Myssa bolted awake, almost choking on her own breath as she did so. Adrenaline roared through her system, making her heart thunder in her chest. Danger! All around!
Her hand was already clenched tight on the hilt of her sword, but for a moment she found that she couldn't move. She could feel it, that sensation of danger, of primal fear, of horrific calamity waiting to fall upon her head. But there was also something else, something inside her that was eager and electrified. Her blood was boiling at the mere thought of facing... anything. She was eager to fight, to battle, to strive, to achieve, to triumph, to kill.
It took long moments of carefully controlled breathing to bring herself back under control. Control, control was the key. Mindless fear of danger and heady exhilaration of battle were emotions she could experience, but only through the lens of complete control. The emotions belonged to her, she did not belong to the emotions. Enjoy them, Bardiel had taught her, but only after you mastered them.
Now, she could think. Fear and glee swam through her veins, but she focused instead on important matters: what brought these feelings about? Wiping away the last of sleep from her vision she checked around her. The small crevice she had wedged herself into for shelter appeared to still be safe. The foul smelling sap she's smeared on nearby rocks still filled her nostrils, effectively hiding her own scent from the predators. Nothing appeared to have come close to her temporary refuge. She was, as far as it was ever possible, as safe as she could be by herself in the Northern Wastes.
And then she heard it: screams. Howls. The cries of bloodlust. Myssa found herself out of her hidey-hole almost before she realized it. She stood up in the night air, the breeze playing across her hot skin, her sword clenched tightly in her hand.
The screams were not near, but there was enough that it seemed to be coming from everywhere. There was fighting throughout the Wastes. Whatever had ripped her from her sleep had also disturbed the Wastes' denizens, and now drove them wild. The Wastes had always been a place of death, but now the killing was happening with wild abandon.
And a part of her desperately longed to prove to this world that she was its apex predator.
"What's going on? What's happening to me?"
Something had changed. She wasn't certain how she knew, just that she knew. Something had changed in the Northern Wastes. And it promised a glorious future. It promised a terrible one.
Swiftly, she returned to her bolt hole and repacked her meager belongings. Traveling at night would be reckless, and doing it while the beasts of the Wastes were driven to a blood frenzy even more so. But Myssa could feel the torrents of sand running through the hourglass. There could be no more delays: she had to get back to Neriak, had to talk to lady Armisael. Had to explain her failure, explain why she didn't kill the Wind Chosen. And if she was still alive after that, maybe talk to her Lady about the future.
It might be their only hope. If it wasn't already too late.
An Evangelion inspired fantasy elsewhere story Based on characters created by and copyright GAINAX
Co-written and Directed by Alain Gravel and Darren Demaine
CHAPTER 19 - Darkness Rising Part 1: Queen
Pain! So much pain!
Arael tumbled gracelessly to the floor as he emerged from his teleportation portal. Even though he had escaped from Lilith's light, like acid it continued its destructive work, tearing his body apart!
"Master!" The call echoed from multiple throats as Arael's servants rushed to his aid. Mentally linked to the master vampire, his pain resonated through their skulls with the strength of a warhammer. "What is wrong, Master?"
Arael's response was pure instinct. Words were meaningless, chattering noises that washed over him without meaning. Only one thing mattered: blood! With strength born of pure desperation he lunged for his nearest minion and dragged her to the floor, his fangs plunging into her neck. She thrashed for a moment before the limited supply of stolen blood within her was sucked beyond the amount needed to maintain her in undeath. The other servitor vampires backed away in fear of their unlife.
Slowly, so very slowly, the haze of pain pulled back from Arael's mind, a sliver of rationality replacing the primal blood thirst that still clawed at him. "Blood," he croaked at his minions. "More... blood..."
"Understood, Master." Though fearing they might become Arael's next meal, the vampires hurried to obey his command. One of them picked him up as carefully as possible, and quickly they rushed to the slave cells. Gently, they placed him down in one cell, surrounded by a dozen chained humans. Then they swiftly retreated.
It was fortunate they did. With a growl, Arael threw himself upon the screaming humans and tore them to shreds, feeding on the torrents of blood in an animalistic frenzy. There was none of his normal finicky feeding habits, no snobbery in his choice of who would be his feast for the night; no, there was nothing but the base vampiric desire for blood and murder. He drank blood of women, he crammed the meat of children into his mouth... he even consumed the flesh of men! ...anything to feed his ravenous need. Once the bodies were dry he was on the ground, his tongue furiously licking blood off the cold flagstones. It was only a long, long time after everything in the cell was dead that Arael's bestial fury abated, to the relief of his terrified minions.
Panting, Arael laid on his back as he felt the mass quantity of blood he had ingested start to take effect. He was still in pain, but it no longer was overwhelming. He could feel Lilith's holy power being extinguished beneath the taint of undead filth as the fresh blood rejuvenated his powers, and his body slowly start to mend. The damage had been extensive, and he was still weak, but the important thing was that he was healing. Had he been younger, weaker, he probably wouldn't have survived.
With as much dignity as he could manage, the master vampire pulled himself to his knees, adjusting the tattered remains of his once fashionable clothes around him. Distasteful... wasting slaves like this... Peasants were easily replaced, but it took time to abduct and bring food to his lair. It was possible there might have been a noble or two in the mix. Now those were harder to replenish. Even worse, his minions had seen him act in such a barbaric manner. He might have to kill them all, lest they think him nothing more than a common bloodsucker!
His frown of displeasure turned into a scowl as he saw tuffs of reddish-blond hair amongst the carnage. Oh now there was a loss; that boy-child had been special. Such an angelic face and a voice like a chorus of sweet birds. While he himself had no interest in males, he had picked up the boy as a future gift for Asuka. Surely, once properly molded, his future queen would appreciate the symphonies of the boy's screams...
Arael howled in naked fury, the anger in the sound sending his minions fleeing. He had left the Fire Chosen behind! He had left his property to the mercies of her friends and companions! That was unthinkable! Quickly, he tried to pick up her thoughts, to know what had happened to her. But that place in his mind where he held her chains he found nothing! Their link was severed! It had to be Lilith's light again!
Seething with rage, Arael's body trembled as he got up. So much hard work, wasted in an instant! Damn that elf! He should never have agreed to help him!
That elf would die, him and that King Kozo! Yes! It was his fault as well! He had been the one who had unleashed Lilith's light! He was the one responsible! He had to pay for this! They would all pay!
But Kozo was dead. That accursed artifact of Lilith would consume his body and end his life. How dare the coward kill himself like that and rob Arael of his just and rightful revenge! Such selfishness!
Painfully, he left the cell and made his ways towards his chambers, his brood making sure to get out of his way. Good, he wasn't in the mood to deal with them right now.
It had been a long time since Arael had been reminded of the fear of death; real death. He hadn't been so close since his last real conflict with Armisael, so many years ago now. She had been younger then, fresh into adulthood, a fresh dark flower in full bloom, too enticing to ignore. The girl turned out to be much more of a challenge than Arael had expected and had managed, of all things, to cast a blood curse on him, almost ending his life there and then.
But that was different; it had been part of the hunt. He had chosen the girl because she had been powerful and dangerous, a worthy challenge. While Arael certainly didn't want to die, there was no shame in being almost killed by her. But... him! It wasn't the Chosen in Tokyo who had almost killed him, nor the famed White Knight, nor the heartless High Mage, nor its - not so quite - holy High Priestess. It was the King! A feeble old man with probably one foot already in the grave! Such shame!
Entering his sleeping quarters, Arael ignored his oversized colorful bed and instead crossed the room to reach a door on the other side. Pressing a palm on the door, magical runes briefly appeared before the seals locking the door faded and the door opened. Behind it was revealed a small cavern and in the middle of it, a single stone coffin.
It had been ages since Arael had been forced to sleep in his coffin to regenerate. This very fact just added to his rage. There had to be a way of making the old man pay! But how? He had had the impertinence to die! Arael had no skill in the necromantic arts, so bringing his soul back from the dead wasn't an option. Certainly, Armisael would have been able to do it, but to ask for a favor would be humiliating enough, having to explain to her WHY he wanted to revive the old man would be humiliation he had no intention to bear.
A smile crept on his face as a way to make Kozo pay came to mind. Of course! The man had mentioned something about a daughter...
x o x
Armisael staggered down the cold stone corridor of her citadel in a daze. Her mind refused to process what Bardiel had told her. It just couldn't be true. It couldn't be!
Her army... her people... annihilated. First they were betrayed by the Kagenoshi, the soldier of Adam who became the repository of their dreams. The weapon that promised them victory and a new life instead turned Judas on them. It crushed the best they had, those brave souls who had gladly marched into battle to secure a home for their people.
