Author's Note: Apologies for the long wait. This chapter was one of the most difficult things I've ever written. It put me through the wringer, then it destroyed my editor, and after two months of wrestling with the beast we've finally forced it into submission. The chapter's not perfect, but I've portrayed the events therein to the best of my current storytelling abilities and thus am satisfied with the finished product.

Prepare yourself for fifteen thousand words of non-stop conflict. I hope you enjoy.


Chapter Thirty-Nine

Aurelia – Part Two

A mission with Shanoa wasn't quite what Aurelia was expecting.

Ecclesia's Blade, despite the nature of her position, was young and naïve. A killer who remained innocent in many unexpected ways. But Shanoa, for all her ignorance, was driven and challenging to travel with. She asked questions of the world around her. Didn't lie back and accept reality as it was. She wanted answers, reached for a reasoning to explain the Chaos she saw, wanted to grasp the methodology behind the madness pervading the necromancer's mansion they'd infiltrated. Shanoa, from the moment she saw the invalid "patients", went in search of something to quell the pain such morose sights birthed within her heart.

Aurelia found her need for answers baffling. The last thing she'd anticipated facing when alone with the young warrior. Torey and Ephraim had taught the albino to only ask the relevant questions which would help her eliminate a font of Chaos. She didn't need to know the how or why behind the reasoning of Chaotic men. Didn't search for meaning or moral guidance when faced with atrocities. People were as they were. What mattered was bringing wayward souls into the arms of ascension. Trying to understand anything beyond that was a futile effort, especially for those – like her – who were untainted by Chaos. Aurelia couldn't conceive of a mind so corrupted, having never tasted the bite of madness, but perhaps Shanoa felt a pull when they stood within the morgue. Perhaps, as the young Blade looked at the desecrated bodies around them, she heard a faint call of Chaos in her blood and had to sate it with higher reasoning. But these were questions Aurelia couldn't dare ask her for fear of unleashing something horrid. So, she let Shanoa hurt without an effort at comfort as they slew the necromancer and helped him into the awaiting arms of Dracula. Not that Aurelia knew how to offer consolation in general, but there was no need to learn now for Shanoa's sake.

The albino wondered what had fostered Shanoa's powerful curiosity as they proceeded through the mission. Torey wasn't responsible for encouraging the growth of this trait. Her uncle worked off the soldier's mindset. A warrior performed the tasks bidden of them, secure in the knowledge they were eradicating forces of evil, and nothing more. It must be Albus' influence, Aurelia determined, from their childhood; in the time before Shanoa became the precious Blade or during the siblings' time spent alone. The albino had seen Albus sneaking into the girl's room, into that forbidden territory, and she never sought to listen to their conversations during the meals she'd overseen. Family was allowed a measure of privacy, Aurelia reasoned, and Albus wasn't determined to be a threat to Shanoa's continued loyalty. The boy was a valuable asset too, committed to Ecclesia's cause, and would die to see his sister kept safe. But the nature of his role as Researcher required him to be curious and ask questions – far more than Shanoa would have a need to ever ask. Perhaps he was secretly encouraging his sister to do the same while they went on their missions together.

Aurelia would have to be mindful of this curiosity, she decided. If it became dangerous she'd have to find a means to kill the spark within her young charge. Though such a task might be more difficult than any she'd undertaken before.

Shanoa's views on killing were also vastly different from Aurelia's. The young Blade saw death as an ending, a cessation of life and material form. To her, death was a punishment, and not one to be administered lightly. She wouldn't kill the necromancer without the man fighting back, in essence forcing her to commit the deed, as a means of eliminating any guilt she'd feel afterwards. Aurelia… couldn't conceive of this stance, in a way. The albino had known the truth for too long – that death was merely the transference of the soul into another, higher state. Killing the necromancer was a blessing, a gift, but Shanoa couldn't see this. Was too blinded by traditional moral values, though that was by design, Aurelia had to remind herself when she became agitated by the girl's nonsensical hesitation. It wouldn't be fair to hold it against her.

However, for all her shortcomings, Shanoa was an avid listener and ultimately obedient. She followed Aurelia's instructions even while distressed. She sought comfort when the deed was done, deferring to the albino's instructions to torch the mansion without comment or further question. Aurelia noted all of this in a report she wrote that night on the mission's outcome. It took her a few hours to complete, and when finished she returned the file to Ephraim's desk. Her beloved would go over the notes and submit to Barlowe in less than twenty-four hours. Together, the three of them would track Shanoa's progress and ensure her mind remained prepped for the inevitable betrayal and sacrificial offering.

The next day, however, Shanoa was restless. Clearly distressed by the mission itself, Aurelia watched her from Inertia as the young Blade stiffly went about her usual training and then – in the evening – instead of returning to her room near curfew sought out Barlowe's chambers. Aurelia watched, perplexed and intrigued, as Shanoa insisted on an impromptu audience with their highest Master. To her surprise, Barlowe allowed it, and she followed the young Blade inside and observed from the shadows as they discussed what had brought her here.

"The man we… I killed. The necromancer. I… You trained me to be a soldier, sir. To fight battles in the name of our Order and the righteous cause we serve. But I didn't face that man in combat. Aurelia had to force him to stand against me, and even then, it wasn't a battle. He wasn't some foe to overcome. He was, for all intents and purposes, a normal man. I… I didn't feel like a warrior, Master. I felt like an executioner." Shanoa glanced away; her eyes turned to the twisting flames in the hearth beside her. "And that doesn't sit right with me."

Shanoa's confessions were dangerous, bordering on insightful, and for a moment Aurelia feared the young Blade had guessed the truth.

But, to the albino's great relief, Barlowe was able to assert his authority and set the girl's fears to rest.

"That man tricked you," Barlowe said in a weighty voice. "He put on a passive guise in an attempt to buy himself enough time for a revenant to come to his aide. That was, in part, why this particular necromancer posed such a danger. He had a psychic link to his servants. The ability to command them without the use of words. Had you lingered a few seconds longer the nearby corpses would have ambushed you to protect their master. That is why we deigned to send you. Such a powerful foe required an equally powerful response."

The lies flowed from him with ease. He was a master at assurance. A true leader whenever the moment called for it.

"Always remember: your place is not to question why," Barlowe concluded. "Leave that to those of us better equipped to face the nightmares such questions bring."

Shanoa acquiesced, taking solace in his words, and any crisis was averted. Placated, Shanoa was able to leave his quarters with mind intact. No hint in her heart as to the potential veracity of her doubts. Aurelia didn't follow her out; she remained behind in Barlowe's quarters even after Shanoa was gone. Barlowe let out a long, weary sigh once the door was closed, leaving him supposedly alone. The old man rubbed his forehead, smoothing out the furrow of his own brow.

"Emerge," he said in a commanding voice.

Aurelia stepped out of Inertia without hesitation, appearing in his line of sight. Barlowe's eyes cut to her with a hardness in his gaze.

"Why am I hearing these laments from Shanoa herself and not from you?" he asked. There was something dangerous in his voice, and she knew her Master was not pleased.

"I noted her hesitation to kill the target in my report, but she never mentioned any personal doubts," Aurelia said, her tone neutral. "If she did I would have come to you directly once we returned. I suspect she doesn't trust me enough to discuss such matters in my presence, however. We did only just meet, after all, and during my years of watching her I've noticed the girl tends to guard her heart."

"Fix that at once," Barlowe said in a clipped tone. "I was able to salvage her mind today, but we must guarantee it remains intact until it's time to unleash Dominus. Get closer to her, find ways into her heart if need be, and become someone she trusts enough to confide these doubts to. Then, once you have her allegiance, make sure she doesn't question again."

The old conflict roared to life. Her hesitation to get close to Shanoa in any capacity for fear of what potential emotional turmoil it might unleash, but she would do whatever Barlowe asked of her. For the sake of Ecclesia and humanity's salvation she would endure any plight.

"Yes, sir," Aurelia said.

Barlowe paused for a long moment.

"Keep your distance, though," he said at length. "Shanoa asks some dangerous questions, and I would hate to see you be unnecessarily led astray."

Aurelia didn't have to expend any energy considering the possibility. She knew the answer already.

"Never."

IXI

- Age 24 -

She lay next to Ephraim in the aftermath, an awkward sort of quiet filling the air. They were both naked, skin slick with sweat, their heavy breathing growing steadier post-coitus. Aurelia's mind was everywhere at once; delving into places she kept trying not to go when she was in bed with him. They'd been facing each other during the final ascent, her straddling him, hips moving frantically as she chased the edge, but he didn't once look at her. Instead keeping his eyes averted as she came and then – with more expended effort on her part – she was finally able to wrench a mild climax from his stubborn body. Ephraim's sudden difficulty achieving orgasm had become an escalating issue over the past year, but not one they'd ever talked about. Despite how long they'd been together now, Aurelia wasn't sure how to breach the subject.

Was, on some level, afraid to.

The space between them felt poignant. A gap created by something unbreachable, though it couldn't be quantified by tangible words. Speaking her mind was not a skill Aurelia possessed. She'd been trained throughout her life to keep her opinions to herself. To trust in the veracity of her Elders, for a wayward mind was one that could be bound to Chaos. She lived to serve, even when faced with an issue where she should be an equal party; one whose thoughts were not only welcome but a necessity. So, Aurelia kept waiting for Ephraim to bring it up himself, to guide her in this new struggling realm of their relationship, but he never did.

