Okay, so I managed to pull together the next chapter BEFORE six months passed. Phew! I have been spared the wrath of angry, impatient readers!
To everyone who reviewed my last chapter, thank you! And to everyone who didn't, you really should next time. Reviews always make me feel better.
Well, this chapter seemed kind of all over the place to me. I tried to keep it on one track, but with Skeith... I guess there really is no "one track" with him. He just kind of goes off on his own little tangents without any concern for anyone else, including me. *sob* Hopefully this chapter seems fairly well held together. It's kind of half-filler chapter and half-oh-hey-important-stuff-is-happening chapter, so look out.
So, I think I've talked long enough, so R&R, please!
"My chest… it burns… someone… help… me…"
Chapter 10: A Decrescendo of Doubt
Haseo looked down at Endrance's limp form. He wasn't breathing, and Haseo couldn't tell if his heart was still beating or not. There wasn't much time left, and action needed to be taken to save Endrance's life. If Haseo couldn't save him here and now, then Endrance would be doomed. Haseo didn't care for Endrance one bit, but he knew that he couldn't let him die. He knew within his heart that if he let Endrance die here, the blood would be on his hands.
Haseo didn't want that.
And so he stood side by side with Sakaki and Atoli; Sakaki was holding his left shoulder, and Atoli was holding his right hand. He looked down at the unconscious form in front of him and wondered to himself why he was going to such lengths for a total stranger. Haseo couldn't come up with a way to justify himself, in the same way that he couldn't justify letting him die. It was an odd mentality.
Haseo closed his eyes, and tried to recall somewhere inside him the memory of Endrance's real name. He dug and dug into his mind, but it wouldn't come; the memory still seemed like it was locked. He then tried a different approach; he tried to recall the memory of when Endrance introduced himself. For some reason, he couldn't find it either; it seemed like any memories pertaining to Endrance's real name was blocked off. Haseo continued to search for it; he knew that it had to be in his mind somewhere, since when he Data Drained Atoli, both her and Shino's real names came to him almost instantly. He tried digging with his power to find the memory, but something repelled the power.
It was then that he realized his problem; Skeith was acting as a roadblock. His avatar didn't want him to find Endrance's real name, for some reason. Haseo withdrew his power begrudgingly and reached into his pocket and touched the mirror.
"What are you doing, Skeith?" He asked, letting his irritation be plain.
What's the point of saving this guy, anyway? Skeith piped up.
"He's an Epitaph User, Skeith." Haseo replied, hoping that his avatar would keep his objections to himself.
So? Who cares? This guy tried to kill you. Not only that, you're the Terror of Death; you shouldn't care if he dies.
"Why do you say that? What makes you think you know me better than I do!?" Haseo snapped at Skeith; he was sick and tired of people always assuming that he was some sort of bloodthirsty killer.
It's your true nature-
"Why does everyone say that? Why does it seem like everyone knows more than I do about everything? It's not fair!"
Life isn't fair, kid.
"… That's not a very good excuse."
You'd be surprised; the other Epitaph Users would say the exact same thing. You're pretty highly favored of Morganna; she absolutely adores you. That's why everyone's so… Skeith let the thought trail off.
"… Intent on destroying me?" Haseo finished the sentence. "Why should Morganna care about a bloodthirsty killer like me?" He put heavy sarcastic emphasis on the last four words.
… Do you really want to save Endrance, kid? Skeith said after a brief pause.
"Yes." Haseo was grateful for Skeith changing the subject. Now was not the time for an argument like that. They needed to save Endrance's life.
… His name's Kaoru Ichinose. Happy now?
"Very." Haseo turned his head and looked up at Sakaki. "I've got his name. What do I do now?"
"We will channel the healing power into your body, and then you must use your authority to force it into his body. Your wording must be precise; if you do not order it to permanently heal his lungs, we will have done this for nothing." Sakaki replied calmly. Haseo nodded and reached his hand out to rest it on Kaoru's chest.
Sakaki turned to Atoli and nodded, and the two of them suddenly began to glow. The light grew more intense, and then slowly passed into Haseo. He could feel it entering his body; it was warm and comforting, and made him feel at ease. He took a deep breath and thought out the wording of the order carefully before speaking.
"Kaoru Ichinose… accept this healing power and allow your lungs to be healed permanently." Haseo made sure to use the word "permanently", just to be safe. Suddenly, the power faded out of him, flowing though his hand and into Endrance's body. He stepped back and watched as the light grew more intense, and then seemed to be sucked inside of his chest. There was a brief moment of tension, before Sakaki sighed with relief and released Haseo's shoulder.
