This is it, my friends. The end. And I must say: it has been a pleasure. Thank you for sticking around with me this far.
Disclaimer: Mai-HIME is not mine.
There stood a girl upon a hill. Her form was clearly outlined by the dawn, flossy rays of liquid gold streaming around her in broken sheets, trickling waterfalls from Cretan shores. Clothes hung in tatters about her mortal frame, hair in ragged disarray, a mix of sweat and something darker. She bore an expression of vacant surprise, as though she had awoken to this mound of bodies beneath her feet, unsure of exactly how they arrived there. Her foot slipped upon a mangled limb. She staggered, arms wheeling, struggling to once again find purchase upon the uneven terrain.
Someone caught her, "Woah there!" murmured the soft voice, "Careful now."
When she turned, dazed, she beheld a face she did not recognise. A woman stabilized her by the shoulders, gloved hands gentle. She wore a suit of dark, sleek armour, and embroidered upon the synthetic material just above the left breast was a blue rose.
Shiho jerked away from the stranger's touch, arms raised protectively before her, "Who are you?" she demanded in a tremulous tone, "Where am I?"
The woman made a calming gesture with her hands, honest gaze meeting her own, "My name is Chie Hallard. We are in southern Austria. You are Shiho Munakata, yes?"
"I…" Shiho's arms wrapped around her midriff and she looked all about her, face cast down, "I don't know."
Chie's face screwed up, puzzled. A band of blue glass that had once wrapped across her head, lit up with lines and numbers, had been shattered on one side, shards embedding in her cheek. Gore matted her forehead, tangling her short hair. In her own mouth, Shiho could taste the distinct tang of iron. Looking down, she saw the remnants of her dress had been smeared with something black and clotted, a bloody ruin. Her chest began to heave in raw panic.
The battlefield was a writhing flank of red land. Figures began to rise with weak moans, battered, bruised, and maimed. Souls bore their bodies like injured hounds bared teeth, dragging themselves into corners to lie and lick their severed stumps, their weeping wounds. Sunlight made more garish their many open sores, painting the landscape a lurid clash of hues.
"It's alright. I got you," Chie's said, soft and soothing, as Shiho began to gasp for air, body shaking.
"Chie!" came a voice from not too far away.
Twisting her neck, Chie saw Aoi marching towards them. Apart from a noticeable limp in her left leg and deep cuts raked across her cheek, she was relatively unscathed. At least in comparison to the carnage suffered by others.
"Oh, thank God," Chie muttered, feeling a wave of relief rush through her at finding her friend alive, "Have you seen Midori? Or Mai? I can't seem to find them anywhere."
But Aoi looked grim. She shook her head, heaving a sigh, "Dead. Both of them. I had to find you. Make sure you were still alive to –" she hesitated, watching as the information visibly sank into Chie, "What are your orders, Artemis?"
Licking her lips, Chie felt her nerves flutter. Artemis. That title was never supposed to be hers. Mai was supposed to rise to that position. Mai had been the one groomed for the job – the headstrong Officer everyone loved. Chie was just the one who sat in the background, watching from the shadows, delegating, organising. She was no leader.
Yet how could she turn Aoi and the Cynthian Company away now, when they needed leadership most?
Perhaps a bit of delegation and re-organisation was exactly what they all needed.
Breathing in deeply, Chie's gaze grew steely, "Gather everyone," she began to Aoi, not taking one of her hands from Shiho's narrow shoulder, "and contact Dr. Sagisawa. Tell her to be ready for her little hospital to be filled and then some."
"Everyone?" Aoi frowned, "but…the vampires…"
But Chie would hear nothing of it, "Look around you," she hissed, leaning in, sweeping one arm towards the battlefield, "Something happened. Nothing is the same. Vampires? There are no more vampires."
Aoi fell silent, staring not at the battlefield but at Shiho. The girl was trembling. And her eyes, her eyes were a brown so pale as to appear amber; gone were the tell-tale signs of red like pits of hell, burning hard and bright through shadow. Another time Aoi would have demanded to see the girl's teeth, to prove that any last vestiges of demonic presence had truly fled, but instead she gathered herself and saluted sharply to Chie, "Is there anything else you require of me, Artemis?"
