"Oh, yeah, and that worked so well for you." Asch rolled his eyes.

He did that a lot, true, but the thing that was unusual about this instance was that it wasn't a human he was calling an idiot and blatantly disrespecting.

It was Lorelei.

Asch was mouthing off to, almost bickering with, the entity that had controlled Auldrant for two thousand years. The closest thing there was to a god.

Admittedly, Lorelei hadn't been very impressive. When released from Van's body he'd been a swirl of fonons and it had taken long enough to pull himself together into a human form that Asch had decided to just do it himself.

The form either Asch or Lorelei had picked had a body twin to Asch and Luke's. Well, he was their isofon, after all. However, it wasn't that hard to tell Asch from Luke: different lives had shaped different forms.

Asch had no appetite in the manor and had spent an almost unhealthy amount of time training, for lack of anything better to do as well as to please Master Van. Luke, on the other hand, had been trained for real, and eating properly was part of that. Not to mention that it was rather hard to do endurance training with no space to run in and only makeshift weights: that had been considered too plebian.

So while Asch was lean and could almost be mistaken for a civilian (until you saw those thin arms were all muscle) Luke was far more solid, stocky. Or he had been.

Lorelei's build was more like Jade's: that of someone whose primary occupation (research, command…) was sedentary punctuated with periods of intense effort. It had been Asch's pastime and Luke's job to be strong, Jade's to be smart.

Jade, who was examining Lorelei closely for hints as to the sentience's personality, found that interesting. Natalia, for example, was a competent fighter but before this did not in fact have a great deal of muscle, no more than that necessary for pulling her bow during practice or negotiating the levels of Baticul. She hadn't been in bad shape, but she'd needed new outfits on occasion because the old ones didn't quite fit, not just for the sake of having new or different clothes.

Lorelei's clothing (black and white, in a style that seemed even more antique than the Order's regalia) included a scabbard for the Key, which Asch had handed over almost reluctantly. The sentience of the healing fonon seemed used to handling a weapon and yet there was a certain very slight… Distaste? Reluctance? The sort Asch had possessed when he had still been Luke, after the innocent child had been forced to see that the sword he loved was a weapon, something that hurt and killed people.

It had been intriguing, interesting to watch Asch attempt to remedy the effects of his isolation and learn how to be a member of the human race. He possessed far more aptitude for it than Jade, and Jade had found it hopeful, that a replica could act like a person. Hopefully, then Luke could be recognized as a person instead of a thing.

But Asch had decided he did not want to be a member of the human race, and frankly Jade couldn't blame him. As much as he valued Peony and Nephry, humanity was terribly exhausting and frustrating to deal with. If he were to find a colony of monsters like himself, his own kind, it would be a huge relief, although rather terrifying for the rest of the world.

Fortunately Asch's kind were replica children, the kind of innocent he had once been, and were a restraining force. Lorelei and Asch were of the same kind, in fact they were manifestations of the same fonon, the same entity at the very root. They seemed to understand each other very well.

Although that didn't necessarily mean agreeing with each other.

Almost from the start they'd been talking, or rather Asch was trying to lecture/argue with Lorelei. Lorelei had thanked the others before responding, and nudged Asch to thank them as well.

Basic politeness was generally a good sign.

Lorelei was trying to get a word in at the moment. "They aren't…"

"Wrong." Asch interrupting people wasn't rare either. What was rare was that this was the way he would argue with Guy, or Ion. The people he came the closest to actually respecting. The people he knew well, well enough to know what they would say and bother to correct them. Most people he didn't bother to scold, correct or teach, he'd just tell them to shut up the way he had basically been in the manor. "I used to think that too. That everyone was fundamentally decent and that if I could just get through to them, or whatever, then Natalia would stop trying to carve me up into another person, that Father would let me play with Pere, that people would give a damn about what I wanted. I thought that was possible because of dear 'Master Van,' the one person who was actually considerate.

"And he was a lying bastard who was only capable of fakingbeing a decent human being because it would all be worth it when he broke my heart and I committed suicide the way he hadn't had the guts to. I went to him when I couldn't take it anymore and he was practically getting off on my misery. He kept me hoping that I could be happy someday just so that he could crush me. You know what he was like, Lorelei, you've known what everyonewas like since you made this world."

