Thanks to DarkJackel for his patience and assistance with editing for this chapter. And thank you to the rest of you for sticking around.
It seemed there was a popular notion held by the masses that insanity and genius were two sides of the same coin. That, on any given day, the difference between the two would amount to nothing more than the success of a coin flip. If that were indeed the case, then Lelouch liked to think he held the ability cheat the odds. That he had the influence to reach out and change the outcome of any given situation with nothing more than his own ingenuity.
Of course, this had led to his sanity being called into question on several occasions, often by those closest to him. The unfortunate reality was that they had also been right to do so, most of the time. He'd had one too many passionate outbursts for his own liking, though even those were preferable to the depressive stupor he'd fallen victim to after the fabricated death of his sister.
Which was why when he glanced at a discarded beer bottle and saw the reflection of an insane man, he felt a very strong sense of distaste.
With a mop of silver locks and crazed red eyes set into a permanent glare, Freed Sellzen was the very poster boy for madness. And if the stories he'd heard from Kiba and the Church were true, the deceased exorcist had tried his hand at being one for lechery too.
The Glamour had been the most taxing piece of spellwork he'd attempted yet, leaving him completely drained and unsteady on his feet. But it had been successful, and it left his face a perfect replica of Freed's. It was fragile, and it would only last a handful of hours, but that was all he needed.
If he had any misgivings at all, it would be for the fact that the magical illusion didn't account for height. He was a full head taller than Freed had been. He'd partially accounted for it with a slouch, but trusted his own ability to play it off if the discrepancy was mentioned. Humans were gullible creatures by nature.
The musty corridor he walked down was littered with trash and refuse, the leavings of squatters and bored teenagers on a dare. Dust coated every surface, and his footsteps stirred up small clouds of it in his wake. Some settled at the hem of his longcoat. It was modelled after Freed's, naturally, with added bloodstains for good measure. Far from perfect, as it was only from memory, but people tended to overlook the small details in favour of what they expected to see.
Eyes and whispers followed him from the rooms to either side as he made his way down. Galilei's band of strays. None of them saw fit to call out to him. Perhaps they were intimidated. Doing a mental headcount, he noticed there were a handful less of them. Curious. His surveillance hadn't caught any leaving the building, before he entered.
His destination was at the far-right end of the corridor. A white, slightly ajar door, the paint faded and scratched. Striding forward and pushing it open, he shifted his voice up half a pitch as he spoke.
"I need a new sword." Too steady. He continued, making his tone more aggressive, more nasal. "And I need it by tonight. Those devils aren't going to kill themselves." Pausing slightly, he gave his best approximation of a feral grin. "Though that would be a fucking hilarious sight to watch."
The only occupant of the room gave a slight jump in his chair at the intrusion, causing it to creak. It was one of the only furnishings in the otherwise sparse room, likely left behind by a former tenant.
He managed to make out sheafs of paper covered in scrawlings on a rickety desk before the rotund man turned to face him, giving him his first look at Valper Galilei.
It appeared that being a fugitive had not been kind to the disgraced cleric. Dishevelled and wild-eyed, grey hair and unflattering wrinkles placed him on the wrong side of middle-aged. The look was paired with a condescending scowl, the kind only men who thought too much of themselves wore. Perhaps he could have pulled it off, if the stained robes and round spectacles didn't make it seem petty.
Altogether, the man reminded him of a fat, self-important mouse.
"Freed," said Valper. "I thought you were dead."
"Do I look dead?" he sneered.
He stepped further into the room, surreptitiously looking for signs of the stolen swords as he did so. He spotted a pair immediately, placed reverentially atop a white sheet that covered a bench on the far side of the room. Just from a glance he could tell they were unmistakeably the Excaliburs.
"No," said Valper, peering at him, "in fact, you look like you're in perfect health. Where have you been this whole time?"
Suspicion? No, there was a hint of resentment in the man's voice. It seemed as if Freed's absence had been sorely missed.
"Having a little fun. There are so many sinners in this town Father," he said with false innocence. "I thought I'd show them the error of their ways."
