Maybe, just maybe, he isn’t as cowardly as he’d always thought. Juri tells himself that and sighs. His hand presses flat against his chest trying to calm his erratic heartbeat, inhaling deeply and hoping it will even out his breathing. But his heart pounds away, rebellious to the will of its owner.
Seventeen keys before him, and only one is right. Some of them are dummies and some of them cursed. One wrong touch and he could lose his consciousness forever. With such an impossible task before him, how could he not be afraid? Only one key will open the chest that contains the magic mirror that will split Taiga from the evil possessing him. And Taiga doesn’t have much time left.
Every minute, another inch of his skin turns black as tar to the touch of the dark magic eating at him from within. He stopped speaking a few days ago, putting full focus on restraining the demon.
Juri was so close now, if only he had the courage to choose one of the metallic artifacts before him.
Tick tock, tick tock.
The demon chimed in his head, its power growing stronger, affecting Juri even from its fleshy prison where Taiga is holding it captive in the room just yonder.
“Shut up,” he mutters as if it will help him keep its voice away. Juri has a few tricks of his own, magic he learned from being the errand boy of busy wizards over the years.
He places his lantern on the table, the only equipment he holds in his hands as he travels. He wishes he had a wand of sorts but he could never afford such wonders. But needing a medium to channel his energy to, he holds his dagger in both hands, arms outstretched in front of him.
He clears his mind, and searches for the little buzz of electricity, energy and life that courses through him. Show me the light.
Nothing happens. The demon laughs. Juri jumps, looks around, but it’s not there. The voice never growing louder or softer any direction he turned. It’s all just in his mind. He curses, striking the table with the blunt hilt of his blade in frustration. The keys jingle and clatter, and to his surprise, the lantern lights on fire.
“Whoa.” He blinks at it. Did he do it right? Or did he just cast a simple light spell?
The light of the flame bounces off the surface of the table, illuminating everything in an orange hue. One of the keys seemed to sparkle, as if emitting its own soft glow, like how he’d imagined holy items to look. As if drawn to it like a moth to fire, he reaches for it.
Are you so sure?
He hesitates to the demon’s voice. Pulling his arm back as his fingers curl into a fist.
“Think, Juri, think.”
Too chicken to touch it?
He ignores the taunt, his gaze falling back to the surface of the table. His fingers trace the veins of the wooden surface and that’s when he notices that his lantern doesn’t illuminate everything equally. Strange. He moves it around but it stays the same, dark over some keys and brighter over others even though light should move evenly in all directions.
“Some keys must be draining all the light with their dark energy,” he muses. The glowy key included. He feels a slight pang of relief that the demon stopped him somehow. “Well, thank you for that.”
He holds the lantern now, hovering it over all the keys individually, and over one made of silver, tarnished and dull over the years of neglect, the lantern shone brightly. This is it! He grabs for it and lifts it up, but it turns icy in his grip. He grits his teeth but the sting gets the better of him, piercing his skin like a thousand needles.
The silver key drops to the floor and for something that looked so sturdy, it shatters into two. “NO!” he screams but he says no more as a tuft of white smoke billowed out of it like frosty snow off a mountaintop.
Uhoh. The demon mocks his mishap.
The temperature plummets as the frost crystals keep streaming out and it gathers together into the silhouette of a man. Eventually it manifests into a person, solid flesh and bone and not an icy demonic faerie he expected to see. “I’m free!” the stranger shouts, tossing his dark floppy hair from his eyes. He does a little happy dance, declaring that prisons won’t hold ‘the great Hokuto’ for long before he notices Juri’s with him in the room.
“What?” Juri lets out, dumbfounded. “That should have been the right key! The lantern told me-”
“Ohhh a light magic lantern! Where ever did a scrub like you pilfer that from?”
“Wha-? I didn’t steal it! It was ordinary till I lit it!”
The odd man named Hokuto tilts his head. “You don’t look like a wizard,” he says in confusion. He was about to say something else when he freezes. “Demon!” he warns, finally feeling the presence of Taiga’s captive as the blond stumbles into the room.
“Hurry!” Taiga urges, one of his irises already glowing red, his pupil slit vertically like a reptile’s.
The arrogant wizard shrieks in horror at Taiga but remains frozen in place. Juri ignores him for now, wielding the lantern again, seeking out another key.
The lantern shines bright again, and he grabs this one, thanking the stars it feels normal in his grasp and he rushes over to the chest in the corner of the room. Jamming the key into the lock, it opens with a click as he turned it clockwise. He breathes a sigh of relief, opening the lid. The mirror is there as prophesied, a rectangular marvel with a golden frame. Lifting it, he shone it at Taiga who had stumbled closer.
Screams erupted from the room, the voices of Taiga, Hokuto and the demon all combined. He places the mirror leaning against the chest and rushes to Taiga’s side. According to the prophecy, the only way to defeat the demon was to see its true form in the reflection and kill it from within the mirror.
