ix. a pomegranate and a red sword
Commonly there are two types of persons: those who have hopes for the future, and those who have plans.
It is the duty of a prince to be of the later sort. As Ken coils up the ropes, he is already anticipating the changes that nature might have wrought to the underground fortress in his absence. An active volcano nearby, an eternal glacier overhead: Ken listens to the quiet sound of a pure rushing wind and assumes nothing.
Daisuke is splashing his waterproofed boots in a shallow, steaming pool near the edge of the cracked vent which sends a faintly sulfuric steam up towards the now invisible sky. The two boys are on the true ground of Antarctica, almost a half mile below the chimney edge. The vent is a beautiful, dangerous thing: pockets of phosphorescent algae glow vaguely in the deep: firefly-green light representing concretions of Earth's most tenacious life forms. Ken has stood at the edge of that deep many times, pondering the toxic night and listening to the sound of the dripping melt.
"Are you ready?" the Prince asks after he tucks away his gear and assesses his surroundings. Daisuke looks up and nods, his expression dry and unusually thoughtful.
"Harder from here on in. Got it."
Daisuke is one of the uncommon types. His views of the future are spoiled by neither hopes nor plans. Even outside his grief, there is only one thing that he's ever been able to see: the present.
Because of this, he is often mistakenly labeled "simple."
Ken raises a dark eyebrow. "This is the First Hall," he explains after a moment of hard contemplation. "Stingmon calls it the First Trespass."
"Transgression," Ken replies shortly.
"Uh. Sure." Daisuke ceases wading and walks over to the prince, his face framed in fur and his young face bathed in skepticism. "I'd understand completely if I knew what either of those words meant," he chides carefully. "Your Highness."
Instead of explaining further, Ken raises an arm and gestures broadly. "Tell me what you see."
Taking a deep breath, Daisuke decides not to give the answer a lot of thought, sensing that a lecture is forthcoming regardless of how clever he tries to be. He remembers how uncomfortable he'd been the day before in the face of such vague inquiry. "A big cave at the bottom of a big hole," he answers at last.
"Right," Ken says promptly, and Daisuke is a bit shocked to see that the prince's curt answer is delivered in the form of… approval? "And what do you think the next step is?"
"Finding… a way out?" Daisuke returns in a lingering tone, half feeling that this answer is too obvious for words, and therefore must be incorrect. The very first thing that Daisuke had looked for upon landing had been an exit; his well-trained eye had failed to find one. Now he prepares a little wince, expecting a sarcastic retort, only to find his hesitant question followed with…
"Exactly." Ken takes a nearly involuntary step forward to Daisuke, assuming a posture of torporous, viscerally guarded excitement. "So tell me what you think of that."
"I think… you've hidden it so that people can't find it." Daisuke allows with sudden insight, remembering how single-mindedly obsessed his new prince had been about the "human question" the prior day, surrendering his mind over to his more impulsive nature and feeling a surge of peculiar confidence.
Ken smiles. "Yes. Yes! You begin to understand."
"But what does that have to do with, mmm… trespass?"
Daisuke's question is innocent, but it is enough to subtract the smile from Ken's face. Straightening his spine, the prince directs his ageless midnight eyes away from the curious boy, becoming remote and perilous in the space of a glance. "Watch," Ken commands.
Lifting the edge of his gold trimmed cape, Ken reveals a satchel hitched to his belt, and produces a wizened, globular fruit which looked like some kind of exotic gourd. In a single graceful motion, the boy with the wild hair and unpredictable mood lifts the fruit up high, and then brings it down heavily against his poised knee. The sound is a moist crush.
"What's that?" Daisuke asks, but is hushed into silence as the Prince grants him a glance that is both difficult and oddly furious.
Surprisingly, the dim cave is suddenly filled with a clean, organic smell that is entirely delicious, rich like current wine. It is not like anything Daisuke has perceived before, and his lips part unconsciously. Ken ignores the hungry look, and cleaves the dusky rind of the fruit with his leather-clad fingers, ignoring the jelly-like serum which is sticky and leaks slowly onto his gloves. Inside the fruit are hundreds of seeds, that glow with god's own red fire. They look like vegetable caviar.