And those who had somehow survived the carnage of betrayal had faced something new from the humans. Some kind of weapon had been unleashed just before Bardiel had managed to flee with those few he could find. She had no idea how many had been left behind, or what horrors they faced.
Unseeing, she stumbled into a pillar, mocking elven grace and bruising her shoulder. She didn't care.
The reward for her soldiers' valiant sacrifice had been betrayal and death.
And she had sent them. She had approved the plan, she had given the order.
Everything she had worked for, everything her father had entrusted to her was now so much ash. Bringing the disparate clans together had been her doing, ending the strife that had plagued the dark elf people and caused them to waste their strength in useless feuds. She had bound them to one fate, one future. They could be strong, could present a unified front to the world, they could achieve through unity what had been denied to them. For the first time in centuries, she had seen the light of true hope in the eyes of her people.
And she had repaid that hope... with death.
"No..." she moaned, a sick tremble in her voice. Drunkenly, she pushed herself away from the pillar and staggered to her chambers. Blindly she groped for the handle and almost fell into her room.
Inside, slumping uncomfortably in one of her chairs, was Tabris. His pale skin was bone white, the flesh on his right arm heaving and seething in a most unnatural fashion. A terrible grimace washed over his features and he looked barely able to breathe.
She didn't care. Where there had only been horrified disbelief, blinding rage now roared forth. "YOU!"
Her hands clenched into fists so tight her bones creaked. "You bastard! You light-skinned elven bastard! My people are dead! Dead! Your Kagenoshi betrayed me! I followed you and this is what I have to show for it! Nothing but death!" Magic seethed and boiled beneath her skin and warped the very air around her, but she didn't cast. She was so angry she couldn't think straight, couldn't focus. Her vision was a sea of red and her thoughts nothing but violence. No, she wouldn't rot his insides out with a spell, she wouldn't carve his cold heart out with her swords, she'd beat him to death with her fists!
Tears poured down her cheeks as she advanced on him, grabbing a fistful of his tunic and hauling him partway out of the chair. Her other fist was drawn back and ready to pulp that gorgeous face into bloody ruin. "Give me back my people you son of a bitch!"
Armisael blinked. That one word had cut through the crimson that had consumed her thoughts. It had been like ice water to her fury. Her breathing was still ragged, her fist clenched so tight it hurt. But...
She pulled his face so close she could have kissed him... or bit through his lips. "What. Are. You. Saying?"
Tabris shifted his weight, grimacing as he did so. Cradling his right arm – which seethed and shifted grotesquely — he looked into her eyes. His voice had a strange double-echo to it, but only very softly, as if it was very weak. "What happened is a tragedy. This is a fact that can't be changed. Lilith's influence corrupted our control over the Kagenoshi-"
"I don't give a damn about why it happened! What did you mean?"
"You can still save your people. And I can help."
Armisael almost hit him. Almost cracked his skull open, almost tore those glowing eyes out of his head, ripped his spine out and stabbed him with his own tailbone. But there was something in his voice, something that spoke to her. To her need to do something, to bring her father's dream back to life...
"Not all your people went on the invasion, correct?" he asked, his voice weak but supremely rational. She hated it. How could he not be like her, overrun with furious emotion at what had become of the dark elf people? But he was offering her something, something she hadn't had scant seconds ago. "You kept your young here in case something happened. So your children remain, and the breeding stock to serve as a slave race. So despite it all you have the seeds from which your people can rise again."
"How?" she demanded bitterly. "The army is gone! Crushed by your betrayal! We won't survive a year here in the Wastes. We won't survive a month! My people are dead!"
"I'm sure a few may have survived that final attack the humans launched." He gestured to his arm, which suddenly ballooned and seemed almost ready to explode. He grimaced and the arm returned to a more normal shape. "It was a... vile weapon, but I'm sure it didn't kill... everyone."
There was an odd tilt to his voice but she ignored it, instead clinging to what he had said. "So some of my troops may still be alive?"
"Quite so. However, they are now in the hands of humans. And you know what that means."
"I will get them out! I will free them-!" Tabris shook his head sadly, making her stop.
"Really, do you think that possible? Do you think that even if you somehow free those few who remain, it will change anything?" He leaned even closer to her, capturing her eyes with his. His breath was on her cheek. "It is as you said, without a real army the Northern Wastes will kill your people. Shisshars, dune worms, goblin tribes, gnoll packs, plague beasts or just an inability to defend what little farmland you have: which will have the honor of slaying your people?"
She shook as she acknowledged the truth of his words. The weak did not survive the Wastes. "So what can we do?"
"Well, you can ask the humans for help."
He shrugged, which set his right shoulder heaving as if a thousand bees lived under the skin there. "It's always an option. You can approach them, cap in hand, and ask them for help. You can get down on your knees and say 'oh, sorry about that whole invasion thing, and the fact we would have enslaved any of you who survived, but since it didn't work out could you release those who were trying to kill you a little while ago? And maybe, if it's not too much of a bother, maybe spare a bit of food?'" He glared at his shoulder until the flesh there quieted down.
"But... but, if I offer myself-"
"Oh course, you'll have to parley with their new Queen, since I'm pretty sure King Kozo died in the invasion. You know, because we were trying to decapitate the humans' leaders and all." He turned a smirk towards her. "So all you'll have to do is negotiate from a position of weakness with someone who probably wasn't even born the last time you had a menstrual flow. I'm confident the new Queen won't be the type to hold a grudge and think you responsible for her father's death. After all, a human be vengeful and filled with a desire for revenge? Surely not."
She wanted to scream, wanted to destroy something. She was powerless and his words drove that point home with horrible finality. Her people... she could do nothing for them.
"Or... we could simply kill all the humans."
His words caught her attention like a vice. "What? How?"
She gazed at him, heart pounded in her chest. "Can it be done?"
He leaned back, his face scowling. "Yes. With Zeruel's well deserved destruction I have gathered all the necessary shards here in my arm. But as you can see," he gestured to his arm which responded by twisting like a snake, "my flesh cannot hold the power. It will slowly kill me." He smirked. "Well, maybe not so slowly."
"But how will Adam help us? Zeruel betrayed us, how can you be sure Adam won't do the same?"
"My dear, Zeruel was corrupted; Adam cannot be. Adam is a god, in that he is pure. There is no way for him to be anything less than all that he is. Return him to life, and humans and regular elves everywhere will die. They will die and your people can just walk out of the Wastes and claim the lands once denied them."
"And what do you get out of Adam's revival?"
Tabris grimaced. "What I always wanted: revenge. And now, something else as well." His arm contorted monstrously between them. "A place to transfer this terrible power to. Adam's revival must work, must be successful, or else I die. In this endeavor, the lives of your race and myself are linked. Besides... doubt me if you must, but why doubt Adam? After all, isn't he the All-Father of your people?"
Armisael glared at him, her mind running furiously. What else was there? She had no army, no allies. Her people didn't have the luxury of time; either the ones awaiting death in the Wastes, nor those survivors who were surely to be executed by the humans. What other options were available? What would her father have done?
Her mind was a jumble. She couldn't think of anything else. Again and again her mind returned to his words. 'Wake Adam.' What else could she do for her people? 'Wake Adam.' To negotiate from weakness against their mortal foes would be disastrous. 'Wake Adam.' But... she could bring a god into battle on their side. 'Wake Adam.' Strike down the humans, because there was no other way. 'Wake Adam.' Replay the Black Wars, only this time with the trump card in their hands. 'Wake Adam.' She would free her people, because that was the only thing that mattered. 'Wake Adam.' And the only way to do that would be to...
Slowly, Armisael released her hold on his tunic, easing him back down into the chair. "... What must be done?"
Tabris sagged into the seat. "Fortunately, most of the materials, reagents, and components required for the ritual are already here in Neriak. But there is one thing that is required from outside. And in my current state, that is where your help will be required." With his good hand, Tabris offered her a ring, which Armisael's experienced magical senses recognized as a teleportation device. "But no worries... I'm certain you will enjoy this little task."
x o x
Without expression Rei took in the scene before her. What had once been one of the rare areas of verdant life in the city and a spot of serenity in the chaotic royal palace had been turned into a mockery. There was nothing left of the palace gardens but devastation. The flowers and greenery at the center of the vast room had been reduced to foul smelling ash, while what had survived had been completely leeched of life and withered completely.
Had the garden merely been destroyed she would not have much cared, knowing that in her long life things important to her would die, but this was something else. The soil, the room itself... all had been defiled. Rei could feel the dark energy within the room, a quiet, low pulse of foulness and unholy filth that irritated the soul.
