The dark sea. An expanse of black water that filter all light from every direction, making the surroundings a dark abyss of despair. These were her only sights, visions of the horrifying end of all time bouncing off the insides of her mind. Rachel felt her mind wander painfully through the realms of time, each one more painful than the last. Blood-splattered walls coated her memories as she watched the destruction of the world over and over again, fires blazing through her entire body as she felt herself pass through each one. Each vision was more painful than the last, etching itself deep into her brain as she felt herself drowning deeper and deeper.
All at once, something calming and relaxing washed over her, pushing her gently from behind towards the surface. The despair pushed down on her, trying to hold her in place, to trap her, to consume her, but the pressure behind her didn't let up. It pushed harder, crushing her between despair and hope until she thought she would die, smothered by the conflicting fears and dreams all around her. Her vision blurred as her head surfaced, the rest of her following into the air above the water. The wind over the surface buffeted her violently, almost harsher than the waters below, but it was warm, unlike the cold deep blue below. Even though the fierce gale around her refused to quell and fire danced along the water's surface, she felt safe in the raging inferno.
She felt herself crash painfully to the water's surface, fires surrounding her but never touching, never even so much as searing a single hair on her head, protecting her rather than harming. Sitting up, she glanced carefully around her, taking in her surroundings and looking for a path to escape when she found her companion. He radiated comfort, the exact same sensation that had saved her from the ocean of despair. He was half turned, clothed only in a long coat the color of blood that rippled in the undying winds. Pure white hair obscured his face, leaving her only one view of his face: one blood red eye that mirrored her own, staring deep into her soul, frightened and accusing.
That one eye stared down at her in fear, in hope, and in sadness. It was an eye that grasped the true essence of her soul and accepted it, carried it, and made her feel - for the first time in her long life - complete…
Blood Red Roses
Chapter 1 - The Day the Darkness Was Born
Rachel's eyes snapped open in the dark, staring up the ceiling high above her. The yawning stone roof above her, held up by support beams, still seemed ominous, as though it would crash down on her head at any moment. She took a moment to catch her breath, convincing herself it wasn't claustrophobia creeping up on her before she slid daintily out of her massive bed and crossed the room, opening the curtains to the moonlit view of her gardens. The glass doors opened soundlessly at her touch, taking her out to her balcony, where the scent of roses greeted her. Rose petals wafted up in the breeze of the eternal night, ruffling her thin lace nightgown and her long blond hair, both hanging down to her ankles and tickling her heels. It wasn't until the breeze hit her skin did she realize she was covered in sweat, and the feeling in filth on her skin made her squirm.
Rachel closed the doors behind her as she paced back into her room and into the bathroom, the bath itself the size of her bed. She ran the water, as hot as she would dare as she dumped her nightgown in the hamper and climbed in, feeling all her worries and pains drift away in the sea of bubbles she had created.
The dream weighed heavily on her mind. 'I have never experienced such a sensation. It felt not like a dream, but like a true experience. What kind of thought would inspire such a vivid and frightening scene?' She let out a light sigh, pulling her knees to her chest in the water, her frail-looking arms brushing gently against her shins. 'What a curious situation…'
She bathed only long enough to wash the filth from her skin, not wanting to wrinkle her flawless form, wrapping herself in an extremely fluffy towel, letting her hair drip behind her as she waltzed back into her room. Each step left wet footprints on the floor, but she didn't care. Her butler, Valkenhayn, or one of her other servants, would take care of any messes later. For now, she fetched her clothes from her large armoire while she wrapped the towel around her hair. Her black and red dress hung comfortable from her form and she strapped on her black leather boots before tending to her hair, which the tied into her two distinctive ponytails. She was just finishing straightening herself out when there was a knock on the door.
"Pardon my interruption, Miss Rachel," Valkenhayn's voice emanated from the other side of the door, "but there is a visitor to see you. I believe you would like to speak with him."
Rachel mulled over his words for a moment. A visitor she wouldn't turn down? If they were skilled enough to even reach the separate dimension where she resided, she would obviously be interested in their presence. "Very well," she responded, "I will meet them in the foyer. Have Nago and Gii ready in the hall."
"As you wish, m'lady," came the reply before her butler's aura disappeared down the hallway.
Closing her eyes, Rachel questioned who the visitor might be until the image of the man from her dream flashed in her mind. Scowling with only a slight downward turn of her eyebrows, she opened her eyes and left the room, closing the door soundlessly behind her. As she had expected, Nago and Gii were waiting for her. Nago, a large catlike creature, was curled up on the floor, his tail curled up almost to his nose as he lay in a state of half-sleep. Gii, a fat red bat, was hovering a foot or so above Nago, staring down at the cat with a worried look. As Rachel passed, she grabbed Nago's tail. Both familiars yelped in surprise as she swung Nago into the wall and then slapped him against the floor, snapping him into an odd umbrella shape.
