Melia was coming close to the end of her trial in the High Entia Tomb and her ceremonial raiments were absolutely filthy. They were torn, slightly scorched and covered in Andos engine oil, Rufus ichor and her own sweat and blood. A crack had formed in the beautifully wrought mask and her hair had come out of the complicated array of ribbons and clips she used to hold it in place behind the mask. When she began the quest, her voice clear and confident as she gave the ritual speech she spent several days memorising perfectly, her appearance had also been immaculate. She swept regally to the podium in her long-sleeved ceremonial robes, her posture straight and her face impassive. She looked every inch the Imperial Princess, ethereal and majestic as the wind that blew across the Eryth Sea itself. An hour later, she had discovered that you just couldn't look regal and dignified while trying to run through a building where everything was trying to kill you.
When she walked into the Hall of Trials, not even sure if this was the right room as she hadn't needed to do the ritual before now, her first instinct upon seeing the light shining on her face and hearing the mysterious voice was to assume it was as hostile as everything else she had met so far. Battle-honed reflexes had told her to jump back out of the room, extend her staff to shield her face and throw a stored Summon Fire at it. Being a disembodied glowing light in front of a metal wall, and therefore incapable of taking damage or even noticing that it was being attacked, it just carried on talking at her and shining lights in her face, leaving her feeling mortified at her mistake and terrified that someone might care enough about potentially damaged equipment that she would be disqualified from the test, a fate that would probably lead to some manner of gruesome death. It had been made abundantly clear to Melia that failure in any aspect of her trial would mean she did not leave the Tomb alive.
"2512 cycles since last visitor. State your name and purpose," said a deep male High Entia voice, perfectly calm in a way that put a shiver up her spine.
"My name is Melia Antiqua," she said with a practiced calm that was another mask, one of confidence she did not genuinely feel, "I have come to be judged on my legitimacy to the throne by the ancestral spirits."
"You have done well, my descendant," replied the ethereal image before her.
"Descendant? Are you the progenitor of Antiqua?" Melia's heart pounded. She had not expected to meet any actual spirits. She thought the last test would be another battle or some similar ordeal, maybe a test of magic or an exam to see what she knew of her people and how schooled she was in the ways of the Imperial Court. She was reminded once again that she stood in the presence of every Emperor and Empress that had ever lived. Ever since she entered the Tomb, she had a vague creeping sensation that something just out of sight was watching her and judging her by criteria she did not know and may have already failed. Now she believed she was seeing that presence face-to-face for the first time.
"Think of me as a recreation of said ancestor, possessing his thoughts and speech," said the spectre, "I am merely a projection of what he would be, if you were to meet him now."
It's probably some sort of machine, decided Melia. History lessons had taught her that the first High Entia had the same technology that her people did now, or possibly even more advanced. The Andros and Rufuses that attacked her in the Tomb were concrete evidence of this. She did not know of a machine that could speak exactly like a person and knew the wishes of the deceased but she had seen machines that stored information and that created images from light and imagined it was something similar. Maybe the voice she heard earlier and the force controlling the Andros guards had been the same machine. Melia didn't understand machines all that well. She prayed to the Bionis that the final test wasn't about machines.
"It is beyond doubt. If I could feel, I would feel joy. I am not real, but I do not lie," said the projection suddenly.
"Joy? What do you mean?" she had been lost in thought and her attention had slipped while she waited for the stony-faced founding ancestor to speak.
"The results of the gene analysis show Nopon gene integration of 80%," said the holographic projection, "Estimates suggest evolution within eight generations. Our wishes are almost fulfilled."
"Wishes?" Melia repeated, confused by the scientific language and still praying that she wasn't going to suddenly learn that the true duty of an Empress was to become an expert geneticist.
"Our purpose, as decreed by the Bionis, is linked to our genetic sequence. We have spent millennia analysing sequences to free ourselves from the curse. Only a certain gene set will unlock the mechanism and set us free."
Her eyes had gone a little glazed from trying to keep up with the new information and the technical terms but then something clicked in her head that hadn't quite processed yet, stuck somewhere in the middle of the queue of new things her brain was trying to grasp, old things she was still worrying about and the more urgent, present concerns of whether she was passing the test and whether she was going to be killed by the enraged ghosts of her ancestors. It only just occurred to her that it was kind of important and needed to be fast-tracked to the front of the queue.
"Pardon me, but..." she said at a suitably polite pause in the dialogue, "... Nopon gene integration?"
"Riki thump Dinobeasts!" screeched the Heropon with his usual adorably enthusiastic homicidal savagery. He bounced up and down, fluttered his head-wings like a hummingbird on caffeine then swung his Biter around his head using his right head-wing while bounding off after the recently sighted primeval monster. Dunban managed to grab his left wing and pull him back.
"Riki, I know you're excited and you just want to protect your friends, but I thought I explained to you already why we can't go around fighting the Telethia any more unless we absolutely can't help it!" Dunban hissed.
"Dinobeasts Melly's people. Sorry, Riki forgot," the Nopon looked visibly deflated. He stopped flapping his wings and allowed his almost vestigial feet to settle on the ground. His spiky frond of hair wilted like an under-watered plant. Nothing, including Reyn sitting on him, could force Riki to stay this still, but the thought that he had upset Melia seemed to take all the life out of him, "Sorry Melly!"
