The white golem shudders and falls to the ground. There's an ugly hole in its chest- a little lower and right of the center- and there are sparks dancing around it, from the lightning bolt that had just struck.
The two white and blue golems- 'knightmares', like they knew what they were for anyone tread underfoot- release its arms, and step back. They look a little satisfied.
But that doesn't really matter.
There's a brave guy behind that white crystal and that gold paint. There's also a really stupid guy behind that white crystal and gold paint, too, but- seriously. I've had enough of both for today.
… I don't even know if he survived that.
Someone's shouting behind me. It's that sergeant- he's saying something to his men. And he's saying something to me.
"Fucking hell, Kururugi was our last shot. We need to get out of here, Minerva-One-"
I'm not paying attention to him.
My feet carry me forward to the center of the street.
More shouting, and footsteps. I drop my left arm a little behind me. The street fractures and bursts, creating a chasm between myself and the sergeant's soldiers.
The white and blue golems seem to have noticed me. The four of them draw their weapons from their sides- pistols, but far larger than the one Brant gave me.
The snow floats down, coating the night in a haze of white. There's quite a bit of it on my shoulders. My head's a little cold, too.
Ah, my uniform's a bit wrinkled. I should smooth it out.
There, that's better.
If I were here only a little sooner-
Now, I'm beginning to care.
My left arm flies straight to point, with my index finger forward, my right arm holding it steady. I can feel my crest burn with prana, the switch in my mind flipped.
A ring of red encircles the air around my arm, a sphere of black enclosed in red at my index finger. The air crackles and breaks as I unleash my curse at the closest golem, a line of red haze around black.
The curse- Gandr, an old, simple hex that was no more than a gesture with impolite intent- shatters the chest armor, leaving a neat, round indent in the center of its impact.
… It's a really, really old impolite gesture.
The golem staggers back, but its companions open fire.
I stand still. The bullets fall to my left and my right, holing the ground with long furrows of asphalt.
More black orbs fly from my finger, churning the air as they cross the space. These golems seem to have learned their lesson, though. They avoid the curses well.
Geez. They move too fluidly.
A bullet sails directly at me- it'd be best if I did respond to this one. My right arm reaches into my breast pocket, and finds something small, hard, and square.
A hemisphere of green expands from my chest. The bullet ricochets off, crashing into a building behind me.
I return their rudeness with my own, my orbs tearing through the snow, but they've learned. They retreat, weaving around each other, firing constantly at my shield. It's a little annoying, actually.
There's something else, too. They move in a pattern, with a precision that's alien to these golems made of gears and wires.
Then, in an instant between my curses, they charge.
It's all in unison. The spheres on their legs throw up a cloud of dust, and their gunfire is synchronized into louder cracks in the air. Their bullets hit my shield simultaneously with each burst- and for a moment, I think it might bend.
… I'm not quite sure why they're a threat now, compared to the golems I've killed before. And what Lloyd and Cecile have done with that white golem- it's nothing like these, which are like marionettes dancing on strings, all connected to the same hand-
They're connected. Somehow, their minds, and thus their actions, are connected. If it's magecraft, then its magus is well-hidden. But there are puppetmasters out there.
Then this is easier.
The green hemisphere around me flickers as my legs push off the ground, and I fly through the snow-filled sky. My target is the closest golem.
It pulls its pistol up to track me, but that just makes it easier to land on it. I skip over the black surface- it's a little slippery- and land on its shoulder, with a hand in the satchel at my side.
The garnet between my fingers burns in anticipation as it touches the freezing air.
I hold back the conflagration for a little before letting it go from the gem between my fingers.
The shock of heat catches against my cheeks- the blast of flame obliterates off the top of the cockpit into a spray of molten liquid, revealing the pilot inside.
He's Japanese, as expected. There's an odd device on his head, with wires and white pads and blinking lights.
A ring of red encircles the air around my arm again.
I line up my finger with the man within, and draw more strength into this curse. And the next, and the next, and the next.
The Gandr shots fire off in quick succession. My ears sting from the air cracking so harshly- the wind flutters my hair and nips at my cheeks.
The orbs fly and impact into this man- solid trails of black linger in the air, from my finger into the cockpit of that golem.
His eyes cloud with a dark film. Black bile seeps from his mouth.
The other golems convulse as he does.
It seems like there's some backlash from the conjoined puppetry of pilot and automaton. A Gandr afflicts the body and the mind with a malefic essence, deteriorating both with a sort of black detritus of the soul. A curse- or rather, a rudimentary rude gesture like pointing a finger at someone- wouldn't only offend one person, if they had their friends or family there.