"Excellent. The treatment was a success. He will begin breathing soon, and then his vitals will stabilize shortly after that." Sakaki turned to Haseo. "Thank you, Terror of Death. Without you, this would never have happened."
"Oh… it was nothing." Haseo replied, not sure what to say. He glanced at Kaoru briefly, and then turned to Atoli. "How are you doing, Atoli?"
"… Huh? Oh, I'm fine…" She seemed distracted by something. Haseo raised an eyebrow. Atoli may have been a lot of things, but she wasn't an airhead. He wondered what was on her mind, so he reached over to touch her hand. At that very instant, he stopped himself.
"No, Atoli's thoughts are her own. If something's bothering her, she should figure it out for herself. If she wants to talk to me about it, she can come of her own free will and ask me. I'm not going to invade her mind just so I can have the self-gratification of knowing what she's thinking." And with that resolution, Haseo pulled his hand back. If it weren't for the fact that he wasn't touching the mirror, he would have sworn that he had heard Skeith scoff.
Haseo turned to walk away from Kaoru's cot and was nearly barreled over by Saku in the process. He watched as she immediately started fussing over her "dear Master En", and sighed. What exactly he had gotten himself into, he wasn't quite sure. However, he knew that he was stuck with these people, and so he had better start getting used to them.
Suddenly, the tent flaps began to shake violently, and the wind began to howl against the sides of the tent. Haseo turned to see huge volumes of sand flying in the partially-sealed entryway. Sakaki also saw the leak in the tent flap, and waved his hand through the air. Instantly, the doorway sealed itself shut, and the mountain of sand in the doorway stopped growing.
Sakaki sighed. "The sandstorm has grown fierce; nothing could survive out there for long. I highly recommend that you four stay here until the sandstorm subsides. I can create extra rooms for you each to sleep in. Is this alright with you, Terror of Death?" He raised an eyebrow at Haseo, who shrugged nonchalantly.
"Sounds fine to me," was Haseo's reply. "Do what you need to do, Sakaki." Haseo may have thought that Sakaki was nothing more than an arrogant, condescending jerk, but he was, at the very least, a helpful arrogant condescending jerk, so he trusted him to act in their best interest. Sakaki nodded and busily got to work creating more rooms attached to the main tent. Haseo turned his thoughts inward and touched the mirror.
What? The Epitaph seemed irate.
"… Don't tell me you're still mad about me saving Kaoru?" He decided to get straight to the point.
Oh, no, don't mind me. I'm just here in your head to be the comic relief.
"Don't be like that, Skeith. I'm not going to say that I'm sorry, because I'm not. You shouldn't throw a fit every time you don't get your way."
… Since when did you become so trusting, huh?
Haseo raised an eyebrow. The subject change was a bit of a curveball. "What do you mean?"
Don't be like that, Haseo. You used to never trust anyone but that old man. Nobody was your friend, and everyone was your enemy. Why is it that ever since you met Atoli, despite how many times they've betrayed you, you just trust everyone all of a sudden? When you can answer me that, maybe I'll tell you why I'm not happy.
Haseo pulled his hand away from his pocket. Sakaki had finished creating the new rooms, so he went to his, the first one. The inside of the room was very plain; a cot with a few blankets, and a small bedside table. He sat on the cot and wrung his hands for a few seconds, then laid down and stared at the ceiling, lost in thought.
What Skeith had said wasn't entirely untrue; he had become a lot more trusting since he had met Atoli. He hadn't even realized it. Even after she had completely betrayed him, he had still believed in her. And he had never doubted Iori for a second; even after Iori had turned out to be an Epitaph User, he hadn't really been that distrusting of him. It was starting to disturb him, and he tried to reason out the reason for his sudden change.
"Maybe… maybe I've been so distrusting for so long, I… I need to feel like there's someone that I can trust. But, that could be Skeith, too. Skeith's never really given me a reason not to trust him… Although, what about my battle with Endrance? Skeith went berserk and I couldn't stop him… I suppose I have to trust Skeith, since we're stuck together…"
"But, why did meeting Atoli suddenly make me such a trusting person? Was it because I felt like I could trust her? Because I felt she had my best interests at heart? Even so, she betrayed me. She attacked me, almost killed me… But she's not so bad now. She's even kind of nice now…"
"… Man, all of this self-reflecting is making my head hurt." He sat up and scratched the back of his head, completely and utterly confused. He wanted to believe in the best of people, but he was suddenly getting a creeping feeling of mistrust inside. "Why do I trust them? So they're nice to me; big deal. What have they ever done to deserve my trust? Am I just being naïve? Skeith probably thinks so. Maybe that's what he's so upset about. I'm being stupid and naïve, and he knows it. He's worried about me; he doesn't want me to get hurt again." He paused for a moment. "Am I just being stupid? Am I opening myself up to betrayal again? Am I letting myself go soft?"