Jade raised an eyebrow. He'd thought that was just a myth. Even the Order said it was a myth, despite the fact it was on the memorial stones that all of Auldrant were practically required, by the Score, to go and read.

Of course, given that Lorelei creating a world withouta Score and not controlling it, or wanting to, was rather contrary to Order doctrine, perhaps the stones had been placed to keep the truth alive in some form. After all, Eldrant had been Yulia's plan all along, according to Asch, and the Order had claimed that was a myth as well.

"Human beings are fundamentally bastards. Look at Guy. If it hadn't been for me he would have slaughtered them all, including Lady Suzanne in her sickbed, and enjoyed it. You know he would have."

Some things Asch had said before, in passing had hinted at Guy's Scored fate, but this was the first confirmation that if it weren't for the deviation that was Asch he would have gone through with it. Guy knew he would have, really. He would have.

Asch continued. "As for Ion, his original killed babies for the hell of it. And don't make excuses for him!" Asch gestured for Lorelei to close his mouth. "He knew when he was going to die. So? He knew when everyone was going to die! What made him so special? The one person besides himself he gave a damn about was Arietta, and that was only because he didn't see her as a human being. Not that he sawanyoneelse as a person. She was his pet, his property, and that was why he wanted her around. Face it, Lorelei. You might be fundamentally good and self-sacrificing to a damn fault, but humans aren't, even though they, along with all the other fonons, are made up of pieces of you. Cut up, disordered, distorted, mashed-together… pieces of us."

There was a flash of an emotion other than righteous irritation for Lorelei's sake there, but soon-suppressed. If Mary Shelly's Frankenstein had been written on Auldrant Asch might have compared humans to the creature. As it was, Tear and Jade had once thought that Lorelei was a 'Frankenstein' sentience, born by accident when the Planet Storm had mashed the other six fonons plus memory particles together. Memory particles. They were the planet's memory. Auldrant's memory. That of the fonon sentience the planetary fonic arte called upon. Lorelei's memory. And it was memory particles that 'remembered' and hence held the shape of every single person, place, and thing, memory particles that were copied to create replicas.

"They might be your children, but they're bastards. And coddling them isn't going to change that. Ion was coddled, dammit! He was told he was precious, important, everything that I didn't have and his replicas didn't have, and because of that he had no damn compassion. He thought he was special,entitled, that the world owed him." Asch spat on the ground. "Just like Guy used to think that since it was wrong to kill hisfamily it was right to kill some other poor kid's, that he was special, entitled with some Lorelei-given right to have a perfect life and not be murdered while Luke wasn't."

Yes, he had thought that. He hadn't thought that if it was wrong to kill him and his family, wasn't it equally wrong to kill Luke's? He had never seen Luke fon Fabre as a person. Just like those soldiers hadn't seen him as one, just as enemies.

"We both know that the Score was written so they'd have free will. It was a forecast of exactly what people like them would do under those circumstances. All my people existing did was change the circumstances slightly." Asch's people? The replicas. "Luke fon Fabre would have gone to Akzeriuth willingly, as a weapon of Kimlasca, and killed them all. He wouldn't have died to atone, he would have been caught in the blast by stupid accident, and good riddance. Natalia would have mourned him,and blamed Malkuth without ever giving a damn about those people. She would have pulled the occupying troops out, along with all the food, and sealed the borders as the starving survivors died in droves from the plague afterwards, intending to move in once they were all dead."

Natalia winced.

"As for that woman's other descendant, she would have taught Asch how to use destructive hyperresonance knowingly, although she wouldn't have known she was meant to be caught in the blast. Then there's the traitor and him." Asch pointed at Jade in passing. "It's really, really sad that he would have had the noblest death out of all of them, been the only one to actually learn something or care about another person enough to even inconvenience himself for them.. And most of that's just because he admitted he was a bastard instead of being all damn self-righteous. This guy ended up the best, by far, of the people you hoped would be my companions. That's just sad."

The Score had said that the throne of Malkuth would be stained with the blood of its last emperor. Jade had known what his own scored fate had to be since he'd heard that passage.

If Peony died, it would be over his dead body.

