Theme: Author's choice - Choice

Disclaimer: I don't own Tales of the Abyss: the rightful owners do. Please don't sue.

-

As a Duke's son, as a future king, Asch was taught about the Score, about the planet's memory, about Lorelei's knowledge, about the power the Score said he inherited. One of the common beginner questions, the sort ignorant people never grasp the answer to, is if the Score is absolute then why punish criminals? After all, weren't they only following their predestined path? Isn't it a virtuous act to commit a crime laid down by the Score?

This has two answers: first, that the Score is a prediction. Lorelei knew in advance and revealed onto Yulia that the crime would occur because the criminal would be that sort of person. The evil that caused the crime dwells not in the Score but in the murderer's heart. The second is that the jail sentence, execution, or other punishment was also predicted by Lorelei, and thus if it is a virtuous and mandatory act to commit murder in the course of a robbery it is also a virtuous and mandatory act to turn yourself in and lay your neck on the chopping block.

So what does that say about him, if the Score predicts that he will murder an entire city?

What did it say about Van?

After all, as it turned out Van might have been forced to destroy Hod, but Akzeriuth's destruction clearly showed that he is the sort of person who would destroy an entire land of his own free will and without remorse.

As head of Special Operations, Asch finds himself ensuring that terrible things are done to and by people he has no reason to hate, who should not suffer so except that the Score predicts that he, that Daath will do this to them. Because the Order of Lorelei is that evil. Because the world is that evil.

What does it say about him, that he follows Van's orders?

That he's the sort of person who slaughters enough people to earn the name Bloody. His hands are stained and will be stained with city after city if Van has his way.

And Asch is the sort of person who lets people have their way with him for the greater good. He could see himself destroying Akzeriuth for Kimlasca, he really could.

If he were to look, that is. But he avoids mirrors.

They remind him of the damn replica.

Luke's the one who will destroy Akzeriuth. He's the criminal, not Asch. It will be his fault that the city is destroyed, not Asch's, not Van's, the replica's and the Score's and the entire world's, even if they're just as guilty of trying to bring it about as Mohs and Ingobert.

The replica is the kind that can't stand killing, not even someone trying to kill him. The kind that would refuse if told to destroy Akzeiruth, the kind that trusts so purely as to give himself into Van's hands for the purpose of saving all those lives.

The replica is a hero, and the replica is Asch and thus Asch is a good person, has some spark of decency in him.

The replica is a murder and Asch isn't. Only he is.

He's better than the replica.

He's smarter, at least, he tells himself as he rushes towards the city. He told it not to go, and yet it is!

But he doesn't tell it why, because it wouldn't believe him, it would believe Van instead.

Just like Asch.

It's just like him and he hates it. No wonder they believed it was him. He was that stupid in their eyes, weak enough to get traumatized like that.

He doesn't meet his eyes in mirrors and he rarely looks people in the eyes. There's a fearsome bloody murderer reflected back at him.

He could use their link to tell the replica the truth, that could at least delay matters enough for him to get there. He could have kidnapped it, tied it up before now until the fatal hour passed. He didn't.

Van is going to use it to destroy Akzeriuth (just like Hod), the replica is going to let him victimize it (just like Asch), and Asch is going to let it happen knowingly (just like the Score predicted).

That's the real reason Van hates Lorelei, forget the replica dispersal problem. He's pinned the blame correctly, on Malkuth, on Kimlasca, on the world that orchestrated Hod's fate. He's accepted that he's a monster, a murderer. But once upon a time he was a child who thought better of himself, thought he was a decent person and that the people who experimented on him were wrong, they had to be. They were the monsters, not him.

But Lorelei knew better, and therefore so did they. Lorelei knows and can't stop knowing, and as long as he does and Van knows he does… What if Mystearica finds out? Galiardia?

Lorelei is the planet's memory, and will never forget what anyone does to anyone. No matter how well Asch covers up an assassination, makes it look like an accident, Lorelei will know his sin, and the fon master or any seventh fonist with the right fonstone fragment will know it too, that he's a murderer.

