Who dares stand between a mother and her daughter's life? Precia will do anything to achieve her goals. Even if it means accepting Fate.
Click, click, click. Two sets of footsteps echoed loudly in the oppressive silence. The young girl advanced hesitantly along the corridor, throwing a longing glance at the sandy-haired woman alongside her. Long blonde hair swished softly at the movement, and Linith looked down at her. The familiar's face was grave - a startling contrast to the warm, kind demeanour she usually displayed. A hint of sadness entered her eyes at the pleading, terrified expression of her charge, but her expression remained resolute.
Click, click, click. Despite the high ceiling and wide, open space, the corridor was shadowy and indistinct. The girl could see little through the gloom, and flinched at every echoing retort bouncing back from the walls, every rustle of the plants that wound up the pillars lining either side of the hall. Everything was strange, unfamiliar and scary. Desperately, she clung to Linith's hand - the only secure, reliable thing she had encountered so far. Something was... wrong. The girl couldn't put a finger on what, exactly, but...
The world felt different, that was one of the main things. Her memories were hazy and indistinct, but she was sure that they were different to what she felt now. Even now, in the murk and gloom of the long, sinister corridor, the faint colours and dim light were far more vivid than anything in her memories. Food tasted different, she could feel the air against her skin in a way that matched nothing in her experience. It wasn't that she had never experienced such things - she could remember picnics in a rich and beautiful garden, warm baths and the smiling eyes of her mother.
But they were distant. Faded. Washed out, as if mere stories that she had heard. Not immediate, not in the way that her senses painted the world around her now.
It was scary. Everything felt different. Everything. Even Linith was new, though she was nice, because Mama had never had a Familiar before. And she didn't know where she was, either. Asking Linith had only gained her a name - the Garden of Time - which meant nothing to her. Any more questioning and the normally attentive woman would clam up, becoming vague and evasive. And Mama... she had been there when the girl had woken up. Happy, almost to the point of crying tears of joy. She had said something about the girl being sick, for a very long time... she had looked older, it was true. Was that why her memories were so strange and faded?
And what had happened? Her mother had been happy at first, but... she'd gotten quieter and quieter, colder and colder. Her smiles had come less often, and the girl had noticed strange, intense looks in her direction out of the corner of her eye. After two or three days, she had turned and left without a word, sweeping out of the room in a flurry of cloth and leaving Linith to take over caring for her. Had she done something wrong? Upset her mother somehow? She bit her lip fearfully, worried at the possibility. If she'd done something wrong, why hadn't her mother told her, so she could do it better? Did the older woman think she wouldn't try to make her happy? Her mother would never think something like that, would she? Was that why she had called the girl to her now, to admonish her and tell her what she was doing wrong?
The doors at the end of the corridor came into view - tall and imposing, and somehow ominous. The huge gold portal almost seemed to radiate malevolence in the dim purple light, and the leaves along the passage produced a soft susurration as a breeze raised chills along the girl's arms and up her spine.
Abruptly, Linith stopped, and the girl almost stumbled at the sudden cessation of movement, still clutching the familiar's hand. Confused, she looked up at the woman and met an expression of sympathetic austerity.
"I have to wait here," Linith said. Her voice was soft, apologetic. "You need to go in further by yourself."
Her expression becoming desperate with fear and uncertainty, the girl silently pleaded with Linith to say something, do something other than just stand there and wait. But to no avail. The familiar gave her a reassuring, encouraging nod, but made no move to step forward and accompany her. Tentatively, trembling slightly, the girl inched forward, towards the doors.
Slowly, ominously, they opened. There was no creak, no gush of air or billowing smoke from within. In some ways, that might have been an improvement. Instead, they swung silently aside, admitting the girl into the chamber beyond. An unseen wave of menace billowed out - almost palpable in the cold hush - and swept over the girl, making her flinch away instinctively before advancing reluctantly into the room beyond.
Large. That was her first impression. The room was round, curtained archways lining the walls around a glowing disk in the centre of the floor. Beyond it, on the far side of the huge chamber, light spilled out of a gap in the walls to silhouette a seated figure on a gothic, high-backed throne.
The silence that had been oppressive in the corridor was overwhelming here, a crushing, stifling weight that bore down on the girl as if it were a physical presence. Slowly, halting, she made her way to the centre of the room, where she stood. Her breathing was harsh and ragged, the strange feeling in her chest flaring again - not painful, but strange, alien. It felt electric, alive, dangerous. Whereas in her hazy memories she had only a dull pulse to compare it to, here and now it was like a living thing beneath her breast, sharp and wild and terrified as it writhed like a living thing.
