Chapter Seventeen: The Iniquity of Victory
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
Tokyo, Capital of Japan, 14th July 2018 ATB
They had never seen him like this.
The Black Knights leaders had harboured any number of feelings for their masked leader, ranging from awe to reluctant obedience to mistrust. They had never really been afraid of him, until they gathered in the HQ's meeting room the day after the failed kidnapping attempt. Though his trademark mask concealed his face, there could be no doubting his mood. Fury came off Zero in waves, seeming to reach into them and chill their hearts.
As Ougi Kaname took his seat, he got an idea how the underlings of the European dictators must have felt at times. The boss was angry, and would require careful management if heads were not to roll.
"Minna," Zero growled, once everyone was seated. "We are faced with a sudden and severe crisis. You are all no doubt aware of the incident at Ashford Academy yesterday. The attempted kidnapping failed, but in so doing it revealed a threat to all that we have fought and suffered to achieve. A threat unlike anything we have ever faced."
"Let me guess," Tamaki ill-advisedly interjected. "It involves Orange-kun there." He gestured at Jeremiah Gottwald, who sat at Zero's left hand. Gottwald regarded Tamaki coldly, perhaps irritated by the use of his unwanted nickname. No one else had said anything, but Ougi knew that they were disconcerted by the Britannian's presence.
"Jeremiah Gottwald," Zero gestured at the newcomer, "was the leader of a mission to kidnap Prince Faramond. He has since consented to assist us, for his own reasons. Before you bore me with your objections, I will reveal the true reason behind the attempt." He nodded to his aide, Lelouch Lamperouge, who sat at his left taking minutes on a laptop. Lelouch nodded, and touched his control panel.
"Send in Sergeant Tendo." There was consternation among the assembled officers as the door slid open to admit a hard-faced man in Black Knights uniform. Tendo strode around the table, standing to attention at the front.
"This is Sergeant Sosuke Tendo, Commando B Company," Zero introduced him. "As some of you may know, he was one of those wounded in the Battle of Brussels. Sergeant, show them." At the command, Tendo began unbuttoning his black jacket, and the white shirt underneath. Eyes widened, mouths dropped. Only Marshal Kyoshiroh Tohdoh maintained his dignity, though his eyes did not waver from the blotched, red flesh that covered Tendo's side.
Flesh, where there should have been bloody horror, a wound that should have taken weeks to heal.
"But…" Ougi spluttered. "How did…?"
"Sergeant," Tohdoh interjected brusquely. "Tell us what happened."
"I don't understand what happened sir," Tendo replied, his military demeanour tinged with uncertainty. Yesterday, Zero came to my room at the hospital, along with the Prince and a team of medics. My wounds were exposed, as the bandages were being changed. Zero had the Prince touch my wound and…" he trailed off, as if unwilling to say more. "I…I don't know what happened, but the next thing I knew, my wound was as it is now."
"Thank you sergeant, that will be all," Zero interjected, once Tendo had stopped. Tendo buttoned up his uniform, saluted, and exited the way he had come.
"If that does not convince you," Zero went on, "I have video evidence. So get it into your heads right now that these powers are real. Jeremiah here," he gestured at the taciturn cyborg, "will explain the rest."
"They call themselves the Order," Jeremiah began. He spoke in English, for he had never learnt more than a smattering of Japanese. "As far as I've been able to learn, they've existed for several centuries. Their purpose is to study these powers, which they refer to as Geass. For some time now, they have allied themselves to the Holy Empire of Britannia, providing Geass-equipped agents and assassins for their use."
"They wouldn't happen to include Rolo, would they?" Ougi asked darkly. Jeremiah glanced questioningly at Zero.
"Yes, Rolo was one of their agents, hence his abilities. He came over to my side having been sent to spy on me. You may be assured of his loyalty." No one spoke.
"You claim to know of these powers," Tohdoh spoke up, breaking the silence. "What are they? How did they come about?"
"I don't know," Jeremiah replied. "I only know that no two such powers are entirely alike."
"The Order poses an existential threat," Zero interjected. "To Japan, and to all who oppose Britannia. I have called you here because you needed to be made aware of what awaits us, when we go to destroy them." The officers kept silent. Their minds were in turmoil, but they could not bring themselves to enunciate their confusion, to shout out in denial, in confusion.
"Zero," Ougi forced himself to speak. "I'm not…leaving now might not be wise." Silence descended once again, like the calm before the storm, or the pause before the axe fell.
"Ougi," Zero said, his voice entirely level and calm. "Are you suggesting the sky will fall in if I leave the country?"
"Zero," it took all of Ougi's courage to reply, "this is not a good time. There have been…questions in the Provisional Diet." He could feel the gazes of his fellows boring into him, imploring him not to provoke Zero's wrath.
"Questions?" Zero paused. Ougi could feel his heart pounding. "What…questions?" Ougi cleared his throat. What had to be said had to be said.
"It's the sakuradite, Zero. They're get annoyed over how much you've been giving away recently. I know it's to strengthen our allies, but you must know how much it's worth. To be blunt, they want their cut."
That was the long and the short of it. Ougi didn't know the exact figures, but he knew enough to know that sakuradite was worth big money. Though Zero did not appear to have noticed, no doubt distracted by the mission to Europe, certain elements within the government were growing annoyed at how little of that money they were seeing. That Zero, a Shogun in all but name, had given so much of it to the Chinese Federation for free, and later at very reasonable rates, was bad enough. But offering nearly two hundred-thousand tons of it to the EU for free?
Ougi knew why Zero was doing it, and agreed completely. But he also knew that among the countless functionaries, bureaucrats, and hangers-on that made up the current Japanese government, there were plenty of leftovers from the old regime. They had been around when the Six Houses of Kyoto governed Japan from the shadows, bending all policy to their own ends, using the precious treasure to dictate global politics.
Though he never dared express it, Ougi hated them for it, and knew many other Japanese felt the same. Though it was Genbu Kururugi who had ultimately betrayed Japan to Britannia, he was very much the product of Kyoto's meddling, a man who had brought down his country rather than be their puppet a moment longer. It was Ougi's hope that such things would not happen again, that Zero's revolution would bring about a better, more just system.
It was what Naoto would have wanted.
"They want their cut," Zero hissed, something horrible in his tone. "They spend every waking hour filling their pockets with the nation's wealth, and they want their cut?"
"Yes, and it's more than that." There seemed little point in holding back. "There's a lot of controversy flying around the Chinese rearmament, and even more over the EU's new military technology." Ougi could hear what sounded like a sigh of exasperation.
"As I told them several times," the masked man growled, "Chinese rearmament is necessary while Britannia remains a threat. Also, I fail to see how the EU developing new military technology is a threat to us." The last comment caused a rumble of uncertainty among the officers.
"It seems that some of you disagree." Zero scanned his hidden eyes along the table, his subordinates resisting the urge to hide underneath. "Would you care to elucidate?"
"The Diet is concerned," Tohdoh spoke up, "that a rearmed Chinese Federation will pose a security risk in the future. Even after selling some of it to the EU, they possess a one-year sakuradite stockpile thanks to your…generosity."
"And you feel I should have been less generous?" If Tohdoh was intimidated, he did not show it.
"No. It was necessary from a strategic perspective. However, it is very likely that the Chinese will launch attacks against Areas 9 and 10 within the next month or so. The Diet would not take kindly to those countries being incorporated into the Chinese Federation, since this will leave us with no other regional allies."
"A concern they did not express back in 2010," Zero retorted with a sneer.
"Nonetheless, the EU's new military technology is potentially a problem. They have almost certainly created working MMI technology, going beyond anything we or the Britannians have demonstrated." As one, all present turned to Laksharta.
"It's a bit more complicated than that," she replied, after an infuriatingly long pause. "There seem to be two distinct variations, namely for the Lupo and the Charlemagne. Just to make things even more interesting, they've completely revamped the design in both cases."
"In what way?" Tohdoh asked.
"Judging by the size and arrangement, they've gone for an armour approach," Laksharta went on. "The pilot literally wears it, using an internal frame to move the knightmare by moving his or her own body."
"Sounds tricky to build," Ougi commented.
"It is. But it's an intuitive system, making it easier for a new pilot to adapt. As for the MMI we can rule out cybernetics, such as those used by our friend over there. Daidouji herself admitted that they adapted Angelic Layer technology, which in itself is quite impressive."
"But the Charlemagne technology wasn't the same," Kallen insisted, speaking for the first time. "It can't have been. I saw that thing fight."
"So did I," Tohdoh agreed, his followers nodding likewise. "The Charlemagne was even more responsive than the Lupos were."
"That's where it gets very interesting." There was a familiar twinkle in Laksharta's eye. "From what I know of Angelic Layer technology, there's no way they could have gotten much more out of it, at least with the baseline tech. They'd need to take it even further. They'd need to go for total immersion."
"Is that like…?" Tamaki asked.
"Yes." Laksharta smiled a particularly wicked smile. "Constantian's conscious mind was directly connected to the machine. He could move it like it was his own body."
"I think you see the issue, Zero," Tohdoh concluded. "A technology considerably superior to our own, giving the EU a significant advantage in knightmare combat. To be fair to the Diet, I would call that grounds for concern."
"What about those rayguns?" Tamaki pointed out. "Those…whatjamacallems?"
"Neutral particle beams," Laksharta answered.
"If anything," Tohdoh went on. "Their beam weaponry is a bigger concern than their knightmares."
"That beam saber he had was kinda nifty though," Tamaki commented with a grin. "I want one like that."
"I want to make myself abundantly clear," Zero interjected, his voice strangely calm. "There is no cause for concern regarding the EU or the Chinese Federation. That is because we have spent effort, a great deal of effort, building positive relations with them. The Diet need only be concerned if they insist on returning to their pre-war mercantilism and bullying. I trust I am understood?" Silence.
"I take that as a yes. In the meantime our goal is the destruction of the Order. We reconvene tomorrow morning for the operational planning, and I expect all prior preparations to be complete by then. That will be all."
The meeting broke up, and Zero headed for the former Viceregal quarters, followed by Kallen and Jeremiah. CC was already there, gazing out of the window. He did not speak, not even when the door closed behind them.
"You did not tell them everything, my Prince," Jeremiah commented, a touch of reproach in his tone.
"It's hard enough for them to accept the existence of Geass," Zero replied, removing his mask. "Let alone everything else."
"I still can't believe it," Kallen said, pain in her eyes. "I can't believe…he would do something like this."
"Believe it," Lelouch growled. "He knew this would happen. He knew that there would be a war, and millions would die. He knew it, and he did it anyway. It was his plan all along." He leaned on the desk, shoulders hunched, shivering with anger.
"That's why he brainwashed us," he hissed. "His black Bishop and black Knight, that's what he said. He needed us to keep the war going. Everything we…everything I've done, was all a part of his plan. He wanted this war, and somewhere along the line he decided I would be the perfect tool. I've set the world aflame, so Faramond can save it."
"Oh yes," he turned, looking straight into Kallen's eyes. "I was wrong about my father. I thought he just wanted to take over the world for Britannia, but I underestimated him. He's far too clever to fall into that old trap, so he's gone for something else, something that can cut across all boundaries, something by which he can control people of all kinds and types. You know what I mean, don't you?"
"Religion," Jeremiah said darkly.
"Oh yes!" Lelouch snarled, his fury rising in a terrible exultation. "A brand new religion, like nothing that's ever existed before! A religion that's got everything you could possibly want from a religion, with something really special! Real live miracles!"
"But…it won't work on everyone!" Kallen protested, desperation in her eyes. "People have their own beliefs, their own ways, and their own reasons! He won't win over everyone on the world! No one can!"
"He doesn't need to!" Lelouch roared. "The Areas alone would do it! Can you imagine it? Hundreds of millions of Numbers, beaten, broken, pacified!" he spat the latter word. "So much so that they haven't raised a hand in rebellion in decades! You can see it, can't you? You remember how it was with Euphie! She could make people who hated Britannia fall on their knees for a touch of her hand! For a scrap of kindness! Can you imagine what he would do to them? He the Messiah, meek and mild? Whose words were gentleness and whose touch could heal any injury? Who knows, maybe it could bring back the dead? And even if it can't it doesn't matter, because it's all a show anyway! The Order has this all planned out, you know that as well as I do!" He paused, breathing heavily, his eyes flashing with incandescent rage.
"Faramond will not say the dire words. He'll speak to them of love, of forgiveness, of gentleness, just like Euphie taught him. But his priests will speak of enemies, of unbelievers, of blasphemers. It is they, they will say, who are responsible for all the violence and pain and destruction. It is they who stand in the way of the future, who deny the revelation, who would prevent the coming of the new age. It is they who must be made to submit, or else swept aside!" He paused again.
"You know what will happen," his voice was hoarse. "You know how it goes, how it has always gone. There will be those who believe, and those…who do not." He deflated, exhausted by his tirade, leaning back against the desk.
"So we get them first," Kallen said, moving closer until she stood directly in front of him. He could not meet her gaze.
"Yes." Lelouch sighed a weary sigh. "We have a chance. If we destroy the Order now we may be able to stop this, or at least find out more." Kallen stepped forward, easing his head onto her shoulder. Jeremiah thought it best to leave, and turned on his heel.
"He used me," Lelouch whispered hoarsely, as the cyborg stepped through the door.
"It's not your fault," Kallen whispered back, as the door closed behind him.
"This is nuts. This is completely nuts."
Down in the HQ's mess hall, a impromptu gathering of Black Knights were discussing what their leaders had just heard. Currently leading the debate was Kento Sugiyama, who looked as though he had been introduced to a Martian.
