Author's note: Coincides with Reinst's glare in 123.
Chapter 2: Duel
Reinst warned her guest. The warnings escalated from flashbacks to direct appeals and then name-calling, increasingly desperate to shake Lyra out of her stupor.
To no avail.
Finally, Reinst issued a challenge that Lyra would have to face head-on. She had much to answer for.
"Have it your way."
Miseria gurgled in satisfaction as she anticipated Reinst's next move. The darkness within the girl's heart was growing at an impressive rate, but she was too preoccupied with Lyra's clueless meandering to care about herself. Without meaning to, Reinst gradually chipped away the barrier that separated her existence from the void. To Miseria, Lyra was a literal Godsend.
She would therefore do everything in her power to keep Lyra inside her domain now that the girl's effect on Reinst's state of mind became apparent. The anger, the outrage, the hate–Reinst was already exhibiting traits of a worthy retainer and Miseria was yet to actively manipulate her.
Lyra would be the catalyst to uncovering Reinst's potential…for evil!
The lightless space the two girls were suspended in started forming a concrete shape suitable for Reinst's intentions. Miseria decided to give her most promising pawn an outlet, for which she would invariably receive the pawn's fealty. The stage for her sacrifice was set. An arena made of crystallized dark element.
Feeling a firm surface beneath her feet for the first time in years, Reinst resisted thanking Miseria for following her implied wish. With how Lyra was now, Reinst found no better way to settle their differences and move on. Swords would talk where words failed.
Lyra seemed confused by everything happening around her. She was yet to realize the gravity of her predicament: tricked into entering Miseria's domain and pitted against her past self, who was together with the evil goddess for reasons unknown. The sword that materialized in front of Lyra dispelled some of the confusion while the sight of Reinst aggressively approaching her undid the rest.
"Reinst? Why are you…" Lyra began and instinctively lunged towards the sword. Reinst's killing intent was real, transmitted with more ferocity than anything she has ever encountered since rebirth. No bandit or monster compared with the pressure coming from Reinst. Such was the power of grief that has found an outlet after years of containment.
In the desolation of Miseria's domain, nothing stood as pronounced as the negativity emanating from Reinst. Unbeknownst to Lyra, her opponent was also blessed with the home field advantage whilst her status as a visitor, incompatible with the void, worked against her. The more Reinst focused on Lyra, the more power Miseria could channel into their adversity. A pawn weakened by a daunting battle was an obedient pawn and Miseria was always on the lookout for new followers.
Lyra fit the bill perfectly. After Reinst thoroughly broke her to pieces, not even Aion's blessing would be able to protect her existence from Miseria's corruption. What a delectable dish she was served! Miseria could barely contain herself from forcing the girls' fall into oblivion.
Such an act would go afoul with the rules, however. She desired consent to prevent the other gods from contesting her claim. Swallowing up Reinst was a matter of time, so her sights were now set on Lyra, who foolishly stumbled into her grasp.
The battle commenced with Reinst immediately homing on her target without giving Lyra a chance to plan ahead. They had been placed on a seemingly infinite plane devoid of life, where the only discernible light came from Lyra's existence. Her body's faint glow reflected from the harsh yet level crystalline surface, the silhouette of Reinst becoming clearer as she moved.
Lyra surmised that something was eerily wrong when she looked at the attacker's figure. The surroundings were darker around Reinst, as if her existence was anathema to the light. The most unnatural part of Reinst were her eyes, abyssal vortices that Lyra could pinpoint only through the feeling of dread they exuded rather than any sort of reflection.
Reinst was sick, and it was not a sickness of the body. Lyra gulped at the prospect of having to face her past self, distorted to such an extent.
"Fight me!" Reinst roared as she charged. The sword of unknown material that she held made a grating sound once it slashed into the arena's surface. The explosive impact blew a hole in the plane and sent a shockwave towards Lyra. "Fight me, coward! Your future depends on it!"
It was not enough to make her lose her foothold, but Reinst still managed to shake her internally. If Lyra had taken the blow without defending, her life would have been forfeit. To make matters worse, the clearly telegraphed attack was just another warning. Lyra had to get serious to get through this fight in one piece. Victory looked like a distant dream.
"Why? Why, Reinst?"