All further thought fled as the light behind the tall chair faded, and she caught her first glimpse of its occupant. In spite of her attempt to stifle it, a gasp escaped her. This woman... this woman was her mother... and yet not. Her memories - even the more recent ones, before she abruptly left - painted her mother as a warm and smiling woman, always ready to hug or play with her daughter. Beautiful, intelligent and kind, the figure of her mother had been a light that not even the faded, pastel colours of her memory could fail to give warmth to, and the girl had clung to that figure through all the fear and uncertainty of the past few weeks.
This woman was so very like her mother... and yet different. Older. Tired. Cold, dark and forbidding. Her presence seemed to chill the room, and her eyes held not a hint of warmth as they regarded the young girl. Unable to hold the dispassionate violet gaze, the girl broke her stare, fixing her eyes on the floor and shivering uncontrollably, though the room was not that cold.
A minute passed, and then another, the oppressive silence building into a crushing force that battered the scraps of bravado and courage the young girl had mustered into nothing. With all her heart, she wanted nothing more than to turn and run, away from the chill, dark room and back into Linith's arms. Try as she might, however, she could not get her arms to move, nor will her legs to obey her commands.
Finally, the silence was broken as the woman spoke.
"You," she said, and her low voice cut through the silence like a knife, "are not Alicia."
The girl blinked, stunned. Her head flew up, hurt in her eyes and a wordless protest on her lips.
One look at the woman's face stopped her cold before she was able to make a sound.
"You are not Alicia," the woman repeated. "You have her memories, you wear her face, but you are not her. The differences are subtle, this early, but they are undeniably present." She paused, letting her words sink in for a moment before continuing. "You are a failed experiment."
Bitter tears welled in the young girl's eyes, a cold numbness forming into a dead weight in her chest. She had done something wrong. What was it? How was she different? Why... why didn't her mother accept her as- as who she remembered herself to be? She was Alicia, wasn't she? That was the name she remembered answering to.
"You are a clone of Alicia, my daughter. An Artificial Mage intended as a replacement. You have her memories, her appearance... but you do not have her essence. As a replacement, you have failed before you have even begun. You are not Alicia. You are a product of Project Fate."
Nausea rose in the girl's throat (Alicia's throat? Project Fate's throat? Who was she? What was she?) Her head reeled from the cold, emotionless words and she fought to keep her balance against a sick, clammy feeling of mingled horror and terror at what she was hearing. For a moment, the world spun and she began to hyperventilate.
"But," The word cut through her panic, dragging her sharply back to the real world. "But... I was wrong about one thing."
The woman beckoned the girl closer, frowning impatiently until her legs took over automatically, carrying her in a dull, dazed state towards the older mage. An elegant hand reached out, taking hold of the young girl's chin and lifting it slightly to examine her face.
"You are not Alicia, that much is true. I failed to bring her back. But... if you are not Alicia herself, you are still her clone. And while the experiment failed to bring back my little girl, its secondary aim - the production of a powerful, artificial mage... that does seem to have succeeded." She paused again, allowing the thought to sink in. Violet eyes regarded the girl as a look of slow comprehension dawned on the young face, and she finished the thought. "You may be of use to me yet, and... who knows? When Alicia wakes, she may be grateful for a sister. You are not Alicia, no. Not my daughter. But I will give you the chance to prove your worth to me... Fate."
The bleak tides of panic began to draw back as the words offered a platform of hope, and the girl desperately clung to it, waiting in tense anticipation and hanging on the woman's (her mother's) next words as if they were edicts from heaven itself.
"Would you like to see your sister, Fate?"
Deep red eyes widened in shock, and the young girl hesitated briefly before nodding. The woman raised a languid hand, and a shape moved forward from the opening behind her. As it came into the light, another strained gasp was drawn from the young girl.
For inside the tall, cylindrical tube, suspended in a foetal ball in the bubbling turquoise liquid was a figure she knew all too well. She saw it, after all, every day, in the mirror. The girl in the tank looked tiny against the complex machinery of the stasis tube - fragile, frail and impossibly vulnerable. Her eyes were closed, her expression peaceful, and along with the gentle undulating motion of her long, blonde hair in the viscous fluid, it almost served to give the impression that she was merely sleeping.