What had once been a place of beauty had been transformed into a mockery of life. How strange then, that her quarry had chosen this place to retreat to.
Following their victory over the Kagenoshi, she and the Earth Chosen had raced towards the royal castle. It had seemed they would reach the castle too late, the dark energies gathering there having reached a peak, when suddenly, they vanished, to be replaced moments later by Lilith's own holy light. For Rei, finding the epicenter of the holy magical release had been a simple task, but what they found there had been a shock, even to the elf. The king had died, sacrificing his life to drive back a menace to the kingdom. The explanations she's been able to get from Misato on what had happened weren't very clear, but there was one thing she'd understood easily enough. Whatever had happened, Shinji had been severely injured before the king's death and had disappeared afterwards.
Finding the Wind Chosen had not been difficult. Over the months they had spent together, the high elf had found that she could sense this human's aura with increasing ease. But while she could sense his aura, his thoughts were another matter.
He was standing in the middle of the room, staring off into space. The back of his tunic was covered in blood, probably his. The healing miracle she had seen unleashed cleared away any worry she had for his physical health, but as for his mental well being...
She didn't understand humans. Their actions, their desires were alien to her rational mind. And this one in particular confused her so.
Her name, called so softly by the Wind Chosen, startled the elf. She hadn't expected Shinji to sense her presence. Because of his legacy, his reactions could be unpredictable, which made the elf wary. Yet, when he turned to her and Rei found herself surprised at how calm he seemed. It looked almost... odd.
"I needed to come back here," said Shinji, as if he had heard Rei's thoughts. "There's a lot I should do, a lot I should think about, but I felt I had to properly say goodbye to Mana first. I didn't exactly take the time to do so before."
Mana... that was the name of that maid who had been attempting to gain Shinji's affections. Obviously the girl had died in the invasion, and Shinji had come to bid her spirit farewell. If so... Rei was even more concerned now. Something about his actions seemed off to her. Granted he was human and thus a strange creature to her, but it seemed like he was taking this loss too well. The Wind Chosen was emotional: the loss of a friend should have been damaging to him. Even without the berserker factor, he was not one to hide what he felt.
Uncertain about what to do or say, Rei took a step forward, but was immediately stopped by a gesture from Shinji.
"Rei, please, stay where you are. I... Right now... I can't feel it. I think... Lilith's light put the anger to sleep for a while. But... I don't know how long it'll last... Probably not very long."
The elf nodded in understanding. So, the berserker side of himself was silent. That was why he seemed so calm right now, despite what surely weighted on his heart.
"I killed her," Shinji said quietly. Simple words, but their meaning shocked the elf. The Wind Chosen didn't seem to notice as he continued on. "We were here, when it happened. When the Kagenoshi woke up. But Mana saved me."
Shinji spoke on, and Rei realized he wasn't talking to her. Not really. It was more like he was using her presence to sort out his own thoughts.
"She took me insider of her, protected me. And in the end I had to kill her... because she was the Kagenoshi."
Rei felt even more confused at those words. The girl? A Kagenoshi? She hadn't felt anything from her! How could that be possible? Yet... she doubted Shinji was lying to her. How? How could the enemy have been so close and yet remained hidden?
"Are... are you certain?" asked Rei and immediately regretted. Shinji stared at her, eyes angry, and for a moment, Rei was afraid that she'd awoken the berserker in him.
"Of course I'm certain! I was there! I saw how it ate at her when it took over! I saw what it did to her! I was there when she begged me to kill her so that I could save everyone from her!"
Shinji calmed down and looked down, bending down and taking a bit of what little soil remained, which just slipped through his fingers like fine ash.
"She faded away in my arms... I... I did what I had to! I did what she asked me! She even thanked me for it! Still...
Rei did now know what came over her. It wasn't safe. It wasn't rational. Not with Shinji in such precarious mental state, even if the berserker was currently sleeping. Yet, she approached him, wrapped her arms around him and pressed his head against her chest. She felt Shinji stiffen, then relax into a boneless slump against her. It was odd, the elf though. Shinji had done the right thing, had done the strategically appropriate thing to save them all. She knew this, she could tell him this. He had done his duty, nothing more. It was what she herself would have done.
But for some reason she knew words would not be useful here. Instead the only thing that came to mind... was the way her own mother would comfort her, long ago, when she was lost.
"Rei... thank you..." she heard him say through the embrace.
They stayed like this for a moment, sharing this rare moment of closeness, before Rei finally let go.
"Was there any other way? In the past, has there anyone who was ever turned into a Kagenoshi and was able to turn back?"
The question surprised Rei. They had fought Kagenoshi together. Shinji had seen the sort of things they were.
Yet... clearly this Mana girl had been different. The very possibility was... disturbing.
"The Kagenoshi we have fought, and those who existed three millenia ago, all of them were originally magi-armor corrupted by Adam's power, their human forms being only shadows of the existence of their former pilots. But no mere human being has ever been turned into a Kagenoshi."
"But that's what they did to Mana. And there's another one."
"Yes," said Shinji. "Tabris. He's the one who's responsible for all this, for leading the dark elves into this war. For changing Mana. I saw him. I fought him. He would have destroyed us all, if not for King Kozo."
A third Kagenoshi. So that had been the reason for the gathering of dark energies that the Earth Chosen had noticed, after their battle with the other Kagenoshi.
"He was a high elf," Shinji continued, his gaze still fixed on hers.
The words took her by surprise and Rei knew immediately that she hadn't been able to hide it, with the way Shinji's eyes narrowed. She wanted to object, firmly deny such ridiculous notion, yet, found herself unable to.
"Are certain of this? Perhaps it was a trick, an illusion to confuse his enemies."
"He was high elf," said Shinji again. "I saw it with my own eyes. Gray hair, red eyes, pointed ears. The berserker FELT it. It was diluted, corrupted, but it definitely smelled high elf blood."
A high elf? Impossible. And even if it were true... There were very few high elves left, let alone males. Her race had never been very populous to begin with. Most of those left alive were in Kelethin. The others, she actually knew by name, and all of them were accounted for, as far as she knew. As for those who had died over the centuries, all of their graves were also back in Kelethin. Except...
"His face. Did it remind you of anyone?"
The question seemed to surprise Shinji. Apparently, he hadn't given it much thought. He seemed lost in thought for a moment, then, from the look in his yes, Rei knew that he'd reached the conclusion she had feared.
"He looked... like Kaworu the Brave!" The Wind Chosen seemed to hesitate for a moment, as if uncertain of his own words, but confidence, and anger, quickly returned. "What the hell is going on, Rei? Why does this Tabris look like the First Chosen? You know something, don't you? Tell me! No half truths! Tell me all that you know!"
Reluctantly, she nodded. He had the right to know.
"He was once the greatest of us. He saved our world, our people. The one you know as Tabris... is most likely Kaworu the Brave."
Shinji fell to his knees, stunned by the truth.
"Kaworu the Brave?" Rei nodded. "Kaworu the Brave," he repeated. "Adam's greatest servant, the one who planned all this, the one who caused Mana so much pain... is the first Chosen from so long ago?"
The Wind Chosen glared at her and for an instant, Rei almost instinctively reached for her weapon. But he didn't lash out, didn't scream, but just let out a long sigh.
"Tell me everything."
"When Adam was defeated, he did not fall easily; there was... fallout. Pieces of Adam's mind, his twisted energies and essence, were set free to corrupt the world. Many monsters and other unnatural things that stalk our world arose from these warping energies.
"But the worst thing that happened was that Kaworu did not completely fell the dark god. As you know, his heart was shattered, but not destroyed. As Kaworu's final blow shattered Adam, a piece of the dark god, a barely visible shard, really, wounded Kaworu's body and lodged itself there."
Shinji stared at the elf, and after another moment she continued. "The first signs of anything wrong took years to manifest themselves. And when they did, we didn't understand, not right away. My people were still young back them. We were strong, but we didn't have the knowledge we have now, that we gained over the centuries. All that we knew was that our hero was ill, that something was slowly eating at his mind. It was similar to what you humans would call senility. Progressively, he began to show cognitive dysfunction. He would forget words, forget something he had just said, or even something he had just done. Eventually he began to forget those around him, and even forget who he himself was. By the time we came to realize what had happened, he was too far gone, the shard too much a part of him. Before our very eyes, our great hero... faded.
"But then, one day, he disappeared. We used every means at our disposal to try and find him, without success. Kaworu could not be found anywhere in the world. My people assumed that perhaps in one of his last lucid moment he realized what he had become and left to pass from this world. Or perhaps a delirium took him and he managed to escape in his madness. Either way, he was lost to us and we mourned his passing."
