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"Luke, Luke, wake up!" Tear was shaking him, frantic. "We have to get aboard the Tartarus before we sink into the miasma!"
"Tear?" He felt groggy. "The miasma's still… here?"
Tear wouldn't meet his eyes: Luke didn't notice because his own couldn't focus until he heard a cry for help. They were on an island surrounded by some kind of muck, and a kid was sinking into the muck. The miasma. He forced himself to his feet even though he felt tired, and warm, and tempted to remain in bed for five more minutes instead of following Master Van's training regimen and getting up at five am.
Master Van had been, yes, taking them to destroy the miasma, and then his memory was blank. No, not quite, first there had been one of those headaches, the jerk voice that had made him attack his friends instead of the old and tired voice.
"Tear, let me go! Why aren't you helping him!" He raged at the others, who were there. Except for Master Van.
"We can't do anything for him! We need to get to the Tartarus!" Tear tried to drag him but was nowhere near strong enough: Jade had to lend a hand.
The kid was crying out for help, and Jade and Tear wouldn't let him help them, and Guy and Natalia were just standing there. If Ion hadn't looked mournful Luke would have chewed them out for it, but Ion was a nice guy unlike some people.
"We fell into the Quiphoth when the passage ring was destroyed," Tear explained when they were 'safe, for now, but we have to get to Yulia City.' "It's a sea of miasma under the outer lands."
"Passage ring? What happened?"
"That's what I'd like to know," Guy agreed. "You suddenly got a headache again and this time it was you that got attacked instead of us. I had to tackle you to get you to stop trying to cut your own throat. I ended up having to knock you unconscious and then Ion used an arte to do something to your fon slots so it wouldn't happen again for awhile. Van took you and Ion to try and figure out what was going on with your headaches. It has to have something to do with that thing at Choral Castle, you started getting the weird headaches after that." Guy gave Jade a look which Jade ignored. "Anyway, then that red-headed god-general showed up and was berserk. We followed him to someplace where you, Ion and Van were and then he must have thrown a hyperresonance at Van, only it hit some fontech instead. Then all of Akzeriuth started to collapse. Van tried to get Asch the Bloody to come with him, but he fell on his sword instead." What was really weird was that Van had just laughed harder when that happened.
It hadn't been a sadistic laugh, at least, but… Guy couldn't describe it other than with the word 'insane' and he didn't want Vandesdelca to be insane. "Tear used Force Field and here we are."
"Master Van said he would help me use my hyperresonance to destroy the miasma and save the town. The… Asch the Bloody was trying to stop me." Trying hard enough to be willing to kill Luke. "Why would he want all those people to die?" How could anyone?
"Use your hyperresonance to remove the miasma? A theoretical possibility, perhaps, as you possess Lorelei's fonon frequency, but you have no training. Unusually little training, in fact." Although not for a disposable replica.
"Hey! I train all the time!"
"Yeah, it is kind of weird that Van didn't have you learn about fonon fields and stuff." Guy hadn't wanted to criticize, it wasn't his style, but… Luke wasn't slow, actually, not out in the real world. He picked up things fast, and when he was dedicating every spare second to training you'd think he would have oh, passed Guy's level since Guy had other things to do with his time a long time ago.
"With so little training you would have almost certainly been unable to focus the destructive power on the hyperresonance and only the hyperresonance. Bring you someplace with so much delicate machinery? Not to mention that if the miasma was rising from this sea there would be no way to destroy all of it." The sheer scale! "Not without a huge amount of power."
"The sephiroth draw on the power of the planet storm." Oops, Guy shouldn't know that. Or rather, he shouldn't have associated the planet's fon slots with massive fontech. As heir of House Gardios he knew about them, of course, it was his family duty to protect them. And now two were gone, and a very important two if he remembered right.
"Even so, you would need a focus." Jade shook his head.
"And how do you know so much?" Tear challenged, strangely on edge.
"I invented fomicry." Jade hesitated, looking at Luke. "I don't know whether I should tell everyone but you this or if you're the one with the right to decide who else is told." Patient-doctor confidentiality, and he didn't want to destroy Luke's life like that, but… He should have told him before. "In any case, given his comments to Asch, the original Luke fon Fabre, it's clear that Van knew Akzeriuth was going to be destroyed."
