DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fan fiction incorporating characters and situations from the Gainax manga/anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion and its related feature film releases. Gainax and its various media distributors hold sole exclusive rights to their use. The author is in no way affiliated with Gainax or its distributors, nor has this story been submitted for any commercial purpose.

Godchild
by Ikarus Onesun

Chapter Nine: Descent

And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers; even as I received of my Father.
Holy Bible, King James Version, Revelation 2.27

She was cold, and tired, and she had been walking for what seemed like hours.

The path before her was long and straight, seeming to stretch to the horizon of the surrounding land, which was flat and brown and featureless, and seemingly lifeless. The sun seemed to linger just below the horizon, casting an ever-present blood-red hue across the skies all around her.

Sky… sky of red…

The colour I hate…

She didn't know where she was, or where she was going, but the path was the only thing she had to follow in this vast, empty land… and so she followed it. An unusual sensation of apprehension welled up within her, and she felt a strange urge to run, but her rational nature fought back her anxiety. The path led to a destination, that much she could be sure of… and so, in the absence of anything else, the path became her sole focus. She kept her eyes down as she walked, her gaze never wavering from the course that had been laid out before her.

An eternity seemed to pass as she shuffled and stumbled along the narrow dirt track, clutching her school shirt around her in a vain attempt to ward off the chill, before she noticed that the path had begun to slope slightly upward. She raised her eyes, squinting against the red glare, and saw that the path was leading toward the summit of a tall hill far off in the distance. The hill seemed to be covered in a carpet of multicoloured specks, which from this range looked to her like a vast sea of flowers.

Flowers…

So many the same…

So many useless…

More hours seemed to pass as she slowly approached the foot of the hill. As she drew closer, her stomach started to churn as a foul, charnel stench began to emanate from the hill in wave after fetid wave. Her head swam with nausea, and her hand flew to her mouth to suppress her sudden urge to retch as the sickening miasma permeated the air all around her.

Blood…

The scent of blood…

Despite the unpleasant odour, she remained on the path, pushing ever forward until she had nearly reached the edge of the multicoloured field. Now that she was closer, she could see that the colours she had seen in the distance were not flowers at all.

They were bodies.

They were everywhere, half-buried in the soil of the hill, soil that had changed from a dusty brown colour to a deep scarlet, seemingly stained with blood from the endless field of corpses that littered the entire hillside.

From the red soil, the humans come…

She stood there for long moments, surveying the silent scene of death laid out before her. The anxiety began to build in her once more, but it was too late to turn back. Her eyes fixed once again on the path, which ran straight up the side of the hill, and seemed oddly clear of the countless bodies that lay strewn about the area. Choking against the stench, she grit her teeth and began to advance upward, doing her best to keep her eyes on the path, and not to glance to either side at the mounds of lifeless flesh that now surrounded her on all sides.

It was not long before her progress was cut short by a body that lay face down directly in her path. She was about to step gingerly over it when she noticed the pale skin, pallid even for a corpse, and the streaks of light blue hair that stood out through the dirt and dried blood that was caked to its head.

Who is this?

Eyes widening, she knelt down before the corpse, eyeing it warily for minutes, before she held her breath and reached out to turn it over, grunting as she gripped its slender shoulders and flipped it awkwardly onto its back.

She reared back in surprise at the lifeless red eyes that stared back at her, and the familiar features that seemed to regard her with a look of… betrayal.

This is me…

Her gaze remained locked on her own frozen expression for what seemed like ages, before she finally looked around her, and she caught her breath in shock as realization suddenly dawned on her.

They were all her.

Every single body that lay around her… was her.

Some of them were different – some were toddlers, others were slightly older, possibly as old as four or six, though most were her own age – but all shared the same common characteristics. Blue hair. Pale skin. Dead crimson eyes, staring at her, staring at the sky, at the ground. Every one of them seemingly frozen in one last moment of accusation, before the life was suddenly snatched from them.

She rose from the ground, her heart racing, and began to run upward, toward the summit, her eyes cast downward as she squinted to keep her field of vision trained solely on the path. She ran and ran and ran, faster and longer than she ever had in her life, before her breath finally left her and she stooped over, resting her hands on her knees as she gasped for air. She allowed herself a quick glance upward, and saw that she was now within reach of the summit. Just a little further, and she would be at the top of the hill, and perhaps from that vantage point, she would be able to find a way out of this terrible place.

After a few moments, she resumed the climb, and as the path began to flatten out near the top of the hill, she noticed that the bodies were now different. They weren't her anymore, they were different people. Ordinary people, men and women and children, different hair and different eyes, but all bearing the same expression that she had seen on the faces of her dead doppelgangers. Most of them were strangers, but as she drew closer to the summit, she stopped again and shivered involuntarily as she gazed down at a woman lying by the side of the path – a woman with long, distinctly lavender-coloured hair.

This person I know…

Major Katsuragi…

Flat, sunken chestnut eyes stared back at her damningly.

Dread washed over her again, and she was no longer able to suppress it. She scrambled frantically up the path now, her gaze sweeping across the field of bodies that seemed to pile up thicker and thicker the closer she drew to the summit. Most of the corpses now seemed to be dressed in khaki NERV uniforms, and more and more of the faces became recognizable to her… Hyuga. Ibuki. Aoba. A blonde woman in a white coat stained with dirt and blood, scowling up at her from the ground.

Dr. Akagi…

The grey head of Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki, his lined face half-obscured in the blood and dirt, a single cold eye trained on her.

People…

She was running again, ignoring the burning in her lungs as terror drove her forward. More bodies appeared on either side of her, these ones smaller, and clad in the uniform of her school – Suzuhara, Aida, Horaki…

My classmates…

Something in the path caught her foot, and she stumbled and fell hard onto the red dirt of the path. The wind was knocked out of her, and she wheezed and gagged for air as she lay prone on the ground for long moments, shaking as her hands clutched desperately at the soil. Finally, her diaphragm engaged, and she gasped in a welcome rush of oxygen, ignoring the putrid stench as she filled her starving lungs.

When she finally looked up, a chill ran through her as she found herself staring into a pair of brilliant blue eyes, framed by an unruly tangle of long red hair.

The pilot of Unit 02…

The body was clad in a red plugsuit, and it lay on its back, directly in the middle of the path, its head lolled to one side. Unlike the others, the cold, lifeless gaze of the redheaded girl seemed to follow her every move as she rose awkwardly to her feet, reeling backward with fear, before she leapt over the corpse and ran toward the top of the hill.

Her eyes widened in surprise as she noticed two people standing at the summit. At last – someone else was here, and they were alive, and perhaps they could help her escape from this hell. She increased her pace, driving herself toward the couple, hope now blossoming in the pit of her stomach as she drew closer and closer to the pair.

She saw that one of them was a tall man, dressed in a black NERV officer's uniform. The other she did not recognize, as her face was obscured by the man's figure, but she could tell that she had light brown hair and was wearing a white coat like Dr. Akagi's. She slowed her gait and approached the couple warily, and noticed that the two were holding hands and talking warmly to each other, although she could not make out what they were saying. The man's back was to her, and as she drew closer, he turned suddenly, almost as if he had heard her approach.

Her heart leapt into her throat as she recognized the man's features – dark brown hair, thin beard, and round, tinted glasses.

Commander Ikari?

For long moments he regarded her blankly, almost as if he didn't recognize her. She wanted desperately to say something, to ask him where they were, how he had gotten here, how she had gotten here, and how they would get home, but she found that the words wouldn't come. Then, the light-haired woman stepped around the Commander, regarding her with eyes that were a deep bluish-grey, the colour of slate – eyes that were strangely familiar.

"Who are you?" the woman inquired. Her tone was pleasant, and musical, and she smiled warmly as she spoke.

It was like looking into some strange mirror. The woman before her looked almost exactly the same as her, only taller, and older, and with different coloured hair and eyes. And the expression on the Commander's face as he turned and looked at the woman… she had never seen him look at anyone with such love and care in his eyes… not even her.

The overwhelming surrealism of the scene before her was almost too much to bear. She began to shake as she stared at the woman, and her mouth was trembling as she forced herself to respond.

"Who… are you?" she finally managed, in a hoarse whisper.

The woman merely smiled again, and turned back to the Commander, reaching up and caressing his face with her hand. He returned her smile with one of his own – one that made the smiles he had given her in the past seem somehow… false by comparison. This was a Commander Ikari she had never seen in the entire time she had known him.

Who are you?

And then, he turned away from the woman and gazed at her again, and this time, it was clear that he recognized her. His face became stern, and when he spoke, it was in a cold, clipped tone, the one he usually reserved for his subordinates – never for her.

"Thank you, Rei. You have done well. That will be all."

Her stomach fell as she watched him turn and begin to walk away from her, descending down the path hand in hand with the woman by his side. She seemed rooted to the spot as the Commander's words hit her with the force of a speeding train.

That will be all.

She had fulfilled her purpose. She had helped him achieve his goal.

And now she was no longer needed.

She had been replaced – not just as a physical being, but also in the Commander's heart.

No.

She had not been replaced.

She had been the replacement, all along.

As the couple continued downward, the brown-haired woman glanced back over her shoulder at her. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as the woman fixed her gaze on her, staring back at her with wide, glossy eyes that had suddenly turned black as onyx, with tiny red pinpricks glinting at their centres. Harsh laughter echoed in her thoughts as she saw the woman's mouth twist into a thin, cruel smile before the two of them disappeared from sight below the hilltop.

Panic flooded her mind, and she wanted desperately to run after them, to warn the Commander, but a sound from behind her caused her to whirl around with a start. She found herself face-to-face with a brown-haired boy with the same slate-grey eyes as the woman she had just seen, dressed in a school uniform.

Shinji…

An overwhelming sense of relief spread through her at the familiar sight of the boy, but the feeling was quickly erased as she saw the mix of shame, pity, and disappointment on his face as he stepped closer to her. She was confused by his expression – what have I done? – and as he stopped in front of her, she watched him intently as he struggled to address her, his eyes brimming with tears.

"Why… why did you do it, Ayanami?" he stammered in a weak, shaking voice.

Her face contorted in shock at his words. What was he talking about? Had she somehow been responsible for all this, for this endless scene of death? She stared in disbelief at the boy as the tears tracked down his face and stained his white shirt with moisture, and then her head spun around at another voice from directly behind her.

"We're EVA pilots… we're supposed to look after each other, right?"

She whirled again, and her eyes flew open at the sight. It was Shinji again, but he was now clad in his navy-blue plugsuit, staring at her with glittering crimson eyes through stark white bangs. His expression was hard, mirroring the accusing masks of the corpses that lay all around them.

She could only nod her head mutely at the grave, white-haired figure before her. His gaze seemed to penetrate to her very soul, inexplicably making her insides twist with a heavy, leaden guilt. Guilt, and fear, unlike any she had ever experienced.

Suddenly, the whole of the hilltop seemed to be illuminated by an intense reddish light that danced and flickered like an inferno. She turned toward its source, and she caught her breath in amazement at the sight before her.

Shinji stared back at her with eyes that now gleamed obsidian black. He was naked, his hair and body seemed to be aflame, and in one hand he held a long crimson staff that was coiled tightly along its length before splitting into two narrow, forked points at its end. And from his back, a majestic pair of glowing scarlet wings extended up and outward, fanning around him with their lacy, delicate-looking tendrils. He tilted his head slightly in her direction, regarding her with an odd air of curiosity as she gaped at him incredulously.

"That's our bond," a calm, soothing voice in her mind spoke, though the angelic-looking Third Child had seemingly not uttered a sound.

The fiery figure extended a hand toward her, and despite the terror that was clawing away at her consciousness, she felt an impulse to move forward, reaching out toward him. His ebony eyes smiled at her encouragingly, and the fear began to bleed away as she felt a familiar rightness about the situation. Before she could take more than a few steps though, she was stopped short as something gripped her ankle.

Her eyes shot downward to see a pale, grimy hand clutching her leg. The hand belonged to a body that gazed up at her dully – the body of a teenaged boy, with brown hair and grey eyes.

As she recoiled in shock, the nauseating stench of decay washed over her again as she felt another grasping at her, and another, and another. Her wide eyes flit in alarm from corpse to corpse, as more and more of them seemed to gather around at her, every one of them pulling at her legs, the folds of her skirt, her wrists and forearms.

Every one of them him.

Ikari…

Every one of them staring at her accusingly with those flat, dead eyes. The same way the many lifeless copies of herself had stared at her.

And all around her, she could hear whispers – the whispers of the dead.

"Why? Why did you do it, Ayanami? Why? WHY?"

She writhed and twisted in their cold grip, but no matter how hard she struggled, she couldn't break free. There were more of them now, so many more… and they were pulling her under.

She was drowning.

Drowning in a sea of endless, fetid death.

A sea that she had somehow created.

The last thing she heard, before the scarlet sky above her was blotted out by a thousand clawing hands, was the sound of her own screams…

-----

Come on, come on, come ON…

Shinji Ikari could feel sweat slicking the insides of his plugsuit's gloves as he clenched and unclenched his hands impatiently on the butterfly controls of his entry plug. Unit 01 was dangling in near pitch darkness at the end of a thick steel cable, one massive foot slung in a makeshift stirrup at the cable's end as the EVA held on with one hand, gazing downward into the seemingly endless abyss into which it was being lowered. Transporting an object the size of an Evangelion in this manner was slow going – far too slow for Shinji, who could still hear the tormented cries of the other two Children, Asuka Langley Souryu and Rei Ayanami, over his entry plug's audio monitor. Their cries were slowly growing less frequent – and Shinji's desperation was growing with every passing second.