"But he's still alive today."
"I... do not know. Though my kind live long lives, three millennia is, even for us, much too long for him to have survived. But, if what you have said is true, if a human was indeed changed into a Kagenoshi-"
"It's true!" insisted Shinji. Rei nodded in acceptance of his words.
"Then... we can assume that the darkness within him consumed him completely... and that he was then reborn as a Kagenoshi."
"Damn it Rei! You told before he had died fighting Adam!"
"It is... how my people decided to interpret what happened to him. The moment Adam's shard entered his body was the moment corruption took him: the moment the good man he was started to die. You must understand: Kaworu is a hero. No matter what became of him, we revere him for this. I do not know why, but my ancestors decided to forget what he became after that point, and instead focus on what he had been and what he did. No one amongst the younger elves know this truth. I myself only know because I studied the ancient texts, to prepare myself for this war. Perhaps... as a people, we needed hope."
Shinji grunted. "Your people didn't hide the truth to protect their hero. They did it because they wanted to hide the shame of one of them falling to darkness." In other circumstances, such words would have angered the high elf. To say such thing about her people! Yet... Shinji's words... "I guess you high elves are more human than we give you credit for."
Rei didn't know what to say to that. Truth be told, her own mind was in turmoil. Kaworu the Brave... was alive. He was the enemy. He was the one behind all this. Her people had allowed this to happen. In their ignorance, in their desire to close themselves to the truth, they had allowed a monster to be born. More than ever now, to save this world was her responsibility.
Shinji's hand touched her shoulder and Rei was surprised to see him give her a pitying smile.
"It's not your fault Rei. You didn't know."
"Perhaps. But... I... did not tell you the whole truth."
"But you did now."
"Will you... will you tell this to anyone else?"
Shinji shook his head.
"Who would believe me? Kaworu is a hero to our people as well. What good would come from them knowing that he's the enemy now? No, I won't tell anyone. We won't need to. We'll settle this once and for all ourselves. We'll kill Tabris. Then it won't matter anymore."
For the moment, the two remained silent, lost in thought, before Shinji spoke again.
"There's one more thing I'd like to know Rei. After we fought... Tabris said something. He said... that High Mage Gendo was my father. Is it true?"
For a moment, Rei pondered how to answer this. It would have been easier before this. But now... she felt she needed to be completely honest with him.
"I cannot say," she finally said. "I am not aware of the specifics of your lineage. I believe my mother may know, but I myself am unsure. However, you and the High Mage do share similar auras. He, just as you, carry the weight of the berserker. So... it is possible. But... do remember who said those words. Perhaps he said them to hurt you. Or maybe he said them to misguide you."
"Why didn't you tell me this before?"
Rei gazed at him with an odd look in her eye. "My relationship with my own mother is complex and... private. I was unsure how humans might deal with their familial relationships. I... did not know what to say."
"When it comes down to it, humans and elves really aren't too different, after all." Shinji sighed, but seemed more relaxed. "I guess I'll have to get the truth out him myself. Thank you, Rei. For being honest with me."
He walked past her and headed back into the palace. As he left, she called out to him.
"I... I did not know this Mana. But I... I wish I could have."
For her, Shinji's grateful smile lessened the horrors of this defiled room.
x o x
His head still in turmoil, Shinji walked through the castle corridors. He'd always wondered who were his parents, but had never thought he'd just one day find his father. And now he was going to confront the man and...
And then what? He hadn't spent much time with Gendo, but wasn't sure what he felt about the man. He seemed cold, distant, and uncaring. Shinji wasn't sure what to expect from his... father... but it was something he had to do.
Following the directions from a page, he moved deeper into the damaged castle. Approaching a room which had had its door violently ripped off, he heard the voice of the person he was looking for.
"What is the status of the High Priestess?"
"High Priestess Ritsuko has been relieved of her functions pending inquiry by the Church." He heard Misato reply. "Second Priestess Maya will replace her in her official functions until her case has been judged."
"Irrelevant. Continue with your report."
"Yes sir... we've dispatched a number of riders to forts and cities throughout the kingdom, including Kelethin, the elven capital, requesting aid and troops. We have supplies, but are dangerously short of manpower right now. I've given orders to be on the look out for the Fire Chosen, but we don't have the troops to form search parties."
Shinji stopped, hesitating. He didn't want witnesses to his meeting with his father. Better to come back after the White Knight had finished. Maybe he should try and find Asuka, figure out what had happened to her, why she had stabbed him...
"We've also captured a sizable number of prisoners." Misato's words brought Shinji to a halt. "About fifty or so pure dark elves, and maybe two hundred half elves. We're using the old Greenwood garrison as a temporary prison, reinforced with what mages and clerics we can spare."
"It was the oddest thing: after the King's... sacrifice... and that huge spell was cast, they just... stopped resisting. Almost like they didn't know what they were doing. And on our side... well..." For a professional soldier, she sounded embarrassed and somewhat confused. "After that spell, nobody could bring themselves to keep fighting. It just felt... wrong."
"Very well," said the High Mage. "Execute them."
"What?" All eyes turned to Shinji as he stormed into the room. Misato swiveled to face him, surprised. High Mage Gendo was standing to one side of a table, looking as unreadable as ever, and hiding his missing right hand in the folds of his robe. As well, Queen Yui was seated at the table. "You can't do that!"
"They are the enemy," the magus said, unmoved by the Wind Chosen's sudden arrival. "They would do the same to us."
"So, we just kill them all?"
"I won't let you do that!"
"Shinji..." Misato said, in wonderment. But Gendo cut her off.
"Your opinion does not matter."
"Yes it does! In case you've forgotten, I'm one of Lilith's Chosen!"
"A member of Lilith's Chosen is a soldier against actualized dark forces; the position does not grant you greater moral authority nor does it give you free reign to dictate policy to the rightful government," the High Mage said evenly. "Would you have us utilize limited resources to house enemies while our own people suffer?"
Shinji seemed to falter for a moment, but then fixed his gaze on the High Mage. "And what do you plan to do once the threat of Adam is gone?" he asked. "Just ignore the dark elves like we've done for the last three thousand years? We've seen the results of that. So we know that doesn't work, what then? Do we just go and slaughter them all, wipe them all out?"
"If necessary, yes."
"Then we're no better than them!" said Shinji, hitting the table with his fist. His rage boiled up but, trembling, he forced it back, needing to win this. "It's wrong of them to attack us, but it would be right for us to do the same? That sort of hypocrisy is the reason we've having this war right now! Because our ancestors were afraid of them, they chased them into exile in the Northern Wastes and figured the poison lands there would do the job for them! And you wonder why they hate us!"
"What should we do then, Wind Chosen?" asked Yui, her voice quiet. "Forgive them?"
Shinji paused, then sighed. "No. Whatever their reason, we can't excuse what they've done, just as they can probably never forgive how we treated them. But... it's got to end, and I mean without one side exterminating the other. They tried... but does that mean we have to as well? Have we ever tried to talk?"
"Talk?" asked Yui.
"Yes," said Shinji. "Talk to them. Weren't humans and the light elves once at war?"
"... Yes, that is true."
"And now we're not! We and the elves found common ground, maybe we can with the dark elves!"
Yui rubbed her hand where a wedding ring still sat. "Shinji... what you suggest... may not be possible."
"But did we ever try?" asked Shinji. "I made a promise to a friend, that I would try and find a way to save the both of our peoples. I intend to keep that promise."
"And if they refuse?"
"I'll kill Tabris. I'll stop the revival of Adam. And then, if the dark elves still attack us, I'll do what's necessary. But I refuse to give up just because it's hard."
"What you are suggesting is foolish," Gendo said firmly.
Shinji bristled at the words, the reason why he'd come here returning to his mind. "I made a promise. Unlike some, *I* don't plan on abandoning my responsibilities."
For a moment there was silence in the room, then Yui said, "Thank you, Dame Misato. That will be all. Return to your duties."
"Umm... yes, your Highness." Misato could feel the tension in the room, and after a small bow, gladly left. She did give Shinji's shoulder a small squeeze before she walked out.
Everyone waited until the receding boot steps had faded. And then... there was a very uncomfortable silence.
Finally, Yui stood up and walked around the table, her eyes shimmering. "Shinji..."
And he suddenly knew. He completely and utterly knew.
"Yes! Yes! Oh, Shinji, I'm so sorry!" Yui crossed the distance and wrapped her arms around her boy. Shinji just stood there, stunned. Gendo made no move to come closer, but he might have swallowed hard... or might not have. He was a hard man to read.
