they were walking. “I’m so happy that it hasn’t iced over, but… I’m so afraid I will look ahead and it will be stained with blood…” He turned back to Renee, “I hadn’t seen anything except a piece of his gray tunic… That man, Christopher,” he snarled, “He had to be the one… I would never forget his laugh… Or his ice...”
“It is no wonder a bounty has been placed on his head…” Joshua remarked.
“Whatever bounty they’ve given him is not nearly enough!” Lance snarled, “To be a thief is one thing, but to be a murderer… That damn bastard!”
Renee latched on to Lance’s arm.
“I know it seems difficult, but you need to accept him… We are all comrades here…”
“Only for you, Your Eminence… In no other way are we comrades.” Lance averted his eyes, “Though I am a little surprised to hear you say that, knowing how you feel about comrades…”
“Lance…” Renee clenched her hand into a fist. How could he say that to me? I didn’t hurt anyone… I’m the one who has been hurt! I told him not to talk about her!
Joshua pointed ahead of them on the path, “There we are, our campsite for the night.”
Renee followed his gaze to see the blazing lights of campfires and the ground littered with poorly pitched tents. Renee stopped and stood motionless in the rice paddy. Her knees shook as she took in several large gulps of air.
“No…” Renee wrung her hands.
“This can’t be the place…” She bit her nails and hid behind Lance.
Lance grabbed Renee’s hand and led her forward toward the campsite, “To get to our final battle, we must all walk forward.”
Renee gripped his tunic tightly with her free hand. They stepped out of the paddy and on to the solid ground. Christopher waited at the edge of the tents to welcome them. He grinned, “I’m so happy you made it, Priestess.”
Lance brushed past him and continued walking into the camp. Joshua followed behind him as well. The first tent in their path was a rather large one, from which the great general’s large, metal boots emerged.
“Lady Renee…” he smiled.
Renee released her grip on Lance’s arm and ran to Justin. She gripped on to his armor as tightly as she could.
“Come join me in my tent, Lady Renee.” Justin smiled, then turned to Christopher, “Please show the others where you will be staying.”
Christopher nodded and proceeded to walk into the opposite direction. He beckoned Lance and Joshua to follow him, which both did reluctantly. Lance glanced back at Renee quietly.
Renee turned quickly, “Lance…”
“I will bring him to you when we have finished speaking,” Justin put his hand to her shoulder, “I have a proposition to make to you.”
Renee released her grip on her armor, “Proposition?”
Justin began walking back into the tent, “I tried to discuss it earlier, but you refused to stop.”
“But why here?” Her hand shook as she bit her nails again.
“I have free passage to any of our military camps regardless of my reason,” he sat in a chair near a small table. Otherwise, the tent was bare aside from a mat rolled in the corner, “Besides, you cannot possibly blame me for that, can you? If you recall, it is that woman’s fault. And you are safe with me.”
“I know that.” She looked away from him.
“Now…” Justin crossed one leg over the other, “Would you kindly hear my request?”
“What is it?” She crossed her arms.
“When Pandora obtains the box, she receives three wishes, correct?”
“You know that’s true.”
“Save the final one for me.”
“Haven’t I always been beside you? Helping you throughout every moment of your time here? Don’t I deserve your final wish?”
Renee turned her head and bit her thumbnail, “I suppose, but…”
“Don’t tell me that you would wish to regain your relationship with that woman?”
How could he suggest that?! She clenched her fist. “NO!” She averted her eyes to the ground, “No… You can have it, Justin. It’s all yours.”
A smirk spread across his face, “I knew you would agree…” He opened the door flap on the tent once more. “I will go call for Lance, since you seem to have formed a bond with him…”
“Where are you staying?”
“I have this private tent. I am a general after all.”
“No, it’s nothing. I’ll be fine as long as Lance is with me.”
“I assure you, Lady Renee, you will be safe in this camp.” Justin smiled and exited the tent.