Lyra retreated as she tried to gather her thoughts. The sword in her hand and the force of her opponent's attack made it apparent that a death battle was inevitable, but the sinister darkness observing them was going to reap the most benefits regardless of who won. Lyra felt that the moment she gave up on a peaceful resolution she would fall into its trap together with Reinst. For now, she would maintain distance from Reinst and look for an opening to talk things over.
Reinst was quick to deny the possibility of that happening, though. With an air slash that anticipated Lyra's retreat, Reinst showed her determination in the form of a strand of blue hair fluttering where Lyra had been a second ago. Reinst sliced it off Lyra cleanly because she retreated, not in spite of it. This was her final warning.
"Talk is cheap. Is that all you amount to, little sister? Pitiful!" Reinst closed the distance to her opponent and swung again, but the sword did not connect because Lyra evaded it. "You are disgrace to our family." She slashed at her feet, prompting her to jump. "Your birth was a mistake." A swing at Lyra's head had her ducking and withdrawing further back.
Reinst was fed up with this half-hearted game of cat and mouse. At this rate, Miseria would be the sole winner in their disgraceful battle and Reinst had to avoid such an outcome at all costs. She sneered at her ignorant opponent.
"So why don't you fall on your sword and let me take over? I'll right your wrongs one by one."
For the first time, Lyra's sword connected with Reinst's. She chose to stand her ground and defend instead of retreating. "Y-you take that back!"
Lyra trembled like a doe after receiving the blow, still unsure about the path forward. The pathetic display incensed Reinst, but she now understood what to do to steer her future self. Reinst had to hit her where it hurt the most.
"Make me, you coddled wuss." The next attack came strongly enough to break any delusions Lyra had about avoiding the duel proper. The swords disengaged with a loud clang and Reinst, being the bigger of the two, used her momentum to knock Lyra down. "Can't? Too bad! I will take your life for myself. Your friends, your family–all of it will be mine. Because I know how to cherish what I have."
Words like daggers, sharpened to perfection, sliced deep into Lyra's conscience and released their poisonous taint. Reinst reminded Lyra of every mistake she committed during both lifetimes. Lyra was yet to face her lies, regrets, even her past. And now that past was confronting her with a sword in hand, giving her the option to switch roles. The past would fix the future while the present would fall into obscurity.
This was not a good moment for self-reflection, however. Reinst thrust her sword at Lyra's prone form and didn't stop her attack until fresh crimson washed doubt off of Lyra's expression.
"I who had NOTHING!"
Lyra felt a chill from an otherworldly force changing the tone of Reinst's voice. Fear flowed in while blood dripped out from the open wound. The void consumed every drop that formed, not letting it reach the arena floor.
Reinst did not offer her a real trade. If Lyra fell here, there would be no getting back up. Her existence would be devoured by the void rather than obtain peace through death. She instinctively knew that she had to prevent this outcome at all costs. The strength of her conviction added to the dread of being trapped here.
"While you can sit here and have your mind crumble from her corruption," Reinst taunted, her face and voice contorting more with each insult. Just as she seemed to have left an opening for Lyra and looked up into the nothingness above, the words she said weakened Lyra's grip on her sword: "Did you hear that, goddess? I know who you are and so does she!"
The quiet utterance warped the light surrounding Lyra. Space distorted as the darkness itself put pressure on her, all because of a name. She quickly realized that Reinst had more than one reason to keep Lyra focused on her instead of the malice permeating everything around them.
Once addressed, the malice made itself known. "That's right, child! Do your best as my sacrifice. I am rooting for you!" A physical tremor rather than a sound, Miseria communicated her intent to Lyra. Ears or eyes were unnecessary to grasp what was being told. It was physically impossible to avoid receiving the message.
Reinst spent the years since they separated in nothingness governed by such an abomination. Lyra was yet to conceive what she had to go through for their meeting to be possible in its current form, but she understood that she had to honor Reinst's will. Reinst wanted to settle their differences and Lyra would oblige. Miseria had no place in their discussion.
"So that's how it is." Lyra stood up while avoiding Reinst's pointed sword and gave her a small bow. Then, she assumed the old Duke's stance. "Reinst Carnatia Grabberton, I'm sorry for not taking you seriously until now. I, Alrescha Lyra Hartmann, will show you my resolve and free you from this madness!"