"How much longer is this going to take?" he blurted out, overcome by frustration. He had no idea how far he had descended, but it was at least three kilometres now by his estimation, and there had been no indication yet that he was anywhere close to his mysterious destination. As if in reply to his exasperated outburst, he suddenly heard Maya Ibuki's voice crackling over his comlink.

"Opening Central Dogma barriers ten through fifteen."

Below him, he could faintly see a series of heavy shield doors sliding open, their movement barely discernable even with his entry plug's main monitor set to maximum night vision mode. As he drew closer, he could see that the doors were incredibly thick – Shinji guessed that each one had to be at least five meters in breadth, and there were so many of them…

Are these doors supposed to keep something out… or to keep something IN? he pondered apprehensively as he watched the massive barriers pass him by on his main screen, while Unit 01 plumbed ever further into the Stygian void below it.

His turbulent thoughts were eventually broken by another announcement from Ibuki, high above on the bridge. Her voice was distorted, static hissing in the channel, indicating to Shinji that by now he must have descended very deep indeed.

"Unit 01 has passed the sixth Malbolge trench. Now opening barriers sixteen through twenty."

Twenty barriers… oh, God, how many more?

Hurry… please, hurry…

Through the background noise, Asuka's cries had now devolved into a series of quiet, drawn-out moans, broken occasionally by slurred, incoherent, incomprehensible babbling. Whatever the Angel was doing to her from its position high above them in orbit, it seemed to be slowly taking apart her mind, piece by little piece. Shinji hoped desperately that they would somehow be able to put the pieces back together again, if he could only get there in time… Rei, on the other hand, had at first become steadily louder as the Angel's attack forced its way into her thoughts, her torments punctuated by a series of frightened gasps and yelps before she had finally let loose with a terrifying, high-pitched shriek that seemed to last almost a minute – and then, ominously, she had fallen silent. There was nothing but distorted digital snow on the small video window that read "FROM EVA-00," and all Shinji could hear through the static from Unit 00's audio channel now was the uneven shuddering of the First Child's breath, as if she were utterly immobilized with dread.

Rei…

Asuka…

Hold on…

Finally, after what seemed like an interminable length of time, he could see what appeared to be a concrete floor slowly rising up toward him. The cable abruptly halted, leaving Unit 01 dangling nearly twenty meters from the bottom. Shinji wasted no time in kicking his EVA's foot loose from the stirrup while simultaneously letting go of the cable, allowing the purple mecha to drop the remaining distance to the floor. Unit 01's feet slammed into the hard floor with a resounding thoom that reverberated all around him for several seconds. As he stood the EVA upright, Shinji gazed upward and saw that the stirrup was still within arm's reach of Unit 01, guessing that he'd be returning to the surface the same way he arrived. He then swung Unit 01's head around to inspect his surroundings, and caught his breath at the sight.

Is this… Terminal Dogma? he thought incredulously.

He was now standing in an immense cavern, many times bigger than the containment bays that housed the Evangelions within Central Dogma. Wherever he was, it appeared to be cold, as a thick fog seemed to hang just above the floor of the cavern. All around him, dozens of tall columns that resembled stalagmites rose from the floor and stabbed upward, each one at least ten times as tall as Unit 01. What was more amazing to Shinji though, was that as enormous as this space was, it appeared to be merely some sort of antechamber – the far end of the cavern gradually opened up into an even larger area, most of which was obscured from his view by the cavern's sloping walls, and seemed to be illuminated by a faint yellowish glow.

His crimson eyes narrowed determinedly – Rei… Asuka… no time for gawking, he thought – and he spurred Unit 01 forward, the echoes of its pounding footsteps rumbling like thunder within the expansive chamber as he sprinted past the towering spines toward the opening beyond.

When he reached the end of the cavern, though, and looked out into the larger area beyond it, several seconds passed as he halted his Evangelion and stared, dumbfounded, at the view before him.

The size of the space itself was wondrous to behold – it was hundreds of times again the size of the chamber he had just exited, and appeared nearly as voluminous as the Geofront's upper bowl. He could not see the ceiling – it was like trying to see the end of the night sky – but he could make out a series of circular ledges that ringed the walls of the cavern, similar to the ledges that the trains from NERV HQ rode along as they made their way up the sides of the Geofront's spherical walls to the surface. There were many more of the stalagmite-like columns as well, randomly dotting the floor of the vast space. What lay beyond those spiny formations, though, was a sight that was more unbelievable still.

In the distance, there seemed to be a huge body of amber-coloured liquid, the size of a lake. It looks just like… LCL, Shinji thought incredulously, mentally increasing the magnification of his main screen to inspect it more closely. The fluid certainly had the same appearance as the life-sustaining liquid that he was currently immersed in within his entry plug. As he scanned the surface of the vast reservoir, his attention was caught by another strange sight, floating in the middle of the lake – a ship. And not just any ship – the vessel appeared to be a heavy frigate, just like the ones from the UN's naval fleet – except that this one bore NERV's logo at its bow, instead of the UN's.

How did… how did THAT get down here? Shinji's mind jolted in disbelief, noting that every gun that was mounted on the bristling warship was pointed in the same direction, toward the strangest sight of all…

…and the most terrifying.

Shinji's eyes widened in confusion and horror as they slowly followed up the massive scarlet crucifix that towered upward from the middle of the vast lake of LCL, and his heart almost stopped at the sight of the… thing that was hanging lifelessly from it.

It was pure white in colour, humanoid in shape, and was roughly the same size as Unit 01 itself. The strange figure was oddly featureless – it seemed almost to be made of a soft, white clay. Its hairless head lolled to one side, and a huge mask that appeared to be made of cast iron obscured the area where its face should have been. There was a strange design inscribed on the mask – an inverted triangle, with what appeared to be seven eyes intersecting its descending sides. Stranger still was that the pale being was legless, but from the place where its legs would normally be found, hundreds of tiny, leg-like appendages sprouted from the base of its torso.

Is that…

an EVA?

Emanating from its body, a thin trickle of yellow-coloured fluid – LCL… it has to be, Shinji thought – was running down the trunk of the giant cross, gathering at its base and snaking away in thin rivulets that flowed into the seemingly endless amber lake that surrounded it. Its thick, shapeless arms were spread-eagled, and two enormous, black metal spikes had been nailed through the being's hands, pinning it to the horizontal crosspiece of the enormous crucifix from which it hung absolutely motionless. And in the centre of its barrel-shaped chest, what appeared to be a long, crimson-coloured spear had been driven into the massive being's body. The wicked-looking weapon seemed to have been twisted into a tight, lengthy coil before it unwound into two narrow tines, which were embedded in the white figure's torso almost to the point where the two prongs joined at its shaft.

The Lance…

that must be the Lance…

Whatever this thing is,someone definitely wants to make sure that it isn't going anywhere, Shinji thought apprehensively, as he gaped at the silent, crucified behemoth.

But what's it even DOING here? And WHY?

Suddenly, the cold, clipped voice of his father, Commander Gendou Ikari, startled him out of his reverie.

"Shinji, you have not changed position in nearly one minute," the Commander announced shortly, through the hiss of static. "Do you see the Lance?"

Shinji blinked. "…yes… yes, sir," he stammered. "But… but it's…"

"No 'buts.' You must retrieve it and return to the surface immediately. Your fellow pilots do not have much time left. Proceed forward through the reservoir and pull the Lance free – now."

A chilling bolt of dread shot up Shinji's back, causing him to tremble involuntarily. He felt very close to becoming overwhelmed by the overload to his senses in this strange, foreboding place, by the fear and panic that was building inside him, and by the crushing expectations that had been set upon his young shoulders. Despite the urgency in his father's tone, Unit 01 remained rooted to the spot, staring silently across the surface of the LCL reservoir toward the giant being on the cross in the distance.

"…F… Father," the terrified teen finally whispered in a thin, shaking voice, as his quavering hands clutched at the control yokes, "…is it… is it… alive?"

He expected his father to immediately explode into fury, castigating him for his hesitation and his cowardice as he had during the battle against the thirteenth Angel, but instead, there was only a short pause. When the Commander's voice finally crackled over his comlink once again, his voice was low, and quiet… and strangely reassuring.

"No, it is not," he replied slowly. "There is nothing to fear, Shinji. But you must retrieve the Lance, or Rei and Asuka will surely die. Do it now, and do it quickly."

It was not so much the words that his father had spoken, but the unusually calm manner in which he had replied to his son's question, that somehow managed to blunt the growing anxiety within him. Retrieve the Lance, or Rei and Asuka will surely die… it was that simple, and nothing else mattered. He had already wasted so much time, and he would never forgive himself if he arrived too late to help them. Shinji took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, and took a firm grip on the butterfly controls as he focused on his target – the crimson Lance protruding from the chest of the white giant.

"Yes, sir," he replied in a low whisper.

Eyes narrowed and teeth grit in a determined grimace, Shinji fought back the terror that had numbed him to his objective, and willed Unit 01 to step off of the concrete deck it had been standing on. A huge plume of amber liquid shot up all around the massive EVA as it waded awkwardly out into the reservoir. Shinji breathed a small sigh of relief when he realized that the level of the lake came up only as far as the purple mecha's waist – even immersed in LCL, within the safety of his entry plug, his fear of the deep still gnawed at him.

Battling against the resistance of the LCL all around him, he drove the EVA forward as fast as he could manage, kicking up a giant wake that threatened to capsize the warship that sat at anchor nearby. A few moments later, he was standing before the immense cross, gazing up at the pale behemoth that hung there in silence. The haft of the crimson Lance jutted out just above him, easily within arm's reach of Unit 01. Shinji stared up at it uneasily, prepared to jump back at even the slightest hint of movement from the crucified giant, but it remained as still as a corpse.

He took another deep breath, and held it in, nervousness knotting in his stomach once more.

Here goes…

Without another thought, Shinji directed Unit 01 to reach up with both hands and grasp the Lance.

Immediately, he felt an odd sensation surging through his body, almost like the static charge that raised the tiny hairs on his neck and arms when he pulled off a woollen sweater in a cold, dry room. It started from his hands, the tingle shooting down his arms and spreading through the rest of his extremities, and then, just as quickly as it appeared, the sensation dissipated, replaced by a strange, low vibration that hummed in the back of his head. Shinji's red eyes shot up in alarm, half-expecting the masked giant to react, but it was still motionless. Unit 01's hands now had a firm grip on the Lance's haft, and exhaling through his bared teeth, the white-haired pilot grunted as he willed the mecha to pull with all of its prodigious strength.

There was considerable resistance, despite the power that Unit 01 was bringing to bear, but eventually, the long, scarlet weapon began to move. Shinji redoubled his effort as he felt the Lance starting to give, and with a desperate bellow, he strained and pulled with every ounce of energy he had to give until finally, the huge EVA drew the Lance from the white being's body.

Unit 01 lurched back several steps, kicking up LCL all around it as it fought to maintain its balance after the sudden removal of the Lance caused it to abruptly jerk backwards. As he righted the mecha, Shinji glanced down at the weapon that he now held in his hands. It was incredibly heavy – even through the Evangelion's powerful arms, Shinji could sense its mass – but somehow, he instinctively knew exactly where to hold it so that its balance point would offset its weight. Running his eyes along its length, he could see just how long the twin prongs of the Lance were – something incredibly forceful must have driven the Lance into the creature, as the sharp tines had not only gone clear through the body, but through the vertical section of the crucifix behind it as well. In all, the Lance was nearly twice as long as Unit 01 was tall, and he could feel it vibrating faintly through the EVA's palms, in tune with the low, incessant hum that now seemed to permeate his skull.

Shinji was astounded. Where on Earth did something like this come from?

Or… did it… did it even come from Earth at all?

A sudden motion in the corner of his eye caused him to jump back in fright. Unconsciously, he brandished the Lance before him, pointing its sharp tines toward the source of his alarm – and his red eyes shot open in disbelief.

The giant was moving.

As Shinji stared on, dumbfounded, the lower part of its body began to bulge and bubble, and the behemoth jerked involuntarily on the cross as its abdomen rapidly distended. The countless tiny legs that dangled from the base of its torso began to twitch and kick, before merging together, and growing… until finally, two thick, formless legs sprouted from the bottom of the huge being's body, its feet dropping below the surface of the LCL reservoir with a pair of near-simultaneous splashes.

Every nerve in Shinji's body was on edge as he stood before the white giant, his EVA crouched in a defensive posture as he kept the Lance of Longinus pointed directly at the creature's heart. His own heart was hammering away in his chest so hard it hurt, his breath coming out in short, ragged gasps as he waited for the colossal figure to pull itself free of the crucifix and attack… but once its legs had finished regenerating, the pale being fell silent once again. It hung before him motionless, looking every bit as dead as it had before he had pulled the Lance from its body.

Okay… I really need to get out of here, Shinji thought to himself as his father's words echoed in his mind once more, pushing aside his fright and reminding him of his mission. He had what he had come for, and he was running out of time.

He backed away a few more steps, keeping his ruby eyes locked on the crucified giant, before he slung the Lance over Unit 01's right shoulder and turned back toward the edge of the reservoir. Another huge plume of LCL roiled up before him as he drove the purple EVA in the direction of the cavern where the cable waited to hoist him back up the deep vertical access shaft to the surface – where the Angel awaited him.

Rei…

Asuka…

I'm coming…

-----

"Unit 01 is now ascending," Maya Ibuki announced from her station within the command centre. "Approaching the sixth Malbolge trench, barriers sixteen through twenty are now closing."

Across from her, at the tactical desk, Shigeru Aoba immediately replied. "Unit 01's ETA in the containment bay is three minutes and forty-six seconds. Ordnance Platform A14 is standing by for transport to the surface via Vent Two."