Jade kept talking over Luke's protests, deliberately tuning him out. "A replica is created from another thing, in the case of a human that person. Their existence is not accounted for by the Score. It's possible that your Luke was trying to prevent the city's destruction, Natalia." He could throw the girl a bone. "But as Van pointed out, while replicas possess free will the rest of us do not. By preventing Van from using Luke as you surmised, Tear, to destroy the city Asch doomed himself to his own scored fate. After all, if Luke had destroyed the city and killed himself before Asch got there, fulfilling that Score Van was arguing with him about while the rest of you were either in shock," Natalia and Tear "or tending to your employers," Guy and Anise: Ion had been beaten, most likely by Van, most likely for not removing the seal on Luke.
That digression aside, "If Luke had done what Asch was intended to, destroyed the city as Van intended first then Asch wouldn't have been able to. Luke would have substituted for him in the Score, suffered his original's fate. It's clear that Asch was collaborating with Van Grants for years." A pity he was out of Jade's reach. "But creating children to use and murder them? I forbade it myself. Tear, I'm afraid you're not going to be able to kill your brother. Not unless you find him first, at least."
"What are you talking about?" The god-general who was identical to him, had the same style, Master Van's style. Only he'd been trained so much better. The one who had made him throw up, and he'd forgotten as soon as he could because it was too horrible to contemplate.
"You know what he's talking about, dreck," Luke heard from his own lips, and feeling his body controlled again by that same cruel power horrified him enough he didn't notice Jade's own quickly-suppressed horror.
So that was what Van had meant by saying it didn't matter which fulfilled the Score of murder and death. Luke was a perfect isofon, and syncing their fon slots must have made it certain as well as enabling that disgusting puppeting.
One of the reasons for the fomicry research on Hod was Jade's own Big Bang theory. Bring back the doomed, achieve immortality. By transferring into copies of your own body. After all, replicas weren't people, not at all. No reason to feel guilt, they were just substitutes.
Jade was firmly of the opinion that Dr. Jade Balfour should have been drowned at birth, but his medical training and experiments under Professor Nebilim's supervision were going to come in handy. The original purpose might have been to learn how to make patients feel better instead of cause them to suffer the optimal amount of agony, but even if Van's death by torture wouldn't save Luke it would make Jade, for one, feel a certain sense of satisfaction.
He wasn't going to be able to do it.
While there was still something of his replica left in here he'd been able to use second-order hyperresonance to magnify his, their power. But the last traces of that dreaming presence had vanished on the way down. Asch has almost been glad, since he'd known they would have to fight Van here and Luke… It wasn't like he would have been aware of what was going on, too far gone already, but Asch would have and knowing what he did now, remembering what he did now…
But there was no way for him to safely lower the lands, do all this with only his power alone. He could feel his control slipping around the edges, hear Guy's curse (muffled so as not to destroy his concentration) as the readouts displayed danger signs, warnings the sephiroth were going to collapse (except this gate and the Radiation Gate, where Van's supporters had gone to survive the catastrophe), and they were going to. He'd failed.
Or he hadn't yet, but he knew he was about to, that he couldn't do this, and once he did that there would be no arable land left and the only recourse would be Van's replica world. Van would have won.
Asch would have killed thousands and failed millions, failed his replica. And a few months ago he would have thought mourning him or giving a damn about it utterly ridiculous. That was before he'd found himself taking over the body of a grieving child, piece by piece, memory by memory, thought by thought until there was nothing left. Hard to say he was only a thing when you were drowned in feelings that were not yours but were equally real.
Van's supporters would allow Natalia to live, probably, in Largo's memory. Guy. Ion, as a replica. Perhaps Anise, for Dist's sake. Jade would have failed Peony and would do the honorable thing, most likely after ensuring that Eldrant would rise and something would survive. Asch would quite likely join him, except that Luke had made him promise to live.
Luke… He couldn't hold on to anything, it all slipped away, he turned all he touched to ash and ruin.
The world was in his hands and he could feel it dying.
Hearing Lorelei's voice, receiving the key and being told that Van was alive was a relief, really, although he didn't know if he'd turn to him for comfort as they both had for seven years (although he was the reason they suffered) or kill him.
