The deep shadows of the courtyard are parted by two small pinpoints of light and Kayla emerges from the maze of rose bushes that give the name to the House they’ve both become slaves to. She’s coming from the opposite direction he approached the walls from, an entourage just like his following at her heels. If he rushed, Kayla’s outright running, as if she’s trying to get away and the titans behind her are simply giving chase, not even having to hurry due to their wider stride.
She stops in front of him, short of breath, long black hair in disarray and his chest swells with relief at the confirmation that she’s still alive and well, after all the time they’ve spent apart. A pang of self-loathing follows it, the thought of the one member of their group that isn’t, never will be, after the fateful day when they climbed down into Hell piercing his mind.
Joshua’s gaze instinctively brushes against the medallion resting against Kayla’s chest, a twin of the one he wears, the ones they all wear. The seal on the sins they all carry, silently, unable to share them with each other, as they once would have.
The gold ornament contrasts sharply with the pure white of her nightgown, seems out of place with Kayla’s lack of proper clothes and shoes. But he knows that it’s not that she took the time to put it on before coming out when she heard the bells.
Like him, she never takes it off.
While he’s not surprised to see her wearing only her nightgown, -- it’s not the first time it happens and she doesn’t seem embarrassed by her state, either -- her bare feet stir a hint of worry in his chest. He falters, almost wants to offer her his own, but they’re not alone. They never are, when they are together.
“Ready?” he asks, instead.
His face is a trained mask of indifference as he speaks, for the sake of keeping their captors appeased. Kayla doesn’t seem to begrudge him. She nods, grabs the key wound around her wrist, connected to the chain embedded deep into the back of her neck. Joshua does the same to his and licks the corner of his lips in anticipation for the day when they’ll be able to transform inside the abbey, burn it all down to cinders.
“Let’s go, then,” he says.
There’s a slight lilt to his voice, the typical tones of the heirs of the Archons, but that’s not uncommon before a demon hunt. His thoughts of rebellion remain a well-hidden secret.
Armor creaks behind him, a warning that he’s already spoken enough. Their spoken interactions are to be kept to the bare minimum necessary; the second most important rule, one that he’ll do well to remember.
Without the need for any more words, Kayla steps into the murky surface of the mirror and the blackness ripples inwards, as if eager to swallow her. Joshua shudders. The irrational fear that, one day, they will end up separated and trapped inside a distortion, isolated from each other, always creeps into his mind when he watches this happen.
It’s why he always let’s her go first; he doesn’t want her to have to watch and feel the same.
Metal groans at his back again, another warning. He’s wasting precious time.
Joshua holds his breath and steps into the mirror. He always expects to feel something sticking to his skin, some sort of oily film covering his body. But there’s only the cold pressing against his skin, the slightest sensation of vertigo before he steps outside the abbey and a weight lifts off of him.
His booted feet hit the cobblestones and he rolls his neck, bares his teeth unconsciously as that small relief settles in. But it’s soon cut through. The mark on his neck, the tangle of protruding black veins and tissue calcified into red gems that make up a letter no one remembers how to read, is now pulsing fast. A frenzied rhythm, one that he can’t tell whether it’s born out of fear or excitement for the battle to come. He grasps the key tighter in his hand, the sharp metal threatening to cut into his palm, to calm it, and looks around.
The city is different from the other times when he came out to hunt. A sanguine glow hangs in the air, even though there’s no apparent source for it. The ground is broken and uneven, thick roots rising up from it and enveloping the nearby buildings. Spindly, limb-like branches sprout from them and the whole mass seems to pulse at an even beat. A hot, dry wind blows from the south, carrying with it the sound of rustling and wailing murmurs. Joshua’s stomach turns in response to it and he looks for Kayla, seeking something familiar to hold himself to.
She’s standing small and silent in the nightmarish light, her eyes lost in the distance as if she could feel the others walking through the city, searching for the demon. The demon, or each other, Joshua wonders, his own mind struggling, in vain, to find any trace of the friends he sees even less often than Kayla. The ones he has even more to apologize for.
A part of him wants to think that they’re reaching out, as well, that the rare occasions during which they ended up fighting side by side, as they always should have, weren’t mere coincidence, but the result of them seeking out their old group. Whether out of an instinctual need for comfort, a desire to unload the resentment they might harbor for the others or, in the most hopeful scenario, to re-tie the bonds they used to have, it doesn’t matter. He can work with whatever they give him, no matter how small or wrapped in hatred it is.
Kayla seems to come back to herself and turns to Joshua, making him focus back on the here and now. She raises her brows at him, lifts her right hand in a silent question. He gives her a slight nod in response, lifts his own key.
This wordless kind of communication comes easily to them now, their old trust in each other somehow persevering even after years of their captors forcing them to replace their once easily flowing conversations with loaded silence. Even now, outside the abbey and in this place between the worlds, the dolls and automatons are listening and watching, making sure the Scions don’t break the strict rules they enforce.
His insides roaring with anger at what was taken from him, Joshua looks away from Kayla, switches the key to his left hand and pulls on it. The chain connected to it gives way, unraveling from somewhere inside him and scraping the skin at the back of his neck as it uncoils. When there is enough space to maneuver it, he stabs it into the mark on his jugular.
The razored end slices through the raised flesh, parting it easily until one of the points catches on a gem, grinding against it. The metal sends sharp vibrations through his nerves and a hiss of pain escapes Joshua’s lips. The key digs deeper into his neck, and he turns it fully once before pulling it back out. Blood spurts out, thick and viscous, and his whole body seems to light on fire as the magic releases and runs through it.
The result is immediate. With a simple ghost of a thought that is more emotional desire than rational process, his and Kayla’s relics materialize.
Her red and black lace dress takes shape, the corset and armor following suit over it. A bouquet of roses sprouts from the back of the dress, blooms all across her waist and hips. A red veil cascades down her back to cover her hair, stockings envelop her legs and a garter cinches at her thigh. Gloves cover her hands and delicate shoes slip over her feet. There are bracelets on her wrists and earrings dangling from her ears, a ring rests on her finger.
Joshua’s attire matches hers. Only he sports a half cape on his right shoulder instead of a veil, thigh-high boots instead of dainty shoes, leather pants and a long coat with a lace shirt underneath it instead of the stockings and dress. The gloves and corset are still present, as is the jewelry.
The chains that dangle from the pieces rattle as he shifts and moves, strangely weighty for how dainty they are, and there is a part of him that seems to hiss and recoil from the coolness of their touch, even through the fabric of his clothes.
The whole ensemble is a monument of black and red, cotton and lace, leather and brass that seems bent on caging him, suffocating him, but he has long learned to ignore that feeling. It’s the price to pay for safety against the demons. The price to pay for wielding the powers he does.
Joshua lets go of his key and the chain coils back to its original position, retreating into his skull with a quiet whirr that makes his teeth clench and his ears buzz. The air around them smells of burnt wood now, crackles with the stray bits of magic their bodies can’t quite control, and they stay still for a moment, waiting for it to settle.
A Knight and a Bride, as whoever invented the system intended it to be. Whether Kayla’s meant to be his or God’s bride, as some insist, Joshua doesn’t know. And no one ever thought to ask him, and her, what they think or want, either.
Joshua turns his gaze to her and, when their eyes meet, the air becomes as heavy with unsaid words as it is with the wild magic dancing around them. His fingers flicker, eager to grab at her and, in a deep, dark corner of his heart, Joshua knows that he won’t let God, or anyone else, take her from him.