"And you knew all this and you still thought humanity was worth saving. Worth spending two thousand years in the core for. I'd ask if you were stupid or something but I'm well aware we both are. Frankly, at this point I kind of have to agree with Yulia, which makes me want to stab myself. Eldrant should have been created. Everything should have been turned into seventh fonon, turned back into us."

Back into them?

Eldrant would have been entirely seventh fonon. No other fonons acting as impurities. No barrier to it becoming a planet-sized sentience. To the entire world once again becoming one with Lorelei.

Surely Van hadn't known that, or else he wouldn't have bothered gathering replica data. He'd hated Lorelei, wanted to use Luke fon Fabre's powers to kill it.

Even Yulia's own descendant had been deceived.

After letting Asch get it out of his system Lorelei spoke. "You don't truly think that." Lorelei's voice was the same as Asch and Luke's but still so different. Old, exhausted, and yet resilient. Enduring.

Asch had to sigh, admitting the point. "I do think that humans are inherently bastards and that a new world, where we, I, thought it through instead of just letting it happen, would be better. Except that for one thing I don't want to go to that much trouble to hand people happiness on a platter, and for another controlling how things go to bring about prosperity and happiness and all that? Bullshit. And just because humans are inherently bastards doesn't mean they can't realize that they are and become half-decent if they try."

"And you care about Guy and Ion," Lorelei added. "Even though Guy would have been that and Ion could have turned out like his original and Sync."

Asch didn't want to admit that, because he was pretty sure he knew where Lorelei was going with this and knew he wasn't going to like it.

"You attained sentience less than a decade ago, and there already are two humans you view as worth helping, not counting those you raised." Asch's replica children. "Worth doing things you don't want to do, like bringing Anise back to life. Worth suffering for. I attained sentience long before humans did. I have watched them hurt themselves and each other needlessly. I have been hurt by them, I have tried to help them, I have seen their clumsy efforts to improve, to help each other. For millionsof years."

Lorelei's voice wasn't patronizing, but calm and patient. That just made it worse when the sentiment he was expressing was 'don't teach your granny to suck eggs.'

"Do you think I don't understand their capability for evil? Do you think I endured that because I am a fool or a masochist? I endured that because it was worth it, if it gave the people I cared for even a miniscule chance of survival. I don't need to ask you if you would do the same, because you are me."

Once again, Lorelei had him: there was nothing Asch could say to that.

"Didn't you even wonder why there are human seventh fonists if the fonon used to be so very, very rare? I knew better by then than to let people know I existed. Even now, they didn't have proof," which Jade the fonologist knew, "that I existed until you. Normally, humans would cease to exist when their bodies died, their personalities and selves stored only in cells. However, there were, throughout the ages, people I didn't want to lose, the way you don't want to lose Guy or Ion. Or Vandesdelca."

That made Asch growl.

Lorelei was the one to raise an eyebrow now. "All you would have to do to make him cease to exist is stop keeping him alive.He has no body: he exists because you saved him. You're even granting his wish to be free of 'our control,' as much as it's possible for a part of ourselves to be. Don't try to lie to yourself: we are beings of memory and hence of truth. It doesn't work. You still love him.

"For millions of years I have been letting the humans I care for use my fonon to remember, so they continue after death in the fon belt. Or they can choose to be reborn, but I can't let those that do remember.Look what happened this time."

"Who remembered their past life? I know I didn't." Asch didn't get it. "They could have avoided making the same mistakes…"

"The same mistakes? No, they find whole new ones to make." Yes, it was clear that Lorelei had gotten very, very used to frustration. "What happens when they find out I, we exist. Which is why this is not humanity's fault. They were getting along perfectly well, living mainly peacefully in a world where there were cities with more people in them that all of Auldrant has now, with fontech that ran on stuff dug out of the ground and turned to lightning instead of pure fonons. But there wasn't enough safe power for what they needed, so I let them discover the Sephiroth, an endless supply of power to run their cities, create water in the desert, so many things. They managed wonderfully," Lorelei assured them. "The Planet Storm was simply a replacement for something they already had, after all.

"But imagine a world with no healing artes. A world where war kills rarely but things you cure with virus bottles or first aid kill often. Where cell fatigue and gene decay that here is cured by the amount of seventh fonons in the air causes people's bodies to show the signs of aging age far, far faster than yours. Where a single slash in the right place from a non-fonic enhanced sword is fatal. A world where all of you would be dead thousands of times over."

