Why does this site's document manager suddenly insert gaps into my text? And my usual method of dividing ANs from story has disappeared from tons of my fics! &(!

Disclaimer: I don't own Legacy of Kain. Not making any money. Please don't sue.

Hmm... I think I will see if the metaphysics on this stand within the Lokverse. The setup in LoK with the pillars has some similarities with the element metaphysics I've been working on for my original work since I was a child, and given that the Lord of Balance is in fact chief among the elementals, aka those who enforce the laws of physics and do maintenance on the universes, in that setup the similarities quite amuse me. Although, Kain has significantly less restriction on his actions stemming from his connection to Balance than a Syarran 'Karma Knight,' who would be the closest equivalent to him. Karma Knight is indeed the usual translation, although it is indeed melodramatic: the Syarrans don't have a title for them as they're telepathic and don't use words for important things. This got made up by outsiders. Elementals and agents thereof do not possess free will, even on worlds everyone else does, btw. They give it back to you when you retire.

Nosgoth could still fit into that framework if you were to posit that Kain is not a duly empowered officer of the law(s of physics) and therefore can screw the rules (he has minions). The fact that Raziel, his right hand, takes the form of a sword adds an entire level to the similarities, although sadly given Raziel's denseness I truly can't find an excuse to write him as any sort of agent of the Goddess of Beating Sense Into People. My muse for her's reaction to the idea is to simply point at Commissioner Morellan, and if you had any idea who he was that would say it all. He has waved from behind the stack of paperwork, by the way. Or, no, that was just to get the attention of the person who was bringing the mocha. I wish my muses found me more interesting than their everyday lives. That's the problem with creating strong, realistic characters instead of hand puppets. They refuse to be OOC for their creator's convenience. About the only thing I can get out of him right now is that they haven't gone paperless because they spent 457 years and way too much of the budget perfecting tamperproof 'paper' and by Inanna's ego they're not switching to something insecure in the middle of fifteen ongoing crises involving infiltration attempts, on top of all the other stuff going on. Paranoid workaholic...

Of course, given that armageddon hasn't resumed, Kain would have to be a manifestation of the local elemental of Balance (the one for that universe, maybe) instead of the Lord thereof.


Raziel could feel his soul draining away, draw into the blood reaver in Kain's other hand though the grip upon him Kain did not break. "You!" He tried to claw at him weakly as he sank to his knees.

"Raziel, no…" Kain's act portrayed almost-mute horror, but did he truly think Raziel would fall for that? He knew his sire well, he knew the effects of the corruption. Kain was simply not capable of feeling an emotion like that.

Raziel would not let himself be taken into the blade. "Vae Victus!" The words carried all the will he could muster to fight the feeling of rightness, the inevitability of destiny that tried to paralyze him as he focused and gathered the strength of his will, all of it, for one last chance. He would tear the heart that was not Kain's from the chest of his heartless sire.

But Kain pulled away from the blow, and Raziel cursed before he realized that the drain had stopped. His soul was no longer being swept away.

To break that death grip, Kain had cut off his own hand and now lay on the ground.

That truly changed nothing, Kain had saved him before. This was simply an attempt to keep his pawn on the board: Kain had come here simply to prevent him from seeking the Heart of Darkness, not to absorb him into the blade. Not yet.

Raziel needed to speak to Janos, he needed the Heart that beat within Kain's chest.

Yet seeing him lie there like that was different than facing him in a fight, even one Raziel had provoked and Kain had not meant to be to the death. "Get up."

"I do not think that I can." Kain's ironic detachment was, as always, there on the surface, but what underlay it was so very strange a note for Raziel's sire. Kain never accepted a lack of control.

"What on Nosgoth do you mean?"

"Is that how it feels for those you devour? Perhaps my sons' temporary fates were less cruel than I had thought."

Raziel's eyes narrowed and he lowered the blade to Kain's unmoving throat. "Get up and face me or die like a dog, Kain. I may have wanted you to die an honorable death, but if you refuse to fight than you shall die a coward's one."