"You... you... you abandoned me!" Shinji wasn't sure he was angry, but he was certainly feeling something. It was huge and it was confusing and it made him feel all squished up inside, but he... he had found his parents!
"I know, I know. Please, listen to what we have to say." She led him to a chair and he fell into it. Yui pulled another one close and sat by him, keeping a grip on one of his hands.
"You must understand, Shinji, that leaving you was the hardest thing we've ever had to do. It wasn't a decision made easily, and in a way, it was for your protection."
"Yes. Before you were born, Kozo had married the daughter of the previous King, and they became the royal couple when she ascended the throne. But, unfortunately, she died in childbirth, taking her baby with her."
Yui sniffed. "Since he wasn't of royal blood, an opposition rose against Kozo being on the throne. We think it was stirred up by the Seele Syndicate, but have no proof. In any case, a civil war broke out, with one side supporting Kozo, and another supporting a rival.
"To end the war, Kozo sent the White Knight at the time," she motioned towards Gendo, "to search for someone with a bloodline connection to the old royal family. A marriage to such a bloodline would rob the opposition of much of their support. But, spies heard about the mission, and in a far off town in a remote section of the kingdom, he was ambushed."
She turned a small smile towards the High Mage. "I found him, wounded and near death, surrounded by a legion of dead enemies. I admit I was frightened by the fury in his eyes, but I was able to calm him down and in time, his wounds healed. During this period, we... we came to love each other."
Shinji looked over at his father, and the man nodded, coolly. "The civil war continued to rage, however, and the lands became more and more violent. I continued my search for the missing royal bloodline, and through research eventually found it belonged to a minor noble family that had left the capital generations before."
"A small noble family, of which I was the only person young enough left," Yui said sadly. "By the time we realized the truth, you were already on the way." She raised a hand towards his cheek, but stopped, sadly letting her hand fall. "Please understand, Shinji: we tried to live as a family. I never wanted to give you up. But the civil war became ever more bloody. After months of watching the people around us dying needlessly... I... we... made the hardest choice possible."
"So you abandoned me."
"Oh Shinji! I never wanted to! But Kozo needed a queen! And if people ever knew that the woman he had married had a child before our union, he would have lost all support and the kingdom would have fallen to its enemies! Your father and I would have been executed and there's no telling what would have happened to you!"
Yui sobbed quietly. "Your father said he would make sure you found a good home, and that he would keep an eye on you whenever he could. As queen, I never had the freedom to check up on you, but I hoped and prayed you would grow up safe." She turned a tear-filled glare towards the High Mage. "I... think your father was a bit lax in the number of times he checked up on you."
"It was important that secrecy be maintained. I could only observe him from a distance. As he grew older, I could visit him less often as I became busier."
Yui gave an unroyal-like snort through her tears. She turned back to her son. "And now you know. I'm so sorry. I know it doesn't make up for the years I was away, but please understand that we hid from you to protect you. I know we don't deserve your forgiveness, but please understand that we do love you, and we're so very, very proud of the man you've become."
Shinji remained silent for a moment, trying to digest all he's had heard. He could see his mother's desperate silent plea for forgiveness, but he just couldn't let himself be swayed by it. Not after all he'd endured for so long.
"Fine," he said. "I think I can understand your reason. I can understand... that there are some things you have to do... even if you hate yourself for it. But... Why didn't you tell me before? It's been months since I first came to Tokyo! I'm not stupid! I probably wouldn't have liked it, but I would have understood why you had to be quiet about this! Why did I have to learn the truth from the enemy of all people?"
"The dangers still exists," said Gendo. "We couldn't afford to take the chance. This very conversation is already risky enough as it is."
"I can understand about her!" said Shinji pointing to his mother, as he rose to glare at the High Mage. "But what about you? You're the one who sent Misato after me. That makes it obvious to anyone that you knew where to find me! And how many damn berserkers can be found alive? Surely some people were able to connect the dots! And Rei! She said we had the same auras! How many other mages like her would be able to figure it out?"
The weight of Shinji's words hit him as he said them.
"I'm sure High Priestess Ayanami knows," he hazarded to guess. "Misato probably knows too. And High Priestess Ritsuko, I'd wager. Is that why she had a grudge against me? Because of you?"
"It's possible. In the end, it doesn't matter. Mere suspicions are not enough for something of this gravitas. Your position as one of the Chosen gives us armor against rumor and slander. Without hard proof, no action can be taken."
Shinji's eyes narrowed.
"You never had any intention of telling me. If she hadn't told me, you would never have, would you?"
Before anyone could react, before Shinji himself realized it, he was in his father's face, his own twisted with... he didn't know what. So many emotions ran through his mind that the howling of the berserker was drown out. For a long moment father and son stared at each other, the son's desperate eyes locked on the father's emotionless ones. It would be easy, so easy... But instead, Shinji let himself go limp. He could have done it, could have punched the mage... his father. But what then? Would it change the past?
What would be the value of his earlier words about the dark elves if he himself couldn't let go of anger for his own family?
He rubbed his face, grimly realizing why his father didn't think much of his plan. It wasn't easy giving up on hate.
"So... what now? We act as if this conversation never happened?"
"The truth needs to remain hidden."
Shinji ignored the High Mage but instead turned to the queen.
"Shinji... I'm sorry... But with the death of Kozo, it's important, now more than ever, that our relation remains a secret. If it became known, Hikari's right to the throne could be put into question, which could lead to another civil war. We would be helpless against the forces of Adam."
Hikari... At the mention of the name, something clicked in Shinji's mind. He hadn't given it any thought until now, his thoughts already in turmoil with everything else...
By the Goddess! He had a sister! Not only had he found his parents, but he now had a sister as well!
And he couldn't tell her, Shinji realized. Not because it wasn't safe, or because they had to protect the kingdom, but for an even more basic reason.
The girl had just lost her father. How would she react if she now learned that her mother had another child before being married to her father? Would she start questioning whether her mother and father had loved each other? Would she feel betrayed?
How had his mother felt about King Kozo? She'd briefly explained why she'd married him. Had she loved him? Yes, she had, Shinji knew. He had watched, in stunned silence, when the King had died. The tears on the Queen's face had been real. Here he was, trying to coerce some answers from her… when she was grieving for her dead husband, a man whom he owed his life to.
Ashamed, confused, but at the same time, still angry, Shinji found himself at loss for words. Head low, he left the room, ignoring the queen as she called his name.
x o x
The gentle hum of divine magic issued from the priestess' hands. An open book of ritual prayers beside her, she chanted out a soft request for godly succor. Kensuke looked on as this Maya person held her glowing hands near Mayumi's branded chest. Normally he'd be little embarrassed over the sight of the two women close together, but now he was just wary about a member of the Church being so near Mayumi.
After a few more minutes of prayers, there was a sudden flash of light and warmth, but the mark on Mayumi's skin just above her left breast did not change. Maya sighed, and collapsed back into her chair.
Mayumi opened her eyes, her expression tight. She laced the front of her blouse closed. "It... It didn't work."
"I'm sorry. I really thought this one would be successful." Maya closed the ritual book and moved it to a large pile of other discarded books. "Unfortunately, the Disbarment Mark was designed to be difficult to remove. No one wanted a criminal to get it off easily."
"Mayumi's not a criminal!" Kensuke snarled.
Maya looked ashamed. "I'm sorry. Bad choice of words. But I'm afraid I can't find any information on removing an infidel mark." Chewing her lip for a moment, she then continued, "I don't think it's ever been done."
"Well, why don't we ask that bitch if she knows something?"
"Please don't refer to Lady Ritsuko like that."
"You can't be defending her, after what she did to Mayumi? She's the criminal here! Why don't we brand her?"
Maya's eyes widened. "P-please! I'm not defending what she did. I'm sure she was acting on faulty information. Let's not lose our heads-"
"That's not a bad idea either. Got an axe?"
"Kensuke," Mayumi said softly. He ground his teeth, but quieted down. After a moment, she turned to Maya. "So... I will never be able to use magic again?"
"I'm sorry, no." Mayumi nodded sadly.
"How come that miracle healing didn't repair this?" Kensuke asked.
"I can give you a whole lot of ideas about that, but the final answer is that I don't know why Lilith's healing didn't affect this."
Mayumi was silent for a time. "So that's it; I am no longer a priestess."
"What do you mean?" Kensuke demanded. "You've still got the training, the knowledge, the whatever it is that makes a priestess. So you can't toss around the light show anymore? How does that change anything?"
"It's not that simple," Maya said gently. "A member of the clergy has to able to offer moral guidance-"
"Really? I haven't seen much of that lately."
