Hime x Hime
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I stared at the man behind the mask. Phantom. I couldn't help but feel like the next few minutes would be some of my toughest yet in this world. Maybe of my entire life. With just a single crooked smile, he was able to give me that feeling.
"So... You got what you wanted, we're alone. Do you mind telling me what this is all for? This test of yours?" I began my questioning.
"What do you know about love, Sakuta-kun?" Phantom crossed his arms, ignoring me.
"Are you seriously asking me, or are you playing games again?" I scanned him from head-to-toe, trying to get a feel for his motives. He revealed unsurprisingly little.
"I'm not playing any games. I'm simply curious to hear what your thoooughts are. I couldn't help, but overhear your conversation with the small maid earlier." Phantom mused. "You fall into denial all too easily in matters of the heart! Is it not love that helped you summon your power from before?"
"Power from before... You mean on the ship?" Phantom nodded in response. "That was just dumb luck, I guess... I just remember being really angry, and then a cannon appeared. I haven't been able to do anything like that since. Are you happy? And where did you—"
"—Where did I figure it out from? Does the name Golden Dragon mean anything to you?" Phantom interrupted.
Captain Dag's men... It all makes sense now.
"I just happened to be in the area, and they attacked my vessel in their desperaaation for supplies. Can you believe they thought I was easy prey?" Phantom shrugged, chuckling. "After some prodding, they told me all about you."
"What about?" I took the bait.
"About how you gave everything you had back then to save that girl. Oh the love! It sounds so exquisite!" Phantom sounded as giddy as a young child. "I have lived for many centuries. I knew your predecessor, a man who could turn his emotions into anything within his imaginaaation. I'm here to test your power. Go ahead, and show me."
"Show you? I can't just... I've tried several times to materialize again. It didn't work." I said.
The joyful expression on Phantom's face suddenly faded, and the atmosphere in the room changed. I could see a silent annoyance in his blue eyes.
"I'm beginning to grow impatient with your deniiial. You love Amber, yes? It was love that saved her, just like it was love that your predecessor had for the very world. When he created The Crossing. Admit your feelings, and defeat me. It's so simple!" Phantom extended his arms out wide.
This guy is insane!
"Feelings don't work like that. You can't just manufacture them. You keep going on about my predecessor, but I'm NOT the mage of the crossing. I'm just Sakuta Yamada. A normal kid from Earth who wants to get home." I insisted.
"Sakuta-kun... Do you think your commitment to being so average is endearing!? It's revolting! A disgusting waste of talent, and potential!" Phantom shot forward abruptly, landing a powerful punch to my ribs.
"NGH—!" I hacked, trying to shield myself from another blow.
"You've been given all this power, and you waste it playing butler in the castle..." Phantom spat before landing a knee to my chin, sending me crashing backward onto the floor.
"That's my own choice..." I coughed. "It's my routine. If I lose who I was..."
That's when I lose my family too.
"How I pity you. Even in this state, I can see you clinging to who you were on Earth like it's aaall that matters." He held me up by my hair. "As you are, you could never hope to defeat me."
This is bad... I'm completely out of my element here.
"Even so... I won't kill you. Not until I can face you at your full strength like your predecessor. Only then can I receive that which I truly desire." His hand lingered on his mask momentarily, before he dropped me back onto the floor.
"I had really hoped to make you materialize without resorting to regicide, but this is your final chance." Phantom opened a rift to the ballroom. Through it, I could see a monstrous shadow on stage with glowing red eyes.
"What have you done..." I gasped, standing up.
"The shadow you see before you is the Princess. She has been encased in a shell of sorts, made entiiirely out of darkness. If you won't give in to love, you must find your own way to save her. Don't dally now, because if the time runs out... She'll be my puppet forever." Phantom laughed mockingly.
The man snapped his fingers, and I was back in the entryway of the ball room. Count Cleishay, Henrí, and the Queen's guard were fighting Amber's shadow. Looking at it up close was even more terrifying. It produced shadowy arms that attacked from every angle.
"Where did everybody else go!?" I shouted, keeping a bit of distance. My ribs were still aching from the force of Phantom's strikes, and I struggled to stand.
"The hostages, and anyone else that couldn't make it out are taking refuge in the dining room while we fight this thing." Henrí said. "It suddenly appeared just when we thought we had cleared the last of Phantom's dark minions..."
