Hime x Hime
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So this is Phantom.
"Read the room, buddy. We’re in the middle of something important." Sakuta glared at him.
I never got a chance to see him at the ball before Sakuta rescued me. This trial kept throwing challenge after challenge at us. I wondered when it would truly be over.
"Oh my, that’s certainly no way to address your saaavior. If I were not in the area, who knows what might have happened to you and your fiancé?" The man smiled in response.
Despite Phantom’s ridiculous manner of speaking, and fancy clothes… An intimidating presence unlike anything came from him. Hell itself looked back at us from behind that white mask of his.
I can't stop shaking.
"You were in the area? As if... There's only one reason why you would be here. You tipped off the Empress, didn't you?" Sakuta growled.
"I'm quite impressed you knew. Since the cat is already out of the bag..." Phantom's shoulders loosened. "I've been watching you closely since the ball. I hoped that by giving you a little scare at the event, you would take your training more seeeriously. However, and quite regrettably... You cheated."
"Huh?" was all Sakuta could muster.
"Exactly as I said. You met someone... a scholar. The meeting itself was no problem, but it was much too soon. They helped you open that journal you now possess. Instead of fine-tuning your powers for yourself, you cut cooorners with the information within. Did you not?"
"Sakuta, what does he mean?" I whispered.
"That's— How did you know about the journal?" Sakuta’s shocked gaze darted from me, and back to Phantom.
"Sakuta-kun, just who do you think left that journal in the library for her majesty to find in the first place?" Phantom cackled. "It was the only personal artifact left of your predecessor before returning to Earth. Instead of grasping the fundamentals, you decided to chase this silly plan. You wield powers you are not yet capable of using, and lack even the most baaasic discipline."
Phantom shrugged with a deep sigh. My eyes remained focused on Sakuta who had yet to deny any of what Phantom was saying. In fact, the masked villain echoed exactly what the voice of the trial had foretold about this potential future.
"To be so close to victory, and come up short. How pitiful! Would this happen to be your objective?" Phantom reached into a rift, pulling out a shimmering gold key with a crown-like tip. Its purpose was obvious to us.
"The key to The Crossing?" Sakuta stepped forward at the sight of it. "Where did you—"
"—I struck a deal with Lucia. She was quite wise to accept my offer." Phantom said plainly. "No matter how great the plan. No matter where you go. I will always be your final obstacle in returning home. Just like your predecessor who faced me so many years ago."
"But why..." Sakuta clenched his teeth. I braced him from collapsing. "Why interrupt the ball? Why ruin my first real chance at getting home!? Do you hate me, or something!? IS THAT IT!!?"
"Sakuta..." I placed my hand on his back, glaring at the amused Phantom. He started with a low giggle, and quickly evolved into full-blown maniacal laughter.
"Hahahaha... HAHAHAHAHA! Hate you? Ahhh no, no, no, Sakuta-kun. I could never hate you. In fact... I adore you!" Lightning flashed behind Phantom who put his hand up to his one unmasked cheek. He flashed a twisted grin.
He sure has some way of showing it...
"Tell me why... Why go through all this trouble for me?" Sakuta asked. "Why put the royal family in the crossfire? If you wanted the kingdom, you obviously have the power to take it for yourself. How do you benefit from all this, and what do you really want?"
Phantom paused for quite some time before he finally spoke.
"What do I want? If my motivations seem flimsy, I do apologize. I did not explaaain myself properly last time. What I seek, Sakuta-kun, is salvation." Phantom stepped forward. The lightning cracked again. "I suppose I shall regale you with a personal tale. From long before the entity, Phantom, came to be.”
Suddenly, Phantom snapped his fingers, and we were in a completely different place. The mothership blipped into a small cottage with a fireplace burning nearby. It was strangely cozy.
"Mother, mother!" The voice of a small child came from behind us.
Before I could move, he passed right through me like I was a ghost. The blue-eyed boy ran up, hugging a woman exiting the kitchen. She tousled his white hair with a warm smile.
"Where are we?" I asked.
"This is a scene from long ago. A time I remember quiiite well." Phantom replied.
"Mother, I learned another spell today. I filled up a whole pail of water without drawing from the well. Once I'm good enough, my magic will save father so much time on the farm." The boy beamed. His mother seemed tired, but cheerful.
"Very good, Erik. You're always thinking about your poor parents. You'll do even greater things someday, I'm sure of it. My little magic prodigy." She said.
"So this kid... Erik. He's you, isn't he?" Sakuta asked, glancing at Phantom. The man nodded. "I still don't understand... Why show us all this?"
