Chapter 8

Ashes to Ashes

Rath sat on a chair along the wall, feet tucked under and rested on the crossbars. He'd barely moved since he'd helped bring Cesia and Bierrez back with Garfakcy sometime earlier. Bierrez had only been concussed, if rather brutally—physical evidence of Garfakcy's irritation with having been hit twice with the Red Dragon Officer's feathery dart-like weapons. Really, Bierrez was lucky he'd only been concussed. Kharl had tended to Garfakcy while they waited for their… guest to wake up.

Cesia, on the other hand, hadn't been as fortunate. She'd been brought back dead. Not that this was a problem—it had just taken a bit more work to bring her back to full consciousness. Several vital organs had been damaged when she'd been stabbed. Rath hadn't been gentle. But finally she woke up, groggy and confused at first, then suddenly alert as she realized where she was. She struggled futilely for a few seconds against her restraints—more like experimental twisting to test that she was, indeed, stuck. It would be difficult to get out of those restraints. Then, with a small shoulder-loosening shrug, she slumped back, seemingly accepting her position as hostage, and turned to the one confusing element in the room.

She pinned Rath with a questioning stare.

"What are you doing here, Rath? What are you doing with him?" She didn't look at Kharl when she said it, as though refusing to acknowledge his existence for the time being. Rath was the only one she saw—the only one that mattered. "Don't you remember us at all?!"

Kharl felt a strange sense of irritation nag at him, particularly when Rath continued to stare at her, half as though her words aggravated him and half as though she were some sort of puzzle to be figured out. Kharl didn't like the way Rath watched her at all.

"Kharl…" Rath turned to him questioningly. "Why does she know my name?"

"She just wants to confuse you," Kharl replied, staring at Cesia as though daring her to contradict him. Rath brushed a hand against his temple, and then quickly turned the gesture into a sweeping motion as if to push stray strands of hair out of his eyes a little too late. Kharl caught him by the wrist and jerked the boy up into his arms. Rath stiffened at first, surprised, but didn't pull away. One hand rose slowly, uncertainly, to catch in the alchemist's sleeve, steadying them. Kharl brushed Rath's temple with the cool fingertips of one hand, echoing the boy's earlier movement. Rath's eyelids swept shut at the touch. Kharl whispered into his ear. "Does it hurt?" Maybe Cesia's presence was putting pressure on the spell that kept Rath's memories dormant. There really was no point in pushing it further. Cesia was watching the two of them with a very unhappy look on her face. Smirking knowingly at her over Rath's shoulder, he whispered again, "Maybe you should step outside for awhile."

Cesia's eyes darkened watching them, but there was nothing she could do when Rath nodded vaguely in response to Kharl's suggestion, and releasing him, walked out the door.

In the hall, away from Kharl's protective gaze, Rath clutched his head and stumbled against the wall. He'd hoped getting away from that girl would make the pain dissipate. But the headache that had plagued him ever since seeing her for the first time seemed to be increasing instead, jabbing into his skull, prizing apart his mind.

"Ugh." He moaned, doubling over as his vision blurred. Who was she, this Cesia? And what was it about her that left him with a feeling like déjà-vu and a horrible headache? The cold stone of the wall seemed to ease the pain a bit at least. He pressed his forehead against it wearily and wrapped one arm around his own waist, curling in on himself tightly.

"Rath." It was an all too familiar voice. He lifted his eyes, peering down the long, empty hall. Funny, was Garfakcy calling him? Was that Garfakcy's voice? He shook his head, trying to clear it, then immediately moaned and pressed it back against the cold wall. But the voice was compelling, and despite the pain, he found himself getting to his feet. He was surprised for a second to find himself suddenly standing, but then the voice called again…

"Rath." And he found himself following it, treading across the cold stone down the hallway. That sound… it wasn't Garfakcy. But it was achingly familiar and distant, like a very old memory, a precious memory—one he couldn't quite recall. His feet found their way blindly down a flight of stairs, then down another. Still so far away. As he mused over the voice, it called again, slightly louder this time, closer, and he suddenly remembered where he'd heard it recently. His dreams.