"How are your missions with Shanoa going?" Ephraim asked into the silence of the room.

Aurelia glanced at him out of the corner of her eye before she let out a long, exasperated sigh. "Why are you asking me now?"

"You don't want to talk to me about it?"

"It's not that, just a strange time to bring it up."

"I'm curious, is all," Ephraim said with what sounded like a forced chuckle. "Being with you makes me feel… sentimental for my younger years, I suppose. When I went on missions with my peers and didn't have to worry about my knees popping." With some encouragement he was able to catch Aurelia's gaze. "Besides, it'd be nice to hear about it from you directly instead of reading your progress in a report."

She let out another sigh. While not her subject of choice it'd at least fill the silence.

"The missions themselves aren't difficult," Aurelia said as her mind drifted through the past couple months of her life since she was saddled with the Shanoa responsibility. "With our combined skills we're able to eliminate threats with near insulting ease. It's just… strange, is the best way to put it. She's strange."

"How so?"

Aurelia mulled over her words for a time. "Shanoa is a killer," she said at length. "A warrior who has taken the lives of men, yet there's still a sense of innocence to her. She has this pure-hearted view of the world. Like a child who's never left the comfort of their home and grew up hearing nothing but fairy tales about knights in shining armor."

"Well, that is by design," Ephraim said.

"It's difficult to maneuver around, though, especially since Barlowe wants me to help maintain the façade." Aurelia shook her head. "I can't comprehend the dichotomy of her. Of how she can be so innocent even as she uses her Glyphs and views death as a hard end to human existence. It shouldn't be possible for her to be this way, to be so blind to the spread of Chaos while staring into the face of its arbiters, and yet…" She paused, pensive. "I always have to hold my tongue when I'm with her. There's a part of me, deep inside, that wants to tell her the truth, if only so I don't have to keep marveling at her ignorance."

Ephraim turned towards her until he was lying on his side, a stern expression on his face. A look given from teacher to student, not one to be shared between lovers. "We trained you for this, Aurelia. You know how to compose yourself in the face of naïve humans."

"I'm not going to go against my orders," she said quickly. "I will maintain my silence but dealing with her is different than speaking with strangers. I never have to interact with outsiders for long. Those short durations are more than tolerable, but… Barlowe wants me to get close to her; establish some level of a relationship, a rapport."

"But within reason, of course," he said with a slight shake of his head. "No one expects you to be friends."

His comment sparked an odd feeling in the pit of Aurelia's heart. The faint glimmer of an emotion without form or name. She didn't know what to make of it, other than the uncomfortable echo it sent through her bones.

"I don't want to be friends, either," she said, but the utterance – for some inexplicable reason – felt too much like a lie.

He cast her a curious look. Apparently the emotion had reflected in her tone. "Do I detect a bit of hesitation in your voice? Are you–"

"Just like you're hesitant during sex?" Aurelia shot back. She didn't want to entertain the notion he was suggesting. Not now. Not ever. Her need to deflect the only urge strong enough to spur her to breach the dreaded subject of their failing love life.

A complex expression erupted on his face. Shock leading to annoyance leading to forced dismissal, and she knew – without him saying a word – that he realized he'd been caught.

"What do you mean?" he asked, tone deceptively even.

The blatant denial hurt more than anything else he could have chosen to say.

"Your heart's not in it when you touch me," she said as she fought to tamp the surge of emotions bursting within her. Pushed down the sudden need to scream her words, an urge both foreign and terrifying. "It's like your mind's somewhere else. Like you… don't want to be here, with me, together. It's been happening for months, and it's only getting worse."

She watched the war play behind his eyes. Watched the route of denial win out, saw him carefully construct a response as the silence stretched between them. Aurelia didn't want to hear it, though. Couldn't stand to be subjected to a dismissal. So, she turned, threw off the sheet tangled around her legs and got out of bed. She felt his eyes on her as she began to gather her discarded clothes and get dressed.

"Come back to bed," Ephraim said in a low voice. Smooth in tone, with the appearance of renewed want.

"I have work to do," Aurelia said, trying to ignore the sudden desire to do as he requested. As she was told. "Barlowe sent me the details of our next target this morning. He wants me to do preliminary research before taking Shanoa out into the field."

"You're angry with me," he said without preamble. "Why?"

She took a deep breath. "I said why."

"It's nothing, though. You're reading too much into it." He let out a long, weary sigh. "I'm tired, my love. These past few months I've been busy without end, suffering many sleepless nights. It's no wonder the fatigue is affecting my… performance, but it's not through any fault of your own."

Aurelia turned and looked at him, met his gaze. She was half-dressed, her shirt already buttoned, but he was looking up at her with insistence in his expression. A yearning within the depths of his dark eyes. Ephraim held out his hand towards her, beckoning, with a slight, playful smile adorning his lips.

And she felt her resolve weaken.

"I don't want to be a chore," she said in a soft voice.

"Trust me, that's the last thing you are." His smile widened, revealing a brief flash of white teeth. "Come back to bed."

The way he said it, with some measure of force, had her wary of his intent. Aurelia wondered, again, if he truly wanted this. To lie with her; to make love; to fuck. But they'd been together for so long now, and she loved him still. She would always love him, she knew, because he was her first – her only. She'd had to fight for him in the beginning, had to stand up to her uncle as she professed her adoration, and she wasn't about to give up now when things became difficult. She'd hold onto this, especially when it hurt.

So, she went back to his bed.

And Ephraim was sweet and tender. He held her face in such a way that she felt like she was the only person in his world. But, as they climed towards release, he still didn't look at her when he came. Even when she chased his gaze. Even when she said his name.

He turned away.

And a hollowness rang in Aurelia's chest at the absence.

IXI

Three months passed before they were tasked with eliminating their first vampire coven. Aurelia had undertaken such dangerous missions before, though never by her lonesome due to the powers such creatures possessed. While a dearth of vampires existing in the world was ultimately more beneficial to their Lord's schemes, there remained some outliers among them who refused to swear allegiance to Dracula's rightful rule. Ecclesia only targeted those rogue covens, true abettors to the realm of Chaos, more responsible for spreading the infection than even the most wayward of humans. They killed without aim or reason, living in hedonistic sin, and deserved to be cleansed from the Earth.

Aurelia escorted Shanoa to the castle where the vampires had made their nest. The women spoke on the hill outside, a conversation stilted yet revealing.

"Albinism is a somewhat rare medical condition," Aurelia found herself explaining when asked. "I was born without any pigmentation in my skin and hair. My unusual eye color is also a direct result of this… 'affliction' is a harsh word, but sometimes quite accurate. In any case, the lack of pigmentation leaves me susceptible to sunburn regardless of how harsh or weak the sunlight is. I wear the cloak for my own protection. The less direct exposure I have to the Sun the better."

"Sounds a bit like vampirism," Shanoa said.

"Only without the perks of immortality, a mouth full of daggers, and an unyielding lust for blood." Aurelia tilted her head in thought. "Though I suppose only one of those traits can be construed as positive."

"If you share the same weakness as a vampire then why did Barlowe assign you to this mission?"

Aurelia didn't mean for the hurt to show on her face. Didn't want to reveal the weakness she kept hidden from the world – especially this child. Yet she felt her expression betray her and strove to immediately cover it up with a calm retort.

"I've discovered ways to overcome my light sensitivity, but a vampire will always find death in sunlight," Aurelia said in a calculated, measured tone. "Perhaps this gives us an advantage. They might underestimate me, the same as you did. Or, better yet, mistake me as one of their own."

Shanoa sighed and hung her head. "I'm sorry, that was insensitive of me," she said in an apologetic voice. "Your appearance doesn't reflect on your capabilities, and I should've known better." The young warrior touched the tattoo on her right arm. "I've received plenty of judgments myself."

Her words took Aurelia by surprise. After all the pushback she'd received from Shanoa, the glares the young Blade cast at shadows when she – somehow – sensed the albino's presence in a room, Aurelia wasn't expecting to hear her apologize. Something softened in Aurelia's chest at her words. Shanoa was ignorant and naïve, yet here she was trying to mend a mistake. The effort, at least, deserved acknowledgement in turn.

"Let it be indicative of an important lesson," Aurelia said in what she hoped was a kinder voice. "Nothing is a weakness once you've learned how to exploit it to your advantage." She paused, tempted to prolong the conversation despite the task at hand. In the end, her curiosity won out. "What of your own shortcomings?"

"Master Torey taught me to have none," Shanoa said with a wry, almost mournful smile.

"You're." Aurelia mulled over the wording for moment as she needed to keep up the charade that they were the same. That they were both touched by Chaos. "Human, same as the rest of us. We all have weaknesses."

She watched the girl muse for a moment before her face fell. "I doubt myself sometimes," Shanoa said in a soft voice.

The admission struck the same, soft chord inside of Aurelia's chest. Notes foreign and unexpected. If she had to put a word to the feeling, the only description she could devise was "endearment". Which made no sense. She had no strong feelings towards this young warrior other than a somewhat pervasive sense of jealousy. Yet the odd moment persisted, hinting at a connection Aurelia knew couldn't exist because neither of them had forged a tether. They'd made no promise to each other beside the obligations of their roles, and yet…

"I've noticed," Aurelia said after a moment.