"Maybe… but… it's lonely being mistrusting. I was always lonely. Maybe I'm being more trusting of people because… I don't want to be lonely anymore. I know that I'm never alone, because of Skeith, but… Talking to someone in your head is different from talking to a different person. You don't know how they're going to react, what they're thinking, or what they'll do to you. I suppose that's what Skeith's trying to protect me from, but it's part of being human."
Haseo's internal conflict continued well into the night; all the while, he could feel himself slipping back into his old mistrustful mindset. He argued the conflict from both sides, but for some reason, the distrusting side of the argument always seemed to win. It was hard on Haseo; he knew he needed to trust Atoli, Sakaki, and Sakubo, but he was increasingly losing his ability to do so. He was getting uneasy just laying there, and he glanced at the flap leading to the room where everyone else was. He closed his eyes and tried to get some sleep, but the argument continued. He tried to take his mind off of the subject, but it always ended up creeping back into his thoughts. He could finally feel himself slipping into sleep, when he heard a small voice.
Haseo begrudgingly opened his eyes a crack. He could make out Atoli's silhouette in the doorway, and she looked slightly nervous. Haseo opened his eyes fully and sat up.
"Atoli? … What's wrong?" He asked, that creeping feeling growing inside him again.
"Umm… Err… What I mean is…" Atoli appeared to be trying to construct a coherent sentence, but was failing miserably. She shook her head, as if trying to clear her head, and continued. "Haseo, I need to talk to you about something."
"About what? What's wrong, Atoli?" Haseo repeated, growing more uneasy with every second. It was killing him; here was a girl that he had once trusted, and now he couldn't look at her without feeling slightly queasy. It was like his image of her had been poisoned somehow. Haseo felt like he was surrounded by people he couldn't trust anymore.
"Well..." Atoli walked over and sat down on the cot next to him. He shuddered imperceptibly and moved away from her slightly. "… It's Endrance and Sakubo. I… really wanted to explore other worlds with just us two… but, I would feel bad if we left them behind. So, I… wanted to ask your opinion."
Haseo didn't hear any of what she said after the words "just us two". He was growing more and more unnerved as the seconds passed. "Would I even enjoy traveling with her anymore? She's only ever been a nuisance. Why the heck am I so conflicted about this? Come on, Haseo, just make a decision. It's not that hard-"
"… Haseo?" Atoli leaned forward and tried to make eye contact with him, but he wasn't paying attention. "Haseo!"
"… Huh?" Haseo snapped back to attention and turned to look at her. "Sorry, Atoli. I've just… got a lot on my mind." He sighed and wrung his hands. "I just… I need some time to think things through." He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It was only a few seconds later that he felt a warm pair of hands clutching his. Haseo opened his eyes and looked at the girl sitting next to him. "… Atoli…?"
"Haseo… I don't know what you're thinking, but… I'd like you to understand what I'm thinking. I want you to know… that… well…" She let her words trail off, and suddenly Haseo felt her thoughts trying to enter his mind. Almost instinctively, he shut her out, but her grip tightened on his hands. "Please, don't push me away, Haseo… I want you to understand my feelings." Haseo looked at her, and she looked at him. Despite the terrible feeling in his gut, he just couldn't say no to her. Hesitantly, he opened his mind and felt her thoughts entering.
"… Haseo… I… I feel so sorry for all of the trouble I cause you. I never feel like what I'm doing is enough… I… I'm so happy to be with you, though… I never thought… after what happened, that you'd ever trust me again… I feel… so happy whenever I'm with you… I feel complete, like I can actually be someone. I used to feel like a failure all the time, everywhere I went… I'm so glad… to be with you…" Haseo didn't just hear her thoughts, he felt her emotions. It was an eye-opening experience.
Haseo felt for once that he truly, truly understood Atoli.
And it broke his heart.
"… Atoli… I'm glad you think so highly of me… but I… I just don't know… I've never really ever trusted anyone. I suppose I've never even trusted myself. I always pushed people away… I tried to shut everyone out, to protect myself… I feel so conflicted. I don't know who I can trust and who I can't trust. My life… my entire life has been terrible, and now I've come to learn that that entire terrible life that I thought I had lived was all a lie… I don't even know myself. How can I trust others if I can't trust myself?"
Atoli looked at him with a sad gleam in her eyes. "You… don't trust me… do you, Haseo…?"
