Shattered Realms

By Eduard Kassel and MJLCoyoteStarrk

Chapter 10: Vision Quest

Sanction was known as the "Pearl of Hueco Mundo" and with good reason. Like a pearl, it was formed by hardship and perseverance. As the name suggested, Sanction was built first as a sanctuary for the Daughters of the Sand. But it was found to be inadequate by the later Queens. So the Triples had spent subsequent generations to make their city not only as strong but as beautiful as themselves. However, Isra was only familiar with Sanction's beauty and grandeur that was, or so she was told, only rivaled by the city of Luisenbarn.

Isra was glad that Persephone decided they should rest at her private villa outside of the city before returning. It helped her to recover from the ordeal she experienced from the Sons' ambush on the Pilgrim Road. Now she was able to look at the great walls ahead of her with the same wide-eyed wonder she had the first time she saw those majestic sandstone walls.

The walls themselves were decorated with dozens of friezes depicting the Triples' history from the War of Sorrows that ended in the Great Schism to Queen Hippolyta's victory over the Sons each time they attacked while the walls surrounding Sanction were being built. Each time she and Persephone came to Sanction, Isra would look up at these friezes in wonder, and this time was no exception. She found that she could imagine being involved in any of the five Battles at the Wall, slaying Sons with a single stroke or among the First Daughters as they left Las Noches after the Great Betrayal.

Her gaze would go up in wonder at the statues of fierce and beautiful female warriors lining the top of the wall, looking out over the sands in their never-ending vigil and holding their metal weapons in defiance of any who would dare to approach with the intent of harming any within. She would bring her focus back to the road ahead she was able see the two statues of chimeras with serpent tails, lion bodies, and deer heads with majestic antlers that flanked the Chimera Gate.

The first time Isra saw them, she trembled in fear of their fierce and defiant gazes and it took Persephone's reassuring hand to get her past those looming sentinels.

Whenever Isra found herself trembling in fear, she would get angry at herself and wonder how she had been able to survive before her sister took her under her wing against the dangers of the world. However, her time alone in the desert was the past and this was the present. The present was enough. She would leave her past as empty as the desert.

They walked past the guards who lined either side of the gateway. They wore the regular uniforms of Hollow hide with disks from Hollow masks sewn onto the fabric that was typical of the regular infantry. The females had their faces covered with grey veils while the males wore grey scarves wrapped about their heads. The guards bowed when they saw Persephone while their Commander, who was marked by her white veil and uniform, raised her rapier and kissed the blade in a salute. As they passed under the arc to the other side Isra looked around her in awe.

The city itself seemed to glow with the moonlight thanks to the silver etchings of vines and pouring water winding their way up the majestic minarets and obelisks. The aquamarine quartz fitted into the arches engraved at the top of the stone domes seemed to shimmer like water.

As the name suggested, Sanction was built first as a sanctuary for the Daughters of the Sand. But it was found to be inadequate by the later Queens. So the Triples had spent subsequent generations to make their city not only as strong but as beautiful as themselves.

The clean streets were lined with buildings of solid make and varying ornamentation. The simple flat-roofed huts of the workers that were closest to the outer wall were decorated with only crude carvings made by the residents with the occasional professional work. But the further Isra and Persephone went to the heart of Sanction, the more ornate and beautiful the buildings became. The walls of the majestic palaces and temples near the inner walls that surrounded the Shark's Court were each a work of art that showcased their stone shaper's talents and artistry.

In front of the Queen's Gate that led into the Shark's Court was the Great Temple. The Pilgrim's Road continued between the two flanking stone structures, both with three alcoves occupied by a statue of Sung-Sun and Mila Rose with the central one empty. The altar that occupied the court in front of the Queen's Gate was where many pilgrimages to the Shrine began and ended. Isra found it interesting that it ran through the Temple before entering the Shark's Court. When she had asked Persephone about that, she had merely shrugged.

The road to the Queen's Gate was lined with pillars engraved with prayers and the sacred text of The Ways of the Goddess as well as various accounts that were always being renewed as more and more of the Faithful took the Vision Quest. The road led to the altar that stood in the courtyard just in front of the Shark's Court and behind the Temple. This was where the sacred feasts were held when the masses would bring their offerings to the Goddess and the Sacred Blood.

Looking over the Great Temple, from its dais above the Queen's Gate, was the statue of the Three-Faced Goddess. The face of the Queen faced forward, the Warrior faced left, and the Mother faced right. Each of the six hands, three on the left and three on the right, were holding something to reflect each of the attributes. For the Warrior, the left held a great blade while the right held the severed head of a Soul Reaper carved in stone. For the Mother, the left held a branch of the sacred crystalline trees whose roots were believed to hold all of Hueco Mundo together and the right held a pomegranate. For the Queen, the left held a scepter and the right held a laurel crown.

Isra could never look at the statue for long. It wasn't fear. She knew fear well enough to recognize it. There was just something in this work of stone that made her ill at ease. When she had left with Persephone on the Pilgrimage to The Shrine, she had been afraid of encountering something like the statue of the Three-Faced Goddess. Thankfully those fears had been unfounded. In fact, she felt that she liked the statue at the Shrine a lot better for it had a more genuine affection in it rather than religious fear.

Isra looked at the Queen's Gate with its carving depicting Harribel sitting enthroned flanked by her female children with Las Noches looming behind. Beyond it was the Shark's Court itself. She felt nervous about returning to the palaces that lay beyond the gates. It must have shown because Persephone squeezed her hand.

"It's alright, Isra," Persephone said. "There's nothing to be afraid of."

Persephone unleashed a pulse of Reiatsu. The guards on the other side of the gate recognized it for they opened the gates. Isra watched as the Court Guards clad in white uniforms with dark green sashes bound about their waists stood on either side and bowed.

Persephone led Isra through the gateway.

Isra looked at the friezes on the inner walls were decorated with scenes from the Van Harr history. The two panels on either side of the Queen's Gate showed the two states of glory of Tia Harribel, whose blood ran through the Van Harr line. The panel on the left showed her rising from the sands like Venus from the Sea, no longer a Hollow but something more: the Goddess. The panel on the right showed her at the Promised Day, ascending from the sands once more to lead the Arrancars to the Promised Land that was the World of the Living and slaying all of the demonic Soul Reapers to purify the land for her children.

Isra found herself, once again, becoming overwhelmed by the complex series of private palaces and estates connected to the Royal Palace by a series of walkways and gardens. The Shark's Court was a city unto itself, though far more elegant and its air charged by the superior Reiatsu of those who dwelled here. For all that it was also cramped with those grand structures and compounds rising high and seeming to push into each other's space.

To stray from the main road into the pathways was to invite the certain fate of getting lost. Isra had been tricked into that fate a number of times and only found her way out by climbing one of the higher walls or being found by Persephone who would have been tracking her down. A beautiful maze was no less intimidating when you found yourself caught in its winding paths and dead ends.

"Keep close, Isra," Persephone said and smiled. "Let's get cleaned and properly dressed. We don't want to get there and find the best food gone."

Later

Persephone and Isra walked on one of the walkways on their journey from Persephone's private palace where they had refreshed and changed after their journey from Persephone's private villa. Isra noticed that Persephone was as fearless as always.

And she knows where she's going, Isra thought as she kept hold of Persephone's hand. If it was me, I would get lost.

Isra looked down and smiled as her free hand touched the soft and smooth silk fabric of the silvery blue peplos she wore. Two gold clasps shaped like birds held the folds of the fabric in place just above her small breasts. A belt of green silk looped through a series of gold rings was fastened around her waist.

Persephone was dressed in one of her more formal outfits, a backless gown made of Hollow hide dyed dark green and lined with thick silver fur. The hide was held in place at the neck by a gold gorget with etchings of vines in silver and emerald chips to serve as leaves. A leather belt with metal studs was fastened around her waist just above the tops of her buttocks where the Hollow hide gown met in the back at a V. Isra admired how well-toned her sister's shoulders and back were.

She was rather self-conscious about her own body and so did not like to wear anything too revealing, unlike many of the Van Harr women who were not afraid to flaunt their well-toned and well-endowed bodies. By contrast to their tanned and curvy beauty, Isra felt like she was nothing but a slab of pale stone.

Persephone turned her head slightly and saw Isra's downcast expression.

"Worried?"

Isra nodded her head. She was worried about so many things, but she was most worried about doing something that would make everyone angry at her. She knew that her mere presence in the Shark's Court put many of the other Van Harrs on edge, especially Queen Freya. But that didn't stop her from hoping they would come to like her and doing what she could to make that happen.

Persephone smiled and put a hand on her slender shoulder.

"You'll be fine. I'll be sitting right next to you throughout the banquet."

Isra smiled a little under her veil.

Persey knows how to make it alright, she thought.

As they approached one of the entrances to the Royal Palace, the servants who were busy sweeping the porch stopped their work and bowed. The women's veils hung down from the crimson dyed twine. Isra could clearly see the turquoise diamond tattoo on their foreheads that marked them as property to the Van Harr family. That mark was not only a mark of ownership but also of protection for one does not lightly tamper with a Van Harr's valued property.

The men also had their heads bowed. They bore the same tattoo, but unlike the women their heads and faces were completely shaven. Even their eyebrows had been shaved off. Their smooth faces were powdered. This was done to show them for what they were: eunuchs. It was custom for any man to directly serve the Royal Family was to either already be or to become castratus. Some met the knife reluctantly, but many were willing to castrate themselves for the honor of serving the Sacred Blood. And of course the privileges it brought. But Isra had few thoughts for that.

"You may continue," Persephone said as she passed.

The servants didn't say anything. They only bowed deeper before returning to sweeping the floors or beating the tapestries or polishing some of the marble statues. Persephone sighed at the effect of her presence.

"I forget how tiresome all of the formality can be. I guess that's what happens when palace life doesn't suit you."

"What do you mean, Persey? I thought you liked living the good life."

Persephone let out a small chuckle and shook her head.

"Isra, when you've lived the soldier's life and return to palace life, you realize just how boring palace life truly is and how very pointless so many of the matters that the Court exerts itself over truly are."

They made their way on the marble-tiled floors. Tall fluted columns decorated with stone vines rose on either side of them. The luminescent crystal glittered in the flickering light of torches from the fire basins that stood at every other column, releasing the sweet aroma of burning incense. Servants scurried about, stopping to bow before a member of the Sacred Blood. Isra could tell that Persephone found the whole thing to be annoying.

Soon, they could see the doors that led into the Hall of the Queens. The doors were open and Isra could see the Shark Throne on its dais at the very end of the hall. She was awe-struck with the way the aquamarine quartz it was made form seemed to glimmer with the firelight that lit it from behind. The seat was decorated with silver etchings of waves and large gold-etched sharks' teeth ran down the sides like scales.

Too bad it doesn't have a cushion, Isra thought as she looked at the bare seat. It must not be very comfortable to sit on all day. Poor Freya!

As they entered the room, Isra looked at the tall Corinthian columns and the two rows of statues running down the hall to the Shark Throne. Each statue was of one of the Queens who ruled over the Triples. The first was of Queen Penelope who, along with Lady Apacci, led the Triples away from Las Noches. Next to the statue of Queen Penelope was the statue of Queen Andromeda, her sister, who had begun to forge the Queen's domain through military conquest and had even begun the construction of the Shrine. Isra looked down the rows of statues, trying to recall her lessons on their names and their achievements. Each Queen longed to surpass the one who came before and they usually did. But Queen Andromeda and Queen Hippolyta, who had founded the city of Sanction, were the two who had yet to be surpassed. And many Triples believed that they would never be surpassed.

Persephone led her away from the central aisle to the porch that ran along the outer-edge of the palace. Isra began to feel nervous. As they passed the statue of Queen Andromeda, Isra could have sworn that the statue watched them pass and that the stone eyes moved slightly to glare at her in disapproval.

Don't be ridiculous. They're only statues and everyone knows that statues can't move.

As they neared the porch, Isra grabbed the Hollow hide of Persephone's gown as if to keep her balance. Persephone smiled at her.

"Don't be nervous my innocent," she whispered as she patted Isra's shoulder. "You'll do fine."

"But what if…?"

"You'll do fine. You mustn't let fear become the goal otherwise that which you fear will come true. Just focus on me if you have to. Okay?"

"Okay."

"Alright then, just stay close to me and you'll be fine."

They stepped onto the large terrace into air filled with chatter and light wavering flute music.

The banquet was divided into long curving tables. The ones closest to the entryway were reserved for the lesser nobles who lived in the Shark's Court. The males sat with their backs to the entryway. Isra watched as their chatter died down as they turned to witness Persephone's arrival. She felt a mixture of pride and sorrow at the naked awe they had for Persephone. She was proud to have such a wonderful sister, but she doubted they even registered her presence.

