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Delicate snowflakes drifted in the air around the hunters and Descendants. It was winter, so normally this wouldn't be surprising at all. What was surprising is that this was Kasai, the largest city in the known land (or this region), even bigger that Chikyuu. It was the City of Fire, and yet it here it was, trapped in an icy stasis.

"What the hell?" Gigas murmured, putting his hand out to catch a snowflake. It was so cold that it didn't even melt in his hand. The group began to register the depth of the cold around them, drinking Hot Drinks to keep them... well, warm. "This is Kasai...my home...why is it freakin' frozen!?" he growled.

"We just got here. Your guess is as good as mine," Gale responded. She turned her head as Mizu groaned quietly. He was able to walk by himself, but he had to use his Wailing Cleaver Shin as a crutch, and his strength was beginning to dwindle.

"I need...to rest..." he mumbled, still in pain. He flinched again, grabbing onto his bandaged arm (where Kazir had written on it), signifying that it was hurting. Letting go of his makeshift crutch, he fell to his knees. Gale helped him up, hooking his arm around her shoulder and grabbing his Long Sword in her other hand.

"Gigas, help me. We need to get him somewhere," Gale said, Gigas moving to help support Mizu.

"Psst! You lot! Come with me! You need to get off the streets!" a raspy, male voice whispered. Gale looked to a back alley ahead of the snowy clearing they were stood in. A shadowy figure peeked from around the corner, gesturing at the group of eight to follow him. Suddenly, a crescendo of heavy marching phased into life behind them.

"Hurry! They're coming!" he hissed. The group decided to take their chances with the shady stranger, running toward the alley and the stranger, slipping out of sight agains the wall as a battalion of Ukanlos-armoured soldires came marching beside them, unaware of the group of people that stood right under their noses, their heavy, commanding footsteps getting further and further away, eventually blending into the subtle whistling of the icy wind, their bodies becoming one with the almost blinding whiteout of snowflakes.

"They have been looking for you lot for ever since the White Star empire was established eleven years ago. You are Descendants, are you not?" The hooded man asked hoarsely - he was clearly quite aged. He stopped for a moment.

"Perhaps out here is not the best place to converse. Come with me."

The group followed the old man down the alley and to the left, leading to his house - not a person in sight the whole time, only wind, snow, and empty streets. It was almost depressing.

When the party crammed themselves through the doorway, the hooded old man shut and locked the door behind him, pacing over the dining table in the centre of the room, turning his chair away from it and toward his fireplace, pulling off his robe and warming his hands. He was a simple looking man - black tunic, basic shoes, grey hair and beard, a sunken-yet-peaceful expression, tired skin and grey eyes that had most likely once been pale blue.

"You are Descendants, are you not?" the old man asked again, turning away from the fire to look upon them.

"Um, five of us are, but Skylar, Shinji and Jinsoku over there aren't," Gale replied, separating the Descendants from the ordinary hunters.

"I see," said the old man, who picked a pair of half-moon spectacles off of the table to get a better look at the ragtag group of friends, raising an eyebrow in bemusement and curiosity.

"I see your lover there is in quite a dire state. Tortured?" he asked casually. Gale took a small step back.

"U-Um, yeah. H-how did you k-know?" Gale spluttered, taken aback by the man's accurate assumptions.

"Relax, dear child. I'm quite aware of the prior affairs of you and your cohorts."

"How?"

"I was quite close to Nina, and Guretosutomu also communed with me in human shape quite regularly. Nina sent you here through that portal of all places becuase I was nearby. Apropos of your situation, that strapping young lad of yours needs to rest. He has Shinkaiyami's Stigma."

"Stigma?"

"Yes. It's a slow process, but you will notice a blackness spread across his body. It can be cured. I will explain the details further when you have put him to rest. Go, now. There is beds upstairs, take any one of them," he snapped. Gale helped Mizu up the staricase while the others stayed with the man.

"A lot has changed in a few weeks for you, hasn't it?" the old man mused, carefully cupping his hand around a wooden smoking pipe as he lit it.

"Yes, quite. Excuse my abruptness, but you haven't told us your name," Altair said quietly. The old man, almost fell over himself with surprise.

"Oh, yes, that's right! Where are my manners? My name is Hiro," the old man said, a puff of smoke wafting in the hunters' direction from his pipe. Moments later, Gale strode down the stairs quietly.

"He's sleeping. We should try to be a little quieter now," she muttered.

"You must let him rest here. There is enough rooms for everyone. You can all stay as long as you like. Now, about Shinkaiyami's Stigma. It is a virulent, acerbic disease, caught when one bears open wounds in places of evil. No doubt he caught in in the tower when Kazir was torturing him. It is not a suprise to the people. It has blighted people all over the land ever since Yaketsukuyona and Kazir occupied this reigion. Anyway, I digress. It is a slow process, but the Stigma will spread over his body. Thankfully, it makes no attempt to disguise itself - blackness will appear on his skin. faintly, at first, but it will spread. The time it takes to spread varies from person to person, but it never takes more than a fortnight. It will begin to hurt more as it progresses, and, eventually, it will be fatal," Hiro explained.

"So how do we cure it?" Makoto asked, a firm expression on her face.

"Well, that is much easier said than done," Hiro said, taking the pipe out of his mouth, and laying it on the table. "I have some aquaintances and other such sources that may be able to help. However, I will need all of you not to accompany me in these endeavours, and to only go outside for good reason. Can I trust you to do this?"

The group nodded affirmatively.

"That is good to hear. Now go, all of you!" Hiro beamed. "You look so very weary."

The group slowly trudged upstairs, one at a time.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Shinji pulled her lips away from Jinsoku's slowly. It had been about twenty minutes since everybody had retired for the night, and they had been laying in bed kissing the whole time. Ever since Jinsoku told her that he loved her, she had been to happy to take it as seriously as he had. But she had decided that it was her turn to say it back.

"Jin?" Shinji murmuered softly.

"Yeah?"

She pulled him closer, whispering in his ear.

"I love you."

Jinsoku smiled, their lips locking once again after Shinji blew out the candle on the desk beside the bed.


To Be Continued in: Fate and Freedom IV: No Long Goodbyes

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