"But it's true," Ougi insisted wearily. "You saw what happened to Tendo. Zero couldn't have faked something like that."
"I agree," spoke up Kasuga Suzushima from the medical unit, his place denoted by the patch at his shoulder. "I saw Tendo just yesterday. There's no way in hell his wounds could've healed that quickly."
"Besides, Tendo was JLF," added Yoshitaka Minami. "He wouldn't lie, not to Tohdoh. This really happened."
"So now Zero's gonna lead us on some mad quest," Sugiyama went on, "while everything goes to hell here in Tokyo!"
"What's that supposed to mean?" protested Ougi.
"Don't act like you don't know!" Sugiyama snapped back. "You know what Kyoto's been doing behind the scenes. They're getting ready to take over! To put things back the way they were before! And Zero's not doing anything about it! It's like he doesn't want to know!"
"Wilya cut the guy some slack!" Tamaki snapped. "He's been workin' himself to death for us! I ought to know!"
"Yeah!" Sugiyama sneered. "Mister ex-Minister of Finance! Or was that why you quit? Because you were sick of being a placeholder!"
"Ya wanna say that to my fist, you damn punk!" Tamaki snarled, pulling down his sleeve. "If you're gonna talk crap about Zero, you'd better be ready for it!"
"Can't I speak my mind!" Sugiyama demanded, face twisted in anger. "Or are we really living in a police state?"
"No we're not!" Ougi insisted, hoping to quell the confrontation. "We fought for such rights, so everyone should speak their minds." There were mutterings of agreement from the assembled Black Knights.
"We also fought to make sure those Kyoto bluebloods couldn't screw things up again!" Sugiyama went on, unmoved. "You know what'll happen if they get back their old power! They screwed us over in the last war and blamed it all on the army and the Emperor! They screwed up again in 2010 and blamed it all on Genbu Kururugi and the Britannians! This time they'll blame it on Zero!"
"The Six Houses are the people's enemies!" someone yelled. A chorus of angry shouts followed.
"I understand your concerns," Ougi interjected. "But I think they're premature. I'm confident Lady Kaguya can handle them."
"When she's not having it off with that kid Rolo!" Sugiyama demanded. "And she's not the only one!" The shouts and snarls came again, this time with an ugly, leering air about them.
"Here we go!" snorted Mutsuki Minase. "A girl chooses her own lover and that makes her a whore! You guys are all the same!" Some of the other female Black Knights yelled out in support. The atmosphere was getting confrontational.
"Everyone, this is hardly appropriate," Ougi pleaded. "I don't see any evidence that Lady Kaguya and Rolo are lovers, and I don't think we should be speculating on it." He felt ridiculous, knowing he probably sounded a complete wuss. But it was true all the same. Kaguya had been keeping Rolo close recently, but she seemed to treat him more like a younger brother than a boyfriend.
"I don't care if they are!" Sugiyma snarled back. "But you know that SKK will! You know what they'll do if they find out that Kaguya Sumeragi and Kallen Kozuki are getting bonked by Britannians! And the other Kyoto Houses will use it against us!"
Ougi had a pretty clear idea of what the infamous Shinri-Kyo-Kai, or Supreme Truth Party, would do with that information. He knew that they would use it to stir up trouble, to damage the credibility of both the Black Knights and House Sumeragi, with the potential to seriously damage Zero's power base. The other five houses, actually only four since House Kururugi was in disgrace, would use it in the same way. Whether to destroy Zero, to weaken him, or as something to threaten him with, it would serve their dire purpose.
Ougi felt a shiver of frustration. It was an unwelcome reminder to him of one of human nature's less edifying features, a tendency to judge others based on who they were having sex with, or not as the case may be. But underneath was something far older, and far darker. It was a dark, cruel instinct, the instinct of tribe and nation, and of property. It was the instinct that held up the female as sacred, as the virtue and health of the whole. Any failure to live up to that ideal demanded punishment, and there could be few less forgivable failures than consorting with outsiders, polluting the sacred feminine with the foreign masculine.
It made Ougi particularly uncomfortable, since he himself had done the same, even though it was not such a crime if a man did it.
She had never left his thoughts for any length of time. He remembered her smile, her easy manner, the way she'd cooked for him, unbidden. He remembered how he had encountered her again at Ashford Academy during the Black Rebellion, remembered how her golden eyes, cold and hard where they had once been warm and gentle. He remembered the hot, stinging pain of a bullet in the stomach, the disgust in her tone.
And he had seen her again.
He could have sworn he had seen her. He had been one of the first Black Knights on the scene at Ashford Academy. It had been fairly crazy, with lots of people running back and forth, but he was sure he had seen her, even if it was only for a moment.
There was nothing he could do about it for now. Soon, when this new business was dealt with, he would go to Ashford Academy and see for himself.
It might just get her face out of his head.
Sumeragi household, Tokyo, that night
The night was clear, the sky awash with glittering stars.
Kaguya Sumeragi stared up at them, gazing upon the moon for whose goddess she was named, part of her hoping to find some comfort there.
But there was none.
Only a thin indoor yukata covered her slender frame, but the night was pleasantly warm, cooled by the occasional breeze. The moonlight gleamed on her doll-like face, its expression wistful, worried. Dark thoughts invaded her troubled mind.
Lelouch was Zero.
The young boy she had known, so briefly all those years ago, had become Japan's saviour. The prince who was cast out became a warlord, and took revenge upon his former homeland.
He had lied. He had pretended. He had deceived an entire nation.
Except he hadn't. Plenty had known, or else suspected, that Japan's saviour was not himself Japanese. In their desperation, their despair, they had grasped at any straw no matter how thin. They had made him their liberator. They had made him their god.
And she knew. She, Kaguya Sumeragi, knew a secret that might, if properly used, bring down the government.
The government? For all her youth, Kaguya knew enough of such things to see the Provisional Diet for what it was. She did not blame Zero for choosing them, for the body needed to at least appear to represent the country evenly and fairly. The one thing she could not understand, and had not wanted to understand, was how so many of the warlords, resistance leaders, and religious fanatics had capitulated so easily. She had watched in amazement as they emerged from his tent, or his railway carriage, telling their astonished followers to lay down their weapons. Only recently, and thanks to Rolo, did she know how he had done it.
She turned her head to glance into the room. Rolo lay where she had left him, futon cover pulled up to his chin, fast asleep. Kaguya felt herself smile at the sight. He looked so innocent, so pure like that. He was not innocent, of that much she was certain. No one could live a life like his and remain innocent. But Rolo was pure, more so than she could have thought possible. He was honest, sincere, and even kind when he knew how to be.
She had grown to enjoy his company, even before that sorrowful night in Brussels, when he had wept into her lap. She had promised him her friendship, a promise she had kept. Why else would she have brought him with her, let him sleep in her room, albeit in a separate futon?
Why else would she worry so?
Kaguya knew well enough that Zero was planning a new operation, this time against the mysterious 'Order', that had granted Rolo his unusual powers. And Rolo would have to go, for he was one of the Black Knights' best pilots, and his Geass made him an asset Zero would be a fool to waste.
But she found she did not want him to go. It was bad enough that he risked his life, where one wrong move or sheer bad luck might doom him. But this time it was worse, for he would be fighting the people who had raised him, trained him, empowered him. He would be fighting the nearest thing he had to a family. And what if there were other children there? Children empowered as he had been? Would he have to kill them? His own little brothers and sisters in Geass?
Reason told her there was no other option. To do otherwise would be to put the Black Knights, Zero's followers, at intolerable risk. And even if they could be taken alive, could they be contained safely? What horrors might be unleashed, what evil, if even one of those unfortunate children were to escape into the world?
And what would it do to Rolo?
She thought of not letting him leave, of trying to keep him there, whether by persuasion or force. But she knew it wouldn't work. She couldn't control Rolo, not when he could just freeze her mind and walk out. And even had he no such power, she did not want to bring Zero's ire down on his head, or on hers for that matter. She would keep silent and let him go, praying that he would return safely.
And in the meantime, try to keep everything Zero had fought for from slipping through his fingers. For he did not know, or perhaps did not care, the sand was shifting beneath his feet.
Her stomach clenched with frustration. She had wondered at times why Zero did not simply brainwash the Provisional Diet as he had the warlords. If he had done, he need never fear disobedience or rebellion from them. She knew the reasons why, and was frustrated because the reasons were entirely valid. Such a power had to be used as little as possible, and with the utmost care and planning. The more he used it, the more likely it became that suspicions might arise. Whether they fully understood or not, the very idea was enough to spur conspirators to action. Zero had spent enough time in a royal court to know how easily suspicion could blossom into paranoia, and paranoia into dire, mistaken action. To be discovered was to be doomed.
But that left the politicians free to plot and scheme was they were wont to do. Kaguya had kept herself well-informed of their doings and plottings, care of those within the halls of government still loyal to her family, and she saw good reason to worry. The Diet itself was chafing under Zero's Regency, the Representatives believing that he was denying them their rightful power and dignity. To make matters worse, her spies had found evidence of secret negotiations with SKK and the other Kyoto houses, though despite their best efforts they could not find any link to Taizo Kirihara, the man who had led the Six Houses before and during the occupation.
"What are you up to, Taizo Kirihara?" she thought. "What are you up to, you ruthless old man?"
Frustration was replaced by anger. They hadn't so much as mentioned it to her. Her! Kaguya Sumeragi, last of the Sumeragi family, had been sidelined. Ignored.
She knew why. It was not simply that she was born a woman, for that had not been enough to keep her out before. She had been a part of all they did during the dark days of the occupation, even though she sat behind a curtain, like an Imperial princess too holy to be sullied with such deliberations. It was not misogyny that kept them silent.
It was because she was Sumeragi. It was because she had nailed her colours to Zero's mast. To let her know would be to make themselves her slaves, their lives and careers in her hands. She could destroy them all, if she so chose.
Except she couldn't. She couldn't destroy them, because Zero did not seem to care. He must surely have noticed, or at least Diethard's department should have, and yet he did nothing about it. He was preoccupied with other things.
That was another thing that worried her. Did Zero no longer care about Japan? Did he mean to abandon her country, as he had appeared to do during the rebellion? Did revenge mean so much to him?
Or was it something else? Kaguya wondered if he did not feel somehow unworthy of the responsibility he had taken on. Perhaps he intended to disappear, to drop out of world as suddenly as he had dropped in, and leave the Japanese to find their own destiny.
A noble aspiration, but not necessarily a practical one. Something inside Kaguya cried out against the idea of Zero stepping down. It protested that Japan still needed him, that it would need him for a great many years, as the work of rebuilding a shattered country continued.
But what could she do about it? What could she do to stop him from destroying himself, if indeed that was his intention? Would he even listen to her?
Kaguya felt sleep come upon her at last. She headed back to her futon, stepping quietly so as not to disturb Rolo.
She would have to think of something soon.
Ashford Academy, Tokyo, 16th July 2018 ATB
Milly Ashford regarded the face in front of her.
She knew it quite well. There was a great deal of several other faces in it, including two of the people she most cared for. She had also seen it before, many years ago when it had been much younger.
The eyes were familiar too, painfully so. The weight she had seen in them all those years ago had returned. The sparkle she had seen when they re-entered her life, a few weeks ago, had vanished.
Faramond u Britannia was not the most important person in her life, though she was sufficiently generous of spirit to include him in the first tier. All the same she was disappointed. Disappointed that despite her best efforts, darkness still lingered about him. He had just been starting to shine, to grow, only to clam right up again.
Then again, she hadn't been able to do much with his uncle, either. That one would never learn.
"You sent for me, Madam President." His voice no longer croaked the way it had when he arrived. His vocal chords had been used more in the past few weeks than in the previous eight years.
"Yes I did." Milly rested her elbows on her desk, resting her chin on her steepled fingers. "I wanted to see how you were doing, after the excitement the day before yesterday.
"I am…well…Madam President."
"I know that nothing's wrong with you physically. The medical staff told me so themselves. I was asking about the rest of you."
"I…do not understand." There was a flicker of uncertainty, perhaps of fear, in those world-weary eyes.
"I mean, Faramond, how are you dealing with what's happened?" Milly kept her face straight. "What you learned must have been hard to take."
"I am coping, Madam President."
"No Faramond, I don't think you are." Milly fixed him with her gaze. "I don't think that you're coping well at all."
"You've been moping in your room for the past two days," Milly cut him off. "You haven't said a word to anyone, not even Tomoyo. That's not the way that someone who's coping well behaves."
"Your usual methods aren't working. I know how that feels. You're used to just dealing with it, but this time you can't. It's scary." She paused a moment, looking straight into those blue eyes. She knew she was right.
"I have my ways," she went on, a little wistfully. "I laugh, and tease, and mock. I like catching people off-guard, because that's when people show their true selves. I throw parties, partly because of that, and partly because I just like to see people enjoy themselves. But it doesn't always work, not for everything. Sometimes, even I just feel like crying." It was quite an admission, but a necessary one.
"I…don't want anyone to…"
"To see you cry?" Milly finished his sentence. "There's that royal upbringing again. Never cry in front of someone else. Always do it private. Be strong for the commoners."
"Madam President…" Faramond looked as if he were about to chide her, but trailed off.
"I never said it was a bad thing," Milly reassured him. "Someone has to stay strong when everything's going crazy. That's what it means to be royalty. You have to be the rock on which everyone else can stand."
"The question is, who do you lean on when you can't take any more?" She eyed him. "Who helps you deal with it? Who keeps you strong?" Faramond opened his mouth as if to speak. But his breath caught in his throat. After a moment, he lowered his head, ashamed.
