Adeste Fideles

Chisel departed the day after their attack. The rest of the guild was to head west, while he was to continue north to Arie.

"I hope we'll see each other again…"

"We will," Chisel interjected, somewhat sternly. He was adamantly ignoring the sheer lunacy of the plans of both infiltrating Glast Heim and the Clock Tower, and was most furiously convinced that they were all going to be just fine. "Seriously, Taiken, count on it. You're not scared, surely."

"No, I prefer to remain completely insane, it makes things easier," Taiken replied, grinning. He wasn't looking forward to Glast Heim. "You be careful," he added; he also didn't like the idea of Chisel going that far north by himself, with a destination like the Clock Tower.

"You too. And the rest of you, too. Except Oshi, he'll be looking after everyone I expect."

Oshi smiled wryly, and made no contradiction.

Chisel laughed. "Thanks for the map, Kyo," he said, tipping his cap. She nodded and made a small noise in reply. He gave another jaunty laugh. "Da-aw, I love you guys," he said in a very silly voice.

"Our love will last forever!" Taiken declared extravagantly. He didn't want to part with Chisel, potentially forever, in any other way but a silly one.

It just wouldn't be right otherwise.

They parted ways slowly; Taiken almost felt heavier as they embarked on their separate routes. He wanted Ruriko to go to him for hugs, but she instead huddled to Draco at the back of the group. Hawk took this for a swap, and so jogged forward to join Taiken.

"No, not you! I wanted hugs from Ruri-wuri!" Taiken whined.

Hawk did a bit of a double take. "Hello, Taiken," he said after a bewildered pause.

"Fine," Taiken huffed, "I'll let you stay only if I can call you Hawky-poo."

"Taiken, do you like having arrows sticking out of various places in your head?"

"I've never tried it, Hawky-poo."

"Well, I'm seeing a lot of arrows and your head mixed together in your future is all…"

Hawk seemed to be in need of cheering after the… incident. Of course, the only way to go about this was to wind him up as much as possible.

"I love you, Hawky-poo!" Taiken declared suddenly, throwing his arms around the hunter's waist.

"I promise I will kill you one day, Taiken."

The strategy seemed to work, and the bard did get a glimpse into the influence Kyo the Nice Dancer Girl Who Took a Lot of Looking After was having on him.

"It's very unfair," Hawk said wearily. "You can call me Hawky-poo, but there's nothing can be done with 'Taiken'. Taikeny-waikeny just doesn't work, or even Taikeny on its own…"

"Please! Call me 'honey'!"

It was another day's walking or so to Juno, and as their destination drew nearer Taiken found he needed to try and calm himself somewhat. Irritating Hawk was a tried, tested and most faithful relaxation technique.

He had always found the Juno Academy of Magic very daunting, and he would rather avoid the place. He had been sent there when he was young, and while he displayed a vague knack for the art, he had no interest in learning magic. Telling Orius this had not been a pleasant task, and the memory still irked him. Orius remained courteous and kind as ever he was, although Taiken found spending time with him to be quite awkward, being that he was, officially, a dropout. It did feel like he'd let Orius down, and he wasn't sure just how acutely he'd offended the old headmaster.

So he let Ruriko do the talking, unless he was called upon to say something.

"What do you think, Taiken? Won't you decide?"

He looked to Ruriko, then to the professor applying to go with them to Glast Heim. Unfortunately, an earlier instance had served as fairly compelling evidence that this particular woman was related to Orius by blood.

"You fight with Rodusha cards mainly, right?" he asked her carefully. She nodded. "So you're pretty adept at enchanting objects with whole spells as opposed to elements?" Another nod. "So you can un-enchant objects as well?"

"I can indeed." She inclined her head and smiled somewhat dubiously. "May I ask to what these questions tend?"

"Ah, you may," he replied jauntily. "We're going to steal the scriptures of Nebilim, and we may need someone to dispel any enchantments on it, and I suspect you're more sensible of such enchantments than Ruriko…"

"Glad to see you've retained some of what you learned," Orius said with jovial sincerity, ruffling Taiken's hair as he passed. "Well, Arche? Do you really think you're up to this?"

"You're really planning on stealing the most prized possession of the dark priests'?" Arche asked.

Taiken frowned. "Well, not necessarily steal, but I have high hopes of it being a most interesting read."

"If we can take it out of Glast Heim, we shall," Draco added.

"But it'll be up to you and Ruriko to see if we can."

Arche nodded, rubbing her eyes behind her glasses. "I'll do it."

"So where did you draw the conclusion that you need to know the contents of the forbidden book of darkness?" Orius asked sceptically.

"Chisel said the dark priests must have the best understanding of the nature of Midgard." It was Ruriko's turn to talk again. She read out the extract Kyo had supplied them, and it was greeted by a slightly bemused silence.