It was done. The last of Lorelei's fonons, the last of the memory particles of Auldrant had been destroyed. "A new world, free of the Score." At last, at last Hod, everything had been worth it, or so the descendant of Yulia thought.
Van didn't notice that behind him Asch was smiling, because while Luke had been unconscious when it happened Asch had been able to recover that memory, the memory of the moment Asch life ended and Luke's death began.
Asch was, after all, Lorelei's perfect, precious isofon, just like Luke was his replica (just as Luke had been a fragment of Lorelei's soul), and he had recognized Lorelei as a warm presence, one that would have overwhelmed if he hadn't grown used to Luke. Lorelei had overwhelmed him, blurred him, when he had tried to speak to him before. Asch had grown strong.
Lorelei had thought that all of its children were doomed, but with Asch's power added to its own, the way Luke's had been added to Asch's until Lorelei's scion perished, there was a way to reclaim that memory, turn back time. But he had to tell him that, "The arte will take time. Your soul will not survive to return, oh one who shares my voice."
"I'm living on stolen time," Asch murmured aloud. Keeping a firm division between his words and the other's thought-words and thus between their thoughts and his was one of the techniques Jade had taught both Luke and him to buy them a little more precious time. Asch had found it hard, in the end to not mistake Luke for himself: after all, Lorelei's other self's fonons had come from within the light of the sacred flame, part of his soul and inheritance. It was hard to confuse a world's sentience with a mortal. "And it will be returned." The longer the arte had to work the further back time could be rewound. There was no point sending the world to before replication had started: there were no free-willed individuals to cause deviations then and thus there was no point, no chance that something could happen to change this.
Asch left the celebration as soon as he could, finding it hard to keep from laughing. It was ironic that they celebrated Lorelei's death while it endured, yes, but... "You'll need to pretend to be me." He stared up at the fon belt, not knowing if the urge to escape into it came from Luke's memories of the manor or Lorelei's of the core. Both, Lorelei would have told him if he'd asked. "He has the hymns and the key, he could imprison you again."
"I will not let that happen, for the sake of the people of my world, for the sake of you who shares my voice and the sake of that bright fragment of my soul." It was easy for Lorelei to take control. Although Asch had mastered making switching off as easy on Luke as possible it worried him, because when Asch had started being able to take control this easily Luke had been about half-dead. "I am more aware of my nature than my scion was: to control the fonon is to me what moving an arm is to you. But when time is returned to the time of the Score I will lose my memories of this. It is not written in the Score, therefore the Score will not permit it to exist in the planet's memory."
"Damn it." Asch punched the railing and forced himself to turn away. He'd never sought comfort in staring at it, and while he'd done things out of mourning for Luke (seventh fonists' souls were supposed to go to the fon belt when they died, but did anything remain of Luke? Especially after even the fon belt had been destroyed and remade?) while he was alone in his head he had to hold on to himself now, at least until he could teach Lorelei how to lie convincingly.
Asch'd thought Luke was honest and compassionate to a fault: the kid couldn't lie worth a damn and had wibbled over liger eggs, for crying out loud, let alone human death. And Luke hadn't lived to reach eight. Lorelei had been around since there was an around to be and was rather set in its ways. As a being of truth lies were useful to it, as a being of memory to hurt another was to hurt itself. The Score had been agony and Lorelei had cringed thinking of how the one who would seize glory would be devastated to find that Eldrant would soon never have been. Asch had worn Luke down a bit about trickery before it became painfully obvious there was no point and he should just let him keep what was left of his innocence, but Lorelei didn't know if Asch could teach him enough to keep Vandesdelca from discovering and binding him before Asch was no longer here to advise.
Perhaps if he buried himself in Asch's memories and tried to forget being Lorelei, forget those thousands of years of torment in the core, forget the world as it once was and might never be again?
It was memory, Auldrant's memory, Auldrant's soul, both the world's creator and the world, but in memory of his precious isofons' sacrifices he would be a single individual just long enough.
Long enough to win his other manifestation another chance, although Lorelei still did not know if he could succeed.
"Do you think this has happened before?" Asch wondered.
"Very likely. The Angelic Sacrifice's death and your birth are certain, set in the Score. Thus Hod's suffering is almost certain, the creation of my scion from you, light of the sacred flame, almost certain."