Playing the part of Freed required little imagination on his part. He simply conjured up his memories of the mind reader Mao, and gave them a more bloodthirsty twist. Ironically, insanity was predictable.
Valper looked unimpressed. "We don't have the time for your games, Freed. Or have you forgotten what's at stake here?"
He rolled his eyes. "I'm here now, aren't I?"
"And… the Fallen you were with? What about them?" asked Valper hesitantly.
Interesting. He's afraid. Of them? Or something else?
He gave his best rendition of a snicker. "Not so lucky. Oh, the looks on their faces."
Not that he'd seen them, but he'd heard the quartet of Fallen hadn't died with much dignity. The news of their demise didn't seem to affect Valper. The man simply began to pace back and forth in the confines of the room, muttering to himself.
Leaving Valper in his own little world, he leisurely stepped over to the swords. They were still in their scabbards, which were pristine works of craftmanship in and of themselves. The regal gold and brown colouring promised of further magnificence within.
The Church had wanted him to wait for their agent. They expected that he wouldn't be able to handle the task of retrieving the swords alone. Or, if they did, they didn't trust him enough to. That was fine. All the more surprise for when he had them ready for their exorcist's arrival.
He wasn't naïve enough to think he could win their complete trust. But he could elevate himself to a position where it would be impossible for them to refuse his requests.
He certainly wasn't fool enough to reveal himself to their exorcist in person, costumed or otherwise. As when dealing with Geass users, supernatural combatants were best dealt with indirectly. At least until he had a way to guarantee his safety.
Tonight was an exception, due to his extensive preparation and certainty that Valper didn't have a shred of power beyond that of the average human. He could have done this without coming in person. It was possible, with his resources at hand. But this method relied only on himself, and so it had been the one he'd chosen.
That was not to say he didn't have contingencies. He preferred to be self-reliant, but not stupidly so.
Returning his attention to the swords, he made out names inscribed upon the sheaths in gold inlay. Some foreign, archaic language no doubt.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" spoke Valper from behind him. "Among the finest works He has ever had a hand in, even in its fractured state. Responsible for the lives and deaths of thousands. A blade that has razed cities to the ground. Brought demons to their knees. Elevated the meek to become kings. And the sheep would prefer to let it rot in a vault, fractured, and gathering dust. Pathetic."
"Spare me the lecture old man," he said, brushing Valper off. "If I can't go hunting with them, they're worthless to me."
The news from the Church that the Excaliburs rejected most hands had made matters slightly more difficult, but not overly so. After all, the swords weren't the ones he had to trick.
"I've already made it so that you can use them," said Valper, voice hiding a note of irritation. "Here. You'll need these."
The man held out a palm, showing him four translucent crystals. Evenly cut, coloured somewhere between clear and white, they were each roughly the size of an apple core. A soft light emanated from them, growing stronger as Valper stepped towards him and the swords.
"Crystallised light attribute," Valper explained. "One needs a certain amount in their body to be able to wield an Excalibur. Any Holy Sword, to be exact. These four are some of my most potent. You'd be hard-pressed to find innocence purer than that of a child's, after all. Unfortunately, these have also rejected the other hosts rather… violently. But if it's you…"
Ah, so that was why there had been a few missing among the strays. Now, how to avoid meeting the same fate? It would draw too much suspicion if he were to make an excuse and leave. He grabbed one and began to play with it, tossing it up and down, between either hand. Weighing his options. The fact it was most likely a child's soul he was playing with could be dealt with later.
Coming to a decision, he caught the crystal and pocketed it.
"Is this going to take long?" he asked Valper, faking annoyance. "I've got places to be, you know. Devils to kill."
"Not long," Valper assured. "It only consists of a short chant of my making. Here, I have it written down." The man turned back to his desk, rustling through papers in search.
It provided him the perfect opportunity to incant the words he'd studied in preparation, charging them with his meagre magical energy. Halfway through the spell they began to take a life of their own, practically rolling off his tongue of their own volition. He finished, emphasising the last syllable, and the world drained of all sound.
Losing an entire sense was disconcerting. A permanent fixture in one's life, able to be snatched away in an instant by the whim of any eager fool who fancied himself a magician. It made every step forward in this world that much more of a risk.