Maya winced. "True. But ideally, that's the case. A tangible sign of our morality and faith is the ability to utilize Lilith's holy magic. At one point, long ago, channeling holy magic wasn't required to be a priest. But as the decades and centuries passed, it became looked for, then expected. Finally, the weight of expectation and tradition made it required. Today, for someone to call themselves a priestess without actually being able to use a simple healing prayer..."
"But she's still a good woman! Better than the lot of you!"
"She can still lead a virtuous life," Maya argued. "She can still help people."
"But not as part of the Church."
"As part of the congregation, yes... but she will never receive recognition as a priestess. I'm truly sorry."
"What about her songstress magic? It's still useable. Couldn't she use that?"
"That's something too dangerous to use freely. And anyone trained in the mystic arts could tell there is something wrong with her casting the moment she tried to use it."
"That sucks!" Kensuke roared. Things weren't suppose to end like this, damn it!
While they were talking, Mayumi had kept her hands tightly clenched together on her lap. Now she sighed and bowed her head. "Thank you for looking into this, Second Priestess. I realize your time is important."
"I know my words probably won't matter, but I am sorry for this. Truly."
Mayumi nodded, then rose to her feet. She turned and headed out of the office. Kensuke followed.
He hated it, but he was at a loss for words. Mayumi paused for a moment, then without facing him said, "I... need some time by myself. Please."
"Don't give up hope! Setbacks happen all the time in stories. There has to be a way, there has to! We just haven't looked hard enough yet."
She turned to him, a small smile on her face. The bard was momentarily stunned with just how serene and beautiful she looked just then. "Thank you for getting me out of that dungeon. I really do appreciate what you did for me. Your words, your actions... they saved me. They gave me courage to face what I fear. Now, I need some time to think about things."
"... Alright. But promise me," he swallowed. "Promise me you won't give up hope."
"Never. Not anymore." He nodded, and for a second he thought he should hug her... or something... but the moment passed. Sighing at his own cowardice, he turned and walked away.
After the bard had left, the girl sighed. "I won't lose hope, but there are some things that can't be undone."
x o x
Down beneath the chambers of the royal castle lay the royal crypt. Generations of kings and queens slept there, deep below the city yet still far above the fabled resting place of Lilith's most holy temple. It was here Yui found her daughter standing in front of her father's stone coffin.
Her earlier encounter with her son had left her shaken. As much as she had hoped for their reunion, it was also a moment she had dreaded more than any other and now her fears had been confirmed.
He probably would never forgive her; and she couldn't blame him. No apologies, no matter how heartfelt, no excuses, no matter how justified, could erase years of aching loneliness. And if that wasn't enough, she had basically asked her beautiful boy to forget that she was his mother.
How could anyone ever forgive that?
This wasn't the first ordeal Yui had had to face. As always, she would endure and move on. And though she couldn't be a mother to her son, it was important, now more than ever, that she be there for her daughter. To assist her with the destiny that awaited her.
The sound of her steps probably told her daughter of her presence, as the princess turned to silently greet her. The girls face was a mask of stoicism, though Yui could see through and see the grief she was trying to hide. That, and her eyes were still red from the tears she had privately shed.
Wordlessly, Yui hugged her child. The girl... the young woman... returned the simple gesture of affection. After a moment they parted and both looked at the coffin before them. The stone was unmarked, with no heraldry or cravings to identify the man lying beneath it. With a city torn apart, those skilled in stonework were busy helping shelter the living.
Turning towards her daughter, Yui was surprised to note that she was now as tall as she was. And Yui knew that her daughter had grown more than just physically. Her stay in Darnk, the hardships she had faced: they had changed her. Her daughter was no longer a little girl. Even her hair was testament of the change, the brown mane no longer tired into ponytails but rather flowing freely.
Her babies were gone, grown into a man and a woman she was so proud of. A son who was going off to war, and a daughter who had her own battles to fight. Yui smiled, blinking back tears. It was time.
To Hikari's shock, Yui removed her own jewel-encrusted tiara, the proof of her status as Queen of Japan.
"Mother, what are you...?"
The queen ignored the question and put the tiara on her daughter's head.
"His Majesty, King Kozo of the kingdom of Japan, Defender of Lilith, First Lord of the Realm, Sovereign of Nippon, has died," said Yui reverently. "Bravely, he gave his life for the sake of his people. And so, I entrust this to you, his heir, with all his privileges and responsibilities." The older woman knelt in front of the younger one. "Long live Queen Hikari."
For a moment, Hikari could only stare at her mother in shock, before regaining her composure.
"Mother! Please, get up."
Yui did as her sovereign commanded, and could only smile with pride at the sight of her daughter. Her whole life Hikari had been working towards this moment, and dutifully her daughter had done all that had been asked of her, to the utmost of her abilities. And here she was now: the ruler of a nation.
"It's heavy," Hikari said, reaching up to hesitantly touch the small crown.
"Responsibility always is," Yui answered, knowing all too well the weight that now rested on her daughter's shoulders.
"I'm not sure I'm ready for this."
"There's no other choice. Our country is on the verge of destruction. Our people will need someone to lead them, a symbol to rally to. I can't be that person. But you can. And I know you will."
Hikari didn't seem as certain as her mother. "I..."
"You aren't alone. I will still be there for you. As will Dame Misato. As will the Chosen as well."
The latter seemed to draw a reaction from the new Queen, who suddenly showed more confidence.
"I... You're right. I'm not alone." Hikari touched the tiara again, as if to verify its presence on her head. "Was that really all we needed to do to proclaim someone sovereign?"
The former queen shrugged. "Probably not. There are specific protocols after all. But we're in a time of crisis, so protocols be damned. To me, only one witness matters, and we are standing before him."
Hikari nodded, as she gave another look at her father's coffin.
"And besides, who will complain?" continued Yui. "Those nobles who would raise issue have already fled the city for parts unknown. I doubt they will be back before all this is over, assuming we survive."
Hikari smiled at that.
"Good. At least I won't have to worry about one of them trying to marry me to get the throne."
At those words, Yui gave Hikari a serious look.
"About that... Hikari. As you know, I've married your father for political reasons. For the sake of the kingdom, the king needed the queen, and so I left what life I had and took this role. But your father... He was a brave, kind and gentle man. A man I grew to love dearly."
"I wanted you to know this, Hikari. I loved your father. You weren't born because we needed a child to inherit the crown. You were born because we loved each other. Whatever anyone says, be confident in that."
Hikari nodded, tears wetting her eyes. Yui realized that her own tears were clouding her vision.
"I will, mother."
"As for you..." continued Yui. "I want you to know that I will support any choice you make. So... whom ever you chose to be our next king... I want you to choose with your heart. I've already put enough responsibilities on your shoulders as it is. You should at least have some degree of freedom and happiness."
"I..." for a moment the young woman seemed at a loss for words. "We'll see what happens. There are myriad of other things to occupy my attention right now."
"Indeed. And I'm afraid there are more pressing matters to attend to. Hikari. I've... I've had a discussion with the Wind Chosen before coming here. The subject was... delicate. His words sounded right, but what he asks of us... It's something... it's a decision I couldn't make. I don't believe I could face myself with either choice. Whatever you decide, it will have an impact on generations to come. So I believe it should be your decision to make. As the one representing the future, as the one inheriting your father's will, I believe you will make the right choice for us all."
The young woman swallowed hard... before she gave her mother a serious look.
"Tell me what this is about..."
x o x
Shaken by his discussion with his parents, Shinji wandered for hours until he found his way to his room. It had been mostly spared from the battle, and for a little while, he escaped his worries through exhaustion-fueled dreamless sleep.
Upon waking up, Shinji found it easier to sort his thoughts. For now, he desired to put the matter of his parents aside. It was important to him, but not a priority. There were other things to worry about first.
And so, wearing a borrowed Royal Guards uniform, Shinji stood before the sealed doors. He'd not actually seen the devastation on Tokyo's streets before this trip, and passing through the throngs of survivors had been more difficult than he'd imagined. Blocks and blocks had been flattened by artillery magic, or where the Holy Armors and Kagenoshi had done battle. Where once tall, occupied buildings reached skyward to make the city feel claustrophobic, now vast open spaces where only rubble stood filled the streets.
There were no injured, the King's sacrifice had seen to that, but there were many, many dead. The air stank with the smell of blood and decaying flesh.
Survivors huddled, worked, cried. Many citizens had passed through this horror, but lost people they cared about. This was the cost of war, Shinji came to realize. Not only a price paid in lives, but a toll in suffering for those left behind.
Still, he'd come to this place because he had to. He marched up and knocked on the gates of Greenwood Garrison, now a prisoner of war internment camp.