Kain seemed to be fighting to keep his eyes open, too drained by that effort to have any strength left over to spare to fight Raziel. "It is hard to fight death with the knowledge it can be not torment but peace. My own temporary death was most unpleasant."

"Why do you delight in being cryptic?" Raziel's hand shook with frustration.

"Because our fate is a puzzle, Raziel, and I need your help to solve it. Think of it as practice, as training, my son."

"You give me lessons at every turn still even though you have no right to call the child you threw away your son?" His hand shook harder now, the spirit blade touching Kain's throat once. Yet Kain's eyes only closed in submission to it.

"If I had abandoned you to your fate, that would have been truly throwing you away. Think, Raziel. The day I condemned you to the abyss, I had two choices. Condemn you to agony and thus win the chance to change your fate, Nosgoth's fate, or let you go free. Free to descend into madness, lost in the corruption I caused, just as your brothers were. Doomed to a painful lingering death, my children that I failed to save just as I failed to save Nosgoth." There was an air of distraction here, as though Kain's true focus was not on what he was saying. "That was no choice, Raziel. Uncertain doom is far better than certain. I will save Nosgoth. I will save you. I must."

"You sound afraid that you will fail." Just as there had been fear in his voice as he'd seen that Raziel was being drawn into the blade.

There was still that urge to kill him, but he wanted to hear more (of that self-doubt).

"I have failed, Raziel. That is fate, that is the path I have walked. I must undo my own failure." Yet despite the fact the word 'must' resonated with the depths of his conviction, there was still some strain there, the attempt to remind himself that yes, he must and he would.

"You are tired."

"Of course I am. So long and it all remains unchanged. I have bought us time and time again, but I still do not know the face of the true enemy and your fate, Nosgoth's fate, the vampires' fate, the hylden's fate, the humans' fate, all remains unchanged. I am the Balance Guardian, Raziel. Do you know what that means?"

"I know that the corruption renders it meaningless."

Kain laughed weakly. "Oh how I wish it did. Then I could bury myself in debauchery as Nupraptor did and not care that all I cared and strived for had been taken from me. The curse renders one's mind unbalanced, Raziel. I am Balance. The only thing that remains untainted is the binding upon my soul to protect the balance, protected by that compulsion itself. I care for almost naught, Raziel. I am almost entirely without love, without hate for hate itself requires that one sees the other as more than a mere obstacle. I am moved by naught save for Balance, that which serves it and that which it serves. I am able to care for myself because I am the means of restoring Balance. I may care for you for the same reason. I cannot bear to see the land corrupted, it is so very wrong and I cannot let it stay that way. I am able to hate that which threatens those three things. Naught else. Everything else is meaningless."

The urge to kill had shifted entirely now to the desire to understand. He would probably still kill him, but later. "Your drive for power, how do you explain that? Ah, Azimuth. She abandoned her power because it gave her more pleasure to destroy. To control is to preserve."

Kain nodded, Raziel having to pull the blade back a bit to avoid the movement cutting Kain's chin open upon it. "Beware, Kain."

"I am well aware that I should. I am caught between two compulsions at the moment, Raziel. How I envy your free will, when I am the least free of all."

"Two compulsions?"

"The compulsion to continue attempting to restore balance, and the compulsion to die upon your blade so that I might at least correct the imbalance between us. That would, according to the binding of the pillars, allow a new Balance guardian to be born, one who might succeed where I failed in the task that is the only reason I have to exist. Yet, another would not be born. So I must continue to exist in a world every aspect of which cries out to me, and I fail again and again to ease its suffering." Kain's face now bore that familiar mocking smile, yet it mocked himself. "I cannot let Nosgoth be left to die a lingering death. Yet it seems no way to prevent it can be found, at least not by myself, and after so long it becomes harder and harder to keep alive the faith in the edge of the coin."

"If you wish to die I suppose I could oblige you."

"The Heart of Darkness is in truth within my body, then? How fitting to use it to revive me. Ah, Mortanius." Kain chuckled. "One of the few clues I have. What in the nature of his binding as guardian forced him to resist the corruption despite the fact he catalyzed it? Death, death is the key somehow. Mortanius' need to guard the force of death forced him to overthrow the vampires, then on the other hand to create me. Why?" The question was asked of the silent force he guarded, yet he received an answer.