"I was getting to that." Phantom sighed. "I was born in the southern region of Zephyr to a regular mother, and father. A peaceful farm life for the most part. I had a decent talent for magic, and spent my days dreaming about becoming a mage like the Materializer I had heard so much about in the story books." Phantom shot a glance at Sakuta as the scene played out.
With a bit of flair, he waved his hand for the next place, one I happened to recognize from my own days in those hallowed halls and corridors.
"Indeed. Morningstar Magic Academy." Phantom responded to my reaction. "I took on odd adventuring contracts around my home region to pay my way there, and after some time I finally made it. My goal? To gain enough power and notoriety to make my family proooud. What a fool I was, I see now that they already were."
"So... You became this wicked strong after you went to the academy?" I asked, finding it hard to believe.
Especially considering how it worked out for me. I still stink at magic after wasting four years there.
"No, not exactly. I could call myself an above-average magician at best upon graduation." Phantom explained. "After six long years I received my certificaaation as a member of the mages guild. I may not have been at the top of my class, but my accomplishments were pride worthy. But that's when... it happened."
Phantom waved his arm once more. We were back in his home village, only it was different...
Everything is in ruins... How...
"Mother, father! Where are you!?" The younger Phantom ran through the burning remains, calling out for his family. As spectators, the three of us followed closely behind.
"I arrived too late, not that I could have changed the outcome. There had been a silent feud brewing for some odd years over hunting rights in the area between the human and orc villages, and it turned violent." Phantom said. "Try as I did, my magic did nothing to stop the orc chieftain from flattening my home. I was the ooonly survivor."
Sakuta and I looked on in silence. As twisted as he came off, I couldn't help but feel a little bad for Phantom. Sakuta's face reflected the same, but only briefly.
"What happened then?" Sakuta spoke up.
"I cheated." Phantom smirked. "Look..."
"Please... If there's anybody out there listening to me... Grant me the power to seek my revenge, and wipe away the orc clan. I'll be your servant for all eternity! I'm not strong enough by myself, so please... Grant me your power!" The younger Phantom fell to his knees in front of his smoldering cottage, pouring his heart out to no one in particular.
"My useless pleas were honeyed words to an opportunistic deity." Phantom explained. "That night at the inn in the next town over, my caaall was answered. I was visited by the goddess of strife, Eris."
Eris... That sounds awfully familiar.
"She offered me all her power in exchange for a single vow. That I would continue living forever, and offer my love only to her." Phantom laughed at his own foolishness. "At the time, living forever seemed like a baaargain. A gift, even. In my haste for revenge, I had not thought ahead to life beyond that one goal. So... I accepted."
"Did you get what you wanted?" I asked.
"Yes, I got my revenge. And as you may have guessed, it did not bring back a single thing I once cherished." Phantom looked downcast. "Not wanting to live without them, I begged Eris to reverse my immortality."
"Talk about wanting your cake, and to eat it too." Sakuta muttered. "I'm guessing she refused?"
"You rub salt in my wounds, Sakuta-kun. But yes. Eris told me that there was no way I could pass on to the next life under my current contract. Unless, of course I was defeated by power on an equal scaaale to mine. It was when searching through my old family home that I came across an old storybook, and.. an idea."
The younger version of Phantom held up a book with the cover clearly visible. It said "Tales of the Materializer." Sakuta's face transitioned from a look of surprise to understanding.
"So the whole reason you've been watching me was to make sure I got strong enough... to defeat you?" Sakuta scratched his head. "That's some pretty ass-backwards villain logic. What about my predecessor? You mentioned facing off against him before. Why couldn't he do it?"
"Oh, he tried. I staged an attack on four of the world's largest cities at once, daring the Materializer to come defeat me. Unsurprisingly, he heeded my call. However..." Phantom snapped his fingers, and we were back on Lucia's mothership. "He was far too kind. He refused to land the decisive blow out of pity, and left for Earth. I could only watch as my one hope disappeared through The Crossing."
"Why didn't you just follow him back to Earth? Magic doesn't exist in my world, maybe you could have—" Sakuta was interrupted as Phantom shook his head.
"I tried to enter. And this was the result..." Phantom felt his mask. "I was badly injured after being rejected by The Crossing—and for centuries since—I've wondered if my chance to be rid of this curse was gone forever. Until... I heard about you. My salvation!"
As Phantom's focus had been on Sakuta during his story, I spied the key to The Crossing tucked loosely in the front pocket of the man's tuxedo.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking Pon-Pon?"