"Ah, there you are. You look absolutely dreadful. Well, more than usual." Count Cleishay was the next to greet me. "Here, catch this."
He threw me a vial of something that looked suspiciously like dirty dish water.
"You're being very open about trying to poison me." I jabbed.
"Don't be daft. That's a healing elixir, you simpleton. I certainly don't believe in handouts, so you can pay me back when your butler wages kick in." Count Cleishay smirked while I looked at him distrustfully.
Well, I guess there's only one way to find out...
"Down the hatch. Surely it can't make me feel any worse." I sighed, swigging the disgusting liquid.
It did, in fact, make me feel worse. Though, only momentarily. After a few seconds, my wounds began to magically disappear, like they were being washed away.
"Amazing..." I muttered.
"Sakuta..." The shadow surrounding Amber said my name. It launched a full array of arms directly at me.
Wait, it can talk!? Then she must still be in there, but why would she attack me?
"Are you serious!?" I had no time to react. Just before a giant hand could crush me flat, Henrí sliced the arms into several pieces with his halberd.
"Thanks for the save." I exhaled deeply. "Listen, I'd hate to ask for another favor... But I need your help again. I know it sounds crazy, but that shadow... is Amber." I looked at the monster manifesting all the hands.
"THAT thing is Amber?" Henrí exclaimed, dodging a strike from one of them. "That shade has been trying to crush us. We thought it was an enemy this whole time."
"This is Phantom's doing. If we don't break that shell surrounding her, she'll be lost forever... We can't fail." I clenched my fist. "Will you help me?"
"You should really get out of here, Sakuta Yamada. You're a butler. What are you going to do, clean it? I would take no pleasure in having to fight you as a shadow minion. Not that you'd pose much of a threat." Count Cleishay warned.
"Clean it, huh? I guess that's not too far from what I was thinking. I may have a plan, but first I want to try speaking to Amber. I just heard her voice. Can you guys get me close enough?" I asked genuinely. The Count stared at me like I was insane, but then his gaze softened.
"C'mon Charles! It's not like we have much chance of stopping this thing anyway, right?" Henrí laughed. "The look in Sakuta's eyes tells me all I need to know. I trust him."
"You would really—*UGH*—fine! Go whisper sweet nothings in the shadow's ear, and we'll keep those hands occupied. Only momentarily. You better have something in mind." Count Cleishay readied his rapier.
"That's the spirit, Charles. Let her have it!" Henrí gave a mighty shout as he cut down several more shadow arms with his halberd.
"Thanks, you guys..." I smiled.
The Count was surrounded by a sparkling red aura.
"My name is Count Charles Cleishay, the firstborn son of Duke Marlon Cleishay. For the sake of my honor as a swordsman—and a noble—I will now reveal the bloodline magic of my lineage. Focus your attention on me, shadow. BLOODLUST!" A burst of red light escaped The Count's body, drawing Amber's focus completely off of me.
"Must... destroy Charles!" Her hands surrounded him in great numbers, but he effortlessly dodged, or slashed through them using his rapier.
"I've heard about this! The bloodline ability of the Cleishay clan makes the target of their choosing hate them blindly, and attack until the effects wear off." Henrí explained. "Charles is now a shining beacon of rage for the enemy."
You mean his own ability is being unlikable!? I almost feel a little bad for him.
"I'll repay you guys for this, someday!" Seeing my opportunity, I sprinted until I was on-stage. I was directly beneath Amber.
"Hey, Amber! Can you hear me in there!?" I shouted.
"Run... away... Sakuta." Amber muttered. Her glowing red eyes remained focused on me while her hands chased Cleishay around the ballroom, flipping over tables.
Thank goodness... She's not completely gone yet.
"Can't you see, boy? Time is almost up. Now is the time for you to proclaim your love, and achieve your truuue power." Phantom's voice invaded my head. "Isn't that the only thing left that you can do?"
Was it? Back on the ship... I drew from my emotions to save the day, but it wasn't simply romantic love that fueled me. It was the combination of mine and Amber's dreams. How much I cared deeply for not only her, but also my family.
At that moment, I decided. That I wouldn't let Phantom—or anyone else—cheapen my feelings for her. Not even with a blanket term like love.
"You see, Phantom. That's what you have wrong about this whole thing. You keep talking about the power of love, but you don't seem to understand how human feelings work." I replied.