"The god of the vampires is in truth a parasite upon their wheel of death and rebirth, devouring the souls of the world and growing fat as Nosgoth sinks into decay."

"How long have you known of the true enemy and not told me, Raziel?"

It did in retrospect seem foolish.

"The force of death sacrificed its own pawn to preserve me."

"This seems an opportunity to compare notes." The last time he'd had Kain at his mercy had been during a paradox and he had felt far too queasy to enjoy it.

"I certainly cannot do much else at the moment save wait for your choice."

"Why were you so convinced I should not retrieve the heart?" The instant Raziel asked that he thought he should have asked something else, something better. Yet, this was key to deciding if he should kill Kain at the moment or not.

"Because of the fate that came into being when I saved you. If the heart revives Janos, the hylden will use him to gain entry to Nosgoth and draw strength from his torment to power a device meant to wipe out all life but themselves. I believe they may have thought that would cure the corruption and allow them to rebuild their home. It would not have, or I would have been forced to let them. In order to preserve the chance to restore Nosgoth's balance, I had to add to the injustice done to them. That was quite painful on a level I hope you never understand."

"It wouldn't have worked?" Why was he asking that? Of course it wouldn't have. The corruption affected every aspect of the world, not just living things.

"There is no pillar of Life, Raziel. The pillars protect the forces that allow life to exist. Destroying the plants that grow on poisoned ground and replacing them will not remove the poison. Or perhaps I should address that answer to those looking through you."

"Looking through me?" Turel, Mortanius. Raziel remembered them and understood where the actions that now seemed born of insanity had stemmed from. "Hylden!"

"Do not kill them, Raziel." Kain's voice seemed still more tired now. "They are most certainly currently destined to die upon my blade in any case."

Raziel's white eyes widened. "The blade containing my soul. Those I kill, their souls pass through me into the Elder God's grasp."

"So that was why it felt as though killing him with you was an unbalanced act though he had done his best to kill me." Regret? Kain, feeling regret? "They stole you from me. In my rage at seeing you in uncaring hands, I… Umah hindered my efforts to recover you. I could not forgive that, though I needed to repay her kindness. She saw that I cared not for her bloodline, only for Nosgoth, myself, and recovery of your blade. I could not explain that this was the way it was and had to be, that it was not that I did not care for them. It was simply that I could only care for them as part of Nosgoth."

"This was not myself as a fledgling?" Kain was that outraged over a mere sword?

"Raziel, do you honestly think I did not recognize you? I knew that you were my sword when I raised you. That was the second time in my existence that I did something right instead of simply necessary." Drained as it was, his voice conveyed the longing, the need for that rightness, the fulfillment of his need to serve balance, protect Nosgoth.

"What was the first? Dooming the pillars?" Raziel tried to use Kain's armor of irony.

"No. When I gathered up the blade I found in this very cathedral." Nostalgia there: this was a treasured one of Kain's few pleasant memories. His stories of defeated foes still contained anger that they had opposed him in the first place: was he not, Raziel reflected, meant to save them? "I spent my entire life unable to understand my purpose. There was something I had to do yet could not discern the nature of. I died despairing that it would go unaccomplished. When it was offered to me, the quest for vengeance felt both right yet poisoned at the heart of it, something that should be right but was in fact meaningless. Sound and fury, signifying nothing but the attempt itself, and I could not fail to at least make the attempt. Then I found the blade, and that which binds me deeper than the corruption's whispers that all is meaningless sang that I had finally done something right, and I knew that I truly did have a purpose and that it was indeed possible to work towards it instead of simply be ensnared in meaningless mazes."

"I truly do not wish to comprehend that feeling." The helpless longing in his masterful sire's voice frightened him. It had been nonsensical that Kain, who was always in control, lacked free will yet claimed his pawn did. Yet Kain's attempts to control, his knowledge of the best way to move forward came from his nature as a pawn.