Though, I guess people only became sick in Scandinavia when a 'curse' like Gandr was cast.
One of the golems raises his weapon to aim at me, with a trembling arm-
… I don't know why I'm just watching it struggle. Maybe it's because I know they can't hurt me, but- I can't help but feel a little sorry for them. Still, only a little.
They might have killed someone who was bravely stupid- or stupidly brave, after all.
And I already watched someone else like that die and come back to life tonight.
Red lines crackle around my arm. I shoot another curse into the pilot's gut, his mouth coughing up more of his insides.
With that, the golem aiming at me collapses.
The snow settles on my shoulders as the street becomes a street again, and not a battlefield. My head's a little cold again, too.
I brush the powder off my shoulders-
"Uragirimono- haakkk- hell, I bet you don't even- augh, aughkk- speak Japanese, you bitch."
More black sludge dribbles out of the pilot's mouth.
A sigh escapes my lips, along with some words I wasn't really expecting. "I do, but I don't think that's something you need to be concerned about. I'd think you'd care about the innocent lives here, but an uragirimono like you wouldn't care about anyone Japanese- just Japan, or the recently-deceased concept of it. While this-"
My eyes narrow. "-this is my city. I'm supposed to protect the people here from idiots like you, who hide behind them and blow apart their homes. So, please, teach me something; what's a traitorous girl like me supposed to do for them, when people like you do so much to free them?"
His throat gurgles as he struggles to get the words out.
"Hkk- They'll understand. This blow is for a free Japan- and it's not- futile. The death of your Prince is just the first of many- La terreur n'est autre chose- kaakk- que la justice-"
He swallows to clear his throat- but then white foam flecked with red spews out of it. I don't pay attention to that, though, because I feel very, very cold.
So that was what those explosions were, in the heart of the city.
I hear footsteps on the soft snow, but I'm going to have to let the soldiers clean this up.
I jump from my perch on the golem's shoulder, towards the clouds of smoke and the red glow in the center of Shinto.
His eyes fluttered. He felt something hot and wet on his forehead, but Clovis was alive.
"… Bartley? Are you there?"
The air felt heavy and quiet.
"Is anyone there?"
A small bit of light- reddish, but warm- let him see the details of his command center. The frontal armor was shattered and ruined, the control displays cracked and dented, and the holographic table empty and dark. The room was empty, but he could hear gunfire outside- small bursts intermittent with the crackling of fire and rumble of falling rubble.
He tried sitting himself up. The hot and wet thing on his head fell to his lap- he ran his hands over it, feeling the cotton strands of the gauze fabric.
They must have left me in here and taken up defensive positions. The reason nobody's here is because they need everyone to hold out against the terrorists.
A cold sweat lined his back. He stood up, but the rush of blood from his head to his stomach caused his head to spin. He stumbled his way to the center seat of his command bunker and fell into it.
Sharp clacks sounded, like jackboots on steel- someone had entered the command center.
His eyes settled on the figure: a Britannian soldier, in grey and black armor, with a round helmet and a black gas-mask covering his head.
"How goes the battle, soldier?"
"… Well, sir."
The soldier strode over to the command terminals, flicking through panels and charts and other things too quickly for Clovis to follow. It looked important, so he let the soldier be.
"What are you doing?"
The soldier paused for a moment, as if he were contemplating his actions as well. Then, he sighed, as if resigned to answer his prince. "I'm backing up the memory banks of this base to an external drive for a wipe, to prevent vital information from falling into enemy hands."
Clovis didn't quite like the sound of that. "It seems dire, then. Will- will we win?"
Clovis coughed in surprised- "I- what do you-"
But the soldier stood suddenly.
Another soldier entered the command center- immediately, Clovis could tell that this one was different. He held himself well, with higher poise and posture. if Clovis didn't know any better, he could have sworn that soldier was a noble, or went to an etiquette school-
"Good. You can go now, sergeant."
The soldier- the sergeant stiffened, and gave a crisp salute. "Yes, Your Majesty!"
He turned sharply and left the command center, leaving Clovis alone with this new arrival.
Clovis didn't heed the change, however. His mind was frozen, fixated on what title the first had addressed the second with. His mouth opened and closed like a fish's, but he was able to let the words fall out like a sack of hammers.
"Who- Who are you?"
"The ghost of Christmas past."
"What?" A joke was in very poor taste-
"Ten Christmases past, actually. Perhaps eleven- my mind isn't as sharp as it was when I was six, when the Emperor saw fit to pass judgment on one so wise to the world."
The soldier's words were even harsher with the tinny rasp generated by the helmet's speakers. It seemed like he realized this, because the soldier removed it without ceremony.