On cue, the wave of fatigue that came with every magical exertion crashed into him, and he bit down the inside of his cheek to stay alert. The metallic taste of blood seeped into his mouth as he pulled a pistol from the folds of his clothing and promptly shot Valper Galilei in the back. Twice.
The pudgy cleric had been in the middle of turning around, alarmed at the sudden incantation. Stumbling as the shots hit him, he slammed against the desk and soundlessly collapsed onto the ground, sending papers drifting haphazardly to land in a growing pool of red.
He briefly wondered what would happen to the former holy man, now that he was aware of an afterlife, of sorts. Valper's crimes would ensure no place in Heaven, and he didn't particularly think Hell would want the man either. Perhaps the man's soul would simply be consigned to oblivion. A pondering for another day.
After a moment's consideration, he stepped forward and nimbly retrieved the three remaining crystals from where they'd fallen, before the slow spreading blood touched them. He pocketed them with the one he'd taken earlier. They might eventually have some use.
Valper's hand weakly grasped at his leg, and the dying man's mouth formed silent words. The spell negated all sound within a small area. It would run its course and dissipate after a few minutes longer. He didn't have the strength left to dismiss it, nor a reason to.
Stowing away his firearm, he strode over to the Excaliburs, pulling one slightly out of its sheath to check his reflection against the blade. Freed still stared back at him, only the glare had made way for a dispassionate gaze. There was no longer a need to maintain appearances.
Taking his first good look at the sword itself, he gained some insight into Valper's obsession with them. He'd seen decorative blades worn by the Britannian elite at high society functions, but these were altogether different. They were beautiful in that they were meant to be wielded, and wielded with purpose.
His hand on the hilt began to go numb, and he sheathed the blade lest he drop it.
Taking both Excaliburs under an arm, he made for the door. As soon as he stepped out and closed it behind him, the bubble of silence popped, and his hearing returned. Quickened breathing, a faster heartbeat, both his own. A sudden wave of vertigo surprised him, and he fought to keep walking.
Symptoms of magical exhaustion, not any sense of remorse for the corpse in the room he had just left. Valper Galilei was far from the least deserving person out of all those he'd killed. It was a shame it had come to this though. If the Church managed to get a hold of the body, it would detract from the air of mystery he'd cultivated for 'Zero'. Bullet wounds seemed too mundane for a magician's modus operandi.
He'd also have to take measures against Sona and Rias discovering the body. He doubted either of them knew Valper was even in town, let alone who the cleric was, but it was best to play it safe. He'd arrange to have the building burnt down in a few hours. The other strays would have discovered the corpse by then, and with no reason to stay they would scatter to the four winds.
He was most of the way down the hall when he noticed… nothing. No sign of the strays. Where had they gone? An ambush?
"I needed him alive you know," spoke a voice from behind him.
Fighting the urge to whirl around, he slowly turned. He was greeted with the sight of a young man rounding the corner at the opposite end of the hall. The stranger was dressed in a black leather jacket and burgundy jeans. A looped silver chain hung from one side of them, matching the colour of a wild head of hair.
Whoever this man was, he had the ability to take out a dozen men of above-average strength in the span of a short conversation. Hopefully this wouldn't devolve into a situation more troublesome than it already was.
"Yes, well," he said smoothly, in his own voice, "it just so happened that at that moment, I needed him dead."
"And in doing so," said the stranger, "you've just made my job that much more of a pain in the ass."
"My condolences," he apologised, meaning it. "I don't suppose there would be anything I could do to compensate?"
"I think you owe me a few answers, at the very least. Are you going to drop the disguise?"
The stranger's hazel eyes bored into him with a rare intensity. He was reminded of a predatory beast.
"I'll keep it, if it's all the same to you. So, answers, you mentioned? Looking for something?"
It would be exceedingly unfortunate if the silver-haired man was after the Excaliburs. Having to hand them over would be a major setback for his goals.
The stranger frowned slightly at his refusal to reveal who he was, but didn't press the issue. "Someone," the stranger corrected, "Seeing as I now have to leave this town by morning, I'd like to have a lead on my next destination."
