Warnings: Some vague spoilers for episodes within the Star Sanctuary, but they're fairly obscure.
All I can say is that this piece probably won't be as well received as the first one since this is a less popular branch of characters. Meene has always intrigued me (I adore her to bits) and the general fanaticism of the X-laws is a topic of great interest for me. This piece was inspired by the flashbacks that Porf, Denbat and Larch have when they meet the end, pictures of a time where they were all relaxing together as the friends that they were. They were very brief freeze-frames, but they touched me…and the result was this!
Some people called them fanatics; pious, empty shells driven by a desire for petty revenge on one who had wronged them in the past. Others called them saviours, blessed with heavenly light and divine right as they walked the earth on angel-winged feet. Some even called them tortured souls, labelling them as a group of broken spirited sheep led by a slip of a girl, a silver haired shepherdess. Everyone had their own opinions on the X-laws and the members themselves did nothing to deny or confirm these theories.
But beneath all those speculations, the truth was that, first and foremost, the X-laws were friends…
Their guardian spirits may have been angels, the highest beings in heaven, but it didn't make the six men and one woman who commanded them any less mortal than their fellow shaman despite the omnipotent exterior they seemed to project to the world. What went on behind the closed doors that hid them from view was far different to the single-minded unity and determination they showed to outsiders. The sound of the merry laughter echoing off the stacked pine walls was not something one associated with the X-laws, not at all. To most, anything, but stiff-necked resilience was unfeasible.
Still, out of the public eye, everyone changes…
"Nisi Dominus Frustra!" was the jubilant toast that rang around the high rafters, accompanied by the resounding clink of glasses being touched to each other in a victory salute. Nisi Dominus Frustra. Without the Lord, we labour in vain. Hardly a standard toast for a gathering of people, but the X-laws were hardly standard and success always seemed to be best expressed in Latin (at least in their Italian sub-commander's eyes anyway…) With God's help and with God's love, they had progressed another inch towards their ultimate and final objective. Another mission, this one in the icy wastelands of Russia in the dark days of late winter, had been successful and another goal had been reached.
So, warmed by the roaring log fire burning happily in the grate while iron sleet and nipping snow lashed the wooden outer walls of the isolated cabin that had become 'home' for the past three weeks. What had been a vague reconnaissance mission to scout out information on Hao's following in Russia had escalated into something more active when a Patch Official had shown up for the sole purpose of testing the last member of the group who had yet to gain entry into the Shaman Tournament itself.
The orange gadget gracing the slender wrist of Meene under the sleeve of her shirt was the cause of this impromptu celebration and the hidden joy of them all was reflected in the satisfied smile she wore as she sat in the largest chair that cabin had to offer; a fluffy throne for the victorious shaman.
"They took their own sweet time in coming to you, Meene," Denbat commented from his sprawled out position by the fire, his head ironically haloed by the light of the flickering flames behind him illuminating the coarse gold of his hair, his neck cocked as his cheek rested in the cusp of his palm. The lack of Meene's Oracle Bell had been a frequent topic of discussion among the close-knit group of people around her who had already gained theirs. Still, the subject of discussion herself had shown nothing, but placid faith that her time to prove herself would come when her Lord decreed it, but others had been more impatient to have their group completed – without an Oracle Bell, Meene could not fight in the tournament and without Meene, the X-laws would have been down a member…and a friend.
Or they would have had to partake of Larch's cooking more often – at least with an extra person on the rota, that trial came around in longer rotations.
"There were complications over in Japan," Meene drawled, tiny shoulders shrugging in a dismissive gesture. "Some kid managed to take out the officiate who was supposed to be coming to evaluate me on his next round. The Patch seemed to take a while to re-organise their system so I suppose there was a delay in sending me the new fellow while they fiddled with their Shaman lists." Her tone may have been as mild as ever, but the way long fingers rested protectively on the straps running along the underside of her forearm was a slight suggestion of pride and relief. Faith was sustainable, but made all the more sweet by a visible sign of that faith having paid off.
The six men settled down into thoughtful silence as they digested the news their only female member had just divulged. The few members who drank sipped appreciatively at a fine red wine Marco had brought across from Italy and uncorked for the occasion, the remainder of the team nursing assorted fruit juices or water – clearly, their tastes were as varied as the company they kept.