After a few moments a small, slim pale girl with long white hair and golden eyes wearing an immaculate uniform of Lilith's Iron Chain Holy Knights opened the gate. "Yes?"
"I am Shinji, the Wind Chosen. I... would like to see inside."
The girl, who for some reason reminded Shinji vaguely of Rei, bowed to him. "Of course, Holy Sentinel. I am Kanade. Please, follow me." She led him past a number of grim looking guards into an open-aired central area.
Here, several barracks opened up into a main courtyard. There were soldiers, clerics, knights and mages manning the walls, and Shinji could feel the pressure of an active magic barrier over the whole area.
But what really caught the eye were the groups of dark elves and half-elves around. He could see over a hundred of them, spread throughout the courtyard in small packs, so a single area of effect spell couldn't get more than one group. They didn't speak much, but Shinji could feel them watching... watching him, watching the guards, watching for any change, any chance. More than the barrier, he could feel the pressure of coiled expectation.
Shinji swallowed. "Have... have there been escape attempts?"
"Yes," his guide said. "A few have made attempts while others provided distractions. But Touma blocked all mystic attempts, and once Mikoto showed off her 'railgun' spell, they've been quiet."
She was silent for a moment, then bowed to him again. "If you will excuse me, I must get to my rounds." She started to walk towards the yard. Shinji blinked.
"Is it safe for you to be out there?"
"Guard skill: hand sonic," the girl said softly. Blades appeared at her forearms. "Quite safe."
After the girl had moved off, Shinji spent some time just standing there, watching the prisoners. Looking at them he could see little differences in how they moved, or how they spent their time, that made them seem alien; not human. And that was the truth: they weren't human.
But neither was Myssa, completely. And they'd managed to get along... other than the whole being a spy to kill him bit.
And even if he accepted the dark elves weren't human... well, neither was Rei. And in fact, just watching these dark elves and half-elves made it clear to him that in some ways, Rei was more an alien than these people were.
He looked at the guards patrolling the perimeter. It was a mix of regular army, Royal Guards, mages, and holy knights. They were all wary, and nervous, but also grim and angry. They had just survived a horrible invasion and had the perpetrators of the attack here before them. Most looked down upon the dark elves with raw hatred.
"For three millennia your people and the elves have rejected us! Feared us! Demonized us!"
Those were Myssa's words, spoken to him as she tried to kill him. And turning back to look into the eyes of the prisoners he realized they were not justification, but desperation.
The dark elves hated. The humans hated. Deep in his soul, the berserker that tainted his thoughts hated. Enough hate to drown the world in it.
It was a tragic waste.
x o x
Standing atop the shattered remains of the Earth Tower, Touji grimly stared out at the ruins of the city. He could see groups of people moving through the rubble, salvaging what they could and clearing away what they couldn't. He wanted to help rebuild this place like he'd done for years with his own village, but deep down he knew his help would be in another form. And if he failed... well, then it probably wouldn't matter if that rubble was cleared away or not.
And failure... that weighted on him. Because he had to admit that one enemy commander, Bardiel, had bested him.
Oh sure, he had held off the enemy forces and rallied his own side, but that freakishly large dark elf had had his number. During their whole battle Touji had been pushed to the edge and had come close to death more times than he cared to admit. Damn it! It stung his pride, but Bardiel was simply better than him. That dark elf was faster, stronger, had more combat experience than him, and... the freak was also smarter. If they met again it would be his own death, and Touji knew they would meet. If asked, he would be unable to explain why; deep in his bones, he just knew.
This whole destiny thing was really quite vexing.
Well, as he'd told his gang of thieves, if ya couldn't win in a fair fight... cheat.
Kneeling down, Touji picked up a piece of broken debris. Even as a novice in the whole magic thing, Touji could still feel concentrated Earth prana saturating the fist-sized piece of rock. It was a stone from the same tower he'd used to make that enormous lance the previous day. Most had been consumed in making that weapon, but a few small pieces had escaped his grasp. Until now.
Hopefully, more than enough remained.
"Hey, armor. Ya hear me?"
"Affirmative," boomed the voice of the Earth Holy Armor in his mind.
"Good. I'm gonna need yer help with something if ya don't mind."
x o x
Shinji didn't know how long he had stood there, just staring at the dark elves and half-elves before him. He only came out of his ruminations when he heard some activity happening in the guard house above and behind him. Turning, he looked but didn't see anything troublesome; just a number of nervous-looking and well armed Royal Guards taking stations. He sighed and turned back to the courtyard and his thoughts.
So caught up in his own previous moody introspection, Shinji had been unaware that while watching the dark elves, more and more of them had been turning their gazes towards him. Only after turning back to the courtyard did he realize that every dark skinned face was now turned his way. He blinked, feeling uncomfortable under the weight of all those stares. Where before there had been a sense of unfocused anger simmering in the courtyard, now the sharp tang of fear filled the air.
They recognized him, he realized. They recognized him and while they hated him, they feared him more. They were, he suddenly realized, waiting for him to kill them.
He could feel it: that sense of horrible fear that rose in his guts when facing a Kagenoshi. That same helpless terror was emanating from the prisoners. He was their death made flesh, the nightmare to end all their struggles in better defeat. Lilith's monster who would kill them and their race, undoing all their hard sacrifices.
Considering he still had trouble with people willing to venerate him, this was a whole new kind of upsetting.
He took a number of deep breaths to steady himself. It had to start somewhere, he realized. This was why he was here. Why he'd given priority to this visit. If Myssa's hopes were to come true, someone had to do something different. Clenching his right hand into a fist, he walked towards the nearest group.
The prisoners noticeably tensed as he approached. Behind him he could feel the Royal Guards shifting uncomfortably as he walked away from his fellow humans. He stopped a little more than an arms length away from the closest grouping, his swords still sheathed. He looked into their defiant yet frightened eyes as everyone stared at him. Around him, he could feel the crushing weight of his actions pressing down on his shoulders and making his muscles tense. Everything was riding on this moment, everything Myssa had told him, these people's futures and what humanity would do to a captured nation.
And then he suddenly realized he didn't know what to say.
"Err...uh... I'm looking for Myssa. I-is she here?"
A flicker of something may have passed through the eyes of the three closest half-elves, two men and a woman, but he couldn't be sure. For a long moment nobody spoke, before one of the dark elves, a woman wearing glass and having her hair in two long tails replied. "Are you to start with her?"
"You're here to kill us. We tried to kill you all and we failed; so now we die." She sneered. "Well, she's not here, executioner. She was on assignment and wasn't part of the invasion. She, at least, is out of your bloody reach!"
"So she's not here? She wasn't killed in the invasion?" He sighed in relief. "I'm... glad."
"Glad?" One of the male half-elves said sharply. "What do you know about Lady Myssa?"
"She traveled with my friends and I for awhile," he saw the dark elf's eyes narrow. "I know her assignment was... was to kill me."
"Obviously she failed."
"Not for lack of trying," Shinji said, rubbing his right arm.
"So now you want to find her and finish it?"
"No, not finish. Well, not that way. I... I want the fighting to stop."
The dark elf woman looked puzzled. "We're finished. You'll kill us and then you'll have your peace."
"I... I don't want your people to die."
"We will not be enslaved!"
"I don't want you to be slaves, either! Look... is there some way we can live without needing to fight each other?"
He wasn't sure what kind of reaction he was expecting from his words, but complete confusion certainly wasn't it.
"We must fight."
The dark elf blinked. "Why? Because life is struggle. Because there is no place for us in this world if we do not fight. Look at us, human. We are different from you. We were born from Adam's gift to replace you, to be better than you. But we failed. We were cast out and hunted like beasts. Since the Black Wars we have clawed for our place in the world. For thousands of years your kind has fought us, denied us, forced us onto the most inhospitable sliver of land!
"This is our legacy, our birthright. We were born into violent struggle, and by Adam, we will not go quietly!"
"But... but look where you are now," Shinji tried. "Is this how you wanted it to be?"
"No. I wanted your people broken and enslaved! We should have been victorious. We would have been had we not been betrayed, yet again!" The dark elf woman glared at him. "We've been betrayed, human. By our birth into a world that hates us, by our cousins the light elves who live lives in paradise while we struggle for simple foodstuffs, by Lilith who cares not for our plight, by our lands that everyday make us bleed.
"And then, at our moment of triumph, we were betrayed once more; this time by the Kagenoshi." The bitterness in the woman's voice was harsh. "Betrayal, betrayal, betrayal. That, human, is why we must fight."