"It is not as terrible as all that, Raziel. It is simply that the world is in a terrible state and I lack the bliss of ignorance." He sighed. "I think that is another part of what allows me to persist, the hints of how perfect it will be when the world is righted. I cannot die without seeing that, Raziel. Not after having paid so much for it. My mind might crippled by the war between the corruption and my binding fought within it, but I still possess my own soul, though I lack knowledge of its true nature as it has been so twisted upon itself."

"I am amazed that you persist."

"If I were going to lie down and die, then I would have fallen for the trap Ariel unknowingly placed before me. The corruption was in large part meant to make me choose it, after all. Of course, I say that and yet I cannot gather the will to force my body to retreat from the threat of your blade. Perhaps all that mattered then was the binding's knowledge that the trap was not right, not my own will at all. I have such foolish pride despite all the times it has been rubbed in my face that I am but a puppet. It must irritate you so, Raziel."

"Why can you not rouse yourself this time?"

"Because it felt right, Raziel. I think that is to be my fate, my true fate, to be devoured by you. Perhaps that is why it is the only method of killing me that does not fail, my death in every false history. A honeyed trap. Yet I know that if I let myself yield to that compulsion the binding places upon me I will be unable to restore balance, thus I am also compelled to resist." He chuckled. "Normally it is the binding and the corruption that try to crush me between them. The binding is so much stronger within me that turning it against itself paralyzes me while the corruption is forced to yield."

"Both the vampires and the hylden claim me as their champion." What of you, Raziel was about to ask, when he realized. "Both think that my victory against you will save them!"

"The hylden want the pillars destroyed, my death ensures that. They do not see that they would merely escape their prison for a deathtrap. The vampires… Seem to be following the orders of their god, and yet... Was that the false oracle I encountered that spoke from a pool? It sent me here, telling me that you sought the heart of darkness. Of course I knew it was a trap, but I thought I could find a way out of it once I found you as I was compelled to. This false god seems quite skilled at using my binding against me."

"That does sound like it. It appears as a creature composed of naught but eyes and tentacles. It exists in the spectral realm."

"At least I have some knowledge now." A small victory, a step forward. Kain's smile was a real one and Raziel's sympathy grew. "I wonder why Moebius has not appeared to disrupt this conclave? It is not like him to let something like this occur. He is aware that knowledge is the ultimate power, for the power to kill is worth nothing if you cannot find the target."

"I wonder as well." He actually hadn't thought of that until Kain had, but he should have.

"Moebius is its servant?"

"Yes," Raziel could confirm. "It, through him, seeks the extermination of the vampires. The hylden's curse of immortality keeps it from feeding on them. The reaver was meant, or so it claimed, to restore their souls to the wheel. The truth, I think, was to restore them to its table."

"Culling the stock." Vampires of the empire understood that concept well.

"Yes."

"I have a way forward. I have power and knowledge I did not. Why does that not give me the strength to retreat from death?" Kain wondered.

"I thought perhaps you were playing possum to keep me under the impression that I had you where I wanted you so I would continue to talk."

"No. Is this what it felt like for Mortanius? No, the corruption would have kept him from knowing the will of death well enough. The force of balance is willing to sacrifice me to you. Despite all that I have gained, despite the fact that you could choose to aid it or not, you are far more important to it than I." Kain smiled. "After all, if you desire to restore me, all you would have to do is create a paradox. On the other hand, if you were to fall… I cannot seem to force myself to contemplate it."

Raziel drew back his blade in horror.

Kain seemed to sense the movement even if his eyes remained closed and laughed. "Raziel, I have no will but that of the force of balance. Well, it and the corruption, but balance is far preferable regardless of whether or not it is the compulsion borne of it that makes me feel I prefer it. I am willing to die if you desire it. That was why I could not fight you in King William's tomb. All I could do was try to help you make an informed decision. If you had wanted my death, I would not have opposed you. For you, Raziel, destiny is a separate thing that seeks to control you. For all others, it is within us so deeply that we cannot choose to disobey it because it is born of and is our choices. I was destined to throw you into the abyss it, but the 'choice' I had was no choice at all. A certain damnation and an uncertain one: how could I not make the choice to give you at least a shred of hope!"

