Just as KiNa brandished his dagger at the creature on the other end of the room, ShiKon fell almost faint at his side. It took him a moment to realize that he was now facing this fight on his own. His dagger hand began to shake as he grabbed the girl with his other, trying to rouse her into action.

“ShiKon!” he hissed. “ShiKon don’t do this to me right now! Get up!”

The something-or-another person-thing that rose from the chair in front of the fireplace was tall enough to rival the Ingways in size. Long blue-black hair hung down into the creature’s face, offset by a single shock of white forelock. The skin was a sickly gray color, mottled with dark and irregular splotches. Hints of darkness showed around its eyes, which were a deep, dark green with a ghostly white iris in the middle. It was hard to determine at first where the chilling gaze focused, but as the creature stepped out of the flickering back-light of the fire, KiNa knew it was watching the dagger.

As the boy spoke, the creature paused, eyes flicking to the swooning girl. Then it spoke in a voice surprisingly clear, “ShiKon…”

“S-stay back!” KiNa prodded forward with the blade.

It didn’t seem to notice or care. It simply muttered to himself, as in a bit of shock, “I thought you died…”

“If you come any closer, you’re going to die!” the boy threatened, trying to sound brave and nasty. He didn’t even know if the poison on his dagger would actually work on such a creature.

That was enough to get the thing’s attention. Unfortunately, it just snorted in a sound of scorn, “Put that thing away before you hurt yourself, kid.”

“I… I mean it!” KiNa grit his teeth. Sweat from his brow streamed down his cheek, ruining his tough-guy attempt.

“Relax,” it muttered. “If I wanted you dead, you wouldn’t have made it up the stairs.”

The boy swallowed, realizing the creature wasn’t bluffing. He didn’t lower the dagger, though. Lost as to what to say next, he began inching towards the door, ushering the moaning form of ShiKon.

“Why are you here?” the creature asked in as conversational a tone as one could have with such a thing.

“We’re here to slay your master,” KiNa retorted hotly.

It laughed, a hollow and almost sad laugh. “That would be nice. I think it’s going to take a lot more than a poisoned dagger to do that, though.”

The boy glanced at the dagger, paling a little. The one last card he held was the fact that he thought the creature had no idea about the tainted blade. Now that it was discovered, he was almost out of secrets. Though he should have run at that point, KiNa decided to press for information while making his slow exit. After all, the creature didn’t seem very fond of whatever master it served.

“Where is he?”

“Who?” it arched an eyebrow, almost seeming amused at the boy’s boldness.

“The leader of the Manor,” KiNa narrowed his eyes.

“You’re looking at him,” the creature answered unexpectedly.

The boy fought to keep his grip on the dagger in surprise. His palms were growing sweaty with fear.

The Manor’s leader is some kind of monster?

“But… you just said you had a master,” KiNa accused.

“Do you really think this stops with me? With the Manor?” it shook its head and muttered, “This has been going on for a long time. A time that’s been forgotten.”

The words chilled the boy because he knew the creature was telling the truth. All at once, KiNa could sense the enormity of what was going on. It was right… this would take a lot more than just a boy with a poison dagger.

But still, if I kill this one…

“If you kill me, I’ll be replaced,” it said, bluntly answering the boy’s thoughts. “I mean nothing to the source of this evil. Everything here, even the Manor, is nothing but a tiny stepping stone to their real purpose.”

KiNa felt his breath panting through parched lips.

“In fact, I welcome your poison and daggers,” the creature continued with pained earnestness. “I welcome the end. So, if you think you have it in you, take your best shot.”

The boy lowered the dagger slowly, gaze fixed on his opponent’s face. There was so much sadness behind the dark eyes. Eyes that had seen far more of their share of cruelty and torment. Whatever it was, it was being used against its will… just like everything else in the Manor was.

KiNa began to try to reason, “Why don’t you–”

Before he could finish his sentence, ShiKon gave a broken and anguished cry of terror. He didn’t notice during their exchange that the girl was finally stirring. The moment she came to, her eyes fixed on the creature with the expression of a feral animal.

“NO!” she screamed, launching at it with both blades drawn. She spun forward in a silver blur of metal, sweeping straight at the creature’s scarred face.

The girl moved fast. But it moved a lot faster. Dodging back, the blow that sought face and throat merely sliced an upraised arm, sending a spray of oozing black blood. The creature’s head jerked up, not so much responding to the pain of the wound as it seemed to instinctually hone in on the advancing threat. Whatever conversation they had was now lost to the sound of snarling, animalistic growls.

Lashing out with both hands, ShiKon sent a mind blast at the creature. KiNa could sense more than see it, a twisting energy that meant to muddle the creature’s senses at worst, or completely unhinge its mind at best. The strike was full of fury but lacked the strength of a concentrated mind attack. The girl was only beginning to learn this area of mind magic in her lessons, even though it was an area that KiNa excelled in.

“Stop!” the creature hissed, recoiling under the attack. It clutched its head with an agonized sound. “You don’t want… to… do…”

The boy grit his teeth, seeing his partner struggling. As bad as he felt for attacking the creature, he couldn’t deny that it was still terribly dangerous. With some loathing, he focused his own mind powers, joining them with ShiKon’s, guiding her energies into a more directed blow.

It can’t hold out against two mind mages. I don’t know anything that can…

The creature gave a shriek that sounded like something mangled between anguish and fury. But just when KiNa thought it was going to give way to the onslaught of mind-blast, it uncurled and let out a shattering screech.

The boy felt pain wrack every inch of his body, his mind burning at the terrible sound. ShiKon crumpled back as KiNa fought to stay on his feet. Through watery pain-stricken eyes, he could see the creature rising up in front of them. Its eyes were now completely black, lips curled back from its mouth in a fierce snarl. Any sign of person-thought was now lost to pure instinct and awful rage.

Huge dagger-like claws curled for a moment before flashing at them, striking. KiNa ducked as the creature slashed, sparks and stone flying from the wall. The boy now understood the cage and the shredded wood and stone downstairs. If it was strong enough to do that, then…

This isn’t going to end well…

The creature lashed at them again. This time, ShiKon rolled away, getting to her feet. Her daggers were in her hands, pose ready.

We can’t fight this!

KiNa threw frantic mind pleas at the girl. They needed to retreat, and do it fast. Before they were both torn to pieces. But he could see the light of fevered relentlessness in the girl’s eyes. And distant recognition.

Do they… know each other?

The girl spun into an attack at the creature again. This time, it swung a back-handed fist that swatted her out of mid-air and slammed her against the wall. ShiKon slid down the stone, one of the daggers clattering to the ground from her limp hand. She wheezed and struggled to remain conscious as the creature advanced on her.

“ShiKon!” KiNa cried in anguish.

The thought suddenly rushed through him, what it would be like if he lost her. The weight in his heart was unbearable, and a fire pulsed through his body that propelled him forward. Before he could gather his senses, he leapt, plunging the poisoned blade into the creature’s arm.

It screamed that terrible, broken screech as black blood gushed from the wound. A moment of regret trembled through KiNa’s body. This was quickly replaced by pain as the creature swung on him, away from ShiKon. Huge claws ripped through the front of his cloak, raking across the boy’s chest as he struggled to get away. The blow was enough to send him reeling back over the chair.

The light of the fireplace illuminated the feral fury in the creature’s black eyes as it loomed huge, stalking towards KiNa. Distantly, he could hear ShiKon’s scream as the claw lifted over his head. Then, it lashed down upon him.