"I can use it to my advantage, however," Shanoa said. "Master Torey taught me conquering my fear makes me a stronger warrior. I now see fear as a challenge to overcome rather than something to cower before. I'm helping to make the world a safer place, a better place, and the strength that conviction gives me is enough to overcome any obstacle, I've found."

"Then it appears we have that in common," Aurelia said with a slow nod. "Command over our weaknesses, I mean."

"And emotions are another one of yours, right?" the young warrior asked.

A laugh bubbled inside Aurelia's chest, but before it could emerge, she killed it with a vengeance.

"Full of questions today." A smile tugged at the corners of her lips and for fuck's sake what was happening to her? "Yes, to an extent, but it's dependent on the situation. It's rarely been a problem when I'm speaking to you." She forced her face to reassume a somber expression. "Now, we're wasting daylight. Time to devise a plan of attack."

Despite their efforts, the plan went awry.

Aurelia watched from Inertia as the roof collapse as a result of Shanoa's attack with Lapiste. Fools, the both of them! They should have considered the castle's decrepit state, but it was too late now. The young warrior made a mad dash for solid ground, a desperate leap as the roof gave way, and then she was hurtling through the air with nothing to break her fall but the rubble too far beneath her.

Genuine fear overwhelmed Aurelia in those moments. It wasn't simply terror born from the fear of failing in her assigned task – to keep Shanoa safe until the appointed time – but the horror of watching a young life about to be cut too short. Shanoa was supposed to ascend into Dracula's arms in a mass of glory. A passage to be envied by all privileged enough to witness it. Death by accident, not in the Lord's name, was an atrocity, and for all of Aurelia's jealousy, despite still yearning for the chance to be the Blade in Shanoa's stead, the girl didn't deserve this fate.

Later, she wasn't quite sure how she did it. The ability having been tapped into out of some instinctual need for ensured survival. Aurelia began movement within Inertia, built up momentum within a plane where motion wasn't possible, and then unleashed it as she emerged from the shadows. The force catapulted her forward, across the chasm created by the collapsing roof, allowing her to intersect with Shanoa in midair. Aurelia wrapped a solid arm around her charge, twisting her body as they careened towards the opposite wall, and broke the impact by merging halfway into a shadow cast upon the wall's surface.

Her heart pounded in her chest as she held Shanoa close, high above the ground yet safe in her grasp. The young warrior panted, adrenaline coursing through her own body, and after a long moment she turned her head, looking back at Aurelia. Her blue eyes were wide, belaying the sheer disbelief at what had just transpired. As though she were surprised the albino had bothered to save her.

And the implications hurt.

An eruption occurred within Aurelia's mind. Shanoa thought Aurelia hated her; enough to where the albino would simply allow her to die. Would watch without intervention. What kind of monster did the girl think she was? True, she had been rather callous towards her, closed off by design, and filled with an obvious dearth of jealousy for reasons she would never speak out loud. But she didn't hate Shanoa. Maybe she'd hated aspects of what the girl was, loathed the Chaos branded in her blood, but not Shanoa herself. There was a difference, Aurelia realized, between what a person was and the essence of their soul. And for all their sordid history, the more time she spent around this confounding human the more Aurelia began to feel some sense of kinship with her. The similarities between them too obvious to ignore.

But Lord, she pushed those terrifying thoughts to the wayside, they did not have time for this.

The moment passed and they continued through the castle, slaying vampires as they came across them. The women fought in tandem, as a single formidable unit, and Aurelia was pleased to note how effective they'd become at maneuvering around each other on the battlefield. Staying close enough to be of assistance while not getting in the other combatant's way. They made their way to the basement where they slew two of the stragglers, though there was one vampire still missing by Aurelia's count. She was distracted for the moment, however, heaving with the thrum of battle in her veins as she paused to take stock of her charge. Shanoa was covered in blood herself, muscles taut and a sheen of sweat covering her exposed skin. She looked the quintessential image of a proud warrior, and it was almost too easy for Aurelia to forget there was a still innocent teenager hiding beneath the evidence of carnage. Shanoa stared right back, making her own silent assessment of the albino, and Aurelia found herself wondering what the girl saw in her.

Then it happened; a pivotal shift Aurelia would never stop punishing herself for missing. Shanoa saw it, though, dashed forward on the winds of Rapidus Fio and tackled the albino without warning. Aurelia made a startled noise, her eyes catching sight of the blade as she fell, the sword cutting a swath through the air where her neck had been a fraction of a second ago. For a moment Aurelia left her body, watching outside herself as the sword completed its arc and she fell – unharmed – to the blood-soaked floor. Despite all the missions she'd undergone as Ecclesia's Shadow, the hordes of monsters faced by her lonesome, this was the closest she'd ever come to death.

And Shanoa…

She watched the girl kill the last remaining vampire with a sense of urgency; Melio Falcis her weapon of choice. The vampire's corpse collapsed to the ground when she dismissed the Glyph. A soft splash erupting from the floor as it landed in the growing puddle of blood.

"Is that all of them?" Shanoa asked as she looked around for any lingering villain.

Aurelia sighed as she climbed to her feet. Her cloak was drenched in blood and she removed it with disgust.

"Yes." She tossed the cloak atop an adjacent coffin. Her eyes turned to the surprise attacker. "I was wondering where that one went."

The women's eyes met and they stood, regarding each other in silence. A burn ached inside Aurelia's chest. The source of emotions she slowly began to recognize as caring and gratitude, though their presence here was surprising. There were only three people in her life she had a genuine connection with. Her uncle, Ephraim, and Oriana; those relationships having been formed in her youth and persisted throughout the years. Aurelia had never yearned for anything more. Never went searching outside of herself for anyone she could call friend and companion, her needs already having been met.

But standing here, looking into this girl's shining blue eyes, a sudden yearning flared inside the albino's heart. A need to foster something – some unidentifiable end – with this young woman who had just saved her life. Who'd been saved by Aurelia's own hand minutes prior. Aurelia didn't want it, hadn't looked for it, but now a bond had been forged between them. A cord of fate tied the moment they stayed Death's hand. They'd never be able to go back to what they were, Aurelia realized, with her as the callous leader and Shanoa her disgruntled, yet obedient charge. Their actions had spoken for them. Revealed they, on a subconscious level, cared enough about each other to intervene when needed most.

The damnable warmth continued to spread through Aurelia's chest. This infernal, good feeling. So powerful, too much, and she'd never expected it. But the emotion was here now, undeniable, and – by the Lord – what the hell was she supposed to do with it now?

Shanoa took a deep breath, the sound of her inhale breaking the silence. "I suppose that makes us even."

The words sliced through her, cementing this new reality into place. Aurelia fought to keep her expression neutral, but knew she'd failed. She held Shanoa's gaze as she nodded her head.

"I suppose it does," the albino said in a blessedly steady voice.

They soon returned to Ecclesia on her orders once it became clear Shanoa had been hurt in the preceding battle. After the transversal, Aurelia escorted the injured warrior to the medical ward, taking care they didn't run into any other acolytes as they walked through the halls. Her attempt at subterfuge was successful, and after ushering Shanoa inside Aurelia dove into a nearby shadow without being seen. She moved frantically through Inertia, overwhelmed by the day's realizations and needing to be alone.

She emerged within the confines of her private bedroom, located in one of the lesser used wings of the fortress where acolytes were unlikely to wander upon it by happenstance. The room itself was bare, containing a bed, night table, and wardrobe, though little else. Aurelia didn't see a need to decorate the room as she seldom used it aside from sleeping. The walls were bare, she had no personal possessions or trinkets on display. The only bit of color in the room was the ice blue circular rug in the middle of the floor. Aurelia began to pace once she'd left Inertia, charting a course around the rug, her boots making a light tapping sound against the hardwood.

Questions swarmed inside Aurelia's head. Musings birthed to life at the sudden influx of emotion swirling inside her chest. She had to sort this out, place reason to the madness, or she'd never be able to regain her footing. Because a conflicted woman couldn't serve as Ecclesia's Shadow. She had to be calm, in control, unyielding in her resolve as she committed the necessary deeds. Aurelia lived to serve. Followed her Masters and their insight to her Lord's wishes without question or falter. Yet – faced with such a conundrum – the woman who never questioned couldn't stop herself from asking.

Why did Shanoa save her? They weren't friends, barely even colleagues, yet the girl had acted without hesitation. Even though allowing Aurelia to die would have resulted in a boon for the young warrior. Would have meant freedom from Aurelia's watchful eyes. That alone would have been reason enough to stay Shanoa's hand. Might have tempted anyone else in the moment, yet the girl intervened regardless.

Aurelia knew from experience that a human with Chaos in their hearts would have allowed her to die. They would have watched as an obstacle to their desires was eliminated. And therein lay the crux of the matter. Shanoa was tainted by Chaos, Aurelia reminded herself over and over. She held the touch of it in her body, her blood corrupted by its sin, but she didn't act upon its whims. Wasn't influenced by the call of Chaos even though she should be. Chaos was stronger than humanity, forcing them to bow to its desires in pivotal moments, and nothing should have made Shanoa resistant to its influence. Especially when Aurelia's death would have afforded Chaos a victory over the Lord trying to usurp its hold on the species.