They made their way past the tables for the lesser nobles to the tables that were the property of the elites, the hierarchs and matriarchs presiding over their own tables, even as the company mixed with women drifting from table-to-table. The men sat freely with the women here. She had been told that achieving this level of rank made their worth more apparent. Isra noticed that there were so few unveiled faces in this section. But she failed to notice that there were far fewer who looked at Persephone at these tables than the previous one.

Then there was the High Table. Raised on a dais, its oval shape was crafted out of the finest aquamarine quartz etched with gold and rested on marble legs sculpted to look like swimming sharks.

Isra looked away as they reached the steps leading up. Persephone waved on a serving woman with an empty tray who had stopped to bow to her. She noticed Isra stopping.

Normally this was where they would have parted ways with Persephone to dine with the Royal Family while Isra would dine with the servants. It was true that Isra could have taken a seat in the elite section since she was technically a member of the Royal Family, but she trusted her sister far more with the servants than the lesser sharks of the Court.

But this was not a time to accommodate her sister's timidity. It was time to give her a gentle push. She would have to learn to swim with the bigger sharks.

"Isra," she said gently. The veil made her large eyes all the more prominent when she looked up from her sandals. Persephone thought that with a little confidence she could have plenty of suitors.

And when that happens I'll have to instruct her in the fine arts of Love. She won't be thrilled with that. Her mind's too young to be thrilled by that kind of instruction. But she might like the instructions in dancing.

Isra gave a tiny nod and walked up the steps onto the dais.

"Ah, Persephone and little Isra, the city brightens at the return of such fine daughters," a rich cultured male voice called. Persephone smiled while her sister practically beamed as one of the men at the table pushed his chair back and got to his feet.

"Father," Persephone greeted.

"Gran—I mean Lord Orion," Isra said bowing.

"Don't be so nervous Isra. Perhaps you should call me Orion tonight." He patted Isra on the shoulder.

The former prince was a man of significant height and thin build with a weathered complexion. His light green hair was pulled back in a shoulder length pony tail that revealed a handsome angular face. But his dark eyes betrayed his age. Even though they were now filled with delight wariness still lingered in them. He was dressed in a long sleeved suit of white with a dark blue short cloak clasped with a golden shark. He wore the dark cap of a scholar on his head.

"I see you still haven't updated your sense of fashion," Persephone remarked.

"Bah, when you reach my age fashion seems to change too often to bother keeping up with. At this rate it will be back in style again in no time," he answered with a sly look.

"Oh really? And what are the chances of that happening again?" Persephone demanded playfully.

"Well, considering that you told me it wouldn't even happen once, you will forgive me if I ignore your sage counsel in the matter of fashionable hides," Orion said as he bowed his head.

"Must I forgive you?" she asked with a sigh of exaggerated exasperation.

"I think you look nice," Isra said.

"Well thank you. It's good to know that someone finds my sense of style agreeable. And I must say that you look very lovely, Isra. You wrap yourself as a secret that people will want to unravel. An allure beyond a contest of displayed Hierro," Orion told her. Persephone quirked an eyebrow as Isra blushed and glanced down to the displayed cleavage of her rather small bust.

"And what were you saying about displaying Hierro?" Persephone demanded.

"You honor the Goddess in whatever you wear. Now hurry along, the Queen hates to be kept waiting," Orion said stepping between the two in order to nudge them onward.

Isra giggled and put a hand to her veil while Persephone rolled her eyes.

It's too bad that he'll be the most pleasant company for the evening, Persephone thought.

Persephone's keen eyes spotted something that did not belong at the balcony's ornamental railing. It was an Arrancar girl with raven hair that had been mostly shaved off leaving only a mohawk with a long tail that had been tied into a bell-laced braid that glistened with perfumed oil. Her attire was scandalous. The woman was only dressed in a gold and gem-studded girdle around her waist with a long, narrow purple-dyed Hollow hide covering her womanhood. Her breasts were bare. But what made her fury uncoil coldly in her chest was the gold collar studded with rubies and amethysts about her neck and the chain that ran from the collar that was locked to the railing.

"Aphrodite," she whispered coldly.

"Persey?" Isra asked not catching the word.

Her only answer was her older sister taking her hand as they continued past the unfortunate. Isra looked at the chained girl curiously and raised her free hand in a wave. The girl looked back with empty eyes. She gave no response.

Persephone noted this from the corner of her eye. But more pressing matters were in front of her.

Queen Freya's seat was lacking in ornamentation, as was custom, for gatherings like this. And a table in a more circular shape did not have a proper head. This was meant to show a degree of family unity amongst the members of the Van Harr family before the masses.

Naturally it was bullshit.

There was more space between Queen Freya's chair and those flanking it. This made her stand out subtly but clearly. And everyone knew the favor of the day rested on those who sat in those chairs on either side of her. Just now one of Freya's daughters sat to her right, a purple-clad woman whose wavy blonde hair nearly touched the floor.

Persephone recalled that her name was Artemis. She wasn't as spoiled as some of the others, but she still had that air of entitlement typical of a Van Harr. She noticed that further down the table were the twin siblings, Oedipus and Electra, and judging from how close their hands were to the other's groin she figured that those Court rumors were true. But there was little evidence to support some of the other rumors about those two. But it didn't really matter to her. Such things were traditional and were encouraged as a way to keep the Sacred Blood pure.

And they're perfect for each other, she thought. They're both spoiled and ambitious little shits.

Further down, sitting as sulky as ever was one of the few Van Harrs who truly liked Isra, although Isra was still nervous around him. She supposed that the reason he liked Isra was that he was something of an outsider himself. Unlike the other siblings he was as pale as alabaster. His eyes were a pale lilac color and his crinkly white hair was held back by a gold ring. He was Jon Van Harr, but people simply called him either "The Albino" or "Sand Face." He looked up and gave a small smile when he saw Persephone and Isra. He raised his crystal goblet in greeting and Isra only lifted her hand in a shy greeting of her own.

She saw that the chair to Queen Freya's left was empty, waiting for her. The chair meant for Isra was occupied by a thin-looking Acolyte with pale blue hair.

"Ah Persephone, I see that you've come before my presence a hero yet again. Though I suppose someone of your distinction grows tired of accolades," Queen Freya greeted politely. She turned slightly in her chair to face the newcomers, but she did not rise from her seat of power.

To her any seat she occupies is a throne, Persephone had long since noted.

Queen Freya Van Harr was the latest in the line of Andromeda as Queen of the Triples. She was Defender of the Shrine by obligations handed down through the generations from Queen Andromeda. And she was heir to Hippolyta as Queen of Sanction and the Shield and Sword of the Daughters of the Sands.

And by her ambition she would be Queen of All Believers, Persephone thought with a grimace.

Her resemblance to the Goddess was uncanny. What could be seen of her face was like something out of the carvings. Her skin tone was credited by Apacci herself as being proper. Her spiky blonde hair was styled in the same manner. And, like most Queens, her royal attire mimicked the Espada uniform of Tia Harribel.

The only difference that Persephone could see was that Freya's breasts were notably smaller. But then again it was difficult to tell since the depictions of the Goddess's breasts usually bordered on the ridiculous.

"Most Feminine and Mighty Queen, there seems to have been a misunderstanding," Persephone bowed slightly. Freya raised a blonde eyebrow as though saying "Oh…is that so?" Persephone felt the smaller hand in hers tighten its grip. She gave a reassuring squeeze but never took her eyes off her niece.

Are we truly to engage in a contest of wills? I remember you as a wide-eyed yearling on my knee, Freya. You tried to tug my veil down as you did with everyone out of curiosity. Oh, and I remember how you would cheat at Hunter-and-Prey. And you would hide under the table because you would dare peak under your mother's gown.

And in those days I had already shed enough blood to be sick of it, Persephone thought. Queen Freya did not look away from Persephone's gaze.

"No, there is no misunderstanding," Freya said. "Sister Siona's feet grew tired while she was talking and she needed to rest for a little bit. Sister Siona, the seat's true occupant has arrived. I would advise that you hurry along to your other Sisters," Freya said without breaking her gaze from Persephone.

Sister Siona rose from the seat and glared darkly at Persephone and Isra. Persephone looked away from Freya and did not look at the Sister. She was not here to fight. Then she saw who Sister Siona had been talking to and her eyes widened.

Oh shit, she thought as Isra happily took her seat. Isra picked up the silver plate before her. It was empty and polished to reflect. Isra was studying herself in its reflection to make sure her black streak was prominent.

Sitting next to her adopted little sister was Aphrodite Van Harr. And she looked pleased. Persephone could not remember the last time that look had meant anything good from her deviant younger sister.

"Ah Isra I see that you're as adorable as ever. It's such a shame that you have to hide such a pretty face," Aphrodite greeted as she leaned into Isra's personal space. The smaller Arrancar leaned away to make up for the lost space. To Persephone's pleasant surprise, Isra managed an answer.

"I'm a real woman now," Isra said shyly as she tugged on her veil.

Persephone saw that, for once, Aphrodite was actually wearing her own veil. But her veil was decorated with ornate patterns of purple and gold and crimson. The rest of her outfit was like the veil. It was ostentatious and skirted even the Royal Family's lines of decency, especially with how much of her bosom it revealed and how sheer the fabric was.

"I see that you're wearing your own," Persephone added as she sat down. She plucked Isra's plate from the girl's hands and reached to fill it up with the girl's favorite foods and some delicacies from the gardens that she was certain Isra had not tried.

"Her majesty insisted I wear one if I was to attend! Honestly, what is the point of beauty if you can't flaunt it?" the deviant royal whined.

"Van Harrs do not parade around like a bunch of vain Octavians or those…Sex Epsilons," Freya cut in briskly before sipping her moss wine under her own veil. Persephone gave a nod of agreement while the younger Van Harr rolled her eyes.

"You should try some before slandering them my dear kinswoman. Male or female, they pleasure you to the point that mere fornication can no longer satisfy afterward," Aphrodite sighed sensually. They could see her tongue press out against her veil in a swift licking motion.

"My dear kinswoman, must you be so vulgar about such things?" Persephone growled. Aphrodite giggled as she swirled the greenish wine in her glass.

"You are so funny, Persephone," Aphrodite said airily. "I think it's cute that you're trying to stay so old fashioned. In Octavia no one lets such prudishness get in the way of natural desires. I'm sure your girl could use a break." Aphrodite let out a chuckle as she turned her eyes down. Then she blinked in surprise when she saw that Isra was gone. Persephone smiled a little. Aphrodite had learned just how sneaky the little girl could be. Only one thing could ruin the experience of seeing Aphrodite actually disappointed.

"It seems as though your ward has given you the slip," Freya said. "And here I thought you were actually responsible to teach the little thing proper manners."

Persephone resisted the urge to glare at Freya. She had a feeling that this would not be a pleasant evening.

Isra

Isra popped a piece batter-coated fungus into her mouth and was thrilled with how it seemed to melt in her mouth coating her tongue. She would have to find out what it was called. She didn't like the bad air at her seat and so she decided to try somewhere else for a while.

This little act of adventure excited her. She thought she would talk to her grandfather but saw that he was engaged in conversation.

Now what do I do?

The fact that she shared no blood with these people was lost on her. They shared a name and she was told they were family. And as far as she was concerned they were family. But at times it didn't feel right with some of them.

Lady Aphrodite was one example. Isra always had the feeling that the woman was making fun of her even when they weren't talking to each other. And there was something not right about the way she would get close to her.

With her child-like logic, Isra decided to sit on the floor since the table wasn't looking available. Then she remembered that someone else was sitting on the floor as well. The idea of making a new friend excited her. She found the unveiled, nearly naked girl with strange hair and plopped down next to her.

"Hi, I'm Isra! What's your name?" she greeted as she leaned against the railings. The other girl looked at her with an odd expression that Isra couldn't place. But she was here to make a new friend; so she pressed on. "You don't have a veil. It's okay. I only just got mine. You'll love it when you go to the Shrine. It can be a bit scary being somewhere so sacred. But it's a good kind of scary. You'll look pretty with a veil. I like mine because it covers my mask fragment."

She received no answer and the girl actually looked away from her. Isra was desperate. She really wanted to have someone fun to talk to. Then she remembered the weight in her hands. In her excitement she had forgotten she had taken it with her.

"Are you hungry?" she asked and held out her plate.

The strange girl looked at it and then at Isra. She reached out with a hesitant hand and Isra nodded as she held the tray closer to her.

A short time later, Isra was beaming as she returned with a newly laden plate. She had given little care to what she grabbed. She only wanted to fill it up quickly. Her new friend had practically inhaled the food and had actually smiled at her! Very few of the people in the Shark Court had smiled at her. That brought the number of people who did so in a friendly manner up to four!

She knelt down in front of the girl and held out the plate. The girl grabbed at and devoured the food.

"You know, I might have to have Persey teach you manners. That way you can sit at the table with the others," Isra said.

She cocked her head as she looked at the chain and collar. Even though it looked pretty it also looked very uncomfortable.

Then her new friend stopped eating and looked off with wide eyes. Isra was about to glance to see what the problem was when her new friend shoved her. She fell on her back, the remaining contents of her plate spilled on her peplos.