"Okay," Orius said slowly. He paused. "Where did you hear that? Is it accurate?"

Though a large part of their coming to Juno was to acquaint Orius with Kyo and her "strange soul", they hadn't yet pointed her out, or indeed done anything to make them notice her. Orius and Arche had in fact been very careful to not look at her.

Ruriko pointed to the girl now, and her senior sages turned their gaze towards her. They suddenly looked very sceptical; their expressions were hard to read.

Kyo's cheeks went very red under this level of scrutiny. "Ah, well… someone read it out to me when I was young. That's the only part I've heard."

"Who was it? And why?"

This hit a nerve. Kyo's agitation heightened visibly over her features. She stared between the two strangers fearfully and swallowed. After a couple of attempts at speech, her voice did sound, though faintly: "I, um… forgive me, I…"

"Let's not make her say it if she doesn't want to," Oshi suddenly broke in.

"Alright," Orius agreed with a nod. He seemed a little surprised at Kyo's sensitivity.

"They're interested in her, the dark priests," Taiken supplied, looking to Ruriko to take up the new thread of discussion.

"Yeah, we got really attacked," she grumbled. "They must have masked their trail, I didn't sense any other human presence besides ourselves. The necromancer waited until he had to summon his avatar."

"How many were there?"

"The necromancer and two dark priests. Chisel and I managed to keep the avatar busy, but that wasn't just an average necromancer, that avatar was really strong. And how did you two do against the others? They had something going…"

Draco looked sidelong at her. "Surviving," she said simply.

"It was a bit of a stalemate, although I think they would have outlasted us."

"Really?" Ruriko bit her lip. "What about you two and the necromancer?" she asked eventually.

"My foresight wasn't working," Kyo said quietly. Arche was knelt in front of her while she wiped her eyes with a handkerchief. Hawk was holding one of her hands.

"He was a good combatant," he said. "I'm glad he wasn't armed when I attacked him."

"Yes, I couldn't beat him. He was far too strong."

"We need to find out who he is," Draco said suddenly. "If only we could've seen his face…"

"After being attacked like that, I would've thought your plans to go to Glast Heim would be somewhat dampened?" Arche cut in.

"Oh, we're not exactly encouraged," Taiken replied with a shrug, "but we must go there, certainly. And it isn't so bad; Hester's coming with us."

Arche turned with Who is Hester? written across her face.

"Canth's sister," Orius explained shortly. This apparently made sense to her, and she turned back to Kyo. "Another claim on your interest: we do indeed have some records of previous excavations, and a general trend throughout them is that their magic users particularly had a lot of difficulty functioning there. Hunters couldn't work some of their arts, but those of magical-orientation in their functions encountered very trying difficulties of a peculiar kind."

-x-x-

"Something to do with their sensitivity," Arche mused, frowning.

They started early the next day. The school's abundant library had many stacks of paper regarding Glast Heim to be sifted through.

"Really?" She and Ruriko were the ones going through the library's material on Glast Heim, as a lot of it was in the Language of the Making.

Draco was just watching really; she found she was able to get away with napping, though the sages worked tirelessly. It wasn't as though she was doing much. The only reason she was up was so she could get Ruriko up, and she had to stay up to set a good example. The rest of the guild was enjoying a lie-in.

Bastards.

"Yes… I believe Uncle was trying to make a point about the Arien."

"Ah yeah; she's really sensitive."

"But how sensitive is really sensitive? It sounds as though we're going to hardly know what day it is, and if she's anymore sensitive than us then she's not going to be thinking straight." Ruriko didn't reply. "I don't think she's going to be master enough of herself in there to go. Oh, I think this part on this map is that part on that map…"

Part of the research involved assembling a kind of makeshift map. Some of the bolder ones labelled buildings with question marks. There was one that charted the layout of the city itself, in whole. But most of the diagrams were centred around the unfathomable castle. It took quite a while before they noticed that the place marked "Chivalry(?)" on one was in fact part of the castle as it was half-plotted on another.

"Actually, I wasn't sure about Kyo going anyway," Draco supplied quietly.

"But she was really good against Phreeoni and the thief bug!" Ruriko protested.

"Against those creatures, yes, she held her own. But she's not a combatant. I'm concerned that she said her foresight 'wasn't working'. It's always kicked in whenever she got into trouble before. And you said the dark priests were working some kind of enchantment in that fight that you couldn't figure out? … I think they can stop her foresight from working."

"Well…" Ruriko tried arguing again; but they still didn't know how the foresight worked. "But… it's so horrible to just leave her on her own…"

"But it would be even more horrible to drag her to Glast Heim where she can't defend herself. She'll understand when we explain."