"Atoli… I'm sorry…"
"No, don't be." Atoli shook her head fervently. "That just means that I have to work harder to be worthy of your trust, that's all. You'll see someday, Haseo… that I want nothing more than to be by your side…" She released his hands and stood up. "I'm sorry I disturbed you, Haseo. I'll let you sleep now." She walked slowly over to the door, and before Haseo could protest, closed the tent flap, bathing him in darkness.
Haseo let himself fall back on the cot. "I'm such an idiot." Was his only comment.
Had he been touching the mirror, Skeith more than likely would have agreed.
"It's time, isn't it?" Kuhn asked.
"Yes. Are you nervous?" Pi glared at him from behind the cold gleam of her glasses.
"No, no, of course not. It's just…" Kuhn took a deep breath. "It's just that this'll be my first time meeting another Epitaph User besides you or Yata." He braced himself for a tirade, but none came. "Odd," Kuhn thought, since Pi never tolerated disrespect, especially to Yata. Maybe she was too preoccupied with her impending task to care.
"I'm not worried. If everything goes according to Master Yata's plan, then all of the pieces should have neatly fallen into place by now. Nothing will go awry, and we will have accomplished our goal." Pi responded almost robotically.
Kuhn frowned. He had always wondered why Pi was so intent on carrying out Yata's orders; why she was so set on doing everything Yata said. Feeling slightly daring –and maybe a touch suicidal- Kuhn reached over and lightly touched her hand.
"I must obey Master Yata… I know that if I do, he will finally look at me… He will see me as more than a Servant, but as a real person… a living being with feelings and emotions and thoughts… My opinion will finally be important to him… I will finally be important to him…" It was then that Pi realized that Kuhn was touching her. "… Do you have a death wish, Kuhn!? Leave my thoughts alone!" Kuhn instantly jumped back as she whirled around to face him, a look of absolute fury on her face.
"I-I'm sorry, Pi! Please, forgive me!!" He cowered, as he used to when he was just a little kid, terrified of invoking her wrath. The painful lessons had been beaten into him as a child; you never crossed Pi, period. She didn't give any heed to his apologies; Kuhn grimaced as a rain of blows fell upon his entire body, sharp stinging pains sending torturous messages through his nerve endings to his brain. He instinctively curled into a fetal position and cried from the sheer pain. It had been years since Pi had been this angry, and her strength had only increased since then.
It was a good three minutes before the blows stopped. Kuhn stayed where he was; he knew that if he uncurled out of his protected position, he would only be subject to more pain. He simply lay there in a pathetic heap until he could hear Pi's heels clicking out of the room. Slowly he uncurled himself, aching all the while. It was so agonizing to even try to stand up. Kuhn knew that if Pi defeated Haseo, then Haseo would end up just like he was. He wouldn't be anything but a stepping stone, something to trample on and get angry at. Kuhn massaged his aching arms and looked at the exit that Pi had just left through.
He consulted his avatar.
"I think… I understand Pi a little bit better now. She's like me; she just wants to be acknowledged. I guess what she doesn't realize is that in trying to get Yata to acknowledge her, she's also done the same thing to me. All I want is for Pi to acknowledge me, but she's so caught up in vying for Yata's attention that she doesn't even notice me. I'm just a punching bag to her."
Don't be so down on yourself! You'll find a way someday, Kuhn. I know it. It may not be today, or tomorrow, or the next day, but someday, she'll understand how you feel. Maybe then she'll stop treating you like a punching bag. Although, I think somewhere deep inside you-
"Don't even start, Magus!" Kuhn cut his avatar off fervidly.
… You like it.
You like it.
You know you do, Kuhn. It's the only thing she ever does to acknowledge your existence.
"You call getting beaten into a pulp enjoyable, Magus!?"
When it's by a pretty lady like her, heck yeah!
"Magus!" Kuhn thought exasperatedly. He and his avatar always had little spats like these. But Kuhn knew, deep down inside, that he really did like setting her off, even if it was only a tiny bit of enjoyment that he got from it. "… Does that make me a masochist?"
Who knows? Maybe it's just a sign that you're still a man.
Kuhn closed his eyes and smiled. Even in the darkest, most painful times, there was always Magus.
Got your answer yet, kid?
Haseo looked around. He had no idea where he was; everything was black, save for what seemed to be a spotlight on him. Haseo looked around, trying to find something in the darkness, but then recognized who had been talking to him.
"Skeith?" He called out, still looking around.
"Over here," Skeith called out. Suddenly, behind him, another spotlight came on, and Haseo turned to see his avatar step into the light.
Skeith's appearance was slightly different from what Haseo had been imagining. Skeith looked like Haseo's combat form, but it was as if someone had inverted the colors of his clothes, hair, and eyes. He had a smirk on his face that, while not being childish, per se, seemed extremely condescending. Haseo turned to face him, and Skeith spoke up.
