Emiko had been in pain. She knew she had been. She had just cast an oversized spell without any intent of self-preservation, and all out of a sense of wanting to help. Yet she stood in a seemingly infinite white space, examining herself and finding her still wearing her favourite sweater and pants, though they didn’t have any of the wear and tear she knew she had accumulated on her journey.
She looked around once again, wondering where she was, before a voice echoed softly around her. “Emiko…” It whispered. “Art thou listening? Art thou watching?”
Emiko felt her blood chill as she realized just where she had heard this voice before. One she had hoped with equal parts of her heart to hear again and to never hear again out of fear.
“Who are you?” She asked, her question bouncing around the endless space.
“I am… or I was… and I shall be.” The voice hummed. “Time is but a mortal concept, and even long-lived races have it. Only for those truly eternal does time become meaningless.”
Emiko gulped. “Th-that, didn’t answer my question…”
This time, she swore she could hear mirth and exhaustion in the voice. “Of course. My name is Ryuubi…” In the white space, a coil of scales, wings, and feathers materialized. Emiko watched as the head uncoiled from the rest of the scaly mosaic and opened it’s mouth wide.“I am the true Dragon that granted thy wish.”
“Y-you… you really are…?” Emiko fell to her knees and stared at the creature that was leagues above and beyond anything she had ever seen before. “Why…” Emiko clenched her fists and stared at the ground in front her. “Why? Why?! Why did y-you choose me? Why did you grant my wish?”
“All important questions,” Ryuubi rumbled. “But these are not the questions thou wouldst truly like to ask, are they?”
Emiko felt her breath catch as a tear fell from her eyes. “No, th-they aren’t,” she agreed. “Can I… Is it possible for… everyone to come back?”
The Dragon rumbled again, this time as if chuckling at a childish joke. “Hm. Thus, we approach the topic that thou hadst wished to breach. Perhaps I shall have an answer for you.” A chair materialized out of nowhere, and Emiko gasped. “Do not be surprised, little one,” Ryuubi said. “This is not the real world, after all. Only thy whims and my fancies shall have an effect on this little world we have created.”
Nodding mutely, Emiko could only pull herself up and slide into the chair. It faced the coiling view of Ryuubi’s incomprehensibly large body, and she gulped as the Dragon lowered it’s face to look Emiko in the eyes.. “Thou wouldst seek to reverse a decision I made in confidence, hm?”
“And thou thinkest that thou would be happier if everyone returned?”
Emiko wanted so badly to say yes, but when she opened her mouth, she couldn’t say anything.
“T’is what I thought,” he murmured. “Thy conviction is admirable, but your intentions are unclear. Thou thinkest such noble thoughts, but truly, thou art happy in this new world of thine.”
“Th-that’s not true,” Emiko whispered. “Please, it isn’t true! I’m, I’m not happy! I just, I want to make things right—“
“Then wouldst thou readily forsake thy companions now? Thy friends: Isla, Atsui, and even Uris and her kin? All those that now live on this planet of thine, seeking refuge?”
There was something about what he said that bugged Emiko. “W-what, what you do you mean… all?”
Ryuubi rumbled once more with a soft laugh. “Thou didst not think the faerie and the elves were the only ones to seek refuge on this planet of thine, didst thou?” He shifted and recoiled. “I opened the gate to other worldlines, and thus have shown my benevolence in allowing others to come here.”
“But, but what about everyone else?” Emiko could think of one person particularly, but she couldn’t back down now. “Everyone th-that used to live on Earth? Where did, did they go?”
“Hm. Thou art stubborn.” Ryuubi brought his head down again and looked at Emiko carefully. “I know thy mind, Emiko. I would not have granted thy wish in such a fashion if I had not known what thou wouldst have wanted. Art thou not grateful?”
His remarks stung Emiko to the core. She inhaled shakily and fisted the hem of her sweater. “I-I…”
Ryuubi nodded. “No answer, is answer enough…” He retreated. He then began to turn into mist, starting from the tail of his enormous form, and hummed. “I am nothing if not understanding, Emiko. If thy true wish is to return Earth to as it once was, then come to me on the Mount of Stars, which thou regard as Tateyama. Thy friends have already crossed the Valley, and are bringing thee up.” His voice began to echo as his head was the last to vanish. “If, by then, thy wish remains…whatever it may be, I shall grant it.”
“What…?” Emiko called out, trying to reach for him, but he had already vanished. “Ryuubi! W-wait—!”