No crime can stay dead and buried on Auldrant unless the Order is behind it. The truth is too easy to find, writ plain for all with the power, the right connections to see. There are no police on Auldrant. Only the mad would murder there.

Lorelei knows, Lorelei is the world and is always watching over you, will always remember, and the only way to silence the witness is to kill it.

On Eldrant, Van could be remembered as a hero by all, Lorelei dead and unable to reveal that no, he was an abuser of children (as he was abused) and someone who gloried in the murder of millions.

Lorelei is Asch's isofon and is probably as much his mirror image as that replica, that's how it works. He can't even stand the replica, and it's an ignorant creature that knows nothing. Lorelei? Knows. Knew two thousand years ago that he would bring his people (and the replica is his property and he practically herded him here, fleeing the fear Asch caused for the safety of Master Van's side, the relief of someone he knows loves him) to this city and destroy it. Self-destruct as well.

Did Lorelei think him mad?

The replica destroying the city instead of Asch would break the Score? No. Asch will turn power to calamity. It doesn't say whose power it is.

His token efforts to avoid the Score are bringing it about. Because that's the sort of person he is. That they all are.

Bring all to ash and ruin? Yes, he shall.

There are scraps of ancient prophecy, ancient myth, as Eldrant was a myth of Ispania before the Order erased the knowledge that one day the world would need to be destroyed, the Score with it, and a new city would rise.

The white bringer of plague would bear a bow: Natalia, who would rule Kimlasca, who would leave the people of Grand Chokmah unburied as her love's body had never be found to have a proper funeral.

The golden bringer of the end will wear a crown. The dark one will weigh money and human life in the balance and choose money. Asch has no idea who Van is talking about when he mentions them and smiles, but Lorelei does.

For Van was the one to give Asch the bloody, the red one who would ignite the war that would keep the world too busy to prevent Eldrant's rise, his Maestro Sword.

It's all happening as the legend the Order once carefully spread before it was corrupted by the power of the absolute Score says, Yulia's instructions to her descendants to secure a new world since Auldrant is doomed and something must live on. Auldrant deserves its fate, it has doomed itself, Van believes that and perhaps it is true. The fools on the street, the corrupt Order, his own uncle, his foolish replica, Van and his insane idea of a replica world…

What kind of madman would destroy a city?

Lorelei knows, but the Score keeps him bound and gagged, unable to warn Luke, unable to do anything but watch, as he has watched this scene for thousands of years and will still remember it afterwards.

The others will abandon Luke, seeing his urgency as lack of compassion for the sufferers instead of the desire to end their suffering. Jade, who has begun to put things together, will abandon Luke as well to investigate the sounds of fighting. Ion, who knows that Luke has a good heart, will put his trust in him and not want to reveal that Van is a monster, even though his silence will be for Luke's sake, unlike Asch's. And Luke will follow his true father, the child wanting to be a hero, to live with his family instead of people who hate him and want Asch back.

And Lorelei watches, Lorelei empathizes, Lorelei is there, for Luke is Lorelei and Lorelei is Luke, manifestations of the seventh fonon. Luke's suffering is his suffering and has been for millennia as he drifted there powerless to prevent it.

Van could decide not to do this, if he weren't a genocidal maniac.

Asch could decide to be serious about trying to stop it, if he weren't well on his way to the same.

Ion could refuse to open the seal, if he could refuse anyone anything. Between his well-learned fear of Van and Mohs and his love of Luke's kindness, that won't happen, not now.

Luke could realize that his teacher, his father figure is a monster. Between his innocence and the fact Van has been nothing but kind for Luke's entire life? And then there's the urgency of ending these people's suffering.

Only it will be ended permanently, and while there are so many ways to stop it, so many people who could do the right thing none of them will. The others will judge Luke by their own preconceptions, Jade will use the battle as an excuse to flee his duty of protecting the ambassador, finding out what Van is up to, and preventing a war (although he doesn't know about the city), because he doesn't want to have to tell Luke that he is a replica or deal with the fact that Luke's suffering is the fault of Jade's original sin.

An oracle knight could rebel. Many of them know, after all.