"And you say the dark priests are after her? Then it may not be the best idea to take her to their base. Although I do wonder why they haven't come after her until now?"

"Yes, that's something that's been on my mind too… They should have picked up her trail when she left Arie. Hawk walked a week's journey without any disturbance after he found her."

And then she was safe the moment she entered the labyrinth. And the oridecon bands each guild member possessed weren't just for opening doors. Only Ruriko knew the full extent of the spells placed on them, but one thing known to all the guild was that it made them impossible to be scryed or tracked.

But they'd found a way of following her.

Although a thought that Draco had dwelt on more than once was that they didn't seem to expect her to be with others.

"I'm not sure why," she tried to Oshi (she was used to bouncing ideas off of him), "but I think they were expecting her to be alone."

He agreed. "I think you must be right," he replied with a nod. "Though it's not likely we would have won, their numbers didn't match ours; and the necromancer didn't summon his avatar until a fight began. Also, the way they tried to separate her from us – because their formation was planned with the belief that she would be on her own."

That at least was something in their favour. The necromancer had ordered their retreat because of the presence of Hawk, though most unfortunately, probably not because they thought him a threat.

Something not necessarily in their favour was the necromancer's knowing not only Hawk's real name, but his surname as well. Hawk was certainly more than a little perturbed.

Also, they were on the main route between Juno and Prontera – it wouldn't be difficult to deduce where they were gone, no matter how well the Heart of Ymir could mask anyone's trail.

"I think they must be in the church yard," Ruriko suggested. "At least I was expecting the church bit to really well plotted, but it isn't so."

"Yes, the chivalry's well done in comparison. But this is the Nightmare City, we must be prepared to face other evils besides the dark priests. Hey, look at this…" Arche proceeded to read out the document she was holding – though in the Language of the Making, which Draco didn't find especially helpful. Ruriko swerved around the table to read over the other's shoulder.

"Do you know what that one means?" Arche said, pointing to a place on the page. Ruriko peered closer, squinting slightly.

"Plagas," she said.

"You think so?" Arche seemed slightly surprised.

Ruriko nodded. "Yeah so, I mean, look…" Draco didn't pay much attention to next bit, as her sister proceeded to dive into an embarrassingly complicated explanation about how it looked like that rune and that other rune stuck together with a slight accenting of that rune and she'd seen one like it one other place and another similar to it a few other times…

Arche apparently followed. "Right, so… an undead sort of thing, not of flesh and blood, a creature of illusion… Hang on!" Draco jumped. "It's talking about a lytch."

"Then what was that bit about…?" More Language of the Making. She babbled it very quickly, Draco had no time to discern any familiar words.

The other sage bit in one cheek and frowned. "Well, I guess that's the point of his adding it in. If there's one place you'll find lytches, it'll be the Nightmare City, but lytches don't necessarily exist – so he's saying it looks like it could be a lytch, has all the signs… but it lacked something."

"Like what?" Draco asked.

"Like it didn't kill him. Lytches don't see see, not with eyes like we do. They do it purely on energy waves. Anything that had a soul wouldn't be able to hide itself from a lytch, and nor would it be able to run once the lytch found it."

"They sound like a bit of a problem; do they even exist?"

"They're mere talk, or so we hope. If they do exist, they'll be in Glast Heim. But this person seems to think that whatever he saw wasn't actually a lytch…"

"So what did he see? Does he describe it?"

Arche scanned the paragraph again. "… No," she decided. "He doesn't really know. He says it was immensely powerfully magic, and a creature of illusion…"

"Is it going to be a problem? Has it cropped up a lot?"

The sage gave an odd bewildered shrug. "This is the first real mention of it, as in going into detail, giving it the time of day, what have you… A few other things have said they sensed something 'of illusion', but none of them seem to have seen, or at least if they have they haven't made a big deal of it."

Draco grinned. "I like that," she said, stretching her arms. "A 'creature of illusion'…"

-x-x-

It made sense Kyo shouldn't go to Glast Heim. They were doing it for her own good, leaving her behind. She was too weak, it was as simple as that.

But what if they didn't come back? Where would she go? She'd be truly alone. She'd have to rely on strength she didn't have.

Ruriko had approached her about learning shadow magic. She'd been surprised about it certainly, and not especially happy about it. It definitely felt like she would be doing something wrong. Her mother had always been careful to keep Kyo away from the arts she'd been brought up in.

But she wanted to make herself useful. To do that, she needed power. She couldn't turn to holy magic, powers driven by faith – what she had was powers granted by greed.

She must've looked uneasy about it, as Hawk also came forward to talk to her about the issue.

"Are you sure you're alright about this? We won't force you if you don't want to…"

"I just don't know what to think about it," she replied with more certainty than she thought she had. "I mean, wouldn't it be… wrong?"