Nearby on the bridge, Misato Katsuragi's ears pricked up at this. She turned and strode over to Dr. Ritsuko Akagi, who was intently studying the data from Units 00 and 02 over Ibuki's shoulder on her terminal screen. Over the command centre's P.A., the cries of the two stricken pilots could still be heard, but they were growing fainter and fainter by the second.

Behind Ibuki, Ritsuko was now snapping out a series of terse orders, almost too fast for her apprentice to process. "Upload the targeting solution to Unit 01's firing control system as soon as the MAGI have made the calculations. The Angel is too far away for Shinji to do this manually – he probably won't even be able to get a visual on it in this weather. Maintain our fix on the Angel's position – if it moves, we're going to have to recalculate the solution quickly, and we're only going to get one shot. Tell the rescue crews to stand by; we need to get those pilots out of their entry plugs as soon as possible. Instruct them that this is to be considered a HAZMAT operation, and that environment suits are to be worn by all first responders. The pilots are to be quarantined immediately after their recovery."

"Yes, ma'am," Ibuki replied grimly, her hands flashing away at her keyboard.

"Why is this taking so long?" Misato exclaimed to the doctor. "And why are we sending Unit 01 out on a weapons platform, when it's quicker to launch it from the catapults?"

Ritsuko glanced up at her, the strain of the operation evident in her jade-green eyes. "We're moving as fast as we can, Major. The winch could barely handle Unit 01's weight alone during the descent, and now that it's carrying the Lance, we can't risk having the winch fail or the cable snap during the ascent, and dropping Unit 01 and the Lance back into Terminal Dogma. There'd be no immediate way of bringing them back up… assuming they'd even survive the fall."

She ran her fingers through her straw-blonde hair and frowned as she directed Ibuki to bring up a schematic of the EVA's normal launch routes for Misato to see. "The EVA catapults are faster, yes, but none of the launch chutes are consistently vertical, they all veer off at angles in several places, such as here," she gestured to a point where the red line showing where one of the chutes suddenly changed direction, "and here. The Lance is too long to negotiate those tight turns, so we need a wider, straighter path to the surface, and the access vents that the weapons platforms travel through are the only other option."

Misato sighed, unconsciously hugging her arms. "Understood," she muttered.

Turning away from Ritsuko, she gazed up at the main screen, which was displaying images of Units 00 and 02 as they continued to be held by the Angel's strange energy attack. Unit 02 was slumped forward, its hands touching the ground in front of it, and had not moved since it had ceased activation minutes earlier. Over its audio channel, Asuka's only sounds now were an occasional mewl or groan – the spirited girl no longer had any fight left within her. Unit 00 was down on one knee, its hands clutched to its blue monocular head, and a collective gasp went up from the staff manning the bridge as it suddenly pitched to one side and fell over, the tremor from the impact noticeable even within the depths of the Geofront. The prototype EVA slowly curled into a foetal ball under the Angel's relentless attack, but from its entry plug, there was now nothing but silence.

They're running out of time, Misato thought.

She tore her eyes away from the desperate scene on the main monitor and glanced up to the command position, where Commander Ikari and Sub-Commander Kozou Fuyutsuki occupied their usual positions – the Commander seated at his desk, gloved hands folded before his chin, his second in command standing behind him to his right. Neither man had spoken a word to the other since Ikari had given Unit 01 the order to retrieve the Lance of Longinus from Terminal Dogma, a decision that Fuyutsuki had seemed vehemently opposed to. Nevertheless, Ikari's decision had been final, and now everything hinged on this last-ditch attempt to destroy the Angel and rescue the other pilots. Misato was well aware of the stakes involved – either Shinji succeeded in defeating the Angel, or the world as they knew it would end.

Misato's chestnut eyes narrowed as she stared up at the silent, bearded figure seated high above her. There were still so many things about the Commander, and about NERV, that were unknown to her, and she resented this – especially in situations like this where her position as Tactical Operations Director required her to have as much information as possible at her fingertips. How much of NERV's agenda had been kept hidden from her over the course of her career? How many lies had she been told during that time? How many lies had she been told today, in the midst of an Angel attack, where she was technically in charge?

Frowning, her thoughts drifted back to the one time she herself had descended into the depths of Terminal Dogma… after being led there by her one-time boyfriend, NERV Special Inspector Ryouji Kaji.

Kaji's extended presence at NERV HQ, after he had escorted Asuka and Unit 02 to Tokyo-3 from Germany, had seemed innocuous enough at first, even though Misato had believed that his new "assignment" to the Geofront was merely a convenient excuse for him to pursue and annoy her. Over time, though, a nagging suspicion about his true activities had begun to slowly build in her thoughts.

Kaji had never been on time for anything in his life – in university, his assignments were always late, he would stroll casually into work long after everyone else had arrived, and he had never once managed to pick up Misato for a date at the agreed time, back when they had been seeing each other. But since he had arrived in Tokyo-3, Kaji was normally in his makeshift office before most of the general staff, poring over reports on his terminal screen and sifting through files that he kept locked in a safe beside his desk.

Misato would occasionally notice him emerging from sections of Central Dogma that were extremely sensitive – places that even she didn't have clearance to enter – but when confronted by her, he would just flash that devilish grin of his and chuckle, saying something like, "Whoops, lost again… man, is this place confusing, or what? Hey, Katsuragi, how about showing me the way back to the cafeteria? You lead, and I'll stay right on your tail..."

As well, he would occasionally disappear for days and sometimes weeks at a time, never explaining where he had gone, which was odd since his sanctioned duty as a UN liaison was to observe and report on NERV's day-to-day procedures. He was attached to NERV's Geofront operations, and therefore had no real need to be anywhere else – officially.

Her suspicions had come to a head the night she, Ritsuko, and Kaji had gotten together at a late-night club after attending a wedding for a colleague that afternoon. Kaji had missed the service and had been late for the reception – no surprise there – but later that evening, Misato had learned the reason why. It seemed that the ponytailed agent had been in Kyoto the morning of the wedding – Misato had overheard him discussing it with Ritsuko as she returned from the ladies' room. She'd had a few drinks… well, quite a few, actually, and Kaji had likely assumed that Misato wasn't paying attention, but she had filed that little bit of information in the back of her head and carried on with the rest of the evening.

The next morning, as she washed down a handful of aspirins with several cans of iced coffee to take the edge off of her hangover, she resolved to get to the bottom of this mystery, once and for all.

She had watched him leave his office, and silently followed behind him as he wove a convoluted path through the corridors of Central Dogma. He bypassed the more frequently used staff elevators and escalators, taking the stairs or the service lifts instead, and seemed to be headed deep into the complex, passing levels that Misato had never visited before in her entire time at NERV. As they descended lower and lower into the bowels of the complex, Misato could feel the temperature dropping as she pursued Kaji, which was odd since the entire facility was supposed to be climate controlled. Finally, after close to an hour of shadowing him, she saw Kaji pause in front of a heavy steel door and reach into his coat pocket to produce a red access card – not his NERV ID card, which was normally used to gain access to the various sections of Dogma.

Stepping from the shadows, she had drawn her .40 calibre Heckler & Koch USP sidearm, placed it firmly against the back of his head, and demanded answers to the many questions she had kept to herself since his arrival – who he was really working for, what he was actually investigating, where he was going this deep within NERV HQ, and why.

With a swipe of the blood-red card he held in his hand, Kaji had answered her questions… and had suddenly given her many more to ponder.

The hairs on the back of her neck still stood on end, even now, when she recalled the sight of the massive white giant hanging from that enormous, scarlet crucifix – legless, bleeding, its masked head lolled forward, its hands pierced with iron spikes, and a long red metal rod impaled through its chest. The sight had triggered another recollection from deep in the recesses of her mind – memories of a terrible explosion, of a hellish, bitter cold, of a searing agony ripping through her abdomen, and, just before her father had placed her within the survival pod and jettisoned her to safety, of an enormous glowing figure, looming in the distance through a raging Antarctic blizzard…

Adam…

Kaji called it "Adam."

The giant of light…

The thing that killed my father…

It's here.

But why is the First Angel HERE?

How did it GET here? What is it DOING here?

What are they using it for… and WHY?

All the questions that had flashed in her mind when she had first seen the crucified behemoth were now flooding her thoughts once again, as she kept her eyes locked on Commander Ikari, high above her on the command deck.

You were right, Kaji. I don't know NERV.

I don't know NERV at all…

Unconsciously, she reached into the inside pocket of her leather bomber, feeling again for the white envelope that Kaji had given her the last time she had seen him alive – the envelope that contained all the findings of his investigation of NERV, saved on a tiny microchip within a small plastic capsule.

It was more than just mere information – it was his heart and soul. And Misato had not let it out of her sight since the moment he had given it to her.

Ryouji…

I swear to you… if I live through today…

I'm going to find out just what the hell is going on around here

Her thoughts were broken by an urgent announcement from Makoto Hyuga's station behind her.

"Pilot's EEG dropping to zero point zero six!" Hyuga exclaimed, referring to Asuka's bio-readings from Unit 02. On the main screen, the data section devoted to the Second Child's vital statistics displayed a series of jagged lines that were now coming dangerously close to flatlining.

"We're past the limits of the life support system!" Ibuki cried out as she tried desperately to find any way possible to counter-effect the Angel's energy wave, to no avail.

Misato paled. It's too late, she thought desperately.

We're going to lose her.

And then… Rei will be next…

"Unit 01 is passing through Vent Two!" Shigeru Aoba suddenly shouted out from the tactical desk. "He'll be coming in over the surface!"

The normal commotion on the bridge abruptly died away, and all eyes turned to the main monitor as a startling image was projected across the massive screen. Through the driving downpour that was still threatening to inundate Tokyo-3 above them, the hulking figure of Evangelion Unit 01 slowly emerged above the ground, riding atop one of the heavy platforms that normally carried a host of armaments for the EVAs. The purple mecha sat in a half-crouch as it rose from the depths of the Geofront, like a giant armoured gladiator entering the arena. And just like a gladiator, it carried a weapon – an enormous, crimson-coloured lance, with two long, wicked-looking prongs at its leading end. The twin tines twisted around themselves at the point where they met at the weapon's haft and continued to intertwine all along the remainder of its length, giving it the appearance of a long, thin, tightly-wound coil.

Misato's chestnut's eyes opened wide with recognition the moment she saw Unit 01 emerge from Vent Two. The weapon that the purple EVA was carrying was the very same spear that she had seen in Terminal Dogma, embedded in the body of the white giant on the cross.

"So that's the Lance of Longinus," she muttered under her breath.

She had so many questions. The Lance was obviously an artifact of great power, and of great importance to NERV – so why, then, had its existence been kept secret from her? If such a weapon was indeed powerful enough to destroy an Angel, why hadn't they used it before now? Instead, it had remained far below them, with the First Angel, Adam, whose existence within Terminal Dogma had also been hidden. How were the crucified Angel and the Lance connected? And for what purpose were they being kept within this facility, far away from prying eyes?

Misato shook her head, pushing the thoughts from her mind for the moment. These were concerns for another time, she reasoned. Right now, there were still two pilots on the brink of death to worry about – and a Third who was now about to step into harm's way. She gazed up at the monitor to see Unit 01 rising from its crouch before stepping off of the platform and proceeding to a designated spot where it would have enough room to hurtle the Lance heavenward toward the winged Angel high above.

Do it, Shinji… you're our last chance, she thought to herself, reaching for her cross pendant and twirling it in her fingers.

And please… be careful…

"Unit 01's in position to throw," Aoba announced.

On the monitor, Unit 01 was now standing fully upright and holding the Lance with both hands at waist level, rain spattering off of its armoured head and its white eyes glinting as it gazed skyward toward its target. Even though the torrential rain and the heavy cloud cover obscured the Angel from the naked eye, every targeting sensor onboard the purple EVA was now locked firmly on the silvery enemy's position. With a smooth, frighteningly effortless motion, Unit 01 raised the heavy Lance high above its horned head, pointing its long, sharp forks directly toward the Angel, and drew the crimson weapon back, shifting its weight to its back foot and cocking its right arm like a massive steel spring waiting for release. It held this position as the final preparations for the throw were relayed to it from the command centre.

"Target sighted. Error corrections have been made," Hyuga called out.

The only sound that could be heard on the bridge was Maya Ibuki's voice, as every single person in the command post watched the image of Unit 01 on the main screen with bated breath.

"Starting countdown… ten seconds 'till zero," Ibuki sounded off, her voice edged with anticipation.

"Nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three…"

The deafening sound of klaxon alarms abruptly shattered the silence on the bridge, and an explosion of crimson hexagons bloomed angrily on the massive monitor screen. Chaos immediately reigned on the bridge as the technicians urgently scrambled to find the source of the interruption… and within a heartbeat, it was being displayed on the main screen for all to see.

Shock and dismay washed over the crew at the sight of a stricken, shuddering Unit 01 down on one knee, clutching its head in one massive hand and the other holding the Lance out before it, as if trying to shield itself from the strange kaleidoscope of shimmering lights that seemed to be illuminating the purple EVA from somewhere high above.

"What's happening?" Misato shouted, her eyes darting between the main monitor and Ritsuko, who was scowling at the grim data scrolling across Ibuki's terminal.

"It can't be… the Angel's sending out a third energy wave?" she exclaimed, stunned by the information she was seeing. "It's… it's trying to take control of Unit 01!"

Beside her, Ibuki's frantic voice drew their attention. "Shinji's psychograph is fluctuating! The Angel's penetrating into Unit 01's LCL mind barriers!"

Ritsuko's eyes widened as she stared at the telemetry streaming across the monitor before her, and then she turned to Misato, her face blank.