With a startled cry, he jerked, flinching away from the voice. But there was no escape. His feet continued to carry him forward, one step then another, down cold hallways. The voice, ever present, calling him, compelling him. Rath could only watch, mesmerized, unable to fight off the compulsion that was dragging him onward.

There was the lightest pressure in his head now, apart from the headache, and as he traversed deeper into the castle, it increased. The voice was louder now too—louder, closer. And the further down he went, down flights of stairs and along passageways he couldn't recall having ever seen, the more control the compulsion seemed to have over him. He began to feel wrapped up inside himself, unable to run, unable to scream. And the pressure by the end of it was a terrible thing, like the edge of a knife pressed to his consciousness. And just when he thought he could stand no more, he came to a sudden halt in front of a large wooden door. Strange symbols he couldn't read had been burned into the wood and large chains wrapped around it.

As he stood there, staring at it, the pressure in his skull suddenly grew to a deafening crescendo. Already weakened by Cesia and Bierrez's arrival, the first memory spell shattered easily. Rath gasped under the sudden deluge of memories. Illuser. The Dragons. A Fire Knight. Cesia… oh heck, Cesia! Rath's eyes opened wide.

But before he could dwell too much on the details, the pressure returned, stabbing into old memories. This time there was no spell to break, only years and years worth of repression. Sensing what was coming, Rath tried futilely to twist away from the probing presence in his mind. There were some things he didn't want to remember. But it was no use. Mercilessly, his memories were pulled to the surface, flick flick flick. Kharl. Black wings. The people of Arinas. A black-clad king. Dying…

Rath lost consciousness for a moment under the deluge, drowning in the memory…

As… annoying as it was, death had never really bothered Rath. Or at least, it didn't frighten him. So what if the King of Arinas killed him now? Kharl would just bring him back, perhaps with some sort of lecture on responsibility. Not that he intended to die; on the contrary, he had no intentions of letting himself be killed… After all, death might not frighten him, but it wasn't exactly pleasant either. The first time had been the worst, not knowing what to expect, that falling feeling of helplessness as the world faded away. That first time… it had frightened him. He'd been young and inexperienced, and the villagers had been desperate to wound Kharl in any way they could, and torturing any demons wandering innocently through the woods counted just fine. Unfortunately, having snuck out of the castle, Rath had fallen into that category. He had not appreciated the hour of sharp knives and searing torches and clawing hands and brutal kicks that had ultimately left him to face the terrifying darkness of death, cold and alone.

When he'd woken up sometime later, he'd found himself settled peacefully back in his own bed, Kharl's long fingers brushing his cheek, and he'd thrown himself around the older man, crying inconsolably from the memory of it all and shuddering. And Kharl had whispered that it was alright, that they'd never hurt him again, and held him close until he'd drifted back into fitful sleep. At the time, Rath had thought Kharl meant he'd protect him, but looking back now… Rath was pretty sure Kharl had just killed them. Kharl didn't tolerate anyone who messed with him or his.

Two things had resulted from that particular experience however… Rath didn't feel the desire to sneak out of the castle again for a long time. And secondly, when he was older and free to wander wherever he wished, he felt no qualms about taking human life. Living with Kharl probably didn't help. But Kharl's interest in the local human population was more along the line of scientific discovery, and he was content to ignore the vast majority of them, except for one or two here and there for a research project or if they posed a threat. Rath, on the other hand, often went out of his way to kill them, slaughtering indiscriminately whenever he felt particularly vengeful, or just plain bored. After all, Kharl was often holed up in his study with a book or a project, leaving Rath to his own devices, and the local human population was an endless source of amusement. It wasn't long before rumor of him—of the Demon King of Arinas—spread across the country.