"Do you know where those blessings came from? Do you know how your mother gained them? Do you know what the rituals involved? Did you carry out the rituals?" He kept his gaze on her, and she had time to shake her head sheepishly between questions. And he was making his point: "It isn't your fault you have them. There's no shame in using them."

She didn't say anything. She couldn't think of an objection.

"Well, I would call what the dark priests are doing "bad", "evil", whatever floats your boat, wouldn't you? Killing people for power, killing innocent people. Somebody needs to stop them. And I know that if I had the potential to make a difference, I wouldn't ignore it."

She felt a little dumbfounded. She agreed with him.

"Taiken's always saying, 'I'd rather be in trouble for doing something than doing nothing'," Hawk continued. He grinned. "One of the things that makes him so awesome… Will you think about it?"

"No, I've decided," she replied quickly. "I'll… try. I'll try and learn it."

Ruriko applied to Orius for assistance with this endeavour.

Orius may have been Ruriko and Taiken's old teacher, but he was still a complete stranger.

"I imagine you'll be happier learning from Ruriko," he said slowly. "I can teach you the basics of spell casting, but I'm afraid my knowledge of shadow magic is somewhat limited. It's not a type of magic usually taught in institutions such as ours."

"Oh, I understand. Just learning the basics will be fine, thank you."

He smiled. "I'm aware of a few helpful passages in the library."

Draco and Ruriko were in the room at the time, and Draco began sniggering. Orius inquired with friendly patience what exactly was so amusing.

"That's typical mage practice," she articulated with a grin. "Very long reading lists."

The next day, the others departed for Glast Heim. They left quite early in the morning, as soon as it was light. They were a crowd that would draw a lot of unwanted attention, what with there being two well-known sages, and also high priestess Hester. The sky was pale gold, and Juno the white city emitted the same sweet glow.

The guild and their other companions assembled in front of the portal to the ground.

"Please be careful," Orius said for the hundredth time. "Stay together, make sure no one gets left on their own…"

Kyo wanted to say things like that as well, but she suddenly found she couldn't speak. She instead kept her head down and her hands clasped in front of her.

The more talkative of the God's Cry assured everyone they would be fine, and contrary to popular belief (according to Taiken), weren't that stupid. The sage Arche remained quiet, but Hester explained she would do her best to look after everyone.

Orius and the other professors whose names Kyo didn't know turned and departed solemnly back to the school. Taiken also chivvied everyone to the portal, in good spirits.

Except Hawk.

Taiken piped up. "Don't worry, Kyo," he proclaimed cheerily. "We'll come back." She knew rather than discerned that he didn't really believe those words. "Just do your best with your homework, alright?"

She thought it was funny he'd called her studies into shadow magic homework. She couldn't help a smile.

His objective accomplished, the bard disappeared through the portal with the others. Only Hawk remained.

He'd been very quiet. He'd kept his head down too. With everyone else gone, he walked up to her now.

She looked up at him to see him staring down at her sadly. She felt regret prickle her insides, and hugged him before he noticed any change in her facial expression. He hugged back without much delay.

They stayed like that for a while. Kyo realized she was going to miss this – his strong, calm presence, and being able to seek him out for comfort.

He pulled back slowly, keeping his hands on her shoulders. He gave her the same woeful look with his eyes, but his lips turned up in a smile.

"I'll come back. Really," he said suddenly.

She nodded. "I'll wait for you then. Please come back safely." She tried smiling at him, but she had a feeling it was the same sad one he gave her.

He didn't say anything, but nodded back. He took his hands off her shoulders, and made for the pillar. He gave a jaunty wave, and a genuine grin, which cheered her immensely. Her own smile spilled over her features, and even a laugh. She raised her arm and waved him good-bye.

Then he was gone.

It took her quite a while to move from where she was. She just stood still, with a horrible, heavy feeling of emptiness. She was going to miss everyone terribly.

Remembering her promise to do her best with her "homework", she started back through the empty streets of Juno's dawn. She'd heard of Juno, but obviously never been. She was still awed by the tall, white sloping buildings with their pillars and their arches, and just the sheer size of the place, and that everywhere was paved with the same bright white stone, smothered in silver runes. It was a strange sensation – this large, heavily populated city, just waking up. She didn't meet anyone on the way back to the academy.

She was staying in the teacher's section of the academy, but her destination for the timebeing was the library, which consisted of an entire tower. Orius was right: there wasn't an overabundance of information of shadow magic to be found. She didn't spot anything especially promising, and decided she should probably start with the books Orius had given her. She headed back to her room.