The space collapsed, the white crumbling into infinite dark, and Emiko screamed—
“—Ahhhh!” Emiko shot up and felt herself before grabbing onto her surroundings in an attempt to ground herself. “Ryuubi!”
“Emiko!” Another voice cried, and her vision was filled with a glowing red fairy. “You have awoken! You are alright!”
“W-what, wh-where?” She gripped the sides of what she now realized was her wagon, and looked around. The air felt clean, and there was a chilly breeze that fought the afternoon sun.
“We fled the scene as soon as we were able,” Uris’ voice explained. “The blighted hydra’s cries could be heard for many klicks, so we evacuated.”
“Hey, Emiko!” Atsui waved from the front of the wagon. Emiko blinked as she realized who exactly was waving at her, and remembered what had happened. “We’ve passed through the Valley of Change already. We left the tree line an hour ago and we’re only half-an-hour away from summiting the Mount of Stars.” She beamed. “I’m so glad to see you’re alright, Emiko! I thought… I thought—!” Emiko was alarmed at how quickly Atsui’s emotions flipped, and tears began streaming down her face. “I thought you were going to—“
“She did not perish, and she is still with us,” Isla said reassuringly. She landed on Atsui’s head and pet it gently. “There, there.”
Meanwhile, Emiko looked behind her and saw the trail they had been climbing. She rubbed at her eyes as she remembered going up this very same trail a few times before… She looked to her left and watched Uris as she continued to scan the skies and her surroundings. Uris noticed Emiko’s gaze and nodded slightly.
“There is still danger, especially here,” Uris said. “I have already seen a few wyverns flying above, and have had to dispatch of a chimera, a jackalope, and a couple of manticore.
“They weren’t that hard compared to the hydra,” Atsui admitted. “But they were fun to play with!”
“What Atsui means to say,” Isla said with a sigh, “Is that we’ve been making sure you are safe and that you have been healing while we’ve traveled.” She turned on Atsui’s head and faced Emiko. “You were covered in burns from your own spell, Emiko. You could have turned yourself to ash. What were you thinking?”
“I, I just…” Emiko winced as the wagon hit a rough bump, and she stared at her hands. “I wanted to, to help.”
Isla remained silent for a moment longer. “We appreciated it, Emiko. Thank you for helping us.” Emiko glanced up with surprise, but she could see the disappointment still evident on Isla’s face. “But we do not want you helping again if it means you will injure yourself to such a degree. We cannot allow that.”
“And as commissioned by my father, I am to protect you,” Uris stated. “That means, if I must protect you from yourself, than so be it.”
Emiko looked at the two beings ganging up on her, and felt a warmth from within. Gripped the sides of the wagon a little tighter as she blinked away the warmth from her eyes. “Thank you…”
They continued to travel for a few more moments, before Isla spoke up again. “You spoke a name when you woke up, Emiko. It denoted a considerable amount of power. I almost cannot speak it.”
“What… you mean Ryuubi?” Emiko felt the air hum for just a moment, and die again.
“That!” Isla cried. She pointed and rose into the air. “That name! Now, do not say it anymore!”
Emiko shied away from her point. “But, but you just said—“
“I know what I said,” Isla started, “But speaking that name just invoked another wave of mana!”
“I felt it too,” Uris said. “Whomever that name belongs to, they must be quite powerful.”
“And dangerous,” Isla finished.
“I… I met the true Dragon while I was out,” Emiko finally said. She gulped. “It was the Dragon that granted my wish, but Ryuu—“
“Don’t!” Isla cried. She turned to Uris and flew to her side. “Uris, we will need to watch ourselves now. Those two invocations must have stirred whatever feral pockets of creatures there were on this mountain.”
“I am aware,” Uris said, nocking her bow. “I am already taking care of it.” She aimed, squinted, and her arrow flew true. I heard a distant whine as a large hound dropped to the ground. I flinched as a howl rang through the air, before a cacophony of other cries broke the silence.
“Atsui,” Isla said, “Run.”
“Alright,” Atsui said, bracing herself. “Here we go!”
The sudden increase in speed threw Emiko for a loop, and she clutched the wagon with her life. “A-Atsui! So fast!”
Emiko shrieked as Uris caught up beside her, still aiming and shooting her arrows. “Not fast enough! We’re being chased by hellhounds!”
“I will tear through their ranks,” Isla cried. “Light from above, strike these creatures from below. Send them to whence they came! Sunset Burial!” A circle appeared above the approaching dogs, and Isla threw her hands down. A sheet of light slammed into the dogs, burning them and shoving them deep into the rocky path.