The prince on his throne could only stare, slackjawed, at the countenance he gazed upon.
"Hello, Clovis. It's been a while."
Lelouch Lamperouge smirked, his dark hair barely covering the self-satisfaction gleaming in his violet eyes.
"The eldest son of the late Empress Marianne and seventeenth in line to the imperial throne. Soon-to-be the sixteenth, unless you play your cards right, Prince Clovis."
He knelt, with no small amount of sardonic inflection in his next words.
"Lelouch vi Britannia, at your service."
"Lelouch?! But I thought …"
"That I was dead? I have returned, Your Highness."
He rose and drew his pistol, in a smooth motion.
"To change everything."
Clovis shuddered, his knuckles white against the hard surface of his throne. Lelouch felt his smile grow wider.
Power, quite like this? It was intoxicating.
And now, he had the fruit of his labors sitting in front of him.
Everything which led to this-
"You will bow before the son of the man you serve- for a far greater purpose, for a far greater future. I, Lelouch vi Britannia, command all of you-!"
The command he gave to forty men, their faces blank and frozen.
The acquisition of Britannian reinforcements through his interception and enchantment of them with his newfound power.
The discovery of a decoy of that girl's sphere from interrogating the rude lieutenant who had previously ordered his execution, and the inklings of a simple, simple plan.
The disinformation sowed by that lieutenant, and the easy theft of that decoy.
The spine which Clovis grew did surprise him, but only just. After all, there was a valuable-enough bishop, or rook, within reach of his pawns.
The following scramble by both Britannians and Japanese for the two spherical containers he had, and the merry chase which ensued.
The desperation of the Europeans- or the Chinese, he still wasn't quite sure who was in command of that ballistic-missile submarine, the Arihant- and the destruction of Clovis' guard in the fire and the flames, along with half the city block.
-what would Shirou think?-
The interception and elimination of that Britannian white knight- its appearance was unexpected, and he shouldn't take credit for the work the Japanese resistance had done- but tying down both ends of the remaining opponents was satisfactory.
Now, he had a cordon in place, with a sizable force: two squadrons of modern knightmares from the Purists, and some sixty-odd infantry, though they weren't entirely under his control- mostly their officers, but that was enough to keep them in line.
So, it was child's play to be the rescuing cavalry. In all honesty, he was surprised that the G-1 Base was still relatively unscathed, but that was fate's reward for good planning.
And here, he had his prize- the enemy commander in his grasp, the first statement to be made in his war against Britannia-
-what would Shirou think?-
"How did you- how are you here-?"
"Hm. How indeed."
His aim held steady. His brother's eyes were almost cross-eyed under the loose strands of his blonde hair, staring at the pistol barrel pointed at his brow. The words suddenly fell from Clovis' mouth.
"I'm so glad you're alive, Lelouch! We heard you had died during the conquest of Japan! It's good to know that you're alive! Maybe we can go back home- back to Pendragon, back to Aries Villa!"
"And to be used as a tool of diplomacy once more? Or maybe you've forgotten why we were used as tools in the first place."
Clovis gasped and drew back sharply.
"That's right. Because my mother was killed."
In his eyes, there was a brief expression of reflection- a faraway look, trapped behind his violet pupils.
"Mother held the title of Knight of Honor, but she was originally a commoner. No doubt the other empresses held her in contempt. Even so-"
That faraway look evaporated, replaced by burning gaze.
"Even though you made it look like the work of terrorists … You people killed my mother."
A stifled sob fell from Clovis' mouth, his panic tangible in the dark atmosphere. "It wasn't me! I swear, it wasn't!"
The fire grew, in his left eye- the sheer force of Alaya's will, the will of mankind manifested- the same blazing strength which Lelouch had drawn up when he had given his command to those men.
"Then tell me what you know. No one can lie to me now. Tell me- Who killed her?!"
It was if a mask of human emotion fell off- Clovis merely stared blankly, subservient but silent, until he spoke in a flat voice.
"Schneizel, our brother, and Cornelia, our sister. They know."
"They're the ringleaders?"
He was silent, duller than he was when he had answered.
"… That's all you know, brother? Well, then."
In truth, he was only a little disappointed. But he had to hear it from his brother's lips to be sure.
The mask of emotion slid up back over Clovis' face. The sheer terror seemed to have doubled in its absence.
"It wasn't me! I swear, it wasn't! I didn't kill her! I didn't have her killed!"
Lelouch gritted his teeth, but it was hidden under the cruel smirk.
"I understand. However …"
It didn't matter.
"No, don't! We may have different mothers, but I'm still your brother!"