She peered dubiously up and down the starkly lit corridor. Nothing there apparently. She frowned, rubbing the back of her neck to stop it feeling all prickly. She unlocked the door as quickly as possible. With a last glance down the corridor, she slipped briskly into her room.

She shut the door behind her carefully, trying to stay quiet.

As the handle clicked back into place, something rough and adamant wrapped over her chest, and something sharp and cold was pressed against her neck; she was again clamped to stillness against someone much stronger and larger than herself. Again.

Without thinking she tried to break away, but his arm pressed her tighter against him. She stopped moving. Her heart began racing.

She felt him lean closer, so his voice hissed next to her ear. "Lock the door," he commanded quietly.

She didn't want to, but she wasn't in a position to disagree. She waited for a bright idea, but she didn't want the command repeated. Her arm moved rigidly. It was only when the lock clicked closed that she realized she had no idea what he was going to do to her.

He watched without moving. She edged her hand away, hoping to leave the key in the lock for a slightly quicker getaway when the time came. Although her hand hadn't even left it when the cold thing over her neck vanished, and his hand came into view, holding a knife, and he snatched the key away.

"Good," he said. She quivered as he spoke. "I do not wish to fight you. I merely wish to speak with you. Calm down," he added out of nowhere. "Don't shake." She still wasn't taking in what he was saying. "I want to ask you some questions. I am not here by the orders of my superiors. But it I find you less than co-operative, I will subdue you and take you to them. You must realize I am capable of this."

He released her. A little dazed, she remained where she was. She listened to his footsteps moving across the room. There was a scraping of fabrics – he'd sat down.

She still didn't move.

"Won't you sit down?" he asked. He was using the softer voice now.

It took her a couple of seconds for her stiffness to subside enough for movement. She slowly made for the chair next to his. Everything she did had slowed to a rigid crawl; she felt like she was wading through sand. She sat slowly as well.

She stayed silent.

"You're looking very pale; are you feeling alright?"

She didn't reply. Of course she wasn't feeling alright; the situation seemed fairly self-explanatory.

He sighed, then leaned forward and put a hand on her shoulder. She wretched, frightened further. The hand's pressure increased until she became still again, then the touch became gentler. "Be assured, child, that I have no intention of harming you. My superiors do not know that I have come here, and it will remain that way if all goes according to plan." He paused, and kept his hand on her shoulder. She kept her eyes on the floor in front of her. "I am not here kidnap you, take advantage of you, threaten you, or harm you in any way. Now, please don't be so scared."

She shifted her gaze to his face, not that there was much point – he was still wearing the mask. She couldn't discern any reaction. He looked relaxed, and he was trying to be friendly. Not able to find words to reply, she nodded at him instead.

"Good, thank you," he said, finally removing his hand. "Now, I understand if you can't answer all my questions, but please do your best."

She nodded again. Her mouth felt very dry.

"Now, first I would like to ask how Hara came to join that group of people, and who they are to him."

She felt surprised. But of course, it was going to be about Hawk. She didn't like the idea of relating everything he'd told her about himself to stranger, especially someone they considered an enemy. "Well… he was guarding the area where they set up their base, and he helped set them up. They're a guild. He's a member. They're his friends."

The necromancer nodded. "Right…" he said, mulling over the information. "Do you know how he ended up there?"

"Vaguely. He said he just sort of drifted around, looking for a place to stay, and the forest welcomed him. He found Alder there. His falcon," she added quickly.

"What of his parents?"

It came out quite sharply. "Ah… He doesn't know her name, but his mother was a priestess, from Payon. He loved his mother very dearly…" Something in his manner had changed. "They lived by themselves for quite a while. He doesn't remember his childhood very well, but apparently his father… well, he hates him. His father did something terrible. He doesn't remember what it is though."

"I see…" Kyo looked carefully at the mask. She wished she could see his face. "And yourself?" She actually jumped at this. "What are you to him, and he to you?"

Her face became very hot. "Well…" she began nervously. "When my village was destroyed, he found me on the outskirts and brought me to the guild. And um… well, he takes care of me, and talks me out of feeling dreadful, and gives me advice… He's my best friend."

He kept looking at her. "… And?"

"Oh! Um…" It was embarrassing trying to think of what she was to Hawk. "I don't imagine I'm nearly so helpful to him as he is to me. But… he said he hasn't had many friends. And everyone else in the guild is great, but I don't think they know as much about him as I do."

The necromancer laughed. She looked up (she'd been staring into her lap), startled by this level of noise. "And you really don't think you're a valuable friend to him?"

"It's not my place to say."

He nodded, obviously still amused. "Where has the guild gone then?"

She hadn't been expecting this. She felt her eyes widen, but she never had much control over her facial expression.

"Like I said," he broke in, observing her reaction, "I don't want my superiors to know about this. So they won't find out anything that you tell me."

