Julius blinked awake, a sudden warmth flowing over his body as the visions cleared from his mind.
“-ir! Sir! Can you hear me?!” He blinked again, then looked up at Sophia. The young healer sighed in pure relief, her whole body going from tense to loose in a second before she frowned back down at him. “Okay, good, we have that, but…Mr. Goldforge? Sir? Are you okay?”
Julius was going to answer, then he felt his body jolt, tried to get up, fell to the floor and pushed himself up as his stomach-
“AH! S-Syl! G-Get Mr. Yew!” A cold hand pressed against his hot back and something soothing filled his muscles for a moment before he gagged and it all came up-
“Ugh, no, not on the carpet…” Abruptly, the hand was gone and he was pulled up and-Something was filling his mouth and he had to swallow until it was finally pulled away and he coughed and hacked, liquid dripping down his chin. “Breathe, breathe. In through the mouth, not the nose, in the mouth.”
He kept gasping, shuddering, there was a warm hand against his chest and he could see two brown eyes staring into his. “That’s it, you’re getting there, everything will be fine. Just breathe, focus on breathing, you have two lungs, fill them, feel them fill.”
Another hand pressed against his forehead. “Slow, slow. Breathe out slow, savor it, do not fear to lose the breath, it will come back. Now in, slow too, in and slow. Syl, hold him steady; Soph, another teal vial, spiral marking, on the counter.”
“That’s it, keep going, you’re almost there.” His chest was shuddering, he gasped and coughed, trying. “Nearly there, nearly there, keep at it, you’re doing great, you’re doing wonderful, you’re nearly there, can you count? One, two, three, four, five, six in, there, you’re almost at it, out, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, back in.”
Julius could finally breathe and his eyelids fluttered rapidly as he looked around. Two arms were around his chest and his head was in someone’s lap as another–Douglas?
“Douglas?” he croaked.
“Yes, exactly, yes, and thank you Soph.” Sophia was there again, standing by Douglas, and there was a vial at his lips and he had to drink it again. It went down far easier, none of it came back up and he felt so much lighter. “Heh, I knew you’d be fine, you’re too stubborn to let the bleak take you. Now, one moment, this may feel a little odd.”
Douglas’s hands glowed a light, pale blue as he pressed them to Julius’s chest again. The sweat and filth was gone from his body in an instant.
“Eh? What was that?” Sophia asked, dim in his ears.
“Cleaning magic. What do you think servants and custodians use?”
“O-Oh, I hadn’t considered-”
“Er, Soph, sir, maybe we should put Sir Goldforge back in bed first?”
“A-Ah, s-sorry!” “Oh, right right right, we still need to do that.”
Julius blinked as he felt someone start to move him, but he pushed himself up and stood. “Ah, M-Mister Goldforge! Y-You shouldn’t be up yet!”
“She’s right about that,” Douglas said as he stepped in front of Julius. Why was he here? “You need to get some rest-” Why hadn’t he helped?!
And then Julius was falling backward again and a pair of arms caught him. “Gh-S-Sir!”
“What? It’s just paralysis, it’ll wear off in a second. Besides, I didn’t like where his hands were going there.”
“Um, sir, it might not be the best to put him under paralysis at the moment. Given how he is.”
“Well it might not be, but I’ve never tested it, so it might turn out okay.” Reaching out, Douglas grabbed Julius and helped him onto the bed, all while he couldn’t say or do anything thanks to the paralysis.
“…I don’t think that’s how things work,” Sophia muttered, then placed a cool hand on Julius.
“It does with me.” Setting him down on the bed, Douglas sat down next to him. “As for you, you still need to rest. And stop glaring at me; if it was anyone else, they’d actually be scared by now.”
Julius did not stop glaring.
“Honestly, I let you stay in my own bed for a few days and this is the thanks I get.”
“…W-Where is everyone?” stuttered out Julius, breaking through the paralysis enough to speak.
“Downstairs, we were in the middle of dinner when Sylsa got me.”
“…Sylsa, Sophia, you mind?”
“O-Oh, um, no sir, we don’t.”
“We’ll go see how everyone is doing.” A soft green glow came from Sophia’s hand one more time, then the two left the room.
Douglas watched the door close, then glanced down at Julius. “…From what I’ve heard, it seems she reared her head again.”