"I stopped being your brother a long time ago."
He felt cold. So, so satisfyingly cold. And …
"And besides, you can't change the world without getting your hands dirty."
Lelouch's finger squeezed on the trigger, the slide ratcheting back, a burst of electricity charging the rails-
-what would Shirou think?-
He nearly choked on the thought. Of all the times to remember that stupidly naïve moral code of a dangerously unselfish boy-
"No, no- Lelouch, I looked for you and Nunnally all this time- please, what would Nunnally think? Don't you think I hated what happened to her? You may hate what Father did to you and her, but I didn't have anything to do with it!"
He found himself answering, despite his resolve to make his brother- this man, this fop, the enemy commander- a dead man. "It is precisely why you did nothing for your beloved brother and sister that you'll die today."
"I- I wasn't- Lelouch, I was never as brave or smart as you! I know what Father did was wrong- but if I said anything, I would have been cast out with you! I- I know I was a coward, I know that! But is that enough reason for me to die?"
What sort of world is this, that the strong stand on the weak? What sort of world is this?
I want to change it. I want to shift the foundation of this cruel world, break it down to bits, and raise anew one better, one kinder, one gentler.
One where those deemed the weak could live.
But in my hands is a gun, and sitting before it is my half-brother, a vain man, a fickle man, a feckless man.
A weak man.
What sort of world am I making for Nunnally?
My hands are still clean.
Lelouch lowered his weapon.
"I'm not going to kill you."
He reached for a cylinder- a smoke grenade- from the vest he was wearing, and some cord. Keeping his gun trained on Clovis, he tied his brother's hands together, looping the grenade's pin and lever through the cord to wrap closely to the left side of his brother's body, and completed the knot around the arm of the throne his brother sat on. He pulled away, extending the antenna of the remote in the same motion.
"What- What's this, brother-"
"White phosphorous. It's primarily used for signaling and cover, but it's been banned from use in combat because of its incendiary and toxicological properties. As long as you don't move, it won't go off."
Or as long as I don't use the detonator.
It seemed like Lelouch was talking more to himself, as he put his helmet back on. For a moment, he watched his brother through the lenses of the helmet, as his brother trembled and stared back at them in obvious discomfort- though with some relief.
Well, if I'm going to be stupidly naïve, I may as well take out an insurance policy.
The power filled his eye once more.
"One last thing. You will forget that I was ever here."
"Yeah, of course! Thank you, Lelouch- I won't forget this!"
What? It's not-
He heard the door open, and he spun around, holstering his pistol.
The voice was breathless, but authoritative, belonging to the one element he had no answer to, no plan to execute, no counter at hand- the last girl he had wanted to see.
"Step away from Prince Clovis."
She looked a little disheveled- her tails were slightly loose, and her uniform was coated with dust. But her arm was outstretched straight, pointed directly at his chest. If it was anyone else, he would have thought it a little ridiculous- laughable, even.
Specialist Tohsaka- Rin Tohsaka, a girl with deep ties to this land, whose parentage lived and died here up to her generation, who was ostensibly adopted by Britannia as a ward of the state, who received training as a specialized operative known as a 'magus', and who was- is- involved in some sort of project known pretentiously as the 'Holy Grail'- was standing between himself and freedom.
The soldier before me seems to be the true enemy responsible for all this chaos.
Right now, he's compliant. My index finger is still trained on him, though- even if I can't detect any trace of magecraft on him. It's a little worrying to see that he recognizes my finger-pointing as dangerous, but once he's in Britannian custody, they'll find out who he-
There's an odd, cylindrical device in his left hand, with a sizable red button underneath his thumb.
"This is a detonator. If you direct your attention to Prince Clovis' chest, you'll find a canister there. I assure you, it's quite explosive, and quite deadly."
His voice is thin and artificial through the faceplate. The words are still threatening, and it's impossible to read any other expression through them.
This isn't good. A full-strength Gandr would hit the prince, and anything weaker isn't enough to kill someone immediately. The rest of my spells require gems- reaching for one would alarm him immediately.
… I guess I'm going to have to use someone useless. A useless Servant who should-
Something booms, and there's a crash outside. Out of the corner of my eye-
The soldier turns his head, too. "… You can't be serious."
-I see a red golem knock over two Britannian golems.
"Keep going, Kallen!"
"I got it, Ohgi!"
She could feel her Glasgow shudder. It wouldn't be soon before long that it fell apart at the seams, but Kallen Koizuki knew this last push was the only one that mattered.
The RPGs Inoue, Tamaki, and Ohgi fired had smashed through three of the Britannian knightmares- purple, with the odd red pauldrons- guarding that mobile base.