"And the planet storm created seventh fonons. But a limited supply. A limited supply they were willing to kill for." Jade could understand that very well. Very, very well. He would have done anything to be able to save Professor Nebilim that day. And it was his desire to be a seventh fonist like her, to be better able to protect her and everyone else, that had caused the loss of the very thing he wanted to save.

"Compared to the levels then you are engulfed in my fonon. If a person from that time were to regain their memories here, they would think they were surrounded by people in their twenties." Not eternal youth, over enough years the things the seventh fonon didn't cure added up, but in that world the mayor of St. Binah, old enough his son was showing a few signs of age, wouldn't have been able to walk or think. Or survive the blows he'd taken in the wars he'd fought in.

"The real purpose behind Malkuth's replica research," Jade said, "was the Big Bang effect. That was the real purpose behind my research, in fact. With a spare body waiting, no one would have to fear death. Even healing artes will do nothing if applied too late, and if a fatal wound has set in then applying a life bottle will only cause them to have to die a second time."

They had been able to do nothing for General Frings. Van's forces had killed the healers first, as per standard military doctrine, and healing artes worked by restoring the body to how it had been. Even the strongest healers could only rewind time so back so far.

"What killed the Emperor and the legitimate heirs was replica data extraction. They'd thought new, stable, perfect isofons could be created. But the technology didn't reach that level until well after the side effects caught up with them." Weakening them enough to fall prey to a multitude of hazards until only Peony, a bastard not worth granting immortality, was left.

"So you see? All this is my fault," Lorelei said calmly. "I thought they were ready. I shouldn't have made a decision like that. I shouldn't have interfered, as much as I wanted to help. I should have waited until they had become ready by managing it on their own. Humanity has changed, grown greatly. I am very proud of them. But power over death and life is a crushing responsibility. You know this very well, Asch."

Bringing Anise back. He'd known people would react. He hadn't thought there would be this strong a reaction. That people would start to think he, not Van, was the monster, because he hadn't brought back Akzeriuth. "It's not like it's something that can just go away."

"That was why I had to," Lorelei agreed. "Let them think I didn't exist. The power we have, that we are,is one they want at any cost. After all, it doesn't matter if they kill for it, not as long as if they can win they can bring them back afterwards. The longer the war went on the less losing became an option, because then those 'temporary sacrifices' would stay dead."

"Like it didn't matter if replicas died. We could be replaced." Asch bared his teeth at the thought of that.

"If I exist, then if I keep humanity from suffering I am a controlling monster and if I don't then I am a monster who lets children die. I have tried to lend humanity my power, but they are always aware that it is my power, not theirs. As much as I try that, like the score, makes them little better than puppets or slaves and they rightly hate me for it. And if I exist and I am not their ally then I am their enemy, someone who could prevent their suffering and instead does nothing. I considered revealing my existence as a personality earlier in the Fonic War so they would have someone to fight besides each other, but that wouldn't have helped matters any. The Fonic War was entirely my fault. I should have known better."

While most of the others were silent, not knowing what to think or say this was Jade's element. "And you couldn't just increase the seventh fonon supply so that they had enough because of the miasma. The miasma is, in essence, corrupted seventh fonon. Am I correct that the planet storm creates about as much of it as it does the normal fonon?"

"Well, I am a fonon sentience. I can turn miasma into proper seventh fonon or keep large amounts from forming, but the war…"

"If a seventh fonon is holding someone's personality, or part of it, in the memory particle, and it's messed the fonon will be messed up again even if it's put right. And they can mess up nearby fonons. There was a huge war on. Do the math." That, Asch could figure out easily enough. "There's you for the fonons the Score controlled, me for the free fonons: is there a sentience for the miasma?"

"No, although you came a little too close to becoming one." Hatred, anger…

Asch shrugged off Lorelei's soft rebuke. "So if Eldrant hadn't happened and the world had dissolved into miasma, after the war and the plague, without people you could have gotten control back." But it would have had to be without people, deleting the personalities that had been stuck in the miasma. "But what that means is that it won't work. I was thinking that if I stuck around and made sure no one tried another Score or anything then I could let healing artes still work. Kill the people who tried to replace the Score: use that to clear out the miasma that got created making the fonon for healing artes. What you're saying is that the seventh fonon has to disappear again."