Digging his fingers into the fruit, Ken gouges out a hatch of the seeds, and then lifts them to his mouth. The glove smears against his cheek, leaving a messy pink stain which Ken ignores as he quickly roots for more. Some might classify his actions as graceless, even uncouth… but Daisuke does not. His eyes are fixed on those of his new liege, who returns the gaze with dominating intensity. Daisuke has never before seen such unsterile passion, never in any creature and especially not in a human. Daisuke releases a sigh, as if in longing… and then something unusual happens.
The cave becomes dark, the kind of dark that Daisuke associates with winter… the kind his people usually avoid. All around the two boys, the ice lights up with miniature stars. Were Daisuke familiar with the term he might call it a planetarium, because the alien blue-white lights floating timelessly in the cavern form the constellations of the southern hemisphere, most notably the Southern Cross.
But Daisuke hardly even notices this.
The prince sweeps past Daisuke, stepping carelessly into the shallow pool which showers a small but persistent cataract of water down into the wounded planet, deep into the cliff which produces the gases that sculpted the ice chimney in the first place. Wordlessly, he picks his way to the edge, and drops the eviscerated fruit.
At first, nothing happens. Daisuke holds still, fearing disaster or worse if he does anything now. And then insidiously, a sound blooms from the unnatural hush. It is at first difficult to quantify, but soon becomes clear: a beating heart. A flash of red jumps from below, and this causes Daisuke to fall back most certainly.
"Are you hungry?" Ken, the Prince, asks thickly. He sounds very odd, not himself.
Daisuke bites his lip, and maybe says yes. It is a measure of the strangeness of the moment that he cannot tell if he is truly speaking.
"So am I."
A bright, impossible sword melts into existence, on fire, and directly in Ken's grip. The sword is not real; Daisuke senses this immediately.
The heartbeat escalates further.
"What's happening?" Daisuke whispers, so shrill and panicked that he forgets his resolution to be still and silent.
"I am," Ken answers, his whole body in tension as he grasps a weapon lashing him with phantom flames. He looks small, vulnerable; he looks like a colossus at Damascus.
What is this sword? Daisuke feels that it is familiar somehow. Ken takes a step backwards into the amplifying noise, and the black water laps at his feet, reflecting the eldritch stars. The pink stains on his face look a little like blood in the shifting light.
It occurs to Daisuke to wonder if he is dead.
It occurs to him, a second later, to wonder if he is in hell.
Hell. Red fire in a deep place; Daisuke knows, or thinks he knows, the torment that his fate calls for. And yet… if fire is all he knows of hell, it is perhaps all he needs of heaven. He is not alone.
He is also not afraid.
The energies that have been called down by the inscrutable prince, despite being of dubious moral quality, are not disquieting. In fact, they are beautiful. The Prince is beautiful. Daisuke is reminded of the whale that he could not kill, and for a moment his persistent despair retracts from his soul, and he feels. He feels.
It only lasts a moment, this emotion born from something bigger then wonder.
Daisuke does not catch the sigh, and he is not warned by the increasingly staccato heartbeat. A storm of false fire is released from Ken's sword, filling the chamber and killing the light of the humming stars. The fire inscribes an unfamiliar letter onto the far chimney wall: it could be a rune. Really, it could be anything.
"Human! Put your hand on the symbol, quickly. Do it now!"
Stumbling forward in an inelegant sprint, Daisuke slaps his palm against the vivid image flickering over a solid wall of ice. A numbing sensation rips through his strong little body, instant cold that stalls his muddled thoughts.
Daisuke falls forward.
Silence grafts itself into his mind, asserting it's dominance as Daisuke finds himself piecing together wisps of consciousness. The heartbeat is gone. The light gone. The Prince… gone.
He is all alone.
It feels like another world.