"OH NO!" Isra cried out as she tried to wipe herself off before her favorite dress was ruined. Her eyes were wet as she pulled herself to look at her friend. The girl gestured wildly for her to leave.

How did I mess up this time?

As Isra tried to figure out what she did wrong a hand came down on her head and began stroking her hair. It wasn't Persephone.

"Aw, how cute, are you getting along with my new pet?" Aphrodite asked. The nearly nude girl put her fists to her eyes and began to rock.

"Pet? No, I was talking to her," Isra said pointing to the girl confused.

"She's the new pet I got on my latest visit to Octavia. I call her Lulu. Isn't that such a cute name?" Aphrodite cooed as she continued to stroke Isra's head.

"But…but Arrancars are people, not pets," Isra frowned and cocked her head in thought. "Pets are lizards or maybe a Hollow badger or…or that Hollow leopard that the representative from Luisenbarn, the Eunuch, has."

"Oh it's such a shame that you're being raised by someone so old fashioned. I could show you things in Octavia that would open your eyes to the possibilities of a world without silly veils and ridiculous rules. I could show you a world where perfection is achieved through beauty enhancements and instant gratification.

"Persephone has such a dangerous lifestyle. If anything were ever to happen to her, you should know that I would take very, very good care of you my little dove," Aphrodite cooed as she stroked Isra's cheek. "Yes, you're such an adorable little do—KHAAK!" Aphrodite began to wheeze. The hand stopped stroking Isra's cheek and she looked back to see Aphrodite on the floor. She was lying on her back. Her hands were on her neck as the air around her distorted.

Persephone stood over her. Her sword hand was stretched out and seemed to be strangling the air.

"You gilded piece of filth," she snarled. Chairs were pushed back from the tables. "How dare you touch my innocent Isra? You are a disgrace to all Triples. And you're Reiatsu is so very weak. It would be as simple and satisfying as crushing a sand beetle."

Aphrodite wheezed and pulled a trench knife from her belt. Isra realized that it was her sealed Resurrección from the way the blade's Reiatsu and Aphrodite's merged when it was grasped. Holding it seemed to do her no good as Persephone knelt over her. Aphrodite let out a choked cry as Persephone's Reiatsu pressed her into the floor which began to crack around her with an audible crunching sound.

Persey has the scary eyes again, Isra thought as she saw the look on her sister's face.

A weight fell over the scene that caused some of the weaker Arrancars to fall to their knees or sprawl on the ground, struggling for breath. Isra was accustomed to Persephone's Reiatsu and so it did not bother her as much as it would have under other circumstances. Aphrodite gasped as she struggled against the crushing Reiatsu.

"That is enough, Lady Persephone. I order you to release her in the name of your Queen," Freya called out in a rather amused tone. The Arrancars who were still able to move turned to see that the Queen was still seated in her chair and had turned her chair to view the scene.

For the space of a heartbeat, Persephone did nothing. Then she let out a hiss as she closed her hand into a fist. Aphrodite was still coughing when she sprang and slashed Persephone across the belly. The fur-lined hide parted, but the skin revealed did not show any sign of being damaged.

Persephone sighed as if nothing had happened and held out her hand to Isra. Isra sprang up and grabbed the hand quickly. Relief washed over her.

"You filthy barbarian," Aphrodite spat after she had regained her breath. "You've shown that you've become nothing more than a mere soldier, more fit for the squalor of the borderlands than the glory of Sanction."

"And you've shown that you are nothing but a Daughter of the Mantis," Persephone whispered loud enough to be heard. The nobles gathered and even some of the servants gasped. Aphrodite's eyes blazed with rage.

"How…DARE YOU! You would dare to compare me to those savages. I may take their tongues and claws, but my pets want for nothing. They're better off living under my leash than they would as wild savages. Your outdated principles and values are not the final word on proper behavior."

Some in the crowd murmured agreement. Others looked away clearly uncomfortable with the scene unfolding before them.

"And yet without those values we would be little more than wild beasts," Persephone said. She looked at the girl whose dead eyes practically wept with relief seeing Isra under someone's protection. "Have we become no better than those we rightfully hate? Are we to become so civilized that we become little better than the Soul Reaper devils?"

There was silence. Then someone began to applaud. All eyes turned to where Jon "The Albino" Van Harr was standing, clapping his hands, smiling.

"Very well said," he said in his smooth voice. "It's about time someone asked the hard questions around here."

"Shut up you heap of filth, Sand Face," Aphrodite snarled. Jon Van Harr only shrugged as he took up his crystal goblet.

"I salute you, Persephone Van Harr. It's about time a shark decided to go after another shark in the open instead of plotting in the shadows."

Persephone only nodded. Then she felt a tug at her hand. She looked down and saw Isra looking up at her and then she pointed to the chained Arrancar.

"Can't we do something to help her?" Isra whispered.

Persephone turned to look at Queen Freya.

"Your majesty," Persephone said.

Queen Freya did not say anything. Instead she looked away.

"I demand an apology," Aphrodite sneered as she got back on her feet and sheathed her blade. "Do you hear me? I demand an apology from you as is my right as a Guest of Honor for the new treaty with Octavia!"

"Oh…are we allied with them now as well?" Jon Van Harr asked in an exaggerated tone. Aphrodite's eyes snapped to glare at him. "You're not going to ask me to apologize for asking a simple question, are you?"

"Filthy albino scum," Aphrodite snarled and then glared at her elder sister. "Well…I'm waiting. Apologize or leave."

Persephone glared at her niece and shook her head. There was no way she would apologize to someone who would behave more like a Son and call it "civilized".

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged in how they treat those in chains, she thought as she looked at the weeping slave.

"Your majesty, I thank you for your hospitality. But it seems we need rest more than celebration. The food and wine of the Shark Court is as fine as ever."

Persephone gave a small bow before she led Isra away from the table.

But in other ways the finery has long since frayed or been shredded. It has since been replaced with the delusions of grandeur and the folly of unrestrained vanity disguised as that pretty lie known as civilization, she thought. She felt her father's eyes on her, accusing and demanding.

I know dear father. But I couldn't be Queen regardless of how much you may think I should be. How could I do the things it would demand of me?

Many looked on her with anger or fear, and others looked on her with adoration right now with the innocent girl, who knew nothing of the dark secrets that the Shark Court hid in the shadows, in tow. She didn't know which side she felt most uncomfortable with. But regardless they were her people.

Wind Song Fortress

The One True God-King stood in the Steel Wing Hall apart from Lord Edwyn, who waited respectfully, as he inspected the relief carved behind the High Seat. The relief depicted Cirucci Sanderwicci clad in a long gown. Her face was marred by the deformed fragment that had regrown from her crippled Reiatsu. God-King Benvolio reached out to run a finger over the carving depicting the misshapen fragment that had grown to replace the one that the Last Quincy had destroyed.

"It is only proper to honor one's ancestors in the Lord's Hall. However, it is supposed to show them in their glory, not their shame. Yet it was the same at Broken Hill. Why do you Tumas depict your matriarch at her nadir instead of clad in her steel wings?"

Edwyn Tuma looked past the mighty Arrancar to the sand and yet proud face carved into the wall. Even though there were still traces of haughtiness in that face, the pride in the stone face was closer to the kind that could only be earned from surviving a great ordeal. There was a time when he would have agreed with his master, but now he could only find that face beautiful. The misshapen mask seemed to only highlight the beauty and not diminish it.

"It is her glory, my God-King," Edwyn replied. "Look down at her belly if it pleases your majesty."

God-King Benvolio glanced down and. He saw that the swelling carved there was noticeable but still confinable to the gown. He knew the swelling from the number of ceremonies he oversaw. It was the swelling of an early stage Breeder.

"Our line did not spring from two Privaron," Edwyn said, his voice filled with sorrow. "It sprang from a Privaron and a woman who was looked down on and ridiculed for her defeat. We do not know if the Last Quincy was being merciful or cruel to take away a warrior's pride and power as he did.

"Everyone thought that Skullak should have simply brushed her aside. After all, a cripple was no fit bride for the Commandant of the Privaron. Even she expected it. Cirucci was prepared to crawl into the sands and die alone. However, his word was iron. She was his mate and he would not abandon her or let her destroy herself. As you know Sire, this is where our words originated.

"That was her only brood and even then it was small, only seven. It killed her to give her beloved mate children. It took years for her to die from it, but her sacrifice ensured that House Tuma would come to be. That is strength. That is a source of true pride, your holiness," Edwyn recounted warmly.

Silence fell when Edwyn finished. The God-King stared at the depiction and then turned away in silence. He stepped up to the High Seat and took his entitled place on it. He looked down at the Lord of Wind Song, his expression unreadable, and his eyes hard.

"I seem to recall the tale. It must have been when I was young during the reign of God-King Lorenzo," he said.

There was a long silence as God-King Benvolio closed his eyes in either deep thought or lost in old memories. Lord Tuma could do nothing but wait as the silence became more and more awkward. However, he had a feeling that the God-King would go from his usual stoic silence into another of his long-winded speeches. Edwyn had witnessed at least two such speeches before and knew that Benvolio would begin as he usually began: dwelling on the past.

"In those days being God-King truly meant something, Lord Tuma. Every Luisenbarnian knew how to follow the proper customs and procedures when it came to respecting their betters and treating their inferiors. Those were days when the Holy Luisenbarn Empire was truly strong and could stand on its own two feet. Then those times gave way to the reign of those who were unworthy to sit on the Skull Throne," the God-King growled with disgust. He looked at Edwyn, clearly expecting him to say something.

"Sire, your predecessors made Luisenbarn the grandest city in all of The Night," Lord Edwyn said cautiously. Every Luisenbarnian knew that even deposed God-Kings were risky to insult. Only the current occupant of the Skull Throne could insult those who came before with true impunity.

"The vain fools emptied our treasury in making the city needlessly suit their tastes. God-King Nicholas weakened the army and all but ignored the borghese in order to make the palaces larger and more ornate while God-King Philippe plundered the temples to give the masses their panem et circenses. Then God-King Caligula weakened the frontiers and forced the mates of the cavalieri including his own sisters and mother to become whores in order to decorate his halls with worthless baubles and fill the windows with colored quartz and fill his harem with Sex Epsilons.

"No amount of splendor or paramours makes up for the treasure lost or the degradation of Arrancars forced into tasks beneath their station or insulting to their person because he sold off too many of the borghese.

"Madness and disgrace, that's all that the Holy Capital of Luisenbarn is filled with now. Even I must pay the Octavians for my predecessors' debts while they heap even more debt on my head. Those Octavians are little better than filthy human plutocratic leeches, ensuring their survival by making the strong financially weak and preying on those too weak to stand on their own feet. I must raid abroad and be little more than a slaver or else my own subjects will become playthings for their Alphas.

"When I visit them I must reduce myself to a mere mummer even though I am certain that their horrid Director knows what I'm doing and plays along as though I was little more than a yearling. That damn Dorian Narciss treats me as though I was as significant as an insect crossing his path and the way he looks at me…. He thinks he has more power than I, the One True God-King of Hueco Mundo!"

God-King Benvolio tightened his hand into a fist. The control this ruler of The Night had over his Reiatsu was legendary, but the small wisps that Edwyn detected crackled with the force of his displeasure.

"What kind of God bows before his debtors, Lord Tuma? What kind of God makes a fool of himself for their amusement in hopes of getting an extended grace period on a loan? What sort of God can't fill his coffers? What sort of God must win spoils only to turn them over to another?" Benvolio growled.

"Sire, God-King Caligula was a strong warrior. That's how he became God-King and he was replaced by someone stronger," Edwyn said.

"'Caligula the Crazed,'" Benvolio said and snorted, "that's what we call him now. When he first came to power we did not realize what he truly was: a reflection of his ancient namesake. We only saw him as a great warrior and foolishly thought his strength would undo the weakness that Nicholas and Philippe allowed to fester in the Holy Empire.

"But what good is this? One could pine for the mistakes of the past all they want but it won't undo anything. We put him on the throne and he let the spiders scurry about to fulfill his vanity while he killed so many for his insanity's sake," Benvolio rumbled. Edwyn hoped that the God-King had said enough to satisfy this part of his lecture, but it became apparent that Benvolio hadn't said all that he wanted to say.

"It didn't matter who he killed: men, women, even yearlings. All that mattered for him were the voices in his head. When the voices told him to hold a feast and provide panem et circenses for the masses, he did. When the voices told him to send his men out into the Borderlands and slaughter entire strongholds, he did. He became so paranoid towards the end that he even had his own broods and pregnant mates slaughtered."

"Those were dark times, your majesty. My clan paid our price for serving him," Edwyn said.

"Price? You speak as if the tragedy at Broken Hill was deserved. No clan deserves to suffer an atrocity like that. Massacres are one thing, but the Sons are something else." Benvolio glared at Edwyn from the corner of his eyes. "Caligula betrayed your family by aiding the Sons to overthrow Broken Hill. The Sons, in turn, made the sole surviving male castratus and many of the women were taken to the Empire of the Mantis."