Lorelei nodded. "That was why the effort to ensure that they thought the fonon, and I, only existed because of the planet storm. Auldrant doesn't have the ability to replace the Planet Storm, especially not the current version." The one Lorelei had helped Yulia create.

"I think we can replace fontech and fonic artes, if we have to." Fontech with lightning? Guy thought that sounded really cool. "Especially if we have the sephiroth to take apart and see how they work. The components, I mean. But no healing artes?" Especially when so much of Auldrant had lingering problems from miasma exposure?

"I'd have to turn all the replicas into originals," composed of the other fonons, "as well as get rid of the miasma, or they'd be killed for their fonons."

"Surely not." Natalia thought that was just ridiculous.

Asch gave her a look and Lorelei sighed. Yes, they would be.

Ignoring the interruption. "And Luke's fonon frequency, I'd have to change it. So, I 'die getting rid of the miasma?' Or we do."

"The amount loose of the other fonons will lower gradually as they're used up: the ambient seventh fonon could do the same. That would give them a little more time to rediscover medical techniques. I can ensure that some records of them are found," Lorelei offered. He did remember everything, after all, and since he could reshape matter creating some books someplace they would be found when the sephiroth were explored was child's play.

"Whatever." Asch shrugged, not really caring about the details. "I don't want to become one with you."

Lorelei sighed. "If it weren't for split personalities I wouldn't have anyone to talk to. It will be nice to have another self to share the burden with."

"So you're going to leave?" Go to the fon belt with Lorelei? "Do you really have to? I'd kind of miss you, Asch," Guy had to admit.

Tear and Natalia nodded. "I'm sure Ion would as well," Jade added. Ion had been left behind since he wasn't leaving Anise's side and Anise wasn't going anywhere near Asch.

Asch shook his head. "Oh, I'm not going to leave, I'm just going to make people think I did. I like this world." It was almost a confession. "The apples in Engave are the best when you get them right off the tree, and there are all sorts of things I never got to do. First I was trapped in the manor because they mistook me for that idiot and then I had to be a big hero and leader and everything. Fight and kill and order people around so they don't all die. I want to be a kid for once, you know? I'm still only eight, and I've never jumped rope or played soccer or anything. So I'll just look different, or something, so people won't know it's me."

"But what if someone figures out who you are?" Natalia wondered if that included them.

Why were they all so stupid? "I control memory, Natalia. They won't know if I don't want them to."

"They won't figure it out if you take this seriously enough," Lorelei corrected him. "How would you feel if someone were to tamper with your mind merely because they made a foolish mistake?"

Another point.

"If you act as though you are special, entitled, the only one who has ever been hurt or mistreated and abuse others because of it, then you have no right to complain about others doing the same. Keeping the planet storm shut down and losing your new identity and name is indeed a sacrifice. It is one you are making because this world, and its people matter to you. If the sacrifice is nothing, then the world is worth nothing to you. To claim you're not losing what you fought for is a lie that demeans yourself and dishonors your sacrifice. However, if it were truly nothing, then you wouldn't resent having to make it. And if itis such a sacrifice, then you can't claim the world isn't something you care about. You cannot have it both ways, we cannot."

"I know that." Still, the soft-spoken words seemed to be a scolding, one taken to heart.

"If you stay in this world, you will have to watch them grow old and die, sooner than they would have if you'd been able to keep the planet storm going as you intended. They will remain in existence even after that, and you can be reunited in the fon belt, but eventually they will want to lose their memories and be reborn. Humans, as they are, are not suited for the immortality they crave. That, and those who have come to care for the world will want to be reborn, to try to help others. Will you be able to let them go? I know you will, in the end, because you are me, but it will still hurt, especially when you knowthey are going to suffer in ignorance. Especially if they do it for your sake."

The pause lengthened before Asch repeated, "For your sake?"

"In seven years you found two people you care for. I have thousands who I have granted the power to call on my fonon, and I wouldn't let them be born to such a fate unless they knew what they were getting into."