Akzeriuth would live if only someone would do the right thing, or if only Luke were a little less pure. But he was kept innocent, and a right thing would have been to give him someone else to love, to tell him of Van's nature.

Akzeriuth will fall, and the only innocent person there will bear the guilt, when it is the world that is the murderer, when it is everyone who could have saved the city if they'd only done the right thing.

But they're not the kind of people to do the right thing.

Or Akzeriuth wouldn't have been doomed to fall.

They're all sinners, and Lorelei knows, Lorelei has known for thousands of years that Guy would help Van kidnap Asch, that… He has known everything and can change nothing. Replicas have free will but that means nothing if Ion is brutalized and Luke is suffocated enough to cripple it, if they are lied to so they do not have the knowledge they need to make the right choice. Lorelei knows, and if he could tell Luke…

But Lorelei can do nothing. But watch.

Luke's existence isn't in the Score, but the Score is nothing but a prediction. Lorelei knows what will happen if Luke is not created and that is in the Score. Lorelei can guess as accurately at what will happen if he is.

And he knows that Luke will say that if by dying he could bring back Akzeriuth he would, because Lorelei would do the same. If only.

But if Luke died without destroying the city then Asch would let Van talk him into destroying it, because Asch is that kind of person, Van and his father and Ingobert and this world have made certain of it. Lorelei can prevent Luke's birth, as he prevents the births of other replicas (their fates are just too cruel, as necessary as their free will is to give the world any hope), releasing them to the fon belt.

If Luke is never born the Score will be carried out. If Luke is, then Eldrant will rise. Van knows this, and it's why he tortures Asch by ripping his fonons out over and over until his mind is frayed at the seams and his memories of his family, of his youth, are clouded.

Van thinks that's a wonderful side effect.

He'll keep torturing Asch like that, Lorelei knows, until Lorelei lets his other self be born to be used and die. Asch can only hold out so long: either Luke will be born or Asch will die.

And if Lorelei lets Van kill Asch then Akzeriuth won't fall, the Albertesque seal won't break, none of the outer lands will fall and the war and plague won't happen. Kimlasca will be outraged when Akzeriuth isn't destroyed and its promised prosperity isn't delivered. The plague won't happen, slowly but surely the Score will lose its grip on Auldrant.

But Lorelei has heard Asch's screams, its perfect isofon's screams, for over two thousand years, and Lorelei is an incarnation of the healing power. Just like Luke, Lorelei cannot stand to kill. He knows that when the time he is watching comes about he will cave, perhaps before the first month of torturous experiments is over.

The one choice it will make in over two thousand years won't be a choice, for how could he stand by and let someone be tortured to death without the Score forcing him too? The alternative is unthinkable.

Just like Asch won't think about what his inaction truly means. Just like Van won't think about the monster he's become and how the child he once was would rather have died than become him. Because it's unthinkable.

Just like Luke can't think that the only person who loves him, the one who believed in him, sees him as only a tool to be used up and thrown away, has watched Luke's desperate unhappiness with outward sympathy and inward laughter. Seeing Asch will make him throw up, his body's reaction to the horror Asch represents, and his mind will reject Asch's existence just as his body would reject poisoned food.

Because if Asch truly wanted to stop Akzeriuth he would have to die, and he'd rather ten thousand people die than him when it comes down to it. Because Van would rather die than be a monster. Because Luke would rather die than be nothing but a thing, a barely adequate replacement that will never be really loved by anyone.

Lorelei loves him, Lorelei cries for him even now, and Ion loves Luke's kindness, the young replica not blinded by preconceptions that keep him from seeing it. Luke cares what Ion wants. Except when Master Van tells him to hurry to his side, because people will die otherwise…

The Score is as frail as a spider's web, stronger than steel.

One deviation. One break. If Natalia could admit to herself that Luke isn't Asch and open her mind enough to put two and two together, if Guy could admit to himself that his childhood friend has become a monster, if Tear could admit the true depths of her older brother and father figure's evil and realize that he's manipulated Luke with techniques first practiced on her and keep an eye on him…

This is the world that giving Yulia access to his power has brought about. Lorelei doesn't hate her: he knows very well that the world every single other person on Aldrant would have created would have been even worse.