Renee pulled her knees to her chest. The wind seems colder against my skin. Is it because we are in Rubiihoppou, the country of ice? Or…? Tears began forming in her eyes. That day… I’d felt Minako calling me. My heart felt like it was in such turmoil and pain… Like she was screaming for me... I’d reached out to her, but then… There was a flash of green light…
Before her stretched rows upon rows of faded tents. Some were very large, but most were quite small. While there were several campfires, very few of them had been lit. The few campfires that were lit had pots hanging over them as though it was almost time for a meal. It seemed to be a campsite of sorts. Everywhere she turned, men in armor wandered the premises. Each part of their uniforms were emerald, from the armor to the tunics and even their emerald boots. A few horses had been tied to trees. She stared at the bustle of the world in amazement. Where were the cars? The planes? And if this was a military establishment, where were the flags and decorated generals? And why did the soldiers wear armor? She shuddered.
“Minako?” she called, “Minako, where are you?”
She was met by only silence.
Arms wrapped tightly around her neck.
“Who’s there?” Renee choked, her blonde hair hitting against her face.
“Minako,” a male voice responded.
“But… Minako is a girl…” Renee struggled to breathe and pry herself from her captor. She thrust her elbows against his sides repeatedly until he released her. She turned around quickly to see that three men in green armor had surrounded her. “Who are you?”
“We are soldiers in Emeradotouhou’s army,” one man smiled.
A second bowed, “Minako sent us to bring you to her, she is at the capital.”
“The capital?” Renee questioned.
“Yes,” the third smiled, “Our general will see to it that you get to see her.”
Renee held her hands together tightly. Minako is at the capital… Then, I have to go there to see her. “Okay…” she stumbled on her words, “Take me to the capital then…”
The first soldier smiled, “We will lead you to the general’s tent and you can wait for him. He is away on business at the moment, but he should be back shortly.”
Renee nodded. The first man began walking and she followed him without hesitation. The second followed at her side and the third followed behind her. Renee began to walk with a bit of a skip. Soon I’ll be able to see Minako again. That day at TRL… she suddenly disappeared into darkness… Renee clenched her fist. I’d been so worthless… When she reached for me, I couldn’t even keep my grip on my best friend’s hand. And then I searched for her everywhere, but she had disappeared. Where? And why? I’d pondered those questions my entire way home and then I finally heard her voice that evening… . That evening, I’d heard her heart crying and screaming words like “dog” and “box”… Then it shuddered with pure anger and I called her as hard as I could, then nothing… And now I’m here in this strange place, but... Together… We will be together soon and then I can fix my best friend’s tattered heart if she’s hurting... Piece by piece.
The first soldier opened the flap on a large tent and motioned Renee to enter. She entered, followed by the three soldiers. Darkness seemed to cover the tent and seep in from all sides. It had a table with one chair and a mat rolled up in the corner, but little else.
“When will the general come to get me?” she questioned.
Two of the men knocked Renee to the ground. She tried to struggle free from their grips, but they were too strong. The other soldier began removing his armor.
“What are you doing?” Renee cried, “Let me go!”
“She isn’t at the capital…”
“Let me go! I have to see Minako!!”
“She won’t be waiting for you at the capital…”
“She’ll be there! She’ll wait for me!” Renee attempted to thrash her arms, hoping to escape, “Let me go!!!”
“She told me to give you a message…” the man kneeled over Renee, “‘Goodbye… From now on, I can’t protect you…’”
“No!! No!!! Minako!!! Minako!!!”
The soldier grabbed Renee’s head and gave her a short kiss. Renee clenched her eyes shut tightly.
“Don’t struggle!” the soldier held her down as well.
“MINAKO!!!!!!!!!!!!” Renee felt an icy slap on her cheek and her world began going black. “MINAKO!!!!!!!!!!!”
Renee put her hand to her face. She hadn’t been in the capital… They had said so… That she had been somewhere nearby… But, she refused to rescue me… No matter how loud I called her... But Justin… Justin had rescued me… The only other part of that I remember...
“Out!” a male voice bellowed.
Tears streamed down Renee’s face. How could she? How could she still call us friends? How could she do that now? When she left me here… At least I tried looking for her. All Minako had done was lie and run off after that disgusting creature! That shadow of a man! Renee held her knees to her chest tightly. Minako… how could she? Even after that, I still believed she would come… I still believed in her… But, she never came. Every day, Justin reminded me of what she had done, but I still believed that she was going to come… But no.... She had left me to suffer all alone. That bitch! That lying bitch!
Renee looked up quickly to see Lance’s smiling face. “Lance…”
Lance sat down next to her, “Why are you crying? Everything will be fine…” Lance held Renee tightly in his arms.
Yes… You’re right Lance... Everything will be fine… The moment Minako is dead.