"A council member was killed by a mere child?" The soft-spoken question came from the ever-quiet Cebin, his voice sibilant and ethereal from behind the frozen expression of his form-fitting mask. His own drink had thoughtfully been equipped with a straw so that he could sip his drink easily without awkward fumbling or the baring of his mutilated face. Though why it had to be a clear pink and a curling spiral was a matter he would have to question Meene about later. Perhaps she was taking this 'only female X-law' role a bit too far, but, knowing her, it was probably some sort of pointed and obscure joke on her part.
"Strong kid." This came from Venstar, a brooding figure of a man taking up a rather large portion of the well-padded couch facing the fire. "The council judges aren't usually considered to be pushovers."
An amused and familiar smirk flitted across Porf's angular features as he waved a lazy hand at the large black man on the sofa from his own position at the table, joined by both Marco and Larch. Never one to pass up an opportunity for a good-natured dig, the larger yet stoic man was a prime target for the American's odd brand of humour. "You saying you had trouble with your own Patch fight, Venstar?"
In answer to the blatant tease, the large man merely smiled slightly. The curling of his lips might have been considered arrogant on anyone, but Venstar was far too steady natured a man to even consider such a sinful feeling. "No."
The inhabitants of the room chuckled appreciatively at the assuredness of the answer, the quiet ripple of amusement consistent throughout the room. Strength was not something that was lacking in this room, not in any one of them present here. These were some of the most powerful Shaman in the world, highly trained and effective as a team with a single driving force behind them. They were united and dedicated and committed, but it was a rare chance that they simply got to relax as the comrades they were and the friends they had come to be. Sprawled around a warm room, their work done for the day and free from any foreseeable missions for the next week, the tired, but satisfied X-laws were content to rest and joke as few knew they actually did.
Most people assumed that, with the tenacity they as a group possessed, even in their free time they would remain the hard eyed bunch of hunters people perceived them as, but the warm atmosphere in the comfortable room was testimony against that. This was no heartless group of dogs, just souls who drew solace from each other knowing they shared the same pain and suffering.
The pain Hao had caused them all was the binding agent within the diverse team.
There were Larch and Venstar; two giants among men with equally sized hearts though the dark skinned man was the more stoic of the two, the more gentle of the two. Larch was more forthcoming and less inclined towards clinical observation than his companion, but both were fairly mild.
Denbat, not so.
The man, with the muted gold hair and the permanent stubble prickling his jaw, was vivacious – vibrant you might even say. Lively and animated, it was Denbat who was often found to be cracking some joke or finding little ways to make the day brighter….as long as they didn't interfere with duty of course. Despite being something of a prankster out of hours, the man was fiercely dedicated to the campaign against the inhumane being who murdered his sister, as were they all.
Out of them all, Cebin was perhaps the most visibly marked from his encounter with the 'devil incarnate.' Mutilated, scorched by hellfire, the man had retreated behind the slightly sinister looking mask that covered the condemning scars, but there was still plenty of light in the man. Cebin was a gentle man, someone who was always generous, even to a fault, contrary to his intimidating exterior.
While Cebin merely looked sinister, Porf managed to act it as well. The American shaman had a wild look around his eyes that only lessened when he was in the company of his teammates, but out of all of them, he was perhaps the one with the sharpest tongue of course.
Except for Marco in one of his moods. Their sub commander was certainly brilliant, but there were times when his beliefs were so strong they spilled out into his interactions with his fellow X-laws. Still, his friends just laughed and blamed the tongue-lashing they had just received on Marco's Italian temperament and all would be well. Out of all of them, it was Meene who most often came into conflict with their highly strong companion, but strangely enough, it was perhaps those two who spent the most time together.
The dun-haired woman was certainly an obscure character, though her sex might have been something to do with that. Mild, but certainly never meek, she was often found quietly watching her team-members with the ghost of a smile on her face. She was certainly intuitive and was adept at tuning herself into her friend's various personas. Part of her knack for flustering Marco was her habit of speaking aloud on his thoughts and interpreting them correctly.
Meene knows best, the X-laws said, Meene knows best.
"So now we're all ready." Glasses glinting in the flickering light, Marco looked up from the glass of blood red liquid held elegantly between long fingers – whatever the situation, the Italian's manners stubbornly remained – eyes scanning the assembled members of their proud team. Each had their own dark tales to tell, but all had been brought together by the shining light that was their leader. The Iron Maiden herself was resting now, quietly contemplating and regenerating within her metal capsule while her faithful followers gathered in the living room. Jeanne had been the first to gain her Oracle Bell; Meene had been the last.