Edwyn didn't wince at the reminder of the massacre that maimed one of the three remaining branches of House Tuma. The fate of his female kinsmen was not discussed for no words were needed. All knew the fate that women met when taken by the Sons. Even after all those years that night was an inescapable scar for Cirucci's descendants.

The only reason I can call myself "Lord of the Tumas" is because so many branches have been cut from the family tree. To think that our own words caused Tuma to destroy Tuma time and time again, Edwyn thought.

"We survived, your grace, and have found our place in your reign," Lord Edwyn said. He hoped that the God-King would be placated enough to not reenter his tirade.

"Do not talk around the subject," Benvolio said. "I get enough of that at court. Perhaps you don't truly understand like Skullak didn't when everything fell apart in Las Noches. He thought he could hold it all together despite reality. In the end, it was a rash oath that killed him. He never truly understood that sometimes iron is the worst thing for an oath to be made of.

"Sometimes honor is only another word for foolishness," Benvolio said and shook his head sadly.

"Then why did you wish to see me, your grace?" Edwyn asked. He realized that he should have known better than to hope Benvolio would stop his long-winded speech before he had said all he wanted to say. As far as vices went, Edwyn thought that being long-winded was relatively tame compared to others.

At least he's trying to do the right thing for his people, Edwyn thought.

"I came because Luisenbarn is withering," the God King said as he walked along the wall with its depictions of scenes from the Tuma's history. Edwyn was glad that the God-King was now presenting the facts concerning the current situation. "To make it worse, the decay is coming from within. That rot is that cult of the so-called 'Great Mother'. The number of its followers grows every year. There are even men who disgrace themselves by becoming eunuchs to show their devotion.

"It would be one thing if it was just the borghese, but my informatori tell me that a number of the cavalieri are secretly worshiping Harribel.

"We can confine the open believers to the Palazzo di Eresia, but these secret conversions are a pestilence. Luisenbarn was built and is maintained on the authority of its God-Kings. If its people start worshiping other gods, especially those that are tied utterly to a foreign dynasty, then it threatens the very existence of the Holy Luisenbarn Empire.

"We both know that Freya Van Harr is an ambitious bitch. Even though her words are polite, they are laced with veiled threats. It's not enough for her to be 'Queen of Sanction' or even 'Queen of the Triples.' Instead, she would rather call herself 'Queen of the Believers.' That includes those believers who dwell in my domain and are therefore my subjects."

God-King Benvolio turned and faced Edwyn who was now beginning to understand why the God-King came here.

"What do you do with an arm infected with rot or disease?" Benvolio asked. Before Edwyn could reply, Benvolio answered. "You cut it off. However, disease and rot can still return, with more ferocity than before if the stump isn't purified properly.

"The same is true with this situation. If I bring the needed steel down to cut this infection from my realm it will mean war with both Sanction and The Shrine. Who knows how many traitors will raise steel against me?"

"Surely the Shark's daughters would not commit to such a war. The Sons have been growing in power, and the Triples will need their warriors for the ancient Blood Feud," Edwyn answered.

Benvolio nodded, but pursed his lips in thought.

"That may be, but that is not how their Queen sees it. She is not a soldier like her aunt, Persephone, or her grand-mother, Juno. Freya is like her mother. She's a ruler who knows palaces better than battlefields. She never really grew up. From all the times I've dealt with the Queen of Bitches, she's always struck me as a spoiled little brat, used to getting her own way." He smiled a little. "Someday, she'll have to face reality and I hope to be there. I want to see her bound in chains and being dragged through the desert in disgrace. It would serve her right for ignoring the advice of those with the wisdom of experience, like Persephone.

"I met her once, Persephone the Despoiler. It was during the Great Swarm when even Pantera was threatened by those malformed monstrosities vomited from the mountains. Unbeknownst to either of us we both led troops against an Eater pack ravaging the borderlands.

"I was enraged by the devastation the Eaters caused and crossed the border in pursuit."

Benvolio frowned.

"She claimed to have rescued me from my stupidity, but in the end her women did not need to draw their blades. Between the two of us even the Eater swarm was short work. I got to truly know what kind of Arrancar she is from that fight.

"Persephone would see as you do, but not Queen Freya. She wants glory. When Freya looks at the Sons she sees that they have two cities and therefore she must also have two cities or else be seen as the Queen who fell behind the Triples' most bitter rivals.

"I face two options. Either I give in to her prods about protecting those who follow the 'Great Mother' in my domain and thus lose my power to the Shark Throne piece by piece. Or I will be forced into a war that will end in our defeat. We will lose because, even if we defeat the Shark and the Deer, there is still the Mantis, ready to pounce on a weakened victor.

"And the Mantis's influence is here as well!" Benvolio shouted.

"What?" Edwyn asked, shocked. "That's…that's impossible."

"Clearly you don't understand. A number of men feel threatened by the goddess. Most cling to the old ways with great ferocity and are thus loyal to me. However, there are men who look to the Mantis for salvation.

"The proof is that some of my men discovered a chattel. The poor creature was chained in a cave outside the city. She was freshly mutilated; not imported from those nightmarish pits in Tesla. They profaned my authority by performing that obscene ritual in my city!"

Lord Tuma found that he could not say anything. The shock was too great. Benvolio looked at him and nodded.

"Yes, what does one say when madness presses in on all sides?" He sighed.

"Luisenbarn is the one city of The Night where an Arrancar is not treated as vermin for their birth. Whether they are male or female, one can rise to greater heights based on merit. Yes, the weak still serves the strong, but there is pride in that service. Some kind of hierarchy must be maintained otherwise there would be no true greatness and thus nothing to strive for. We also do not give ourselves to obscenity or make things unnatural like the Octavians with their obsession for perfection.

"We are the hope of our race, Lord Tuma, and the barbarians are at the gates. The Sons and the Triples are pressing on either side of us with both threatening to overthrow us if we do not side with them. The Octavians are hounding me for payment of my predecessors' debts and will most likely force me to enslave all of my people. If we are to prevail against them then Luisenbarn needs its most noble and most able vassals manning the walls. Luisenbarn needs the Tumas.

"I need you at the Tribunale di Teschi as my Prima Spada," Benvolio declared, his voice solemn.

Edwyn expected it, but that did not make the declaration even less surprising. The honor being named "Prima Spada" was one that he feared would be set upon him as the Prime Spade of the past God-Kings were known to meet with unfavorable ends. However, he could not refuse. Benvolio's tone told Edwyn that this was not a request. It was an order. He bowed, baring his neck to the God-King and wondered if any of the other members of the Corte Spade would wield the blade to cut it.

Sanction

Persephone opened the stone door and breathed in the night air deeply as she stepped out into one of the Shark's Court's many moonlit gardens. The garden nearly covered the entirety of the large balcony. Walk-paths of stepping stones smoothed by Reiatsu with crushed stone in between wound through the beds of bio-luminescent plants. Persephone looked down the central walk-path lined with the tops of the crystalline trees that had been cut down and planted in pits of sand on either side to the far end. She could see the stone balustrade with the silvery moon-serpent ivy winding their way up the balusters shaped to look like kneeling men supporting the stone rail on their backs. The ever-constant crescent moon shone from its place in the black sky above, bathing all with its silver light.

Persephone took another deep breath of the plants' sharp sweet perfume as she walked the central path. Her hands were tucked behind her back in a manner suited for a military commander inspecting the troops than a lady strolling through the garden. She turned down one of the side-paths, looking at the various mosses and fungi and night flowers that had evolved to survive Hueco Mundo's never-ending night.

This is true beauty, she thought.

She leaned forward to get a closer look at the collection of mushrooms and creeping fungi. Some of the mushrooms had grown large enough to where a child could sit on them. She remembered how, when she was a yearling, she would sit on those large mushrooms. Aside from a release of spores, Persephone remembered that those mushrooms made fairly comfortable seats. However, she had grown since then and the mushrooms would not be able to support her as they once did. She could see some of those larger mushrooms off to her right. Their bright colors declared them to be toxic and were thus unsafe to eat. The edible mushrooms, on the other hand, were plain and were cultivated to grow larger than their toxic kin.

It's strange how something so beautiful can take life, Persephone thought. Yet the plain and unadorned can sustain life.

Persephone felt that here, in the moonlit gardens, was true beauty. The beauty of the sun gardens, which Freya preferred, with their flowers of red and yellow and purple, had a false ring for all of their grandeur. Such plants could not survive the eternal night. They were pieces of another world stolen and forced to thrive in the chambers of glass and manufactured light, strangers in a strange land, never meant to belong.

Yet, I have to admit that in some ways our world is no different from that one, Persephone thought.

She made her way to a bed of flowers that looked like stunted roses. The thorns were thick and barbed while the petals cast an eerie pale-green glow that illuminated her face. She reached out to one, holding it near the base of the stem so as not to touch the thorns. She plucked the flower and brought the blossom close to her nose. She inhaled its sweet aroma and smiled.

"Night roses were always your favorite, Persey."

Persephone turned to the source of the voice, Reiatsu flaring. She then suppressed the flow of Reiatsu when she saw Orion standing on the path behind her. The nobleman held two crystal cups of a dark green wine. While the sight put her at ease, it did not take away some of the shame of being distracted to the point where someone was able to creep up on her.

"Why shouldn't they be?" Persephone asked as she straightened, still holding the night rose. "We try to transplant the World of the Living as we dream of it, but if we bother to appreciate what we have then we can make Hueco Mundo our own paradise."

"'The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n,'" Orion quoted and sat on a nearby stone bench. He looked at her and cocked one eyebrow. Persephone sighed as she recognized the game he liked to play with her.

"John Milton, Paradise Lost," she said in an exasperated tone as she sat down.

"Very good," Orion said and held out one of the cups of win to her. Persephone accepted the cup. "No world is truly a paradise. They just look like that from the outside, except for Hueco Mundo. It appears to be a desolate hell, but we made it heaven. Perhaps that is why the Spirit King gave it to the Hollows and why the Shinigami let us keep it. Neither saw the possibility of paradise in this world and our ancestors defied them by their survival and evolution. If that is not a reason to be proud of being an Arrancar then nothing is."

Persephone frowned at the words and took a sip of the wine. She stopped as the intense bitterness hit her tongue. Her face wrinkled a bit and she looked at Orion.

"Bitter root wine?" she asked.

"Bitter drink for bitter words," Orion replied as he took a sip and grimaced.

"What do you mean?" Persephone asked.

"I could tell you much, but you won't forgive me easily if I didn't tell you what you most care about first," he replied. Persephone stood up, her eyes wide.

"What is it? Tell me, Daddy."

Orion took another sip of wine and was able to look Persephone eye-to-eye.

"Queen Freya is going to force the Vision Quest on Isra."

Persephone felt terror and rage rise in her. Her grip tightened on her cup until it shattered. The dark-green liquid flowed over her hand, mixed with the blood that was running from the cuts caused by shards of crystal that had pierced her Hierro. She could feel it sting, but she ignored the pain caused by broken crystal and wine. Instead she focused on the pain Orion's words had caused.

"How could she do that? Why is she doing this?"

"Freya has invoked her right to test the spirit of one who wants to bear the family name. As to her reasons, I'm afraid that it may be her way of hurting you," Orion replied. He held out his cup to her. "Here, have the rest of mine. I think you may need it."

Persephone took it and drained the remaining wine in the cup.

"Why would she hurt me? I gave her mother the Shark Throne in order to avoid another Great Schism," Persephone said.

"Freya wants to hurt you precisely because of that. She views that as an insult," Orion said. "In all of our history, no Queen has ever sat the throne without earning it. That is until you gave it to Hera."

"I did what I had to," Persephone said. "If I did not then the Triples would have become divided into two factions. Some would follow the military leaders who supported my claim while others would follow the Great Temple who supported Hera's. Such a war would have been catastrophic for us. Then there were the Sons who were eyeing us like vultures circling a dying beast. I knew that if I did not relinquish my claim then the Sons would have used the chaos to their advantage. If I continued to press my claim then it could have only ended with blood being spilled and the Sons charging into our territories."

"I know that, Persey," Orion said. "You did what you thought you had to, but there was another option. After all, so many Van Harr sons have been taken by the Wolf's Curse, why not a daughter?" Persephone looked at Orion in shock. She opened her Pesquisa to make sure that no one was close enough to overhear. She found no one, but she would not let her guard down. They were heading into territory that no Van Harr ever talked about out loud. She shook her head in response to Orion's question.

"No, I would never…"

"Wouldn't you? Knowing what you do now about Freya, are you certain that you wouldn't want the Wolf's Curse to descend upon her as it did so many others."

"Father, please, stop right there," Persephone pleaded. "This is not…"

"I know," Orion said. "However, I highly doubt that the Wolf's Curse would fall on my head just because I decided to talk about out loud. I'm not exactly the type who is most at risk when you consider that the first to succumb was Agamemnon, brother to Queens Penelope and Andromeda and the first-born son of the Great Mother.