"I suppose I'll bite. What ever do you mean?" Phantom asked in my head.
"Love is slow, painful even. You agonize until the last possible second about whether that person likes you until it's too late. When they return your feelings, you feel elated. Love is kind, but can it also be ugly... jealous." I looked at Henrí.
"Your point is?" He began to grow impatient.
"Thanks to some acquaintances of mine, I think I finally understand my own feelings." I smiled brightly.
"If you keep running around in circles, you just may lose what you hold most dear."
"You really don't understand anything, Sakuta. Not about your feelings or especially Princess Amber's."
The words of two unexpected sources echoed in my head. I realized at that moment that Count Cleishay, and Jewel were trying to give me advice in their own way. I had been awfully dense. Until now.
"I DO care about Amber! Much more than I originally thought." I nodded to myself. "But... I'm not going to rush things, or change myself to unlock some power. I'm a selfish guy... I'm going to care for Amber, and not lose a single bit of myself in the process!"
"And just how do you plan to do that?" Phantom taunted. "You're the weakest of the weak! You're NOTHING like your predecessor!"
"That might be true... But I'll never give up when the girl I care about is in front of me, and my friends are beside me." Count Cleishay and Henrí glanced at me, smiling. If there was any time to try out a new move, this was it.
"MATERIALIZE LEVEL 2!!" My right arm suddenly morphed into a bazooka-like weapon much larger than the one I created on the ship. It took my free hand just to hold it up.
A mass of piercing white light gathered at the end of the weapon, much like the ball of wind I had summoned before. I was planning a direct assault on the layer of darkness surrounding Amber's body. I only hoped it would work.
Amber's shadow arms tried to crush me, sensing the new danger I posed. It very nearly succeeded in breaking my concentration, but then...
"Oh, no you don't!" Henrí wouldn't let them get close enough, as he slashed through the limbs with his halberd. "Give it all you've got, Sakuta!"
Responding to his confidence in me, I let forth a huge beam of light from the end of my weapon. The beam was a direct hit on Amber's shell, but it didn't create so much as a dent.
Not enough power? I thought to myself. I kept up the pressure, using up every last bit of effort to free her. After some serious toil, I began to see small cracks forming around the shell.
"What's this..." Phantom gasped.
"Amber, I know you're in there somewhere. You told me what your goal was, remember?" I struggled to keep my feet firmly planted on the floor below. "I want to be there when you find your father. I want to be there for everything!"
I want to be with you. We're in this fake engagement until the end.
"If you can hear me... Then choose me." I pleaded.
"Get out of my head!" Amber's shadow shouted, producing dozens more hands. They rushed us at the same time. Henrí, and Count Cleishay looked to be completely overwhelmed. This was the crucial moment.
My mind flashed through all of our experiences together up to now. It hadn't been long, but she had left her mark on me. Slowly, but surely I had begun to feel a change in my heart. I strengthened my resolve for one final shout.
"CHOOSE ME, AMBER!" The beam of light intensified. All the hands were burned away in the pure brilliance of the light, and I heard the sound of glass cracking.
The dark shell finally shattered into hundreds of individual pieces. Amber, in her beautiful red dress, fluttered from the sky like the last petal from the Sakura trees in spring. She landed directly in my arms, having finally been freed from her dark prison.
"Ah... I see. I acknowledge your resolve." Phantom's voice whispered before going silent.
"Is that... Sakuta!?" Amber's eyes fluttered open as she looked at me in shock.
"Who else would it be, dummy?" I chuckled.
"It was so dark, and I was alone... But then I heard... your voice." Amber smiled.
"What did I say?" I replied quietly, looking deep into her crimson-red eyes.
"You asked me to choose you. I don't know... I was really thinking about choosing Viscount Bertram. His Aurelia Slide was pretty nice..." Amber looked at me playfully. "Just kidding."
"Eh!!!?" Amber swung her arms around me tightly. I was briefly taken off-guard, before I could feel her warm tears soaking my cheek. I understood.
"I CHOOSE YOU, SAKUTA!" She wailed, holding me tight.
All the Queen's guard around the room erupted into applause. I returned her embrace, and swung her around in my arms. I could see Count Cleishay, and Henrí both smiling content.
It was quite the end to Aurelia's most action-packed Engagement Ball to date.