So why was Shanoa different? Even with her purity of mind and the innocence they'd fostered she was still unclean. Barlowe insisted upon that truth, and his word was law, his insight beyond question. But Aurelia's life work was steeped in Chaos. She'd spent years looking into the maw of absolute sin, saw the worst that humanity had to offer, and yet – for all her familiarity with the seeds of Chaos – she felt no shred of its claws in Shanoa. Almost as though she was… immune.

Could Barlowe be wrong and she wasn't corrupted after all?

Aurelia quashed the thought as soon as it had formed. No, she wouldn't dare question, especially not where doctrine was involved. But her questions still begged an answer. She needed to know why Shanoa was like this, was able to live subverting the design of her own making. Barlowe ordered Aurelia to get closer to the girl, to become a confidant, understand Shanoa's mind to prepare her for the inevitable Dominus ritual. Finding answers would appease these ends, Aurelia reasoned. There was no blasphemy in that.

The albino continued to pace around her room as she devised an experiment in her mind. A controlled method for getting closer to Shanoa that wouldn't put her own sanity at risk. She fought to ignore the bubbling, delighted feeling in her chest as she formulated the terms of a pact. An admission of common ground which would help them become a more effective fighting unit while fostering a sense of comradery. A far cry from a forced friendship – that would be too dangerous – yet intimate enough to meet their needs.

Pleased with her strategy, Aurelia dove back into Inertia to go in search of her charge. Yes, she would have her answers, but within reason. She and Shanoa would remain separate entities, in the end. Understanding of each other, yet apart.

It would be enough.

IXI

"I have a proposition, of sorts."

"Of sorts?"

"Yes. We haven't been the most cordial to each other. Cordial, right? Yes, that's probably the best term for it. Just barely tolerating each other's existence while we're out in the field. Except I think now that, maybe, we could try something… different."

"Like what?"

"Don't misunderstand. I'm not suggesting something as bold as friendship, but a… a truce. That, taking the events of today's mission into consideration, we openly acknowledge the fact we make an effective fighting unit and at least have enough concern for each other's wellbeing to intervene if put in harm's way. I think, perhaps, if we did that, it might strengthen this strange partnership we have. This would, in turn, make us more useful to Ecclesia as a whole and help avoid any further close calls."

"I don't think either of those close calls were the fault of poor communication."

"But next time it could be. And, honestly, I don't wish for there to be a next time. For both of us."

"Ok, I will make that acknowledgement, but on one condition. You let me see Aurelia."

"What?"

"I can see the mask you wear. I always have. You ask for a truce, for us to establish this comradery, but how can I trust anything you say while there's this wall of lies between us? If I don't even know who you are? All I know is a title, not the person behind it, and I think at this point I deserve to know. If you let me see past whatever the hell Ecclesia's Shadow is supposed to be, if you let me meet Aurelia, then I will make your pact. But not until then."

'Lord…'

And Aurelia knew she was damned.

IXI

- One Month Later -

Most of Aurelia's solo missions now consisted of preliminary research into targets she would later be sent to exterminate along with Shanoa's assistance. Ephraim had assigned her to investigate an odd rumor one of Ecclesia's field agents had overheard during their travels. A claim that creatures known as the Stone Folk were terrorizing an isolated mining town in the mountains. The Stone Folk themselves were an old legend, monsters Aurelia hadn't heard of previously, but after delving through Ecclesia's archives they appeared to not only be real but pose a valid threat. If they were killing humans without aim, spreading Chaos in their wake, these Stone Folk needed to be eliminated. Their malevolent deeds put to an end.

That's how Ecclesia's Shadow found herself in the town of Golaş, running reconnaissance on the threat it supposedly faced. The residents themselves were simple people, devoted to their ancient customs and all dressed in uniform clothing. They were too trusting, Aurelia found, and responded to her questions without her needing to pry. They spoke proudly of the efforts made by their local priest – a man named Father Emil Lupu – and how he'd found a way to keep the Stone Folk at bay. His rituals, they claimed, saved the town from assured destruction.

One man she cornered, large and stocky from a lifetime of work in the mines, informed Aurelia the priest had just captured another creature who tried to infiltrate the town the previous night. In fact, he was on his way to help perform the ritual which would see the creature destroyed and Golaş' continued prosperity assured. Aurelia let him go, sensing his urgency, and dove into Inertia when no one was looking. She followed the man through the streets, staying within his shadow, intent on seeing this ritual for herself. She would observe and assess the veracity of these civilians' efforts. If they'd found a reliable way to destroy the Stone Folk then perhaps she and Shanoa could use the tactic to their advantage when they returned later.

She followed him to the stone church on the edge of the town, wedged between surrounding cliff walls. He entered the structure, walking down the carpeted aisle to a door set in the back behind the altar. It opened to a flight of stairs, descending downwards, and he climbed them into a basement. Aurelia left his shadow once they entered the subterranean room, taking purchase in a dark patch in the corner from where she could properly assess the new space she occupied.

The room itself was bare; the only furnishings being an ominous looking wooden table in the center of the room with hooked metal rods affixed at the four corners. Dark, blackened stains splotched the wood grain of its surface, and Aurelia wondered as to their origins. Four identical horn-shaped sconces affixed to the surrounding walls shed light upon the room, illuminating the stone walls covered in religious iconography. Crucifixes of varying make and design – some metal, some wood, some fashioned out of clay – were hung up in clusters surrounding the table. Someone had taken pieces of white chalk and drawn more images of crosses in the gaps between them, lending an eerie, near-desperate aura to the entire scene.

Aurelia watched the man take up purchase at the head of the table and wait in silence for more companions to arrive. A few minutes passed before another man descended the stone staircase and entered the room, greeting the first man with a grin and a firm handshake. This new man was dressed in priestly vestments and carried himself with an air of authority. Father Emil Lupu, she presumed, and made sure to catalogue his face for future reference. Once the greeting was complete, the atmosphere in the room became somber, and the Father turned, shouting a command up the stairs with a grim look on his face.

"Bring the creature inside."

There was a commotion at the top of the stairs and, after about a minute filled with the sounds of struggle, three more men entered the basement carrying a thrashing creature in tow. The monster itself wasn't what Aurelia expected. The tomes she'd read described beasts of fearsome strength, yet the Stone Folk before her was the size of a child. Short and thin with no defined musculature to be seen. Its more notable traits were the marbled texture of its skin – similar to the patterns of the tiles covering some of Ecclesia's hallways – and the large fangs protruding from its open mouth. Its eyes were black obsidian, and its clawed hands were tied behind its back with thick rope. The creature pulled against its bonds as the men wrestled with it, their own muscles straining as they were eventually able to force the beast atop the table. Another bout of struggling persisted as they undid the original bindings and lashed the creature's limbs to the metal hooks in the table's four corners. At last, the deed was done and the creature secured, its small body stretched out over the wooden surface.

Aurelia watched the men gather around the prostrate beast. A somewhat unnerving sight in this dim room filled with erratic graffiti offering praise to a vengeful God. Each unnamed man grabbed a thrashing limb, holding the Stone Folk down as the Father positioned himself near the center of the table. The priest pulled a ritualistic dagger from a sheath hidden beneath his vestments. The blade made of silver and polished to a sheen so bright it reflected the light. At the sight of the weapon all five men began to pray in unison – a somewhat familiar chant Aurelia recognized but didn't know by heart – as the creature snarled up at them, trying to break free of their grip.

Then the change happened.

She stared, gaze intense with intrigue, as the Stone Folk's form shifted. Its marble skin took on a recognizable, solid, fleshy hue; its fangs receded; its claws retracted leaving short nails in their stead. Within moments the monstrous form faded, replaced with something indistinguishable from a human child. Then, the creature whimpered, an entirely human sound, and if she hadn't watched the scene unfolding with her own eyes – from its beginnings to this pivotal moment – Aurelia would have mistaken the Stone Folk for a real child.

'So that's how the monsters do it,' she thought to herself. 'How they trick their way into human settlements.'

But, most peculiar of all, was how the men were unaffected by the Stone Folk's new form. They didn't falter or hesitate at the sight of the child in their hands. They didn't carewhat it looked like. The Father poised the knife above the creature's chest, ready to strike at its supposed heart. The creature's eyes (no longer black orbs, now of human design and a deep crystal blue) rapidly glanced between the blade and the priest's face, registering the sight of its own fate.

Then its pink lips parted, and it spoke a single word. "Please…"

The sound was that of a child's voice. Soft notes spoken in a genuine plea brimming with emotion, but the Father didn't so much as flinch. He raised the knife above his head and drove it into the monster's exposed chest. A high-pitched screaming filled the basement, echoing off the stone walls desecrated in Chaotic imagery. Aurelia grimaced, the noise causing a throb to pound against the inside of her head, and if she weren't running reconnaissance she'd have cut off her auditory link to the outside world if only to spare herself the grief of hearing it. The men continued to pray as the Stone Folk wailed; as Father Emil Lupu drove the knife into its chest again and again.