He had no time to waste, touching the last spot of pale skin on Taiga’s cheek, he bid him farewell as he approached the mirror, glaring at the monster reflected behind his lover.
Juri’s fingers brought ripples to the mirror’s surface as he touched it and it gave way like water. He dove in, becoming one with his reflection on the other side, taking its place.
I must say I’m impressed you made it this far. But know that you are no match for me. You are neither a warrior nor a mage. A pitiful page boy who fell for the cursed prince.
“Is that supposed to hurt me?” Juri challenged, pulling out his sword from its sheath. The demon only laughed in response.
The world within the mirror had little difference to the real world. It was as if it was cloudy with a grey hue dashed over everything, perhaps by the demon’s influence. Juri had no way to be sure. But otherwise, the stone chamber was just as it was on the other side.
The demon was a massive beast like a minotaur, sharp horns on either side of its head and a body made of pure muscle. It's skin, the dark black colour it was poisoning Taiga's pale complexion with.
Juri roars, charging forward to swing his sword at the demon’s legs but he never reached it. One swipe of the arm and he’s sent flying backwards. He lands on his back, sore, and damaged.
You’ll never hurt me with that toy.
“Shut up!” Juri scrambles back to his feet, watching the demon bounding closer in his direction. A dark fist rears up in the air, ready to strike down on him and Juri can do nothing more than grip his sword in a parrying stance.
All of a sudden, the room is enveloped in a blinding white light and the demon howls, pulling itself back to cover its eyes. Juri had to close his own eyes to shield them from the explosion of brightness.
“What? How?” He whipped his head around to see the wizard he freed had stepped into the mirror world as well.
“Aren’t you glad I have both ice and light magic?” he bragged, a confident smirk on his face. “This is my thanks for my freedom!” Extending a palm towards the demon, the dark ribbons wrapped around his arm seemed to come to life, turning into ribbons of light and launching themselves at the demon’s limbs. It coiled around the dark figure, shackling it down in place like chains.
He blew a kiss at Juri and his blade shone with light magic as well. It radiated, seeping into his arms and imbued them with strength. “Thank you?” Juri said, not quite sure if he should feel disturbed that this stranger has just blown him a kiss.
“No problem. But I could do more than that if my staff hadn't been confiscated.”
The demon roared in frustration when he figured out he couldn't break through the ribbons binding him. You will pay! I was so close! So close to having a body! You should understand more than anyone.
Hokuto only rolled his eyes. Stomping his right foot on the ground, the floor at his feet turned to ice, shooting a trail of icicles that surrounded the demon haphazardly.
“I thought you were supposed to hit him,” Juri yelled.
Hokuto smiled cockily. “Just watch.”
Conjuring a ball of light in his palm, the wizard threw it in between the demon's feet where it exploded, releasing light that reflected off his icicles and swallowed the dark figure in another bout of dazzling radiance. The demon roared and seemed to shrink down a few sizes.
“I hope you know how to use that sword, Romeo. I can’t aim without a staff so you’ll have to deal the finishing blow!”
Juri charged in. Without the minotaur’s towering height, he pierced through its torso easily now that it had been restrained. Pulling the sword back, he spun with his whole body, using his momentum to launch an upward slice diagonally across the demon’s heart.
It roared and stumbled, crashing onto its knees just as Juri jumped out of its way.
“Demons don’t have hearts! Aim for its head! Finish it!” Hokuto berated him. Already it seemed like his ribbons were unraveling and returning to their master. “Quick!”
Juri didn’t need to be told twice, burying his blade into the skull of the demon through the socket of its left eye. With little more than a defeated groan, it faded away, losing solid form and turning into a dark cloud of smoke.
“Not bad,” Hokuto praised Juri, patting him on the back.
“Not bad yourself.”
They exchanged smiles before returning back to the real world where Taiga awaited them.
The prince lay sleeping peacefully on the stone floor, exhausted from the toll of his days-long struggle with the demon. His skin already returning to its normal colour, albeit paler than Juri remembered. It was probably the exhaustion, he supposed. Placing two fingers to Taiga’s neck, Juri was relieved to feel the normal pulse of a sleeping person.
“Thank goodness, he’s alright... It worked...” Juri choked out, tears of relief ran down his cheeks.
Hokuto circled the prince’s sleeping form, his expression a mix of curiosity and puzzlement. “Your companion looks like a girl I used to know…” Hokuto says. “Is he of royal blood?”
“It’s Prince Taiga, to you. And I’m Juri, a castle page.”
Hokuto nodded slowly in comprehension. He scoffed, “Eloping must run in their blood.”
Juri let his head fall back in exasperation. Wizard or not, he’s never met anyone so rude. “I can see why people wanted to trap you in a key.”
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