"The X-laws are complete then," Meene quipped and something in the slightly sarcastic tone of her voice earned her a minute glare from Marco, something she responded to with a bland smile before turning back to the group as a whole. While relatively unscathed from her preliminary fight, the woman still bore marks of her passage into the tournament – a gash tracing the fine line of her cheekbone, a neat bandage around a twisted ankle and a vaguely weary look in her olive eyes. Battle had been testing, but easy enough considering her capacity.
Meene was far from under-qualified for the Shaman Tournament.
"Any other snippets of information the judge was gracious enough to give you?" Larch asked, smoothly shifting the conversation away from a possible dispute between Marco and Meene. The blonde woman gave an indeterminate shrug, a teasing light entering her eyes as she unconcernedly leaned back in the padded array of cushions Cebin had so thoughtfully laid out for her earlier.
"Since when do the judges give anything away?" Another…frustrating habit of Meene's, answering a question with a question and the diminutive female adeptly ducked a peanut tossed at her by Denbat. The nut itself landed by Venstar who, waste-conscious as ever, calmly picked it up and ate it, earning a few snickers from various parts of the room. The atmosphere within the room was light, buoyant - a far cry from the harsh temperatures and freezing conditions outside and, within this circle of friends, Meene relented; her gaze softening as it only did for the people she held dear. "The Official, Zinc, decided that I was worth talking to for a while," she commented dryly, sipping thoughtfully at the glass of water she held in one hand. "There are a few who seem to be shining. The German's one, this Chinese boy is another." The X-laws were well informed – their sources stretched globally and their records of Faust were clinically documented. The necromancer had a reputation, but was certainly not one of the ones they would extend the hand of friendship to – Faust defiled the dead and that was a sin.
Sins were not acceptable.
"The boy – is he the one who killed his Patch judge?" Marco asked, eyes once more obscured by the reflective half-moons of his glasses, making his expression impossible to interpret.
A single eyebrow of Meene's arched imperceptibly and the woman tilted her chin towards their Italian sub-commander. "Why? Are you going to cross him off your list of potential allies?" Perhaps it was the warmth soothing her sore muscles, but Meene's normal tactful state slipped somewhat, the comment coming across as perhaps more defiant than she had meant it to be.
Silence came as a frozen hush, all eyes turning to see how Marco would take this. The celebratory atmosphere was fading rapidly now, tempered into stony confrontation by the simple question that perhaps summed up the differences in opinions between two of the most stubborn members of the team.
Those glasses glinted ominously and Marco's wineglass was set down with a dangerous clink as the tall man stood, his customary aura of power and dedication surrounding him once more as he looked towards Meene. Compared to him, she suddenly seemed small, but no less centred as she watched him with blank eyes, perhaps daring him to act on the tension that so often lingered between them.
"We leave early in the morning. I suggest you all get your rest." It was the perilous calm in his voice that perhaps urged most of the X-laws to stand, following in a trickle of people as their hot-tempered sub-commander stalked out of the room until only Meene and Venstar were left. The sandy haired woman had not moved, a poised hand still keeping her water glass as jade eyes examined the door Marco had just slammed behind him and behind which he was no doubtedly smashing something.
From his position on the couch, Venstar sighed, looking at his female companion reproachfully. "Why did you have to needle him like that, Meene? You were getting along so nicely…"
"He'd get complacent if someone didn't question him from time to time," the young woman said calmly, her voice as even as ever though her eyes never left the door.
Her male teammate snorted, his disbelieving look apparent on his stubble bedecked features. "From time to time? You're always digging at him – what is it you're trying to prove?"
"That we're not always right." It was the sad look that Meene sent him that finally allowed Venstar to see the degree to which his friend was hurting. With her calm exterior, it was easy to think of Meene as a stable element, a solid rock within their group on which they all could lean, but what they had to remember was that she was just as broken as they all were. She had been hurt just as badly, a lost soul taking a piece of her spirit with her to the realms of death after Hao had been through with him.