"It's… got him," she said, in a small, desolate voice.

Misato blanched, shaking her head in quick, minute jerks, and turned back to the main screen, hoping to see something that would disprove what Ritsuko had just told her. But Unit 01 remained on one knee, the fingers of its left hand splayed across the top of its helm as it kept the Lance raised before it in a vain attempt to ward off the attack. To one side of it, Unit 00 lay on its side, its knees drawn into its chest, the occasional twitching of its arms and head the only indication that its pilot was still alive. On the opposite side, Unit 02 remained slumped forward, its massive weight resting on its arms… and it wasn't moving at all. Around all three EVAs, multicoloured lights continued to dance, the coruscating display masking the agony that the lightshow was causing to the pilots of the crippled mechas.

No! was the only thought that Misato could muster.

No…

Oh, God, no…

In desperation, she turned her gaze back up to the Commander's post high above the bridge, praying for some sign that the two men who occupied that lofty position would know what to do, that they might have some other secret that they would suddenly reveal to help them destroy this Angel and save the three Children trapped above… but instead, she was witness to a sight she had never encountered in her entire time at NERV. Ritsuko, too, was staring up at Ikari, clearly shocked by what she was seeing.

Commander Gendou Ikari had risen from his chair.

He had removed his tinted glasses and was now staring at the main monitor with wide, stunned eyes, his mouth open in disbelief.

In the entire time she had known Ikari, Ritsuko Akagi had never seen such a look cross the Supreme Commander's face before.

It was a look of defeat.

-----

Moments earlier, Shinji had gasped as Unit 01 rumbled to the surface aboard the wide munitions platform it was riding, and he was finally greeted with a first-hand view of the situation that the other two EVAs were facing. Through the driving rains, he could see the red form of Unit 02 almost directly opposite his position, knuckles dragging the ground as it drooped forward like a wilted plant, the green fire extinguished from its two pairs of eyes. The production model EVA was completely motionless, and Shinji could no longer detect any sounds coming from Asuka's audio channel other than shallow, uneven breathing.

Asuka…

Off to his right, Unit 00 was curled up on its side on the ground, both hands clutching its blue helm, and jerking occasionally as if it were suffering a fit of epilepsy. Now that he was above ground, Unit 00's video link had come back online, and the small window on his HUD captioned "FROM EVA-00" now displayed an image of the blue-haired First Child, mirroring the prototype EVA's pose from her pilot's chair. Her red eyes were squeezed tightly shut, her jaw flexed with tension as she grimaced in agony, her fingers laced around the back of her head as she tucked her chin into her rapidly heaving chest, her whole body shuddering under the Angel's relentless attack.

Rei…

Ritsuko's voice over his comlink snapped his head around. "Shinji, we have to move quickly. Move Unit 01 to grid point x102, y47 and turn to a heading of 145 degrees. Maya's sending you the firing solution now, we'll be ready to go once you're in position."

"O… okay," he responded, immediately complying with the order by seizing the control yokes and willing Unit 01 to step off of the platform. He tried his best not to look at the stricken forms of Units 00 and 02 as he sent his EVA into a brisk march toward the coordinates that Ritsuko had given him. Within moments, he had reached the selected spot, an intersection of two eight-lane thoroughfares, and turned the purple mecha to the proper heading. He was now looking straight down one of the wide boulevards, which would give Unit 01 plenty of room for its throw.

"I'm in position," he announced, his voice tinged with a mix of anxiety and impatience. "What do I have to do?"

"Just think about throwing the Lance, Shinji," Ritsuko immediately replied. "The MAGI and Unit 01's targeting computers will take care of the aim, all you have to do is throw it as hard as you can. Firing solution upload is now complete, stand by for countdown."

On his main screen, even with computer enhancement, the only sign of the Angel Shinji could make out was a strange light spot standing out against the iron-grey colour of the heavy rainclouds above. He would be throwing almost completely blind, and the thought of this caused his stomach to flip with apprehension.

Don't think about it, he chastised himself.

Ritsuko said that all I have to do it throw it, so just worry about that…

With a thought, he raised the Lance high above Unit 01's head with both arms, drawing it back behind him so that its haft was nearly resting on the mecha's shoulder, and pointed its forked end toward the light-coloured patch of sky high above him. Every ounce of concentration was focused on the crimson weapon in his hands, his right arm trembling with the incredible force that he was only barely holding back as he prepared to launch the forked spear skyward. The low humming in the back of his head increased in intensity, becoming a dull, incessant pounding, and he could feel a tingling in his palms as the Lance seemed to be somehow speaking to him, urging him to attack.

He was only vaguely aware of the sound of Maya Ibuki's voice, counting backwards from ten…

And then, it was like a thousand needles stabbing into his skull.

He suddenly lost all sense of orientation, and was aware of a violent shudder as Unit 01 abruptly dropped to one knee. Somehow, he managed to keep the mecha upright as he fought against the white-hot tendrils that seemed to be trying to burn their way into his brain. His left hand flew to his head as he grimaced in agony, throwing his right hand out before him as if trying to block the cascade of sparkling, multicoloured lights that were now glistening all around him. Unit 01 mimicked his motions, one giant hand gripping its helm as it held out the Lance before it with the other.

In his head, there was a strange chattering, quiet at first but slowly increasing in intensity. It was as if dozens, maybe even hundreds, of voices were speaking all at once, questioning him, scolding him, berating him, mocking him, ridiculing him. Some of the voices were familiar, some were not, but all of them seemed to be saying the same things…

Useless…

Weak…

Coward…

Failure…

No one needs you…

No one wants you…

No one… loves you…

Wasting your time… you can't help them…

You can't help anyone…

All you ever do is let people down…

An image of his father flashed in his mind, his stern features scowling behind his round tinted glasses.

He'll never accept you…

Countless white sparks exploded in his mind's eye, and then the image was replaced by the face of the Second Child, her glittering blue eyes narrowed at him scornfully from behind her thick red forelocks.

She'll never respect you…

There was another flare of sparks, and then Asuka's features seemed to ripple like water, eventually shifting into the ruby-eyed image of Rei Ayanami, who gazed back at him blankly, as if he were a perfect stranger to her.

She'll never be close to you…

And then, the image of Rei began to laugh, a cruel, derisive laugh that somehow felt more painful to Shinji than the sharp stinging sensations jabbing into his skull. Beside her, Asuka and the Commander reappeared, adding to Rei's mocking laughter with their own cackling jeers, and then more and more faces appeared. Misato. Ritsuko. Fuyutsuki. Touji, Kensuke, Hikari. All of his classmates and teachers. Aoba, Ibuki, Hyuga. The rest of his colleagues at NERV. His neighbours. Random faces, people he didn't even know…

All of them laughing. Laughing at him.

You're weak.

You're stupid.

You're a coward.

You're useless.

You're nothing.

We hate you, Shinji.

We ALL hate you…

Shinji felt a wave of nausea threatening to overwhelm him as he fought desperately to maintain control of himself. His whole body was shaking, his eyes shut tight against the mental onslaught as he tried to force himself to maintain his focus.

Shut up… just shut up…

The thrumming in his head intensified, a low basso profundo that slowly grew stronger and stronger, until it was almost as loud as the mocking voices still echoing in his thoughts.

We hate you, Shinji.

"…sh… shut… shut up," he whispered, his voice ragged and shaking.

Everyone hates you.

It's the truth…

"Shut up… shut UP," he repeated, louder this time. His head was pounding now, the battle raging in his head worse than a hundred migraines.

For a split-second, Shinji's eyes cracked open, and through the strange kaleidoscope of lights surrounding him, he could see the immobilized forms of the other two EVAs projected on his main screen, as well as the long, thin form of the Lance of Longinus, clutched in his right hand as he held the weapon out before him. The back of his skull was absolutely throbbing, and an icy electric sensation was now spreading down his right arm, as if he were holding a live power cord…

Accept it…

"SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!" he screamed, caught between two opposing forces that both seemed to be trying to overwhelm him. "Get… get out… get out of my head!"

"GET OUT OF MY HEAD!"

-----

"Ma'am?" Maya Ibuki blurted out from her station. "I think you need to take a look at this… the fluctuation in Shinji's psychograph pattern… it's reversing!"

Ritsuko's head snapped around at the news, and she quickly bolted back over to Ibuki's station, peering over her protégé's shoulder at the data on her screen. The graphic that represented Shinji's level of mental stability still showed a rapid decline from its normal level, but it was now beginning to slowly climb upward toward its usual value, to the amazement of the two women gaping at it in disbelief.

The two became three as Misato joined Ritsuko at Ibuki's terminal. "What's going on?" she asked, concern weighing down her words.

Ritsuko ignored her as she jabbed a finger toward another graphic displayed on the lieutenant's screen. "No… that can't be correct," she muttered to herself.

Misato was growing impatient, the stress and worry over the three pilots above pushing her close to the breaking point. "WHAT can't be correct?" she demanded. "Goddammit, Ritsuko, what the hell is happening up there?"

The blonde doctor turned to her colleague, an odd expression of uncertainty crossing her features. "I'm… not sure," she began, "but somehow, Shinji's pushing back the Angel's energy field! And his sync ratio… it's jumped over twenty-six points from his highest recorded score!"

The lavender-haired woman's eyes widened at the news. "He's not… he's not going to get taken again, is he?"

Ritsuko glanced at the monitor, and then back to Misato. "No, that's the strange thing… it's holding steady." She gestured to the graph on Ibuki's screen that showed Shinji's sync ratio maintaining itself at a relatively stable 109.7 percent. "From what I can tell from the data, it shot up the moment he came into contact with the Lance."

Misato's chestnut eyes flew to the main monitor, and her mouth dropped open as she saw Unit 01 now struggling to stand upright once again. It was still holding the Lance out in front of it, and the coloured lights that were still illuminating the purple mecha now seemed to be flowing past the massive Evangelion, rather than dancing around it.

He's fighting, she thought to herself, a faint glimmer of hope beginning to flare to life within her.

Somehow, he's fighting it…

"How… how is he doing it?" she whispered, as she watched Unit 01 slowly struggling unsteadily to its feet.

Ritsuko's jade eyes flickered back and forth as she scanned the data on Ibuki's screen, and then she suddenly gasped in surprise. "Maya… does that look right to you?" she queried.

Ibuki followed her mentor's gaze to the data stream she had been monitoring, and her own brown eyes widened in shock. "Is… is that possible, ma'am?" was the only reply she could muster as she shook her head weakly.

The doctor said nothing for long moments, as she scanned the data over and over to be sure of what she was seeing. "Yes… in theory," she began, "but this is something we've never been able to replicate in a test environment. It's… incredible," she murmured almost reverently. "I never… I never thought I'd ever see something like this…"

Misato just glared expectantly at Ritsuko, who noted her impatience and nodded at the Major apologetically. "From what I'm seeing here, the Lance is both augmenting, and altering, Unit 01's A.T. field, and Shinji is using this to neutralize the Angel's energy beam, which appears to be in itself an extension of its own A.T. field," she explained. "It seems that, with the Lance in its possession, Unit 01 is somehow now able to generate…"

-----

"…an anti-A.T. field?" Kozou Fuyutsuki exclaimed from his position high above the bridge. "How… how can this be? Nothing in the Scrolls suggests that…"

The Commander abruptly cut him off, his flinty voice strangely calm now after his momentary lapse of resolve earlier. "The Scrolls merely outline the path, Fuyutsuki – they do not describe every stone in the passway in detail," he remarked.

The bearded man sat down at his desk once again, resuming his pensive, mantis-like pose as he contemplated the massive screen that dominated the command centre. Unit 01 was now standing fully upright, with both hands on the Lance as it held the forked weapon out in front of it, directly in the path of the Angel's energy beam. Rainbow-coloured tendrils of light were now shooting all around the enormous EVA as it brandished the Lance before it like some mystic talisman, deflecting the Angel's sparkling rays like a hail of arrows off of a medieval shield.

Fuyutsuki leaned in toward his superior officer, concern seated on his distinguished features. "Ikari… you do realize that the longer Unit 01 is in contact with the Lance, the higher the danger that it may…"

Ikari turned to the elder man, his eyes glinting behind his coloured spectacles. "That cannot happen at this point in the scenario," he countered confidently, "but we may yet emerge from this situation with all of our winds and dragons intact. The Angel's overwhelming desire is to return to Adam; it had intended to accomplish this by first incapacitating the Evangelions from a distance, allowing it to penetrate the Geofront unmolested. However, it clearly cannot affect Unit 01 as long as it possesses the Lance. And once the Angel recognizes this, it will eventually conclude that there is only one other way that it can accomplish its goal…"

As if on cue, the multicoloured lights surrounding all three EVAs abruptly faded away. Almost immediately afterward, a new cacophony of blaring klaxon alarms reverberated across the bridge.

Below the Commanders' position, Shigeru Aoba's urgent announcement from the tactical desk caused heads to turn all around him.

"Target… is moving!"

-----

He was trembling.

It was from more than simple fear, more than from the physical and mental strain of fighting against the Angel's invasion into his mind, much more than from the anger and despair he had felt when he had seen the crippled forms of EVA Units 00 and 02 as he emerged from the Geofront.

It was from the tingling chill that had now spread through his entire body, caused by the strange energy that was flowing into him from the object he held in his hands.

The cackling, deriding voices in his head had reached a crescendo in his thoughts before the thrumming in the back of his skull had suddenly blossomed, obliterating the cruel laughter with an almost deafening bass. At the same time, an icy jolt had shot down his right arm – the arm that was holding the Lance of Longinus. Glancing up through watering eyes, Shinji saw the Lance clutched in Unit 01's massive right fist, extended outward into the path of the Angel's energy beam. The rainbow-coloured patterns of light scintillated all around the long crimson weapon – and strangely, seemed to be radiating away from it, the way the like poles of two magnets repel each other.

