They are ephemeral. All of them. Some of them are simply more aware of it than others.
She had seen it since she first lost her eye. Since the day she had let her sister die. That was the day she had first seen despair; the taste of it had never left the air.
Number Five. Rafaela. That was her name, her rank, her symbol - all of it was her. Yet she didn't bother looking back at the mark on her back and on her sword. She knew what it was. She had lived with it. Why would she need to see it to remember?
They lived and died by their blades, the half-yoma. All of them. Their lives began when first a blade cut them open; their lives ended when they were cut down by a blade, and there was nothing left to mark their passing save for a single blade, alone in the earth.
She had always wondered about that. It was a waste of good metal. What good would a gravestone do for the dead? It wasn't as if the corpses cared. They were gone. Their bodies were empty, their minds were blank, their sorrows ended, their happiness faded away. There was nobody sheltered beneath the earth and the stone. A corpse didn't care.
She would know. She was a corpse. She just hadn't lain down and stopped moving yet.
Her aura had been gone for so long, she scarce remembered what it felt to have one. How odd it would be, to leave a mark upon the world, wherever she passed. How odd it would be, to leave a ripple where she tread.
This was her death. She was invisible. She was a ghost. A walking corpse. However one cared to refer to her. It wasn't as though she cared. She was dead, after all. Even the name of Rafaela had been forgotten by most all of them, though they had always failed to realize it themselves. The old world, where her sister was the First and she was the Second - that Organization had been left behind, and a new one had risen in its place. The same men. The same rules. Just... deader. They remembered less, even though they knew more. They had created her. They had began her life. And yet she was dead from the day she was born.
They all realized it, in the end. All of them. It just took some of them longer than others.
Then again, she mused, perhaps some of them died before they even learned that they were dead. Luciela had been kind enough to kill off six dozen young Claymores before they could begin to grasp the concept of living death. Perhaps it was a mercy. They had no idea how hated they were to be. Held in contempt by those above them, disliked by those below them. Feared by the yoma, feared by the humans. Their faces didn't matter, their clients didn't care. As long as they saw silver eyes, they were satisfied. There were no poets that praised the beauty of their eyes. Why would they sing of a Claymore's eyes? They were the eyes of beasts. Of witches. Of bitches. They were the eyes of the dead.
Yes, perhaps it was a mercy that so many of the warriors died so young.
She had watched, once, as Alicia and Beth had trained together. Just out of idle curiosity, more than anything else. They hadn't noticed her. Of course they hadn't. She was a ghost. But she had seen them, more clearly than they could see themselves. Because Alicia and Beth were already dead.
It wasn't obvious. It wasn't apparent, perhaps, to the men who trained them. But she could see it. It wasn't in their auras - their auras were powerful and unsuppressed, raw energy that swirled about them like hungry serpents slithering about their prey. That was very much alive. It wasn't obvious in their eyes, either - their eyes were no different than their forty-five comrades, as glassy and empty as mirrors in an empty hall. It wasn't even in their bearing - they still stood straight as iron rods, backs unbending, heads held high.
Perhaps she could see it in their blades. In the dispassionate, careless use of their swords as they shifted from Awakened and Asleep. They already knew, somewhere deep inside that - what, their marks? their armor? their names? - they were all for nothing. They had already realized that life was an empty gesture. They already knew that they were dead. And no matter how many thousands of yoma they slaughtered, no matter what miracles they performed - one day, their swords would lie buried in the earth, forgotten and abandoned, and the twins would never give one damn. They were dead. They were buried. And no sword that protruded from the earth would ever change that cold undying fact. And so they shredded their armor every time they shifted form, and they dropped their swords to the ground every time their hands grew claws.
They all were dead, whether they realized it or not. Sometimes it simply took the tides of time another turn before it caught up to them.
She had wondered, as she stood alone in the valley, in the shadow of the mountain where the Quicksword had made her home - what had Irene seen here? What had she felt?
There was a house, built from wood and earth and stone. There was a space by the cliff overlooking the river, where she had made fires to warm herself at night. There were animals in the forests, fruits in the trees. Here, Irene had made herself a simple semblance of home, far away from everything else. There was comfort. There was familiarity. It was as though Irene had found peace, far away from yoma and blade and cloak and man.
And still, when Rafaela had come, Irene had already accepted her own death. In her narrow eyes and slender limbless body, there was no hint of resistance. There was no fire, no passion. There was only death in her eyes; she was simply waiting for her death to find her. She did not know when. She did not know how. But she had known it all the same, and spent all her life awaiting the day where she would wake up, and find that death had found her too.
Quicksword Irene did not die from a warrior's stroke. She accepted her death willingly from an executioner's blade. There were no formalities. No elaborate processions. No last-minute wishes or boons to grant, no final spark with which she blazed on. She was merely an ember of a fire that had never really been. Her body was left to the earth and the animals and the plants to do with as they wished, and her sword was strewn carelessly on the ground where it had been left. Perhaps Irene had dropped it ten years ago, and never cared to touch it again. Perhaps it was only in the final moments, when she understood at last that death was on her doorstep, that she lay her claymore down at last. It didn't matter. Irene was dead. She had been dead, she was dead, and she would be dead until the end of time, and her claymore could be left in a tree or in an ocean or in a mountain or on a hole on the ground for all Irene cared.
They lived by the blade, they died by the blade. Every moment, from the day they were reborn until the day they died, they lived with their sword, and with their mark, and with themselves. And for all of that, they still died alone, and their Claymores marked their empty graves where their empty bodies lay.
Some of them realized it. Some of them were blind to it. But death remained a part of them regardless. And no matter how strong the eyes or the soul, it remained invisible.