"You're a lot like your uncle, you know," Milly commented. "He claims that he's not a prince any more, but he never really stopped being one. He's prideful, like you."
"I have no pride, Madam President."
"Only because you don't know what pride is." Milly allowed her countenance to become more serious, though not too much so. "What you call pride, I call arrogance. You're certainly not arrogant, and you're not ungracious either, unlike some of your family. I can count on one hand the number who would stand in front of my desk like a supplicant, the way you're doing now. But all the same I see their pride in you. I think it's the only thing that sustained through all those years." Faramond did not answer. He could not even raise his head.
"Pride isn't about looking down on others, or treating them badly," Milly explained. "It's about you, and who you are. It's the reason why you can't bring yourself to confide in Tomoyo, or anyone else for that matter. To do so would mean admitting that you can't cope, that you're lonely and you're hurting. Just like your uncle Lelouch."
"I…" Faramond's voice was suddenly hoarse.
"That's why Tomoyo is upset with you, in case you were wondering," Milly pressed, sensing victory. "She only wanted you to confide in her."
"I…I would not presume…"
"Is it presumption to tell the one who loves you how you're feeling?" Milly almost snapped. "She wants you to presume, and so do your friends."
"But I…" Faramond stopped himself, but Milly knew what he had been about to say. She got up, walked slowly around the desk, and stopped beside his chair. She put one finger under his chin, then lifted it to look her in the eyes.
"Am I not your friend, Faramond u Britannia?"
Faramond buried his head in her shoulder. Milly slipped an arm about his waist and another about his shoulder, pressing him to her.
"I know you don't think so, but I am your friend," she told him. "And so is Rivalz, and so is Shirley, and Tomoyo, and Alice, and all your classmates."
"Why?" Milly pulled back, taking Faramond by the shoulders. "Because you are our precious prince. Because you are Lelouch and Nunnally's dear nephew, and I sometimes wonder how the House of Britannia produced the likes of you three. But most of all, because you're you."
"Then, will you counsel me, Madam President?"
"By all means." Milly beamed. Lelouch lowered his head again, choosing his words.
"I…don't want to be as I am," Faramond said at last. "I want to change. I don't want to be afraid any more. But I don't know how."
"I'm not surprised." Milly put her hands on her hips, adopting a thoughtful pose. "That's the hardest part."
"Then, could you tell me how to apologise to Tomoyo?" Faramond's cheeks reddened. "I have no right to ask anything of her, but I cannot say nothing." Milly giggled.
"Were I anyone else, I would advise you just to tell her how you feel. But I'm me, so I would advise a magnificent gesture, something soppy and romantic that she'll never forget."
"I'll do it!" Faramond enthused.
"Very well then." Faramond suddenly faltered, noticing the gleam in her eyes.
"Oh no!" he protested. "Not that! Anything but that!"
"It's the best way!" Milly's smile widened most disconcertingly. "It's the perfect way to swallow your pride before Tomoyo and your classmates. She'll never doubt your love again." Faramond shivered, then sighed in defeat.
"I shall do it."
"Excellent!" Milly proclaimed. "Tomorrow morning then!"
Somewhere over the Gobi Desert
General Magnus Constantian was not a happy man.
After showering and breakfasting, his first task had been to read the innumerable communiqués and documents piling up in his Inbox or on his desk. Much of it was everyday minutiae, which he could deal with quickly and with minimal thought. More challenging material included a request for opinions on the state of the Adler¸ a report he would have to take his time over. The request did not surprise him, for the Adler's role in the Battle of Brussels had ensured the project's survival, the decision subsequently being taken to equip all the EUROFORCE brigades with Adler class floatships. It was incumbent on the project leaders to refine the design in any possible way in order to reduce costs and speed up production time. According to the most recent estimates, a single specialized facility such as Aerie Base, which was in fact the only one, could build an Adler class floatship in six months to a year if it received supply priority. As it was, the project was competing with the State navies for much of what it needed, ranging from hull plating to electronic components to weapons systems. Unrelated components such as the float engines, energy shields, and nuclear reactors had been constructed at specialist facilities, the limited capacities of which would have to be expanded, competing with just about everyone else for material and human resources.
Complications, complications, complications.
But of greater immediate relevance, and interest, were the reports from the front. The Russian theatre was going well, with Russian forces on the move again after a brief pause for resupply and maintenance. Battles were taking place all across the Ural mountains, and several of the defence complexes had been successfully reoccupied. Once the Britannians were driven out and the defence network re-established, the EU forces would be in a position to ease off, consolidating their strength for the push into Siberia.
The news from Africa was not so heartening, in spite of the overall success. The Egyptian forces had suffered heavy attrition while liberating their country, and had withdrawn from further offensive operations for the time being. The Egyptians had fought hard, as had all the other exile forces seeking to liberate their homelands, but the Britannians had fought every bit as hard.
Magnus knew why. He knew that the Britannian rotation system had broken down, its forces hopelessly overstretched. The response had been to move the soldiers' families, by force or persuasion, out to the new settlements. This made the garrison units fight all the harder, for it was their wives and children cowering in the settlements behind them, awaiting a dreadful fate if they faltered. Magnus knew little of such feelings, but had seen ample evidence of their power.
The EU knew it too. The freshly-reconstituted Central Hemicycle had voted, only three days earlier, in favour of activating the 'Maximum Expediency' protocols. Only the Pacifists, the most ideologically committed of all the major caucuses, had opposed the measure in any numbers, claiming they wanted no part of such 'inhumanity' and 'barbarism'. Not that anyone was listening. Few were inclined to show restraint, with stories abounding of Britannia's conduct in the territories it occupied. The Britannians were, in the eyes of plenty of Europeans, getting no more than they deserved.
The coastal settlements had been flattened, the combined fleet turning its railguns and missiles upon them as a prelude to the landings. Area 18 had surrendered almost immediately afterwards, it's Viceroy complaining incessantly of being abandoned. As a reward for his wise decision, the Britannian settlers were allowed to remain in their settlements, under the watchful gaze of EU peacekeepers, until arrangements could be made for their 'repatriation'. They were the lucky ones. The survivors of wrecked settlements, if places could not be found for them in surviving settlements, were being herded into hastily-constructed concentration camps, there to wait out the war.
Magnus was not sure how he felt about it. He felt some things, many things in fact, to which he could not put words. Mostly it was a strange feeling of energy, of agitation. It was a strange tightness in his muscles, the urge to clench his fists. It was…
The door chime disturbed his thoughts.
"Enter." The door slid open, and Magnus turned to see who it was. His chest tightened, a reaction that surprised him, as Akiko Kobayashi stepped through the doorway.
"Excuse me, General." Akiko inclined her head in the Japanese fashion. "Chairwoman Eckart asked me to bring you to the CIC. We are approaching the area in which the Order base is believed to be located."
"I see. Very well." Magnus laid down the documents and stood up. Akiko stood aside as he stepped through the doorway, then fell into step at his shoulder. They walked in silence for what felt like an age. Magnus felt something in his chest, a feeling like nausea, yet he knew neither his digestion nor motion sickness could be to blame. The feeling got even worse as they stepped into the elevator.
"Do you normally serve as a courier, Doctor Kobayashi?" The question was terse, but he needed a distraction.
"No, General," Akiko replied. "I was passing by when Chairwoman Eckart requested I bring you." Neither could look the other in the eyes. Magnus had not felt so uncomfortable in many years, not even during that soiree in Ruritania. At least back then he could still use Quiescence.
"I trust that all has been prepared?"
"Doctor Gunner is making the final preparations now." The Adler was not as a rule equipped with laboratories. The facilities had been added back in Aquitaine, specifically for the Adler's current mission.
Mercifully the door slid open. Magnus acknowledged Akiko with a nod before stepping out into the corridor leading to the Combat Information Centre, which was located just behind the Bridge. The chamber was well-lit, the illumination augmented by the glow of the duty stations. Captain Helen Butler was waiting by the map table, located in the centre of the chamber, along with Major Freidrich Reinhart, newly-promoted Colonel Ichijo Morisato, and Chairwoman Dietlinde Eckart.
Magnus felt a surge of irritation when he saw Squadron Commander Julien Dantes with them. The addition of Inferno Squadron to his command had piled infuriation upon annoyance, not for any fault on the squadron's part, but because he would have to endure the company of its commander. Dantes was perfectly capable, the only knightmare double-ace in the entire EU, but all the man's pleasure seemed to lie in annoying him. It had been he who had roped him not only into attending the ball at Strelsau, but in dancing with Akiko, though Lukas had been equally guilty in that latter regard.
As he returned the salutes, Magnus hoped that Dantes would know his place. Ordinarily Dantes would only have been a Captain, except that he led a EUROFORCE independent knightmare squadron, and as such received the title of Squadron Commander to reflect his status and role. That would almost certainly cause rancour among the legion personnel, but the fact that Morisato considerably outranked him would with any luck be enough to keep things calm.
"Nothing thus far, General," replied Captain Butler. "Recon units report no sightings of any kind." Magnus nodded in acknowledgement, concealing his mild disappointment. He was hoping he had not been pulled off the battle line for a wild goose chase.
"Not a squeak sir." The Adler's Captain, a woman a few years his senior, gave a cynical tut. "This is quite literally a desert."
"A desert over which we are spending time and money flying rather low." Magnus could not resist glancing at Eckart and Reinhart. This was Eckart's mission, strictly speaking, and Reinhart was EUROFORCE's liaison officer to the Furiae, who had a personal interest in the destruction of the so-called Geass Order.
And that was another problem. Neither the Adler's crew nor the Legion personnel were enjoying the presence of the black-armoured killers in their midst. They rarely saw them, for the Furies kept to themselves for the most part. All the same, their reputation preceded them.
"Don't try to blame our altitude on me Magnus," Dietlinde Eckart called back, apparently amused. "It was our good Captain Butler who insisted."
"I judged it necessary, General." Butler sounded exasperated at having to explain herself. "We will be harder to detect this way, whether from ground level or the air."
"I am not questioning your judgement Captain Butler," Magnus replied levelly, having no desire to undermine her authority. "It is this entire mission that I am questioning."
"I've already given you all the explanation I can, Magnus." The Chairwoman was one of very few people who had never seemed unsettled or intimidated by him. "Our best information leads us to this region. We can't narrow it down any more than that."
"Recon B2 reports floatship contact!" barked one of the comm-techs. "Quadrant delta five! Speed sixty k!"
"Show me!" Magnus stormed over to the map table. The image flashed into being, drifting slowly across the map. There was a small Recon icon too, coloured green for friendly, representing the two Gamelon jetbikes.
"Can they identify?"
"Recon claims Ikaruga. Requesting datalink."
"Negative." He could not risk a datalink. It might be detected. "Tell them to maintain contact until further orders."
Magnus returned his attention to the map table as Dantes, Morisato, Reinhart, Butler, and Eckart joined him. As he ran his colourless eyes over the holographic terrain laid out in front of him, his mind raced in anticipation. Could that be it? Was it the clue that would reveal the enemy?
The icon on display was a standard 'floatship' icon, and would remain so until its identity was confirmed. It was maintaining course and speed, suggesting that it had not spotted the recon unit. That, and the fact that it was flying low, also suggested that its destination was somewhere nearby.
He was willing to believe that it was indeed the Ikaruga. The configuration and colour scheme were highly distinctive, and he trusted his men not to make a mistake. Zero had almost certainly come in person, and Magnus could think of only one reason.
"It would appear we have our quarry," Dantes mused. "And he's leading us right to them. Your hypothesis was correct, Chairwoman Eckart."
"But we still don't have a precise location," Dietlinde replied, looking up at Magnus. "We can't let them beat us to it." Magnus continued to scan the map, looking for something…anything.
His attention fell on a clump of rock sitting by itself among the sand dunes, right in the path of the floatship. His eyes narrowed. Could they be that obvious?
"Telemetry! Maximum magnification! Quadrant gamma four!" he barked. An instant later a new image materialized over the map, showing the rock from above. China did not have the money to squander on expanding their Space Blinder network over empty desert. Magnus stared at the image, noting what looked like…
"That's it. The Order is there."
"You're certain, General?" Butler looked questioningly at him.
"That is the place," Magnus replied, "unless the indigenous people have a penchant for lining their front paths with columns."
"My word," Dantes eyed the image with amused surprise. "You'd think they'd know better. Or perhaps superhuman powers come at the expense of common sense."
"How long until they get there?" Magnus asked, turning his gaze on Butler.
"At current speed, two hours."
"How long do you need to deploy the brigade?"
"An hour, so long as nothing breaks down."
"The Legion is ready, General," Morisato cut in. "We can deploy at your order."
Magnus paused a moment, thinking it through.
He had only overseen it once, but once had been enough to show him that deploying the entire brigade in a hurry was no simple matter. The jetbikes, knightmares, and gunships could deploy on their own, but the two infantry battalions were another matter. With just over five hundred men and women each, they needed over a hundred IFVs and APCs to carry them into battle. To unload them in the space of one hour was theoretically possible, so long as the two ventral elevators didn't break down.
Once on the ground, the two battalions would be able to manage a speed of about seventy kilometres per hour. That meant that if he was to beat the Ikaruga to the Order base, he would have to deploy within that distance from the rock. The Ikaruga's medium railguns were reckoned by Intel to have an indirect-fire range of about two hundred kilometres, the same as the Adler's coilguns. If he tried to deploy within that distance, he would be an easy target if Zero decided to play rough. If he deployed now, one-hundred and sixty-two kilometres from the rock, then the battalions would arrive over an hour after Zero had begun his attack. It could all be over by then.