She still felt dubious.

"I won't say anything to them. I just need to find Hara. Now, where is he gone? When will he be back?"

"I don't know when he'll back, or if he'll be back…" she mumbled. She looked up with worry; she hadn't meant to add the last bit, but it was something that was weighing heavily on her mind.

"What do you mean?"

She was frightened by the sudden sternness of his tone. "It's Glast Heim," she blurted out. As soon as she'd done it, she realized she really, really shouldn't have.

"Glast Heim?" he repeated stonily.

Too late… "Yes."

"Are you sure? Why are they gone there?"

"They… We need to read the scriptures of Nebilim. To understand the nature of the world."

The necromancer rose, now agitated. His hands curled into fists at his sides. She was afraid he'd forgotten the not-to-harm-her part of his agenda, but when he turned to her again, he was careful. "Thank you for answering my questions."

"May I ask you something as well, sir?" she asked, keeping her tone as polite as possible. She felt a little faint.

He looked at her, stiffened, then replied with an affirmative "mm" noise.

She nodded, and tried to smile as thanks. "Why me?" she asked. "Why are they after me?"

He seated himself again. "I knew Maia when she was a shadow priestess. She was very powerful. She was also the half-sister of the current guildmaster to the dark priests – their father was the previous guildmaster. But her mother was found to be a descendant of Glast Heim's prophets – we possess all of Glast Heim's old records, so we can track down people like your grandmother – so Aduro the previous guildmaster wanted a child out of her.

"There is something outside Midgard, trying to break the barriers between the worlds and corrupt the flow of souls. This is a being of immense power. Naturally, the dark priests want control of it. To do this, they need a vessel for it. There are the old avatars fit for possession, but they can't be controlled by any human. They need a human vessel, something they can control.

"There have been many attempts to create these vessels. The rituals are difficult, and often cause a lot of harm to the subject. These failed vessels were often left with permanent damage, or dead. But Maia was different. Something about Maia made it possible to make her into an empty vessel.

"Now, you may or may not be aware of how your mother and father met, but I am; Maia and I were about the same age, and sometime ago I had confided in her that I had found a "best friend", as it were. She was about fifteen when she met Arctos the paladin. Not knowing any better, she told him all that was entailed in her becoming a vessel. It isn't pleasant. When her sixteenth birthday arrived, she was expected to endure a lot of suffering. Arctos, being a man of faith and compassion, decided to get her out. He made Maia see things his way. Aduro saw this as kidnap.

"He did try and recapture her, but Arctos was not to be underestimated. He hid Maia skilfully. You were born to them, and I don't think you want me to relate the rest.

"However, that you are Maia's daughter and have apparently inherited her powers makes you very valuable."

Kyo swayed slightly under all this information. "I wasn't expecting you to answer that," was all she managed.

"I understand all that is involved in becoming a vessel. I wouldn't want you to go through it."

"But you…"

"Tried to kidnap you, yes. Something happened, and I've had a change of heart."

Kyo knew what she had to ask next, but she couldn't find the words.

"I was not among the party sent after your father," he said suddenly, as though hearing her thoughts. "I'm sorry, but they wanted Maia back, and Arctos was an obstacle. As bitter as I was about the turn of events in my own life, I wouldn't agree to ruining Maia's. I wouldn't want Arctos dead." His tone deepened. "I'm afraid they did go to a lot of trouble to find him – many people of the holy orders were hunted down and killed. They did not expect to see a child though. Fortunately, dark priests are rather mechanical about following orders – they weren't given any briefing about what to do if a child was discovered, so they left you alone. But now Maia is dead as well. You're their target now. Abyssion is determined to possess you. I do believe you met him briefly…"

She thought back to the dream of the child and the City of the Dead. That was him. He'd rescued her, not out of compassion…

"Isn't he…?"

"Your uncle? Yes, technically he is. He is also the current guildmaster of the dark priests." He paused. "But do not think of him as your uncle. He feels no affection towards you, and you do not know him. Regardless of blood, he will never be your family."

She nodded and swallowed, still curious about one particular aspect of his information. "What does becoming a vessel involve?"

He sat very still. "Losing what makes you human. But you won't be going through any of that."

That seemed an odd reply. Wasn't he supposed to be on their side? She nodded anyway, feeling grateful, if a little dubious. "Why are you helping me? You could have chosen not to answer my questions."

"Like I said, something happened, and I had a change of heart."

"What happened?"

"I'll choose not to answer that," he replied primly.

"Alright… Why are you so interested in Hawk?"

She saw his head incline slightly. "You mean Hara?" She nodded. "Again, I'd rather not answer."