Red eyes widening, Shinji reached out with Unit 01's left hand and took the Lance in a two-handed grip, wincing as another electric chill immediately arced down his left arm. He gasped in astonishment as the kaleidoscope of lights retreated further away from the Lance as he held it out chest-high in front of him. As the colourful rays drew back, Shinji could make out lines and angles at their edges, where the Angel's beam met the force that the Lance was somehow projecting against it.

The pattern was familiar – hexagonal.

And the multicoloured energy beam had taken on a singular hue where it came into contact with the Lance's repulsive force – a bright, shimmering crimson.

What the hell… an… A.T. field? Shinji thought incredulously.

The Lance… it has an A.T. field...?

He could feel an intense pressure bearing down on him, as the Angel intensified its effort to fight past this new defence, and pain shot through his skull as the mocking voices began to build in his thoughts once again. He pushed back desperately, the humming in his mind growing louder, deeper, and he could feel the tingling sensation spreading throughout him as he turned his concentration to the Lance. He focused on Unit 01's own A.T. field, willing it to spread out before him, and he gasped in surprise as he saw the sparkling lights retreat even further from the Lance. The hexagonal pattern could be clearly seen now, as it reflected more and more of the Angel's beam away from Unit 01. Shinji grit his teeth as he used every ounce of will to expand the mecha's A.T. field further outward, ignoring the freezing sensation that was now gripping his entire body, and his heart leapt as he saw a bright red six-sided shield of energy materialize before him, shunting aside the rainbow-coloured rays shooting down on him from above.

No… not the Lance's A.T. field, Shinji thought as he watched the shimmering lights curving harmlessly past him.

It's… Unit 01's. I can feel it.

But it's different… it FEELS different…

Somehow, the Lance is affecting it… changing it…

Unit 01 slowly rose to its feet, raising the Lance above its head directly toward the source of the energy beam – the silvery-winged Angel beyond the dense clouds above him. Enboldened, Shinji positioned the purple mecha into a solid, wide-footed stance, and leaned into the Angel's assault with the EVA's A.T. field, now somehow supercharged with the power of the mysterious Lance in his hands. Despite the freezing sensation spiking through his veins, and the roaring in the back of his mind, a small smile appeared at the corners of his mouth as the space between him and the sparkling lights increased.

This feeling… it's… agony…

But it's… it's…

incredible…

Through the incessant drone in his head, he was aware of a voice crackling over his comlink, as a small video window captioned "FROM CONTROL" abruptly winked to life on his HUD. "...inji? …ou read? Shinji? Shinji? Do you read me?"

Shinji grunted in reply, glancing up at the image of the lavender-haired woman as he tried to maintain his concentration on repulsing the Angel's attack. "I… hear you, Misato..."

Her terse response was immediate. "Ritsuko's uploading a new firing solution to Unit 01's targeting computer right now. How long can you keep this up?"

"Don't… know," he muttered through clenched teeth, "…not sure… how I'm even doing it…"

"We just need a few more seconds," Misato replied insistently. Her tone was steely, all traces of desperation and dread now gone from the Major's voice. Finally, they were fighting back, and the battle-hardened tactician had now trumped the concerned guardian. "There'll be no countdown this time, so as soon as we give you the go, throw the Lance as hard as you can. Don't worry about the aim, the MAGI will handle it."

"G… got it," Shinji murmured, his voice shuddering from the strain of holding back the Angel's energy beam. "Tell Ritsuko… to hurry…"

For a moment, the concerned guardian returned. "Hold on, Shinji," he heard her softly whisper, "just a little longer..."

He squeezed his eyes tightly closed, his jaw clenching as he pushed with all his might against the relentless attack of the Angel above him. The prickling pins-and-needles sensation shooting through him intensified, both excruciating and euphoric at the same time, and the rumbling bass thudding in the back of his head threatened to blot out the rest of his senses.

Just a few more seconds…

And then, it was as if someone had thrown a switch. The intense pressure of the Angel's assault abruptly died away, and when he opened his eyes in confusion, he was astonished to see that the kaleidoscope of lights had vanished. The freezing tingle began to subside, and the roaring in his skull dwindled to a dull hum once again as he struggled to make sense of this sudden change in the situation.

For several seconds, there was nothing but an eerie silence, save only for the sound of the driving rain that was still pouring from the skies over Tokyo-3. Unit 01's arms eventually dropped to its sides, the Lance's butt end resting on the ground as the huge mecha's horned head swung upward, mirroring the actions of its pilot as Shinji strained to detect any sign of activity from the leaden skies above him.

What… what happened? he thought apprehensively.

Is it… gone?

He dared to glance across the rain-soaked city to where he'd last seen the other two EVAs. The multicoloured lights that had incapacitated them had also vanished. The crimson form of the deactivated Unit 02 remained motionless, slumped forward on its arms, but Shinji could detect the faint sounds of irregular breathing over his audio link to the red mecha – Asuka was still alive, although he had no idea what her condition was. Across from Unit 02, the blue prototype EVA slowly rolled onto its back, one trembling hand still clutched to its monocular head. A quiet groan snapped his head around as his attention flew to the window on his screen captioned, "FROM EVA-00," and he caught his breath as he saw Rei's ruby eyes flutter open.

Instead of relief, though, he felt a chilling dread as a strange wave of foreboding suddenly washed over him.

We have to get them out of here, he thought, before it comes back…

He had barely completed the thought before Misato's urgent voice crackled over his comlink once again.

"Shinji… it's moving! Take evasive action NOW, do you read me? TAKE COV…"

The command was drowned out by the sound of two thunderous explosions that shook the ground beneath Unit 01's feet – the telltale signal of a large object shattering through the sound barrier.

Shinji's gaze shot upward, and his crimson eyes widened in horror at the sight of the Angel bursting through the clouds, its glittering wings tucked tightly into its body as it screamed down from the heavens like a harrier delivering the killing stroke to its prey.

"…this can't be good," he whispered breathlessly to himself…

-----

The force of the impact sent Unit 01 into a cartwheeling tumble that instantly reduced fifteen straight blocks of downtown Tokyo-3 to rubble. Explosions erupted at various points along the path of destruction, sending pillars of flame and billowing smoke shooting skyward. The Angel had climbed into the air once again after swooping down and knocking the purple EVA off of its feet before its pilot had scarcely a chance to react, and was now circling the downed mecha, lining up for another pass. Below it, Unit 01 was struggling weakly amidst a pile of twisted steel and shattered concrete, attempting to claw its way back to its feet like a downed boxer from the canvas.

On the bridge, Misato was screaming up at the main screen from her position next to Aoba at the tactical desk. "SHINJI! It's coming around again… you've GOT to get out of its way!"

The Third Child's response was faint, and tremulous – the Angel's diving blow had clearly stunned the young pilot nearly senseless.

"…fast... too fast…" he slurred in a ragged, barely audible whisper.

The crew on the bridge collectively gasped as the Angel's shimmering image glided silently across the main monitor as it bore down on Unit 01 once more. From orbit, it had appeared only as a glowing, vaguely bird-like form, but up close, it seemed to be composed of pure crystal, brightly reflecting every available light source that illuminated it. Its mask was hawk-like, with a long, recurved beak, the long tendrils of its outstretched wings were edged with razor-sharp serrations, and underneath its torso were two stubby legs that ended in wickedly taloned feet. Its core could be plainly seen through the glassy facets of its chest, but instead of the normal reddish colour, this Angel's core glowed an electric, glacial blue, giving its entire body a faint azure tint. It soared with an almost casual, sinister grace high above the struggling EVA, and then, it wheeled in place, nosing downward, and pulled its wings in close to itself once more. Once again, twin sonic booms rumbled across the wreckage of Tokyo-3 as the Angel descended with the speed of a thunderbolt toward its target.

"Shinji! MOVE!" Misato implored, as she watched Unit 01 stagger unsteadily back upright, the Lance of Longinus still clutched in its right hand… but her warning came too late.

The second strike drove Unit 01 almost in the exact opposite direction as the first, skidding and smashing its way back through the burning debris it had left in its wake before finally coming to a halt not far from its original position. Misato grabbed for the edge of the desk to steady herself as a violent tremor rocked the command centre, before turning her gaze back to the monitor. The purple EVA was now lying face-down, half-obscured by plumes of fire, clouds of greasy smoke, and the remains of several demolished buildings, as above it, the crystalline form of the Angel climbed heavenward once more, passing out of sight beyond the heavy cloud cover.

He won't be able to take much more of that, she thought, reaching unconsciously for her cross pendant as she watched a shuddering Unit 01 slowly pulling itself to its knees.

"Shinji… can you hear me?" she called out, catching her breath as she watched the horned mecha slump down on its elbows as it scrabbled to maintain its balance.

"…can't… can't even see it… so… so fast," she heard Shinji weakly reply.

Misato's brow furrowed as she twirled the pendant in her hand, gazing up at the stricken form of Unit 01 as it fought its way to its feet once more, weaving unsteadily as it finally managed to pull itself upright using the Lance to brace itself. Somewhere above it, the Angel was circling, and any second now, it would dive downward once more – perhaps for the final time...

"Shinji… retreat," she finally ordered, her jaw tight with tension. "This isn't working - we'll have to regroup and try something else. Pull back to the Geofront and…"

"Belay that."

All eyes turned to the command post high above the bridge, as Commander Gendou Ikari's stern voice reverberated through the massive complex. The tall man was standing once more, his features set as if in stone as he gazed across the bridge at the image of Unit 01 on the main monitor.

"Shinji… you will not retreat. You will hold your position, and engage the Angel. There is no other option now. If you retreat, you will be abandoning the other two Units, leaving them defenceless against the enemy. You must use the Lance, and destroy it. Do you understand?"

On the huge screen, the oddly drunken-looking image of Unit 01 was clutching the Lance with both hands as it leaned against the crimson weapon for support. Its head lolled forward and it seemed to be staring blankly at the ground, giving no indication at all that its pilot had heard the order.

"Target is approaching," Shigeru Aoba announced, the tension in his voice obvious. "Bearing one-four-oh, distance 5800 meters, speed approaching Mach zero point nine zero."

Behind the Commander, Kozou Fuyutsuki's eyes narrowed as his gaze was drawn to Ikari's gloved right hand – the bearded man was unconsciously clenching and unclenching it, as he waited for his son's reply.

"Do you understand?" Ikari repeated impatiently.

The purple mecha seemed to sigh in response, its shoulders heaving as it slowly drew itself upright once again. It stumbled as it took its weight off of the Lance, but recovered, holding the spear at waist height as its armoured head rose up and swung around, unintentionally facing directly into the main exterior camera. Its white eyes were gleaming through the torrential downpour as rain spattered off of its horned helm.

"…y-yes, sir," the Third Child responded in a low, shaky whisper.

Aoba's voice rang out across the bridge again. "Target is closing… distance 2400 meters, speed Mach zero point nine eigh…"

His announcement was abruptly cut off by another pair of explosions that cracked through the air above Tokyo-3…

-----

Shinji whirled at the sound, and saw the Angel once again descending upon him through the dense clouds. Its speed was incredible – in only a few fractions of a second, it had grown exponentially larger on his main screen, its long crystal wings folded tight to its body as it shot down toward him like a guided missile.

If you retreat, you will be abandoning the other two Units…

He couldn't retreat now, even if he wanted to. It was far too late.

The Angel loomed large on his monitor, its outline blurring into a flash of glacial blue as it streaked closer and closer.

His hands unconsciously tightened on the haft of the Lance as, at the back of his skull, the low thrumming began to increase in volume once again, and the numbing chill began to course through his veins as his father's words echoed in his thoughts once more.

You must use the Lance…

or Rei and Asuka will surely die…

Time seemed to slow to a crawl as he heard Asuka's shallow, pained breathing over his comlink, and in the corner of his eye, he could see Rei squinting through her long blue lashes, her delicate features contorted in agony as she still reeled from the after-effects of the Angel's attack on her mind. They were in no condition to fight, and even if they could, the Angel could easily strike them down again with its energy attack. He was their last hope… perhaps everyone's last hope…

The crystal-winged enemy was practically filling his viewscreen now, its hooked mask leering at him as it brought its talons forward, preparing to strike once more.

His body felt like it was freezing and burning at the same time, and the rumbling bass in his head drowned out all other sounds as Unit 01 drew back the Lance behind it, every sinew in its massive body tensed to the breaking point.

Shinji's crimson eyes shot wildly open, and he was only vaguely aware by the sensations in his throat that he was screaming, as he whipped the Lance around in a wicked arc with all of the force that he could muster.

There was a brilliant flash of light, and thousands of sparkling shards exploded from the impact point as the Lance of Longinus struck the Angel with a direct hit on its left shoulder. The massive birdlike being flew violently backwards, its splayed wings pinwheeling wildly, as it smashed through the centre of a towering skyscraper and continued on for several hundred meters before finally impacting into the ground and plowing through another row of buildings before collapsing in a heap. The shock of the impact shook the ground beneath Unit 01's feet, causing it to stagger backwards as its pilot stared in disbelief at the destruction it had just caused.

Over his comlink, Shinji could hear the wild cheers that had erupted in the command centre as Misato's excited voice suddenly crackled on the line. 'It's down! It's down! Keep on it, Shinji!"

In the distance, he could see the crystalline Angel slowly rising from the debris, shaking its masked head as it struggled to get its bearings. The blow had clearly shaken it, and Shinji felt a jolt of excitement at the sight. He launched Unit 01 into a lumbering run, holding the Lance out before him like a jousting knight and aiming it directly at the Angel's back as he drove the mecha closer and closer to the glassy being.