"Dracula… damns… you all…"

Aurelia almost missed it. The words cried out amidst the screams. Her attention snapped, coming back fully to this scene, at the utterance of her Lord's name.

"He… will… reign!"

Then, with a last stab and twist of the knife, the monster let out a strangled cry and fell limp against its bindings.

She watched as another, final transformation occurred. The Stone Folk reverted, somewhat, to its previous form, halting halfway between human and monster. To a lay person it'd look like a child deformed by some medical ailment. No one would assume its beastly origins unless outright told. And through it all these Lord-forsaken men continued to pray. Solidifying their absolute devotion to God as black, oily blood spilled from the rendered corpse, staining the table and dripping off the sides.

Aurelia watched the scene from Inertia, brow furrowed, mind ablaze with the revelation that the Stone Folk worshipped Dracula and – seemingly – pledged their allegiance to him.

So, they weren't true monsters after all.

Everything changed in the face of the realization. She'd come to assess a beastly threat and found comrades instead. If the Stone Folk were acting according to the Lord's designs, ascending wayward humans by their own hands, then it meant the town of Golaş – not the Stone Folk themselves – should be led into the arms of Dracula. Perhaps, Aurelia reasoned, that's why the Lord had deigned Ecclesia's acolytes to overhear the rumors in the first place. So she could find this village and help the Stone Folk do his work; succeed in their stalled aim.

The Lord did work in mysterious ways at times, she'd been told.

Of course, the final decision would be up to Barlowe's discretion, but she suspected her Master would be of a similar mind. Her eyes lingered on the priest, the leader of this sorry band of wayward humans. The townsfolk had admitted they were lost without his leadership. He'd ingratiated himself into this community, made them believe that he alone had the power to kill a Stone Folk and keep them at bay. A grin tugged at Aurelia's lips at the absolute, selfish hubris of this priest. If the Father was ascended into Dracula's arms then Golaş would be exposed, and the creatures could fulfill their glorious task. Ascend the entire town in their Lord's name without Ecclesia needing to raise more than a single blade.

Aurelia stiffened, her mind turning – as it so often did these days – to Shanoa.

She'd left Ecclesia Blade in a somewhat precarious position, awaiting Aurelia's rejection or acceptance of her terms of the proposed allegiance. Shanoa had asked to see Aurelia – her true self – not the guise of Ecclesia's Shadow, before agreeing to a friendly pact. The request had been impossible to anticipate, and the albino found herself avoiding Shanoa in the month since that night, not following her outside of missions as she pondered how to proceed. She couldn't think clearly around the Blade anymore. Shanoa elicited too many emotions from her; genuine, raw things, and there was a danger in their encounters that Aurelia couldn't speak of to anyone, even her uncle. Because none of them would understand this strange tether between them. A bond forged in the recognition that maybe Shanoa didn't have Chaos within her. They all believed the girl was tainted, her blood sullied, but Aurelia couldn't believe that anymore. Not after she'd saved Aurelia's life.

If Barlowe decided to help the Stone Folk complete the Lord's work in Golaş then he'd have Aurelia return here with Shanoa. Thankfully, the childlike corpse would provide an excellent reasoning for their assignment. Turn this into a perfect mission to ensure the Blade's continued ignorance and unwavering loyalty. Yes, Aurelia would paint the Father as a child murderer, a man of ultimate evil who needed to be eradicated from the Earth for undeniable sins, and through his death a manipulated town would be free from his tyranny.

A small flicker of guilt burned in Aurelia's heart at her calculated lies, however. Shanoa wasn't simply a pawn to be used anymore, but someone who'd saved Aurelia's life. Who cared enough to intervene on her behalf. There was a bit of betrayal in this, the albino realized, twisting the truth to serve Ecclesia's ends, but it was – Aurelia was quick to remind herself – justified. Shanoa was too far gone in her convictions. Couldn't possibly understand the nature of their work now, after all the years she'd spent warped by naivety. At this point, after all the humans they'd ascended, it would be more… merciful to continue the charade lest her mind break under the weight of revelation.

The lies were a gift, Aurelia reasoned. Her way of preserving the essence of a young warrior Aurelia had spent years holding in a spiteful, jealous regard. It was surreal how quickly this shift had happened. How undeniable her genuine need to keep Shanoa safe; a desire born not out of obligation but something which resembled affection.

And it wasn't what Aurelia's role dictated in the slightest.

'Lord, what have I become?'

IXI

They were standing in the darkness of the crematorium. Before Aurelia showed her the corpse, revealed all the evidence she'd gather to help solidify Shanoa's resolve, she needed to ensure the young warrior's mind would remain intact. That she wouldn't find cause to question why Barlowe had sent them here. That she would ascend the Father and feel no guilt in doing so. Because Chaos had reigned in this town for so long, but now – together – they could bring it to an end. Pave the way for a mass, glorious raising.

"These people believe Father Lupu's claims that he's killed Stone Folk because they've watched him do it," Aurelia said, her voice quavering in a calculated manner as she spoke. "Once a… creature is slain, the body is taken here. This building is a crematorium. A place where they incinerate corpses until the flesh is destroyed, leaving nothing but bones behind. Father Lupu crushes these remains into dust and then scatters the 'ashes' around the town's perimeter. He preserves the skulls, however, to what end I shudder to consider.

"This, he claims, is what keeps the Stone Folk at bay. The remains of their slain comrades. Except it isn't a permanent solution. Eventually this ward begins to fade, oftentimes between six months to a year, in some cases sooner depending upon the Father's will. When the time comes another Stone Folk is captured, and the ritual begins anew."

She grabbed Shanoa's wrist and led her further into the darkness, using her connection to Inertia to chart their progress in lieu of traditional sight. Soon, they came upon the Stone Folk's small corpse, laid out upon a slab of wood before the furnace doors. They were close enough, and Aurelia bade Shanoa to halt.

"I've seen many horrors in my life, Shanoa. Things I wouldn't dare speak of to you for fear of corrupting your mind, but this man is less than human." Aurelia took a shuddering breath. "What he's done – what he's convinced the people of this town to do – is unforgivable." Her voice dropped to a desperate whisper. "I hope you don't come to hate me for showing you this."

"I won't," Shanoa said with full confidence, so sure of herself in this fleeting naivety. "I asked for this. I- I want to know. I need to know the true face of evil."

And Aurelia couldn't deny her. "Then behold."

Shanoa summoned Luminato into the palm of her hand. The ball of light hovered in the air, illuminating the contents of the room.

And then the young woman broke.

The sound of Shanoa's horrid sobs was nigh unbearable. Aurelia froze, shocked at the emotional deluge erupting from her charge. Her mind scrabbled for purchase, making sense of the sudden outpouring, and cursed herself for not anticipating this. That the sight of a child's corpse would be enough to tear Shanoa's heart asunder. She was so innocent, after all, so pure, and – fuck – Aurelia cursed her own fleeting naivety. She was hardened to atrocities, hadn't flinched once as she watched the priest and his cohorts perform the ritual, yet Shanoa was unblemished; coveted. The albino should have known.

Aurelia had no idea how to rectify this. She wanted to reach out – to console – though was held back by total lack of experience. She'd witnessed emotional breakdowns before. Had seen plenty of wailing and grief when she interviewed the surviving relatives of the victims of monster attacks or homicide. But she'd never been present when someone she knew, someone she… cared about… was beset by such ugly emotions. There was nothing in her training which prepared her for this. No textbook examples imparted by her uncle or Ephraim to base any strategy off of. All she could do was stand there and let Shanoa hurt.

It was so… inadequate.

"How?" Shanoa asked after a time. Her hand hovered over the Stone Folk's body, though she didn't chance to touch him for reasons that were her own. "He… does he make them look like this?"

Aurelia had anticipated the question and prepared a suitable explanation days ago. The cover story came to her with ease, words flowing as natural as the truth, but it felt different this time; wrong, somehow. She'd spent months spinning lies, hiding reality from Shanoa, but in that moment a sudden clarity wracked her. A sense of guilt burgeoning inside that nothing she did – no atonement she could devise – would ever appease.

Because she cared about this girl, was building a companionship with her, but it was a farce.

And it hurt.

The albino froze for a moment, gears churning in her head, paralyzed by the realization. This was the antithesis of what she'd been raised to do; all the training Ephraim had put her through to help her sway the minds of ignorant humans. She shouldn't care about what Shanoa thought of her. She was supposed to be gaining the girl's trust, not the other way around. Aurelia shouldn't be losing herself in this, and yet it'd happened beyond her recognition.

There was no turning back now, no way to appease this beast raging inside her. She wasn't supposed to care about Shanoa but she did. Shanoa had saved her life and now Aurelia was lying to her, spinning stories of valiant heroics out of their blood-soaked work, but eventually Barlowe would reveal everything. Then the Blade would see, understand the actual role she'd played in these events, and, Lord help her, Aurelia was going to destroy this innocent girl and she didn't want to.

She didn't want to hurt Shanoa.

But she was going to, anyway.

And there was nothing she could do to stop it.

So she buried it.

Aurelia pressed forward, voice not betraying the carnage tearing at her heart. "Lupu creates a specialized poison that infects the bloodstream without outright killing the victim. Its symptoms are clearly displayed here."