"Deploying the brigade fully is not viable," he said. "We dare not land while that floatship is active. We will deploy the Furies via jetbike, then deploy knightmares and infantry on arrival if they are needed." He looked up at Reinhart. "I trust the Furies can handle it."
"Depend on it, General." Reinhart gave Magnus a particularly unsettling smile.
"It's probably just as well," Dantes drawled. "I'd prefer a straight fight to mindless butchery. You think the floatship will be hostile, General?"
"If that's Zero," Magnus replied, suppressing his irritation at Dantes' manner, "he's either in league with the Order or out for their blood himself. That makes him our enemy in the first instance, and a hindrance in the second."
"General, if I may speak," Morisato interjected. "Might we not contact him and seek his cooperation?"
"Unacceptable," Dietlinde Eckart answered tersely. "We cannot allow the Order's secrets to fall into his hands."
"In other words," Dantes' eyes sparkled maliciously. "EUROSEC wants him destroyed."
"General," Morisato turned to Magnus again. "The EU has called him friend, and he is Zero."
"Are you saying," Dantes rounded on him with a malign smile, "that the Legion will not fight him?"
"I say nothing of the kind, Squadron Commander," Morisato retorted, forcing himself not to grimace in irritation. "If commanded to fight the Black Knights, the Legion will do so." He was going to say with enthusiasm, but stopped himself. The attitude of the Japanese Legion towards the Black Knights was complicated at the best of times, leaning towards hostility over Zero's mistreatment of their one-time leader. But Ichijo Morisato knew them well enough to know that, deep down, they would be conflicted over having to fire on fellow Japanese.
"Enough," Magnus ended the argument with a word. "We will maintain radio silence until the enemy is in visual range or is confirmed to have seen us. Captain, best possible speed to the target."
The ground erupted in a shower of sand and rock fragments as the Ikaruga let loose another barrage.
The floatship hovered in mid air, a few hundred metres from the rock outcropping that marked the entrance. The ventral heavy railgun hummed and crackled as the twin magnetic rails that gave it its name charged. In a momentary flash of plasma the railgun fired again, sending a metre-long tungsten-carbide dart into the ground with enough force to blast a large warship in half. Another shower of sand, this one billowing higher and thicker than before as the ground finally gave way.
The Order hideout was open.
As the sand began to settle, the Black Knights moved. Their knightmares, teal Akatsukis fresh from the factories, swarmed from the Ikaruga's catapult deck, dropping down like vengeful angels out of the sun. Lelouch was among them, descending with them in his black and gold Shinkiro. He looked in amazement at the underground city, which the Order seemed to have hewn from the very rock itself. The old geological report Diethard had found had told of natural underground caverns in that area, and Jeremiah and Rolo had told him even more, but none of it had prepared him for what he was seeing. There was a dark, forbidding magnificence to the place, bathed in a purple radiance emanating from the centre.
A Thought Elevator. It made a worrying amount of sense.
The Order's betrayers, his brave defectors, descended alongside him. Rolo was at his right hand, aboard his golden Vincent. Jeremiah was at his left, piloting a Sutherland left over from the occupation. It had been hastily retrofitted for his use, with a Gekka's float unit on its back and a heavy coilgun in place of its right arm. It had been resprayed too, in Britannian military blue with red on the shoulders and the Factsphere, his old colours. Arranged around the three were the Akatsukis of Zero Squadron, led by Kallen in her red Guren Kashoshiki. To his right, Lelouch could see Third Squadron moving to secure the main entrance, wrist autocannons blazing at targets too far away to see. Below him he could see the devastation wrought by the bombardment, dust settling to reveal heavy boulders and jagged lumps of rock dislodged from the cavern ceiling. Many of the oblong buildings had been crushed, and no doubt many had been killed.
"Third Squadron to Zero," came the no-nonsense voice over the comm. "We've secured the main entrance. "Shall we continue?"
"Affirmative," Lelouch replied, flying his Shinkiro down to land in the wide concourse in front of the tunnel leading up to the entrance. "Zero to Ikaruga. Entrance is secure, begin secondary deployments."
"Yes Zero." Third Squadron moved off, walking or flying between the buildings. Fifth and Sixth Squadrons flew out over the city, while Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Squadrons came rolling out of the entrance tunnel, Commando A, B, and C companies jogging behind them.
"Remember," Jeremiah interjected over the comm. "Enemy defences include small arms, automated sentry turrets, and armed labour frames, so be alert."
"Do your own damn job, damn Britannian!" someone snapped back.
"All units!" Lelouch interjected, before the altercation could grow. "I'm transmitting your sector assignments now! Kill any who resist, and secure non-combatants for interrogation! Prisoners are to be rendered unconscious and secured for collection! Personnel on foot are upon no account to remove their helmets outside a secured zone! If you see any of your comrades acting strangely, report it immediately!"
Lelouch switched off the comm, and willed his heart to still. The burning rage of the previous day was past, replaced with a cold fury that seemed to permeate every fibre of his being. It was a feeling he knew well, a feeling that had driven him on through a cold, empty life. It had given him purpose, and kept him alive.
The Order was responsible for everything. Their meddling had brought the world to ruin. Their mad dreams had drowned the world in blood, and would do ten times worse in their fulfilment. They had corrupted innocence, abused trust, perpetuated lies.
They had exposed his secret to those he least wanted to know it. Because of them, his dearest friends knew he was Zero, and what they had once shared was tainted beyond recovery.
"Shirley, Rivalz, Milly, Nina…"
He looked down at his tactical screen, searching for something, anything, to get his mind off his sorrows. He saw that Fifth and Sixth squadrons were no longer moving.
"Fifth squadron. Status report."
"Fifth squadron reporting." Lelouch recognized the voice of Lee Jin-Tae, a volunteer from Joseon. "Resistance is minimal, small arms only. This won't take long."
"Very good. Sixth squadron, status report."
"Kinoshita here! Resistance by enemy on foot!"
"What's their status?"
"Small arms only. Zero, they're fighting like maniacs!"
"Zero! What the hell's up with these guys!" It was Tamaki, who had latched onto Commando B company. "They're coming at us like they're on drugs or something!" He trailed off, his voice obscured by gunfire. Mystified, Lelouch looked down at his screen again. His units had surrounded the central tower, as he had intended, and were slowly closing in. But they were not making the kind of rapid progress they had a few moments ago. He had known the element of surprise would not last forever, but people on foot with small arms shouldn't have been able to delay his forces, at least not by much.
"What are they doing? Are they herding their own people into the meat grinder? Why? Is it to hold us off? What are they planning?"
Rolo scanned his eyes over the underground city.
He wasn't quite sure how he felt about the place. It had been his home for several years, when he was being trained in the use of his Geass, before he was handed over to the OSI. He had played in those streets, in the light of elegant streetlamps, with the other children of the Order. Some had received Geass of their own, and those whose Geass were suitable had also been trained as agents.
There would be children down there. Innocent, trusting, knowing little of the world outside, existing primarily to have Geass bestowed upon them, so that the effects and capabilities could be tested and noted. All so that the Order might some day understand the true nature of Geass, and of those who bestowed it.
They were lab rats, with the power to overturn the world.
Rolo knew it. He knew it better than most, for he had been there. He had seen the sorts of powers that the Code-bearers could bestow. Powers to ensnare the mind, befuddle the senses, warp the soul. Powers to make, and to unmake. Powers to influence, to control, to enslave.
For the sake of all humanity, they would have to die.
He glanced down to his right arm, to the length of white silk tied halfway between elbow and shoulder, its colour bright against the blue of his g-force suit. It had been tied there that morning by Kaguya, followed by a kiss on his cheek, just as he was leaving. He had been touched by the gesture, so much so that he cared nothing for the glances and the mutterings it elicited from his fellow Black Knights.
Rolo felt his heart clench. He knew what Kaguya meant by the gesture, what she wanted him to do, what she hoped he would be. She did not want him to do what Zero might require him to do.
It hadn't come to that. Not yet.
A shockwave buffeted his Vincent, drawing his attention to the central tower. It was wreathed in smoke as something emerged from it.
Rolo felt cold in his stomach. He knew that shape; vaguely spherical, with five long vanes radiating out like the points of a star. Lights glowed through the smoke, like so many malign eyes.
"Siegfried!" CC beat him to it.
"Jeremiah!" Lelouch called over the comm. "Isn't that unit…?"
"Yes," the defector replied. Even over the comm Rolo could sense his anger. "The only other person who can use it is…"
He was cut off as the Siegfried launched one of its long Slash Harkens, each as big as a knightmare, straight at the Shinkiro. The black and gold knightmare could not dodge in time, but managed to catch the deadly point with a cluster of glowing shield force of the impact was nonetheless enough to hurl the Shinkiro backwards. The Shinkiro flew back, up through the hole and out into the open air, the Siegfried boiling after it.
"You surprise me VV!" Lelouch challenged his tormentor. "The observer becomes the perpetrator!"
"You know, I sort of liked you Lelouch." The voice was that of a young boy, its tone languid and casual. "Because you reminded me of Charles."
At that moment, everything changed.
All over the floor of the cavern, metal cylinders rose from the ground. As surprised Black Knights turned to glance at them, the cylinders split open, short black tubes extending out. The turrets opened up, filling the cavern with a murderous crossfire. Unsuspecting infantry were mown down, the survivors scurrying for whatever cover they could find. The small-calibre rounds pattered over the knightmares like falling rain, catching them in joints or Factspheres.
But the knightmares managed to respond. Those who could returned fire, blowing apart any turret they could see. Little by little the deadly crossfire was reduced, and the beleaguered commandos and support personnel were able to find effective cover. The brief fightback was over in just over a minute.
Or so it seemed.
Knightmares swarmed out of the inner buildings. Lean humanoid shapes, slick black skin covered by white armour, clutching Assault Rifles and glowing Maser Vibration Swords, tiny eyes glaring from under broad, black brows, emblazoned with a symbol that looked like a bird with spread wings. They came on, firing in short bursts like seasoned veterans, each burst striking home. The Akatsukis returned fire, but most of their shots bounced off the gleaming white armour. Then the newcomers were upon them, the Black Knights dodging and leaping as the melee commenced.
Kallen watched in horror. She could see it all on her tactical screen; the enemy icons swarming like so many angry bees around the friendly icons. Her heart clenched at every friendly icon that turned to LOST.
She was Captain of Zero Squadron, held in reserve for such an eventuality. She had to intervene. But Zero was in trouble, menaced by a Knight Giga-Fortress of all things. Zero Squadron was supposed to be his bodyguard unit, tasked with his protection.
Should she go to him? Or to her beleaguered fellows? Where might she be of more use?
"Captain!" It was Suzuhara, of her squadron. "Don't worry about us! Help Zero!"
She was alive.
Cornelia pushed herself up, wreckage falling away as she struggled free. She gulped down a breath, the cold air soothing her burning lungs.
She had thought she would die. She had thought she would die in there, alone, trapped in the darkness. Buried alive.
Like the men at Santiago…
She pushed the thought aside. No time for that now. She glanced around, trying to figure out what was going on. She could hear gunfire, and the whoosh of knightmares in flight. There was obviously a battle going on, but who was attacking?
She looked around again, looking for something she could use. The ceiling of the cell block had collapsed in, leaving a large hole through which she could see the city outside, but the door leading in was still visible.
In that instant, a teal knightmare soared overhead. Cornelia stared after it, noting the colour scheme and configuration, that vaguely avian look.
Her heart sank. She had hoped for a moment that it might have been Guilford and the Glaston Knights come to rescue her. No such luck. It was the Black Knights.
The flicker of despair vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. She had no time to mope around feeling sorry for herself, not if she intended to get out of there alive.
Cornelia headed for the door, stepping over the wreckage with practised ease. She paused upon reaching it, pressing herself to the wall and reaching a cautious hand to the control. The building was far better constructed than she had expected, for the door slid open at the touch of a button. She paused, straining her ears for anyone sound in the corridor beyond.
She crept along the corridor, nerves tingling in readiness. Not wanting to risk the elevator, she chose the stairwell instead, heading down into the lower levels. If there was anything left in the building, anything useful, it would be down there. She continued down the stairwell, and before long reached the bottom.
The door opened in front of her. Cornelia felt her heart skip a beat as she stared into those eyes. The eyes stared back, frozen in bewilderment.
The man moved first, bringing up his assault rifle. But Cornelia was faster, batting the rifle aside with one hand and driving the other into his throat. She grabbed the rifle as the force of the blow flung him backwards, hitting the opposite wall with a crash. In an instant the rifle was in her hands, aimed at the hapless enemy's torso. His hand dropped to his belt, to the holstered handgun. Cornelia fired.
The blood ceased pounding in her ears. She could hear them yelling and clanking, behind the door at the end of the corridor. She stepped over the body, pausing only to relieve the deceased of his handgun and stuff it in her belt.
The door slid open, another man in the Order's uniform peering out with rifle at the ready. Cornelia fired, her burst catching him before he could react. The man fell in a spray of blood, slumping forward into the doorway. Someone shouted something inside the chamber. The door began to slide shut, only to hit the body and slide back again.
Cornelia moved, darting forward and through the open door. Her racing mind registered another rifle aiming her way. A quick burst, then another, and another.
Cornelia paid the bodies little mind. They all wore the white uniforms of the Geass Order, though now stained red with blood. She felt nothing for their deaths.