Chie took Shiho by the hand and began leading her away. She did not look back when she replied, "Gather the dead for proper burial after the wounded have been shipped out. Speak with our contacts in the British Isles; I want as many medical supplies as can be spared sent to Dr. Sagisawa. She's going to need them. Clear up this mess with the Austrian government; they may have unwillingly agreed to avert their eyes to this battle, but a few more favours are going to need to be called in to clean this up. And I want reports. All of Midori's Agent reports over the last month. Get me the location of every Agent on the planet. Within the hour. I will review the information on the flight to Parliament." Her gaze hardened and she muttered to herself, "I will have answers to this riddle."
Natsuki awoke to a blinding white light. Grass, bright and verdant, bristled beneath her, pricking her skin. She pushed herself to an upright position and looked down. She wore not a stitch of clothing, but somehow it did not matter in this place. The sky faded into the earth in this place, so that the horizon was a distant haze, blended and smudged by young, sticky fingers. Wind did not exist here. Nor air. Breathing was not a necessity.
Shakily Natsuki rose to her feet. A comfortable warmth settled upon her limbs, emanating from the very land.
"No place," came a voice from behind her.
Natsuki spun, startled but not frightened. A woman stood behind her. No. That wasn't right. She did not stand. She hovered. Her feet, stained with something black and dripping, were suspended above the ground, toes pointed downward. She bled darkness, the filmy material of her elegant robes gossamer waves like liquid smoke that fluttered and railed, whispering with a voice like twilight, her gaze like dusk.
Natsuki found her voice and asked warily, "Have we –?"
"Met?" the woman smiled toothlessly, and Natsuki felt something akin to a chill shoot through her, more a warning shudder. This was not someone to anger, "Yes. Though, when last we met, you were confronted with my mere vessel."
And then Natsuki remembered. A girl with graying hair, her frail body seated upon a wheelchair, "Mashiro?"
"My vessel's name. I am Nyx. Night. But you may call me Mother."
She used "may," but it was not in the form of a request.
The unbearable urge to look away washed over Natsuki, so she glanced downward. Beneath Night's feet gaped a dizzying void, spinning with stars and all manner of heavenly bodies. That glistening black dripped from the arch of Night's feet and the puddle rippled and grew.
"Do not avert your gaze, my child."
At this Natsuki wrenched her eyes up, meeting Night's all encompassing, unblinking stare, "Forgive me, Mother, for my insolence, but why are we here? And where is here?"
"This is no place."
"Am I –?"
"Dead?" Night finished Natsuki's sentence, "No. I'm afraid not. You have a long life ahead of you. Though immortality is no longer at your disposal. Hespera and all her kin have been returned to their rightful places."
A brief thought flashed through her mind. The Revenant. Tomoe.
Night made no conceivable movement, but Natsuki felt a tension build at the mere thought. The air darkened, "The Revenant is mine now. As a god, she can never plague this world again."
"But…she won," Natsuki frowned, "She got what she wanted."
Night suddenly seemed almost amused at Natsuki's words, though it was difficult to discern the emotions that crossed her timeless face, "She became a god, yes. But she did not win. Immortality is not something to be coveted, my child, just as death is not to be feared. But neither should you squander life. Still, we are not here to discuss such trifling subjects."
Natsuki's quizzical scowl deepened, "Then…why?"
"I am here to congratulate you. Many of my children have failed where you exceeded all expectations," Night continued seamlessly, "And I am here to offer my personal gratitude for fulfilling your purpose. Now I give you life once more, when you should have expired alongside your lover."
At this, Natsuki's head jerked. Wide-eyed, she looked at Night with a pleading expression, "Shizuru…" she breathed, "She's dead?"
"You both battled to the end. Neither survived after the Revenant passed into my care."
Had there been air, Natsuki's breath would have caught, "Then, when I return, she will be dead?"
"No!" Natsuki was surprised to hear herself claim, voice resounding as though she stood in a cavern.
Night stared at her coolly, "No? The Countess has lived a long life, damned for centuries. Do you believe she would wish to continue to carry out her last years in constant guilt and torment?"