"These people believe him," Shanoa said, tone hardened with accusation.

Something slipped inside Aurelia's mind. Her plan to keep Shanoa fully ignorant of the full extent of the townsfolk's involvement in the Stone Folk's death was eradicated the moment she heard the venom in the Blade's voice. Aurelia couldn't hold it back. Lord, if anyone deserved-

"Yes, they know of what this ritual entails," Aurelia said without thinking. She remembered the four nameless accomplices. Full grown men holding down the body of a child as the priest spilled blood. "Not every villager is present, but Father Lupu employs a select few to help him in the task. They obey his orders without question. Even as the children scream. Even as he slaughters them."

She came back to herself as Shanoa cried. Ugly sobs ripped from her throat as she bowed over the boy's body. Aurelia snapped her mouth shut, heart thumping in her chest. She'd said too much. Barlowe would have her head if he knew she'd exposed her to Golaş' corruption – the sight of their Chaos – but it was too late. All she could hope was that Shanoa would be too lost in her grief to note the full extent of sin.

"How?" she asked again. A seemingly aimless question, yet Aurelia knew what she meant.

"None of the children are local, or even from the nearest towns," the albino said, diving into her cover story, aiming to refocus Shanoa's anger and sorrow on the man they'd come to kill. "Father Lupu kidnaps them from traveling caravans, or covertly buys them in the slave trade. I overheard a few villagers refer to more than one instance where Lupu apparently found a child wandering in the nearby woods. He's conniving enough to pick his targets well. No one ever comes looking for them."

Shanoa was silent after that, grieving without care, and Aurelia let her take all the time she needed. Somehow, she knew this was the right thing to do. A small gift of solace in the midst of such overwhelming evil. It wasn't a proper act of comfort, but it was all Ecclesia's Shadow could give. After a time Shanoa's sobs grew quieter until she was left crying silent tears. They lingered a bit longer, until it became evident to Aurelia the broken young woman before her would shed tears without end until their task was complete.

"Come," Aurelia said in as soft a voice she could muster. "We should go inside the church and wait for him. This is horrible, I know, but we can ensure he never hurts another child."

"Yes." Shanoa nodded repeatedly as she stood upright. "Yes."

And, together, they proceeded to do the Lord's work.

IXI

Shanoa was distraught, in the aftermath. A young woman besieged by the reality of what humanity was, even if she couldn't comprehend the realization in its true breadth. Nor would Aurelia want her to, for her naivety was a precious thing. Not just to Ecclesia's aim, but to the albino as well. Lord help her, Aurelia wanted to preserve the trait within Shanoa because it was a rare gift. For Shanoa to be so distraught at the sight of death – even though she'd created so many bodies in her wake, with Glyphs of ethereal design – was a testament to her character. No matter what the world threw at them, the horrors she faced, Shanoa's heart remained untouched by Chaos.

So, as they parted ways upon their return to the fortress, Aurelia was beset by a sudden, indescribable urge. She wanted to acquiesce to Shanoa's wishes; show the young warrior Aurelia as she'd so desired. The two of them shared a burden, Aurelia had realized as they set the priest's body to the flame, carried throughout the years in the form of silent struggle against a world who didn't want them. A world that rejected them on the basis of origin alone. Shanoa was an orphan, a bastard, banished to Ecclesia by people beyond herself. Aurelia was an albino, hated by society at large, marked for death the moment she left the womb. They had both been decried as untouchable by humanity's Chaotic designs but found meaning in the same family. Were given sanctuary from the violence they were sure to incur in the outside world. Aurelia wouldn't reveal everything – the shared weigh of destiny they carried, the dual desire to be Blade – but it would be enough to cross the barrier; to show Shanoa her sincerity in forging a tether of understanding between them.

Perhaps it was dangerous, becoming this close to the sacrificial lamb, but something had further shifted inside Aurelia after watching Shanoa ascend the priest. A dangerous inclination she didn't know how to tame. The young warrior was hurting, and Aurelia – for some unknowable reason – wanted to help take away that hurt. Thus did Aurelia work, forging the red talismans from a numerical sequence she dredged up from an old memory. The destination a sight she knew would bring Shanoa's turbulent soul some peace.

'Lord, what am I doing?'

But even the question didn't give Aurelia cause to falter. Because this was right, she knew. Shanoa deserved the reprieve, and it would help keep the innocent optimism of her mind intact. So, when her work was finished, the albino passed through Inertia, to Shanoa's bedroom, and entered that once forbidden sanctuary, intent on giving a gift she'd never graced anyone else. Not even Ephraim.

"Hello," Aurelia said once she'd stepped out of the shadows.

Shanoa let out a long, weary sigh. The evidence of her sorrow etched upon her haggard face. "Hey."

"How are you feeling?

Shanoa shook her head, though the movement was limited by her mattress. "Terrible."

"I don't blame you." A frown pulled at Aurelia's lips as she reflected on how much she was to blame for the young warrior's current emotional state. "I wanted to apologize again," she said, feeling obligated to repeat it, "I see now I should have warned you about–"

"No, you were right," Shanoa said, her tone firm. "I needed to know what that man has done, because I can't be a righteous force without knowing the reasons why I must fight. I feel more invigorated now than ever to keep fighting. To prevent more atrocities from befalling mankind, but it's still difficult to reconcile with the face of true evil when I see it. Because I can't fathom why anyone would intentionally cause harm to an innocent. It's the exact opposite of my nature. So, despite my surge of conviction, I… I'm still upset."

"You're allowed to be upset," Aurelia said, and she bade her tone to reflect everything within her; all the things she was still afraid to say.

"Yes," Shanoa said after a moment, "and I'll use it to fuel my hand. Humanity needs me to be strong, and I will be. For them."

Aurelia's heart burned for Shanoa, because she'd been like this once, lost and confused before the sight of carnage, as her uncle revealed the true extent of humanity's Chaotic ways. A soul scrabbling for purchase amidst the waves of seemingly inconsolable evil, and he'd offered her salvation in the assurance of her Lord's righteous salvation. Dracula's rule would make an end of the endless war. Aurelia couldn't give Shanoa the same consolation, but she could show her the might of the universe. How – no matter humanity's cruel designs – the species could not break the foundations of existence. Shanoa needed to know that reality was built upon order, upon rules of indominable strength, and she could take solace in that fact. In the rigidity of creation.

It struck Aurelia, in this shared moment between them, that she'd never had anything like this before. A relationship built upon shared experiences where nothing extraneous was expected of her. Shanoa asked her for companionship built upon common ground, a dual sharing of themselves in equal measure. To know the person and not the role. The young warrior didn't want to take anything from her; had no ulterior motive built upon physical or selfish desires. And Aurelia knew, if she denied Shanoa's request, the young woman wouldn't hold it against her.

This was… dangerously close to friendship, wasn't it?

Lord, she shouldn't entertain this. She should kill it now before it could grow into something uncontainable. Because, in the end, this relationship was based upon a lie. Upon the predication that – ultimately – Aurelia would be found out as a liar and this scheme used to break Shanoa's heart. To turn her into the perfect sacrifice upon the Vessel's altar. But, in that same breath, she'd promised Barlowe to become someone the young warrior could trust and confide in. Not only to maintain her surveillance but to increase the inevitable hurt at Aurelia's supposed betrayal.

This relationship was destined to end in pain. There was no way to avoid that outcome, but perhaps – in the meantime – they could have this. Something as close to a real relationship as pawns could have when their lives weren't their own. When they lived to serve a cause greater than themselves. It was selfish and cruel, but Lord, Aurelia yearned.

"I want to show you something," Aurelia said.

And her whole world changed.

IXI

Aurelia… revealed almost everything. Her parents' planned infanticide, how her uncle had found her sanctuary within Ecclesia, her familial relation with one of the Order's highest ranked brethren. It flowed with surprising ease, and the words Aurelia never thought she'd have the strength to say out loud left her lips without conscious thought. As though spoken of their own accord.

"Humans are creatures of strange convictions," Aurelia said, wrapped up in the lesson she was imparting. The only guidance she'd ever sought to give. "They will commit blatant atrocities if they believe it serves a higher moral purpose. What they fail to consider is morality itself is a subject to interpretation. While murdering a newborn may seem, on a base level, to be an unforgivable sin, how do you quantify it when the murderer believes the child itself is evil? That, by allowing the child to live, it will result in devastation for a larger populace. In that case, wouldn't it be morally justifiable to kill the child before the disaster occurs? My parents sought to kill me out of what they believed to be necessity, but what would they have done if they realized they were being misled by ancient superstitions?

"Nature, on the other hand, is much more simplistic. There is no morality for the monsoon to consider when it wreaks havoc on the land, or the wolf who stalks its injured prey. They each perform the role the universe assigned them, and rarely deviate from that chosen course. Humans have spent their entire existence questioning nature, defying it, all to some intangible end. But nature exists as an order unto itself, and there is an unparalleled beauty in that."

Aurelia raised her arm towards the stars above. She cupped her hand, as if to hold its majesty in her palm. Such a marvel, this place was. A sight which never ceased to cause the air to studder in her chest, and she wouldn't have shared it with anyone else. Shanoa, alone, was worthy.