Before two more could react, Kallen had put her fists into their cockpits, felling them with a heavy crash.
Shells crashed into her shoulder. The three remaining had finally noticed- their reaction was a little sluggish, but it would have been a bad idea to count them lightly. She fired her Slash Harkens- one of the launchers failed, and just unspooled cable out of her shoulder, and the other fell low into the leg of the leftmost Britannian knightmare she aimed at.
"Dammit, come on-"
The connected cable dragged her low, her landspinners throwing up sparks and screaming in protest at the sudden change in direction. She just needed a single opening-
This is for Nagata, you bastards.
Her left arm lined up with the top level of the base- if that prince the Holy Swords had mentioned was going to be anywhere, it would be there.
She pulled the trigger. A red flash, and a cloud of smoke burst out, spattering melted snow across her shoulder- and then her entire forearm, hand curled into a fist, launched forward.
With that, she pulled the ejection lever, feeling the pull in her stomach from the sudden g-force- just as some sort of black and red orbs flickered across her deteriorating display.
My curses blasted apart its arms, but the red fist rocketing from the golem launched before the orbs hit.
I need to protect the prince- my hand reaches for a small green square in my breast pocket, and I dash forward, the quick reinforcement of my legs pushing me that extra distance.
I can reach the canister and contain it within the shield- I'll need to split it into two layers, one separating the canister's explosion from the Prince, the other protecting us both from the impact-
But in this instant, something different happens.
A strong pair of arms wraps around me and pulls me away. Green light bursts from my chest- my wards must have been triggered automatically, against something I didn't defend adequately against.
Everything tumbles. The room shakes and buckles, as that golem's fist punches into the structure outside.
The prince tumbles too, and a strip of metal drops from his side onto the ground, accompanied by a small, glittering pin tied to a cord.
White smoke bursts from-
Jeez, it's hot- it's burning hot, eating into the prince's flesh, bubbling and sloughing off skin and meat- hot enough I can feel it through my shield.
His screams are louder, louder, louder.
But now he's covered by the smoke, so I can't see anything-
My fingers grasp a smooth, small teardrop in my satchel- a topaz, as blue as the shimmering sea from ten years ago.
Air, a massive head of wind- it swells and bursts out from my fingers, blasting this hellish particulate snow out, gone, away-
The crumpled steel shutters dividing this room from the outside buckle and give way, dispersing the smoke out, and letting a frigid chill in.
The air is clear. That soldier is nowhere to be found, but I'm not going to worry about him right now.
There are pits in his left arm and his left leg, his ribs are exposed through the chewed, flayed surface as he writhes on the ground-
"buh buh- gaaa- hu- hell- llpppp- p-p- "
Where's his jaw?
The entire side of his face-
My hand clutches the ruby pendant, the inheritance my father left me as a tool for the Grail- but I remember, I used it before for something selfless only a few hours ago.
I can't fix this.
I don't have to reconstruct his heart, or tie back his guts together- if anything, things need to be removed, like his arm and leg, and I can use them as material to repair his chest and cover his ribcage- his brain and spine are vulnerable too, so I need to reroute his od through a gem as a bypass- but that won't matter if that smoke affected his internal organs-
(and I can see the white residue burrowing into his flesh right now, deeper and deeper into the pits)
I grab a small ruby from the inner pocket of my jacket, warm from being close to my chest. It pools into a liquid in my hand- normally, I'd have it melt inside someone's body, but I don't think he can swallow it.
It flows smoothly into his mouth. His wild eyes widen, and his body twists furiously for a second- and then he's still, malleable and pliant, all sensations interrupted by this new junction in his body, to an artificial circuit in its sister ruby-
I don't remember rolling up my sleeves, but in this wintry night, the cyan light from my magic crest is a welcome comfort.
I stumble outside.
My brother's screams still echo.
I don't know if he's screaming, or if it's just some vicious conspiracy of my mind.
I didn't mean for this to happen, not at all.
I thought I could erase his memory of me with this power in my eye.
That one chess game we played, where Clovis just sighed and smiled good-naturedly, as if it wasn't losing that mattered, but rather just playing a game with his brother-
That time when he painted Mother, Nunnally, and I- oh, how warm it was, and uncomfortable, but Mother had us laugh through it all on the summer fields of Aries Villa-
The white phosphorous was a precaution, and only that.
Nobody was supposed to interfere. I could have handled one interruption- but my soldiers were supposed to be enough to prevent any of the terrorists from creating any further chaos.