"Kain…" The blade that was himself trembled at Kain's words, not just his own hand. "I am sorry."

"I did not want you to know. I wanted you to be free to hate me. Yet it seems I cannot deny you truth in this moment any more than I could deny you my life."

"I'm not going to kill you."

Kain's eyes slid open to give him a look of disappointment that he had failed to grasp a key point once again. "You will need to eventually, it seems."

"I have free will, and I will not do it."

Something seemed to strike Kain then, something he sensed and could not make sense of. "This is not a paradox. Yet there is something of importance at work here. Can you feel it?"

After a moment's attempt, Raziel had to admit that, "I feel nothing amiss."

"You are far more sensitive to paradoxes than I: I did not feel that anything was amiss when I fought King William. In fact, I felt that it was a good deed, to kill the monstrous tyrant as he would kill so many. I felt not that I was accomplishing my purpose, but that I was at least in my element and accomplishing something worthwhile, a truly rare feeling. A paradox is the moment where everything hangs in the balance. Despite the fact they tend to involve terrible events, I must confess that I never feel as alive as during them."

"Everything is shaking, and they make me feel as though I was a fledgling without Rahab's immunity to water upon a flimsy raft in the middle of the ocean, about to lose my last feeding."

"To each his own."

"But yes, it does feel as though things are going right for once. I feel certain of it."

"Now that I am not focused on my own internal conflict, everything is glowing and I feel like a fledgling caught in strong sunlight. Or, myself as a fledgling." Kain's immunities were far greater than normal even back then.

"It is my choice that resolves a paradox, Kain." Raziel was deeply amused. "I think I shall enjoy the feeling while I am entertained by the image of you attempting to figure out how to resolve this."

Kain laughed. "It is only just, is it not? But this is unprecedented. I lack any knowledge of the cause, let alone the correct action."

"You, the one compelled by balance, are not compelled in this moment just as I am free of everything but my own will in a paradox?"

"I believe I now know why Moebius has made himself scarce," Kain said dryly.

"Do you think we could track him down while you're attempting to divine the cause? Perhaps we could administer some persuasion to force him to be of use."

Kain gave him a look.

"Oh, I'm not saying we would actually promise to let him live, but there's no harm in offering him false hope."

"There is great harm." Then Kain's mood lightened. "Yet turnabout is fair play."

"As you are aware of your compulsions, how is this feeling different?"

"The force of balance currently has no interest in me whatsoever and the corruption seems to be inactive." Inactive wasn't destroyed, but Kain began to speculate if this could be used as yet one more delaying tactic.

"No interest in the Scion of Balance?" Perhaps this was not a good thing, then.

"You're right, that's not quite it." Kain started to get to his feet. "This was the state it was compelling me to reach, and now I have done so it has stopped. The fact that I feel as though I am on fire and now lack guidance is not entirely helpful, however."

"You will not receive any sympathy from this quarter."

"I deserve none." Raziel thought that was the problem, in fact. Kain had freely admitted that he had done something terrible to Raziel, and listed the reasons he had done it without apology. Raziel had thought that this meant Kain had freely done something terrible to him for those reasons and felt no guilt about using him.

That was not how Kain worked. He had spent a century as his right hand, how had he failed to grasp that?

Kain did not deal in right or wrong. He was a creature whose only ethical sense, the only part of him the corruption could not turn to darkness, was balance. Whether Kain regretted it or not had nothing to do with the fact he had done it. A few words was not enough to even the scales after what he had done.

The only way to redress a wrong Kain comprehended was vengeance. He considered himself to have done a wrong to Raziel, who was one of the only three things Kain could love.

That was why he had been, not daring Raziel to take it, not teasing him with it as Raziel thought, but wanting to offer it to him, yet unable to because Kain was a necessary piece in the game Nosgoth's fate rested on.

Raziel wanted Kain's apology. Now that he understood that Kain had been saying it all along, he was satisfied.

But Kain's need for forgiveness would not be sated by words and gestures, only the same terrible reality Raziel had been subjected to. "Scion of Balance," Kain mused. "The descendant of balance, yes, but the word in fact means twig, branch, offshoot of a tree, which is why it was used for members of a family tree. I was a nobleman, we have to study genealogy. Not someone born because of balance. Not a creation. A part of balance. A manifestation of it into the world of beings from the realm of forces."