"Glyphs may house the knowledge of creation, but anyone can see divine blueprints in the patterns of nature," she said. "There are fractals all around us. In the clouds, in lightning, in the leaves of plants, even our own blood vessels follow the rules of that same structure. There are patterns in the symmetry of biological form. In the Fibonacci spiral a nautilus creates without any trace of higher thought. The night sky contains an array of stars, formations far beyond humanity's reach, and even that natural construct is recreated on this infinitesimally smaller scale by the larva of insects who have never left the confines of this cave.

"Humans cannot destroy this; the order of a universe. One that will survive long after they're gone. I've always taken comfort in this fact. No matter what horrors humanity may commit or the ugliness I see, nature will always prevail. And it follows a script that makes no judgments."

Silence fell between them as they stared up at the stars in tandem. A universe unto itself. One without any shred of Chaos.

"I accept your terms," Aurelia said at last, and she had to fight to keep the tears from her eyes.

She felt Shanoa look at her. Felt the young warrior move closer until they were sitting side by side. Almost touching, but not quite.

"I know."

They became something in that moment. A word Aurelia dared not acknowledge even in the private confines of her mind. Their shared presence was a comfort neither of them should feel. A thing barred by the very rules of their order; the pure cavorting with the Chaos-touched. Except Aurelia knew now, more than ever, that Shanoa wasn't human. Had no shred of the species' base sin within her. They were the same breed of creature, Aurelia and this naïve, wonderful child.

The truth resounded once more in Aurelia's mind; that this relationship would end in blood and tears. That there would always be bodies shared between them. They couldn't escape the destiny the Vessel had laid out for them, but Aurelia was selfish and cruel. Two flaws she'd never be able to rid herself of and was damned for it.

IXI

- Age 25 -

She'd invaded Oriana's studio again. The old woman knew to expect her at this point. Understood that at any moment a familiar pale, cloaked figure could emerge from the shadow and interrupt her solitude. Oriana had long since given up any pretense of fighting against it. Aurelia knew, deep down, the old woman enjoyed her company. Preened at the idea of having a young one all to her lonesome. One who would listen to her stories and take serious heed of any advice she had to give. It wasn't love or friendship, but they were kindred spirits. Not even the old witch could deny that.

Oriana had been sketching a likeness of a statue she'd set up in the middle of her studio, where the light cast interesting shadows across its surface, when Aurelia arrived. The albino had taken one look at what the old woman was doing and, with some persuasion, was soon sitting next to Oriana with her own easel, parchment, and pencil in hand. Aurelia was attempting to draw a sketch of the naked stone female placed before them. However, there was a sharp disparity between the two drawings. Oriana captured a striking image of the frozen woman, while Aurelia's barely resembled anything human. In her peripheral, Aurelia could see the old woman casting her protégé's drawing disgruntled glances.

"This is no good," Oriana said with a flourish of her hands. "The subject is too complex for budding artistic mind. I should start with simpler task. You are doing poor job with this."

Aurelia frowned at her companion; eyes flicking between the old woman's face and her sketch. "It's not that bad."

"It is." There was no sense of brevity or solace in Oriana's words. Not that Aurelia was expecting there to be. The old woman took her craft too seriously to be kind in her criticism. "Look, it's disproportionate, to start. Then you are using short chicken scratches instead of the flowing lines. No sense of form to your figure; you do not appreciate the biology. Cannot recreate it in proper guise."

The young woman grumbled, offense bubbling to life in her heart at the harsh words. Oriana studied her pupil's countenance for a long moment before she sighed, acquiescing, and reached for a new sheet of parchment. She switched it out for the one Aurelia had been working on. The old woman leaned over Aurelia's easel, pencil in hand.

"Here, we start with the bean," Oriana said as she set to drawing. The image she produced was a large, kidney bean shape drawn in one singular movement without lifting the graphite off the paper.

Aurelia studied the shape for a few seconds. "What makes this so important?"

"It is basis for the organic form. Here, watch."

Oriana proceeded to draw several more shapes in the same structure. Then, she went back, adding features, and in short form what started as kidney beans became the recognizable torsos of male and female humans. To one she added legs and rounded feet, solidifying her point.

"See?" Oriana said when she drew her hand back. "Practice the shape and you will become master of many things."

Aurelia nodded, not questioning the advice given by an elder, as was typical of her personality. She proceeded to draw her own kidney bean shapes. Hers were wobbly and small, difficult to complete in one stroke, but she'd persevere.

"How go your missions with Shanoa?" Oriana asked as they worked.

The albino gave her a brief, yet detailed summary of the few missions the pair had embarked on since she last spoke to Oriana. Aurelia was honest when regaling the old woman with tales of their exploits. Oriana was someone Aurelia knew she could trust in completely. The old woman would keep the stories to herself, wouldn't tell anyone else in Ecclesia out of her own sense of personal pride. In knowing someone as integral as Ecclesia's Shadow sought the rebellious witch out of her own resolve. Spoke to Oriana of things she wouldn't even tell Barlowe.

But still, despite the trust she had in Oriana there were some details Aurelia kept to herself. Because there was a sort of sacred privacy in the bond she shared with Shanoa. Dealings that should remain between them and them alone, such as the nights they spent reading together in the quiet solitude of Shanoa's bedroom. However, Aurelia revealed enough to paint a clear picture of where the two young warriors stood with each other.

Oriana made an odd sound as Aurelia concluded her report; a note which bordered on displeasing.

"So," the old woman said, "you and the Blade… you two are close now, yes?"

Aurelia shrugged her shoulders in what she hoped was a noncommittal display. "I suppose you could call it that."

"Do not be lying to me," Oriana said with a click of her tongue. "I can see the truth in you. You care for her."

Worry and concern churned in the pit of Aurelia's stomach. While she knew she didn't need to hide anything from Oriana, especially the nature of this bond, Aurelia had never voiced the truth out loud. It was one thing to acknowledge her relationship with Shanoa within the confines of her own mind, but to verbalize it? Now, that was truly terrifying.

"We… work well together," Aurelia settled on saying. "I admit there are many similarities between Shanoa and I. In our wants and dreams. So, yes, I guess I do care about her in the sense that I don't want to see any harm to come to Ecclesia's Blade."

She felt Oriana's gaze turn to the young woman sitting beside her; green eyes boring into Aurelia's skull, piercing her fleshy exterior to look upon the soul lying beneath. Aurelia knew, even without meeting the old woman's intense gaze, that Oriana had seen through the thinly veiled lie.

"You are playing a game of danger, kind."

Aurelia fought the urge to look at her, instead keeping her eyes fixed upon the sheet of paper before her. "What makes you think that?"

"Because of the nature of our Blade. You are knowing what it means. What fate Shanoa will face. This thing you are having, this caring, it will end in tears."

A sharp blade of hurt cut through Aurelia's heart. Yes, she knew all of this, the reality of where their relationship would lead, but it hurt to hear Oriana say it out loud without hesitation. But what hurt the most – set the aching throb to echo in her chest – was the fact Oriana was right. A rational person wouldn't have let it get this far or forged a bond in the first place. Except Aurelia was selfish to the core, a pitiful creature where emotions were concerned, and, Lord help her, she endeavored to indulge this sin until the end. Because it felt too good to stop now.

"Even more reason why I should enjoy it while it lasts," Aurelia said in a soft voice.

Oriana scoffed in disgust. "Foolish child! You are not seeing what you are doing! You are the cat befriending a mouse. Toying with it for its own pleasure. This thing you indulge, it is causing unnecessary hurt to you both."

"I can't avoid hurting her," the young woman said without thinking, only realizing what she'd admitted when it was too late to censor her thoughts.

"But you can be making it hurt less." Oriana shook her head. "Getting close to the girl, it is cruel. Tricking her into thinking it can ever be peaceful between you. If you indeed be caring for her, kind, you would not be doing it."

Aurelia frowned. "I don't see why it matters to you," she said with petulance in her voice.

"You are making me care!" Oriana threw her hands up in exasperation. "You are the one who is invading my sanctuary and forcing the time spent together. You are the one telling me your stories, who is asking for my guidance. What else am I to be doing but get involved in some way with this stürmisch life of yours?"

Aurelia took a few deep, calming breaths before she spoke. "The way you feel about me? It's the same way I feel about her. Pervasive, unignorable," her voice dropped to a whisper, "and I can't look away."

"There is difference. You are having a choice with Shanoa. You just refuse to keep her at the length of your arm."

"I don't have a choice." Aurelia's tone took on a hardened edge, her eyes narrowing as she stared at the scribbles on her paper. "Barlowe wants me to get close to her. He asked for this. I'm just doing my duty, Oriana. Following the guidance of my Elders. If you must see our relationship as anything, see it as that."

"How can I be doing that when you have already confessed your heart's desires?"

Silence passed between the two women; heavy with the weight of knowledge shared between them. Aurelia wished she could take it all back. Never revealed her selfishness to Oriana and kept the old woman in blessed ignorance of the dangerous line she was walking when it came to her charge. But that was a moot point. Oriana would have found a way to get it out of her, in the end, even if she resisted. The old woman was too meddlesome to let such a juicy development slide unacknowledged through her fingers.