He could have wiped out humanity, ended the Fonic War before the miasma rose. If he could bear to kill. If he didn't love humanity despite all its faults, pettiness, selfishness, unkindness…

Lorelei is watching. He watches over everyone, but he has been watching this scenario, every possible way it could to with special attention, because he wants there to be another way. But there isn't. There just isn't. Akzeriuth will fall, Eldrant will rise, his precious isofons will die and suffer so, and it will be all his fault.

Humans are… they do their best, really they do. They don't know any better, and Lorelei does. He's the first being, he's the one who has the information he needs to make the right decision, and he will knowingly let them suffer this, just like the rest of the Score. Because he's weak and can't find a way to break his predictions, can't find a way out, can't find a way to save them. He knows them, he loves them, and they will die. Van is right to hate him.

If only there were time to apologize, but he won't even be able to explain Luke's true nature to him before Mystearica's body gives out, let him know that he has options humans do not have, that…

He really should fight harder when Van tries to capture him, but Van is injured and needs help and healing is what Lorelei is.

That, and it's such a relief to sleep, a release from the thoughts that encircle him, plague him over and over and over, the murders and rapes and breaking of souls that he cannot forget, will not forget because they deserve better, the victims do, even if the criminals wish to silence him as Van has.

And Luke will be there, and Lorelei will try to wake up to help him, to tell him, to escape, but Van will fight and sleep will beckon and he will succumb, because to break out of Vandesdelca would kill him and he could not bear that. How could Luke bear to attack him?

But then, Luke does not know how Van fought back tears, how he tried to escape, of the nightmares he once had, of the fact that he truly could have been the person Luke still loves. His compassion, his understanding, aren't perfect. He can kill if he must because while he loves he doesn't know that to kill even one person is unthinkable. When it comes down to it Lorelei would rather die than kill, and as Lorelei is Auldrant if Lorelei dies everyone dies.

Even he has flaws in his thinking, places where emotion overwhelms logic, but!

As Lorelei pulls Luke free of his body before Asch's spirit can devour him he has never been so proud in his life. "You have done admirably," he tells him, the acknowledgement that Luke never received from anyone else. And Luke believes him, because Lorelei knows all.

Luke didn't know that what he did was impossible.

A god's power and a mortal's ignorance were a dangerous combination indeed.

Auldrant is safe, Lorelei's children are safe, and he can go home to the fon belt, sleep, and not dwell on the past, not remind Vandesdelca's soul of its sins. He can rest, and Luke can take his place so the world does not fall apart, and he will have someone to keep his sleep free of nightmares, just as he will hold Luke while he sleeps, while he cries. There is someone who understands him.

And for the first time in twenty-one centuries Lorelei is happy.

-

Jade had forbidden fomicry himself.

He knew it was folly to raise the dead.

He knew replicas were not originals.

He knew that Luke was gone and he should just get over it.

The extraction process had been incredibly painful for Asch, too. "You do realize that we're most likely just going to get Lorelei?"

"Replicating me got Luke before." Asch paused, face taking on the look he had when he remembered something that wasn't his memory. "On the Tartarus, Lorelei said that Luke was himself and that was why he was asking him for help."

"A pure cluster of the seventh fonon with Lorelei's frequency and a mind: the only reason I can think of that Luke wasn't Lorelei would be that Lorelei and his memories were locked into the Score and the planet's core. Thus, Luke is what Lorelei would have been if he'd grown up in the manor. The same soul, but different circumstances shaping it. Lorelei is free now and you have Luke's memories."

They had gone over this. "Then can't Lorelei just create another manifestation and only give it a Luke's memories? They would be Luke, if that's all it takes. So get it down here so I can ask it to do that."

"No. This must not be."

When they turned around there was no one there, even if Jade knew the personality that spoke with that voice hadn't been Luke's.

Then the fomicry machine vanished from behind them.