What drew her attention was the knightmare frame standing in the centre of the chamber. The dead men and women must have been trying to get it operational.
Cornelia took a moment to marvel at it. A sleek, rounded humanoid shape, its armour the colour of polished marble. The endoskeleton was largely invisible, covered by a skin-like layer of glossy black under the white armour. It had a curiously organic look to it, as if it were a giant in armour rather than a war machine.
But what was it doing there?
Lelouch hissed, part in fear, part in frustration, as the Siegfried came at him again. He yanked on the joysticks, his Shinkiro flashing sideways. The larger machine flashed past, its slipstream buffeting him. He gritted his teeth, drawing hard and steady on the joysticks. He stabilized.
The Siegfried came about, vernier thrusters firing in rapid bursts, main engines flashing blue-white. Lelouch could make out the deep trenches cut in the orange-golden armour, down which the lance-like Slash Harkens might traverse. He calculated their firing arcs in his head, thinking back to the Battle of Tokyo, when he had seen it for the first time.
It was not a pleasant memory. Whatever they had done to it in rebuilding, the Siegfried was at least as powerful as it had been back then.
"I don't believe it," CC protested, floating nearby in her pink Akatsuki. "He's using the Siegfried here?"
"Get out of here!" Lelouch yelled, dodging another pass from the Siegfried. You're the one he's after!" Lelouch turned and ran, the Siegfried boiling after him. If he could get it far enough away from the others, he reckoned he might be able to dodge it well enough for the Ikaruga to fire.
But the Siegfried halted suddenly, as bullets spattered over its shields.
"Oh?" The Siegfried turned to face Jeremiah's Sutherland. The blue knightmare hovered, emptying its Assault Rifle into the giga-fortress, to no apparent effect. At the same time, Rolo's Vincent ascended to join Lelouch, followed closely by Kallen's Guren.
"Hold it right there VV!" Jeremiah barked.
"Please!" Rolo pleaded. "Just surrender!"
"Who do you think you're talking to?" The child's voice was languid, almost amused. "You're nothing but a bunch of traitors aren't you. Traitors to the Order, traitors to the Messiah, and to our one true God."
"VV!" Lelouch barked. "Your vile plot ends here! Attack!"
"Yes your Majesty!" Jeremiah levelled his coilgun and fired. They all did likewise, bullets and Shinkiro's Hadron blasts pummelling the giga-fortress' shields. VV let out a laugh, and the Siegfried began to spin like a top. Kallen and Rolo broke left and right as the spinning Siegfried came at them, cutting through the air like a shuriken.
"That spinning shield…"
Lelouch gritted his teeth in frustration. He knew only too well how difficult it was to penetrate a shield. The only ways were to apply so much force that the shield was overwhelmed, or else keep pounding at it until the projector overheated. That was what made the Siegfried's spinning defence so potent, for it minimized the amount of force he could apply to any particular shield.
But he also knew that the giga-fortress could not keep that particular move up forever. Sure enough, the Siegfried halted above them.
"That machine was made so that I could prove my loyalty!" Jeremiah roared.
"Jeremiah, I thought you had a personal grudge against Zero."
"I did, because I thought he was a mere commoner preventing me from serving the Imperial family!" Lelouch could hear the vehemence in Jeremiah's tone, and in spite of everything it still mildly surprised him.
"But know I know who he is!" Jeremiah went on, his voice rising in exultation. "By serving him, I am serving my lady Marianne!"
Something changed. Though it was only a machine, Lelouch could nonetheless feel something, something in the Siegfried's demeanour.
VV was angry.
"Even you…" His voice was no longer languid, but low and cold. No longer the voice of the child's body, but of the immortal man inside it.
"You dare speak her name to me!" The Siegfried turned on Jeremiah, lashing out with its green lances. The Sutherland dodged, dodged again, the deadly lances whistling past.
"What was she to you!" Lelouch demanded. "What have you against my mother!"
"Your mother!" VV roared. "The black temptress who gave birth to the black rebel! Lelouch the Deceiver!"
Ordinarily such words would have infuriated him. But Lelouch was already too angry for them to have much effect.
"The Deceiver!" he snapped back. "Am I part of your Unholy Trinity? Your false theology!"
"False?" VV turned his lances on Lelouch, forcing him to dodge and dive. "Do you deny that you are a deceiver? Do you deny that you've deceived every person you've ever known? Is there really one person you've never kept anything from!"
"I had no choice!"
"Of course you didn't! That's what made you perfect for the role!"
Lelouch willed his rage to calm, though it blazed sun-hot within him. He gripped the joysticks tightly, trying to think of something. All he had for the moment was combining his Hadron cannon with Kallen's Radiant Wave Surger, but VV was unlikely to be so courteous as to hold still for them.
"Rolo! I need you to keep him occupied! Keep all his attention on you for as long as you can!"
"I'll do my best!" Rolo dived his Vincent straight at the Siegfried, sword-staff at the ready.
"So now it's Rolo's turn." VV's languor had returned. "Even though you know your powers won't work on me."
"I won't let you hurt Lelouch any longer!" Rolo snarled, slashing at one of the lances with his sword-staff. The glowing blade sliced away the tip. "I won't let you hurt the people he loves any longer!"
"You could have been an angel, Rolo." VV sounded wistful, almost regretful. "You may be a flawed instrument, but you still could have been an angel. The Messiah would have forgiven you, if you had only kept the faith."
"Blasphemer!" Jeremiah roared.
"Have you heard yourself!" Kallen spluttered, dodging another lance. "You actually believe your own propaganda!"
"Propaganda?" VV chuckled. Lelouch found himself marvelling at the immortal's arrogance, that he felt able to hold a conversation while fighting a battle. "How little you understand."
"Why Faramond!" Lelouch demanded. "Why him!"
"Do you suppose Messiahs grow on trees?" VV brought his giga-fortress up and about, beginning an attack run at Lelouch. "Why run risks, when we could just make one? All we needed was the right raw materials, and the right conditions." He charged at the Shinkiro, forcing it to dodge.
"So that's why," Lelouch growled. Black bile flooded through him. "That's why he let it happen. That's why he let it go on for all those years."
"Spare the rod and spoil the child," VV chuckled. "We couldn't have him turning out spoilt and wilful like you, now could we?"
"Lelouch! This guy's starting to piss me off!" Kallen groused.
"You're not the only one," Lelouch growled back.
"Dammit! Keep still!" But the Siegfried kept on moving.
"You dare harm a Prince of the blood!" Jeremiah bellowed, firing like a madman. "Blasphemer! Liar and deceiver!"
"Oh shut up Jeremiah!" Two lances caught the Sutherland, smashing it from the sky. The wreckage tumbled down, the cockpit blasting away to safety.
Rolo saw his chance. The Vincent dived in again, this time approaching head-on.
"If I can just grab onto it!"
"You're a failed experiment, don't you know that?" The immortal's voice was sneering, mocking. "Your heart stops every time you use your geass. That means you're defective. You could conk out at any moment."
The words cut into Rolo's heart, clouding his mind for a fraction of an instant. Two Slash Harkens leapt from the Siegfried's face, curling and lashing around the Vincent's legs. The legs came away in a shower of sparks.
"Rolo!" Lelouch exclaimed, horrified.
"Not enough!" Rolo hissed, as his maimed Vincent dived in, crashing into the Siegfried's face. "I made it!"
But VV was ready for him. Siegfried's face changed, two modules extending out to either side, as if it were puffing its cheeks. Lightning crackled between them, tormenting the crippled Vincent. Rolo screamed.
"Kallen!" Lelouch yelled. "Now! It's his only chance!"
"Right!" Kallen thrust her heavy gauntlet forward, red and black radiation crackling around it. Shinkiro's chest split open, revealing the Zero Beam.
They fired in unison. His, a needle beam of pink radiance. Hers, a column of black and red malevolence. The Siegfried lurched as they struck, the blow shaking the damaged Vincent loose. The Vincent fell, and Lelouch feared that he might be too badly hurt to regain control. Then the wings glowed, and the Vincent righted itself, dropping lightly onto the sand.
The Siegfried shuddered, engines flaring bright. It seemed to be fighting back against the beams, as if too proud to back away. The shield glowed bright, so bright that neither Lelouch nor Kallen could see the giga-fortress underneath.
The charge ran out. The beams faded away.
The Siegfried floated there, intact.
Kallen bellowed something rather rude, and Lelouch snarled in frustration. What would it take to defeat that thing?
And then he saw something. He saw the air around the Siegfried shimmering. Shimmering, as it did on the desert sands below.
"You've got a lot of firepower between you," VV commented. "So you'll forgive me if I put an end to this." The Siegfried rotated to face them. Lelouch checked his power gauge, and his heart sank. His Energy Filler, which would otherwise have lasted him many hours, was down to almost nothing.
His one shot had failed. It had bought him an opening, but he had nothing to exploit it with. He reached for the comm keyboard. He would order the Ikaruga to open fire regardless of the risk.
His hand did not reach the comm keyboard.
Lelouch stared as the Siegfried lurched, explosions blossoming from its underside. Had someone else come to help?
A white shape leapt from the hole, heading straight for the Siegfried. Lelouch saw it drive its blade into the Siegfried's underside, then drop away in a flurry of explosions. It dropped to the ground, and Lelouch could see it clearly.
"Ikaruga! Target and fire!"
The dorsal railguns fired, their shots turning the air to plasma. One whistled past the Siegfried, the slipstream knocking it down to be clipped by the other. The tungsten-carbide dart passed straight through, the hull warping and distorting around it.
The Siegfried fell, tumbling wreathed in smoke. It struck the rock outcropping, vanishing in a cloud of dust as the outcropping collapsed inward. Lelouch felt his pounding heart slow, even as he turned his attention to the white knightmare.
Which was aiming a fire-support coilgun straight at him.
Lelouch froze, his mind a sudden blank. A bright flash brought him to his senses, and he slammed the pedals down. The Shinkiro ascended, the shot cutting through the air underneath. His console beeped insistently, the power gauge flashing red.
Then Rolo acted. The gold Vincent arose behind the white knightmare, borne up by its float unit. The white knightmare seemed to notice, and began to turn, only for a flash of pink light to burst from the Vincent, resolving itself momentarily into a translucent pink hemisphere, before it vanished.
The white knightmare froze as Rolo's geass took effect. The gold Vincent leapt forward, barrelling into the white knightmare and knocking it to the ground.
"Rolo!" Lelouch yelled. "Get away from there! Your heart…!"
"Just a little bit longer!" Rolo hissed, raising his MVS-staff over his knightmare's head. He drove the blade down, into the fallen knightmare's waist. The white knightmare twitched and struggled.
"Lelouch! I've got this one!" CC flew her pink Akatsuki down, drawing her Heat Katana. "Go and help the others!" She kicked away the coilgun, then drove her blade into the white knightmare's waist as Rolo had done. The knightmare twitched once more, then lay still. Lelouch stared down at them for a few moments, then resolved himself.
"Look after Rolo," he told her.
"Thank you." He switched channels. "Ikaruga, move in and secure the white knightmare. Rolo and Jeremiah may need medical attention."
"Yes Zero!" As the Ikaruga drifted into position, Lelouch flew his Shinkiro over to the hole, followed by Kallen.
As he descended, he saw that the battle was not going well. The Order's forces had driven back his Black Knights, penning them in a single quarter of the city, around the assembly point. The rock outcropping had completely collapsed, crushing a significant portion of the city. The Siegfried lay atop the wreckage, a blasted, blackened derelict.
The area of devastation led right up to the central tower, which apart from some holes was largely intact. One hole in particular drew his attention, the big one some way up the tower, from which the Siegfried had emerged only a few minutes earlier.
"Kallen," he said. "Go help the others."
"I should stay with you."
"This is for me alone, Kallen."
"Right." Lelouch watched the Guren head off. He could sense Kallen's reluctance, though he did not know whether it was purely professional or something else.
He flew the Shinkiro through the hole, landing it inside. As the ascension cable lowered him to the floor, he saw that he was in a vaulted chamber, the walls decorated with painted murals. The walls and ceilings were cracked in places, and chunks of masonry lay on the floor. Lelouch wandered along the wall to his left, regarding the images in disturbed fascination.
He had seen them before, or rather he had seen images very much like them. The mural closest to the wall, in which the Siegfried's exit had left a large hole, showed a radiant, angelic figure, looking like an idealized Faramond. He was reaching out a glowing hand to a rabble of kneeling, weeping figures, holding out their manacled wrists, the chains falling away. The next one had the same figure, but this time he was reaching out a hand to what looked like a cave, a boulder standing next to the entrance. In the mouth of the cave stood a young woman, bathed in radiance, a beatific smile upon her face. She looked vaguely like Euphemia. The next showed a figure he was sure was Suzaku, clad in gleaming armour and a white mantle, kneeling before another Messiah figure.
"Icons," Lelouch thought, feeling sick inside. They were indeed icons, devotional images for the new religion, to be painted on the walls of its temples to instruct and inspire the faithful.
But it was the mural on the opposite wall that really got Lelouch's attention. For one thing it was much bigger, spanning the whole length and height of the wall. Whereas the previous murals had been focussed and succinct, the opposite mural was unsparing in its detail and scope. It would not have looked out of place on the ceiling of a great cathedral.