He winced as a high-pitched, ear-splitting shriek shivered the air all around him, shattering the few intact panes of glass in the surrounding buildings, and Shinji was horrified to see the Angel suddenly lurch upright, its awesome wingspan spreading out to the heavens as it keened in outrage. Its back was still turned to Unit 01, and Shinji spurred the purple EVA onward, realizing that the element of surprise was slipping away from him. He set his jaw as he concentrated on the area between the Angel's wings, and the shimmering blue core that lay in the middle of its body. Just a few more strides, and he would drive the Lance straight through the creature's heart…

And then, a searing pain slashed across his chest as the screaming Angel suddenly whirled, swatting away the Lance with one wing and raking Unit 01 across the chest with the other. Razor-sharp crystal pinions tore through the mecha's armour plating like a hot knife through butter, and Shinji gasped as a torrent of red suddenly spurted from the Evangelion's torso. He clutched at his chest, crying out in agony, the sympathetic pain nearly overwhelming him… and blinding him to the Angel's next blow. Instantly, the wing that had slashed Unit 01 scythed backward and took the EVA off of its feet again, sending it careening even farther than before… and past the limits of its umbilical power cord.

The heavy cable snapped like a thread as Unit 01 continued to reel backward from the force of the Angel's blow, before finally coming to rest amidst a mountain of shattered concrete and steel. Through the dull roar permeating his brain, Shinji heard the familiar beep­ of the EVA's systems switching from AC to battery power ring out in the entry plug. His heavy red eyes glanced up at the plug's battery status monitor as it began to count backwards from 5:00, coldly ticking down the seconds until Unit 01 would deactivate – and if he hadn't destroyed the Angel by then…

The Angel was now lumbering awkwardly across the ruined cityscape toward him, no longer the graceful airborne predator, and Shinji noted that it was holding its left wing slightly lower than the right one.

Why… why isn't it flying? he thought, confused, as he strained to bring Unit 01 back to its feet. His chest was on fire, and he grunted at the effort.

Immediately, Misato's voice rang out over his comlink again, answering his question "Shinji… you damaged one of its wings. You need to work fast, before it can regenerate. Keep it on the ground, and finish it!"

Shinji glanced around quickly, keeping one eye on the approaching Angel. "I need a new umbilical, Misato, I'm running on batteries now," he exclaimed urgently, fully alert now from the adrenalin spiking through his veins. "Where's the nearest power station?"

There was a pause. "All the ones in your immediate area have been destroyed," she finally admitted, "or their access points have been blocked by debris. You don't have time to lure it to another sector, Shinji…"

"Okay," he replied, cutting her off. It was all that he needed to know.

The crystal form of the Angel was almost upon him now, and Shinji braced himself as he held the Lance out like a quarterstaff at chest height, wary of its lightning-quick wings. He'd have to work quickly, but he'd hurt it, and he could do it again. If it only it wasn't so unbelievably fast…

The Angel let loose with another ear-splitting shriek as it suddenly darted forward, its wings drawn close to its body once again, and this time, it dove straight for Unit 01's throat. Instinctively, Shinji raised the Lance to block the thrust, and his eyes widened in surprise as the Angel seized the haft of the Lance in its hooked beak. It clamped down hard on the long, twisted handle and began to yank and jerk with such strength and ferocity that Shinji nearly lost his grip on the weapon. He grunted with discomfort and desperation as he fought to keep his grip on the twin-pronged spear, as the two massive figures battled fiercely for control of the one object that could decide the outcome of the battle.

It's trying to take the Lance, Shinji thought, instantly alarmed, his teeth grit with the strain as he wrestled with the thrashing, screaming Angel.

Can't… can't let it…

-----

Inside the command centre, a palpable silence had settled over the bridge crew as they stared, open-mouthed, at the main screen as it displayed the battle raging above them. They had been witness to many Angel attacks in the past, but never had they been in such a precarious position before. The previous Angel, the Fourteenth, had been close – it had defeated Units 00 and 02, and had seemed unstoppable until Unit 01 had intercepted it within the Geofront, driven it back to the surface, and eventually destroyed it. But Unit 01 had proven more than a match for the massive red-and-black marauder, and had not only defeated the Angel, it had utterly annihilated it, tearing it to pieces in the grip of a towering berserker rage.

And the Fourteenth, for all of its awesome might, was bulky and ponderous. This new Angel was sleek, and dangerous-looking, and frighteningly fast. It could move in the blink of an eye, even when it was earth-bound, and its keen-edged wings had already demonstrated the ridiculous ease with which they could slice through an Evangelion's armour. As they watched Unit 01 struggling for control of the Lance with the crystalline enemy, every single person realized how quickly the battle could end with one instantaneous flick of those razor-sharp pinions.

Behind Misato, who was still twirling her cross pendant in her hands as she stared up intently at the monitor, Makoto Hyuga's voice broke the silence. "Unit 01 has four minutes of battery power remaining," he announced.

"He's got to hurry," another voice spoke up beside Misato. The lavender-haired woman turned to see Ritsuko, regarding her with tense jade eyes. "The MAGI have calculated that the Angel will have fully regenerated the damage to its left wing within 180 seconds. That means it will be able to fly again – and once Unit 01's batteries run out…"

"…he's dead. We're all dead," Misato murmured, finishing the doctor's sentence.

The blonde woman only nodded in reply.

And if it gets the Lance, then it's all over anyway, she thought grimly, as she turned her attention back to the titanic struggle on the main monitor.

Shinji…

You've GOT to finish this… soon…

A new voice over the command centre's P.A. abruptly broke her thought. It was quiet, and weak, and instantly familiar to every person on the bridge.

"I… I can… help…"

Misato whirled. "Rei?" she blurted out, shocked at the sound of the First Child's tremulous whisper.

She glanced up at a secondary monitor to see the blue form of Unit 00 scrabbling awkwardly to its feet, looking as if it had been kicked in the stomach as it weaved unsteadily on shaking legs.

"…yes, I… I am… all right…"

Ritsuko dashed over to Ibuki's station, her green eyes flitting across the data streaming across her protégé's screen before she turned back to Misato and frowned. "She's in no condition to fight," the doctor cautioned, "her psychograph data is still extremely unstable, and her sync ratio has dropped significantly as a result. It's a wonder that she can even operate Unit 00 right now – if we send her in there against that Angel, she'll be slaughtered in seconds."

Misato pondered this, chewing her lip as her chestnut eyes darted back and forth between the struggle between Unit 01 and the Angel, and the staggering form of Unit 00. "We'll have much better odds with two EVAs in the fight," she reasoned, "but… you're right. The only reason Shinji can even get close to the Angel is because he has the Lance. Unit 00 has no defence against its energy beam, but even without it, Rei can't put up much of a fight as she is…"

She gazed back up at the image of Unit 00 and nodded to herself. "Rei, listen to me. I want you to help Unit 02 to the lifts, and then take up a defensive position within the Geofront. You are not to engage the Angel, do you copy?"

There was a long pause, and then Misato's eyes shot open as she heard a most unexpected reply from the blue-haired girl.

"…but… I-Ikari needs… h-help… should I… not assist him… Major?"

Misato was speechless. Was Rei Ayanami, the dependable, obedient First Child… questioning an order?

She turned to Ritsuko, who was also clearly shocked by the girl's reply. The doctor quickly scanned the data on Ibuki's screen, glanced up at the unsteady image of Unit 00 on the main monitor, and then gazed uncertainly at Misato and shrugged.

If she thinks she can go, Misato thought to herself, then maybe we should take a chance…

The thought was abruptly cut off by the sound of the Commander's voice from high above her.

"Rei, you will do as Major Katsuragi has ordered," Ikari insisted firmly, validating Misato's initial decision. His tone was low, and oddly… tense. "You will evacuate yourself and Unit 02 from the area, and then prepare to defend the Geofront in the event that Unit 01 is defeated. Is that understood?"

Another long pause hung in the air, before the quiet response came from Unit 00's audio channel.

"…yes, sir," the First Child murmured, sounding almost like a sigh of regret.

On the main monitor, Unit 00 began a painstakingly awkward about-face, still wobbling on its weakened legs, and began to slowly shuffle in the direction of the inactive Unit 02. In the distance, behind the retreating prototype, the desperate tug-of-war between Unit 01 and the Angel raged on.

-----

Three minutes… running out of time…

Shinji began to feel anxiety creeping at the edges of his consciousness as he continued to wrestle with the Angel. The winged enemy had a vise-like grip on the haft of the crimson weapon, and no matter how much Shinji pulled and twisted and jerked, it would not let go. Desperately, he drove one of Unit 01's heavy armoured boots into the Angel's midsection, just beneath its glowing blue core, and the crystal being shrieked in outrage, but stubbornly maintained its hold on the Lance. Shinji redoubled his efforts, sending a flurry of kicks into the Angel's torso as he tried to hammer the bird-like being into submission.

Suddenly, white-hot pain ripped down the side of his left leg as the Angel's right wing scythed downward in a blinding flash, cleaving through the armour plate protecting Unit 01's own left leg. Bright red blood spurted from the long, clean gash in the mecha's legplate, and inside the entry plug, Shinji screamed in agony as his left hand instinctively left the control yoke and flew to his thigh. Sensing that its opponent's grip on the Lance had weakened, the Angel suddenly lurched backward, snapping its masked head around, and with frightening strength, it whipped Unit 01 off of its feet and tossed both it and the Lance of Longinus through the air like a dog would a chew toy.

By the time Shinji realized that Unit 01 was airborne, it was already slamming into the ground with a thunderous crash, laying waste to another section of downtown Tokyo-3 in the process as more bright balls of flame bloomed around the purple mecha and rose angrily into the rain-soaked skies. The impact briefly stunned him, and for long moments he just lay on the ground, groaning as his chest and leg burned with a searing agony. His head seemed to be filled with cotton, and he could hear Misato's muffled voice over his comlink, urging him to get up, that he had to hurry, that he couldn't let the Angel get…

The Lance…

A chilling panic gripped him as he realized that his hands were off the control yokes. He'd let go of the Lance.

Shocked back to lucidity, he bolted upright in the pilot's chair and seized hold of the controls, willing Unit 01 to rise back to its feet. As he did, his eyes scanned the main monitor in desperation, searching for the Lance – and his heart sank as he saw the long, forked weapon embedded in the ground, almost half a kilometre away. He was further dismayed to see that the Angel, still earthbound because of its damaged wing, had spotted it as well, and was now lumbering toward the Lance as quickly as its stubby legs could manage.

No…

"…inji… you have to get it back! Hurry! You can't let it get the Lance!" Misato's urgent voice crackled over his comlink.

With all the will he could muster, he sent Unit 01 into a headlong sprint, driving it toward the Lance as fast as he could make the EVA go. He leapt desperately over the shattered remains of buildings, straight through the hellish infernos that were still burning wildly despite the driving rain, as he charged toward the twin-pronged spear. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the Angel approaching it as well, but even though it was lightning-quick in the air, and its reflexes were as fast as a whip's crack, it was not suited to running on the ground, especially through the mounds of debris that now littered the cityscape. Shinji felt a glimmer of hope as he realized he was pulling ahead – he would reach the Lance before the Angel. He quickly glanced toward the chronometer counting down Unit 01's remaining battery time – two minutes, thirty-five seconds. If he could get to the Lance, and strike the Angel in just the right place…

And then he screamed as a thousand hot needles suddenly spiked into his skull again.

Immediately, Shinji's hands flew to his head as the shimmering kaleidoscope of lights swirled around him once more, and he clutched at his hair in anguish as he heard another cruel cacophony of jeers and laughter rising in his thoughts.

Stupid…

Weak…

Failure…

SUCH a disappointment…

You've let us all down, Shinji… AGAIN…

Just like we KNEW you would…

No longer being guided by its pilot, Unit 01 stumbled and fell clumsily to the ground, writhing in the grip of the Angel's mental attack as it came to a halt less than twenty short meters from its objective – the Lance of Longinus, which now towered over the downed EVA like a grave marker.

Squinting through heavy-lidded eyes as the torturous assault worked its way deeper into his psyche, Shinji could make out the glistening form of the Angel lumbering into view on his main screen, its strange waddling gait belying its menacing lethality. Its crystalline wings were drawn back as it approached, and their long, razor-edged pinions were recurved forward, preparing to slash through the prone form of Unit 01 like a butcher would a side of beef.

Shinji squeezed his eyes tightly shut, and waited.

At least it'll be quick, he thought through the mocking laughter in his mind, just before he slipped gratefully into unconsciousness.

-----

"…I don't… I don't believe it," Misato whispered, as she stared in horror at the desperate scene on the bridge's main monitor.

Beside her, Ritsuko's voice was equally desolate. "Yes… it's over," she muttered. "Once it destroys Unit 01, and takes the Lance, the Angel will be… unstoppable."

Misato felt numb as she watched the lumbering Angel approaching the downed form of the purple Evangelion, the Lance of Longinus looming just out of its reach, knowing that there was nothing that Shinji could do now that the Angel had Unit 01 in the grip of its energy beam once more.

Shinji…

I'm so sorry…

"Its next move will be to come here," Ritsuko continued grimly, "there's nothing we can do."

"There's got to be something," Misato insisted, "we can call in UN Air Command, hit it with an N² mine – hell, hit it with a thousand! We can engage it with our fighters, we could…"

"Conventional weapons would be ineffectual against it – it already resisted the same positron blast that destroyed the fifth Angel," Ritsuko countered. "Our fighters will never be able to catch it once its airborne again, and it would easily evade a mine strike. And even if we somehow did manage to destroy it with an N² attack – which is unlikely – it still wouldn't matter. Without the EVAs, we'll still be defenceless against the next attack. And there will be more."