My throat is tight. I can feel something odd caught in it, like when I had found my mother draped over Nunnally-
They're even calling me now. The Britannian command chain must be finally asserting its full influence after that attack on this mobile base, and my orders-
"Your Majesty, what should we-"
-my orders will not be able to stem the tide and hold the façade any-
"Your Majesty, our reinforcements are-"
"Your Majesty, do you wish-"
"Stop. Stop it. Just shut up- shut up. Shut up."
My ears are pounding, or maybe it's my heart, a telltale drumming of conscience over what I've done.
I'm a monster.
I've stolen their will. Oh, maybe that's not that much- it happens all the time in subtler ways. But that's not right.
I've stolen their lives, just like I've stolen my brother's.
What a farce, what a droll atrocity. I've become the thing I hate, in the name of stopping the thing I hate- that blind, terrible strength which grinds children underfoot, which grinds men to dust- all on the altar of strength and might and power.
Even if that one lieutenant was going to kill me, there's forty other lives I've imprisoned into shells of men who serve me.
Somehow, I don't feel anything anymore. It's been sapped out of me. What's left is a core of self-loathing. It just makes me sick to my stomach.
… I will never issue such a command again.
So what do I do with these men- or rather, these dolls I've made?
I suppose I don't have a choice, do I?
"All forces, I have to- I give you this order, to fight until-"
… but I can't give that order. Not that one, not after what happened to Clovis-
No. It's cold again.
No time like the present. If your hands are dirty-
-keep doing the dirty work until you can wash it off. That's the logical thing to do, after all.
And if I ask them to do only what I ask of myself, then that's better. Fairer, even.
"-until you destroy Britannia, or Britannia destroys you."
"What the hell is going on?"
Despite the snow, sweat poured down General Asprius Bartley's forehead. For some reason, two of the Purist Sutherlands began shooting at his men, and the third tried to stop them with its tonfas- but that didn't work, and they destroyed it.
But then they began fighting each other-
He ran as best as he could to the cover of the G-1 Base. He had to find the prince.
The heated buzz of gunfire and the rattle off hardened steel reminded him that his time was short. He clambered over the warped and twisted frame of the door and up the stairs- by Darwin, it was dark-
The OSI stationmaster grimaced. "Yeah. I bet you're checking in on the prince."
"That's correct. I see you survived outside."
"That's what happens when you don't rain down themobaric shells on our position. Thanks for that, by the way."
"Tsk. And how did you survive the artillery strike that hit us?"
"Looked more like missiles to me, and my suit didn't really make it." Kayeri Brant shrugged. "I'm lucky, what can I say?"
"… Hrm." That wasn't good. Firepower like that in the hands of the terrorists meant that they were organized and backed by a significant player- likely the remnants of the JSDF, or possibly the Chinese Federation. "We'll analyze this after we make it out. Why haven't you secured the prince?"
Brant pointed with a black-gloved finger at the corridor ahead, illuminated by his pistol's underslung torch. Pitted metal caught the light in a strange way, like someone drilled thousands of tiny holes into the walls.
"White phosphorous residue. Not something the Japanese have easy access to." He looked uncharacteristically pensive. "Damnit, Harkins. Great of you to leave me a reminder."
"Nothing. A friend of mine used Whiskey-Papa ordnance during the landings at Kochi. Not my best memories." He moved out of the stairwell, his slacks rustling quietly. Bartley followed hurriedly- though he nearly knocked the director over again when Brant stopped, earning a peeved glare.
"Watch it, we're really close. Don't sniff the garlic too much. Phosphorous poisoning isn't fun."
Bartley ignored the remark and fit his hand into the handle of a side compartment. "I know that, Brant. I'm looking for CBRN gear."
He procured three gas masks, passing one to Brant. His expression was pale. "Do you think the prince is-"
"Only one way to find out, and that's through there. Stay behind me- I can't shoot past you, so you're going to have to back me up."
The spymaster held his pistol at the ready as he fitted the mask over his face. "On my mark- three, two, one, mark."
With surprising alacrity, Brant burst through the corridor and turned the corner. Bartley huffed behind, immediately fogging up his mask.
It wasn't enough to obscure the bizarrely beautiful collage of sculptured hellscape that the command center had become. There were dozens of long lines of fluid metal radiating from the throne, with thousands upon thousands of dark pits burned into the walls, and a light coat of snow dusting the floor- all illuminated by a thin cyan light.
At the foot of the throne lay a one-armed, one legged man. Unkempt, blonde hair obscured his features, but the ragged breaths clouding over his mouth were a positive sign of life.
A girl with black hair in ruffled tails was tending to him, her hands on his cheek. The dim light emanated from her right arm, in a maze of straight lines encircled from her elbow to her hand.