"I…" Natsuki faltered, "There must be some way. She deserves more than that. I deserve more than that."
Suddenly Night seemed sorrowful, "Oh, my poor child. If you think death to be an eternal ill, then you are sadly mistaken. And if you believe that you deserve more than what I have already given you, then perhaps you truly have not learned the real lesson."
That was it. This was the end. Natsuki's jaw tightened. She had no bargaining chips.
"But," Night carried on after a moment's pause, "if I am to do this, the price will extend to all those who survived. Yourself included. Fairness in all things. None shall be exempt from my price."
Immediately, Natsuki leapt at the opportunity, "What is this price?" she asked, hopeful.
Night's gaze flashed, and suddenly she was directly before Natsuki, looming like the arching sky, her eyes eclipses, rings of mottled sunlight; she hissed, "Memory."
Chie hung up the phone by tapping the device in her ear. She sat in Midori's old office in Parliament, the broad table stacked high with papers, all accompanied by a screen that blazed with white documents. All reports were received electronically, but hard copies were also stored and then at the end of the year recycled. Still, Chie preferred to give her eyes a rest from the harsh screen every few hours, if only for the sake of her already poor eyesight.
Straightening the square spectacles upon the bridge of her nose, she swiftly scanned the page before flipped to the next. Chie wore her typical button-down, collared, navy shirt, sleeves neatly rolled up past her elbows, a black blazer thrown over the back of her chair, but instead of her customary black tie with an orange sunburst – marking her as a District Officer – she bore a white tie with the gold sunburst worn only by Artemis. It felt strange. She fiddled with the knot at her neck constantly.
The report she read had been written by Nao Zhang. In all the previous reports, Chie had merely skimmed through the print, finding nothing extraordinary – just the usual vampire activity logs and tracking and kill counts. But something here made her pause all of a sudden.
Odd murders had been plotted and investigated by Nao all across Europe. Frowning, Chie flipped open a nearby file that had come with the report and look at the pictures of the various crime scenes. When she arrived at the last photo, she noticed a USB drive taped to the back page of the folder, headed by Zhang's untidy scrawl: Intel from Nagi – Revenant Informant & Suspect.
Chie had heard of Nao's bad temper from her colleague and fellow Officer, Mai, but Nao's attention to detail could not be faulted on any account.
Tearing the USB free, she inserted the thumb drive into her computer and opened it. A single video file was contained within it. She double clicked it.
Up popped the bust of a woman in a dark room, and though her face was completely blackened, her eyes shone through the darkness, grey and sickly. A shiver passed through Chie. She felt unclean, as though the woman's gaze held disease and infected all it touched.
"I am the Revenant," she spoke in a voice like a festering wound, "and if you are watching this, then you have already failed…"
Immediately, Chie snatched up her phone, "Aoi," she said, urgent, when the Officer answered after only two rings, "What have we heard from Agent Nao Zhang?"
"Her and her partner's personal trackers have been disabled, but her weapon is still pinging from Lithuania. I sent a team to investigate about 2 hours ago."
There was chatter in the background, people clamouring and milling about.
"Excellent," Chie replied, never looking away from the computer screen, "I want to be updated as soon as possible."
"Roger that. What about Dr. Sagisawa's request?"
"Grant her as much space, as many hands as you can spare. Overcrowd the healthy if you must to optimize space for the wounded." And with that, Chie hung up.
Meanwhile the Revenant droned on, "These ritual murders are nothing in the face of my immortal pursuits, necessary sacrifices willingly delivered for my eternal glory…"
Oy vey, Chie thought to herself, removing her glasses to rub her eyes once more.
Being Artemis was going to take some getting used to.
Two Cynthian soldiers sat in the belly of a helicopter. The blades of the vehicle cut through the air, bearing them along.
"Do you reckon we'll find anything?" one of them asked.
The other shrugged, "Dunno. Doubt it."
Not to be deterred, the first pressed on, edging forward in his seat. He was young. Remarkably he had escaped the battle completely, one of the few left at Parliament to guard their headquarters. Now, however, with so many dead and maimed, all able-bodies were needed, "What d'you think Agent Zhang was doing up here, anyway?"