How ironic it was, that the God-Eye of the Organization could not see. How ironic, that, for all her strength and all her power, she could not see where all the twisting tendrils of yoki pointed.
In a way, Rafaela admired Galatea. Her strength of character could almost make Rafaela believe that the mark on their sheaths meant something real. The power of her eyes could almost make Rafaela wonder if there was perhaps something that she herself had failed to see. Perhaps there was some distant corner she had not yet silently scouted. Perhaps there was a corner of the earth, far away, that only God's eye could see - a place that had not yet been claimed by Death.
But still, the Number Thee was blind in the end. She truly believed that she could lie to Rubel, that sharp-eyed seer of all, from whom even a ghost could not hide. And were it not for all of the power that Galatea could provide with her blind eyes, Rafaela would have slain her on the spot. Unseen. Unheard. Unfelt. On that day, had the God-Eye the vision to see it, her death had been made concrete.
Even a ghost could see that much.
Rafaela would never hear the rest of Galatea's story. She would never know how the God-Eye had sought refuge in Rabona's city; she would never know that the God-Eye had blinded herself in order to better see. But it would not have been a new story for Rafaela. For all her might and power, Galatea had lacked the strength to see her death and face it, to acknowledge it and look at it squarely in the eyes. And because of her blindness, she lost her right to live, had that right ever been granted to her. Her vitality was an illusion, and nothing more.
Some saw it. Some denied it. And yet all of them would taste it just the same.
She had detested Ophelia, always, almost as much as she envied her. There was a sinuous strength in her lean limbs and strong shoulders; there was a sly glint in her eyes and a curve to her beautiful smile that made the hair on her neck tingle. It was not the malevolent cold-hot lust that had made Roxanna of Love and Hate so skin-crawling - but nor was it the simple violent fervor that had once gripped Rafaela herself. It was something strange and unnameable, hissing softly from behind her pixie face. But death seemed to have no hold on her.
Rafaela's most vivid memory of the girl had been the image of her cackling face, eyes wide with madness, arm and blade humming as they oscillated together in harmony, drinking in the fountain of blood that sprayed from her target's neck. It was only then that she had seen death lurking in the girl. It wasn't the slow quiet death that Rafaela had grown used to seeing, time and time again. It was a writhing mass of insanity, tentacles and coils whipping themselves into a frenzy. Ophelia was terrified of death. It had touched her once when she was young and had numbed her to the marrow of her bones. She had spent the rest of her life scrambling away from it, seeing it in the face of every Awakened she killed, always knowing that it was still waiting just behind her, silent as her shadow, slow and sure as the changing seasons. And every ounce of pain she inflicted on the world, she offered up to the silent shadow, praying somewhere deep inside that the pain and pleasure would be enough to please the silent deity she worshipped and feared.
All for nothing, of course. Death could not be bargained with or swayed. Ophelia's bloody baptisms were as empty as the watery baths they offered in Rabona's church, and did even less to keep her clean. Death came for her in the end.
It was Rafaela that found her corpse, of course. Rafaela was good at finding corpses, even if they weren't quite finished moving yet. Ophelia had been lying in the river, body arched back in pleasure and in pain, ecstasy and despair on her face. The fragments of her scaly body floated around her, bobbing up and down in the current, leaking purple and red fluid into the water. Her final baptism and her last rites. Her sword was nowhere to be found. And so death claimed at last Ophelia, the nameless Number Four.
They were dead. Some merely lived in ignorance, while some lived with knowledge. It didn't matter. Death made no distinction between the sleeping and the awake.
She had seen a statue, once, of Teresa and Clare standing back-to-back with clasped hands and folded wings. The twin goddesses of beauty and love. For a long time, she had simply stared at the statue, watching the water trickle down their faces like tears.
There were no stories about the twin goddesses. They were unique in that regard. Every god and every hero, from the barbarians in the north to the holy Church of Rabona, had their own stories. Some differed so much that the gods were no longer recognizable, and they became new beings altogether. But there were no stories of Teresa and Clare. There was only the one statue. The one image. Because if they were given life, they would be given death, too, and if nothing else, humankind was optimistic to the extreme. They preferred to believe that love and beauty endured.
She had learned better. The day that she first lost her eye, when she held back the blood with one hand, desperately screaming out her sister's name, pleading with her, begging, praying, for the first time in her life, for her sister to come back. It was too painful to remember. It was too painful to forget. Her only choice was to pass away, silent and unseen. A ghost.
This was her death. This was her waking nightmare, her purgatory, and her hell. To see death, and never to live another day without seeing it somewhere. She would wander, never at peace, waiting for the day she made her death into reality.
Rafaela had grown used to seeing death hidden deep within life - so accustomed to it that she almost did not notice when life hid away inside a visage of death, rather than death within life. But she noticed. She saw.
She had an aura of frost around; the air turned crisp and pale, and her eyes shone with ghostly light. She moved with precision and without hesitation - yet there was an uncertainty in her steps all the same. There was something otherworldly about her that somehow made her more real instead of less.
Her body was like a phantom.
She was ephemeral as she moved in battle. Ethereal. Starlight shone in her silver hair, and her breath fogged the night air as she breathed, floating in silver mist about the trees. She shifted a foot - turned - and suddenly her breath was clouding the air across the clearing, and the clouds of her breath floated into the night air forlornly where it had been left behind. From the other side of the clearing, Miria watched it silently, keen eyes following it intently, watching the breeze ripple and distort it. Then - again - she moved, and her breath drifted in silent solitude on the far side of the clearing from where she stood, chest rising and falling, watching her breath rise.
Her body was like a phantom, but there was no death lurking in her soul.
And Rafaela knew, with cold certainty, that this girl -
This warrior -
This phantom -
Rafaela knew that she would bring an end to death.