"But I cannot be stopping you," Oriana said after a time, her hand waving dismissively through the air.

"I'm still committed fully to Ecclesia's mission," Aurelia said in a resolute voice. "I will fulfill my duties before all else, and nothing will lead me astray. Not even the bit of kindness I show to our precious lamb."

"You are speaking the chorus of all fools." Oriana grabbed the underside of Aurelia's chin and turned her head, forcing the younger woman to – at last – look her in the eyes. The old woman leaned forward until a scant few centimeters subsisted between them. Close enough that her next words roared in Aurelia's ears. "Save yourself and be killing this friendship before it is too late. Before you're both ruined."

Oriana held her gaze for a moment longer. Then, with a rough shake of her hand, she let the younger woman go. Aurelia glowered, but she didn't offer an argument or protest. Instead, she turned her attention back to the sheet of paper in front of her. She set her pencil to its surface, steadied her breathing, and drew a large kidney bean shape in a single, fluid motion without lifting the graphite off the paper.

Not even Oriana could have done it better.

IXI

It all felt so damn good. The books and the quiet time they spent together. Their comradery on missions, the brief and fleeting sharing of secrets, and Lord, this relationship with Shanoa was everything Aurelia had never had. A thing denied to her in childhood and beyond. The young warrior birthed feelings inside of the albino she'd never known existed. Warm, comforting emotions without names, yet she never wanted to let them go. What perplexed her most, though, was Ephraim never felt like this. He offered his own brand of solace, in the firmness of his embrace, in his words of love, but there was a difference with Shanoa that Aurelia couldn't place. A description in her mind which bordered on the word "genuine", though the albino would never suffer the inclination long enough to follow that thought to its origin point.

They continued breaking the rules. Meeting together in secret to share books together. Words of obvious blasphemy written by Chaotic souls, yet Aurelia came to cherish this time together more than anything else in her life. Though it came with its own brand of danger. Because this closeness fostered a boldness inside of Shanoa. Bade her to breach subjects Aurelia knew would be better left untouched, yet the young warrior's damn drive towards honesty and truth brought them to the inevitable.

"So, there's something that we need to… discuss," Shanoa said in as unconfrontational a tone as possible as they sat there in her bedroom, reading books of differing designs.

The albino shot her a surreptitious glance over her shoulder. She knew where this was going. A week had passed since she'd let the confession slip; that damnable word spoken in the midst of wiping out a militia, and the albino had spent all waking hours dreading this unavoidable conversation.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Aurelia said.

A frown creased Shanoa's lips. The sight rather adorable on her youthful face. "Don't you dare. You know exactly what I'm referring to."

"Still." Aurelia's eyes returned to her book. "There's nothing to say."

"Aurelia." Shanoa let the word hang in the air. A plea carried in her voice.

Aurelia sighed and placed the book on the ground beside her. "You can't be serious." She looked back at Shanoa. "Why do we need to discuss it? It's just a word, it doesn't matter."

"Of course it does!" Shanoa placed her own book aside. "This changes, well, everything. How we interact, what we do together, and why. You can't call us 'friends' and then pretend it means nothing."

"Do you even know what a friend is?" Aurelia asked, heedless of the hypocrisy inherent in her question. Neither of them knew the makeup of these waters; both having been denied such a relationship throughout their lives.

Shanoa pressed on, unbowed before the challenge. "I know it's someone you care about. A person you share things with; your dreams and vulnerabilities." Shanoa held Aurelia's gaze, not even daring to blink. "It happened back in the cave, didn't it? I don't think either of us walked away from that conversation unchanged. And you're not the type of person to share something so personal with someone you didn't trust."

Aurelia's eyes widened and – for the first time – she couldn't banish the emotions or hide them beneath the Shadow mask. The albino looked away, her breathing grew heavy, as a pervasive silence filled the room. Shanoa waited, firm in her resolve, and Aurelia knew the Blade wouldn't run from this, regardless of how terrifying the subject might be.

"It's futile, isn't it?" Aurelia said under her breath, more to herself than Shanoa. Oriana's warning rang loud inside her head – "be killing this" – but the albino closed her eyes with a long, deep sigh as she plowed headfirst into the unknown. "I'll make a deal with you. Quid pro quo, as it were. I'll talk about it – answer your question – if you answer one of mine."

"Deal," Shanoa said without hesitation.

Aurelia glanced back at her. "Not so fast. I get to go first."

"Yeah, sure, so long as you promise."

"I guess I do." Aurelia rotated her body until they were sitting face to face. The height difference was still a little awkward, but Aurelia wanted to maintain the distance between them. A level of safeguard she couldn't bring herself to breach despite the tether she was strengthening between them. "Why do you read romance novels?" Her purple eyes cut to the bodice ripper Shanoa was reading. "You clearly don't enjoy them. You always have the same complaints. You've never been able to name one that you actually like. So, why do you keep going back to them? What's the draw?"

If pressed on the reasons why she'd asked the question, Aurelia would dodge the answer. She'd give something noncommittal or claim it was spoken out of base curiosity. In truth, some deep-seated part of her recognized that her and Shanoa felt different kinds of romantic love. A disparity without proper labels or context, but enough to where it gave Aurelia cause to wonder. If she told Shanoa the truth of her relationship with Ephraim, detailed her beloved's place in her life from their romance's inception to present day, what would the young warrior say? Would Shanoa understand, or would she pass judgment like her uncle did?

Some part of Aurelia needed to know.

Shanoa's eyes widened a moment before she fell silent. The young woman pondered her answer for a time before she spoke, her words small and almost timid, yet poignant.

"I'm… looking for something," Shanoa said, a weight to the words. "They all lack a, a missing element, maybe? It's strange, I'm supposed to want this. To pine for this. I'm still a teenage girl, right? You said so yourself, once. Yet, I… I don't want it. I want something else, I think, but I can't figure out what." She shook her head. "Maybe I'm trying to find something that doesn't exist. All I know for sure is these stories are the same thing, over and over, and somehow it's enough for everyone else, but not for me."

"You want something." Aurelia paused for a long moment, her heart beating in her chest. Oh Lord, their forms of love took different shapes but even this was the same, wasn't it? How many more traits did they share? How bold would Aurelia be in uncovering them? The albino shook herself free of the quagmire and pressed on. "Unconventional, perhaps."

"Could be, I just don't know what that would look like. Whatever it is, I haven't found it in any of these books."

"Might be something you have to discover for yourself," Aurelia said in a near whisper.

Shanoa stared at her for a time. "And you? What kind of love do you want?"

Aurelia's heart resumed its rapid tattoo as she was backed into a corner. Shanoa was looking at her with such entreaty Aurelia couldn't deny her now.

"I've." The albino cleared her throat. "I guess I'm typical, in a way, but also not. It's difficult to explain. I've only been attracted to a handful of men, though none of them ever turned into the kind of relationship you'd read about." Her purple eyes glazed over as she stared at some point in the middle distance. Thoughts of Ephraim swarmed inside her head. Of how difficult it was to touch him these days. Of how he couldn't look her in the eyes when he climaxed, his mind clearly elsewhere. Her heart burned at the memories, and she pressed on, confessing the true reason why she'd fallen into the bodice rippers. Her own way of dealing with a romance she could feel breaking at the seams and yet had no idea how to mend. "Suppose that's why I read them. To escape. To pretend I could…"

Silence permeated once again. A great fear held between them, a beast beyond either of their ability to tame.

"My turn," Shanoa said, diverting Aurelia's attention away from the foul thing in the room.

Aurelia held her gaze; still wrestling with the answer despite her commitment.

"We're not supposed to be friends," she said at last. Her voice tried to maintain an even keel but wavered on the last word.

Shanoa didn't hesitate.

"But we are," the young warrior said with finality.

Aurelia couldn't look away. The two women stared into each other, assessing and yearning in equal measure both. The thick, heavy hurt burned hot in the albino's chest again as she recognized what was happening. There was a level of love here, wasn't there? A young and naïve brand of the emotion, yet it lived regardless of Ecclesia's laws or doctrine. Thrived despite the machinations of the men who brought them together in the first place. But vows had led Aurelia to this moment. An allegiance beyond anything she could pledge to Shanoa. Aurelia believed in her Lord, believed in His glorious future. And – above all else, even friendship – Aurelia lived to serve.

They both had their roles to play in the salvation of humanity, and that end was greater than any hurt they'd be forced to feel. The road was built for them before either woman was born, and they'd both have to walk it to completion. Because there was too much at stake to give it up for selfish desires.

But, for the time being, the albino could still admit the truth.

Aurelia spoke in the smallest voice. Loud enough to shatter mountains.

"Yes."

It was all she could give, and she hoped it'd be enough.


End Notes: We have one more chapter of Aurelia shenanigans and then it's back to present times, at last.

I want to take a moment to give my heartfelt thanks to everyone who's left a review or comment on this story. It means the world to me to see how my words have affected people and I carry the most poignant reviews with me always. I love that even after coming off a five-year hiatus there are still people reading and discovering this story and finding meaning in it. So please, feel free to leave a review or send me a private message. I read all of them, even if I don't always get around to responding. I've also set up a tumblr if you're more inclined to send me messages that way. You can find me over there under the name "mirrorofshalott".