Chapter 17:

Phantom Of The Ball (Part 2)

Hime x Hime

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Life in the city below carried on like normal, as if there weren't something dire going on in the castle above them. For everyone's sake, it was a good idea to keep our mission discreet if anyone happened to ask.

Although... Many people had already escaped the ballroom, so a panic might very well be on its way if we didn't find the royal family soon. Our newly formed team descended the steps leading down from the castle. We went in the direction of the canal.

"What is it exactly that we're looking for when we get there?" I asked Jewel who still held the scroll. We scanned the edges of the canal for clues.

"I don't know any more than you do. It was all pretty vague. Here you will find one that you seek." Jewel repeated. "It could be another clue, or maybe..."

"Hey hold up, I think I see someone fighting over there!" Poppy exclaimed, pointing down the walkway towards a man battling shadow puppets on his own. It was dark, but I was able to make out what he was wearing. The fancy white tailcoat, and blonde hair told me instantly that it was Count Cleishay.

As we got closer, we could see a small rift in space a short walk away from the Count. Tucked inside of the rift was a lone girl. It was Princess Mavis, the first of the hostages. Our hunch was correct.

"Charles!?" Henrí exclaimed. "We need to go help him!"

Something feels off... Why is he alone?

He had left the castle with a group of people, including some guards. It was strange to see him fighting by himself. Unless...

"Wait!" I called out as everyone started to push ahead.

Before he could take off running, I put out my arm to stop Henrí. His men pressed forward without any reservations, or mind for their own safety. It was a costly mistake.

"No, you morons! It's a trap!" Count Cleishay yelled, glancing back at us.

Shadowy hands burst from the ground, grabbing Henrí's men. The hands dragged them down below the surface of the cobblestone as if it were water. Their shouts of terror echoed into the night.

"No!" Henrí shouted, exasperated.

Much like the Queen's guard, they re-emerged from the ground as shadow puppets. Turning our own allies against us was admittedly pretty horrifying, but a genius strategy all the same. We played right into Phantom's hands.

Seeing that I was practically defenseless, I wondered if it was wise for me to come out here in the first place. Poppy walked over, and stood in front of Jewel and I.

"Poppy what are you—" I began.

"I'll fight these monsters here with Henrí. Amber would never forgive me if something happened to either of you." Poppy said. "Sakuta, try and see if you can sneak around and pick up Mavis from that rift."

"Fight!? Will you be alright?" I wondered. Other than pulling a knife on me during our first meeting, I never expected I would see Poppy duking it out.

"Don't worry about me. My beast blood might not be pure enough to transform like the Senator's, but I can still knock some heads in when I need to." She punched her palm with her other fist. "Unless you can produce some of that fancy magic Amber told me about..."

I really wish I could.

My attempts at recreating what I produced on Aurelia's Tear were met with repeated failures. I still had no understanding of how "materializing" worked, let alone how to apply it in combat. Poppy nodded silently as if she understood.

"Then go. Jewel, stay behind me." Poppy said. Jewel nodded silently in agreement.

"Shadows, or not... I trained these men myself. They're not gonna lie down easily." Henrí spoke to Poppy. "But you look ready."

"My job description extends beyond household chores. The Queen and her daughters are like my family. I was born ready!" Poppy shouted.

"Come on then!" Henrí called at the shades of his men. The shadow puppets rushed the two demi-humans, wielding the same halberds they used in their non-shadow forms.

Henrí had a halberd of his own, but it remained on his back as he used his claws instead to tear through the shadows. He fought with a ferocity unmatched by anyone I had witnessed besides Amber. When a shade would be defeated, it would simply evaporate leaving nothing behind.

Seeing my opportunity, I made a mental note of where the hands emerged from the ground before, and snuck my way around. Things went pretty well at first.

I'm almost there... Wait what's—

Unfortunately, I failed to account for one hand that hadn't bothered to spring up the first time.

"WOAAAAH!!" The shadowy limb exploded from the ground, grabbing my ankle in the process. Just when I thought I was a goner...

"Watch yourself!" I saw a flash of white, and the shadowy arm was slashed in two with a golden rapier. I landed on my backside, painfully, but mostly intact. Upon looking up at my savior, I was annoyed to find that I had been saved by Count Cleishay of all people. "Do you commoners have no self-preservation instinct at all?"

"Thanks, you saved me..." I exhaled, ignoring his insult. I had thanked the Count more in one day than I ever thought I would in a lifetime. "What happened to all the other suitors that joined the search, and your men?"

"They met the same fate as the Senator's most intelligent bunch of soldiers. I tried to warn them too. Nobody ever listens to a pretty face, I suppose." Count Cleishay flipped his hair.

Or maybe it's that you're as greasy as a burger chain restaurant, and nobody trusts your word. But that's besides the point...

"Setting that aside, we should pick up Mavis, and get out of here before more shadows ambush us." I suggested. Cleishay didn't say anything, but he followed me to the rift with his usual smirk.

I peered into the void where Mavis was lying down, unconscious. It appeared to see some sort of pocket dimension, but the room looked a lot like the castle interior. It had a small bed, but no other recognizable features.

Do I just... reach in?

There was only one way to find out. I took the initiative, and reached into the rift, picking up Mavis in my arms.

"HIYAAAH!" I happened to see Poppy deck the last of the shadows with her fist, sending it flying. She came running up to us. "You guys found her! Thank goodness. Is she...?"

"Sleeping, it looks like. She doesn't appear to be hurt." Count Cleishay said. Jewel and Henrí came walking up, rejoining our group.

"We can count ourselves lucky, then." Henrí smiled. "You certainly haven't lost your edge, Charles. I always thought you would make a better soldier than a nobleman."

"Then your eyesight must be as poor as Sakuta Yamada's here." Count Cleishay replied. Well that was unnecessary! "All this fighting is terrible for my skin. I can't wait to be done with this, and find my father so we can go home. Maybe I'll take a bath."

"Speaking of home, I'll bring Mavis back to the castle. You guys can continue looking for the others. Can I trust you with this? Sakuta, Henrí? You too Charles..." Poppy asked the three of us.

Like me, she didn't appear to be thrilled that she had to rely on Count Cleishay, but we were already down on fighting power.

"You got it. We'll find the others, and meet you back at the ballroom." I agreed.

Poppy took Princess Mavis in her arms. A voice called out abruptly, interrupting our reunion.

"Veeery good! By working together, you have passed the first trial. Four hostages remain, but this could take awhile..." Phantom's voice played in my head. Based on the expression of the others, it wasn't just me who heard it.

"I made a slight rule change, I sure hope you don't mind. I'm giving you but ooone more hour. And all four people, you must find." Phantom snickered.

What!? All four hostages within the hour... How would we even manage something like that!?

"And one more thing that I forgot to mention. I'll split up your paaarty to divide your attention. Separate!" At Phantom's command, several rifts opened up beneath our feet, splitting up our group.

Count Cleishay, and Senator Henrí fell into rifts of their own.

"Sakuta!" I began falling, but Jewel tried to pull me back up. It was no use... I was much heavier than the petite Jewel. She was pulled into the rift right alongside me.

The last thing I saw was Poppy's look of horror, before the world suddenly went dark.