"What do you intend to do?" The voice came from Mortanius' body, vessel of the hylden. Hadn't Mortanius gone to prepare for Kain, part of his own and the hylden's plans? It seemed they felt the need for a mouthpiece as Raziel was failing to oblige.

"There are consequences waiting to happen, but I do not think I can force the one who has unbalanced this world to suffer them without destroying this entire world in the process. It has set up defenses, means by which its punishments would affect others, and yet others. It holds this world hostage, and your kind as well. The vampires who grasped the truth in the end sent you to your prison as the one mercy they could give you. They sent you out of its clutches as best they could instead of into its jaws, and in return you gave them the means to escape it. Suffering repaid with suffering, aid repaid with aid. To the ones who wanted you to suffer, your curse was what you intended, to those who wanted you to live it was as cruel a blessing as the one they gave you. The restoration of balance is inevitable. The parasite gorges itself and thinks that it truly is a god, that it can survive the loss of its food supply. No matter what, it will share your torment."

"Kain?" He was not acting like himself. Was he overwhelmed, finally nothing but a puppet in truth?

"I know, Raziel. I need to finish this before the burning becomes something I cannot live without."

"You didn't answer the question."

"The entire reason I exist is that it is difficult to determine from the level of a force the action to take that mortals will be happy with. That was why the vampire sorcerers bound me, because the action of the force would have been to trigger those consequences and never regard this world's doom as something worthy of attention. Balance doesn't know what is best for the people of this world. There should be someone who does." This wasn't Kain's usual trick. It felt as though they had been picked up and the world shifted so that they could be put back down in the desired place. "This is where Janos would have sent you, Raziel."

"Scion of Balance."

"Ariel?" Raziel watched as the once and the future Guardians of Balance exchanged nods of mutual respect after the now-unwounded ghost straightened from her deep bow.

"I suffered as he did. Bound. Helpless. Angry at him for failing me when it in truth was the other way round. We are even. Yet even so, Kain, permit me to render my apologies."

"If it would make you feel better then I will accept them." Even if they were a gift that he had utterly no use for that was thrown away without even being looked at.

"How could I have been so blind? I was never corrupted. How could I have looked my own god in the face and not only failed to recognize him but used him? How could I have thought I had the right to have you die to remedy my failure?"

"It does not matter, and do not call me a god." It mattered to Ariel, but she could have a crisis of the conscience Kain did not share on her own time.

She nodded, attempting to return to her duties. "This is the forge of balance, and as I am now purified my soul will purify Raziel."

"So we are both released today. Then what?"

"Then you will be able to see the true enemy and defeat it with the aid of Raziel's pure devotion. I am sorry, my lord." She was his servant: it should be her that was his weapon and right hand.

"Saying that accomplishes nothing but wasting time, and I do not know how much I have remaining. Raziel, would you kindly release her from her duties?"

"Gladly." He was sick of her too.

This, he realized when it was over and he could think again, was what he had been sensing. Purity, or the potential for it, as Kain had gloried in the potential for balance within a paradox.

But the fragility of the balance, the moment when the Elder God's unjust control of the world was shattered and things were fair for once that Kain craved sickened Raziel, and the purity that felt so right was eating away at what was Kain.

Kain had thought he'd been human once, that he had a soul of his own even if it was shaped by the forces of corruption and balance to the point he had never had a thought free of them. With this purity, with a single touch of Raziel's hand the corruption would be gone.

"Are you alright?"

"I will be fine." Raziel stood up by himself, not letting Kain offer him a hand.

'Mortanius' was scowling. "This vessel cannot be made to oppose you."

"Of course not. It knows that I will accomplish its purpose. You should be so wise." Kain was scowling, but not at them. "Millennia of waiting, spells that cost thousands of otherwise useless deaths in battle to empower, so very much manipulation, and here I am with access to enough power to sweep the sky clean of stars and the only way to accomplish my purpose is to hit something with my son. Of course, if they were foolish enough to worship a worthless thing like that I really can't expect anything better from them." He dismissed the ancients as of no consequence, but he still scowled. "Although I admit it is a worthless thing capable of decent camouflage. It is so concealed in the accumulated injustice it has engendered in all those of this world across all eras that although I can find it in the true realm I cannot locate it in this one."