"Their leader?" he guessed, gesturing vaguely around him. He'd heard mention of orders during his surveillance of the strays, but no direct mention of a name. "Despite appearances, I have no connection to these men. Tonight is my first and last time dealing with them."
The stranger stared at him, searching for any sign of a lie. Several seconds passed, and the stare broke into a scowl. "The name 'Kokabiel' wouldn't mean anything to you then?"
"Not a thing," he replied.
"I guess that's that," the stranger said.
"I suppose so," came his response. Living proof that reasonable people exist in the world, he thought dryly.
A stray thought crossed his mind, connecting fragments of information and forming conclusions. By all accounts he should let the stranger leave and be done with it, but something caused him to call out anyway. Gratitude, maybe.
"This… Kokabiel." he said, testing the name. "He instructed these men to steal these." He indicated the swords under his arm. "I trust you know what they are?"
He took the silent stare from the stranger as affirmation.
"And yet," he continued, "he hasn't returned to collect them. He also hasn't provided further instruction to his subordinates. If my surveillance was as comprehensive as I'd intended – and it was – then these vagabonds have had no point of contact with any outside sources, let alone a superior."
The stranger folded his arms, patiently waiting for him to finish. It was only conjecture, not necessarily correct. The simplest explanation from the evidence available, and nothing more.
"These blades also happen to be two of a set of seven," he explained. "Important. Valuable. Extremely difficult to steal. But not impossibly so. Just enough… to draw attention."
The Church was partially treating this as somewhat of an embarrassment. A blunder to be hidden from the other factions. However, if they truly wanted to keep it a secret, there were far better methods than to send in members of the rank-and-file, one by one. It was almost as if they were doing it to maintain an image of plausible deniability. As if they had something else to hide.
"So, if I were this Kokabiel," he elaborated, "I would gather a handful of useful, but expendable underlings. Instruct them to carry out orders of seemingly great importance. Then, regardless of their success… use the ensuing distraction to pursue my true goals."
The stranger's eyes narrowed at the emphasised word. A lesser man may have been intimidated.
"Whatever those goals may be, I could only guess," he finished. "Would that be enough of a lead for you?"
The faintest traces of an anticipatory grin had touched the edges of the stranger's mouth, and when it opened to speak, he half-expected to see pointed teeth.
"I think I may have an idea."
"Then I wish you luck," came his response. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have elsewhere to be."
"One more question," spoke the stranger, eyeing him appraisingly. "Would I be right in saying you don't have a Sacred Gear?"
"And whatever would cause you to come to that conclusion?" he asked warily.
"You're weak." The simple words had been uttered as if they were the most obvious thing in the world.
He elected not to give the statement a response. It hadn't been the kind that invited one.
"Vali," said the stranger. "See ya."
It took him several moments to place the word as a name, and that was all it took for Vali to leave, rounding the corner he'd come from and disappearing from view.
Adjusting his grip on the Excaliburs, he turned and made his own exit. He didn't truly let down his guard until he was several minutes away, allowing the Glamour to fade out of existence. Silver hair for raven. Red eyes for violet.
Tonight's events had proceeded far too well. Or was it that he'd become far too used to misfortune to expect a favourable outcome? Either way, Valper's death marked the true beginning of his endeavours. His goals were now set in stone. All he required now was the strength to achieve them.
Of immediate importance, the Church's exorcist, Issei Hyoudou, Sona Sitri, Rias Gremory. Above them, Vasco Strada, Sirzechs Lucifer, Ajuka Beelzebub. For later consideration, Azazel, Serafall, Kokabiel. Vali too, possibly. Pieces in the game, or players like he?
There were a few hours yet until the break of dawn. He'd use them for some much-needed rest, suspecting he'd need it. He'd been invited to the Hyoudou household for breakfast, and subsequently party preparations. They were going to welcome the exchange student, and he had a strong feeling said student would be an exorcist. He was still unsure of the Church's intentions in that regard. Surely they knew?
If matters got out of hand, at least he'd be there to mediate.