"But you knew his name, and…" She stopped when he didn't say anything. He wasn't going to answer; he sat sternly still. "Would you have really taken me to Glast Heim if I hadn't answered your questions?"

"My reason for asking them was to decide whether or not I would bring you to Abyssion. I would have indeed. Now, child," he stood, then reached down and pulled her to a stand by her hands. She didn't rile this time when his grip closed on her. "I must return to Glast Heim. I will do my best to keep Hara and the others out of real peril, but should Abyssion learn of my activities I won't be able to help you or your friends anymore. They will all likely suffer for it as well, and you will be made into a vessel for that being of hate." He released one of her hands, reached into his robes, and pressed the key into her fingers. "I know your name is Kyo. I am Pandion. Now, I gather from those books on your desk you are going to be studying shadow magic?"

How long had he been in her room?

"It's not easy, I'll warn you now. I'll contact you again at some point; I'll write to you at some point, and I'll tutor you. Obviously, I won't be able to write the letter in my name, but you'll know it's from me. Do you know what adeste fideles means?" She shook her head. "It's old Pronteran; it means 'come faithful people', or something to that effect." She nodded, repeating the information to herself in her head. "I'm going to teleport outside the city now," he continued, "and they are going to sense my presence because of it. Please don't tell them that we spoke."

"Alright." She was beginning to wonder if she should trust him.

"Thank you." He squeezed her hands once, then whispered a spell and disappeared in wave of cold blue light.

She looked at the key in her hand. He'd done as he said – she wasn't harmed. A little perturbed perhaps, but perfectly undamaged. She decided it was okay to trust him.

X-X-X

It seemed the ruined Geffen didn't house any threats. Or at least the threats weren't doing much threatening anymore. The days trickled on, and Shigeru was beginning to talk of burying the place in seals. Khan didn't like the idea – the place needed to be cleansed.

Khan started. There was some sort of movement near the gate. He tore his crossbow from his back and held it ready.

Runa was stood framed in the gates again. She brought out a hand from behind her back and gave a short tense wave. Then Khan noticed the inaccuracies of the armour. It wasn't her.

She tilted her head towards the ruined city, then walked away. It definitely wasn't her, and though he knew who it was anyway, Khan followed.

He paced calmly after the figure, crossbow still spread over his arms, and as he rounded a corner he would catch sight of Runa turning another. They were headed for the same place as last time.

When he stepped into the ruined marketplace, Runa waited some few yards away from him, wearing a troubled frown.

"I know it's you, Doppelganger."

The creature said nothing, but gave a slight sigh and then raised his head to meet Khan's gaze with Runa's. Then the armour and body melted away into the familiar young swordsman.

"You came anyway."

"And you called. What did you want?"

Doppelganger shifted uneasily and fiddled with a shabby leather gauntlet. He thought a moment longer before saying, "To warn you."

Khan frowned. "About what?"

The swordsman dithered again, knotting his fingers together and scuffing his feet in agitation. When he spoke again, all his voices were weighted with guilt. "I let him out."

"Let what out?"

"I didn't mean to, didn't want to, it made me because it couldn't take my mind. Couldn't take my mind because I made it my own. My mind is mine so I can't do what it wants. So it made me fetch something that can…" He was speaking very quickly. His phrases rolled and tumbled as though he were crying, but he wasn't human nor capable of such a thing. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry… but he's out now and as soon as he realizes he'll want blood and I don't know how to put him back, it wasn't my seal, don't know how to put him back there. I think if you could rescue him…"

"What do you mean by rescue?"

"Return him to his old self. He broke himself so badly no human would recognise him as one of their kind, even them as helped him. Although he's so broken I don't know that anyone could fix him…"

"What did they do? Who broke him?"

"He's a mistake of theirs, and his own mistake. I don't know them too well, but they are so steeped in darkness and he is too. But he is so far from human that even they won't recognise him as one of theirs. It was their seal… but it was darkness that did it and so…"

"So you need…"

"Someone steeped in the light of faith."

"That's not a paladin's call," Khan tried. "You'll want an exorcist for that sort of thing."

"But… the first of your kind…"

"What about him?"

"Didn't he purge the darkness of human hearts by his own death upon the cross? I've seen the marks…"

It was a trait of most crusaders. Any seasoned crusader would have used the Grand Cross purging spell time and time again, and so the marks stayed; they were the marks branded onto the first paladin, a holy man born to an untouched maiden, the marks that killed him to drive the darkness from wicked man's heart. Khan, and just about all of the other paladins in the camp, had the scars from the marks: flogging cuts all over the back, thorn scratches all around the head, and nail holes in the feet and wrists.

"An exorcist would still be a better bet. But do you have any idea what they did to him?"

Doppelganger shook his head. Though he didn't make any other movement or sound, some of the voices he used sighed woefully.