"It is okay, Riki," she said, staring out at the cracked dome that once covered all of the Imperial Capital, at the figures that swarmed over the flawlessly smooth white metal walls. Her face was every bit the mask of Empress Melia Antiqua, calm, regal, impartial, devoid of mortal weakness and fragile emotion. She had been in that persona all day, ever since they took up the job that required them to venture back into Alcamoth. It was convenient, having a mask to hide behind when something happened that was just too difficult for a person to face head on, especially when that person bore the weight of all the responsibility, of every single life lost. It wasn't only for her, though; her entire race needed to see their Empress, their torchbearer, the same as ever. To lose morale was to lose hope, and to lose the battle, to become extinct.
"It is okay. You only wished to protect my people and your own, and the Telethia are a threat that will wipe out both our people if left unchecked. The Telethia are not my people any more, and I was given this task by one of my own, one who needs me to do this for them. I would be glad to have you fight beside me as always, Riki. And you also, Dunban."
"Melly happy! Riki happy!" the Nopon flew into the air in a flurry of fur, catching Dunban completely off guard. He was gone, then, disappearing somewhere around a side street in pursuit of the nearest Telethia. Dunban looked at Melia for guidance, but she was already throwing spells over the walls to provide covering fire for Riki. He sighed and ran off to join the melee.
In truth, Melia had more reasons to join the battle than a sense of Imperial duty, a feeling of obligation to Rozeal and Atael, or even a need to prove that she was not too emotionally compromised to continue the quest now that it involved slaying her own mutated kinfolk. She needed to watch Riki fight. There was something she needed to know for certain that she wasn't imagining, something she had been observing for a while now and was only now beginning to feel confident was true. It concerned the difference between a High Entia and a Nopon.
Since learning the true nature of the High Entia legacy and the ancient plan put into motion by the first Emperor, one that would be passed down generation after generation, Melia resolved to herself that she would find out more about her Nopon side. Alcamoth had a large Nopon population for a place that had no Homs population whatsoever – she had always assumed that this was because Nopons got everywhere, no matter whether you wanted them to or not, but in the light of her new discovery, it suddenly made a lot more sense. Now that it was no longer an option for the Nopons to remain in Alcamoth, she studied the Nopons in Frontier Village and Colony 6. Many of the High Entia had chosen to seek asylum in Frontier Village and they had all been taken in, an act that spoke even more of a deep-rooted pact between the normally isolationist High Entia and the Nopons who seemed to have such opposite personalities to them. When Colony 6 began to develop again, the pioneering Nopons had, of course, been the first to volunteer to move there, and the High Entia had been close second, despite the Colony being run by Homs. The High Entia had even known that the Nopon had the only working transporter between the Eryth Sea and the rest of the Bionis and had, against all sanity, trusted them to use it responsibly.
Apart from their habit of living in the same settlements, the two species had other major similarities. They both had wings on their head that were capable of limited flight – Melia soon discovered that the Nopon-blooded High Entia had more control over their wings than the pure High Entia. They both had strong innate Ether powers, although Nopon Ether use was weaker and more limited in its applications. Most importantly, they shared a similar lifespan, much greater than that of a Homs. It was the differences as much as the similarities that interested Melia, though, as it was the differences between High Entia and Nopons that made her founding ancestors choose the Nopon race as genetically suitable for the project, one that would under no circumstances ever hold the Telethia gene.
As Melia watched Riki in battle, it occurred to her that a Nopon was perfectly adapted to killing Telethia. They were largely underestimated and so did not play a crucial part in fate, and they mostly acted chaotically even when they were doing something important, so they played havoc with a Telethia's prescience. They were too small and fast-moving for a Telethia to pre-emptively attack in any case. They had Ether powers, so the Telethia couldn't use their own Ether powers as an advantage. They could fly, so they could follow They were one of the oldest races on the Bionis and saw everything as food, so they had probably evolved to think of Telethia as potential prey. While he was evidently afraid of the 'Dinobeast', Riki had already been on his way to hunt it down and kill it when Melia and her friends first met him. Every Nopon in Frontier Village had been in full agreement that a Telethia was something that should be killed on sight and could be defeated with enough determination and great enough numbers. Nopons were not just devoid of the Telethia gene, as a Homs also was, they were the ultimate anti-Telethia.
Melia had met a lot of Nopons before she had come to this realisation, and she hadn't found any that she would be willing to marry. The only Nopon she was very close to and fond of was already happily married and far too young for her in any case (and she had to admit to herself that there might be a Homs she was already interested in). Her quest, if she was successful, would probably remove the need for the Imperial family to maintain a half-Nopon bloodline, and hopefully some of the refugees, who now lived alongside Nopons in the new lives they were adjusting to, would be in a better position than herself to find a Nopon mate.
She found herself feeling guilty that she was looking forward to the changes in the world for such a selfish reason. Melia's quest, even if she was successful and didn't just get herself and every other living thing eaten by the Bionis, could very well end with her destroying the Bionis and everything on it instead. Whatever the outcome, she would end up killing countless Telethia. Although she would free the remnants of her people from the curse forever, she would kill countless more by her own hand. The final changes, when they came, would be apocalyptic, either in the sense of changing the world beyond recognition or ending its existence.
Suddenly, a high-pitched screech startled her out of her pessimistic train of thought. Riki's ears appeared over the top of the ruined wall, followed by his biter, then the rest of him. At first, Melia was terrified her attention had drifted too far and she had forgotten to heal Riki when he was injured, but he was actually yelling at her to run. The Telethia had spotted her firing the Ether summons at it and decided that she was the better choice of target. Dunban was having to run around the wall and Riki was having difficulty flying high enough to get over the top, so it was going to reach her at the speed it was flying. Now that it was closer, she realised it was unusually large for a Telethia. Instead of watching him fight while somehow managing to completely lose track of the battle, she decided to take Riki's advice.