"Specialist Tohsaka, what's-"
"Don't distract her, General Bartley." Brant looked sick. He had stepped closer to the two and seemed to regret it.
"What do you mean? A medic should be-" The general's words died in his throat.
She wasn't lending comfort with cooled hands on a fevered cheek- that wasn't possible, if the cheek was no longer there.
Her fingers appeared to pull inside the fibers of flesh. Little flecks of white underneath hid within the bright red, but they were being drawn over by the threads of muscle she seemed to be pulling over the bone.
Then, she reached over to her side, grasping with bloodied hands a skein of-
Skin, from a long, pitted limb.
She stretched it over his cheek, where it settled and melted to match the original layer.
He stifled a sob.
"Prince Clovis …"
His legs seemed to move on their own. Away from the director, from the specialist, from the prince. It was cold outside, but he didn't really seem to care.
Those two damned Purist Sutherlands were finally down. Sporadic gunfire still filled the air, but it looked like his men had held the line.
"General- General Bartley, sir!"
He blinked. One of his officers raised a crisp salute, despite the red seeping from his arm. "We've driven back the traitors, and we have air support inbound- ETA ten minutes!"
"Ah, very good." His head was in a fog.
He blinked, and rubbed his forehead. "Where are the terrorists? If they had a cadre of turncoats, why did they use them to cover their escape?"
"Can't say for sure, sir. But I saw them fleeing north, on the main road. We don't have any factspheres available, but the comms men got some satellite coverage."
"Good, very good. Bring it up on the display, and get me Shelldrake on the comm."
The small command display blinked, rendering a number of red triangles travelling down a long stretch of road. They were making good time- in ten minutes, they could easily split up and set an ambush for the airpower coming to reinforce. Worse, if they realized the status of the prince- they could return.
But he'd be damned if he didn't do something about it- and there was some retribution he could take. He took the radio from his soldier.
"Shelldrake Station, this is Sunray-Black-Two- General Bartley speaking for Director Brant. Requesting urgent fire mission on heading zero-charlie-three. Shattered Crown- again, Shattered Crown."
He heard a muffled curse over the comm, but the reply was steady. "Solid copy, sir."
Those red triangles blinked balefully in the darkness. "Shelldrake, my display is damaged. What's in the blast radius?"
"Just some fields, a few buildings- and a church, General. Minimal loss of life- not that it matters, sir."
"… That's absolutely correct. Ob-" His voice cracked a little. "Obliterate them."
"Yes, sir. All batteries, direct fire along heading zero-charlie-three. Targets in the open, fire for effect. Good luck, sir. Swift vengeance inbound."
The muffled crack from the forested mountain echoed for a moment, followed by a series of faint rumbles sounding off in the distance. Somehow, the pit in Bartley's stomach didn't seem to be helped by it.
"Shattered- Crown, sir?"
The pit seemed to grow. He sighed. "That's correct, lieutenant. We hold this position until we are relieved. I need all medical personnel at the G-1 Base."
The officer snapped a salute again, and ran off. Bartley just staggered over to a comfortable-looking piece of rubble and sat on it.
He had failed to do his duty. He had failed to protect his prince. He had failed to safeguard Code R- that girl, in that sphere. He'd be lucky to get the firing squad. So, the girthy general remained seated on his debris, turning his pistol over and over, and sweating profusely into the earliest moments of the frigid morning.
The bitter taste still stuck to his tongue- a little sour, too, though that might have been from the vomit he had spewed out on the city block. The chains of gunshots and explosions had been off only a little further out from the military truck he had hidden in the alley.
Soon, he would be back at Ashford Academy, ending this terrible night.
The engine had started without a hitch, and the heat was a welcome respite from the cold. What streetlights remained passed overhead in a semi-rhythmic beat, flutters of warm light in the fading darkness.
But Lelouch nearly jumped out of his skin when the passenger in the back spoke.
The truck lurched back and forth as he pulled over. In the rear-view mirror, he caught a glimpse of green hair and gold eyes, and a white fabric covering the rest.
"… Where are my manners?"
He muttered something ridiculous.
Lelouch turned around and reached behind her head, unclasping the gag covering her face. Her eyes flickered- surprise, then an imperative- to her hands. She opened her mouth, but Lelouch shook his head.
"I'm not naïve enough to trust you yet. It wouldn't be the smartest course of action- I'd imagine that Britannia would have imprisoned you for a reason." The pistol he held accentuated the point.
"Ah." Her voice was quiet, empty of inflections- though, a single syllable was a poor sample population. Lelouch continued his inquiry.
"Who are you?"