Ultimately, it was this tendency that brought divine retribution down upon their heads…

And this time… this time as he realized it was a trap, as the magic gripped him, held him immobile… as the King of Arinas gazed at him sadly… this time something was different.

He felt the lightning-spot pain as the twin rods pierced his body, slid through easily into the stone beneath. And he smiled. As he lay there dying, his life's blood pouring out of him onto the stone floor… he grinned up at the king until the end. It wouldn't be until years later that he'd find out the king's fate, but he knew even then something of what awaited the man when Kharl found out…

But this death wasn't like the first. Instead of an aimless sort of drifting darkness, this felt… confining. Sealed. Without a body, he lacked the sight to see what exactly was happening, but he felt it as the lid of the coffin was sealed shut, as his world narrowed down to six walls and a span of several feet.

Trapped forever, unable to drift freely in the soul-releasing numbness that should have been death and equally unable to wake up, it didn't take long for him to break. During those days, weeks, months, years of total darkness Rath quickly lost track of time. At first he was patient, waiting, watching, brushing lightly against the walls of his prison. But the longer the silence pressed upon him, the more he began to despair. Endless sunless hours were spent alternating between frustrated sobbing and screaming, then dissolving into hopeless, hysterical laughter. Not that there was anything funny about his predicament. But then there were times when he'd come back to himself and realize that he had no idea what he'd been doing or thinking for the last hour or day or week—who could really say how long? And as years stretched into centuries he spent less and less time in full consciousness.

Summary: Of course, by the time Rath gets released from his prison, he's in Kainaldia borrowing the body of a dog named Illuser, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Really, I don't know if he even realizes that he's free, because after centuries of going slowly insane, the world is just another box with very wide walls.

He comes back to himself, standing in the hall in Kharl's castle, the wards on the door shattering before him, because after all, the spells are Kharl's, and he's part of Kharl too. As the door swings open, the thing inside is released: a soul, trapped for centuries in that room the same way he was trapped in a box, and shattered beyond any hope of sanity. From his experience with sharing Kharl's soul, Rath is now able to recognize the familiar pull of a shared soul. And unfortunately, it wants the piece Rath has back…

It lashes out at Rath—at the part of itself it can feel inside him, trying to tear it free, even while using their connection to hold him immobile.

Kharl feels it instantly, as he is also connected to the boy, and he knows… The puzzle falls together for him—the mistake of bringing Rath back where the pieces of his soul would be closer than ever, able to call to each other and gain strength from the proximity even through the block of time-worn wards. Realizing what's happening, he uses a spell to travel to Rath… and takes the hit instead.

The pain frees Rath, and he uses the sword of the King of Arinas he's still carrying and the knowledge of a lifetime he doesn't remember to seal the soul for good.

By the time Cesia and Bierrez manage to free themselves and get there, a confused and shaken Rath is holding the dying alchemist in his arms… a man he now remembers and recognizes as a piece of himself, even if the memories are too confusing to sort through. (And I have to apologize here, because what follows is practically a soliloquy from Kharl that I intended to cut it down to like one paragraph before posting, and uh, never got around to… Skip it if you want. If switches back to Rath at the end… ^^, )

"I thought I could keep you safe. I thought I could protect you. If you were here with me, far away from the cold devices and the tight grip of scheming races, perhaps you could escape the destiny you'd been chained to—chained the moment that Dragon Lord stuffed his blood in your veins! And if you didn't remember—if I erased all traces of the horror and abuse from even your own mind—then maybe you could be happy. Maybe you could live like you'd been meant to.

"And yes, selfishly, I wanted you by my side. So much so that I convinced myself it was what was best for you. I wanted to wake up and find you'd drawn all over my walls with butter. I wanted to be there when you first tried to fly and got stuck in the pine trees. I wanted you to reach out to me for help. Most of all, I wanted you to need me, the way I needed you. Desperately. So much so that it was physically painful to watch you grow up in someone else's home. To watch you turn to them for help, and watch their poisonous, murdering, bloody hands hold you, embrace you, whisper soothing lies to you. To know that even that was more preferable than me.