"Agamemnon was likely to become king since he was beloved by the Tribe and was a great military commander. Even Lady Apacci was prepared to crown him as High King of the Believers and Lord-Paramount of Hueco Mundo. Then the Wolf's Curse struck him down just as he was about to reach the heights of glory he seemed destined to achieve. After him, every male Van Harr who began to chase after greater power, including the Shark Throne, fell under the shadow of the Wolf's Curse." He paused and sighed. Persephone felt uncomfortable. This was not the type of thing that was usually discussed, not even in shadows. "Sometimes the Curse fell on daughters as well."

The tone in Orion's voice said what his words did not. Persephone stood and walked down one of the walk-paths to the balcony's edge. She placed her hands on the cold stone and leaned forward. Orion followed her and put a hand on her shoulder.

"You told me she was killed in battle," Persephone whispered. "You told me that the First Son killed her before she could release. Tell me. Was that the Wolf's Curse too?"

"Yes," Orion whispered. "I only recently found out the truth about your mother's death. I should have known since my brother was killed the same way."

"Do you know if Freya…"

"Persey, you know better than to ask that. No one asks questions when the Wolf's Curse falls on any Van Harr, and that includes another Van Harr," Orion said and smiled. "You were just giving me a hard time for just talking about it."

Persephone nodded and rested her head against his shoulder. Orion began stroking her hair as he had done when she was a yearling.

"However," Orion continued and stopped stroking her hair, "I doubt that Freya had anything to do with it. She was too young to be involved back then and was more interested in her dolls and the latest fashion than political intrigue. Hera could have, but, as far as I know, she never shared her daughter's ambitions. Your other sister, however, would have followed you as Queen back then, if you had taken the Shark Throne," Orion answered.

"That bitch," Persephone snarled as she thought about Aphrodite.

She would be capable of such an act, Persephone thought. With mother out of the way and with me on the Shark Throne, she would only have to bide her time. After all, she was older than Hera if only by a few minutes.

She closed her eyes and could see Juno looking down on her as she practiced her swordplay in the practice yard with some of the younger Van Harr children while Aphrodite was too busy playing dress-up with some of the more vain Van Harr women. She remembered how proud her mother had been when she knocked down a boy who was twice her size and three times her weight.

"That's my Persey," Juno had said. "You have the makings of a great warrior, and then, when I am gone, you will become Queen. Perhaps you will be the one who will surpass even Andromeda and Hippolyta."

Persephone fought back the tears that threatened to reveal themselves.

"Did I make the right choice, Daddy?" she asked, her voice starting to crack. "Did I do the right thing when I gave it up to Hera and then to Freya?"

"I don't know," Orion replied. "Only time can tell whether you truly made the right decision or not. However, I fear the answer will reveal itself sooner than we hope. After all, the Sons are pressuring Benvolio to dissolve the pact his predecessors made with us and he is weakening thanks to the mistakes of the past. The Panterans are starting to eye our territory as well and have sent out raiding parties to probe our borders. If Grimmjow ever returned to them then they would march out to war without hesitation. If war does come, then I'm afraid that Freya is not prepared to handle it as you would have been."

I know that, Persephone thought. But I couldn't take the throne then. Not after I've learned the truth. Or is that just my selfishness? Did I run away from my duty only to turn back too late?

The question gnawed at her as she sat in silence with her father.

Isra

Isra did her best not to look down at her feet, but failed to keep from clutching at her peplos and thereby betraying her nervousness. Try as she might her hands wouldn't smooth out releasing the fine garment she was so proud of from her fists. She could feel Freya's eyes on her, weighing her, measuring her, and the silence did nothing to ease her growing terror.

She did not think this room that Freya brought her to was the Queen's personal chamber. It resembled a giant closet, full of mirrors, jars filled with creams and perfumes, clothes, and dyes. It had the chemical smell that Isra associated with the beauty section of the great bazaar with its wares from Octavia and even Las Noches. She hated that section. It made her eyes water, which embarrassed her and made her want to cry for real.

Isra's eyes wandered to the mosaic on the wall depicting Queen Hippolyta being crowned on the Shark Throne by Lady Apacci. Apacci looked a bit different in the mosaic from what Isra remembered: her face was a bit lighter over the tiled veil and the eyes were more almond-shaped.

"I hardly ever look at that thing anymore," Freya said.

Isra snapped her attention back to Freya who was still looking into the round looking glass as she applied more of the beauty cream on her skin. Isra wondered if it was meant to lighten or darken her skin, so as to better match the Goddess's appearance. The jacket's collar was unzipped as it had been at the feast. However it did not merely reveal a pair of ripe red lips and smooth jawline. The jacket had been unzipped low enough to reveal a mask fragment that looked like the lower jaw of a barracuda clinging to her bare shoulders; its point nestled in the valley between her breasts.

Freya smiled at Isra's reflection. The monarch opened her top further, rubbing the grey cream onto those softer regions of her Hierro. Isra shifted her arms, unknowingly trying to hide her lacking chest compared to Freya's fuller breasts.

"Don't be nervous, little bird. I'm not going to bite you," Freya said, almost laughing, as she smiled at Isra. She placed the stopper back into the stone jar and returned it to its place on the small table. She zipped up her jacket a little, restoring some modesty, but still left her shoulders bare. Freya allowed her fingers to dance over the crystal jars before picking one that was halfway filled with perfume. "I merely wished to talk, especially after what happened at the feast."

"What did you want to talk about?" Isra asked. The Queen seemed to be friendly today, but Isra was afraid she would do something wrong and make her angry.

"'Your majesty,'" Freya said. "You're supposed to ask, 'What did you want to talk about, your majesty?' Didn't my dear aunt teach you that?"

"I'm sorry…your majesty," Isra said and looked down at her feet. She was already messing up, again!

"Look at me," Freya said in a sing-song tone as she poured a little bit of the perfume onto one palm and then rubbed her elegant neck with it. "It's not proper to look at the floor when in the presence of the Queen."

It isn't? That confused Isra since all of the servants and many of the nobles looked at the floor when Freya was near, and Freya never made a fuss about it. However, Isra knew better than to argue. It was better to just agree with people, or run away to Persey. But she couldn't run away from Freya.

"I'm sorry, your majesty," Isra said, raising your head.

"Keep your head lowered until I say you can raise it," Freya said. Her smile widened a little as she watched Isra try to find the happy-medium between lowering her head and yet keeping her eyes on her.

She's playing with me, Isra thought. Fear continued to gnaw at her and her panic began to rise.

"Much better," Freya continued. "A young woman must learn how to obey those who have authority over her, especially if she wishes to live in the Shark Court as a Van Harr."

Isra did her best not to flinch, but the slight widening of her eyes betrayed her. Her eyes were naturally large and expressive, and the veil that hid most of her face only made them more so. Freya smiled and stood from her seat. She turned to face Isra, still rubbing the perfume into her Hierro.

"You must think that I don't want you to become a Van Harr," Freya said. "It won't do you any good to deny it. I know Persephone well enough to know that she told you that I, like the Queens before me, want to keep the bloodline pure. However, I assure you that I do not think that way."

Freya walked over to Isra and placed her smooth hands on Isra's shoulders. Even though Freya was not as big as Persephone, her hands still reminded Isra of her own smallness. Isra could smell the scent of night roses coming from Freya and was relieved that it was not one of the Octavian perfumes that made her eyes hurt and her head swim. Freya smiled, but the smile did not reach her eyes.

"I want you to become a Van Harr, because I know that it will make Aunt Persey very happy. She always wanted a little sister whom she could look after. My mother did not fit the role she wished her to play; nor did Aphrodite for that matter."

Freya put a hand under Isra's veiled chin and raised her face. Isra looked into Freya's eyes and saw an unfriendly glee in their depths despite the pleasant smile on her face.

"However," Freya continued, "I want to make sure you're strong enough to handle being a Van Harr, little Night Child. I would hate for you to get devoured and then have to face my dear aunt's fury. Knowing her, she would call me 'irresponsible' for allowing you to become a Van Harr without testing you first. Am I right?"

Isra thought about it. She supposed it made sense. Persephone hated any kind of irresponsibility and it would be irresponsible to force her to swim with the sharks without first making sure she could handle it. Isra wanted to make Persephone proud and she felt that the best way to do that was to prove that she was strong enough to be with her as true family.

"I suppose," Isra said.

"Smart girl," Freya said and stroked one check. "Since you are a smart girl, can you tell me how each Van Harr proves that they are worthy of that most holy name?"

Isra thought about it, head tilted slightly. Freya backed away from Isra a little.

"By…going to war?" Isra asked.

Freya looked at her for a moment and then laughed. It was a high, but not irritating, sound. Isra couldn't help but smile a bit under her veil even if she worried that the Queen was laughing at her.

"Oh, now I know you've been spending too much time with my aunt," Freya said when she got herself under control. "That's exactly the type of thing Persephone would say. However, that's not exactly the answer that I'm looking for."

Freya walked to a heavily curtained doorway and threw the curtains aside with a flick of her wrist. The night wind brought relief to Isra's eyes. She followed Freya onto the balcony that wrapped around this level of the central palace. Isra looked out over the series of palaces and gardens that formed the Shark's Court below her and then followed the Queen's gaze as it went in the direction of the Great Temple.

Isra could hear the Temple Maidens sounding the horns from the twin rooftops. Smoke rose from the altar as the offerings to the Great Mother were being made by the Priestesses on behalf of the Faithful. The smell of roasting meat and sweet incense began to fill the night air.

"Every Van Harr proves that they are worthy of the name by undergoing the Vision Quest, Little Isra," Freya stated.

Isra gasped and put her hands to her veiled mouth. She had heard about the Vision Quest and it made her uneasy. The thought of being lowered into one of those cramped cells far below the Great Temple and being sealed inside frightened her. Then there were the stories of those who underwent the Vision Quest seeing horrors that they refused to talk about or seeing visions of ruin and desolation. Some had even died by choking on the fumes of spirituality.

"I know all of the stories you may have heard," Freya said. "However, I underwent it. So did Persephone. In fact, every Van Harr woman you saw at the tables tonight underwent the Vision Quest. We're still here and intact."

"W-what was it like?" Isra stuttered.

Freya looked away, her eyes becoming distant and her posture changing into something that Isra had never seen from her before. It was the posture of one carrying a great burden on their shoulders.

"It was…dark…and lonely," Freya said, her voice distant. "Yet only knowing darkness and loneliness can one truly come to terms with being alive."

"Were you afraid?" Isra asked.

Freya smirked, straightening to her usual haughty posture as she turned her full attention back on Isra.

"Humph, that's a rather impertinent question to ask. A Van Harr is never afraid and to show that we go into the cramped dark spaces beneath the Great Temple. We prove our courage by facing the Vision Quest and whatever is revealed to us."

"What did you see, your majesty, when you went through the Vision Quest?" Isra asked. She was finding herself more intrigued. Persey never told her about the details of the Vision Quest. Every time the subject was brought up Persey would change the subject. Isra was not as smart as some, and she knew this, but she was not quite as dumb as others seemed to think.

Freya looked at Isra and smiled, but there was a sense of unease in that smile.

"That is not something to ask until after you've undergone the Vision Quest, and even then I may not answer that question," Freya replied reclining a bit against the railing.

Isra nodded. She understood the logic of that answer. Freya smiled, zipping the collar to fully cover her lower face. She put her hands on the back of Isra's head and pulled her closer. She bowed enough to where her gleaming green eyes looked into Isra's violet eyes.

"So, Little Isra, are you brave enough to be part of this family?"

Persephone

Persephone took a deep breath, trying not to be obvious about doing so, as they neared the Queen's Gate. The guards must have been expecting them since when they saw Persephone and Isra coming near, they opened the gates. Ahead, Persephone could see the Pilgrim's Road going around the great altar. The smell of burning meat and incense reached her nostrils. She could see a line of pilgrims bringing their offerings forward.

"Persey," Isra whispered.

"Hush, it's just the clergy performing the offering rites," Persephone said.

As they passed, Persephone saw one of the Acolytes wrapping a leg of a small Hollow lamb with a chain. The Acolyte then hoisted the beast into the air as another came bearing a bowl and a stone knife. She placed the stone bowl beneath the animal while the other Acolyte pulled at its under-chin to bear the throat.

"Oh Goddess, be pleased with this offering that is brought to you," the Acolyte prayed as she slid the knife along the beast's throat. Blood gushed forth and poured into the stone bowl.

Persephone looked at Isra and saw that she was cocking her head in thought.

"Does the Great Mother really drink blood?" she asked.

"No," Persephone replied. "It's merely to represent how the one who brought the offering is willing to shed their blood for the Great Mother."