Jade sighed, nodded. "As an all-knowing being, Lorelei would have known you wanted Luke back in any case. Unless it was asleep as it was within Van."

So it had let Asch have his replica data extracted and only now let him know it was pointless? Asch's eyes narrowed. "Lorelei won't give Luke back to us, when Luke wanted to live?"

Jade remained silent. If Luke didn't want to return he wouldn't blame him. It was good that there was someone looking out for Luke, even if that person was himself. But then, Luke had mostly been looked after by people with no idea what they were doing, people who didn't care about him, saboteurs, and/or himself.

If Lorelei could bring back Luke, would Jade ask for Professor Nebilim next?

The dead should stay dead. If fomicry brought Luke back, that wouldn't make it all better. His fate, his sacrifice, was an example to the world, the reason replicas were treated so well. His absence a reminder, a reason to protect other poor children.

Jade had wanted Luke to live. He'd learned so much from watching Luke, and now he thought he might grasp what it meant for people to die. Why Lorelei allowed people to stay dead.

Peony might have worn him down into helping Asch with this, but Jade would resign if it came to that.

Death meant no chances to make things right.

Except by preventing things from going wrong in the future.

For, if someone could just be brought back, then why not kill them? Lorelei's power could make even death not change someone's fate, not matter in the long run.

And then he realized why Luke's promised had to remain broken. "If Luke returns, the Score will return with him."

Asch turned, unamused. "How can you say that?"

"Think about it. Think about the power Luke, Lorelei represents. As soon as Lorelei was discovered there was a war. If people learn there is a way to control Lorelei, to control Luke, for example by holding a friend hostage, what will happen then? You of all of us should know the lengths people are willing to go to in order to control the future."

"…You're right." Although Asch didn't have to like it. "If he comes back he'll do people favors, perform miracles, because that's what he did. He was soft like that. They'll take advantage of him and he'll let them like he always did."

"Ultimate power, the power over life and death. Luke destroyed Akzeriuth with ease. Lorelei created the Score, powered the Planet Storm, shaped every aspect of our world. Luke is too dangerous to live." He knew that now, but he didn't have to like it. He'd hesitated to execute Luke, for Akzeriuth wasn't an act of malice and he was just a replica, an innocent. The world was lucky that he had stayed his hand, a rare act of compassion.

"Van wanted Lorelei dead because Lorelei's existence meant that all our choices, all our acts, could mean nothing. What Largo said when Arietta died. If we don't have free will then what's the point? Luke wouldn't want to be used to take that away from us."

"To bring Luke back would be to change the past, if one thinks about it. It would undo the price he paid for Auldrant's salvation, and I personally don't want a refund." Luke's death there had destroyed the Score and also Eldrant's fomicry machines. "As much as I want him back. However, it feels far too much like when Professor Nebilim died."

"She died saving you, and then what was nearly her nearly killed you." Asch snorted, turning away and shaking his head. "He could probably have prevented the Big Bang effect, or Lorelei definitely could have. I practically… I wanted to die there," Asch admitted it to Jade the way he never would to Natalia. "But he wanted me to live more and so it didn't matter what I thought I'd wanted. Playing god…" He shook his head. "I know that he didn't want to take away what should have been my life, my second chance, like he wanted to give back what Van used him to steal from me, but I didn't want it. I want him to take this life, this body back, it's his. What did I do to earn it?"

"He paid the price, he can do what he wishes with his… property," Jade concluded wryly. "He wouldn't think of it that way, but it's the way it is."

"He paid for it, and he gives it to us, but we didn't pay for it and what the hell am I supposed to do now, damn it!" Asch shouted at the ceiling, at the fon belt beyond it, but there was no answer.

"It's up to us, as terrifying as that is." Jade had no illusions about mankind's competence to decide its own fate. There were reasons the Score had brought so much prosperity before the end. "Now it is the originals as well as the replicas who have no futures set out for us. A blessing, I would have said before, but now it seems as though we are abandoned to our own devices, as though Lorelei is more uncaring now than before."

"It's better if he stays dead," Asch admitted, "but damn it, I refuse to accept that!"