Gii grimaced and floated along behind her as she continued down the hall. "G-good morning, princess…"
"Ow…" Nago whined. "That hurt, princess. Why must you be so cranky in the morning?"
She didn't give him answer, mostly because he didn't deserve it, but also because he was right. Rachel was usually 'cranky' in the morning, even more so this morning because of her dream. Something about all of it grated on her nerves, which was a feat in itself. "You would not suffer so if you remained attentive in my presence, Nago. I will not allow my servants to sleep on the job. Keep that in mind," she explained, whacking him against another wall.
"Ow! Yes, princess…"
Gii gulped nervously. "Y-yes, princess…"
The foyer where Rachel went to intercept her guest was furnished with two large couches and two matching chairs situated around a beautifully stained coffee table. Valkenhayn stood at attention beside one of the chairs, the other chair occupied by their guest. At first glance, it looked like someone had dragged a stray cat in and wrapped it in a blanket, but Rachel identified him with pleasure. The cat was Jubei, one of the Six Heroes who had saved the world from the monstrous Black Beast years ago. He was seated properly in the chair, his two tails twisted up behind him. His Nox Nyctorus, the dual blades known as Musashi, rested against the arm of the chair, close to his side should the situation change for the worse.
Rachel sat down across from him in the other chair, accepting the cup of tea Valkenhayn handed her. It's warm scent wafted to her nose as she took a sip. Jubei watched her, his warrior eyes watching her every movement. "It has been some time. What would Jubei of the Six Heroes have to tell me?"
"Way to skip the pleasantries, eh? Seems like you're in a huff this mornin'."
"I thought that the situation called for the important news to be discussed first, but if you insist, then pleasantries it shall be. How is your family?"
Jubei's stern expression softened a bit. "Jus' fine, I reckon. Kokonoe's a handful, but she's turning out to be a right genius in her own right."
"I see…" Rachel took another silent sip of her tea, disturbing the surface when she saw her eyes reflected in it, another reminder of her dream that made her heart skip a beat. She let out a quiet sigh. "Pleasantries aside, I do wish to move on to the subject at hand. You are not one to make a visit this far without valid reason."
"It happened," he said, his expression stern again. Rachel's heart skipped another beat and she felt Valkenhayn, ever stoic, flinch beside her. Not much phased Valkenhayn, also one of the Six Heroes, but Rachel knew that this one event would strike fear into even his heart.
"Has it… returned?" Valkenhayn asked calmly, expertly masking the corner in his voice.
Jubei shook his head. "Hard ta say. I wasn' sure, but you musta felt it as well. There's a helluva lotta unease in the air. Figured you musta felt it."
A thought struck Rachel, making her pause mid-sip. 'Was that dream… a sign? A sign of the coming of another Beast? Are we… in danger?' "Have you spoken to anyone else of this?"
"Not yet. I plan to see Caelica ta see it for myself." Caelica A. Mercury was the sister of Jubei's wife, Nine. She had spent recent years as a nun, watching over the few remains of the Black Beast, a creature that had once almost destroyed the world. Thwarted in its efforts by the Six Heroes, the Beast managed to only destroy half the world and force a majority of its population to vacate their homes to live in mountaintop cities. Caelica lived closer to the ground, waiting near the Beast's remains to see if her dear friend, a man known only as Bloodedge, would return. Bloodedge, a man with legendary strength, had fought the Black Beast for a year, sacrificing his life in the process. By some weird fascination, Caelica thought that Bloodedge would return if she waited long enough, and it seemed as though her theory had been right.
Something had emerged from the Beast's remains. Whether it was human or not was another matter in itself. Rachel hoped and prayed that it was what Caelica had been waiting for.
"I highly doubt it's the Beast," Jubei added after a long moment of silence. "It it was, we'd have known by now."
Rachel took another sip of tea. "You are, obviously, hoping for the same end as Caelica. To see your friend again, I assume?"
Jubei let out a hum of thought. Bloodedge had saved Jubei's life and was the reason the warrior cat no longer went by his birth name, Mitsuyoshi. "I reckon so. Haven' given it much thought. I would like ta see him again, but that man died protectin' what he needed to protect. I'll be happy if it is him, but if it's the Beast, I'm gonna do what needs ta be done."
"And place no regard on your family? I daresay that your friend would be most disappointed in you if you rushed off to battle and abandoned those who need you most. Is that not the core of his actions?"