She saw Isra's eyes follow the Acolyte bearing the stone bowl filled with blood to a stone shaped like a shark's tooth in front of the altar that had dark red-brown stains on it. The Acolyte poured the blood on the stone. Persephone patted Isra's shoulder to let her know that it was time they got moving. Isra looked up at her.

"Which way do we go?"

"We can go either way since both wings have steps leading down to the main chamber below."

Persephone led her to the right. She watched as Isra looked up at the night sky above and the tall pillars on either side.

She led Isra through the columns until they came to an opening in the stone floor. A broad flight of steps led down. Initiates and Acolytes were walking up and down the steps. Some carried scrolls or tablets while others carried various ritual tools. Isra looked at them with interest.

"Persey," she said.

"What is it?"

"This place isn't like the Shrine. It doesn't have the same feel to it."

"I know what you mean," Persephone said as she squeezed Isra's hand.

They descended the steps. The walls on either side were lined with lit basins filled with oil. Scurrying Initiates paused to bow before scurrying away to perform whatever duties were required of them. Persephone couldn't help but think of the desert rats that would sometimes get into the barracks. She smiled at the memory of her and some of the other soldiers throwing stones at the rats and watching them scatter.

As they neared the bottom of the stairs, Persephone saw one of the Acolytes waiting for them. She was dressed in a uniform similar to those at The Shrine except that she wore a belt of silver rings about her waist and the skirt was made of white silk and her bosom was covered with white strips of silk. Her veil was held in place by a thin rope of gold silk thread.

"Lady Persephone," the woman said, bowing, "we were expecting you. The High Priestess is currently preparing the Vision Cell and will meet with you when the preparations are complete."

"I thank you," Persephone said, bowing to the Acolyte. "It's good to see a heart of service amongst the clergy."

The Acolyte nodded, clearly pleased with the praise. She looked at Isra and she bowed.

"Is this the girl?" she asked.

"She is," Persephone replied.

"Please, follow me," the Acolyte said.

She led them through the large antechamber to a small chamber dug into the wall. Isra looked at the worshipers who were present as they exited other such small chambers dressed in grey cilices and giving their regular clothes and swords to Initiates who gave them a small stone disk in return. The Acolyte pulled the fraying curtain of Hollow hide aside.

"Please, change in here," the Acolyte said. "The Lady and I shall wait out here to give you some privacy."

Isra looked at the small stone bench and saw the grey frock folded on its surface. When she entered the small chamber, the Acolyte pulled the curtain shut. Isra touched the frock's rough cloth and sighed as she began to undress.

She stood naked in the chamber and held up the cilice. The cloth felt uncomfortable to the touch and the edges were showing signs of wear. It was clearly meant to enforce humility before the Goddess. She pulled the cilice over her head. At first it felt like any other fabric, if a little rougher. Then the fabric started to irritate her skin to the point where she wanted to take off the shirt and not go through with this. However, the thought that doing so would disappoint Persephone went through her mind.

I won't let Persey down, she told herself as she drew the curtain aside.

She saw that Persephone and the Acolyte had been joined by a Novice who kept her head lowered. She held out a small stone medallion.

"The Novice will take the garments you came in with," the Acolyte said. "In exchange, you will get this stone medallion that you will return to one of the Novices by the stairs when you are finished. She will return your garments to you and you may change in this area before leaving. Do you have any questions?"

Isra shook her head.

"Good," the Acolyte said. "Now, please follow me and I shall take you to the Vision Cells."

The Acolyte led Isra and Persephone to an archway at one end of the antechamber. They archway led into a hall, lined with private cells reserved for pilgrims. Persephone could see the flickering flames and hear the prayers coming from the main shrine. She looked to Isra and saw her scratching where she could reach. She nudged Isra who looked at her and was about to protest, but fell silent when she saw the look on Persephone's face.

She obviously thinks my displeasure is aimed at her, Persephone thought. Still, it's for the best that she remains silent. The Priestesses here are not as forgiving as those at The Shrine these days, and I don't have all that many fond things to say of those ones anyways.

Persephone looked at the cilice that Isra had been provided and suppressed a groan. She thought it best not to mention that the royals were usually given higher quality cilices for this sort of thing, or that she was wearing a child's size one. It was clear that the Great Temple was in step with Queen Freya regarding Isra.

When they entered the central shrine, Persephone's gaze went to the mosaics that decorated the walls and ceiling and floor with distaste. She remembered a time when the Van Harr family had been prominent but clearly second to the Goddess and the Tribe in this temple. However, ever since Hera and especially Freya had taken the throne, the royal line had replaced much of the other two in the décor.

That's a dangerous way to think, Persephone thought. If you place a living ruler as a god then you will eventually disappoint the people. All one has to do is look at Luisenbarn for proof. They forget that the court is nothing without the common Triples beneath it.

She looked to the statue that dominated the center of the room, its pedestal ringed with fire. The worshipers assembled prostrated themselves before the statue of the Three-Faced Goddess gilded in gold and decorated with precious stones. It was a statue that demanded awe by the very means of its vanity, unlike the statue at The Shrine.

The Acolyte gestured for them to follow her to a doorway at one side of the room. They followed her down another flight of stairs until they reached a short hall at the end of the stairs. Here the light was provided by the phosphorescent quartz, casting its eerie light on the bare stone. The door at the end of the short hall swung open, pushed by an Acolyte with pale blonde hair. Persephone saw the twin serpents winding up her arms. She bowed to them and stepped aside.

Persephone led Isra through the door and they stood in a large room. Bronze oil lamps hung from the ceiling from chains. The walls were decorated with carved and painted images of Harribel's life from when she was found by the "False Sun" with his empty promises to the Great Betrayal. The pillars were decorated with carved images depicting the lives of the Queens.

Persephone felt a chill run up her spine and her gaze went to the floor. Round slabs of stone were laid at regular intervals to where they made ten rows of three slabs each. Thin tendrils of smoke rose from the three holes drilled into each slab. She heard a small cough and looked to see that Isra was trying to adapt to the fumes. She put a reassuring hand on the girl's shoulder.

"Persey, what is this place?" Isra asked, daring to speak-up for the first time.

"This is the border of the Night Lands and the Underworld," Persephone replied.

The door at the other end of the chamber opened and one of the High Priestesses, followed by three Acolytes, entered the chamber. She wore the distinct garments of the high ranking Priestesses in the city. She wore a long white kalasiris held up by a pair of straps dyed bright yellow and decorated with blue lightning bolts that were tied together at one shoulder. A gorgerine of gold discs and studded with various gems hung about her shoulders and glimmered in the firelight. Her veil was embroidered with the mouth of a shark. A jingling sound resonated from her as she walked due to the many bracelets and anklets she wore. The High Priestess wore a perfumed black wig styled to resemble Apacci's hair style bound by a gold circlet with a single emerald. She carried a sand-glass in one hand; the bottom bulb was three-quarters filled with sand while the top was empty.

Persephone had wondered for some time if the High Priestesses wore so much ornamentation in order to make the masses think they were on equal footing with royalty.

Persephone bowed and pressed her hand gently against Isra's back so that she was bowing as well. The Priestess bowed in return and straightened.

"Welcome, Persephone, most honorable and mighty warrior of the Goddess." She moved her eyes slightly to look at Isra. "You are welcome as well, Isra of the lonely night. I have been summoned to test your spirit with the journey of your soul to achieve the Vision of Revelation. Do you accept this ordeal?"

"Y-y-yes…yes, I do," Isra stuttered before steeling herself to answer firmly. Persephone smiled at that tone. She knew that Isra had courage, but it was just a bit harder to bring out in the strange girl.

"Then let us begin," the High Priestess said as she led them to one of the nearby slabs of stone. She gestured to the Acolytes and then pointed at the slab of stone she had stopped in front of.

The Acolytes knelt beside the slab and put their hands on the stone. The High Priestess jerked one finger and the Acolytes pushed. Isra winced a little at the grinding noise the stone made and began to cough as smoke rising from the hole the stone had concealed struck her. The smoke rose to be vented out through one of the narrow slits in the ceiling above.

Isra poorly suppressed a gulp as she looked into the dark hole. For a moment Persephone was certain she saw a gleam of amusement in the High Priestess's eyes. However, it was gone so quick that it might as well have been her imagination.

"Young Isra," the High Priestess said. "You are to lower yourself into the Vision Cell. There is a metal grate about three-quarters your height below the edge. You are to sit on that grate. When you are situated, the stone will be moved back into place to seal you inside. We will check on you after every three turns of the sand-glass. Do you understand?"

Isra nodded. She hesitated a moment and then sat at the cell's edge. She pressed her hands against the stone floor as she lowered herself into the cell. The Acolytes helped Isra situate herself in the cell.

Persephone watched Isra before turning back to the High Priestess. The High Priestess looked at her in surprise and then saw the blaze in Persephone's gaze. Even without Reiatsu, the look made the woman almost stumble back a step or two. When Persephone was satisfied that the High Priestess understood the situation properly, she walked to the cell's edge.

She knelt beside the edge and looked inside. Isra looked back up her just as the Acolytes started pushing the stone back into place. Persephone smiled down at her.

"You'll be fine," Persephone whispered. "I'll be right here the whole time."

Isra smiled just as the stone obscured her and sealed the Vision Cell.

Isra

Isra squirmed in the dark. She watched as her pale legs caught the light from the three small holes above her. Her fingers dangled through the gaps of the grate she sat on. She sighed as she crossed her legs again. Sour smelling smoke rose around her from the vats of boiling water below.

The cell was small, and the circular walls did not let even someone as small as her stretch her legs. She glanced up at the stone lid that sealed her in. The three small holes drilled into the stone were enough to keep her from suffocating, but not to allow too much of the smoke to escape.

I don't want to be here. I want to be with Persey. I want to go home.

However, she also wanted to become a Van Harr. She wanted to take on her sister's last name. To do that, she would have to undergo the Vision Quest since every Van Harr had done before. She would have to open her Third Eye, and to do that she would have to partake of the mystic herbs from the forests of the Underworld.

She took in a deep breath of the smoke and coughed as the smoke filled her nostrils, her throat, and her lungs. There was no coolness in the air, only heat. Her head began to feel light and her vision began to swim. She needed more air, but breathing in only made her throat raw. She gasped, only to breathe in more of the potent steam. Her eyes stung and her nostrils burned.

It's not working, she thought as panic seized her. I need to get out. I need air.

She tried to lift her head to where she could breathe in some of the air outside the cramped cell. Her head swam and her body was starting to weaken as the toxins within the steam began to take effect.

Had the walls become closer? She was sure that they had. The walls were pushing around her, working their way in to crush her.

Air…I need…air…air…

Isra raised a trembling fist. She tried to focus, but her mind swam. Then she saw the first faint violet rays as a Bala began to form.

AIR!

Then Persephone's Reiatsu intruded on her panic. It was strong and yet gentle. Isra allowed the Bala to die and her lips curled into a small smile. She could feel her adaptive sister's presence crouching at the sealed mouth's edge.

Persey's here, Isra thought as the black flower blossoms bloomed in front of her. I'm safe. Persey's here…she won't…bad…happen…she…promised. I'm…safe…Persey…

There was blackness and then all was white.

Persephone

Persephone could feel Isra's Reiatsu fade to the faintest spark. She looked at the High Priestess.

"She'll be alright," the High Priestess said. "Her body may be fragile, but her will is strong. Many have a similar experience in the vision cells, but it will only make the third eye stronger. She will be alright."

"You better pray that nothing happens to her or else I will bring down my full fury on your head," Persephone snarled. And I'll do the same to Queen Freya for making Isra go through this.

Persephone fought back the urge to just blow the stone lid to pieces. She closed her eyes and prayed to the Great Mother to keep Isra safe.

Isra

Isra blinked. She was on top of a sand dune and looking out over the night-shrouded desert of Hueco Mundo. The sands shone bone white in the moonlight.

"How did I get here?"

She looked down at herself and saw that her feet were still bare, but instead of the cilice she had been provided with she was dressed in a snow-white sleeveless dress. The silk felt cool and smooth against her skin, unlike the cilice that made her itch all over. Her hand went to the silver brooch pinned just under the left strap. She traced the animal's shape, trying to figure out what it was. Her face lit up with recognition.

It's a rabbit: my favorite!

She looked up again at the white sands under the black sky. She looked around and saw nothing but sand and sky.

What do I do now?

She sighed and closed her eyes. She spun around and counted to ten. She walked in the direction she was facing.

Time is strange in Hueco Mundo with its still heavens, void of anything save for the ever crescent moon. There was no concept of day or even real night. There was only a cycle of rest and activity. In Sanction she could mark time by the cries from the temples calling out the hours based on the sand clocks. On the road her companions had learned to keep to a cycle that she followed.

However, she was alone. She tried to find any sign of life, but all she could see was the sea of sand surrounding her and the empty horizon. She glanced over her shoulder and saw with sorrow her footprints vanish a few paces behind her. It was as though she had never been there.

This must be Starrk's Solitude, she thought.

