Ash held a bloodied hand to the gash in her side, gritting her teeth as pain and nausea hit her like a wave. Taking deep, shaky breaths, she stood to face her attacker and brandished her sword, a silver cross swinging from her proud throat.
"This ends now." She said, her voice strong and cold in the shadows of the growing dawn. She felt nothing for him. It was as though she would never feel again.
He laughed and leaned on his sword casually, like they were two friends having a chat. "Feisty." He said, his voice fire; warm and inviting, but underneath the warmth, danger lurked, waiting to be awakened. "I've always liked that about you."
"Let's see how you like me when your head is hanging from the gallows." Ash hissed.
"That's not the only thing I want hanging from your gallows." He said suggestively, and winked at her.
Ash didn't have enough energy even to blush. He lunged at her, but she dodged his attack, despite her wounds, and brought her sword down with a sudden swoosh. It caught him just above the wrist, where there were chinks in the chain mail, but it did not cut through as she had hoped it would.
"Nice try." He crooned as they circled each other, preparing for the next attack. "Next time, aim for the shoulder mail. It'll do more damage."
She scowled at him. It was just like him to give her hints on how to kill him. He never stopped being arrogant, thinking he knew more than everyone else.
He hadn't changed at all. That was the part that hurt her most.
She slashed at him with the sword, but he step-sided quickly, hopping from one foot to the next gracefully, almost playfully, as though he were mocking her in her solemnity.
"Oh, darling, when will you learn?" He clucked his tongue at her as though she were a child. "You have to be quicker than your opponent, otherwise you'll lose. It is me you are fighting, after all."
She felt white, hot fury building up inside her. How dare he act as her superior, when it was she who had trained beside him in the very grounds on which they now stood, she who had paid rapt attention to the daily sessions, she who had consoled him when he failed his exams, and she did not?
She slashed again, this time both aided and crippled by her anger. She succeeded in ripping through the tunic underneath his chain mail, and cutting him across the forearm.
She knocked his sword away from him and touched the point of her own sword to his neck. "It's over." She said, but there was no triumph in her voice, only emptiness.
"Oh, no, Ash." He said darkly. "It's only just beginning."
And then she knew it had been too easy.
He grasped the sword's edge in his hand, not seeming to notice that it cut his palm, yanked it away, and twisted her arms behind her back. Now the roles were reversed, and it was her neck to which her sword was held, her life that was at stake.
He glanced at the sword with disgust, then tossed it away. He bent down close to her, and for a moment hope soared in her. Perhaps it had all been an act. Perhaps he was still the man she had loved.
But then she saw a knife glinting in his hand.
"No one to protect you now." He smiled, and her heart jerked, for it was the same smile that once had been so kind, but was now so cold. "This does end now, my love. For you, at least."
He plunged the knife into her stomach.
Ash felt a flash of agony, and then nothing. She gasped for breath, but it seemed as though there was no longer air to breath, no longer emotions to feel, no longer light to see.
"I'll always protect you."
Tears blurred Ash's vision as the sudden memories came rushing back – strong arms holding her close, gentle kisses, secrets told in the dark. What had happened to that peace, that feeling of safety, that promise of a brighter future? What had gone wrong?
How had this moment come to be?
She had to know. If she gave up, lost, died now, in the arms of her former lover, it would be okay if only she knew why.
"Ryo..." She gasped. "What happened to us?"
He was silent for a moment, and suddenly she realized he might not have a reason. Then he said, "Nothing happened to us. There never was an 'us.' I never loved you."
And in her last breath, as the last shadows of the night fled over the golden spires of the Tower, Ash knew he was lying.