“We’re still a little bit far from the summit!” Atsui cried. “I can’t run any faster if I’m pulling this wagon with me, because it might break!”
“Abandon the wagon and grab Emiko, then!” Uris shouted. “We have to ensure she makes it—“
“No!” Emiko yelled. “I can’t abandon the wagon. I have things, memories! Please, we can’t—“
“Memories will not matter if you are dead, Emiko,” Isla said, flying next to her. “We must move with haste!”
“W-wait!” Emiko yelped as she was tossed and crashed into the front of the wagon. Groaning in pain, Emiko tried to look for the picture she had hidden, and grabbed it. Her heart broke as she looked at it’s crumpled and melted state, but she knew there was no time to mourn. She grabbed the one other thing she truly cared about from the bottom of the wagon and strapped it to her back.
“O-okay, I’m ready!” Emiko yelled. “What do I—eep!”
Uris had leapt onto the wagon and carried Emiko, placing her on Atsui’s back. “There. You will be safe with Atsui, and she will carry you to the top! Go!”
“What about you?!” Emiko cried, and shrieked as a flash of light from above made a flying creature roar with pain. “W-was that—?”
“Emiko, you need to go!” Isla yelled from above. “There’s more coming!”
“We will cover for you, so you need not worry!” Uris yelled. “Atsui, let go and run!”
“I trust you two,” Atsui yelled, “So stay safe for Emiko!” With that, Atsui let go, and the wagon immediately fell behind with Uris still in it. Emiko tried to catch glimpses of her and Isla, but all she could now see were flashes of red and white light, and the howls and roars of monsters. She buried her face into Atsui’s neck, and whimpered as she felt a rumble and heard the crack of thunder.
“I’m going to transform, Emiko!” Atsui warned. “Just keep holding on!”
“W-what do you mean—wah!” She cried in terror as her grip slipped for just a moment, Atsui glowing as her shape changed, and suddenly she was holding onto thick, soft fur. “I can run faster like this!” With a burst of speed, Atsui began to leap through the air, jumping from point to point. All the while, Emiko tried to drown out the sound of the air and the distant sounds of battle below.
One particular jump had her scramble for a hold, and she panicked as she began to slide. “A-Atsui!” Emiko screamed. “I’m slipping! Atsui! Please—!”
Atsui skidded to a stop, and Emiko slid back into place. She locked her arms around Atsui’s neck and buried her face into it, heaving in as much air as she could. “That was… so scary… Atsui…” She slid off Atsui’s back and collapsed onto the ground. “I… don’t want to do that again…”
“Atsui… something’s not right here.”
“There’s something wrong with this place.” Her voice became vocal as she shifted to her human form, and crouched next to Emiko. “It smells like death.”
“How right you are,” a voice boomed. It echoed down the mountain, and Emiko covered her eyes as a harsh wind began to blow. “You cannot imagine how many have tread your path before you… wish-stealers!”
Emiko choked as the earth below her crumbled and shifted, punching her sides and making her lose her breath. She gasped desperately as she held her stomach, clawing at the ground for purchase. Atsui, having seen the wave of earth magic, had nimbly jumped, but she looked to Emiko with painful regret.
“Ah, a human and her familiar,” the voice said, her presence now made known, but still shrouded in a cloud of darkness. All Atsui and Emiko could see were a pair of slitted red eyes staring from within. “Come to invade my domain, and demand a wish, have you? And what of the path of carnage that you have blazed on your way up here? The companions you have sacrificed?”
“A-tsu-i,” Emiko gasped, trying to reach for her. “H-el-p…”
The figure giggled before humming in interest. She turned her gaze to the prone Emiko, before Atsui dashed in front of her, her glowing claws outstretched and at the ready. “Hm… you have had a wish granted already, human. You seem to carry his power within you… and yet you come to my Mount of Stars that I have claimed by right?” The cloud of darkness began to twinkle, what looked like stars appearing within the murky miasma. “You shall perish for your foolishness.”
“NO!” Atsui yelled. “Never! I will repay your kindness in rescuing me by protecting you, Emiko!”
“I… don’t want you… to…” Emiko whimpered. She gasped and gasped, and she could finally feel some of her air returning, but she was weak. Pushing herself to her hands and knees, she coughed. “Don’t…”
“How nice,” the darkness said, “But this is your end. Stars that twinkle, destroy these trespassers! Meteor Blast!”
“Flames of eternity, break her will! Defend our lives and retaliate!”