There will be more, Misato thought, casting a sidelong glance at Ritsuko.

How can she be so sure?

The lavender-haired woman turned to the doctor, her face hard and serious. "Then I'm out of ideas. So, what happens now?"

Ritsuko glanced up to the command post, where Commander Ikari and Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki were watching the events on the main screen with an almost resigned calm. Ikari turned his gaze downward and regarded the doctor, and gave her a small nod before shifting his attention back to the monitor. Ritsuko's eyes shifted to the floor, looking oddly thoughtful.

"The protocol for this situation is clear. In the event that the EVAs are unable to destroy an Angel, we are to wait until it penetrates the Geofront, at which time we will give the MAGI the command to self-destruct this entire facility. We will prevent it from accomplishing its goal, even if we have to sacrifice every person here."

Misato nodded. "A handful of lives, to save the lives of everyone on Earth," she murmured pensively. "But tell me, Ritsuko – was there ever a way that we could have avoided all of this in the first place?"

The blonde woman said nothing, turning her attention back to the screen, as the Angel drew closer to Unit 01, its crystalline wings poised to deliver the death blow to the stricken mecha. Misato did not want to watch, but she found that she was unable to tear her eyes away from the screen as the Angel drew back its needle-sharp pinions, ready to run them through the body of its prone opponent. Why couldn't she look away?

He was her ward, her charge… no, he was more than that, so much more – and he was about to die.

And there was nothing in the world that she could do about it.

Just like her father… and Kaji…

NERV had taken away everything that had ever mattered to her.

So it was just as well, then, that she was going to die here too.

The thought was oddly comforting.

She'd see them all soon.

An odd sound distracted her from her ruminations. It was a low, repetitive vibration that was slowly gaining in intensity as it reverberated through the command centre. Ritsuko heard it too, and she glanced around as the thoom, thoom, thoom grew louder and louder, and quicker and quicker. Confusion gave way to realization as the doctor recognized the source of the sound, and her green eyes widened in shock and surprise as she, Misato, and every single person on the bridge were suddenly transfixed by the activity on the main screen.

As the Angel was preparing to strike, it suddenly whipped around at the approaching sound of a massive blue figure, thundering toward it in a desperate, headlong sprint. Realizing that it was suddenly vulnerable, the Angel lashed out with its energy beam, catching the azure giant in a wave of shimmering light, but it was too close, and too fast, and had too much impetus behind it to be stopped in its tracks now. Gasps could be heard throughout the command centre as the sprinting figure suddenly sprang into the air, diving at the Angel like an enormous panther.

"It's… Rei!" Misato exclaimed. "But… I told her to…"

Her words were drowned out by the earth-shaking sound of a massive collision, as Unit 00 slammed into the body of the Angel with the force of a speeding train and tackled it to the ground. Shattered steel and concrete flew everywhere as the two bodies tumbled along the ruined streets of Tokyo-3, rolling over and over, before they finally came skidding to a halt – with Unit 00 on top. Seizing the advantage, the prototype EVA immediately began slamming its fists into the Angel's chest like a pair of piledrivers, trying determinedly to crack open its crystalline chest and expose its glowing blue core. After several punishing strikes, the blows slowly began to make their mark, and Rei brought as much force to bear as she could as she saw thin, spidery fissures starting to snake across the Angel's glassy chest.

If there was any hope of Unit 00 somehow defeating the Angel with its bare hands though, it was short-lived. The bridge crew's cheers of encouragement for Rei's valiant efforts were abruptly silenced as a brilliant shaft of multicoloured light suddenly burst from the Angel once again, catching Unit 00 point-blank in its shimmering rays. The blue mecha ceased its relentless assault on the Angel's core and reeled backward, clutching at its monocular head, and exposing its abdomen to the Angel.

Instantly, one glittering wing shot forward, striking the prototype EVA square in the solar plexus, and a bloodcurdling shriek from Rei's audio channel reverberated throughout the command centre as the Angel drove its long, wickedly sharp pinions straight through the body of Unit 00, emerging through the mecha's lower back and accompanied by a spurting fountain of bright red blood.

"NO!" Misato screamed, unable to believe what she was seeing on the monitor. Over Unit 00's audio channel, she could hear Rei gasping in pain.

The blue EVA jerked involuntarily as it remained impaled on the Angel's crystal wingtip, utterly helpless. The birdlike figure slowly rose up on its stubby legs, keeping the prototype EVA suspended in the air as it regained its footing. It held Unit 00 aloft before it for long moments, seeming almost to be curiously contemplating the twitching, haemorrhaging Evangelion hanging from its needle-like pinions, like a collector would a pinned butterfly.

And then, another piercing, wrathful shriek shivered the air all around the Angel as it jerked Unit 00 close to it until they were virtually nose-to-nose. With an almost ridiculous ease, it suddenly snapped its wing outward, flinging the blue mecha away from it in a towering parabolic arc. Unit 00 tumbled end-over-end through the torrential rain like a discarded rag doll, before finally crashing to earth over half a kilometre away, and falling silent once more.

The Angel watched impassively as its enemy slammed into the ground in the distance, before turning its attention to its original target – the silent form of Unit 01, and the Lance of Longinus, which still remained embedded in the ground. After Unit 00's interruption, the birdlike figure was clearly intent on finishing what it had begun earlier – destroying Unit 01, and taking the Lance for itself. It broke into its odd, awkward gait again as it lumbered off in the direction of the prone EVA, but the damage to its left wing had nearly regenerated, and soon it would be able to take to the skies once more…

It had taken no more than a dozen steps though, before it was surprised by another unexpected event.

Out of nowhere, a projectile flashed through the air, and the Angel screeched in pain as a red-handled blade embedded itself in its back, right between where its wings joined its body.

In the command centre, Misato's jaw dropped in disbelief.

"That's… that's a progressive knife," she managed, staring at the weapon that was jutting out of the Angel's dorsal area.

Ibuki's excited voice rang out across the bridge, confirming what Misato had already concluded from the style and shape of the blade that had struck the crystalline enemy.

"Unit 02… it's reactivated!"

-----

The Angel whirled in place, to see a tall, crimson form slowly staggering toward it. Unit 02 was weaving like a drunkard, clearly unable to do much more than walk, but it was walking, and it was slowly advancing toward the Angel step by clumsy step. Its left shoulder compartment hung open, revealing the empty sheath that had held its progressive knife, as it lurched unsteadily toward the winged enemy.

While Unit 00 had engaged the Angel, distracting it, Asuka had managed to move Unit 02 into a position where the Angel would not immediately notice it, and once she had seen an opening, she had flung the progressive knife with deadly accuracy, catching the Angel square in the back. Now, she was slowly advancing upon the birdlike being, her breath hissing through her clenched teeth as her fiery rage burned away the lingering effects of the Angel's mental assault.

"You… you son of a bitch," she muttered, "…not… going to win… not going… to get away… I'll… I'll kill you…"

The Angel regarded her silently for long moments as it watched the red mecha approach, and then, with a gesture that almost resembled a shrug, it spread its crystalline wings, exposing its azure core. The sphere within the Angel's chest glowed with a sudden neon blue, and then another beam of rainbow-coloured light erupted from the Angel's chest, enveloping the production model EVA in its aurora-like rays.

Asuka cried out in pain as the sensation of thousands of sharp, searing needles jolted into her brain once more, and the awful memories from her past began to bubble back to the surface again… but she knew what they were now. She knew now that they weren't real – they were only images plucked from her mind that the Angel was using to demoralize her, to weaken her… to defeat her.

And she would not allow it to use her memories against her again.

Unit 02 staggered as the full force of the Angel's energy beam washed over it, sparkling multicoloured lights dancing all around its colossal form, and then, incredibly, it began to move forward again, wading directly into the rays as it slowly closed the distance between itself and its attacker. The hallucinations that the Angel's attack was conjuring in her mind were just as vivid as before, but this time, the redhead ignored them, concentrating solely on operating her EVA as it staggered unimpeded toward the crystalline figure.

"Not… not going to work… this time," she stammered, a small smile curling at the corner of her mouth despite the intense agony she was experiencing, "…already… already done your worst…"

With a thought, the tall bladed shoulder pack on Unit 02's left side began to rotate forward from its upright position, until it was pointed directly at the Angel in front of her.

"Your turn to feel some pain," she spat, her brilliant blue eyes glaring at the image of the Angel on her entry plug's main screen, "…son of a bitch…"

A spring-loaded hatch at the tip of the shoulder pack's fin flew open, and immediately, dozens of long black needles exploded from the compartment, shooting out at blinding speed unerringly toward their target.

The Angel reeled backward as the ebony spikes thudded into its body, some burying themselves deep into its torso, others passing clean through its long translucent wings, shattering off bits of crystal everywhere they impacted. The birdlike being staggered back several steps, pulling its wings around it for protection, and then it regained its footing, spread its wings out once more, and lashed out again with its energy beam, increasing the intensity of its mental attack.

Asuka winced as the rays hit Unit 02 once more, making her skull feel like it was on fire as all those terrible images – the leering dolls, her insane, cackling mother hanging from a rope, the twisted, red-eyed faces of the First and the Third – danced around her once again, so close she could almost touch them, so real… but she bit back her fear, and concentrated again with all of her will.

Unit 02's right shoulder pack began to rotate forward now, its tall fin pointing straight at the shimmering form of the Angel as the hatch at the tip of the fin suddenly sprang open.

"Told you… not going to work… stupid Angel," the redhead taunted through the pain jolting through her head, "…kill you… I'll kill you…"

She felt Unit 02 shudder as the needle pack contained within the red mecha's right shoulder fin erupted from their compartment, peppering the screeching Angel with another volley of sharp black barbs. Crystal splinters flew everywhere as the spikes shattered into the body of the Angel, sending it staggering backwards once more. It suddenly seemed disoriented, as if it had no idea what to do, and once again it folded its wings around it, hoping to protect itself from another such attack. Unknown to it, though, Unit 02 had now exhausted its needle packs, but Asuka was undaunted by this as she continued to advance upon the Angel. There was still several hundred meters separating them, but Unit 02 was gaining ground, its pace increasing and becoming steadier as Asuka drove the mecha closer and closer to her target by sheer force of will.

"…see how you feel… when I punch a hole in your chest… and crush your core with my bare hands," she growled, her blue eyes narrowed into slits as she scowled at the Angel's image on her monitor.

As she drew closer, she was surprised to see the Angel spreading its wings again, once more exposing its core to her, exactly like the previous two times it had tried to attack her with its energy beam.

"Heh… you just don't learn, do you?" she snickered, as she flexed Unit 02's hands into hard fists and continued to advance.

And then, her eyes opened wide as the Angel drew its wings far back behind its body, and, as its keening wail shivered the air, it suddenly snapped them forward like a pair of bullwhips.

Instantly, the air was filled with thousands upon thousands of brightly glittering projectiles. Razor-sharp pinions shot from the Angel's wings as they whipped toward Unit 02, sending a hellstorm of crystalline daggers streaking toward the crimson EVA. Completely surprised by this new tactic, the redhead desperately raised her A.T. field to block the attack… a fraction of a second too late.

Asuka screamed in blinding agony as crystal shards embedded themselves into the body of the red mecha, the psychosomatic pain stabbing into her chest, her abdomen, her legs and arms, her face, her eyes… everywhere. The shards tore through armour plate and flesh alike, slashed through the EVA's outstretched hands as it tried vainly to ward off the cascade, and very nearly penetrated straight through to the core, and to the entry plug itself.

Her whole body felt like a raw, exposed wound being drenched in vinegar and salt, and angry red welts peppered every inch of her exposed flesh as the feedback from Unit 02's horrific damage manifested itself as sympathetic lesions on her skin. It was worse than the pain she had felt when she had been defeated by the Fourteenth – far worse – and it was too much for her to take. It was, literally, death by a thousand cuts, and it was pure torture to her. With one last, terrifying scream, Asuka's eyes finally rolled back as the pain overwhelmed her, and she retreated deep into the depths of her unconscious to escape her suffering.

Reeling from the collective impacts of the shards, spouting blue blood from seemingly every part of its body, and now essentially pilotless, Unit 02 lurched backward and collapsed onto the ground, looking for all the world as if it had suddenly suffered a massive heart attack. It flopped onto its back and lay motionless, a dark, indigo-coloured pool slowly spreading beneath its horribly scourged body.

The Angel seemed to stare at the flayed form of the production model EVA for long seconds, almost as if it were admiring its handiwork, before it casually turned back in the direction of Unit 01. It had already destroyed two of its enemies with ease, and the third would be the easiest of all. And once it possessed the Lance, nothing would thwart it from fulfilling its destined task – to join with the Father, and to usher in the New Age for its brethren.

A feral, rumbling bellow from behind it caused the crystalline being to whirl around suddenly. If the eyes of its hawk-like mask could widen in surprise, they would certainly have done so at the chilling sight before it.

The Angel found itself nearly nose-to-nose with a snarling, growling Evangelion Unit 01, its white incandescent eyes glittering with barely contained rage beneath its horned helm. Before the Angel could react, the EVA suddenly lurched forward, thrusting something toward the birdlike being.

Immediately, the air was filled with the piercing, painful sound of the Angel's high-pitched shriek, and its wings suddenly shot outward and began beating frantically, as if it were desperately trying to escape.

Within the entry plug, Shinji's crimson eyes were wide with grief, and anger, and hatred, and pure determination, and he let loose with an enraged bellow to rival that of Unit 01's as he drove the Lance of Longinus, with all his might, deep into the body of the crystal Angel before him.