"Just in case you're wondering, this is a dream." Skeith folded his arms and leaned one hip to the side. "And at the same time, this isn't a dream. I'm really talking to you right now, and you're really talking to me. Cool, huh?"
Haseo stood dumbfounded. He was asleep? And Skeith was talking to him in his dreams? This was getting bizarre.
"So…" Skeith started walking in a circle around Haseo. "… Have you come up with your answer yet?"
"… My answer…?" Haseo closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "… You already know my answer."
"Yeah, I know it, but I want to hear you say it." Skeith countered. "Is that too much to ask?" He stopped walking and stood in that same position, this time his glare was drilling holes into the back of Haseo's head. Haseo took another deep breath, trying to put his feelings into words.
"I… I think I became more trusting because I… I didn't want to be lonely anymore. I wanted someone to be there for me." Skeith narrowed his eyes and was about to protest, but Haseo cut him off. "Yes, I know that that could have been you all along, but its different trusting someone inside my head to be there for me, rather than trusting someone outside my head to be there for me. There are things you can do for me that nobody else can do. Likewise, there are things that other people can do for me that you can't do." Skeith frowned, but nodded.
"I see. So that's how you feel." Skeith commented nonchalantly.
"Now, what's bothering you, Skeith?" Haseo turned on his avatar. He had been doing his soul-searching, now he wanted some answers.
"… Haseo. Are you really planning to take all three of them with you exploring?" Skeith was wearing a surprisingly serious expression. "Didn't we agree that we wanted to explore the worlds, just the two of us?" Haseo was slightly taken aback. Skeith's concerns were completely unrelated. Or maybe they weren't; maybe Skeith didn't want the others to travel with them because he didn't trust them. Not that it really mattered either way.
"I… I remember, Skeith. I do remember agreeing to that." Haseo replied slowly. "I guess I can't really say that "things have changed", can I…" Skeith shook his head. "Well, I… I don't know if we can, Skeith. Atoli would be heartbroken if we just left her…"
"Who cares?" Skeith shot back. "She's just some dumb brat-"
"Don't talk about her like that!" Haseo snapped at his avatar. "She's not just some disposable rag doll!"
Skeith, if he was affected in any way by Haseo's outburst, didn't show it. Haseo took a deep breath and tried to steady his nerves. Skeith continued.
"We didn't just agree to it, you promised me. Remember that?" Skeith raised an eyebrow.
Haseo let his head hang. "… Yes. I remember…"
"Then why are we just waiting here? Let's just leave! There are still other worlds to be explored, let's just wake up and go!" Skeith put heavy emphasis on the last word, and began tapping his foot impatiently. Haseo sighed. Skeith was nearly impossible to reason with. Once he had his mind made up about something, he rarely changed it.
"… So that's it. You just want to go? No goodbye, see you later, hope you don't die in the sandstorm? That's what you want to do?" Haseo spoke slowly and carefully.
"Yup. That's about it." Skeith said, still tapping his foot.
"You just want to abandon them? I hate pulling rank like this, but they're my Servants. How would you feel if your Master just abandoned you?" Haseo tried to argue from a different approach.
Skeith thought for a moment. "… Probably the same way I'm feeling now."
Haseo raised an eyebrow. "And that is…?" Skeith paused for a second before replying quietly.
Haseo felt like he had just been stabbed in the stomach, which was a feeling he knew all too well. Now Skeith felt… betrayed? So many things were happening at once, Haseo couldn't keep up anymore. He felt like life was just pulling him along for the ride, and he wasn't able to please anybody anymore.
"… To be honest, this is all so confusing…" Haseo massaged his temples wearily.
"What's confusing about it? Just leave. Deal with the consequences later." Skeith replied casually, as if it were no big deal.
"That's just being reckless, Skeith." Haseo commented bluntly.
"So? What's wrong with being reckless? Come on, Haseo, life's short. Live a little!" Skeith waved his arms around, apparently trying for some dramatic effect. "You shouldn't be so concerned about other people. You never used to be, at the very least."
Haseo cringed. Skeith's words were getting under his skin. He sighed, defeated.
"You know what? Fine. We'll leave." Skeith's eyes lit up. "But we're only doing this just to show you what's wrong with being reckless, alright? Don't blame me if things get bad."
Skeith looked happy enough that Haseo was slightly afraid that he was going to bounce up and down in glee. Haseo sighed, and then wondered how he was supposed to wake up. Skeith walked up to him, and then pinched him forcefully on the shoulder.