The second soldier heaved a deep sigh, "I don't know," he growled tiredly, "Why don't you ask her yourself?"
Their bickering was sharply interrupted by the pilot, "The hell happened here?"
The nose of the helicopter dipped low as they circled. Beneath them the land smoldered, rent with great lesions, fissures smoking, their cavernous beds filled with the glow of dying embers. A cathedral had been stripped down to its foundations, columns toppled, leaving craggy stumps of stone littered with bright shards of coloured glass like fallen starlight among the wreckage.
The older soldier saw out of the corner of his eye the younger make the sign of the cross over his chest. Voice steely, he grunted, "I don't think that's going to be much help here."
But the young soldier was unfazed, for he shot back, "And cynicism is?"
He got no reply.
Dust swirled in the air, rising from the fractured earth in sheets as the helicopter lowered. Upon touching down – nothing more than a soft bump of rails on dirt – the two soldiers leapt to the ground, heads ducked low, weapons clutched to their sides. Together they skirted the perimeter of the cathedral, while the blades of the helicopter behind them continued to whir and blur. They were to be quick and quiet. Get in and get out. Any survivors and bodies of the fallen they found were to be carted away for treatment, interrogation and, if necessary, burial.
"Perimeter clear," the elder officer announced before motioning that they were moving into what was once a semicircular asp.
Picking their way carefully through the ruins, they happened upon a shackled limb: a foot linked at the ankle with a strip of thick bronze. Eyes meeting over the pile of rubble, they nodded and began prying stones from the opposite end of the altar. There they revealed the bruised and battered face of Agent Juliet Nao Zhang. Blood had grown sticky and dark beneath her, most of it from the stump of her arm.
"Jesus…" the younger soldier breathed, while the elder clenched his teeth, muscles bunching at his stubbled jaw and neck.
"Come on," the elder jerked his head, "Let's finish searching the area, then we can take her body back."
Nodding in solemn agreement, the younger soldier stepped back and slipped in a pool of congealed blood peeking out beneath rock. He caught himself before he could fall, "What the –? Hey! There's another one here!"
Quickly they cleared the next body, which was pinned by large sections of a column.
"Agent Masashi," the older soldier confirmed, grim.
But before they could do anything more than identify the body, they heard a stirred of loose rock from the center of the crumbled cathedral. With a snap their weapons were raised to their shoulders, and they grew suddenly wary.
From the strewn rubble emerged a ragged form, a girl, her dark hair grimy with dust and soot and something else. She stumbled then fell to her hands and knees.
The two soldiers approached with drawn weapons, their gazes guarded, full of caution, "Hands in the air," the elder barked, "No sudden movements. I said: hands in the air."
In a daze her hands rose, fingers shaking. Her clothes were rags, her pale skin smeared with blood and dirt, "Please, she began, voice raspy. She coughed before going on, "Please, there's another. A woman. She's badly injured."
The younger soldier moved forward while the elder kept his weapon pointed at the girl. Confirming her words with a nod, the younger asked, "Who are you?"
"I…" she faltered. She swallowed and shook her head, "I don't know."
A gentle hand owned by a woman in white was placed on her shoulder, rousing her from a deep slumber. The woman held a blue binder to her chest and looked down kindly.
"Good morning," she greeted softly, "Your name is Shizuru Viola. How are you feeling?"
Shizuru blinked. Her eyes were brown and tinged with russet hues, like the last leaves of autumn, maples brimming with fiery foliage. A strange brown. But they were brown. When she drew a breath, her chest ached, a distant fading pain, "Fine," she said numbly in response.
"Excellent," the woman – a nurse, she realised – smiled, "You've been recovering for about a week, but your recuperation has been remarkable."
A small frown of confusion crossed Shizuru's face, "What happened?"
"You were in an accident, Ms. Viola," came the swift reply, "Now, I'm going to need you to sit up for me. Can you do that?"
Shizuru nodded. Sluggish, she raised herself to her elbows, propping herself into a seated position upon a hospital bed. There were several others crammed into the room, but their inhabitants did not currently occupy them, "Where is everyone?"