She remembered Persephone telling her the story of Starrk when he divided himself in two. The story made Isra feel sad and she felt that Starrk was someone to be pitied rather than hated, but such a notion was heresy in the eyes of the Faith. However, sometimes orthodoxy was nothing more than truth corrupted by time and prejudice while heresy was more in line with reality.

"I wish Persey was here with me," she whispered as she walked in the empty world. "I don't like being alone."

She stopped for a moment and looked up at the night sky. The wind was blowing and it seemed to be whispering something to her. She couldn't be sure, but she thought it was a word or a name. She closed her eyes and tried to really listen to the wind. That was when something touched her on the nose. Her eyes flew open and she was surprised at what she saw.

"Is that sand falling from the sky?" she whispered.

It didn't feel like sand. It was cold and wet, not dry. She stuck out her tongue to catch some of the falling flakes on her tongue. The flakes that landed on her tongue melted and she recognized it from stories that Persephone would read to her before going to bed.

"It's snow!"

She leaned forward and picked up some of the sand, only to find that it was not sand. It was now snow. She laughed as she danced around in the falling snow, catching more on her tongue. She closed her eyes, allowing the cold wind to caress her and the snowflakes to fall on her with their light and wet touches. When she opened her eyes she found that she was no longer in the desert of Hueco Mundo.

She was standing in the middle of a court, surrounded by crumbling walls and the decaying ruins of a manor. It looked familiar, but she couldn't quite place it. Dead trees stood in neat lines, their blackened bark and bare branches made them look like hands of frozen men reaching for the full moon that hung above.

"I don't like this place," she whispered as she backed away.

"—kia," somebody whispered.

Isra spun around, seeing no one. There was nothing except only the snow-covered ruins surrounding her. She listened, hoping to hear footsteps in the falling snow, but there was only the sound of the wind, whispering its strange words.

You've got to know your name, a voice deep inside whispered.

"I do know my name," Isra protested as she clutched the sides of her head. She shut her eyes. "I do know my name. It's Isra. My name is Isra."

You've got to know your name. You've got to know your name. Now, dance…

"I Know My Name!" Isra shouted. "Leave me alone. Just leave me alone."

The voice did not say anything. Isra opened her eyes and saw that she was standing in front of a tall column of ice that seemed to stretch forever into the sky. The wind seemed to become more ferocious, whipping up snow that whirled around her. It seemed to be shouting out a name that Isra did not know and yet it seemed familiar.

She looked into the ice and saw a figure trapped in the ice. Isra felt fear rise in her and an animalistic urge to run came upon her. However, she found that she couldn't run. It was as though something was keeping her frozen.

She looked down and saw ice creeping up her legs. She struggled, trying to be free of their hold. However, the more she struggled the more the ice held on to her.

"Do you know me?" the figure trapped in ice asked.

That voice, Isra thought. Recognition flared from the depths of her mind and with it was a sense of dread so intense that it threatened to overwhelm her.

"I…I…I don't know you," Isra whimpered.

"You've got to know your name."

"Isra…my name's Isra. You…you're not real. You're nothing but a shadow."

The figure stirred at that, its ice prison cracked a little.

Isra screamed as the snow- white blade broke through the ice. Darkness swallowed her and then…

…she felt a pair of arms wrap themselves about her. She found that she could breathe again. Isra opened her eyes and saw Persephone looking down on her.

"It's alright, Isra, I'm here," Persephone said.

Isra smiled before darkness swallowed her again.

Wind Song Fortress

Lord Edwyn Tuma checked the straps to make sure that the chests he would be taking with him to Luisenbarn were secured in the cart. He glanced to the small folk who would be pulling this and the other carts.

They wore loose dark grey trousers and thin vests, in preparation for the exertion of the journey. Their "goodbyes" had already been said. Now they stretched and warmed-up for the work ahead. Even though it was bitter and boring work it was not hard to find volunteers. After all, their reward was to visit the holy city of Luisenbarn itself.

Edwyn watched as a young servant made his rounds offering a cup of water filled from a large bucket he carried under his free arm. If his expression was any indication, Edwyn was jealous of that privilege despite his higher rank. It brought back memories of when he was a yearling. His father, Lord Ferdinand, would have him perform servant work. At first he had complained, but Ferdinand sat him down and pointed at a servant sweeping the stone courtyard of sand.

"Look at him, Edwyn," Ferdinand had said. "You may think that all he is doing is sweeping sand from stone and may call it 'pointless'. However, if the sand is not swept away then it builds up and may hinder our house soldiers if an attack comes. It's not his fault that he was born a servant. After all, Fortuna spins and falls where it will despite one's rank. A borghese may rise to become a cavalieri or a cavalieri may become a borghese if Fortuna so spins it. It is only proper that those above look at those below with envy from time to time. We must remember that all blessings and all hardships are spun to us by Fortuna, the wheel that spins all things into existence, including the paths of our lives."

Edwyn smiled at the memory of his father's words. Fortuna had blessed him; why shouldn't Fortuna spin the same for the young servant handing out cups of water?

He looked to where the God-King stood, talking with Machiavelli Carias again, as they looked over a map of the Holy Luisenbarn Empire. He always felt proud knowing that the Holy Luisenbarn Empire was the only nation in all of Hueco Mundo to have paved roads that ran throughout its domain, uniting outposts and fortresses with farming villages and quarries and mines. All roads, however, ultimately led to Luisenbarn.

He imagined many tribes calling them foolish for spending so much time and labor constantly reclaiming the highway from the sands. That only showed the other tribes' foolishness. Just as the God-Emperor, Baraggan Luisenbarn, had been master of this world, so did the Luisenbarnians prove their mastery by imposing their will over the sands of The Night.

The roads allowed them to build walls and buildings of actual stone rather than just sandstone and it allowed ore from the mines to be brought to the smiths to forge armor and weapons to support their Hierro and the weapons that sealed their Resurrección. It also allowed their armies to grow since even the weakest borghese could now fight for their God-King should the need arise. The roads united all Luisenbarnians to their God-King and his throne in the holy capital.

It had been a long time since Edwyn last looked on Luisenbarn with its broad walls and tall belfries. Sometimes he could hear the heavy brass and iron bells ringing to signal the hours carried on the wind. He could imagine the light shining out of the colored quartz windows and the majestic grace of the ornate flying buttresses of the Cattedrale dei Re. Once one had seen the majestic city of Luisenbarn, it left an impact that only a truly holy place could administer.

It was a city made for the gods, and fit for them to reside in.

"My Lord," a soft voice said.

Edwyn turned and saw Beatrice, his second wife and favorite mate, standing with her face down. He was pleased to see that she was wearing the dark green dress with gold embroidery running up the long sleeves that was his favorite. It matched her pale skin and dark red hair perfectly. She was holding something in her small hands that Edwyn could not make out.

"Beatrice, what ails you?" Edwyn asked.

"I…wanted to see you off," she replied hesitantly.

"Oh, well where are your fellow sister wives? Shouldn't they be here to see me off as well?" he asked. A single glance of the courtyard confirmed that the others were not present.

"They're preparing, but I wanted to be early so that I could give you something for luck."

She held out the object and Edwyn recognized the round disc with a smooth white gem in the center.

"Beatrice, I gave you this. Would you insult me by returning a gift?"

"My Lord, I…I'm sorry," she said and lowered her head again.

Edwyn sighed. He hated to see her troubled like this since it almost always resulted with tears running down her cheeks. He put his hands on her shoulder. He stood over her, the top of her head coming to the base of his neck.

"Beatrice, I just don't understand why you would give me something that I gave you. Please, help me understand your desire in this matter."

"Well, it's just that since you gave me this, Fortuna has spun in my favor and I wish for it to do the same for you."

Edwyn smiled as he took the disk.

"Then I shall accept it. I may need Fortuna to spin in my favor at Court so that I can return home when the God-King no longer requires my service."

Beatrice smiled and curtseyed. Edwyn bowed in response, allowing one horn on his forehead to brush at the mask fragment shaped like an ornate comb decorated with twin bone doves in flight on the left side of her scalp. She gently pushed his face away, her face flushed with embarrassment.

"Not in front of his majesty," she whispered.

"Alright," Edwyn said. "Promise me that you'll help the stewards with whatever they need and look after the yearlings."

"I'll promise," she replied, "if you promise to return safely or send for me if you need me with you."

"I promise," Edwyn said.

"To make sure, I shall pray for your safe return."

Edwyn looked at her and then his eyes went to where the God-King stood, watching them. He looked back to his mate, his face serious.

"Make sure you pray to the right deity this time," he whispered. "Don't pray to that piece of stone for me."

"But the Gr—," she began and then stopped. Her eyes went to the God-King in understanding. "The Great Lord will permit his guards to watch you to ensure no harm shall fall upon you."

Edwyn hid his relief. He merely nodded in simple acceptance of her words. He tolerated Beatrice's conversion to that foreign religion, but he was certain that the God-King would not approve. If he was being honest with himself, he supposed that he did not approve that his favored mate forsook the ways of their people in such a way. But in this matter he could read her conviction, at the very least he knew that she was loyal to Benvolio as her king if not her god. He would make sure that he was not put in a situation where he must choose between his loyalty to his God-King or his love for Beatrice.

"Be sure to light a candle in the cappella for the journey," Edwyn said as he put the chain over his head.

"I shall, and I shall light another for your time in Luisenbarn," Beatrice said before withdrawing. He watched her walk away and saw his other two wives coming towards him. The younger of the two was anxious and distraught despite her best efforts, but the other was coolly composed.

He could tell that the chestnut brown-haired Rosaline, his third wife, was trying not to cry. She was always one to be led by her emotions. While her moods like this could be tiring she was truly illuminating in her typical happiness, making even trying circumstances more than bearable for his children and people.

Jillian, his first wife, on the other hand, was exact and polite. Her words were no more or less than what was needed. He knew her well enough to catch the small bits of advice and encouragement his green-haired wife with her luxurious waist-length mane conveyed. She was the ice to her sister wife's emotional fire. It could be easy to dislike her, until one needed to be cooled or required something steady.

He had married them as per the arrangements of the clan. He counted himself fortunate that he had come to care for all of them, and they in turn for him. But it was Beatrice who would always be the first in his thoughts.

He turned his attention back to Benvolio who had drawn his attention back to the map and was telling Machiavelli something.

Edwyn fingered the medallion hanging from its chain against his armored chest. He remembered the male Arrancar with the bull horns charging him, eyes black and hands and mouth stained with dried blood. The Arrancar was clad only in the tattered remains of a white uniform and was howling under the light of the moon as it kicked up the sands in a furious charge.

The Arrancar had gone wild.

To the Luisenbarnians, an Arrancar that went wild was considered to have been anointed by the moon and was therefore sacred.

While most faiths held that any sacred living creature was to be preserved, the Luisenbarnians believed that any Arrancar anointed by the moon was to be killed. This was done so that the Arrancar could ascend to the moon and make it a little fuller. It was said that when the moon was full then it would ignite and become the true sun of Hueco Mundo. The desert sands would blossom under its holy fire. When the white sands became green then the God-Emperor, Baraggan Luisenbarn, would return, robed in flesh, to rule over the People of the Mask once again.

Therefore, to slay such an Arrancar was deemed a noble deed and brought good fortune to the slayer. Any tokens from a wild Arrancar were believed by the Luisenbarnians to bring good luck and protection to those who possessed them. So he had taken the strange medallion to give it to Beatrice during the exchange of gifts at their wedding. It seemed to have worked for her.

"Lord Tuma," Machiavelli said.

"Are we nearly ready to depart?" Edwyn asked.

"Exacta," Machiavelli replied. "God-King Benvolio wishes for you to ride with him in the palanquin so that he can discuss matters of state with you on the journey."

"I thank his majesty for this honor," Edwyn said.

Machiavelli nodded and walked away from the nobleman, shouting orders to the other Guardia Reale who were helping to prepare things for the journey. Edwyn looked in the direction Beatrice went. She was gone from sight now. Rosaline and Jillian were making their way among the house guards who would be going as well, giving the soldiers bits of stone from the fort walls as good luck charms. He hoped that Fortuna would still spin in their favor by returning him to them when his duties were fulfilled.

When they had finished, Edwyn gave his final orders to the guardsmen who would remain behind. He knew that they would obey and would keep his family safe. He gestured for those who would be going to Luisenbarn to fall in line. As the soldiers lined either side of the caravan, Edwyn made his way to the palanquin. He stopped at the threshold for a moment.

He looked about the courtyard of Wind Song one last time and said a silent prayer that he would not be parted from it for long. Since he was not one for rambling prayers, the prayer was short.

When he was finished he took a deep breath and climbed into the palanquin.

Sanction

Persephone watched Isra sleep for a few moments before turning towards the entryway that led out of the bedchamber. She pulled the hide curtains embroidered with birds flying through a forest of vines together and made her way down the torch-lit corridor to her study. Once inside she pulled the dull brown hides together and lit the oil in the stone basins carved into the wall with her Reiatsu.