"Let's go now!" Skeith said happily, and then Haseo woke up in bed, completely and fully awake. His thigh was burning; the mirror in his pocket was getting hotter and hotter with every passing second. Haseo dug his hand in and pulled it out, and almost immediately wished he hadn't. Skeith was immediately pestering him; like a little kid in the back of the van on a road trip that bounces unceasingly in his seat saying "Are we there yet?"
Come on, come on, come on! Let's go! Skeith was undeniably excited. Haseo sighed, and then opened a door in the middle of his room. Putting the mirror back into his pocket, he glanced back at the tiny sliver of light coming from the other room. He sighed, reluctant to go.
"Bye guys," Haseo whispered, "it was nice knowing you." He turned, and left behind no traces that he had ever been there as the door closed.
Pi stood impatiently at the landing of the Realm of Infinite Staircases. She wasn't even sure how long she had been there. She didn't mind the wait, though. Pi had been waiting for this day for so long that a few minutes or even a few hours didn't seem to matter to her. All that mattered was carrying out her orders. She sighed and tapped her foot impatiently, awaiting his inevitable arrival.
Pi suddenly wondered how he would react to her. She hadn't even considered that possibility. What if he completely distrusted her, and then didn't go with her? Pi shook her head, knowing that she would simply have to cross that bridge when she came to it. Now was not the time to doubt her orders. She stood waiting, arms folded, foot tapping.
Suddenly, she felt it. One of the doorways activating. She uncrossed her arms and looked up. It was indeed Endrance's world's door. A thin smile spread over her face.
It was time.
She was fleeing; down the dark hallway, the dark stains of blood seared terrible images into her eyes; visions of violence, murder, of bloodlust. Stains of the very life-bringing essence that beat through her own veins, pushing her own legs forward.As she fled they spoke whispers of the dead as they dripped slowly and silently downward, feeding the earth with their anguish.
The hallway descended into a set of stairs. More blood was splattered everywhere, and she tried to push the horrifying thoughts from her mind, running, running, reaching the bottom of the stairs as she heard a crash from above. A voice, one that was familiar and terrifying at the same time, nearly made her heart falter and her legs turn to ice.
"Don't you dare try to run away!"
She turned, and immediately knew she shouldn't have. A dark shadow loomed in the air, hovering. Time seemed to freeze, and she knew she couldn't escape. She closed her eyes, awaiting the pain.
Strong hands grabbed her shoulders and pushed her down, pinning her firmly to the ground. She hit the floor hard, and she could feel his muscles straining to hold himself up and her down. The slick leather gloves and sharp metal claws bit into her bare shoulders, warm from his own body heat. His hair brushed against her forehead, and his hot breath on her cheeks told her that his face was very close to hers. She struggled uselessly, thrashing her shoulders viciously up and down. His grip tightened and his weight held her helplessly to the ground. Just like cat and mouse, she had been caught. The game was over. His hands controlled her shoulders, and his knees dug into her thighs, holding her legs firmly in place. Desperately, she lashed her whole body around, screaming for mercy.
"Please! Stop! No!! Please don't!!!"
And with this, Atoli lurched up in bed, drenched in a cold sweat, breathing hard. However, immediately after this sudden jerking motion, her wrists and elbows gave out, and she fell backwards back onto the cot, face-up. Pain shot through her joints, and she cursed fate for giving her such a painful Fatal Flaw.
"… A nightmare… yes. That was just a nightmare. I was dreaming." Atoli took deep breaths to try to steady her nerves, but for some reason her heartbeat wouldn't slow down. "But… that felt awfully real for a dream… And… was that person…" She shook her head violently, in complete denial. "No, no, no! That couldn't have possibly been… But… maybe… it was… Haseo?" She shook her head again. "But… it's just a dream. It doesn't mean anything. Right?" Atoli touched her mirror. Innis didn't respond, for better or for worse. Atoli sighed and carefully stood up. "Maybe I should talk to Haseo about this…" She knew that she had probably bothered him enough for the night, but she just needed some confirmation.
She walked over to the tent flap separating their rooms. Just as Atoli was about to open it, she stopped. "Maybe I should just let him sleep…" She thought. "He had a pretty rough day, since he was the only one fighting…" Immediately a feeling of worthlessness welled up in her stomach. She hadn't been any help to him in the battle with Endrance and Sakubo. He had fought for them both. She had just left him with the entire burden, not even helping one bit. Atoli hung her head, but then straightened up. Now wasn't the time to be wallowing in self-pity. She grabbed the tent flap and pulled it aside. She poked her head into the room.
"Haseo…? Haseo, I-" Atoli suddenly felt her voice fail her. Her eyes widened, she suddenly began to shake and quiver, and took a hesitant step into the room.