-----

"He's going to do it!" Misato exclaimed, as her chestnut eyes locked on the figure of Unit 01 displayed on the main screen. The purple EVA was leaning into the Angel now, bringing as much leverage to bear as possible as it thrust the twin prongs of the Lance deeper and deeper into the Angel's chest.

"He'd better do it soon," Ritsuko replied anxiously, "Unit 01 only has fifty seconds of battery time left! He's got to pierce the core to destroy it!"

The Angel was wildly battering its wings against Unit 01's flanks now, trying to knock the mecha down again, but the Evangelion maintained its balance, its feet planted wide apart in a firm stance as it inched the sharp tips of the Lance ever closer to the glowing blue core.

Come on, Misato thought apprehensively, as she watched the horned mecha struggling to impale the Angel with the Lance.

Just a little more…

Behind her, Ibuki's voice rang out. "Life support data from Unit 00 is holding steady – Rei's psychograph is still erratic, but her vital signs are stable, she appears to be uninjured." Her voice faltered as she scanned the second graphic displayed beside Unit 00's on her screen. "Asuka… she's gone into shock, ma'am, and her vitals are crashing! Unit 02's not responding to remote life support control – it's completely shut down!"

"Dammit!" Ritsuko cursed. "We can't even eject her while Unit 02's flat on its back! Shinji's got to finish this – it's the only chance Asuka has!"

The two women turned back to the main monitor, joining every other person on the bridge as they silently watched the two massive figures struggling above. This was the endgame, and they all knew it. They would all either live or die, depending on what happened in the next forty seconds.

Misato could hear Shinji screaming in his entry plug as he pushed harder and harder, striving with all of his will and strength to run the Angel through with the Lance. The sound sent a chill down her spine – it sounded like the screams of someone who had lost something so precious to them that they no longer felt they had anything left to lose.

The screaming suddenly turned into a gasp of surprise, gasps that were echoed by spectators throughout the command centre, and Misato's eyes shot open at the shocking sight on the main monitor.

The Angel's beating wings seemed to catch hold of the air, and in a surprising burst of energy, it sprang upward and took flight. The Lance remained lodged in its torso as it suddenly shot skyward, and beneath it, Unit 01 was now hanging onto the Lance for dear life as it was carried aloft with the Angel. The crystalline enemy was clearly struggling with the extra weight of the EVA dangling beneath it, but even so burdened, it was still climbing upward at frightening speed. Within seconds, it had passed through the low cloulds covering Tokyo-3, and out of sight of the command centre's ground cameras.

Misato began to tremble in the grip of a numbing despair as she watched both the Angel and Unit 01 disappear through the clouds.

Oh, no… no…

Shinji…

-----

The Angel had shot upward so suddenly and quickly that Shinji felt as if his arms would be pulled from their sockets. The Lance had begun to slip through his grasp again, its twin prongs still embedded firmly in the Angel as it took to the air, but instinct had kicked in just in time for him to tighten Unit 01's grip on the haft of the weapon with all the strength he had left. Now, he was hanging on desperately beneath the body of the birdlike being, the aching in his shoulders adding to the pain still burning in his chest and along his thigh, as the ground quickly dropped away from him in a sickening rush. Within seconds, the shrinking overhead view of Tokyo-3 below him gave way to a greyish-white nothingness, as the two massive forms ascended into the dense rainclouds covering the city.

He felt himself being pressed down into his pilot's chair as the Angel began to accelerate, and his stomach churned as a wave of nausea washed over him. The Angel's intent was clear to him – if it couldn't defeat him on the ground, it was going to take Unit 01 to a place where it would no longer pose a threat. Fighting back his urge to retch, Shinji glanced at the battery monitor again, and dread seized hold of him as he read the numbers on the chronometer.

Twenty-three seconds.

Can't… can't let it get the Lance, he thought desperately, as the low thrumming began to rise in the back of his skull once again.

But… can't let it escape, either… nearly out of power…

If it gets away…

it'll come back for Rei and Asuka… and then…

Bright sunlight suddenly flooded the entry plug, causing him to squint involuntarily as the Angel and its unwilling passenger burst through the top of the clouds into a brilliant blue sky. Shinji's body felt heavy, as if he had somehow gained twice his body weight in an instant. The Angel was rolling slowly as it streaked higher and higher, and Shinji was shocked to see how high they had already climbed when he saw the land below pass by his main monitor, and he realized he was looking down at the entire eastern seaboard of Honshu. Beyond it, to the north, the island of Hokkaido was a green jewel, resting in the glittering azure of the Pacific.

The blue sky above him was now beginning to darken into a deep violet, and Shinji could see the faint winking of stars beyond that ominous indigo veil.

He grunted as he tightened his grip on the control yokes.

There was only one thing left to do.

A torturous bellow erupted from his lungs as he willed Unit 01 to swing its body upward, snapping at the waist like a gymnast as it used the Lance for support, and drove both of its armoured feet squarely into the Angel's midsection, directly beneath the point where the Lance was planted in its torso.

There was a sharp crack as more deep fissures spread across the Angel's trunk, and then, the Lance jerked free from its crystalline body.

Shinji felt the awful sickening feeling quickly return as Unit 01 suddenly entered free fall, the Lance of Longinus clutched in its right hand as it tumbled away from the Angel.

The birdlike being seemed to hover over the purple mecha as it fell, and for one, brief moment, it was perfectly centred in his viewscreen, its glittering wings stretched out to their full span as it circled overhead.

Shinji could see its neon blue core glowing brilliantly in the bright sunshine high above the clouds.

The low thrumming in his head intensified into a deep roar, blotting out every other sound around him.

His body felt as if it were freezing and burning at the same time, as an intense prickling sensation shot down his right arm and spread through his body.

Without thinking, he was drawing the Lance behind his right shoulder, aiming it heavenward toward the hovering Angel above him.

He was vaguely aware of the crimson weapon suddenly shifting shape, its twin tines twisting around each other until it resembled a long, tightly coiled corkscrew.

And before he realized what was happening, the Lance was flying out of his hand, with every remaining ounce of Unit 01's strength behind it.

Like a gleaming red thunderbolt, the Lance of Longinus streaked through the air with murderous accuracy toward its winged target. It tore through the Angel's A.T. field in the blink of an eye and struck the birdlike being directly in the centre of its chest, shattering through its torso and splintering the core that lay within into thousands of glittering blue shards. Instantly, there was a brilliant flash, brighter than a thousand suns, as the Angel disintegrated into countless pieces, the sunlight glinting off the innumerable crystalline remains of its body as they exploded in all directions before falling to Earth.

The Lance continued to shoot skyward, its speed undiminished, and within seconds, it had passed out of sight beyond the murky indigo of the upper atmosphere.

Shinji's vermilion eyes were dull as he watched the gleaming fragments of the Angel spreading out in a star-shaped pattern high above him. His limbs felt ponderous and clumsy, and his eyelids were growing heavy as a sudden fatigue gripped him. He was aware of a strange beeping sound beside him, and his gaze shifted to the battery monitor, which seemed somehow difficult to read – the numbers were blurring, and everything was beginning to turn grey…

The chronometer was reading nothing but zeros.

The batteries were completely spent.

The sight was strangely comforting to him, and a small smile appeared at the corners of his mouth as Unit 01 plummeted silently toward the ground, tumbling over and over in the thin air like a helpless rag doll.

It would all be over soon.

-----

"Target annihilated."

The sound of Shigeru Aoba's voice over her comlink shook Rei from her semiconscious state. Her head was pounding, and burning jolts of psychosomatic agony were still stabbing through her abdomen from the area where Unit 00 had been impaled by the Angel's wickedly sharp pinions. Her stricken mecha was lying on its side amongst the remains of a demolished city block, the torrential rain spattering down on it as it clutched at its midsection in much the same way that its pilot was hers. After the chaos and destruction that had thundered across Tokyo-3 during the battle, a quiet calm had now settled over the ruined city, and the steady sound of the rain on the blue EVA's armour was strangely soothing to her as she lay in her pilot's chair, the pain in her stomach causing her breath to come out in shaky, shuddering gasps.

Despite her discomfort, though, Rei felt her heart leap at Aoba's announcement – they had succeeded. The Angel had been destroyed.

Her ruby-coloured eyes fluttered open to the unusual sight of a sideways view of the obliterated cityscape of Tokyo-3 on her monitor. Wincing, she mentally adjusted her main screen's display, rotating the view by ninety degrees to correct for Unit 00's prone position on the ground, and studied the image closely for any sign of Units 01 and 02. It was certain that both she and Souryu would have much to answer for once they had been recovered from the battlefield, but for now, this seemed oddly irrelevant. She had protected Ikari, and had disobeyed a direct order to do so, but partly because of her defiance, the enemy had been defeated. And, she reasoned, was it not the Commander himself who was always insisting that the end justified the means?

She could find no trace of Unit 01 anywhere within her field of vision – a fact that only seemed to add to her current state of distress – but her eyes widened in shock as she spied the silent form of Unit 02, lying motionless over half a kilometre away from her. The production model EVA's body was perforated with hundreds of jagged holes and gashes, its normally red-and-yellow armour almost wholly stained a dark blue from its near-evisceration at the hands of the Angel.

Souryu, Rei thought, what did it… do to you?

Her comlink crackled to life again as a sudden flurry of activity burst from the command centre. It was Aoba again.

"Altitude twelve thousand meters… terminal velocity achieved!"

Major Katsuragi's insistent command abruptly flared over the audio channel. "Eject him! Now!" she ordered.

Lieutentant Ibuki's voice immediately followed the Major's. "We can't! There's no more power, ma'am, Unit 01 has completely deactivated! It's not responding to any of our signals."

Rei froze, the pain in her abdomen suddenly forgotten, as she struggled to make sense of the words coming to her from the bridge.

Altitude… Unit 01 deactivated… eject…

Ikari…

What is happening?

And then, a quiet voice came over her audio channel. It was Major Katsuragi again, but this time, she sounded very different.

"…Shinji? Can you hear me? Shinji? Shinji?"

Her tone was thick with despair, and Rei felt a nauseating feeling suddenly twisting inside her at the Major's words – a feeling that intensified when she heard the solemn reply from Dr. Akagi.

"He… he can't hear you now, Misato… he's… gone."

Rei could do nothing but listen breathlessly to the strange sound of the Major softly weeping over her comlink, her ruby eyes wide as a sickening apprehension began to spread through her. She still had no idea what was going on, what had happened to Ikari, but in the pit of her stomach, she feared the worst.

The next announcement from the command centre confirmed her fears.

"The MAGI are projecting impact within the Western District," Ibuki reported, her voice heavy, "resc… recovery crews are being diverted to that area. Impact in T minus twenty seconds."

Rei blinked in disbelief, her head shaking imperceptibly at Ibuki's words.

Impact?

Her attention was abruptly drawn to her main monitor, where, in the distance, the heavy clouds overhead appeared to suddenly swirl and part, revealing an object that had seemingly dropped out of the sky. The object was humanoid in shape, and was streaking toward the ground at incredible velocity. With a thought, Rei increased the magnification of her viewscreen, and she gasped involuntarily as she recognized the purple form of Evangelion Unit 01 cartwheeling lazily through the air, its lifeless limbs swaying limply and the white fire in its eyes now extinguished, as it plummeted helplessly to Earth.

Ikari…?

Somewhere, in the midst of her turbulent thoughts, she was aware of Ibuki counting down the seconds… "six… five… four… three… two… one…"

There was an instantaneous flash of brilliant red… and then everything around her was bleached into white as a blinding explosion enveloped the entire Western District of Tokyo-3.

Rei could feel the ground shaking violently beneath her as an immense plume of fire, smoke, dust and dirt was thrown into the air, accompanied by a deafening, prolonged rumble. All around the blast point, tall buildings buckled and collapsed from the shock of the explosion, tumbling into rubble and erupting into flames. The tremor continued for almost a full minute as a sooty mushroom cloud rose menacingly over the city, plumes of fire and arcs of static electricity dancing in its rapidly expanding cap. The explosion had as much force as an N² mine, and all around her, Rei could see and hear the shattered remains of what had once been buildings, highways, bridges, raining down in smoking, ruined fragments all across the city.

She gazed out across the wasted cityscape to the hellish scene in the west as the tremors began to abate, her heart pounding, her crimson eyes wide with disbelief and fear, as flame and smoke continued to billow angrily from the impact point… and a single, solitary thought ran through her mind, over and over again, as she stared mutely at the spot where Unit 01 had fallen from the heavens.

Ikari…

no…

Continued…

-----

Author's notes: I've always thought that the battle with Arael in the anime was a bit of a cop-out. Probably the coolest-looking Angel, and all it really does is hang around up in space and give Asuka bad dreams. In my version of events, I wanted to use the Fifteenth in a classic knock-down, drag-out, good ol' fashioned butt-kickin' battle, and even though it gave me no end of headaches, I had a really good time writing this chapter. I hope you had a good time reading it. And sorry it's so long - I blame it on my mass consumption of Irn-Bru while I've been in Scotland. If I can't find this stuff back home in Canada, I'm seriously going to have to go into rehab…

Preread by Hamstadini and Sideris, and I did not make it an easy job for either of them. In fact, prereading this chapter may or may not have indirectly lead to Sideris' retirement from fan fiction. :) Their input was extremely valuable, and this chapter is all the better for it. Thanks, guys.

Next chapter - some long-unanswered questions will finally be addressed. Or not. Depends on how sadistic I'm feeling. :) One thing's for sure, though… it will be shorter. (Look at it this way; with this installment, you're getting two chapters for the price of one!)

Please feel free to leave a review, or drop me a line at ikarusonesun(at)gmail(dot)com.

Cheers,
IO