“Your weak fire will not win you here,” the darkness said, laughing. Atsui roared as the twinkling lights shot beams into the wall of fire and pierced right through. Atsui grunted as some of them hit her, and she brought her arms together and folded them. The wall collapsed and became a thick barrier, and the remaining beams fizzled before they could pierce.
“Hmph.” The darkness growled, and Atsui’s flames fizzled out. Atsui stumbled, and she found Emiko bracing against her.
“A-Atsui,” Emiko said. She held Atsui up, and in return, she held onto Atsui. “Don’t push yourself… please…”
“Emiko,” Atsui whispered. She held Emiko up and steadied her. “I should be saying that to you, so please…” Atsui let go of Emiko and stomped her feet, cracking the stone beneath. “Flames of protection, heed my plea! Forge an unbreakable wall of warmth and strength! Shield and revive Emiko!”
From her foot erupted what looked like magma, boiling up and and solidifying into brimstone parapets before a cage of white fire burned into existence. Emiko yelled, throwing her hands against the flame, but she bounced off. “ATSUI!” she yelled, but it was muffled by the thrum that came with the flames. “Don’t! Don’t do this!” She tried to break through the fire, completely ready to be burned, but as ethereal as it seemed, she couldn’t move through it. All she felt while she pushed was warmth and energy.
“Just stay, Emiko!” Atsui smiled, stepping away. “It took half of my energy to make this, so I’m going to need to focus everything else I have left!”
Emiko watched as her first friend in her empty world turned away from her. She banged on the flames and screamed. She tried to throw all of her weight against it, she tried pushing and shoving and even trying to cast some magic, but she couldn’t focus. She fell to her knees and held a hand against the barrier, desperately reaching for Atsui.
“You truly are foolish, aren’t you?” The darkness formed into a shady serpent. Many feet long, and with scales of a deep purple and fins of that seemed more like shadow than an actual part of her body. Her head curved wickedly into a hook, and her eyes were turned into slits of malice. She cackled and writhed malevolently in the air. “You lived foolishly, and you will perish a fool!”
“No,” Atsui growled. “I lived in a cage, and Emiko freed me. When everyone had only ever been afraid of me, she loved me. She fed me, she cared for me, and she is the kindest soul I know!” She brandished her claws and cried, “I will protect her!”
“Then you are already dead!” The shadow dragon rose to her full height. “I am Kageru, and this is your grave!”
“I’m Atsui!” Atsui leapt into the air. “And you will feel my wrath!”
“ATSUI!” Emiko screamed.
Atsui slashed away at the tendrils that jabbed at her. She leapt off a few more of them and shot towards Kageru’s body. Landing on her side, she tried to run up her length while slicing into her scales, all the while collecting flames, her stripes glowing brighter and brighter.
“By my mouth, and by my life, I call upon the fires of creation!” She got bucked off and flew into the air, but she pirouetted and reoriented herself to face the shadow dragon. Her eyes and mouth began to emit smoke, and she coughed out embers. “Burn with me, rage with me! I am the inferno!” She gathered some flames into her palm and blasted them behind her, launching her towards Kageru. “I am destruction! I am life! I am the beginning, and the end!”
“Stay still!” Kageru roared, throwing tendril after tendril and beam after beam at Atsui. She chanted her Meteor Burst again and this time, Emiko screamed in terror as Emiko was pierced multiple times. her leather armour failed, and she could see blood fly. Atsui fell and crashed, sliding, but she pushed herself off the ground.
Coughing some more embers, flames began to lick out of Atsui’s mouth, and Emiko caught her eyes. She tearfully gasped as she saw Atsui’s eyes had turned a charcoal black, and her iris’ glowed like blue embers. Emiko shook her head and whispered “No,” as Atsui smiled and nodded. Finally, Atsui’s stripes themselves began to lick with fire, and her armour ignited as she stood.
“Out of darkness, comes the light…” She tensed and coiled. “Break the world!” She roared as she launched at Kageru, and screamed.
Emiko squeaked as she covered her eyes, and she could feel her protection get barraged with an insane heat. She could hardly breathe. It felt like she was the one on fire. Suddenly, she felt the intense heat and a hot wind blowing, and she opened her eyes to a world of carnage.
All around her, the ground had glassed, glowing with molten reds, oranges, and yellows. Her brimstone parapet and her little section of the mountain were the only things unaffected, and she heard a faint whistling in the air. She looked up to see a black form glow white, turn into a four legged form, and glow white once more before turning into a tiny… kitten.
Emiko choked as she reached her arms out and grabbed the charred form of Atsui. “N-no…” Emiko sobbed. “No!”
“Emiko…” Atsui whispered in her mind. “Was I… good?”