"As long Luke exists then I'll survive Akzeriuth. As long as I exist you'll survive Auldrant's destruction. And none of us will remember how many times we've failed." Asch's thoughts were filled of black admiration of Yulia Jue. "So we won't despair. Is it possible for Van to win or the Score to be carried out? What if he killed me twice?"
"Then this world would be without a sentience and fall apart into chaos. All would cease, not even ash and ruin left, Asch."
"At least you're using names now, although we need to work on the poetry." Asch sighed. "So if Van figured it out and killed me… and if Van were to bind you it wouldn't hold forever."
"Another two thousand years."
"…Van said something about a cycle once."
Lorelei said nothing.
"That as long as the possibility of knowing, of controlling, the future existed mankind would go to war over it, the way the Fonic War started, all this started."
More silence. "We're going to have to work on lying." Asch had somehow found himself on another balcony looking at the fon belt. "But replicas… they wouldn't bind you to a Score. They're… I used to think they were less than we originals, but Luke was purer than I'll ever be and even Sync was a saint compared to his original. But eventually the fonons will separate out again, won't they? First there was you, then the other fonons arose from you, and by the time the Fonic War started there was so little that was you that it took them ages to find out you existed, even though there were legends of Mother Auldrant, things like the Planetary Fonic Arte."
"Nothing like the Score has happened before."
"In your memory. What would happen if this failed? What would happen if you died and there was no vessel?"
"If the Score were to succeed and I were to fall apart into miasma, if Vandesdelca were to erase me and this world did become mindless, then all would return to the void until 'I' or one of my selves, a sentience of the seventh fonon, arose from it."
Lorelei tried to ignore Asch's thoughts, although they were a part of him as all memories were. "And you can't just smite people who try to take control of you?" Asch snorted. "Forget I said that. You're worse than Luke, at least he could kill to protect or in self-defense."
"You did that for him."
"It was paying rent." The least he could do. "Is there any way for Luke and I to survive this?"
"If I were to be freed while Luke's personality remained in existence. However, freeing me requires you to work together."
"Which will probably always be over my dead body."
"If I were, then I could keep you both alive, or if you were dead remove Luke from his body and he could remain as another sentience of the fonon."
"And I would be immortal. And would kill anyone who tried to start another Fonic War, since I'm the human who inherited your power, not another you. I don't feel their pain and I don't care if people like Mohs die." Asch snorted. "What are the odds… No wonder your prediction was absolute. We're so predictable, we humans. We do the same stupid things and the laws of fonology aren't as nice as you. I wonder how many times we've destroyed ourselves? Like that dominos game."
"…I would still prefer to cast the time arte."
"You had better. We'll do this until something goes right. Actually, I mean wrong." Almost impossible as it was. A replica world or a chance for a world that contained Luke, Natalia, and those other people? "If I hadn't killed myself, or if Van were a little less insane… But Hod happened, Akzeriuth will happen as long as I'm alive, and there's no way Luke could bear killing all those people. Can you think of a way?"
"If I had, the Score would have been different in order to prevent it. Yulia wanted my best prediction."
"Luckily you're as much an idiot as Luke." Is, was, would be.
Asch wandered around, giving people the impression he was just being an antisocial snit like always and not speaking to anyone as Lorelei carefully drew glyphs too fine for the human eye to see in the fon belt he ached to return home to.
A/N: This was somewhat born of a friend re-playing the Akzeriuth bit and a conversation about certain people's actions based on both post-facto and event-current denial. A key part, although one that didn't come up in the conversation, was that Asch claimed that he was trying to stop Luke from destroying the city and it was possible to save Akzeriuth because Luke had free will, therefore the city's destruction was all Luke's fault.
The logic fail there, or part of it, is that Asch was the one scored to destroy the city, not Luke, and if Luke had 'listened to Asch' and not destroyed it then Asch, without free will, would have. Which explains why Asch didn't make more than a token attempt to stop him.
This what-if is based on Asch making a serious attempt (being less of a hypocrite…) and running headlong into why Van created Luke in the first place. It's interesting that in this case it's him being a better person (to Akzeriuth at least, worse to Luke due to trying to kill the replica) that destroys the world.
And time loops FTW.