The image was divided in two, in a classic Manichean dichotomy. The side of 'good' was on the right, with the Messiah figure in the lead, haloed in white light. Around him were angelic figures, clad in shining armour and bearing swords of fire. Behind them were some larger figures, looking suspiciously like the white knightmare from before. Lelouch's attention was drawn to the leader of the angels, who looked somewhat like Suzaku. That particular figure was engaged in fierce combat with its polar opposite, identical but all in black, his face and hair ghostly white, his sword a flaming brand of black and blue. The warrior demon led a company of his own, clad in similar armour but without wings, their faces covered by red-visored masks. A little way behind him were two more figures, each with their own hosts of darkness. One stood on high, robes of white and purple billowing around him, arms stretched out as if wreaking some dire magic. Bolts of lightning flashed from the heavens above him, striking at the land and tearing it asunder even as good and evil struggled. The third figure was between the other two, directing a flight of winged warrior-demons into the battle. His black cloak billowed in the wind, the light gleaming off his mirror-vizored mask.
Lelouch looked around the edges for a caption. It was embossed in stone along the bottom.
And he gathered them together, in the place of decision, all the hosts of light. There to battle the legions of darkness, of the Unholy Trinity, the Betrayer, the Deceiver, and the Destroyer, for seven days and seven nights. The earth was shattered and put asunder, and the people cast down unto ruin and desolation.
"So," Lelouch thought. "I'm the devil, am I? Or at least one of three." He threw back his head, and laughed.
When he could laugh no more, he turned his attention to the door. It was tall, and ornately carved, like something from his father's palace. One of the double doors was ajar, purple light streaming through the gap.
Purple light, of the same shade as that being given off by the Thought Elevator.
Lelouch steeled himself, pulled the handgun from its holster at his waist, then crept towards the door. He paused as he reached it, leaning gingerly back to push the door open, handgun at the ready. Willing his pounding heart to still, he nudged the door back and stepped inside, gun up to fire.
Beyond the door was a vaulted chamber, not unlike the one he had just left. The opposite wall was an elaborate frieze, decorated with a symbol he knew well, with a stepped dais in front of it.
There was someone lying on the dais. A small figure, with white-blond hair billowing down past its feet. Blood pooled on the stone beside it.
Slowly, cautiously, Lelouch approached the dais. He squatted down beside the prone figure, looking at it more closely. He saw it to be a young boy, maybe ten or twelve years old, clad in scorched robes that had once been white and purple. The boy was lying with his head on one side, his eyes flicking to meet Lelouch's gaze.
"You are VV?" It was only a guess, for he had never seen his immortal uncle before. "What happened?"
"Let him kill me…" VV croaked, his breath ragged. "But let him…" The breath rattled in his throat, and the light faded from his eyes.
For a moment Lelouch stared at the dead boy, wondering what could have happened. Then, as if drawn to it, he turned his eyes to the frieze. As his gaze fell upon the bird-wing symbol at the centre of the image, it began to glow. The luminescence spread along the carved grooves, light dancing about the image. The light seemed to reach for him. Lelouch tried to move, but even as he sensed the danger, the light was upon him.
And he was no longer in the vaulted chamber.
He was standing on a wide plinth, of what might have been marble. Before him was a series of ovoids, arranged as a set of stairs. They led up to what appeared to be a temple, its style broadly Greco-Roman, illuminated in the light of the setting sun. There were clouds all around him, as if the place was hovering in the air.
"What is this place?" he said aloud, looking around in bewilderment. "It's not an illusion, or a hologram."
"That is correct Lelouch!" Lelouch froze, for the voice was as familiar as the setting was bizarre.
Standing at the top of the steps was a tall, broad-shouldered man, clad in a black cloak. His hair was white, arranged in rolls, his imperious features wearing a smile of profound satisfaction.
Lelouch's heart stopped.
"Welcome Lelouch, my black bishop!" Charles zi Britannia boomed, his voice echoing through the void around them. "It's been a long time."
Shinichiro Tamaki was getting desperate.
Commando B company was hard-pressed. The Order members had been coming at them almost constantly for many minutes. They had come on like fanatics or madmen, screaming at the tops of their voices, firing their rifles on full-auto. They had not hit many of his fellows, and had been gunned down like wheat before a scythe, but their constant presence had been a problem. There had been little time to reload, let alone swig some water or take stock. There had been only a strange madness, the constant roar of assault rifles and shotguns, punctuated the screams of the dying.
The attacks had slackened, and Tamaki was beginning to believe that the battle might soon be over.
But then the white knightmares had come. They had not attacked the Black Knights infantry, which was a relief. They had focussed on the knightmares instead, their aggression and prowess making Tamaki grateful that he had chosen to fight on foot. He was not sure how long he would have lasted against such foes.
Except that the white knightmares were accompanied by infantry. They wore Britannian-style armour, but coloured in the same marble-white as the knightmares. They were considerably more skilled than their erstwhile colleagues, fighting like real soldiers rather than crazed fanatics.
Tamaki crouched with the soldiers of Company B, in a pile of wreckage that had once been a tall, elegant building. He poked his head up, glancing around for any sight of the enemy.
He could see them. A group of about six, creeping through the rubble towards them. They were carrying assault rifles.
That was a small mercy. It wasn't like in the old movies, where soldiers sometimes carried enormous machine guns that needed two or three men to operate them. Modern hand-held coilguns, with long ranges and high rates of fire made possible by electromagnetic barrels and caseless ammunition, had relegated them to being carried on vehicles.
Tamaki gestured at his fellows, hoping he was getting the hand signals right. The commandos readied themselves, suggesting that he had made himself understood. He looked again, and saw that they were in greater numbers. As the first six continued their approach, another six were approaching parallel to them, with yet another six bringing up the rear.
The commandos fired first, in a group from Tamaki's right. Two of the first six fell, the rest diving for cover. They returned fire, bullets tearing at the rubble from which the Black Knights had fired. Tamaki saw the commandos near him open fire on the white-armoured soldiers, and he shifted in his spot to do likewise. He felt the familiar weight on his shoulder as he fired, and the satisfaction as a white-armoured enemy fell.
But the second six were coming up, threatening the commandos on the left. Tamaki ducked as they fired, hearing the hiss and feeling the slipstream as their shots passed overhead. He rose again, preparing to fire, only to see one of the first six draw back his arm.
"Grenade!" he yelled, as the tiny shape sailed through the air. He heard it clatter in the debris to his right. He pulled the trigger, dropping the unsuspecting grenadier.
The grenade exploded, the sound a roar in Tamaki's ears, punctuated by the screams of the wounded. He felt the blast wave wash over him, and shook his head to regain equilibrium. No more fire came from the right.
Tamaki hissed in frustration, and more than a little fear. The third six were moving to the right, no longer menaced by Black Knights fire. Things were looking bad.
Then something happened.
One of the third six suddenly disappeared. Tamaki blinked, and looked around to see if someone else was firing. But he could see no one else.
Then another one vanished. And another. And another.
The Order soldiers seemed to have noticed, for they no longer fired at the Black Knights. Tamaki could see them looking around, searching for whatever it was that attacked them.
A burst of gunfire. Tamaki looked to see two Order soldiers firing frantically at…something racing over the rubble towards them. The black shape lashed out, catching one of the soldiers in the stomach, then batting it aside with a blow to the neck. As the other tried to back away, the black warrior leapt, knocking the soldier to the ground. For an instant it crouched there, and Tamaki could make out a human shape, clad in what looked like form-fitting black armour.
Then it was gone. Screams rent the air, and the gunfire grew more sparse with every passing moment. Tamaki looked around, confused and more than a little afraid, wondering what on earth had descended upon his enemies. Was this some miracle of Zero's? Or was this some other power?
He saw a lone enemy soldier scrambling away, and something inside him knew what would happen. Tamaki felt his body freeze as another black shape appeared behind the unfortunate soldier. An armoured forearm flashed around the soldier's neck, and his chest seemed to balloon outward. The soldier fell, and the black shape was gone.
Tamaki came to a decision.
"It's you!" Lelouch snarled, as his addled mind accepted what his eyes told it.
"It is I!" The Emperor's voice rose in exultation. "Charles the Britannian, he who shall redeem the world!"
Lelouch's mind was in motion. His father stood atop the steps, many tens of metres away. His own Geass was well within range, but he did not know the range of his father's. During their last encounter the range had been almost point-blank. Perhaps it was no more than that, or was his father waiting?
Waiting for what?
"You shall tell me the truth!" Lelouch bellowed. "You shall tell me what happened eight years ago! Why did mother die!"
"People are not equal."
"What!" The statement caught him off-guard, however characteristic it might be.
"You have a power no one else possesses," Charles went on. "Use it to ascertain the truth!"
"He wants me to use my Geass," Lelouch thought. "But if I look into his eyes, he will look into mine. He could rewrite my memory..."
"What's wrong?" the Emperor mocked. "Are you not my son? A Prince of Britannia?"
Lelouch acted. He brought up his hand, touching it to his eye. The contact lens came away, and with a thought he activated his Geass. His father had not moved.
"Lelouch vi Britannia commands you! Die!"
For a few moments his father did not move, nor did he speak. Lelouch began to wonder if the Geass had taken effect.
"Very well." Lelouch watched, heart pounding, as Charles drew a handgun from inside his blue jacket. He stared, half-disbelieving, as his father put the gun to his chest, and pulled the trigger. The shot rang in his ears as his father fell down.
On shaking legs, Lelouch ascended the steps. As he reached the top, he looked down at his father's prone form. Even then a part of him could not believe it. He could not be dead. That man could not be dead. Not that easily.
But even then his eyes were drawn to the Emperor's heart, where a black hole turned his blue jacket red.
"I killed him," he whispered. "It was so easy."
It seemed wrong somehow, perverse. That he should die so easily, so quickly, with so many questions unanswered and so many debts unpaid. And yet there he was, dead. As dead as any other man might be.
Lelouch had dreamed of that moment, of the day when he would avenge his mother, and all the others his father had hurt. He had never really believed that he would feel happy, or even satisfied. He was not so naïve as that.
But anything would have been better than how he felt in that moment. He felt only emptiness, a void where his father, his purpose had been. He had gotten what he wanted, what he had sacrificed everything to achieve.
"Are you satisfied?" he whispered bitterly. "Are you satisfied now?"
"No," his dead father replied, opening his eyes. "Not yet." Lelouch watched in mute horror as Charles stood up.
"You will not get rid of me that easily, my black bishop."
"You…!" Lelouch could barely think. It made no sense. How could he take such an injury and yet stand up as if nothing had happened?
"Nothing to say, Lelouch? Or do you now understand?" Lelouch gave a yell of rage and denial. He whipped up his handgun and opened fire, bullets ripping into his father's flesh, the wounds spurting blood. All to no effect.
"I am beyond the power of mortal weapons!" Charles swiped at him, knocking the gun from his hands. Lelouch stood there, shivering in terror as he gazed into those mad, exultant eyes. In that instant he was the ten-year-old boy he had been eight years earlier, defying his father only to be cast down.
And cast down he was, as Charles punched him in the stomach. He fell down the stairs, the breath knocked out of him, his body screaming in pain as he struck the plinth on which he had arrived.
"I have started on the final journey, by the power of this Code!" Charles pulled the white glove from his right hand and held it out, palm facing Lelouch. He saw the symbol emblazoned across it, the same symbol he had seen upon CC's breast.
"And now!" A column rose from the floor next to Charles, halting at just above waist height. "I will show you the true nature of this world!" Charles touched the top of the column, as if it were a control panel of some kind.
Lelouch felt himself falling, heard himself scream.
Kallen thrust the controls forward, driving her Guren's gauntlet into the white plastron. She squeezed the trigger, pumping deadly microwave radiation into the unfortunate knightmare. The Order knightmare bubbled and distorted under its white armour, then blew apart.
But there were more of them. Four more of the white-armoured knightmares, circling her with drawn swords. She was on the ground, surrounded, with her Energy Filler running low.
There was only one thing to do when surrounded.
Kallen pressed down the pedals. The Guren leapt forward, ploughing into the knightmare directly in front, knocking it to the ground. She pinned it with her gauntlet, forcing her wrist autocannon under its white plastron. She fired, the knightmare bucking and bouncing. She leapt back, soaring away as the white knightmare exploded, somersaulting over the enemy that had been behind her. It raced beneath her, starting to turn as she lined up her autocannon. She fired again, the bullets tearing into the float unit on its back. The float unit exploded, and the white knightmare crashed to the ground.
Two enemies remained. One of them fired its assault-rifle one-handed, bullets hissing past her as she dodged. She raised her autocannon to fire, but nothing happened. She glanced at her console, saw the warning light. Out of ammunition.
The fourth came at her from behind. The glowing blade sliced down, tearing through her float unit. Kallen gasped as it exploded, holding tight as her Guren fell. She managed to land on her feet, swiping with her gauntlet at the fourth enemy, making it pull out and fall back. The third fired on her again, warning lights flashing as bullets smashed Guren's right knee.
Kallen gave a yell of frustration as her knightmare fell to its knees. Her eyes flashed over the console and screens, looking for something she could use. Nothing. All she could see was the third knightmare striding towards her in front, and the icon on her scanner screen, representing the fourth, approaching her from behind.
She steeled herself. She would wait until the last possible moment, then rush them one last time. If it didn't work, at least she would go down fighting.
The icon vanished from her screen. Kallen snapped her head up, and saw something flash overhead, landing on the white knightmare in front. The knightmare thrashed, trying to shake off the attacker, but the black shape held on. It leapt away, and an instant later the white knightmare blew apart.
The black shape dropped to the ground in front of her, and Kallen could see it clearly. It was human, in what appeared to be form-fitting armour, glossy black like a beetle's carapace. It straightened up, and looked as though it was preparing to leave.