“You can’t blame yourself. Demonic influences are difficult to remove in general and even harder to understand for those in the Light Lands. If anything, you should be lucky it didn’t happen sooner.”
“…I couldn’t do anything.”
“Like I said, demonic in-”
“Not that! I…I couldn’t keep them safe…even though it was my job…”
“…” Douglas stood up and walked out of the room, leaving Julius to himself. A second later, the paralysis completely left his body. But Julius still just laid there on the bed, biting his lip hard enough to draw blood. Frustration welled up inside of him as he remembered what happened, and who he saw.
Her haunting smile remained sharp in his mind, always appearing when he closed his eyes. And…as much as he hated to admit it, the power he felt from her was immense and intoxicating. So much so that he had no idea how he was able to reject it the first time around.
However, before those thoughts could continue, he heard the door open again.
“Douglas, please. I want to be alone.”
“Julius, for once, just listen to me and look over here.”
He grimaced and sat up. “Douglas just le-… huh?”
“Ah…um, hi, sir.”
Standing next to Douglas was Mask. Mask. Julius’s student. The mysterious one. Someone who he clearly saw die, yet there they stood, alive and well.
“…H-How are you…? H-His arm went through your heart…”
“Ah…well…you see…I’m actually a slime, so I don’t…have one?” Mask shrugged awkwardly, their whole body radiating nervousness.
“A rainbow slime to be exact,” Douglas interrupted as he sat down at the foot of the bed. “A rather rare breed of slime, one of only two that can naturally develop sapience. I never thought I’d meet one, yet here you are, having one as a student.”
“Hm, might be better if you show off your skills. Then he might understand.”
“Oh, yeah, okay.” Reaching up slowly, Mask grabbed their mask, and removed it.
Julius blinked in confusion. It took a few seconds to see that, rather than a face, there was a constant shifting of multiple colors–mostly blues and violets–underneath Mask’s mask, all vaguely set in the shape of a head. Those colors stopped shifting as they began to form together and a face slowly appeared in the liquid. Then, several of the colors seemed to drain away while more mixed together until a near exact copy of Sophia stood in front of him.
“Eh heh…” Mask scratched the back of their head, smiling a little awkwardly. Even their teeth matched hers. “Sorry for not saying it earlier…it’s, um…it hasn’t turned out well whenever I brought it up with people before, and then, um…well this happened…”
“Um…not to sound mean or anything, but I wasn’t really planning on telling any of you. At least not for some time, trust issues and all, you know?”
“Alright, this is going nowhere. Julius, your student’s alive and safe, things are good, and now we’re going to have a talk about your current Ouzan-demon issue. Mask, do you want to stick around?”
“Uh…yes, actually. I can stay out of your way, if you want, but…I do want to know what’s going on. And so does everyone else, I think.”
Douglas nodded. “Alright, that’s fine with me. Feel free to grab a chair.”
Mask nodded, and their features melted back into their apparently natural blankness before they promptly plopped down into a chair Douglas had in his bedroom for some reason.
“Why do you have a chair in your bedroom?”
Douglas blinked. “…Really? That’s the first coherent thing you say? Sometimes I like to sit!”
Julius turned his gaze back towards Douglas. “…You stuck it in here because the upholstery matches your blankets.”
“…My interior decorating aside, we really should talk about your Ouzan issue.”
Julius sighed, then glanced at Mask again. They made a good point earlier… “Can you at least get everyone in here so we don’t have to do this again later?”
Douglas frowned, then walked to the door, opened it up, and yelled out into the hall. “Chickadees! Get your rears in here!”
There was a small scramble outside, and then all of his students walked in, one after the other. They all looked stiff, but they seemed to relax once they saw he was…not fine, exactly, but awake. Though Maria was staring at his chest. Probably should’ve put a shirt on…
The silence dragged on as they stood at the foot of his bed. None of them seemed to know what to say. He didn’t either.
“…Julius…Just what happened in there?” questioned Adrien, his arms crossed over his chest. All of them were wearing nicer clothes too, more casual wear than their usual armors. Maybe Douglas bought them new clothes.
Julius lightly shook his head, trying to get his thoughts back on track. “…It’s…” He stared back up at them. “You all know about M…The Butcher, right?”