The cat's only response was to stare at the floor with regret. Her point, she knew, had struck a chord. With Nine dead, their daughter had no one to look after her in her father's absence. "So, since we're not dead yet, whatever came from that heap of trash is human. There's still a chance somethin' could wind up goin' wrong."
"Hopefully Caelica has not let all her power slip away from her quite yet. She may be able to look after the situation for now."
"And Terumi?" Valkenhayn asked.
Rachel felt a shiver run up her spine. Jubei's eyes narrowed. Terumi, once one of the Six Heroes, was now among the scum of the world to those in the room. He had killed Nine, forced them to seal Hakumen within the inescapable walls of the Boundary, and was generally a pain in the ass to anyone he met. He was well known for causing mischief and strife, enjoying every agony-filled second of it.
"Let us hope we must not have to deal with that unpleasant man," Rachel huffed quietly, sipping more tea. She finished her cup and Valkenhayn refilled it.
"He's got a point. No doubtn' that Terumi'll show his face if he catches wind a this. If'in our fears are correct, somethin'll need to be done." He took a deep breath, closing his eyes before he met their eyes with newfound confidence. "I'll train 'im inta Bloodedge's successor."
Rachel watched him quietly. "You believe that this… creature, if it is human, has the capacity to be the true successor to Bloodedge?"
"I don't doubt it. If the Beast isn't bein' reborn, then whoever it is has gotta be the successor. There ain't no two ways about it."
"If you believe it to be so, I will refrain from any form of protest. I cannot say I share your assurance on the subject, but do not let me stop you from following that notion."
Jubei slid off the chair, slinging Musashi across his back. "Apologies, Rachel, but I reckon I got something you lack, a littl' somethin' we call 'faith'."
Rachel watched the cat leave, finishing off her second cup of tea. When Valkenhayn made to pour her another cup, she waved him off, setting the cup down on the table. "Valkeyhayn, I wish to finish this tea outside. Is my table prepared in the garden?"
"As always, Miss Rachel. I will prepare more tea at once." He put the cup and teapot on the tray and carried it out, leaving Rachel to her thoughts once more. 'He only wishes to revive the memory of his friend. He has no faith; only foolishness. I respect his perseverance, but I cannot share his exuberance.' The image of the man from her dream surfaced in her head again, prompting her to wonder what about him kept bringing him back to the surface of her mind.
"Princess?" Gii spoke, breaking her out of her train of thought. In response, she backhanded him, knocking him into a wall.
She stood up, flinging Nago back into his umbrella form. "Do not be late, Gii, or I shall have a much harsher punishment awaiting you." She strolled out of the room, making her way down another expansive hallway out into the garden. The roses making up the entire garden were special roses, known in the world as 'eternity roses'. Having absorbed the seithr released by the Black Beast, the roses had mutated into something spectacular. They grew slowly, blooming suddenly and unexpectedly, remaining in full bloom until the moment of their death, where they closed up and withered instantly. Preserved in her garden, every rose remained in bloom for all eternity, the flow of time interrupted to keep the beauty of the roses untarnished. Rachel sat down the table, Valkenhayn pouring her a cup of tea.
The full moon overhead shone down on the garden, the light breeze picking up more rose petal and filled the air with their sweet fragrance. Still, Rachel's mind was in turmoil. She put her cup down. "Valkenhayn?"
"Yes, Miss Rachel? How may I serve you?"
"Do you… believe that dreams… that dreams can be signs to the future?"
There was a pause before he replied. "I do believe it's possible."
"Is it possible… that they could be right?"
"There is no way to tell. The future may be unpredictable. Dreams may tell us the future, or hint at it, but there is no way of fully knowing until it happens. …Is something troubling you, Miss Rachel?"
Rachel thought through her dream once more, through the ocean of despair to the comforting fire and finally to the haunting man. "I believe that Jubei may be right. The creature born from the Beast's remains may very well be human, or something relatively close. I also believe he must be watched. Call it intuition, Valkenhayn, but I have a feeling that this man will change the fate of this world. I should like to see him for myself someday soon." She took a sip of her tea. "Valkenhayn?"
"Yes, Miss Rachel?"
She looked up at her butler, watching his face carefully. He was a wise person, she had concluded a long time ago, one who had experienced the harshness of the world and knew of its deepest and most frightening secrets. She trusted him very much, so much that she was willing to put her life in his hands. She could predict the answer he would give to her question. "I wish to see this world's story to its completion, witness the end of the tale that my father observed. No matter what path the world takes, will you watch this story unfold? Will you stand by my side and witness it?"
"I should very much like that, Miss Rachel. If you desire to journey this world's story, I will be sure to stay by your side. Like you, I truly wish to see where it may lead."
With a smile, Rachel took another sip of her tea. "Then we shall see where the story ends, and test the main characters in this extravagant tale…"