"Wait!" Kallen yelled over the loudspeaker. "Who are you! Why did you help me! Why did you help me before!"
She was certain of it. She was sure it was the same one that had helped her back in Brussels. This was one of the Furiae, the ones CC had told her about, the ones the Order feared. The living shadows.
The Fury half-turned, regarding her with its red visor. Kallen stared at it, wondering why it seemed familiar, trying to think where she had seen that stance before. Who was it who had looked at her like that?
Her heart stopped.
"Naoto?" The word was barely a whisper, so quiet the sound system probably didn't pick it up. The Fury turned away.
"NAOTO!" Kallen screamed, the name of her beloved, lost brother bursting from her as if her heart had exploded. "It's you, isn't it! Naoto!" The Fury paused, and Kallen wondered if she had gotten through to him.
Then the Fury broke into a run.
"No! Wait!" Kallen shrieked, tears streaming down her face as she yanked at the controls, trying to get her crippled knightmare to move. "Naoto!"
The Fury kept on running.
All was white around him, save for the masks. They were white too, but for the pattern in red that decorated them, featureless but for one eyehole. They were all around him, staring at him, as if accusing him.
The white faded, replaced by cogs. Countless cogs, interconnecting, rotating.
"Is this some sort of metaphor?" Lelouch thought, frantic. "Am I…inside his psyche?"
His father appeared before him, his coat still stained with blood.
"What is this place!" Lelouch demanded. "What is Geass!"
"You ask me that?" Charles mocked. He seemed to grow in Lelouch's perspective, coming closer and closer, only to disappear. "You who wear a false name, who lives a false life, demands the truth of me?"
"I demand it!" Lelouch roared back. "I demand the truth you kept from me! Why did you let my mother die!"
"Always you think of her," Charles' voice whispered from all around him. "Always she is in your thoughts. She and who else?"
"My sister Nunnally! Whose future you stole! Whom your negligence condemned to paralysis and darkness!"
"For whom you donned the mask?" Lelouch stare as one of the masks metamorphosed into an image of Zero. "Or was it for yourself!" The doppleganger's mask vanished, revealing his own mirror image, staring back at him.
"No!" Lelouch protested. "It's not like that!"
"For your own satisfaction," his doppleganger replied. "For your own vanity, though it cost you Euphie, Nunnally, and Suzaku."
"I had no choice!" Lelouch snapped back. "People lie to survive! No one is blameless!"
"You want others to know you for who you really are," his father's voice interjected. "Yet you show them only a mask."
"You are afraid they'll discover your true self," said the doppleganger, accusation in his eyes. "You are afraid that they will judge you, and find you wanting!"
"Your mask avails you nothing." His father materialized behind him. "For it is only a reflection of yourself. You are me, and I am you."
"No!" Lelouch roared, rounding on him. "Never! We're not the same!"
"Look within yourself, upon the face that your mask reflects," his father replied. "Look into that place where you dare not look. You will find me there, staring back at you." Lelouch's breath caught in his throat, his mind addled with terror and rage.
"You know this truth and hate it, as you know and hate yourself," Charles went on. "You crave absolution, yet you cling to your purpose."
"That's enough Charles." A familiar voice cut through Lelouch's terror. He looked to his right as two of the enormous cogs rolled aside, revealing CC.
"CC," Charles growled. "So you came."
"Yes, I did." CC looked straight at him, her face expressionless. "And now I'm going to leave. With Lelouch."
"Oh will you?" Charles met her gaze without flinching. "Though you know I have the other Code?"
"The Code you took from your own brother," CC replied. Her tone was without feeling, her gaze without animosity, yet she accused him with her countenance. "What did he do to deserve that?"
"What did he do?" Charles' eyes flashed with sudden anger. "Haven't you guessed by now?" He swept his arm, and the cogs disappeared.
The world resolved itself into an entrance hall, of the sort that might be found in a grand house. At the foot of the grand staircase stood two figures, one tall, one short. The short figure was swathed in a black cloak, while the other wore an orange gown.
CC glanced at Lelouch, from whose face the colour had drained.
"So then, Vincent," Marianne vi Britannia said conversationally. "What was so important that you needed to meet like this?"
"I'm sorry to do this," VV replied, turning to face her. "Especially without Charles around."
"Is this about Faramond?"
"No. It's about Charles. Ever since you met him he's been a different man. It seems you two have been enjoying your lives together."
Marianne's face, so much like her son's, suddenly shifted. The slight smile was replaced by a frown of suspicion.
"If this continues," VV went on, "the contract he and I made will never be fulfilled. And what will become of me then?" Marianne did not reply.
"Strange, is it not?" VV eyed her, with what might have been amusement. "In so many stories, the woman leads the man astray." Marianne's frown twisted into a grimace.
"What are you…!"
"Mother!" The voice of a little girl cut through the mood. The anger vanished from Marianne's face as she turned to see an over-excited six-year-old Nunnally race down the stairs towards her. Behind Marianne, VV vanished behind a ceiling column. Nunnally did not seem to have noticed him. An instant later two stewards came hurrying down the stairs, followed a few seconds later by an harassed-looking nine-year-old Lelouch.
"Nunnally!" the child-Lelouch called after his sister.
"Please forgive us, your Majesty!" one of the stewards pleaded, as they halted about halfway up the stairs. "We…"
"It's all right." Marianne's tone was motherly sweetness, as she scooped up her giggling daughter. "I take it you couldn't find Anya."
"No!" Nunnally proclaimed, smiling. "Not anywhere!"
"Well then," Marianne smiled, shifting her daughter to carry her more easily. "Let's all look for her together." She started up the stairs.
"No…" Lelouch whimpered, as the scene played out before him.
The guns chattered. The windows shattered. The bullets thudded into the stairs. Stewards and Empress fell.
The scene faded into darkness. Lelouch hung his head, shaking.
"Jealousy is a terrible thing," CC commented mildly. "Then again, he was always immature."
"My brother lied to me," Charles growled. "He lied to me, after everything that had gone between us, after everything we had seen, after all the promises we had made."
"Is that why you betrayed him?" Lelouch hissed. "That's why, isn't it!" He rounded on his father with fury in his eyes. "That's why you used me! That's why you let it all happen!" Charles did not reply. CC remained silent.
"Schneizel could have stopped me from liberating Japan, but you withheld the reinforcements," Lelouch snarled. "You knew that I would do everything I could to ruin his plans in Europe. So you sent Faramond to him, providing me with the perfect way to weaken his position. By letting me take Faramond, you provoked VV into moving against me, gambling that he would screw it up, and that I would figure out his plan and react accordingly. You made me the instrument of your revenge!"
"Yes I did!" Charles roared back. "Just as she," he jabbed an accusing finger at CC, "made you the instrument of her release!"
"What!" Lelouch looked at CC. "What does he mean!"
"He refers to our contract," CC replied, unperturbed. "The contract you made with me, to fulfil my wish. My wish is to die."
"To die!" Lelouch was incredulous. "How…how could you….?" He trailed off. CC regarded him for a moment, then turned to glance at Charles.
"You're still here?" she said, as if he were an uninvited guest. Charles looked momentarily surprised, then vanished. Lelouch gaped.
"Well what did you expect?" CC asked, deadpan. "Pyrotechnics? A long, drawn-out scream?"
"What happened to him?"
"I sent him out the way he came in," CC explained. "Were it not for the Code I could have destroyed him utterly, but this was the best I could do."
"What will he do now?"
"No doubt he'll use whatever he had planned for this eventuality." CC held out a hand. "I think it best that we go." Lelouch nodded, and took her hand.
And they were back in the chamber. The light had faded from the frieze. Gunfire still echoed in the distance.
"Zero!" came a voice in his earpiece. "Zero! Please respond!"
"This is Zero," Lelouch replied, touching the earpiece. "Report!"
"Zero!" It was Tamaki, and he sounded scared. "There's someone else in here! Someone, or something! It's attacking the enemy!"
"What are they? Knightmares?"
"No! It's like nothing I've ever seen before! It's like…like…"
"Living shadows?" Lelouch suggested, feeling cold in his stomach.
"Yeah, like that." Lelouch glanced at CC.
"Yes," she said, answering his unspoken question. "Them."
"All units!" Lelouch roared, dashing for the Shinkiro. "Fall back to the assembly point! Ikaruga, what's your status!"
"We've just started hauling up the Siegfried!" Rolo's voice replied. "Should we dump it?"
"No! It'll take just as long to detach the cables! Bring it up as fast as you can! Extract the foot personnel while you're at it!"
"Yes Zero!" As CC reached her Akatsuki, Lelouch grabbed the ascension cable, letting it haul him up to his Shinkiro's cockpit. He brought the systems online, even as the cockpit slid shit above him. He was in the air within a minute, his heart pounding as he glanced across his screens, taking in the situation.
The Order's counter-attack had slackened noticeably. Their forces were distracted, firing seemingly at random. His own forces were consolidating, drawing back away from the fighting as he had ordered. The Ikaruga was hovering over the hole, the remains of the Siegfried slowly ascending towards it, wrapped in heavy-lifting hawsers. He could see ascension cables too, carrying the wounded up on gurneys.
He felt a twinge of nervousness, as he realised he couldn't see the Guren anywhere. He looked down at his scanner, trying to find Kallen's icon.
He found it, some distance away from the Black Knights line, standing still. He keyed his comm.
"Kallen! Fall back!"
"I can't move!" Her voice was hoarse. "My float unit's wrecked and my battery's dead!"
"It's okay! I'm coming!" Lelouch manoeuvred the Shinkiro down, landing it behind the downed Guren. Gently, as if embracing her, he put his knightmare's arms around hers. Once satisfied of a good grip, Lelouch lifted off, bearing the Guren skyward and away.
It was over.
The sounds of gunfire no longer echoed through the vast chamber. The cacophony of battle had been replaced by other sounds. The sounds of machinery, and voices, as the work of securing the facility went underway.
Magnus stood at the edge of an open plaza, set aside for gathering the city's inhabitants. The dead lay in rows, zipped up in their body bags, ready to be shipped out. The living lay in front of him, set aside from the dead. They lay on their sides, unconscious but with hands cuffed behind their backs and ankles manacled. They were blindfolded too, their mouths blocked with tube gags to prevent them from choking. Even if they were awake, they could neither move, speak, nor see.
The Thule Society and EUROSEC were taking no chances.
Magnus strode along the line of trussed prisoners, regarding them with cold eyes. There were a large number of children among the prisoners, knocked out and bound like the rest. Magnus knew it was necessary, for many of the children possessed Geass powers of one sort or another.
Medical personnel moved here and there, checking the prisoners. Some wore the insignia of EUROFORCE medics, while others wore the dagger and wreath badge of the Thule Society. He spotted Akiko and Lukas, moving along the lines, examining each prisoner in turn. The same look was in both their eyes. A look of sadness.
Magnus had never known true empathy. But he had seen enough of life to understand the emotions of others. He saw their sadness, the same sadness he had seen in some of the other medical personnel. He understood how strongly other people tended to feel about children, especially their own. He knew the feelings children engendered in his soldiers, especially if the children had been hurt or killed. He remembered their anger and disgust, their sorrow and pity, in every burnt-out village, every ruined city.
At least the children in front of him were alive. They were better off than many of their fellows.
Or were they?
Dietlinde Eckart had insisted that the prisoners would not be harmed. They would be taken away to secure facilities, where they could be questioned and studied, where they would be safe. Magnus wanted to believe her, but a part of him did not. That part of him knew how EUROSEC would likely react, when they discovered just what they had gotten their hands on. They would want to know as much as possible, by whatever means were available. Would morality constrain them in the face of such knowledge? Would ethics turn them from such power?
Magnus was feeling something new, something no more welcome than any of the other new feelings. It was somewhat like nausea, except that it wasn't being caused by any of the usual causes. Various clichés came to mind, though none of them fitted exactly.
As he reached the end of the line, he saw two soldiers of the JL Brigade enter from the main street, lugging a body bag between them. He could hear them grumbling in their native tongue as they laid the body down, and Magnus did not blame them. Heaving dead bodies around was not a pleasant job for anyone, let alone brave soldiers.
The pair saw him wander over as they straightened up. They saluted.
"How goes it?" Magnus asked, saluting in return.
"Well sir," one of them replied. Magnus saw the barriers go up, but he was not offended. He might be their General, he might be Hakuoh, but he was still an officer.
"Did you see any live ones?"
"No sir. Those…those Furies got them all." Magnus noted the man's hesitation, and understood why. He understood, for he knew the strange chill that had come upon him suddenly. He turned, and saw one of them striding towards him.
The Fury was an impressive sight by anyone's standards. It was tall, clad in form-fitting black armour that gleamed in the light. Its movements were silent, made so by technology Magnus knew little about. Its mask had little in the way of features, save the shallow chevron visor, glowing a malign crimson.
Magnus did not blame his men for their fear. The Furiae were death on swift wings and silent tread. Terror was their true weapon, and they knew how to use it.
"And you are?"
"Morpheus, General." The voice bore the crackle of a comm filter, but it was still as cold as a neutron star. "I have come to report."
"You may speak, Morpheus." Magnus dismissed the two men with a nod, and they hurried away.
"The city is secure, General. My brethren have scoured the ruins and can find no one else. All live prisoners have been brought save one."
"Did you find anything?"
"Little, General. What databanks your subordinates found were all empty, the data erased. Several of the Order's knightmares have been secured, though they are all wrecks."
"Could you identify them?"
"They appear to be derivatives of Britannia's GX-01 Alpha prototype, stolen a year ago. We saw the prototype itself go into action against the Order, though it was subsequently captured by the Black Knights."