Tears freely fell from Emiko, hitting Atsui’s exposed skin. She shook her head and weeped. “You were th-the best, Atsui,” she rasped. “You were as bright as the sun.”
“No…” Atsui sighed. “You… were my… sun…”
Emiko felt Atsui breathe her last.
Emiko felt her go limp
Emiko screamed through clenched teeth as she gently held Atsui to her chest and keeled over. “NO!” Emiko cried. “NO! NO! NOOOOO! ATSUI!”
Emiko inhaled sharply as she heard the voice from within the smoke.
Kageru emerged from the mist, half of her entire body having been scorched to cinder. Her face was mangled, and Emiko could hear her pained whines. “You nearly… killed me!” The dragon roared and the sound of scales tearing could be heard as she shrieked and uncoiled. “You will pay—!”
“You’re… still alive…”
Kageru froze as she heard Emiko’s soft voice echo on the summit. “Atsui gave everything… and you’re… still alive…?!”
With a cruel tone, Kageru laughed in mockery. “Your little pet couldn’t even kill me. And—oh? What is this?” A dark cloud gathered from above, and the entire mountain was illuminated as a red-blue bolt of lightning slammed into the side of the mountain, shaking it from its base. Emiko barely reacted as Kageru swiped her remaining good claw and opened a portal, through which two smoking figures fell through and rolled to a stop.
“Every single creature on the face of the mountain has perished… along with your friends.” Kageru sneered. “Now, it is only you who remains.”
“…Emiko,” she whispered.
“Emiko, alone,” Kageru moaned mockingly. “Her friends have left her behind!” She began to gather her shadows together, until it looked like the dark of night. Constellations twinkled in her miasma, and she cackled. “Let me help you join them—!”
“No.” Kageru paused as she felt a wave of energy wash over her. Emiko slowly stood up and stumbled over to Isla and Uris’ bodies. Laying Atsui gently in between them, she clasped her hands together and stood silently for a moment.
“Hm…” Kageru sneered. “Say your last prayers then. You will see them soon enough.”
Emiko’s arms dropped to her sides, and she turned around, her face covered with a shadow. “No.”
Kageru was taken aback as another wave of energy washed over her, more powerful than the last, and she recoiled. “What is this… I know this energy…” She growled. “You would deny your fate and fight?!”
“I have no fate, but my own…” Emiko “And now…”
Kageru was shocked to feel that she couldn’t move, and she watched in terror as a long figure appeared around Emiko. The shape of a dragon that she so easily controlled, that wrapped around her and moved, as if she were the dragon itself. “I WANT YOU TO DIE!”
Emiko looked up, her eyes overlaid with glowing blue slits, and thrust her hands forward. “I WANT YOU TO SUFFER! I WANT YOU CRY! I WANT YOU TO BEG FOR MERCY!”
The shadow dragon screamed as the dragon moved faster than even she could react, and bit by bit, pieces of her were torn, shredded, and burned off. She lashed out, writhing and wriggling, throwing stars and shadows and arms of inky blackness, but the dragon overpowered her. As she lost more and more of herself to the dragon, she began to cry in terror and fear.
“No, no! Mercy! I am-ack!” The Emi-Dragon grabbed Kageru by her throat and slammed her into the molten ground, dragging her until her head was trapped right next to Emiko herself. The Emi-Dragon squeezed even harder, and Kageru began to squirm frantically.
“P-le-ase!” Kageru rasped, clutching hopelessly at the Emi-Dragon with one claw. “I-be-g-of-y-ou!”
She stared at Emiko as Emiko stepped close. “We never had a chance,” Emiko whispered. “And you won’t either.”
The last thing Kageru felt was fear as she saw a blank expression, and Emiko’s tears freely running from dead, glowing eyes.
In an instant, Kageru’s struggles ceased, and the rest of her body collapsed to the ground with a muted thud. The Emi-Dragon uncoiled from Emiko, and she found herself stumbling to where her friends lay motionless. With the last of her strength, she fell to her knees, pulled out her ukulele from the case on her back, gazed at their forms, and lay down next to them.
“I’m… tired…” Emiko whispered. “Is there a spell… to rejuvenate us… Isla?”
She listened as the smoke dissipated
“Haha… you’re always so uptight, Uris…”
The wind whistled, and she sobbed. “You’re so cute… Atsui…”
“I never got to sing you a song…” Emiko closed her eyes, hugged her ukulele and smiled. “I’m sorry… I never said… how much I appreciated you… all of you…”
“…Hm. Thou hast made it after all...”