Haseo was gone.
Atoli shook her head, not willing to believe it. She immediately searched all of the other rooms, and when Sakaki came upon her in her frenzied state, he immediately knew something was wrong.
"… Is everything alright, Mirage of Deceit?" Sakaki tilted his head curiously, and Atoli immediately started sobbing and spluttering.
"S-S-Saka-k-ki, I-I-I, I c-c-can't-t-t…" She seemed incapable of making a coherent sentence.
"Please, calm down. Take a deep breath and tell me what is wrong." Sakaki took her by the shoulders and led her to her room, where he sat her down on her cot. She took deep, shuddering breaths, and finally blurted out the cause of her shock.
"I can't find Haseo…!" Atoli broke down sobbing immediately afterward, and Sakaki immediately began searching as well. He too could not find the missing Epitaph User, and Atoli only cried harder.
"We will find him, Mirage of Deceit." Sakaki tried to assure her. "He cannot have gotten to far. The Terror of Death can take care of himself, there is no need to worry." He massaged her shoulder, trying to get her to calm down, but she only sobbed harder. Sakaki winced; he had never been great at emotional support. But just then, he heard the tent flap being pushed aside, and two people entered the room.
"Atoli…" Kaoru had apparently woken up in time to hear Atoli's distress. "… I will help you find him… I want… to find Haseo as well…"
Atoli sniffed and looked up. "K-Kaoru…?"
"Haseo… saved me… He had no reason to do so… yet he did… Perhaps I… was wrong about him. I want… to be able to thank him personally…" Kaoru closed his eyes and sighed. "I will help you find him, Atoli… merely because Haseo has given me the opportunity to do so…"
"I-I want to help too!" came a small voice from behind Kaoru. Sakubo peeked out from behind Kaoru's legs. "I want to help find Big Brother Haseo! And… And… Saku does too! She doesn't like to admit it, but Big Brother Haseo is the reason why Master En is healed now! She's got to be grateful for that! So, we'll help too, in whatever way we can!"
"Bo… Saku… Kaoru… Thank you… so much…" Atoli suddenly started to get teary-eyed again, but this time Sakaki could tell that they were tears of joy. She suddenly stood up, as if ready to take on the challenge. "… Let's go, then! We've got to find Haseo!"
Haseo slowly descended the staircase, taking each step carefully. It seemed odd to be walking alone on a staircase; this was the first time that he had ever been unaccompanied. It was quiet, but for some reason, he could have sworn that he heard a quiet tap tap noise coming from somewhere. Haseo ignored it, and continued walking towards the landing.
Once he reached the landing, he was in for a surprise.
"Hello, Haseo." The woman at the landing glared at him coldly. Just looking at her made him shiver, but he couldn't really describe why. She was average height, only a little bit taller than Haseo himself, with brown hair that was slightly longer than shoulder-length and steel-grey eyes. She was dressed in a plain black dress shirt and plain black skirt, with modest heels, which she was tapping softly. Haseo raised an eyebrow at her as he regarded her.
"… And you are?" Haseo frowned. Anyone who knew his name for reasons other than him introducing himself was clearly suspicious. The woman chuckled and shook her head.
"Of course, my apologies. My name is Pi. As in the number, not the pastry. You know, 3.1415926535…" She started listing the decimal places of Pi, and Haseo had heard more than enough to justify cutting her off.
"Okay, okay, I get it, lady. Jeez." His head was starting to hurt from all of the numbers. Haseo had never been stellar at math. "So, what are you doing here, exactly?" He figured he might as well try to figure out her motives right off the bat; of course, it wasn't like he didn't already know her motives.
"I came here to offer you a chance to see my world." Pi replied, and for some reason, Haseo got the distinct impression that someone had fed her lines. He reached into his pocket and tried consulting Skeith.
Aww… why not? Let's be a little reckless! Was Skeith's answer. How predictable.
"But Skeith, this lady…" Skeith cut him off, though.
Reckless, remember? Come on, let's go! It'll be fun.
"… Whatever you say. You're the one calling the shots, remember?" Haseo sighed, defeated. There was no arguing with Skeith, after all.
"So, you'll come with me to see my world?" Pi asked, tapping her foot impatiently.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever, you old hag." Haseo replied arrogantly, turning around to see which staircase might be hers. She didn't seem that old, but he knew that it would probably be best to push her buttons and see how she reacted.
"O-Old hag!?" Pi seemed to be having difficulty restraining her temper. She closed her eyes, took deep breaths, and seemed to be saying something to herself over and over again. Haseo raised an eyebrow at her, and then pointed to a staircase with a dark pink symbol that looked like a circle with six nails piercing it.