"… I have many names. You may call me C.C.."
"That's an odd name."
She blinked. "Do you have one?"
It was odd- sarcasm was Lelouch's strong suit, but this sort of dry response was difficult to diagnose. He settled for sighing. "I'll hold off on telling you it until I can determine if you can be trusted. Why were you imprisoned in that … thing?"
"I don't know."
"-Then, what were they doing to you?"
"I don't know."
"What did you do to me?"
"I don't know. You could tell me that."
"… Tsk." Maybe they wiped your memory, then.
His tongue stung from the acerbic retorts he withheld. This was proving fruitless, and he didn't have the time to waste for Twenty Questions.
So, one would have to do- one that he owed himself- and someone who had just died- to ask.
"Does 'Grail' mean anything to you?"
Surprise flitted across her stoic demeanor, as her eyes widened. "I-"
"Don't say 'I don't know' again." His admonition came a little too harshly, but he knew that this had to be pushed. He leaned forward, glaring into the quiet eyes of this recalcitrant stoic. "The least you could do is answer that, unless you wanted to stay-"
"Don't you think it's cruel, to ask these questions of someone who was trapped inside a metal sphere not even a few hours ago?"
It was almost dizzying, how her tone spun from empty to playfully snide.
But Lelouch had no patience for something jovial.
Someone important had died for what he was asking, and-
He had killed others because of it.
This girl with the odd name and odder circumstances was connected, and she was being uncooperative in the highest degree.
"What the hell are you?"
He barely recognized his voice. It was a rare day when his temper climbed to such a point.
"I don't know-"
"Shut it. This chaos is all your fault, isn't it?"
"… You're upset."
She was right. He wasn't thinking straight. He wasn't thinking normally. Though these weren't normal circumstances, Lelouch held pride in his capacity for calm under duress.
"So it is, then- and not only that, but because of this- Clovis- those men- even Shir-"
He swallowed the name. The world, this space, the girl before him- they were trembling. His nails bit into the skin of his palm.
She stared at him, with emotionless eyes once again.
"I see, now. Power. That's what you want, isn't it? You have someone you want to protect."
It was like a bucket of cold water had been poured over Lelouch's head.
"Yes— indeed, if I had such power. Is that what you gave me?"
"I gave you the power of a king. Whether that can bring someone back from the dead, or save someone from dying- well."
"You had a choice?"
"I don't know."
She was being genuine. Or it appeared she was being genuine.
"No- I suppose you wouldn't."
Lelouch let himself rest a hand over his face. This was going nowhere, and every moment he wasted was a portion of the miles he needed to travel back home.
Something in his eye flared. Even though it had failed him before- right now, he wasn't wearing a helmet, and he had never attempted to use his power on the one who gifted him it.
He turned once again to this girl called C-Two.
"Well, then I command you- tell me everything. Answer my every question."
A pause, full of anticipation and meaning.
She blinked and cocked her head to the side.
"I'd rather not. Maybe later."
She turned over onto her side and closed her eyes.
AN: And so the prologue and opening is complete. Took long enough, but I'm glad to be done with it.
The chapter was difficult to get right. I've done my best to capture the fog of war, from fiction, personal experience, and the testimony of others. Yes, it's supposed to be confusing and disjointed, where Lelouch is partly just along for the ride, but still injecting his own brand of tactical chaos into the mix. Rolling in Tohsaka was a bit of a concession to reviewers who wanted more of a blend of Fate and Geass; I actually intended to maintain separation of the two until a little later. However, it just felt right for Tohsaka to be involved. I hope I made the right decision- it's definitely thrown things a little off the beaten path. (the healing bit isn't from the Nasuverse, really- it's my interpretation of Rin's healing capabilities.)
However, White Phosphorous is nasty. Don't get caught in it.
Some readers might notice that Suzaku is, for the most part, playing in the bog-standard good male protagonist. This is intentional. He is supposed to be boring as read right now, the reasons for which will be explained later on. Don't worry, he's no Shirou clone (oddly enough, though, the F/SN visual novel did come out before the pilot of Code Geass R1 …).
If there's any remaining confusion on the events of the chase, let me know in a review. I hope the explanation from Lelouch would be enough, but I understand that this sort of delayed explanation can be difficult to follow. All critique is welcome, and it'll help me improve.
Now, some bad news. The next update will likely be delayed for a while- I've run into some fraud problems, and it's taking a stupid amount of time to resolve it. I want to say that an update might come in two month's time, but that might be ambitious. We will see.
Thanks for reading through these chapters, and I'm looking forward to your review of my most recent chapters. Critique and compliments are always welcome!