“Yeah, crazy demon god. Douglas told us more about her when you were out, but he said that you should say the rest.” Well fuck. He could’ve just filled them in…
“…Well, it’s probably clear by now, but she has some influence on me.” He sighed, tried to get comfortable. Failed miserably. “She took an interest in me because of…some things I did in the past. I thought after I rejected her offer once she would be gone for good. But it seems I was wrong.”
“…Mr. Julius, are you sure you’re okay?”
He scratched his chest as he glanced back at Mask. “Yeah. She can’t really do anything if I don’t accept her offer. As long as I stay calm, anyways.”
“…And if you don’t you’ll go like that again?” Julius nodded at Sergio’s question. “Well shit. Guess I gotta stop being a dick.”
“What?! You should be happy!”
“You should still read the mood!”
“I will when I want to.”
Despite his mood, Julius couldn’t help but crack a smile as his students began to bicker. Maria egged them on as Sophia tried to calm them down, and the whole thing just seemed to keep escalating. Was this what Blake felt when he saw them?
“Okay okay, it’s getting late so you brats should get ready to sleep. Last thing we need is for all of you to stay up arguing.” Douglas raised a glowing hand and casually, literally, tossed all of his students out the door in a chorus of exclamations and protests before he glanced over at Julius. “You get some sleep as well. You still need to recover.”
“If you say so.” Julius paused, a thought hitting him. “What happened with Fergus?”
Douglas paused in the doorway. “Hm. That would be the lycanthrope, wouldn’t it?”
“What’s the last thing you remember of him?”
Julius frowned. “…I shoved him in the path of the knight’s sword and it stabbed him.”
“Yes, that lines up with what Sergio mentioned. Your boy’s very observant.” Douglas leaned against the doorframe, stroking his chin. “For better or worse, he seems to have survived his impalement.”
He blinked. “…Really? That…hm.”
“Yes, the brats were surprised too, but apparently it was the ice sword that stabbed him. Whether that was to his benefit, I can’t begin to say without knowing more about the man himself, but when his two boreis abandoned the fight once their weapon was destroyed, he was awake enough to attempt another attack-Ah ah ah, no, sit.”
Julius sat back down and frowned at Douglas.
“Good, don’t be stupid, you saw your students were fine, so you should know it turned out fine.”
“…So what happened?”
“Sue punched him through one of those windows.”
“Yes, it was apparently quite impressive, though they didn’t see his body at the ground, so he’s likely alive.” He…wasn’t sure what to think of that. A part of him was glad, because it meant he’d get another crack at the bastard. “Though they could have been distracted carrying you…I can check tomorrow.
Douglas suddenly smiled. “Congratulations, Julius. You’ve done well here.”
He chuckled, grinning at whatever face Julius was making. “You trained your students well enough that they could handle themselves, and that’s certainly something to be proud of.” Douglas smiled again, then started to close the door. “Good night Julius. I’m glad you’re alive.”
Julius stared at his friend for a moment, feeling oddly…warm. Once he was left alone, he laid back and rested on top of the bed. It felt nice.
His eyes began to droop as the fatigue once again settled over him. And so, even if he didn’t want to, Julius fell asleep.
“My my, I’m surprised to see you again. Here I was, thinking you actually rejected me once more.”
Sitting next to him on Her yellow throne, Mother smiled down at him. Her head was bare, displaying every deep scar marking up Her rough face and the scarred-over spots where Her ears likely once were, and Her four eyes shone bright.
“…Leave me alone.”
“You know that is not how this works, dear child. Your song called to me, and so I answer.”
“I’m not calling now. Leave me alone.”
“But you are. Still now, the drum in your chest beats with fury and hate. Conflict twists within you, a desire to protect warring with impetuous lust.”
“L-…” he looked up at Her. Her smile was wide and red. “What lust?”
“You cannot call it love yet, dear child. You see a subject of desire. Power, beauty and conviction draws you. You have heard my champion’s tale, dear child, and the pink thread pulls tighter.” Her smile curled into a smirk. “Yet you face her servants as a rival. Reconciliation of twin desires, pulled opposite, will tear at you in time. My sweet champion has given you a step to begin weaving the two, a kindness clad as a challenge, but it only staves off that choice.”
“…I’m not using your power. Not again.”
“So you say. And yet here I remain. And remain I shall until you come to a decision. But, for now, I’ll allow you to rest.” Continuing to smile, She seemed to fade away. “Try not to die before you decide.”