"It can only be seen in the spectral realm."

"The place you vanish to?"

"Exactly."

"I have no idea what you are talking about. As Kain, I perceive the physical reality Kain perceives. As Balance, I perceive the fundamental truth of reality. This sounds like something else. A realm it has created to hide within, to trap its prey."

"I can give you the ability to see it, but that would also purge the corruption from you."

"And you have not already done this… why?"

"If you are part of balance, then what are you yourself but the blend of it and the corruption?"

Kain's eyes softened. "I am the one that helped Melchiah become the warrior he desperately wanted to be despite the fact that he was so weak that the practical, some would even say the kind thing would have been to keep him coddled, hidden away somewhere safely to make sure that he would still be alive when you needed his soul." That was not the corruption. "I thought I was a soul with no will except to obey the compulsions set upon me. I know now that I was not compelled. I was. I am not unkind, Raziel." Cruel when he had to be. Ruthless when he had to. Yet not unkind: Kind when he could be.

"My sire." Raziel walked to him, knelt before him as he had when swearing fealty.

"You will not be trapped within the Reaver. I would never let you be taken into it if there was any risk. Not if I could prevent it." He had failed to stop it, died without stopping it, several times, and Raziel knew that he remembered them all now.

"How many times has it been?"

"One would have been one too many." Kain shifted the Soul Reaver into the ritual position for knighting a new fledgling, not the one for the annual renewal of oaths.

"Sire?"

"I did kill you, Raziel. I did betray you. The oaths I swore to you in exchange for your own are broken beyond repair." This, then, would be a new beginning.

"And I myself have been forsworn. Forgive me, my sire." He tilted his head.

"My son." The flat of the end of the blade touched the underside of his chin, not a drop of blood spilling from him. Yet why had he thought there would be blood from the wreckage he had become?

When had he regained his chin?

Before he could examine this body it was swept away within the blade, and he was not frightened as he laid a triclawed hand on his father's heart. Or where his father's heart would have rested. What had Mortanius done with it?

He would heal his father, and had a moment to wince as Janos' heart fell ungracefully to the ground. Well, better than crushed within Kain's chest, but still rather undignified. Surely it was resilient enough that wouldn't prevent his revival.

Raziel knew that Raziel's own revival would not be prevented.

"What of the time stream?" 'Mortanius' inquired.

"What of it?" Kain paused a moment, in any case.

"Do you plan to do this in this time?"

"I see no reason to prolong your suffering. Any damage will be the Time Guardian's problem. There are eight pillars other than my own for good reason. It will be wonderful to see them finally pulling their own weight."

"Such folly could destroy the universe!"

His imperial majesty was most amused. "This, coming from the one who would seek my death? Kindly leave such matters to those who know what they are talking about. Do you not have packing to do? Leave that body and proceed with it."

Now only Mortanius stood there, Raziel and the Elder silent observers hidden from him. Kain cut him off. "Please, don't apologize. I grow weary of it, and I believe you have dying to do, in any case. I am waiting, you realize. All the corrupted guardians must be cured or gone before this can be truly accomplished."

Mortanius could only bow, or perhaps that graceful lowering could also be considered kneeling. Genuflecting. The Pillar Guardians had supposedly served no higher power, but Mortanius had been born in the time when the ancient vampires still worshipped their destroyer. Then he was gone.

"No, I could have cured him." Raziel had begun to think that Kain did not in fact hear the Elder God. He had simply had matters, that look conveyed, slightly less unworthy of his attention. "Theoretically. But he did not merit that, and I can only use my power so dramatically in ways that increase balance instead of pervert it further."

"And you call yourself a god." Beneath the Elder's self-righteousness, its contempt for Kain Raziel thought he detected the first trace of doubt.