"You see?" the woman whispered into the silence, "More than two decades ago... a terrible accident. A twist of fate cruelly snatched her away, unhindered by her youth or innocence. I managed to put her into stasis, but..." grief flickered over the woman's pale, elegant features and she took a laboured breath before continuing. "But she is not lost, Fate. She can be brought back, I have the knowledge. The ability. All I need are the tools. She can be saved." For a moment, her eyes grew wistful, looking onto a scene from long ago and far away. "And... and she was always loving and sweet. I don't doubt she'd like you too."
Snapping out of it, she favoured the young girl standing before her with a smile, and observed with calculating eyes as she seemed to almost glow in response. Her stance was unrecognisable from the scared, nervous and heartbroken trudge she entered the room with mere minutes before. Now she was brimming with energy, with hope and anticipation. The woman raised her head slightly, looking down at the girl imperiously.
"I can bring her back..." she continued" but there are those would stop me. Who say that it is wrong! Uncaring, arrogant, set and rigid in their refusal to take any mitigating factors into consideration, they issue a blanket ban on any quests such as these. They would oppose your very existence, and if they could unplug the machines that keep Alicia from the cruel ravages of time and bury her in some nameless, unmarked grave, they would do so in a heartbeat." She paused again, violet eyes narrowing in disgust as she took another deep breath before spitting the next words, "And despite what they might say, contrary to their fine ideals and delusions of moral superiority, they are no better. Some of the work they fund... well. There is time for that later. For now, all you need know is that they are arrogant hypocrites, petty bureaucratic meddlers who dabble in things they do not understand and presume to pass judgement on all, regardless of their authority to do so. They are the TSAB, the Time Space Administration Bureau, and they are our enemy, our opposition to setting things right."
Reaching forward, she rested a hand on the young girl's shoulder, feeling her shake slightly through the thin cloth at the touch. "Fate," she said softly, her voice low and kind, "I can save her, but I cannot do so alone. It requires tools, a power source for the spell. I cannot go out and retrieve what I need to help Alicia, nor can I defend this place on my own if the TSAB find us." She squeezed gently and stared deep into the wide burgundy eyes.
"I need you, Fate."
A light entered the youthful gaze. Dim to the point of almost non-existence when she entered the chamber, crushed mere minutes before by the harsh words Precia began her speech with, it sprung to life now as a fierce, hungry blaze. To be needed, to be useful, to have a purpose and to make her mother proud of her... the offer was irresistible, and she clung to it like a drowning girl.
"Will you fight for Alicia, Fate?" The woman's voice grew commanding, challenging, inspiring. "Will you train, and grow strong, and defend her? Will you stand against our enemies and hold to your beliefs, even in the face of adversity? Will you... will you help me save her?" Her voice broke slightly, and she swallowed back something that sounded like a sob, "I... I just want her back. To hold her again in my arms, sing her to sleep at night. And you'll do it for me, won't you? Make me proud."
"Yes!" The girl's voice was resolute, brimming with determination. She did not pause; no thought was needed as to her response. The words burst out from her heart, emotion layered thick behind them, "Yes, I will! Mother, I promise... I will make you proud!"
Precia gave her shoulder one last reassuring squeeze before sitting back in the throne-like chair. "Good. You are a good girl. Thank you, Fate." She refrained from commenting on the slight wetness that appeared around the girl's eyes at the expression of gratitude, gracing her instead with an imperial nod. "I have high expectations, and will be severely disappointed if you fail to meet them. Linith will be your tutor at first. Once you become... skilled... I shall take over, and teach you how to properly control the power you wield."
"Yes, mother." The girl's voice was quieter now, her shoulders dropping slightly. Already, she was tiring after the rollercoaster of emotion the meeting had induced. Despite having only entered the room moments ago, it seemed like hours in her memory, looking backward as if through a thick fog. She shivered again, suddenly uncomfortable in the chill room.
"Very well," Precia said. "You may go now. Eat. Bathe. Sleep. I will see you again presently."
Dipping a short bow, the girl nodded and turned to leave, her tired step still vastly more confident than the tremulous hesitance with which she had entered the room. Confidence was in every line of her face, the aura of someone with a solid certainty of whom they are and where they are going. There was enough purpose and clarity in her to fight away the exhaustion she felt resonating through her slight frame with every step.
"Oh, and Fate?" Precia called out, just as she passed the open doors. The girl paused, turning back to the austere woman.
A challenging look. "I expect great things from you. Prove to me that you are not a true failure. Remember, you fight for Alicia's life."
The doors slowly swung shut, leaving no time for a reply. And blinking back tears, buoyed up by hope, happiness and sheer, implacable resolve, Fate Testarossa allowed her mother's familiar to guide her away.