With Suchet down and out, the tide of the battle slowly turns. I wade through the enemy, slashing here and stabbing there, ignoring the prickle of pain from my arm wound reopening.
As my friends advance towards the Cosmo Prison, the battleground grows narrower and I find myself fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Ramya Joshi. Her face is pale, but not from blood loss. The whole battle had paused to watch the phlogiston of Suchet’s death; it must’ve been horrible for her.
“I have the key,” she tells me. “I took it when Suchet... you know.”
I swallow. “The problem is, we can only use it when Christy and Sid are inside the Prison.”
“Yeah, that might be a problem,” Ramya mutters. “Any suggestions?”
“Let’s focus on getting to the Prison first, shall we?”
She dodges a spiked club. “We’re so close -- only one more hill to go.”
I slice the earth warrior in front of me, cutting it in half. “Sid’s getting weaker. He’s not replacing his monsters anymore, see?”
“Christy is still going strong, though,” Ramya observes.
I glance over at the center of the battle. Sid and Christy are both fighting like demons, but Sid’s movements are slowing. The shield of earth that had previously surrounded him is weakening as well. As I watch, a blow from Leo’s knife shatters it completely.
Unlike her ally, Christy’s defense hasn’t wavered yet. She’s encompassed by a shield of blinding light; weapons that get too close disintegrate upon contact.
“Take that, Sid!” Leo yells from across the battlefield. “Come on, guys, let’s go!”
My friends cheer and, with renewed energy, make one last charge at our two main enemies. Only seconds later, I hear Sam Chen’s shout of triumph and realize that Sid has finally been defeated. With a howl of pain, he turns and attempts escape. Another Asphodel throws three knives in quick succession; each finds its mark, and Sid goes down under the mass of fighters. The last of the earth warriors crumble, leaving Christy as our only remaining adversary.
We surge forward, driving Christy to make her last stand on the doorstep of her own prison. For a beautiful, shining moment, it seems as if victory is guaranteed -- that we’d all be relieved of the war once and for all.
And then something goes wrong.
“STOP!” Christy commands, allowing her shield to die down.
Every single person slowly turns to look at her, including me. A collective gasp travels through the crowd, and I can see why everyone has frozen.
Christy’s standing just in front of the great gates of the Cosmo Prison, but she’s not alone. Choking slightly, but otherwise lifeless as a rag doll, Leo sways under her grip. His face is angled away from us, but we can all tell that he’s in a bad way.
“There has been only one casualty on your side,” Christy says, addressing all of us. “You have fatally injured one of my allies and killed the other. You have achieved partial victory. Retreat now, and I’ll let you keep it. Attempt a further advance, and this one dies.” She gestures at Leo with her free hand.
But I’m not listening to her. Instead, I’m watching Leo intently. His head is slightly raised and I can see his face now. His eyes flicker open and lock with mine.
Do it, he mouths.
What? I mouth back.
His eyes shift down to my hand. I glance down as well.
I stare at him. No, he can’t be thinking what I’m thinking...
As if he’s reading my mind, Leo gives a small, affirmative nod.
On three, he mouths.
I nod back.
Leo lifts his index finger. One, I count silently.
He lifts a second finger. Two.
Time seems to slow as I steel my nerves for what’s about to happen.
Finally, it comes.
I burst out of the crowd just as Leo turns and violently shoves Christy back. The two of them disappear into the depths of the Cosmo Prison. Her scream of fury rips through the frigid air as I slam the gates shut and drive the key into the keyhole, locking both human and superhuman inside.
“Here,” I announce.
Lulu peers up at the house. “Nothing much, is it?”
I shrug. “Who said it had to be big?”
Lulu’s right, though. This is quite possibly the most plain, nondescript home I’ve ever seen.
“But, of course, it would have to be,” I mutter to myself.
The question catches me off guard. “Uh, never mind. I don’t think he’s home right now anyways.”
She scowls. “Listen here. We’re going to be traveling together for quite some time, so you might as well tell me everything.”
I sigh and kick at the asphalt. “This is the last Seraph’s house, apparently. Or -- one of them, at least.”
Lulu frowns. ”One of them?”
“Yeah. Seraphim Mortis told me that the Seraph would be on the run. Someone else is looking for him, and they’re not quite as benign as we are.”
“I wouldn’t call us benign,” Lulu says with a derisive snort. “But who else could possibly have the same task as we do?”
“The person who unlocked the Cosmo Prison, probably,” I answer. “But I don’t know who exactly that would be.”
“Would that be him, by any chance?” she asks.
I glance in the direction she’s pointing. “Oh, um...”
Then I do a double take.
Lulu draws her knives. “Are we in a bad situation?”
“Bad? Oh, yes. A very, very bad situation.”
I slump against the doors of the Prison, every inch of my body screaming in exhaustion and pain. As soon as Christy and I had entered, a strange force had separated the two of us. She’d been thrown into a far corner, but I’d been left alone.
What can I say about the interior of the Cosmo Prison? Well, I can certainly see why Christy was so desperate to get out and stay out. The darkness almost has substance, like a massive fist pounding down on me. There is no light -- not even Christy’s power can withstand this. However, I’m sure that Christy’s a lot more comfortable than I am. This place is not meant for humans.
The lack of oxygen quickly gets to me and I start seeing things. They start out as images of my childhood, then morph to ghostly three-dimensional figures. I recognize my parents, my brother...
One of the spirits drift over to me.
"Ruiran?" I gasp.
"I-- Ruiran, I didn't mean for you to-- I'm so sorry--"
She cuts me off in a gentle voice. "It's all right. I just wanted you to be happy."
Before I can say another word, she moves back, allowing another ghost to take her place.
“Oh, Leo... I’m so proud of you,” my mother whispers, touching my cheek.
"Mom..." My voice trembles.
She smiles. "You've been so brave."
“Are you... really here?” I ask. The situation seems too good to be true.
She nods. “The Cosmo Prison brings humans so close to death that the line between the dead and living blurs. That’s why you can see and talk to us.”
“Why am I not dead?”
“You’re living, but only barely. To die, you must let go of life. In other words, you have to let yourself die.”
As she explains, a third shimmering figure steps out of the shadows.
“Dad,” I murmur.
“You did well,” he says gruffly. “But now it’s time for you to join us.”
I glance over at Christy’s corner. “I have to keep her from breaking out again--”
“Shh,” my mother says, pressing a finger against my lips. “Someone wants to see you.”
One last ghost forms out of the mist, and I immediately forget everything.
It’s the person I’ve been waiting to see, the one I came here for. The one I love.
“Hello, Leo,” Debbie says.
My eyes fill with tears. “Debbie...” I’m almost unable to form words.
She reaches towards me. “Come.”
I close my eyes. After all the days of waiting, all the battles fought, I’ve finally reached this moment.
“It’s okay,” Debbie says. “Everything will be fine, just like I promised. Because at last, we’ll be together forever.”
The mist around us begins to thicken and swirl.
“Come with me.” Her words echo through the Prison, repelling the shadows and pain. And in those moments, I feel an emotion I haven’t felt in ages.
Happiness. Pure happiness.
I reach for her hand, and her voice resonates from all around me, reverberating in my mind. “I love you, Leo.”
“I love you, Debbie,” I whisper.
Our fingertips touch, and the darkness of the prison dissolves into light.