Since Pon-Pon was sustained using my own mana, he was technically an extension of myself. As such, I could communicate with him using my thoughts. Together, we devised a plan. It would take a bit of luck, and Sakuta playing along naturally for a proper distraction.
".....Just wait for my signal."
"I'd hate to disappoint, but I'm not anyone's salvation.” Sakuta shrugged. “I could never give you what you want. Those knights were about to wipe us out before you stepped in. Like I told you before, I'm just Sakuta Yamada."
And that's more than enough for me.
"Now Pon-Pon, use Greater heal!"
"Pon-POOOOOOON!" Pon-Pon hovered above Sakuta, showering him with a restoring mist of green sparkles.
No sooner than Pon-Pon was done with his spell, Sakuta let forth a huge beam cannon towards Phantom. I almost cheered, thinking it might be the finishing blow. However...
"You've grown... stronger." Phantom met Sakuta's attack with a shadow hand. He slid backward ever-so-slowly, but began to inch forward with each heavy step. "I'll take you back to my estate, and train you myself. You could be the most powerful maaage on this planet!"
"Not... interested. I've already got... somewhere to be." Sakuta struggled as Phantom inched closer. It was my time to shine.
My mana is almost tapped out, I really hope this works...
I launched myself forward with wind magic, passing by Phantom briefly before rebounding.
"If you're so set on going hooome, maybe I'll just... I'll just—" Phantom frantically felt his coat pocket for the key, which I now held in my hand. "What is the meaning of this?!"
Passing by Phantom without landing a blow was by design. Within a blink I had snatched the key from his pocket. I smiled at the befuddled man.
"Amber!?" Sakuta looked equally surprised.
I turned the key in mid-air, and an open doorway appeared in front of it. Earth waited on the other side. The Crossing had been activated.
"Sakuta doesn't need to be the most powerful mage to protect the ones he cares about. He's saved me countless times just as he is." We exchanged smiles before I turned back to Phantom. "He has a family back on Earth waiting for him, and I intend on helping him get there. Pon-Pon, use anti-magic field!"
"Pon-Pon..." Expending all but the very last drops of my mana, Pon-Pon successfully activated a short-term field around Phantom before disappearing. The time he bought us was brief, however.
"As if a paltry shield can hold me! Listen here—!" While the man ranted, I pulled Sakuta aside for parting words.
"Sakuta, we’re out of time..." I fidgeted a bit, taking his hands in mine. Sakuta straightened up after recovering his breath. "I just wanted you to know that you're..."
...someone very special to me.
"Amber?" Sakuta tilted his head.
Words failed me, even at that moment. I pulled off Sakuta's helmet, and kissed him deeply on the lips. Tears flowed down my cheeks.
I finally realized the whole point of the trial. Facing the future I feared. As much as my emotions tugged at me to flee with Sakuta, leaving this Earth business behind... I knew that doing so would be the opposite of loving him. Because if you really, truly love someone...
You need to let them go.
I decided. There were so many things I wanted to say, but I would just have to save them for my Sakuta instead. The one who was waiting for me in the Garden of Dreams. The one who was doing all this to save my sister. That's the man I love.
I smiled, and got behind Sakuta. I wrapped my arms around his waist, just like the day we met. Soaking his shirt with my tears, I mouthed the three magic words I had wanted to say before with a smile.
"Uhhh, you're not thinking of doing that again, are you Amber?" Sakuta chuckled.
"Of course not. No suplexes this time... dummy." I smiled, and steeled my nerves. "I hope you find someone who brings as much happiness as you've brought me. Don't forget us."
I pushed him through the doorway. His armor de-materialized as I got one last look at his face before The Crossing closed for good.
Even if all this really happens someday, I'm at peace with it now. Only one thing left to do...
As I prepared to hurl the key off the ship, Phantom broke free.
"Stop! That key is a two-way trip. If you toss it away now... The Crossing will never be accessed again. He'll be gone forever!"
"That's the idea. You'll never hurt him again!" I chucked the key as hard as I could.
"NOOOOO!" Phantom launched a huge blast of dark energy at me. I closed my eyes, expecting everything to go dark. However, it didn't. Instead, a light breeze kissed my face.
"Hello? Amber?" I opened my eyes to find Sakuta staring at me, worried.
"Sakuta... Is that really you?" I rubbed my eyes, unsure.
"Thank goodness, you're alright. Who else would it be? Is there another Sakuta in your life or something?" Sakuta exhaled, putting his hand to his chest.
Well about that— Wait, if he's really here!? Then that means...
"Welcome to the Garden of Dreams, Amber." Sakuta smiled.