"Is this your staircase?" Haseo asked, completely ignoring her reaction to his "old hag" comment.
"Y-yes, it is." She was slowly regaining her composure, and walked over to the staircase. "Follow me." Pi quickly ascended the staircase with Haseo close on her heels. She didn't say a word the entire time they were climbing the stairs, and Haseo didn't dare address her. She seemed angry enough as it was. All the while, Haseo wondered what kind of world he was about to go to. Would it be anything like the other worlds he had visited? They all seemed so distinctly different from each other. Finally, they reached the light, and Haseo had to once again shield his hyper-sensitive eyes from the piercing rays.
When the light finally faded, he still found himself needing to squint. The sun was blinding, it's warm, bright rays beat down on him and made him feel like he was trapped in an oven. After several agonizing seconds of adjustment, Haseo was able to take in his surroundings.
He was on a tall hill overlooking an ocean that seemed to expand into forever. The grass all around him was green and soft, with a few wildflowers poking out of the ground here and there. Looking farther down the hill, he could see what appeared to be the ruins of a great city. It was all old stones, and looked like some sort of ruin you'd see of ancient Greece or Rome. Buildings had toppled and collapsed with age, and others had completely eroded away. The ruins extended far down to the water, and some of the buildings had been swallowed by the tides. The beach seemed to extend forever.
"It's amazing, Pi." Haseo suddenly realized that she wasn't next to him like he had thought she had been. He quickly looked around to see if he could see her, when suddenly a fist flew out of nowhere and nailed him square in the jaw. The force of the impact wasn't enough to shatter his jaw, but it sent him flying backwards, where he landed hard on his stomach. Spitting turf out of his mouth, he noted that other than getting the wind knocked out of him, he was fine.
"What was that?" He turned on his back to get up, when suddenly a strong hand grabbed his throat and shoved him back to the ground. Wincing from the pain he looked up at his assailant. She had long, thick pink hair divided into pigtails which were held up by rather unnecessarily large clasps. Her bangs were long and divided in half evenly, and wrapped in brown leather wraps. She had fiery orange eyes, and small, intelligent looking spectacles. She was rather "well endowed", and had a revealing brown and white outfit that more than showed it off, along with a white collar and a small red tie that fit conveniently between her breasts. She had brown high heels, brown hip and thigh protectors, and white gloves, which were currently wrapped around Haseo's throat.
"P-Pi…!?" Haseo managed to splutter. He was running out of air fast, and was already feeling dizzy. He tried desperately to reach into his pocket and open the mirror, but was only able to move his arm just enough to touch it. Skeith was instantly with him, trying to reassure him.
Don't worry, Haseo. She can't really do anything major to you unless she knows your- Skeith's comment was cut off when Pi brought her face close to Haseo's and whispered something that nearly made his heart stop.
"Don't move, Ryou Misaki!" She seethed.
NO! Skeith shouted angrily. How did she-!?
Instantly, Haseo felt his limbs drain of all strength. Unable to maintain his grip on the mirror, Haseo lay helplessly as Skeith's indignant cries faded into silence. Pi released his throat, and he gasped for air; clearly he could still breathe. Pi glared down at him and shook her head.
"You were too naïve, Terror of Death." Was her only comment, before reaching down and touching his forehead. "Sleep, Terror of Death. Sleep, Ryou Misaki."
Instantly, Haseo felt a warm, heavy feeling pass through his body, along with a sudden, undeniable urge to close his eyes and sleep. It wasn't anything like the feeling that he had felt when he passed out fighting Endrance; he had gotten a sick, woozy feeling then. Now it was like a pleasant feeling, and it was becoming increasingly more and more difficult to keep his eyes open. Haseo knew in every fiber of his being that if he closed his eyes it meant certain death, but he couldn't help it as his eyes continued to close. It was a terrible feeling; not being in control of your own body, but Haseo couldn't resist it as his eyes shut and he drifted into an unconscious state. The last waking memory he had was of a desperate mental plea.
CLIFFHANGER!! *cue evil-sounding music*
About Pi: I couldn't really find any good cannon resources that described Reiko, Pi's real-life counterpart, so I kind of had to take some artistic liscence there. I tried to make her out to be an intelligent looking woman who was strong and independent (okay, maybe not in that exact wording, but you get the point).
NEXT CHAPTER: Raven makes their move! How will Haseo react? Will Atoli and co. find him in time? What will Kuhn do when put on the spot? Find out in the next chapter!
And as always, review please. I need reviews to get and keep me going. It always makes me happy to look in my inbox and see a plethora of good, thoughtful reviews. ^_^