"Did you kill any Black Knights?"
"No General. We prioritized the Order personnel, and the Black Knights withdrew in the meantime."
"Very well." Magnus was actually quite relieved. He had been spared the risks inherent in ordering his men to fight the Black Knights. "You mentioned there was one other."
"Yes General. Some of the Order's leaders tried to escape via an underground maglev, taking the prisoner with them. Chairwoman Eckart asks that you come at once to view the prisoner. She seemed to think you would find it…amusing."
"Lead on." Morpheus turned and headed off, Magnus following behind. The Fury made no sound, save the thumps of his footfalls. They strode through the ruined city, past the heaped debris and cratered streets. Every so often they came upon more of his men heaving bodybags. At one point they passed one of the fallen knightmares, tech personnel preparing it to be moved to the Ikaruga.
Morpheus led him down a wide, ornate tunnel cut in tbe wall of the vast cavern. The walls were pock-marked with bullet holes, mementoes of the Order's last desperate defence, buying time for their leaders to escape.
Magnus felt the air pressure change as they stepped out into another cavern, this one considerably smaller than the main cavern. The mag-lev track was the main feature, running through the cavern to the exit tunnel. Magnus had seen such facilities many times. Underground mag-levs just like it connected the main facilities of the EU's EUROSHIELD defence network, allowing personnel and materiel to be moved swiftly and stealthily, untroubled by events above ground. He was more than a little curious as to where the mag-lev led.
The train itself sat in its appointed place, ready to be launched down the tunnel. Or rather it had been, before the Furies had descended upon it. The main doors had been blasted and wrenched open, and Magnus could smell blood as they approached.
Two more Furies stood a few metres from the entrance, in front of what appeared to be another trussed prisoner.
"Nemesis and Hypnos, General," Morpheus introduced his brethren, or rather his sister and brother, for Magnus saw that one of them was somewhat smaller and slimmer than the other, though not by much.
"What did you find here?" Magnus asked. He knew the Furies did not go in for small talk or niceties.
"The motherlode, Magnus!" He looked up to see Dietlinde Eckart standing in the train's much-abused doorway, beaming in triumph. "Twelve security strongboxes! All of them big enough to contain portable datacores! Just wait till we get them open!"
"And this?" Magnus gestured at the prisoner.
"Oh, her!" Eckart's smile widened. "See for yourself." Nemesis and Hypnos stood aside, and Magnus could see the prisoner clearly. It was a young woman, elegant curves visible under the Order's white uniform. She was blindfolded and gagged like the other prisoners, long pink hair spilling over the ground behind her.
Magnus was not a completely emotionless being. Though the Quiescence had denied him the full range of human feeling, it had left him one or two sensations. The most important of them had been his aesthetic, the one thing that made him more than a robot. For all his coldness and logic, he could understand beauty.
And that young girl was beautiful, by any number of standards.
A notion came upon him. He dared not remove the blindfold or gag, but there was one other way he could test it.
He knelt down beside her, and set about unbuttoning her jacket. The Furies watched, silent and impassive, as he opened the jacket and set about the blouse underneath.
"Don't enjoy yourself too much Magnus!" Eckart quipped as he opened the blouse, revealing a plain white brassiere containing a busom of some considerable size, her skin milky-white.
Magnus felt nothing. Zero's Geass had denied him Quiessence, but he could still use Libidinax, chemically neutralizing his libido the way the former had neutralized his emotions. And the breasts were not what he was looking for.
He curled a finger over the top of the bra, pulling it down. At the top of her valley, just below her collarbone, was a spot of red scar tissue, about the size of a large coin.
"Euphemia li Britannia," Magnus hissed. "What are you doing here?"
Lelouch slumped in his chair, mentally and physically exhausted.
They had gotten away. They had not fulfilled their entire mission, but they had made it away. Under the circumstances, it was the best he could have hoped for.
Losses had been considerable, though not as bad as Brussels. They had inflicted significant damage on the Geass Order, forcing them to reveal their secret weapons. They had even managed to secure the prototype of those weapons, along with what remained of the Siegfried. The technology alone made the mission worthwhile, to say nothing of the person they had found inside the prototype knightmare's cockpit.
But it was not a victory, not really. He could not convince the Black Knights that it was a victory, and he would not insult them by trying.
What mattered was that the Order was out of commission, permanently.
"Shouldn't you be somewhere?" Lelouch looked up, disturbed by the sudden question. CC was in her usual place, sprawled on the sofa with Cheese-kun in her arms, an open pizza box on the coffee table.
"What do you mean?"
"You saw how Kallen was," CC pointed out, eyeing him. "You could at least talk to her about it." Lelouch knew what she meant. He had seen the look in her eyes when they emerged from their knightmares on the Ikaruga's flight deck. But neither of them had said anything. Neither of them could think of anything to say.
"So," he groused. "What I am supposed to do about it?"
"You two were lovers, and you ask me that?" CC gave him a disapproving look. "You really don't know how to love a woman, Lelouch."
"And what would you know about love?"
"I know all about love." There was something strange in her eyes, something he had seen before. "I have known excess of it. I have been loved until it lost all meaning. Love is the story of how I got my Geass."
That got Lelouch's attention.
"I don't know exactly when I was born, or where" CC went on. "The first thing I remember for certain is wandering a sunken road, where I collapsed out of sheer hunger. A nun found me, or at least she claimed to be a nun, and nursed me back to health. She offered me a deal, that she would grant me a power I could use to survive, and that in return I would fulfil one wish of hers. Of course, I accepted."
"The Code-bearer," Lelouch breathed.
"Like all Geass, mine manifested in response to my deepest desire. My desire was that someone, anyone, would truly love me. That was all I wanted, but my power did not have such a limit. I could make anyone and everyone love me." She paused.
"I suppose it made me narcissistic," she went on wistfully. "But I enjoyed it too much to care. I was loved by princes and priests, by captains and cooks, by merchants and monks, by peasants and paupers. I was loved until I forgot what it was like not to be loved, until I no longer had anything to compare it to. Love without limit became love without meaning. The Sister was the only one I respected, the only one my power couldn't affect. She alone could be honest with me." CC paused, smiling at the memory.
"One day, she told me to put my affairs in order. She made me give back all the gifts and turn down all the proposals. I didn't much mind at the time. It was getting annoying." CC's smile vanished.
"She gave you the Code," Lelouch concluded, dry-mouthed. "She made you immortal."
"The one person I had ever completely trusted. The one person I had ever really loved. And she tricked me." CC paused again, and it seemed to Lelouch that she was looking into another place, perhaps into her deepest self.
"It was only afterwards that I realised," she went on. "It was only after I received the Code that I understood. I understood that my power had not been to make people love me. I could make them behave as if they loved me. I could force upon them a compulsion, an unanswerable need to behave as if they loved me. But not one of them ever really loved me."
"Geass is ultimately an illusion," CC explained, straightening up on the sofa. "It is something inside all of us, the part of us that denies reality, defies fate, and in so doing leads us to destruction. So it was with me, when I who was alone in the world wished so desperately to be loved. So it was with Rolo, when he longed to preserve his fleeting moments of happiness. So it was with Faramond, when he yearned to undo that for which he blamed himself. So it was with you, when you could no longer bear to not be in control."
"And then what?" Lelouch asked, half-pitying, half bitter. "Will you force your Code on me, as it was forced on you? Will you flee this world after condemning me to take your place?"
"No, Lelouch." To his surprise, CC actually looked ashamed. "I deceived you because I could not believe you would accept if you knew the whole truth. But now that I know for certain that Charles wants my Code, I dare not pass it on. I would only be passing the problem to you, and you cannot deal with it half so well as I have done."
"What does he want your Code for?" Lelouch demanded. "What happens if two are combined?"
"I truly do not know. There may be others, but I have only ever known of two for certain. No doubt Charles thinks he knows what will happen, but don't ask me if he's right or not."
"Then I'm not further forward than I was before." Lelouch put his head in his hands.
"I told Kallen about your Geass," she said. "The only thing she really wanted to know, the only thing that mattered, was whether or not her feelings for you were because of it. I told her what I told you a moment ago." Silence.
"I can't go to her," Lelouch replied. "If I do, I'll love her. I'll love her, and need her, and think only of her. The person I am will be destroyed, and a new person will be born. I can't let that happen, not just yet."
"You may lose her."
"It's for her own sake. Those I love suffer because of it." The chiming of his desk intercom broke the mood. Lelouch checked that it was on voice-only, then hit the reply button.
"Zero!" It was Minase. "Quickly, on the Chinese Federation news channel!" Mystified, Lelouch leapt up from his desk, grabbed the TV remote from the coffee table, and pointed it at the TV. The screen flicked on, revealing the Chinese Federation's official news network, a soberly-dressed anchorwoman presiding.
"We bring you now live to the official announcement by the Britannian peace delegation to Japan, transmitted from the Britannian floatship Avalon."The image changed. It was replaced by a full-body shot of a young girl, maybe fifteen years old, standing at a podium emblazoned with the lion and snake escutcheon of the House of Britannia. Her ash-blonde-running-to-brown hair cascaded down past her waist. Her slim body was encased in a figure-hugging pink gown. She stood straight, gripping the podium, her eyes closed.
"To the people of Japan, and all the peoples of the world. I, Nunnally vi Britannia, do make this announcement on behalf of my brother, Prince Schneizel, and of the Holy Empire of Britannia."
CC glanced at Lelouch. He was frozen in place, eyes bulging, mouth gaping, all colour gone from his face.
"Nunnally…" he muttered. "Nunnally…you're…"
Pendragon, Holy Empire of Britannia
There were four of them.
Four of them, three female and one male, tiny shapes in the vast undercroft of the Imperial palace. How miniscule they seemed, when compared to the vast pillars that held up the roof of the undercroft. How small, and insignificant, compared to the cyclopean vision they inhabited.
But they were not just any four people.
As Charles emerged from the light, the four knelt in supplication. Though he made no show of it, he felt a twinge of satisfaction at the sight of them.
"What news, my Emperor?" asked the man, their leader. His face was oblong, looking as if it were cut from stone, with greying hair and the left eye sewn shut. His body was lean and powerful, encased in the black shirt, and white coat that was the Round Table's uniform. His cloak was white.
"I have done it, Lord Waldstein," Charles replied, halting in front of the four. "My brother has paid the price for his treachery. Marianne is avenged."
"I am glad, my Emperor." His voice was low, grinding like gravel. "Forgive me, that I could not cleanse the stain on the Round Table's honour myself."
"What must be must be, Lord Waldstein." Charles scanned his eyes over the three women who had accompanied Bismarck Waldstein, the First Knight. All of them were Knights of the Round Table, the ones apart from Bismarck he could completely trust.
Nonette Enneagram, the Ninth Knight, whose cloak was purple.
Dorothea Ernst, the Fifth Knight, whose cloak was red.
Monica Kruszewski, the Twelfth Knight, whose cloak was green.
"I trust you have completed your observances?" he asked.
"We have, my Emperor," replied the grey-haired Nonette, whose eyes were as sharp as her tongue. "We have completed our lamentations, and have borne our brother-Knight's body safe home, to rest among his ancestors."
"His loss was…unfortunate," Charles commented. "Matters have reached a head, and it seems only you four can be trusted."
"Weinberg is a fop, too much under Prince Schneizel's influence," dark-skinned Dorothea Ernst growled. "And Bradley is a common murderer. They are no loss."
"I recall you opposed Lord Bradley's accession," Charles commented. "Perhaps you were right. But there is still Lady Earlstreim."
"Her loyalties are unclear, my Emperor," Dorothea replied.
"I concur," Nonette cut in. "Even I don't know what she's thinking half the time."
Charles laid his eyes on Monica, who did not speak. She was the gentlest of them, he knew, and the most modest. She would not speak without reason, and it seemed that there was nothing to be said.
"The time has come," he said, to all of them. "We must make our preparations for the final stage of the plan. I will need your strength, and your trust, when the time comes. Will you follow me, this one last time?"
"We are your Knights, my Emperor," Monica said, speaking for the first time.
"We owe you too much to refuse," Nonette added gravely.
"We cannot do otherwise," Dorothea agreed.
"I never had cause to doubt you," Charles replied, then turned his eyes to Bismarck. His First Knight, and perhaps his only true friend, returned his gaze with one good eye.
"My will is thy will," he said, in the words of an old oath. "Thy will and thine alone."
(I can only apologize for the delay, which was considerably worse than usual. This one's been a real pain, especially with regard to what to do about CC. The question came down to whether to bother with C-Chii or not. I decided against, on the basis that it seemed like a fanservice excuse not to reveal more information. Also, I decided to bulk up the Order because it seemed a bit strange that they would be so completely undefended.
I also threw in the flashback of Marianne's death now, because it made sense for it to happen at that point. I altered it because the scenario described in R2 made no sense at all. To make it look right, they would have had to shoot Nunnally through the legs in exactly the right places for her wounds to match those of her mother. Even if they did, the time delay between Marianne's actual death and the scene that was concocted would cause all manner of problems. I reckoned it was a simpler and easier scenario for VV to lure Marianne into a trap, with Nunnally's presence being a quirk of fate. I have heard that the R2 version was acknowledged as a plot hole.
And yes, Nunnally is on her feet. More about that next chapter, which should come a bit quicker now that I've got past that particular sticking point. And yes, I went and spared Euphemia. I based that on an idea I was playing with, in which VV fakes Euphemia's death in order to manipulate Suzaku. I've got something very special in mind for her).