Still, Meene was different to them all. Venstar would puzzle over this answer for many days to come. The days would turn into weeks, the weeks stretching into a few months until the final encounter he would ever have with Hao. It would only be then, as he would see Meene seemingly cut down before him that he would realise just what she meant by it all. Her relationship with the, at present, unknown Lyserg, would be something which would gradually etch away at his confusion and bemusement. The way that Meene would stand up for him in the face of the wrath of Marco, the way that she had always been the one to question their sub-commander's orders… It would be in those last few moments that it would all make sense.
Meene was no less dedicated than the rest of them, but her allegiance was slightly different – no other X-law would question Marco like she did because they all trusted him implicitly to see the bigger picture and guide them all towards the final goal! But what Meene saw was the even bigger picture, the one that encompassed their goals and expanded to the goals of others which was a very un X-law like thing. What Meene had slowly come to see was that while the X-laws were ultimately right in wanting to rid the world of Hao…there was still a chance that the way they want about it was vaguely wrong. Not enough to sway her unwavering loyalty, but just enough to make her open to the ideas that they might sometimes lose the plot.
And in the not so distant future, her final words would sum up the greatest pride and the greatest flaw of the X-laws. The X-laws were unchangeable; this gave them strength, but their rigidity restricted them in unfathomable ways.
The X-laws could not adapt and the X-laws could not change.
Venstar, her team leader, would eventually come to know this in the moments before he lost his life, but for now, his confusion on her comment was evident. It was on another subject that the veil was lifted from his eyes this time and it added just another worry to the bundle his brave heart carried.
"So why just him, Meene?" he asked softly, dark eyes bright with a mix of pity and empathy. "What is it that you want him to say?"
The silence between them extended lengthily and it wasn't until the shadows from the rapidly dying fire flickered across her face that Meene finally voiced her quiet reply. "I don't want him to say anything – Marco…he needs his focus. If I distract him, really distract him, he'll lose that tenacity of his and we need that to succeed. Marco's given himself completely over to our Iron Maiden and I can't compete with the hope for a world without Hao…I wouldn't want to."
Meene did needle Marco, she did butt gently at his authority, but her actions were designed to strengthen the man, to hone the dedicated spirit within his chest. And if she, for brief moments, could bask in his attention in her own subdued way, then all the better, but there was nothing you could say to make her press the subject further. Their one and only goal was to obliterate the epitome of evil from the world and that single thought always came first, whatever her own personal feelings.
Venstar shifted, grasping at stems of words for something comforting to say when he knew that his tiny friend was already lost inside her soul and she had been for a while. "Meene…in a different world…in a different time..-"
"I know," she cut in, gryphon-green eyes closed now, her weary body going lax within the suddenly far too large looking chair. It made her seem tiny, doll-like within its grasp and it was a rare look at the frailty she always sought to hide. "I know…but the mission comes first." A tired hand, accentuated with the heavy weight of the Oracle Bell and its accompanying responsibility, rose to grip the rosary around her neck in a final prayer for solace.
"The mission comes first," her large friend repeated quietly and the two spoke no more, sitting there in silence within the warm glow of a muted bank of dying embers.
From the door, silver hair shifted, curtaining a tiny body bearing the languidly healing marks of a self-imposed torture. Crimson eyes – red for love and red for blood – watched her two faithful followers, dry-eyed, but weeping at heart. For her, for their dream, her X-laws had given up so much. Family, lives, love…
"My Angels," the Iron Maiden whispered, her own prayer beads a studded black snake against the translucent pearl of her skin. "May God grant you the peace in heaven that you could not find in life…"
In a quiet cabin in Russia, the snow had slowed to a gentle spiral of perfect flakes that fell without sound and the first delicate rays of sun crept weakly over the low horizon to touch the cabin that held so many brave souls.
And so the sun shone on the fully qualified X-laws for the first time and it was a light without life, but bright in its grim determination to beat back the clutches of winter or die trying.
PurPLeDoUGHnuts: Heh – I'm so flattered! You almost made me tear up for a moment. I adore Horo and Tamao together and it makes so much sense – he seems so affectionate with her whenever they're seen together…Still – I've never written a Ren/Pirika before, but I'll see what I can do!
Kaeru Soyokaze: Horo/Tamao-shippers unite! Giggle Funfunfunfun…
Angelady: I've never written Yoh/Anna before, but I'm certainly willing to have a go – I've got a few plot bunnies I could tweak into working for them.
BBShadowCat: I hope this was soon enough – this one took a bit more work than the last one!