Tear, Guy, Natalia… Van. If seventh fonists (and those with the potential) were Lorelei's chosen and their reincarnations? If Gelda had known Jade would kill her and still chosen, long before her birth, to be his teacher?

Asch had noted on several occasions that he'd much rather deal with seventh fonists (or potentials like Guy) than ordinary humans. Fond memories that he hadn't recalled or were they simply better people, to earn Lorelei's love?

"It takes a strong person to endure what you did after Akzeriuth, being weighed down with the deaths of thousands and knowing you were never loved. Vandesdelca suffered that and didn't give into hatred. Didn't hate Gailardia for failing in his family's duty to protect him. Didn't hate Mystearica after his mother died so that she could live after she'd handed him off to his torturers not once but twice. He managed to escape once. Once. And he was a murderer who would destroy Hod, after all. He was the reason their hands were clean no matter what they did. He endured it. And instead of wishing for nothing but destruction he wanted to create a new world, where no one would have such a fate written out for them.

"He went on when a lesser man would have crumbled. He was in the wrong, but if he hadn't fought you would not exist and this world would have been utterly without hope. Do you think just anyone could have done this? Do you think it was random chance that he possessed that strength?"

"You're not telling me he volunteered." Asch's face was pale, as pale as his original's.

"If you did not love him, if you didn't know that he was a good person you wouldn't have cared that he betrayed you. I know that you don't hate him because you are me. You cannot say that Luke was wrong to let you go in his place with only a token effort and deny that he is a good man for choosing the opposite path. Hod and Akzeriuth had to fall for Eldrant to rise. Someone had to bear those burdens. Even Akzeriuth was his fault, not yours, because he made you a tool. If not him you, myself would have been forced to do all of it. He didn't want us to have their blood on our hands."

"He doesn't know. He can't know."

"He clung to the fact that he was an innocent, not a killer. To know he did choose to do it after all? For the sake of the one he now hates? Better he blame us than himself, even though it hurts. Yet he still hates himself for it, has waited for the day when he had accomplished his purpose and could die for all these years. He needs to suffer before he can forgive himself. And if he can't forgive himself then it is not fair to ask him to forgive us. And we care for him, so we don't want to watch him suffer as hard as you tried to pretend otherwise. But it's not about what we want.

"That is what it is to be myself, to possess our power. If you wish, you can return your memories and fonons to me and cease as a separate entity. But as 'Lorelei' or 'Asch' this burden is ours, simply because we have this power and thus this responsibility. And it is fair, isn't it?"

"I can't complain about what I went through if I don't acknowledge that people went through stuff because of me?" Asch knew that, even if he didn't like it. "I thought I could just force them to stay out of my business."

"They are our business, like it or not. Even choosing not to intervene is still a choice. Through action or inaction, we cause them pain. You wanted to live without hurting or owing anyone. That is simply not possible."

No one else spoke. This conversation was beyond them, almost in another world.

"So I should stop whining about the manor and Akzeriuth before I start sounding like Luke?" Even Asch's attempt to take it lightly didn't diminish the gravity of it.

"You can't ask them to acknowledge you and your pain unless you acknowledge them and theirs. If the world had to suffer for my mistake then it was only fair that I suffer in the core. Luke was born solely so that you would come into existence. He was taken from his family and tortured so that you would be born: you wouldn't exist without his suffering: denying its significance denies your own. So stop complaining about humanity. I expect better of myself."

I love taking things to trippy logical conclusions that end up with 'everything you know is wrong' from the new perspective. If the fonon used to be so rare, why are there seventh fonists? If they go to the fon belt when they die, how do they get back down to Auldrant to be reborn? If Lorelei is responsible, and the Score still guarantees free will, and such… Ouch.

Still, that would explain why Mohs wasn't a seventh fonist…

A lot of Tales of Payback is Asch wanting life to be fair, and for someone with the power of a god…

It's very much an Old Testament vs New Testament divine philosophy clash, even though here it's Asch, the younger one, who's arguing for the old viewpoint. Terry Pratchett described the New Testament as 'when god got religion.' Or, perhaps, started taking responsibility seriously… Asch, in this, was shaping up to be a very smite-happy Old Testament type, and if you've read the thing you'll see that way of trying to deal with divine responsibility is… It just doesn't work.