Bitterness, rage, desperation, hate. It was all there, Shinji realized. And there wasn't anything he could do about it. He couldn't change the world, couldn't change the way people thought, they acted.
There was a commotion behind him, the sound of armed people moving. The group in front of him stepped back, wary and alert. Turning, he saw a large number of soldiers entering the courtyard, forming a wall of steel and magic.
This was it, he thought. They were here to finish things. He could sense the dark elves tense themselves, getting ready for whatever would happen.
He had to stop this, had to prevent... Hikari descending from the guardhouse?
The Wind Chosen looked on, stunned, as Hikari walked down into the courtyard, a veritable army at her side. Holding a familiar scepter, the scepter her father had used to summon Lilith's power, she advanced towards Shinji and the group he was with, nervous looking bodyguards beside her.
"Sir Shinji. I wish to speak with the prisoners." She strode up beside him, but looked instead at the people before her. The dark elves looked back with calculating eyes, judging distances.
Nervous himself, Shinji grasped his Wind Crest, creating an eddy current of air that blew towards the prisoners. He didn't want to hurt them, but he couldn't let them try and take out Hikari.
For long moments there was no speaking, only the whisper of air and the sounds of uncomfortable shuffling. Finally, the young woman spoke. "I am Queen Hikari, ruler of this nation. What is your name?"
The dark elf woman in front of her kept her eyes fixed on the young human before her. "I am Makinami. Come to savor our deaths, little one?"
"Many have counseled me to do just that. I thought that if I should start my reign with executions, I should at least see the ones responsible for bringing so much death." Shinji swallowed painfully.
"Obviously we did not bring enough death," Makinami said coolly. "Otherwise it would be you awaiting our judgment."
Hikari returned her cool gaze. After a moment she looked at the others there, the half-elves among them. Her eyes wandered over the other groups. Finally she spoke again. "What is it you want?"
"You attacked our home for a reason. What is it?"
Makinami raised her head and stared down her elfin nose at the young girl. "We want all you humans to lie beneath our feet. We want your blood staining our blades. We want you dead."
Shinji felt sick.
Hikari said nothing for a long time, staring at the prisoners. She looked into those non-human features before her, searching for something.
"You are wrong."
"What? Who are you to tell me what my people want? I tell you, we want all you humans-"
"-Dead. Yes, you already said that. But you are mistaken." Hikari turned back to Makinami and fixed her with royal displeasure. "You are mistaking the means for the end. Us dying will not give you what it is you truly want, it is only a step along the way. Ignore the steps, what do you really want?"
Shinji could read the confusion in faces of the prisoners, and could understand it himself. He was confused as well. Just what was Hikari doing? Makinami turned and looked at her people, wondering just what was going on here. Finally she turned back to her enemies and said uncertainly, "To live in healthy lands. To be free of the Northern Wastes."
"And you can not do this because we humans prevent you from leaving the Wastes."
"That's right," Makinami's conviction returned. "And that is why you must die."
Hikari nodded. "I too, have something I truly want. I want my subjects to life full lives, free of fear. The best way to ensure that is to remove enemies who would endanger them."
Makinami nodded, grimly. "And for you to have what you truly desire, we must die."
"It certainly would grant me the removal of an enemy," Hikari said. "And so many have recommended it. But... again, you mistake steps for the goal."
"Would you still fight... if you had what you truly desired?"
"What is a life, away from the Northern Wastes, on fertile land, worth to you?"
There was silence for a long moment as everybody stared at the young Queen. Suddenly, the half-elf woman in the group stepped forward, her face livid. "W-what is this? I-is it n-not enough to kill us? You want to break us with... with false hope first?"
"Soriel," one of the half-elf males said, coming up to place a hand on her shaking shoulder.
"No Kimiurel! I-it's a trick! A-another trick! Like that spell they used on us, to end our attack! It made me h-hurt inside! I haven't been hurt like that since... since... Haven't we been through enough?" Lip trembling, she turned to face the humans while Soriel put an arm around her shoulders. "Bring your t-tornadoes, Wind Chosen! Steal the air from our lungs! Do... do whatever it is you're going to do! J-just get it over with!"
Shinji was actually taken back by the hopeless fury directed his way. He'd recognized the fear of the dark elves earlier, but had never expected it to be this... naked.
Hikari looked at the half-elf woman. "That spell you felt was the last thing my... father did. He did it to save peoples lives. I don't know if he intended for it to affect you, but it did. Maybe..." she swallowed. "Maybe he gave his life so that we might learn that fact."
She faced Makinami again, and her gaze was much softer than it had been before. "When that miracle touched me, I felt loved, I felt understood, I felt... a little ashamed for some of the things I'd done. But most of all, I felt like someone understood, someone sympathized. I was not alone." She swept her gaze over the prisoners. "What did you feel?"
"Think back," Hikari pushed. "Remember how it felt, how you responded. What did it make you feel?"
Makinami shifted uncomfortably. Behind her glasses her eyes were shimmering slightly. "I felt... it made me feel... weak."
"No, weak's the wrong word," the other male half-elf said, uncertainly. "It was something else..."
"Sammael's right; not weak." Kimiurel said. "I felt... I felt..."
Hikari looked up at them. "It felt like finally understanding the difference between being hard, and being strong."
The dark elves who could overhear the conversion –- and with their hearing that was most of them - looked unsettled, a feeling being shared by the nearby humans. It was silent for awhile, as even the Wind Chosen let the air current he was generating dissipate. Finally Hikari spoke again.
"I know we've been fighting each other for centuries. But that doesn't mean we must do so until one side or other are destroyed. My people were once at war with the light elves. Mistrust, hate and fear drove us into conflict with them, but it didn't end with genocide. It ended because we found a way to coexist. It's possible."
Hikari drew herself up to the full of her height. "Not all of our nation has been colonized, or even adequately explored since the Black Wars. What remains of Kyushu and Shikoku are still unclaimed wilderness. Life there would not be easy, but compared to the Northern Wastes, it might be bountiful."
Makinami shook her head slowly. "Too much has happened to-"
"I said it was possible," Hikari snapped. "I didn't say it would be easy." She collected herself for a moment, then continued more calmly. "Some will not accept this. Those that fight because of blind hate will never be satisfied; they will always find something else to fight over. But, I have learned that most people fight for something constructive." A playful smile came to her lips. "Even bandits can have hope for a better tomorrow."
"Why now?" Makinami asked. "Why offer us this, when you could get all you want?"
"Because in all the long years we have been fighting, I doubt our two peoples ever honestly talked before. It was merely raid for raid, blood for blood. Hate and fear blinded both sides. Maybe Lilith needed to remind both sides that being strong does not mean making other weak."
Makinami stared at the young Queen as she considered. "I... we will need some time to think about what you have said."
Hikari nodded regally. "Speak with your people. I can not give you much time, but I can allow you some discussion among yourselves." Stepping back, she turned away, her guards following.
Shinji looked at the dark elves, who still appeared shocked and amazed, before turning away as well and moving to join the departing queen. As he moved up beside her, he wet his lips.
"Umm... your Majesty. Thank you."
Near the exit doors, Hikari stopped and faced him. "I had a discussion with my mother. She told me what you said. Part of me thought it was pure idealism. Part of me still thinks so. But then I wondered what my father would have said. And I believe he would have agreed with you, Sir Shinji... you are right. Many will not agree, but you are probably right. The only way the world will be a better place is if we choose to make it that way."
"I'm glad you came. I couldn't have convinced them to listen. I couldn't have offered them anything."
Hikari nodded. "I came here as soon as possible. I had to do it now." She turned her face away from him. "I'm going to tour my home now, Sir Shinji, and see what has happened to my city and my people. If it's as bad as they say... Lilith forgive me, I might not have been able to do what I just did."
"Your Highness..." Shinji hesitated. Now that the matter of the dark elves was somewhat settled, Shinji found his thoughts suddenly focused on the young woman before him. His sister, whom had just lost her father not even a day before. He still didn't know her well, nowhere near as well as he should have, but he knew enough to tell that she was using the mask of her duties to hide her pain. Somehow, he felt he had to do something for her. After all, his life had been one of those the king had sacrificed himself to save. And she was a friend. And dammit, she was his sister! Even if she didn't know, even if he could tell her, didn't he at least have some responsibilities towards her? Yet, Shinji found himself at a loss. He had no idea what to say, or do, to help her.
"I'm sorry..." was all he managed to say in the end. And he was. He was sorry for having been too weak, for not defeating Tabris when he had the chance. For not being a better brother. For not being able to think of anything more significant to say.
Yet, for a second, the Queen turned and the mask disappeared, replaced by a small, grateful smile. And then she left.
[To be continued in Part 2...]