"And he hasn't noticed that he's free?"

"It's only a matter of time. He will awaken soon. I'll do my best to keep him in that tower."

"Right… Well, thank you, I suppose. Thank you for this warning. But may I ask why you have done this?"

Doppelganger looked up. "I live on this world too. My mind is my own; I don't want this place destroyed. My memories adore this world…"

"I understand. And why does it want..."

He didn't finish. Doppelganger had drawn his weapon, looking a little stricken. He stared blankly ahead. Khan tried following his gaze, but there wasn't anything there.

"… Doppelganger?"

"They make the trees theirs, their own," he mumbled. He wasn't speaking to Khan. "Trees of the north are black and white, trees of the south are happy, trees of the west are strong, trees of the east bleed…"

"What are you talking about? What's wrong?"

"What's mine and what isn't? Not mine, not any of it. Go away, go away, go away…" The creature paced the place feverishly, turning quickly, movements short and static, and always shaking. Few of his voices were speaking his words – they grumbled and screamed and sang their own woes, whatever they were. "None of it's mine and I can't give it back. Hate it I do. My hate? Which of it's mine?" His movements slowed, and he trembled more. The voices weren't his.

Khan began backing away. There was a lot of screaming, all stricken and shrill. Men, women, children… Doppelganger's mouth moved, still muttering incoherently, but no sound came out. His eyes were wide and wary – he couldn't hear his own words. They weren't calming him.

The creature swiped his sword frantically at something. Khan didn't know what to do. He didn't know what was going on, and he was frightened. The fear in the many voices was so sharp he felt it pressing angrily into his skin.

He couldn't see any remedying Doppelganger's agitation, nor could he see the cause. He turned and ran.

When he was back amongst the camp, Shigeru was apparently looking for him, which suited him fine. They needed an exorcist.

Though this amount of convenience seemed to suggest Shigeru too had heard Doppelganger's words, it turned out all it was that Khan had received a letter, from someone very important apparently.

The handwriting was far too neat. The writer was very organized, no doubt – they also appeared to be from Geffen, or closely associated with the place, as it was signed in the formal way of ending letters in their culture, and in their old language. And indeed, the seal on the envelope was Geffen's mandarin flower crest. Khan tore the paper open.

"Sir,

First of all, I should like to convey my thanks for your endeavours into our old home. Many of our survivors take comfort in our dead being returned to us. Please make our sentiments known to your superiors.

My primary reason for writing is thusly: I have been briefed on the unique trouble you have received. It may interest you to know that such a creature appears in our folklore. The rhyme passed around Geffen is in common-tongue, and to my knowledge always has been, so it is post Guerre. It is as follows:

'In the stillness of the starless night
Where no more shines poor vain light
There dwells a man alone.
He stands and he sighs
And bitterly he cries
To nobody but the tower's night.
Should him you see
Silent be
Or you shall share his eternal grief.
And fear should he turn to you
As your presence is known,
By the tower's night you see his face
And it be your own.'

Obviously the 'starless night' and 'tower's night' are the same. Students are required to venture into the depths of the tower as part of the combat portion of their studies. Speaking from personal experience, going in there is a lot like going through a starless night.

A little explanation is required for the 'no more shines poor vain light'. The 'no more' indeed implies that light used to shine there. You may or may not be aware that the city, or the ruin thereof, known as Geffen was fairly new, compared to places like Prontera and Amatsu. Old Geffenia was completely destroyed during the Guerre te Muladi, and after the Treaty of the First King was established Geffen was built over the ruins by Prontera. It is highly likely that the setting of the 'tower's night' is in fact Geffenia.

There have been many theories as to how Prontera managed to destroy an entire city, but the one that is most substantially supported is as follows. Somewhere deep in the tower (very deep – Ivas proclaimed it Out of Bounds) is a stone monument, with illegible writing and talismans covering it, which was split down the middle. It is thought that this monument was a seal of some sort. It hasn't ever been properly investigated, but it is suspected this seal was sabotaged. While the monument exists as compelling evidence, no records on Prontera's substantiate such a history (for obvious reasons).

I am told the word Doppelganger literally means 'ghostly double' (it isn't a Geffenian word). The superstition behind the doppelganger is that if you see yours, you die. The idea behind this lies in the concept of out of body experiences – if while wandering around you see yourself, it must be your ghost, and you are in fact, not in your body and a ghost also, and it is at this point that you realize you're dead. Ivas explained better than I could.

If you have any questions, then please do not hesitate to ask. Myself and the other remaining high wizards are staying in Juno serving as teachers, and we would be glad to be of aid to you.

Je vous prie d'agrées Monsieur, l'expression mes sentiments respecteux.

High Wizard Arne"