"I used to. Your existence has made the title anything but an honor." Raziel could feel the force of the blade, the force of his soul, made ready for attack although Kain did naught but place the blade upon his back, body between it and the Elder. "I do believe I have changed my mind. While I am certain you have mistreated Raziel enough that he would delight to rend you clouded eye from cancerous limb, you are not worthy to touch him and I will permit it no further."

"What, giving up already?" Gloating now. "Perhaps you are less foolish than most of your kind. You could, perhaps, sever a single limb before I buried you to suffer for eternity, but you cannot kill me. I am everywhere and everywhen. You may see a part of me, but I am far beyond your reach."

"Everywhere and everywhen, you say?" Once again, Kain was vastly amused. "Perhaps within your realm. But not a hands-breadth of your loathsome self stretches outside it. You may reach, but you cannot live. You dug yourself a deep hole to hide inside in preparation for my coming: how wise of you. But you cannot escape it now, cannot drag your gluttonous corpse from it. If a vicious beast is in a cave, then often the best recourse is to simply collapse the cave."

"Impossible! This is the realm of the dead, and I am the engine…"

"Spare me the lies you told so many that you started to believe them yourself. Yet I can hear your faith deserting you. You believe I am incapable of this? Let us test your premise, then. I truly should make your death a torment, but I have wasted enough time upon you and I do assure you, creature, that death itself will be no escape from the just desserts of your feasting. It is not wise to anger the forces that shape all worlds. I do hope you reflect on that. Go to death, then. It is awaiting you most eagerly." Though the physical blade did not move, Raziel felt himself cut. Not the elder, it felt as if he severed the ropes that supported a platform upon which the Elder hung.

And indeed, what he saw was as if the Elder was dashed to pieces, crushed by its own weight. As though it was crushed, exploded, and simply ceased, all at once, without even the time to realize its doom and cry out.

Kain smiled, and Raziel could, through the fragments of Kain's soul within him, feel that it was not simply Kain that smiled, or even Balance. As Balance watched through Kain, others now knew of what had occurred. "Are you satisfied, Raziel?"

"That seemed far too simple an end to all this effort."

"That is what a sword does, is it not? A quick and simple final solution. I find the end satisfying. The parasite squashed like the insect it was." Kain laughed. "I find the effort, however, quite ridiculous."

"What do you plan to do now?"

"If you wish to kill me, Raziel, you will have to wait until the other eight guardians are grown and Nosgoth is stable enough for me to depart. I did not do all this to have it bungled the instant I turn my back."

"I don't want to…" Kain laughed, drawing Raziel and placing him upon the ground. His words were completed from his lips. Lips. "Kill you." He put his talons to them.

"Careful not to cut yourself." Raziel already had. A shallow slice, but scenting the blood Kain simply sighed in paternal frustration with the foolishness of children. "Please tell me when you are quite finished admiring yourself."

"I think I have the right to a moment of amazement at the fact I am not only untrapped but my old self again." Wings. His wings were whole.

"Oh, indeed. Take as long as you wish, on your own time. You are my lieutenant, Raziel, and have tasks to perform."

"We just defeated the Elder God! What on earth do you mean?"

In answer, they were suddenly at the pillars, and his sire's ancient eyes looked at Raziel from the form of his younger self. "We have destroyed the cause." At a tap of those still-small claws upon the symbol of the central pillar all of them seemed to shatter, yet instead of the cracking of the corruption when the darkness fell away, vanishing into nothing they stood whole. "Yet the damage has not all been healed." Elsewhere, and a portal appeared. "Now the real work begins."

As the Hylden, suspicious and deformed yet proud and angry sent a vanguard through the portal, eyeing them and clearly wishing for an excuse to attack, Raziel had to agree. "Perhaps we could just conquer them as we did the humans?" Tyranny made everything so much easier.

"I wish I could." Kain sighed. "Attempting to get you to see reason was almost impossible, and you're the least idiotic being upon this now-unforsaken world."

Longing for the days when he could kill the annoying without igniting war, Raziel cast a glance at Kain's back.

"Don't even think of turning back into the blade. If I'm going to have to put up with this foolishness, you are too."

"Yes, sire."