Persephone kept listening for any sounds of Isra, but she heard none. She was relieved. Isra had been through an ordeal and sleep was the best thing for her.

She wasn't ready to undertake the Vision Quest, Persephone thought. What was Freya's motive for goading her to go through with it? Was it truly to hurt me like father said?

She didn't want to think of it. Regardless of Freya's motive, she was still her Queen and her kin. Persephone swore allegiance to the Shark Throne and she was a woman of her word. However, when the time was right, she would have words with Freya even though she feared that Freya would not listen.

She walked to one of the stone shelves that lined the wall. She retrieved the small cherry wood box that she used to keep her special treasures. She took another look at the doorway behind her, but the curtains were still shut. She walked to the stone desk and sat down before opening the box.

Persephone paused as she looked at the contents in the box. The object she wanted lay on top and she removed it. Persephone held the medallion in the palm of her hand. It was less grand than some of the artifacts and prizes in the box, but it was more intriguing than some items that would be mere trash if not for their sentimental value. Her thumb traced the gleaming disc and went over the smooth white stone at its center.

She remembered how Isra had clung on to it when she found her. Isra had been clutching it as though it was the most important thing in the world.

"I must remember my name," the girl had whispered.

Persephone hesitated before returning the medallion to its place among the other old trinkets she treasured since girlhood and her early days as a soldier. She knew that she should return it to Isra, but a part of her was afraid. She was afraid that the medallion would restore the girl's memories.

Who knows what those memories are like? They could be good or they could be frightening. Memories can hurt like blades cutting through flesh and I don't want to see Isra get hurt.

At least that was what she kept telling herself. However, the real reason was more selfish than that.

I'm afraid that if she remembers then she'll be lost to me. I'm afraid that my Isra will be swallowed by the lifetime of a stranger, and that stranger…

No, she mustn't let that happen. Before Isra, Persephone had been alone. She had no one to look after or truly bond with. Her soldiers looked at her in awe, but she knew that she could never truly bond with them. They would expect too much of her to where she could not truly be vulnerable with any of them. Her kin looked at her with either disappointment or malicious calculation or indifference. Then Isra came along, and Persephone no longer felt like an outsider. She found someone who was like her: alone and afraid.

Persephone looked at the medallion again before placing it back into the box. She closed the lid and closed her eyes.

The Menos Forest, Three Years Before

Persephone looked out over the battle's aftermath in the depths of the Menos Forest. She had been sent here to protect the priestesses who came to gather the sacred herbs for the Vision Pits and had found herself facing an enemy that lurked in the shadows. She had the corpses brought into the perimeter for the forest was becoming rife with Hollows eager to consume Arrancar flesh. However, none of the corpses belonged to her foe. The Others never left their dead.

Persephone had seen much in her life: the horrors of the Sons, stray wretches from Octavia, and the terror of the Great Swarm. But every time that she came down to the Menos Forest was different for the Others mostly kept to the shadows and they kept their faces mostly covered. That made them far more frightening for they were unknown. One did not know from what direction the Others would attack. The only sign that they would make was to send one of their fighters out with hands clasped together as though in prayer. The only way to know if an attack was coming was if the fighter held out his right palm to display the seven-pointed sunburst that was branded into both palms.

When they did attack, the ever-calm warriors showed neither fear nor pain even as they died. They endlessly chanted their foul prayers or singing their hymns to a being that every Tribe, even the Primerans and Sons, recognized as the "False Sun." The Others worshiped the "False Sun" as a god and would praise him as they killed or died. The Others would either overwhelm their foe and left no trace or would simply fade away back into the depths like a passing storm. The struggle they had been through had been no exception.

"Damn it," Chani, her second-in-command, muttered. "I can't find the one I killed. I was hoping to take a souvenir to prove the deed."

"You shouldn't have bothered looking," Persephone said. "The Others take their dead with them. How many did we lose?"

"Five were spirited away or simply fled," Chani replied, "one priestess, two acolytes, and two warriors. Three of our warriors were killed."

"I see," Persephone replied. "Gather the others. We need to get out of here before they decide to attack us again."

"What makes you think they're still here? They fled back into the shadows."

"Chani, the Others are still here. They're watching us. If we give pursuit then we may all die, and I have no intention of letting that happen."

"As you command," Chani said and turned to where the other Warriors and the remaining priestesses and acolytes stood. "You heard the Commander. Gather what you can. We're getting out of here. You three," she pointed to three of the closest warriors, "gather our dead. If the Others won't leave us any of their dead then we won't leave them ours."

They hurried, looking at the tall white trees around them and up to where the white branches tangled with each other, like the rib-vaulting inside a Gothic cathedral, to support the rock above. So far there was no sign of the Others. Persephone was not disappointed. The last thing she wanted was to get surrounded again by those demons. She doubted that they would be able to withstand another attack. However, one could never tell with those who attacked from the shadows and who only announced themselves with the beating drums, the sounding of war horns, and their blasphemous prayers and hymns. Sound echoed down here and trying to pinpoint its exact location was difficult to the untrained ear.

However, the Others had centuries to hone their skills at tracking prey in the Menos Forest. Persephone felt that they could easily pinpoint her location with just the beat of her heart or a single breath. The thought made her feel even more uneasy.

They had finished gathering the herbs and the corpses and were beginning to move when the drums began again.

BOOM-BOOM-BAH-BAH-BOOM!

"The Drums!" one of the remaining priestesses shouted. "The Drums of the Underworld! Great Mother, save us!"

"RUN!" Persephone shouted.

They ran. The drums were still far off, but that did not mean that the Others hadn't sent out fighters ahead to cut them off. Their only hope was to get to any opening leading back to the surface. The Others, for reasons she didn't know and despite the stories told to scare yearlings, would not go to the surface. None slowed for all were afraid of what would happen to them if they were captured. Persephone would sometimes slow enough to where she trailed to ensure that no one got left behind.

They only stopped when they reached the surface. Persephone brought up the rear and looked behind her. So far there were no signs of pursuit save for the drums that were now fading back into the depths from which they came.

Boom-boom-bah-bah-boom

"Damn," Chani panted. "They weren't pursuing us were they?"

"No," Persephone said. "They were merely escorting us out."

"Oh, ha-ha-ha," Chani said and flipped the middle finger of her free hand at the tunnel opening. "They made a mockery of us."

"Well, maybe they were giving us a chance to leave," one of the other warriors said. "I mean, they could have ambushed us anywhere along the way like they did before."

Persephone nodded in agreement and looked out at the moonlit sands.

"Chani, find out where we are. That way we can figure where the nearest…" She trailed off when she saw the figure. "Nina," she turned to one of the remaining warriors, "hand me your spyglass."

"Uh…yes Commander," Nina replied as she rifled through her bag and brought out a spyglass and handed it to her.

Persephone took it and looked through one end. She extended the looking glass until she could clearly see the figure.

"There's a girl out there," she whispered. "Chani, stay here until I return."

"Commander," Chani said, "what if it's a trap?"

"Chani, do you think that a mere trap is enough to finish me off?" Persephone asked, cocking one eyebrow.

"Of course not, Commander," Chani said. She then smiled. "I was just wondering that if it is a trap then can I come and play."

"If you want," Persephone said, "but not until I give the signal." Persephone went into Sonído before Chani could say anything else.

When Persephone came out of the Sonído, still far enough from the figure to avoid an ambush, she opened her Pesquisa. The Reiatsu coming from the figure showed the last fading traces of Resurrección. However, there were no other signs of Reiatsu nearby.

Not a trap, she thought and frowned. Could she be a Rover or a Voider?

It was possible. Rovers and Voiders were known to wonder the desert, sometimes alone. There was only one way to find out.

Persephone went into another burst of Sonído and stopped in front of the figure. When Persephone saw the figure up close, pity filled her.

The girl was small and thin and looked to be starving. Her chin was covered with drying Arrancar blood. Tears ran from her eyes and her naked body was smeared with blood mixed with shimmering sweat. Her hair, which would become white, save for the black streak, was grey and was drenched with sweat. A sword dangled loosely in her weakening left hand and the right was clenching something that Persephone could not make out. Persephone could see that the girl was trying to keep standing, a fight that the girl was losing.

"N-n-no," the girl whispered. "G-get…get away."

She tried to back away, but that was when her legs gave way. Persephone rushed forward and was able to catch the girl before she fell unconscious. The sword fell out of her hand and landed on the sand with a soft thud. The girl was panting and was whispering something. Persephone leaned closer to catch what she was saying.

"I…I must…remember…my name," the girl whispered, more to herself than to anyone else. She opened her blood-shot eyes and Persephone saw black streaks trying to come out of the violet irises.

Oh Great Mother, Persephone thought, she's trying to fight against going wild.

Her eyes went to the modest chest and saw that the Hierro was cracked, blood seeping from where the Hierro cracked deep enough. Then Persephone looked back to the eyes and saw that there were no black streaks. Instead the violet eyes were so full of fear and loss and pain…and weariness. There was so much weariness in those eyes that it made Persephone ache to see it in one so young.

"It's alright," Persephone whispered as she held the young woman close. "It's alright now. No one will hurt you. I promise."

Present

Persephone opened her eyes and leaned back in the chair. She sighed and got up from her chair. She wondered if some of the herbs that were used on Isra were the same that she had helped to gather so long ago. She thought that it didn't matter. She slid the curtains apart and looked down the hall. She opened her Pesquisa and could sense Isra's Reiatsu.

"Still asleep," she whispered and smiled.

She thought about when the girl woke in Persephone's private chambers at the outpost. The girl had been so different from when Persephone first encountered her. Aside from her hair being completely white save for that black streak, the girl had become little more than a grown child, exhausted and afraid. The girl could not remember anything, even her own name, and Persephone thought that was for the best. The fear that had been in her eyes was replaced with innocence and wonder and a loving trust.

She decided that she would give the Arrancar girl a second chance at life, starting with a new name. And, despite some difficulties, she had secured a good life for her new-found sister, better than whatever she had left behind with some tribe of Rovers that may not even exist anymore.

Persephone put the box away and extinguished the flames with another burst of Reiatsu. She walked back to where Isra slept. She pulled the blanket up and climbed into the sand bed. She laid-down next to Isra and put an arm around her.

"I'm here," she whispered. "I'm here to keep the bad dreams away."

Persephone felt Isra's breathing as she fell asleep.

Three Years Before

She was frightened. The woman standing before her was a demon that she needed to destroy or else she would be killed. The memory of a trident being run through her brought a piercing pain to run through her body. She tried to raise the blade, but her body was becoming weak and it felt as though she was trying to lift a steel beam instead of a Zanpakuto.

"N-n-no," she whispered. "G-get…get away."

She tried to back away, but that was when her legs gave way. As she fell, she thought that this was the end. Then she felt someone catching her. Through her fading vision she could barely see the woman's face leaning over her.

No, I…I failed, she thought as darkness came over her. Everything that happened to her over the course of her life began to fade as the power she had unleashed to escape death at the hands of those over whom she had been placed in command began to take control. She knew that there was only one way to ensure that she was not completely lost. She would have to retreat, but she must remember…

"I…I must…remember…my name," she whispered as she sank into the dark ice that would protect her from the presence wanting to be made manifest. Her last thought before she became completely encased in the ice's cold and dark embrace was: my name is Rukia.

End of Chapter 10

A.N.: There you go. ISRA IS RUKIA!

So, how exactly did Rukia become Isra? That will be revealed further down the road.

The next few chapters are going to reveal some of the things that happened in the 200-year gap between the Winter War and when Rukia was put in charge of the expedition to Hueco Mundo along with getting back to Tatsuki and her group.

So don't fret, dear readers, much is about to be revealed.

One of the best parts of writing this novel is coming up with each tribal culture. The culture for the Triples is based almost entirely on cultures from the Bronze Age. The culture found at The Shrine is based more on a Mesopotamian theme. The Shrine itself was based on the ziggurat at Ur and the statue of Harribel at The Shrine was based on images of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. The Great Temple, however, is based on Ancient Mediterranean cultures (especially Greek and Egyptian). The look of the city of Sanction was inspired by a combination of Baghdad during the height of the Ottoman Empire and Babylon.

The Luisenbarnians are more based on Medieval and Renaissance Florence with a little bit of King's Landing from A Song of Ice and Fire and Ancient Rome (especially at its decline) thrown in for good measure.

If this novel was divided into segments then here's how it would go so far:

Prologue: The End of the Beginning

Part 1: Into the Black (Chapters 1-3)

Part 2: The Night Lands (Chapters 4-10)

Part 3: You Can't Go Home Again (Chapters 11-?)

I think that the title for the next segment is very appropriate.

Some songs that can be applied to this novel are: "Hanging On (Edit)" by Ellie Goulding, "Seven Devils" by Florence + the Machine, "Lost" by Within Temptation, and "Ancora Qui" by Ennio Morricone and Elisa Toffoli.

Thank you for reading and please review.