The nurse gave only a brief pause, "Most are attending the mass funeral."
"Must have been some accident," Shizuru murmured, surprised at her own blasé dryness.
Rather than be off-put or upset, however, the nurse's mouth quirked in a grin.
"Forgive me," Shizuru began, "I shouldn't have –"
"No, no," the nurse waved the apology away, "A sense of humour is always a welcome sign in a patient's recovery. So you feel well enough to walk?"
"Good. Then let's get you out of that bed. Lord knows a bit of air will do you some good."
The nurse offered her arm, but Shizuru shook her head. Taking a deep breath, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and shakily rose to her feet, one hand resting upon the bedside table for support. A white gown fell below her knees. Hanging from a nearby peg on the wall was a grey robe, which Shizuru promptly wrapped around herself, slipping her feet into a pair of matching sturdy slippers at the base of her bed.
Finished, she asked, "Where are we headed?"
"I'm just here to check up on you and make sure you don't go falling and hurting yourself. But I see my services in the latter are hardly required," it was not delivered unkindly – quite the opposite, "If you'd like, I can escort you to the gardens? It's nice and sunny out today."
Shizuru nodded her consent, then gestured regally for the nurse to lead the way. Together they walked the dim halls of an underground structure. People milled about. Nurses bustling in white. Other patients looking lost, shuffling to their rooms and beds.
Though she voiced no complaint, Shizuru felt a surge of relief when they reached an elevator; she did not think she could manage to haul herself up flights of steep stairs. Her limbs felt strangely heavy, her body an earthly cage, leaden. When she walked, the soles of her feet slapped against the floor. Nothing felt right. Everything was out of place. She was drowning in a haze.
Perhaps the nameless nurse was right. Perhaps a touch of sunshine would cure her ills, her sense of ill-at-ease.
In the elevator they were joined by another patient, a girl with hair that hung in a tumble of blonde curls, streaked with fading pink dye. The doors of the elevator slid seamlessly shut and with a jerk bore them aloft. Tilting her head, Shizuru regarded the young patient. The girl looked wan, mournful.
"Did you lose someone in the accident?" Shizuru queried without preamble.
Starting, the young girl looked at her with large amber eyes, "No," she stated, followed immediately by, "Yes. I mean – no. I don't know."
At the next floor, which was thronging with people in black – mourning weeds – the girl got off, darting a puzzled look over her shoulder before disappearing into the crowd.
"Hmm…" Shizuru hummed wordlessly to herself as the elevator trembled and shot upwards once more.
"Did you recognise that young lady?" the nurse asked gently.
But Shizuru shook her head, "No."
At last the elevator doors opened to a bright atrium, the opposite end a wall of glass leading to a garden. A few patients dotted the greenery, sitting at wooden tables and benches. The moment Shizuru stepped outside, she felt drenched in sunlight. Warmth prickled at her skin not in an unpleasant way. She soaked in the sensation. Before she could even decide whether to sit or stroll, though, her attention was snagged by movement from the shadows of afar.
At the end of the garden, a young woman lay, sprawled at the base of a tree, languishing in the dappled shade. Feet bare, her toes idly swept the verdant grass, while her fingers spun a broad leaf by its stem.
Shizuru's breath caught as though received a physical blow to the gut. Without intending to, she strode forward, steps bearing her closer until she stood in the same shade. The young woman looked up, her eyes a dark and striking green. A black, puzzled brow quirked an unspoken question at Shizuru's sudden appearance.
Finding her voice, Shizuru managed to say, "May I sit with you?"
For a moment the young woman regarded her, silent. Then she gestured to a spot beside her, "Sure. Do I know you?"
Lowering herself to the ground, Shizuru shook her head, "I'm Shizuru," she offered with a small smile.
"Natsuki," the girl replied.
The nurse, standing awkwardly to the side, asked, "Is there anything I can get you before I head off?"
"Yes," Shizuru said without turning, "We'll each have a cup of tea."
Looking down into a bowl of crystal water, scrying from the dark deep pit of Tartarus, she watched the realm of the living. Idly she twirled the measuring stick between her fingers.
Shaking her head, she muttered derisively, "Mortals..."