The void cackled at her forced display of bravery. "Stupid child. Reinst is free." Reinst lowered her sword to the ground as she shambled towards Lyra, the noise of the sword accompanying every jerking movement.
Something sinister was happening to Reinst, and Lyra had to look no further than the vortices in her eyes to confirm the worst. An incomprehensible symbol of two curves connecting at the base was etched in the middle. One glimpse was enough for Lyra to turn away, in pain akin to having stared at the sun for too long, a wicked inverted sun.
"While you are trapped like a rat. Prepare to die, fragment," Reinst's jaw moved, but it was the void that spoke. She raised the sword and pointed its full length at Lyra, who had to cower from the glare she received.
"I was born prepared!"
Lyra lunged at Reinst before she could make a move. She relied on her speed and size to avoid Reinst's powerful swings while pressing her past self to make a mistake in defending. Reinst's current state of mind aside, Lyra had to overcome the Grabberton defense to get even with her by landing a hit.
"And I won't lose!"
Reinst failed to parry, briefly losing balance from the surprise attack.
"Not to a leech feeding on my past."
Rather than look for a way to avoid getting wounded, Reinst withstood the impact of the sword cutting into her side and used that as support to regain her foothold. This unnaturally reckless behavior made the wound deeper, but the shock from the sight still forced Lyra to withdraw. Reinst stared at her quietly, aware that Lyra couldn't look into her eyes now, and smiled.
It was the smile of a proud noble, one that made Lyra shudder at the dissonance.
Reinst exploited this lapse in Lyra's focus to get within striking distance. The swiftness of her movements showed that she ignored the pain whilst her sword slashed at Lyra from a gravity-defying angle. Reinst did not aim to strike Lyra down, however. The sword jabbed at Lyra's extremities just enough to weaken her resolve without disabling her ability to fight.
As more gashes dotted Lyra's body, she returned to a defensive stance. Reinst's bloodlust, her fear-inducing stare and swordplay that seemed to predict her opponent's every move weighed heavily on Lyra's mind. Lyra had given her the initiative and had no means of taking it back.
With a telegraphed heavy attack, Reinst thrust her sword at Lyra and was blocked. Lyra's breathing was ragged from the toll the fight has taken on her, but she still had the strength to face her opponent and try to push her away.
"I loathe you, fragment," Reinst taunted her as she added more strength to her sword. Metal ground against metal in their standoff, neither taking the risk to lose sight of the other's sword. "Give up and make me whole." Reinst applied more pressure to force Lyra to yield, unsuccessfully. "The life you have taken. The life you are wasting." With a push as fierce as her words, she undid Lyra's balance and prepared for the decisive swing. "Is mine!"
By the time Reinst raised the momentum to attack Lyra, she was no longer within striking range. A dull sensation spreading in every direction from Reinst's back was the first hint she got about what has happened. The blood that soon filled her throat confirmed her suspicion: despite dueling her seriously, Lyra had been trying to avoid securing victory through taking her life. In the end, Reinst succeeded in convincing her that she had no choice in the matter.
Half-measures and compromises backfired when it mattered the most. When it was a matter of life and death.
"I'm sorry, Reinst. I'm already in love with my life. It's time to break the chain binding us."
Lyra pulled out the sword that had pierced Reinst back to front. The amount of blood pouring from the gap proved the wound was fatal. Though, it prevented Reinst neither from standing upright nor speaking.
"Without me, you are-"
"A cowardly fool, I know."
Reinst chuckled at the admission and turned to face Lyra. The girl instantly cowered from her glare, unlike a victor would do. With Lyra yielding the initiative to a mortally wounded opponent who somehow managed to keep threatening her, she realized that she had been duped.
The farce ended when Lyra's sword emitted a dark aura akin to the one surrounding Reinst. The darkness scorched Lyra's hand and made her cry out from the pain, throwing the weapon away. What used to be a sword then melted into shapeless darkness and crept into the gap in Reinst's body. The bleeding stopped, her wounds disappeared and Reinst wasn't showing any sign of fatigue or wariness of her opponent's strength.
"A stupid fool. Using a weapon given by her."