"To know they had your confidence, when I had only your hate.

"Yes, I wanted you with me. How could I not? Even though I knew we were different. Even though I knew time had stolen you from me, and set you on a course altogether changed from the one I'd imagined. And yet, it still surprised me when you began to revel in destroying souls—the way I reveled in creating them! I wonder now if that was really caused by our separation or if it was just inherently part of your nature. I knew you were different. You were meant to be different.

"How did Lykouleon do it? How did he let you go so often, knowing it might be the last time he saw you? Did he just not care? That's what I'd like to believe, but…

"I was so desperate to hang on to you—to keep you safe. I thought if I brought you here, these walls would shelter you, and you would be able to run around to your heart's content, because there was nothing here that could hurt you. I wouldn't have to worry. But every time you left the castle, huh… I still worried. It made me want to hold on to you all the tighter. And it stifled you. I didn't see… I couldn't see what Lykouleon realized ages ago. The tighter I clung, the more my arms seemed to become bars, the fiercer became your desire for freedom. If I'd let you go, would you have come back to me on your own? I was selfishly short-sided.

"But now I see, your purpose is more than what I created you for. You don't belong to me alone. I can't have you to myself. I can't keep you from smiling at someone else.

"Rath, I care about you more than anything… forgive me…"

(end of soliloquy)

"No! No, don't!" Rath wasn't sure what he was saying. Don't what? Don't say that? Don't die? Did he really even care? There were so many memories in his mind now. He could no longer tell which ones were real.

It was all Kharl's fault! If it weren't for him, none of this would have happened. Rath wouldn't have come a hair's breadth from ceasing to exist, but then, Kharl would never have saved him either… And he remembered, though he wasn't sure it was real, being happy…

He needed more time, darn it! Time to sort through the mess in his mind. Time he was swiftly losing. As he watched Kharl's body pale in his arms, he was struck by the horrible realization… he couldn't let Kharl die. After all, there was only one person who knew the truth.

Hesitantly, he reached out… out of himself, and encased the dying soul in his own. He shook, staring down at hands suddenly covered with that darkly-glittering blood. And when he spoke, his voice faltered as well.

"Kharl… Kharl! You have to help me, I don't know… know how… to. I've never… Help me!"

Time passed. Bierrez paced back and forth, hating having to stay, but unwilling to leave Cesia, who had taken a seat quietly next to Rath. She slipped her hand through his and felt the reassuring pressure of his grip. It seemed to Rath that eternity passed sitting there, only half aware of the world, of Cesia by his side. An eternity of holding tight to the alchemist's cold body and trying to use memories he wanted nothing more than to forget. Of course, his memories alone were insufficient, and there was a point at which he had to rely on memories other than his own to feel his way through. And then there were frustrating moments where he was acutely aware that everything had to be just so, and he was surely messing it all up. But finally, finally, in a voice only Rath could hear…

"Rath…?" Softly. Disbelievingly.

Rath swallowed and heard himself say, "Shut up, Kharl. It's going to be okay…"

Author Note: Let me tell you, rereading this, I'm totally embarrassed now, like did I ever really write this? It sounds kind of sappy... ^^, And wow, now I remember why I didn't want to go back to this story… Now that the series is over, there is just no one here. Six visitors in three days. *shakes head* I miss X/99 already where there are always 40-60 hits the first three days and pretty reviews. *_* Oh well, it's not like I wasn't expecting that… (Give me a bit on the epilogue. I'll try to have it finished off in a week)

Review Responses:

KatzeIason69: Thank youuuuu! The review is much appreciated! It's all sort of sad and depressing to have been getting 6 or 7 reviews per chapter only to come back to… nothing. T_T I know summaries aren't what you wanted… *hides in shame*